Burned Page 37


The news anchor materialized on the screen with a story about a traffic accident near the Conshohocken Curve, breaking her concentration. Aria grabbed the remote, wanting to put on something else, when the camera turned to a familiar face. Tabitha\'s blue eyes gleamed. Her smile was sparkly and flirtatious, as though she was keeping a secret. NEW DEVELOPMENTS, read a caption under her photo.

The remote fell from Aria\'s fingers to the floor. Hanna grabbed her arm and squeezed.

’’We just received new information about Tabitha Clark, the teenager who was murdered in Jamaica last year,’’ the blond reporter said. ’’The medical examiner has finished the autopsy, and he has some surprising results. For more, here\'s Jennifer Rubenstein.’’

Emily\'s face went pale. ’’Oh my God.’’

’’Here we go,’’ Spencer whispered. ’’They\'re going to say Tabitha was pushed.’’

The picture cut to Michael Paulson, the very man they were waiting for, standing in front of a sea of microphones. A man in a white lab coat stood next to him. Flashbulbs popped.

’’After a lengthy examination of Miss Clark\'s remains,’’ Paulson said, stepping forward, ’’my team and I have concluded that she was killed by severe trauma to the head. There were multiple blows to her skull, and it appears that she was beaten with a blunt object.’’

Hanna, who had been covering her eyes with her hands, peeked out. ’’Wait. What?’’

Aria cocked her ear toward the TV, certain she\'d heard that wrong, too.

’’Whoever killed her did so at close range,’’ Paulson went on. ’’Those are all the findings I can release for now.’’

The reporters hurled questions, but suddenly one of Paulson\'s aides tapped his shoulder and pushed a phone toward him. Paulson turned from the camera, mouthed a few terse words to the aide, but then took the phone and put it to his ear.

Aria\'s phone bleated, and everyone jumped. She looked down at the Caller ID. It was the DC number she had just called. Paulson was still on the TV screen, waiting for her to answer.

Aria widened her eyes at the phone, then at her friends, and then at the television again. TABITHA CLARK KILLED BY HEAD TRAUMA AT CLOSE RANGE, read the caption at the bottom. Slowly, she inched over to the phone and pressed IGNORE. The phone stopped buzzing as the call was sent to voicemail;he didn\'t leave a message.

Then she muted the TV and turned to the others. Her palms felt prickly. Her head felt like it had detached from the rest of her body.

’’I don\'t understand,’’ she said shakily. ’’Why didn\'t the autopsy say her back was broken from the impact of the fall? I mean, blunt-force trauma to the head at close range ...’’

’’... isn\'t something we did,’’ Hanna finished for her. ’’The fall didn\'t kill her.’’

Aria blinked hard. The gears in her brain turned very slowly. ’’So ... does that mean ... someone else killed her?’’

On the muted TV, reporters hurled questions at Mr. Clark. Aria attempted a smile. Hanna reached over and squeezed her hand. Spencer and Emily hugged, both of them bursting into tears. A strange mix of feelings flooded over Aria: relief, elation, but also paralyzing fear. Someone else had done this. They were innocent. The words were beautiful music in her ears.

And yet her hands were shaking badly and her heart was thudding hard. They\'d been about to confess to a crime they didn\'t commit. Ruin their lives. Destroy their relationships. They\'d done it to get A off their backs, but maybe this was exactly what A wanted them to do all along. Because, perhaps, A was Tabitha\'s real killer. Not them.

’’Guys, Graham doesn\'t make sense as A anymore,’’ she said slowly. ’’He had no reason to frame us before Jamaica. Whoever is doing this to us is someone we\'ve known for a long, long time.’’

Everyone exchanged a horrified glance, definitely thinking the same thing at the same time. ’’Real Ali,’’ Spencer whispered.

’’It\'s got to be,’’ Hanna gulped.

Suddenly, Aria\'s cell phone bleated. At first, she thought it was the detective calling back, but then she saw the words on the screen. One new text message. Her stomach swirled. Any remaining notion that Graham was guilty was gone. People in comas didn\'t send texts.

Hanna\'s phone rang next. Spencer\'s chimed. Emily\'s let out a low-pitched buzz. Everyone looked at one another, the blood draining from their faces. Then Aria grabbed her phone and pressed READ.

You got me, bitches I did it. And guess what? You\'re next.

A

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT ...

Yep, I did it. And I\'m only getting started. The rescue crew may have thrown the girls a lifeline, but these liars are still a sinking ship. It\'s just a matter of time before they go down for good.

Spencer\'s a little out of breath from chasing Reefer all over the main deck. She may have reeled him back in for now, but nothing with stoners is ever set in stone. If I have anything to say about it, their relationship will crumble before they ever reach the ivy gates of Princeton.

Poor little Hannakins, losing another friend thanks to moi. I guess no one ever told her that bridges over troubled water always get burned. Speaking of burns, I hear someone from the ship will be rehabbing in Rosewood\'s very own burn clinic. And nothing soothes a guilty conscience like a little volunteer work!

The Preppy Thief stole Emily\'s heart then swan-dived into the sunset, but Jordan\'s postcard makes it sound like their love story\'s not over quite yet. Or is it? For Emily, all roads lead back to Ali. And nothing\'s harder to extinguish than an old flame....

As for Aria, Tabitha\'s necklace isn\'t the only thing she needs to keep buried. If a certain someone finds out about her starry, scary night last summer in Iceland, it\'ll blow up a whole lot more than a cruise ship.

Enjoy the sunshine while you can, ladies. Tans fade so quickly when you\'re behind bars.

Kisses!

A


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