Page 3

 Sara Shepard

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Spencer whirled around and stared at her. “What?” Sure, the last half hour had been crazed, but Hanna should have said something.
Emily gaped at Hanna too. “Did you see who it was?”
Hanna gulped loudly. “Whoever it was had a hood on. I think it was a guy, but I guess I don’t know. Maybe he dragged Ian’s body somewhere else.”
“Maybe it was A,” Spencer said, her heart thudding in her chest. She reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out her Sidekick, and showed A’s menacing text to Wilden. He had to go.
Wilden glanced at Spencer’s phone, then handed it back to her. His mouth was taut. “I don’t know how many ways I have to say this. Mona is dead. This A is a copycat. Ian escaping is hardly a secret—the whole country knows about it.”
Spencer exchanged an uneasy glance with the others. This past fall, Mona Vanderwaal, a classmate and Hanna’s best friend, had sent the girls twisted, torturous messages signed A. Mona had ruined their lives in countless ways, and she’d even plotted to kill them, hitting Hanna with her SUV and almost pushing Spencer off the cliff at Floating Man Quarry. After Mona slipped off the cliff herself, they thought they were safe…but last week they began receiving sinister messages from a new A. Originally, they thought the A notes were from Ian, as they’d started getting them only after he’d been released from prison on temporary bail. But Wilden was skeptical. He kept telling them that was impossible—Ian didn’t have access to a cell phone, nor could he have freely skulked around while under house arrest, watching the girls’ every move.
“A is real,” Emily protested, shaking her head desperately. “What if A is Ian’s killer? And what if A dragged Ian away?”
“Maybe A is Ali’s killer too,” Hanna added, still holding the candlestick tightly.
Wilden licked his lips, looking unsettled. Big flakes of snow were landing on the top of his head, but he didn’t wipe them away. “Girls, you’re getting hysterical. Ian is Ali’s killer. You of all people should know that. We arrested him on the evidence you gave us.”
“What if Ian was framed?” Spencer pressed. “What if A killed Ali and Ian found out?” And what if that’s something the cops are covering up? she almost added. It was a theory Ian had suggested.
Wilden traced his fingers around the Rosewood PD badge embroidered on his coat. “Did Ian feed you that load of crap during his visit to your porch on Thursday, Spencer?”
Spencer’s stomach dropped. “How did you know?”
Wilden glared at her. “I just got a phone call from the station. We got a tip. Someone saw you two talking.”
“It was anonymous.”
Spencer felt dizzy. She looked at her friends—she’d told them and only them that she and Ian had secretly met-but they looked clueless and shocked. There was only one other person who knew she and Ian had met. A.
“Why didn’t you come to us as soon as it happened?” Wilden leaned closer to Spencer. His breath smelled like coffee. “We would’ve dragged Ian back to jail. He never would’ve escaped.”
“A threatened me,” Spencer protested. She searched through her phone’s inbox and showed Wilden that note from A, too. If poor little Miss Not-So-Perfect suddenly vanished, would anyone even care?
Wilden rocked back and forth on his heels. He stared hard at the ground where Ian had been not an hour ago and sighed. “Look, I’ll go back to the house and get a team together. But you can’t blame everything on A.”
Spencer glanced at the walkie on his hip. “Why don’t you radio them from here?” she pressured. “You can have them meet you in the woods and start looking right now.”
An uncomfortable look came over Wilden’s face, as if he hadn’t anticipated this question. “Just let me do my job, girls. We have to follow…procedure.”
“Procedure?” Emily echoed.
“Oh my God,” Aria breathed. “He doesn’t believe us.”
“I believe you, I believe you.” Wilden ducked around a few low-hanging branches. “But the best thing you girls can do is go home and get some rest. I’ll handle this from here.”
The wind gusted, fluttering the ends of the gray wool scarf Spencer had looped around her neck before running out here. A sliver of moon peeked out from the fog. In seconds, none of them could see Wilden’s flashlight anymore. Was it just Spencer’s imagination, or had he seemed eager to get away from them? Was he just worried about Ian’s body being somewhere in the woods…or was it because of something else?
She turned and stared hard at the empty ravine, willing Ian’s body to return from wherever it had gone. She’d never forget how one eye bugged open, and the other seemed glued shut. His neck was twisted at an unnatural angle. And he’d still been wearing his platinum Rosewood Day class ring on his right hand, its blue stone glinting in the moonlight.
The other girls were looking at the empty space too. Then, there was a crack, far off in the woods. Hanna grabbed Spencer’s arm. Emily let out an eep. They all froze, waiting. Spencer could hear her heart thudding in her ears.
“I want to go home,” Emily cried.
Everyone immediately nodded—they’d all been thinking the same thing. Until the Rosewood police started searching, they weren’t safe out here alone.
They followed their footsteps back to Spencer’s house. Once they were out of the ravine, Spencer spotted the thin golden beam of Wilden’s flashlight far ahead, bouncing off the tree trunks. She stopped, her heart jumping to her throat all over again. “Guys,” she whispered, pointing.
