Story: Will You Marry Me?

It’s February and that means it’s the month of love! We’ll start off the lovely festivities with a story about a wedding. Yes, it’s time for another College-Time Mystery.

The Grungers reunite to celebrate a wedding. But their detective skills are called into play when the bride goes missing!

Enjoy!
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Will You Marry Me?
Story by J.R. Underdown

A young red-headed woman sat alone on the curb in Carver Circle in mid-October of 2009. This was a dangerous position for her to be in for on three sides above her two floors of dark windows peered down. Any number of young, virile, single men could be eyeing her solitary form upon the curb and working up the courage to race down and ask her to marry them. She knew this risk well, but felt dangerous that afternoon and willing to take the chance. Besides, friends would be joining her soon.

Thus she tensed up and blushed when suddenly a deep voice behind her said, “Excuse me, miss, but could you peruse this catalogue of engagement rings and pick which one you’d like me to buy?”

Slowly Laura turned ready to break the man’s heart, but her manner relaxed and her blush faded when she saw it was only John.

“John…it’s been too long,” she mustered.

Her friend chuckled and sat down. “Does that mean it’s been so long you forgot I would pull a joke like that or it’s been too long and so it’s too soon to do that?”

“Both.”

With that, the two began catching up on where the other had been. Laura had temporarily returned to Louisville to play piano in a wedding for a friend. This friend and her groom were mutual friends to John, Bryan, and Jess and so the marriage would act as a reunion for the parted Grungers. Bryan was playing cello and John was running sound. Jess would come along for the mere pleasure of being with her comrades. They were meeting in Carver Circle awaiting a ride to the church for dress rehearsal.

Soon Jess came up the steps and through the side wall, having crossed the Valley of Decision. Laura sprung up and ran to give her a hug.

“Hey, I didn’t get that kind of reception!” John joked as the two girls sat down beside him.

“You spoiled your chance when you made it too awkward,” Laura answered.

“Oh no, what’d he do?” Jess wondered. “Play you a Calvinistic love song?”

Laura rolled her eyes. “Worse, he wanted me to pick a ring from a non-existent magazine.”

“That is pretty bad,” Jess agreed.

“At least it was creative,” John muttered.

Looking to change conversation, he began filling the ladies in on the last two mysteries they missed. It seemed like a picturesque setting there in the Circle for John to regale them with mysterious tales. The sky was grey and cloudy, in such a way that only an autumnal firmament can look. Fallen leaves littered the island in the middle of the Circle adding brown, orange, and red to the dull scenery. Laura’s fiery red hair, Jess’ blazing orange jacket, and John’s light brown hair mirrored the leaves allowing them to blend in with the season. The air was brisk with a light chill wind reminding the Grungers that it was fall and not spring, like the last time they were together. They were alone in the Circle. No cars, no students; just three friends in conversation.

When John finished with his update, they sat for a moment in silence. Finally, Jess shivered in the cold and remarked, “Where’s Bryan? He’s usually on time.”

“He wasn’t in his room when I came down,” John noted. “Currently their room looks like a science lab. I think Gus is concocting some herbal potion.”

“Probably looks better than your room,” Laura joked.

“My room looks like a haunted house!” John rejoined.

The girls shook their heads.

Finally, they saw their ride pull into the Circle. Although it was the car they knew, the driver surprised them: it was Bryan.

“Kevin and Lara are letting us borrow the car for the weekend,” Bryan explained as they piled in. “They figured we’ll need it driving around as much as we will be. Laura, welcome back, by the way.”

More conversation ensued as they rode away to Old Louisville, where Third Baptist Church resided (it was originally the Fourth, but the Second closed its doors and all the other churches moved up a space). The rehearsal for the marriage of Philip Fairmont and Farah Lang passed successfully and without incident. The wedding party consisted of six people total: The bride and groom, the best man (Philip’s best friend and former roommate), the maid of honor (Farah’s sister), a groomsman and a bridesmaid (both college friends). Next was the real fun. The rehearsal dinner was reserved at the Wild Moose Bar & Grille on the banks of the Ohio River in Indiana. The Grungers got lost once, but eventually made it to the fancy restaurant.

