I Know Who Did It

[fiction]

My eyes flick open and I see her in the gauzy light of early morning, as real as if I could reach out and touch her. Felicity Linden kneels next to my bed, staring at me with broken eyes over a mother-of-pearl smile. I’ve woken up to the same image every day for the three weeks that I’ve been working on my podcast, What Happened to Her? I wonder if I’ll wake up to this hologram for the rest of my life.

I throw off the covers, pad to my desk, and power on my laptop. Today is the launch of the podcast, three years to the day that Felicity’s body was found in the quarry. The website of the Indian Valley Weekly News springs onto the screen. My story is the lead. I press play and my narrator voice rumbles.

“Chloe, are you getting dressed?” Mom calls.

“Putting on my shoes,” I yell. My morning fib.

“You better leave in five minutes if you want to get to school on time. It’s raining.”

I scroll down to check if anyone has posted a comment. To my surprise, someone has.

Jane Smith: Topher Vander Plaats wasn’t the last one to see her.

My stomach somersaults. Did I make a mistake? I mentally run through all the old articles from the time she was reported missing to the discovery of her body five months later. I’m sure I got it right. They all said that Felicity’s boyfriend was the last one to see her after they’d had a fight over him cheating on her. She stormed out of “the hole,” which literally was a hole that some kids had dug in the woods as a party spot. It was an eight-foot-deep sunken living room, furnished with lawn chairs and tables, and a ladder to climb in and out.

Then it hits me. Of course, Topher wasn’t the last one to see her. The killer was. Jane Smith was making a picky but accurate point. I feel relieved. It wasn’t a factual error.

“Chloe, are you ready?” Mom’s voice has her usual stressed morning tone.

“Yesss!” I slam the laptop closed and reach for my jeans. Then I realize. The day the quarry worker found Felicity, it was raining, too.

*     *     *

By lunchtime, the whole of Indian Valley High School has listened to the podcast. Kids are coming up to me, telling me they can’t wait for the next installment, asking what’s coming next.

I was a freshman when Felicity vanished one September Saturday night. Like me, she was seventeen and a senior. I didn’t know Felicity, but her disappearance was all the school talked about for weeks. Rumors flitted like drunken birds. She’d run away with the cute gym teacher who’d just quit. She’d dropped out because she was pregnant. She was in drug rehab. No one thought she could be dead.

Who dies at seventeen?

Then, as if someone snapped their fingers, we forgot about her. Until her body turned up five months later. A downpour crumbled a ledge of dirt where she’d been buried in a quarry. The police said she’d been strangled. For several days, TV trucks camped outside the school. Reporters asked around for kids who knew her to interview. Then, like before, the buzz dropped, and everyone went on with their lives as if she never existed.

As I’m heading to my locker after last period, I check my newspaper email on my phone. There’s a message from “J. Smith.” Now what?

I have information that I think you’ll be interested in for your podcast. I’ll be at the Burger-O-Rama after school.

I stop so abruptly in the corridor that a kid behind me steps on my heel. “Hey, watch it,” he says.

The day after Marion assigned me the story, I stayed at the newspaper into the night reading the old articles on the case, my outrage growing. It wasn’t fair that Felicity had been forgotten, that no one was doing anything to find out who robbed her life. The idea of doing a podcast came to me. Marion loved it. But nobody else did. No one, except Felicity’s dad, would be interviewed, not even her mom who’d split from Felicity’s father after the murder and moved away. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to remember Felicity.

Now “Jane Smith” pops up. I burst into a jog to my locker.

*     *     *

Burger-O-Rama is normally packed after school, but today it’s mostly empty, I guess because of the rain. I scan the place, wondering how I’m going to recognize Jane Smith. A girl stares at me from a booth back by the bathrooms. I go over.

“Jane Smith?” She nods. “I’m Chloe Quinn.”

I slide into the bench. “Jane Smith isn’t your real name, is it?” I say.

She hesitates. “It’s Jaclyn Miroff.”

I take out my phone and press record, hoping she won’t object. She doesn’t. “So what can you tell me about Felicity?”

She looks into the misted window. “I saw her after she left the hole that night.”

