‘All For One’ Sample Chapters

Remember those places called Bookstores? There used to be a lot of them. Not so many anymore. I’d go multiple times a week when they were plentiful, and one of the great things about browsing for books was picking one up and reading the first few chapters before deciding to buy.

Today, in our digital age, you can sample at any major online retailer that sells eBooks. And you can also sample right here 🙂

Below are the opening chapters of my novel All For One. If you enjoy it, I hope you’ll pick up a copy by following the links at the end of the sample.

Thanks!

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One

Joey Travers, president of Miss Austin’s sixth grade class at Windhaven Elementary School, stood from where he had knelt next to Guy Edmond. The blood-smeared bat was in his hands.

Four sets of eyes followed his rise, all but Elena Markworth’s, her usually reluctant gaze fixed fully upon the crimson pool spreading on the asphalt beneath her tormentor’s creviced head.

“If we stick to the story,” Joey began, fingers curling around the slick wood handle, tips pressing hard on the grain, “then no one will get into trouble. Everything will be all right. Just like it used to be.”

The stares did not doubt him. They wanted to believe him.

“You’re sure he didn’t see who it was?” Bryce Hool asked, his glasses sliding low on his nose. He pushed them up with a single finger.

“I’m sure,” Joey confirmed, and held the bat out to the class treasurer. “Here.”

“There’s blood on it,” Bryce protested.

“Only at the top,” Joey assured him, and Bryce took the bat and squeezed his hands where Joey had.

Michael Prentiss, the class sergeant at arms, watched Bryce turn toward him, bat held tip to the gray morning sky, in front as a knight might present his sword reverently to a king.

“Take it,” Joey prompted.

Michael did, grasping the Louisville Slugger as he did in little league, testing its heft, staring at the sweet spot stained the color of a cherry Slurpee. After a moment his eyes drifted down to the bully lying outside their classroom, and over the one visible hand which reached for the mouth unnaturally, as a baby might when trying to suck its fingers. He knew that hand, and the one he could not see, mostly as fists, and he remembered the black eye, and going to the principal’s office because he had fought back, and he thought how glad he was that Guy Edmond was not going to be able to use those fists this day, those sharp-knuckled pile drivers that belonged at Bidwell Junior High and not in Miss Austin’s class.

Guy deserved a lot. A whole lot, Michael truly believed. But something made him wonder if he deserved what had just been dealt him. He thought on that and flexed his fingers on the bat, the backward ‘S’ shape of Guy Edmond’s still and frightful form holding him rapt, and for a reason he did not quite understand his lower lip grew prominent and began to quiver. An uncomfortable warmth drained over his eyes.

“Here,” Michael said, shoving the bat at Paula Jean Allenton and turning away.

“All right,” Paula Jean, PJ to all but her mother, took the bat lest it be dropped in Michael’s haste to be rid of it, and added her own fingerprints to the handle. She studied it up and down, holding it far from her body as the early fall breeze picked up her loose brown hair and swept it across her face. “What about higher?”

“Higher where?” Joey asked as he tucked the loose tail of his shirt back into his pants.

“On the bat. Should we touch it where it gets fatter?”

Joey’s trim, gonna-be-a-lady-killer-someday face shook slightly. “Where you’ve got it is fine.”

PJ, the class vice-president, nodded and put force into her grip, like she did when her younger brother got stupid and needed a pinch to remind him who was the boss of the bedroom they shared. Then, like Michael, she looked at Guy Edmond’s motionless, lanky body, but she did not recoil, and she did not let emotion overwhelm her. No, she thought instead of how much she would like to lift the bat high in the air and bring it down onto Guy’s back, again and again, beating him until she could hear bones snap, until she felt like she’d gotten some payback for all that he’d done to her and her friends. He’d almost ruined everything in Miss Austin’s class, the best class PJ had ever been in. The best class any of them had ever been in.

But they weren’t going to let him ruin anything ever again.

“Chocolate chip,” PJ muttered quietly as her stare simmered on Guy. “Lemon pecan. Peanut but—”

“PJ?” Joey said.

Her eyes snapped up, her quiet mantra interrupted. “Yeah?”

“You’re okay, right?”

“I’m okay,” PJ answered, silently glad that he had asked. That meant he probably cared. Maybe even liked her. Maybe.

“Jeff, your turn,” Joey said.

Only one hand came up, the other held immobile against Jeff Bernstein’s chest in a cast of plaster and a blue sling. “My left hand still won’t open.”

“Just use your right,” Joey said, and looked up and down the walkway that ran between the bungalows and Windhaven’s ivy-covered back fence. There was still no one in sight, but that would change when the bell that ended recess rang. He looked at his watch, a birthday gift his dad had sent from Florida. They had ten minutes. “Hurry.”

Jeff, the class secretary, used all the strength of his off hand to take the bat from PJ, his face twisting into a grimace, pale fingers wrapping the handle. “It’s heavy.”

As the bat began to teeter in Jeff’s hand, Joey looked to Elena. “Take the bat.”

The shy brown eyes did not move, but one of Elena’s hands came up and wiped a moist spot from her cheek. She pulled the hand away, moving it into her seemingly frozen field of vision. A bright red streak cut a diagonal swath across her small palm.

“PJ, clean it off her,” Joey said, and his vice president spit on a piece of tissue retrieved from the pocket of her jeans and wiped Elena’s hands first, then her face.

“How’s that?” PJ asked.

“Good,” Joey said after a cursory look. “Dry her hands.”

PJ held both of Elena’s hands palms up and thought briefly, then guided them to the sides of the green skirt the nearly catatonic girl wore and rubbed them against the material until they were dry.

Minding the puddling blood, Joey moved to where Elena stood against the rough stucco wall of the bungalow. He was taller than her by at least four inches, and bent slightly forward to see past the hair framing her downcast face. “Elena?”

Short, erratic puffs of air tossed her chest out and pulled it back in a sob-like rhythm. But there were no tears. Her face was dry, as dry as her expression, as barren as her gaze.

“You’ve got to do this,” Joey said, trying to keep a calm voice. “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to hold the bat.”

A visible bulge rolled slowly down Elena’s throat.

“Don’t let him mess everything up,” Joey urged her, gently, though the dwindling time might change that very soon.

“He picked on you more than any of us,” Bryce added.

The bat began to tilt precariously in Jeff’s hand. “Someone take it.”

Joey reached past Elena for the bat, but two hands clamped around its base before his. Two small hands suddenly filled with strength. When Joey let his grip go slack he swore he heard Elena’s knuckles cracking as her fingers kneaded the handle.

“Elena?” PJ said, watching the wide eyes come up from Guy and settle upon the glorified stick.

The quietness that walled Elena Markworth in normal times was reluctant to give back what it had seized in this very unusual time, but slowly she looked away from the bat to PJ and said, “Please don’t tell my father…”

With Michael still turned away, Joey exchanged worried glances with the others before gingerly taking the bat from Elena. Her expression melted as the cool wood left her hands, eyes going half closed, noncommittal mouth sagging at the corners, and breaths slowing. She turned her palms face up, examined them through glistening eyes, and pressed both against her face as real sobs racked her entire body. She took a half step toward PJ and collapsed into the bigger girl’s arms.

“Joey, she’s not going to hold up,” Jeff commented direly.

“Yes she is!” PJ snapped back. Her arms held Elena close, head tucked sideways into the crook of her neck.

“He… He…”

“It’s all right,” PJ said, comforting Elena as the others watched, rubbing circles on her back, wondering if she was doing this right. It was what her mother did for her little brother when he scraped his knee, or got stung by a bee, or whenever he found some reason to bawl his eyes out over some silly little thing. But this was no silly little thing.

Elena’s eyes flicked open and stared through tears at the body. “He…he…he…”

The sputter of words collapsed into sobs once again before the revelation was complete, but they all knew what had happened. Knew without a doubt.

Now all they had to do was forget.

“Elena,” Joey said. “You’re going to do this, right?”

“Joey…” PJ challenged protectively.

“We’re running out of time,” Joey said.

Bryce looked at his watch. “Six minutes.”

With a swipe of his sleeve across his upper lip, Michael faced the group once again. “We gotta hurry.”

“Elena?” Joey said again.

“She can do it,” PJ answered for her.

A cheer rose from the ball field on the opposite side of the building. Someone had just scored in kickball.

“Joey?” Jeff said, nearly pleading. He could almost feel the rapid fire clang of the bell threatening. They all could.

“You’re going to stick to the story,” Joey told Elena, confidence and question both in the statement. He was surprised and relieved when her tear-stained face concurred with a nod against PJ’s chest. “I knew you would.”

PJ’s hand moved to Elena’s head and stroked her shiny brown hair. “He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”

“Or anyone,” Jeff added. Beneath the cast his skin tingled in a pesky itch, all courtesy of their very own bully.

Or anyone, Joey thought to himself, agreeing as one who knew what sort of hurt Guy Edmond could dish out. Knowing as only he could know. As only he would know.

‘All for one.’ Miss Austin’s favorite saying rang suddenly in Joey’s head for the second time in twenty minutes, earlier as a spark and now as a gentle shove to remind him that most of what had to be done still lay ahead. ‘All for one.’

He looked to Jeff, then Michael, then Bryce, then to PJ, who clutched Elena tight like a favorite doll in danger of being lost. “We can do this.”

Jeff glanced at each of his friends. “He’s right. We can.”

“We’re just kids,” Joey reminded them. “They can’t do the same things to us that they could do to a grown-up. They can’t make us say anything. We just stick to the story and forget about everything else.”

An odd little smile curled onto Jeff’s face. Meanness spiced the expression as he nodded and parroted, “We’re just kids. Who doesn’t believe a kid?”

