CONTORTION AND EXTORTION
The weather outside was kinda hot, so Mr. Studie had the lights off in his room. The place was still plenty lit by sun reflection, just more blue-gray in tone. Anton and Mr. Studie were the only people in his room. As I walked in, Anton almost leapt to his feet. “I…I knew you’d come.”
Not having to force my dryness, I said, “Is that why you’re so excited?” In my head, anyway, I wasn’t committing myself to more madness. I was thinking I could be done in five minutes and still have time to meet Kamran.
We both sat at the chairs near the computers. They had a copy of the yearbook, left out to some random page.
“So now,” I said to Mr. Studie, “Can you tell us why you couldn’t comment on that photo in your drawer before?” Anton looked at me, like he wanted to say “nice enthusiasm” or something.
“I think so,” said Mr. Studie. “I knew the photo was a fake.”
“How?” asked Anton.
“Because…Casey and I worked on it together.”
Anton’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets.
Well, if he wouldn’t speak, I would. “And you let Anton go to jail over it?” Anton looked almost as surprised to see me talking this way.
“Well,” said Mr. Studie, “My generation doesn’t follow the internet quite as closely as yours. I didn’t know Anton was in jail until I heard rumors this morning. When I learned why, I ran over there at lunch.”
I didn’t buy this. “But then why didn’t they arrest you?”
“I explained to them that the photo was never meant to be real. It’s not like photo-shopping is illegal. That’s why Casey took pains for it not to appear online.”
Anton asked, “But…you knew they had arrested Kamran and Scott over it?”
Mr. Studie paused. “Well, let’s just say that information also took a long time to reach me.” Meaning that he knew but stayed out of it, but he couldn’t admit that to us. Got it.
“I’m still confused.” I hated saying a millennial cliché like that, especially when it was true. “Why didn’t you tell us that the photo was fake during your inquisition?”
“Is that what that was?” Mr. Studie laughed. “Well, I didn’t trust LaQuisha. Thus, at that time, the fake photo might still have served its purpose.”
“Which was what?” I asked.
“Put simply, bait. To make them think we had more evidence than we did.”
“Didn’t work out too well, did it?” I asked.
His tone became somber. “No, it certainly didn’t.”
Anton asked, “Why didn’t we find evidence of your photo-shop work in the computers?”
“Well…I’m not sure you didn’t. Casey deleted the source files and the final image because we were afraid that a proper cyber-investigator would connect the cutting and pasting, but…I don’t think we reckoned with LaQuisha’s skills.”
Anton said, “She said she couldn’t see what had been deleted.”
Mr. Studie said, “I agree with the skepticism implied by your intonation. Why weren’t you more skeptical of her before?”
“I…I’ve been asking myself the same question.”
“How did you meet her?” I asked.
“Honestly, she was recommended on gamer boards as the best hacker in town.” No way was I gonna ask what the hell ‘gamer boards’ were. “I checked her out…and she had posted to Miley’s site! She had even been cyber-bullied by Scott!”
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” I mumbled.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mr. Studie. “Are you sure that was her?”
“Yeah, I mean, no,” replied Anton, “Now I can’t really be sure of anything. Well, except how much money I paid her. Uh, my parents paid her.”
Mr. Studie said, “Do you know if they might have missed their last payment?”
Anton rubbed his face. “I didn’t think to ask.”
“Just wondering if she switched sides because of pique, or a better offer. Probably the latter.”
I said, “I never liked her.”
Anton said, “That’s because she isn’t popular.”
Mr. Studie said, “No, I think Riley may have a point. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was with the bad guys from the beginning.”
Anton said, “That doesn’t make sense. She uncovered things that helped us find Miley.”
“Did she?” asked Mr. Studie. “Or did she just uncover things that she knew you’d find anyway?”
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” I asked.
“I honestly wasn’t sure,” said Mr. Studie. “Believe me, if I knew, I wouldn’t have let her touch all my yearbook files.”
“Where were you all this time, Mr. Studie?” asked Anton.
“Test prep. My finals take time to prepare, and I work better by myself. You were here, so I worked at home.”
I asked, “Did you ever really think that Casey left clues in the yearbook?”
“I certainly thought it was possible, but I didn’t think I’d be of much help. However, after someone framed one of you and nearly killed the other, I realized that I needed to step in.”
Anton asked, “Was Casey murdered because of this faked photo?”
