Brenda Long was dead.
Her killer glanced over his shoulder, then back down at the dead girl. His heart pounded like a caged animal’s. Sweat ran down his neck. He took a deep breath, wiped his mouth, then looked down again into Brenda’s face. “So you want to talk, do you?” he muttered in an effort to keep his mind focused on what he’d just done. As he’d planned, he slipped his switchblade from his pocket.
Suddenly, in the darkness and isolation, he felt exposed. Like prying eyes were nearby. He stiffened. A cat stepped in front of him and stared, a field mouse dangling from its mouth. The cat sprinted off into the darkness and he felt the sting of a mosquito bite.
The full moon, which hovered over the forest, flashed through the trees and lit up the area. The air was quiet except for the faint sound of a foraging animal somewhere. He tightened his fingers on the knife handle.
The memory of how this Thursday began flooded his mind.
He’d awakened to the sound of his alarm clock. No sooner had he flipped the alarm off when the telephone rang. He had to answer it, he was the only one at home; his mother and her old man had gone to Tennessee for a few days. They had taken off on one of their gambling trips; their club having chartered a bus to take them there.
“Hello,” he’d said, angry to be called at that hour.
“This is Brenda. Meet me in the cafeteria before first period!”
Hanging up, he’d felt tension tighten in the back of his neck. The feeling reminded him of his serpentine neck chain. He decided not to wear it or his new fourteen-karat gold bracelet. Something in the tone of Brenda’s voice warned against drawing attention to himself. He was glad he hadn’t driven his Jaguar around town. Nobody knew he had it because he hadn’t figured out a way yet to explain how he could afford such a car.
His problem now was how to get to school quick enough to meet Brenda before classes started. His mama had driven her old Chevrolet to where the bus would pick them up. He’d have to drive Bo Pete’s ten-year-old Mercedes.
An hour later, he sat with Brenda in the back of the cafeteria. She had thick black hair that feathered over small ears. Her eyes were oval, her nose narrow. She wore a pair of black slacks and a bright yellow turtleneck.
Students moved in and out of the cafeteria, but nobody came near them. He had a reputation — kids knew not to approach him while on campus. A few guys flipped their hand signs. He nodded absently, not caring that their gestures were a respectful acknowledgment. He was busy listening to Brenda: she was worried, by the look in her eyes.
“I’m tripping over this thing!”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything. He struggled to come up with an explanation that made sense. He couldn’t believe that she knew what was going on. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he finally answered.
“Cut the crap,” Brenda said. She picked up her black purse and pulled out a mirror.
He could tell that Brenda didn’t see the fear in his eyes; she was too busy looking at her own face in the small hand mirror. She nodded as if pleased with what she saw, then she slipped the mirror back into her bag. “I’m going to turn you in to the authorities, but I know you’re getting the stuff from a supplier,” she said. “There’s no way you could be bringing it into town by yourself. What I’m offering you is a deal. If you go with me, tell them where you get the stuff, things will go easy on you.”
His face tightened. He held out the palms of his hands, as if he was pleading with her. “Listen, I don’t know what you think you’ve found but—”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Cut the bull. I got my information from a teacher who gets her stuff from you.”
“Girl, do you know what you’re threatening to do to me?”
“If you go with me and tell the authorities where you’re getting the stuff, it’ll go easy on you,” she repeated stubbornly.
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The girl was serious, as serious as a heart attack. He cleared his throat. “You caught me by surprise,” he said, his voice lower now. “I need time to figure this out.”
“There isn’t anything to figure. I’m going to the authorities, whether you go with me or not.”
Scattered thoughts darted around inside his head like butterflies. “I need a little time—”
Again, Brenda waved a hand, dismissing any excuse he might offer.
He felt like a little boy, hemmed in. He shifted slightly in his seat, taking in every detail of her face as though he was memorizing it. “We need to talk more about this. Maybe when you get back from your class trip to Orlando on Sunday afternoon.”
Brenda shrugged her shoulders in exasperation. He may have tried to look tough, but he was scared and she knew it. With just a little more of a push, she thought, he’d do what she wanted him to do. “I’ve decided not to go on the trip.”
“When did you decide that?”
“After talking to you this morning. I can’t leave town right now ... there are just too many things I need to straighten out.”
He started nervously picking at a fingernail but his expression remained harsh. In his head he was trying to figure out how he would get her to forget what she’d learned. “Okay, okay. Since you’re not going with your class on its trip, we can meet after school, before you go home.”
“No, not right after school.” She looked around the cafeteria. “I have to take care of something else before I go home.”
“Then what time can we get together?” he asked impatiently.
He’s such a jerk, she thought. How could she ever have considered him a friend? She enjoyed making him squirm, enjoyed the fear she knew he felt. Her eyes strayed to the clock on the wall. “I don’t know,” she murmured.
“You must have some idea,” he insisted.
“I’m going to need to straighten out this other matter.”
“Five? Six? Seven o’clock?” he asked, his tone demanding and icy.
“Eight o’clock,” she told him contemptuously.
“Where?” he asked.
She felt powerful. In a few short hours, she’d have the information she needed. She’d be a hero; everybody would see that she was a good girl who wanted to do the right thing. “On the west side of the Wesmart, the side where there are no lights.” She added, “I’ve got to be careful, there are a lot of crazy people walking the streets of Otis nowadays.”
He made an unsympathetic face.
“I’ll get my friend to drop me off.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be late — I don’t like being alone on the streets at night.”
“Good,” he whispered.
“Eight o’clock sharp,” she repeated before she walked away.
Excerpted from Mama Cracks a Mask of Innocence by Nora DeLoach. Copyright © 2001 by Nora DeLoach. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.