Fred Vickery knew that attending his high school reunion was a mistas soon as he met up with his hated boyhood rival, LeGrande Macafee.It seems the former classmate and Fred’s deceased wife shared some personal high school memories that the senior sleuth never knew about–and that LeGrande is a little too eager to divulge.
But before the reunion is over, LeGrande Macafee is dead, and Fred suddenly finds himself elected most likely…not to solve a murder, but to commit one…
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Fred Vickery knew he’d made a mistake. A big one. But he didn’t know how to correct it now. He leaned against the refreshment table in the high school auditorium, tolerating a headache and watching the crowd in front of him. Every few minutes, a muggy breeze blew in through the open doors that led into the school’s rear parking lot, but it didn’t relieve the heat inside. The laughter, conversation, and big band music blaring from a portable stereo only made the pounding in his head worse.
He lifted a glass of punch from the refreshment table and nodded to a woman who stepped up to the other end of the table. Something about her seemed vaguely familiar but, like most members of his high school class, the fifty-five years since they’d graduated had aged her so much he couldn’t immediately identify her.
She smiled as she picked up a cookie from a tray and inclined her head toward him. “Hello, Fred.”
He returned the smile hesitantly and studied her pale blue eyes and ski-jump nose for a few seconds before he recognized her. “Thea? Thea Griffin?”
Laughing softly, she held out her arms.
Fred hugged her quickly, and for a moment the years melted away and he caught a glimpse of the young woman she’d been—tall and willowy and beautiful with long blonde hair and a sunny disposition that had once captured his heart.
“It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?” she said softly into his ear.
“Too many.” He released her and took a step backward. “I haven’t seen you since. . .”
“Since our twenty-fifth reunion,” she finished for him. “I know. Stewart and I moved to Mobile, Alabama, and it never seemed to work out for us to come back after that.” “But you’re here tonight.”
“I am. Yes.”
“Are you staying for the whole weekend?”
“I’ll be here for the banquet tomorrow night, but I’m leaving early Sunday morning.” She nibbled the cookie and glanced at him from beneath lowered lashes. “I still feel funny traveling alone. Stewart passed away two years ago.”
Once, long before he fell in love with Phoebe, that look had made Fred’s heart race. Now, it did nothing except bring memories of trips to the movie house and school dances rushing back. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and he meant it. He’d met her husband years ago, and he’d been pleased to know she’d been happy.
“Thank you.” She glanced at her hands, then slanted an uneasy smile at him. “Coralee told me about Phoebe. I know how hard losing her must be for you.”
“It is,” he admitted. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t want to launch into a long conversation about their missing spouses. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Yes. Are you?”
Fred shrugged. “Not really.”
Thea laughed. “What a surprise. You never were much for parties, were you?”
“Not really,” he said again. “But I’m stuck here. Millie and Al decided to come to the reunion this year, and for some reason, I let them talk me into giving them a ride tonight.” He glanced round the room and added, “You remember my sister, Millie, don’t you?”
Thea nodded. “Of course I do. She’s only a year younger than we are.” She craned her neck to look over the crowd. “Where is she?”
Fred waved his hand toward the opposite side of the room. “Over there somewhere. I don’t know. She married Al Jarvis, you know.”
“I know.” Thea’s lips curved into a smile. “Do you like him better now than you did when we were kids?”
“No. He still talks constantly and still says absolutely nothing.”
Thea nodded and pulled her bottom lip between her teeth as if she wanted to smile but didn’t think she should. “It seems odd to have a fifty-fifth reunion.”
“It is odd,” Fred groused. “And it’s Percy Neuswander’s fault. He’s the genius who decided we all have one foot in the grave and can’t afford to wait for one of these get-togethers, so now we have one every year.”
“Do you come to every one?”
Fred sobered. “No. Phoebe and I did until they diagnosed the cancer. I haven’t been to one in five years. I guess I just didn’t feel right coming alone.”
Thea nodded sadly. “I know what you mean. So, what made you decide to come this year?”
“For some fool reason I can’t remember now, I let Millie convince me to come. They’re living down in Breckenridge now, and I think she just wanted an excuse to spend the weekend with me. Besides, Al’s eyes aren’t what they used to be, and if I drive them around, it makes it easier for her to keep him from getting behind the wheel.”
