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Authors: Karen M. McManus

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BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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I’m in and out of the room as it fills up, bringing more drinks and snacks that seem to disappear as soon as I put them down. “How’s everyone doing back there?” Addy asks when I’m on my fifth trip from the kitchen.

“Great, except Manny’s dropped, like, three orders of empanadas so far,” I say, setting a plate between her and Bronwyn. “Here’s the lone survivor. Enjoy.”

Maeve is seated on Bronwyn’s other side, wearing a scoop-neck black T-shirt that’s more fitted than what she usually goes for, and really flattering. It has a cute design that looks like a bouquet of flowers at first but is actually a bunch of cartoony little monsters. I can’t stop checking it out. Neither can Luis, although I’m pretty sure our reasons are different.

But Maeve doesn’t notice either of us, because she keeps staring at the entryway. I follow her gaze as the beads part once again and Nate Macauley walks through. The only empty chair remaining is all the way at the other end of the table, until Maeve jumps up. “You look like you could use some help, Phoebe,” she says, moving quickly to my side. I don’t, but I let her grab a random assortment of silverware off the table anyway.

Nate sits in Maeve’s vacated chair, brushing his knuckles against Bronwyn’s arm. When she turns, her entire face lights up. “Hi,” she says, at the same time Nate goes, “Hey,” and then he says, “You look—” while Bronwyn says, “I was hoping—” They stop and smile at one another, and all I can think is that Jules has no shot whatsoever. Nate leans closer to Bronwyn to say something in her ear, and she turns her entire body toward him when she laughs in response. She brushes at his jacket like there’s something on it, which is the oldest trick in the book. It totally works when he catches hold of her hand and wow, that did not take long at all. I’m about to turn away and give them some privacy when another voice rings out.

“Whew, it is
packed
in here!” A nerdy-hipster-looking boy in an ice-blue polo shirt stands beside the beads, fanning himself as he glances around the room. It’s Evan Neiman, Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, who as far as I know wasn’t invited to this little get-together. Evan spots the last empty chair and drags it as close to Bronwyn as he can manage. “Hey, you,” he says, leaning across the table with a moony grin. “I made it.”

Bronwyn freezes like a deer in headlights, eyes wide behind her glasses. “Evan? What are you doing here?” she asks. All the animation leaves Nate’s face as he drops her hand and tips his chair backward. Bronwyn licks her lips. “Why aren’t you in Pasadena?”

“I couldn’t miss the chance to see you again before you leave,” Evan says.

Nate returns his chair to the floor with a bang. “Again?” he asks, with a pointed look toward Bronwyn. He doesn’t look mad, exactly, but he does look hurt. Bronwyn’s eyes dart between him and Evan, who keeps beaming like there’s no tension in the room whatsoever. I can’t tell if he’s clueless or diabolical. “Besides, you left your sunglasses in my car,” Evan adds, holding up a bright blue rectangle like a trophy.

Maeve is standing beside me, frantically wiping a napkin across a clean knife. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” she mutters.

I tug the knife from her hand. “They do that in the kitchen, you know.”

“Please take me there,” she whispers. “I can’t watch.”

I give her my tray and we move toward the door, but pause when a hand whisks the beads to one side and a girl enters. I don’t recognize Jules at first; she’s really rocking whatever smoky eye tutorial she watched. Her dark hair is flat-ironed and she’s wearing the sequined tank top with a pair of skintight jeans and high-heeled sandals. Objectively, I have to admit that her boobs look amazing in that shirt. “Hey, Ju—” I start, but she puts her finger to her lips.

She crosses a few feet to the table. Nate has pushed his chair away like he’s about to get up, but Jules stops him with a hand on his shoulder. Before he can move, she straddles him so that she’s sitting on his lap, her chest pressed against his, and then she grabs his face between both of her hands and kisses him. Hard and deep, for what feels like ages although it can’t be more than a few seconds. I hope. A light flashes at the other end of the room, and I catch sight of Monica holding up her phone as she leans through the beaded curtain.

Nobody reacts until Jules gets up as quickly as she sat down, flipping her hair and turning toward the exit. Then Nate slowly wipes a layer of Jules’s lip gloss from his mouth with a bemused expression. Cooper looks worried, and Addy looks furious. Bronwyn looks like she’s about to cry. And Evan Neiman is grinning like he just won the lottery.

I let out a yelp of pain as Maeve drops the serving tray she was holding onto my foot. Jules catches my eye, and before she slips through the beads she gives me an exaggerated, triumphant wink.

Always take the Dare,
she mouths at me.

Friday, March 6

REPORTER:
Good evening, this is Liz Rosen with Channel Seven News, bringing you an update on our top news story: the untimely death of yet another student at Bayview High. I’m here with Sona Gupta, principal of Bayview High, for the administration’s reaction.

