“Trixie, get your ass in here!” Eddie bellowed at me from inside his office the minute I showed up for work the next morning. He was looking particularly repulsive as he had bits of egg clinging to his once-white t-shirt. I stepped into his office, and he slammed the door behind me, causing my hackles to raise several inches. I didn’t like being enclosed in a small space with a man I didn’t trust, but he was the one paying my checks. As long as he kept his greasy paws to himself, I would put up with his odious self.
“Yes, Eddie?” I asked, keeping my voice this side of civil.
“Tell me all you know about Lydia,” he barked. “And what’s this about you guys switching costumes? You know that’s against the rules.” He made it sound like we had embezzled a million dollars from the company or something heinous like that.
“Eddie, I told the cops everything I knew,” I said, not feeling the least bit guilty for lying to the son-of-a-bitch. “Can I just get on with my job?”
“You don’t stop copping an attitude, and you won’t have a job any longer,” Eddie said, his tone terse. I looked at him, wondering why he was so upset. It wasn’t as if he even liked Lydia or anything like that. I knew murder wasn’t good for business, but it didn’t have anything to do with him. I took a second look at him as he was sweating profusely. I wondered if he was hiding something, something that might be connected to Lydia’s killing. “You and Lydia were close. Tell me what you know.”
“I don’t know anything,” I repeated, my voice harsh. He was creeping me out, and I wanted to get out of the office.
“She must have said something to you. Was she the one who suggested that you changed costumes? Or was that you?” By now, Eddie’s face was bathed in sweat, and he was giving off a decidedly pungent smell.
“I don’t remember, Eddie,” I said softly, narrowing my eyes. “Why is it so important to you?”
“It’s not, it’s not,” Eddie said, backing down. He held his hands in front of him, palms out, fingers spread to show that he wasn’t meaning any harm. “It’s just so tragic. I wish I could make sense of it.” He never took his eyes off me, as if he was trying to read my face for a hidden message.
“I gotta go, Eddie,” I said, backing up towards the door.
“Fine, fine, you go and greet the kiddies, Trixie,” Eddie said, stretching his lips into a grin. “We’ll talk again later.”
I fled from his office to the green room where my—Lydia’s—costume sat waiting for me. I began to dress, not in the least excited about spending another day as an oversized animal. As I struggled into the duck suit, I thought more about Eddie’s odd behavior. He hadn’t cared in the least about Lydia when she was alive, so I couldn’t credit him with being concerned about her now that she was dead. If he did give a damn at all, it was only because he was either worried about business or there was another nefarious reason which I couldn’t discern.
The others milled around, not appearing particularly grieved. I caught a glimpse of distress on a few faces, but I had a hunch it was more fear of being shot than bereavement over Lydia. Something in my gut didn’t feel right that there was nobody mourning her passing. Granted, we were just her coworkers and this was just some shit-hole job that most of us were using to simply get by, but somebody other than me should have been upset about her demise. She was a person, damn it, and she had value. I wanted to shake every person in the room for not acknowledging that something irretrievable was gone. I forced myself to calm down by taking deep breaths. I felt a shadowy presence behind me and looked up.
It was Tommy, and he had a concerned look on his face. Today, he wasn’t wearing his glasses, and he actually had pretty hazel eyes. With his reddish-brown hair, the freckles on his nose and the flat planes of his cheeks, he wasn’t half-bad looking. I couldn’t help but notice that his body was nicely muscled, but not overly so. He stuttered as he asked how I was, his face beet red. For the first time since I could remember, he was starting a conversation with me instead of skittering away. He asked me how I was doing, and what’s more, he actually listened to my reply. His solicitous nature was putting me on my guard since it was more his habit to flee every time he saw me. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there was something strange about his behavior.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Bea?” Tommy asked, watching me in the mirror. I was beginning to tire of males scrutinizing every move I made, and I heartily wished I were rid of them all.
“It’s nice of you to ask, but I’m fine. Really.” I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. I hoped it wasn’t going to be like this all day—with people being extra-solicitous, treating me as if I were made of glass.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Tommy said, his voice filled with emotion. I looked at him in surprise as I wasn’t aware that he and Lydia were particularly close. “I mean, she was always so…” His voice faltered, and he couldn’t continue. Mumbling something that I couldn’t understand, he ran off, only to be replaced by Antoinette. At the sight of her approaching me, I could barely refrain from sighing loudly. I mean, what was this? Confess to Trish day? I think it’s because I was the one closest to Lydia that people felt the need to talk to me.
“Bea, I just wanted you to know how sorry I am,” Antoinette said in a doleful voice. I wanted to smack her on the nose for being so damn hypocritical. She’d made no bones about the fact that she hadn’t liked Lydia while Lydia was alive, so why was she pretending otherwise now that Lydia was dead? I hated that shit. “It must be especially hard for you because, well, you know, it should have been you and all.” Her tone was earnest, but I knew better than to be taken in by this lying sack of shit.