Excitement drills into me. There’s been no mention of anyone who saw her after she left the hole. It was like she just vanished. The cops issued public appeals for witnesses, but no one came forward. The investigation sputtered soon after that.

“I was driving up Indian Valley Road, and I saw her walking in the opposite direction, toward town.”

“What time was this?”

“Nine-thirty or so. She was stumbling, looked pretty wasted.”

“Are you sure it was her?”

“I didn’t know Felicity, but her disappearance was all the school talked about for weeks. Rumors flitted like drunken birds. She’d run away with the cute gym teacher who’d just quit. She’d dropped out because she was pregnant. She was in drug rehab. No one thought she could be dead.”

“My headlights caught her as I came around the curve. Her shirt had pink daisies on it.” That matches the description of the T-shirt she was last seen in. “A car was coming in the opposite direction. For some reason, after I passed her, I looked in the rearview mirror. I guess because she didn’t look to be in great shape and I was afraid she might get hit. The car’s brake lights lit up and it stopped, then I went around the bend and lost sight of it.”

“You think Felicity got in that car?”

“That’s what I figured. On my way back, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes later, she was gone. If she’d still been walking, I would’ve seen her.”

“Why didn’t you tell the cops?”

She studies her soda. Rain crackles on the window. “I used to deal weed. I was on my way to make a sale. I couldn’t have the cops poking around.” Guilt etches her face. “I was scared. I figured it wasn’t going to help anyway. They’d catch whoever did it without me. I feel really bad about it now. When I listened to your podcast, I knew I had to say something.”

“I really need to talk to someone who was at the hole that night. Do you have any idea who was there? It would really, really help.”

She takes a deep breath. “You didn’t hear this from me. Thirza Rousseau was there.”

“Any idea where I can find her?”

“You know the pond off Stark Road where everybody skates in the winter? She lives in the house on the far side.”

I know it. In the summer it’s hidden behind a wall of leafy oaks, but in the winter it’s in plain view. I thank her.

She stands. “I hope it’s not too late.”

I tell her I hope so, too.

I head to Stark Road and turn off by the pond. My tires chew the gravel road that leads to a small, two-story house. I park beside a minivan. A stern-faced woman answers my knock on the front door. Thirza’s mom? I explain who I am.

Her eyes slide over me like an ice cube. “Thirza answered all the detectives’ questions back then. She has nothing more to say. She just wants to forget all that.”

“That’s the problem,” I blurt. “Everybody wants to forget a dead girl.” I take out my business card. “If you could give this to Thirza, I’d really appreciate it.”

She snatches it and closes the door. I trudge back to the car. I guess two breaks are too much to ask for one day. I drive to the paper.

Dodging the puddles in the parking lot, I spot Marion through the window, waddling around the desks stacked high with newspapers. She’s basically a one-woman operation—I’m her only employee—and she practically lives at the place on a diet that, as far as I can make out, consists solely of raspberry jelly doughnuts.

She listens to my update with a frown on her face, so I’m surprised when she compliments me. “You did good. Can you do a podcast update tonight? We’re getting hundreds of hits on it.”

I sigh inwardly. Marion forgets I’m a high school student. I explain I have an English essay due tomorrow and haven’t even started it.

“I’ll do it first thing after school tomorrow,” I say.

“Done.”

*     *     *

Around eight o’clock, I’m in my room, trying to come up with something to write about “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but all I can think about is Felicity. I take out my freshman-year yearbook and leaf through to the senior section. I take photos of Jaclyn and Thirza’s pictures to put with the new podcast, then stare yet again at Felicity’s photo, which occupies a whole page at the end of the senior class. It’s framed with a black border and has her birth and death years under it. She’s smiling, full of life and future. What happened to her? And why?

Was she meant to live just seventeen years? Or was it just some random occurrence? Is life so fragile that someone can snatch it away in a matter of seconds, minutes, just because they feel like it? Is the world so unsafe? So unfair? Then it occurs to me, it could happen to anyone. Me. Mom. Fear clutches my heart. My phone chirps, and I jump. I don’t recognize the number. I pick up.

“This is Thirza Rousseau. You told my mom you wanted to talk to me?”

I scramble to press the recorder on my phone. “Thanks for calling.”

