Chapter One: The Popular Girl
I dangle from my fingertips, trying to judge in the darkness how far the soles of my Converse are from the wet pavement. The pavement is always wet in Chicago during the ass-end of March. If it’s not snow, it’s rain. If it’s not snow or rain, it’s the bitter tears of California transplants.
“A little help here?” I call out to Dani, who has already leapt effortlessly from the ladderless fire escape to the ground.
“You are perfectly capable of getting down yourself.”
Her English has improved over the six short months of our acquaintance. She still has a dubious relationship with contractions, but she’s come a long way. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, though—gives her too much ammunition to talk back with.
“I am Julep Dupree, grifter, forger, and master of disguise. I am not a damn acrobat.” I shuffle my hands for a better grip. Is it five feet to the ground? Ten? “Besides, I’m allergic.”
“To breaking both my legs.”
“I am unfamiliar with that allergy.”
“It’s pretty debilitating, actually.” I swing my foot toward a nearby Dumpster and catch the edge of it with my toe. If only it were a few inches closer. Or the ground were a few feet closer. “You can look it up when we get back.”
Her arms wrap around my legs, warm and sure, and she plucks me off the fire escape as if I were a cat in a tree.
“Thanks.” I step out of her hold and wipe my slimy hands on my jeans.
She shrugs an I’m already thinking about something else shoulder. I know that’s what it means, because she does it a lot. Dani doesn’t talk much, so reading her subtler cues is key if you spend significant amounts of time with her. Sadly for me, she’s learning English a lot faster than I’m learning Dani.
“I can admit when I’m wrong,” I say.
She smirks at me as we walk through the alley toward her skulking black-with-white-racing-stripes Chevelle. The Since when? she isn’t saying is implied in her smile.
“Okay, I’m never wrong.”
“You were wrong about your target. She is not having an affair with that rabbi.”
“I was right that she was lying about where she was going. That’s mostly right. Mostly right overrules partly wrong. If you’re rounding.”
“I do not know what ‘rounding’ is, but I am sure you cannot do it to truth.”
“You can if your relationship with truth is as sketchy as mine is.”
The harsh brightness of security lights guarding the backdoors of buildings spills at regular intervals into the alley. Some are on motion sensors, some flicker as if they’re about to die, but all of them bathe us in bleakness as we pass. Dani looks at home in it. Her short-cropped, bone-blonde hair and oil-black leather jacket make as chilling a combination as the security lights beating back against the night. But instead of unnerved, I feel safe, both in the alley and with Dani. She may be a nineteen-year-old mob enforcer, but she shares the same weakness for protecting the innocent that I do. And filthy, rat-infested alleys? They’re my preschool playground.
I’m not sure why Dani sticks around. She promised my dad that she would protect me from her boss, but both my dad and her boss are now in prison, so I’d count that as being officially off the hook. She’s still here, though—checks on me at the office when I’m there late, assists me in the less savory spying-type jobs, like tonight, and even acts as chauffeur once in a while. I don’t pay her, because the first and last time I tried to, she nearly took my head off. (Well, she frowned at me and crossed her arms, which for Dani is like throwing a raging hissy fit.) So there’s nothing in it for her as far as I can see, and that tends to make me nervous.
But to be honest, I’m too grateful for her company to protest. Murphy Donovan, my official partner-in-crime, isn’t the best at fieldwork. He gets computers, helps with research and tech stuff. But he’s not my other half the way my previous partner Sam was.
Sam’s the best hacker I’ve ever met and he’s great at the in-person scams. He’s also my best friend—or rather, was my best friend, before he abandoned me for military school.
Dani’s the closest thing to backup I have now. And I’ll be honest, when she’s around, I miss Sam a little less.
Nothing makes me miss Tyler any less.
“What are you going to tell your client about his fiancée’s ‘affair’?”
I slide into the passenger seat of the Chevelle. “I can’t tell him she’s secretly taking classes from the rabbi so she can convert to Judaism for him. First, it would ruin the surprise. Second, I might hurl.”
