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There was a bloop. Elizabeth, said the message.
Spencer blinked hard. This wasn’t possible.
The light in the kitchen in the main house snapped off, enveloping the backyard in darkness. A car slid down the cul-de-sac, schussing loudly over the wet pavement. Then Spencer began to hear noises. A sigh. A snort. A giggle. She jumped up and pressed her forehead to the cold, thick windowpane. The porch was bare. There were no shadows by the pool, the hot tub, or the deck. There was no one creeping around the windmill, although the newly painted word LIAR seemed to glow.
Her Sidekick buzzed. Spencer jumped, her heart hammering. She glanced at the computer again. Ian had signed off Instant Messenger.
One new text message. With shaking hands, Spencer pressed Read.
Dear Spence, When I told you that he had to go, I didn’t mean he had to die. Still, there’s something really sketchy in this case…and it’s up to you to figure out what it is. So better get searching, or the next one “gone” is you. Au revoir!—A
SOMETHING’S SKETCHY, INDEED
The following morning, Emily cinched the hood of her pale blue anorak tight and ran across the icy blacktop to the Rosewood Day Elementary School swings, her friends’ special meeting spot. For the first time all week, the long driveway was free of news vans. Since everyone now thought Emily and the others had made up seeing Ian’s body in the woods, the press had no reason to interview students.
Across the courtyard, Emily’s friends were gathered around Spencer, staring at a sheet of computer paper and her cell phone. Last night, Spencer had called Emily to tell her that Ian had IM’ed her and that A had sent a text. Afterward, Emily hadn’t been able to sleep a wink. So A was back. And Ian…maybe…wasn’t dead.
Something hard hit her shoulder, and Emily whirled around, her heart leaping to her throat. It was only an elementary-school boy pushing past her, running for the ball field. She placed one hand in the other, trying to stop it from trembling. Her hands had been shaking like crazy all morning.
“How could Ian have faked his death?” Emily blurted when she reached the circle. “We all saw him. He looked…blue.”
Hanna, bundled in a white wool coat and faux-fur scarf, raised her shoulders. The only color in her face was her red-rimmed eyes; it looked like she hadn’t slept much last night, either. Aria, wearing a thin, trendy-looking gray leather jacket and green fingerless gloves, shook her head, saying nothing. She wasn’t wearing her usual sparkly makeup. Even neat-as-a-pin Spencer looked disheveled—her hair was in a greasy, lumpy ponytail.
“It fits,” Spencer croaked. “Ian pretended to be dead, and he called us to the woods because he knew we’d go to the police and tell them we saw him.”
Aria sank down onto one of the swings. “But why wouldn’t Ian just run? Why would he put on a show for us?”
“When the cops found out he was missing, they started searching for him immediately,” Spencer explained. “But then when we saw his body, they turned their attention to the woods instead. We distracted them for a few days, long enough so Ian could really escape. We probably did exactly what he wanted us to.” She gazed up at the clouds, a helpless expression on her face.
Hanna sank onto her left hip. “What do you think A has to do with this? A lured us into the woods so we’d see Ian. A is obviously working with him.”
“This text makes it pretty obvious that Ian and A were in cahoots,” Spencer said, shoving her phone at them. Emily read the first two lines again. When I said he had to go, I didn’t mean he had to die. Still, there’s something really sketchy in this case…and it’s up to you to figure out what it is. She bit her lip hard, then gazed at the dragon-shaped slide behind them. Years ago, whenever something or someone at school scared her, she would hide inside the dragon’s head at the top until she felt better. She felt an overwhelming urge to do that now.
“It seems like A helped Ian bust out,” Spencer went on. “They worked together—when Ian met me on my back porch last week, A threatened that if I told the cops, I’d get hurt. If I would’ve told them, they would’ve rearrested Ian…and he couldn’t have escaped.”
“A was worried about any of us saying anything,” Emily piped up. “All of my notes said that if I didn’t tell A’s secret, A wouldn’t tell mine.”
Hanna looked at Emily, a curious smile on her lips. “This A knows some secrets about you?”
Emily shrugged. For a while, A was taunting Emily about how she’d kept her sexuality from Isaac. “Not anymore,” she said.
“What if Ian is A?” Aria suggested. “It still makes a lot of sense.”
Emily shook her head. “The texts weren’t from Ian. The cops checked his phone.”
“Just because the A notes weren’t coming from Ian’s phone doesn’t mean they weren’t coming from Ian,” Hanna reminded her. “He could have had someone else send them. Or he could have gotten a disposable cell or a phone in another name.”
Emily put her finger to her lips. She hadn’t thought of that.
“And all those tricks he pulled the night we allegedly saw his body are pretty easy if you know how to use a computer,” Hanna went on. “Ian probably figured out how to delay sending a text so that we’d get it the moment we saw what looked like his dead body. Remember how Mona sent herself an e-mail from A to throw us off? It’s probably not that hard.”
