The Mark of Abel


I: September

Chapter 1

It was Labor Day again.

The eternal stone buildings of Camp Runnymede rested after a child-filled summer. Beyond cedar-shake roofs the vast Texas sky met lazy hills rising from the other side of the meandering Guadalupe River. The last girls had left in mid-August. The last repairs had been finished Sunday. Today, the first Monday in September, the humans on the staff had fled to nearby Denim.

The only permanent resident out in the noon sun was a brown squirrel. Gabrielle watched him peer back at her from a branch high in the ancient live oak. Born that spring, heir of a dozen names as the camp population shifted through the summer weeks, he looked bewildered by the quiet. Besides the woman seated beneath him, only one other human was in sight.

When the squirrel glanced behind her, Gabrielle shifted on the concrete bench and squinted across the lawn. Tall and slender, the other woman moved with an easy, long-legged stride that said she had all the time in the world. Her shirtdress was summerweight cotton but long-sleeved, and her hat had a wide brim. Sandalin Pell did not believe in suntans. She was precisely on time for their traditional Labor Day reunion.

Merry, of course, was nowhere in sight.

As usual, such a thought started a magazine article running through Gabrielle’s mind:

Gabrielle is always early, Sandalin is always on time, and Merry is always late. In a way, that’s all you need to know about them.

Sandalin Pell’s life is exact. Her music is soft melodious, and precise—very much in demand. She and her concert harp travel around central Texas playing for weddings, churches and fashion shows, and auditioning for orchestras. Only a flair for organization keeps Sandalin’s tight schedule running. Her life is completely in control, except for the orchestra chair that keeps eluding her.

Merry Weston couldn’t be more different. She runs the Denim Rape Crisis Center, a job filled with schedule-busting emergencies. That doesn’t bother her; she’s never had a schedule anyway. With grit and tenacity she keeps everything clattering along, only a little bit late. One of these days, though, Merry will have to start thinking about tomorrow.

And Gabrielle Adelade sits back and observes, just as she’s doing now. She likes to arrive early, and watch things develop. That suits her employer, the Lone Star Review magazine: it makes her the best reporter on staff. In the long run, though, is just being an observer enough?

If they’re that deep in their ruts, are they due for a change?

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and let the article fade, along with its premonition. Later, she thought. This hour is mine. She stood up and greeted Sandalin with an old-friend hug. "Another three hundred-sixty-five days."

"Not quite," Sandalin said. "Labor day was later in September last year."

Gabrielle shook her head. "How long does it take before your passion for minutiae quits bothering people you meet?"

Sandalin chuckled. "Too long for some, I’m afraid. I presume you’ve had time enough to get used to it?" She lifted the hat from her short blond hair and ran her long fingers through to fluff it. Then she stretched her slender body, looking up into the huge oak that shaded the camper-scarred picnic table, and made a face at the puzzled squirrel. Finally, she glanced at Gabrielle.

Her friend shook her head again, bouncing a dark ponytail from shoulder to shoulder. "I’m not going to guess how long the three of us have known each other, and get corrected again."

Sandalin sat down on the opposite bench and ticked off years. "The summer we met, right over there in Antelope cabin, barely teenagers. Five Camp Runnymede summers after that. And now this is our eighth reunion. Fourteen years."

"And Merry’s only ten minutes late."

They watched the running figure, the only hurried thing in the peaceful camp. Shorter than her two friends, and full-figured, Merry moved at the pace of one who is always behind schedule. She slowed as she entered the shade, and thumped down on the end of Sandalin’s bench. She shook order into the thick black hair that fell only halfway to her shoulders.

"What am I late for?" she demanded.

"I was wondering why the three of us get along so well," Gabrielle said.

Merry panted. "No competition."

"Oh, come on." Sandalin’s arched brows climbed higher. "We’re highly competitive."

Merry shook her head and turned her body to form a triangle with the other two. "Not with each other. Never shared an organization outside of camp."

"I think you’re right," Gabrielle said. "No boy has made a pass at more than one of us."

Sandalin added, "And no teacher had more than one of us as a pet."