He made a face he knew would make her smile. “But it was a big mistake. Al spent the entire drive jabbering about some nonsense, and until fifteen minutes ago, he followed me around like we were glued together.”
She didn’t disappoint him. Her smile came back. “How’d you get away?”
Fred nodded toward the bleachers where Oliver Wellington, tedious as ever, had cornered Fred’s brother-in-law. “I never thought I’d say this, but thank the good Lord for Oliver. Now, if I can just keep Al away from me for the rest of the evening—”
From somewhere on the other side of the cavernous room, he heard Millie laugh. He glanced up and saw her standing beside Jeremiah Hunt, smiling as if Jeremiah had said something terribly witty. Fred couldn’t imagine that. As far as Fred knew, Jeremiah hadn’t said a witty thing in his life.
Thea followed his gaze. “Is that Jeremiah?”
“It is.”“And that’s Millie with him. I’d recognize her anywhere. She looks just like your mother.” “She does, doesn’t she?” Fred studied her for a moment and felt his smile grow. Millie did look like their mother—short and almost wafer-thin, with dark hair that grayed slowly. In fact, at nearly seventy-two, she looked no more than sixty.
Thea took another delicate bite of her cookie and nodded toward a small knot of people a few feet away. “It’s amazing to me. Even after all this time, everybody looks exactly the same.” Fred darted a glance at her, convinced she must be joking. She looked absolutely serious, so he let his gaze trail over the crowd once more and wondered what she saw that he was missing.
Coralee DiMeo, who’d been a perky blonde with shapely legs in high school, stood clutching a cane a few feet away from him. Her hair, now an anemic shade of yellow-gray, formed a halo around her head. Other than that, he supposed she still looked strong and healthy, even a little like the dancer she’d once been.
Her husband, Burl, a tall man with a thick head of silver hair and only a tiny paunch, laughed at something, then broke off with a hacking cough. He jerked a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his mouth, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
As if Thea could read his mind, she laughed again. “Well, maybe not exactly the same. But close enough for me to recognize them after all these years.”
He supposed she was right. If he looked hard enough, ignored the canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the wrinkles and bags and extra pounds, he could see shadows of his former classmates.
Thea took a step closer and nodded toward a reed-thin woman in a flowery dress a few feet away. “You know who I didn’t recognize? Iris Macafee.” She waved her hand in front of her and amended, “I guess she’s Iris Cavalier now, isn’t she? It’s hard to imagine her married to anyone but LeGrande. But they’ve been divorced at least twenty years now, haven’t they?”
Fred nodded and took another sip of his punch. He supposed it had been about that long. He didn’t pay attention to those kinds of details. That has been Phoebe’s bailiwick. Fred had never liked Iris or LeGrande enough to care. In fact, he and LeGrande had never been able to be in the same room for five minutes without getting into an argument. Thankfully, LeGrande had never seen fit to join one of their reunions—the only intelligent thing he’d ever done, if you asked Fred.
Thea ran one small hand over her shoulder and sighed softly. “You heard what happened, didn’t you? He walked out on her for another woman after thirty years together.”
She sounded shocked, but Fred didn’t know why she should be. LeGrande had never had any scruples. He muttered something noncommittal under his breath and took another long drink of punch.
Thea went on as if he hadn’t made a sound. “I hear she met her second husband a couple of years after that—just after his wife died. Is he the tall man with the silver hair standing next to her?”
“That’s him. Yale Cavalier.”
“Is he nice?”
Fred pursed his mouth and gave that some thought. “I suppose so. She seems happy.”
“And I hear LeGrande’s remarried,” Thea went on. “His wife’s name is Stormy.”
“Stormy?” Fred couldn’t help but smile. He lowered his empty cup to the table. “Sounds like you’ve kept up on all the gossip, even if you haven’t been around.”
“I talked to Ardella,” Thea said. Her grin held a hint of mischief.
Fred’s smile grew a bit. “Well, that explains everything.”
Ardella Neuswander took pride in knowing everything about everyone. Claimed she had to keep up, since her husband Percy had been their class president, which put them both in charge of planning their reunions. The years had been kind to Ardella. Her skin still had a healthy glow, she still walked tall, and her eyes still held that spark of curiosity that had been her trademark.
