A Very Good Yearbook
School was over. Betty Ann stood in the bike corral, a chunk of blacktop surrounded by chain link fence. I’d had my bike since I was eleven, a birthday gift back when my dad still had his good job, and I’d outgrown it. The seat was ripped, and the brake pads worn down to rubber nubs, but there was no logic in buying a new one when I’d be driving in a nineteen months and seven days. I diddled with the lock combo, pulled the plastic-sleeved chain out of my spokes and dropped it into the saddle bags straddling the back wheel.
Someone grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. A big flesh-colored blur streaked toward my face. I flinched enough so the fist glanced off my cheek. It hurt like hell and drove me back into the chain link fence. Stars exploded across my vision.
The other fist closed in. This time I dropped. My back scraping against the metal webbing, my feet jutting between my attackers legs as my butt thumped hot tar. I heard bony knuckles hit the fence where my head had been and somebody yelped.
I hooked my left foot behind the perp’s ankle and kicked his knee with my right heel. The guy screeched and went down, smacking gracelessly to the blacktop like a meat filled scarecrow.
I bounced to my feet and looked down at my attacker. He was an average guy, medium height, medium weight. He wore his dark hair greased straight back with a cute little Clark Kent curl on his forehead. He had scuffed black shoes, black pants and his white T shirt sleeves rolled up to the shoulders.
“Hey Reno,” I said.
Reno Vega, accused cheater and stealer of Pentathalon answers screamed like an angry bull and charged like a crazy one. He body checked me into the fence and threw a series of punches at my head.
I could tell this guy hadn’t been in a fight before, but he was pissed and that made him dangerous.
What made me slightly more dangerous was that I did my homework. After Skylar Lanes beat the living crap outta me I Googled and Youtube’d my way through an endless info stream on street fighting. No way I was gonna get my clock cleaned again. I didn’t care about boxing, that meant rules. I wasn’t interested in how to fight, just on how to end one. You’d be surprised what you can learn from a little web video.
My muscles tensed and I felt the metallic taste of adrenaline on my tongue like I’d been sucking on nickels. My heart fluttered with both fear and excitement.
“Drex!” Betty Ann squealed, stepping forward, but I held up a traffic-cop hand and she froze in place.
I danced on my balls of my feet like the vids showed. He threw a big looping roundhouse and I blocked it easily enough. The guy threw punches with his arms. He had no leverage, no body behind it. No power. So I hunched up, elbows at my sides, fists floating up near my temples and let him powder puff me for a while. Didn’t take long and he got tired. The moment he did, I pivoted on my right foot, torque’d my body, putting a lot of shoulder into the punch, and hit him in the solar plexus. There was a loud, satisfying thump and he made a sound like my mom’s dirt-devil vacuum.
He staggered backward, his mouth flopping like mackerel on the bottom of a boat. He tried to suck air and came up dry. His legs gave out and he collapsed to the ground. Instantly a cute little chick knelt by his side.
“Oh my god, Ra-ee-no,” she said, stretching his name into three syllables. She had skin the color of mocha and short-cut curly hair the same shade as an old penny. She was lithe and lean, and had a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. It was an odd, striking combination that made her look both exotic and girl next door. She turned her solar heated fury on me, slapping me with open palms. She had fast hands.
I didn’t want to hit her so I just hunched up and felt another dozen slaps until Betty Ann stepped in between us, grabbing the girl’s wrists. “Stop it Sylvia.”
“He hit Reno.”
“Not first.” Betty Ann released Sylvia’s arms and the girl turned her attention back to Reno, who huffed and puffed, trying to catch his breath. He stood, roared and charged at me, but Betty Ann blocked his path.
“Leave him alone, Reno,” she said. “You’re not even supposed to be on school grounds.”
Reno stopped up short. I figured he didn’t want to hit a girl any more than I did. “I’m just picking up Sylvia,” he barked. He looked over Betty Ann’s shoulder to me, jabbing his finger at my chest. “What are you doing, Cabron? Huh? Why you talkin’ smack about me?”
“Indoor voice, Reno,” Betty Ann said sweetly, although we were technically outdoors.
“Listen Chica, and listen good—“
“Listen and listen good?” Betty Ann chortled and turned to me. “Did he just say that? Seriously? Listen and listen good? Really?” She was laughing now and I felt some helium tugging at the corner of my lips. “Listen and listen good.” She turned back to Reno. “Who writes your dialog?”
“Look—“ he growled.
“And look good,” Betty Ann interrupted.
“Knock it off—“
“And knock it off good,”
“And quit it good!”
I felt a slight chuckle escape and was surprised to see Reno smiling. He tried not to laugh. After a moment he shook his head and the fight went out of him.
