The Run In
The sun had quit for the day. I rode the bus across town in the silence that was the company of Pensicola Jones. She sat, staring at her precious Iphone as if it were Gollum’s ring, something to be desired and hated at the same time.
She didn’t offer conversation. I wasn’t in the mood for her lies anyway. We drifted away from suburban homes into the seedier section of town where apartments bundled together. I could never understand why they were called apart-ments when they were all stuck together. Finally she pulled the buzzer and the bus came to a stop. “This is me,” she said. “I’m good.”
She squeezed past me on the seat and headed to the doors. I followed.
“This your place?” I asked.
She hesitated a heartbeat. “Yeah. Thanks for getting me here. I’m good now.” The doors hissed open and she stepped off the bus onto the cracked and weedy sidewalk. I followed.
“You don’t have to follow me now,” she insisted.
I simply smiled as the bus pulled away behind me, leaving the two of us alone on the pavement. Pensicola sighed dramatically. I felt pretty sure this was another one of her performances.
“You don’t need to be here now,” she spat.
“Just makin’ sure you get in safe.”
She didn’t say thank you. Instead she said, “I’ll be fine.”
“Why I’m here,” I said.
She stopped and looked around fretfully.
“Not your place is it?”
“Fine,” she said melodramatically with lots of melo. We wandered up the block. The apartments looked a lot cheaper because nobody would want to live here. We stopped in front of a sagging and tired complex. Three chipped and graffitied steps lead to the entrance. The glass in one of the doors had been replaced with warped plywood. The mail box lobby beyond the doors flickered in dying fluorescent light. Between strobes I could see fast food bags and discarded coffee cups littering the floor.
I looked at Pensicola. She gave me a death glare that dared me to say something. Anything. When I didn’t, she held up her new toy proudly and said, “Yeah. Well I got an Iphone. I earned it. Me.”
She got ran up the steps, still looking fro and to for a stalker that might pop out of nowhere. She vanished inside.
Still no thank you. Nice to know she was consistent.
If Pensicola told me the truth then whoever paid her might want to talk to her. Or punish her. Odds were against it, but hey, I began to think I should change my name to Longhsot McGee.
Since I had no other clues to run down and nowhere else to look, I stepped into the shadows about halfway down the block where I could keep an eye on the front door of her apartment building. Most of the street lights were out so I could lean against a wall without worrying about being seen. I waited.
My mind chased the case. Sylvia looked good for the perp, but I didn’t buy she was in this alone. She had to have a Hammet connection. Was it Pensicola? A few bucks seemed to make her happy to play any role. Even partner?
I thought about Cloris and Sincere, a solid connection between schools. Giggles had texting thumbs of lighting and I wondered if she’d been Googling answers during their practice. I couldn’t figure out Silent Bob, the stone faced kid, but he pinned the blame on Reno fast and hard.
None of them got me any closer to solving the case.
Pensicola Jones came down the steps of her apartment, looked around like a field mouse on caffeine, and walked up the sidewalk. I let her get a good lead, then followed.
She jaywalked a buncha corners and hid in darkened doorways a few times. I wondered what could make her brave the unknown and unseen attackers.
I kept her in sight as she headed across the baseball diamon of Hammet Middle School. Hammet again. Hmmmm.
Pensicola vanished inside the gym on the far end of the field.
Basketball practice was in full swing. The bleachers were pretty empty. Pensicola grabbed a seat about half way up.
I slipped in behind the bleachers and found a spot where I could look through the slats and see the court. With all the time I spent under bleachers lately maybe I should change my name to Seymour Butts.
The coach yelled a lot, pointed fingers and blew a whistle for reasons I couldn’t fathom. I almost gasped when I saw Parker Roberts dribble the ball up the court. He looked even worse than yesterday. Dark circles puffed around his eyes. His shoulders slumped and his free arm hung uselessly when he ran.
He took an exhausted shot that missed the basket and bounced off the far corner of the backboard. Roberts never even tried for the rebound. The whistle blew again. Everybody stopped playing as the Coach stomped onto the court, touching Roberts’ nose with his own.
“What in burnin’ Hades was that Roberts?” he bellowed, spit flying freely.
“Sorry coach,” Roberts panted.
“Sorry? Sorry? You’re not even trying.”
