There are certain expectations of the vice-president of the sophomore class at the Junipero Serra Mission Academy. I have responsibilities and obligations, and am considered somewhat of a liaison between the student body and the teachers. I do other liaising, too, but that's not important yet.
Anyway, this whole vice-presidency thing means that I spend a fair bit of my spare time working alongside faculty members, and sometimes I even have to do stuff outside the school grounds with them, like that time I had to drop by Mr Walden's apartment to pick up the treasury log. Let me tell you, when you go over someone's place, ring first. Otherwise they might answer the door only wearing board shorts, because this is California and the people here have this innate, freakish compulsion to wear as little clothing as possible. And Mr Walden's hairy, naked chest was something I did not need to see. Not to mention, he wasn't even embarrassed! While I didn't know where to look, he was all, "Hey Susannah, let me get the book for you," casual as you like. The next few homerooms were very uncomfortable for me. Mr Walden, on the other hand, was completely unaffected.
I'm beginning to think that I'm never going to get used to this place.
But, as I was saying, sometimes I have normal reasons for doing out-of-school stuff with my teachers. And sometimes my reasons are anything but normal.
It's a long story - I can see ghosts. Okay, that was a short story, but it's a lot more complicated than that. All you need to know is that I've met a grand total of two people in the entire world who can see and touch those crazies from the spirit world. I'm one of them, obviously. And the other is my principal, Father Dom. He's convinced that our `gift' should be used to help the dearly departed who can't seem to move on, and so the spare time that isn't spent doing VP stuff and homework and ignoring my own weirdness is completely taken up by Father Dom enlisting my services to help those who linger move on to the next world. And while he doesn't entirely approve of my hands-on method of dealing with ghosts, he can't deny it doesn't work. In fact, I think he secretly likes it. Priests don't really have much opportunity for fun, you know? And I'm the first to admit that I'm a whole barrel of fun.
And while hanging out with your principal isn't really the epitome of cool, someone has to be the bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead. It might as well be me.
Which is how I found myself sharing a booth with Father Dom at this dinky little diner a few streets away from the school. It was done up like they were expecting Elvis to stroll in at any moment - everywhere I looked, it was screaming fifties tribute! There was a flip-book jukebox in one corner, neon lights beaming out random, cheery patterns while Buddy Holly or maybe Chuck Berry crooned something about twisting. The booths and counters were topped with dull red formica and the chairs and stools were covered with what I considered to be ill-chosen white vinyl. White? Where people's asses were meant to go? Seriously, if living in New York taught me anything, it was that black was the best option for clothing and interior decorating. Minimising cleaning had to be good for everyone. Especially the waitresses, right?
And whoa, speaking of the waitresses? I'm pretty sure my jaw actually dropped when I saw what they were wearing. Poodle skirts. With actual poodles on them. Like, not real dogs, that would have just been bizarre, but seriously, embroidered poodles that - I had to squint to make sure - were winking. And wearing crowns. Which kind of made sense, in a crazy way, since the diner was called The King's.
So far, we had not been treated like royalty. In fact, when we came in and sat down, Father Dom handing me a laminated menu and considerately reminding me that he was paying and that I could go all out, one of the waitresses had just stared at us. And she wasn't giving Father Dom the old hairy eyeball, which I've noticed a lot of women of later years tend to do. She was giving him one of the dirtiest looks I have ever seen in my sixteen years of existence, complete with a curled lip! It took me a moment to realise she thought we'd come here together. Like, on a date.
Which is completely and utterly unfair since there were three people in our party. It's just that the waitress couldn't see the third person. Or the white priest band thingy. I always thought that was kind of obvious, but maybe I was wrong. My mom always says that I have high expectations of other people, and that I tend to dismiss them when they don't meet those preconceived ideals. I think that a nice way of saying I'm a bitter cynic, but I'm not sure.
Not that I don't think Father Dom isn't a catch, or anything. He's got these twinkling blue eyes and a really nice smile and I would totally date him if he was, you know, forty years younger and not a priest.
