Chapter One: The Embezzler’s Wife
If I could give fledgling con artists one piece of advice, it would be this: tacos.
Specifically, Cemitas Puebla tacos.
There might be a mark somewhere out there impervious to the fresh Oaxaca cheese and garden-grown papalo, but if there is, I have yet to meet him. The spit-roasted pork, the chorizo and carne asada, the chile guajillo . . . No one says no to tacos. At least, not these tacos. Which is why they are my secret weapon on my toughest cases.
Holding a bag of taco heaven, I knock on the back door of our very own windowless 1996 Chevy van and wait for Murphy to let me in. Murphy opens the door, the cord of his headphones stretched to its limit. He doesn’t bother looking at me until he smells the tacos.
“You brought me dinner?” he says, eyes lighting up.
“Mitts off, Murph. These are for the mark.”
Murphy grumbles something under his breath.
“Well, if you’d get out of the van and actually, you know, work, the tacos could have been for you.”
“The van is an extension of me. I do not leave the van. The van does not leave me.”
J.D. Investigations, which is the name Murphy and I finally settled on for our PI firm, purchased the van in March for all of the company’s creeper spying needs. Murphy practically drooled on the bumper when he saw the extended wheelbase. I liked the monstrosity for its diesel engine, the price of gas being what it is. But what sealed it for us was the 1-800-TAXDRMY hand-painted on the side. I’d like to see the curious bystander brave enough to peek in that windshield.
“How does Bryn feel about that?” I can already tell you how Bryn, Murphy’s girlfriend for the past seven months, feels about that. Her queen-bee social status tanks any time she gets within a five-foot radius of the van. A type A personality, she is constantly appalled at the grease spots the van leaves wherever Murphy parks it. And her nerd-limit is obliterated every time he brags about the latest gizmo he’s added to it. Or maybe that’s just me.
“Bryn loves Bessie almost as much as I do.” Murphy pets the periscope controls on the surveillance dash he spent six weeks installing. It drove me crazy that it took him that long to get the van operational, but he insisted. His love of geek gadgetry is even deeper than Sam’s is. Was. Is.
Anyway, tomorrow is the start of the last week of the school year and the van’s been used on only one other job. Which means we’re still working out the kinks.
I hop into the back of the van, setting the tacos down on the dash. “A, I seriously doubt that. B, for the last time, we’re not calling it Bessie.”
Murphy opens his mouth to argue, but I redirect the conversation before we can go down that road. Again.
“Any movement?” I whip off my frayed hoodie and slip a brick-colored polo shirt over my black tank.
“Not a blip.” Murphy adjusts a knob. “Maybe this guy’s legit.”
“Maybe. But we’ll find out soon enough.”
“What are you going to do?”
Murphy snorts. “An insurance scammer pretending to be paralyzed is not going to get out of bed for tacos.”
“Well, it’s either that or set his house on fire.”
Murphy ponders this. “We could set his house on fire.”
“We are not setting his house on fire, Murphy.”
I miss Sam. He was more than just my hacker. More than just my partner, even. He was my best friend—the person I relied on to keep me from going off the rails. He should be the one arguing that we’re not setting anyone’s house on fire. It shouldn’t be my job to reel myself in.
“Besides,” I slide the temples of my fake glasses over my ears and don a Cemitas Puebla visor I conned the cashier out of. “Tacos always work.”
“If you say so,” Murphy says, tapping something on the tablet he’d had custom-built into the dash. “Camera’s aimed at the front door in case you’re right.”
“I’m always right.” Well, almost always.
I slip out into the dying light, goose bumps prickling my arms in the slight chill of a Windy City evening. Even in May the wind finds a way to make its presence felt. Live here long enough and you start taking the wind for granted. That’s what Tyler used to say. And if anyone had known what the wind was capable of, Tyler had. I shiver thinking of him, of the night he died in front of me. Ghosts don’t haunt people. Guilt does. And on Thursday, I’ll turn all pruny marinating in my guilt when St. Agatha’s hosts a memorial vigil for him.
I stuff thoughts of Tyler into the box in my brain marked Do Not Open and walk up to the one-story bungalow with drooping carport where the alleged insurance scammer lives. If I can prove he’s faking, I get a nice, fat check from the insurance investigator who contracted me.
I ring the bell.
The intercom speaker above the doorbell crackles. “Hello?”
“Taco delivery!” I say brightly, smiling for the tiny camera that the mark had installed with the intercom.
I have to hand it to the guy. He’s not taking any chances with his potential six-figure insurance payout. I’d feel bad about calling out another con, but this guy’s just a dabbler. He’s not really my people. He is thorough, though. Installing the intercom was a nice touch. Most insurance scammers fake their injuries for their doctor’s visits and court appearances and then resume waterskiing the next weekend. This guy is maintaining character even when he thinks nobody’s looking, which makes him a tough nut to crack.
Or he could be legitimately injured, I suppose. The tacos will tell us for sure.
“I didn’t order anything,” he says.
“Really?” I pause, pretending to check an address on my phone. “The order says 675 North Hamlin Avenue.”
“Must have been a typo,” he says, sounding grumpy.
“Man, my boss is going to kill me,” I say, scrolling through my phone with my thumb. “This is the second time this week. And it’s a prepay.”
I pretend to fret, weighing my options. “I don’t suppose you want these tacos? I can’t take them back. Cemitas Puebla has a strict policy about taco delivery time.”
“Cemitas Puebla?” the mark says.
I can almost hear the pros-and-cons debate going on in his head. Risk detection. But tacos . . . I’ve got him interested. Time for the shutout.
“I’ve got to get back. Thanks anyway, mister.”
