Christmas has come early to IPB, Gentle Reader, because what should we find waiting in our inbox today, but the third and final part of Margee’s magnum opus, “Spooking Cindy”! Read it here, and be humbled. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll never look at the Penguins the same way again.
* * * * *
Cindy Crosby was like Ivan Lendl. He wasn’t very good on grass. Colby Armstrong had tried to install software that made it easier for him travel off-ice, but the results were rudimentary and the best he could manage was a sort of waddle, and only in pointy, shiny shoes. Cindy knew he was holding them back. Marc-Andre Fleury was faster just doing round-offs across the grounds of the Lemieux estate than Cindy was “running.” Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin had each grabbed an arm to help him along, but neither was strong enough to support him completely. Cindy longed for the days of Georges Laraque sweeping him into his arms and running him through the streets of Pittsburgh, Amsterdam, Provincetown. Sometimes they went shopping at the Sewickley farmer’s market and Georges would let him ride in a sling around his neck so his hands were free to look at the fruit. Running was difficult.
They tore across the rolling hills of the Lemieux Estate. Castle Lemieux loomed, dark and ominous, behind them. They stopped to catch their breath. Army bent over, hands on his knees, his Hawaiian shirt soaked through with sweat.
“When this is all over,” he huffed. “I’m quitting the stogies, once and for all.”
“You always say that,” said Cindy rubbing his father’s back affectionately. “But you never do.”
Cindy was not tired. Physical activity never made Cindy tired. He wondered if that quality had been programmed into him, or if it had been passed down to him from Mario Lemieux. Mario Lemieux, the man who had killed his mothers and was now trying to kill his father and brothers.
“Someone is coming,” said Flower, flattened on the grass. “Up ahead.”
The boys followed his gaze. Sure enough, the lights of a golf cart cut through the darkness like laser beams. It was coming towards them.
“Oh my word, it’s him! It’s Lemieux!” wailed Geno in his measured Iowan cadence, quickly descending into hysteria. “We’re going to die! He’s going to kill us! We’re all going to die!”
He was silenced by a hard slap from Gronk, who then grabbed Geno’s chin to calm him. It took two hands.
“We’re not going out like that,” said Gronk, shaking Geno. “I grew up on the streets of Thunder Bay. I’ll shank a bitch! I refuse to die by the hand of Mario Lemieux. I refuse!”
Cindy hit the ground, mirroring Army and Flower. Gronk and Geno quickly followed. But there was no cover for them to crawl under. The forest was still several meters away. And there was no shrubbery on the Lemieux Estate. It was a known fact that Mario Lemieux hated shrubbery. It would take a miracle for them not to be seen.
“Cindy,” Army whispered. “Your butt cheeks.”
Cindy closed his eyes and squeezed his butt cheeks together as hard as he could. The golf cart was pretty far away, but maybe, just maybe if he could squeeze his butt cheeks together hard enough, he could short out the cart.
“It’s working,” hissed Gronk. “He’s doing it, it’s working!”
Cindy could barely hear them; he was concentrating so intently. But the golf cart had come to a rolling stop some distance away. They had a chance, a small chance, of making it to the woods before Lemieux could see them. Cindy opened his eyes.
In the moonlight, he could see that the driver had gotten out of the cart and was stalking in their very direction. The driver’s cape billowed in the breeze, flapping hauntingly.
He squeezed his butt cheeks together, but it did nothing.
“Cynthia?” the driver called. It was a familiar voice. “Cynthia?”
Cindy opened his eyes. Geno and Gronk had picked him up and carried him several meters. Cindy had barely noticed.
“Madame Lemieux,” he murmured. “It’s Madame Lemieux!”
Madame Lemieux stood in the moonlight, glaring at them. It was she who had been in the golf cart.
“I saw the big, beautiful bird nose of Colby Armstrong on the security camera,” she said coldly. “And I knew Cindy was with you. I always know where my Cindy is.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Lemieux, but we have to take Cindy with us,” said Army, met with the narrowing eyes of Madame Lemieux. “It’s for his own safety.”
“Your husband is trying to kill us,” said Gronk, lowering Cindy, but keeping an arm around him so he could get used to the grass again. “And we’re not going to wait around while he plots our deaths. We have to get as far away from here as possible.”
