Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Mystery & detective  ➡  Historical

The Professor

The Professor

 

 

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2016  by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

 

Chapter One

 

George O’Connor could barely see through the windshield as a relentless rainstorm drummed a cadence on the hood of his small, gray sedan. The road was black, slick, and unforgiving. O’Connor had nearly slid out twice already, furiously pumping his brakes as his tires lost traction with the pavement. As the car hydroplaned through yet another invisible puddle, O’Connor cursed his terrible luck. The back roads of the midsized town twisted and turned through the darkest parts of the woods. There were no streetlamps here, no exit ramps or stoplights. No alarmingly bright car dealerships to mark the edge of the township. No other signs of human life at all.

O’Connor flipped on his high beams, but the old, yellowing headlights no longer had enough power to penetrate the gray curtain of rain outside. As he coaxed the sedan up and over a massive hill, O’Connor glanced in his rearview mirror. At first, he only saw the darkness of the road behind him, the tall trees of the woods bending over the pavement like shadowy guardians of the underworld. Then, one after the other, three pairs of LED headlights crested the hill.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he swore, pressing his foot farther down on the gas pedal. He rounded a bend at a breakneck pace. The mug in the cup holder of the center console gave way to gravity, tipping to one side, and cold coffee splashed over the edge of the cup, soaking O’Connor’s pant leg.

The road forked ahead, beyond the bend, and O’Connor took it as a sign. He had a chance to lose the men in the expensive SUVs behind him, but only if he could outsmart them. Just in case… he fumbled for his phone, his fingers shaking as he extracted it from his jacket pocket. He spared a quick glance at its screen to locate the number he needed then refocused on the road as the phone dialed.

“Pick up. Please, pick up,” he urged. Each additional ring on the other end of the line was a harsh reprimand to his ear. “Come on, pick up—”

Hey, you’ve reached Nicole Costello. Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

“Damn it, Nicole!”

The phone beeped a dulcet tone.

“Nicole, it’s O’Connor,” he said, flooring it toward the fork in the road. Another glimpse at the rearview mirror. The parade of headlights was gaining on him. “I know this is strange, but I need you to do something for me.”

As he approached the fork, O’Connor considered his options. He knew that the road to the left would circle back toward campus. With one twitch of the steering wheel, he could return to Waverly University, to the comfort of his office on the third floor of the Arts and Humanities Building. Unfortunately, the campus was no longer safe for O’Connor, and the men driving those SUVs would catch up to him far too easily there. The road to the right, on the other hand, led to the interstate and endless possible escape routes.

In a reckless move, O’Connor switched his headlights off entirely. The road plunged into complete and utter darkness, and O’Connor slammed on his brakes to compensate for his lack of vision. As he guided the tired sedan to the right, his eyes straining to make out the yellow Bott’s dots along the side of the road, he remembered his phone call.

“Nicole, I’m in some serious shit,” he continued, speeding up again as his pupils adjusted to the black night around him. Behind him, the oncoming headlights had slowed down. With any luck, they had lost sight of O’Connor’s sedan. “I need help. In my office, there’s a—Christ!”

O’Connor jerked the steering wheel to the left, narrowly avoiding the small doe that had stepped out of the woods and into the road. As the doe bolted, the car spun, and O’Connor felt the familiar release of his tires unsticking from the pavement. He dropped his cell phone and wrenched the wheel in the opposite direction but to no avail. The sedan careened out of control, skating across the river that the road had become. O’Connor beat mercilessly on the brakes, blind to the trees that bordered the desolate highway. His stomach dropped as the car drifted off the pavement and slipped into a drainage ditch. With a jolt, the vehicle finally came to a halt, firmly situated in the mud and facing the wrong way.

O’Connor, his heart pumping, peered through the glass of the front windshield.

“Please,” he whispered under his breath. “Just go back to campus.”

But a moment later, the headlights appeared again. O’Connor groaned, experimentally pressing on the gas pedal. The engine whined, and muck splattered the back windshield. The tires were stuck.

“Fucking. Piece. Of. Shit. Car.” Every word was punctuated with a punch to the dashboard. He glanced up again. The headlights were too close. Even if he made a run for it, the degenerates driving those monstrous SUVs were sure to find him.

He searched the footwell for his cell phone, capturing it and opening up a new text message. Hurriedly, he dashed off a short series of instructions, only half-focused on the small touchscreen. A squeal of tires and the hum of multiple V8 engines permeated the interior of the sedan. The aggressive headlights flooded the car cabin, and O’Connor’s eyes watered as he squinted to finish typing his text message. Heavy car doors opened and slammed shut. O’Connor pressed send then dunked the cell phone into the mug of coffee, which was still miraculously half-full.

Not a second later, a hammer bashed in the driver’s side window of the sedan. Broken glass showered O’Connor, and he shielded his eyes with his hands as someone reached through the shattered window and unlocked his door. They wrenched open the door, seized O’Connor roughly, and dragged him from the car.

“Easy, easy!” O’Connor held his hands up in a gesture of defeat as he plodded out into the muck. His shoes squelched through the mud, and rain splattered down upon the thin fabric of his sports jacket, chilling him in an instant. Six men, all sporting black ski masks, dragged O’Connor deeper into the woods, well away from the road. They were impeccably dressed in expensive suits, wool overcoats, and designer loafers. Apparently, none of them had anticipated a high-speed chase through the backwoods of upstate New York, let alone one that landed them in a soggy ditch on the side of the road.

“Bacchus, move the cars and kill the lights,” one man ordered, tossing a set of keys to one of his comrades. “All we need is for some busybody to drive past and pull over. And get his crap pile out of the mud. We’ll have to get rid of it.”

The other man—Bacchus, O’Connor could only assume—gave a little, two-fingered salute. “You got it, Pluto.”

The instructions bit at O’Connor’s nervous system. His pulse raced, but he tried to keep his voice steady and indifferent as he addressed the men around him. “Why the masks? I already know who you are, despite the ridiculous nicknames.”

“You know some of us,” the first man conceded with a nod. “You know me.” With a flourish, he removed his ski mask, shaking out his head of damp, freshly trimmed black hair. He grinned at O’Connor, displaying a perfectly maintained smile, and lowered himself into a mocking bow. “Pluto, ruler of the underworld, at your service.”

O’Connor said nothing, but rather stared at Pluto and the other men with poorly concealed contempt.

“Oh, come on, George,” said Pluto jovially. He patted the sopping shoulder of O’Connor’s sports coat. “You worked so hard to expose us. I was rather hoping our official introduction would merit a better reaction. I must say, I’m disappointed in you.”

“Where’s your favorite friend?” asked O’Connor. “What do you call her again? The Morrigan, is it?”

“She didn’t want to get her hands dirty,” Pluto answered. “Extended car chases and backwoods interrogations aren’t exactly in a lady’s pool of interests. Not usually, anyway.”

The other men chuckled, but O’Connor wasn’t amused. “What do you want from me?”

“Easy,” responded Pluto. “You. Silent.”

O’Connor shook his head. “It’s not going to happen. The things you’ve done—it’s not right.”

Pluto sighed, plucking his leather driving gloves from his hands one finger at a time. “Let me spell this out for you, George. You are a lowly history professor. I mean, what possibly possessed you to become a fucking teacher of all things? God, man, you’re not even tenured. We, in comparison, are a group of cultured, well-read individuals who contribute not only a wealth of knowledge to our little part of the world, but a wealth of, well, wealth to society. So tell me, why would anyone believe your poorly conceived accusations of us?”

“I have proof.”

“I’m sure you do, my good man,” said Pluto. He stepped forward so that he was nearly nose-to-nose with O’Connor. He lowered his voice. “But what makes you think you’ll be around long enough to present that proof to anyone of worth?”

Without warning, Pluto plunged his fist into O’Connor’s midsection. O’Connor doubled over with a grunt, and Pluto’s sycophants closed in around him. Two held O’Connor upright while the others delivered blow after blow to whatever part of his body was available.

“I can see the headlines of the student newspaper now,” Pluto called over the sound of the beating. “‘Beloved history professor George O’Connor mysteriously retires early.’” Pluto shook his head, laughing. “God, what a joke. You crack me up, George.”

But O’Connor wasn’t listening. He had already blacked out.

Chapter Two

 

On Monday morning, I decided that I had no original thought. Of course, if I had voiced this out loud, there were a handful of people who might’ve disagreed. Wes McAllen, my longtime boyfriend, would be the first one to pipe in with a list of things I had accomplished, but to be fair, he was kind of obligated to continue boosting my morale. No, it was best to keep my thoughts of inadequacy to myself and instead focus on staying afloat in a sea of pre-graduation anxiety as the semester wore on. Unfortunately, staying afloat meant finally coming up with some sort of idea for my thesis. At this point, most of my classmates were already well on their way to completing their degrees. On the other hand, it looked like the only master’s degree I was ever going to earn would be in the practiced art of procrastination.

“Do it on the plague,” suggested Wes. He munched away at a piece of buttered toast, leaning over the kitchen sink in our small apartment to avoid getting crumbs on the front of his police uniform.

“No can do,” I said, tipping a pan of scrambled eggs and sausage into a wheat wrap. I ducked around Wes to rinse the steaming pan in cold water, and he planted a buttery kiss on my temple.

“Why not?” he asked. With his toast-free hand, he tried to wipe away the residue of his breakfast from my face but only succeeded in spreading bread crumbs through my hair. “Sorry.”

I shook out the crumbs as best as I could. “Someone did theirs on the plague last year. O’Connor wants something original.”

“You’re a history major,” Wes pointed out. “How are you supposed to come up with something original when every past event has already been picked apart by someone else?”

I bundled up my eggs and sausage in the wrap like a burrito. “Now you understand my dilemma. Do we have any cheddar cheese left?”

Wes polished off the last bite of toast, dusted his hands off over the sink, and opened the fridge. “Nope. Just the crappy cheese for the dog. What about the police?”

“What about it?”

“For your paper,” he clarified. “You could do a detailed history about the origins of policing in America. Did you know that most police departments started off as slave patrols?”

“Yay, oppression,” I said dryly.

He jettisoned an individually wrapped slice of American cheese at me. As I freed it from the plastic, Franklin, the scraggly pug-and-yellow-lab mix that had followed Wes and me home one day, trotted into the kitchen, collar jingling, and sat at my feet. I sniffed the cheese, wrinkled my nose, and tossed the entire slice to Franklin. He gobbled it down without chewing. Unlike me, Franklin didn’t discriminate against highly processed foods.

“I’m just saying,” continued Wes. He knelt down to give Franklin a rub, who promptly rolled over to offer his belly up for a massage. “That would be so easy for you. You could even interview me.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“Har, har,” I said, wrapping up my cheeseless burrito in aluminum foil so I could eat it on the go. I checked my watch. “I have to head out. O’Connor’s expecting me at ten thirty.”

Much to Franklin’s dismay, Wes abandoned his role as doggie masseuse to collect my black peacoat from the hook near the door. As he helped me into it, he asked, “Are we still doing lunch today?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

He handed me my keys, draped my messenger bag over my shoulder, and took me by the waist. I reached up, standing on my toes to make up for our height difference, and interlaced my fingers behind his neck.

“You’ll do great, Nicole,” he said, giving me a little squeeze. Then his mouth turned up in a mischievous smirk. “The ten-minute walk through campus is more than enough time to come up with an idea for an eighty-page paper that you were supposed to have finished last semester.”

“Weston!” I smacked his shoulder and tried to squirm out of his grasp, but he laughed and pulled me closer.

“I’m kidding, baby.”

He bent down for a kiss. As I hugged him tightly, the stiff fabric of his collar poked me in the neck, but I still appreciated the warm press of his arms around me. Wes and I had met as undergraduates during an ill-fated freshman orientation that might’ve ended in tears had I not been susceptible to Wes’s goofy brand of humor. Even so, it wasn’t until I was zipping up my graduation gown and batting away Wes’s attempts to tickle my ears with the tassel of his mortarboard that I realized I wanted him in my life as more than just a best friend. After the ceremony, when I kissed him for the first time, diploma holders in hand, he only said, “Shit, finally.”

In the years that followed, Wes and I made sure to factor each other into our plans for the future. Wes joined the police academy, which was what he had always wanted to do. With my nearly obsolete history degree, I didn’t have a whole lot of employment options. I bagged retail job after retail job until I realized doing inventory and pasting a benign, vacuous smile across my face to trick customers into thinking I cared about their dress sizes wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Wes was the one who had encouraged me to go back to school. He even helped me sort through piles of brochures advertising prestigious universities and programs. When I got into Waverly’s postgraduate history program—quite the feat considering how long it had been since I’d completed my bachelor’s degree—Wes didn’t hesitate to ask for a transfer. We moved into Waverly’s on-campus graduate housing, Wes started working for the local police force, and I was free to actually pursue the education and researching career that I wanted.

With one last kiss from Wes and an affectionate goodbye rub of Franklin’s chin, I left the apartment, jogged down the steps, and started off across campus toward the Arts and Humanities Building. Despite the fact that it was freezing, it was a gorgeous day, the first in a while in which blue sky was visible. An icy breeze played with my hair, whipping bright blond strands into my eyes. I unearthed a knit hat from the pocket of my coat to subdue my rowdy hair and wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck. Last night, a thunderous rainstorm had swept through the area, waking me up with its raucous clatter on the roof and scaring the literal shit out of Franklin. On the upside, the storm had cleared out the gray slush that had been lingering around campus since the last snowfall. It was mid-March, and I was ready for some sunshine. Even the pale, half-hearted glow of the sun that morning was enough to put a little bounce in the soles of my boots.

Waverly University was all a woman like me needed in higher education. Established in the early 1700s, it was one of the oldest schools in the United States, lesser known than its other Ivy League counterparts but just as reputable. The grounds were vast, the buildings brick, and the students fashionable. I had been to Oxford once for a study-abroad trip, and as delighted as I was by Oxford’s extensive history, Waverly pursued me with a romanticism for education that I couldn’t help but fall in love with. As I crossed one of Waverly’s many lawns, I tipped my head back, inhaling the sharp scents of pine and wood smoke. There was no place I’d rather be.

I took the long way across campus so that I could pass by my favorite building; the Waverly library was one of the original structures of the university. Its marble floors, hallowed hallways, and great stained-glass dome were home to thousands of books, and the library even had a special section, the Rapere Wing, dedicated to rare manuscripts and other invaluable acquisitions. The first time I set foot in the Waverly library, I was overwhelmed. Never had I cried at the mere sight of books, but I could’ve happily died at that very moment. If my soul decided it had seen its eternal resting place and soared up to settle itself amongst the ancient spines of those books, I would’ve yielded to its whim. And the smell—they couldn’t bottle the scent of those leathery bindings and yellowing pages no matter how hard they tried. It was like a fine cigar, and I took every possible opportunity to study in the library’s depths, if only to inhale the very essence of those dusty volumes.

Not far from the library, the Arts and Humanities Building, to which I had apparently sold my soul, stood in all its daunting glory. It was a beautiful work of architecture as well, but I had spent far too much time stressing myself out within its many classrooms to associate positive connotations with it. Not to mention I’d had one too many arguments in the office of my thesis advisor, George O’Connor, here. I took one class with O’Connor during my first semester at Waverly and fell in love with his brusque style of teaching. The following semester, I signed on to be his teaching assistant. We had a love-hate relationship. He annoyed me and I annoyed him, mostly because we operated on the same level of sarcasm, but a grudging respect for each other had grown out of our mutual dedication to research and the stories of the past. I’d learned more in the past two years from bickering with O’Connor than from all of my other professors combined. However, in the past few months, O’Connor and I had both been a bit lax when it came to my education. Last semester, he drove me to drink when I couldn’t come up with a topic for my thesis paper. Lately, though, O’Connor had been more and more distracted. It had become a regular thing for him to skip classes, and I was forced to pick up teaching his courses where he had left off. His erratic behavior was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I was grateful that he had ceased nagging me about my thesis. On the other, the end of the semester loomed closer, and it was starting to look like I’d have to postpone graduation until I got off my ass and found something to write about. Today was the day, though. I’d finally pinned O’Connor down for a face-to-face discussion, and if I didn’t leave this meeting with a solid idea, I was seriously considering throwing myself off the tallest building at Waverly.

I trudged up the stairs of the Arts and Humanities building, dreading the conversation to come, but when I reached O’Connor’s office, I noticed that the door was already ajar. That was unusual. O’Connor almost always locked his office door, even if he was inside. He hated disturbances, but after several failed errands to fetch something from his office, I demanded a key of my own. To my shock, he’d obliged.

I knocked lightly. “O’Connor?” I called, pushing open the door. The office was empty.

I reached into my bag for my cell phone. O’Connor hadn’t been a stickler for punctuality lately, but he’d never flaked on our meetings before. I had a voicemail and a text message from him, but both were time-marked from last night. I checked the voicemail first.

Nicole, it’s O’Connor.

Behind O’Connor’s voice, I could hear the sound of a motor running and rain pelting down on a roof. Apparently, O’Connor had been out driving pretty late last night.

I know this is strange, but I need you to do something for me.” There was a pause, some static, and the screech of tires before O’Connor went on. “Nicole, I’m in some serious shit. I need help. In my office, there’s a—Christ!”

There was a loud thump, as if the cell phone had gone flying out of O’Connor’s hand and hit the floor, then silence.

“What the hell—?” I said. I hung up to check my text messages. O’Connor had typed a note to me, written in shorthand and abundant with typos.

 

Nicole under my desk theres a safe youneed to open. you already have the code. inside there are sevral docs. take everyting home w/ you. cant give you anymore info. do not attempt to contact me. do what you can w/ evidence. stay safe.

 

“What freaking evidence?” I muttered. It felt like a violation of privacy wandering over to the opposite side of O’Connor’s desk, but I did it anyway, wondering if this was all some sort of elaborate joke he had concocted to punish me for my lack of thesis work. But sure enough, a small security safe with a code pad and a key override was nestled beneath the weathered oak desk, and I gave an exhausted sigh of resignation before pushing aside O’Connor’s rolling chair to kneel down for a closer look.

“You never gave me the code, you batshit old man,” I said, examining the code pad. For good measure, I typed in the year of O’Connor’s birthday on the off chance that he was that simple of a man. It was a no-go. The pad beeped angrily at me, flashing red. I glanced around the room, wondering if O’Connor had hidden a spare key somewhere. The filing cabinet caught my eye, and I rifled through its poorly organized drawers for several minutes before conceding defeat. I fought similar battles with O’Connor’s bookshelf, the cushions of his old leather sofa, and every other nook and cranny in the office that I could think of. Annoyed, sweaty, and slightly out of breath, I came up empty-handed. Furious, I stormed out of his office, only pausing to lock the office door behind me. If O’Connor returned and found it open, I’d be in serious shit.

But as I reached forward to put the office key in the lock, I froze and raised the key closer to my face. A six-digit number had been etched into the head of the key. I’d always passed it off as some kind of manufacturing number, but now that I thought about it…

I rushed back inside, slamming the office door behind me. Beneath O’Connor’s desk, I punched in the random six-digit number on the safe’s code pad, holding my breath as I hit the Enter key.

The code pad turned green.

I pulled open the door, and my jaw dropped. It turned out that O’Connor’s text message had been slightly deceiving. “Sevral docs” didn’t even begin to cover the contents of the safe. It was overflowing with papers and folders, jammed in so haphazardly that most of them were crumpled and damaged. I extracted a few from the top and shuffled through them. From what I could tell, they were mostly old newspaper articles, student files that O’Connor technically shouldn’t have had access to, and a few handwritten letters that I didn’t even bother to glance at. All in all, it looked like a bunch of trash.

With increasing agitation, I rummaged through the rest of the safe. It was pages upon pages of the same crap. I was two seconds away from slamming the safe shut when my fingers found the sharp corner of something other than paper. I dug the object out of the rubble and sat back on my heels. It was a small wooden box, decorated with elaborate carvings. Near the fissure, where the top part of the box met the bottom, was what I could only describe as some sort of puzzle. The pieces of it spun individually like the code for a padlock, except this one was twelve spaces long and had letters instead of numbers. I fiddled with it for a minute, spinning each space while holding the box to my ear, as though I might be able to hear when the correct letter clicked into place. No such luck.

“O’Connor, you prat,” I scolded, shoving the puzzle box back into the safe. I slammed the door shut and punched in the same code to lock it. The pad blinked at me again, and I pushed myself up from the floor of O’Connor’s office. I’d wasted enough time. If O’Connor really wasn’t messing with me and actually needed me to collect the junk from inside the safe, I was going to need clearer instructions. I vowed to give my advisor a piece of my mind. I didn’t care what kind of nighttime jaunt he had gone on or what kind of trouble he had gotten himself into. It was disrespectful and rude to keep your best student—debatable as that was—and only teaching assistant waiting.

Now I was late for lunch with Wes, and even worse, I still had no idea what the hell to write my thesis on.

 

Thankfully, the local police station was only a few blocks away from Waverly. I headed in that direction, still mulling over O’Connor’s messages. The cold air helped to clear out the lingering aggravation of that morning’s events, and I listened to O’Connor’s voicemail message again, this time worried that I might’ve judged him a tad too early. From the sound of it, O’Connor might’ve been involved in a car accident. The time stamp on the text message was later than that of the voicemail, so I at least knew that he’d survived whatever incident had cut his voicemail short. When I called O’Connor’s cell phone, a prerecorded message told me that the number could no longer be reached. I resolved to ask Wes to check if any reports of car accidents had come into the station last night.

I stopped by our favorite deli, Stefano’s, to pick up sandwiches for me and Wes. It was owned locally by a loud Italian man—Stefano Junior, of course—and his wife, who were somehow always in the middle of an argument every single time I walked in. As Stefano sliced prosciutto for Wes’s sandwich, his wife berated him for making a mess of the stockroom. I suppressed a giggle as Stefano hollered back. It took a good minute for the couple to wrap up our meals and ring me up, but Stefano’s Deli had the best cold cuts in town, and it was totally worth it. I left with our lunch in a paper bag and a smile on my face.

As I approached the station, the front door swung open and Officer Wilson, one of Wes’s bosses, stepped out.

“Hey, there, Nicole,” he said gruffly, holding the door open for me.

I stepped across the threshold, nodding my thanks, and wiped my damp boots off on the mat inside. “Hi, Daryl. How are you?”

“Cold,” he huffed, zipping up his jacket. “You got lunch plans with Wes?”

“Sure do. Is he around?”

“He’s desking today,” Officer Wilson said. He pulled on a pair of black gloves, eyeing the Stefano’s bag. “Wish my wife would bring me lunch. Lucky guy to have such a nice girl like you.”

I grinned. “He sure is.”

Wilson tipped his hat in farewell. “See you later, Nicole. Enjoy your lunch.”

“Thanks.”

He let the door close, and the warmth of the station fully engulfed me. I shook off my coat and hung it on the rack near the door, waved hello to some of the other officers, and set off toward Wes’s desk. He was bent over the keyboard of his computer, typing up some kind of report. I snuck up behind him and covered his eyes with my hands.