“How did you get my name?” she says.

“A source told me you were at the hole that night.”

She falls quiet. I will her not to hang up.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll tell you what happened because I’m sick of being labeled the bad guy. I know that’s how it’s going to come out on your podcast. So, a bunch of us were in the hole drinking that night, including Felicity and Toph, her boyfriend. We all got really blasted doing shots of Southern Comfort, and I said something about Toph and me. He’d cheated on her with me. Twice, to be exact. Toph told Felicity I was lying. ‘Don’t believe her. She’s just shitfaced.’ That got me mad because he was being a wuss. Felicity got in my face, accusing me of having a thing for Toph, trying to break them up. All I said was, ‘Topher has a big mole right below his hip.’ She knew right then that I was telling the truth. That shut her up, and I thought it was over. Then she took out her cellphone. I knew exactly what she was going to do.”

She pauses. I wait, then she continues. “I got caught underage drinking that summer, and I was in AA as part of a juvenile diversion program. If I completed the program, they’d wipe it off my record. Felicity knew that a photo of me surrounded by bottles and stuff would get me kicked out of the program and I’d have to do probation. I lunged at her to get the phone. We tussled over it until Topher yanked it out of Felicity’s hands and threw it in a corner. She yelled ‘fuck you, asshole,’ then climbed the ladder out of the hole. Toph started to go after her, but the other guys pulled him down and told him to let her go. That was the last time we ever saw her. I’m sorry I ever said anything, I really am. If I could take that back, I would, believe me.”

I start to ask a question, but she talks over me. “But this is what people don’t know. Felicity wasn’t the innocent in all this. The summer after graduation, I ran into Toph at the Dairy Queen, and asked him why he slept with me. He said, ‘Felicity did it to me first.’ In other words, I was just revenge booty. Shed cheated on him. You’re the first person I’ve ever told that to, by the way. The cops know everything else, but not that.”

I ask her a few more questions to corroborate what Jaclyn told me, then hang up. Her story makes sense. It explains why Felicity didn’t have a cell phone and why she was walking alone on the road.

Now I really need to talk to Christopher Vander Plaats.

I’d called Toph numerous times asking him for an interview. He finally picked up and told me Felicity’s death was the worst thing that ever happened in his life and not to call him again. I know he underwent hours of questioning by the cops, and while I respect his feelings, Felicity needs justice. I steel myself and dial his number.

He doesn’t answer, and I leave a message, telling him the whole story of that night was going to be posted on the podcast at midnight tomorrow. I try to get into Walt Whitman, but I can’t concentrate. I finally give up on the essay and go to bed, setting my alarm for five so I can hopefully bang out the paper before school.

My mind whirls as I lie swaddled in darkness. Thirza actually was kind of the bad guy in this. If she had never said that about Topher’s mole, Felicity would probably still be alive today. Then again, Thirza didn’t know what was going to happen. Nobody did.

Her comment was like the tipping domino that set off a whole tragic chain of falling dominos. Or was it really Topher who toppled the first domino by cheating on Felicity? Or was it Felicity, who cheated on him first? Whose fault was it? Maybe really no one’s, except whoever killed her. What excuse could he have? What chain of unseen dominoes led him to his act of murder? Maybe that’s just how life is, a chain of dominoes that remain invisible until they fall, until it’s too late.

*     *     *

After school the next day, I speed to the newspaper and put together a new episode with Jaclyn and Thirza. I decide to swing by Felicity’s dad’s house and tell him what I’ve found out before he hears it. Besides, I want to take a photo of Felicity’s room to post on the website. He left it just like it was the day she disappeared, and Marion said I should’ve gotten a picture.

Rex Linden answers the door with his tie hanging loose from his shirt collar. He gives me a wan smile as he ushers me into the kitchen.

I tell him what Jaclyn and Thirza said. “Do you have any idea who Felicity might have been seeing besides Topher?” I ask.

He glares at me. “Sounds like we’re moving into blame the victim territory. Those girls are the ones to blame for not going to the police with what they knew. That could’ve really helped. Coming forward now…” He rubs his temples.

Oops. I didn’t want to upset him. “Sorry. I’m just trying to figure this out.”

