Staying in the Game
See Part 1 for Disclaimers.
On her way to drama class, Shelley strode down the crowded corridor of the Performing Arts area, seemingly oblivious to the stares and double takes she received from both male and female students. She used to be comfortable with her beauty but now she perceived it as possibly dangerous to her.
She knew it was prudent for her to remain unnoticed, unremarkable and better yet, invisible. She shrunk from being in any plays that might be shown publicly or even to the student body. If fewer people saw her, fewer would be able to identify her. Because of this she wasn't too sure of the wisdom of being in a drama class but her anger management doctor had recommended it. She thought she better stay on his good side or he could report her to the court.
Mr. Sindbourne had given her several one-act plays to look at and allowed her to choose one she would like to read for. He assured her that they were only for presentation in class. One play concerned a woman running for public office who had a terrible secret in her past; in the second one, the protagonist was in charge of a military outpost about to be overrun; and in the third a woman was debating whether to run away from her abusive boyfriend or kill him before he killed her. Three great choices there, Ed, she thought derisively.
But she could see the dramatic opportunities in each scenario and she read each one several times before she told Mr. Sindbourne she had chosen the abusive boyfriend one. Today, she and another student, Ted Hoffman, would read the parts from the script and next week they would present the act.
Shelley and Ted took center stage and began to read. The play was going well until Ted was shouting at Shelley and, following the script, threw a fake punch at her. Shelley had her head down and, without thinking, she stepped toward him and caught the half-punch full on her jaw. She threw her script on the floor, grabbed Ted by the throat and pushed him across the stage, up against a backdrop. Seething, she drove her hand into her empty shorts pocket and made a fist. She stood there a moment, fighting her anger, while Ted just watched her, his dark blue eyes wide open.
Mr. Sindbourne had reached them by this time and he spoke to her. "Shelley, calm down. It was an accident. That punch was part of the script."
Shelley's rapid breathing was audible to the whole class. Gradually, it slowed down and she released Ted's throat. "Sorry," she mumbled and dropped her gaze.
"No problem," Ted grinned and massaged his neck. "If somebody slugged me, I'd fight back, too."
Shelley raised her eyes and observed his sincerity then quirked a quick smile. "Thanks."
"Okay, folks. Let's try that fake punch again only this time don't move, Shelley." Mr. Sindbourne tilted his head and smiled until Shelley smiled back at him and nodded. "Good, let's get back to work."
After class, Ted came up to Shelley. "Do you think we could find some time to practice the play together before next week? How about coming to my apartment and we can give it a try?"
Shelley grinned sheepishly. "Well, if you're going to trust me not to choke you to death, how about you come to my place instead? Friday after softball--about 7? 212A Bricker Apartments."
"Hey, I live at the Brickhouse, too. Even the same floor, down at the end--236A. I'll be there Friday."
They walked out to the bike rack. "You ride a bike, too?" Shelley asked.
"Yeppers. That one over there," Ted answered. "I have a car, but sometimes a bike is easier." They unlocked their bikes and rode back to the apartments together, chatting idly, mostly about Ted having grown up in a small town.
He had Shelley laughing at some of his anecdotes, especially the ripe tomatoes one. "I was twelve years old and in my current fantasy world I was a demolitions expert in charge of saving the world. I had a sack of overripe tomatoes--my bombs--and police cars were the tanks of the enemy invaders. I hit all three cars on the local force before I got caught. For punishment I had to wash all three cars each week for the rest of the summer. It was more embarrassing for my dad than for me. I was the savior of the world, but he was the Chief of Police."
Shelley decided he seemed like a pretty nice guy. And Ted decided Shelley seemed like a gorgeous but pretty mysterious girl who hadn't told him one darn thing about herself.
With those pleasant thoughts, they steered homeward.
A sliver of moon hung in the black sky as Shelley pedaled her bike toward her destination. The night air carried the light chill of spring and she hunched her shoulders against it, glad that she had decided to wear her jeans. Nocturnal insects played their symphonies and the scent of early flowers and mown grass floated through the air. Shelley took a deep breath, recalling Aunt Helen's words about the season: "Spring smells like new beginnings."
The raven-haired girl slowed to turn into the boulevard lined with oak trees and rhododendron bushes that passed near the entrance to Spofford College. She heard a sound and turned her head to the left but it was a planned diversion. Several bodies hit her from the right. One grabbed the bike's handlebars and the others pounded on her, knocking her onto the ground. The attackers had to come around the bike and that gave Shelley the chance to roll away and flip onto her feet.
Six hooded people were coming at her. She straight-armed the first one in the nose with her left fist and caught the second in the jaw with her right one. She flung her leg out and struck another face trying to get her from the side then pirouetted and kicked another under the chin. Her foot caught under the edge of the hood, tearing it from the attacker's face. Shelley recognized the attacker a split-second before something hard struck her in the side of the face and she went down. The last she remembered, the bodies were gathered around, kicking her
She woke up curled next to a rhododendron without any idea of how she got there. She only knew she was in pain. She lay there for a while giving her mind a chance to absorb what had happened. Gradually, her memory returned, filling in the missing details. She struggled to her knees and began to crawl around, hoping that her bike had been left unscathed. Luckily, she found it behind the next bush and it was undamaged. It took every bit of willpower she had to get up, lift the bike up and put a leg across it. Her face, head and body screamed that damage had been done to them.
Grinding her teeth so hard they squeaked, she pedaled very slowly homeward. She rode the bike right up to the door of the Brickhouse and fell rather than climbed off of it, letting it clatter to the walkway cement. She crawled to the door and opened it from the telescoping keychain attached to a belt loop of her jeans. She crawled inside and took one discouraged look at the stairway before turning right and moving slowly down the corridor to 112A.
Merrill was already asleep and Angela had changed into her pajamas but was putting the finishing touches on a paper for Statistics class. She lifted her head when she heard a strange noise--a sort of scratching--but couldn't place from where it originated. She turned toward the window when it came again, more like a knock this time, then she realized it was coming from the door. She went to the door and looked through the peephole but didn't see anything. She was about to turn away when the sound came again. Perplexed, she opened the door on its chain, bracing a foot against it for safety. Her eyes dropped to the damaged face peering up at her.
