A nasty faculty feud leaves one Scumble River teacher belly-up. . . .
Her honeymoon may have been less than relaxing, but Skye Boyd née Denison is still high on marital bliss with her new husband, Wally. The fact that their family is about to get bigger is even more exciting, even if Skye is dealing with morning sickness—and trying to hide the news from her ever-meddling mother, May.
But Skye quickly comes crashing down from cloud nine when the body of one of her coworkers, science teacher and volleyball coach Blair Hucksford, is found in the school swimming pool. The troublesome trainer was on the bad side of almost everyone on staff and many of the girls on her team, leaving Skye to sort through a huge roster of suspects. Now she must figure out which wronged party was mad enough to kill, and quickly—before someone else in town gets bumped off. . . .
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LOL—Laugh out Loud
Skye Denison-Boyd adjusted the straps of her bathing suit, then kicked off from the edge of the swimming pool. Her goal was to make it to the other end without losing her breakfast. Not that a couple of soda crackers and a cup of tea was much of a meal, but that was all she’d been able to tolerate in the mornings for the past month. And some days, even the saltines didn’t stay down.
Refusing to think about tossing her cookies—or to be more specific, crackers—Skye concentrated on improving her butterfly stroke. Seven years ago, when she first returned to her hometown and started working as a psychologist for the Scumble River school district, she had swum most weekday mornings and often on Saturdays and Sundays as well. In the summer, she used the local recreational club, a lake formed from a reclaimed coal mine. And when it was cold, she did laps in the high school’s highly debated pool.
Due to the source of its financing, the swimming pool was a hot topic among the Scumble River citizens. A while back, the district had received some extra tax money from the construction of a nearby nuclear power plant, but instead of buying more up-to-date textbooks or employing additional teachers, the school board had spent the funds on athletic equipment and a pool.
The board members had been hoodwinked by a fast-talking salesman and a group of parents with their own agendas. It was the one time in anyone’s memory that the board president, Skye’s godfather, Charlie Patukas, had lost a vote. Because of that, she’d always felt a little guilty when she used the facility.
Those ambivalent feelings had helped her make excuses to skip her daily swims until eventually she rarely, if ever, swam at all. But a couple of months ago, after returning from her honeymoon, Skye had vowed to get back to her previous exercise routine. And a little bit of nausea was not going to stop her. Besides, the doctor had said that swimming might actually help the morning sickness.
Which reminded her, when she wiggled into her bathing suit at home, she’d noticed a definite baby bump. Up until now, because of her already generous curves, there hadn’t been much danger that anyone would notice the three or four extra pounds she was carrying. Evidently, that anonymity was about to end.
She and her husband, Wally, would have to make some kind of announcement soon, or speculation would sweep the town. Scumble River’s main drag wasn’t known as Blabbermouth Basin Street for nothing.
Skye and Wally’s motives for keeping mum about the blessed event were due in part to Wally’s concerns about revealing the pregnancy prior to the completion of the first trimester. Furthermore, they hadn’t wanted to take the spotlight away from Skye’s brother and sister-in-law’s baby shower, which was scheduled for Saturday.
However, the most compelling reason for them to keep quiet as long as possible was Skye’s mother. May had a tendency to be a bit overbearing—okay, a lot overbearing. And as soon as she found out her daughter was pregnant, she would try to take over her life. Compared to May, D. B. Cooper was an amateur skyjacker.
May had waited a long time for grandchildren. Both Skye and her brother, Vince, had married relatively late—Skye had been thirty-six and Vince nearly forty—which meant May had been ready to be a grandmother for close to twenty years. And although Skye hoped her mother would be distracted by Vince’s baby, she was pretty darn sure May would find the time to drive her daughter crazy as well. As an equal-opportunity meddler, May would make sure neither of her children felt neglected. She wouldn’t want either of them to think the other was her favorite.
Wincing at the thought of her mother’s reaction to her pregnancy, Skye reached the opposite end of the pool. Performing a perfect flip turn, she started back, happy that she felt less queasy and determined to put May out of her mind.
Willing herself to relax and enjoy the sensation of the water sliding over her skin, Skye focused on her dolphin kick. Because the butterfly was one of the most exhausting strokes and she hadn’t yet rebuilt the strength to swim more than a few lengths of the pool before having to rest, she wanted to put the time she had to the best use.
March in Illinois had been chillier than usual, but in the heated pool, Skye could pretend that she was back on her honeymoon. Even though the cruise had been full of surprises—including a dead body—she and Wally had both been able to unwind from their demanding lives and have an unforgettable trip.