“Wait!” he says. “Is it the Orientales?”
“Yes, and the Gov. Precioso.”
A few seconds of silence follow, and then the door opens. The mark—a skinny man in his midforties with a receding hairline and an honest face—stands in the doorway, fully erect and lacking any mechanical aid. Bessie’s camera had better be getting this, or Murphy will be on paperwork duty for the next three months.
“Extra cheese?” he says.
“Salsa on the side,” I say, and hand him the bag.
I could have kept the tacos, I guess, but the man is about to lose a five-hundred-thousand-dollar insurance settlement. He deserves a consolation prize.
“Thanks,” he says, smiling, as he shuts the door.
“No sweat,” I say, more to myself than to him.
Five minutes later, I’m climbing into the van’s passenger seat. I toss the visor into the back for Bryn to pick up later and stow in the disguises compartment. She likes to feel useful.
“You couldn’t have kept the tacos?” Murphy asks when I fasten my seat belt.
“Home, Jeeves,” I say, taking off the glasses.
“That’s not as funny as you think it is.”
I smile around the pang in my chest. God, I miss Sam.
At 10:28 p.m., I stretch back in my office chair, yawning and rubbing my eyes. Murphy left Cafe Ballou with Bryn at eight, but I’d wanted to finish the report to the insurance company investigator before calling it a night.
The footage Murphy captured seems clear enough evidence to me, but I learned early on that if I don’t write out my own observations in agonizing detail for the lawyers, I’ll end up on the stand giving testimony. And I seriously never want to see the inside of a courtroom ever again.
Julep Dupree, you are under arrest. . . .
I’d never seen the inside of the juvenile detention center, thanks to Mike Ramirez, the FBI agent who arrested me. Why he stuck his neck out for me I’ll never know, but he did. And because he and his wife, Angela, took me in, I’ve mostly evaded the travesty that is the foster care system. I have a social worker, Mrs. Fairchild, who I see on a semiregular basis as part of my punishment for getting Tyler killed. That’s not how the judge put it, of course, but that’s how it feels, since Mrs. Fairchild asks me about him all the time. She’s totally missing the point, though. I’m not supposed to forgive myself for what happened to him.
My phone buzzes and lights up. Mike.
I tap out my standard apology:
At work. Sorry.
There are few things worse than going from running the streets at will to a ten p.m. curfew. Ten p.m. On a weekend, even.
My phone buzzes again:
This is a game we play.
You rly want me stuck in your house with nothing to do?
I’d nearly typed at home because it’s shorter, but, well, no. It’s not my home.
Serious this time.
1 week. No phone.
Good lord. That’s like saying “No coffee.”
Ha. I’d like to see him try to stop her. For real, I’d probably pay admission. Dani is a nineteen-year-old mob enforcer. She does exactly what she wants, and no FBI agent, let alone Mike, is going to get in her way. I’m not even sure she would listen to me. In fact, I know she wouldn’t.
Good luck with that.
Now he’s calling me. I sigh and tap the Answer button. “Who is this and why do you keep stalking me?”
“Funny,” he says. “I could consider this a violation of your probation, you know.”
“Blowing curfew by accident is not grounds for probation violation.”
“Blowing curfew repeatedly is good enough grounds to try.”
“If you wouldn’t insist on instituting these silly rules, I wouldn’t be forced to break them.”
“The point of these ‘silly rules’ is to keep you safe. You know, from vengeance-seeking Ukrainian mobsters.”
“Spending years up to your neck in a covert government agency has skyrocketed your paranoia. No one’s conspiring to kill me.”
“Yet,” Mike growls. He’s probably referring to himself rather than Petrov, the mob boss I took down last October.
“Seriously, Mike, if it were two in the morning, I’d understand. But ten o’clock? Middle schoolers are still out peddling Girl Scout cookies.”
Mike echoes my earlier sigh. I can see him in my mind’s eye rubbing his bald boulder of a head in agitation. “I don’t want to babysit you. Believe me, I have better things to do with my time. But I can’t follow you around to keep you out of the crosshairs either. I’m responsible for your safety. The ten o’clock curfew is the best compromise I can make.”
None of this is new territory. Since I moved in with him and Angela, we’ve had multiple arguments about my safety. But if Petrov had wanted to make a move to hurt me, he’d have done it by now. I remind Mike of this, but he shrugs it off.
“Whether Petrov is out to get you or not, you’d better get your butt back home in the next half hour or I really am grounding you this time.”
“All right, all right. I’m leaving now,” I say.
“One more thing,” he says. “I’m leaving town for a couple of weeks. I have a bank robbery assignment in New York.”
“Bank robbery? Aren’t you in the organized crime division? And anyway, doesn’t New York have its own FBI agents?”
He pauses. Just a tiny fraction of a pause no one else would notice. But I notice. “It potentially relates to one of my cases here in Chicago, so I’m going to check it out.”
My gut says he’s holding back. “Anything having to do with me?”
He chuckles. “It was the pause, wasn’t it? Look, kid, not everything is about you. I’m just worried about leaving you here without somebody to hassle you when you don’t make curfew. I don’t want you to feel alone. I am coming back.”
Ugh. I hate it when I’m blindsided by sappy crap. Especially when it’s tough-as-a-tire-iron Mike trying to be sensitive to my abandonment issues. Yes, my mom left me when I was eight. Yes, my dad’s now in prison for the remainder of my high school years. That doesn’t mean I’m going to break down when the closest thing I have to a parental unit is going on a business trip.
“Don’t worry about me, G-man. I’ve got this.”
“I know,” he says. “Just make sure you keep Angela up to date on where you are.”
