Staying in the Game
See Part 1 for Disclaimers.
Shelley carefully glanced in every direction then removed the chain from her bike and pulled it out of the rack as quietly as possible. A sliver of moon lay against the starry curtain of night like a golden bangle surrounded by carelessly strewn diamonds, but she was too intent on her mission to notice the night's beauty.
She pedaled several blocks to the woods and angled off the street into the darkness of the trees. The black slacks and windbreaker that she wore while riding her black bike made her blend invisibly into the forest background. It took only a moment for her eyes to adjust to the meager light diffused among the growth. Branches hunched overhead as the bike's tires found one of the many paths, some of which were becoming increasingly familiar. As she started to coast down a hill, she heard the swish of another bike somewhere behind her. Turning sharply off the path, she maneuvered down through the trees onto another path and continued on her way with no further disturbance.
"Damn! I think we lost her," Marva called softly to Kath. She could hear Shelley's bike going down the hillside.
"We can follow her noise," Kath said. "Come on." She steered her bike toward the thicket of trees but Marva grabbed her arm as she passed her.
"There's half a dozen trails down there, Kath. Our bike lights don't brighten the ground enough to figure out which one she took in this darkness. We should have brought a flashlight."
Kath was rummaging through her backpack but came up empty-handed. "I thought I had one. We'll have to remind Merry and Angie to take one with them."
Marva cupped her hand around her ear, but no more noise reached her. "Let's go back. No sense in wasting the whole night out here."
The next morning, Marva and Kath reported their lack of success and advised the others of the necessity of carrying a flashlight. Three times out of the next six nights, Shelley went out but evaded the followers.
"I have an idea," Ted said. The girls had invited him in for something to eat and they sat around the apartment living room afterward, discussing their plan.
"What is it?" Kath asked.
"We keep losing Shelley. I think she knows someone is following her and she could be suspicious that it's us. We know what general direction she's heading, right?"
The girls nodded.
"How about if we station ourselves in strategic places in that same direction? If she passes any of us, we can get a further idea of which way she's headed and keep doing that until we've mapped her progress."
"Sounds like a plan," Merrill said and the others agreed. The third time they implemented the new plan, they saw someone go by who looked like Shelley. The next night, Marva and Kath placed themselves near the path so they could establish that it was Shelley and that she used that way more than once.
They picked two trees right near a bend so a rider would have to slow down and they would be able to get a good look at her. About twenty minutes later, Shelley passed them. Kath jumped on her bike to follow her, but Marva stopped her. "Let's go back and report and keep following Ted's plan. It seems to have the best chance of working. If you try following her now and she hears you, she might start using another path."
"Good thinking," Kath conceded. She and Marva turned back the way they had come.
After a moment, Marva halted and raised a hand for Kath to stop. "Did you hear anything?" she whispered to her roommate. Kath cocked an ear, listening, but heard nothing and shook her head. "Thought I heard another bike," Marva murmured. "Couldn't tell whether it was behind us or in front of us." She swiveled her head uselessly. "Damn, it's creepy out here. Let's go home." The two pedaled away, oblivious to the dark-haired woman watching from deeper in the trees, her lips turned up in a mocking smile. When they left, she resumed her travels.
Abandoning her other plans for the time being, the dark-haired girl pedaled to the old house and put the bike in the dilapidated garage, next to the car the car that was reserved for special uses. Thinking of those uses brought a crooked smile to her lips. She lifted a small package from the bike's carrying basket and used the outside entrance to go directly down several broken, wooden steps to the pitch-black cellar.
Orienting herself in the open doorway, she blindly crossed the dirt floor with her arm bent overtop her head. When the arm came in contact with a hanging chain, she pulled it and turned on an overhead light that was nothing more than a bare bulb screwed into a ceramic plate. Two old, dowel-backed, wooden chairs--one showing dark stains--sat on the packed floor just beyond the light, facing each other. Further past them squatted an ancient picnic table and against the wall stood a heavy, metal laundry sink with deep, double basins. The house's ancient coal furnace had never been replaced and it took up the other half of the cellar, with its hot water tank for the radiators suspended from the ceiling and its radiator feeder pipes reaching along the subflooring like round, fat arms supporting the house. In the corner nearest the furnace was the coal bin, formed by a half-wall of old timbers. Long empty from disuse, the bin's few scattered, broken lumps of coal were lonely witnesses to the atrocities performed in the outer cellar.
The tall woman emptied her package, dumping several small boxes and a ring of metal measuring spoons onto the dented picnic table, next to an assortment of bowls and utensils. A coil of rope and a roll of duct tape lay near one end of the table. Reaching into the left pocket of her windbreaker, she pulled out a much-folded piece of paper and sat down at the table, pinning the paper down with sundry knives and spoons. She sorted the small boxes in the order she would use them, then opened them to reveal several different powders. Referring to the pinned-down paper, she used the measuring spoons to place the proper proportion of each powder into one of the bowls, stirring them together after each addition.
When she got to the end of the recipe, she reached for a bag that had been sitting on the table. She opened it and took out a paper straw. She bent one end of the straw up and, using a rolled piece of paper as a funnel, she poured a half-teaspoon of the powder into it. Tearing off the straw just above the highest level of the powder, she folded the top down to form a small cylinder. She pushed her dark hair back from her forehead then stuck the packet into her left pocket. After making five additional packets from the five straws left in the bag, she put one more in her pocket. The other finished packets she dropped into the bag and left them sitting on the table.
There were liquid substances she could have used for her purpose, but she found that the powder was simpler to handle. She could hide a straw in her hand, flip one end open and pour the powder into a drink without anyone noticing her. Then she could just drop the straw in a trash receptacle and no evidence would be found on her. The second packet was for insurance but if she didn't need it, she would drop it into the trash, too. The powder began acting on the chosen victim within ten to fifteen minutes, making her nauseous, then disoriented, then unconscious.
So far the dark-haired woman had been lucky. Because of the queasiness, each victim had gone to the ladies room where the disorientation started to take effect. The tall woman had been waiting there to offer her assistance, suggesting some fresh air might help. When she had the nearly unconscious victim outside, she had hurried her into the car before she passed out. After that, everything else continued to fall into place exactly as planned.
Pleased with herself, the woman smiled and patted her pocket where she usually carried her knife--her "Star-Maker." The smile turned into twisted lips as she remembered the knife was no longer there. She rose, turned out the light and made her way in the dark to the exit. But I'll have it when I need it, she smirked, and went up the outside steps two at a time, returning to the blackness of the night.
Merrill threw her arms around Jim's neck and squealed as he straightened up, lifting her off the floor. She melted into his embrace and their lips joined in the sweet assurance of love. The other four occupants of the apartment--Ted had joined them--smiled at the result of Merrills opening the door to Jims knock then went on with their conversation.
"When did you get here?" Merrill asked when Jim returned her to the floor and she could catch a breath. "I had no idea you were coming."
Jim Dursick's devilish grin, coupled with deep dimples and sparkling blue eyes in a tanned face, made Merrill's already ensnared heart jump with excitement. "I didnt know until the last minute. One of my labs was canceled and I wanted to surprise you. I jumped right in my car and here I am."
Jim intended to be a doctor. The science courses and their required lab hours that he had to take left him with little extra time. But he had managed to free up Friday and Saturday and he couldn't wait for the chance to see his fiancee.
He lifted his foot and pulled up the leg of his sweatpants, displaying a walking cast. "Unfortunately, I broke my ankle."
"Aw, honey, what happened? Does it hurt?" Merrill looked properly sympathetic and Jim squeezed her shoulders.
"I slipped yesterday running down a pair of steps and no, it doesn't hurt much, just kind of a dull ache. A buddy got ice on it right away for me and kept the swelling down. They gave me a walking cast so I can get around, but it's still pretty awkward."
As he explained this, Merrill took his hand and led him into the room where he got a big hug and kiss from Angela--and some more sympathy. He smiled and nodded as the other girls greeted him then Merrill introduced him to Ted.
"Ted, this is my fiance, Jim Dursik. Jim, Ted Hoffman. Teds helping us follow Shelley." Merrill had been keeping Jim informed of their worries about the murders. He was worried, too. A psycho going around murdering coeds stirred every decent persons desire for his capture. Or, possibly in this case, her capture.
The men shook hands and Jim sat on the couch seat offered by Angela who grabbed him a soda from the kitchen. Angela handed him the soda and dropped to a seat on the floor.
The group thoroughly explained the problem and Jim was convinced of its serious implications. "You say these killings are three to four weeks apart. How long has it been since the last one?"
"Three weeks," Kath answered, "and were really getting antsy about it. We need to find where Shelley is going at nightand soon."
"Weve been working on that," Ted said, "and we think we may be close to discovering where it is."
"Following her there could be pretty dangerous," Jim cautioned.
"Yes, it could," Merrill said as most of the others nodded. "But we're only following her in pairs and once we find her base of operations, we intend to inform the police and let them take over from there."
Jim knew Angela well and he noticed that she stayed aloof from the conversation. Merrill had told him that their friend was sweet on their suspect and he knew she had to be hurting. He reached down and squeezed her shoulder. "Hey, Ange, we dont want your girl to be the murderer, but from what the others tell me, I have to agree that we need to find out for sure. You okay with this?"