They hadn’t been as kind to Percy. He’d easily been the best athlete in their class and one of the best looking young men around. Now, wrinkles sagged on his face, one layer over another, making him look more like a hound dog than the young man he’d once been. And these days he got around with the help of a wheelchair.
“Ardella tells me the divorce really upset Iris’s children. They had three, you know. Two boys and a girl.”
“I didn’t know,” Fred admitted. Or if anyone had told him, he’d forgotten.
Thea let her gaze drift around the room for another few seconds and finally settled on the DiMeos. “I suppose you heard about Coralee and Burl’s son. . .”
“Killed in Viet Nam?” Fred nodded. “I did hear about that. Tragic.”
“Their only child, too. I think Burl took it harder than Coralee did, but Ardella says neither of them has ever really gotten over it.” Thea tapped one thin finger against her chin and nodded toward the bleachers where Al had been cornered by Oliver Wellington last time Fred looked.
Blast! Al had escaped and Jeremiah Hunt had taken his place. Oliver still stood at least a foot shorter than Jeremiah, but what he lacked in height he now made up for in width.
“You know about Oliver Wellington, I suppose,” Thea said.
“What about him?”
“I understand he’s doing quite well financially. He and LeGrande are probably the most successful members of our class.”
If you measured success by dollars, Fred supposed that might be true.
“Oh, and Jeremiah Hunt. . . Now, what did Ardella tell me about him?” Thea thought for a moment, then waved one hand in front of her face. “I can’t remember. He’s had some sort of trouble.”
“We’ve all had our share,” Fred pointed out.
Thea fingered the top button of her blouse. Her lips curved, but the smile didn’t make it all the way to her eyes. “We certainly have.” Then, as if she’d forgotten the entire conversation, “What have you been doing with yourself since Phoebe passed on?”
Fred shrugged. “This and that.”
Thea sidled a step closer. “Ardella tells me you’ve been involved in a murder or two somehow.”
Fred didn’t like the way that sounded. “I haven’t been involved in any murders,” he clarified. “But I have helped the sheriff solve a couple.”
Thea widened her eyes and studied him. “I can imagine you doing something like that. It must have been exciting.”
Fred shrugged modestly, but before he could say anything more, something behind him caught her attention. Her smile evaporated and an expression he couldn’t read flickered through her eyes.
Curious, he turned to see what had brought about such a sudden change. A man, obviously old enough to be a member of their class, stood just inside the doorway beside a woman of about fifty. She looked young enough to be his daughter, but the way she held his arm and brushed against him as they walked through the door convinced Fred she wasn’t his child.
Thea put a hand on his arm and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
Of course Fred knew. He’d recognize LeGrande Macafee anywhere, even after all these years. He still had the boxy build he’d had in his youth. Still used enough pomade on his hair to make it shine in the light. Still had the thick, dark eyebrows that slanted at such an odd angle over his eyes and gave him a slightly devilish appearance.
Fred nodded slowly and tried to keep his distaste from showing. But if he’d known LeGrande planned to be here, he never would have come.
Thea kept her gaze riveted on LeGrande. “That must be his new wife. She is young, isn’t she?” She didn’t even pause to take a breath. “I can’t believe he’s here. I wonder why Ardella didn’t say something?”
“She probably didn’t know,” Fred mumbled. “If she had known, she’d have warned us.”
LeGrande had been a bully as a boy and an arrogant ass as a young man. He’d caused more problems than the rest of their graduating class put together. He’d broken more hearts, instigated more arguments, and hurt more feelings than any one person had a right to. Even Phoebe, who’d liked almost everyone without exception, hadn’t cared for him.
Apparently, time hadn’t changed him a bit. He still walked into a room as if he owned it. He still preened, as if everyone present should count themselves lucky he’d decided to join them.
Fred didn’t count himself lucky. Just when he’d started to enjoy himself for the first time all evening, LeGrande had to show up and spoil everything. Typical.
Resentments Fred thought he’d forgotten boiled to the surface. Animosity he’d thought long dead sprang to life. He told himself to ignore LeGrande, but he couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away.
LeGrande’s beady eyes darted from one of their former classmates to another, never really lighting on anyone. Oliver Wellington finally shut up and turned a hostile glare in LeGrande’s direction. Coralee DiMeo stiffened and gripped Burl’s arm with her free hand, hard enough to make him wince. Jeremiah Hunt’s face lost its color for a few seconds, then turned a brilliant shade of red.
