Staying in the Game
by Nann Dunne (PruferBlue)

PruferBlue@aol.com
Copyright 2000

Disclaimer: This is a quasi-uber story with characters who very slightly resemble two of our favorite heroes. They belong to only me and are copyrighted to Nann Dunne (PruferBlue). (Posted July 7, 2000).

No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the express prior written consent of the authors. This story may not be altered in any way and this copyright information must appear with this work at all times.

Warning: This story contains scenes of intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender. If this offends you, or you are under 18 years of age, or if this type of story is illegal in the state/country where you live, please do not read it. There are many really good general fiction stories to read, instead.

Author's Notes: I have attempted to write a romance-suspense story, partly because I never tried one before but mostly because this terrible "what if" idea came and grabbed me and wouldn't let me go until I got it written down. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

This story is dedicated to my cherished friend, Kas. She's the one who turned me on to writing ubers, so she gets the blame! Seriously, her help has been invaluable, as always. Thank you to my birthday buddy, Sue Cole, for listening patiently to all my gripes and being wise enough to sometimes disagree with me. (Have you been talking to Kas???) Thanks, too, to Coach Tina from Georgia, who double-checked the softball scenes for me. It's been a while since I played and coached and I wanted to make sure they still used three bases. <g>

Staying in the Game

The cast of one takes center stage
But does she know her part?
She needs to say the proper words;
The play's about to start.

Which actor wields the slashing blade
And wants to steal her fame?
You think she can survive the cuts
And still stay in the game?

Will Comedy or Tragedy
Come stepping to the plate?
The first mask laughs; the second weeps;
Which one foretells her fate?

Staying in the Game
2000 Nann Dunne
All Rights Reserved

 

Prologue

As she toyed with the knife, she mused that she was both producer and director of the play about to unfold... a play that took center stage each time she finished selecting her next leading lady. The tall, dark-haired girl stroked the knife's edge with her fingers, aroused by the very real danger of slicing them open on the razor-sharp steel. Surgical steel, she snickered. How appropriate. This caress was a familiar one to the young woman; it touched a chord deep within her and she repeated it over and over as she pondered the next move to be taken in her self-made drama.

Her face, suffused with passion, could have belonged to a woman embracing her lover. Indeed she did love the weapon. She loved its heft and balance, its smooth, shiny surface, the snick it made as it popped open and its graceful, yet utilitarian shape. She loved the ultimate power over life and death with which it endowed her.

But most of all, she loved the delicious facial contortions of agony and horror that she could summon at will from her lead actress, just by means of the artistry with which she wielded the blade. Like now. Let the play begin. Her breath quickened as the sharp point pierced the cheek of the bound girl she faced. Slowly, with fanatical precision, she carved a wandering groove from the base of her eye to her jawline, shaking her head as the woman screamed.

"Just speak the lines I want to hear and this act will be finished," her silky voice purred as perfect teeth gleamed in a grotesque grin. "I promise."

 

Chapter 1

The sky above the softball field sported tufts of snowy clouds dotted across a blanket of robin's-egg blue. Women moved around various parts of the field, warming up their muscles in anticipation of practice. Balls were thrown back and forth or skittered across the ground between fielders.

Angela Wedgeway listened to the dull whap as leather struck leather. She took a deep breath, smelling the light aroma of lilac on the early spring air. Finished with her warm-up calisthenics and anxious for practice to start, she welcomed the familiar chalk, dust and oiled leather scents that originated from the field and its environs. Even my sweat smells good, she kidded herself. It feels great to do something physical once in a while.

Tryouts had been held a few weeks ago and the girls who survived the cuts had gelled into a decent team. Except for first and second base and catcher, most of last year's starters had graduated and Coach Palmer was faced with another year of rebuilding. For the past few weeks, the team had undergone a series of intense fielding practices and today the coach wanted to concentrate more on batting, to sharpen the eyes of her known hitters and to see what other unknown talent might be brought to light.

Waiting to start the batting, Angela picked three bats out of the rack and slung them over her shoulder. A couple inches above average height, with a square, muscular, well-shaped body, Angela was one of the team's best hitters. Shoulder length, auburn hair, sun-streaked into red, brushed her collar. She turned hazel eyes flecked with green and yellow toward a new movement on the infield and watched the slim back of a tall, dark-haired girl who walked across the ball field toward the coach. She wore the same clothes some of the others did--jeans and a T-shirt--but somehow managed to draw the attention of nearly everyone on the field. Wonder who that is? Different looking walk; she's practically swaggering. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, tight jeans... Gotta admit they look better than sweatpants.

"First dibs on the new player." Marva Derby had sneaked up behind Angela to murmur in her ear.

