26 (rough draft)
James Avery, Editor-and-Chief of the Edgewood-Post, looked over the draft Newton Poppy, his reporter, uploaded, scratching his head, counting slowly to ten before going out to Poppy’s desk. “Let me ask you a question, Poppy.”
“Sure, Mr. Avery.”
“Has a lesbian done anything personally to you?”
“I don’t understand the question?”
Avery examined the ceiling, counting to ten again. “The Randi Sconce story. Are you a homophobe?”
“It’s a hatchet job, not news reporting.”
“Mr. Avery! It’s a factual story.”
“Don’t try to bullshit a bullshitter, Poppy. Tell me: Just how did Markus get the information?” Avery rolled his eyes. “Just how did Markus become aware of Sconce’s association with Sensations?”
“You put me on to that, Mr. Avery.”
“That’s the thing, Poppy. You imply an association, which tells me there’s no association.”
“They munch each other’s carpet. You know there’s an association.”
Avery again examined the ceiling, silently counting to ten. “Just one more homophobic remark and you’re fired.”
“They do –”
Avery showed Poppy a palm. “Stop talking now. I want you to rewrite the story. Kick in some doors, find out who was in the room, who made the decisions. Change the slant. Randi Sconce was fired for being a lesbian. That’s your focus.”
“That’s not why she was fired.”
“Violation of the morality clause in the contract because Melody makes adult movies?”
“That’s not it, either.”
“Do tell, Poppy.”
Poppy took a deep breath. “Paul Markus, the principal, has a taste for children, I should say girls but then, a particular type of girl.”
“Did you look at Lark’s notes?”
“Go on,” he answered.
“There was nothing there, no story. No story we could print, anyway. A lot of speculation and conjecture, but no story.”
“Okay,” Avery said with a nod.
“Now, the senior guidance counselor being gay, even having a live-in lover isn’t much of a story.”
“Randi Sconce and Melody Lark are married.”
Poppy narrowed her eyes. “How did I miss that?”
“That should be my question to you.”
“Even so, not a story.”
“In your great wisdom and vast experience, you thought if you fed Markus the information concerning Melody’s vocation, you’d get a shit storm and a story.”
“Rewrite the story. Better, delete the file and start over.” He narrowed his eyes at Poppy. “I’m missing something.” With a nod, he said, “Melody Lark brought the Markus story to you. You shit-canned it, but you knew Sconce was going after Markus.” Avery held his hands out, palms up, vacillating. “Lesbian on one hand, pedophile on the other. Which way does Ms. Newton Poppy look?”
“Mr. Avery –”
“You, Poppy, need to examine your motives. That’s why newspapers have editors. I should fire you right now, but I like your mechanics. Dig. Do some interviews. If you can say definitively that Paul Markus had Randi Sconce fired because Sconce was pushing hard to his hoop suspecting he’s a pedophile, then you’re earning your salary.”
“What if the facts show otherwise?”
“Then, that’s what we’ll print.”
Amaretto, perched on her four-inch heeled boots, tape finally off the bridge of her nose, found the calm in the center of the perfect storm, the river of children like a clot just inside the main entrance, all kids focused on beating the first bell. She could see the top of Richard Bly’s head, Bly standing sentinel against the lockers thirty feet away, a long thirty feet in the crowd, but that didn’t matter. He stayed where she put him and would stay put all day if that were her desire.
Jillian Lauferty, a blaze of red hair, shoulder down, muscled her way along the wall just inside the door without her constant companion, Brian Fowler. Amaretto observed the pattern once before, waiting for a repeat, the perfect placement of events, the crowd, no Brian, everyone in a hurry, Jill in a blind spot between surveillance cameras.
Working against the flow, Amaretto blocked Jill’s advance, turning Jill, Jill’s back against the wall. “Hey, Jill,” Amaretto smirked. “You didn’t have to punch me in the face. All you had to do was ask nice.” As Jill blinked, trying to make sense of the statement, Amaretto placed her Taser on Jill’s shirt, just over Jill’s heart and pulled the trigger, sending Jill down the wall onto the floor in a quivering mess.
Amaretto was ten feet away before she heard someone shout something about a seizure. Soon, she put the Taser in Bly’s hand. “Give this back to me under the willow,” she said.
“I can do that!”
“I know you can.”
Amaretto nodded to Candice across the room, Amaretto sitting, her legs in the aisle, October’s Rucksack on her back. Candice mouthed a what at her, but Amaretto waved it off. The note came by student messenger before the second bell.