"Omigod, Shelley! What happened?"
"Hurts," the dark-haired girl managed to say.
Appalled, Angela slid the chain loose, opened the door and reached for her.
"No crawl." She pulled together what energy she still had and crawled past Angela, toppling over onto her side in the middle of the living room floor's green carpet, her arms wrapped around her middle.
Angela, her stomach churning with concern, knelt next to her and tried to assess her injuries. "Shelley, you need a doctor."
A long hand fell over hers and squeezed her wrist. "No. No Doctor. Promise." A smile faltered on her bleeding lips. "Not unless I start to die."
"My god, Shelley, this is nothing to joke about. You need help."
"You help. Ice."
Angela jumped up and ran to the fridge. She collected several ice packs that all athletes seem to keep in their freezers and grabbed some dishtowels to wrap them in. Hurrying back to Shelley, she wrapped the packs in towels as fast as she could, placing them on various parts of the injured girl's body. She saved the last for her face. Tears came to Angela's eyes as she looked closely at the damage. Something blunt had hit the right side of her face, making it swell out of proportion and blackening her eye. Her lips were swollen and bleeding from the inside where her teeth had cut into them. Her nose and left eye were undamaged but her chin had a nasty bruise.
Judging from the looks of her face and her inability to stand, Angela reckoned her body must be in just as bad shape. She pulled the afghan from the back of the couch and covered Shelley, tucking it gently around her, then placed a soft pillow under her head. "Who did this to you? Do you know?"
"Hurts," Shelley mumbled.
"I'm sure it does, honey." Angela frowned with concern. "Can I do anything to stop the hurt?"
Shelley's body quivered and she moaned. "Please don't make me laugh. Hurts as in Liz Hurtz."
Angela's eyes widened. "Liz Hurtz did this to you? Because you defended me? How many people helped her?"
Shelley's body quivered again. "Five, I think."
"That goddamned bitch!" The unusual outburst marked the depth of Angela's outrage.
"Angela stop, please." Shelley quivered a third time and Angela began to chuckle, too, struck by the ludicrous sight of a battered Shelley lying there chortling at her predicament.
"You're in pretty sad shape, kiddo. Do you think I can help you to my bed?"
"That an invitation?" Shelley struggled for a sultry glance.
Angela had to grin at the girl's grit. "You know it isn't."
"Then I better stay here. Tired. Cold."
Angela lifted the afghan and curled up against Shelley's back. "I'll keep you warm and watch the icepacks. You go ahead and sleep."
Shelley went to sleep with a smile even though it hurt her lips.
The next morning, Merrill was met with the unsettling sight of her best friend wrapped around their suspect. She tiptoed into the living room and sat on the couch. She put her elbows on her knees and bent her head onto her hands, sitting that way for several moments, close to emotional shock. Then she lifted her head and met a single blue eye staring at her from a black and blue face. The other eye was swollen nearly shut.
"My god, you're hurt!" Merrill's compassionate heart forgot for a moment about the cloud of suspicion hovering over Shelley. She dropped to her knees next to her. "What happened to you? Why aren't you in the hospital?"
When she heard her roommate's voice, Angela woke up. With a jolt she realized she was plastered to Shelley's back and she scrambled to sit up. "That damn Hurtz jumped her. There were about six of them and they stomped the hell out of her. She wouldn't go to the hospital."
Merrill's raised eyebrows made Angela blush and she quickly stammered, "She was cold and hurt. She came to us for help. I wanted to stay by her to make sure she was all right."
Wouldn't go to the hospital? Merrill's compassion was waning as she looked back down at the woman who had yet to say a word. "And are you all right?" she asked bluntly.
"Dunno, haven't tried to move yet," Shelley answered.
Her voice sounded stronger to Angela, which she took as a good sign. The redhead crawled from under the afghan and stood up. "You want me to help you try?
"Let me see if I can straighten my legs first." Shelley slowly moved her legs until they were straight. "Well, that worked pretty well." She pushed the afghan away. Then she rolled onto her stomach, put her hands flat on the floor and pushed herself into a kneeling position. She reached a hand to Angela for balance and stood up, facing her.
Angela got a good look at Shelley's face. The swelling in her cheek had mostly gone down, leaving a bruise, but her eye was definitely blackened. The cracks in her mouth no longer bled and were already starting to heal. "I kept changing the ice packs during the night and that really has helped. Your face looks ten times better."
Shelley squeezed her hand and Angela realized she had not let go of it when Shelley stood up. She placed the taller girl's hand in the crook of her arm. "Let's try walking, shall we?"
Shelley took several tentative steps. "I'm fine." She patted Angela's arm and the redhead removed it. "I think I can make it upstairs now." She knew Merrill wasn't too happy that she was there.
"What are you going to do about Liz Hurtz? Report her to the police?" Merrill watched Shelley's expression carefully. For some reason the girl wanted to stay away from authorities and Merrill wondered why. No hospital and she was willing to bet no police either.
"No, I'll worry about Liz Hurtz later." She limped to the doorway, in more pain than she would admit. "Thanks, Angela. I owe you one."
She went out the door and Angela moved as if to follow her but Merrill grabbed her arm. "Stay here, Ange. Can't you see she's using you? Why didn't she go to the hospital? What's she hiding?"
Merrill's questions stopped her dead. Angela couldn't deny it any longer; Shelley was hiding something and Angela was determined to find out what whether she liked the answer or not. I have to know. But right now, she needs me.
Angela lifted Merrill's hand from her arm. "I'm going to help her upstairs, Merry. And I'm going to stay with her as long as she needs me."
"Whatever happened to good sense?" Merrill looked into her best friend's determined face and knew she had lost the battle. Angela was past listening to good sense. She was following her heart. Merrill sighed in defeat as Angela went out the door.
The redhead hurried around the corner of the hall and saw Shelley standing there with one hand on the banister, looking up the stairs. She turned as Angela reached her and her face began to light up, but she quickly squelched it and took on a guarded expression. One eyebrow crooked up in inquiry.