Wally, as the chief of the Scumble River Police Department, had been badly in need of a break. Although the town’s population was just a shade over three thousand, between the devious mayor and several murders, the community in no way resembled Mayberry. Which meant that Wally’s work was no Andy Griffith kind of job.
Skye’s position as the sole mental-health professional for the entire school district kept her stress level in the head-about-to-explode range as well. Add planning a wedding during the frantic Christmas holidays and her psych-consultant contract with the PD, and she, too, had been more than ready for a vacation.
Their honeymoon had been wonderful, but now that they’d been back for two and a half months, Skye had a feeling that their downtime was about to end. This was the final week before spring break, which in Skye’s world meant frazzled teachers and students with cabin fever.
For Wally, kids out of school required preparing his officers for hordes of unoccupied teens with way too much time on their hands. Not many Scumble River families could afford to take off from their jobs and jet off to Florida or the Caribbean. So while they were busy making a living, their offspring were often left unsupervised and looking for something to do.
Skye finished her fifth lap, and as she rested against the side of the pool, she checked the clock on the far wall. It was only six thirty. Staff was required to be on duty at seven twenty, while students started their school day at ten to eight. Allowing half an hour to style her hair, slap on some makeup, and put on her clothes, she had fifteen minutes before she had to get out of the water and start to dress.
Because of her nausea, Skye had been up an hour before her normal time, and she’d gotten to the pool much earlier than usual. When she’d turned in to the school’s driveway, there hadn’t been a single car in the parking lot. Even the custodian’s old red Silverado pickup wasn’t in its usual spot by the Dumpster yet.
She’d used her key to enter through the back door of the empty building and made her way to the gym. The pool area’s only entrance, except for an alarmed emergency exit, was through the student locker rooms. As she’d passed through the girls’ side, she’d stripped off her sweat suit and placed it and her bag on one of the benches. The locked duffel held what she would need to get ready for the school day, as well as her purse and the leather tote full of files she’d brought home on Friday to work on over the weekend.
Most mornings there were other staff members using the pool, but because she’d arrived so early, the place had been deserted. At the time, even though Skye knew she shouldn’t swim without a buddy, she’d been happy to have the water to herself. It was nice not to have to worry about colliding with another swimmer or slowing someone else down. However, now it felt as if she was no longer alone. Had someone else arrived to take a pre-workday dip?
Skye glanced from side to side. Almost the entire wall of the pool enclosure was made up of frosted blue safety glass. She squinted. Was that someone peering through the partition? She called out a greeting, but no one answered. That was odd. Her imagination must be getting the best of her.
She shoved her swim goggles up on her head and looked around for a second time. With the exception of a couple of safety rings and a pole with a hook on the end leaning against the wall, the area was empty. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm her racing heart, but the scent of chlorine overpowered her. Uh-oh! Now she felt queasy again.
Swimming over to the ladder, Skye had just begun to climb out of the water when she thought she heard retreating footsteps. A chill ran up her spine. Had someone been watching her? No! That was silly. Why would anyone spy on her? Was pregnancy making her paranoid?
Skye shook her head at her own foolishness and heaved herself out of the pool. She hurried into the locker room and peeled off her swim cap. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she sighed. While the cap kept her hair dry, it also left it a snarled mess. Bending over, she ran her fingers through her long chestnut curls in an attempt to fluff out the strands.
She was busy trying to work out a particularly stubborn tangle when a hand descended on her shoulder and someone snapped, “You need to leave immediately.”
With a scream, Skye straightened. Clutching her chest, she said, “Blair! You scared me to death. What are you doing here?”
Blair Hucksford taught junior and senior level science and coached girls’ volleyball. Although she’d been teaching at Scumble River High for nearly four years, Skye didn’t know her very well. Blair hadn’t sought out Skye’s help with any of her students, and she rarely attended pupil personnel services conferences. PPS meetings, a multidisciplinary forum intended to assist students identified as exhibiting academic, social, or physical needs through supportive and preventative strategies and services, was Skye’s main contact with most of the school’s staff.
Blair’s expression hardened. “More to the point, what are you doing here?” She crossed her arms. “I booked the whole pool area for my team.”
“I don’t see anyone.” Skye looked around. She and Blair appeared to be alone. “Anyway, I’m going to get dressed right now, so I’ll be out of the way by the time they show up.” She smiled, sure Blair didn’t mean to be as nasty as she sounded.
“You can’t use the girls’ locker room.” Blair narrowed her jade green eyes. “As I just said, I’ve reserved it and the pool from six thirty until seven thirty.”
