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7

START HERE TO FIND MILEY

 

And yea, so it came to pass that at 3:15 that afternoon, Anton and LaQuisha and me were digging through all the records in Mr. Studie’s class. Well, that is, Anton and LaQuisha were searching the yearbook files on his classroom’s two computers. I arrived last, so I just perused my yearbook. Not arriving at all would have been great, but I really had no choice. Mom would have chained me to these two losers otherwise.

I said, “If you’ve got all the files there, why should I bother here?”

LaQuisha answered without turning around. “We don’t exactly have everything here. We have all the parts – including a lot that Casey didn’t use in the final product. But the actual template of that product is something we don’t have.”

“Oh my google, where is it?”

LaQuisha replied, “Mr. Studie is bringing it from the printer’s office. Did you just say ‘oh my google’?”

“Yeah, so what?”

She and Anton shared a laugh over that one. Damn, if I couldn’t even make computer nerds like that…the truth was that I was trying to make “oh my google” happen, kind of like “fetch” in Mean Girls. I got the idea after seeing an episode of House that starred the tall chick from That 70s Show, no not Mila Kunis, the other one. She played this dying blogger who said that in olden times, people acted correctly because God was watching, but now the internet is watching. It turned out that watching that episode was one of the last things Miley and I did together; afterward, we talked about how we both agreed with the dying blogger but not with each other. For Miley, that House episode explained why she should meddle in people’s lives on the internet, almost like a missionary. For me, it was more like let’s let the internet guide us on how to behave and how not to behave.

Yes, there are exceptions, like that stupid racist anti-Asian girl at UCLA, but the exceptions prove the rule: the internet is ready to name and shame you. Don’t mess up or google will know. It’s not anti-religious because I still thank God every day. (Us Catholics don’t let anyone question our religion.) Also, did you know that google’s slogan is “don’t be evil”? Oh my google, what do you think? Well who cares if you don’t like it. I’m sick of everyone saying “oh my God.” They say “oh my God” between songs on the 80s station on Pandora that my Mom likes. That would be reason enough to mix it up a little.

I got a text from Hayley: “Where u?”

If I admitted to being at Mr. Studie’s after school, would I arouse sympathy, or condemnation? It’s a fine line around my friends. Frak it. I texted: “Mr. Studie’s”

Her text: “Whad u do”

Mine: “Its what Miley did. As usual”

“?”

“Im on the trail of Miley and Caseys killer”

After a pause, she texted, “R they buried under Mr Studies floor?”

That made me laugh.

Anton stopped moving his mouse, turned to me, and said, “Riley, did Miley ever read Mad magazine?”

“What the frak is that?”

“Eh, I couldn’t get Casey into it either.”

I asked, “Do you nerds, like, go to conventions where you compete to blow the most milk out of your nose or something?”

“I was thinking of a Mad fold-in, you know, you fold the pages to make the words into a different message. Kind of like with those origami things that kids do…hey did you do those?”

I could barely believe him. “Are you suggesting we start folding pages of the yearbook to see what words we can make?”

“You got a better idea?”

LaQuisha said, “Hey, Riley, was it hard to get on the JV girls’ softball team?”

Curiouser and curiouser, she thought with malice. I replied, “Why would you ask me that?”

LaQuisha said, “Cause you’re in the picture right here.”

Mr. Studie entered his own room, holding a thumb drive. “How’s it going, guys?”

“It isn’t,” Anton said succinctly.

“Well, I hope this helps,” he said, handing the thumb drive to LaQuisha, who smiled like she was just handed a Versace purse. Mr. Studie said, “I have things to do. You can let yourself out of the building. Remember, if you find anything truly incriminating, call the police.”

As the door closed behind Mr. Studie, I said to Anton, “I don’t understand why the police aren’t doing all this already.”

“I hate to be the one to break it to you, but they don’t exactly have a division for searching through high school yearbooks for clues to a two-year-old case.”

I hated to be the one to break my yearbook over his head, but if he kept up that snarky tone, it was gonna happen. I’m the only one allowed snark around here.

LaQuisha looked at something on the screen and said, “The overall file was last updated just before midnight Monday night.”

Anton said. “Good to know. Well after she made her webcam speech.”

I said, “Was it before or after she…uh…fell?”

Anton said, “We’re not sure. The police think that happened around midnight.”

“Where was this thumb drive then?” I asked.

“Locked in Mr. Studie’s desk, right over there,” said Anton. “He couriered it first thing in the morning, like he’d pre-arranged with Casey, so they’d make their deadline. Before your morning class with him.” He knew way too much about my life. Something would have to be done about that.

“So…do we know if someone else made changes to it after Casey?”

