The story below is called Quicksand. It's one of three stories housed under a single cover entitled Undercover Tales. Undercover Tales is a trilogy of complimentary works penned by three authors with very distinctive styles. Stories range from melt-the-pages erotica, to humor-laced romance, to twist-filled adventure... all with a touch of mystery.
For more information go here: Undercover Tales
Feedback is welcome. Blayne Cooper
My two o'clock appointment, okay, my only appointment of the day, was late. Even though I was grateful that at least someone in this city might want to hire me, I was annoyed, and I showed it by rapidly tapping my pencil on my desk. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Tat.
Deciding to do something more productive than scuff my desk, I tossed my pencil down and scanned my modest office, making sure everything was tidy. You should know that I'm not neat by nature. Not by a long shot. People find out if they see my apartment. Or my closet. Or my car. Or ... Well, you get the idea. But the point is, I can fake it if I have the proper incentive, and today I did.
My stomach fluttered as I stood and made my way to a small closet located at the back corner of the room. The previous tenants, a now-defunct real estate company, had used it to hold a couple of rusty file cabinets. I know this because they left them here when their lease expired and now I use them to hold my own paperwork, along with a few emergency changes of clothes, gloves, hoods, leashes, and wax.
I was wearing an expensive linen suit instead of my normal jeans and Hawaiian print shirt. I gazed into the full length mirror that I'd tacked to the back of the closet door and checked my teeth for lipstick by running my tongue over them and making a weird, vampire-like face. When I saw only pearly white, I dragged my fingers through my hair, smoothing it. My sandy-blond hair is streaked from the sun and irrepressibly wavy. Usually I pull it up in a ponytail to keep it out of my face while I'm working. But when I do, I look like I could pass for nineteen, which sucks on about a million different levels. I've been meaning to get my hair cut up off my shoulders. But I guess my heart wasn't in it, because I kept canceling the appointment.
I'm thirty-two years old, and looking like a teenager when you're a grown woman is an enormous pain in the ass. Most of the men who ask me out are either years too young for me, or San Diego's finest geezers trolling for jailbait.
Years ago, during my first week as a private detective, a prospective client came into my office, took one look at me, and starting spinning in circles like a dog looking for a spot to pee. I could tell that he expected someone else to pop out of the woodwork and introduce herself as the real detective. When that didn't happen, he asked me where my daddy was. That pissed me off, but it also taught me a valuable lesson. Who wants to hire someone who looks like they still use Clearasil?
So today I'm wearing my hair up in a sedate clip, stud diamond earrings, my nicest business duds, and to further assist me in my quest to look like I've had boobs for more than six months, a pair of stylish glasses. I don't really need glasses, but I think they make me look more sophisticated. Sure, that's about as smart as a teenager thinking smoking a cigarette makes her look older. But nobody's perfect. And I quit smoking years ago.
I smiled into the mirror. I looked at least twenty-three and a little less like the beach rat that I am at heart. I know that might not sound like much of a victory, but over the years I've learned to take them wherever I can get them.
The knock at my office door made me jump, and with one last glance in the mirror, I shut the closet door and dashed to my desk as quickly as my high heels would allow. I don't know how Stephanie Zimbalist did it for all those years on Remington Steele. My butt would be kissing carpet if I tried to run right now.
"Come in," I called out evenly, positioning myself behind my desk and squaring my shoulders. I glanced down at my calendar and tried to look as though I was pondering something very important as I flipped through the pages.
The door opened and in walked the richest people I was likely to ever meet—Kale and Lokelani Poppenhouse. Russ Wilkens, a P.I. and friend I know from the beach … and a lot more … had referred them to me.
Russ and I are both avid surfers and see each other several times a week at Black's Beach at sunrise, the most peaceful time to ride the waves. In between those times, we occasionally hang out. He's as close as I have to a best friend and we toss business each other's way whenever we can. Russ wouldn't tell me why he'd referred the Poppenhouses to me, saying it would just be easier for them to explain what they needed themselves.
They'd only been in my office for five seconds, but I figured they must have liked what they saw so far, because Kale and Lokelani Poppenhouse were both staring at me and grinning like idiots. I gestured to the leather club chairs in front of my desk. "Won't you sit down?"
As they began to step around the seats, I remembered that I hadn't introduced myself yet. Stupid. "I'm Belinda Blaisdell," I said, beaming my most winning smile in their direction.
Mr. Poppenhouse held the bottom of his necktie flat against his bulging stomach as he leaned forward to shake my hand, his enormous paw completely engulfing mine. "Kale Poppenhouse." He glanced sideways and nodded once. "And this is my wife Lokelani." I tried not to stare, but the amused, slightly resigned smiles on both their faces told me I wasn't very successful.
He was wearing a beautiful, gray Italian suit and it contrasted sharply with his wife's bright floral muumuu and ivory-colored silk blazer. Their features were bigger than life, just like they were, but not ugly. Cartoonish would be a better word to describe them. I knew that they were Hawaiian from a life-style magazine article Russ had sent over that included headshots. Stereotypical thinking, I suppose, but I thought they'd be small people. How wrong I was. Even Lokelani was well over six feet tall and her husband dwarfed her. At five feet, five inches tall, I had the brief, and admittedly weird urge to jump up and start yelling ‘Da plane! Da plane, boss! Da plane!'"
The Poppenhouses' features were so similar they could have been brother and sister except for one thing. His bronze skin was several shades lighter than his wife's and hinted at a partial European heritage and the likely source of their rather unusual last name.