Angela picked up Shelley's closer arm and put it across her shoulders. She wrapped an arm around the taller girl's waist. "Come on, let's give it a try." Slowly, Shelley mounted the stairs, relying heavily on Angela's help. Angela guided her to her apartment and used Shelley's telescoping keychain to open the door. She took Shelley straight into her bedroom and helped her onto the rumpled bed.
"Where are your sleep shirts?" she asked the quiet young woman.
Angela pulled out the drawer and chose a rose-colored T-shirt. She took it to the bed and laid it on Shelley's stomach.
"Am I supposed to use this for a sheet?" the dark-haired girl asked.
"Oh, you are really funny. Put it on and I'll help you get cleaned up."
"You're the funny one. I can barely move, let alone dress myself. Not to mention undress myself." She thrust her bottom lip out in a pout, which got Angela's immediate cooperation.
"Okay, I'll help you." She assisted Shelley in sitting up, then carefully took her shirt off, one arm at a time. Gritting her teeth, she unhooked the snowy white bra and lifted it off. Then she undid the button on her jeans and unzipped them. She lowered Shelley gently to the bed and pulled off her jeans and panties.
She rustled up a basin of warm water, soap, a washcloth and a towel and gently bathed her battered body, cringing at sight of the ugly bruises. She dried Shelley and carefully sat her up again. Quickly slipping the sleep shirt over the dark head, she helped to maneuver each arm through its proper hole. She laid her back down and pulled the shirt to the tops of her long legs, which also had suffered bruising.
Through this whole undertaking, Shelley kept her eyes closed and a slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. When Angela was finished, Shelley opened her eyes and looked deeply into the hazel ones above her. "Thank you," she whispered, "for helping me."
Moisture stung Angela's eyes and she quickly looked away. She pulled a brand new desk chair up next to the bed and sat on it then clutched her courage to her and looked again at the gorgeous woman she was losing her heart to. She swallowed hard then asked, "Can I do anything else for you?"
In obvious invitation, Shelley opened the hand that was lying on her stomach and Angela scooted the chair closer and put her hand in Shelley's. "Having you here with me is enough for now," Shelley said. "I just need some more rest." She closed her eyes, squeezed Angela's hand and smiled as she drifted off.
Later she woke up and Angela was gone. The lamp table had been loaded with cookies, cheese, fruit and bottles of water. Shelley lay there, disappointed that Angela hadn't stayed, but accepting the inevitability of it.
Her mind replayed Angela's actions in helping her, from the time she crawled to the
apartment up to her falling asleep in her own bed. Her body's reactions to Angela's
ministrations were expected, but she was pleased to note that Angela's reactions were just
as heated--and unhappy that the redhead would not admit it aloud.
Their first practice game was a runaway. The score was already 18-3, in favor of the Spofford Jaguars and the three runs had been a gift from the coach. She had put a pitcher in who would at least let the fielders have some practice. The one bright spot happened in the bottom of the fourth inning when Angela threw a runner out at third base. It was the third out and the team loped toward the visitors' dugout.
"Hey, Wedgie, good job on the throw," Barb Olanti hollered to Angela as they neared the dugout. Angela stopped short and turned around to face the olive-skinned third baseman, both disgust and amusement fighting to take over her expression. The result was a rather attractive grimace.
"Thanks, Barb, but knock it off. You know my name's Angie," the redhead said pointedly. A name like Wedgeway was a magnet for hecklers and Angela had had her share of them at opposing fields. She didn't intend to let it slide by with a teammate.
Barb grinned wickedly. A freshman and new to the team this year, she had noticed the good-looking redhead from the first day of practice but she had stayed in the background, just observing, waiting for a chance to get to know her better. When Star had first appeared, she thought there might be something between the beauty and Angela but she wasn't sure about that. She wouldn't let it stop her from trying anyway. Hoping that Angela could take some teasing, she took the opportunity to garner some notice. "What's wrong, you can't take a little ribbing?" Angela opened her mouth to answer, then inexplicably closed it as her eyes flicked towards Barb's left shoulder.
A hand clapped firmly on the shoulder and Barb's head swiveled to meet steel-blue eyes on the same level with hers. The curve on the full lips did nothing to offset the ice in the narrowed eyes.
"Angela doesn't like that nickname," Shelley purred, "so we don't call her that. Right?"
Barb's gaze narrowed, too, as she debated how to handle this intrusion. She tilted her head slightly toward Shelley's healing eye, knowing she had had it blackened for several days. "You look like you had a little run-in with someone, Star."
"You should see the other six guys," Shelley responded softly as her hand tightened on Barb's shoulder.
Angela's voice interrupted their dangerous duet. "Hey, Barb, we don't call you B-O, do we?"
The third baseman snorted a short laugh but her eyes never swerved from Shelley's. "You got a point there Angie. Guess we better both back off on the names." The hand dropped from her shoulder and Shelley moved on past her without another word.
Barb watched her pick up a fresh ball and stick it in her mitt, then sit on the far end of the bench. The third baseman followed Angela into the dugout. "Sorry, Angie, I just meant to kid around a little. Didn't mean to set Star off."
Angela stopped in front of the bench the rest of her team was sitting on. "No problem, Barb. Just stay cool around her, okay?"
"Right. I should know better than to tangle with an older woman." the freshman raked the listeners on the bench with a roguish smile. "Usually more fun being friends with them."
"An older woman?" Kath laughed. "Shelley's only eighteen," she blurted.
Marva poked her in the ribs with an elbow and Kath turned to her with a questioning glance. The question was answered when she heard Shelley's silken voice. "How do you know how old I am, Kath?"
Kath was dumbstruck as she realized she knew Shelley's age from the file she shouldn't have read. She opened her mouth to answer but nothing came out at first. On the second try she blurted, "I work in the Dean's office "
"She saw your birthdate on a class list," Marva said, coming to Kath's aid.
"Yeah, it kind of jumped right out at me," Kath resumed when her thudding heart slowed down. "It was later than anybody else's by several years. How come you're a junior, anyway?" she asked, relieved to hide the truth about her errant eye.
Seemingly satisfied with the answer, Shelley shrugged. "I was put ahead a couple of years."
"Wow!" said Marva with a grin, happy to have rescued Kath from her miscue. "Beauty and brains, too. Aren't you the lucky one?"
