I should have known better than to let Madison talk me into letting Sid appear in Hamlet. Of course, he was made to play the part she had in mind for him. Like Yorick, Sid was a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, had borne me on his back a thousand times, and his flashes of merriment were indeed wont to set the table on a roar. More to the point, Sid and Yorick were both dead. But while Yorick is usually depicted as an inanimate skull, the Thackery family skeleton is a full set of bones and he is quite thoroughly animated.
It started on a Friday in late March, a few days after the Pennycross High School Drama Club held auditions for its production of Hamlet. My teenaged daughter Madison had spent most of the afternoon conferring with Sid in his attic room, and when they finally emerged, they cleaned up the kitchen, washed and folded two loads of laundry, and gathered the garbage and recycling to take out to the street—all without being nagged. So of course I’d known they were up to something.
Over our spaghetti dinner Madison said, “They announced the cast for the play today. Becca Regan is going to direct, and she’s great.”
“Excellent!” Madison had joined the drama club as soon as she started attending classes at PHS, but it had been too late for her to be in the fall show. This time she was ready. “What part did you get?”
“He’s one of Hamlet’s friends. Claudius brings him and Rosencrantz in to try to cheer up Hamlet and then uses them to—”
“Sweetie, I know who Guildenstern is. English degree, remember? It’s just that I thought you were going for Gertrude or Ophelia.”
“I was, but so were all the other girls in the club. There are only two good female roles in the play, after all. Guildenstern will be interesting.”
“Are you going to be the mature one this time? I want to know before I start complaining about club politics, playing favorites, and so on.”
“Tonight I will be playing the role of maturity incarnate.”
“Okay, then. They gave you such a small part because you’re a freshman, right? And a new kid?” Even though we’d moved so often that Madison was remarkably adept at fitting herself into a school’s society, some schools were more insular than others.
“Maybe, but to be fair, Becca doesn’t know me well enough to know if she can rely on me to carry a big part. This is her first time directing a show, and you can’t blame her for wanting to go with a known quantity.”
“Yes, I can. Especially if you gave a better audition.”
“Oh, I nailed that audition!” Then she remembered that she was being mature. “Of course, we both know that plenty of people audition and get a role, then don’t even bother to show up for rehearsals.”
“Please. She could have checked your resume and realized that you were dependable enough for more than a small part.”
“There are no small parts, only small actors.”
“Which you are not, so you are going to rock that part!”
“Agreed. Besides, there are a lot of even smaller parts. And Tristan, the guy playing Rosencrantz, is really cool and we get to hang out together at rehearsal. He’s a really good actor and would have been a great Hamlet, but the guy who got it is good, too, and he really looks the part. He’s got that whole dark-haired emo thing going on—Tristan is blond.”
I resisted asking the questions that sprang immediately to mind: Is Tristan cute? Is he cool for a boyfriend or just as a friend? Does he have a girlfriend? When can I meet him? In other words, all the questions that were guaranteed to make Madison’s hackles rise. If she was going to be mature, I should take a stab at it, too. “So are you going to be a female version of Guildenstern, or dress in male drag?”
“Drag!” she said happily. “We talked about setting the show during the twenties or something, but decided to go full-out Elizabethan. Tights, swords, doublets. Jo Sinta is doing costumes again, and she’s so excited!”
“Sounds great. I look forward to it. Just let me know the rehearsal schedule so I can put it in my book.” As an adjunct English professor, my classes tend to be at those odd times that full-time profs don’t want, and I also have to keep office hours. Keeping up with that while monitoring the activities of a busy teenager was a constant challenge.
“There is one thing I wanted to ask about, schedulewise.” Madison looked at Sid, and I knew the moment had come for them to ask whatever it was they’d cooked up earlier. “You know high schools have to work with tight budgets.”