“Hi, Nic,” he said without missing a beat. He spun around in his chair. “Ooh, Stefano’s.”

“Daryl says you’re a lucky guy, by the way, for having such a splendid girlfriend,” I boasted, flipping my hair over my shoulder as I sat down on his desk.

Wes ripped open the Stefano’s bag and reached in for his sandwich. “I find it odd that you’re on a first name basis with my boss. Listen, did you see O’Connor today?”

I shook my head, taking my own sandwich from Wes. “He didn’t show.”

Wes unwrapped his sub and bit off the end of the Italian roll. “His wife called this morning and filed a missing persons report.”

I paused in the middle of freeing my meal from the wrapper. “Wait, what?”

“Apparently, he never made it home last night.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean he’s missing,” I argued. I set down my sandwich on Wes’s desk, my appetite waning. “I mean, he’s a pretty simple old man. Isn’t it more likely that he went out to a bar and had too much to drink?”

Wes shrugged, chewing thoughtfully. “His wife said he’s never not come home. Even when he’s away for work or whatever, he always calls her every night before she goes to bed. Last night, he didn’t call her.”

“But he called me.”

Wes stopped chewing. “He did? What for?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” I said. I picked banana peppers off of my sandwich and tossed them onto Wes’s wrapper. For some reason, Stefano never failed to mix up our toppings. “He left me this bizarre voicemail. It kinda sounded like he might’ve crashed his car or something. Did you hear about any car accidents last night?”

“A couple, but none of the reports included O’Connor. What’d he say?”

“Not much,” I admitted. “He texted me too. I spent all morning going through the safe in his office.”

“Uh, why?”

“He asked me to. I didn’t find much. There was no money or anything in it. Just a bunch of papers and a little puzzle box. I thought he was messing with me or something.”

Wes set down his sandwich and brushed off his hands. “Do you still have the text and the voicemail?”

“Yeah.”

I handed over my phone. After Wes read the text and listened to the voicemail, he said, “That’s pretty weird. I’m sure O’Connor’s fine. Most missing people turn up within the next day, but I’ll look into it just in case.”

Despite Wes’s reassuring words, something felt off about the entire situation. Between O’Connor’s kooky messages and his mysterious disappearance, part of me wondered if there was more to the contents of O’Connor’s safe than I had originally realized. I continued my lunch with Wes, trying to concentrate on the idle conversation at hand, but I was too distracted. Eventually, I gave up on filling my stomach and handed the rest of my sandwich over to Wes for him to finish.

“Do you have any of those cardboard storage boxes?” I asked as I collected our trash and threw it into the bin beneath Wes’s desk.

“Yeah, there are a bunch in the back room,” he said, polishing off the rest of my food. “You want one?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“Be right back.”

In a minute or two, Wes returned with one of said boxes beneath his arm. He handed it over. “What do you need it for?”

I took the box and popped off the lid to look inside. It looked big enough for everything I intended to shove into it. I glanced back at Wes and said, “I’m going to go clean out O’Connor’s safe.”

 

Chapter Three

 

I ransacked O’Connor’s safe, emptying it by the armful and dumping every single piece of paper into the storage box, even the tiniest of newspaper clippings. There was even more stuff than I thought. The lid of the cardboard box refused to close completely, papers and file folders peeking out from beneath it. The small wooden puzzle box I tucked safely away in my messenger bag. When I first attempted to lift the box, my lower back protested at the weight. I shifted, bending at the knees instead, and tried again. O’Connor kept a small dolly cart to transport his classroom materials back and forth from his office, so I nabbed that, and soon enough, I was on my way back to the apartment, lugging the dolly and my haul along behind me.

At home, I upended the entire box onto our modest dining room table. Franklin jingled in from the bedroom, curious, and put his nose to the floor to sniff at the files that had fallen off the mountainous pile on the table. When he attempted to make off with one of the outdated newspapers, I flicked his snout and confiscated his prize, glancing down at the headline: “Waverly Student Shines.” Beneath that, there was a picture of a young man in a graduation gown shaking hands with the dean of the university. The caption said, “Donovan Davenport, valedictorian, receives his diploma from Dean John Hastings.” The article itself went on to describe Davenport’s academic success. He’d been on the Dean’s List for all four years of his undergraduate career. I scoffed when I read that, though it was mostly out of jealousy. I’d heard of the Davenports before. They owned several of the banks in the area, which meant that Donovan probably never had to work a day in his life. I, on the other hand, worked part-time all throughout college, unable to afford the luxury of studying nonstop.

O’Connor had gone to the lengths of highlighting certain parts of the article, including Donovan’s full name. The neon-yellow phrases popped out at me, things like “one of very few students to graduate summa cum laude” and “awarded a prestigious internship with a top-tier company.” There was also a quote from Davenport’s father: “We always knew Donovan was going places, and the opportunities that Dean Hastings provides for Waverly students are endless.”

In all my time at Waverly, Dean Hastings had never reached out to me with any kind of opportunity. Apparently, his attention was reserved for some of the wealthier students at Waverly. Donovan’s “prestigious internship” was for a conglomerate business, Lockwood Inc., in the downtown area, just a few blocks away from the police station. From what I could tell, it was a damn good position for a kid straight out of college. When I graduated from my state college, it was only ever a dream to skate right into a full-time, salaried position. Davenport had either worked his ass off in school or gotten lucky.

I tossed the article back on the table and regarded the disorderly pile of crap on the table. Sighing, I sifted through the top layer, unsure of where to start. O’Connor’s misspelled instructions weren’t doing me any favors. I had no clue as to why he had collected such an assortment of information, but if he really was missing, it couldn’t hurt to figure out if his unwarranted interest in local news had anything to do with it. Without any other ideas or direction, I started separating the mess into four separate piles: newspaper clippings, students’ files, handwritten letters, and O’Connor’s own notes.

 

Hours later, the sound of Wes’s key turning in the lock barely registered in my mind. I looked up as he walked in. A knot in my neck twinged; I’d been poring through O’Connor’s information for so long, hunched over the kitchen table like Quasimodo, that I hadn’t noticed the time. Wes stopped short when he saw me.

“Whoa,” he said, his eyes widening as he took in the pillars of papers and folders strewn across the table and the floor. I’d built a fortress of kitchen chairs to keep Franklin away from the material on the carpet of the living room. He’d been sulking in the corner behind the sofa all afternoon, though he leapt to his feet and bounded over to Wes as soon as he walked in. Wes set his keys on the counter, absentmindedly scratching Franklin’s head. “Nicole, what is all this stuff?”

“It’s from O’Connor’s safe,” I explained. “I’ve been trying to sort through it all. Have you ever heard of the Davenport family? Or the Lockwoods?”

“They both own pretty big businesses from what I understand,” answered Wes. He leaned down to kiss my forehead. “Why?”

“I can’t figure out why O’Connor was so obsessed with them,” I said. I pointed to one of my sub-piles. “That whole stack is entirely on the Davenports. Newspaper articles about their banking businesses, stocks, social events that the wife has run, kids. I mean, everything that has ever been written about them in the past few years, O’Connor got his hands on.”

“Why?” asked Wes, skimming one of the articles.

I shrugged. “No idea, but check this out.” I handed Wes one of the manila file folders. “O’Connor has a copy of Donovan Davenport’s student record.”

“Who?”

“Donovan,” I repeated. “One of the Davenports’ sons. He just graduated from Waverly last year at the top of his class. Here’s the thing, though. Look at his transcripts.” I extracted the correct copies from the file folder in Wes’s hands.

“Looks like he was a pretty average student,” Wes observed, flipping through Donovan’s grades. “Cs across the board.”

“Exactly. So tell me how Donovan made the Dean’s List every semester when you need at least a three-point-eight GPA to qualify for it.”

“Really?”

I nodded eagerly. “Not to mention, Donovan got nailed for plagiarizing a ten-page paper for one of his literature classes during his freshman year. Except here’s the thing: he never got in trouble for it.”

Wes groaned in disbelief. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. It was on his permanent record, but there’s a note that says the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and the entire incident was expunged. Wes, he was the valedictorian of his class. How the hell did he pull that off with a solid C average?”

“Sounds like Daddy paid off the university,” said Wes. “What else did you find on him?”

I handed him the first article that I’d read on Davenport. “He landed an internship with the Lockwood firm straight out of college. It’s full-time and salaried. What kind of entry-level internship is that lucrative?”

He skimmed through the article before handing it back to me. “I don’t know what to tell you, Nic. I’m not really surprised. It’s elitist bullshit, but that’s just the way the world works, you know?”

I threw the article on top of the Davenport pile. “It’s not just the Davenports,” I said. “It looks like O’Connor was investigating a few of the tenured professors at Waverly as well. He has their employee files too.”

“And now you have them? Nicole, you do realize that this is illegal, right?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Officer McAllen, but to be fair, I didn’t collect this information, remember?”

“Nicole, if the force finds out that all this stuff is here—”

“They won’t.”

“Nic.”

I looked up at Wes. His expression was stern, his mouth set in a hard straight line. The seriousness was out of place on Wes’s face. He was usually so easygoing, but if there was one thing Wes never joked about, it was his dedication to his job. I stood up from my seat at the kitchen table and snaked my arms around his waist.

“Weston,” I said, gazing up into his hazel eyes. “I promise not to compromise your job, okay? Just let me play around with this stuff a little while longer, and then I’ll get rid of the entire lot. Is that fair?”

Wes’s hands floated up to cradle my face, though he still looked unsure. After a moment, he sighed and said, “I guess there’s no point in protesting, is there? You tend to do as you like.”

“Which is why you love me,” I reminded him with a cheeky grin. Playfully, he hauled me forward, trapping me against his chest. With my cheek pressed to the zipper of his black police jacket, I laughed as he ruffled my hair. “Get off!”

He let me wrestle away but pulled me back at the last second and captured my lips with his. The apartment was calm and quiet as I melted into Wes. Then, as he was prone to do, Franklin barked and shoved his way between us.

“Cynic,” Wes scolded the dog, using his boot to nudge Franklin out of the way. “Listen, Nicole. Be careful with this stuff, okay? And maybe move it to the bedroom, just in case we have visitors.”

“I will,” I said. I sat back down at the table. “I haven’t even shown you the weirdest stuff yet.”

“I don’t even want to know.”

I waggled a stack of papers at him. “Or do you?”

He gave in too easily. “Fine. What is it?”

“Handwritten letters,” I said, handing them over. “Most of them are complete nonsense. I have a feeling whoever was writing them has some kind of code for all their business talk.”

He glanced through them. “How do you figure?”

“Because none of them are signed by anyone with a first and last name,” I pointed out. “Check it out. All of them are correspondence between these two people: Pluto and someone called the Morrigan. They mention other people, but never by their real names. Argos, Bacchus, Gatsby, Salander, Hoenikker. They’re mostly literary references from what I can tell.”

Wes held one of the letters up and squinted at it. “Did you see this watermark?”

“There’s a watermark?” I grabbed a few of the letters and raised them up to the overhead lamp. Wes was right. Each page sported a transparent emblem, that of some kind of raptor in flight. “Who prints watermarked stationery to send coded letters to one another?”

“Wealthy people,” said Wes matter-of-factly. He set down the rest of the letters and picked up the wooden puzzle box. “What’s this?”

“Yet another mystery,” I said. “I can’t open it.”

He fiddled with the puzzle on the front of the box for a few seconds before returning it to the kitchen table. “Good luck with that. Are you hungry? What should we make for dinner?”

“Do you mind if we order takeout?” I asked. Franklin rested his chin on my knee, and I tickled his ears. “Honestly, I’m pretty deep in this, and I just want to keep working.”

“Chinese it is.”

 

Over the course of the next week, I spent every minute of my spare time immersed in O’Connor’s findings. The professor himself remained AWOL. According to Wes, the station had officially opened a missing persons investigation. O’Connor’s home was searched for clues as to where he might’ve gone, and they put out an APB for his old sedan. Wes’s boss, Officer Wilson, asked if I could let him and a couple other officers into O’Connor’s office. I obliged, standing quietly nearby as they combed the small room. When they asked about the safe under O’Connor’s desk, I claimed that O’Connor never told me what was in it. Technically, that was true. I’d discovered the contents all on my own.

I continued to teach O’Connor’s undergraduate American History class. It was only twice a week, but I now spent more time creating lesson plans and lectures than focusing on my own studies. Thankfully, the university had found another professor to fill in for the rest of O’Connor’s courses. I logged so many hours in the library that I practically lived there. Wes had taken to complaining about how he rarely saw me at home anymore, and when he did, I was lying on a bed of pillows on the floor of the bedroom, taking notes and reading through the rest of O’Connor’s research. Despite my dedication to the task at hand, I still couldn’t fathom why O’Connor had taken it upon himself to conduct such thorough investigations of his fellow faculty members and certain Waverly students. More than once, I thought about setting everything on fire out of pure frustration, but curiosity got the best of me. Besides, a nagging voice in the back of my mind told me that O’Connor wasn’t paranoid or crazy. He’d collected this information for a reason, and I was determined to figure out what that reason was.

After class one day, I managed to corner one of the professors whose last name had appeared a few times in O’Connor’s files. Stella St. Claire had only been teaching at Waverly as an assistant professor for three years before she achieved tenure, which was more or less unheard of. Of course, her quick rise to a permanent position could have simply been the product of nepotism. The St. Claires went way back with Waverly University. Stella’s great-grandmother created the first sorority charter on campus, and every woman in the St. Claire family since, with the exception of one of Stella’s cousins, had been inducted as a legacy. In fact, the St. Claire name was so prestigious that most of the women born into the family refused to take their husband’s less reputable patronymics. In any case, Stella St. Claire happened to teach American Novel right next door to O’Connor’s history class, so I dismissed my students early and lingered outside in the hallway.

It wasn’t long before St. Claire exited her own classroom. I recognized her right away. Her faculty ID picture had been included in O’Connor’s files, and there was no mistaking her impossibly long, wavy blond hair. She walked briskly, but I stepped into her path, pretending to be immersed in one of my student’s essays, and jostled her shoulder just enough to send the cup of coffee in her hand flying. It hit the floor and exploded, splattering coffee from one side of the hallway to the other.

“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” I sputtered, watching with disguised triumph as St. Claire attempted to shake droplets of coffee off the legs of her trousers. “I wasn’t paying attention at all. Are you okay?”

“I’m just fine,” she replied curtly. “Though if you don’t mind fetching something to wipe myself off with, I’d greatly appreciate it.”

I jogged to the nearby bathroom, wrenched several cardboard-colored paper towels from the holder, and went back out to the hallway. As I handed them over, I said, “Again, I’m really sorry. You’re Professor St. Claire, right? I’m Nicole Costello. I was thinking about taking one of your courses.”

“Well, I can assure you that an A in my class is not attained by dousing me in hot coffee, Miss Costello.”

“Right. Of course.”

She dabbed at her pants with the paper towels as she glanced up at me. “You’re George O’Connor’s TA, aren’t you?”

I nodded, pleased that the subject had come up all on its own. “I’m teaching his freshman American History course while he’s away.”

“Mm. That’s excellent experience for you, even if O’Connor did throw you under the bus in a way. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him?”

I shook my head, repositioning my messenger bag on my shoulder. “Unfortunately not. I’m at a loss, really. Got any tips for me? I could use some advice from an expert.”

She gave up on blotting the coffee stains and crumpled the paper towels. “I’m hardly an expert. Otherwise, I’d have learned to dodge hazardous students in the hallway already.”

“I beg to differ,” I said as she turned away from me to toss the paper towels into a garbage can a few feet away. “I noticed that you went up for tenure after just three years as an assistant professor. The university must have been pretty impressed with you. Professor O’Connor’s been here for over six years, and he still isn’t tenured.”

St. Claire paused, peering at me over her shoulder. “What else did O’Connor tell you about me?”

With a surge of confidence, I asked, “What else does O’Connor know about you?”

To my surprise, St. Claire took me by the elbow and hauled me back into her classroom. She closed the door behind us. “Listen to me,” she said, her voice low and rushed. “Whatever it is you’ve found out, it would be in your best interest to drop it. It’s not worth it.”

“What isn’t?”

“Drop it, Miss Costello. Believe me. It’s for your own good.”

Without another word, she strolled away, and by the time I stepped out into the hallway again, she had already disappeared into the stairwell. The coffee-stained carpet was the only indication that the entire conversation had even happened. I leaned against the doorway, going over our exchange in my head. One thing was certain: I had no plans to drop this, whatever it was.

 

The following day, I had a stroke of luck. I spent all morning at the Waverly library, tucked away at a desk in a shadowy corner with a stack of O’Connor’s newspapers. I read through all of the material he had on St. Claire twice, but other than a couple of speeding tickets, Stella St. Claire didn’t seem to be protecting any kind of deep, dark secret. I’d brought along my laptop too, searching the far reaches of the Internet for any information on the St. Claire family. Most of what I found was useless. The St. Claires had donated a boatload of money to Waverly University, and every year, they hosted a banquet for the students who performed best, but ultimately, there was no obvious reason for Stella’s paranoid behavior toward me.

As absorbed as I was in my research, I almost didn’t notice when Donovan Davenport himself casually cruised by my desk. I spared him a glance and went back to my Internet search before I realized who he was. Then I slammed my laptop shut, hastily hid O’Connor’s files beneath my messenger bag, and sprang up from the desk.

“Hey, Davenport,” I called in a hushed voice, trying not to disturb the other students working. Donovan turned, and I gave him a little wave.

“Do I know you?” he asked when I caught up with him.

“Nicole Costello,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand. He couldn’t have been older than twenty-three or so, but his pressed slacks, tailored suit jacket, and expensive shoes afforded him the illusion of maturity. “I’m a senior staffer at the school paper. We’re doing an article on Waverly students who’ve been really successful post-graduation. Any chance I could talk to you about your internship with the Lockwood company?”

He reached into the pocket of his jacket and extracted a business card. “Call me during business hours. I’m running an errand.”

“Oh, actually, this really won’t take up much of your time,” I insisted but accepted the card anyway. “I’ll just walk with you. Where are you headed?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Rapere Wing. You need qualifications to enter, so unfortunately, you won’t be able to accompany me.”

I resisted the urge to sneer at his snotty tone. Little did Davenport know that O’Connor had cleared me for access into that room during my first semester as his TA. I reined in my temper. As it was, I couldn’t believe that Davenport had actually bought my undergraduate act. There was no way in hell I still passed as a twenty-year-old.

“I’ll be quick,” I insisted, staying in step with him as he tried to walk off. “Tell me, how were you hired for the position at Lockwood Inc.?”

“Applied online, booked an interview, and landed the job,” he said shortly. “That’s the general process for something like that.”

“Were you recommended for the position?”

“Nope.”

“No? Your family wasn’t already familiar with the Lockwoods?”

“Why would they be?”

A student hushed us as we trotted by. I ignored the subtle reprimand. “I just figured since both the Davenports and the Lockwoods owned prominent businesses near Waverly, you might have interacted with each other once or twice.”

Donovan apparently thought that my statement didn’t warrant a response. We were nearing the Rapere Wing. I glanced toward the giant pillars that flanked either side of the great mahogany doors, too aware of the fact that I was running out of time to get any more information out of Donovan.

“What was your GPA when you graduated from Waverly last year?” I asked. When he looked at me sharply, I added, “Just for informational purposes. Waverly students want to know what kind of expectations they should live up to.”

“The highest,” he said. “I was the valedictorian. I had a four-point-oh GPA.”

“Your transcripts state otherwise.”

My mouth had gotten ahead of me again. Donovan stopped short of the manuscript room and whirled around. “And how on earth would you have access to my transcripts?”

I had to think fast. “Uh, the newspaper allows its staff access to select transcripts from past students. For research, you know.”

“Then you might want to get your eyes checked,” Donovan said, “because I maintained straight As all throughout my four years here. Excuse me.”

With an abrupt about-face, Donovan stepped into the Rapere Wing and vanished behind a bookshelf. Under my guise as an undergraduate, there was no way I could follow. Defeated momentarily, I returned to my desk across the library. Thankfully, no one had disturbed my laptop or O’Connor’s files. I plunked down in my seat and opened up my computer to see two new emails waiting for me. The first was from a university official.

 

Miss Costello,

 

With the extended absence of Professor George O’Connor, it has come to the department’s attention that you no longer have access to a readily available thesis advisor. A new advisor has been assigned to you. Please contact Dr. Catherine Flynn, Dean of Arts and Humanities, to set up an appointment with her.

 

Regards,

 

Jacob Blackburn

Waverly University

 

However, it turned out that I didn’t even have to go to the trouble of contacting Dr. Catherine Flynn, because the next email was from the dean herself.

 

Miss Costello,

 

As your new advisor, I would like to speak to you about your thesis as soon as possible. I took it upon myself to check your class schedule and noticed that you are available tomorrow morning at 9:00. I am located in Research Hall, Room 410. Please be prompt.

 

Regards,

 

Dr. Catherine Flynn

Dean of Arts and Humanities

Waverly University

 

It was clear that this Catherine Flynn did not waste any time. I’d only heard about her in passing and seen her signature on a few of O’Connor’s documents, but I’d never met her. I now had no other option. I sent a quick email back, saying that I’d see her tomorrow, then packed up my things to head home. If Flynn wanted to discuss my thesis, she was in for a major disappointment. What with O’Connor’s disappearance, the extra classes I’d been teaching, and my foray into investigative journalism, I’d all but forgotten to pick a topic for my thesis. This meeting was bound to be a disaster.

 

Chapter Four

 

Research Hall was across the quadrangle from the Arts and Humanities Building. I’d been there once or twice to run errands for O’Connor. It was drafty and dark inside, as though the university custodians had forgotten to replace several of the fluorescent light bulbs. An elegant wooden staircase was featured in the center of the lobby, bordered on either side by an ornate banister and lined with one long Oriental rug. As I headed upstairs, the carpet muffled my steps as if to subdue my presence in the building. I ran my hand along the smooth mahogany of the banister, marveling at its craftsmanship. Then I caught a glimpse of my watch. It was three minutes to nine o’clock, and Catherine Flynn would surely not accept my appreciation of the building’s design as an excuse for my tardiness.

On the fourth floor, I was out of breath from taking the steps two at a time, and of course, Room 410 was at the end of a lengthy wood-paneled hallway. I jogged toward it, earning a look of consternation from a passing professor. Flynn’s name was printed on the frosted window set in the door. I knocked gently, smoothing my hair back in the hopes of appearing more collegiate and less windswept.

“Enter.”