Wilden’s flashlight snapped off fast, as if he sensed they had seen him. His footsteps grew more and more muffled and distant, until the sound vanished altogether. He wasn’t heading back toward Spencer’s house to get a search team, like he’d said he was going to do. No, he was quickly creeping deeper into the woods…in exactly the opposite direction.
The following morning, Aria sat at the yellow Formica table in her father’s tiny kitchen in Old Hollis, the college town next to Rosewood, eating a bowl of Kashi GoLean doused in soy milk and attempting to read the Philadelphia Sentinel. Her father, Byron, had already completed the crossword puzzle, and there were inky smudges on the pages.
Meredith, Byron’s ex-student and current fiancée, was in the living room, which was right next to the kitchen. She’d lit a few sticks of patchouli incense, making the whole apartment smell like a head shop. The soothing strains of crashing waves and cawing seagulls tinkled from the living room TV. “Take a cleansing breath through your nose at the start of each contraction,” a woman’s voice instructed. “When you breathe out, chant the sounds hee, hee, hee. Let’s try it together.”
“Hee, hee, hee,” Meredith chanted.
Aria stifled a groan. Meredith was five months pregnant, and she’d been watching Lamaze videos for the last hour, which meant Aria had learned about breathing techniques, birthing balls, and the evils of epidurals by osmosis.
After a mostly sleepless night, Aria had called her father early that morning and asked if she could stay with them for a while. Then, before her mother, Ella, woke up, Aria packed some things in her floral-upholstered duffel from Norway and left. Aria wanted to avoid a confrontation. She knew her mother would be puzzled that Aria was choosing to live with her dad and his marriage-wrecking girlfriend, especially since Ella and Aria had finally repaired their relationship after Mona Vanderwaal (as A) had nearly destroyed it forever. Plus, Aria hated to lie, and it wasn’t like she could tell Ella the truth about why she was here. Your new boyfriend is kind of into me, and he’s convinced I want him, too, she imagined saying. Ella would probably never speak to her again.
Meredith turned up the TV volume—apparently she couldn’t hear over her own hee breathing. More waves crashed. A gong sounded. “You and your partner will learn ways to lessen the pain of natural childbirth and hasten the labor process,” the woman instructor said. “Some techniques include water immersion, visualization exercises, and letting your partner bring you to orgasm.”
“Oh my God.” Aria clapped her hands over her ears. It was a wonder she hadn’t spontaneously gone deaf.
She looked down at the paper again. A headline was splashed across the front page. Where Is Ian Thomas? it asked.
Good question, Aria thought.
The events of last night throbbed in her mind. How could Ian’s dead body be in the woods one minute and gone the next? Had someone killed him and dragged his body away when they’d gone inside to find Wilden? Had Ian’s killer silenced him because he’d uncovered the huge secret he’d told Spencer about?
Or maybe Wilden was right—Ian was injured, not dead, and had crawled away when they ran back to the house. But if that was what happened, then Ian was still…out there. She shivered. Ian despised Aria and her friends for getting him arrested. He might want revenge.
Aria snapped on the little TV on the kitchen counter, eager for a distraction. Channel 6 was showing the cobbled-together reenactment of Ali’s murder—Aria had already seen it twice. She pressed the remote. On the next channel, the Rosewood chief of police was talking to some reporters. He wore a heavy, fur-lined navy blue jacket, and there were pine trees behind him. It looked as if he was giving an interview from the edge of Spencer’s woods. There was a big caption at the bottom of the screen that said, Ian Thomas Dead? Aria leaned forward, her heart speeding up.
“There are unsubstantiated reports that Mr. Thomas’s dead body was seen in these woods last night,” the chief was saying. “We have a great team assembled, and we began searching the woods at ten A.M. this morning. However, with all this snow…”
Kashi burbled in Aria’s stomach. She grabbed her cell phone off the little kitchen table and dialed Emily’s number. She answered immediately. “Are you watching the news?” Aria barked, in lieu of a hello.
“I just turned it on,” Emily answered, her voice worried.
“Why do you think they waited until this morning to start searching? Wilden said he was going to get a squad together last night.”
“Wilden also said something about procedure,” Emily suggested in a small voice. “Maybe it has something to do with that.”
Aria snorted. “Wilden never seemed to care about procedure before.”
“Wait, what are you saying?” Emily sounded incredulous.
Aria picked at a place mat one of Meredith’s friends had woven out of hemp. Almost twelve hours had passed since they’d seen Ian’s body, and a lot could happen in those woods between then and now. Someone could have cleared away evidence…or planted false leads. But the police—Wilden—had been careless with this entire case. Wilden hadn’t even had a suspect for Ali’s murder until Aria, Spencer, and the others handed them Ian’s head on a platter. He’d also somehow missed both when Ian broke out to visit Spencer and when he escaped on the day of his trial. According to Hanna, Wilden wanted Ian to fry as much as they did, but he hadn’t done a very good job of keeping him under lock and key.