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Read by January LaVoy
By Marcia Clark
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A Columbine-style shooting at a high school in the San Fernando Valley has left a community shaken to its core. Two students are identified as the killers. Both are dead, believed to have committed a mutual suicide.
In the aftermath of the shooting, LA Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight teams up with her best girlfriend, LAPD detective Bailey Keller. As Rachel and Bailey interview students at the high school, they realize that the facts don’t add up. Could it be that the students suspected of being the shooters are actually victims? And if so, does that mean that the real killers are still on the loose?
A dramatic leap forward in Marcia Clark’s highly acclaimed Rachel Knight series, The Competition is an unforgettable story that will stay with readers long after the last page has been turned.
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope.
—STEPHEN JAY GOULD
Monday, October 7
Christy Shilling rolled over and squinted at her nightstand for the fifth time. Why hadn’t her alarm clock gone off? She pushed the Kleenex and can of Icy Hot spray out of the way. Still too early, but at least she could get up now. She hadn’t slept more than two hours total, and it wasn’t a good sleep. She’d had constant nightmares of waking up, going to her closet, and finding it wasn’t there. The pain was still so real Christy was afraid to look at her closet door.
But there it was. The plastic dry cleaner’s bag, hanging in front of the mirror, right where her mother had left it. Christy’s heart soared. The Marion J. Fairmont High School cheerleading uniform in that bag was the realization of a dream she’d had since third grade, when the Newport Junior High cheerleading squad came to her school. She’d never forget the moment those girls ran out onto the auditorium floor. Christy had watched in openmouthed awe. Always the smallest in her class, she’d kneeled on her chair to take it all in. And from the very first shout, Christy had known she’d do anything to be one of them.
She’d made the junior high squad, and those tryouts had been tough. But they were nothing compared to varsity. Weeks of practice in the school gym, the rec center gym, her backyard. The sore hamstrings, the bruises, the falls, the constant anxiety. She’d been so nervous the first day of tryouts she’d had to run to the locker room to throw up. And after Christy made the first cut, the pressure only got worse. At that point just the cutthroats were left. She’d been proud—and a little amazed—to find herself among them.
Throughout the next two weeks of practice, rumors flew about what the judges were looking for. Hair in ponytails, hair in pigtails; no makeup at all, light makeup, glam makeup; rail thin, muscular thin, “healthy”—whatever that meant; short, medium, tall; blonde but not bottle blonde, brunette, auburn. Christy threw up so often her clothes got baggy. Her mom had threatened to make her quit if she got any thinner. Christy tried using safety pins to make her clothes look tighter, but her mom had seen right through it and instituted morning weigh-ins. Desperate, afraid to ask anyone for help—if the coach found out she’d be cut for sure—Christy had searched the Web. She’d found her salvation in protein shakes and Ensure. Finally, the needle on the bathroom scale held steady at 103 pounds. Christy’s eyes had filled with tears of relief. But nothing worked when it came to sleeping. She’d tried melatonin; warm milk; long, hot baths; even counting sheep. All useless. The last four days of tryouts, she was running on fumes.
But she’d made it. The varsity cheerleading squad.
Today would be her first pep rally. In just a few hours, she’d run out onto the gym floor to do her first routine in front of the whole school. Christy’s breath caught as she pictured the packed bleachers, heard the roar, the stomping of feet, the whistles. She saw herself yelling to the crowd, taking her first run for her handspring-roundoff combination—and her final move, a climb to the top of the pyramid, then a somersault through the air into the basketed hands of the bigger base girls. Christy thrilled to the imagined cheers and fist pumps, hugged herself as she savored the moment. Her cell phone rattled on her nightstand. A text from Harley Jenson. They’d been besties since they pulled their nap-time rugs together on the first day of preschool. “The big day! Break a leg—KIDDING. You’ll be awesome! Xo, Harley.” Christy hugged the phone, jumped out of bed, and headed for the shower.