“Amaretto,” the teacher said, Amaretto already on her feet.
“At least they didn’t send SWAT,” she said to the class, pulling some giggles and a worried look from Candice. Glancing the note, she said, “You’re fucking kidding me.”
She showed the note. “Harry Fisher’s office? That’s the guy that punched me out the other day.”
Neil Collings, a man holding thirty-nine for a couple years, black hair flat-topped with a hint of gray, always with a clean shirt and conservative tie, dropped his Clark Kent glasses down, narrowing his eyes. “Fucking kidding you, indeed,” he whispered. “Take your seat. I’ll walk you down when we’re done here.”
“I’ve got this, Neil,” she said. “I’m itching for a rematch.”
“I wish you’d call me Mr. Collings like all the other children.”
She shrugged. “Sure, Mr. Collings-like-all-the-other-children.” She stepped off, placing a hand on the doorknob, turning, winking to a worried Candice.
“Keep your right up, Apple,” Collings suggested.
“Count on it.”
Amaretto thought about asking Collings out. He was a kind man with sad brown eyes, younger than Uncle Jack. She thought Neil Collings would be great to have as a father. She didn’t think asking him out or asking him to be her father would be appropriate.
Without hesitation, Amaretto marched down the hall, through the outer office finally putting her shoulder to Fisher’s door, letting herself in. Glancing down at the student sitting in front of Fisher’s desk, Amaretto said, “Get out. Whatever you have can wait. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”
Fisher stood, getting the palm from Amaretto, Amaretto watching the other student scurry away. “Now, Fisher, what?”
The door closed behind her. A glance revealed Markus had entered. “Shit,” she said through her teeth, taking a tight hold on the chair back. Markus was easily four times her size, but a chair to the side of the head might give her time to get out the door.
“Ms. Stayman, relax. We just want to talk,” Fisher said pleasantly. “Really. Sit.”
“I’m fine, Fisher. What do you want to talk about?”
He spread his arms. “The misunderstanding. I wanted to apologize to you. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Good, fine, great. Apology accepted, Fisher.” She turned, looking up at Markus. “Can I go now?”
Markus looked down on her, offering a fake smile. “What can we do for you, Apple?”
“How about getting out of my way, Markus? That would make me feel much better.”
Markus reached back, opening the door. “Better?”
“Really, Apple,” Fisher said.
Amaretto turned back to Fisher.
“What can we do for you?” Fisher asked, fanning ten one hundred dollar bills on the desk. “What can we do for you?”
“What would I have to do for that?” she asked.
“Nothing, nothing, Apple,” Fisher said. “Just a small token to back up my I’m sorry.”
“I get it, Fisher, Markus. You have it in your heads you owe me.”
“Not exactly –”
She showed Fisher the traffic cop stop palm again. “Call it what you like. I’m going to put it in the bank.”
“Huh?” Markus asked.
“You owe me, big, more than a thousand. Big. I’ll call in the marker down the road if I need to.”
“Fine,” Fisher said.
“Bank? Marker?” Markus asked.
Amaretto stepped to the desk, offering her hand. “You’ll explain the details to Markus?”
Fisher took her hand. “Certainly. Deal?”
Once in the hall again, Amaretto fished her phone from October’s backpack, flipped it open, scrolling, then hit a number. “Hi, Apple for George Howell. Yes, Apple. He’ll know who I am. I’m returning his call.” I needed to meet with Howell on another matter, anyway.
October took Amaretto by the arm. “Glad to see the face isn’t messed up.”
“I told Abby it was no big deal.”
“She called me anyway. What happened?”
“Fisher and Markus wanted to make nice.”
“Afraid of a suit?”
“My guess. They offered me cash.”
“Not enough to not be called an insult. Uncle Jack covered the emergency room. I’ll probably have to blow him.”
“Once your face is better.”
“Jack doesn’t give a fuck about how much it hurts me.”
“I was kidding.”
“I hate to lump more on you.”
“Randi Sconce got fired.”
“She doesn’t have a dick.”
October rolled her eyes. “I need her address. I want to go see her.”
“I’ll find it.”
October placed her palm under Amaretto’s hair, on the back of Amaretto’s neck, going forehead-to-forehead. “Thanks, Apple.”
Amaretto turned her head, just a little, pecking October on the mouth, backing away. “I warned you.”
“You’re going to get us in trouble!”
“What are they going to do? Punch me in the face?”
