The college dean, Mr. Michaelson, walked along the dim corridor, only known to his surroundings or any late night stragglers in the seconds he passed a row of windows, basking him in moonlight. Within the embrace of his arm was a zippered portfolio. Only he had seen the contents as he’d been the one to put it together. Although, tonight that would all change.
Nearing the door at the end of the hall, the frosty glass of his office window presented a little light and Michaelson knew his secretary, Mildred, was waiting for him. He smiled, knowing he’d secured all he would need to make his little problem go away. A few hours a week wouldn’t harm any of his students. They were, after all, the best and the brightest. He wouldn’t have to tell them about the newest staff member to keep them in the know. That excuse of an urban crime fighter sitting inside his office would tip them off immediately. For a government employee, a special agent at that, she wasn’t very smart. At least… that she let on.
He also didn’t need to prepare himself in any way as he opened the door and strode into his office. That government bitch was on his turf in a very delicate situation. She would play by his rules or this little game of hers was off. No one threatened his place on top of Hedgewater and certainly not the futures of his students.
Walking across his antique Besserabian rug, he noted the way her tea cup tilted forward in her untrained hand. Imagining tea spilling onto his rug set his blood to boil, much like hot water in a kettle. His scowl reached his secretary’s eyes in the corner. She, too, wore a look that could skin a cat. He nodded her way in an unspoken agreement.
Mildred rose from her chair, hands clasped in front of her. She was always ready to service the dean with anything he needed, and god above, did he love her for it. The pair of them set eyes on the new employee, sipping her tea while staring out the window. Either she was keen on the night rolling in from the view out the window. Or she was plotting. Having lived in this town his entire life, Michaelson was inclined to believe the latter. And didn’t they make quite the match for he was a skilled plotter himself.
Her ill-fitting slacks, in the drabbest gray, rose above her laced black trainers, revealing her mismatched black socks. The very sight of her caused him to grind his teeth with distaste. Topping off the ensemble was a chain brand, one button blazer, unnervingly pulled tight over her non-existent breasts in the same shade of gray. Apparently, it was the only color the children’s department had to offer.
Maybe if she’d bothered to do something with her mousy brown hair or paint her lips with some sort of pallor enhancing color, he’d have settled for her truck stop motel, front desk ensemble. As it stood he hated the woman from head to toe.
For appearances sake, he kept up his professional façade, purely for Mildred as he was a gentleman in her presence always, and sat behind his desk. “Thank you, Mildred, for keeping our guest company in my absence. The press kept me longer than I had previously planned. Please be a dear and check that the security team has begun the night shift before you turn in. I’ll see to Ms. Willinsky’s lodgings.”
“Very well, dean.” Mildred’s eyes sparked with cruel interest and he almost winked at her, if not for the federal agent seated across from him.
Mildred eyed the agent. “Sleep well, Ms. Willinsky. Dean.” She nodded at him before giving the seated, armed female a good once over behind her back. Her nose twitched. Mild revulsion created a crease between her well arched brows.
A young widow of thirty-one, Mildred Summers, fared well after her husband’s sudden stroke with the dean’s help. He had felt a need to look after the poor thing as her husband had been one of Hedgewater’s newest professors and a friend of sorts. So he knew them both well. Prior to Mr. Summers’s death, Mildred had kept to herself, donning simple cardigans and no makeup at all. But when she found herself stir crazy in her husband’s home, in need of an outlet to expend her grievous energy, she turned to Hedgwater, and by association dean Michaelson.
He’d seen the potential in the sad housewife. Her beauty called to him. Her skills of perfection and order were above par. And after a form flattering makeover, in which Michaelson was stunned by the transformation from harmless kitten to tigress, Mildred had been his devoted confidant ever since.
As she departed for the door, he took in her glossy black hair, twisted at the back of her head with a shell comb he’d retrieved for her in Greece. Her dark blue eyes watched him back behind the lenses of her sexy, square-rimmed glasses. Her red lips parted with the barest of breaths and he found himself breathing a little abnormally. A lone finger traced her exposed collarbone, surrounded by a silk, white V-neck blouse with pearly buttons.
The dean grunted, turning back to the grungy fed seated in his chair. He set down the portfolio and cleared his throat. “Where were we?”
He had time for one last glimpse at Mildred’s shapely rear, covered in a tight black skirt before the ugly one called his name again.
Rolling her eyes, the agent didn’t flinch when the door closed sharply. “I was just—”
Michaelson lost his smile. “Mildred is upset by confrontation, and it would be untoward of me to expose her to such. As the dean of this celebrated academic institution I’m sure you’re aware of how uncomfortable your presence makes me.”
The fed snorted, setting down her tea cup. “Then let’s just lay it out all there, shall we?”
“Oh, I intend to. Let’s start with this. If you mean to be recognized as a member of my staff while you execute your little investigation, you will cooperate and hold yourself as I see fit. I’m more than willing to let you carry out your orders as deemed necessary by your superiors, but if you’re going to play the part, I’ll leave nothing to chance. If I so much as hear a word uttered in association of who you really are, this investigation is off and you’ll be buried so far under my legal team’s paperwork, you’ll be lucky to find a breadcrumb left behind by the murderer. Are we clear, Ms. Willinsky?”
