February 14, 2003
Every year, the administration of Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School asked that students not bring flowers or balloons to school on Valentine’s Day. The local florists agreed not to make deliveries to the school for students, but for the most part, the student body as a whole ignored the request, and this year was no exception. The halls were filled with students carrying large bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals, and helium-filled balloons that either would not fit in lockers or that the recipients chose to carry around so that they might be better displayed. Seasoned teachers were accustomed to it, and most of them simply designated a table or empty desk near the back of the room to hold the items during instructional time so that the objects would at least be out of the way during class.
As Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday this year, students seemed even more excited than they usually did on the holiday, and the loud cacophany of voices barely faded into a dull roar as they dispersed into individual classrooms shortly before the bell rang for third period.
“So, what did you give Bethany for Valentine’s Day? A teething ring? A pacifier?”
The voice belonged to Lori Carlson, a classmate senior Bobby Belden had met on the first day of kindergarten when Miss Elliman had assigned them to the same table. While they had once been friends, their interests had diverged in junior high, and she had recently taken to criticizing his girlfriend Bethany Halvorson every chance she could get. By this point, he was beyond tired of it, and he turned to glare at her as she smirked in the desk behind him. Before he could say anything, though, Larry Lynch interjected, “Why? Did you forget yours this morning?”
Bobby grinned at Lori’s outraged gasp, and said, “Not that it’s any of your business, but for your information, I gave her a heart-shaped locket to go on the chain I gave her for Christmas. So, what did you get for Valentine’s Day?”
She reddened. “None of your business.”
He felt momentarily guilty. The entire school knew that the football player she had been dating since freshman year had dumped her right before Christmas, and even though she had asked for it, he felt bad about rubbing salt into the wound. “I’m sorry, Lori. I shouldn’t have asked.”
She looked at him in surprise, and her expression softened slightly as she waved her hand. “Forgiven and forgotten, Belden.”
The bell rang just then, and they settled back into their seats as their English teacher called the class to order. For Bobby, the class period passed interminably slowly, and he had trouble focusing on the day’s discussion. Instead, Lori’s jibes about Bethany caused his mind to wander back to the fall of his junior year, when she had shown up in his art class as a freshman. He had known her most of his life, it seemed, as their older brothers had become friends and then business partners, but for the first time, he had noticed that she was no longer an annoying pest, but a pretty girl he wanted to truly get to know. He had finally asked her out a few weeks into the school year, and now, over a year later, they were closer than ever. In high school terms, a year was almost an eternity, and he sighed happily at the thought. He knew he was headed off to college somewhere the next year, even though he still hadn’t quite decided just where, and she still had two years of high school before she would start college, but he was convinced she was worth waiting for.
Forty-five minutes later, he had to remind himself of that thought as he sat alone at their usual table in the cafeteria. She usually arrived a couple of minutes before him, as she was coming from the closer math wing, and since she had been running late that morning and had no time to go to her locker, she had actually stashed her lunch in his backpack, so he knew she wasn’t in one of the long lines waiting to buy something to eat. He took both of the brown paper bags containing their lunches from his bag and was debating pulling out his notes for his upcoming calculus test when Larry’s girlfriend and Bethany’s best friend, Jessa Hutchinson, slid into the seat next to him. He took one look at her expression and shoved them back into his bag. “What’s wrong? Where’s Bethany?”
She shook her head. “Someone broke into her locker, and she’s pretty upset. I’m on my way to get Mr. Stratton, but I wanted to come get you first.”
He was already on his feet. “Is she okay?”
“Physically, yes,” Jessa said. She stopped and turned to face him. “Bobby, listen to me for a minute. She hasn’t wanted to tell you, but she’s been getting threatening notes for a few weeks now, and they’ve all been from someone trying to get her to breakup with you. She thought they were just bad jokes, but it just got really serious, and you need to know. She’s really scared right now, and the last thing she needs is for you to be upset with her.”
“Thanks,” he said softly. “I wish she had told me, but….” He took a deep breath. “Is her locker pretty bad?”
She nodded. “I only had a brief glimpse inside, but well, it wasn’t pleasant. Go to her. She needs you right now.”
He nodded, then swiftly turned and headed towards the hall where the sophomore lockers were located. He soon found his girlfriend leaning against her locker, trying desperately not to cry. He took her hand, and after checking to make sure no teachers were watching, he kissed her forehead. “What happened?”
Without a word, she straightened up and opened her locker so he could see inside. A bouquet of dead roses was arranged in a black vase, with a framed picture of the two of them taken at his junior prom the previous spring propped against it. The glass in the frame had been broken, and while Bobby’s image was untouched, Bethany’s had been ripped from the photograph and was scattered in pieces around the bottom of the vase. A small piece of paper had been tucked in the corner of the frame and bore the typed words, “Think he’ll miss you when you’re out of the picture? You have a choice. Either dump him now or rest in pieces….”
His eyes widened and he pulled her to him. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head. “Not really.”
“Ahem.” Mr. Stratton walked up behind them, startling them apart. He took a look in the open locker and blanched. “Oh my.”
“This is what I found when I came to put my books in my locker,” Bethany told him. “I panicked and sent Jessa to find you and Bobby.”
He nodded and turned to Bobby. “Should either of you be in class right now or are you bothon your lunch break?”
“Lunch for both of us,” he said. A surge of protectiveness and anger washed over him. “What are we going to do about this?”
Mr. Stratton looked in the locker again, than shut it. He took a two-way radio off of his belt and called for one of the assistant principals to join them, then turned to the two disturbed teenagers. “While I’m sincerely hoping this is merely a prank that someone took way too far, we’re going to treat this as a genuine threat. Do you have any idea who did this?”
“No,” Bethany said. She looked apologetically at Bobby. “I’ve been getting notes for a few weeks now, but I didn’t take them seriously. It would make sense if it’s the same person, but I have no idea who it is.”
“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. Mr. Hendrix is going to come stand guard over the locker until I can get the police here, then I want to talk to both of you in my office. We have some decisions to make, but in the meantime, I don’t want either of you going anywhere alone.”
