Staying in the Game
by Nann Dunne (PruferBlue)
See Part 1 for Disclaimers.
It was Friday and Shelley was just entering her apartment when the phone rang. She gave the door a shove with her shoulder, dropped her sports bag and stuck her softball bat in the corner. Kicking off her shoes as she went, she picked up the phone and carried it into the bedroom, trailing its extra-long cord, before answering it. Flopping back onto the full-size bed--the one concession to her size--she lifted the handset. "Hi."
"Hi, Shelley, it's Aunt Helen."
"Like you had to tell me that," Shelley said, grinning into the phone. "How are you? Did you get your pictures developed yet?" She twisted a foot toward her and peeled off the sock, tossing it toward a pile of clothes near the hamper, then did the same with the other sock.
"I was late taking them in but I should have them back in a few days. Shelley…" she hesitated and Shelley closed her eyes, waiting to hear the real reason for Helen's call. "I've just learned about the murders that are going on near your school. I'm very concerned."
There was a hesitation and Helen, sitting at her desk in the study at home, leaned her head on her hand, waiting for Shelley's response.
"I know. I've been concerned about them, too."
"They didn't start until you moved into the area, darling." Dear God, please don't let this be happening. She could picture Shelley's beautiful face tightening up, trying to fight her emotions.
The tension showed as Shelley's liquid voice hardened. "That could be just a coincidence, couldn't it?"
"I don't put much stock in coincidences, Shelley. If anything, past events have taught me to be overcautious."
"Look, Aunt Helen, if I notice anything strange happening, I'll let you know, okay?" Shelley's fist opened and closed, again and again, and she finally plunged it into her shorts pocket, wrapping it around the object it encountered.
"Shelley, if anything at all seems unusual in the slightest way, you call me. Don't take any chances, you hear? I can only do so much to protect you." Helen looked at her hand and saw it was shaking. "Do you think you should leave Spofford?"
"I just got here," Shelley said in a grating monotone. "Don't you think changing schools every half hour just might draw some unwanted attention?"
The girl's tone unnerved Helen. "Shelley, are you still taking care of your anger management recommendations?"
"God, when you ask me that, I do get angry!" Shelley flared. "You know I'm doing everything I've been told to do!" Helen could hear her breathing. "Like a good little girl," she finished harshly.
"Shell, I know you don't want me hanging over you all the time. I try not to be too overbearing. But sometimes I have to push you a little and you know that."
Shelley tangled her fingers in the front of her hair and yanked on it in frustration. "Just because I know it doesn't mean I have to like it."
"All right, I realize it's a burden." Helen hoped a change of subject would calm Shelley down. "How's your friend? Anything new on that front?"
Just more frustration. A tear squeezed out from under one eyelid and hovered at the top of Shelley's cheek. "You've nothing to worry about there. She barely even knows I'm alive."
"I wasn't asking because I was worried, Shelley. I care about what you do, what interests you. I love you, remember."
Shelley purposely softened her tone. "I'm sorry, Aunt Helen. This hasn't been a good week. I love you, too."
"I have some court work that I must get back to. Goodnight, darling. I wish I could give you a great big hug."
"I miss your hugs," Shelley murmured with an aching heart. Will anyone else ever want to hug me? How can anyone love me without knowing me… and I can't let anyone know me. "Goodnight, Aunt Helen."
She cradled the phone and set it on the rug, rolled off of the bed and stumbled into the bathroom, shedding her clothes. Dropping them to the floor, she kicked them into the bedroom toward the hamper and jumped into the shower. Afterward, she dragged herself to the bedroom, dropped her towel onto the pile of clothes that was accumulating and leaned back gratefully onto her bed. Stretching one arm above her head and draping one across her waist, she fell quickly into a light sleep.
Downstairs, the women had showered and changed, congregated in 112A and were lazing around in front of the TV, trying to get up the energy to go out.
"Hey, Angie, Shelley's off tonight. I know I've said that we should stay away from her but we could be wrong." Merrill had trouble admitting that possibility out loud. "Out of common courtesy maybe we should do something to show our appreciation for her helping you against Hurtz the other night. How about asking her if she wants to take a busman's holiday with us? We'll all be together. Anyone object to that?" Merrill lay sprawled on the rug and Marva sat cross-legged beside her with her back against the couch. Angela lay on the couch while Kath sat at the farther end with Angela's drawn-up feet almost in her lap.
Angela threw her arm across her eyes and grunted. "I object. You just want the couch."
"What's a busman's holiday?" asked Kath who never let an unfamiliar word or expression get by her.
"A tour by bus," Merrill explained. "A busman takes a tour by bus even though he works on one. We ask Shelley to go to the Steak House with us even though that's where she works. Get it?"
"Yeah, cute," Kath grinned. "And I like the idea. We all play on the same team; we can't very well just ignore her. And this way no one is alone with her in some strange place." She reached over and tickled Angela's feet. "So, go get her, Ange, before we all fall asleep."
Angela yelped, then groaned and sat up, swiveling her abused feet to the floor. "Guess I won't get any peace until I do." Marva snickered and opened her mouth but Angela frowned mightily and pointed a finger at her, silencing her. "Don't you even go there, Marva Derby, or you are in big trouble."
Marva didn't say another word, contenting herself with a wink and a smirk.
"I'm going with you," Merrill said. "You aren't going up to her place by yourself." She started to get up, but Angela rose first and pushed down on her shoulder.
"No way, Merr. Not one of the dead girls was attacked in her rooms and you aren't going to make me afraid to visit someone in ours." She quickly escaped out the door before Merrill could answer.
Now that she was up and moving around, the redhead's energy returned and she took the steps two at a time up to Shelley's floor, enjoying the brush of her bare feet against the carpeted stairs. She was happy that the girls seemed willing to give Shelley more benefit of the doubt. Angela agreed Shelley was mysterious, but she couldn't imagine her as a killer no matter how hard she tried.
Walking swiftly to the dark-haired girl's apartment, Angela halted at the partially open door. Suddenly alarmed in spite of her earlier statement, she pushed it all the way open. The room was far from neat and clothes were thrown about but nothing seemed obviously amiss. She told herself not to be spooked so easily and she walked in. "Shelley?" she called but when no one answered she considered the possibility that Shelley might be asleep and tiptoed over to the open bedroom door.
The sheer beauty of the sight that met her eyes stopped her in her tracks, bringing to mind a painting of a graceful nude. Though startled by the jolt she felt in her groin and the maddening tingling beginning in her breasts, she drifted closer, drawn by Shelley's exquisite form. Lifting a hand to stroke the glorious skin that beckoned her, Angela fought against the temptation, desperately trying to bring her desire under control. Finally common sense prevailed and she lowered her hand just as Shelley's eyelids fluttered.
Long lashes swept up, unveiling the sleepy blue they had hidden and Angela's heart lurched. Shelley seemed unconcerned with her nakedness but the look on Angela's face quickly heated her blood, filling her eyes with heavy-lidded passion. Are you really here… or is this wishful dreaming?
Angela consciously swallowed and her words came out in a nervous rush. "Your door was open... I came on in... didn't know you were sleeping... We're going to the Steak House. Do you want to come?"
Shelley's lips turned up, barely showing the gleam of her teeth. "Yeah, I do… if it's with you," she answered, her sultry tone lifting the fine hairs at the back of Angela's neck.
Angela reddened but she chose to ignore the double entendre. "I apologize for walking in on you like this."
Shelley swung her legs to the floor and sat up, lifting her arms to straighten her tousled hair--an action that threatened to interfere with Angela's heartbeat. "No problem." She chuckled, looking down at her chest. "I don't have much to hide, anyway."
Struggling to restore some equanimity to her thoughts, Angela smiled and dug herself in deeper. "They say more than a mouthful is wasted." That's 'more than a handful,' you idiot… and she's going to think that you're flirting with her. In truth, Angela knew she was long past the flirting stage and it terrified her.
