Jackie bent over her leg to stretch it, and used her hand to keep her hair off the scuffed white linoleum floor of the high school cafeteria that her Morris side used for a practice area. When she was done, she held on to the folded table for support while she stood on one leg to stretch her quadriceps. Larry and Brent, two of the other dancers, were stretching in a desultory way.
Jackie had a pale complexion, so freckle-free that many accused her of getting her cinnamon-colored hair from a bottle. Her hips were too slender and her belly too flat to fit in with the voluptuous women in her bellydance class. When she was seventeen she had been told by her strict harridan of a ballet instructor that Jackie would never be a serious ballerina because at five feet six inches and a hundred and thirty pounds, she just wasn’t willowy enough, and besides, her breasts were too big. However, Jackie’s long legs were perfect for Irish step dancing.
That is, they were until Briar and Clover Irish Step Dance got disbanded and reassembled as a completely different troupe with all of the same members except Jackie, who had not been invited. Now Jackie danced once a week with the Black Dog Morris Men. The Dogs hadn’t officially made her a member, since they had always been an all male side, but she had been dancing with them for almost a year, and had high hopes that she was just about to browbeat Jason into allowing her to perform with them, especially since the Black Dogs had been light of dancers recently.
And then he came in. If he weren’t competition, she might have admired him, but it was obvious he was here to dance. He had a dancer’s build, tall, lean, and muscular without being bulky. His platinum blond hair was short, and even several feet away, Jackie could tell that he had gorgeous eyes under the fringe of bangs. He looked about her age, twenty five, and wore a white dress shirt untucked over blue jeans.
“Who’s the new guy?” Jackie asked Jason with a little ready-made resentment.
Jason had a full black beard and had developed a bit of a potbelly when a knee injury ended his dancing days two years earlier. He had on a tight t-shirt depicting a duck holding handkerchiefs, (a souvenir from a long ago Morris ale) and the denim shorts that he wore no matter what the weather. Jason said he stayed with the Black Dogs because he enjoyed playing violin and teasing Jackie. Since at thirty-six he was the oldest member of the troupe, Jason had a lot of sway, even though Chuck was the foreman.
Jason was tuning his violin, but when he finished tightening the peg he turned to where Jackie was directing her glare. “That’s Vax. You don’t know him? He said you were friends. He was here last week at practice when you had to work.”
“I don’t know him.” Her eyes narrowed as she straightened. That guy needed a lecture on who was her friend and who wasn’t.
“Hey, go easy on the guy. He can dance. He’s already picked up the Fieldtown stepping in one week, and he says he’s never Morris danced before. Besides, we’ve all done it.”
“Pretended that you’ve slept with a girl when you don’t even know her.” Jason waggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Jackie poked at him with one of the axe handles, but just then the new guy came over and she realized he’d make a better target.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, stick in hand.
“I’m Vax.” He held his hand out and smiled kindly enough to make Jackie put her stick down. Vax was three or four inches taller than Jason, and looked quite pale in comparison to the fiddler’s ruddy skin. He had a flawless face, masculine but clean shaven, and through the open V where his shirt was unbuttoned she could see the muscles of a mostly hairless chest. Jackie glared even more so he wouldn’t notice she admired him.
“You’re gonna have to learn to dodge when Jackie’s around.” Dave sounded almost disappointed that he didn’t get to see her tear into someone.
“Vax, this is Jackie, and yes, there’s a running bet that whoever manages to sleep with her first wins a beer at the pub. So far no one has had any success, but we’ve all tried. You shall succeed where others have failed,” Jason intoned solemnly, placing a hand on Vax’s shoulder
“Ass.” Jackie swung the axe handle near his head, but she wasn’t really angry. She let the Black Dogs get away with a lot more than she’d let other men get away with. Their teasing had too much affection behind it.
Jason held his head, moaning as if she’d really brained him with an axe handle, and then he sauntered off to talk with Chuck.
“Jason’s an asshole,” Jackie said to the new guy, but she was smiling.
“Maybe that’s his strategy,” Vax said.
“Strategy for what?”
“For getting into your bed. It works on some women, or so I’ve heard.” He grinned as if he were going to try for that free beer bet, and thought he might have a pretty good chance at it.
Jackie’s eyes flashed and she pointed a long finger at Vax threateningly. “Listen up new boy, I’m not sleeping with you, or any other guy on this team, and if you think that I haven’t heard every last pick up line and pathetic attempt to–”
“You’ll have to threaten him later,” Tim interrupted, coming over and tapping out some information into his phone. Tim was squire, which was pretty much second in command as far as Morris sides went. He was a purist, and had fought strenuously to get the team to wear the traditional white baldrics and flowered garters on their sleeves. He had also fought to forbid Jackie from attending practices, spouting some line about how having a woman present would dilute the masculine energy. Everyone had laughed uproariously at both suggestions. Tim looked like a poster boy for the Young Republicans, and acted like the geek’s god of prissiness, but he managed to get paying gigs for the Black Dogs so the rest of the troupe put up with him.
