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Authors: Joanna Campbell Slan

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“I need your help,” Detweiler’s voice moved up a notch.

“Hey, how about you ask your wife?” After the words were out, I regretted them.

Detweiler gave me a long look, as a vein pulsed in his temple. “Don’t. Just. Don’t. Whatever wrong I’ve done you, that’s on my head. I deserve it. But Corey didn’t kill that woman. He shouldn’t have to pay for my mistakes. I need your help. Even if you won’t let me explain about us.”

He was right about that. I hadn’t let him “explain” his situation. I couldn’t. If I had, I would have run the risk of throwing caution—and my morals—to the wind. Instead, I’d stuffed my feelings down with food and tried to move on.

Now here I was. Back at square one.

Would I ever learn? I groaned.

“Please, Kiki,” he reached for my shoulder. “You’re the only person I trust to tell me about the inner-workings of that school. You’ve got a good mind and a sharp grasp of details. You’re on the inside. I’ll never be. And we won’t have access to interviews or the people we need. Everyone involved has lawyered up. You know how these people are! The Major Case Squad captain believes we have a good suspect. He’s committed to looking for evidence to close the case. I can’t count on much cooperation. Not from my peers or from the school.”

I brushed his hand away. This time I did stand up. I’ll give him this, he sounded desperate. And it broke my heart. The hurt fortified me. I had to be strong. I had to wrench myself away from this man before it was too late. I swallowed hard. “Tell me one good reason I should help you. Why should I take your word for it that you all have the wrong man?”

“I think Anya saw the killer.”

“Nice try. You said that before. That’s just baloney.”

He took a long deep breath and said, “Kiki, it’s not baloney. I know Corey. He didn’t do it—which means someone else did. And Anya might be in danger! Look at the timeline! Anya and her friend were in the hall right as Mrs. Selsner found the body. They were coming back from the library. They walked down the hall. They stopped in the bathroom next to the balcony door. Then they ran out when they heard the screams. The killer had only one way out—that balcony door. The girls said they saw lots of people that morning.”

Anya hadn’t told me this. But then, she hadn’t had time to. We’d gone from home and television to golf and then Sheila’s. Crud. How could I have been so stupid? What was I, contestant Number One in the Bad Mother of the Year show? I shouldn’t have left my daughter with her grandmother. Anya hadn’t been willing to talk, but maybe if I’d given her more time, she would have confided in me.

Instead, I entrusted her to Sheila and I drove away.

I shook my head as I mentally flagellated myself. What was it about parenting that made the job so treacherous? Every step seemed fraught with the possibility of life-altering mistakes. No wonder God gave kids two parents: Raising a child took the combined mental powers of two adults. And I was one partner light.

The import of Detweiler’s words hit me. “Lots … lots of people? They saw them? After the murder?”

“There was a sports booster meeting happening about the time Mrs. Selsner yelled.” He smashed his cup. “Okay, so Anya and Tilly don’t realize they saw the killer, but they might have. Whoever did this probably blended in. He or she could be one of the parents! The girls could have seen something small but significant. They were the only students wandering around that particular hallway.”

My mouth fell open. Adults could fend for themselves. But Anya and Tilly? At risk? He was right. This was a very, very bad situation.

But then again, they’d arrested Coach Johnson. Chief Holmes must have felt confident that Coach Johnson was the killer.

Whom did I trust more? Detweiler or his boss?

The detective’s face was full of emotion. I could recall only one other time I’d seem him so upset—the night I learned he was married.

“I know I was unfair to you. I know the evidence looks bad. But I also know Corey. Like a brother.” Detweiler turned those amazing bottle-green eyes on me, and I thought I saw a world of sadness in them. “I have no right to ask you to help me. Or Corey. But I am concerned about Anya. I couldn’t stand it if something happened to her. I couldn’t live with myself.”

I sank back down
on the curb. “What makes you so sure he’s innocent?” Last fall I was accused of a crime I didn’t do. I knew how helpless a person could feel. But I needed proof that Detweiler wasn’t shining me on. I couldn’t trust myself, and therefore, I couldn’t trust him.

He talked a mile a minute. “Corey and Ms. Gilchrist were involved. Romantically. But they were in love. He’d never hurt her.”

“You know this because?”

