Today we're excited to spotlight Sneaking Out by Chuck Vance! Read on for more about Chuck and his book, plus an excerpt, and a giveaway!
Meet Chuck Vance!
Luke Chase—yes, that Luke Chase, a modern hero ripped from the headlines—didn’t mean to get caught up in Mrs. Heckler’s murder. He just wanted to hook up with the hot new British girl at St. Benedict’s, and if that meant sneaking out to the woods after hours, then so be it. But little did he know someone would end up dead right next to their rendezvous spot, and his best friend and roommate Oscar Weymouth would go down for it. With suspects aplenty and a past that’s anything but innocent, Luke Chase reluctantly calls on his famous survival skills to find the true killer.
For fans of “A Study in Charlotte” and boarding school lit, “Sneaking Out” (book one in the “Chased” series) immerses readers in the privileged prep school world, with a mystery that exposes the dark side of life on a residential high school campus.
“It’s time,” said Oscar, flinging off his comforter. Despite the fact that he was in bed, he was fully dressed. All he had to do was put on his shoes and fleece jacket. That, and open the window and jump out.
Luke felt the blood rushing to his head. Was it really time? He glanced at his phone to be sure: almost two in the morning. Unlike Oscar, he’d been too nervous to sleep. Instead, he had done his history homework and studied for next week’s Spanish quiz. Then he’d watched a bunch of College Humor videos before collapsing in his faded armchair with a copy of Field and Stream magazine.
A brisk October breeze dragged scratchy tree branches across their window. The moon was full and bright, but at this hour it was pretty much a given that everyone on campus was sound asleep—everyone except the two girls who were preparing to meet them outside. All Luke and Oscar had to do was sneak out of their dorm and make it to the woods without detection.
Easier said than done.
St. Benedict’s—their boarding school, nestled in the heart of Connecticut—treated sneaking out of the dorm after hours as a serious infraction of the honor code, so if they got caught, they’d be up for a Disciplinary Committee hearing. If they were lucky, the D.C. would be in a good mood and simply put them on probation, but if the members were feeling cranky they could just as easily rule it a strike. One strike equaled suspension; two was expulsion. Oscar already had one strike—due to his habit of skipping classes and illegally signing out—and even if Luke got off with probation, it would be a big problem. Colleges, not to mention parents, cared a lot about that stuff.
Of course, Oscar would take it in stride. Hell, he’d probably go down in a blaze of glory. He’d brush his dark hair out of his eyes, smile lazily at the members of the D.C. and move on, as if getting kicked out was all just part of some grand plan. Luke was the opposite; if he got expelled he might as well go straight to the tattoo place in town and ink the word “failure” across his forehead, because that’s what he’d feel like.
“Dude, come on, let’s bolt,” Oscar said.
To outsiders, they were an unlikely pair. Oscar was ornery and aloof and had the reputation of being a rebel. He excelled at sports but was not necessarily a team player; he participated in no extracurriculars other than what was required, and had no problem challenging authority. That attitude, coupled with the self-confident swagger of someone who knows he is good-looking, made him the kind of guy who would give any parent pause when he showed up to take their daughter out on the town. Not that Oscar would even bother getting out of his car to knock on the door; girls went to him, not the other way around. Luke, on the other hand, was the all- around good guy: clean-cut, a great student and athlete, a Student Rep, a dorm prefect, president of the Outdoors Club, and a member of STEAM—St. Benedict’s Environmental Action Movement. Luke knew some people viewed him as some sort of perfectly packaged college-app striver, and it bothered him, but what could he do? He liked doing those things and he wasn’t about to change just to avoid conforming to other people’s perceptions.
Luke was certain he and Oscar would probably have steered clear of each other had they not been placed together as roommates freshman year. But they both fell out of their public roles when they were in the quiet of their own room, and they’d become best friends.
“Come on, Chase. Hurry up.”
“Okay, okay. I just need to stuff my bed.” Luke moved his pillows under the covers so that it looked as if he were still in it, sleeping.
Tonight, Oscar had arranged to meet Kelsey, a preppy blue-eyed blond who giggled a little too much for Luke’s taste. Luke, in turn, had invited Pippa, a recent transfer from England.
“If I were you, I'm not sure I’d risk keeping Pippa waiting. But sure, by all means go ahead and arrange your bed perfectly.”
Luke made one last adjustment to the comforter. “You don’t like her, do you?” “What’s to like? She’s totally stuck-up and she’s not even that hot.”
“I think she’s hot,” Luke countered. He pictured Pippa in his mind: she was tall, with very blond hair and nearly translucent skin. There was something almost otherworldly about her. She had really smart things to say in American Lit—ideas that were distinct from those of all the other kids in the class. She made him think. Plus, it was unusual for St. Benedict’s to accept any new students junior year, so that gave her an extra layer of allure.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You have a thing for ‘different’ girls,” Oscar said, using air quotes the way he always did when this subject came up.
“Come on,” protested Luke, even though he had to admit that it was partly true. All his friends expected him to only like girls who resembled him, as if couples should pair off like a set of matching salt-and-pepper shakers. Just because he had a preppy, all-American sporty vibe didn’t mean that’s what he looked for in a girl. In fact, he was attracted to girls who were a little unexpected.
“Sure you do. Different girls are totally your thing, man. This girl’s got a posh accent and no one really knows anything about her. She’s a mystery, and you love that stuff.” Oscar snapped his fingers. “Hey, you know what? I think it’s because if you took off her omnipresent beret she looks like Daenerys from Game of Thrones. You’ve got that whole fantasy world fetish going on, right?”
“Fantasy world? Me?” Luke rolled his eyes.
“You know, Mother of Dragons, and all that?” Oscar thrust out his chest and clasped his hands in front of himself like a princess.
Luke pulled his pillow out from underneath the comforter and tossed it at Oscar’s head.
“Yeah? Well, I’d rather go out with a badass dragon girl than silly little Kelsey.”
“Now it’s official,” Oscar said, catching the pillow and spinning it in the air. “You are actually trying to make us late, aren’t you?”
Luke held out his hand for the pillow and Oscar threw it back.
Luke finished with the bed and stepped back to look at it critically. In the dark and without a close look, it might look like a person was actually in there. Right now, not so much. But it would have to do.
Time to go. Luke opened the window and reached for the thickest tree branch. It shook a bit, weakened by his weight, but it was secure. Luke had spent most of his summers climbing trees at his grandparents’ farm in Virginia, and nowadays he spent a few Sundays every month camping and climbing in the nearby Berkshire Mountains with his club. Always pushing himself, he had taken a month- long outdoors course at the Appalachian State Park last summer to pick up new skills.
He didn’t have a choice; he had to push himself. Those skills were way more than just a hobby: they’d actually saved his life three years ago.
He laughed to himself. It was sort of funny to think of where he was now, using some of those lifesaving skills to sneak out to meet a girl. Mac, his group leader from the Appalachians, would actually be proud. He was always urging Luke to go further, push himself harder, in every way. Luke was doing that tonight, all right. Pushing his rule-abiding self right over a disciplinary line he had never crossed before.
Luke reached down and dove for a lower and thicker branch, working his way down the tree easily and landing smoothly on the ground. Oscar followed less gracefully, hitting the ground first and then falling backward with a thud. His backpack—holding the orange juice they’d snuck out of the dining hall at breakfast and a water bottle half-filled with vodka—landed a few feet away.
“Careful with the goods!” Luke warned.
“The way back, we’re going through the basement,” whispered Oscar, standing up and wiping dirt off his jeans before picking up his backpack.
The central campus of St. Benedict’s was scattered with brick buildings and the occasional white clapboard or modern structure, all clustered around a man- made pond with a small fountain in the center. Just beyond the pond was the chapel, its enormous lit steeple piercing the sky. The entire campus was big: four hundred and sixty acres. To the north, through the playing fields, was Everett, the gigantic athletic center where all the indoor sports took place. On the front side of campus was Route 443, which cut through the town of Southborough—a blink-and-you’ll- miss-it village. On the opposite side, to the west, where Oscar and Luke were now headed, the extended terrain was hilly, heavily forested and crisscrossed by narrow river valleys, stretching all the way to the Berkshire Mountains.
