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Authors: Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is Next (19 page)

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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“Oh, that’s sweet of you, Phoebe, but it’s too late. The manager already left. I’ll figure something else out. Could you please check on your sister and call me back?”

“Okay,” I say. Mom thanks me and disconnects as the elevator chimes. I’m kind of anxious about Emma now, because how sick does she have to be to forget she was supposed to help Mom out? That’s the kind of thing
I’d
do.

I open our apartment door and it’s completely silent when I walk in. “Emma?” I call, pulling off my ankle boots. I leave them beside the door and drop my keys and bag on the kitchen island, then pad toward our bedroom. “How are you feeling?”

There’s no response. The door is closed, and I push it open. Emma is lying on her bed in a messy tangle of blanket and sheets. For once, her bed looks exactly like mine. She’s out cold, breathing steadily through her half-open mouth. As I move closer, she lets out a little snore. I stub my toe against something on the floor and step into a patch of wetness. Emma’s Bayview Wildcats tumbler is lying beside her bed, and I pick it up and sniff inside. I wrinkle my nose and recoil. Gin, this time.

“Jesus, Emma.” I don’t know whether to be disgusted or worried, so I settle on both. “What the hell is going on with you?”

I grab some Kleenex from my dresser and bend down to mop up the spill, wincing when my knee connects with something sharp. It’s the edge of Emma’s phone charger, lying useless on the floor since she still hasn’t replaced her phone. She keeps borrowing mine any time she wants to look something up and doesn’t have the laptop handy, which is annoying because—

I pause, damp tissues dangling from one hand. Whenever Emma asks to borrow my phone, I hand it over without question. Half the time, I leave her alone in our room with it. What if she opened my Instagram and saw the messages from Derek? I never deleted them. Is that the kind of thing that might send her spiraling?

“Phoebe?” Emma’s sleepy voice startles me so much that I almost fall over. Her eyes flutter open and lock on me. “What’re you doing?”

“Cleaning up your mess,” I say, sitting back on my haunches. “There’s half a cup of gin on the floor. You’re not actually sick, are you? You’re
drunk.
Do you even remember that you were supposed to help Mom with Ashton and Eli’s rehearsal dinner?”

Emma blinks slowly at me. “I need to ask you something.”

My frustration rises. “Did you hear a word I just said?”

“Did you love him?” she asks hoarsely.

I swallow hard. Crap. She definitely saw the messages from Derek. “No. That was a huge mistake and it’s over. I wish it had never happened.”

She snorts out a humorless laugh. “I
know
it’s over. I’m not an idiot. It’s just that I never imagined…I didn’t think…” Her eyes droop, or maybe close. I can’t really tell from this angle.

“Didn’t think what?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer, and I get to my feet again, her Bayview Wildcats tumbler in my hand. I’m about to leave when I hear a whisper from Emma’s bed, so faint I almost miss it. “I didn’t think he’d keep going.”

“Keep going with what?” I ask. But the snores start up again, so I guess that’s all I’m going to get out of her for now.

I bring the cup into the bathroom and rinse it thoroughly, adding a few drops of liquid soap until it smells like lemons instead of alcohol. My head is pounding like I’m the one who drank God only knows how much straight gin. When I’m finished, I dry the cup with a hand towel and place it on the back of the toilet. Then I lean against the sink, meeting my tired eyes in the mirror. I don’t know what’s going on with my sister, or what I should do about it. I don’t want to worry Mom when she’s been so much more cheerful lately. I could try talking to Emma’s friend Gillian, maybe, but Gillian pretty much hates me after the whole Derek reveal. When she sees me at school, she looks right through me. There’s nobody else I can turn to who knows Emma well enough to help.

It almost makes me consider messaging Derek back. Almost. But not quite.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Knox

Friday, March 20

Sandeep frowns at the envelope and holds it up to the light. “Yeah, I think it’s the same person who sent the last couple of threats. The label has the exact same font.”

Bethany is perched at the edge of the desk Sandeep and I are sharing. She squints and leans closer. “Font? That looks like handwriting.”

“That’s how it’s designed,” Sandeep says. He reaches into the desk drawer for a Ziploc and drops the envelope inside, squeezing out all the air in the bag and sealing it before he holds it up to Bethany. “But look at the kerning. It’s too even.”