“I don’t know. Possibly.”
I looked at the clock and said, “This means she didn’t really have all the evidence. Which means we’re never gonna get it either.”
Mr. Studie said, “She may have acted on a few hunches in the last few weeks, hunches that might have paid off. I do know that she really wanted to expose them in the yearbook if she could.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You haven’t yet realized that Casey had that goal for two years? Of course it should be admitted that part of her goal was public humiliation for whoever killed Miley. But her overarching goal was a warning to current and future cyber-bullies. And…well, it’s not too late for Kamran’s and Jessica’s universities to rescind their acceptance letters. Which they would do, if criminality were proved.”
“You think we can still solve this?” said Anton.
“I hope so.”
“Just for the record,” asked Anton, “You’re not holding back the answer as some kind of Socratic exercise, are you?”
“I wish I were. I only knew about the photo. When I asked Casey about the trophy she was putting in it, she was evasive. I never knew which specific trophy it was. And I knew nothing about where Miley was buried.”
Anton asked, “Why do you think she didn’t tell you?”
“Oh, that I know. As a teacher, I could not have held onto that information. A doctored photo is one thing, we’ve got those all over the yearbook. Potential evidence in a capital crime is something else. If I valued my job, and I do, I would have had to take that straight to the principal and to the police. And, well, I now believe Casey wasn’t ready for that. She knew that if she didn’t have an airtight case, the revelation of any one piece could lead to…well, lead to something like you being arrested.”
Anton looked at the wall. “Yeah. Now, why do you think she didn’t tell me?”
“That might have been a mistake,” said Mr. Studie, and he put his hand on Anton’s shoulder. “Maybe she was afraid you’d think she was crazy, pursuing this two-year obsession. Maybe she was afraid you’d accuse her of loving Miley more than she loved you.”
“Afraid…of what I would think?” he said, and I almost gasped to see tears in his eyes. He hadn’t cried at Casey’s service.
“Yes, Anton. She knew she had a very special guy, and I’m sure she didn’t want to lose him.”
For a second, I thought these two were gonna hug. Then I looked up at the clock. Frakkin’ crap in a hat.
I said, “Hey, uh, this is real moving and all, but I have to go.”
Mr. Studie said, “Where are you going?”
“I have a, uh, date.”
Anton’s lip curled. He said, “Are you plying Kamran for information? Do you have anything new for us?”
“Well, no and no.”
Anton said, “You’re seriously dating your sister’s murderer? What just happened to you and your mom yesterday? You really think he’s safe?”
“I thought this was America, where you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Anton fumed, “Oh it’s America all right, where cute girls will believe whatever they want about guys they like.” Wait, what?
Mr. Studie said, “Enough. If you want to go, Riley, go.”
I said, “I mean, what are we doing here? You don’t need me.”
Anton said, “Casey thought we did.”
I looked at the clock. I would now have to run to Starbucks. What would I say if Kamran asked why I was out of breath? I said to Anton, “So we’re gonna just sit around again, hoping for clues?”
Anton said, “Well, when you put it that way…”
I interrupted, “Yeah, exactly.”
Anton said, “We can’t be sure LaQuisha was honest. We have to check over everything she checked.”
I replied, “Wow, that sounds like a lot more fun than a date.”
Anton said, “If Kamran really loved you, he wouldn’t ask this of you.”
I said, “What about what you ask of me?”
Mr. Studie said, “Riley, if you have to go, go.”
I said, “This isn’t gonna affect my English grade, is it?”
Mr. Studie chuckled. “No, it won’t.”
I opened the door and looked back, like at the police station. Oh, why did I look back? Anton had just dialed a number on his phone. “Mrs. Tyler?” he said. “Hi, it’s Anton. Yes, your daughter is here. Do you want to speak to her?”
I was almost out the door, but I had to go back. I gave Anton my laser eyes of death as I took his phone from him.
“Mom, how are you?”
“I’m fine, sweetheart, how are you?”
“Fine, really. Did Father O’Brien tell you I was fine?”
“He did. Where are you?”
“Uh, I’m at Mr. Studie’s room.”
“Oh good. Did you figure out who cut the brakes yet?”
“Uh, not exactly. Uh, Mom, have you been on ihatebullies.com today?”
“Oh, when I woke up this morning I texted Leslie the password. I trust her to keep up the site. She’s doing great so far.” Okay, weird.