“That’s not how this works, dean.” She smiled. “Maybe I should set you straight about—”
“In Hedgewater, the rules of the game are quite different than where you come from, I suspect.” He narrowed his eyes, folding his hands on his desk. “These boys are the sons of some of the most powerful men and women you’ll ever encounter. As their reputations and emotional welfare have been entrusted to me, I will call the shots here. Don’t be mistaken, Ms. Willinsky. The smiles and good natured words I offered the media were all for the sake of those boys. Here, in my office, and in this school where the public doesn’t reach, I am a dictator for education wherein you fall under my jurisdiction. And as your dean, if you so choose to continue here at Hedgewater, I must inform you that you stink of federal agent.”
“You have the weekend to take care of your…look. No school counselor of mine will dress in such a manner. Speaking of manners, you’ll be tutored by Mildred on eloquence and customs, and how Hedgewater runs before I set you loose with the students. Do you even have experience as a counselor or do you need to read up before Monday rolls around as well?”
“I think you’re the one who needs to brush up on manners, Mr. Michaelson.” She shook her head. “I know how to do my job. Don’t insult me.”
“You’re the one insulting yourself with that outfit. Trainers with a suit, a bad suit at that, is pitiful. They must not value your intelligence enough to pay you very well or you’d know that by now.” He reached over, stealing his cup from the corner of the desk where Mildred always placed it. He took a sip. “Ah, it’s earl gray this evening. How ironic.” He gestured to her suit. “Though, I wouldn’t really call that earl gray, more like peasant gray.”
Willinsky unbuttoned her blazer smoothly, flipping one side back to reveal the gun on her hip. Once it was out in the open, and Michaelson stared at it, she crossed her arms. “I’ll dress it up for you. I’ll play your little game. But insult me one more time and I guarantee you no legal team will stop the harassment suit coming your way.”
“Threats? How charming.” Michaelson stood. “Why don’t we take you home now, so you can be amongst the other dreadful clothing you most likely brought with you. Oh, dear me, I hope I didn’t offend you.” He looked over his shoulder and opened the door.
Willinsky shoved past him. “Don’t worry, dean, it takes a lot to piss me off.”
He smacked the portfolio to her chest, knowing there was nothing there to possibly hurt. “That’s funny, because you look pretty pissed off to me.” Grinning, he led the way down the hall toward the staff lodgings. Judging by her speechless reaction, he’d succeeded in showing the little mutt who was boss around here.
Music thrummed through his skull, loud enough to crack his cranium in two. Yet, Kelly loved every second of it. Jagger’s car was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen, and Kelly was sure it even sexier than any man, too. It was an Alfa Romeo something or other, with a sleek black body, and a custom sound system that could rival any other. A gleaming silver skull sat on the head of the gear shift under Jagger’s hand, lending a bit of his darkness to the interior. And true to form, Jagger didn’t disappoint Kelly with his bad boy reputation. He took the side road along the water at almost a hundred miles an hour, making Kelly throw his hands up and scream to the sky.
His hair whipped around his face. His eyes sought out the moon. Everything was fucking perfect. Nothing could ruin this moment of pure, unrestricted bliss. So this was what everyone was raving about, Kelly thought, college.
An SUV whizzed by, heading in the opposite direction. Jagger slowed it down a bit. “That was Francis,” he yelled over the music.
“Who cares?” Kelly laughed, sticking his hand out to the side, cupping the force of wind pushing into his palm.
Jagger saw Kelly smile out of the corner of his eye and wished he could feel that free again. Barely eighteen, Jagger had been forced to grow up pretty quickly after River dumped him and Shay was attacked. Now he kind of felt responsible for Kelly to boot. The guy didn’t have the luxury of going to school with seventy-five percent of their peers since Kindergarten. He didn’t know much of anything as far as Hedgewater was concerned.
If he did, Kelly would know how much Jagger still loved River, regardless of the way he acted. He’d know how scared Jagger was for River since the moment his ex-boyfriend pushed his way out of the cathedral earlier. He’d know that once the water polo jerks targeted someone, they followed through with their threats, which left River in a very dangerous situation, especially tonight.
“Jagger! They just sent me the address.” Kelly held up his phone. “This is so cool.”
Turning down the music, Jagger glanced at the screen, recognizing the name of the house immediately. The old Smith house hadn’t been lived in for years. It was now used for weddings and parties, and old money social gatherings. The place was said to be haunted, but everyone knew that was bullshit. Just because the house was old and looked the part didn’t mean ghosts roamed at the crack of midnight.
Nodding, Kelly scrolled down his phone. “It’s time to confront your fears and face the ghost of Elijah Smith. Find your next clue hidden in the dark, guarded by the spirits of a time long gone. If you succeed you’ll find your next location. The rules are as follows: No lights will be used, including your phone or a flashlight you’ve brought with you. Wait on the porch to be documented before the front door will open, and remember, no touching anything except for the clues.” He looked up at Jagger. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Relax, you big baby. It’s just a few minutes in the dark. Most likely they’ll have a few people hiding to scare you. No big deal.” Jagger kept his eyes on the road. “We’ll stick together. I promise.”