He sighs. “It’s all right. I’m not angry at you. I think Thirza is just trying to salve her guilty conscience. Topher was Felicity’s first and only boyfriend. They met in tenth grade and that was it.”

I nod sympathetically. “Would you mind if I take a photo of Felicity’s room to go with the podcast?”

“Go ahead.” He leads me down the hallway and pushes open a door. His phone rings in the kitchen. He goes to answer it, and I enter the Museum of Felicity.

A smattering of rock star pictures decorates a wall, stuffed animals crowd her bed, bead necklaces and scarves drape the headboard. Makeup, hair accessories, and odd trinkets, including her school ID, lie scattered on top of a dresser. Her desk is piled with school notebooks. I take a couple snapshots. Then I notice one of her notebooks says “AP English—Mr. Hartley” on the cover. That’s the same teacher and class I have. Out of curiosity, I thumb through the notebook. The margins are dotted with doodled hearts with initials inside them—“FL & CS.” Or just “CS.”

Who is CS? Could he be the guy Felicity cheated on Toph with?

When I get home, I comb the yearbook for anyone with those initials. Then I spot it. “Christopher S. Vander Plaats.”

Maybe Thirza really was lying, like Mr. Linden said.

*     *     *

The next day I get a text from Marion as I’m walking to the cafeteria for lunch. “FYI, I was just told your voicemail on your work line is full. Don’t forget to clear it.”

Who’s been calling me? I can’t wait until after school to find out. I check the time. If I leave now, I can get to the paper and back before sixth period. I race to my car, speed down the hill, and barrel inside the office. I plonk at my desk and press the voicemail button. There’s a bunch of calls congratulating me about the podcast. A couple people say they knew Felicity and are willing to be interviewed.

“Was she meant to live just seventeen years? Or was it just some random occurrence? Is life so fragile that someone can snatch it away in a matter of seconds, minutes, just because they feel like it? Is the world so unsafe? So unfair? Then it occurs to me, it could happen to anyone. Me. Mom. Fear clutches my heart.”

“Ask the cops about Felicity’s T-shirt. It was found in a dumpster behind the bowling alley, vomit all over it.” The caller left no name. I bolt upright, play the message again, and scribble it down word for word. This is something.

The next voicemail is muffled, but it’s a guy. “She was a real pretty girl. Shame she’s dead, but nothing can bring her back. Leave things be if you don’t want something to happen to you.” Whoa!

“I think I was just threatened,” I call to Marion. She lumbers over surprisingly fast. I play back the voicemail.

“Go on back to school. I’ll call the cops and report it.” She’s already reaching for the phone.

I tell her what the other caller said about the T-shirt.

“I’ll check that, too.”

When I return to the paper after school, Marion calls me to her desk. “I know this is your story, but I wrote up a short about the T-shirt and put it online. The cops confirmed it and said they’d issue a release about it so I couldn’t wait.”

“What did they say about the threat?”

“Was she meant to live just seventeen years? Or was it just some random occurrence? Is life so fragile that someone can snatch it away in a matter of seconds, minutes, just because they feel like it? Is the world so unsafe? So unfair? Then it occurs to me, it could happen to anyone. Me. Mom. Fear clutches my heart.”

She shrugs. “An anonymous phone threat isn’t much, but if we notice anything else, to get in touch. We’re going to get a lot of calls. There’ll be some cranks.”

Marion hands me a pile of press releases to compile the community calendar. It’s a major letdown after chasing a real story.

My desk phone rings. “Is this Chloe Quinn?” A girl’s voice. “I just saw that story about Felicity’s T-shirt. I saw someone that night at the dumpster.”

“That was three years ago. How can you be sure it was the same night?”

“My friends and I talked about how we were bowling when a girl was being killed.”

Her name is Bella Feinstein. She’s calling from Boston, where she goes to college. “My brother told me about the podcast. I listened to both episodes today, then I saw the story about the T-shirt, and it clicked. I knew that had to be what I saw.”

Around ten o’clock, she and a girl she’d been flirting with that night at the bowling alley slipped out the back door to make out in the alcove of the doorway.