Shelley's eyes turned to Marva but they seemed to be looking far past her and the odd expression on her face belied her next words. "Yeah, that's me. The lucky one."
Seated on the far side of Marva, Angela had been watching Shelley's face during the exchange and the look this last remark evoked disturbed her. The same old refrain jangled through her head: I don't believe she's a killer. What if she's just a lonely kid? She forced herself to get up and move to the seat next to the raven-haired first baseman, making her break eye contact with Marva.
As she sat between Shelley and Amber, her eyes fell on the sketch Amber was working on. It was an arresting full-length picture of Shelley at first base, prepared to field her position. "Wow, Amber, that's terrific!" I'd love to have one of those. Maybe I'll ask Amber privately for one.
"Yeah, Allie asked me to do it. And one of you." Amber sneaked a glance at Angela and smirked. "Guess she can't make up her mind."
Allie, seated on the other side of Amber, jogged her with a forearm. "Don't go putting ideas into people's heads, Amber," she said and leaned forward to look at Angela. "I'm ordering the whole team. You two are the best players on the team, so I asked for you first."
Angela smiled at the compliment and nodded. "I thought you were an artist, too. How come you aren't doing them?"
"I do a different style. Amber's better at people than I am."
"That's a great idea to get the whole team. I might order some, too, Amber. I'll talk to you about it later, okay?"
"Sure, Angie, whenever you want."
Angela turned toward the dark-haired girl sitting silently beside her. "Shelley?"
Shelley had leaned her head back against the boards of the dugout, intensely aware that Angela had sat down next to her. The hooded pale eyes swept to Angela's and the redhead berated herself for the effect they had on her in spite of her friends' suspicions. She could feel Shelley's lips, her hands, her Stop! This woman could hurt you!
Angela wet her lips. "This thing with Barb? I'm big enough to fight my own battles, okay? Lots of people have teased me about my name."
"I don't like it. She's a teammate. She should have more respect." That chivalrous thought tickled the edges of Angela's heart, but she brushed it away.
"That's not your call, Shelley. I could have handled Barb. Back off, will you?" She watched in dismay as the warmth that had started to rise in Shelley's eyes turned cool again.
"Sure, Angela. Whatever you want." Shelley picked up her mitt and stood up. "Inning's over," she said and sauntered out onto the field, her shoulders and hips swaying in reciprocal rhythm.
Angela locked her eyes on Shelley and followed her slowly, wondering how long her heart could stand this terrible wrenching it was going through. It was pure hell being attracted to a girl who came under such heavy suspicion. Especially when she knew that Shelley wanted her, too. How much longer would the pain continue--both hers and Shelley's?
How much longer until the killer is caught? Even that thought caused wrenching
Shelley opened the door to Ted Hoffman's knock and invited him in. As she watched his appraising blue eyes check out the apartment she was glad she had spruced it up a bit in advance of his coming.
He held an offering out to her. "I brought a six-pack. Thought we might work up a thirst." Shelley was a little leery of inviting a virtual stranger into her apartment but she was trusting her instincts that Ted was okay. Just in case she was mistaken, she didn't lock the outside door. She thanked him for the beer and put it in the fridge, retaining two for them to work on.
"Okay, let's get started," she suggested, picking up her script from the lamp table. Ted pulled his copy from the thigh pocket of his mottled fatigues.
Parts of the script called for furniture to be overturned while the abused woman was screaming. The two kitchenette chairs, one draped with Shelley's black windbreaker, had been brought into the living room to serve as props for that purpose. In their zeal to stay true to the action, Shelley and Ted caused more commotion than they realized. There was a pounding on the apartment door, and Angela and Kath came tearing in.
Angela's heart froze as she saw a strange man with his hands around Shelley's throat. She grabbed Shelley's softball bat out of the corner and started toward him. Ted immediately let go and Shelley stepped between them and raised her hands. "Angela, there's no problem. Ted and I are rehearsing a play."
Angela had the bat raised, ready for a blow, when Shelley's words penetrated the rage that had overcome her. Shocked by the abrupt change of purpose, Angela slowly lowered the bat, keeping her eyes on Ted. "Rehearsing?" she echoed in a daze.
Shelley removed the bat from the redhead's shaking hands and laid it against the wall. She led Angela to a seat on the couch then sat next to her. "Kath," she said, "there's some beer in the fridge. Grab one for Angela, will you, and one for yourself."
Trying to be helpful, Ted went with Kath to get the beer and followed her back into the living room. Ted offered a can to Angela who grasped it with both hands. She looked up at the tow-headed man. "I could have killed you," she said, her voice shaking partly from shock and partly from anger. She turned toward Shelley who was looking at her uneasily, her black locks falling heedlessly over her forehead.
"Didn't it occur to you that we would think something was happening to you?" she demanded. "Especially with all the other crap that's going on?"
Shelley lifted her hands and shrugged, distress plain on her face. "I never gave it a thought," she admitted.
Ted and Kath righted the toppled chairs and Kath picked up Shelley's windbreaker from the floor and laid it over the couch arm next to Angela. Now Ted jumped into the conversation, in Shelley's defense. "Neither one of us did. But we should have and I apologize." Kath was divided between feeling bad for Angela and watching the attractive young man who had seemingly noticed her, too.
"And just who the hell are you?" The jar to Angela's system had made her uncharacteristically brusque.
Shelley recognized this and was even more disturbed that Angela had been so upset. "This is Ted Hoffman. He's a classmate from my drama class. We're practicing a little play that we're in."
She turned toward him. "Ted, this is Angela Wedgeway and Kath O'Brien. We're all on the same softball team. Angela and Kath live downstairs. Everyone's kind of jumpy because of the killer who's around this area."
Ted nodded to the girls. "I don't blame you. All the women around here should be worried. Better make sure you stay together and don't go anywhere alone." Ted picked up his beer, then sat in one of the two chairs he and Kath had set back up and Kath sat in the other one.
They started a quiet conversation as Shelley looked apologetically at Angela. "I'm really sorry this happened, Angela. I would never purposely upset you like this."
Angela took several sips of beer then one long drink and finally let her eyes seek Shelley's. "I guess I should be happy that it was a false alarm. I thought he was hurting you and I went a little crazy."
