Nothing says romance like Bingo and Bengay. At least, I was telling myself that as I placed a token over the square marked “meat tenderizer” on my Bridal Bingo card. Pink and white crepe-paper bells hung from the ceiling, and every table in the senior center’s recreation room was packed as the bride-to-be and one of my best friends, Danielle Martinez, held up the silver mallet for the crowd to admire.
I heard one woman say, “That should do the trick on a flank steak.”
Personally, I thought the industrial-sized hammer would do the trick on just about anything—especially Danielle’s controlling soon-to-be mother-in-law. Dressed in a flowing light blue skirt and high-necked white blouse, Danielle was the epitome of sweetness and decorum. However, the tire she had punctured on my car a few months ago knew better.
“Bingo.” A hand shot up three tables back. “What do I win?”
“You don’t win anything until the maid of honor checks your card.” Danielle pushed a lock of dark hair off her face and gave me a bright smile. “Right, Rebecca?”
“Right, Danielle.” Actually, I had no idea this was part of my job, but I wasn’t about to argue with a woman holding a meat mallet. Besides, because Danielle was marrying the pastor of the town’s Lutheran church, the St. Mark’s Women’s Guild had relieved me of most of the shower-planning duties. Since I hadn’t been required to do much up to this point, I wasn’t in a position to complain.
The bottle-blond lady with the potential winning card eyed me with suspicion from under a flowery blue hat. Carefully, I checked to make sure each square was marked correctly. Each was, which meant the winner was now the proud owner of a Santa scarecrow crafted by Louise Lagotti, my grandfather’s onetime girlfriend.
Everyone clapped for the bingo winner, and Danielle reached for her next gift.
“Oh, could you wait to open that one, dear?” Spritelike Ethel Jacabowski stood and gave Danielle an apologetic smile. “That’s from Ginny and me. She went to the television room to get her glasses, but she’s not back yet. I’d hate for her to miss the big moment.”
Danielle put the silver-wrapped gift back on the table with a smile. “I’ll wait to open it until Ginny gets here. How about I open this one instead?”
Ethel nodded and shuffled toward the door in search of Ginny while Danielle tore into a box covered in pink-and-white paper. Danielle held up a set of red-and-white Tupperware bowls, and everyone sighed.
I was heading back up front to do whatever else my maid of honor status decreed I do when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Rebecca? Do you have a minute?”
I automatically smiled as I turned. The smile froze and I started to sweat as I realized the tapper was none other than my high school English teacher, Mrs. Johnson.
I looked over at Danielle, who was happily tearing into another package. Since she didn’t seem to miss me, I said, “Um. Sure, Mrs. Johnson.” Was I eloquent or what?
Mrs. Johnson looked around the room and then motioned for me to follow her. Eek. Suddenly, I was back in the tenth grade, hoping she wasn’t going to yell at me for dangling my participle. Not that Mrs. Johnson was ever mean. As a matter of fact, she was probably the nicest teacher I’d ever had. For some funny reason, though, she expected more from me than from the other kids in my class. Part of me was delighted someone thought I could do more than live in Indian Falls and help run my mother’s roller-skating rink. The other part was terrified I’d disappoint. The terrified part couldn’t help but wonder what Mrs. Johnson thought of my recent decision to pull the rink off the real estate market and stay in town.
We reached the back of the room as Danielle pulled his-and-her aprons out of a box. I tried not to fidget as Mrs. Johnson turned her attention from the gifts to me.
Her blue eyes met mine. “Your grandfather suggested I talk to you.”
My stomach clenched, and I said a brief prayer that Mrs. Johnson wasn’t one of my grandfather’s girlfriends. Thus far Pop had limited his extensive dating pool to women old enough to cash in on the senior citizen discount. Mrs. Johnson didn’t qualify. With shoulder-length ash-blond hair, a trim figure, and a flattering copper dress, Mrs. Johnson looked like she hadn’t aged a day since my years at Indian Falls High School.
“Do you need to book the rink for a party?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, although I wanted to tell you how much my daughter and I enjoy watching EstroGenocide. Renee’s thinking about trying out for the team next season.”
EstroGenocide was the rink’s female flat-track derby team. Not only did the team pack the rink with fans for every bout, they’d also taken first in their season-ending tournament last week. Aside from a few glitches, letting the derby team become a member of the Toe Stop family was turning out to be the best business decision I’d ever made. “I’m sure a few of the team members would be happy to give Renee some pointers. Just have her come by the rink, and I’ll make the introductions.”
