I needed to learn to say no. Saying no wouldn’t make me a bad person. Entire ad campaigns devote millions of dollars to explaining why “no” is a good thing. No to drugs. No to drinking and driving. No to saturated fats. Okay, no doughnut-loving American followed that one. Still, I hadn’t gotten the “say no” message. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be scheduled to take my turn in the Indian Falls Native American Days dunk tank sponsored by the town’s senior center.
“Are you ready to climb in?” Agnes Piraino asked. Her voice sounded sweet and reassuring. Her smile was warm. It was just what you’d expect from a retired librarian. I was onto her, though.
Agnes was the one who’d conned me into saying yes to this event in the first place. One of her volunteers, Jimmy Bakersfield, had been told by his doctor that he had to take it easy. That meant falling into a tank of cold water was out of the question. Jimmy was a friend of my grandfather’s and had always been nice to me. I felt all warm and fuzzy when I agreed to take his place. Of course, that was before I saw him strap on a pair of roller skates and zoom around my rink last night. Now I felt like a chump.
“Come over here, dear.” Agnes took my hand and led me toward the tank.
The fiberglass red, white, and blue dunk tank loomed in front of me. The seat suspended above the water had several holes in the vinyl fabric, exposing the stuffing and wood underneath. My butt clenched in anticipation of a splinter invasion.
Agnes’s bright smile said she was oblivious to my angst. “We should probably get you in there. The line is getting a bit long. You’re lucky. We didn’t have many customers yesterday.”
“That’s because no one wants to dunk a senior citizen.” My grandfather’s voice cackled from behind me. “It’s hard to feel good about sending someone plummeting into freezing cold water when they have a pacemaker. Threat of death takes all the fun out of it.”
I turned and reached into my pocket for my sunglasses. Pop was decked out in an open-collared white satin jumpsuit decorated with sparkly red and black rhinestones. His normally white, wavy hair was covered with a black wig. A red and gold scarf hung from his neck.
Pop’s Elvis act was headlining tonight’s festival entertainment. After the music, the town was shooting off fireworks. At the moment, I was hard-pressed to say which would be more flamboyant.
“You look wonderful, Arthur.” Agnes gave my grandfather a smile and blushed. “I can’t wait to hear you sing later.”
Pop smoothed his fake black hair and grinned. “I’ve added a bunch of new dance moves to the act. I think you’ll like them.”
My grandfather executed a double pelvis thrust, which looked painful in the sparkly skintight unitard. Agnes clapped her hands together with delight and batted her eyelashes. I took the opportunity to scope out the best escape route.
The food booths containing everything from corn and pulled pork to deep-fried candy bars blocked off the path to my right. The line waiting to dunk me stretched from the front of the booth clear over and around to the left. To the back of me were other games, a petting zoo, and the large muddy hole where the Indian Falls Bicentennial Fountain was supposed to be bubbling. For once, the political machine wasn’t to blame for the slowdown. The project was approved and ground was broken. Then the mayor’s wife got a look at the design and threw a fit, which meant construction came to a screeching halt. Good for marital harmony, but bad for the park. The hole was an eyesore, and it wasn’t deep enough for me to take cover in. Damn! Unless I wanted to hide in a porta-potty, I was stuck.
“Rebecca, who’s running the rink? Did you close for the day?” My grandfather stopped gyrating long enough to give me a quizzical look.
“George was in charge when I left,” I explained. “He said he would hold down the fort until I got back.” My mother’s death over a year ago left me the default owner of the Toe Stop Roller Rink. I had come back to Indian Falls in May to sell the rink. Only it hadn’t sold yet. Until it did, I was in charge of scheduling staff, ordering concessions food, and promoting the rink’s newest attraction: Roller Derby girls. So far I’d been here for almost five months. Yikes.
Pop grinned and hitched a finger toward the still-growing dunk-tank line. “I think George changed his mind.”
I peered around my grandfather and groaned. George was in line, along with almost every other member of my staff. Most of them were high school students. No doubt a few of them had good aim. Icy water, here I come.
“Rebecca, do you want to change clothes before getting into the tank? We really should get started.” Agnes gave me a firm but gentle shove toward the tank. I took a step forward and caught my foot on a cord snaking along the wet ground.
Oof. I hit the ground with a squish.
Yuck. My hands, my knees, and the bottom of my jean shorts were coated with a combination of grass and mud.
