Dalton Rev thundered into the parking lot of Salt River High, a squat brick building at the top of a grassless hill that looked more like the last stop of the hopeless than a springboard to the college of your choice. His black scooter wove through groups of students waiting for the first bell, muffler growling like a defective chain saw. In Dalton’s line of work it was vital to make a good first impression, especially if by good you meant utterly intimidating.
He parked away from a pool of mud, chained his helmet to the tire, and unzipped his leather jacket. Underneath was a crisp white dress shirt with a black tie. His work uniform. It tended to keep people guessing. And guessing was good. A few extra seconds could mean the difference between being stomped to jelly or not, some steroid case busy wondering, What kind of loser wears a tie with steel-toe boots?
He was, after all, a professional.
Who’d come to do a job.
That involved a body.
Wrapped in duct tape and hanging from the goalposts at the end of the football field.
THE PRIVATE DICK HANDBOOK, RULE #1
People have problems. You can solve them for cash.
Dalton needed to figure out why The Body was at the morgue instead of snoring its way through algebra. Then he’d get paid. But until a big wad of folding green was tucked safely into his boot, he was Salt River’s newest transfer fish.
“Nice tie, asshat!” someone yelled. Kids began to crowd around, hoping for a scene, but Dalton ignored them, turning toward a chrome sandwich truck in the corner of the parking lot. His cropped hair gleamed under the sun, dark eyes hooded with a practiced expression. Long hours of practice. In the mirror. Going for a look that said justifiably ruthless.
Or at least ruthless-ish.
THE PRIVATE DICK HANDBOOK, RULE #2
Be enigmatic. Be mysterious. Never explain.
The sandwich truck’s awning sagged. The driver sagged with it. There were rows of chocolate donuts that looked like they’d been soaked in Ebola. There was a pile of cut-rate candy with names like Butterfingerer and Snuckers and Baby Ralph. A big sign on the counter said NO CREDIT—DON’T EVEN ASK!
“Hey,” Dalton asked. “Can I get an apple on credit?”
The driver laughed like it was his first time ever. “WhatcanIgetcha?”
“That’ll be twenty even.”
Dalton considered not paying—ten minutes on the job and already over his expense budget. But people were watching. He grabbed the cup, flash-searing his palm, and took a sip. It tasted like coffee-colored ass. People laughed as he spat it out in a long, brown sneeze.
“It’s a seller’s market,” the driver admitted. “No one eats in the cafeteria no more.”
“Caf’s Chitty Chitty,” answered a kid who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, hair poking from his scalp as if it were trying to escape. He cocked his thumb like a pistol and fired off a few imaginary rounds. “As in Bang Bang?”
The kid selected a donut. “Or, you know, maybe the food just sucks.”
Dalton needed to check out the crime scene. First stop, football field. The kid followed, plump and sweaty, huffing to catch up. He held out his knuckles for a bump. “My name’s Mole.”
Dalton didn’t bump back.
Mole sniffed his fist and then shrugged. “So, you affiliated, new guy?”
“Ha! That’d be a first. You must be with someone, yo. No one transfers to Salt River alone.”
Dalton pushed through dumped girlfriends and dice nerds, hoodie boys and scruffy rockers twirling Paper Mate drumsticks. People mostly made way, except for an expensively dressed girl who towered over her speed-texting posse.
“Lu Lu Footer. Your basic Armani giraffe. Also, she’s head of Yearbook.”
“That a clique?”
“They’re all, Hi, my book bag’s shaped like Hello Kitty! They’re all, Hi, I crap pink and green polka dots!”
Lu Lu Footer glared. Mole ducked as they passed a circle of large girls in black. “Plaths,” he explained. “Total down-in-the-mouthers.” He pointed to a girl in hot pants. “But check her out. Used to be a Plath and now she’s flashing those Nutrisystem legs like no one remembers last semester.”
Dalton rounded the edge of the building and stood under the goalposts. They were yellow and metal. Tubular in construction. Regulation height. There were scratch marks in the paint that could have come from a coiled rope. Or they could have just been scratches. Dalton wanted to consult the paperback in his back pocket, The Istanbul Tryst and the Infant Wrist. It was a Lexington Cole mystery, #22, the one where Lex solves a murder at a boarding school in the Alps. But he wasn’t about to yank it out with people around.
“You ready to bounce?” Mole asked nervously. “We’re not really allowed to stand here, yo.”
Dalton wondered what he was looking for. A map? A videotaped confession? Lexington Cole would already have intuited something about the grass, like how it was a nonnative strain, or that its crush pattern indicated a wearer of size six pumps.
