EPISODE 3: Beware of Piranhas
“So what’s this Hedgewater Holmes bullshit about anyway?” Kelly sidestepped into a pew in the cathedral. “Everyone keeps talking about him.” He sat down, surveying the crowd of students and faculty.
Jagger plopped down next to him. “It’s this stupid app for Hedgewater residents. That prick, whoever he or she is, knows everything about everyone. Speaking of everyone, who the hell have you talked to? You’ve been with me this entire time. You don’t have any friends here to chat about Holmes.”
“I just heard some stuff on the way over here. Thanks for ostracizing me even more. You’re a real pal.” Kelly snorted, checking his phone.
“We’re not pals.”
“That’s right. You don’t seem to need any of those with all the people clamoring to be in your fan club. Face it, Winegarten, I’m all you have. Now I know I’m no prize, but I’m adorable. People love adorable geeks. We’re all the rage right now.” Kelly winked.
Jagger slunk in his seat, ass teetering on the edge of the narrow pew. “Ugh, will you shut up? Maybe you want to rethink sitting here with me, seeing as how I’m a murder suspect and all.”
“Were a suspect, Jagger. It says here you had an alibi for every night of five of the attacks. And the police are positive the attacker, slash murderer, worked alone.”
Face flushing beet red, Jagger yanked the phone away. “You listen to me. And you listen good. Just because I showed you the slightest bit of attention doesn’t make us friends. Nor does it give you any right to dig into my business.”
Kelly plucked his phone from Jagger’s hand. “Google is not your business, and for someone who isn’t a suspect anymore you sure seem to act like one.”
“If there wasn’t a crowd, I’d beat your face in.”
“Wow, no wonder that River guy dumped you.” Kelly leaned in. “You’re an asshole.”
Jagger’s face fell. He swallowed and sat back. Students filled in the pews around them, ignoring him as if he was invisible or avoiding him like the plague.
Kelly sighed. “I’m sorry. That was a low blow. Sometimes I don’t think before I blurt. Jagger?”
“I lost everything because of Shay Foster. I used to be something, not that it mattered to River. Being something was nothing compared to the perfect guy. What little I did have was fucked after River broke me. And he did…break me. I guess it was for the best, though. If he hadn’t crushed me, I wouldn’t have known what a tool he was. There’s always an upside to everything falling apart, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Dude, you need therapy.” Kelly squirmed in his seat under Jagger’s scrutiny. This was getting too personal, too quickly.
“Me going to therapy isn’t going to cure what’s wrong with this place, Kelly. No amount of ‘how do you feels’ and pills are going to wash away the dirty taste in your mouth after you’ve been here more than eight hours. You just wait and see, pal.”
Jagger jerked his head toward the wide aisle that cut the pews into two separate sections. Whispers preceded River’s walk of shame toward the second to first pew. He cut his eyes to Jagger before he sat down. And what did you know, the water polo team followed, led by Owen and Francis. Nestled in the middle of their flock was a haunted blond named Shay Foster.
Jagger crossed his arms, shooting eye daggers at the Hedgewater crest banner above the pulpit. This place wasn’t a house of faith; more like a cult clubhouse where they could worship themselves. If he hadn’t been forced to go by his parents, who threatened him with involuntary lockup at Gilford Pines if he didn’t get his shit together, he’d have packed it all up and shipped out to wherever the wind blew him.
But that was the crazy part about Hedgewater. You could leave, but you never really left. He looked to Kelly as proof. His dad was still tied to this place, no matter how much he tried to escape. Jagger had to wonder what this town had on Ira De Angelo, a name he’d heard more than a few times from his father.
It had to be something big or else Kelly wouldn’t be sitting there, annoying the shit out of him. God, Jagger thought, could this place get any more fucked?
Owen waved at Kelly, igniting flames in Jagger Winegarten’s eyes. Apparently the two of them were friends now. Who'd have thought it possible. Kelly perked up next to Jagger, mid-wave when Francis snaked an arm around Owen’s shoulders, killing the nerd’s little smile.
“What did I tell you about falling for guys like that?” Francis whispered, snuggling close as they moved into their pew, right behind River Hathaway.