Oh, and there's the passionate, unrequited love I have for another older man. Who is gorgeous and smart and really good looking and really considerate and did I mention he's totally hot? And I'm certain we'd make a fantastic couple, if I wasn't a freak of nature and he wasn't a ghost.
I shook off my emo Jesse thoughts, trying to ignore the cause of them, sitting innocently across from me, and gave Father Dom my complete attention. Well, ninety percent of my attention. The other ten percent was scoping out the menu. It was a tough choice - a cheeseburger or chilli fries? "Yeah?"
"Have you felt anything...out of the ordinary, yet?"
The menu doubled as an advertisement for the diner - apparently they had trivia nights and live music performances on particular days of the week. I glanced up from a little speech bubble that urged me to dress up and play pool at Costume Cuesday (with Tuesday written underneath for those who missed the subtle humour of the letter switching) and found him looking at me expectantly. Out of the ordinary? Well, it was a valid question. We were here on business, after all.
It had all started earlier that day, when I was coming back with Adam and Cee Cee from lunch. Father Dom had come and collected me from my locker.
"I'm terrible sorry, Mr McTavish, Miss Webb, but I have to talk to Susannah about, er -" he paused for a moment and I just knew he was going to come up with something lame "- textbook collections."
Inwardly, I cringed. Father Dom has some great qualities, like almost-infinite patience and a tendency to believe the best in everyone, even they totally don't deserve it, but he's a terrible liar. Maybe it's the whole religion thing causing internal conflict between his mouth and his brain, but every time he comes and drags me off on mediating business, he makes the flimsiest excuses. And I probably wouldn't care except for the fact that Cee Cee has these big, flapping reporter's ears that can pick up an anomaly in someone's story a mile away.
"Textbook collections?" she repeated, giving him a shrewd look. She bit her bottom lip thoughtfully and a stray beam of sunlight slanted in through the beams of the breezeway and glinted off her braces. "I wouldn't have thought it was the responsibility of the class vice-president to take care of work like that, Father Dominic."
"Yeah, padre." Adam slung an arm around my shoulders and gestured grandly with his free hand. "Do you really think a girl like this is cut out for mundane chores like that?"
Father Dom blinked. "Are you volunteering to take her place, Mr McTavish?"
Adam's stepped away from me and hooked his arm through Cee Cee's. "Can you hear that? That calling - it sounds like..." he cupped a hand behind his ear. "It sounds like trig! Yes, we have to go to trig. See you later, Suze!"
"Thanks for the support!" I called after him, shaking my head as I followed Father Dom back to his office. He was walking pretty quickly and I soon found it quite a challenge to keep up in my new Stella slides, picked up for a song (read: half my savings) at an outlet mall. They were easily the nicest shoes I'd ever owned, but their promise of non-leather comfort was appearing somewhat empty, as they were pinching my heels and flattening my toes, making it hard to walk as fast as Father Dom. Not to mention that I felt like a bit of hypocrite. Seeing as my favourite item of clothing is my leather jacket. "Slow down, Father D, or you'll run someone over."
We reached his office and he ushered me in. I started to find Jesse lounging seductively in one of Father Dom's guest chairs - not that he meant to be seductive, it just came naturally to him. Before I could ask why the whole gang had been rounded up, Jesse fixed me with a serious look, his dark eyes capturing my own. And yes, I did just say that. "I'm afraid, Susannah, that it's too late for that."
Of course, Father Dom hadn't really run anyone over. I'm not sure if it has something to do with having a hundred and fifty years with no one to talk to, but Jesse has this flair for melodrama and he trots it out at the most inopportune times. Like now, causing me to almost have a heart attack. "What?!" I squeaked. I wish I could say I'd said something smoother, but I totally squeaked.