“All right.” Joey looked at the bat in his hands. It was time. “Bryce? You know what to do?”

The class treasurer nodded and nervously checked his watch. “I’ve gotta go now if I’m gonna beat the bell.”

“Go do it,” Joey said, and let the bat fall from his hands as Bryce sprinted off toward the office. The fat end thunked off the asphalt, then the handle, the whole bat ‘walking’ toward the body, settling into a roll after a second and coming to rest against Guy Edmond’s back. A wet, gurgling hiss escaped his lips and was lost with the breeze rustling fast through the ivy.

*  *  *

Veta Nelson, Windhaven’s school secretary, stood board-straight at the reception counter in the main office, nimble fingers alphabetizing the morning’s absence slips the same as they had every day during first recess for almost nineteen years.

But somewhere in the T’s her fingers froze and her eyes came up, looking over bifocals that might have seemed pleasantly grandmotherly if not for the unmistakable fact that Veta Nelson was none too pleased by what she was hearing echo in from the main hallway. Feet, little feet, tapping on old tile. Tapping far too fast. Far, far too fast. Running.

Running her way. A grin simmered on Veta’s aged mouth as she came around the counter and stepped into the hallway just as the inexcusably fast clomping of loosely tied sneakers began to slow for a turn. She put her hand out, ready to grab a fistful of shirt as the offender tried to speed by toward the stairs, but the offender instead ran straight into her as he tried to steer into the office.

“Wait one minute, young man,” Veta Nelson said, pulling the small head away from her midriff and holding it in both hands to clearly identify the…  “Bryce? Bryce Hool?”

“Gu… Gu…” A gasping stammer was all Bryce could manage, and it was uncomfortably real. He’d run faster than he could ever remember running. His side stung. His chest ached. And, worst of all, Mrs. Nelson had a funny look on her face, like she already didn’t believe him…and he hadn’t even told a lie. He wondered if he’d have to.

Veta bent a bit to eye the unlikely scofflaw severely. This nice young man? Running away with first prize in spelling a bee, yes. But running in the halls? Disregarding school rule number 1? “Bryce Hool, just what do you—”

“Guy’s hurt,” Bryce interrupted, forcing the words out between gulps of air. His glasses were askew from the collision.

“What guy?”

“Guy… Guy Edmond,” Bryce panted.

“Hurt?” There was one and only one excuse for running in the halls, Veta knew. One had better be running for help. “Hurt how?”

Bryce fixed his glasses, sucked a breath of air, and said, “He’s hurt bad. His head’s bleeding.” With that Veta straightened so that Bryce now saw her eyes through the half lenses that made them look small, like dollops of chocolate on vanilla cookies. “And he’s not moving, Mrs. Nelson.”

“Where is he?” Veta asked sharply.

“Outside our room. By the side fence.”

Veta loosed her grip on Bryce and turned back toward the office. The first person she saw was that day’s parent volunteer. “Judy! Get the nurse! Now! Tell her to bring her bag!”

Judy, her own child a kindergartner, hesitated momentarily then sprang from a desk covered with files and disappeared into an adjoining room. Less than a minute later a painfully thin woman followed her into the office and around the counter to where Veta stood with Bryce.

“What’s the ruckus?” the school nurse, Nan Jakowitz, asked.

“Follow him,” Veta said, pointing to Bryce. “One of his classmates is bleeding.”

“I think he’s dead,” Bryce told her.

“I’m sure he’s not dead,” the nurse assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Blood is scary. It always looks worse than it is. Now show me where he is.”

“I’ll get their teacher. Go, go,” Veta urged both adult and child, returning to the office as they rushed off, fast feet again sounding in the hall. Through the office she moved quickly, into the teacher’s lounge, where she had seen Bryce and Guy’s teacher go when first recess began. But the room and its sagging chairs were now empty. She was about to turn and leave when the muffled hiss of water running drew her eyes to the ladies’ room door just to her left. “Mary? Are you in there?”

“Yes. I’ll be out in a—”

Veta stepped close and touched the cold wood of the door. “Mary, one of your children is hurt.” First silence, then a rush of air being drawn in. A steadying breath, Veta could tell without having to see. And then the privacy latch clicking an instant before the door jerked inward.

Mary Austin stood with her hand gripping the doorknob, young eyes wide, her face a barren mask of shock. “What do you mean?”

“Hurt, Mary,” Veta said, putting a hand on the young teacher’s arm. So young, yet so talented. Only three years teaching and already she had the wisdom of many of the hair-in-a-bun veterans Veta had seen come and go during her tenure. The Mary Austins, those possessing the true gift of teaching, were the rarest of the rare, and each held a special place in the secretary’s heart. This one more so than others, because Mary Austin had done more than teach. Veta had seen her work miracles. “Come on. The nurse is on her way there now. Come on.”

Mary watched Veta Nelson take a few steps before she, too, began to move. Just into the hall the bell ending recess sounded, a staccato clanging that followed Veta and Mary as they ran out of the main building and across the playground toward the sixth grade bungalows.

*  *  *

Nan Jakowitz passed Bryce as they neared a crush of students swarming outside Room 18, pushing through the chest high mass until she broke into the center and stood facing a distinctly separate group of five children gathered in a tight arc. They were staring at her feet, and when she looked down she saw the crimson sheen formed around her tan flats and understood why.

“Jesus, JESUS, JESUS,” Nurse Jakowitz said in rising tone, giving her exclamation of horror a tinge of religious declaration. Her feet stepped gingerly out of the blood covering the ground to Guy Edmond’s front, and moved to a spot near his back where she knelt and put two fingers to his neck.

She counted silently, One… Two… Three…

And nothing. Her eyes flitted from Guy’s neck to the ground, and she saw the bat, its fat end splashed grotesquely red.

Four… Five… Six…

Her eyes came up from the bat and fell upon the arc of children fixed close to the body. Bryce had joined them. They were six in number now, and they looked at her with eyes that seemed collective, individuality gone from their expressions. The littlest girl, held close by a bigger girl in one protective arm, sniffled, but her gaze never broke.

“What happened?” Nan asked, directing her question to Bryce.

“We found him,” Joey answered for the class treasurer. For them all.

“Found him?” Nan pressed.

Five of the six nodded. Elena simply bore reddened, gaunt eyes at the nurse.

The breeze swirled through the fence and over the crowd, reminding all of the season. It might have chilled Nan Jakowitz, but a prickly rise of goose bumps had already done so.

She looked again to the body, counting, Seven… Eight… Nine…

Nothing. Not a hint of a pulse. Nan Jakowitz drew her hand away from the neck and swallowed hard. Her eyes played over the wet red asphalt. There’s too much blood, she thought immediately. Not enough left in his body for CPR to do any good. He’s really dead. She looked up at the six again, at Bryce in particular as someone pushed through the outer crowd.

“Is he going to be okay?” Bryce asked.

Nan’s head cocked at the almost vacant concern in his voice. The quizzical expression still showed when Veta Nelson and Mary Austin made it through the students and gawked first at the little body, then at the blood, then at the nurse.

“How bad?” Veta asked, drawing deep for composure. Mary stepped just past her, eyes glued on Guy Edmond.

Nan shifted her attention to Veta and said, after a short pause, “He’s dead.”

Five of the six stole sideways, leaden glances at one another. Elena shuddered upon the nurse’s pronouncement, then quickly stilled. One girl in the crowd stumbled back toward the fence and covered her mouth with clenched fists, her blonde hair tossed across her face by the wind. Dozens of youthful mouths repeated the news in hushed tones.

Dead? He’s dead. Guy’s dead. Dead?

Dead….

“Dead?” Veta asked, eyes narrow, as if she’d just been told something incomprehensible. An impossibility.

Nan nodded and rose from her crouch.

“Oh dear God,” Veta said, putting a single, trembling hand to her mouth and reaching for Mary’s arm with the other. It found only space. Mary was backing away, inching steps that cleaved an opening in the crowd. “Mary?” How this must hurt… “Oh, Mary.”

The six looked to their teacher, and she now to them, forcing her eyes from the crushed little head spilling life onto the blacktop.

“Mary?” Veta repeated.

And as quickly as it had begun, Mary Austin’s retreat ceased, but not because of words. Her eyes had moved from Joey, to Bryce, to Michael, to P.J, to Elena, and then to Jeff. When it settled upon him, all energy drained from her, pouring down some invisible channel ripped through her core, cascading from her chest, washing hot through her stomach, and leaving through legs drawn hollow and made papery. For an instant she tried to tell herself what she had seen was just a twitch. A nervous tick. Expected. Normal, considering.

But it wasn’t. As clear as the horror that was strewn between them, she knew it was no twitch, no involuntary response. It was what it was. And what it was was a wink.

Jeff had given her a slow, purposeful wink, one that existed between only them.

She shook her head as her knees went weak, legs turning soft, the vast gray sky above becoming a great fuzzy spiral that followed her as she twisted and twisted downward into a harsh, icy blackness.


Two

It was Sunday, and it had begun to rain.

Not in pearly drops that clicked when they hit one’s coat or umbrella, but slowly, almost silently, a cold, wet blur descending.

Dooley Ashe turned his collar up and hunched his shoulders against the elements, his hands burrowed deep in the lined pockets of his parka, and looked back through the weather as the last visitors’ gate closed behind. AnchorBayState Prison was already lost somewhere in the settling haze.

“Excuse me…”

Dooley turned sharply toward the voice.

“Are you Dooley Ashe? Detective Dooley Ashe?”

The stranger wore a gray overcoat and held an umbrella in a black-gloved hand, and stood at the steps leading down to the visitors’ lot with a casually friendly smile uneven on his face.

“Who are you?” Dooley asked. He was not smiling.

