The talent show was to begin at seven and we were the opening act, thankfully so, because we were supposed to meet the boys shortly after the competition at McNurney’s Pond. The Bicentennial celebration had begun around five, leaving us plenty of time to mark our target. We agreed that Sherry would pick out the prospective stranger, and she would also be the one to approach him. She knew exactly what she was doing or at least we thought she did.
In the beginning we ran into a small problem. We couldn’t find a single stranger in the crowd. The majority of the people were young families with their children, and the only men we saw were old enough to be our grandfathers. We kept looking, scanning the crowd, and occasionally seeing a classmate or friendly face in the pack. Every now and then, we’d see Mom or Mrs. Townsend scurrying about. Their hands were full of goodies and both donned aprons with a liberty bell emblazoned across the front. We acknowledged them and kept going.
It was Gabby’s idea to ride the Ferris wheel, “maybe we’ll get a better look,” she suggested. From the very top we could see the pond just behind the trees.
The mass of people was growing, making it more difficult from a distance to decipher who our mark would be. “Ova’ there by the Job Johnnie,” pointed Sherry. She could see two guys, kind of scruffy, definitely fitting the bill, but there were two. “It’s now or neva’,” Sherry declared.
When the ride ended, we headed near them. I knew it would be difficult to keep an eye on them once we were at ground level, so I paid careful attention as to what they were wearing. Gabby looked at her watch and noticed we only had fifteen minutes until the talent show was to begin. We marched across the field at a brisk pace, much like Mom did when she and Mrs. Townsend would go for their morning walks. Our arms were flailing about, and for Liz, she was straining to keep up. We last spotted them near a concession stand, but just as we got within 50 feet of them, Mr. Townsend jumped out, “Lizzie,” he put his arm on her shoulder, “where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Sherry stayed focused, careful not to lose sight of our targets. I had hoped Mr. Townsend wasn’t able to read what I was thinking. He made me sick. I could barely look at him anymore.
Liz pulled her arm away, “Nowhere,” she murmured. She had been cold to him ever since the incident the other day. “Have you seen your mother?” he asked. Liz told him where we had last seen her, pointing in the direction of the bake sale.
Then, Sherry tipped her head towards where the guys were standing. It looked like they were leaving. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to be to the stage in five minutes,” Sherry lied with such grace. It was no surprise that she had become a lawyer.
We picked up our pace again. “That pig makes me sick,” Sherry mumbled. Liz just dropped her head in shame. Gabby and I didn’t know what to say, so we refrained from making any comments, though I’m quite sure our thinking was synonymous.
Sherry thought it would be best if all four of us didn’t approach the men together. “Gabby and Liz, stay hea’. Peppa and I will go tawk to them.” Gabby grabbed Sherry by the arm, “What are you going to say?”
“Leave that up to me.” Gabby and Liz stayed within view of us.
The guys looked to be about nineteen or twenty. They weren’t at the beer tent, so we assumed they couldn’t be twenty-one yet. “Hey guys, How aw’ ya?” Her accent was in overdrive, something she thought guys found attractive. I thought it made her sound dumber than an overripe cantaloupe.
We were all wearing matching blue Daisy Dukes, and the t-shirts Dad had given us. Underneath we each wore our swimsuits. Sherry had a lot of make-up on, and her hair hung loosely around her cheeks. She could certainly pass for about seventeen.
I kept quiet most of the time while Sherry reached in her pocket and pulled out the money. She had changed it at the deli earlier that afternoon, figuring we would be taken more seriously with larger bills than a wad full of crinkled ones.
“You guys looking to make an extra buck?” For fourteen, Sherry was smooth. She just came right out and launched it at them. I was so impressed; I was about to answer for them. Gabby and Liz studied the meeting from an inconspicuous distance. The taller guy turned to the man next to him and grimaced, “Geez Frank, I think we’re being propositioned.” I blushed instantly but Sherry hung in there. “Not exactly what you’re thinking,” she quickly shot back.
In the corner of my eye, I could see two blonde haired women also about twenty years old, walking towards us. They were cheaply dressed almost like prostitutes - the kind that Mom would say you don’t bring home to meet Grandma. Sherry was busy flirting up a storm with the taller man as the other girl came right up and planted a kiss on this guy’s face, “Hey baby.” She shot a look towards Sherry and then me. “Sorry girls, but Franky can’t play today, now why don’t you run along?” Both of the young men laughed at Sherry’s expense, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She just turned her back. “Let’s go, Peppa,” and we walked away with the $128 and what little dignity we had left.
