It was a pretty radical thought Atticus had: The Nelsons hiring someone to murder their son and pin it up as a suicide. It seemed crazy and horribly inhumane, but Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling. Mike’s parents were going through some tough times and maybe some tragic publicity was all the needed to get themselves back on the map. But, then there was Professor Varnum. How was he involved? Did he know the Nelsons? Was he their inside source of information? He was new to the school, so maybe the Nelsons snuck him in to keep an eye on their son. It wasn’t a coincidence that he left class mere moments before Mike’s body was found.
But he needed details. If Atticus really wanted to be a detective, he would need to get evidence, and that would mean doing some heavy duty investigating. Step one to investigation: gathering information. How did one get information on a school campus? Talking to other students. Sadly, talking with other students was not a skill Atticus was particularly good at.
Atticus urgently trudged his way to the dorms. The first person he needed to talk with was Mike’s roommate: Justin. Justin was a nice guy, but he was a bit too nice for Atticus’ taste. He was the captain of the tennis club and a member of the student council. He was preppy, popular, athletic, and smart. All in all, he was a perfect student. However, all of that being said, his and Atticus’ personalities clashed in all the wrong ways. Atticus liked his alone time; Justin needed to be around others and up in their business. Atticus liked to be quiet; Justin loved to be loud and boisterous. But, the one thing the two had in common was their love of gossip: Atticus loved listening and Justin loved spreading.
It was around 6:30 when Atticus made it to the dorms. Justin would’ve just finished up at tennis for the day and he’d soon be going out with friends for the remainder of the evening. Atticus had to catch him in that small window or else he wouldn’t get a chance the rest of the night.
Atticus knocked on the door and it took all of his will power not to do it to the tune of “Shave and a Haircut.”
It took a minute, but Justin eventually opened the door. “Whoa, Atticus. What’s up?”
Justin had slick and well-groomed light brown hair and a strong slender face. He was handsome; exactly what you’d expect from a popular preppy kid.
“Hey Justin, I need to ask you a few questions about Mike.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, “Mike.”
Justin and Mike weren’t close like Atticus and Brock. The two just happened to get paired together, but they were still friends. Mike was like Atticus when it came to Justin: he was just too loud. But, the two still enjoyed the other’s company every now and again.
“Did you notice him acting strange these past few days,” Atticus asked.
Mike shrugged. “I didn’t see him outside the room too much, but it didn’t really seem out of the ordinary.”
“How about the day he died?”
“I mean; he was skipping class but he just said he wasn’t feeling well.” Justin shrugged again and said, “I stopped by for lunch to pick up my books for the afternoon and he was gone. I assumed he made his way to class after all. He did have that big history exam. I thought he went to that.”
Atticus nodded. “Alright, one last thing: Mike left behind what we assume to be a suicide note, but it was ripped up when it was found. Do you have any ideas what was up with that?”
Justin shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea.”
Atticus sighed. “Okay, thank you for your time.”
Atticus began to make his way down the hall when Justin hollered, “Hey, I know it’s hard, but I think Mike was just tired of everything. He couldn’t take the pressure anymore.”
That wasn’t true. Atticus knew Mike too well to think that this was self-inflicted. There had to have been an outside force at work.
Atticus went through the rest of the building, knocking on doors and asking more and more about Mike. Sadly, most of the other students gave him answers similar to Justin’s. Some of them claimed to know more, but their words were just gossip and rumors that didn’t contribute much.
Okay, so he was a little closer, but he still had to try and piece in Professor Varnum and Mike’s parents. The police were already on the scene finishing up when he arrived. He wasn’t sure how long the police had been at work, but he guessed around twenty minutes. It would take the police around ten minutes to respond to the call, so Atticus estimated the body was found nearly half an hour or so before he stumbled across it.
If that was the case, Atticus concluded that the body was found mere minutes after he finished his exam. If what Brock said was correct and the professor left class a few minutes after Atticus was excused, he might not have been the one to kill Mike, but he could’ve planted the body and alerted the police.
Too many variables, Atticus thought. Too many complications.
