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Authors: Melody Carlson

Payback (19 page)

BOOK: Payback
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“Thanks.”

“I think I see your ride out there,” she says, nodding toward the front window. “You be careful, Samantha. I’ll be praying for you.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Then she does something that my mom rarely does. She kisses me on the cheek before she tells me good-bye.

Everyone in the limo is somber tonight. No small talk. No making plans. We all know what we’re supposed to do. For a brief moment, I consider apologizing to everyone, but then I remember my mom’s conviction. I remember Olivia’s encouragement. No, I won’t apologize for a God-given gift. If it turns out to be a waste of time again, I will apologize, because that will mean it’s my fault. I got it wrong. As we drive to the Marriott, I pray. I beg God to show me if this is a mistake. Then I beg Him to protect my friends in the car as well as the students at the prom. I beg Him to bring this thing to a good conclusion.

Eric doesn’t say much as we go into the hotel and to the prom. We’re not quite as early as we were for the other two proms, but there’s hardly anyone here. I think this must be related to the rich kid thing. They probably think it’s ultracool to arrive very late.

“I’m sorry you have to give up another Saturday night,” I finally tell him as we’re sitting in the lobby, pretending to be absorbed by one another as we sip our punch. “But I’m not sorry that I’m standing by what I believe God showed me.”

Eric gives me a little half smile. “Am I acting like a spoiled brat?”

“No…but I do understand. I don’t really enjoy this either.” Just as I’m saying this, I notice something. “Hey,” I tell him, “look who’s over there.”

Eric glances over to where Brandon is standing at the reception desk again. He’s dressed about the same as always, so obviously he’s not here for the prom, and he’s got his backpack.

“He’s probably working tonight.” Eric looks back at me.

“Kind of sad, isn’t it? I mean, to have to work in the same place where your classmates are partying at their prom?”

He nods. “Yeah. And just in case anyone wants to look into it,” Eric says for Ebony’s sake, “we have spotted Brandon Allen heading for what we’re guessing is work.”

“And keep an eye on that laundry room,” I add as I remember my vision of Brandon hiding in the towel cart. Ebony already did some investigating of the work situation here, but she said that nothing unusual surfaced in regard to Brandon. According to the manager, all the employees seem to get along just fine.

Then I tell Eric about the high school counselor’s attitude toward bullying, and he just shakes his head.

They’re in denial,” he says. “Everyone thinks their school is above that sort of thing…or that’s the act they put on so that if something does happens, they can pretend they didn’t see it coming.”

“Too bad.” My heart goes out to Brandon as I watch him walking, his head hanging down in a dejected sort of way as he goes through the same side door he used last time. How would it feel to be in his shoes?

Then I tell Eric about my short conversation with Brandon. “I tried to connect with him as someone who’s been bullied too.”

“Did it work?”

I nod. “Sort of. But he was kind of in denial too. He said there was no point in reporting bullying, that it just makes things worse.”

“That might be true in some cases.”

“Unless the school adopts a policy. That might change things.”

“Hey,” says Eric suddenly “Girl in a pale green dress entering the hotel.”

I casually turn around to see that he’s right. It is Leah Weis and friends. She looks like she’s the belle of the ball as a group of couples walk through the foyer and pause in the lobby. And suddenly it hits me. Tonight’s decorations are a little fancier than the previous proms. And someone has strung white lights all around—just like in my original dream. I feel a chill rush through me, and I think this is going to be the real deal tonight.

“You okay?” asks Eric.

“This feels like
the
night.” I quickly stand and glance around, trying not to look too suspicious.
‘The real deal.”

He stands and takes my elbow in his hand. “So tell me, what’s up?”

I quickly explain about the lights and the feeling I just got.

“You got that, people?” he says in a tone that’s meant for Ebony and the others. “We’re on high alert in here.” He looks at me again. “What’s next?”

“Let’s just stay with that particular group,” I suggest, glancing over his shoulder to the couples who’ve just arrived. “You watch my back, and I’ll watch yours.”

“You got it.”

Trying not to be conspicuous, we sort of meander and follow the group toward the entrance to the prom, casually standing on the sidelines as the couples take turns having photos made. All the while, Eric and I watch everything, and already I can see Ebony and the others at their posts watching intently too. Eventually the group of couples enters the prom, and I can breathe a little more easily for now. For some reason I think they are safer in there. I guess it’s because of my original dream—the white lights and marble floor.