“Hey Mom, this will sound awful but this is a really bad time. I have to go.”
“What’s your hurry?”
“Just…trust me, Mom.”
“One last thing before you go. Can you promise me that you’ll keep working as hard as you can to find Miley’s killers?” You gotta be kidding me. Had Anton called her before this?
“Isn’t that obvious, Mom? Do I have to promise?”
“They tried to intimidate us, with that attack on my car. If we back down now, if we just let the police handle it, then we look like we can be intimidated. We let the bullies win. Are we gonna let the bullies win, Riley?”
I looked at Anton and Mr. Studie. I could see they could hear every word. How the frak could I turn down the volume on Anton’s stupid phone? “No, Mom.”
“So you promise?”
“I love you, Riley.”
“I love you.” I hung up and slammed Anton’s phone on the floor. “I hate you!”
“Hey, we might need that phone,” Anton said, retrieving it. “Ehh, I think it’s undamaged.”
Mr. Studie played around with the mouse on one of the computers. “Here, guys, let’s take a look at the photo-shop records. You can see which images were matched with which other ones.”
“Yeah, good,” said Anton, sitting at that computer.
I sat at the other computer and brought up facebook. Kamran was online. He IM’d me almost immediately: “where r u?”
“Hey, Riley,” said Anton. “We’re not doing facebook and twitter right now.”
“I’m looking for clues.”
“Like what, for example?”
What could I use to deflect him? Perhaps…there was something that had been, like, nagging at me during our whole conversation. “Casey thought that Kamran and Scott would think the faked photo was real, right?” They both looked at me blankly. “Ah, never mind, that’s not a clue.”
Anton gasped like a punctured basketball. “Yeah, it is, Riley.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They were afraid that someone took their photo in the Pine Barrens. I mean really afraid, like they were ready to kill over it.”
The blinking cursor that came after Kamran’s IM was just waiting there for me, like it was tapping its foot. What was worse, replying or not replying?
“Where are you going with this?” I said to Anton.
“Casey suspected it, but her murder confirmed it. Kamran and Scott had good reason to think someone had taken their picture as they were attacking your sister.”
“If they heard a click in the woods,” I asked, “Wouldn’t they have run to investigate it?”
Anton said, “There’s a reason Casey didn’t include Miley herself in the picture. It’s because the supposed picture was taken by Miley.”
Mr. Studie said, “Anton, if they saw her getting out her phone, wouldn’t they have grabbed it, and of course destroyed it, and not worried about any stray pictures from it?”
“Not if she threw it into the bushes near the clearing,” I said.
“Wouldn’t they have gone to look for it?” asked Mr. Studie.
“What if they had to go?” asked Anton. “Maybe they killed her there, and heard a siren or something, and quickly moved her and drove away, hoping no one would ever find the phone?”
“This is requiring quite a bit of logical contortion,” said Mr. Studie.
“If you think that, maybe that’s why Casey never shared this theory with you. But I bet she thought of it. Because she wasn’t only photo-shopping to scare Kamran, Scott, and Jessica. She was photo-shopping to divide and conquer.”
“Divide and conquer between…which of the three of them?” I asked.
“Them and…someone else. Someone they don’t trust. Riley, didn’t you tell me that your mother made Miley video-record her walks through Pine Barrens?”
“If you found that phone, and went home and played the video, what would you do?”
“Tell the police,” I said.
“Or…if you were less scrupulous?”
“Extortion,” Mr. Studie said in a low voice.
“Someone found the video, and the price of their silence has probably been money from Kamran, Scott, and probably Jessica. When Casey gave them that fake photo, she was hoping that one of them would panic, and reveal their extortionist.”
“But they didn’t,” I said.
Anton said, “And it had to be pretty good money too, to combat your Mom’s offer of $50,000.”
“A conspirator with only financial interest,” said Mr. Studie.
“Too far-fetched?” asked Anton.
“No,” said Mr. Studie. “I just can’t believe I didn’t think of it.” Anton grinned sheepishly. “But…it could be anyone, of any age.”
“Well, it could be,” I said. “But let’s face it, who walks through the Pine Barrens for fun?”
Anton answered, “Drug dealers? Gang members?”
“Yes, but also people without cars who live in my neighborhood. Especially high school students.” They just looked at me. “I’m just saying, let’s start with people in the yearbook. Isn’t that what you two want to do anyway?” As they scrambled, I checked facebook again. No Kamran online anymore. What was he thinking now?