"No teacher ever had me for a pet," Merry said.

Sandalin laughed. "You have to get to class on time to impress teachers."

Gabrielle chuckled. "And turn in assignments by deadlines."

"Pick-on-Merry time again, huh? You were wondering why we get along, not if." But twinkling eyes belied her grumbling tone.

It sounded like Merry had caught her breath, so Gabrielle reached for the picnic basket that shared her bench. This year she’d selected a light rosé. She poured the three glasses and joined the others in their ritual toast. "Another year, the same friends." The glasses clinked; the wine tasted as sweet as the sun.

Then Gabrielle reached for the basket again. Merry said, "Report time! What’s going on?"

While Gabrielle lifted a deli platter of cold cuts and crisp vegetables and set it on the table, Sandalin struck a dramatic pose. "You two," she said, "are looking at an angel."

Merry snorted; Gabrielle rolled her pale-blue eyes.

Sandalin relaxed, and reached to help distribute silverware. "That’s what I keep telling Colleen, the Methodist choir director. She’s written a Christmas play, with teenagers as shepherds, toddlers as cherubs and me as an angel playing a harp. She has already designed the biggest, glitziest set of wings you can imagine. She’s getting ready to start on a halo."

Gabrielle handed her a plate. "Sounds lovely," she said cautiously.

"You aren’t picturing the wings big enough. I will not stagger on stage and try to play hunched over, under a fake halo! Harpists have enough back problems without encouraging that sort of thing. And the stereotype!" She shuddered.

Merry reached a fork for some of the summer sausage. "Colleen know how you feel?"

"Don’t worry." Sandalin scooped up dip with a crisp cauliflower floret. "I’ve been around you and your crisis center enough to communicate calmly. I was in a hurry after church yesterday, but I’ll catch her at practice Wednesday."

Merry hesitated. "Will she understand?"

Gabrielle selected several tiny chunks of cheese. "You’re talking about Colleen Nelson?" Sandalin nodded, so Gabrielle continued. "I worked with her on an article once. What she’ll do is tell you to make your own darn wings."

"That sounds like Colleen," Sandalin said. "One together woman!"

Merry’s gaze wandered across the peaceful Hill Country valley. "Colleen? I’m not so sure."

Sandalin paused, her fork between sliced chicken and chunked ham. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing. Probably imagination." She returned her attention to the table. "Always around too many people who’ve been hurt." She cupped her chin in the palm of her hand and squinted at Sandalin. "I wonder. How would you look in a halo?"

"You’re the one in the halo business," Sandalin said. "And I want to quit talking and eat. How is the center doing?"

"Ever more chaotic. Kept running into the Denim Family Violence Council, so the two groups sat down and did some talking. There was so much overlap we decided to combine the organizations. But they’re strictly volunteer, without any paid staff. As a result I’m trying to run both centers, cross-train volunteers and work with a temporary board of directors until we can get the whole thing glued together. Then we can get on to the big job of opening a battered women’s shelter."

Sandalin took a sip of wine. "Maybe I can get Colleen to volunteer. Do you think you could keep her busy until Christmas?"

"Might not like the trade," Merry said. "You’d get Randall."

Gabrielle chanted, "Merry has a boyfriend. Merry has a boyfriend."

Merry choked. After she recovered she said, "Randall Darren Lancaster the Fourth is going to be president of the temporary board. First meeting will be Wednesday night, while you’re talking your way out of your halo. He has informed me that it will start at seven p.m. Precisely."

"You mean the president of the Denim National Bank?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes. Thinks the sun best not set until all the paperwork is finished. Accurately."

Gabrielle turned to Sandalin. "Merry’s not exaggerating. Rumor has it that the last thing Randall Lancaster did on impulse was get born, and it took him nine and a half months to do that."

"It’s probably true," Sandalin agreed. "I met him after a concert at the bank. The man is all legs and piercing eyes. He reminds me of Abraham Lincoln, before Abe grew the beard." She put her hand on Merry’s shoulder. "You, and the ultimate management type? Can both survive? Gabrielle, you have an article here."