“I’ll tell her.” Applause for a set of CorningWare rang out. When the applause died, Mrs. Johnson said, “I have a problem, and your grandfather thought your unique skills would be helpful in solving it.”
Unique skills? The only thing I was truly skilled at was getting back onto my roller skates after taking a spill. Somehow I didn’t think my former teacher was looking for tips on how to pull splinters out of her backside. “What kind of problem, Mrs. Johnson?”
“Please, call me Julie.” She smiled. I returned the smile even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to call her anything but Mrs. Johnson. “Have you heard about the Thanksgiving Day thefts?”
I nodded. With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, it was hard to escape the speculation on which house would be hit this year. Especially around my grandfather. Pop and his friends elevated gossip to an art form. For the past ten Thanksgivings, thieves had broken into unattended homes. Jewelry, coin collections, cash, and other small valuables were taken. Televisions and larger items were always left behind. Not once had the thieves been spotted. Over the years the sheriff’s department had investigated but had never come up with even one substantial lead. Rumor had it that this year Deputy Sean Holmes was making it his mission to catch the thieves and finally bring them to justice. Pop had started a pool betting on whether Deputy Sean would succeed. Unfortunately, the odds were definitely not in Sean’s favor.
“Well, I’m sad to say, two years ago, mine was one of the houses broken into.” Mrs. Johnson sighed. “I knew about the thefts, but you never think something like that is going to happen to you, especially since the police had made a point of putting six extra cars on patrol for the day. Renee and I went to a friend’s house for an early dinner. We were only gone two hours, but when we came back the front door was unlocked and some of our things were missing.”
“Bingo!” a woman yelled from a table in the middle of the room. I excused myself and wove around chairs to verify her card’s win. Then I presented her with her prize—another scarecrow, this one dressed as a Pilgrim.
Danielle moved on to the next gift, and I walked back to Mrs. Johnson. “Have the police recovered any of your stolen belongings?” I asked. Pop had mentioned that a few of the stolen goods had been found on eBay or in consignment shops in Moline, Rockford, and Chicago.
“No. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.” She dug into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. “I have a list of the items the thieves took.”
Mrs. Johnson unfolded the paper and handed it to me. Silverware. Jewelry. A gold-plated serving set. A Waterford clock. Seven hundred dollars in cash. A large vase filled with loose change. Three pillowcases.
“Most of them aren’t terribly important,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Although I hate that someone took them. The two things I really want to find are my husband’s watch and my great-grandmother’s engagement ring. The ring’s been passed down from daughter to daughter for over a hundred years. Now it’s gone.”
At the front of the room, Danielle held up a power drill. Not exactly my idea of a wedding gift, but I’d never been close to marriage. What did I know?
I looked down at the paper in my hands. The last item listed didn’t seem typical either. “Why would the thieves take pillowcases?”
“Deputy Holmes speculated that the thieves used them as bags and carried everything out in them.”
Made sense to me. What didn’t make sense was why Mrs. Johnson was talking to me about this. “I’m sorry your house was broken into, but I’m not sure I’m the best person to help track down your great-grandmother’s ring.”
“Oh, I don’t want you to track down the ring,” Mrs. Johnson said.
Good, because I had no idea where to begin.
“I want you to catch the people who took it.”
In high school, a lot of teachers had unrealistic expectations for students. Face it, not every kid was going to be the next Hemingway or Einstein no matter how much she studied. Mrs. Johnson was always careful to treat each student as an individual. What garnered praise for one was not acceptable work from another. Mrs. Johnson understood realistic expectations.
Which is why I must have misunderstood her request.
“You want me to what?” I asked as the crowd oohed over a taupe trivet set.
“I want you to track down and catch the thieves.” She smiled as though this were the most obvious request ever made. “Sheriff Jackson and his deputies have been trying to catch the thieves for ten years. They haven’t gotten close. They’ve never had a real lead. You’ve shown a knack for succeeding where the sheriff’s department has failed. I’d like to see you show them up again.”
Technically, I hadn’t shown up anyone. While the town gave me credit for solving the two murders and the car thefts that had occurred since I’d blown back into Indian Falls, I knew better. Dumb luck factored heavily into my so-called crime-fighting accomplishments. So did a desperate need for self-preservation.