Oh my google, so there we were for another hour in Mr. Studie’s dark, lame room. The yearbook could have been said to single out everyone and no one. There were little casual photos of random students sprinkled everywhere. We didn’t know all their names. Mr. Studie mentioned an app that uses facial-recognition technology, but it sounded like the whole process could take days.
Anton sensed the problem. He said, “I’m going back to the photo-shopping. There was at least one source file that was erased weeks ago. If I’m doing this right, it says it was called ‘bank balances.’ Do you know why, Mr. Studie?”
“Oh yes, I remember that. Casey wanted to use the images of online bank balances in some design. I told her that wasn’t appropriate.”
“But did she do it anyway?”
“Yes, sort of.”
They flipped to page 162 of my yearbook. There we saw the page that I told you I avoided, the one dedicated to where people were going to college. It was in alphabetical order by university; so like, University of Alabama was in the top left with one kid’s name under it. But there were these weird faded images in the background, actually hard to see, that looked like little snippets of bank statements. It’s the kind of thing you’d never really notice if you weren’t looking for it. There were three of these images, and they had something in common: “($500)”.
I said, “Is Casey trying to draw our attention to 500 dollars?”
Mr. Studie said, “Actually, negative 500 dollars. The parentheses refer to bank withdrawals of 500 dollars in cash from ATMs.”
Anton said, “They look like three different withdrawals, because the details around them are different.”
I said, “You mean, three different times someone took out 500 dollars?”
He answered, “Actually, I’d guess three different bank accounts, because the fonts are slightly different. Mr. Studie, do you have the source file? On your external hard drive?”
“I should. Hold on.” As he went to his desk and unlocked his drawer, I refreshed my facebook page.
In the last five minutes, Kamran had left three comments on my wall. The first said: “You must remember this: she kisses like a dead fish.” My heart stopped like an unplugged clock. Five people that weren’t my friends had already “liked” his comment. The next one said “She has all the beauty of a leading movie star: the one from Ratatouille.” Three likes. How did he get non-friends to register approval? Okay, fine, by now I knew: with hacking. Third and finally: “Getting her off of me was like removing a jellyfish from my leg, only she was slimier and more desperate.” Four likes.
At first, I was too stunned to even remove them. I wanted to scream, or cry, or puke. I wanted to scream and cry and puke. Somehow this was still Miley’s fault. If she hadn’t antagonized them, I could have had my beautiful boyfriend, and none of this would have happened. Damn you Miley.
Damn me for still saying “damn you” now that I knew she was dead.
Oh my sweet sweet google. A few days of these comments, and I’d be going straight to the bottom of the social food chain. I’d be begging Anton to hang out with me just to make me look cooler. Gahhh.
Anton looked over at my facebook wall. He said, “I hate to say I…”
“Then don’t say it, Anton!” I kinda shrieked. “Just shut up.”
Mr. Studie came over with his external drive and said, “Riley, you know what you have to do.”
“Yes,” I said through some rather clenched teeth. As Mr. Studie watched, I made and saved a screen capture. Then I removed Kamran’s comments.
I looked at my phone at an incoming text from Hayley: “Check fb, sth is weird” Yeah, I knew.
Anton asked, “Is that from Kamran?”
“No, smart guy,” I said.
“You know, you should still…”
“I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW!” Okay, yes, I over-reacted. My hands were shaking. I clicked over to facebook settings and…
…I de-friended Kamran. I know it sounds like nothing, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Mr. Studie said, “Riley, do you have a thumb drive with you?”
I said very quietly, “No.”
Mr. Studie plugged his external into the computer I was using and said, “You’ll want to save that screen capture pdf here.”
I said, “Okay.”
Mr. Studie continued, “We may need it as evidence of Kamran’s ongoing cyber-bullying.”
“I’ll do it,” said Anton. “I want to look at these bank records.” After he saved my file, he opened a file from Mr. Studie’s external drive that said “bank balances.” In there, he saw pdfs of bank statements.
“Seems like such amateur hour,” I said. “I mean, like, since Miley disappeared, he’s been using fake names and anonymous comments. Why would he be so obvious?”
Suddenly, the bank balance sheets popped off of the screen. “Oh shit,” Anton said. He went back to the screen that shows the contents of the external drive. Files were disappearing one by one. He yanked the drive’s cord out of the USB port of the computer.
“What happened?” I asked.