Their dorm, Wilcox, was the closest one to the woods. That meant they could go out the back and hide in the shadows and survey the scene until they found a safe time to rush across a clearing of about a hundred yards up a hill into the woods. The girls’ journey was a little trickier because their dorm, Hadden, was farther away.
Luke scanned the scene, and gave the all-clear signal. “Go!”
Once they had run through the clearing and made it to the tip of the woods, Luke felt a rush of accomplishment. Sneaking out of the dorm in the middle of the night was basically a rite of passage at boarding school.
“Yes! Chase, you finally did it!” Oscar tackled him, wrapping his arm around Luke’s neck in an affectionate chokehold. “You’re not an after-hours virgin anymore. I’m so proud.”
Luke ducked out easily. He didn’t really want Pippa to see them messing around.
“Now, where are those girls?” murmured Oscar, straightening up to scan the darkness. Their designated meeting place, on a hill right at the edge of the woods, afforded a good view of the campus below, but there was no sign of any movement other than waving tree branches. It was windier than Luke had expected. He was glad his hair was cut short; Oscar kept having to shake his out of his eyes.
“Maybe they bailed,” Luke said.
“Well, Pippa may not be coming but Kelsey definitely is.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“She texted me before we left the room.”
Luke regretted not checking his phone one last time before leaving the dorm; there wouldn’t be any signal here. Would Pippa bail? He had asked her to join him impulsively the night before. They were talking after study hall, both waiting on line at the vending machines, and she was complaining about how prudish the school was compared to her old school in England. So almost on a dare, he had asked her to meet him at the Dip, knowing that Oscar was planning to hang with Kelsey. He didn’t think she would say yes, but she’d eyed him coolly and grabbed her bag of potato chips from the vending machine with a casual I suppose so that had made Luke’s stomach flip.
“Hey, look,” Luke said. Below them two figures were running across the clearing, brightly illuminated by the moonlight. Pippa wasn’t wearing her beret, which Luke was grateful for after Oscar’s earlier comment, but if any girls should have worn hats or hoods it was those two: the moonlight practically reflected off their fair hair. Not exactly the best camouflage.
Two minutes later, the girls arrived at the meeting spot, breathless.
“You made it,” Oscar said, pleased.
“Of course we did,” said Kelsey with mock offense, adjusting her ponytail. “I told you I was coming.”
Oscar leaned over and kissed Kelsey, taking her by surprise. Luke looked away in embarrassment and his eyes met Pippa’s. She gave him a look of disapproval as if to say, Don’t even try that on me. Or maybe she was merely grossed out by PDA.
“Glad you came,” said Luke, moving to Pippa’s side.
She shrugged. “No worries.”
Luke smiled. Oscar had been right: that accent did him in every time. “Did you have any problems sneaking out?”
Pippa motioned toward Kelsey. “Other than waiting for her for twenty minutes? No.”
“I told you, I had to wait until Mrs. Chester went to sleep. She’s an insomniac and her apartment is right next to my room.”
“It just seemed like an overly long time, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” said Kelsey in anything but a remorseful tone. “But I really don’t want to get busted for this. Coach Rosenberg just gave us a huge lecture last practice about risking our recruitment. She hasn’t done any of my college intros yet and I don’t want to give her a reason not to put in a good word for me with the field hockey coach at UVA.”
Pippa looked irritated. “We all have something to lose, don’t we?”
Luke had never seen Kelsey shrink from anyone—she was usually at the center of any group—but she held back from making a comment and edged toward Oscar.
Pippa turned back to Luke. “It’s quite odd. Once you get out of the dorm, it’s amazingly simple to sneak out. My school in Devon had alarms on the doors, but there’s no security here whatsoever.”
“Which is insane, considering the crime history in this area,” Luke joked, trying to lighten the tone.
“Yeah, we’d better watch out for the Southborough Strangler,” Oscar added. “They never caught him.”
“Don’t freak me out,” Kelsey begged, holding tighter to Oscar’s arm.
Luke saw Pippa roll her eyes. It was clear that Pippa and Kelsey were not the best of friends. Actually, now that Luke thought about it, despite having been at school for almost two months it didn’t seem like Pippa really had any friends. That didn’t really deter him; he liked to make up his own mind about people. Still, it was interesting to note.
“Come on, let’s get going,” Oscar said. “We’re too exposed here.”
Luke watched as Oscar effortlessly, almost carelessly, took Kelsey’s hand and started walking deeper into the woods. He wanted to take Pippa’s, but she had folded her arms firmly across her chest.
They fell in line as a pair behind Oscar and Kelsey.
“So what will we do when we get to this mythic spot in the woods?” asked Pippa.
Luke pointed toward Oscar’s backpack, slung casually over one shoulder. “We may have brought some refreshments.”
Pippa smiled, and Luke gave a silent prayer of thanks that Oscar and Kira Matthews had only had a few shots from their stash last weekend after the dance, leaving enough to bring tonight.
“Luke Chase, Mr. Rule Follower, living on the edge tonight,” Pippa said, teasingly.
“Uh oh. I see my reputation has preceded me.”
“It has indeed,” Pippa said. “In more ways than one.”
Oscar turned around. “Hey, hey. No talking about reputations. Mine’ll be next and I don’t want Kelsey here to get second thoughts.”
Kelsey swatted him playfully, and even Pippa smiled. The girls thought the banter was just a joke, but Luke and Oscar exchanged a glance. Oscar was a good wingman, always able to block people from digging into Luke’s past, and he was pretty sure that was where the reputation talk was headed.
They continued deeper into the woods, carefully maneuvering over errant twigs and rocks as they headed into the autumn darkness. In the moonlight, branches and trees took on more sinister aspects. Random wildlife noises made them all look over their shoulder more than once. They were jumpy, but in a fun kind of way. Luke understood why so many students took the risk to sneak out. He was feeling the same run of emotions that made horror movies worthwhile: fear and dread, mixed with anticipation and relief.
Their place of debauchery had already been selected for them, because students of St. Benedict’s had stolen away for years to the very spot where they were headed. “The Dip,” as some unknown alum had christened it, was at the base of the remains of a hand-laid rock wall of mysterious origin. Rumors about the wall abounded: witches were burned there in the old days; it was part of the Underground Railroad; it was a farmhouse that had burned and the whole family had perished, and so on. The forgotten partition jutted out of the gravelly earth in the middle of nowhere, and ended just as abruptly ten yards later. It would look innocuous to most, except that on one side there was a deep drop-off mostly shielded by saplings and birch trees. Shadowy figures could hide in plain sight (and leave their vodka bottles and cigarette butts behind). Luke had passed by often enough during his daily runs but had never been there at night.
Suddenly a rush of memories from three years ago flashed in Luke’s mind like a series of snapshots. He shivered involuntarily, and shook his head as if to clear his mind. That was weird. He’d spent tons of time outdoors in the three years since that episode, never once thinking about it. Why tonight? Maybe there was something about the danger of sneaking out that echoed his ordeal three years ago, bringing it all back to the surface.
Not now, he told himself. Don’t think about that now.
“You okay?” asked Pippa, with real concern.
“Yeah, I'm fine.”
Pippa scrutinized him carefully, but before she could say anything, Oscar spoke.
“Okay, we’re here.” Oscar hopped down into the hole and turned around to lend Kelsey a hand.
“Ready?” Luke asked Pippa.
“Quite.” She dropped down into the Dip without waiting for assistance.
Luke looked down, hesitating for a second. What was wrong with him tonight? This was fun. They were having a good time.
Everything will be fine, he told himself. Nothing bad is going to happen. He followed Pippa, descending into near darkness.
Everything was going well so far. They’d been in the woods almost an hour, and they’d nearly finished the vodka. Luke was having a good time. He and Pippa had the same Spanish teacher, although different periods. While Oscar and Kelsey made out, he and Pippa slowly moved closer and closer to each other on the log, laughing over the telenovelas Señor Diaz liked to assign for homework.
“The new one, about the huge family in the tiny apartment, is on Netflix now. We should watch it together during study hall next week,” Pippa suggested.
“Shh!” whispered Kelsey hoarsely. “What was that?”
