Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
That led Lacy to the next possibility. Perhaps it was someone with the reunion but not from their class. There were other people besides their class in attendance, ranging in ages from recent grads to elderly alum. Jason had checked out anyone with a possible connection to Summer, but those in attendance from other classes had claimed to know nothing about her. There were a hundred and sixty people at the hotel; it was at max capacity, and all of them were involved with the reunion. When Lacy thought of Jason having to sift and verify all those people, she was overwhelmed for his sake. Obviously focusing on people with a connection to her was his priority. But Summer had secrets. Was it possible she was connected to someone from another class by her secret life?
What did Lacy know about Summer? Senior year, she had been head cheerleader. Her grades hadn’t been great—she had barely squeaked by with the minimum requirements for athletes. She had worked at a store in the mall. She liked men of all ages, and she was a health fanatic. How did that go hand in hand with being a smoker? Everyone knew the risks of smoking today. Would anyone who was so cautious with her health have willingly inhaled carcinogens on a daily basis? That was a sticking point Lacy couldn’t wrap her mind around. She tried to picture the smoking section of the high school’s parking lot. Every day after school, a handful of students who were old enough to smoke, along with a handful of teachers, had congregated in the far corner of the parking lot for their after-school cigarette. Had Summer congregated there?
Lacy closed her eyes to concentrate and grabbed the bar when she started to fall. Who had been there? She could only remember the work release kids who had split their time between school and a job. Then there was Mrs. Lanham, the librarian, Mrs. Tully, the sophomore literature teacher, and Mr. Wilson.
Lacy opened her eyes and stared at him in the reflection. She had forgotten that he smoked, though she supposed it explained the lung cancer. “Coach Wilson,” she said, interrupting him from a grueling set of reps with a gigantic weight.
“Mm,” he said.
“Did Summer smoke?” He would remember if she had been one of the kids from the smoking circle.
The weight returned to the bar with a clank. He used a towel to wipe his sweaty face and hands before he answered. “No. Summer was extremely particular about her health. What makes you ask?”
“I was staring at the pool. It’s hard not to think of her and wonder what happened.”
“That reminds me of something I was going to ask you,” he said.
“The first night we were here, the night of the party, you said you knew all of Summer’s secrets. What were you talking about?”
“Summer got under my skin. I was trying to return the favor, I suppose.” The room was quiet except for the hum of the treadmill. She glanced quickly over her shoulder. Chester must have slipped out while her mind was elsewhere. Lacy felt a prickle of apprehension. It had been an odd question for the coach to ask. Why had he remembered an off-the-cuff remark she made to Summer? “Did you know Summer well?”
He shrugged. “She was a cheerleader and traveled with the team. She was in the gym a lot, working out.”
Did she ever hit on you?
That was Lacy’s most pressing question, but she couldn’t bring herself to voice it. She and the coach had never been close. She had spent most of high school afraid of him. Perhaps the fear still lingered because she was beginning to feel downright uncomfortable. Why didn’t he pick up another weight? Or sit and do a rep? Or, better yet, go away? Instead he remained still, rubbing his hands with a towel, back and forth, back and forth.
“I think I’m done here,” Lacy said. It was still a bit early to meet Jason, but Lacy’s instincts were shouting at her to leave.
The coach took a step forward, blocking her exit from the treadmill. “Yes, I think you are. I know what you’ve been up to, asking questions, trying to lead Jason in the right direction.”
“I can’t lead Jason anywhere he doesn’t want to go,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you let me by, please?”
“I know you know.”
“I don’t know,” Lacy said, though she was beginning to suspect. “You and Summer?”
“Off and on, for a long time. Then I got the cancer, and everything changed. I realized I love my wife. But Summer wasn’t happy. I held her off for as long as I could. This weekend she threatened to come clean. My wife wouldn’t put up with any cheating. She would leave me. I can’t lose her when she’s all I have left.”
“Made a comment that led me to believe he knows. After some reflection, I don’t think he does.”
“If he recovers, he’ll identify you.”
The coach shook his head. “He never saw me.”
