13 November 2016

Justice Falls Chapter 2

The first name on the list of Lori’s friends was Anna Brill. I found Anna lounging by her backyard pool with another girl. I introduced myself and said that I was gathering information on Lori Gale for a Teen Miss special issue exposing the unknown belles of Texas. It wasn’t the best cover story I’ve ever come up with, but it worked, and I could see envy dance in Anna's eyes.
            “Strange that they’d pick Lori,” Anna said.

            “She has the social connections,” the other girl said.
            I nodded. “What’s your name?”
            “Me? I’m Stephanie Ring. I’m also in Lori’s class.”
            “You mean she has the social connections because her dad’s a judge?”
            “Yeah, of course.” Stephanie smiled.
            “And why do you think it’s strange that Teen Miss would be interested in Lori,” I asked Anna.
            She shrugged. “She's just so, you know.” I shook my head. How could I know? “I mean, she’s just kinda not very in anymore.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “She’s just kind of fallen out. Like she’s not even anymore, depressed or something. I really think something bad happened to her.”
            “Like what?” I asked.
            “She doesn’t talk too much anymore,” Stephanie said with shrug. "But I wouldn't be surprised if there was a porno with her in it on the Internet."
             "How'd Miss Teen like that?" Anna asked.
             “Her best friend is Libby Wise,” Stephanie said. "Maybe she'll be honest about something."
            “Libby Wise?” I checked my list in my little notepad. There was no Libby Wise.
            “Yeah, you know, her dad’s Jeb Wise, the District Attorney, so their parents are part of the same set, you know. They’ve been best friends since like grade school.”
            I thanked Anna and Stephanie and let myself out through the gate. I thought it was strange that Judge Gale hadn’t mention Libby, but he did have a lot on his mind. Or maybe he didn’t want his good ol' boy buddy Jeb to suspect anything. Still, if anyone would know where to look for a runaway teen, it’d be her best friend.
            The Wise’s address was unpublished, of course. No D.A. wants to make himself available to anyone with a grudge and a White Pages app. But I was able to find the address using PublicData.com. The Wise’s lived in a big bay-and-gable home near the country club. I knocked at the front door, but nobody was answered. I tried the back gate, hoping to find Libby by the pool as I had Anna, but it was locked. I knocked at the gate. The dog next door decided to raise a ruckus, but nothing else stirred. I sighed and made my way back to my Outback. There were other friends who were on the list.
            Cindy Prescott lived just a block away from the Wise’s in an impressive Tudor of pale brick with white plantation shutters in the windows. A boy of about ten answered. I asked for Cindy. “She’s um, not here.” I heard the boy’s mother say something. The boy turned, “Some lady for Cindy.” A moment later Mrs. Prescott came to the door.
            “Hello,” she said. She looked like she could be on the Desperate Housewives of Wichita Falls.  Her dyed hair was teased up like she planned on making a rock video and her fake nails were a half-inch long and sported fake diamond studs.
            “Hi,” I said, “I’m Mackenzie. Is Cindy around?”
            She shook her head. “What’s this about?” I wondered if she recognized me. The P.I with a Heart had been good for business but lousy for my cover. I gave her the story about needed info about Lori Gale for Miss Teen. For a moment Mrs. Prescott gave me a puzzled look, and I was sure she saw right through me. “Oh, really? Well, you should be interested in Cindy then. She really has a lot more flair than Lori. I mean, if it’s Texas belles you’re looking for, Cindy is the girl you want to talk to. She’s been doing pageants since she was five." Mrs. Prescott raised her right hand, fingers spread to emphasize the number five. "She's been in cheer just as long, and there’s probably not a more popular girl Wichita Falls.”
            “Oh, great!” I said as I inwardly rolled my eyes: I should have known just by looking at Mrs. Prescott that the Teen Miss story was perfect. “So where can I find her?”
            “Oh, she’s out. Just a minute. I’ll call her cell phone and ask her to come home. Please come in. I’m Jill, by the way, Cindy’s mom, but you probably figured that out.”
            I wasn’t excited to hang around with Jill Prescott, but it was nice and cool inside, and I supposed I had to follow the path I was traveling. After fifteen minutes of horrid small talk about the weather and the spontaneously invented details of my faux mission for Teen Miss, Cindy Prescott came through the door with a friend who turned out to be Libby Wise.  
            Jill did her best to shape the conversation to fit the mold she had already cast in her mind, but Cindy and Libby were more than willing to talk about Lori Gale. This, however, still sat well with Jill because the conversation quickly became roast of Lori.
            “I think she’s gay,” Libby said.
            “Really? Why?”
            “I am her best friend,” Libby said, “but I don’t think she’s been honest with me or anybody for over a year now. She had this supposedly secret boyfriend she was going off to meet. Only she never could tell us his name or even what he looked like.”
            “So you think she’s gay?”
            “I think her secret boyfriend was a girlfriend. It all makes perfect sense when you think about, especially when you consider the religious bender she’s been on since.”