“Could you call Captain Molinson directly?” Bobby asked. While he occasionally used his brother-in-law’s first name to address him directly, he still felt more comfortable using the formal title when talking to other people, especially other adults. “I have his cell phone number if you need it.”
The principal nodded. “I can do that.”
The assistant principal joined them moments later, and after explaining the situation to him, Mr. Stratton shepherded the two teenagers to his office. He pulled two chairs close to his desk and motioned for them to sit down, then sat down in his own chair and dialed the phone.
Bobby felt Bethany squeeze his hand, and he held tightly to it as she reached for a tissue from the box on the principal’s desk and wiped her eyes. Mr. Stratton soon replaced the phone on his desk and turned to them. “Bethany, I realize you’re upset, and it’s certainly understandable. Do you feel up to answering questions now, or would it be easier to wait for Captain Molinson so you only have to answer them once?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.
Bobby turned to her, a glimmer of hurt showing through his fear. “What is this about notes? Why didn’t you tell me?”
She took a deep breath, then spoke in a small voice. “I found the first one in my locker when we came back from winter break. Since then, it’s been about one a week. I ripped them up and threw them away after I read them. They were just a couple of sentences telling me you can do better, and that I should break up with you. One or two said that you need a real girl, not a computer geek like me. It was the end of your season, Bobby, and it’s your last year here before you graduate. You needed to focus on the championships.”
“You know those things aren’t true, right?” he asked. “You are a real girl, and I’m glad we’re together.”
“Me, too,” she finally managed a small smile. She turned to Mr. Stratton. “That’s why I didn’t report them to you, either. They haven’t seemed threatening, and I really have no idea who is sending them.”
“Has anything else out of the ordinary happened?” he asked. “Any strange calls or emails?”
“No. For a while, I did try to see if I could notice anyone watching me when I found the notes, but that was pointless. Everyone goes to their lockers at about the same time every day.”
The door opened, and he felt her clutch his hand even more tightly. He smiled reassuringly at her. While Wendell Molinson was his brother-in-law, and had been a family friend long before he had ever started dating Bobby’s sister, he knew that Bethany had only met him a few times and was still somewhat nervous around him. Dell nodded at the two teens, then took out his notebook and leaned against a filing cabinet. “So, what’s going on?”
“Bethany’s been threatened,” Bobby blurted out. He flushed, realizing he wasn’t at home, but was at school in his principal’s office, and that he should have waited on the school administrator to reply.
Mr. Stratton smiled at him understandingly, then nodded. “It certainly appears that way. She found a rather unpleasant surprise when she went to her locker a few minutes ago. I have someone guarding the locker to keep it secure until you’re able to see it.”
“Good thinking,” he said. “Bobby, were you with her when she found it?”
“No,” Bobby shook his head. “I wish I had been, though. Jessa came to find me in the cafeteria to let me know.”
“Did anyone else see it?”
“Jessa may have,” Bethany said. “Other than that, no one. Well, other than whoever put it there.”
“I realize this was very unpleasant for you,” the policeman said gently. “Do you feel up to coming with me to check it out?”
While he knew that she really didn’t, she nodded. “Is it okay if Bobby comes with us?”
After a quick glance at Mr. Stratton, he agreed. “That’s fine.”
She stood to her feet and grabbed her backpack and purse. “Will we be coming back here? If so, may I leave my backpack?”
“Absolutely,” Mr. Stratton agreed. “You may both put them in the corner there. While we have some decisions to make, I don’t think either of you will be going back to class today.”
Bobby’s stomach grumbled as he stood, and he was relieved to see her giggle as the unexpected sound distracted her from her troubles. Mr. Stratton added, “However, I will make sure you get lunch soon.”
A few minutes later, Bethany once again opened her locker as the others looked on. “One thing I don’t understand,” Bobby spoke up. “How did whoever it was open your locker in the first place?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? The first week of school, Miss Vanderkellen taped a copy of our locker combinations to that shelf-thing that pulls out of her desk so that it would be easy to find when someone asked for theirs. Just wait for her to leave the room, and anyone could check it.”
“What?” Mr. Stratton exclaimed. “Those lists are supposed to be under lock and key in the office!”
“I suggest having the custodians reset all of the combinations as soon as they can,” Dell advised. “At the very least, Bethany needs a new locker before she returns to class, preferably in a different hallway. Get her away from the rest of her class for a while. Change the combination on it, and make sure no one has it except you, Bethany, and the custodian. I’m going to remove the evidence from this one, but I want it check periodically for new tampering until this is solved.”
“Of course,” he agreed. “Will it be okay for her to remove her personal effects?”
“All I have in there is a mirror and a couple of library books I forgot to take home with me,” she said. “I had homework in all my classes last night, so all of my textbooks are in my backpack. I’d just stopped by to put the ones from my morning classes in it.”
Dell took the two library books from the locker and flipped through them. Finding nothing other than her butterfly-shaped bookmark, he handed them to her. “These should be okay to take. Do you need the mirror right now?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“We’ll leave that for now, then. We don’t want it to be obvious that you’re no longer using it. I need to get some things from my squad car for the evidence, but then I’ll meet you back in the office. Don, go ahead and call their parents if you haven’t already. See if they can get to the school pretty quick.”
“Even mine?” Bobby asked in surprise.
“Yes,” Dell said. “I know you haven’t been directly threatened yet, but I’m emphasizing the yet. I could easily see this escalating to the ‘if I can’t have him, no one can’ stage, and I’d rather be prepared.”
Bobby nodded. “I can, too, so thank you.” His eyebrows furrowed as he saw the stricken expression on his girlfriend’s face.
“Bobby, wait a minute. If it comes to that, maybe you would be better off without me.”
“No!” he shook his head adamantly. “No way. This isn’t the first time I’ve potentially been in danger, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Even if it was, though, you’re worth it.” He sighed. He didn’t want to say it, but he also didn’t want to put her at risk. “I’ll understand though if you want to cut your losses. You would definitely be safer without me. As you know, my family has attracted way too many psychos over the years to ever guarantee safety.”
She smiled shyly. “You’re worth it, too.”
He returned her smile, and surreptitiously gave her hand a squeeze as they followed the two men back to the principal’s office.
