The Enemy of My Enemy
We rode our bikes across town and forty five minutes later we walked the halls of Hammet Middle School. It looked a lot like Chandler middle except the lockers were painted green & gold, and the walls were brick instead of cinderblock. But it smelled exactly the same. There’s probably a middle school in Prague that smells like that.
“Which way’s the auditorium?” Betty Ann asked.
I shrugged. “Never been here,” I told her.
“They should have little maps like at the mall. You know, with the red dots that say ‘You are here.’”
“Make it easier,” I said.
“Hey you kids!” a voice boomed, echoing off the walls of the deserted hallway. We spun around to face a school security guard waddling toward us. He had a black polo shirt stretched tight over his fat belly that said SECURITY. He was huge, I mean a skilled pilot could land a helicopter on his back in a rain storm. He had one of those stupid soul patches of whiskers under his lip, probably to take your eyes off his three chins. He banged a clipboard against his meaty thigh as he approached. “School’s over, what are you doing here?”
“Ahhh, just headin’ to the auditorium,” I said in a voice I hope sounded cool.
“Not without a pass you ain’t,” he said.
He looked us up and down. Maybe to see if we were bacon. Then he flipped a few pages on his clipboard. “Names and homeroom,” he demanded.
My stomach tightened and my pulse rev’d a little. If he found out we didn’t go to this school he’d call our principal and I’d be in hot water. And by hot I mean boil-your-skin-off scalding. I was already on secret probation for the incident.
My mind raced and my tongue misfired a few times when Betty Ann slugged me hard in the arm.
“I told you to call her,” she said, then turned to the big man and pleaded her case. It was weird, everything changed about her in a flash. She stood different, her voice sounded like it belonged to somebody else. In less than a heartbeat she became a totally different person.
“We don’t have a pass,” she told Mister Security. “See, his mom gave us a ride to school and Dorky McDorkus here empties his backpack on the front seat cause he’s got a Starbucks card somewhere down there. So we stop at the drive through then get dropped off, but his mom leaves with the pass still on the car floor or something. I tell him to call his mom and have her bring it back, but he says, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that. She’s got a double shift at the hospital today.’”
She looked at me and hit me again, fire in her eyes. “So he gets his triple-shot venti mocha frap and now I’m gonna get a demerit cause he can’t man up enough to call his mom.”
She stood there, lip trembling like she’s gonna bawl. The story was a hundred percent crap and even I halfway believed it.
Mister Security swallowed it whole. “Don’t worry, I’ll let it slide this time. But don’t be loitering in the halls. Go right to the auditorium.” He pointed with his clipboard down a hallway.
“Thank you sir,” Betty Ann said with a grateful smile and bopped away in the direction he pointed. It took a second or two before my brain dropped out of neutral and I ran to catch up.
As we walked I stared at Betty Ann, as if seeing her for the first time. She looked at me.
“What?” she said, smoothing out her dress in a self-conscious move.
I just shook my head, still blown away at her performance. I had no idea she could act like that. Maybe she should audition for the school play. She really was a natural. But it kinda bugged me that I didn’t know this about her.
We entered a side door and stood on stage of the Hammet auditorium. It was nicer than our own, it had padded seats. And the set was a 50’s soda shop.
Hammet Middle was doing Grease. What is it with that show? You get five high schools together and six of them are doing Grease. But hey, at least they were doing a school show on a school set. Rehearsal was over but we heard a muffled, distant voice humming backstage.
I followed the sound into the wings where two doors were set into the cinder block wall. I opted to ignore the one marked Guys and knocked on the one marked Dolls.
“Nobody’s naked,” said a voice from within.
I opened the door. Betty Ann and I stepped into a small room that smelled of make-up, ruffles and sweat. The far wall was lined with mirrors, illuminated with frames of bare light bulbs. Sitting in front of one was the one and only Carmen Hardstone. Without the auburn wig, her hair flowed long and blonde, which she brushed lovingly, counting the strokes out loud.
“I’m looking for a girl,” I said.
“And you found one. Lucky you,” she said, never taking her eyes off her own reflection. It was refreshing to see Narcissism this openly embraced. This girl would never have trouble finding true love as long as she was in her own company.
I let the silence hang to see how she’d react. After reaching one hundred silk enhancing strokes she finally put the brush down and looked at me in the mirror. It only took a nano-second for her face to light up in recognition. I had to admit, the girl was good. In a nano-second and a half she covered, “But Ah’m afraid you’re not my type.” She grabbed a navy gym bag from beneath the counter then flounced past me. “If you’ll excuse me, Ah’m late,” she said, donning a pretty decent southern accent.
Betty Ann and I caught up to her in the fake soda shop.
“Late for what?” Betty Ann chirped. “We’ll walk with you.”
“Ah’m afraid not,” Carmen or Pensicola said. “Ah do not know you. That would be unseemly.”
“We just want to talk,” I said, keeping pace with her as she marched towards the stairs that lead off stage. Betty Ann blocked her exit while I wandered up behind. “To somebody named Hardstone.”
She spun to face me, laying into the accent. “Glory, Ah’m afraid Ah am not acquainted with her.” She moved to scoot around me, but I countered. “Who said it was a her?”
She flushed a little. “Ah really don’t have time for riddles. Ah really must go.”
She scampered down the steps to floor level of the auditorium, striding for the exit.
“Where are you going Carmen?” I shouted.
