34. Surprise Inside!

At 1:30, Aria paced back and forth inside her mom’s house, the news blaring on the television. She checked her phone at 1:31 and 10 seconds, and then 24 seconds, and then 45. Nothing from Noel. She peered out the window for the zillionth time, but of course Noel wasn’t walking up the front steps. She’d already cruised around Rosewood and Hollis, as if he’d just be strolling up and down Lancaster Avenue or walking on the Hollis Great Lawn without a care in the world.

He’s with Ali now, she thought. But something in her brain still fought against it. Noel loved her. She could feel it. When he said he loved Ali last night, he’d been confused. He was holding on to something that wasn’t there, just like Emily had. He hadn’t helped her. He hadn’t colluded with her. This was a mistake.

But he admitted it, she thought. He’s lied and cheated and killed for her. Facts are facts.

She picked up an Icelandic horse–shaped paperweight from the end table and considered hurling it at the TV screen, but suddenly something caught her eye. Multiple hoaxes in art theft case, said a headline.

Horrifyingly, The Starry Night appeared on the screen. “There has been a frantic search to recover the study for The Starry Night, which was stolen from a chateau outside Reykjavik, Iceland, last year,” said a reporter. “Baroness Brennan, who is handling the estate while Baron Brennan recovers from a long illness, recently had the painting insured for twenty million dollars, and thankfully, the insurance company won’t have to pay out. The painting was recovered about an hour ago, and we’re just getting news of it now.”

The paperweight dropped into Aria’s lap. Her mouth went dry.

A shot of a few men wearing police uniforms walking into a quintessential Reykjavik row house appeared on the screen. “Even though there were rumors that the painting had made it to the United States, authorities tracked down the study in a basement in Reykjavik. Baroness Brennan identified it immediately, and the painting is now safe and sound back in her home.”

The image on the screen switched to a gray-haired woman in a fur coat standing in front of the very chateau Aria had broken into. Aria leaned forward as if sitting closer to the TV would reveal a different picture. If the study painting had been recovered in Iceland, then what was the painting in her closet?

She ran upstairs, pulled open her closet door, and unfurled the canvas. The Van Gogh stars twinkled. The drip-castle spires made dark shapes against the bright sky. It looked just like the study painting she’d seen on TV. Then she grabbed the Van Gogh art book she’d brought home from the library to use for the prom decorations and opened to the Starry Night spread. As she compared the two side-by-side, the colors in Aria’s painting suddenly looked a little . . . different. The whirls weren’t as whirly. The brushstrokes were choppier, less calculated. From afar, glanced at quickly, it looked utterly believable, but up close, it was kind of a mess.

The painting was a fake. Aria wasn’t going to get in trouble for it. Fuji couldn’t arrest her. It was possible Fuji wasn’t even after her now that the real painting had been found. A had done all this to scare her.

What other lies had A been telling?

Aria headed back downstairs in a daze, eager to call the others and tell them the news. Something else on TV caught her eye. She looked up, her heart in her throat once more. Was that Olaf?

The anchor’s face was large on the screen. “The painting was among an older woman’s things, though she has no memory of how it might have gotten there. Ms. Greta Eggertsdottir, age sixty-six, is a landlord, and says she has many tenants going in and out of the row house on a monthly basis, so it’s probable one of them brought the painting and left it in the basement. When shown a picture of Olaf Gundersson, the alleged thief who stole it from Baroness Brennan’s estate, Ms. Eggertsdottir was quite sure she recognized him. Mr. Gundersson was reported missing after an alleged attack in January, though authorities now believe that might have been a hoax. The hunt is on for Mr. Gundersson, but there are no leads so far as to where he might be.”

Aria sank down to the couch. This story was getting more and more bizarre. So Olaf had faked his attack? It made sense, sort of—maybe he’d realized the cops were on to him and needed a way to escape. And maybe A saw the article and pounced on the opportunity, never trekking to Iceland and stealing the painting at all. It had been a lucky break for A . . . though not for Aria.

Her phone bleated. She squealed and stared at the screen. Hanna. “Did you just see the news?” Aria cried.

“No . . .” There was a swishing sound on the other end; it sounded like Hanna was driving. “But you’ve got to meet me. Something weird is going on.”

“Something weird is definitely going on.” Aria gripped the phone hard. “That painting from Iceland is a fake—which means the police have nothing on us. And even weirder? Olaf isn’t dead. He faked the whole attack. I just saw it all on CNN.”

The line crackled. “Huh,” Hanna said. “So you think A just caught wind of the story, used it to her advantage, and forged the painting?”

