Authors: Tracy D. Comstock
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SCHOOL'S OUT FOR MURDER
TRACY D. COMSTOCK
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Copyright © 2015 by Tracy D. Comstock
Cover design by Yocola Designs
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
To the two people who taught me to pursue my dreams, to act with integrity, to love unconditionally, and to do it all for the glory of the Lord—world's best parents, Dan and Kathy Coffman
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She stormed into the kitchen, dropping her purse and keys on the table in the cozy breakfast nook. Normally, the view of the wooded area, framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows enclosing the nook, calmed and soothed her. But today she didn't even spare the view a glance. Humiliated. How dare he humiliate her? Thirty-five years of marriage, and this is the thanks she gets? No, he would not get away with it.
Her turquoise, patent leather stilettos tapped out a counterpoint rhythm to the blood boiling in her veins as she paced the tiled length of the kitchen. The overwhelming cloak of betrayal threatened to smother her if she let go of her tight hold on the rage. She knew there would be hurt and heartbreak and copious tears, but those would have to wait until she had the time to afford such luxuries. Right now she had to focus on combating the humiliation. Not only was her marriage at stake, but her position as well. This was an election year, after all, and she would not be declared a winner due to pity votes. Goodness knows she had made enough people mad over the past months with her funding proposals. The last thing she needed right now was this attempt to destroy her reputation, not to mention her ego.
She would get him to confess. That would be the first step. Then she would show him to be the old fool he was acting. Everyone would see his true colors. That thought gave her pause as she swung into the living area, headed for the stairs and the sanctuary of her room. Over thirty-five years she had thought she had seen every one of his colors. How could she have been so wrong? Tears threatened to choke her, but she swallowed them back with effort. A hot shower would give her time to indulge in a good cry, and then she would be clearer headed, ready to work out a plan of attack.
The shower on her mind, she almost ignored the pile of mail in the entryway. They had both loved the idea of an old-fashioned mail slot and had put one in when they built this house, but she didn't feel like stooping to gather the mail right now. Still, the white envelope caught her attention. Snatching it from the pile of flyers and bills, she examined it closely. There was no return address, and the only writing on the front was a single, typewritten word:
She ripped the envelope open, sucking at her thumb when the flap sliced it in a vicious paper cut. A lone piece of paper fluttered to the floor. Her hand shook when she lifted it to read, and she briefly wondered why she felt such a cold chill. Perhaps it was because today had been full of bad news. She scanned the single sheet quickly, sucked in a breath, and then read it again more slowly:
I have information you need. I know all about your problem… Meet me at the school carnival at 8:00 p.m. I will be behind the Whac-A-Mole booth. Don't be late.
Her first instinct was to throw it in the garbage, but a part of her was curious. Did this have to do with
? Or was this information connected to the election? Either way, considering her current circumstances, she really didn't feel she could ignore this. Glancing at her slim, gold watch, she sighed. No time for that shower now. It was 7:45 p.m.
She retraced her steps to the kitchen, gathering her purse and keys. She climbed into the shiny silver Lexus—a gift from him. With a toss of her head, she punched the garage door opener, knowing full well that it was her money that had purchased the car. This thought helped her build up a full head of steam again. Rage and frustration beat back the betrayal for the time being, and she was thankful for it. It would never do to show weakness in front of whomever she was meeting.
Parking on a side street a block away from the school carnival, she made her way to the designated booth, the letter clutched in her hand. She stuck to the edges of tents and booths, knowing she was
persona non grata
at the carnival. In the lowering gloom, she could just make out a figure at the back of the Whac-A-Mole booth. Edging forward, she barked, "Who are you?" In reply, the figure pulled out something from the depths of his—or her?—black hoodie. As the setting sun glinted off the item in the figure's hand, she saw the gun barrel and turned to flee. She was a split second too slow, however, as the figure pulled the trigger on the silenced gun, catching her square in the back. Even as she slumped to the ground, the figure was pulling a burlap bag from the nearby sack races over her sightless eyes. A second later, and the figure was gone, leaving her lifeless body in the shadows. Her humiliation, and its accompanying betrayal, would no longer be a concern.
