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Authors: Kurt Dinan

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BOOK: Don't Get Caught
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Chapter 3

When we get back to the others, Wheeler’s throwing rocks at a streetlight, Malone’s on the curb, comatose with her music, and Adleta’s off by himself, probably calculating long division in his head. So much for everyone looking for clues.

“We found something,” Ellie says. “Come see.”

As the card makes the rounds, Ellie bounces hard on her toes. Malone’s the last to read the instruction to climb. Then she looks up at the dark tower.

“I don’t like it,” she says.

“Why not?” Ellie says.

“Because now it definitely screams setup.”

“You’re just being paranoid,” Wheeler says.

“It’s called being smart,” Malone says. “Maybe try it sometime.”

Wheeler opens his mouth to say something, but his bruised ass keeps him quiet.

“They could be up there right now listening to us, waiting to see what we’ll do,” Ellie says. “We could be on a time limit.”

“Yeah, or someone could be up there waiting to throw us over the railing,” Malone says.

“Why did you even show up then?” Wheeler says. “No, don’t get all pissed again. I’m serious. If you’re just here to hate, why come at all?”

Instead of clobbering Wheeler into next week, Malone just makes a frustrated face and shakes her head.

“I’ll tell you what,” Ellie says. “Why don’t we take a vote?”

“Because this isn’t a majority-rules deal,” Malone says. “If someone doesn’t want to go up, they don’t have to.”

“Right, but we were invited here as a group, so we should act as one. Let’s just see what everyone else thinks. I’m for climbing, and I’m guessing you’re against it, Kate, so that leaves you three. So what do you think, Tim? Should we go up?”

Adleta shrugs and says nothing. And to think adults complain that kids today have no social skills.

“I’ll put you down as undecided,” Ellie says. “What about you, Dave?”

“Hell yeah I’m in,” Wheeler says. “Be a part of the club that once suspended Stranko’s car over the theater stage? I’m climbing that tower even if they want me doing it naked.”

“Thanks for that visual,” Ellie says. “Max?”

Great, as the tiebreaker, I have to choose between curiosity and skepticism. Fearlessness and logic. Not Max and Just Max. Not to mention, between Ellie and Malone, which could be the difference between being kissed or being punched.

“Well,” I say, stalling, “I am little suspicious, to be honest. Like Malone said, it’s all just very weird.”

Ellie goes eerily still.

“But,” I add quickly, “we weren’t chosen at random to be here. And the envelope does say
Initiates
. So there’s that.”

All four just stare at me.

You can hear crickets, and I mean literal crickets.

“Dude, what’s your point?” Wheeler says.

“Yeah,” Malone says, “shit or get off the pot.”

And somewhere in the far back corner of my head, I hear Tami Cantor calling me a nobody and the rest of the class laughing with her.

“Let’s go up,” I say. “Ellie’s right—this could be our chance to be a part of Asheville history. Maybe there’s another note.”

Ellie looks happy enough to kiss me.

Malone, not so much.

“Whatever,” she says, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Are you coming?” Wheeler asks her.

Malone looks up at the tower and taps her finger against her leg. Then her shoulders drop, and she reaches into her pocket.

“Okay, but I’m recording this just in case.”

• • •

Ellie leads everyone back to the gate where we found the envelope. She gives the gate a shake, and surprisingly, it opens.

“Creepy,” she says.

With six massive legs reaching into the night sky, the water tower is like an enormous metal insect preparing to stomp the high school. A ladder runs up the closest leg, and a safety gate extends twenty feet up the ladder’s base to prevent anyone—read: teenagers—from climbing. The safety gate isn’t locked either.

“So who wants to go first?” Ellie says.

Adleta grunts and starts up, a teenage King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.

Wheeler turns to Malone and says, “Ladies first.”

“Like I’m going to let you stare at my butt the whole way up.”

“You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Wheeler begins climbing, and Malone follows. Ellie puts her foot on the first rung and looks back at me.