“Honey, don’t stress. You’ll do great—”
Harley Jenson looked up, forced a smile, and sprinkled more brown sugar on his oatmeal, then dropped back into his world history notes.
“Harley, listen to me.” His mother pulled out a chair and sat across from him. “I don’t want you to pressure yourself. If you don’t get the scholarship, we’ll find a way to make it happen, I promise.” She squeezed his arm. “Okay?”
Harley covered his mother’s hand with his own. “Sure, Mom.” He tried to give her a genuine smile. “I just want to give it my best shot, that’s all.”
His mother sighed. “Of course, sweetheart.” She squeezed his hand, then got up and moved to the sink to hide the tears that burned in her eyes. The truth was, she didn’t know that they’d find a way to make it happen. With Andrew laid off, nothing was certain anymore. At least, nothing good. They’d planned a family trip to Greece that summer, knowing it might be their last chance to travel together before Harley went off to college at MIT in the fall. Now those plans were a taunting, bitter memory. Family vacations? A pricey, prestigious school for Harley? That was for rich people with steady incomes. This family would be lucky to keep the house. But she didn’t mourn for herself or her husband. They’d had their chances to shoot for the moon. It was Harley she mourned for. The unfairness of it all made her heart ache. He’d done everything right. Made the grades, done the extracurricular résumé builders—and he’d been duly rewarded with early admission to MIT. But that was back when they’d been paying customers. Now, the only way he’d get in was on a scholarship. And the competition for the few slots that afforded a full ride was breathtaking. Harley never complained, but she knew he was working night and day, seven days a week, to make it happen.
Harley closed his notebook, forced down one last bite of oatmeal—it was hard to get food past the knot in his stomach—and took his bowl to the sink. He rinsed it quickly before his mother could see how little he’d eaten. He’d studied hard, but he still didn’t feel ready for his exam. And he had to ace it. If he didn’t, he’d ruin his perfect 4.2—and probably his one shot at the scholarship for MIT. He needed more time. Even one more hour would help. His cell phone buzzed. It was a text from Christy. “Thx, Scooter! See you there! Xoxo.” Scooter—as in the opposite of Harley Davidson—had been his nickname in elementary school. Only Christy still called him that. He didn’t love it, but it was better than Vespa. Harley frowned at the phone. He hated to miss her pep rally, but it was his only chance to sneak in more study time. Besides, she’d never know if he didn’t tell her.
Harley leaned down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Bye, Ma. Don’t work too hard.”
As was her habit, she walked Harley to the door.
He slid into his backpack. “Love ya!”
“Love you back!” His mother swallowed hard as she watched him head out, his heavy backpack swinging behind him. He still moved like the little boy who’d given her a nervous-brave smile as he left for his first day of school—a side-to-side roll that reminded her of a skater. She smiled with wistful eyes as he headed down the front walk and out into the world.
Principal Campbell’s voice blared through the classroom loudspeakers. “As you know, it’s Homecoming, and I’m sure you’re all as excited about it as I am. Pep rally starts at eleven a.m. sharp. Show your school spirit and greet our new cheerleaders. See you there! Go, Falcons!”
Groans went up in nearly every classroom as the students rolled their eyes and traded disgusted looks. The truth was, they didn’t mind the break. Any excuse to get out of class.
The gymnasium buzzed with heat and raucous energy; the bleachers, designed to hold three thousand, were nearly packed to capacity. Girls’ high-pitched notes and boys’ hornlike, cracking bleats mingled and snowballed into a roar. Wincing at the din, geometry teacher Adam Levy leaned toward Hector Lopez, the Spanish teacher. “Bet you wouldn’t mind having library duty today.”
Hector sighed. “Yeah, no kidding. Sara totally lucked out.”
Finally, Principal Dale Campbell walked out to the center of the floor, the wireless microphone invisible in his large mitt of a hand. He still carried himself like the linebacker he’d been when he was in high school. The principal loved these rare opportunities to see all the kids together like this. To him it was a family gathering. He tapped the mic, waited for everyone to settle down, then thanked the crowd for coming—as if they’d had a choice—and read off the announcements: a bake sale for the Woodland Hills Home for the Elderly, the job fair next month, and the upcoming performances of the junior and senior orchestras and jazz bands.