Another black-gloved hand appeared from a pocket and flipped open an ID wallet. A gold badge struggled to shine in the flat light. “My name’s Joel Bauer. I’m a detective with the Bartlett Police Department.”

“Bartlett,” Dooley said, mostly to himself, mental circuit breakers tripping. He walked past the detective toward his car. Footsteps behind told him he was not rid of the stranger.

“It’s a few hours east of here,” Joel offered.

“I know where it is.”

“You haven’t returned my calls,” Joel said. When they cleared the steps and were in the lot he sped up and walked next to Dooley, eyeing him with eager glances. “I’ve left like twenty messages. Your machine must be busting by now.”

Enough of the misty rain had accumulated on Dooley’s outback hat that full drops now fell from its wide brim with each jarring step. He looked straight ahead, through the secondary downpour, and told himself to say nothing. Told himself to just walk, give the stranger a polite nod once he reached his car, and drive away. End of interlude, he could hope.

End of nothing, he feared.

“How’d you know I’d be here?” Dooley asked, his eyes still forward. His step had slowed.

“I sat across from your house for ten hours. A man can hold only so much coffee before he gives up. So, I went to your supervisor. He told me you’d be here today.”

Dooley stopped at the rear of a rusting Dodge Dart and looked to his unwanted company. “I don’t have a supervisor anymore, buddy. Detective whoever-you-are.”

“It’s Bauer.”

“Good, Detective Bauer. Now leave me be.”

“Your lieutenant sa—”

“I don’t have a lieutenant. I’m retired. Okay? Goodbye.”

He started off toward his car again, but quick, persistent footsteps caught up.

“Lieutenant Evans told me you were on vacation. Using the comp time you built up from the Vincent case.”

“Clean your ears, Detective Bauer; I’m retired,” Dooley repeated for good measure, and to remind himself. Just walk.

“Not officially,” Joel contradicted, and for that he now had Detective Dooley Ashe’s full attention. And then some.

Dooley aimed his body toward Joel and kept walking, faster now, forcing the younger detective to backpedal awkwardly.

“Who do you think you are?” Dooley demanded as the target of his suddenly risen anger could skitter back no more and found himself half leaning, half sitting on the trunk of an old Nova. Two young faces stared at the commotion through the foggy back window. “You don’t fucking question me. I’m retired. I’ve done my twenty years. I solved my last case. I’m done.”

A little hand wiped condensation from inside the Nova’s back window. Dooley noticed the motion and looked past Joel for a moment. Faces with chocolate-stained mouths, framed by stringy, unwashed blonde hair, looked back with little surprise at the conflict they were witnessing. They had obviously seen worse.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Joel said from his awkward position. “Just that you’re still a cop. Officially.”

Even in light that robbed feature and warmth from whatever it bathed, Dooley could tell that the childrens’ eyes were blue. A pretty, tainted blue that probably still sparkled on Christmas morning, even without a tree, mom drunk with a new boyfriend in bed, and dad God knows where. Children might not be innocent, Dooley had learned, but they were resilient.

Far more resilient than adults.

“I just wanted to talk to you about—”

Dooley took a step back and held a silencing finger in the air between him and his unwanted company. “No. I’m done. You got it? Save your breath.” He continued to step away, but kept his eyes on the detective. “No more.”

“We need your help,” Joel said. As he did, Dooley turned and moved quickly toward a Chevy Blazer. “We had a kid murdered.”

“Join the club,” Dooley muttered, and hurried into his shiny black 4X4. He backed out of the parking space and sped toward the exit. In the rearview he could see Joel Bauer’s head dip, eyes going to the ground as rain spilled off his umbrella like tears.

*  *  *

CougarMountain rose like a blunt pimple from the forest one hundred and fifty miles east of Seattle, its peak salted white and its slopes flushed pink and blue by tired sunlight that fanned through breaks in the coming storm.

Autumn seemed willing to cede its time to winter, yet with each breath taken Mary Austin tasted spring. A false spring.

She stared at the cold, fiery beauty of the mountain from her living room, curled comfortably into a downy armchair, a forgotten mug of hot chocolate cooling on the end table and lesson plans neglected on her lap. Her being was here, quiet in her home, but her thoughts were there. Over the mountain. In a place she could not see, but which her mind could imagine. A pasture of green stabbed with bolts of granite and marble, a sad, pretty place where the dead rotted in ornate boxes.

She had attended only one funeral in her life, that of her father when she was eight, an event which had fogged in her memory, taking on the quality of a celluloid dream. Snippets of motion and feeling, out-takes from an old reel of the movie of her life. One was of a dark, deep rectangle and leaning forward hesitantly to peer down into it, mother holding her hand and she that of her five year old sister. Then standing back, together, watching as the casket sank slowly out of view. Beyond it some man trying to bolster her with a smile. When the years had passed she came to understand that his expression had been meant to console, but back then she had wondered why someone was smiling when most other people were crying.

Some, like her mother, had not cried, and Mary had followed her lead and swallowed hard when her eyes began to burn. Her little sister, though, was too young to muster the fortitude, and the tears had trickled silently down her reddened cheeks as they walked away from the plot on that sweltering Illinois summer day, following men whose dark coats were slung over their shoulders and who repeatedly dabbed their brows with fists of rumpled linen. Mary had looked back just before they reached her aunt’s big Lincoln, and had seen the man who had smiled at her going about his business, puffing on the stub of a cigar and tossing shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the hole.

Her father’s hole.

Now there was another hole.

Over there, now, in the lowlands beyond the mountain, people would be gathered around the one dug just for Guy Edmond. How many people would be there? Mary wondered. His family, to be sure. An officiate who had to be there. The man to shovel the dirt. Six, seven, eight, maybe. And the rest?

What ‘rest’? The rest would be cheering the little league games at FarnsworthPark, or playing backyard chef to steal some grill time before the weather changed. Burgers sizzling and brave little bodies going head first into second. Just another Sunday. Purposely so. A collective good riddance by way of evasion.

It was payback time. The people of Bartlett were giving Guy Edmond the bird in the only way that mattered to the dead. They were living, giving it that little extra oomph this day, Mary suspected. Playing a little harder, laughing a little louder, putting extra pickles and ketchup on the burger. Downing a cold one. The benign equivalent of dancing on his grave.

They were here, he was gone. Game, set, match.

In short order he would be a memory, Mary thought. Just an ill wind that had blown through. They were already forgetting. She was trying hard to…

‘…forget the bad. Move on.’

The bad. Bad things. The garbage truck broadsiding her father’s pickup, that had been bad. Almost the worst thing ever. And the past week, that had been bad.

Events could be very bad at times.

‘Runners fly right over hurdles. They hardly even notice them. Their eyes are on one thing, way beyond the obstacles. And when they’re past each hurdle, it’s gone. Out of mind. Forgotten.’ That was her mother’s equivalent of ‘Into every life a little rain must fall,’ with the likely additional caveat, ‘so think dry.’

People could also be bad. Even a child.

Hurdles.

Guy was bad. Bad to the core.

Forget him. Move on. Her mother’s advice, her creed, had stuck. It was hers now, too.

But…

…one of her kids was dead. Someone had killed him, and she felt…

What?

…something. Sorrow? Loss? What emotion was it that was bubbling inside her? It was…

What? she pressed herself for the answer.

…not loss. She had known loss, in many ways. Her father’s decapitation as he crumbled through the windshield of his rust-red stepside was a loss. This was not like that. Nor was it sorrow. With sorrow came tears, and she had shed none.

When did I cry last?

When?

When Mom heard ab— And that memory died half born.

Enough of that. Forget. Forget. Move on.

She felt…something strange. Something bordering, she believed, on inappropriate. Like…

…when Uncle Louie got drunk after the funeral and said that dad was always losing his head? That was inappropriate.

It was a sensation, far back in her chest, behind the liquid pulse of her heart, the warmth of a door opening on a summer day and letting the sweet breeze wash in. It was a lightness within. A knot untied. It was bursting through the surface of the water after a deep dive and tasting the soothing freshness of a breath.

It was all those things, but it should not be. It was wrong to feel that. As wrong as Jeff’s wink, she thought.

But wrong or not, that was what welled inside her, clawing to get out of a hole not unlike Guy Edmond’s now and future home. A place she’d guiltily tried to secret it. A place it was freeing itself from with every passing moment. She felt it. She knew.

A hollow, welcome bliss.

Or call it relief. Same difference. A worry had been swept away. Gone.

She swallowed hard, wanting to hate herself for feeling that way, but unable to. Something in her understood. Something in her made her believe that it was okay he was gone. That it was good he was gone. That whoever had put Guy Edmond in his own personal hole deserved a parade. Something told her that, something screamed it in her head, painted it in her dreams, as if trying to convince her.

Forget the bad. Move on.

He was bad, and he most definitely was gone.

I wonder who did—

Forget the bad.

Was forgetting the same as accepting? she wondered.

Who? Who?

Move on.

Struggling with the urge to know, Mary stared hard out the window, lost in thought, rapt with the vision of CougarMountain blushing at her, admiring the view until…

…the ring of the phone jerked her gaze from the window, for the first time in— she looked at the clock on her picture wall —two hours. Two hours? She blinked the surprise from her eyes and glanced back outside at—

—a curtain of rain sheeting past the yellow glow of the streetlamp. Darkness had come.

Dark?

Mary’s fingers rubbed at her eyes as the phone rang a second time. Dark at three twenty-five? she questioned herself, and gave the clock another, closer, look. The big hand was on the five and the— No, wait; that was the little hand. Big hand on three, little hand on five. A quarter past five?

Four hours? she thought incredulously, the phone wailing on and finally garnering her attention.

“Hel—hello.”

“Sweetie?”

Mary rolled her head and let herself sink further into the chair. “Hi, Mom.”

