Chapter 2

Aria Everett strolled silently down the cracked sidewalk. In the historical district of town, the houses were old but incredibly beautiful. Everything else there was merely old.

She pondered why her best friend had asked her to meet him in such short notice. Usually they couldn't hang out until the evening. Hathaway worked at a forensic psych lab from midnight to the afternoon every single day, so his schedule was always predictable, if not convenient.

It didn't really matter to her, though. She was always looking for an excuse to go to Hathaway's house. Maybe it was because it was decidedly different from Jones' compound on the east side of the city. That place, the Brookhill neighborhood, was where Aria and Hathaway both had been born, where they'd been force playmates since before they could talk.

She always wondered if it took conscious effort for him to be the exact opposite of what his parents wanted. Just thinking about Mr. And Mrs. Jones always infuriated her. Maybe if they hasn't beat their only child, he would have tried out for the baseball team. Maybe if they hadn't ignored him he wouldn't have poured himself so hard into his school work. They never wanted a genius for a son, but that's what they got.

Perhaps it was yet another way to defy them, but Aria realized it was his ticket out. Of course, his parents (like hers, like anyone in Brookhill) could afford to pay for the best colleges, but he didn't want anything from them. He had to show them that he could function entirely without them. And he could.

She was about three blocks away from her destination when she noticed it. A vague, but violently real feeling that someone was following her washed over Aria. She stopped abruptly and turned around.

Nothing. Just the trees and gardens and breathtaking estates of the historical district. Every looked normal.

But it didn't feel normal, and somehow, that seemed important. In fact, she almost thought she had heard a gentle cadence of light footsteps as well. Again she looked over her shoulder, and even down a side street which she just past. No one.

She finally treaded up to Hathaway's yard. There was a huge, gorgeous magnolia tree in its center, and pretty weeds dance in the breeze all over the grass. She knocked three times, timing it in the special way they invented as kids. She knew he was expecting her, and she knew she didn't have to knock, but it was nice to be able to pull out one of the few good things from their shared childhood to relive.

They were lucky to have each other. Their parents had been close friends since high school, and raised their children in similar manners. With the Jones, it was pretty obvious. After the first few times, Hathaway's parents stopped trying to hide the purple bruises that covered his arms. Everyone in Rockwell knew, but they couldn't do anything. Mr. Jones had too much money and influence in the community to be challenged.

Aria's parents never hit her, but sometimes she almost wished they did. At least then she would know they felt anything toward her at all, even if it was hatred. But no, in the Everett house, everything was utterly unpersonalized. Since she was maybe six or seven, old enough to start figuring things out for herself, her mother and father seemed rather disinterested in being parents. They did love to dress her up and take her to parties and say to their rich friends, 'Oh, look at our Aria. Isn't she a beauty?' And everyone agreed she in fact was.

Since she could remember, she had never heard the words, 'I love you' come out of either of her parents' mouths. Was it an understood thing? Did they think she automatically assumed that they cared about her? She didn't know, and probably never would. As you can imagine, the Everetts didn't do much talking about feelings, or one another. School projects, job promotions, and social events were safe topics; beyond that though, not a lot was said.

You may think that a girl deprived of love and excess emotion would grow up bitter and hateful. And maybe Aria was, a little, somewhere deep inside her. You may think she wouldn't know what love felt like, or wouldn't even desire feeling it. But she knew what love was and she knew what she loved.

"Hey," Hathaway said, opening the door. She smiled. He was the closest thing she had to family, and she loved him more than anything.

"The name of this show is absolutely retarded," Hathaway said as he leaned back in the 'family room' recliner. "I mean, who doesn't want to be a millionaire? That's kind of a given."

Aria rolled her eyes and ate another handful of popcorn. Evidently, Hathaway had something very important to tell her, but it could wait until the Regis reruns were over. "Remind me again why you refuse to be on any game show?" she asked. "You know everything about everything. You could be a millionaire, Hath."

He waved a hand dismissively before pushing his brown hair out of his eyes. "That's the thing. I want to be rich, but I want to earn it. I want to do something important, unlike Mommy and Daddy dearest."

