Chapter One: The Stratton Job
I can’t say I have much personal experience with conscience. I wasn’t born with that particular cricket on my shoulder. But people who believe in conscience seem to think it has something to do with compassion. And it could, I suppose, if you tilt your head and squint at it in just the right light.
The truth is, conscience exists because everyone has something in their past they’re not proud of. And if you’re smart enough to use that to your advantage, you can stay one step ahead of the consequences. Any good con man with the right kind of rope can hang an entire mob.
But my story doesn’t start with the mob. It starts with a pair of borrowed pumps and the front walk of a black-shuttered Colonial.
I am Ms. Jena Scott, the youngest attorney at Lewis, Duncan, and Chase Law. Or at least, I am for the next thirty minutes. Then I’ll turn back into Julep Dupree, sophomore at St. Agatha’s Preparatory School and all-around fixer. (Julep’s not my real name, either, but we’ll get to that later.)
It’s the officially unofficial talk around school that I’m a solver of other people’s problems. And I am. I just happen to charge a respectable sum for my services. St. Aggie’s isn’t cheap, and a job at the local deli isn’t going to cover the cost of toiletries, let alone tuition. Luckily, my fellow students can more than afford my rates.
My talent is the one thing I can leverage. I’m a grifter, a con artist, and a master of disguise. I’m the best, actually, because I was taught by the best—my dad, Joe. Never heard of him? Well, you wouldn’t have, because he’s never been caught. And neither have I. The best grifters are ghosts.
For the newbies out there, a grifter is a person who specializes in selling people something that doesn’t exist. At the moment, I’m selling my client Heather Stratton’s parents on the idea that she has applied to New York University. Which, of course, is a load of crap.
Heather doesn’t want to go to NYU; she wants to be a model. But since her mom won’t bankroll that endeavor, my job is to grease the wheels, so to speak, so everyone believes she’s getting what she wants. It’s a win-win-win, really. Heather is happy, Mrs. Stratton is happy, and I get paid. When you look at it like that, I’m in the making-people-happy business.
Heather’s paying for a full pig-in-a-poke package: fake application, fake interview, fake acceptance. And it’s going to cost her. I’ve already had Sam, my best friend and partner in crime, build a fake NYU website showing Heather’s application status. Then came the official-looking brochures and letters on NYU stationery Sam and I spent an afternoon making. And that was easy compared to getting the envelopes to sport a postmark from New York.
Now I’m doing the interview bit. Ms. Scott is a new creation of mine. A lawyer by way of NYU undergrad and University of Pennsylvania law school. She works at a big-deal firm here in Chicago and occasionally does admission interviews for her alma mater.
I straighten my suit skirt in the perfect imitation of a lawyer I saw on television last night. There’s a good chance nobody’s watching, but it never hurts to get into character early. I touch my hair to make sure the longish brown mess is still coiled into a tight French roll. I adjust the thin, black-framed glasses I use for roles both younger and older than my near-sixteen years.
Then I remember my gum—doesn’t exactly scream professionalism. Lacking an appropriate disposal option, I take the gum out and stick it to the bottom of the Strattons’ mailbox. I walk up to the covered porch and rap smartly on the blue door. A few moments later, a brittle, middle-aged woman with a too-bright smile and Jackie O style opens it.
“Mrs. Stratton, I presume,” I say in a slightly lower pitch than usual. People assume you’re older if your voice is deeper.
“You must be Ms. Scott,” she says. “Please, come in.”
She’s easy enough to read. Nervous, excited. She’s an easy mark, because she wants so much for me to be real. I mean, look at me. This disguise is a stretch, even for a professional grifter. But she won’t doubt it, because she doesn’t want to. No disguise is more foolproof than the one the mark wants to believe. I might feel a little bad for her if I were a real person. As it happens, I’m not a real person, and she is not my client.
I cross the threshold into an immaculate foyer. The living room opens off to my left, rich and inviting but lacking in the warmth the plush upholstery implies. It’s a gorgeous room, beautiful and cold, like an ice sculpture in the sun.
Mrs. Stratton motions me into the room and I sit in an armchair next to a brick hearth that hasn’t seen a fire in years. Julep would have chosen the couch, with its army of throw pillows, but “Ms. Scott” is here on business and doesn’t approve of all the touchy-feely nonsense that comes about sitting next to people.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“A glass of water would be most appreciated,” I say.
Mrs. Stratton leaves the room, returning a few moments later with a precisely cooled glass of water. She places a coaster on the polished end table next to me. I smile my approval, and her smile widens.
“I’ll go get Heather,” Mrs. Stratton says, and calls up the stairs for her daughter, who is expecting me.
Heather enters the room in what I can only assume is her Sunday best. Her family is Episcopalian, I’m fairly sure. I can usually tell by the decor of the house, the mother’s clothing choices, and the books on the shelves in public spaces. For example, you can always tell a Baptist household by the oak dining room table, the spinet in the living room, and the variety of Bibles on the shelf next to the television set. Episcopalians don’t often have televisions in their living rooms. Don’t ask me why.
“Hello, Heather,” I say, standing and extending my hand. She shakes it, shooting me conspiratorial glances while acting fidgety, and overall doing a lousy job of pretending she doesn’t know me. But her mother will chalk it up to nervousness as long as I do my part right.
I sink back into the armchair, and Heather sits across from me on the couch. She looks tense, but then she would be. Heather’s mother hangs around for another moment or two before realizing she is supposed to leave and finally whisking herself away to some other part of the house.
I raise my hand when Heather opens her mouth. So many of my clients foolishly think we don’t have to go through with the scam from beginning to end. They assume that once they can no longer see the mark, she’s not still around listening. My dad calls it the ostrich syndrome.
“Tell me about yourself, Heather,” I say. “What do you want to study at NYU?”
What follows is a yawn-fest of questions and answers. I couldn’t care less about Heather’s GPA. And student government? Really? But I’m helping her swindle her parents—I’m hardly in a position to judge.
At the end of the interview I cut her off, almost midsentence, and stand up, not having touched my water. I’m out of the house and at the door to Sam’s Volvo, proper good-byes offered and promises to put in a good word for Heather with the admissions office made. I open the driver’s-side door and slide into the leather seat, exhaling as I settle in. It’s a far cry from the hard plastic chairs on the “L,” which is my usual form of transportation.