Father Dom frowned. "Really, Jesse. And you can relax, Susannah, I haven't done anything. But I'm afraid that someone did die earlier this week, and they have since visited me." He brought a hand to his mouth and coughed delicately, something that immediately put me on my guard. No one does that unless they have something they want to hide. "But I was unable to help this poor woman, and I...enlisted assistance."
Very suspicious. I jerked a thumb at Jesse. "So you brought the big guns in, I see."
Jesse gave me an innocent look. "I have many talents that you are not aware of, Susannah."
I stared at his lips and fought back a drool. I bet he did. "So? Did you sit around a campfire with this ghost and sing kum ba yah? I'm sure that would have helped."
Father Dom sat with a sigh. "I'm afraid it was more serious than that, Susannah. You see, the ghost was the victim of a hit and run. I assume, naturally, that she is unable to move on because her...the person who hit her..."
"The killer," I supplied helpfully.
Father Dom made a face. "I'm hesitant to use that word, as this was more than likely an accident. But yes, her... killer is still free, and she is probably stuck here until we can find out who ran her over. And while that was, of course, my initial intention..." he trailed off but before I could throw out a pithy comment to the tune of `so what's stopping you?' something popped behind me. I turned around and was completely unsurprised to find a stout, angry-looking Hispanic woman wearing a blue zip-up dress and sneakers with knee socks. My first thought was, understandably, ew sneakers and a dress! My second was that she kind of looked like a cleaning lady, you know how they have that uniform thing? And my third thought was that she completely seemed like someone you wouldn't want to mess with.
She stuck her hand into the air and waved a furious finger in our general direction. "¡Oye, ven acá!" she shouted at Jesse, who obediently rose and crossed the room. Then she let forth this great stream of Spanish that sounded like one really long word, punctuating things every so often with jabs of her finger. And then she scowled at Father Dom, bared her teeth at me, and disappeared.
"Well," I said. "I can see why we want to help her. That's the best thing about mediating - taking care of the truly deserving."
"Susannah," sighed Father Dom. My sarcasm is totally lost on him.
Jesse sat back down and Father Dom launched into an explanation of Angry Woman and the unfortunate circumstances of her death.
Apparently Angry Woman had a name - Aldonza Terreros - and that she was fifty-four when she died, three days ago. She'd been run over outside the diner where she worked as a cleaner (oh, I can totally pick them) and found by a delivery driver a few hours later when he'd turned up to drop off a carton of tomatoes. Father Dom knew this because he'd actually gone in and spoken to the delivery man, which I found to be very cool of him - he was like a policeman taking a statement. He - Father Dom, not the delivery guy - had been out on his morning walk when he'd been surprised by the crowd outside the diner, and a few seconds later he'd been further surprised by an angry ghost with jabbing fingers who could only speak Spanish. Which is where Jesse had come in.
Apparently even his vaunted talents had failed him. "I do not wholly understand what she is saying," he confessed. His eyebrows drew together in consternation and I stared at the tiny scar that cut through one of them, wondering why a mark like that only enhanced Jesse's overall attractiveness when it should by rights make him less gorgeous. One of life's mysteries, I guess. Right up there with the whole I-can-see-dead-people thing.
"Well, you sure have a better chance of figuring it out than we do." I didn't add the "since we don't speak Spanish", but it was implied.
"She is very confusing," he said with a graceful shrug. My shrugs always come off as kind of huffy, so that made me bitter. "She says she knows who killed her, but the person she names makes no sense; it is impossible."
I gaped. "She knows?"
Father Dom sat up straight in his chair. "Jesse? She told you?"
Jesse frowned and dragged a hand through his hair. "As I said, it is impossible."
If there's something I've learned in my years as a mediator, it's that nothing is impossible. Well, yeah, okay, some things are really impossible, like Debbie Mancuso looking good in leopard print. But paranormal stuff? I've seen my fair share of the weird. "Spill it," I demanded. "As much as I enjoy missing trig, I've been told that colleges generally only accept the students who attended class." I'm still not sure where I stand on the college thing, but I knew that Father Dom would be roused by the mention of education.
I was not disappointed.
