Why did I let Henry con me into coming here?
Brooke Anderson knew the answer. A couple of months ago, her roommate and fellow research guru, Henry Wiles, had warned her that if she didn’t get out of her leather desk chair at least twice a week and come with him to his Fun & Fit class at the local gym, her young, squishy, millennial butt would soon be adhered to it forever––like superglue.
She had started to remind him how it was her life, not his, but he would have none of it.
“Hey, kiddo, you once saved me, remember? I’m just returning the favor. Live with it.” He went back to his breakfast.
To her surprise, she ended up not minding the class at all. Like so many other industrial buildings in the tiny town of Hillside, New York, the Pride & Joy gym was small and quaint. It could also be called dingy, depending on the eye of the beholder. But the main Fun & Fit classroom was more modern. It had a wall of solid glass that overlooked the green grounds in the spring and summer, tri-colored leaves in the fall, and barren trees and white snow in the winter.
Now, as Brooke waited in the white-walled, wood-floored studio for the class to begin, she casually glanced out of the large glass pane. There was Collin, the unshaven, matted-haired groundskeeper, bumbling slowly across the lawn to the large woodshed, wearing his typically sour expression. She had heard through the grapevine that he used to have a pretty good white-collar job but was fired. Succumbing to manual work might account for his bitterness.
A couple of class members next to her mentioned they felt sorry for the man.
“Poor guy,” one of them said.
“From hero to zero,” stated another.
Brooke remained unmoved. Having noticed the way he’d acted toward two members when he thought no one was looking, to her, he sure didn’t stack up. She eagle-eyed him now for a couple more seconds.
“Hero–Schmero,” she said. “There’s something bad about that guy.”
Ignoring her neighbors’ headshakes, she went back to watching the Fun & Fit gym class members do their normal preps before class started. Dressed in her black leggings, an XXL size men’s T-shirt, she liked to stand in the back of the room next to the middle-aged, weather-beaten Henry, so she could fully scope out the habits and idiosyncrasies of her different classmates traipsing in the door.
First off, members in pairs and trios chatted for a good five minutes. What they talked about was anyone’s guess. But their mouths and odd gestures provided some distraction, so watching them, Brooke usually zoned out and took in the show. Not the rush she got from watching cop shows, but hey, she couldn’t have everything.
Next, much like the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, came the weight snatching process. She’d quickly learned how getting the proper poundage on the hand weights was tantamount to one’s well being. Nobody wanted to be left with a couple of five-pound barbells when their arms screamed out that only 2.5 pounders would do. To make things worse, the weights were usually stacked so haphazardly onto a tall multi-layered rack, it would give wine collectors pause. The result? Mild chaos.
Since Brooke had purchased her own set from the start, this jumbled retrieval process particularly tickled her. In fact, she soon realized that the more disorganized the Pride & Joy gym’s set-ups were, the greater chance she’d get to witness some greedy laws-of-the-jungle play out between the members. That alone was worth the mild aches and pains she often brought home with her.
“Wonder when The Dictator will be coming in,” someone in front of her turned around to say.
Shrugging, Brooke scanned the room, thinking of her different nicknames for the members who stood out to her.
There’s Wandering Wynnie Whitman. That woman had absolutely no sense of other people’s spaces. She would often make her way up to the front––in time to the music and blissfully unaware of all the dirty looks or headshakes around her––as people jumped sideways to avoid her colliding into them.
Then there was her sister, Clueless Cathy Whitman, whose nickname said it all. Dull-witted, never quite getting the steps no matter how many times they were repeated, Brooke felt sorry for her. She was such a perfect target.
Rumor had it the Whitman sisters came from money––lots of it. How their father, Joseph Whitman, made his fortune was another story. Apparently, it wasn’t pretty. Investment scams and other unscrupulous activities were the whispered gossip. There was also a brother, Michael, somewhere, but he seemed to have kept a low profile from them all, and always conveniently stayed “unavailable for comment.”
There was Salsa Suzette, who had obviously been a dancer in a former life. Judging from her wrinkled neck and arms, it must have been quite a few years ago in the past, but who’s counting?
“That woman is always showing off, isn’t she?” a classmate on Brooke’s left commented.
“You mean Salsa Suzette?” Brooke blurted out.
When people snorted around her, she felt bad. Poor Suzette. Gotta watch my mouth.
Yet before long, her eyes drifted over to Bootleg Barbie, in her overly made up face and sexy tops. The young woman who kept grabbing weights before anyone else could. Next to her was Grinning Gary, who sported a three-day stubble and moldy looking T-shirt, forever reminding Brooke of some of the guys back in college who were never gonna get any.
A sudden hiss behind her at the side door made her flinch. Must be Larry.