PRINCIPAL GUPTA:
A point of clarification, if I may. This particular tragedy did not happen
at
Bayview High. On the school grounds, that is.

REPORTER:
I don’t believe I said that it did?

PRINCIPAL GUPTA:
It seemed implied. We are, of course, devastated at the loss of a cherished member of our tight-knit community, and committed to supporting our students in their time of need. We have many resources available to help them process their shock and grief.

REPORTER:
Bayview High is a school that became infamous nationwide for its corrosive culture of gossip. Are you concerned that—

PRINCIPAL GUPTA:
Excuse me. We’re veering onto a topic that’s unrelated to the subject at hand, not to mention quite unnecessary. Bayview High is a different school today than it was eighteen months ago. Our zero-tolerance policy toward gossip and bullying has proven highly effective. We were even profiled in
Education Today Magazine
last summer.

REPORTER:
I’m not familiar with that.

PRINCIPAL GUPTA:
It’s very highly regarded.

CHAPTER NINE

Knox

Monday, March 2

It’s a reflex to check my phone, even at work. But there’s nothing new from Unknown on Monday. The last texts were from Friday night:

DARE: Kiss a member of the Bayview Four.

STATUS: Achieved by Jules Crandall. Congratulations, Jules. Nice work.
Accompanied by a picture of Jules on Nate’s lap, kissing him as though her life depended on staying attached to his face.

The next player will be contacted soon. Tick-tock.

I’m kind of glad I had rehearsal and couldn’t make it to Café Contigo on Friday. Maeve said the night went downhill fast after Jules interrupted dinner. Plus, the whole restaurant turned into such a mob scene that they ran out of food and Cooper had to leave through the back entrance.

“In this particular instance, the contributing cause is false confession,” Sandeep says beside me. We’re sharing a desk today at Until Proven, and he’s been on the phone nonstop since I arrived. He holds a pen in one hand, tapping it rhythmically on the desk while he talks. “So I don’t see that it applies. What? No. Homicide-related.” He waits a few beats, pen tapping. “I can’t confirm that yet. I’ll call you back when I can. All right.” He hangs up. Until Proven still has desk phones—big, clunky things with actual cords plugged into the wall. “Knox, can you order some pizza?” Sandeep asks, rolling his shoulders. “I’m starving.”

“Sure.” I pick up my iPhone, because I don’t even know how to work the desk ones, then put it back down when Eli materializes in front of us. He looks different, but I can’t figure out why until Sandeep speaks up.

“You cut your hair,” he says. Eli shrugs as Sandeep leans back in his chair and spins in a semicircle, his fingers steepling beneath his chin. “What’s up? You
never
cut your hair.”

“I assure you that I do,” Eli says, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He looks a lot less like Einstein now. “Do you have the Henson file?”

“Is this a wedding thing?” Sandeep asks. “Did Ashton make you?”

Eli rubs his temple like he’s trying to draw out some patience. “Ashton and I don’t
make
one another do anything. Do you have the Henson file or not?”

“Um.” Sandeep starts sifting through the piles on his desk. “Probably. It’s here somewhere. What do you need?”

“The name of the convicting DA.”

“I have it,” I say, and they both turn toward me. “Not the file, but the name. I made a spreadsheet. Hang on.” I pull up Google Docs and tilt my laptop toward Eli. “It has all the basic background information on the D’Agostino convictions. Names, dates, addresses, lawyers, things like that. I noticed you keep asking for that stuff, so…” I trail off as a crease appears on Eli’s forehead. Was I not supposed to do this, maybe? It’s all publicly available information, so I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong by putting it into one document.

Eli’s gaze roves across my screen. “This is great. Can you share it with me, please?”

“Um, yeah. Of course,” I say.

He meets my eyes. “What’s your name, again?”

“Knox. Knox Myers.” I smile a little too widely, happy to be noticed for once.

“Thanks, Knox,” Eli says sincerely. “You just saved me a lot of time.”

“Eli!” Somebody yells from across the room. “Judge Balewa on line one for you!” Eli takes off without another word as Sandeep punches me lightly in the arm.

“Look at you, getting praise from the big man! Nice job, kid,” he says. “Don’t let it go to your head, though. I still want that pizza. And could you sort the mail?”

I order a few extra-large pizzas for the office, then grab a stack of envelopes from a tray next to the front door and bring them back to my chair. Some of it’s registered and I’m not supposed to open that, so I put those aside for Sandeep. A lot of it’s bills, and those go into another pile. Then I sort through what’s left. Mostly, it’s requests for Until Proven to take on a particular case. It’s surprising how many people write letters instead of emailing, but I guess they’re hoping to stand out. Until Proven gets way more pleas for help than it could ever handle, even if it tripled its staff.