Thirty minutes later, they found themselves sandwiched in between their mothers in the middle of what appeared to be a clamoring horde in the small office. While Bethany’s dad was still en route from his office in the City, her mother had arrived, as had both of his parents. Including Dell and Mr. Stratton, there were a total of seven people in the office designed to hold, at most, four people, and despite enjoying the proximity to Bethany, he was beginning to think he knew how a sardine felt.
“So what’s the plan?” Mrs. Halvorson asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable having Bethie in school until this is solved.”
“I don’t either,” Mrs. Belden said. “Given the circumstances, could they get their assignments and complete them at home?”
Mr. Stratton nodded. “Unless this goes on for some time, I don’t see why not. I’ll talk to the superintendent and see if we can do a homebound program if it goes on for more than a week, but I’m hopeful it can be resolved before then.”
“Me, too,” Bethany sighed.
Dell added, “Also, I’d advise making sure that you do not go anywhere alone. There’s safety in numbers, so make sure a parent or other adult is close by at all times.”
“Definitely,” Mrs. Halvorson agreed. She turned to the teenagers. “Consider that an order, not a suggestion. Helen and I are both home during the day, and tomorrow’s Saturday, so both of your fathers will be home as well.”
Bobby’s face fell as he thought about the plans he had made with Bethany for the evening. Dinner and a movie wouldn’t exactly be ruined with a chaperon, but definitely much less romantic with their parents around.
Dell caught the expression Bobby tried to hide and chuckled. “I know this is Valentine’s Day, so I’m assuming you had plans to go out tonight?”
He nodded. “I’d planned to take her to dinner at the Dutch Oven and then a movie at the Cameo.”
“I’m not sure how wise a movie would be,” Dell told him soberly. “Even with someone with you, there are too many chances for someone to slip up behind you while you’re watching the film. I know it’s not the same, but Trixie and I hadn’t decided yet where to go tonight, so if you don’t mind dinner with an eight-year old, the five of us could go together. We can always go back to our house to watch something afterwards.”
Bobby shared a glance with Bethany, who nodded. Despite knowing him for most of his life, Mr. and Mrs. Halvorson hadn’t allowed them to go on a solo date until shortly before prom, so the previous Valentine’s day, their first one as a couple, had been dinner with her parents at the country club. Dinner with his sister and brother-in-law, even with his niece in tow, seemed somewhat more adult than tagging along with either of their parents. He then looked at Mrs. Halvorson. “Would that be okay with you?”
She hesitated until Bethany spoke up. “Please, Mom? We can’t be any safer anywhere than we’d be with Captain Molinson and his wife. You know she’s a PI herself, so it will be like having two bodyguards with us.”
Mrs. Halvorson looked at her daughter’s pleading expression and sighed. “Against my better judgement, it’s okay for dinner. But humor an old woman, please, and come home right after dinner. You can watch a movie at home, just as well as you can anywhere else.”
He realized it would be the best compromise he was going to get, so he nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”
“I’ll call Trixie to give her a head’s up,” Dell said. “Then we can work out timing later. For now, though, let me know at once if anything unusual happens, no matter how minor it may seem.”
After what seemed an eternity of waiting for their assignments and answering more questions, Bobby was relieved to finally get to his room at Crabapple Farm so he could have some time alone to think. His initial hurt that Bethany had chosen not to confide in him receded as he realized she had truly meant well, but his anger at the unknown persecutor and his bewilderment that they had been targeted only grew. Realizing he needed to organize his thoughts, he took a notebook from his backpack and turned to an empty page. He began to write everything he knew about the notes and the horror left in Bethany’s locker. However, before he could finish, he heard a knock on his door and called out, “Come in!”
The door opened, and Trixie sighed as she entered his room. “Bobby, you’re under guard right now because someone is threatening you, and you don’t even ask who it is?”
He rolled his eyes at her. “Seriously? If someone managed to get past both Moms and Dad, who never went back to work today, I might add, the last thing they’re going to do is knock before coming in my room.”
“Point taken,” she chuckled. She patted his shoulder. “How are you doing?”
“Angry and confused,” he admitted. “Angry that someone actually threatened Bethany. Confused as to why. I mean, I get that someone wants to break us up, but why? I’d understand if it was reversed and someone wanted to date her, but I don’t see why someone wants me. Either they’re trying to hurt me by hurting her, or they want me for themselves, but it’s not like anyone else would be interested.”
Trixie snorted. “Point one – you’re a popular senior jock. Point two – while I totally didn’t get it because he’s my brother, I remember quite a few girls who thought Mart was handsome back in high school. If it hadn’t been for Di, he could have had his pick of girls, and you look just like him. Point three – you’re sweet, considerate, and caring. Who wouldn’t want to date you? At least, who, not related to you, wouldn’t want to date you? Sounds like you’re a good catch to me.”
He flushed. “Oh come on, Trix. You’re my sister. You’re supposed to say those things. But seriously, who? No one else has shown any interest in me.”
“Are you sure?” she asked gently. “Think back. Has anyone complained to you about your relationship with Bethany or criticized her to you? Has anyone hinted that they think you could do better?”
“Not really,” he said. “I get a few comments from girls in my class about robbing the cradle, but wait a minute. No, I take that back. Most of that has come from Lori Carlson. I actually said something to her before English this morning, but then I apologized. She’s been critical of just about anyone dating anyone else since she got dumped right before Christmas.”
“Okay, turn to a new page in your notebook. Write down ‘suspects’ and list her name under it. At this point, anyone, no matter how unlikely, will be considered a suspect.”
“That makes sense,” he said, doing as she asked. “However, Lori didn’t really have opportunity anyway. Only sophomores have lockers on that hallway and whoever did it has to have her locker combination. An upperclassman would have been noticed opening her locker. Trust me on that one.”
Trixie nodded. “So it’s likely either a sophomore, or someone who has an accomplice who is a sophomore.”
He sighed. “I didn’t even think about the possibility that more than one person may be involved. While I don’t think she did it, that does put Lori right back in the running. Subterfuge like this doesn’t seem like it’s her style, though. ”
“We’ll leave her on the list anyway,” Trixie said. “Even if she’s an unlikely candidate. However, we’ve just started. Who else has shown interest in you?”