Flynn’s office was twice the size of O’Connor’s. A towering bookshelf adorned one entire wall, and if my eyes didn’t deceive me, it was stocked full with rare first editions. A sculpture of a crow, made entirely of onyx, served as a single bookend. On the opposite side of the office, Flynn had hung her multitude of degree certifications in gilded frames as if to showcase her individual devotion to higher learning. Flynn herself sat behind an immense ebony desk set against a triptych of windows. Sunlight streamed in, bathing Flynn in a pale aureate glow. She was a hawk of a woman with raven-black hair, sharp eyes, a streamlined nose, and thin lips. She stood as I approached her desk, and if her severe features weren’t intimidating enough, she’d topped the effect off with a slim black power suit and a pair of sky-high gold heels, both of which belonged more on a Milan runway than on the Waverly campus.

“You’re late, Miss Costello,” she chided.

It was only two minutes past nine o’clock, but late was late to Catherine Flynn. “My apologies,” I said, reaching out to shake her hand. Her grip was firm and cold. “This building’s a bit of a maze.”

“Hm. Have a seat.”

I sank down in one of the leather chairs opposite her desk, its deep seat swallowing me, and unbuttoned my coat. Flynn paced leisurely behind her desk, reading through a manila file folder. After a few minutes of silence, I cleared my throat to remind her that I was there. She glanced up.

“Would you care for a cough drop, Miss Costello?” she asked, and though her tone was even and polite, the offer was clearly rhetorical.

“No, thank you, ma’am.”

“Hm,” she said again. “I see here you’ve worked as O’Connor’s graduate teaching assistant for three consecutive semesters now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you never thought to diversify your experience?”

“Sorry?”

She regarded me over the top of her black-rimmed designer reading glasses. “Waverly hosts a number of distinguished professors. I only wondered why you limited your interactions with the faculty to Professor O’Connor.”

“Oh, I certainly didn’t mean to,” I said, trying and failing to sit up straight in my chair. Though glamorous, the chair’s design wasn’t conducive to a professional posture. “I simply admire O’Connor’s style of teaching.”

“And yet, if you had perhaps shown more interest in other professors in your department, you might not have found yourself in such a situation,” commented Flynn.

“What situation is that?”

“Mere months away from graduation and lacking a thesis advisor,” she retorted, circling around to my side of the desk. She leaned against it, crossing one long leg over the other. “O’Connor’s vacation time has undoubtedly set you back.”

I gave up on the chair, moving to the edge of the seat in a half-hearted attempt to exert an air of confidence. “To be fair,” I began, “O’Connor was perfectly reliable before his disappearance. Shouldn’t the university be more worried about the fact that one of their ‘distinguished professors’ inexplicably disappeared rather than implying his sudden absence at school is the result of a lack of dedication to his career?”

Flynn peered down at me. “My, my,” she said with a click of her tongue. “Aren’t you an opinionated one?”

I stayed quiet, keeping my gaze level with Flynn’s own.

“Though I admire your allegiance to O’Connor,” she continued, “I encourage you to focus less on his ‘sudden absence’ and more on your thesis. I assume you have something to present to me?”

I looked away from her then. I had been up half the night trying to figure out what to propose as my thesis idea, knowing that I couldn’t walk into Flynn’s office empty-handed, but no matter how many subjects I considered, none of them captured my attention half as much as O’Connor’s research.

“Miss Costello?” Flynn snapped her fingers. “Have I lost you? What is your thesis topic?”

“The history of Waverly,” I blurted out. O’Connor’s research was Waverly-centric, and since it was the only thing I could concentrate on recently, the university’s inauguration seemed a probable subject for my thesis. My brain worked furiously to expand on it. “You know,” I said, gesturing pointlessly with my hands. “Waverly is one of the most esteemed institutions in America. Its graduates are known to become some of the most influential members in society. I’ve been researching Waverly’s background.”

Flynn twiddled a ballpoint pen between her fingers. “All of that is well and good, Miss Costello, but I’m afraid you need an angle.”

“An angle?”

“Yes, a thesis isn’t simply an extensive research paper,” she said. She pushed herself away from the desk, wandering toward the bookshelf. I twisted around to keep her in my line of sight. “You must propose some kind of new information to us, something original to prove to the committee that you’ve made the most out of your time here at Waverly.”

“In that respect, I’ve already narrowed my focus,” I responded. “I’ve been examining the most successful Waverly graduates throughout the years. In fact, the numbers there are astonishing. Did you know that Waverly has churned out more CEOs and reputable business owners than any other university in the United States? The Ivy League is wondering how we do it. I am too.”

“I see. And do you have any of this information available for me to look over?”

She had me there. All of my information was from O’Connor’s research, and there was no way in hell I would share that with Flynn. “Unfortunately, my laptop and I had a misunderstanding this morning,” I said. It was better to get nailed for the faulty-technology excuse than bring up the dubious legality of holding O’Connor’s files hostage. “My flash drive was erased.”

Flynn removed her reading glasses and folded in the temples. “Miss Costello, do you understand that without a completed thesis, you will not be able to finish your degree?”

“I’m well aware.”

“Good. This is not a joke, Miss Costello. Waverly takes your education very seriously.” At this point, Flynn had said my last name so many times that it now sounded tired in her mouth. “I suggest you revitalize your dedication to your thesis. Perhaps we’ll have another professor cover O’Connor’s American History class. That should leave you with quite enough time to spend in the library.”

I didn’t dare argue, despite the fact that I rather enjoyed teaching that class. “Whatever you see fit, Dr. Flynn.”

Flynn sat down behind her desk again, entwining her fingers together. “Miss Costello, I expect to see you in my office again very soon. At that time, if you do not have a substantial amount of work to present to me, we will consider why you decided to waste so much time at our university.”

“Was that a dismissal?” I asked, my temper bubbling over. “Can I go now?”

“You may.”

I stood, buttoned my coat, and turned away from Flynn to leave.

“Miss Costello?” Flynn had donned her reading glasses again, sparing not a glance at me as she typed away at her computer. “As you research Waverly’s most auspicious students, perhaps consider the reasons as to why you are not rising to their ranks.”

I had no response for Flynn that wouldn’t automatically get me booted out of Waverly, so I left her office, slamming the door shut so hard that its inset windowpane rattled.

 

Outside Research Hall, the cold nipped at my nose. I exhaled heavily, watching a puff of vapor escape from my mouth and float upward. Unlike some of the other students at Waverly, I wasn’t privileged enough to have the faculty and staff in my back pocket. O’Connor, it turned out, was the only professor on campus that had any faith in me, and now that he was gone, I was at a loss. I spared a moment to gather myself, sitting briefly on the stone steps of the building to rest my head in my hands, but the cold quickly seeped through my jeans and into my bones. Flurries of snowflakes were falling again, so I picked myself up before too many of them could settle in my hair and turned my feet toward home.

As I walked down the short alley between Research Hall and the next building over, grateful that the towering brick structures sheltered me from the worst of the wind, I heard the crunch of footsteps through dead leaves behind me. This alone wouldn’t have startled me, but when the footsteps quickened and crescendoed, I whirled around with my hands at the ready.

“Easy!”

The owner of the footsteps was a young woman, bundled up in a snow jacket and several layers of scarves. Her deep-set eyes watered, from the wind or something else I didn’t know, and her shoulder-length, dark hair was greasy and unkempt as though it hadn’t been washed in several days. Though she raised her hands as an indication of innocence, her harried appearance made me uneasy.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Probably not,” she said. She glanced behind her, as if to make sure that the two of us were alone in the narrow alleyway. “But I think I can help you.”

“How so?”

She stepped toward me, closing what little distance was left between us. “My name is Jo Mitchell. I overheard you speaking with Donovan Davenport in the library yesterday.”

“So?”

“I just thought you should know that you were right about him,” she said, her voice so hushed that it was in danger of being swept away by the chilly breeze that flitted through the alleyway. “About his transcripts.”

“How would you know that?” I asked.

“Because I was supposed to be Waverly’s valedictorian last year.”

She fell silent as a group of students, laughing raucously, passed by at the end of the alley. I waited until their conversation faded then said, “I’m listening.”

Jo huffed into her gloved hands and rubbed them together. “At the end of the spring semester, I was slated to graduate at the top of my class, summa cum laude, until I failed three core classes that were necessary to my major. I’ve never failed a class in my life.”

I could relate. The last few steps before graduation were always the hardest ones to take. My own life was a direct example of that. “Stress has a way of taking us down with little effort,” I said, hoping to reassure the young woman. “Believe me, I know that feeling—like an uncertain future is creeping up on you?—all too well.”

“It wasn’t stress,” Jo insisted, a biting edge to her voice. “I was fine, ahead of schedule even, and then someone altered my grades to make sure that Donovan Davenport became valedictorian.”

The conviction with which she delivered this piece of news supported what I’d already assumed was true. It was evident that Davenport’s transcripts had been tampered with. It was just as likely that whoever was responsible for Donovan’s inexplicable success had also knocked aside other students in order to make way for him.

“Did you report it?” I asked.

“You actually believe me?”

I nodded, kicking the toe of one boot then the other against the brick wall of Research Hall in an effort to get some blood flowing through my frigid feet. “I’ve seen Donovan’s real transcripts. Straight As, my ass. So tell me, did you report it?”

When she realized that I wasn’t messing around with her, Jo’s eyes brightened. “Yeah, I did,” she said. “I went to every professor, but they all claimed that they had no idea what I was talking about, and that I would have to take it up with the department. They sent me on a wild goose chase from one university official to the next. I thought I was going to lose my mind.”

“What happened?”

“Eventually, they called me into the dean’s office for a meeting,” she said, tucking her chin into one of her many scarves. “Except when I got there, I found out that Dean Hastings had called the school psychiatrist, and they were both waiting for me. They told me that I was suffering from intense anxiety and paranoia brought on by stress.”

What?

“Yeah,” said Jo with a curt nod. “They said that if I wanted to complete my degree at Waverly, I would have to agree to attend weekly sessions with the psychiatrist, and I certainly wasn’t going to graduate at the top of my class anymore.”

It all sounded too conspiratorial for Waverly’s reputation. The university had an honor code; falsifying grades and forcing students into therapy were violations of that code at the highest level.

“Look, I just wanted to let you know,” Jo continued. She wiped moisture away from her face with the back of her gloved hand. “If they can convince the entire university that I’m crazy, I’m sure they can do the same or worse to you for digging into their business.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“I thought you knew.”

“No.”

“Shit.” Jo looked skyward in apparent dismay. She sniffed, wiped her nose, and said, “Just don’t get involved, okay? And be careful.”

She took a step back as if preparing to walk away, but I grabbed her wrist to hold her in place. “Who’s behind all of this?” I asked in a low voice. “What else do you know?”

“Nothing. Let go of me.”

“Somehow, I don’t believe that,” I said but allowed her to pry herself from my grasp.

Jo looked me up and down as if evaluating my ability to handle whatever information she was withholding. “If you get any deeper in this, there is no way out,” she warned.

“I can handle it.”

She sighed. “Fine. Do you have a pen?”

I flipped open my messenger bag without hesitation and handed her one of the red correction pens I used to grade students’ essays. She uncapped it, took my hand, and began to write on the back of it.

“I’ve had enough of this shit, all right?” she said as she doodled away on my cold skin. “You do what you want with this, but don’t come looking for me. I don’t want to be involved anymore. I just want my damn degree.”

As she capped the pen and gave it back to me, I glanced down at the back of my hand. Jo had only written three words—nec plus ultra—and drawn an outline of a bird, and when I looked up again, she had already made it to the other end of the alleyway.

“Hey, wait a second!” I called after her. “What the hell does this mean?”

She kept walking. “Figure it out. Or don’t. To be frank, the latter is your better option.”

With that, Jo Mitchell disappeared behind Research Hall, leaving me in the cold to stare at the meaningless red ink on the back of my hand.

 

At home, I collapsed on the sofa for a nap. Franklin hopped up next to me and settled down. I curled in around his warm body and pressed my nose into his fur. He smelled like a dog, musty with a hint of baby shampoo, but there was still something comfortable about it. My mind whirled, circulating through all of the secrets that Waverly University was hiding, but I hadn’t slept a full eight hours in several days, and so I drifted away into blissful unconsciousness.

Some hours later, Wes gently shook me awake. Blearily, I opened my eyes.

“Hi, baby,” said Wes. He was still dressed in his uniform. It looked like he had just gotten home from work. “Have you been here all day?”

“Mostly,” I admitted. At some point during my knockout nap, Franklin had abandoned me. Now he sat patiently by his dog bowl as if to remind us that it was time for his dinner.

“You have ink on your face,” Wes said, licking his thumb and rubbing at my cheek.

I sat up suddenly, remembering Jo’s message. The red ink on the back of my hand was smudged but still legible. Before I could forget, I leaned across Wes, reaching for a blank sticky note from the coffee table, and jotted down nec plus ultra. For good measure, I did my best to imitate the bird outline. I was no artist, but I got the general shape of it down.

“What’s that?” Wes asked, looking over my shoulder at the note.

“Something else to confuse me.”

“Well, explain it to me while we figure out what to make for dinner.”

As Wes and I unearthed a pair of chicken breasts from the refrigerator and decided to make chicken parmesan, I filled him in on the events of the day.

“She sounds like a bitch,” he commented when I told him about my meeting with Flynn. He popped the lid off a jar of tomato sauce and started spooning it over the chicken. “This Jo girl, though. How sure are you that she isn’t actually suffering from paranoia?”

I shook my head as I sliced fresh mozzarella. “It makes sense. Davenport never would’ve been valedictorian with his grades. Don’t you think it’s weird? Jo’s at the top of her class, everything’s perfect, and then all of a sudden, she’s flunking out and labeled as a nut job. It doesn’t add up.”

“If that’s the case, it makes me wonder what else the university is covering up,” said Wes. We finished preparing the chicken, and Wes slid the pan into the oven.

A possibility crossed my mind. “How curious are you about that?” I asked him.

Wes leaned against the kitchen counter, crossing his arms. “You’ve got that look, Nic.”

“What look?”

“The one you get every time you try to coerce me into doing something I don’t want to do. Just tell me.”

I circled around the counter to where Wes’s laptop was charging and tapped my fingers on its keyboard. “You have access to the police database, right? Could you do a search for cases involving Waverly students?”

“I could.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, but would you?”

“Nicole, come on.”

“What? It’s all right there!” I unplugged the laptop from its charger and carried it over to Wes. He remained firmly planted against the counter, so I gave him my best doe eyes. “Please?”

“Put my laptop back before you accidentally drop it in the sink or something,” Wes ordered. I stayed put, pouting, but Wes was adamant. “I have to draw the line somewhere, Nicole,” he said. “I can’t risk my job like that.”

My shoulders dropped. Most days, the presence of a morally sound boyfriend worked to my advantage, but when I needed him to bend the rules a tiny bit, he was as stiff as a slab of concrete. I recognized a lost battle. “I understand,” I said, abandoning the laptop. “I’m going to go change.”

“Thank you. I’ll make some veggies.”

I ambled into the bedroom, stripping off my sweater and undershirt, and opened the closet door to find something more comfortable to wear. As I rifled through my wardrobe, searching for a particular pair of ratty sweatpants with the Waverly University crest emblazoned on the thigh, the sight of Wes’s desktop computer, the one he used to work from home, caught my eye in the mirror. Half-dressed, I wandered over to Wes’s desk and typed his password in. The screensaver vanished to reveal the main page of the police database already pulled up on the desktop. All I had to do was log in with Wes’s information. I glanced over my shoulder toward the kitchen, where the steady sizzle of oil in a pan and the clink of silverware told me that Wes was still blissfully unaware of my actions in the bedroom. My fingers lingered over the keyboard. I knew Wes’s username and password for his work account, but betraying Wes’s trust was a high price to pay for the slim chance of obtaining potential information. I was tiptoeing over the line he had spoken about earlier. Before integrity could get the best of me, I tapped in Wes’s information and hit Enter.

The database itself was easy enough to search through, and I found a list of cases involving Waverly students in a few brief seconds. As I scrolled through, keeping my eyes peeled for familiar names or peculiarities, Wes called down the hall from the kitchen.

“Babe, dinner’s ready!”

“One minute, I can’t find my sweatpants!” I called back, scrolling faster now. Several Waverly students had had encounters with the local force for petty crimes, but vandalism, disorderly conduct, and shoplifting were all run-of-the-mill experiences for the average college student. Nothing out of the ordinary revealed itself right away until one name, Spencer Schwartz, caused me to pause in my swift search. Schwartz was yet another one of the families that O’Connor had been following. I clicked on Spencer’s name, expanding the case file. It was a citation for aggravated DWI from the previous year, but for some inexplicable reason, Spencer hadn’t faced any kind of consequences for her actions. No fine, no jail time, no revocation of her license. She’d gotten off scot-free.

I took a picture of the screen with my phone then noticed that Spencer’s case had been copied and stored in another folder as well. I clicked the folder, revealing its contents, and a groan of incredulity found its way out of my mouth. The folder was full of cases similar to Schwartz’s, students from Waverly’s blue-blooded families that had committed crimes of varying severity, but every single one of them had been dismissed without reason.

“Nicole!”

Engrossed in these new revelations, I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be on a stealth mission. Wes stood in the doorway, one hand still grasping the pair of oily tongs from the kitchen as he stared open-mouthed at the sight of me leaning over his work computer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said, tactfully maneuvering through the files and papers of O’Connor’s research that I had left on the floor to join me at his desk. He caught a glimpse of the pages that I was looking it. “Oh, God. Nicole, you didn’t.”

“Wes, I’m really sorry, but look at this—”

“No!” Wes spun me around so that I no longer faced his desktop. “I understand that you’re immersed in this. I get that you want to figure it out, but you are now officially dragging me into some really illegal shit, and I didn’t ask for that, Nicole.”

“I know.”

“I told you. I won’t stop you from doing your own thing. Go through O’Connor’s shit. Fine. But this is a whole new level.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do you want me to lose my job?” he went on, moving around me to click out of the folders that I had singled out from the database. I failed to mention that I’d already taken screenshots of the cases that had piqued my interest.

“Of course not.”

“Good.” He took a deep breath. Now that he’d logged himself out of his work account, and its contents were no longer visible to me, he deflated a little bit. He sat down in his desk chair, reaching out for one of my hands. As he played with my fingers, he said, “Look, you can’t do this to me, okay? I have always had complete and utter trust in you. Please don’t make me start to question that.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” I mumbled, “I feel like an asshole for doing it.”

A hint of a smile touched his lips.

“But—” I continued.

“Oh, there’s a ‘but.’”

“Wes, I found a bunch of cases that involved Waverly students,” I said, rushing through the words before he could stop me. “Some of them were pretty serious. For instance, Robert Buchanan—he’s a freshman—was just cleared of a reckless driving charge, but he put the other driver in the hospital for months. Anastasia St. Claire—she’s Stella St. Claire’s daughter. You know the professor who teaches next door?—she just got out of a one thousand dollar charge for hazing.”

“Nicole—”

“And Donovan Davenport keeps popping up too,” I interrupted. “He got busted for possession. He was pulled over for speeding and had a couple grams of weed on him. And guess who he was with when it happened? Lauren Lockwood.”

Wes rubbed his temples with the tips of his fingers. “What’s your point, Nicole?”

“My point is, why are these particular students being given special treatment?” I said, kneeling down to collect a stack of papers from the floor. The top page was a letter of recommendation for Robert Buchanan from Dean Hastings. “The same names keep popping up. Davenport and Lockwood, for instance. Donovan told me that he didn’t have any connections to the Lockwoods, but according to police records, he’s rolling doobies with this Lauren girl.”

“Please don’t ever say doobies again.”

“Stop joking around. I’m serious, Wes.”

“I know,” he said with a tremendous sigh. He brandished the kitchen tongs at me. “That’s what scares me.”

“Look, I know you don’t want any part of it,” I said. “But is there any way you could just, I don’t know, nonchalantly ask Daryl why those cases were thrown out?”

He regarded me for a moment. The last bit of evening light filtered in through the blinds on the window, bringing out the flecks of gold and green in his eyes. I waited, though I hoped his answer would come soon. The acrid scent of burning oil wafted into the bedroom from down the hall, and I feared for the state of our dinner.

“I suppose,” said Wes after what felt like eons, “that if I have the opportunity, I could mention it to Daryl.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”

“Don’t expect much,” he warned, and once again, the tongs came dangerously close to breaching my personal space. “I’m not promising anything.”

“Okay.”

Wes stood up, his desk chair creaking, and started to head back toward the kitchen. “I’m going to see what I can salvage of dinner,” he announced. “Put a shirt on, woman. You’ll freeze to death.”

As he retreated down the hallway, I unearthed one of his old state college sweatshirts and drew it on over my head, smiling as I listened to Wes mumble about a perfectly good chicken parmesan gone to shit.

 

After a decent night’s sleep, I decided to take Flynn’s advice, as rudely delivered as it was, and headed to the library to put some work in on my thesis. I set up shop at a secluded table near the Rapere Wing then browsed through the section of the library that was dedicated to the university itself. Ensconced between the shelves, it was easy to get lost in the numerous volumes outlining Waverly’s history. I selected three or four that caught my eye, but as I knelt down to reach for a fat, faded maroon book with the title Legacies of Waverly University stamped on its spine in gold lettering, I noticed a neat stack of yellowing newspapers at the end of the lowest shelf. Shuffling over, I reached for the topmost edition.

It was an issue of The Daily Bird, dated 1898, and from what I could tell, it was Waverly’s old student newspaper. I’d never heard of it before. Our current student paper was called the Waverly Daily, and if I wasn’t mistaken, it hadn’t been established until the 1930s. I appreciated how well preserved The Daily Bird was, turning its crispy pages with a delicate hand, but when my eyes landed on a note from the editor, I clicked my tongue in recognition. Theodore Lockwood, senior editor, had been a student staffer for four years. His note thanked his readers and announced his retirement. The new editor in chief, I was less than surprised to note, was to be Everett Davenport.

With a few issues of The Daily Bird tucked under my arm, I returned to my quiet table, typed in the password for my laptop, and opened up a Web browser. A cursory search for Waverly’s forgotten daily turned up no significant results, so I accessed Waverly’s own scholastic database and brushed up on my Boolean abilities. This heeded more success. Still, only two articles within the database mentioned The Daily Bird. The first was entitled “America’s Oldest College Newspaper.”

 

For several years, it has been debated as to which of America’s universities boasts the oldest student-run paper. Yale, Princeton, and Harvard have all attempted to claim the title, but a recent revelation came to light with the discovery of an issue of The Daily Bird, Waverly University’s original student paper. The issue was dated 1789, decades before the other Ivies rolled the dice in the game of collegiate journalism. Unfortunately, Waverly can’t claim the ultimate prize of Longest Running College Daily as the publication of The Daily Bird came to a mysterious halt in 1910, and the university’s current paper wasn’t instituted until 1934. So the question remains: what happened to The Daily Bird?