Atticus needed more pieces to the puzzle, but he needed to find the right people who could give him those pieces. Justin was an okay start, but he needed people who could scrape up dirt on Varnum. He felt bad suspecting his professor so much, but he couldn’t shake the feeling the man gave him. He was shady, reclusive, and it always felt like he was hiding something. He was the number one suspect.
Atticus made his way to the courtyard and lied down on the campus fountain like he did after class. He stared at the setting sun; its orange glow brightened the sky and filled him with a sense of warmth. Now that it was starting to get cold at night, the last little bit of sunlight was much appreciated. It wasn’t extremely cold, but a nice chill. Sunrise and sunset were Atticus’ favorite times of day. You didn’t need a coat and you wouldn’t sweat. It was perfect.
As he stared at the glowing sky, Atticus thought of all the good times he’d had at Fortuna Prep. He remembered orientation, his first day of class, his first summer break. He remembered the first time he’d met Brock. It was the day after orientation and all of the students were being assigned their dorms and roommates. You could request roommates if you wanted, but Atticus didn’t know anybody, so his was picked at random. Luckily, Brock was a good random.
Initially, Brock was very intimidated by Atticus and how quiet he was. His nose was always stuck in a book and very rarely did he speak. But, one night, Atticus got terrible food poisoning. Brock was supposed to go out with some friends, but he couldn’t leave Atticus alone. So he cancelled his plans and stayed with him all night telling jokes, helping him get to the bathroom when needed, and just talking. Ever since then, the two were best friends. Atticus knew he could count on Brock.
A wide smile spread across his face and he sat up. The warm feeling didn’t last long though. Suddenly, Atticus felt a sharp tingle run down his spine. He was completely petrified. It felt as if a thousand eyes were on him. It required all of his willpower, but Atticus turned around.
He saw a figure standing at least thirty feet away in the shadow of the English and History building wearing a long dark brown cloak. No part of the person was visible except for its eyes, but from a distance, they were impossible to see.
Atticus felt his heart race and his hands shake. He reached into his pocket and felt his locket. It gave him strength. It reminded him why he was doing all of this. The cloaked figure wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
As he thought that, the cloaked figure began to leave. Atticus felt its gaze leave him and he could finally move again. He wasn’t sure what happened. Why was he frozen? He’d been scared to the point of freezing up before, but never like that.
Atticus watched the figure disappear into the shadows and a wave of adrenaline washed over him. He wasn’t sure what, but a conclusion popped into his head: “A ghost!”
Nothing could shake the feeling that the cloaked figure was the ghost Mike asked him about. It wasn’t anything supernatural, just someone hiding in the shadows waiting to strike. And Atticus hated that. The dark was the worst. You never knew what lurked within. You couldn’t plan anything in the darkness, and worst of all you could never be prepared. The dark was the ultimate unsolvable puzzle.
But despite all that, Atticus couldn’t let the Ghost get away. He had to confront him, or at least find where it was hiding.
Atticus snuck behind the figure, always trying to keep it at a close enough distance so he could easily tail it, but far enough so he wouldn’t feel suspicious. Atticus wasn’t the stealthiest kid, but he figured if he kept his distance and was silent, he’d be fine. After all, that’s all there was to being stealthy, right? If so, he figured he was doing a dang good job.
Atticus continued to follow the Ghost for several minutes without it ever catching him. At least, he hoped it hadn’t caught onto him. Every once in a while it would stop and look around and Atticus would be forced to jump behind a bush or tree or bench.
The Ghost lead him through all sorts of dark places between buildings and Atticus started to fear that it was leading him into a trap.
Finally, at one intersection between two halls, the Ghost came to a stop. Atticus was about twenty feet behind, waiting and watching. The cloaked figure looked left, then right, then left again. Atticus wished his Queen of Spades allowed him to read minds because it was killing him not knowing what the Ghost was up to.
If he could read minds, he felt this whole debacle would be solved already, but then what would be the fun in solving puzzles.
After a few seconds, the Ghost turned back and faced Atticus. In a panic, he tried to jump back and hide in the shadows, out of the figure’s line of sight. The sun was at his back, so he thought that maybe he’d be well enough hidden. But, he was wrong. The Ghost stared straight at him, right in the eyes, and once again Atticus was paralyzed with fear. It gestured for him to follow, but Atticus couldn’t move. His legs felt like they were made of concrete.