I hang up and quickly email the insurance scammer report and video to the insurance investigator. I’m pulling on my jacket when the tarnished bell hanging over the door rings.
“We’re closed,” I say as a joke, because I assume it’s Dani checking up on me.
When there’s no acerbic comment in return, I look up. But it’s not Dani’s black-clad, steel-sharp form standing in the doorway. It’s a woman in her early fifties with chestnut hair and a haggard expression.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
Instead of answering, she ducks past me to my desk and collapses into the beat-up chair I keep for clients. I sigh and shrug out of my jacket. I’m going to be late, which means I’m going to get another Mike safety lecture. And he might actually ground me this time. Awesome.
“Mrs. . . . ?” I say, having noticed the plain gold band on her left ring finger.
“Antolini,” she says.
The name sounds vaguely familiar, but not enough to raise red flags. “How can I help you, Mrs. Antolini?”
She takes a tissue from her floral purse. I wait as patiently as possible while she dabs at her eyes and blows her nose. I never try to comfort weeping clients. For one thing, it drags out the crying. For another, it’s just as likely to cause awkwardness as it is to cure it. Most people prefer I just wait it out.
“My husband was arrested a month ago for misappropriation of government funds. He worked for Lodestar. They do informational architecture for several government programs. If he’s convicted, he’ll remain in the maximum-security prison they’re holding him in for the next eighteen years. I can’t find the money he supposedly stole, so I can’t even get him out on bail.”
She stops to sniffle. So far, I’m not really hearing anything I can help with.
“I’m sorry that happened, Mrs. Antolini, but I’m not sure I—”
“It’s not that I think he’s innocent. I’m not that naive.” She wrings the rapidly disintegrating tissue in her manicured hands. “But I know my husband, Ms. Dupree. I know he’d never have done something like this on his own. They put him up to it.”
“The New World Initiative. It’s a cult my husband joined just over a year ago.”
Well, that’s interesting. I remember now where I heard the name Antolini before. Mike has CNN on twenty-four seven, and I remember overhearing a story about Mr. Antolini’s arrest. I don’t recall the embezzlement angle, but I did hear the New World Initiative mentioned. I noted it at the time, because NWI is a leadership and personal development organization that St. Agatha’s sponsors an internship with. Then I get why Mrs. Antolini is coming to me.
“You want me to take them down,” I say, crossing my arms.
“I want justice,” she says quietly.
And don’t I know what that feels like. When Tyler died, I wanted to tear the world down. It didn’t help at all that the man who pulled the trigger was behind bars. I wanted justice. But there is no such thing as justice when you’ve lost someone. Mrs. Antolini just hasn’t figured that out yet.
“Fair warning: I only ruin people when I can prove they deserve it.”
“They deserve it. They used my husband to get money for themselves. All you have to do is find it and you’ll learn the truth.”
“Find the money?”
“No,” she says. “The blue fairy.”
Chapter Two: The Rookie
“The blue fairy.”
I hear the words on repeat as I sit in the chapel of Holy Mother of God Church during my study hall period. I claim matters of spiritual pursuit, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Ulrich doesn’t buy my piety. Luckily for me, the academy bylaws don’t allow him to turn me down. It’s one of the benefits of going to a private Catholic school with its very own campus church. There are disadvantages as well, but right now I’m not complaining. I slouch in the straight-backed wooden pew and prop my ankles on the top of the bench in front of me. Not the most humble of postures perhaps, but I’m not exactly a god-fearing person. God has far bigger fish to fry than me.
To explain the blue fairy, I have to take you back to the bad old days seven months ago when I took down a Ukrainian mob boss to save about a hundred girls from his human-trafficking ring. It’s a long story that started with my dad, Chicago’s second-best grifter, contracting his forgery skills to Petrov, the Ukrainian mob boss, for a significant sum of money. During the job, my dad found out that the forged documents he was making were being used to smuggle Ukrainian girls into the country. So he tipped off the FBI (enter Mike Ramirez), and subsequently got himself kidnapped.
But my dad is nothing if not a planner. He knew he was gambling with more than his life trying to save those girls, so he hid a series of clues to keep me safe should anything happen to him. It mostly worked. Well, it helped. Okay, it was a terrible idea, and he should have known it wouldn’t have stopped me.
Anyway, the first clue came with a gun. My mother’s gun. On the gun was an inscription: per a.n.m., la mia fata turchina. For Alessandra Nereza Moretti, my blue fairy. At the time, I had no idea my mom owned a gun. I still don’t know where it came from, why she had it, or why she hadn’t taken it with her when she walked out on us eight years ago. But Alessandra Nereza Moretti was undoubtedly my mother, and the thing in my hand was inarguably a gun, and whoever called her “my blue fairy” was definitely not my dad. I gave the gun to Sam, and as far as I know, he still has it.
In any case, Mrs. Antolini’s mentioning a blue fairy can’t be a coincidence. Coincidences don’t exist. Somehow the New World Initiative is connected to my mother. The question is, what is the blue fairy and what truth is it going to show me if I find it? That the New World Initiative is a cult? That Mr. Antolini was manipulated into stealing the money? Or that my mother was somehow involved?
Mrs. Antolini was marvelously unhelpful in providing intel. She had no idea what the blue fairy was—only that the two men in suits who questioned her about it wouldn’t tell her anything else. She couldn’t even tell me what agency the men worked for. Which means that the people looking for the blue fairy are likely not legit lawmen. If they were, they’d have identified themselves.
A young girl of ambiguous Asian descent is standing in the row in front of me. She looks about twelve, and she must be a recent transfer student, because I’ve never met her before. She does look familiar, though, so I must have seen her wandering around campus.