“Well, I don’t think the school board would approve of me using the boys’ side,” Skye joked. “Just let me take a quick shower, and I’ll finish getting ready in the teachers’ restroom.”
“No.” Blair tossed her coppery red curls and said, “The space is rightfully mine. You’ll just have to figure out something else.” She turned and marched away.
“Wait!” Skye ran after her. “This is silly. I just need five minutes.” The thought of trying to wash the chlorine off her skin without the benefit of a shower made her willing to beg. “I—”
“Not even one minute.” Blair stopped Skye. “You should have read the schedule. Your oversight is not my problem.” She put her hands on her slim hips. “The rules state that once a teacher signs up for a space, that faculty member has sole possession for the allotted time.”
“But . . .” Skye stuttered. Why was Blair being so mean? “Look, I—”
“It’s really rude of you to talk while I’m interrupting.”
“It’s a mistake on my part to be here. You’re absolutely right about that.” Skye gritted her teeth and forced herself to sound conciliatory. She really needed to use that darn shower. “And I’m sorry.”
“Of course you are.” Blair let out an exaggerated sigh. “But sustaining ignorance is hard work, and I’m not that industrious.”
“Are you always this sarcastic?” Skye was tired of apologizing.
“No,” Blair sneered. “Sometimes I’m asleep.”
“Seriously?” Skye crossed her arms. “You need to get over yourself.”
“I tried once, but no luck.” Blair smirked. “I’m just too awesome.” She turned her back, then said over her shoulder, “And you still have to leave right now.”
Skye put her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. Trying one last time to make Blair see reason, she said, “Please. Two minutes in the shower. I promise to be out of the locker room before your girls get here.”
“Too late.” Blair moved out of reach, scooped up Skye’s duffel bag, put the strap over Skye’s shoulder, and thrust her discarded sweat suit at her. Grabbing both of Skye’s arms, Blair said, “I just heard the team arrive.”
“Take your paws off of me.” Skye tried to wiggle free of the fingers clamped around her biceps. For a skinny little thing, Blair was surprisingly strong.
Ignoring Skye’s outraged cries, Blair frog-marched her out of the room. As she shoved Skye into the hallway, she said, “Guess you’ll have to make do with a sponge bath in the faculty restroom. Maybe next time you won’t think that you’re above the rules.”
Skye stared at her, speechless at the teacher’s utter rudeness.
Blair smiled meanly and said, “I just adore the sound you make when you finally shut the hell up.”
Skye absentmindedly reached down and scratched her calf. White flakes fell on the dingy gray carpet and she frowned. It had been impossible to wash off all the chlorine without a shower. She wished she could have driven home and gotten dressed there. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been an option. The trip would have made her late for work, and then she would have had to face the wrath of Homer.
Homer Knapik, the high school principal, didn’t tolerate tardiness from his staff. He could be late for everything from parent conferences to faculty meetings. But if any of his faculty checked in even a second past seven twenty, the public haranguing was enough to make them reconsider their choice of careers.
And Homer had a special way of intimidating Skye for any infractions—either real or imagined. He threatened to give her office to one of the other itinerant personnel. Since there literally was no other space in the school, she was always fearful of losing such valuable real estate. She had only wrested it away from the boys’ PE teacher/guidance counselor a few years ago, after pointing out that he already had an office in the gym complex. Up until then, she’d had to beg, borrow, or steal space to evaluate or counsel students.
Glancing around, Skye silently tsked. Who would have thought that she’d have to do battle for a ten-by-ten room with no windows? It was painted an ugly shade of greenish yellow that was made worse by the overhead light fixture. The fluorescent bulbs cast a sickly tinge over the beat-up desk, battered trapezoidal table, two folding chairs, and wooden file cabinet. All the furniture occupying the meager space were castoffs. Her old leather chair and the metal bookshelves that held her test kits had been discarded by someone with a budget to upgrade to nicer things, but Skye was grateful to have them. Even secondhand, the stuff was better than anything she had at either the grade school or the junior high.
After another bout of itching, Skye hurriedly checked her appointment book. She was scheduled to stay at the high school until noon, then go to the elementary school for the rest of the day. Maybe she could drive home during her half-hour lunch. If she didn’t hit any traffic—and with only one stoplight in town, that was a pretty safe bet—it would take her only five minutes each way. As long as she didn’t get her face or hair wet, twenty minutes was plenty of time for a quick shower and to make herself a sandwich.
