For one hundred years, the best girls have come to St. Ursula's Preparatory Academy to learn. To achieve. To make both memories and friends. But now, it's where they also come to die. . .
Watch Your Back. . .
When the first body is found, the police call it an accident--an initiation ritual gone terribly wrong. But the students know something isn't right at St. Ursula's. There are sounds in the darkened corridors, a figure glimpsed between the trees, locked doors somehow opened. Someone is watching them, judging them, hating them. . .killing them. . .
Or You'll Never Leave Alive. . .
A twisted psychopath is turning the quiet campus into a school of fear. No sins will go unpunished. No girl will escape justice. And everyone will have a chance to join a serial killer's exclusive club. . ..
Praise For Rebecca Drake's Don't Be Afraid
"Read this alone, late at night, and you won't be afraid--you'll be terrified." --Wendy Corsi Staub, New York Times bestselling author
"Fast, sharp, and super creepy. Get ready to have your socks scared off." --J.A. Konrath, author of Rusty Nail
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THE NEXT KILLING
By REBECCA DRAKE
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Rebecca Mertz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe school had stood on the hillside for more than a hundred years. It had been there for so long that it looked as if it had sprouted from the woods surrounding it, the tops of stone buildings appearing suddenly above the trees like lichen in a sea of green.
Lauren Kavanaugh pressed her face against the taxi window to catch a glimpse of it through the rain while running her hands down the horizontal pleats creasing the pale linen skirt of her borrowed suit. She tried not to believe that wrinkled clothing was going to cost her the job.
"You visiting someone up the Hill?" the cabbie asked. His had been the only cab idling outside the local train station, where most of the commuters had been heading the opposite way, north into Manhattan. He must have seen her confusion because he laughed. "I mean St. Ursula's. We call it the Hill because it's up there." He gestured out the window, but the road had turned again and the buildings had disappeared. All she could see was a mountainside covered in trees.
"It looks like a forest," she said.
He chuckled. "Oh, the school's in there. It's a big campus-close to two hundred acres. You got a sister there?"
"No, I've got an interview."
"Oh. Well good luck."
She could see his eyes appraising her in the rearview mirror.
"You look a little young to be a teacher."
She didn't reply to that, just stared out the window as they passed through the outlying streets. It was quite different from the packed streets of Hoboken, where she paid a fortune to rent a tiny apartment on the third floor of an old row house.
The center of Gashford was the intersection point of two long, wide streets lined with small businesses, a bank, and a post office, and no building was higher than ten stories. They'd sped past it and past the tree-lined, residential streets surrounding it and then on past the larger homes spaced farther apart with sweeping lawns. Now they were outside town, where civilization was encroaching on less desirable land; in either direction were cockeyed realty signs stuck in patches of sparsely covered mud.
The edges of the road were sprinkled with late summer wildflowers drooping under the continuous downpour. She could smell the unfamiliar scent of wet grass through the cracked windows.
The cabbie chattered on about the mild weather they were having for August and Lauren made murmuring noises of agreement, but all the while she was thinking about how greener this was than Hoboken and how she needed this job.
The taxi slowed and turned between two large stone pillars. A tall sign with black Gothic letters announced St. Ursula's Preparatory Academy and then they were climbing up a winding strip of blacktop between towering oaks and pines.
"There she is," the cabbie said, pointing ahead out the windshield, and Lauren caught another glimpse of a stone building before it, too, vanished as the road curved around the hillside.
The same building appeared again between the trees and then another building near it and then they crested the hill and the campus was before them, a large complex of stone buildings, the most massive of which sat at the peak of a semicircle driveway. The other buildings surrounding it stretched out at different points on a mandala of concrete pathways.
The taxi pulled to a stop in front of the main building. "Good luck."
"Thanks." She paid him with money carefully counted and then he was gone and she was alone, making one last attempt to smooth the wrinkles out of her skirt.
Only she wasn't alone. A girl dressed from head to toe in black was hunched in a corner of the wide stone steps under an overhang, tucked so close to the wall that Lauren almost missed her. The hair was what she noticed, an astonishing coppery red color. The girl was smoking, the acrid scent of tobacco unmistakable, but she had the cigarette cupped under the hand resting on the lower step, hiding it without putting it out.
"Hi," she said without smiling and Lauren repeated the greeting, wondering if she should say something. The girl was obviously underage. Was this some kind of test for prospective teachers? Should she tell the girl to put out her cigarette?
The front door of the building suddenly opened and a tall, horse-faced woman with a gray suit that matched her irongray hair stepped out.
"Morgan, you know smoking isn't allowed. You don't want me to report that to Sister Rose, do you?"
The girl stubbed out the cigarette with a hostile look and the woman suddenly seemed to notice Lauren.
"May I help you?" she said and her eyes flicked up and down like a laser, zeroing in on the wrinkled suit.