Kelly sat back, at a loss for words. He’d never liked haunted houses, even though half the games he played would terrify the pants off a normal person. But there was safety on his side of the television. It was only a game. And now he’d play the real version in person.
“Sir, can you hear me?” Leif guided his penlight back and forth over the patient’s eyes. They were green, probably a clear green if not for the broken blood vessels around his thin irises and blown pupils peeking out from swollen lids. The guy was a mess, having taking a beating Leif wished on no one. No one except for the man who sodomized his little brother and took something from Shay he would never get back. “He’s responding. Let’s get him something for the pain and start cleaning up this mess. Blood pressure?”
“One thirty-five over eighty-nine.” The nurse glanced over at the EKG monitor that was beeping frantically. “He’s waking up.”
Boots squeaked over the tile. “I need to speak with him before you start him on any painkillers.”
Leif closed his eyes, wishing he could will away Chief Truesou with a single thought. “He’s in an intolerable level of pain, Chief, and he’s waking up. I can’t wait any longer. Please stay outside until I come to speak with you.”
“Then I guess I’ll keep his identity to myself until we chat. Or until you decide to stop avoiding me.”
“Can you not see I’m busy right now?”
Angry, Leif scowled across the room, looking up from his bloody patient. “This is my place of work and you won’t patronize me like I’m some suspect. This boy is in pain. He needs stitches and we need to warm him back up before his body goes into shock. If you don’t want to provide any useful details because you and I have a problem with each other, then you’re not doing your job, as usual. Get out of here before I have you removed.”
“That’s River Hathaway.” The Chief smiled, crossing his arms. Leif’s nurse growled and yanked the privacy curtain shut, cutting off his arrogance.
The nurse snapped her fingers. “Doctor Foster.”
A choking sound drew Leif’s attention back to his patient. River Hathaway was trying to remove his oxygen mask, panicking when the nurse attempted to hold him down. “Doctor.”
Disregarding the dread in the pit of his stomach, staring at the number one suspect in the Hedgwater attacker case, Leif stepped up to the bed. “River, I’m doctor Foster. I need you to calm down and take a nice deep breath. Can you do that?”
River’s eyes widened. He recognized the name. He recognized those eyes, even though he knew there shouldn’t be four of them. Lights swirled around his blurry vision, but he managed to find the doctor’s wrist with his hand. Pain, he thought, such horrible pain. Doctor Foster’s face leaned in, blocking out the blinding lights.
“He’s saying something,” the nurse murmured.
Despite his better judgment, Leif lifted the oxygen mask to hear. “Love Shay…”
“Shay?” Leif paled.
“I’m innocent.” River wheezed. “Never hurt Shay.”
Blood running cold, Leif met his nurse’s eyes. “He…he needs an x-ray after we stabilize him. His breathing indicates a broken rib or swelling cutting off his airflow.” Leif stood, shaking off River’s hand. “Order it now.”
After Leif rattled off the last of his instructions, and River closed his eyes, heart rate stabilizing with a drip full of painkillers, he backed away from the black and blue boy to get fresh air in the hall. He leaned against the wall, staring at the ground. A familiar squeak of boots made him cringe.
“I know you think I don’t do my job properly because we haven’t caught this guy yet, but I want him off the streets just as much as you do. I also know you’re conflicted because the boy in that room is River, but to be honest, I don’t think he had anything to do with Shay’s attack. He’s eighteen, Leif. He isn’t old enough or skilled enough to plot something like this and get away with it. Plus, he’s cooperated with us since the beginning. He never once put up a fight.”
“He’s been tied up like the other ones, Chief. He’s got bruising and burns around his wrists and ankles and some on his back. And his face…”
“Looks just like your brother’s when they brought him in. I know, Leif.” Chief Trusou put a hand on the doctor’s back. “I know you’re trying to keep your cool here and that’s noble, but don’t let your imagination take hold of the situation. River Hathaway didn’t do this to himself. That would be impossible.”
“No, he didn’t,” Leif confirmed.
“I’m glad we can come to that agreement. Someone wanted to take River out, but what gets me is why they left him for us to find on the lawn and not in some back alley or a trunk like the others. Either the attacker is finally starting to crack under his own guilt, or he wanted us to know River wasn’t responsible for the attacks.”
“He wants the credit. That sick bastard.” Leif balled his fists, closing his eyes. “How many more boys are we going to see in the ER because of him? How many more boys will he ruin or kill?”
“We have to let the feds work their magic. I’m good, Leif, but they’re wizards compared to me.” Chief Trusou squeezed Leif’s shoulder. “The press will get wind of this soon. You need to contact his family so they can be here to help him through. And maybe, after the excitement dies down tonight, you might want to call your brother. Just hearing his voice will settle you down and let you get some sleep. I can’t sleep without talking to my boy. I know just how you feel.”
Leif looked into Robert Trusou’s chocolate eyes and nodded. For all the venom he’d spat at the Chief, the man was still a good person. This wasn’t his fault. He was trying. That didn’t make it any easier to deal with; the not knowing; the fear a killer was still on the loose.
“You take care of our boy in there and I’ll keep it safe out here.” He paused. “Can you…can you do a rape kit for me?”
Leif swore under his breath. “I’ll need Hathaway’s permission, but until then I’ll take what evidence I can and tell the nurses not to…yes.”