“And since our fantastic jazz singer Sheila Wagner has graduated, it’s my pleasure to announce that her replacement will be Dimitri Rabinow—”
Girls shouted out in singsong tones, “We love you, Dimitri!” and “Dimitri’s so hot!”—sparking a wave of laughter.
Principal Campbell chuckled along with them. “Seems we’ve made a popular choice.” Then he pushed his hands down, gesturing for them to be quiet. “And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Fairmont High’s new, world-class varsity cheerleaders—I give you…the Falconettes!”
The locker room door at the far end of the gym opened, and a single line of girls in blue-and-gold pleated skirts and blue sweaters bearing the gold outlined image of a falcon in midflight came bursting out, cheeks shining.
They went into their V formation. Christy Shilling tilted her head and smiled at the crowd. Cheerleading 101. Captain Tammy Knopler, in position at the apex of the V, shouted the cue for their windup chant, “Hey! Go! Hey! Fight!” They clapped out the rhythm for four beats, then started to yell the words. The students joined in, stomping and pounding the wooden bleachers as they shouted, “Go!” and “Fight!”
After a few rounds, the squad threw their arms straight up in the air and called out, “Go, Falcons!” The crowd obediently roared back, “Go, Falcons!” The V stretched out into a line, and Christy took the brief run to start her first tumbling pass. Just as she launched into her handspring, the double doors behind the top row of bleachers flew open. At first, no one noticed the two figures who stood there, rifles in hand. The crowd continued to clap and shout; Christy went into her roundoff. As she turned in the air, the shorter of the two figures raised an assault rifle and fired off four rapid shots. The blasts ripped through the noisy gym. A hush fell, and for an instant, wide-eyed students turned to stare at one another. Christy landed heavily and stuttered backward on her heels.
Heads craned, searching for the source of the foreign sound. They found it at the top of the bleachers. Two figures clothed in camouflage coats and black balaclavas, assault rifles held high. Shrieks rang out.
“Time to die, motherfuckers!” The shout came from the shorter figure on the right. The taller figure yelled, “Run, assholes! Run!”
One of them gave a weird, high-pitched laugh. Then they both aimed their weapons down at the crowd. Staccato gunfire pierced the air. Screams of terror filled the gym as students hurtled down the bleachers, pushing, falling, trampling over one another as they desperately searched for cover. The acrid smell of fear mingled with panicked shouts as the black-hooded gunmen fired into the sea of bodies. Bullets tore through arms, legs, torsos, sending bright-red sprays of blood through the air.
Tammy ran toward the locker rooms. Christy knew she should run too, tried to make her feet move. But her body and brain felt disconnected. Run! Run! Christy sobbed to herself, even as she thought, This can’t be real, it has to be a nightmare. Finally, feeling as though she were moving underwater, she began to follow Tammy. As she reached the locker room door, Christy stretched out a hand. She started to push the door open. She was nearly inside, nearly safe, when the shorter of the two gunmen turned to his left and fired. Christy’s head exploded in a red mist as she dropped to the gym floor.
Somewhere, someone had pulled a fire alarm, and the shrill clanging underscored the frenzied screams of the crowd.
The killers moved down the bleacher steps in tandem at an almost leisurely pace, shooting into the crowd below as they went. They yelled at the students with a vicious glee, “Fuck the jocks!”
When the gunmen reached the gym floor, a bloodied hand groped the air blindly. “Help me, please…,” the boy whimpered.
One of the killers laughed. “Sure, no problem.” He put his gun to the boy’s temple and pulled the trigger.
The bleachers had turned into a battlefield. Bodies everywhere—flung over benches, splayed out on the steps, curled under the seats, crumpled in heaps on the gym floor. Blood, bone, brain matter, splashed the walls, the bleachers, the floor.