"I'm here for an interview."
"The main office is inside and down the hall to the left." The woman held the door for her and gave a faint sniff as Lauren passed.
The hall was dark and empty. Wood was her first impression, dark wood and lots of it. Front and center was a large wooden crucifix with a marble Christ figure hanging above an intricately carved wooden console table. On the center of the table was a foot-tall marble statue of the Virgin Mary; she stood on a wooden base with her arms extended, head bowed submissively, and lips curved in a slight, Mona Lisa smile.
Lauren's heels clicked loudly on the ivory marble tile floor and she wished she'd thought to check her hair in the bathroom at the station. It had finally gotten long enough to pull back and she'd fastened the unruly mass of gold curls at the base of her neck with a silver clip, hoping it made her look more mature.
The headmistress's office was marked with a discreet black-lettered sign. A young woman with sleek black hair, wearing a blue twinset and matinee-length pearls sat in the outer office at an old wooden desk, looking for all the world like someone out of the 1940s, except she was typing away on a state-of-the-art desktop that seemed to be giving her trouble. She looked up with a pleasant smile and adjusted the stylish tortoiseshell glasses slipping down her small nose.
"May I help you?"
Lauren introduced herself. "I've got an interview with Sister Rose Merton?"
The young woman consulted a spiral-bound black appointment book. "Yes, of course, you're her nine o'clock." She gave Lauren a broad smile and adjusted the glasses again. "The headmistress will be with you in just a moment. If you'd like to take a seat?"
She gestured behind Lauren, who suddenly noticed the brown velvet sofa near an arrangement of large potted ferns.
The door to the inner sanctum was at the far end of the sofa. It was open a crack.
Lauren took a seat on the couch and placed her slim briefcase carefully beside her. She sat up straight and took several deep breaths, looking at the painting in a gilt frame hanging on the wall. It was a vaguely familiar scene, a cluster of whey-faced, robe-wearing young women with oil lamps. Something from the Bible, Lauren thought, and hoped that there wouldn't be questions that tested her religious knowledge. Thank God she was being interviewed for a history position, not religion.
She realized she could hear voices through the door. Or one raised voice and the murmuring of another, clearly placating.
"-excuses being made for the way my daughter has been treated!"
Lauren glanced at the secretary but she was engrossed in her typing again, seemingly oblivious. She looked back at the door and jumped as the voice continued. "What I'm asking is that everything not be blamed on Morgan."
So it was the mother of the smoker. Lauren tried not to listen, but the lower the voices got the greater her urge to hear what they were saying. She caught fragments about rule breaking, about suspension, about other girls.
All at once the door opened and a tall, elegantly dressed woman with the same striking coppery hair and a frown marring her patrician features strode out. She was followed by a shorter, rounder woman wearing a look of resigned patience.
Lauren stood up and the shorter woman smiled at her.
"I'll be right with you," she said. She followed Morgan's mother out of the room. The secretary caught Lauren's eyes and rolled her own with a slight smile. Who or what that referred to Lauren wasn't sure, but she smiled back.
A few minutes passed while Lauren waited, flipping through the magazines on the coffee table, a strange combination of religious and secular. She was barely able to focus. The headmistress came back into the room and spoke quietly to the secretary for a moment before turning to Lauren.
"You must be Miss Kavanaugh," she said, extending one deceptively soft-looking hand for a firm shake. "I'm Sister Rose Merton, the headmistress at St. Ursula's."
She ushered Lauren into her office and closed the door. This time, Lauren noticed, it really was closed.
"Please, have a seat," Sister Rose gestured toward two upholstered chairs that sat in front of a large mahogany desk that dominated the room.
Lauren took a seat in one as Sister Rose moved silently behind the desk, noticing that unlike the headmistress's own leather office chair, the chairs in front of the desk were rigidly upright as if not to lull any visitors to the office into a false sense of security.
The wall to the left of Sister Rose's desk was lined, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves. The wall opposite was hung with tasteful, if somewhat bland, landscapes in gilt frames. Directly behind her desk, hung so it appeared to be looking over her shoulder, was a sepia-tinted photo of a grimfaced nun in full habit. Directly above her was a large gold crucifix.
"Sister Augustine Clement," Sister Rose said, following Lauren's gaze. "St. Ursula's founding headmistress. A smart and tenacious woman."
The two nuns were a study in contrasts. Unlike her predecessor, Sister Rose wore no habit. She was dressed simply in a plain navy blue suit with an unadorned white blouse. She wore earrings, small pearl studs, and a gold circle pin was affixed to her lapel; a crucifix was at its center. The pin and the plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand were the only official markers of her membership in a celibate community devoted to God. To the casual observer, she could have been just another grandmother.
She had short, dove-gray hair and piercing steel-gray eyes that were at odds with the soft and crepelike quality of her pale skin and her benign smile. She rested her plump arms on the desk and folding her hands, turned her intense focus on Lauren.