While Chad Detweiler was training to become a policeman, he’d volunteered for a youth basketball program. “Corey bounced around from foster home to foster home. His adoptive parents both died from complications of diabetes. I guess you could say he and I bonded. He was like a younger brother. I had him over to our family farm in Illinois. My sisters adored him. He helped my dad with chores. My mom even taught him to make pie crust! We played ball together. The kid was a natural. His talent was impressive.”

The two remained friends even as Corey was given a college scholarship by an anonymous donor to study history and sports management.

“I visited him on Big Brother weekends at college. We’ve always stayed close. We’ve been friends for ten years,” he finished.

I had to admit, this was pretty compelling. Still, I couldn’t keep silent.

“You said he’d never hurt Sissy. What do you base that on? A man can be one way with his guy friends and another with women. You know that.”

“I taught Corey to drive. He had his permit, we were on a city street, and he ran up a curb rather than hit a baby bird that was in the street. He worshiped his adoptive mother. Loved both his parents, actually. But she was a really strong role model. And he treated my sisters and my mother with total respect.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened. I’ve been a cop too long to say a person would never snap. But I can tell you they were going to get married. He knew she was flawed. He knew she had a past. They talked about it. Seems to me, if you can talk, you don’t need to resort to violence.”

I agreed with his logic. “If they were planning a future together, why is he under suspicion?”

“They’d been seen together having a disagreement early that morning. He doesn’t have an alibi for the time she was killed. He says he was in his office working on baseball rosters. You know how it is, he teaches and is in charge of three sports rotations.”

My mind raced ahead. “Let’s go back to yesterday. You said the girls saw a lot of people. Any idea who?”

“We have the list of those who RSVPed to come to the sports booster meeting. I doubt it’s accurate. The girls gave us a few names. But we haven’t been able to interview anyone on our list.”

“Why not?”

“The school’s attorney stopped us. He’s throwing all sorts of motions at us … breach of privacy …” Detweiler sighed. “No one will confirm who was at the event. They say they don’t take roll.”

That was true. The RSVP was merely a head count for refreshments and a chance for the school to prepare gorgeous name tags. Which half the time people didn’t bother with. Other than what folks reported, there’d be no way to tell who attended.

I told Detweiler this and his shoulders sagged. “Every request we’ve made is followed by, ‘Do you have a warrant?’”

“But surely Elliott McMahan, the headmaster, wants to help you build your case. It’s to his advantage to get this over with.”

“As far as he’s concerned, it is over because Corey is in custody. Mr. McMahan hates the idea a staff member was involved, but frankly, he’s got his hands full. Parents are raising Cain. Mr. McMahan is spending hours on the phone, calming parents down. The Major Case Squad captain’s phone lines are jammed. The more time we waste on stupid phone calls, the less progress we make. The upshot? We’ve got nothing so far.” He stopped to take a breath and grumble, “Except suspicion. And a small amount of circumstantial evidence. So he had brick dust on his clothes and in his office. There’s dust everywhere, and his office is close to the construction site.”

Detweiler rubbed his face with both hands. “I feel like I’m storming the gates of a medieval castle. Everybody who is anybody is connected to CALA. I’m beginning to think all of Old St. Louis went there.”

“They did.”

There was that term: “Old St. Louis.” A phrase Sheila delighted in bandying about. “Old” was certainly a relevant comparison.

Detweiler must have read my mind. “We’re not talking ancient civilizations here or landed gentry. I’m sick of hearing, ‘Talk to my attorney.’”

What he didn’t say, and we both knew, was that Corey Johnson didn’t have a prayer. Not only was he the wrong color, he wasn’t Old St. Louis. If all of them thought he was guilty, he was in deep doo-doo. The kind of doo-doo these people scraped off their shoes.

Detweiler ran a hand through his spiky hair. At this rate, he was going to rub it all off. That happened to my Ken doll. That was before Mattel quit gluing flocking on their heads and painted hairstyles on all the Kens. Pretty weak, if you ask me.

“There’s a problem with opportunity. You’ve got 1,562 students. And 257 faculty and staff. Spread that over a hundred wooded acres, plus volunteers, parents, grandparents, nannies, babysitters—”

I raised my hand in surrender. I got the point. CALA was a world unto itself. Of course, it was that way by design.

“I don’t suppose you know anything that might be useful?”

I thought a minute. I stared hard into the flowers planted thickly around the THF Boulevard signage. The effect was darn pretty. Pink, purple, and white petunias blanketed a small area.