Angela reached up and patted his hand. She and Jim and Merrill had been pals since first grade and Jim was like a brother to her. They all looked out for each other. "Im trying to be, Jimbo. I dont believe that Shelley is guilty, but I dont dare assume that she isnt. The sooner this is straightened out, the better."
Angelas expression told how distressed she was more than her words did. Jim turned his hand over and clasped hers, then released it and the gesture warmed her heart. He glanced from one to the other. "Merry told me about your tracking arrangements. Whose turn is it tonight?"
"Angela and I are scheduled for tonight," Merrill answered.
"Great!" How about if I go with you?"
"Just try not to," Merrill teased. "But first, we are going out to eat. We want to celebrate how well our team is doingwere 3-0--and now that you are here we have an extra reason to celebrate. Were going to the Steak House and Shelley is coming with us, so youll have a chance to meet her."
"Youre still hanging around with her even though you suspect her?" Jim was surprised.
Merrill looked defensive. "We thought it would be easier to keep track of her if we kept her close. Besides, we ride back and forth to the games and practices all the time and it would look kind of strange if we didnt invite her to join us. Other members of the team will be there. I dont think Shelley takes our suspicions all that seriously but that could be to our advantage."
Angela had a strange feeling, almost a premonition, that events were coming to a head. She knew that some resolution would occur sooner or later, and she suddenly felt that it was coming shortly. But what will that resolution be? She shivered then abruptly stood up. "Lets get moving. Ill go get Shelley."
The group piled out of Teds and Jims cars and trooped into the Steak House. Amber Zorno had arrived ahead of them and was holding places for them. Two tables had been pushed together to accommodate their number. As they arrived, Barb Olanti joined them and all were introduced to Jim and Ted.
"Wheres Allie?" Marva asked when they all had gotten settled.
"She had a couple of errands to run," Amber answered. "Said she would be a little late but would be here. She told me what she wants to order."
Jim and Merrill sat on one side of Shelley with Angela on her other side. Shelley had been particularly pleased to meet Jim, especially when she found that he was the man Merrill was planning to marry. That sweet fact erased any lingering doubts she may have had about the relationship between Merrill and Angela and put her in a good mood. Although naturally reticent, she held her own in the conversations going on around her.
A student band had offered to play at the Steak House just to get the exposure and their surprisingly entertaining music added to the festivities as the group enjoyed a long, leisurely dinner. Afterward, the pitchers of beer continued to flow as they toasted the team several times and Merrill and Jim several more.
The evening was winding down with about forty-five minutes to go before closing time when Barb Olanti pointed out that it was so crowded they would have to go to the bar to be sure of getting their last round of beer in time. She jumped up to go after the beer and Allie offered to help her. Ten minutes later they returned with four bottles of beer.
"Would you believe they ran out of draught beer and are down to bottles?" Barb sneered. "And youre only allowed two bottles per person." She set an opened bottle in front of Shelley. "Here, Star, youve earned this more than the rest of us have."
"Thanks, but I have one." Shelley had just poured the last mug of beer from the pitcher so she handed the bottled beer to Ted who promptly handed it to Kath. Barb set the second bottle in front of Marva and winked at her.
Allie set one of her bottles in front of Shelley. "You sure make it hard to reward you, Star. Have a cold one and pass that warm mug to me." She set the other bottle in front of Amber who grabbed it gleefully.
Shelley cupped her hand over the top of the mug as if to refuse, then apparently changed her mind. "Okay, you take the warm one." Allie swapped with her and Shelley immediately handed the bottle to Jim. "Lets not ignore one of our guests," she said, and refused to take the bottle back. "Ive had enough to drink, anyway. I have things to do tonight."
Aided by the amount of drinking they had done, the whole table thought the bottle passing was a great joke and they all got involved in the game, laughingly urging the bottles on everyone else. Even the mugs of beer got shifted around. Shit! One person saw her plans go awry in the playful shambles. Now Ill have to follow her when she leaves.
"What kind of things?" Jim asked. Even in the midst of the boisterous confusion, a few people heard Jims question and held their breath waiting for the answer.
Shelley slanted shining eyes at him, tossed her hair off of her forehead and smiled mysteriously. "Just things."
Wow, Ange, Jim thought, if this girl is innocent, you sure have picked a beauty to fall in love with. Merrill had told him that Shelley was beautiful, but seeing it for himself was a lot more impressive than hearing about it. Then his thoughts sobered as he wondered how Angela would react if Shelley werent innocent, especially after the Vicki fiasco. Sure hope you have better luck this time, kiddo.
Finally the commotion settled down and the party started drinking their final round of beer. Soon the friendly chatter was interrupted by a loud groan. "Oh, god, I feel awful," Kath said. She stood up and headed away, calling over her shoulder, "Marv, come with me, please."
Marva had already jumped up and followed right behind her. Ted, concerned about Kath, had stood up, too, and now he doubled over. "Christ, somethings hitting me, too," he grunted and headed toward the mens room.
The others sat staring at each other, somewhat startled at the sudden sickness of their
friends. Everyone else had had about the same amount to drink and they only felt a
pleasant buzz. Angela had almost nothing to drink as she wanted to keep a clear head for
following Shelley later that night if it became necessary. She noticed that Shelley had
spaced her mugs of beer far apart, too.
When the closing of the bar was announced, the group settled their tab and Barb, Allie and Amber all left, leaving Merrill, Jim, Angela and Shelley still at the table. "Jim, maybe you should go check on Ted, see if hes okay," Merrill suggested, "and Ill go check on Kath and Marva."
"Sure," Jim agreed and he and Merrill went off to the restrooms.
"This was a fun evening," Angela said to Shelley. Through the evening, they had talked with the rest of the group but both hesitated to address each other specifically. Happy just to be near Shelley, Angela caught a few stolen moments of gazing at her gorgeous face. Meanwhile Shelley worked hard at being sociable, wanting Angela to see her in a good light.
"Yeah, I had a good time," Shelley said. "Jims a nice guy. He and Merrill are lucky people." She looked deeply into Angelas eyes, but didnt say what her feelings urged her to reveal. Reluctantly, she pulled her eyes away from Angela. "Ive got to get going. See you at practice tomorrow." As she left, she felt the redheads gaze following her out. Wish I had time to stay, Angela, but I have some business to attend to.
Jim returned just as Angela was wondering how they could follow Shelley. "Teds in pretty bad shape and so is Kath. Merry thinks someone slipped something into their drinks, though god only knows who it could be." He wasnt about to tell Angela that Merry suspected Shelley. After all, she was the one who started shifting the drinks.
He ran his fingers through his already tousled hair. "Shes calling an ambulance, just in case, and she and Marva will wait with them. She said you and I need to follow Shelley. We can meet her at the hospital if we find out anything. "
"Right," Angela said. She was concerned about her two friends, but the need to continue shadowing Shelley loomed large in her mind. She didn't want to lose the progress they had made so far. She jumped up and the two hurried toward the exit with Jim hobbling a little on his cast.
They climbed into Jim's car and Angela directed him to the last place they had sighted Shelley, where one of the trails crossed a street. They sat in the car, waiting for her to pass, secure in the knowledge that she wouldnt recognize Jims Neon.
Jim glanced at Angela whose eyes werent leaving the trail. "You pretty well stuck on this girl, Angie?"
Angela took a deep breath and let it out noisily. "Yeah, Jim, afraid I am."
"What are you going to do if shes the killer, Ange?" Jim averted his eyes from the agony that crossed his friends attractive face.
"I dont believe she is, Jim. Ill have to see her in action with my own eyes before Ill believe that she could torture and kill anyone."
"She sure is beautiful. You havent let that influence your judgement have you?"
"Ive seen other beautiful people, Jim, and they havent made my heart jump the way one look from her does. I wasnt planning to fall in love, you know didn't even want to. It just happened and I couldnt seem to stop it." She threw a quick look at Jim; he was watching the trail, too. "Merrys a good-looking girl. Did you fall in love with her because of her looks?"
"No, I fell in love with her because you wouldnt have me." Jim chuckled at the look this statement garnered from Angela. "Im only kidding." He threw his hands up in mock surrender when she punched his shoulder.
"Youre right," he admitted. "I fell in love with something inside Merry that seemed to fit exactly inside some special place in my heart. And there was no stopping it."
He started to turn his head when he saw a movement on the trail. Angela saw it at the same time and they instinctively ducked down below the dash. "Look! There she is!" They strained to watch her as she crossed the street and re-entered the trees. "Shes bearing left."
"Where does that trail go?" Jim asked. His fingers itched to start the car, but he wanted to wait until Shelley was far enough away that it wouldnt arouse her suspicions.
When they had first arrived, Angela had opened a trail map and placed it on the seat next to her. Now she pulled it onto her lap and flashed a penlight on it. She quickly found the red X that marked their current location at Shelleys last sighting. After a moment, she looked up at Jim. "It comes out at the bottom of the entrance drive to Spofford. Lets get over there."
"Why would she be going to the college?" Jim inquired.
"I have no idea. Maybe its just a coincidence. She could take any one of several trails at that point."