“A car pulled up. The driver got out and tossed something in the trash. I caught a flash of pink in the light. He said something as he got back in the car, like in a rough voice. Then he drove off. I never mentioned it to anyone because I never thought anything of it, plus I would’ve had to explain being with a girl at the back of the bowling alley. I wasn’t out yet.”

“Is there anything you can remember about the guy?”

“Kind of tall, maybe? He was in the shadows.”

“Can I call the girl you were with that night? She might remember something you don’t.”

“She’ll talk to you. She’s into issues like violence against women. Her name is Joss Comiskey. She works at the LGBTQ Center.”

I get off the phone, look up the LGBTQ Center, and dial. It’s almost five. Joss says she’ll talk, but in person. We arrange to meet at the trusty Burger-O-Rama.

It’s snowing when I leave the paper. Large flakes that float like fairies to the asphalt. They dissolve into a perilous sheen under the streetlights. I drive slowly.

I spot her as I enter the restaurant. She’s short and stocky, wearing shitkicker boots and a navy blue peacoat that glistens with droplets of melted snow.

“Joss?”

“That’s me,” she says.

We sit in a back booth and I place my recorder between us. She confirms Bella’s account.

“Did you get a look at the guy?”

“No, but I saw the back end of the car under the light from the building. It was a Dodge Charger or Challenger, like a ‘72 or ‘74, metallic black with a gold racing stripe. It was a real nice car.”

“You know about cars?”

“I have three brothers, all of them gearheads.” She takes out her phone and shows me pictures of the kind of cars she’s talking about. They look pretty distinctive.

The snow is falling thicker and faster when we leave, and it’s sticking. I creep along through the slush. Dump trucks, amber lights flashing, are already salting. As I pass the shopping center, I see the light on in the Weekly News office. I turn in.

Marion offers me a doughnut—dinner—and as we eat I tell her about the car. She rocks in her chair for a moment, then springs forward, dusting sugar off her hands, and rummages in her desk drawer. She comes up with a pile of business cards, shuffles through them, then tosses one at me.

“Jack Kovic. Owns Valley Classic Cars. People come to him from all over for repairs and to buy and sell. He might know the car. Tomorrow after school, go straight there. Tell him I sent you.”

*     *     *

The next morning, the world is coated in wonderland white. Everyone’s talking about going skiing after school, but I’m on a mission to find this car. I’m sure that when Felicity threw up, the guy dumped the shirt because it was stinking up his precious vehicle.

The bell rings and I shamble off to econ, where I do miserably on a test I’d forgotten about. Maybe I can make it up with extra credit.

After school, I race to Valley Classic Cars. The place is full of high-pitched whirring and chemical smells. I go up to an old man working on a car on a lift and ask if he’s Jack Kovic.

He doesn’t stop working as he talks. “If you’re here about a yearbook booster, I already bought one.”

I tell him Marion sent me and what I’m looking for. He takes his hands out of the car guts and scratches his chin. “Wait here.” He crosses to a glass-enclosed office, picks up the phone, and talks. Then, he hangs up and beckons me over.

“I slump in my seat. That’s weird, really weird. Through the window, I see him jog to his truck and peel out. Then in a flash, I know what happened.”

“You check out.” He pecks at a computer keyboard as he talks. “Like I just told Marion, if it helps get the guy who done that to that girl, I’ll stick my neck out. I know a car with that paint job, but I don’t think it’s a Dodge. I sold it last year for the owner. But he never drove it around. He took it to car shows.” He stands and points to the computer screen. “I’m going to the john. By the time I come back, you’re gone.”

I sit at his desk. The screen shows a 1972 Plymouth Road Runner with the paint job that Joss described. It looks similar to a Dodge, which explains how she could’ve mistaken it. I scroll through a couple invoices. Three years ago, the car belonged to Harry Samuels of Indian Valley. I take pictures of all the documents and the car, and skedaddle.

Back at the newspaper, I show Marion what I’ve got. “Do a public records search on the guy,” she barks. “Don’t forget courts.”

Marion’s shown me how to look up people using public records before. It’s not hard, though it sometimes requires some ingenuity if the name is common. I luck out with Harry Samuels. He crops right up in the database. He’s forty-nine years old and still lives in Indian Valley. I move to the county court website. Nothing comes up on the criminal database, but under civil, there’s a divorce. I click on the document from four years ago. It lists a custody arrangement for one minor son, Chase. He was to live with his father in Indian Valley to avoid disrupting his senior year in high school and to visit his mother on weekends.

