Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #cozy mystery
“They want him to direct the alumni band, but he’s having some trouble with dementia,” Carter said.
“That’s sad,” Lacy said. As they watched, he stood and began tugging at his clothes. Someone rushed over and stopped him before he could unbutton his pants. In the center of the room, the popular group began to laugh and point. The guffaws of Hillary and Summer were especially loud and piercing. They began to mimic Mr. Mertz and his feeble attempts to rip off his clothes.
“They’re horrible,” Lacy whispered.
“I think they’ve gotten worse,” Kimber agreed.
“Someday they’re going to get what’s coming to them,” Carter added.
“Why not now?” Lacy said. Why were they all standing witness to an injustice without doing or saying anything to stop it? Her head raised a notch as she marched over to the laughing, assembled group. Their laughter fizzled at her approach.
“Lacy Steele,” Summer issued the words like a challenge.
“What is wrong with you people? You’re grown adults making fun of a sick, old man. How can you possibly laugh at that? And how can you possibly look at yourselves later and feel okay?” Lacy demanded.
Summer and Hillary looked at each other and laughed, but the sound was devoid of humor. Though it had been years since she saw them, Lacy knew what that sound meant. She braced herself for the coming rebuke. “You want to know what’s funny?” Summer said. “Funny is some geeky red haired girl thinking she’s high and mighty because she dropped a few pounds. Guess what, heifer, your weight is going to come back so you might as well gather your cats and prepare to die alone.”
Strangely, the words had no effect. She had remembered Summer’s wit as being sharper, her barbs deeper. Lacy was tempted to say,
That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? Lame.
She had spent so much of her life dreading an attack from Summer. Now it was as if she were surrounded by an invisible force field, maybe because she knew right was on her side. “You can get your kicks out of making fun of me; I don’t care. But you leave innocent and defenseless people alone. If I see or hear you making fun of anyone who is in less than perfect mental or physical health, you will be out of this hotel faster than you can say nine hundred SAT score. That’s right; I know your score, Special Ed. Now keep your mouth shut and stay out of my way this weekend, or I will start spilling everything I know about you. And here’s a hint: I know it all.” Lacy whirled, tripped a little, and righted herself. In truth, she knew no secrets about Summer other than the SAT thing, and she only knew that because she had been in the office and overheard some gossipy aides discussing scores when they thought no one was around. She had never told anyone, and never planned to, but she thought it was high time someone took Summer down a few notches. It had never occurred to her until just now that the task might fall to her.
She returned to the group of band kids who greeted her with applause and high fives. She didn’t want adulation; she wanted justice. If everyone who was strong stood up for those who were weak, then those who were weak might also become strong. She wasn’t the same goofy girl she had been. She was a grown woman with inner strength, and it was high time she began flexing some muscle.
It took a few minutes for the furor of her encounter to die down. Summer’s group was outraged and tried to cover it with laughter. Lacy’s group was delighted and displayed it with laughter. The atmosphere of the room was raucous and loud. Lacy was drained from the encounter and wanted nothing more than to fade into the woodwork, but that wasn’t to be because the most unexpected person she could imagine approached her and began to talk.
“That was ding dong fancy footwork, Steele,” her old gym teacher, Mr. Wilson, said.
“Uh, thank you,” Lacy stammered. The man made her nervous and always had. Even now, pushing seventy, he had the body of a young marine. He had run gym like a boot camp with no patience for kids like Lacy, kids who were lacking athletic ability. He had made her life a nightmare as much as any of the popular kids, but in vastly different ways. Sometimes at night, she could still hear him yell,
Drop and give me twenty, Steele.
The memory was enough to make her break out in a cold sweat now.
“More kids like you need to learn how to dilly dally stand up for themselves and others,” he continued. Was he having a stroke? Lacy didn’t remember him ever speaking gibberish before. In fact, he had been one of the only teachers she knew who routinely cursed at students. Now it was as if all those curse words had been replaced by a book of nursery rhymes. “It’s a blither blathering shame I didn’t know about this flapjack character of yours sooner. We could have used your flim-flamming brains on a few sports teams I coached.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. He was also one of the only men she had ever called “sir” without being prompted. She frantically searched her mind for something to say. Unbidden, a memory came to her, one of her crying in his office as he lectured her about life.