Of course, that plan hinged on a smooth morning. If there were any student, staff, or parent crises, all bets were off. In that case, her lunch would consist of another round of crackers, which would be a shame since her nausea usually passed by ten or eleven, and having eaten little or no breakfast, she was usually ravenous by noon.
Then again, there was that bag of cookies hidden in her desk drawer. She’d been saving the Archway Cashew Nougats for an emergency, and starvation certainly qualified.
Pushing aside her food and hygiene issues, Skye took out the stack of folders from her tote bag. She selected a bright blue one from the pile and flipped it open. In her quest to organize the humongous amount of paperwork her job entailed, she’d instituted a new system. Red for priority, green for new referrals, yellow for counseling cases, and blue for reevaluations.
Before Skye could do more than glance inside the file at the previous test protocols, there was a perfunctory knock; then her door slammed open and Trixie Frayne rushed inside. Trixie was the high school librarian and Skye’s best friend. She also cosponsored the school newspaper with Skye, coached the cheerleading squad, and had recently started a community service club to promote volunteerism among the teenagers. Anyone else would be exhausted by all the extracurricular duties, but Trixie thrived on the constant whirlwind of activity.
“I found the perfect fund-raiser for GIVE.” Trixie darted across the room and plopped onto one of the visitors’ chairs.
“Get Involved, Value Everyone.” Trixie bounced on her seat. “It’s the service club’s new name. Paige Vitale thought of it at Friday’s meeting.”
“She’s a smart girl.” Skye smiled, thinking of the dynamic junior. Like her idol, Trixie, Paige seemed to be involved in everything and she appeared to enjoy the hectic pace. “She’s doing a great job with the newspaper.” When Frannie Ryan and her boyfriend, Justin Boward, had gone off to college, Skye had wondered if they’d ever find an editor as good as they had been. “Paige is a great writer and extremely helpful in improving the other students’ skills.”
“Definitely.” Trixie nodded, her pixielike face alight with pleasure. “She’s really been kind to some of the kids from our special education program. I was pleased that several of the students with more challenging issues joined GIVE.”
“That’s great to hear.” Skye had recommended that the special ed teacher encourage her students to join Trixie’s club, thinking it would be a good place for them to make friends. “I hope Ashley Northrup is one of them.”
“She is.” Trixie beamed. “And her mom has been really helpful.”
“You mentioned a fund-raiser.” Skye peeked at her watch. She’d been planning to spend the half hour before school writing a report, but her friend looked as if she was settled in for a good long visit. Closing the folder and resolving to finish the work at home, she gave Trixie her full attention. “What is it?”
“A rubber duck race down the Scumble River.” Trixie’s brown eyes sparkled. “The kids sell the ducks—well, actually, they’ll sell the numbers on the ducks—for ten bucks a piece. We’ll release them at the boat-launch area in the park, and the first fowl into the channel that we’ll build under the railroad bridge west of town is the overall winner.”
“We’ll string several swimming pool noodles together between poles, using water-ski ropes, to create a V-shaped passage.” Trixie used her hands to demonstrate. “It will narrow down to a small opening that only allows one duck through at a time.”
“Clever.” Skye smiled at her friend’s ingenuity. “Which charity gets the money?”
“The county’s no-kill animal shelter.”
“What does the owner of the winning duck get?”
“There will be several prizes.” Trixie’s voice was a little less confident. “At least, I hope there will be. The kids are going to have to persuade area businesses to contribute merchandise and gift cards for us to give away.”
“That could be tough.” Skye furrowed her brow. “Those folks are always being hit up for donations. You’d better see how that goes before the club members start selling the ducks. Otherwise, you might end up using all the money you collect on the sales to buy prizes.”
“I’m not worried about that. I’m sure the business owners will be generous, especially since we’ll be listing the contributors on the Scumble River High website and in the school paper. And since that particular issue will go out to all the parents, it will be glaringly apparent who was stingy.” Trixie ran her fingers through her short brown hair and made a face. “But there are just a couple of tricky parts. That’s why I wanted to talk to you before we both got busy this morning.”
“Oh.” Visions of the various potential problems conga danced through Skye’s head. Possibilities included everything from kids going over the dam in the river to counterfeit duckies. “What do you need me to do?”
“It turns out we have to get a permit from the city council to have the race, and their monthly meeting was last week.” Trixie peered at Skye from between her lashes. “I thought maybe you could ask your uncle Dante to grant us a mayoral waiver.”
“As you know, Uncle Dante isn’t one of my biggest fans.” Skye crossed her arms. “Believe me—I’m the last person in town he’d do a favor for. No. Wait. Wally is the last person. I’m the second to the last.”