They arrived at Spoffords entrance much more quickly than a biker could. "Lets go on up the drive on the chance she may be headed there. If we wait and she goes up, well have to be right behind her to see where shes going and shell see us following her."
"Good thinking," Jim agreed and steered the car up the hill. He chose a part of the parking lot that gave a view of several buildings and parked in the shadows of several large trees. There was one other car in the lot and they hoped that would keep from drawing attention to theirs.
Jim fiddled in the glove compartment and brought out a roll of electrical tape. Angela watched curiously as he tore two short strips from it. "What's that for?" she asked.
Jim grinned at her. "You evidently haven't watched enough cop shows, Ange." He cautiously opened his door, intercepting the finger-like protrusion that automatically turned on the inside light whenever the door opened. Pushing it back into its hole, he taped over it then closed the door.
"Great idea." Angela commended him and accepted the second strip of tape from him. She fixed her door the same way. Afterwards, they sat in silence as Jim felt tension pouring from Angela like a brewing storm.
Ten minutes into their waiting time, Shelley showed at the top of the driveway. "Wait here, Jim." Angela slipped from the car without closing the door. Disregarding the order, Jim slid out, too.
Running from tree to tree, Angela easily kept Shelley in sight until she pulled her bike up near some bushes next to the science building.
Angela stopped a building away, throwing out an arm to halt Jims progress as he caught up to her. He bent over and put his hands on his knees, puffing to catch his breath. "Damn, Angie, it's hard as hell to run with this cast," he whispered.
"Shhhh," Angela admonished him. "Shes climbing in a basement window. Wonder why the darn things open?"
"Maybe she opened it during the day," Jim suggested. "Why do you think shes going in there?"
"I havent the slightest idea," the puzzled redhead admitted. "Look, you go to the hospital and tell Merry and Marva where she is. Ill stay here and watch to see if she leaves."
"No way, Angie. I'm not leaving you here alone. I'll wait while you go."
"Jim, she's in the building. I'm out here. If she comes out, I'll hide from her. Better yet, unhook your bike from the back of your car and leave it for me. If she leaves, I can still follow her."
Jim shook his head, knowing that Angela could be stupendously hardheaded at times. "I don't like that idea. I'll stay."
Angela snorted. "Jimbo, you have a broken ankle. You can't even ride a bike. Now stop arguing and go. Just follow the road we came in on, only in the opposite direction. You could have been there by now." This was an exaggeration--the hospital was on the far outskirts of Spofford.
"Why don't we just call the police?" Jim asked.
"And tell them what? That we are following a student who just sneaked into the science building? I don't want to get Shelley in trouble if she's not the killer. She could lose her chance at college." Angela was trying to cover all the bases. "And even if she is the killer, who is she killing in the science building? She has to go somewhere else and you have to bring some reinforcements so we can follow her when and if she leaves. We've been following her for days; I don't want to lose her now." Angela put her hands on her hips and tilted her head at Jim. "Got all that?"
"Yeah, I do," Jim said. "At least most of it," he added with a grin. He wasn't happy, but Angela's reasons for staying did make sense--and she was pretty resourceful. He started to turn away then reached back to put a hand on her shoulder. "You wait out here, Angie. You wont do anything stupid, will you?"
Angelas mouth curved up in a humorless grin. "I already got the stupid prize for falling in love again."
Jim turned completely back, put his arms around her and kissed her cheek. "Dont be so quick to judge yourself, Angie. Nothings been proved against your girl yet. Keep the faith."
Angela hugged him back. "Okay, pal, I will. And thanks."
"Anytime," Jim promised, gave Angela one last squeeze and left.
Angela crept closer to the science building. She couldnt see any sign of a light and wondered what Shelley could be doing in there in the dark. She couldnt make any sense out of it. What could she do at night that she couldnt do in the daytime?
The redhead got edgier and edgier as time ticked by. I keep saying that I believe in Shelley. Well, do I or dont I? If she truly is innocent, what harm will come to me if I follow her inside? We're on the college grounds, for Pete's sake. Determined to put her belief into action, Angela climbed in through the same window that Shelley had disappeared through.
Trying not to give their presence away, Jim drove slowly out of the parking lot with no headlights and coasted down the hill. As soon as he reached the main thoroughfare, he turned on the lights and floored the accelerator. Zooming in and out of the sparse late-night traffic, he jumped red lights in his haste to get to the hospital. Maybe he was wasting his effort, but he felt really upset about leaving Angela alone at the college with a possible murderer inside.
After what seemed like eternity, he pulled into the hospital's emergency area, jumped from the car and ran inside. It took him only moments to find Marva and Merrill in the waiting room and explain what he and Angela had discovered.
"Why would she be at the school?" Merrill wondered.
"Ange and I couldn't answer that one either," Jim said. "Maybe she stopped there to pick something up."
"The labs are all closed this late at night. Wasn't there a night watchman around?" Marva questioned.
"We didn't see anyone." Jim looked around as Ted came staggering through the emergency entrance, a nurse trying to halt his progress by pulling on his arm. He looked white and drawn and half-stumbled as he entered the waiting room.
"Where's Shelley?" he demanded. "Did you follow her?"
Jim frowned. Ted sounded kind of pushy. "Yeah, we followed her to Spofford College. She sneaked into the science building through a basement window. Angie's there watching her."
Ted said something under his breath and ran into the emergency room office, closing the door before they could follow. They could hear a commotion inside and Ted's raised voice, but couldn't make out what he was saying. In a few moments he ran back out and headed for the exit.
"Ted, what's going on?" Merrill shouted.
He slowed down just a fraction and looked back at them. "I'll take care of it. You stay here!" With that order, he dashed out.
The three friends looked at each other in bewilderment. "Like hell we will," Jim offered and he and the two women ran out.
Backing through the basement window as she had noticed Shelley doing, Angela held onto the inside ledge for a moment, gathering her courage, then let go. She bent her knees to cushion her fall and was relieved to find that the drop was a short one. Turning around to face the room she had entered, she was met with a nearly impenetrable blackness. She knew from the unrecognizable mix of somewhat acrid scents in the air that she must be in a chemistry lab.
She waited for a moment, giving her eyes time to adjust, then started to wend her way between the lab counters that became barely visible as she approached them.
She heard a small thump and shivered as she wondered whether she was alone in the room. Dont be silly. Shelley wouldnt be sitting here waiting for you to show up. But she stopped and tilted her head, listening to what sounded like quick breathing that suddenly stopped. "Shelley," she said in a low voice, "is that you?" She felt a presence. Her eyes darted back and forth but the blackness hid everything except the counter she was standing at the end of. Angela never had liked the dark.
Why isn't she answering me? Maybe she's mad that I followed her. Have I pushed her too far? The thought raised goosebumps on her arms and she rubbed them hard, trying to chase her fear away.
Angela took one more hesitant step forward and a strong arm suddenly flung itself around her neck. She jerked in startled reaction and felt something round and hard thrust against the side of her head. "Shelley, what are you doing?" she wheezed as she struggled to get the words past the arm pressing against her windpipe. She sagged as her legs weakened.
"An ge la," the word was drawn out and syrupy-sweet. "The question is, what are you doing?" The voice changed into a snarl. "And the second question is, should I shoot you for your damned meddling or not?" The query rasped along Angelas heightened senses. Shelley's breathing was labored as though she were fighting for control of herself. Oh, my god, what will happen if she loses control? What can I say to calm her? Angela was just shy of panic as visions of Shelley's trashed room caromed around her skull. What was it she said? 'At least it was a room I wrecked, not a person.'
"I was following you," Angela admitted, taking short gasps of breath, yet trying to speak soothingly. "The others are convinced that youre involved in these murders, but I dont believe it. I was following you so I could prove it."
The arm tightened for a moment, then returned to its former hold. The grating voice had lost all semblance of Shelley's silken timbre. "Your friends were right, Angela, youve been betting on the wrong player. In fact, you may have just lost the game."
The deep chuckle sent burning vibrations along Angelas nerves. "Shelley, youre making a big mistake. Stop now and Ill help you. We can get a doctor for you. Your Aunt Helen will help you."
"Quiet! You haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about--or what I need. You're going to have a real treat, Angela. You're going to get to watch a play that's about to start. A nice, gory, exciting play that is soooo much fun. I have a mission to accomplish, but no one said I couldn't have some fun doing it. Maybe your presence there will force my leading lady to say the right words. Maybe this time she's the real thing."
As the babbling went on, it woke a voice that screamed in Angelas head. Wake up, Angela. Shelley really is crazy! Get away from her before she kills you, too! Angela forced her body to relax, and, as she had hoped, she felt a slight relaxation of the arm clutched around her neck. Quickly she threw up a hand to grasp the wrist that held something--was it really a gun?--against her head, and twisted it away. The distraction enabled her to escape from the restraining arm without releasing her hold. She heard an object clatter to the floor and skitter some distance beyond them.
She kept twisting, trying to bring the wrist she held onto up behind the muscular, squirming back. The point of her elbow impacted with the point of one of the lab counters and her arm fell useless as the captive wrist freed itself from her grasp. She tried to back away, but something hard struck the side of her head and she tottered. A second strike knocked her to the floor, unconscious.