They were ushered into a large party room with windows for walls on three sides. The room looked out on the river and commanded a grand view of Louisville’s skyline. In the sunset and gathering twilight, it left an impression upon the Grungers as dark clouds rimmed in pink hovered above the skyscrapers while a clear, clean sky appeared hopefully to the east. Taking in the view a moment, they sat down with Philip’s parents.

His dad, a short wiry man with a pointed goatee and balding grey head along with stylish business casual glasses, greeted them with a smile. His wife, a little stockier but with a kind face and rosy cheeks and short light black hair fighting off grey, also welcomed them.

“Phil’s told us about you kids,” he opened. “You solve mysteries?”

“That’s right,” Bryan acknowledged. “Usually the odd ones overlooked by professionals.”

“Yep, life’s full of mysteries,” the dad remarked with a relish.

“Paul likes reading mystery books,” the mom joined in, laying a hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“Well, the mysterious is not just limited to the books! You find it all the time in everyday life.”

“That’s what a friend of mine told me once,” John noted dreamily. “He said we could expect mysteries wherever we go. He was right.”

“Precisely! Why, just the other day someone at work brought in this rainbow-colored wig—looked like they stole it from a clown!—anyway, the thing goes missing and eventually turns out that someone stuck it up in the ceiling by moving one of the panels.”

Paul laughed at this and struck the table with his hand. His wife shook her head.

“Who put it up there?” Jess wondered.

“Well, that’s the mystery! No one knows.”

“You should give Bryan the facts,” Laura suggested. “He’d probably be able to figure it out.”

“I bet it was the janitor,” Jess cut in before Bryan could humbly shoot down the idea. “We had a mystery last semester that involved a janitor at an office building.”

“Really?” went the dad. “That was probably a more interesting case than mine.”

“It was,” John muttered as he took a sip of water. Laura kicked his shin under the table.

“All mysteries have a certain flare to them,” Bryan finally replied, “even the boring ones. That’s what makes the subject so intriguing to people.”

Paul gave the table a softer hit and pointed at Bryan. “I think you are in the right about that. There’s certainly a draw to what we don’t know. Maybe I’ll write my story down and make money off of it…’Mystery of the Missing Wig’…sounds interesting, doesn’t it?”

John made a face and tilted his head, implying he didn’t think so, and Laura bruised his other shin. She was an equal opportunity disciplinarian.

Paul, who good-naturedly caught on to John’s unimpressed attitude, pressed them for tales of their own mysteries. Jess related the story she referenced, with its tense culmination in the Valley of Decision. Laura added their catching of the jealous friend who beat his best friend in the midst of a snowstorm. Bryan recounted their last mystery involving the young man with the changed identity; and John gave the cream of the crop with the time they uncovered a sex trafficking ring.

Both parents were equally impressed with their tales. The stories came at a good time, as the food had been served and they were able to devour a salad, steak, and dessert in the telling of all four.

“I can see why John over here doesn’t think highly of my little problem,” Paul concluded with a grin. “And you don’t have to abuse his shins more, Laura, I took no offense.”

Laura blushed at being called out for her not-so-subtle punishment and John turned a shade red for realizing his rudeness.

“Well, at least if something mysterious happens at the wedding tomorrow we know who to call,” the father of the groom joked.

“Oh Paul, don’t jinx the poor couple,” his wife warned.

“They know I’m just kidding!” But then he leaned closer and the Grungers instinctively mirrored him. “However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Phil and his best man came to blows over the marriage.”

“Paul!” his wife called out softly.

“What? It almost happened once before! I thought it was kind of a gutsy move to make him the best man.”

“Does his friend not approve of Farah?” Jess asked.

“Oh, no. Dean, the best man, he was infatuated with Farah before Phil. But Farah fell for Phil over Dean and he didn’t take kindly to that. During a rough patch in Phil and Farah’s relationship, Dean tried stepping in to steal the girl and Phil didn’t take too kindly to that. They almost duked it out, but Phil’s level head prevailed and they talked things through. It was actually that row that made Phil determined to not let Farah slip away. Sort of ironic, isn’t it?”

“So you think there’s still bad blood between them?” Laura queried.

“No,” the mother firmly answered. “Phil forgave Dean and they’re on good terms now. That’s why Dean is the best man. It’s a sign of goodwill between the two.”

