Ben was on his way back from class the next day when Brenda grabbed his arm so hard he almost lost his balance. Slightly out of breath from running to catch up to him, she said, "There was another one."
A car whispered by, nearly silent on the freshly falling snow. The streetlights reflected between the clouds and the snow; it was so bright out, it seemed impossible that it was 2 a.m.
Ben chewed on a lock of his long blonde hair as he walked, his boots soundless against the snow-covered parking lot as he cut across the corner. He jammed his hands deeper into his pockets, trying to sort things out in his head. The snow helped: it covered everything with its silence, even the death, the blood, the loss. Nights like this gave him a chance to step back and put everything in perspective, and God knew he needed that now.
There was always too much going on, but things had been even worse the past few weeks. The concert was next week, and he had term papers due in two of his classes the week after that. The deadline on his project at work kept trying to push its way into his mind. He hadn't had much time for any of that, not with Brenda.
He shook his head as he walked. Hard to believe everything that'd been happening to her lately, hard to know what to think. It just seemed so unreal. First her boyfriend had been killed -- stabbed, then pushed in front of a car. Then one of her best friends had been strangled in her apartment. The police thought the two murders were connected, though they wouldn't say why.
Ben agreed with them, for his own reasons. He was well-known among a select, but growing, group of people on campus. Because he had connections; he knew things, and could learn things. It was pretty much a given among everyone he knew that he would end up as either a police detective or a P.I. Everything he learned and passed on seemed to be from a different source; the man seemed to be able to see everything that happened.
And that was what brought him out here this lonely night. He was watching, looking for something -- only he knew what. People swore he always seemed to know exactly where to go to find his answers. He sometimes wished that were true. It was more a case of the answers finding him. Or the questions.
He found some of his answers in the most unlikely places -- like the deserted parking lot where he'd found out his girlfriend, two hundred miles away, was cheating on him. The answer had found him there, but the question still bothered him -- had that been his fault? So many things seemed to happen that he hadn't planned. But somehow he always kept his calm -- if asked for explanations, he would just shrug and say, "I guess I was just in the right place at the right time," and speak no further on the subject.
But for all that, he wasn't mysterious. He was a bit shy, but friendly and likable. And he had a way of getting to you. If you started telling him what was wrong with your life, he always seemed to understand exactly what you meant -- sometimes he almost seemed to know more than you did. And there was just something about those dark eyes and that hesitant smile that you couldn't help but trust.
That was what had happened with Brenda. They'd seen each other in class, but hadn't known each other to speak of, at the time her boyfriend was killed two weeks ago. Her best friend had been out of town, she'd had no one to talk to and no idea what to do or how to feel. And then Ben had shown up with flowers and a card, saying he'd heard what happened and just wanted to say he was sorry, and even though it seemed strange for him to be here, she'd thanked him, and invited him in, and in the awkward silence she just started talking, and somehow she just kept talking, and before she knew it she'd been telling him things her best friends didn't even know about her. But somehow it seemed all right. Several times she started to feel foolish, babbling on so much to a guy who'd just stopped by to drop off some flowers, but then he'd reach out and touch her hand, just offering a little comfort and showing he cared and he was listening and wanted to listen. And she would take a deep breath, offer him a shaky smile, and keep talking.
The memory of that flashed through Ben's head as he walked down the road -- how her voice had caught, how brilliant her green eyes had looked with the tears welling up in them, how hard she had hugged him back -- and something caught inside him. He closed his eyes for a moment, almost able to imagine that he could catch the scent of her hair in the chill night breeze, and when he opened them again there was a determination there. He was going to find the answers he needed, whatever it took.
He was walking past the old school now, and he suddenly realized how far he'd walked. He was way out north of town now. He couldn't even remember the past several miles; he had noticed nothing but his thoughts of Brenda. Long way from home, he knew. But he still wasn't ready to head back just yet. Turning his face from a sudden gust of wind, he wearily continued on.
His friends sometimes used to ask him to try and find things out, but they'd been leaving him to himself lately. They'd seen the way he acted when he talked about Brenda. They didn't know about that night in the park just after her friend had died, when she and Ben had sat together under the pavilion, and he had held her while she cried. But both their friends knew that the two had come to mean a lot to each other.
Remembering. How he'd felt her shudder when she tried to take a deep breath. How she'd felt in his arms. How it had felt to hold her that close, and know how much she needed him. How he'd imagined he could feel her heart beat, even through their coats. How he'd felt when she put her arms around him and held him tight.
He'd been sitting there with her that night, and remembering how his last girlfriend had treated him. Thinking maybe it was for the best -- fate letting him go, so he would be there for Brenda. He knew she would never leave him. It was kind of a strange feeling, to be needed like this. But he was determined not to let go of this. He vowed to do whatever it took, and his conscience be damned.
She hadn't asked him to try and find anything out about it. Still, she knew he was out here tonight, looking.
Looking for another piece to the puzzle, he walked on.
He frowned; it was clear that something was very wrong. "Another what?"
Catching her breath, she said, "Lena, the girl who sits next to me in Chem... remember I was telling you, the commuter? She... she was killed, last night." He could see that she was almost in tears.
"Shit," he whispered, his stomach doing that sudden plummeting feeling that he got whenever someone told him about something like this. He stared at her for a second, then dropped his bag and put his arms around her. She hugged him back, so tight he could hardly breathe.
Finally she pulled away a little, and looked up at him. "I'm scared, Ben," she whispered. "What if I'm next?"
He shook his head. "Don't worry," he said softly, the certainty in his eyes reassuring her. "I won't... let anything happen to you."
She looked at him for a long time, biting her lip and trying not to cry. Finally she lay her head against his chest. "I wish I could be as sure as you are."
He stared into the distance, trying to get hold of his thoughts and think of some way to reassure her. Finally he said, "I don't know what I can say. Except to ask you to just trust me."
A sudden thought struck her, and she shivered. "What if..." She bit her lip, almost afraid to ask. She seemed to be losing everyone she cared about, everyone she even knew. But he was there when she needed him, seemed to know just what to do. Even now, he could tell she was scared, and his arms were tightening around her.
Feeling safer, even if only for a moment, she finally asked, "What if... you're next?"
He took a deep breath, still staring at nothing. Slowly he shook his head. "No," he said, his voice so low it was almost a whisper. "I won't be."
She was quiet for a long time. When she looked up at him again, he could see the faint streaks of tears down her cheeks. "So you do know something about it, don't you?"
He looked away. "Not... not much. All I know how to tell you is... is that you're safe."
She took a deep, shaky breath, and let herself settle into the safety of his embrace. "Well... just don't you go away. I... I need you."
Their eyes met, and a few moments later, so did their lips. The nervous feeling in Ben's stomach was forgotten as they kissed.
He smiled inwardly, as another piece of the puzzle clicked into place.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I'd like to thank Nialle Woods for the pavilion theme. But I'm not going to.
I will thank several people for their help. Tammy Lees had some really good suggestions that helped to make the story what it is now. Brian Collier and Jeremy Pigg offered some ideas that helped me refine the character of Ben. Details here and there in the story can be blamed on Mayumi Suwa, Erin Fitzpatrick, Christy Guyer, and Leah Gass. Others had ideas that I couldn't (or didn't) use, but thanks for those too!
Many thanks, as well, to the readers who didn't "get" the story, and whose misinterpretations helped me put it on something closer to the right track. Maybe I was a little too subtle... (The names of these people have been withheld to protect the guilty.)
Also, thanks to Jon J. White and Jen Olson for their critiques of my work.
And finally, to Liz Allmer: Thanks for letting me listen.
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