I grabbed Minnie, darted into the condo, and locked the door. I set her down where she would be safe. Nervously, I wiped the stovetop, considering options. I should contact police. But I also wanted to get to Kat's school. I needed an excuse.
Some people would already be arriving there. Maybe I could offer to help Cynthia Petre and the other secretaries take phone calls. Naw. Tell Anne Little I was stopping by to see if they needed a sub? Noway. I glanced at Minnie. "I could go in wearing coveralls and tell them I want to apply for the custodian's job."
I gave myself a light cheek slap for thinking of such a thing. My phone rang. Who was up so early? Telemarketers were intelligent people. They didn't rise until seven in the evening, it seemed from their calls. Gil? "Good morning! I hope you have a fantastic one," I said in a sugar-coated tone.
"Gram!" Kat screamed. "I need you!"
"Kat, what's wrong?" I shrieked into the phone.
"My car . . .. . . . somebody blew up my car!"
I panted, clutching my phone. "Where are you? Are you hurt?"
Her quiet moment seemed to extend to an hour. The clack-clacking I heard sounded like teeth chattering.
"Kat, tell me!"
"I'm okay. I'm at school."
"I'll be there."
"Gram, I . . .. . . ." She exhaled heavily and then seemed able to speak again. "I couldn't get Dad. The police are here."
I sprinted to the Mustang, talking. "Kat, I'm on my way." I barreled off in the car. "Tell me what happened."
More of her heavy breaths sounded before she spoke. "I got here about twenty minutes ago. Parked where I usually do. In the lot. I came in the building and was going to take my first exam, and . . ."
"I'm with you, baby." I scooted to the edge of my car seat and shoved the accelerator. "And then what? What happened, Kat?"
"We heard a loud noise. Thought the building was exploding. Everybody started running." She breathed hard. "People screamed to look out. Then somebody yelled, 'Kat, it's your car!'"
"Smoke was all over the parking lot."
Traffic made me brake. Come on, come on, I urged drivers. "Kat, I'm heading there and-"
"I have to go. The police want to talk to me again."
"I'll be there in a minute. Hold on, sweetheart, you hear me?"
The clog of vehicles seemed like sludge on the freeway. I veered off to an exit. City streets slowed me down, but I willed myself to be there with Kat. What happened? Who'd want to harm her? Why?
Her little secondhand car surely wouldn't attract anyone's envy. Roger had bought that car two years ago. He'd fine-tuned the motor and knocked out the body's kinks. Kat's summer jobs at the rec center helped pay for it. She kept that Chevy in shape with weekly washings and much polishing. She was so good at polishing, I thought, feeling a tense smile when I considered her skills. But who'd want to hurt the car? Or Kat?
Grim thoughts made my teeth clench. Did this have anything to do with Grant Labruzzo's murder? Was he murdered?
Potentially deadly circumstances connected to Kat's school were startling. Labruzzo died. A woman who'd subbed was shot. Another, with hair like Marisa's and wearing denim like her that day, was hurt by spilled chemicals. A beaker broke when someone slammed my classroom door. Was the door locked? Why and how? Was Marisa Hernandez attracting killers? Or was she a killer herself? Did her lure endanger my granddaughet?
I tore through an intersection, my scalp tightening with questions, heart racing in my chest. A blasting horn made me glance out my door window. I'd cut in front of a car, its furious male driver giving me the finger. Ignoring him, I spied unlit stadium lights ahead leaning forward like tall bug-eyed creatures. I careened around a corner to the school.
Vehicles rushed toward and away from Sidmore High. The parking lot made my stomach churn. Police cars with swirling lights surrounded the half-empty lot. Sirens screamed with squad cars and fire trucks pulling up. Firemen were already hosing a smoking car that I couldn't see in the middle of the lot. My granddaughter's car.
Hot tears blurred my vision. My body convulsed with trembles. I gripped the steering wheel, overwhelmed by a feeling of losing control.
Where was Kat? How could I find her with all this confusion? I kept telling myself she was okay. The reminder wasn't working.
Roadblocks had cut off the street in front of the school. Adults wearing worried faces were pulling up all over the adjacent road near the stadium, where people scrambled to cars and each other. Out of the field house between the stadium and the main building came a large policeman with a black Labrador. Police dog. Bomb-sniffing dog.
I parked in the stadium lot and ran with swarming parents who shouted their fears to each other. They hollered names of their children, relief flooding faces when they found kids unharmed. A sense of the surreal washed ever me. Police, teachers, and students everywhere. People sobbing. They spoke into cell phones, telling others they were okay. Many rushed away from the scene, the new crime scene.
"Kat!" I yelled, my head whipping from side to side as I darted through groups, skimming faces. Some I recognized, most I didn't. I moved through swarms of frantic people and called Kat's name, asking if anyone had seen her. Teens and adults shook their heads, running past me. My mouth was shaking, my jaw aching from my teeth hitting against each other. The sea of people was thinning, the walkway to the school ahead of me blocked off with tape and adult guards.
I spied a familiar woman. "Anne. Anne Little!" I called, rushing toward her. She didn't seem to hear my voice between the sirens' wails and shouting voices, and headed into the field house.
I ran in behind her. The stench of urine and stale body odor made me bite back the instinct to gag. People were talking loudly beyond the locker room.
In what must have been a coach's office, I saw Anne Little. She sat at a table with other adults. And Kat.
"Gram," Kat said, shoving herself up to her feet. She came to me, and we gripped each other.
"It'll be okay," I murmured, rubbing her back and feeling her trembles matching mine.
"You must be Katherine's grandmother," said a man seated at the table. He was bald and wore a sports coat. The police officer beside him had freckles and looked too young to be wearing a uniform. Anne Little gazed at me with sad eyes and shook her head. Kat and I wiped off our tears and sat.
"Yes, I am," I replied. I held Kat's hand and faced this person, who rubbed his hand back and forth under his fleshy chin.
"I'm Captain White," he said. "Katherine wasn't hurt. And nobody was in the parking lot, as far as we know, so we were lucky. It doesn't seem like anyone was injured."
I breathed relief. Then I said, "Who did this?"
"We don't know yet." He peered at me from beneath bushy eyebrows. "We're securing the school and trying to keep everybody safe."
I squeezed Kat's hand. Kissed her forehead. Saw her expression relax into one of gratitude.
"Captain White," I said, voicing what I'd just surmised, "it probably wasn't a bomb. Maybe something went wrong with Kat's car. I'm sure she told you it's old."
"Mrs. Gunther, it was a bomb," he said, his statement settling hard in my chest. "Katherine said she had no idea who might have done this."
He faced Kat. "Have you offended anyone? Have you caused anyone to be embarrassed?"
"Kat doesn't have enemies," I snapped.
Captain White looked at me. He left his wattle alone and peered at Kat.
"I haven't hurt anyone," she said, "that I know of."
"Did you see anyone around your car when you left it this morning? Or when you drove up?" he asked, and Kat shook her head.
Roger rushed through the doorway. "Kat!"
"Dad." She bounced up, and they hugged. Clung. The pain in Roger's face mirrored all the sorrow he'd borne while watching Nancy die.
Tears stung my eyes. I yearned to stop all this suffering in my son and grandchild.
"I was checking out the motor in a car," Roger said to all of us, "and just got back to the shop and received the message. I can't believe this happened."