Paul gave a doubtful look and shrugged. “Maybe, but you can tell Dean still has feelings for her. You can see it in the way he looks at her.”

Ready at hand was an example of that look as Paul pointed at the table where the wedding party supped. Sure enough, Dean sat silently, while the others conversed, and stole longing glances at Farah. Clearly, it seemed, embers of his love still glowed in his heart.

Philip’s mother, though, was ready for a change in conversation and turned it toward the Grungers and whether any of them were in a relationship. This made things more awkward but it didn’t last long. Soon the happy couple kicked off post-dinner festivities with games and a slide show. After a time of testimonials from various friends and family wishing them a blessed arrangemen, the night concluded and the four students returned to campus.

The following day dawned with pale grey clouds and promised to be a perfect fall day. When noon time found the Grungers reunited in Carver Circle, they were dressed much nicer than they were accustomed to.

“John, you actually clean up pretty well,” Jess remarked.

He surveyed his black pants and shoes, white Oxford shirt, and dark green tie. “Hmm, do you think if I dressed like this more often I could get a girlfriend?”

“That or a membership into the Mormon church,” Laura joked.

“If you weren’t a girl, I’d kick you in the shins.”

Bryan pulled up just then, allowing John and Laura to avoid engaging in fisticuffs. They had a light-hearted drive to church and went about their respective duties with zeal. Bryan and Laura practiced the songs together one last time, John made sure the microphones had fresh batteries, and even Jess got in on the action by running errands for Farah and her bridal party.

The church was largely bare, as far as decorations went. Old white walls that looked a little yellow; musty pews with cushions long overdue for a change; light green and maroon carpet dated the floor; and wooden railing that would’ve added some color had they not been painted white. The narrow windows were stained glass, but didn’t add that much color to the bland furnishings. However, the pulpit was a dazzling contrast to the monotony! Flowers bearing the colors of fall went up and down the steps and a trellis robed in orange and yellow drew the eye to the stage. The festive air only increased as people flowed into the building and filled in the pews.

At 3:30 sharp, Laura received the sign from the bride’s mother that all was ready and began a beautiful melody on the piano. The sanctuary grew quiet and hurriedly everyone took their seat.

The groomsmen and bridesmaids entered from a side door with the groom and pastor and stood upon the steps of the stage. The grandparents entered next down the main aisle, escorted by the ushers as well as the groom’s parents and the bride’s mother. “Ooo’s” and “ahhs” came from the crowd now as the flower girl and ring bearer meandered aimlessly and shyly down the aisle. A subtle change of tunes brought an electric tension to the place as they all awaited the coming of the bride. Laura and Bryan played the slow song beautifully and with gusto. Heartstrings were in the perfect space for Farah’s arrival now.

But the tension wasn’t broken and people started giving their necks a break from craning to see the bride. Bryan and Laura, who knew the exact beat and note the bride and her father were to enter on, exchanged worried glances. Jess peered over the balcony railing trying to catch sight of her friend. John patiently waited because he didn’t have any mic issues to worry about.

At last the wide double doors at the back of the sanctuary opened and admitted Farah’s father…only the father. He was a husky man with short grey hair gently spiked for the occasion. His face was rather flat and square with only his nose escaping the surface. At that moment, it was contorted in panic.

“Gone! She’s gone! I can’t find her anywhere!”

No one had to ask who “she” or “her” was. Soon the father’s panic spread to the congregation. John, who had developed a nose for trouble (or who had enough common sense to see it), stood up and looked to Bryan, who had set his cello aside and was hastily telling Laura something. She quitted her station at the ivory keys and scurried out a nearby door that led to the main building of the church.

John, trying to guess why Bryan had sent Laura off, turned to Jess, “Go assess the situation in the lobby.”

Jess merely nodded and left.

The wedding party during this time stood frozen on the steps. Poor Philip looked white like a marble statue and shot looks from the pastor to Farah’s dad. After Laura had stepped out, Bryan jumped over a small partition that separated the instruments from the main stage. He snatched a microphone from its stand and tried to calm the frenzied guests. But the racket drowned out Bryan’s soft voice. He looked to the balcony for help, to which John plugged his iPod into the sound system and began playing Petra’s song “Dance”. The general outcry turned from, “Where is the bride?” to, “What are we listening to?”