Startled, Angela jumped then poked an elbow back, bringing an "oof" from Marva's chest. "You're welcome to her, Marv, she's not my type."

Marva's eyebrows lifted. Large, brown eyes feigned surprise and a wide smile graced a dark face topped with hair fashioned into intricate cornrows. "Hmmm, I don't know about that. Tall, boyish figure, short black hair, blue eyes to die for--sounds to me like just your type. Matter of fact, soon as I saw her I said to myself, 'Self, leave this one alone, she is perfect for Angie.'"

Angela snorted a laugh. "Sure you did. She must look like a dog for you to back off." Angela enjoyed teasing Marva. The woman made a pass at almost any female she thought might be gay, but seldom hooked up with anyone, even willing ones. "Just testing the waters," she called it. "Looking for my soul mate."

I hoped I had found mine. Angela's heart wrenched at the unbidden thought. Memories surfaced of the elegantly sophisticated Vicki who had only pretended to love her. Cut it out, Angela; don't even go there.

Marva laid her hand against her chest and looked aggrieved. "Girl, stop making me sound like a predator. You know I just like to flirt."

"Right. And I just like to look at food," Angela replied.

Marva bumped her shoulder against Angela's. "Hey, good one, Ange. I'll have to remember it." Her eyes swung back to the girl in question just as the coach's eyes moved toward them. "Oh, Palmer's looking this way. I think she's... here they come." She brought her eyes back to Angela's face, curious to see her reaction when she caught a good look at the newcomer. Marva had seen her from the front as she approached the field and the black girl had done a double take. Black hair, cut very short in back and longer on top, capped a triangular face. Long-lashed, pale blue eyes, a slender, high-bridged nose and chiseled lips, coupled with a slightly arrogant expression, gave the girl a haunting beauty. Angie likes those tall, reedy, boyish types and this one's gorgeous. They'd make a perfect match.

Angela wasn't stunning, but she attracted her share of attention. A small, slightly blunt nose and full, softly formed lips rested on a broad face. High cheekbones caused an attractive tilt to hazel eyes that used to sparkle with her love of life. That sparkle had dimmed when the lover Angela had fallen hard for had dumped her eight months ago, trampling big-time on her self-esteem. Marva would be ecstatic if her friend could find someone who would appreciate her love and loyalty. But Angela had pulled herself into a shell and nothing had been able to dent it. She wouldn't even discuss it with anyone, though several friends had tried to get her to open up about it. Even Angela's best friend, Merrill, hadn't had any success, so Marva knew she didn't stand a chance.

Marva saw something flicker across Angela's face, but it died as swiftly as it was born. Yes! she smirked, willing to clutch at straws. This just might be an interesting season.

Coach Ann Palmer walked straight to them. Her companion was half a foot taller. "Marva, Angela, I'd like you to meet a new candidate for our team... Shelley Brinton." As they shook hands, Palmer continued the introduction. "Angie is one of our pitchers and our first baseman and Marva is our catcher." Shelley nodded to each of them as she lifted a hand to push some stray locks off of her forehead.

"Shelley just transferred here from another college. She tells me she was a starter on her last softball team. She missed the tryouts, so we're going to take a look at her skills today."

"What position do you play?" Marva asked.

The low, throaty voice was icing on the cake as far as Marva was concerned. "I pitch," Shelley answered then looked straight into Angela's eyes, "and play first base."

Marva's head jerked toward Angela and her heart sank as she saw the tight smile. Damn, she's given up already. Sure wish the old Angie would come back. "Looks like you two will have to fight it out, huh?" Marva rushed to say, hoping to get a rise out of Angela. But her friend just kept the smile and didn't say anything.

"That's the idea," Palmer threw in as she looked from Angela to Shelley. "Competition should be good for both of you. And for the team."

"I sure hope so," Shelley remarked smoothly. When Marva glanced back up at the tall newcomer, she realized that she had locked her remarkable eyes on Angela's and hadn't let go.

Coach Palmer got a little uncomfortable as the look stretched on. The last thing she needed was territory trouble between two of her players. "Well, let's get started. Shelley, you go on out to first base. Angie's starting today's batting practice." She looked toward the pitcher's mound where one of the girls was warming up. "Bobby Sue will begin the pitching."

First to turn away, Angela headed toward a spot where she could swing the three bats to loosen up her shoulders. "Good luck," Shelley smirked and jogged off to first base.

Marva already had her shin guards on. She went to the bench to snap on her chest protector and pick up her mitt and face mask. She ducked past the backstop and squatted behind the plate just as Angela stepped up to it. "Come on, babeee! No batter, no batter. Show me some heat!"