“We have to get ready for that folk dance performance next week, so I want you to teach Vax how to caper while we’re running over the set list.”
“Why don’t you have Larry teach the new guy, and I’ll perform with you at the festival?”
“Don’t start, Jackie. We’ve been over this before.” Tim turned to join the other men in the set.
“Sexist pig,” Jackie spat after him. Unlike with Jason, the remark she directed at Tim was heartfelt. If it weren’t for Tim the tool, she might have been performing with them already.
“Did I offend you? Vax asked.
Jackie shook her head. “Didn’t you bring hankies?”
Vax shook his head no, so Jackie lent him a pair she had stolen from the Pygg and Wassail. He may have recognized them as restaurant table napkins, but didn’t say anything except to watch as Jackie demonstrated how to hold them.
“Step back, left foot up, kick, and then leap, landing on… yeah, you got it.” Jackie demonstrated and Vax imitated her, leaping into the air like a basketball player. He jumped gracefully, and seemed to almost float to the ground. The jerk could dance.
“That’s good enough. Now, other side.” When he got that too, Jackie taught him the other capers, the galleys, and then demonstrated side steps. Vax got everything on the first try. Jackie knew better than to compliment him. Men couldn’t take a little praise without getting all kinds of ideas, and the last thing she needed was to have the new guy thinking she admired him.
“That’s enough for now. You can practice that at home, and we’ll teach you some figures when you have someone else to dance with. You’ve danced before?”
“Yes. I like to dance. I teach a ballroom dancing class here.”
Stupid bastard show off. “Well, aren’t you special?”
“You work at the Pygg and Wassail, don’t you? I’ve seen you there a few times,” Vax said.
Jackie didn’t look at him. She already didn’t like him, showing up here with his stupid show off talent and getting accepted as a Black Dog without any effort at all, just because he had a dick. Why was she here again?
She answered her own question. She liked to dance. The Black Dogs never accepted her, but they never kicked her out either, and even if she didn’t get to perform with them, they let her dancer at practices.
The other dancers finished running through their set. Dave and Bruno (Bruno’s real name was also Dave), came over to chat with Jackie while the musicians practiced. Dave sat down on a metal folding chair, and commented on the last bit of conversation he heard. The two Davids were both students at Seabingen University, and both worked at the student union part time, but that is where the resemblance ended. Dave was short and had hair so curly it looked like an afro when he grew it out. He had a terrible habit of cracking his knuckles, and he did it often, since it made Jackie wince. Bruno was pale, overweight and so bulky that one was surprised to see his feet ever leave the ground. He had a full beard and short ash blond hair with a tail in the back.
“Trying to score already? You’re a quick study. Don’t bother, Jackie’s a closet lesbian.” Dave winked at her.
“Shut up,” Jackie said, grinning at Dave “I’m not a lesbian, I just have standards, that’s all. If I had low enough standards to sleep with you guys, you would have all gotten it by now. Except Bruno. He’s just gross.”
“Lesbian,” Dave mocked.
“Kiss my ass, dirtbag.” Jackie poked him in the ribs. She liked most of the Black Dogs, but Dave was her favorite.
“Hey Bruno, she’s flirting with me.” Dave laughed. “Grab a stick, let’s teach new-boy some figures.”
Jackie didn’t like that they were going to teach Vax figures on his second practice, when they had made her hang around like a groupie for weeks before showing her anything, but she had to admit that Vax was a natural. He picked up the figures as quickly as he had learned the footwork, and by the end of practice, Vax had learned more than most beginners learned in two months. The asshole would be up to speed in time for the next performance. She scowled at him, but since he only smiled back, her scowl diminished to an everyday sense of resentment by the time it was beer-thirty and they broke to go to the pub.
Jackie and Vax caught a ride to the pub with Jason, since neither of them had a car. She didn’t really want to talk with new-boy, but she wanted to take the bus even less. She leaned against the car door and stared out the window so he would take the hint and not talk to her.
“Does it offend you that they call you a lesbian?” Vax asked, twisting around in his seat to face her.
“I’m not a lesbian.” She shifted her purse to fill the space between them.
“That’s not what I asked. I wondered if it were offensive. I’m trying to learn how people think here.”
She twisted back to face him. “What, you from Mars or something?”
Vax paused and frowned, as if surprised she didn’t know. “I’m Estonian. I’ve lived here for…, I suppose around six years now, but sometimes things still confuse me.”
“Well, here’s a hint for you, new boy. Don’t tell all the guys that you and I are buddy-buddy when you don’t even know me.”
“I never claimed I knew you, I said that I knew your friend Kit.”
“You know Kit?”
“I used to date her roommate.”
Jackie felt her guard vanish. Vax was gay. Kit’s roommate Chris had so many boyfriends in the three or four years since Jackie knew him that she hadn’t even been introduced to them all. He hadn’t been hitting on her, he was just being friendly. That explained the lesbian comment.
Oh, shit. She was such a bitch. He probably thought she was a homophobe. “I’m not offended by being called a lesbian. I’m okay with gay people.”
