I was the match and you were the stone/
Maybe we started this fire.
-Things We Lost in the Fire (Bastille; Bad Blood)
“So she goes to Columbia University, is it? How do you even know this chick?” Terence asked Nadia as they stood waiting in Nadia’s lavishly furnished bedroom. Nadia’s laptop was on and her attention was divided between the screen of the laptop, and this sexy, very moody boy who asked her a question.
“Yeah. Columbia. She is practically a genius. We met when I went there for a photo shoot at their campus. Her father is sort of a celebrity. He’s a writer. In fact, he’s coming here with her.”
“He’s a famous writer?”
“So she says. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have time to read for leisure anymore.”
“And who is he?”
Standing atop the landing of the first floor at St. Xavier’s College, Mira Hallow looked down at the crowd she was about to brave. She saw sights that she saw everyday and she saw some sights, that six months ago, she would not have even dreamt of seeing. In a corner she saw Zeke sitting with his books in his lap and Reese purring around him. Jai and Jen sat together huddled, as some random girl from Mira’s class taught them something. Economics, most likely, Mira thought to herself. On the far end of the foyer, near the pizza counter sat Alisha and Naya. Pari wasn’t there. The foyer was crawling with juniors and seniors alike, everyone studying or trying to study. The coffee shop was doing roaring business.
Rolling her eyes and tucking the copy of the book ‘Aves’ inside her bag, Mira saw a beautiful girl walking towards her from the science lab corridor. Great posture, Amazonian cheek bones, a mane of blow-dried silk flying around her shoulders like some oversized halo and a slightly crooked nose – this could only be Nadia. Beside her, Terence walked. And on her other side walked this gorgeous, freckled, redhead. She was stunning to say the least. Mira decided to stop to talk.
“Well, if it isn’t Mira Hallow,” Terence replied to Mira, while hugging her shoulders in a hard and awkward embrace.
It was becoming impossible for Mira to control her wayward tongue, when she saw Nadia rub the bridge between her eyes as though she was in pain. “Nadia, you look great. The nose seems to have healed completely, but for that slight hook.”
“It’s healing fine, thank you. This is my friend Alexis. She’s from Columbia University,” Nadia retorted, uninterested. “Let’s move along, shall we?”
Alexis held out her hand.
“Alexis Castle,” she said, grasping Mira’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mira Hallow.”
“Oh, no, no. The pleasure is mine. I’m a big fan of your father’s work,” Mira replied excitedly. “Can’t believe I’m meeting you!” Alexis blushed a little, finding this kind of stuff normal.
Just then, Nadia’s phone buzzed with a text message. She sighed and looked at Terence. Some unspoken understanding passed between them and Nadia turned to Alexis. “Hey, I’m really sorry. My manager wants me at the studio in 20 minutes and I really have to go. Terence will show you around if you want. Sorry!”
“No, it’s okay. I’m sure I can roam the campus and find some alcove to sit in quietly, out of trouble,” Alexis said smilingly.
With a sad smile and a wave of lavender perfume, Nadia was gone. Terence glanced at the screen of his phone.
“Shit, I actually need to get to class. Unfortunately, my attendance is really not that good or I would have loved to stick around with you ladies.”
In his haste to leave, Terence turned around too fast and bumped into a couple of seniors carrying coffees and muffins, who then proceeded to curse him excessively while Mira ushered Alexis towards the canteen.
“I guess it’s just us, then,” Mira said with a shrug. “Yeah, I guess,” Alexis shrugged back.
Mira thought it was really cool to hang out with THE Alexis Castle, but she would have given her life to meet Amelia again. Since Ashfaq’s little pizza party, when she had stood them up, Mira hadn’t had a chance to really talk to Amelia properly. She had apologized but finals fever and a last chance at making up attendance had prevented them from hanging out. They saw each other in hallways and corridors while they ran from lecture room to lecture room, trying to get things in order. In fact, this was pretty true for almost everyone. No one in their right minds was willing to chill, clearly regretting the massive amounts of time they had spent at the nearby bar or by the sea. Everywhere within sights, one saw frantic, crazed teenagers, cramming food into their mouths while their mismatched clothes hung loosely around them, and their greasy hair clung to their heads for dear life.
