Free Chapter Friday – Cheerleading is Killer, A Cheer Mom Mystery
“Mom, I can’t find my shoes,” my daughter Ashley said. She frantically dumped everything out of her backpack and suitcase onto the bed in our hotel room to locate the missing items.
“What do you mean?” I said, fully understanding her but mildly in shock.
“Just what I said, Mom. My shoes aren’t here,” she said, hands on her hips, surveying the mess she’d made.
I could see by the distraught look on her face that a meltdown was brewing. We had just arrived at our hotel, which was next to the Chicago convention center where she was competing this weekend with her cheer team, the Aces of Cherry City. They weren’t competing today, but she was getting dressed for practice, starting in thirty minutes.
“Mom, what am I going to do?” she said, on the verge of tears.
“Just think for a minute. Do you remember packing them?” I said calmly. Ashley was usually very good about remembering everything. She always had a checklist and marked it off as she packed. Something she had done from the time she was a little girl, which I had always found cute.
“I don’t know.”
“Think. Close your eyes and go through your packing process. I’m sure the shoes are here somewhere.” Though as I looked at the big mound of clothing now on top of her bed where the shoes should have been, I was a little worried.
I stayed silent while Ashley closed her eyes, presumably running through her routine. Suddenly, her eyelids popped open, and she grinned. Turning around, she walked to the bathroom and came out with her oversized makeup bag. She sat it on the bed and unzipped it, gleefully pulling out a pair of tennis shoes.
“Thank goodness,” she said.
Thank Mom, I thought, but didn’t say it.
“What are your shoes doing in your makeup bag?” Now it was my turn to plant my hands on my hips. At least I knew where she got that trait from.
“I washed them and when I packed my clothes they weren’t quite dry, so I didn’t want to put them in my suitcase.”
She was already dressed, except for the shoes, so she sat down to put them on and grimaced a little.
“Still damp?” I asked.
“A little. It’s kinda gross.”
I laughed. “You’ll just have to deal with it for practice and we can set them in front of the heater or take the blow dryer to them later so they’re not squishy tomorrow.”
Ashley jumped up and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks, Mom. Now, are you ready?”
“Almost. Let me just throw on some lip gloss and grab my purse and we’ll be ready to go.”
We walked through the hotel to the skyway adjoining the convention center, to where they were practicing. I almost felt claustrophobic from the number of cheerleaders and parents here. This was the biggest competition of the year except for the end-of-season finals. It was also the last competition to qualify for said finals, and I could almost feel the tension in the air. Ashley’s team thankfully already had the points necessary to be eligible to compete in the championship finals, so I was glad she didn’t have that pressure.
“There’s Megan and Taylor. I’ll see you later, Mom,” Ashley said as she ran off to join her friends and teammates. I looked around for the other cheer moms. I knew where their daughters were, so they would be close. I spotted Diane, Stephanie, and Jenny standing together a little off to the side, out of the way of the throngs of people, and I walked over to join them.
“Traffic sure was horrible on the way up here,” Jenny said.
“I know. I was going to take Ashley out of school early so we could beat the after-work traffic and then I got tied up at Scoops so she had to sit at home and wait for me. We didn’t end up getting here early,” I said.
“Anything wrong?” Stephanie asked.
“No, just had a big custom order for a birthday party and wanted to make sure it was set and ready to go before I left.” Scoops was the ice cream shop I owned in Cherry City. I’d used the money from my deceased husband’s life insurance to open it, trying to find purpose after he’d died five years ago. What I thought might be a hobby had turned into a thriving ice cream shop that also served light snack food.
“You’re so lucky to have a business that you love,” Diane said.
“What, you’re not happy in real estate anymore?” I asked my friend.
“I don’t know. I think I’m just burned out.”
“Maybe you should take over Scoops and Abby can become a full-time detective,” Stephanie joked, referring to the last couple of competitions where I’d helped solve crimes.
“Funny. Trust me, I’m looking forward to an uneventful competition this weekend. The girls have already qualified for the championship, so there’s no pressure on them, and we’re in Chicago, so we can go have a nice dinner tonight and do some shopping. It’ll be a pleasant weekend.”
“Speaking of shopping, do you guys want to head down to the pop-up shop area?” Stephanie said.
“That’s a great idea,” Stephanie said. “I saw that Brenda’s Bows is going to be here, and I wanted to get Taylor a few new bows for her upcoming birthday.”
We made our way down the hallway, and I was feeling like a salmon swimming upstream. It was so crowded. We made it to the pop-up shops and I was happy it wasn’t as packed as the hallway. My guess was people were still getting the girls ready for practices and it would be much busier tomorrow.
“These leggings,” Diane said as we reached the first shop, called Butter Goods. Sounded more like it should sell food instead of clothes, but as I felt the fabric Diane held out in my direction, Butter Goods made more sense. These had to be the softest leggings I had ever felt.
“I don’t want to buy anything yet, but I think we’ll definitely have to come back here,” I said and the other ladies nodded.
“Hey, Brenda’s Bows is over there. I want to buy stuff now because she usually sells out halfway through the first day,” Stephanie said, so we walked over to the shop. The table was definitely busier than the surrounding shops. I picked out a few bows for Ashley, and the other ladies did the same, and then we went up to the cash register where there was already a line of people, but there was no one to ring us up.
“That’s odd. No one’s here,” Diane said, craning her head to look around.
“Maybe she had to go back and get something?” Each shop had a little curtained-off area that I assumed held their back stock, so it made sense that a customer might’ve wanted something and she had to go to the back to get it. But after about ten minutes of waiting and some very unhappy cheer moms grumbling and getting out of line, it didn’t seem right.
“Maybe she’s not really open right now,” Stephanie said.
“The light on the cash register is on and she wouldn’t just leave all these bows unattended. They’re super easy to steal,” Diane said, and I agreed.
“Here, hold these bows. I’m going to stick my head back in her stockroom area and see if she’s back there. Maybe she’s got headphones on or something.”
Diane took my bows, and I walked past the line into the stockroom, feeling a little apprehensive since I was walking into a private area.
“Hello, hello,” I said as I pulled back the curtain and stuck my head in. I yanked my head out. Brenda was back here, but she definitely wasn’t ignoring us because she had headphones on. By the blood pooled around her body on the floor and the knife sticking out of her chest, I was positive she was dead.
So much for this being a quiet, routine cheer competition. Here we go again, I thought.