Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“Their alibi is that they were all together. So far I haven’t been able to locate a motive.”
“Maybe they all killed her. I mean, beaten, choked, and drowned. That’s a lot of anger for one person.”
“I thought about that, but the motive is a sticking point. No matter how many ways I come at them, I don’t pick up on any latent anger or resentment. They genuinely seemed to have loved Summer.”
“Except Brady who alluded to the fact that she was a tease and got what was coming to her,” she said.
“Yes, but he was incredibly inebriated. People don’t always speak or act rationally. And if the group killed Summer, why would they attack Brady?”
“Because their bond was breaking apart. Maybe they thought he was going to tell. And if they were all together, why wasn’t Summer with them?”
“She said she was meeting someone and left,” he said.
“Maybe she wasn’t meeting anyone. Maybe she never left.”
“There are too many maybes in there, Red. That’s the problem with this case. I’m dealing with the ephemeral when what I need are cold, hard facts.”
“Stop it. You know it makes me crazy when you big words.”
He leaned closer until his lips brushed her neck. “Ephemeral.”
“You’re a vocabulary tease,” she said, a little unsteadily.
He grinned and pulled her to her feet. “My brain hurts. Let’s dance.”
To Lacy’s surprise, several people were dancing. Tosh and Riley were swaying totally out of time with the music, staring at each other in a goofy sort of way. Lacy hadn’t yet processed their baby news. She felt a little numb from the shock of it. Riley was twenty four and hadn’t yet been married two months. Was that how it was supposed to go? Later, she would sort through her feelings later.
Michael and Jody were dancing. He was a good dancer, but at the moment they were attempting to do Irish step to Aerosmith. Jody looked like she was having the time of her life, and Lacy began to rethink her brilliant plan. What if Jody fell for Michael for real? He wasn’t a one woman sort of man. Jody would be crushed, again, only this time would be worse because it would be Lacy’s fault.
“You’re a million miles away,” Jason said.
She pulled herself back from her thoughts and focused on him; it wasn’t hard to do. Jason was also a good dancer. He was roguishly handsome, perfectly built, and he smelled amazing. “You’re so pretty,” she blurted, and he grimaced.
“I hate it when you say that.”
“Hey, happy anniversary,” he said.
“Anniversary of what?” she asked.
“A year ago today, I saw you stumble out of the coffee shop, and life has never been the same.”
“It’s been a year since I moved back home?” she said. She had only kept a vague notion of the timeframe.
“A year,” he confirmed.
“Are you going to be one of those boyfriends who keeps track of everything, making me feel like the worst girlfriend ever?”
“Probably. Are you going to be one of those girlfriends who forgets even the most monumental events, making me feel like I’m in danger of losing my man card?”
“Indubitably,” she said.
“At least we have a solid plan,” he said.
To their left, Michael began speaking what sounded like gibberish to Jody. “Is that Vulcan again?” Lacy asked.
“Maybe it’s Klingon this time,” Jason replied.
“It’s Elvish,” Tosh said. He and Riley stopped dancing to watch, as did everyone else. “And he’s burning up the floor with it.”
Carter watched for a while and stood to leave. He had almost reached the door when he changed his mind, stalked back, and gave Michael a hard shove. “No one speaks Elvish to Jody but me.”
“Then why don’t you speak it, Carter,” Jody said.
“Fine,” Carter said. “Ci veleth e-guil nin. Ni mestathog, Jody.” Jason and Lacy looked to Tosh for translation.
“He either asked her to marry him or paint his potato,” Tosh said.
Judging by Jody’s enthusiastic and heartfelt response, it had nothing to do with his potato.
“Looks like you got your proposal after all,” Jason said.
Lacy smiled, feeling that, for a few moments, all was right with the world. “I should check on Michael,” she said. He had disappeared.
“I’ll pay our bill and meet you outside,” Jason said.
Lacy found Michael standing at the edge of the parking lot, staring into space. He looked sad and alone, but when she approached, he smiled. “Job well done, I’d say,” he said.
“You were fantastic, thank you. Where did you learn to speak Elvish?”