Beeps, dings, and whistles competed with the shouts of excitement and laughter as Emily Taylor looked down on the brightly colored scene spread out below. From her spot in the softly rocking car at the top of the Ferris wheel, she enjoyed the cool evening breeze ruffling her hair, recently cut in face-framing layers. The sun was putting on a display to rival the festive carnival booths and rides, streaking the sky with every shade of red, purple, and gold. Emily craned her neck to see how far she could see behind her, but as the car shifted with her movement, a white-knuckled hand grasped hers.
"Don't move," her seat-companion whispered, barely moving his lips.
Emily turned her hand so that their fingers linked, but she had to chuckle. "Tad, if you're so afraid of heights, why did you agree to ride the Ferris wheel with me?"
I figured the company would be worth it." Tad gingerly turned his head just far enough to meet her eyes. His smile was a bit on the sickly side, but Emily still felt her heart take a quick spin of its own. Leaning toward him as slowly as possible so as to not cause any unnecessary motion, she laid her lips on Tad's. His mouth curved in a smile under hers, and she sank into the kiss, wondering still at the fact that they were now a couple. As a freshman in high school, she would have killed for such a moment as this with Tad, but he, an important senior, had never seen her as anything more than an annoyance at worst, a substitute kid sister at best. Now, what felt like a lifetime later, but was closer to a decade in reality, they had both returned, after going their separate ways, to teach at their alma mater of Ellington High. A beautiful example of serendipity, Emily always thought.
Leaning back as the Ferris wheel began to move again, Emily asked, "Better?"
His eyes, the color of storm clouds, lit with mischief. "Maybe a little. But let's try that again just to be sure I'm okay." He leaned in for another kiss, but Emily laughed and held him back with a hand to his chest.
"I think you'll live. While we're still up high enough, I want to check on the booth."
Tad crossed his arms and exhaled a put-upon sigh. "I'm sure everything is fine. We haven't been gone fifteen minutes. Natalie's a responsible kid."
"I know, but I'm afraid the other two will have left her to do everything." Leaning forward, ignoring Tad's hands clamping down on the safety bar, she scoped out the English department's Whac-A-Mole booth. She could see Natalie handing out a stuffed replica of Poe's raven to a little boy who had just won. The boy turned to smile up at his mother, and Emily felt a glow of pride. Her students had done a great job coming up with their plan for the carnival. But where were the other two students who were supposed to be helping Natalie man the booth?
Her eyes scanned the crowd around their designated area, but she didn't see them anywhere. Looking behind the booth, she finally spotted the two teenagers, clinched in a lip lock.
"There!" Emily threw out her hand to point out the missing teens. "I told you they would leave everything to Natalie. When we get off this ride, Mr. and Ms. Hot Lips are going to get an earful!"
Tad touched her hand lightly and said, "Methinks the lady doth move too much."
Emily whipped her head around, ready to fire off a comeback, but the gray color of his face had her leaning back to stop the rocking of the car. "Sorry," she said. "I just can't stand it when the kids take advantage like that."
Tad leaned his head over on hers. "I know, Pit. But with Rylan and Brittney, you can't be too surprised." She quirked her eyebrow, and he added, "Maybe he was afraid down there on the ground, so she was trying to make him feel better. Worked for me."
Emily laughed, just as she knew Tad wanted her to. He always seemed to be able to make her laugh, which was just one of the things she appreciated about him. She could have done without the Pit—short for pit bull—a nickname he had given her years ago. As if reading her mind, Tad said, "Sorry, Em. Forgive me?" He leaned in for another kiss, but just as their lips met, they heard yelling from the ground.
"Aunt Em! Uncle Tad!" They both looked down to see Emily's goddaughters, twins Phoebe and Abigail, waving at them and tugging on their parents' hands.