“You sound strange,” Jean Louise Austin said. “Were you… Did I wake you?”

“I must have dozed off,” Mary answered. Must have, though she couldn’t remember the last few moments before drifting off to sleep, nor were there any recollections of dreaming, those piecemeal snippets that usually survived reentry into the waking world at least as much as the washed-out memories of her father’s death had. Maybe she was just tired, too tired to dream, or too tired to care about dreaming. She had not slept well since…it happened. That was something her mother would not want to hear, and therefore something she would not share. “How are you, mom?”

“Fine, as always. How are you, sweetie?”

“Good. I’m doing good. What are you up to?”

“I’m knitting a sweater. Have I made you a sweater yet?”

Mary looked at the blue and white Afghan draped on the back of the couch, and pictured the matching yellow scarf and bonnet tucked away in her ‘I’ll wear that someday’ drawer. Well, there was still room in that drawer. “Not yet.”

“I didn’t think I had. You like yellow, don’t you?”

“Love it.” A white lie…so what? The woman was old and born to dote. Add to that busy hands and Mary knew the good Lord had created a fleshy machine that ate yarn and spit porous winter wear.

“Tomorrow I’m starting on ski caps for Kyle and Gary.”

Case closed, Mary thought, smiling at the receiver and thanking God that her sister had chosen children over career. That meant the drawer might not spill over to another for two or three years. Mary’s nephews would be buried in yarn by then. “What color?”

“Blue for Kyle and red for Gary. Gary will want the blue one but Kyle is older and Julie says it’s his favorite color.”

“How is sis?”

“Worried about you,” Jean Louise Austin answered casually. “I told her not to be. So, tomorrow…are you prepared?”

“I have my lesson plans right…” Mary patted her lap, but it was empty. Her eyes darted about, searching, not having to travel far. On the spotless glass surface of the coffee table, hardly a kick distant from the chair, the pages she’d been working on were neatly stacked, her pen lying on top. “…here.”

A brief, pensive quiet rushed the distance from the green corner house north of Chicago. “Is something wrong, Mary?”

“No,” she answered quickly. “No. Of course not. I just… I shouldn’t have let myself doze off. Afternoon naps leave me feeling all dopey.”

“Do you know that I have never taken a nap?” Jean Louise Austin asked matter-of-factly. “As far back as my memory goes it’s been up at six and to bed at ten. Of course I had a few late nights when you and Julie were babies, but even then I didn’t nap.”

“That’s that farm blood in you, mom,” Mary said, listening as her mother snickered softly over the clicking of her knitting needles. “Rest to you is hanging the laundry out to dry.”

“Idle hands breed idle thoughts. So, tomorrow…”

“Tomorrow will be fine.”

“Will all of your students be returning?”

Mary nodded before speaking, feeling the polite, evasive bluntness that her mother had mastered over the years. Asking ‘Had Maureen been sick long?’ instead of ‘What killed your daughter, Mrs. Green?’ Or when Mrs. Patterson’s oldest boy Neal was arrested for torching the dumpster behind Zebo’s filling station, her mother had inquired if ‘Neal would be at the Fourth of July block party?’ The knitting machine shunned conflict like the plague. She’d even refused to sue the company whose truck had run the stop sign and killed her husband. A dozen lawyers had stuffed their cards in the door jamb.

“They’re all coming back,” Mary said as she glanced at the opening to the dark hallway. Poking from the shadows of her bedroom and sweeping back and forth on the floor was a finger of orangish fur, the extreme back end of her lazing cat. “All of them.”

“I can’t understand why the police would think any of your students would do what was done to that boy,” Jean Louise Austin commented, pausing just long enough that tact seemed possible when she added, “However awful he was. Julie mentioned that his family has a lawyer.”

Vintage mom, Mary thought…lovingly, though there was that wee feeling that the walls were a bit closer than before the call, the air thicker. Illinois was a good distance, she thought. A healthy distance. Little sis Julie lived in Georgia and summered in Maine. “You know how some people react.”

“Spiteful people,” Jean Louise Austin agreed, adding her own elaboration as her busy hands knitted on. Clickity click click. “So have the police found who did do it?”

“I think they’re still looking at my kids.”

“What do they think, that my daughter has a bunch of little murderers in her class?”

“They say they have evidence.”

“Phooey. I have the class picture you sent me on my wall. Those children are beautiful, sweet creatures.” Except the one whose narrow head stood just that much above his classmates, Jean Louise Austin thought but didn’t say. And he was beyond suspicion, unless he’d committed the oddest kind of suicide she’d ever heard of. “You know the children. Could any of them do this?”

Mary didn’t have to think hard for an answer, but she found herself reluctant to give it voice. Not because she lacked belief in it. In fact, the exact opposite was the reality, and that was what gave her pause. She knew that none of her kids could have killed Guy Edmond. Knew without a doubt.

Not believed…knew.

She knew that they had not killed Guy, despite the evidence, despite that little demon called logic telling her in one ear that it was possible. Whatever it was that was talking into the other ear talked much louder and offered something infinitely more palatable.

Besides, she simply knew, strongly enough that if this were some junior high challenge she would have sworn on her dead father’s grave.

That voracity shocked her.

“They didn’t do it,” Mary finally answered. Not even ‘couldn’t have’. Did not.

The satisfied nod traveled the miles from Middle America, silent and powerful just the same. The needles quieted. “You are a wonderful teacher, sweetie. I’m sure your students know that. Help them, sweetie. Help them all move on.”

Mary watched the cat’s tail twist and curl sluggishly, like a New Year’s party favor being tooted limply by a reveler long on drink and short on breath. After a second she looked back out to the rain and said, “I’m going to try.”

“Try nothing,” Jean Louise Austin countered. “You do. You are a doer. Am I right?”

“You’re right,” Mary replied obediently, and the needles began their clickity click click again, the weave continuing. She flinched as the night outside flashed white, and drew her free arm tight across her chest, bracing for the thunder. It came fast, shaking the windows, and died slowly, a fierce roar fleeing into the storm. “Is it raining where you are, mom?”

“Like God himself turned on the tap,” Jean Louise Austin answered, the moment then sinking into a wordless quiet ruled by the joust of the needles. A quiet near bottomless, one Mary recognized as one of her mother’s ‘blue’ moments. Jean Louise Austin ended it herself. “Losing a child must be dreadful. Even a child like that.” Click click, and then the silence was full for a few seconds, just the rain drumming on two roofs separated by thousands of miles. “I wonder if anyone sent flowers.”

Mary looked slowly over her shoulder, eyes sweeping past the hallway and fixing on the long, narrow buffet just this side of the kitchen. Baskets and vases bursting with vibrant, colorful floral life covered it, and the floor around it, and half the counter space in the kitchen, the perfume of the arrangements charging every room with the scent of a June garden in bloom.

People had sent flowers.

Mary shivered and looked away.

“I doubt it, mom.”

Three

The rain stopped about five, the clouds blown eastward toward the Cascades by an Alaskan cold front. Seattle was going to have its first icy night of the season.

Dooley laid two pieces of split pine on the fire and drew the wire mesh screen shut. He sat in his den in a chair that was close enough to feel the heat thrown from the growing blaze, but from which he could also look off through the bay window and watch the boats flit about in the harbor.

Every so often a small burst of embers would crackle sharply from one of the logs, and every so often Dooley would twist the cork from a bottle of chardonnay and add a bit to his glass. He sipped, watched the boats, and let himself be warmed by the fire.

And he waited.

Near nine in the evening the doorbell rang pleasantly, a soft chiming that drew Dooley’s eyes from the parade of fishing boats straggling in for the night. Feet shuffled on the old planks of his porch, and when he looked past the kitchen and through the darkened living room to the front door a foggy black smudge moved across the frosted pane set into the wood.

The bell rang a second time. Dooley set his wine aside, light from the fire glinting off the sweating glass in dazzling four-point sparks. He went to the living room and stood in the quiet night filling the space. The shape on the porch shifted back and forth in silhouette. In halting, visible shivers as the cold took its toll on whoever was blotting the yellowed light of the streetlamp.

But this shadowmaker was not an enigma. Dooley knew who it was. Knew who it would be even before the moment came.

The shadow stilled as Dooley approached and opened the door.

“Detective Ashe,” Joel Bauer said, his determination to speak some piece as apparent as the white, misty breath that rolled off each word. “I don’t know you at all, but from the little I’ve been told I get the sense that you’re a good cop. The kind who could never walk away from a case. The kind who’d never give up.” An icy gust moved across the porch, tossing the hem of his overcoat. He looked into the wind, short hair barely moving, then back to Dooley. “I’m a good cop, too, Detective Ashe.”

A heady proclamation, Dooley could have thought, but the expression Joel Bauer wore, equal parts steel and plea, might have been his some ten years earlier. Or ten months.

Certain crimes got under a good cop’s skin, and itched, and nagged, and refused to go away. Couldn’t be salved into remission, not with rationale, or promises, or even time. Certainly not with bad booze.

Or even good wine…

Dooley’s eyes dipped briefly, then traveled again to Joel Bauer. “You look cold.”

“I am.”

Dooley stepped aside, opening the door wide. After a moment’s hesitation, Joel came in from the cold.

*  *  *

Only one boat remained on the water, a tight cluster of white lights bobbing toward its mooring. Joel stood close to the window, a glass of wine held gut-high.

“Is this good?” Joel asked, lifting the glass and turning to face his host. “I’m usually a beer drinker. Bartlett doesn’t pay enough to drink much else.”

From his chair Dooley attempted a polite smile, but the expression was barely an approximation. “Wine Spectator rates it a ninety-seven.”

“So that’s good?”

Dooley nodded.

“You have a nice place here,” Joel said. His eyes played over the room and its precise, complimentary furnishings. “View. Everything.”