Shelley's eyes dropped to the full, enticing breasts right in front of her. Hardened nipples pushed against the stretched cloth, bearing testimony that no bra restrained them. Quickly, but gently, she encircled Angela's waist with her left arm and drew the almost mesmerized woman closer. Her passion-laden voice purred through Angela's heightened senses. "Let's... give that a test." Her mouth enveloped as much of the hot flesh as she could, sucking at it through the T-shirt's cloth, probing with her tongue until she heard Angela gasp. She let go just as Angela's hands buried themselves in her hair but she hadn't given up. Her right hand yanked up the front of the T-shirt and she resumed her pleasure with skin meeting skin.
Hooking her left thumb beneath the back band of Angela's shorts and folding the fingers of her right hand around the front band, Shelley started to tug.
"No!" Angela said urgently, momentarily winning the battle for self-control. "Stop, don't do this." Oh, god, but it feels so right. She grabbed handfuls of the raven hair and pulled, trying to detach Shelley's mouth.
While Angela's hands were tangled in her hair, Shelley loosened her mouth. Still holding Angela close, she abruptly stood up, sliding her bare skin against Angela's. Angela's mouth opened as she sucked in a breath and Shelley bent her head and fused her lips to those below her. But she didn't attack with her tongue, she caressed with it, tenderly exploring until Angela's knees gave out.
Shelley supported her by moving a hand to Angela's buttocks. She began squeezing in a soft, seductive rhythm and Angela again tried to exert some control. She dragged her mouth sideways, away from Shelley's, and put her hands against Shelley's chest to thrust her away. When her pushing palms encountered bare breasts, Shelley whimpered and called her name, "Angela..."
Angela's resolve nearly deserted her but she regrouped, knowing that this was not the time to surrender to her rebellious desires. "Please, Shelley, please stop. You presume too much... I'm not ready for this." She laid her head on Shelley's shoulder and, to her chagrin, began to cry.
Perhaps the tears did it. With a tremendous effort, Shelley stopped her passionate aggression and leaned her head against Angela's. After straightening out the T-shirt, she moved her hand to the auburn tresses and kissed Angela's hair and forehead. "It's okay," Shelley murmured. "I won't push you if you don't want me to." Oh, Angela, I thought you wanted me as much as I want you.
Angela, still crying, pushed Shelley's hand away and shoved herself away from her embrace. The rejection hit Shelley's heart like a sledgehammer. She reached across to the lamp table for the box of tissues and handed it to Angela then slumped down onto the bed with a bruised heart, not meeting Angela's eyes.
Angela knew she had hurt Shelley but she was too distraught to do anything but run. She dashed into the corridor and shut the door. Leaning against the wall, she wiped her wet face with the handful of tissues she had grabbed and then slowly made her way back downstairs to her own apartment.
"Shelley coming with us?" Merrill asked as Angela entered the apartment. She had been watching television and didn't look up until Marva elbowed her in the side and nodded her head toward their friend. Angela hurried past them with a clenched jaw, strode into the bedroom and slammed the door.
"I guess that's a no," Marva observed. "I wonder what happened?"
"We may never know," Merrill said with a sigh. "Angie isn't too good at baring her soul. She tends to hold things in."
Kath stood up. "Let's look on the bright side. If they had some sort of falling out at least we won't have to worry about Angie getting too serious about someone with a bad past." She took the last potato chip from a bowl and crunched it in her mouth. "So are we still going to the Steak House?"
"Why don't you two go ahead," Merrill suggested. "I think I'll hang around and see if I can lend Angie a shoulder to cry on."
Marva got up and joined Kath at the door. "Tell her we're on her side, okay?" she asked then she and Kath left.
Merrill knocked on the bedroom door but there was no answer. She looked down at her hand on the knob, and hoped that she was doing the right thing as she turned it and went in. In the soft light of dusk, she could see that Angela lay in bed on her side, staring at the wall and giving no sign that she saw her.
Merrill sat down on the bed next to Angela's stomach. She reached up and swept her hand across her friend's brow then moved it across her hair. "You want to talk about it, honey?" she murmured.
For a while there was no sound from Angela and Merrill continued to sit beside her with her hands lying loosely in her lap. At last, Angela slipped her hand into one of Merrill's and took a ragged breath. Merrill squeezed her hand and waited.
"I acted really stupid."
"How's that?" Merrill prompted when Angela didn't continue.
Angela had to clear her throat to speak. "Shelley made a move on me, Merry. Lord knows I wanted her to. But I was too damn scared about getting involved with her and I made a total ass of myself."
"You sure aren't the first one to do that, Ange," Merrill said soothingly.
"But I hurt her, Merry. I hurt her pretty bad, I think. God, she's only eighteen! And she's so gorgeous. How many people do you think have ever rejected her advances?"
"That's all part of growing up, Angie. Most people don't bat a thousand. How did she react? Did she do something that scared you?"
"No. She just kind of pulled inside of herself like most people do when they're hurt and can't, or won't, fight back. I'm embarrassed to see her tomorrow, Merry. She'll probably be embarrassed, too. I won't know how to act."
"You want me to talk to her?" Merrill asked.
"Oh, Merry," Angela said and chuckled softly, "no, I don't, but you are the best friend anyone could ever have. Lay here with me for a while, will you?"
"Sure, honey, scoot over." Merrill lay down behind Angela and put her arms around her, pulling her close, praying that her nearness would bring some solace to her lonely friend
Having Merrill so close did help, but Angela was too upset to be able to calm down very quickly. Her rebuff of Shelley brought back the heartache of Vicki's rejection.
"I don't want to hurt Shelley like Vicki hurt me," she murmured.
For a moment, the words startled Merrill. Angela never spoke about Vicki. Maybe it was time she should. "Angie, tell me about Vicki," she suggested softly.
Angela didn't answer right away but Merrill felt a big sigh shudder through her and waited, expectantly.
"You remember she went home with me," Angela began.
She and Vicki had been together for six months and Angela was thrilled with her love. Tall, slender and elegant, Vicki had just graduated. Soon she would be getting an apartment and starting her new job but she had agreed to go home with Angela for a week at the beginning of summer vacation.
They were packing for the drive home. "Vicki, my folks don't know that I'm gay so be careful around them, okay?" Angela opened a drawer and laid a pile of shirts on the bed next to her open suitcase.
Vicki paused in her packing, put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at Angela. She asked incredulously, "Are you ashamed of me?"
"Of course not. It's just that I don't feel comfortable yet about telling them you're my lover." She started sorting through the shirts, making a separate pile of the ones she would pack.
"Then why have you invited me to your home?"
"I want you to meet them. And I want them to meet you." Angela returned one pile of shirts to the bureau, and put the other pile in one side of the suitcase.
"But they're not going to meet the real me if you insist on telling me how the hell to act," the blonde accused, her voice rising.
Angela had noticed as graduation approached that Vicki grew more bossy and irritable. She had attributed it to the stresses of graduating and starting a new life. But, in her typical reaction, she overlooked her lover's nastiness and tried doubly hard to appease her.
"I'm not telling you how to act, Vick, I'm just asking you to be discreet about our relationship. Someday when I get my courage up, I'll tell them, but that hasn't happened yet." Angela grabbed a pile of shorts and began to sort them.
Vicki sat down on the bed and looked speculatively at Angela. "I'll tell them for you."
"Right," Angela scoffed. "You better get your clothes packed or we won't get there before midnight."
"There you go again, trying to boss me around," Vicki griped, but she got up and finished her packing and they finally got the suitcases loaded in her car and set out.
"So this is your hometown," Vicki remarked, checking it out as they skirted around it. "The air sure could use some attention," she said and wrinkled her nose.
"That's the fertilizer from the mushroom houses," Angela explained. Ashton, a city of about 60,000 residents, lay sprawled deep in the heart of mushroom country in Chester County, Pennsylvania. A fresh breeze did its best to overcome the unpleasant odor but it was a losing cause. Other businesses had their homes there, but the mushroom houses just outside the city limits made their presence known without advertising.
Angela drove on past the edge of the city into the pleasanter developments of the western suburbs and pulled in front of a two-story stucco and frame house. "This is it," she said. She loved the home she grew up in and knew her parents were the major reason for that. They were a close-knit family… except for one thing. Angela knew they would be distressed if they knew she was gay and she had never told them. In fact, the only people from Ashton who knew were Merrill and her fiance, Jim Durkis.