            “Religious bender? How does that fit in?” I tried to look perplexed even though I had some idea of where Libby’s theory was going. I sensed the details might hold the clue or two needed to track her down.
            “She clearly had some kind of breakdown when the relationship ended. She stopped talking about her secret boyfriend. The light left her eyes. She was like a dazed refugee or something. And then she started going to that new church out on Seymour Highway, and she’s gotten so deep in it that we hardly hangout anymore. She asked me to come to one of their youth meetings, and, you know, I believe in God and all, but this was weird. I mean, you could tell all those kids were damaged and bent and the youth pastor was like taking advantage of that in some way. Anyway, I think she went hard for religion because she feels guilty about being gay. I mean, it’s cool with me if she is, ya know.”
            I nodded. Yeah, I knew.  I could see how a kid in Lori’s shoes could get pretty down on herself about it.
            I finished up with the Libby and Cindy and thanked them for their time. I practically had to promise Jill that I would give Teen Miss a full report on her daughter, and actually had to turn down the offer of one of Cindy’s cheerleading photos. I thanked Jill, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to come back and didn’t waste time trying to smooth things over for a second interview. I had a good idea where to go next, and my instincts told me it would get me a lot closer to Lori Gale than Jill or Cindy Prescott ever would.
             The Church of Certainty was the size of a small mall with a soaring roof punctuated with a spindle-like golden cross that glinted in the high Texas sun. I found a party spot marked GUEST near the front doors and went inside. Tinted automatic doors opened to a small room with trickling, glistening waterfall fountain built into the wall opposite the doors. A conical spotlight on the ceiling aimed down on a podium that held a guest book with gold-edged pages. The small room communicated with the rest of the church via a softly lit hallway. The air was cool smelled faintly of lavender. The only sound was the relaxing trickle of the wall waterfall.
            I resisted the urge to whisper hello down the dimly lit hall. Instead, I glanced at the guest book. Several signatures and addresses in blue felt-tip pen filled the lines to halfway down the left-hand page. The rest was blank, waiting for next Sunday’s visitors. I scanned blue ink for familiar names – none caught my eye. 
            I followed the dimly lit hallway around a corner that opened into a semi-circular ambulatory dominated by a bowed glass wall and doors of the barrel vault that composed the main chapel. The chapel was dark; it’s long lines of empty pews sloping gently down to the sanctuary, where black-gloss pulpit, a white font, and a gold cross, hung from the high ceiling, reflected bits of light back at the empty aisles and pews. Each arm of the ambulatory ended in a heavy pair of oaken doors.
            My mind drifted. I thought of Cedric – the thick black plastic-rimmed glasses, his dark eyes sad and deep behind the gleaming surface. They were eyes hungry for something to hope for.
You her, huh? The lady P.I. who helps people. . . .
 I want you to find out who killed my big brother. . . .
We got different daddies – sperm donors, really. . . .
He wasn’t just stabbed, lady. He was sliced the fuck up. . . .
Set the record straight. Get some justice for my brother. . . .
            I headed towards one pair of oaken doors then head the opposite pair open.  I turned and a busy-looking woman dressed in a casual business suit made her way to a stairway I hadn’t noticed before. She was carrying what I took to be choir music under one arm, and she seemed oblivious to my presence. “Excuse me.” My voice echoed off the glass and high ceiling. I waved and began walking toward her.
            The woman stopped and turned to me looking puzzled for a moment before smiling at me as if I were a child, her child. “Yes, dear, can I help you?”
            “I’m hoping I can find the director of the church’s youth program,” I said as I walked up to her. I smiled.
            “Oh, sure. Do you mean the little kids, the big kids?” She asked. “Or the teenagers.”
            “Teens,” I said. “I’m working on a project for Teen Miss.” The woman frowned at the name of the magazine and her eyes told me that she didn’t care for it. She thought it was too wild, too liberal for Christian girls to read. “They want to do a story about girls with strong values and faith,” I added. There was a softening around the woman’s eyes and mouth.
            “Well, I suppose if any teenaged girl can represent to your audience, one of ours can. The leader of the group for teens, we call it Teens for the King, is Tim Parker.”
            “Tim Parker,” I repeated.
            “Yes, I don’t think he’s here right now. I’m the choir director,” she added and held out her hand. “Peggy Vernon.” I shook her hand.
            “Mackenzie Reeves,” I said.
            “You aren’t that detective, are you?”
            “Yes, Teen Miss asked me to do some research for them since I know the area.”
            Peggy blushed a little. “Well, I’m glad you came to Certainty. We are proud of our young women!” She paused. I kept quiet and nodded, a smile plastered pressed into my cheeks, hoping she’d volunteer a little more than a heartfelt spiel. “Let me show you to the office,” she said at last. “Our secretary, Mrs. Blanchet, can tell you how to get ahold of Tim.