********************

After practice, Marva and Angela walked to their car. As luck would have it, the school parking lot was a long walk from the softball field, making tired legs even tireder. Both women had apartments in the same off-campus complex and always came to practice together. Their roommates, also on the team, had been excused from today's practice.

Noticing Shelley coming toward them, Marva hollered, "Can we drop you somewhere?"

"No thanks," the rangy girl answered, pointing to the bike racks. "I have a bike."

Marva waved and entered the driver's side of the car where Angela had already established herself in the passenger seat. "Too bad, might have given you a chance to get to know her," she said, smiling at Angela.

"You can take off your Cupid mask, Marv. I'm not interested," Angela stated emphatically.

"Damn, Angie, you'd have to be dead not to be interested in someone that beautiful. She looked impressed with you."

Angela gave Marva a disparaging look and neglected to answer. But memories of Vicki pushed their way into her consciousness again. What the heck is this, 'kick your own heart' day?

Vicki hadn't been beautiful. She was what Angela would call handsome with her oblong face and cool, brown eyes framed by shoulder-length, champagne-blonde hair always perfectly in place. That the good-looking senior had even glanced twice at a sophomore thrilled the younger Angela and she entered the relationship full of love mixed with gratitude. Even Vicki's love-making had been cool and detached but that just made Angela try harder, believing she could warm the woman with her own ardor. But that was a losing battle. I should have recognized her detachment for what it was--not love at all. I was just someone for her to play with--and torment.

Since the distance from their disastrous relationship had lengthened, Angela could look at it with clearer eyes. She and Vicki had many wonderful moments together, but Angela now recognized that Vicki had practically owned her. Angela had thrown herself into loving her and would do anything she asked. That wasn't a two-way street; I was like a damn puppy dog, or worse, a slave. No wonder she wanted me around all the time--it had to be great for her overblown ego. She was queen of her own little world and I was her admiring servant. Everything was fine as long as it ran the way she demanded. Angela remembered various taunts when she thought Vicki was just teasing her. Now she realized that Vicki was trying to show her domination by tormenting her. At the time, Angela loved her too much to recognize it. Until Vicki visited her home.

Frustrated by her memories, Angela shook her thoughts back to the present as Marva pulled into the parking lot. Their off-campus home was in "A" building, one of four large, brick edifices housing mostly students. They had just climbed the three steps to the entrance when Merrill Lakins pulled into the same lot.

"You need any help?" Angela called, but Merrill shook her head, jostling her chestnut ringlets. Grabbing a canvas overnight bag from the back seat, she exited the car, threw the bag's carrying strap over her shoulder and joined them.

"You okay?" Angela asked, giving her shorter friend a one-armed hug. Merrill was just returning from a few days away to attend her grandmother's funeral. Angela and Merrill had grown up together in Chester County in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. They had been best friends since first grade when the tiny Merrill had been pestered by a rowdy boy and Angela had pushed him into a ditch and warned him against ever messing with a friend of hers. Not only had he not tormented Merrill again, but he became Angela's first admirer. Now, to everyone's great satisfaction, he was Merrill's fiance, Jim Dursik.

On her last trip home, Angela had accompanied Merrill to her grandmother's house and was grateful that she had a chance to visit with her before her death.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Ange. I'll miss Gram, but she suffered for a long time and now she's at rest." As she let go of the hug, Angela patted Merrill on her back.

"How's your mom doing?" Merrill and Angela had been showered with so much attention from each mother that they felt beloved by both. When she learned of the grandmother's passing, Angela had called Mrs. Lakins and been assured that she was fine, but the redhead wanted to hear first-hand how her "second mother" was coping.

"She's actually taking it pretty hard and that's to be expected, but you know Mom, she likes to put a good face on for the rest of us."

"Sort of like her daughter, huh?" Angela gave her friend another pat and received a sweet smile in return.

Marva followed the two into their apartment and sat on the edge of the bed where Merrill had flopped her bag. "We got a new player today, Merry. Looks like she's going to give Ange a run for her money."

Merrill glanced up from her unpacking. "How so?"

Marva lifted a hand high over her head. "She's about ten feet tall and plays a really mean first base. She went up in the air about three feet for an overthrow that nobody else would have come close to and pulled it in. And stretch! She does a split on her stretches, clean down to the ground. It hurts just to watch her!"

Merrill picked up a pile of clothes to put in the hamper and cocked an eyebrow at Angela who was leaning back, arms folded, against the wall. "Can she hit?"

Angela couldn't keep from looking and sounding disappointed. "She needs some work on her hitting, Merry, but there's no doubt she's a helluva lot better first baseman than I am. Looks like I'm about to get bumped."