It was the third time she had thought she heard something. They all froze and waited in silence. If there’s one thing Luke had learned about sneaking out, it made you really paranoid. It also gave him an excuse to pull Pippa closer. He felt a rush when she leaned up next to him.
“Kels, it’s nothing,” Oscar said impatiently.
“One might think you were looking for a reason to go home,” Pippa told her. Kelsey frowned. “Why would I do that? God. Excuse me for wanting to save all of our asses.”
“I think we can look after ourselves,” Pippa said. “And don’t forget, we have the Kidnapped Kid here.”
Luke winced. It had been a long time since someone called him that, at least to his face. Usually he went weeks, or even months, without ever thinking of what had happened to him three years ago, but now this was the second time tonight he’d been pulled back to that dark time. It made him uneasy. And worse: now he knew for sure that Pippa knew all about it, too.
“Hey, that’s not cool, Pippa,” Oscar told her. “That subject is off limits.”
“It’s okay,” Luke said.
“No, it isn’t,” Oscar insisted.
“I’m just saying out loud what everyone says behind your back. I wasn’t even on campus a single day before people told me about your history, Luke. How you were kidnapped and had to escape by—”
“Okay, moving on,” Oscar said. “He doesn’t—”
Oscar abruptly stopped. This time there was definitely a noise. At first no one said anything, hoping it was another mistake. But then the sounds came again, unmistakably the soft sweep of footsteps crackling through the fallen autumn leaves. The velvety darkness was broken by splashes of moonlight, but the small glimmers were enough to illuminate the girls’ horrified faces. Pippa’s sharp features were a stark patchwork of dark and light.
“What was that?” she whispered.
Luke felt his body go cold. Were they about to get caught?
“I heard it, too,” said Kelsey, her voice wavering with fear. She twisted her ponytail nervously and sunk deeper into her dark blue Patagonia fleece jacket. “Oh my God, if I get busted my dad will kill me.”
“It’s probably just some animal.” Oscar wrapped his arm around her. “No one knows we’re here, don’t worry.”
The footsteps snapped again through the crisp air. They all froze; the only sign of movement was their eyeballs flitting from left to right, trying to locate the source of the noise through the cracks of light. Was it a teacher searching for them? They had felt so safe curled in the darkness, but now it was proving a liability. They could hardly make anything out. Luke’s heart was thudding in his chest and he began to perspire under his flannel shirt.
“I’ll go check it out,” said Oscar, rising.
Kelsey tugged at his jeans, attempting to pull him down. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if they see you?”
Oscar tipped his head and gave her a sideways smile, the one Luke had seen a million times. The smile that said No worries, everything will be fine.
“Better they see me than you, okay?” he told Kelsey.
Kelsey, unsurprisingly, was not immune to his charm. “Okay,” she whispered, dropping her hand.
“Dude, I’m not sure you should do this,” said Luke. The last thing he wanted was for Oscar to be the sacrificial lamb. Oscar had the most to lose out of all of them—it would be his last strike.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been here a million times before. I know my way around.”
Oscar brushed some bushes away and quickly disappeared into the night.
“What if Mrs. Chester did a bed check, realized we were gone, and came out to search for us?” Kelsey said. “Or what if someone saw us running across campus? We are so dead.”
“Guys, it’ll be okay,” said Luke without conviction. “It’s probably nothing.”
He felt along the cold, damp ground until he found the log to sit on again. His legs felt heavy, and he was increasingly uncomfortable in the small cave. The confinement was really starting to bother him. He rubbed the thin, two-inch scar that ran along his right jawline, a remnant of that first night three years ago. Rubbing it was a habit he’d developed during times of stress. Over time it had flattened out and now he could barely even feel the ridge. He could feel Pippa staring at him.
“Wait, what’s that barking?” asked Kelsey. Luke tensed up, not sure if he was reacting to the barking or to the fear in her voice. Where was Oscar?
“A dog, perhaps?” Pippa not-so-helpfully pointed out.
The dog’s agitated wail sounded closer and closer. No one spoke while the dog continued barking. Luke cocked his head to the side and listened. His whole body filled with dread. A dog. That made a third thing tonight that echoed his past. What was going on? He had to stay calm; make his senses focus on other things. He could hear Pippa’s labored breathing, smell the slight scent of her rose perfume.
The dog abruptly ran off. A minute passed in silence. Then two. The tension in the veiled darkness was oppressive.
“I’m cold,” whispered Kelsey.
Luke took his phone out to text Oscar. No signal.
“I think I’ll go check on him,” said Luke, but it was more than that. His heart was racing. Hearing the dog had made it impossible to push all the memories of that night—of his kidnapping—aside. He couldn’t sit still.
“Wait,” Pippa said. “Don’t go.”
“I don’t want to leave Oscar out there.” He started to pull himself up, but suddenly they heard voices.
“What did you want?” a woman asked.
Luke stopped dead in his tracks. He could hear Kelsey suck in her breath behind him. As carefully as possible, he turned and slunk down, feeling his way backward. Whoever was talking was right above them, but had no idea they were there. Luke put out his hand and gently pushed Kelsey and Pippa back, away from the edge of the Dip and further into the pit underneath the wall. They slunk down until their backs were snug against the mossy stones. All they could see above were trees and shadows. And darkness.
“Just want to talk, that’s all.”
Luke couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman speaking. It sounded like a man, but if it was, he was speaking in a weird falsetto.
“Why are you talking like that?” asked the woman.
The wind started up again, sending leaves rustling along the ground and making the conversation indecipherable.
Luke and the girls waited, all three breathing hard, trying not to make a sound. Kelsey had grabbed his wrist tightly and was furiously digging her nails into him. Luke prayed Oscar wouldn’t stumble back and interrupt whoever was up there. He wondered if he should reach for Pippa’s hand, but she had wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and tucked her hands under her armpits.
“You’re crazy,” they heard the woman say when the wind momentarily died down.
The man’s response was muffled.
“We’re done,” she said. “How many times do I need to tell you?”
“But he’s wrong for you,” whined the man. Again, his voice sounded girlish and unnatural.
“Just leave me alone,” the woman said. “Please. That’s all I want.”
They heard footsteps through the leaves. Okay, good. Someone had walked away. Kelsey started to move forward as if to make a break for it, but Luke pulled her back and put his fingers up to his lips to shush her. He motioned upwards with his shoulders, indicating that he thought the other person was still up there. They waited for what seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly they heard movement, footsteps, and it was clear the second person had left.
Luke counted his heartbeats, waiting to see how long before they could talk and then the three of them exhaled, slumped to the ground, and collapsed into silent, heaving laughter.
“Well, whoever that was, they weren’t looking for us,” Luke finally said. “We’re safe.”
Relief washed over him.
“Who do you think it was?” breathed Pippa.
“I couldn’t tell,” Luke replied. “I was just glad they weren’t calling our names and saying things like suspended or expelled.” Or worse, he wanted to add, but didn’t.
“At first I thought it was two women, but now I think one of them was a guy,” whispered Kelsey.
“I know. What was up with that?” Luke said. “He was talking like a freak.”
Suddenly there was another noise, sharp this time. “What was that?” asked Kelsey furtively.
Luke cocked his head, listening carefully. “It sounded, I don’t know, like a yelp.” It had come and gone abruptly, almost as if it didn’t happen.
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Pippa.
“You didn’t?” asked Kelsey. “I don’t know, it didn’t sound human. Maybe it was the dog.”
“I heard there are coyotes in these woods,” said Pippa.
“Coyotes?” Kelsey inched closer to Luke.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Oscar jumped down into the Dip. Pippa and Kelsey shot back, startled, then the nervous laughter started again.
“Miss me?” asked Oscar, as casually as if they were all hanging out in Main
Hall instead of the woods in the dead of night.
“What the hell, dude? Trying to freak us out?” asked Luke.
“Sorry. I’ve just been out there on my ass, waiting for Heckler’s wife to scram so I could climb back in here.”
“That’s who that was? Dean Heckler’s wife? The first wife or the second?” asked Luke. Dean Heckler was one of two deans at the school. There was Mr. Palmer, who was the dean of students, (always referred to as “Mr. P.”) and Mr. Heckler, the dean of faculty.