"The man at the other agency was right, Kale," Mrs. Poppenhouse enthused. Her smile was blinding. "Look at her freckles and that tan! She'll be perfect."
"The suit and the glasses are wrong though," he commented sourly, appraising me as though I was available for purchase. Which, in a way, I guess I was. "And the hair could be a little trendier."
Lokelani nodded and waved a large hand in the air in front of her. "All easily corrected."
I frowned. What did my freckles have to do with anything? Unconsciously, my hand went to my head. And sure as shit nobody was going to touch my hair. I cleared my throat softly and tried to move things along. "I spoke with Mr. Wilkens on the phone on Monday. He indicated that you might be in need of my services?" This is where I usually stop talking and let the client pick up the ball and run. But instead of pouring out their guts, Mr. and Mrs. Poppenhouse suddenly clammed up, looking very uncomfortable.
My curiosity was piqued. I could smell a good case like a dog could smell a juicy bone. I actually started to salivate and I subtly swallowed before gentling my voice. "I can't help you unless I know what you need. I can, however, assure you that I'm good at what I do and I'm very discreet. I can probably help if you'll give me the chance."
I wasn't kidding. Even though I'm not as busy as the detectives in the big agencies, I was slowly, very slowly, building a solid reputation as a quality private investigator. Most of my cases nowadays are referrals from previous clients or from other detectives who are either too busy to take on a certain case or unsuited for something the job would require.
What I said must have made Mr. Poppenhouse feel better, because he licked his thick lips, his deep voice filling the room as he said, "We are a very traditional family, Ms. Blaisdell."
I inclined my head as I listened.
"Our daughter Keilana is a student at Madonna Del Mar University in Santa Medina. And she ... she is ..." he hesitated and his wife quickly moved to fill the void.
"She is not traditional." Mrs. Poppenhouse sighed. "In fact, she's rather spirited." Then she stopped as though that explained everything. I grunted encouragingly, but found it a little hard to begrudge a college kid for wanting to kick up her heels a little.
"Keilana's had a rather difficult life in some respects," Mrs. Poppenhouse continued reluctantly. "She's always lived in a world of privilege, reveled in it, really. But that hasn't kept her from facing her share of discrimination. Hawaii can be a very enlightened environment." Her heavy brows furrowed. "But I'm afraid that even paradise isn't immune to racial prejudice. It hasn't been easy being our daughter." There was real worry in her voice and it caused my stomach to lurch. Being a parent must be hell sometimes.
"So you think she's in trouble?" I wondered aloud.
"We think so," Mr. Poppenhouse said firmly, his gaze sharpening as his eyes locked on mine. "She's not the same girl that left Oahu three years ago. Her grades have dropped. She never calls home. And she broke her engagement to one of Hawaii's most eligible bachelors last Christmas." His expression darkened. "That was stupid, not to mention bad for business. His family owns half the pineapple farms on Lanai."
Without my permission, my eyebrows lifted. His daughter had broken her engagement and his biggest concern is business? Not nice. Not nice at all.
Mrs. Poppenhouse's lips edged downward. "Keilana uses every bit of her substantial cash allowance, but doesn't seem to have anything to show for it. To make matters more frustrating, she won't use the credit cards we've given her so we have no record of what she buys. She never travels anymore and she didn't even come home this summer. She said she wanted to stay here and work instead."
"Could she be pregnant?" I had no doubt that Keilana was every bit the mountain of a woman her mother was. But let's be honest, college is nothing if not full of willing explorers.
Mr. Poppenhouse's eyes flashed dangerously and I dropped that line of questioning like a hot rock. I wanted to live.
"Alcohol or drugs?" I inquired carefully, crossing my fingers that Lokelani wouldn't decide to crush me like a bug for suggesting the mere possibility. No parent liked to think about it, but I've seen enough families destroyed by drugs to know it was never something I could ignore. Surprisingly, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Poppenhouse's expression changed with my question.
"We've had a spot ready for her at Betty Ford for the past year," Mr. Poppenhouse said. He steepled his thick fingers. "Should she need it, of course."
I could hear the impatience in his voice that he was trying so hard to hide. He and his wife almost looked as though they hoped that narcotics or booze was Keilana's problem. I supposed that such a revelation might not rock their world the way something else could. Keilana wouldn't be the first poor little rich girl whose experimentation had gotten her into more trouble than she could handle.
"Her behavior toward us has gone from respectful to indifferent in the course of a year. Her actions, what little I know of them, seem erratic. But technically we don't know that she's abusing drugs or alcohol," Mrs. Poppenhouse added, her gaze sliding sideways to her husband.
"Of course," I said soothingly. Yeah, right.
She wrung her hands. "There's more." She glanced down. "She might be ... well ..."
I leaned forward even further in my chair and felt my pulse jump. We were about to get to something juicy. God, I love my job.
"She might be involved in some sort of criminal activity. Gambling maybe. Or selling drugs if not using them," Mr. Poppenhouse ground out, finishing his wife's sentence with ease. Then he sneered. "Or worse, she might be involved with some mainlander scum who's after her money." He slammed his fist down on my desk and I did my best not to wet myself in surprise. When would I learn not to drink a 44-ounce Diet Mountain Dew minutes before a client meeting? "Why else would she go to the places she goes?"
The way he said "mainlander" made me bristle. I was one, after all, and I was really beginning to think that Daddy was an asshole. But he was a rich asshole and I didn't want to screw up this job. The recession has been hell on the private investigation industry. Still, I needed to know as many of the facts as I could before I would agree to take the case. Picking my own jobs was one of the biggest perks of being self-employed. I was never one for schlepping to some stuffy office where they had a dress code, performance evaluations, and fancy water coolers. Okay, I admit it. A water cooler would be totally cool. But that fact aside, my little business suits me just fine. It allows me to head to the beach when the surfing is primo and really enjoy life.