The shorter killer gave a sign to his partner, and now they began to move more quickly, heading for the gym entrance, which was clogged with teenagers clawing and scrambling over one another to reach the doors.
Angela Montrose, the girls’ soccer coach, threw her arms around as many students as she could, shielding them with her wide, sturdy body. Then came another barrage of shots. Just ten feet to her right, three boys and a girl spun and fell to the floor. Angela stretched her arms to the breaking point and pushed the students forward with all her might. If she could get them past the bottleneck, out to the open hallway, they’d have a chance.
She’d just crossed the threshold when another wave of shots rang out. Searing fire spread through Angela’s right side. Suddenly, her knees buckled. She stumbled as black spots swam in her eyes. Mustering her last ounce of strength, she shoved the students out from under her wing and yelled, “Run!” Then, clutching her side, she crumpled to the ground. One of the gunmen walked over and looked down at her. They locked eyes. He raised his gun and pointed it at her face. Angela closed her eyes and silently said good-bye to her sister, her partner, their dogs. Bracing for the shot, she startled at the sound of an empty metallic click. The gunman cursed. Something heavy clattered to the floor next to her. Angela opened her eyes and looked up. He was gone. Her eyes fluttered closed.
Students screamed as they poured out through the double doors of the gym. The gunmen moved behind them like deadly sheepherders and took in the chaotic scene. Another high-pitched laugh, then the shorter one calmly took aim at a group of girls running for the main entrance, fired a few shots. Without looking to see if anyone was hit, he gave another signal to his partner.
The taller figure nodded and fell in behind him, pulling a handgun out of his jacket as they headed for the wide staircase that led to the second floor and the library. At the foot of the stairs, they stopped and fired at the students fleeing up the steps. Hector Lopez, who had just cleared the landing, cried out, “No!” He’d led a group of students to the stairway, hoping the gunmen wouldn’t come this way. He dropped back and pushed the two girls nearest to him up the stairs. “Go! Go!” Hector deliberately slowed, praying that the gunmen would take him, the easiest target, giving the girls more time to escape. More shots. Hector’s back muscles went rigid, anticipating the sting of bullets, but he kept moving forward.
Up ahead, he saw that the girls had made it to the top of the stairs and were sprinting down the hallway to the right. As he reached the last step, he heard another set of shots. Closer, much closer. Hector grabbed the handrail to pull himself up, but his fingers slipped off and he nearly tumbled backward down the stairs. He teetered, arms windmilling to regain balance. At the last second, Hector managed to seize the handrail and climb the last step. Only then did he notice the blood running down his side. He glanced over his shoulder, saw the gunmen had reached the landing. He took the hallway to the left, hoping to draw them away from where the girls had fled. Hector’s stomach lurched, and he felt bile rise in his throat. Stumbling past the library, headfirst, body almost parallel to the ground, he held the wall for support. Had they followed him? Where were they?
As he neared the boys’ restroom, he risked another glance over his shoulder. Saw them behind him, heading toward the library. Hector leaned into the lavatory door and fell to the floor inside. Using his left hand, he slid his cell phone out of his pocket and pushed 9-1-1. He managed the words “Fairmont…shooting.” The last thing he saw before blacking out was the time on his cell phone: 11:08.
Harley had been in the library for the past hour, head down, desperately cramming factoids on the War of the Roses, when the fire alarm began to ring. He’d ignored it. Probably just a prank or an accident. But the shrill clanging persisted. Harley looked around, sniffed the air. No smoke. He got up and headed toward the windows that looked down on the front of the school to see if they were being evacuated. He’d gotten only halfway across the library when he heard screams, pounding footsteps—and then a voice bellowing from somewhere out in the hallway. “Hey, assholes, have a nice day!”