“You said don’t.” Owen pushed Francis away. “And I’m telling you not to mess with me this year, Francis,” he whispered angrily. “What happened this summer was nothing. Let’s keep it that way.”
“We had a deal, Owen.” Francis leaned in close enough to lick his ear. “I let you have the captain’s title, marring my perfect points score for the coach, so long as you gave me what I wanted, when I wanted it. And after this assembly I’m pretty sure I’m going to want some.”
“You said one week at the cabin,” Owen hissed. He straightened away from the attention of his teammates. “That’s over. I’ll see who I want, when I want, without your permission.”
“Oh really, because from where I’m sitting I have too much leverage to let you do that. Be back in the room directly after the assembly or I’m going to challenge you with the coach. We both know who the better player here is, Owen. We also know I have pictures of our little cabin trip. Wouldn’t want daddy to find out about your extracurricular activities, now would we...”
“I earned my spot, Francis.” Owen fisted his hands on his knees.
“And you’ll continue to earn it in my bed. After this is over, you know where to go.” Francis breathed on his neck, and sat up with a smug smile. “Now pay attention. Dean Michaelson isn’t someone you want to piss off.”
Stewing in rage, Owen glanced over his shoulder. Jagger Winegarten was staring at him with enough hatred to kill. Kelly flicked his eyes up, caught Owen looking, and turned his head. Francis had made it very clear who Owen belonged to, but Owen didn’t belong to anyone.
He was his own person. He wouldn’t be owned by his former best friend turned blackmailer, Francis. If he wanted to get to know De Angelo, he would. No one would tell him no. As the scrawny gamer wrapped his arms around himself, vulnerable amongst the piranhas of Hedgewater, Owen vowed to take Kelly under his wing, even if it was the most selfish thing he would ever do. Bringing Kelly into his fold was dangerous and Owen knew it was wrong. So very wrong.
Turning around, he heard Michaelson began his song and dance behind the pulpit, which they'd all dubbed the faculty throne. However, Owen tuned the droning bastard out, focusing his anger on the back of River Hathaway’s head. Someone would pay for the way he felt. If he couldn’t take it out on Francis, he would settle for the bastard tormenting his new teammate.
Sneering, Owen cut his eyes to their shining star, Shay, and made sure he was watching. Visibly uncomfortable, Shay stayed silent, leaning back to avoid any more attention. His teammates caught onto Owen sitting forward and smiled.
“Hey, River, I was thinking you and I could do a movie date tonight.” Owen crossed his arms over the back of River’s pew. The students to either side of Hathaway scooted over.
“Fuck off, Trusou,” River whispered over his shoulder. “Not everyone wants your dick because you’re captain.”
“And not everyone wants yours, especially Shay. However, he does want to thank you for your little gift. He was pretty flattered. So flattered in fact—”
River turned in his seat. “Look, I don’t know what you’re getting at, but leave me alone. I didn’t mess with you.”
Eyes narrowed, Owen smiled slowly. “Mess with Shay and you mess with us.”
Looking to Shay, River got the cold shoulder. Not a hint of guilt or recognition came his way. His heart broke, if that was possible, as it was already dust from what had happened this summer. His green eyes burned into Shay, hoping for the slightest look his way. Dammit, he thought, look at me. I didn’t do anything wrong. I miss you. I’m in so much pain. I love you, his eyes said. River got nothing except Owen’s face blocking his view.
“Tonight, Hathaway, you and me have a date.” He produced two movies tickets, letting them fall into River’s lap. “See you then.”
River picked up the tickets. He almost had a heart attack reading the first one. The ticket was from their date, the last time he’d touched and kissed Shay. His eyes pricked with tears, holding up the second one. Was this a joke? Why would Shay do this?
Not of his own volition, he rose to his feet, adrenaline forcing through his veins. He faced the crowd, interrupting whatever bullshit, welcome speech Michaelson had prepared. He held up the tickets, staring at Shay. River clenched his teeth, hands shaking.
He threw the tickets in Shay’s face.
“Isn’t it bad enough I have to see you every fucking day, knowing what you think of me when I did nothing wrong? But this…” He pushed students out of the way to kneel on the pew and get in Shay’s face.