Shelley ached to take her in her arms and soothe her but she settled for brushing Angela's arm with a forefinger. "My guardian angel," she murmured.
"Right. More like a misguided one," Angela said with a snort. She gulped the rest of her beer and stood up, trying to recapture some dignity. "I guess we can safely leave you two to your thespian pursuits." As she talked, she unconsciously lifted Shelley's windbreaker from the couch arm and took it the few steps into the bedroom to the closet. She opened the closet door just as a startled Shelley bolted into the bedroom shouting, "No!"
A shaft of light seemed to engulf Angela and the inside surface of the door, bringing time to an abrupt halt and shutting out the rest of the world. The inside of the door was plastered with pictures and news articles. As though in a dream, her eyes slowly moved back and forth across the shocking items taped there. A chronological history of the coed murders was laid out precisely with some parts circled and others underlined in red ink. Blurred newspaper pictures of the five girls, their names captioned beneath, were aligned side-by-side across the door slightly above Angela's eye level.
If it were possible for human beings to freeze from the inside out, that would be an apt description of Angela's current state. The other two visitors were speechless, too. They had followed Shelley into the room then moved to stand behind Angela when they saw the layout of death.
Shelley glanced from one to the other and licked her lips. Angela looked like her world had ended and Kath and Ted were horrified. "I I've been keeping a record of the murders. I'm concerned about them," she tried to explain. But only silence met her. Oh, god, what can I say?
"Look Angela. Look at all those girls. Read their descriptions--I've underlined them. Doesn't something strike you right away?" Shelley groped for a way to lighten Angela's dark expression.
Angela read for a moment then as her mind compared the descriptions she spoke in a flat voice. "They're all white tall black or dark-brown hair blue eyes athletes." Her voice gained some life. "And eighteen years old. They all resemble you."
"That's right," Shelley's low voice got even deeper, "I noticed it right away and no one's even mentioned it. Maybe the police are suppressing it--though god only knows why they would." She looked from Angela to Kath. "No redheads, no sandy-haired, no blacks, no short ones, and only eighteen-year-old girl athletes. While you have been scared to death that I might be the killer, there's no one in your group who fits the description of the victims as closely as I do. I'm the one walking around with a target on her chest. Doesn't that tell you that I'm innocent?"
Angela reached into the closet for a hanger and put the windbreaker on it then hung it up, stalling for time to think. What Shelley said made sense on the surface. Still, Angela could hear what Merrill would say: There was nothing to stop a tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, athletic maniac from killing people who looked like her. And there were questions Shelley hadn't answered.
She turned to face her and lifted then dropped her arms. "I don't know I just don't know. If I were you and knew that I fit the description of all the victims as closely as you do, I sure as hell wouldn't be tooling around at night by myself. Tell us why you do and maybe then I can be sure of you."
Shelley stomped her foot and jerked away. She doubled up her fists, then shoved them into her pockets to keep from striking out. Her voice was so intense it burned like lava. "I told you I can't answer that because someone else is involved. But it's not important; it has nothing to do with these murders. If you can't accept my word on that, then there's nothing more to say to you. Please leave."
Angela opened her mouth then snapped it shut. Kath spoke softly to Ted then took Angela's arm and practically dragged her out.
Shelley frowned at the young man. "I don't feel much like practicing now, Ted. Give me a call tomorrow, maybe we can find another chance, okay?"
"Sure, Shelley. Take it easy." From the conversation he had overheard, Ted realized that the other girls thought that Shelley might be involved in the killings. After seeing the bizarre collection on the closet door, he could understand their suspicions. Maybe we can work together to keep an eye on her. But for now, he just needed to get out of her apartment. Shelley let him out and locked the door.
She went into the bedroom, closed the closet door and leaned her forehead against it. You idiot! Why did you ever do something so stupid? You should have left the damned door locked, or you could have kept this stuff in a drawer. You might as well have gone to the police and confessed. She banged her head against the door, hard, once for each girl who had been murdered, while tears of frustration laid trails down her cheeks.
Angela and Kath came into the apartment arguing. "You could have let me have a chance to reason with her," Angela was saying. "You didn't have to almost yank me out of there."
Merrill and Marva had just come back from shopping and were in the kitchenette, putting Merrill and Angela's share of the groceries away. When they heard the raised voices, they hurried into the living room.
"Right. From the looks of you two, you would have come to blows in about ten more seconds," Kath rejoined. "It might have been interesting to see which one of you won, but I really wasn't in the mood for bloodshed."
Angela cast a nasty glance at Kath, and Merrill purposely interrupted the exchange. "What happened?"
Angela clamped her lips shut and looked at Kath. Kath shook her head and looked apologetic. "Ange, I only know what I saw." She turned to Merrill and Marva. "Remember we wondered why Shelley's closet was locked when we cleaned her room? She has newspaper articles and pictures of the murdered girls pasted all over the inside of the closet door."
Merrill and Marva looked shocked. "Just like you see in the movies," Marva muttered.
Merrill plunged further toward acceptance of Shelley's guilt. "Ange, what more proof do you need? Do you have to see her with knife in hand, mutilating some innocent girl?"
"She doesn't have her knife any more; the police kept it," Angela said stubbornly.
"Good grief, Angie, you know she could buy another one. I think we need to make a move." Merrill looked to the others for some support.
"You mean call the police again?" Marva asked as she sat down on the couch. Following her lead, the others settled themselves. Angela dropped onto the floor, unconsciously sitting slightly apart from the rest.
"I don't think that's the answer," said Kath. "Look what happened last time--nothing!"
Marva glanced down toward Angela. "Did she tell you how she got away with that, Ange? I never saw the cops turn anyone loose that fast."
The redhead was sitting on the floor, playing with a lace on one of her sneakers. She glanced up and grimaced. "Her court-appointed guardian is the judge. She got her off somehow."
Merrill sighed loudly, drawing everyone's attention. "Looks like we are going to have to follow her on these nightly excursions of hers after all, like Kath suggested earlier. What do you think?"
"I don't like the idea, but I don't see any other answer," Marva conceded. When she saw Kath nod, she made an offer. "Kath and I can take a night, then you and Angela, and we can alternate."
