The music hall. 12:30 PM.
Benny leaned his ear against the heavy wooden door. Silence. Then he knocked lightly. No answer. In a way, he was relieved. He hadn’t planned on what to say if Mr. Choi had actually answered. In some cases, it can be very useful to shake up your suspect in a bold and direct style: Mr. Choi, could you shed some light on why a camera checked out in your name was found at the scene of Brittany Carnegie’s suicide? Other times, however, it’s wiser not to let your suspect know you’re onto him. A true detective is someone who can intuitively tell the difference. This was going to be a serious test of Benny’s detective skills—one he was happy to put off for the time being.
Benny looked for the appointments roster on the door. It took him a moment to find it, because the door was covered with posters of famous jazz musicians. Mr. Choi was obsessed with jazz. He was in the house band at the Sapphire Lounge, and he was always trying to persuade his students to come see him play. But the Sapphire Lounge was in the bad part of town, and Benny knew there was zero chance that his mom would ever let him near it. “Monday through Thursday!” Mr. Choi was always reminding the class. “I’m always there!” Nobody ever went. Benny felt kind of guilty, and also kind of embarrassed. It seemed a little desperate, not to mention inappropriate, for Mr. Choi to be inviting his students to a place like the Sapphire Lounge.
Benny found the appointments roster between two prints of Charles Mingus. The roster was blank, except for the hour between four o’clock and five: Marty Sandberg, private lesson. Perfect, Benny thought. He could corner Mr. Choi after Marty’s private lesson. Benny smiled to himself, savoring the feeling of the mystery’s unraveling. One clue leads to another. As long as I stay on the correct path, the answer will present itself.
The football field. 3:15 PM.
Benny felt a little weird, watching the cheerleaders half-heartedly doing stretches on the field. He knew probably looked like some clueless pervert hoping to prey on one of the grief-stricken girls after practice. It didn’t help that Gerard Cole, the sappy water boy, was there too. He was staring at the cheerleaders and periodically weeping.
I wish Virginia would get here already, Benny thought. She’d left a note on his locker reading, in bright pink marker: MEET ME AT CHEER PRACTICE THIS AFT—IMPORTANT CLUE TO DISCUSS. It was just taped to the front of his locker for anyone to see. Virginia had yet to absorb the finer points of sleuthing, namely that you don’t advertise to the world when you have an important clue.
Only about half the cheerleading squad was in attendance. The principal had declared all extracurricular activities “optional” until after Brittany’s funeral, which kept getting pushed back. It was supposed to be Wednesday, then Thursday—now people were saying next week. The problem was that that the body had been drifting downriver so fast that no one could catch it. It might have been funny if it weren’t so…grotesque. Yesterday the immense, waterlogged lion head had finally washed ashore, but the body it had encased was more elusive. There had been sightings as far north as Chicapaw City. People were calling the police hotline claiming to have seen the body floating right past their backyards. A video had popped up on the internet of a white, corpse-like form floating past the Chicapaw Bridge. It already had more than 100,000 views. Benny himself had watched the video at least 30 times. It was about 10 seconds of footage, taken on a jerky camera phone: a grayish expanse of skin, appearing to be Brittany’s bare back, bobbing into view before disappearing around the river bend.
The local news had been dominated all weekend by outraged Riverside community members demanding to know how the police force could possibly be so incompetent. The river was basically a one-way street. All they had to do was stake out a position downriver and wait for the body to float past. But so far no one had been able to catch it. Maybe Virginia was right, Benny thought to himself. Maybe this really is some horrible, morbid prank.
“Can you believe they’re keeping the mascot costume?” Benny turned and saw Virginia clomping down the bleachers towards him.
“They’re keeping it?” Benny repeated incredulously, as Virginia plopped down next to him.
“Apparently the lion head was like 3,000 dollars, and there isn’t any money to get a new one. I just saw Coach Lindley scrubbing it down in the locker room. Some poor girl’s going to have to wear it at the game next week. After Brittany, like, decomposed in it for two days.”
At this, Gerard Cole suddenly snapped out of his stupor. He glared at Virginia and shouted, “Don’t talk about Brittany like that!”
Virginia scoffed, “What, I barely said anything.”
“Brittany will never decompose in our hearts!” Gerard shouted, pointing to his heart, apparently as a visual aid.
Virginia snorted, trying not to laugh, but obviously not trying too hard.
“Leave him alone,” Benny said, wishing Virginia would just ignore Gerard and explain what they were doing here.
Gerard broke down into sobs again, and stumbled off to the other end of the bleachers.
“Wow, that guy needs to get a grip,” Virginia said.
“So what are we doing here?” Benny asked.
“Oh, I’m just acting on a hunch,” Virginia answered vaguely.
Benny rolled his eyes. Virginia was way too into the mystery-solving lingo like hunch and gumshoe. “What kind of hunch?” he pressed, humoring her.
“You’ll see. Watch.” She pointed at the cheerleaders, who had begun running in a small circle in the football field. Benny raised his hand to shield his eyes against the afternoon sun.
“Brittany would want us to keep cheering,” Coach Graffe was saying to the girls somberly. “We still have a tri-county championship to win.”
“There,” Virginia said. “Look at their feet.”
Benny looked. They just looked like normal feet to him. “Um, OK…”
“They run on their toes. Every single cheerleader does it.”
Benny nodded slowly. Virginia went on, “It’s totally unconscious. Like, ingrained in their feet. They could be running for their lives and I bet they’d still do it just like that—on their toes.”
Benny closed his eyes, the memory of Friday night flashing in his mind. The bright stadium lights, the music blaring from the speakers. The great lion charging across the field, carried by a pair of stomping, flat feet.