Sid spoke for the first time since we’d sat down to dinner. He doesn’t eat, of course, or even drink, but he likes keeping us company during our meals. He also likes sneaking tidbits to Madison’s Akita, Byron, under the table, not because he likes the dog but because he was hoping to convince him that there were much better treats available than Sid’s own bare bones. He said, “I think it’s shameful that the arts are so poorly supported in public schools. I’d like to do more to help.”
There was a thump under the table that I interpreted as Madison kicking Sid in the shinbone. Had she known him as long as I had, she’d have known that, unlike her, he never could stick to a script. But I’d known him most of my life, while she’d only been formally introduced to him a few months before.
Madison said, “Becca said we’re going to spend most of our budget on the costumes. That’s the way they did it back in Shakespeare’s time.”
“I know. English professor, remember? Even adjunct faculty members are familiar with the way Shakespeare’s work was originally produced.”
“Right. So we’ll have some props and scenery, but they’ll be minimal, whatever we can scrounge up. And today Becca pulled out this really awful papier-mâché skull and said we’d be using it for the grave-digging scene.”
Sid assumed a dramatic pose. “‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy—’”
There was another thump under the table.
“Anyway,” Madison said emphatically, “I thought that the scene would play so much better with a more convincing skull.”
“Like Sid’s?” I asked.
“What a great idea, Georgia!” Sid said, and I think he was trying for enthused surprise. He’d have never made it through an audition if that was the best he could do.
“Nice try,” I said, “but we all know it wasn’t my idea—it was yours and Madison’s.”
“Was doing the laundry too much of a giveaway?” she asked.
“Just a bit.” Not that I was complaining—it meant fewer shirts for me to fold. I took a healthy bite of spaghetti so I could chew on it and the idea simultaneously. “Do you have any idea how you would work this out?”
“It’ll be easy,” Madison said. “I’ll take Sid to school with me and keep him in my locker until rehearsal.”
“You’re going to take all of Sid?”
“No, just the skull.”
“I’m fine with that,” Sid added.
He really was eager. Usually he hated to be separated from the rest of his bones because it made him feel so helpless. The essential part of Sid—I never know if I should call it his soul, his consciousness, his ghost, or his memory chip—travels with the skull, which means that when the skull is elsewhere, the rest of his bones are just that, a pile of bones. He could move the rest of his skeleton from a few feet away, but not from as far away as the high school.
“Won’t you get bored cooped up in a locker all day?” I asked.
“I’ll put him on the shelf in front of the vents,” Madison said, “so he’ll be able to watch people.”
Since Sid was an enthusiastic eavesdropper and peeper, I could see how that would appeal to him.
She went on. “I’ll take him with me to rehearsals, then bring him home every night. All we need is some sort of padded bag to carry him in, and Aunt Deborah has an old bowling bag she’s not using anymore that would be perfect.”
“You told Deborah your plan?”
“No, no. I just noticed the bag the last time I was over at her place.”
That was a relief. My older sister had grudgingly accepted that Sid was a part of the family, but I was pretty sure what her reaction to this plan would be. My initial feeling was the same, but after all the cleaning they’d done, I owed Sid and Madison a chance to convince me.
So I listened to the rest of their pitch as I finished my plate of pasta. Madison’s argument that it would add a vital element to the play’s success didn’t sway me much. Yorick’s skull appears onstage for exactly one scene—as long as the skull they used onstage was approximately the right shape and color, it would be fine. It was Sid’s plea that really got me. Once he abandoned his “support the arts” platform, I could see how much he really wanted the chance to leave the house and spend more time with Madison.
Sid had moved in with us when I was six, but for obvious reasons, he only rarely left the house. As long as I’d been living at home, he’d had me for company, but once I moved out, he’d spent most of his time alone in the attic. Since I’d come back to Pennycross for a job at Joshua Tay University, and was house-sitting for my parents while they were on sabbatical, his life had been far more interesting. He had me and Madison to hang with, Byron the dog to fuss about, and when he discovered the Internet, a whole new world to play in.