Dorothy and Frank Wedgeway welcomed their daughter's friend and treated her as their own. Almost reaching Frank's 5'10" height, the blonde young woman with cool brown eyes seemed friendly though a little distant except with Angela. She stuck to her like a second shadow.
For most of the week, the girls took off by themselves but Dorothy planned one evening near the end of the week for them to stay home and enjoy a cookout with just the four of them. The beautiful weather held and they had the cookout on the back deck that Frank had built twenty years ago onto their then brand-new house. They feasted on charbroiled steak, sauteed mushrooms and onions, green-fried tomatoes with white gravy and a tossed salad.
Afterwards, Angela and Dorothy cleaned up while Frank and Vicki chatted over drinks. Angela and her mother were just coming back to the deck as the conversation turned to the rigors of college studies. "I'm kind of glad that Angie doesn't have a boy friend right now," Frank said. "That could interfere with her study time."
Vicki gave him a rather strange look and made a noise very much like a snort. "You've seen us together this whole week, Mr. Wedgeway, and you still don't get it? I'm Angie's 'boy friend.'" She glanced briefly at Angela who had stopped so quickly that her mother bumped into her. "And I don't think us loving each other has hurt our studies at all."
Stunned, Frank slowly set his drink on the table next to him, gathering his scattered thoughts. "Are you trying to tell me you are gay?" he managed to ask.
"WE are gay," Vicki corrected him. "I can't believe you didn't know that. Surely you must have guessed… Angie never made any pretense about it at school." She looked at a bewildered Angela with round, innocent eyes. "Did you, honey?"
Dorothy, moaning, stumbled over and sat in a chair next to Frank. Angela turned and ran from the deck, unwilling to cope with this unexpected disaster. She needed time to think, but…
To this day she could not forget the looks on her parents' faces. The remembrance made her squirm in Merrill's embrace. "They looked so shocked, Merry, and… betrayed. I was devastated and so were they."
"What made Vicki do such a thing? She should have known better," Merrill wondered.
"They must have asked her to leave. She came upstairs to pack her clothes and I confronted her. You know what she said? She said, 'You should have told them before, Angie. Here you were living in this lovely little house with this lovely little family and it was all a lie. A lie!' Then she looked at me very calmly and said, 'You might as well come with me now, I don't think you're very welcome here at the moment.'"
"So what did you do?" Merrill asked. Her heart ached for her friend. And for Mr. and Mrs. Wedgeway. She could imagine how startled they must have been… and hurt. Merrill knew that Angela had spent some of the summer with Vicki, but the Wedgeways had never breathed a word to her about it.
"Like an idiot I told Mom and Dad good-bye and went with her. They tried to get me to reconsider, but I couldn't do that. You know I was crazy about Vicki. Even when she was tormenting me, my love for her overlooked it. We got an apartment and I sent a postcard home with the address. Same time as I sent you one."
"What finally broke you and Vicki up? Was her telling your parents part of it?"
"In a roundabout way. Several weeks later, she said she wanted to have a serious talk with me. We sat down at the kitchen table…" Angela's voice got quieter and Merrill had to strain to hear her.
"What's so serious, Vicki? Is something wrong?" Angela's forehead wrinkled in a frown.
Vicki stared down at her hands, took a deep breath and said, "Since we left your house, I've given our relationship a lot of thought, Angie, and it's not working. It's over. Go back home. I don't love you anymore."
Flustered, Angela stuttered, "Wha… wha… what do you mean? You can't… What makes you think you've stopped loving me?"
"You're a nice kid, Angie, and this was a lot of fun while we were at college," Vicki's cool voice pierced Angela's heart like sharp splinters of ice. "But I'm getting ready to start a new job--a new life--and I just can't see you in it. You're a typical small town girl, too unsophisticated to fit with my crowd of friends. I think a clean break is best for both of us."
"No one turns off true love like a damn faucet." Angela's pain was quickly turning to anger at her lover.
Vicki shrugged. If she felt disturbed about this breakup, her manner didn't indicate it. "Then maybe it wasn't true love. Because I sure as hell am turning it off. And you out."
Angela jumped up from the table and slapped Vicki across the face as hard as she could, snapping the woman's head to the side. "You rotten bitch!"
Vicki jumped up, too and bared her teeth in a snarl as she rubbed her cheek. "Look, Miss Goody Two-Shoes, I tried to be civilized about this, but apparently that doesn't suit you. This is just another indication of our differences." She had stuck a knife into Angela and now she twisted it. "What do you think is so special about you anyway? I won't have a bit of trouble finding someone with more to offer than you have… and probably better at it, too. Get the hell out of here. Now."
"So I did." With my heart in a thousand pieces. Angela patted Merrill's hand. She could feel the dampness from Merrill's tears soaking through her shirt where her friend's head lay against her back.
Angela might sound accepting now, but Merrill knew the agony she must have suffered at the time. Her silence for so long showed that she had been badly hurt. "You were right, Ange, she was a rotten bitch," Merrill said between sniffs.
"So I'm better off without her, right?" Angela asked almost wistfully.
"Right." Merrill gave her a squeeze. "You'll find someone who deserves you, Angie, just you wait and see."
"Right," Angela echoed with a small puff of rueful laughter.
"What happened when you went back home?"
Another sigh escaped Angela's lips. "At first we all just kind of avoided any mention of what had happened. Then Mom couldn't stand it anymore and she called a family conference. The three of us sat at the kitchen table and discussed my love life--or lack thereof."
Angela stopped for a minute, remembering the stiffness they all felt with each other. "We talked for a long time. At one point Dad threatened to cut off my college money unless I promised not to 'fool around with women.' But Mom talked him out of that. Poor Dad. He seemed to think there was some switch I could throw to 'change back,' and he didn't understand why I wouldn't agree to do that. Things were just kind of left up in the air. Who knows how they would feel about this whole bit with Shelley."
"Oh, Ange, I feel so bad for you," Merrill groaned. She could imagine Angela's distress. How terrible it would be if her family insisted that she not love Jim.
"Thanks, Merry. Having you for a friend has been a great comfort to me. Don't worry… things will work out." Angela finally quieted and gradually fell asleep.
Just before Merrill drifted off she thought about the other lonely young woman in the rooms above them, wondering if she had anyone to offer her comfort.
BUMP! THUD! CRASH!
Angela and Merrill both jerked awake at the same time. "What the hell is that?" Merrill asked. The two women sat up on the edge of the bed, listening.
"That's from upstairs, Ange."
"Oh, my god, it's Shelley. She must be trashing her room." Angela jumped up and slipped her sneaks on.
Merrill grabbed her arm. "Angie, you're not going up there. If she's that angry she could attack you." Merrill's face was white. She knew she was too small to physically stop Angela from going to Shelley's apartment but she was fearful for her friend.
Angela tore her arm from Merrill's grasp and started away with Merrill following right behind her. "Don't you see? I have to go up there. It's my fault she's doing this and she could get in big trouble. If anyone else tries to stop her and she assaults them she'll lose her college agreement. She'll get kicked out because of me."
"What makes you think you can stop her? Sounds like the girl's gone berserk, for Pete's sake. Doesn't that tell you something?" Merrill was puffing with the exertion of keeping up with the longer-legged redhead.
They skidded to a halt in the midst of a group of students gathered in front of Shelley's door. "What's going on?" Angela asked.
"Sounds like she's tearing the damn place apart," one of the men said. "We've been knocking on the door but she won't answer. Someone's gone for the superintendent of the apartment complex."
"Shit!" Angela knocked on the door. "Shelley, it’s me, Angela. Open up." She waited a moment but nothing happened so she tried several more times, keeping up a steady knocking. "Shelley! It’s Angela! Let me in! I want to talk to you!"
A sound of movement came from the other side of the door and it slowly opened onto a scene of destruction. Merrill grabbed Angela's arm. "I'm coming in with you," she said.
"No, please, Merry. You stay out here and appease the superintendent. Tell him we'll take care of any damage. Ask him to give us 48 hours. Okay?" Merrill nodded reluctantly and Angela walked through the open door, which then slowly closed and locked.
