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The Initiation (Chapter Six)

"Well, there's Jeffrey…" the strawberry blond said.

"Already begun," Faye said, smiling. "I work fast, Suzan."

Suzan laughed. When she did, her extraordinary chest jiggled in a way that made Cassie certain she wasn't wearing anything underneath her apricot-colored sweater.

"I still don't see the point of Jeffrey Lovejoy," the biker girl said, scowling.

"You don't see the point of any guy, Deborah; that's your problem," said Suzan.

"And your problem is that you can't see the point of anything else," Deborah retorted. "But Jeffrey's worse than most. He's got more teeth than brain cells."

"It isn't his teeth I'm interested in," said Faye thoughtfully. "Who are you going to start with, Suzan?"

"Oh, I don't know. It's so hard to decide. There's Mark Flemming and Brant Hegerwood and David Downey – he's in my remedial English class, and he's developed this killer body over the summer. And then there's always Nick…"

Deborah hooted. "Our Nick? The only way he'd look at you is if you had four wheels and a clutch."

"And besides, he's taken," Faye said, and her smile reminded Cassie of a crouching jungle cat.

"You just said you wanted Jeffrey – "

"They both have their uses. Get this straight, Suzan. Nick and I have an… arrangement. So you just back off and pick yourself a nice outsider, all right?"

There was a moment of tension, and then the strawberry blond shrugged. "Okay, I'll take David Downey. I didn't really want Nick anyway. He's an iguana."

Deborah looked up. "He's my cousin!"

"He's still an iguana. He kissed me at the junior prom, and it was like kissing a reptile."

"Can we get back to business?" Faye said. "Who's on the hate list?"

"Sally Waltman," Suzan said immediately.

"She already thinks because she's class president she can stand up to us, and if you take Jeffrey, she's going to be really mad."

"Sally…" Fay mused. "Yes, we'll have to come up with something truly special for dear old Sally… What's wrong, Deborah?"

Deborah had stiffened, looking up the hill toward the school entrance. "Intruder alert," she said. "In fact, it looks like a whole delegation."

Cassie had seen it too, a group of guys and girls coming through the main entrance down the hill. She felt a surge of hope. Maybe while Faye and the other two were occupied with them, she herself could slip away unnoticed. Heart beating quickly, she watched the new group approach.

A broad-shouldered boy in front, who seemed to be the leader, spoke up.

"Look, Faye, the cafeteria's crowded. So we're going to eat out here – okay?" His voice started out belligerent, but it wavered toward the end, becoming more of a question than a statement.

Faye looked up at him without haste, then smiled her slow, beautiful smile. "No," she said, briefly and sweetly. "It isn't okay." Then she turned back to her lunch.

"How come?" the boy burst out, still trying to sound tough. "You didn't stop us last year."

"Last year," Faye said, "we were only juniors. This year we're seniors – and we're wicked. As wicked as we wanna be."

Deborah and Suzan smiled.

Frustrated, Cassie shifted her weight. So far there had never been a moment when all three of the girls were looking away. Come on, turn around, she thought pleadingly.

The group of guys and girls went on standing there for a minute or two, exchanging angry glances. But finally they turned and walked back toward the school building – all except one.

"Uh, Faye? Did you mean I had to go too?" she said. She was a pretty, flushed girl, and young. Probably a sophomore, Cassie guessed. Cassie expected her to get packed off like the others, but to her surprise Faye raised her eyebrows and then patted the landing invitingly.

"Why, Kori," she said, "of course you can stay. We just imagined you'd be eating in the cafeteria with the Princess of Purity and the rest of the goody-goodies."

Kori sat down. "Too much goodness can get boring," she said.

Faye tilted her head and smiled. "And there I thought you were a namby-pamby little Puritan. Silly me," she said. "Well, you know you're always welcome here. You're almost one of us, aren't you?"

Kori ducked her head. "I'll be fifteen in two weeks."

"There, you see," Faye said to the others. "She's almost eligible. Now what were we talking about? That new slasher movie, wasn't it?"

"That's right," Deborah said, showing her teeth. "The one where the guy chops people up and makes them into condiments at his salad bar."

Suzan was unwrapping a Twinkie. "Oh, Deborah, don't. You're making me sick."

