Stalking with Friends
His letters were perfect M-U-R-D-E, the R already on the board. A sinister laugh. JUSTME added the letters on his android phone and waited for his opponent to react to his 39 points, putting him ahead by 72. Not happy for sure. JUSTME had won every game with this opponent the entire three months. A wide grin.
Time lapsed. Was JASMINE too busy to play? It was nine in the evening. Maybe she was streaming a movie? JUSTME assumed his opponent was a woman by her game name. He had other guesses about her: probably self-employed because she was always available, single, lived in his Eastern Time zone. He knew nothing else about her except she was sort of laid back, wasn’t aggressive, and never commented on a game, like “You picked some great words,” or, “Hey, let me win once in a while.”
JUSTME wasn’t about to let her win—or anyone else, for that matter—if he could help it. He needed to win, be king of Friends, and anyone who beat him, beware …
JASMINE was safe—for now. Never beat JUSTME or just wait, which come to think of it, was another great Friends’ name.
Pinged. She’s back. “Nice word and 39 points. You are certainly the best I ever played with.”
And she wants to chat? He felt a surge.
JASMINE continued. “We’ve been playing a while, seem to have a connection.”
Oh yeah. “Definitely,” he wrote.
“You must be a guy. I mean, over the past few months you’ve used many macho words. And now MURDER. Wow.”
“I’m a guy,” JUSTME punched in. Maybe he should have made her beg to find out. “You sound like a woman, with so many feminine words. And your board name, JASMINE.”
“You are good. You law enforcement? A detective?”
Huh? Definitely not, but he couldn’t tell her what he did for a living—if you called it a living. “Sales, I travel around the country.
“Ever get to Gatlinburg?”
Christ, was this an invitation? “Just so happens I’ll be there next week.” He could be anywhere, anytime. He wanted a photo of JASMINE. Hell, she could be old or fat or just plain ugly—
“Because I think we have a connection. Wouldn’t mind playing with you in the same room. That didn’t come out right.”
It did to JUSTME. Playing Friends in person, and then—
“That was inappropriate, sorry,” she wrote.
“No, I understood,” JUSTME typed quickly. “Say, can you text me a photo? And I’ll text one back. You know, so we can recognize each other in—where again? Oh right, Gatlinburg.”
“You’re too funny, JUSTME. Sure, give me your e-mail address or text so I can send a selfie. Here’s my text number.”
JUSTME squirmed. What was he thinking? He didn’t like giving out anything personal, but he took a chance.
The text zoomed back quickly. Boy, was she smoking! Thirty, blonde, great skin, eyes!
“You’re very pretty.” Clean, simple, didn’t want to turn her off.
JUSTME kept a head shot on his phone—his cousin who died a few years back. Sad, the handsome ones die young. But now that his poor cousin, Ricky, was gone, he’d never know. Nor care. JUSTME couldn’t send her a photo of himself, not with first-degree burn scars on the left side of his face. Not that it mattered; once he spotted JASMINE and followed her home, the rest would be easy.
“Wow, I hoped you would be handsome, but you’re more than I thought,” JASMINE wrote. “Can’t wait to meet you. I’m Brooke, by the way.”
“Ricky, a pleasure, Brooke.” Why not use his cousin’s name too?
“When will you be in town?”
“Tuesday.” Plenty of time to drive from Florida to Tennessee. It was Saturday night. Another reason he could tell JASMINE, uh, Brooke, was single. She would have been out with her boyfriend or husband. And she wanted to meet—
“Perfect. How about we meet at the Gatlinburg welcome center at 7 pm?”
“Works for me.” It always worked for him. Another sinister laugh. “Well, until then, Brooke.”
“Looking so forward to meeting you in the flesh.”
