The discovery of Amundsen’s body meant that all of my classes were canceled. Lunch with Dean Prendergast was canceled, as well. I was perfectly okay with that since I no longer had the slightest bit of appetite.
Dr. Martin Peele arrived at Muncey Theater just before campus police, about ten minutes after Ben phoned him with the news about his junior colleague. Most of my interviews for the open position had been handled in an online video conference, but I’d met Dr. Peele in person once, when I was on campus with my mother a few years back. A short, squat man with thick eyebrows and an expressive face, he reminded me of a slightly taller and younger Danny DeVito. My first thought when I met him—aside from the fact that he had sweaty palms—was that he was tailor-made for character acting.
As soon as Dr. Peele was inside, campus police turned their questions to him, which made sense, given that I’d never even met Amundsen…well, at least not when he was alive. So I slipped out the side door with a book, in search of someplace quiet, preferably with lots of fresh air. I ducked into the cafeteria to grab coffee from the vending machine and then found an empty bench at a little park between Muncey Auditorium and the main campus. The last inch of the coffee remained in the bottom of the cup as I sat on the bench reading, so that I could bring it up to my nose and breathe it in as needed. Even a half hour later, out in the wide open where the January air carried a hint of the ocean, the awful smell from the theater remained lodged in my nostrils.
The scrappy girl detectives on Private Eye High encountered a corpse in pretty much every episode, and there were even a few cases where they stumbled upon a long-dead body. Given that the makeup department generally did an excellent job of making the bodies look real, I would have sworn that I was fully inoculated against squeamishness. But I’d never really considered the olfactory element. Murder mysteries will be much less popular if anyone ever invents smell-i-vision.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Antigone Alden. How is it that you’re in town less than twenty-four hours and we already have a dead body?”
I hadn’t heard Alicia Brown’s voice in more than twenty years, but the nasal twang was unmistakable. When I left Caratoke High School at the end of my sophomore year, after landing the part in Private Eye High, Alicia was the reigning Queen Bee-with-an-itch. She didn’t like me for one simple reason: Travis Lamm did like me. In fact, he liked me so much that we’d ended up dating for over three years, even keeping the relationship going after I was in California.
Sighing, I snapped shut the technical theater text I’d been thumbing through halfheartedly. “The body’s been in the trap room for way more than twenty-four hours, Leash.”
I didn’t even have to look up to know the expression on Alicia’s face when I pulled out the old nickname, Leash. I could picture the woman’s ferretlike nose twitch perfectly. That’s one good thing about old frenemies. You already know which buttons to push.
“You stepped right into his job,” Alicia said. “That might make some people a little suspicious. Or maybe trouble just follows you around like a bad stink. Can’t believe you’ve decided to come back and live among us commoners. Is California’s cost of living too high for washed-up has-beens?”
At that point I did look up and was surprised that the Alicia in my head didn’t look much like the one standing in front of me. Alicia’s hair was platinum now, rather than her natural brassy blonde. Two decades of tanning booths, Quarter Pounders, and cigarettes had taken a toll. Alicia now looked more like her mother, who’d sat in the bleachers at home games, than the pert and perky head majorette who had strutted across the field at halftime.
Rather than try to cover my surprise, I decided to use it. “Wow. I am so sorry, Mrs. Brown! I could have sworn I was talking to your daughter, Alicia.”
Alicia cocked her head to one side. I could almost hear the hamster wheel spinning away as she tried to dredge up a smart retort.
I decided to spare her the torment, thinking maybe if I just cut to the chase, Alicia would leave. “Did you want something, Alicia?”
“Actually, I do. I’m the lead reporter for The Clarion these days and unfortunately, my editor tasked me with writing a human-interest piece on your move back to Caratoke. Us being old friends and all. I have to get a photo to go with the article, so say cheese.” Alicia held up her phone and snapped the picture before I even had time to smile. She tucked the phone back into her little red handbag and then turned on her heel to walk away.
“You’re not going to ask me any questions for the article?”
“Now why would I do that? I have all the information I need right here.” She tapped one well-manicured finger against her temple. “Plus, there’s some actual news to cover over at Muncey.”
As Alicia clacked off down the sidewalk, a tall man in a police uniform rounded the corner of the building. She altered her course slightly to intercept him, placing one hand possessively on his chest as she leaned in to ask him a question.
That sight triggered a massive case of déjà vu. Suddenly I was sitting on a bench outside the high school, a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday. It must have been a Friday, because Travis was wearing his Caratoke Tiger Sharks jersey and the team only did that on game days. Alicia walked up to him that day and rubbed her hand across his chest.
