Chapter 17: Compliments
The shower had been just what she needed. Her body temperature was down to normal, and the spare clothes she brought were at least clean and dry.
The outfit was five years old. The items were still too big for her—she had been overweight for a long time. Safety pins tightened the straps on her bra. She was glad to see that the cups were too large.
Her one horror at losing weight so fast was the fear that the fat would go, and leave her a walking prune, a sagging bag of skin.
Ordinary weight loss happened slowly enough so the skin could tighten up as it happened.
It has to be magic or an alien metamorphosis. A more normal wasting disease wouldn’t be working so well.
The faded blue slacks were too short, but they were well within school dress policy. The blouse was white, and for the first time in her memory, she didn’t mind that the sleeves were short. Her arms had slimmed down with the rest of her.
A black belt with new holes cinched up the excess fabric around the waist. A few careful folds and safety pins made it look almost normal. Hardly in style, but the clothes weren’t blatantly tacky enough to catch attention.
I have got to get new clothes, soon.
Deena stared at herself in the mirror. So much had changed. She hardly recognized herself. She ran the brush through her hair.
Light brown and straight, it hadn’t changed. She dug through her clothes bag and found a rubber band.
My face has tightened up. How long had she been using her hair to hide the plumpness of her face? She swept the hair back into a simple ponytail.
“You’re welcome, Deena.” She set aside the papers she had been working on.
“Deena? I’m happy to see you exercising. Is it anything more than jogging?”
“Oh, no—well maybe vitamins. I’ve started eating differently.”
“Well, whatever you are doing has certainly helped. Just don’t get suckered into these fancy diet pills, they don’t last long and so many of them have turned out to have had bad side effects. Every few years a great new miracle pill comes out, and then the FDA turns around and removes it from the market when people start dying.”
Deena nodded. “Nothing more than vitamins and a lot of sweat. I’m burning this stuff off—a couple of three mile runs a day.”
The coach nodded. “Exercise will do it. I hadn’t noticed.
“If you would like a social environment for all that exercise, I would be happy to have you on the track team. We still have a few tournaments left and you would be welcome.”
Deena held up her palm. “No. Sorry, but I’ve been avoiding team sports all my life. I like running, but I just don’t think sports are for me.”
“Well, keep running. It will make changes for the good all the rest of your life.
“And one suggestion?”
“You need better running shoes. Those will fall apart on you soon and are probably giving you no arch support. Take care of your feet so they can take care of you.”
Deena stashed her clothes bag in her locker and hurried to get to English class.
She turned. It was Bill Jeager. He looked at her with one eye half closed. “That’s you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Bill. How are you?” She kept from stuttering. What did he want?”
“You look good. You’ve been working out?”
The urge to turn and run crept up into her throat. She swallowed. “Just running. Like you.”
Where the impulse came from, she didn’t know, but before she could give it any thought, she gave a giggle, just like Bryony’s.
A change came over Bill, as if he had been zapped with a magic wand. He straightened, becoming even taller. His smile broadened. And even though she hadn’t believed it possible, his eyes twinkled.
She looked down the hall. “I’ve gotta run. See you.”
He nodded. “See you later.”
Practically stumbling as she made her way to class, her brain was churning.
What just happened there? Is that what Bryony sees, every time she giggles?
She made her way to her seat, just as the class started. Several male faces were watching her, and it wasn’t ridicule. Deena was certain. She knew what ridicule felt like.
Guys are noticing me. The urge to giggle again crept up, but she pushed it back down.
Another time. If she pushed it, if she made a false move, she could be right back to being the class joke in no time.
Her face was radiating. I’m blushing.
Class started, and she was grateful for her seat in the back of the class. Only three boys were watching her.
She had spent so many years wanting boys to notice her. Now they were.
And I’m in worn-out clothes that don’t even fit. No makeup. My hair is horrible.
I could just die.
Luther searched the hallways between classes.
I need to talk to her. Her comment about hiring a different aunt had bothered him all night long.
If Deena suspected his cover story was false, then he needed to make her understand how important it was to keep it a secret.
Is that why she brushed me off at the harbor? Maybe she’s avoiding me.
I’m only staying because of her. If she turns against me, I’m gone.
His car was packed. He could be down the highway in minutes.
It was hard to pay attention to class. High school seems so pointless when you already have one foot out the door.
Don’t think like that! He’d spent a year here to get that diploma. He was so close, too.
Where is that girl?
Deena saw Luther stalking down the corridor. She ducked into an open classroom door.
She nodded to Mr. Ansill. “Sorry. Wrong room.”
When she looked out, Luther had already passed by.
Deena followed, moving slowly.
Bryony waved and came over.
“Hey, is that a new look?”
She snarled, “Yes. Laundry disaster. It was all I had to wear.”
Bryony nodded. “Dropped a size? It happens to all of us.”
“Ha. Make that sizes. My exercises have started to pay off, and I’m up a creek. And that’s not the worst of it.”
