Chapter 1

 

MY MOTHER always told me the most unlikely people can turn out to be criminals. No matter how charming or nice, a good personality doesn’t clear you from a crime. Because as much as you think you know someone, you never really know the darkest desires of their hearts—vengeance, greed, lust, pride…. It’s why you can’t rely on your gut when solving a case. Only the hard evidence and objective facts.

That’s what my mom does for a living, investigates homicides, and I help.

If it were up to me, I’d spend all my time sifting through police reports, studying lab analyses, and listening to witness testimony, but unfortunately there was this thing that kept getting in my way.

High school.

Which was where I found myself on a brisk November day—cold for Florida—awaiting one of the most torturous rites of passage for any introverted American teen: the high school pep rally.

The gym was not at all conducive to reading or reflection, my two preferred pastimes. The shoes of more than a thousand Frito-breath teens squeaked on the waxed gym floor, and the cinder block walls amplified their hyena-like laughter. Not to mention, the pep rally was essentially a parade of young, muscled flesh clad in spandex—compression shorts in the fall, wrestling singlets in the winter, formfitting baseball pants in the spring… and that was just the men.

Attendance was mandatory. Well, it was extra credit, which for an overachiever like myself was practically the same thing. And I’d arrived early—one of my many compulsions. As I was sitting in the juniors’ section, waiting for the stands to fill up and the student-athlete hero worship to begin, I spied Dare Chalmers mounting the stands, taking them two at a time with his long, jean-clad legs. One part rebel, one part bourgeoisie, Dare would be forever minted in my mind as the Phantom of the Opera since he played the lead in last year’s spring musical. I was brought in last minute for the very important task of holding the Phantom’s bedchamber door shut. That is, until the Phantom swept through in his cape and mask and slammed it behind him with gravitas.

You see, the set crew never bothered to install the hardware so the door would close properly, and it kept wheezing open at inopportune times. Dare correctly identified me as being the one kid in high school with nothing better to do on a weekend night for the show’s three-week run. And in return I got to nurse a hopeless crush on the most charismatic and popular kid at our school.

Correction: second most popular. The first most popular was his twin brother, homecoming king Mason Chalmers.

“Mischief and Mayhem” was the affectionate moniker used by the faculty of Eastview High for these two devilishly handsome twins. But they looked so different it was easy to forget they were related. Their family was of Irish descent with dark features and olive skin. Dare was tall and slim, with a face that could switch from tragic to comedic in the blink of an eye. Mason was a little more reserved, about my height and weight, with dirty blond hair he kept trimmed in a crew cut. Mason was strictly hetero—unfortunate because he filled out that singlet pretty well—while Dare…

Dare was a mystery.

It wasn’t about who Dare had kissed; it was about who he hadn’t. I’d seen several photos of Dare draped over drama kids who spanned the Kinsey scale—the Phantom’s cheek pillowed by Christine’s ample chest; Dare kissing Aaron Biserka, the stage manager, on the cheek; Dare dancing in some darkened room with a girl in front of him and a boy behind him, eyes black as a raccoon’s mask in the camera’s flash.

It was his combination of magnetism and ambiguity that caused my eyes to drift in Dare’s direction whenever he arrived on scene. As though sensing my attention, Dare’s head lifted, and he gave me his joker’s grin. His floppy hair flopped with style over his eyes, and he pushed it off his forehead with one hand. And I stared, hopelessly devoted. Then, to my surprise and great distress, Dare switched course and made his way over to where I sat, causing my stomach to hippety-hop and my brain to go into hamster-wheel mode.

“Mind if I sit here, Charlie?” Dare asked. An embarrassing admission: after the musical’s conclusion, I downloaded the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. That past summer I’d listened to “All I Ask of You” on repeat like some crazed lunatic.

“Sure, but the seniors’ section is up front.” I motioned toward the sea of blank wooden benches, our designated area, which I was avoiding. Too much bad blood. “I’m sure they’d love for your ass to claim them.”

Well, that came out wrong.

Dare chuckled and planted himself next to me. “I’ll just keep this spot warm until your date gets here.”

I couldn’t tell if he was insulting me or flirting with me—which was often the case with Dare Chalmers—and it left me befuddled.

Dare sidled right up next to me, closer than normal, but normal enough for him. His personal-space bubble was significantly smaller than my own. Maybe it was a drama thing? Meanwhile, Dare’s brother Mason and their shared best friend, Joey Pikramenos, took the bench in front of us. Daniela De Costa, Mason’s girlfriend, broke away from the cheerleading squad to bound up the stands. She was diminutive in size but not in personality. In addition to her uniform, she was wearing Mason’s letterman jacket—I knew it was his because of the patch on the right side of two men grappling. Daniela shot me a dirty look before planting a wet, smacking kiss on Mason’s mouth. Then she climbed onto his lap and performed a little twerking number that made me blush, it was so overtly sexual.