"It sounds more like a soap opera. Besides, I’ll be busy learning to be a vigilante."

The others turned to stare. "A what?" they chorused.

"My editor, Clayton, got a letter asking about something called the Self Defense Academy that purports to turn civilians into expert gunslingers. It gave him an idea for a series of articles on the subject. He wants me to start by taking the Self Defense Academy course, so I can use it as a jump-off point for the lead article. Would you like to trade glitz wings for that?"

"No, thanks." Sandalin reached for another chunk of ham. "It could spoil my concentration for long-range shooting competition. Anyway, you might have fun. At least you already know something about firearms."

Gabrielle glanced across the sunburned lawn, past the weathered lodge. "That’s right! I’d forgotten about good old Runnymede riflery class. Recreational shooting is a lot different, of course. I imagine the kind of people who get involved with the self-defense aspect are a different sort. But at least I still remember all ten safety rules. You were the only one who kept up with it, though. How’s the shooting season going?"

Sandalin gave her an odd look, as if hesitating over some thought. Then she shrugged off whatever it was and said, "Great! I moved up to class AAA at the New Braunfels match last month. If my scores keep improving I’ll have a chance at the Hunter’s Pistol championship out at Denim Gun Club. I’m even starting to think about going to the Texas state meet."

"Congratulations!" There were only scraps left on the cold platters, so Gabrielle reached for the pastry box in the bottom of the basket. "When are you going to shoot again? I’d like to see what I’m getting into."

Sandalin finished her wine and set the glass out of the way. "We have a match next Sunday afternoon, but it won’t do you any good. Silhouette is nothing like self-defense. You need someone who shoots NRA Practical or Police Pistol. Check over at the sheriff’s office." Her eyes grew big as Gabrielle opened a waxed white box.

"Those look scrumptious," said Merry. "What are they?"

"They’re individual-size cheesecakes, topped with blueberries, from a shop in Old Denim Square. I just finished writing a story on German baking."

"Mmmm," Sandalin closed her eyes and savored her first bite. "I wish I could be a famous journalist and cover stories like that."

Gabrielle peered over her loaded fork. "You don’t do so bad playing your harp. I still remember those tortes you brought last year, from that banquet."

Merry sighed. "Guess that means it’s my turn to bring lunch next year. I’d write it down in my notebook, but I left the darn thing at the office. Again."

"I’ll call and remind you," Sandalin promised. "We wouldn’t want to have to run to the Burger Doodle when you forget."

Merry made a face at her. "We’ll see each other before then," she said innocently. "I hear Denim Methodist Church is going to have a great Christmas program. Wonder if I can find a date?"

"Maybe we can double," Gabrielle added. "I’ll bring Glen. I might even bring my Lone Star Review camera."

"I give up!" Sandalin protested, and stood up. "Where’s my hat? I need to leave anyway."

"Hey–" Merry started, but her friend interrupted.

"I really do have to run." Sandalin gave Merry and Gabrielle quick hugs. "The harp’s in my minivan. I’m playing for a wedding this afternoon. For some strange reason, they’re doing it outdoors."

Gabrielle smiled. "Not everyone thinks sunshine is sinful, you know."

"Right!" Sandalin raised her finger for a lecture. "But Merry wears her friendly smile all the time, the one that makes everyone trust her. Gabrielle, you have that innocent, little-girl look that makes everyone want to confide in you. I, on the other hand, have to limp along on my flawless beauty." She swept her long arm across the withered lawn. "See what the sun does to the grass?" she demanded. "It is not going to do that to my complexion!" Then she laughed. "You two! It’s not ‘harass Sandalin time’ either. I’ll see you soon."

She settled the wide straw hat back on her sleek hairstyle and started across the lawn toward her minivan, never looking back.

Merry was still chuckling. "Remember the sunburn she got that first year? Maybe that’s what did it."

"It’s one subject that definitely gets her riled," Gabrielle agreed. She stood up and started putting dirty plates back in her basket.

"I’ll help," Merry said.

"No need."