"What makes you think that she's involved with anything more sinister than outgrowing her parents?" I asked, forcing my mind back to business.
He shifted in his chair, his face a mixture of unease and embarrassment. "We hired an investigator to follow Keilana early this summer when she refused to come home on her school break. He told us that she was spending a lot of time with some unsavory types in and around some of San Diego's worst neighborhoods. Once she even went to a strip—"he glanced sideways and seemed to stumble over his words before he hit upon—"gentlemen's club." His wife patted his beefy arm and he placed his hand on hers. "But Keilana somehow found out that he was following her and he wasn't able to provide us with any other information after that. She hasn't spoken to us since."
My brow creased as the wheels in my head spun. They must have guessed what I was thinking.
Mr. Poppenhouse said, "The investigator we hired was Russ Wilkens."
"Hmm," I hummed noncommittally and tried not to show my surprise. Somehow I had trouble believing that some kid had spotted Russ spying on her. He was good at what he did and I couldn't help but ask, "And after that you still took his recommendation to come and speak with me?"
"It's not his fault," Mrs. Poppenhouse assured me. "Keilana is very, very smart. And she's not going to be easy to fool after our earlier mishap. That's why we waited several months before contacting you. We want to escalate things and you'll blend in with her surroundings in a way that Mr. Wilkens never could."
Ah ... They wanted me to tail Keilana. No problem. I had practically turned being a Peeping Tom into a new art form.
Mrs. Poppenhouse smiled a little. "We need a woman for the job."
They had really thought this through. And I couldn't help but think they were right. Even in this day and age, and despite the occasional Sue Grafton novel or Charlie's Angels flick, there aren't very many female private investigators. The kid would probably expect a private detective to wear cheap suits and smoke cigars. Come to think of it, that did describe Russ when he wasn't wearing a short wetsuit. What the hell was I thinking when I'd slept with him?
"So you'd like me to follow her?" I crossed my arms over my chest, already counting my easy money. The first thing I was going to buy was a water cooler. Then a new wetsuit. Then a bigger bed. Then ... "I can do that."
"We don't want you to merely follow her." Mr. Poppenhouse tugged a fat checkbook from his inside suit coat pocket. "We want you to move in with our daughter, find out what's going on with her and why, then report back to us."
My eyebrows crawled up my forehead, getting higher and higher as he spoke.
"If she's seeing someone," he growled, "break them up. I want her to graduate and I want to bring her back into the fold still speaking to me. I have no more patience for this nonsense."
"What?" I sputtered, truly insulted. Yeah, I could use the work. But what the Poppenhouses wanted was bullshit. I didn't do things like that. My hands balled into fists and I forced myself to lay them calmly on my desk. I knew, however, that I couldn't get the spark from my eyes. "I don't move in with the people I'm spying on. And I don't break people's relationships. I watch and take notes. I take pictures and do a damn nice report of what I find out. I ask questions and I dig and I ask more questions. But that's all I do." There. Crystal clear.
Spying was one thing, but tricking some girl and then breaking her heart was just disgusting. "California is full of unemployed actors, Mr. and Mrs. Poppenhouse. Maybe one of them will be able to help you." I was steaming and I wanted to kick Russ in the balls. I'd been so excited about what he said was a "big" job and then the client had to go and make things complicated. Dammit. There went my water cooler.
Mrs. Poppenhouse cocked her head to the side. "What we're asking isn't illegal, is it?"
I let out a long breath. "No, I guess it isn't." Illegal, no. Immoral, oh yeah. Okay, I could be a grown up. I could let them down gently. I'd get my satisfaction from cracking one of Russ's nuts instead. "I'm sorry to say that I don't do the type of work you require." I did my best to smile politely. "Anyway, I'd never pass for some college kid." Uh-oh. I knew that was a lie before I'd even finished saying it. And, apparently, so did the Poppenhouses. They didn't even dignify my statement with a reply.
Why were they still in my office? They looked so unmoved by what I'd just said, that I tried again. "Won't Keilana be suspicious if I just show up and move in with her? You said she was smart." That's it. Sucking up never hurts. They might have something decent for me to do in the future.
Mr. Poppenhouse snorted. "I'm paying you to make sure that she won't. Besides, I've never done business directly with a woman. She knows I don't believe in it and that should keep her from suspecting you."
My gaze sharpened and he held up a forestalling hand.
"I told you, Ms. Blaisdell, our family is very traditional. We do business in the traditional way and I'm not ashamed that I believe that men and women have very distinct roles. In this one instance, however, I've allowed Russ Wilkens and my wife to convince me that extraordinary measures are required. I'm not above admitting that women do have their uses."
My nostrils flared. There went Russ's other nut.
Either unaware or unconcerned that he'd been so insulting, Mr. Poppenhouse said, "Luckily, Keilana's roommate Pamela was awarded an unexpected scholarship to a college all the way on the east coast. She won't be coming back to university housing next week and Keilana will need a new roommate."
The way he said that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. I got the distinct impression that the timing of Clarice's out-of-state scholarship wasn't just good luck. This was a powerful, no, make that ruthless, man.
"We offered to set her up in an apartment, but she wanted to be like the other students," Mrs. Poppenhouse said, clearly embarrassed. "There's no accounting for taste, I suppose, and we've made sure to make her dorm room as comfortable as possible."
