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From Bad to Hearse
As a school psychologist Skye Denison had dealt with many recalcitrant teens, but Justin Boward would be the death of her yet. He refused to talk. She was beginning to think his entire vocabulary consisted of yes, no, and the occasional grunt. Although she knew that adolescents tended to be like catsneither react when you talk to themhis lack of response to her attempts to draw him out was starting to make her feel like a failure. A feeling she was way too familiar with already.
Two years ago, Skye had been forced to crawl back to Scumble River, Illinois, after finding herself fired, jilted, and broke. It had been hard enough to return to the rural Midwestern town she had escaped as a teenager, but the citizens long memories had made it worse. Hardly a week went by without someone reminding Skye of what she had declared twelve years ago in her valedictorian speech. Back then, the moment the words had left her mouth, shed regretted saying that Scumble River was full of small-minded people with even smaller intellects. She had regretted it even more since shed moved back home.
She snuck a peek at her watch as she pushed a stray chestnut curl under her headband. Twenty-five minutes before the Scumble River High School dismissal bell would ring. Once again, she attempted to make eye contact with the teen seated kitty-corner from her at the small table. He ducked his head and studied his chewed fingernails. Justin had not spoken three words in the previous fifteen minutes. Skye searched for some pithy comment.
Before she could come up with one, a student she vaguely recognized flung the door open and stumbled inside. The girl bent over, trying to catch her breath, and spoke between gasps. Sleeping Beauty is dead.
What? Was this teen-speak for: Run, the cops are here? Was Skye supposed to answer: The gray wolf howls at midnight?
Skyes gaze raked the adolescent, who was still hunched over, hands on her knees, standing just past the office threshold. She was dressed in low-riding wide-legged denims and a hooded belly top. Her bleached two-tone hair fell to the middle of her back, and her navel was pierced.
After a quick appraisal, Skye decided that the girl probably hung with either the Rebels or the Skanks. Of Scumble River Highs five or six cliques, these were the two roughest. And unlike the teacher-pleasing Cheerleaders, Jocks, and Nerds, they did not volunteer information to adults. What was this girl up to?
The adolescent finally straightened and grabbed Skye by the wrist. Something abhorrent has happened. You have to come right now. She tugged at Skyes arm. Hurry!
Skye found herself half-running, half-dragged down the long hall. Orange lockers went by in a blur, and the smell of that days lunch caught in her throat.
The teen skidded to a halt before the closed gym doors and pointed. In there.
Who are you, and what are you talking about?
This is just FYI. Im out of here. The girl tried to push past Skye and head back down the corridor.
Skye grabbed the hood of her top. Oh no, you dont. Explain.
Hey, Cujo, back in your cage. The teen twisted violently, trying to free herself, then turned an anger-filled stare on Skye, who met her gaze without blinking. Finally, the girl shrugged. So, okay, I cut my eighth-period study hall, and I was hanging around here and there, waiting until my buds got out of school. I wanted a cigarette, and knew there was no PE last hour, so I went in the gym. It was dark, but I thought I saw someone on the stage, so I went closer. Thats when I saw her. The cheerleader playing Sleeping Beauty. She was laying there, dead.
The teen tried again to free herself. Skye refused to let go. Oh no, you dont, youre staying with me. Lets check this out. Sleeping Beauty was probably just rehearsing, or taking a nap. Under her breath she muttered, Or maybe she was afraid of you.
Side by side they entered the unlit gym. As her eyes adjusted, Skye could just make out the stage at the opposite end of the room, cluttered with partially completed sets for the spring musical Sleeping Beauty. She moved forward, a firm grip on her prisoners hood. Half walls and skeletal trees loomed in the darkness. While they climbed the steps to the stage, Skye wondered if she were doing the right thing. She didnt think the faculty handbook covered this situation.
To their right, a mock castle bedroom had been set up. Lying on the twin bed was one of the most beautiful young women Skye had ever seen. Her straight blond hair brushed the floor, and her face was a flawless oval. She had passed from the awkwardness of adolescence, and was yet to be touched by the hand of time. She was perfect.