“What happened,” Liz inquired.
“Don’t ask,” I told her.
On our way over to the staging ground for the talent competition, we agreed that it would be best to find just one man. It was too risky otherwise.
As we were standing on the stage waiting for the music to begin, Sherry told me to look over near the beer tent. At first, I saw Dad and Gabby’s father working behind the kegs. They spotted us and gave us a wave. “No,” she guided me towards the entrance, “the guy with the hunting cap on.” He stood out among the red, white and blue crowd. He was scruffy, unshaven and looked to be alone. Sherry decided to scope him out while we performed.
Up until Liz had told us about her dad, we were looking forward to the talent show. We had rehearsed several times a week in May and June. It had been the highlight of our summer break. First prize was $500. None of that mattered anymore. Our focus went from winning to fixing Liz’s problem.
The music started and they announced our names. I saw Mom and Mrs. Townsend coming towards the stage, both smiling. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen were busy with their food stand; the best-selling item on it was a Knish, a deep, fried potato and cheese filled pocket, popular in New York City.
Mrs. Sanchez sat with Gabby’s smaller siblings while they crawled all over her lap. We could see our fathers hustling to and from the keg counter, too busy to take a break but looking up at the stage when they could find the time.
We chose Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Gabby sang the lead and we did back up. She picked the song back in May and we agreed it would be appropriate; never realizing how much meaning it would take on later. To this day, when I hear that song, my eyes tear up, my spirit is lifted, and I am fifteen again.
The music started, a few technical glitches with the microphones but we kept going. We were the hams from Justice Drive; we loved the spotlight. “Winter, spring, summer or fall…” Gabby didn’t miss her cue. The three of us swayed in unison about four feet behind her. I could see Sherry scanning the beer tent, more specifically, the man under the hunting cap. Each time we swayed to the right she would eyeball in his direction. I nodded, letting her know the man in the hunting cap seemed to fit the part.
“Now, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend, when people can be so cruel…” Gabby looked over her shoulder briefly as she sung those particular lyrics. Liz reciprocated her smile. “Just call out my name and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running to see you again…”
Although we hadn’t rehearsed it in practice, Gabby backed up and stepped between Liz and me. We clutched hands and locked our pinkies. It came naturally. We sang the last verse that way. “You’ve got a friend.”
Our mothers were on their feet before the music had ended. They applauded as though we had just won an Olympic medal. “Just a few quick pictures,” Mom and Mrs. Townsend begged.
We momentarily forgot about Liz’s trouble and enjoyed the crowd’s reaction. Sherry only stayed for one snapshot and was half-way across the stage moving towards the hunting cap.
The rest of us followed Sherry. We looked over our shoulders, hoping our mothers didn’t see where we were headed.
Sherry walked right up to the stranger. Sherry lured him to the other side of the beer tent where the under twenty-one crowd was mingling. We could hear her flirting with him in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable to any mother. She would get this guy to bite no matter what it took. Although she had the situation under control, we stayed close enough in case the guy was a jerk.
“I need a fava’,” she hinted, running her hands through her hair, “can you help me?” He was wearing old cut off jean shorts with boots like a construction worker and a black t-shirt with an elk emblazoned across the chest. It had short sleeves around the arms and a pack of cigarettes was tucked above one deltoid. His body was well defined, though his facial hair was in need of grooming. He was resting against a table with a clear plastic cup in one hand. He uncrossed one of his legs, which had been resting over the other. “What daya’ need lil’ lady?” He had a twang when he spoke, not familiar to any of us and certainly not like Sherry’s.
Sherry didn’t waste anytime. She reached in her Daisy Dukes and pulled out the wad of cash. She jested with her head for him to follow. He did but not before swigging the last mouthful of beer. He licked the foamy residue from his lips and tossed his cup into the rusty trashcan. His eyes studied Sherry’s physique. She had this naughty tease about her and a suggestive walk.
They headed away from Bicentennial towards the parking lot. We followed tightly behind, careful not to let him know we were shadowing them.
We could still hear the music and a few faint announcements in the background, but we were out of direct view of the crowd. We weren’t close enough to hear their conversation, but Sam, as we would later find out his name to be, was checking out Sherry very closely. His eyes covered every inch of her body, while she did most of the talking. Sherry wasn’t playing hard to get either; whatever it took, she was landing this guy. At one point he brushed his hand along her forearm and then rested it on her chin.