I didn't like the way she was so quick to explain away her daughter's pedestrian living accommodations. Some people can't afford college at all, much less the dorms or a fancy private school. Snobs.
Mr. Poppenhouse pulled out a pen and began scribbling on a check. "Keilana will graduate at the end of fall semester and I'm afraid that what little influence we still have over her will disappear then. I'm willing to pay you ten thousand a week plus expenses, including your tuition and room and board, etc., etc."
My mouth dropped open and stayed that way so long my tongue began to feel dry. If there had been a breeze in the room, my own jaw would have swung up and given me a black eye.
His intense stare went even more serious. "And I'll do it for how ever long it takes. But I expect results," he warned.
I swallowed hard. I didn't want this job. I didn't want to screw with some enormous kid's life. But ten-fucking-thousand a week was huge!
"Ms. Blaisdell, do we have a deal?" Tantalizingly, he held out the check and I detected the faint scent of wet ink.
I couldn't think. I couldn't breath. And I sure as hell couldn't see. I was blinded by the dancing dollar signs flashing behind my eyes. I was only vaguely aware of the Poppenhouses gazing at each other with something that approached concern.
Mrs. Poppenhouse was talking now and I sucked in a deep breath of air as I struggled to compose myself. Either the dollar signs were starting to get all sparkly or I was about to pass out from lack of oxygen. "Yes?" I managed to say.
She smiled. "You'll have no trouble passing for a student. Several of Keilana's friends had that dazed look you're wearing all through high school."
"I umm ..." I finally shook myself out of my stupor and nibbled on my lower lip. Could my dignity really be rented out for ten large a week? What if Keilana really was in the clutches of some mainlander scum who only wanted her for her money? Getting her to dump him would really be helping her, right? I visibly cringed at the mental gymnastics I was forcing myself through to justify this job.
"Let's take her car shopping too, Lokelani," Mr. Poppenhouse said. "She needs to look like her family can afford Madonna Del Mar University." He seemed to realize what he said and was quick to add, "No offense. I'm sure your car is very nice."
I held in a whimper. I drove an old Mustang convertible. And not a cool one either. A rusty, junky one. This was just too much. Weakly, I made one last bid for my self-respect. "I'm sorry, but I'll never get accepted into your daughter's college." There. I said it. I hadn't even made it through a year of junior college myself before my sucky grades and lack of money forced me to drop out and go to work full time.
"That's not a problem." Mrs. Poppenhouse pulled a piece of paper from her purse.
I took the paper and read it with stunned eyes. It was my university acceptance. The admissions office even admitted me under a quasi-alias, which just so happened to be my middle name. It seemed that the Poppenhouses had, indeed, thought of everything.
The Poppenhouses exchanged smug smiles. I was hooked and they knew it. "Now," Mrs. Poppenhouse said. "About your clothes and those glasses ..."
"Maybe they'll add amber streaks to your hair. That would bring out the honey-colored undertones in your eyes."
I stopped walking and stared at Russ. "What?"
He sniffed and gave me a superior look. "I saw that on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
"Queer what for the what? Christ, Russ, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"It's a show where gay guys makeover a straight guy."
I sighed and started walking again. I was an avid late night television watcher, but I tried to restrict my viewing to shows that weren't utter crap. That left out nearly everything Russ watched. "Your wife has turned you gay."
"She has not!" he spluttered, his face turning a splotchy red.
Russ was the straightest man on the planet, but I still liked teasing him. "Uh-huh."
Russ and I are friends now, but once upon a time, we were lovers. I guess you could say we share a tempestuous history. Our affair was short and hot and we parted as friends when it became clear that neither of us had made a true love connection. At least that's what we told our mutual friends. And that's mostly true. But the other part of the truth is that Russ cheated on me with a waitress from the Clam Shack. During one of our dates.
Oddly enough, though, that wasn't the part about the date that freaked me out. What really got my head spinning was the realization that I lusted after our waitress every bit as much as Russ did. Maybe more. That night opened my eyes to a whole new world. But I felt as though Russ had kicked me in the teeth. For now, it's enough to know that when it comes to Russ and me, all's well that ends well. We worked things out later. I honestly think he looks more rugged with that chipped front tooth.
As we got closer to the salon, Russ scowled and had enough sense to at least hesitate for a few seconds before admitting, "My wife says I'm a renaissance man who is in touch with his feminine side."
"I think she was calling you a pussy, Russ."
"Ya think?" He made a face and scratched his square jaw. "I wondered that myself."
"Definitely. In fact, are you sure you can handle Smelly?" We stepped off the curb. "He's sort of a macho dog." I glanced down at Smelly, my fifteen-pound mutt that Russ was tugging along on a leash.
I found him underweight and smelling to high heaven, lying in a pile of washed up fish at the beach. When he tried to follow me home, I accidentally ran over him. I got out of my Mustang to assess the damage and looked into those sad, helpless eyes and couldn't help but take him in. Russ, not Smelly. Smelly I got from the pound for twenty-five bucks.
Russ had just gone through a nasty breakup, been kicked out of his girlfriend's apartment, and was coming off a three-day, pity party, bender. I decided to help. I'd been there myself ... well, not the smelly part. Or the sleeping in putrid fish part. Or ... okay, I hadn't exactly been there. But I'd broken his arm when I ran him over and didn't want to get sued.
"I can handle your mucho macho dog," Russ insisted, rolling his eyes. "Smelly and I understand each other."
Now that I believed. On occasion they both had gas that could fell a rhino, they were lovable in an annoying sort of way, and each would rather spend the day at the beach than anywhere else. That was more in common than many human best friends had.