“Excellent day for devotion,” I say, gesturing for her to take a seat. “How can I be of service?”
Skipping study hall is not my only motive for hanging out in the chapel. After Dean Porter—St. Aggie’s dean of students and my personal nemesis—nearly busted me outside the music room last semester, I realized I needed a place on campus to meet potential clients where Porter couldn’t go. Then I found out a couple of months back that, per the strict orders of the school’s president, Sister Rasumussen, the dean doesn’t police the chapel. I’m not sure if that’s Sister Rasmussen’s way of protecting the sanctity of the church or the secrets of one Julep Dupree, but I’ll take it.
My visitor stares at me for five full seconds without saying anything. I raise an eyebrow and start to tell her she should take a picture, it would last longer, but she moves before I do, taking the seat I’d indicated and staring straight ahead. It’ll make conversation awkward, but I have a feeling that the conversation is going to be awkward anyway.
“I’m Lily,” she says. Simple enough introduction, but the way she says it is weird—assertive, angry. This girl has some kind of baggage.
“What can I do for you, Lily?”
She lowers her gaze to her lap, her glossy black hair swishing over her secrets before I can tease them out.
“Do you have a job for me?” I prompt.
“No,” she says forcefully.
“Then what do you want?” I’m too amused to be annoyed. “You came to me, remember?”
“I—” She stops and glances over her shoulder at me. “I want to . . . work for you.”
I laugh. “You want to what?”
“I need a job,” she says.
I roll my eyes at this outrageous lie. She’s clearly well cared for—designer haircut, perfect makeup, professionally pressed St. Aggie’s uniform. She needs a job like she needs a makeover. Which is to say, she doesn’t.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I don’t hire liars.”
“Aren’t you a professional liar?”
“Good point,” I admit. “Still.”
“Okay, I don’t need a job.” She turns in the pew to face me. “I want a job. Not just a job. I want to work for you.”
“You can’t join me like you would a country club. I’m not hiring.”
“I was a research assistant for one of my teachers at my previous school. I type fast, I don’t charge, and I make a mean caramel macchiato. Can Murphy Donovan make a caramel macchiato?”
“I don’t have an espresso machine.”
“I can throw in an espresso machine.”
“I have no need for an espresso machine.” I stare at her, trying to figure her out. Why is she doing this? “Are you trying to piss off your parents or something?”
She’s silent for several moments before she answers.
“No,” she says, finally. “I’m trying to learn.”
“Learn what? How to pick locks? Spy on people?”
She’s quiet again, thinking. If she doesn’t give me an answer I like, this conversation is officially over.
“I’m trying to figure out who I am,” she says softly, the suffering in her voice so apparent that I wince. I know too well what that feels like—not just the pain, but not being able to hide it.
I have no idea what the right thing here is. Giving her what she’s asking for isn’t necessarily a kindness. I grift partly to keep myself afloat and partly because I don’t know who I am without it. But I’m under no illusions that it’s a good thing to be doing. Sure, I use it to help people now. Since everything went down with the mob, I’m on the Captain America side of the law (well, mostly). But I’m still not really a great person. No one, least of all me, thinks I’m a good influence on young girls.
Lily must sense that she’s losing me, because she says, “I’m looking for the Julep Dupree who saved a hundred girls from a life worse than death. Is that person still around?”
Fabulous. One act of brainless idealism, and I am never going to live it down.
I size her up again. The last time I trusted a classmate, he ratted me out to a mob boss. The last time I trusted a barista, he arrested my best friend and then me. You could say I’m a little gun-shy in the trust department these days. But I have a hard time believing she’s duplicitous. I’m practically gagging on the waves of innocence rolling off her. She couldn’t be an FBI agent, and I can’t imagine her in league with someone like Petrov.
And then her lower lip wobbles, ever so slightly, and she immediately firms up her features. The show of resolve is what breaks me. What can I say? I’m a fixer.
“One-week trial,” I say, shaking my head at myself. I can’t believe I’m doing this. “If it turns out you’re a spy, I will sic my enforcer on you. And yes, she bites. Give me your phone.”
Lily hands me her phone, and I type my number into her contacts app.
“When should I start?”
“Right now,” I say, switching from her contacts to the Web browser and pulling up the page for New World Initiative. I hand back her phone. “You’d better be right about that caramel macchiato.”
She turns to go, glancing at me once before walking out. I settle back into my angst. I wish she hadn’t brought up the Ukrainians. I wish I hadn’t been thinking about all of it before she even showed up. I have too hard a time stuffing it all away after it comes popping out. The weight of it all presses down harder on me here. I lost so much more than I saved that day. Tyler. Sam. My dad. Not to mention Ralph, who I still haven’t managed to track down despite all my and Murphy’s searching.
I just want to go back to what it was like before all this started happening.
Amen to that. I light a candle on my way out.
After school, Dani takes me to the firing range in Des Plaines. Dani and I have been going regularly since January, so it’s a familiar route. I spend this particular trip lost in thought.
I usually talk Dani’s ear off during the drive, getting her criminal-underworld insight on cases, keeping her updated on the Ukrainian girls, and, in general, telling her about my day. She’s a great listener. Not so much a sharer, unless she’s giving me the smackdown for being stupid. Like last March when I was struggling with my anger over Tyler’s death and daring the world to try to take me down. She said I didn’t have to suffer to earn forgiveness. But maybe I just suffer either way. . . .
“You did your job. You saved me from Petrov. Your promise to my dad is done, but you’re still here. And you still think it’s your job to protect me. Just so we’re clear, I never asked you to.”