I had to give Betty Ann some props. Her well-placed words diffused the sitch a heluva lot better than my well-placed punch. And I was kinda proud of that punch too, being my first real fight and all.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to lose it. You okay?” Reno asked me.
I shrugged. “No harm no foul. You?”
“My chest kinda hurts. And my knuckles.”
I knew what he meant. I’d hit him in the soft part of his body, but he’d been hitting cheek bone and chain link. In the movies guys can fight for hours and they’re fine. Hollywood never shows much a hand hurts after it hits somebody.
Then again, maybe we were just soft. Heck, Reno and I were both on the Pentathalon team for gods’ sake. We were, by teen wisdom and definition, wimps.
“Seriously,” Reno said as Sylvia rubbed his swelling hands. “Why you doing this to me?”
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Telling everybody I cheated and stuff,” he said.
Sylvia made a clucking noise with her tongue.
“He wasn’t,” Betty Ann said. “He’s trying to help.”
“We don’t need any help from him,” Sylvia said, her nose crinkling like she’d gotten a huge whiff of old gym socks.
A felt a flash of anger. “He got expelled,” I snapped. “Anybody else trying to clear your name?”
Reno’s eyes widened with hope but Sylvia eyes narrowed into mistrusting slits. “He doesn’t need to be cleared. He didn’t do it,” Sylvia said, taking Reno by the elbow and pulling close to him. Too close. Like a girl in love.
“And this is all his fault anyway,” Sylvia said, nodding at me.
“Drexton’s fault?” Betty Ann spat, putting her fists on her hips. “How do you figure that?”
Sylvia jutted her chin at me. “You got busted for cheating and what happened? They kicked you off the team. Big whoop. Reno, they expel.”
Reno sagged a bit, as if somebody had just let the air out of him. “My life’s got a Hoover factor of about nine point eight.” He sat on the pavement, leaning against the chainlink. Sylvia knelt by his side and ran a soothing hand through his greased back hair.
“You’ll get into another middle school,” Betty Ann said brightly. Reno looked at her as if she were both sad and stupid.
“His parents are homeschooling him now,” Sylvia said.
Reno made a scoffing sound way back in his throat. “Casa schooling,” he said. I knew Reno’s parents owned a cheap Mexican restaurant called Casa Cabo just off Lyons Avenue.
“They got him bussing tables full time now.”
“Your parental units mad?” I asked.
“I wish,” Reno said. “Dad says I don’t need college if I’m gonna take over the family business anyway. He never went to college so he’s fine with things now.”
I could tell Reno wasn’t. He’d lost his friends. His clique. And his respect. He was smart and deserved a better future than hot grease, empty beer bottles and refried beans.
“I didn’t do it.” Reno looked up at me. His tone had two hundred proof sincerity.
I told him I believed him. And I did. But I didn’t know if was because I really thought he was innocent, or I needed him to be. I knelt in front of him. “Did you tell the Principal that?”
“I told everybody. Think they’d listen to me?”
“Did you tell ’em to listen good?” Betty Ann asked.
“Really hopin’ you’ll stop that,” Reno said.
I shot a look up at Betty Ann.
“What?” she said. “The horse isn’t dead yet.”
“No,” I agreed. “But it’s severely wounded and in a coma. Please stop.”
“And stop good?”
Before I could open my mouth to stop her, she offered, “Last one I promise.”
“It’s not fair, man. I was set up. I was framed,” Reno said. “But no one will listen. Nobody cares.”
I did. “How’d they find the answers on you?”
“I dunno. I just opened my locker on Monday morning and the pages spilled all over the floor. Everybody saw.”
I thought everybody was a slight exaggeration. I was pretty sure my Aunt Ruth in Tampa didn’t see ’em, but I was just being petty. Reno’s locker was right near the front doors. It would be the most crowded part of school on a Monday morning with lots of people to see the answers falling out of his locker.
“Hand in the cookie jar,” I said.
“You think I’m stupid enough to leave the answers in my locker?”
“Smart guy might,” Betty Ann said. “Then if he got busted he could always claim he was innocent because there’s no way he could be that stupid.”
Reno shook his head. “You got a twisted mind.”
Welcome to teendom.
“So why are you poking around in all this? Digging it all up. Asking questions about me all over school?”
“Thought maybe I could help.”
“For real?” he said, lifting his eyes, voice tinged with hope.
“He can’t help you Reno,” Sylvia said to him. “He’s nobody. He can’t even help himself.”
“I can try,” I said, a little thrown by her sneeriness and his eagerness.
“Oh man, if you could. Everything’s all messed up now. Really? You think you could?”
“Why didn’t you come to me first?” He asked.
Fifty seventh rule of high school gumshoe-i-ness. Don’t bring a lie from the bullpen when the truth is on deck. “I promised your girlfriend I wouldn’t talk to you.”