"Tomorrow's the big day, right?" he asked.
I nodded. "Yep. You sure you can keep him out of trouble while I work this new bizarre case?" I was talking to Smelly and I could tell Russ knew that when he stuck his tongue out at me. When he abruptly stopped walking and starting licking his own crotch—Smelly, not Russ—I took that as his agreement.
I had finished the few odds and ends from my last case three days ago. Lord help me, just in time for the first day of school. I had already received a new wardrobe, which I hated and would give to my eighteen-year-old niece when this job was over, and I had promised not to wear my fake glasses. Today we were walking from my office to one of the most expensive hair salons in San Diego. This was the last step in my little makeover. Thank God I wasn't paying for this.
Russ reached down and petted Smelly's curly brown head as he spoke to me. "I can't believe we're walking when you own brand new wheels."
"That car is on lease in the Poppenhouses' name. I don't own it. Besides, the salon is only another two blocks."
He made a low clucking noise. "I noticed you bought a sports car that you could put your board in."
"That's not why I picked a convertible," I lied. Like I would get new wheels and not take my surf board into consideration?
A thought seemed to suddenly occur to Russ and he turned his head and frowned at me. "For someone who is going to make a quick score with this job, you don't seem too happy about it. What gives?"
I shrugged and stuck my hands in the pockets of my denim shorts. How could I explain to a guy like Russ that I felt like I'd sold myself out? A man who I once saw eat twenty-seven hotdogs in twelve minutes just to win an Igloo cooler that was worth all of about seven bucks. "I'm happy," I said weakly.
"Sure you are." He gave me a meaningful look. "You're thinking too much, that's what you're doing. I'd shave my head bald for ten thousand a week. Hell, I'd shave your head for that much."
"I told the Poppenhouses that I would dress in drag and move in with their daughter myself. But Mr. Poppenhouse looked like he was about to blow a gasket and so I offered up your name rather than be murdered in my office."
I socked Russ lightly on the bicep, thinking that he was more like a sibling to me than my own brother, who I rarely see. "And here I thought I got the referral because you thought I was such a good detective." I pantomimed stabbing myself. "You cut me, Russ. You cut me deep."
"Aw, Belinda." He had the grace to look at least a little chagrined. "You know I think you're good."
"Yeah, yeah." I cupped my hands over my eyes to shield them from the bright afternoon sun and glanced up at a green canvas awning that simply read "Gregory's." I swallowed hard, hoping that Mrs. Poppenhouse's instructions to the stylist weren't going to leave me looking like a blond version of that demented fucker Carrot Top. God, I hate my job. "Oh, boy."
Russ slapped me on the back, ignoring Smelly's protective growl. "Good luck."
I rocked back on the heels of my huarache sandals and gathered my nerve. "Time to go get beautiful, I guess."
Russ's gaze softened as I stepped inside the salon. As the door closed behind me, leaving my two friends to wait in the late summer breeze, I heard him mumble, "Too late."
After driving through Santa Medina, a sleepy tourist community consisting mostly of shops and small eateries that serviced the industrious day hikers who walked the Topa Topa Mountains, I pulled up outside St. Brigid's Residence Village. It was Saturday and school would start in just two days. But that wasn't much time to move in, get books and look like a real student, and most importantly, start making inroads with Keilana.
I glanced around. This is what they were calling campus housing? Where were the piles of discarded boxes? Where were the blaring radios and half-clad guys rushing by on skateboards?
I took off my sunglasses and slid them into the pocket of a pair of jeans that cost nearly as much as my first car. I sat there, waiting to be accosted by some slimy-looking guy offering me a MasterCard at twenty-one percent interest and a free Frisbee and T-shirt just for applying. But it never happened. I spun in a circle, feeling the breeze on the base of the back of my newly-exposed neck. "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
I grunted my approval at the series of tiny, stucco, red-roofed cottages that comprised this part of university housing. They were linked together by a network of stone paths that all intersected at a large fountain. In the center of the fountain was a statue of a fat, bald guy dressed in long robes and holding a bible. Moses, maybe? He didn't look like Charleston Heston, though, so I figured it had to be someone else.
Short, but lush trees planted around each cottage added a sense of privacy to the property. "Nice." I craned my head, looking down one of the paths, but could only see as far as cottage 11. Keilana Poppenhouse lived in cottage number 12.
I exited my new Jaguar convertible, still taking in my surroundings with a note of awe. I'd seen places like this on television, but that hadn't prepared me for the pristine, collegiate atmosphere I was experiencing first hand. There was one thing out of place in this Norman Rockwall campus though. The place was practically crawling with nuns and priests. I'd heard once there was a shortage of nuns and priests. And looking around today, I knew why. They were all here.
I could only hope that they sensed that I was an unchaste, unrepentant sinner at heart and they'd stay far, far away from me during my time here. I was supposed to be a senior and by now I should have been brainwashed ... err ... I mean instructed on religion for years and years now. I was a little worried that my ecclesiastical ignorance was going to blow my cover so I resolved to keep as low a profile as possible.
Most of the students, who were huddled in small groups, their heads tilted together in conversation, were clean-cut and reeked of old money. And despite my new duds and expensive haircut, I couldn't have felt more out of place.
"Hey." A group of girls walked over to me, obviously checking out my new car.
"Hi," I said brightly, reminding myself to be sociable and do my best to try and fit in. It was breezy and I ran my fingers through my now-shaggy hair, smoothing it self-consciously.