 

For whatever reason, The Daily Bird had dropped off the map of college papers. I skimmed the rest of the article, but whoever wrote it hadn’t discovered any further information on the Bird’s disappearance. The second article, “Waverly Brothership Continues On,” was from a few years back and wasn’t about the Bird at all. Instead, it detailed the “long-standing partnership” between two of Waverly’s finest families and their continual success beyond education. Before I even read on, instinct told me which two families the article undoubtedly referred to. Sure enough: “The Lockwoods and the Davenports have worked side by side ever since the two families first arrived at Waverly. Orson’s and William’s great-great-grandfathers ran Waverly’s original student paper, The Daily Bird, together.”

As I continued to read the article, a crease of confusion etched itself into the skin between my brows. The Lockwoods and the Davenports went back as far as the school itself. Why Donovan would deny that relationship was beyond me, especially when the evidence was so easily accessible.

A murmur of conversation and the soft fall of footsteps on the library carpet permeated the fortress of books that I had constructed atop my table. I ignored it at first, too absorbed in the baffling existence of The Daily Bird, but the tail end of one sentence caused my head to snap up at attention.

“—asked me to schedule a meeting with the Morrigan.”

Another voice responded. “Good. It’s about time we straightened this disaster out. Pluto won’t admit it, but he’s definitely worried. I think there’s something going on that he isn’t telling the rest of us.”

The library swallowed the voices as the footfalls faded from my little corner of the building. I hesitated, but after a split second of decision making, I tucked away the old issues of the Bird and shot to my feet. Hurrying between the shelves, I followed the voices, but as I approached the entrance to the Rapere Wing, the conversation abruptly cut off. I peeked around my side of the shelf and let out a groan. Between the pillars that flanked the adjacent wing of the library, there was no one in sight.

Dejected, I returned to my table and reopened my laptop. I searched “Pluto” and “Waverly University” with no luck. The only information on Pluto that I could find referred to either the dubiously classified planet, Mickey’s pet dog, or the alternate name for Hades. The Morrigan I was even less familiar with, but with the help of a few informative Web pages, I began to understand the reference. The Morrigan was a character from Irish mythology, a “phantom queen” that took the shape of a crow and decided who lived and died on the battlefield. Like the origin of Pluto’s name, this meant little to me, and I slammed the laptop shut, ready to give up on the nicknames and return to my poorly attended thesis research, before an image popped into my mind: that of a black crow sculpture sitting on Catherine Flynn’s office bookshelf.

 

Chapter Five

 

For the first time in a while, Wes beat me home that night. The front door banged against the wall behind it as I powered through, dumping my bag and shedding my jacket in record time. Franklin rushed over, tail wagging, and I said hello to him via a distracted pat to the top of his head. In the kitchen, Wes was busy adding noodles to a stir fry. The apartment smelled delicious, but as I slid onto one of the barstools and took out my laptop to continue my research, the scent of soy sauce and ginger faded from my focus.

“Wow,” Wes commented, turning the stir fry with a wooden spoon. “Not even a hello kiss. Must have been an interesting day.”

I leaned over the counter to press my lips briefly to Wes’s. “I have news,” I announced.

“So do I.”

That was a surprise. Wes almost always let me blather on about my day before filling me in on his. “You first.”

He lowered the heat on the stove and left the food to simmer. “I asked Officer Wilson about those cases you found.”

A rush of love for Wes pulsed through me. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected Wes to actually ask about the cases. The fact that he did was a small reminder of how much he cared for me. “You did?”

“Yup. And guess what? He hemmed and hawed. Wouldn’t give me a straight answer.”

“No way.”

“Yup.” He nodded grimly. “So I asked Brad instead—you know Brad. He’s not quite as bright—and he let slip that cases involving high-profile students are thrown out at the request of university officials.”

“Who exactly qualifies as a high-profile student?”

“My guess is any one of them whose family is invited to those annual donation balls that Waverly holds,” said Wes, returning to the stove to move the wok off of the burner. He pulled two plates from the cabinet. “It’s not surprising really. All of those cases you found—Schwartz, Buchanan, St. Claire—those families go way back in Waverly history.”

I scooched closer to the bar top as Wes filled a plate with stir fry and slid it across the counter. “I kind of already knew that.”

“Of course you did,” said Wes, making a plate for himself. “High-end universities like Waverly are notorious for that kind of shit. It’s just business, really. You said you had news as well?”

“Oh, right. I’m going to break in to Catherine Flynn’s office. Want to help?”

“Nicole!” Wes dropped his fork in shock.

“I’m kidding,” I said. Unable to leave my mysteries alone for long, I picked up my meal and carried it over to the coffee table near the couch, both of which were still laden with some of O’Connor’s research, despite Wes’s protests. The wooden puzzle box from O’Connor’s safe had become our new centerpiece. I dragged it toward me, fiddling with the spinning pieces on the front as I shoveled noodles into my mouth with the fork in my other hand. “You don’t have to help.”

“What a relief,” Wes quipped. “Is there any point in trying to persuade you not to go through with this?”

“Probably not.”

“Hm. And why, may I ask, do you feel the need to break in to your thesis advisor’s office?”

I shook the puzzle box, listening for any clue as to what it might contain. “I think she’s involved in all this crap.”

“Just because she’s a hard-ass doesn’t mean she’s plotting some kind of Waverly takeover. Also, for future reference, you probably shouldn’t inform your cop boyfriend about your plans to break and enter.”

“With any luck, there won’t be a whole lot of breaking,” I said through a mouthful of noodles and beef. “That building is ancient. Besides, I’ve met the security guard in there. His name is Stan, and he looks like he’s about eighty years old. It shouldn’t be much of a problem to sneak by him.”

“Stop,” said Wes as he sat cross-legged on the floor across from me and dug into his meal. “I’d rather stay ignorant of your harebrained schemes. At least that way, I can claim I didn’t know anything about it when they haul you off to prison.”

“Weston!”

“What?” he asked innocently. “I’ll wait for you until you get out. What’s the average punishment for espionage again?”

“Death,” I answered dryly.

“Oh, right. That throws a wrench in our romantic reunion then.”

I flicked a peapod across the table at him. It landed on a pink Post-It note, and as Wes picked up the peapod and ate it, I reached across the table and pulled the note, now stained with soy sauce, toward me. It was the one I’d written Jo Mitchell’s information on. I pondered the three words—nec plus ultra—again. It was Latin—that much was obvious—but I hadn’t had the chance to run the phrase through a translation application yet. I glanced at the puzzle box again. Twelve spaces to access whatever was inside the box, and a twelve-letter phrase jotted down on a pink Post-It.

“No way,” I whispered, picking up the box.

“What?” Wes asked.

“You’ll see in a minute, if I’m right.”

I maneuvered the first spinning dial to the letter “n” then worked my way slowly through the remainder of the twelve spaces. When the puzzle reflected the phrase on the Post-It, I held my breath and pressed my thumbs to the lid of the box.

It popped open.

“Holy shit,” said Wes. His fork clattered to his plate as he leaned over the coffee table for a better look. “What is it?”

The inside of the box was just as elegant as the outside. It was lined with lush, purple velvet, and nestled upon a small pillow of the same material was a petite ring. The band of the ring was polished silver, but the stone it sported was as black as night and cut in a peculiar octagonal fashion that would never be appropriate for a diamond. The same emblem that had watermarked Pluto’s and the Morrigan’s handwritten letters, the raptor with outstretched wings, was stamped on the varnished wood on the inside of the lid, and beside it, a short poem. I read it out loud to Wes:

 

“Not life, nor death betwixt the breadth

Not lost, nor found beyond the bounds

Not a crypt, nor a tomb is our latet room

Amidst the pillars we call:

Nothing further beyond! Nec plus ultra!

 

“What the hell is that?” asked Wes.

“It’s a riddle,” I answered Wes. I took the ring out of the box, holding it up to eye level to examine it. It was quite small, I noticed. I experimentally slipped it onto the ring finger of my left hand, but it wouldn’t pass over my second knuckle. I handed the box over to Wes so that he could have a better look.

“What does ‘latet’ mean?” he asked.

“Hidden.” I knew enough Latin root words to recognize that one, and now that I had the English equivalent of nec plus ultra right in front of me, its translation seemed so simple. “Nothing further beyond.”

“So what, like a secret room?”

I nodded, taking the box back from Wes to read through the riddle again. “You better turn a blind eye tonight, Officer McAllen.”

He cocked his head, confused. “Why?”

“Because now I’m definitely breaking in to Flynn’s office.”

 

Later that night, after Wes had gone to bed, I bundled myself up in a black snow jacket and left the apartment. That afternoon’s flurry had picked up. A thin layer of snow already blanketed the ground. My feet crunched through it as I ducked my head against the incoming flakes and pulled my hood tighter around my face. Without the sun’s warmth, the trek across campus felt ten times longer, and when the buildings that bordered the quadrangle finally swam into view, a sigh of relief left my mouth and crystallized in the cool air.

It was late, nearly midnight, when I reached the doors of Research Hall. They were locked of course, but I could see Stan, the elderly night guard, sitting behind the lobby desk and reading a newspaper. I rapped on the window of the door, and when Stan glanced up from the paper, I gave him a sheepish wave. What with his decrepit bones, it took him ages to neatly fold the paper, haul himself off his stool, and amble over to the door.

As the lock clicked open, Stan pushed the door open just enough to allow his voice to carry through. “Can I help you, miss?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, doing my best to sound exasperated. “My professor left a really important file in Dr. Flynn’s office. He needs it tonight. Is it okay if I go upstairs to get it? I’ll be quick, I promise.”

“Do you have your student ID card?”

I hesitated, biting my lip, then produced my ID card for Stan to inspect. Hopefully, his vision was too terrible to make out my full name, or maybe he was senile enough not to remember it tomorrow morning. He handed it back with a satisfied nod then opened the door wider to let me in.

“Quickly, quickly,” said Stan as I stepped over the doormat and a gust of wind blew snow into the lobby.

“Thanks again,” I said to Stan and hurried up the staircase.

Flynn’s office was much easier to find the second time around. I paused outside her door, listening for any signs of movement inside, but all was quiet. The antique knob refused to turn, locked from the inside, but I expected this. I knelt down, took two bent bobby pins from my pocket, and went to work. I’d learned to pick locks during undergrad after I’d forgotten the keys to my dorm room one too many times and ended up in a rainstorm in a white T-shirt. That day, I’d learned a life lesson and a new skill. When I coaxed the bobby pin into the keyhole and the lock clicked into place, I grinned.

Once inside, I closed the door behind me and headed straight for the crow sculpture on the bookshelf. It was heavy, and the books that it had been propping up tumbled to the side like dominos as soon as I moved it. Swearing under my breath and making a mental note of how the bookshelf had been arranged, I flipped the crow sculpture over to examine the bottom.

“No shit,” I muttered. It was almost too easy. A twelve-letter puzzle, similar to the one on the wooden box, adorned the bottom of the sculpture. I manipulated the dials into place, nec plus ultra now stored permanently in the files of my long-term memory, and a small, spring-loaded lid flipped open to reveal that the inside of the crow was hollow. Like the puzzle box, it was lined with purple velvet and boasted the raptor emblem. There was a ring as well, this one slightly bigger but still with a feminine flair.

I closed the sculpture’s secret compartment, spinning the puzzle dials back to a random selection of letters. Then I straightened the books on Flynn’s shelf and replaced the crow. There was no doubt in my mind that Catherine Flynn was the Morrigan, but Wes would be harder to convince. In addition, I still had no idea what the Morrigan and Pluto had conspired about in those secret coded letters to each other. I needed more proof.

I went behind Flynn’s desk and woke up her computer. The password page blinked at me, and wondering how many times I could get lucky in one night, I typed nec plus ultra into the appropriate bar.

“Morons,” I uttered under my breath as the computer immediately allowed me access to Flynn’s private work computer. It was common knowledge to never use the same password for multiple access points, but Flynn had apparently never been clued in on that. I navigated to her desktop email application—she had never logged out of it, once again placing a little too much faith in her password protection—and quickly searched “Pluto.” A series of emails popped up, all of them to or from the elusive Pluto. With my cell phone, I took a few pictures, making sure the Morrigan’s sign-off and Pluto’s email address were both visible in the photos. I logged off of Flynn’s computer, looking around the office for anything else that might benefit my research.

The tall filing cabinet in the far corner demanded my attention. I swiped a letter opener from Flynn’s desk and crossed the room. Filing cabinets were even easier to break in to than doorknobs. I inserted the skinny end of the letter opener into the lock, jimmying it until it clicked, then rotated the letter opener. The first few drawers of the filing cabinet held nothing of interest—Flynn’s lesson plans, student essays, textbook copies, et cetera—but the bottom drawer contained several file folders simply labeled “BRS.” I knelt down, rifling through one of the thicker files. Inside, several bank statements referenced enormous sums of money being transferred back and forth between multiple accounts. Each statement was stapled to a photocopy of a letter between the Morrigan and Pluto. As I compared the statements to the letters, I suddenly understood. Even in code, it wasn’t hard to decipher the point of the letters. They discussed whatever monetary deal was being made under the table, and the bank statements were attached as proof of purchase, but why Flynn kept records of her shady transactions with Pluto in such a conspicuous place as her own office had me questioning her judgement. Did she really not expect anyone to find out about it?

A door slammed in the hallway. I shoved the documents back into the file folder, hastily closed the drawer, and turned the letter opener again to lock the cabinet. Then I tiptoed over to the office door, opened it a hair, and peeked out.

Catherine Flynn was at the opposite end of the hallway, strolling in my direction.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit.”

I closed the door as quietly as I could and locked it, looking around the room for an alternate escape route. The windows behind Flynn’s desk were my only hope, but the first two I tried to open had been painted shut. The third one, thank goodness, I was able to pry free from its position and wrench wide.

Flynn’s key jingled in the doorknob behind me. Sending up a silent prayer that I wouldn’t fall off a fourth-floor windowsill and die a horribly messy death, I hoisted myself up and out of the window. A stone ledge was attached to the brick building beneath the window. It was only about a foot wide, but it was enough space for me to step out on to. The ground swam four floors below me, and a sudden deluge of nausea hit me. I swallowed it back, nudging the window closed with my elbow, and edged as far out of view of Flynn’s office as the ledge allowed me.

As I heard Flynn rummaging around in her file cabinet, my heart pounded so loudly that I feared it might give me away. One window ledge over, a rickety fire escape creaked in response to the wintry breeze that threatened to knock me off the side of the building. The jump from my ledge to the next was only a few feet, but it was the long drop to the snowy ground that made me think twice about that short hop. With no other options, I took one big, steadying breath and leapt to the other ledge.

One foot landed soundly. The other slipped right off the icy stone. I windmilled my arms, leaning forward, and grabbed a hold of the rusted metal fire escape. It responded with a loud clang that echoed through the quadrangle.

“Oh, Christ.”

I climbed over the railing to get on the correct side of the fire escape and took the stairs down two at a time. It wasn’t a quiet getaway. Every step was accompanied by an obstreperous protest from the aged fire escape. When I finally reached the ground, I pulled the hood of my snow jacket up over my head and sprinted away, keeping to the shadows of the buildings, but as I crossed the quadrangle, I could’ve sworn I heard the sound of a window opening and slamming shut again.

 

In the dark parking lot behind the quad, I found Wes sitting in his squad car. He leaned across the cabin to push open the passenger side door as soon as I emerged from the dim coverage of the campus oak trees.

“Get in,” he whispered, beckoning me toward him.

I slid inside and closed the door. “Go, go, go.”

He peeled silently out of the lot and on to the little road that circled back toward on-campus housing.

“I thought you didn’t want to be involved,” I said, holding my frosty hands in front of the heater vents. The inside of Wes’s squad car was delightfully warm compared to outside.

“I didn’t,” Wes said, “but you were gone for a while, and I didn’t want you to freeze to death.”

“Much appreciated.”

Wes rolled through a stop sign. “So?”

“So what?”

“Did you find anything?”

I glanced over at him. “You really want to know? I can keep you out of it like you asked.”

As he guided the car into the parking lot behind our apartment building, Wes said, “Honestly, Nicole, as soon as I heard you leave earlier, I realized that if I ever lost you because I refused to back you up and keep you safe out of fear of losing my job, I’d never forgive myself.”

“Baby, I wasn’t shipped off to ’Nam.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said, turning the car off and stepping out. “But still. Come on, let’s get inside.”

Wes wrapped an arm around my shoulders, drawing me tightly to his side as we headed up the stairs to our apartment. As I stamped the snow out of my boots and hung my jacket up to dry, I asked Wes, “Does this mean you’d be willing to track down the owner of an email account for me?”

“Right now?” He sidestepped Franklin, who seemed confused that we were both still awake at such a late hour, and started gathering ingredients for hot chocolate.

“If you don’t mind.”

Wes turned on the stove. “You do this,” he said, handing me a sauce pan and the jug of whole milk. “What’s the email address?”

I showed him the picture on my phone. As he sat down at the counter and booted up his laptop, I busied myself with the hot chocolate process. A few minutes later, I set a steaming cup full of chocolate and marshmallows in front of Wes, who nodded his thanks and took a sip.

“Any luck?” I asked.

“Just one minute.”

I waited patiently, blowing cool air across the surface of my own drink before taking a sip.

“Okay,” Wes said. He picked a marshmallow off the top of his drink and fed it to Franklin. “To no one’s surprise, it looks like that address is managed by one Orson Lockwood.”

“Seriously?” I scooched closer and rested my chin on Wes’s arm to get a better look at the laptop screen. “Which Lockwood is he? I’ve honestly lost track.”

“He owns Lockwood Inc.,” Wes said, zooming in on a picture of Orson. He was a handsome guy for his age, mid-fifties maybe, with a full head of jet-black hair, a razor-straight nose, and the whitest teeth I’d ever seen.

“He’s Lauren’s father, then? The girl that got busted alongside Donovan Davenport?”

“Looks that way.”

I leaned over the counter, resting my forehead on the back of my hands. Franklin nosed my thigh, but I was too distracted by the information spinning around in my head to toss him another marshmallow.

“Franklin, get down,” said Wes. His warm hand found its way underneath my T-shirt, where he rubbed my back in slow, serene circles. “You okay, Nic?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around all of this.”

“Around all of what?”

I rubbed my eyes. It was way past my usual bedtime, but at this point, no matter how exhausted I was, I doubted my brain’s ability to shut up long enough for me to get some rest. “Wes, I found proof that Lockwood and Flynn—Pluto and the Morrigan, if you will—are moving massive amounts of money around. That paired with all the other stuff—Jo Mitchell, the university manipulating student grades, the police cover-ups—I’m starting to think O’Connor was really on to something here. What if that’s why he’s gone missing, Wes? Because he found out about all the illegal stuff the university is doing?”

Wes closed his laptop and pulled me into his lap. “Nicole, it’s not your responsibility to expose whatever it is that’s going on here.”

“Yeah, but O’Connor—”

“O’Connor isn’t here,” he said, his breath tickling my ear. “I know you care about him, and I can assure you that the force is still working very hard to find out where he’s gone, but there’s only so much you can do. Besides, O’Connor should’ve known better than to throw you into the deep end like that.”

I rested my forehead on Wes’s shoulder and closed my eyes. “I can’t stop now.”

“You can for tonight,” said Wes, stroking my hair away from my face. “You’re exhausted. Let’s go to bed.”

I nodded, and Wes helped me down from his lap. In the bedroom, I peeled off my damp layers of clothing. As I leaned down to pry my ankles free from my jeans, the front-page headline of a photocopied issue of The Daily Bird peeked out from under a pile of additional research. I shoved the other papers aside, unearthing the issue, and read the entire headline: “New Wing of Waverly library Opens.” I sat down on the edge of the bed to skim through the rest of the article.

 

In a few short weeks, the new wing of the Waverly library, proposed and backed by a committee of Waverly alumni, will finally open its doors. This new addition, dedicated solely to rare manuscripts and other ageless texts, beckons a new era of education to our already esteemed institution. However, the new wing does not only inspire future Waverly scholars with its remarkable contents. The details of its architectural design also lend a hand in creating what is sure to be one of the most renowned university libraries on the continent. Mighty stone pillars tower over the entrance to the library. Waverly alumnus and former editor of The Daily Bird, Theodore Lockwood, describes the inspiration behind these pillars’ construction.

“The committee wanted the entrance of the library to invoke a sense of magnificence in every student that passed by it,” Lockwood says. “The pillars reference the Tenth Labor of Hercules, in which Hercules split the mountain range that joined Africa and Europe in order to reach the Atlantic Ocean and defeat a fearsome beast. We now know this split as the Strait of Gibraltar, but the Ancient Greeks believed that it was a passageway to the unknown. Furthermore, the pillars were said to bear the phrase nec plus ultra, or ‘Nothing further beyond.’ While the original purpose of this phrase was meant as a warning, we here at Waverly consider it as more of a challenge. Waverly students should be encouraged to reach beyond their own abilities. Take risks. Face the challenge. Conquer the beast. It is the only way to better ourselves.”

 

The issue of The Daily Bird was dated August 1910, and beneath the article was a note of gratitude to the committee of Waverly alumni that had funded the construction of the new wing. Lockwood, Davenport, Schwartz, Buchanan, St. Claire, Hastings, et cetera. Every single one of the committee members had been included in O’Connor’s research.

“Nicole, seriously,” said Wes, emerging from the bathroom with his toothbrush wedged between his lips. “Put that stuff down. It can at least wait until the sun comes up.”

“Look at this.” I brandished the paper at him. “Nec plus ultra rears its ugly head yet again.”

“So?”

“The Rapere Wing of the library opened in 1910, the same year The Daily Bird mysteriously stopped publishing new issues,” I explained, since Wes clearly had no intention of reading the article. “Theodore Lockwood had been an editor for the newspaper and helped fund the construction of the library’s new wing. And it’s not just him.” I flipped to the page of the paper that listed its staff at the time of that issue’s publication. “All the people that keep popping up in O’Connor’s research had grandfathers or whatever who worked at the Bird that year. Now that I think about it, I haven’t found any earlier records of those families at Waverly.”

Wes pulled back the quilt and crawled into bed, turning out his desk lamp in the process. “Baby, you kind of lost me,” he said, his voice husky with exhaustion. “Why does any of this matter?”

“Don’t you see?” I said, scattering other issues of the Bird across the floor in a frenzied attempt to confirm my hunch. The dim light of the moon was just enough to make out the familiar names. “This was the start of it all. These people met each other when they worked together on the paper. They all came from wealthy, respected families. They were all major players in the business world beyond the university. They all had something to contribute to each other. It’s a giant club, Wes. I mean, that has to be why the following generations keep turning up at Waverly. They know that going to Waverly means connecting with other students from those families and—”

“Nicole.” Wes groaned and turned over, snaking an arm around my waist and pulling me deeper into the tempting comfort of our queen-sized mattress. “Please. Save it for the morning.”

“I can’t,” I said. I escaped from Wes’s grasp and tiptoed out into the hallway again. The floor was stone cold, so I hurried into the living room, grabbed the puzzle box off of the coffee table, and jogged back to the bedroom. I curled up beneath the blankets, lying on my stomach with a small flashlight between my teeth, and opened the box to shine the light on the poem inside. “Our hidden room,” I murmured, running the tips of my fingers over the words. “‘Amidst the pillars.’ Wes?”