I sense more than hear the purr as the engine turns over. I pull away from the curb cautiously, not because I’m a cautious driver by nature, but because I am still in character. Once I’ve turned out of sight of the house, I crank the radio up and slide the windows down while I push the gas pedal to coax the car to a peppier speed. It’s a warm Sunday in early September, and I want to milk it for all it’s worth. With one hand, I pull out the pins holding my hair back, letting the tangled tresses fall naturally to my shoulders.
Sam knows I’m not a legal driver. We’ve known each other since fourth grade, when we started pulling the three-card monte on our classmates, so he’s well aware of my age. You’d think he’d be more nervous about lending his brand-new Volvo to an untried, untested, unlicensed driver. But then, I’m the one who taught him how to drive.
Ten minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of my local coffee haunt, the Ballou, which is half a block from the St. Aggie’s campus, and claim a space next to a souped-up seventies muscle car. Chevelle, I think, though I’m hardly an expert. Black with two thick white racing stripes down the hood and windows tinted black enough to put Jay-Z’s to shame.
I take off my jacket and untuck my blouse. Kicking off the heels, I flip open my ratty old canvas bag and take out my well-worn Converse high-tops. I wriggle my feet into them as I tie my hair up again. Then I toss the glasses into the bag and grab my dad’s old leather jacket.
The Ballou is pretty much what you’d expect a coffee shop to be: wooden tables, scuffed and stuffed chairs, a lacquered bar polished to within an inch of its life, a smattering of patrons sipping lattes and reading Yeats. You see lots of MacBooks and iPads, and the occasional stack of textbooks gathering dust while their owners text or surf the Web.
Sam is sitting at our favorite rickety, mismatched table with the cardboard coffee-cup sleeve under one of the legs.
“To the minute,” Sam says, spotting me over the top of his graphic novel. “I’ll never know how you can guess that close.”
“Just have to know the mark.”
“That’s what you say for everything,” he says, smiling and moving his bag aside.
“Well, it’s true for everything,” I say while I casually steal his cappuccino.
Sam has a gorgeous smile. I often tease him about it, which he hates, or at least pretends to hate. But I think he secretly appreciates being noticed for something besides his status as the only son of Hudson Seward, board chairman of the Seward Group and the richest black man in Chicago. Sam wants to escape his father’s name as much as Heather wants out from under her mother’s iron fist.
Everyone wants something, I suppose. Me? I want a full ride to Yale. Hence my internment at St. Agatha’s.
“How’d it go?”
“Cake,” I say. “But we prepped well this time.” I take a swig of his coffee.
“As opposed to any other time?”
“Granted.” I set his keys on the table. “Thanks for the car.”
He pockets the keys. “And you’re thanking me because . . . ?”
“Hey, I say thank you sometimes.” I cradle the cup between my hands to warm them.
“No you don’t,” he says.
“Yes I do.”
He plucks the cup out of my grasp and leans back. “No you don’t.”
I’ve just conceded when Heather appears. I don’t love that she insisted on meeting up with us, but she’s the sort who needs to know each step of the plan in detail. She’s more her mother’s daughter than she thinks. She slips gracefully into the chair next to mine.
“That went . . . well?” she says with a slight question at the end, like she’s asking for confirmation.
“It did,” I say. I make it a policy to avoid hand-holding. But she’s my client, and far be it from me to begrudge her a bit of customer service.
“So what now?” She huddles into herself and lowers her voice to a whisper. Really, how my clients keep anything a secret when their body language continually screams Look at me! I’m planning something nefarious! is beyond me. I guess it’s true what the French say: fortune favors the innocent. Lucky for me, it also favors the moderately dishonest.
“Now I welcome you to NYU,” I say.
Then I detail the rest of the plan, which involves sending Heather a fake internship offer from a modeling agency to raise the stakes. Mrs. Stratton will be so desperate to secure Heather’s spot at NYU she won’t think to question our irregular instructions for sending the tuition check. In my profession, this is called the shutout, and it works every time.
“But how do I cash a check made out to NYU?” Heather asks.
“It won’t be made out to NYU. It will be made out to me. Or to Jena Scott, actually.”
“You think she’ll fall for that?”
“Fall for it? She’ll be the one suggesting it. Trust me, the check is the easy part.”
Heather’s doubt is evident, but she’s not the one whose confidence I’m trying to steal.
A half hour later, Sam drops me off at my apartment building.
“Catch you on the dark side,” I say as I get out and head to the front door.
“The dark side is a bad thing,” Sam calls after me.
I wave while he pulls away from the curb, shaking his head at me.
“Hi, Fred,” I say to the homeless man sitting between the row of mailboxes and the radiator in the entryway.
“Hey, Julep,” he says in his Dominican accent. “How’s shit going?”
“Shit’s good,” I say, and open our mailbox. I pull the comics out of the paper and hand them to Fred. If anyone needs a laugh, it’s him.
In case the homeless guy hasn’t given it away, my dad and I live deep in the West Side slums—the same apartment building we’ve been in since my mom left us. I was eight at the time, so that’s, what? Seven years? Well, in all that time I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of any maintenance personnel beyond the very occasional plumber.
I’m so used to it, though, that I climb the narrow stairs without seeing the fuchsia and black graffiti or the grime in the corners. In fact, I don’t even notice when I get to our apartment that the door is slightly open. When I try to put my key in the lock, the door swings away from me. Still, I’m distracted by a tuition bill from St. Aggie’s, so I walk right in.
The first thing I notice is my dad’s chair tipped upside down, the stuffing from the cushion littered around it like yellow sea foam. My lungs constrict as I take in the rest of our shattered belongings: Pictures torn down to reveal stained walls. Drawers pulled out and overturned. Even some of the linoleum flooring in the kitchen has been ripped up and left in curling strips.
“Dad?” The sound of my heart hammering is probably carrying farther than my voice.
This makes no sense. We have nothing worth stealing—no one breaks into the apartments in our building for monetary gain. Not that there isn’t violence; it’s just usually domestic or drug related.