Madame Lemieux shook her head. “Silly Staal brother,” she almost laughed. “This is the safest place for the boy. My husband is in Amsterdam… on business. Let’s go back to the house and we can figure all of this out.”
“Wait, you’re not surprised that your husband is trying to kill us,” said Gronk.
“I have been married to Mario a long time. One comes to expect these situations.”
The boys exchanged looks. Madame Lemieux smoothed Cindy’s hair from his forehead. Her cool, bony skin felt good on his velvety cheek. Cindy liked Madame Lemieux. She had always been so kind to him.
“My poor, poor Cynthia,” she said, pressing her forehead to his. “They didn’t even get you proper clothes.”
Madame Lemieux unbuttoned the cape at her neck. She swung the massive fabric toward Cindy and he realized it was not a cape at all. It was a pair of his pants. She held them out for him to step into, right foot first.
“I always have pants for my Cindy,” she said, smiling at the others. “He bursts out of them so often, I always make sure to have a spare or two with me.”
As Cindy fastened the drawstring, he could hear the others whispering back and forth.
“She’s legit,” he heard his father say. “She brought him pants.”
He could hear Gronk and Geno agree. But it seemed that Flower was unsure.
“I do not like this,” he said. “Something is not right.”
But he was overruled. “We’ll come with you,” said Army. “But only to regroup. We still have to find a safe place to hide.”
“Come,” she said. “I will make you some sandwiches.”
The boys followed her to the golf cart, piling in. Flower climbed onto the roof, laying flat and holding tight to the edges. Madame Lemieux tapped the seat next to her for Cindy. The engine wouldn’t turn over.
“Cindy?” she said, patting his knee.
Cindy clenched his butt cheeks and the engine roared to life. She thanked him and the cart lurched toward Castle Lemieux.
They headed to the kitchen, Flower following, warily. Cindy could hear Flower’s heart beating rapidly. Cindy wondered why Flower was so agitated.
Madame Lemieux looked at Gronk and Geno. Their camouflage makeup was faded and they both had clumps of grass in their ears. She grinned at them.
“Perhaps you two should wash up,” she said, leading them from the room. She indicated for Army, Flower and Cindy to have a seat at the table.
“We have to get out of here,” said Flower. “Bitch crazy.”
“Why?” said Army, fishing a fat cigar from his pocket. “Because she wants to feed us and help us escape from her murderous husband?”
Flower glowered at Army.
“Crap, I lost my lighter,” said Army, rising from the table. “There have to be matches in here somewhere.”
Army rifled through the drawers. Flower sat tensely next to Cindy. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were closed. Cindy had always liked Flower. Though he had never understood him. Flower had always used his skills to protect Cindy, though Flower had always been pretty distant in their relations.
“It’s going to be okay, Flower,” said Cindy, touching Flower’s arm, like he’d seen humans do when they spoke. “We’re with Madame Lemieux. She won’t let anything happen to us.”
“I do not think so,” said Flower. He opened his eyes and glanced furtively at Colby Armstrong, whose back was still turned away, still in search of matches.
Flower slid along the booth that surrounded the Lemieux’s kitchen table, towards Cindy. He reached for Cindy. And Cindy reached for him. Flower was going to hug him.
“I am so sorry, Cindy,” said Flower into Cindy’s ear. Cindy felt Flower’s spidery hands creep down his back. Towards his power switch.
Cindy struggled to free himself, but Flower was deceptively strong. Cindy felt himself start to power down. He could feel the hash of sleep mode start to seep in. He squeezed his butt cheeks together, but he was losing power fast.
Then suddenly, he heard a terrible clang, and Flower’s grip loosened and fell away. He felt Army hit tap the keyboard in his six-pack to awaken his software. When he came to, he saw Madame Lemieux tying up an unconscious Marc-Andre Fleury. A frying pan sat on the table next to them.
“I’m sorry, Cindy, but I had to,” she said, rising. “He was going to power you down. There’s no reason to be frightened any more.”
“It was Flower all along,” said Army, squinting at the goalie, searching for the evil that apparently lurked beyond his soul-patched façade. “Flower killed them all?”