“Hm.”

“It’s in the library.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Wes!” I prodded his side, ignoring his grumble of protest. “The secret room that the riddle talks about is in the library.”

He opened one heavily lidded eye. “How do you know?”

“The pillars outside the Rapere Wing are modeled after the Pillars of Hercules,” I explained. My pulse quickened as I realized the significance of this breakthrough. “And this group, whatever they are, their motto is nec plus ultra. Wes, I’ll bet you anything that this secret room is under the Rapere Wing.”

“Good job, Nic,” he muttered. He patted my butt, unaware of where he was placing his congratulatory gesture. “You can check it out tomorrow.”

“I want to go tonight.”

Wes perched himself up on his elbows to address me. “Nicole. It is two o’clock in the morning. I haven’t stayed up this late since your twenty-first birthday bender. Please, I beg of you, do not make me get up and follow you out into the frozen tundra of Waverly’s wasteland to unearth a secret, underground room like I’m Tracer Bullet, private eye.”

“For the record, I’m the clever detective in this situation.”

“I’ll entertain any of your chosen alter egos,” conceded Wes, “as long as you stay in tonight. Don’t go overboard with this, Nic. We still don’t know what happened to O’Connor, and I’d sure as hell hate to wake up tomorrow morning and find you missing like him.”

I considered his heavy eyelids and the faint imprint of the quilt pattern across his left cheek. “Fine,” I said at last. “I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

He kissed my forehead before sinking beneath the blankets once more. I flipped over, staring at the ceiling where the moonlight painted shadows across the stucco, wide awake. Within minutes, a light snore emanated from Wes’s side of the bed. I waited a moment longer, listening to Wes’s long, even breaths. Then, when I was sure that he was a goner, I inched out from under the quilt, puzzle box in hand, and went to fetch my snow jacket.

 

Chapter Six

 

Much to my bewilderment, the main doors to the library were unlocked. Though Waverly didn’t boast any state-of-the-art security measures, I’d at least expected the night guards to lock up the buildings after the last of the students had gone home. The open door was a godsend really. I slipped inside, grateful to escape the frigid flurries that flirted with the black night. My footsteps echoed across the marble floor as I crossed the lobby and passed through the second set of doors. The library was a curious place to be so late at night. There were no students bent over the desks, religiously studying the classics. No hawk-eyed librarians organized the shelves or scolded those who were being too noisy. Even the whirring of the computers behind the checkout desk was absent. Without the bustle of daytime, the building felt vastly bigger. Colder, even. I ignored the prickling at the back of my neck. If Waverly had ghosts, they would certainly feel at home in the old library, and though I didn’t believe in the supernatural, I crept through the towering shelves with the foreboding sense that someone was watching me.

The Rapere Wing was at the back of the main building. As I approached it, I craned my neck to fully appreciate the sight of the soaring stone pillars. How many times had I passed by that archway and never challenged its existence at all? Now, as I pressed my palms to the burnished mahogany doors and coaxed them open, my heart thundered in my chest.

It had been several months since I’d had to enter the Rapere Wing for O’Connor, and since then, I’d forgotten how extensive it was. Even the shelves were arranged to reflect the pretentious minds of those who had constructed this part of the library. They coiled inward, and when viewed from above, the layout of the shelves was meant to mimic a Fibonacci spiral within the rectangular room. With the wooden puzzle box in one gloved hand and a flashlight in the other, I followed along the outer edge of the spiral, keeping away from the faded spines of the books lest I accidentally damage something. No part of the brick walls had been left exposed. Even the far corners were obscured by the statuesque shelves. If there really was a secret trapdoor that led to an underground clubhouse, its creators had concealed it well. I shined the flashlight over every inch of the floor, but there were no hints of interruptions in the burgundy carpet. The whorled shelves wound tighter and tighter, leading me farther into the depths of the library until I reached the center of the spiral. Here, it was hard to believe that the rest of the university even existed, ensconced as I was within the illusory citadel of books. I glanced up at the stained-glass dome above me. Dark as its artwork was without the sunlight to illuminate the glass, it reminded me that there was a sleeping world beyond the labyrinthine shelves. I returned my attention to the task at hand, sweeping the flashlight back and forth in a pattern of wide arcs. Even here, at the epicenter of the room, there was no indication that the books had ever been disturbed by members of an elite society.

I huffed. At a dead end, my weariness had finally caught up with me. I closed my eyes for a moment, mentally preparing myself for the long walk out of the library and back to the apartment. As I pivoted away from the inner coil of shelves, the blue glow of my LED light reflected off the spine of a book and into my eyes. Squinting, I leaned forward to examine a silver crest stamped into the leather binding of the book in question, and to my ultimate delight, the crest’s design matched the one that decorated the inside of the puzzle box. Carefully, I removed the book from the shelf and flicked through its pages. Every word was in Latin, including the title, and my meager background in the subject was far too insignificant to tackle the daunting task of decoding it. The blaze of triumph that had flickered within me faded as quickly as it had come. I would have to revisit the Rapere Wing, armed with a Latin-English dictionary, at a later date.

I hoisted the book up, but before I could return it to its proper place, another odd detail caught my eye. In the wall behind the shelf, a space which the book so cleverly camouflaged, a small indentation marred the red brick. I aimed the flashlight between the two volumes on either side of the empty slot. The depression in the brick, though miniscule, was incontestably intentional. It was octagonal in shape and looked as though something was meant to fit neatly into it.

I removed the puzzle box from where it was tucked beneath my armpit, popped the lid open once again, and drew the silver ring from its velvet pillow. The ring’s black stone was roughly the same size as the notch in the wall. The odd cut of the onyx suddenly made sense. With a deep breath, I reached between the books and fit the stone into the brick. It clicked into place, and with a low groan, the entire shelf began to shift forward. I stumbled out of the way as the shelf swung open, as if on a hinge, to reveal a dark passageway and a series of weathered, red brick steps leading steeply downward. The reach of the flashlight only illuminated so far, and the bottom of the passageway was nowhere in sight.

I chewed on my bottom lip, lingering on the top step. If Wes had been with me, armed with his officially issued sidearm and shiny police badge, I wouldn’t have hesitated to march down those stairs. Alone and without my partner in crime—however ironic that was—the dark corridor unnerved me, but instinct told me that it wouldn’t be as easy to access the secret portal during the daytime, so I gathered the scattered bits of my bravery and headed down.

The air grew cold and damp as I descended. I kept an eye on my boots. The brick steps were cracked and slippery, and one misstep would send me tumbling down to an uncertain landing. I trailed one hand along the dewy wall for guidance, glad that my thick gloves kept the stone from relieving my fingers of their warmth. After what felt like ten minutes, I lost count of how many steps I’d taken, and when I looked back to the top of the stairs, the doorway to the library was more of an abstraction than a concrete reality. I kept going.

Ages later, the flashlight revealed a level floor again. I reached it gratefully, noting that the brick had given way to marble once more. The air had warmed again too, as if this section of the library sported some kind of heating unit. I ran my hand along the wall, and to my surprise, my fingers connected with a light switch. I flipped it on.

I stood in a small stone entryway. A series of ornate sconces set into the wall cast a golden glow throughout the room. To the right side of the staircase, a lofty corridor branched out, but before I could be bothered to explore it, the grand mantle set into the stone directly across from the stairway demanded my attention. Emblazoned on the wall was the bird crest, but this one was intricately detailed. The meticulous feathers of the raptor had been painted by hand, its beak seemed to turn derisively toward those who entered the room, and the eyes, two glowing rubies set into the stone, gave off the impression that the two-dimensional bird was sentient. If that wasn’t enough, the motto nec plus ultra had been painted in swirling, elegant script beneath the bird, and above it, in a golden banner, lay the name of the group whose clubhouse I’d infiltrated: the Black Raptor Society.

“BRS,” I muttered, remembering the label on the files in Catherine Flynn’s office. So far, I hadn’t found a record of any members of the Flynn family that had worked at The Daily Bird, and from the looks of O’Connor’s research, he hadn’t either. That certainly didn’t mean she wasn’t a key player for this so-called Black Raptor Society. For all I knew, she’d simply married and changed her last name.

I ventured into the hallway to my right, shining the flashlight through a few doorways. The first significant room I came across appeared to be where the Black Raptor Society held whatever meetings they might conduct. A regal dining table stretched from one end of the room to the other. There were enough plush, straight-backed chairs to seat at least twenty, though I knew BRS must have several more members than that. There was no dust on any of the surfaces, and the polished wood of the tables glinted in the light of an overhead chandelier. The room was clean and maintained, which confirmed more of my theory. The Black Raptor Society was still active.

Farther down the hallway, I discovered a decently sized library. From the looks of it, BRS had borrowed their furniture from Waverly University, as the shelves were of the same design as those in the Rapere Wing, and the few desks bore a remarkable resemblance to the ones in the main library. In the middle of the library was a long, low table upon which lay a leather bound volume the size of an encyclopedia. Gingerly, I opened the front flap, revealing yet another copy of BRS’s logo on the first page. The second page displayed a dense block of text with which began:

Our Illustrious Charter

 

We, the inaugural members of the Black Raptor Society, hereby present the charter of our esteemed organization. Let it be known to all who follow in our footsteps that each member of the Black Raptor Society shall epitomize the qualities thus defined by our fraternity: Loyalty. Integrity. Passion. Wisdom. Strength.

 

The charter went on to address each of the aforementioned qualities in an alarming amount of detail. The gist of it was clear. To be awarded membership with the Black Raptor Society was a high honor at Waverly, despite its disreputable methods of bolstering its “brothers” through the university’s ranks. Those involved considered themselves above the honor code and above the law. If this were not apparent in the body of the charter, the last disclaimer at the bottom of the page cleared up any doubts for the reader:

 

Our society exists to benefit those within our brotherhood. That which one brother achieves, we all achieve. That which one brother accomplishes, we all accomplish. That which is given to one brother is given to all brothers. That which is not given to our brothers, we must seize by force.

 

Beneath the morally ambiguous closing statement, the original members of BRS had all printed and signed their names in loopy, ostentatious chirography, as though each of them were a Founding Father and believed their document as righteous as the Declaration. I took out my smartphone, which had no service underground, and snapped a picture of the charter and the names of the original members. Then I flipped through the rest of the volume. For every year since the Black Raptor Society’s conception, its new members had signed their name in the book. Some of them had etched the words “council member” next to their signatures, and every few pages, one name boasted the title “Chief of Council.” I took note of the pattern of surnames, especially when a new Lockwood or Davenport joined BRS’s noble ranks, then skipped a few generations to reach the latest list of members. Orson Lockwood was the current Chief of Council, and Donovan Davenport was a council member. I took several photos of the most recent signatures then closed the book and laid it to rest in its original position on the table.

I browsed through the rest of the library, checking my watch every few minutes to make sure that I wasn’t spending too much time in BRS’s clubhouse. It was unlikely that their business hours were the regular nine-to-five, and the last thing I needed was for one of its members to clock in and discover me rifling through their private business. Swiftly, I combed the other material within the room, pausing here and there to investigate anything of interest. It was more of what O’Connor had already discovered. The Black Raptor Society kept tabs on all of their activity. They had catalogued newspaper articles, bank logs, student records, spreadsheets, and even personal journal entries written by the members themselves. These in particular attracted my attention, as they often explained the necessity of some sordid plot or another in order to further BRS’s impact on the local society. Again, I located the more recent entries and skimmed through them. When Jo Mitchell’s name appeared in hastily scrawled handwriting, I paused and backtracked to decipher the journalist’s notes. Unlike the others’ entries, this member of BRS wrote in short spurts of bullet notes rather than long, detailed paragraphs.

 

-Applied for job in student record office in order to access Jo Mitchell’s files. Waiting to hear back. Dean Hastings to encourage office to accept my employment.

-Secured position in record office. Starting Monday.

-First day. Trainees not permitted to access current records. Must find work-around.

-Second week in record office. Still no luck. Dean Hastings promised to look into it.

-Phished the secretary’s login information. Too easy.

-Dean Hastings “dropped” record office key; returning tonight to assess situation.

-Caper successful. Accessed records no problem. Security interrupted. Will complete task tomorrow.

-Altered Jo Mitchell’s grades. Donovan’s to follow. Inform Dr. Thornton to remain on call for Mitchell’s reaction.

 

The frown on my face intensified as I realized what I was reading. This was the beginning of the end for Jo Mitchell’s college career. The Black Raptor Society had engineered her breakdown from the very beginning, and from the looks of it, Dean Hastings and Dr. Thornton, the school psychiatrist, were both in on it. The entry went on to log Jo’s reactions to her inexplicable accelerated failure and the decline of her mental health, until finally the journalist concluded with:

 

-Jo Mitchell contained and under surveillance. Donovan to graduate valedictorian tomorrow.

Lauren Lockwood. 8 May 2015.

 

The princess of the Black Raptor Society herself had been in charge of Jo Mitchell’s academic defeat. As Orson Lockwood’s daughter, the fact that she was in charge of such a task shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but the sight of her penmanship describing with such precision the ease of her assignment left a bitter taste on my tongue. I slammed the journal shut and returned it to the shelf, willing myself to take long, steadying breaths. Despite my prior knowledge of BRS’s depravity, there was something different about discovering firsthand accounts of what they had done. How many unknowing, diligent students had suffered at the hands of this society, all to further the egos and careers of those less deserving?

I leaned against the bookshelf, listening to my pulse pound in the space between my ears, and waited until the cadence had slowed before setting off again. Without looking back, I abandoned the library. Continuing my raid of it would only bring more terrible things to light, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of those things right that minute. I wandered farther down the stone hallway, peering into the other rooms. Some of them were empty, as though BRS hadn’t found a use for them yet. Others appeared to be set up similarly to dorm rooms with stacked beds and quaint dressers just in case any of its members needed to spend the night. At the end of the hallway, I paused, peering through the window of the door to the very last room, then twisted the doorknob to let myself inside.

This chamber of BRS’s clubhouse was quite possibly the largest, the reason for which was rather blatant. It was chock-full of organized mobile storage shelves, and when I carefully slid a section of one out of place, I discovered a row of beautifully framed paintings hung at equal intervals on the racks. Further inspection of the other storage units revealed similar findings, but it was not until I recognized the unmistakable strokes of Pablo Picasso’s hand in one painting that I realized what I had stumbled upon. The Black Raptor Society had taken an interest in rare art, and from what I already knew of them, I doubted that they had acquired these pieces in any kind of legal fashion. They had not merely collected paintings though. Deeper in the room, glass display cases housed sculptures, ceramics, and historic artifacts, and deeper still, I discovered a modest collection of human skulls and bones.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I took carefully focused photos of everything. Then, having had enough of BRS’s clubhouse to last until I was ready to get a PhD, I turned to leave. However, in the very back corner of the room, behind the last of the storage shelves, a massive chest freezer stood in stark contrast to the priceless artwork around it. For a moment, I considered leaving it unopened, but if I was going to expose all of BRS’s secrets, then I needed to be aware of as many of them as possible, so with a soft grunt, I heaved the heavy lid of the freezer upward and shined my flashlight inside.

George O’Connor’s empty, sunken eyes bore into mine.

The lid slammed shut with a bang that echoed through the room, and a horrified shriek let itself out of my lungs before I could subdue it. I clapped a hand over my mouth, muffling choked sobs, and knelt next to the freezer.

O’Connor was dead. Yet more frightening still, he had been killed for poking his nose into the business of the Black Raptor Society. I would’ve been a fool to assume anything else. My quick glimpse at O’Connor’s bloodied body was enough to confirm that he had been beaten into submission, and no other reason would explain the frozen corpse hidden in a secret, underground room. It was one thing to know that the society manipulated student affairs; it was another thing to become aware of the fact that BRS had facilitated a murder. The more I thought about it, the less oxygen found its way to my brain. Light-headed and heart palpitating, I gripped the edge of the freezer to pry myself up from the floor. I had to get out of BRS’s headquarters as soon as possible. I’d taken up O’Connor’s quest, and for all I knew, the Black Raptor Society had already put a price on my head.

It was easy enough to find my way out of the artwork room and down the corridor to the main entry of the clubhouse, but the brick stairway that led up to the Waverly library hindered my escape. I took the steps two at a time. It wasn’t long until my breath came out in short gasps and my head began to swim. As I propelled myself upward, my hands braced on the brick wall to either side of me, I could barely make out the sight of my shoes. Climbing my way back up to the Waverly library was far more torturous than the descent into the clubhouse. My thighs burned with the effort, but the image of O’Connor’s body, stuffed into a freezer like some sort of hunted game, prevented me from pausing longer than a few seconds to recuperate. After what seemed like hours, I finally fell through the doorway at the top of the steps.

Wiping away the dried tears that had crusted at the corners of my eyes, I shoved the bookshelf door back into place, wrenched the ring from the hidden keyhole, and concealed the space once again with the Latin book. I fled then, racing around the spiral of shelves as quickly as my aching legs would allow.

The main wing of the Waverly library now held no comfort at all. The loud stomp of my boots across the marble floor echoed throughout the building as I careened through the inner pair of doors, across the entryway, and past the checkout desk. I pushed open the outer door, and a blast of cold air threatened to thrust me back into the library, but I wrenched the hood of my coat up and powered through it. Unfortunately, at the bottom of the steps, I slammed straight into a firm, muscled chest clothed in an expensive tan trench coat.

“Ooph! Watch where you’re going!” said a deep voice.

When I looked up, I saw that the owner of the trench coat was none other than Donovan Davenport. I lurched backward, nearly tripping over the bottom step of the library building, but Donovan reached out, caught me by the upper arm, and hauled me to my feet.

“You again,” he said gruffly. “What are you doing here?”

“Studying,” I snapped back. I dislodged myself from Donovan’s grasp. All of my fear had morphed into rage. Did Donovan have a hand in O’Connor’s murder? “What else would I be doing at the library?”

“It’s nearly four o’clock in the morning,” Donovan pointed out. “Who the hell studies this late?”

“Yeah, well, I’m several semesters behind on my thesis,” I said, deciding that a true story was also the best lie for this sort of situation. “I can’t control when the muse hits.”

“The muse?”

“Yeah,” I huffed. The puzzle box, swaddled in the inner folds of my winter jacket, poked into my ribs. “You’re one to talk anyway. What are you doing here so late? You’re not even a student at Waverly anymore.”

Donovan squinted up into the falling snowflakes at the darkened glass of the Waverly library’s dome. “I couldn’t sleep. I figured I might as well be productive and get some work done for my job.”

“I’m sure even Orson Lockwood isn’t so tough on his employees to expect them to work in the middle of the night,” I commented, edging around Donovan so that his back was to the library. If I needed to make a quick getaway, it would be easier without having to dodge around the self-elected valedictorian of Waverly’s previous class.

Donovan shifted positions easily, tucking his hands deeply into the pockets of his coat and hunching his shoulders up to his ears. “I’m just an eager-to-please employee.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

I checked my cell phone. I had full coverage now. It took everything I had not to dial 9-1-1 right there in front of Donovan, but I managed to pocket my phone again and pretend that I had just been checking the time.

“You should head home,” said Donovan. “It’s freezing out here.”

His sudden concern for my well-being did nothing to assuage the nausea churning in my gut. He was right, though. I needed to get home to Wes. With a curt nod, I turned and walked away. Across the quad, I looked over my shoulder. Donovan Davenport had disappeared from the steps of the library, but I knew that he hadn’t gone inside to complete any kind of actual work for Lockwood INC. Without his watchful eye on my back, I turned on my heel and ran.

 

Chapter Seven

 

“Wes. Wes!”

He grumbled and turned over as I attempted to shake him awake. Franklin hopped up on the bed and started licking Wes’s face. Normally, I’d shove Franklin out of the way, but any help in encouraging Wes to return to the land of the living was welcome at this point.

“Wes, wake up.”

“I’m awake, I’m awake,” he said, his voice hoarse, feebly defending himself against Franklin’s wet nose. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“O’Connor is dead.”

That got Wes’s attention. He propped himself up against the headboard and took in my red, watery eyes. At some point during my return to the apartment, I’d lost control of my tear ducts again.

“What? How do you know?”

I fell back on the pillows, wiping my face on the corner of the bedsheet, and tucked myself in under the big duvet. The illusion of safety beneath its downy comfort was better than nothing. “I went to the library and—”

“You went back? Nicole, I thought I told you to wait until morning!”

“I couldn’t, Wes. I had to know.”

As I covered my face with my hands, Wes put a comforting arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. “I just didn’t want anything to happen to you,” he said, rocking me gently. “Is O’Connor really dead?”

Franklin nestled in the blankets near the foot of the bed. I scooted my feet under his warm body and nodded into Wes’s chest. “I found the room. It’s under the Rapere Wing, like I guessed. They have O’Connor’s body in a freezer down there. Wes, it was awful. Will you call Daryl?”

“Of course.” He reached across me to grab his cell phone from the bedside table. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

I explained in detail how I had found the Black Raptor Society’s secret headquarters, where it was located, how to get inside, and what I had discovered within its chambers. Wes listened intently, frowning when I forwarded the specifics about O’Connor’s body. Out loud, it sounded so far-fetched, but the police needed to know exactly what was going on at Waverly University. When I had finished my tale, Wes dialed the station.

“Hey, Whitehall,” he said. “Wilson’s not there, is he?”

There was a muted response from the opposite end. Wes pressed the speakerphone button, and Whitehall’s voice emanated from the phone. “He’s supposed to be here in a few minutes. What’s up?” he said.

“He’s going to start his day off with a bang,” said Wes. “I got a 10-54 report underneath the Waverly library. Anonymous tip-off said it’s George O’Connor.”

On the other end of the line, there was an abrupt creaking noise, as though Whitehall had sat up straighter in his desk chair. “What did you say?”

“10-54,” repeated Wes, this time more slowly. It was the code Wes’s station used for a possible body. “In the basement of the Waverly library.”

“The Waverly library doesn’t have a basement,” said Whitehall. I could hear the tapping of his fingers against a keyboard as he typed at his computer.

“According to my source, it does,” Wes said. “It’s some kind of secret, underground room apparently.”

“Is your source reliable?”

Wes raised an eyebrow at me, almost in jest. I elbowed him in the ribs. “I told you,” he said. “It was an anonymous tip-off.”

“It sounds like a prank, McAllen.”

“It’s not a fucking prank, Whitehall,” Wes shot back. His grip on my shoulder tightened. “Either take this seriously or put someone on the phone who will.”

“All right, man, relax. Wilson just walked in.”

“Let me speak to him.”

There was a shuffling sound as Whitehall passed the phone over to Officer Wilson.

“This better be good, McAllen,” said Wilson in a gruff tone. “It’s not even five a.m.”

