Skating Around the LawJoelle Charbonneau
For Andy—my biggest cheerleader;
and for Mom—my biggest inspiration
Writing a book is like being in a play—a huge crew of people is required to help bring the book to life.
First, I have to thank my family. Especially my husband, Andy, who has read every word I’ve written and still encourages me to write more. My mother, Jaci, who taught me how to skate and has always cheered me on. My son, Max, who laughs at me even when I’m not trying to be funny, and my father, who taught me the importance of never taking no for an answer.
I owe countless thanks to my incomparable agent, Stacia Decker, for championing me and my work. You have no idea how grateful I am to be a member of Team Decker. Also, thank you to my wonderful editor, Toni Plummer, for making this book shine. Special thanks to my publisher and publishing team. You’re all a class act.
Much thanks is owed to my writer colleagues. First, a huge thank you to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who has always given me great career advice including “Join RWA.” To the writers of Chicago-North—you are an amazing group of teachers. To Maureen Lang, Deb Gross, and Nancy J. Parra—I don’t know what I would do without you. To the members of Team Decker—you guys rock!
Last, to all the booksellers, librarians, and readers who pick up this book—thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Falling on my ass really hurts. My mother told me that after taking my first steps I fell smack on my butt. Well, I’ve been whacking my backside on the floor ever since, both figuratively and literally. Today, I did it surrounded by a bunch of five-year-olds.
A little girl with big brown eyes and a purple stain on her overalls leaned over me. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “Rebecca, you gonna be okay?”
Trying to maintain a little dignity, I struggled up to my elbows and smiled at the tiny faces peering down at me. The whole scene had me feeling a little like Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians.
One Lilliputian’s eyes filled with sympathetic tears. I plastered a fake smile on my face and said, “I’ll be fine.” Or I would be if no one started crying. I love kids, but my ability to console a hysterical child from the middle of the roller rink floor seemed chancy at best.
“That looked like it hurt a lot.” This from an angelic-looking boy.
“It doesn’t hurt at all,” I lied, struggling back up onto my roller skates. Once all five foot six of me was right side up I gave a triumphant smile. I then looked down at my class of kids wondering what I was supposed to teach them next.
A masculine voice over the loudspeaker took pity on me. “All students come over to the blue wall. We’re going to end today’s classes with the Hokey Pokey.”
The kids lost interest in my pratfall. They skated over to the far wall painted Crayola blue as music started blaring from the sound system. Once their happy faces were gone, I rubbed my stinging backside and rolled across the floor to the sidelines.
“You should probably brush up on your skating before teaching the next class.” My grandfather’s voice reached over my shoulder. I turned, and he smiled at me. The smile was kind even if it was a little scary. Pop had forgotten to put in his partial. “The kids lose respect for a teacher who spends more time on the ground than on her feet.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not their teacher,” I replied. “I was just filling in while George took a phone call.”
Pop gave me a stern look. “Rebecca Robbins, your mother taught classes every Saturday until she died. It wouldn’t hurt for you to follow in her footsteps.”
My mother was one of the most graceful people I ever met in my thirty years on this earth. She successfully taught hundreds of kids how to spin, jump, and roll. I was her one colossal failure.
“She was a professional roller skater, Pop. I’m not.”
He wagged his finger at me. “Your mother said you would have been great if you had applied yourself. Instead you ran off to the city to do God-knows-what at that office.”
“I’m a mortgage broker, not a prostitute,” I said. Although some days the idea of streetwalking seemed preferable. Xeroxing documents and having people sign on the dotted line didn’t put me in the fast lane to success. Besides which, my boss had recently started showing a personal interest in me. An interest I didn’t share. Still, the job paid well enough, and it wasn’t Indian Falls. The last part mattered most.
“You’re a roller rink owner now. It’s time you took some pride in this place. Your mother dedicated her life to making the Toe Stop an important part of the community. People around here count on this rink.”
“I know, Pop.” His words made my stomach go squishy with guilt. “But I have a job and a life in Chicago. I can’t keep the roller rink running from a hundred and seventy miles away.”
This earned me a harrumph. My grandfather hitched up his bright red pants. “You could run this place if you wanted to. I did it out of love for your mother after she died, but my doctor says I can’t anymore. A year was my limit. Besides, I’m too old to be running a business. Think of my blood pressure.”
As far as I knew, Pop’s blood pressure readings were better than mine. Still, hearing him talk about his health scared me, so I changed the subject. “You’re not too old to have several different ‘lady friends,’” I teased. “At least three different women introduced themselves to me as your significant other.” I wondered what the doctor would say about that.
Pop shrugged. “I’ve been taking a few out for a test drive.” Pop shook his head and scolded, “Don’t look at me like that. Your grandmother passed years ago. I’d say it’s about time I started dating again. You don’t want me to live the rest of my life alone, do you?”
