THINGS BEFORE BREAKFAST
As expected, the morning search for Kei’s stolen items came up empty.
Secretly, Gia was impressed -- irked, but impressed. If she had to be outwitted by anyone, it might as well be a mysterious, pangender teen icon who literally befuddled the world.
Besides, it had been a while since Gia had learned a new trick, and this one might just be a good one. If things went to plan, she would know it by the end of the day.
In the meantime, there was a schedule to keep.
Gia glanced out the main door on her way to the front desk to find all five kids right where they should be. Miserable, with no one making eye contact, but ready to go.
The front desk clerk greeted Gia wearing a dandy little vest, a name tag that said Hickory, and a smile much too bright for someone who had checked them in the night before.
“Everything look good?” Gia asked her.
“Everything’s great,” Hickory said. “You all were perfect guests. Come back and stay anytime.”
Gia couldn’t help but smile at the old-time charm in the woman’s tone. “I’ll keep you in mind, for sure. For now, where do I sign?”
“Yes, of course,” Hickory said, making a few clicks with her mouse before the printer purred awake and started pushing out a paper.
In her peripheral vision, one of Gia’s men stepped into view and gave her a thumbs up that the rooms were clear. Gia dipped her chin in acknowledgment just as Hickory handed her a single sheet of paper to review.
“No pay-per-views, or phone calls, or anything,” Hickory said, with a little too much enthusiasm. It struck Gia as odd.
Curious, she looked up from the bill and locked eyes with the clerk. Hickory lasted about half a second before her expression cracked a bit and she started smiling with almost cartoon innocence.
Only then did Gia really take a look behind the front desk for anything amiss, and her eyes stopped on an empty hook that had not been empty the night before—just below the bottom row of keys.
“Where's the roll of tape that was there last night?” Gia said, gesturing toward the hook.
Hickory tensed as if she’d been caught red-handed. “Huh?”
Gia pointed again. “Right there. There was a roll of tape hanging there when we checked in last night.”
“Oh, yes,” Hickory said with a nervous laugh. “The tape? We use that to secure wires when we host events so that no one trips or anything.”
“Do you know where it went?” Gia asked.
“I, uh, well…” she stammered. “I’m sure there's not reason to worry. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”
Gia glanced to Kei, who smiled back like someone who knew they had an alibi.
“Let’s assume someone with me accidentally grabbed it and add a roll of gaffer’s tape to the bill,” Gia said.
Hickory blushed for some reason. “Well, I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m sure I—“
Gia slid a folded hundred dollar bill across the front desk. “Please.”
“O-okay,” Hickory said, making a few keystrokes on the computer. “So, what? Like, twenty bucks? Does that work?”
“Sure,” Gia agreed. “Add it on and we’ll be good to go,” with three minutes to spare, she couldn’t help but note as she glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Okay, then,” Hickory said, giving her a new sheet. “Here’s the amended bill.”
Gia looked over the list of expenses and signed.
“Thanks for staying at the Boondocks Motel!” Hickory said brightly as she took the paper back. “Travel safe and have a pleasant journey.”
“And a good day to you,” Gia said before turning to face her little breakfast club where they leaned against the van with their overnight bags packed up and ready to roll.
They were the most pensive bunch of teenagers Gia had ever seen and it was time to get them on the road.
Gia strode out through the front doors and into the vibrant morning air, getting all the kids to look up as she moved to unlock the access door to the vehicle.
“When you get on board, you will find a menu,” she announced, watching Chad straighten and move to be first in line with almost comical speed. “Before we leave, I’ll take your order and you’ll get your food at our first stop, along with your usual five dollars.”
If Gia wasn’t mistaken, Bella sent a thank you up to heaven in response, which was good. It meant the mood was headed in the right direction.
Once the main door was open, Chad burst up the stairs in search of a menu. When Bella started up the stairs next, Gia made a point to catch Kei’s attention.
“You,” she said when they locked eyes. “You’re on last. Let’s talk for a second.”
Gia’s tone seemed to catch Whitney’s attention and the blonde all but rubbernecked with interest as she took her seat and pretended to look at the menu. The girl was as subtle as a pug, but Gia did her best not to be distracted by her anyway.
Once Adam was on board, it was just Gia and Kei left standing in the roundabout entry.
“Want to tell me about some gaffing tape?” she asked.
Kei’s head tilted in interest. “You noticed?”
Gia leaned in. “Did you steal it?”
“Can something be stolen if it is itemized and paid for on a bill?” Kei countered.
Well, well, well. Wasn’t that just … a technicality.
“Also," Kei continued objectively. "May I point out that this is not a stop on tomorrow’s journey, but the start of today's, and no trail was left behind for anyone to follow.”
"So why was Hickory in there acting like your guilty accomplice?"
“We traded for it," Kei said easily. "I wanted something, she wanted something, and we traded.”
Wow. So much premeditation, executed so strategically. And for what? Why did Kei want gaffer's tape?
Not knowing made Gia nervous, and Gia did not like being nervous.
She angled herself so only Kei could hear her and Whitney couldn’t read her lips as she spoke.
“I do not give many second warnings, Kei,” she said. “But I’m issuing this rare one to you: If you force me to see you as a problem one more time in the next seventy-two hours, I will send you home. Understood?”
Kei’s chin dipped in deference, eyes dropping toward her shoes. “Understood.”
“Good,” Gia said, gesturing for Kei to enter first. “Let’s get going then. It’s going to be a pretty drive today for those who can stay awake.”