Skye took a closer look. Her skin had a waxy appearance and was almost blue-gray in color. Her lips and nails were pale. Skye rushed to the bed and checked for a pulse. She could feel nothing over the thud of her own heartbeat. She put her ear to the girls chest. Again nothing. Finally, she placed the back of her hand to the teens mouth. She wasnt breathing.
Skye forced herself to remain calm and remember what she had learned in her first-aid course. Nothing applied here. Sleeping Beauty was dead.
Run to the office and call 911. Skye looked up to find the other girl gone. Shit, I shouldnt have let go of her.
You shouldnt say shit either.
Skyes heart thudded, and her head jerked up. She caught her breath when she recognized Justin, standing near the stairs. It was so rare to hear him speak that she hadnt recognized his voice. She hadnt noticed, but he must have followed when the girl dragged her away.
He was the type that blended into the background. Medium height, medium build, and medium brown hair that hung straight from a center part to the middle of his ears.
Justin, am I glad to see you. Run to the office and call 911. We need an ambulance.
Looks more like you need a hearse. His words were cocky, but his face was pale and sweaty.
Justin, please, just call 911. Tell them no lights or siren, and no radio. Skye wondered if there were anything else she should do. And get the principal. Oh, and tell him to shut off the dismissal bell.
He shrugged. Hes not going to listen to me.
She searched the pocket of her gray wool skirt and found a pad of passes. Give me a pen.
The boy handed her the Bic from his shirt pocket.
She scribbled a note and signed it, then handed it to Justin. Hurry!
When the boy left, Skye pulled down the sleeves of her pink cardigan and shivered. It was the beginning of April, and it was still cold in Illinois. Of course, it didnt help that the school board turned off the furnace on March 31, no matter what the weather.
Skye felt a deep sadness settle over her. Why was this young woman dead? She had barely begun to live. This was one Sleeping Beauty who would never awake to her princes kiss. Skyes gaze was drawn back to the girl. What had caused her death? There was no visible wound, no blood, no mark of any kind.
She glanced around. The scene looked ready for a rehearsal. Exceptwhat was that, not quite under the bed? She got down on her hands and knees, and peered at the object. The label had been peeled off, but the bottles odd shape teased Skyes memory.
She sat back on her heels and gnawed at her thumb. I wonder where it came from? The school doesnt sell anything in bottles.
Suddenly doors flew open and lights snapped on. Miss Denison, whats the meaning of all this? Homer Knapik, the high-school principal, scurried across the gym floor.
As he approached her, a detached part of Skyes mind noted that between his squat build and the hair emanating from nearly every orifice and covering every limb, the principal looked like a sheepdogone ready to bite the next lamb that veered from the flock.
Justin followed at a prudent distance, his face still chalky but his brown eyes alight with interest.
Skye met Homer at the bottom of the stairs. Did you call 911? Did you shut off the dismissal bell?
Yes, and youd better have a damn good reason for your note. He peered peevishly up at her through the fuzz hanging over his eyes.
I do. She pointed to the body on the bed. Maybe youd better have the teachers escort the kids out the front door. We dont want any of them wandering back here.
Homer took a step closer and squinted upward. Oh, my God! Thats Lorelei Ingels. She isnt...dead? When Skye nodded, he scribbled a note on the pad from his pocket. Boy, take this to the front office immediately and give it to Mrs. Hill.
Justin, after you do that, wait for the ambulance crew, and show them the side entrance. Skye lowered her voice and kept an eye on the teen, who was walking away ever so slowly. Wed better call the police, too.
What? Homer jumped from foot to foot, as if he were about to pee his pants. Do you have any idea who Lorelei Ingels is? Her family is one of the wealthiest and most influential in town. Shes won nearly every beauty pageant in the state. Weve got to be extremely careful. He stopped hopping around, and his shoulders slumped. What am I saying? No matter how we handle this or how she died, were screwed.
A young woman is dead, and thats your first reaction? Skye shook her head. She hoped that thirty years in the school system wouldnt turn her into a bureaucratic zombie like they had poor Homer.
The PA blared into life, making them both flinch. All teachers are to personally escort their eighth-period students out the front door. Teachers without eighth-period students are to report to the locker area and help supervise. No students are allowed anywhere in the school unescorted.
When the announcement ended, Homer tried to climb the steps, but Skye stepped in front of him. What are you doing? Get out of my way, he demanded.