“Thanks, Foster. I’ll check back soon.” Trusou offered Leif a small smile before he walked away; a commanding dark angel against the white on white hallway.
Jagger killed the engine and sat with Kelly in the semi-circle drive of the Smith House. The front porch light was on. The wind pushed the porch swing back and forth, eliciting a creak from the chains attaching it to the overhang. Kelly regarded the old Victorian just like he did any other spooky house at night. His internal alarms flared. His eyes played tricks on him looking up at the second story windows. His hands shook. His heart rate sped up.
“I can’t do this. It’s like I’m about to play Slender Man. No one gets through that damn game, Jagger, no one.”
“Who?” Jagger groaned, lost to Kelly’s nerd ramblings. “Shut up. You can do this. It’s just a dumb old house, Kelly. Jesus.” He got out of the car, pocketing his keys.
“You are not leaving me here.” Kelly scrambled out of the vehicle, slamming the door. He crunched along the walkway behind Jagger and stepped up onto the sprawling porch that wrapped around the front half of the house. “Oh my god, they want to lock us in here? Have you not seen a horror movie in your life? We are the dumb cheerleader looking for a working phone in the creepy house belonging to the killer. Can’t you see that!”
“For the love of everything in the universe.” Jagger clamped his hands on Kelly’s shoulders. “Calm the fuck down. And , yes, I’ve seen plenty of scary movies. I’d be more alarmed with a ‘bitch, don’t go in that basement’ scenario.”
Kelly let out a quick breath. His startled eyes looked up at Jagger and he nodded. “Word.”
Two windows were blacked out on either side of the door. Wedged in the wreath that was hanging from the main entrance was a yellow envelope. Jagger eyed Kelly again. “I guess this is it. You ready?”
“Would you take no for an answer?” Kelly gulped.
“Mm…no.” Jagger grinned and opened the envelope. “Here we go. If you’ve opened this envelope then you’ve already been documented on this stop of the hunt.” They both looked around, finally laying eyes on the camera situated above them. Jagger cleared his throat. “To proceed, please type your phone number into the keypad on your left before you read on.”
“This is a pretty elaborate set-up.” Kelly leaned over the wicker planter table where a simple numeric keypad was wired through a crack in the window.
“I told you. The nerds are the brains of the operation. If I was into all that stuff and had the Cavelle girls’ money at my disposal, I’d work it out too.” Jagger put his number into the keypad. “Your turn.”
“I’m not gonna lie and say I think this is a great idea, but there’s no way in hell I’m staying out here by myself in the middle of nowhere.” Kelly shook his head. Cringing, he typed in his phone number.
A click sounded. The front door creaked open. Both boys turned, frozen at the darkness that awaited them. “Read the rest, dammit.” Kelly nudged Jagger.
“Inside you will find nine obvious items to help you escape the house and get your next location clue. Once the front door shuts, the only way to get out is to type the nine digit code into the keypad, located by the front door, or to hit one of five red panic buttons around the house. Remember, hitting a panic button will turn the lights on immediately, but will also disqualify you from the hunt completely. Don’t worry, you’ll see them. Refrain from touching anything inside the house along the way except for your items. Lastly, be aware, you are in Elijah Smith’s home, and he doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Good luck.”
“This is like a fucking room escape game. I rock at those.” Kelly beamed, then frowned. “But this is different. This is a haunted house. What are we doing here, Jagger? I’d take naked over this.”
Jagger set the envelope next to the keypad. “Be careful what you wish for. That may very well be a possibility tonight. Now come on, you little whiner. Let’s get this over with. I want to drink.” He held out his hand.
Kelly swallowed hard and took Jagger’s hand. “Just don’t leave me. Not even as a joke, Jagger. I’m scared of the dark and I don’t tell a lot of people that. I’m serious.”
“I might be an asshole, but I’m not that kind of asshole. Hold onto my hand and as long as you do I’ll be right there with you.”
Kelly nodded. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”
They stepped over the threshold, into the dark. Only a few paces in the door slammed shut behind them and a creepy sound effect track cued up. Moans and chains, the sound of howling wind, and whispering voices filled the air. They could make out a glow in the dark trail of tape running in all different directions to guide the way. The tape ran around the perimeter of the room, up the stairs and the banister, where a lit up red circle was placed at the top of the stairs.
“There’s a panic button,” Kelly whispered.
“And we’re not going to use it. I want to go to the party. Don’t puss out on me, De Angelo. Grow some balls and let’s find the items. You’re good at this shit, right? Where do you want to start?”
“I always go upstairs first. The worst stuff is usually up there and I like to get it over with. God, I hope there isn’t a basement. There’s no way in hell I’ll go down there.” Kelly’s hand slid up Jagger’s arm, fingers biting into muscle. He pressed his body closer, cowering in fear.
“Upstairs it is.” Jagger maneuvered them along the glowing trail, keeping between the lines. He felt something brush against him and jumped. “Don’t do that, Kelly.”
“You touched me.”
“Of course I’m touching you. Wait, what do you mean?”
“Fuck. Hurry up.” Jagger practically dragged Kelly up the stairs. Something pounded against the bottom step and both of them clung to each other.
