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Skating Under the Wire, Page 2

Joelle Charbonneau

  Even without the booze, Ethel was able to give everyone a rundown on her search for Ginny. Turns out Ethel found Ginny in one of the TV-room armchairs. A football game was on the television. According to Ethel, Ginny liked football because all the men wore tight pants. Sadly, Ginny was no longer able to enjoy the view.

  After her story, Ethel assured everyone that the party should continue. Ginny would want it that way. Only no one felt right eating chocolate cake and constructing wedding dresses out of toilet paper. Not with Ginny eternally sleeping just down the hall. The partygoers said their farewells and told Danielle they’d see her at the wedding. Then they loaded up their to-go plates and headed for the exit.

  After ten minutes, the room was empty of everyone but Danielle, me, and the mountain of shower gifts. Danielle drove a black Ford Focus. I had a yellow Honda Civic. We both got decent gas mileage, but our cars weren’t big enough to get the haul to her fiancé’s place. We needed help.

  Lots of it.

  “What happened to the party?”

  Danielle and I turned. Limping into the recreation room with a frown was my grandfather. He was covered in gold lamé, white spandex, and a lot of rhinestones. The fact that I wasn’t surprised to see Pop’s fashion choices spoke volumes about my life. In the past couple of months, Pop’s Elvis look had morphed from special occasion to personal style. More often than not, he wore his pants at least a size too small. Mobility took a backseat to pleasing his fans. Unfortunately, today his limp appeared to have little to do with fashion.

  “Are you okay, Pop?” I hurried across the room and offered my grandfather my arm. He waved me away and stomped his right foot three times.

  “I was waiting for my big entrance, and my foot fell asleep.” He looked around at the empty room with a sigh. “That’s the last time I take a gig that requires me to jump out of a cake.”

  “You were in a cake?” I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still …

  “Yeah.” He leaned down to rub his calf, sending prisms of light dancing around the room. “It was pretty comfortable for the first twenty minutes, but then my butt began to itch. Do you know the lengths you have to go through to scratch the middle of your ass when you’re stuck in the center layer of a cake?”

  No, and I was pretty sure hearing about it would cause a lifetime of therapy bills. So I did what any person hoping to retain her sanity would do—I changed the subject. “What song were you going to sing when you leapt out of the cake?”

  “‘Burning Love.’” Pop grinned at Danielle. “We thought it would set the right tone leading up to the wedding. Louise even rigged the cake so it would light on fire for the big finale. I can’t believe everyone left before we got a chance to bring the house down.”

  Something told me that everyone leaving was probably the only reason the Indian Falls Fire Department wasn’t breaking out the hoses. Still, my heart went out to Pop, who was looking more than a little deflated at being left in the lurch by his fans.

  “You can’t really blame them for leaving. Ethel came in and told us Ginny passed away,” I explained. “I don’t think anyone was in the mood for cake after that.”

  Pop’s eyes grew sad. Then he sighed. “Ginny was a feisty one. Since she refused to go out with me, you probably didn’t know her. Every morning she’d walk five miles, rain or shine. She loved being outside, although she hated the cold. Once fall came, you’d find her walking on the treadmill, watching talk shows. Snow and icy rain are a pain at our age.”

  The winter weather in Illinois was hell at any age.

  My grandfather shrugged and gave me a small smile, but he didn’t have the usual sparkle in his eyes. Pop didn’t do sad often. When he did, it knocked me for a loop. Kind of like now.

  Putting my arms around my grandfather, I kissed his leathery cheek, careful not to dislodge the black pompadour wig. “Ginny was lucky to have you for a friend. I bet she made all the women crazy, turning you down.”

  Pop flashed a smile. “Yeah, I think she liked that part.” He returned my hug and sighed. “I should probably go see how Ethel and the other ladies are holding up. We all expect to go at some point, but seeing someone like Ginny go—well, it makes you realize that you gotta enjoy life while you can, because you just never know.” He walked toward the door, stomping his right foot every other step. “Let me know if you need any help getting those gifts home. My muscles could use a good workout.”