“No one,” he said. “I’ll have to ask Bethany if anyone has criticized our relationship to her. I’m curious about the picture, too. I didn’t get to look at it very closely, but I did see that it was one of our prom pictures from last year.”
“A candid snapshot or one of the posed formal ones?”
“One of the formal ones taken at the prom itself, and I’m pretty sure it was one of the 5x7s.” A thought hit him, and he frowned. “Trix, it’s weird. You know we bought four 8x10s. One for each of us and one for each set of parents. You, Brian, Mart, and Gordon got all of the 5x7s. I know we gave out several of the wallet sized ones to friends, and I suppose someone could have had one blown up, but that’s not easy to do with a professional photo unless you go through the original company. I had friends who tried to get copies of their own pictures made last spring and it seemed like no one locally would do it.”
She nodded. “It’s a copyright thing. The studio owns the copyright, and if someone else makes prints, they can be sued. That’s why we always took loads of our own snapshots before prom, too. But that’s good thinking, Bobby, and it’s definitely worth looking into. Was there enough of it left that the police could reassemble it? If so, they could compare it to one of the originals. I know Dell and I still have ours on the mantle. It’s possible someone scanned one and enlarged it using a computer and photo printer, but I don’t know how good the quality would be.”
“That’s probably what happened,” Bobby sighed. “I didn’t get that good of a look at it. And honestly, I can’t think of any students that have access access to any of the originals? Mallory and Valerie have probably seen Mart and Di’s, but it’s ludicrous to even think they might be involved.”
Trixie bit her bottom lip, then said, “Bobby, one thing I’ve learned is that you have to suspect everyone. Honey and I had a case not too long ago in which our client tried to kill her own sister. She had us investigating her brother-in-law in order to cover her own tracks. We can’t rule out Mallory or Valerie just because they’re Lynches.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want to say this, but on that subject, is it possible that Bethany herself put those things in her locker? Maybe as a way of getting attention or even to try to end your relationship?”
“No!” Bobby exclaimed, taking a deep breath. “Trixie, I know you don’t know her as well as I do, but she would never do a thing like that. I know a lot of girls would do anything for attention or to cause drama, but not Bethany. And before you ask, no, I didn’t do it, either. I would never hurt her like that.”
She smiled gently. “I know, Bobby. I honestly didn’t think either of you were involved, but after that case and the whole thing with Erica’s teacher I kind of lost a lot of faith in people.”
He heard the sadness in her voice and looked up at her, his brief anger gone. “I still believe that most people are good, Trix. You and Honey do see the bad side of people, but think of how many people you help in the process. It seems to me that not only did you save Erica and her classmates, but from what I read in the Sun, you not only helped save Alyssa Poole’s life, but kept her husband from being framed for either murder or attempted murder. That was a good day’s work if you ask me.”
“I needed that reminder,” she sighed, wrapping him in a hug. “Thanks, Bobby.”
“Anytime,” he assured her. He was silent for a moment, but then said, “And you are good at what you do. If this had to happen, I’m glad you’re on my side.”
After Trixie left, Bobby called Bethany to let her know what time they would pick her up and after chatting for a few minutes as he made sure she was okay, he hung up the phone and once again reviewed the notes he had made. Realizing he was at an impasse, he tried to focus on the schoolwork he had brought home, but it was a losing battle. Neither calculus nor AP Biology seemed that important when someone was after his girlfriend. He finally gave up and went to the kitchen for a snack.
After a crabapple special and a brief conversation with his dad, he returned upstairs and actually managed to work on his homework until the telephone rang shortly after school ended for the day. Noticing the time, his nerves returned in full force when his mother called him to the phone. It was only after he heard Larry’s voice that he was able to once again relax.
“Hey, Jessa told me what happened with Bethany’s locker. Are you okay, man? Neither of you were in class this afternoon.”
“Not allowed to be,” Bobby sighed. “Not sure if Jessa saw exactly what it said, but basically someone threatened to kill Bethany if she doesn’t break up with me. Captain Molinson and Mr. Stratton seem to think we could both be in danger, so we’re both out of school until it’s resolved.”
“That’s sick, man. And too bad. What about your plans tonight? I know how much you were looking forward to your date.”
“Still on, at least kind of,” Bobby said. “We’ll still get dinner together like we planned, but Captain Molinson and Trixie will be going with us. Not quite what I had planned, but still better than doubling with her parents again this year. We’ll probably watch a video at Bethany’s house afterwards. Everyone said no to a movie at the Cameo.”
“At least you still get to spend the evening together,” Larry pointed out. “Do they have any leads as to who did it?”
“Not that I know of,” he admitted. “Trixie’s getting involved, too, and I’m trying to figure it out based on what little I know. It’s not as easy as Trixie always made it seem.”
“You’re just as smart as she is,” Larry told him. “She may have had more practice, and of course, she majored in criminal justice, but I’m convinced you have what it takes if that is what you decide to do with your life.”
“Still thinking, but yeah, we’ll see. This is really my first up-close taste of it in years, and man, it’s hard when you’re the target.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Larry admitted. “Seriously, though, be careful going to dinner tonight. Sure you don’t want to just stay in somewhere?”
He hesitated only briefly. “It’s tempting, but no. What if we never figure out who is behind it? We can’t spend the rest of our lives in hiding.”
“True, but be careful. There really are some sick people out there.”
“We’ll be careful,” Bobby promised. He glanced at the clock and realized he needed to start getting ready for his date. “If I don’t get ready, though, I’ll have more problems than this to worry about. You have fun with Jessa tonight, and I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The Dutch Oven was packed when the group arrived that evening, and Bobby wished he had thought to call ahead for reservations. However, the hostess immediately recognized Trixie and bumped them to the top of the waiting list. They were headed to a table within minutes, and Bethany whispered to Bobby, “It’s nice having connections.”
He grinned. “Now I know how she must have felt when she went anywhere with Honey’s parents.”
“Good point,” she giggled and squeezed his hand. After a day of fear and worry, both of them reveled in the feel of a moment of normality.
