Death Makes the Cutby Janice Hamrick
The first bell of the new school year hasn't even rung, and Texas high school teacher Jocelyn Shore is already at the scene of a murder. Friend and fellow teacher Fred Argus has been found dead on campus, and it isn't long before the annoying, albeit attractive, Austin police detective Colin Gallagher uncovers evidence that Fred might have been selling drugs to… See more details below
The first bell of the new school year hasn't even rung, and Texas high school teacher Jocelyn Shore is already at the scene of a murder. Friend and fellow teacher Fred Argus has been found dead on campus, and it isn't long before the annoying, albeit attractive, Austin police detective Colin Gallagher uncovers evidence that Fred might have been selling drugs to students. Shocked by her loss as well as the insinuation that Fred was a dealer who got what he deserved, Jocelyn starts asking the kinds of questions guaranteed to set fellow teachers, administrators, and parents on edge.
With the school serving as the setting for a big-time director's latest film, her investigation could hardly have come at a worse time. Jocelyn, however, finds clearing her friend's name far more important than the needs of a pesky movie crew and doesn't care who knows it. But it's only when she's attacked while on set that she realizes someone is determined to make sure the secrets hidden by Fred's death remain hidden no matter what the cost.
Humor, romance, and murder abound in Janice Hamrick's follow-up to her Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Awardwinning debut, Death on Tour, and make Death Makes the Cut a charming addition to this outstanding new series.
“Comical (you’ll laugh out loud) and clever (you’ll be misdirected by Hamrick), Death Makes the Cut fulfills the promise of its predecessor and embellishes the author’s reputation as a fine practitioner of the genre.”Richmond Times Dispatch
“Winning sequel to her 2011 cozy debut, Death on Tour… Credible characters and a realistic look at school politics bolster the fast-moving humorous plot.”Publishers Weekly
“Jocelyn’s appealing first-person narration, romantic complications, and plenty of humor add to the mystery, which will appeal to fans of Chris Cavender’s Pizza Lovers series.”Booklist“The cast of characters provides both pleasant entertainment and enough suspects to yield a challenging mystery.”Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Death on Tour
“Death on Tour is fun, romantic, and delightful, and full of fascinating bits about ancient Egypt.”-The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“A classy whodunit, Death on Tour also offers a trove of Egyptology and a wealth of humor-Christie’s characters were never this smart-alecky. Hamrick plays fair with clues, and the alert reader has a fighting chance of identifying the culprit from among the cast of suspects.”-Richmond Times-Dispatch“Hamrick does a good job capturing life on an exhausting budget tour as her snazzy if snarky amateur sleuth . . . investigates some fishy fellow tourists.”-Publishers Weekly
“The cozy mystery was once limited to adorable English villages and the like, but it long ago outgrew its traditional boundaries. Janice Hamrick’s Death on Tour is a charming example.”-The Seattle Times
Read an Excerpt
FIGHTS AND FINES
The shouting started just after lunch, angry and loud enough to make me spring down from the chair that I’d been standing on to hang posters and race for the door of my classroom. I burst into the hallway, then stopped confused. Farther down the corridor, a couple of teachers peered out of their rooms like meerkats on alert, ready to scatter at the first hint of danger. Otherwise, the hall was empty.
A furious male voice boomed through the air, echoing along gray concrete floors and walls, coming from everywhere and nowhere. In the open building, sounds carried from the first floor to the second and from one corridor to the next without hindrance. When two thousand kids were on the move, the sound of feet on stairs, the talking, giggling, shouting, and the clang of lockers became an indescribable din. On this day, the last day of summer vacation, the school was all but deserted, and, until a moment ago, the halls had been silent.
White-knuckled, I grasped the railing of the stairwell and leaned out ever so slightly, trying to see movement on the first floor far below without really looking. I loathed heights. Even behind a firm rail, the drop made me feel a little queasy. A second shout made me turn. This time I had it. The argument was coming from the classroom directly across the hall. Fred Argus’s room. Dashing around the intervening stairwell, I threw open the door with a bang.