“What the hell is that?” Kelly panted, unable to catch his breath.
“Do you really want to find out?”
“Hell no, come on. Let’s go in here.”
Kelly tugged on Jagger’s arm, entering the first room at the top of the stairs. A clock and a baby doll had been sprayed in glow in the dark paint, giving the room a bit of light to go on. The boys would have preferred some real light as opposed to the eerie baby doll staring at them in the corner rocking chair. They could barely make out, with the help of the tape, a four poster bed taking up most of the room and a vanity with a large mirror against the wall.
“Okay, I can see you a bit. Let’s split up and look around. Just don’t leave this room, Jagger Winegarten.”
“I hear you. Settle down. I’m gonna take a guess and say the objects are glow in the dark. So we should be able to find them easily.”
“And they have to have numbers or letters or something on them to make up a code. Nine objects, nine digits…” Kelly stood in front of the vanity mirror, searching his half of the room. “Nothing over here.”
“Maybe under the bed.” Jagger knelt down. “Hell yeah, I got something.” He reached for a glow in the dark star with an R on it, stuck under the bed.
Kelly breathed in relief, glancing at the mirror. His eyes went wide. “Jagger…”
“Hold on, almost got it.”
“Jagger!” Kelly backed towards the door. A glow in the dark face rose from the pillows. The blanket fell, revealing a body to go along with it.
“What is your fucking problem?” Jagger got up and screamed. “Oh fuck!”
The person reached for him, moaning. He dashed towards the door, grabbed Kelly, and ran down the hall to the next room. He slammed the door shut behind them, and leaned against it catching his breath. “I don’t like this anymore.”
“Now you side with me? You’re a joke!” Kelly hit him in the chest. “It’s all pretend,” he whispered. “It’s not real.”
“You’re right. It’s just students playing their part. No big deal. But I got something for you.” He opened his palm. “We have an R.”
“No big deal says the guy who screamed like a girl.”
“And you yelled my name like you were mid-orgasm. Don’t give me that shit.” Jagger chuckled. “We got one item. Let’s leave it at that.”
Inspecting the room they were in, Kelly grabbed Jagger’s hand again, finding comfort while his body calmed down. “Okay. This time we stick together. No more splitting up.”
“Deal.” Jagger laced their fingers and took in the room. This time around, they looked to be in a library. Dotting the shelves, wedged between the other references were at least two dozen, glow in the dark books. Jagger silently cursed and led the way towards the first shelf.
“This is going to be tough.” Kelly grunted.
“Even tougher if the item isn’t a book.”
“Why wouldn’t it be a book? It’s obviously a book.” Kelly picked up the first glowing novel, flipping it over. “Maybe it’s inside the pages?”
“No, that would take forever and they know we don’t have much time.”
Kellly squeezed his hand. “Hey, you’re not so bad at this after all.”
“I didn’t just get into Hedgewater on my parent’s dime. I do have a brain.” Jagger shoved him, laughing.
Kelly put the book back. “Thank god, I didn’t want to be stuck with a dumbass.”
“Wait, do you see that at the bottom of the spine? It’s a star. I’ll bet that—”
Something moved next to them. They both turned around as one. “It’s not real,” Kelly reminded them. “It’s just a game.”
Someone moaned. “What are you doing in my house?”
“Keep looking, Jagger. Don’t listen to it.” Kelly gripped Jagger’s hand so hard he began to cut off the circulation. Someone breathed on the back of his neck and he closed his eyes. “The star. I’ll bet the book we need doesn’t have one.”
“I said what are you doing in my house?”
“Keep calm,” Jagger whispered. “Just keep calm.” Someone traced his free hand with a finger, sending him into the wall of books. “Don’t fucking touch me.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. This is my house and you’re not supposed to be here. Get out!” A book smacked to the floor.
“Shit, split up!” Kelly let go of Jagger’s hand. “Find the damn book!”
In a state of panic, Kelly began pulling the glowing books off the shelves, checking them over so fast he almost forgot what he was doing. He felt someone behind him. He felt hands gently touch his shoulders, but kept going. “It’s not real. It’s just a game. It’s not real,” he chanted.
“I’m Elijah Smith,” the voice whispered. “And I’m very real.”
Kelly heard the door creak open, a scuffle of shoes, and Jagger’s muffled voice. “Jagger?”
“Fuck off.” Kelly shoved the actor to the floor, still holding the last book. He looked down at the spine. An E was painted clear as day. Memorizing the letter, he threw the book at Elijah Smith, and hurried over to the open space in the glowing tape. “Jagger?” He touched the door, knowing for certain Jagger was gone.
“Get out of my house!”
“You touch me again and I’ll take your balls,” Kelly hissed at the imposter. “Where’s Jagger!”
He heard a sigh. Elijah was giving up his act. “Dude, I don’t know where your friend is. I’m just being paid to stay in this room for the night. You can always hit the closest panic button to find him. He probably just freaked and ran away. It’s already happened twice tonight.”
“I’m not hitting that damn button.”
“This is just a game, newbie. It’s not the end of the world.”
“It’s a big deal to Jagger. I’m going to find him, and by the way your acting sucks.”
Kelly left Elijah laughing in the library. He had an E and R and no Jagger.