Once they were seated, Bobby scanned the restaurant for potential threats and flushed when he caught Trixie’s gaze until he realized that both she and Dell were doing the same thing. His sister and brother-in-law seemed to relax, and he let out a deep breath. He also had noticed nothing unusual, except for the lack of students from Sleepyside High that were there. He recognized a small group of juniors seated at a round table in the corner, but the only other students he knew were Terry and Valerie Lynch.
“That’s really strange,” Bethany said softly. “Who goes out to eat alone with their brother on Valentine’s day?”
“Someone desperate for a date?” Bobby replied just as quietly. He felt the back of his neck prickle. Given the current dynamics among the two sets of Lynch twins, it was common for them to go their various ways, but the last he had heard, Terry was dating a girl from Croton High. Unless she had stood him up at the last minute, it made no sense for him to be dining with one of his sisters instead. He thought back to the photograph, which was still bothering him, and added, “Let’s forget about it for now, but can we talk about it when we get back to your house?”
“Of course,” she smiled and nodded. She turned to the rest of the table. “This is my first time here, so what do you recommend?”
Dell chuckled. “Trixie’s addicted to their worstenbroodjes. I’ll probably have a steak.”
“They have really yummy chicken nuggets, too,” Erica added. “That’s what I almost always get when we come here.”
Bobby handed a menu to his girlfriend and explained, “They have both Dutch food and regular dishes like you’d find practically anywhere. I’ve only been here once before, but I suspect it’s all good.”
“What are you having?” she asked.
He glanced at his own menu. Having visited both Brom Vanderheidenbeck and Mrs. Vanderpoel quite often throughout his life, he considered himself somewhat well-versed in traditional Dutch cooking, and he had often ranked it among his favorites along with his mother’s more typically American cooking. Given the events of the day, he wanted comfort food, and when he saw the stamppot on the menu, he knew his mind was made up. He pointed it out to her. “It’s a kind of mash made with potatoes and other vegetables, and comes with a type of smoked sausage.”
“Didn’t Mrs. Vanderpoel make it for us once?” Bethany asked. “Not the last time we were visiting Brom, but maybe the first time you took me over there?”
“Probably. I know she’s made it for me several times.” He grinned. “You know, I really should ask her for some of her recipes before I head to college next year.”
“I’m sure she’ll give them to you,” Trixie assured him. “Have you decided where you’re going?”
“Not quite,” he admitted. “I think I’ve narrowed it down to either NYU or Hudson. If I go to NYU, I can probably still wrestle, but Hudson has advantages, too, even though they don’t have a wrestling team. I mean, it’s not like I have any real future in the sport. I’m okay, but we all know I’m not Olympic-caliber, and so-called professional wrestling is a joke.”
“Go to Hudson,” Erica said seriously. “Then you can get a degree like Mommy’s and work with her at the agency.”
“How did you know I’m thinking about criminal justice?” Bobby asked her in surprise. Aside from Larry and Bethany, he hadn’t really confided his thoughts about it to anyone.
“I didn’t,” she giggled, happy at the revelation. “You’re both so much alike, though, and I know she and Aunt Honey will need help in a few years. They’re going to be the biggest and best detective agency in New York.”
“They already are the best,” Bobby told her firmly. He ignored Trixie’s flush and added, “What makes you think they’d want me, though?”
“‘Cause you’re really smart and strong,” Erica told him. “You’d be almost as good at is as they are.”
It was Bobby’s turn to flush, and he wondered what Trixie was thinking. He knew she had to be surprised he was even considering becoming a detective, and he remembered very well how insufferable he had been to her when she had still been living at home.
“She’s right, Bobby,” Trixie said. “If it’s really what you want to do, you would be great at it, and as far as the agency is concerned, it’s certainly possible there will be room for you when you get a degree. Granted, you have to impress Honey, too.” She grinned conspiratorially. “That should be easy, though. She kind of has a soft spot for you.”
The waitress appeared to take their order, and the conversation drifted to other topics, but Bobby felt some of his tension over his uncertainty about his future fade, and he resolved that he and Bethany would take Erica for the biggest ice cream sundae he could find once the current crisis was resolved.
As Dell drove them back to Bethany’s house after dinner, Trixie asked, “Bobby? Didn’t Di tell me Terry was dating someone? Why was he there with his sister, but not his girlfriend or the rest of the family?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’m curious about that, too. Last I heard, he was dating a girl from Croton, but according to Larry, Mr. and Mrs. Lynch aren’t exactly thrilled. He said they think she’s a bad influence on him.”
“And Mallory’s kind of seeing a junior,” Bethany added. “She told me in homeroom this morning that they were going somewhere in White Plains tonight.”
“Valerie’s not seeing anyone?”
She shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“What happened to them, Bobby?” Trixie asked softly. He knew by the tone of her voice that she meant more than their unexpected appearance at the restaurant. “I know Larry and Terry kind of grew apart when Larry started wrestling, but have all of them drifted apart?”
He nodded. “Yeah. It’s happened kind of gradually, but they’re not like you, Brian, and Mart were, and they don’t have a club like the Bob-Whites to keep them together. They all have different interests, and it’s rare that they socialize with each other very much. Now that Valerie’s cut her hair short and curled it, the girls don’t even look that much alike anymore.”
“It seems strange to me,” Bethany said. “I always thought twins were closer to each other than anyone else, but I suppose not. I think Mallory would like to be closer to Valerie, but she’s way too down to earth for that.”
“What do you mean?” Trixie inquired.
“Mallory gets along with almost everyone,” she explained. “If you didn’t know who she was, you’d never realize that she’s one of the heirs to the Lynch fortune. Valerie, though, makes sure everyone knows it. She’s constantly name-dropping and even concocted a story about spending a weekend in the City with Paris Hilton.”
Bobby snorted. “I know they’re wealthy, but they’re not quite up there with the Hiltons. Besides, I know the Wheelers are still part of the socialite scene, but the Lynches are still considered nouveaux riche. Larry’s told me more than once how grateful he is not to have to go to some swanky prep school or spend summers at Martha’s Vineyard.”
“That’s how Mallory feels, too,” Bethany said. “Valerie, though, seems to think that anything she wants should be hers.”
“Anything?” Dell asked sharply.
Bethany nodded. “At least, that’s what I hear. I’ve always been beneath her notice, so I can’t really say first hand.”