“You are right. You did not ask. But I was not doing it for you.”
“Enough. It is your life to risk as you want. Just as it is my life to risk in your place.”
“What are you thinking?” she asks, breaking into my memories.
“Work,” I say, more lie than truth. No need to rehash the many ways in which I’ve been an idiot. So I fill her in on the particulars of the NWI job instead. Well, most of the particulars.
“And your new associate has found information on the New World Initiative?”
“As much as can be found without joining up,” I say, thinking back to the two-page report, typed and double-spaced, that Lily had emailed me that afternoon.
“You are considering joining a cult?” Dani doesn’t sound thrilled.
“It’s not really a cult. Or at least, not openly. It’s a leadership organization. Businesspeople pay to attend a series of leadership workshops that supposedly help them turn their mediocre lives into satisfied, happy ones. They advance to higher levels, bringing in new members to earn rewards and greater status.”
“It sounds like a cult.”
“It’s more like a pyramid scheme. It promises a big reward it never intends to deliver.”
“Which is?” Dani backs into a parking spot next to the firing range just as the horizon turns a dusky rose. I open my door and step out, stroking the hood of Dani’s Chevelle as I walk to the sidewalk. This car and I go way back.
“That’s what worries me,” I say. “What kind of ‘reward’ would convince someone with no priors to commit something as severe as grand larceny? Antolini had to know he’d get caught.”
Dani holds the door to the range open for me. Steve the gun-desk guy smiles at us. He’s seen us enough times now to recognize our faces.
I fork over my fake ID and Firearm Owner’s ID without his asking. Dani, he never ID’s. Possibly her black coat and perpetual glare are ID enough for Steve. They’d be enough for me to make her as a mob enforcer. And no one who wants continual use of his fingers cards a mob enforcer.
We pay our rental fees, grab safety gear, and head to the firing range. It’s busy, but not so busy that we have to wait for a booth. I lay the Beretta I always rent on the table so I can adjust my safety glasses before loading the gun. The glasses are too big and constantly slide down my nose. Dani never seems to have that problem. Somehow she looks just as lethal wearing plastic glasses and headphones as she does without.
She waits as I inspect the gun and load it. She’s a stickler for proper procedure. Always point the gun downrange. Always assume the gun is loaded. No coffee on the shooting line. Blah. Too many rules. But both she and Mike insisted I learn how to shoot in case another Petrov tries to use me as a body shield—which is hardly likely given that I turn down the dangerous cases these days, but as it’s probably the only thing they agree on, I took a note.
“There is something you are not telling me,” Dani says over the dull roar of the other shooters. She’s leaning against the wall of the booth, her arms crossed, looking relaxed. She always seems most at ease when there’s a gun in the room.
I fire a few rounds into the distant target. It’s hard to tell from the booth, but I may have managed a reliable group. It’s down by the lower left quadrant of the target, but it’s a group.
“Move your right foot back,” Dani says, her expression shrewd and assessing. “Lean more over your left.”
Dani didn’t exactly volunteer to teach me. She prefers to keep me completely separate from her day job as hired muscle for whatever criminal syndicate happens to be shorthanded. Training me in the fine art of killing people is too close to that part of her life for comfort, I guess. But I insisted. Mike gave me exactly one (totally unnecessary) driving lesson during which I nearly booted him from the car for stomping on an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger-side floor every time I rounded a corner. I figured that subjecting myself to his teaching style while I was in possession of a loaded weapon was not the best way to stay out of prison.
Besides, I like being around Dani. She doesn’t push me to be something I’m not. She doesn’t judge me, as long as I’m not acting stupid. And she doesn’t need protecting. I can just be with her. No expectations, no apologies, no guilt. She is to me what a gun is to her—I’m most at ease when she’s in the room.
She arches an eyebrow, still waiting for me to spill my secrets. I adjust my stance and my aim. “I’ll tell you later,” I say, because hell if I’m shouting about my mom issues at the top of my lungs.
I take a few more shots, but they end up hitting the same place on the target. Dani leans forward and fixes my grip on the gun, her movements patient but firm, her fingers warm against mine.
“Holding it like this feels clunky,” I say.
“It applies rearward pressure to counteract the forward pressure of your shooting hand. Try again.”
I do as told, and this time my shots end up in the lower right quadrant of the target.
Dani sighs, which I see more than hear, and comes over to stand behind me. She wraps her arms around me, placing her hands over mine on the gun. She still has to shout despite her mouth being right next to my ear, but that’s not as weird as the chill that zips down my spine at the thought of her mouth being that close to my ear. Earth to Julep—you’re supposed to be paying attention.
“You are working too hard to align the sights. You won’t have time to do that in a fight anyway. Focus on the front sight. Now take a breath and let it out halfway. Squeeze the trigger slowly so the movement does not change your aim. . . .”
She hesitates, and then steps back. The sudden absence of her body heat makes the ambient air that swirls in feel colder than before.
As much as I prefer Dani’s company, I don’t actually get her. I’m a grifter. I can usually read people like a shopping list left abandoned in a grocery cart. But Dani’s more like The Brothers Karamazov, the nineteenth-century Russian novel Mrs. Springfield bludgeoned us with last semester—all intricate imagery that’s a bitch to decipher. I’m sure it’s because my knowledge of her life is patchy at best. She won’t tell me about her present, and I get only rare glimpses of her past. She keeps too much hidden, like why she goes out of her way to help me.
I freeze my position and fire off another three rounds. All of them end up just to the right of center.
“Better,” she says.
I change the clip and hand her the gun. She pulls the slide back to check the chamber. In one smooth movement, she aims and shoots the target dead center. She waits a breath and shoots another. Then another. The hole in the center of the target widens to an oval.