I push open the door to my dad’s room and it gets stuck about a third of the way open. This room is in even worse shape than the rest of the apartment. Books and papers and blankets and broken bits of furniture cover the ratty carpet like shrapnel from a bomb blast. But still no Dad. At this point, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
Not as much damage in my room, but it’s still trashed. Curtains trailing along the floor. Desk knocked over, the bulb from the lamp shattered and ground into the carpet.
I pick my way back toward the kitchen as I study what was left behind. I’m certain someone was looking for something, but I have no idea what. It’s not like we stashed a Monet under the floorboards.
My dad does have a gambling problem. He’s the best grifter you’ve never heard of, like I said, but we’re still living in the ghetto. I’m sure you’re wondering why, since I keep telling you he could con Donald Trump out of his toupee. Well, that’s the reason. No sooner does he get a “windfall” than it gets spent on the ponies.
But he never borrows to bet. He bets everything we have but nothing we don’t. His bookie’s his best friend. Ralph even comes to my birthday parties. So I seriously doubt it’s a payment problem.
It has to be a con that’s gone south somehow. Which means my dad’s in trouble. He has something his mark wants. And not just any mark—a mark willing to break in and do this. That means a mark on the shadier side.
I reach the kitchen and tip a chair upright. What could my dad be into that would have resulted in this? What could he have that somebody would be looking for? The answer is lots of things: forged documents, information about something incriminating, who knows? The two bigger questions, though, are did the person find what he was searching for, and why didn’t my dad tell me what he was doing?
My dad is not the sort to shelter his offspring. We’re a team. I sometimes help him brainstorm when he’s planning a con. He doesn’t often use me as a roper, mostly because I’d stick out like a sore thumb in the circles he tends to work. But he always tells me his angle.
I lean against the wall, surveying the destruction in the kitchen. Something tells me that whoever tossed the place did not find what he was looking for. That might very well be wishful thinking, but I decide to act on the hunch anyway. Can’t hurt to do a bit of searching of my own.
But before I turn over even a plate, two thoughts occur to me. One, I should call the police before I tamper with any potential evidence. Two, if the home-wrecker didn’t find what he was looking for, he might come back.
I reach for my phone and tap a nine and a one before I come to my senses. I can’t call the police. Police plus abandoned minor equals foster care. Hello! I let out a shaky breath at how close I came to screwing myself nine ways to Sunday. I delete both numbers and quickly pocket the phone, as if my fingers might somehow betray me.
I’m sure you think I’m being melodramatic. But I’m not an idiot. Everyone knows that foster care is a prison sentence. Umpteen thousand crime procedurals cannot be wrong. Besides, my dad and I are our own system. I’m the only one who knows him well enough to figure out where he’s hidden whatever the intruder was searching for. If the police get involved, they’ll be the ones ruining the crime scene, not me.
I picture my dad, every detail from his thick brown hair to his scuffed oxfords. If I were my dad and I had to hide something . . .
What hasn’t been touched? I turn in a slow circle till I find it—the perfectly upright, not-even-a-millimeter-out-of-place trash can.
Only cops dig in the garbage, Julep, and even then, only on TV.
Before considering the consequences, I yank the bag out of the can and empty it onto what’s left of the linoleum. Last night’s chicken bones come tumbling out, along with several plastic wrappers and a lump of grease-covered foil. Gross, yes. Illuminating, no. I root around in it anyway, holding my breath and hoping. But there’s nothing in the bag that can remotely be construed as valuable. No pictures, no papers, no money, nothing.
I plop on the floor next to the mess, swearing to myself. I mean, who am I kidding? How am I supposed to find my dad in a pile of half-eaten chicken? The trash can mocks me with its dingy plastic lid. Still upright, it is the only thing in the apartment that’s exactly where it should be.
I kick out and knock it over. Might as well finish the job, right? But as it falls to the floor, I hear something bang around inside it. I pull the mouth around to where I can see. Inside the can is a padded envelope.
Ignoring the muck, I reach in and grab the envelope. As I rip it open, I have this strange sense of doom, like liberating its contents is some kind of point of no return. I ignore the feeling. He is my dad, after all.
But when I pull out said contents, I’m even more unnerved.
In one hand, I hold a note:
Beware the Field of Miracles.
In the other, I hold a gun.
Chapter Two: The Geek Job
“Julep!” Sam shouts as he flies through the door.
I realize what I must look like, sitting next to garbage with my back against the battered cabinets, holding a gun. Before his eyes find me, I set the gun on the floor behind me. I’m not trying to hide it, but a person can only take so many shocks at once.
When he sees me on the floor, he rushes over.
“Are you okay?”
“I said as much on the phone, Sam.”
“You don’t look okay.”
“You really know how to compliment a girl.”
He tries to pull me to my feet, but I don’t let him. First, because there’s really nowhere else to go. Second, well, I’m not sure my legs will hold me just yet. He sits down next to me instead.
“You know what I mean,” he says.
I pull my knees in closer. I could still call the police, I suppose, but I know I won’t.
“Is this like last time?”
I shake my head. But it’s a fair question. This isn’t the first time my dad’s disappeared.
When I was thirteen, I came home from school one day, finished my homework, made myself my standard mac-and-cheese dinner of champions, and watched five hours of television before I realized my dad wasn’t coming home that night. Nor did he come home the following night, or the night after that. No note, no call, nothing.
I was petrified. But when I told Sam, he assured me that if my dad didn’t come back, he and his parents would take me in. Just having that safety net calmed my panic. My dad eventually came back, two weeks of peanut butter sandwiches later. He’s never really explained where he was, but I got the impression it had to do with a job that went bad.
At the time, I was angry with him for scaring me. But looking back, I’m certain he was trying to protect me from someone who might have tried to hurt me or use me against him. Had I been him, I’d have done the same thing. Still, everything changed after that. Or rather, I changed. I no longer wanted my father’s life.
But this disappearance is different. This time someone’s destroyed our apartment.
“He’s still not answering his cell?”
“I haven’t tried again since calling you,” I admit. “But I called seventeen times. If he hasn’t answered by now, he’s not going to.”