“Get a room,” Joey complained and shoved Mason’s shoulder.

I scooted backward to give them space.

Daniela laughed, and having properly aroused Mason, leaned over his shoulder and said to Dare, “How’s my makeup?”

Dare assessed her face. “Let me just….” He used the pad of his thumb to touch up a smear of gloss in the corner of her candy-lipped mouth. Daniela air-kissed him in response. It was such an intimate gesture, done so casually, that it made my own loneliness a little more biting.

Daniela then turned back to Mason and caught him looking a beat too long at the rest of the cheerleading squad. She grabbed his cheeks roughly between her manicured fingers, green and white for our school colors, and swiveled his face toward hers.

“Tell me I didn’t just catch you looking up Kylie Crawford’s cheer skirt,” she demanded with a squirrely look on her face. I wondered at the specificity of “cheer” skirt. Was it worse to sneak a peek when a girl was in uniform?

“Don’t they wear bloomers underneath?” I asked. Daniela’s head slingshotted toward me so fast her ponytail sideswiped Mason’s face. She looked me up and down like I’d just been beamed there from outer space. “Isn’t that what they call them?” I glanced around for backup. “Bloomers?”

Dare and Mason shared a chuckle. The brothers looked nothing alike, but their laughs were exactly the same—a deep hiccupping huh, huh, huh. They probably thought my social awkwardness was done deliberately to save Mason from a sticky situation. Popular kids think everything is about them.

“You are such a freak,” Daniela said to me. Each word was given individual emphasis, but what bothered me more was that she hadn’t answered my question. She looked pointedly at Dare, as though some conversation regarding my freakiness had already taken place.

“Please excuse Daniela’s manners,” Dare said while patting her arm. “She’s on a no-carbs diet and feeling a bit peckish. The correct term is bloomers.”

“Whatever, Dare. Don’t hate ’cause I’m beautiful.” She fluffed up her ponytail for effect. “Two more pounds and I’m golden.” She turned to Mason. “You are coming with me, Mason Chalmers.” Daniela grabbed Mason’s hand and pulled him up with her, no doubt taking advantage of the now-full gymnasium to remind everyone that he was hers. I kind of admired her for the way she claimed him with such confidence. I wished I had a tenth of her chutzpah. I’d been crushing on Dare for about two years now, crushing hard, and I still hadn’t come up with the courage to make a move.

Mason stood, his ass now at eye level. I stared down at my backpack placed strategically in my lap. The parade of flesh hadn’t even begun, and my ears were already burning.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Dare asked aloud at their retreating forms.

Joey shook his head. “Things were so much simpler before the coupling.”

Dare laughed. “She gives great makeovers. You could probably use one, Joey. Improve your own chances of coupling.”

Joey narrowed his eyes at Dare, then glared at me like I was the one who’d insulted him. I steered my nose forward.

“So, Charlie. It’s Friday. Whatcha got going on tonight?” Dare crossed his long legs and threw his arm casually around my shoulder. He spoke to me like we were old friends, which I supposed we were. We’d been in the same schools since elementary but never in the same social circles. With everyone packed so tightly together, our hips were touching as well. The heat of his body made me sweat, or maybe it was my nervousness. I could smell cinnamon on his breath and the expensive cologne he wore—not so much that it covered the smell of him, which I liked. Very much. I’d bet his bedsheets smelled the same.

Don’t think about his bedsheets.

“Nothing much. Does your set have a door that won’t close?” I asked, only half joking. If that was what Dare needed, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

He smiled, showing off his pointy canines. “You should have won an Academy Award for that performance, Charlie. Never have I seen a door operated with such finesse.”

“I was upstaged by your door slamming,” I told him.

He shrugged. “I had a lot of practice growing up. Did you know, Charlie-bo-barley, today is my birthday?” When we were in third grade, Dare played the name game with everyone in our class. My real name, Charles, wasn’t “good for rhyming” according to Dare, so he switched it to Charlie. The nickname stuck.

“Oh… yeah, I guess I did.” I said it as though it were only a vague recollection, as if I hadn’t been obsessing all day whether to tell him happy birthday or not. And, if so, should I send him a text or post a birthday message to my Story on Snapchat or say it to him in person? Would knowing his birthday (and astrological sign) be considered weird, or would he be happy to know Scorpios (him) and Taureans (me) are very simpatico? “Happy Birthday, Dare.”

“Thanks, Charlie.” He squeezed my shoulder, and a shiver ran through me that was pure electricity followed by a roiling, nauseated feeling in my gut. “We’re having this party tonight.”