Speaking of, I text myself a reminder to send an invoice to my client for his super-secret spying mission. I’ll be charging extra for the fire-escape episode. If you’re going to pay an investigator to snoop on your fiancée for you, you deserve to get gouged.
“I’ll probably tell him she’s in a book club or something. He doesn’t look like the type who—”
The phone rings while I’m holding it, and a purple orchid user pic appears on the screen.
“What?” Dani’s voice is low and even like always, but there’s tension in it that didn’t exist a moment ago. She’s almost as paranoid as Mike Ramirez, my FBI handler and (technically) foster parent. I’ve given up assuring them both that the mob boss I took down last October is safely behind bars and not likely to leap out of every shadow. They’re both hardwired to believe that anything out of the ordinary is a trap.
“Bryn’s calling. She never calls me.” I tap the Answer button. “Hey, Bryn—I don’t have your boyfriend with me, but I’m sure if you switch on his GPS tracking chip, you’ll find him in—”
“Can the snark, Julep,” she says. “If I wanted Murphy, I’d call him. I need you.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “Really? What for?”
“I have a job for you.”
Fifteen minutes later, Dani and I roll up to the Ballou, my coffee haunt and after-school office. The Ballou is its usual self: rickety tables, stuffed chairs, and lacquered bar. The lighting is as moody as the teens still packed around tables, studying feverishly for St. Agatha’s infamous midterms. I should be studying for said midterms myself, but my Yale dreams have all been smashed anyway, thanks to last year’s Ukrainian mob fiasco. It’s all about the benjamins now. Well, and coffee.
I skip the line and put in my usual order with Yaji, my trusty barista. He rolls his eyes at me but starts my drink anyway. He’s gotten used to me over the last few months, insofar as someone can get used to me. I like him well enough, even if he only gives me free drinks on my birthday.
Dani follows me as I walk over to the table Bryn and her BFF Skyla have already staked out for us. I sink into the chair across from them, while Dani leans against the wall next to me. I don’t have to look to know her eyes are on the room instead of us. But she’ll hear every word we say, and that’s what’s important. The client is my job. Territory is hers.
Speaking of clients, Barbie-doll Bryn looks pissed, which is actually not all that unusual for her, at least when I’m around. Tall, dark-skinned, and gorgeous Skyla, however, looks miserable. And that is not normal. I don’t know Skyla very well, but I know enough to describe her as generally sweet and cheerful, if a little on the shy side. She’s one of those rare popular girls who gets along with everyone.
Both Bryn’s blue and Skyla’s brown eyes swing to Dani as we settle in. Bryn knows Dani in passing, but Skyla’s never met her before. There’s no need to introduce her, though. Dani’s notorious at St. Agatha’s for her role in the aforementioned Ukrainian mob fiasco. And even if she weren’t, she’s magnetic and kind of frightening. People tend to forget I’m present when Dani’s around. Which is exactly the way I like it most of the time.
“Show me,” I say, taking the seat across from Skyla.
Skyla leans back, dropping her watery gaze to her lap. Bryn opens her Bedazzled laptop and turns it so I can see a fairly ordinary-looking Facebook page. But I grow cold as I scroll through the litany of insults, racial slurs, fat jokes, and requests for Skyla to off herself. I’d bet an A in psych class that it’s unprovoked, since the content of the attacks all center on Skyla’s looks, her fabricated sexual exploits, and her worth as a person, rather than referring to specific events. To me that says someone’s hacked off about Skyla’s mere existence, not anything she did.
Worse than the attacks themselves, they show up across multiple Facebook accounts, which indicates a group of bullies. I check the names at the top of each Facebook profile, but none of them ring a bell. They’re normal names, like Jo Black, Allie Trask, Kimmy Plith. But I’m fairly familiar with who’s who at St. Aggie’s, and I don’t recognize any of them. The odds on that are not great, so I’m guessing the names are fake to keep the perpetrators from getting caught.