Two men turned startled faces in my direction. Fred Argus, my fellow history teacher, stood behind his desk as though poised to flee, open hands raised to his adversary as though in supplication. The other guy was a stranger, a big man with the thick neck of a fighter, black-eyed and red-faced. He turned a malevolent gaze on me, and I felt an unexpected stab of fear. An aura of rage, barely contained and menacing, flowed from him. Alarmed, I stood a little straighter.
“What’s going on, Fred?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light but not taking my eyes off the newcomer.
“Nothing that concerns you,” the stranger answered for him. His was the voice that had been doing the shouting, a deep bullhorn of a voice, the kind that could carry across a crowded room or shout down a mob.
I ignored him. “Fred?”
Fred gave me a look of mingled fear and hope, like a beaten dog receiving a pat from his master. He didn’t quite come out from behind the shelter of his desk, but he did straighten a little from his crouching position.
“Mr. Richards has concerns about the tennis team,” he said, shooting a nervous look at the stranger.
“The tennis team?” I repeated blankly.
Of course I knew that Fred was the tennis coach, something I’d always found a little ironic, considering he was on the wrong side of sixty and smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day. The sight of the white toothpicks that he called legs flashing from beneath a pair of spandex shorts had been known to cause convulsions in even the strongest of women. I also knew that our tennis team, although possibly the worst in the league, was one of the few high school teams which every kid, regardless of experience, was welcome to join. What I didn’t know was why anyone would need to raise his eyebrows, much less his voice, for anything remotely related to the Bonham Breakpoints.
Mr. Richards took a step toward me, and again I felt a small flash of fear, so out of place in a bright classroom on an August afternoon. I knew from Fred’s return to full flight-or-fight stance that he felt it too—this man was very close to violence.
“Is your child thinking of joining the team, Mr. Richards?” I asked quickly, trying to keep him talking so that he would focus on something, anything other than his anger. He reminded me of a bull at a rodeo. He’d thrown his cowboy and was now waiting for the clown to get a little closer.
His eyes narrowed, and he shot a glance at Fred that could have stripped paint from a wall.
“My son IS the team. The only real player you’ve got. And this old son of a…”
I cut him off. “Did you know Coach Fred started the tennis program here at Bonham, Mr. Richards?”
This distracted him for an instant. He looked at me like I was crazy. I went on in the most cheerful voice I could manage.
“Yes indeed, Coach Fred is the reason we have a tennis team at all. He was the one who lobbied to get the courts built. And he did all the paperwork and lobbying to get us into the league. We wouldn’t have tennis at this school if it weren’t for him.”
I could have gone on like this forever. I was watching Mr. Richards’s face, hoping to see the redness vanish or at least fade, but he drew in a deep breath in preparation for another tirade. Where in the world were those other teachers?
“Get out!” he shouted in a voice that practically blew my hair back from my face. He took another step toward me, and I felt a chill run down my spine.
“No.” I stood my ground, holding his gaze with one of my own. My best teacher look, in fact, complete with the all-powerful lifted eyebrow. It was a look that could quell thirty teenage boys, and now it made this arrogant bully pause. I seized the moment.
“It’s time for you to leave, Mr. Richards. If you have anything further you’d like to discuss about the tennis team or any other subject, I’d suggest you make an appointment with Mr. Gonzales, our principal, who will be happy to address your concerns.”
For a moment none of us moved. In the silence a clock somewhere in the room ticked out the seconds. Mr. Richards hesitated another instant, then erupted with a bellow, kicking a desk out of his path. It toppled over with a crash. I jumped but held my ground.
Glaring at me, he halted inches from my face, at the last instant deciding not to strike me. He tried to stare me down. I stared back, partly in defiance, mostly just frozen with shock. Either way, it finally worked. He backed down.
“I’ll do that. This isn’t the end of this conversation,” he said to Fred. “You fucking bitch,” he added to me as he stomped by.
“Mr. Richards,” I said, my voice quiet.
He half turned.
“Don’t come back. If I see you in this hall again, I’ll call the police first and ask questions later.”
He didn’t bother to reply. Cautiously, I followed him out the door, watching to make sure he actually went down the steps and out the double doors to the quadrangle. He did. I heard the crash the double doors made as he slammed through them, sending them banging in unison against their doorstops. He was halfway across the courtyard before the springs drew the doors shut again with a muffled clang. Silence returned to the hall. Not one teacher bothered to look out again, the cowards. I drew a deep, shaky breath, then returned to the classroom.