Flipping Angela's unresponsive body over onto its stomach, the taller woman reached into a bag fastened to her waist and pulled out some rope and duct tape. Worried that the noise of their tussle may have been heard, she rushed to tie the redhead up and tape her mouth closed. Youll make a good audience for my next play, Angela, darling.
The dark-haired woman scrabbled about on the floor, searching in the dark for the gun, with no luck. With a curse, she hurried out of the room, intent on finding the person she originally came looking forher current leading lady.
Running as quietly as possible along the corridor, she spied a light coming through the transom of one of the labs ahead of her. She gently turned the door handle and entered a brightly lit laboratory. With a grin, she noticed the basement windows were covered with black curtains. Clever. And very useful. Black curtains can conceal more than light.
She walked further into the room until the figure leaning over one of the counters looked up, startled to see someone else had come in.
"What are you doing here?" she asked the intruder. And how did she get in? A caution bell rang in her head.
"I have some lab work to catch up on. I figured this late at night would be a good time--no one else is here--so I sneaked in a window. I see you had the same idea." She stuck her hands in her pockets and sauntered over next to the other girl, craning her neck to look at the experiment set up on the countertop. "What are you working on?"
Relax, Shelley, you're seeing monsters behind every shadow. This is just Allie, trying to keep up with her work same as you. Heedlessly, Shelley turned her head back toward the workbench and suddenly was grabbed from behind. Allie had a choke hold around her neck and held a switchblade against her throat. Shelley stiffened but stood her ground. "You know what this is against your neck, Star? Its a Star-Maker. Isnt that cute?"
Shelley automatically felt for her own switchblade. Her heart dropped as she realized she hadnt retrieved it from the police yet. Damn that Officer Gibbons for a fool!
"Other people know Im here, Allie. Someone might come in at any moment," Shelley bluffed.
Her heart plummeted when she heard Allies sneering retort. "If youre waiting for Angela, you'll have a long wait. Shes lying in the lab where we all came in, trussed up like a pig waiting for a roast. Maybe Ill let her watch while you perform in my play." Allie snickered. "I like Angela. Too bad Ill have to get rid of her, too."
At Angelas name, Shelley's insides twisted but then she could feel the familiar red rage building in her. She fought to control it, knowing that losing her temper could mean losing her life and Angelas too. But if she could harness that rage, it would give her extra strength and right now she needed all the extra power she could get. Allie was as tall as she was and considerably huskier so it was a good bet that she was stronger. But maybe not as quick.
"What are you going to do, Allie? Slit my throat?" Shelley was gambling that Allie would have to release the hold on her neck to pursue whatever "play" her demented mind was considering. And her gamble paid off.
Allie released her and gave her a shove toward the far wall. "Theres a desk in the corner of the room. Pull the chair out into the aisle and sit in it."
Shelley slowed her walk so that Allie came up to her and pricked her in the middle of the back with the knife point. As soon as she felt the point, Shelley swung around with her elbow, knocking Allie's hand away from her back. Quickly she kicked the hand, sending the knife flying across a lab counter into another aisle.
As Shelleys leg followed through, Allie flung a counterpunch at the side of her head. Shelley jerked her head back, but the punch landed at the edge of her forehead, staggering her. Allie threw out a boot and swept Shelleys feet from under her making her fall heavily against a counter, then the floor. Before Shelley could move, Allie stomped her several times. Most other women would have been out of the battle by now, but Shelleys rage came to her rescue, magnifying her strength. She seized Allie's foot and twisted until the heavier woman grabbed an edge of a counter and pulled her foot away. Shelley did a back roll and came up onto her feet, the surge of adrenaline making her unmindful of how her body was bruised and straining for air.
Allie ran around the end of the counter into the next aisle, hurrying toward the switchblade. Shelley came running behind her and shoved her in the back, forcing her to stumble past the knife. She reached down for it herself but before her hand could close around it, Allie had recovered her balance and kicked at it, sending it underneath a low-slung credenza, out of reach for both women.
Shelley hit Allie with a straight-arm left and a right hook, jarring her. Allie backed away as fast as her stumbling feet would take her, finally edging around into another aisle. "Why are you doing this, Allie?" Shelley asked, panting. She bent over with her hands on her knees, pulling in great gasps of air, fighting to recover her breath. "Why are you killing all these girls? Why do you want to kill me?"
"I have a mission to save some lives. I'm looking for someone," Allie shouted, enraged. "She looks just like you and the other girls. But I don't know her name."
"Why does she deserve to die? What did she do to you?"
Allies face turned crafty. "If you're the right person, you know the answer
to that. You are the right one, aren't you, Star?"
Allie was between her and the door. Shelley's breathing had recovered but she needed a few more moments to rebuild her strength so she could get past her. "Maybe I am, Allie. Tell me how you worked it. How did you choose which girls to kill?"
"I found their pictures in the yearbooks. I judged their age by their class. But that wouldn't have worked with you, would it? Kath gave away your age at one of the games, remember? And you were never in a yearbook, were you? Why is that, Shelley? Hiding?" Allie sneered and went on with her bragging.
"I had to check each of them out on the sports listings to see if they were the right height. If they were, I followed them and found out their habits. I waited until they went out somewhere and dumped knockout drops in their drinks. When they went to the ladies' room, I helped them outside for fresh air but instead I put them into my car," she smirked. "It was so easy. I just drove them to the house on Farmdale Lane and put them on stage in the cellar. But they wouldnt say the lines I wanted to hear."
Good god, she says she has a mission but she's half demented, too, Shelley realized.
"What lines did you want to hear?" Shelley asked.
"A name! They need to tell me the right name!" The talking had increased Allie's anger. "But they never did, so I had to kill them. And Im going to kill you, too," she yelled and charged at Shelley who sidestepped and caught her with an uppercut as she went by. Shelley decided this might be her last chance and she better throw everything she had left at her assailant. She grabbed Allies shoulder, turned her around and pummeled her with constant punches, too fast for her to retaliate, until finally she sagged to the floor, unconscious.
The dark-haired girl stood for a minute, chest heaving, a red fog numbing her mind. Then it cleared enough to wonder how she could restrain Allie--where could she find something to use to tie her up? Then she remembered Allie had boasted of tying up Angela. If I hurry, I can use those same ropes--and get Angela out of here. Then we can call the police.
She stumbled out of the lab as quickly as possible, determined to find Angela and get her out of harms way.
Angela came to, not knowing for a moment what had happened to her. As she regained her memory, she realized she was bound. Sudden clarity hit her and threatened to freeze her heart. Shelleys the killer! Shelley really is the killer. Tears rose in her eyes and coursed down her cheeks even as she struggled with her bonds. Eventually the tears slowed and the ropes, tied too hastily, loosened. She slipped her hands free and tore the duct tape from her mouth, wincing as it pulled against the sensitive skin of her lips. She almost welcomed the pain; at least it showed that she was still alive, even though her heart felt dead.
As she rubbed the tears from her face the grim reality of her situation hit her. She said shes coming back for me! Hurriedly, Angela flipped a light switch, bathing the lab in a fluorescent glow. She dashed around looking for the dropped gun and finally found it. Picking it up and checking it out, she found the safety was already off. Angela gasped Shelley had been holding a charged gun at her temple. She really would have killed her.
Angela shook so badly she leaned against the wall and slid down it to the floor. In a daze, she heard someone running down the corridor. She braced her back against the wall and sat there, holding the gun with both hands and aiming it toward the door. She jumped as the door was thrown open and Shelley came barreling in.
"STOP!" Angela shouted in terror, waving the gun for emphasis.
Shelley grabbed the end of the lab counter to slow her momentum, but she didn't stop. "Angela, its okay. Its me, Shell "
Boom! In the close quarters of the lab, the gunshot sounded like a cannon. Shelley's mouth gaped open and her eyes widened in disbelief as the force of the shot slammed her body against the doorjamb behind her. She bounced off and fell face-first onto the hard tile.
Angela's jumbled thoughts seared jagged paths through her shocked brain, struggling to grasp the enormity of what had happened. I shot Shelley. The words sounded too simple to explain the horror she felt as she looked at the body lying on the floor. A slow flow of blood painted a thin, red line against the dark-gray tile.
Angela crawled most of the way down the aisle toward the still form before she realized the odd clump that she was hearing was the gun, still in her hand, hitting against the floor. Stunned by the damage she had wrought with it, she flung the weapon from her, not caring where it landed.
Crawling the remaining distance, she reached Shelley's side and was trying to gather the courage to touch her. Angela was too dazed to notice when another figure entered the room. Her first knowledge of the person's arrival was when a foot slipped under Shelley and turned her over, exposing the oozing entrance wound on her upper chest, near her left shoulder.
Shaken and confused, Angela looked up, not comprehending what she saw. "Allie? Wh why are you here?" she stuttered. "Can you go for help?"
Allie, seeing that Angela was unarmed, laughed out loud through bloodied lips and couldn't pass up the chance to boast. "You still think Shelley's the murderer, don't you? Well, I'm the one who claims that honor, sweetheart. You just shot an innocent girl."
