I stumbled away from Tanya. If she thought she was in the clear, she was wrong. I still had my eye on her. There was crime on every corner of this city. I couldn’t trust anyone.
Through the fog and filth, I spotted my second suspect towards the back of the line. Of course. He wouldn’t be first out of the building. He would know there was no fire, because he pulled the fire alarm. These kids were sharp, but I saw through their scheming. I saw through everything.
It was Ned there, Stoner Ned, skulking at the back of the line. He had been too scared of his parents to dabble in the devil’s lettuce in high school, but once he was assigned the opium den that is a freshman residence hall, his future was set. His Eagle Scout past and 4.0 GPA were behind him. Now, he considered creating his own major to study Marijuana Farming.
I approached Ned from behind. I stared at his grubby golden hair. The hair, I reminded myself, of a criminal. I kept my feet silent and hunched my back. I was a tiger in the wild, stalking its prey. Oh yes, my prey would be stalked.
I arrived at his back. I straightened and leaned into Ned’s ear. “Hello, Ned.”
“The F-CK!” Ned jumped and swung his elbows around, banging my crime-sniffing nose. Typical behavior of a lowlife of his caliber. “Oh, uh? Hey, man. Uh? What’s up?”
“That’s what I’d like to ask you, Ned.” I sniffed, checking my nose for blood. “That’s what I’d like to ask you.”
“What?” Ned scrunched his thick eyebrows.
“Follow me, Ned.” I strolled to the market across the street, pacing past the tulips. Thankfully, Ned did follow me. I hated when they ran.
“Bro, this is weird.” Ned glanced around, uncomfortable and sniffing. I noticed his anxiety pulsing beneath his confused nonchalance. I noticed it all.
“Do you know what I think is weird, Ned?” I tapped my chin delicately. “Your involvement with this fire alarm.”
“Bruh, I truly do not know what you’re on.” Ned fidgeted, his eyes drifting. I pulled my legal pad out to note his skittish and deeply suspicious demeanor.
“Is that,” Ned leaned over anxiously. “Is that a notebook? Are you taking notes?’
I snapped the pad back and held it against my chest. “Why would you care? Do you have something to hide?”
Ned shook his head and turned around, nervous. “Man, I’m sorry. This is weird, I can’t.”
“Ned, if you don’t tell me exactly what, where and how you were doing tonight before the events that transpired to the pulling of the fire alarm, I’m going to have to pull up the security footage, and I don’t think you want that, do you?”
Ned hesitated, still fidgeting, before turning back to me. “Listen,” he whispered. “You can’t tell anyone, okay? You can’t.”
I smirked, whipping my legal pad out again. The street scum always think you’ll keep their secret. They think you’re one of them. “Oh, Ned, why would I?”
“I had a tough week, okay?” Ned rubbed his face with his palms.
“Naturally,” I said. Maybe he even lost a few of those hairs, those golden locks. Must be hard.
“And that damn party in 408! I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax. I just felt so out of control. Do you ever feel that — like you’re just powerless, and there all these thoughts, and you can’t, they’re there, and you can’t get away, and, and …”
I nodded and wrote “Neurotic Breakdown Approaching” in my legal pad.
“So yeah,” Ned slowed his breathing. “I smoked a blunt. I don’t do it often or anything.”
“And I lit some candles.”
“You lit some candles?” This was an interesting twist. Just when you think you’ve seen the worst of humanity, you catch a perp blatantly ignoring the dorm’s rules against candles.
“They’re not girly, okay. There’s nothing girly about wanting a scented ambience.”
“Nothing girly about breaking the law, either.” I sniffed.
“Well, yeah …” Ned scratched his chin. “I learned that lesson.”
I nodded, grinning. “Tell me everything, Ned. I might be able to get you off, but you need to tell me everything.”
“So I was just grooving to the music, right, and I was just feeling it, having a good time. But then — I was having too good of a time.” Ned’s breathing began rasping as he spoke, careful but manic. “I slipped on my roommate’s socks and banged my chest on my desk, flopping over and stuff. And I hit a candle — it flopped over onto some of my Social Foundations homework.”
My eyes widened. Not only did Ned pull the fire alarm, but he started a fire. I had been so certain there was no fire … sometimes, even I am surprised by the hogs of the city.
“So I grabbed some beer from the fridge to put it out. But uh, turns out, alcohol’s flammable or whatever. So, the fire kinda got bigger.” Ned swiveled as he spoke. “So I saw my roommate’s water bottle and poured it all out on the fire. That made it go down. The fire got only papers, mostly. My desk is only a little charred … and I had a ventilation system for smoking, so the fire alarm didn’t go off.”
“Mmhmm.” I motioned for more.
“But I kept hearing Tanya outside, and I freaked. There’s the fire, and I have weed, and if she catches me again, and my parents find out — oh my God. Oh my God, oh my God. OH MY GOD.” Ned paced in and out of my face.
I scribbled in my notes: “Having a Neurotic Breakdown NOW.”
“Yes, that must be so hard for you.” I yawned. “What happened next?”
“I was freaking, I had to get out of my room. I just had to. So, I flushed the weed down the toilet and I went into the hallway, to go outside, to get away. And I heard something from Darcy’s room — I got so spooked, so I kinda stood there in the hallway. But, then, I saw Tanya come out of 408, and oh my God, I didn’t know if she smelled smoke from my room or weed on me. I didn’t know!” Ned’s panic sunk his cheekbones.
“And then you pulled the fire alarm!”
“Well, no. What? Bruh, have you been listening? I put out the fire. Why would I pull the fire alarm?”
I snapped my hand up for silence. I peered across the street and spotted my third suspect skulking away. That rat. You couldn’t stop in this city, there was always someone running from the law. But the law was faster. I was faster.
I sprinted across Third Avenue, horns honking, and called back to Ned, “Stay there! I’ve got my eye on you!”
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