Our high school girls' cross-country track team was on a fall after-school-fun-run. We entered the County Park, skirted the concrete-lined runoff creek bed and ran parallel to the park's row of eucalyptus trees. That's when we spotted Abbey Morrison staggering among the park's trees. As we got closer, someone shouted, “Hey, Abbey, you drunk or high on something else?”
Abbey flailed the air with her skinny arms. We kept running. A few girls giggled and turned away, perhaps embarrassed by “perfect A” Abbey's behavior. However, having a grandmother who's a private detective gave me a different perspective. As I lagged behind the team, I studied Abbey, taking in details as I’d been trained to do ever since I was a toddler. Abbey’s blouse was torn, her hands looked bloody, and her glasses were askew.
“She’s hurt,” I shouted to the others.
“ You’re nuts,” said Jeannie, our willowy team captain. “Abbey's a weirdo. Come on, we don't want to be out here all afternoon. I've got things to do.”
I ignored Jeannie, as I often did, and ran toward Abbey. My best friend, Rita, followed me. When I got to Abbey, I saw she only wore one sandal and her right eye was bruised. She continued to shuffle along through the dry grass at the edge of the park. Up on the knoll, the track team hesitated, then Jeannie urged them to keep running, and they followed her lead. For a nanosecond I watched them, then turned my attention to Abbey.
I put my hand on Abbey’s shoulder and walked next to her. “Abbey? It's me, Mandy. What’s wrong?”
“ Penance.” She muttered as if that explained everything.
“ Penance? What do you mean?” I looked at Rita, who stood on the other side of Abbey. Rita's curly black ponytail bobbed like a spring as she shook her head and arched her eyebrows.
“ Sit down over here in the shade,” I said, reaching for one of Abbey’s lacerated hand.
“ Can’t.” Abbey pulled her hand away. “Gotta keep going ‘til dark. He’ll know. Can't stop.”
“ Who’ll know?” Rita asked.
“ The Watcher. He sees everything.”
“ Oh,” Rita said, making circular motions with her hand to indicate Abbey was nuts.
“Okay, Abbey,” I said. We’ll walk with you,” I said.
Rita opened her mouth, but I hushed her.
“ Rita has to leave, but I’ll stay with you.” I don’t think Abbey heard me. She struggled forward from tree to tree, hugging the smooth eucalyptus bark before she staggered onto the next one.
Rita and I watched for a while. “I don’t think we can persuade her to go with us,” I said. “It’s like she’s in a trance. Why don’t you run back to the team and have one of them call her parents.”
“ You’re the fast runner. I only came on the run to keep you company, remember?” Rita said.
“ Okay, then you stay with Abbey, and I’ll go get help.”
“ I don’t want to stay with her. She’s spooky.”
I put my arms on my hips. “Then what do you suggest? We can’t just leave her.” I looked at Abbey’s progress, which matched that of a snail. “She’s not going anywhere fast.”
“ Well, okay,” Rita said. “Boy is she a mess. She’s never taken real good care of herself, but now, yuck.”
Rita believed everyone should always look stylish no matter what. She put up with my lack of fashion because we’d grown up in the same neighborhood and shared an interest in mysteries. My carefree style and short hair was Rita’s cross to bear, not mine.
“ Stay with her and see if you can find out what this is all about," I said. "If you can, get her to a drinking fountain. That might help. I’ll hurry. It shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes for me to get someone back here.”
“ Okay, Mandy,” Rita said, “but don't leave me here forever.”
I took off the same direction the team had headed, but realized that wouldn’t lead to a phone anytime soon. Instead, I cut across the park, jaywalked through an intersection, and raced to a gas station's phone booth. Fortunately, whenever I go on a cross-country run, I keep change in a small packet laced into the top of my right running shoe. I looked up Morrison in the phone directory. There were twenty of them and most didn’t even show street addresses. I slammed the telephone book shut. I dialed my grandmother’s business number and got the answering machine. Okay, I thought, RJ, it’s your turn. RJ’s my dad. My grandmother, Nat, raised me and only recently he'd come back into my life. Calling him Dad didn't quite make it with me yet. At the moment he did background checks and research for Nat's investigative agency.
I dialed his cell phone number. “Hi,” I said when his deep voice answered. He sounded as if he were in a tunnel. “I need your help,” I said without preamble. “Are you free?”
“ Mandy, of course. What’s going on?”
I explained the situation with Abbey and told him where I was.
“ Go back to her. I’m in my truck and should be able to get there in about ten minutes. Should I call 911?”
“ I’m not sure, but she’s incoherent.”
“ I’ll call them just to be on the safe side. See you soon.”
I hung up and ran back to the park. Not much had changed. Abbey had progressed about twenty feet, and Rita was still at her side.
“ I can’t get her to stop hugging trees. She seems to be getting worse,” Rita said.
I stood in front of Abbey and tried to make her focus on me, but she kept swaying her head from side to side humming a soft chant. It sounded like, “my heart, my flesh belong to him.”
