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The W-D 40 had been smuggled from the workshop in the parish lockup while the trusty was distracted.
The makeshift lighter had been a little harder. A couple of batteries had been filched from an old boom box, and a conductor fashioned from wiring on a lamp in for repair. It worked well for touching off a cigarette.
The question remained: would it produce enough flame for what he needed?
A carefully rolled page from a magazine touched to the coil. White smoke danced after a second. Then, wait for it, a flicker of flame danced.
Just enough. The spray can’s nozzle was pressed and…
Flame streamed forward, licking the fiberglass window at the end of the hallway overlooking the fourth floor roof. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the courthouse parking garage.
Slowly the glass bubbled, browned, sizzled…
A while before the first text message appeared, rain began, and Allison knew it was time to move the trash can under the dingy spot on the ceiling. She’d been at Pine College almost two years, and she was used to the small headaches. Leaks in the Evergreen Gazette office ceiling were the least of them.
“So it definitely wasn’t Trenton?” she asked, a fingertip against the Blue Tooth earpiece.
She grabbed the can and positioned it to catch the drip that was coming. No one else on the newspaper staff noticed or thanked her. They just kept pounding their stories or looking into space for inspiration, or they watched CNN’s headline crawl on the muted TV set mounted in one corner.
If she’d wanted Ali could probably have turned a few heads, but she didn’t really try. The loose fitting cargo pants and the hoodie over her tee shirt didn’t accentuate her angular form. She wore no makeup, and her blond hair was allowed to spill to her shoulders in untended waves. The hint of darkness at the roots seemed a little out of place given the lack of concern with her appearance, but no one looked too closely.
A brief shower wasn’t usually a problem, but any rain of consequence meant a puddle formed in some sweet spot on the roof that trickled moisture down into the newspaper office in a drum beat that shattered everyone’s concentration.
The leak was probably why the area couldn’t be used for storage any longer. That in turn was probably why the space had been handed over to Pine’s slowly dying journalism program. The world of news was changing, enrollment at Pine was down in general due to a variety of factors, and journalism was one of the hardest hit curriculums.
“It was the boyfriend of a girl practicing in the next room,” said the security officer, a no-nonsense guy named Leland Fox. “He was trying to deliver sheet music and picked the wrong piano. The girl had her pepper spray ready.”
Just as she got the trash can in place, the slow drip began.
Most of the buildings at Pine had some sort of problem. This was a mild one in comparison to dorms that had been shut down, no longer meeting fire codes or structural requirements. They stood around campus, dying hulks with no money in the budget for razing.
At least the leak didn’t threaten Allison’s desk. It just dribbled, harmlessly in the grand scheme, midway between the conference table and the window which provided a good view of the monsoon thrashing the trees outside while dumping harsh November rain.
“Guy going to be OK?”
“Looks like he’s been watching a week’s worth of Lifetime tearjerkers, but he’ll live. Took him to the campus clinic. They’re flushing his eyes.”
“Got his name?”
Fox read it from notes, and she swung back to her desk to key it in, noting two n’s in the first time.
“Donn Twedt,” she repeated aloud. “Must be something Irish in the background. That’s the lord of the underworld. Or it means brown.” The knowledge came from growing up with her old man who remained fiercely aware of his Irish roots.
The guard was silent, stoic. Nothing to say to that or any small talk.
“Any sign that Trenton is on campus?” she asked.
Still crisp and curt. The guy’s name was Leland Fox. She’d interviewed him a lot of times. He was the most emotionless redhead she’d ever met, his style always matter of fact and dismissive of any questions she posed about campus safety. Always interspersed with ma’am that had nothing to do with real courtesy. Nothing to see here. Move along.
“Have you swept all of the old dorms?”
“We’ve checked, Miss Rose. All is secure, and they’re not particularly hospitable. If you don’t mind, I really need to get back to my report.”
She yanked out the earpiece and tossed it on her desk next to her associate editor name plaque, which sat askew amid fast food wrappers, an apple, Diet Coke bottle and charger cords.