Captain White spoke to him. "I'll need some information and then you can all go." More questions would come later, at the station. Anguish remained in Roger's face while he gave answers and held Kat. She looked more peaceful by the time we left, with her father's arm still secure around her shoulder. Kat seemed especially frail, held by the gaunt man at her side, my grown boy.
We were out of the building when Roger glanced at me. "I'll take care of her, Mom."
"I could help."
He shook his head. "I'm taking Kat home. She needs rest." They both thanked me for coming, and Roger said he would keep in touch.
I watched them sag against each other. I had to keep my feet planted to keep from grabbing them and forcing them to come with me. I'd take them straight to the airport and shove them in a plane. We'd fly far away.
I walked across the grass to my car, peering over my shoulder to keep the two of them in sight until they were gone from my view. Few people remained in the area. I slid into the Mustang and sat slapping the steering wheel, cursing whoever had caused my family such anguish. I peered out, saw a brilliant, clear sky and cursed that, too.
Vehicles were inching by, the people inside them staring at the school parking lot. I drove away, my inner eye viewing the grief I'd just witnessed. I wanted to be with Roger and Kat. But my son had taken charge. Could he find sudden power?
The image of Gil's shoulder came, the cushiony space where I had often leaned my head. I could curl up on his lap and let him hold me. Tell me not to worry.
I gave my head a shake. Strength had to come from inside me now.
Captain White had told Kat, Roger, and me that we'd have to go to the station as soon as possible to give more information. For me, this seemed like a good time.
I drove there and walked in without concern about the place or its people, but noted the strong odor of a sweet cigar. Maybe the fruit trays weren't working. The man I had spoken to before wasn't here today. He'd probably gone to the school early this morning to question John Winston.
Detective Sandra Jones led me to her office. The dark-skinned, petite woman told me to sit, and I did. She sat at her computer.
"Who could have had a bomb?" I asked. "That should tell you who to arrest."
"Anybody with computer knowledge and a little sense could have learned how to build a simple pipe bomb. We'll check with places that sell the parts and see if we can find out who bought them, but they'll probably be hard to trace."
My mind rummaged through people from Sidmore High. No student in my first day's classes could have figured out how to make a bomb. But all of those kids were in that construction class. They learned how to build things. Did all kids today have expert computer knowledge?
"When you went to Sidmore High School to sub," Detective Jones said, "did you antagonize anyone? Would any student have it in for you, Mrs. Gunther?"
I made rapid eye blinks. "You think somebody did this to Kat because of me?"
"Kids do all sorts of things to get even."
Her comment dumped a crushing weight on my chest. I had decided to do something about Kat at her school. And I could have caused her death. I slapped a hand over my mouth to keep from vomiting.
Slumping back in the chair, I tried to force away all my trembling. My pulse throbbed in my head, and I leaned toward this young woman. Words tumbled from my mouth. Anything. I had no idea what information the police might be able to use. Sandra Jones wrote, her fingers seldom slowing on her keyboard. I told about Sledge. Roxy, who was probably okay, but she'd once pulled that knife on Kat. My head reeled. "Kat likes this teacher." I talked a little about Marisa Hernandez, waiting to see Jones's intense expression change. It didn't. "I heard that Miss Hernandez has been a prime target in your investigation of Grant Labruzzo's murder."
Jones stopped typing. She stared at me. "He was murdered? Do you know that for a fact?"
I shook my head. "Uh-uh, but I thought-"
She typed more while I told my concerns about murderous-looking Coach Millet and tiny red-faced Miss Gird. Jones's eyes scrolled down to mine. "Are they connected to Katherine? Did either one of them threaten her?"
"No. But Miss Gird teaches her now." I considered. "Oh, and Roxy said the police should be questioning a teacher named Abby Jeansonne."
I was blank. "Roxy just said." I raised my shoulders. "Your killer could be anyone in the office or driving those trucks and Jeeps and cars."
"Again you say we have a killer. Are you sure of that, Mrs. Gunther?"
Air left my lungs with great sound. "I'm not sure of anything."
Of course Detective Jones knew about Mrs. Peekers. She was fine, Jones said, when I asked of the woman's condition. Went home from the hospital Saturday. "Anything else you can give me?" Jones asked. "Anything that seemed threatening? To you or your son or granddaughter?"
"Roger only fears having Kat leave him soon for college." A recent concern sprang to mind. "Do you know if anyone from your office questioned a student named John Winston today?"
She didn't know. I told her everything that transpired with the boy. She typed, stopped, and with big brown eyes peered at my face. "Any threats to you?"
My eyes rolled up. Which events to tell? Anything that might help Kat. I looked at Jones. "Well, my Lexus was keyed and kicked in when I parked with the students."
She nodded, making notes. "Kids do stuff like that all the time. Rebelling against adults."
"And somebody wrote on my mail truck."
Her head jerked back. "You drive a Lexus and a mail truck?"
I certainly wasn't going to tell her about the Mustang parked outside. "When I fly into a city, I like to rent different kinds of vehicles."
"Why? Most people rent the same kind of cars."
"I try to match what I drive to my mood. Variety keeps me from stagnating."
She turned to her keyboard. "What was written on the mail truck?"
"'Leave or die, bitch.'"
Jones peered at me. "Did you talk to anyone in the office at school about that? Did you ask if anybody was seen around your mail truck?"
"The staff was all busy. A kid pulled the fire alarm that day, and everybody had to go outside. Then they had to get the kids back into classes."
Jones made notations. "Okay," she said, glancing up, "anything else done to you? Anything that might have scared or concerned you?"
I didn't like the way some kids looked at me, or that time Abby Jeansonne whipped her body around and gazed at me. Didn't like the looks of some people in the office. "Nothing was done to my Mustang convertible," I said without thinking.
I'd goofed. With a shrug, I said, "Let's see, what else? I was locked in my classroom, I believe. Not long before Mrs. Peekers was locked in the custodians' room. And then somebody shot at me."
Jones blinked rapidly. "Maybe," I amended. I took the bullet out of my purse and gave it to her, explaining that I wasn't sure it was new. And someone may have tried to run me down at a curb, but again, I wasn't certain. "The driver probably just cut the corner too sharply. And he-or she-drove through a red light. The person could have trouble seeing colors."
Little sighs sounding like exasperation came from Jones as she typed all I told, and as I considered all those small events together, they seemed like a mountain of trouble. Eventually Jones stopped. "Were any of the kids jealous of Katherine?"
"Your granddaughter's popular at school. She makes good grades."
I asked how she knew, and Jones reminded that deputies had been around Sidmore High. They'd gathered information about many people. Some of the teachers. People they were close to. She asked lots more questions and when we were through, I felt as if I had taken an all-day exam and hadn't studied nearly enough.
How would Kat do on exams if she had to go through anything like this inquisition? And then, of course, the police had quizzed her. They would ask more questions. Prod her about enemies. How could anyone not like Kat? I wondered, leaving Detective Sandra Jones, who said she might contact me again for more information. She kept my bullet.
I restrained my grandmotherly instinct that told me to rush to Kat. Instead, I phoned her house while I drove.
Roger answered. "She's exhausted from queries. And what happened." He was fine, he said. His voice did sound strong. Fear for Kat must have invigorated him.
"You try to rest, too," I said.
"I'll want to inspect Kat's car. And find the bastard who made that bomb."