“Wilson, I got an anonymous tip that George O’Connor’s body is in the basement of the Waverly library,” said Wes once again.

Wilson huffed. “That building doesn’t have a basement, genius.”

It was stunning that Wes could report something so dreadful and get such an underwhelming response. Maybe that was what it was like to be a police officer. Maybe Office Wilson was so used to receiving soul-numbing news that he’d become impervious to the emotions that should accompany such tragedies.

“My source said that the entrance was hidden behind the bookshelves,” said Wes. There was a hard edge to his voice. He was annoyed that neither one of his coworkers was taking this seriously. “Wilson, I really think you need to check this one out.”

“When did your source claim they found the body?”

“About forty-five minutes ago or so.”

Wilson cleared his throat. “So you’re telling me someone called you up in the middle of the night and told you that they found some kind of secret room at the local university, and that the body of the missing guy we’re looking for is conveniently being stored there?”

The degrading tone with which Wilson spoke sent my heart sinking to the bottom of my rib cage. He didn’t believe that Wes’s source was credible.

“Yes,” said Wes firmly.

Wilson sighed, and a breath’s worth of feedback came through the phone. “Go back to bed, McAllen.”

“Whoa, hold on!” Wes detached himself from me and got out of bed, jostling Franklin. He paced back and forth in front of his desk. “Wilson, are you serious? You really aren’t going to check this out?”

“McAllen, we’ve got an actual lead on the O’Connor case, and it doesn’t have to do with some anonymous tip-off about a fabricated, underground basement,” said Wilson, clearly aggravated. “Sounds like your source is yanking your chain. Either that or they’re smoking some really great stuff. I mean, they claimed to find a dead body and didn’t immediately dial nine-one-one? Doesn’t that sound a little off to you, McAllen?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I whispered, outraged. This was not how an experienced police officer was supposed to react to reports of a dead body. Sure, an anonymous tip wasn’t the best way to inform the station of my discovery, but there was no way I could admit to my exploits beneath the Waverly library without getting in some serious trouble. Technically, I was withholding evidence.

Wes waved at me, a signal to hush up. “Wilson, since when is this protocol?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then in a deadly voice, Wilson said, “McAllen, why don’t you let me worry about protocol, and I’ll let you off the hook for pulling this shit so early in the fucking morning? How’s that sound, rookie? Is that a fair trade?”

Wes caught my eye. He was stuck. I could see it in the slight downward tilt of his lips and the way his shoulders had rounded off. There was a bitter hint of betrayal and disappointment in the air. Never before had Officer Wilson been so brusque to me or to Wes. He had always been cordial to everyone, even to the rookie officers under his command.

“Yes, sir.”

“Fantastic. Have a good rest of your morning, McAllen. I’ll see you later today for your shift. If you can get your shit together by then, of course.”

There was a click as Wilson hung up, then nothing but a dial tone. Wes stared at the phone for a moment, as if waiting for Wilson to call back and apologize for his poor facilitation of the situation.

“That was—”

“Suspicious?” I finished, still in awe of the route the entire conversation had taken.

“I was going to say weird,” countered Wes. “I’ve never heard him lose his cool like that.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek, considering the weight of the thought on my mind. “Wes,” I said, a note of hesitation evident in my tone. “Do you think, I mean, is there any possibility that the Black Raptor Society has inside men at the police station?”

Wes’s gaze snapped to mine. “No way.”

“Think about it.” I shoved the blankets off of my legs and stood up to approach Wes. “We already know that BRS has paid off the cops to keep their student members out of trouble. What’s to say that they aren’t doing similar shit for more serious crimes?”

“Nicole, you’re wandering into some really intense territory,” Wes said. He rubbed at the stubble on his jaw. It was a nervous tic of his, one that I had picked up on over the years of dating him. “That’s a serious accusation.”

“I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t think it had any merit to it,” I insisted. “Come on, Wes. How weird is it that Wilson didn’t even bat an eye at a report of a possible body? Even if a source is unreliable, aren’t the cops supposed to check it out anyway?”

Wes remained silent, gazing through the gap in the blinds behind his desk.

“What if we went back?” I asked quietly. “I could show you the basement and the body. That way, you can take the proof to the station yourself.”

Wes shook his head. “That will just get us into a world of trouble.”

“Wes, what’s worse? Potentially getting in trouble with Wilson or leaving the body of my favorite professor to rot underneath the library?”

He sighed, massaging the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “You’re right. Let me get dressed.”

 

By the time Wes had donned his uniform and we left the apartment, the sky was just beginning to lighten. A pale pink stripe decorated the horizon, the first signs of the sun’s ascent. Exhausted, I leaned into Wes as we walked across campus. He tucked me under his shoulder, which made for slightly awkward travel, but I was so tired and cold that the occasional stumble over Wes’s work boots was worth it. We moved fleetly, making short work of the trip across campus, but we were not so hasty as to raise any suspicion. If a student happened to glance out of their dormitory window, it would appear as if Wes and I were simply out for an early morning stroll.

As we approached the library steps, I slowed Wes with a soft hand on his chest. “Donovan Davenport was here when I left,” I said. “He might still be inside.”

“So?”

“So he’s a member of BRS. If he’s in the clubhouse—”

“If he’s in the clubhouse with a dead body, I’ll arrest him,” finished Wes, holding open the library door for me. “Where to?”

I led Wes to the Rapere Wing. He gazed around in awe as we wound our way through the bookshelves. It occurred to me that I’d never really shown Wes around Waverly before. It was a shame that the first time he got to experience the wonder that I felt every day, we were under such stressful circumstances.

When I showed Wes how the onyx ring fit into the false wall to set the bookcase in motion, he swore audibly. The expletive floated away, echoing back from the stained-glass dome. I shushed Wes and motioned for him to follow me down the deep stairwell.

There was no sign of Donovan as we reached the marble entryway. Everything was as I had left it, dark and undisturbed. I flipped on the light switch, illuminating the BRS logo and the raptor on the wall. Wes examined the mantle but made no comment.

“Their meeting room,” I explained, pointing out certain rooms as we moved into the corridor. “The library. I found their charter in there. It has all the names of their previous and current members.”

“You’d think a secret society wouldn’t have stuff like that just lying around,” commented Wes, glancing through the window of the library.

“I don’t think they ever expected a nonmember to break in here.”

He shook his head. “Arrogant.”

We reached the door to the art room. With a deep breath, I shoved it open.

“Whoa,” said Wes, taking in the expanse of paintings and sculptures. “Is this all—”

“Rare and illegally obtained?” I finished. “Probably. O’Connor’s over here.”

Together, we approached the freezer. I swallowed, feeling bile rise at the back of my throat. Seeing O’Connor’s body once was quite enough for me. I didn’t think I’d be able to take it again.

“Can you open it?” I asked Wes, turning away from the freezer. “Honestly, I might vomit if I have to see that again.”

Wes steeled himself with a deep breath then lifted the lid. “Uh, Nicole?”

“It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“It’s not that. There’s—there’s no body.”

What?

I whirled around and leaned over the open freezer. Sure enough, O’Connor was nowhere to be found. The freezer was empty and sterile without any indication that there had been a dead body in it just a couple hours before.

“Are you sure—” began Wes.

“Yes, I’m sure! Donovan must’ve moved him.”

“On his own? That’s a lot of dead weight. Oh, God, that was a terrible choice of words. I’m sorry.”

I smacked Wes’s arm, glaring at him. “I was right about this whole underground cubbyhole, wasn’t I? But a dead body down here is too much of a stretch?”

“Okay, okay,” conceded Wes, raising his hands in defeat. “It’s just that I don’t know what to report to Wilson.”

“That this place actually exists might be a good place to start,” I said. “At the very least, they could start an investigation into BRS.”

“And what do you plan on doing about O’Connor’s missing body?” asked Wes. “I know you won’t just let that go.”

“I have an idea.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What kind of idea?”

“I want to do what O’Connor couldn’t. I’m going to report on all the shit BRS has done.”

“And how do you plan on doing that?”

“By writing my thesis paper on the society.”

 

In the days following, I spent every spare moment at the library. My stakeout position, a desk partially concealed by a portion of the nonfiction section, had a convenient view of the entrance to the Rapere Wing. As I began to outline the specifics of my thesis paper, beginning with the history of the Black Raptor Society, I kept an eye on every single person that passed between the pillars. Surveillance was dull work, but there was no other way for me to determine who was actively involved in O’Connor’s murder. I’d spent hours putting together a booklet of all the current BRS members, complete with pictures from the faculty and student ID cards that O’Connor had collected. It was a reference tool mostly, so that I could easily identify whoever walked into the Rapere Wing. To my great annoyance though, I hadn’t caught any members of BRS on the move yet. After days without a single sighting, I began to question my previous knowledge. Perhaps the clubhouse wasn’t utilized as often as I originally thought.

By the end of the week, I’d made significant progress on my thesis. The outline was finished, from beginning to end, and I’d started to write my first draft. Finally getting the work out of my head and into the real world was like emerging from the sea, having fought off a set of waves that kept me under, and taking a deep, desperate breath. Unfortunately, the catharsis didn’t last long. I still hadn’t figured out a way to propose my thesis topic to my advisor. Catherine Flynn would certainly not approve of an exposé detailing the illegality of a secret society that she helped to run.

On that Friday, I decided that my stakeouts in the library were fruitless. I would spend one last day at the desk in my secluded corner of the library, but if my bad luck stuck and the BRS members remained AWOL, I would have to find a different way to confront them. The library was a little noisier that morning, full of students trying to cram in some last minute studying for their end-of-the-week tests. The babble of conversation didn’t bother me, so I made my way toward my desk near the pillars.

I dropped my bag on the table and drew out the desk chair, but as I plopped down into it, the entire piece of furniture collapsed beneath me. I hit the floor of the library with a muffled thud, bashing my elbow against one of the splintered armrests.

Though a few heads had turned at the sound of my mild accident, no one bothered to come to my rescue. My cheeks burned as I cradled my bruised elbow and examined the broken chair from my position on the burgundy carpet. It was only when I turned over the seat of the chair that I realized someone had removed all of the screws that were meant to hold the legs in.

Officially pissed off at the fact that a college-level student thought it would be funny to pull such a cruel, immature prank on someone, I tossed aside the chair pieces and tried to stand up. My elbow wouldn’t support my weight, and with a sharp gasp, I thunked back to the carpet again. I sighed, thinking that I might as well work from the floor today. The view wasn’t so bad; it mostly consisted of the bottom halves of other Waverly students and the underside of my desk… where a neon-yellow sticky note waited for me to notice it.

I plucked the note from the particle board and flipped it over. The sight of BRS’s logo, drawn in red permanent marker, made my stomach turn.

My phone vibrated, displaying a text from Wes. All week, he’d been checking in with me on a regular basis. Ever since his conversation with Officer Wilson, the force had kept Wes in the dark about the O’Connor case. He was uneasy, at work and at home, and I knew that my constant lurking in the library did nothing to soothe his nerves.

His text said: Still alive?

I texted back: 10-4.

I crumpled the sticky note with BRS’s logo on it and used the edge of the table to propel myself back to my feet. If the Black Raptor Society thought they could scare me off with a schoolyard prank, they were going to be disappointed. I refused to give up so easily. My elbow was sore but no worse for wear. I shook it out, stretched, and glanced around for another chair to use.

Across the room stood Jo Mitchell, peeking out at me from behind an outdated collection of encyclopedias. A moment later, when she realized I’d noticed her, she turned on her heel and vanished around the corner of a bookshelf.

I threw my messenger bag over my shoulder and jogged toward the encyclopedias, ignoring the students who glanced up from their homework to give me dirty looks. The row that Jo had disappeared down was empty.

“Damn!” I whispered. I hurried along the row, looking left and right for Jo. When I emerged from the shelves, I finally caught sight of her. With a nervous look over her shoulder, she scurried quickly out of the library and into the lobby.

I followed Jo from the building and out into the courtyard. There it was more difficult for her to lose me, so I put on a burst of speed, the soles of my boots slipping a little on the icy ground, and caught up with her.

“Jo!” I called, panting.

She spun around. She appeared no less stressed than the last time I’d seen her. She had tied her hair up in a sloppy knot at the top of her head as though she’d given up on it entirely, and her eyes flitted to whatever student was closest to us in the courtyard, never focusing on anything for more than a couple of seconds.

I extracted the sticky note from my pocket, smoothed it out, and held it up so that she could see it. “Did you rig my chair?”

She shook her head. “I told you not to get involved with them.”

“You figured it out,” I said, furiously shaking the note in front of her. “What you wrote on my hand. Nec plus ultra. You knew about the Black Raptor Society.”

“Shh!” She snatched the yellow sticky note out of my hand.

“Tell me what you know,” I demanded.

“Nothing!”

“Bullshit.”

“I’m telling you the truth,” Jo insisted. Like before, she kept her voice low. I stepped closer to ensure I heard every word. “I got the same note once, when I was trying to figure out why my grades had plummeted. I made the mistake of ignoring it. Shortly after, they tried to have me committed.”

“You told me they forced you to see the school psychiatrist,” I reminded her. My mind flashed back to Lauren Lockwood’s journal entry. According to Lauren, Jo had been “contained.”

“Yeah, they did,” said Jo. “And I went along with it. Then, during one of my appointments, Dr. Thornton left the room. His computer was logged on. I couldn’t help it. I snooped through my file.”

“And?”

“My entire file was made up,” she said. “Thornton had written all sorts of notes, claiming I’d said and done things during our sessions that definitely didn’t happen.”

“Like what?”

“Like coming on to him inappropriately and other wonderful shit.”

“Oh, God,” I said, a lump forming in my throat. “That’s sick.”

“Mm-hmm. And when Thornton caught me looking at my file, I accused him of making up half the crap that he had written. Want to know what he did?”

“Not really.”

“He called security. I lost it. I was yelling my head off at Thornton and trying to convince the security guard to check the computer. They sedated me, and the next thing I know, I’m waking up in a damn hospital room.”

A gust of wind howled through the courtyard, and a whirlwind of dead leaves swept between me and Jo.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked Jo.

“Because I was hoping you’d keep your nose down,” she replied. “They’ll ruin you. They’ve had a lot of practice, if you haven’t figured that out already.”

“I’m starting to realize that.”

My phone vibrated again. I looked down at it, expecting another text from Wes. Instead, I saw that I had a new email. I swiped the message open.

 

Miss Costello,

 

I trust that you are well. I hope that you have put some time and effort into your thesis. I regret to inform you that in order to graduate at the end of the spring semester, you will need to have completed your work in two weeks’ time. Know that you have already been awarded quite the extension, as the other graduate students have already defended their dissertations to their advisory committees. With this in mind, I would like to meet with you again as soon as possible to discuss your progress. Please report to my office on Monday at 9 a.m.

 

Regards,

 

Dr. Catherine Flynn

Dean of Arts and Humanities

Waverly University

 

“She’s one of them, isn’t she?” asked Jo, peering over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the email.

I locked the phone so that the screen was no longer visible. “I thought you didn’t want to know.”

“I don’t.”

“Listen, Jo,” I said, squeezing her shoulder in what I hoped was a reassuring gesture. “I can’t promise you that I’m going to stay out of this. If anything, I’m already neck deep. You should steer clear, though. I won’t fault you for that.”

She gave me a hard look then nodded. “Give them hell.”

“I intend to.”

 

I avoided the library over the weekend in the hopes that BRS would think I’d dropped my investigation. Wes was more than pleased about me stepping out of the line of fire. He was just as motivated as I was to figure out what was going on behind closed doors at Waverly and had put in more effort at work to get in on O’Connor’s case. Wes thought that a discreet approach would be more beneficial to us, but no amount of eavesdropping at the station revealed anything else about how Officer Wilson or other members of the force might be involved. Wes was frustrated, as was I, and it made for stressful days and restless nights.

On Monday morning, I reported to Research Hall for my scheduled meeting with Flynn. I was early this time, with a good fifteen minutes to spare. As I lifted heavy feet up the carpeted staircase, my stomach fluttered with anxiety. The details of BRS’s dreadful affairs circulated through my mind. I was not looking forward to coming face-to-face with one of the society’s highest-ranking members again. On the fourth floor, I took a deep breath and knocked lightly on Flynn’s office door.

The door swung open, and I instinctively stepped back. A tall man, in his late fifties or so, stood in Flynn’s office, a benign smile plastered across a handsome face that I recognized at once. I’d seen him countless times in black-and-white newspaper photos, the adjoining article always praising him for some positive societal impact or another. Behind him, Catherine Flynn sat at her desk. Together, they looked like the sort of power couple most of us could only dream of being a part of: both tall, dark, and thin. The man beckoned me inside with a flourish of his hand and a polite inclination of his head.

“You must be Nicole,” the man said. He offered me his hand. “Dr. Flynn’s told me all about you. My name is Orson Lockwood.”

I forced myself to shake his hand. His palm was smooth, as if he’d never done a hard day’s work in his entire life, and he barely squeezed my hand. It was an annoying gesture. I always thought men who refused to give women a firm handshake were trying to subtly convey that we were somehow inferior to them. To counter his passive greeting, I gripped his hand tighter and for a moment longer than necessary.

“I can’t imagine Dr. Flynn would chat about me,” I said, nodding at Flynn. She smiled coldly back. “I’m not exactly her most promising student.”

“Well, we already disagree, Miss Costello,” Lockwood said. His accompanying grin was easy and practiced. It even reached his dark-blue eyes, which shimmered in the sunlight that had managed to pierce through the veil of clouds outside and illuminate the office. “I happen to take special interest in promising students, and you’ve caught my eye.”

I now understood how Lockwood had such an impact on society. He could get anything he wanted with his benevolent demeanor. He spoke casually, his hands in the pockets of his pressed slacks, and he leaned over a little bit as he addressed me. If I were a child and he offered me a lollipop, I wouldn’t hesitate to pop it in my mouth.

“Have I now?”

He tilted his head in an amiable nod. “Indeed.”

“Mr. Lockwood is a Waverly alumnus, Miss Costello,” piped in Flynn. She rose from her desk chair to stand next to Lockwood. “I thought he might be of use to you. The Lockwood family is one of Waverly’s most prestigious. If you’ve decided to do your thesis on the history of our university, Orson Lockwood is the man you need to interview.”

“And I would be more than happy to oblige,” added Lockwood, flashing me yet another stunning smile. He reached into his inside jacket pocket, drawing out a business card. When he handed it over to me, I noticed how similar it was to Donovan Davenport’s. “I do have some time constraints though. Call my office. Speak with my secretary, Dawn. She’ll get you all set up.”

I’d been backed into a corner. A one-on-one meeting with Orson Lockwood was sure to end poorly for me, but I couldn’t refuse the interview in front of Flynn. I nodded and pocketed the business card. “I’ll be sure to do that. Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome,” he said, buttoning up his suit jacket. “I’m afraid I can’t stay and chat. Duty calls. If you’ll excuse me, ladies.”

With that, Lockwood pardoned himself from the room, leaving me alone with Flynn. She returned to her desk, gesturing for me to sit down in one of the leather chairs across from her.

“Well, Miss Costello?”

“Sorry?”

“What kind of progress have you made on your thesis paper?”

This was another roadblock. There was no lie authentic enough to convince Flynn that I had actually done any work at all for my thesis. Though Flynn was my primary advisor, I was still holding out hope that one of the other professors on my thesis advisory panel wouldn’t be a member of BRS. That way, my attempt at exposing the society’s misdeeds wouldn’t get immediately buried beneath yet another falsified story of a Waverly student gone insane. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to hide the contents of my paper from Flynn until it was time to present it to the board. It was a feat that would not go smoothly.

I put on my best ashamed face. “I’m sorry, Dr. Flynn,” I said, keeping my eyes on my feet. “I’ve been trying, but I haven’t been able to come up with an original take on Waverly’s history.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Regrettably, I am.”

Flynn leaned over her desk. “Miss Costello, you give me no other option but to inform you that you will not graduate from Waverly University if you continue this self-destructive streak of procrastination. I knew it before, but I gave you a second chance because of your situation with your former advisor. You have already received special treatment.”

I sat quietly, my hands folded together in my lap, as Flynn admonished me.

“At this rate, you will never be ready to present your thesis to the board,” she continued. “I suggest that you plan to spend another semester at Waverly in order to complete your education. Perhaps in the fall, you will find the motivation you failed to discover this semester. Is that clear, Miss Costello?”

I nodded.

“Get out of my office.”

It was a rough dismissal, but the chance to remove myself from Flynn’s presence was a relief. I stood, swung my bag over my shoulder, and headed for the door.

“Miss Costello.”

I braced myself. From previous experience, I knew that Flynn liked to drop her biggest bomb just as I was about to exit her office.

Her dark eyes bore into mine. “Maybe you would have had more time to complete your thesis paper had you not been perusing the campus so late at night. Have a good day.”

An icy chill that had nothing to do with the inclement weather outside permeated my lungs. Heart pounding, I left Flynn’s office and raced toward the stairs at the end of the hallway, hoping that the Black Raptor Society dealt out less severe punishments than murder for breaking and entering.

 

Chapter Eight

 

At the very least, my disastrous meeting with Flynn had relieved me of my obligation to her as my advisor. I could work on my thesis without her input now. With any luck, I could still complete it by the time I was meant to present it to the advisory board. Going over Flynn’s head would be an audacious move, but I couldn’t see any other way to get past her. Somehow, the Black Raptor Society had to go down, and I was the only person who had enough evidence of their illegal activity to bury them for good, as long as they didn’t bury me first.

Though tempting, I didn’t call Orson Lockwood’s secretary to set up a meeting with him. I wasn’t savvy enough to trick Lockwood into a conversation about BRS. Instead, I redoubled my efforts in researching the Lockwood family. From what I’d already discovered, the Lockwoods weren’t just famous at Waverly. BRS practically rolled out red carpets and erected thrones for its Lockwood members. They were the kings and queens of the Black Raptor Society, and so I zeroed in on their most recent royal. Lauren, Orson’s daughter, was in her third year at Waverly, and the junior Lockwood was a lot less intimidating than Orson himself.

It wasn’t difficult to find out a few particulars about Lauren, as the staff at the Waverly Daily adored her. In the Daily’s online database, I discovered multiple recent articles in which she was featured. The majority of them highlighted her accomplishments throughout her first three years of college. She was a member of the women’s rowing team, maintained a solid 4.0 GPA, and had pledged the sorority created by the St. Claire family during her freshman year. I downloaded and saved any pictures of her that had been included with the articles. When I zoomed in on the first photo, a trace of envy tickled my thoughts. Lauren stood between two of her sorority sisters, arms wrapped lovingly around each other. All three wore matching white dresses, and the trio appeared to have organized some kind of charity event. Another photo caught Lauren in action during a rowing competition, triceps bulging and her face still flawless despite a thick sheen of sweat. Lauren did not resemble her father much. She had long, coffee-colored hair that the camera captured flowing gracefully in the invisible breeze and high, plump cheekbones instead of her father’s thin, angled ones. The only thing that Lauren had inherited from Orson was her infectious smile, though hers did not come off nearly as devious. It was hard to believe that the young woman in these pictures was the same person who had coordinated Jo Mitchell’s academic failure. Digging into Lauren’s involvement with BRS seemed a surefire way to familiarize myself with the intricacies of the Lockwood family, so one morning, I decided to commit to a new surveillance project on her behalf.