“Wait, both his ex-wife and current wife live here?” asked Pippa. “On campus?”
“Well, they both work here. I think the first Mrs. Heckler moved off-campus after everything. That’s the messed up thing about boarding school faculty. They become entrenched. They don’t leave even after getting ditched for a newer and better-looking version,” explained Luke.
“With certain, shall we say...more impressive assets,” added Oscar, rounding his hands out in front of his chest. Kelsey yelped in mock irritation and swatted his arm.
“So which wife was it?” Luke asked again.
“Well, old Mrs. Heckler was up there with her dog—”
“His first wife?” asked Luke. “Weird. Who was she with?”
“I just told you. Her dog.”
“No, we thought we heard a guy, too,” Kelsey said.
“Yes, there was definitely a bloke there,” insisted Pippa.
“Nothing gets by you guys, does it?” Oscar said. “Okay, this is where it got bizarre: both Mrs. Hecklers are in the woods tonight. The first one was here first. Wait, that sounded funny; I mean, that’s who we initially heard. She was walking her dog. Nearly gave me a freaking heart attack. The dog was totally onto the fact that I was hiding in the bushes, that’s why he was barking like crazy. Luckily she thought he was flipping out over a squirrel and didn’t take the time to investigate. Otherwise, I would’ve been toast. But just as I was about to come back, Heckler’s second wife showed up with a dude. They stopped right next to you.”
“We thought they’d find us for sure,” said Kelsey.
“So she was with Dean Heckler?” asked Luke. If the dean was out patrolling the woods, that was a big problem. If Luke had to choose a faculty member to find them, Dean Heckler would literally be last on the list. He was hardcore. It had never been confirmed, but there were rumors that he’d been in the military at some point, maybe even the CIA.
“No. In fact, one of the few things I heard the guy say was that her husband was a ‘pretentious windbag.’ Honestly, I can’t argue with that. Seems like a pretty accurate description of Heckler to me.”
“If it wasn’t Heckler, then who was the guy?” asked Luke.
“I don’t know, couldn’t see him. She was facing me, he was blocked by a tree, and then he took off without her.”
“Couldn’t you tell by his voice?” asked Pippa.
“Nah, it sounded weird. Like he was pretending to be someone else.”
“You’re right,” agreed Luke. “We heard him, sort of. It was like he was talking in a fake voice.”
“Do you think we can go now? I really need to use the bathroom,” said Kelsey. “Me as well,” said Pippa.
Luke looked at Oscar.
“I don’t think we should risk leaving yet. Let’s give all those Heckler wives a minute to get back to campus. What if they run into each other and stop to have a catfight or something?” said Oscar. “How about you two go find a nice tree up there where you can do your business?”
“Fine,” said Kelsey. “I can’t wait anymore. I’m about to pee in my pants.”
She took a step forward and tripped, falling into Luke with a loud cry of alarm.
“Shh...” Everyone else hissed in unison.
Oscar bent down and felt around on the ground.
“Just a bottle,” he said, rolling it into the back corner where it clinked against a rock. “You okay?” Kelsey nodded.
“Good. Just be quiet out there, okay? We’ve made it this far. Let’s not get busted now.”
The girls scrambled out of the Dip.
“Dude, I was freaking out. I thought you’d gotten busted,” admitted Luke as soon as the girls left.
“The dog scared the crap out of me for sure, but luckily old Mrs. Heckler had no idea I was there. She seemed kind of scared, like the dog was trying to take off into the woods, and she was begging it to go back. I even heard her dragging it away.”
“Well, what about Heckler’s new wife? Do you think she saw you?”
For a few seconds, a strange look of derision twisted Oscar’s chiseled features. “No way. Joanna Heckler was pretty heated about something. Really pissed, t alking harshly to the guy she was with. There’s no way she was paying attention to anything else.”
“Yeah, well, one word to her husband and we’re history.”
“Even if she saw me, she wouldn’t rat me out,” said Oscar confidently. “You never know,” said Luke, suddenly exhausted. “Geez, I’m done for tonight.”
The last of his adrenaline drained away and all he wanted was to be under his duvet in bed. He had a long day tomorrow; classes, followed by soccer practice. A big game was coming up on Saturday. But things with Pippa seemed kind of cool; he felt a little glimmer of hope as he thought about hanging with her tomorrow after study hall.
“Hey. Do you still not like her?” Luke asked, breaking the silence.
“Who, Pippa? Yeah, that’s still a no. Did you hear her try to shut me down when I told her to stop talking about stuff that was none of her business? Just shows she thinks she’s better than everyone,” said Oscar.
“Well, I’m not sure she thinks she’s better than everyone,” said Luke. “Maybe just you?”
“Fair point.” Oscar smiled and took out his phone to check the time. “Man, it’s getting late.”
“I know. I’m beat.”
“Girls take forever going to the bathroom.”
“No kidding.” With three older sisters, Luke was no stranger to waiting for girls in bathrooms.
Oscar leaned back against the muddy wall and closed his eyes. Luke was tempted to do the same when he heard a rustling noise. This time it sounded closer than before.
Luke waited, hoping it was the girls so they could get out of there.
“What’s that? The girls?” hissed Luke.
“No. Sounds like...I don’t know, something sliding.”
It did sound like that. Almost like something was being pulled through along the leaves.
“Should we go check it out?” asked Luke.
“Nah, the girls will think we’re spying on them.”
Luke listened again, but this time he heard nothing. Maybe one of the girls had been scraping the leaves to cover where they went to the bathroom? He didn’t know. It felt like minutes before Pippa slid back down to the Dip.
“Ready to leave?” asked Pippa. Her voice was back to being cold and sharp, having lost any of the friendliness Luke had thought he’d heard before. Great.
“Where’s Kelsey?” asked Oscar.
Pippa didn’t answer.
“You didn’t leave her out there, did you?” asked Luke, concerned.
“What, was I supposed to hold her hand while we peed?”
Neither boy wanted to address that.
“Did you sort of, I don’t know, kick the leaves around when you were out there?” asked Luke, finally. “No, why?” asked Pippa.
“It sounded like someone was sweeping or dragging something; definitely heard a weird noise. It sounded man-made. Girl-made.”
“Well, I didn’t hear anything,” said Pippa.
“You didn’t hear anything? Do you have really bad hearing?” asked Oscar. “No! What the hell? I went as far away as possible to pee so you guys wouldn’t have to enjoy the sound effects. And you’re the one who’s hearing all this stuff. It’s probably your imagination.”
Suddenly the branches were brushed aside and Kelsey practically fell down into the hole, shaking and out of breath. Her hair was tousled, and she had leaves all over her fleece.
“Shh!” she said, fairly aggressively. “Someone’s out there!”
“One of the Mrs. Hecklers?” Luke whispered.
Kelsey shook her head. “No! Someone else.”
“Kels, don’t worry. We’re fine. No one’s going to bust us,” said Oscar in his most assured voice. “It’s probably the guy Mrs. Heckler was with, and it seems like he’s got other things to worry about.”
“Oh yeah? Well, why would he be in the opposite direction? Behind the Dip?”
A chill went down Luke’s spine. Why would that guy have come back around? Had he seen them after all? But if he had seen them, why would he just be waiting and watching? Things were starting to get very weird. Luke didn’t like it. All his earlier nervous energy came roaring back.
“What do you mean?” asked Oscar.
“There’s someone else out there,” Kelsey hissed. “Someone just standing there, hiding behind a tree. He’s out there, watching us.”
No one moved for what seemed like an eternity. They didn’t know what to do. Was someone really out there? And if so, was it someone from the school waiting to bust them? Or worse? Luke was really feeling déjà vu now.
They waited, frozen in fear, their ears straining to hear any sound. But it was completely quiet.
“Kelsey, are you sure you saw someone?” Oscar asked quietly.
“Yes!” Kelsey was practically crying now.
The near misses weren’t funny anymore. Even Pippa had dropped her reserve and looked scared. Things had gone beyond a fear of getting in trouble; now their safety might be in jeopardy.
Luke’s senses were on high alert. He pulled up his sleeve. His running watch said ten past three.