I liked hearing Roger take control. I told him about the police station.
"Locked your room?" he asked, incredulously. "And somebody shot at you?"
"I'm not sure. Wish I would be." Of course he was shocked to learn that I'd even gone to the school.
"Why didn't you tell me? Mom, I'm your son!"
The power in my child's voice commanded my tears to come. They seared my cheeks, their salinity finding my lips. "I love you, Roger."
"And I love you, Mom. Never forget that. Come to me whenever you have a problem. Please."
My hand clasping the phone quivered even once we clicked off.
I gripped my steering wheel, wanting to speed to their house and hold Roger and Kat. They needed to rest, needed some time alone.
I needed someone to lean on. I couldn't help myself. My car closed in on the last remaining blocks to Gil's restaurant.
I rushed inside Cajun Delights, not pausing to think. I only felt. I felt a need to find comfort on Gil's shoulder. Felt a need for him to love me.
He met me as soon as I entered. "Cealie." Gil's face showed a mixture of joy and surprise. He was walking past the entrance but came to me, his arms outstretched.
"Gil," I whispered from my secure place against his chest, welcoming his arms around me. I clasped his back and felt its power. Lingering in his embrace, I ignored voices of hungry patrons who entered, the strength to meet Kat's problems seeping back to me.
Gil took my hand and moved me from the crowd gathering near the door. "What happened at Kat's school?" he asked, sounding worried. "I just heard and was about to call you. A bomb blew up in the parking lot?"
Hearing Gil say the words brought back all the images. The intensity of his gray eyes when he turned them to mine swamped me with emotions. I fought the sting surging up behind my eyes and nodded.
"Kat didn't get hurt?"
"No, thank God, at least not physically."
His shoulders relaxed. "Do the police know anything? The news didn't say much, only that Sidmore High had been evacuated."
"Nobody knows what happened yet." At least nothing the police were sharing with me. I hadn't considered the media. They obviously hadn't announced that Kat's car had been the one targeted.
I was ready to tell him all about it. I'd tell Gil all of Kat's problems and even share with him the news that I'd been subbing. Sticking my nose in police business and Kat's, trying to make her take exams and show up for graduation. I'd pour out my woes to this man who had stood by me through turmoil in the past. I adored Gil, I realized while his firm hand clasped mine, guiding me toward the back of his restaurant.
We passed tables filled with people eating stuffed flounder and bacon-wrapped shrimp. I'd tell Gil all and share my fears and my theories. Tell about threats that had, or might have occurred with me.
He glanced at me, his breath blowing out relief. "At least Kat's all right. We'll have to talk more in the office." He was leading me toward a door in the rear when my peripheral vision caught sight of mega cleavage above a woman's tight black shirt. I glanced at Gil's table, where Legs sat, watching us.
Ramrod stiffness gripped my back. My hands grew cold, my neck muscles rigid. While I'd be pouring out my miseries to Gil, she would sit here to wait for him? And then after I left, she would ask him to tell her everything I said.
My feet stopped abruptly. I pulled my hand away from Gil's. "I don't have time to visit," I said.
His eyebrows shot up. "Why not?"
I knew his girlfriend was staring at my back. Refusing to give her a direct look, I replied to Gil in a cold, accusing tone. "You have a new friend." I tilted my head to indicate that young woman.
Gil grinned. "Cealie, you and I have been apart for a while."
"I only came in for one thing," I said, my fury-blurred gaze managing to spy a passing waiter's plate and giving me the idea. I needed to stop Gil's upcoming spiel about an unattached man needing a lover. "I want French fries."
"You don't even like French fries," Gil said.
My fingernails bit into my palm. "I do now. Could you get me an order?"
He asked a waitress to fix me some. "And I want them to go," I added. Gil stared at me, and I clenched my lips to pause my inner squirm.
"Sorry I missed you last night," he said. "I heard you came here with Kat and Roger."
"I figured you wouldn't be here." Was that a lie? I wasn't certain anymore. I only felt the female eyes boring into my backside.
"If I'd known, I might have been able to change my plans."
"No problem. We ate. The food was good."
Gil's expression turned bland. Were we strangers? Acquaintances? People who'd known each other once but no longer?
"I'm sure the school will close for a while," he said.
I nodded. "I guess the police will check everything out and make sure things are safe before anybody goes back there."
"Graduation might be pushed back."
I hadn't thought about that. Didn't really want to. "Maybe so."
"I'll be invited?"
My mind and body all felt stiff. "I'll ask Kat."
Gil narrowed his eyes. "Cealie, can I help with anything? Don't you want to sit down and talk?"
I had already talked too much. "We're all right. Thanks for asking." I accepted my bag of fries from a waitress and gave her the same polite thanks. I held the bag up toward Gil. "Your treat?"
His face was stern. I turned and rushed out with my eyes focused straight ahead.
* * * * *
At the condo I pulled on running shoes and used them to pound the cement. I ran so hard that my heart pumped harder than I could remember it ever doing. Not so good for a mature woman who hadn't stayed in shape. But I needed to dump out every inch of fury coiling through my lungs. Every ounce of fear. Every concern I had for Kat and Roger. Forget Gil and counting on him.
Where was my upbeat attitude? I wondered.
Lost, it seemed, when my grandchild became threatened.
I was panting when I returned. I didn't feel like talking to Minnie. She leaned sideways in the pot. My fault for sure. Just like Kat's problem. She hadn't been in danger until I came around, shoving my nosey self into her school.
I threw the French fries in a trash can and slammed the cover. Slumping across the couch, I heaved guilt-laden breaths. I needed to stop thinking of the restaurant, stop all the worry. Being angry at myself wouldn't help me find answers to help Kat. I inhaled and exhaled slowly to purposely calm my breathing.
Detective Jones had mentioned jealousy. Could Kat have taken away another girl's boyfriend?
Hardly a reason for planting a bomb. But how would I know? I'd seen some of those female students who looked fearsome. Their tiny tops and bottoms. Some girls showed tremendous cleavage. And skirts almost to their panties, if they wore any. Some of those females were surely fooling around with young men. Who knew what they would do to keep them?
Hannah Hendrick also had huge boobs. Anne Little had huge gold hoops on her ears. Cynthia Petre had small braces and mismatched clothes. Harry Wren had many cacti. Grant Labruzzo killed one of them. Tom Reynolds missed school. He hurried from the warehouse church after he saw me.
I reached my arms out and stretched. My calves were tight. I'd run hard and hadn't stretched before or afterward. My view of the ceiling took in the chandelier's glistening teardrops. No spider in sight, but a piece of web clung to one of them. A deadly web . . . like the one Kat was caught in. I needed to set her free.
Worry cluttered my mind. Of course, the detectives and Roger were doing all they could to help Kat now. But I'd been in different situations connected to her-or maybe some weren't. I needed to sort things out.
Detective Jones had suggested that another senior might've worried about Kat's final average beating his or hers. Maybe that person would lose an important scholarship because of Kat's grades. But if Kat didn't show up for finals . . .
The detective's suggestion had pointed toward a good student going after Kat. With all of those apparent punks in the school, we also had to analyze those who weren't? The good kids.
Where had I heard of someone losing out on a scholarship?
Sledge, caught in a compromising situation with a female student. Grant Labruzzo had turned him in.