Quite opposite of Aria, Hathaway was openly spiteful toward anything even remotely regarding his parents. He took pride in the fact that he put himself through Virginia Tech on a full scholarship, and that he now paid all his bills without a dime from his folks. It was his way of telling them that he no longer needed them in his life, if he ever had.

She laid back on the couch, thinking. "I can't wait until graduation," she said softly. "I'll be out of that house before they can blink."

"Mmm," Hathaway said, like a good friend. "Only eight more months. Senior year goes by like that." To emphasize 'that' he snapped his fingers. Aria snorted.

"Like you would know. You got your diploma in eighth grade."

"This is true. But eighth grade went by fast, and that's basically senior year for middle school." He shrugged after stating the comparison, and his eyes went back to the TV screen. He was getting his bachelor's degree when she would graduate high school, even though they were the same age.

They were quiet until the show ended twenty minutes later, when Aria cleared her throat. "What was the urgent news, anyway?"

Hathaway's face immediately grew ashen. He let out a breath. "Right. I told you about that, huh?" He stood up. "Come, grasshopper. To the Hath-a-cave!"

The Hath-a-cave was Hathaway's study, which he used mainly for work stuff. Aria had only been in there a few times to look at some nerdy news articles, but nothing serious.

They climbed the grand stairs that were just off the living space and turned down the long hallway. At the end of the second floor, the door to the Hath-a-cave was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and walked right over to the too-large desk at the far side of the room.

She was surprised. It looked quite different than the last time she had been inside. Then, there were a few papers here and there, but mainly boy-genius reading list books everywhere. Now, she could barely see the floor, and there were no books in sight. Papers and news clipping covered most of the floor and were piled high on the desk. Hathaway was looking for something, and maybe he was about to show her what he'd found.

"As you can see, I've been...researching quite a bit for work." He was now sitting at the computer, typing furiously. "Lately we've been working a lot with the county and local police departments. Something's wrong. They're looking for somebody, but they can't figure out who."

Her heart began beating faster. Immediately she thought of the strange feeling she had on her way to Hathaway's house. "A stalker? A killer?" Her voice was barely above a murmur.

"Maybe. That's the thing, we're not quite sure. There have been a few...deaths." He paused and turned to look at her. "We were told not to tell anyone, but I started to worry about you. I had to tell you."

"So you let me walk alone and unprotected all the way across town to your house. Great plan," she said dryly.

He shook his head. "No, no. They're not here yet. They're making a path though, and we think it's headed in our direction. We've been working on a lot of psychology tendencies to predict whether or not they'll stray from the pattern. So far, they haven't."

"I haven't heard anything about a serial killer. Wouldn't the police say something?"

His eyes looked far away when he answered. "Not necessarily. The string of deaths are low key, hardly noticeable... It just how they die is odd. Too odd to be a coincidence more than once."

"Well how did they-"

He cut her off. "I'm sorry, Ar. I can't tell you. This is all classified. I just wanted to make sure you had a heads up." He looked down at the desk. "You're like family. I have to keep you safe."

She nodded. "I get it."

Downstairs, Hathaway tried to lighten the mood by making a fresh batch of popcorn. "Nothing like death by butter to get your spirits high!"

While he manned the microwave, which was one of the older things in the house and required constant starting and stopping to prevent burning, Aria slipped upstairs. She had to know more about the situation Hathaway spoke of. She couldn't just know part of it, and have a huge detail left out. She'd make up horrible things in her head and freak herself out more than needed. By repeating this to herself, she justified sneaking into the Hath-a-cave for a second look.

She had maybe a minute and a half before the popcorn would be finished, so she dug like mad through the mountains of papers covered with unintelligible words and formulas. She had to be careful, though. If she didn't put everything back just how it was, he'd notice. After scouring almost everything on the desk, she found a set of stapled papers. The top page read Victim A, accompanied by paragraphs of information she skipped over, knowing she probably wouldn't understand it anyway. That's how the next few pages were. Then, on one of the last pages, there was a picture of a body.

She dropped the papers, horrified, and covered her hands over her mouth. "Oh, my God," she whispered.