-Prologue Part 1-
It is one of the more obscure terms in the English language. According to J. C. Watts, "Character is doing what's right when nobody's looking." But what about doing the wrong thing when nobody's looking? This too must contribute to who you are, and who you grow up to become. All my life, I have sought to find the true meaning of this ambiguous word, and I'm still searching. Is it possible to right the wrongs you have committed?
Monday afternoon, the last period of the day, Forensics. I love the class, but Mondays are lecture days - the days that teachers explain, in a far too detailed way, what we would be studying for the next week. I couldn't help but slouch in my seat, bored out of my mind. I wrinkled my nose at the overpowering sterile smell that hung in the classroom, like the cleaning lady was fond of spraying way too much air-freshener and chemical cleaning products. Unfortunately for the students, the sealed windows allowed no breeze into the lab. Sinks lined one wall next to a cabinet filled with miscellaneous textbooks, beakers, and graduated cylinders. Many different scientific related posters covered the walls. On the opposite wall from the sinks, the Periodic Table hung, a mandatory wall hanging in science classrooms across the globe. The final available wall held posters that advised me to, "Just say 'NO' to drugs and violence" and to, "Not even once" try meth. Formulas and definitions written by the hand of a practiced educator in black and red dry erase marker covered the whiteboard in the front of the room, but the composition book in front of me remained as desolate as the tundra. Taking notes wasn't my forté, but I am thankful to have been born with an ability shockingly similar to photographic memory. I call it, "reading the textbook."
My boyfriend, Ty Steele, sat just two seats in front of me bent over his notebook, scribbling like a madman. The collar of his red shirt was flipped up, perhaps giving the impression of a tough guy when in fact, he is a hard working student with a passion for exotic birds and classical music. His black hair is of medium length; it fell to the middle of his neck. It lay straight down, but on occasion he would spike it so that it looked somewhat like a porcupine. He glanced up at the board, then back at the page in front of him, scratching down what he had just read. Just then, his cell phone let out a harsh ring from the bowels of his bag.
Ty's shoulders rose then fell in an audible sigh. His form bent over to fish the device from his backpack.
Our teacher, Mrs. Plotts, is a tight faced, strict old lady with a witch-like hooked nose who has a reputation at our school, Green River Preparatory Academy, for confiscating ringing phones from the students in her class. She strode between the rows of desks, her floor-length dress swishing around her, and her old lady shoes tap-tapping on the linoleum tiles toward Ty. When she reached his desk, she glared down at him with cold eyes. The famous, "Cough-up-that-irritating-telephone-before-I-make-you-cough-it-up" stare. Ty was smart enough to have already retrieved said device, and was now holding it out to her with his eyes downcast.
"Thank you," she said through tight lips.
Returning to the front of the room, she placed Ty's cell on her desk next to the three-hole punch, and continued writing on the board.
I knew from experience, that Mrs. Plotts held onto students phones for as much as a week unless they did some serious extra work. The work was often a lengthy essay on some obscure historical mathematician, and Ty didn't deserve that kind of punishment. Besides, nobody but his mother ever rings him while he's in school. Ty is a diligent student, and I knew that I must do something.
Being as old as she was, Mrs. Plotts' hearing must be the worst in the entire school, and I hoped that advantage would help my plan succeed. I raised my hand.
Turning from the whiteboard toward the class, she saw my raised hand, and called on me. I told her I thought I heard someone knocking on the door. By the time she turned her back and started to make her way over to the door, I had already halved the distance to her desk. I snatched up Ty's phone as Mrs. Plotts scoured the hallway looking for the nonexistent knocker. Phone in hand, I sprinted down the aisle of chairs, dropped the cell in Ty's lap, and sat at my desk before Mrs. Plotts had even closed the door.
"There was nobody there, Ella."
"Oh. I'm very sorry, Mrs. Plotts."
"Just make sure it doesn't happen again."