Betty Ann made a coughing noise and kicked me slightly in the shins. I didn’t know why.
Reno turned to Sylvia. “You tell him not to talk to me?”
“Oh no there, Ra-e-no. I wouldn’ta done something like that.” She punctuated those last three words by slapping Reno on the shoulder. Forehand, backhand, forehand. It sounded like whick-whack-whock. Reno didn’t seem to mind. He wheeled back on me.
“You lyin’ to me?” he said. I think he was trying to sound tough for her, but we both knew he armed his punches.
“Sorry, not her,” I explained. “Your girlfriend.”
“Sylvia is my girlfriend.”
“Oh. Then your other girlfriend.”
Betty Ann coughed louder and kicked me harder. That’s when I realized I’d put my foot in my mouth.
Sylvia spun Reno around and squealed, “You went and got yourself another girl, Ra-e-no?” She accentuated his three syllable name with the whick-whack-whock thing again.
“No, Sylvie, no,” Reno said, sinking to his knees and throwing his hands around her waist. “You’re my only girl.”
Sylvia folded her arms and thrust her chin at the horizon. “Reno Vega, don’t you go toying with my heart ya big lug.”
“I’m not Novia,” Reno crooned. “I love you.” He leapt to his feet, grabbed my lapels, then let go – we both knew he threw his punches. “What’re you playing? Sylvia and I have been together for eighteen months.”
“Six days and four and a half hours,” Sylvia amended.
I looked at Betty Ann. “Girl’s count,” she said. “It’s a chick thing.”
The guy could have been covering for seeing some other dame on the sly. But I doubted it. It was the whole counting the months thing. Chicks may count days and hours, but only a one-girl guy would know the months.
Something clicked in my mind. Throw enough rocks at a hornet’s nest and eventually something will fly out. We like to call those clues. Up to now I hadn’t had any. Clues on this case were as rare as Brittany Spears’ underwear. But the trick with a clue is not to get stung by it. So I explained to Reno and Sylvia, “Someone claiming to be your girlfriend hired me to prove you innocent. Hardstone, her name is Carmen Hardstone. You ever hear of her?”
Both Reno and Sylvia shook their heads.
“So you don’t know her?” I asked.
“Nope,” Reno said. He looked at Sylvia. “You Sylvie?”
“That name is not fa-mil-iar (whick-whack-whock) to me.”
I looked at Betty Ann. “You?”
“Not ringing any bells.” Betty Ann whick-whack-whocked me on the triple syllables of an-y-bells. I didn’t know if it was to make fun of Sylvia or she just wanted to hit me. Coulda been both I guess.
My mind was still whirring when Reno asked, “So you think you can get me back to school? Back on the team?”
“Gonna try,” I promised.
He puffed up a little and his eyes brightened. “Can’t pay you much. Don’t get a salary, Pop says gotta help the family business, and I split tips with the waitress and dishwasher. But I can get a little dinero.”
“Not doing this for the money,” I said.
“I pay my way,” Reno said, standing taller.
“When it’s done, we settle,” I said to honor his pride. Reno nodded agreement, then patted my shoulder. “Sorry I had to rough you up a bit.”
I suppressed a smile. “No prob.”
“Thanks amigo,” he said.
Reno and Sylvia walked off, her head leaning on his shoulder. “Hear that Sylvie? He’s gonna get me back on the team.” He looked back at me, flashing teeth, his expression full of trust and faith in me. Sylvia glanced back too, her expression also full of trust. The MIS kind. She didn’t like me or believe in me. Didn’t matter. Reno needed me. I knew at that moment I wouldn’t stop until I found who did this. Hell could freeze over, but I would gasp my last breath before I’d let him take the punishment I never got. Yeah, life’s unfair, but somebody has to try and set it right. I could feel my conviction burning like a fire in my gut.
“So where are we?” Betty Ann asked, shaking her head to clear the dust of the last few minutes.
“Confused,” I said.
“At least we’re consistent,” she said.
“Let’s run it. Someone named Carmen Hardstone, or claiming to be named Carmen Hardstone sent me on this goose chase. She told me about Reno, told me he was framed for cheating, asked me to clear his name and made me promise not to talk to him.”
“Because she doesn’t even know Reno.”
“Then why would she want you to help him?”
“Doesn’t make sense.”
“Twice a day, whether I need to or not.” I ran the problem over in my mind. “I hate this. I got fed a pack of lies and scarfed ’em up like skittles.”
“And you a smart guy and all.”
“I’m a dope.”
After a long pause Betty Ann said, “Sorry, was I s’posed to agrue that?” She bumped me with her hip.
“Well I can be stupid and wrong a thousand times as long as you’re smart and right a thousand and one. We are gonna find Carmen Hardstone.”