Spencer pointed at the piece of computer paper. It was a printout of the IM exchange between her and Ian. “Look at this,” she said, pointing to the lines that said, They hated me. They found out that I knew. That was why I had to run. “Ian signed off before I could ask who ‘they’ were. But what if this is much bigger than Ian planning an escape? What if Ian really did find out something huge about Ali’s murder? What if he thought that if he went on trial, explaining what he knew, he’d be killed? Faking his own death wouldn’t just get the cops off his back, it’d get whoever wanted to hurt him off his back too.”
Aria stopped swinging. “Do you think whoever was after Ian might come after us if we figure out too much?”
“That’s what it sounds like,” Spencer said. “But there’s something else.” She pointed to a few lines of text at the bottom of the computer printout. It was the IP address of where the Instant Messages were from. “It says Ian IM’ed us from somewhere in Rosewood.”
“Rosewood?” Aria shrieked. “You mean he’s still…here?”
Hanna’s face paled. “Why would Ian stay here? Why wouldn’t he skip town?”
“Maybe he’s not done searching for the truth,” Spencer suggested.
“Or maybe he’s not done with us…for turning him in,” Aria said.
Emily heard a whoop behind her and jumped. A crow was slowly circling the playground. When she turned back to her friends, their eyes were wide, and their jaws were tense.
“Aria’s right,” Hanna said, picking back up on the conversation. “If Ian’s alive, we don’t know what he’s up to. He still might be after us. And he still might be guilty.”
“I don’t know,” Spencer protested.
Emily faced Spencer, confused. “But you told the cops it was him! What about that memory you had of seeing Ian with Ali on the night she died?”
Spencer shoved her hands in her coat pockets. “I’m not sure if I really remember that…or if it was just what I wanted to believe.”
Emily’s stomach burned. What was true…and what wasn’t? She stared across the playground. A group of students were marching down the sidewalk into the sixth-grade wing. More students passed in front of the long line of classroom windows, walking to the coat closet. Emily had forgotten that sixth graders didn’t have proper lockers; they had to put their stuff in cubbies in that tiny coatroom. The coatroom used to get so stinky by midmorning, smelling like everyone’s bagged lunches.
“When Ian talked to me on my back porch, he told me that we had it wrong—he didn’t kill Ali,” Spencer went on. “He wouldn’t have hurt a hair on Ali’s head. He and Ali always flirted, but she was the one who escalated it to the next level. Ian thought for a while that she was doing it to make someone angry. At first I thought she meant me—because I kind of liked him. But Ian didn’t seem to buy that theory. And the night she died, he saw two blondes in the woods—one was Ali, one was someone else. At the time, I thought he meant me. But he said maybe it was someone else.”
Emily sighed, frustrated. “We’re going by Ian’s word again.”
“Yeah, Spence.” Hanna wrinkled her nose. “Ian killed Ali. Then he tricked us. We should go to Wilden with the IMs. Let him deal with it.”
Spencer snorted. “Wilden? He’s done a good job convincing all of Rosewood that we’re crazy. Even if by some miracle he does believe us, no one else on the police force would.”
“What about Ian’s parents?” Emily suggested. “They got a note from him too. They’d believe us.”
Spencer pointed to another line on the IM exchange. “Yeah, but what would that do? His parents would have yet more proof that Ian’s alive, but they might tell the cops that his IMs came from a computer in Rosewood. And then the cops would track him down and rearrest him.”
“Which would be a good thing,” Emily reminded her.
Spencer gave her a helpless look. “What if this is a test? Suppose we do tell the cops or his parents…and something happens to one of us? Or what if something happens to Melissa? Ian thought he was IMing her, after all.” Spencer rubbed her gloved hands together. “Melissa and I don’t get along, but I don’t want to put her in danger.”
Aria stepped off the swing, grabbed Spencer’s phone, and looked at A’s text. “This note says now it’s up to us to figure it out…or we’ll be next.”
“Meaning?” Emily stuck her boot into a patch of snow.
“We have to prove who Ali’s real killer is,” Aria answered matter-of-factly. “Or else.”
“Do you think the killer is the person—or people—in Ian’s IMs?” Spencer asked. “The people who hated him? The ones who found out he knew?”
“Who hated Ian?” Emily scratched her head. “Everyone at Rosewood adored him.”
Hanna snorted. “Guys, this is retarded. I don’t really feel like playing Veronica Mars.” She unzipped her bag, pulled out an iPhone from the inside pocket, and turned it on. “The best way to stay away from A is to do what I did: get a new phone and an unlisted number. Voilà, A can’t find us.” She started jabbing at the phone’s screen.
Emily exchanged a wary look with the others. “A has gotten in touch with us in other ways, Hanna.”
Hanna pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, still texting. “This A hasn’t.”