“His circumstances might change,” Sam says, choosing his words carefully. I appreciate the tact, but let’s call it as we see it, shall we?
“Look at this place, Sam.” I gesture at the mess. “This is not the work of his usual kind of mark. This is something else.”
Sam scans the room, shoving shards of a plate out of the way with his foot.
“Well, you can’t stay here.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I say. A flash of fear spikes through me as I realize he might out me to the cops. “You have to promise you won’t tell anyone.”
“Julep, you aren’t actually considering staying here—”
“Of course I am. He might call or come back.”
“Sam, please. You can’t tell anyone or I’ll get shipped off to some foster farm. No more St. Aggie’s.”
Sam opens his mouth to protest but closes it when he realizes I’m right.
“You still can’t stay here,” he says after a pause. “You can stay with us.”
“Your mom thinks I’m a ‘bad influence,’ remember?” I put air quotes around bad influence to soften the sore point he hates talking about.
“She’ll just have to deal.” He’s irritated despite my air quotes.
“We’re not in grade school anymore, anyway,” I say. “Sleepovers aren’t exactly kosher.”
“This is serious, Julep. You can’t just brush it off. What if whoever did this”—he nods at the linoleum strips—“comes back?”
I hate to admit it, but he’s right. If the thugs decide to try again, it will be tonight.
“Fine. I’ll stay with you for one night.”
He lets go a breath I didn’t realized he was holding.
“Good,” he says.
I give him a sour look. “Just one. I’m pretty sure they won’t come back. Why would they waste their time? They either found what they were looking for or they didn’t because it isn’t here.”
“What would they be looking for?”
“No idea. Maybe nothing. But I found this.” I show him the note. Then I slowly pull out the gun. “And this.”
His expression turns stormy again, and he takes the gun from me, dropping the note into the chicken drippings.
“Hey!” I say, rescuing it.
He ignores me, ejecting the bullet-holder thingy and checking the chamber with expert skill.
“Since when do you know anything about guns?” I glare at him as I wipe off the note.
“The colonel’s been taking me shooting since I was twelve, Julep.”
Sam’s dad, who he lovingly refers to as “the colonel,” in addition to being a CEO, is a retired army colonel with the military bearing, ambitious drive, and strict governance of Sam to go with the rank. Of course the man would teach his son how to shoot a handgun.
“I thought it was, like, duck hunting or something.”
He shakes his head. “Sometimes I wonder if you know me at all.”
I wrinkle my nose, not wanting to admit that I might be a little hurt by that, mostly because there’s a chance it’s partially true. Very partially. Like, a minuscule amount.
“Anyway, it’s not loaded,” he says.
“My dad gave me an unloaded gun?”
“So it appears.” He puts the gun back together and hands it to me. Then he reaches for the note. “What does it say?”
“‘Beware the Field of Miracles.’”
He scans the note. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “But it’s just like my dad. Riddles.”
“Do you think it’ll lead us to whatever it is these people want?”
“Possibly,” I say, shifting uncomfortably.
“But . . . you think it leads to something else?”
“It could lead to the missing millions or whatever. Or it could lead to my dad. But the note is definitely from him, and he clearly wants me to do something.”
Sam sighs and takes my hand. I let him keep it.
After I pack a bag and we move our party to Sam’s house, Sam and I have a perfectly uneventful sleepover, involving sneaking me in through his bedroom window and arguing over who’ll be taking the bed versus the Star Wars beanbag chair. I win the argument for the beanbag chair and yet somehow wake up in the bed anyway, and so I am extremely grumpy the next morning. I then sneak back out his bedroom window when the maid knocks on his door. I give half a thought to hot-wiring Sam’s car and taking off without him, but he shows up with the keys and drives us to school.
St. Agatha’s Preparatory School, fondly referred to as St. Aggie’s by most of its attendees, was Chicago’s first private all-girls academy. But due to various recessions and other natural catastrophes over the years, it became a coed institution. It’s still true to its Catholic roots, however, holding Mass on Wednesdays in the chapel, lighting candles for every holy day, and passing the presidency from nun to nun.
The campus itself is gorgeous. Several turn-of-the-century buildings form a perimeter around a large, grassy quad complete with fountain and triumphal arch. The southern side is bordered by Holy Mother of God Church, while the northern end is bound by the gymnasium and theater building. The other two buildings house the classes as well as the administrative offices for the various school authorities.
The smallish parking lot is tucked under the shadow of the church’s steeples, adding to the chill I feel through my wool coat and school-mandated tights. Despite the warmth yesterday, September is fast fading into October, and Chicago’s famous wind is already starting to blow.
Sam tugs one of my braids and I smack the back of his head, which is our loving way of saying “see you later.” I need a coffee and some research time before starting my day. First period is one of those things I consider optional. Like nuts in brownies. And flossing. So as Sam goes into the nearest building, I head in the direction of the Ballou.
“Hey, Julep. Got a sec?” Murphy Donovan—a soft, bespectacled nerd from my biology class—stops me before I get very far.
“You happen to have a decent cup of espresso on your person?” I say.
“Not on me, no.”
“Then if you want to talk, you’ll have to walk me.”
He falls into step like a well-trained puppy, but he seems to need a little prodding in the talking department.
“So is this a social call?” I ask.
“No. That is, um, I’d like to”—he lowers his voice and looks over his shoulder at the students flitting hither and yon around us—“hire you.”
“I see. How can I be of service?”
“I want you to get Bryn Halverson to go to the fall formal with me,” he all but whispers.
I consider his request as I shift my bag. I could do it. Easily, in fact. All it takes is a modified fiddle game. My brain is already spinning the con, assessing resources, gauging the mark. But I’d like a little more information before I take the job.
“The Bryn Halverson?” I say. “Head JV cheerleader, homecoming court, failing Spanish—that Bryn Halverson?”
“She’s failing Spanish?”
“Yes, her,” Murphy answers.
“Do you mind if I ask why?”
He drops his gaze to his hands. “I like her,” he mumbles.
“You and every other straight, red-blooded American male,” I say, more truthful than kind. I don’t need to drag this out of him. I can do the job without it. But how I approach the job affects him, and understanding his motivations lets me know how far I can go.
