All she could see was a shadow dragging the struggling girl.

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A VG Serial: An Unlikely Arrangement

Chapter 24

Gretchen McGrath dabbed her eyes and peered at Ruth. “I know you. Home economics, you are the new girl. What do you want?”

“I will be honest; you made quite a spectacle at the dance. Ella Adams…I want to talk about her.” Ruth placed a foot over the threshold.

“What’s it to you? Leave me alone.” The girl tried to shut the door.

“Look, give me a minute. Ella is no friend of mine. It’s her father I want to ask about—a personal matter.” The door stopped at Ruth’s shoe.

“Well…”

Ruth eased into the room and glanced around. “I don’t want to bother you, really. It looked like a nasty fight. Are you hurt?”

“No, only my pride. Ella makes me crazy. I know I shouldn’t let her get to me, but this time…” Gretchen flopped down on the bed.

“So, Captain Adams is her father?”

“I wouldn’t admit to it if I was her, but yes, she’s the offspring of the scumbag. Why do you want to know?”

Ruth continued to stand in the middle of the room. “My mother…had dealings with him before I was born. I’m trying to find out if this Captain Adams is the same one. Would his first name be Alexander?”

Gretchen jumped up, grabbed a tissue, and blew her nose. “Yep, that’s him. Maybe you should leave. I’m not sure I want to associate with someone who rubs elbows with the likes of him.”

“No, you don’t understand. He hurt my mother. I want revenge.”

Gretchen’s green eyes assumed the gleam of a lioness on the hunt. “In that case, you can stay. I would like nothing better than to destroy that little tramp, and if her father goes down, too, so much the better. Here, sit down.” She cleared a spot on the rumpled bed. “Where do you want me to start?”

****

            The night air coaxed Cal Taylor to walk slowly and savor the crispness of the late, winter evening. At first, he was frustrated about his inability to sway Ruth to take an interest in him, but he was no fool. Clearly, her heart pined for a lost love.

Even, his mother foretold the drama in Ruth’s past. “Cal, hers is the face of a woman betrayed, yet love remains. Watch yourself, you might get hurt. Take someone else to the dance, dear. Save yourself the trouble.”

Naturally, he didn’t listen, but smiled broadly remembering Ruth’s acceptance of the little peck on the cheek at the door. “Oh well, she will make a great friend, someone I can talk to on my level, not like the other giggling girls.”

The long, winding, shrub-lined walkway from the administration building served as a favorite hangout for the girls. Most of the time you could see clusters of two or three reclined on blankets or the concrete benches. Unfortunately, the January weather discouraged this activity, especially late in the evening. Cal enjoyed the leisurely stroll, but slowed at an unexpected sight near the entrance gate. A man, both hands stuffed in the pockets of a heavy tweed jacket paced back and forth outside the fenced area. The wool, flat cap, and the shadow of a beard, gave him a rough look. Cal hung back, slowed his gait…waiting.

In an abrupt movement, the enigmatic fellow spun on his heel, leered at him, and walked briskly to the corner. The stranger hesitated only moment, touched a finger to his cap, and disappeared.

Uneasy, Cal changed his destination and returned to his mother’s office.

“It is unusual, to say the least, Cal, but we are well guarded. Would you feel better if you stayed on campus tonight—maybe in the gardener’s shack? He’s gone home for the winter.” Mrs. Taylor rummaged in the old desk drawer and withdrew a brass ring crowded with an agglomeration of keys. She thumbed through several until nimble fingers singled out the one of choice.

“Good idea, Mother. I am a bit jumpy, I guess, but something about his look gave me a bad feeling. I have never seen a mobster, but if I had to imagine one, he is what I would envision. Why would someone like him be in this neighborhood? We’re not in the city.” Cal took the key from her hand.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with Ruth would it?” The bright smile lit the twinkle in her eyes.

“No, tonight I realized Ruth is in love with another. I consider her a friend. She doesn’t giggle, if you know what I mean.”

“I imagine she was a typical, giggly teenage girl, not too very long ago, Cal. Her heart is broken. Watch yours, young man.” Mrs. Taylor closed the drawer and turned off the office light. “I’m going home. The dance wore me out. Not sure how many more years I can do this. I’m not young anymore.”                                                                                                                                    “I’ll walk you to the car, Mother. Remember to wake me up in the morning…and bring me some biscuits and gravy.” He hugged her and watched the automobile disappear into the night.

The old shack offered few comforts. A rickety wooden bed stood in the corner and a washbasin beside it. “All the comforts of home.”

Cal sighed deeply and settled in for the night under the homemade quilt. He wondered if the gardener’s wife had stitched the beautiful bedcover. “Will I ever find a wife who thinks as much of me?”

****

            The little gardener’s shack on the far side of the campus became the agreed location for the rendezvous with Ella Adams. Ruth convinced Gretchen to slip quietly out of the dormitory, push a note under Ella’s door, and run. Ruth was to lay in wait at the little shanty for her victim to arrive. Once inside, Gretchen would bolt the door from the outside, and listen for Ruth’s signal to let them out.

In her haste, Ruth never gave the need for a key a second thought. The run-down shack always looked abandoned and more like a storage building than someone’s abode. Panic gripped her when she turned the knob. It wouldn’t move. “Oh no, I don’t have a key. Ella will be here any minute. Maybe there’s a window open.”

The grime-smeared windows offered no help. It looked like they were painted shut. Every window the same, Ruth went back to the door and rattled the knob again.

“Who’s there?” The door opened with an ominous creak.

The door swung wide, and Ruth barely suppressed a scream. “Cal Taylor, what are you doing in this old shack?”

“I think the more intriguing question is…what are you doing here, Ruth? Come in here, you will catch your death of cold.” He pulled her inside.

“I…I was going to meet a friend, but she’s not coming so I’ll just go…”

Cal held her firm. “Hold on, not so fast. What friend? Her name, please.”

“Are you the campus police? I don’t have to tell you anything. Let me go.”

Through the door, Ruth heard a scream and muffled voices. “What is going on out there?”

Cal and Ruth bolted through the door together in time to see a shadow drag a struggling girl into the woods.

“Oh my God, someone has Ella. Who is that man?”

“Hey you,” Cal shouted.

Ruth watched him run down the path. “What have I done?”

Cal stumbled back through the door, panting. “He’s gone…with Ella. They sped off in an automobile. Need to find police.”

“Who would take Ella, Cal? I never wanted this to happen. I wanted information, that’s all. What have I done?”

Cal’s breathing slowed. “This is your doing? You were meeting Ella? I told you to stay away from her. She is bad news.”

“I’m sorry. I only wanted to talk to her. Gretchen helped me trick her to come to the shack.” Ruth wrung her hands and paced the room, real fear pounding its cadence in her head.

“Never mind that now. We have to call the police and get in touch with her father. And how am I going to break the news to Mother?” Cal took Ruth by the hand and sprinted toward the administration building.

Chapters of the novel appear on Monday and Wednesday.

You can learn more about An Unlikely Arrangement on Amazon.

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