Toxic (Pretty Little Liars #15) by Sara Shepard

YOUR MOVE, ALI

Have you ever played chess with someone really good? Perhaps with your cousin on a rainy afternoon? Or with that cute guy at camp after lights-out? The game seems easy, but chess experts formulate their strategy dozens of moves in advance. That way, they can hit you with sneak attacks, leaving you thinking, What just happened? You might feel manipulated when the game is done. Blindsided. Like you’re the biggest idiot ever.

A certain someone does that to four pretty girls in Rosewood—again and again.

Once upon a time, there was a girl whose mind was like a never-ending chess game. Even when she seemed beaten, she always had a plan. Everyone was her adversary—especially the people who adored her most. All she wanted was her pieces to be the only ones left on the board at the end of the game.

And she wouldn’t stop until she’d won.

One week after the fire in the Poconos that almost killed her, Alison DiLaurentis sat with her boyfriend, Nicholas Maxwell, on the floor of an empty town house in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, a suburban Philadelphia town in which she’d spent several years of her life. The room was dark, and the only items in it were a mattress, ratty flannel blankets, an old TV someone had abandoned, and food Nick had shoplifted from the nearby Wawa mini-mart. The air smelled dusty and sour, which reminded Ali of The Preserve at Addison-Stevens, the mental hospital in which she’d been trapped for years. Still, it would do for a while. It just felt good to be free.

“Turn it up,” she said, gesturing toward the television.

Nick adjusted the dial. They were stealing electricity and cable from the main transformer in the complex—for a rich kid, Nick was great at ripping off The Man. The screen showed a live feed of police officers searching through a pile of rubble at Ali’s family’s vacation home in the Pocono Mountains. Ali knew full well what they were looking for: her. Or, more specifically, her bones.

“We’re still searching,” the chief of police said to an interviewer. “There was no way Ms. DiLaurentis survived that blast.”

Ali snickered. Idiots.

Nick looked at her worriedly. “Are you okay?” He took her hand. “We can watch something else if you want.”

Ali pulled the hoodie Nick had stolen from Target over her head, still self-conscious about the oozing burns on her face. They would heal—Nick had arranged for a nurse to come once a day—but she would never be as pretty as she once was. “Don’t change it,” she demanded. “I don’t want any more surprises.”

She’d already been surprised enough. Her foolproof plan of incinerating her sister’s old friends, along with Melissa Hastings and Ian Thomas’s body, inside her family’s mountain house and then slipping into the night, never to be seen again, had backfired. Spencer Hastings, Emily Fields, Aria Montgomery, and Hanna Marin had escaped the house virtually unharmed. Somehow the cops had found the letter Ali had slipped under their door—it was in the grass outside the house. The letter confessed everything—that she wasn’t Courtney, her twin, but the real Ali, a girl falsely imprisoned in a mental hospital. That she’d killed Courtney on the night of her seventh-grade graduation. That she’d killed Ian Thomas and Jenna Cavanaugh. And that she’d duped the girls into trusting her, and that she was going to kill them, too.

As luck would have it, the reporter on TV, a waxy-looking idiot with ugly fuchsia lipstick, was rehashing what the news was calling the Dark DiLaurentis Secrets—everything in that letter. “If she had lived, Miss DiLaurentis would be going to prison for the rest of her life for all the crimes she’d committed,” she said gravely.

Nick bit his thumbnail. “I wish that letter hadn’t been so definitive.”

Ali rolled her eyes. “I told you to write all of that. Quit worrying.” Nick had been the one to write the letter to the girls, not Ali. She’d begged him to, saying he was better with words and could imitate her handwriting. Nick was always a sucker for flattery. His writing it was a key piece of a plan she’d hoped she would never have to put in place, one she didn’t even like thinking about.

She peered at Nick now, and he stared back hungrily. Even in her ugly state—she also had a broken nose and horrid bruises, and she was missing a back tooth—there was such love and devotion in his eyes. She thought about the day she’d met him at The Preserve. It wasn’t long after her sister made the fateful switch a few days into their sixth-grade year, sending Ali to the new mental hospital in her place. Ali had been at her first group therapy session, sitting in a circle with bona fide mental freaks.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she’d complained to the therapist, a tool named Dr. Brock. “I’m Alison, not Courtney. My sister tricked me, and now she’s living my life.”