Supposedly, the Pride & Joy gym had limited means. That meant class sizes were kept to a minimum, and the members shared their weight room with the local police. That was more than okay with Brooke. It meant at least twice a week, she’d get to see her childhood friend, Detective Lawrence Sands––or Larry. And because he worked out in the next room, he usually stuck his head in the door to say hello, on his way there.
Today was no exception.
She could just imagine him leaning in from the classroom’s side doorframe while people were doing their own personal warmups––stretching, bending over in low squats, you name it.
“Love that position!” he said in a loud stage whisper, as soon as she squatted.
She whipped around to shoot out a faux-snarl at his crass innuendo but halted mid-snark. Standing next to him was a handsome, familiar-looking man, who instantly came up with a winning comment.
“Hey, bud, you ever heard of the hashtag MeToo movement?” he asked Larry, staring at Brooke’s face.
When they both left, Brooke smiled. Ah, a guy with no Neanderthal leanings.
No sooner had the detectives left, when everyone rotated around toward the front of the room, just in time to see Ruth Novak, their teacher, stride in, wearing camouflage-print leggings and her usual scowl. Her beautiful salt and pepper hair was in sharp contrast to her dark, piercing eyes, severe mouth, and olive skin. Right behind her was a very attractive, forty-ish, dyed blonde-haired woman in a pink and black yoga suit, whose expression was as kind looking as Ruth’s was mean.
“Whoa,” Henry commented, one eyebrow raised.
Men. Meanwhile Brooke noticed everyone stood still, examining the newcomer, as if suspended in time. Finally, Novak loudly cleared her throat.
“Class, today we have someone who will be observing you. Her name is Helen Lawson.”
That was it. No more info. Several people tilted their heads or scrunched up their noses in surprise, but not Brooke. She had come to realize just how curt and withholding their teacher was. I bet she’s just waiting to criticize someone. Who will it be this time?
Helen simply smiled and retreated to one side of the room.
“Excuse me, Ms. Novak,” Clueless Cathy called out. “Why is Miss Lawson here?”
Novak’s nostrils flared. “Well, if it’s any of your business, Cathy, she’s being trained as a sub, so if I feel like going for a well-earned vacation, gee, maybe, just maybe, I can.”
Cathy gulped as what felt like an air of hope permeated the room.
Novak on vacation? Oh, please, please…
Ruth raised her arms. “Okay, everyone, let’s get started with some slow stretches.”
She took out a CD from her large, black leather Gucci bag. She slid the disc into the gym’s laptop then clicked PLAY. No light pop music to get in the mood for this gal. None other than Alice Cooper’s raspy voice blasted through the room. Novak spread her legs wide, her left arm raised in the air over her head, as her right hand slid down her right thigh. She repeated that routine on the other side: right-arm-raised, left-thigh-down.
Warm up stretches to that? Where’s Cyndi Lauper’s mellow-yellow “Time After Time”?
But like dutiful students, the entire class followed Novak, even though Brooke noticed Clueless Cathy had quickly stopped to rub her lower back.
Uh-oh. I bet Novak’s gonna come after her for that.
The music ran on, with Rick James singing “Super Freak.” Everyone was instructed to march in place, arms swinging back and forth in full military parade style. After several minutes of that, hip-hop songs loudly clattered to more specific orders. Novak stepped from side to side in an even wider stance, this time, with alternate punches. Step right, punch hard across her chest with a left hook. Step left, punch hard with her right. Punch left, punch right, punch left, punch right.
“Come on, everybody,” she called as she gathered speed. “Pretend you’re a boxer and you’re going to punch your way to your country’s championship.”
Good idea. Forget the championship. I’ll just punch you.
Suddenly, the era switched and the sounds of Chubby Checker filled the room. “Okay, everyone, it’s twist time,” Novak said, manically twisting her waist and back, her eyes glazed in a fevered state. No laughter, no smiles. Just bodies going through their twists and shakes like robots.
Didn’t Chubby Checker have fun with this dance? Sure looked like it on YouTube.
Wandering Wynnie did her thing as she concentrated hard on Ruth Novak’s next slightly involved four-steps-forward, four-steps-back, bend––bend orders. Brooke could tell the woman’s awareness of space was way out of whack this time. Soon, while Van Halen banged their way into a frenzy, Wynnie ended up too close to Novak up in front.
Novak reached out and swatted at one of Wynnie’s thighs. “No-no-no! You’re doing it all wrong. Do it like this,” she barked and shoved the woman’s bent position down even further.
Ignoring her student’s cry of pain, she turned back to the class. Instantly, she seemed to scope out Wynnie’s sister, Cathy. Turning down the music a notch, she jogged over to stand before the scared-looking woman, hands on hips.
