Vicious, p.14
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       Vicious, p.14

         Part #16 of Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard
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  “No, I wouldn’t.” Noel’s nostrils flared. “The only person I’ll do anything for is you.” He glared. “Why can’t you believe that?”

  Aria stared at a shimmering puddle of oil on the street. Would she ever forgive Noel for Ali? Ali clouded everything in Aria’s mind. Two nights ago, when he’d given her that bracelet, she’d had a fleeting thought: Had he thought about giving this to Ali once, too? Even the blond wig: It looked, she realized now, like Ali’s hair.

  “It’s still so hard,” she said in a raspy voice. “And I can’t help but think that if you hadn’t trusted her so much, maybe we wouldn’t be here at all.”

  Noel recoiled. “Meaning?”

  “Meaning . . .” Aria gulped. Meaning you could have warned someone. Meaning you could have stopped her. Meaning Ali wouldn’t have been let out of the hospital, and she wouldn’t have killed all those people, and she wouldn’t have come after us and I wouldn’t be in this situation.

  But that felt too much to say aloud. It was too much blame to put on him. And she knew it wasn’t right—it was as wrong, in fact, as Hanna blaming Spencer for Emily’s death simply for suggesting they stay at the beach overnight. There were a lot of factors at play. Noel didn’t pull all the strings. No one did.

  Noel was staring at her now like he understood exactly what was happening in her brain. He took one big step back, his mouth opened wide. “My God, Aria,” he whispered. “Your perception is so, so warped.”

  She held up her hand. “I don’t—”

  “Deep down, you still blame me. You still hate me. I risk my life to come to Europe for you, and even that isn’t enough.”

  “Noel,” she said, stepping toward him. “That’s not . . .”

  But Noel held up a forbidding arm and whipped around, back toward the hotel. “Just leave me alone for a little while, okay? I need to think.”

  “Noel!” Aria shouted after him. But Noel started to jog, heading back toward the car that was following them.

  “Noel!” Aria called again. He picked up the pace. His hair flopped up and down. He darted into the street, nearly getting run down by a man on a motorbike. “Noel!” Aria screamed. “Just stop!”

  Just then, all four doors of the sedan opened. Four figures in black shot out, descending on Noel all at once. Aria heard a scream, and then realized it was coming from her own throat. In seconds, the officers had Noel on the ground. The sun caught something silver, glinted, and then Aria heard the sharp snap of handcuffs closing around his wrists. She clapped her hand over her mouth.

  There were footsteps behind her, and she turned. Two more officers ran at her from the opposite direction, yelling what was probably stop in Dutch or German or some language Aria wasn’t familiar with. The word interpol was emblazoned on their jackets. In the blink of an eye, they had Aria in a headlock. She squirmed, trying to breathe. They clapped handcuffs on her, too. It was like that old adage Aria had read in Catch-22 for English class: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

  It was all over in a matter of seconds, and the Feds were loading both of them into two separate cars. Aria wanted to catch Noel’s eye—she’d been right all along. But suddenly, it felt like not much of a victory. She would have rather he was right.

  Because now, they were totally and completely ruined.



  On Friday afternoon, dressed in her most expensive black dress and highest heels, Hanna sat in her mother’s car on the way to the courthouse. From the outside, no one would know she was on her way to the end of a trial that would probably put her in prison forever. She looked like a girl who was chattering on her cell phone, planning something big. Which she was.

  On her list was to make sure the caterers were coming sharply at 1 PM, that the rabbi her mom had insisted they use was still confirmed, and that Us Weekly was on board to cover the red carpet at the reception. But at that moment, she was talking to her stepsister, Kate.

  “So the seating is done?” she said into the phone.

  “Yep,” Kate answered. “You and Mike are at a private table. Your mom and paternal grandma aren’t sitting together, as you requested. And I organized the rest of the tables by people’s party preferences—you know, the vegans all together, the people we think will be heavy drinkers in a corner, and I mixed up a bunch of guys and girls so there will be fun dance-floor possibilities. Oh, and I put myself with the lacrosse boys, if that’s cool.”