“But of course,” said Madame Lemieux, guiding Army to a chair. “One must never trust a French-Canadian.”
Cindy Crosby was horrified. Marc-Andre Fleury was capable of many things. But Cindy had never, ever imagined that murder would be one of them.
Madame Lemieux retreated to the kitchen counter. She rustled through the cabinets, extracting the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“Mario could never do such a thing,” she said, peanut-buttering bread furiously.
Army sat there, stunned. His eyes darted back and forth from Cindy to Flower’s hogtied form. He rolled his cigar, still unlit, in his pale, stained fingers.
Madame Lemieux set a plate stacked with the sandwiches in front of Colby Armstrong. She plopped down next to Cindy and strung her arms around his ivory neck. She smelled nice.
“Please,” she said. “Eat. There’s no more danger. I’ve called the authorities. They’ll be here soon.”
Colby Armstrong picked up a triangle of PBJ. He seemed to consider it a moment. Cindy couldn’t help but notice that Madame Lemieux was watching Army intently. Madame Lemieux tended to be very proud of her cooking. She made her own jams from the orchards out back.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Army, the sandwich dangling from his hand. “Flower? A killer? I was so sure it was Lemieux.”
“But it wasn’t,” said Madame Lemieux. “He’s in Australia on business. There is nothing to worry over. I’ll call the police and this will all be over soon.”
“I thought you said you called the police already,” said Army, stopping short of taking a bite.
“I did?” Madame Lemieux blinked. “I did! I did call them. I’m so forgetful nowadays. I’m lucky I even remembered to cut the crusts off of that peanut butter and jelly. Please, have a bite and tell me what you think.”
“I just find it so hard to imagine why Marc-Andre Fleury would have done this.”
“Why? Why?” Madame Lemieux smiled bitterly. “Who knows what goes through a person’s mind?”
Madame Lemieux curled against Cindy. Cindy hadn’t noticed until that moment that she still held the peanut butter and jelly-smeared knife in her hand.
“I have to imagine that he was very desperate. Desperate to claim what is his. Sick of being brushed aside. Tired of playing second fiddle to some defenseman. Enraged that a robot prostitute commands more respect and love and affection than he does.”
Cindy was still very unclear on human emotions, but he was pretty sure that Madame Lemieux was not talking about Flower. He knew well that Marc-Andre Fleury had no problems with robot prostitutes.
“I think we should get going,” said Army, gingerly placing the sandwich back on the platter. His eyes were almost the size of his big, beautiful bird nose as he gaped at Madame Lemieux. “Where did you say Geno and Gronk went?”
Madame Lemieux folded her arms coolly. Her eyes narrowed and her crimson lips pursed venomously. Cindy could see out of the corner of his eye that her thin white hand was tightening on the butter knife.
“They are,” she hissed. “Unimportant. What is important, is you eating that sandwich, and then another, and another, and another. Until the poison takes effect and we are finally rid of you for good, Colby Armstrong.”
Army let out a birdcall of terror. “You?”
“Did I not tell you, boy? One must never trust a French Canadian.”
With that, Madame Lemieux lunged across the kitchen table, a PBJ half in one hand and the gooey knife in the other. Cindy tried to grab her ankles, but she slipped out of his grip as quickly and cleanly as Flower might have. Army had Madame Lemieux by the wrists. Cindy didn’t know what to do. The words of his father echoed in his mind.
Your butt cheeks. Use your butt cheeks.
Cindy would not lose another parent, he told himself. With all of his might, and with a great primal scream he squeezed his butt cheeks together harder than he ever had before. There was a great buzz that seemed to rock the entire house. The lights blinked into darkness and Cindy heard his father’s voice cut through the black.
Cindy took off, grasping for traction on the polished Italianate marble floors of Castle Lemieux. He heard a clamor behind him but kept going. He wondered if he could get to the North Southeast Wing and hide in one suits of armor Mario Lemieux collected from the Mummy movies. In the dark, his super–hearing kicked in. He could hear the shuffle of Madame Lemieux’s ballet slippers padding through the secret passage from the kitchen to the North Southeast Wing. She had said, after all, that she always knew where “her” Cindy was.
