1. Parties, Price Tags, & Death Threats
I could hear the police sirens from miles away.
The sun was only just starting to rise over the brick mansions of Langcrest Academy as students filtered out of their dorms, hiking up the collars of their jackets to protect their perfect hair from the drizzle. I stood outside of the protection of the archways, at the front of the crowd as rain created puddles around my boots. Nobody said anything to me, but there was a hushed whisper spreading through the crowd like a wave.
Gradually, the police sirens got closer. I tried not to look down, but the scene was too gruesome to keep me away. A girl lay face-up on the stone sidewalk leading up to the Sciences building. Her green eyes were wide open, her waterproof mascara still perfectly applied. She looked like an apparition, her blonde hair arranged behind her almost as if by design.
Like a beautiful apparition, except for the giant gash on the back of her head. The puddles around her were swirling with red, slightly less pigmented blood mixed with water.
I gritted my teeth to stop my vision from blurring with nausea. I knew I should step away from the body—the police sirens were nearing with every stunned heartbeat—but I felt a magnetic pull to this girl I’d never seen in my life.
Maybe it was because of how hauntingly like me she looked. Maybe in another life we could have been twins. There were the same pouty, crimson lips, the same eyeliner winged out with a practiced flick, the same matching Burberry boot and trench coat set. Her nails were painted bright white like mine, her stiff fingers curled slightly as they grasped a slip of paper, barely kept dry from the cover of her pale hand.
I heard police nearing the scene, asking students to step back as they got closer to the body. The edges of the paper were dampening as the puddles rose higher, the blood becoming more and more transparent. My fingers itched, reaching forward, and that magnetic pull caused me to pull the paper out between her fingers. Then I slipped it into the pocket of my coat and stepped back.
“Miss, if you could please step away from the crime scene.” A police officer had a firm hand on my shoulder, pushing me back from the body. Stumbling over my boots, I walked a few paces back, until I was mingling with the crowd under the archway. It was dry here, and students clamored for a view as they tried to stay dry under the thin stone structure.
Discretely, I pulled out the sheet of paper and smoothed it in the palm of my hand. The handwriting was small, and some of it was already blurring from the rainwater, but I could make out exactly what it said.
Devan: Science building, Thursday at four o’clock AM. Come alone.
My stomach flipped, tumbling over itself again and again as I read the note again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Then I stood on my tiptoes, craning my neck above the crowd so I could see the body again. The officers were covering her with a sheet, and police tape had been strung in a rectangle around the perimeter. Before her face was concealed, I could see her haughty expression, her darkened lipstick and that horrendous place where her head had been bashed in.
She looked just like me; there was no denying it now. But how did that explain why she’d dressed just like me, why she’d left her dorm in the middle of the night—all to answer a note that was clearly intended for me?
After all, I was the only Devan at Langcrest Academy. I’d known it since the day I’d arrived in ninth grade, instantly commandeering the halls with one step in my Jimmy Choo shoes. Nobody dressed quite the way I did. Nobody acted quite the way I did. And absolutely nobody had my name.
The police had lifted the girl onto a stretcher and were wheeling her away. As I watched, trapped in the same shocked silence as the rest of the Langcrest Academy student body, I had a sneaking suspicion it should have been me in that body bag.
I wondered what people would say in my eulogy.
I had a pretty good idea. There would be a lot of **** about my “angelic blonde hair,” the kind people wanted to go up and touch and ask if I have extensions. A few comments about my “piercing” green eyes, and maybe my long legs and the joke in my family that I was the only one who could become a model.
What about other than my appearance? I squinted. People usually didn’t highlight me as being overly kind or sensitive. I didn’t do a lot of volunteer work. Probably a mention of my boyfriend Blake, of the ride or die relationship we had.
I snorted at the irony. The word “die” suddenly had a lot more meaning to me.
The police had taken statements all afternoon, causing Langcrest’s administration to cancel all classes. We’d stood outside, shifting from foot to foot in our uncomfortable shoes, our hands stuffed in the pockets of our coats. Students had texted impatient messages on their phones, threatened to call their parents to complain of the inconvenience. At lunchtime, faculty brought out salads and tiny sandwiches from the dining hall.
When it was my turn with the police, I’d acted unbothered. I used the same nonchalant, slightly annoyed tone every other student had used, answering every question with “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t there.” In my pockets, I clenched the note so tightly my knuckles turned white.
Maybe I should have told the police. But wouldn’t that have made me a suspect for the murder? That my name was on this note, and that I’d been so bold as to ****** it from this girl’s dead body?
My heart had been pounding, but the officer had just continued scribbling on her notepad, her lips in a tight line. Then she’d thanked me for my time, and I’d been dismissed.
That had been at four o’clock in the afternoon. Now it was eleven-thirty, and in the darkness and isolation my paranoia had only increased. What was stopping anyone from taking a knife from the bar and finishing me off?