“You look like you’re going to throw up.”

“I’m not a fan of heights,” I say.

“Oh, don’t be silly. You’ll be fine.”

I may not be a fan of heights, but I especially hate ladders. I always think the rung I’m on is going to break away and send me plummeting. Climbing this ladder in the dark, the rungs sticky for some reason, only worries me more. But despite that, I’d be lying if I didn’t say how awesome this was. The higher I climb, the harder my heart pounds from the adrenaline. I feel like a jewel thief scaling a skyscraper at midnight on his way to steal the Hope Diamond. Then I make the mistake of looking up at Ellie in her tight pants climbing just ahead of me. My foot misses the next rung, and I awkwardly stumble. I have to wrap both arms around the ladder to keep from falling. Just what I want on my death certificate: death by yoga pants.

Up ahead in the darkness, Wheeler goes into a mock newscaster’s voice, announcing, “Five Asheville High School students fell to their deaths last evening when—”

“Shut up,” Malone says.

The climb takes only two minutes but feels like an hour by the time the ladder ends at the base of a metal grating no more than four feet wide. If a strong wind blows, a waist-high railing is all that’s there to keep me from hurtling to my death.

“Wow, this is higher than I thought,” Ellie says, looking out over the lights of the town.

Malone, recording everything with her phone, says, “I wish I had my climbing gear. I’d love to rappel off this.”

“What was it Jesus said, Ellie?” Wheeler says. “‘I think I can see my house from here’?”

And me, I want down. And not just down, but to roll in the grass and kiss the earth. Then, as I’m about to wuss out, Ellie’s hand is in mine and she’s leading me along the platform.

“Come on,” she says. “Let’s look for the next clue.”

Her hand is soft and warm, and if the platform gives away right now, I can die a happy man.

“You get to open the next envelope if there is one,” Ellie says. “Or maybe it’ll be like in the movies, and there’ll be a cell phone that rings and—”

My foot kicks something metal, sending it clanking and skittering across the platform before dropping into the night.

From the other side of the tower, Malone says, “What was that?”

I look down at my feet and see four more of what I’ve just booted—spray paint cans.

And in one horrifying moment, I realize why the rungs were sticky when we climbed.

Red paint covers my hands.

Oh shit.

I lean back for a better view of the water tower to see what’s been spray-painted there. The wet paint trails down from certain letters like red teardrops.

Double shit.

Heist Rule #5:
When in doubt, run.

But we don’t get that chance.

Suddenly, the water tower lights blaze to life, illuminating the newly painted message for the entire town to see.

Assville High School—
Home of the Golden Showers

Both Malone and Wheeler say, “Shit.”

Ellie says, “Wow.”

Adleta says nothing.

And then a voice booms from a bullhorn below, where red-and-blue lights flash in the parking lot.

“This is the police. Come down immediately.”

So much for
Don’t get caught.

Chapter 4

Officer Hale identifying himself as the police is a misnomer—sort of like the adult who rolls out the balls for us in gym class calling himself a teacher. It’s accurate only in the most technical sense. Hale’s the school security officer we’re supposed to go to if we’re being bullied or if we want to rat on someone. But he can’t arrest anyone. And he doesn’t have a gun. Which are pretty much the only reasons to become a cop in the first place, right?

Instead of driving us to the police station, Hale parks in front of the school administration office and death marches us into a conference room, where he orders us to give up our home phone numbers.

“And don’t lie to me,” he says. “Because I’ll know.”

So like any budding criminal, I lie. My parents are already going to kill me, so I might as well postpone the execution as long as possible.

Within twenty minutes, the conference room is filled with parents, each of them standing behind their delinquent children. I’m the only unclaimed kid, but Ellie’s parents stand so close to me, I’m hoping they’ll be mistaken for my parental representatives.

