St. Valentine’s Day Dance 1986
St. Elizabeth’s High School
What the hell does she want from me?
Jake Marcott hated to think what her plans might be. Standing in the near-freezing night air, he braced himself for whatever demands she was certain to make. Bitch!
He didn’t know whether he loved her or hated her.
He lit a cigarette with shaky fingers, a residual effect from the car accident that had left his best friend dead and nearly taken his own life.
God, he missed that crazy son of a bitch. Things would have turned out so differently if Ian hadn’t been thrown through the windshield. If his goddamned neck hadn’t been broken. Shit! The crash and spray of glass, the screech of tires, the groan of metal twisting and splitting still echoed through Jake’s brain. Ian’s face, freckled from too much sun, floated into Jake’s mind for just a second before Jake pushed it quickly away. Too many times he’d wondered what would have happened if the tables had been turned, if Ian were still alive and he had been the one to die.
It messed him up to think about it.
Everything seemed washed out and pale now... the joy bled from it.
He drew hard on his cigarette and thought about the tranquilizers in his pocket: the prescription that Doc Flanders just kept refilling, barely asking any questions, somehow knowing how deep Jake’s pain was, that the little white tablets were a nearly useless balm for the ache splitting his soul.
Get over it, Marcott, he told himself and was pissed that he was here in his damned tuxedo, missing the dance and waiting for her. When would he ever learn?
Clearing his throat, he looked around at this, the eeriest part of St. Elizabeth’s campus.
Why this lame, clandestine meeting?
Because she’s a psycho. You know it. You’ve always known it.
Jake took a drag from his cigarette and let smoke stream from his nostrils in the cold night air. He shoved a hand through his hair and glared up at the night-dark heavens. A few stars were visible, not that he cared. He was sick of dealing with the fallout from the accident, his woman problems, and the whole damned world. Eighteen fucking years old and he sometimes felt that his life was a waste.
So where was she?
He glanced around and wondered if she’d show.
Tired of waiting, he tossed what was left of his Marlboro into the darkness, watching the red ember arc, then sizzle and die on the frosty grass. He glanced up at the full moon hanging low in the sky and heard the thrum of a bass guitar throb through the hills. Edgy, his nerves strung tight as the piano wires inside his grandmother’s old upright, he paced back and forth in front of the oak tree just as he’d been told. Hidden deep in the maze of hedges, the leafless oak seemed to shiver in the wind, brittle branches reaching upward like skeletal arms scraping the sky.
From deep in the maze he was invisible to anyone. Even a crafty old nun peering out of her third-story window in the hundred-year-old brick building guarding the acres of this campus couldn’t see him here.
The place gave him a bad case of the creeps. Throughout the rounded corners and dead ends of the lush labyrinth, benches, fountains, and statues had been placed. Beneath the oak a sculpture of the Madonna stared down beneficently. Arms upraised, she stood silent, white as bleached bones, and surrounded by topiary cut into the shapes of dark creatures that, tonight, seemed sculpted by the devil.
Oh, for Christ’s sake, it’s just plants, Marcott. Nothin’ more.
Angrier by the minute, he glanced at the digital readout of his watch.
She was late. Nearly ten minutes late. So he’d give her another five and then he was gone...a ghost.
Besides, he had more important things to do than to waste time on her.
He whipped around, toward the sound of a twig breaking.
He saw no one.
“Hey, I’m here,” he said in his normal voice.
Nothing...no response, just the faraway thrum of music and laughter and the soft whisper of the wind.
A stealthy footstep.
The hairs on his nape lifted.
Surely it was she.
“’Bout time you showed up,” he said to the inky darkness, his heart pounding a little.
“I was about to give up on you.”
Again, she didn’t say a word.
Christ, what was the problem with her?
Always playing these damn head games.
At that thought, he smiled...maybe that’s what she wanted. For him to chase her down. Find her in this maze of clipped shrubbery.
He heard the sound of a footstep again. Closer now. And something else... breathing.
Oh, she was close . . .
“I know you’re there,” he whispered.
He couldn’t help the smile that threatened his lips.
Still, she didn’t respond.
All the better.
“Have it your way,” he said. “I’ll find you.”
His eyes narrowed in the night and he noticed a dark shape move a bit ...away from the twisted shadows of the topiary only to fade away again.
So this is what she wanted.
A thrill of anticipation sang through his brain. His blood heated.
Jake Marcott could never back away from a challenge.
Where the hell is Jake?
He’d been gone for over ten minutes, and Kristen had the first worrisome sensation that she’d been ditched. At the high-school dance. By her new boyfriend. On the two-month anniversary of when they’d started dating. It was like the lyrics of some bad 1950s song.
Don’t panic, he said he’d be right back. Just find him, she told herself.
Jake was easy to spot. At six-four, he stood half a head taller than most of the boys and a foot above a lot of the girls, so why couldn’t she spot him? “Where are you, Jake?” she muttered to herself. Tall and lean, with wide shoulders, thick brown hair, and an almost shy smile that had caused many a girl’s heart to beat triple time, Jake Marcott was definitely a hunk.