Opening a fresh document, she began to write.
“More Trenton madness?”
The jolt through her muscles was almost electrical. Her shoulders rose, her back straightened, her head twitched and her fingers tensed into the keys. Brett Brooks, the editor, hadn’t spoken loudly, but he had approached in silence. He had a habit of that, and Ali had a habit of reacting to sudden sound. Or sudden anything.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to…”
“They’re escalating. You going to write that blog post?”
She squeaked her chair a couple of inches back so that he could see her notes. Obliging, he leaned in, sweeping a few shaggy waves of hair back as he read.
Brett’s appearance was always a bit untended like Ali’s. He shaved sporadically and tended toward faded jeans and sports shirts with signs of wear, often donning a floppy brimmed fedora with a showy feather to contain his curls which spilled almost to his shoulders.
“Had to hurt. Anyone actually seen Trenton?” he asked.
“Security says no confirmed sightings, just suspicious reports.”
“Hysteria. Has anyone ever seen a seedy little killer behave this way?”
“Men in love do strange things. Maybe he wants to walk where she walked, or where she would have walked.”
“Still, I could talk to one of the psychology professors.”
“We don’t want to stoke this any more. Just write up the basics on the incident, don’t editorialize. Don’t over explain.”
“You could do that on your blog, dissect the issue. It’s part of the bigger problem here.” She nodded toward the drip.
Debate between the two had raged for a long time, and Ali rarely let a point drop without a battle. Brett always said her head was harder than Chinese algebra with a broken abacus.
“Ali, you’re not at the Washington Post. I don’t know why you picked this challenged, backwater college to develop your talents, but…”
She tried to interrupt. He stayed her response with a lifted gesture.
“Trenton’s probably in Cozumel, not living in a condemned building. He’d have to worry about body odor before he could blend in here. Everyone’s around his age, but they don’t all look and smell like they’re sleeping on the ground.”
“Have you walked around campus lately?”
“OK, I’ll stipulate to some unwashed. Just the facts in the story, though, let’s move on.
You have impressive clips on covering campus crime. Let the ambition go.”
“It’s not about my ambition. It’s about admin and…”
“Like you said, we have bigger issues than someone who’s not there.”
“Bigger than student safety?”
“Parking’s coming up again at the Student Government meeting.”
“Parking? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s been on the agenda for weeks.”
“Yeah, but the Concerned Student Association’s planning to attend to challenge Dean Myrick’s decision about permits and time limit. We have students who are not letting him bully them.”
“A kerfuffle? Don’t think this storm will put a damper on things?”
The drip had accelerated and a pool was starting to form at the bottom of the can.
“They’ll be wet and angry because they had a long walk because parking sucks. It’s a long-term issue and goes to infrastructure.” He rolled his eyes toward the leaky tile. “Why don’t you plan to sit in on the meeting, see what comes of it? The league has good points, and it’s sticking it to Myrick if you report them. Shows he’s busy with big picture concepts and not dealing with…”
“I’m finishing the Trenton story, and then there’s the…”
“I know people are nervous, but I don’t see another front page story to try to bring in blood hounds. The cops aren’t even looking around here.”
“What about kids getting pepper sprayed?”
“There we have the dangers of irresponsible journalism.”
“How’s that our fault? We just reported the climate after his escape, and the fact that admin’s not dealing with it.”
“`Campus gripped by fear.’ That’s not stoking?”
“That’s reporting. It was a quote. I stand by that. The administration hasn’t done effective sweeps of the old buildings. If they had a better security presence and conveyed a better sense that they’re equipped to deal with the situation if Trenton is on campus, things like this wouldn’t happen. If they can’t tear down the old buildings, what about better lighting?”
“In parking lots?”
Her shoulders slumped.
“Why are you so fixated on one issue?” Brett asked.
But she held back, let the breath that would have carried more words seep out silently, more in dejection than exasperation. Her resolve was weakening.
“Give me three paragraphs on the pepper spray. Facts only,” Brett said. “Knock that out, then get to the Student Government meeting.”