A series of loud pops—they sounded like firecrackers, but…were they shots? Then laughter, ugly and brutal. Another shot. Then another. Closer this time. Just outside the library door. Harley frantically turned to Ms. Sara Beason, the teacher on duty. She stood at the front counter, staring wide-eyed at the doorway. He started to move toward her, when she suddenly screamed, “Hide!”
Harley quickly scrambled behind a bookcase and ducked down. A blonde girl was standing near the storage cubbies at the front of the library, frozen, mouth hanging open.
“Get down!” Harley whispered to her. “Down!” He gestured to her wildly.
She stared at him, uncomprehending at first. Harley crawled over to her and yanked at her hand, pulling her to her knees. She dropped woodenly to all fours and curled up under a nearby desk. Harley scurried back to his hiding place.
Seconds later a mocking voice came from the doorway. “Where’re all the good little kiddies? Helloooo?” Footsteps, then the same voice, closer now. “Hey, who’s got library duty? Guess what? It’s your lucky day!” Harley heard Sara Beason scream. Then, the boom of gunfire. It rattled the windows, shook the desks.
Harley thought only a bomb could be that loud. More footsteps, Harley couldn’t tell exactly where, and more shots. How many? It was impossible to know. It all blended together in one continuous deafening roar. From the other side of the library he heard moaning, then a low swishing sound. What was that? Harley heard a weird, high-pitched laugh. Someone—one of the killers?—snickered and said, “Losers.” Again footsteps, this time moving his way.
Harley swallowed hard, pressing his lips together to keep from screaming. He peeked through a gap in the books and saw someone—A killer? It had to be—walk over to the desk where the blonde girl had hidden. Shaking with terror, Harley tried not to breathe. He couldn’t think beyond the words Go away, go away, go away that ran through his brain on a continuous loop. The killer moved past the desk. Harley briefly closed his eyes in gratitude and dared to take a shallow breath. Then, without warning, the killer doubled back and rapped sharply on the desk.
“Knock, knock, anybody home?” He laughed, leaned down, and looked at the girl cowering on the floor.
The girl sobbed, “No! Please! Please don’t—”
“Please don’t,” the killer mocked in a high falsetto. “Well, since you said please.” He took two steps away, then abruptly turned back. “Then again, that’s a stupid, bullshit word.” He swung the barrel of the gun under the desk. Fired point-blank into her face. Blood and brains splashed the wall behind the girl.
Harley jammed a fist into his mouth and clutched his chest with the other hand to muffle the pounding of his heart. Ears ringing from the deafening sound, he squeezed himself into a ball and took shallow little breaths. He knew he was next. A warm, wet trickle made its way down his right leg.
He heard footsteps, the brush of pant legs. It sounded like they were near the windows, but he couldn’t be sure. Could they see him from there? Harley didn’t dare turn his head to look. He thought of his mom, his dad, pictured them during one of their last happy dinners together, and squeezed his eyes shut to hold on to the memory. One of the killers was speaking. The voice seemed very close. Just feet away. Harley willed the ringing in his ears to stop as he strained to make out the words.
One of the killers spoke again. “Ready?”
An affirmation. “Yeah.”
Then both voices. “Three…two…one.”
A beat of silence.
This is it, Harley thought. He curled up knees to chin, wrapped his arms over his head, and sobbed silently into his chest.
I glanced at the clock on the courtroom wall for the fiftieth time. It was seventeen minutes past eleven, which meant I’d been waiting exactly twenty-seven minutes for my case to be called. I hate waiting. Especially in a noisy courtroom where I can’t get anything else done. Usually I could stay in my office until the prosecutor assigned to the courtroom called me with a five-minute warning—it was all I needed, since my office was just upstairs—but this particular home-court deputy district attorney wasn’t exactly a fan of mine. We’d locked horns a couple of years ago when he screwed up the murder of a homeless man. Deputy DA Brandon Averill was just too big a hotshot to be bothered with low-rent, pedestrian crimes like that. I’d grabbed the case away from him in front of a packed courtroom and wound up proving he’d had the wrong guy in custody. My bestie, fellow Special Trials prosecutor Toni LaCollier, says Brandon’s a dangerous enemy. I say Brandon’s a tool. We’re probably both right.