Skye didnt budge. I think wed better leave things on the stage alone. We dont want to disturb any evidence.
Homer gave her a withering look. Are you saying the girl was murdered? All we need is for a rumor like that to get started.
The police will want to know why an apparently healthy eighteen-year-old suddenly dropped dead.
As if in response to her words, they heard the sound of running feet. Moments later, paramedics rushed through the door. Skye pointed to the bed. They pushed past her and went up the stairs.
Homer grabbed her arm. Id better call the superintendent. Ill be right back.
Skye watched the principal scurry out of the gym and Justin step just inside the doorway, turning back to the stage only when the EMTs began to fire questions at her. How long has she been like this?
I dont know.
When did you find her?
About fifteen minutes ago.
Was she conscious?
No, just like she is now. No pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing.
One of the paramedics turned to his partner. Better call the police.
The chief of police, Walter Boyd, was the first to arrive. He was tall and powerful-looking, with a muscular chest. Skye watched him swiftly assess the situation, then radio for backup from the county sheriffs department and the state police. He also called in all four of the off-duty Scumble River cops.
Wallys expressive brown eyes became shuttered when he spotted Skye. I should have known youd be involved.
She bit her lip. It wasnt fair. She had never even dated the guy, and still her relationship with him had always been complicated: from her first crush on him when she was fifteen and he twenty-three, to their latest fight over what he considered to be a betrayal of his trust. Im sorry youre still mad at me, she said.
Mad? Im not mad at you. I just dont trust you anymore, Wally said without inflection. I specifically told you not to go off investigating on your own.
I explained why I had to go alone to talk to those survivalists when my grandmother died last summer. Skye moved closer. They never wouldve said anything if youd been with me.
He stepped back from her and ran a hand through his curly black hair, pain etched in the lines bracketing his mouth. Yeah, Darleen explained why she had to leave me for another man, too. Lets stick to business. He flipped open his pad and clicked his pen. Tell me what happened, from the beginning.
Skye noted the weariness in Wallys face, and realized once again just how much she had hurt him. She wanted to repeat her apology but knew it would never be enough, so instead she replayed the last hour for him, step by step.
Wheres the girl who originally found the body? Wally asked.
I havent seen her since she got away from me, and I dont know her name.
Wally walked over to where Justin stood a few feet away from the adults. Do you know who the girl is?
He shrugged. Could be Elvira Doozier.
Skye looked heavenward. She should have guessed. Anytime there was a problem, a Doozier was usually involved somehow. She had first encountered the family when she initially returned to Scumble River. In fact, Junior Doozier had helped her when her car was totaled. Then the boys uncle had tried to kill her, and Junior had again come to her aid. She wondered where Elvira fit into that twisted family tree.
The chief sent Justin to wait on the bleachers and ordered Skye, Tell me about the boy.
Wally nodded impatiently.
Skye quickly sorted out what she had gathered from their counseling sessions, and thus considered confidential, from what was a matter of record. Ive been seeing him for nearly two years, ever since I started working for the Scumble River school district. Hes a freshman. We havent made much progress. He barely speaks to me. At the end of last year, he almost came around, but thanks to Aunt Mona and her committee, he was denied an essay award he had legitimately won. Now hes reverted to his previous hostile self.
How did she stop him from getting a school award?
She didnt like his essay topicpro-choice vs. pro-life.
Is he dangerous?
Hard to say. Justins a loner, due to his deep distrust of both adults and peers. Hes a bright boy, with an IQ in the superior range, but he squeaks by with Cs and Ds, so he doesnt hang out with the Nerds. Hes not athletic, so he doesnt fit with the Jocks either. Hes both angry and uncommunicative, which is a dangerous combination. Im worried about the type of group he might eventually find.
But what about now? Is there anyone he hangs with?
Skye shook her head. Why are you asking all these questions about Justin? Surely you dont suspect him of being involved with this death. He was with me this period.
We dont even know what happened, let alone when. But since this boy was around, I just want to get a picture of him. Have you talked to his parents? What are they like?
Ive tried to warn his parents of the seriousness of his emotional state, but his mothers coping with her own depression, and his fathers in poor health. Theyre both pretty absorbed in their own needs.