“I liked her before. I’ve liked her since middle school, when she had braces and frizzy hair and was whipping all our butts at algebra.”
I sigh and give him a sympathetic look. I’m going to take the job, of course, but I’m not thrilled about it. Not because I’m opposed to manipulating Bryn, but because I already know Murphy’s going to get trampled. And since Murphy’s a tech-club buddy of Sam’s, Sam is not going to be pleased if I help Bryn break Murphy’s heart.
“Honestly, Murphy, it would be easier if you just wanted the social status.”
“So you’ll do it?”
I nod reluctantly. “Yes. But you’ll probably regret it.”
“Depends on how much you like her.”
“No, I mean—”
I wave him to silence. “I know what you mean,” I say, calculating the fee in my head. What is the going rate for breaking somebody’s heart? This is one of those questions that makes me reconsider my line of work.
“Five hundred. Cash. Plus the standard proviso.”
“You owe me a favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
“The kind where you don’t know what it is until I ask it,” I say, pausing at the door to the Ballou. “If it’s any comfort, it’s usually something pretty tame, and generally in your area of expertise.”
Murphy mulls over my terms for all of half a second before forking over the cash. I’d never pay that much for a school dance, but then most of the students at St. Aggie’s have money to burn. Even worse is the threat of an unspecified favor to be called in at a later date. But I’ve never had anyone protest. I guess that’s what comes of having unlimited access to whatever you want—when you need something you can’t get, you’re willing to put everything on the line. Maybe the opportunity to confess your undying love is worth it. I’ve never felt that way about anyone, so what do I know?
“When should I ask her?” he says.
“A week from tomorrow,” I answer as I open the door. “That gives us time to lay the groundwork, but still gives her a few days to buy a dress. Assuming she doesn’t have a closetful already.”
“What if she says no?”
“You should be more worried about her saying yes.”
He gives me a confused look.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say, stepping into the warm glow of the Ballou.
It takes me longer than most people to order coffee, because I’m chatting up the cashier to finagle a free drink. It’s not hard. Especially at a chain, which is more likely selling the coffee-shop experience than the coffee. But even indie-shop baristas are given a lot of leeway. All I have to do is determine what pushes the buttons of the person who pushes the buttons, and bingo—all the macchiatos I can drink. But it does take a little more time than fishing for cash.
“You new?” I ask as I step up to the counter.
I’m a regular at the Ballou, so I know all the baristas. I’ve never seen this guy before, so I already know he’s new. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a regular or not, though—just have a spiel handy for either possibility.
“First day,” he says.
Stocky and bald and built like a linebacker, the forty-something man looks more like he should be on the set of an action flick than wearing a barista apron.
“Like it so far?”
“Manager’s nice enough.”
“I’ll have a triple soy caramel macchiato, please.” The please is essential when angling for a free drink. “My name is Julep,” I continue, offering a hand while flashing him a dimpled smile.
“Mike,” he says as he shakes my hand.
“I know all the baristas’ names,” I tell him. “Have to put something next to their numbers on my speed dial. You never know when you’re going to have a caffeine emergency.”
He laughs and starts making my drink without charging me first, as he can see that I’m winding up for a full-on conversation.
“Have you been in the barista game long?”
“My first time, actually,” he admits with a smile. On him, it looks like a piece of granite cracking in the middle. “Tell me if I mess it up and I’ll try again.”
“Oh, I’m easy,” I say. “As long as it’s got loads of caramel, I’m a happy camper. Besides, you look pretty confident back there. I’m sure you’ve got it down.”
Compliment, compliment, compliment. But keep it focused on the job at hand. Telling him he looks great in that shirt sounds like you’re flirting rather than impressed with his handiwork. Flirting has its place, for sure, but not in this situation. You need generosity, not a date.
“That’ll be four-fifty,” he says, putting the cup of caffeinated sugar rush on the counter in front of me.
I rummage around in my bag. “Oh, jeez. Looks like I forgot my wallet. I guess I should cancel the drink order.”
“Might as well take it since I already made it,” Mike says, pushing the drink toward me. “Call it practice.”
“You’re a gem, Mike. You have no idea how much I need this coffee.”
“I’ve been there,” he says, smiling and wiping his hands on a caramel-smudged cloth.
“Thanks. I won’t forget this!”
I take a seat on a ratty sofa that’s been through the Goodwill mill a time or two and then pull out my phone. I left the gun in my apartment last night. I can’t tell if it’s a clue, a warning, or a loaded (ha) attempt at offering protection. If it’s a clue or a warning, I can puzzle it out without the actual gun; if it’s protection, well, it’s not going to do me much good. I’ve never even seen a gun—loaded or not—in real life, let alone fired one. My dad’s a con artist, not a thug, and he always says:Your story is your best offense; your disguise is your best defense. Weapons will only get you killed.
A clue, then. But I have no idea about what, so I set aside the gun conundrum for now and pull out the note.
I type “Field of Miracles” into my search engine app. The first page of hits all seem to be related to Pisa. As in, the famous leaning tower. I click on a link titled “Why is the area behind the Tower of Pisa called the Field of Miracles?” The answer has something to do with the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. I’m pretty sure my dad is not suggesting I take up Tuscan poetry. So what else could Pisa mean? Maybe there’s a museum display somewhere in Chicago showcasing blunders of an architectural nature? Another search dead-ends that theory.
Maybe Italy is the key. I look up the number to my father’s favorite Italian restaurant and tap Send. But a five-minute conversation confirms that the restaurant manager hasn’t seen my dad in weeks, and there are no reservations for him on the books.
I disconnect, discouraged but far from throwing in the towel. I scan the Wikipedia entry for Pisa, but nothing grabs me. I change tack and look more into the building itself, the design, the flaw, the man who built it. But there’s nothing that leads me to my dad.
Problem is, my dad is a voracious reader. He’ll read anything from physics texts to pulp private-eye novels. And he never reads a book twice, because his mind’s like Alcatraz—once something’s in, it never gets out. All good con artists are like that. We need to be knowledgeable on a thousand different subjects in order to convince a thousand different marks of our authenticity. So my dad might have been reading up on some obscure piece of Pisa history and it didn’t occur to me to notice. Or Pisa could just be a red herring.