There would be a lot of flowers at Sissy Gilchrist’s funeral. Wasted flowers. That’s why the Jews don’t do flowers at funerals. The dead can’t enjoy them. Why not give the money to a cause that will ensure the person’s memory lives on?

“What do you need from me?”

“Inside dope. Who’s connected to whom. Who hated Ms. Gilchrist and why.”

I thought about Maggie and what she’d said. Detweiler was asking a lot. If calm, kind Maggie would have cheerfully strangled Sissy Gilchrist, you could bet there were lots of folks who wanted to see her dead and gone. I didn’t want to rat out my pal, Maggie. She’d been talking to me in confidence. And what was it Sheila had said? Sissy and her inappropriate men? Ugh.

Nope, I had nothing to say. There was no currency in getting involved. I’d just tick a lot of people off.

I was about to open my mouth and tell him I wouldn’t—couldn’t—help when a woman and her daughter walked toward us, clearly on their way into Kaldi’s. The girl must have been about fourth grade, because her permanent teeth were oversized for her mouth. Her hand rested confidently in her mother’s. A pink and white polka-dot bow rode up and down on her ponytail. A stuffed animal in a decidedly grubby hue of pink was tucked under her free arm. She was a bit old to be carrying a lovey, but so what?

Sissy Gilchrist had once been a child. She had a mother. Whatever Sissy had become in the years between fourth grade and now, she began as we all do, as an innocent. Maybe her mother didn’t much cotton to the woman her child had become. Join the club. Mine wasn’t too thrilled with me either. But that really didn’t matter. Sissy was another mother’s child, and every one of us deserves justice, no matter how tawdry our lives.

But why me? Why should I stick my neck out?

The little girl stopped two feet from us and threw her arms around her mother’s thighs, freezing the woman’s progress with the ferocity of her hug. In response, the mother leaned over and held the child close, stroking her hair and planting a kiss on the top of her head. Then they broke apart and walked hand in hand into Kaldi’s.

What if someone had—God forbid—murdered my Anya? A chill went through my body, followed immediately by a hot wave of anger.

Detweiler was watching the duo, too. His eyes softened as he saw the little girl swinging her stuffed animal.

I found my voice. “Okay. I’ll help you.”

Two hours later, my
harlequin Great Dane and I climbed out of my beaten-up BMW and entered the back door of Time in a Bottle. I carried a fruit salad I’d thrown together by mixing a can of cherry pie filling and two cans of drained fruit cocktail. Scrapbookers are always hungry, and I was determined to try to feed our croppers at least one healthy dish per get-together.

My boss, Dodie, was in the backroom, next to Gracie’s empty doggy playpen. “About time. How’s Anya?” Her voice was gruff, but she bent to love up Gracie, and I could see that Dodie wasn’t angry.

I put the salad in the refrigerator and told my boss about Anya’s scare. Dodie loved Anya. When I’d accepted the job, Dodie agreed my daughter would come first, and she’s never gone back on her word. “CALA has too much at stake to take this crime casually. Oy. Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you are making sense,” she said, dipping into her plentiful store of Jewish sayings.

Reading the confusion on my face, she added, “CALA will do a lot, but that doesn’t mean the school will do what’s right.”

She was right. She flipped open her cell phone and dialed a number. “Horace? She’s here,” she said.

I wondered why she’d stop and tell her hubby I’d come to work, but I didn’t ask. Tuesday was her biopsy. She’d been grouchy as all get-out, but I didn’t blame her. I knew she was scared. And unfortunately, Dodie seemed resigned to a bad result. No matter how often I tried to convince her that survival rates are excellent these days, she turned deaf to my preaching. On an elemental level, Dodie had decided she had cancer. Maybe she was simply in tune with her body, and knew it to be true, but I was pretty confident she’d been unable to separate her mother’s fate from her own. I recalled visiting Graceland and hearing how Elvis Presley had died the same day and month as his mother had, too. Perhaps this was more common than I realized.

“I’m all ready for the crop. I finished everything yesterday,” I said. “See? We’re making family trees. All that’s left is to bag up the individual project pieces.” From a shallow box I retrieved our project and held it in my out-stretched hand. A sense of satisfaction swept over me as I saw that Dodie was impressed.

“Where on earth do you come up with this?”

I smiled. “I think it up in my little head, I do. I’d better get to work.”

Dodie put up a hand to stay me. “Horace will be here in a minute. We need to talk with you.”

