Authors: Cammie Eicher
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
“Well, of course not.” I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended on behalf of my little town. Fortuna inspires devotion from her residents, be they life-longers or move-ins like me. “This place has a certain character.”
“You sure I’m going to fit in?” He actually sounds concerned.
“Of course. As long as you realize suits are only for weddings and funerals.”
“How about wingtips?”
I glance under the table at his shoes. “Donate them to the church rummage sale. Sell them online.”
“I think I’m going to like it here.” He reaches for my hand. “For more than the obvious reason.”
A swell of love rolls through me. Wedding bells ring in the back of my mind and for a second, I see myself walking down the aisle of First Church of Love’s Devotion in a long-trained wedding dress and lacy veil. A little adding on and my sweet little cottage has a nursery decorated in yellow and white. Life is so good.
Until the phone rings again.
“Don’t answer it,” I beg. “All I’m asking for is a couple minutes of peace and quiet before this day ends.”
Carson makes a “gotta take it” face and heads for the door, already deep in his phone conversation. I glance over at the chief and Luther, neither of whom are moving. My nerves calm and I dig into the yummy cake and ice cream placed in front of me. I’m only half done when my honey pie returns. He drops his phone on the table and reaches over to wipe a tiny bit of fudge sauce from my upper lip and my heart goes pitty-pat.
“Now where were we?” he asks as he starts in on his own treat.
“Wingtip shoes and rummage sales, I believe.”
“Ah, yes.” He offers me that slow smile that makes me simmer. “Which will do for conversation until we get back to your place.”
We both know there won’t be much conversation when we finally climb into bed tonight, which turns my simmer into a slow burn. If we weren’t in Fortuna, if we were surrounded by strangers, I’d suggest we forget about the drive home and book a room next door. Alas, the rumors would spread faster than poison ivy at summer camp and before long the local humane society would be showing up to protect Miss Priss from our unsavory influence.
* * * *
A good night’s sleep and some totally satisfactory romping between the sheets help me feel refreshed as I wake up the next day. The emptiness of the bed beside me and the aroma of brewing coffee remind me I’m in love with a morning person. But if that’s his only major fault, I can live with that. Besides, I’m confident I can eventually bring him to the dark side and entice him into staying up until 2 a.m. to watch old movie marathons with me, especially if I throw in buttered popcorn and serious cuddling.
“Morning, beautiful.” Carson offers me a kiss and a cup of heavenly-smelling coffee.
I’m not sure which is best in the morning, the java or my honey bare-chested with jeans riding low on his hips. I pat the empty place beside me, but he shakes his head.
“New day,” he says. “I’m back on the clock.”
Damn. He had to remind me I am too. I glance at my alarm clock. Time for me to roll out of this nice warm bed, shower, and get to the station. The people of Fortuna need me.
Carson drops me off at WFRT and says to call when I’m done. He’s heading over to meet with the chief and compare notes. I’m assuming on Miz Waddy’s disappearance, but it could be an update on the increasing population of the loony bin for all I know.
The news is slow this morning, but I manage to inform my listeners that the FFA pumpkin sale continues through Friday, the women’s club is looking for entries in the annual holiday parade next month, and bean prices are up while corn is down. I record the noon news, basically a recap of the AM news plus two obituaries that have arrived via fax while I’ve been on air. I dial Carson’s number and five minutes later, I’m stepping into his car.
“Miss me?” I ask.
“I always do.” The silver-tongued devil gives me
smile and I get all melty.
I remind myself again how lucky I am that the OBI sent him to investigate the murder and not some near-retirement baldy with a super ego. Not only did I get to help break the case, I got the hero. A sigh escapes as I realize how much my life resembles a made-for-TV movie.
“So what’s going on?” I try to sound casual.
“The last eight hours have been quiet.”
“But…” I prompt.
“The chief figures the epidemic of crazy isn’t over yet. The docs still don’t know what’s going on despite all the talking and testing they’ve done.”
Dang, that’s not what I hoped to hear. Even in Fortuna, people don’t go off the deep end without a reason, and they rarely do it publicly. Folks here are more apt to lock themselves in their houses with a stash of Jack Daniels and whiny old-school country songs when they’re depressed. Or happy. Apparently, booze and George Jones work for anything.