Angela's battered senses slowed her understanding. Shelley's innocent and I shot her? The truth suddenly blasted through her heart like an exploding shell and Angela slumped back against an open cupboard. "No!" she wailed. "No, no, no " She covered her face with her shaking hands, grief-stricken by the sight of Shelley's fallen body.
"Ah, but yes." The whole situation tickled Allie's warped sense of humor. "I'll just bet your girl friend came dashing in here to save you and you shot her. I couldn't have written the script any better myself. Though I have much more fun with the kills I get to participate in."
Angela cringed at the sickening thought but it helped to clear her brain. She looked toward Allie and in her peripheral vision saw Shelley's eyelids flutter. Her heart lifted. She's alive! I've got to do something to get us out of this. Keep Allie talking. Find the gun. She raised her head and forced her voice through her constricted throat. It came out a hoarse whisper. "What do you mean, she tried to save me? From you?"
"Of course from me, An ge la. You don't think I can leave you alive, do you? Hell, I'd kill you just for robbing me of my fun." Her evil grin reinforced the meaning of her words. And her cunning mind noticed Angela surreptitiously peeking around.
She looked up the aisle past Angela and saw the gun. They moved for it simultaneously. Angela dove on her belly and Allie ran toward it. Both hands closed on it at the same time. Angela butted her in the face, but Allie's strength was too much for her. The dark-haired woman slammed both their hands against Angela's already bruised head, stunning her. Allie easily wrested the gun from her and stood up, panting furiously.
"Michelle Stella!" Shelley's voice rang out but Allie was too enraged to heed
it. She quickly pointed the gun at Angela and pulled the trigger.
The gun didn't fire. In their tussle, Angela had pushed the safety on. But now Shelley's words filtered through Allie's anger and she switched her attention in a hurry. With a wide grin on her face, she pushed off the safety and sauntered back to where Shelley still lay bleeding. "Michele Stella," Allie echoed with a satisfied grunt. "Finally." She aimed the gun at Shelley. "Too bad I have to waste such a gorgeous girl, Star, but that's just the way the game is played." Her finger tightened on the trigger. "Say good-bye," she sneered.
Angela pushed herself up onto her hands and knees and shook her head, fighting to clear her vision. She could hear Allie at the end of the 30-foot aisle, talking to Shelley, and she knew that time was short. Her eyes cleared and at last she could see the husky killer. And she saw something else, too, that gave her hope. On the shelf in front of her rested a softball-sized crucible made of heavy stoneware. As quickly and quietly as she could, Angela grabbed it, stood up, took a step forward and launched it at Allie's head.
There was a split-second difference between the sound of the missile hitting Allie and the sound of the gunshot. Horrified that Shelley had been shot again, Angela dashed down the aisle, grabbed the fallen crucible and leaped onto Allie's back. Twice she slammed the stoneware against Allie's unconscious head before a hand grabbed her wrist and the loveliest voice in the world called her name.
"Angela, that's enough," Shelley said softly.
"You're alive!" Angela shrieked. "She missed you!" She hastened off of Allie's back and knelt next to the wounded girl. It had taken all of Shelley's energy to crawl over and halt Angela's attack. She slumped back onto the floor, lying out flat and closing her eyes.
"Oh, god, Shelley, how bad is it? I'm so sorry I shot you. I could have killed you." Angela touched Shelley's ashen cheek with shaking fingers. "Allie grabbed me when I first came in the window and she threatened me. I thought it was you. I didn't think you were guilty until that happened I wanted to prove you were innocent." Angela's words were coming as fast as her tears. "It was dark. I couldn't tell and I knew you had come in "
"Shhhh," Shelley said and slowly smiled. Her eyes opened and met Angela's red and swollen ones. "Maybe you better call an ambulance, huh? And the police?"
Angela put her fingers against her trembling lips, smiled through her tears and nodded. "Yeah, I guess I better," she agreed and sniffled.
To their astonishment, the door burst open and several policemen hurried in, their guns drawn. Angela and Shelley were surprised to see Ted with them. He beckoned to the first two paramedics in, who were heading toward Allie. "Take care of this girl, first," he ordered. "The next two can see to her," he said as he gestured toward Allie. While they attended to Shelley, he squatted down next to her. "How are you?"
Shelley frowned. "I have a bullet in me and it hurts like hell, but I'll live. How are you mixed up in this? What are you up to?"
Ted stood up and removed a case from his hip pocket. Squatting back down, he opened the flap and showed Shelley an ID card, which elicited a grimace. "Guess you know I have to take you out of here."
Shelley closed her eyes. When she opened them they were filled with a different kind of pain. "Can I please just have a minute of privacy with Angela?" Ted bent over and whispered in her ear then stood up. The medics had finished bandaging Shelley's wound and had put her on a stretcher. He called them away with him. Two other medics put Allie on a stretcher and carried her out.
Angela looked totally confused and Shelley held out her right hand to her. When Angela put her hand in Shelley's the dark-haired girl pulled her close. "Would you please bend down here and give me a kiss? I sure could use one."
Angela tried to wipe her cheeks. "I'm a mess," she sniffled.
"Wait a minute," Shelley said. She let go of Angela's hand and reached into her pocket. She pulled out a wad of tissues and gave it to her.
"Thanks," Angela mumbled as she wiped her face and blew her nose.
"No problem," Shelley answered. "I carry them just for you, you know." This prompted a small snort from the redhead that made Shelley's heart sing.
She moved her arm up just enough to allow her to caress Angela's hair. "I love you, Angela," she said, her velvet voice wrapping itself around Angela's soul.
Angela tilted her head down. The moisture remaining in the hazel eyes made their yellow and green highlights glisten. Now she could say the words that had been carved on her heart for weeks, words that she dared not admit even to herself. "I love you, too, Shelley."
Their lips met and magnified the sweetness of the words. Fire that had smoldered in both of them burst into flame and they clung to each other, drawing strength and healing from its heat.
At last their lips parted. Shelley touched Angela's face with her fingertips, slowly tracing her cheek and lightly brushing her lips. "I made a mistake the last time grabbing at you. I was too hasty. I want to court you slowly and thoroughly," Shelley said as her eyes burned with passion.
Angela swallowed. "Yes, I would like that." Then a grin tweaked the edge of her lips. "But not too slowly," she said then chuckled aloud at the excitement that flared in those blue, blue eyes.
Ted's voice interrupted them. "Hurry up, Shelley!"
The excitement in Shelley's eyes dimmed and her voice took on urgency. "Angela, I have to go away for a while. Will you wait for me?"
Angela's confusion returned. "Yes, but why? Where? When will you be back?"
Ted suddenly became very business-like as he heard another commotion in the corridor. Someone yelled that a TV crew was arriving. How the hell do they find out about things so quickly? he wondered. "Sorry, girls," he interrupted, "but we just ran out of time." He nodded and two men grabbed the stretcher and hustled Shelley out. Angela stared after them in bewilderment, watching as the dark-haired girl struggled to keep her yearning eyes on Angela up until she exited.
Merrill, Jim and Marva arrived soon after Shelley's departure. Although they weren't allowed on the scene, Angela was given a couple of minutes to talk to them.
When Merrill saw the look on her best friend's face, she opened her arms and Angela walked right into a hug. "Oh, god, Merry, I shot Shelley."
Astonished, Merrill pulled back a little. "You what?" Jim and Marva looked as startled as she did.
Fighting back her tears, Angela quickly gave each of them a hug and a sketchy explanation. She explained to them that Shelley was innocent and Allie was the real killer and Shelley had almost been killed because of Angela's confusion. She told them she had to go to the police station to give her statement. The three friends had a hundred questions to ask, but Angela had to leave. She assured them that she would fill in all the details when she got back home. Just before she left, she grabbed Merrill's hand. "See if you can find out where the ambulance took Shelley," she begged.
"I'll do that, Ange, you just worry about you," Merrill answered.
Chaos had seemed to descend on the lab as the departure of the ambulances and arrival of more police and the TV crew coincided. Angela gladly allowed the police officer to lead her to his patrol car and take her away. Hopefully, she would be reunited with Shelley soon, but the heaviness in her heart raised doubts about such a simple outcome. Where did she go? Where did Ted take her? What's going on? This relationship had been frustrated from the very beginning. Somehow Angela felt that the frustration wasn't over.
At the police station, Angela was up all night answering a thousand and one questions about all that had happened that evening. She replied to questions about Shelley, Allie, herself and all their friends, then had to go through it all over again. Finally she was released and escorted home and dragged herself into her apartment. Merrill was waiting for her.
"Did you find Shelley?" were the first words out of the redhead's mouth.
Merrill shook her head, sadly. "We checked all the hospitals around and she's not in any of them. No one would tell us anything, honey. Do you feel up to talking about what happened?"
Angela waved a weary arm at her and begged off. "Please, Merry, just let me sleep then I will answer everything. I can't even think straight right now." Merrill nodded and Angela staggered into the bedroom and flopped onto the bed, not even taking time to shower or change.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, Angela slept for 24 hours and Merrill wouldn't let anyone bother her. She finally awoke on Sunday morning, ravenous. Merrill heard her in the shower and greeted her with bacon and eggs, toast and juice--and the mainstay coffee. Marva and Kath were already there.