Merrill put her ear against the door but heard nothing. At least everything sounds all right. She heard her name called and looked down the hallway to see a sleepy Marva and Kath coming towards her.
"What's going on?" Marva asked. "A damn herd of elephants congregating up here?"
Merrill grimaced. "Sounded like Shelley was trashing her room. Angela's gone in to quiet her down and I'm supposed to run interference with the superintendent," she pointed past them, "who's coming down the hall right now."
The super's large, square body was hustling toward them. He obviously had dressed in a hurry and was finding it hard to look authoritative in sweatpants and a sleeveless underwear shirt. "What's the trouble?" he asked, pulling to a stop in front of the girls. Since they were the ones immediately in front of the reported apartment, he ignored the other bystanders who had dropped back at his arrival. He pushed wisps of graying brown hair into some order with his pudgy hand.
"No trouble unless you want it to be trouble, Mr. Squires." Merrill pushed her head as high as she could, trying to make herself look taller, but the superintendent towered over her.
"Guess that depends on just what happened here," the man said gruffly, jingling the large ring of keys he held in one hand, "or what's going to happen."
"A friend of ours got really upset about something and trashed her room. Angie's in there calming her down and we're going to clean it up for her tomorrow."
Mr. Squires knew the four friends by name as he did most of his tenants. The friendly giant liked the majority of the students and they appreciated how fairly he treated them. Occasionally, a bad one came along and upset the harmony of his building and he tried to nip any trouble in the bud before it flourished.
"That's the new girl's apartment," he stated. "I was a little leery of her the first time I saw her. Too good-looking for her own good and that damn swagger of hers just invites trouble." A few murmurs were heard from the group standing nearby.
"She's okay, Mr. Squires. Just had some bad news and flipped out over it," Marva said, trying to soothe him.
"Yeah," Kath added. "haven't you ever had any bad news that really upset you?" He looked down at the freckle-faced girl with the cinnamon-brown eyes. She reminded him of his younger sister, the only small person in his family, and one he adored. He wavered when she turned those pleading eyes on him.
He cleared his throat and rubbed his large hand across his upper lip, scrubbing the bottom of his nose. "You say you'll clean it up?"
"Give us 48 hours and we'll have it good as new," Merrill pledged and the others nodded.
"Well," Mr. Squires hesitated, "I really should report this to the owner." The curious audience stopped their chitchat to hear the outcome of this statement.
Marva measured him with her dark eyes. Back home, a building super would be hinting for some bribe money but Mr. Squires might consider that an insult. Then she had a flash of inspiration. "We'll cut the grass for you!" she offered.
He switched his gaze to her and pursed his chubby lips in thought.
"For two weeks," Kath added and saw him surrender. "Deal?"
"Deal," he agreed and the three smiles lifted his spirit. "But it better not happen again."
"We hope not, too, Mr. Squires." Merrill held a hand out to him and he shook hands with each of the girls.
"I'll see you this weekend for the grass-cutting," he reminded them. They nodded and he ambled away down the carpeted corridor.
Merrill put her hands on her hips and stared at her two friends. "Okay, who cuts the grass?"
Kath and Marva looked at her, then at each other, and grinned. "Shelley!" they said together.
Angela stepped further into the room and took a very quick glance at the chaos: the kitchenette door hung halfway off its hinges; furniture was upended and the lighter kitchenette chairs were broken; pictures had been pulled from the walls and smashed across lamp tops; broken dishes, dented pots and pans and silverware lay scattered throughout; powder or flour coated everything and Angela could feel a gritty layer of either salt or sugar beneath her shoes. Of the areas visible to her, it seemed nothing was unscathed. The place was a study in systematic destruction.
Completing the survey of the rooms, her eyes came to rest on the nude figure leaning against the closed door. Hair awry and eyes wild, Shelley had several cuts and bruises on various parts of her body. She looks like hell warmed over. She looks…beautiful anyway.
Angela lifted her arms to the desolate girl, walked up close to her and stood there, waiting. The eyes slowly changed from wild to hurting and Shelley ran her fingers through her hair in unconscious habit. Then she stepped into Angela's embrace and started crying in large gasps as though her tears had to fight to get out of her shaking body.
Angela held her and crooned soft noises to her, trying to soothe her agony. When she at last had her calmed, she released one arm and led her into the bedroom, searching for a clear spot to sit. The bedroom had been trashed, too. The closet door was closed, but every drawer in the place apparently had been thrown against a wall and the articles on the bureau top were jumbled as though a giant hand had crushed them. Practically the only empty spot in the whole apartment was the bed.
Unopposed by the robot-like Shelley, Angela sat her on the bed then fished a towel out of the mess. Taking giant steps across the disarray on the floor, she dampened the towel at the bathroom sink then wiped Shelley's face and cleaned off the smeared blood from the larger scratches. She searched through the strewn clothing to find underwear, shorts and T-shirt for her and helped her to dress. Then she looked in the fridge, which had miraculously escaped Shelley's wrath, and brought a pint of orange juice to her. Shelley drank it all and placed the empty container on the side strut of the knocked-over lamp table.
Sitting down next to the taller girl, Angela took one long hand and clasped it between hers. "You're coming downstairs."
Heretofore unresponsive, Shelley shook her head.
Angela changed the clasp to a caress, stroking her hand. "You're about ready to collapse from exhaustion, Shelley. I'm taking you downstairs and putting you to bed on our couch. Tomorrow morning we can talk about this if you want to, or, if you don't want to, we won't. But we will help you straighten your place up."
Angela stood up and pulled Shelley up, too. "Come on, no arguments." She marched Shelley outside into the hallway. Her eyebrows rose as she saw all three friends still there, talking with a few other students who had lingered. "Everything's under control now, folks. You can go back to bed." Silently, the other girls followed as Angela continued to the steps, led Shelley down them and up the hall to their apartment. Marva and Kath returned to their own place without a single remark and Merrill unlocked the door and stepped aside.
She followed Angela in and looked askance at her companion. "Shelley's going to sleep on the couch," Angela said matter-of-factly and marched over to the couch and sat Shelley on it.
Her lips pursed, but not speaking, Merrill collected a pillow and blanket from the bedroom. Angela took Shelley's shoulders, guided her to lie on the couch, put the pillow beneath her head and covered her with the blanket. Without a second thought, she leaned down and kissed Shelley's forehead. "Goodnight."
Angela turned off the living room lamp, followed her quiet roommate into the bedroom, crawled into her bed and went to sleep, leaving a slightly bewildered Merrill to turn off the overhead light.
Although it was nearly noon, an overcast sky dimmed the morning light, restraining the day's brightness. The weather, though, couldn't be blamed for the cloud hanging over the four friends.
"I can't believe she's still asleep." Kath said.
As soon as Merrill figured Kath and Marva were stirring, she invited them over and they came to the apartment for breakfast. The four women were sitting in the kitchenette, drinking coffee and talking in hushed voices.
Angela twisted her shoulders, trying to loosen the tension that had settled in them as soon as she woke up. "She has to be exhausted. That kind of trashing takes a lot of energy. Wait until you see the place."
"She's probably mentally exhausted, too. She looked like a zombie when you brought her in last night." Merrill took a tentative sip from her mug then blew into it to cool it down. Realizing the futility of that, she poured more milk into it then turned to her roommate. "You scared the crap out of me, Ange, when you walked into that pit."
"Why would she hurt me, Merr?" Angela asked as though nothing unusual had happened.
"Maybe because you rejected her? That sounds like a pretty good reason to me. People have gotten killed for that before," Merrill remarked indignantly.
Marva and Kath exchanged raised-eyebrow looks that they didn't even attempt to hide from Angela. "She made a move on you?" Marva was torn between being happy for proof that Shelley definitely was attracted to Angela and being worried that maybe they didn't want her to be. She made a face, understanding to some degree just what indecision Angela must be going through.
The redhead threw them a nasty glance. "Yeah, and I blew her off. You guys have been bending my ear for weeks about how dangerous she could be. Do you think I want to have a serious relationship with an unreformed criminal? I'm scared about these murders, too."