Wally made a note, and his voice turned formal. Thanks. Please sit on the bleachers with the boy until youre dismissed.
Skye chafed at his brusque tone but did as she was told.
Simon Reid, the coroner, arrived next. As tall as the chief, he had a more sophisticated demeanor. His dark auburn hair and golden hazel eyes reminded her of Gary Cooper. As usual, he was dressed impeccably in a perfectly pressed designer suit.
He rushed past Skye, nodding coolly. He was another of her interpersonal disasters. They had dated for nearly a year after Skye had first returned to Scumble River, but had broken up last summer when he had pushed for a level of intimacy she wasnt ready for.
Skye sat on the bottom row of the bleachers. Shouts echoed through the cavernous gym. Ceiling lights in their safety cages cast ominous shadows. Justin sat beside her, sneaking worried glances at her face. She knew she should say something to reassure him, but she felt drained and unable to move, let alone make a decision.
Occasionally, she heard the voices of people trying to push past the police officers and enter the gym. Eventually, someone calling her name penetrated her fog. She rose unsteadily from the bench and made her way to the door.
Kent Walker, Scumble River Highs new English teacher, the director of Sleeping Beauty, and the man Skye was halfheartedly dating, was arguing that they should let him into the gym. He was tall and lithe, with a casual grace that spoke of money and privilege. He had caused many heads to turn and hearts to throb when he moved to town last September. Skye had never understood why he chose to date her, especially since there was so little sexual chemistry between them. She had come to the conclusion it was because she shared his wry view about rural life.
He turned away from the officer and demanded, Skye, tell these buffoons who I am.
She dutifully said, This is Kent Walker. Hes the director of this years musical.
So? Deputy McCabe took off his hat and scratched his head. The chief says nobody comes in or goes out. No exceptions.
She shrugged at Kent. Sorry.
His handsome face reddened. I need to come in. He dropped his voice. Is it really Lorelei Ingels?
Skye hesitated. I cant say. The police arent releasing the name until the next of kin can be notified.
Kents tone turned frosty. Why are you treating me like a stranger? I thought we had something between us.
She raised an eyebrow. Something between them? She didnt think so. True, they had gone out half a dozen times, but they werent dating each other exclusively, and they had never progressed beyond a quick kiss good night.
Skye stared at Kent, who was frowning and tapping his foot. She hadnt noticed before, but his jaw was slightly receding, and when he tensed it, as he was doing now, it looked as if he had no chin at all. She gazed in fascination as he changed from good-looking to downright ugly. Why am I thinking about Kents appearance at a time like this?
Finally, she forced her attention back to the situation at hand. Sorry, what did you say, Kent?
I asked why youre acting so strangely. His blue eyes were icy.
Well, it is quite a shock to find a body in the course of a Wednesday afternoon. Skye was beginning to feel more like her usual assertive self. Since coming out from under the spell of her ex-fianci, she had allowed no man to take that belligerent tone with her.
Youre right, of course. Im being a beast. A lock of white-blond hair fell over one eye as he tilted his head. But could you please talk to that police chief of yours, and see if hell let me through?
She answered automatically, Hes not my police chief. At least not anymore. But if you really want me to, Ill see what I can do. Why do you need to come in here?
Id rather not explain it twice, just get the chief, okay?
Skye had opened her mouth to say no, it wasnt okay, when she caught a glimpse of Wally standing alone. This was her chance.
She hurried over to one side of the stage just as he squatted down. Wally, could I speak to you for a moment?
He straightened and glared at her. Didnt I tell you to sit on the bleachers and not move?
He had, and shed forgotten. Sorry, I havent touched anything.
Thats something. He crouched again. So, whats so urgent?
Um, well, Kent Walker, the director of the musical, would like to come into the gym, and Deputy McCabe wont let him.
As per my orders, Wally answered distractedly, his nose almost touching the floor. Why does he need to be here?
Skye tried to see what Wally was staring at. It looked like a small piece of tinsel. He wanted to talk to you about that.
And you didnt insist on knowing? Wally got to his feet. Then its true. You two are an item.
What? Her eyebrows came together.
Never mind. Lets go talk to Mr. Kent Walker.