Now I was back to considering the bad kids. My head reeled, and I imagined Legs at Gil's side, asking about the girl he wanted to watch graduate. What would he say? That he'd almost married her grandma? No, he wouldn't tell that. But Legs would want to attend graduation with him, if he went at all.
If Kat showed up.
My head lolled back. Roger was taking control. He had attended college for two years. His choice to quit. He wanted to keep working on cars. Loved his job, built up his own business. My son had been enthusiastic about his occupation, until Nancy took sick.
Nancy. Her image and soft voice swirled. She didn't graduate. And even while we assured her it didn't matter, to her it always did. She appeared the perfect wife and mother, yet never seemed to feel as important as other people. Only because she'd missed receiving that one damned piece of paper.
Kat would be safe. I imagined Nancy's voice telling me that and felt her assurance. The police would protect all the students.
I hopped to my feet. Yes, Kat would graduate. I didn't need Gil. I didn't need anyone's help any longer.
I rushed across the den for my cell phone, and it rang. The incoming number showed my Cape Cod office. "Cealie!" Bud Denton cried when I answered.
My heart jumped to my throat. "Bud, what's wrong?"
"Isn't a semicolon's main job to replace a comma and and?"
"I wasn't totally certain, and Jena's out for vacation. Sue Ellen isn't sure either."
"Bud . . . . . . ."
"It is, right?"
"Don't you have a nice grammar book or two or five?"
"My glasses broke. And Sue Ellen needs to get some."
I took a deep breath and exhaled. "Yes, you're correct."
"Ah, thanks, Cealie. So how are things going for you?"
My eyes rolled up. "They're going."
"Great. See you."
I clicked off. Soon I was going to have to fly up to Cape Cod and have a little instructional talk with Bud and Sue Ellen. Did I have the right people running that office? Should I move there and run it myself?
I shook my head. I didn't want to settle down. And I couldn't think about it now. Much more critical concerns swirled through my head. Kat. Roger. Gil. Legs. Exploding automobiles.
The explosion grew in my mind, its flames and racket and blown-up fragments drifting toward the school building and trickling inside. Nearing the auditorium, filled with graduates in caps and gowns.
An explosion on stage?
"What?" Kat asked once I reached her on the phone.
I repeated my statement. "Kat, don't graduate!"
Her small snicker came through the line. "Gram, you've been pushing me like crazy to attend graduation. And now you're telling me I shouldn't go?"
"Warning you, honey. Wherever they hold graduation, don't go there. Forget that school." I paced in and out of my condo's rooms, clasping the phone to my ear, an ache in my heart from wanting to hold Kat.
"We'll talk about it later," she said. "I had to talk so much to those police and everybody, and now I'm really tired."
"I know you are, sweetheart." My hip bumped the bathroom counter. I twirled and sped toward another room. "What's your dad doing?"
She sighed. "Same as you, worrying about me. But I'll be okay, Gram. I just have to-"
"Just one more thing. Who else in your class has a real high average?"
She grew silent. Probably wanted to ask why. Probably didn't have the energy. Finally she said, "I guess John has the best grades."
"John, your boyfriend?"
"We broke up, remember?"
"I remember. He wanted to get serious."
"And started to get jealous. I'm really exhausted, Gram."
I reminded Kat that I loved her and she said the same. We hung up. My heartbeat had quickened. John Winston. I jabbed in the number of the police station and asked for Detective Sandra Jones.
She wasn't currently available. I asked whether the person I was speaking with could give me any information. Had they learned anything new about my granddaughter's car that blew up at school?
No, sorry. But Detective Jones would have a note to return my call. I hung up and tried Sidmore High. Heard the busy signal. Tried again. Still busy. "Damn." I threw my cell phone across the den, and it clattered along the floor.
I yanked open the door of the console that hid the television and flicked it on. Scrolling through channels, I searched for news. Finally found a local reporter. "So decisions haven't been made yet about when classes at Sidmore High School will resume."
A close-up of the school snapped up on screen. Then a distant shot showed the blocked-off parking lot as I'd last seen it. "This is where a bomb, apparently a small pipe bomb, blew up beneath a student's car. All we've been able to ascertain is that the car was an older model red Chevrolet." The female reporter returned into view. "We'll continue to break into regular programming whenever we receive more information."
I was grateful that they weren't naming the student whose car exploded. I still couldn't believe it happened.
Later in the evening, Gil came by. His face showed concern when he entered.
I led him through the den. "Can I get you anything?" I said without emotion. "Water?" I opened the frig and peeked in. "Cranberry juice?"
"I don't want anything except to find out what's going on with you." Gil's eyes were piercing. He stepped close, moving into my space in the kitchen.
I slid away from him. "Nothing's going on. I'm just waiting to see what'll happen at school. I'll attend graduation, if they have it. And then move on."
He shifted, and his hand settled on the counter. It nudged my cactus's pot, making him notice the plant. "That's Minnie," I said. "My new traveling companion."
Gil's eyes appeared darker while they gazed at me. I stayed across the room. "I see," he said, his expression telling me he understood more than the words I had spoken.
"Cealie, if I can help you with anything . . . . Or Kat. Or Roger."
"No thanks, we'll be fine." I gave a small smile to show him.
His shoulders seemed lower when he walked to the door. Gil stopped and turned. "Even if we aren't together anymore, you'll always be important to me."
Gushy flutters rushed around in my chest. I was tempted to dash across the room and knock him down, stripping off my clothes and his.
I lowered my head. Forced deeper breaths and purer thoughts before I answered. "Thank you. And you'll keep being important to us." I made certain to include the others, couldn't tell him all he meant to me. I almost ran to the door to give him a parting hug. But letting Gil go would prove too difficult. There was no more Cealie and Gil. "I saw your new girlfriend," I said.
"At your table. At least twice."
He nodded slowly, wearing a small grin. "Now I really understand."
"I'm glad you found someone else." I forced my voice steady while I opened the door for him. "And I appreciate your concern. That's what friends are for."
He gave me a steady gaze. I turned my head away and opened the door wider.
"Thanks for coming over. Goodbye," I said, locking the door after he went out.
I walked straight to the sofa, trying to swallow the knot and keep my shaky arms still. I sat, staring at the television. Faces and motion came and went. At some point late in the evening, I heard the breaking news.
Sidmore High School would reopen in the morning.
I trembled through most of the next day. Kat was at school, taking her final exams.
"The police said they thoroughly searched the school and surrounding parking areas," Roger said when he phoned me sometime during the morning. Many officers would remain at school for security. He had dropped Kat off, and she'd get a ride home with a friend. "Kat's fine," he said to me in an uncertain tone.
"I'm sure she is," I blatantly lied. "And how about you?"
"I'm good. Kat said she'll give you a call when she gets home."
She did. I rushed to their house. My gaze skimmed over her, and she looked okay. At least physically. "So you decided to go," I said.
"Yes. The tests weren't too bad. Being at school was kind of scary. But I guess I did all right." She had avoided the parking lot. Some teachers told her that her average was high enough in their classes and she wouldn't have to take their finals. But now she needed to study for her last exams that she would take tomorrow.
"You don't have to," I reminded.
Kat gave me a look. "Gram, I know how much Mom wanted to see me graduate. And Dad might not say it or show it, but he'd be crushed if I didn't finish school." She sighed and sat down. "And I'd be disgusted with myself if I gave up now."