But still, he hadn’t had an opportunity to actually leave the house for months, and this sounded like it might be a safe way to allow him a little more freedom. After obtaining pinkie swears from them both—Sid’s that he wouldn’t play any tricks and Madison’s that she’d be exceedingly careful with him—I agreed.
But late that night, after I went to bed, I started counting up the ways it could go wrong. The problem was, I couldn’t go back on my word to my daughter and my best friend, no matter how much I wished I’d never let them talk me into it.
My misgivings were proven all too correct just three weeks later. Madison had just started down the street to take Byron for a walk when I got home from work, even though it was after five. Knowing that she usually takes him out first thing after she gets back from school, I deduced that she’d had a long day. So while she tended to his needs, I went inside to tend to hers. In other words, I thawed out some of the chili we’d made and frozen the weekend before and baked a can of crescent rolls. Since it was Thursday, we’d just about run out of fresh supplies from the previous weekend’s shopping trip, but there was enough produce left to toss together a salad.
I had everything ready by the time Byron dragged Madison back in, and while she washed up, I made sure all the curtains were closed tightly for privacy before I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Sid! Dinnertime!”
This time, there was no answering clatter of bony feet.
“Sid? Are you coming down?”
Madison came out of the bathroom with an expression of guilt it didn’t take a mother to interpret.
“What?” I asked.
“I left him at school.”
“You did what?”
“I left Sid at school!”
“Madison! How could you—?”
“It’s not my fault. I had to take that makeup Spanish test after school, and Senora Harper made me wait until after she finished tutoring some kids, and then the test took forever so I barely made it to choral ensemble. Then Samantha’s wheelchair was acting wonky so she needed help pushing it outside, and I couldn’t just leave her outside alone with her chair messing up, especially since her mother was late. Then when she finally showed up, they offered me a ride home, and it was so late and I was so tired—”
I held up my hand to stop the flood of excuses and asked, “Where is Sid?”
“Well, I didn’t remember the test until after I’d gone to rehearsal, and we weren’t working on any of my scenes today anyway. Only Becca wanted to keep Sid because she wanted to work on the graveyard scene, which I said was fine, so she said I could come pick him up later. But I had that Spanish test and—”
“Madison! Where is he?”
“He must still be backstage in the auditorium.”
“Fine. We’re going to go get him.” I grabbed my purse and car keys, and she followed me out to our somewhat battered green minivan.
Rush hour was in full swing, something I usually manage to avoid by virtue of working in university settings that don’t keep standard business hours, and even in a town as small as Pennycross, the delays were annoying. Madison, realizing that I hadn’t bought her explanations for why it wasn’t her fault, was sunk in silence and I was too mad to say anything to make her feel better.
Had I been totally honest with her, I might have admitted that I was blaming myself nearly as much as I was her. I should have noticed sooner that Sid wasn’t clattering around in the attic. When a person has no skin to mask the sound, and no reason to keep himself hidden, it can get pretty noisy. I’d figured he was on the computer, catching up with his myriad Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
Though the parking lot was nearly deserted when we got to Pennycross High, the two cars parked near the front door gave me hope that somebody would be available to let us in. No such luck. I pounded on the door repeatedly and Madison trotted all the way around the building to see if she could find a door that had been left unlocked, but there was no sound from inside the building. After fifteen minutes of raising as much of a ruckus as we dared, we admitted defeat and got back into the car.
We were halfway back home when Madison said, “I’m sorry, Mom. It was my fault.”
“No, it was mine. I should never have let you talk me into letting Sid be in the play.”
“But he’s been having so much fun!”
“And now he’s stuck at the school all night. Alone.”
“At least it’s not Friday—one night is a lot better than the whole weekend.”
She wasn’t even convincing herself, and I was not appeased.
I warmed up the chili and rolls in the microwave when we got back to the house, but neither of us had much appetite. Afterward, Madison dove into her homework while I graded student papers. I’m afraid my students paid the price for my bad mood—I wasn’t as patient as I usually was with grammar mistakes and confusion over syntax.