Merrill leaned forward and set her arms on the table. "Well, that's good news to me. I thought you said you didn't believe Shelley could be involved."
Angela sighed. "My heart still doesn't believe it but my common sense tells me not to take any chances until we know better."
Marva stood up and gathered the empty mugs then set them in the sink. "Let's go up and see what needs done. The sooner we start, the sooner we finish," she ended in a singsong voice.
Angela washed the dirty dishes and set them in the drainer while Merrill gathered broom, dust pan and trash bags. "Kath, will you stay here with Shelley? I'll help Merry and Marv with the cleanup."
"No way! I'll help clean; you can stay here with Destructa." Kath was already half out the door. Her cautious nature balked at being alone with a girl she was half afraid of.
Angela made a face at her. "Then get the vacuum, will you? It's in the closet. And you'll need the bucket and some rags, too." Kath eagerly gathered the items, happy that Angela hadn't argued with her.
A few minutes later the cleaning brigade went out and Angela plopped on the floor opposite the couch. Rather than waste the time, she lifted a textbook from the bottom rack of the lamp table and began to study. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Angela couldn't restrain the smile that worked its way onto her face as she heard the hum of a vacuum overhead. Boy, do they have a job ahead of them. I bet Merry will be a drill sergeant up there.
"Damn!" Marva remarked, "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Her eyes swept the destruction that had once been an apartment.
Kath nodded. "Except a tornado would have carried some of the trash away with it."
Merrill blew air out through her lips. "Let's get started." She made a quick tour of the three rooms. "Marv, how about if you and I pick up all the broken-and-can't-be-fixed stuff and stack it in that corner?" She nodded toward a corner of the living room. "Then we can run it down to the dumpster and make some room here to work."
She stuck her head in the bedroom and crooked a finger at Kath. "If you can shove some stuff out of that side and vacuum it, we can pile the clothes there."
She looked down at her feet. "What the heck is this gritty stuff that's all over the place?"
"I think it's sugar," Kath answered.
"Sugar? What makes you think that?" Marva asked. "It could be salt."
Kath reached down and grabbed a pinch of it and held it out toward Marva. "If you want to taste it, Miss Derby, you are welcome to. But whichever it is, it is going to be one helluva mess to clean up."
"Yeah," Marva groaned, waving a hand of denial toward the proffered taste. "Did anyone bring trash bags?" Marva walked to the closet and turned the handle. "Hey, this is locked."
"Good, that's less we have to clean up," Kath remarked practically. "Merry brought trash bags, they're in the living room in a bucket."
Marva got a bag, picked up the broken pieces of a lamp and tossed it in. "Watch out for the broken light bulb," she warned her roommate.
Marva and Merrill worked diligently, gathering chairs, pictures, lamps, dishes and whatever else they found broken and finally had a pile to take to the dumpster.
Kath cleared and vacuumed a place to stack the clothes then gathered all she found in the bedroom, sorted anything that had escaped the grit, folded it and put it away in the drawers she had restored to the bureau. She cleaned off the bed and bureau and straightened the toiletries that had been knocked around, then vacuumed the rest of the floor and made the bed. Then she started on the bathroom.
Merrill and Marva returned from the dumpster and Marva attacked the kitchenette while Merrill worked on finishing the living room.
Kath came out of the bathroom and stood in the doorway between the kitchenette and the living room. "Have you guys noticed anything weird?"
Each woman shook her head. "Like what?" Merrill asked.
Kath swung an arm, indicating the whole apartment. "There's not one personal item in this whole place. No pictures, no knickknacks, no books, nothing. I find that kind of strange."
"I do, too, now that you mention it," Merrill agreed. "Then again, I find the resident of this apartment a little strange, too. But…" she shrugged, "to each his own."
The women went back to work. After a couple of hours they were finishing up when Merrill picked up a discarded article of clothing to throw in the hamper and something heavy fell out of it.
"Omigod," she muttered then raised her voice to the others, "Look what I just found!"
Angela sat quietly at her studies for a couple of hours before she heard Shelley move. Raising her eyes from the book, she met quizzical blue ones. In seconds the questioning look turned embarrassed and skittered away as Shelley tossed off the blanket and sat up, rubbing her head with both hands. Angela got up and when the blue gaze came back to her she motioned with her chin. "Come on in the kitchen; I'll get you some coffee."
Shelley followed her and sat at the table. "Cream or sugar?" Angela asked before sitting opposite her.
"Neither, thanks," Shelley mumbled. She accepted the mug, wrapped both hands around it and took a drink before meeting Angela's gaze again.
"I guess I was a real idiot," the low voice confessed. "I thought you wanted…" Shelley turned away, emotion choking her velvet voice and twisting her face into an ugly smile.
A shaft of understanding hit Angela. Shelley's horrible smile about the stomach wound wasn't one of sick humor, it was one of agony. She freed one of Shelley's hands from around the warm cup and captured it in her own where it shook like a frightened child's.
"Shelley, I… I walked into your room and saw you on the bed and you looked so gorgeous my good sense went right out the window… and some other senses took over," she admitted with a self-deprecating smile. "I didn't come up there expecting you to…" Attack me? Jump my bones? Neither phrase seemed to fit the aggressive but gentle way Shelley had approached her. At a loss for words, she finished with a shrug.
Shelley's head dipped. "You sure are sending mixed signals, Angela. You have me all confused." She sounded like a little child who was being punished and didn't know why.
Angela shifted uneasily, sympathy for the younger girl making her uncomfortable. "Maybe that's because I'm confused, too. But mostly I'm scared."
Shelley's head jerked up. "Scared? Of me? Why?" What could Angela know?
Angela needed time to think. She released Shelley's hand and stood up. "You haven't eaten yet. I'll fix you some cereal." She pulled a bowl out of the cupboard, filled it with sugared cereal, got some milk from the fridge and poured some on it. She set it in front of Shelley and gave her a spoon from the silverware drawer. Sitting back down, she fidgeted with the placemat then looked at her companion.
Shelley lifted a spoonful of flakes to her mouth and crunched down on it, never taking her eyes from Angela's face. Angela sensed that in a waiting battle with Shelley she would be the loser. But the "evidence" against Shelley seemed flimsy when about to be laid right out in front of her. Her background provided the only hard facts against her and they weren't supposed to know anything about that. Where are the others when I need them?
The irony was that the others were upstairs, diligently cleaning the rooms of a woman they professed to suspect of murder.
Angela struggled to stop her fidgety hands and resorted to clasping them in front of her atop the mistreated placemat. She decided to answer Shelley's questions with half of the truth. "I'm afraid to get involved with anyone right now. I'm just not ready for it."
Shelley finished the cereal and pushed the bowl aside. "Someone has hurt you," she murmured.
Angela nodded and her hands jerked reflexively. She could see that the whole sorry episode with Vicki was coloring her reactions now.
"I'll try never to hurt you, Angela, I promise." The younger girl's brow knit in concentrated sincerity.
Angela took a deep breath as her heart thudded in her chest. "Shelley, I don't know anything about you: who you are, where you come from, what family you have… nothing."
A hint of a lop-sided smile barely moved Shelley's mouth. "My name's Shelley Brinton, I come from a small town near Philadelphia and I'm… an orphan. My guardian's name is Helen Ostcott. Judge Helen Ostcott."
Angela's eyebrows lifted as she feigned surprise. "Judge?"
"Yeah. I had some trouble with my temper a few years back," she pursed her lips and briefly turned her eyes toward the ceiling. "It wasn't all that serious but I was made a ward of the court."
Angela grimaced. Shelley was telling half-truths, too. "I can believe the temper part."
Shelley blushed and rubbed the back of her neck with her palm. "I'm sorry about that. I was just so damn frustrated… and confused and… " Hurt. She hesitated for a moment then came to a decision. "I'm in an anger management program," she offered in a subdued voice.
Angela's eyes widened. There was some news Kath hadn't picked up. "Is it helping you?"
Shelley's eyes shifted away and she squirmed a little on her chair before returning her gaze to Angela. "Sometimes yes; sometimes no… like last night." Then she said something that sent shivers along the redhead's spine. "But at least it was a room I wrecked, not a person." Quickly realizing she had made a mistake, Shelley groaned inwardly at the look that statement brought to Angela's face.