Emily and Tad waved back. Their car was almost back to the ground. "Daddy's taking us for funnel cake. Come with us!" Abigail called up to them. Gabby, Emily's best friend and the twin's mom, shrugged up at the two in the car, as if to say,
Who could resist?
"Sure. We'll be down in a minute. I just have to stop by the booth and have a word with a couple of students."
"Uh, oh," Gabby and her husband, Greg, said in unison. They, too, had known the wrath of Emily's temper in the past.
As their car finally reached the platform to disgorge its passengers, Emily and Tad hurried down the steps to join the happy family. Phoebe, the shyer of the two twins, slipped her hand into Tad's and turned her big eyes on him. "Piggyback ride?" she asked. He laughed and swooped her up into the air, settling her on his shoulders. Her dark eyes shone with excitement as she fisted her chubby hands in his thick, dark hair.
"Me too!" her sister cried. Greg scooped Abigail up and perched her on his shoulders. Both girls giggled madly. "Funnel cakes!" they cried.
"Funnel cakes it is then, my dear maidens," Tad proclaimed and began to march in that direction.
"You guys go on ahead," Gabby told the men. "I'll go along with Emily to make sure she doesn't inflict physical harm."
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Emily groused. "I'm not that bad." At Gabby's own raised brow, she shrugged. "Go on, then," she told the guys, as the impatient little girls used their heads as drums. "We'll be right behind you."
As they worked their way through the carnival crowd in the lowering light, Gabby hooked her arm through Emily's. "Are you as happy as you look?" she asked Emily.
"Yes, I truly am. School's going great. Things with Tad are going great. I can't complain." Emily tried to keep her answer light, knowing the question her friend had in mind. Her deflection didn't work as Gabby stopped her with a tug.
"Em, are you in love with him? Have you talked about the L-word?" Gabby's eyes were warm and caring, and Emily knew she only wanted to know that Emily was happy. Still, she wasn't ready to have this conversation.
"Gabs," she said, tugging her arm to get her moving again, "I know how you worry about me. This past fall was rough. For everyone. I don't want to jinx anything by rushing it. God willing, there will be time for that conversation later."
In understanding, Gabby rubbed Emily's arm, the one she'd broken in a terrible accident this past fall while investigating a murder that was being pinned on their good friend, Helen. It had been a horrible time, but good had come out of it, if Emily and Tad's relationship was any indication. Gabby changed the conversation. "What do you think will end up happening to our beloved school carnival?"
Weaving around a family sporting smiles sticky from cotton candy, Emily huffed, "It'll cease to exist if that mayor of ours has her way. She was up at the school arguing with Superintendent Johnson this morning when I stopped by there for more stuffed ravens. I understand not wanting to take money away from Ellington's "Old Home Days," but we've had both events for as long as I can remember, and there's always been a good turnout for both."
"I hear you," Gabby said. "The girls would be devastated if the carnival ceased to be. Maybe Mayor McBain would feel different if she had children of her own."
"Maybe," Emily conceded, "but she's one tough nut to crack. But, oh, Gabby, does she have a shoe collection to die for!"
Gabby laughed. Shoes made the woman in Emily's book.
Finally reaching the Whac-A-Mole booth, Emily took in the sight of Natalie handling the crowd alone. "Where are Rylan and Brittney?" she called to her over the heads of the youngsters waiting their turn at the game. Natalie threw up her hands and rolled her eyes. That was answer enough. "I'll find them and get their butts back to work," Emily told the busy girl.
"I've got it, Ms. T. No worries." Emily smiled warmly at the responsible girl and then drug Gabby with her to the back of the booth, but the two lovebirds were nowhere to be seen.
"I swear, how can kids these days be so irresponsible?" Emily stormed.
"They're young and in love. Don't be too hard on them." Gabby was a much softer touch than Emily. Sure, she could appreciate the intoxicating draw of young love, but responsibility and duty came first. They had signed up for this time slot, and she expected them to fulfill their obligations. Pacing the area, Emily saw the two lovebirds headed her way, swinging joined hands, Brittney carrying a giant panda. When they spotted Emily, their smiles slid off their face.