Dante Leofanti, Scumble River’s mayor and Skye’s maternal uncle, resembled a cantankerous bowling pin. He was always in a bad mood, but even more so when one of his schemes was thwarted. He had recently hatched a conspiracy to outsource the town’s law-enforcement services to the county sheriff’s department. He’d planned to use the police-department budget for a harebrained idea that involved building a mega incinerator on the edge of town.
When Skye had found out about Dante’s shady arrangement, she’d exposed his plot to the community, and he blamed her for his recent approval-rating drop. The polls showed him lagging behind both of his future opponents—and one of them was a sock puppet named Napoleon.
“He’s still mad at you two for pulling the plug on his get-rich-quick scheme?” Trixie’s eyebrows rose. “When he came to your wedding, I figured he must have forgiven you.”
“He arrived straight from his hospital bed.” Skye’s voice dropped. “And even though he passed all the tests and the doctor told him that all he’d had was a panic attack, Dante claims we gave him a coronary.” She shook her head. “Just when I think things can’t get any worse in city hall, there’s an election.”
Trixie snickered. “Okay. Maybe you aren’t the best one for that job.” She scratched her chin. “I’ll find someone else to sweet-talk the mayor.”
“Good luck with that.” Skye screwed up her face, trying to picture her uncle being charmed into granting someone a favor. “You’d be better off looking for someone who has some dirt on His Honor. Or if you don’t want to resort to blackmail, just wait for the next city council meeting.”
“Well, that brings me to the second problem.” Trixie studied the toes of her high-tops. “We can’t wait because we want to have the race this Sunday. Sort of a spring break kickoff.”
Skye’s mouth dropped open, and she stared at her friend. “You intend to put this together in less than a week? Have you lost your marbles?”
“Not all of them.” Trixie grinned. “But there’s probably a rip in the bag.”
“More like a hole the size of a meteor crater.” Skye pressed her lips together. “Six days isn’t long enough to pull off something as complicated as this event.”
“That’s where you come in.” Trixie transferred her scrutiny to the KushandWizdom poster behind Skye’s desk that read, MILLIONS OF PEOPLE CAN BELIEVE IN YOU, AND YET NONE OF IT MATTERS IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
“How’s that?” Skye pushed her chair back, prepared to run if need be.
“We only have twenty-five kids in the community service club. I’m going to get my cheerleaders to help—one of the squad requirements is thirty hours of volunteering.” Trixie examined the blue polish on her fingernails. “But we need more worker bees if we’re going to get the race organized in time.” She finally met Skye’s gaze. “I need you to supervise the school newspaper kids we get to volunteer.”
“No.” Skye spoke rapidly before Trixie could continue. “You are welcome to recruit the paper’s staff, but leave me out of it.” As well as getting back to a regular swimming routine, another of Skye’s post-marriage vows had been to learn to say no when friends and family tried to manipulate her.
“I’ll do what I can,” Skye interrupted Trixie. “But I’m not going to be in charge of anything. I just can’t take on too much right now.”
“It won’t be that much work.” Trixie leaned forward and pasted a piteous expression on her face. “Nothing can stop Skyxie.”
“Skye plus Trixie.” Trixie grinned. “Like Brangelina.” Trixie wrinkled her brow. “Speaking of those two . . . I think they’re trying to collect one kid in every color.”
“Maybe so.” Skye hid a grin. “But I bet they don’t have a blue one yet.”
“Yeah. An available Smurf has got to be hard to find.” Trixie giggled hysterically, then sobered and said, “Anyway, Skyxie is a super team.”
“Is it too late to change sides?”
“Please. I can’t do this without you.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t do it.” Skye looked away from her friend’s pleading eyes and hardened her heart. “Or at least not do it in less than a week. The weather will be better in May.”
“The no-kill shelter needs the money by April second or they’re going to lose their lease.” Trixie grabbed Skye’s hand. “If that happens, all the doggies and kitties will have to go to the county animal control, and it’s a good bet most of them will be put down.”
“Crap!” Skye yanked her fingers out of Trixie’s grasp and admitted defeat. There was no way she could look Bingo in the eye if she allowed that to happen. Her cat might never be aware that she’d let his comrades-in-fur down, but she would know. “What do you want me to do?”
Skye shuddered as she watched her friend fish a list from her pocket and unfold it, then unfold it again and again. Where had Trixie gotten a piece of paper that long? And more important, how many of the items on the page had Skye’s name next to them?