Now John turned up Bryan’s mic and pointed at him.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, slowly grabbing everyone’s attention. “Please, remain calm and seated. We’ll get the facts in order and resume shortly.”

This seemed to be the calming influence the restless group needed and the loud roar died to a quiet murmur. The wedding party also took their seats along the front pews. John descended from the balcony and joined Bryan on the stage with the pastor, Philip, and the parents of the couple. Farah’s family was in hysterics, Philip still looked like a ghost, but the others were trying to keep a cool head.

“So Mrs. Lang, you gave us the okay to start playing,” Bryan was asking Farah’s tearful mother, “did she personally tell you she was ready?”

“No, her sister told me she was ready. I think she was the last to see her.” And then the woman burst out in sobs.

Bryan was about to call up Farah’s sister, but Laura returned with Jess.

“All the doors that are open have greeters at them,” she reported.

“They’re trustworthy?” Bryan pressed.

“I’d say so, we go to church with them.”

“Ah, good. But there are other doors.”

“They’re locked and they don’t appear to have been opened.”

“We checked them all,” Jess added.

Bryan took up a thinking man’s pose and considered these facts.

“What’s next, Bryan?” wondered John. “The people are getting restless again.”

Indeed the murmur was rising in volume, like the coming of the tide.

“I need time to think. At any rate, it appears she’s still in the building somewhere so let’s organize a search party.”

This odd wedding grew weirder now as Bryan again took the mic and began gathering people into four small groups. A Grunger and a member of the wedding party headed each party. As the arrangements were being finalized, Bryan found Philip’s father coming up beside him and whispering,

“Looks like I will get to see you work. I guess everyday life does have some mystery to it.”

Bryan sighed. “Yes, but most mysteries usually involve tragedy.”

A thorough search of the church yielded, surprisingly, poor results. It did seem as if Farah simply vanished in thin air. Now perplexity started turning over to anger, though at whom or what could scarcely be determined. A particular loud-mouthed cousin of Farah’s gave the leaders of the investigation a hard time.

“Whoever did this is probably miles away by now,” he was saying, or rather yelling, at Bryan as the different groups returned to the auditorium. “We’re wasting time here!”

“No door greeter or usher saw Farah leave either by herself or with anyone else,” Bryan reasoned, “so she is still in this building.”

“Oh yeah, where? We just overturned this place and there’s no sign of her!”

“The pastor took a group to check other hidden spots that most people wouldn’t know about.”

The man, who was on the larger side, threw up his hands in disgust. “She’s not here!” he shouted. “We should be getting out there looking for her and we should certainly call the cops.”

“The cops aren’t needed yet, and as I’ve tried to tell you, she is here, though where is a mystery.”

The cousin stared blankly at the college student. “Who are you? And why are we taking orders from you anyway?”

“Jack, right?” entered Philip’s dad. “Bryan here and his friends have solved bigger mysteries than this before, so we can trust them on this.”

The fuming family member looked angrily between the two and then said, “Fine, can I at least go out looking for her?”

Bryan shook his head and prepared himself for the coming storm even as he gave his answer. “One, it would be useless. Two, everyone in this church is a suspect and if we let even one person go, we may be letting slip from our hands the key to the mystery.”

The cousin was rigged for detonation now, but Paul gently, and firmly, took him by the arm and led him away from the stage which Bryan had made the center of his investigation.

“This is quite the mystery we have on our hands,” Jess noted.

“I’ll say,” John agreed, “a type we haven’t seen before: an in-house kidnapping! We’re all locked inside, we’re all suspects. Exciting, huh?”

“While we may be breaking new ground in our adventures, John,” said Bryan, “let’s be sensitive with our enthusiasm for the case around the wedding party.”

He nodded subtly behind John where Philip paced back and forth on the stage praying.

About this time the pastor with his group returned from their search. Laura had gone with them and sadly shook her head as she approached.

“No sign of her.”

“Could she have escaped through a window?” Jess ventured.

“No, I checked all the ground floor windows,” Bryan answered. “They’re locked and covered by screens on the outside. There was no sign of tampering with any of them.”

“You know what I think?” John began.

“It better not be about the pixie people,” Laura cut in.

