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Mr. Hunt prayed over the bowl of cereal, while Tony studied the edge of the ratty tablecloth, ignoring the droning voice. He muttered "Amen" in unison with his foster parents, and reached toward his spoon. That usually kept them happy.
But when he looked up today, Mister Hunt still scowled. The older, gray-haired man tossed a neatly folded newspaper across the table, nearly knocking the corn flakes on the floor.
"Tell me what you know about this," Mr. Hunt said.
Tony read the headlines that blazed across The Coralville Chronicle's first page: Thieves Target Stereo and Computer Equipment. He hadn't thought there would be enough of either in Coralville to make it worth someone's time.
"I heard about the robberies," Tony finally said, ignoring the deeper significance behind Mr. Hunt's words.
Mrs. Hunt leaned forward, her eyes glaring. She was a shallow, thin woman whose only remarkable quality was her strident voice. She never spoke quietly. "The robberies started two months ago, just after you came to live with us," she said.
There it was; the accusation he'd ignored in his foster father's words. There was no way to politely overlook it this time. The words hit and sank like rocks in his stomach. He pushed the now-soggy cereal away.
"If you think I'm involved, you should go talk to the cops," he said. He barely kept the anger and betrayal he felt from his voice.
They glared, and he didn't know why. God knew he didn't exactly like these two, but he'd played by their rules. They had no reason to accuse him of something they knew he couldn't have done. They watched him likehawks.
Tony pushed away from the table, and picked up the backpack full of schoolbooks by the kitchen door. Stay out of trouble, he told himself yet again. Just stay out of trouble for a few more months. In June, he'd be eighteen and free.
"I told you a boy from the city with that background was bound to be trouble!" Mrs. Hunt began as he stepped outside. "I told you he'd bring us grief."
Tony barely stopped himself from slamming the door. He headed away from the bleak gray house where God forbade music, TV, and any book but The Bible and his schoolbooks--and even the last only reluctantly.
From gray house into gray world: It looked like it might rain before the day ended. And with the day this cold, it might even snow. The air felt damp, and he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jean jacket, wishing for spring. This was March. It couldn't be that far away.
He retrieved his old tape cassette player, carefully wrapped in a plastic bag, from under the neighbor's bushes. Mr. Hunt had tossed it out the day Tony arrived at the new foster home. "There will be none of that Godless music in this house!" Then the man had spent another two hours praying and reading The Bible at him, until Tony thought he'd probably jump out the window himself. But he held on, and stayed out of trouble--for all the good it did him.
He carefully pulled the small player and the three tapes out. One tape had a cracked cover, but it still played all right. Damned foster parents. He walked another block until completely out of sight of the house before he pulled the headphones on, and sighed with relief. The batteries were a little low, but even with a bit of a warble, it was good to have music again.
A block later, Tony froze as a police car swerved around the corner to his right, lights flashing. The woman driver gave him one quick glance as she went past. Sheriff's vehicle, he noted. He hadn't met a woman sheriff before, but then, he'd never been out of Chicago before January, either.
Except for the Hunts, he kind of liked it in Coralville, where he could walk to school without worrying about harassments or drive-bys. Not that a town of 15,000 didn't have some gangs, but they were just a bunch of wannabes compared to the people he had known in Chicago.
Tony rubbed his right side as he remembered the pain of the gunshot wound. The anger he felt later had been worse. He'd been the victim, but that hadn't mattered to the Brecks. They had dropped him back into the juvenile system before he'd even come out of surgery.
He cranked the music up on the cassette, and thought about June--end of the school year, his birthday, and his freedom all rolled up into one glorious month. Just stay out of trouble ...
He turned the last corner to Coralville High, and saw five police cars in front of the auditorium. He stopped and stared, his heart pounding, until he saw that the students were going through the gate without any interference. Tony went past, with his head bowed and the music playing. No one tried to stop him.
He put the tape player into the backpack as he headed into his first class. He wondered what the cops were doing here. From the comments before class, no one else knew, either. They only stopped whispering about it when Mr. Terris gave them a surprise English test.