From across the table, Wheeler’s mom gives me a small, sad wave. Dave’s the bane of her existence. Her other two sons are fine, upstanding young men who earned full rides to college. Dave, not so much. I once asked him about this, and in a moment of actual maturity, he said, “Who wants to be like everyone else? Sometimes you have to break out and do it your own way.”

Yeah, and sometimes people go too far in trying to do that
, Just Max scolds me as we sit awaiting our execution.

Minus a couple weird noises Wheeler seems to be making with his mouth, the room is eerily quiet, so it’s a relief when Mrs. B finally arrives. Mrs. B, or Mrs. Barber in the real world, has been the principal here for twice as long as I’ve been alive. As far as adult authority figures go, Mrs. B’s one of the most tolerable, and I’d be fine suffering through this embarrassment if she were the only administrator here, but no, Stranko’s with her.

My parents graduated from this very high school with Stranko twenty years ago, and all you need to know is that Stranko was voted Most Likely to Be Accused of Police Brutality. Cop, vice principal—there’s really no difference. Supposedly, Stranko’s been waiting for Mrs. B to retire so he can take over, but every year she returns, and you just know it makes Stranko want to scream his throat bloody. To make matters worse, Stranko hates me. It turns out he takes it personally if you quit his summer lacrosse camp two days in. And yes, you read that right—in my search for some purpose, I tried lacrosse. Feel free to laugh hysterically. Everyone else sure did.

“Well, good evening, everyone,” Mrs. B says. “This certainly isn’t the preferable way to meet, is it? Kids, whatever happened to causing trouble during school hours? It’s way past my bedtime.”

Everyone laughs politely. Minus Stranko.

“To keep this orderly, I’d like to hear from Officer Hale first, then the students, before opening the floor to everyone else,” Mrs. B says. “Officer Hale, will you get us started?”

“Yes, ma’am. At approximately ten o’clock, I received an anonymous text reporting vandalism occurring at the water tower located on school grounds. Living close by, I drove over immediately. I quickly discerned something was amiss because the tower lights were off. When I parked, I could hear voices from up top. I ordered them down, and here we are, presently.”

“Wait,” Wheeler says, his head cocked, “you do know you’re not a real cop, right?”

Mama Wheeler rolls her eyes in an exhausted
See what I have to live with?
way before smacking Wheeler’s head.

“Thank you, Officer Hale,” Mrs. B says. “And for the defense?”

Ellie looks shamefaced at the table.

Malone’s face scrunches up like she doesn’t know how to start.

Wheeler picks at his fingernail with a paper clip.

And Adleta looks like he’s just been wheeled out from electroshock therapy.

“Well?” Mrs. B says. “Anyone?”

“We were set up,” I blurt.

I glance around the table, just as surprised by my outburst as everyone else. I slouch in my seat but fail to disappear completely.

“Would you care to elaborate?” Mrs. B asks.

Malone gives me a nod of encouragement, and when my silent prayer for a sudden embolism isn’t answered, I open my mouth. What follows is a ramble about the Chaos Club notes we received and the instructions to climb the tower. It’s sloppy storytelling at best, but the longer I talk, the easier the words come. I finish with, “Right after we saw the golden shower thing, Hale showed up. And that’s it.”

Mrs. B looks like she believes me. But Stranko’s glaring at me with such intensity I have to look away.

“Where are your parents?” he says to me, then turns to Hale. “Did you call his parents?”

“He said they were out of town. I left a message with his guardian.”

“Out of town?” he says to me.

“They left yesterday for Seattle for a broadcasting convention. Dad’s one of the speakers. I’m staying with a family friend.”

“Seattle, huh?” he says. “And who is this person supposedly watching you?”

Stranko sounds like he’s going to call bullshit on me. And when he does, the first thing he’ll do is leave the room and call my house. Then it’s RIP Not Max.

“I asked who’s watching you,” Stranko says.

And right as Not Max is about to fold, the universe gives me the first real break of my life, and in a moment of perfect timing, the conference room door opens.