I inform Carson that my boss has okayed me working with him all day long again. He informs me we’re going back to those blasted bank records again.
“I don’t know what else to do.” Frustration colors his words. “Miss Peytona’s lawyer is the most likely to receive a ransom demand, Chief Porter said, and there’s been no call yet. Luther’s canvassing the neighborhood to see if anyone saw or heard anything out of the ordinary, but I don’t think much will come of that.”
“So if it’s not for money, why else would someone take Miz Waddy?”
Carson sighs. “That’s the million-dollar question. The P.D. does night checks on the local businesses, keeping their pattern random. The chief says her door’s never been left unlocked before. The veterinary clinic says Miss Priss is never left alone, either. Every time Miss Peytona goes on a trip, she boards the cat.” He smiles. “Takes in her food, too.”
Carson’s cell phone erupts into a cop-appropriate tone while mine gives the chirp that tells me a text is coming in. I read my screen as Carson answers. My message from the station manager is short and succinct:
Get to high school. Now.
Carson says a curt goodbye and cocks his head toward the door.
“Something’s going on at Fortuna High School,” he says.
I hold off telling him I already know. As long as I’m semi-officially working on the mysteries confronting us, things stay good. The second I tell him I am now in journalist mode, he’ll start that “for your own good” crap.
The scene outside the high school isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d see groups of kids crying on each other’s shoulders, fire trucks and ambulances waiting in the wings, and state police cruisers joining the black-and-whites of the Fortuna police. Instead, there is only the chief’s car and the chief himself, standing next to the principal who is gesturing wildly. I gather from the conversation as we join them that the ruckus is in the school gymnasium. Being familiar with the labyrinth of the school’s hallways, I head toward the gym.
I stop in the doorway, stunned. The percussion section, all six of them, are marching clockwise around the room’s perimeter. The two tubists, three trombone players, and a matching number of trumpet players are marching counter-clockwise and missing the bass drum with difficulty as they round the corners.
In the center of the room the band director holds court from the top of the ladder he uses to direct on the field. The bewildered wind section seems to be wandering aimlessly, but it seems Mr. Meriweather has a plan, which is shouting through a megaphone.
“Eugene Forester, glide!” comes the command from the top of the ladder. Poor Eugene attempts a sort of waltz step, which is made difficult by the combat boots he’s wearing. Mr. Meriweather descends from the ladder and proceeds to demonstrate.
“Glide!” he yells, grabbing Eugene’s elbow and sliding sideways. He doesn’t seem deterred by Eugene’s attempts to continue to play his piccolo as he drags him back and forth. The scene, I imagine, is what it would have looked like if Dr. Frankenstein had attempted to teach his creation the hokey-pokey. Eugene puts one foot forward, then the other, but his lack of natural rhythm is a definite drawback.
“Clarinets, pay attention.” Mr. Meriweather sweeps his arms in big circles, which would be more effective if he wasn’t still hooked to Eugene. My sympathy lies with the oboes who are swishing back and forward as Mr. Meriweather screams, “We’ll never make it to Broadway if we don’t practice.”
By now the chief and Carson have run the maze and enter the chaos. The second Mr. Meriweather notices them, he proceeds to deliver a lecture on the zero-tolerance on weapons, which winds up with him ordering Dwaine to the principal’s office and telling him his parents will be called.
The band director’s mood changes lightning fast, and he places both hands on Carson’s shoulders. “I love these kids like my own,” he says, his voice breaking on a sob. “Nobody’s stealing this opportunity from them, especially not
I follow his pointing finger and see nothing, but the bright blue gym mat hanging on the wall.
“Who?” Carson asks,
“Him. That low-life, thunder-stealing punk. Wiggling around in those silly jumpsuits, wasting his talent. I know why he’s here. He wants my saxophone section, and that’s never going to happen.”
The chief catches my attention and mouths, “Elvis Presley?”
I mouth back, “Elton John?”
Mr. Meriweather collapses on Carson’s shoulder, wailing about wasted youth and the need for uniforms. The chief waves a hand behind him, and the principal walks in to assume control. Ignoring Meriweather’s meltdown, he manages to get the forty-three members of the marching band out through the locker room and into the hallway without incident.