“I need you to find a thousand cheap ducks.” Trixie took a pen from behind her ear and made a check mark. “Once you get them, have the newspaper kids number each of them in indelible marker.”
“Where in heaven’s name do I get a thousand rubber duckies?”
“All right.” Much to her credit card’s detriment and despite her best efforts to remain a technophobe, Skye had become somewhat adept at ordering from the computer. “How do I pay for these critters?”
“Uh.” Trixie scrunched her face. “I was sort of hoping you could charge them to your Visa and we could reimburse you after the event.” She arched a brow. “Or that could be your contribution . . .”
“Fine.” Skye rubbed her temples. She had just finished paying off the mind-boggling balance from her wedding, and she had hoped to keep the amount owed at zero for a few months. So much for that dream.
“Find a vendor that sells in bulk.” Trixie smoothed her black-and-white-striped circle skirt. “You should be able to get them for around three hundred and fifty dollars, including expedited shipping.”
“One more thing.” Trixie fingered the ruffle of her cropped denim jacket.
“No.” Skye put up her hands in the universal stop-right-now gesture. “If you are trying to drive me out of my mind, I warn you it might take a while because the exits aren’t clearly marked.”
“Really, Skye.” Trixie snickered. “This won’t even take you thirty minutes—three-quarters of an hour tops.” She reached for the candy jar on Skye’s desk and selected a watermelon Jolly Rancher. “You’re friendly with Kathy Steele—”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Skye broke in before Trixie could finish, hoping to halt whatever request was coming. “We’re more cordial than friendly. I’m not sure she’s exactly friendly with anyone around here.”
Kathryn Steele owned and edited the Scumble River Star. She’d appeared in town a little more than four years ago, purchased the local paper, and changed its content from mostly advertisements and local sports statistics to actual news—not a popular move with all of her subscribers.
She lived above the Star’s offices, and she was known for being on the job nearly twenty-four/seven. Which didn’t leave much time for socializing. Skye had always wondered about the newspaperwoman’s background and apparent wealth, but Kathryn was the type of person who held her cards close to the vest while managing to get everyone else to lay their losing hands down on the table.
“Okay, so you two aren’t pals.” Trixie twisted off the candy wrapper. “But you told me she’s a member of Wally’s gun club and that she was helpful the last time you went with him to shoot.”
“Helpful in that she offered me a hand up when I fell on my butt after Emmy Jones had me shoot with her Smith & Wesson Centennial 642CT,” Skye corrected. “And I haven’t been out to the club in a month or so.” Pregnancy had put a temporary stop to her quest to bond with her new husband over his love of weaponry.
“That’s more of a relationship with Kathy than I have, so you’re elected.” Trixie took another piece of paper from her pocket. “You just need to persuade her to put this announcement about the rubber duck race on the front page of the Star.” Trixie shoved the article toward Skye. “It has to be in by noon today so it will make Wednesday’s paper, and we can’t afford to pay anything.”
“Wait a cotton-picking minute.” Skye refused to take the sheet Trixie was thrusting in her direction. “How am I going to accomplish this before twelve o’clock?”
“Call Kathy on the phone. Convince her it’s for a good cause. Then e-mail her the notice.” Trixie popped the hard candy into her mouth. “Easy-peasy.”
“Right.” Skye’s voice dripped sarcasm. “I’ll schedule that in between the parent meeting at eight, the observation at ten, and the counseling session at eleven.”
Trixie ignored Skye’s sarcastic tone, crossed another line off of her inventory, and stuffed it in her pocket. “Great. I knew that I could count on you.”
“You know, last time you tried to rush an event, it turned out to be a disaster,” Skye said, attempting once more to get her friend to slow down and think through the consequences of ramrodding the fund-raiser. “You ended up with a garage full of junk and no buyers for your white-elephant sale.”
“I eventually sold all that stuff.” Trixie grinned, then shrugged. “Besides, some mistakes are too much fun to make only once.”
“You peddled them mostly to your friends,” Skye retorted. “The ones who had donated the items in the first place.”
“Your point?” Trixie sniggered, then asked, “So what did you end up buying for Vince and Loretta’s long-awaited baby shower?”
The baby had been born nearly three months ago, but the birth had been a difficult one, and Loretta had requested that the celebration be delayed until she had fully recovered. Skye suspected that her gorgeous sister-in-law also wanted to get her figure back before the party, but she had wisely kept that notion to herself. Loretta was a brilliant woman, and Skye didn’t want her sister-in-law turning that mega-intellect against her.
