“What’s the connection between a high school senior, a drunk pug, and Little Shop of Horrors?” Detective Peter Vays stared at a folded slip of yellow paper. He wanted to unfold it, but-
If he didn’t look at it, it wasn’t real. And neither he nor Thomas would be forced to face what the doctor told him a week ago.
“It’s called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Mr. Vays.”
“No. That’s not possible. I’m healthy. I feel fine. I’m –”
“It usually presents between the ages of 35 and 70. We’re not even sure what causes it.”
“Sorry. But there’s just not much we can do.”
Vays shoved the memory to the back of his mind and turned his attention to the reports scattered across the passenger’s seat of his unmarked Charger. Two months ago, Amanda Moore, a straight A student in love with her Pug Cinnamon, had pranced across the Woodsong High School football field in a teal sequined dress for homecoming.
Last night, she was strangled in that same sequined dress after playing Audrey in her high school’s version of Little Shop of Horrors. Two witnesses reported seeing a red head flee the scene. Josh Gonzalez, Amanda’s boyfriend, and Mr. Smith, her drama teacher.
The only other person in the building that late was Emily Watson, Amanda’s best friend. A redhead.
Vays got out of the car and trudged across the school parking lot searching for headlights. It was Saturday but Josh, Emily, and Mr. Smith were supposed to meet him.
They were late.
Behind the Woodsong High School stage there was only enough room for one mirror, two make-up stations, and a ratty stool. Vays crept around the white silhouette taped to the floor noting the simple rope and pulley system on one wall, the discarded backdrops stacked against the adjacent, the wig on one make-up station, and the green and white silicon masks on the other.
He picked up the green mask and flipped it over. Amazingly realistic. Audrey II had looked exactly like the plant in the movie.
“I didn’t know the door was unlocked. Appreciating my handiwork?” Mr. Smith extended his hand, “Alexander Smith. Drama teacher.”
“Detective Peter Vays.”
“Terrible what happened here. Can’t believe it.”
Vays had seen one too many tragedies to agree. Instead, he nodded and motioned toward the stool. The other two filed in shortly after.
“Thank you all for coming in early today,” Vays said. “We’re here because-”
Josh Gonzalez shot his hand up like he was in chemistry class about to lose his lunch.
“I’m going to talk to each of you.”
“I know who did it,” Josh said. “And I have proof.”
“This must be some type of science class r—” Vays gripped the lab table so hard blood drained from his hand. His legs had just gone weak.
“You alright?” Josh draped an arm over his shoulder,
“It’s more than nothing. Just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Look at Amanda.”
“What do you mean?”
“M and Amanda were more than best friends,” Josh said. “I was just around so her parents wouldn’t get suspicious.”
“Huh? Suspicious of — Oooooh.”
“So, they were a –”
“That’s why I couldn’t believe it when I found out what happened. When I saw her, of all people, leaving that night.”
Vays nodded his head, “Send Emily in here.”
“So, you and Amanda were an item?”
Emily bore a hole through the desk with her pupils.
“A witness saw you leaving the backstage area. Today, I find out you two were together. You’re the prime suspect, sweetheart. I would start talking.”
“We weren’t together anymore, mister.” A tear dropped to the surface of the desk. Then another. Then another. They formed a tiny pool the girl flicked with her pink fingernail. “I broke up with her. Last night.”
Vays moved closer. His leg strength had returned but his fingers were too weak to grip the table.
“She lied about who she was. About being the person I fell in love with. She was taking shots before the performance. Even giving some to Cinnamon. She thought it was funny.”
Vays flexed his fingers. Back to normal.
She looked up at him. “But lies have consequences. Can you love someone you hide things from?”
He winced. Thomas. He was only hiding it to protect him. Right?
“I couldn’t love someone like that. And she didn’t love me.”
If Emily was telling the truth why did Josh see her leaving from backstage? It didn’t make sense. “What happened after the breakup?”
“I ran out to my car. It was parked in front of the school.”
“Can anyone verify that?”
Emily tilted her head to the side, “Courtney maybe. She waved at me as she was driving away.”
The answer was here the whole time. Vays knew exactly who killed Amanda. “I’m guessing Josh left already?”
“Yeah. He said he couldn’t take being here.”
Of course he couldn’t. “Send the teacher in.”
Mr. Smith wore a smile on his face.
Vays’ expression was the opposite.
“This is such –”
“In the play Audrey had dark hair, right?”
“Yes,” Mr. Smith squinted as if he couldn’t see a distant road sign, “if you’re trying to figure out who killed Amanda I think you should know what color hair she had.”
“I already know who killed her. I just can’t understand why.”
“Who was it?”
“I should’ve known when I saw the mask. Those are the expensive silicon ones. Photo realistic. Too expensive for a high school production.”
Mr. Smith’s jaw moved underneath the skin.
“I can guess who that mask makes you look like. And then there was the wig.”
“I knew all her secrets,” Mr. Smith said.
Vays reached for his cuffs.
“And I still loved her. But she wouldn’t love me back. Even when I looked like Emily.”
“You have the right to remain silent…”
People carry secrets just beneath the surface. They’re only covered by a thin skin of normalcy. Vays tried to unfold the yellow slip of paper but his fingers spasmed and it fluttered to the floor.
Thomas had a right to know what was happening beneath his father’s skin. Tonight, he and his son would talk about the memories they would create together.
Before the ALS took Peter away.
Anthony Vann is father, educator, and writer. Most of his time is spent worrying his family to death about some new fact he’s learned while they roll their eyes in protest. He’s been previously published in 9Tales Told in the Dark #8.