“I forgot about them! Maybe they can be another option. But no, what I was thinking is that maybe Somalian pirates infiltrated the guest list and kidnapped Farah. To avoid detection, they cleverly disguised her as one of the wedding decorations.”

The other Grungers stared blankly at John for a moment.

“Assuming that’s even plausible,” Laura started, “why would they do that?”

“Farah’s dad got involved in some illegal international trading and threatened to turn them in. This is their revenge!”

“You know Farah’s dad is a car mechanic, right?” Jess countered.

“Car parts! It has something to do with car parts. They’re not made in America anymore.”

“I think our next step is to figure out an order of events,” Bryan resolved. “We’ll split up. John and I will interrogate the groomsmen and Laura and Jess will cover the bridesmaids and bride’s parents.”
“Why divide and conquer?” Jess wondered.

“It’ll make it go faster. Dig into when the last time was that they all saw Farah and start your investigation from there.” He paused and thought. “Also, see if there was any enmity against Philip or jealousy of Farah. And find out what they do for a living.”

Laura and Jess exchanged glances and then turned to do their work. Bryan called up Dean to the foot of the stage. The crowd sensed that the reported sleuths were beginning to follow their scents and tried to hear what questions were being asked of the wedding party. Thus Bryan had John run back up to the balcony and turn on calming background music (meaning, not Petra) to add noise to the rather silent sanctuary.

“You’re Dean, correct?” Bryan began.

The solemn best man, a stocky, broad shouldered young man with narrow set eyes, nodded slowly.

“When was the last time you saw Farah?”

Dean raised an eyebrow, but answered, “Around lunchtime. We all ate together.”

“You didn’t see her since then?”

“No. They kept us guys sequestered on the opposite side of the building.”

Bryan nodded, processing the information. John returned now from the balcony.

“Dean, this is an awkward question to ask. But in light of what happened, I must ask you about a rumor I heard.”

Philip’s friend smiled slightly. “I knew this was coming. Yes, I tried stealing Phil’s girl once. But we’re over that now. You can check that with Phil.”

“I see. One more thing, what do you do for a living?”

Both eyebrows pushed up the forehead now. “I work as a night shift security guard at a local power plant.”

Bryan dismissed Dean and motioned for the groomsman to come forward.

“You know,” John remarked while they waited, “I think Dean would win if he and Philip did get into a brawl.”

“I’ll keep that in mind in case we need to subdue the groom. Ah, Gary, I believe?”

The groomsman was small in stature and skinny. His face was covered in freckles and his bright blue eyes grabbed your own. His shaggy reddish brown hair was tousled in a stylish way to pass as acceptable for a wedding. He sheepishly nodded in ascent to Bryan’s question.

“When was the last time you saw Farah?”

His face grew a little redder. “I saw her an hour before the wedding.”

“Why did you see her? Were you meeting up with her?”

“Oh, no!” he quickly replied. “I had to use the bathroom and got lost looking for one. There weren’t any functioning ones on our side of the church. I saw her flitting by with her bridal party. I think she was getting her dress ready.”

Bryan nodded. “And that was the last time?”

“Yes. I averted my eyes even then. Bad luck, they say, seeing a bride before her wedding.”

“Maybe it’s your fault this day’s turned out the way it has!” John accused.

Gary turned red as a ripe tomato.

“Don’t mind him,” Bryan comforted. “Gary, did you have feelings for Farah?”

The poor man’s face barely had time to lighten from John’s comment and quickly refilled with blood. “Well, gosh, I mean, she is a pretty, young woman, if you know what I mean.” And then in whisper, “Don’t tell Philip.”

“We won’t for now. One more question: where do you work?”

The groomsman cocked his head slightly. “I work as a pharmaceutical tech. I’m studying to be a nurse.”

Bryan was about to dismiss him when John intervened.

“I have a question. When you accidentally saw Farah and her gaggle earlier did you happen to see any suspicious looking men lurking in the shadows…perhaps of Somalian ancestry?”

“Thank you, Gary, that’s all for now,” Bryan cut in. “I think we can rule out pirates, John,” he added when alone again.

“Better safe than sorry. Looks like the girls are still digging, what should we do?”

“We’ll fact-check our clues with Philip.”