The chief is on the phone, no doubt arranging yet another check-in at the psych ward, while Carson uses his considerable skills in consolation to calm down the director.
Mr. Meriweather flops clumsily onto the hardwood floor. Arranging himself flat on his back, he stares up at the basketball hoop while he hums the 1812 Overture.
I’m pretty sure the EMTs who show up have done this before; they manage to get Mr. Meriweather off the floor and onto their cot by promising him a popsicle when they get to the emergency room. He’s chanting, “Red, red, I want red” as they roll him out of the gym and to their waiting ambulance.
The principal stands in the middle of the room, leaning on the ladder, with an expression on his face that is so familiar. We’re old pros now, thanks to two days of irrationality, but this must be the man’s first experience with the Fortuna Malady.
I slip outside as the chief and Carson confer with the principal. Band students are grouped on the lawn, instruments held loosely as they watch Mr. Meriweather being loaded up. Eugene spots me and trots over.
Well, trudges over. Light-footedness is not a Forrester trait.
“Hey, Miss McDonald.” He hitches up his pants and nods.
“You okay?” I ask.
He nods again. “Yeah, but I don’t think we’ll be doing the halftime show Friday night.”
Eugene has a point. Finding qualified substitute teachers is hard enough. Finding an experienced director who can create a ten-minute routine in two days is nigh near impossible.
“Maybe you guys can sit in the stands and play. Like a pep band.”
“But we’re a marching band.” Pathos colors Eugene’s voice. “What’s the flag corps going to do if we don’t take the field?”
Bring rousing cheers, I suspect, judging by the flag girls’ most recent performance. I know twirling a big flag on a long pole isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this year’s recruitment only brought five girls. Their captain won the tap dance championship in last spring’s Ohio Valley regional competition, beating out two other girls from Fortuna’s studio and one home-schooled hoofer. Compared to the quartet lined up behind her, she’s a Rockette, all grace and glory. They struggle to stay upright as they shift from left foot to right, ducking to miss flagstaffs headed their way. The mascot, Fortuna’s own flounder, flips his fins in time to the music with the occasional lean to miss a swinging leg or flapping flag.
Our sports reporter takes some liberties in describing their routine. As in, “The flag corps gave a spirited performance.” It’s sorta like getting an ugly sweater for Christmas and saying to the eager giver, “You know, I don’t own a single one like this.” Circumventing the truth with a tasteful neutral comment is kindness in action.
Apparently, the principal is letting school out early because the bus pulls up to the pick-up line. Fortuna being Fortuna, there’s no need for more than one bus. The driver has a full day. It starts with picking up older students, dropping them off, and then heading back for the elementary students. Add in the noon kindergarten route and field trips and that bus rolls the highway more than a traveling salesman’s sedan.
Waving goodbye to Eugene as he joins the bus line, I seek Carson and the chief. I find them on their way to find me. I can tell by the look on Carson’s face he has Big News.
“Miss Peytona’s credit card has been used.” I hear an underlying note of elation and realize this may be the first predictable moment he’s had since arriving in town.
“Where?” I ask the question as we duck around students and head for Carson’s vehicle.
I blink in surprise. Of all the places I’d expect kidnappers to hide out, the great state of P.A. is pretty low on the list. A sleazy motel in Detroit, yeah. Even a glitzy suite in Atlantic City. But when I think of Pennsylvania, I think of the Hershey’s chocolate theme park and steel mills.
“We think they used it on the way to New York.”
Ah, now that makes sense. Poor Miz Waddy is probably tied up to a chair in some dank building basement right now, hoping against hope for rescue. Or maybe with her gift of gab, she’s convinced them to take in a show on the Great White Way and while we’re worrying, she’s enjoying the latest revival of “Chicago.”
We take the slow route to the police station since Arthur Fletcher’s out for his daily drive and is straddling the center of the road with his big sedan. Carson tries to move him over with the use of the siren and flashing headlights, but Arthur just sticks his hand out the window and waves. I keep a straight face; sooner or later Carson’s bound to learn that hurrying Arthur is like teaching a turtle to surf. It may not be impossible, but it’s dang well improbable.