Fred had collapsed into the chair behind his desk, looking curiously shrunken and defeated. He stroked the smooth wood of his little desk clock with fingers that trembled as though with cold. The clock had been a parting gift from his coworkers when he’d left his original career to become a teacher some twenty years earlier. I wondered if he was feeling sorry he’d made the job switch. Noticing my glance, he set the clock back in its usual place on the corner of his desk, then let his hands drop into his lap.
“You know, I thought he was going to hit me,” he said in a wondering tone.
I pulled up a chair and sank into it, taking the clock into my own hands, admiring it. It was a pretty little thing made of polished mahogany, about the size of my two fists held together, standing upright like a miniature grandfather clock. Along the bottom was a small drawer complete with lock and tiny key, and on the back an engraved plaque.
Now that the argument was over, I could feel a reaction of my own setting in. My fingers trembled enough that I decided to put the clock down.
“So what did he want anyway?” I asked.
Fred answered slowly, as though puzzled. “I’m not even sure. Something about wanting his boy, Eric, to be team captain. Which is ridiculous because I don’t have anything to do with that. The kids vote for team captain. I don’t think Eric even signed up to be in the running.”
“What does the team captain do?” I asked.
I didn’t care, but I didn’t want to leave him just yet. I didn’t like the gray hue of his face or the way he slumped in his chair—it made me wonder about the condition of his heart for the first time. For years he had been the head of our team of history teachers, a vibrant, passionate man, completely dedicated to his students and to the school. He and I argued occasionally over things like lesson plans, but I usually deferred to him in the end. I liked to tell him it was because I figured he’d been an eyewitness to most of the things we taught. But until now, I’d never thought of him as being old.
He didn’t answer for a long moment. Then finally he looked up as though confused. “I’m sorry. What did you ask?”
I repeated the question.
“Ah, that. It’s nothing much. The captain is responsible for little things like maintaining the calling chain and acting as my assistant for the away games. It’s mostly just an indication of the other players’ respect. I suppose it might look good on a résumé,” he added as an afterthought.
I frowned. “Then I don’t see what he wanted. If he tries to bully you again, Fred, you need to call someone. Preferably the police.”
“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said, not quite meeting my eyes. “A one-time occurrence, tempers getting a bit out of hand. Nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing to worry about? Fred, that guy was two seconds from hauling off and hitting you. What exactly is going on?”
“Nothing. No, it’s nothing.” He rose abruptly, glancing one last time around his classroom, taking in the rows of desks, the whiteboards, the newly hung maps and posters on the walls. Everything appeared neat, clean, and ready for the first day of class tomorrow. Even the air held the scent of lemon polish and new books, the smell of a new school year, sweet with promise. “I’m going home. Nothing left to do that can’t be done tomorrow.”
Always a gentleman, he held the door open for me, leaving me no choice but to precede him into the hall. He pulled the door shut behind us, locking it and then nervously scanning the hall, then the stairwell.
“Fred—” I started, but he cut me off.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Jocelyn.” He walked to the stairs, then turned. “Thank you for … well, just thank you.” Then he hurried away, pattering lightly down the stairs. Maybe he wasn’t getting old after all.
I watched him go, feeling dissatisfied.
There should be a special place in purgatory for whoever had designed James Bonham High School. In the main academic building, the upper-floor corridors were lined with painted metal railings and provided a perfect view of the floor below, which in a high school was just an open invitation to spit. The architecture reminds first-time visitors of something they can’t quite place—I was there a whole year before I figured it out, and then only did because I’d just seen The Shawshank Redemption. Contracts to build schools go to the lowest bidder, and in this case the winning bidder’s most recent project had been the state correctional facility. And it showed in every loving detail, from the concrete floors to the cinder-block walls to the unheated and un–air-conditioned hallways. You could practically hear the clang of the bars and the shouts of the guards.