“Control is everything,” she says. Her ice-blue eyes are set at serious, but then they always are. I’ve seen her laugh maybe three or four times in the eight months I’ve known her. Whatever demons she’s carrying must weigh as much as the cathedrals she has etched into her skin. And I know a thing or two about carrying demons.
I see the moment her thoughts shift from guns to something else. I don’t know what they shift to, but her expression turns bleak. She’s about to say something when Steve bursts through the door, minus headphones and safety glasses. His gaze falls on us like he’s a smoke alarm and we’re on fire.
“You’d better get out here,” he says.
Chapter Three: The Initiative
“Ooo, yikes—that’s going to take a while to buff out,” Murphy says as he joins me on the sidewalk. Not-Bessie is cooling her tires next to the curb rather than the parking lot to give the battered Chevelle its space.
“Thanks for that, Murph. Perhaps you could rein in your exorbitant sensitivity when you talk to Dani.” Sarcasm is my superpower.
“At least it’s fixable,” he says, surveying the shattered windows, dented fenders, and spray-painted hood. “Who did you piss off this time?”
“It’s probably just a fluke.” I wave with a dismissiveness I don’t feel.
“Just a fluke?” he says, eyebrows raised behind his just-this-side-of-hipster glasses. His latest haircut is even more rakish than the one Sam had him get when he orchestrated his geek-chic makeover. Bryn might be the true grifter here—her transformation of Murphy is more absolute than mine. “I thought you didn’t believe in coincidences.”
I did tell him that, didn’t I? Con artist rule number 489: Keep your philosophies on life to yourself. Sadly, I suck at following this rule.
“Besides,” he continues, “flukes don’t usually come with strange messages.”
I look over at Dani’s poor Chevelle, its smashed windshield a radiating web of milky glass. Toothy shards litter the asphalt around the tires. And worse, the words no game are spray-painted in red on the hood.
no game. I haven’t the faintest idea what it means, but my list of suspects is pretty short.
“It’s not too late for Witness Protection,” Murphy says, though he’s only saying it to irk me. He knows I hate it when anyone brings it up.
“This isn’t Petrov. If he had this kind of reach, he’d have gone for me directly.”
“As someone who stands next to you a lot, that’s really comforting,” he says. My sarcasm appears to be rubbing off on him.
“It’s not meant to be comforting. It’s pragmatic. This isn’t his style. Property damage? Petrov is a razor, not a baseball bat.”
“Nice. You should say exactly that to Agent Ramirez when he asks you about it,” Murphy says, smirking.
I play through that conversation with Mike in my head. “Yeah, not going to happen. It’s Dani’s car, so it’s not like the police are going to call him. And if the police don’t tell him, how’s he going to find out? He flew to New York this morning, and it’ll be fixed before he gets back, so . . .” I let Murphy fill in the you-better-not-say-anything blanks himself.
“That’s one way of handling it, I guess,” he says, shaking his head at me.
Dani and Steve, the gun-desk guy, are talking with a couple of police officers near the building’s entrance. The officers are taking notes, Steve is gesticulating with his long, scrawny arms, and Dani is quietly brooding. I see the lines of tension in her body. She’s a coiled spring about to pop through the leather upholstery.
“I’d better get her out of here,” I say.
As I approach the group, Dani’s eyes snap to mine. She looks like a caged animal. I imagine I looked much the same when I waltzed into the MCC to try to post bail for Sam after Mike arrested him at the dance last year.
It’s not that we criminals are afraid of cops, exactly. I certainly didn’t hold back when I railed at Mike for betraying me and arresting my partner, despite being in the heart of FBI territory. But there’s something inherently wrong about being within spitting distance of someone who’s your polar opposite. It’s like it messes with the space-time continuum. If Sam were here, he’d use some bizarre hacker analogy about mutual exclusion programming. But Sam isn’t here, so I have to settle for imagining him saying it.
I take Dani’s arm and begin to slowly extract her from the group. “You got this, right, Steve?” I give him my most winsome smile.
“Sure,” he says.
“Wait, we’re not done with our questions,” says the female officer. She’s shorter than her partner, but not by much.
I hand her my card. “I’m sorry, we need to be somewhere. But you can call me anytime, and I’ll be happy to answer any further questions.” I’m backing away, pushing Dani behind me. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate everything you and the Des Plaines police force are doing for us. And rest assured we will continue to help in whatever way we can.”
And before Officer Lady can get a word in edgewise, I’m shoving Dani into the front seat of the van. I climb over her, shutting the door behind me and strapping myself into the jump seat Murphy installed behind the driver’s seat.
“Next stop, coffee,” Murphy says as he starts the engine.
“Thanks, Murphy,” I say, inching over enough to put my hand on Dani’s arm. “Dani?”
She’s staring out the window as we pass the Chevelle. I can’t help but feel like we’re leaving an injured friend behind in enemy territory. I’m sure Dani feels ten times worse.
“I can fix it,” I say.
She doesn’t answer.
St. Agatha’s in late May is an explosion of roses. I don’t know who the rose nut was who planted them all, but now the poor groundskeepers are forever pruning, deadheading, spraying, and staking. The ivy up the side of the administration building is bad enough, but the roses add a whole new level of angst. I mostly try to ignore them and how they smell like my mom.
I open the door leading to the Brockman Room and pass the portraits of dead white men frowning knowingly at me as I climb the stairs. They don’t bother me anymore, though. We have an understanding. I keep playing Robin Hood, and they keep their judgment to a minimum.
