Why is it when the plot gets easy on the eyes, something’s gotta come along and twist it?
I convinced Betty Ann to cut second period so we could zip over to Hammet and confront Sincere Thatcher. We hustled to the back parking lot where we’d locked our bikes today. Tumbleweeds roamed over the low retaining wall that kept the cars in and the desert sand at bay. We unlocked our bikes when a shadow fell over me. Cloris, angry Chandler decath player and expert harumpher stood before me like a bull ready to be released in Pamplona. Hands on both skinny hips she snarled, “Cage.”
Her voice made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I chucked the lock chain over my shoulder and glared at her. “Hello Cloris.”
“I have to talk to you.”
“Alone,” she said.
“We are alone,” I said.
“Without her,” Cloris demanded, jerking her chin at Betty Ann.
“What I have to say is private.”
“This is as private as it gets.”
“Forget it,” she stomped.
“Sure,” I said and threw my leg over seat. I stood on the pedals and started out of the parking lot.
I clamped the brakes, the pads screeching in metallic protest. I needed to get ’em fixed. I should put that on my to-do list.
Cloris tossed her head, managing to look both a victim and Medusa. “Fine! Have it your way. Always your way.” She sighed heavily. It was a good sigh and mighta made me feel bad if I cared how she felt. I put down the kickstand and stood next to my bike. Betty Ann kept straddling her bike, one foot on a pedal, ready to bolt.
Cloris invaded my face. “I want you to stop whatever it is that you’re doing.”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“Poking around in everybody’s business. Screwing around with this whole Reno thing.”
“You want me to stop?”
“Yes,” she said as if I were brain damaged.
“Because, you’re making it into a mess.”
“Seems like it’s already a mess for Reno.”
“For other people. Innocent people.”
“You don’t think Reno’s innocent?” I asked.
“I don’t care!” she barked. The words hung in the clear desert air.
I said nothing. Just stared at her.
Cloris shifted from one foot to the other. She fiddled with her nails, pulling at the cuticles. “I want you to stop,” she peeped.
“I could pay you,” she said.
“Not enough,” I answered.
“I could make you.”
“With a well armed militia,” Betty Ann piped in cheerily. “Got one of those?”
“What will it take?” She said.
“The truth,” I said.
Cloris studied me, weighing her options. “I knew you’d wreck everything. It’s always about you. You cheated and got kicked off the team. Didn’t care what happened to the rest of us. We had to scramble and pull double duty to break in Reno when you bailed on us.”
“I didn’t bail.”
“Like that matters to me. Tell my mom that when I couldn’t babysit my little sister cause I hadda practice extra hours. How is that fair?”
“It’s not Cloris,” I said and slapped a foot on my pedals.
“I know what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to pin this on Sincere Thatcher. I know you went to see him yesterday,” Cloris said.
“I know you think it’s him.”
“You know this how?”
“Fred Backwards told me.”
“He told you?”
“For twenty bucks.”
I wanted to be pissed at Backwards, but I couldn’t. I knew who he was when I went to him. He’s like the internet. His info is available to all for the right amount.
“Sincere didn’t do it,” Cloris said defiantly.
Whoa. A niggling feeling, teased at my guts. How did she know Sincere? And why would she care that I pinned it on him. Confusion, curiosity and fascination played twister with my brain. I laid out the crime as I saw it to see how she’d react. “Here’s how it looks from my side. Sincere works in his school’s office. He could have easily gotten the password and stolen the answers.”
“Why—“ Cloris began.
I cut her off, “Either to use them against us in the tourney, OR frame Reno and get him kicked off the team. Either way Sincere and the Hammet team come out ahead.”
I waited for her to respond. She dug at her nails. Stared at the asphalt.
Barely a peep, “I know it wasn’t him.”
“I just do.”
“Not good enough,” I told her and booted up the kickstand.
Cloris pushed my bike over. It clattered on the dusty blacktop. “I can prove it,” she said.
She waited. Betty Ann waited. I waited.
While I waited I wondered. Why was clearing Sincere important to her? When I’d played with the team, they hadn’t known each other. Had they?
But admitting I didn’t know what was going on, or worse, that I wasn’t sure, would give Cloris the upper hand. She’d back out of whatever info she was hesitating to give me. I waited some more.
“Fine,” Cloris moaned, “He was with me, at my house.”
“What was he doing at your house?” Betty Ann asked.