“The what?” Bethany asks.

“Kerning. The spacing between the individual letter forms,” Sandeep explains. “It’s a typography term.”

Bethany rolls her eyes as she gets up and heads back to her desk. “You’re such a nerd.”

“It’s not nerdy to care about fonts!” Sandeep calls after her. “Typography is an art form.”

Bethany sticks her tongue out at him and grabs her bag. “If you say so. I’m out, boys. Don’t stay too late.”

I swivel in my desk chair beside Sandeep. “Aren’t you going to open it? Read what’s inside?”

“Later. When I’m wearing gloves,” he says. I frown, confused—why would he need gloves?—and he adds, “At this point, we’ve gotten enough threats from this particular individual that we need to hand it over to the police. I want to contaminate the envelope as little as possible before then.”

I can’t take my eyes off the envelope. The last note I read is still seared into my brain:
I’ll enjoy watching you die.
“What do you think this person’s so mad about?” I ask.

“The threats aren’t specific, but if I had to guess, it’s the D’Agostino case,” Sandeep says, so promptly that I can tell he’s thought about this a lot. He pushes the Ziploc bag into one corner of the desk. “People get very angry when police officers are accused of a crime, but that anger is often displaced toward the accuser or the victim. The conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience is well documented.”

“Right,” I say, although I only got about half of that. When Sandeep launches into professor mode, he’s a little hard to follow. Plus I’m distracted, checking my phone for updates. Maeve’s oncology appointment ended four hours ago, and she told me when we left the office that they wouldn’t have results for a while. “They’re rushing it, but it still might take a few days,” she’d said. “Lab hours are hard to predict.” Still, I keep hoping that “rushing it” means “this afternoon.” We’re in the twenty-first century, after all.

This morning, I was still mad at Maeve. I was okay with the fact that holding a grudge might lose me a friend. But that was when the loss wasn’t a tangible, permanent thing. Now, I can’t stop thinking about how rare it is to have someone you can be completely real with, even when things get raw and uncomfortable and a little scary.
Especially
then.

All I want is for my friend to be okay.

“Anyway, try not to worry too much. We’ll take care of it.” I blink at Sandeep’s voice, and the office comes back into focus. He slides a pile of folders toward me across the desk. “In the meantime, Eli needs somebody to give him the details about next week’s court schedule and I, my friend, am
not it.
” He runs a hand over his already-smooth dark hair. “I have a date.”

I sneak one last look at my phone. Nothing. Six thirty on a Friday probably isn’t prime time for medical updates. “What about those child labor laws you’re always going on about?” I ask.

“They cease to exist when I have a date,” Sandeep says, jerking his head toward the smaller conference room. “Eli’s in Winterfell. He just needs the basics on his calendar for now. Make another one of your magic spreadsheets. He loves those.” Then he tugs at his collar, looking guilty. “Unless you need to get home. I mean, it
is
kind of late.”

“It’s fine,” I say. I don’t mind the long hours at Until Proven, because what the hell else would I be doing on a Friday night? Besides, Eli and Sandeep and Bethany and everybody else act like my presence here matters—like things work better when I’m around. It’s a good feeling.

Sandeep grins and gets to his feet, stuffing his laptop into his bag and slinging it over his shoulder. “Good man. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Hang on,” I call, grabbing a black leather jacket off the back of his chair. “You forgot your coat.”

Sandeep pauses midstep and turns with a quizzical expression. “What? I didn’t bring a coat.” He peers at the jacket I’m holding up, and his face clears. “Ah, I think that’s Nate Macauley’s. He stopped by around lunchtime to talk with Eli about a case study on Simon Kelleher. He might publish it in the
Harvard Law Review.

“Nate might?” I ask, confused.

Sandeep laughs. “Sure. Harvard always takes submissions from teenagers with no legal training. No,
Eli
might. But only if all the kids are comfortable with it. Anyway, just give that to Eli—he’ll get it back to Nate.”

“I could drop it off,” I say. “One less thing for Eli to worry about. It’s on my way.” I’ve never actually been inside the sprawling old house where Nate rents a room, but it’s only a couple of streets away from mine. Maeve points it out every time we drive past.