“LaQuisha happened,” said Anton. “She just destroyed the evidence. And now she’s…shit…” More files were disappearing from the main hard drives of the computers. Anton quickly turned off both computers.
“What is going on?” I asked.
Anton hopped up and paced nervously. He shouted, “This is your fault, Riley!”
Oh, was I ready to murder him. “Forster, you just threw away your senior year. I’m going to tell everyone that…”
“Kamran saw that you weren’t with him anymore, and he went to Defcon-1. He called LaQuisha. He took a chance that if he made some stupid comments on your facebook wall, we would plug in the external that had the evidence. Once the external was plugged into an online machine, LaQuisha could liquidate it.”
He looked at me with a look that said, “Well, what do you have to say?”
I looked at him with a look that said, “Okay, fine, nothing.”
Mr. Studie said, “I’m surprised she didn’t do it when she had the chance, last week.”
“I’ll guess that she goes wherever the money is,” said Anton with a sigh in his voice. “Like you suggested, she probably got a great offer from Kamran, Scott, and Jessica once she told them about the bank records.”
I said quietly, “How can you be so sure it’s them?”
He said, “It was their parents’ bank statements. I saw all of their names. I can’t prove it now, but I know it.”
I was still skeptical. “How did Casey ever get those statements in the first place?”
“Maybe LaQuisha,” suggested Mr. Studie. “She seems like she knows what she’s doing.”
I said, “The evidence of their statements must exist somewhere else. Like in their parents’ actual computers.”
Anton said, “Don’t be so sure. You know how Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in the movie says that the internet is written in ink, not pencil?”
I said, “I guess.”
Anton continued, “I’m thinking Casey knew that wasn’t always true. She knew about LaQuisha, or at least hackers like her. She knew that the only thing written in ink was right here.” He tapped on my yearbook.
Mr. Studie said, “I don’t know that we ever had evidence of much. Okay, so Kamran, Scott, and Jessica’s parents all once withdrew the maximum allowable amount from their ATMs. What does that prove?”
Anton said, “It wasn’t just once. I just saw. It was every month, right around the first of the month. They had to be making withdrawals to pay off someone.”
Mr. Studie said, “How can you prove that? Even if you’re right, they used cash so that the payments couldn’t be traced. Looks like it worked.”
Anton said, “This explains why Casey was acting so strangely around the first of the month! For three months in a row! I just assumed it was…well…”
They both looked at me. “Moving on,” I said.
Anton sat down and slumped in his chair. His tone was full of wonder, a person realizing as he was speaking. “She stalked them. I know her. Once she knew the pattern, she started stalking. That’s why this took so long. I can picture her now. She would have followed them home, right after the day she got her driver’s license. On her 18th birthday, in February.”
“Followed who?” I asked stupidly.
“The parents. After they made their withdrawals. I can totally imagine it now. They go to the bank, they go home. Casey watches. All night, she stays in her car, in case someone comes to the house. In the morning, she follows Kamran or Jessica to school.”
“Dude,” I said. “If you’re going to fantasize about your girlfriend, this seems like…”
Anton interrupted, “She got in trouble for crashing classes, lingering in the halls, and I never knew why!”
“Crashing classes?” I asked.
“They had to be bringing the cash to the extortionist.”
Mr. Studie said, “I like your creativity, Anton, but this scenario may be too outlandish.”
“You think she took pictures?” I asked Anton. “Perhaps in the halls.”
“Let’s find out,” said Anton.
We each took out a yearbook and started examining the photos.
Anton caught his breath. “Oh my God, why didn’t I think of this sooner? We have to call the Campbells.” Anton dialed on his phone. “Mrs. Campbell, you have to do something for me. Turn off Casey’s computer right now. Because…oh, I see. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We only just realized it just now. Yes, it’s a cyber-attack. Yes, go ahead and call the police. Again I’m sorry. Bye.” Anton said to us, “LaQuisha has erased all of Casey’s files. They’re gone.”
I said, “But she had printouts of a lot of those photos.”
Anton said, “Yeah. We’ll go back there if necessary. I really think she left us the entire trail in the yearbook.”
We looked through every single casual photo, first the ones with Kamran or Jessica, then the ones with their friends, then every other one. Nothing, not a single photo, showed cash changing hands. We were staying later than ever – and we were as far from the answer as ever. And now I actually cared – at least for Mom’s sake.