I suppose to the casual visitor, it might not seem so bad. The campus was spacious, liberally sprinkled with trees and consisting of four main buildings that enclosed a central concrete courtyard. Closer observation revealed that these main buildings were surrounded by what we less than fondly referred to as portables, which were basically double-wide mobile homes, each stripped of appliances and other niceties and divided in half to make two uncomfortable classrooms, poorly heated in the winter, poorly air-conditioned in the summer. Of course, this wasn’t much worse than in the permanent structures. Only the administrative building had central air-conditioning. The rest had individual heating and cooling units in the classrooms only, leaving the hallways to the mercy of the Texas weather. In fall and spring, the heat was stifling. In winter, the cold and damp turned fingers blue and cheeks red.
Now, I fought back the feeling of vertigo that I get from heights and leaned over the rail for a moment to watch Fred’s little white head disappear through the same doors that Mr. Richards had barged through just minutes ago. I was just straightening when a number of strangers walked in, led by the principal, Larry Gonzales. I leaned out again with interest.
Larry was doing his Lord of the Manor walk, which meant these were visitors of particular importance. All the teachers could tell the exact status of a visitor by Larry’s walk, and my friend Laura and I had set up a rating system. The all-purpose Brush-off was used for students and teachers alike—long quick steps, eyes focused on a sheaf of papers or a cell phone, a pretense of deafness. The Brush-off got him through the halls with minimal interruption and maximum efficiency. The PTA or “Tight-ass” walk was for parents—short quick steps, arms stiff against his sides, stern gaze focused on a vague point on the horizon. This walk conveyed a sense of mission and importance, although the shortness of the steps allowed a determined parent to keep up without breaking into a trot. The Concerned Administrator was reserved for groups of parents or teachers with actual grievances who needed to be “handled” to avoid unpleasantness, which meant anything from bitter letters to the editor to full-blown lawsuits. It was hardly a walk at all and involved slow, measured steps, a lot of head nodding, and the occasional sensitive touch on the shoulder or forearm, which let you know what a great and concerned guy Larry was. And finally, there was the Lord of the Manor—head thrown back, arms gesturing expansively, voice booming—the walk Larry reserved for visitors who needed to be impressed, which meant visitors who could do something for Larry.
I wondered who they were and what Larry wanted from them. Unlike the usual Lord of the Manor candidates, these three weren’t terribly impressive at first glance. A skinny blond guy with a ponytail was holding some sort of electronic device at arm’s length and swinging it this way and that. He walked beside an earnest-looking young woman with serious black-framed glasses that she apparently did not need because she kept pushing them down to the tip of her nose and looking over the top of the frame. And finally, a slightly older man in jeans trailed behind about ten paces, making notes on a legal pad. As they moved directly beneath me, I could hear the woman saying, “Yes, this will be absolutely perfect. Just fantastic.”
Then they turned a corner, and I decided to go back to my room instead of following them, feeling sure I’d hear about it sometime soon. Anything that rated a Lord of the Manor walk was bound to make its presence known and probably bite the rest of us in the ass.
I picked up the chair, which I’d knocked over when I raced out, and returned to the poster I’d been hanging. I’d saved this one until last, putting it in the corner where it could be seen by all my students. It was a picture of lemmings jumping off a cliff with the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Stepping off the chair, I looked around with satisfaction, feeling my room looked almost as nice as Fred’s. Of course, mine didn’t smell of lemon polish because it would never have occurred to me to dust with more than a damp paper towel, but still everything looked pretty good. Tomorrow was the first day of the new school year, August 24. A little later this year than in past years, but still the height of summer. Long days, cloudless skies, sizzling heat. There wasn’t a kid on the planet who wouldn’t have rather been at the pool, but at least I was ready for them.
I returned to my desk and started looking over the lists of student names again. This year, my day was made up of four history classes, two French classes, one planning period, and one lunch period. Which meant I had about 180 students. Going through the lists in advance made it easier remembering who was who when I finally met them all. I prided myself on my ability to know every kid’s name by the end of the first week. I was just going through the list a second time when the door to my classroom opened, and my best friend Kyla Shore walked in.