“Of course not, Pop,” I said. My grandfather deserved to be happy. Problem was, I found it embarrassing to have a grandfather with a more active social life than mine.
“Rebecca, I want you to think about what you’re doing here.” Pop gave the rink a wistful look and ran his hand through his bushy white hair. “This place is special. Once you get rid of it you’ll never get it back.”
Pop shuffled toward the door and into the May sunshine, leaving me on the sidelines alone. I listened to the song as it asked people to “put your whole self in.” As far as I was concerned, my whole body was already in, and I really wanted out. Since my dad ditched us two decades ago, my only dream was to get away from Indian Falls, Illinois.
And I had.
I headed for the office and closed the door. My mother’s face smiled at me from a frame on the scarred wooden desk. The picture had been taken about twenty-five years ago. Mom’s brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. She wore a short blue skating skirt, and her fingers were holding a wide-eyed little girl’s hand. The little girl had red corkscrew curls and freckles and was wearing skates and a big smile.
The little girl was me. Since I was nine, life had been just like that picture—Mom and me—with Pop and Grandma looking on with a smile. Last year I was shocked when a heart attack took Mom. Now, as m
uch as it hurt, I was skating solo.
Sighing, I sank into the rickety chair and flipped on the computer. There were bills to pay, receipts to keep track of, and paychecks to write. Those things I understood. It was the blaring music coming under my door, the pull of Indian Falls and this roller rink, that I didn’t get.
Kids got it.
My grandfather preached about it.
My mother loved it.
I looked down at the desk calendar with today’s date circled in red. “Meet Doreen the Realtor at two.”
I was going to sell it.
“I know it’s my job, but I just hate the thought of selling this place.” Doreen’s eyes blinked at me from behind her rhinestone-encrusted black-framed glasses. “My kids loved learning to skate here. My granddaughter, Brittany, skates here now. She’s right over there.”
My eyes followed Doreen’s red-tipped finger to where it pointed out a teenaged girl dressed in low-rider black jeans, a very tight black shirt, and heavy black eyeliner. Too bad the tan rental skates kind of ruined the great goth look Brittany had going.
Doreen gave a little finger wave. The girl glared back, eliciting a small “tsk” from her grandmother. “I can’t imagine what’ll happen to the kids in this town if this place closes. Where will they go? Your mother understood how important the Toe Stop was to the community.”
Translation: I was a complete schmuck for not caring. I did, but I wasn’t about to stay here.
“You know what the rink looks like,” I said. I gestured to the side door. “Why don’t we start the tour upstairs in the apartment?”
Doreen nodded her permed, champagne-colored head. She trailed behind me, chattering all the way. “The rink is in great shape—new floors, new carpet, fresh paint. Anyone can see that. My granddaughter raves about the new sound system. All those renovations must have cost your mother a fortune.”
Yep. The checks I’d been writing to cover the loan she’d taken out proved it.
We reached the top of the stairs, and I fiddled with my key ring, trying to find the right key.
“It’s too bad your mother didn’t live long enough to enjoy the benefits of that investment. I don’t think her death will hurt the sale of this place, but you never know. Once we hold the open house, we’ll get a better handle on how quickly we can get a sale.”
The keys fell from my fingers. Doreen adjusted her sparkly glasses and peered at me. “Are you okay, dear?”
“I’m fine.” Maybe. I grabbed the keys. Quickly, I flipped through to find the one for this door. “What did you mean when you said my mom’s death could hurt the sale of the rink?”
Doreen twittered. “Sometimes people feel a little squeamish investing money in a place where someone died. You know”—her voice got low and whispery—“because it could be haunted or cursed.”
Cursed? My body shivered as one of the keys slid into the lock. A turn of the handle and the door swung open.
Any ghost in here? I thought. Mom?
I flipped on the light. Nope, no ghosts. Just some furniture and a lot of dust. Otherwise everything was the same.
That fact shouldn’t have surprised me. I hadn’t stepped foot in the apartment since Mom died. Pop took care of packing up designated items in the will and stuff for charity. I just couldn’t do it.
Doreen wandered around the expansive combination living and dining room, nodding with approval. The room ran the width of the roller rink. A large, recently updated kitchen was to our right. Bedrooms were down on the other end. The apartment even had a window that overlooked the rink floor. When I was a kid, my mother used to shout instructions to me as I stumbled around on my skates.
“How many bedrooms did you say there were?”
I wrung my hands together and shot a look toward the stairs. I couldn’t stay here much longer. Not without losing it.
“Three,” I answered. Mine, Mom’s, and the obligatory guest room. I hadn’t used my bedroom much since I’d left for the city eight years ago.
“And only one bathroom?”
If you didn’t count the ten stalls just down the stairs.
“Is that a problem?” I asked.
Doreen shrugged. “You never know about these things. You should probably have someone come fix things up a bit before we start showing the property. I noticed a couple of places where the paint was chipped, and a new knob and lock on the front door would be a good idea. I thought I saw Mack Murphy downstairs with his tools. He could do it for you. Just make sure you don’t pay him until he’s finished.”
