Chapter 1 from In the Pines, a small-town murder mystery, to be published with Dreamspinner Press October 23, 2018. Pre-order it today.
My mother always told me the most unlikely people can turn out to be murderers. No matter how charming or nice, a good personality doesn’t clear you from a crime. Because as much as you think you know someone, you never really know the darkest desires of their hearts—vengeance, greed, lust, pride… It’s why you can’t rely on your gut when solving a crime. Only the hard evidence and objective facts.
That’s what my mom does for a living—investigates homicides—and I help.
If it were up to me, I’d spend all my time sifting through police reports, studying lab analysis, and listening to witness testimony, but unfortunately there was this thing that kept getting in my way:
Which was where I found myself on a brisk November day—cold for Florida—awaiting one of the most torturous rites of passage for any introverted American teen, the high school pep rally.
The gym was not at all conducive to reading or reflection, my two preferred past times. The shoes of more than a thousand Frito-breath teens squeaked on the waxed gym floor, and the cinderblock walls amplified their hyena-like laughter. Not to mention, the pep rally was essentially a parade of young, muscled flesh clad in spandex—compression shorts in the fall, wrestling singlets in the winter, formfitting baseball pants in the spring… and that was just the men.
Attendance was mandatory. Well, it was extra credit, which for an overachiever like myself, was practically the same thing. And I’d arrived early—one of my many compulsions. As I was sitting in the juniors’ section, waiting for the stands to fill up and the student athlete hero worship to begin, I spied Dare Chalmers mounting the stands, taking them two at a time with his long, jean-clad legs. One part rebel, one part bourgeoisie, Dare would be forever minted in my mind as the Phantom of the Opera since he played the lead in last year’s spring musical. I was brought in last minute for the very important task of holding the Phantom’s bedchamber door shut. That is, until the Phantom swept through in his cape and mask and slammed it behind him with gravitas.
You see, the set crew never bothered to install the hardware so that the door would close properly, and it kept wheezing open at inopportune times. Dare correctly identified me as being the one kid in high school with nothing to do on a weekend night for the show’s three-week run. And in return, I got to nurse a hopeless crush on the most charismatic and popular kid at our school.
Correction: second most popular. The first most popular was his twin brother, homecoming king Mason Chalmers.
“Mischief and Mayhem” was the affectionate moniker used by the faculty of Eastview High for these two devilishly handsome twins. But they looked so different it was easy to forget they were related. Their family was Irish, but with dark features that made them look more Mediterranean. Dare was tall and slim with a face that could switch from tragic to comedic in the blink of an eye. Mason was a little more reserved, about my height and weight with dirty blonde hair he kept trimmed in a crew cut. Mason was strictly hetero—unfortunate because he filled out that singlet pretty well—while Dare…
Dare was a mystery.
It wasn’t about who Dare had kissed, it was about who he hadn’t. I’d seen several photos of Dare draped over drama kids who spanned the Kinsey scale—the Phantom’s cheek pillowed by Christine’s ample chest, Dare kissing Aaron, the stage manager, on the cheek, Dare dancing in some darkened room with a girl in front of him and a boy behind him, eyes black as a raccoon’s mask in the camera’s flash.
It was his combination of magnetism and ambiguity that caused my eyes to drift in Dare’s direction whenever he arrived on scene. As though sensing my attention, Dare’s head lifted and he gave me his joker’s grin. His floppy hair flopped with style over his eyes and he pushed it off with one hand. And I stared, hopelessly devoted. Then, to my surprise and great distress, Dare switched courses and made his way over to where I sat causing my stomach to hippity hop and my brain to go into hamster wheel mode.
“Mind if we sit here, Charlie?” Dare asked. An embarrassing admission: after the musical’s conclusion, I downloaded the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. That past summer I’d listened to All I Ask of You on repeat like some crazed lunatic.
“Sure, but the seniors’ section is up front.” I motioned toward the sea of blank wooden benches, our designated area, which I was avoiding. Too much bad blood. “I’m sure they’d love for your ass to claim them.”
Well, that came out wrong.
Dare chuckled and planted himself next to me. “I’ll just keep this spot warm until your date gets here.”
I couldn’t tell if he was insulting me or flirting with me—which was often the case with Dare Chalmers—and it left me befuddled.
Dare sidled right up next to me, closer than normal, but normal enough for him. His personal space bubble was significantly smaller than my own. Maybe it was a drama thing? Meanwhile, Dare’s brother Mason and their shared best friend Joey Pikramenos claimed the bench in front of us. Daniela de Costa, Mason’s girlfriend, broke away from the cheerleading squad to bound up the stands. She was diminutive in size but not in personality. In addition to her uniform, she was wearing Mason’s letterman jacket—I knew it was his because of the patch on the right side of two men grappling. Daniela shot me a dirty look before planting a wet, smacking kiss on Mason’s mouth. Then she climbed onto his lap and performed a little twerking number that made me blush it was so overtly sexual.
“Get a room,” Joey complained and shoved Mason’s shoulder.
I scooted backward to give them space.