“My God, Pepper, he’s touching her. Maybe we should…”
“Shh, Gabby,” I objected, “She knows what she’s doing.” Though I wasn’t completely convinced myself.
Sherry unfolded the money from her shorts. She handed him a section and tucked the remaining cash inside her bra just like a scene from an old-fashioned movie. We ducked behind a pick-up truck as they approached us. He went one way, and Sherry, the other.
We caught up with Sherry back at the main entrance. “What happened?” Gabby inquired.
“He’ll do it.”
Tilting her head to the side like an eager puppy, Liz asked, “When?”
“When the timing is right. I told him to meet us over at the beer tent.”
“Why there?” Liz asked warily.
“How else is he going to know which one is your dad?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I pleaded one last time.
“She’s got a good point, Sherry,” Gabby meekly agreed.
“That piece of shit deserves much worse!” snapped Sherry. “He’s getting off easy if you ask me!”
I knew what he had been doing to Liz was more disgusting than anything I could think of, and he needed to be stopped. But I had this gut feeling, one I couldn’t describe. It was as though a faint voice in my head was telling me this wasn’t the way to go about it. But I didn’t listen to it.
Liz remained adamant about her secret - the plan was our only solution in our inexperienced teenage brains. Just shake him up a bit. We never envisioned anything could go wrong.
“Well what are we waiting for?” declared Sherry. And we worked our way back to the beer tent again.
Gary’s phone rang and abruptly stopped our story. He took the call. “I have to get going. I have to be in court in less than an hour,” he told us. You're going to have to tell me the rest of this later.” I knew Mrs. Townsend would be back shortly, and we wouldn’t be able to speak as freely then.
“What else do we need to do?” I asked.
“For one thing, Butch wants to talk with you again. You should get down there soon.”
“Butch?” questioned Sherry. She still had no idea that Butch was currently the chief of homicide for the county. Mom would send me a marriage announcement or the local obits from time to time to keep me abreast of the goings on in Liberty. I remember when Butch was hired he made the front fold of the newspaper that day.
“Herman Butcheviwietz?” Oh muy God!” laughed Sherry, “That overweight plug is a homicide detective?” Gary nodded his head, “He was the police chief here, after Simms passed away, and last year he got bumped to homicide.”
“Is he the one who reopened the case?” asked Gabby.
“From what I understand, Officer Simms did his best to keep it alive for years, and Butch inherited it when he first came on the scene.”
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest,” Sherry suggested. “After all Liz and Butch...us...you know.”
“It’s his job and regardless of what happened when we were younger, he has a duty to uphold it. Besides, I would think Liz would want to know who killed her father.”
“I do Gary, but I can’t pretend he was father of the year.”
Through the hazy curtains, Gabby could see Mrs. Townsend walking back down the hill. “Your mother is on her way,” she informed us.
“You won’t tell Butch, will you?” asked Liz.
“Whatever you’ve said remains client privileged, but everything will eventually have to come out. Until then, don’t speak to anybody about what happened.”
Mrs. Townsend entered the room as Gary was leaving. “I’ll see you later.”
“You’re finished already?” she questioned.
“I have to be in court for a verdict. I’ll be back later tonight.”
While the others were saying goodbye to Gary, I walked over to Liz’s piano where I gazed at the different photos. A large 8 X 10 graduation portrait of Liz with fluffy rolled bangs sat in the center. Next to it, were a few family photos but only one with Mr. Townsend in it. There was a frame with Mr. and Mrs. Townsend and Liz when she was about five, Mrs. Townsend with Liz at the beach when she was about sixteen, and the one of us in our matching shirts from the night of the Bicentennial. I picked up that particular frame. Each of us was smiling, our arms wrapped tightly around one another. I remember quickly stopping to take that photo for our moms and then rushing off to put our plan in motion.
“Great times back then.” Mrs. Townsend’s voice startled me from behind. She took the picture from my hand and traced her finger around the border. “She loved you girls...still does.” I put my arm around her shoulder, “And we love her.”
“How can they think my baby did this?”
Could she really have no idea? Maggie Townsend was clueless. It gave me a better appreciation for Mom and her inquisitions. She seemed to know what I was thinking before I ever even spoke. She always knew the right questions to ask -mother’s intuition she called it.
“Come on, Pepper, are you coming?” Gabby called.
“Be right there!”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Townsend. They’ll find out who did it,” I tried reassuring her before leaving.
Two decades had passed, new forensic science was able to prove all sorts of things, but I still wasn’t sure it would remove Liz as a suspect.