“I’m flattered, but I think you might want to hire a real private investigator for something like this.” You know—someone who actually knew what he was doing.
Mrs. Johnson shook her head. “Your grandfather and I talked about that. We agreed—I need someone who knows the town and the people who live here. Besides, everyone already thinks of you as a private investigator. Why not make it official?”
I could come up with a very long list of reasons. The first would be Deputy Sean Holmes. Since I’d come back to town we’d had more than one run-in over my nosy nature. So far, he’d only threatened to arrest me for obstructing justice. I wasn’t looking to give him a reason to make good on the threat.
Strange enough, though, the less than rational part of my brain was tempted to say yes. Running the roller rink was fun, but my skating-teacher-turned-manager and staff knew their stuff. Minimal supervision was required. So, while I was glad I’d decided not to sell the rink and move back to Chicago, I was starting to feel like I needed something more. I’d been toying with joining the derby team, but as a redhead I bruise easily. I wasn’t looking forward to a life of Icy Hot patches and black-and-blue marks. Solving a ten-year-long breaking and entering ring sounded way less painful.
I looked at Danielle, who was still opening gifts. The mammoth stack she’d started with was down to five or six boxes. It would soon be time to serve the cake and the punch. “I don’t know if I have the time. Danielle’s wedding is in two weeks and…”
Mrs. Johnson gave me that look and my cheeks started to burn. It was the same look she used whenever I gave the wrong answer in class or tried to explain how the hamster ate my homework. The look stymied me. Kind of like it was doing now.
“Maybe I could talk to Deputy Holmes for you. He might be willing to…” I swallowed hard as Mrs. Johnson’s expression grew more disappointed. My stomach clenched as she continued to watch me—waiting for the right answer.
“I guess I could ask some of the other victims some questions. Maybe something new will turn up.”
She beamed. “I knew I could count on you, Rebecca.”
For a moment I basked in her approval. Then I realized I had no idea where to start.
Mrs. Johnson solved that problem by pulling an envelope out of her purse. “Your grandfather suggested I put together a list of all the past victims. The Buergeys moved to Michigan three or four years ago, and Matt McBride had that unfortunate incident with his tractor trailer. The rest are still in the area. I know they’re as anxious as I am to find the culprits. A few of them even offered to help pay your fee.”
“Fee?” What fee?
Only once had I been paid for my snooping. Since the client in question was a teenaged boy and my employee, he was willing to work off my fee with extra hours at the rink. During those hours he’d managed to stop up the toilet, cause a small fire in the toaster oven, and drop a quart of popcorn oil on the rink floor. Not getting paid would have been cheaper.
Mrs. Johnson didn’t appear to notice my surprise. “Your grandfather quoted me your going rate. He also warned that you might have to charge more if the case gets too involved. The check is in the envelope with the list of names. If it isn’t enough, I can write you another.”
I could only imagine how much my grandfather thought my investigative services were worth. “I really don’t think—”
“Your grandfather said you’d be uncomfortable taking money from me since I was one of your favorite teachers, but I insist.” The steely glint in her eye said the subject was firmly closed.
Left with no real choice, I slid the envelope into my skirt pocket. “I don’t know if I’ll find the thieves, but I’ll do my best.” If I failed miserably, I’d comfort myself with the knowledge that Mrs. Johnson could insist only I take the check. She couldn’t make me cash it.
Feeling slightly better about the situation, I asked a few more questions and wrote down Mrs. Johnson’s e-mail address and phone number. After promising to give her regular updates, I skirted around chairs and tables to the front of the room, where Danielle was posing for a picture with a heart-shaped spatula.
There were only two gifts left on the table. I handed one to Danielle. My stomach growled in anticipation of the soon-to-be-served chocolate cake.
Danielle looked down at the box in her hands and frowned. “I don’t think I’m supposed to open this one. Not until Ethel and Ginny arrive.”
As though on cue, Ethel appeared in the doorway, looking a little unsteady on her feet. The walk to and from the television room must have worn her out.
“Is Ginny coming?” I asked.
Everyone turned to look at Ethel. She blinked twice at the attention. Then she shook her white, permed head. “No, dear. She’s not going to make it. I’m afraid poor Ginny is dead.”
Copyright © 2013 by Joelle Charbonneau