“Yeah, see, this whole area, it’s sort of off-limits.”
Music blared as football players emerged from the locker room. They slapped hands and joked loudly and ran into one another with helmets clacking. Except for the ones not wearing helmets, who banged skulls anyway. Some of them weren’t wearing shirts at all, just shoulder pads. Their cleats smacked the pavement in crisp formation.
“I take it that’s the welcome committee?”
Mole dropped to one knee, retying his shoes even though they had no laces. “Don’t look directly at them!”
“Who are they?” Dalton asked, looking directly at them.
“The Balls. Between them and Pinker Casket, they pretty much run the show.”
“Football. Your Salt River Mighty Log Splitters? Their random violence level is proportional to the number of points surrendered the previous game. And, guy? We got stomped last week.”
“Your vocabulary has mysteriously improved. What happened to the ‘yo, yo, yo’ routine?”
“Comes and goes,” Mole admitted.
Dalton turned as the Balls busted into a jerky line of calisthenics. “Who’re you with again?”
“The brain contingent?”
Mole gestured toward the picnic tables, where kids sat reading biology texts and grammar worksheets. The girls wore glasses and sensible skirts; the boys, sweater-vests and slacks. “You can’t swing a Siamese around here without smacking a nerd in the teeth, but, yeah, they’re my people.”
“Thanks for not saying my peeps.”
“Looks like your peep could use some help.”
One of the players, built like a neckless bar of soap, yelled “Chuff to Chugg… touchdown!” as he pushed a Euclidian into the mud. The kid struggled to get away, slipped, and then knocked over a shiny black scooter. Other cliques were already jogging over to see the action.
Dalton looked at his watch. “Well, that didn’t take long. Nineteen minutes.”
Mole grabbed Dalton’s arm. “Seriously, guy? You want to leave those Balls alone.”
It was true. Dalton wanted to go home and lie in bed and pull the sheets up to his chin. He wanted to eat pretzels and sweep crumbs with his toes. But then he thought about Lex Cole. And the fearless pair of stones Lex Cole toted around in his impeccably ironed slacks. He also thought about last night, counting up the money he’d managed to save so far. Twice. And how both times it wasn’t nearly enough to save his brother.
Dalton pushed through the crowd, working his way past assorted pleather windbreakers and nymphets in yellow cowl. The football players turned as one, like it was written in the script: Test the New Guy II, starring Dalton Rev. He stood before a glistening wall of beef, a collective four dollars’ worth of crew cuts. The shirtless ones showed off their abs and punched each other’s shoulder pads like extras from a version of Mad Max where no one shaved yet.
Dalton waved. “Hi.”
Just like the Spanish Inquisition, no one ever expected friendliness. The players stared, chewing mouthpieces in unison, as a girl emerged from the crowd and began helping the Euclidian up. She had a blond pixie cut, a tiny waist, and a tinier skirt.
“Leave him alone, Chance!” she told the player doing the pushing. “Please?”
Dalton liked her voice, low and calm. And her eyes, almost purple. Sharp and intense. She stood with her hips forward, like a chorus girl who’d come to the city with a suitcase full of spunk, ready to do whatever it took to save Daddy’s farm. It was one very cute package. Actually, in both Dalton’s professional and decidedly unprofessional opinion, she was beautiful.
THE PRIVATE DICK HANDBOOK, RULE #3
Doing free things for beautiful girls is never the smart play. In fact, it’s always a colossal mistake. Avoid doing free things. Avoid beautiful girls. Continue to charge maximum fees and take cold showers.
“This is none of your business, Macy,” the largest Ball said, getting up from a lawn chair. Dalton had thought he was already standing; the guy looked like a giant walking Krispy Kreme, one big twist of muscle. His head was shaved. A simian hairline hovered just above his eyes, radiating a hunger for raw veal. He was clearly the one person, out of Salt River’s entire student body, to be avoided at all costs.
Dalton walked over and helped Macy help the Euclidian up.
The kid spat mud, then ran toward the school doors, trying not to cry. Macy mouthed a silent thanks and followed him on adorably sensible heels.
“You’re standing on my field,” the Krispy Kreme growled.
Dalton turned. “That make you the groundskeeper?”
The crowd drew a collective breath. A few of the more brazen laughed aloud. The Krispy Kreme flexed, dipping to show the name sewn across the back of his jersey: JEFF CHUFF, QB.
“You got a problem, new fish?”