The night seemed long and empty without Sid, and once Madison went to bed, I snuck up to his attic room. With his skull gone, inhabited by whatever it was that kept Sid moving and talking, the rest of his bones were abandoned on the couch. Normal skeletons, meaning the kinds of specimens I see fairly often in the halls of academe, are held together with wires and bolts. Sid holds himself together, so the pieces he’d left had no reason to stick together. It was vaguely creepy seeing him like that, but I suppose it would have been creepier still if his body had been wandering around blindly, searching for his skull.
Byron was standing at attention outside the attic door when I got back downstairs, so I carefully closed it behind me. It was bad enough that we’d left Sid at school. I didn’t want to think about what his reaction would be if we let the dog gnaw on his bones while he was gone.
Usually Madison rode her bicycle to and from school, but the next day I drove her and her bike, hoping she’d be able to get to the auditorium and grab Sid so I could take him home right away. Unfortunately the cheerleaders picked that morning to rehearse for a pep rally, so we had to postpone our apologies until later.
I blew off my office hours that afternoon and was back at PHS when the bell rang. Madison ran out to where I was waiting, gave me the battered black and purple bowling bag Sid had been riding to and from school in, and jumped on her bicycle to take care of an urgent errand.
“Sid, I am so sorry,” I said as soon as I started driving. I’d unzipped the bag so he could hear me better, knowing that if anybody saw me talking, they’d assume I was on a cell phone.
“Georgia, we need to talk,” Sid said, his voice a little muffled from still being in the bag.
“I know, I know, this was unforgivable. We went to the school as soon as we realized you’d been left behind yesterday, but the doors were locked and nobody would let us in. Madison beat herself up over it all night long, and she really wants to make it up to you, so she’s at Wray’s Comics right now looking for something special to get you as an apology present.”
“Forget the manga,” he said. “This is important.”
“Of course it is, but you know we’d never have left you there all night on purpose. It’s just that Madison had to make up that Spanish test she missed when she was out sick last week, and it took longer than she expected, and she had choral ensemble practice after that, then went to help Samantha, and she just forgot to come back by the auditorium to get you.”
“It’s okay, but—”
“It’s not okay!” By then I’d arrived at the house. “Hang on until we get inside.” Normally I’d have zipped up the bag, even for the short walk from the driveway into the house, but under the circumstances, I just couldn’t do it.
As soon as I was in the front hall with the door firmly shut, I pulled Sid out of the bag to continue apologizing face-to-face. Or at least face-to-skull.
“Okay,” he said, “it’s not okay and I will be happy to let you and Madison grovel for the next month. Maybe two. But right now I have to tell you something.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“I witnessed a murder.”
“Last night, somebody killed a man in the high school auditorium.”
“Say that again,” I said, really hoping I hadn’t heard him say that he’d witnessed a murder.
With an air of extreme patience, Sid said, “Last night, somebody killed a man in the auditorium.”
“Are you serious? What happened? At school? Because I didn’t hear anything about a body being found there.” I couldn’t imagine that a murder at the high school wouldn’t have made an enormous splash in a town the size of Pennycross.
“I’ll explain, but can we go upstairs so I can pull myself together first?”
“Yeah, sure.” I stopped just long enough to drop my briefcase in the living room and give a quick pat to Bryon the dog, who seemed to be nonplussed that I wasn’t giving him the attention he felt he deserved. He looked up at Sid’s skull hopefully, and Sid snarled, “In your dreams, pooch!”
I carried Sid up the two flights of stairs to the attic, where he lived. Well, technically, Sid didn’t live anywhere because he wasn’t really alive, but I’d long ago learned that normal vocabulary and usage only go so far when dealing with the walking, talking skeleton who’d been my best friend since childhood.
As we were in the room, the bones snapped together into traditional skeletal form and he sat up and reached for the skull. It would have been unnerving if I hadn’t seen it a zillion times before.
“Do you mind?”
“Right. Sorry.” I handed the skull over to the beckoning hands, and Sid plopped it back where it belonged.