Mr. Studie got a call from Detective Powell, who now introduced himself as the special investigator on cyber crimes. Mr. Studie told him to feel free to come right away.
As Mr. Studie hung up, Anton said, “He won’t find anything. LaQuisha will have covered her tracks.”
Mr. Studie says, “Doesn’t hurt to try.”
Anton said, “No, but it can be frustrating. Like with these photos. We’ve got nothing, do we?” He looked at me.
“Maybe Casey never quite caught them in the act,” I said. “Or maybe she couldn’t afford to let someone see her taking a photo. Even with her phone.”
Anton opened a yearbook again. “She would not have just left this clue here like this! She had to have more to say, somewhere! She was more organized than this!” Anton had post-it-noted a few pages. I checked through them casually until I came to one that he’d marked: the university announcements page.
I said, “She wasn’t always so organized. Look, it’s like she was gonna do the universities in alphabetical order, and then she gave up.”
Anton’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute.”
Like I told you, the columns consisted of students names under their university of choice, in alphabetical order by university. But the middle column was weird, as I told you before. It broke from the alphabet – stopping after the ten names under University of Missouri – and then listed four other universities, in this order: Virginia (Alex Cooper), Emory (Dana Jefferson), Rice (Sydney Greene), and finally, the only senior going to an Ivy League school, Yale (Anna Nomura). Then it went to Missouri State and the eleven names under there.
Mr. Studie said, “Anton, are you saying you suspect one of these kids?”
“It’s just something that’s been nagging at me. At first I thought Casey separated these schools because they’re maybe the four best schools anyone got into. But I also noticed this pattern of first letters: V, E, R, Y. ‘Very.’ Could that somehow refer to something?”
“Very?” I asked. “Very psychotic?”
Mr. Studie said, “Very Anna Nomura? The valedictorian?”
“Maybe not her,” said Anton, “But someone.”
“Anton,” I said, “You’re just gonna keep accusing people until something sticks, aren’t you?”
“Riley, you’re supposed to be helping us.”
“I have!” I said.
“I mean, more. What about private jokes between you and Miley?”
“I told you, that could be anything!”
“Yeah, but…related to a specific student.”
“We didn’t talk about students!”
“You didn’t talk about your friends?”
“Don’t go accusing my friends!”
“Something on this page…you can’t relate it to anything she ever said?”
That’s when it hit me like walking into a sauna. “My friends…Hayley, Susie, Leslie, and Veronica.”
Anton said, “Those names don’t match up to these, do they?”
“Will you let me finish? I totally forgot about this but…once, in 8th grade, Miley saw my four friends and me together and remarked that we all had names that ended in the ‘ee’ sound.”
“Sounds like something she’d say,” said Anton.
“But it wasn’t true. Veronica said she never had a nickname and she hated ‘Ronnie’ for sounding like a boy. So…for a couple of weeks, my sister called her ‘Very.’ Maybe even once in front of Casey.”
Their eyes became as wide as dinner plates.
“Miley tried to convince Veronica that it was a cool idea, to be called ‘Very.’ But Veronica wasn’t into it. That was…well, uh, right before Miley went missing. It didn’t seem like anything.”
Anton grabbed my hand. That felt…not awful. “It might be everything.”
YOU KNOW I WILL
I know, we’ve been in Mr. Studie’s room for three chapters already. Believe me, actually being there felt even longer.
At this point my mind began to race like Danica Patrick on steroids. “If it is Veronica it…would explain a lot. She has expensive designer clothes that I always hoped were knock-offs. She has fake boobs…now I’m sure of it. And she showed me her new iPad yesterday.”
Anton said, “Have you ever seen her with Kamran or Jessica?”
“She’s my year. A sophomore.”
He said, “Is that a no?”
“Anton, can you let me finish for once?” I felt like an always-unlit corner of my house was seeing sunbeams. “She…well…she was never with the cool kids when we were in middle school. But just as freshman year started, the fall after Miley went missing, she suddenly showed up in school in all these nice clothes and, well, she could hang out with Kamran and Jessica whenever she wanted. It was…well, actually, it was the main reason I became closer to her.”
Anton said, “So that’s why Casey wanted your help.”
Mr. Studie said, “You were working to find your sister, and you didn’t even know it.”
“Just wait a minute,” I said. “I still don’t know about Kamran and Scott and Jessica. This is all totally circumstantial. And if we ask Veronica, what do you think she’s gonna say? Yes, I have Miley’s phone with the video you want? No way!”