“Not necessarily,” said LaQuisha. “If they had Casey’s log-in, then I won’t be able to tell.”

“Hey,” I said, “Maybe you two should stop typing.”

They looked at me for a second, then went right back to doing it.

I stood up. “STOP!” They stopped and stared at me. “Maybe we should have the police, like, check these keyboards for fingerprints.”

LaQuisha started typing again. Anton said, “It’s too late. Too many of Mr. Studie’s students already got their grubby paws all over them in the last few days.”

“The police didn’t check them Monday night?”

“They’re still treating Casey’s death as a suicide.”

I paused. “Maybe they know something we don’t.”

Anton didn’t pause. “That wouldn’t surprise me.”

I had had so many conversations like this with my Mom, I’d learned a few things about how to make phrasies to the crazies. “If…someone else was involved…shouldn’t they have left some kind of evidence or something? Like here, or on the roof?”

“Yeah, they should have,” Anton’s face darkened. “They might have worn gloves.”

I mused, “What about the swipe card system to even get in the building? How would they have gotten in? How did Casey get in?”

“Casey had Mr. Studie’s card, because she’d been working a lot of late nights here. They could have followed Casey in, maybe without her seeing them at first. Anyway I’m not sure that swipe card system is exactly Fort Knox. Today I noticed bathroom windows in the science building that are cracked open enough for a thin person to sneak through. In any event, I asked Mr. Studie to ask Principal Merrill for the records of which employees swiped their cards on Monday night.”

“What did Merrill say?”

“She still thinks it’s a suicide too. She’s not even going to provide that information to Mr. Studie…without some other kind of evidence. Which is why we need to find it. So get cracking.”

Nobody was more infuriated than me an hour later, when we still had nothing. My only consolation was that it wasn’t like I’d have been with Kamran otherwise. I would see him at the party tomorrow night. All this yearbook stuff was just an ant looking for water in the Sahara.

I texted Hayley. “What r u doing?”

Hayley wrote back, “Leslie and me r at mall”

Normally I’m not crazy about the mall. Or, uh, Leslie. However, at this point I would have been the happiest tweenybopper at the Gap.

I texted, “Can I meet u?”

Hayley’s reply: “We’re going into movies.”

“Oh, man,” I said aloud accidentally.

“Who are you texting?” asked Anton.

I looked at him, then down at the yearbook, then back at him. “This is so stupid! We may as well just read the first word on every page and make it into a stupid sentence!”

Anton said, “Yeah, I already tried that. I gave up after the first ten pages because it was…uh, well, stupid.”

“Wait.” It was like a light bulb went off over my head. “I just realized why I said that…Miley once said that she always wanted to find a book like that.”

LaQuisha stopped typing and turned around. “What was the sentence you made, Anton?”

He shook his head and said, “Literally it made no sense. It was…‘We, Lately, We, Winter, We,’ or something.”

“Maybe it’s an anagram,” she said.

He tapped on his chin. “It doesn’t seem likely. And it was Miley, not Casey, who wanted to see a book like that.”

“I’ll type each page’s first word into this online anagram generator until we get something good.” She made longer and longer entries, but they all meant, like, nothing.

Anton said, “Riley, are you sure you didn’t have a lucky number with her?”

“I already told you no.” Then I realized, unless…

He caught the look on my face. “Yessss?”

“Okay, we had this one thing, it’s stupid, but based on her activism and taste in music and whatever, we said that she was made for the 20th century and I was made for the 21st.”

I looked over Anton’s shoulder as he flipped immediately to pages 20 and 21. They were about the spirit/homecoming rallies the previous October. The first sentence on page 20 was “Start with a combustible mix of seniors.” The first sentence on page 21 was “Here at Kirksville High, we don’t like to settle for second place.”

Anton caught his breath and looked up at me. “Start. Here.” LaQuisha stopped typing into her anagram generator and ran over to us.

Pages 22 and 23 were a layout of the senior prom, which I failed to get invited to – thanks for the reminder, Casey. Page 22 began “To see our class in our formal best was to see…” blah blah. Page 23 began “Find your dreams. Find your hopes. Find your life. Find your love” and even more blah blah blah. Anton said excitedly, “To. Find.”

He turned the page to reveal that big one-page layout of Miley that I already told you about. LaQuisha gasped. And of course my sister’s first name was the first word on the page.

Page 25 was this collage of photos of the junior prom, which had had this wacky 1950s theme. My girls and I had gone to it as a “hen do” after we learned that phrase from some online English wanker. No photos of us though. Casey’s first sentence was “Dig the hip threads on the guys and dolls of the junior prom.”

Anton said, “‘Dig.’ You see that. Dig! Let’s review: ‘Start, here, to, find, Miley, dig…’” As he reached to turn the page, his hand was actually shaking like a leaf in the wind. We all held our breath as he turned it.