From what I’ve seen so far, I’m putting my money on a group of miffed and bored mean girls who have targeted Skyla as a scapegoat. They’re not posting about anyone else—only Skyla. And they aren’t holding back. The suggestions that Skyla commit suicide in new and interesting ways are nauseating. Which is saying something, because it takes a lot to unsettle me.
“When did it start?” I ask as Yaji drops off my triple soy caramel macchiato.
“A few weeks ago.” Skyla alternates between wringing her hands and tucking strands of her skinny black braids behind her ear. “I ignored it at first. But it’s getting so bad. And now the pictures.”
“Pictures?” I say before taking a sip.
Bryn positions the computer so she can click to the right place. When she finds it, I wince. Someone obviously doctored the photo, stretching Skyla’s features and body into grotesque configurations.
“It gets worse,” Bryn says. She drapes an arm around Skyla. “They reference Skyla’s class schedule, describe her hairstyle or what she’s wearing on any given day–”
“Which means the cyberjerks are within frequent eyeshot of her,” I finish.
Bryn says, “I’ve been trying to get her to go to the dean for weeks. When they started mentioning her boyfriend, Garrett, in their attack posts, I finally convinced her to come to you.”
I tap the table, thinking. “Does Murphy know about this yet?”
Bryn shakes her head, so I text him to get his bespectacled self down here. It’s just shy of seven, so I’m pretty sure he’s still upstairs in our office above the Ballou. My phone buzzes a second later with a snarky emoji, which I take to mean that he’s on his way.
“Have you pissed anyone off lately?” I ask Skyla.
“No.” Skyla leans against Bryn. I expected her to elaborate, maybe even get defensive, but she leaves it at a simple negative.
“Any idea at all who it could be?”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head.
Bryn looks at me accusingly. “Isn’t it your job to find out?”
“I don’t know. Is it?” I study Skyla as I ask. “What exactly are you hiring me to do?”
“Just make it stop,” Skyla says without opening her eyes.
Dani shrugs when I look for her opinion. It’s her up to you shrug. She has a lot of shrugs.
“What’s up?” Murphy asks when he joins us. He scoots in next to Bryn on the loveseat she’s sharing with Skyla. They’re an odd couple, especially when seen so close together—like Barbie and Michael Cera instead of Ken.
Bryn angles the computer so Murphy can see the adulterated picture of Skyla. He sucks a breath through his teeth as he clicks through the multiple hater accounts.
“Damn,” he says softly, shooting Skyla a sympathetic look as he leans back in his chair. “That sucks, Sky. I’m sorry.”
“Do you think you can find out who’s behind this?” I ask him.
“Not sure. Anyone can set up a free email account and start an anonymous Facebook page. We can’t tell who’s accessing a specific Facebook account unless we have eyes inside their computer.”
“I don’t care who it is,” Skyla says.
“You don’t care who it is?” I say, amazed. If it were me, the first thing I’d want to know was who was reponsible. “Well, even if you don’t, it’s the only way to permanently stop whoever’s doing it. We could probably get Facebook to shut down their fake accounts, but more accounts would just pop up. You have to pull this kind of thing up by the root. Hacking at its heads is only going to make it worse.”
“Whatever. I don’t care how you stop it. I just don’t want to know.”
I guess I can appreciate that. If I could unknow what happened to Tyler, if I could unsee his blood all over my hands, I’d barter my soul away in a second. Knowing is not for everyone.
“We may have to publicly shame them to get them to stop,” I point out.
“No.” Skyla’s eyes pop open and she leans toward me, her face hard. “I don’t want that. I’m hiring you to make it stop, but not that way.” She shudders, pulling herself together. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be so intense about this, but I can’t make it any clearer. I don’t want to know who it is. I don’t want to have to deal with it if I see them in the halls. I still have two years to go in this white-ass school. No offense, Bryn.”
No offense, Bryn? Murphy and I are white-ass St. Aggie’s students, too, and we’re sitting right here.