“You sure?” Sandeep asks, and I nod. “You’re the best,” he says, cocking finger guns at me as he continues backing out the door. Then he’s gone, and I head for the conference room.

Eli’s on the phone when I enter Winterfell and he waves me into a chair. “I promise I won’t,” he says. “I’ll shut my phone off.” His tone is a lot warmer than it is when he’s talking to a client or another lawyer, so I would’ve guessed this wasn’t a business call even if he hadn’t added, “I love you more, angel. I’ll see you soon.” He puts his phone down and gives me a distracted nod. “I need to fit everything into four days next week. Come Friday, I’m off the clock.”

“Wow, yeah.” I pull a set of folders from the top of the stack. “Can’t believe you’re getting married in a week. You ready?” I don’t know why I’m asking him that, except it seems like the sort of thing guys ask each other.

Eli grins. “I’ve been ready for a year. I’m just glad she is.”

“Ashton is awesome. You lucked out,” I blurt, and then I feel like an idiot because shit, that was insulting, wasn’t it? But Eli just nods.

“Luckiest guy on the planet,” he says. He steeples his fingers under his chin and gives me a thoughtful look. “I can tell you one thing, though. High school me couldn’t have imagined that someday I’d be building a life with somebody as fantastic as Ashton. Back then, the only time girls paid attention to me was when they wanted help with their homework. I didn’t even have a date until I was nineteen.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah.” Eli shrugs. “Takes a while for some of us. Good thing life is long and high school is short, although it doesn’t feel like it at the time.” He gestures at one of the folders in my hand. “Is that Carrero? Let’s start with that.”

“Yeah,” I say, and hand it to him. That was a transparent attempt to make me feel better about the fact that I’m here every Friday night, and you know what? It kind of worked.


I hear Nate’s house before I see it. It’s barely nine o’clock, but the sounds of rap music and laughing voices greet me at the corner, and only get louder as I approach the run-down old Victorian. Their neighbors must
love
them.

I ring the bell, but it’s a lost cause. Nobody’s going to hear me, so I crack the door and step inside. The music is so loud that the scarred wooden floor is practically vibrating, and I’m immediately hit with the smell of popcorn and stale beer. I’m in a narrow hallway in front of a staircase with a curved banister, where a group of kids a little older than me are yelling at a girl perched at the top. “Do it!” they call, raising red cups in the air. The girl slides down the banister and crashes into the knot of people below, scattering them like bowling pins.

“Noooo!” moans a guy in a vintage concert T-shirt, stumbling into me as his drink sloshes onto the floor. “Party foul!” He grabs my arm to steady himself and adds, “Don’t try that at home.”

“Is Nate here?” I ask loudly. The guy cups his hand around his ear like he can’t hear, so I raise my voice even more. “IS. NATE. HERE.”

“Upstairs,” the guy yells back.

I hesitate, looking for a coatrack or someplace else where I could leave Nate’s jacket, but there’s nothing. So I head up the staircase, pressing against the wall to avoid people going up and down. I’m almost at the top when the girl who slid down the banister grabs hold of my shirt and hands me a cup full of beer. “You look like you need to catch up,” she shouts into my ear.

“Um, thanks.” She’s looking at me expectantly, so I take a sip. It’s warm and sour. The narrow hallway is crowded with people, but I don’t recognize any of them. “Do you happen to know where Nate is?”

The girl gestures to a closed door at the end of the hall. “Being antisocial, like always. Tell him to come out and play.” She reaches over to ruffle my hair. “You’re cute, Nate’s friend, except for this. Grow it out. Makes you look like you’re in high school.”

“I
am
in—” I start, but she’s already sliding down the banister again.

I reach the door she pointed me toward and hesitate. I don’t know if Nate’s going to hear me knock, but I can’t just go in, right? What if he’s with somebody? Maybe I should leave the jacket on the floor and get out of here.

While I’m debating, the concert T-shirt guy from downstairs suddenly appears beside me. He slams into Nate’s door, pushing it open and leaning into the room. “Come to my fucking party, Macauley!” he yells. Then he spins around and runs back toward the stairs, cackling. I’m alone in the doorway when Nate, who’s sitting at a desk in the corner of a small room, turns around.

