I paced under the bleachers, trying to think, but all I could hear was the ticking of the clock like a hammer between my ears. How could I face my parents if I got expelled? They wouldn’t lock me in the attic, or beat me with a willow-switch or anything, but I’d rather take either of those over their disappointment.
Why is it every time I try to do the right thing I just screw things up? Is life so unfair there’s no point in fighting for justice?
But it was too late to stop. I couldn’t just walk away now or the PTA would throw me under the bus and back up a few times. I had no escape now. The only way out was through.
“We don’t have a clue, do we,” Betty Ann said as if reading my mind.
“We have too many. It coulda been anybody on the Chandler team. Or the Hammet team. Or Sylvia. Or somebody else we haven’t thought of yet. I don’t know what to think.”
I looked over at her, sitting on that plastic milk crate. Weeds clung to life under our feet and used chewed gum clung to the metal slats over our head. Being an ace detective sure was glamorous. I felt a weight tugging at my soul for Betty Ann. I had dragged her into this. Her otherwise flawless academic record, scratched because of me. “I’m sorry,” I said as if that would erase it all.
Betty Ann looked at me but said nothing.
“About the detention thing.”
She nodded. “I know. Not your fault,” she said kindly.
“I’ll make it up to you,” I promised. She smiled wanly and that scraped my heart like a skinned knee.
“After this is done. For now—“ She pointed to her wrist where a watch would’ve been before cell phones made them as useless as blacksmiths. “We got to clear Reno.”
Clear Reno. Right. I put my mind back to the task at hand. “Let’s take the suspects.” “Sylvia,” Betty Ann added.
I nodded. “She’s got motive. Help her guy. Did she have opportunity?”
“There must be a schedule for those working in the office,” Betty Ann added.
“Right. We need to know if Sylvia was there Friday afternoon.”
“Schedule’s probably done through Youthcorps.”
“Good idea,” I said.
Youthcorps was an alternative class where kids got school credit by working a job. Some were off sight, like working for a landscaper or a car repair shop for a period or two a day. Others were on campus stuff. Tutoring programs, working at the school bookstore. School office probably fell under their domain.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s talk to them and see if we can’t get a schedule for the office last Friday.”
Before we could duck out of the bleachers Pensicola Jones crashed into me like a runaway train. She looked like a playground volleyball; beaten, frayed and barely holding together.
“Oh glory, you are here. You gotta help me,” she stammered. It looked like somebody had worked her over. She had a huge black eye - unnaturally purple, a split lip and a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of her mouth.
“What happened to you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand…” Her voice evaporated as she fell into my arms.
Lucky I have a set of barbells at home or I might’ve embarrassed myself by dropping her into the dirt. “Okay, whoa, easy,” I said as I held her.
“She’s not fainting,” Betty Ann said in a flat tone.
“No, I’ll be alright,” Pensicola Jones said.
“You are alright,” Betty Ann said. If her tone had been any flatter we could play ping-pong on it.
“Maybe I just need to sit,” Pensicola said.
I nodded to Betty Ann and she begrudgingly pulled up the milk crate. I gently eased Pensicola onto the makeshift seat. She licked away the trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth. Pensicola caught her breath and finally managed to say, “Thank you. You’re very kind.”
“Oh please,” Betty Ann snorted.
I shot her an impatient look.
Betty Ann bit back a retort.
“I just…. Need a moment to catch my breath,” Pensicola rasped. “I’ve been so frantic.”
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
“It was horrible.” Pensicola hid her face.
“I don’t…. I’m not sure I can face it.” She curled up in shame, face on her knees, hands behind her head. She rocked a little.
“Sure,” I said. Then I turned to Betty Ann, “Help me get her to the Nurse.”
I grabbed Pensicola by the shoulders and tried to lift her. She fought and squirmed. She was amazingly strong for a girl suffering from a butt kicking. “No please,” she protested. “I’ll be fine.”
“You were beaten up,” I told her.
“No,” she said.
“Yes,” I insisted. “These wounds look pretty serious. You need medical help.” I wasn’t sure the school nurse qualified as medical help. She might qualify as bandaid help or lie down if you think you’re going to barf help. If the wounds were serious, the nurse would have to notify the police. I wanted Pensicola to know she should file a report with the real bulls.
“Okay, yes, if you must know,” she said as she slid back onto the crate. “I was beaten.”
“Or whom,” Betty Ann said. “We never solved that.”
“I don’t know,” Pensicola sobbed. “I didn’t see their faces. They just came out of nowhere and grabbed me from behind. I fought as hard as I could, but they just kept beating me and beating me.”
“They told me I started this. I had to make it stop.”
“Make what stop?”
“I assumed they meant this investigation of yours. You will won’t you? Please Drexton. You’ve got to stop this.” She looked up at me, eyes wide.
I hated telling her no, but I had no choice. “I can’t.”
She grabbed my hand. “They said they’d kill me.”
“Oh please don’t stop,” Betty Ann said, leaning on a rusting support strut. Afternoon sun shone through the bleacher slats, turning our world into zebra stripes.
I wrung my hands and paced a little. “Who said they’d kill you?”
“I don’t know,” she wailed. “I keep telling you, I never saw their faces.”
“Alright,” I said. “This is getting too real. We need to go to the cops.” I moved towards solid daylight. She stuck a hand out, stopping me.
“NO!” she blurted. “You can’t. Please. They said they’d hurt me if I went to the cops.”
Betty Ann was ticking off her fingertips. “They said they’d hurt you if you went to the cops, and they’d hurt you if Drexton didn’t stop. Any other possible death scenarios in there? Did they say they’d kill you if you drank a Coke? Cause there’s a vending machine right by the choir room. My treat.”