Cindy dashed into the West Northeast Game Room and slid under the air hockey table. He could remember over the summer when his teammates put him in standby and used him as the air hockey puck. The little shoots of air from the table had felt so cooling. The memory was so vivid, that it took a while for him to realize that he was not alone under the table.
He was face to face with a gagged Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin. And was not the kind of gag Cindy had sometimes seen them in when they took him along on their trips to the Chick-Fil-A in Robinson Town Center. They howled desperately at him through their restraints. Cindy scrambled to untie them.
“That bitch knocked us out with a frying pan!” said Gronk, enraged.
“So much for your Thunder Bay street skillz,” snarked Geno, tossing the Terrible Towel that had been used to gag him across the room.
Cindy heard the telltale click of the portrait of Bobby Bonds that guarded the West Northeast secret passageways, slide open. Madame Lemieux was near. He put a finger to his lips to quiet the other two.
“Cynthia,” he heard Madame Lemieux’s voice call. Only now, the voice sounded cold and foreign to him. She had killed or tried to kill everyone Cindy had ever loved.
Cindy peered out from under the skirt of the air hockey table. Madame Lemieux had a firm grip on Colby Armstrong. Her bejeweled hand held the knife pressed firmly against his throat. And Army had one of the poisonous half-sandwiches clamped between his teeth. Cindy could see that his father had tears in his eyes.
“Cynthia, show yourself,” she called out into the darkness. “You are in no danger from me. I want what is best for you, my boy.”
Cindy turned to Gronk and Geno. He couldn’t lose Colby Armstrong. He wouldn’t lose Colby Armstrong.
“Follow my lead,” he said, tearing off his breakaway pants. “Hold on to my butt cheek. If she tries to make a move on my father…”
“Cindy, no. We can’t. Your memory could be erased completely. We have to repeat this year,” stammered Gronk, though his hand was already carefully kneading Cindy’s butt cheek.
“I’m your captain. Do it.”
Gronk and Geno gulped and followed Cindy out from under the air hockey table. Madame Lemieux smiled at first, until she realized that Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin each had a grip on one of Cindy Crosby’s butt cheeks.
“No! Get away from him! What are you doing?” she gasped.
“Let him go,” said Cindy calmly. “Or I’ll give the order and they’ll dismantle my butt cheeks and I’ll go dark. For good.”
“Don’t you see, Cindy… I did this for you,” she cried, dissolving into tears, yet tightening her grip on Army. “You need a mother. A real mother. Not a robot prostitute. Or someone who would sell you to the NHL. Or Ryan Whitney!”
“Ryan Whitney was the best mother a boy could ever have,” Cindy shouted back at her, startled at his own very human reaction. “EVER.”
“When I first found out about you, when I first saw you, I knew you were mine, Cindy. You were meant to be my son. But I saw all of this happening and I was powerless to stop it.”
“One day, you came back from Amsterdam, where my wretched husband was no doubt visiting his robot whore. And suddenly you declared that Ryan Whitney was your mother. And this hawk-faced boy was your father.”
Army let out a little cry.
“I arranged to have them traded. But no, that didn’t keep them away. You still insisted on communicating, and exchanging gifts, and loving them as your parents.
“So I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I…removed all of your so-called ‘mothers’ one by one. So that you had no choice but to let me mother you.”
“You’re a monster,” said Gronk, still thoughtfully massaging Cindy’s butt cheek.
“I’m a mother,” she said gravely. “And I mothered all of those other mothers to death. Except for the robot whore. Her? I just straight up tore up. And it was glorious.”
“How could you do this?” said Cindy, experiencing a new feeling altogether. Anger.
“I loved you more than any of those other mothers,” she pleaded, loosening her grip on Colby Armstrong. “Do you think any of them would commit multiple homicide for you?”
“You’re damn right I would,” said a familiar voice, hidden behind the drapes.
Startled, Madame Lemieux let go of Army, who promptly spit out the poisonous PBJ and ran to the Slurpee machine to wash his mouth out. Ryan Whitney appeared as if out of thin air and backhanded Madame Lemieux. The knife flew from her hand and she spilled to the floor in a blur of rubies and Capri pants with that one decisive pimp slap. Gronk and Geno jumped on her, tying her up with the same Terrible Towels with which she’d restrained them.