As frazzled as the groom was in that hour, he affirmed his groomsmen’s occupations and that things were really smoothed over between him and Dean. No, he had never noticed Gary taking interest in Farah, why, was he interested? Bryan sidestepped this awkward moment and pressed on. There was a bathroom on their side, but he didn’t think the guys knew about it at first. Gary had told him of his mishap and Phil told them where the nearest restroom lay for them. He didn’t remember off-hand how often they took bathroom breaks as he was busy finishing arrangements before the ceremony.

During this time Laura and Jess had questioned Farah’s mom, a tall, lean woman with shoulder-length autumn hair and piercing brown eyes. The rest of her face and form told one that her tastes were petite. Mrs. Lang, a retired ophthalmologist, informed them of the same thing she told Bryan. She had not seen her daughter for some time before the wedding due to Farah requesting some time alone to finish prep and reflect. At this point, Mr. Lang joined the conversation and informed them that he came shortly after the music began and found the dressing room deserted. He spent the next few minutes scouring the surrounding halls and rooms for his daughter to no avail. That’s when he made his way to the lobby and stopped the wedding.

Laura took copious notes, trying to work out a timeline. Farah’s sister, Louisa, a slim physical fitness trainer in training, last saw her sister before the ceremony began. She visited the dressing room, saw Farah standing before the window and asked if she was ready. She nodded and away Louisa went to alert her mom. She looked affronted when asked if she had any feelings for Philip and sternly said she never entertained the notion since Farah was fiercely jealous of her groom-to-be.

The other bridesmaid, a plump blonde named Mattie, who was studying biology, last saw her friend when she and Louisa took leave of the bride to allow her time to reflect before the wedding. She blushed and giggled slightly at the question of hidden desires for Phil and admitted that she entertained the thought only in her dreams.

Coming back together on the stage, the Grungers swapped clues. Laura redrew her timeline and Bryan studied it intensely.

“I think it’s this Dean fella,” John wagered. “He has the likeliest motive.”

“It doesn’t make him a kidnapper,” Bryan countered. “Obviously he’s a prime suspect, but perhaps our timeline here can shed some light.”

His scrutiny of the little slip of paper created a perplexed look on his features.

“What’s wrong, Bryan?” asked Jess.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Bryan answered. “It’s like we have missing time.”

“Bryan, that’s silly,” said Laura. “How can time vanish? Sure, we have expressions like ‘killing time’, but that’s only a figure of speech. How could we literally lose time?”

Bryan stood up straight and looked at Laura; wheels that had long laid dormant now creaked into motion behind his eyes. He looked up toward a wing of the wrap-around balcony and cocked his head.

“I suppose it depends on how you conceptualize time,” he began at last. “Of course, depending on your relation to the Greenwich Mean Time it’s possible that some ‘time’ could technically be lost.”

“Perhaps somewhere in the passage of Planck time, small nanoseconds could be lost to the stream of space-time consciousness…”

John and Jess looked at each other.

“I have not missed this,” he admitted.

“I kinda have,” Jess replied honestly.

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s very humbling. It reminds me I don’t know everything.”

John thought about this. “I guess so. That’s certainly the silver-lining perspective.” He paused and listened to Bryan postulate about the theories of Svedberg. “We should stop them before it gets out of control, right?”

Jess nodded. “Yeah, and in a jiffy, since that loud-mouthed cousin will undoubtedly have something to say if we don’t.”

“Maybe the loud-mouthed cousin is the real culprit. He seemed pretty eager to leave the building.”

Jess was surprised that John actually had a valid viewpoint and succeeded in stopping Laura from embarking on postulations involving time travel. She gave Bryan John’s suggestion. He and Laura were also surprised at John’s serious comment.

“His behavior is suspicious,” Bryan noted. “But, to my knowledge, he hasn’t met Philip before today. I think our answer lies in the wedding party as they were the ones closest to Farah.”

“But something’s wrong with the timeline,” Jess started. “You were confused about something?”

“Ah yes. According to Farah’s sister and father, between the last time Farah was seen alone and the time her father went to get her is a matter of minutes. Whoever managed to drug her and pull her away into hiding would’ve had to work quickly.”

“Wait, drug her?” Laura cut in.

“Well, I doubt she went willingly,” Bryan reasoned. “And I doubt blunt force was used, so yes, I conclude that some knock-out agent was in play.”