Eventually, the Ghost left without him, sprinting away and Atticus losing sight of it.
His breathing was heavy and his heart pounded violently, but he couldn’t let the Ghost get away. No more stalking and sneaking. Atticus had to make a move no matter how much it terrified him.
He sprinted as fast as he could in an attempt to tail the mystery figure, but he wasn’t paying the closest attention. In his hurry, he crashed into something old and grouchy, knocking both himself and his professor to the ground.
“Mr. Whaelord, what is the meaning of this?” Varnum shouted.
Atticus leapt up to his feet and looked all around for the Ghost. Sadly, it seemed that the figure had just vanished. There was nowhere for it to hide unless it jumped the fence or climbed a building or tree, but there was no way it was that fast.
“I-I’m sorry professor.” Atticus offered his teacher a hand, but Varnum swatted it away.
“I have had it with your shenanigans, Mr. Whaelord,” Varnum said. He brushed himself off, but he never let his glare wander from Atticus.
“I know professor. I just thought I saw-”
“What? A rodent? A nuisance? Were you chasing a mirror, Mr. Whaelord?”
Atticus didn’t say a word.
“Goodness gracious! I’m covered in dirt and grass stains now because of you,” shouted the professor. “What will the Nelsons think of me now?”
Varnum let out a frustrated sigh and said, “Principal Shepard and I are meeting with the Nelsons to discuss a memorial dinner for their son. I thought it would be a good way to show how much Fortuna Prep cares for its students.”
“But, you don’t care,” Atticus said. Varnum was silent. “This is just a big publicity stunt, isn’t it professor? A way to make yourself look good to the public eye and get the Nelsons some free advertising, am I correct?”
Varnum’s face turned bright red. If it was possible for smoke and fire to shoot from one’s nostrils, Varnum would’ve done it just then. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing! I don’t have time for such foolishness! I’m already late and now thanks to you, Mr. Whaelord, I’m highly unpresentable! You will make this up to me!”
“How about I stay late after class tomorrow,” Atticus asked. “And at lunch, why don’t I stop by and help you grade exams?”
Varnum’s face was starting to return to its normal color. “That will not be necessary. We’ll discuss it tomorrow. Now, if you don’t mind.”
Before Atticus could respond, Varnum shoved past him and made a straight line toward the faculty office building.
That man is hiding something, Atticus thought. He is involved in some way.
Atticus made one last glance around campus, hoping that maybe he could find a hint as to where the Ghost disappeared to. Sadly, he had no such luck.
Frustrated and defeated, Atticus plopped down onto the grass, his face in his hands. He was furious. He found the Ghost; the one Mike was so afraid of, and the killer. He didn’t have any evidence, but he just knew it. He knew the cloaked figure was the killer and he had him in sight. But Professor Varnum had to come up and ruin it.
He got to his feet, brushed himself off and suddenly the gears in his head clanged viciously. Varnum had appeared right as the Ghost had disappeared. Varnum vanished when the body was found. Atticus wondered: perhaps the Ghost and the professor were the same.
A glimmer caught Atticus’ eye. What looked like bright white and black gravel lay in a pile where Varnum had fell. Atticus kneeled down and shuffled the debris into a small mound and realized that it wasn’t gravel at all, but instead a broken piece of jewelry.
“Was this the professor’s,” he whispered to himself.
Atticus looked all around, making sure no one was in sight and cupped his hands over the debris. Atticus shut his eyes tightly and focused. He felt a tingle on the back of his hand and slowly the Queen of Spades began to appear. His hand began to heat up and he curled his fingers into a fist around the broken trinket. Soon his hand began to burn. He felt the item take form in his hands. He opened his eyes, and released his grip. What used to be a pile of white and black rubble was now a ring embedded with a design that looked like a “Z” overlapping a “Y”: The symbol of the Zebulon Corporation.
He picked up the ring and held it in his palm. Of all things, why a Zebulon ring? What did it mean and why’d the professor have a destroyed one?
Atticus planned to leave his professor alone for the rest of the evening, but now he had a special something to return, and it wasn’t something that could wait until tomorrow.