Megan and Erica and now Ingrid.
I stare at the two vultures closest to the glass. They’re locked in battle—one bird on its back, taloned feet kicking, the other looming close, wings spread wide.
“Let’s say you’re right. You honestly believe there’s a serial killer in the Bartholomew?”
“I know, it sounds crazy,” Dylan says. “But that’s what it seems like to me. All three of them were apartment sitters. Then all three disappeared in pretty much the same way.”
It makes me think of something my father used to say.
One time is an anomaly. Two times is a coincidence. Three times is proof.
But proof of what? That someone at the Bartholomew is preying on apartment sitters? It’s still too preposterous to wrap my head around. Yet so is the coincidence of three young women without families moving out of the building and never contacting their friends again.
“But who could be doing such a thing? And why hasn’t anyone else at the Bartholomew picked up on it?”
“Who says they haven’t?”
“People there would care if they thought someone had killed apartment sitters.”
“They’re rich,” Dylan says. “All of them. And rich people don’t give a damn about the hired help. They’re vultures.”
“And what are we?”
He gives the diorama one last disdainful look. “That zebra.”
“It’s insane to—”
On the other side of the hall, one of the schoolgirls lets out a shriek. Not a scared one. A notice-me shriek, designed to get the attention of a nearby group of boys. Still, the sound is so jolting that it takes me a second to regain my composure.
“It’s insane to think an entire building would turn a blind eye to kidnapping or murder.”
“But you agree that something strange is going on, right?” Dylan says. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have listened to me for this long. You wouldn’t even be here in the first place.”
I continue to stare at the diorama, not blinking, until the whole scene becomes wavy, as if life were slowly returning to those creatures behind the glass. Feathers tremble. Beady eyes move. The zebra takes a single breath.
“I’m here because I found Erica’s phone,” I remind him.
“And have you seen what’s on it?” Dylan asks. “Maybe Erica was in contact with whoever caused her disappearance.”
I remove the phone and hold it up for Dylan to see. “It’s locked. Do you have any idea what Erica’s passcode was?”
“We weren’t exactly at the password-sharing stage of our relationship,” Dylan says. “Do you know of another way to unlock it?”
I turn Erica’s phone over in my hand, thinking. Although I don’t know the first thing about hacking into a cell phone, I might know someone who does. Grabbing my own phone, I scroll through the call history until I find the number I’m looking for. I hit the dial button, and a laid-back voice soon answers.
“This is Zeke.”
“Hi, Zeke. This is Jules. Ingrid’s friend.”
“Hey,” Zeke says. “Have you heard from her yet?”
“Not yet. But I’m wondering if you could help me. Do you know someone who can hack into a phone?”
There’s a cautious pause from Zeke, during which all I can hear are the rowdy schoolkids spilling all around us. Finally, Zeke says, “I do. But it will cost you.”
“One thousand. That includes two hundred fifty for me, as a finder’s fee. The rest goes to my associate.”
I go numb. That’s an insane amount of money. Too much for me to afford on my own. Hearing the price almost makes me end the call. My thumb twitches against the screen, ready to hang up on Zeke and not answer if he attempts to call back.
But then I think about Dylan’s so-crazy-it-might-be-true theory that a serial killer is living within the Bartholomew’s walls. I think about how the apartment sitters who suddenly vanished—Megan, Erica, Ingrid—might have been his victims.
We could be next, Dylan and me.
I think Ingrid knew that. It’s why she arranged to talk to Dylan. It’s why she left me the gun and the note. She knew that we could also disappear just as suddenly as the others.
To avoid such a fate, we could leave.
Flee in the night, just like I hope Ingrid did but am starting to believe she didn’t.
Or we could pay a thousand dollars to unlock Erica’s phone and possibly get answers about what happened not just to her but to all of them.
“You still there, Jules?” Zeke says.
“Yeah. Still here.”
“Do we have a deal?”
“Yes,” I reply, wincing as I say it. “Meet me in an hour.”
I end the call and stare at the animals in the diorama. The vultures and jackals and hyena. I feel a twinge of pity for them. What a cruel afterlife they have. Dead for decades yet still gnawing, still fighting.
Forever red in tooth and claw.
I now have only twenty-seven dollars to my name.
Dylan and I agreed that we should split Zeke’s asking price between us. Five hundred from Dylan, five hundred from me.
With the cash stuffed uneasily in our pockets, Dylan and I now sit at the spot in Central Park where we’re scheduled to meet Zeke in ten minutes. The Ladies Pavilion. A glorified gazebo with a cream-colored railing and gingerbread trim, the place exudes romance, which must confuse passersby who see Dylan and me inside. Sitting on opposite sides of the pavilion with our arms folded and scowls on our faces, we look like two mismatched people in the middle of a very bad blind date.