“But no one gets everything they want,” Erica said. “Even I know that.”
“Some people think they should, though,” Bobby told her. “It doesn’t make it right.”
They turned into the Halvorson’s brightly lit driveway, and Mrs. Halvorson met them outside. “Thank goodness you’re all okay. I was worried.”
“Mom, I told you we’d be fine,” Bethany said, getting out of the car and giving her a quick hug. “Thank you again for letting me go.”
“I still don’t know how you talked me into it,” she sighed. “But you had fun?”
“We did.” She smiled at Bobby, then turned back to her mother. “We still get to watch a movie, right?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Halvorson said. “As long as you’re at home, I won’t be quite as worried. Captain, would you and your family like to come in for a while? Gordon brought cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery in the City.”
“Gordon’s home?” Bethany asked. “I thought he had a date tonight.”
“You’re more important,” Gordon said, pulling on his coat as he came down the steps. “There’s no way I wasn’t coming after Mom called me to tell me what was happening.”
She walked up to lightly punch his shoulder, then gave him a hug. “I’m fine, big brother, but I’m glad you’re here.”
“No place I’d rather be tonight,” he told her.
“Has it been pretty quiet, or has anything happened?” Dell quietly asked Mrs. Halvorson through the open car window.
She shook her head. “Nothing unusual. No phone calls, and I haven’t noticed anyone lurking outside. I’ve kept lights on both here and out back just in case.”
“We’ll get out of your hair then, but thanks for the invitation. However, call me immediately if anything does happen, no matter how minor it may seem.”
“Of course. Can someone at the station reach you?”
He took a business card from his wallet and handed it to her. “Yes, but it will be quicker to call my cell phone. Bobby, do you want to call your dad when you’re ready to go home or would you feel safer riding with me?”
Bobby sighed. “Honestly? I’d probably be safer with you.” He held out his hands like a scale. “Well-known policeman on one hand, certain to be carrying. Mild-mannered bank official on the other, scary only to his own children. Which would you choose?”
Erica giggled. “Grandpa Peter’s not scary!”
“He is if you don’t make curfew,” Bobby chuckled. “But yeah, that’s my point.”
Dell laughed. “I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot pole. Not after dating, and marrying, his daughter.”
Trixie snickered. “You know full well my brothers were much harder on you than my dad ever was.”
“Like I said, I’m not going there! Okay, Bobby, give me a call when you’re ready, and I’ll come give you a ride.”
Bobby nodded. “Thanks, Dell. I do appreciate this.”
“You’re welcome,” Dell said softly.
Within minutes, Bobby found himself in the Halvorson’s den, staring at their rather extensive video collection. Princess, Bethany’s white standard poodle, sat at his feet, and he idly rubbed her head as he stared at the shelves. The bulk of them were filled with dvds, however, there were quite a few VCR tapes, and the age of some of the ones on the bottom shelf made him wonder if they were some of the Betamax tapes Mart claimed Gordon collected. He was more interested in spending the rest of the evening with his girlfriend than in the specifics of which movie they watched, and he turned to her for her input. “Do you have any suggestions or ideas?”
Bethany blushed. “Actually, yeah. We don’t have to, but despite everything going on, it is Valentine’s day, so I was kind of hoping we could watch The Princess Bridetonight. Have you ever seen it?”
“No,” he told her, glad she actually had a suggestion. He had learned early in their relationship that she preferred to leave most decisions to him. “And of course we can. I was hoping you would pick something out.”
“It’s really romantic, and it’s not as long as most of my other movies,” she said, with a laugh. “I somehow doubt we’d have time for Gone with the Wind or The Fellowship of the Ring tonight. This one’s only a little over an hour and a half. Do you want popcorn or a cupcake or anything before we start it?”
Having just finished a rather substantial dinner, he really wasn’t that hungry, so he shook his head. “Could I just get something to drink for now? I’ll probably be ready for one of those cupcakes after the movie, though.”
“Sounds good. I’ll grab a couple of Cokes and be right back.”
He took a seat on the couch. Princess jumped up beside him and rested her head in his lap, much as Reddy had done before deciding he preferred living at Mart and Di’s. He smiled as Gordon came in a moment later and sat down in the nearby recliner. “So, Bethany tells me you’re going to watch The Princess Bride. I didn’t know you were that masochistic.”
Bobby grimanced. “Never seen it. Is it that bad?”
“She doesn’t think so,” Gordon laughed. “It’s one of those movies you either love or hate, and I’m not one of those who love it. I’ll be curious to see what you think after you’ve seen it.”
“It can’t be that bad,” he said. “We watched Gone with the Wind together last summer. Now that was an ordeal.”
“But you did it anyway,” Gordon commented, any levity gone from his voice. “You’d do almost anything for her, wouldn’t you?”
He nodded. “Absolutely. She’s very special to me.”
“Yes, she is special. Are you, though? Are you worth this risk to her?”
“No,” Bobby said bluntly. “Yet, she thinks I am, and I want to do my best to be the boyfriend she deserves.”
“Eventually husband, too,” Gordon sighed resignedly. “I can see the handwriting’s already on the wall.”
Bobby gulped. He knew they were too young to seriously think about marriage, but deep down, he couldn’t imagine marrying anyone else. “When we’re old enough, then yes, someday, far in the future, I hope so.”
“What is it with you Belden men?” Gordon asked. “You all find ‘the one’ early and hang on to her. Both Mart and Brian were absolutely sickening over their girls back in high school, and I couldn’t believe it when Mart married Di so soon after she graduated. You’re just as hung up on my sister as they were back then.”
“We know what we want,” Bobby grinned, relaxing again. “When you strike gold, why would you keep looking for pyrite?”
“And Bethany’s your gold?”
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
Bethany came in with the soft drinks and displaced Princess from Bobby’s side. “Why do I get the feeling you were talking about me?”
“Because we were,” her brother chuckled. “I have to make sure he’s worthy of you, you know.”
“Trust me, he is,” she told him seriously. She grinned wickedly. “Want to watch the movie with us?”
He stood to his feet. “Not on your life, and if Bobby knows what’s good for him, he’ll run as fast as he can, too. Want me to let Princess out for you?”