Tony's mind wasn't on the work, or he would have taken more time answering the questions. Mr. Terris immediately took the paper as he wrote the last answer, so Tony fished out his English textbook, and started studying the next chapter. The rest of the class went quickly.
He listened to music while walking to the gym. Too bad this wasn't Monday or Tuesday, and that he was heading for Music Appreciation, instead. He hated the Wednesday through Friday gym classes, but a school this small couldn't afford a full-time music teacher. They shared one with Pipton High. Two days here, two days there--he wondered what Miss Berkely did on Fridays.
He tried to think about trivial school matters, and bury his anger at the Hunts, but he wondered how he could make it through the next few months if they thought he was a thief.
And he ran right into the lady Sheriff. She nearly tumbled, and he grabbed her arm, pulling the muscles in his side.
"Shit. Sorry," he apologized, letting go of her arm and stepping back. He yanked the headphones off and shoved them away. "Sorry. I wasn't looking."
"Hey." She took hold of his arm, and he probably looked panicked. "Easy. No harm done."
"Oh, thanks. Got to go, don't want to be late--" He looked up and saw yellow police tape blocking the sidewalk, and a cop at the door to the gym. "No class?"
"You're meeting out on the track," she said. She still had a hand on his arm. "I don't know you."
"No, ma'am." Someone passing by snickered, but he didn't give a damn. He'd only be here another three months, and being extra polite to the lady sheriff was far more important to staying out of trouble than they were. "I'm Antoni Battista."
"Saw that name--foster kid? Living with the Hunts?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, waiting for the look of distrust.
"How do you like small town life?"
His hand went to his side. It really did hurt since he'd grabbed at her. "I like it better than the city. It's quieter. Usually." He looked at the gym, but didn't ask.
"Vandals broke in here and the school office. It's happened before. You all right?"
"Sheriff Lindsey. That where you were shot? Still giving you problems?"
He took a step backward, feeling very odd that this stranger knew so much about him. He wanted to run. "I don't want any trouble. I better get to class."
She tilted her head, and looked at him in a way he couldn't even begin to fathom, though he saw no anger in the stare. She held up a hand when he started to leave. "I'd like to talk with you. I'll clear it with the gym teacher."
"I didn't have anything to do with this. I was home all night. You can ask the Hunts. They keep real close track of me."
"Yeah, I bet they do," she said. He had the strange feeling that she really didn't think much of the Hunts. He'd thought that the sheriff would think such God-Fearing citizens were perfect. "Come on. I'm getting you out of gym class. Are you going to complain?"
He hated the class, of course. He'd been better at sports before the bullet took out most of one lung. The bell rang. Tony looked toward the field where Kravetz, wearing his school jacket, paced, as his students stripped off their shirts, even on this cold gray morning. He always made certain the boys worked up a good sweat.
"I won't complain about missing the class."
"Yeah, I thought so. Come on."
He followed Sheriff Lindsey back toward the gym. The cop standing there lifted the yellow tape and opened the door. The Sheriff took out a notepad, and began jotting things down as she looked from side to side. She looked annoyed.
They had trashed the basketball court. Whoever had done this must have used a dozen cans of spray paint and a couple of good-sized hammers. Even if they could scrape off the paint, the floor would still have to be replaced because of all the dented and splintered wood.
"Careful where you walk. Some of that paint's still wet," the sheriff said.
They had cordoned off most of the area, leaving a narrow walkway along the edges of the bleachers. Tony had seen rival gangs trashing each other's territory in the city, so this didn't shock him. Much.
"Any idea who did it?" Tony dared to ask.
"Probably kids from a rival school," she said. "There's a lot of that kind of bullshit in small towns. Sports and God--sometimes it's hard to tell which they think is more important."
That reminded him of the Hunts. He'd have to face them again in a few hours. He buried that thought again and looked at the basketball court and the wet blue, red and black lines.
"I--I don't think it was anyone from another school," Tony said.
Lindsey looked at him, almost as startled by the words as Tony was at making them. "Why not?" she asked.