The first word on the next page was…not there. There were no words on it at all. Ditto the next page. Basically, pages 26 and 27 were a random collage of photos of students. Anton flipped to the next page, which began the photos of seniors in their formalwear. It was four photos to a page, the first one being captioned “Aaron Adams.”

LaQuisha said, “Dig Aaron?”

“No,” Anton said. “No way. Maybe after the senior formals?” He flipped past about sixty pages.

The first page after the formals was about the football team, and it said “Americans have always loved football.” The next page was about the cheerleaders, and it started, “Kirksville High had much to cheer for this year.”

LaQuisha said, “Dig, Americans, Kirksville? Or Dig, Aaron, Americans, Kirksville?”

Anton was like, “No. No. It doesn’t make sense. There’s got to be…wait…”

He flipped pack to page 26. The photos were all basically snapshots of students in twos and threes, taken in the halls.

LaQuisha said to me, “Do you know any of these students?”

I said, “Why would you ask me that? Do you know any of them?”

“I don’t know anyone at this school. Aren’t you trying to be, like, Miss Popularity?” I wondered how popular I’d become if I slapped the shit out of her.

I stood up. “You both are ridiculous. No one would ever leave clues in a yearbook like this! This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m out of here.”

As I began walking to the door, I heard the very distinctive squeal of tennis shoes suddenly moving on the hallway floor outside. I stopped for a second to check Anton and LaQuisha’s faces to see if they heard. Oh yeah, they did.

Mr. Studie’s door, like every classroom door in the school, had this one long vertical slot of a window, which was something I hadn’t thought about until Anton bolted for the door and looked like an idiot trying to stay hidden and still peek out of it. Then he flung open the door and looked down the hallway in both directions. He looked back at LaQuisha and whispered, “We can’t let the room lock…”

She nodded and said quietly, “I’ll stay.”

Anton practically ran out of the room. I walked out of it, yearbook in hand. He said, “Come on, Riley!”

I said, “Come on what?”

“Don’t you hear those footsteps?” I had to admit that I could still hear squeaky shoes running, somewhere way down the halls. Wait a minute. I didn’t have to admit shit. Instead, I took a few steps toward the main entrance and said, “Maybe.”

“Someone was eavesdropping, and they don’t want us to know who they are.”

I kept my pace. “Okay, fine, so someone else is on board the crazy train.”

Anton said, “You’re going that way? Fine, I’ll go the other way.” He began running down the hallway. “And if you leave, I’m calling your mom!”

He just had to yell that, didn’t he? Right out here in the hall, where any idiot signed up for some extracurricular might have heard him.

Actually, the halls were eerily deserted as I mouse-footed my way to the school’s main entrance. English classes like Mr. Studie’s are held on the second floor, and there’s, like, this huge main staircase that connects all the floors. At the landing between the second and first floor, this big staircase opens out onto the concrete walkway where Casey did her swan dive. I walked down the flight of stairs to the landing and pushed open the main doors. Once they closed behind me, I couldn’t go back.

Was Anton really gonna call my mom?

I heard the stupid squeaky shoes again, heading up the staircase to the third floor. Was homeboy wearing, like, Air Jordans or what?

I guess I could just see who it was real quick.

I went back up the stairs as quietly as I could. When I got to the third floor, I saw somebody rounding a corner. I’m pretty sure it was a white guy; it could have been Kamran.

No, not Kamran, I hoped and prayed. What if I ran into him here? What would I say? Oh, hey, are you spying on us because you want to make sure we don’t find out that you killed my sister?

Maybe I could tell him we’re actually trying to clear his name. Yes. That I liked. Where did he go? If that was him.

I ran toward the squeaky shoes. The main building was a square, you know, like, with an outdoor courtyard in the middle. To walk all the way around any one floor was to walk in a big square that ended where you started. Which I did. And found nothing.

I rounded a corner and almost banged into these two big guys. I knew they played for our rugby team but I didn’t know their names.

The white one said, “Look what we have here.”

The black one said, “Where you going?”

I said, “What are you doing here?”

The black one said, “We just got out of detention.”

The white one said, “Yeah, but maybe we should get back into it.”

They were on either side of me, almost daring me to do something. What could I do, hit them with my yearbook? WHAT THE FRAK. See what happens, Mom, when you hook me up with lunatics?

“I can scream,” I said.

The white one said, “I like that.”

“HEY!” said a voice from down the hall. It was Mr. Stanley, a black janitor who was so old that he probably was like, at the school when it was built. “What’s going on there?”

