Wendy Morello, awake for days and hallucinating on a mixture of cocaine and heroin, was preparing to crash with a friend when she suddenly darted out of the apartment and climbed into a waiting car. Friends and family never saw her alive again.

A week later, someone out for a walk in York, Maine, found her body discarded in a trash barrel near the side of a road.

Morello’s death raised fears that a serial killer stalking Worcester prostitutes had struck again. The bodies of three other women known to sell sex on the southern end of Main Street – known to locals as Main South – have been discovered in the past year, dumped in nearby suburbs.

The deaths confound those living on the streets in this city of 173,000, night walkers who long ago came to accept drug cravings, beatings, jail and sex with strangers as a way of life. To Morello’s street friends – people who knew her condition before she disappeared on Sept. 5 – her death makes no sense.

“Even in that state, she was streetwise enough, ” said Judy Ayscougle. Her friend often stayed high for days at a time. “She had made it 20 years on the street without getting killed. . . . All those girls that were murdered, none of them were green.

“It’s got to be someone they know or trust . . . to take someone to a secluded spot and kill them, ” she said. “You just can’t go around the corner.”

Ayscougle’s eyes closed sleepily. She swayed from one sneaker to the other, describing the life of an addict working the streets.

Every single day, almost every hour, is spent high or numb, or doing whatever it takes to get there. For women like Ayscougle, that means walking up and down the sidewalks of Main Street, past convenience stores, pubs and hair stylists, hoping some man with money will drive by in search of sex.

Worcester’s Main South neighborhood is a mile-long strip of businesses and several blocks of low-rent apartments that abut an expanse of abandoned industrial buildings.

The People in Peril shelter – a windowless brick edifice decorated with street-level murals – anchors one end of the street. On the other, the strip ends at the manicured grounds of Clark University, patrolled by campus security.

The neighborhood itself has a mix of businesses, including car repair shops, discount liquor stores and check-cashing outlets. Church marquees promote salvation in Spanish, and Asian-food markets advertise weekly specials. Parochial and public schools send forth crowds of children in the afternoons. Apartment buildings hang signs that read “No Trespassing.”

Investment that has spurred revitalization elsewhere in the city is nibbling at the edges of Main South, but has yet to dislodge the prostitutes and drug dealers who work the area. Urban renewal has not erased the everyday tragedy they live.

Shannon Blash is striking in her pink high heels, and matching bandanna and sunglasses, long blond hair teased into large curls. A closer look reveals scars of a hard life that the makeup cannot completely hide: brown stains around each tooth that can accompany extended methadone treatment, blue eyes sunk into a thin face with streaks of dark eyeliner climbing up from her eyebrows toward her temples.

Blash steps slowly in her tall heels. Her right leg is rigid from the temporary cast that stretches from her thigh to her lower calf. She explains that a man threw her from a car in a dispute over sex and money.

Blash said “the fast life” drew her to Main Street eight years ago from her parents’ tranquil suburb. Her customers include working-class men and professionals – the family men that she favors because they “don’t have a problem with protection.” She says she has been clean of hard drugs for a year, but says she is still hooked on the lifestyle, walking the streets for fast money.

But it’s not a life she would recommend.

“Everybody out here is a back stabber. They’re looking for anything – your food, your clothes, whatever you got, ” Blash said. “I had a girl stabbed in front of my house. She was bent over clutching her stomach, crying. I didn’t even know, I’m so used to seeing crying.”

Days away from her 29th birthday, she speaks hopefully about someday working for Dunkin’ Donuts, getting a new group of friends and a different lifestyle. She knows it would be safer.

“You get hurt enough times, you got to change things, ” she said, “but it’s tough when you’re on Main Street. When you’re on Main Street, you can’t get away.”

Morello wanted out, her friends said.

“She talked about her kid a lot. She wanted to go home, get off the street. She didn’t want to live that life anymore, ” said Eleana Dusablon, who believes she was among the last people to see Morello alive.

From her vantage on the stoop of 1 Kilby St., Dusablon sees prostitutes getting into men’s cars all the time. She’s seen them tossed out of cars as well, sometimes with black eyes. Once she came to the aid of a woman after she’d had the tip of her thumb bitten off.

Dusablon said that at about 4 or 5 a.m. on Sept. 5, she was preparing her couch for Morello, who had been up for days and was struggling with drug-induced hallucinations.

As Dusablon arranged bedding on the couch, she heard two doors slam in succession. Morello was gone, out the front door and, Dusablon suspects, into a car.

After a couple of days, Ayscougle said she feared something had happened to her friend. There was no talk on the street that Morello had been arrested, and she was not one to disappear for days at a time.