A short blonde stepped forward from the group. "Do you need help with your bags?" She inclined her head toward my passenger seat and back seats, which were loaded down with two suitcases and a few medium-sized boxes that were packed ridiculously full.
She and her friends looked just like the girls in high school who wouldn't have spit on me if I were on fire. And a sense of wariness borne of experience washed over me. I glanced at how far the buildings were from the parking lot. Then I breathed a fake sigh of relief. "That would be great. Thanks." I extended my hand, half expecting to be snubbed. "I'm ... Bel—" Okay, try that again. "I'm Cadie."
"I'm Shauna." The girl cocked her head to the side, her eyes sweeping up and down my clothes. I cursed inwardly when I found myself straightening my posture in pure reflex. Despite the women we all eventually become, I guess a little part of us will always be sixteen. Bleck.
"You're new, right?" Shauna asked absently. She popped her gum and waved at another girl who was just pulling into the parking lot. The campus had only about four hundred students, so I figured that everyone pretty much knew everyone else.
I nodded and dutifully repeated part of the history I'd made up for myself. "A transfer student from UC Irvine, yeah. This is my first day here."
"Cool." The girls standing behind Shauna echoed her words. They had yet to speak to me directly.
I grappled for something to say. "Do you live here?"
She gave me a strange look. "Duh. But not in St. Bridgid's. I live in the St. Catherine's complex over there." She pointed over her shoulder and winked at me. "That one is co-ed. Here, let me help."
I had to keep from bursting out laughing when she began picking up my boxes and bags and distributing them to her pack of friends. When she was through, her own hands were left empty and she wiped her forehead as though she'd just run a marathon.
"Okay, which house are you in?" she asked quickly. Her generous spirit, it seemed, was on a short timer.
"I tugged a tattered piece of paper from my glove box and made a show of looking confused. I think I'm in 10, no 12. Yeah, 12. Maybe you know my roommate? Ke.. Ke.. Keilana Poppenhouse."
My words were met with a round of gasps, then pale, sour faces. I heard the word "bitch" and worse mumbled by several of the girls. Well, well, Keilana, it seems, wasn't Ms. Popularity.
"You can't be living in 12," a pudgy Asian girl blurted. "Pamela Anderson lives with Keilana. They've been roommates since freshman year. There is no way—"
Shauna glared at the suddenly verbose girl and slapped a hand over her mouth. "I thought we agreed that her name would never be spoken again?"
My eyes widened at Shauna's rigid tone.
"Sorry," Pudgy squeaked contritely, looking as though she might burst into tears. "I forgot."
"So long as you don't do it again," Shauna reminded, enunciating every word with deliberate slowness.
I lifted my eyebrows at the display of dominance. I hadn't seen one so blatant since my last trip to the zoo. "I umm ... I think I remember them telling me at the admissions office that one of the girls living in number 12 got an out-of-state- scholarship. Now that you mention it, the name Pamela Anderson does sound familiar." Okay, everything about Pamela Anderson was familiar. I'd accidentally seen the Pam/Tommy Lee porn video online. Six or sevens times. What? Like you weren't curious.
"Lucky Pam," Shauna ground out, her lips thin. Imperiously, she began marching down one of the paths and her friends were quick to follow.
I had to jog to catch up. "What do you mean, lucky Pam?" I fell in step alongside her as we passed the fountain. "Is there something about my roommate that I should know?"
Shauna smirked. "You'll see."
"Do you know Keilana?" I persisted; I was on the clock.
Shauna's eyes narrowed. "Oh, I know the whore all right! You should stay far away from her."
I blinked. "How can I do that? She's my roommate."
Shauna stopped dead in her tracks and gave me an incredulous look. "Be that way then." She pointed to a spot on the grass. "Here, girls. We don't need to waste anymore of my time. Let's go."
In less than five seconds my boxes and bags were unceremoniously dumped on the ground and the she-pack, including Shauna, was halfway back to the fountain. I frowned at their sudden departure. With them left my first chance at being able to pump someone who knew Keilana for information.
"See ya," I called out and couldn't stop myself from adding, "assholes" in a voice loud enough to get half of campus looking my way. A few nuns crossed themselves and I felt a mixture of juvenile pride and chagrin at my antics. I knew I was acting like a big baby, but in only a few moments those girls had managed to bring a million bad feelings to the surface. I sighed. Thank God I wasn't actually going through this all again. Growing up was bad enough the first time.
When my stuff had been carelessly dumped on the lawn, one of my cardboard boxes had burst open and the breeze was now tossing some of my clothes around. Nothing like having to chase your bra down the street in front of the God squad and a bunch of snotty kids.
Bra in hand, I tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear and made my way back to my boxes. I dropped to my knees and began gathering my things. At least nobody had stolen anything while I was chasing my undies across the lawn. That was one good thing about an expensive school. No one wanted to steal used panties.
Suddenly another set of hands appeared in front of my face and lifted up one of my intact boxes. "Want some help?" I heard from somewhere above me. The voice was velvety smooth and deep and I might have found it nice if I wasn't already in such a crappy mood.
"No thanks," I muttered, grabbing a tank top and stuffing down into the box. I didn't bother to look up. The last thing I needed was to square off against some snobby member of the Welcome Wagon.
A gentle laugh. "You must be a pretty big klutz to have made such a mess."
I continued my repacking, stuffing a pair of jeans into a box with a little more force than was necessary. "Thank you for noticing."
"You're new here."
No shit. "Really?"