Merrill walked to the hamper. As she expected, it was empty and she dumped her dirty clothes into it. One reason she and Angela got along so well as roommates, besides being best friends, was that they both were neatniks. They willingly picked up after each other, too. In a small apartment with a tiny living room; kitchenette; a bedroom with two beds, two bureaus, two desks, one closet; and a bathroom, that feature became increasingly important.

Continuing to her taller friend's side, Merrill reached a hand up and patted her shoulder. "You're too good a hitter to get bumped. Coach Palmer will have to put you somewhere."

"But where?" Angela's self-deprecating grin crawled up one side of her cheek. "I haven't the arm to play anywhere else except maybe second base and I wouldn't want to bump you, Merry, even if I could. Besides, I'd never make a strong relay throw."

Merrill chewed her bottom lip as she walked back to the bed to finish unpacking. It was frustrating to think of Angela getting bumped from her position. Softball was Angela's favorite sport and during the season she lived and breathed it, throwing herself into it with a passion. A consummate fielder and strong batter, Angela missed Olympic status only because of her weak throwing arm. Years of effort hadn't improved this one outstanding gap in her skills and she had reluctantly accepted it.

"Maybe Coach will put you in right field," Merrill suggested.

"Whoa!" Marva bounced on the bed. "Hurtz wouldn't like that one bit... but that probably is where you'll go. You're a lot better than she is. Just be careful, Angie, she could get pretty nasty if you push her out."

"We don't even know where I'm going, yet, Marv. Or if I am."

Merrill swung her large, brown eyes from one to the other. "So what's this fantastic first baseman like? Something that crawled out from under a rock? Can I hate her?"

"She's gorgeous," Angela answered, drawing a surprised reaction from Merrill. Angela hadn't paid any attention to anyone's looks for months.

She switched her inquiring eyes to Marva who smirked and winked. "That she is: tall, skinny and gorgeous. Just right for Angie."

"Will you cut it out? She probably just knocked me out of a job. Stands to reason I would notice what she looks like. Besides, we don't even know if she's gay."

Merrill slid another glance toward Marva and they both grinned. Sounds like a tiny bit of interest to me.

********************

Shelley cycled her way back to the apartment complex, found her room and chucked her sports bag into a corner. The practice was an eye-opener. She had been impressed with the talent on the team, especially her rival for first base. The girl could lay a bat on just about anything and when she took her turn at playing first, she fielded everything near her with effortless confidence. But I think I've got you beat out for first base, Angela. Her lips twisted in a self-satisfied smile. Sometimes it pays to be tall.

She checked her watch and groaned. Peeling off her clothes, she dropped them on the floor as she headed for the shower. Fifteen minutes later she threw on a clean white shirt and belted dress slacks over fresh underwear, kicked the dirty clothes into a pile next to the hamper and loped out the door, combing her damp hair into place with long fingers.

She unlocked the chain from her bike, climbed on and hurried away, grimacing at the painful tugs she felt in the leg muscles she had overused today at softball practice. Show off! Should have taken it easy on those splits. Shelley loved the game, thriving on the intimidation she generated when she pitched and the aggressiveness she demonstrated when she batted. After some youthful problems stemming from her hot temper, she had tried to cultivate a laid-back attitude around other people but her actions on the field belied it.

One of the few places I can really be myself. Or almost myself.

 

Chapter 2

Angela had pulled the couch cushions onto the floor and lay stretched on her stomach across them, reading a textbook that she had propped against a wall. Merrill threw a down comforter and pillow on top of the couch's barely covered springs and spread herself along it to do her studying. Forty-five minutes later, a familiar knock sounded at the door and Angela jumped up to unlock it.

As expected, Marva stood there with her roommate, Kathy O'Brien. Kath was of average build and as Irish-looking as her name. Sandy-brown, curly hair fell softly around a cute, lightly freckled face before cascading to her waist. Her cinnamon eyes gleamed at Marva's moments of mischief while her cautious nature helped contain her friend's more boisterous urges. They had been assigned as roommates from their first day of college and they had roomed together ever since.

At first, Kath had been uneasy to be paired with a black girl, let alone one who was gay. Her parents had taught her to be tolerant of differences in people but the small town she grew up in had no black residents nor any obvious gays and she was nervous about how Marva might act toward her. Maybe she won't be happy with me, either.

She needn't have worried. Marva amazed her with her forthrightness about being gay, obviously comfortable with herself. Within a few hours it was apparent that this black, gay girl from New York City had a heart as big as the Empire State Building and a sense of humor to match. She won over the straight, white kid from the sticks and they had been inseparable friends ever since.

"You guys want to go over to the Steak House and get a beer? Maybe grab a sandwich?" Marva mimed eating a sandwich while Kath tipped a drink from an imaginary bottle.