"'Cause there's nothing personal in the attack," he said. He waved his hand out toward the court. "If it was kids from another school, they'd have--well, written a few choice things with that spray paint, like gangs do. Whoever did this was just making pretty patterns."
The woman looked toward the court, and slowly began nodding. "Damn. Good catch, Antoni."
"Tony. Doesn't mean I'm right. Could have been an illiterate kid from another school."
"Even that narrows the choices down." She smiled at him for the first time. "You're brighter than I expected, given your record."
He winced. It sure as hell wasn't his fault his mother had abandoned him when he was six. He hadn't chosen any of the foster families afterward, or the schools where they shoved him.
"Tony? Let's go look at the other place that was trashed. I'm curious what you think."
"Trying to get an expert's opinion?" he dared to joke.
She laughed and led him back out of the gym. A light mist filled the air, damp enough to wet his hair and seep in around the collar of his jacket.
"You should have worn a heavier coat," Lindsey said.
"This is the only one I have," he said, shoving his hands into the pockets again.
She nodded as they walked across the empty paths, past windows where kids stuck in classes looked out and watched. He hunched his shoulders as they walked along, all too aware of how conspicuous he must look, walking beside this woman.
Someone had broken the lock on the front door of the admin building. She pulled it open with a shake of her head, and they stepped inside. Tony sniffed and frowned at the peculiar, metallic odor that grew worse when they entered the first office.
He grimaced. "What is that smell?"
"Acid," Lindsey answered, waving to the area across the counter. "They poured it into every file cabinet drawer. There isn't a single piece of paper left to be read. They also hacked the four computers into little pieces, and poured more acid on all the disks."
"Sounds like more than just vandalism," he said. "Why not just a fire?"
"I don't know. Maybe that would have brought someone in too quickly if the alarms went off. Sit over there. I'll be right back, and we'll talk."
He went to the bench she had indicated, and sat, backpack in his lap. A couple of hours ago the Hunts had accused him of robbery. Now, the sheriff talked as if he could help her. He thought it was funny, like one of those people in the comic books that he used to read when he was a kid. Living a double life ...
Unless she just wanted to keep an eye on him. Maybe she thought he'd done this? Why not? Bad kid from the city. People mistrusted him.
Tony reached for his tape player, when someone he really didn't want to see walked in--Officer Perry Gellert, the local Juvenile Liaison Officer. They'd only met once, when the Chicago authorities drove him down to Coralville. The man had made it clear he didn't like big city trouble dropped in his quiet little town. He spotted Tony, and turned in mid step, like some damn hawk aiming for the kill. Tony wasn't a rabbit, and there was just so much of this bullshit he would take in one day. He sat the pack aside, and started to stand. Gellert shoved him back down, standing there with his thin face going red.
"I should have known you'd be involved in this."
"I'm not," Tony answered. The anger he'd hidden from the Hunts surfaced. Someone in uniform accusing him of something he hadn't done always brought out the worst in him.
"Yeah? So what the hell are you doing here?"
"I brought him in with me, Gellert. As my guest."
The room grew very quiet. Tony looked from Lindsey to Gellert, and wished he wasn't the middle of this one. Gellert, who stood two heads higher than the Sheriff, looked mad and embarrassed. Tony had the feeling Gellert didn't care much for his boss.
"They found a body back behind the bleachers in the gym," Gellert said. "The janitor. Murdered. I thought you'd want to know."
"Shit," Lindsey said. "Damn. I've got work to do, Tony. We'll talk later."
"Yes, ma'am," Tony said. He thought about the body that must have been in the gym when they were walking through. It made his skin crawl.
"Good kid," she said absently, and patted his shoulder. "Hey, Caeleno! I pulled Tony out of gym today. Make sure Kravetz doesn't give him any trouble about it, all right?"
Principal Caeleno nodded. The gray haired man looked pale, and the two office workers who had been fussing over lost files and computers were now silent. Tony couldn't remember the janitor's name, though he'd seen the big, dark man several times a day.
A murder in Coralville, at his own school. He wondered what the Hunts were going to make of that one.