“Maybe it was Mike Tyson’s,” John postured.

“Who?”

“You know, Mike Tyson? He was on that Punch-out! game…”

Bryan shook his head to keep his mind clear of useless knowledge. “Let’s focus here, John.”

“Could it be her dad?” Jess posited. “Perhaps he doesn’t like Phil all that much and wants to keep his daughter away from him.”

“No, I think Mr. Lang likes Phil,” said Laura. “On the surface, at least, it seems that way…”

“What it comes down to is that someone’s lying,” Bryan concluded. “I think I know who, but we need to smoke the person out to be sure.”

“How?” John asked. “We can’t find Farah anywhere to stick it on someone.”

“I think we need to refine our search methods.”

Bryan called the other interested parties up and proposed one more search. Several sighed or gave skeptical looks, but Bryan stood by his guns and laid out his plans. They would go off in four separate groups and search four very specific areas; places likely to hold a hidden bride. The intent was that a Grunger would be assigned to each member of the wedding party and that they would stick to their person no matter what happened. Bryan, Dean, and Philip comprised a group. John took Gary, the pastor, and Philip’s dad. Laura searched with Louisa and Mrs. Lang, while Jess followed Mattie and Farah’s dad.

Bryan’s group took a flight of wide steps to a floor behind the sanctuary. The old, dusty rooms that resided there were used as storage by the congregants of the church. Bryan casually eyed his suspect and nonchalantly followed in his footsteps. Or, at least, it was supposed to be nonchalant.

“You think I’m a suspect, don’t you?” Dean said suddenly, turning Philip’s attention away from a bookshelf. “You may be smart, but you’re not sneaky.”

Bryan shrugged. “Oh well. Hopefully my friends do better. The whole wedding party is suspect after all.”

“Bryan, you don’t mean that!” Philip declared. “Do you really think one of my or Farah’s friends would do something like this to us?”

Bryan cringed slightly. “Unfortunately I do. While you are suspect, Dean, you’re not the chief one. I’m tailing you to be on the safe side. I allowed one of my colleagues to handle the likely culprit, hoping to lull them into a false sense of security and make a dumb move.”

The question of who the real perpetrator was hung on the lips of Philip and Dean and was answered by a shout from John, who led his party to rooms underneath where they stood.

Bryan immediately dashed for the stairs, Philip close behind. Halfway down, he saw a lithe white form carried on the shoulders of Gary as he ran off. John staggered after him, holding his nose. He connected with Bryan and they both gave chase.

“He’s a sneaky one!” said John. “I had a hard time following him. When he couldn’t shake me, he said he found her and then bopped me on the nose! He’s strong for a little guy.”

Indeed, it was impressive, if nothing else, to see such a small man carry the bride and her fluffy dress as if it presented no hindrance at all. The groomsman barreled past the usher guarding the door to a back parking lot and alley and turned right, heading for the main lot. By the time the pursuers caught up, Gary had swung his car out of its space and rolled down the passenger window. In the side seat, Farah was unconscious of the flight happening about her. Grinning devilishly over her form, Gary stared wildly at the detectives and Philip.

“She’s mine now, as she always should’ve been!”

With the squeal of tires, it seemed the man would run away with the bride. Bryan opened his mouth to command them to a car for a chase, but a bulky blur sprinted past them and dove in through the open window. The car swerved onto the main street but didn’t go far. It drove a short distance past the church and softly crashed into a small sapling.

As the three young men ran up to the scene, Dean, slightly bloodied and blackened, pulled himself from the window space and opened the door. Gently he picked Farah from the vehicle and held her out to Philip. In spite of the horror of it, it was a touching moment as the best man who knew unrequited love willingly handed the source of that anguish to the one who had won Farah’s heart.

About now Gary stumbled from his car and stood dazed with a bloody nose.

“Gary, you can go home,” said Philip as he took his bride in his arms. “Farah, let’s get married.”

Cheers erupted when Philip returned with Farah. There was further delay as the bride awoke and embarrassingly realized her situation. But within a half hour, the ceremony resumed and had a successful denouement.

Although the Grungers had questions to ask of Bryan, they held their curiosity in check until the car ride to the reception.

“Well, that was quite the mystery,” John began. “Very weird and creepy…which seems to be a theme as of late, eh Bryan?”