Bryony looked interested. She reached up and tugged an errant strand of Deena’s hair. “Tell me.”
She felt the blush come back. “Ah. Boys. They’ve started looking at me.”
Bryony smiled. “Okay.”
“You don’t understand. Look at me. I’m a disaster.”
Bryony did as she was told. She took an honest look at Deena’s outfit. “New clothes would help.”
Deena shook her head. “Not going to happen. We don’t have the money.”
Reaching up and swiping a flowered hair fastener from her own head, Bryony pushed back a lock of Deena’s brown and attached the clip.
“That helps. Distraction from the clothes, you know.” She pulled out an eyeliner pencil and went to work. “Get some eye makeup. Pull the focus up to your face.
“And check out Murphy’s Thrift Shop on Anzio. You can get good stuff cheap there.”
Bryony’s work settled Deena’s nerves.
“Could you do another favor for me?”
Deena looked at the hall clock. It was time for physics class. “Run interference on Luther. He wants to talk to me...and I’m not ready to talk to him, yet.”
She looked puzzled. “Okay, sure. You two have a fight?”
“No, but we will, soon enough.”
Deena didn’t even know why she said that, but it was enough for Bryony.
They went on in. Bryony split immediately and sat next to Luther. Deena found a spot between the wall and Sheena Marsten. Sheena wouldn’t move aside for anyone. Deena was willing to listen to her latest gripes if it cut off Luther’s chance to move in.
He looked back at her, and she tried to keep her expression blank.
Oh yes, sure, let’s talk about my secrets. But what about yours? Open up to me and maybe I’ll have something to say to you.
The Drye House on the Los Angeles side of Malibu leaned out over the Topanga Canyon cliffside on enormous stilts. Other than the small parking space before the garage, there wasn’t a patch of level ground on the entire property. That hadn’t prevented Leo Drye from landscaping the whole area.
Thick hedges hid the sturdy ironwork fencing, and the security cameras. Partially overshadowed by the house, a serpentine garden followed a constantly trickling creek from the swimming pool past the pool house, down the slope to the servant’s quarters and the gardener’s tool shed.
A separate flagstone walkway connected the house to the security office behind the garage.
In all, there were a cook, a gardener, two maids, six security guards and Leo Drye. Leo was currently between hostesses.
In the Malibu area, it was hardly the most expensive property, but a number of movie stars and studio executives would have been happy to trade up to a place like this.
To Leo, it was Siberia, a place to wait out his current disgrace, comfortable though it was.
There was only one resident perfectly at home at the Drye House—the king of security, Ruben.
Ruben padded up the walkway to the security office and growled at the door. A security guard checked the peephole and let the dark black Rottweiler in. Leo looked up from the phone and nodded to his dog.
Ruben was the only resident, other than Leo, who had the free run of the place. Right now he wanted nothing more than to curl up on his rug before the wall of security monitors next to Leo’s chair and watch the activity.
Leo spoke into the phone. “Follow her back from the airport. Don’t spook her until we have more evidence.”
He set the phone down and reached into his desk drawer. He tossed a juicy chunk of beef jerky, specially made by his cook, over to Ruben.
While the dog chewed, Leo scanned his monitors and thought about getting back to Las Vegas. Back to his rightful position as Angelo Benedict’s trusted lieutenant. He could almost taste it.
Deena ducked out of the school building the instant the lunch bell rang. She didn’t want to be caught in the cafeteria.
And besides, I need to move my feet. Her toes had been tapping all during class.
She tuned into a dance beat station and headed down Small Avenue. Turning right on Inyo, she looked at the road ahead. I can get back to school if I loop around to the east.
By the time she returned, 2.9 miles later, she barely had time to splash her face in the sink and guzzle from the water fountain. But she felt great.
Luther stalked around the building after school let out, determined to find her. He was surprised to see her sitting on the steps, just like she used to do every day after school. She looked different. Something about her hair, or her clothes—he couldn’t tell.
“Deena! I’ve been looking for you. We need to talk.”
She looked at him with those enigmatic gray eyes. “About what, Luther? Your secrets or mine?”
He felt his heart sink. She suspected something. “I...I don’t have any secrets.”
She nodded to herself. “Then I need to borrow your cell phone.” She held out her hand.
Feeling it was a mistake, he gave it to her.
She dialed. “Mom? Yes, Coach Rathborne told me I needed new shoes. Can you meet me at Kellermen’s Department Store? ... No, I’ll get there myself.”
She handed back the phone.
He asked, “Do you want a ride over there?”
“No, you’re too slow.”
She was off at a lope, gaining speed as he watched.
Feeling she was right, he sighed and headed back to his Chevy.
Deena knows something, and she doesn’t want to talk to me about it. I have no choice.
He checked the gas gauge and drove over to the highway. Instead of heading south to his house, he turned north.
Portland first, then make some decisions there.
It was time to lose Luther Jennings.