That morning, the police had finally nabbed the body of the mascot. It had eluded them for four days, floating down the Chicapaw River, occasionally bobbing to the surface before disappearing again. It had become a huge embarrassment for the town. There was even a segment on national news: “STILL FLOATING,” SAYS LOCAL RESIDENT. But just hours ago, the bloated, purplish corpse had finally washed ashore. But it wasn’t the corpse they expected. It wasn’t a blonde cheerleader—it wasn’t even a teenager. It was a middle-aged Asian man. He was identified by a tattoo of saxophone found on his left butt cheek. It was the Riverside band instructor, Mr. Choi.
The principal had called a special assembly that morning to explain the grim mix-up. When it sank in that Brittany wasn’t dead, a cheer had erupted—an actual cheer. No one seemed to compute that Brittany’s being alive was at the expense of Mr. Choi’s being dead. People seemed mostly concerned with how Mr. Choi wound up in the mascot suit in the first place. The consensus among the cheerleaders was that Mr. Choi was a secret pervert, who had snuck into the mascot suit so he could watch them all undress in the girls locker room. The football players supported this view. Many of them were now claiming they’d known all along that the mascot was Mr. Choi, and they had in fact chased him from the field to spare the cheerleaders from his pervy glances.
“This is not a nice neighborhood,” Mrs. Flax was muttering as they pulled up to the public library on Old Mill Road. Benny had convinced his mom that he and Virginia were attending a Model U.N. meeting at the library. Benny didn’t like having to lie; he preferred to conduct his investigations in as straightforward a manner as possible. But when it came to detective work, Benny knew it was necessary to exert a little moral flexibility here and there. There was no way in a million years that his mom would ever let him go to the Sapphire Lounge, and that’s exactly where this case was leading.
Benny and Virginia waved as Mrs. Flax pulled away from the curb. The watched the car until it turned a corner out of sight.
“Which way are we going?” Virginia asked.
“That way,” Benny said, pointing to a deserted railroad yard in the distance. It was clustered with seedy storefronts, illuminated by a huge neon light in the shape of a blue jewel.
The Sapphire Lounge. 8 PM.
Virginia pretended to sip her martini. It tasted revolting, but she didn’t want to seem like a child in front of all these scary people. She’d envisioned the Sapphire Lounge to be full of jazzy flappers and cool lounge lizards. But most of the people here seemed grizzled and sad. She glanced at Benny. Somehow he was managing to look cool, despite his dorky mustard-yellow turtleneck. He was leaning against the bar, gazing intently around the club. There was a ring of shadowy booths against the walls, and a curtained-off stage. They could hear a drum kit being set up, and a bass guitar being tuned.
“It must be the band,” Virginia whispered. But Benny wasn’t paying attention to the stage.
“Look over there,” he said, grabbing her arm. His palm was clammy, Virginia noticed. He’s more nervous that he looks. She wasn’t sure if that was comforting or concerning.
She looked where he was pointing. In a corner booth, there was a girl sitting alone, wearing a floppy hat and comically huge sunglasses.
Benny was shaking his head. “That’s an amateur mistake. People think accessorizing equals a disguise.”
Virginia glanced down at Benny’s hand on her arm. He was wearing the decoder ring she’d given him, Virginia noticed, on his middle finger.
“That’s the finger of Saturn,” Virginia said.
“Huh?” Benny said.
“Your middle finger,” she said. “It means you have a strong sense of justice. Do you like astrology?”
Benny looked down at his hand. He hadn’t noticed he was still touching Virginia’s arm. Embarrassed, he snapped his hand away. But then he felt rude and replaced it. Then he tried to pass it off as a sort of patting motion, which felt really stupid, so he tried to wrap up the whole thing with a friendly squeeze, which made him feel like a dopey uncle.
What is Benny doing to my arm? Virginia thought. It was like he was trying to cast a spell on it, or prod it for life signs. This continued for several more seconds before she burst out laughing. “Geez, Benny,” she said between giggles.
Benny felt his cheeks turning hot. He willed himself not to blush, bracing himself for Virginia’s mockery. She could be so ruthless with people. He remembered her gossip column in the school paper, “Virginia’s Daily Dish,” in which she’d made it her business to ferret out the secrets of everyone in school. She’d shown zero sympathy for her classmates, exposing who got the worst grades, who threw the worst parties, who were the worst couples. It had pretty much made her the most hated girl in school. But it was also what made her a surprisingly decent detective, Benny was beginning to realize. People’s guises didn’t fool her.
Benny stared at the floor, still waiting for Virginia to commence taunting him for touching her arm in such a weird and creepy way. But to his surprise, the taunting never came. Virginia just reached over and squeezed his arm back. Her fingers felt wet from the cold condensation on her martini, but at the same time her palm was startlingly warm. The sensation was really odd. It only lasted a second, but it felt like a lot longer.
“What do you think she’s doing here?” Virginia asked, nodding towards Angie Carnegie in the corner booth.
Benny quickly collected himself. “Um, probably the same thing as us.”
“Which is…” Virginia prompted. Benny was always so tight-lipped about their plans, like he assumed Virginia would ruin everything if he let her in on a scheme. It was annoying, but Virginia was used to it.
“I’m going to check out the band. You should go talk to her,” he said, nodding towards the ineptly disguised girl in the corner. Virginia nodded back, and strode toward the booth across the empty dance floor. There was something impressive about the way she walked, but Benny couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. Then he realized it wasn’t her walk, it was the way she held her drink—the stem of the glass pinched between her thumb and two fingers, her arm extended lackadaisically, like she couldn’t care less if it spilled, but not a drop did.