“I am,” Roberts moaned. “I’m just… I’m just tired.” The other players stiffened. Looked at their feet. Pensicola was lost to the music of her Iphone, bobbing her head to the rhythm.
“Oh, am I working you too hard? You missing some beauty sleep? You want I should get you a massage and some warm milk?”
“No.” Roberts said, his tall frame shrinking several inches.
“No coach. I just got a lot of other stuff is all.” Roberts looked at the floor.
“Other stuff? That why you bailed on practice last Friday?!”
Ding-ding. A little bell went off in my head. Last Friday just happened to be when the answers were stolen. And Roberts wasn’t here. I almost said whoo-hoo.
“It was my birthday, Coach,” Roberts pleaded.
“Oh, maybe we shoulda thrown you a party, with little pointy hats. Is that what you need?”
He looked back up at the coach, not quite making eye contact. “No coach. It’s hard and I’m under a lotta pressure.”
“Well you better find a way to make it easier and get your mind back in the game or your butt’s gonna be gathering bench splinters when we face Eastbrook next week.” He blew the whistle into Roberts face. Turned back and barked to the entire team, “That’s it. Shower up, go home.”
The team trotted off toward the locker room while the coach picked up his clipboard from the bench and a few extra basketballs from the shiny wood floor. He carried them off, shaking his head and mumbling to himself.
Parker Roberts lurched to the bleachers and plopped down on the lowest rack. He lowered his head to his chest and took a few deep breaths.
So Roberts pulled double duty between the basketball team and the Pentathlon team and needed a way to ease his workload. Hard to cheat at hoops, but not so much at academics. Hmmmmm.
The clomp of footsteps above caught my attention. A moment later, Pensicola Jones sat down next to Roberts.
She offered a small package from her purse.
“What’s this?” he asked as he started unwrapping.
“Belated birthday gift,” Pensicola said.
“Thought you didn’t have any money for a gift.”
“Got some recently.”
He looked inside, smiled. The two of them hugged. Hugged. There was that love thing again.
Part of my mind went, Eureka. It was a dorky part of my mind left over from history class, but it still meant I’d found something. Another clue…which sorta fit in with the new theory I was happily building.
I stepped out from under the bleachers.
“Hey,” I said. My voice echoed in the abandoned gym.
Both Roberts and Pensicola snapped their heads around. Roberts instantly hid the package behind him.
Pensicola actually had the audacity to look insulted. “You followed me?”
“Said I’d make sure you got home safe.”
“I was home,” she snarled.
“And now you’re not. Was he your ride that got tied up?” I wandered up to the couple sitting on the bench.
“So?” Pensicola said.
“Wondered what could make you brave the streets alone, being so scared and all. What could be so important you’d risk life and limb and lipstick to walk the dark wilderness?” I waggled my pinkie at Roberts. “Now I know.”
“You don’t know anything,” Pensicola scoffed.
“Get that a lot,” I admitted. “True love is a powerful thing. So I’m told.”
Both Pensicola and Roberts stared a moment. Then looked at each other and cracked up. Not the reaction I’d expected. Their laughter threw me.
“True love?” Pensicola said.
I had nothing to say and did it very well.
The two looked at each other. “Dude, she’s my step sister,” Roberts said.
“Still means you know each other,” I stammered.
“So what’s in the box?” I asked Roberts.
“Nothing,” Roberts said pulling it farther behind him.
I rose. “Can I see?” I reached for it.
“No,” he said, standing.
“Dude, easier just to tell me.”
I lunged fast and snagged the box. Roberts snatched back, but missed. I ripped open the box and stared. Inside lay a new empty key chain PARKER engraved in silver. Ding-ding.
“Key chain. Sweet. What do you need a keychain for Parker?”
“He got his learner’s permit over the weekend,” Pensicola said.
“Shut up,” he snapped at her.
Ding-ding. “So you drive now?” I asked. “Don’t drive a black Ford Escort do ya?”
His face went red and tight. “Sincere said not to say nothin’ to you, so watch this.” He gulped a big breath and puffed out his cheeks, his mouth solidified into concrete. Then he moved towards the door, Pensicola on his heels.
“You’re such a dankwad,” Pensicola said before vanishing around the corner. “You don’t know anything.”
That was true. But I still had twenty hours.