“The Kate Spade Coney Island Stevie diaper bag.” Skye was happy to divert Trixie’s attention from adding her name to any more items on the ducky-do list, so she quickly added, “Vince told me that Loretta was finding it a teensy bit hard to transform from city lawyer to country mommy, so I thought a hip baby bag might help. It’s her favorite shade of pink, and it has an awesome gold buckle, as well as a changing pad and stroller straps.”
Skye and her sister-in-law, Loretta Steiner Denison, were sorority sisters—both alumnae of Alpha Sigma Alpha. Loretta was a hotshot defense attorney with a huge law firm in Chicago, and seven years ago Skye had reached out to her to defend Vince on a murder charge.
Loretta had surprised Skye when, despite the high-powered lawyer’s often-declared aversion to small towns and their citizens, she had fallen in love with Skye’s brother, a humble hairstylist. That Loretta had ended up married to Vince and living in Scumble River was beyond amazing.
It helped that she was able to do so much of her job at home, having to make the ninety-minute commute into the city only for meetings and trials, but it had still been a tremendous sacrifice for her to live in her husband’s hometown rather than remain in Chicago. And now that she was taking six months’ maternity leave to stay home with their newborn, Loretta was having some difficulty adjusting to her much-less-glamorous life.
“That bag had to cost you a pretty penny.” Trixie grinned. “Owen and I got them a starter library. A dozen classic children’s books that the new mommy and daddy can read to baby. I included my favorites—Goodnight Moon, Curious George, and at Owen’s insistence, The Rusty, Trusty Tractor.”
“That’s a great present.” Skye smiled to herself. Trust a librarian to get the newborn started on the right foot with a gift of books. And trust her farming husband to include a volume on rural life.
“How’s Loretta handling your mother?” Trixie asked, playing with her wedding ring.
“Probably better than how she’s handling her own mom.” Skye stole a glance at the wall clock behind Trixie. Ten minutes until the bell rang. Yep. She’d definitely have to write the report at home to make up for the work time she and her friend had wasted chatting. “Our mother nearly drove Loretta insane when she and Vince were building their house. Then, when Mom found out about the baby, Loretta threatened to get an unlisted number and a guard dog to keep her away. But she’s a pussycat in comparison to June Steiner.”
“Hard to believe that anyone could outdo May in the smothering department.”
“So far, Mrs. S has hired a live-in au pair.” Skye laughed at the memory of Vince’s frantic phone call. “One day this woman just showed up on Loretta and Vince’s doorstep.”
“Did they keep the nanny? I mean, who wouldn’t want their own Mary Poppins?” Trixie frowned. “Except for the dancing on the rooftops part.”
“No. They sent the poor lady packing.” Skye shook her head. “And shortly after that, Loretta’s mom arranged for the baptism without telling them.”
“Did they go through with the ceremony?”
“Uh-uh. And now Mom and Mrs. S are at war as to whether it will take place here at St. Francis or at the church the Steiners attend in the city.” Skye scratched her forearm, scowling at how itchy she felt.
“You need to use some moisturizer.” Trixie pointed to the white flecks on Skye’s arm. “How come your skin is suddenly so dry?”
“It’s all Blair Hucksford’s fault.” Skye glared. “She’s impossible.”
“She kicked me out of the pool this morning,” Skye said, then described her encounter with the teacher. After telling Trixie all about Blair’s imperious attitude, Skye ended with, “And no matter how much I apologized or how nicely I asked, she refused to let me take a shower. Then she actually hauled me out of the locker room.”
“She physically dragged you?”
“Yes.” Skye slid open her top drawer. “It was just plain uncool.”
“Uncool!” Trixie’s voice rose. “Heck. That’s assault. You should report her to Homer.”
“Probably, but I don’t want to start a war with that woman. She sort of scares me.” Skye wrinkled her brow. “You know what I don’t understand? I thought the girls’ volleyball season was in the fall. Why is Blair working with her team now? And why are they swimming instead of on the court?”
“From what I hear, Blair has mandatory sessions with her girls all year long. And my guess is she uses the pool for strength training.” Trixie pursed her lips. “You know, I’m not really surprised that Blair was rude to you.”
“Why?” Skye dug through pencils, pens, and legal pads until she found a sample bottle of Kiehl’s Creme de Corps. “Have you had run-ins with her, too?”
“Sort of.” Trixie’s lips thinned. “A couple of my cheerleaders tried out for the volleyball team, and even though the schedules don’t conflict, she made them choose between the two activities.”
“Did she give any reason?” Skye unscrewed the tiny lid and squeezed a dollop of lotion into her palm. “Besides being a controlling witch?”
