Blind Side: Chapter One

AS DARKNESS RAGED torrentially outside the frog-jumping pavilion, news of Rosie the Ribbeter's untimely suicide spread through the festival like a case of viral warts...

    I stopped reading the contest entry that had just arrived on my desk at the Eureka! newspaper office.

    "Check this one out," I signed to my office assistant, Jeremiah Mercer, using finger-spelling and sign language to interpret the lines.  "It's not even poem!"

    Miah grimaced.  "Don't these people read the rules?  So far we've gotten two short stories, three opening lines, and only seven entries that could be considered 'verse'," he signed back.  In American Sign Language, it literally came out, "People read rules--not?  Have now two stories, short, three begin sentences, seven v-e-r-s-e only."  Although Miah can hear, he learned ASL at the local college, and we use sign language most of the time to keep up his skills.

    "And it's a stinker, isn't it?" I held my nose, the universal sign for "stink".

    "Too bad." Miah signed, the letters "TB".

    "I agree," I signed back, moving the hand sign "Y" back and forth between us.  "It's the best of the bunch.  This isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be, choosing the best of the worst.  Or should I say, worst of the worst?"

    Miah grinned.  We'd been having a great time reading entries for the newspaper's "Worst Verse" competition.  I'd suggested the contest the contest to Angels Camp May Elijah Ellington to coincide with the Jumping Frog Jubilee.  The unique festival is held every spring in "Frogtown", also known as the Calaveras Country Fairgrounds in Angels Camp.

    The amphibious event, made famous by Mark Twain's 1867 yard, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", attracts frog fanatics from Fresno to Flat Skunk.  The Mother Lode communities depend on the extra income the Jubilee harvests to support events the rest of the year.

    "Have you had any more flak from Mayor Ellington?" Miah asked.

    "Elijah Ellington had been concerned about the "Worst Vers" contest at first, thinking I was making fun of the Jubilee.  Really.  How could anyone make fun of a frog-jumping contest?

    "Not lately.  When I told him it would bring in even more people--and therefore more money--he did a complete turn-around."

    The mayor and I don't usually see eye to eye: he's a little too concerned about his public image and not enough concerned about his public for my taste.  At least this time, his office and my newspaper were working together to kick off the celebrated Jubilee.

    "Well, it's been totally great for the Eureka!," Miah signed.  Although now and then he used the wrong sign or jumbled the syntax, Miah had a knack for turning spoken words into visual imagery with his long, slim fingers.  And being deaf, I was grateful for his help with the newspaper tasks and the occasional interpreting chores.  Miah was especially handy whenever a tight-lipped mumbler stopped by to chat.

    "No kidding.  Ads are up, right along with circulation.  This was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself.  Guess that's why I'm chief around here," I teased.

    "I thought it was my idea," Miah signed, which in American Sign Language literally read, "My idea, think-me!"  His facial expression gave "my" and "me" just the right emphasis.

    A young man of twenty-five, Miah was quick, funny, and adorable--even with the over-gelled spiky hair, silver nose ring, and the new gold tongue stud.  He was smart enough to successfully run a skateboard/surfing/comic book shop, down the hall from my newspaper, but I hoped he'd do more with his talents someday.  I guessed he was still trying to find himself.  Much like his sixty-year-old father, Elvis Mercer, the recently divorced sheriff of Flat Skunk.

    "By the way, what did you do with the ad from LEAP?"  I signed, curious about how he'd handled this controversial group's official "statement".  LEAP, which stood for Liberate the Exploited Amphibian Population, had been rearing its politically correct head for the past several years.

    The leader of LEAP, Carrie Yates, a fifty-something environmentalist and owner of a local health care facility, had become unusually demanding this year.  She'd been insisting on the resignation of Mayor Ellington  if he didn't do something about the "frog exploitation".  Luckily for the mayor, the frog-jumping enthusiasts vastly outnumbered the protestors.  But the group still had a right to free speech--at least in my newspaper.

    "I put it under the fold--two columns--with a picture of Yates kissing one of her pet frogs, " Miah signed, giving the word "frogs" extra flair as he flicked two fingers under his throat.  "Probably hoping it will turn into a prince.  Makes good copy."