“That’s better,” he said, rolling his shoulders and twisting his neck to make sure everything was situated correctly.
While he was adjusting himself, I took a seat on the couch next to him and prompted, “You saw a murder?”
“Then what did you see?”
“I didn’t see anything—I said I witnessed it.”
“You lost me.”
“I heard a murder. I couldn’t see what was happening from where I was.”
“Which was where?”
“Waiting in the wings. Which is the story of my life. Well, not life but—”
“I was on a shelf filled with props in the wings. Stage right.”
I’d helped out at enough of Madison’s plays to know that he meant the wings that were to the side of the stage, not visible from the audience, and stage right was the left side from the audience’s perspective.
He went on. “About all I could see from there was a side view of the stage, and whoever it was was in the auditorium and not onstage. Needless to say, I couldn’t exactly roll out to see what was happening.”
I nodded. He could kind of hop around with his skull, but it wasn’t silent or subtle. And it looked really freaky.
“I don’t know for sure when it was because I couldn’t see the clock in the auditorium, either, but rehearsal had ended hours before. It started when I heard some banging noises. Then I heard somebody come into the auditorium. I was hoping it was Madison coming to get me.”
“We’re so sorry about that, Sid.”
He waved it away—I could tell how upset he was about what he’d heard because he didn’t even pause to give me mournful puppy dog eyes. I knew darned well it should be impossible for a bare skull to make that expression, but somehow he managed when the occasion arose.
Sid said, “Anyway, since I wasn’t absolutely sure it was Madison, I didn’t say anything. Then the argument started and I knew it wasn’t her.”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know. I only heard two voices, so I think it was just two people, but I didn’t recognize either voice.”
“Were they students?”
“I don’t think so. They sounded too old, but then again, some of the kids Madison knows have really deep voices. I do know they were both male.”
“That’s something. What were they arguing about?”
“I’m not sure. All I could get was tone and some random words. But they were going at it hot and heavy. Then one of them yelled, and there was a thump and a grunt and the sound of something falling. Like a body. The one left standing cussed and cussed—that I could hear. He stepped closer to the stage, too.”
I could picture that, the killer not wanting to stand right next to a dead body.
Sid went on. “I think he got out a phone because he started talking to somebody, and I couldn’t hear anybody else responding. After he stopped talking, he sounded as if he was pacing. Maybe twenty minutes later, I heard the auditorium door open and his footsteps going away from me. When the door opened again, there were two sets of footsteps. More conversation, but much quieter. They left for a few minutes, then came back again. And started washing up.”
“How could you tell?”
“The janitor has this wheeled mop bucket, and it squeaks. I’ve heard it a lot while I’ve been in Madison’s locker. Plus I could hear liquid sloshing and smell soap, so what else could it be but mopping the floor? They had to be cleaning up the evidence.”
It did sound like something awful had happened, but I had to ask, “Are you certain it was a murder?”
“Oh yeah. When that first guy was on the phone, he said, ‘Of course I’m sure—he’s dead. Just get over here!’ And when the other guy showed up, that one said, ‘Damn, you really nailed him.’”
“So some man killed somebody and then called a third person to help take the body away.”
“I think so.”
I ran my hands through my hair, trying to make sense of it. “Jeez, I just had an awful thought. I know why the killer and the victim went into the auditorium.”
“Because of me and Madison. That banging you heard? That was us beating on the main door trying to get somebody to let us in. There were two cars in the parking lot, so I know somebody was there. I bet those men you heard saw us, and didn’t want to be seen, so they ducked in there. We could have been there when it happened.”
Sid shuddered, which was a noisy operation. “That gives me goose bumps and I don’t even have any skin.”
“The worst part? Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t panicked the guy.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Sid said. “The killer met with the guy in a building that is usually empty at that time of day. Do you really think he had good intentions?”
“No, the worst thing was that there was nothing I could do! I couldn’t stop them, and I couldn’t get to a phone to call the police, and I couldn’t even move somewhere where I could see who it was. You can’t imagine how awful it was to hear all that and not know what to do.”