Although most people assume we are sisters, Kyla and I are first cousins. Our fathers are identical twins and we look enough alike to be twins ourselves. Maybe not identical twins, but we’d been mistaken for each other before, a fact that drove Kyla absolutely crazy. She would never admit there was anything more than a remote family resemblance. For my part I would have been happy if we looked even more alike, or rather if I looked more like her. Because, although I wouldn’t break mirrors, Kyla was drop-dead gorgeous—the kind of beauty that made men stop in the middle of the street to pick their jaws up off the ground. She was no fool either, and was fully aware of the effect she had on men. In fact, she shamelessly used it to her full advantage, telling me once that she hadn’t bought a drink for herself in five years. It might have made her obnoxious, but she was also completely charming. And to be fair, it didn’t seem to mean much to her other than as an entertaining diversion. She’d graduated with honors in computer programming and now worked as a lead developer for a software company, raking in money and bonuses.
Today she looked glum. And beautiful, of course. And stylish and elegant. August in Austin, Texas, meant the temperature outside was at least ninety-five degrees. It meant that touching a steering wheel could leave grill marks on your palms. It meant that the thirty seconds it took to dash from an air-conditioned building to an air-conditioned car could leave your shirt clinging to your back like a professional wrestler’s. However, in her white and yellow sundress, Kyla looked as cool and together as an ice sculpture. Even her dark hair curled and bounced around her shoulders with a life of its own. My own hair was pulled back in a limp ponytail, and I looked sourly down at my denim capris and oversized T-shirt. We could have been the Before and After shots in a makeover commercial.
Now, she dropped her purse on my desk with a thud and flopped dramatically into a chair with a groan.
“That doesn’t look like good news,” I said. “How did it go?”
Kyla had recently had a little trouble with the law.
“Pretty good. I guess. I got community service,” she added with a frown.
I whooped. “Hey, that’s great! You couldn’t have hoped for much better than that.”
She looked at me sourly. “The best thing would have been for them to give me a fucking medal for protecting myself and the public in general.”
“Well, yeah. But you pulled a concealed weapon on Sixth Street. They couldn’t exactly let that go,” I pointed out.
A look of outrage lit her sapphire eyes. “I don’t see why not. Was I supposed to just let those assholes carjack me? I don’t think so.”
“No, of course not.”
“If it wasn’t for me, those little bastards would still be out there, taking someone else’s car, maybe hurting someone.” Her finger jabbed the air at every word.
Now she was glaring at me like it was my fault.
I held up my hands. “You know I’m one hundred percent on your side. It’s just that carrying a gun down in that area is illegal. They had to do something. Think about it—community service is really just a slap on the wrist. It’s a good thing.”
“I don’t see what the good is of having a concealed-carry license if you can’t carry around bars. That’s exactly where you need to have a gun,” she grumbled.
“Yeah, maybe everyone should just walk around with holsters and six shooters on their hips.”
I was being sarcastic, but she considered it. “Not a bad idea. An armed society is a polite society.”
“Robert Heinlein,” I responded, impressed she knew the quote.
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Anyway, you’ll never guess what I have to do.”
From her tone, it was pretty nasty. “Pick up trash on the highway? Clean urinals at the bus station?”
“Worse. I have to teach a six-week seminar about girls in technology. You know, encourage high school girls to go into the sciences.”
I stared at her blankly. “You get arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and the punishment is teaching children?”
My whole life, my whole career, reduced down to a community-service penalty.
Kyla was oblivious. “Yeah, does that suck or what? But here’s the good part. I got them to let me do it here.”
I choked a little. “Here?”
“Yup. Twice a week for six weeks. And you have to help me. I don’t know what to say to the little monsters.”
Which probably meant that she expected me to do it for her. I threw up my hands. “I have a full schedule. You know, my own classes.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’ll be right after school, so your classes won’t interfere. We can go get dinner and drinks after,” she said by way of bribery. “It’ll be fun.”
I sighed. “I’ll help with the first one, but then you’re on your own.”
She decided not to argue, but I could see she was already thinking of ways she could get me to do the whole thing. She’s devious that way.
The afternoon sun threw golden rectangles of light across the desks and floor, lighting up tiny motes that twinkled in the glow like fireflies. Outside, I could hear the roar of a mower accompanied by a dull thumping of rap music from the groundskeeper’s radio. I consoled myself with the thought that the owner could look forward to an adulthood of early deafness and pounding headaches.
“So how’s Alan doing?” Kyla asked, changing the subject. Conversations with her often bounced around with very little in the way of segues.