Cindy ran to Ryan Whitney’s outstretched arms.
“I knew it,” he said, finding the water pouring from his eyes a comforting sensation. “I knew I couldn’t lose you. I knew you would never leave me!”
Ryan Whitney tightened his grip on Cindy.
“You’ll never lose me, Cindy,” he said softly, the dimple on his chin deepening as he smiled lovingly upon his son. “I’ll always be with you.”
Army sputtered and choked by the Slurpee machine.
“Father!” he cried. “Is it the poison?”
“No, it’s a brain freeze,” he said. “Come on, let’s call the police.”
“You’re right,” said Cindy turning back to Ryan Whitney. “Come on, mother…”
But Ryan Whitney wasn’t there.
* * * * *
“Crosby,” Sal, the equipment manager said to Cindy, as he peeled off his sweat-soaked Under Armor. “Coach’s office. Now.”
Gronk and Geno stood up from the bench, breathless and ruddy. Practice had been extra-tough that day. As it had been every day since they’d gone back to playing hockey.
“Lemieux is in there,” said Gronk, suspiciously. “Do you want us to go with you?”
Life had resumed for all of them. Army had gone back to Atlanta. Gronk and Geno had returned to frequenting Chick-Fil-A. Flower had recovered from his head injury and resumed his martial arts and gymnastics studies.
Madame Lemieux had not been charged with any crimes. Mario had made sure of that.
“No,” said Cindy. “It’s okay.”
He strode to the coach’s office. He was still wearing his skates, so getting across the floor was much easier than it was in shoes. He knocked.
“You wanted to see me,” he said, ignoring Lemieux lurking in the corner.
“Have a seat, kid,” Coach Dude said. “This arrived for you today.”
Coach slid a closed wooden box across his desk to Cindy. Cindy looked briefly to Mario Lemieux who was staring out the window, chin in hand.
The box was small and smooth. And airbrushed into the lid was a portrait of Cindy and Ryan Whitney, staring directly out, grinning. Someone had painted it from a photo they had taken on a day trip to see Tony Orlando at the casino in Wheeling. Cindy closed his eyes and could remember, as if it was the most recently opened file on his desktop, how Ryan Whitney had pulled him close and held the camera at arm’s length to snap the photo of them.
“It’s Ryan Whitney’s remains in there,” said Coach, flatly. He had long ago become used to handing the ashes of murdered loved ones to his players. He’d spent several seasons coaching Gary Roberts. “His ashes. He wanted you to have them.”
“He said he’d always be with me,” Cindy smiled faintly. “I guess he was right.”
Cindy ran his fingers across the smooth surface of his Ryan Whitney’s portrait. And stopped on the small flourished signature of the artist at the bottom corner of the lid.
“She wanted to make it up to you,” said Lemieux, squinting against the silvery glow of the overcast Pittsburgh sky beyond the window. “She—she feels terrible…about Ryan Whitney, at least.”
“He was there,” said Cindy, taking the box into his arms as if it were a newborn baby. “He was there that night. He saved Father.”
Lemieux smiled bitterly to himself, yet he still did not meet Cindy’s eyes.
“I have no doubt that Ryan Whitney came back from the dead to pimp slap my wife,” said Lemieux. “It would take more than death you keep Ryan Whitney from loving you, Sidney Crosby.”
Cindy clutched the box tighter to him as he stood. He turned head back to the locker room. He wasn’t using his super-hearing—one of the traits he had inherited from Lemiuex—but he could swear he heard Lemiux sigh again.
“No. Death cannot stop Ryan Whitney.”
Gronk, Geno, and Flower wear waiting for him outside of the Coach’s office. Their expressions were solemn and none could take his eyes off of the box that contained Ryan Whitney.
“He’s right, you know,” said Flower, who by now had forgiven the rest of them for believing him a murderer. “About Ryan Whitney.”
“Come on, guys,” said Gronk, taking Cindy’s hand in his. “Family dinner. Let’s go to Chick-Fil-A.”