Waverly’s rowing team was infamous for practicing before dawn. Once or twice, I’d seen the crew of muscled girls step off the bus that shuttled them to and from practice on my way to my seven a.m. class. Two days after my meeting with Flynn, I left Wes and Franklin to make breakfast for themselves, strolled to the center of campus, and located a towering oak tree near the bus stop to hide behind as I waited for the rowing team to show up. As scheduled, the shuttle made its way into the bus loop shortly before seven o’clock. As the girls disembarked, all of them clad in matching navy and silver—Waverly’s school colors—athletic gear, I kept my eyes peeled for Lauren.

She was one of the last girls to step off the shuttle, and unlike some of her bleary-eyed teammates, she was bright, smiling, and chatting animatedly with some of the other less exhausted crew members. I watched as she waved goodbye to her friends and kept an eye on her receding figure as she leisurely drifted toward the expensive dormitories—Waverly’s historic stone-hewn residence hall, which only the wealthiest students could afford—behind the quad. When there was enough space between us, and the rest of the team had dispersed, I emerged from behind the tree and followed casually behind Lauren.

She kept a brisk pace despite the enticing lull of the early morning. I jogged to keep up with her, my breath uneven, as she crossed the slushy quad and cut behind the International Studies building. On the building’s opposite side, I thought I’d lost her, then caught sight of her blue-and-silver Waverly duffel bag already halfway across the dormitory lawn. The lawn lacked places to hide, so I slowed my pace and let her energetic gate increase the distance between us. However, instead of going up the steps to her dormitory building, Lauren glanced to either side and ducked into the alleyway between her dorm and the next.

A crisp breeze whisked my hair back, chilling my neck, as I trailed along after Lauren. She’d disappeared from view again, but from what I could see, there was no side door that led inside the dormitory. Confused, I turned back, wondering if I had somehow missed her.

“Hey!”

A firm hand closed around my upper arm, its grip so tense that I could feel the pressure from each of its five fingers even through my thick winter coat. The hand spun me around, and its owner cornered me against the brick wall of the dormitory. Lauren’s friendly demeanor had vanished, and she regarded me with a deep scowl.

“Why are you following me?” she demanded, her cheeks flushed from either the bitter weather or anger.

“I… I wasn’t,” I said, but the waver in my tone indicated otherwise.

“Bullshit,” said Lauren. She jerked her head toward the bus stop. “I noticed you as soon as I got off the shuttle. You really don’t know how to keep your head down, do you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She let go of my arm and released a sigh. “You’re an idiot. I know who you are, Nicole, and they do too.”

“Who?”

“The Black Raptor Society.”

She answered so promptly and with such nonchalance that it forced me to take a step back. For a moment, I considered making a run for it, no matter how fruitless my efforts would be in comparison to that of Lauren’s highly trained muscles.

“Relax,” Lauren said, noticing how my entire body had tensed. “I figured it was only a matter of time before you sought me out. What do you want to know?”

That threw me for a loop. “Wait, what?”

“Everyone else thinks you won’t get anywhere with whatever limited information you have,” Lauren went on, rubbing her hands together as another chill swept through the alley. “But I’m not stupid. I know how effective a determined woman can be.”

“I’m confused,” I admitted. “Shouldn’t you be reporting me to your father? I mean, you literally caught me stalking you. I know about the things that you’ve done for BRS.”

“Then you know that I was arrested with Donovan Davenport last semester? And that it was me who tampered with his grades?”

I hesitated before giving her a curt nod.

She chewed on the inside of her cheek, which seemed like a strange acceptance of responsibility for her actions. “Listen. Messing with Jo Mitchell’s records was the last thing I ever did for BRS. I saw how it affected her. It was awful. I told my dad that I didn’t want to be involved with BRS anymore.”

“How did he react?”

She scoffed, scuffing the heel of her designer boot against the slushy ground. “BRS is blood in, blood out. Metaphorically, at least. My father agreed to give me a break, but he expects me to continue my membership with the society. Believe me, I’ve tried to swear them off.”

“Do you know what happened to George O’Connor?” I asked, dreading the answer. Although after ambushing Lauren, I wasn’t sure I deserved one.

“Who?”

“Professor George O’Connor.”

“Oh, that was the guy who went missing a couple weeks ago, right? What happened to him?”

Either Lauren really didn’t know that her buddies at BRS had beaten O’Connor to death or she was a good liar.

“You really don’t know?” I asked, taking a step closer so that Lauren couldn’t avoid eye contact with me. I knew from experience that it was a whole lot harder to lie if you were forced to stare at someone while doing it.

For a second, Lauren’s expression held firm, but then her bottom lip trembled. “That was a mistake,” she whispered.

“So you do know.”

“I heard about it,” she admitted. “It wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s the first time BRS has been responsible for that kind of thing. They have no idea what to do with him. No one outside of the society has ever gotten as far as O’Connor did, and BRS has deep enough pockets to silence anyone who’s raised questions before.”

It was a strange relief that I felt then. At least BRS didn’t make murder a habit. Even more encouraging, it sounded like the members of the society were spooked. They hadn’t found a solution to their problem yet, which would make it easier for me to find holes in whatever story they would inevitably come up with.

“Look, Nicole,” said Lauren. “I just want you to know. I never had anything to do with O’Connor. I opted out long before BRS found out what he was doing.”

“You benefited from your BRS membership in other ways,” I pointed out. “Any other student would’ve been kicked out of Waverly if they’d been busted for possession.”

Lauren nodded solemnly. “I know that.”

“It’s also hard to believe your grade point average is all your own doing, considering what I’ve found out about your BRS extracurriculars. You work in the records office, for shit’s sake.”

“You’re wrong there,” she said, shaking her head. “I never needed BRS to help with my grades. I actually like school. I work hard. It’s the same with the rowing team. BRS didn’t buy my way in. I trained hard in high school to earn a spot with Waverly.”

“Still.”

“Still,” agreed Lauren. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Nicole, my father might lack any kind of moral compass, but I don’t. I’m done with BRS, no matter what, and you should be too. Look at what happened to your professor.”

“I’m not just going to drop this and kick it under the rug.”

“I figured you’d say that,” she said. To my surprise, she pulled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket and handed it to me. “Give me your phone number. If I hear anything else, I’ll let you know.”

I raised an eyebrow, skeptical. Even if Lauren was telling the truth, I was sure that BRS had plenty of ways to keep an eye on Lauren’s communications. “Won’t your dad find out?”

“He’s not Big Brother,” she declared, retracting the phone. “He doesn’t monitor every aspect of my life. If you don’t want to, it’s fine. But don’t expect me to come looking for you.”

In a split-second decision, I grabbed the phone, typed my number in, and handed it back to Lauren. She busied herself with it for a moment, and then my own phone, tucked in the pocket of my winter coat, vibrated.

“Now you have my number too,” she said. “I’ll keep you posted. And Nicole, for the love of God, if you’re going to follow someone, learn how to do it stealthily.”

I left Lauren to the comfort of her dorm room and decided to risk a trip to the library. If BRS already knew what I was doing, there was no additional harm in conducting further research in the public eye. After all, I was still a student at Waverly, and I had as much right as everyone else to study on campus.

The campus had woken up during my conversation with Lauren. The quad teemed with students on their way to early morning classes. I cut a pathway through them, but as soon as I left the brown grass and stepped onto the icy sidewalk, I caught sight of a bicycle whizzing toward me in my peripheral. The cyclist swerved, but it was too late. The wheels slid out on the ice and took me out at the knees. We went down in a painful tangle of limbs and bicycle parts. My messenger bag tore open, spilling all of my belongings, including a couple folders of my thesis research, across the ground.

“I’m so sorry,” said the cyclist. She was young, a freshman and unfamiliar with the hazards of riding so recklessly through a college campus. “I lost control. The ice—”

Her helmet was askew, but other than a mild scrape on the palm of her hand, she seemed unharmed. I, on the other hand, did not fare quite as well. Sharp stabbing pains radiated through both of my knees where the bike had hit me, and a burning sensation on my stomach let me know that my winter jacket had ridden up during the collision and exposed my skin to a healthy dose of road rash. My right wrist ached from where I’d braced myself against the ground, and all in all, I thought I might break down and cry right there in front of the sputtering freshman girl.

“It’s fine,” I managed. The breeze attempted to whisk away a few pages of my thesis notes, but I snatched them up, narrowly avoiding getting my fingers stepped on by another passing student.

The cyclist went after a few of the windswept pages and brought them back to me. “I’m really sorry,” she said again, sticking her hand out to me.

I let her pull me to my feet, grimacing as my knees protested the movement. “Just watch where you’re going.”

“Yeah, totally. Sorry.”

As she mounted her bike again and took off, I examined what was left of my messenger bag. It had split right down the seam in the collision. I shoved my notes inside, folding one torn flap over the other, and tucked the bag inside my coat for safekeeping. Then, no longer in the mood to spend any time in the library, I limped in the direction of home.

I found Wes sitting on the bottom step of our apartment building. He rose as I walked toward him, his mouth dropping open when he saw the state I was in.

“What happened?”

“Bicycle took me out,” I said, stifling a groan as Wes inspected my wrist. A bright purple bruise had already bloomed there. “Damn kids don’t pay attention at all, do they?”

Wes pressed worried lips to my forehead as he hugged me lightly. “I’m afraid I have to ruin your day further.”

I drew back. “What do you mean?”

“Follow me.”

Wes led me to the parking lot around the back side of the building. There, his police cruiser was parked in its usual space, but it rested on slashed, deflated tires. On its hood, someone had spray-painted the BRS logo in red, and along the side, the words “watch your back” had been stamped in black.

I dropped my head into my aching hands. “Are you fucking kidding me? Did you call the force?”

“Yup,” said Wes. “They’re on their way now to tow it. Wilson said they want to take pictures and look for fingerprints—that kind of stuff—to see if they can find out who did it.”

“It’s kind of obvious, Wes,” I said, pointing to the red crest on the hood. “The Black Raptor Society strikes again.”

“According to Wilson, the Black Raptor Society doesn’t exist,” said Wes, kicking one of the ruined tires in frustration. “It’s freaking me out, Nic, because I can’t help but wonder if one of the boys on the force is responsible for this.”

I bit my lip, unwilling to add to Wes’s stress by agreeing.

“And that’s not all,” he went on. “Jo Mitchell was arrested for public intoxication last night. I saw them bring her in during my night shift, and I overhead Whitehall speaking with some university official. She’s going to be kicked out of Waverly.”

“No way.”

This was the kind of stuff Lauren had warned me about less than half an hour ago. She was right. BRS knew who I was and what I had been doing. They’d vandalized Wes’s cruiser to make their point clear, and they’d obviously figured out that I’d spoken to Jo again. There was no way Jo, what with her determination to keep her head down, would get wasted in public. No, it had to be all BRS’s doing.

“Let’s get you inside,” said Wes, taking my hand. “We should clean up those scrapes.”

Once inside the apartment, I peeled off my clothes to tend to my various wounds in the bathroom. The rash on my stomach would heal quickly, but my knees had bled through my jeans. Franklin sat honorably beside me as Wes dabbed the cuts clean with a warm washcloth.

“What do you think I should do?” I asked Wes, watching as he applied antibiotic cream to a gauze pad and stuck it to my left knee.

“I don’t know if I can tell you that, Nic.” He secured the gauze with a few strips of medical tape. “Don’t get me wrong, I want these assholes to get nailed for their crimes just as much as you do. I just don’t want you to sacrifice your safety and sanity in order for that to happen.”

I pondered this. On one hand, the idea of dropping my investigation into BRS was heavenly. It would get the society off my back, and the people around me, like Wes and Jo, wouldn’t have to suffer any more setbacks on my account. My conscience, however, would not be clear as long as O’Connor’s body rotted away undiscovered.

When Wes finished patching up my knees, I hobbled out to the living room in search of my demolished messenger bag. I dumped the contents out onto the couch and sifted through them, hoping that none of my notes were still on the loose on campus. After a couple of minutes, I realized what had gone missing.

“Shit!”

Wes rushed in from the bathroom. “What’s wrong?”

“They took the puzzle box!”

“Who?”

“I don’t know,” I said, lifting my bag off the couch to make sure I hadn’t lost the puzzle box somewhere beneath it. “The cyclist or someone else. Oh, my God, it was all staged.”

“What was?”

“The fucking bike crash!” In a fit, I threw what was left of my messenger bag across the room. My thesis notes went flying and floated down to settle like ashes on the living-room floor.

“Are you sure?”

I reached for my laptop, opening up the documents that I’d saved my thesis work to. Every one of them was blank.

“No, no, no.”

“What?” asked Wes urgently.

I ignored him. Blood rushed to my head, and my field of vision narrowed as I typed in the passcode to my phone and accessed the camera. All of the pictures—of the clubhouse, the police reports, everything—were gone. It was like I had never even been to BRS’s underground room. They’d wiped everything. All that I had left were O’Connor’s original notes. Furious, I hurled my cell phone too. It hit the far wall of the living room and shattered.

“Relax, Nicole!”

Wes trailed behind me as I rampaged through the living room, flinging aside papers and folders in what I knew was a fruitless search for the puzzle box.

“They hacked everything, Wes!” I shouted. “My phone, my computer! My thesis work is gone! All of it!”

“So you’ll do it again.”

“Oh, God.” I halted my assault on the living room as another thought hit me. “My grades.”

I rushed back over to my laptop and logged in to my academic account. My heart throbbed in my throat as the page displaying my grades fought against the shitty Wi-Fi to load. When the tab finally appeared, I nearly chucked my computer across the room too.

I had Ds and Fs in all of my graduate courses.

“I am going to kill Catherine Flynn,” I said through gritted teeth.

Wes peered at the laptop screen over my shoulder. He seemed relieved that my aggressive display of mania had faded into a quieter, seething rage. “As a police officer, I really can’t condone murder, Nic.”

I turned around to face him. “Do you think this is funny? They’re ruining my entire career, Wes.”

“I don’t think it’s funny, but I do think it’s naive of you not to have expected it.”

A wave of indignation washed over me at his response, but Wes was right. I’d been warned from the beginning. O’Connor, Jo, and even Stella St. Claire had all notified me of the ramifications of getting involved with BRS. I’d ignored them, too stubborn and headstrong, but I refused to place the blame on myself. If the Black Raptor Society didn’t exist, I’d have a finished thesis and a graduation gown to order by now.

“Where are you going?” asked Wes as I walked to the bedroom and wrenched on a fresh, unbloodied pair of jeans.

“To Flynn’s office,” I said, pulling a sweater over my head. “She has to be the main BRS member behind this. There’s no way she’s getting away with it.”

“Let me come with you.”

“No.” I donned my winter coat, which now had threadbare patches on the front thanks to BRS’s bike messenger, and stepped into my boots. “I want to confront her alone. I’ll call you if I need you.”

“You better. If you’re not back in an hour, I’m coming to check on you.”

“Fair enough.”

 

I crossed the Waverly campus in record time, fueled by the fury still boiling inside me. I stormed up the staircase to Flynn’s office with every intention of kicking her door down, but when I reached the fourth floor, I discovered it already unlocked and open.

Tentatively, I edged inside. Flynn was nowhere in sight, and I hadn’t seen her on the other floors of Research Hall either. On the bookshelf, the crow sculpture had been moved. The books it usually supported lay toppled over, as though Flynn had disrupted the crow in a hurry. With one last glance down the hallway to ensure that I was alone, I shut the office door, turned over the crow, and arranged the puzzle pieces.

When it popped open, my stomach twisted. The ring inside was gone.

The empty velvet insides of the crow felt like an omen. I put the sculpture back on the shelf where I had found it, positioned slightly away from the fallen books. Flynn would face my wrath some other time, when I’d gathered my nerves to confront her again.

Outside Flynn’s office, Donovan Davenport leaned casually against the wall.

“Hey, Nicole,” he said with an easy smile as I paused in Flynn’s doorway. He didn’t question what I was doing alone in her office. “I wanted you to meet some of my friends.”

Without warning, someone behind me wrapped a blindfold around my eyes. I heard the scuffle of several pairs of shoes against the carpet as Dominic’s faceless cronies accosted me. The odds were skewed—BRS had sent at least four or five members to apprehend me—and I was rendered immobile in mere seconds. Before I could yell, another hand covered my mouth. I felt a pill land on my tongue. In a panic, I tried to spit it out, but the hand kept my lips closed until the pill melted. I struggled, turning my head this way and that, and kicked out with my legs. But my limbs grew heavier, and my mind turned woozy. I blacked out, holding on to one last conscious observation: the scent of rose petals on one of my captor’s hands.

 

Chapter Nine

 

I woke with heavy eyelids, an aching head, and a dry mouth. As I blinked to clear my hazy vision, my surroundings and three blurry figures swam slowly into view. Catherine Flynn, Orson Lockwood, and Donovan Davenport stood in a loose circle around me. I couldn’t remember anything after Davenport’s accomplices had abducted me, but somehow, they’d managed to get me across campus and into the Black Raptor Society’s clubhouse in broad daylight. The four of us occupied the museum-like storage room of artwork. They had secured me to one of the high-backed chairs from the clubhouse’s dining room, my wrists bound to either armrest and my ankles tied together with several layers of duct tape. They’d confiscated my boots, which lay side by side at the end of one storage row. The light was low, but behind the looming silhouettes of my captors, the white freezer chest glowed like a beacon in the dim room. Now that it was empty, BRS had space to hide my body should they choose to discard me. My stomach clenched, and I closed my eyes, hoping I might wake up in bed next to Wes and discover that the past several weeks had all been one long, vivid nightmare.

Orson Lockwood snapped his fingers. I flinched as the sharp click of the gesture resonated through my throbbing head. I licked my lips to return some moisture to them, but it was no use.

“Salander, get her some water,” Lockwood demanded of someone.

From behind me, I caught another whiff of rose petals, and a glass of water appeared beneath my nose. I looked up from its rippling surface and into Lauren Lockwood’s eyes.

“Drink,” she ordered, tipping the glass. “It helps.”

I allowed her to dribble the water into my mouth. The cool liquid floated across my tongue, washing away the stale aftertaste of whatever drug they had used to knock me out.

“You deserve an Oscar,” I rasped to Lauren, purposely ignoring the gazes of the other three people in the room. “For all that garbage you fed me this morning.”

“You were gullible enough to believe it,” she countered as she set the glass of water aside. She leaned over me, planting her hands on either armrest. “I’m a Lockwood, Nicole. This is a birthright for me. Do you really think I would abandon my family? My legacy?”

“You hacked my phone.”

Lauren laughed and straightened, backing up to stand beside Flynn, Lockwood, and Donovan. “You made it so easy. I only needed your phone number. Got into your computer that way too. Stupid of you, really, to have all of your accounts linked like that.”

“Sorry, I don’t have much experience in gathering intel under the radar.”

“Clearly.”

“As you might’ve noticed, Miss Costello,” cut in Orson, “my daughter happens to be one of the most promising young members of the Black Raptor Society.”

Lauren smirked at her father’s praise. Donovan, however, sported a sneer that suggested he might’ve smelled something distasteful. Despite their evident partnership, the pair appeared to be in competition with each other, and Lauren had a leg up as the heir to the Lockwood throne.

“What else have you people done?” I asked, not expecting any kind of true answer.

“My dear, all we’ve done is damage control,” continued Orson. Like before, he projected a compassionate sincerity, a skill he must have honed over his many years of debauchery. “For instance, you ignored our warnings and spoke to Jo Mitchell again. As a result, she has been removed from the situation.”

“You ruined her life,” I growled. My fists clenched unconsciously, and the duct tape around my wrists strained and tightened. “Where is she supposed to go now?”

“Back to whatever hovel she crawled out of,” quipped Donovan with a snigger. “People like Jo Mitchell don’t belong at Waverly.”

“Oh?” I turned to Donovan. “You mean hard-working people who actually have to put in some effort for their accomplishments rather than having Daddy buy them?”

Donovan’s grin dropped. “Shut up, Costello.”

“Enough,” interrupted Flynn as she stepped forward. “I warned you, Miss Costello, to mind your own business, and from what I understand, several others afforded you similar advice. You chose to ignore it. You gave us no choice here.”

Somehow, I still felt as if we were in Flynn’s office. She used the same authoritative voice here in the clubhouse that she did when reprimanding me about my lack of initiative. “How long have you been following me?”

“Ever since you broke in to my office,” answered Flynn. “I called Bacchus right away. He underestimated you, of course. You managed to find your way into the clubhouse before he could track you down.”

“Bacchus?”

Donovan casually waved a hand. “That would be me.”

“Ah, right. The code names. What’s mine?”

Orson Lockwood chuckled. “Only members of the society are awarded a nickname, Miss Costello.”

A murmur of voices penetrated the art room from the other side of its door, and I could hear the faint shuffle of footfalls down the hallway.

“There are more people here?” I asked, wondering once again how the Black Raptor Society managed to convene underground without anyone else noticing.

“We called a meeting to discuss what to do with you,” said Flynn.

My gaze flickered to the freezer chest. “Why didn’t you just off me like you did O’Connor?”

Orson drew up another chair and straddled it. “Miss Costello,” he said in a low, reassuring voice. “I can assure you that what happened to George O’Connor was an accident. The Black Raptor Society is not made of murderers.”

“And yet you still have a body hidden somewhere in your secret clubhouse.”

“We moved the body, actually,” piped in Donovan.

“Shut up, halfwit,” snapped Lauren. “She already knows too much.”

“Better yet, Bacchus,” added Flynn as she examined her polished fingernails for apparent discrepancies, “kindly leave us to it. After all, had you responded to my call sooner and went after Miss Costello the night she discovered our little secret, we wouldn’t be here at all, would we?”

“I—”

“The Morrigan said out,” said Orson, without looking at Donovan.

With a childish groan, Donovan huffed and got up to leave. As he opened the door, a shaft of golden light spilled in from the hallway, and the bustle of voices from the other rooms grew momentarily. Before Donovan pulled the door shut again, he popped his head back in to address Lauren. “This isn’t over, Salander. I’m coming back for my council seat.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” said Lauren with a sly smile.

The door slammed shut, leaving me alone with Lauren, Flynn, and Orson. “What happens now?” I questioned warily.

“I’m glad you asked, Miss Costello,” said Orson as he rested his forearms on the chair back in front of him. “As I said before, the Raptors have debated this matter, and we’ve decided to offer you two options.”

“How considerate of you.”

“Quite,” said Flynn. She placed a hand on Orson’s shoulder. “Let me reiterate what my brother has already mentioned.”