I sigh and put down my phone, rubbing the bridge of my nose to ward off a sudden prickling in my eyes. It’s just hit me—what an impossible task this is. The note could mean anything, or nothing at all. I could be looking in the exact wrong direction. He could be anywhere, waiting for me to figure it out and lead in the cavalry. But what if I don’t figure it out? What if he’s waiting for reinforcements that never come?
I tamp down a wave of nausea and try to rein in the fear galloping through my chest. Having a mental break is not going to do my dad any good. I count silently back from ten, forcing myself to breathe. To think. There’s got to be something I’m missing. And then I look at my phone again and realize that I’m going to be missing the beginning of second period if I don’t get moving.
I force myself to my feet and nod a final thanks to Mike as I head back toward campus and, more specifically, my locker. I need to switch out a couple of books before heading to my morning classes. Plus, I need to set Murphy’s job in motion.
As I pass the girls’ bathroom, I duck in and dig in my bag for a pocket mirror. I lean back against a sink and check the reflection of the back of my head, fluffing my hair and waiting for an opportunity to present itself.
Luckily, I don’t have to wait long. A couple of girls walk in, gabbing about boys. Not surprising, really, since everyone’s obsessed with the upcoming dance. Heather’s one of the organizers, so she’s been subjecting Sam and me to gossip about it for the last month. In any case, I can use the conversational topic to my advantage.
“Who are you going with?” Paula, a thin, reedy girl on the cheer squad with Bryn, asks Harper, a curvier girl on the dance squad.
“Matt, of course,” Harper says. “You?”
“Well, I’m throwing hints at Sebastian, but he’s not getting it.”
“I wonder who Tyler is going to ask,” Harper says, referring to the masculine object of every St. Aggie’s girl’s (and some of the guys’) fantasies.
“And how he’s going to ask,” Paula says. “Jack’s formal proposal to Elise last year was epic.”
I clear my throat, pulling out a tube of lip gloss. “You know, Murphy still hasn’t asked anyone.”
“Murphy? The AV nerd?”
“Geek is the new black, you know,” I say, hiding a smirk behind the applicator brush. “Besides”—I lower my voice to conspiratorial—“I hear he’s the envy of the guys’ locker room, if you know what I mean.” Then I stow the gloss, leave the bathroom, and meander to my nearby locker.
While I twirl the locker dial this way and that, I notice the girls from the bathroom passing by, heads bent together. They are no doubt dissecting my comment from every possible angle. I can’t help but smile—easy as selling candy to a PTA mom.
Then I notice something off about my locker. It smells funny, like wet alley trash. I pull up the metal latch and swing the door open slowly.
A girl behind me screams.
Chapter Three: The Warning
“You really have no idea who would have done this?”
Susan Porter, St. Agatha’s bulldog dean of students, is glaring suspiciously at me as she calls the janitor on her walkie. I keep my snark in check, but it isn’t easy. My relationship with the dean isn’t what you’d call amicable.
“I really don’t,” I say. I’m not great with authority. Especially when that authority is on to me. “I certainly didn’t put a dead rat in my own locker.”
Her expression tightens, and since her features are already sharp enough to cut, the effect easily cows the more naive students. She’s wasting it on me, but I suspect it’s not something she can turn on and off. Her face just looks that way when she’s aggravated, and she’s almost always aggravated. Don’t get me wrong; she’s great at her job. She somehow manages to keep twelve hundred or so teens from outright revolt without getting so much as a strand of her titian bob out of place. And she’s perpetually suspicious of me, so she must be doing something right.
She scribbles something in a Moleskine notebook with a tiny pencil, both of which she carries in her navy-blue suit-jacket pocket. I’m sure whatever she’s noting is going straight into my file. The dean’s been on my case almost since I started at St. Agatha’s. She can’t have anything substantial against me or she’d have used it by now, but her ability to sense the criminal element is uncanny. I have yet to get a connection to the dean’s office, but when I do, I’m going to prioritize pilfering said file.
“Rest assured, Miss Dupree, that I will find the culprit,” she says, and stalks off.
It sounds more like a threat than a promise, but I’ll take what I can get. If it’s a student prank, she’ll find out. If not . . .
The janitor arrives, and I move out of his way to give him full access to my gore-covered locker. I try not to watch as he wraps the furry corpse in a piece of brown butcher paper before detaching its tail from the coat hook. I’m not really an animal person, but I still feel sorry for the little guy.
The puddle of guts on the floor of the locker is going to take the janitor longer to clean, so I decide to give up on my books. I turn to head for class and run smack into a hard, warm pillar.
“Are you all right?” asks the pillar.
I step back in surprise and look up, immediately recognizing Tyler Richland, the St. Aggie’s demigod/senior Paula name-dropped in the bathroom. He’s captain of the fill-in-any-sport-here varsity team, he’s popular, and he has a hotness factor that approaches solar levels. You don’t go to St. Agatha’s and not know Tyler Richland. In fact, you don’t live in Chicago and not know Tyler Richland. His dad’s a senator.
“Fine,” I say, and move to go around him.
“I meant about your locker. You must be pretty shaken up.”
I frown at him. I don’t like people telling me how I should feel. And it’s weird that he’s talking to me at all. I’m a sophomore, on top of which I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to stay relatively anonymous. But then, maybe he has a job for me.
“I’d be shaken up,” he continues, turning his charm up a couple of notches. “I’d probably faint.”
“I suppose it’s not the nicest present someone’s ever left me,” I say. My chilliness is starting to thaw under the onslaught; that’s how powerful those molten-chocolate eyes are. But I am nothing if not professional, so I keep my expression neutral.
“Do you know what it’s about?”
“I have an inkling,” I admit, thinking about my trashed apartment. Coincidences are like unicorns—you can believe in them all you want, but that doesn’t make them real.
“Why didn’t you tell the dean?”
“Because it’s none of her business.” I start again in the direction of class. Tyler slides into step next to me. “Can I help you, Tyler?”
“I think I may have seen something.”
I nearly trip over my own foot. “What? Who?”
“I only saw him from the back. Long black coat, black boots. He didn’t look like he belonged here.