“Wendy wasn’t like that. She liked her clothes. She liked her makeup. She liked her jewelry, ” Ayscougle said. “She didn’t like going eight hours without a shower.

Prostitutes on Main Street stay as close to the strip as possible, where they can continue to earn money and purchase drugs, and where they can find a safe place to sleep, she said. They will climb into a car and drive to a nearby parking lot or driveway, or to a vacant lot.

“You don’t want to take a (long) ride. You want to stay as close as possible, ” Ayscougle said, standing on Kilby Street, where Morello was last known to have stayed. Within a couple of blocks are several vacant lots and industrial properties.

When Maine State Police could not immediately identify Morello, they issued a description that included a tattoo on her ankle. The tattoo was her teen-age daughter Amanda’s name, decorated with a blue rose.

“She was real maternal, ” Ayscougle said, and that caring nature extended to her friends.

“Wendy was decent people. Wendy was real, real generous, generous to a fault. For someone to work the streets for two habits, not just their own . . ., ” Ayscougle said, referring to how her friend at times earned money so that both of them could buy drugs. “I know. She did it for me.”

Ayscougle and Morello became friends when Morello arrived at the same Framingham jail wracked by the excruciating nausea of withdrawal and Ayscougle comforted her.

Jail was horrible, Ayscougle said, but it was there that she got her General Equivalency Degree and earned 17 college credits.

Jail also represented a place, once withdrawal subsided, that was free from the constant need for drugs, she said. “In jail, it would be the only time we would laugh. We were clean.”

Once released, they would find their way back to Main Street.

“I went into jail and I physically got clean, but nothing else changed. That night I’d be working the streets for a place to stay, ” Ayscougle said. “I can’t work the streets without getting high.”

Most of the women working Worcester’s streets aren’t glamorous. Ayscougle wears a simple jersey and jeans, and a heavy coat of makeup trying to cover the sores around her mouth.

Main South itself is full of troubled people: the mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts, “a lot of lonely, lonely people, which leads to trying to be numb all the time, ” Ayscougle said. “That was a big thing with Wendy. She was in a lot of pain, all the time.

“These people have their disease – addiction. Imagine working the streets to get your chemotherapy.”

Ayscougle dreams of a simple life, free of the need for drugs.

“My fantasy right now is to go grocery shopping, cook a meal, watch a video, ” she said. “That’s real sad, when my fantasy is to shop for groceries, ” she said with a curl of a smile. Given the chance, she would rent the film adaptation of “Angela’s Ashes, ” a book she loves and which she describes enthusiastically.

“It’s about getting through life, getting through tragedy . . . the human soul just surviving, ” she said.

Last Monday night, the streets were quiet. The Worcester Police Department’s vice squad had made a sweep of the area, arresting eight people on prostitution charges, including a handful of customers. Police say the prostitutes are undaunted by the sweeps but that their customers get skittish and business slows down for a few days.

Detectives are trying to maintain communication with the area’s prostitutes as investigators work to solve Morello’s death.

Prostitutes are vulnerable to assault, and crimes against them can be difficult to investigate, particularly as time passes, said Worcester Police Sgt. Gary Cutadamo. No missing-person report even came in on any of the three women potentially linked in death to Morello.

Morello’s daughter filed her missing-person report with police on Sept. 13. That same day, the passerby found Morello’s body on Riverwood Drive in York, Maine, a 90-minute drive on the interstate from Worcester.

She was last seen by her family Sept. 1, and a police detective last saw her on Main Street on Sept. 5. Her missing-person report said she was wearing a black T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.

With news of Morello’s death in the newspapers and circulating on Main Street, Ayscougle wonders what Morello’s last moments were like, the terror she must have felt.

Ayscougle remembers being attacked once. As she walked with a prospective customer, he suddenly clutched her throat, choking her so hard she expected to die. She fought free and then, as her attacker ran off, she chased after him screaming.

“Even after that happened to me, I had to go to work in like 10 minutes, ” she said, absently scratching at the scabbed and open sores that speckle her forearm.

And so, even though she and other friends of Wendy Morello are afraid today, they continue to work to satisfy the cravings of their sickness.

“Your habit doesn’t take a day off, ” she said. “The human mind (rationalizes), `It will never happen to me.’ And really, all you’re thinking is: `Just get me through today. Just get me through the next 10 minutes.’ ”

Then, with drops of sweat dotting her forehead despite the cool weather, she admits another excuse for persisting in a lifestyle that could get her killed.

“Sometimes you just sort of hope it’s you.”