I pattered my nails against the bar in front of me, the counter empty. I hadn’t bothered to order anything. My mind was running at a million miles an hour, and the last thing I wanted to do was dull it with alcohol. Instead I kept tapping those fingers, staring at the intricate marks the granite made. Sleek and elegant, like everything else in and around Langcrest Academy, with an understated sense of how expensive it was. Just like the silky drinks being poured into sparkling tumblers. Like the minidress almost absentmindedly folding around my curves. Like the naturally lavish cursive adorning the note addressed to Devan inside my clutch.
I watched the bartender prepare and mix a drink, rattling the shaker before pouring it out. His hands moved with practiced precision, his dark eyebrows furrowed as he concentrated. Then he set it on a napkin, and slid it towards me.
“I didn’t order this,” I said, not reaching forward for it.
He wiped his hands on his vest. “I know. Over there—” He gestured across the bar, then froze as he realized it was empty. “Someone else ordered it for you. He’s gone now.”
I rolled my eyes but slid the drink closer to me, swirling it but not raising it to my lips. With a shrug of his shoulders, the bartender went back to his work—it wasn’t in his job description to solve mysteries of disappearing customers.
Just as I was about to set the drink back down, my eyes caught on the napkin, which had been turned over on its backside so I couldn’t see the gold insignia for Paradise. Instead, there were a conglomeration of faint scribbles.
When I brought the napkin up to see it better, my silver bangles jangled against each other, but I could barely hear them because of all the noise surrounding me. Nails painted white pressed against the paper, wrinkling it under my fingers. It was dark, but I could still clearly see the words scribbled in black pen and smeared by a drink.
Oops. Guess I killed the wrong one. You have one month, *****. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t care if you died.
My throat was dry, but I was hesitant to dampen it by drinking from the glass I was holding in my other hand. Instead, I crossed my legs, leaning against the bar and burying my face in my hands. Music pulsed around me, matching my heartbeat. After a few slow breaths, I lifted my head again and studied my surroundings.
Nobody I knew was within sight. I didn’t know many other people who would be sitting at Paradise drinking alone on a Thursday night—contrary to its name, it wasn’t exactly the hot spot to be. But then that didn’t leave anyone to order for me, and it definitely didn’t explain why the bartender left me this drink and slipped a note to go with it. A stranger wouldn’t do this to me.
Nobody in their right mind would leave a note like this for an eighteen-year-old girl. And while I could dismiss it as a cruel joke, a coincidence with the murder this morning, the hastily scribbled words on the napkin rang true: I had a lot of enemies. Already, the suspect list instinctively generating in my mind was over a dozen people long.
Pushing aside the drink the bartender left for me, I raised a hand for his attention, my ring glistening under the crystal lamps. “I’ll take a dirty martini.”
I thought of Blake back at the dorm, probably hanging out with Colton or Grace. Our fight earlier today was still a fresh scab, and I tightened my jaw as soon as I pictured his sloppy blonde hair. A ride or die couple. I was ready to dump Blake Chaney, and I figured I’d do it as soon as I got back.
The bartender slid me my drink, and I tipped the glass back so the olive fell in my mouth. As I chewed, I folded the napkin until it was tiny and fat, then slipped it inside my clutch.
It was already pitiful enough that I was drinking alone. The last thing I needed to do was worry about my death, too.
I never got drunk.
It must have been some type of control freak thing. Losing my consciousness scared me. If I was passed out I couldn’t observe the people around me, couldn’t collect information or manipulate the situation or even understand what was going on. Drinking was much more classy than that. A glass here, a sip there. Swirling around my cosmopolitan, admiring the way it sparkled.
Blake didn’t agree with me. He got blackout drunk, shot after shot. It seemed stupid to me, and he knew I hated it. Another reason to let him go.
I couldn’t remember the last time Blake and I were remotely romantic. We weren’t even together because of some power couple move. It was just out of laziness, I figured. Routine. Neither of us could be bothered with dealing with the fallout of breaking up with the other.
It was always lazy at Langcrest Academy. Maybe we spent too much time on our academics that when we returned to our dorm rooms, we got sloppy with everything else. Even the nerds smuggled in champagne and toasted to the new Cartier watch one of them bought.
I flicked my wrist so I could admire my newest acquisition, a diamond bracelet that fell in between two of my silver bangles. Then, still watching the way it caught the lights in the bar, I grabbed a pen and signed the check with a flourish. It was a cheap night.
Sliding the check back towards the bartender, I stood, gripping my clutch with white-tipped fingers. The note on the napkin was still inside, pressed up against the first piece of correspondence. Were they related? Why was someone so intent on killing me? I wasn’t ready to have a month left to live. Who was, though? Wasn’t that how death worked, creeping up on some and pouncing viciously on others? I guessed you never knew which one you were going to get.