An older model Ford Focus crept along the main strip in Gatlinburg. Perfect timing. He pulled up about fifty feet from the welcome center and snapped up his binoculars. Yep, there she was standing, looking out at the street as though looking for . . . me, JUSTME. My JASMINE, my Friend, you’re as beautiful as your photo! His eyes locked on her as he dialed her cell. A moment passed before she dug into her handbag and answered.
“Hi, I’ve been waiting.”
JUSTME tried to control himself. He wanted to leap out of the car and—
“Hi to you too. Listen, my car broke down, and I’m afraid I’m going to be an hour late.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“I can call you when I arrive. Is that OK, Brooke?”
She looked at her watch, then shook her head in a sad motion.
“It’ll be kind of late.”
“You’re right. I’ll check into my hotel. We can schedule our date for tomorrow.”
“Sure, tomorrow.” But he sensed she was disappointed.
“Could I be so bold as to ask you to meet me in the hotel lobby, just to say hello?”
He saw a big smile. He had her.
“Sure, I could do that. Where are you staying?”
His eyes darted around until he found what he was looking for. “The Country Inn.”
Her eyes gazed up and she smiled again. “Perfect. Call me when you get into town.”
The streetlight cast a glow on her. He just couldn’t believe it. She was gorgeous, sexy in a green backless party dress. Forget the lobby, how about a room? Only there would be no room. He waited for JASMINE to walk a few blocks away and was about to take off when a car pulled up and lowered the passenger window. The guy waved with a map. “Can you help me? I’m lost, and everything in this town looks the same.”
Christ, not now! He tried to keep one eye on JASMINE, but she disappeared. Where did she go? “I’m from out of town myself, can’t help you. Can you move your car? I’m in a hurry.”
“Sure, sorry.” JUSTME jerked his car forward and headed for JASMINE. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! Where are you? He drove a few blocks until he found a restaurant parking lot, where he jumped out of the car to hightail it back to where he last saw her. She wouldn’t recognize him, but what would he do if he found her? Say, “Hi, I’m Ricky and lied about the way I look.” No more Friends, let alone the “motel room.”
She was gone. Defeated, he trudged to his car and put his head on the steering wheel. What next? And then his phone rang. He frowned. Who? But then he smiled. “Hey, I was just thinking about you.”
“Me too,” JASMINE said. “I’m a little worried about your car breaking down. Are you OK?”
Sweet! “Kind of. I mean, I just called the inn and they’re full. I guess I should have called and—”
“Oh no. Look, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I lied about living in Gatlinburg. I’m here because I broke up with my boyfriend a week ago and needed to get away. I actually live in North Carolina. I’m so sorry, Ricky, for lying to you.”
“Oh, that’s OK. It was very nice—”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean. It’s dead with him. I’d like to see you. I’m lonely and confused. Could you maybe just come by my hotel so we can chat? If you’re really a nice guy, I’ll let you sleep on the sofa. And if you’re not, you can kill me.” She giggled.
Christ, what an invitation! “Sure, but only if you are OK with it. I mean, I’m a gentleman, so you don’t have to worry about me taking advantage. It sounds like you’d like to talk. I’m a great listener.” And taker!
“I’m staying at the Valley Inn, just outside of town toward Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m in room 201. And thanks for listening ahead of time.” She giggled again.
Ricky calculated quickly. “Be there in an hour.”
JUSTME stood in front of her door and inhaled. He counted one, two, three, and knocked—not too hard, not too soft, just a friendly knock.
JASMINE opened the door with a smile that crashed to fear. She tried to close the door, but JUSTME planted his size-10 sneaker to block it.
“I can explain, JASMINE, I mean, Brooke. Just give me a chance.”
“You better leave, or I’ll call the police. You’re … nothing like your photo. How could you, Ricky?”
He started his sob trick. “I’m so sorry, Brooke. I knew you’d never want to meet if you saw what I looked like.” He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve. “I just wanted to meet a nice woman, show her I’m more than looks, someone like you.”
She hesitated but gripped the door. “You came all the way from Florida, or is that a lie too?”