“Hey?” Alexis clicked her fingers not for the first time, in front of a seemingly statuesque Mira Hallow. “Do you know that girl? She’s waving at you.” Mira saw a girl from her class, who was waving at her with a frantic look in her eyes. She was one of the studious types whose name Mira had never bothered learning. The girl seemed to beckon Mira towards her. Mira slumped her shoulders and walked in her direction with Alexis following closely.
“What?” Mira barked.
“The economics teacher needs to take a couple of extra classes! She wants everyone to stay after college, till 6 in the evening! Can you please go and beg her to cancel it? Nobody has the time to just sit at college for afterhours study.” She screeched every word like their very utterance was an abomination that only the holy water of Mira’s convincing powers could remove.
Turning to Alexis, Mira rolled her eyes and begged her leave. Alexis would be alright. She wouldn’t – couldn’t – get into any trouble as long as she stayed within campus grounds.
When Mira left, Alexis was kind of relieved. As much as she liked making friends, she also liked having adventures of her own. Her eyes searched for an exit from the crowded foyer and rested upon the carved arches leading to the quadrangle. She walked.
All around Alexis, there were students – some studying, some chatting with their friends, some reading and some singing. Further down the archway, there stood the door to the College Hall. Silently hoping no one would be inside, Alexis peeked in through the crack in the door. It was empty. The walls were lined with portraits of all the priests who had headed the institution before this. The ceiling was high and designed to resemble the inside of a church. The balcony had small protrusions where people could sit. Walking towards the stage, Alexis read the names of all the Father Principals and found herself climbing up the stage.
From the top of the stage, the hall looked so much bigger than it was – A formidable, yet strangely empowering feeling. Behind the stage, in the wings, Alexis found a door that wasn’t locked. Being in the mood to explore as she was, she opened it and walked through it.
Outside the door, there were two pathways, leading to either sides of the hall. She took the left one. The cobbled stone walkway was soon canopied by flowering plants. The canopy actually got thicker with each step and soon enough was blocking out most of the sunlight. Alexis walked on until she reached a clearing.
There in the middle of the clearing, was the most beautiful garden she had ever seen. The trees converged over it, and the grass grew in clumps, but the pots and bottles that had been kept for the plants cast strange lights all around. She couldn’t help but walk over to the centre of the garden. When she got there, she saw a stone column erected beside what looked like a crypt. The column had a large pair of boxing gloves on it and the words, “Here lies the body and soul of Neal Ray Gellar, the eternal champion”.
That’s when she realized where she was. Alexis wanted to run away from the crypt of the boy that was murdered. She didn’t want to be next to the remains of Nadia’s dead friend. But she stood transfixed. That is, until a hand on her shoulder made her jump 10 feet in the air.
“You’re not a student are you?” the bespectacled, old man asked.
“No, sir. I’m just visiting. I should get going.”
“No, No, no need. Stay as long as you like. I’m sure even the dead need companionship. I’m Father Terry. I run the College counseling centre.”
“I’m Alexis Castle. I’m visiting my friend here and she had some work so I was just roaming around and I found myself here…..” her words came out in a jumble.
“Did you know the boy?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t. I’ve only heard about him from my friend. I’m sure it was tragic though, to lose him.” Alexis turned towards the grave and bent down to read the tombstone. The stone had strange yellow and red marks on it like someone had spray painted it, and then tried to wash it out.
“Sir, if you don’t mind me staying, I’d like to sit here for a while.”
“Of course! I do have a counseling appointment in 5 minutes. If you feel like talking, and don’t have much to do, the back door to my office is that way” he pointed to the left. “And this is my last appointment for the day. Goodbye, child.”