“None taken, sweetie.” Bryn side-hugs her.
“I just want to get through this,” Skyla continues. “I don’t want to know anything. I just want you to take care of it.”
I chafe at Skyla’s restrictions. Making concessions is not how I roll. Truthfully, I’d probably pass on the job if it weren’t for Bryn’s personal stake in it. She’s part of the Julep circle of protection whether or not I like to admit there is such a thing. I owe it to her to at least try to solve her friend’s problem. I don’t owe it to her enough to do so for free, though.
“A thousand for the retainer, plus expenses,” I say. “We charge a hundred an hour for J.D. Investigations services. That’s for all of us, not each of us. If we earn out the retainer, I’ll bill you hourly from there. If we don’t, I’ll refund you the remainder.”
“Done,” Skyla says. “I’ll pay whatever it takes. Just fix it.”
“That is, in fact, exactly what we do.”
When Dani drops me off that night at the Ramirezes’ house, I ask Mike for information on the aboveboard methods for shutting down cyberattacks. I try not to rely too much on FBI-sanctioned (aka legal) solutions, but sometimes it really is the easiest way to achieve a goal.
“Let me get this straight,” Mike says after demolishing a piece of cornbread. “You’re asking me for advice? Angela, would you check her temperature? She must have been bitten by a zombie or something.”
“Ha. I’m so amused by you right now,” I say and scarf another spoonful of Angela’s abuela’s famous mole poblano.
Mike and his wife, Angela, both work odd hours—him as a sometimes-undercover FBI agent and her as a nurse—so dinnertime shifts from four in the afternoon to eight-thirty at night depending on the day.
“Knock it off, Ramirez,” Angela says to Mike as she stacks our plates to take to the kitchen. But when she passes me, she rests the back of her free hand against my forehead. “Perfectly normal.”
“I’m surrounded by comedians,” I say.
“Better than being surrounded by teen-eating sharks,” Mike says.
“I’m not sure I’m not surrounded by teen-eating sharks, actually.”
“Explain,” he says, eyeing me sharply.
So I tell them about Skyla. When I’m done, Angela’s expression is a typical momlike mixture of horrified and sympathetic. “That’s awful. That poor girl.”
“The first thing I’d do is report it to Facebook,” Mike says, slathering butter on a second piece of corn bread.
I lean forward to snag another piece myself. “Whoever’s doing this would just create new accounts. We need to shut it down permanently.”
“Then you have to find out who’s doing it,” he says.
“Any ideas on how to do that?” I ask.
“Start with the victim.”
“I did. She says she has no idea who’s behind it.”
“Doesn’t mean following her around won’t give you leads,” he says. “It worked with you.”
I chew on that while he chews on cornbread. He has a point. Following me did lead him to Petrov (the mob boss I mentioned earlier). And I was too big an idiot at the time to realize that was what Mike was up to before Mike took Sam out of the game.
That night I lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling in Mike and Angela’s guest room, flipping through memories of the time before I became Julep Dupree, rescuer of human-trafficking victims. Tyler . . . I will always regret that I happened to him. But tonight I feel the loss of Sam more. We were in fourth grade when we started running the three-card monte scam on our classmates. I should be brainstorming this job with him, not Mike. We were eleven when we played our first false Good Samaritan scam to get out of gym class. He’s the best hacker I know, wicked smart and sensitive, all of which I desperately need on this job. We were thirteen when my dad disappeared the first time with no explanation, and all that stood between me and panic was a scrawny, half-black kid in a Clone Wars T-shirt. But he’s almost a thousand miles away, being brainwashed by military school. We were fifteen when he confessed that he was in love with me and then put his life on the line to help me save my dad. If he ever comes back, he won’t be my Sam anymore.
My phone rings and I answer.
“Hey, Bryn. What’s—“
“Have you checked Facebook tonight?”
“No,” I say, sitting up. “Why?”
“Looks like they’re going after you now, too.”
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