  Once Pop and his rhinestones were out of sight, Danielle sank into a chair with a weary sigh. “God, I never knew being polite and opening gifts could be so much work. Give me pole dancing any day.”

  I glanced around the room to make sure no one had overheard. Danielle must have been really tired to mention her past profession in a public place. She had reinvented herself when she moved from Chicago to Indian Falls, and she lived in fear that someone would discover she used to be a stripper. Especially her fiancé.

  “You looked like you were having a good time.”

  She kicked off her strappy black heels and shrugged. “I preferred the shower you and the derby team threw for me last weekend.”

  “You liked the EstroGenocide dishes?” The girls had custom-ordered black dishes stamped with a silver and pink version of the team’s logo. Skulls and crossbones were the epitome of class.

  “The dishes are hideous.” She laughed. “The people who gave them to me are wonderful, though. Most of the women today were here either to impress Rich or to see if I did something unworthy of a pastor’s wife. They think their pastor is perfect, which means his wife has to be perfect, too.”

  “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

  “God, no.”

  The horror in her voice made me smile. On paper, the ex-stripper and the mild-mannered pastor looked like a mismatch, but as far as I was concerned, they were a perfect fit.

  “I just wish we could have eloped.” Danielle sighed. “Then I wouldn’t have to worry about having the perfect dress and serving the perfect food. I was hoping having the wedding the Friday after Thanksgiving would make more people decline, but so far everyone’s said yes. If I didn’t have you helping me through this, I’d go crazy.”

  For a second, I wondered how Pop was holding up, but then I turned back to the problem at hand. “I guess we should think about moving these boxes to your place.”

  “Not in these heels.” Danielle laughed. “Rich promised he’d move the gifts as long as he didn’t have to come to the shower. You’re off the hook.”

  Okay, the maid of honor handbook probably said I was supposed to turn down the offer of freedom and stay, but I did really want to check on Pop. I assuaged my guilty conscience by instructing Danielle to text me if she needed help—something she’d been doing more and more frequently as the wedding approached. Then I grabbed my coat and purse and bolted for the door.

  Following the sound of voices, I walked through the center’s blue-and-gray linoleum hallways, past rooms used for macaroni art and Jazzercise classes. During my mother’s childhood, the building was home to the Indian Falls High School. By the time I’d hit the age of pimples and teenage angst, a new school had been built at the edge of town, leaving this one abandoned. Since the building sat next to the retirement home, the town’s seniors commandeered it. Now it was a hub for bingo, backgammon, and gossip. If you wanted the skinny on anything Indian Falls, especially if you didn’t care whether the information was one hundred percent accurate, this was where you came.

  I found Pop in the workout room. He was consoling a cluster of distraught ladies huddled near a stationary bicycle. From the way the women were jockeying for position, I was guessing that not all of their distress was over poor Ginny’s passing.

  Pop spotted me, gave the tall brunette next to him a pat on the shoulder, and sauntered over. “Do you need a man to help lift heavy boxes? I’ve been logging a lot of hours on free weights.”

  My grandfather flexed his bicep. Rhinestones sparkled. The women behind him sighed
. I pretended not to notice.

  “Pastor Rich is coming to help, so I thought I’d ask if you need a ride home.” I figured that sounded better than saying I wanted to see if he was an emotional wreck. I didn’t want to ruin the macho mojo he had going on.

  Pop shook his head. “My car’s in the lot. Besides, I’m going to wait and see how Ethel’s holding up before heading out. She’s in the lounge, talking to Deputy Holmes.”

  Poor Ethel. I’d been grilled by Deputy Sean Holmes more than once since coming back to Indian Falls. Sean’s interrogation style had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Ethel was going to need Pop’s sparkly shoulder by the time it was over.

  “Why is Sean talking to Ethel?” I asked. “Does he think there was foul play?”

  “Nothing that interesting. I overheard the paramedics say something about a heart attack. Sean just needs something to write in his report.”

  “I guess that’s good.” I felt a knot of worry ease. Lately, too many of the deaths in town had involved foul play.