“Do you think you’d recognize him if you saw him again?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to the dean?”
“I was about to, but it seemed like you didn’t want her involved. I won’t tell her what I saw if you don’t want me to.”
“That’s weirdly thoughtful of you,” I say. “Why so chivalrous?”
He shrugs and smiles. “It’s what I would want. Besides, I’d hate to be on your bad side. It looked like you were on the verge of going for her jugular.”
“That is possibly true,” I say with a half smile. “So, yeah, if you could keep what you saw between us, I’d be grateful.”
“Grateful enough to clue me in?”
I study his face, trying to make out the reason for his interest. Simple curiosity? Concern for my, or his, safety? Something else? I do see concern, but I’m more worried about the curiosity.
“It’s too dangerous.”
Wait, what did I just say? Crap! I meant to say “it’s nothing” or “just a prank” or anything else that would put him off. Not “it’s freaking dangerous and you should definitely be interested now.” Is some errant part of my psycho-girl psyche trying to show off for him? Without permission? I mentally smack that part of me back in line. Unfortunately, it’s not in time to avoid piquing Tyler’s curiosity even more.
“Really?” he says. Yep, definitely more interested. “Well, if it’s too dangerous for me, it’s certainly too dangerous for you.”
I glare at him, though it’s hardly his fault that some ridiculous pubescent impulse hijacked my mouth.
“Maybe I should tell the dean,” he says. His expression reads as cagey. He might not have any intention of telling the dean, but then he steps back a pace or two like he’s going to make good on his threat.
“Wait,” I say, and then change my mind. “Maybe I don’t care that much if you tell the dean.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t have asked me to wait.”
Ugh, what is wrong with me today? Maybe the rat spooked me more than I thought. Or it’s hormones. Stupid fear-triggered hormones! My dad’s out there. And there are dead rats in my locker. I do not want a rookie, cute or otherwise, underfoot. But the last thing I need is to have the dean breathing down my neck.
“Look, I appreciate your concern, Tyler, but I can handle it.”
He bends his head closer to mine. “You shouldn’t have to. At least, not without help.”
There’s something unreadable in Tyler’s expression, which bugs me. People are generally open books. You can tell what their motivations are in a single exchange, if you know what to listen for. That said, I’m used to being the pursuer, not the target.
“Do you even know my name?” I ask.
“What does that have to do with accepting my help?”
“It has to do with me trying to figure you out. Why are you so insistent on helping me?”
He doesn’t answer right away, but it’s not because he doesn’t have an answer. I can see it there, hovering just behind his eyes.
“This is going to sound kind of strange, but . . .” He pauses, and . . . blushes? Really? There’s only a hint of pink, but it’s definitely there, on his perfectly sculpted cheekbones. “You didn’t scream.”
“I didn’t scream?”
“When you saw the rat.”
I struggle and fail to come up with why this is a compelling reason to want to help me. Not just want to, but really want to. Enough that he’s blackmailing me for the privilege.
My doubt must be evident on my face, because he continues his explanation. “There’s something about you. Something different.” His eyes linger on mine too long. “I want to find out what it is.”
Okay, that’s unusual. As is the way my heartbeat stumbles when he says it.
“I don’t need help,” I say, and swallow. It’s a losing battle at this point, but so was the Alamo.
“Not even from someone who can potentially ID the guy?”
“You haven’t given me any reason to trust you,” I say.
“I haven’t given you any reason not to, have I?” he says.
I remain skeptical, but he does have a point.
“Besides,” he says, softening his tone. “If something like that happened to my sister and some guy could help her out and didn’t, I’d have a problem with that.”
And my insides have officially melted. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s game, set, and match to Tyler. My inner grifter throws her hands up in disgust.
“What exactly did you have in mind?”
“Meet me tomorrow at the Ballou? I can ask my wide receiver to sketch the guy in the black coat. His senior project is figure drawing.”
“What time?” I ask.
I nod reluctantly. His smile widens, flashing his blindingly white teeth. The late bell rings and students scramble into classrooms.
“See you tomorrow, then,” he says with a wink. “Julep.”
“It’s time to call the cops.”
Around five o’clock the Ballou rapidly loses patronage. St. Aggie’s folks have, for the most part, all shuffled home for dinner and family game night and the perpetual gloating that comes with the extremities of privilege. No one else in the surrounding community seems to need overpriced, froufrou stimulants, or at least, not of the coffee variety. My own coffee was legitimately purchased this time—by Sam, but it counts.
“So you said.” I roll my eyes at Sam over his double-chocolate-hold-the-whip mocha. “But we both know why I’m not going to. It was just a rat, Sam.”
“Yeah, now. But what happens when you ignore the warning? You have to assume the worst.”
“Whoever’s behind the redecorating of my apartment can’t possibly know about my dad’s note.” I lower my voice in the unlikely event someone is around to hear us. My new friend Barista Mike is the nearest human, but he’s wiping down the bar and seems lost in his own thoughts.
Sam leans forward, lowering his voice to match mine. “They apparently don’t need to know about it to think you have something they want.”
“What if they’re just trying to keep me quiet rather than trying to get something from me?”
“It doesn’t matter why they’re harassing you. It just needs to stop.”
“It does matter if I intend to stop them myself. If I can figure out what they want, I might be able to find out who they are.”
“Find out who who is?” Heather Stratton slides into the seat between me and Sam at the small wooden table. “Are you talking about the rat thing? Paula filled me in. She said Rachelle had a fit.”
Rachelle must have been the one who screamed. Figures. She’s always such a drama queen.
“It was more of a surprised squeak,” I say, taking a sip of my coffee. Bleh—hazelnut. Barista Mike is still on the steep syrups learning curve, apparently.
“Do you know who did it?” she asks in full gossip mode.
It’s clear she thinks our business relationship gives her a backstage pass to Team Julep, which would be annoying if I actually knew anything. Since I don’t, it’s merely amusing.
“No,” I say.
Sam gives me a meaningful look, which Heather correctly interprets to mean that I’m holding out on her. I’d say he’s getting sloppy, except I think he’s done it on purpose.
“But you know why it was put there?” Heather leans forward.