The two guys turned their scowls into smirks and walked away, toward the main staircase. Avoiding them, I went down this other small staircase that was mostly used by the maintenance staff. When I got to the second floor I hustled down the halls to the back doors, to the exit that leads to the football field. I pushed on the doors and they were locked. Frakkin’ frak.

I had to wait a minute for those two idiots to leave the school. Then I heard squeaky shoes again. For some reason, now the footsteps sounded heavy, like they belonged to someone big. At this point, I just wanted to avoid him. I skedaddled to the small staircase and went down the stairs to the first floor. Had the hunter become the hunted? I know that makes no sense, I just wanted to write it.

I moved like a cat burglar around one of the hallway’s corners. I saw the “In case of fire break glass” emergency glass box and almost broke it to grab the axe inside. But then I was like, okay Tyler, get it together. I kept walking. I did not want to deal with squeaky-shoes or anyone else. What if this guy really did hurt Casey and Miley, what would he do to me? What the frak, was I in a horror movie now? Okay, just remember, don’t go up the stairs…

I backed around another corner and crashed into someone else; I almost freaked. It was LaQuisha, standing next to Anton.

“What are you two doing here?” I shouted.

“We figured out Casey’s message,” said Anton.

 

8

HER FAVORITE TOOL

 

We were standing outside the classroom of this one math teacher named Ms. Jackson. Anton took my yearbook out of my hand and whispered, “Look.”

I said in a loud voice, “Give that back!” I pulled it right back, out of his hand.

LaQuisha opened her own yearbook to page 26 and whispered, “Anton realized that Casey wasn’t indicating the students, but instead the location in the photo. He came back and showed me and I recognized the dented locker. Right where we’re standing.”

I said, “What happened to Mr. Studie’s room locking behind us?”

LaQuisha said, “I stuck a book in the door.”

I said, “You guys are real consistent. What about finding the big bad eavesdropper?”

Anton said, “Looks like he’s long gone. Doesn’t matter. We’re gonna solve this now before he can do anything.”

I said, “How? By opening these locked lockers?”

Anton answered, “I don’t think so. Do either of you guys know if there’s a basement under us here?”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re not thinking…”

“I’m not thinking, I’m knowing. Your sister is buried under here.”

I almost punched him like I had that goth chick. Instead I said, “Should I start listing the 57 reasons that’s crazy?”

“It makes perfect sense. What safer place to bury Miley than under the school? They know no one will check. And that’s also why Casey couldn’t exactly dig her up herself…until she had other irrefutable evidence.”

“Which is where, exactly?” I asked.

“We’ll find it. If we don’t find it in the yearbook, then Miley will lead us to it. Or Casey wouldn’t have written ‘Start here.’”

LaQuisha was already at the janitor’s stairwell. “Can one of you hold this door open while I check downstairs?”

I folded my arms while Anton ran over. Anton gestured his head, to signal me over; I walked over as sulkily as possible, like a teacher had just asked me to bring her my phone. LaQuisha had gone through a door one floor below the ground floor. She came back and said, “It’s an unfinished basement down here; basically dirt.”

“We’ve got to dig her up as soon as we can,” Anton said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “We should at least check with someone before we rip up the janitor’s basement.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of asking for forgiveness later instead of asking for permission first?” Not like he needed to know, but I’d practically invented the concept. He continued, “Do either of you ladies happen to have a shovel?”

We looked at him like he’d grown a second head.

“Well, then, I’m just going to have to walk to Ace Hardware and buy one. You guys wait for me in Mr. Studie’s room.” As I watched him go, I felt very ready to follow him and then, while he wasn’t looking, head for Starbucks or whatever. But anything other than going to Mr. Studie’s room might result in threats from rugby idiots or my mom.

There’s only one thing worse than spending the after-school part of a sunny afternoon inside school with frakkin’ Anton and LaQuisha. That’s spending it with just LaQuisha. While she combed through the thumb drive, I was supposed to be using the other computer or looking for more clues in the physical yearbook. I really didn’t feel like doing either.

LaQuisha said, “How are you feeling right now?”

“You know, I get really sick of people asking me that. Especially complete strangers.”

“I’d be feeling pretty strange if we were about to dig up my sister. Honestly I’m not sure I could handle it at all.”

“You really believe Anton, do you?”

“I really believe Casey left clues in this yearbook. I’m not sure we’re reading them right, but maybe.”

I went back to the yearbook and opened the page with the photo of the JV girls’ softball team. LaQuisha asked me how I got on the team. I didn’t bother to tell her that it wasn’t me. I already told you I didn’t do any extracurriculars. I checked the photo to see what girl LaQuisha thought was me.