Merrill sat up, swung her feet to the floor and closed her book. "Anything to stop that act," she taunted with a twinkle in honey-brown eyes. She stood up and stretched. "What do you say, Ange?"

"Hey, I'm game. Just give us a few minutes to straighten up and get our shoes on." Five minutes later they were on their way to the Steak House, a favorite watering hole of many of the college crowd. As they walked in, two girls from the softball team, seated at an otherwise empty table, waved them over and they sat down.

Allie Monroe, the husky brunette, played in the outfield and Amber Zorno, shorter and blonde, was a second string infielder. The two weren't especially close friends. They tended to hang out with each other because they had the same major and both played softball. But one got used to seeing them together.

Allie's eyes flicked over Angela admiringly. There's just something about redheads...

"Thanks. I never thought we'd get a seat at a table," Angela said, smiling at the two. It struck Angela as odd that the girls didn't resemble each other at all except that they both had gorgeous cornflower-blue eyes that looked almost identical. I wonder if they're related somewhere along their genealogical trees?

"Marva asked us to hold one for you all," the shorter girl answered.

"I knew I liked you for a reason, Marv," Angela kidded her as the waitress approached.

The woman pulled an order pad, with a pencil attached, away from her belt. "What'll you have?"

The words yanked Angela's head around and up. "Hi," she said after a momentary pause, "I didn't know you worked here."

Cool, ice-blue eyes touched hers, immediately displacing any thoughts of cornflower blue. Shelley stood a little straighter. "I just started tonight."

"Oh, yeah," Marva chimed in, "you just transferred here, didn't you? What college were you at before?"

"Penlyville."

"Penlyville?" Amber echoed. "Did you know two girls from there were murdered not too long ago?"

Shelley ignored the question, her eyes darting nervously toward the area where the owner usually sat. "Come on, guys, I need to take your order."

"Pizza and beer okay with everybody?" Merrill asked. When the nods had been given, Merrill ordered two large pepperoni pizzas and two pitchers of beer. Shelley took the orders and left.

"She sure is a looker. Bet she has guys fighting over her all the time," Allie remarked.

"Or girls," Marva said and waggled her eyebrows at Angela who tried not to encourage her by laughing.

Merrill gave Marva a warning frown then turned her attention to Amber. "Tell us about the murders at Penlyville. What the hell happened?"

"A guy I grew up with is a police officer here in town. He called me just before we came out this evening to warn me. Said some loony is murdering coeds in this area--four so far. He cuts up their faces and chests then stabs them in the stomach and drops them by the river. Two of the victims were from Penlyville College, one from Scatsboro University and one from Boliss Women's College. You know all of them are right around us here at Spofford. The one from Boliss they just found this morning. She was murdered last night."

A combined gasp escaped and the girls looked at each other with worried frowns.

"We ought to look into this," Angela exclaimed. "Someone should be warning the whole school."

Amber nodded. "Joe said the department was sending a bulletin to the Dean and the newspapers would probably be picking up on it. Apparently the cops connected the first three murders as soon as a second girl was killed at Penlyville. They hushed it up for a while, hoping the murderer would get careless, but this fourth one made them decide to release the information."

Shelley came back with their order and set it on the table. "Pay her, honey, will you?" Merrill asked Angela who reached into her back pocket for her wallet and paid the tab.

While she waited for the money, Shelley glanced surreptitiously at Merrill. Honey? Who's this character? Angela's girl friend? Shelley berated herself for finding that possibility unpleasant. What the heck do you care? Shelley wasn't even looking for a date, let alone a girl friend, and she wasn't thrilled that Angela had made an impression on her. Like you have time for a love connection. Keep your distance, girl. It could be dangerous for you to get too close to someone. Or vice versa.

"Do you know anything about the girls who were murdered at Penlyville?" The girl friend looked up at her with huge honey-brown eyes that seemed to hold a hint of accusation.

Stop imagining things! Shelley jutted her chin out but tried to keep her tone from sounding too cold. "Only what I read in the paper. They were on the junior varsity basketball team, one a sophomore, one a freshman." She counted out Angela's change and dropped it into her palm. Hazel eyes glanced up at her then away as Angela grabbed the pitcher and poured everyone a beer.

"You live in the Brickhouse?" Marva asked.

"Bricker Apartments. Is that what you call it?"

"Yeah, we're on the first floor. Kath and I live in 110A and Angie and Merry are next to us in 112A. Why don't you stop by after work and fill us in on these attacks? We'd like to hear more about them."

"Sorry, I can't. I have a previous appointment. Maybe some other time." Shelley shrugged. "I don't know much more about them, anyway. Just that they're dead." Her voice flattened on the last statement and Angela caught sight of a strange expression on her face as she turned and walked away to wait on another table.