I pick up a letter-sized envelope with Eli’s name scrawled across the front. I tear it open and there’s a single sheet of paper inside. I pull it out and read the few short sentences:

You messed with the wrong people, shithead.

I’m going to fuck you like you fucked us.

And I’ll enjoy watching you die.

I recoil like somebody punched me. “Sandeep!” I croak. He looks up from his laptop with a quizzical expression, and I shove the paper toward him. “Look at this!”

Sandeep takes the letter and reads. He doesn’t look nearly as shocked as I expected. “Oh yeah. We get these sometimes. I’ll log it in the death threats file.”

“The
what
?” I can’t keep the horror out of my voice. “There’s a whole
file
?”

“Death threats come in during every big case,” he says matter-of-factly. “Disgruntled assholes blowing off steam, for the most part, but we need to document everything.” He scans the sheet of paper again before folding it and putting it back into the envelope. “At least this one doesn’t contain hate speech. Eli gets a lot of anti-Jewish rhetoric. Those go in a special file.”

“Jesus,” I say weakly. My pulse is racing uncomfortably fast. I knew Until Proven lawyers had to deal with a lot of crap, but I never imagined anything like this.

Sandeep pats my shoulder. “Sorry, Knox. I don’t mean to be blasé. I know these are disconcerting, especially the first time you see one. It’s par for the course in this line of work, though, and we have procedures in place to deal with it.” His brow knits in concern as he takes in my clammy, probably ghost-pale face. “Are you feeling unsafe? Do you want to go home?”

“No. I’m not worried about me.” I swallow, watching Eli through a conference room window as he gestures animatedly. “But Eli—”

“Is used to it,” Sandeep says gently. “He chose this line of work, and he’s not afraid of people like this.” Disgust settles over his features as he tosses the envelope onto the desk in front of us. “They’re cowards, really. Hiding behind a screen to threaten and intimidate, instead of doing something meaningful to improve their situation.”

I glance at my phone, full of gloating texts from Unknown. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”


I’d planned on going straight home after work, but when five o’clock rolls around I’m still rattled and out of sorts.
Where are you?
I text Maeve as I walk toward the elevator, holding my breath to avoid the pungent aroma of the men’s hair club.

She answers right away.
Café Contigo.

Want some company?

Always.

There’s a bus sitting in traffic a few yards ahead of me, and I jog to make it to the stop as it pulls up. My phone is still in my hand as I board, and it buzzes when I sit next to an old woman with tight gray curls. She beams at me as I dig out my earphones and plug them into my phone, giving her a polite smile before I stuff the buds into my ears. Not today, Florence.

Imagine Dragons blasts while I read a text from Kiersten.
Download this. New messaging app for family chats.
I follow the link for something called ChatApp. The icon is a text bubble surrounded by a lock.

Never heard of it,
I text back.
What’s wrong with the ten apps I already have?

Kiersten sends a shrug emoji.
Idk. Kelsey wants it. Syncs easier with her laptop or something.
Our middle sister is a technology dinosaur who prefers messaging via computer instead of phone.
Better privacy, too.

Oh good. Wouldn’t want Katie’s top-secret wedding details to leak.

Ha. Ha. Did Wing Zone fix the chicken yet?

Yes, it’s fully a chicken once more. With a leprechaun hat in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day.
Kiersten replies with six laughing emojis and a couple of shamrocks.

I finish downloading the new app, and once I sign up I see four invitations waiting for me, from Kiersten, Katie, Kelsey, and Kara. I’m not ready for the sisterly deluge, though, and exit the app without accepting any of them. It’s practically my stop anyway, so I get up and make my way to the doors, hanging on to a pole for balance as we lurch toward the sidewalk.

Café Contigo is just a block away from the bus stop. When I get inside Maeve is at her usual corner table, a cup of coffee in front of her and her phone in one hand. I pull out my earbuds and take the seat across from her. “What’s up?”

She lays her phone down on the table. It vibrates twice. “Not much. How was work?”

I don’t want to get into the death threats just yet. I’d rather not think about them. I gesture to her phone, which vibrates again. “Do you need to get that?”

“No. It’s just Bronwyn, sending pictures from some play she’s watching. The set’s really great, apparently.”

“Is she into that kind of thing?”

“She thinks I am. Because I did a play once.” Maeve shakes her head in amused exasperation. “She and my mom are exactly alike. Any time I show the slightest interest in something, they hope it’s my new life’s passion.”