“My ex decorated it.”

Joel nodded and took the seat opposite Dooley. A low, cedar table separated them. “You were married.”

“I was.”

A slow, agreeable nod now, and Joel said, “Ten years now for me. We have two kids. Our son’s nine and we just had a girl three months ago.” He flashed a smile that died of loneliness a few seconds later. “Do you have any?”

“No,” Dooley answered. It felt like a lie, though it was most definitely not.

Joel noticed his host shift where he sat, eyes drifting off to the glowing hearth. “I was surprised when Lieutenant Evans told me you’d be at AnchorBay today. Were you—”

“You came for a reason?” Dooley focused a hard, sour gaze on Joel as he interrupted the inevitable question.

“I did. I think you know why.” Joel cupped his glass now in two hands as he leaned forward, forearms on knees. “That’s why you wouldn’t talk to me earlier. I told you where I was from.”

“I read the papers,” Dooley confirmed blandly.

“We had a thirteen year old male killed at school,” Joel began to explain, looking occasionally to the golden swirl of chardonnay. “Just a kid. His skull was crushed by a single blow from a baseball bat. Six of his classmates found him, and their prints are the only ones on the bat. One of the six had a broken arm,” he qualified with a raised brow. “The day before a few dozen kids used this bat. Not a print from anyone else on the handle. Not a one. The state lab says the handle was wiped clean before the kids’ prints got on there.”

“One-armed kids don’t play baseball anyway,” Dooley commented obviously.

“And sixth graders aren’t supposed to kill each other,” Joel reminded him.

Dooley lifted the bottle of chardonnay by its neck, swished the scant contents, and tipped the remains into his glass. He dipped a finger into the liquid and, content that the chill was still sufficient, drank slow on it for a moment. “Since when are sixth graders unsupervised?”

“It happened at recess, behind a classroom. There’s a fence there and an orchard beyond that. It’s not a witness-friendly environment. Their teacher was on her break in the teachers’ lounge, and the ones watching the kids at recess were on the opposite side of the building leading a game. Softball or kickball. Something like that. The first any adult knew about it was when one of the six kids came to the office for help.”

“And what do these kids say happened?”

“They say they found him lying there with the bat next to him. And they all deny touching it.”

Dooley let his hand and glass drape lazily over the arm of the chair. His expression edged toward softness. “Kids can lie.”

Joel nodded. “You ever try getting permission to hook an eleven year old to a polygraph?”

“Eleven, no,” Dooley answered.

Realization showed quickly in Joel’s expression, as a curious, morbid eyebrow rose. He started to say something, hesitated, then finally asked, “Jimmy Vincent’s almost thirteen now, isn’t he?”

Dooley nodded. “Almost.”

“Were you there to see him today?” Joel probed further, testing earlier waters.

Words strung together with a rising tone at the end. A question. How close it came to picking at a scab reluctant to heal. “Don’t be fascinated by him. He’s not remarkable. He killed three little boys. Anyone could kill three pre-schoolers.”

“But you got him to admit to it,” Joel said. “What did the headshrinkers try for? Six months? You broke through in one.”

“Six weeks,” Dooley corrected, noting the admiration in the young detective’s voice. Far too much, he thought. “Criminals eventually talk.”

“Eventually is a long time to a family wanting to know why their child had his head bashed in at school,” Joel observed, and the brief sideways glance Dooley steered his way told him that his words had hit home.

“How much cooperation are you getting?”

“The school district is behind us,” Joel answered. “They need to know who did what as much as we do. More than that, they can’t look like they’re hindering the investigation.”

Dooley nodded slightly. “How long did it take the family to get a lawyer?”

“Eight hours. Just in time for a weepy press conference on the late news. The papers should be filed tomorrow morning.” Joel ‘tinged’ his glass with a flick of his finger. “One hundred million dollars.”

“How about the parents of your six suspects?”

“Not as easy. No one’s little angel would do such a thing, and how dare I suggest they would. They’re cooperating, barely.”

Dooley stood and approached the window looking out to the harbor. He stood close, his breath leaving transient, foggy ovals on the glass. “And the kids just found him.”

Joel stared into the fire, hot yellow licks spiraling upward from crumbling knots of orange and black. “These six, I don’t know…”

“But you’re thinking something,” Dooley said. “So share.”

“Perfect little kids. Polite. Smart. Good kids. Five of them run the class. President, vice president, stuff like that.”

“But?”

“I spent hours with each one, but afterward I got the feeling that there was one little brain telling the mouths what to say.”

“Rehearsed?”

“I wouldn’t doubt that at all.”

“It sounds like a tight, happy group.”

“Tight as tight gets. I would have thought more than one would be scared enough to tell the truth. One little girl I was sure of. But they’re not. They’re together on this. As for happy…” Joel shook his head at the rug. “I don’t think they should have the choice to be happy. I think they should be dogged until one of them breaks.”

“You think one of them did it and the rest are covering?”

Joel contemplated the question for a moment. “They’re all guilty, if you ask me.”

A faint, knowing smile reflected back at Dooley in the glass. “How long have you been working murders?”

“Murders?” A muddled snicker slipped from the detective. “People don’t get murdered in Bartlett that often. I made detective three years ago and I’ve worked five. Four of those were drug related, and the last one was a lady who got tired of her husband beating the crap out of her and administered some twelve gauge justice to his sleeping head. I solved them all.”

The smile dissolved. “Felt good to put ‘em away, didn’t it?”

“All but the wife.”

“Ah, so you do know what you get when you mix black and white.”

“Pardon?”

Dooley turned away from the window and eased over to the fireplace, letting an elbow rest on the simple mantle, his wine glass dangling. It was nearing empty. “Nothing. An objective lesson. So, all your guilty little children…” A quick, improper toss finished off the remaining chardonnay. “Why kill their friend?”

“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t their friend.”

Animus alive and well in sixth grade. Murderous hate, too? Dooley remembered fistfights and playing dodge ball, all with the same kids and within hours of each other.

“To be totally honest, no one at that school much misses the kid,” Joel said. “Or anybody in town, for that matter.”

“I’m feeling drunk enough that that doesn’t even make me mad,” Dooley said. “Did this kid have a name?”

“Guy Edmond. The word from the school was that he was one Grade-A pain in the ass. Parents, too. We knew him pretty well at the station.”

“I guess Guy deserved it then,” Dooley cracked. “That makes you and me irrelevant.”

“I didn’t mean—”

Dooley shook his head. “I’m drunk enough to talk crap, too. Forget it.”

“I can’t break through,” Joel said after a momentary pause.

Dooley slid to a sit against the red brick surrounding the hearth and closed his eyes. The subtle blaze tickled hot on his right side.

“You have,” Joel added solemnly.

“It’s not like flipping some switch on,” Dooley said, reluctant eyes opening.

“I know. I’ve tried.”

“You’ve tried,” Dooley parroted.

The remark had enough of an edge that silence was all Joel could immediately offer in response. After a moment of reflection he asked, “Was that you, or was that the wine?”

“A little of both.” Dooley shook his head. “It’s a hell of a thing when your job requires you to prove that a kid can kill a kid.”

“If I had that problem you’d be drinking alone right now,” Joel said.

“Consider yourself blessed,” Dooley said. “It can mess with you.”

“It’s a murder.”

“It’s that, and it’s stuff you don’t even want to imagine.”

“It’s still a murder. Someone has to pay.”

Dooley nodded, the peace of the knowing in the gesture. “Someone always does.” He stared into his empty glass. “So, you came for advice from the man who put a twelve year old away for life.”

“I’d like more than advice.”

“I can’t give more,” Dooley said. “I know you want more, and I know you have to ask, so consider the question asked and consider the answer given. I’ll look at the file, I’ll answer questions. That’s what help I can give.”

“Can you solve a case without getting close?” Joel challenged.

“This isn’t my case to solve. Five and one, or six and oh; that’s up to you.”

“Please.”

Dooley stood and looked past his guest, out over the harbor to the black night spilling from the sky. “The roads are going to be tricky. Slick as snot on a doorknob.”

Joel put his glass of wine on the simple pedestal table next to the chair. “Just let me…”

Dooley walked off toward the living room. “You can crash on the couch if you want. There’s a throw blanket on the rocker. The lights are on a timer so don’t play with the switches.”

Joel stood and took a few steps after Dooley. “Detective Ashe—”

“Just Dooley. Got it?” He turned down a hallway in the dark and was gone. A door clicked shut a few seconds later.

Joel Bauer fell back into the overstuffed chair and let his head burrow sideways into the cushion. He watched the fire slowly die and drifted off to sleep thinking of a poor little bastard of a kid with his head caved in.

*  *  *

A defiant burst of embers erupted from the hearth’s coal-black center sometime after midnight, batting a sharp crack through the darkened den. Joel stirred at the sound, eyes opening to see an orange glow struggle to live again on the brittle surface of the spent pine. He straightened in the chair, rolled the stiffness from his neck, and blinked to adjust his eyes to the din.

When they had, he saw Dooley sitting across the cedar table from him, the hearth-side of his body cast a pale red—the red of a sunrise trickling over cold gray granite peaks.

“Dooley? What time is it?”

“Late. Early.” Bare above the waist, Dooley did not take his eyes from Joel. “What were you dreaming of?”

“Dreaming? Was I dreaming?”

“You were talking to someone named Julia.”

“Julia?” Joel wiped his eyes.

“Is that your wife, or your baby girl?”

Joel shook his head. “An old girlfriend. She dumped me the day before the prom.”

“Funny.” Dooley breathed slow, deep. “We dream of pain.”

“Is that what we do?”

“I was dreaming of checkers,” Dooley said.

“Nixon’s dog?”