“That wasn’t me,” I say, lifting my hand in greeting. I’m still holding the cup of beer.

Nate blinks at me like I’m a mirage. “What are you doing here?” he asks. At least, I think that’s what he says. I can’t really hear him, though, so I step into the room and close the door behind me.

“You left your jacket at Until Proven,” I say, crossing toward the desk so I can hand it to him. “I told Eli I’d drop it off. Maeve told me where you live.”

“Shit, I didn’t even notice it was gone. Thanks.” Nate takes the jacket from me and tosses it onto the foot of his unmade bed. Other than that his room is relatively neat, especially compared to the rest of the house. Japanese movie posters cover the walls, but there’s not much else here besides the desk, the bed, a low dresser, and an open terrarium containing a large, yellow-brown reptile. I jump when it scratches one claw against the glass. “That’s Stan,” Nate says. “Don’t worry about him. He barely moves.”

“What is he?” I ask. He looks like a miniature dinosaur.

“Bearded dragon.”

God damn it. Even Nate’s pet is cooler than mine.

“So you made it through the obstacle course downstairs, huh?” Nate asks.

“Is your house always like this?”

Nate shrugs. “Only on weekends. They usually clear out by ten.” He leans back in his chair. “Hey, you have any update on Maeve? She said you were going with her to the doctor today, but that’s the last I heard from her.”

“Nothing yet. She doesn’t think she’ll hear till Monday at the earliest.” I shove my free hand into my pocket with a rush of guilt. Instead of feeling jealous of Nate like usual, I should thank him for being a better friend to Maeve than I was. “I’m glad you convinced her to tell her parents. I didn’t even know. I feel like a jerk.”

“Yeah, well, don’t beat yourself up about it. Nobody knew,” Nate says, tapping the pencil he’s holding against the desktop in front of him. The desk is empty except for a battered laptop, a stack of books, and two pictures—one of a kid posing with two adults in front of what looks like a Joshua tree, and the other of Nate and Bronwyn. She’s behind him, her arms around his neck while she kisses his cheek, and he looks happier in the picture than I’ve ever seen him look in person. Nate’s eyes linger on the photo, and I start to feel like an intruder. I’m about to back away when I catch sight of his laptop screen. “Are you doing…construction homework?” I ask.

“What?” Nate looks down with a short laugh. “Oh. No. I’ve been helping your dad document cleanup work at the mall site where Brandon Weber died. We have to take pictures of everything for the investigation.” He gestures to the screen. “These are bugging me, so I keep looking at them.”

“Why?” I ask, curious. My father won’t tell me anything about the site investigation. The pictures on Nate’s computer don’t look like much. Just piles of shattered wood on a rough cement floor.

“Because of what’s not there, I guess. There’s not all the debris you’d expect when a well-constructed landing crashes down. Some of the beams don’t even have any joists so, like, how were they supposed to stay up in the first place?” Nate narrows his eyes at his computer. “But the beams have holes like joists
used
to be there, so…if you were totally paranoid, you’d almost think somebody messed with the landing.”

“Messed with it? Are you serious?” I lean forward, intrigued, and drain half my beer before remembering I have to go home after this. I set the cup down at the corner of Nate’s desk and look more closely at the photos. They still look like nothing to me.

Nate shrugs. “Your dad thinks it’s weird, too, but the company working on this was crap at their job and left shitty records. So we can’t be sure of anything.” He taps his pencil again. “Your dad really knows his stuff. Guys at work are always talking about how other companies cut corners, but he never does.”

My first instinct is to be petty and say
I wouldn’t know.
But there’s an almost wistful tone to Nate’s voice, like he’s imagining what it would’ve been like to grow up with a dad who runs a respected business instead of one who abandoned his kid for a whiskey bottle. And when you put it like that—yeah, my father issues pretty much pale in comparison. So I just say, “He really likes working with you. He tells me that all the time.”

Nate half smiles as the door bursts open, startling us both. Concert T-shirt Guy leans against the frame, looking flushed and sweaty as he points toward Nate. “Dude,” he slurs. “Hypothetically speaking. If a bunch of us decide to streak through the neighborhood, are you in?”

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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