It takes discipline to make it in life, Steele. You’ll never get anywhere without discipline. Look at you—lacking in discipline in every way.
He had been unmoved by her tears, though they had been genuine. Then, as now, he terrified her. “I’m friends with one of your former players,” she blurted.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“Jason Cantor.” In addition to being the gym teacher, he had coached football for all of the years Jason played. He gave her a genuine smile, the first one she had ever received from him.
“Jason, now there’s a bleeping good boy. What’s he up to now?”
“He’s a police officer. He’ll be here tomorrow.”
His smile changed to a scowl. “He didn’t say a word about playing in the blast boogedy alumni game.”
“Somehow it escaped his attention, but between you and me, I think he would love to play,” Lacy said, and now she gave him what was probably the first sincere smile he had ever received from her. Jason had loved playing football. He would be amused to know he and the game were the only things that had ever inspired any camaraderie between her and Coach Wilson.
“Well, I’m going to have to keep my moondogging eyes out for the boy. He’d better play, or I’ll give him a piece of my flapjacking mind.”
Lacy wasn’t sure there was a piece he could afford to lose. Worse, she felt herself being drawn into his pattern of speech. She had to get away before she began mimicking his made up words. “If I see him, I’ll let him know.”
“You flapdoodle do that,” he replied. She was just about to make her escape when a chubby middle-aged woman waddled up to them.
“Henry, did I hear you curse?” she asked.
Lacy scanned the area before realizing she was talking to Mr. Wilson. She had no idea his name was Henry. In her imagination, it was something like “Bulldog” or “Killer.”
“No, Martha,” he replied with something that sounded a whole lot like fear and submission. “You know I dilly dally gave it up along with everything else.”
“Hmm,” Martha replied. She and her husband shared a smile before turning as one to Lacy.
“This is my wife, Martha,” Coach Wilson supplied. “Martha, this is one of my former students, the one that got her head stuck behind the chin-up bar and we feared might have gotten brain damage.”
“Oh.” Martha’s look turned sympathetic as if she feared Lacy actually had sustained some sort of brain damage.
“It turns out I can go much longer without oxygen than most people,” Lacy assured her.
“Oh, well, congratulations,” Martha said. “Henry, I asked the hotel manager to find some milk for you. You’d better come take your pills before your ulcer kicks up. It was nice to meet you dear,” she said with a dismissive smile as she tucked her arm through her husband’s and led him away.
“You, too,” Lacy called, but they were already gone. This was the night for surprises. She never would have guessed that her former gym teacher was human, let alone that his name was Henry and he let his wife order him around like a goat on a tether. Maybe all of her conceptions of high school were wrong.
Kimber ambled over and handed Lacy some punch. “Did I just see you talking to Coach Wilson?” There was some awe in her voice; Kimber hadn’t been athletic, either. Her experience with Mr. Wilson had run parallel to Lacy’s.
“Turns out his name is Henry and he’s henpecked,” Lacy said.
Kimber sprayed a little of her punch and coughed. “You made that up to make me feel better.”
“I ding dong diddly flapjacking promise,” Lacy said.
“What?” Kimber said.
“I’ll explain later,” Lacy said because now someone else was approaching. Was Summer returning for round two? She certainly looked prepared for battle, except that she was alone. In Lacy’s experience, Summer never went anywhere without reinforcements.
“Did I hear you say you’re friends with Jason Cantor?” she hissed.
“Yes,” Lacy said, beyond wary now.
Summer laughed the strange, humorless chuckle that never boded well for an opponent. “It’s hilarious you’re telling people that, especially when he’s not here to deny it. Look, everyone loved Jason, so I can’t condemn you for dreaming big. But if he really is coming this weekend, he’s mine. He and I have some unfinished business.” She sauntered away before Lacy could form a reply, not that she would have anyway. She wouldn’t dare tell Summer that she and Jason were an item. Summer would never believe her. It would be far more fun to see her reaction in person.
