The music was audible from halfway across campus, and it felt like the bass beat was resonating in my heart, intensifying the tangle of emotions that had already taken me over. I was nervous, that much wass obvious. But I was also excited. If all went well, tomorrow I would go down as the girl who cleaned up the Hereford Academy Ecstasy problem. Part of me was psyched to get the heck out of the staid school, but part of me was also sad at the prospect of leaving—saying goodbye to Jon and even David and Danielle.
Just call me a sentimental softy.
With all these contradictory thoughts in my mind, I was a totally confused mess as I entered the gym, but I had to focus on the task at hand. Tonight I had to be all about business.
Any preconceived notions I might have had about a lame party with a keg in the corner and a bag of greasy potato chips were eradicated the second I walked through the door of the gym that evening. The garish lights of the gym had been extinguished to make way for dozens of strings of white Christmas lights that were draped all over the room. A disco ball rotated in the center of the ceiling and the music pounded unremittingly. A group of girls on the dance floor attempted to emulate Beyoncé’s latest video for a crowd of cheering onlookers. Against the far wall was a snack table filled with hot hors d’oeuvres and mini-pizzas, and I saw Curtis dispensing beer from not one but three different kegs—one domestic, one imported and one light. This was totally crazy. How the hell did they get away with it?
I circumvented the crowd and made my way over to Curtis as I scanned the room for Marshall.
“Quench your thirst at the watering hole!” Curtis called out as I approached. His grin was huge and he already looked as if he had imbibed one too many of his own beers. “What’s your pleasure?” he asked me. “You look parched.” He waggled his eyebrows in a droll manner and I laughed.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said.
“If you’re worried about the calories, I’ve got some of the lighter but harder stuff right here,” Curtis said, pulling a flask from his cargo pants. He waved it in the air as if to entice me.
“You think I should be worried about calories?” I asked, pretending to be miffed in an attempt to divert his attention from the alcohol at hand.
As expected, Curtis turned beet red with embarrassment. “No! Of course not! You got nothing to be worried about. The first day you got here I told Marshall you had the sweetest ass in school. If you don’t believe me, ask him!”
I stared at Curtis, dumbfounded by his rambling, and he seemed to realize he’d said too much. He snapped his mouth shut and pressed his lips together.
“Where is Marshall anyway?” I asked as if nothing odd had been said.
Curtis was so relieved he almost fell over. Or maybe he was just so drunk he almost fell over.
“He’s over at the stereo DJ-ing!” Curtis said, pointing across the room.
I caught a glimpse of Marshall ducking away from the elaborate audio equipment. As I watched he glanced around quickly, then slipped out the back door of the gym. My heart hit my throat. He was sneaking out! This could be it!
I started across the room quickly, dodging dancers and chuggers and one girl who was just twirling nonstop. The second I got to Marshall’s exit door, I lifted the cuff of my shirt to my mouth. Tonight my mother had insisted I use the wire Tad had given me at the beginning of all this. It made me feel very official.
“Suspect exited through the north door. Stand by,” I said into the tiny mic. Then I pushed the door open as quietly as possible and embarked on my mission.
“All units stand by,” my mother’s voice echoed in my ear.
It was a cold, pitch-black night, and my breath made white clouds in the air. The area behind the gym was covered in thick drifts of gleaming white snow. It was so dark it seemed like it’d be impossible to find anybody back there, but then I saw footprints in the snow along the wall of the building. Rather large footprints with intricate treads. A pair of Marshall’s expensive designer boots, no doubt. They continued along the gym and disappeared around the corner.
“Proceeding along the north wall,” I said into my wrist.
I walked quickly and quietly and paused at the corner to peek around. My heart caught in my throat. Marshall was a few yards away, standing near a circle of benches that surrounded a fountain that was probably functional in warmer weather. He was talking to someone, but his immense frame obstructed my view. I could tell the conversation was heated by the way Marshall’s head kept jerking as if he was arguing. I thought he might be negotiating a sale. And then I saw it. The box. It was lying close by on one of the cleared-off benches. This was it! Marshall was making a deal!
But I had yet to hear them say anything incriminating—their voices were hushed and the words were garbled by the music coming from inside. All of this was incidental unless I could get close enough to record the transaction on my hidden mic, or at the very least get my hands on that box. Carefully I took a few steps closer. My pulse pounded through my veins. At any second one or both of them could turn and spot me.
“ . . . thought you loved me,” a girl’s voice said.
I paused. Was it Cheryl? It didn’t sound like her. The voice was too high-pitched.
“I do . . . it’s just . . . we never see each other,” Marshall replied. “I thought we agreed we could see other people.”
