The hallway. 8:15 PM.

Virginia squinted at the pastel bouquet of girls huddled in their dresses. It was Constance Bouchelle and her friends Yu Yan and Beth. The three of them were always together, attached at the hip, in a way that Virginia found annoying and kind of childish. And they did that thing Virginia truly hated, where they bogusly assigned themselves unique personas (Constance was “the smart one,” Beth “the crazy one”) when in reality the three were basically interchangeable in every way.

“What’s going on?” Virginia said, warily approaching them.

There was a rustle of taffeta skirts as the girls turned to face her.

“There’s a guy in there,” Yu Yan whispered, scandalized.

Virginia rolled her eyes. Riverside was so behind the times. She’d heard of schools that had unisex bathrooms where no one even batted an eye. “So what?” she said, trying to sound like she went into bathrooms with guys in them all the time.

“He’s giving away drugs!” Constance added.

Virginia felt her heart beat a little faster. “Really?” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. Constance was always trying to leverage any social power she held over others; if knew how badly Virginia wanted to know more, immediately, she probably wouldn’t tell her anything.

“I think you spilled your drink,” she said, looking Virginia up and down.

“Thanks for noticing,” Virginia deadpanned. “Now back to the guy in the bathroom. Who is it? Is it one of Skylar’s friends?”

“No one knows,” Beth breathed dramatically.

“No one knows?” Virginia repeated.

“He locked himself in a stall, and he won’t tell anyone his name. But supposedly if you know the secret password, he’ll give you drugs.”

“Well what’s the password?” Virginia demanded. “Come on, tell me.”

“Jesus, we don’t know!” Constance sounded appalled. “Do we look like the kind of girls who know secret passwords for free drugs?”

“You wish you did,” Virginia countered, and took her leave, walking purposefully toward the girls’ bathroom. Wherever you go, something might happen., she told herself. Don’t just be a detective: be a witness. These were Benny’s words, expounding on his number one rule for solving mysteries, which is to Be There. For Benny this was merely a practical measure: eyewitnesses were notoriously unreliable. In moments of confusion, the average person’s brain will reject things it can’t understand, and fill in the gaps with completely erroneous memories. Mystery solving was just plain easier if Benny could be his own witness. But for Virginia, the rule of Being There wasn’t about being practical; it was excuse to rush head-first into anything suspicious or peculiar, to lose herself in the promise of the mysterious. That was the fundamental difference between the two of them: for Benny, Mystery Club was about solving mysteries; for Virginia, it was about being part of one.

The entrance hall. 8:15 PM.

son of Israel, loneliest son
dance dance revolution
no dancing for the son of Israel
watching the dancing from his ocean of solitude

—a poem by Calvin Harker

“Benny, why is nobody paying?”

Benny looked up from the scribbled poem. Mr. Gadhavi, the chemistry teacher, was standing there, looking exasperated.

“Umm…” Benny said.

“You at least got them to cast their votes, right?”

“No…” Benny admitted.

Mr. Gadhavi sighed wearily. Benny liked Mr. Gadhavi, but being around him was kind of depressing. Both of them stood out in a school where 90 percent of the student body were members of FCA, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But at least Benny would get to leave in two years, and never again be compelled to care whether a bunch of jocks had paid for their tickets or cast their votes. Benny was 15; he was only here because no one had asked him where he wanted to go to school. But Mr. Gadhavi was like 35; he was here as a result of his life choices. The thought filled Benny with anxiety. Benny liked being a kid, and he wasn’t eager to start making life choices—especially if one wrong one could send him right back where he started.

The girls’ bathroom. 8:20 PM.

Someone had left the water running. That was the only sound. Virginia went over to the sink and turned off the faucet. Then it was silent. Virginia suddenly couldn’t remember what her plan was. She had a plan, right? Surely she hadn’t just charged into a spooky, ill-lit bathroom containing an anonymous drug dealer with absolutely zero plan. She’d had a vague notion that she would simply stalk up to the occupied stall, stick her head under, and demand that the interloper identify and explain himself. Suddenly that idea seemed foolish. And possibly dangerous.

She could see his feet under the stall: a pair of plain black boots and gray wool slacks, the kind with a neat crease running down the front of each leg. A drug-dealer who irons his pants? The thought made Virginia suddenly very conscious of her own legs and feet. If she could see his, he could probably see hers.

“Hello?” she said. She’d meant to sound confident, but her voice was barely above a whisper.

There was a pause, and then she heard a voice come from inside the stall: “Do you know the password?” It was a low voice. Purposely low, Virginia thought, like a subtle disguise. He’s worried about being recognized, she realized. That meant he wasn’t a stranger. He could be someone she actually knew. This possibility didn’t comfort her. It made a chill run down both her arms.

“Do you know the password?” The voice repeated in the same low, even tone.

Virginia held her breath. What could it be? Benny could probably guess it, she thought, annoyed at herself for barging in here without getting him first. Mind games were his territory, not hers.

“No,” she finally said. Maybe it was a trick, she figured, and “no” actually was the password. But part of her hoped it wasn’t. It was one thing to be daring, it was another to be accepting unknown substances in the girls’ room at a school dance. She’d be expelled in a second if she got caught. And she didn’t imagine that “I did it for the mystery” would make an adequate defense.

“Wrong,” the voice growled.

Virginia stood motionless for a moment, hovering between disappointment and relief. Then she ran out the door as fast as she could.

The entrance hall. 8:33 PM.

A shrill, collective scream erupted from inside the gym.

Benny stood up so fast his chair clattered to the floor. These were the moments he lived for.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the scream was not of horror or shock, but of glee: the DJ had started playing “Party in the U.S.A.,” which for some reason was hugely popular at Riverside this year despite having come out in 2009.

Benny sighed. He picked up his chair with an air of hopeless resignation.

“Benny! Benny!” Virginia was suddenly in his face. Her cheeks were red, and she was panting slightly.

“Whoa. What’s happening?” Benny asked her.

“There’s a guy in the girls’ bathroom,” she gushed between breaths. “And he won’t reveal his identity, and he’s giving away drugs if you know the secret password.”

“Wait, wait,” Benny said. “Slow down. Who’s in the bathroom?”

“Just come on, I’ll show you.”

“Hang on,” he said, quickly locking up the cash box. Virginia was already halfway across the dance floor. He started to follow her, then something caught his eye. Dim flashes of blue and red lights coming from outside. Police car lights. What are the police doing here?

Then, in a split second, everything went black. ♦

To be continued…