My stomach churned. I wondered what was up, and naturally being the worry-wart I am, panic consumed me. I come by this naturally. Once my sister Amanda suggested we all take turns worrying. “I’ll take Monday, Kiki can take Tuesday, Catherine can take Wednesday, Mom can take Thursday, and Aunt Gwen can take Friday. That way we’ll worry more efficiently. If something happens to any of us on your day, it’s that person’s fault—and we can blame her.”

Sounded reasonable to me.

I puttered around straightening paper before turning to the die cut machine to punch trees from brown cardstock.

Horace came through the front door, turned our sign to CLOSED, and motioned me to the back. My knees shook as we took seats in Dodie’s office, and I fought a mouth so dry my lips caught on my teeth. I loved my job. I really did. This was the first time I’d ever been good at something. Now it was all about to come to an end.

I could tell he was going to fire me. Why else had he come? And why close the shop?

I sniffled and tried to act calm.

Horace nodded to Dodie. She pulled a leather briefcase from her side of the desk, opened it, and pulled out a manila folder. “We have a special project for you, Kiki, but first you need to sign a confidentiality agreement. Horace can notarize it.”

“Huh?”

“The customer who has contracted with us doesn’t want anyone to see this project and expects you not to talk about it,” Dodie said. “Let me back up. Our customer is getting a divorce from a prominent local person. Her attorney has suggested that she have a scrapbook of her life made as an exhibit. This scrapbook will be entered into the court proceedings to show the judge her lifestyle. She doesn’t want a settlement that will reduce her standard of living.”

Horace sighed. “The man has cheated on her several times. A private investigator is gathering proof as we speak of the latest infidelity. But this man is very prominent and well-off. His wife is confident he’ll do everything he can to leave her in the poor-house.”

Dodie interrupted. “Petty thieves are hanged, but the big ones go free. This creep has all kinds of connections. Legal, business, political, you name it. He told her years ago she’d never see a penny if she filed. And he promised to make her lose face in the community.”

“Are there children involved?” I mused out loud.

“Yes,” said Dodie, “but that doesn’t necessarily matter.”

“What kind of a judge wouldn’t make sure he provides for his family?”

“A judge who owes a lot to this man. Or in this case, several judges. If one of them gets the case, this woman is matzoh.”

“What does a confidentiality agreement entail?”

“You can’t work on this when anyone else is in the store. We suggest you keep all the photos and what-not inside this briefcase. You can see it has a combination lock. You can’t talk about what you see in the project. You can’t mention it to anyone. I will tell Bama you are doing it, so she doesn’t walk in on you, but that’s all. You can’t contact the client,” and here Dodie paused. “This woman is someone you might meet in a social context. So you need to be especially discreet. It would be easy for you to let it slip.”

She was calling me a blabbermouth. That hurt. My expression must have changed, because I caught the flare of emotion in Dodie’s eyes. “Sunshine, you love to talk about your scrapbooking. You’re an addict. But this client asked me to put my best employee on the job, and that’s you. I know you can handle this.”

I signed the papers, noted the due date of the project, realized I’d be coming in before the store opened and staying late to get it done.

How weird was all that?

I put the briefcase in the trunk of my car and went about my work.

The rest of the day went by pretty slowly, but at six p.m. our croppers started to pour in. I grabbed a Slim-Fast® bar and an apple to tide me over until we broke out the treats. Now that Detweiler was back in my life (sort of), I needed to quit eating like a starved pig at a trough of fresh slop.

Our regular gang was all in attendance. We were delighted to welcome back Bonnie Gossage, an attorney who worked part-time since the birth of her son Felix. She’d finally gotten a regular sitter for her little boy. We used to welcome him to our crops, but now he’d started to “cruise,” grabbing on to everything within reach, and we all worried he’d pull something heavy over on his head or snatch up a sharp craft knife.

Addison Kobie was working on a memory album of her high school days. Joyce Casaldi and her daughter Ashlyn brought a graduation album as well. Nancy Weaver was trying to organize vacation photos she’d taken of her husband, Mark, and the kids Eliza, Jackson, and Chase.

My pal Clancy Whitehead showed up to work on her first album. She was making good progress. Each week I could see her grow more confident about her skills. As a divorcee with an empty nest, she needed a hobby. Scrapbooking and taking college courses now soaked up most of her free time. (That left me a little lonely for her, but I was happy she was busy.)