• • •

Here’s the scoop on Uncle Boyd:

1. He’s not my real uncle but Dad’s oldest friend.

2. He calls himself an artist, although I’m not sure his so-called sculptures qualify as art.

3. And finally, and most importantly, Uncle Boyd sees me as the son he’s never had, meaning I can trust him.

Hopefully.

“Sorry I’m late, Mrs. B,” he says. “I didn’t get the message about Max until a few minutes ago. I must’ve had the radio up too loud.”

Boyd’s wearing ripped jeans and a paint-splattered Rage Against the Machine shirt. He comes up behind me and nods to Stranko.

“Howdy, Dwayne. Been a while.”

Stranko flinches like a bee’s just flown by his face.

“With students in the room, Boyd, I prefer to be called Mr. Stranko.”

“I’ll do my best, Dwayne. I mean, Mr. Stranko. Sir.”

“So Max is staying with you, Boyd?” Mr. B says.

“For the next few days, yeah. It doesn’t look like I’ve been doing a very good job watching him. I apologize for that.”

Stranko’s looking all
bullshit
again but doesn’t say anything.

Mrs. B says to Boyd, “Max here was just filling us in on the evening. Max, do you have any evidence to back up your story?”

I hold out my invitation and the
climb up
message from the gate. Stranko lays both on the table before taking pictures with his phone.

“Is there anything else?” Mrs. B asks.

“I have a video too,” Malone says.

Kate unlocks her phone, then passes it over to Mrs. B. Stranko and Hale crowd behind her, but they only make it through fifteen seconds of us on the tower talking about looking for another clue before Mrs. B turns it off.

“I don’t think I need to see any more,” she says. “Is there any other information you’d like to share?”

All five of us collectively shrug.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Malone’s mother says, “but this Chaos Club, is it a school-approved organization?”

“Absolutely not,” Stranko says. “We would never sanction such behavior.”

“Well, apparently you can’t stop it either,” she mutters.

Ellie’s mom raises her hand slowly and just above a whisper asks, “Can someone please tell me what a golden shower is?”

The room fills with an awkward silence, all of us wondering how to explain being peed on for pleasure to a woman who probably bathes in a swimsuit. And yes, Mrs. Wick is probably that naive. She only wears skirts and is the secretary at the town’s Methodist church, where Mr. Wick’s the minister. I’m not sure how they spend that much time together without wanting to kill each other. Jesus must be one heck of a marriage counselor.

“I’ve never heard of a golden shower either, Mr. Stranko,” Wheeler says. “Could you please explain it to us, sir?”

Stranko turns such a wonderful shade of red I think he might start bleeding from the eyes. I have to pinch my leg hard to hold back from laughing.

“Let’s focus on the issue at hand, please,” Mrs. B says.

“What I want to know is if our kids are in danger,” Wheeler’s mom says. “I mean, isn’t this bullying? These kids were targeted.”

“More like stupid,” Adleta’s dad huffs. “Putting their futures and scholarships in danger by being dumb enough to fall for a prank like this. It’s goddamn embarrassing.”

If it’s possible, Mr. Adleta is even bigger than Tim. He stands at almost military attention, his fingers digging into Tim’s shoulders like he’s trying to snap his collarbone. But all you really need to know is that when Tim was in third grade, Mr. Adleta was banned from Tim’s soccer games because he wouldn’t stop screaming at the refs.
Third grade.

Mrs. B says, “No, Mrs. Wheeler, I don’t think your children are in danger. But this is the first time I can remember students being set up in this manner by the Chaos Club. Am I right, Mr. Stranko?”

Stranko must be some sort of Chaos Club historian because he launches into a summary of their history, quoting pranks from their website. He finishes by saying, “I can assure all of you that we’re doing everything we can to eliminate this group, whoever they are.”

Then he taps the phone clipped to his belt.

Heist Rule #6:
Be observant.