“Send Tatman. That suits his skills.”
“What walking? You don’t need to let the freshmen do all your legwork.”
“You can’t always be a journalist from your desk. You can’t live life in a box. Sometimes you have to get out in the storm. You need to get out more in general.”
“I’d rather it wasn’t for a parking protest.”
“That’s campus news. It’s really happening. Trenton being here is speculative fiction.”
“We don’t know that because security hasn’t done adequate checks.”
“Prove that later. Until then, cover the meeting.”
“Again, why can’t someone else do that and let me focus on the big problem?” She gestured toward the other desks where students continued either typing or perusing notes. They’d learned to shut out raised voices when they were Ali and Brett.
“Tatman or any one of them would come back with a paragraph. You have the chops. Look, I know your old man did a number on you…”
She shook her head and closed her eyes tight, bouncing her hair about. “Don’t bring my father into this.”
Her teeth were clenched.
“The Colonel demanded discipline. I’m trying to channel it in my favor. Ten hut, follow your editor’s orders.”
Allison grabbed a computer tablet and shoved it into her backpack.
“OK, I’ll go. My old man wasn’t just about discipline. One of his camping trips was like survivalist training.”
She shoved debris around her desk and grabbed charger cords, quickly wrapping those to join the tablet in her backpack. She could dig those out if she needed to during the meeting. Her own pepper spray canister she slipped into the mesh pocket meant for a water bottle on the side of her backpack. That kept it visible and accessible.
“Do what I need you to do now,” Brett was saying. “Slough off the damage of the past after.”
She grabbed the lap drawer handle. She’d need the old micro recorder for this and writing implements for backup. But the drawer didn’t slide open as it should. Strange.
She gave it a little more of a tug. More resistance. Was something wedged? A little more of a pull still didn’t get it to yield. One more thing not working on campus.
“I don’t know why you have such a bad attitude about all of this,” Brett said. “Parking is a big issue. It should be interesting. Heads will be butted.”
“It’s easier just to walk.”
“Not everyone has your lack of enthusiasm for mobility.”
“Walking’s good for everyone.”
Duct tape. She felt a jaw muscle ripple as red clouded her vision and she clenched her teeth. Another fucking prank?
She yanked, brute force overcoming the adhesive bond. As the drawer opened, a sudden flutter of something yellow and noisy gushed out.
Allison’s scream rattled the windows more than the thunder, and she swatted at the sudden tentacles that were flailing out of her drawer. Her heartbeat was already thundering when she realized what she was seeing. A tape measure. It had been tugged from its casing, loosely folded and placed for an eruption.
The laughter behind her was instantaneous, and she felt the boil sending fire to her cheeks as she wheeled.
“You sons of bitches.”
Alton Witt and Erik Tatman were doubled into almost matching balls of giggling madness.
Their faces were red too. They needed oxygen, but laughter was preventing breaths.
“Sons of bitches. Sounds like an English Lord saying it,” Alton said.
“How many does that make?” Erik asked. He was the taller of the two, a seemingly clean cut blond farm boy with a devilish gleam.
“Seven,” said the shorter, impish Alton who held up Ali’s recorder. “Documented.”
He tapped the small display screen which was showing simply a Track 1.
“Very fucking funny,” Ali sad, triggering the button on the tape measure. In a whoosh, the clanging metal was sucked back into the casing. She stuffed it into her backpack with the charger cords to make it clear they weren’t getting it back.
It was indeed number seven, and she wasn’t sure her heart could take more. Once they’d noticed she could be startled or frustrated with minimal effort, they’d launched a small campaign of practical jokes starting with the placement of a cardboard cutout of Whorf from Star Trek which they’d positioned just inside the office door one night, knowing she’d be the first one in the next morning and would instantly reach for the light switch, only to find herself in the line with a Phaser and a stern expression.
“Are you sure it was seven?” Erik asked.
“We had the wheels off the chair, the uh deal with Whorf…”
Erik held up a finger as a count. “The paperclip.”