But Travis’s eyes had not been on Alicia Brown. He’d been looking at me, which had royally pissed off Alicia. And now, more than twenty years later, Alicia was royally pissed yet again. Travis waved her vaguely toward the theater, and then began walking toward the bench where I was sitting.
Alicia glared at his back, then stomped off toward the auditorium. For one brief second, I felt sorry for her. My mom had told me both of them were married—not to each other—but it was clear that Alicia still carried a torch.
To be fair, it was really, really easy to see why. I have never been one of those women who goes all weak-kneed over a guy in uniform. But Travis Lamm was even better looking at forty, in his Caratoke police uniform, than he had been at eighteen in that football jersey. And he’d looked mighty fine in that football jersey.
I stood up as he approached, trying to decide on the appropriate greeting for a first love you hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. Did you shake hands or hug it out?
Travis decided for me. He grinned, opened his arms wide, and I stepped into them. It was a quick, friendly hug. Five seconds, tops. But there was way too much history between us—ancient though it might be—for me to be totally unaffected.
“Kind of a lousy welcome home. You doing okay?”
For a second, I thought Travis meant seeing Alicia, but then I realized he was here investigating Amundsen’s death.
“Let’s just say I’m in no hurry to eat lunch,” I told him. “But you’re probably immune to that kind of thing by now.”
“No, ma’am. That’s something you never get used to.”
If it were anyone else, I’d have been annoyed at the ma’am, especially when I’m two years younger than the person doing the ma’aming. But that word is second nature to Travis, like drinking iced tea with enough sugar to send most people—or at least those not born in the South—into a diabetic coma. If you are male, Travis calls you sir. If you are female, he calls you ma’am.
The last time we’d spoken face-to-face was on a short trip to Mexico when Travis was about to start his junior year at North Carolina State. I was taking the occasional class at UCLA during what I hoped would be a short hiatus between acting jobs, after Private Eye High ended. In retrospect, I think we both realized the Cancun trip was goodbye. But we held on for a bit longer, just talking less often. Writing less often. One day, I realized it had been over a week since we’d spoken, and I finally screwed up the courage to call and end things officially. He’d sounded a bit relieved. Maybe I’d sounded that way to him, too, and maybe I had been relieved. But it still hurt, and I’d had more than one good long cry over what might have been in the months afterward.
It was a minor miracle that we lasted as long as we did. Travis came out to LA twice, and didn’t much care for it. I’d rarely managed more than a month off in the summer when we were shooting the series. We were both in Caratoke for the Christmas holidays, but that left a whole lot of time apart and eventually, the absence took its toll. He finished college, joined the state police, and spent the next decade in Raleigh, according to the sporadic updates Mom passed along when she ran into Travis’s sister at some college event. And then about a year ago, the Caratoke chief of police retired. They wanted someone with local ties, so Travis moved back.
“I didn’t realize you were replacing Amundsen until I spoke to Dean Prendergast just now,” he said, smiling down at me. “It’s good to see you. Can’t say I ever thought you’d end up back in Caratoke.”
“Makes two of us. But…life tosses you a curveball every now and then.”
“You can say that again.” Travis’s cell phone buzzed and he checked the text on the screen. “Medical examiner just arrived. Listen, Tig, we’re going to need to get a full statement from you about finding the body. You can stop in at the station and give it to one of the deputies if you like. Or…I could drop by your mom’s house, assuming I’m done here at a decent hour?”
“Sure. It will give us a little time to catch up on the past…” I trailed off, doing the mental math.
“Well, I just turned forty,” he said. “So…eighteen years?” The crinkles around his eyes were deeper now, and there were little touches of gray at his temples. But those sexy dimples still appeared when he smiled.
I gave myself a brisk mental shake. Travis Lamm was married, and no matter how sexy the dimples, I needed to imagine a big red NO TRESPASSING sign on his forehead.
“I gotta run,” he said. “But I just wanted to say how sorry I am about your mom’s accident and that I couldn’t be here for the funeral. I had…something going on with the family out of state. Miss Caroline was always one of my favorite people. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.”
Travis turned and jogged back toward the auditorium after those last words. I was glad he didn’t wait for me to respond, because my reaction to his condolences was something between tears and nervous laughter. I’d buried my mother nearly three months ago, and Travis was right. It was hard to believe she was gone.
Especially when I kept seeing her. Hearing her.