“The game. Have you played it?”

“Everybody’s played checkers.”

“Smoke before fire. Do you remember that? Black moves first? That was the explanation for it. When I was a kid we’d accept that without even asking how there could be smoke without fire. Red should move first, by all rights.”

“It’s been a long time…”

“Kids really love the game.”

“You were dreaming of playing checkers,” Joel said.

“Yeah.”

Joel twisted in his chair and crossed his arms tight across his chest. With but a wanting show from the hearth, a crisp, prickly chill had invaded the den. “Playing checkers is painful?”

“It can be.” Dooley ran a hand over the stubble on one cheek. “These kids you suspect—are they likable?”

“Likable? I don’t know.”

“You said they were good kids. Do you like them? Could you?”

“Knowing what they did, in all honesty, no,” Joel answered, and growled the sleep from his throat. “But then I think the feeling is mutual, so it’s a wash.”

“You played bad cop with them, didn’t you?”

“I was direct,” Joel replied, twisting the query his way.

“You should have played checkers,” Dooley said.

“What is this thing with checkers?”

Sixty-four squares and little circles skating across them. Smoke and fire. “Maybe I’ll tell you when I find your killer.”

Joel edged forward in the chair. “You’re going to help?”

“I don’t want a shadow,” Dooley said.

Joel’s head bobbed in a rapid nod. “I’ll stay out of your way.”

“You’ll thank me when this is done. I may hate you.”

An agreeing grin started to show on Joel’s face, but withered before becoming when he realized that no jest was attached to Dooley’s statement.

“What made you change your mind?”

“Maybe I’m sick of sitting around this house. Maybe I’m a good cop, like you say.”

“You don’t sound very sure about those reasons,” Joel observed.

“Maybe you’re right,” Dooley said, drawing a smile from his guest. He looked away from Joel and into the hearth, at the pulsing glow crawling in worm-like tendrils over the fractured log. A wisp of smoke was trailing clearly up toward the flue. Smoke before fire. “Or maybe I thought this time things might turn out better.”

“Better? You put the last one away for good.”

Dooley’s head shook slightly at the fire. “Better for me.”

Four

The pear trees surrounding Windhaven Elementary on three sides were dormant now, grey and bitter in the breeze that drew painful moans from their once succulent limbs, and frantic scratching as dried branches jousted with each other.

Just before nine the morning wind rose, pouring a gust through the orchards. The unified cry of the trees bled into the ringing of bells from the campus.

Monday had come.

In groups, pairs, and ragged lines, children headed for class, books held close against the winter coats their parents had pulled from storage the night before. The usually boisterous procession was intensely subdued, in particular when passing ‘the spot’. Many found a reason to trek by room 18, and were hurried along by Mrs. Gray, the principal, who dutifully told them that there was nothing to see, though her eyes often stole glances at the blemish on the asphalt. Mr. Carter, the custodian, had done his best to remove it, blasting it with steam once the police had finished, then scrubbing it with detergent. But there it remained, a faded shadow of what had spilled from Guy Edmond. Mr. Carter had suggested another option, but Mrs. Gray had thought it too drastic. Now, watching the little heads twist toward the stain, she thought that his plan might be best after all.

Of every few children passing room 18, one would approach its door and join the line that had formed. One by one they arrived, Guy’s classmates, back together after four days apart, the ordinary weekend and the two days preceding that. ‘Recovery days’, the school had called them, a time when children and parents alike could go to the Bartlett Community Center and meet with counselors, free of charge, to express feelings and thoughts about the tragedy.

Seven families had showed up. The rest of the parents had work, and the majority of children simply stayed home and played video games or watched television. The unspoken consensus was that some tragedies were blessings in disguise.

When the line outside room 18 was seven long, Michael Prentiss arrived and took his place at the front. As sergeant at arms it was his job to hold the door open once the second bell sounded. He stood on the concrete stoop and slid his backpack off his back. His fielder’s glove was looped to one strap.

Dozens of eyes, all of his classmates’ and those of some simply passing, focused on the fold of stitched brown leather, and then on Michael. His own gaze stuttered between those cast at him, then found a familiar face nearing. A friendly face. A face that understood.

“Hey, Bryce.”

“Hey, Mike,” Bryce Hool said back, taking his place in line.

Michael eyed the door, then asked Bryce, “How many minutes?”

Before Bryce could answer, Tommy Barrow, always the first in line, had the sleeve of his coat pulled back and his watch in the clear. “Three minutes.”

“Thanks,” Michael said, without really meaning it. He reached for the doorknob and tested it with a quick twist. It clicked against internal stops.

“It’s locked?” Tommy asked. The extended weekend had done nothing to dull the class buttinski’s motor mouth ways. “I’ll bet she’s not coming today. I’ll bet we have a sub.”

“She’s here,” PJ said, arriving from the opposite direction of her classmates. The north gate, very near the teachers’ lot, was open only in the morning, an accommodation of those few students who lived in the apartments on the far side of Galloway’s orchard. “I saw her car.”

“That’s right,” Tommy said. “You come in the slum gate.”

Walter Curtis, passing on his way to room 20, stopped and snickered. “Hey, slummer girl is back.”

Paula Jean Allenton feared the fists of no one at Windhaven. Nonetheless, she found it impossible to parry the verbal jabs Walter was so deft at dishing out. Quick pokes where it hurt the most. She wanted, really wanted, to introduce Walter Curtis’s pompous jaw to a knuckle sandwich. But discretion was the better part of valor, as she had learned in class, and though valor might not be the proper way to characterize a pop in the face, resisting the urge to do so was definitely an exercise in discretion.

“Shut up, Wally,” Michael said. From the corner of his eye he saw Joey and Jeff nearing, and saw PJ look to the ground, her mouth tensing.

“What are you gonna do?” Walter challenged Michael. “Bash my head in, too?”

Joey and Jeff, picking up enough of the exchange, came up close behind Walter.

“What’s your coat made of?” Walter asked PJ’s downcast face. “Swiss cheese?”

“Go to class, Wally,” Joey said.

Walter turned to face the new arrivals. “You guys are going to jail. You know that.”

“Go to class,” Joey repeated, closing the distance to Walter.

More of the class arrived, and, over the heads of the students still moving past room 18, Mrs. Gray looked toward the minor commotion and asked, “Is there a problem, young citizens?”

Walter backed away, smirking, and joined the flow toward his classroom.

“No, Mrs. Gray,” Jeff said. “Everything’s fine.”

The principal nodded and tapped her watch. “Better line up.”

PJ moved to the end of the line, Joey and Jeff right behind.

“Don’t let him bug you,” Joey told PJ.

She cinched the front of her coat, trying to cover the wear marks Walter had reveled in. “He doesn’t.”

“Are you okay?” Bryce asked past several of his classmates.

“I’m fine,” PJ insisted. Her eyes did not come up.

“What did they do to you?” a voice whispered to Bryce. He turned to see Maria Cortez, one space ahead in line, an eleven year old gossip sponge with eager brown eyes and a pair of ears any game animal would envy.

“Who?”

“The police. They took you all to the police station, didn’t they? What did they do to you there? Did they put you in a jail cell with bars? My uncle says they smell like pee. Do they?”

Maria’s warm breath smelled of oatmeal, and with each question it fumed invisible at Bryce, making his nose crinkle.

“What happened in there?” Maria pleaded quietly.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Bryce answered.

“Come on…”

“No.”

Several feet back in line, Joey stepped out of place and looked up and down the way behind the bungalows. The number of students had dwindled, but Mrs. Gray remained. “Joey. Back in line. The bell’s about to ring.”

Joey returned to his place and said to Jeff, “I wonder where Elena is.”

A shrug, then Jeff tapped PJ on the shoulder. “Do you know where Elena is?”

“I haven’t seen her since…” PJ glanced at the spot.

Turning back to Joey, Jeff asked, “Do you think she—”

The second bell, echoing sharp and long, amputated Jeff’s inquiry. Most eyes converged on the door, Michael’s on the handle. The ringing waned, a fuzzy quiet filling the void, the click of the latch punctuating the moment.

The door swung slowly out, Miss Austin emerging, one arm stretching into the sleeve of a casual peach cardigan. She gave her class a quick once-over from the stoop and nodded to Mrs. Gray, adding a smile for good measure.

“Michael, good morning.”

“Good morning,” Michael replied, as he had on dozens of previous mornings. Exactly. Miss Austin stepped back inside, Michael took her place holding the door, and the class filed in in an orderly fashion. No menacing shoves or feet stuck out to trip. No annoying flats given from behind, no flicks of one’s ear. Just one student following another. No muss, no fuss. Exactly as it had been before room 18 had been invaded by Guy Edmond.

Just like it used to be… That’s what Joey had said, Michael recalled. It was like it used to be, but somehow it felt, well, not ‘wrong’ that things should be like they were; it felt…‘not right’.

Maybe things only looked like they used to be, Michael worried. What was it Miss Austin said sometimes? ‘Appearances can be deceiving.’

And to deceive was kind of like lying, Michael knew. That thought flitted about his head like a pesky gnat as he followed the end of the line in.

*  *  *

Once the coats were hung and places taken, Mary stood before the class and noted two empty seats. One her eyes passed over with haste. The other was troubling in a very different way, a hole where one had never been.

“Has anyone seen Elena Markworth?”

Twenty four heads shook in unison.

“Very well,” Mary said, her tone burdened. “How is everyone?”

“Fine, Miss Austin,” the room chorused.

Mary smiled. She knew that there was likely a fair amount of interest in her well being after the T.V. news showed her being wheeled into Mercy Hospital’s emergency room Wednesday last. “I’m doing fine now. The doctors say I’m all right. It was just a fainting spell.”

“We’re glad you’re okay,” Jeff said.