“What do you think?” Cloris said.
Betty Ann’s eyes went wide for a moment. “Oh Cloris, you dawg.”
“I am not a dog.”
“Jury’s still out,” Betty Ann said.
“Sincere Thatcher is your boyfriend?”
Betty Ann made a guttural sound and clamped her hand over her mouth.
“What?” I said to her.
“Nothing. Just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Cloris hissed and pulled out her cellphone, shoving it in my face. She had it set to camera mode; on it was picture of Cloris and Sincere, kissing; Cloris had her arm extended to take their own photo. “At the time the answers were stolen, Sincere was with me,” she said. “You can see the T.V. in the background. Shouldn’t take much for a super genius great mondo brilliant detective like you to run down that episode and see what day and time.”
My simple-as-pie case just lost the pie - and the simple.
I showed Betty Ann the picture. She made another wretch and twirled a finger, indicating I should go on.
“Why didn’t he tell me this?” I asked Cloris.
“We’re on opposing Pentathalon teams. We’re not allowed to fraternize.”
“Fraternize?” Betty Ann asked. “Really, that’s what you’re calling it? Not hide the—“
“Okay,” I cut her off. “No fraternizing.”
“Right,” said Cloris, glaring icicles at Betty Ann. “People would think we were helping each other. The rules say we’d be banned from Saturday’s tourney.”
“And you both want to compete on Saturday.”
“Yes,” Cloris said as if I were terminally stupid. “Saturday’s everything. We both have to be our best.”
“But only one of you can win a scholarship,” I pointed out astutely in case there was a lack of astuteness.
“Duh,” said Cloris. “But we both just do our best. That’s what’s important. Do your best, play by the rules and let life unfold.”
Seemed like a pretty good philosophy. There was just one problem. “But you two are seeing each other. You’re not playing by the rules. You cheated.”
“Only a little one,” Cloris whined.
So Cloris hated me for cheating, yet she was guilty of it too. Only in her mind the crime was small. It didn’t count. Was there a guidebook somewhere that determined what was fair and what wasn’t? Or was it like beauty? All in the eye of the beholder.
“Who says which rules are big?” Betty Ann voiced what I was thinking.
Cloris made some kind of ughck, ughck, ughck, sound in the back of her throat. “It’s only for this one tourney. No one can know we were a couple,” she said.
“How do I know you’re not in this together? Both of you get the answers and both look like geniuses for the college scouts?
“Fine, you know what,” Cloris said. “Report me. Kick me off the team. Whatever. Just don’t drag Sincere into this.”
That sealed it. I could feel her affection for Sincere. He wouldn’t rat her out yesterday and she was willing to take a bullet for him today.
If I’d been accused of cheating to protect someone else would I have come down on the right side of wrong? At least in her book?
Truth is I didn’t care about her book. Her view of me didn’t matter. Mine did.
“Go,” I said to Cloris.
“You won’t tell anybody?”
“What, that you and Sincere are fraternizing? Reno’s been expelled and that’s all you can think about?”
“I shoulda known you wouldn’t do the right thing.”
Good thing I’m not a Manga character or there’d be steam shooting outta my ears. “I will do the right thing, believe it,” I said through gritted teeth. “Turns out that Sincere did do this, then I’ll tell everybody everything. I’ll come down on both of you like a goddamn avalanche.”
I heard Betty Ann gasp. I don’t really swear much.
Cloris turned red in front of my eyes. “You really are a turd.” She turned and marched away on unsteady legs.
“Turd?” Betty Ann said.
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Yeah, but turd? What grade is this?”
“So Sincere didn’t do it?”
“Naw, he still could’ve.”
“But the picture—“
“Don’t mean much,” I explained. “She coulda tivo’d the show and played it back later to set up an alibi. Or there’s photoshop. Doesn’t take a genius to funk up a picture.”
“She sure loves him,” Betty Ann said.
“I guess,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“You don’t believe in love?”
“I think it’s kinda over-dramatic in middle school. We’re still just kids,”
Betty Ann made a loud hissing sound and turned sharply away.
“What?” I said. “You really believe in that fabled love where the earth stops spinning, the angels sing and the heavens weep?”
“Just because we’re young doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t real.”
“CAGE!” A voice boomed. I whipped around to see Principal Warner standing there, arms folded across his massive chest and dragon flame practically shooting out of his eyes. “In my office. NOW!”