Anton asked, “What’s her last name?”
“Greene,” said Mr. Studie. “She’s in my class with Riley.”
Anton flipped to her in the yearbook. His brow furrowed like he was studying the Rosetta Stone. Uh, if that’s a thing. Maybe some of the posters in Mr. Studie’s room were rubbing off on me.
I tried to say lightly, “See, she’s not even pretty…that’s why I should have been suspicious.”
He said, “You don’t think she’s pretty?”
I said, “Do you?”
He said, “Why do you care who I think is pretty?”
I retorted, “I don’t!”
Mr. Studie said, “All right, all right. Her distinguishing feature is that she always wears an eggshell-shaped locket.”
I muttered, “You teachers notice things like that? Creepy.”
Mr. Studie said, “She has several different kinds – white, green, red – but she’s always wearing a large brooch. Riley, did she do that in middle school?”
“Uh, not really, I don’t think so.”
Anton was flipping yearbook pages. “I thought I saw a picture of her in the honor society.”
Anyone, of any year, could get into the honor society just by having a 3.5 GPA or better. Unlike some clubs, you didn’t have to show up to regular meetings. There was one and only one meeting all year, to take the yearbook picture. As Anton turned to the page, we looked at the group photo, which appeared to have at least a hundred people in it. I guess all these people were hoping to put this in their stupid college applications. The problem was that every head was so small, you could barely identify who was who.
Anton said, “Here she is, there. I can tell by the locket.”
I said, “That’s not her.”
Anton furrowed his brow. “Who is it?”
I said, “I think…it’s me.”
WHAT? was a decent description of what they looked like.
“There’s something I was going to tell you. I hadn’t gotten around to it. Casey photo-shopped me into another photo.”
Anton splurted, “What? Where? Why didn’t you…when were you gonna tell me?!?!”
I said, “You didn’t tell us about Casey in the debate photo. You and I have had trust issues. And if you don’t want them to come back, stay calm.” Anton looked like a dog after you hit the dog with a newspaper.
I opened to the page showing the JV girls’ softball team. I said, “Check this out. 28 girls, but only 27 names on the bottom. Mine is missing.”
Mr. Studie said, “That’s not such a crazy thing. We get these photos turned in by these clubs, and they fail to give us the proper names.”
Anton said to me, “You’re saying it names every person but you.”
I said, “I assume so. I don’t know these girls. I wasn’t on this team.”
Anton asked, “Were you in the honor society?”
Anton went back to the honor society page and took about five minutes to count every head and every name. He said, “109 heads, 108 names. None yours.”
I said, “What can I say? I’m not into extracurricular activities. This frakkin’ week here at Mr. Studie’s is the most time I’ve spent under this roof after school.”
Anton flipped around the pages. “Are these the same photo of you? And the same as your official photo for the yearbook?”
I looked carefully. “It’s hard to tell because…”
He said, “…because you have the same beautiful smile in every picture.”
Anton coughed. “They’re all the same photo of Riley. But the photo of the JV girls’ softball team is before the honor society. Why was that, Mr. Studie?”
Mr. Studie said, “No real reason. The page order of the clubs pretty much falls to the editor to decide.”
Anton said, “In other words, for the astute investigator, Casey is showing that Veronica’s locket needs to go onto Riley’s neck.”
“Her locket? Why?”
“The evidence is there,” said Anton. “The solution. The end of all this.”
“Anton, we’ve seen her locket and you haven’t,” I said. “It couldn’t fit my sister’s whole phone.”
“That phone is long gone, destroyed. Veronica couldn’t let that sit around, or the cops would trace it and find it. Lucky for her, a person isn’t declared missing for 24 hours. That gave her plenty of time to pull it out of the bushes, copy the proper video file to her computer, and destroy Miley’s phone. Inside that locket is a thumb drive with the video.”
You see what I mean by giving someone enough rope? I said, “How much would you bet?”
Anton said with a smile, “A million billion dollars.”
Mr. Studie said, “Your theories are getting far-fetched again.”
Anton said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Mr. Studie, “Besides your reliance on circumstantial evidence and tremendous leaps of logic, why would Veronica need to keep the video hanging around her neck? Why not on her computer at home or on her phone?”