“Just a prank,” I say, adopting the defense I should have used with Tyler.
“Pfft.” She waves a hand. “Val said Tyler saw the guy who put it in your locker.”
Fabulous. Valerie Updike, Heather’s BFF, is only the world’s most proficient gossip. I would know, since I’ve used it to my advantage a time or two. So much for keeping it between us.
“Tyler?” Sam says. “Tyler who?”
“Tyler Richland. Jeez, Sam,” Heather says.
“Yeah, jeez, Sam,” I repeat, smiling.
“Julep’s going to have Tyler identify the guy in a lineup or something.”
I refrain from banging my head on the table. It would only draw more attention to this fiasco of a conversation.
“I’m not putting anyone in a lineup, and I’m not calling any cops, Sam, so just forget it.”
Sam, who opened his mouth to interject the bit about calling the cops again, closes it in favor of a reproving frown.
“What I am going to do is track down our homicidal Pied Piper of Hamlin and tie what’s left of the rat carcass around his neck.”
They both stare at me like I’ve gone nuclear, but I’ve had it with the peanut gallery for the day.
“And how do you plan to do that, exactly?” Sam’s the first to recover because he knows me best. He knows I don’t bite. Usually.
“Tyler’s going to give me whatever he can on rat boy, and I’m just going to . . . keep digging, I guess.” I don’t want to mention my dad’s note with Heather sitting right here, and Sam knows better than to bring it up.
Heather looks disappointed, but I’m not responsible for entertaining her, just defrauding her mom.
“Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?” I ask.
“Not really, no.”
We study each other in silence for a moment.
“I have an appointment with the dean in half an hour.”
I freeze, alarmed. But after taking a breath, I realize the dean can’t possibly know what’s going on with Heather’s NYU scam. It doesn’t involve the school in any way.
“I’m interviewing for the student-assistant position. My mom insists it will beef up my NYU admissions profile.” She huffs and twists a long, maple-colored curl around her finger. “I wish I could tell her that I’m guaranteed to get in.”
“Don’t even think it,” I say, suddenly nervous for a whole different reason. “Early decision doesn’t go out for another four months.”
“I know,” she says, annoyed, like she’s the one who told me in the first place. “I’m not going to blow it.
“So I’m stuck with this dean interview, hoping like hell I don’t get the job.”
Then it hits me—the gift-wrapped opportunity I’m being handed here.
“Yes,” I say quickly, finally warming to the conversation. “I mean, yes, take the job. It’s perfect.”
“Uh . . . am I missing something?” Heather says.
“I’m calling in my favor.”
Later that evening, I let myself into my apartment. I keep my eyes downcast as I cross the room and drop my bag onto a kitchen chair. I’m afraid that if I put my bag on the floor, the mess will swallow it whole.
I start clearing the kitchen, putting chipped dishes back in the cabinets, throwing the shards of broken plates in the newly scooped and bagged garbage. I mop twice to get rid of the congealed-chicken smell.
Sam offered to hang out at home with me when his attempts to cajole me into staying at his place again failed. It was sweet of him to offer. Also unnecessary. It’s just a bunch of stuff strewn around an empty room. It doesn’t mean anything.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I don’t think he bought it, either. But bagging the remains of one’s broken life is sort of a solo endeavor.
As I trash the gutted chair stuffing, I run down a mental list of costs: rent, utilities, tuition, food . . . All of it adds up to well over what I make conning for rich kids. I need a new angle. Something that will keep me afloat until my dad gets back. Something I can work in my off hours that rakes in enough money to cover costs. Something low-profile, steady, and easy to maintain. Something different.
An idea strikes me, and I take a break from cleaning to go on a hunt for my dad’s ID-forgery equipment. I unearth the printer from beneath an avalanche of books. The diffractive film and lamination pouches are on the floor of the bathroom, for no discernible reason. The laminator is upside down behind the laundry basket. The camera is nowhere to be found, though that is hardly surprising. I can use my phone’s camera, anyway.
What I’m talking about is making—and, more important, selling—the one thing every teenager under the age of twenty-one would give their eyeteeth for: a grade-A, on-the-level, better-than-bona-fide fake ID. At a hundred bucks a pop, I could make a significant amount of cash in a small amount of time. Not enough, but, you know, every little bit helps.
I take a break from forgery planning and head back to the kitchen. I pick up my bag from the chair and sink into it, setting the bag in my lap. The ID job is a good idea, but it doesn’t get me any closer to finding my dad. I wrestle with the doubt that’s been dogging my heels all day, but my gut tells me that nothing I’ve considered so far is even close.
I scroll through my phone contacts list to Sam’s name. I’m about to push the Call button, if for no other reason than to listen to him tell me about his latest StarDrive victory—anything to distract me from the darkness creeping out from the corners of the room—when just above Sam’s name, I see Ralph’s. My dad’s bookie. If anyone would know about my dad’s “field of miracles,” it would be Ralph. And just like that, everything clicks into place.
I jump up, dumping my bag on the floor. The racetrack. That must be it. I have to talk to Ralph. I call his number, but it’s the store, and his voice mail picks up. He must already be home for the night. I’ll have to go see him tomorrow after school. But finally—a win in the Julep column.
I feel like celebrating, so I go in search of the coffeemaker. Nothing says victory like late-night java. Besides, I have three chapters of reading for AP lit, a section review on quadratic equations for pre-calc, and a five-page French paper due by—I check the syllabus on my phone—the end of the week. Looks like it’s going to be another all-nighter.
I rescue the coffeepot from under my bed, untangling the curtain from the broken lamp in the process. But as I pivot away from the window, something catches my eye. Or rather, someone.
My window has a street view, and there are quite a few people on the sidewalk. But there’s only one person staring up at my window. One person in a long black coat with black boots and light hair. One person leaning against a black Chevelle with white racing stripes, the same Chevelle I saw parked outside the Ballou yesterday. One person who has definitely noticed me noticing him, broken lamp or no.
I race out of my apartment and fly down the stairs and out of the building just in time to see the Chevelle’s taillights disappear around a corner. The roar of the engine drowns out the rest of the street noise for half a minute as my stalker accelerates through all four gears and cruises out of sight with all my answers.
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