Malone’s mom says, “So what all this really means is that no one knows why these kids were targeted, and that there’s nothing you can do to stop it from happening again?”

“Ms. Malone, I can assure you these students are safe. But you’re right. I have no explanation for why they were chosen,” Mrs. B says, and looks at us. “I want each of you to promise to come to me if you’re contacted again. Will you do that?”

We tell her we will, and Stranko adds, “Or come to me.”

Yeah right.

“So what happens now?” Reverend Wick says. It’s the first time he’s spoken tonight. As a school board member, this has to be pretty embarrassing. Not Hitler-moustache-embarrassing, but embarrassing nonetheless.

Mrs. B teepees her fingers under her chin for a moment, then says, “On one hand, it’s clear to me these students are not responsible for the water tower vandalism. Do you agree, Mr. Stranko?”

Stranko nods but without much confidence behind it. You get the feeling he almost he wishes we were the culprits.

“On the other hand,” Mrs. B says, “we have a very clear policy regarding trespassing on school grounds that was spelled out at the beginning of the year. That is something that must be addressed. So tomorrow after school, you will each take part in painting over the message on the water tower. I believe two hours working in the sun may help deter you from coming onto school property again after hours.”

“How is that fair?” Adleta’s dad says. “You even said they didn’t do it. To punish them for that is crap. And Tim’s going to miss practice then. I don’t see how—”

“Or,” Mrs. B says, staring at Mr. Adleta, “I suppose we could simply turn them over to the Asheville Police Department and let them handle the trespassing violation. You could transport them to the station, could you not, Mr. Hale?”

The stare down doesn’t last long. Mr. Adleta mumbles something under his breath that causes Ellie’s mom’s cheeks to redden.

“And, David,” Mrs. B says to Wheeler, “I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from posting pictures of the water tower to that website you frequent. Is that possible?”

“Anything for you, Mrs. B,” Wheeler says.

They’re talking about H8box, a smart-ass website for posting and commenting on pictures and articles that pulls in more than two millions hits a day. In school, Wheeler may underachieve to global proportions, but on H8box, his twisted vision of the world has made him a god. If you need someone to take a picture of a crowded street at night in Singapore or want an advanced copy of a movie not out for weeks, Wheeler and his H8box connections are your guys.

Mrs. B stands and says, “If there’s nothing else, we all have an early morning tomorrow.”

We all follow her lead and stand. Boyd, probably worried I’m about to make a break for the door, puts a light hand on my arm. But it’s not necessary. I’m enjoying this. Who’d have thought juvenile delinquency would be such a thrill?

Stranko says, “Tim, you and your dad wait for me in the hall. Got it?”

I imagine Adleta running the stadium steps for the rest of his life, and before I can stop myself, a small laugh escapes my mouth.

“Is something funny, Cobb?” Stranko says. “Maybe you should understand something before you ridicule it. You could have learned a lot from the lacrosse team if you were man enough.”

And had a lobotomy
, I think.

Stranko’s still sneering as he’s on his way out with the Adletas when he points to Malone.

“Send me the video you shot tonight. I want it as evidence.”

And here Stranko taps his phone again.

Something then clicks in my brain. Stranko is investigating the Chaos Club.

Just call me Sherlock Cobb.

Ellie passes by with her parents, and for a second, our eyes meet.

“We need a plan,” she whispers.

Before I can respond, her parents have her out the door, probably to exorcise the demon that led her to this blasphemy. Boyd and I follow them and are close to a clean getaway when Mrs. B calls out, “Max? Boyd? Will you two stay a minute, please?”

Boyd mutters, “Ah, hell.”

The rest of the room clears out, and Mrs. B motions for us to sit down beside her at the table.

“Boyd, it seems like just yesterday that we were having meetings in here with your parents about you.”

“I was sort of hoping not to be back, Mrs. Barber. No offense.”

BOOK: Don't Get Caught
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