“Yeah.” Aria stared blankly out the window at the birdhouse her mom had carved last year. “It means we can go to the police right this second and not worry about being in trouble. Even if A brings up Jamaica, we still wouldn’t be punished in the same way we would have been if the painting was a real Van Gogh.” She cleared her throat, feeling a pull in her chest. “Not that I want to go to the police.” She couldn’t bear the thought of the police going after Noel. Or maybe she could. She didn’t know.

“Well, actually, I think A has forced our hand. I got this note at the burn clinic about some critical evidence that will put all of this to rest. I think it was from Ali.”

“What?” Aria’s skin prickled. “How?

“I’ll explain everything when I see you. You have to meet me at the storage shed behind Rosewood Day. Maybe she’s there.”

Aria gripped the doorjamb. “Oh my God. What if it’s a trap?”

“That’s why I called the cops to come with us. And before you freak out, Aria, I had to. This has gone too far. If Ali’s there, if we can catch her, we have to have the police involved. Meet me there in ten minutes.”

“Okay,” Aria whispered, hitting END. She stood in her silent house for a few moments, staring at the dust motes in the air. Too much had happened in the last few minutes for her to handle. She knew she had to meet Hanna . . . but what if Ali was there and Noel was with her? What if the police arrested Noel, too? Then again, maybe that was what Aria wanted. He’d lied to her for over a year. He’d never loved her. Right?

She grabbed her keys from the hook in the hall, a heavy weight crushing her chest. She just couldn’t hate him, even after all this. She could only hope that whatever happened, it would be like pulling off a Band-Aid—fast, and painless.

Aria left the radio off on the drive over and kept the window cracked. Her gaze darted back and forth from one side of the road to the other, hoping—fearing—she might see Noel there. Finally, she turned into the Rosewood Day parking lot. There were only a few cars in the spaces; the boys’ soccer team had Sunday practice. Aria spotted Hanna’s Prius in the back and headed for it. Emily’s Volvo and Spencer’s Mercedes were there, too. Spencer and Emily were wearing sweats and sneakers, and Hanna had on pink scrubs and clogs from the burn clinic. As far as Aria could tell, the cops hadn’t arrived yet.

“Here’s the note.” Hanna shoved it at Aria when she reached their circle.

Aria looked down and recognized the tiny, even letters immediately. It was the same handwriting from the hateful letter Ali had slid under the bedroom door in the Poconos, just before she’d lit that match. The answer you want is in the Rosewood Day storage shed. . . . Go there NOW . . . before it’s too late.

“Jesus,” Aria whispered. “She has to know that we’d recognize her handwriting. And now we’re just going to go and do exactly what she wants?”

“We still have to check it out, don’t you think?” Hanna asked. “The police will be here any minute.”

Spencer peeked at the note again. “How did you get this, anyway?”

“From this patient I met at the burn clinic.” Hanna paused for a moment, peering over the hill. Sirens began to wail. A police car appeared over the crest. Aria’s stomach twisted.

Hanna turned back to the girls and explained about the body the cops had found behind the hospital. “Her hospital bracelet said Kyla Kennedy,” she whispered hurriedly. “I think Ali killed her, then became her. The girl I met was completely covered in bandages.”

Spencer collapsed against the hood of Hanna’s car. “It totally sounds like Ali. Who else would murder a burn victim and swap places with her?”

Hanna nodded, looking tormented. “Kyla’s bed was outside Graham’s room. And when Graham was spasming, Kyla sent me in the wrong direction to get a nurse. When I came back, he was dead.”

“So she was keeping an eye on Graham, making sure he didn’t say anything?” Aria whispered.

“I can’t believe I didn’t suspect it sooner. I thought I would have been able to spot Ali from a mile away,” Hanna said, choking back tears. “Kyla was just so . . . cool. Now I feel like an idiot . . . again.”

“If she had bandages all over her,” Spencer said, “it would have been easy to fool anyone.”

Suddenly, Aria realized something. “You guys, if it was Ali at the burn clinic . . .”

“ . . . then that explains why Noel was there, too,” Emily finished for her.

By this time, the cop car had pulled into the parking lot, and two officers Aria vaguely recognized from Ali’s trial walked over to them. Their name badges read COATES and HARRISON.

“Hanna Marin,” Harrison, the taller one, who had a broad face, a flat nose, and long eyelashes framing his green eyes, said gruffly. “You said you got a threatening letter?”

“Yes.” With shaking hands, Hanna passed it to them.

Coates and Harrison scanned it, then frowned. “Proof you need?” Coates, who was shorter and wirier and had a jutting Adam’s apple, repeated. “What is this all about?”