"It’s okay." Merry carefully wrapped the wine glasses. "You’ll want to follow me back anyway. One of our new volunteers took one of those self-defense courses, I think from the same school. She’s on hotline duty this afternoon, and I’ll introduce you."

"You’re kidding." Gabrielle corked the bottle and laid it on top, closing the basket. They started back towards the parking lot. "What did she think of it?"

"Don’t know," Merry replied. "She just started working with us, after the Crime Victim’s Aid program folded. Haven’t had a lot of time to get acquainted. Now, how about Glen Huntington? You two still just sort of serious?"

"That’s a good way to describe it," Gabrielle said.

They were still talking about the semi-romance when they got to their cars.

After the eight-mile drive back to Denim, Gabrielle followed Merry into the Crisis Center office. As usual, the phone was ringing. A petite Hispanic woman turned from a battered filing cabinet and stabbed the blinking button with a long crimson fingernail then slid the receiver under a cloud of black curls. She pushed aside one of the stacks of papers on the metal desk and perched on its chipped edge as she answered a barrage of questions. She motioned toward Merry’s office.

Gabrielle knew the woman who came out of it was a mother. Short graying hair framed a face that carried the unmistakable stamp of that warm responsibility. The woman reached to shake hands with Merry.

"I’m Elva Masters, of the Family Violence Council," she said. "We met when you talked to the Police Wives’ Auxiliary. I’m in charge of FVC training, and I think we need to take a look at our programs."

"Was hoping you could come by," Merry said.

The petite woman hung up the phone. "I gave to her our training manual, but I could not find a copy of our bylaws."

"I’ll find one." She turned to Gabrielle. "This is Sarah Aguilar, the one I told you about." Merry looked back at Sarah and grinned as she started Elva toward her office. "Be careful. Gabrielle and her Pulitzer are with the Lone Star Report."

Sarah’s eyebrows arched high in her Castilian face. "You have earned a Pulitzer?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not the famous prize. My Pulitzer is a cairn terrier. Merry keeps razzing me about it."

"She is good at teasing. It keeps things interesting around here. How may I help you?"

Gabrielle found a clean page in her notebook. "I’m doing a series of stories on guns and self-defense, and I need some information on something called the Self Defense Academy. Merry said you had taken a similar course. I’m not ready to do an interview yet, but I was wondering if you could give me some basic information, or tell me where to start looking."

"I graduated the SDA course." Sarah reached across her desk for her leather shoulder bag. "How deep of a story do you want?"

"My editor wants me to actually take the course."

"It will take you some time to get registered." Sarah pulled an address book from the bag and opened it. "Write to this address for a schedule and application. The SDA course is advanced; I might suggest you take a basic course first."

Gabrielle copied the information. "Do you know of one? Or are you thinking of the Department of Public Safety’s Concealed Carry course?"

"The DPS course is actually not a shooting course. It deals much more with law and nonviolent conflict resolution. The one I am talking about, Personal Protection, is offered by Denim Community Education. There should be a session on their fall schedule, which they have just published."

When Sarah opened her purse to replace the book, Gabrielle recognized the bag. A thin line of Velcro was barely visible between the folds of leather, but she remembered an advertisement from somewhere showing how it opened to provide access to a concealed handgun. Her eyes widened. Sarah caught the look and smiled.

Gabrielle looked at her again.

Sarah is petite, no more than five feet tall and slender. Her nails are long, crimson; her hair a fall of soft, dark curls that brushes her slender shoulders. Her blouse is white silk, tucked into navy slacks. She doesn’t look like someone who carries a gun.

The phone rang again. "Crisis Center," Sarah said.

She doesn’t sound like someone who carries a gun, either.

She covered the receiver with a small hand. "This will take some time. Do you need more information right now?"

Gabrielle shook her head, and Sarah returned to her telephone conversation. Gabrielle glanced through Merry’s door, and found her friend deep in a file drawer. She caught Merry’s glance and waved.

"See you later," Merry said. Then—"Aha!"—she pulled out a thick folder.

Gabrielle was all the way to her car before she realized that, for once, she had no idea where a story was going.

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