With a careful perusal, I saw the girl she must have meant, way in the background. Whoever she was, I had to admit she did look a lot like me. It almost seemed like…wait a minute. The names of the girls were listed on the bottom, you know, left to right. My name was not on the list, which was correct. So who was this girl? I checked the names very carefully. I counted the heads and I counted the names. 28 girls, 27 names. I checked it again. Still a discrepancy.

Did Casey photo-shop me into this photo?

Why?

LaQuisha got a text. “He’s a minute away,” she said. “Can you get him?”

I rolled my eyes reflexively, but yes, I walked to the school’s front doors to get him. When I got there, I saw Mr. Stanley again.

“Hello, Miss.”

“Hello.”

“Miss?”

“Yeah?”

“Who are you letting into the building?”

“Oh, it’s uh, well, okay, fine, if you must know, Anton Forster.”

“The one and only,” Anton said, walking in, stupidly holding a six-foot shovel.

I quickly said, “We have permission from Mr. Studie to be here.”

“Permission?” said Mr. Stanley. “Permission for what?”

I said “Detention” and Anton said “Doubles tennis” at the exact same time.

Anton coughed. “Sorry, Mr. Studie told us to keep it secret. It’s a special project.”

“I see. Isn’t the yearbook finished?”

I said, “Yes, but…this is like a supplement. For Casey Campbell.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so? Casey was such a sweetheart. She always had a kind word for me.”

We started walking back to Mr. Studie’s room. I felt like we’d dodged a bullet. Mr. Stanley went, “Uh, kids?”

We turned around.

“What are you doing with that shovel?”

Anton said, “It’s a prop. For uh, a photo shoot. The shovel was her favorite, uh…”

“Tool,” I said as evenly as I could.

“Finish quickly, kids,” said Mr. Stanley.

Any excuse to walk a little faster was fine with us. After LaQuisha let us back into Mr. Studie’s room and we shut the door behind us, I laughed. “Somebody got burned!”

Anton said, “You know you’re the tool. You don’t get permission for detention!”

“I heard somebody say burn baby burn, disco insulto,” I sang to myself.

Anton said to LaQuisha, “Does Mr. Studie keep a camera around here? Like a nice one, for yearbook stuff?”

“You want to check the memory card for clues?” LaQuisha replied.

“That’s not a bad idea, but that’s not why I asked. We need to take it with us to the basement. I just lied to one of the janitors that we’re using this shovel for a photo shoot. We’ll need the camera if we’re caught digging.”

LaQuisha said, “Why would you think I’d know if he has one?”

“Oh, come on. If you didn’t snoop while Riley was with you, you certainly snooped when Riley left to come get me.”

They shared narrow eyes and wry smiles for a few seconds. Then she said, “His desk’s second drawer on the left.”

Anton got it. “How soon can we finish in this room?”

LaQuisha answered, “Let me copy the content of his camera’s memory card over here. Then we can leave and let Mr. Studie’s door lock. I’ve already copied all the other contents of both computers and his thumb drive onto my own thumb drive.” Did Mr. Studie really give her permission to do all that? Whatever, that was on her head, not mine.

I looked at Anton. “You’re gonna get in trouble. Over nothing.”

Anton opened the yearbook to page 26 again. “I need your help. I need you to stand in the same place as the two people in this photo. When I tell you, I need you to jump up and down in that place. I’ll be a floor below, in the basement; I’ll hear you stomp and then know where to dig.”

“What if Mr. Stanley or some teacher is there?”

“How about waiting for them to leave? Or you can say you’re practicing a new dance step.”

“Oh no. That would be ridiculous.”

Anton crossed his arms. “She’s there, Riley.”

“It’s perfectly logical to you that they buried my sister under the school two years ago, and then Casey staged a picture of these two kids in the same spot?”

“It’s not a coincidence. She found the spot, then told those kids where to stand, then snapped the photo.”

“How exactly would she have found the spot, without finding Miley? You think she got someone to confess?”

“I’m…not sure. But I trust Casey completely. She’ll lead us to what we need.”

I think my eyeroll now revealed, for the first time in human history, the back of the human eyeball.

“She’s there, Riley.”

“You wanna bet?”

“Sure. How much?”

“A million billion dollars.”

“How about a hundred dollars?”

“Okay, fine.” We shook on it.

LaQuisha finished with the upload. We shut down Mr. Studie’s two computers and left his room. We walked down the main staircase to the first floor and to Ms. Jackson’s room. The only difference between us then and us thirty minutes before was a six-foot shovel. Which made us look like looters or something. LaQuisha opened the door to the small stairwell again.

“Hang on,” said Anton, looking at me. “Since you’re our lookout, we need you to have some kind of code phrase.”

“Wow,” I said, “You really think you’re in Mission: Impossible or something.”