I could’ve asked the court clerk to give me the five-minute heads-up, but that’s a risky proposition. Even if they’re willing to help, clerks are busy people. And some might even “forget” to call just for the pleasure of seeing a judge ream you. But I knew Sophie wasn’t like that. And besides, I’d run out of patience. I headed for her desk, but at that moment Judge J. D. Morgan glared down at the packed courtroom and made an announcement. “Since I can’t seem to find a single case where both sides are up to speed, we’ll be in recess.” He banged his gavel. “Get it together, people. I expect a better showing when we reconvene at one thirty.”
Damn. Now I’d have to come back for the afternoon session. I refused to get stuck down here for another hour. Better to take my chances with the clerk. I moved toward the line of attorneys queuing up at Sophie’s desk, but the judge gestured for me to approach. He leaned over the bench and covered his mic. “Rachel, where’s your worthy adversary?”
“My worthy…you’re kidding, right?” I nodded toward the back of the courtroom, where defense counsel Sweeny was schmoozing the defendant’s family. He’d put the case on calendar so he could postpone the trial for another month. Said he needed more time “to prepare”—i.e., squeeze the family for more cash. I’d told the clerk I wanted a full hearing on Sweeny’s reasons for delaying the trial. Again.
The judge sighed. “Look, I’m giving him the continuance this one last time. So agree on a drop-dead date for trial and stop busting my chops.”
I gave him a sour look, but I nodded. He was right. The endless delays pissed me off, but another month wouldn’t matter. The case was basically all physical evidence, and my experts were local. My cell phone vibrated in my purse. I reached in and sneaked a look. The screen said “Bailey Keller.” My other bestie, who also happened to be a top-notch detective in the elite Robbery-Homicide Division of LAPD. Her call might mean she was free for lunch—a welcome distraction from the irritating morning I’d had so far. I turned back to the judge. “Okay if I have someone stand in for me if I get His Nibs to agree on a date?”
“Sure.” The judge started to head off the bench, then turned back. “Hey, by the way, you and Graden still on for dinner Saturday?”
Graden and I—Graden, the lieutenant of Robbery-Homicide—had been dating for over a year now. And Judge J. D. Morgan had been dating Toni for the past two years. It’s a cozy, some would say quasi-incestuous, group. But we work seventy-hour weeks—at least. Where else are we going to meet someone? The parking lot?
“Good. Now go make nice to Sweeny and pick a date.”
J.D. trotted down off the bench and headed for his chambers. I did my lawyerly duty with Sweeny, then called Bailey back.
“Hey, Rachel,” Bailey answered, her voice tense. “You get pulled in on that school shooting yet?”
I had just pushed my way into a packed elevator. “What school sh—?” I managed to close my mouth before saying “school shooting” out loud.
- "Clark handles sometimes painfully raw scenes with great sensitivity and skillfully works in material about what makes a mass murderer, as she ratchets up suspense to a deadly conclusion. Her fourth legal thriller featuring Knight is another tour de force."—Booklist (starred review)
- "What could be worse than a Columbine- style school shooting? Rachel Knight finds out in Clark's ticking time bomb of a thriller, the fourth in her series featuring the L.A. deputy DA.... The twisty plot and dynamic duo make for a suspenseful, if sobering, page-turner."—Publishers Weekly
- "With THE COMPETITION, Marcia Clark has upped the ante yet again, reaching new creative heights. Though the subject matter is both dark and disturbing, her sensitive handling of the material and the informative nature of the narrative allows the book to transcend traditional thriller fare. Pulse-pounding, poignant, and provocative, this is a story that will engage your heart and your mind. It's also proof beyond a reasonable doubt that fiction can help us to understand reality."—John Valeri, Examiner
- "A real page-turner."—Mary Lignor, Suspense Magazine
- On Sale
- Jul 8, 2014
- Hachette Audio