A lazy turn of my watch: it was only midnight. Still plenty of time to walk back to my dorm, to pass under the gold-plated Langcrest Academy gates and confront Blake about our relationship. Maybe we’d have an audience, or maybe our bitter words would be for our ears alone. I honestly didn’t care which.
Any other night, it was soothing to walk home from Paradise alone. Now, the notes in my purse felt heavy, and I found myself clutching my bag closer to me than usual. My stilettos pounded on the brick sidewalk as I watched the shadow my own body created on the ground. It was deserted outside—this side of town was only frequented by Langcrest students, and they were all either at the hotter bars or nestled in pockets on campus.
The space behind me prickled, as if someone would jump out from behind a building any second and attack me. I didn’t know any self-defense—I’d skipped the martial arts elective option my sophomore year, because nothing seemed less refined than wrestling with people I barely knew on sweat-stained mats. I wished I’d swallowed my pride and taken the class.
Usually, Paradise was my own little retreat, where I could go and pretend I was everything I ever wanted. The diamonds on my neck, the elegant heels encasing my legs. An empty stare, or a toss of my curled hair. No expectations or need to think. No arguments. No drama.
I was under the gate now. Confidently, I walked through it, ignoring the cameras because the faculty either didn’t look at them or didn’t care. Nobody ever got caught. If the administration dared to expel anyone from their institution, parents were always there to offer a bucketload of cash as compensation.
But what if tonight, the police were watching? What if they spotted me walking around campus after midnight, an exact replica of the girl that was murdered, wearing that same coat? Would they suspect me? Did I even have anything to hide?
I was in my dorm before I saw anyone, unlocking my door. Inside, Blake, Grace, and Colton were sitting on my chaise, exactly as I’d left them.
“Wassup Devan,” slurred Blake, sitting up a little straighter.
I shut the door behind me and unstrapped my heels before beginning to gather the beer bottles from the floor. “Get that out of my room.”
“I forgot.” Blake unhelpfully picked up a bottle, accidentally knocking it over so that the last few drips splashed across my carpet. “You only drink champagne. I guess you’re above everything else.”
I finished tossing the bottles in the trash, frustrated that he was too drunk for me to break up with him tonight. Grace stood, too, and got some paper towels from the bathroom. Then she began blotting up the stain, tucking her chestnut hair behind one ear.
“Devan.” Blake fluffed a pillow on my chaise before reclining onto it. “How are you here? I thought you were dead. I saw you this morning. Your head was smashed in.”
He didn’t sound at all concerned, just curious. Like I was a freak of nature by being dead one minute and alive the next.
“He thinks that girl that was murdered this morning was you,” said Colton. “You looked a lot alike.”
“Well it wasn’t me.”
I sealed my lips, instantly wishing I could take back my defensive tone. Then, in an attempt to look busy, I helped Grace mop up the beer on the carpet. “Have they identified the body yet?”
“Beverly Swanson.” Colton’s dark eyes were squinted, focusing on a nondescript part of the wall. “Nobody really knew her. I don’t think she had many friends.”
“Was she in our grade?”
“Yeah. Supposed to graduate towards the top of her class.”
I got up as much of the beer as possible before collecting the paper towels and throwing them in the trash can. None of this made sense. If Beverly didn’t have any friends, why would anyone have any incentive to kill her? And why did they think she was me? Why did she let them believe it?
“I knew her,” Blake offered, opening his eyes for a fraction of a second. “I saw her one day, in Italy…”
“God, why does he get so drunk all the time?” I kicked off my stilettos and grabbed his arm so I lifted him off the chaise. “Go back to your dorm and sober up, will you? I don’t have time for this.”
While Grace and Colton watched, I pushed him out into the hallway and shut the door behind him. I could hear him pounding intermittently on the door as I locked it.
“Why haven’t you dumped him yet?” asked Grace. “He gets worse every day.”
“I plan on it. I was going to do it tonight, if he hadn’t gotten so wasted.”
Eventually, the knocks on the door subsided, and I figured he’d wandered back to his room. Colton ran his hand through his hair and stood. “I’d better go back and keep an eye on him. Hold the vomit bucket for him. You know the deal.”
“I’ll go too,” said Grace. “You shouldn’t have to take care of him alone.”
“I’m his roommate. It’s kind of part of the job description.”
Nonetheless, sweet Grace followed him out of the room, gathering her coat from the hook by the door on her way out. I waited until they were gone before I collapsed face-up onto my bed, staring at the ceiling. There was a chip in the paint, right in the center, a tiny defect that contrasted with the formidable flawlessness of the rest of the room. Crisply made beds. Clothes neatly arranged by color, some with the price tags still dangling carelessly from the sleeves. Photo frames straightened and centered on their nightstands. And now, a single beer stain on the floor, brown against the crisp white carpet.
That second flaw, which shattered the aura of untouchable perfection on campus. I shut my eyes and saw black, realizing that I was lucky to be alive long enough to see another perfect moon rise over the perfect stillness of another perfect night at Langcrest Academy.