“This is bullshit! You’re some big star now, Shay, is that it? You have to prove yourself to your buddies to fit into their little club? That’s not you. Then again, I don’t know who you are anymore. The guy I loved would never do this to me. But I guess we all change, don’t we? The guy I am now wants nothing to do with you. Ever. No matter what hopeless fantasies I had. Guess you got your wish, you poor little polo prince. Oh, and Owen, watch your fucking back because I’ve got nothing to lose anymore.”
“Mr. Hathaway, get outside right now!” Michaelson's face was a shade of crimson not even the devil could manage. He took the stairs down to the pew area, reaching for River.
“Don’t worry, dean, I was just leaving. Fuck all of you.” River held up his middle finger, jerking out of Michaelson’s reach. “This place is a joke.”
He stormed out of the cathedral, slamming open the double doors, right into the media pit awaiting him. “Who wants a story?”
The cameras flashed over and over, documenting River Hathaway’s breakdown.
By the time seven o’ clock arrived, Hedgwater Holmes had blasted so many updates that everyone’s head was reeling. Naked pictures of River, followed by his mental descent in front of the cameras, and a picture of Shay near tears in the cathedral. Then there was the latest, which Kelly stared at, completely confused.
“I don’t get it.” He took the phone from Jagger. His high school senior photo filled the screen. At the bottom, Hedgewater Holmes had placed an information wanted tag. “What did I do? I’ve only been here for what, eight hours max?”
“That’s the problem, or possibly a good thing. No one knows a thing about you, but they know everything about your dad. He was kind of a big deal here back in the day and they’re just curious. This is your high school photo, right?”
“Yes. How did they get this?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Jagger laughed. “Dude, if Holmes is targeting you, the least of your problems is this dumb picture. If I were you, I’d be doing a bit of positive P.R. for yourself. And if you’ve got any dirty secrets, you better clean them up, and quick.”
“I don’t have any secrets! I’m not anyone special. I think I need a drink.” Kelly leaned against the wall outside his room.
Jagger raised a brow. “Do you drink often? Are there any embarrassing photos documenting your alcoholic tendencies?”
Kelly groaned, pushing off the wall. “I’m not an alcoholic. I used to sneak bourbon from my dad’s stash and fill it with water after. It took the edge off.”
“I was bullied a lot, okay? Fits the bill, don’t you think…” Kelly shook his head. “Nerd gets his ass handed to him on a daily basis by football guidos because he can’t keep his mouth shut. What a groundbreaking headline.”
“I was being sarcastic.” Kelly turned toward his room. “I think I’ve had enough for one day. I’m gonna settle in and take a nap. Hopefully the loon hasn’t returned just yet. I’d like to be asleep before he slits my throat.”
“I thought I was supposed to be the morbid one.” Jagger palmed the wall, checking Kelly over. “You okay?”
“And he cares, ladies and gentlemen.” Kelly fumbled for his room key. “I thought we weren’t friends.”
Guilt made Jagger chew on his bottom lip. He sighed. “I’m still standing here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, you’re only here because you need a shield when they start throwing stones and pushing pitchforks.” Kelly opened the door to eerie silence. Someone had turned on the AC. Cool air crept through his thin hoodie. The lights were off. No way was he walking in there by himself.
Instinctively, Jagger held Kelly back, entering the room first. “It’s not like that,” he whispered. “Riv, you in here?” Silence. “River?”
“He’s boning the dude from 409,” the guy across the hall said. He locked up his room, shoving his large collection of keys deep in his messenger bag. “After his little stunt during assembly I guess he won some compassion points with the peasants. Everyone hates the water polo team. They’re such dicks.”
“Yeah,” Jagger agreed, unsure if the guy was talking to him. He looked at the sign on the stranger’s door. Of course he was the RA. That was the only reason he was talking to him. “I’m…”
“Winegarten, I know. I’m your official Switzerland for the year.” The guy stuck out his hand. “Playing in the middle of this mess is my job. I’m Luca, your RA.” They shook hands. “And you’re Kelly. I heard you might be joining HGG this year. I’m the president.” He proudly offered Kelly his hand.