I trot up the carpeted stairs to the administration offices. I always feel a bolt of dread when my feet hit the second floor. Dean Porter’s office is up here, so it’s a conditioned response. But I’m not here to see the aggro dean of students today. Besides, at four in the afternoon, she’s usually out doing campus rounds.
“Can I help you?” asks a freckled student assistant. A junior. Karla . . . something.
“I want to apply for the New World Initiative summer internship program. It says online that I need to fill out the application through the Professional Development Office.”
Karla taps something into her computer. “The application deadline for that was in February. Besides, both spots are taken. One of the students would have to bow out. Even then, you wouldn’t get in. There are two alternates selected, and both of them would have to pass. Plus, there’s no guarantee the program director would accept your application. The internship starts next week.”
“May I ask who the accepted students and alternates are?”
Karla gives me a suspicious look—I am Julep Dupree, after all—and then scrolls to the bottom of the screen. She reads me the names. I thank her for the information and walk out.
Once in the hallway, I pull out my phone and scroll to a number in my contacts app. I press Send and wait for Kurt Peddleton to pick up.
“Kurt, hi. It’s Julep. Remember that favor you owe me?” He answers in the affirmative, though reluctantly. I don’t know why everyone is so apprehensive about the favors I make them promise me when I do a job for them. I’ve never asked for anything crazy. Well, except that one time. But it’s not like his eyebrows will never grow back. “Well, I need you to back out of the NWI summer internship program.” We go around about it a few times before he finally caves. They always cave eventually. They have to. I have too much dirt on them, and they know it. “You’re a gem, Kurt. Thanks.”
Then I call Rajid Ahmed, one of the two alternates, and have an almost identical conversation with him. He finally agrees (after much whining), and we hang up.
Sonja Warrick is another story, though. I don’t have anything on her, and I don’t know what leverage there is to use against her. So I call Bryn.
“What is it this time?” she says when she picks up. Bryn likes me, I’m fairly sure, in spite of how I manipulated her into going with Murphy to the formal last year. In the end, she’s happy dating Murphy, so she mostly forgives me for duping her into saying yes. But on some level it still irritates her.
“What do we have on Sonja Warrick? Anything I can use?”
Bryn sighs heavily. “I don’t know, Julep. She’s a nerd. She does all her own work. She keeps to herself. I can’t remember the last time I even talked to her.”
“There has to be something. Does she like someone? Does she hate someone? Everyone has a secret.”
“Ugh, that is so . . . you. Why don’t you just ask her for whatever it is you want? Maybe she’ll give it to you.”
I frown at the phone. “I don’t understand the words that you are speaking.”
“Oh, for— I don’t have time for this.” She hangs up on me.
I pace back and forth, thinking. And then I get an idea. I call Murphy.
“Hey, Murph, I need you to change Sonja Warrick’s bio grade to an F.”
“Hello to you too,” he says, but I hear him tapping his keyboard in the background, so I don’t berate him for insubordination. “Why are we changing Sonja Warrick’s bio grade to an F?”
“I need her disqualified from the NWI internship. The powers that be will figure out the grade ‘mistake’ in a week or two, but it’ll take them long enough to verify everything that she’ll be disqualified from accepting the internship until after it’s already started.”
“You know, there’s a note here that she’s accepted an international internship in Mumbai for the summer.”
“Oh,” I say, sheepishly. “You can change her bio grade back, then.” Bryn was right. I could have just asked.
I hang up with Murphy and walk back into the Professional Development Office. Karla is on the phone.
“All right. I’ll make a note of it. Thank you for calling,” she says, and hangs up. Then turning to me, she says dryly, “Apparently, one of the students backed out of that internship you were asking about. And then mysteriously, one of the alternates backed out as well. If the other alternate backs out—” She taps a few more times on the keyboard. “Actually, it looks like that alternate is out of the running as well. Interesting.”
I smile innocently at her. She hands me an application and a pen.
“Thank you,” I say, and fill out the form.
When I hand her the completed form, she takes it with an arch expression. “You’ll still have to convince the program director you deserve special consideration.”
“Who’s the program director?”
Murphy enjoys a hearty guffaw at my expense later that night as we’re sitting in the Ballou office, regrouping. I lean against my desk and tap my fingers on the scratched wood, waiting for him to get his hilarity under control.
“Why is that funny?” Lily asks, referring to my news that I have to get special permission from Dean Porter to get into the NWI program.
“Julep and the dean are like orcs and elves.”
Lily looks at Murphy blankly.
“Meaning they loathe each other,” he explains. “There’s no way the dean is going to let Julep in.”
“There’s a way. I just haven’t figured it out yet,” I say. Really, he should have more faith in me. I did get Bryn to say yes to his invitation to the formal, after all. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
“Well, while you’re chewing on that, I have something else for you. Which do you want first, the bad news or the slightly less bad news?” Murphy swivels his chair around to grab a couple of papers from his desk.
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Why is it never good news?”
“Slightly less bad is slightly good,” Lily points out.
“Thanks for the input, Lily,” I say. “Let’s go with the bad news first.”
“I just wasted the greater part of two days—which I can never get back—following the paper trail for the New World Initiative. Every publicly available document confirms they’re legit. There’s not so much as a building code violation on these guys.”
“There has to be something,” I say. “Even companies entirely on the up-and-up have a little dirt under their nails.”
Murphy shakes his head. “I’ve checked property records, incorporation documents, court records, police reports. I even checked UCC lien records. No red flags. Not even yellow ones. And get this . . .”
Murphy rolls his chair across the floor. He sets some papers on my desk, turning them to face me. A printout of the pristine Better Business Bureau reviews of the New World Initiative Corporation glares mockingly at me.