“We’ll explain everything, we promise,” Hanna said, walking toward the sports fields. “We just need you to check this out. We’re too scared to do it on our own.”

The cops shrugged, then walked ahead of them to the shed, their walkie-talkies squawking every few seconds. Aria glanced at Hanna worriedly. Was it a good idea to get the cops involved? What if Ali was watching at a distance? What if she had a bomb in the shed—and when she saw the officers, she detonated it?

Suddenly, Aria’s phone beeped. Hope flared inside her, followed by a pinch of terror. What if it was Noel? What if it wasn’t Noel?

Then she looked at the screen. The text was from a jumble of letters and numbers.

Her knees went weak. “Oh my God,” she whispered, glancing back up. The cops were several yards ahead of them. She signaled to her friends.

Spencer, Emily, and Hanna shot over to her and stared at the message.

You bitches think you’re so clever, getting new phones, trying to hide from me.

Then everyone’s phones beeped. This time, a picture message loaded. When Aria opened it, she screamed. It was a picture of the suspects list they’d created in the panic room. All of the names were crossed off . . . except for Noel’s.

Spencer’s face had turned white. “How did A get this?” she shrieked, looking at the same picture on her phone.

The cops swiveled around and stared at her. “Is everything all right?” Coates asked.

But none of the girls could answer. Another text came through. And then another, and then another. The note was so long it was several texts.

The most darling part was when you went to that panic room and went all James Bond to figure out who I was. But guess what, bitches? I’ve been a step ahead of you this whole time. I’ve known where you were. I’ve known where you were going. I call the shots, not you—in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. But don’t worry—you’ll see soon enough. Just open the shed.

—A

Hanna’s head shot up when she finished. “Just open the shed?”

“Guys, it’s definitely a trap.” Spencer’s hands trembled.

“Maybe it’s dangerous that we’re even here,” Emily whispered.

“Girls?” Harrison loomed over them, hands on his hips. “What’s going on?”

Aria was about to answer, but then her gaze focused on the shed. To her horror, one of the soccer players was jogging toward it. His hand reached out for the doorknob.

Wait!” Aria sprinted for him. “Don’t open that!” Her mind whirled with all the possibilities of what could be inside. Explosives. Wild animals. Ali herself.

“Don’t open it!” Aria screamed again. Spencer, Emily, Hanna, and the two officers followed, yelling at the boy as well.

But it was too late—he was already pulling on the handle. The shed door creaked open, the bottom getting caught on the tall grass.

Coates pushed the boy aside and tried to shut it again, but then he paused, his face going pale. “Shit,” he whispered.

Aria peered inside. For the first half second, all she saw was darkness. Then, shapes began to form: balls, sticks, mats, hurdles, goal nets. When she saw the object sitting on a chair in the back of the room, she thought that it was just another piece of sports equipment—a speed bag, maybe, or a blocking sled for Rosewood Day’s less-than-stellar football team.

Then an arm appeared. Two feet. A head hung limply on a neck. Aria took a step closer, knowing a split second before seeing his face who it was going to be. She sank to her knees and let out a howl. Hanna gasped. Spencer screamed. Emily took a few big steps back, her mouth frozen in terror. The soccer boy spun around and threw up in the grass. Coates and Harrison shooed the other players away.

“Is that . . . ?” Spencer wailed.

Mercifully, she didn’t say his name. Aria stared at the top of Noel’s head. He was still in his tuxedo jacket, and his arms were pinned behind his back, his ankles tied to the chair. There was a big strip of duct tape over his mouth. His skin was eerily pale, and there were huge gashes on his cheeks, like he’d been badly beaten.

It felt like cymbals were crashing in her head. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.

“I need an ambulance!” Hanna screamed into her phone. “Do something!” Spencer bellowed to Coates, who was shouting something into his walkie-talkie. But Aria hardly heard them. She lay on the splintered ground of the shed, unable to move any closer to Noel, petrified to see whether he was dead or alive. All she saw, in that moment, were the shiny shoes on his feet. She’d been with him when he bought those shoes. He’d tried on a bunch of pairs in the store, just like a girl. A stylish girl deserves a stylish guy, he’d told her with a wink.

Her phone beeped in her ear. Somehow, she had the sense to sit up and look at the screen. Behind her, her friends were scrambling around, trying to make sense of what they were seeing. But as their phones beeped, each of them paused to look at the heartbreaking message on their screens.

Twinkle, twinkle, little liars,

Your situation has become quite dire.

Sleuths you’re not; you haven’t solved shit.

Noel as A? Not it!

—A

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