It made no sense to me, and I wondered who “him” was, but every time I asked Abbey a question, she pushed me away and chanted louder. Her eyes got glassy. Suddenly, she slumped to the ground. I felt kind of stupid just staring at her as she lay in a heap, but she was too heavy for Rita and me to carry. When I leaned down to her, she thrashed out with bloody hands.
" We need to get her some water," I said.
" The fountain's near the parking lot," Rita said, looking as perplexed as I felt. "This time you stay with her, and I'll see if I can get something that holds water."
I nodded and Rita jogged off toward the parking lot. Kneeling next to Abbey, I talked to her like I did to Lucky, my grandmother's dog, when I wanted to calm her down. "You'll be okay. Help's on the way. Breath easy."
Abbey started mumbling again. "I'm bad…gotta be punished. No. I don’t want to do it. It’s wrong!"
She rolled her head from side to side, and I tried to put my arm under her and hold her still, but she struck out at me.
" You aren't bad," I said, not knowing what else to say. "No one's going to hurt you."
" Yes!" she screamed. "He will!"
" Who's he?"
She didn't answer. I heard a siren, looked up and spotted RJ’s pickup wheeling into the lot, with the paramedics and a Sheriff’s black and white right behind him. Rita waved frantically at them and pointed in my direction. RJ parked, but the emergency vehicles bounced over the end of the parking lot and drove up next to Abbey and me in a swirl of dust.
From then on it was out of our hands, which was a relief to Rita and me. After a deputy took our names and questioned us, RJ drove us back to school.
“ Appreciate the lift,” I said to RJ. “What do you think was wrong with Abbey?”
“ She wore a medical bracelet. Apparently, she's a diabetic, so it might have to do with her medical condition,” RJ said.
I slapped my thigh. "Darn! I missed it. Some detective I am."
" Don't feel too bad," he said. "You had your hands full just keeping her safe. Good job, both of you."
“ But if it was just her diabetes, what was all that chanting about?” I asked.
“ I’ve heard of The Watchers,” Rita said.
I looked at her in amazement. “Really? Who are they?”
“ Some new religious group headed by Dr. Marcus Jonah. They say he’s real cool, kinda young and good looking.”
“ You mean a cult, don’t you?” RJ asked.
Rita shrugged. “I don’t know. He teaches Bible stuff. I’ve been asked to their meetings but haven’t gone. My parents are heavy-time Lutherans, and they’d flip if I went.”
I had little religious training, something my grandmother had ignored in my upbringing. I knew a few basics, but I’d never been interested in religious stuff even though a lot of my friends talked about those things.
" Hey," I said just as we turned into the school parking lot. "Maybe Rita and I should find out more about this guy Jonah. He could be doing something illegal. Abbey kept screaming he wanted to punish her."
" Now hold on," RJ said, halting the pickup with a jerk. "There's freedom of religion in this country. Don't go poking your nose into something that's none of your business. The last time you did that, you got everyone in trouble."
" Trouble?" I slid across the seat and joined Rita at the side of the car, keeping the door open. "We saved your neck."
" Yeah, and almost got yours in a noose."
" Come on, RJ," I said. "Rita and I will just nose around. We won't do anything illegal or dangerous."
" I've heard those words before." He thrust the gear into reverse. "Instead of acting like juvenile detectives, it would be nice if you visited Abbey in the hospital to see how she's doing. Or send her a get-well card. Call her parents and say how sorry you are about what happened."
I glanced at Rita who was busy re-tying her long black hair in a red ribbon. "He's right,” I said. “Tomorrow's Saturday, we'll visit her."
RJ's handsome, swarthy face grew stern. "With no hidden agenda either. This is not a case. This is doing a kindness for a classmate."
" You sound just like grandmother." I shut the car door and watched him drive off. Rita and I put our arms around each other's shoulder and walked to the gym. "He forgets I spent last summer working at grandmother's and know when a case is a case." I looked at Rita. "What’ve you got going on tomorrow morning?"
" I'm coloring a friend's hair at nine. Why don't you visit Abbey and let me know how she is."
Of course, I wanted to see how Abbey was, but I also wanted to find out more about The Watchers. "Who asked you to go to a Watchers' meeting?"
" Willow Hornsby. A new friend I met this year in art history."
" Willow? That's a cool name."
" She's the one whose hair I'm doing."
I thought for a minute. "How long will it take you to color her hair?"
" Well, we were going to spend the whole morning together."
I nodded. "Okay if I drop by after my hospital visit with Abbey?"
" Figured you'd want to," Rita said. "But be nice to Willow. She spooks real easy and doesn't have many friends. And I gotta tell you something else about her." Rita hesitated, gave me a searching look, then said, "She's deaf."
" Deaf? Then how did you get to know her?"
" She reads lips and talks almost normal. She lost her hearing when she was about seven, so her speech is okay."
" You're full of surprises," I said and grinned. "If she can put up with another friend, she's got one in me. Especially if she knows about The Watchers."