Daniela laughed and having properly aroused Mason, leaned over his shoulder and said to Dare, “How’s my makeup?”
Dare assessed her face. “Let me just…” He used the pad of his thumb to touch up a smear of gloss in the corner of her candy-lipped mouth. Daniela air-kissed him in response. It was such an intimate gesture, done so casually, that it made my own loneliness a little more biting.
Daniela then turned back to Mason and caught him looking a beat too long at the rest of the cheerleading squad. She grabbed his cheeks roughly between her manicured fingers, green and white for our school colors, and swiveled his face toward hers.
“Tell me I didn’t just catch you looking up Kylie Crawford’s cheer skirt,” she demanded with a squirrely look on her face. I wondered at the specificity of “cheer” skirt. Was it worse to sneak a peek when a girl was in uniform?
“Don’t they wear bloomers underneath?” I asked. Daniela’s head sling-shotted toward me so fast her ponytail sideswiped Mason’s face. She looked me up and down like I’d just been beamed there from outer space. “Isn’t that what they call them?” I glanced around for backup. “Bloomers?”
Dare and Mason shared a chuckle. The brothers looked nothing alike, but their laugh was exactly the same—a deep hiccupping huh, huh, huh. They probably thought my social awkwardness was done deliberately to save Mason from a sticky situation. Popular kids think everything is about them.
“You are such a freak,” Daniela said to me. Each word was given individual emphasis, but what bothered me more was that she hadn’t answered my question. She looked pointedly at Dare, as though some conversation regarding my freakiness had already taken place.
“Please excuse Daniela’s manners,” Dare said while patting her arm. “She’s on a no-carbs diet and feeling a bit peckish. The correct term is bloomers.”
“Whatever, Dare. Don’t hate cause I’m beautiful.” She fluffed up her ponytail for effect. “Two more pounds and I’m golden.” She turned to Mason. “You are coming with me, Mason Chalmers.” Daniela grabbed Mason’s hand and pulled him up with her, no doubt taking advantage of the now-full gymnasium to remind everyone that he was hers. I kind of admired her for the way she claimed him with such confidence. I wished I had a tenth of her moxie. I’d been crushing on Dare for about two years now, crushing hard, and I still hadn’t come up with the courage to make a move.
Mason stood, his ass now at eye-level. I stared down at my backpack placed strategically in my lap. The parade of flesh hadn’t even begun and my ears were already burning.
“Aren’t they adorable?” Dare asked aloud at their retreating forms.
Joey shook his head. “Things were so much simpler before the coupling.”
Dare laughed. “She gives great makeovers. You could probably use one, Joey. Improve your own chances of coupling.”
Joey narrowed his eyes at Dare, then glared at me like I was the one who insulted him. I steered my nose forward.
“So, Charlie. It’s Friday. Watcha got going on tonight?” Dare threw his arm casually around my shoulder. He spoke to me like we were old friends, which I supposed we were. We’d been in the same schools since elementary, but never in the same social circles. With everyone packed so tightly together, our hips were touching as well. The heat of his body made me sweat or maybe it was my nervousness. I could smell cinnamon on his breath and the expensive cologne he wore—not so much that it covered the smell of him, which I liked. Very much. I’d bet his bed sheets smelled the same. Ugh, do not think about his bed sheets.
“Nothing much. Does your set have a door that won’t close?” I asked, only half joking. If that was what Dare needed, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
He smiled, showing off his pointy canines. “You should have won an Academy Award for that performance, Charlie. Never have I seen a door operated with such finesse.”
“I was upstaged by your door slamming,” I told him.
He shrugged. “I had a lot of practice growing up. Did you know, Charlie-bo-barley, today is my birthday?” When we were in third grade, Dare played the name game with everyone in our class. My real name, Charles, wasn’t “good for rhyming” according to Dare, so he switched it to Charlie. The nickname stuck.
“Oh… yeah, I guess I did.” I said it as though it were only a vague recollection, as though I hadn’t been obsessing all day whether to tell him happy birthday or not. And, if so, should I send him a text or post to his story or say it to him in person? Would knowing his birthday (and astrological sign) be considered weird or would he be happy to know Scorpios (him) and Taureans (me) are very simpatico?
“Happy Birthday, Dare.”
“Thanks, Charlie.” He squeezed my shoulder and a shiver ran through me that was pure electricity followed by roiling, nauseous feeling in my gut. “We’re having this party tonight.”
“Darren,” Joey warned. I hadn’t realized he was still listening.
“It’s my party, Joseph. I can invite whoever I want.”
“What about Mason?” Joey asked. I wondered how it worked having a shared best friend. When the twins had a difference of opinion, whose side did Joey take?
“Pfft. Bygones. That was so last year. Am I right, Charlie?”
Last year, I infiltrated a cheating ring led by my former best friends, the Geek Squad, who were posing as lovable dumb jocks in order to take their clients’ SAT scores to unprecedented heights—for a profit, of course.
It wasn’t fair to all those kids who put in the sweat and sacrifice and studied for the test. You shouldn’t be able to buy your SAT score, and therefore your placement at a university. The world was already unfair enough. I wasn’t trying to get anyone in trouble and I certainly didn’t want to lose all my friends.