He looked at Oscar and tipped his head back toward campus. Oscar nodded, understanding. They needed to leave.
“Okay, guys,” Luke said, keeping his tone light. “I don't know who is out there, if anyone, but it’s time to call it a night, am I right?”
The girls nodded in unison, finally agreeing on something.
“Oscar’s going to go up first, then Kelsey, then Pippa, and I’m going to follow. We’re going to hold onto each other and move through the woods as fast as possible, together. Okay? Once we’re ready, we’re going to run and we’re not going to stop until we get to the meeting spot. Don’t worry about being quiet. Let’s just move, as fast as we can. Got it?”
Luke’s heart was racing, but he was glad to be planning and moving. Action always made him feel better.
“I’m scared,” whispered Kelsey as Oscar helped her up the Dip.
“Just hang on to me,” he said, taking her hand.
Luke hopped up last, looking around quickly to take everything in.
The other three kept their eyes on him until he gave the signal.
“Go,” he said, motioning toward campus before grabbing onto Pippa’s hand.
The two of them took the lead.
They ran, all of them, as fast as they could, jumping over logs and flinging branches aside. If anyone was out there looking for them, they had definitely made themselves a target, but it was better than staying back in the Dip where they’d be sitting ducks for whoever was out there.
Luke shot backward glances as they ran.
Was that a person or a branch? A stalker or a squirrel?
“Nearly there,” Oscar said.
“Yay,” Kelsey replied weakly.
Finally, the chapel’s steeple appeared in the sky like a beacon. They had made it back to the meeting spot. Not quite home, but close enough where it felt safe. Everyone was breathing hard.
“I must say, I have no love for this school, but right now I’m quite glad to see it,” said Pippa.
“Yeah, home sweet home,” said Luke. He really meant it. This night had been unexpectedly grueling.
“Are you okay now, Kels?” Oscar whispered in his most concerned voice, pulling Kelsey into a hug.
Luke turned to Pippa. He realized they were holding hands again, after dropping them during their sprint through the woods. He reached for her other hand and pulled her closer.
“Well, that was certainly an adventure,” she said, smiling at him.
“It was,” Luke agreed. “And not at all what I expected.”
“Nothing wrong with unpredictability, is there?”
“Not at all,” Luke said. He would have preferred to get to this point earlier in the night, back in the privacy of the woods, but he knew he should kiss Pippa now or he’d regret missing his chance.
Oscar cleared his throat.
“I hate to break this up,” Oscar said. “I really do. But hello, we may have just escaped the Southborough Strangler in the woods and I’d kind of like to call it a night, if you don’t mind.”
Luke reluctantly broke away from Pippa.
“Tomorrow,” he said to Pippa. “After classes end. You, me, and that telenovela.”
“As you Americans say, ‘sounds like a plan,’” Pippa replied.
They were about to make a break for it and run through the clearing when they saw a figure walking with a flashlight down by the dorms.
“Stop,” whispered Luke, putting his arm out.
“Nooooo,” whined Kelsey. “Oh my God, I just want to get back to my room.” Whoever it was disappeared around the corner.
“I couldn’t see who it was,” said Pippa, looking at Luke. “Security?” “Security leaves at midnight,” Oscar said.
“Then who?” asked Kelsey.
“It couldn’t be who Kelsey saw in the woods, could it?” Oscar asked. “How could he have beat us back?” “There’s no way,” Luke said.
“But why would someone be walking around so late at night?” asked Pippa. “Dorm duty?” offered Oscar.
“This late?” Luke knew what they were all thinking: a teacher was out looking for them. Funny, all that fear in the woods had made getting busted seem like a lesser problem, at least for a little while.
They waited, but the person with the flashlight didn’t reappear.
“Okay, listen,” Oscar said. “Let’s just go. If we’re busted, we’re busted. But I think it’s clear, and you know what, I can’t take it anymore.”
“Agreed,” said Luke, the girls joining in.
All four ran down to the edge of Wilcox, whispering quick goodbyes before Kelsey and Pippa split off and ran down the path toward Hadden. By unspoken agreement, Luke and Oscar waited to go inside.
“I know you’re into her, but I just want to go on record as saying that girl is trouble,” Oscar murmured.
Luke knew he meant Pippa. “Why do you say that?”
“For one thing, where’d she go? Why did she ditch Kelsey like that? I bet she wanted to freak her out, and she was willing to jeopardize us just to mess with her.”
“What? No way.” Luke frowned. The thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Yes, way,” Oscar said. “Mark my words.”
When the girls disappeared at the end of the path, Oscar slid open the basement window in the laundry room of their dorm and wiggled his way inside. Luke followed.
“Why didn’t we sneak out this way? It’s much easier,” whispered Luke.
“Mr. Crawford lives right above here. You know how he stays up super late, watching movies. We couldn’t risk it.”
Every dorm had at least one faculty member living in an apartment per floor, depending on the size of the dorm. Mr. Crawford was chill, and they hung out a lot in his apartment eating pizza or watching TV, but no matter how relaxed he was, he would have no choice but to turn them in if he caught them sneaking out.
Luke turned to shut the window and glanced out at the clearing toward the woods. Something caught his eye. He could swear he saw a man standing there against the backdrop of the forest. Watching him. He pressed his forehead against the glass and this time he was certain.
The warm, fuzzy feeling he’d had from thinking about Pippa disappeared, and Luke felt a familiar rush of terror wash over him.
A man. In the woods. Watching him. No, not this. Not again.
Luke shut the window harder than he meant to, his stomach churning. He’d felt so safe for so long. Had it just been an illusion?
Luke heard about the murder during Spanish class.
All morning he had been feeling as if something bad had yet to happen, but he didn’t expect anything like this. Señora Gonzales rapped on the door of their classroom and when Señor Diaz huddled with her in the corner, he returned pale and ashen, even under his dark beard. Before he spoke, the chapel bells sounded and the class knew then that something was amiss.
“Students, I have an announcement,” said Señor Diaz in English, another sign something was wrong. It was supposed to be all Spanish, all the time. He clutched at the air behind him until he found his desk, then he lowered himself awkwardly onto it. “Dean Heckler’s wife, Joanna, was found dead this morning. On campus.”
There was a surge of chatter in the classroom.
“Damn,” Andy Slater said to Luke. “That’s some morning announcement.” “Dead? What do you mean, ‘found dead.’ Did she have a heart attack or something?” asked a girl in the front row.
Señor Diaz’s eyes flickered across the room nervously. “Um, unfortunately, no. It appears to be...unnatural causes. She was found in the woods...”
The blood drained from Luke’s face when he made the connection. She was there! And now she’s...dead! That means Oscar was one of the last people to see her alive! His head started spinning. This couldn’t be happening.
“Before I say more, Headmaster Thompson has asked that everyone go to the Chapel. So, class dismissed.”
It took about twenty seconds for the class to react; there was a beat of quiet, followed by the rush that came with the discovery of being in the middle of a unique event, spectacular and salacious, albeit gruesome and tragic. Something had finally happened, here, in the middle of nowhere, at their tiny little school that had been founded by an undistinguished American president’s brother. And not only that: they got to miss class for it!
The hallways grew louder as students poured out of classrooms and made their way to the chapel. In 1890, it had actually housed the original St. Benedict’s School, and classes were held there until the turn of the century when the rest of the school was built. On the steps by the doorway stood a bronze statue of Randolph Troffet, the first chaplain of the school. It had been a gift of the class of 1932, and ever since then it had become a custom of every student who passed by to rub his nose for good luck. The entire statue was dull and oxidized except for the nose, which was bright and shiny.
“Mrs. Heckler was a damn fine-looking woman. What a friggin’ waste,” exclaimed Gupta, one of Luke’s lacrosse teammates as they walked across the path toward the chapel.
“But think about it. Being married to Dean Heckler was also a waste,” said Andy Slater. “Why would a hot chick marry an old, uptight dean of faculty at a boring boarding school in central Connecticut? That will still go down as one of life’s great mysteries. Who shot JFK, do aliens exist, are spaceships responsible for crop circles, why did Joanna marry Dean Heckler...?”
“Another mystery is why there didn’t seem to be any drama,” said Luke. “One minute he’s with his first wife, Mary, the librarian, then summer break two years ago, he comes back with a new wife. And there’s like no public fighting or screaming and crying.”