Chase Samuels.

CS

I feel electrified. My yearbook is at home so I can’t look him up. But then I realize he’s not in my yearbook. The divorce was the year before Felicity’s murder, and Chase was a senior then. He’d already graduated when she disappeared.

I call the number listed on the car bill, praying that Harry Samuels hasn’t changed it. A man answers. I ask for Chase.

“You got him.”

My palms are instantly clammy. I forge ahead, telling him I’m doing a podcast about Felicity and looking for people who knew her.

“How’d you get my name?”

“Just… from people. I’ve been asking around for people who knew her.”

“I only knew her slightly.”

“Did you like, um, date her or anything?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘date.’”

“But you went out with her?”

“She had kind of a crush on me. I saw her a couple times that summer.”

“Do you remember the weekend when she went missing?”

“Who could forget?”

I gulp. “Did you go by the bowling alley that Saturday night, by any chance?”

He chuckles. “I hate bowling. The old man was out on a date, so me and a buddy were sitting around doing shots. We got pretty wasted, and I passed out.”

“Who’s your buddy?”

“Anthony Bertelli.”

“He went to Indian Valley?”

“He was a year behind me. Works at the Jiffy Oil now. He’s been following me around since third grade. Every now and then, I feel sorry for him and hang with him.”

Chase sounds like a jerk. “Did you ever drive your dad’s Road Runner?”

“How’d you know about that?”

“A source.”

“Listen, I really don’t want anything to do with this. I hardly knew her. I gotta go.”

He hangs up. I bound over to Marion and fill her in in one thrilled breath. “What if he’s lying about not driving the car? What if he picked up Felicity?”

Marion cocks back her head and stares at the ceiling. “Let’s find Bertelli.”

*     *     *

I drive to Jiffy Oil the next day after memorizing Anthony Bertelli’s yearbook picture. I park in the lot and spot a guy who looks like him working in one of the bays, although the galaxy of acne on his cheeks is gone. It’s almost four and it’s starting to get dark. I’m just about to head over to him when he wipes his hands on a rag, tosses it onto a bench, and disappears into the office. I wait. He comes out a couple minutes later, twirling a key ring on a finger. He gets in a pickup and pulls out. I start my car and trail him.

He pulls into the Burger-O-Rama. I wait until he sits in a booth with his burger and then I go over. “Anthony?”

He looks up as I introduce myself. The pace of his jaw slows. “Yeah, I heard about that podcast. She was a real pretty girl. Shame she’s dead, but nothing can bring her back.”

Where have I heard that before?

“I just want to ask you a couple questions about Chase Samuels. Were you with him the night she went missing?” He stares at me as he chews as if he’s deciding whether to answer. “I heard she and Chase had a thing that summer.”

A smile spreads on his lips. It seems like I said the right thing. “We were partying at his house that night.”

“Did he go out?”

He laughs. “Chase passed out. He always had everything—money, girls, cars, but he never could hold his liquor. I had that on him.”

“Did Chase ever mention Felicity to you?”

He snorts. “He bragged to me about what he did with her, every detail.”

Memory punches me. The caller who threatened me. It was him. I gaze at him, my brain zooming into overdrive.

Could Anthony have taken Chase’s dad’s car when Chase was passed out?

Anthony stands and, in a whirl, he’s gone, leaving his half-eaten hamburger.

“Hey, wait,” I call. I slump in my seat. That’s weird, really weird. Through the window, I see him jog to his truck and peel out. Then in a flash, I know what happened. Anthony wanted everything Chase had so he took the car. Then by chance, he saw Felicity. She was something Chase had too. Somehow, she ended up dead.

I get my legs working and lurch to my car. I speed to the newspaper and fly into the office.

“I know who did it!” I yell.

Christina Hoag is the author of the YA novels Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), Silver Falchion finalist for suspense; and Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA, 2016), Suspense Magazine’s “Best of YA.” She is a former journalist and foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald and Associated Press. www.christinahoag.com