            It turned out that Tim sold insurance out of an office in a strip mall just a couple of miles south along Seymour Highway. Mrs. Blanchet, a heavy, middle-aged woman with a heavy layer of base -shadow smoothing her full cheeks into a flawless moon called him for me. She communicated in a half-whisper who I was and I wanted with a tad of skepticism in her voice. I could hear him on the other end. His voice was loud and sounded a little amused at Mrs. Blanchet’s tone. He agreed to meet with me, and I was there in less than ten minutes.
A little brass bell clanged as I opened the door. The walls were covered with a bright walnut wood paneling and fluorescent lights spilled from aluminum lamps that made an almost imperceptible but persistent buzz. A woman looked at a flat screen desktop from behind a self-assembly prefab desk that was too cheaply made to be Ikea and probably came from Wal-Mart. The nameplate on her desk said Sheila Strong. She looked up from the screen with a thin smile of welcome. “You must be the woman from the magazine. I’ll let Tim know you’re here,” she said and picked up the phone.
“Thank you,” I said, noticing that the air conditioning wasn’t as cool as one would like – probably because the building was poorly insulated, and maybe Tim’s business wasn’t as hot as the weather.
“You can go on back,” she said, nodding towards a closed door on her left as she put down the phone. “Just walk on in.” I thanked her again and went to the door.
            Cold air hit me as I opened the door. It was like opening a deep freeze in a hot garage. Tim, a middle-aged man with thinning blond hair and a reddish beard, looked up from a stack of papers and gestured for me to come all the way in. “Have a seat,” he said.
            I sat in an armless white chair with minimal brown cushioning on the seat. Tim took off his gold-rimmed reading glasses and clapped his hands together in front of his mouth in a prayer-like gesture. “So,” he said, and put his and tipped the fingers of his prayer hands toward me so that his mouth was unobstructed, “you want to do a story about our teens for a magazine?”
            “Not exactly,” I said. “I’ve been hired by Teen Miss to come up with some basic socio-biographical on a girl they think fits their idea of someone who is an unknown belle of Texas.”
            “Yes, so they’re interested in Lori Gale. They want to know what she’s into and what she’s like. The idea is to gather the information without more objectively than simply going to her and asking her if she’s for world peace or saving the whales, you know?” Tim laughed and nodded. “So, what’s Lori like?”
            “She’s a great Christian girl. She joined our Teens for the Certainty about a year or so ago. She had a lot on her mind then, like a lot of teens, but she’s really blossomed in our group. She’s as happy and healthy as high school kid can be.”
            “So tell me about your group. How many teens are there?”
            “Thirty, thirty-three, thirty-five. Membership can be a little fluid. We’ve had more at times and less.”
            “Mostly girls or an even mix?”
            “Oh, it’s probably two-to-one girls.”
            “Lori probably has lots of friends in the group.”
            “Sure. She’s real popular.”
            “Any boyfriends?”
            Tim blushed a little and then frowned and shook his head. “We don’t really encourage that sort of thing but it does happen.”
            “With Lori? Surely, a beautiful young woman like her has a boyfriend.”
            Tim smiled. “Actually, no, I really don’t think so. Sure, she’s nice to the boys, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a couple had their eyes on her, but no. She’s tight with a few of the girls, in particular, but they seem to steer clear of serious dating.”
            “Wow,” I said flatly. “You might think they don’t like boys.”
            “Huh?” Tim seemed to catch on to what I was after but was surprised by it. “Oh, no, they like boys. They’re just level-headed about it. In fact, Lori and some of the other girls are crazy about the boys in a Christian rock band. They kind hold the boys in the up as ideals because they’re Christians, and I suppose they’re cute. You know?”
            “This is a local band?”
            “Oh, no they’re big time. Ever hear of The Light?” I shook my head. “Really? Hmmm. Well, they played a concert here just a few nights ago. I’m pretty sure Lori and some of the other girls went.”
            A concert a few nights ago – so maybe she went to the concert after she walked out on her dad? My guts told me I was on the right path anyway.
            “Really? That sounds like fun.”
“Our kids have a lot of fun. Being a Christian is fun, after all. You have faith in God to see you the hard times, and joy of knowing Christ.”
“So who are Lori’s friends, the ones she would have gone to the concert with? I’d like to talk to them too.”

            Tim looked at me, appraisingly. “Teen Miss,” he said. I nodded.  “Well, I know she’s pretty good friends with Ana Reyes and Heather Macdonald.” He gave me their numbers. I thanked him for his time and said goodbye. “If you ever need anything else,” he said, “feel free to stop by. I can give you a good rate an insurance bundle: car, home, appliance, legal liability.”
*The next eight chapters will be published on the next eight Sundays. 
**These chapters are still rough, so sorry for any typos. I hope you enjoy the story anyway. 
***Chapter One is published here.

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