If Owen was a muscled stud, Luca was one of those lean, sexy guys at the coffee shop Kelly had always wanted to approach, but didn’t because the guy was just too sexy and probably full of wit that would make his body blush. Immersed in his fantasy, Kelly noticed how Luca’s disheveled caramel locks drifted to one side on top.
His thick mop ended the further down Kelly looked, shaved around the ears and neck, winning him bad boy points in Kelly’s book. He had a few piercings glinting around the top of his left ear, nothing flashy, but still tempting. Kelly could already taste the metallic flavor on his tongue. Shamelessly urging his eyes lower, Kelly warmed all over at the sight of Luca's baggy striped sweater over his black skinny jeans.
His mouth watered, for absolutely no reason other than what he imagined was underneath.
Jagger elbowed him in the stomach. “HGG?”
“What?” Kelly continued to swoon, rubbing his stomach. Damn, he was horny. First objective, he thought, get laid this year.
Luca pushed his hair back, grinning. “I asked if you got the brochure for HGG I stuck under your door earlier.”
“River probably tossed it.” Jagger looked between them. He gave Kelly a look to snap him out of his reverie.
“No biggie. I’ve got another one right here.” Luca fetched a tri-fold brochure from his messenger bag. “Since you seem to have no clue what I’m talking about, HGG is the Hedgewater Gamer’s Guild. We meet twice a week. Once on Sunday nights at The Nook, it’s this café downtown that lets us set up tabletop games if the mood strikes. If not, we just chill and discuss the latest games we’ve played. Wednesday nights we bunk up in whoever’s room is on schedule and game out.”
Kelly smiled from ear to ear. “This is…wow. Thank you so much.” He lifted the brochure.
"But...um, how did you know I would be interested?" Kelly blushed for the umpteenth time.
"I guess I take my RA duties a bit more seriously than most, but I do look at your majors. I saw you were computer science and might have done a bit of googling. I might have looked into your old guild too. They only had nice things to say about you."
"How the hell did you manage that?" Kelly's eyes widened. "N-not that I mind, but..."
Luca smirked. "I have my ways."
"I'll bet you do," Jagger muttered. Kelly grunted at him, warning him with his eyes.
"Oh,” Luca opened the brochure back up, moving in closer, “and we also have a competition every semester. It’s not a huge prize or anything, but players from three different schools compete in a range of games. You know, RPG, shooter, racing, that kind of thing. And whoever comes out on top gets the guild crown at the end of the night, complete with bragging rights for the next semester. And you can probably count on a sweet after party in your honor, if you win that is.”
“I’m so in.” Kelly beamed. “Isn’t this cool, Jagger?”
“If you’re a geek.”
Luca let the word roll off his shoulders. He shrugged. “You’re always welcome to join, Jagger. There are some pretty cool people that hang with us. Maybe we’re not glamorous, but we do know how to party.”
“Sour gummy worms and Mt. Dew do not make a party,” Jagger challenged.
“No. But a gallon of Captain and an ounce of smoke do.” Luca chuckled. “This isn’t bible study.”
“How are you possibly an RA? Let me guess, this is some trick where you want to bust me for smoking weed in front of you. Are you working with the cops? Is this a set-up?”
“God, no, if anyone needs a J right now, it’s you.” Luca checked his phone, clucking his tongue. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I have to get ready for a certain shindig.” He winked at Kelly. “Both of you keep your phones on you. It is Welcome Week and surprises do occur.”
Ripped from his Luca fangirling session, Kelly blinked a few times. “What does that mean and how do you have my number?”
“I’m the RA, remember.” Luca backed away. “And you’ll have to see.”
“Wait.” Jagger perked up. “Are you talking about what I think you’re talking about?”
“All shall be revealed in due time.” Luca waggled his brows. His phone beeped. “My presence is being requested elsewhere. Farewell and good luck, young grasshoppers.”
Kelly almost sighed and waved. Everything about Luca made him smile. He hugged his brochure, knowing his Hedgewater situation was starting to look up. Even if Owen had snubbed him and his roommate was on the brink of pulling a Britney, he had HGG to look forward to, and that meant more Luca.
“Dude, snap the fuck out of it. If Luca is a nerd that means he’s probably in on the Hedgewater Hunt.”