She laughed again and adjusted the box in her hands so she could dangle a pair of my black panties before my eyes. I reached for them, but she pulled them away at the last second, just the way that Lucy always yanked the football away from Charlie Brown. I fought the urge to bare my teeth and growl, then I caught sight of exactly which panties they were and had to bite back a groan instead. Oh, crap. They were a pair that Russ had given me a couple of years ago as a joke. They were so raunchy that I'd refused to wear them. I didn't know I still had them. I'd just grabbed a few handfuls of underwear while I was packing.
"Slutty undies." She hummed something that sounded suspiciously like approval. "You're not a hooker by chance?"
"Do you need a hooker?"
"Is that a yes?"
I'd had enough. "Do I look like a fuckin' hooker, Rich-Bitch Betty co-ed?"
"I dunno." I could hear the smirk in her voice and it set my teeth on edge. "Maybe."
I finally successfully snatched the panties from her hand and glanced up to see what the next version of Shauna would look like. But the sun was setting directly behind her and I had to shield my eyes.
"You look like you have all the right parts for the job," she continued blithely.
This girl was a real piece of work. My words hadn't had any impact on her at all.
"You might not be a working girl," she chuckled, "but you certainly could be."
"My parents would be so proud. In fact, maybe I'll drop out of school today and call Heidi Fleiss. What's her number? I'm sure you have her number handy."
"Are you going to cottage 12?" She didn't sound happy about that prospect. Great, another fan of Keilana. And this one was changing subjects so quickly that my head was starting to spin.
I picked up a few pairs of socks, holding one in my teeth as I tried to get one side of the lid on the box closed again. "If you must know, the answer is yes. But I'll save you the trouble of telling me that my new roommate, Keilana Poppenwhatever, is a whore-bitch. Because I've already heard." I spat out my socks and stood up to tell whomever this annoying person was to get lost once and for all.
When I rose, I was greeted by a pair of icy blue eyes that actually sent a shiver down my spine. Uh-oh. I realized that I must have been wrong about her feelings for Keilana. Maybe the subject of my investigation actually had a friend. If that was true, then it was time to get serious.
The girl was burning holes through my body with her glare that could smelt steel. She was thin and a few inches taller than me with thick dark brown hair. She had skin so fair that I doubted she'd been outside for more than ten minutes the entire summer. Her face was heart-shaped and she had a stronger jaw that most women. She wasn't as conventionally beautiful as she was striking, and despite the haphazard way she had her hair twisted on top of her head, all I could think was how hot she was.
"You're staring," she said, clearly annoyed.
Oops. "About what I just said ..." I motioned to my things on the ground. "I'm afraid my first day here isn't going very well. So ... you're friend of Keilana's, right?" I stuck out my hand. "I'm Cadie Blaisdell." It's really true that the more lies you tell, the easier it gets.
The young woman's back straightened and she hefted the box she was holding high above her head. In disbelief, I watched her turn the box upside and dump my clothes and a handful of CDs all over me. "What the fuck?" I batted away a pair of shorts that was hanging from my shoulder. "Jesus Christ!"
"Wrong both times," she said, her voice low and angry. "My name is Keilana Poppenwhatever. Most folks call me Lana. You can just call me whore-bitch."
I didn't know quite what to say as Keilana stormed into what was supposed to be "our" cottage. There was no way that this person could be the subject of my investigation. None! She wasn't "spirited," as Mrs. Poppenhouse had said. She was clearly evil. And she wasn't huge or close to being Hawaiian. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."
A woman walking by shot me an evil look for my potty mouth. "Hi, Sister," I said a touch sheepishly.
Did that nun just flip me the bird?
I refocused on why I was here and then hung my head. What the hell was wrong with me? I tried to look on the bright side, but so far there wasn't one. Well, except for the fact that at least I knew where the evil Keilana Poppenhouse was. In fact, I mused, not liking Keilana might make me feel less guilty about breaking up her and her boyfriend. Yeah. I could live with that big fat lie for at least as long as it took for me to play home-wrecker.
I repacked the rest of my things and hefted the boxes onto cottage 12's small front porch. As I was straightening from setting down the last box, I heard the lock to the front door slide into place. "I have a key," I gloated loudly. "You can't lock me out." Then I turned the doorknob and to my surprise, it wasn't locked. "Huh." Maybe Keilana wasn't as difficult she first appeared. God knows I'd been wrong about enough people in my life to know better than to judge someone too quickly. I began to regret the bad names I'd called her.
I stepped forward and pushed the door open ... only to smash my face against the solid wood. "God!" I screeched, and grabbed my now-bleeding nose. The burglar chain had been fastened. "Crap!"
"Still wrong. It's whore-bitch, remember?" Keilana yelled from somewhere in the cottage.
I hit the door with my fist. "Bitch!"
"You're ... getting ... closer," she said in a sing-song voice.
My God, what kind of twisted bitch was she? I was pretty sure I could bust the chain on the door if I wanted to. But I didn't want some do-gooder priest calling the cops on me. I had to save something for day two, didn't I?
My voice was deep and dangerous when I said, "Open the door, Keilana."
"Open the Goddamn door!" I roared, banging the wood with my fist until my hand ached. Finally, I stepped away from the door and swallowed hard.
My heart was racing. My face was flushed. My palms were sweating and my chest was rising and falling far faster than normal. Isn't it confusing that being furious and being turned-on-as-hell have the exact same symptoms?
"Have it your way, Keilana." I twisted my face and slurred her name the way Seinfeld did when saying "Newman". She was already shaping up to be my Newman.
I opened one of my suitcases and took out a washcloth to press to my nose. I held it to my face as I checked the front windows. Both were locked. I could pick them, of course, but it was broad daylight and I'd already attracted enough unwarranted attention. As it was, I'd be lucky not to be fired or expelled.