“Go away, Antoinette,” I said, not bothering to be polite. This girl needed to be whacked over the head with a hammer to realize that she wasn’t wanted.
“And to think! Eddie was going to fire her today,” Antoinette persisted, ignoring my command. “Well, at least she was spared that indignity.” She flashed a saccharine smile at me, preparing to leave. I caught her by the arm so she was forced to stop.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, my tone ugly. I didn’t like it when people dropped innuendoes and walked away as if it were nothing. I liked it even less that I was asking her to repeat gossip to me, but I rationalized that it was better for me to know than to stay in the dark.
“Oh, didn’t you know?” She did a poor job of pretending surprise. She knew damn well that I wouldn’t know because the only way she did was by fucking the boss. “Eddie’s losing money hand over fist and can’t afford to keep all the staff. Lydia and Stephen were going to be the first to go.”
“Did Stephen know that?” I asked, ignoring the millions of questions whirling around in my mind.
“No. Eddie was going to tell him yesterday, but then, Lydia, well, you know.” Antoinette’s tone was smug—she loved dispensing bad news. “He was going to tell Lydia today because he doesn’t like to give bad news to more than one person per day. He’s a sensitive guy, you know.”
“Yeah, he’s all fucking heart,” I said sarcastically. “What a prince.”
“You don’t have to take that tone,” Antoinette sniffed, turning and flouncing away. I let her go as I ruminated over what she had revealed. If Stephen knew that he was about to lose his job—and he must have because Eddie’s not that subtle—might he have shot Maisie thinking that he could save his job by eliminating someone else? I dismissed the idea because it would mean that Stephen had come to work prepared to shoot someone, an idea that I couldn’t believe. Besides, how did I know Antoinette was telling the truth? I couldn’t fathom a reason she’d lie about something like that, but what the fuck did I know? I shoved it to the back of my brain because I just couldn’t handle the information overload.
I sighed as I pulled the duck head over my own head. For once, I was grateful to be someone other than me. It made me uneasy, however, because if someone was trying to shoot me, more than likely that person knew that I was now the duck. What was to prevent the killer from trying his or her hand at me again? I was, for all intensive purposes—and pardon the pun—a sitting duck. Of course, I would try my best to watch my back, but these gigantic heads really limited vision. I had no faith that I would be able to stop someone from shooting me if she or he really wanted me dead. I waddled out into the park after sending a little prayer up to the being in charge of such things.
“Mooooom, Peter hit me!”
“Daddy, I want cotton candy!”
“Like, this is so lame. Can we go now?”
Ah yes, the dulcet tones of screeching children greeted my ears. Even though most sounds were heavily muffled by the duck head, a select few—such as high-pitched screams—penetrated to the depths of my brain. I almost gave in to my impulse to stuff my ears with my fingers, but I didn’t because one, I couldn’t reach my ears under my damn duck head and two, it would send the wrong message to the ‘kiddies’, causing Eddie to dock my pay if he saw me. I was already on his shit list for not spilling the beans about Lydia—though what he was hoping to hear, I didn’t know—and I couldn’t afford to have him looking more closely at my behavior. Especially if he’s in the firing mood.
I remembered Antoinette’s words and frowned. The park was crammed with people every day. Though I wasn’t an accountant, I couldn’t fathom why he was in the red. With the exorbitant prices he charged, not to mention all the crap he sold in the novelty stores, he should be three sheets to the black with money to spare. Antoinette wasn’t the smartest person in the world—perhaps she had heard him wrong. More likely, he was lying to her so she wouldn’t get any ideas of milking him dry. For a brief moment, I pictured the two of them together, and I nearly lost my cookies. I quickly banished that disturbing image and went about my business.
As I greeted the kids and subtly guided the parents to buy, buy, buy, I kept glancing around me to ensure that I wasn’t being stalked. It was unnerving to feel as if I had a big bull’s eye on my back, and I kept tensing my shoulders as if that would stop a bullet from taking me out. I was as perky as I could possibly be, but it wasn’t enough for the kids. They seemed to sense that there was something off about me, and most of them didn’t want anything to do with me. That was more than fine in my book as the kids seemed particularly whiny today. We made a silent pact that we would keep our distance from each other and nobody would get hurt.
After what seemed like eternity, I went to the green room for a break. I supposed I should eat something to keep my nerves up, but I couldn’t. My stomach was queasy and doing flip-flops. I had avoided the area where Lydia died all day long especially as it was cordoned off by the cops, but it was never far from my mind. She was never far from my mind. Especially now since we normally took our breaks around the same time. We would bitch about the job, the spoiled kids, Eddie, and whatever else came to mind while chomping down on hotdogs or hamburgers or whatever other park fare we could rustle up.
“Hey, Bea,” Tommy said, flopping into the seat besides me. He was looking gloomy as he plunked his giant head onto the ground. “Miss ya in the Maisie costume.” He wasn’t looking at me as he talked.
“Really?” I asked, lifting an eyebrow in surprise. “I find that hard to believe considering that you run away from me all the time.”