“Yeah, that was bizarre,” Andy said. “Your husband leaves you and then marries someone else and you have to see your replacement everyday ’cause she works in the alumni office. Who could deal with that?”
“Maybe the first wife left him,” said Gupta.
“Yeah, she could have turned into a lesbian,” said Andy.
“She wouldn’t need to be a lesbian to get turned off by Dean Heckler,” Luke said. “Plus, you never know what goes on. It’s not like they had kids. People seem to stay together for the kids. Take them out of the equation...”
“Do you think when they found her in the woods she was naked?” asked Gupta. “Because if I had to find a dead body, a naked one wouldn’t be that bad. Especially a looker like Mrs. Heckler.”
“Naked?” Luke asked. “Gupta, what the hell? She’s dead.”
Gupta shrugged. “The Southborough Strangler’s victim was found naked, right? So maybe Mrs. Heckler was, too. You never know. Wonder who found her? I’d like to ask him...”
Luke was disgusted by how gleeful his friends seemed. He walked ahead on the path, collecting his thoughts. Did it happen while they were there? Was there anything he could have done to save her? Maybe not. Maybe she was found far away from the Dip. The woods were big, after all.
“This is so major. Who do you think did it?” asked Andy, jogging along beside Luke to keep up with his pace.
“Don’t know,” said Luke, clenching the straps of his backpack.
“Obviously you don’t know, but who do you think? Heckler, right? Isn’t it always the husband? Or maybe it was someone who broke into the house after she was asleep and took her into the woods.”
Suddenly Andy’s eyebrows shot up. “Ooohh, I get it. Sorry, man. Too close to home, right? Okay, fine. I’ll leave you in peace.”
Andy fell back to talk to another group of students who were more than eager to discuss the cause of death. Luke heard “strikes a nerve” and “Kidnapped Kid.”
The truth was, Andy was right. It did strike a bit of a nerve, and Luke wished it didn’t. For three years, he had avoided talking about his kidnapping, or abduction, or whatever people wanted to call it, and now suddenly it was the topic of conversation for the second time in not even twenty-four hours. Even worse, he could barely admit to himself that he felt a ping of relief. He wasn’t connected at all to Mrs. Heckler. He barely knew her, which meant the watcher in the woods hadn’t been there for him. Of course, that made him feel guilty. Someone had just died, and he was relieved?
Just stop thinking about it, he told himself.
Instead, Luke focused on Joanna Heckler. Talk swirled all around him: “decapitated” and “strangled” and “naked.” He racked his brain to see if he could remember anything important that Mrs. Heckler had said when she was standing above them. But it was impossible; the wind had been too strong. Wait! He’s wrong for you. That’s what the guy had said. He’s wrong for you. Was that some sort of clue? It just seemed insane, crazy, that of all nights they decide to sneak out, they heard Mrs. Heckler and now...Luke shuddered.
Throngs of students squeezed through the double doors, rubbing Troffet’s nose on the way, and Luke took his seat in the fifth row. Seats were assigned both by grade and alphabetically by the first letter of the student’s last name. They had “chapel” for thirty minutes every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday before sit-down dinner. Wednesday and Saturday were athletic game days and Friday was, well, Friday. At every chapel they would say the Lord’s Prayer, then there would be a few announcements followed by either a teacher giving a speech about a topic or a guest speaker. Luke’s friends back home thought it was strange that his school required so much time in a church, but it was actually a nice break in the day.
But today, not so much. Luke glanced around at his classmates’ animated banter and wished he were able to feel that detached. He was overcome by a sinking feeling. He would have to come forward and admit that he was out there last night. It would destroy everything. Forget getting a strike—he would probably get kicked out. But what else could he do? The thought sickened him. His parents would be so disappointed, although they’d probably be even madder that he’d jeopardized his own safety.
He glanced around and spotted Pippa a few rows down to his left. She held her head up haughtily, as if unfazed. Or maybe she always just tried to appear that way. Why had she been so unfriendly to Kelsey? Could she really have left her out there on purpose?
Pippa must have felt him staring at her because she turned, and when their eyes met she lost her icy demeanor. She was sitting too far away to have a conversation, mouthing the words oh my God instead, looking at him with the same mix of fear and incredulity that Luke was feeling. They signaled back and forth a few times. Well, at least something good was coming out of this.
“This is so scary, don’t you think?” asked Liz Collins as she slid into the seat next to him. Liz was a good friend of Luke’s. Initially it had been the alphabet that drove them together through all the assigned seating, but it hadn’t taken long before the friendship became genuine. Oscar had always told Luke to go for her, and even though she was definitely pretty—she looked just like a younger Halle Berry—Luke liked having Liz as a friend and he didn’t want to risk ruining it.
“Unbelievable,” Luke said.
“They better have a very good reason why they are not evacuating campus right now. It has to be that they know who killed her.”
“That or they don’t want their endowment to go down.”
“True. It’s always about the almighty dollar,” said Liz with a laugh. “Oh, here they come.”
Anthony Thompson, the headmaster, and Robert Palmer, the dean of students, walked up onto the stage, accompanied by two men wearing blue police windbreakers. They leaned in and whispered to each other before Mr. Thompson went up to the podium and cleared his voice. He was a large, bald, African-American man who was normally very smiley, but today he looked drawn and serious, and under the fluorescent lights the gleam of sweat on his pate was visible. It usually took a while for the school to quiet down, but not in this case. The noise level dropped immediately, and a hush fell across the room.
“Good morning, students. I am sure by now all of you have heard the tragic news about Joanna Heckler’s death. First of all, on behalf of the entire St. Benedict’s community, I want to extend our deepest sympathy to Dean Heckler and the rest of Mrs. Heckler’s family. I hope each and every one of you will keep them in your prayers. Although Mrs. Heckler had only been with us a short time, we will remember her vibrant personality and her winning smile. Her work in the alumni office was a great help to the school, and I know we will all miss her.
“Of course, the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Heckler’s death are horrific, and quite unprecedented for our school. As you may know by now, we believe that
Mrs. Heckler’s death was not accidental. We will be working very closely with the Southborough County Police Department to find a quick resolution to this matter. Some of you may be questioned by the police in order to assist them toward a speedy conclusion, but we want to make it clear that no students fall under the umbrella of suspicion and a faculty member will be with you at all times. A lawyer will also be available to you. In addition, we will be contacting your parents to let them know, and we will be offering a leave of absence to any student who wishes to take it. But please note we have also hired Amon Security Systems who will be providing us with dozens of security guards as well as creating other security measures to ensure your safety. As of now, classes are cancelled for the rest of the day; please use this as a time of reflection. Counselors will be visiting each dormitory to meet with students as a group and they are also available for individual sessions. Dorm heads will communicate timing with you all. In addition, all off-campus volunteering activities are suspended, and going to town will require a sign-out at all times, even during permitted hours before five o’clock. The safety of our students is the most important...”
As the headmaster droned on and on, Luke surveyed the room. Pretty much all of the faculty were present—well, except for Dean Heckler. Luke’s eyes slid from one faculty member to the other. Someone in this very room might be a murderer. If only he had heard who was talking to Mrs. Heckler. Or maybe it wasn’t the funny- voiced guy who had done it. The original Mrs. Heckler had been out there in the woods walking her dog. What if she had done it? Maybe she was pissed about being dumped for a younger, prettier wife. Could it have been revenge? Maybe all that fake amicable stuff was a lie and she was laying in wait for the right moment to strike her rival. Some people wait years plotting and planning how to kill someone. It wouldn’t be the most unusual thing.
“Until further notice, we do not want to make any assumptions that this crime can be linked to previous crimes in our area. I realize many of you will jump to this conclusion, but I am asking you to withhold your suppositions. The police department has assured me that they have no reason to believe that Mrs. Heckler was the victim of the Southborough Strangler.”
The Southborough Strangler! As soon as those words were uttered, the chapel erupted in frantic whispering until several teachers rose from their seats and roamed the aisles quieting students down. The Southborough Strangler was the subject of urban legend among the St. Benedict students, but Luke had never heard an adult reference the story before.