“Mack always did good work for Mom.” He had been nice to me while I was growing up, too. That combination made me leap to his defense.
Doreen gave a fierce frown. “Mack’s changed. You’ll have to take my word on it, and I’ll leave it at that.”
I let Doreen wander around the apartment alone. Ten minutes later, I was relieved to head back downstairs.
Hip-hop music assaulted us the minute we stepped back into the rink. A couple of dozen kids were racing around the wooden floor in a circle while strobe lights flashed from the ceiling. It was just one big dance party hosted by yours truly.
I took a step toward the refreshment stand and felt a tug on my arm. It was Doreen’s granddaughter. She wasn’t wearing the angry scowl. In fact, she looked kind of freaked.
“Is something wrong, Brittany?”
Brittany’s black-lined eyes shifted toward the bathrooms behind us. “I think someone is sick or something in the girls’ bathroom.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course someone was sick. Eating junk food and then racing around in a circle was enough to make any hyperactive kid puke.
“Okay.” I gave the girl a smile. “I’ll go take a look.”
I dodged a few kids zooming toward the refreshment area and pushed the girls’ bathroom door open. Except for the music, everything seemed quiet.
The bathroom smelled of Pine-Sol and hand soap. My nose didn’t detect any vomit. Hopeful that Brittany was mistaken, I braced myself for previously chewed pizza and began pushing open the stall doors. Nothing. Next one. Nothing. I reached the handicapped stall. Four down. So far so good.
I gave the door a nudge, peered in, and almost passed out. My knees trembled. My stomach did a triple gainer, and I leaned against the stall door for support. On the stall floor, not moving, was handy Mack. His arms were wrapped around the toilet tank. His head…well, I think he put his head in and shook it all about. His face was somewhere below the water level, and he wasn’t moving. Both were very bad.
I heard the door swing open behind me. The click of heels was followed by a loud “tsk.” Doreen’s voice chirped, “Damn, Rebecca. This is going to kill the rink’s market value for sure.”
“Oh my God.” Mack must have slipped and hit his head or something.
Swallowing down my panic, I approached the toilet. With a yank, I pulled Mack’s head from the water. His lifeless eyes stared into mine, and I dropped him with a shriek.
Damn. I couldn’t leave him like that. I took a step back toward the body.
“Is he okay?”
I turned toward Brittany’s frightened voice. I was surprised to find she’d come into the bathroom.
Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “He’s not breathing.”
“Maybe you should give him mouth-to-mouth,” Doreen suggested.
Brittany’s white face looked at me with hope. The three of us turned to look down at Mack.
Okay, I wanted to be heroic. Reviving Mack and saving his life would be a great thing for me to do. Only I couldn’t. He was dead. I was certain of it. Besides, the man had his head in a toilet. That alone sucked all the heroic right out of me. Still, I did what I could and pulled his head back out of the water and rested it gently on the toilet seat. Now he looked more like a man who was paying for a heavy night of drinking than someone who had just gone bobbing for apples and lost.
I stepped in front of the stall door
, blocking Brittany’s view of Mack’s plumber’s crack. “I’m sorry,” I said to both Brittany and Mack’s ghost, just in case he was floating nearby. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Brittany’s lip quivered as tears streaked down her face. That’s when her entire body started to shake.
I pulled Brittany and Doreen toward the entrance of the bathroom. “I think the best thing to do is call the sheriff’s office. They’ll know how to handle this.”
Brittany held up her cell phone. “I’ll call them.” The kid’s trembling fingers dialed before I gave the go-ahead. Her voice was firm as she related the problem.
I was impressed. There was more to Brittany than teenaged angst. In fact, her current calm put me to shame. All I’d wanted to do since finding Mack was to throw up and run screaming from the bathroom. Of course, I couldn’t. Mack had died in my rink. On my watch. With kids present.
Oh God, I thought. My eyes shifted to the bathroom door. What if the little kids from my class came in here?
Grabbing Doreen’s arm, I said, “I need to ask everyone to leave the rink. Could you guard the bathroom door? Make sure no one else wanders in here. I don’t want kids to see this.”
“You’re right,” she said with a frown. “Mack’s caused enough trouble in this town. Don’t want him to hurt our children, too.”
I blinked. Mack was dead. He deserved a little sympathy if not respect. Then again, maybe Doreen was just in shock from seeing a dead body. I knew I was.
Doreen’s agreement to play bouncer outside the bathroom door sent me racing into the rink. “Wipe Out” was being pumped through the speakers as I made my way to the sound booth.
Hauling myself into the cramped space, I hit the on button for the mike and announced that the rink was closed due to “plumbing problems.” A couple of kids shot me dirty looks. Otherwise, the mass exodus went smoothly. By the time the ancient Indian Falls sheriff waddled through the door, the rink was almost empty.