“We never agreed. We just talked about it. Besides, you’re the one who—”
Wait a second. This wasn’t a drug deal. It was a lover’s quarrel! But that wasn’t Cheryl. For a second I was frozen with indecision. What should I do? Call their attention to my presence? Run? Hide? As the argument escalated and I had more time to think, my situation was elucidated. I had to get the heck out of there. If I was going to catch Marshall dealing later, he couldn’t catch me spying on him now.
I turned to head back around the corner and my boot made a squeaking noise against the trodden snow. I winced. Their voices fell silent.
“Is that her?” The girl’s voice shouted.
“Kim? What the hell are you doing?” Marshall demanded.
Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.
Slowly I turned to face them, trying to concoct a plausible story. The girl was short like me, African-American and drop-dead gorgeous. Her curly dark hair cascaded over her shoulders as she stood there fuming at me. I could tell just by looking at her that she was too good for the inconstant charlatan she was dating.
“Are you her? Are you the girl who’s screwing my Marshall?” she demanded.
And she didn’t mince words either.
“Um . . . no,” I said calmly. “I promise you I am not the girl who is screwing your Marshall.”
“She’s nothing. She’s no one,” Marshall said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
My blood boiled. Who did he think he was talking about?”
“But he did try to molest me in his room the other night,” I stated, narrowing my eyes at him.
I closed my eyes. It seemed, at that perfect moment, Cheryl had decided to come looking for her man. She stormed past me, almost knocking me into a snowbank, and got right in Marshall’s face as if she didn’t even notice the girl standing across from him.
“Marshall, tell me she’s lying! Tell me you didn’t actually cheat on me with . . . that,” Cheryl said, casting a scathing look in my direction.
The other girl’s mouth dropped open behind Cheryl’s back and Marshall tipped his head forward. Things were about to get a lot more melodramatic. I smiled, savoring the moment. Marshall was so snagged.
“Cheat on you? Who the hell are you?” The girl grabbed Cheryl by the shoulder and spun her around. Cheryl seemed appalled that anyone would dare to touch her. She flicked her eyes over the gorgeous girl, appraising her rival, and didn’t seem as impressed as I had been. She looked pretty disgusted, actually.
“I am Marshall’s girlfriend!” Cheryl shouted.
“Sorry, honey. I am Marshall’s girlfriend,” the new girl said, wrapping her arm around Marshall’s back. He looked like he was about to be sick.
I felt somewhere in my conscience that I should walk away, but I couldn’t seem to make my feet move. It was like watching a car wreck. Except it was actually entertaining.
“Marshall, who the hell does this girl think she is? Tell her! Tell her we’ve been together for three years!” Cheryl ranted.
“Three years?” the other girl shouted. “You only brought up the seeing-other-people thing on Saturday!”
Suddenly it hit me. Saturday. That was why Marshall had seemed so tense on Saturday when I dropped by his room. He wasn’t meeting a buyer! He was meeting up with this girl to tell her he wanted to see other people. She must have been the driver of the Ford Focus.
“Now, ladies . . . please,” Marshall said calmly. I was momentarily impressed with his mettle. Most men would’ve run for the hills in the face of two such angry and volatile women. “There’s enough of me to go around.” He laughed, trying to lighten the situation. Big mistake.
Both girls started to shout at once, yelling both at Marshall and at each other in a sudden frenzy of curse words and insults. Marshall finally seemed to realize he was in trouble and meekly began to back away, but that didn’t inhibit the girls—it only seemed to make them angrier.
“You think you’re all that! Well, let me tell you, Marshall Cone, you just lost the best thing that ever happened to you!” the new girl shouted, advancing on him.
“Both the best things that ever happened to you,” Cheryl added.
It seemed I’d been forgotten in all the insanity. As Marshall attempted to palliate his sins and pacify the girls, I took the opportunity to sneak past the mayhem and check out the package they’d left on the bench. If it was the drugs, at the very least I could call in my mother and she could impound the box as evidence.
The package had been ripped open, but the return address was still legible. It had been sent by Tashana Bennett from Newark, New Jersey. My hands shook as I pulled aside the brown paper, expecting to see those tiny Ziploc baggies of pills you always see in the movies and on TV. What I found inside caused me to let out an aggrieved groan: candy bars, a mix tape, a few articles about the New York Giants from a local paper and one very lurid picture of the beautiful girl who was now attempting to shove Marshall into the gymnasium wall.
It was a care package. Jon had been secretly delivering Tashana’s care packages to Marshall so that Cheryl, who undoubtedly had Marshall on a short leash, wouldn’t find out.
I had been totally and utterly wrong. I was an incompetent fool.
And this left only one possibility. Only one suspect left on the list. Jon Wisnewski.