“You need to ask? After what LaQuisha just did? Any files on anything online – including your phone – are not safe. Actually, I bet Veronica does have a copy on an external at her house – and if she’s smart, she only plugs that thing into her computer when she’s offline. But still, that’s not enough protection. We’re talking about the difference, for her, between a gravy train of cash and eating gravy for dinner. They could come to her house while she’s not there and take all the files. But it’s harder to take it off of her.”
“You think so?” I said. “Why wouldn’t they have just grabbed it off of her? How hard is that?”
Anton said, “You can’t…steal from a 15-year-old girl in a crowd, in broad daylight.”
“I’ve seen her at their parties.” Okay, fine, I’d been to all of one.
“I bet she keeps her back close to the wall. Again, if she screams rape, or whatever, that becomes a problem. I see the whole thing now. She had so much less to lose than them. If caught, she’d probably spend all of one night in juvie, her freedom guaranteed by the D.A. who would need her testimony against much more serious offenders.”
I asked, “But she’d lose her regular 1500 dollars a month?”
“She’d manage. If she’s using it for clothes and iPads, then it’s not like her family is paying down the mortgage with it. I mean, sure, no one wants to throw away fifteen bills a month, but it’s not a matter of life and death for her.”
The room got quiet. Mr. Studie’s eyes had become glassy, almost like they were covered in milk.
Anton went, “If the thumb drive was the key to everything…that also explains why Casey didn’t just name the killers online or in the yearbook. I never thought the defamation-of-character fear was enough…but Casey did have reason to worry that if she made some public accusation, Veronica would just destroy the evidence. This is why Casey had to be so cryptic…or just get the stupid locket herself.”
I smirked, “Stupid, eh?”
Anton looked at me. “How do we get the locket?”
Mr. Studie said, “Anton, you’re crossing into a dangerous area here. Even if I thought your speculations led to irrevocable conclusions – and I don’t – we’re going past the point where I can help you.”
A knock on the door scared all of us. Mr. Studie walked over to it. A man in a terrible-looking corduroy blazer offered his hand to Mr. Studie.
“Hello, I’m Detective Zack Powell.”
“Daniel Studie,” Mr. Studie said, shaking his hand. “Pleasure to meet you. Come on in.” He did.
Mr. Studie said, “This is…”
“We’ve met,” the detective said. “Hello Riley, Anton.”
“Hi,” we both said, competing to see who could say it with less intonation.
The detective said, “Can I look at these machines, then?”
“Go right ahead.”
Anton said, “Detective, do you need to talk to me? Or, uh, Riley?”
“No,” he said flatly, turning on the computers.
“We were thinking of taking a little walk.” We were?
“Have a nice time,” the cop said.
As we went to the door, Mr. Studie gave us one of his inscrutable looks. Meh, he couldn’t get away with that anymore. I knew him now.
Anton and I wandered into the deserted hallway. He held a yearbook and flipped through it.
“What are you doing?”
“Just looking for other ‘Very’s. I want to go back over this thing tonight, really study it, check over some of my assumptions.”
I took a few steps from Mr. Studie’s. “Don’t you have make-ups tomorrow? For the day you missed while you were in jail?”
“Why are we out in the hall?”
He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “If we talk to the police now, there’s a good chance that Veronica just destroys everything. And we’ve done enough for today. I think we both should head home.”
Music to my ears. I turned toward the big front doors.
“Riley?” I stopped and turned to him. “Let’s assume that tomorrow morning I still think it’s your friend Veronica. What’s the best way to get her locket?”
I took a few steps down the hallway, toward the big entrance doors which I wanted to run out of. “You assume I’m going to help you with this?”
He followed me. “I’m counting on it. You’re Veronica’s friend. I mean, this was what Casey meant.”
“Can you think of a time when the locket would be unguarded? Maybe you two could shower together, and you get out first and grab it?”
I frowned. “That doesn’t sound like what Casey meant.”
“I’m open to a better idea.”
“Anton, this is…a lot to take in. I need to go visit Mom in the hospital, I need to think about things. Can we talk tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is the last day of school.”
“Yeah, like any student here doesn’t know that.”
“Tomorrow is our last chance. How many classes do you have with her?”
“Just the one, just Mr. Studie’s first period.”
“Then we need a plan tonight.”
I walked to the exit. Without turning around I said, “You’re gonna come up with something?”
“You know I will.” I caught the smile in his voice. “But…if I need your help…answer my text.”
I looked over my shoulder. “You know I will.”