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By Donna Huston Murray




Chapter 34 


WHEN INSOMNIA erodes your nights, anxiety devours your days. All I accomplished the afternoon after Newkirk outed me to my husband was wrapping an assortment of small gifts for Rip’s staff. I displayed them under our Christmas tree, which I lit in an attempt to warm my soul and get me into the spirit of the season.

   It was Winter Concert night, so I heated frozen lasagna for dinner to allow for a quick getaway. Chelsea, Garry, and Didi were out the door soon after they put down their forks.

   A few minutes later Rip and I were strolling hand in hand through the cool, still night from our house to the school, allowing ourselves a few moments of calm before a hectic evening.

   At the bottom of the school driveway, a man in warm clothes leaned against the practice field fencing. When the paved lots were filled, he would guide the overflow onto the field with his flashlight.

   "Who is that?” I asked, since the man was too tall to be Jacob.

   “I forgot to tell you,” Rip said. “Wilson Flagg came to my office a couple weeks ago.”

   “The grouchy maintenance guy who quit in a huff?”

   “That’s the one. Turns out he had an ongoing feud with Dan, the mechanic at the garage we use. Dan complained about how Wilson maintained the school bus one time too many, so Wilson put water in the gas tank to retaliate. Wilson admits to being drunk at the time.”

   “He came here to confess?”

   “Yep. All the way from his house across the street. But yes, to confess, and to give me a down payment on what the repair cost.” Rip shut his eyes and shook his head. “It was twenty dollars, Gin. Twenty dollars toward a thousand.”

   “You didn’t take it, did you?” I asked as he held the door for me to enter the school.

   “I did not. I talked him into helping Jacob out part-time. Easy stuff like parking cars that won’t bother Wilson’s arthritis too much.”

    “You’re paying him, right?”

   “Of course I’m paying him. You’re not married to a monster.”

   The first parents had followed us inside, so I hustled to set up my makeshift School Store, two tables of new and old wares. By six-thirty the lobby was filled with excited parents and kids, and business was brisk.

   At showtime I locked the cashbox in Rip's office and slipped into the back of the auditorium to watch.

Rip told everyone how Didi had been asked to take over the show at the last minute. “…so let’s all give Ms. Didi Martin a big thank-you in advance.”

   The near-capacity crowd applauded as the room lights dimmed to near darkness. Standing on a chair in a corner behind the audience, Garry Barnes switched on a flashlight and held it high.

   "Twinkle, twinkle little star," sang the mishmash of voices on the stage, "how I wonder what you are...I wish I may, I wish I might, get the wish I wish tonight."

   The stage lights brightened, and a girl wearing a fedora with "Press" stuck in the band held out a toy microphone to the tallest boy. "What did you wish for?" she asked.

   "Snow day," he replied.

   "How about you?" she asked a boy who wished for a cardboard box and a broom.

   "And you?" the reporter inquired of the tiniest first grade girl.

   "World peace," she replied.

   From somewhere offstage my daughter made whrrrrr sounds into a microphone. The chorus shivered and watched the ceiling while they all sang, "Here comes Suzy Snowflake."

   A chicken-wire frame with a carrot and clumps of black tissue stuck in strategic spots was deposited centerstage. Singing "Frosty the Snowman," the kids took turns stuffing white tissues into the chicken wire until it actually looked like a snowman.

   Off went "Frosty," and on came the wished-for large box and broom. The first grader, a darling urchin dressed in purple, climbed into the box and began swinging the broom back and forth. "Row, row, row your boat," commenced, with the audience invited to join in.

   The box got turned on its side with the opening facing us from the back of the stage. A broad bodied youth crouched in front of it with the broom. As a recording of the "Skater's Waltz" began, boys with hockey sticks slid in from the wings completely out of sync. Sitting just below center stage, Chelsea attempted to direct the “skaters” with a pair of red and green paddles. Clunk, clunk went the hockey sticks as they hit the floor not quite in time with the music. When the boys attempted a tricky crisscross to opposite sides of the stage, two tripped and set off a burst of laughter that spread like chicken pox. The song played itself out with the performers laughing along with the audience.

   After the whole chorus was back onstage, Elaine Wrigley climbed up on a chair to conduct, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," accompanied by a real piano. The audience added its voice to the din.

   I’d seen the “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" finale, so I slipped out to re-open the School Store for the exiting rush. Distracted from my anxiety, I felt buoyant, the best I'd felt in days.