Agnes looked like she was ready to cry. “Oh dear. I didn’t see that cord. I’m so sorry, Rebecca.”
“I’m fine, Agnes,” I pushed myself off the ground and brushed away some of the grass. “Just a little muddy.”
“One of the food vendors must have needed more power.” Pop held out his hand and helped me up. “There just aren’t enough electricity outlets to go around. We’re having problems over by the stage, too. That’s why I came to find you. Your father has disappeared, and I need a manager to help straighten things out. Otherwise we’ll have to cancel the show.”
My father, Stan Robbins, was Pop’s current—albeit reluctant—band manager. Two months back, Pop lent Stan some money. Stan was now playing tour boss for free until his debt was paid off. Only my father wasn’t the most reliable guy around. Not a surprise. He disappeared from my life when I was nine and didn’t reappear for years. Still, the one thing he excelled at was selling the almost unsellable. Pop’s Elvis act fell into that category.
“Oh, you can’t cancel the show, Arthur.” Agnes clutched her hands against her chest. “Everyone at the center is coming.”
Pop grinned. “Don’t worry. Rebecca will handle everything.”
I had no idea what I was supposed to handle, so I wasn’t sure I deserved the ringing endorsement. Still, if it got me out of dunk-tank duty, I was game. “Sorry, Agnes,” I said, trying to keep the relief out of my voice. “Pop needs my help.”
Agnes looked at the growing line. Her tiny shoulders slumped. “What am I going to do? We have to have someone sit in the dunk tank. No one wants to throw balls at an empty seat.”
She had a point. Still, as much as I wanted to make Agnes feel better, I wasn’t about to give up my Get Out of Dunk Tank Free card. Pop needed me for God only knew what, and I was going to help him. Too bad leaving Agnes in the lurch made me feel like a rat.
“Hey, Little Orphan Annie! When’s this show gettin’ on the road? I paid five bucks to send you plunging into icy waters.”
I turned toward the sound of Sherlene Patsy’s booming voice. The derby girl ditched her place in line and crossed the sodden grass to harass me.
Pop’s jaw dropped.
Agnes looked like she was going to pass out.
I just sighed.
Sherlene’s outrageous ensemble made even my grandfather look normal. Bleached blond and six foot one, Sherlene was sporting white leather hot pants with a wide stainless steel belt. Her ample torso was shoehorned into a pink leather bustier with ESTROGENOCIDE etched out in metal studs. To top off the look, about a hundred metallic bracelets tinkled up and down her arms. Sherlene, also known as Sherlene-n-Mean, was one of my rink’s most colorful derby girls. To her it was more than a sport. Roller Derby was a way of life.
Sherlene propped a hand on her hip and said, “Hey, Red, the crowd is starting to get restless.”
“Agnes doesn’t have a volunteer to sit in the tank,” I explained.
Agnes let out a sad sigh and hung her head.
Sherlene’s dramatically shadowed eyes narrowed. “I thought Rebecca was going to be in the tank. That’s what everyone in line is saying.”
“She was going to, but I need her help with the band.” Pop took a step closer and smiled up at Sherlene. “I won’t be able to do my show unless Rebecca straightens things out with the sound guys.”
Sherlene chewed her bottom lip. “The right sound can make or break a show. The sound system at the rink is killer. It’s part of what the team likes about the place.”
“The system here at the festival isn’t half as good. There isn’t enough power for my band’s microphones.” Pop waved his arms and stomped his foot, sending his wig careening dangerously to the left.
“Okay, Rebecca has to fix the sound problem.” Sherlene reached over and adjusted the wig. She then reached into her hair, pulled out a bobby pin, and used it to secure Pop’s rug. “That means I’ll have to take her place here.”
Agnes clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, that would be wonderful, dear. How can I ever thank you?”
“You can let me make an announcement about our match this Friday against the Quad City Queens. We want a sellout crowd screaming for us while we stomp them into the ground and make them cry for mercy.”
Agnes took three steps backward and did a little hand motion in front of her chest. I think she was warding off evil spirits. I didn’t blame her. When Sherlene was in Roller Derby mode, she was more than a little scary.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“Of course she’s sure. Aren’t you, dear?” Agnes stepped forward and turned Sherlene toward the booth before she could change her mind. “Everyone is going to be so excited to hear we have a real celebrity in the dunk tank. This will be the biggest event of the festival. People will be talking about it for years. Do you want to change into something different before we start or are you ready to go?”