I winced a little as though at a sore tooth, then shrugged. “Okay, I suppose.”
She looked at me. “That doesn’t sound good.”
Alan was my … well, boyfriend, I guess. I felt a little old to have a boyfriend, but there didn’t seem to be a better term in the English language. What do you call someone whom you’ve been dating for a few months, but who lives in a different city and who never seems to be around?
I’d met him when Kyla and I had taken a tour of Egypt, a tour that had gone disastrously wrong and ended up with both Alan and me almost getting killed. That kind of experience usually draws people together, I suppose, but I had to admit I wasn’t completely happy with the way things were going right now. For one thing, Alan had not yet moved to Austin, although he kept saying he was going to as soon as he could make the arrangements to move his travel company from Dallas. For another thing, because he was the owner of WorldPal Tours, he seemed to be on the road a lot. He was extraordinarily attractive, which made up for a lot, but on the other hand, I was still spending most of my evenings alone, with only a glass of wine and my fat elderly poodle for company.
I finally admitted, “I haven’t seen him in three weeks, but we’re going to Port Aransas for Labor Day.”
“That sounds fun,” she said with patently fake enthusiasm. “Wait, no it doesn’t. Why Port A? You can do that any time. Why doesn’t he take you somewhere awesome? He owns a tour company, for God’s sakes. You guys could go anywhere in the world.”
I gestured to the empty desks around us. “Not in three days. I have a job, remember? Besides, I want to pay my own way. I can afford Port Aransas.”
“Pay your own way?” she said with outrage. “Why? Is he that cheap? He sure isn’t racking up any boyfriend points, is he?” She looked thoughtful, as though struck by a sudden idea. “Are you going to kick him to the curb?”
“What, are you waiting to snap him up?” The question wasn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounded. She’d had her eye on him when we’d been in Egypt, although admittedly since I’d been dating him, she’d been strictly hands off.
Now she snorted. “Ew. I don’t need your sloppy seconds, thanks very much. Especially not some cheap bastard. But there’s this new guy in my office who’s sort of cute, and I could introduce you. You might like him.”
“Alan’s not a cheap bastard, and no, I’m not kicking him to the curb,” I said. But even I could hear the uncertainty in my voice.
Kyla ignored this. “It wouldn’t hurt you to meet this guy. Just for drinks or something. It’s not like you and Alan are exclusive.”
I frowned. Of course we were exclusive … weren’t we? Thinking about it, I supposed we’d never formally talked about it. No promises on either side, that sort of thing. Part of it was the distance. When you only got to see each other a weekend or two each month, things tended to move pretty slowly. It seemed like we spent half our time each visit getting reacquainted. Not that the reacquainting wasn’t a lot of fun, but I was getting tired of the dry spells in between.
“No, I don’t think so. Alan and I are doing okay. At least,” I added, “I want to give us a chance to do okay.”
She shrugged. “Think about it. Sherman’s a nice guy. And smart. And funny.”
“His name is Sherman?”
“He can’t help that. Besides, he’s a hottie. Or he would be if he had someone to tell him how to dress.”
“Why don’t you want him?” I asked suspiciously.
“I thought about it,” she admitted. “But I have to work with him. It would be awkward, especially since I’d have to make him buy a new wardrobe and change his name. You know I could never go out with a guy named Sherman.”
I decided to leave it at that. We spent the next hour going over what she could say in her first class. I made her take notes and reminded her that she’d have to do it on her own, but we both knew I’d be doing most of the real work. By the time we left, I’d already forgotten about Larry and his VIP guests. And about Coach Fred.
* * *
Austin is the best city in the world, I thought for about the millionth time as I drove home. On this August afternoon, the sun was gliding slowly down to meet the blue tops of the hills to the west and throwing a brassy golden light over the dusty live oaks and cedars that filled every undeveloped bit of land. Heat pulled color and shape into the air above the road, and made it shimmer and undulate like miniature underwater reefs. With the air conditioner blasting icy air in my face and my radio playing Brad Paisley’s “Mud on the Tires,” I didn’t care. Like most Texans, I’d take a miserably hot July and August over a miserably icy January and February any day.