   His parking duties complete, Wilson Flagg leaned against the back wall near the door. We exchanged quiet nods, an atypically warm greeting for him. If I hadn’t been exposed to his unusually sour temperament, I’d have described him as content, and I wondered if he was happy to be back. I set myself the challenge of getting to know him better.

   A man, perhaps in his twenties, stood in the lobby holding a rectangular box as if it were fragile as a baby. He looked familiar, but I felt sure he wasn’t connected to the school.

   “Ms. Barnes?” he said with surprise in his voice. “I thought you might be here. This is for you.”

   He offered me the box. Wrapped in red foil, it could have contained a long, fat loaf of bread. What came to mind was the Spartan horse, anthrax, and explosives.

   “Why do I think we’ve met before?” I wondered aloud.

   The young man wobbled on his feet in the aw-shucks manner of the insecure. He reminded me that he’d waited on Rip and me last summer.

   “Now I remember!” It was the infamous first meeting with Michael D’Avanzo in the private room of his restaurant. Richard Wharton had put his hand on my knee while I was trying to enjoy my lunch.

   Considering everything that had transpired since, I felt fairly certain Michael D’Avanzo hated me.

   “What’s in the box?” I inquired with all my skepticism exposed.

   The waiter blushed and blinked. “I think I know, but I’m not really sure. Mr. D just told me to handle it very, very carefully.

   “Listen. I’ve gotta go,” the young man said somewhat desperately. “I waited at your house awhile before I came over here, and…and it’s still dinnertime, you know?”

   “You expected to get right back.” Tips to be earned. A boss to please.

   “Yeah, thanks.” He thrust the box into my unwilling hands and bolted for the door.

   Very, very carefully, I took the package into Joanne’s office, which was small, private, and self-contained. If my “gift” exploded…well, it exploded. I had no idea whether it would only blow up Joanne’s desk and me, or me and the entire block.

   I removed the red foil paper and relaxed a notch. Inside was a wooden box with a sliding lid etched with a fancy script.

   When I shook the box, it sloshed.

   I slid the lid aside.

  Nestled in fresh wood shavings was a magnum of Bordeaux with a swan on the label, the same magnificent wine Michael D’Avanzo had served me the afternoon I drove Nicky home.

   A world of worry dropped from my shoulders. Considering what I had done to his family, and considering what Michael D’Avanzo might have done to me, he’d chosen gratitude over retribution. I had been so frightened it took me a moment to imagine why.

   Even without an explanation, the message was clear. The first glass of wine had been a gesture of gratitude for something I’d done for the wealthy restauranteur’s grandson. The magnum could only be thanking me for leaving Nicky out of Tina’s mess.

   Michael D’Avanzo surely knew Nicky had witnessed the murder, because Nicky would have told him. However, the police heard nothing about when the boy arrived back at school with his basketball team, or any of my other speculations regarding Nicky—because I kept them to myself. Tina Longmeier was sure to be convicted, so why further traumatize her nephew?

   The gift confirmed I was right about what Nicky saw. It also reinforced my chain-and-bolt certainty that protecting him was the right thing to do.

   Leaving just enough money in the cash box for change, I returned to my temporary School Store twitching from released stress and exhaustion. Yet I managed service with a smile, and when the auditorium had nearly emptied of students and their parents, I began to box up the remaining merchandise.

   “Help you with that?” Wilson Flagg offered as if Peter Pan had just landed softly beside me.

   “What? Oh, Wilson! Thanks, but Rip will help me.”

   The cranky old gentleman smiled, actually smiled when I said that, and I had to laugh. Rip was always last to leave, cornered by some parent with lots to say about something that couldn’t wait for business hours. Compliments sometimes, but not always.

   “Sure, Wilson. Glad for the extra hands.”

   When we were tilting the last table on its side to fold in the legs, I said it was good to have him back. I also invited him to the unfortunately named “Holiday Bash,” scheduled for the last day of school before the break.

   “Not my thing,” he declined, and I didn’t blame him.

   With the leftover merchandise and the tables ready for Jacob to stash in the morning, Wilson and I locked eyes.

   Should I ask?

   Oh, why not? Both Wilson and Joanne were known to have “touchy” personalities. It wasn’t difficult to imagine them clashing at some point.

   “By any chance did you accidentally spill coffee on Joanne’s keyboard?”

   Wilson’s face screwed up into his famous sneer. “Why the hell would I do that?”

   You had to admire the man’s standards. It was a stupid question. Unfortunately, his innocence left me with no idea how Joanne’s keyboard got wrecked.

   Lesson learned. Some mysteries are harder to solve than others.



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