Kristen scanned the packed gym, her gaze skating over the knots of students clustered in the corners and crannies of the old gym. A few couples were dancing beneath a canopy of twinkling lights strung from the ancient rafters. Music thrummed, drowning out most conversation, and a fog machine, supplied by the DJ, gave the old building a creepy, intimate ambience. It was late, nearly eleven, and most of the guys had ditched their ties and jackets, but the girls were still dressed in gowns of silk, satin, lace, and chiffon, some sophisticated and sleek, some outrageously frilly, but all far more interesting than the stupid uniforms they wore daily to this, the last all-girls Catholic school in Portland.
Kristen felt chilled to the bone. With no more answers than she had twenty years earlier. She walked to the tree and shined a light on the gnarled trunk.
“Oh, Jake,” she whispered when she found the mark in the rough bark and ran her fingers in the groove. “Who did this to you?”
Over the drip of the rain, she heard a foreign sound, a rustle of leaves in the wind.
She turned and shined her flashlight onto the hedge behind her. Wet, shiny leaves quivered.
She froze. Felt a frisson of fear. Who else was out here? Had someone followed her? Watched her?
Her heart pounded.
It was probably just a raccoon or possum or skunk…
Her pulse pounding in her ears, Kristen moved her small swath of illumination across the wide expanse of greenery, a weak beam of light that seemed to be dimming in the rain. She saw nothing. No movement. Heard no sound other than her own rapid heartbeat and the steady drip of the rain.
No one was here. She was alone.
Quickly, she scanned the area one last time, then turned and made her way out of the labyrinth. She only made one wrong turn, righted herself, and sprinted across the parking lot and over the blemished tarmac of the alley until she found her car parked where she’d left it.
She’d never been so glad to see her little Honda in her life. She unlocked the car with her remote and the Honda’s lights flashed. After tossing the flashlight and her purse into the backseat, she slid behind the wheel and flipped off her coat hood.
Rain slid down her neck. She switched on the ignition and the radio came on…but she hadn’t been listening to it on the way over to the school…
She glanced down at the illuminated dash and realized it wasn’t the radio at all, but a cassette, stuffed into its slot in the dash. She heard garbled sounds and laughter and music…familiar sounds…oh…my…God… The hairs on the back of Kristen’s neck raised as she listened. The song was a Springsteen classic. “Dancing In The Dark.”
A shudder slid down her spine, and she glanced through the windshield where the wipers were already moving, scraping a pink piece of paper back and forth.
Glancing around, she opened the window and snagged the soggy piece of paper from the glass. The letters on the pink page were faded, the paper nearly torn to shreds, but she recognized it for what it was: the photograph of her and Jake taken at the Valentine’s Dance two decades earlier. A picture she’d hidden far away in a scrapbook that she hadn’t looked at in years. Her stomach knotted as she stared at their faces, smiling, carefree, innocently unaware of what the horrid night would bring. Worse yet, scrawled across their smiles was a jagged red slash, the color of blood.
Kristen nearly screamed.
But she didn’t have to.
Because as Bruce Springsteen’s voice faded and the sounds of the dance so long ago disappeared into the night, there was a second of silence, a click, and then the tape issued a scream of pure, unadulterated terror…
So it’s finally going to happen.
Twenty long years had passed, twenty years of questions, twenty years of heartbreak, twenty years of fear.
Jake Marcott’s killer smiled inwardly. She had waited a long time for this, been patient, knowing that eventually the Fates would work with, rather than against, her and she’d get her chance to finally settle the score.
After Jake’s death there had been a time of fear and panic. She’d vowed to herself that she had done all that was necessary, but of course, she’d been wrong. She knew about the reunion meeting and itched to be there, a mouse in the corner, listening and planning, knowing that at last it was time to strike again, to right the very old and bitter wrongs.
Get ready, she thought, tucking her hair into a hat and glancing at the overcast skies. She thought back to that night, to seeing Jake’s eyes find her in the moonlight. His teeth had been a slash of amused white, his cocky expression changing as she’d lifted the already-armed crossbow, leveled the heavy weapon at his chest, and let the arrow fly.
Jake Marcott had taken one in the heart.
Right where he deserved it.
She smiled at the memory. Not once in the past twenty years had she regretted Jake’s demise.
Better yet, she’d gotten away with it. She’d left the damning weapon at the scene of the crime, but the stolen crossbow could never be connected to anyone at the dance that night.
No one knew.
She smiled as she looked into the mirror.
Jake Marcott’s murder had never been solved.
And the class of 1986 had never been the same.
There had been no five-year reunion, or ten. No one had said a word when fifteen years had passed, but now, on the eve of the closure of St. Elizabeth’s, the class of ’86 was going to meet one more time.
For some, it would be the last…
Excerpted from MOST LIKELY TO DIE © Copyright 2011 by Lisa Jackson, Beverly Barton and Wendy Corsi Staub. Reprinted with permission by Zebra, an imprint of Kensington Books. All rights reserved.
Most Likely to Die