I’d been born in Texas, although I hadn’t grown up there. Until his retirement, my father had been in the diplomatic corps, and my two brothers and I had spent much of our childhood in France, Italy, and Spain. Moreover, my mother was French, and as a result I was fluent in French and Italian, and had a fairly decent grasp of Spanish. We’d returned to Austin at the beginning of my high school years, and I’d been able to go to school with Kyla, which had been a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she’d resented me for looking so much like her and had stolen my very first boyfriend for no other reason than to prove she could. On the other hand, we’d somehow managed to become best friends anyway. We’d roomed together at the University of Texas, and even after we’d graduated and gone into separate careers, we still spent most of our spare time together.
The phone was ringing as I walked through the door, and my fat little poodle was barking and spinning in circles. A present from my parents for my sixteenth birthday, Belle was a small blob of black curls who weighed about ten pounds soaking wet and who had apparently been purchased without the optional brain pack. Knowing that no command of mine would stop the yapping, I grabbed the phone on my way to the back door and ushered her to the back door, where she galloped across the dry grass, intent on patrolling the perimeter, making the yard safe from squirrels. One of the evil ones liked to sit on the fence and chitter at her, a pastime that never got old for either of them.
“Hi. I was just about to hang up.” The deep voice was that of Alan Stratton. I loved that voice.
I smiled. “Just got back from school. How was your day?”
Actually, I could just as easily have asked, “How was your week?” He didn’t call as often as I would like, but I didn’t want to be one of those clingy women. I glanced through the door to my bedroom where my suitcase lay on the floor, already half-packed for our trip to the coast.
“Better, now that I’m talking to you,” he said gallantly, “but not good overall. Vittoria has broken a leg, and she was supposed to start the “Tastes of Italy” tour on Saturday. She’ll be out of commission for at least six weeks, and I have no backup. It means I’ll have to go to Rome myself.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, trying to feel sympathetic for someone forced to go to Italy. Then I did a mental double take. “Wait, you mean this Saturday?” The Saturday that he and I were supposed to go to Port Aransas for a beach weekend? I held my breath.
“I’m afraid so. I’m really sorry.” His voice was sincere and full of regret, but it didn’t help much.
I thought about banging my head against the wall. “Me, too. I suppose you couldn’t postpone the tour?”
“No, all my clients have booked their tickets, either through WorldPal or on their own. Nonrefundable, nonchangeable. I suppose you couldn’t get away and come with me?” he asked. “I could really use someone who could speak Italian. All expenses paid, salary thrown in,” he added persuasively.
So tempting, but so impossible. It would mean not only losing my job but never working in Austin as a teacher again. And I liked my job. Bitter disappointment made me speechless.
He must have thought I was considering it because he added, “You know, you could work for me permanently. It would be so great to have you based here in Dallas.”
“You know I can’t. I have a job. With a contract. I can’t just give two weeks’ notice and scamper off, even if I wanted to. And anyway, I thought you were in the process of moving down here,” I reminded him.
Silence on his end. My stomach sank to my toes, bounced up against my esophagus, and then settled down to a wicked churn somewhere in the middle.
“Yes, I am. But it isn’t as easy as I originally thought,” he said at last. “I’ve been looking into it, don’t get me wrong. But it might be easier if you could come up here.”
Yeah, easier for him. “We’ve had this conversation before,” I said finally. “Maybe we need to spend some more time together before either of us uproots our lives.”
“No, don’t say that. I don’t mean it that way,” he protested. “Damn, it’s impossible talking on the phone. Look, I’ll come down there the minute I’m back from Rome. We can figure out what we’re going to do then, all right?”
I agreed, and we left it like that, neither of us happy. Funny how you can hear the death rattle of a relationship so clearly when you know what to listen for. I’d clung to the corpse of my first marriage for months after I’d heard that sound, and I wasn’t going to go through that again. Like seeing the future in a crystal ball, I knew he would come visit, we’d talk, he’d get angry, I’d cry, and then it would be over. No harm, no foul. At least I wouldn’t be stuck in a strange city when it happened, with no friends and no job. Much better this way, really.
I went to the back door to let Belle back inside and got a beer from the fridge. Passing the suitcase filled with brightly colored shirts, beach towels, and a swimsuit, I gave it a kick and then burst into tears.
Copyright © 2012 by Janice Hamrick
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