“Darren,” Joey warned. I hadn’t realized he was still listening.

“It’s my party, Joseph. I can invite whoever I want.”

“What about Mason?” Joey asked. I wondered how it worked having a shared best friend. When the twins had a difference of opinion, whose side did Joey take?

“Pfft. Bygones. That was so last year. Am I right, Charlie?”

Last year, I’d infiltrated a cheating ring led by my former best friends, the Geek Squad, who were posing as lovable dumb jocks in order to take their clients’ SAT scores to unprecedented heights—for a profit, of course. I warned the Geek Squad I’d go public with their operation, but they told me there was no way I could prove it. That was a challenge I simply could not turn down. I offered my SAT-taking services to one Mason Chalmers, who enthusiastically accepted. With that recording of our negotiation, I persuaded Mason to tell the administration everything he knew, which he reluctantly did. Because of my meddling, I was now one of the few students abhorred by the popular kids and the nerds alike.

I didn’t regret exposing the Geek Squad’s scam, but infamy can be a bit lonely.

“It’s a surprise party,” Dare was saying. “Don’t worry about any presents, though. We’re spoiled rotten as it is.”

I imagined some Carrie scenario where I was doused with pig’s blood, running blindly while screaming into the yard. I’d managed to survive the past few months by lying low, but I felt there was a comeuppance brewing.

“And don’t say anything to Mason.” Dare glanced around to make sure we weren’t being overheard. I assumed it was because Mason would kick my ass if he knew. “It’s a surprise. He’s going to flip.” Dare shook his head and smiled as though we were sharing an inside joke.

Dare was throwing his brother a surprise birthday party? It was really… nice. Or it was his way to catch his brother off guard. The two of them were notorious pranksters, and their worst victims were often each other. During my freshman year, there was a video going around of Dare barfing on the indoor trampolines at the mall, followed soon after by one of Mason kissing his biceps and making faces at the mirror. During the first showing of Phantom of the Opera last spring, right after the chandelier fell, Mason and Daniela screamed like their heads were on fire and ran down the auditorium aisles wearing black capes and Phantom masks. Their antics were so well received that it became a staple of the show, which delighted Dare to no end. He thrived on drama.

“So, you interested?” Dare asked with an impish grin. His eyebrows were perfectly sculpted, far better than I remembered from when he was the Phantom.

“Did you wax your eyebrows?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.

He smiled sheepishly. “Daniela did them for me.” He waggled them a bit for my benefit. “What do you think?”

You must be gay.

“They look great.”

“So, I’ll see you tonight, then?” he asked again. I was flattered by his persistence. And a little suspicious too.

“Yeah, probably not.” I was a terrible liar, especially when it was for no good reason.

Dare frowned, and his expressive eyebrows pointed downward in the middle. I couldn’t tell if his disappointment was genuine or if he was only acting. He was a better singer than actor but still pretty good.

“This is just like when you bailed on the Phantom cast party,” he complained.

“I didn’t bail,” I argued. “I was there.”

“Then why didn’t I see you?”

Truth: I hid in a closet most of the night because I was too nervous to talk to him. I’m a compulsive truth-teller, but this was simply too embarrassing. Dare stared at me, waiting for an explanation.

“You were surrounded by your fanboys the whole night.” I wasn’t the only queer kid thirsting after the Phantom. The line started way back there.

Dare blinked, then beamed at me, and it was such a dramatic shift, like going from darkness to light. His hand tightened around my shoulder again. Snap, crackle, pop.

“You’re adorable. Isn’t he adorable?” He looked to Joey for affirmation. Joey rolled his eyes, probably immune by now to Dare’s antics. “Come to my party tonight, Charlie Schiffer. You’ll be my guest of honor.”

He winked at me like some sly fox from the silver screen. This was the effect of being on the receiving end of the Chalmerses’ charm, like being drunk without the hangover. I was utterly boring by comparison. I liked hanging out with my mom, reading books, doing homework, solving murders, and chilling with my dog, Boots. I didn’t party; I wasn’t much of a joiner; I’d never even gone on a date.

“Fine, yeah, I’ll come.”

Dare thumped my back. “Jesus, Charlie, you act as if I’d asked for your kidney. Remember, eight o’clock. That’s when the wild rumpus begins. Tonight you’re running with the wolves.”

Dare braced his hands behind himself, arched his back, and howled. His face was one of rapture; his strong lungs carried the note with power, sending a familiar tremor through me, same as when I experienced him as the Phantom. A few of our peers spontaneously joined in, including Mason down on the gym floor and the wrestling team soon after. Their green singlets clung to their bodies like wet paint, chests thrust forward, shoulders back, muscles taut and straining as they howled like animals. Daniela started the cheerleaders going in a spontaneous a cappella harmony. Even our mascot was howling, and he was a ram.