"As I mentioned when we spoke, one of our teachers unexpectedly retired and we have an unanticipated, and unwelcome, vacancy for this academic year."
Lauren nodded. She'd been thrilled to get the call, anticipating another year of substitute teaching. She was in the bind that all new teachers were in, anxious to get a full-time job in a system that only wanted to hire the experienced. She'd never imagined that she'd get the opportunity to teach at a prep school. Submitting her résumé to St. Ursula's had been pro forma, nothing more. She'd simply canvassed every school in Northern New Jersey and sent them her résumé.
"Usually, we'd only consider a more experienced teacher," Sister Rose said, as if reading Lauren's thoughts, "but circumstances dictated that we broaden our search."
The "circumstances" were just how close it was to the start of the academic year. School was slated to begin in just two weeks. More experienced teachers had their teaching jobs lined up and ready.
Sister Rose opened a file on her desk and pulled out Lauren's résumé.
"I see that you've done a full year of substitute teaching in Hoboken."
"Yes, it's been a great experience." It wasn't a lie, not exactly. It had given her enough experience to know that caring about your students wasn't enough to transform their lives. Poverty, burned-out administrators, and limited funding had a lot to do with academic failure. Not that these things would have deterred her from accepting a full-time job there, but teachers in these districts seemed to die in their posts.
"As I mentioned, Sister Agnes was the history teacher for our upper school for over twenty years," Sister Rose continued. "It will be difficult to fill her shoes, but we must."
She outlined the teaching responsibilities and Lauren listened, nodding when it was expected, asking intelligent questions when a pause indicated she should, while trying to appear interested but not overeager.
It was going well. They needed her-that was clear. She'd thought she was one of many candidates, but it didn't sound like it.
"We are a traditional Catholic school, Miss Kavanaugh. Parents send their daughters here to receive the finest education in a setting that prepares them spiritually as well as intellectually for the challenges of adult life. Our girls attend Mass twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as on the holy days, of course."
Lauren couldn't remember all the holy days. How many were there? The last time she'd been to Mass was while touring a church in Spain with Michael. He'd whispered "hocus-pocus," during the priest's blessing of the congregation and she'd erupted into giggles, so they'd fled the building for the hot sunshine and cobble streets outside.
"As I think I explained, this job includes an apartment in one of our dormitories." She looked inquiringly at Lauren, who nodded. Rent-free accommodations were definitely part of the appeal.
"The resident faculty member for each dormitory is responsible for the girls in that house-we call our dormitories houses-and will generally oversee their welfare while in the dormitory."
Lauren wondered what welfare meant. She had a sudden vision of herself armed with a thermometer and a bottle of aspirin.
"Of course we have an infirmary," Sister Rose said as if reading her thoughts. "You would not be responsible for the care of sick children, but you would see to it that the girls in that particular house would abide by the rules of St. Ursula's, particularly as they pertain to curfews."
"Are the girls allowed off school grounds?" Lauren asked.
"Yes, but there are rules regarding this as well. As you can see, we are not an easy walk into town. There is, however, a bus that runs at the base of the hill and girls do use this bus to go into town on the weekends."
And she would have to use it, too, Lauren thought. She didn't own a car and until this moment it hadn't occurred to her that the job might require one. She was used to walking to the grocery store around the corner from her apartment in Hoboken, to going to the neighborhood bar for a drink in the evening. If she got this job she would be isolated during the week.
"I'm not familiar with St. Mary's Academy," Sister Rose said, glancing back down at the file open on her desk. "It's outside Pittsburgh?"
Lauren nodded. The memories came in a rush. Rows of uniformed girls kneeling in the shadows of a dark church. St. Mary's girls do not follow, they lead. A golden orb of incense swaying gently at the end of a long chain clutched in a priest's veiny hand. The overwhelming smell of lilies.
"I see that you attended school there when you were younger, but you finished your education at a public institution?"
"Yes." Lauren said. She'd anticipated the question, the need to know why she'd given up a religious institution for a secular one, and she'd prepared an answer. "I moved far away."
She was sure that Sister Rose would ask more, but the headmistress just nodded briskly and looked back down at the open file.
"And you attended university in England?"
"Yes. The University of London."
The headmistress nodded, fiddling with the thin silver chain that held a pair of black reading glasses against her chest. "Why did you choose to go overseas?"
"I'd always been interested in seeing Europe. It seemed like a great opportunity."
Sister Rose seemed to consider this for a moment, nodding and looking down at the file in front of her. Lauren surreptitiously wiped her sweating palms against her skirt.
"And you studied history and education, but completed your teaching certificate last year once you'd come back to the United States?"
Excerpted from THE NEXT KILLING by REBECCA DRAKE Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca Mertz. Excerpted by permission.
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