  “Of course it’s cool,” Hanna said, feeling grateful. She and Kate had had their moments, but Hanna was thrilled that Kate was taking part in the wedding prep. Kate had also handled the wedding favors—iPhone covers in their wedding colors, mint green and coral—as well as put together a video montage of Mike-and-Hanna pictures to show at the cocktail hour. “This is a huge help,” she added. “Wanna be my bridesmaid?”

  Kate laughed uncomfortably. “Oh, Hanna, no. You should give that honor to Spencer.” She coughed. “Although, um, I didn’t see her on the guest list. Was that a mistake?”

  Hanna fiddled with Mike’s lacrosse bracelet on her wrist. No, it’s because she refused to come. She knew how hurt Spencer had been when she saw the wedding invite in Hanna’s bag, and, okay, it had kind of been a last-minute decision to invite her. But Hanna really did want her to come—why couldn’t Spencer understand that? What did she want from her? It was like there was a wall up between them that was growing taller by the day.

  In a parallel universe, Aria, Emily, and Spencer would be her bridesmaids—and they’d do an awesome job. Spencer would be fantastic at organizing the table seating and keeping the caterers in line. Aria would make such adorable homemade favors for the guests. Emily would give a tearful, heartfelt speech that would bring down the house. Even though Hanna knew it wasn’t possible, she’d gone ahead and ordered three sequined headbands for the girls anyway, as if they really were her bridesmaids. They’d be the perfect accessory for the Vera Wang bridesmaids dresses Hanna had picked out—though not bought, she wasn’t that crazy. And when the headbands had arrived that morning, Hanna had gotten such an overwhelming wave of sadness she’d had to splash her face with cold water. The worst was seeing the headband she’d picked out for Emily among the others. It had a sequined butterfly on it, and was a shiny blue that would have matched Emily’s coloring perfectly.

  Hanna realized she’d never answered Kate’s question, but they were now pulling up to the courthouse, so she just said that she had to go and hung up. After they parked, Hanna and her mother had to fight through an onslaught of reporters, microphones, and cameras to the main entrance. A man caught her eye as she pushed through the doors to the courtroom. Hanna looked away fast. It was Ali’s father. He’d attended the proceedings religiously, sitting quietly in the back. She wondered if he reported on the proceedings to his wife every evening. Told her how the state was totally going to win this case. Assured her that justice would be done. She remembered, suddenly, something Emily had said in Cape May, when she’d found out Mrs. D wasn’t attending the trial—that a mother would definitely be there unless she had at least a hunch her daughter wasn’t dead. Then again, maybe Mrs. D just hated them as much as everybody else in America did—in the world, really.

  Soon Hanna was sitting at her regular post next to Rubens, inhaling his sickly sweet cologne. He grunted a hello to her, and she grunted back. Hanna was still pissed at him for suggesting the plea bargain idea the other day. Then again, maybe Rubens was pissed at her and Spencer for not taking him up on it.

  Rubens turned to Hanna, and then Spencer, who’d taken her seat on his other side. “I have some news. First of all, I just got word that Aria Montgomery has been found.”

  Hanna’s heart went still. “I-is she okay?”

  “Where was she?” Spencer asked.

  “Outside Brussels. The police are bringing them back now. She won’t make it to the rest of the trial except for the jury sentencing.”

  “Wait, you sa
id them,” Hanna said. “Was someone with Aria?”

  “Her boyfriend, I believe.” Rubens glanced at his phone. “They’re bringing him back, too.”

  Hanna clapped a hand over her mouth. Noel had followed Aria to Europe? She swore Mike had told her he’d gone to his parents’ house in Colorado. She wondered what Mike thought about this, and swiveled around to the back of the courtroom to look for him. But Mike wasn’t in his normal seat.

  “Second thing,” Rubens said. “The prosecution is indeed calling a surprise witness.”

  “Ali?” Hanna blurted out before she could think.

  Spencer snorted. Rubens shook his head. “No, of course not. Nick Maxwell.”

  All sound died away. Hanna suddenly felt numb. “W-what does that mean?”

  Spencer looked excited. “This could be good. Nick hates Ali. What he said in that news article proved it. He could dispute everything in that journal.”

  Rubens made a sour face. “He’s the prosecution’s witness, though, which means he isn’t going to say anything disparaging about that journal. The prosecution probably cut him a deal to change his story.”