Arwhooooooo. The sound was primal and edged with fear. The vibrations of sound rattled in my chest, and for a moment it didn’t feel like a pep rally but the opening ceremony of some gruesome blood sport.

I glanced over at Dare, who was smiling at me like a maniac. Mayhem, the orchestrator of madness.

“Go on, Charlie,” he whispered in my ear. “Join us.”

I took a shaky breath, tilted my head back, and howled.

 

 

I DIDN’T expect to see Mason Chalmers again until that night for his surprise party. If I decided to go—it was still up in the air. But as I was getting ready to leave school, my passenger-side door opened and Mason slipped inside, shutting the door behind him with purpose. He still wore his green polyester warm-up suit, the jacket unzipped enough that I could see his sparse chest hair poking out the top. He’d been sweating too. I could smell his manly musk rising up in the shuttered cabin of my car.

“Hey, Mason,” I said casually, while thinking This is it. Mason hadn’t retaliated since my SAT sting because he’d been saving it up for one last annihilation. He’d let me think I was safe all these months, only to spring on me when I was unaware and defenseless.

“You and I need to have a little chat.” He pivoted in the passenger seat so he could properly stare me down. His eyes were stony, his shoulders tense. His short buzz cut gave his face a severe appearance, and there was none of the amusement in his expression I’d seen earlier that afternoon at the pep rally. “It’s been a long time coming, don’t you think, Schiffer?”

“I guess it has.” I exhaled the breath I’d been holding on to and resigned myself to whatever fate was to befall me. Back before my GPA dropped, I used to have this prime parking spot close to the school because of my academic achievement, but since losing that privilege, I’ve had to park in one of the dirt lots at the fringes of the athletic fields used as overflow for the sophomores and latecomers. I glanced around the desolate lot to see if Mason had brought reinforcements. He appeared to have come alone, but that didn’t mean his burly gang of merry men weren’t lurking behind the athletic portables, preparing to pounce the moment Mason gave the word.

“So, what do you have to say for yourself?” Mason crossed his arms so his biceps looked intimidatingly huge. He seemed to be fishing for an apology, but I wasn’t going to give it to him. It wasn’t fair to all those kids who put in the sweat and sacrifice and studied for the test. You shouldn’t be able to buy your SAT score and therefore your placement at a university. The world is unfair enough as it is. Mason had been wrong to try to cheat, even if I was the only one to believe it.

“I’d say you got off pretty easy,” I said at last. Mason got an in-school suspension. The Geek Squad, including me, had their school rankings dinged—straight Fs in “school decorum.” The jocks also had to retake their tests and deal with their true aptitude. And I lost all my friends and severed any alliances I’d built over the years.

He squinted at me, confused or perhaps displeased that I was so impertinent. “Not that. This is about Dare.”

Dare? What does he have to do with anything?

“I don’t usually get involved with this sort of thing,” Mason continued, “but Dare seems to be into you, and if you’re planning to do him the way you did me….” He let the threat trail off, perhaps letting me imagine my own demise. Meanwhile my brain was glitching over the information that Dare might be into me.

“Well?” Mason growled.

“I wouldn’t do that to Dare,” I said in earnest and shut my mouth before anything more incriminating could come out.

“No?” His bullish face tilted. He didn’t sound convinced.

“Absolutely not.”

Mason scrutinized me. Despite his tough-guy persona, Mason was actually very smart. He was at the top of our class in middle school. It was only during high school that he’d traded his GPA for popularity and started hanging around a bunch of meatheads.

“Why not?”

I focused on my steering wheel, worried he’d see the full extent of my feelings. I could feel my face heating up, likely turning the tips of my ears a flaming pink. Luckily my complexion didn’t allow for my blushing to be too obvious. Just my ears.

“I really like Dare. I’d never do anything to hurt him.” I didn’t elaborate as to how much or in what way—that might also be a trap. The seconds stretched on until finally Mason nodded as if satisfied.

“All right, then.” He punched my shoulder a little too hard, like he didn’t know his own strength. “Before I go, though, let me make it clear. Messing with me is one thing, but if you mess with Dare, I will fucking destroy you, Schiffer. Got it?”

If his words weren’t convincing enough, the rumble in his voice definitely did it. I nodded and licked my lips. “Got it.”

He pounded the dashboard lightly with his fist. “All right, then. Good talk.” He climbed out of my car and rounded the front of it, using the two finger I’m-watching-you hand gesture like some high school bully out of an eighties movie.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Good talk,” I said softly to no one at all.