But all their reactions paled in comparison to Iris Cavalier’s when she saw her ex-husband walking into the room with his young wife. She froze in place and raw hatred contorted her features. Unless Fred missed his guess, they could expect trouble.
Millie tore herself away from her group and hurried across the gymnasium toward the refreshment table. She came to a breathless stop at Fred’s side and whispered, “Don’t start anything.”
Fred scowled down at his younger sister. “What makes you think I’m going to start anything? I’m just standing here.”
“You’re getting red in the face.”
“It’s warm in here.”
Millie rolled her eyes, let out a heavy sigh, and looked at Thea as if she wanted someone to agree with her. “Don’t make trouble, that’s all I ask.”
“I don’t make trouble,” Fred assured her, “but I don’t run away if it finds me.”
Millie slanted forward to catch Thea’s gaze. “Did you hear that? Fred says he doesn’t make trouble.” She leaned back to face him again. “Which one of you two started that big fight outside the church?”
Fred glared at her. “For Pete’s sake, Millie. That was over fifty years ago.”
That didn’t seem to make much of an impression. She propped her hands on her hips and tilted her chin so she could stare into his eyes. “Which one of you started it?”
Behind him, Thea laughed softly. “He did?”
“Yes.” Fred drew himself up to his full height and divided an indignant glare between them. “He was bothering Phoebe.”
Millie rolled her eyes in exasperation. “He was trying to talk to her.”
“Well, she didn’t want to talk to him,” Fred reminded her. “It was obvious to everyone but him.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to,” Millie conceded, “but she could have handled it herself. You didn’t need to hit him.”
“She was my wife. I had every right to defend her. But there’s no sense rehashing something that happened more than fifty years ago.”
“Exactly.” Millie nodded, as if Fred had proved her point for her. When she got like this, only a fool would argue with her.
Fred might be many things, but he wasn’t a fool. He shrugged in frustration and started to turn away, only to find himself face to face with Al.
A groan of dismay escaped his lips before he could stop it. Millie scowled at him, but Al didn’t seem to notice. He put both hands on Fred’s shoulders and leaned in close. “This doesn’t have to be a problem, does it?”
The slim grasp Fred had maintained on his temper slipped. “There’s no problem. I don’t know why all of you are acting as if there should be.”
Al kept talking, as if Fred hadn’t spoken. “Because it all happened a long time ago.”
That was the first sensible thing Al had said in years. “Yes, it did,” Fred agreed. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s forgotten.”
Thea and Millie exchanged glances. Al’s eyes narrowed in disbelief.
Fred ignored them all.
Millie firmed her grip on his arm. “Well good. If you mean that, let’s say hello.”
“I suppose we should,” Thea said, and started slowly across the gymnasium.
Fred had no intention of following her. He yanked his arm out of Millie’s grasp and took a step backward. “Look, Millie, I don’t plan to start trouble, but I won’t pretend I’m glad to see him. If you want to say hello, go right ahead. I’ll stay here.”
“It all happened over fifty years ago,” Al mumbled, more to himself than anyone else. “That’s a long time. Long time. No sense dredging up everything now, is there?”
Millie sighed again and glared up at Fred. “You’re as stubborn and bull-headed as Daddy ever was. Why on earth do you have to behave like this?”
“Like what?” Fred demanded. “I’m not doing a blasted thing.”
“You’re being rude.”
“I’m not being rude,” Fred assured her. “I’m being honest. I don’t like the man. Never have. And I don’t see any reason to pretend that I do.”
“Doesn’t have to like him,” Al mumbled, shaking his head at Millie. “When you come right down to it, it’s probably best this way.”
Millie’s scowl deepened. “Fine,” she snapped, but she didn’t sound as if she meant it.
Fred didn’t let that bother him. She’d get over it.
She took one step away, then turned back and shook a finger in his face. “Don’t leave, or I’ll come after you.”
Fred forced a reassuring smile, but he didn’t say a word. No sense making a promise he might not keep. For years, he’d let LeGrande goad him into arguments he’d have been smarter to avoid. He’d reacted first and thought later. No matter what it took, he wouldn’t let LeGrande get under his skin again.
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