As she got back to her lecture, I found a boy, who called himself Rocky, staring at me from across the room with an intensity I had never seen in anyone's eyes before. He wore a faded orange t-shirt advertising a brand of cigarette, and a baggy pair of jeans that could have hidden any number of illegal items. Even as I watched him, he dug in his pocket where no doubt something hid. Whether that something was drugs or a weapon of sorts, I didn't plan on finding out. Rocky is one of the goons in Mickey Alan's gang. As well known as the Sharks or the Jets from The West Side Story, they were famous in our school for carrying concealed weapons, mostly knives. I heard that they also dealt various drugs in the vacant alley behind the school. I knew though, they most likely started that rumor themselves to create a bigger name for their gang. Rocky continued to stare at me, and I hoped that I wasn't some sort of target for him and Mickey.
After class, I surged along with the flow of students heading for their lockers, and when we got to mine, I struggled to the edge of the pack where the crowd threw me against the painted green metal. I stuffed my bag with the myriad of textbooks I needed for tonight's home work. As I was struggling to cram my Calculus book into my backpack, Ty appeared behind me, slinked his arms around my waist, and put his chin on my shoulder. He kissed my neck lightly, sending shivers down my spine before whispering, "Thanks babe. You're a real life saver. And sexy too . . ." His voice trailed off as he gently pecked the rim of my ear. I spun around, happy to return his kisses, and then waved goodbye. As he walked off, I called after him that I'd see him tomorrow. Then, I made my way to the back staircase. Just as I reached the first landing, something sharp pressed into my lower spine. Quicker than I could gasp for the air that was lost from my lungs, Mickey and the rest of the crew surrounded me.
Wolf's oily black hair brushed against my cheek, his knife digging into my skin. His hot breath tickled the back of my neck giving me goosebumps, and his left hand had a firm grip on my shoulder. He would prowl the hallways on campus, glaring at students and teachers alike from under his mop of hair that hung into his eyes, and people would instinctively move out of his way. His eyes themselves were black tar-pits, void of any and all emotion. I thought of him as a tool, and one put to good use, enforcing Mickey's power, and being the brute force of the group.
To my left, stood Hot Shot, known for having a new girlfriend each week. Today, a cute Japanese freshman girl clung to his exposed arm like her life depended on it; and maybe it did. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt that showed off his toned arms, and a baseball hat angled on his head revealing a lock of his dirty, straw-blond hair. Next to them, was Mickey himself and his girl, Crystal Clare. Mickey, a heavy-set boy with a strong upper body and large hands, stood tall like he owned the world. Crystal's bleached blond, almost white, hair fell to her mid-back. She always wore so much make up, that it looked like she was fit for the red carpet, and a mini skirt so short she could be mistaken for a prostitute. Last in the semi-circle, Rocky slouched with his arm around his girlfriend Olive, named for her olive colored skin. Rocky whispered in Mickey's ear, but none of them said anything, so I watched Mickey, and waited. He glared at me like I was a prize waiting to be won. I didn't like it. Eventually, he spoke.
"So . . . Elizabeth . . ." He spat out my name like it was a fly that had just flown into his mouth.
"I prefer to be called Ella," I tried to be forceful even though my voice shook a little, but it was as if I hadn't even spoken.
"Rocky told me about the little incident in the old hag's class today, oh Elizabeth, Queen of Thievery."
"Listen . . ." Rocky spoke now. "You WILL do what we tell you to, or else." Wolf's knife dug into my lower back a little more. "Listen up and listen good Queen, 'cause we've got ourselves a little problem, and you're gonna help us." I guess Queen was my name now, not that I liked it. "My older brother, Storm, has a friend whose own mother selfishly kicked him onto the street 'cause she thought he was too unpredictable. That's why we call him Wild Card. You're here because his most prized possession is still in his mother's house." An ominous pause followed and I feared what was coming. "His gun."
The squat, single story house lurked on the edge of the deserted one-way street. I couldn't see a single car in either direction, and the compact that once sat in the driveway had long since departed. Behind all the windows of the sorry looking house, the floral patterned curtains remained drawn, and no light escaped onto the road. In the dim light cast from the last rays of the sun, I could just make out the peeling yellow paint that must have at one time helped to make this dreary place a cheerful home. The planter boxes on the windowsills held an array of sad, wilted flowers in desperate need of a good shower. In stark contrast to flowers, the weeds under the drainpipe received a constant dribble from the gutter, allowing them to grow into an unruly forest. TVs flickered behind the windows of the nearby houses, but besides the fat, calico cat that rested on the sagging porch steps, I could see no signs of life.