Disturbed by the words, Angela took a moment to compose herself before speaking. "Shelley, I'm… very attracted to you. But I think we should cool any idea of a relationship right now. I'm just not ready to trust anyone yet."
Even though she understood Angela's hesitation, Shelley's eyes clouded with disappointment. "I guess we need to get to know each other better. At least you haven't pushed me away altogether." She tilted her head quizzically, her tone serious. "Or have you?"
"Suppose we just play it by ear, see what develops, okay?"
Shelley reluctantly nodded. Her twisted lips turned into a rueful smile as she stood up. "Guess I better go help clean up."
"Sounds like a good idea," Angela agreed. She followed the taller girl out of the apartment and locked the door behind them, mentally berating herself for the thoughts generated by the ripple of muscles in the long, tan legs and slim hips moving along in front of her.
Shelley walked into her apartment with Angela right behind her and was greeted with a frozen tableau. Marva was leaning against a broom while Merrill held up a pair of shorts in her hand. After a slight hesitation, Merrill lowered her hand and they both looked a little guilty, like they had been discussing something that Shelley and Angela's entrance had interrupted.
From where she was standing next to the door, Kath waited until Shelley walked past her then silently pressed something into Angela's hand. Stares from the other friends locked onto it.
Angela looked at the object but didn't recognize it. About six inches long and half an inch wide, it was made of ivory. Its carved surface had a small, round area on it that looked something like a button. As Angela's thumb moved toward the circle, Shelley turned around and followed the girls' stares.
Suddenly, a forceful grip encircled Angela's wrist. "Stop!" Shelley demanded as her other hand closed over Angela's thumb. She extricated the object from the redhead's hand then let go of her. Her initial shock calmed after she had the object in her hand.
Angela rubbed her wrist and frowned at Shelley. "What was that for? What is it?"
Marva answered, her tone ominous. "It's a switchblade, honey. That's something you don't even want to mess with."
A chill shivered through Angela and she fought to suppress the alarming question that leaped into her mind… Had she just held a murder weapon in her hand?
"This one's sharp as a razor." Shelley pushed the button and the girls recoiled slightly as they heard the snick of it opening. They watched aghast as the tall, dark-haired girl ran her fingers across the edge of the blade. Shelley looked around, finally noticing the apprehensive expressions on the girls' faces. "I'm out by myself a lot," she mumbled. "I carry it for protection." Putting her hand along the side of the blade, she pushed it closed. Her fingers rubbed over the carved handle then she slid it into her pocket.
"Aren't they illegal?" Kath asked, then turned red as Shelley beamed her blue eyes onto her like a beacon.
The taller girl shrugged. Her lips turned up in a sly smile and she half-whispered, "Not if no one knows you have it."
This newest turn of events confused Angela. The newspaper accounts of the murders had described the victims as being cut with a "razor-sharp blade." She didn't want to think that Shelley might be a killer, but evidence seemed to be mounting against her. There was not enough to go to the police with but the decision to be as careful as possible made more and more sense.
"Having that in your possession could get you in a lot of trouble," she warned.
"Or get you out of trouble," Shelley stated, raising her eyebrows. "Depends on your point of view, I guess."
Merrill kept glancing from Angela to Shelley. She saw Angela's confusion but didn't know how to help her friend. In fact, she was frightened for her. Merrill leaned strongly toward the possibility of Shelley's guilt but didn't want to arouse the girl's suspicions. All she wanted to do right now was get done with the cleaning and get out of here so they could discuss the situation in light of this new development. "Come on, let's finish up here," she said into the awkward silence.
"Right," Marva agreed and started to sweep with the broom she held in her hands. "Kath, grab the dustpan, will you?" Kath came to life and held the dustpan while Marva swept up the debris from a small area the vacuum had missed. Merrill took the shorts to the bedroom and shoved them into the stuffed hamper.
Angela tore her eyes from Shelley's and looked around the rooms. The women had worked wonders in the short time they had been cleaning. The broken chairs and lamps would need replaced but they had cleaned up the wreckage, put everything else back in reasonable order and vacuumed the furniture and rugs.
A subdued Shelley apologized to all of them for the mess and thanked them for their generosity. The four friends gathered their cleaning materials and returned to Merrill and Angela's apartment about to burst with the need to talk about the knife.
"Aunt Helen?" Shelley grew nervous as her guardian answered the phone. "I thought I better let you know before you heard it somewhere else. I trashed my room last night." Too tall to stretch out comfortably on the couch, Shelley was lying on the floor with her feet propped up on it and the phone resting against her shoulder.
"Shelley…" Helen's voice sounded more sympathetic than disappointed which bolstered the girl's spirits a bit. "What happened?" Helen laid the brief she had been reading down on the end table, next to her tea. She removed her glasses and rubbed her hand across her eyes then resettled the frames over her ears.
"I told you about the girl I was attracted to. I tried… I made… She rejected me. And I went berserk." Shelley sucked her lips between her teeth and closed her eyes.
Alarmed, Helen raised her voice. "You didn't hurt her, did you?"
"No!" Shelley protested vehemently, her eyes flying open. "She wasn't even in the apartment then."
Helen sighed. Shelley had reason to feel rejected in so many ways. It would have been nice to have her find acceptance in this. But possibly dangerous. "I thought we had agreed that you wouldn't pursue this relationship?"
It was Shelley's turn to sigh. "I know that's what you wanted, but I never agreed to that. If you remember, I argued about it."
"You do agree that it could be dangerous for you--and for her--don't you?" The judge sipped at her tea but it didn't seem very soothing at the moment.
"Yeah, I do," Shelley sounded discouraged. "I don't think I have much chance with her anyway. She and her friends seem suspicious of me."
Helen's antennae went up. "Suspicious? In what way?" She hurriedly set the teacup in the saucer, rattling the spoon that sat there.
"Angela keeps saying she doesn't know anything about me. I gave her some background, even told her about my anger management program, but it didn't seem to be enough." Shelley heard the china rattle and briefly closed her eyes. "Then her friends were cleaning my rooms for me and they found my knife. They started to look at me kind of funny after that, leery like."
"You promised you would keep that knife out of sight," Helen said uneasily.
"Well, I didn't hand it to them, Aunt Helen." Shelley's impatience was beginning to be evident. She sat up and began running her fingers through her hair.
"No, but if you had been more circumspect, they wouldn't have found it," Helen chided her ward. She shook her head and laid it back against the chair.
"And if I hadn't lost my temper none of this would have happened. But I did and now I have to cope with it," Shelley said, her voice flat. "But if they report me, I might need some help. From someone with legal authority… like a judge."
"You know I'll help you as much as I can, Shelley. I always do, don't I?"
"Yes, you do… and thanks, Aunt Helen. You're the one person I can always count on. I love you. Goodnight."
"I love you, too, darling. Goodnight." Helen laid the phone down, took another sip of her tepid tea and made a face. Will it ever end? And just how involved is she?
Helen picked the phone back up and dialed Jeff Cruz, the man who had introduced her to the troubled girl four years ago. He and Helen had kept in constant touch. "Jeff? I just talked to Shelley." She explained the conversation she had had and emphasized that she might need to intervene for Shelley if the police arrested her. "I'm getting very disturbed by the situation that seems to be developing. I can't continue to move her from college to college--that would be too noticeable. I think we need to go to the next step."
Helen removed her glasses and laid them on top of the brief. She was too agitated to keep her mind on work right now. She listened intently to Jeff's suggestions. "Yes, that sounds like the best possible solution. Thanks, Jeff. Keep me informed of your progress."
"So what do you think about the knife?" Merrill started the discussion as soon as the cleaning materials were put away and everyone had grabbed a soda and flopped in the living room. The girls could have used a beer but they had mutually decided not to keep beer on the premises except for special occasions. Too many students drank their way through college instead of studying their way through, making a mockery of the education they were paying for.
"Scares me just to look at it," Kath said, clasping her arms around her body. Marva and Angela sat on the floor, granting the couch to Kath and Merrill.