“It’s only the most complicated night of your life, ending with a massive party for all the students. The girls from Cavelle University fund the scavenger hunt and the party, hoping us rich boys will take a peek at their goodies, and we just get loaded and spend the next three days passed the fuck out. They’re so delusional. I mean, half the guys here are looking to hook up with each other. It’s an all guy’s school for crying out loud. What the hell do they expect?”
“That’s such a stereotype, Jagger.”
“Dude, you’re gay. I’m gay. You’re roommates gay. Half the water polo team is gay. Luca,” he hitched a thumb, “was most definitely sporting wood for you and your starry eyes.”
Kelly squirmed. “Was not…” Jagger stared at him for a minute until Kelly caved. “Okay, so what?”
“One point for me, and I know for a fact over half this school is content to play with each other until they’re either rich enough to get away from their conservative parents, knowing they have a means of survival after they’re disowned for coming out. Or until they’re forced into some well-bred arranged marriage. Unless their parents are cool with it. My parents are. River's parents were...”
Kelly put a hand up. “Dude, being gay isn’t just about sex, or playing with each other as you so eloquently put it. It’s about who you…”
“If you say love I’m gonna vomit then smack you for ignoring the bigger picture here. Hedgewater Hunt, one trippy scavenger hunt that gets you into the party of the year, mapped out by the biggest nerds on campus. If I told you how many naked guys I’d seen running past my house this time every year, or passed out in the street, you’re virginal dick would rise like bread.”
Kelly gasped. “I don’t want to run naked through the street.”
“You will if you’re told to. Or were you planning to stick around for the wrath of River and see if he wanted to play Xbox with you? And in case you didn’t get my drift, by Xbox I meant go Carrie on your ass. Kelly, it’s a party; a college experience you’ll never forget. Live it up for once. I guarantee Luca will be there. He basically just thrust his hips and grunted your name with his eyes.”
“He did not.” Kelly looked down.
Jagger shrugged. “I guess you’re cool with some guy moving in on him then. At a party like that he’s bound to get some. Maybe even from the water polo team. He’s pretty enough.”
Backed into a corner, torn between lust for Luca and anger over how complicated his day kept getting, Kelly sighed. Jagger smirked, victorious. His phone went off. He checked it out, nodding. “Told you.”
Jagger showed Kelly his phone. The gamer squinted. “You’re invited to the Hegwater Hunt. Text yes to the number at the bottom of your screen to receive your rules and instructions.” Kelly looked up. “I don’t like this.”
“You’re a pussy. That’s why.” Jagger texted a reply.
Kelly’s phone went off. He already knew what he’d find. Staring at the same message Jagger had received, he thought hard. Did he want to do this? What if he got in trouble and kicked out on his first night here. He saw the excited gleam in Jagger’s eye.
Kelly wanted to fit in, to join in the fun, but his conscience was grabbing him by the balls like some pain-seeking angel on his shoulder. When was the last time he'd broken the rules for real, and he didn’t mean sneaking some bourbon from his dad’s stash. This was college. He was an adult…technically. Kelly smiled, letting the devil on his other shoulder make up his mind.
“Okay, I’m in,” he replied, in hopes of seeing Luca on the other end of this hunt insanity.
River kneeled on the floor of room 409. His hands were bound behind his back with duct tape. A rope wound between his arms, threading down to his ankles, which were tied together. He struggled, screaming behind the tape over his mouth. The guy he’d thought wanted a hot roll in bed had actually led him right into a trap for a few hundred dollars that he now counted in his hands.
“Don’t make a mess or tell anyone I was in on this. I’m getting a head start.” He waved his phone and stuffed the money in his jacket. “Later.” He closed the door.
The water polo team surrounded River, looking down on his terrified face.
“The hunt’s started,” Francis relayed.
“It can wait,” Owen snapped.
“I think this is enough.” Shay took a step forward. “He got the message. Let’s go. I don’t…I don’t think it was him, Owen.”
“Sure, the killer just waltzed down your hall and slid the tickets under your door. That sounds likely.” Owen cracked his knuckles, wanting nothing more than to turn and punch Francis straight in the nose. He couldn't remember ever being this angry in his entire life. He had to let it out. He just had to.