I put my arm around his shoulder blades. “It’s not your fault, Sid.”
“I should have yelled. I should have said that the cops were on the way or tried to bite him or . . . I don’t know, Georgia. Something. But I was scared.”
“Coccyx, Sid, you heard a murder. Of course you were scared.”
“Yeah, but what was I afraid of? Them killing me? I’m already dead!”
I winced, but he was right. “Sort of, yeah, but you could still be . . . destroyed.” Though Sid had lost a couple of small bones without harming him, and we’d repaired one he’d broken, we didn’t really know how Sid would be affected if more of his bones were damaged. It wasn’t an experiment we cared to make.
“Anyway, I didn’t hear anything else, not until it was morning and the cheerleaders came in and started practicing.”
“And there was nothing said at school about a body being found in the auditorium?”
“I told you, they carted the body away and cleaned up after themselves. They must have dumped it somewhere.”
“I didn’t hear anything about a body being found around town, but I haven’t looked at the news. Can I borrow your computer?”
“Let me. I’m faster.”
I’d been using a computer for a lot longer than Sid had, but since I was still in groveling mode, I didn’t argue as he booted up his Mac. When he’d first discovered the wonders of the Internet, he’d had to make do with using my parents’ old and slow desktop computer or borrowing mine, but I’d used my educator’s discount to get him his own system for Christmas. Given the hours he spent on it while Madison and I slept, he probably was faster on the keyboard than I was.
The first site he pulled up was the one for the Pennycross Gazette, but the lead story was about the city council meeting. I noticed that the author of said piece was an ex-boyfriend of mine, but I didn’t feel even a twinge. Well, not a big one. The guy was pretty cute.
“Nothing there,” I said.
Sid moved on to the site for the local TV station, but its lead was a landmark restaurant closing its doors. Then he tried Googling for dead bodies being found.
“There’s one,” I said, tapping the screen.
He clicked on it, and I read. “Hunters found a male body out near Springfield. No, wait. The remains were skeletal. I don’t think that would happen so quickly.”
“It could, but it would require special expertise,” Sid pointed out, reminding me of one of the more unsavory aspects of his existence before joining my family.
“Um, right. But this can’t have anything to do with what you heard. The cops think that body has been there for months.”
“I’ll keep looking.”
But while he gave it his best, spending half an hour running down links, he couldn’t find anything. Finally I said, “Sid, there’s nothing here. The body hasn’t been found yet.”
“Yet? Then you believe me,” he said hesitantly.
“Of course I believe you. One, you don’t make things up. Two, your hearing is solid even if you don’t technically have ears, and I just don’t see what else could have made the sounds you heard.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I don’t know. We could call the cops, but what would we tell them? There was a murder, but we don’t know who the killer was or the victim, and there’s no body anyway. I don’t think they’d take something like that very seriously.”
“But we can’t ignore it,” Sid protested.
“I know, I know, but—”
Before we could discuss it further, I heard the pounding of sneakers on the attic steps and Madison burst in.
“Sid, I am so sorry! I have no excuse, none at all, but please, please, please let me make it up to you.” She shoved a shopping bag onto his lap. “Look, I got you the latest issues of One Piece and Black Butler—”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Sid said, but he was reaching inside the bag. “Two books of Fairy Tale?”
“And Samantha let me borrow her DVDs of Doctor Who season six so we can have a movie night. Just please say you forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you!” he said magnanimously, and she threw her arms around him for a big hug.
In the midst of that, Sid looked at me and mouthed, “Do we tell her?”
I shook my head.
He nodded his agreement and, out loud, said, “Which first? Manga or the Doctor?”
“You two discuss options while I figure out what we can have for dinner,” I said, but I wasn’t completely sure they heard me.
Poor Byron was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, looking neglected. He wasn’t—his water dish was full and he had a doggie flap so he could get into the yard to take care of business—but he was used to getting more attention from Madison when she came home.