Marva reached over and tugged on Kath's ankle. "I won't let anyone hurt you, darlin'. They'd have to go through ole Marv first."
This declaration of loyalty brought a sweet smile to Kath's freckled cheeks. Then her face clouded. "A knife like that would be hard to stop."
"It sure would," Merrill agreed. "And what really scares me is that it's in the hands of a woman who went berserk and trashed her rooms. What if someone had walked in on her?"
"I did walk in on her and she never touched me," Angela declared. "At least not in anger," she added softly.
Merrill's eyes darted toward her and her brows lifted as a slight blush diffused across the redhead's complexion. "I helped her get dressed," Angela asserted, provoked by Merrill's gaze. She could see Merrill's brain assimilating this information and it bothered her.
"Ange," her friend exhorted, "we have to face the facts here."
"What facts, Merry? A new girl shows up. She takes off at odd times of the night and nobody knows where." But I don't think it's to meet a lover. "She doesn't tell us anything about her background and that's no surprise because we find out--illicitly, I might add--that she has a criminal background of assault and battery." Angela held the soda can against her forehead, trying to absorb its coolness into her heated brain.
"She saves me from getting smacked in the chops by Hurtz which, instead of being a point in her favor, turns you all further against her. Then she makes a move on me and I am so paranoid about the suspicions you have that I turn her down and she goes berserk from frustration and trashes her room." Angela paused before the next sentence, shaken by its implications.
"And then we find a knife," she continued, "but we know she was a juvy, so why are we so appalled?"
"A juvy?" Kath asked.
"A juvenile delinquent," Marva answered.
"Oh," Kath replied then frowned. "Isn't that more reason why she shouldn't carry one?"
"Exactly," Merrill answered. "Angie, we know our suspicions have no real incriminating facts to support them. I for one believe they are enough to indicate--certainly not definitely but at least possibly--that Shelley is the killer. I think we should report the knife if only to get it on record that she has one. How do you all feel?"
All three women looked toward Angela who sighed. "What if she's just a lonely kid who has a bad temper?"
Merrill slid down off the couch and sat next to Angela. She picked up her best friend's hand and held it. "Angie, I sure as hell will be happier if we are wrong than I will be if we are right. If we're wrong, we'll explain everything to Shelley, including the fact that you didn't believe us. If we don't do anything, and we are right, I think we all would have trouble living with ourselves. We have to report her. We have no choice."
Angela bowed her head then nodded and Merrill patted her hand. "Good girl. I'll call the campus police."
A terrible feeling of betrayal surged through Angela. She turned her head away and wiped her palm across the tears that trickled down her cheeks as Merrill reached for the phone.
It wasn't the campus police who came for Shelley. Because of the notoriety of the murders on nearby campuses, they had contacted the township's police chief. He sent four officers, two male and two female, to take her in for questioning. Word spread quickly when the patrol car pulled up in front of the Brickhouse. Half the complex was in the halls or standing outside, providing a backdrop of murmuring students, curious to see what was happening.
When the dark-haired beauty came down the steps with an officer holding onto her arm, her eyes skipped to Angela, conveying pain and disbelief. Angela swung around and went back to her room, unable to watch Shelley's removal in its entirety.
After a while her other friends joined her and they all sat around in silence, the TV on just to fill the void.
Kath couldn't stand it any longer. "What do you think they'll do to her?" she asked.
"Question her, no doubt," Angela answered. Her voice sounded weary. "Maybe even keep her if they find any reasonable grounds to."
"I felt kind of bad that everyone in the place saw her being led away. What if she is innocent?" Kath knew that she had been just as afraid as the others that Shelley could be a killer. She had believed that the girl should be turned in but now her soft heart was fighting against her fear.
"Let's leave that to the police, Kath," Merrill pleaded. "That's the whole idea, isn't it?" Merrill's chestnut curls bounced as she shook her head and looked into each girl's face. "We all agreed to this, remember? We've no reason to feel guilty about it. We're trying to protect people."
Marva's vibrant voice shook with emotion. "I feel like I'm being torn apart. One minute I hope we're right and have saved some innocent lives and the next I think of Shelley and I hope we're wrong."
Angela stood up, walked to the door and left the apartment, stunning the remaining three. Merrill reacted first. "You think this is tearing you up, Marv, how do you think Angie must feel? She's got to be tired of us going over and over the same things about the situation. To tell you the truth, I'm tired of it myself. I wish Shelley had never showed up here."
"Me, too," Kath added.
"Well, I'm not," Marva surprised them by saying. "Angie was going through her days like a damn zombie before Shelley came. At least the girl changed that."
Merrill considered the thought-provoking idea. "She did, didn't she? Maybe some good will come out of all of this, after all."
"Yeah," Marva agreed, staring toward the door their friend had left through, "but I wonder if Angie feels that way?"
The police station was just off the center of the town of Spofford on a short side street. Made of the same greenish-gray stone that was prevalent in the area, it stood stolid and square, two stories high. Polished slabs of darker stone formed five steps, twelve feet wide by eighteen inches deep. The steps reached a walkway of the same dark stone that ended ten feet later at twin doors made of heavy, double-paned glass.
Shelley stepped out of the car at the request of an officer and was led up the steps into the building. The entourage passed by the reception area, past the sergeant's desk with a nod to the blue-clad man seated there and into an interrogation section. Shelley was told to sit in a chair at the only one of the three desks manned by another officer and the arresting officers handed him some papers and left.
"Miss… Brinton," the studious-looking man said, checking her name on the papers he had been handed, "were you read your rights?" He bit his words off as though he were a drill sergeant.
"Yes, I was and I want to make a phone call." Shelley was sitting with her back straight as a board, her bowed head staring at the hands she was twisting in her lap.
"You'll get a chance to make a phone call, Miss. First we have a few routine questions to ask you."
"I don't answer anything until I have legal representation."
"These are just the usual background questions, Miss Brinton. You don't need a lawyer yet." The officer picked up some other papers and began to shift them around.
Shelley lifted her head and pinned him with her eyes. "Where can I make my phone call, Officer… " she switched her look to the nameplate on his desk then back again, "Gibbons?"
The officer stared at her for a moment, debating whether to enforce his authority. But something in her gaze made him suspect he would be wasting his efforts. There would be time later to let her know who was in charge here. These beauties think the world revolves around them.
"Suit yourself. You'll just be paying for an extra half-hour of your lawyer's time." He stood up and came to her side. "Come on." He took her arm and steered her to an empty room that held only a desk and a phone. "You got ten minutes," he said and left.
Shelley sat down with her elbows on the desk and dropped her head into her hands. Long fingers spread through her short hair, mussing it. "Damn, damn, damn," she intoned, then shivered. After a minute, she raised her head, pulled the phone to her and dialed a very familiar number.
"Aunt Helen? We've got a problem. I've been arrested."
At the other end, Helen Ostcott unknowingly mirrored her ward's actions, putting her head in her hand and rumpling her gray-streaked hair.
"I know you were expecting this, Shelley, but I'm sorry it happened. I hate anything that draws unwelcome attention to you. But I made a few contacts after your last call, just in case, and everything is set up. Give me a few minutes to put it in action and you'll be out of there in a half-hour or so. How are you, otherwise? Anything strange going on?"
"No, I'm okay. Thanks, Aunt Helen, I really appreciate this. I love you."
"You're welcome, dear. Keep your eyes open. I love you, too." I just pray that this doesn't work against you.
The women hung up and Shelley went to the door and knocked. When the officer opened it, Shelley gave him a cool smile. "You'll be hearing from my lawyer shortly."
Officer Gibbons led her back to his desk and motioned for her to sit. He sat behind the desk and picked a piece of paper out of the bunch spread across his desk. His eyes moved down its length then he looked at Shelley who sat there with the same cool smile on her face. Irritated, he snapped at her. "You know you could be facing a charge of carrying a deadly weapon."
Anal guys like you give good cops a bad name. Shelley put her elbow on the chair arm and set her chin on her hand, saying just to bait him, "I have a permit."
Gibbons snorted. "There's no such thing as a permit to carry a switchblade."