Maynard set his tray next to October’s, dropping on the chair. “Hey, Hottie One,” he said to October. “Hottie Two,” he said to Amaretto.
October rolled her eyes. “Nard.”
“I really want to apologize about the other night.”
“Must be a day for apologies,” Amaretto said.
“You went so far sideways, Nard, I can’t imagine what you were thinking. Even if not for Casey and me being hopelessly in love, I doubt I’d consider making out with you in front of my house.”
Amaretto raised an eyebrow. “You two were sucking face?”
“No, Apple! Nard busted his move.”
“Well, Apple, she looks so much like you.”
Amaretto narrowed her eyes. “I thought you had a thing for Brig. Didn’t we have this conversation?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed.
“You don’t know if we had this conversation or you don’t know if you have a thing for Brig?”
“With your mouth, no wonder you get smacked around so much.”
“Nard!” October objected. “What is wrong with you lately?”
Maynard and Amaretto stared at each other for a long moment.
“Anyway, Apple,” he said. “Jill Lauferty had a seizure this morning.”
“One of the people on your list.”
“I don’t have a list.”
“The other day, in my bedroom, the yearbook?”
Amaretto shrugged, placing a French fry in her mouth. “Is she dead?”
“Apple!” October exclaimed.
Again, Amaretto shrugged, watching October’s eyes. “I told you about her twice, Ockie. Peed in the corners, punched me in the face.” She rolled her eyes. “Couple of kids asked me for pot. I just so happen to have some, you know. Jill and her fuck Brian took exception to me selling pot on their territory. She told me not to sell pot, punching me in the face to make sure I got her point.”
“So much for America and free enterprise,” Maynard said.
“Exactly what I said,” Amaretto agreed.
“What did you do, Apple?” October asked.
“You know you can’t lie to me.”
“I lie to you all the time.”
“Unicorns and rainbows and sometimes lollypops, Ockie. I love visiting your world. I do my best to protect you from mine.” Amaretto lifted the Rucksack from the floor, fishing, producing a slip of paper. “Randi Sconce’s addy, her number if you want to call instead.”
“That was quick.”
“Age of Google, blah, blah. Did you know she’s married?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“To a woman.”
“I can see that.”
“The guidance counselor?” Maynard asked.
“Yes, Nard. The guidance counselor. No antigay shit. I’m not in the mood,” Amaretto answered.
“Hey,” he said, sitting back, his hand up. “I’m all for the gay.”
“Speaking of gay,” Amaretto said in a breathless whisper, nodding toward the distant cafeteria entrance. “Looks like Abby’s got some competition for hottest hottie in the school.”
Many heads turned, October and Amaretto staring.
Maynard shook his head. “Must be a new girl, never seen her before. They’ve yet to create a word to put to how smoking hot she is.”
“God – no offense, Ockie – I don’t know if I want to be her or be on top of her,” Amaretto said in another breathless whisper.
“No offense, Apple. I was just thinking the same thing.”
The stranger inched into the cafeteria, scanning each face.
“Oh, let it be me! Let it be me!” Maynard said much too loud.
Pale green eyes looked through Maynard, eyes that would have torched a lesser man, eyes tethering Amaretto, Amaretto chosen. Hair like the sun on an August afternoon swam around her head and shoulders as if she were underwater, flawless white with a touch of ochre flesh held a perfect barely pubic face in place, the pale green eyes fixed yet aware of everything in the room and beyond.
Maynard, arm over the back of the chair looked straight up, unable to turn away, the stranger coming next to Maynard, so close he could smell her, the wisp of a dancing field of spring flowers. The voice sang like a chorus of angels, defying her appearance, the voice of an adult. “Amaretto Stayman, Apple. I need you to come with me.”
“Rainbows and fucking unicorns. Who are you?”
She glanced the room. “For the next few moments, I’m your new best friend. Please, Apple, come with me.”
Amaretto rose from her chair, swinging the Rucksack over her shoulder. “I will go with you, but you must tell me now, what this is all about. Ockie is my best friend.”
She looked down on October, a hand coming to October’s shoulder. “It’s about the video.”
Amaretto felt a restriction across her chest. “Fisher hitting me in the face?”
The stranger looked back at Amaretto, blinking three times. “No, Apple. The other one.”
“Fuck. Fucking shit.”
“What?” October asked, Amaretto waving her off.
As they existed the cafeteria, Harry Fisher blocked their way. “Who are you?”