Jagger had no idea who held him captive, but he knew they were lean and tall. Even in the dark, he could tell. He used his other senses to take in his kidnapper’s details so he could tell the cops later. One thing was for certain, this wasn’t part of the game. Handcuffs bit into his wrists. A gag filled his mouth and his eyes were covered so he couldn’t find the trail of tape telling him where they were. He only knew they’d gone down the first flight of stairs and were headed down another. He didn’t struggle. He’d watched enough television to know struggling led to worse things.
His kidnapper whispered in his ear, “Step down.”
He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. He had no idea what this was or why this was happening. And then a thought occurred to him. What if this was the Hedgewater killer? What if he was the next victim? The thought made him struggle, and he’d been right not to do that. A knife pressed to his neck, coaxing him down the stairs. A musty smell and the drop in temperature indicated they were in the basement. He heard a constant drip of water off to his left. He heard footsteps above. His boots hit even concrete and he felt like these were going to be his last moments.
As his shirt was cut down the middle, and wrenched open to reveal his chest, Jagger held back the tears. He wouldn’t give the killer any sort of satisfaction. In this moment, he knew how scared Shay had been because he was terrified. Forced into a metal chair, his wrists were attached to some kind of chain. His ankles were strapped to the legs of the chair and he heard a click from above. His muffled groan made the killer step forward again.
Something wet and coarse brushed over his chest. Liquid dripped over his nipples, trailing down to the top of his jeans. The killer was painting his body for some reason. He hadn’t heard about this with any of the other attacks. He would ask why, but the gag in his mouth kept him from doing so. When the killer finished painting and he heard the brush drop to the ground, his thoughts strayed to Kelly. Poor, innocent De Angelo was up there probably scared out of his mind. What if he was next? He didn’t deserve this. Kelly hadn’t done anything wrong. He was a good kid. He was the only person who’d talked to Jagger in months. He was the only person willing to be his friend.
“Roses are red,” the killer whispered so softly in his ear that Jagger barely heard.
The sound of the killer going back up the stairs a few moments later made Jagger cry. Kelly was next. Then they would both surely die.
While searching the rooms for Jagger, Kelly had accumulated six other items. With most of the letters to go by, he knew where their next location was going to be. If he thought this house was scary, the next place gave him the creeps. Now in the kitchen, he saw the arrow taped on the floor, leading down another set of stairs and he just knew that was where Jagger was hiding. Some friend, he thought. He’d originally made up his mind that Jagger was just misunderstood and desperate to have a companion at school. Everyone wanted to fit in. Everyone needed a friend to lean on.
But no one wanted to be friends with Kelly. They never had. He was just a geek with no cool points to get him by. And now Jagger had thrown that back in his face. Desperate just to get out this place, and get over Jagger popping out of nowhere to scare him, Kelly descended the stairs slowly.
“I should have never said anything about the damn basement. I’m gonna beat the shit out you, Jagger.” Kelly’s hand shook along the thin banister. The stairs were really narrow and he took them sideways to keep from falling. “I hate you, Winegarten.”
He stopped mid-step when he saw the light washing over the floor below. Not a glow in the dark light, but a real, honest to god light bulb had been turned on down there. “Jagger?”
Metal clinked. A chain rattled. Someone moaned, but it was muffled and desperate. If this was the part of the show where a fake bloody corpse was chained to wall Kelly was going to hurl. His stomach was in knots already. He didn’t know how much more he could take.
“Jagger, if that’s you, you’re in deep shit.” Kelly bucked up and took the last of the stairs. He turned toward the light source and almost died. “Jagger!”
Chained to a folding chair, Jagger started to fight his restraints. A ball gag filled his mouth. His shirt had been cut open. Bloody red letters were painted across his chest. “Roses are red,” Kelly whispered in horror. “Fuck. Jagger, it’s okay. I’m here.”
He immediately went to work, unstrapping the leather cuffs around Jagger’s boots at the ankle, then removing the mask and gag. Jagger spit to the side, panting for air. “Call the cops. Call them, Kelly. The killer…”
Someone clomped down the stairs. Kelly searched the room for a weapon immediately. He saw a pipe wrench about a foot and a half long hanging on the wall and went for it. His fingers curled around cold iron. His eyes narrowed before he rushed back to Jagger. “Don’t move!”
“What the fuck is going on down here?” A young guy in black face paint and a glow in the dark t-shirt took the last step. “No one is supposed to be down here.” He took in the scene and put his hands up. “Uh…look, bro, this room is off limits.”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Kelly sucked in air through his teeth, still holding the wrench above his head. “Someone did this to him. One of you fuckers. I bet it was you and you thought you could just come finish him off.”
“No, I swear it. No one put that tape up in the kitchen either. That’s why I came down here. I saw the arrow and heard you talking. The town council didn’t want anyone down here because of the tools. Someone could get hurt.” The actor pointed to the other wall where tools hung, sharp blades, rakes, a chainsaw; a perfect collection of weapons. “Dude, are you okay? Hold on, let me call Amber. She’s in charge of the house tonight.”
“No, you help me get these cuffs off of him first and then we call Amber, because she’s about to get a fucking ear full.” Kelly dropped the wrench. He instinctively ran a hand over Jagger’s messy hair. “It’s gonna be okay, Winegarten. Just relax.”