"Well, you make me sick with those things," Deborah said. "You never stop eating them. That's what those are, you know," she told Kori, pointing at Suzan's chest. "Two giant Twinkies. If Hostess went out of business, she'd be wearing a double A."

Faye laughed her sleepy, throaty laugh, and even Suzan giggled. Kori was smiling too, but looking uncomfortable.

"Kori! We're not embarrassing you, are we?" Faye exclaimed, opening her golden eyes wide.

"Don't be silly. I don't embarrass easily," Kori said.

"Well, with brothers like yours, I should think not. Still," Faye went on, "you seem so young, you know; almost… virginal. But that's probably just a false impression, right?"

Kori was blushing now. All three senior girls were looking at her with insinuating smiles.

"Well, sure – I mean, it is a false impression – I'm not all that young – " Kori swallowed, looking confused. "I went out with Jimmy Clark all last summer," she ended defensively.

"Why don't you tell us all about it?" Faye murmured. Kori looked more confused.

"I – well – I think I'd better get going. I've got gym next period, and I have to get all the way over to E-wing. I'll see you guys." She got up quickly and disappeared.

"Strange, she left her lunch," Faye mused, frowning gently. "Oh, well." She extracted a package of cupcakes from Kori's lunch sack and tossed them to Suzan, who giggled.

Deborah, though, was frowning. "That was stupid, Faye. We're going to need her later – like in two weeks. One empty space, one candidate, you know?"

"True," Faye said. "Oh, well, I'll make it up to her. Don't worry; when the time comes, she'll be on our side."

"I suppose we'd better get moving too," Suzan said, and behind her rock, Cassie shut her eyes in relief. "I've got to climb all the way to the third floor for algebra."

"Which could take hours," Deborah said maliciously. "But don't strain yourself just yet. There's more company coming."

Faye sighed in exasperation, without turning. "Who now?. What do we have to do to get a little peace around here?"

"It's Madame Class President herself. Sally. And there's steam coming out of her ears."

Faye's expression of annoyance vanished, dissolving into something more beautiful and infinitely more dangerous. Still sitting with her back to the school, she smiled and worked her long, red-tipped fingers like a cat exercising its claws. "And I thought today was going to be boring," she murmured, clucking her tongue. "It just shows you can never tell. Well, hetto, Sally," she said aloud, standing and turning in one smooth motion. "What a lovely surprise. How was your summer?"

"Save it, Faye," said the girl who'd just marched down the steps. She was a good head shorter than Faye, and slighter of build, but her arms and legs had a wiry look and her fists were clenched as if she were prepared to do physical battle. "I didn't come out here to chat."

"But we haven't had a good talk in so long… Did you do something to your hair? It's so – interesting."

Cassie looked at Sally's hair. It had a rusty cast to it, and looked frizzled and overpermed.

As the girl raised a defensive hand to her head Cassie could almost have giggled – if it all hadn't been so horrible.

"I didn't come to talk about my hair, either!" snapped Sally. She had a strident voice that was climbing higher with every sentence. "I came to talk about Jeffrey. You leave him alone!"

Faye smiled, very slowly. "Why?" she murmured, and in contrast to Sally's voice hers seemed even lower and more sensual. "Afraid of what he'll do if you're not there to hold his hand?"

"He's not interested in you!"

"Is that what he told you? Hmm. He seemed very interested this morning. He's taking me out Saturday night."

"Because you're making him."

"Making him? Are you suggesting a big boy like Jeffrey can't say no when he wants to?" Faye shook her head. "And why isn't he here now to speak for himself? I'll tell you something, Sally," she added, her voice dropping confidentially. "He didn't fight hard this morning. He didn't fight hard at all."

Sally's hand drew back as if she wanted to hit the bigger girl, but she didn't. "You think you can do anything, Faye – you and the rest of the Club! Well, it's time somebody showed you that you can't. There are more of us – lots more – and we're getting tired of being pushed around. It's time somebody took a stand."

"Is that what you're planning to do?" Faye said pleasantly. Sally had been circling her like a bulldog looking for an opening, and now the wiry girl had ended on the edge of the landing with her back to the steps leading down.

"Yes!" Sally cried defiantly.

"Funny," murmured Faye, "because it's going to be hard to do that flat on your back." With the last words she flicked her long red fingernails in Sally's face.