Pensicola ignored Betty Ann. She stood and sauntered towards me, a cat on the prowl, despite her trauma. She leaned in close. “Please. We just met but I feel like I know you. When I first saw you I felt a… a… spark I guess. I think you did too. I am asking you, begging you to save my life.”
I could smell the sweat, fear, make-up and shampoo. She was the ultimate damsel in distress, making me her white knight. “Okay,” I said.
“What?!” Betty Ann shrieked, giving me a backhand swat across my chest.
“You’ll stop?” Pensicola said.
“Sure,” I said.
“No,” Betty Ann barked.
I turned to Betty Ann. “Trust me, this is exactly what needs to be done.” I ripped my gaze from Betty Ann’s tortured expression and turned my full attention to Pensicola.
“I need to ask you some questions. Do you think you can answer?”
“I’ll try,” she peeped.
“Good girl. How many attacked you?”
“Two or three.”
“Two or three?” I asked, forcing her to answer fast and not think.
“Two,” she said definitely.
“Good. Boys or girls?”
“When did this happen?”
“A few hours ago,” she said.
I started to pick up the tempo, firing my questions faster. Getting honest knee-jerk reactions, forcing out the truth. “Where?”
“Outside the gym,” she shot back.
Faster now. “Were you alone?”
“Wearing these clothes?”
“Who did your make-up? It looks professional.”
“I did,” she blurted happily.
I let the sentence hang a moment, smiling idly. Betty Ann gasped. Then giggled. “Ooooooh snap,” she said - bubbling. “You played her.”
Pensicola looked confused, then her expression changed to an unwelcome dawning. “Arrrrgh!” she moaned, pounding her thigh with the side of her fist. “Dang it! You got me with the professional line. Stupid vanity. How’d you know?”
“It’s stage make-up,” I said. “Not film.” I showed her my thumb where some of the purple bruise had rubbed off. I didn’t tell her I could also smell it over the sweat and shampoo. Why rub salt in the wound?
“Looks great from a distance,” she said. “Never shoulda done the fainting thing. Never shoulda let you get too close. Shoulda followed my instincts. Keep the distance, keep the mystery.”
“So what scene are you playing today?” I asked.
“Getting and Iphone,” she said happily, all sense of terror and shame abandoned like an unpopular Halloween mask.
“Somebody paid you to make me stop.”
“Yup,” she said and took out a stick of gum, unwrapped it and popped it in her mouth. She didn’t offer either Betty Ann or me a piece, but a dame like this probably wasn’t used to thinking about other people.
“And you don’t know who paid you,” I said.
“Found an envelope in my locker. Cash and a note. Make you stop that’s all it said.”
“So the first thing you did was go out and buy yourself a new Iphone,” Betty Ann said.
“I know,” Pensicola confirmed. She reached into her gym bag and held up her new toy. “Teal blue.”
“Spiffy,” I said.
“So this was like your second paying job as an actress,” Betty Ann said, “And you screwed up both times.”
Pensicola went dark. “Hey,” she snapped. “I don’t have to be good. I’m getting paid.”
Betty Ann leaned over and looked the poor girl in the face. “What do you think they’ll do after you took their money and he doesn’t stop?”
“That’s not my problem,” Pensicola said. She grabbed her bag from the floor and was halfway to sunlight when she stopped, then slowly spun round. “You are going to stop, right?”
“No,” I said.
Pensicola looked as if I’d just killed her dog. “But you have to,” she insisted. “I already spent the money.”
“Good to plan ahead,” Betty Ann said.
“You don’t understand. I already bought the Iphone. I unwrapped it. I downloaded songs and everything. I can’t take it back.” Pensicola marched over to me.
“I understand,” I assured her.
“They could really hurt me now.”
“Just act like they didn’t” Betty Ann said as we started across the football field.
“This isn’t a game,” Pensicola said, following us onto the deserted stretch of grass.
“You seem to think it is,” I said.
She threw her body in front of me, putting a hand on my chest, a move that might have worked a few days ago. But this dame hadn’t said a single honest thing since I met her. No reason to trust her now. “You have to stop. They could kill me.”
“I think she’s acting.” Betty Ann said.
We scooted around Pensicola.
“No I’m not,” Pensicola mewled. “I’m not that good an actress.”
That stopped me in my tracks. Only real fear would make Pensicola ever admit to being anything less than golden. She was telling the truth. I turned to her.
“You gotta help me.” Real tears in her eyes, this time the gotta wasn’t up for grabs. “My ride was tied up. I took the bus here. I’m like out in the open. Exposed.”
I looked around, hoping for inspiration. I looked to Betty Ann, standing a few feet behind me. She shook her head. Damn it, I didn’t want to do this, but I didn’t see an alternative. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll take you home.”
“What?” Betty Ann screeched. She marched to my side. Staring me in the face.
“I think she may be right. She could be in danger.”
“Serves her right,” Betty Ann said. “You didn’t get her into this Drex, she did this to herself. Don’t help her.”
I looked Betty Ann square in the eyes. “That’s not what we do.”
“She’s lied to you from Point-A. She’s probably lying now.”
“Odds are. What if this is a set up? She could be leading you into a trap.”
“And what if it’s not?” I said. “What if she really is telling the truth and we don’t help? What if somebody really does go all ninja on her? How do we face the mirror come morning?”
Betty Ann looked away as if processing something important. She started a few sentences before settling on, “I can’t believe this.”
“I know,” I said.
“We’re on the clock here,” she reminded me.
“I know. I’ll make sure Pensicola gets home safe. Can you run down the Youthcorp schedule?”
“You’re taking her? By yourself?” Her voice had a certain sub-zero quality to it.
“Can you handle the other thing?”
“Sure Drex. Fine. Whatever.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I know it’s a lot to—“
Betty Ann didn’t let me finish. She stormed down across the field leaving me alone with Pensicola.