“They had a knife. They put it to my throat.”
The actor’s eyes bugged. “Has he been drinking?”
“Yeah, he went and got drunk then locked himself to this chair.” Kelly fumed. “Who do you think he is, Houdini?”
Actor boy closed his eyes and groaned. “Okay, okay, let’s find something to get those cuffs off.”
At central command, Luca took the call from Amber. It wasn’t the first panicked call he’d received in the past few hours. Apparently they had a prankster running around. Three other students had been locked up all over town on the hunt. One had been found tied up in a closet. One had been locked to a set of bleachers at the high school. And now Jagger had been cuffed to a chair. This time, though, Luca couldn’t take knowing his personal charges were out there, terrified and confused. Jagger and Kelly were his responsibility. He ended the call with Amber and stood.
“I have to take this. The last two were from my floor.”
Ten guys and one girl nodded. Priest, his friend from HGG winked. “Uh huh, and the De Angelo kid you’ve been going on about has nothing to do with it?”
“I just said he was a part of it, didn’t I?” Luca put on his jacket and grabbed his keys.
“Go get him, stud.” Jeanie held out her fist.
Blushing, Luca bumped her fist with his. “Stay out of trouble. If Amber calls again tell her it’s been taken care of and to proceed as normal.”
“Aye, aye, captain.” Priest saluted him.
“Carry on.” Luca chuckled and took the stairs up from their basement headquarters.
“Are you shitting me, Jagger? You want to keep playing?” Kelly pursed his lips and shook his head. “No, absolutely not.”
“It was just a prank,” Amber assured him. “Luca said there have been two other stunts just like this all night, with the paint and all. Someone is just trying to spook students while this killer shit is going on.” She buttoned up her Delta Chi jacket. “It’s not a big deal. Jagger is right, it’s better to just keep playing and show that stupid prankster you don’t care.”
Kelly put his finger in her face. “It is a big deal, you sorostitute. Someone put a knife to his neck, locked him up, and scared him shitless. Jesus, this place is demented.”
Amber batted his finger away. “Whatever, nerd. No one cares what you think. You got your next location. Your friend…” she winked at Jagger, “he wants to keep playing and you’re just being a party pooper. Don’t you want to party with the girls at the end of the night? It’s probably the only chance someone like you will ever get, Kelly, was it?”
“Fuck off, bitch.” Jagger pulled Kelly back, eyeing her up and down. “No one wants your STD saturated cunt anyway. Don’t call him a nerd. He’s got more brains than you’d know what to do with. In fact, I’m pretty sure you don’t even have a brain.”
Kelly shivered in Jagger’s arms, fitting perfectly to his chest. He glared at Amber, curbing the urge to stick out his tongue. “Yeah, what he said.”
“Figures you’re queer, most of the hot ones are.” She threw up her hands. “Why the hell do I even try?”
“My question exactly,” Jagger spat. He spun around at the sound of car doors slamming. Francis, Owen, and Shay walked up to them. “Fucking perfect.”
Owen snarled. “Kelly, are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Kelly quieted. “Someone attacked Jagger in the basement.”
“Damn. You cool, Winegarten?” Owen rubbed his hands together; the night chill getting colder.
“Already out for attention this year, Winegarten? I heard you were known for pulling stunts, but an attack during the hunt? It all sounds cooked to me.” Francis possessively rested his arm on Owen’s shoulder. “Trying to bump your reputation up a notch, I see. Though, it’s kind of pointless now. We all know you’re a liar with a dash of mental insanity. Is this a cry for help? Or are you just trying to stick it to mommy and daddy for attempting to put you in Gilford Pines…where you belong.”
Kelly looked between Owen and Francis, waiting for Owen to say something. The captain just looked away. Kelly pulled out of Jagger’s arms. “He was attacked, you asshole.”
“Kelly, don’t…” Jagger reached for him.
“He was locked to a chair, blindfolded, and gagged. That’s not something you just do for fun. Or maybe you’re into that. You look evil enough to be into that. What’s more is how convenient it is that the three of you just happen to be here. Did you turn around and follow us when we passed you earlier? Were you the one down there trying to hurt Jagger? I bet you were.” Kelly’s nostrils flared.
Francis pushed Owen behind him. He towered above Kelly, looking down at him. “I’d watch what you say next, scholarship trash.”
Kelly looked to Owen, baffled the captain wasn’t coming to his defense.
“Don’t look at him. If you’re man enough to cop off to me, you’ll take what’s coming to you all by yourself.” Francis fisted Kelly’s shirt, jerking him closer. “Don’t point fingers where they don’t belong. If anyone wants to hurt Jagger, it’s himself. And so he should. He’s a no one, a waste of space, just like you.”
Kelly caught Shay turning around, his hand covering his mouth. The blond got back into the SUV without a word, shutting the door behind. Francis glanced over his shoulder. He let go of Kelly’s shirt, shoving him to the ground. “Stay,” he ordered.
“Amber,” Francis purred, and inclined his head. “Let’s have a chat, shall we?” He offered her his hand.