Forty minutes ago, I concealed myself in the highest branches of the oak tree on the opposite side of the street. I perched on the balls of my feet, squatting on a single branch, and peered through the leaves, watching as the owner of the house drove away. The small, aging woman with mousy gray hair and stubby fingers, scampered down the stairs towards the car, but then turned back and rushed up the stairs again, fumbling through her bubblegum-pink handbag. After a brief struggle with the key, she locked the door, then scuttled back to the compact automobile, and took off. I knew she would be late for Thursday bingo night. I also knew she would play her game, chat with some of the other old-timers, and wouldn't be back for another couple of hours or so. Good thing I didn't need that long.
A few brave stars began to make an appearance, and I felt ready to make my entrance. Careful not to make a sound, I dropped from the tree, then checked the road again to make sure that no one in the last couple of minutes had decided to take a late night stroll. Still nobody around. I ran across the empty pavement, and began the tedious task of checking the dwelling for open windows. I cupped my hand over the panes of glass, and glanced at the lock mechanism. After much searching, I found a lock that had not been engaged around the back of the house; it was turned the wrong way. I removed the screen with the utmost caution, and propped it against the wall of the house. Pressing my palms against the window, I slid it upward an inch at a time. Climbing though, I found myself in a tiny half bath. Blue toothpaste caked the basin of the pedestal sink. Brown gunk, that could have been any number of things, smudged the chipped pink tiled floor.
A bead of sweat trickled down the side of my face as I crept along the creaky floorboards. I could be busted at any moment! I could be arrested! Hell, I could go to juvie! I'm trespassing! I couldn't think of anything else as I continued to creep through the house.
Roaming around an unfamiliar place in the dark is even more unnerving than it sounds. In the hallway, I padded down the floral-patterned runner with the fingertips of both my hands trailing along the peeling blue wallpaper. The fingers on my left hand brushed against a light switch, and I was tempted to turn it on, but knew that that would be a terrible idea. Someone seeing it presented a huge risk. If a neighbor of the old lady's saw the light, but no car in the driveway on bingo night, they would know something was up. I left the light off.
In the dark, I found the plain wood door Mickey told me would lead to Wild Card's old room. The door stood ajar, so I pushed it open, creating an eerie creaking noise straight out of the movies. Stripped of all its original furniture and complete with warped and water stained floorboards, I could tell the room inside hadn't been used for a very long time. The long curtains that covered the only window in the space were an unpleasant oatmeal color and the mirrors on the closet doors no longer held any of their previous shine. I tried to be quiet as I crossed the room, but the floor creaked with every step. I slid open the ancient sliding doors, and crawled inside.
Even though my eyes already adjusted to the darkness of the rest of the house, I still found it difficult to find the loose floorboard. I felt around on the closet floor, my hands shifting the layers of dust that covered the ground, until my finger hooked in a knot hole. I lifted a small section of the floor free, and stifled a sneeze brought on by the cloud of dust sent up in the process. Inside the dark space beneath the flooring, as promised, the shiny black metal Glock 22 standard 40 caliber pistol lay. I recalled, from my Forensics class, that undercover officers often carried this gun because of its ability to be hidden with ease. I wondered how Wild Card had gotten it before I shoved it into my belt.
I replaced the floorboard, and left the forgotten bedroom, careful to leave the door ajar, the same way I had found it. I crept back down the hallway to the half bath with the open window. Being more careful now, not wanting anyone to see or hear me, I slithered through the window, slid it shut again, and replaced the screen. I tip-toed around to the front of the house, where I could just make out the dark shape of Mickey's waiting Jeep. Mickey sat behind the wheel, Rocky hung his arm out the passenger side door, and Wolf slouched in the back, picking at his nails with his ever present knife. Without making a sound, I climbed in next to Wolf, and clicked the door shut.
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