Alexis smiled at the old man. He seemed like such a dear. In the short conversation they had had, she felt more comfortable than ever – like she had known this Father Terry for years! How lucky were the students who got to see him every day, she thought. Alexis sat in the grass and stared around herself in wonder. This young boy, who had dreams and hopes like herself, lay dead in this crypt. His family must have grieved. And yet, someone had spray pained the tombstone with hateful words. Suddenly, she had an urge to text her father and know his whereabouts.
Apparently, he was entering the college building as she texted him and asked him to meet her at the boy’s grave. Within ten minutes, a familiar laugh accompanied by a female’s chiding entered silent haven.
“I’m telling you, this building is really old. There have to be some ghosts here. There have to be!”
“Sure, and batman sits on those gargoyles on the terrace all night watching over Gotham City, right Castle?”
Alexis got up and dusted her behind, before looking at her father and his fiancé. Kate looked at Alexis and waved. She smiled back at her and beckoned them towards her.
“Hey, you guys have to see this. It’s so sad,” Alexis called out to her dad and soon to be step mom.
“What is this place? Is it some sort of secret garden? And why is there a pair of concrete boxing gloves here?”
“No, dad, this is a grave. Nadia’s friend’s grave. He was some kind of a boxing champion. They found him dead in the multimedia room in the beginning of the year. Drug overdose, apparently.”
“Drug overdose? Hah so unlikely!” Alexis could already feel the detective in her father creeping back out. Beckett nudged Castle into coming out of his wild theories. Then she asked Alexis, “Did they investigate it?”
“Well yeah, they did, but they reached dead ends. He wasn’t the nicest person, but nobody had enough motives to kill him!” she stated to Beckett, who was now bending down to take a look at the tombstone, next to Richard, who was running his fingers through the obscenities sprayed on it.
“Well this is enough depressing stuff for me. I’m heading towards the canteen to get some food. Anyone coming?”
Sure enough, both the adults walked with her.
“Beckett. I’m telling you, there’s something more to that boy’s suicide!” Castle said. They had just dropped off Alexis at Nadia’s place.
Beckett rolled her eyes, “With you Castle, isn’t there always?”
“Always,” Castle smiled back. “Annnyway. I made a few calls and got some details about that boy. The administrator at the college reads a lot of Nikki Head novels,” he continued in a proud puff.
“Well, spill then!” Kate was getting interested.
“Okay. Neal Ray Geller, 17 years old, born to rich parents, has an older sibling. The boy had a bad record at college, because he was constantly behind in his studies, and he cut class a lot, but he made up for it by playing in almost all the sports teams on campus. And he won, too! But his main interest was on boxing. He was, whoa, he was really good. He was the state champion, until midway last year, they found traces of steroids in his blood during a routine check-up. He was banned from playing for a month, before suddenly, he returned to all the teams. The woman told me that it was probably because his father bribed the college, not that she believed that crazy rumor.”
“So the all star athlete was into drug use, tell me something new, Castle. This has plain drug abuse written all over it.”
“But this whole thing is so bizarre! A happy, popular jock, who flirted with drug use, and he just drops dead suddenly….”
Beckett waited patiently for Castle to finish his dramatic narration.
“… But we’re missing a point here.” Beckett made an expression that looked like a giant WHAT. “He was clean for the 4 months up to the day of his death.”
“Teenagers are pretty reckless, you know,” Beckett reasoned out. She’d had wild days herself.
“But think of it. So many people had a grudge against this boy. They knew, THEY KNEW,” he stressed on the words. “how big of an addict he was. If someone slipped the wrong combo into his system, it would be so easy for everyone to think he died out of his own account. Because of his own habits. The perfect alibi, because no one would be intrigued to look further.”
Beckett’s brows crossed, and nodded.