“What’s it documented for?” Brett asked, wearied but not rising to anger.
“Some freaking prank website. I think they get points for everything they upload.”
“We got video of the paper clip surprise,” Erik said.
“I still think it plays a little slow on the web,” Alton responded.
Brett gave Ali a quizzical look.
“I kept trying to copy some form they needed on file in the admissions office, and a paperclip kept showing when the page spat out.”
“But there was nothing on the scanner bed,” Brett said.
Though he tried to suppress it, his grin was persistent. “You photocopy a stack of pages with a paper clip and put ‘em in the feeder.”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” Ali said.
“After about a forest worth of printouts,” Alton said.
“I figured it out,” Ali said.
“We had to do time lapse on the video it took so long.”
Brett wiped the grin. “OK, both of you have assignments, and your scholarships, such as they are, are subject to your performance. Why don’t you get back to those, and see if you can find more than a paragraph to write.”
Their giggles sank into silence, but their stomachs kept twitching as more laughter tried to escape.
“And give Ali her recorder back.”
“But we didn’t upload it yet,” Erik protested.
“You guys want to upload, why don’t you make it news video to the Gazette website?” Brett said.
He fluttered fingers toward himself, and Erik plopped the recorder into his palm.
Ali accepted it in turn and added that to her backpack. Then she reached to the Diet Coke next to the apple she’d been saving. Brett’s hand suddenly encircled her wrist before she could twist the lid.
She started to tug, but he was shaking his head.
“Tape measure’s lame. It’s a diversion,” he said, cocking a sinister gaze toward the freshmen staffers.
He tapped the lid. “You bought this out of the machine right?”
“It’s got a price tag. It’s covering the tiny piece of fishing line that’s holding the Mento inside. You open it, it’s going to…”
Realization washed Ali’s features. “Drop the Mento in for a chemical reaction.”
She looked at Erik and Alton.
“Old school,” Alton said.
Their shoulders slumped, and they and moved away, mainly because Brett was on hand, glaring.
“Stand up to them like you do administration, and they’ll cut it out,” he said softly from the corner of his mouth as they escaped earshot.
“They just giggle more when I stand up to them. Why don’t you suspend their scholarships?”
“That’s Stokley’s call. He’d rather suspend my stipend than lose his recruits. Not easy to get new journalism students in. Salary dot com did an ROI article on the cost of education vs. the job payout, kind of stressing that not everybody gets to be on CNN.”
“World needs trained journalists.”
“Needs a viable way to monetize news too.”
“It’s a world full of challenges.”
She dropped the Diet Coke into her backpack also as Brett headed back to his desk. She was about to grab her cell and head for the door when the small blip sounded.
She was judicious in giving out her contact information, so that seemed a little curious.
She picked it up.
The little word balloon had no attribution. Just a message.
You write good stories, Aligirl.
Want an exclusive?
She frowned. Just for a second. Then she jerked around. Alton and Erik at it again already? They’d returned to their desks and seemed to be engaged in meaningful pursuits, either typing or reading notes. No one had a phone in hand.
With her thumbs, Ali hammered a quick response.
who do u think
Ali thumbed again.
Supposed to think you’re Trenton?
Wnt my side told.
Clearly Alton and Erik had an ally, and she didn’t have time for it. Not with Brett expecting parking meeting coverage. She had to get across campus. In a monsoon. She tugged her rain poncho from its folded place in her back pack. Those who went on foot always had to be prepared.
With her backpack over a shoulder, she slid into the rain hood, pocketed her phone and headed past the drip and around the conference table for the door.
She’d taken three paces into the hallway when a ringtone sounded.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I don’t have time for…”
“I think you know who this is.”
She froze for a moment, ice crystals forming along her spine.
Two thoughts, two possibilities danced in her brain. Neither dance partner seemed particularly appealing.
“Who is it?”
“Who’ve you been writing about?”
“Got any proof?”
“Anything that lets me know you’re not Alton Tatman’s hayseed buddy from back home?”