Dr. Brock looked at her with his sad, dopey eyes. “Your doctors at the Radley said you had trouble with this. But you’re Courtney. And it’s okay to be Courtney. Hopefully we can work through that together.”

Ali had stewed for the rest of the hour. After the session ended, someone touched her hand. “I know you’re telling the truth,” said a soft voice behind her. “I’m on your side.”

Nick Maxwell had been staring at her fervently. Ali had noticed him at meals; he was a few years older, with wavy hair and strong shoulders. Every girl had a crush on him. Ali had also heard that he was in the hospital for borderline personality disorder. She’d been so bored during one-on-one therapy sessions that she’d read parts of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in her therapist’s office; borderline-personality people were impulsive and reckless and extremely insecure.

Well, well, well. Ali thrived on insecurity. Maybe Nick was a good guy to have on her side.

And so she’d brought him into her fold. They planned everything, making sure not to be seen together too much so no one could connect them after everything went down. They developed a bond so deep and powerful, Nick compared it to Romeo and Juliet’s. Ali thought it was cute that he had a mushy side.

Now she owed Nick so much. If it hadn’t been for him, she wouldn’t have been able to take down Ian and Jenna. She wouldn’t have been able to stalk her sister’s old best friends, slipping into the role as A. If Nick hadn’t rescued her in the Poconos, she might have perished in that explosion—or the police would have caught her. Ali wouldn’t have a roof over her head now. This town house was one of the many properties that Nick’s family owned around the country, and she and Nick had chosen it because it had been unoccupied for months. Most of the other town houses were in foreclosure; others hadn’t sold yet. Whole days had gone by when they didn’t see a single car drive past.

There were new images on the TV screen. First was a video she’d seen quite a few times of her parents at the Philadelphia International Airport, running away as reporters hounded them. “Have you been in touch with your daughter?” the reporters cried. “Did you have any sense she was a murderer?” Ali’s father turned around and stared into the camera lens, his eyes vacant. “Please leave us alone,” he said in a tired voice. “We’re as horrified by this situation as everyone else. Now we just want some peace.”

Assholes, Ali thought. She hated her family almost as much as she hated her sister’s friends.

Then, speak of the devil, those bitches popped up. It was a press conference. Spencer stood straight and proud in front of a microphone. Emily had her hands in her pockets. Hanna held hands with her boyfriend, Mike Montgomery. And Aria was sticking close to Noel Kahn as though they were stuck together by Velcro.

Noel. Ali stared at him hard. For a long time, Noel had shared her secret. Not anymore.

She turned to Nick, her hatred flaring hot. “We have to get them back.”

He flinched. “Really?”

Ali lowered her shoulders. “Did you think I was going to let them get away with this?”

Nick looked panicked. “But you almost died last week. Is it really worth it? I mean, I have an untraceable bank account. We can use it to escape anywhere we want. You’ll heal, we’ll relax, and maybe, after a while, revenge won’t matter so much anymore.”

“It will always matter,” Ali said tightly, her eyes blazing. She inched closer to Nick. “You said you’d do anything for me,” she growled. “Were you lying?”

A frightened look passed across Nick’s face. “Fine. What do you want to do?”

Ali turned back to the press conference. Spencer had started speaking. “We’re all looking just to move past this and get on with our lives,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “There are more important things in the world for the press to focus on instead of us. We mourn for Courtney DiLaurentis and her family. We even mourn for Alison; may she rest in peace.”

Ali rolled her eyes. “They are so lame.”

“What are you going to do now?” a reporter bellowed to the girls.

Emily Fields came to the microphone next. She looked sick, like she was going to throw up. “We’ve been given the opportunity to travel to Jamaica for spring break,” she said shakily. “I think it’s a good thing for us to get out of Rosewood for a little while.”

Nick sniffed. “I wouldn’t mind going to Jamaica.”

Something clicked. “Can you get us passports?” Ali asked.

Nick’s eyebrows made a V. “Probably. Why?”

Ali grabbed his hands, an idea forming in her mind. “No one will be looking for us there. We get to get out of here, just like you want. And we get those girls, just like I want.”

“How?” Nick asked warily.

“I’m not sure yet. But I’ll figure it out.”

Nick looked uncertain. “You aren’t letting those girls see you. There are cops in other countries. They can still turn you in.”

“Then I find someone who will impersonate me.”

“Who’s going to do that?”

Ali’s eyes darted back and forth as she pondered the options. A light snapped on. “Tabitha.”

