Virginia’s house. 10:30 PM.
Virginia rooted around in the refrigerator, looking for something exotic and interesting to offer Benny. Surely there was a mango in there, or some seaweed. But all she could find were reduced-fat cheese slices and turkey rolls.
“Mom, I’m fine. I promise, I’m fine. I’m at Virginia’s house… Yes, her.”
Virginia flinched at the way he said her. Clearly Mrs. Flax wasn’t her biggest fan.
“I don’t know, maybe 11:30? We have…homework. Mom, stop, we’re just friends.”
Virginia slammed the refrigerator door shut.
“Mom, please? I’ll unload the dishwasher. I’ll take grandma to synagogue…OK. Love you, too. Bye.” He snapped the phone shut. “Sorry about that. My mom’s picking me up at 11:30. Is that enough time?”
Virginia checked the computer, glad for an excuse not to look at Benny. Her cheeks felt hot, and she knew she was probably blushing. “Yeah. Looks like there’s only 30 minutes of tape. Here, pull up a chair.”
They were in Virginia’s room. It was messy, yet weirdly bare, as if she’d recently thrown out most of her possessions.
“I’m redecorating,” Virginia said, as Benny’s eyes roamed the sparse walls. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“That’s OK,” Benny said. For a moment they sat silently, staring at the little icon that indicated the video was loading.
Virginia gave Benny a quick glance. He looked so dorky and serious in his voluminous turtleneck, but actually, he was kind of a rebel. Back in the woods, he had just grabbed the camera and breezed past the throng of police officers who had descended upon the scene. Virginia was pretty sure this meant tampering with evidence, but Benny didn’t seem to care. “Mystery Club operates independently of local law enforcement,” he’d declared. He sounded so confident that it hadn’t even occurred to her to argue.
“It’s ready,” Benny said. Virginia opened a viewer and pressed play. There was the bridge, brightly illuminated by the moon. Benny was surprised–the scene had seemed much darker in real life.
“They used a wide exposure,” Virginia said, answering his thoughts. “That’s why it looks so much brighter. But it also distorts the image quality. See how grainy it is?”
Benny nodded. Minutes passed as the video played footage of the empty bridge. It was quiet, except for the far-off sound of cheering from the football stadium.
“I bet this is all a dumb prank,” Virginia said. “Watch, I bet we’ll see Brittany sneaking out of the costume and then tossing it over the rail. ‘Mascot commits suicide.’ It’s kind of funny.”
“Not really,” Benny said, still staring at the screen.
“Well, yeah, obviously not. But it’s the sort of thing those dumb football guys would think is funny.”
“Shhh, listen,” Benny said. In the background, you could hear a faint song: We’re following the leeeeeader. “It’s about to happen.”
Sure enough, a great lumbering lion came crashing out of the woods. Benny shivered. An hour ago, he’d watched a girl jump off of this 100-foot bridge, and now he was about to watch it again.
“Look, that’s you,” Virginia said, pointing to a figure at the edge of the screen.
Benny squinted at it. “That’s not me.”
“That’s not where I was standing. I wasn’t that close to the bridge.”
“Well maybe it’s me…no, I wasn’t standing there either. Um, who is that?”
Benny put his ear to the computer speaker. The raucous chorus of “Following the Leader” still sounded pretty far away. “It’s definitely not me,” he said. “The football players and cheerleaders were right behind me. Listen to how far away they sound right now. This guy’s out there on his own.”
“No, he’s not,” Virginia said. “Look.” She pointed to the opposite side of the bridge. Benny couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it before: a second figure stood there, obscured but still visible.
“Huh,” Benny said. That was the second time tonight that Virginia had noticed something he hadn’t. First the camera light, now the strange figures flanking the bridge. He looked at her, feeling vaguely annoyed. Was he annoyed with Virginia for beating him to a clue, or with himself for underestimating her?
A muffled sound came from the speaker.
“Turn it up,” Benny said. “I think one of them just said something.”
Virginia rewound the video and cranked up the sound.
Benny leaned his ear to the speaker. “Sounds like ‘die.’ They’re yelling ‘die’! Wait, no. Diamond. Diamond. There, they said it twice, did you hear?”
Virginia nodded. “But how did we not hear them when we were standing right there an hour ago?”
“Those stupid idiots were singing right behind us. The bridge could have exploded and we wouldn’t have heard it.”
Benny switched off the sound.
“Diamond, diamond,” Virginia was repeating. “Do you think they’re jewel thieves? Maybe Brittany was wearing a diamond necklace under her mascot suit, and they were trying to steal it.”
Benny shook his head. “No, look at the way they’re just standing there. They’re not trying to catch her, they’re just…”
Benny felt a shiver as he stared at the two grainy shadows on either side of the bridge. They’re closing in on her, he thought. They’re forcing her to jump. ♦
To be continued…