Shelley shrugged just as the officer's phone rang. His irritation carried into his voice as he answered, "Officer Gibbons." His eyes flicked to Shelley. "She's right here." He picked up his coffee mug, intending to take a sip. "Do what?" he shouted and slammed the mug down, sloshing coffee onto the papers on his desk. "Says who?"
Helen's voice stayed soothing. "I repeat. This is Judge Ostcott. I have an order in hand for Shelley Brinton to be released at once and any charges dropped."
"No way. You have to come in here with those papers… Your Honor." He tried to sop up the spilled coffee one-handedly with tissues.
Helen's voice hardened. "Very well, Officer Gibbons, the next voice you hear will be Police Commissioner Dougal's." She hung up on Gibbons' reply and dialed the Commissioner.
"He won't listen to me, Pete. Says I need to bring the order in to him. Take care of it, will you, please?"
"Sure will, Helen. And don't forget you owe me some of your home-made chocolate chip cookies."
"I'll remember, Pete. You'll get some of the very next batch. And thanks."
Officer Gibbons dried the coffee from his hands and smirked at Shelley. "Could have been anyone who made that phone call. I guess some people think all they have to do is threaten me and I'll give in."
Shelley's cool smile never changed; she pointed at the phone when it rang, irritating Gibbons further. Cocky bitch.
"GIBBONS!" The angry voice pulled Gibbons up straight in his chair. He had heard the Commissioner's voice often enough to recognize it even when he shouted.
"Yessir?" he quickly answered.
"You just had a call from Judge Ostcott?"
"Yessir. But how did I know if it really…"
"GIBBONS!" Pete Dougal didn't wait for his reply. "Release Shelly Brinton and drop all charges. Now."
"Yessir, I will, sir." He winced as the other phone crashed in his ear, then mumbled curses under his breath as he felt Shelley's arrogant gaze on him.
He fought for a moment to get his anger under control, which really tickled Shelley. Been there, done that, she thought.
"You are released from custody, Miss Brinton," he said through tight lips.
Shelley stood and held out her hand. "My knife, please," she asked, laying on the politeness.
Gibbons swallowed a sly smile. "What knife? I haven't seen any knife."
Had Shelley known where the knife had been put, it would be back in her hand. But she hadn't seen where it was and she knew Gibbons would just love for her to start something. She could just get another one but she would ask Aunt Helen to retrieve this one for her--because of its sentimental value.
Oh, well, might as well let the jerk have the last word, give him a chance to save a little face. She started to turn away, then swung back. But not today!
She leaned over closer to Gibbons and said very quietly, but distinctly, in her throaty voice, "When you find my knife, stick it up your tight ass… and hit the trigger." She straightened up and her face broke into a genuine, cheek-splitting smile as she watched Gibbons turn several different shades of red.
"Ta-ta," she waved and walked out.
Angela, fleeing the well-meaning but painful discussions about Shelley, had wandered around the building and found a seat on one of the wrought-iron benches in the rear courtyard area, not even noticing the coolness of the metal against the exposed skin of her legs.
This unit of the Brickhouse was U-shaped and the owner had ordered a courtyard be made inside the U. Paved with decorative stone in varying shades of gray, the yard boasted several Chinese maple trees ringed with flowerbeds of daffodils and hyacinths. The benches had tables set near them where many students ate their meals or studied, but for now the place was empty.
The fresh air, scent of hyacinth and lovely ambience were lost on Angela as she sat there with her head bowed. Her mind teemed with thoughts about the whole sorry situation and her even sorrier part in what had happened. An occasional tear tracked its way down her cheeks until finally she searched her shorts pockets for a tissue. Coming up empty-handed, she used her palm to smear the dampness. Through the blur of tears she saw a hand offering some tissues to her and she took them, wiped her face and eyes, then looked up, expecting to see Merrill.
Shelley stood there, her expression unreadable. "Omigod, you're back!" Angela said. A wave of relief swept over her. "I'm so happy that they let you go. I had visions of your having to stay in jail. How did you get out so fast, anyway?"
Shelley had noticed before that Angela talked almost nonstop when something upset her. Well, she should be upset. She sucked in a deep breath and let it burst out through her lips then plopped down on the bench a couple of arm lengths away. "My aunt made a phone call and said all the right words. They kept the knife."
Shelley stared at Angela for a long time, and Angela returned the stare, the two of them lost in each other's eyes. Shelley shook her head to break the connection, flopping a shock of raven hair onto her forehead. Her gaze darkened and she ground out her words. "Angela, why did you turn me in to the police? You could have threatened me with telling the campus police about the switchblade and I would have gotten rid of it." Or at least hid it better.
Angela turned red and her voice sharpened. "It wasn't just the knife. We've all been nervous about the killer who's in the area. Then you come along, tall, dark and mysterious. You sneak around at night and nobody knows where. You tell a bare story about your background that could easily be a fake. You forced Hurtz to back down with such a fierce look it scared all of us. Then we find the switchblade and all that other stuff looms larger in our minds." She stopped and caught her breath then admitted the truth. "We're afraid."
Shelley looked at Angela and her eyes widened. "You guys are afraid of me?"
Angela nodded, her jaw clenched.
Shelley frowned. Suddenly understanding what Angela was getting at, she barked, "You think I'm the killer!" She jumped up and Angela flinched. "Damn, damn, damn." Shelley strode back and forth waving her arms, her face showing anger and hurt. "You mean to tell me that you've been friendly to my face and all along you've been thinking that I'm a killer? I don't believe this. I know we haven't been hanging around much together but at least I thought you girls were my friends."
She swung back to Angela and roughly shoved the hair from her eyes, betrayal eating at her like a burrowing worm. The rasp in her voice scraped along Angela's nerves. "That's what this was all about, all along, wasn't it? Is that why you pushed me away? Because you think I'm evil?"
Angela's jaw set and she shook her head. "I don't know what to think. We hardly know anything about you. For instance, where do you go at night?"
Shelley's eyes shifted and she looked away. "I… can't answer that."
Angela's heart fell. She had been sure Shelley would tell her some plausible reason for her nocturnal wanderings, something the other girls would accept. "Good god, Shelley, help me out here. Everyone's wondering where you disappear to."
Shelley's chin jutted out. "I don't have to make excuses… it's nobody else's business where I go."
Angela found Shelley's lack of cooperation exasperating. "That doesn't do much to make us believe in you."
Shelley winced. "I can't tell you. It could get someone else in trouble. Can't you just trust me?" She sat back down, closer to Angela than before, and laid her arm across the back of the bench behind Angela's shoulders. Even with her anger at Angela, it was a struggle to keep from putting her arm around her. She leaned forward. "Angela, look into my eyes. I… am… not… the… killer."
Angela was very conscious of the warmth of Shelley's arm behind her, Shelley's bare leg almost touching hers, Shelley's gorgeous face so close, so close…
"I don't trust you," she said, surprising herself. "I can't. There are just too many coincidences, too many unanswered questions." I don't trust myself either. Merry's right. I was wrong when I believed in Vicki; I could be wrong to believe in Shelley. I can't take that chance.
Shelley straightened up and pulled her arm back, her face a granite mask. "Until the killer is found I can't do anything about that doubt in your mind."
Angela let the silence grow. She felt torn apart and had no idea how to mend the breach.
Shelley sat a while, staring at the ground, then turned back toward Angela. Her voice grew intense and her eyes glistened. "I want to get to know you, Angela, to give us a chance to find out what we can mean to each other. There's not much likelihood of that while you're not sure of me." She stood up. "When that doubt is gone, I'll come after you." She turned and walked away.
The sun went behind a cloud and Angela shivered, only partly due to the unexpected chill. When that doubt is gone, I'll come after you. Shelley's voice seeped into Angela's consciousness, but with so many questions, she just couldn't muster the trust to believe the words wholeheartedly. She'll come after me? Surely that must be a promise… not a threat?
Angela's gaze followed the retreating figure with the wide shoulders, slim hips and slight swagger that had caught her eye that first day at the softball field. Her initial attraction was deepening into something more whether she wanted it to, or not, and it frightened her. She brought her hand to her chest and rubbed it, trying to ease the ache Shelley's departure had planted there.
To be Continued in Part 4.
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