"I have a previous appointment," Marva mimicked the low, velvety voice almost perfectly. "Where the hell could she be going at midnight in this town?"

"Maybe she has a boy friend, Marv. Some people do, you know. Or a girl friend." Angela's voice sounded wistful even to herself. She lifted her mug and took a long drink of beer then wiped the suds from her upper lip with a sharp flick of her hand.

Merrill's eyes had followed Shelley after she left their table and now she turned to Angela, watching the play of emotions across her face. She hadn't missed the wistful note and guessed that maybe Angela's insecurity was at the root of it. That damn Vicki knocked her for a loop.

She touched Angela's arm. "I don't think there's any boy friend waiting in the wings, Ange. Or girl friend either. Shelley has trouble keeping her eyes off of you."

"Right," Angela hooted. "Marva been prompting you to say that? I'm not even interested in the girl."

"Right," Merrill and Marv echoed in unison.

"Okay, girls, eat and drink up. We have a practice tomorrow at nine," Angela reminded them, adroitly changing the subject.

"Nine," Kath groaned. "Saturday morning practices should be banned."

"Your dental appointment already got you excused today. If we're gonna win, we have to practice. You want everything your way?" Marva teased.

"Yes, yes, yes," Kath stated emphatically, thrusting a bread stick through the air.

"Then you better marry a wimp," Marva advised. "A rich wimp."

"Nah," Kath said with a serious look, "I'd rather marry a guy just like you, honey. A male Marva."

"What?" Marva looked startled. "I don't always let you have your way." She looked around the circle of the table for support. "Do I?"

Five grins were her only answer.

********************

Everyone managed to get to the field on time Saturday morning, but it took an intensive round of calisthenics to wake everyone up.

Finishing up, Angela had unwrapped her leg from around her neck and was jogging in place to cool down when Coach Palmer came over to her. "Ange..." Palmer looked down at her clipboard then back. "This is really hard, Angie. You've played first base for us for two years now and you've done a masterful job. But... everyone has to fight for their position each year and..."

Angela took pity on Coach Palmer. Her choice wasn't anything personal. But just because it's best for the team doesn't mean I have to like it. Angela finished the coach's little speech for her, "And Shelley looks awesome for the job. You're right, she should have a chance at it. For the greater good, or something."

Coach Palmer pushed her lips together and nodded. "Thanks, Angie, for being so understanding. She did look awesome and I want to keep her there for a while. Who knows, maybe you can win it back. When Shelley pitches, you'll play first same as always. But when she's not on the mound, first base is hers for the time being. I want you to try right field."

"Have you told Hurtz that I might be bumping her?"

"Yes," Palmer said with little enthusiasm. "She's not too happy about it. I told her when she first got here this morning and she cursed you out then turned right around and left. Between you and me, I almost hope she stays away; she's a troublemaker." Her gaze swept around the field and she started to raise her whistle for attention. Hesitating, she looked back at Angela. "I hope you don't have any trouble with her because of this, Angie."

"I'll keep it in mind, Coach."

The whistle shrilled and practice started. Infield, outfield and subs were split up and each group had an hour of intense workout. After a ten-minute break, the starters went to their positions and the subs batted for game situation practice. In the first inning, one batter hit a humpbacked line drive that fell to the ground in right field a split second before Angela got to it and scooped it up.

"Throw it here!" Shelley yelled from first base before the ball even hit the ground. "We got her, throw it here!"

Merrill ran out toward the outfield as the shortstop covered second base and Angela tossed the ball to Merrill. When she looked back at Shelley, the tall first baseman was standing with her hands on her hips, shaking her head.

In the third inning, the same play happened again. This time, Shelley threw her mitt down on the ground and charged out to Angela, yelling all the way. "What the hell are you doing? Can't you just throw the ball to me when I yell for it? Are you that pissed that I'm playing first base instead of you?"

She reached Angela's spot in the field and stood there glaring down into angry eyes. Shelley could feel the fire boiling in the pit of her stomach. Every place she went she seemed to run into this "shun the new girl" attitude. "What's your problem? Afraid to give me a put out?"

Angela was fuming that Shelley chose to make her weakness the center of attention. The whole team was watching the confrontation and she could hear their murmuring in the background. Angela's jaw worked back and forth as she struggled to talk past her anger. With teeth clenched, she finally won the battle. "I can't throw the frigging ball that far," she spit out in an icy monotone.

This unexpected retort provoked a sarcastic reaction from Shelley. "What? You play varsity softball and you can't throw the damn ball to first base? You've got to be kidding."

"Well, I'm not kidding, Miss Star Athlete," Angela grated. "Not everyone's as perfect as you are." Angela couldn't control her need to be nasty. She wanted to hurt Shelley for hurting her. She felt spurned all over again and that didn't make sense. This is stupid. She isn't Vicki. She saw that her words did hurt the first baseman but, contrarily, she felt worse rather than better.