I called up the stairs. “Madison, Byron wants his walk.”
If Madison had tried to beg off, I’d have reminded her that Byron was her dog and therefore her responsibility, but instead it was Sid who came down and said, “Do you think you can take him this once? Madison and I are in the middle of something.” This time he did pull the puppy-dog-eye trick.
“All right,” I said, “but keep in mind that this will fulfill my groveling obligations.”
“Fair enough!” He zipped back to the attic, and I found Byron’s leash to do the honors.
Though I wasn’t going to admit it to either Sid or Madison, I didn’t really mind. Byron was well behaved, thanks to the training classes Madison had taken with him, and it was a lovely spring evening. Fall in New England gets all the good press, but spring has a special magic, probably because it’s so short. Some years, Massachusetts goes straight from winter to summer with no spring at all, but this year we’d had several weeks of warm weather and the trees were lightly painted in bright green.
Byron seemed to be enjoying our jaunt as much as I was, so I went farther than I’d intended, passing through our residential neighborhood and into the nearby business district and its handful of shops and restaurants. The fact that I went by Town House Pizza and Subs was entirely accidental. Of course, once I was there, I smelled cheesesteak subs cooking, and there was no resisting their allure. Though I couldn’t take the dog inside, I could use my cell phone to call in an order while standing on the sidewalk.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter laughed when I explained the situation, and she obligingly brought the two subs and the Greek salad I’d asked for out to me, and even had a bone for Byron.
I was about to leave when she said, “You be careful walking home. This town is getting scary.”
“Pennycross? Since when?”
“First that murder back in the fall, and just now I heard they found another body.”
“Another body? Was it murder?”
“All I know is that a cop was getting a sub and got a call that made him run out of here without it. My son looked up the code they called out on the radio, and it means there was a body found. I don’t think a cop would leave his sub behind if it was somebody who’d had a heart attack, so you might want to go straight home.”
“I’ll be careful,” I promised, but I didn’t say anything about going home. I had a phone call to make first.
Pennycross had recently implemented an anonymous tip line, so theoretically it should have been safe for me to call from my cell phone or the house’s landline, but the idea of the police tracking a call back to me and then somehow getting to Sid was enough to give me nightmares. So that meant I needed a public phone. The last time I’d needed to call the police with an anonymous tip—and it was a symptom of the oddity of my life that I’d had to do so more than once—it had taken me a while to find one, but this time I hit it lucky. There was one next to the convenience store two doors down from the sub shop. I only had to wait a couple of minutes for a pair of smokers to finish their break to make my call.
“Pennycross Police Department Tip Line,” a bored-sounding voice said.
“Hi, I need to report something about the body that was just found.”
“Yes?” was all the woman said, but she no longer sounded bored.
I launched into the story of how a friend had been backstage at the high school auditorium and overheard the murder and the cleanup. I’m pretty sure she was assuming that I myself was the friend, but she politely maintained the pretext. Of course she wanted to know why my friend hadn’t tried to do something, but I explained he wasn’t supposed to be in the building and that he’d been afraid to do anything. That was true enough, though not for any reason she was likely to come up with. Then she wanted to know why he hadn’t called them sooner, and all I could say was that he didn’t want to get involved. The longer we talked and the more details she asked for, the more bizarre it sounded to me, and I could only imagine how crazy it sounded to her. Finally I said, “I’m sorry, but that’s all I know,” and hung up.
I walked home considerably faster than I should have, but I told myself it was because the subs were getting cold, not because I was worried that a squad car was going to come squealing around the corner and chase me down.
Madison and Sid were already in the middle of an episode of Doctor Who when I got home, and since it was Friday night, I figured it wouldn’t hurt for us to eat in front of the TV. I wanted to tell Sid about the police finding his murder victim, but I didn’t want to bring it up in front of Madison. We’d have to tell her something sooner or later—she was bound to hear about a murder taking place in her high school auditorium—but I’d rather be able to assure her that the police were well on their way to finding the killer. Sid’s information, as incomplete as it was, would have to help.