“Yes, please, if you don’t mind,” she said. “Thanks, Gordon.”
“No problem,” he assured her. “Anything to get me out of watching that travesty with you.”
She swatted at him as he walked by laughing, and soon she and Bobby were settled in to watch the movie.
Forty-five minutes later, Bobby caught himself almost wishing that Westley and Buttercup would succumb to the rodents of unusual size just so the movie could end as he realized he shared Gordon’s opinion of the movie. However, he wasn’t about to complain as Bethany cuddled into his side and scooted even closer as the large rats appeared on the screen. Suddenly, Princess started barking, and they both jumped.
“That’s her ‘someone’s here’ bark,” Bethany said worriedly. “Captain Molinson wouldn’t be back for you this soon, and we’re not expecting anyone else.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” Bobby affirmed. “Stay here. I’ll get Gordon or your parents and go check it out.”
“I’ll come with you,” she replied. “I’m not staying here if you could be in danger, too.”
They found Princess barking at the kitchen door, and as he glanced out the window, Bobby saw a shadowy figure creeping down the stairs. Without stopping to think, he hissed, “Hold her. I’m going after them.”
Her eyes widened, but he didn’t give her time to respond before he opened the door. Her lunge for Princess’s collar was in vain, and the large dog quickly raced outside, passing him before he was even entirely out the door. He ran down the stairs after them, barely even hearing Bethany’s scream.
The intruder reached the bottom of the steps and started running down the walk towards the back gate, but she suddenly slid and found herself staring up at the snarling poodle. “No! Call off your dog! Don’t let her hurt me!”
Bobby’s heart sank as he heard the familiar voice and his growing suspicions were confirmed. “Why should I? You threatened Bethany!”
“Please, Bobby!” Valerie Lynch cried. “I didn’t mean it!”
Gordon came outside with a heavy frying pan he had grabbed from the kitchen and Bobby’s letterman jacket. “Dad’s calling Captain Molinson.” He rolled his eyes at the girl sobbing on the ground, so frightened that she never even noticed that he had taken hold of Princess’s collar or that the poodle was licking his hand. “Is this the idiot threatening my sister?”
“I think so,” Bobby said. It was a cold night, and as he gratefully put his jacket on, he turned and saw a small package wrapped in brown paper on the mat. “So, I’m assuming you were leaving another ‘gift’?”
“It was only a joke,” she sniffled. “I only meant to scare her! Please get that beast away from me!”
“It’s not fun being scared, is it?” Gordon asked. “What assurance do we have you won’t run if we call her off?”
“It won’t do her any good, anyway,” Bobby said. “Gordon, I don’t know if you remember, but this is Valerie Lynch. One of Di’s kid sisters.”
“Oh, just great,” Gordon sighed in disgust. He sat down on the top step with Princess beside him. He looked at the girl still sitting on the ground. “Your sister is one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. You might look like her, but you sure don’t act much like her, do you?”
“Hmph,” Valerie huffed. She seemed to realize it was safe and tried to stand to her feet. She winced and fell back again. She once again began sobbing. “I think I broke my ankle!”
The two young men looked at each other and groaned in unison. “Mom was a nurse before I was born,” Gordon said. “I’ll go get her and have Dad call Captain Molinson to ask him to bring an ambulance. Keep a watch and make sure she’s not faking it just to get away.”
Bobby nodded, then sat down on the steps. “Why, Valerie? Why the terror campaign?”
“It was just a joke,” she insisted, holding her ankle. “Anyway, you can’t prove anything, and no one will ever believe you when I say I was just here to visit.”
“Give it up, Valerie. Need I remind you you’re in a fenced-in back yard? The only way in is through a gate that’s usually locked. How’d you get in, anyway?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m a Lynch, and it’s my word against yours. Once Daddy finds out that vicious dog attacked me, he’ll sue, and I’ll own everything they have.”
Bobby felt sick to his stomach as he listened to her. While he knew it would never happen as she seemed to believe, it was hard to fathom that anyone could have that attitude. “Seriously? First of all, it’s not just my word against yours. I’ve already reported my suspicions about the photograph to Trixie and Dell. You stole that from Mart and Di, didn’t you?”
He shook his head. “You do realize that Dell dusted Bethany’s locker for fingerprints, don’t you?”
Valerie’s face was already pale due to the pain in her ankle, but she turned even whiter. “Daddy will never let them take my fingerprints,” she said. Her tears started again as Mrs. Halvorson came out of the house with a first aid kit. “It hurts.”
Bobby smiled as the furious expression on Bethany’s mother’s face softened when she saw Valerie’s tears, and he knew that her medical training had taken over. He left her to deal with Valerie, and after quietly telling her where he was going, he went back inside. He found Bethany sitting quietly at the kitchen table with Gordon and their dad. While his strongest urge was to wrap her in his arms, he knew that neither Mr. Halvorson nor Gordon would appreciate it, so he pulled up a chair and sat down beside her, contenting himself with grabbing her hand.
“How are you holding up?” he asked softly.
She shrugged. “Numb. Looking back, I should have suspected it, but I didn’t. So I’m upset with myself for not seeing it, and I’m angry at her for putting us through this.”
“I didn’t expect this either,” he admitted. “But you can’t be upset at yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Mr. Halvorson sighed. “Although if you ever get any more notes like you’ve been getting, tell someone. Me. Bobby. Mr. Stratton. Captain Molinson. Heck, even tell Paul Trent if you want. I don’t care who you tell. Just be sure to tell someone who can help.”
The reference to Sleepyside’s most notorious reporter caused her to giggle. “Yeah, imagine the headline if he ever got hold of this story!”
“He won’t,” Bobby told her. “Unless you press charges and a judge agrees to try her as an adult, she’s still a minor, so her name won’t be publicized.”
“I hope I don’t have to make that decision,” she sighed. “Dad can charge her with trespassing if he wants, and I’m sure Mr. Stratton can throw the book at her at school. I don’t want to have to face her ever again.”
“You may have to,” Mr. Halvorson said gently. “Sleepyside is a small town. Even if she’s suspended for a while, she’ll most likely be back in school with you at some point. Even if she’s not, if you keep dating Bobby, she’s related to his sister-in-law. And isn’t Jessa dating her brother?”