  Hanna gasped. “They can do that?”

  “That’s not fair!” Spencer said at the same time.

  Rubens uncapped his bottled water and took a long swig. “I never said the law was fair. But don’t worry. I’ve got an idea.”

  Spencer wrinkled her nose. “You, an idea?” she said under her breath.

  Hanna shot her a smile. She’d been thinking the same thing. Spencer glanced at her for a moment, almost like the ice was about to crack, but then looked away.

  Judge Pierrot emerged from his chambers and settled down on his bench. The jury filed in as well, and the bailiff went through his usual spiel of everyone rising and blah, blah, blah. Then Nicholas Maxwell was called to the witness stand.

  The back doors flew open, and two guards walked Nick, who was still in his orange prison jumpsuit and ankle and wrist chains, to the front of the room. His head was down, but Hanna still caught him shooting a conspiratorial smile in Reginald’s direction. She balled up her fist. They did have a deal. What was Nick going to say?

  “Mr. Maxwell,” Reginald said, strutting up to the witness stand once Nick had been sworn in. “According to some sources, you’ve done some terrible things. Is that right?”

  Nick shrugged. “I guess.”

  “Alison DiLaurentis wrote that you coerced her into murdering a lot of people. That it was your idea to kill her sister, Courtney. Your idea to kill Ian Thomas and Jenna Cavanaugh and set fire to the Hastings’s property. That you beat her and manipulated her and basically made her your captor. Is that true?”

  Nick stared at his shackled feet. A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Yeah,” he finally grunted.

  Hanna shut her eyes. Unbelievable. She nudged Rubens. “He wasn’t saying that in prison the other day.”

  “So basically, you and Alison weren’t having a love affair, as Ms. Hastings, Ms. Marin, and the other girls purported,” the DA said. “You were torturing her. Keeping her alive and making her help you.”

  Nick nodded almost imperceptibly. Hanna clamped down on Rubens’s wrist, but he shook her off. It wasn’t. Freaking. Fair.

  “And so what she wrote in that journal—that’s all true?”

  “The stuff about me is,” Nick mumbled.

  “Even though you told the press it wasn’t?”

  He nodded. “I was just upset. And surprised she’d expose that stuff. That’s all.”

  “And so we can surmise, perhaps, that everything else in the journal is true, too?”

  Nick’s gaze flicked out into the courtroom, landing on Hanna. He snickered.

  Reginald sauntered over to the jury. “And so if Alison had, say, begged Ms. Hastings, Ms. Marin, Ms. Montgomery, and Ms. Fields for mercy, telling them that she was innocent and that they shouldn’t hurt her because she was a pawn in your game, that wouldn’t have been a lie, either?”

  “Nope,” Nick drawled. “Alison wanted to reunite with them. She begged me again and again not to hurt them.”

  “Oh my God,” Spencer hissed.

  The district attorney seemed to notice this, but then he turned back to Nick. “What can you tell me about these four girls? You know them quite well, so I’ve heard.”

  Rubens shot up. “Objection!” he cried. “This man is a murderer, and he’s admitted himself that he’s manipulative. He can’t serve as a character witness.”

  But the judge looked intrigued. “You can continue, Mr. Reginald.”

  All eyes turned to Nick again. He shrugged and glanced at Hanna and Spencer. “They want what they want,” he said simply. “Whether that’s to get the perfect grades at any cost. Whether it’s to place the blame on someone else so they can get off scot-free. Whether it’s to cover up their dirty secrets. All they care about is protecting themselves—and getting revenge on Alison. I got a long, hard look at their faces the day I trapped them in the basement. They weren’t angry at me—not really. They were angry at her.”

  “And what do you think they would have wanted to do to her, if they found her again?”

  Nick didn’t take a moment to ponder the question. “Kill her. No doubt.”

  Reginald turned. “No further questions.”

  There was a shuffling in the crowd. Hanna placed her hands over her face, too humiliated to even look around. She felt Rubens rise from his seat, but it only made her heart plummet lower. What on earth was he going to ask Nick?