A waiter comes by, a tall, thin college student named Ahmed, and I order a Sprite. I wait until he walks away to ask, “How’s Bronwyn doing after that whole mess on Friday? Did she and Nate break up again?”

“I’m not sure you can break up when you never officially got back together,” Maeve says, resting her chin in her hand with a sigh. “Bronwyn’s not talking about it. Well, she talked about it
at length
on Saturday, but now that she’s back at Yale she’s totally clammed up about Nate. I swear to God, that place short-circuits all her emotions or something.” She takes a sip of coffee and makes a wry face. “She thinks Nate was into it. The kiss from Jules, I mean. Which wasn’t my read on the situation at all, but Bronwyn won’t listen.”

“Did you tell her it was part of a game?”

“I tried.” Maeve bites her lip. “I didn’t want to go into too much detail, because she’d freak if she knew there was even a slight connection to Simon. And she was already so upset about Nate. That stupid picture Monica took was all over social media this weekend. Which reminds me…I’ve been meaning to show you something.” Maeve swipes at her phone a few times, then holds it out to me. “I found this the other day. You remember that revenge forum Simon used to post on?” I nod. “Well, this is a new version, except now the posts disappear after a few hours.”

“What?” My eyebrows shoot up as I take her phone. “How do you know that?”

“I found it when I was searching Simon’s old user name last week. There was a post a while back that mentioned Bayview, and something about a game.” She drums her fingers restlessly on the table. “I can’t remember exactly what it said. I wish I’d taken a screenshot, but I didn’t know then that the posts disappear.”

I scan the handful of posts on the page. Somebody named Jellyfish is seriously pissed off at his teacher. “Okay, so…you think what, exactly? That this Jellyfish person is running the Truth or Dare game?”

“Not him specifically,” Maeve says. “That guy seems to have a one-track mind. But maybe that other poster is involved. It’s weird, don’t you think? That the texting game starts by referencing Simon, and then this revenge forum pops up and does the same thing?”

“I guess,” I say uncertainly. Seems kind of tenuous, but then again, Maeve knows a lot more about tracking vengeful gossips than I do.

“I should set up a monitoring service or something. Like PingMe,” she says thoughtfully. At my puzzled expression, she adds, “A tool that notifies you when a website updates. It’s faster than a Google Alert. Then I could keep track of these disappearing conversations.”

Her eyes get a faraway look. Even though I think she’s getting way too obsessed over a random Internet post, I can tell she won’t listen if I tell her so. Instead, I hand back her phone without comment. When she takes it, her sleeve pulls up on her arm, exposing an angry-looking purple bruise. “Ouch, how’d you get that?” I ask.

“What?” Maeve follows my eyes, and I hear her breath catch. She pales and goes so still that she looks like a statue. Then she pushes her sleeve down as far as it can go, until the bruise is completely covered. “I don’t know. Just—banged something, I guess.”

“You guess?” Her eyes are on the floor, and unease stirs in my gut. “When?”

“I don’t remember,” she says.

I run my tongue over dry lips. “Maeve, did…did somebody do that to you?”

Maeve’s head snaps up, and she lets out a startled, humorless laugh. “
What?
Oh my God, Knox, no. I promise, nothing like that happened.” She looks me straight in the eye, and I relax a little. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Maeve, it’s that she’s incapable of maintaining eye contact when telling even the whitest of lies. You should never, for example, ask what she thinks of your new haircut if you’re not fully prepared to handle the truth. I learned that the hard way when I decided to go a little shorter last week.

“Okay, so…” I pause, because now I can’t remember what we were talking about, and Maeve’s gaze wanders over my shoulder. She waves, and I turn around to see a thin boy with strawberry-blond hair and glasses hovering a few feet away from us.

“Hi, Owen,” Maeve calls. “Phoebe’s not working today.”

“I know. I’m picking up takeout.”

Maeve lowers her voice as Owen approaches the counter. “That’s Phoebe’s little brother. He comes here a lot after school, even when he’s not getting food. Just to hang out and talk with Phoebe or Mr. Santos when they’re not busy. I think he’s kind of lonely.”

Somehow, this whole texting game mess turned Maeve and Phoebe into friends, which is the only silver lining so far. Maeve’s been kind of lost since Bronwyn graduated, and Phoebe could use somebody on her side. Slut-shamey crap about her is still flying around school, and her friend Jules eats lunch with Monica Hill’s clique now. I guess Jules found her own silver lining: social climbing via Truth or Dare success.

Mr. Santos appears from the back and hands Owen a large brown paper bag, then waves away the bill Owen tries to give him. “No, mijo, put that away,” he says. “Your money’s no good here. How is school? Phoebe tells me you have a big spelling bee coming up.”

BOOK: One of Us Is Next
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