Merrill got up, went into the bedroom and obtained a pencil and paper from her desk. Bringing it back to the living room, she sat on the couch, rested the paper on the lamp table and drew a chart with days and times blocked out. "Okay. Let's figure out who will watch on what nights."
Angela put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. "You pick our nights, Merry. I'll go with whatever you decide."
Marva moved down to sit beside her. "Whatever happened to the famous Wedgeway faith? We're going to prove your girl innocent, aren't we?"
Angela turned her head toward Marva and smiled ruefully. "Sure wish I could be certain of that Marv. But thanks for the vote of trust in Shelley."
Marva shrugged. "It's more a vote of trust in you, Angie. It's tough for me to believe that you could fall this hard for a murderer."
Merrill reddened. "It's tough for me, too, Angie. I just wouldn't be able to live with myself if we ignored the evidence and we were wrong. You understand that, dont you?"
Angela looked at the woman who had been her best friend for the last fifteen years. She did understand. Merrill was relentless. She wouldn't let go of this mystery until she found the answer, one way or another. But maybe that was good. If they could prove Shelley's innocence, Angela knew that Merrill would be right there, cheering for them both. She nodded and even managed a half-smile. "I understand, kiddo. Do what you have to do."
Opening day! The whole team was excited. Their first game was away against the Scatsboro Pumas, last year's champs, and would give them a good indication of whether they had the makings of a winner. A good-sized group of softball fans had showed up, quite a few of them rooting for Spofford.
Shelley was the starting pitcher, Angela would be at first base and Bobbie Sue was
playing in right field. In the first games of the season, pitchers often tired so the
coach's plan was to have Shelley pitch the first four innings, then switch to Bobbie
Sue--which would mean position changes at first base and right field in the latter innings
but those changes would strengthen both positions. The girls were ready and hopeful.
Spofford's team sported their new kelly-green uniforms with shorts just about as short as they could get. Walking back to the dugout after warm-ups, Angela had a difficult time keeping her eyes off of Shelley; the green set off her tan, making blue eyes bluer and long legs longer.
Shelley had been the first into the dugout and was sitting at the far end, watching the others come in. As she caught the glimpse of Angela she had been searching for, her heart leaped. With her red hair, the green uniform made her look Shelley couldn't think of a word to describe exactly how she looked or how she caused her to feel. She only knew that the excitement of the upcoming game made her heart race but the vision of Angela raised that movement to a thud. She thought it might burst right out of her chest. Good thing she plays behind me in the field. Don't know if I could keep my mind on what I need to do otherwise.
Coach Palmer called the team together at the dugout entrance and they jointly touched their hands together and yelled, "Go, Spofford!" The first batters in the line-up got ready while the rest sat on the bench or stood close to the fence, prepared to cheer for their teammates.
"Play ball!" The umpire's call signaled the start of the game and the teams went at it.
In the bottom of the third inning with the game tied 0-0, Scatsboro's next batter, their pitcher, stood near the plate waiting for Shelley to finish her warm-up tosses.
"Hey, Marv." The girl was 5'8" and solid, one of the best pitchers in
"Yo, Jodi." Whap! Shelley's pitch slapped into Marva's catcher's mitt with a satisfying jolt and she fired it back.
"Where'd you get your pitcher?" Rubbing a wristband across her forehead, Jodi soaked up the perspiration threatening to run into her eyes.
"She came here from Penlyville." Whap!
"They aren't on our schedule so I wouldn't have seen her, but, damn, she looks familiar. Not exactly a forgettable face," Jodi said and grinned at Marva.
Whap! "That's for sure, but she's taken, so stick your eyeballs back where they belong." Not quite a lie--she would be taken if things were different.
"Not what I meant, Marv. I think she was at Scatsboro for a while--maybe only a month or so. Didn't play on the team. Got there too late."
Whap! Marva frowned as she took the last pitch. Shooting up from her squat, she threw the ball to second base, then straightened out her chest protector. Jodi picked up the catcher's mask from where it lay on the ground, dusted it off against her hip and handed it to her as the umpire moved into position behind Marva. "Batter up!"
Marva had a million questions bouncing through her mind about Shelley, but knew she had to forget them for the moment. She settled her mask, squatted down and smacked her mitt. "C'mon, Star, show this puny runt what a real pitcher can do!"
The first four innings belonged to the pitchers: the score was 0-0. Bobbie Sue came in for Shelley as planned. She pitched well but gave up one run to Scatsboro in the sixth.
Now the top of the seventh was approaching. Coach Palmer called the team together for a quick pep talk. "We're only one run down. We've stayed in the game because of our super pitching and fielding. Now it's time to reach down inside for that something extra that separates winners from losers. Get those bats working! Remember, when we beat Scatsboro, we can beat anybody. Go get 'em!"
The Spofford Jaguars had gone through their line up twice and the lead-off batter was starting things off again in the top of the seventh. Merrill, the smallest player on the team, was an excellent spray hitter and a swift runner so the lead-off position belonged to her. With a good eye and great patience, she slapped the close pitches foul and worked the pitcher for a walk.
Barb Olanti, the third baseman, bunted Merrill to second base. Teammates, urging her on with shouts from the dugout, gave her additional impetus and she almost, but not quite, beat out the bunt for a hit.
Anxious to do her part, Marva hit a screaming line drive that Scatsboro's third baseman timed perfectly. Jumping high into the air, she speared it in the webbing of her glove. Merrill dove swiftly back to second base, barely avoiding being doubled off as the whole team and their fans breathed sighs of relief.
Angela stepped up to the plate and the outfielders backed up several steps. The opposing coach weighed the advisability of walking the clean-up hitter--the last thing she wanted was a home run--but with Shelley Brinton batting next, she decided against it. As fourth and fifth batters, both women were homerun threats, but Brinton had that whip-like build that sometimes signaled more raw power. If they could get Wedgeway out, Brinton's power would be a moot point--the game would be over and Scatsboro would register its first win.
Angela worked the count to 3-2 then hit a scorching grounder in the hole between third and short. Against any other team she would have had a run-batted-in, but Scatsboro's shortstop was the best in the league. She couldn't get to the ball in time to catch it, but she knocked it down with a stretching dive and prevented the run from scoring.