“Your Ball is mistreating my ride.”
The Crowdarounds turned, looking at Dalton’s scooter lying in the mud.
THE PRIVATE DICK HANDBOOK, RULE #4
Never let anyone mess with your ride. Conversely, feel free to mess with theirs, especially if there’s a chance they’ll be chasing you on it later.
Chuff laughed. “So? Have your mommy buy another one.”
Dalton lifted his crisp white button-up. Underneath was a T-shirt that said THE CLASH IS THE ONLY BAND THAT MATTERS. When he lifted that as well, everyone could see the worn grip of his silver-plated automatic. The hilt was wrapped with rubber bands to keep it from slipping down his pants, a little trick he’d learned from chapter 6 of The Cairo Score. Just like the scooter, the gun was shiny and mean-looking.
“You’re strapped?” Chuff wheezed, stepping back. “That’s bloshite. Ever since The Body, we got an agreement.”
“Like one of those abstinence ring things?”
“A pact. All the cliques. Us and Foxxes and Yearbook. Even Pinker Casket. No guns.”
“Huh,” Dalton said, fingering his gun. “Or what?”
Chuff’s eyes scanned the rooftop. “When Lee Harvies find out you got a pistol on campus, they’ll let you know or what. You’re lucky, only your leg’ll get ventilated.”
“It’s true,” Mole said, appearing out of nowhere. “Lee Harvies aim to keep the peace.”
Dalton shook his head. “Let me get this straight. You got a clique that keeps other cliques from carrying guns by shooting at them?”
“Used to be cops in the lot four days a week,” Chuff explained. “Hassle this, hassle that, badges and cuffs. Calls to parents. We all realized it was bad for business.”
“So you have an agreement,” Dalton said. “What I have is a scooter in the mud.”
“And it needs to not be there anymore.”
Birds tweeted. Bees buzzed. Grass grew.
“People lose teeth talking like that.”
“People get shot talking about other people’s teeth.”
Chuff looked around. The rest of the Balls shrugged. Dalton flicked the safety.
“I got a full clip. You factor in a miss rate of twenty percent and I am still about to seriously reduce your available starters for next practice.”
Chuff rubbed his oven-roaster neck, then grudgingly lifted the scooter with one hand, setting it upright.
THE PRIVATE DICK HANDBOOK, RULE #5
The thing about tough guys is they tend to be as tough as you let them be.
“Now wipe it off.”
Chuff didn’t move. His jaw worked like he was gnawing shale.
“It’s a bluff!” Chance Chugg yelled.
Dalton whipped out the automatic. The Crowdarounds panicked, pushing backward as a big-haired girl stood on the fringes with a cigarette in her mouth fumbling for a light. He stuck the gun in her face and pulled the trigger. A wail went up, followed by a raft of curses and screams.
But there was no bang.
Instead, a small butane flame licked out of the end of the barrel. Dalton held it steady, lighting the girl’s cigarette. The crowd roared with relief and giddy laughter.
“It’s a toy?” Chuff yelled, already running forward.
Dalton began a mental inventory of the Lex Cole library. At this point, the bad guy usually made a series of threats, gave a face-saving speech, and then walked away. Except Chuff wasn’t walking away. He was picking up speed.
Pang pang pang!
Shots spattered through the dirt. Chuff veered wildly left, crashing into bags of equipment. From the roof came the reflection of a scope blinking in the hazy morning light.
“LEE HARVIES!” someone yelled, and there was chaos, more shots picking up the dirt in pairs, friends and enemies scattering. Plaths formed a black beret phalanx. Sis Boom Bahs circled like tight-sweatered chickens. The Balls dragged a groggy Chuff into the locker room as everyone shielded their heads, ducking into the relative safety of the school.
Dalton didn’t run. He knelt among the churning legs and slid his finger over a bullet hole in the grass. There was a streak of sticky red. It could have been blood. It smelled a whole lot like vinegar. He stood and scanned the rooftop, catching a glimpse of a bright white face. It wasn’t a face, it was a hockey mask. A Jason mask. The mask looked down at him, just a plastic mouth and nose, black eyes surrounded by silver anarchy symbols.
It was totally, utterly, piss-leg scary.
The rifle rose again. This time Dalton covered his head and ran inside like everyone else. Even in One Bullet, One Kill Lexington Cole hadn’t thought it smart to go mano a mano with a sniper.
Excerpted from You Killed Wesley Payne by Beaudoin, Sean Copyright © 2011 by Beaudoin, Sean. Excerpted by permission.
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