“I’m a troubadour, love, the last of my kind. I know everything,” he said. He reached in his pocket and plucked something out. Lacy frowned in dismay when she realized it was a pack of cigarettes.
“What are you doing?” she exclaimed.
“Judging by your tone, I’m hunting endangered rhinos for their horns.”
“You might as well be. I didn’t know you smoked. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking ‘mmm, nicotine.’”
“Michael, that is so unhealthy.”
“Really? If only they posted some type of warning somewhere.”
“Your odds of oral and lung cancer increase exponentially with every puff.”
“Calm yourself, C. Everett Koop. I’m quitting by degrees. I’ve been weaning myself for the last year, and I’m down to one a month. What are the chances that you’ll let me enjoy this one in peace?”
“It makes you smell bad and yellows your teeth. You’ll taste like an ash…” she broke off, staring. Michael didn’t prompt her to finish. Jason left the restaurant and joined them.
“Why are you staring like that?” he asked.
“I finally got it to quit talking. Don’t get it started again,” Michael said.
Lacy grabbed his cigarette and took a small puff. “Lacy!” Jason and Michael yelled together. She handed Michael the cigarette and kissed Jason. He jerked away.
“Gross! Why would you do that? You taste like an ashtray. You taste like…Summer.”
“Really?” Michael said. “I thought she tasted more like spring, sort of a lemony-fresh thing.”
“What?” Jason said.
“Ignore him,” Lacy commanded. “Summer smoked.”
“No, she didn’t,” Jason said. “She was a conscientious health freak. She didn’t even eat sugar.”
“Proof that something was seriously wrong with her,” Lacy said. “Also, she must have been lying. How did she taste like smoke if she wasn’t a smoker?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t see how this helps my case. What did it have to do with her death that she secretly smoked?”
“I think it points to a larger picture. Summer had a secret life no one knew anything about.”
“If no one knew anything about it, then how does it help me?” he said. “There’s no clear motive.”
“Love,” Michael said. “The motive is always love in one form or another. Love of money, love of power, love of a person.”
“That makes sense,” Jason said, eying him warily. The two men hadn’t had much interaction with each other.
Michael smiled. He seemed to be enjoying Jason’s suspicious inspection.
“I need to go back to the station and review my notes,” Jason said.
“I need to take a shower and boil my mouth,” Lacy said. She wrinkled her nose at Michael who took a long, purposeful drag.
Jason drove Lacy to the hotel and said a distracted goodbye. His mind was clearly on his case. Lacy hoped that meant he had forgotten about her promise to run with him, but no such luck.
“I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning for our jog,” he said.
She tripped and caught herself on the doorframe. “Oh, my leg.”
“Nice try, but I happen to know you can sustain a fall better than most Hollywood stunt men.”
“Years of practice,” Lacy said. She stood on her toes to kiss him goodnight. He opened her door and checked the room for her, and then he was gone.
A few minutes later, Kimber arrived home. They got ready for bed and stayed up most of the night talking.
“I’m going to miss this,” Kimber said. “Despite everything, this trip home has been nice.”
“Move here,” Lacy said.
“What? No way.”
“Kimber, it’s time to stop running from your past. Come home.”
“Stop saying that. This isn’t my home anymore. I’m not sure it ever was.”
“This town is a part of you; you need it, and it needs you.”
“I don’t need it, and it most certainly doesn’t need me. I like living in a place where there are other people who look like me.”
“That’s a very narrow-minded outlook,” Lacy said. Kimber threw a pillow at her, hard. “I’m serious,” Lacy continued.
“So am I. You have no idea what it was like to grow up here, to look in the mirror and see a reflection that looked like no one else.”
Lacy let the air clear between them a few minutes before she spoke again. Kimber was upset; she would have to tread lightly. “Do you remember what it was like our freshman year of college? We started hanging around with kids from the multicultural club, and we had so much fun. It was like being part of the UN, except everyone got along.”
“I remember,” Kimber said. “It was the best.”
“That’s what our town needs,” Lacy said. “Kids need to know that skin comes in colors other than white, that there are other places and people in the world besides here. Think of yourself as a cultural ambassador. If you come, others will follow.”