    "And that's what sells newspapers." I gazed out the window at Flat Skunk's Main Street below, lined with pink-bubblegum blossoming trees and antique store signs.  The downtown was filling up with tourists, frog jockeys, curious travelers, and locals.  Although the Jubilee is held in Angels Camps, it's only ten miles up the road from Flat Skunk.  Tourists from the San Francisco Bay Area like to drive up Highway 49 and check out all the colorful Gold Rush towns on their way to the event.  And we Skunkers like to cash in on that.

    Miah joined me at the window.  "What are you looking at?"

    "Main Street," I signed simply.

    Sheriff Mercer was on his way to the Nugget Cafe with his young deputy, Marca Clemens.  Behind them trailed out resident prospector, old Sluice Jackson, sporting a green cap with Ping-Pong ball eyes glued to the front, and two pairs of green flaps hanging down on each side to form the legs.

    "Look at old Froghead," Miah signed, pointing to Sluice.  

    He wasn't alone.  Several other townspeople and tourists sported the frog hats with T-shirts to match.  Sluice had started a cottage industry, prospecting for tourists' money.  Apparently this week he was making and selling frog-themed ready-to-wear.

    "How's your frog doing, Miah?  Eating his Wheaties and working out on the Stairmaster for the big event?"

    Miah had been competing for the grand prize of five thousand dollars with his own leaping contestant ever since he was in junior high.  He'd come in second a couple of times, but he'd never won the trophy.  This year he was convinced he'd found the perfect champion frog.

    "Yep.  This time we're going to win, me and Freddy Froglegs.  I'm sick of watching Dakota take home the trophy and cash every year.  I'll bet he cheats.  He probably feeds his mutant frog some kind of steroid cocktail."  Miah fingerspelled "steroid" creatively--more like "stairod", but I managed to make it out.

    According to Miah, Dakota Webster had been a friend of his all through high school.  But after graduation from Calaveras High, they had grown apart.  In fact, it seemed they had become more distant and competitive over the years, especially when it came to the Jumping Frog Jubilee.

    "How do you know you're going to win this time?  Got a secret formula?" I asked.

    "He tried to smile mysteriously but it looked like he had a lip cramp.

    "Well good luck.  I think you've got some stiff competition.  I heard some guy is bringing in a bunch of giant African specimens that are supposed to be superfrogs."

    "No way they'll win.  They're too fat to jump far.  I'm not worried.  Dakota's still the only one to beat, but I've got a killer frog, and Freddy and I have a plan.  Of course, Dan has this--"

    Miah suddenly looked at me as if he'd seen a ghost.  "Whoops!" he said, then clapped his hand over his mouth.


    Miah shrugged.

    "Dan Smith?  Our friend and neighbor in the office next door?  Flat Skunk's newest private investigator?  The man with the body of a construction worker and the mind of a poet?  That Dan Smith?"

    Miah flushed.  "I wasn't supposed to tell.  Your boyfriend is  gonna kill me."

    "You're kidding!"  The Dan I knew and loved was too sensible to compete with a bunch of kids--or men who still acted like kids.  Especially in a friggin' frog-jumping contest.  "He's entering a frog?"

    I think Miah mistook surprise for interest.  He signed with new energy.  "Yep.  Named it Ribicop.  You know, like Robocop?  Get it?"

    I got it.  But not the reason why Dan would participate in the silly games.  And hide it from me.  Men.

    "Wait'll I see him..." I headed back to the computer to get some work done, but Miah waved something white within my peripheral vision.

    "Hey, here's one."  Miah held up a sheet of paper.  I watched his lips carefully as he read the note without signing.

A frog named François jumped so far
When taking off from Paris,
He hit an airplane, tumbled down,
And croaked in Calaveras...

I snorted, "Great one.  Like I said, picking a winner won't be easy.  But we're down to the wire, Miah.  The opening ceremony for the Jubilee is tonight, and we have to present the Worst Verse award right after Mayor Ellington makes his welcoming remarks.  Of course, that could last up to two hours."

    Miah wasn't watching my signs.  His attention was on another envelope that had apparently gone unnoticed under the pile of papers that had collected on his desk.

    "Uh-oh.  One more."  Miah tore open the envelope.

    "Okay, but this is the last one.  Then we choose."

    "Here goes," I watched Miah's lips.