"This is great, Merr, thanks." She wasted no time beginning to eat. "Guess I kinda messed up things with you and Jim the last couple of nights, huh?"
"Not at all," Merrill said and grinned at her best friend. She was anxious to hear the whole story, but knew Angela would tell them in her own time. "Kath was held overnight in the hospital and Marva slept in my bed. Then last night Kath took the couch. You were too zonked to notice. They let us have their apartment for the two nights. It killed Jim that he had to be back at school. He wanted to hang around and get the whole story. But I convinced him I would let him know about it as soon as I found it out."
"Ah, that's great. There's just no substitute for friends, is there?" Angela looked up from her food and smiled at the three women. "How are you, Kath? Your stomach okay now?"
"It's fine, Ange. The doctor said apparently it was knockout drops. Ted and I split the bottle of beer we had so we both got sick, but not as bad as we would have if one of us drank the whole thing."
Angela was half afraid to ask the next question. "Have you heard anything about Shelley?"
Merrill looked at her friend's hopeful expression and felt like crying. "God, Ange, we thought it was an answer to a prayer when we found out that Shelley was innocent. And we were thrilled to find out that you were okay. Then a couple of women came yesterday and took everything from her apartment."
"They wouldn't tell us anything, they just closed the place down," Marva added.
"And Ted hasn't shown up since he left the hospital, either," Kath admitted with a disappointed look. She remembered Merrill telling her how distressed Ted was when he found that Angela and Jim had tracked Shelley to the college and Angela was left there alone to watch her. As soon as he could walk straight, he dashed out of the hospital and took off. "Do you think there's any connection?"
"I think I need to tell you everything that happened Friday night," Angela said. She told the girls the whole story, stopping constantly to retell some of the scariest parts. She had to piece some of Shelley's part of it together, since they hadn't been able to explain everything to each other.
The girls were stunned all over again when Angela recounted her shooting of Shelley. "Wow," Marva exclaimed. "So you thought Allie was Shelley at first? That must have really shook you up."
"I was devastated to think that Shelley was the killer," Angela admitted. "Then I was convinced that she was insane and I was alone with a murderer. When she came rushing back into the lab I thought she was coming to kill me. I was so terrified that I pulled the trigger and shot her." Will I ever get over that guilt?
Everyone was quiet for a moment, realizing how close Angela and Shelley had come to real tragedy. Then Kath frowned and broke the silence. "Angie, you know I'm glad that things turned out well and Shelley's been cleared of the murders, but I'm disturbed about Ted. Do you think he was some kind of undercover policeman pretending to be a student?"
Angela patted Kath's hand. "I'm afraid so, Kath. I just can't figure out why he took Shelley away." She looked around at the others. "Do you think maybe she was wanted for some other criminal activity? I'm just totally confused."
"We're all confused, Ange," Merrill said. "Guess you'll just have to wait until Shelley gets back to you and fills you in."
Angela nodded and blinked, trying not to cry the tears that welled in her eyes.
Kath was upset too. Her relationship with Ted hadn't passed the dating stage, but she had been greatly attracted to him and had believed that he was attracted to her, too. Now her self-esteem and self-confidence suffered. Was he just using me to stay close to Shelley? She wondered if she and Angela would ever find the answers to what had transpired.
"Merry's right," she said to Angela with a sigh. "We'll just have to wait."
They had no idea how long that wait would be.
Three months later.
When softball season ended, Spofford had finished second in their league to Scatsboro. Their only two losses were by one run and Angela felt certain that Shelley's presence would have meant the difference. But as much as she loved softball, that was the least of her worries.
Angela struggled daily with her emotions. She thought the rejection she had experienced when Vicki left was earthshaking, but that was nothing compared to how she felt now. She didn't believe Shelley had rejected her; on the contrary, she believed in their love. But how can you express your love to someone who is totally inaccessible? No, rejection wasn't bothering her. She was mentally, physically and emotionally frustrated--and that was driving her crazy.
Apparently, there hadn't even been much progress made toward a trial for Allie Monroe. Angela knew murder trials took a long time, but usually the newspapers ran an occasional article about them. But once the initial furor was over, there hadn't been a peep about Allie Monroe or her trial.
The discovery of the killer had been played up big in the newspapers when she had first been caught and coeds in all the schools nearby had felt enormous relief. According to the papers, no motive was established. Angela vaguely recalled Shelley calling out a name to Allie, but for the life of her she couldn't remember it. At the time, she wasn't hearing too clearly and her mind had been totally occupied with struggling with Allie.
But it seemed to Angela that if Allie was looking for a name, there had to be some motive to the murders other than just some psycho playing out her macabre fantasies. She sighed so many unanswered questions. And the biggest one still was--where was Shelley?
She remembered that Shelley had told her that Judge Helen Ostcott was her guardian. Several times Angela had thought about calling her, but lost her nerve. One day when she was home for summer vacation, she gathered her courage, searched for the judge's office telephone number and made the call.
Angela had a private telephone at home that sat on a desk in her bedroom and she called from there. "May I speak with Judge Helen Ostcott?"
"May I ask who is calling?"
"My name is Angela Wedgeway. I'm a friend of her ward, Shelley Brinton."
"One moment, please." Angela drummed her fingers on the desk while her eyes nostalgically roamed the room. This was the room she grew up in and still reflected her younger self. Its slightly frilly, flowered bedspread carried a blue and white morning glory motif intertwined with green vines on a pale yellow background, and matching drapes hung at the two windows. The green of the vines was picked up by the darker green carpet that blended softly with the maple furniture.
Her bed doll, Suzy, dressed in a long, green, old-fashioned gown with a bonnet on her yellow pigtails, shared the bed with her favorite teddy bear. Other stuffed animals adorned the bookcase while a couple of family pictures sat on the two bureaus. A small entertainment center held a TV, VCR and CD player and a stand next to it was filled with tapes and discs. Her computer was housed in the family room though no one else used it.
Once Shelley comes back into my life, I may never see this room--or this house--again, she thought with a jolt. I may not see Mom and Dad! That decision would be up to her parents. She couldn't pretend anymore to be somebody she wasn't. And she knew that if a choice had to be made, Shelley would win.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the telephone voice. "Ms. Wedgeway, Judge Ostcott is too busy to take a personal call right now, but she asked me to advise you that she has no ward named Shelley Brinton."
Dumfounded, Angela murmured, "Thank you," and hung up. Had Shelley lied to her about her guardian? Angela hadn't checked the information out when Shelley first told her about the judge. Kath's story about a judge bringing the folder to Dean Lohman seemed to bear out what Shelley claimed. But if Helen Ostcott really was her guardian, why would the judge lie about it?
Forestalled from learning anything via that route, Angela didn't know what to try next. Later she told Merrill about the call to the judge. Her friend listened then patted her on the back. "Maybe you should try to put Shelley out of your mind, Angie. I 'm beginning to believe it's a lost cause. If she really cared as much about you as you care about her, don't you think she would have contacted you before now?"
"I don't know, Merry. The more I picture in my mind the way she was taken away, the more it seems that she was some kind of prisoner."
"You said she didn't even put up a fight."
"She didn't, but she obviously didn't want to go."
"But she went, didn't she?"
Angela couldn't argue against that fact. Of course, Shelley had been taken away on a stretcher, but she seemed to accept her removal as inevitable. For the next several days, she mourned the loss of Shelley all over again. Then one morning a courier showed up at the Wedgeway household bearing a small package for her. Angela signed for it then took it up to her bedroom, curiously turning it over and over in her hands. Nothing was written on the outside except her name and address. She sat at her desk, drew a pair of scissors from the drawer and cut the package open.
It was a jewel case. Angela opened the case with trembling fingers and gasped when she saw what it contained. Lying on a black velvet background was a gold pendant on a chain. The pendant was a star, intricately carved, with a heart in the center from which the points radiated. The letters "A+S" were inscribed inside the heart. There was nothing else with it, but Angela didn't care; she was crying tears of joy. She knew the star was an affirmation, a promise. She knew Shelley would be coming back and she would wait for her until she did. No matter how long it took.
Fall semester started without any fanfare as the girls prepared for their senior year at Spofford. On the surface, nothing had changed, but each of them felt Shelley's absence keenly especially from Angela's protracted silences. The attractive redhead walked through her days as though just putting in time. She was wise enough not to let her schoolwork suffer but she couldn't shake the lost feeling that had settled over her. Her three friends commiserated, but they knew that only Shelley's return would solve Angela's misery.
One evening they were chatting in front of the TV at the Brickhouse and Angela had gone into the kitchenette to get another soda. Suddenly she heard Kath bellow her name. "Angie! Come here! Quick!"
Startled, she dashed back into the living room to see Kath pointing to the TV, her finger shaking. She was almost too excited to talk. Merrill and Marva were looking at her like she had lost her mind.
"I saw her!" she finally managed to get out. "I just saw Shelley!"
"Where?" Angela demanded. "What? " She perched on the edge of the couch between Marva and Kath and looked toward the TV. The ten o'clock news was on but she saw only the anchorwoman talking.
"You missed it. You all missed it," Kath almost whined in despair. Then her face lit up. "But we can watch the eleven o'clock news when it comes on. Maybe they'll show her again."