The driver nodded. “I don’t know what that says about the clientele we attract.”

“Personally, it’s all a boggle to me,” Laura admitted. “Did you know it was Gary?”

“By the end of the investigation I was fairly sure of it,” Bryan answered.

“But how?” Jess pressed. “It seemed like the whole party had motive.”

“They did, which made it difficult,” Bryan agreed, turning onto the interstate. “I had to form a hypothesis first, which started with how Farah was kidnapped and kept quiet while hidden in the church. My conclusion was a drug being involved. That’s why I asked for background on their career paths. Gary’s pursuit as a nurse made him a prime candidate. Also, his hidden feelings for Farah seemed to belie his awkward, innocent demeanor. He had the right knowledge to be able to safely administer a knock-out drug and keep her sedated for as long as it took to wait out the investigation. He could divert suspicion from the area where he searched by either moving Farah or lying about not finding her where he actually put her. He probably hoped we would widen the search to the surrounding area, as the cousin clamored for, but when we got too close he knew the game was up and tried to escape.”

“So he slipped away and drugged Farah before her dad came?” Laura wondered. “He did all that by himself?”

Bryan slowed down for traffic through a construction zone (because Louisville is always under construction) and smiled as he answered. “Remember the timeline inconsistency? It proves he had help.”

“But who?” Jess queried as Bryan paused. Then she gasped, “Farah’s sister?”

The Grungers riveted their eyes on Bryan in shock.

“You guessed it,” he admitted. “As best as I can tell, Louisa, who openly claimed to be the last to see her sister, was in it with Gary and administered the drug whether morphine or knock-out gas or something more technical. She covered him and allowed him to get away. When enough time elapsed, she told her mom all was ready and no one was the wiser.”

A moment of silence reigned as traffic resumed. Finally Laura said, “But what could Louisa get out of it? Did she hate Philip that much?”

“On the contrary, she was madly in love with him!”

“But she said…”

“She was lying. We all saw the way Dean looked at Farah; did none of you see how Louisa eyed Philip?”

John laughed dryly. “Okay, let’s assume they successfully dupe everyone. What would they gain?”

“Gary probably thought he could sway Farah to love him instead and Louisa would’ve done the same with Philip.” He paused. “It’s not the brightest idea, but it was executed well.”

By now they had passed the construction zone and were underway again.

“Why didn’t you say anything about Louisa after Farah was found?” Jess asked.

Bryan shrugged. “It seemed like the more tactful course would be to let her stay for the wedding. There was enough tragedy in the wedding party as it was and I wouldn’t want to be the one to drive a wedge between two sisters.”

“’Lord help the mister…’” Laura began.

“Besides,” Bryan continued, “Farah’s a smart woman and she’ll probably connect two-and-two before the night is even over.”

Twilight was fast giving way to darkness and the evening carried that cool dullness peculiar to autumn-time. The Grungers were all lost in thought over the wedding they just experienced. But John, snapping suddenly out of his daze, considered the signs they passed on the interstate and looked at Bryan.

“We’re lost, aren’t we?”

Indeed, they were lost. Bryan, who thought he knew the way, missed an exit and was required to pull off somewhere and ask for help at a gas station. They eventually found their way to the reception hall where dinner was being served. Bryan was the toast of the night, behind the happy—and frazzled—couple. He was asked to recount his side of the story several times. He grew so tired of this he contemplated adding fictitious details to spice up each retelling. John tried his luck on the dance floor and quickly proved why his family was staunchly Baptist. He wanted to do karaoke, but his friends mercifully detained him. By the end of the night, though, Louisa was absent and no one close to the family bothered explaining why.

Soon the tragic time came when the Grungers returned to campus and parted. Laura gave them a tearful goodbye and walked off with Jess, who said if the guys ever needed help on a mystery they could call her…but secretly, though, so no one would think they were in a love triangle. The next day, Jess dropped Laura off at the airport for her flight home.

In regards to the dysfunctional wedding party, the only follow-up of note comes in the form of Louisa and Gary, who eventually eloped and now live happily in Los Angeles.

The moral of this story can only be this: Never leave a bride alone with her jealous sister and a creepy groomsman.

*college-time mysteries. 2016. All rights reserved.

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