What Luke knew was this: About a decade ago, a woman was found dead in her apartment near the Mobil station on Route 443, strangled with her own bra. Police initially thought it was a crime of passion. Her ex-boyfriend was a suspect, but because of a lack of evidence he was never charged. A few months later, two towns over, another woman was strangled. Police eventually arrested the second woman’s husband, who insisted he was innocent and it was the work of “the Southborough Strangler,” but the jury sent him to prison. There was still a small group of his supporters who believed that there was still a Strangler at large, and they had perpetuated that legend over the past ten years. But no one really knew if he (or she?) actually existed.
“All right, settle down,” said the headmaster. “Chief Corcoran and Officer Bluth will speak now about our additional safety measures.”
An hour later, as the students were pouring out of the chapel, Luke tried to catch up with Pippa but instead found himself falling into line with Mrs. Palmer, Mr. P.’s wife, who had been the faculty parent in Nichols, his freshman dorm. She had always been polite with the boys, although not too involved with them because she had been so busy with her twin preschool-aged sons. Like most faculty spouses, she worked on campus, and she was editor of the St. Benedict’s Alumni Bulletin. Luke recalled she was also a deacon at the local Presbyterian church.
They greeted each other, Mrs. P. murmuring about how terrible the situation was. Luke nodded along, not really wanting to get into it with a member of the faculty, but not wanting to be rude, either.
“Were you, um, friends with her?” he asked.
A quick look of horror flitted across her face. “No,” she said sharply, with a vehement headshake for emphasis. But then she seemed to reconsider and hastily amended her sharp tone. “But not for any particular reason...I...uh...Our paths didn’t really cross.”
That was odd. Why would she have minded Luke knowing the two women weren’t friends?
She started talking again, seemingly eager to change the subject.
“I got great feedback from your article on the Appalachian Park program in the recent bulletin,” she said. “Thanks again for taking the time to share your experience with us. You have quite a skill for storytelling. You should definitely do Mr. P.’s nonfiction senior seminar next year.”
Luke had forgotten how she always referred to her husband as “Mr. P.” and never by his first name or as Mr. Palmer. She always said it in some sort of reverential tone, as if Mr. P. was some sort of god. He was technically good-looking, although a bit nerdy, but then so was she, thought Luke as he studied her. She had clear skin and pretty green eyes but her hair was sort of a nondescript brown worn pulled back in a ponytail, a casual look that didn’t exactly go with the suits she always wore.
“Yes, good idea,” said Luke, although he had no intention of doing so. He had heard Mr. P. was a harsh grader and he intended to steer clear.
Pippa was far ahead of the crowd exiting the chapel. Why hadn’t she waited for him? Luke said good-bye to Mrs. P. and veered away from Pippa’s direction, confused and a little hurt. This girl was all about mixed signals. He decided he’d better find Oscar, anyway.
The art classes, music rooms, and Black Box Theater, as well as all of the administrative offices, were housed in an enormous castle-like brick building called Archer. Looming three stories tall, Archer covered the equivalent of an entire city block. When Luke entered through the side door he saw Oscar standing by the stained-glass windows in the alcove of the official school entrance, Main Hall, checking his phone.
“We’ve got to talk,” Luke said tapping Oscar on the shoulder. Oscar looked up and squinted at him. “Pretty major.”
“I know,” said Luke. “We need to figure out what our plan is.” “What do you mean, ‘what our plan is’?”
Students flooded through the doors. Main Hall was the nerve center of the school’s social gatherings, offering the opposite of privacy. Luke pulled Oscar down the marble-floored gallery toward the admissions offices. They slipped into an alcove and sat down in the plush red velvet window seat. One of the best aspects of the building was the shaded alcoves, small octagonal meeting rooms, obstructed balconies and window ledges that made for discreet meetings.
“We’re not doing anything.”
“But we’ve got to do something,” insisted Luke. “We were the last people to see her alive.”
“We don’t know that,” said Oscar, leaning back on the window seat, arms out with his left ankle resting on his right knee. Oscar always had a way of sitting so that he took up the most amount of space possible. “Besides, we have no information. I’m sure the police already have this case all wrapped up. They obviously know who did it, otherwise they would have shut down the school and sent us home. They’re not going to keep us here with a killer on the loose.”
It was just what Liz had said, and it did make sense. They would never keep the students at the school if there were any chance a maniac was running around. There would be too many lawsuits, for one thing.
“But don’t you think they may need our testimony or something?” asked Luke.
“What for? We’re useless. Trust me, we have to remain silent. No one will gain anything if we tell them we were out there.”
Luke nodded. “Okay. Okay. You’re right. I know.” He let out a huge sigh of air he hadn’t realized he’d been holding since Señor Diaz’s class ended. He was glad Oscar was talking him down. Luke’s thinking was definitely clouded by his own experience. “So what should we do?”
“Well, first off, we need to talk to the girls and tell them to keep their mouths shut,” said Oscar, a little harshly. “Pippa seems like she’d have no problem ignoring this whole thing. Kelsey, on the other hand...”
“Yeah,” agreed Luke. Kelsey seemed to be the kind of person who liked to fan the drama flames. “Okay, let’s talk to them.”
“There’s one more thing, but I don’t want you to panic.”
Luke felt his chest tighten. “What is it?”
Oscar reached out and patted his shoulder. “Don’t stress, it’s probably not a
big deal, but I can’t find my ID card.” “What do you mean?”
“Look, it’s probably in the room somewhere. I’m hoping, but I’m just worried it fell out of my backpack last night.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Oscar shook his head without any sign of his usual careless smile. “I wish. Look, worst-case scenario, I dropped it in the clearing when we were running back to our dorm. I can always say I was on a morning walk if someone finds it.”
“That’s not the worst-case scenario,” Luke protested. “Worst-case scenario is they find it in the woods, or the Dip. Anyway, those cards are computerized; they can see when you last used it, which was to enter the dorm before lights out, not early this morning after some totally uncharacteristic outdoor morning health frenzy! They’ll know for sure that you snuck out after check-in.”
Oscar nodded. “Dude, chill. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen. Maybe I can go look for it out there during my next free period.”
But Luke wouldn’t be placated. “There are cops everywhere! There’s no way you can go look for it. You just better pray it’s buried under some pile of leaves and no one will ever find it.”
“I was never a religious guy,” Oscar tried to joke. “But maybe it’s time for some prayers. Have you seen Mrs. P. around? I’m sure she can give me some Bible passages to study.”
“Dude, it’s not funny,” said Luke, angrily. His cheeks were flushed, his head was spinning, and everything felt out of control. “We have to try and find that card.
And in the meantime, we have to make sure the girls are on the same page. Let’s text them to meet us at Main Hall tonight.”
Kelsey’s eyes were red from tears. She was gripping a big ball of Kleenex tightly in her fist. Luke and Oscar were attempting to calm her down, but it was difficult with Pippa continuously expressing her irritation.
The day had been a flurry of phone calls between stressed-out parents and nervous students. Besides sports and classes being cancelled, much of the campus was off-limits during the day. Even the Jigger Shop, aka “the Jig,” where they could buy snack food like bagels and fries, was closed. So was the school store. Instead of the requisite chapel session before sit-down dinner, students had met in their dorm common rooms with the counselors and dorm heads. They were supposed to listen to a lecture on safety, then discuss “how they felt about things.” Fortunately, Mr. Crawford hadn’t forced the boys in Wilcox to discuss their emotions or how they were doing. They had met briefly and awkwardly as a group with a counselor and then watched a few episodes of Blue Mountain State to kill time before dinner.
Some parents had arrived and yanked their children out of school, but the administration had gone into overdrive to prevent that from happening by promising amped-up security. Luke had been able to calm his parents down on the phone. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken much. After his past incident his parents had made him go to a psychologist for a year, and Dr. Carey’s biggest advice for his whole family was that they had to move on and not live in crippling fear. Luke just had to invoke Dr. Carey’s name and his parents backed off.
Besides, Luke had never seen so many policemen and security guards in one place. The school was teeming with them. And everyone on campus was looking over their shoulder, watching their back, checking each other out. If I were the killer, I’d be pretty nervous right now, thought Luke.