Next came Shelley. She had a count of 1-2 and the pitcher threw a high fastball just a fraction above the strike zone that looked as big to Shelley as a beach ball. Angela held her breath. She saw Shelley's hands start to move, then jerk back, taking the pitch for ball two. Then the pitcher threw a nasty curve that started outside but curved back in toward the plate. Shelley's fast reflexes saved her. She swung late, but slammed the ball just fair down the first-base line and it bounced around in the corner.
The sweet reverberation of the solid hit coursed up Shelley's arms, through her shoulders and down her body, powering her feet as she flew past first base, charged toward second and hit the bag with a stand-up double. Both Merrill and Angela scored, giving Spofford the lead. The team cleared the benches as soon as Shelley's ball hit fair and they jumped up and down with joy, high-fiving the runners as they entered the dugout. The fans in the bleachers made up for their fewer number by stomping on the aluminum stands and screaming prodigiously.
The left fielder, Allie Monroe, hit a long fly ball, backing the center fielder to the wall for the third out. She threw the bat in disgust that she had stranded the runner, but that didn't dim the jubilation. As Shelley came in off the field her teammates slapped her on the back and gave her high-fives. She swiveled her head to answer one of them and walked right into Angela. Grabbing her shoulders to steady them both, Shelley reveled in the chance to touch her, even so briefly.
"Great hit," Angela said. She hesitated, then forced herself to step away from Shelley's grasp. "I saw you flinch at that high pitch and I nearly died."
"It sure was tempting, but I knew from your lessons that I might just pop that up. I thought I better wait." She was drowning in Angela's eyes until the shortstop, Roz Carrow, swung her around and handed her first-baseman's mitt to her. Roz was one of only three seniors on the team and was considered one of their leaders. "Let's go, guys. Take the field."
"Oh, how fleeting is fame," Shelley groused, but the few words from Angela had her flying high.
Scatsboro was at the plate for their last chance to tie or win the game. They had a runner on first with two outs and their heaviest hitter at the plate. She swung at a pitch that should have been a ball but caught it squarely and with her strength hit it over Kath's head in centerfield. Kath chased it to the wall and, with it so deep, Angela came running over to give her an extra relay person. Kath hit Angela perfectly and she wheeled to throw it to Merrill when she heard Shelley's distinctive voice slicing through the screams of Scatsboro's fans: "Home! All the way home!"
Without a second thought, Angela let fly and the ball sizzled into the infield and made one hop to Marva who threw her shin-guarded leg alongside the plate and tagged the blocked runner out. Spofford players and fans erupted in jubilation, the stomping in the stands reaching fever pitch.
Coach Palmer was jubilant, too. True, it was only their first win, but it was a sweet one. Scatsboro always led the league, year after year, and maybe, just maybe, the Jaguars could change that.
"Nice throw," Shelley congratulated Angela as they left the field, basking in the win.
Angela blushed. "Thanks guess those lessons did us both good. And thanks for the tip. If I had thrown to the relay, the runner would have been safe and we could have been in extra innings. Good game, Shelley." The tall girl nodded and blazed a full smile.
Kath had been walking behind them, next to Marva and Merrill. "Well, I for one am
glad we didn't go into extra innings. I have a date tonight." Her friends looked at
her with big grins. "Who with?" Merrill asked.
"Would you believe Ted Hoffman? You know the guy I met at Shelley's the other night?"
"Hey, you're a fast worker, Kath--or he is," Merrill said with a chuckle.
Marva nudged Kath in the side. "I have a date, too," she smirked.
This time the women stopped in their tracks. "And who might that be?" Angela, overhearing, dropped back with them.
"Our illustrious third baseman has asked me out," Marva answered.
"Barb Olanti? No kidding?" Angela said. "She's a freshman. Better watch that cradle robbing."
Marva threw an arm over Angela's shoulder as they resumed walking. "Shelley's almost underage, too, you know. Is this the pot calling the kettle black, or what?" Marva murmured, returning the teasing.
Angela reddened and gave her a shove. Then Marva bubbled a laugh out. "Hey, I am black, no matter what you call me."
"Thanks, Kath, now I know who my one true friend is." Marva whined and all three women laughed and pummeled her with their gloves.
Shelley's wistful glance went unnoticed.
It was dark but not as black as some moonless nights. The lone rider sailed smoothly down the incline of the bike path, the air swishing softly past her ears and blowing her hair off of her face. The night dampness magnified the mingled smells of the earth, the nearby river and scattered vegetation.
The path flattened out at the bottom and stayed parallel to the river road, though set back enough to be inside the trees, providing a more picturesque ride. In the daytime, that is. She grinned because she liked the night--no inquisitive eyes, no stupid questions, no suspicious people. She came alive at nighttime; it was her friend.
Friend. Oh, Angela, I've waited but you haven't made up your mind. Do I keep waiting? You're so beautiful and your body is so perfect how many nights I've ridden around thinking of you. Maybe someday The rider heard a noise and quickly pulled into the undergrowth, hunching down out of sight.
Two bike riders went by pumping furiously. Racers in training, looks like. Relieved, the rider got back onto the trail.
Well, Spofford, looks like you finally get your turn. I've already picked my leading lady. Now all I have to do is trail her for a while, find out her habits, and I will have her in the palm of my hand.
The rider slowed and turned off the trail, working through the underbrush which was sparser on the roadside. She rode down to the beginning of the riverbank and stopped, looking in all directions. Three trees bunched closely together gave the spot some privacy from the road. Perfect.
With a satisfied smile, she turned back toward Spofford, taking her time, drinking in the total freedom that she found only under the concealing cloak of stars.
Helen wore her apron with pride. She had always been a good cook, born with the knack, some said. Chocolate chip cookies not only were her favorite to bake but also one of her favorites to eat. And Shelley loved them, too. But the first batch of these would go to Commissioner Pete Dougal, as promised.
The flour had been added, the eggs had been beaten in and now it was time for the semi-sweet chips and the nuts--which she had cut up ahead of time. As she reached for the chips, the phone rang. Drying her hands on her apron, she picked up the receiver. What she heard made her drop into a chair.