Shelley's eyes narrowed and her voice roughened. "I work hard at trying to be my best. Maybe you should, too."

Angela's chin lifted and she stuck her hands on her hips. "You saying I'm dogging it?" she retorted.

Shelley mirrored her attitude and actions, sticking her chin out and placing her hands on her hips. "I'm saying if you can't throw to first base from right field, you need to do something about it," she responded, throwing each word like a dart.

"Like I haven't tried to for fifty years," Angela said, fuming.

"Really?" Shelley taunted. "If you weren't so damn hardheaded, I could fix that for you."

"Right. I'm sure you're an expert on throwing, especially throwing the bull."

"Stay for an hour after practice. I'll work with you and you can decide," the taller girl challenged. "What have you got to lose?"

"You're on," Angela muttered.

Sally, one of the subs, had been standing aside, waiting for the fireworks to simmer down. Now she scooted to their side with a jar that wore a label reading, "Cuss Cache." "Okay, Angie, pay up," she gleefully ordered, waving the bottle under Angela's nose.

"Pay up what?" Angela demanded. "I didn't do any cussing."

"Come on, we could tell all the way from the bench that you said the eff word," Sally jeered.

"Me? Get real. I said 'frigging.'" She nodded toward Shelley. "Ask the Star, why don't you?"

Sally turned to the first baseman. The rest of their teammates had become interested in this little act and they wandered closer to the three players.

"What did she say, Star?" Sally asked.

Shelley snorted at the name then raised an eyebrow. "You think I'm stupid? I'm not gonna repeat that word and lose five bucks."

With a smirk, Sally brought the jar back to Angela, whose eyes were now smoldering. "Come on, Angie, pay your money like a good sport."

Angela reached into her back pocket, pulled out her wallet and checked inside of it. She had four fives and three ones. She pulled out a five and handed it to Sally. "You satisfied, now, Sal?" she taunted.

"Yeppers," Sally answered.

"Well you better keep that jar open, because all I said was 'the frigging ball' but this time I am going to get my money's worth." Angela pulled the other three five-dollar bills from her wallet and threw them on the ground one at a time while shouting at the top of her voice, "FUCK!... FUCK!... FUCK!"

The onlookers laughed while Sally picked up the money. "You didn't have any trouble throwing the bills," Shelley wisecracked, getting an additional laugh from the team.

Angela took a threatening step toward her and Shelley's eyes narrowed. Merrill grabbed her friend's arm. "Take it easy, Ange. Nobody wants any trouble. Cool off, will you?" Wish I could let Angie knock that chip off her shoulder. She'd probably take this skinny smart-ass apart.

"Yeah, chill," added Marva. "Nothing here worth fighting about."

The advice from the two helped Angela to calm down. "Don't worry, I'm not looking for a fight," she assured her friends but she waggled a finger at Shelley and gave her a dirty look. "But you owe me a frigging five bucks!"

Shelley, biting her lip to forestall any more arguing, threw a rudely dismissive hand at Angela and walked back to first base. Coach Palmer blew her whistle for the team to get back to the business at hand and they resumed practice.

True to her word in spite of the conflict, Shelley stayed after practice to work with Angela. Merrill, recognizing that they both still held some anger and might need a buffer, offered to help. First Shelley had Angela throw the ball to Merrill about ten times. Then she had her making slight shifts in the placement of her feet while throwing. Finally, they found a stride that vastly improved her accuracy.

Angela threw the ball over and over again until the new placement of her feet became automatic.

"That's good. Now we'll work on your arm movement." Shelley stepped behind her and wrapped her hand around the top of Angela's shoulder. She felt a slight shudder but chose to ignore it. She obviously doesn't like me touching her. Like I care. "Throw the ball your usual way," she ordered curtly. Angela tightened her lips but did as directed. She had lived for a long time with the embarrassment of a weak arm and Shelley's adjustments seemed to be helping. For that, she could put up with a little bitchiness.

Shelley could feel a tiny hitch in the shoulder. She moved Angela's hand a small degree to a different position. "Try throwing from here." After the third slight change, the hitch wasn't there. "Okay, let's work with this spot."

Angela threw the ball about ten more times then Shelley called a halt. Merrill came running over and clapped Angela on the back. "I can see improvement already, Ange. Looks like ole Star actually knows what she's doing." She glanced at Shelley as she spoke and got a surprisingly cool stare in return.

"Your arm tired?" Merrill asked Angela as the three women walked off the field, towels draped around their necks.