Both Oscar and Luke turned their room upside down to search for Oscar’s ID card that day, but they couldn’t find it. They retraced their steps from the tree they climbed down to the basement where they reentered. Unfortunately, their search stopped abruptly at the edge of the woods. The cops wouldn’t even let them get within ten yards, so Oscar was forced to retrieve a new ID card at the dean of students’ office. Fortunately, Mr. P. was tied up with all of the murder mess, so Oscar only had to deal with his assistant. He told her that the card had fallen out of his cell phone case that morning.
At night, after study hall, the students were let out of their rooms for thirty minutes for what was affectionately known as Animal Hour, which was when everyone met up to look for their crush or get snack food, not necessarily in that order. Tonight they weren’t allowed to be outdoors because of the murder, but that was fine because everyone usually ended up inside Main Hall anyway. Despite the fact that the fluorescent lighting was garish, the headmaster’s office was centrally located right on it, and there was absolutely no privacy, this is where the students mostly hung out. If a boy talked to a girl in Main Hall after dinner, by study hall every single student knew about it. Same for any Animal Hour meet-ups.
There were usually only one or two teachers at most lingering around Main Hall, but that night there were several watching everyone nervously. Fortunately, they were mostly preoccupied with whispering their theories to one another, so Luke, Oscar, Kelsey and Pippa were able to surreptitiously slip away one by one and regroup in one of the soundproof music rooms in the basement. It had been their first opportunity all day to meet. Luke was glad for the excuse to see Pippa, even if she had blown him off after chapel earlier.
“Look, calm down, Kelsey. You have nothing to be upset about,” said Oscar.
Luke was sitting in one of the small chairs leaning forward so his hands were resting on the music stand. Kelsey was on top of the piano, while Oscar sat at the piano bench and every now and then played some of the keys in what was a misremembered version of “Yankee Doodle,” much to the others’ irritation.
“I just feel like we need to come clean, like, go to the headmaster and tell him that we were out there and just, like, pray he doesn’t do anything,” she said, sniffling.
“Yeah, right, Kelsey. What he’s going to do is expel us. Or at least me. I’m on thin ice here. Thanks to Dean Heckler, one more infraction and I’m out,” said Oscar.
He banged on the piano and then stopped and shook his head. “Gee, Dean, karma’s a bitch.”
“But maybe they’ll forgive us because of the circumstances...” sighed Kelsey, hopeful.
“We’ll just become suspects,” said Pippa tartly. She was standing in the back of the room leaning against the poster of Beethoven. “It’s never a good idea to go to the police, ever. They turn everything on you. Trust me, I know. My mother is a barrister—a lawyer, as you Americans call it. The second we admit anything, they’ll have us all go against each other and next thing you know one of us is on the line for this murder.”
“Whoa. I don’t know about that,” Luke said.
“One of us? No way! We can all vouch for each other!” Kelsey exclaimed. “Actually, we can’t,” said Oscar. “You went out to the bathroom and separated from Pippa.”
“I didn’t separate from her, she ditched me!” Kelsey said, dissolving into tears. “Why would you say it like that? You think I could have done it?”
“None of us thinks you did it, Kelsey,” said Luke, exasperated. He knew Oscar well enough to see that his roommate was probably losing interest in Kelsey already, which could be disastrous. A scorned woman is an outspoken woman, and Luke had seen it happen before with other girls Oscar had tired of and heartlessly discarded. “We just need to stick together right now because we don’t know what other people might think. There’s no need to go to the headmaster because right now, we don’t really have any information to offer them. We know she was out there, but so do the police, obviously. What else can we add?”
“Well, we know that she was talking to some bloke who was really mad at her, and we know the first Mrs. Heckler was out there with her dog. I’m sure they’d love to know that,” said Pippa, before adding, “But hell if I’m going to tell them anything.”
Luke was surprised, but gratified, that Pippa was so intent on not saying anything. He wondered why she was so determined not to go to the police, but at the same time, he didn’t want to press it.
“What about the creepy-voice guy?” whispered Kelsey, almost to herself. “That was so weird and scary.”
They were all silent for a minute, then Oscar slapped his hands down hard on the piano, making a jarring discordant clang and causing them all to jump. “We don’t know anything about that, so as of now, our lips are sealed. Just carry on like nothing happened. Don’t act suspicious. Play it cool,” advised Oscar.
“Fine by me,” Pippa said.
Kelsey didn’t say anything. She was probably waiting for Oscar to reassure her. Luke glared at his roommate and tipped his head toward Kelsey, signaling him that now was not the time to withhold attention.
“Deal, Kels?” asked Oscar, getting the message. He stood up from the piano bench and gently tucked a strand of Kelsey’s long hair behind her ear. She visibly relaxed. Ordinarily Luke would be rolling his eyes at this classic and cliché Oscar move, but tonight he was just glad Oscar had both the ability to calm Kelsey down and the willingness to do it.
“All right, that’s settled, can I go now?” said Pippa, moving off the wall toward the door.
“Sure,” Luke said, but he was confused. They had talked about hanging out tonight, hadn’t they? Telenovelas and all that? Murder was a real romance-killer.
Pippa bolted out the door without waiting for anyone else.
“Bye, nice hanging out with you, let’s do it again soon,” Kelsey said sarcastically to the closed door.
Luke couldn’t help it; he laughed. Kelsey smiled, appreciating the break in tension.
“Okay, I’m going to go up now,” Kelsey said. “Wait a few minutes before you leave so people don’t see us coming up the stairs together.”
Oscar began playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano and Luke fiddled with the music stand. After a few minutes they stood and began walking up the stairs.
Outside, the air had cooled considerably since the morning, and cold hovered over the campus. Luke felt a shift in the campus mood since last night. There was a creepy stillness; it was definitely the scene of a crime.
“Why do you think Pippa’s going along with us?” asked Luke as he zipped up his Barbour jacket. That was actually secondary to what he was really wondering, which was whether she liked him at all. If he had to admit, he wanted Oscar to say she was going along with it because she liked Luke. But Oscar didn’t take the bait.
“Protecting her ass, probably,” said Oscar. “Oh, excuse me: her arse.”
Luke ignored the dig. “But she hates it here. I doubt she cares about getting busted.”
“I think she just plays it that way. Wants to be a tough guy. I think she’s all facade.”
“There is something a little...unsettling...about her,” admitted Luke.
“No doubt about it. Glad you’re finally seeing the light,” said Oscar, as they turned the corner down the path that looped around the pond. Other groups of students were on their way back to their dorms too, with several security guards and teachers moving them along.
“Do you remember anything else that guy said to Mrs. Heckler?” asked Luke suddenly.
Oscar looked up at the sky. “He said something like, ‘You’ll regret this.’” “Like a threat?” asked Luke.
“Kind of. She definitely seemed sketched out by the guy. Like she couldn’t wait to get away. Plus that creepy voice...”
Luke stopped. He had a sickening thought. “Hey, remember that sound I heard? That yelp?”
“No,” Oscar shook his head. “I wasn’t there for that.”
“Oh, right. Well, there was this weird little yelping noise. Like the sound my dog makes when someone steps on her foot by accident.”
Oscar waved to a girl she’d hooked up with two weeks earlier. “Maybe it was the first Mrs. Heckler’s dog,” he suggested, distractedly. “Hey, honey!” he called to a freshman he was scoping. She blushed and turned back to her friends, giggling.
“I was thinking maybe it was when she was being killed,” said Luke quietly.
Oscar snapped back to attention, He stopped and contemplated that idea. “Whoa. That’s nasty.”
“And that sound you and I heard afterward was the killer dragging her body,” said Oscar.
Luke shook his head. “Ugh. I don’t want to think about that.”
“I know; it’s insane.”
They were almost to the dorm.
“Do you think it could have been the Southborough Strangler?” asked Luke. Oscar used his new ID card to unlock the door. “No. I don’t think there’s a
Southborough Strangler. I think the killer is here, on this very campus, walking among us.”
Luke’s tensed as they entered Wilcox, looking over his shoulder before the door slammed shut. Again, he had the unshakable feeling that someone was watching him.
By: Chuck Vance
Release Date: March 6, 2018
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