It was the second time in one day that Richard and Kate had entered the gates of St. Xavier’s College. This time it was a little more crowded and they received some stares from the students around the computer labs. Back in the morning, when Alexis had taken them to the canteen, Richard had observed the behavior of the students. Behind one of the food counters, there was a large table where a long haired boy sat with several laptops open in front him and typed furiously into each of them by turns.
He had suddenly screamed, “EUREKA! DONE! BOY AM I GOOD!”
When Richard had asked him what was happening, he seemed distracted.
“Huh? Wha….whoa Richard Castle! Man, can I have your fucking autograph? I totally read all your novels and even my bloody friends do! My name is Ashfaq – Ashfaq-ul-Zua. It’s such a fucking pleasure to meet you, Sir. What the fuck are you even doing here?”
After explaining to Ashfaq what he was fucking doing there, Rick asked him what he had been doing. Ashfaq sheepishly replied in a voice barely above a whisper that he had been altering his attendance in the college’s online records. He had succeeded in breaking the firewalls of the college website and it had been a smooth ride from there. Impressed, Rick had taken Ashfaq’s phone number in case they ever needed some technical assistance.
After calling Ashfaq and confirming that he was still ‘chilling in the foyer’, Kate Beckett and Richard Castle had gone to meet him.
“How are you so sure that this kid can help us?” Kate seemed not to believe in Ashfaq’s capabilities.
“I’m telling you, this guy is a genius. He looks the part, and he can alter his attendance on the college records. I trust him.”
Just then, Ashfaq popped out of nowhere and greeted the pair. After successfully accessing several hospital records and police reports, it was concluded that Neal had actually died of a drug overdose. He took a lot of steroids to bulk up for his boxing matches. Those mixed with all the contaminated cocaine that his dealer sold him, the concoction turned deadly. Even though the explanation of these reports seemed viable, Ashfaq got into Neal’s facebook profile just by sheer luck. Apparently even the smartest jock was too busy to make a complicated password.
The inboxes he had were mostly from girls trying to pick him up. But some messages from the summer before he died were intriguing. One in particular caught Ashfaq’s attention.
“This one is from a girl who has already passed out of college. What was Neal doing talking to her? I don’t remember them being friends at all! And trust me I would know if he ever went out with someone.”
Kate rolled her eyes at the thought and made some incoherent comment about hormonal teenagers. The thing that Castle and Beckett just did not get was how important social relationships were in this college. Everything you were, and everything you became were dependant on who you talked to and who liked to talk to you. As messed up as it was, the social hierarchy was a pretty strict pyramid. And some people liked to do anything they could to get to the top of it.
Neal had a rich father. He was a star athlete. All he lacked, as such, was an arm candy. He was heavily into drugs, but not so much into alcohol. He used to take care of Beaula when she went to get a drink. Some of his messages suggested that he hooked up with her. But they never appeared too close to each other in public. That girl who had passed out of college already was a year above Neal and yet, their conversations suggested a very loving relationship between the two – lots of ‘I love you’s and references to what might happen once the summer ended.
There wasn’t much that the two detectives had found and so they had returned to their hotel. Ashfaq had promised to try find out a little more about Neal’s death. And he was doing just that, even though it was way past midnight. He busied himself with Neal’s messages while his call log downloaded onto his computer. Blankly staring at the screen, Ashfaq tried to trace some of the number, and succeeded to an extent. But there was one Blocked ID that kept pestering his efforts and would just not crack. Suddenly he read a name he never thought he would find on Neal’s inbox. Amelia Stine.
Ashfaq couldn’t get himself to read the messages. He felt like he was prying. Deciding, then, that he didn’t want to know like this. He wanted to know from Amelia. He called her up several times, forgetting it was past midnight. She didn’t pick up. He was beginning to panic, for her sake more than anybody else’s. So he did what he could do best: He dug up college files in relationship to Neal and Amelia.
He was almost certain he wouldn’t find anything. If not certain, at least hoping. But he did. He did find a file corresponding to Neal Ray Gellar and Amelia L.A. Stine.