“It’s good to be open minded. There are a lot of fine people that get shunned just because they’re not normal.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t hate people just because they’re gay, or foreign, or whatever. There are too many real reasons to hate people.”
“Like, if they breathe air,” Jason said.
“Yeah, especially with your breath. You been gargling with anchovies, Jason?”
“You want to taste what I had for lunch? I’ll buy you a beer if you give me a kiss.” Jason puckered up and made kissing noises towards the back seat.
“You can’t afford enough beer to wash that out of my mouth, garlic-boy.” Jackie laughed, and pushed his shoulder.
Jason parked his car in front of the Greenman pub. It was on the far north side of the Old Town, so parking was easier, and it was on the way home for the few dancers who lived in south or central Seabingen.
Generally, people who moved to Seabingen as students lived in the University district, either in a dorm, or in a bedroom in one of the huge, decaying houses on the hill overlooking the river. When they graduated, they would move to the west side or to Northridge as far south as their ability to pay rent would allow, so as not to be separated from the city’s nightlife, which mostly happened in or near the Old Town. If they did well in whatever job they had but hadn’t gotten married and parental, the goal was to earn enough money to pay the rents in the University district again. Jackie and Marian’s apartment was seven stops away from the Old Town, so they were in the middle as far as the post-graduate pecking order was concerned.
This time of year it was just warm enough to sit outside, which was good because the interior of the pub was inadequately ventilated and always filled with smoke from the die-hards who insisted that no-smoking bans applied to other people, not them.
The brick patio was surrounded by a low wall with planter boxes on top, and lit by strings of Christmas lights year round. From their scarred wooden picnic table they could see the vines creeping up the wall of the old brick building which had once been part of an industrial bakery back when the Old Town was all the town there was. Moths fluttered around the spotlight that lit the wooden sign. The sign had the carved image of a leafy face and Greenman Pub written in calligraphy.
“So, what made you want to learn Morris dancing?” Jason asked Vax, as they sat down on the concrete benches outside.
“I wanted to meet people, and as I told Jackie, I like to dance.” He smiled as her as he said it. She squelched her reflexive scowl.
Dave and Bruno approached and waved to them.
“We ordered beer for you,” Jason said.
She grinned. “But you took too long to get here so we got thirsty and drank them already.”
“Don’t joke about beer, Jackie. Some things are sacred,” Dave said, with a flurry of knuckle cracking.
Jackie winced at the sound, and the waitress brought out the pints, proving her a liar.
They talked about the upcoming folk festival in Northridge as they drained their beers. After most of them were working on the second round, they exhausted the gossip about friends and finished their complex discussions of the Boars’ chances in the playoffs. They were deciphering the check and tallying the pints when Bruno interrupted them.
“Oh, got a new one! Guys, look, a new one!” Bruno held up his phone. “Check it out.”
“I told you about this Ghostfinder app?”
“Right. Brings up any morbid crime that happened wherever you are. We don’t believe in ghosts, Bruno,” Jason said.
“You already told us about the drowning of the Kitteridge boy.”
“And we don’t need to know about the Bakery fire either,” Jackie said. “But you can tell us again if you want to.” No one else shared his ghoulish fascination, but it was hard to get angry at someone so enthusiastic.
“Yeah, but there’s a new one.” He held out his phone to show them. “Apparently two women were found killed in an apartment near here just a couple weeks ago. One of them was decapitated.”
“Ew, gross,” Jackie said, fascinated despite herself.
Jackie, Dave and Jason leaned in while Bruno read the details.
“Fifty five year old Miriam Rosenkranz, and her friend, Paisey Cypress, were found dead in Rosenkranz’s apartment last month. Police are looking into suspects at this time.”
Vax was silent, and stared into the dregs of his beer.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I knew Paisey,” Vax said.
“No shit, really? I’m sorry man.” Bruno pushed his hand through his hair a couple times, and then stuffed his hand in the pocket of his jeans.
“She wasn’t an angel, but she didn’t deserve to die like that. No one does.” Vax gripped his mug so tightly his knuckles were white, and his voice had a tremor of…what, fear? Anger? Jackie didn’t know how to read his reaction.
“Do they know who did it?” Dave asked Bruno.
Bruno used his finger to scroll up his phone. “The article doesn’t say. Maybe some whacko serial killer, maybe her boyfriend got strung out or something. What do you think, Vax?”
“Sometimes people have a past they don’t completely leave behind. Sometimes…Well, I don’t know.” Vax finished the last of his beer and set it down with a thud of finality. “You never know why things happen. Perhaps the cops will never catch the murderer.”
Jackie put her money on the table and looked at her watch. “Not that I don’t relish every moment with you boys, but I have to run if I’m going to catch the bus.”
“No, I’ll give you a ride home,” Jason said.
“It’s fifteen miles out of your way.”
“Let him,” Bruno said.
Jackie looked at the dark streets, where the fog was already beginning to creep in and obscure the streetlights. Maybe a ride home wasn’t such a bad idea. “Sure. Thanks, Jason.”