"You two are in big trouble. You left Natalie here to take care of things all by herself. I trusted you, and you've let me down. Now get back in there, and do the work you signed up for. I'll deal with your punishment later."
Brittney hung her head and scurried back into the booth to help Natalie. Rylan, however, turned to Emily and said, "I'm sorry, Ms. Taylor. Brittney just found out today that her parents are getting a divorce. I was trying to cheer her up. Natalie said she had everything under control. I'll work an extra shift to make up for this. I promise. Only, don't take it out on Brittney. She's had a bad enough day."
Emily could see the genuine emotion shining in the young boy's eyes, and her heart did go out to Brittney. Even at her age, she couldn't imagine having to deal with the pain of a parents' divorce. Thankfully, her parents were happily married, but she knew that she would be devastated if she were in Brittney's shoes. She was lucky to have a sweet boyfriend like Rylan for support. Still, she didn't want to let them off the hook too easily, so she tried to sound stern when she said, "You had an obligation here as well, Rylan, so I think it's a good plan for you to work an extra shift to make up your time." When Rylan merely nodded, she added, "But Brittney doesn't have to work with you if she's needed at home. I'll let you make that call." Rylan gave her a brilliant smile and stepped into the booth. He gave Brittney a quick rub on the shoulder before helping the next little one ready to pound some moles.
Gabby had watched the entire exchange in silence. "Love wins again," she said softly.
Emily gave her a sour look and turned to head for the funnel cake stand. A big wad of calorie-laden dough would go a long way in soothing her ruffled feathers. She hated showing weakness, oblivious to the fact that all of her students already knew what a big heart she had.
"Let's go this way," Emily said to Gabby. "It'll be faster." Heading around the opposite side of the booth, Emily made an abrupt stop, causing Gabby to bump into her from behind.
"What gives?" her short friend asked, trying to peer around her.
"I'm not sure. I thought I had all the boxes of ravens stashed in the booth, but there's some kind of sack back here." She motioned to the sack on the ground. In the gloom of twilight, the space behind the booth was dark, unlit by the carnival lights out front. Emily headed forward to investigate, flipping on the flashlight app on her phone. She'd taken only a step, though, when the phone fell from her hand, and she spun back to Gabby.
"What is it?" Gabby asked, panicked by the look of stark terror on Emily's face.
"The shoe," Emily gasped, pointing behind her.
"Shoe?" Gabby asked. She turned to see where Emily was pointing. Emily's phone had fallen face-up, casting a circle of light on the dark ground. Spotlighted in that circle was a gorgeous turquoise, patent leather stiletto. Not comprehending, Gabby reached for the phone. Emily smacked her hand away.
"Don't you see?" Emily's question was harsh, her voice unnaturally high. "Look at the bag."
Again, Gabby strained to see in the dark. Only this time, when she saw what had caused the color to drain from Emily's face, she gasped and fell back, clutching onto Emily. "Is that…?" was all she could manage to ask.
Emily nodded weakly. "It is. There's someone in that bag, and I think I know who."
Gabby turned terrified eyes on her. "You do? Who?"
With a gulp, Emily said, "It's Mayor McBain. Those where the very shoes I was lusting after when I saw her at the school this morning."
"We should go for help," Gabby whispered, too upset to move.
"We should make sure first," Emily told her. "I don't want to make a scene if this is some sick prank. There are kids everywhere." Gabby only nodded, so Emily moved forward alone. Grabbing the very edge of the sack, one she dimly recognized as coming from the sack race area, she gave it a furious tug. The bag slipped up far enough to reveal a sight Emily had prayed never to see again. Flashbacks of finding Coach Layton's lifeless body earlier that fall bombarded her as she stared down into the sightless eyes of the mayor's turned face. Blood soaked her white blouse and the ground beneath her, its obvious source, a small bullet hole between her shoulder blades.