  Rubens walked up to the witness stand and looked at Nick. “So you’re admitting that Alison was your slave and not your girlfriend.”

  Nick didn’t make eye contact. “Uh huh.”

  “Are you sure about that?”

  He scowled. “I just said I was.”

  “So what you told the police at first—that you and Alison worked together—that was a lie, huh?”

  “Uh, yeah,” Nick said, rolling his eyes.

  “And what really happened was that you brainwashed Ali, right? Forced her into helping her kill her sister? And when she was let out of The Preserve again, you got to her and made her torture the girls, help to kill Ian Thomas, et cetera?”

  Nick glanced into the courtroom at the DA, then shrugged yes. Hanna chewed on the inside of her cheek, wondering where Rubens was going with this. Reginald had already asked these questions.

  “So you didn’t love Alison at all?” Rubens asked. “You didn’t do all you could for her? As in, hire a private nurse to take care of her burns after the fire in the Poconos, paying for it with your own personal funds?”

  A tiny muscle twitched by Nick’s eye.

  “I know what burn victims look like, and I did see the surveillance video of Alison at that mini-mart,” Rubens said. “It was clear she had scars on her face, but they looked like they’d been treated. Do you know what burns look like when they aren’t properly cared for? It’s not pretty.”

  The DA banged on the desk. “Mr. Maxwell hired that nurse to keep Alison alive so she could help him. It had nothing to do with love.”

  “That could be true.” Rubens pressed a finger to his lip thoughtfully. “But then I got to thinking about the pictures of Alison the police found in the basement in Rosewood.” He walked over to the TV monitor and flipped through the various digital evidence files, which included some shots of the Ali shrine Nick had set up. “Most of these are pictures of Alison from before the Poconos fire.” He pointed at the one of Ali at the press conference her parents had held after she’d been let out of The Preserve, then at another of Ali at the Valentine’s dance on the night she’d tried to kill them. “And there are even some pictures of Courtney, from when the girls knew her.” He gestured to the right side of the screen, where there were pictures of seventh-grade Courtney with Hanna and the others. “There are also pictures of Alison before Courtney made the switch and before the girls befriended her. But then I noticed this one.”

  He pointed to a picture i
n the upper-left-hand corner. It showed only Ali’s smiling eyes, the rest of her face hidden by a blanket. “The shape of her brow is a little different, and her hair is a bit darker. I asked the police to run some forensic evidence on the print, and they told me it was done on a machine at a pharmacy sometime in the last year.” He stared at Nick hard. “You used a current picture of Ali, after the Poconos fire. From when she was with you.”

  Nick blinked. Again, he glanced at DA in the audience. “Maybe . . . ,” he admitted.

  “Look at her eyes.” Rubens stretched his fingers to blow up the image. “How does she look to you?”

  “She’s . . . I don’t know. Smiling, I guess,” Nick admitted.

  “Smiling.” Rubens looked at the audience. “A genuine smile, I’d say. A loving smile, even. A smile that said she knew exactly what she was doing. Not, in other words, the grimace of a girl who was being tormented.”

  “Objection!” Reginald bellowed. “This is conjecture!”

  But a smile began to stretch across Hanna’s face. She hadn’t noticed that picture of Current Ali in the shrine. But Rubens had a point—and a good one.

  “And let’s talk about that letter that was slipped under the door in the Poconos house,” Rubens went on. “You said you wrote it, yes?”

  Nick nodded. “I wrote it as Alison, to the girls.”

  “And this was with Alison totally objecting every step of the way, right? Just like she says in her journal?”

  “Uh huh.” Beads of sweat appeared on Nick’s brow. Hanna’s heart beat faster and faster.

  “As you know, the police found that letter outside the house in the Poconos, the night of the fire,” Rubens said. The letter had been a key piece of evidence in Nick’s trial. Rubens walked over to the laptop, pressed a button, and there was the letter, suddenly, on a big projection screen. “I won’t ask you to read the whole thing, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, since you’re all familiar with it, but it explains what really happened the day Alison’s sister switched places with her. It mentions things like the wishing well Courtney drew on the time capsule flag, and how Courtney stole Alison’s ‘A-for-Alison’ ring. You wrote those things, yes, Mr. Maxwell?”

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