We vegged out in front of the TV for the rest of the night, but I kept using my phone to go online every half hour or so to see if the news about the murder had hit the Web. It hadn’t by bedtime, which was frustrating. Had my relationship with the Pennycross Gazette reporter ended better, I’d have called him with a tip.
It was after eleven when I finally called it quits. Madison and Sid were still going strong, so I told them good night, reminded them to tend to Byron and set the alarm system before going to bed, and turned in. If I’d had a camera handy and any skill whatsoever as a photographer, I’d have paused and taken a picture of the homey scene. Madison curled up on the couch, Sid with his hands behind his skull and his feet up on the ottoman, and Byron gnawing happily on his bone with only the occasional longing look at Sid’s femur. Admittedly, it was more Charles Addams than Norman Rockwell, but it was home.
I love weekend mornings because I don’t have to set the alarm clock or run around in a frenzy getting myself ready for work and Madison ready for school. Recently, I’ve also come to enjoy the sight of my daughter in her own frenzy. She worked with my sister, Deborah, at her locksmith business every Saturday to earn money to help pay for Byron’s upkeep, and Deborah was not one to take excuses for tardiness, even from her only niece. Madison made it by the skin of her teeth that day, running out the door just as Deborah drove her truck into the driveway. Knowing that Deborah would dock her pay for being late, I forgave her for not kissing me good-bye.
With Madison safely out of earshot, I could go up to the attic to tell Sid what I’d heard and about my call to the police. He was reading—or more likely rereading—one of the manga Madison had brought him the day before. Sid didn’t sleep, so he spent most of his nights reading or tapping away on the computer.
“That’s a relief,” he said when I was done. “Maybe I helped a little after all.”
“Sid, you did everything you could do, and though I’m still sorry Madison left you overnight, I’m glad you were there. Otherwise the police would probably never have been able to figure out where the murder took place, and that’s got to be a big part of the investigation.”
“I guess,” he said.
“Have you seen anything new on the Web?”
“I’ve been afraid to look,” he admitted. “Let’s see what the word is.” After a few minutes, he said, “Here it is! ‘Body found in Pennycross.’” But when we followed the link to the Gazette article, all it said was that a body had been found on the east side of town and that identification was being withheld until the family could be notified.
“Wow, the police are really keeping a lid on this,” I said.
“Maybe there’s more to this murder than we thought.”
I shrugged. “I guess we’ll hear soon enough.”
After that, I figured I better get started on my usual Saturday joys: laundry, cleaning, paying bills, and going grocery shopping. Sid helped with the first two, and though he couldn’t help pay bills or grocery shop, he did bring me coffee while I was writing checks and insisted on putting the groceries away once I got them home. Obviously he’d forgiven Madison and me. The day passed quickly, punctuated by fruitless online checks for more news about the murder.
Madison texted me at four and said that Deborah had volunteered to bring over Chinese takeaway for dinner. I debated the bad example of eating take-out food two nights in a row versus knowing that Deborah would almost certainly turn down my offer to help pay, and replied that that would be great. By the time I had the table set and drinks ready, the two of them had returned, laden with bags from which arose a heavenly odor. Byron showed immediate interest and if I’d had a tail, mine would have been wagging, too.
“How’d work go?” I asked, taking Madison’s load and getting the kiss I’d missed that morning.
“Would you believe we had to help the police with a murder investigation? At PHS!” Madison said.
I froze and was trying to think of what to say when she and Deborah burst out laughing.
Though Deborah and I haven’t always gotten along, I wouldn’t have accused her of being so callous as to laugh at a murder—let alone to get Madison to demonstrate such insensitivity—so clearly I was missing something.
“A murder? At the high school?” Sid said in a tone of surprise that sounded patently false to me, but apparently neither Deborah nor Madison noticed.
“There was no murder at PHS,” Deborah said, still snickering. “Let’s get something to eat before it gets cold, and I’ll tell you the story.”