“That’s the shtick,” Tommy said, his tone bewildered. “You chase; I run. I thought we were in agreement about that.”
“I just thought you couldn’t stand me,” I replied, shrugging it off. It wasn’t a big deal, and I was too exhausted to think about it.
“No, no, it’s not that at all,” Tommy said hastily. “It’s just, you know, hard to get to know you because you and Lydia were so tight. Always talking about this and that. Girl talk, I suppose.” There was something odd in his tone, and I had the feeling that he was trying to say something to me.
Was there a subtext that I wasn’t receiving? Tommy had never evinced any interest in me or Lydia while Lydia was alive, so why the big show now that she was dead? Was there another reason he wanted to remain in my good graces? He might have something to do with Lydia’s death, though I couldn’t think of anything I’d done to anger him. He did sound awfully shocked when I showed up alive. Maybe he was the shooter—I just had to figure out the reason. I didn’t know him very well as he was new this summer and kept to himself. Then again, psychos didn’t need a reason for shooting someone.
Tommy was still watching me, something a bit strange about his demeanor. There was a cautious look in his eyes, as if he were gauging the effect his words were having on me. Normally, I would have rushed into speech because he was making me uncomfortable, but I managed to hold my tongue this time. I stared at Tommy and was gratified when he dropped his eyes. A flush spread across his cheeks, indicating that he had something to hide. I deliberated as to whether I wanted to pursue it or not, but I really had no choice. This was murder we were talking about—the murder of a friend. Granted, she wasn’t a close friend, but a friend, nonetheless. I would expect the same from her had our situations been reversed.
“Hey, Tommy, what do you do when you’re not working?” I asked, deliberately starting low-keyed as I didn’t want to spook Tommy.
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked, his voice tight. His lip was trembling slightly no matter how much he tried to control it. I looked at him in surprise—I didn’t think it was that difficult a question to answer, but I guess I hadn’t started low-keyed enough.
“I mean, what do you like to do in your spare time?” I said, enunciating each word carefully. “It’s not a trick question, Tommy. I’ll give you an example. I like to go dancing with my boyfriend in my spare time. There. Now it’s your turn.”
“Oh, uh, I like to read. Philosophy,” Tommy managed before clamming up. “Um, also, sci-fi. I also like Star Wars movies.” He stopped again, looking expectantly at me.
“That’s nice,” I said, a tad condescendingly. “I only read literary fiction myself.” I knew that sounded snooty, but I couldn’t help it. I loathed genre fiction, especially mysteries. Everything got tied up so neatly at the end—not at all like real life.
“By the way,” Tommy said, dropping his voice so no one could overhear him. “Lydia, uh, didn’t happen to say anything to you, uh, about me, did she?” Despite his attempt to sound casual, his voice was studded with desperation.
“No, Tommy. What would she have said?” I watched in interest as his ears turned red. He hesitated, debating whether to confide in me or not. I made a mental bet with myself and was pleased when he spoke before I could reach ten.
“Look, it’s like this. I have to talk about this with someone, but you have to promise me that you won’t tell Eddie about it.” Tommy stared at me solemnly, waiting for me to nod. By then, I would have promised him anything to know his secret. “See, uh, Lydia and I had a thing going on. Nobody knew, and we wanted to keep it that way.”
“Why? Who cares? Other than maybe her boyfriend?” I found it baffling that he’d consider this a big deal. I mean, we weren’t in the Victorian Ages when a person could get stoned for committing adultery, or something like that.
“Eddie had this policy that coworkers weren’t supposed to date,” he explained, tapping nervously on the counter in front of him. He nearly knocked over my hairbrush, so I moved it out of the way.
“Bullshit,” I said bluntly, rapping him across the knuckles with my brush. Fortunately, he’s not wearing his big, foamy hands so the impact of brush on knuckles was sharply felt. “I know for a fact he has no such policy. What the fuck are you trying to pull, Tommy?”
“Nothing, Bea!” Tommy put on his best hurt face, but I didn’t buy it for a minute. He’s running a scam, and I was determined to find out what it was. “Look, just forget it, ok? Um, it’s nothing. Forget I ever said anything.” Before I could say anything, he had fled from me. Again. I sighed and let him go. As I left the green room, walking by Eddie’s office, I overheard a woman in said office. The voice was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t identify it.
“Look, I told you I saw her,” the female voice hissed. “The day before she was killed.” The skin prickled on the back of my neck. She’s talking about Lydia, and I assumed she was talking to Eddie. I didn’t hear anything, though, before I heard the woman’s voice again. “I told him. He said he’d look into it. What if—” In my eagerness to overhear, I brushed against something, and it went crashing to the ground. I hightailed it out of there before they could catch me. I mulled over the voice I heard, but she had been talking too softly for me to identify her. I shrugged. It would come to me sooner or later. For now, I had to figure out what the hell the woman meant and what it had to do—if anything—with Lydia’s death.