Roger came back from work early, and we visited a few moments. I left, knowing they needed their lives to feel as normal as possible.
Detective Sandra Jones returned my call. I told her what I'd learned from Kat about John Winston. "He makes top grades. He was jealous." I also made sure she knew what the girl from the warehouse church said. "Last Thursday John wrote a note saying Miss Hernandez was being arrested, and he passed it around class to reach Kat. Of course, Miss Hernandez was at school the next day, so he'd just made up a lie to antagonize Kat."
Jones thanked me for the information and said she'd get back to me with any new developments.
I pondered over what I'd told her. Who knew what else John Winston might be capable of doing? And just because Marisa hadn't been arrested didn't mean she was no longer a suspect. My brain felt frazzled, as though it had been given the frizziest perm.
Early the next afternoon, Kat phoned. "I'm through, Gram."
"With that school?"
Enthusiasm filled me. "Woo-woo-woo! That's terrific!"
Her tone was less enthusiastic. "I'll be sending out my announcements late because I hadn't decided if I'd go to the ceremony." She exhaled loudly. "But I will."
She had no choice but to let me come over and get her. Kat needed a change of scenery.
When I reached her house, she was holding the panda. She showed me her graduation pictures. Kat in a lagoon blue cap and gown, smiling, her happy green eyes peering straight into the camera. Kat with her head tilted, her look pensive. Her reddish hair blurred with my tears. She autographed a large and a wallet-sized picture and gave them to me.
We hauled everything over to my condo. There we sat at the table with her pictures, announcements, and a list of people to send them to. What scared me the most was that the announcements said commencement exercises would be held at Sidmore High School. "Why there?" I asked.
"Since the explosion, some people thought about changing the ceremony to the Community Center. But the seniors voted. They still want to graduate from Sidmore." Concern showed in Kat's face.
"Nobody believes that's too dangerous?"
She shrugged. "There weren't any signs of explosives or other sabotage. It seems that whoever did it was just after me. Or my car. For some reason." Her gaze shifted toward the floor.
"Kat, you really don't have any idea why that would have happened?"
She stared at me, shook her head. "Miss Hernandez called," she said, voice still dull. "She wanted to see how I was doing."
"What a nice lady. But I still get creepy feelings about you going back to that place."
"I know. During the exams I kept looking around, wondering . . . . . . ."
"I haven't quit wondering either. Who did it? Why?" Kat's eyes clouded, and I added, "Some of the other kids are jealous of you, too, aren't they? You make great grades. You're beautiful."
She gave her head a small shake. "I'm no better than anybody else."
I grinned. Took her hand. "Are you scared to return to Sidmore?"
We clasped hands. Stared off but saw only inside ourselves. We drew our hands apart. "Now let's invite people," I said. "Let 'em know you'll be commencing the new and probably the best phase of your life."
Our gazes met and reflected. Kat's new phase, her going off, would mean more worries for her father. And that worried Kat.
"You haven't considered going to a college around here?" I said.
She shook her head. "I suggested that to Dad, but he knows I always wanted to go off and feel independent. He says I can't stay around here now just for us to baby each other."
She addressed envelopes and I stuffed them with announcements, adding pictures to those she indicated. We talked about some of the relatives. Kat wrote little notes to a few of them and suggested I do the same. I jotted a few sentences, telling people I knew how brilliant and gorgeous my granddaughter was.
I only questioned two of the announcements she was sending. "On your note to my cousin Stevie, absolutely do not tell her I'm here. She lives so far away, and there's no need to tempt her. So don't send her a ticket either, just a picture and the announcement, okay?"
Kat agreed, and I quickly mentioned Gil. "Send his to the restaurant." I considered, one ticket or two? "And I'm sure he'd like a picture of you with his ticket." He would only receive one.
I stuck stamps on the envelopes after Kat finished writing, and she drew up her knees and cocked her legs sideways on the chair like she used to do as a youngster. She created a slight oval, elbows at her knees, hands cupping her face. Her unfocused eyes watched my hands.
A few days ago I wanted nothing more than for her to strut herself in a colorful robe across a platform in a large auditorium. Now I was dreading that scene.
How was she seeing herself? As one of the graduates who'd walk up to that stage and . . . hear an explosion?
"Kat, you really don't have to do it."
She didn't seem surprised or ask what I was talking about. "I know, Gram."
We gathered her things and then left. Kat ran into the post office with her stack of envelopes. She came out swinging her arms. "I just sealed my fate. I'm about to become a graduate."
We rode in silence. Kat, like me, probably trying not to think. We picked up the mail truck from the last repair shop. I crossed my hidden fingers and told Kat some kid had scribbled I hate you on its door, so I had to get it painted. I shivered, recalling the threat the person really wrote. She seemed too weary to question anything.
She drove the Mustang while I returned the mail truck to the dealer. I no longer felt adventurous.
"I'd like to go home now," Kat said, scooting over so I'd have to drive the Mustang. "I'm meeting some friends tonight to get ready for our senior trip to the Bahamas next week." She gave me a small smile. She'd been saving the money for quite some time.
Kat, lying carefree on a tropical beach, sounded terrific. If she survived until then.
A thought came. Frightening thought. "Will Sledge be going? And Roxy?"
"I'm not sure about Sledge. But Roxy won't have enough credits to graduate."
Kat promised to call me in the morning. Maybe we'd get together. Do something.
* * * * *
I was lonely all evening. Until the doorbell rang. Gil's gray eye was at my peephole.
"Hi," I said, letting him in. I backed away from the door and from him.
"Cealie, I have to explain something. You are so-"
Behind him, the doorbell chimed again.
"Mr. Gil," Kat said, coming in and sharing a warm hug with him. The three of us sat in the den, making chitchat about the restaurant and graduation. Kat was returning from meeting with friends and had stopped by to show me her brochures. Gil and I raved about them and her upcoming trip. Gil asked about the bomb at school, and Kat and I gave general comments, neither of us mentioning that her car had been the target. Kat's eyes became fearful.
"Kat," I said, shifting the conversation, "I want you to open one of your graduation gifts." I retrieved the box from my bedroom.
She and Gil made anticipatory remarks while she loosened the fancy wrapping and then Kat shouted, "A Twister!"
"I've never played," Gil said. "Anybody want to show me how?"
I spread out the plastic sheet and spun the arrow. Kat hopped up from the sofa. "Oh, a video camera," she said, spying one on the floor. I'd purchased it to film her graduation and afterwards planned to give it to her. "You two play. I've got to film this." She giggled like a young girl.
Soon the den was filled with all our laughter. Gil's big socks covered whole red, green, blue, or yellow circles where I sometimes wanted to put down my foot. "Shove it over, buddy," I said, nudging his side with my hip.
He keeled over, purposely tumbling to the floor. "She cheats," he said, pointing a finger at me for the camera's benefit.
Kat laughed, teased me, and kept filming. Gil got back into place, his foot allowing space for mine. Our bodies were twisted, his left hip jamming against my butt. Mmm, comfy, I thought. His next move seemed impossible. Gil revealed his agility. He spun on one foot and somehow maneuvered his body to reach his next circle. The move left his body bent over mine, with little air between us.
I fought my torso's rising heat and was hoping Kat wouldn't notice. The doorbell rang. "I'll get it," she said, scooting away to the door.