Mr. Toad took a wild ride
Across the finish line,
But waiting there was a frying pan,
That sautéed him with white wine...

    "I love it!  What do you say?  Do we have a winner?"  I signed.

    Miah nodded his head and his fist.  "You're right.  It's a killer."  He signed "killer" by twisting an imaginary knife under his left hand.

    "Who wrote it?  I have to notify the winner to show up tonight and receive the award--not to mention, get a shirt size for a custom-made frog hat and matching T-shirt, compliments of Sluice Jackson."

    "Wow," Miah signed, shaking his hand in the air.

    "Someone we know?"

    "Not exactly."

    "Who, then?"

    "The name is Del Ores Montez.  Maybe a relative of Del Rey's?"

    I took the entry from Miah and reread it.  Del Rey Montez, our local mortician and my good friend, had mentioned a sister once.  But I thought she was in some kind of institution.  For what reason, I couldn't remember.

    "Montez is a common name around here.  Could be someone else."  I checked the return address on the envelope:  Memory Kingdom Memorial Park.  "Then again, maybe you're right.  I guess I'll go ahead and find out."

    I picked up my backpack and headed over.

* * *

    "Del Rey?"  I called out.  I pulled the heavy front door shut behind me and I entered the Disneyesque funeral home.  The previous owner had operated a chain of mortuaries, each with a different thematic design.  The one in Flat Skunk featured billowing clouds painted on the walls, lush velvet antique settees and love seats in the foyer, and giant paper flowers stuck inside heart-shaped boxes.  Snow White would have been very comfortable here.

    "Hi, Del Rey," I said to my friend, as she appeared from behind a velvet curtain at the back of the entryway.  "New outfit?"

    "I'm sorry.  I'm not Del Rey.  My name is Del Ores."

    I stood with my mouth open like a frog waiting for a fly.  The woman looked nearly identical to Del Rey--plump pink cheeks, dark curly hair, and Betty Boop lips.  As I stared at her, I realized only the eyes were different.  Del Rey's sparkled; this woman's eyes were dark and smoky.

    "I...uh..."  I was taken aback for a few seconds.

    Del Ores seemed to sense my hesitation.  "Del Rey's not here right now.  May I help you?"  She didn't make eye contact but seemed to be staring at something behind me.  I turned around to see what it was but noticed nothing particularly eye-catching.

    "You're Del Rey's sister?"  I asked, certain she was.  Her face brightened.

    "Yes!  I guess what they say is true.  We look a lot alike, but our personalities are so different, it's sometimes hard to believe we're related."  She spoke with a smile, but still didn't meet my eyes.  I wondered if she was just terribly shy.  If this was the sister who'd been living in an institution, maybe she hadn't had much social contact.

    "I'm a good friend of your sister's.  My name is Connor Westphal.  I'm glad to meet you--"  I reached out for a hand-shake.

    Del Ores stood only four feet away from me, but she made no effort to meet my hand.

    And then I remembered what Del Rey had told me about her sister.  Del Ores was blind!

    Momentarily flustered, I pulled myself together and stepped forward to close the gap.  I grasped the blind woman's hand and shook it.

    Just then Del Rey burst through the door.  Del Ores started at the noise.

    "Connor!  Hi!  I see you've met my sister."

    "Yes--" I started to say, but Del Rey cut me off.

    "Have you heard the news?" she continued, looking concerned.  Her rosy cheeks were even more flushed than usual.

    "Of course I have.  I'm the one responsible.  How did you find out?"  I was stunned that Del Rey already knew about Del Ores winning that contest.  I'd kill Miah when I got back to the office.  That would make two men I had to kill today.

    "You're responsible? But--"

    "It's my contest.  I get to choose the winner.  And--"

    "I'm not talking about the contest!  I'm talking about Dakota Webster!"

    I paused.  "What about him?"  It was taking me a few seconds to catch up with Del Rey.  We'd been on different pages.

    "He's dead!"

    "Dakota?" I said in disbelief.

    "No!  Buford!"

    "Del Rey!  You're not making any sense!  Who's Buford?  And what's Dakota got to do with this?"

    "Buford the Bullfrog is Dakota's champion frog. Dakota found him a little while ago in his pond--croaked!"