“These are not the droids you’re looking for,” Amaretto said.
“Now’s the time, Fisher. Just look the other way.”
He looked from one to the other and back to Amaretto, biting his lip. “Okay,” he said, entering the cafeteria.
“Droids,” Lulu DeLite said. “Did you really think that would work?”
“It would have, but Fisher has no imagination.”
“Now’s the time for what?”
Amaretto pushed the door open, stepping from the school. “You’re lucky I had that in the bank, else you’d be sitting in Fisher’s office waiting for the cops.” Dropping the Rucksack from her shoulder, Amaretto fished for her cigarettes.
“Not likely. I have some tricks, too.” She held her hand forward. “Lulu DeLite.”
“Sounds like a porn name.”
“I do more camera and directing than acting now, but yes, it is.”
“How old are you?”
“God, you don’t look much older than me.” She lit a cigarette. “You saw it?”
“I’d blush, if I did such things. Is it out?”
“On the ‘net? I don’t think so.”
“Thanks, you are my new best friend.”
DeLite narrowed her eyes. “That’s not why I tracked you down. We wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Amaretto shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’ve got people who really love me. You just met two of them. I’m depressed much of the time, living in a dark place, but not so dark I’m going to blow the back of my head off or mail order a high power rifle. I’ve thought about my dark place a lot, and it really makes me feel alive.” She nodded back to the school. “Ockie is an emotion vampire, sucking emotions out of people. I’m like that: sucking the darkness out of people, even out of a room.”
“The sexual abuse?”
“What about what you think you know?”
“I know what I saw. I’ve been watching your house. I know you’re not living there.”
“That’s why you came into the school?”
“Sure. When you are there, I see what you’re surrounded by.”
Amaretto nodded. “How did you come to see the video?”
“The video was over an hour of really shitty amateur sex mostly shot on the sly. Your part was two minutes, fifty-six seconds. A guy tried to sell it to us.”
“Big asshole with red hair and beard, in his fifties?”
“Young guy, in his twenties, looks like he barely needs to shave and doesn’t like to bathe much. Wears a white tee shirt with a black leather jacket, drives a car with Florida plates.”
“Struck me as a bottom feeder.”
“Everyone that hangs around my house is pretty much a bottom feeder.” Amaretto took a deep breath. “You watched me?”
“I don’t do that, you know.”
“Bareback, raw, without a condom and I don’t allow video. I got jammed up in something unrelated. I made the deal to do it like that, and allow video to get unjammed. I have a copy with the guy’s face in it, just in case.”
“You’re definitely smart. Did it work?”
“Sure, I got unjammed.”
“You’re good at it.”
“I’d blush, if I did such things. I learn quick. One thing I learned was the quicker I get him off, the quicker he’s off to find a beer and I can go about my business.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked again, putting a palm to Amaretto’s cheek.
Amaretto took DeLite’s face in her hands, pulling her in, going forehead-to-forehead, watching the pale green eyes.
“I was sexualized way too young, too,” DeLite whispered.
“Is having sex with someone you like different?”
“I think it’s different when you really want to make the other person feel good.”
Amaretto released DeLite. “Do you have sex when you’re not working?”
“It’s an easy question, Lulu.”
“Eh, no. Not currently.”
“I’ve not, no.”
“That, then, answers my question.” She fished her phone from her bag, scrolling the menu, hitting a number, watching DeLite. “Hey, Uncle Jack. Where are you? We need to have a conversation.” She closed the phone. “I assume you have a car?”
“This house really stinks,” Amaretto said, closing the front door behind her. “Jack?” she asked one of the faceless regulars.
He pointed toward the kitchen.
“Hey, Apple,” Jack said, sitting at the kitchen table, nursing a beer.
“We have a problem.”
“Whoa, girl, slow down. I’m just getting out of bed.”
Amaretto sat catty-corner. “The video’s out.”
“The one of me blowing you.”
“Can’t be. Is it on the ‘net?”
“I don’t think so. Marvin was trying to hock it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Be one hundred percent sure.”
“Oh, I’m one fucking hundred percent sure. I was afraid this was going to happen, that after you fuck me, you fuck me again.”
“I had nothing to do with it.”
Amaretto stood. “Get it back. If your video gets out, I’m taking mine to the cops, just like I promised.”
“You’ll get arrested, too.”
“No, I won’t. I’m an innocent fucking victim. Get it back, deal with Marvin fucking Beal.”
“I’ll handle it.”