  “Real good.” Pop smiled. “Sean will be busy squaring away paperwork. That gives you time to get a head start on tracking down the Thanksgiving Day thief. Did Julie give you a list of the victims? If not, I probably remember most of them.”

  Oops. Ethel’s surprise announcement had pushed my agreement to investigate off the radar. “Mrs. Johnson gave me the list, along with a check for my fee. What are you doing telling people I charge a fee?”

  Pop’s smile widened. “No one’s going to take you seriously if you don’t charge for your time.”

  No amount of money was going to make me a legitimate source of detective work. “I run a roller rink, Pop. That makes me qualified to burn pizza and schedule birthday parties.”

  My logic failed to impress my grandfather. “I called a couple of PIs in Moline and asked them what the going rate was. Then I knocked off twenty-five percent, seeing as how Julie gave you As in all her classes. I figured that was worth the discount.”

  I ignored the flash of indignation I felt over the implication I needed to buy my grades and focused on the real problem. “Pop, I can’t charge for investigating crimes.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I have no training.” Duh.

  My grandfather waved off my concern with a flick of his wrinkled hand. “Training is overrated. I’ve never had a singing lesson, and look at me now.” Pop gyrated his hips to the left, causing the women behind him to break into enthusiastic applause.

  With all that sparkling it was hard not to look at Pop. I might even have been inspired by the comparison if Pop actually had talent. Pop’s singing sounded a lot like a hedgehog in heat, and that was when he remembered the words. What he lacked in talent he made up for in shiny, tight clothes, unparalleled enthusiasm, and bribery. He gave away imitation silk scarves by the truckload. I had a closet full of them. Still, while lack of talent hadn’t gotten in my grandfather’s way, my pride wanted me to be good at what I did.

  Pop finished one last pelvic thrust. Then he got back to business. “I can take a look at the list and give you background on the victims. Heck, I can even ride along when you interview them. With me helping, what can go wrong?”

  I could think of at least a dozen things off the top of my head. Still, it couldn’t hurt to get Pop’s take on the victims, right? After all, I had promised Mrs. Johnson I would try to track down the thieves.

  I pulled Mrs. Johnson’s envelope out of my pocket and unfolded the sheet of paper inside. The list was long and arranged by the year of the theft. The most recent thefts were written at the top. In three of the years, more than one house had been hit. All combined, there were thirteen names listed. Something told me that if the thief had his way there would be fourteen come December. At least.

  One of the names caught me by surprise. “I didn’t know Annette was robbed. Mom never mentioned it.” Annette was the owner of the town’s hair salon and had been my mother’s best friend.

  Pop nodded. “For a while no one was certain whether the Thanksgiving thief cleaned her out or if it was her ex-boyfriend. The man was a skunk.”

  My mother had told me about the skunk. If she had mentioned the breakin, I hadn’t been paying attention, which made me sad.

  I quickly scanned the rest of the list. Some of the names—Betsy Moore, Nan Thain, and Doc Truman—were familiar. The rest were not. Pop started to give me a rundown on the victims, but after hearing about Betsy Moore’s controversial methods of inseminating a horse, I tuned him out. Sometimes too much information is a bad thing.

  “So who are we going to question first? My vote is for Barna Donovan. Last summer he said one of his goats was eaten by an alien.” Pop’s eyes glittered with excitement, which was way better than the sorrow that had been there earlier. Too bad I was going to disappoint him.

  “If I’m going to look like a professional investigator, I need to talk to victims on my own.”

  “You’re probably right.” Pop frowned. “We don’t want to get your new business off on the wrong foot. Just keep me posted on how things are going. I have fifty dollars riding on you catching the crook before Sean Holmes does.”

  The women in the room stopped talking, and their eyes settled on something behind me. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I slowly turned around.

  Well, crap. Leaning against the doorjamb, looking at me, was Deputy Sean Holmes. His ash-blond hair stood up as though he’d raked his hands through it a bunch while questioning Ethel, and his smoldering eyes had me ready to duck for cover.