“They never found the gown.”
“The nightgown she was wearing that night. The cops don’t have it.”
“The cops don’t have it because I do.”
“Anybody could buy a gown.”
“Don’t you want to know why it happened? How Jeanetta died?”
“Why are you so anxious to spill it?”
“I’ve read your stories. I can tell you care about the truth. That’s all I want, my side told.
Then I’ll go back. I’ll let them lock me up again.”
“I didn’t know they delivered the Gazette to abandoned buildings. Look whoever you are,
She clicked off again, put the phone on mute and headed for the stairs. Parking debate awaited. But she couldn’t shake the feeling the phone call was more than a prank.
The year it occurred, the abduction and death of Jeanetta Mays had dominated headlines and newscasts in Aimsley, Louisiana. The blonde honor student from a modest middle class family had been nearing high school graduation, her future filled with promise.
Her plan was to stay close to home for a couple of years, so she’d selected Pine College to study music with a focus on piano performance. It was not the unassertive choice it might have appeared. While the school was close to home, small and private, its music program had attracted talented professors and built a reputation for sending students in interesting directions including victory in national and international competitions, placement with significant symphonies and success on Broadway.
The college had financial issues and an infrastructure with a few problems, but it was not a fallback, especially with the scholarships. They couldn’t give her a full ride, but most of the trip was to be covered.
Some friends were envious. All predicted achievement and applauded her decision.
But there was Thomas Trenton.
She’d caught his notice their freshman year when she still wore braces on her teeth and looked like she still belonged in junior high. Even then her golden hair and blue eyes had captivated the slight, dark-haired Trenton, who lived with his father, whose list of occupations included Bible and used car salesman and delivery driver. The elder Trenton had slipped past a conviction on delivering product to meth dealers on a technicality that left the Riverland Parish Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office pointing fingers of blame for what should have been a slam dunk verdict if not a confession. If he’d served any time, Thomas would have become a ward of the state and would have been moved away from the small community where he and Jeanetta lived. It was just one of those ifs.
Trenton had asked her first to go to a freshman mixer dance. She’d declined, the decision two parts hers, one part her father’s who didn’t want her associating with a slightly shifty kid shrouded with the dingy atmosphere that seemed to cling to some of the town’s long term families.
Advances had not ceased there. In her sophomore year, the braces had come off, and she’d exchanged her glasses for contacts for her farsightedness. They allowed her to read music without covering the blue eyes from her mother’s side, Nordic roots.
While her awkward younger appearance had first caught Trenton’s attention because he thought she might be accessible, her graceful turn seemed to enrapture him. He couldn’t look away.
He approached her in the school hallways, and, after 10th grade literature, began to write her sonnets. He slipped those through vents in her locker. She threw them away, but she remained polite to him on any encounter. She’d been brought up that way.
Some speculated an emphatic no might have driven him away, but most felt little would have dissuaded Trent and said so in television news interviews. Later.
“He was too far gone on her by 10th grade,” Candy Sims, a longtime friend of Jeanetta’s had assured an HLN host in one of the many programs focusing on the case during Trenton’s trial.
That had followed their senior year by only a few months. Six students at Penn’s Ferry High had failed to walk in the commencement exercises that year.
Four were held back for academic reasons.
Jeanetta because she was dead.
Trenton because he was in jail awaiting trial.
Allison bowed into the slashing rain, letting the poncho hood deflect the pounding drops even though it kept her looking mostly at her feet. She’d been at Pine three semesters. The trip didn’t require scanning the horizon. The expedition took her past the library and, in a while, a pair of abandoned dorms, sagging edifices shaped for their time and showing the years both in architectural style and with the weathering of wood and stone. Brett kept talking about finding a way inside for a photo essay, a two-page spread of ruin porn for the print edition with more photos online. She would prod again.
Leveling the buildings would make a lot of room for parking. Brett would never admit it, but the issue had been his focus for weeks since he’d been issued a parking ticket by a zealous security officer. Bret had been visiting one of the active dorms for a date with a freshman groupie, and he’d been informed he wasn’t allowed a car there during those hours.