She never actually touched Sally's skin. Cassie, who had been watching intently, desperately waiting for an opportunity to flee, felt sure of that.

But it was as if something hit Sally. Something invisible. And heavy. The wiry girl's entire body jerked back and she tried frantically to regain her footing on the edge of the landing. Arms flailing, she teetered for an endless instant and then fell backward.

Cassie could never remember what happened then. One minute she was behind her rock, crouching and safe, and the next she had flung herself out across the falling girl's path, knocking her sideways onto the grass. For a heartbeat Cassie thought they were both going to roll all the way down the hill, but somehow or other they didn't. They ended up in a heap, with Cassie underneath.

"Let go! You ripped my shirt," a strident voice exclaimed, and an unkind fist planted itself in Cassie's midriff as Sally pushed herself to her feet. Cassie stared up at her, open-mouthed. Talk about gratitude…

"And as for you, Faye Chamberlain – you tried to kill me! But you'll get yours, you wait and see!"

"I'll get yours too, Sally," Faye promised, smiling, but the sleepiness in her smile wasn't genuine anymore. She looked as if underneath she were grinding her teeth.

"You just wait," Sally repeated vehemently. "Someday they may find you at the bottom of those stairs with a broken neck." With that, she marched to the landing and up the steps, bringing her foot down on each as if she were stamping on Faye's face. She didn't even look back or acknowledge Cassie's existence.

Cassie slowly got up and glanced down the long, winding flight of stairs that led to the foot of the hill. She couldn't have done anything differently, she realized. Sally would have been lucky to break nothing more than her neck before she reached bottom. But now…

She turned to face the three senior girls above her.

They were still standing with careless, unstudied elegance, but underneath their easy demeanor was violence. Cassie saw it in the sullen darkness of Deborah's eyes, and in the spiteful curve of Suzan's lips. But most of all she saw it in Faye.

It occurred to her, quite incidentally, that these were probably the three most beautiful girls she'd ever seen. It wasn't just that each had perfect skin, free of the slightest trace of teenage blemishes. It wasn't their gorgeous hair: Deborah's dark disordered curls, Faye's pitch-black mane, and Suzan's cloud of reddish gold. It wasn't even the way they set each other off, each one's distinctive type enhancing the others' instead of detracting from them. It was something else, something that came from within. A kind of confidence and self-possession that no girl at sixteen or seventeen should have. An inner strength, an energy. A power.

It terrified her.

"Well, now, what do we have here?" Faye said in a throaty voice. "A spy? Or a little white mouse?"

Run, Cassie thought. But her legs wouldn't move.

"I saw her this morning," Deborah said. "She was hanging out in front of the bike rack, staring at me."

"Oh, I've seen her before that, Debby," Faye replied. "I saw her last week at Number Twelve. She's a neighbor."

"You mean she's – " Suzan broke off.

"Yes."

"Whatever else she is, she's dead meat now," Deborah said. Her petite face was twisted in a scowl.

"Let's not be hasty," Faye murmured. "Even mice may have their uses. By the way, how long were you hiding there?"

There was only one answer to this, and Cassie fought not to say it. This was no time to come up with a devastatingly witty remark. But at last she gave in, because it was the truth, and because she couldn't think of anything else.

"Long enough," she said, and shut her eyes in misery.

Faye descended slowly to stand in front of her. "Do you always spy on other people's private conversations?"

"I was here before you came," Cassie said, with as much spirit as she could manage. If only Faye would stop staring at her like that. Those honey-colored eyes seemed to glow with an eerie, supernatural light. It was focused on Cassie like a laser beam, draining away her will, causing the strength to flow out of her. It was as if Faye wanted her to do something – or wanted something from her. It made her feel so disoriented – so off balance and weak…

And then she felt a sudden surge of strength that seemed to come up from her feet. Or, rather, from the ground beneath them, from the red New England granite that she'd felt buzzing with life earlier. It steadied her, sweeping up and straightening her spine, so that she lifted her chin and looked into those golden eyes without flinching.

"I was here first," she said defiantly.

"Very good," murmured Faye, and there was an odd look in her eyes. Then she turned her head. "Anything interesting in her backpack?"

Cassie saw, to her outrage, that Deborah was going through her backpack, throwing things out one by one. "Not much," the biker said, tossing it on the ground so the rest of its contents scattered down the hillside.