“If trouble is coming, you need to warn us without the teacher knowing you’re warning us. Something unusual that wouldn’t seem out of place. Like, I don’t know, The Big Bang Theory.”

“That is a show for old people and unredeemable nerds. Don’t try to suck me into your vortex.”

LaQuisha said, “‘Vortex’ it is. Let’s go.”

“No, no, that’s just as stupid,” I said. “How about, uh, ‘Kardashian’?”

“Yes, very intelligent,” LaQuisha said. “Let’s go.”

They went down the small stairwell. I went to my phone, partly because it made it look like I was doing something. There were silly texts from my friends, for example, Hayley wrote, “Lindsey signed my yearbook BFF – AS IF!!”

“Riley!” I could hear Anton from below me, muffled by the cement-stucco-whatever between us. “Now!”

Of all the stupid things I had ever done, jumping up and down in the hallway of the math floor had to be, like, the stupidest. A retarded person could have looked at me then and said, “Hey, that’s retarded.” Lucky there were no retarded people nor anyone else in the hall. After about five seconds of jumping, I said, “Got it?”

“Yep!” Anton answered. Sweet. I almost took off running right then. But Mom knew where I was, and the fewer lies I’d have to tell her later, the better. Interesting that Mom hadn’t texted. I guess she wanted me focused on this shit.

If Anton and LaQuisha found Miley, would they want me to see her?

Of course they would.

Would I?

I decided I didn’t need to answer that question, because there was no way they were gonna find her.

If they found her – if anyone ever found her – that still wouldn’t prove who killed her. Unless the killers were really careless and left DNA evidence. There would be some closure, yes. But finding her could lead to as many questions as answers.

If they found her, would I still be able to go to the party tomorrow night? What if Kamran didn’t want to see me anymore? Because he thought I was accusing him of something?

God, I was so sick of people making my life other than what I wanted it to be. Parents, teachers, authorities, other kids like my friends, or even Anton and LaQuisha. They want me to be their version of “Riley Tyler.” They don’t care what the frak my version of “Riley Tyler” even is.

I realized that Anton and LaQuisha had now been down there for many minutes. What was going on?

Mr. Stanley appeared and almost scared me. “Hello, Miss.”

“Hello! Hi.”

“Where are your friends?” He knew friends, plural. He must have seen LaQuisha at some point.

“They’re not my friends.”

“Where are they?”

“Uh, taking pictures.”

“Where?”

“Uh, they told me to meet them here in a few minutes.” You see what I did there? Technically not a lie.

“Uh huh.” He walked over to the door of the small stairwell. “Am I going to find them if I go down here?” How did he know? Did my eyes flit that way?

“Ha!” I fake laughed, raising my voice. “You remind me of Kim Kardashian.”

“What’s your name?”

“Tracy,” I reflexively lied.

“Come with me, Tracy.”

“Mr. Stanley, I really don’t think that’s appropriate,” I said far louder than necessary.

“If you don’t come, you can see how inappropriately I take your phone and press the button that says ‘Mom.’”

He made me go down the stairs first. As I walked I turned back to Mr. Stanley? “So, which Kardashian is your favorite? Or do you just like all the Kardashians equally?”

Mr. Stanley said, “I got it, Kardashian is your code word. Now open the door.”

My heart was suddenly beating like a hummingbird’s. Was this how I was going to reunite with my sister? For the first time in two years? For the last time? No, frak no. It couldn’t be.

I opened the door.

About twenty feet away stood Anton, digging a huge hole in the middle of a tennis-court-sized floor. Of course, there was no trace of any corpse. LaQuisha stood to the side, holding the camera.

Mr. Stanley said, “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”

Anton said, “Hi, Mr. Stanley. This isn’t what it looks like.”

“Son, one thing I’ve learned in this school is how rarely that’s true.”

 

9

MURDER BY NUMBERS

 

That night, I said prayers for Miley and Casey at our altar that Mom had set up in the family room.

I told you about Mom’s anti-Latin pride. The one exception is that Mom is a more fervent Catholic than the Pope. Loves her saints like they’re going out of style. Loves her Catholic websites. I tried to be on one by myself – it’s called Bright Maidens: A Young Catholic Commentary – and Mom signed up on it also. Hello Mom, did you catch the word “Young” in the name? So now I barely go there. Anyhoo, besides Mom’s various secular strategies for finding Miley, I have to pray at rosaries every night. It’s not that bad. I notice when I don’t pray, or don’t mean it, it’s hard for me to sleep. So I do frakkin’ pray. Deal with it.

And no, thanks for asking, no priest has ever even come close to touching me in the wrong place. Maybe cause I’m a girl. But actually I’d be surprised if Father O’Brien ever touched any kid. Then again he also hasn’t done anything to help find Miley, but hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

The next day, Friday, Mr. Studie looked surprised when he saw me turn up in his class. He passed around a study sheet – or “Studie sheet” in his lame attempt at humor – for next week’s final and told us to work on it quietly. He walked over to my desk.