Gil murmured in my ear. "Nice being so close to you again."
I scowled. "But soon you'll be going back to your young lady friend." I forced on a wide smile. "I've been watching Miss Long Legs. And she's been eyeballing me."
Gil's grin looked smug. Or maybe it appeared that way because I was peering at him upside down.
My knees folded, and my torso fell to the plastic sheet.
"And Gil," Roger said, coming in the door with a plant. He stared at Kat, who again aimed the video camera at us. "And you're filming this?"
Roger's shocked expression made me peer around, until I determined what this might look like. "We weren't making a porno movie," I said.
Gil sat back on the mat, grinning.
Roger yanked the camera away from Kat. He glared at me. "I was coming to bring you a plant, and I'm glad I did." He thrust the camera and the plant on the sofa and then gripped Kat's arm. "Let's get out of here. I think I have enough misery without your grandmother creating even more."
"Go on, baby," I told Kat, seeing Roger tremble. "Your dad needs you now. You can explain later."
Kat stared at me. She swallowed. Went out the door ahead of her father. He slammed the door.
I took breaths and finally turned to face Gil, sitting close to me on the mat. "I would have explained to Roger," he said. "But it seems the three of you have things on your agenda that I don't know about." Gil cocked his head to the side. "Want to tell me?"
I peered at his concerned eyes. Watched the rise and fall of his sturdy chest, where I could surely rest my head. And those powerful arms that could hold me.
But he'd said he came over to explain something. I didn't need explanations. I didn't need to hear about how and why he'd met Legs. And I didn't need to depend on him. "No," I said, "I'd rather not talk about family concerns. And I think it's best if you leave, too."
"Are you sure?" He watched me. Waited.
"I'm not sure about anything. But please go."
Gil pressed his lips to my forehead on his way out.
* * * * *
Roger phoned early the next morning. "Mom, I'm so sorry. Kat explained what was going on over there last night."
"No, I can't believe I didn't even think. I wanted to call you right away. But Gil was there."
Oh. He'd thought we were having hot sex.
"No problem," I said. "You've been upset." I recalled what he'd carried into my condo. "Thanks for the plant."
"I wanted to get you something, kind of a thanks-for-coming gift. I thought a peace lily might be appropriate."
My eyes warmed. "Glad I could be here."
Roger needed to get to work. He asked me to apologize to Gil for his behavior. I told him I would, and we hung up. Maybe I'd speak to Gil again. Maybe not.
I mentally flailed myself. I should have butted out. Gil had suggested that the first time I mentioned Kat's indecision. Now I'd only made matters worse. Somebody bombed her car. John Winston was mad at her because of me, maybe even wanted to get even. That ruffian Sledge hated me. He'd know Kat was my grandchild. Maybe he tried to hurt her to get back at me. Would one of them go after her again?
Dragging myself into the den, I spied the camera and the plant on a sofa. I turned away from the camera. The plant looked healthy, with long shiny leaves and spiky white flowers. I'd seen such plants in offices.
I carried this one into the kitchen, trying to sound perky. "Look, Minnie, you have a new friend." I set it down beside Minnie. The flowering thing overshadowed her. I shoved the lily farther away. "You two can keep each other company," I said, wondering who'd be company for me. More gloom set in. "We'll have to come up with a name besides peace lily." I left them alone, hoping they'd know how to get acquainted. I was scoring pretty low on making friends.
Pulling on running shoes, I duckwalked to activate endorphins to determine what I must do. I neared the corner, remembered a truck had run over it and shied away. Where had the bullet I'd found come from? Chicago had outlawed handgun purchases some time ago, but what about people who already owned guns? The bullet on my patio wasn't shiny the last time I saw it. But it probably hadn't been there for long, unless it was hidden beneath something.
I gave up walking in my neighborhood. The only thing I absolutely had to do was help keep Kat safe through Monday night. She'd graduate. And then I would leave.
I dusted the stove and a coffee table, uneasiness still skittering around my stomach. Leaving the condo, I drove toward Sidmore High. Paused a block away but couldn't make myself go closer. I could see numerous vehicles parked on its lot. Undergraduates still in classes. Police cars visible, with officers continuing to make themselves known.
Sounds and faces from the school returned, making me shove the gas pedal. Shuddering, I veered away. I passed Cajun Delights and ate at the next restaurant I found. Wondered if Gil still wanted to attend the graduation.
I had little to do but shop. I moved in and out of stores, buying things for Kat and having them wrapped. I considered driving into downtown Chicago but couldn't muster enough interest. While I drove, I spied other shops, pulled in, and bought Kat more stuff.
When the day ended, my car held lots of pretty, wrapped packages. None of them lifted me out of the doldrums.
So many unpleasant events had taken place while I was around Sidmore High. So many enraged faces. I wanted to meditate but wasn't sure how. My mind needed to wrap around one specific incident out of all those that had transpired, one that should have alerted me to knowing the real killer. Yes, I was certain now. Someone had murdered Grant Labruzzo in that place.
I slept through the night and awoke mulling on faces from the school. Something had seemed especially out of place at Sidmore High. I was forcing my mind's eye back there, recalling people's voices, hearing their words, when the phone rang.
"I checked with the police this morning," Roger said once I answered.
"And what did you find out?"
"They don't have any real leads yet." He sounded as disappointed as I felt. "And Mom, I went to see Kat's impounded car."
"Yes. And I suggest that you and Kat not go."
I had no happy report to give either. "Could I do something with her today?" I asked. "Take her some place?"
"She wants to spend most of the day alone. Cooking."
"Cooking all day would make me severely depressed."
"I know, but cooking calms Kat. She wanted me to invite you for dinner. You can ask Gil to come if you'd like."
I drew in a breath. "I'll be coming. But not Gil."
"Oh," he said, but he didn't ask questions.
The day seemed extra long while I waited to join my family. I pondered Kat's situation, dusting pieces of furniture that didn't have dust, straightening things in rooms that were already perfect, and found no solutions. By mid-afternoon I wandered out the door. Taking off in the car, I headed toward the opposite side of Sidmore High.
A sign near the school announced that undergraduates would start final exams Tuesday. By then seniors would've graduated and been long gone. Heading for their futures. Enrolling in college summer classes. Taking off for the Bahamas.
Would Kat reach its beaches? Today was Friday. She'd graduate Monday. Unless an explosion blew across the stage.
The more I considered, the more my mouth dried. I swiveled around the next block. Headed back to Sidmore. I wasn't sure what I'd do there, but I needed to get some answers.
I approached the road where I'd parked after Kat's explosion, jitters quaking through my stomach. I wouldn't go in, couldn't make myself go inside that gray building. I recalled the frightening sound of the fire alarm breaking into the classroom's silence. Relived hearing terrifying screams and sirens after the bomb's explosion in the parking lot. Firemen hosing Kat's car. Black, acrid smoke flooding the air.
I couldn't go back there. But solutions to keeping Kat safe drew me closer.
School buses were parked side by side in a small lot near the school, suggesting a happy place, a safe environment. No one was outside that I could see. Everybody inside the school, learning.
I eyed the parking lot. Cars and trucks jammed together as when I'd first seen the area. I drove through the lot, rounding each row, searching for one vehicle in particular.