Bethany nodded miserably. “I know I can’t avoid her from now on. I just don’t want to have to talk to her any time soon.”
The doorbell rang, causing them all to jump. Gordon went to answer it, and soon returned with Dell, Spider Webster, and two paramedics whom he quickly led outside. While in addition to his winter coat, Dell was still wearing the sweater and khakis he had worn for their dinner earlier, Spider was in full uniform and obviously on duty. A few minutes passed, and Dell returned to report that Spider would be accompanying Valerie to the emergency room where they would be met by her parents.
He asked a few questions and had Bethany and Bobby relate the events of the evening. After getting his notes down in the notebook he always carried with him, Dell glared at his young brother-in-law as he put his notebook away. “Robert Johnson Belden. WHAT were you thinking racing outside? You had no idea who was out there at that point, and even then, she could have been armed!”
Bobby flushed. “I didn’t think about that. I just didn’t want them to get away.”
“You could have been killed!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, as he realized the truth of Dell’s statement. “I was trying to help…”
Gordon laughed unexpectedly, and they all turned to him. “I’m sorry, but oh, does this take me back. How many times did you go through this with Trixie when she was his age?”
Dell’s face changed from anger to laughter as well. “Too many to count. And Bobby, don’t think I’m discouraging you from pursuing a career as a detective. I think tonight proves you have Trixie’s instincts, and we both know how good she is. It’s just that you need to learn how to go about it the right way.”
“Thanks.” Bobby felt himself redden again. “So what happens now?”
“Well, I’ve taken your statements, and I need to get to the hospital to meet with the Lynches. With the suspect in custody, do you still want me to drive you home or should I call Trixie to come get you? It may be a while before I’m able to get back here.”
“No need,” Gordon interjected. “I’ll give him a ride when he’s ready.” He looked the police captain in the eye. “I suspect you don’t hear this that often, but thanks for all of your help with this.”
“All in a day’s work,” he said, his eyes crinkling in a smile.
Bobby felt a lump in his throat, and he shook his head. “No, it wasn’t. You went well above and beyond today, especially tonight when you took us to dinner with you. I do really appreciate it.”
Dell clapped Bobby on the shoulder. “Anytime, Bobby. Anytime.”
Two weeks later
It was a Saturday night, and four teenagers sat around on open pizza box on the coffee table in the living room at Crabapple Farm. While Bobby and Bethany had double dated with Larry and Jessa quite a few times since Larry had finally asked Jessa out, it had not been easy for Bobby to convince him that neither he nor Bethany blamed him for his sister’s actions. The topic had been uppermost in their minds during the afternoon they had spent ice skating at the indoor rink in Croton, but through an unspoken consensus, it hadn’t been mentioned.
Now, though, over the pizza they had picked up in Sleepyside on their way back to the farm, Larry looked at Bethany and sighed. “I’m really sorry, Bethany. I had no idea Valerie was behind all of what happened.”
Bethany put down her can of Dr. Pepper and glared at him. “Larry Lynch. I know for a fact that Bobby has told you several times we don’t blame you. This wasn’t your fault!”
“I know, but still, I should have known.”
She shook her head. “Look. I don’t know everything Gordon does, and Bobby doesn’t know everything his siblings do. You’re different people.Mallory didn’t even know, and they’re identical twins!”
“One thing I’m still curious about,” Bobby said. “Did she ever say why?”
“Do you remember when we were little?” Larry asked. “You were over at the house quite a bit, and she talked us into playing house with her and Mallory. She always insisted that she was the mom and you were the dad.”
“Kinda,” he said. “I do remember she was pushy, even way back then.”
Larry grinned, but there was sadness in his smile. “Yeah, she was. She also learned early on that she tended to get whatever she wanted, and she decided that she wanted the two of you to be like Di and Mart. High school sweethearts, then married while you go to work for our dad.”
“Was I to get any say so in this plan of hers?” Bobby asked, rolling his eyes. “Life doesn’t work that way.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Larry agreed. “She was hurt when you starting dating Bethany, but she was too proud to let you know directly. So she decided she would just wait it out, then catch you on the rebound.”
“But when we didn’t break up, she tried to nudge it along?” Bethany asked rhetorically. “What happens to her now, though? I know my parents agreed not to press charges after your parents agreed not to let her come back to school this year. Did she transfer?”
“Even better,” Larry laughed. “With her broken ankle, she can’t get around too well, so they hired a retired governess who’s homeschooling her for the rest of this year. It seems she used to work for the Wheelers years and years ago, and Mrs. Wheeler recommended her to my parents as someone who could get Valerie straightened back out. I’m sure glad she’s not my governess, though! Miss Lefferts makes Harrison look like a party animal!”
Jessa giggled. “That’s really saying something!”
“Miss Lefferts?” Bobby repeated, chuckling. “I don’t know that even Valerie deserves that – I’ve heard Honey’s horror stories about her.”
“She’s a termagant all right,” Larry replied. “My parents are looking into private schools for next fall. Mallory wants to stay where she is, so it looks like we will all be going our separate ways when school starts again.”
“One thing I’m still curious about,” Jessa said. “What was in the package she was trying to leave?”
“It was an old-fashioned alarm clock,” Bethany said softly. “Like the ones you can buy at Crimpers that wind up on the back. Captain Molinson showed it to us when my dad asked about it. She’d set the alarm for midnight and added a note that said my time was running out.”
Jessa shuddered, and Bobby knew they had had enough of the conversation. He picked up his dirty plate and stood up. “So, who’s up for dessert? Moms made an apple pie this afternoon.”
“I’ll help,” Bethany volunteered. She gathered up the rest of the plates and followed Bobby into the kitchen.
He smiled his thanks as he took four dessert plates from the cabinet over the sink. “You know you didn’t have to.”
“I know,” she said, her green eyes sparkling as she looked up at him. “I just wanted a minute alone with you.”
“Me, too,” he admitted. “I’m so glad you’re okay, and that we’re okay. I don’t tell you often enough how much I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she told him, wrapping her arms around him.
He tilted her face up to his, closing his eyes as their lips met in a gentle kiss.