My jaw slackened at this revelation. “Your brother?”

“Did you not notice the family resemblance?” asked Flynn, sweeping her dark hair over one shoulder. “Orson and I have been the heart of the Black Raptor Society for quite some time now. We shaped the Raptors into what they are now while we were still in school at Waverly. In fact, I’m shocked that you didn’t figure it out sooner. You never came across my maiden name in any of your pathetic, abortive research?”

I clenched my teeth. I’d focused so closely on Orson and the other men of the Lockwood family that I’d dismissed any female members, other than Lauren, completely.

“In any case,” continued Flynn, though she wore a pleased simper at my incompetent research abilities, “we are not murderers. It’s too unsavory a deed, and to be quite honest, it was a blight on our society’s reputation. The Raptors only meant to frighten George O’Connor. It went too far.”

My hands trembled as Flynn spoke, and I gripped the armrests to stop them from shaking. “Preach your excuses all you want,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “You still killed someone. And even if you hadn’t, how many reputations have you destroyed for your own benefit? I mean, don’t you people adhere to a code of ethics at all?”

“An ambiguous one, to be sure,” admitted Lauren. Orson nodded in approval as she continued. “One must accept that in order to find success in this world, others must fail. Surely, you understand that, Nicole?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Agreed,” said Orson to my surprise. “It’s come to my knowledge that you also discovered our contacts at the police station.”

I swallowed hard, unwilling to give away anything that might jeopardize Wes’s job. “I only guessed that you had members there.”

“One or two.”

“Whitehall, right? And Officer Wilson?”

“Ah, yes, Daryl!” said Orson affectionately. “He always liked you, you know. He was quite upset when that boyfriend of yours started poking his nose around. Daryl was never a man of conflict.”

I remained quiet at the mention of Wes, trying to keep my face impassive.

“Speaking of your boyfriend,” Orson continued. He snapped his fingers, and Lauren handed him a manila file folder. He took a photo from it and turned it around so that I could see it. “Weston McAllen. This is him, right?”

It was Wes’s profile picture from the police academy. I did my best to maintain a straight face, but then Orson produced another photo, one of both me and Wes, that someone—Lauren most likely—had downloaded from the private pictures on my computer.

“Beautiful couple,” remarked Orson. He held the photo up for Flynn to see. “Don’t you think?”

My face burned as Flynn peered at the picture. “A little too crass for my taste, my dear.”

“Then shove it up your ass,” I snapped before I could help myself.

“Tsk, tsk. Bottle it up, Miss Costello,” Orson said, closing the file folder and handing it back to Lauren. “My point is this: we know that you’ve been keeping Mr. McAllen in the loop on our affairs. I would assume you’ve shared your inner knowledge of BRS with him, as women are so prone to doing with their significant others.”

Out of Orson’s line of sight, Lauren rolled her eyes. At least she didn’t buy into every aspect of the Raptors’ brotherhood bullshit.

“I barely told Wes anything,” I lied. With any luck, BRS would leave him out of this. “I didn’t want him to get in trouble with the force.”

“Sure,” said Orson, his tone dripping with patronage. “Whatever the case, we have members standing by outside your apartment. Just in case.”

“Just in case of what?”

“Should you make any trouble,” Flynn began, “our members will take your boyfriend into custody as well. You do not want that to happen, Miss Costello. It will only end poorly.”

They had to be bluffing. After all, why would Flynn and Lockwood try to convince me that O’Connor’s death was an accident if they’d planned on kidnapping Wes all along?

Lauren leaned casually against her father’s chair. “Good God, Nicole, don’t look so put out. Torturing your boyfriend is our last-resort option.” In a playful gesture, she tousled her father’s hair. “Come on, Dad. Stop freaking her out.”

“All right, all right.” Orson chuckled, batting away his daughter’s hand. If it were not for the fact that I was tied to a chair, I might’ve thought I’d intruded on some sort of bizarre Lockwood family bonding time. “So, Miss Costello, your first option. If you so desire, you may choose to vanish from Waverly University entirely.”

“What?” I said, incredulous. “What do you mean by vanish?”

“Simply disappear,” elaborated Orson with a noncommittal shrug as if the suggestion wasn’t the most far-fetched idea I’d ever heard. “Pack up your things, take your boyfriend, and leave the area. Tell no one of our society. Begin your life anew.”

“Be aware, Miss Costello,” interrupted Flynn, “that should you choose this option, your record here at Waverly University will cease to exist. Your grades, your progress toward your master’s. It will all be lost, as though you never even set foot in the halls of our school.”

“But,” said Orson before I could open my mouth with a retaliation, “the Black Raptor Society would allocate the funds for your move, settle your student-loan debt, and set you up with a source of income. You could attend whatever university you wanted. Study until you’ve conquered every history book in existence. You would never have to work a day in your life. Your sweet rookie of a boyfriend could retire early. And presumably much to your delight, you would never hear from the Black Raptor Society ever again.”

“You’re trying to bribe me to leave Waverly?”

“Think of it more as a business offer,” Lauren chipped in. “A lucrative one. You’d be stupid not to accept it.”

“I think I’ve exercised my fair share of stupidity as of late,” I said. I wriggled my ankles, testing the durability of the duct tape.

“Your other option,” said Orson, “is to accept an honorary membership with the Black Raptor Society.”

I blinked, confused. “I’m sorry, come again?”

“We don’t offer this type of inclusion often, Miss Costello,” said Flynn. “Should you accept it, you would be privy to all of the Raptors’ secrets. Not to mention, you would benefit from the same advantages you’ve so adamantly condemned. I’m sure you’ll find your moral ground isn’t quite as defined when you reside on one of its higher levels.”

“Why the hell would you want me to be a member?” I asked. “It doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t your entire society the product of unwavering nepotism?”

“Every once in a while, if we discover a suitable prospect, we present them with the opportunity to join our ranks,” explained Orson.

I scoffed. “And you consider me suitable?”

“Quite,” confirmed Lauren. “You found your way down here, didn’t you? No one else in the history of BRS has ever done that. Except—”

Flynn cut Lauren short. “If you decide to become one of us, the process here becomes a great deal less troublesome. You would be free to return to your apartment. We would organize your induction ceremony sometime in the next week or so. Then you could continue your master’s progress. Of course, the Raptors would provide you with alternate material for your thesis, but you would graduate with the rest of your classmates at the end of this semester.”

“What about Wes?”

“Your boyfriend must agree to work under Officer Wilson as an informant for BRS,” explained Flynn. “If he does not comply, and you still wish to become a member, we would require the cessation of your relationship.”

To my dismay, my eyes began to burn, a sure sign that I might cry. If Flynn really thought that I would sacrifice my relationship with Wes just to get into BRS’s good graces, she was even more heartless than I thought.

“What if I decide to leave?” I asked. “What happens then?”

“We would escort you back to your apartment, assist with your packing, and supervise your departure from the Waverly campus,” explained Orson.

I glanced from Orson to Flynn to Lauren. All three were calm and collected. This was no more than a business meeting for them. I, on the other hand, felt a panic attack coming on. I couldn’t accept either one of the offered options in good conscience. Either BRS paid me to keep quiet, or I enlisted with their organization, effectively supporting all of the society’s exploits that I’d been so determined to reveal.

“Can I… may I have a few minutes alone to think about it?” I asked. I needed more time to weigh the pros and cons of each situation, preferably without the higher-ups of BRS breathing down my neck. There was no way I could accept either option, but there had to be some kind of loophole I hadn’t thought of yet.

Orson pushed his chair away from mine and stood up. “Certainly,” he said. “Ladies, we’ll wait with the others in the conference room. Miss Costello? Do you think ten minutes is sufficient time to mull things over?”

“Certainly,” I said, imitating his conciliatory inflection.

He flashed his signature smile as he held the door open and gestured Flynn and Lauren from the room. Outside, raucous laughter floated down the hallway. It sounded like the rest of the Black Raptor Society was in the thick of a mid-semester bash.

“I’ll wait outside the door,” said Lauren as she passed her father. She looked back at me with a wry grin. “Just in case.”

As soon as the door closed and the glow from the hallway sconces disappeared, I burst into action, wrenching my wrists back and forth in an attempt to loosen my duct-tape restraints. The little hairs on my skin tore away as the tape lost some of its grip, but like ripping off a giant Band-Aid, I kept at it. Maybe ten minutes was just enough time to break free. Although, even if I did manage to escape from the chair, I didn’t want to think about how I would get past Lauren and the rest of BRS’s guard dogs.

The door creaked open again, and I immediately stilled. It was Lauren again, as though she’d waited for her father and Flynn to return to the meeting room before she snuck back into the art room. A chill washed over me. What horror did she wish to inflict on me that her superiors wouldn’t approve of?

“They said ten minutes,” I said as Lauren crept in and closed the door quietly behind her.

“Yeah, I know, genius,” she whispered back. “Keep your voice down.”

She crossed the room and knelt down at my feet. I felt the duct tape around my ankles tighten then heard the swift swish of a switchblade opening. I bucked my feet as far away from Lauren as possible. “Shit! What the hell are you doing?”

“Shut up!” she hissed. “And stop moving unless you want me to accidentally cut your damn feet off. I’m trying to get you out of here.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. The roofies you force-fed me earlier are still messing with my brain a little bit,” I quipped. “That was you, was it not, Salander? Great code name, by the way. What else have you used your master IT skills for?”

“I didn’t have a choice.” As she hacked through the duct tape between my ankles, Lauren spoke in a low ramble. “Most of what I told you this morning was true,” she said. “I don’t want anything to do with BRS. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to opt out.”

“How do I know this isn’t just another trick?” I asked. My feet sprang apart, and Lauren gently removed the duct tape from around my ankles. She fetched my boots from across the room and deposited them at my feet.

“Because I was the one who gave O’Connor my puzzle box,” she said.

“What?”

She sighed, moving her focus up to my hands. With painstaking precision, she maneuvered the blade between my skin and the duct tape and sliced upwards. “Every member of the society gets some kind of box like that when they’re inducted. The ring too. I knew that if O’Connor managed to get his hands on one, he’d probably be able to figure it all out. I guess he never really got the chance. He would’ve eventually. O’Connor caught on to BRS a while ago. He dug up all that shit that was locked in his safe—”

“You knew about the safe?”

“Who do you think told him to hide all that information?” she asked, raising an eyebrow as if to question my command of common sense. “I don’t care what my father and aunt say. BRS is lethal. This isn’t the first death we’ve been connected to.”

“But you said it was an accident, and that BRS considered murder unsavory.”

“There was no proof to link BRS directly with the previous deaths,” she said. “And it was an accident. They weren’t going to kill O’Connor, just rough him up, but Donovan was there. He’s got serious anger issues, no matter how creepily calm he seems. I heard that he was the one who took it too far.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” I muttered, grimacing as Lauren peeled the duct tape away from my left wrist and set to work on the other one.

“That’s why he was demoted,” she went on. “That same day, I took his place on the council.”

“If you’re so against all of this, why would you work so hard to get promoted? And why the hell wouldn’t you just clue me in on all of this shit when we spoke this morning?”

“Look, Nicole,” she said, all of her concentration dedicated to not slicing open my right wrist with the switchblade as she wriggled it beneath the duct tape. “This whole double-agent thing only works if they think I’m solidly committed to BRS. That’s why I got your phone number. That’s why I hacked your computer. It bought me some time. Even when I get you out of here, they won’t suspect me.”

“How do you figure?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, and with a final flick of the knife, she freed my right hand.

I rubbed at the raw skin around my wrists. “Thanks.”

She nodded hurriedly. “Listen. I gave O’Connor that box because I thought that he would be able to uncover all the crap that BRS has done. I didn’t count on him dying. Now, he’s passed that beacon on to you, and I can tell that you’re not about to set it down again.”

I stayed quiet, pursing my lips. Lauren was perceptive, that was for sure.

“I figured,” she went on. “You know all that bullshit that my dad and aunt fed you? With either option, you’re screwed. BRS will always be a part of your life, even if you decided to take the money and leave Waverly. I’ve seen it before, Nicole. They keep tabs on everyone they’ve ever paid off. They’ll tail you with private investigators, just to make sure you won’t ever mention BRS to any kind of authority. Here, put on your shoes.”

I did as told, leaning over to pull my boots onto my cold feet.

“I made a mistake when I gave O’Connor that box,” said Lauren. Her voice shook. “I wanted him to do the work for me, so that my father would never suspect me of taking down the society. If it weren’t for me, he’d still be alive.”

“Hey, that’s not true—”

“It is, and I can’t let the same thing happen to you.” Her eyes shimmered in the gloomy light, but she seemed determined not to let her tears fall. “Leave Waverly. Go home, find your boyfriend, and get out of town. It’s the only way you’ll be safe.”

“I thought your father had goons camped out at my apartment.”

“Everyone’s at the party. He just said that to scare you. Even so, you need to be careful. It’s better if no one sees you leave.”

“And what about BRS?”

Lauren’s face hardened. “I’ll find a way to shut it down eventually. It might just take longer than I thought.”

“I can help—”

“No, you can’t!” she whispered furiously. “Didn’t you learn anything from O’Connor? You have no power here, Nicole, and no other options. Get out while you still can.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” I asked. I swept my arms around us, indicating the art room. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re under the freaking ground. Your buddies might be laughing it up out there, but I have a feeling they’d notice if I waltzed by on my bid for freedom.”

“Most everyone’s drunk,” she said shortly. “They’re celebrating. They got rid of O’Connor’s body and caught you. It’s a victory for us.”

“The Lockwoods certainly aren’t inebriated.”

“True, but I can get you out of here without them knowing. There are a bunch of underground tunnels that connect some of the other Waverly buildings to our clubhouse,” she explained. “It’s how we got you down here without anyone noticing. There’s one in the basement of Research Hall.”

“No fucking way.”

“The library down here. Have you seen it?”

I nodded.

Lauren crept over to the door, opened it a smidge, and peeked out. She beckoned me forward with her index finger. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Heart pounding, I followed Lauren out into the hallway, squinting against the bright light of the sconces. Chatter, laughter, and music poured from the dining room at the far end of the corridor, and though another member could emerge from the party at any second and discover us, we edged forward. Thankfully, the library was only a few doors down, and we slipped inside unnoticed.

Lauren raced to the long desk in the middle of the room, the one that held the BRS charter, and lay down on the floor beneath it.

“What are you doing?” I whispered, squatting down next to her.

“Just…one…second,” she grunted as she fiddled with something on the underside of the desk. A defined click met my ears. “There.”

She squirmed out from under the desk just in time. The floor gave way, revealing a rickety ladder and deep drop. I looked down into it, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“It’s not far,” Lauren reassured me. “It comes out in the basement of my dormitory. No one uses this one much. Mostly, it’s just me. It’s safe, I promise.”

“Are you sure?”

“You don’t trust me?”

“Not a bit.”

Lauren grinned. “That’s probably wise of you. Get going. Our ten minutes are nearly up, and I still have to stage your great escape.”

I shuffled forward, dropping my legs into the passageway and finding the first rung of the ladder. As I slipped entirely into the hole in the floor, I looked back up at Lauren. “I misjudged you.”

“Everyone always does.”

Without warning, the floor tiles slid back into place, and all traces of light from the clubhouse vanished. Blindly, I lowered myself into the darkness below.

 

Chapter 10

 

Lauren had spoken the truth about the secret tunnel. It was only about ten feet down before my boots hit the floor of the passageway, but in the pitch black, I had no idea which way I was supposed to be heading. Thankfully, BRS hadn’t bothered to relieve me of my phone. There was no point, I guessed, considering they’d already wiped it blank. I took it out from my jacket pocket and flipped the LED light on. My route was easier than I expected. The rough stone tunnel branched out in one direction, so with a silent prayer that Lauren was genuinely trying to help me, I set off, bowing my head to avoid banging it on the low, stooped ceiling.

Ten minutes later, the passageway sloped gradually upward, and at the end, I pushed open a section in the wall, crawled through the hole, and found myself in the boiler room of Lauren’s dormitory. From there, I climbed the stairs to the first floor and let myself out into the main hallway. As I passed by a few student residents, I instinctively ducked my face, keeping my eyes on the floor, just in case any of them were members of BRS. I left the dorm building without issue and emerged into the bright sunlight of midday.

I wiped my watering eyes with the back of my hand. It had been so dark and chilly in the clubhouse that I’d all but forgotten it was just a normal day for the other Waverly students. They milled about in the dormitory courtyard, chatting with friends, or rushed to classes with stacks of books cradled in their arms. How mundane it all seemed now. I wished suddenly that I’d never looked in O’Connor’s safe, that I had remained blissfully ignorant of the Black Raptor Society. There were some things you just couldn’t take back.

As I jogged toward home, I considered my options. According to Lauren, my best bet was packing up and leaving Waverly, but there was a whole host of details to consider when trying to lose someone on your tail, and my fragile knowledge of the subject relied solely on mass-marketed movies. I’d leave the high-stakes deception up to Wes. It was absurd that I even had to think about this sort of thing. There was still so much I didn’t know about BRS. How deep did their connections go? What would Wes and I have to do to stop them from following us? They could track us in a million different ways—bank accounts, license plates, et cetera—but was the Black Raptor Society that committed to hunting down its prey?

Anger burned through me, and I sped up my pace. Why should I have to be the one to leave Waverly when BRS was the problematic entity? Though they might’ve confiscated all of my electronic evidence, I still had all of O’Connor’s paper research in the apartment back home. Going to the local police with it wasn’t an option though. Wilson and Whitehall would cover it up without a hitch. My only option was to skip over the local force entirely. Maybe the county or the state would take me seriously. One could only hope.

As I neared my apartment building, I slowed down. Despite Lauren’s reassurance, a prickle of fear raised the hair on the back of my neck. Wes’s cruiser was gone. The force must have picked it up while I was being interrogated beneath the Waverly library. No one lingered around the building, and there were very few cars in the parking lot, most of which I recognized as belonging to my neighbors. Still, I pulled the hood of my winter coat up to veil my face before walking out into the courtyard and heading up the stairs.

I stopped dead in my tracks when I reached my apartment. Wes’s set of keys dangled from the doorknob. To anyone else, it might’ve looked like a simple mistake, but I knew Wes. He was obsessed with safety, almost to the point of neuroticism, and the only reason he would’ve left his key in the door was if he wasn’t in a position to remove it.

I pressed my ear to the door, listening for any signs of trouble. A muffled yell echoed from inside, followed by a low growl.

“Damn dog!”

The voice was unfamiliar, and if Franklin, the most easygoing dog I’d ever met, was upset over the intruder, I knew it wasn’t someone friendly. Franklin had flawless judgement when it came to people.

Suddenly, a high-pitched yelp, one that was unmistakably uttered by a non-human, met my ears. The asshole inside, whoever he was, had done something to Franklin.

Fueled by hate and fury alone, I kicked open the door and grabbed the first weapon I could find, which happened to be the old softball bat that Wes and I kept near the kitchen for situations just like these. Across the living room, Franklin cowered beneath the coffee table, hiding from the stranger who kept attempting to drag Franklin out by the collar.

As I stormed across the room, raising the bat, the stranger turned around. I recognized him from O’Connor’s files. It was one of BRS’s freshmen, Robert Buchanan, dressed stealthily yet stylishly in a black leather bomber jacket and dark jeans, complete with a black beanie pulled low over his forehead.

“No one touches my dog, asshole.”

Before he could even raise a hand to defend himself, I swung the bat. It connected with the side of his head, and he dropped like a stone. I stood, panting, for a moment, staring down at Buchanan’s prone figure as my adrenaline rush faded. Franklin emerged from beneath the coffee table and snuffled my fingers. I knelt down next to Buchanan, tipped his head to the side, and pressed two fingers to his throat. There was a pulse, and his chest rose and fell evenly. Buchanan would have a nasty bruise and a hangover-worthy headache, but he’d be fine in a few days.

I glanced around the room. Lauren had either lied to me or underestimated her father. I was more inclined to believe the latter. Orson seemed like the type of man to have a backup plan, but if that were the case, it was likely that Buchanan hadn’t broken in to my apartment on his own. I knew from experience that BRS liked to outnumber their targets.

As if in answer to my silent question, the squeak of the bedroom window opening floated down the hall.

Franklin barked madly but stayed by my side. His encounter with Buchanan had subdued his guard-dog tendencies. I didn’t bother to shush him. I knew whoever was in the bedroom wasn’t Wes. He would’ve charged into the living room at top speed if he’d heard someone trying to hurt Franklin. With my softball bat at the ready, I crept toward the bedroom, terrified of what I might find. Either Wes wasn’t home or he lay incapacitated in another room of the apartment.

I nudged the bedroom door open with the bat and peeked inside. Though the place was a wreck, the intruder was nowhere to be seen. The sheets on the bed had been ripped off, the mattress overturned. Someone had ransacked the dresser, emptying the drawers into a heap on the floor. The closet had been searched similarly. Our clean clothes lay like litter throughout the room. Nothing had been left untouched, and the culprit had found what he was looking for.

The cardboard box—the one full of O’Connor’s research and the only remaining evidence I had of BRS’s crimes—had been tucked beneath the hanging coats at the very back of the closet. Now it was gone.

A cold breeze drifted through the room. The window behind Wes’s desk was still open. Whoever had been in the bedroom left in a hurry as soon as he’d gotten what he needed. I wandered over to the window and peered out, but there was no sign of suspicious behavior in the side yard. With a defeated sigh, I shut the window.

Without any evidence, there was no way I would be able to take down BRS. Lauren would have to fend for herself while Wes and I got out of dodge. There was only one problem with my escape plan. I had no idea where Wes was.

A piece of paper taped to Wes’s work computer caught my eyes. I ripped it from the monitor, holding it near the window so that the sunlight would illuminate its contents. It was a short note, scribbled with permanent marker in messy, nearly illegible handwriting.

 

Dearest Miss Costello,

 

We regret to inform you that, due to your misbehavior and inability to cooperate, we were forced to take drastic measures. You will find that you have been relieved of your research, and your record at Waverly University has been expunged. Furthermore, we have taken Weston McAllen into custody. Our previous offer to fund your exit from Waverly has been redacted. You have twelve hours to leave the area. If, at noon tomorrow, you are still in town, or you have made any attempt to contact the authorities, McAllen will die.

 

Our sincerest apologies,

BRS

 

I crumpled the letter in my fist, fighting to tame the panic that threatened to overwhelm me. My research was gone, and according to the records clerk for Waverly University, I had never even existed as a student there, but those things paled in comparison to the last part of the letter. Wes was gone, and if I didn’t play my cards right, he could end up dead. BRS hadn’t even offered the promise of Wes’s freedom for my absence. There was no way I was leaving town. I had nothing to lose. If the Black Raptor Society wanted a fight, then a fight they would get.

 

 


The Professor

  • ISBN: 9781370395286
  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2016-12-01 17:35:13
  • Words: 39106
The Professor The Professor