My spirits sank when I didn't find it. I was heading out the lot and glancing to the side. My pulse raced. A black truck was parked in front of an outdoor building where I'd counted room numbers while on duty. It was mid-sized, fairly new. No bumper sticker.
Was it the same truck that had come near my condo? If I got closer, maybe I could tell. I whipped around the corner near the school's indoor swimming pool and started down the block again.
A teenage girl was dashing alongside the street, away from the schoolyard. Agitated movements, stringy blondish hair. "Roxy," I cried, pulling over. "Get in. I need to talk to you."
Her navy eyes flitted toward the school. Roxy hopped in the car. "Can't let 'em see me. I cut out of my last class."
"Shut the door. I'll take you home."
"I ain't going home yet, and I ain't staying with you." She leveled her gaze at me. "How's Kat doing?"
"I'm not sure. Roxy, nobody would tell me what they know. What have you been hearing at school?"
"The kids all like Kat."
"All of them?"
"Maybe not everybody, but most of 'em. They're sorry about what happened to her. The teachers are, too."
"When I asked you about the custodian's death, you mentioned Ms. Jeansonne and Coach Millet. What about them?"
Her look said she was sorry she'd told me anything. She shrugged. "Hardly anybody knows. They're lovers."
"What?" I couldn't envision those two together. "Are you sure?"
"I saw 'em getting it on between the bleachers in the gym." Roxy shoved her door open and slid out.
"But why would that implicate them in a murder?"
"They didn't see me peeking through some doors. But Grant Labruzzo walked in on them." She shut the door and ran off.
I drove, glancing at her retreating figure in my rearview mirror. Could I trust Roxy? Could I believe her? I never would have paired up the teachers she mentioned. And how horrible, that a student would have seen those adults making love. Of course Roxy didn't look too pure or innocent.
If the custodian really did walk in on that couple, had he told anyone? Reported their indiscretion to administrators? Or kept what he saw to himself? What would have happened to those teachers if the school staff found out?
I made a quick turnaround in a driveway and caught up with Roxy. I called to her through my open window. "How long before Grant Labruzzo died did that happen?"
She gave me a snippy look. "Two days. Now leave me alone."
"Do you know who drives a black truck to school?" I yelled, but she dashed off, cutting through a yard, scrambling away from my view.
My car crept through streets, my mind in a whirl. Had that couple killed the custodian? To keep from being embarrassed or losing their jobs? And even if they had, how would that death connect to Kat's car exploding?
I drove closer to the school. Could I go inside and ask the office staff those questions?
I made a small laugh, not a happy one. Of course no one in there would tell me all. I continued past the high school, trying to sort through information I'd just heard and my experiences in that place. I imagined Abby Jeansonne shoving little Miss Gird away from Coach Millet's side and taking her place, envisioned Abby's red-black bangs draping across Coach's furious face. Did she make love to him and take his anger away?
Making a sound of disgust, I thrust off that image of them. I had taken to the freeway. Driven a distance and begun to slow. I pulled in at Gil's place. He'd help me think.
I rushed to the front door and yanked it open.
Ten feet in front of me, Legs leaned over, talking with seated customers.
"Can I help you?" A young man held menus and stood beside me. His question made me realize how I must look, peeking inside.
I drew back my head. "I was just checking . . . the décor."
"Oh." He scanned the restaurant's interior as though checking it himself. He looked at me. "Do you like it?"
"Sure do. Thanks." I took off. How could I have thought in that building? Seeing Legs had immediately sent all my ideas away. My one consolation was that Kat was fixing dinner. Now that I had inhaled the scents in Gil's restaurant, I wouldn't be satisfied with anything else except Kat's cooking. She was keeping herself busy in the kitchen. And she might know who at school drove that black truck.
I returned to the condo, gathered Kat's gifts, and hauled them out to my car. It was still too early to go to their house. I sat out on the patio awhile, thinking but getting no answers. Returning inside, I set water flowing in the Jacuzzi, threw off my clothes and sank into the tub.
Warm bubbles streamed against me, but I entertained no sexual ideas. I didn't read or get sleepy. I needed to know what happened to Grant Labruzzo. Had someone gone after him? Why had they gone after Kat's car? And would that person, or persons, go after Kat on stage Monday night? If I told the police what Roxy said, they'd certainly want the information directly from her. And she certainly wouldn't want to tell them.
I lit chunky candles and tried to meditate. I pondered about threats-written and oral-and people. So many scary faces from that school. Frightening voices. Mrs. Peekers and I unable to get out of rooms. Accidents, or real attempts to kill us?
One attempt succeeded, on the custodian. And another, on Jayne Ackers. But she had been shot near her home. Murderers ordinarily used similar methods. Nothing the same here. I drew in a sharp breath. I'd been shot at on my patio. Maybe.
I gazed at Minnie. I'd brought her into the bathroom but probably shouldn't have. Too much humidity. Her stem slumped against the side of her pot. Nancy used to lean like that toward the end. My chest tightened. I had to admit it-Minnie was dying. I was killing her.
I tapped the side of my head and spoke to me. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You're not the victim here." I needed to refocus my thoughts. I envisioned the faithful from that warehouse church, all victims of their beliefs and that preacher. All slumped across benches and the floor. Grant Labruzzo, found slumped across chairs. Who had access to the auditorium? Who might have keys?
I eyed the bubbles flowing from my tub's walls. Felt my hips floating up. Saw my stomach rise. Not nearly as flat as it had once been. Mature women don't need flat tummies, I told myself, trying not to pass judgment on mine. I needed to remain centered on the problem at hand. Meditation, I'd once heard, could be brought on by the repetition of some meaningless sound. I shut my eyes. "Ah-umm." I felt the last part of my sound vibrate in my throat. "Ah-ummm. Ah-ummm."
Feeling really silly, I let my eyes open. My face towel had floated above my thigh. The towel bubbled up in the center and felt pleasant where its edges rested. My skin looked pale, the towel, dark pink. When dry, my towel had been the same light shade as Minnie's head.
One of Harry Wren's cacti looked like Minnie. Pink tufts on its head. Most of his other varieties had different flowers. Black stockings, black truck. Yellow feathers. Red lights. Red skirt with pink blouse. Ink stains. The hues of people's hair and clothes-
"That's it!" I said, scrambling out the tub. It wasn't a face I'd seen or a warning I'd heard. What tipped me off to a possible killer was a color.
It was 5:46 p.m. when I clutched my steering wheel, nearing Sidmore High. No cars or trucks remained on the parking lot. No Friday afternoon practices or games.
I rounded the block and slowed, passing the school. It had been only a few days since I first came. I'd expected high ideals. My senior sweetie, about to graduate. Kat, wearing a gold band across her gown, symbolizing an honor student. I had arrived in town with fluffy dreams of happy days with my granddaughter and pleasant hours with my son. I'd tried to keep from seeing Gil, but in my mind's recesses, always knew I wanted to. I hadn't planned to search for a killer.
I eased up alongside the stadium. A blue truck and a white compact car were parked beside the field house, a goodly walk from the main building. Coaches? Lovers? People from town who'd located a spot to leave their vehicles?
I drove behind the school, where a small recessed area snuggled beyond the addition for the swimming pool.
There it sat. The black truck.
No one was at school. Except whoever owned that truck.
Its owner would have had an opportunity. A motive to hurt Kat? I wrangled with scenarios and came up with few ideas. Parking near the truck, I scanned the area. Didn't see anyone. I slid out.