Another friend, Ella Latreau Walden, a mother from CALA, was also learning the craft. Yes, that was “Latreau” like the theatre where Sissy met her demise. Ella’s family was very involved in our children’s school.

Some days poor Ella was all thumbs, but I admired her for keeping at it. She brought another CALA mom with her, Patricia Bigler. At nearly six feet tall, Patricia towered over me, so I used the cue “bigger” to remember her last name.

Ella was unusually quiet tonight. I figured she too was worried about the murder, especially since it had happened in the theatre that bore her family name.

LaShana Freeman joined us, pulling out an old family album, her toffee-colored skin and inky black hair a strong contrast to Ella’s blonde-streaked hair and Patricia’s almost ghostly pale skin and hair.

Last but not least, my best friend Mert Chambers strolled in. She was carrying a plate of cookies. I guess my face showed how surprised I was—Mert never cooks—because she shook her head and wagged a finger at me. “This here was made by my baby brother Johnny ’cause he’s such a sweetheart.”

Mert’s hands were encrusted with cocktail rings, and she had a butterfly tattoo on her right ankle. She and Tammy Faye Baker belonged to the “pile-it-on-thick” school of beauty. Mert always “dressed up” for our crops. Her scrawny shoulders sported the last of a summer tan under a bright red strappy T-shirt with a neckline of lace and sequins. She paired it with bottoms that gave a whole new meaning to short-shorts.

I liked Mert. I liked her a lot. She was genuine and good-hearted. I felt much more comfortable with her than I did with the mothers at Anya’s school. They intimidated me.

“Heard about the murder at the school.”

“Yep.”

Mert peeled the plastic wrap off the plate of cookies. We were at a folding card table a good distance from the craft table. This separation of food and craft kept the scrapbooking area clean and free of spillage which could ruin a photo or a page layout. Mert spoke in a low voice. “I know her ex, Sissy Gilchrist’s ex, that is. Danny Gartner. Know the whole family, in fact.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mert had lived here her whole life, and she knew everybody, absolutely everybody. She’d worked for enough people, hung around enough bars, and picked up enough gossip to do a lot of damage. I knew from helping her out on occasion, both in her dogsitting business and with her janitorial firm—I was always keen to pick up part-time work—that cleaning houses was an entrée to dirt, all sorts of it. Although Mert wasn’t a gossip, she could be persuaded to share. If she thought it appropriate. Just like Maggie, she took the confidentiality of her work very seriously. But she took our friendship as a higher priority, and for that, I was exceedingly thankful.

“What’s Sissy’s husband like?”

“His momma gets groomed regular at the vet’s office. His daddy is an equal-opportunity hater. They’re all racist. Whole family belongs to the Aryan nation. Supposed to hate blacks, but figured hating was more fun than killing cats, so they decided not only to hate blacks, but browns, yellows, and Jews. You can just imagine how they feel about our new president. They call him Oba-mination.”

“Oh.” That was all I managed. My mental wheels were turning. So Sissy’s ex hated blacks. Did he know she was romantically involved with an African American? Could he have decided she should be punished? Local racist groups were not above making examples out of people.

Mert raised an eyebrow. “Spill it.”

I motioned for her to help me get the rest of the treats from the refrigerator in our backroom. As we worked, I told her about what Anya had seen and Detweiler’s request.

She gave me a long, meaningful look. Mert knew we had a Jewish household even though I never converted. We’d discussed various aspects of religion while giving the baseboards in my new house a wash a couple weeks ago. We had decided we both believed in God, and that our Maker obviously loved diversity, so we had no problem with the differences in our religious views. Instead, we celebrated what we held in common.

“Kiki, you best better stay clear of this.”

“How can I?” I hissed. “My daughter may be in danger.”

“If you get involved, she sure will be.”

I nodded. A dull pounding began in my head.

“The Gartners are mean as snakes with sunburnt bellies. Huh. They believe God made them superior—and they got to fight to wrestle this nation back from Jews and such. Where they get that, I just don’t know. Jesus never preached no hate-mongering. I defy them to show it to me in the Bible that he did.”

Mert set great store by knowing her Bible. We may have disagreed on how to practice our faiths, but we were united in believing that the underlying principles were the same. Here’s how I explained it to Anya: A person who hates a Jew, will hate a black, will hate a Moslem, will hate a Mexican, will hate an Asian, will hate a … whatever. People who hate, hate. It’s not about the object of the hatred. It’s about justifying an unjustifiable attitude.

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