Sherlene must have been ready. She climbed up the back steps and folded her tall frame into the tank. In a matter of seconds, the derby girl was seated on the suspended bench and waving to the crowd.
“Hello, Indian Falls!” The crowd fell silent at the low, gravely tone of Sherlene’s voice. Sherlene had a voice phone-sex operators would kill for. “Make sure you come to the Toe Stop Roller Rink this Friday. EstroGenocide is going to blow the roof off the joint!” She pumped her fist in the air, and a bunch of high school kids cheered.
“You gotta admit she knows how to put on a show.” Pop adjusted his spandex crotch. “Maybe I should add her and a couple of the other derby girls to the act as backup dancers. I’ll bet they’d put butts in the seats.”
Scary, but Pop was probably right. Adding the Roller Derby team to the rink’s schedule had brought a flurry of new business in the door. The team didn’t even care that for the past two months the rink had been under renovation due to a large gaping hole in the back wall created by my former rink manager. This Friday we were holding a bash to celebrate the end of construction dust and the disappearance of all evidence of the explosion. Thanks to Sherlene and her team, I was certain to have a wall-to-wall crowd.
Pop and I walked away as Sherlene shouted additional advertisements. I think she even promised the one thousandth fan a car, but I was too far away to be certain.
“So, what happened to Stan?” I asked my grandfather as we dodged cotton-candy-carrying kids playing tag. “I thought he was starting to get into the idea of being a band manager. You even said he was doing a good job.” That said something, too. Pop and Stan’s mutual dislike was legendary.
Pop shrugged, sending the rhinestones on his shoulders into prismatic ecstasy. “Got me. I woke up this morning and he was gone. He left a note. It said he was helping a friend paint today and to call if the band needed him.”
“Did you call?”
“His phone service was shut off last week. He even left the phone sitting on the table right next to the note. The man is a pimple on my butt.”
I shook off the image and waved to three of the members of Pop’s band. They were milling around the stage, decked out in red and gold rhinestone-studded bowling shirts. The rhinestones were added when they decided to back up Pop’s Elvis act. Who knew Elvis and a mariachi band could work so well together? If Pop could actually sing, they would be great.
“So.” I turned to my grandfather. “What do you need me to do?”
“The sound guy is over there. We need power for two more microphones for Eduardo and Miguel, and they say mine is overloading the system. My fans won’t be happy if they can’t hear me.”
I wouldn’t bet money on that. Still, I told Pop I’d do what I could to remedy his problems. He smiled and said something to Miguel and Eduardo. To me it sounded like “Nieva adonde ayudame. Sí?”
The band guys nodded and laughed. So I had to ask, “What did you say, Pop?”
“I told the guys that my granddaughter was going to be a big help. They’ve been teaching me Spanish.”
Not very well. I didn’t take Spanish in high school, but I’d lived in Chicago long enough to have lots of friends who spoke the language. “I think the word for granddaughter is nieta, Pop.”
He looked at Eduardo for confirmation. Eduardo’s eyes twinkled as he nodded.
“Well, damn.” Pop frowned. “I guess I’m going to need a few more lessons.”
A scream echoed across the park. Then several more. Cries of “Oh my God” and “Get a doctor” rang out. Instinct had my feet in motion, and I raced toward the voices. I could hear Pop huffing behind me, but I outdistanced him and reached the crowd surrounding the dunk tank in less than a minute. I couldn’t see what had caused the uproar, but my heart clenched as I pictured kindhearted Agnes. She’d had a rough couple of months. I just hoped they hadn’t caught up to her.
“Is she okay?”
“How could this happen?”
I pressed through the clumps of freaked-out people and finally got to the front, where my sometimes archnemesis, Deputy Sean Holmes, was leaning over someone. I was relieved to see it wasn’t Agnes. She was standing nearby looking pale and stricken.
Sean stood up and raked a hand through his ash blond hair. He looked stunned. Pulling out his cop phone, he hit a button and said, “I need the sheriff at the festival dunk tank, and you need to call Doc and the paramedics. We have a woman not responding.”
Sean took a step to his right and turned his back as I looked down at the ground. The world tilted. Sherlene Patsy, Roller Derby diva, was sprawled out on the muddy ground. Her clothes and hair were soaking wet. Her makeup was smeared.
And unless I was mistaken, she was dead.
Copyright © 2012 by Joelle Charbonneau