"Not much," Angela said. Her arm could be dropping off and she wouldn't admit it in front of Miss Know-it-all. Merrill grinned with understanding then pulled a cell phone out of her bag and called Marva for a ride home.

Shelley glanced down at the redhead. "I think about two more sessions will do it. We've got your mechanics straightened out. Now we need to work on your timing. That should take one session and when you get it all together we can spend one more just using what you've learned over and over until it's part of you. You'll be throwing runners out at the plate before long." Shelley nodded her head to emphasize her confidence. "You're a quick learner," she added almost begrudgingly.

"Thanks for helping me," Angela said with little inflection.

"No sweat, I had a reason for it," Shelley said indifferently. "I want you to teach me to bat as well as you do."

I should have guessed she wasn't doing this out of the goodness of her heart… if she has a heart. Everyone wants a payback. "Can you spare some time tomorrow?" Angela asked.

"I'm going to be pretty busy tomorrow…" Shelley hesitated, ran her fingers through her hair, then came to a decision. "Three o'clock?"

"We'll be there," Angela said after Merrill nodded her agreement.

They had reached the bike rack. "Why don't you toss your bike in the trunk of the car and ride back with us?" Shelley's detached attitude rankled, but Merrill's natural good manners asserted themselves. "Marva should be here in a couple minutes."

"Sounds good." Shelley reached into a hip pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill and held it toward Angela. "Here's the five I owe you."

"Stuff it, Star," Angela said derisively. "You teach me to throw and I'll teach you to hit but we don't have to pretend to be buddies."

The eyes darkened and Shelley growled, "My name's not Star." But then, it's not Shelley, either, a voice whispered inside her mind.

Merrill looked at each of them. "Will you two knock it off? You guys are teammates." She slipped an arm through Angela's. "What do you say, Angie? Truce?" Angela hesitated then shrugged and barely nodded.

"How about you, Shelley? Truce?"

Shelley glanced at Angela but the redhead's eyes were turned away. The taller girl frowned then rasped, "For now."

Marva arrived and they put the bike in the trunk and piled into the car. The black girl noticed that Angela had pulled Merrill into the back seat rather than share it with Shelley. Damn! Looks like they're still at odds with each other. Maybe I was wrong about the mutual attraction.

"Hey, Shelley, how about telling us what you know about the murders?" Marva reminded her.

Shelley tossed her hair back off her forehead with a jerk of her head. "I don't know much more than I already told you. Both girls were on the junior varsity basketball team. One was a freshman and one a sophomore. They were killed about two months apart. Then everybody started travelling in pairs or groups."

Marva took her eyes from the road and briefly cast them sideways as she spoke. "I found out the girl from Scatsboro U. was killed about four weeks after the first girl at Penlyville. And the second Penlyville girl was killed about three weeks after that, then four weeks later, the girl from Boliss. It looks like he's killing them about three or four weeks apart." Marva shuddered. "What a lousy way to die. I sure hope they catch him in a hurry."

"Are they sure it's a man?" Shelley's query hung awkwardly in the air while the other women exchanged fearful glances.

"My god, I hope it is," Angela said. "I hate to think a woman would cut up another woman like that." There was a murmur of assent from the others, overridden by Shelley's low, silken voice. "There've been women who've done worse in the past. A lot worse."

********************

The dark-haired girl sat in the library, looking through the Scatsboro University yearbook, flipping the pages over slowly and staring at pictures. Guess it's too early to try Spofford. Don't really want to draw attention there too soon... but this changing from one college to another is getting to be a pain in the ass.

Her inner Voices had told her to change and she always listened to the Voices. But not without some resentment at being yanked around. How much free time do they think I have, anyway? I can't just walk in and grab these girls; I have to do some reconnoitering and that takes time. Don't they realize I have studies to take care of, too?

One good thing: the Voices understood that her leading ladies had to be killed. The girls would never give her the right answer without some persuasion and how could she use her knife to question them and then let them go? Besides, to her that was the fun part of the whole thing. She was in total charge; she could make them squirm and scream and beg… just as her sister used to do to her. Until four years ago when she had given her a taste of her own medicine. The woman's lip curled. Or should I say her own knife?

Agitated, she reached in her jeans pocket and felt for the knife. Just pressing her fingers against it helped to calm her. Her eyes fell on a face and form that perfectly matched her leading lady preference and she smiled in anticipation. She rubbed the knife handle, careful not to depress the trigger. Wouldn't want to cut myself now, would I? She snorted out a laugh, oblivious to the irritated looks she received from other patrons of the library. Removing her hand from her pocket, she tapped a long finger on the nose of the woman whose portrait she had chosen. You are next, baby. You will get to play your part soon. Very soon. And you might even be the one who knows the right lines.

******************************

To be Continued in Part 2.

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