Kimber watched her walk away and turned to Lacy with raised eyebrows. “Tomorrow should be fun,” she said. “I can’t wait to see her face when she sees you and Jason together.”
“It will be hard pressed to look as shocked as yours,” Lacy said.
“I’m warming up to the idea. A little,” Kimber said. “I need more time to see you in action so I can get used to it. And now I can’t wait to see you mop the floor with Summer Ridgefield.”
“I’ve never been a violent person,” Lacy mused. “But I swear to you, if Summer puts her grimy paws on Jason, he will be the last thing she ever touches.”
“I like this new, saucy Lacy,” Kimber said.
“I’ve never known her any other way,” Tosh said as he ambled up beside them. He was aiming for lighthearted, but fell short. He sounded sad, and Lacy’s heart squeezed.
“Where’s Riley?” she asked.
“She met up with some friends,” he said.
“And,” Lacy prompted.
“They’re horrible. I think I hate them. I should probably find a quiet place to pray about that. Maybe later.” He tossed back the remainder of his punch.
“Hang out with us until she comes back,” Kimber said. “How did you and Riley get together, anyway? I could use a good love story.”
“More punch,” Lacy announced. She gathered their cups and set off for the punch bowl. The less she heard about Tosh and Riley, the better off they would all be.
“Lacy, what happened to your face?” Jason whispered bright and early the next morning. Because Kimber and Lacy had stayed up most of the night talking, the morning felt even brighter and earlier than usual. It was just past dawn, though. How had he gotten her to agree to such an early meeting?
“The sidewalk and I had words,” Lacy said.
“That looks terrible.”
She wrinkled her nose at him and he backpedaled. “Terribly painful is what I meant to say,” he whispered. He tipped her face up and kissed her sore chin.
“It’s not so bad. My tooth is the real problem. I chipped it a little. I have to run to the dentist in a bit and have it filed.”
Jason sighed and draped his arm on her shoulder as they walked down the hall. She wondered if he felt guilty over her busted chin. She wasn’t sure why he should except that he had canceled their evening and he seemed to think bad things wouldn’t happen to her if he was there to protect her. “How was work last night?” she asked.
“Dull. I missed you. How was the party?”
“Not dull,” she said. “And I missed you.” That was probably an understatement. Jason would have helped her navigate the minefield of post high school socialization. As it was, she had ended the evening huddled with Tosh, Kimber, Carter, and a handful of other band geeks as they filtered in. She had avoided any more interaction with the popular kids.
Like high school all over again,
“You’re quiet. Does your chin hurt and you’re not telling me?”
“No, I don’t even feel it. I’m tired. Kimber and I stayed up most of the night.” She yawned for emphasis and pressed her hand to her mouth.
“You’re not going to drown, are you?” he asked.
“I’m practically unsinkable,” she blurted before realizing he would now be thinking about her built-in floatation devices. He grinned down at her. She crossed her arms over her chest. She uncrossed them and used her key to unlock the door. Jason flipped on the lights, but they were the old-fashioned kind that took a while to light up.
“Swimming in the dark,” he muttered. “Awesome.”
“It’s only almost dark,” Lacy said. She took off her t-shirt and shorts and laid them on a chair. Jason did the same and turned to her with a frown.
“A one piece, Lacy, really? That’s like covering the Sistine Chapel with a drop cloth.”
He must be teasing her. He had to know by now she wasn’t the type to wear a bikini. In addition to the fact that it didn’t suit her personality, there was no way she would risk pouring her ample curves into such measly fabric. “We can only push the bounds of spandex so far, Jason,” she said, and he laughed.
“Answer me this: why do you have no problem swimming with me, yet you won’t allow me to see you completely covered in running gear?”
“It’s not the clothes; it’s what I do in them. I’m actually quite graceful in the water.”
“Show me your moves, Flipper. Let’s dive.”
She dipped a toe in and quickly removed it. “The water is freezing.”
“Jump in. You’ll get warm really quickly.”
“How will I get warm by submerging myself in shockingly cold water?” she asked. “I’ve got to ease into it.”