Tabitha Clark was another patient at The Preserve, a sweet, tormented little slip of a blonde who idolized Ali and was a genius at imitating Ali’s voice and gestures. She looked even more like an Ali clone than Iris Taylor, who’d been Ali’s roommate. Even better, Tabitha had burns on her arms from a fire. The girls would see those, make the Poconos connection, and lose their minds.

“She’s out of The Preserve,” Ali said, leaping to her feet. “She’ll do anything for me. Get in touch with her. Tell her it’s all expenses paid. Make it out like it’s a fun little holiday. Will you?”

Nick pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay.” He gave her a warning look. “But you have to promise that after Jamaica, we move on to the Bahamas. Or maybe Fiji. We disappear . . . for real.”

“Of course.” Ali drew him into her arms. “Thank you. You’re the best boyfriend ever.”

Nick kissed the tip of her nose. Then he scowled and clamped a hand around her wrists. “After Jamaica, you’re going to be my prisoner,” he said in a deep, grumbling voice. “I won’t have to share you with anyone. No family. No friends. You’ll be my captive . . . forever.”

“I’m at your mercy,” Ali said in a fake, high-pitched drawl. But inside, she laughed. As if Nick would ever control her.

Ali was at Nick’s mercy, though—it was his money and cunning know-how that got the tickets and fake passports to Jamaica. But she also knew Nick would stick by her if Jamaica didn’t go according to plan. And when things did go wrong and they had to regroup, lay the groundwork for framing the girls, and get them on even bigger secrets than ones they’d ever kept, he helped every step of the way. When she and Nick had to return to Rosewood instead of escaping to other Caribbean islands and plant Nick in key roles in each of the girls’ lives to orchestrate their downfalls, he’d done it so willingly and devotedly. Ali put Nick through trial after trial, positioning him as a drug dealer, a bartender, even dragging him to Iceland and forcing him to woo Aria and steal a painting. And Nick—sweet, sensitive, borderline-personality Nick—complied again and again, so dutiful, so loving. Her perfect little soldier.

We’ll leave after they’re in jail, Ali convinced him. And then, later: We’ll leave after they die. And if they don’t die, well, we’ll both go down together.

But even that was a white lie. Deep down, Ali had been laying another set of tracks, a just-in-case plan Nick didn’t know about. It started with that letter he’d written to the girls for her, and it ended with the video of him killing Tabitha alone. There were other things, too. Things she’d done when Nick wasn’t looking, using pliers and wincing in pain, using a leaky pen and her imagination. Last-ditch-effort things, only in play if she was pushed to her most desperate limits.

The only thing that mattered was that those bitches died.

Only then would she be done.

1

HANNA’S BIG BREAK

On a warm Monday morning in mid-June, Hanna Marin walked into Poole’s, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor in downtown Rosewood. The inside hadn’t changed since Hanna had been here last—the same penny candy under the glass, black-and-white checkerboard floor, wrought-iron stools and tables, and long, marbled counter. The owners even offered the same flavors of ice cream, including the Phillies Fundae, a sundae in honor of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. Just breathing in the heavenly scent of homemade waffle cones and cookies-and-cream ice cream made Hanna’s empty stomach growl.

Her old friends Aria Montgomery, Spencer Hastings, and Emily Fields were in a back booth underneath a large poster of a 1950s-styled girl daintily eating a banana split. It had been two weeks since Hanna had seen them, but she and the others had received a note from Emily asking if they could talk today. It was pretty obvious what Emily wanted to talk about. Hanna wasn’t sure, though, if she was ready.

“Hey, Han.” Spencer slid over to make room. The others said hi, too.

Hanna threw her leather satchel on the seat and sat down. For a moment, silence hung over them. Spencer sipped a cup of the parlor’s famous fresh-brewed coffee, her blond hair falling in her face. Aria picked at a bowl of sherbet. Emily peeled off a wrapper of a Charleston Chew.

“So,” Hanna finally said, “what’s new?”

Everyone chuckled awkwardly. Hanna hoped nothing was new with them. The last few months had been a whirlwind of activity—and hell. First, a diabolical text-messager who called herself A had returned, tormenting each of them with their secrets. After all that, A had framed them in the murder of Tabitha Clark, a girl they’d gotten in an altercation with while in Jamaica on spring break of their junior year. The police had false evidence showing all four of them beating Tabitha to death.