“I see you,” she said.
“I’ll have to make sure you never recover. Let’s take a swim, Lacy.”
“I’m a good swimmer,” Lacy warned.
“Nice try, kiddo, but I personally tried to teach you every sport imaginable. I’m not too worried about the outcome here.”
“I won’t go,” Lacy said. She grabbed the sides of the treadmill and dug her fingers into the rubber grips.
“Fine, I’ll strangle you here.” He held the towel up like a clothesline.
“Let’s go for a swim,” Lacy said. On land, she had no chance. Though he was much older, he was in excellent shape, his body as solid as granite. In the water, her hopes were slim, but marginal enough to try. He led her to the pool room, demanded her key, and used it to open the door. His grip on her bicep was like iron as he marched her to the side of the water.
If he decided to strangle or hit her before she went in the water, she didn’t stand a chance. “If you leave a mark on me, Jason will know I was murdered,” she said.
“I’m going to drown you,” he said. “I was trying to drown Summer, but she was in such good shape, it took a lot of work.” He eyed her up and down. “You won’t take much work.”
“Do you really believe he’ll think I decided to go for a swim in my clothes?” After the words were out, she felt a moment of cold panic. What if he made her strip?
“Lacy, it’s a well-known fact that you can barely walk a straight line without falling over. How you’ve survived this long is a miracle. I think he’s going to believe you fell in on accident. Enough talking. Get in the pool, or I’ll push you in.”
She jumped in and tried to swim away. He jumped in and easily caught up with her. There was no way to out swim him. He was as athletic in the water as he was on land. Her only chance of survival was her freakish ability to float. She took a deep breath. He pushed her under. She made the pretense of flailing and then going limp. He let her go. She bobbed to the surface like a cork and gasped for air.
“You drown as badly as you flapjacking do everything else,” he muttered as he pushed her down again. This time he took no chances that she could outlast him. Despite her efforts to conserve, Lacy’s air was quickly running out. She fought him. Her natural buoyancy pushed against his hands, helping her struggle. She gained a few inches, breached the surface, and sucked air before being roughly pushed under again.
Over and over and over they fought. Time after time Lacy thought it was the end. Spots danced before her eyes, her ears popped, but always she slipped through his grasp and bobbed to the surface for a modicum of air. Coach Wilson was beginning to get angry, and that was a bad thing for Lacy. If he reached the limit of his patience waiting for her to drown, then he would kill her some other way. There were muffled noises in the room now, but Lacy was too bent on survival to determine what they were. She saw motion. A foot connected with the coach’s head, and now it was he who went limp and slipped under the surface. Free of his grasp, Lacy quickly bobbed to the surface and struggled for air.
She was hauled out by her armpits and shoved roughly into the grasp of Tony Rico. He laid her on the concrete. She watched as Jason dashed to the wall, removed the rescue pole, and fished Coach Wilson out of the water. “Are you okay?” Tony asked. He pushed a tangle of wet hair off her face.
“I’m fine,” she said, but her voice sounded weak and weary. “Stop petting my hair now,” she added. He put up his hands and backed away a few inches.
“Sorry,” he said.
Jason pulled the coach out of the water and checked his pulse. He thumped his back a few times, and the coach spewed a river of water. Satisfied that he was breathing again, Jason used his phone to call for an ambulance and backup, and then he went back to Lacy and gently gathered her close.
“Are you okay?”
“I told you I’m unsinkable,” she said, smiling up at him to try and ease some of the frantic worry from his eyes.
He smiled. “I’ve never been more thankful for your curves, and that’s saying a lot.”
“How did you find me?” she asked. She glanced at Tony. “Were you following me again?”
“No, I was in bed asleep,” Tony said. “When it became clear that you were missing, Jason came to find me, assuming I had done away with you in some evil plot.”
“In my defense, you knew exactly how to find her,” Jason said.
Tony gave Lacy a sheepish smile. “I sort of wrote a stalking app for you. It’s this algorithm where you put in all the information you have about a subject and it predicts their location based on their preferences and past sightings. You weren’t at the vending machines. The fitness center was second on the list, and we saw you thrashing in the pool through the window.”