Even Francis looked alarmed. “Owen, if they find him messed up we’ll be in a kind of trouble we can’t get out of.”
“My dad is the Chief of Police, you stuck up little bitch. They won’t touch me and someone needs to teach this piece of shit his place.” Owen bent over. River tried to get away from him, but he fell onto his side.
Francis swallowed. “Owen, don’t do this.”
“Please,” Shay begged.
“Oh, that’s rich coming from you, Francis. If this is crossing a line, you’re a joke. After the shit you’ve pulled…” Owen snapped his eyes to Francis. “A teammate knows how to keep his mouth shut, isn’t that what you said, Francis?”
“Owen, this is ridiculous. We’re missing the hunt. Let him pass out like that. He won’t come near Shay again. Simple.” Francis crouched down. “He’s not the one you’re mad at.”
“You’re right. He’s not. But he’ll have to do.”
Owen hauled his fist back and struck, letting Francis play witness to his rage. He wanted the bastard to know how he felt. He wanted all of them to know, even if he woke up out of his bloodlust and regretted every second of it. Even if he backpeddled into his subservient role quicker than lightning. Francis would see.
River’s body clenched. Blood immediately dripped from his nose that throbbed along with his skull. Owen hit him again, busting his lip. The pain was too much. Blow after blow, he was helpless. The entire time, he looked to Shay for mercy, until his vision was useless. He heard Shay begging Owen to stop. Then there was nothing.
Before they made their first stop on the hunt, Francis pulled his Mercedes SUV up to the curb behind Liberty General. Out of sight from the ER's entrance view, he got out, hands shaking. He couldn’t believe what Owen had done or was capable of. He just didn’t think the guy had it in him, and he wondered if River still had a heartbeat after Owen had finished making his point.
“I’m going.” Francis unlocked the cargo area around back. Two pressurized rods made a low hiss. The back door slowly lifted, putting River on display under the small interior light. He lay motionless. His eyes were closed. His hands and feet were no longer bound, but they didn’t need to be. He was…
Francis’s stomach churned. The very sight of River paled him. “Is he breathing, Owen?”
Owen seemed to sober on the trip over. He hadn’t said a word, looking pretty guilty. He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Owen, if he’s dead…shit. There’s blood everywhere.”
“He’s not dead,” Owen hoped out loud. “Help me put him on the grass. Don’t touch his skin, just grab the blanket. I don’t want any trace of us on him. I know how to clean the stains out.”
“If he lives, Owen, we’re fucked.” Francis turned away to catch his breath.
“If he lives he’s not going to talk. He knows better than to run his mouth after tonight.” Owen couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. This wasn’t him. This wasn’t how his senior year was supposed to start. “But if we leave evidence, we are fucked.”
“There’s so much blood.” Francis panted, hefting River’s blanket covered legs into the air.
“Just shut up.” Owen walked backward, taking the curb slowly. “Right here’s good. We can call it in on the way.”
“All we have to do is say we found him, Owen. B-but what if dies in the next few minutes?”
Owen ran a hand over his head. “Then it’s your fault. All of this is your fault. You did this to me. If he dies it’s all on you. And if you talk I’ll make sure you end up behind bars. Not me.”
“I didn’t touch him, Owen. You did that. You can do whatever you want, but the guilt will eat you alive.” Francis wrapped his arms around himself and walked to the driver’s door. “Get in. We’ll make the call.”
Owen left River lying on his side in the cold, damp grass. On autopilot he got into the SUV and shut the door. “Promise me you won’t…”
“Not a goddamn word.” Francis shifted into drive. “What if he…”
“He won’t. He’ll be just as scared as we are. And tomorrow, after all this hunt shit is done, you’re going to hand over those pictures and never speak of them again. Do you understand me?”
Francis pulled down the softly lit residential street, trying to regain his composure. “Yes.”
“Good. Pull over at the gas station and make the call. We have to get out of here before someone realizes we’re not in the game.”
“Why not call on your cell?”
“Caller ID, you dumbass.” Owen cringed. “Do you want to go to jail tonight?”
Francis stepped on the gas, flying through the sprawling neighborhood, away from the hospital. “Not on your life.”
To Be Continued…
MUSIC FROM THIS EPISODE:
See you next week!