He shook his head. “True. I’ve never done this before. I’ll go.” He turned to leave.
“Wait, you can’t sleep in your car all night.” She sighed. “Come in, we’ll figure it out. I wasn’t exactly honest either.”
He turned back. “So sorry,” he whispered.
As they talked, he confessed his real name was Alan and his face was burned at a factory, which allowed him to collect disability. He lived alone ever since his brother committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. OK, he never had a brother. But he wanted her to relax, build up confidence in him.
Brooke handed him a glass of chardonnay. “To a better life,” they toasted.
As Brooke told him about herself, he nodded, not caring if she was telling the truth. He was, after all, just after a piece of ass. That was the game: seeing if his true looks could snare women after finagling an introduction. And it worked; they always feeling sorry for him. Brooke was next.
After a few hours of talk and wine, Brooke took his hand and kissed it. Then she kissed his lips, his face. He tried not to be too aggressive. Actually, he was feeling … light-headed. Too much wine.
“Let’s make love,” she whispered.
He nodded with a silly grin.
She smiled and walked to the bathroom. “Be right out.”
He stripped down to his underwear, and stumbled onto the bed.
Brooke joined him in a thin red bra and matching panties. “Hi.”
He smiled. “Hi.” His eyes drifted to her hands.
Oh, boy, this was going to be fun.
“You mind, macho man?”
His wily grin answered for him. He felt the clip against his wrists and then against the bedpost. Snap.
“You look a little wasted, Alan. Do you think you can last all night?”
“Did you really think you could just show up from wherever you’re from and have sex with me? You, like that cheater boyfriend of mine, think you can take me at will. Well, you can’t. How many words is that, Mr. Letters With Friends?”
Alan blinked harder and yanked at the cuffs. What the hell was happening? “I thought—”
“You thought you could have sex and move on, didn’t you?”
“No.” OK, his intentions weren’t that bad. He was a good guy, just trying to win over a woman, like Letters With Friends. He wanted, no, needed to WIN!
“Guess what, Alan, you’re not going to have sex with me or anyone else. Not after tonight.”
His eyes bulged. “Oh God, please, I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again, I swear. Just take off the cuffs, and I’ll never bother you again.”
“It’s a little too late for that, honey.” Brooke shook her head, then strutted over to her handbag and pulled out a serrated knife. She pointed it at his underwear. “My stepfather wanted sex too, the bastard. I swore I would kill him someday.” A snare. “He’s not around anymore. Nor Patrick, the cheat.”
Her glazed look terrified him. “My boyfriend, stupid. Haven’t you been listening?” She paused. “And now you.” She sliced off his underwear and chuckled. “So small. It looks frightened, like you.”
“I beg you, Brooke.”
“Oh, right, a reason. Well, for one, I don’t like to lose. You’ve won every Letters with Friend game, so I’m guessing you’ve been cheating. Have you been using a cheater’s dictionary, Alan?”
“No, I swear. I’m … good.” He started to smile but thought better.
“I pictured that smug look you must have had every time you beat me. I almost stopped playing, but had a better idea.” She clicked her teeth. “Temptation made it so easy.”
Calm down. He would get out of this . . . he needed a plan. But Brooke worked the knife in her hands back and forth like she was experienced. He wanted to plea more, offer her his disability money, anything, but remembered she mentioned her stepfather and boyfriend. He bet she cuffed them too.
“Please.” Tears—real this time—formed and streamed down his cheek. “I don’t want to die, even with this face.”
“Shush.” She raised the point to her tongue. “I can’t wait to taste blood.”
Alan closed his eyes, prayed.
He held his breath, bracing for the slice on his manhood. Or worse. The room felt deadly still.
Do it already. Kill me!
His breathing labored for what felt like hours. And then he sensed her one last time. Movement. A door . . . opening?
Alan slowly opened one eye, then the other, then blinked.
JASMINE was gone.
It was JUSTME.