“There’s a computer program that predicts my behavior?” she said.
“How much is it and where can I buy it?” Jason asked. “Never mind--just shut up and take my money. By the way, Brady is awake. I got the call before I came over. Do you think he’s going to be able to ID the coach?”
Lacy shook her head. “No, but I think we know why Summer tasted like an ashtray. Apparently she and the coach logged a lot of one-on-one time together.”
“Ugh, add that to the list of mental images I want to scrub from my brain,” Jason said, rubbing her arms when her teeth started to chatter. He let her go, retrieved a few towels, and wrapped her tightly before leaving her to check on the coach again.
A few minutes later, uniformed officers and medics began streaming into the room. One set of EMT’s began working on the coach, and another advanced on Lacy. “I’m really okay,” she said.
“This doesn’t look okay,” one of them said. He gingerly lifted her foot for her inspection. Her ankle was swollen and turning a shocking shade of purple, but Lacy smiled.
“I can’t run on that, can I?” she said, loudly enough for Jason to hear.
“Did you try to get drowned on purpose to get out of running with me?” he asked.
“It was an added bonus,” she said. He rolled his eyes and turned back to business. Later, when the room began to clear and she was sitting up, Detective Arroyo made his way over.
“Looks like a close call, Lacy,” he said. “I’m so happy you made it.” His flat tone and cool gaze said otherwise.
“She’s practically unsinkable,” Jason said. He put his arm around Lacy’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” the detective said before slinking away.
“You’re shivering,” Jason said. “I think I can break away now. Let’s get you warm.” He slid his arm to her waist and helped her stand. Together, they hobbled out of the room. Once they were in the privacy of the stairwell, he pulled her close, crushing her against his chest. “Please reconsider the baby sling idea. It could work for us, I know it. Then I wouldn’t have to go through these moments of horror when we’re apart.”
She burrowed closer, trying to mesh them together. “What if we compromise and agree to spend more time like this?”
“That could work.” They stood pressed together in cozy silence until she stopped shivering.
“Is this a bad time to tell you I want a motorcycle?” she asked.
He eased his hand free and pulled out his phone.
“Who are you calling?” she asked.
“The baby sling people. I need to make sure they do custom orders.”
“My eyes, they burn.”
“I tried to warn you, to prepare you.”
“There’s no preparation for that,” Jason said. He ground his fists into his eyes. “You did the running man while playing a clarinet and dressed as a penguin.”
“All of which was your idea, by the way, as was watching the video in the first place.” Since running together was out until her wrenched ankle recovered, Jason declared that she owed him something else. He chose watching the penguin video as his reward.
“You launched yourself off a picnic table, banged your head on a tree limb, and kept playing while blood trickled down your face and ruined your construction paper beak.”
“Yeah, I passed out as soon as I finished the video. My dad found me face down in the yard an hour later,” she said.
He gathered her face in his hands. “Babe, how did you survive high school? I mean, I knew it was going to be bad, but I had no idea it was that bad. It’s going to take a lot of lip service to make me forget what I just saw.”
She wrenched free and put her good foot in his chest when he reached for her again. “Did you conveniently forget that you’re the reason I made that tape? It’s going to take a lot of talking to make me forgive you.”
“For the record, when I said lip service, I didn’t mean talking. But if that’s what it takes for you, then I am willing to soliloquize, palaver, rhapsodize, or ventriloquize as long as you want.” This time when he reached for her, she didn’t back away.
“You know I can’t resist when you use four syllable words,” she said.
His lips were on her neck when her phone rang. He jumped away and put his hands up. “Tell your grandfather I’m at work.”
“It’s not Grandpa; it’s Mom,” Lacy said. She took a stabilizing breath and pushed the button. “Hi, Mom. How are you?”
“I’m good, honey, how are you?”
“Really well,” Lacy said. From a distance and for short periods of time, she and her mother got along beautifully. “Are you sad that Grandma and Gr—Mr. Middleton are leaving today?”