“Bonding.” Trixie bent to retie the laces of her black-and-white high-tops. “Blair claimed that the girls wouldn’t bond with the rest of the volleyball team if their allegiance was diluted by their loyalty to the cheerleading squad.”
“That was what she said.”
“Wow.” Skye smoothed the yellow cream on her arms, feeling an instant relief from the itchiness that had been driving her mad. Why hadn’t she thought of moisturizer sooner? Were the baby hormones already sucking IQ points from her brain? “That seems pretty intense for high school sports.”
“Yeah.” Trixie straightened. “My girls decided they’d rather stick with my squad than play volleyball and put up with Blair. They even came up with a cheer about her.”
“Yep. I saw them doing it before practice one day.” Trixie giggled. “It goes:
We’re fed up.
And she needs to shut up.’”
“How apropos.” Skye chuckled.
“Yes, it is.” Trixie chortled. “I had to pretend I didn’t catch them doing the cheer or I would have had to punish them.”
“I’ve heard that parents have had problems with her, too,” Trixie added. “Not to mention the other staff who have had her steal kids from their sports teams. They call her Coacher Poacher.”
“That can’t make for a pleasant atmosphere in the faculty lounge.”
“Haven’t you noticed?” Trixie raised an eyebrow. “Blair never goes there. She has lunch with her boyfriend, Thor Goodson, in his office in the gym.”
Thor was the new PE teacher. He’d been hired a year ago, when the old one finally retired. Since Scumble River High was such a small school, he ended up coaching most of the boys’ sports. Thor was another faculty member Skye didn’t know too well. Like his girlfriend, he seemed to have no interest in referring kids for her services.
“I wondered why I never saw her in the teachers’ lounge, but I figured it was because I’m only here at the high school three or four half days a week.”
“Nope.” Trixie got up. “Blair’s had so many tiffs with the rest of the staff”—Trixie stopped with her hand on the doorknob—“I think she’s afraid to eat in the presence of the other faculty.”
“Right.” Skye snorted. “What does she think? That the teachers will poison her?”
GTG—Got to Go
“Thanks, Kathy!” Skye had the receiver wedged between her ear and shoulder as she assembled the material for her eight o’clock parent conference. “Trixie and I really appreciate your help.”
“Lucky for you guys, it’s a slow news week. I have a big hole on the front page of the Star,” Kathy said. “Demoting Saxony Station’s transfer of their four-hundred-ton transformer from a barge on the Scumble River to the west side of their power plant to the second page isn’t a real hardship. They’re doing it at midnight, so it’s not as if there will be a huge traffic snarl.”
“Well, we appreciate it.” Skye ran down her mental list of needed items—legal pad, pen, calendar, and Ashley Northrup’s file. Check, check, check, and check. “Trixie has us on a tight schedule.”
“I understand her sense of urgency,” Kathy said. “I got my golden sheltie, Walter Cronkite, from that shelter. They do good work on a shoestring budget. I’d hate to see them lose their lease.”
“The animals are how Trixie roped me in, too.” Skye glanced at the wall clock. Three minutes until the meeting. She had to get off the phone. “So I’ll e-mail you the article.” Skye hit the SEND button. She’d typed in the article while she and the newspaperwoman had been chatting. “Feel free to tweak it.”
“Will do.” Kathy paused, then added, “I haven’t seen you at the shooting range lately. I hope Emmy’s little joke didn’t scare you away.”
“Not at all.” Skye frowned. So her suspicion that Emmy had deliberately given her a weapon that had too much kick for a beginner was true. Despite Wally’s protestations that the woman wasn’t interested in him, and the scene Skye had witnessed between her ex-boyfriend Simon Reid and Emmy, Skye still thought the gorgeous female might have a little crush on Wally.
“I’m glad you feel that way.” Kathy’s voice was brisk. “Every woman should know how to defend herself.” She chuckled. “Especially someone like you, who keeps getting mixed up in murder investigations. I heard that you even solved a case on your honeymoon.”
Excerpted from "Murder of an Open Book"
Copyright © 2015 Denise Swanson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Denise Swanson and the New York Times bestselling Scumble River mysteries
“A charming heroine who is equally skilled at juggling detection and romance.”—Chicago Tribune
“I enjoy every minute of every book of this series.”—Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series
“Bounces along with gently wry humor and jaunty twists and turns. The quintessential amateur sleuth: bright, curious, and more than a little nervy.”—Earlene Fowler, Agatha Award–winning author of The Road to Cardinal Valley
“[A] master of the small-town mystery.”—Crimespree Magazine