I walked behind the cottage and found two more windows. The second window was even unlocked, but after giving it a couple of moment's thought, I decided not to try to climb through it. It was a little smaller than the others and getting stuck with my ass hanging out was not on my agenda today.
Finally, on the fourth wall, I struck pay dirt. Tossing the bloodied washcloth over my shoulder, I growled like a cat on the prowl. I was getting inside. I tightened my hands around the sill-like vises. Despite what you see on TV, it's much harder to pull up all your body weight than it looks. But I was in relatively good shape and after a few huffs and puffs I was propped up on the ledge and staring inside. I glanced around awkwardly, but I couldn't see Keilana. I was sure, however, that the satanic brat was somewhere inside, laughing at me.
The windowsill was digging into my gut and I looked down. Figures there'd be no way to twist my legs inside. I'd have to go in headfirst. Slowly, I leaned forward to ease inside, and suddenly I was flying down the wall! I tried to break my fall with my arms and ended up doing a somersault that would make Mary Lou Retton weep with envy. Well, except for the part where I screamed like a sissy girl when my butt thumped hard against the tile floor.
"Holy—?" Disoriented, I sat there for a few seconds. What had just happened? I saw a piece of paper on the floor, partially hidden by my ass. I pulled it free and it read "Don't fall." I closed my eyes and whimpered. Was there anything more annoying than someone saying don't fall after you'd already fallen?
After a few seconds of wondering what on earth I'd gotten myself in to, I stood up on wobbly feet. My tale bone was throbbing, my nose was aching, and I wanted to kill Keilana. I even know a few people who, for a Corona and two fish tacos, would help me dispose of her worthless carcass. God, I love my job!
"Oh, Keilana?" I said in a sickeningly sweet voice. "He-e-e-e-re's Johnny!" She was too young to have seen The Shining but it made me happy just saying it.
Of course, there was no answer. I turned my head and saw that the front door was wide open, mocking me. Okay, I admit it, I underestimated my opponent in this twisted little game. That was a mistake I wouldn't make again.
If I'd only known then just what the coming months would bring ... I would have ... I would have ... . What would I have done? I guess I would still be me, which means I'd probably do most of it the same way, taking my lumps and all. But it would have been nice to have been just the teensiest bit prepared.
Since I was alone and had no clue where Keilana had gone, I took a moment to look around my new, if temporary, digs. I whistled softly, glad that I'd only bloodied my nose instead of knocking out front teeth.
The cottage was nice. Really nice. Better than my apartment, actually. Which made me all the more resentful. I was sure that the students here didn't appreciate just how lucky they were.
The furnishings were sparse, but first class all the way, and not surprisingly, the décor was California Mission. There was a tiny kitchen and living area just off a single bedroom that was separated from the rest of the house by a half wall. I walked over to the bedroom and saw that my bags and boxes were neatly stacked next to a naked mattress and box springs. "What did you do, Keilana?" On one of my bags sat a can of soda, beads of condensation attesting to the fact that it was icy cold.
How did she know that I was thirsty? Was she a witch? I didn't know what to think, but one thing was certain. Keilana clearly could not be trusted. And yet, this appeared to be a tiny bit of kindness from the person who had called me a klutz, embarrassed me by making me reach for my panties, locked me out of the house, and sent me careening ass over tea kettle down the wall. Scowling, I rubbed my butt again and tried not to breathe through my tender nose.
Then something on the top suitcase caught my eye and I was tugged forward by the same unseen force that had shaped most of my adult life—rampant curiosity. The kind that gave the cat a slow and painful death, and would, most likely, do the same to me one day.
On my suitcase was another note.
You can use your own bed sheets or check some out at the campus laundry for $3. I suggest the former. Too bad you're not a hooker. You'd be worth every penny. You have a spectacular ass.
Your new bestest buddy,
My eyes narrowed. She had signed the note Whore-bitch. I read it again just to make sure I wasn't losing my mind. I tried not to laugh. What was wrong with me? And how could I find her note funny, even though it was clearly meant to torture me? And most curious of all, why had she been looking at my ass? Thinking about asses made me rub mine. Again. It was still sore.
True, my butt was covered in expensive jeans, and she'd recognize that, which was the entire point. But she seemed to be checking out what was under the pants. Was she a lesbian? I thought about that for a bit as I examined my can of 7-UP. Frankly, I was thrilled with even the possibility it could be true. There can never, ever be too many good-looking women batting for my team. That said, this wasn't about me, and so I did my best to think about the case.
Keilana's parents were worried about some mainlander scum being after her money. But would they know if the mainlander scum was a woman? Absolutely not. Then again, if she really wanted to rebel, wouldn't the easiest way be to tell mommy and daddy that she liked pussy? After a bit more pondering, I figured it was too early to tell whether she was into chicks, or whether she'd just been yanking my chain.
I cracked open my 7-Up—not the diet, but the honest to goodness, teeth-rotting, sugar elixir—half expecting it to explode or for a big snake to pop out. When it didn't, I tentatively took a sip. Ahhh ... cold bubbles chased their way down my throat. Heaven.
So the subject of my investigation was a nutcase, sometimes-hospitable, maybe-lesbian? Lovely. I'd been in her presence for all of five minutes and she'd already given me the slip. Lovely again. I lifted my soda in salute to Ms. Poppenhouse, wherever she was. "Round one to Keilana," I conceded as my eyes took on a determined glint. "Too bad for you, this battle of the wits is just getting started."
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