“Thank you, Jeff,” Mary said in acknowledgment of the class secretary’s kind words. He smiled at her, blue eyes aglow against his perpetually tan face. She locked briefly on those eyes, steady this time. No flickering gesture. Just gemstone ovals beaming. “How’s your lefty printing coming along?” She took the roll book from its place on her desk and held it out toward him.

“It’s getting better.” He took the spiral bound book with its official-looking seal and moved to a small desk near hers.

“Please mark Elena absent.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mary stepped away from her desk, toward a chair against the bulletin board wall. The school district might have slated Thursday and Friday of the week past for recovery, but this was the real day for healing. Healing the way one tended a twisted ankle. Walking it off. Moving on.

“Well, it is Monday, so, officers, if you would…”

Michael’s stomach churned with the recurrent expectation that things should not be the same. Yes, this was a Monday, and, yes, class meetings were always held at the beginning of class each Monday, but…

Michael looked to Joey, then got up from his seat and took his place near the American flag at the front of the room. Hesitation stalled Joey and PJ for a few seconds, but they, too, rose and found their familiar positions behind Miss Austin’s desk. Bryce was the last to join them at the front, going to the filing cabinet nestled into the corner near the piano and removing a ledger from the bottom drawer. He sat at the small table with Jeff and folded his hands over the large, thin book.

From Miss Austin’s top drawer Joey removed a pitted wooden gavel. He tapped it twice on the desk, noticing as he did that his classmates seemed oddly fascinated by the motion. But when Judy Griggs in the first row jumped at the minor crack of wood meeting wood, he realized that more than fascination was at play. “Sergeant at Arms…”

“Please stand and face the flag,” Michael said, and waited through screeching chair legs until the class was ready. “Right hand over your heart. Ready. Begin…”

*  *  *

The formalities done, Joey finished several minor announcements before turning the meeting over to PJ with a very proper, “Madam Vice President.”

“We have…” PJ paused, drew in a deep breath, and told herself to put thoughts of Walter Curtis away. Away with the rest of the crud that didn’t really matter. Didn’t matter at all. Stuff that one day would fizzle away of its own accord. ‘Time heals all,’ Miss Austin had told her. Everyone had time. It and breath were the only truly free commodities common to all God’s creatures.

“PJ?” Mary said.

PJ cast Walter Curtis in with the crud, in with memories of Guy, and snapped out of her temporary daze. “Yes, Miss Austin?”

Mary said nothing. Her reassuring countenance and a tip of her head urged PJ on better than any words could.

“We have a little more than three weeks until the…until the conference at Camp One Wing,” PJ began. “The class council still needs more ideas from you so that we can send them to the conference committee. They’re going to put them in an agenda to be shared with other schools at camp.”

A hand poked up from the third row.

“Tommy?” Joey said, recognizing the questioner.

“Have we raised enough money yet?” Tommy Barrow asked.

“Bryce?”

With the prompting from Joey, Bryce opened the ledger and found his place on the third page. His glasses slid as he bent to read the figures. “We need two hundred and eighty more dollars.”

Satisfied smiles ricocheted among the class.

“We can raise that in…” Joey looked to PJ. “When do we have to have our registration money in?”

“Three weeks from today.”

“We can do that,” Jeff said as he scribbled the minutes with his off hand. “We’ve got the refreshment stand at the autumn pageant this year.”

Two seats behind Tommy Barrow, Judy Devaux raised her hand.

“Judy?” PJ recognized the questioner.

“Is room sixteen going?”

“All the sixth grade classes in the district are going,” PJ answered. “I think there’ll be three from our school, two classes from Greenwood, and two from Bravehill.” She looked to Miss Austin for confirmation and received a satisfied nod.

“That’s a lot of kids,” Judy commented.

“Camp One Wing’s big,” Joey told her. Having worn himself blissfully ragged there for a good part of the last three summers, he felt qualified to throw his two cents in. “It’s really cool. You’ll like it.”

“All right,” PJ went on, “so we need your ideas, remember. Write them down, anything you think should be discussed between the schools, and drop it in the suggestion box.”

Chris Bickle already had something noted, and went quickly to the large, sticker-covered box near the coat closet and pushed it through the slot in the top. A mildly sour look from Miss Austin was not lost on him. “Sorry.”

“We wait until all business is finished, Christopher,” Mary suggested.

“Sorry,” Chris repeated, and took his seat.

Joey glanced at the agenda on their teacher’s desk. “Do you have anything else, Madam Vice President?”

“No, Mr. President. That’s it.”

The last item on the agenda drew a second, confirming look from Joey. “Miss Austin. You have a…” Sound it out. D-I-S-C- Silent C. “…discipline item to talk about?”

Mary stood, but did not move from her position on the sideline. “Yes. Thank you, Mr. President and Madam Vice President. This morning when I arrived I had a conversation with Mr. Carter.” The slightest motion from the room’s center caught her eye. “He reported to me that a student in this class was caught on campus yesterday, outside this room.” She knew it to be unnecessary to go into what the motivation for such a transgression was. It was further not requisite to mention any name. Others were now sneaking glances at Greg Cosentino, who had identified himself quite clearly by hanging his head. “The accused will meet with the council after school to discuss this incident and any punishment. Mr. President, Madam Vice President…”

Joey nodded and took the gavel in hand. PJ took the agenda and passed it to Jeff, who was making some final notations in the minutes. Bryce closed the ledger and pushed his glasses up. Michael stood at ease, red and white stripes draped behind.

“This week’s meeting is closed,” Joey said, and gave the gavel one sharp tap on the desk. This time no one jumped.

*  *  *

A few blocks from the cemetery where their youngest was forever planted in the earth, most of the Edmond family had gathered in their comfortable living room to talk to the detective from the big city.

“There was no reason for this,” Nate Edmond said, swallowing hard after the pronouncement. He sat on a small couch, his wife misty-eyed at his side, two of his three remaining children standing behind. One thick hand lay easily on his wife’s leg, the other kneaded pensively at his own knee and seemed eager to form a fist. His thin black hair, bodiless, trickled over his scalp like fine veins of coal. “Our Guy was a good boy.”

Mr. Edmond looked away, fighting for composure, his family consoling him with hugs. Dooley politely averted his eyes, taking a framed photo from the end table near his seat. A family smiled at him from the frozen moment. Now they were six minus one. “Guy was your youngest?”

Catherine Edmond answered for her husband with a nod. After a few seconds Nate Edmond sniffled into a handkerchief and said, “Our little boy.”

Dooley garnered the other Edmond childrens’ attention when their heads came up. “Who is the oldest?”

“Chuck,” Candy Edmond answered. “Then me, then Buddy.”

“You’re Buddy?”

“I was just a year older,” Buddy Edmond managed to say, then emotion overwhelmed him and he collapsed over the back of the sofa and into his mother’s arms.

“Our children are close in age so this is…hard for them,” Mr. Edmond explained. “Buddy is fourteen, Candy fifteen, and Chuck is seventeen.”

“That is close,” Dooley agreed sympathetically.

“Chuck is a senior,” Mr. Edmond said proudly, as if telling Dooley that his oldest was an engineer, or a brain surgeon. “He graduates next semester. He has a test today, or a paper due, or something. I’m not sure. He had to go to school.” Tears welled without restraint. “He loved his little brother.”

“We all loved him,” Candy added.

“I’m sorry if this is difficult…”

Mrs. Edmond shook her head slowly, a sad, stoic gesture. “Losing a purse is difficult, Detective Ashe. Not losing a son.”

“No words work well at a time like this,” Dooley observed.

“That’s right,” Buddy agreed sharply, angrily, his fit of sorrow not gone, but pierced by a self more hate than anguish. “Words don’t do nothing. Nothing!”

“Buddy…” Mrs. Edmond begged, reaching for her son as he stepped around the couch toward Dooley.

“So what are you gonna do? Talk?” Buddy’s young face cocked crookedly at the detective, his eyes slitting. Dooley thought the teen frighteningly familiar with this side of him. “You’re here talking, just like all the others. Talk! TALK! TALK!

“Buddy!” Mr. Edmond yelled.

A flash of venom, part frost, part fire, erupted upon Buddy’s face. He looked back to his father, then again to Dooley, then struck out, at Dooley by coincidence, connecting with the adjacent lamp by design. Its shade became a projectile, wobbling across the room and into the hall. The lamp itself tipped like a felled tree and was noisily reduced to ceramic trash.

Silence followed the bedlam, a silence that ended as Buddy spun and rushed from the living room, hands over his face, the lampshade getting a final kick as he disappeared down the hall.

Mr. Edmond nodded bitterly. “This is what’s happened to my family.”

Dooley could have told the man that he’d seen the same, even worse during his career. Words again. How easily they could hurt.

Yet some things that hurt had to be done, or said. “I’m just going to ask you this straight out. Did Guy have any trouble with Buddy, or Chuck, or…”

“Or me?” Candy completed the question, sneering.

“Our children?” Mrs. Edmond asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

Mr. Edmond aimed a thick, trembling finger at Dooley. “A family is a family. They protect each other. They don’t…” The hand waved back and forth. “No. They had no problems. None.”

“He had trouble at school,” Dooley said, moving on to an area he was sure would draw more steam from the head of the Edmond clan.

“He was a good boy,” Mrs. Edmond said, almost a plea to Dooley, as if she wanted him to believe it.

“Him? No.” Mr. Edmond bared his teeth, hard breaths whistling through them. “They picked on him.”

“Who is ‘they’?”

“They. Them. All of them. All the little bastards in that class. They picked on him, and then they’d blame him. Get him in trouble for nothing.”

“Why would they do that?”

Mr. Edmond tossed up his hands. “How the hell would I know? Pick a reason. I mean, why the hell did they kill him? Is there any reason for that?”