“Let’s talk outside.”

“Ooooo,” Veronica said. Very, very original, Veronica.

Mr. Studie and I stood next to the lockers outside his room. He said, “So, you weren’t suspended?”

“Apparently not.”

“What happened to Anton and LaQuisha?”

“Suspended. Just for today. I would’ve been, but my mom freaked and called the principal.”

“She has her number?…Yes, I suppose she would.”

“What about you? I mean, are you in trouble?”

Mr. Studie let a tiny smile into that forest of a beard. “A little bit. But these are unusual circumstances.”

A day without Anton was like a day without thunderstorms. I had a great morning, reflecting on just how little I’d have to do before the end of the semester. Lunch was even better, because my yearbook finally got some much-needed ink on the pages. I ate with Hayley, looked out at the sunny courtyard of people signing yearbooks, and thought: yes. Back to normal.

Hayley and I ate together and I updated her on my adventure from the day before.

“That is some crazy craziness,” she finally said.

“I know right?”

She went, “Do you think there’s even a slight chance that Casey left clues in the yearbook?”

“Who would do that? Who makes a yearbook into a cryptograph or whatever for people to follow?”

“I mean, from the video, obviously Casey wanted you to do something.”

“Something, maybe. But then why didn’t she say ‘yearbook’ on the video?”

“Maybe she left clues somewhere else.”

“Am I gonna have to get you a tinfoil hat?”

“What is that?”

“Whatever. Let Anton look for these clues and maybe I’ll help him later. After he pays me my hundred dollars.”

Leslie joined us. She and Hayley were chatting about a class they share when I got a text from an unfamiliar number. It said, “Got your yearbook? anton”.

Oh no he did not get this number. I texted, “dont know u, do not text again or i call police”.

He replied, “got this number from your mom”. Like I hadn’t already realized that. “need you to do something b4 lunch ends”.

Would Mom believe me later if I said I didn’t get these texts? Or not until it was too late? Probably not, frakkin-frak.

I texted, “Where’s my $100?”

He answered, “Hard to pay u when im suspended from school”. His next text said, “need u 2 go 2 locations of other photos on pages 26 and 27, use ur phone camera to take pix from same places casey did”

I texted back a single letter: “y”

“have new theory, just do it quick b4 lunch ends”

Was he joking? Did he not realize he had been down the damn rabbit hole already? No Alice in Wonderland waiting, sorry, too bad, thanks for playing.

If I was to agree, I would now have to get my yearbook from a semi-cute boy who was signing it, then find all these locations and run to them. On sunny days, only total losers were in the hallways during lunch period.

Frak that. I wasn’t gonna do it. I smiled at Hayley and Leslie.

At the very end of lunch, I got another text from Anton: “howd it go?”

I replied, “not enough time, sorry”

Afternoon classes went well. During biology class, don’t ask me why, I took a long look at the photos on pages 26 and 27 of the yearbook. There were six photos in all, three on each page, all of kids in front of lockers. It was actually kinda fun to try to figure out exactly where they were taken. After a while, I thought I had figured out most of them.

In gym class, Kamran looked hotter than logs in a fireplace. I didn’t want him to sign my yearbook yet because I wanted to make a move on him at that night’s party; I preferred that he sign it after we hooked up. So in gym I kinda had to work to keep my yearbook from him. When Ms. Rodriguez said we could go ten minutes early, I was grateful for the chance to bounce.

I went from gym to my locker in the main building. I put a few books in there that I wouldn’t need until Monday morning. Was Mom gonna give me crap for not bowing to Anton’s every demented whim? One of the photos on page 27 was taken just around the corner from my locker. It would take less than a minute to run over there and snap a photo with my phone. That would show that I had made an effort.

Technically, no kids are allowed in the halls during class, and teachers can and will stop you and ask for a hall pass. However, in the five minutes just before school ends for the day, the teachers tend to let things slide. I know that, most kids know that, and as I rounded the corner, I learned that Anton knows that.

“Anton? What the frak are you doing here?” I said stupidly.

“What does it look like? Taking a picture.”

I half-laughed. “Only the biggest nerd on the planet would come to school on a day that he’s been ordered not to.”

“You proved I couldn’t rely on you,” he said, snapping a photo.

“Speaking of reliability, where’s my hundy?”

“How about you can have it if you come with me?”

“That wasn’t part of the bet.”

“Bye.” He walked away. I could tell he thought he knew that I would follow. Oh, I so wasn’t gonna. But for some reason inscrutable to even me, I did. He got to another photo location, waited for a couple of kids to walk out of frame, and snapped.