She spun on me, her expression haughty, as if she’d got the upper hand. “Ah am afraid you have me confused, suh. My name is Crimson O’Grady.”
“Hah,” Betty Ann snorted. “Really? That’s what you’re going with? Crimson O’Grady.”
If Carmen/Pensicola had hackles, they’d have risen. “It’s a proud family name.”
“No, you’re family name is Jones, Pensicola.” I said, jumping off the stage and sauntering up to her.
She stared at me a moment, looked to Betty Ann then slumped. “Damn.” The accent and lady-like poise abandoned like a torn costume. “How’d you know?” She flopped into one of the padded seats in the front row of the audience.
I took the one next to her. I felt both an ounce of victory at finding her, and a pound of anger at being played for a sap. Well, two could play the sap card. “It was the smile,” I lied.
That did the trick. She leaned her head against my shoulder and smiled up at me. “Well aren’t you sweet. A lot of guys say my smile will be their downfall.”
“Oh please,” Betty Ann said sitting on the edge of the stage, letting the heels of her Reeboks bounce against the wall. “It wasn’t the smile. It was the crappy Gone With The Wind accent. I mean seriously. And Crimson? That’s the best you could do? Crimson O’Grady and Scarlett O’Hara. Really? You suck at improv.”
Peniscola Jones rose like a wakened dragon. “Hey, I won two blue ribbons in Drama one oh one for Improv.”
“Why’d you come to my office and lay down a snow job like a Yukon January?” I said.
“That’s privileged info,” she snagged her gym bag, heading for the doors. “Can’t tell ya. Sorry.”
Betty Ann pushed herself off the lip of the stage and quickly inserted herself between Pensicola and the exit. “We’re gonna have to insist.”
“Or what?” Pensicola scoffed.
“You could suck even more,” Betty Ann threatened with a crunch of her fist, “Like dinner through a straw.”
Pensicola ran behind me; the helpless damsel against the ferocious Ogre. “You’re going to let her hurt me?”
Betty Ann made a Pfff-ing noise. “He doesn’t let me do anything.”
I turned to face Pensicola. “I just want to find out what’s going on. Easy or hard you choose.”
She scrunched her face in thought. “Fine,” she said, throwing up her hands and sitting again. “Didn’t get paid enough for all this backstage drama. Jeez.”
“So tell me who hired you.” I said.
“Don’t know. All I got was a text saying they wanted me to go to your office and say what I said.”
“And why would you do that?”
“They paid me.”
“They got ripped,” Betty Ann said.
“And,” Pensicola said, ignoring Betty Ann, “It was a good acting exercise. And I had you didn’t I? I totally had you.”
“I knew it. The text said I was the only actress that could pull it off. The only one. And it was a total improv scene. Suck on that.” She stuck her tongue at Betty Ann. Betty Ann groaned.
“Who was the text from?”
She fell back into a seat. “I don’t know.”
“Can I see it?”
She hesitated half a heartbeat. “I deleted it.” It was half a heartbeat too long.
“The text said you were the only actress that could do it. You’d want to save it.”
I grabbed her gym bag.
“Hey!” She grabbed for satchel. We tussled. I won.
I pulled out her cell phone and punched incoming messages. I found the one I was looking for
Offering U acting job. Go 2 Chandler High. Find Drexton Cage. Convince him U R Reno Vega’s girlfriend. U R beside yourself cause Reno has been X-pelled 4 cheating. They found the answers 2 the I.Q. Pentathalon in Reno’s locker. Tell Drexton U think Reno was set up and want him 2 clear Reno’s name. I will pay you $200.
This is pretty complicated & delicate. U R the only actress in our school that can pull it off.
“Thanks” I said, looking for the number of the sender. Restricted. I handed her back the phone. “How’d you get paid?”
“Envelope full of cash in my locker.”
“Can I see the envelope?”
“I threw it away. Do I look like I keep trash?”
Betty Ann stood and opened her mouth. I held up a silencing finger. “Don’t.”
Betty Ann’s mouth flapped once then closed tightly.
“What kind of envelope was it?
“You looking for a return address? It was a blank envelope. That’s all I know. Can I boogie now?”
“I dunno,” Betty Ann said. “Could you before?”
“Oh, ha,” Pensicola said. “I’m leaving. Goodbye. Farewell. Auf Wiedersehen. Goodnight.”
She flounced dramatically out the doors and into the bright sunlight breaking through the clouds.
Betty Ann turned to me, “What a cheese-log.”
I nodded agreement.
“So what now?”
“They way I see it, I got two different mysteries here. On the one hand somebody hired Pensicola to get me to clear Reno. Seems to me they want him back on the team.”
“Okay,” Betty Ann said.
“On the other hand, somebody probably framed Reno to get him off the team.”
“Which mystery do we follow? Off or back on?”
“Well whoever sent the text to Pensicola had a restricted number. No way the phone company is gonna help me. I’m not exactly the FBI, or CSI, or NCIS or Law and Order. So finding whoever hired Pensicola is going to be hard.”
“If not impossible.”
“So we try to figure out who wanted Reno off the team,” Betty Ann said.
“Yup. And hope the mysteries meet somewhere.”
“Any idea where to start?”
“Motive is always good,” I said.
“Well who would have a good motive?”
“Someone who would want Reno’s team to fail.”
“They’re up against Hammet on Saturday,” Betty Ann said.
“And as fate would have it, here we are at Hammet.”
“When in Rome,” Betty Ann said.