"Yes, of course! As soon as Jesse shares with us what Aldonza told him, I'll write you a late slip and we can continue this discussion after school." He gave Jesse a mild look.
And it totally worked! If I'd wanted Jesse to tell me something, I'd have to threaten to do something stupid. That seemed to have the highest success rate of the tactics I employed. I'd use my feminine wiles, but they don't seem to do much. Maybe ghosts are immune.
Jesse shifted uncomfortably before repeating himself. "She told me the name of the killer."
See what I mean? Melodrama much?
"Déjà vu," I sighed, tapping my wrist. "Must be a glitch in the Matrix."
Father Dom and Jesse gave me identical confused looks. Sometimes it's hard being the only one with pop culture knowledge. It makes my references fall kind of flat. I tilted my head and smiled back. Always smile in an uncertain situation. It gives you the upper hand.
Eventually Jesse continued. "She said she was killed...by Elvis."
Trig, as you can expect, was a total bust. Like I could concentrate on sin and cos when we were dealing with a ghost who had been killed by someone who ought to be in bacon sandwich heaven by now. It just didn't make any sense, as Jesse had said, and before Father Dom had sent me back to class he'd decided we needed to go to the scene of the crime and check things out ourselves.
Which is how I'd wound up on the other side of a booth from Father Dom and Jesse, enduring the judgmental scrutiny of a poodle-skirted waitress while I weighed up the pros and cons of a cheeseburger versus a plate of chilli fries. I lived a dangerous life.
"Not yet," I replied, answering Father Dom's question. I didn't feel anything out of the ordinary. Yet.
I'd finally decided on the chilli fries when the waitress ambled over. She leaned against the tabletop and fished a notepad out of a pocket stitched into the poodle's crown. I admired the practicality of the embroidery.
"What'll it be?" I waited for her to snap gum or plonk down a kettle of coffee but she didn't buy any further into the stereotype.
Father Dom cleared his throat. "Er, I'll have a ham toasted sandwich, please."
She jotted that down on her pad and flicked me a carefully indifferent look that completely failed to disguise her interest in me and my relationship with Father Dom. I smiled up at her. "A cheeseburger, please. And hold the tomatoes."
She gave me a funny look. "Sure. Any drinks?"
I ordered a Coke and Father Dom asked for a pot of tea, which is such an old person's drink. Have you ever noticed that no one under forty orders a pot of tea? It must be like an initiation ritual into middle age. From this day forward, you shall only drink tea, or something. I shuddered. I'll never give up soda. Ever.
She wandered off to organize our food and I wondered if she could possibly go any slower. Probably not.
I noticed that Jesse was looking around him with faint surprise. "It's awful, isn't it?" I gave him a sympathetic look. "All this red and white, I feel like I'm in a Coke commercial. Which I would totally do for the money, but experiencing it in real life is kind of weird."
Father Dom frowned. "I find it very nostalgic, Susannah. The fifties were before my time, but truly it was a remarkable decade."
It was hard to imagine Father Dom as young, and not a priest, but maybe he'd grooved or twisted or whatever to Pat Boone or Perry Como. And Jesse, well. I don't know how much music he'd managed to get a hold of when he'd lived (so to speak) through the fifties in my future bedroom, but this place did seem to be a bit of a novelty for him. He eyed the jukebox with what I can only describe as longing. He never looked at me like that.
I pushed my hand across table at Father Dom, then flipped my palm up. He gave me a quizzical look. I jerked my head at Jesse. "Coin for the jukebox," I said. "I didn't bring any money."
"Oh," said Father Dom. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a couple of quarters. "How much do you need?"
I took one and slid out of the booth. "That should be it." The waitress gave me a suspicious look as I walked over to the jukebox, like I was going to vandalize it or something. I felt like saying, ease up, lady. I just want to put on a song so the handsome ghost I came here with has something to listen to.