“Still feel like this is the big night?” asks Eric with a smile that completely covers the seriousness of this conversation.

“I feel like something is definitely up.”

“Let’s stay with Leah and her friend,” he suggests as the couple steps onto the dance floor. “But not too obviously.”

“Sounds good.”

So for the next few dances, we keep Leah and her date in our scopes. We now know that Leah’s date is Tyler Morris, one of the guys I overheard in the lunch line yesterday. And
his friends are the dates of Leah’s friends. Of course, this doesn’t surprise me. Then the couples take a break from the dance floor and head for the refreshment area. We keep a safe distance and continue to try to be inconspicuous as we follow.

This goes on for nearly an hour, a very long and uneventful hour. Is it possible I’m wrong? Maybe all the terrorists have been arrested and no one is in danger tonight. And yet…something keeps nagging at me. Something—I think it’s God—keeps telling me to remain on high alert.
Do not let up. Keep your eyes and ears open. Stay tuned in.

“Leah and her friends look like they’re heading to the ladies’ room,” I point out as I see them gathering the way girls do as they’re about to make a group exit. “I’m going to stay with them.”

“Be safe,” Eric tells me. Then for the sake of our surveillance buddies, he adds, “While you’re in the rest room with the other girls.”

I casually stroll across the floor, staying less than twenty feet behind the girls as I follow them into the rest room. A couple of them go into stalls, and the others simply check and touch up their makeup and hair. Feeling conspicuous, I go into a stall, close the door, and just listen.

“Tyler is making such a big deal about getting a room,” says a voice that must belong to Leah. “Like he thinks that means I’m going to put out.” She laughs.

“They’re all acting like a bunch of sex-crazed maniacs tonight,” says another girl. “I think we should consider ditching them as soon as the prom ends.”

More laughter. Then they discuss hiring a taxi to take them home. But some of the girls aren’t so sure. They seem worried that they might lose their boyfriends. “Edmond will freak if I pull a stunt like this,” says one girl.

“Let him freak,” suggests Leah. “He doesn’t own you, Grace.”

Then I can hear them leaving. I flush the toilet for effect, and after they’re gone, I quickly exit behind them, not letting them out of my sight. I carefully look all around as I walk behind them, but nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. I vaguely wonder about Brandon…and the laundry room. But compared to the danger potential here and now, Brandon’s problems seem minor and far away. Something I can deal with later.

As I trail the girls through the lobby, I’m still convinced this is where it will happen—right here in this very lobby. That is,
if
it happens.
If
my dreams and visions were right. And suddenly I hope they’re not. I actually hope I’m wrong. Because everything about tonight—the white lights, the marble floor, and particularly Leah, her hair, her dress, even her three diamond earrings—well, it all just seems to add up to the horrible event in my dream. Still, there is no sign of a terrorist or anyone who looks vaguely threatening anywhere.

I feel faintly relieved when the girls go back into the ballroom. I spot Eric, not far from the guys. He smiles as I join him, acting like he’s glad to see me, like I’m his date.

“I didn’t notice anything out there,” I say.

“Did you hear anything from the girls in the rest room? Anything that might clue us in?”

“Just that some of them are having second thoughts about making this an all-nighter.” Then I explain how the guys got rooms here. “For the obvious reasons…”

“Here’s a word of advice from an older man, Sam. You should always be somewhat suspicious of guys between the ages of seventeen and twenty.”

“Is that right?”

He nods. “I know it seems like a gross overgeneralization, but I am convinced that male hormones between those ages are pretty much running amuck.”

I laugh as I watch the couples interacting. “Running amuck, you say?”

“That’s right. Take it from a guy who remembers.”

Now the couples are heading to the dance floor again. Like obedient shadows, Eric and I follow, still keeping a safe distance, although I get the feeling that the couples are beginning to notice us. I catch some curious glances tossed our way, and I can’t help but think my overly bright dress is drawing attention, but I try to act completely nonchalant.

“My feet are killing me,” I admit to Eric while we’re dancing.

“It’s those shoes.”

“Duh. My friend Olivia picked them out.”