"All right." Faye was smiling again, a particularly unpleasant smile that made her red lips look cruel. "I think you were right the first time, Deborah. She's dead meat." She looked at Cassie. "You're new here, so you probably don't understand what kind of mistake you've made. And I don't have time to stand here and tell you. But you'll find out. You'll find out – Cassie."

She reached out and caught Cassie's chin with long, red-tipped fingers. Cassie wanted to pull away, but her muscles were locked. She felt the strength in those fingers and the hardness of the long, slightly curving nails. Like talons, she thought. The talons of a bird of prey.

For the first time she noticed that the red stone Fay wore at her throat had a star in it, like a star sapphire. It winked in the sunlight, and Cassie found she couldn't take her eyes off it.

Laughing suddenly, Faye released her.

"Come on," she said to the other two girls. The three of them turned and went up the steps.

The air exploded from Cassie's lungs as if she were a balloon that had just been pricked. She was shaking inside. That had been… That had been absolutely…

Get a grip on yourself!

She's only a teenage gang leader, she told herself. At least the mystery of the Club is solved. They're a gang. You've heard of gangs before, even if you never went to a school with one. As long as you leave them alone and don't cross them from now on, you'll be okay.

But the reassurance rang hollow in her mind. Faye's last words had sounded like a threat. But a threat of what?

When Cassie got back to the house that afternoon, her mother didn't seem to be downstairs. Finally, as she wandered from room to room calling, her grandmother appeared on the staircase. The look on her face made Cassie's stomach lurch.

"What's wrong? Where's Mom?"

"She's upstairs, in her room. She hasn't been feeling very well. Now, there's no need for you to get worried…"

Cassie hurried up the creaking old steps to the green room. Her mother was lying in a grand four-poster bed. Her eyes were shut, her face pale and lightly perspiring.

"Mom?"

The large black eyes opened. Her mother swallowed and smiled painfully. "Just a touch of the flu, I think," she said, and her voice was weak and distant, a voice to go with the pallor of her face. "I'll be fine in a day or two, sweetheart. How was school?"

Cassie's better nature battled with her desire to spread her own misery around as much as possible. Her mother took a little breath and shut her eyes as if the light hurt her.

Better nature won. Cassie dug her nails into her palms and spoke evenly. "Oh, fine," she said.

"Did you meet anyone interesting?"

"Oh, you could say that."

She didn't want to worry her grandmother, either. But during dinner, when her grand-mother asked why she was so quiet, the words just seemed to come out by themselves.

"There was this girl at school – her name's Faye, and she's awful. A female Attila the Hun. And on my very first day I ended up making her hate me…" She told the whole story. At the end of it, her grandmother looked into the fireplace as if preoccupied.

"It will get better, Cassie," she said.

But what if it doesn't? Cassie thought. "Oh, I'm sure it will," she said.

Then her grandmother did something surprising. She looked around as if somebody might be listening and then leaned forward. "No, I mean that, Cassie. I know. You see, you have – a special advantage. Something very special…" Her voice dropped to a whisper.

Cassie leaned forward in turn. "What?"

Her grandmother opened her mouth, then her eyes shifted away. There was a pop from the fire, and she got up to poke the wood there.

"Grandma, what?"

"You'll find out."

Cassie felt a shock. It was the second time today she'd heard those words. "Grandma – "

"You've got good sense, for one thing," her grandmother said, a new, brisk tone in her voice. "And two good legs, for another. Here, take this broth up to your mother. She hasn't eaten anything all day."

That night, Cassie couldn't sleep. Either her dread kept her awake so that she noticed more of the creaking, rattling, old-house sounds than she had before, or there were more of the sounds to notice. She didn't know which, and it didn't matter: she kept falling asleep and then jerking back to awareness. Every so often she reached under her pillow to touch the chalcedony piece. If only she could really sleep… so she could dream about him…

She sat bolt upright in bed.

Then she got up, bare feet pattering on the hardwood floor, and went over to unzip her backpack. She took the things she'd re-collected from the hillside out one by one, pencil by pencil, book by book. At last she looked at the array on the bedspread.

She was right. She hadn't noticed it at the time; she'd been too worried about Faye's threat. But the poem she'd written that morning and then crumpled up in anger was missing.

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