I warned the Geek Squad I’d go public with their operation if they didn’t cut it out, but they told me there was no way I could prove it. That was a challenge I simply couldn’t turn down.
I offered my SAT-taking services to one Mason Chalmers who enthusiastically accepted. With that recording of our negotiation, I persuaded Mason to tell the administration everything he knew. When a Chalmers talks, the whole school listens.
Somehow, Mason came out the victim, being preyed upon by greedy intellectuals. He received an in-school suspension. The Geek Squad, including me, had their school rankings dinged—straight F’s in “school decorum.” The jocks had to retake their tests and deal with their true aptitude. I lost all my friends and severed any alliances I’d built over the years. Currently, I was one of the few students abhorred by the popular kids and the nerds alike.
I didn’t regret exposing the Geek Squad’s scam, but infamy can be a bit lonely.
“It’s a surprise party,” Dare was saying. “Don’t worry about any presents though. We’re spoiled rotten as it is.”
I imagined some Carrie scenario where I was doused with pig’s blood, running blindly while screaming into the yard. I’d managed to survive the past few months by lying low, but I felt there was a comeuppance brewing.
“And don’t say anything to Mason.” Dare glanced around to make sure we weren’t being overheard. I assumed it was because Mason would kick my ass if he knew. “It’s a surprise. He’s going to flip.” Dare shook his head and smiled as though we were sharing an inside joke.
Dare was throwing his brother a surprise birthday party? It was really…nice. Or it was his way to catch his brother off-guard. The two of them were notorious pranksters, and their worst victims were often each other. During my freshman year, there was a video going around of Dare barfing on the indoor trampolines at the mall, followed soon after by one of Mason kissing his biceps and making faces at the mirror. During the first showing of Phantom of the Opera last spring, right after the chandelier fell, Mason and Daniela screamed like their heads were on fire and ran down the auditorium aisles wearing black capes and Phantom masks. Their antics were so well received that it became a staple of the show, which delighted Dare to no end. He thrived on drama.
“So, you interested?” Dare asked with an impish grin. His eyebrows were perfectly sculpted, far better than I remembered from when he was Phantom.
“Did you wax your eyebrows?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.
He smiled sheepishly. “Daniela did them for me.” He waggled them a bit for my benefit. “What do you think?”
You must be gay.
“They look great.”
“So, I’ll see you tonight then?” he asked again. I was flattered by his persistence. And a little suspicious, too.
“Yeah, probably not.” I was a terrible liar, especially when it was for no good reason.
He frowned and his expressive eyebrows pointed downward in the middle. I couldn’t tell if his disappointment was genuine or if he was only acting. He was a better singer than actor, but still pretty good.
“This is just like when you bailed on the Phantom cast party,” he complained.
“I didn’t bail,” I argued. “I was there.”
“Then why didn’t I see you?”
Truth: I hid in a closet most of the night because I was too nervous to talk to him. I’m a compulsive truth-teller, but this was simply too embarrassing. Dare stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“You were surrounded by your fanboys the whole night.” I wasn’t the only queer kid thirsting after the Phantom. The line started way back there.
Dare blinked, then beamed at me and it was such a dramatic shift, like going from darkness to light. His hand tightened around my shoulder again. Snap, crackle, pop.
“You’re adorable. Isn’t he adorable?” He looked to Joey for affirmation. Joey rolled his eyes, probably immune by now to Dare’s antics. “Come to my party tonight, Charlie Schiffer. You’ll be my guest of honor.”
He winked at me, like some sly fox from the silver screen. This was the effect of being on the receiving end of the Chalmers’ charm, like being drunk without the hangover. I was utterly boring by comparison. I liked hanging out with my mom, reading books, doing homework, solving murders, and chilling with my dog, Boots. I didn’t party; I wasn’t much of a joiner; I’d never even gone on a date.
“Fine, yeah, I’ll come.”
Dare thumped my back. “Jesus, Charlie, you act as if I’d asked for your kidney. Remember, eight o’clock. That’s when the wild rumpus begins. Tonight you’re running with the wolves.”
Dare braced his hands behind him, arched his back and howled. His face was one of rapture; his strong lungs carried the note with power, sending a familiar tremor through me, same as when I experienced him as the Phantom. A few of our peers spontaneously joined in, including Mason down on the gym floor and the wrestling team soon after. Their green singlets clung to their bodies like wet paint, chests thrust forward, shoulders back, muscles taut and straining as they howled like animals. Daniela started the cheerleaders going in a spontaneous a cappella harmony. Even our mascot was howling and he was a ram.
Arwhooooooo. The sound was primal and edged with fear. The vibrations of sound rattled in my chest and for a moment, it didn’t feel like a pep rally, but the opening ceremony of some gruesome blood sport.
I glanced over at Dare, smiling at me like a maniac. Mayhem, the orchestrator of madness.
“Go on, Charlie,” he whispered in my ear. “Join us.”
I took a shaky breath, tilted my head back and howled.