“I don’t know what it is with women and shoes,” he says. “Shelby is the same way. She buys shoes just because they’re pretty. And then they ruin her feet. Why don’t you just take them off?”

I consider this tempting idea. “But what if I need them?”

He laughs. “For what? You planning on defending yourself with those spike heels? Are you an expert in karate or tae kwon do?”

“No, but that’s probably not a bad idea.”

“Even so, I think the experts would tell you to lose those particular shoes during a scuffle.”

We continue to talk and dance, keeping a vigilant watch on the couples as they work the room. But nothing seems to be happening. And I suppose I am slightly relieved.

As it gets later and I know the dance will soon end, I wonder again if I’ve been wrong after all. Perhaps all the terrorists really are safely locked up. And shouldn’t that make me glad? Everything seems completely quiet and normal here tonight. And with only twenty minutes until the dance is over, it’s hard to imagine anything going wrong. And yet I feel uneasy.

“I’m starting to doubt myself,” I admit to Eric as we trudge out to the dance floor again.

“It ain’t overfill it’s over.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And thankfully it’ll be over soon.”

“Man, do my feet ache. I will be so glad to never go to another prom.”

“Not even with your boyfriend?”

“That doesn’t seem likely.” Then I tell Eric about Conrad being distracted with his little sister and how Olivia and Alex are making plans without us. “I don’t really care though. I mean, I’m pretty much prommed out.”

“You and me both, sister.”

“Hey,” I say suddenly. “Looks like Leah and Tyler are getting into a little argument.”

“Where are they?”

I give him the clock coordinates that we use to describe locations. “Nine o’clock.”

He glances over his left shoulder. “Yeah. I think you’re right.”

“It looks like she’s leaving,” I point out. “How about if I follow?”

“I’ll stay with Tyler.”

So, trying not to look too obvious and trying not to limp, I follow Leah out to the lobby. She walks by where the photos were taken, opens her pretty little silver purse, pulls out her cell phone, and starts to make a call.

I go over to the bench in the center of the lobby now. It’s a good place to keep an eye on everything, and acting nonchalant, I pull out my cell phone too. Realizing I cannot stand these shoes for one more second, I slip them off and link their straps over one finger while I hit the speed dial to Ebony.

“I don’t know what’s up,” I tell her, “or if anything’s really up. But Leah’s in the lobby right now. Eric is with Tyler. And I’m at the bench just keeping an eye on things.”

“Stay on the phone,” she says in a serious tone. “And keep your distance from Leah, just in case. We have guys spotted around there too.”

I try not to glance around and look for them, but this is reassuring.

“Do you think this is
it?”
she asks.

“I don’t know.”

Just then something catches my eye. And I have to do a double take. It’s Brandon, but he’s changed his clothes. He now has on what looks like an old-fashioned tux, Western style, long and with tails. First I think maybe it’s what he wears to work. Perhaps he’s been serving at a Western dinner party. But something doesn’t seem quite right. The jacket is far too large, and something seems to be bulging beneath it.

“Brandon is here,” I say quickly into the phone.

“Yes, we saw him,” Ebony says calmly. “I think he’s working tonight.”

“I don’t think he’s work—” I stop myself as Brandon begins walking directly toward me. He’s about thirty feet away, but I can see that he has a very determined look in his eye. And suddenly I know what’s going down. I get it.
“Brandon is the shooter!”
The words are in my brain, and I hope I said them out loud. But I’m so stunned I don’t know for sure.

Nineteen

S
ometimes God
gives
me a flash, and sometimes I
know
something in a flash. It’s hard to say which comes first, or maybe they are one and the same. But like a flash, in a fraction of a second, I know exactly what’s going on, and in a sick and crazy way, it all adds up.

Brandon—the kid who’s been bullied, the kid I’ve been trying to help, the kid I’ve been defending and feeling sorry for — is fed up. Bitter and hurt and angry, he isn’t going to take it anymore, and now he’s out for revenge. A serious payback. And being that he’s brilliant, at least on some levels, he doesn’t want to settle for a run-of-the-mill, regular school-shooting style of revenge. No, that would be too mundane. He wants to take out the kids who’ve tormented him—at their prom. That will make headlines. His fifteen minutes of fame and then some. It’s payback time!

BOOK: Payback
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