The buttons were old and kind of sticky and I hoped that Jesse appreciated the sacrifices I was making by actually touching them with my bare hands. Aldonza definitely hadn't cleaned it recently. I gingerly dropped the quarter in and was deliberating between Rockin' Robin and Peggy Sue when a dingle sounded behind me. I glanced over my shoulder to see a tall man in grey coveralls back through the door, pulling a trolley of cartons through the narrow entrance. It took him a couple of goes to get through, but he finally prevailed, dragging the trolley over the black and white tiles toward the kitchen.
The waitress gave him a scowl and I was inordinately pleased to see that she treated everyone the same and it wasn't just me. "Frank," she said, thumping Father Dom's tea and my Coke onto a tray and pushing past him towards our table.
"Esme." He touched a hand to his cap and wrestled with the trolley - I wasn't sure what he was doing at first but after a few tugs I realised he was pushing the brakes down. Surely there was an easier way to do that. One of them wouldn't clip into place and he hissed at it, kicking at it until it clicked down over the trolley wheel. He felt my eyes on him and looked up at me; I met his gaze and smiled benignly, punching a random button on the jukebox. Great Balls of Fire started playing and I made my way back to the table, feeling his eyes on me the whole time. It was vaguely creepy.
Father Dom was already sipping his tea and Jesse was tapping his fingers on the table. My Coke was in one of those nifty oldschool glass bottles and it had frost on the outside. Suddenly my appreciation for the place doubled. At least they knew how to serve their soda.
"That's the man who found Aldonza's body," said Father Dom, indicating the delivery guy with his teacup. "Poor fellow, he was very shaken up."
The delivery guy - Frank, the waitress had called him - hefted up a carton and disappeared into the kitchen, elbowing the swing door open with more force than it needed. "He seems pretty feisty to me. And look, he's back at work already. It can't have been too traumatic."
"Not everyone is as capable as you, Susannah," said Father Dom disapprovingly. "I can assure you that when I spoke to him, he was in a cold sweat from the shock."
It seemed that Jesse's penchant for melodrama was rubbing off on Father Dom. I didn't see that as a good thing.
The waitress reappeared at our table and thumped our plates down. "Cheeseburger and toasted sandwich," she said curtly. "And I can take your menus now."
Father Dom handed his across but she'd plonked my plate on the top of mine, so I had to tug it out from under the ceramic. I pulled it free and handed it across, tapping the ads on the other side of the menu as I passed it over. "Costume Cuesday is such a great name! It's really got me pumped for the next one."
She scowled and tucked the menus under her arm. "Don't hold your breath. There won't be a next one."
Father Dom gave me a warning look. "And why is that?" he asked the waitress. He has this really pleasant voice that makes people want to confess to him. Maybe that's a church thing. Either way, he catches flies with honey, or whatever that proverb is.
Her face softened. "I recognise you now; you're the priest who was in here a few days ago. And of course we can't keep doing it, not after how the last one ended." Her mouth turned down. "With Aldonza's death."
She didn't seem too cut up about it, if you know what I mean, but having met Aldonza, I could kind of understand that. I nodded.
Suddenly Jesse leaned forward. "Costume!"
I raised both eyebrows at him. I've been practicing in front of my bathroom mirror, but I still can't manage to just raise one, so I have to settle for both. It doesn't have quite the same effect, but I think it accurately conveyed my confusion. "Hmm."
"Costume!" he repeated. I spent a moment wondering if being at a place away from the haunting ground his spirit was kind of tied to had somehow managed to affect his brain capacity. He noticed my lack of comprehension and gave me an earnest look. "Think, Susannah. Aldonza said she was killed by Elvis, but it was actually someone who looked like Elvis. It was a costume!"
"Of course," breathed Father Dom. He lowered his teacup onto his saucer and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why didn't I think of that earlier?" He frowned. "But who?"
The waitress, who was pretty much out of the loop with the epiphanies that were happening all around her, did the smart thing and backed away from the table. "Well, I'll just leave you to your meals, then."
I prodded my burger. "And this definitely doesn't have any tomatoes on it?"