"What was she on for, Kath?" Marva asked.
"I don't know. I wasn't really paying attention. I think it might have been something to do with that big mob trial that's been going on for weeks now. There was a film clip of some interview they were doing and I glanced up and saw Shelley in the background. By the time I yelled and you guys looked, the clip was finished."
"You're sure it was Shelley?" Merrill asked seriously. She didn't want Angela getting upset over a mistaken identity.
Kath looked at her and raised her eyebrows. "Come on, Merry, how many tall, slim, black-haired women are as gorgeous as Shelley? I know it was her."
Merrill patted her calf from her seat on the floor. "Okay, kiddo, I'm not arguing, just trying to be sure."
The girls set up the VCR to record the news show then sat around for the next hour rehashing the past events that had so stirred them all. Angela didn't add much to the conversation and no one pushed her. They knew she had to be a nervous wreck. Finally, eleven o'clock came and they waited anxiously for the news clip to appear. They didn't have long to wait; it was the lead story on the national news front.
The attractive black anchorwoman faced the camera with serious mien. "In
Washington, D.C., as the Gatrone mob trial grinds into its eighth week, it slowly but
surely has approached the time for witnesses for the prosecution to begin their testimony.
Phil Pasticco has the latest developments."
The clip started and the newsman began his report from the corridor of the courthouse as drawn pictures of the proceedings were superimposed on the screen. Just as the pictures ended and the view came back to the newsman, a tall, dark-haired woman moved across the hall some distance behind him. She turned toward the camera for a split second as the person behind her took hold of her arm and hurried her forward. There was no doubting that arrogant look. It was Shelley.
Three sets of eyes turned to Angela who sat stunned. Marva walked over and halted the VCR recording then slumped down next to her friend, her warm brown eyes fixed on Angela's face. When that face crumpled and Angela flung up her hands to cover it, Marva and Merrill each slipped an arm around her and Kath moved to squeeze her shoulder. Angela's chest heaved several times before she could bring herself under control.
At last, she lowered her hands and swallowed hard. Kath got up and rewound the tape and handed the remote to Angela who smiled her thanks to her. They sat there and watched the clip five times before Angela could trust herself to speak.
"She still looks like a prisoner with those goons grabbing at her, doesn't she?" Angela said hoarsely. She looked at the other three who nodded.
"She's in Washington, D.C. What's the fastest way to get there from here?"
"Plane, I would guess," Merrill answered. "But Washington can't be much more than a three- or four-hour drive from here, don't you think? We can drive down."
Angela swung grateful eyes to Merrill and touched her forehead to her friend's. "Good to go, Merr."
Kath reached onto a bookshelf, pulled down the phone book and started riffling through it. "What are you looking for, Kath?" Marva asked.
"I'm going to call the information desk at the library and find out what time the trial starts tomorrow."
Marva grinned. "See, I keep telling you guys she is more than just a pretty face." Her grin broadened to a smile when Kath stuck her tongue out at her.
They waited impatiently while Kath called and spoke to a woman at the library. Kath hung up and turned a frustrated look on them. "She said the trial starts at ten but it's unlikely we can get in unless we have a special pass. It's way too crowded."
"Damn," Angela mumbled. She grabbed a lock of her hair and tugged it.
"If she is a prisoner, they could be concealing her entrance and exit from the courthouse. Even if we camped outside we might never see her," Merrill complained.
"One thing we do know," Marva said and faced three sets of raised eyebrows. "If she's there, she must be going to show up during the trial. We can keep a close watch on the news and in the papers and eventually she should be noted as being part of the prosecution or part of the defense."
"But if she's not a big part of either, they might not even mention her," Merrill suggested.
"If I were a courtroom artist, I wouldn't miss a chance to get that face in my drawing no matter how small her part might be," Marva said.
"I think Marva's right," Angela said. "We'll just have to keep watching for her." She took a deep breath and blew it out. "I can't think of any alternative at the moment, anyhow." She looked around. "Can anyone?" Shaking heads gave their answer.
The trial dragged on and on. The girls met every night to watch the news at ten and to pore over the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was reporting closely on the trial. They learned that there were five mobsters on trial for their lives and the preliminary steps were so important that the government was being tediously meticulous in getting its case in order. Finally the prosecution began calling its witnesses and time dragged even more. The Inquirer claimed that the case didn't look strong enough to give the mobsters the death penalty that the government was seeking.
One evening the girls were glued to the set and were astounded when a drawing of
Shelley was put up as the newsman on the scene started reporting. "Today, the
prosecution called its star witness, Ms. Michelle Stella, to the stand. Ms. Stella's
testimony sounds like the big break this case has needed. Four years ago, at the age of
fourteen, she was an eyewitness to the machine gunning of mob boss, Leo Tarelli, at the
Golden Tea House Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington.
"Our sources tell us that Ms. Stella is prepared to identify each of the five defendants as material participants in that murder. Several innocent bystanders were also killed in that barrage, including Ms. Stella's parents. Ms. Stella herself suffered a grievous stomach wound that almost took her life.
"As a key witness, Ms. Stella has been under strict security for the past four years. She has been living under an assumed identity in a government witness protection program. In spite of that, about five months ago an attempt on her life very nearly succeeded and she has been held under maximum security since then. Her testimony is projected to wrap up in two weeks and then the defense will offer their side of the case. In another development "
His voice continued on with other items but the girls were no longer interested. A bombshell dropped in their midst would not have caused more shock than the news about Shelley had. Each girl had tears in her eyes.
"My god," Angela whispered hoarsely, "she was there when her parents were gunned down and she was only fourteen." And she was almost killed, too. I saw that scar but didn't give it a second thought. To me it was just a very insignificant flaw on an otherwise perfect body. To her it was a matter of life or death.
"No wonder she was in an anger management program," Marva said. "She must have been mad at the whole world." In Marva's mind the trashed room took on a whole new dimension.
"And she couldn't even live a normal life," Kath offered. "She had to use a fake name and history. I guess that's why she changed schools so many times--to protect her identity."
Merrill looked anguished. "And I didn't trust her! I poisoned your minds against her until Angie very nearly killed her."
Angela put her arm around Merrill. "Come on, Merry, you were only trying to look out for me. I understand that and so will Shelley." Angela had to smile. "It's just part of your nature to be doggedly persistent. Most of us could use a little more of that ourselves."
She released her best friend and patted her on the back. "Hey, cheer up. That goes for all of us. When this trial is over and these guys get sentenced, Shelley will be free! What do you say we go celebrate for an hour or so?"
It was a bedraggled group that headed for the Steak House that evening but their hearts were already beginning to lighten as they contemplated Shelley's eventual freedom.
Shelley didn't feel free yet.
She sat in her new lounge chair waiting for Aunt Helen's visit, remembering the last time she had seen her--on demand. That wasn't too hard to recall. Other than Aunt Helen, she hadn't had anyone visit her for months except government officials.
Following her fracas with Allie, Ted had whisked her off to a remote hospital where he registered her under a different name and set up agents inside and outside her hospital room. The operation to remove the bullet had gone smoothly and as soon as she was comfortable enough to talk, a long line of agents treated her to a barrage of questions. After that finally ended, she recuperated quickly and was moved to a hotel room with the same strict security measures. It had been quiet, peaceful and depressingly lonely.
Fran Wilkins, the agent stationed in her room, had brought some crossword puzzle books for her own entertainment and she shared them with Shelley. Of average height and in excellent physical condition, the older woman treated Shelley with respect, but always with the slightly aloof manner her status as an agent required.
The dark-haired girl was seated at a table that stood in one corner of the living room. She had just completed running through her fifteenth crossword when the emptiness of her current situation finally got to her. She threw the puzzle book across the room, stood up and flipped the table over, dumping the pencil and several other books onto the carpeted floor.
"I can't stand this any longer," she raged through clenched teeth as Fran came running into the room from the kitchen. The fair-haired agent came to a distant halt, eyeing the taller girl warily. Shelley had her fists bunched at her side while fire sparked from her eyes and her body shook with the effort she was making to control herself.
"I need to see Aunt Helen," Shelley barked. "Now!" She really needed to see Angela, but knew there was no hope of that. Maybe Aunt Helen could help her cope with this rotten situation, as she had in the past.
Shelley had been making some real progress under the anger management program. Originally she had suffered near debilitating rage at the loss of her parents and the shattering of her life. Gradually, with help, she had learned to accept those things but the rootless life she was forced to lead had generated new fury. Playing softball, attending drama classes, even working in the Steak House had helped her cope with that.
But finding herself falling in love with Angela had helped the most. Even under suspicion from all the girls, Shelley had a glimmer of hope that someday, when Angela learned the whole truth, she might have a chance to pursue that love.
Then Allie's attack on Shelley in the lab revealed that the coed murders were tied to a search for Shelley. Suddenly a difficult situation became nearly intolerable. With her eyewitness testimony integral to the government's case against the mobsters, Shelley was taken away from Spofford and forced into tight security. Which meant she had no life at all and no contact with Angela and it was driving her crazy.