“What frickin’ difference does it make at 10:30 on a Friday?” hadn’t caused the officer to waiver, and the summons he’d issued could result in the withholding of grades if not paid. Ali shrugged the hood back when she reached the top step of Campbell Hall, the slightly younger building that housed almost all of the campus administrative offices from admissions to the offices of deans and the president. She was shaking rain away before entering when the flutter caught her eye. It was somewhere back near one of the old buildings.
Had someone just ducked behind one of the cedar shrubs? Seeing nothing after a few seconds, she decided it was nerves and the wind and not Thomas Trenton. Even if he was hiding out on campus to walk where his beloved walked in pursuit of her dreams, he probably wouldn’t be contacting Allison for an exclusive. He probably hadn’t even seen the Gazette. If the text hadn’t come from someone in league with Alton and Erik, it was someone else taunting her, someone who’d read her news stories or the EvergreenAli Twitter feed she’d created for instant updates for all of her reporting.
Her icon was a large A in the Courier font, looking like a typewriter stroke with an accompanying ink streak. She yanked her phone out once she’d stepped into the building and tapped off a quick message. EvergreenAli: Covering meeting on parking debate. Will Concerned League hopes be deflated? Off to the conference room. The suspense was maddening.
Nina Pierce cursed the rain and her supervisor. She was pulling a double shift today, and he’d demanded the afternoon side include a sweep of the parking lot while most of the security staff worked a student government meeting that promised to get rowdy.
Though she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to issue tickets in the rain, admin was obsessed with enforcement on new parking regs. The grumpy old men were determined commuters would not encroach on the convenience of those paying campus housing and food service fees. Such high rollers needed to be preserved as attendance dwindled.
She adjusted her raincoat. That meant slogging around out here before reporting to the security desk for a whole evening of dorm lockouts and intruder sightings that turned out to be shadows.
She’d probably have Chet—poor guy was pushing probably 90—shuffling all over campus. He wouldn’t be able to catch any shuteye in the strategic spots he stopped on his rounds. If he wasn’t such a crotchety old bastard, she might feel sorry for him.
Great place she’d landed at 34. The hours weren’t much better than the dispatch job she’d held at the sheriff’s department. That’s where she’d settled after her first post-husband-decampment job at a quick stop. She’d always felt she fled that position one step ahead of an armed robbery. She was starting to second guess the decision for a change from the sheriff’s department. There, at least, she hadn’t had meter maid duties, and the jury was still out on which was worse to deal with, the general population or college kids.
As a dispatcher, she’d worked one floor down from the parish lockup, and she’d always kept in mind what she’d do if the inmates rioted. She had escape routes mapped in case of student uprising as well. Uprising wasn’t unheard of, the way the administration operated. The place was getting a little rundown. She supposed she should be thankful the required level of reporting on students stopped short of having her snap cell phone photos of public displays of affection.
Kids called security the secret police as it was. They didn’t quite have a handle on how similar their lot was to that of the security staff. She was not being tracked by GPS at the moment since she was performing parking lot patrol on her way in to work, but usually the modern version of the security guard’s meter, the old ball-and-chain, made her feel like her supervisor was Big Brother.
She was mulling what other job opportunities might be out there when she saw the kid staggering near the end of a row of cars. Not many students were out and about given the rain, so he looked like a lone and lost bird, stooped and steadying himself against a rear fender of some trust fund kid’s Beamer.
“You OK?” she asked, stopping a few cars back and lifting her voice to be heard above the rain.
He didn’t respond. She started to reach for her cell first since she wasn’t carrying a walkie talkie on this round, but she decided to check first. Maybe he was just engrossed in a Blue Tooth conversation.
She stepped closer, put a hand on his shoulder and gripped with just a little pressure, just enough to let him know she was there. “You OK, kid?”
He turned with a motion that seemed abrupt and almost animatronic. God, what was wrong with his face?
Copyright 2016 Sidney Williams