“There are no complaints,” Murphy continues. “Not one.”
“That’s . . . weird,” I say.
“Because it means there’s nothing shady going on? Or because it means there is?” Lily asks.
I think of Petrov’s pet senator, Tyler’s dad, who ended up in prison, but not before he paved the way for Petrov to wreak all sorts of havoc on a lot of innocent girls’ lives. If NWI has that kind of connection, that’s more power than I really want to pit myself against. Even if the blue fairy lies on the other side, even if Mrs. Antolini is another kind of innocent in need of my help, I don’t know that I can go through another Petrov.
“What have you got, rookie?”
“Not much,” Lily says. “Duke Salinger is the founder and CEO. Several articles mention his checkered past, but nothing I found spelled out what that past was. Almost every article was a glowing endorsement of NWI. The only detractors were crazy, tinfoil-hat-wearing types who live off the grid and write manifestos. And even they were luke-brimstone at best. The NWI is just—”
“Too clean to be real,” I finish for her.
A quiet moment passes as we all consider the implications of this.
“Maybe we should just let this one go,” Murphy says at last.
I skim through the Better Business review. None of them convinces me continuing this job is a good idea. “Maybe we should,” I say.
“Why?” Lily asks. “You brought down an entire mob. What’s one little pyramid scheme compared to that?”
I look up in surprise at the note of bitterness in her voice and catch a glimpse of pain before she manages to cover it up.
“Sometimes a pyramid scheme is more than a pyramid scheme,” I answer before turning to Murphy. “What’s the slightly less bad news?”
“I think I have a lead on your mom,” Murphy says.
I nearly fall over. “What?”
“It’s not a good lead.”
“Murphy,” I say sharply. “What lead?”
“Up till now, we’ve only been scratching the surface in our Internet search. There’s so much the search engines don’t index. So I started combing online databases—university libraries, media archives, that kind of thing—to see if I could find anything. And, well . . .”
He grabs his laptop, clicks something, and turns the computer to show me a grainy scanned image of a newspaper article from February 2012. A picture of my mom dominates the left side of the column. Her name, Alessandra Nereza Moretti, is the caption. My heart climbs into my throat as I start at the top of the article.
Thirty-three-year-old Alessandra Moretti reported missing. Last seen at Deer Run Café on Mercator Dr. Reward for information leading to her recovery. Call 555- . . .
I pull back in confusion, then scroll to the top of the page and down to the article again.
“This can’t be right,” I say. “It’s a missing person report. It says she disappeared three years ago.”
“I told you it wasn’t a good lead.”
“I don’t understand.” It’s definitely her. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, the same smile I used to see in the mirror before everything went haywire last year. I may not have seen my mom in eight years, but I’d still recognize her in a picture. “Why wouldn’t I have heard about it? Who would have reported her missing if not me and my dad?”
“I don’t know,” Murphy says. “It’s a local article from some nothing town in Alabama. A missing person is hardly national news. Still, it seems like they would have notified next of kin if they knew her name.”
I pull out my phone and dial the number listed in the article, but all I get is a “This number is no longer in service” message.
Then my stomach drops. “Wait. Did it say February of 2012?” I scan the newspaper header for confirmation.
“I think so. Why?”
My knees shudder, and I sink into my chair. “I would have been thirteen. And that’s about the time of year my dad took off and was gone for two weeks with no explanation.”
Murphy goes quiet, digesting this. “Do you think he knows about it?”
“I—I never asked him where he went or why. I just assumed it had to do with a job that had gone wrong. I thought he left to protect me. But now . . . It can’t be a coincidence.”
Murphy shoots me a sympathetic look as he resumes control of the laptop. “Speaking of coincidences . . . ,” he says, pulling up a web page he bookmarked.
Welcome to the all-new Bar63.
“What is this?” I ask, the sixty-three pinging around in my head like an eight ball.
“Maybe nothing,” he says. “But it might be worth checking out.”
Located in the vibrant Rogers Park area, just steps away from the campus of Loyola University, the new Bar63 offers something for everyone . . . opened its doors in March . . . and talented bartender Victoria Febbi . . . live music every Thursday night . . .designed for sports enthusiasts, with more than twenty giant flat screens . . .
“What is it?” Lily asks, no doubt tired of our cryptic discussion.
“It’s a bar that just opened a couple of months ago called Bar63.”
“Why is that significant?”
“My father has this saying: ‘you, me, and sixty-three.’ He used it as a clue last year when everything went down with the mob. I always thought the sixty-three was meaningless, something he just made up because it rhymed and it was catchy. But now there’s this bar.” I look up at Murphy. “I don’t know, Murph. This one really could be just a coincidence.”
“I thought so, too, when I first read the article. But something about it kept nagging me. So I dug around a bit, and I found something else pretty coincidental.”
He uses the keyboard shortcut to bring up the next browser window. The Wikipedia page for Victoria Febbi appears. Except it’s not Victoria, it’s Vittoria. And it’s not a page about a bartender. It’s a page about the actress who voiced the Blue Fairy in an Italian production of Pinocchio.
“We already know from the inscription on the gun that the blue fairy somehow relates to your mom,” Murphy says, his bespectacled gaze intense. “What if the sixty-three relates to her, too?”
I stare at the screen without really seeing it. Is that what my dad meant? Every time he said You, me, and sixty-three, did he mean my mom? All these years, I thought it was just me and him against the world; I thought my mom had left us without a backward glance. But maybe that’s not what happened at all. Maybe my dad was trying to tell me something.
“Well . . .” I shut Murphy’s laptop. “There’s only one way to find out.”
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