Owen took a step toward Kelly, who was being hauled to his feet by Jagger. Kelly wiped his face, breathing hard. He held up a hand to Owen. “If you come near me, I don’t give a fuck what happens. I’ll go down fighting and that’s a promise.”
“Kelly, you don’t understand.” Owen put his hands in his pockets. He made sure Francis was far enough away. “I do want to get to know you and I hate to just be a bystander when he does that. I swear. But,” he leaned in, “Francis…” He bit his lip. His eyes softened. “You just can’t understand what he’s like. You don’t know anything and I don’t say that to be cruel. Just leave it alone.”
Kelly thought about Shay getting into the car. He saw how Owen was on the verge of tears. He looked over at Francis leaning into Amber, her body hypnotically magnetized to him already.
“I would never let him hurt you.” Owen backed away.
“Is he hurting you, Owen?” Jagger whispered. “Did he hurt Shay, too?”
Owen continued to back away. “If he does anything to you, call me immediately. You have to trust me. I’m not the enemy here.”
“I got it, Owen.” Francis checked Kelly in the shoulder as he walked by.
Amber raced after him. “Wait! I thought you said…”
“You’re not my type.” Francis flicked his ponytail over his shoulder. “But you were useful. I bet you get that all the time.”
Karma came back around, wounding Amber’s pretty smile. She sulked, tightening her arms around her sorority jacket. “You’re an asshole.”
“And don’t you forget it.” Francis snapped his fingers. “We’re leaving, Owen.”
Holding open the passenger door, Owen looked between Jagger and Kelly. The guilt in his eyes was enough of an apology for them both. Something was definitely up and Francis seemed to hold the reins of the operation, even though Owen was captain. It seemed so backwards to Jagger and Kelly. They shared a look before Kelly jerked around.
“Owen, you can come with us, you and Shay both.” Kelly stepped forward. “We can finish the hunt together.”
Headlights blinded him. Francis slammed his hand on the horn, scaring Kelly away. When the vehicle reversed down the drive, Owen was gone.
“I told you this place is evil.” Jagger took his hand. “I’m sorry your first night’s been so shitty. I wanted you to have fun.”
Kelly squeezed back. “Forget it. You’re the one who got tied to a chair. Let’s worry about you, okay?” He scanned Jagger’s painted chest. “And we might want to get you cleaned up. Your chest is scaring me.”
They both chuckled. “That’s the first complaint I’ve had about it so far.” Jagger smacked Kelly’s arm. “Thanks for coming with me tonight. It would’ve sucked being alone.”
“And it didn’t suck being together?” Kelly snorted. “No, I’m kidding. No thanks needed. You’re not so bad.”
“You guys are ridiculous. I’m going inside.” Amber stomped off.
“Turns out you aren’t really useful after all,” Kelly called. He smiled when the door to the Smith House slammed shut.
“You gotta stop with that mouth.” Jagger ruffled Kelly’s hair. “I thought I was bad.”
Another car pulled down the drive. They fell silent. Caution flowed through them both. A white jeep stopped next to Jagger’s car and Luca got out. “Hey, Winegarten, are you okay?” He jogged across the lawn. “Shit, look at you. Some people, I swear. Are you hurt? Do we need to take you to the hospital?”
“Nah, I’m good. I think I have a clean shirt in my trunk to cover this up for now.” Jagger pointed to his chest.
“Roses are red? They probably wanted you to go crazy wondering what it meant. I hate cryptic shit. That’s exactly why I loathe Calculus.” Luca grinned. “Good news is you have two options for the night. We can go back to headquarters and get plastered, or we can go to the party…and get plastered. Either way we have to make one teensy stop before we get there.”
Kelly bit his lip. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
Luca seemed surprised. “You like me, huh? You know that’s forbidden, right, RAs and students.”
His dream night with Luca shattered, Kelly shook his head. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Jagger sighed. “Dude, could we can the bad news tonight? Kelly and I need to take our minds off of everything.”
Luca sputtered with laughter. “What? I was just kidding. Geez, lighten up, boys. RAs are students too, just so you know. That rule wouldn’t make a lick of sense, don’t you agree, Kelly?”
“Um, sure.” Kelly’s face flushed.
Slinging an arm around Kelly, shaking him a bit, Jagger smirked. “I heard something about a party?”
“Yep.” Luca pocketed his keys. “And you’re driving. I want to see what that baby can do. She’s yours, right?” He wagged his brows at the car.
“Well, I don’t mean to step on my friend’s toes here,” Jagger winked at Kelly, “but I think I like you, too.”
“Oh my god.” Kelly covered his face, mortified. “Can we just leave already?”
“Yes, come on.” Jagger dangled his keys. He led the way to the car. “You know it’s only a two-seater, right?”
Luca smiled. “Guess that means De Angelo gets to sit on my lap.”
“Mother of god…” Kelly flushed bright red.
Minutes later, Jagger ripped down the private drive and onto the main road. Kelly was strapped in against Luca, trying his best to breathe while not achieving a massive boner.
They had a party to get to, where they would forget the last seven hours had ever happened, except the part where Luca was totally hard, seated behind Kelly in Jagger’s car. That was something Kelly didn’t want to forget.
TO BE CONTINUED…
MUSIC FROM THIS EPISODE:
See you all next week!