Mexican music came from my purse. I jumped, already spooked, and yanked out my cell phone. "Yes," I said, voice low, gaze steady on the building. If that truck's driver came out, I'd see the person.
"Mm, nice husky tone," Gil said. "Did I catch you at an inappropriate time?"
My pounding heart slowed its thrusts. Somehow, hearing his voice made me feel more secure. "I'm about to catch a murderer," I said.
Gil chuckled. His laugh abruptly froze. "You're not serious?"
I left my car but didn't lock it. If something happened with the individual inside, I didn't want to be chased out here and not be able to jump in this car and take off. My first plan, though, was to use my phone if I decided I needed help. "Dead serious," I said, creeping toward the stairs, clinging to the phone. "It's good to hear from you."
"Cealie, where are you?"
I reached the entrance doors. "Getting a higher education."
I could handle life alone, but felt comforted by having him sound so near. It seemed he would come with me through those heavy doors into the school's dark bowels. But he was across town. Probably at the restaurant. With a friend. "I need to be quiet now," I whispered. "See you."
Hanging up, I turned off the phone's ringer. I didn't need Gil phoning back while I was trying to creep up to check on the person inside. Of course I would've wanted him here with me. But if I had explained what I was doing, he'd tell me to let police do all of the investigating. And maybe he'd be right. Maybe I should tell police what I'd surmised. But what proof would I give them to make them investigate this person? That I had a woman's intuition? I was almost positive about who did it? No, if I needed assistance, I had this cell phone, fully charged. And I could run.
I tried a door. Locked. The second door opened.
Creaking sounded as I slipped in with as little opening as possible. My purse vibrated against my side. Gil, calling back? Or my arm shaking?
I scooted past the enclosed swimming pool. Its water reflected off the darkened room's pale blue walls. The next door was open, bringing me into the main corridor. I paused. An eerie quiet claimed the space, cavernous now without students' noises and bodies. Their smells lingered. Schoolbooks, liniments, and sweet body lotions. The small wall lights probably stayed on. I craned my neck and listened.
Breathing seemed to come from my right-the mathematics hall.
I waited, my legs tensed. Was someone nearing?
I wished I'd gone to the bathroom before coming. My heart began counting out seconds. Minutes. Numbers pushed through my head, growing louder. I needed to move before my knees gave out.
I dashed to the math hall's doors and yanked.
Locked. Glass panes revealed darkness down the hall, with darker shadows fabricating black pictures on a rear wall.
I scanned the main region again. A click sounded. It came from . . . somewhere I couldn't fathom in this large space. No one moved that I saw. Maybe a clock? I hoped so.
Scuttling down the main pathway, I tried other doors. The English hall was locked. So was science. Gym doors wouldn't yield, nor would the ones to the office. Lights inside the office remained on. The secretaries' desks bore scattered papers beside their computers. Cynthia Petre's desk held her calendar and picture of John Winston. New posters on the glass panes shielding the office announced dates for exams. The spirit stick was gone.
I scooted to the cafeteria hall. As I figured, one auditorium door wasn't locked. A man I hadn't known was murdered inside this room. I clasped the door handle, my body trembling. Cealie, you're a concerned person but usually not stupid, my mind warned. I could leave here and do as I'd planned. Attend graduation. Then go on with my life.
But Kat needed help. Maybe to stay alive.
I darted into the auditorium, scrambled up a short flight of stairs, and reached the deck. Staring in a doorway, I eyed an absolute black abyss. Do you think you're Super Hero? flashed inside my head. I forced my mind to shut up. Stop thinking about me. Take care of Kat.
I wanted Gil. Roger. The police.
But Roger would also tell me to leave everything to authorities. And those authorities might arrest me for trespassing now. Detectives might discover who killed two people and then bombed Kat's car, but would they do it before Monday night? Before another explosion might occur in this room during graduation?
A small light played up from the stage.
My quivering body made my purse shake against my hip. From the main landing, I peered down at the backs of rows of chairs. The auditorium, dark except for the stage's tiny spotlight, could seat hundreds. This rear hall was circular. Other doorways back here led down to more seats. The molded chairs' seats were folded up, except for the broken ones. Cracked seats hung, creating odd geometric shapes. Chairs that alternated the blue and yellow school colors resembled a tremendous checkerboard. The yellow ones stood out, looking friendlier than the darker ones. Metal strips connected all of them. Between each wide section of chairs, concrete steps led down toward the stage.
Cougars had been painted on the walls outside it, facing the audience. The big cats appeared fierce, poised to charge. An American flag stood on the stage beside a podium. Up there was where Kat would soon make her grand crossing. I hoped.
My eyes adjusted to the dark, and an oppressive quiet pressed against my eardrums. I clutched a chair's rear. Rubbed my palms dry against it. "Someone's upstairs," my mind or throat whispered while my heart drummed. I stood on wobbly legs, feeling the doors closed behind me, encasing me in this tomb. Upstairs, my thoughts ordered.
My knees bumped against each other as I moved. I glanced at chairs stretched along the room's rear. On which one did that young man die?
I backed out and darted to the stairs leading above. If I stopped, I'd turn around and dash away from the terror. I wished I'd worn running shoes instead of pumps. My shoes click-clicked on concrete while I made my way up the sinister stairwell, sliding my palm along the handrail for support.
I paused on a stair. Steadying my breaths, I glanced down through metal strips that supported the handrails. They resembled prison bars. I could see the entrance door. It was still shut, nobody coming inside. I wanted to run out.
Entombed in the tiny black cell, I inched up the stairs, the growing pulse in my throat tasting bitter. My scalp tingled as I neared the balcony, the glow from the stage below getting brighter.
Finally up, I paused. I was standing on a balcony.
Being up here wasn't so awful, I told myself. Nobody was going to lift me up and pretend to toss me down, like my big cousin had. Satisfaction sprinkled through me. I'd done it. I had stood up to my anxiety about balconies.
Still, the air was scant, my legs feeling jelled. I made them take me down steps toward the handrail.
Scanning the area, I saw no one. But felt I wasn't alone. A person could be hidden, stooped in the shadows behind those rows of chairs with raised seats. I peered at the stage, trying to center myself. Calm my breathing. I couldn't believe I was really up here.
I forced new thoughts. Many people must have keys to this place. Band director. Office staff. Coaches. Some teachers. Custodians. They all had reasons to be here at different times.
The person here with me now had a purpose.
The single light on stage created a spotlight on its center.
I glanced back across the balcony. Three rear doors were left open. I had come up on the left, but this wasn't the area where I thought I needed to be. With eyes trained on my surroundings, I crept toward the central section.
Nothing seemed unusual, I thought, moving all the way down to the rail, struggling against my body's tremors. I scanned the rows of chairs I passed before exposing my back to them. A backward glance told me no one had come through a door.
Needing to stop my shuddering, I clutched the railing. Stared down across the dark auditorium. Focused on the stage. It looked ready for a performance. Someone would cross that platform. Maybe speak. Do another activity that would take center stage. The production might call for an encore. I envisioned it. Shoved the scene from my mind. Other lights surrounded that platform, I noticed. Small lights below it, some above. But only the single light shone, spotlighting the shiny wooden floor. I heard footsteps.
They came from behind me. Soft steps, slowed for my benefit.
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