“No, Lacy, no. I’m not moving back here, ever. No offense because you know I love you, but your skin is as pale as they come. You have no idea what it’s like to be me, to be different, to be alone.”
“You’re right about the first part. Except for the red hair, I look like everyone else in this town. But you’re wrong about the last part; you are not alone, and you wouldn’t be if you came back. You would have me and Jason, Tosh and Riley, my grandparents, and your parents.”
“You’re thinking about it, I can tell.”
“I couldn’t leave Andy, and I could never afford to move. I’m barely making ends meet as it is. Contrary to popular belief, it’s very hard to make it as an artist.”
“Bring Andy with you. It’s time he followed you for a change. As for money, I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
“Why do I suddenly fear you’re about to snap my fingers off?”
“I’ll pay your moving expenses, give you free space in the StakelyBuilding for six months, and pay your rent. If at the end of that time you’re not happy here and making a profit, then I’ll pay for you to relocate wherever you want to go.”
“How did you get so good at negotiating?”
“I don’t know. Out of everything I’ve tried and failed to be good at, I never dreamed business would be the one thing that stuck. What do you say?”
Kimber was quiet for a long time, thinking. Finally, she threw another pillow at Lacy’s head. “I hate you.”
Lacy hugged the pillow and smiled. Kimber was coming home.
When the alarm went off, Lacy had only been asleep three hours. She was tempted to call Jason and beg off their date, but at this point she was out of excuses. He would finally see her run, and she wasn’t ready for that. The least she could do was try to warm up and work out the kinks before he arrived. Maybe if she could ease the muscle spasms before he got there, then she would look more like a runner and less like someone experiencing an epileptic seizure.
For that reason, she had set her alarm even earlier than their pre-arranged meeting time. She dressed hurriedly and headed downstairs. Despite the fact that it was barely after five AM, someone had beaten her to the fitness room. Chester Campbell sat on a recumbent bike, his tiny legs pumping furiously.
“Do you always work out this early?” Lacy asked with a suppressed yawn.
“The early bird gets the worm,” he said.
The imagery was unfortunate. As his legs pumped, his head bobbed back and forth, eyes bugging like a chicken in search of the tastiest bug. The door opened again and Mr. Wilson slipped into the room.
“Nothing makes an old gym teacher happier than seeing two of his students working out,” he said. Lacy smiled but didn’t respond. She was too tired to be coherent. Chester picked up the thread of the conversation and the two began talking as Mr. Wilson headed for the weight machine.
Lacy stood on the treadmill and turned it on low. She was too tired for anything more than a crawl, at least until she woke up. As she walked, she stared at the pool and thought of Summer. She had died in that spot just a few days ago. Even though she hadn’t been a nice person, she deserved justice. Who had killed her and why? Was it one of Lacy’s friends and she was too biased to see? Summer had been horrible to them, had treated them like refuse, had bullied them, sometimes to tears. Was that enough reason to kill someone? No. No sane person would kill someone because they had been picked on. Most used the harsh treatment to better themselves, either by becoming different than they had been or becoming kinder than their tormentor.
Then there were Summer’s friends. If Lacy were being honest, she would admit that she wanted it to be them. Not only would that tie up the case in a nice little package without implicating any of her band friends, but it would cosmically poetic if all the bullies were taken out in one, fell swoop. But despite how much she wanted it to be them, she couldn’t make the case, and neither could Jason.
The killer had to be one of them, though. The night supervisor had sat at the desk all night. No non guests entered or left. Even if he fell asleep, the doors were locked and could only be opened by electronic card. The card kept an imprint. No one had swiped in during the night Summer was killed. Lacy supposed it was possible that the killer had been a non guest who was hiding in the hotel and left by a side door after the murder was over. A key was only needed to enter, and not to leave, but people had been up and around all night. Kimber and Lacy had stolen down to the snack bar at two in the morning and several people were strewn in the lobby, talking. That jibed with what the night manager told Jason. People were everywhere that night, but they were all registered guests. Certainly someone would have noticed a stranger lurking about.