I walked up and said, “Are you gonna tell me your new stupid theory or not?”

“When you put it that way, how can I resist?”

“Come on, Anton, before someone who matters sees me with you.”

He laughed. “Come on, Riley, one last place to visit.” We walked. “Today at home I drew a map of the six locations. I basically graphed them, like a star.”

He handed me a map of the school that he’d written on.

“You see? You see where the points are?”

“This isn’t exactly a star.”

“No, but if you connect them by lines and then average the midpoints, you get this location, right here.” We were standing outside another class on the math floor.

“Inside this classroom?”

“Under it, again, of course.”

“Are you planning to start digging under the school again?”

“Can you please keep your voice a little lower?”

“I don’t know, can you please make your brain work a little better?”

“Hold this for a second.” He handed me his phone so he could open his stupid backpack to show me something. “Today I got a shovel that folds into my backpack, see? Now I just need to go down there again. I need you to look out and…”

“Oh frak no, I am not helping you anymore.”

“So you don’t care about finding your sister?”

“Don’t tell me what I care about.”

“I wasn’t telling, I was asking. And isn’t your mom gonna…?”

“Don’t you frakkin’ pull my mom on me! Stay away from her and stay away from me!”

I walked away, like, to the other end of the hall. He said, “Riley?” I ignored him. He said, “My phone?”

I realized I had it and turned around. As I was walking back to him, I looked at the photos he had just taken.

The bell rang, not only in real life but also in my head. As the students poured out of the classrooms, I flashed on an idea. I walked up to Anton, handed him his phone, and pulled my yearbook out of my backpack.

I said, “Your photos look different than the ones Casey took.”

“She took them with a real camera.”

I flipped through the yearbook to page 26 again. “Does that explain the focus change, here?”

“Yeah, with a real camera, you can put some things in the foreground and some in the background.”

“Right, but…if some of the lockers are out of focus, shouldn’t they all be?”

“Oh my God,” Anton said. “Oh my frakkin’ God. How did I miss this?”

“It’s subtle. I only noticed because your photos looked different.”

“In every photo, she very carefully smudged the focus of every locker number but one. The non-focused locker numbers are almost as clear…you have to really be looking for it, just like she wanted us to do.”

“Why do I feel,” I muttered, “Like I just gave meth to a meth-head?”

“I wondered why all these photos were inside and in front of lockers! Now that makes sense!” He wrote the locker numbers on the back of his map of the school. “It’s six numbers, then. That makes way more sense.”

“Yeah, if you watch Lost. I gotta go. I have a party to prepare for.” I walked away from him and out onto the courtyard. Ah, sunshine.

My brain flashed on the title of this high-school thriller-mystery movie (with a young, hot Ryan Gosling) called Murder by Numbers. I have to admit, that locker-stuff was the kind of mega-nerd clue that Miley would have appreciated. But then, Casey wasn’t trying to clue Miley, she said she was trying to clue me.

I looked behind me and Anton was about ten feet back, keying into his phone. “Excuse me, dude, can you please stop following me?”

“I’m not following you, I’m walking near you, there’s a difference.”

“Should I tell security that you’re…?”

“Oh give me a break,” he blurted. “Don’t you want to know what Casey was referencing?”

“Not really, Anton. I don’t know that she was referencing anything.”

“I just texted the numbers to LaQuisha. She’s typing them into a GPS program.”

“Let me guess. You think Bush was in on 9/11.”

His phone beeped. Please don’t be proof he’s right. Please don’t be proof he’s right. Please don’t be proof he’s right.

“So, Riley…do you think it’s just a coincidence that if you use the non-blurry locker numbers as GPS numbers – GPS for the whole world, mind you – they refer to a location right here in Kirksville?”

I steeled myself. “Under the school, I presume?”

“Nope.” Anton’s phone beeped again; he read the text to himself. “Oh, wow.” Now he walked up close enough so that he could whisper to me: “Would you like to know whose backyard Miley is buried in?” I said nothing, waited. He said, “Jessica Chabot’s.”

I felt like I’d just been thrown into a frozen lake. That really couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? I said, “What are you gonna do?”

“What do you think I’m gonna do, Riley? I’m going to follow Casey’s directions. I’m going to dig.”

“You’re going to dig on the property of a cop? Anton, you’re gonna get shot.”

“I need your help. Get her family away from the house for an hour tonight.”

“I don’t know her! I only know…”

“What?”

Oh why oh why did I say anything? “Well…I don’t know this for sure, but she’s supposed to be out at this party tonight.”

“Perfect.” Somehow that wasn’t the word I would have frakkin’ chosen.

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