“Not in my mind,” Dooley said. “So you believe the kids in his class murdered him.”

“Everyone knows they did. But they’re not kids,” Mr. Edmond added, almost spitting with disdain. “Kids don’t do what they did to my son. They’re monsters.”

Dooley put the photograph he’d been holding back in its place. Beyond it, through the Edmond’s front window, CougarMountain was dusted in white, not yet in its full cloak of snow. “Did Guy mention anyone by name?”

“The police asked us all these questions,” Mrs. Edmond said tiredly. She stared at her shoes for a moment then stood, straightening her dress at the waist. “And it doesn’t matter which one of them did it. It was her fault.”

Her fault? “You mean his teacher,” Dooley presumed. “How was it her fault?”

Mrs. Edmond shook her head. “Buddy was right.” She looked to her husband. “I’m going to see if he’s all right.”

The quietly grieving mother left the room. Candy took her place on the couch and held her father’s hand.

“That woman, she could have prevented it.” A snarl threatened on Nate Edmond’s lips. “She could have protected him, but instead she always took their side.”

“Everyone knew that the whole class hated Guy,” Candy said. “My friend’s little brother goes to Windhaven and she said that he told her all about it. How no one liked Guy.”

So little Guy was an angel. And everybody else? It was quite clear to Dooley that CougarMountain wasn’t the only place where snow had left its mark. There was plenty in this house. Plenty to go around. “Everyone is lying, then, Mr. Edmond?”

“I’ll tell you this much: I believe my children. If you don’t, then…”

“I’d like to talk to Chuck sometime.”

“He doesn’t like talk,” Mr. Edmond said. “More than Buddy, even. They prefer action. Like their father.”

“Still, I need to.”

“I’ll tell him.”

Dooley nodded.

“You’ve got to make the ones that did it pay,” Candy said. A heartfelt wish from a sister. A wish not for justice, however. A wish for vengeance.

“Whoever did it will,” Dooley said.

“You make sure of that, Detective Ashe,” Mr. Edmond said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

The man of action was speaking, but what was he saying? “Mr. Edmond, please don’t do anything that will make things worse.”

“I’m going to do just that—for a few people.” A smile burned on Nate Edmond’s face for the first time in days. “That teacher. The school. The whole bunch of them. I’m going to sue them into the ground.”

Dooley left the Edmond home without another word. Here he had met those to whom Guy Edmond meant something, those to whom all bad things thought or uttered about him were fabrications, vindictive conspiracies come to life.

He stopped at the curb and turned back to the house. The home of a good little boy, and his sweet little family, and their perfect little existence.

If he had wanted lies, Dooley would have started with the suspects.

He slid into his Blazer and picked at the seam on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. This was where the good little boy had lived. It was a part of his story.

Part…

Five

“Pages ninety-six and one-oh-five are extra credit homework,” Mary said above the clamor of the 3 o’clock bell. The day that mattered was ending. Standing at her desk she breathed and reminded the class, “Three points each.”

Desk lids closed without slamming and sneaker soles squeaked on the floor as the room emptied. Greg Cosentino remained, as did those who would judge his alleged transgression.

Joey came to the desk as Miss Austin was gathering her things and asked, “Is Mr. Carter cleaning the floor today?”

Mary’s eyes came up from the stack of history tests to be graded that night. It was Monday. The floors were always cleaned on Monday. Joey knew that. They all knew that.

“Yes. You don’t need to lock the door when you finish.” He lingered after her answer, seeming to want something more, she thought. “Is that all you wanted to know?”

Joey nodded, lips tightening to a compressed smile, as if he’d tasted something pleasingly sour.

Mary fit her things into a leather bag and slung that on one shoulder. Michael and Bryce had already moved the review table into place near the flag and were seated at its ends. Three chairs on one side waited for Joey, PJ, and Jeff. One chair faced those, lonely as the accused neared.

“All right,” Mary said warmly. “I’ll be in the teacher’s lounge for a while if you need anything.”

“Have a good night, Miss Austin,” Jeff said cheerfully.

Mary turned and left them. The door hissed shut behind her.

Joey took his place in the middle seat, PJ to his right, Jeff to his left. “Greg. Come on up.”

It seemed that the eleven year old was walking his last steps, looking fearfully at the wood and steel chair as if there were electrodes attached to it, and wires snaking to a lever hidden somewhere that would be thrown once he was in place. This was the end. His end, he was sure. Never in trouble before. A Straight ‘A’ student since last year. And now this.

Finished by curiosity, just like the cat.

Greg Cosentino lowered himself into the hard institutional chair and lifted his head. “I’m sorry.”

“Huh?” Joey said.

“I wanted to see it up close,” Greg explained sheepishly. “Lance said he saw a puddle of blood that froze and—”

Joey held up a hand. “You’re admitting it then?”

A nod, then the face dipped away.

“All right.” Joey’s shoulders bolted as he looked to PJ, and his eyes begged the question, What’s his problem?

“Greg,” PJ said. “This isn’t a safety violation. Your parents won’t hear about it.”

The frightened face slowly tilted upward.

“Unless you tell them,” PJ added.

“This isn’t a big deal,” Joey said. “You shouldn’t have hopped the fence on a weekend, but it’s not like you were running in the main building or something like that.”

In that instance his parents would definitely know. Running where one shouldn’t was a definite safety issue, and the quickest way to a parent conference was to break a safety rule.

“So, what happens then?” Greg asked, more wonder than fear sculpting his expression now.

“Well, since you admit it, that kind of shortens this whole thing,” Joey said. “After you go we’ll come up with a punishment. Maybe picking up trash after school, or something else.”

“That’s it?” Greg pressed, perplexed.

Jeff smirked, knowing that he wasn’t the coolest of the cool, but he was certainly no dork like this guy. “Relax. Haven’t you ever been in trouble before?”

“Not at school,” he answered. The way Jeff had asked the question Greg was embarrassed by his answer.

“Okay,” Joey said. “We’ll tell you tomorrow what your punishment is. Okay? You can go.”

The speed with which the non-catastrophe had run its course weighed on Greg, the surprise stunting his rise from the chair, and the trip back to his desk for his backpack, and the short walk to the door. There he stopped. “So I’m not in real trouble?”

“Just don’t do it again,” Joey said. Greg beamed and left the room, the door whispering slowly shut. “Lock it, Mike.”

“It’s Monday,” Michael reminded the class president. “Mr. Carter will be by to mop.”

“I know. We can’t have him walking in. We need to talk.”

Michael now understood. He locked the door, checked it twice, and took the seat of the accused at the table of the suspected.

“Jesus, we pulled it off,” Jeff said with muted glee.

“You shouldn’t be that happy, Jeff,” PJ told him.

“She’s right,” Joey seconded.

“It’s better than getting caught,” Jeff responded.

“What about Elena?” Bryce asked, and silence was the foremost response.

“She didn’t look good after it happened,” Michael commented. “She looked like she was going to lose it.”

“Would you look good?” PJ challenged him harshly.

Joey hushed his vice president with a look.

“I’m sorry,” PJ said, first to the table top, then directly to Michael. “Sorry.”

“No biggie,” Michael assured her.

“Okay, let’s not think about Elena right now,” Joey instructed. “How did everything go with you guys?”

“Fine,” Jeff answered cockily, leaning his chair back on two legs. It was a safety violation, and the looks of his friends reminded him of that quite clearly. Planting all four legs on the floor again he added, “My folks bought it.”

“What about the police?” Bryce asked. “They talked to me for like ten hours.”

“Try four hours, Hool.” Jeff leaned forward on the table, his cast clunking on the wood. “Did you tell them anything?”

“No,” Bryce answered with force.

“Then don’t worry,” Jeff suggested.

“Did anyone’s parents give them trouble?” Joey asked the group. A round of head shakes was a welcome response.

“My dad said it was no great loss,” Michael offered.

“That’s what one of the cops said to me,” PJ said. “Then he said why not just tell him what really happened.”

“He was trying to trick you,” Bryce said.

“Duh!” PJ shot back.

“What’s with you?” Joey asked her.

PJ gave Bryce a sharp look, then shook her head. It hadn’t been a good day. Damn you, Walter Curtis. “Nothing.”

“My mom got ticked off at the cops,” Joey said. “She said that if they didn’t let me go she would call my dad and have him come up from Miami to defend me. They released me right then.”

“What did they do to you, Mike?” Bryce inquired.

“Nothing. Just asked a lot of questions. The same ones over and over. You’ve just got to remember to give the same answers.”

Joey nodded. “If you mess up they can use that against you later. It’s called prior inconsistent statements.”

“Did your dad teach you that?” Bryce asked. Everyone knew that Joey’s dad was a big lawyer down in Florida, with a new wife and a boat he raced on weekends.

“Nah. OJ.”

Jeff did a one-handed drum roll on the table. “See, it’s all okay. We did it. Today was good. Didn’t you think so?”

“It was…yeah, okay,” Michael agreed.

Joey nodded cautiously. “So we’re okay. Miss Austin is okay. Everyone in class is okay.”

“Right,” PJ said, understanding Joey’s unspoken concern. “Except we don’t know about Elena.”

“If she’d talked we’d be in jail right now,” Jeff said.

Bryce looked to PJ. “You said she wouldn’t talk.”

“I don’t think she will,” PJ said. Her confidence had been tempered by Elena’s absence.

“So what do we do?” Bryce asked Joey.

“We do this. We do what we’d normally do. Just like we said. Act normal and don’t talk about it. Don’t even think about it.”

Bryce nodded. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, keeping it all inside, but Joey did make sense. He hadn’t been wrong so far. “And Elena?”

Joey held up one hand. His fingers were crossed.

 

______________________

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