She gave me a disgusted look. "Look honey, I don't know who you've been talking to, but we don't put tomatoes on cheeseburgers. Hell, we don't put tomatoes on anything. We don't even have any tomatoes to put your food, so calm down and just eat it."
I stood and thumped my hands down on the table, my burger forgotten. "Did you hear that?"
"No tomatoes," echoed Father Dom. "And yet, that's what Frank said he'd delivered..."
I turned to the waitress, who was still trying to sidle away. "Did Frank go in costume?"
She licked her lips. "Huh? To Costume Cuesday? Um...yes?"
"And?" Father Dom was also quite fervent now. It was awesome. "Who was he dressed as?"
"Um..." the waitress took a step back. "Frank always dresses up as Elvis. It's his signature outfit." She eyed the door where Frank had disappeared to nervously. "I'll be going now."
I didn't want to sit again - this was the best part! Frank did a bad thing, we'd found out, and now...actually, I wasn't sure. I turned to Father Dom. "So...what now?"
He suddenly looked tired. "That is the question, Susannah. There is no evidence that I'm aware of aside from Frank's inconsistent story, and that won't be much use with the police. We can't get a confession out of him..."
"Speak for yourself," I said, cracking my knuckles.
Jesse rolled his eyes and seemed about to say something when a pop announced the arrival of our dear friend Aldonza. She swept me and Father Dom with a dismissive glance, then started gibbering in Spanish at Jesse. I caught diabolos, but that's as much as I got. I'm no translator. It's as much as I can do to decipher the grunts my stepbrothers choose to converse in.
After a moment, Jesse turned to us with a grin. "Aldonza has an idea," he said. Beside him, the angry woman looked self-satisfied. She was less scary when she wasn't full of rage.
"Is it a magical, self-explaining idea?" I asked after a couple of moments. Always with the melodrama and the dramatic pauses. A girl can only take so much.
He kept grinning. "Remember what I told you about bedevilment?" Yeah, I remembered. A certain Mr Thaddeus Beaumont had gotten his just desserts by way of the very same thing.
Father Dom looked torn. "Oh Jesse, I don't know."
"Just until he confesses," Jesse promised. "Nothing cruel. We'll just remind him that he's forgotten to do something very important - to own up to a hit and run."
I liked it. Not that I'm ever one for peaceful resolutions of stuff, but at least this way a guy with anger issues and at least one skeleton in his closet would face the consequences of his own actions. And I believed Jesse when he said that it wouldn't be cruel. If it was just angry Aldonza, I wouldn't be so certain. But Jesse didn't lie. Or if he did, I didn't know about it. As far as I know they were pretty honourable when he was growing up, so he had morals instilled from a very young age. I couldn't really say the same about his cousin, but oh well.
"Come on, Father D. It's the justice of the spirit world. Let Aldonza have her trial - maybe then she can pass on."
Father Dom visibly wavered, and then his shoulders relaxed and he reached for his tea. "Do what you must," he said. "And it seems my sandwich is cold."
I sat back down and prodded at my cheeseburger. Yeah, it was only really lukewarm, but at least we'd sorted things out. That's what we did, us mediators.
Although, Jesse had probably done the most. I gave him a smile as one of the other customers got up and dropped a quarter in the jukebox, and a moment later the opening bars of Don't Be Cruel piped out through the diner. How apt.
"Enjoy your meal," said Jesse, as Aldonza started pointing angrily at the door Frank still hadn't emerged from. "I shall see you later, Susannah."
"Hey Jesse?" He paused. "Good job on the whole working out the clues thing. You really do have many talents."
"Why, Susannah." He turned and gave me a wink before lowering his voice. "Thank you very much."
I burst out laughing. It wasn't every day I got to solve a crime and hear Jesse's Elvis impression. I guess there are perks to this liaising thing after all.
Tucking into my cheeseburger, I let the music wash over me. Let's forget the past, sang Elvis. The future looks bright ahead.