  “Where’s Ethel?” Pop demanded. “We want to make sure you didn’t rough her up.”

  Sean gave Pop a flat stare. “I don’t rough up old ladies.”

  “Who are you calling old?” Ethel appeared behind Sean. Her eyes were swollen and her nose was red, but the way she was swinging her purse said she was ready for a fight.

  The crowd of women near the bikes took a step forward. Pop glared. Elvis and the septuagenarian Supremes were ready to rumble. Sean swallowed hard.

  Call me crazy, but I decided this was a good time to clear out. I said good-bye to my grandfather, who was slowly advancing on Sean, skirted around the action, and headed out of the room. Shrieking voices and shouts for an AARP uprising followed me all the way down the hall and out the door leading to the parking lot.

  The temperature was somewhere around freezing as I zipped up my coat and trudged to my car. Somewhere above the clouds the sun was probably shining, but it wasn’t making its way down here. The mist of rain falling from the sky made me glad I hadn’t walked the two and a half blocks from the rink to the center.

  “Funky Town” was blasting from the sound system as I strolled into the rink. Kids and adults of all ages boogied counterclockwise on wheels while laughing, screaming, and inevitably falling. The smell of popcorn and pizza made my stomach growl, and I remembered I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. After a quick talk with my staff, which today mostly consisted of responsible high school students, I decided everything was under control. I told them to call if they needed me and then headed back outside and around the side of the rink to the door leading to my second-story apartment.

  The apartment was blissfully quiet thanks to Mom’s decision to soundproof when she refurbished the place a few years ago. Kicking off my wet shoes, I made a beeline for the kitchen. I poured myself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs as my cell phone rang. Almost certain the call was my grandfather needing to be bailed out of jail, I dug my phone out of my purse. Then I smiled with pleasure as I read the display. Lionel.

  I flipped open the phone, and a warm, sexy voice said, “Hey, I’m sorry, but I’m running a little late. Mrs. Pendley’s horse jumped a fence and hurt its leg.”

  Lionel was a large-animal vet. When he wasn’t tending to the four-legged critters around town, the two of us were working to define our current relationship status. Lionel was the love, commitment, and marriage kind of guy. I was still trying to figure out what kind of girl I
was. Right now, I was a girl who’d forgotten she had scheduled a date for tonight. Oops.

  “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We can reschedule for another night.”

  “I should be done here in another hour. Would you mind waiting a little longer to eat dinner?”

  The idea of a real meal instead of a bowl of cereal had its lure, but I’d seen Lionel after one of his emergency animal visits. While nothing could detract from the appeal of his sculpted features and deep green eyes, dirt, blood, and manure were serious appetite suppressants.

  “Why don’t I meet you at your place?” I suggested. “That’ll give you a chance to clean up before we eat.” Plus, since one of last year’s Thanksgiving theft victims lived just down the road from Lionel, I’d have time to pay her a visit. Could I multitask or what?

  Plans made, I ate another handful of cereal, changed into jeans and a fitted blue sweater, and then rummaged through the end table in my bedroom for a pad of paper. In the movies, investigators wrote things down. Columbo, the Law & Order gang, Inspector Gadget—they all had pen and paper on hand when doing their work. While a spiral notepad wasn’t exactly a stamp of legitimacy, it made me feel like I was at least trying to look the part.

  Finishing the last handful of cereal, I brushed the crumbs from my sweater and shrugged into my white winter jacket. The coat was bulky and made me look like the Michelin Man. Perhaps not the look a person should go for when meeting the world’s sexiest vet for dinner, but I didn’t care. What the coat lacked in attractiveness it made up for in warmth. Anyone who’d lived through a Midwest winter would agree that warmth won out.

  Checking to make sure my gloves were in my pocket, I opened the front door and walked smack into the chest of Deputy Sean Holmes.

  The impact threw us both off balance. Sean staggered down two steps before regaining his footing and catching the back of my jacket as I started to sail past him. He hauled me onto the stair he was standing on, and for a moment we both looked down to the bottom of the steps, contemplating what might have happened.