Fran had stood just inside the door and nodded. "I'll see what I can do, Shelley. Please stay calm." She pulled out her cell phone, called Jeff Cruz and identified herself. "Shelley is standing in front of me, shaking with rage. She demands to see her Aunt Helen. I would give this pretty close to emergency status." She listened for a minute, then folded the phone and stuck it back in its holder on her belt.
"He said he would have her here as soon as possible, maybe an hour." Fran looked sympathetically at the beautiful young woman before her. "If you'll clean up that mess, I'll have lunch ready in the kitchen."
Shelley stood there, fighting her rage down, forcing it back into its dark cavern in her soul. She shook her head and righted the table then picked up the puzzle books and pencil. Fran could hear her labored breathing and listened with relief as it eventually slowed.
They had sat in the kitchen and Shelley toyed with her lunch, hardly eating. Finally, her ears pricked up as she heard a noise near the outside door. Fran's phone rang and the outside guard told her that Judge Helen Ostcott had arrived.
Shelley was already at the door, waiting for Fran to open it. Helen Ostcott strode in and enveloped her ward in her motherly arms. Fran retreated to a chair near the door while Helen and Shelley moved further into the living room and sat together on the flowered couch.
Shelley had taken Helen's hand and brought it up to her cheek as moisture glistened in her eyes. "God, it's good to see you," she said.
"I feel the same way, darling," Helen answered, "and I know it's harder for you, being cooped up here." Shelley released her hand and Helen caressed her cheek. "Jeff tells me you're having trouble with your anger again."
Shelley stood up, stuck her hands in her pants pockets, and started pacing. A pale blue, satin shirt over black pants made her eyes even more arresting. "Yeah, I am. You tell Jeff he would be too if he were cooped up here all day and all night with nothing to do except watch the boob tube. This sitting around all the time is driving me up the wall!" She swung around toward Helen with a nasty frown. "Who the hell is the prisoner, here, anyway?" she shouted.
"I wish I had an easy answer for you, Shell, but I don't."
Shelley glared at Helen, then it slowly seeped through her anger that she wasn't her enemy. Aunt Helen wanted an end to this just as much as she did. Her anger gradually left her. "I am getting better at control, Aunt Helen. This time I only threw a book and tipped over a table," she said with a wry smile.
"And you remember doing it," Helen pointed out. "Definitely an improvement. Come here and sit beside me." She patted the cushion next to her.
Shelley sat down and shifted around for a moment. "Not a comfortable damn seat in the whole place," she grumbled.
Helen smiled at this remark and made note of it in her mind. "I can tell you that there is one bright spot on the horizon; the trial for these horrible murderers will be underway soon. Your personal purgatory will soon be over."
"Ah, Aunt Helen, that is great news!" Shelley's face lit up in a huge smile. She gave her guardian a hug.
"Soon you'll be able to go back to a normal life."
With a jolt, Shelley's thoughts jumped back to the present.
"Soon you'll be able to go back to a normal life." She gave an ironic snort. Go back? she thought, her lips twisting. To what? No parents, no home, none of her teenage friends--she had grown way past them. There was no way to go back, only forward. But at least she could go forward as herself, Michelle "Shelley" Stella.
And Angela was waiting for her. Just the thought brought a smile to her stoic expression. Aunt Helen and Angela were the two best things that had happened to her in the last four years and she was grateful for both of them. An otherwise stormy period had been graced with two bursts of dazzling sunshine.
Her smile increased as she heard Aunt Helen's voice speaking to the guard outside the hotel room door. She hadn't seen her for weeks. The guard radioed in to Fran who unlocked the door and greeted Helen Ostcott. Shelley swung the lever to move the dark-gray lounge chair upright and jumped up to welcome the judge as she bustled in.
"Grrrrrrr," Shelley growled as she engulfed her guardian in a huge bear hug. "I have missed you so much. How are you?"
"Fine, darling." Helen stepped back and looked closely at her child. Her recuperation from the chest wound and the stress she was constantly under had taken a toll. Shelley looked tired and the slightly arrogant look that Helen secretly admired was somewhat subdued. Helen made a move to sit in an armchair and Shelley took her hand.
"No, no, no," she insisted, "you have to try the lounge chair you sent me--it is perfect! Thanks a million for ordering it for me." She led Helen to the chair and watched her settle in. Then Shelley pointed out the lever and pulled it back, opening the chair out as Helen was tilted back in it.
"Oh my, this is heavenly," Helen admitted, closing her eyes. Then they popped back open and she chuckled as she pulled the lever, bringing the chair upright again. "If I used a chair like this, I would be asleep most of the time. Besides," she said, shaking her head, "there's just something about keeping my feet on the floor that appeals to me." She stood and moved to the armchair and Shelley's long form flopped into the lounge chair with a bounce.
Shelley's wide smile flashed as she tossed her head to clear unruly bangs. "Doesn't take much to talk me back into it. I feel beat."
Helen sobered. "You look beat, Shell." Security around Shelley was so tight that they had not even been permitted to telephone each other. Helen had been allowed to visit her once in the hospital and once in the hotel but not since then. Her only information came from the newspapers and TV and an occasional call from Jeff. Now that Shelley had gone on record with most of her testimony, Helen was allowed to see her--after going through several checkpoints. "The court scene getting you down?"
Shelley looked down at her clasped hands, twisting restlessly in her lap. "Yeah," her silken voice reached a deeper register, "it brings back too many terrible memories."
Just last week, the prosecutor had directed her to identify the killers, asking if she saw them in the courtroom. "Stand up, Ms. Stella, and point to them if you see them."
The courtroom had become completely silent as the tall, dark-haired young woman had stood up. Shelley first looked out at the assemblage gathered to watch these proceedings. Her stately bearing and velvet tones gave a dignity to her words that projected them even more deeply into the hearing of her listeners. "I didn't know the names of the men who murdered my parents, but their faces are stamped in my memory for the rest of my life." She turned toward the five men and pointed to each of them in turn. "You killed them, and you, and you, and you, and you." Then she sat down and the silence grew until the prosecutor cleared his throat and asked the next question.
Helen's heart ached as she watched Shelley battle the demons that fought to surface. Tears glistened in the girl's crystal-blue eyes, finally tipping over and sliding slowly down her cheeks.
"You're the only one who can make them pay, Shelley for your parents and all the others they murdered that day."
Shelley nodded and sniffled, still fighting for control. "And for five girls who would be alive today if it weren't for me," she rasped. Shelley's unforgettable eyes came up to meet Helen's shocked expression, despair tingeing them with its darkness. She wiped her cheeks with long fingers.
The judge's graying head swiveled slowly back and forth. "No, Shelley, no. Don't take any of that blame on yourself. You didn't send that maniac out; those evil criminals did that. They were the ones who killed those girls just as surely as if they had been there. Please promise me you won't keep blaming yourself for that." And I promise never to mention that Jeff and I once wondered if the killer could possibly be you. I'll carry my own shame for that.
Shelley took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'll try," she murmured as
her eyes dropped away again. But how do you turn off guilt? "Did you find out
anything about her? About Allie? She really was crazy, you know."
Helen nodded. "I'm not sure the mob realized that when they sent her after you. She's the daughter of Lou Tressia, the one who always sits in the second chair--at least in the drawings of the proceedings."
Helen had asked Jeff Cruz to let her know about Allie and somehow he had managed to get clearance for her to see the woman's papers. "I was allowed to read a copy of her confession. She asked for the job of finding you. She wanted to impress her father with how good an assassin she could be. She sold him on the idea and was given pretty free rein. All they knew was the general area of the college you were in, your description, your age and that you were an athlete. She thought up the torture method herself. Seems she had an older sister who tortured her with a knife and no one ever knew. That's probably what warped her mind. The sister "disappeared" one day and never was found. Allie confessed to her murder, too."
Shelley shivered. "I hope they put her away and she never gets out."
"Humph," Helen snorted. "These days you just never know. Her trial will come after this one is over but you won't be cooped up for it like you are now."
Helen stood up. "I have to be getting back, darling."
Shelley rose, too. "You did send that pendant for me, didn't you? To Angela?"
"I certainly did," Helen answered and was happy to see the change in Shelley's face. "And my spies tell me she's been seen wearing it every day."
Shelley's face lit up, then clouded a little. "Spies?"
Helen laughed. "Dean Lohman told me. I called yesterday to thank him for helping us and when I mentioned Angela and a pendant, he passed that information along to me." Just as Helen had passed Shelley the information, through Jeff Cruz, that Angela had phoned, looking for her. And Jeff had relayed Shelley's request for the pendant to be made for Angela and sent to her. She had been very specific, even providing her guardian with a drawing of it.
Helen hadn't felt free to talk to Angela the day she called--after all, what could she say that wouldn't endanger Shelley even more? Soon Shelley herself could straighten everything out.
"Thanks, Aunt Helen. Come back when you can, okay?" The two embraced and Helen left.
The news about Angela and the pendant had lightened some of the stress Shelley was under. She not only had the trial to worry her, but also the knowledge that Angela most likely was suffering through a terrible time, too. How was she reacting to having shot a friend? But she knew that her concern about Angela's current state of mind wouldn't be put to rest until she could see her face to face.
To be Concluded in Part 6.
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