"No, Jeff, that never entered my mind. Surely not." Helen closed her eyes. You're not being exactly truthful, Helen. Admit it. "Yes, Shelley's had many, many psychological evaluations and no, she probably will never be completely 'cured.' She's come a long way but even the experts admit that the mind can be very strong or very fragile. With the terrible trauma in her background, it's a wonder she's as sane as she is."
Helen listened intently as her eyes roamed her neat kitchen, touching on the hidden refrigerator/freezer; Italian marble counters, specially ordered to match the floor; the sparkling pots and pans dangling from the ceiling rack; the built-in oven, microwave and dishwasher; the flat-surfaced electric range. Cupboards jutted proudly from every wall with utensils and towel racks hanging beneath them. A blender, can opener, bag sealer and coffeemaker stood near at hand.
This was her best-loved room but her eyes saw nothing in it at the moment. Instead they were looking into the past at the beautiful young girl with the ravaged soul whom she had worked with, and prayed for, for years, trying to help her return to a world she hated. And they had succeeded.
Or had they? Tears rolled from her eyes as she pondered the implications of what Jeff was proposing. No not my Shelley never. Never. But saying it didn't make it so. Only time would tell the true answer. And they had to think the unthinkable just in case.
"Do what you have to do, Jeff," she said softly and hung up the phone. Jeff had been about to say something sympathetic and she hung up before he could say it but he understood. He had known Helen and Shelley for years and he realized how hard it was for her to face what had to be faced. Maybe. There's no solid proof yet. But it doesn't look good.
The four usual cohorts gathered at Angela and Merrill's table the morning after the game.
Merrill looked in the fridge. "Hey, Angie made a pitcher of iced tea last night. Good girl! Anybody want some?"
She poured a glass for each of them in response to their affirmative answers while Angela cut some coffee cake and got out the paper plates and napkins. When she returned the pitcher to the fridge, she got the butter out, shut the door and gathered a few knives, laying them on the table.
"So how were the big dates last night?" Merrill asked. She sat down next to Angela on the padded red bench that formed the dinette corner.
"Mine was okay," Marva replied. "We went to The Barrister for a couple of drinks." She scooped a piece of coffee cake onto a plate and took a bite.
"The Barrister? That's a private club, Marv." The answer had surprised Angela.
Marva washed the cake down with a swallow of iced tea. "Barb's registered to study pre-law so she was allowed to join. Besides, they don't check her age there so we were able to have some mixed drinks."
Kath looked up from buttering her piece of cake. "What's she like? Any chemistry there?"
Marva considered the question as she licked coffee cake crumbs from her tapered fingers. "We only had a few drinks and left. We were both pretty worn out from the game, especially me. Up and down with every pitch is a real workout. Too early to tell if there's any chemistry. We have another date next week." Marv winked at Kath. "How about you and Ted?"
"We went to a movie " Kath began. She had meticulously buttered both sides of her coffee cake and cut it into bite-sized chunks. She daintily picked one up and popped it into her mouth.
"Adventure or love story?" Merrill interrupted.
"Adventure," Kath answered.
"Uh oh," Merrill said.
"What's the difference?" Angela inquired with a frown. She picked up a napkin and brushed powdered sugar remnants from her lips then folded the napkin and put her sweating iced tea glass on it. She handed a folded napkin to Merrill who set her glass onto it. Taking another napkin, Angela wiped up the wet rings in front of them.
Marva had been watching this action with a smile. With a small shake of her head she muttered, "Damn neatniks," and did the same thing for her and Kath.
"Adventure means he thought of himself first; love story means he's feeling romantic," Merrill answered. "Of course, that's only my own opinion."
"I picked the movie and I like adventures. I think it's too early to be trying to be romantic," Kath said defensively. "We just met."
Merrill didn't feel brave enough to attack that line of reasoning so she digressed. "Did you have a good time?"
"Yeah, we did." Kath's face lit up. "After the movie we walked for a while, just talking. Ted said he was totally shocked about all those clippings Shelley had."
"We were, too," Merrill said needlessly. She rose and cleared the table, dumped the paper products in the trash can and washed out the knives. Then she refilled their glasses.
"He wants to help us keep tabs on Shelley. I think it's a great idea. We'll have another set of eyes." Kath gazed around to see if the others agreed.
Angela took a sip of her fresh tea and looked sour. "What makes you think he couldn't be the killer, Kath? Maybe he just wants us to help set Shelley up."
"He didn't seem to be hiding anything, Angie," Kath responded seriously. She leaned toward the table and her long, wavy hair swung forward from her shoulders. "We talked for a long time about our backgrounds and he answered every question I asked him. He grew up about fifty miles from my home and knew a lot of the same places I did." She looked at Merrill, the natural mediator. "It would be easy enough to check him out. He said his dad's the Chief of Police and his mom's a teacher in the local high school."
Angela rolled her eyes, but Merrill spoke up as she sat back down. "I like the idea. It won't hurt to have the extra help. We can't be everywhere."
Kath looked at her redheaded friend with concern. "Besides, Angie, if she really is innocent, we might find out that much sooner."
Kath turned to the others. "Maybe Ted could take a night. I could double up with him." She quirked an eyebrow at Marva. "You think Barb might help out?"
Marva considered it for a moment then declined. "I don't know her that well, yet. We don't want the whole team knowing we suspect Shelley of this." Her thoughts turned momentarily to the team and what Shelley's loss would mean. Then she felt guilty. The damage to Shelley, and even to Angela, far outweighed anything the team might suffer.
"Okay, guys." Merrill retrieved her chart from the lamp table and made some adjustments. "Kath and Marv take tonight, Ange and I will take tomorrow night and Kath and Ted can take the third night. Then we start all over. How's that sound?"
Marva looked over Merrill's shoulder at the chart to make sure she wasn't scheduled for the night of her date with Barb. "We can take turns with the car," Marva suggested, "but we'll have to be careful because Shelley knows it."
"Ted has a car, too," Kath informed them. "Shelley might not recognize his."
Merrill sucked the inside of her cheeks in thought. "Maybe we should begin by following her on our bikes since that's the way she always seems to travel."
The others nodded in agreement and the plan went into effect that night.
To be Continued in Part 5.
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