“What is it with you two sisters? You got stupid for brains?” With that, she shoved Cathy’s thighs down so hard the woman’s yelp rang out like someone who “just got it” in a horror film.
Several gasps broke out. Next to Brooke, Henry uttered a low growl.
“Hey, that’s not cool!” Brooke yelled. “Leave her alone!”
Everyone looked toward the front as Ruth’s eyes seemed to pierce through Brooke.
People were nodding, especially when Brooke said, “Besides being mean, this is a lawsuit waiting to happen.” Me and my big mouth. She glanced over at the Whitmans who were flashing their teeth. Oh, boy. Did I just give the girls an idea?
Then she casually stole a peek at the sub, Helen. The woman definitely appeared concerned and uncomfortable. On the other hand, Ruth looked like she was about to go on a warpath.
With the clock about to hit 11:53 a.m., the entire class was already gathering up all their stuff, herd-style, and actively ignoring Ruth Novak’s glowering face. “Hey, class isn’t…” she began, but didn’t finish. Apparently, there would be no stopping the mass exodus.
Next to Brooke, Henry smirked. “Anything you’d like to add?”
Henry told her he wanted to lodge a complaint against Novak right away and when Brooke agreed, they bypassed the locker rooms and went directly to the lobby on their way outside. But others had already beaten them to it. At the front desk stood four or five of their classmates, loudly voicing their issues with Ruth Novak’s cruel tactics and how they wanted the new substitute, Helen Lawson, as their instructor––now.
“That’s a relief,” Henry said.
Brooke nodded. Continuing on, they stepped out into the crisp, leaf-turning November air to meet up with Larry.
There he was, leaning against her car, talking to the recognizable Mr. Hunk.
As soon as they approached, Larry grinned. “Hey, Brooke, Henry. I want to introduce you to my new partner, Tony Marino. Tony, this is Henry, and this is my lifelong pal, Brooke.”
Henry shook hands with the newcomer. “Nice to meet you.”
A sudden inability to speak swept over Brooke. Gulping, she barely managed a smile. Of course, she had recognized Tony from the police academy. A face and bod like that you don’t forget. She also remembered how much constant female attention he got whenever the police academy candidates went out for a drink as a group. Even if she wanted to date someone, No Way José would he ever consider her.
Tony’s voice jarred her out of her memories.
“Brooke, I remember you from police academy. I’ve wondered ever since where you had been assigned.”
You’ve wondered about me?
“Yes, well, I do some work for the local police department here––mostly as a researcher.”
“Yeah, she’s the best there is at that,” Larry said. “They’d be lost without her.”
“A researcher?” Tony’s expression read puzzled. “You’re a Non-Sworn?”
Just then, a couple of trashy-looking young women with extra low-necked tank tops strolled past them, giggling and batting their eyes at Tony, who immediately looked uncomfortable. Only fleeting glances from them were aimed at Larry, who beamed.
Some things never change. Forget him, Brooke. On the other hand, Larry, take what you can get, big guy!
“Well,” Henry said, “I must go take a shower and have a bite to eat before I head off to the library. Brooke, you coming with me?” He nodded at Tony. “You’re welcome to drop over any time, Tony. With or without Larry.”
Tony’s smile was far too hypnotic. Dimple Muffin popped into her mind as Brooke’s face warmed. Nice of Henry to do his gracious thing, but she wasn’t sure she’d know how to handle Tony in such close proximity.
She was opening up her car door when, from out of her peripheral view, she noticed Creepy Collin doing his sweep-up-leaves-then-empty-them-into-a-large-trash-can routine. Obviously concentrating on his job, he had ear buds in, and apart from his usual dour expression, he seemed to be lost in his own world. But when Henry opened the front passenger door, she saw Collin come closer and closer, until he was a mere five feet away. Definitely creepy.
Abruptly, Larry’s phone rang. “Detective Sands,” he said, his tone instantly sounding officious.
With the workman’s nonstop whisks and scrapes as background noise, she, Henry, and Tony watched Larry’s face go from vaguely placid to truly alarmed in a matter of seconds.
“What? When?” There was a long pause. “Yes, sir. We’ll be right there.” He turned to Tony. “We have a bad one, Tony. We gotta go.”
Then to Brooke, he muttered, “I’ll call you later.”
No later-gator or a high five? Must be something big.
With Henry already planted in her car tapping his fingers impatiently on his lap, she started to sit down on the driver’s seat then paused. Creepy Collin had switched his direction, and suddenly she noticed only one of his ears had an ear bud in it. The other one was wide open. And his earlier vacant look had morphed into a definite smirk.
Was he interested in Larry’s call? Why?