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Authors: Kirsten Miller

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BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
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Mandel sighs as if I’ve missed the point. “That’s a very narrow-minded way of viewing things. And for the record, we never force students to commit any crimes. We merely teach them the true ways of the world. The Mandel Academy didn’t invent fraud or extortion or insider trading. But we can’t pretend that such things don’t exist. They are tools that other people employ, so we train our students to make use of them too. That doesn’t mean that they will. Some Mandel alumni are perfectly law-abiding. They choose to work within the system. Not that the law matters a great deal to any of us. We serve a much higher purpose.”

I bet he wants me to ask about his “higher purpose,” but I’m not going to humor him. The guy clearly loves to hear himself talk. I try to hand the course catalog back to him. Mandel refuses to take it. I should toss it into the trash can that’s sitting next to the desk. But I don’t.

“Look, I’m a thief. I’m not exactly qualified to debate ethics, and I don’t really give a crap what you teach at this school. But if this is all you’ve got to show me, I’m going to be pissed. You said we’d be talking about my father.”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

I despise smart-asses who speak in riddles and expect you to figure them out. “What does your shady school have to do with . . .”

Then I realize I already know the answer. My father isn’t just a graduate of the Mandel Academy—he’s on the goddamned board of directors.

“Has the academy always been like this?” I ask.

When Mandel isn’t smirking, his gaze is unsettling. He makes me feel like I’m being dissected.

“Yes, from the day we first opened our doors. Although in the school’s early years, students were trained in much simpler tasks. Lock-picking. Safe-cracking. Confidence games. Armed robbery. But now, our most successful graduates don’t rob banks, they run them. Why risk your life sticking up a savings and loan? These days you can steal billions without ever leaving your office.”

“So my dad took classes like the ones in this catalog?”

“Is that the question you’d really like answered? Speak your mind, Flick. There’s no reason to tiptoe around me.”

“My father is a crook, isn’t he?’”

Mandel’s laugh must be genuine. It’s too damned bizarre to be fake. “Some people claim all investment bankers are crooks. I only know a few dozen, so I can’t speak for the entire profession. But if you’re born with sticky fingers, banking can be an excellent career choice. So the answer to your question is yes. Your father is a thief—just like his son. The difference is, you’re only able to rob one person at a time. Your father can pick thousands of pockets with the click of a single computer key.”

I’ve been waiting for the day I could punish my dad. For everything he did, and everything he might have done. I figured I’d have to use my own two fists. That’s the reason I came to New York—to grow strong enough to beat him. I wanted to make the bastard bleed. I still do. But now, after I’m finished, I can send what little is left of him straight to jail.

“What do you have on him?” I demand. “That’s why I’m here, right? You hate my dad. You want him taken down, but you don’t want to do it yourself. Fine. It’s a deal. Just tell me what you know, and I’ll handle the dirty work.”

“You’re wrong, Flick. That’s not why you’re here.”

The tone of his voice unnerves me. It’s far too flat—like he’s reading lines off a script.

“Then I’m not going to let you waste any more of my time,” I announce. “I gotta go.”

I’m on my way to the door when a bell begins to toll. Suddenly there’s a stampede in the hall outside. Voices. Laughter. The students sound just like ordinary kids. I have to see them.

“No.” For some reason, the command stops me. There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. I turn back to face Mandel. “I wouldn’t step outside right now. You’re the only student who’s ever been granted a tour. I don’t want your future classmates to know I’ve been playing favorites. They wouldn’t like that at all.”

The only student. My future classmates. I’m halfway out the door, and Mandel still thinks he’s got me right where he wants me. His little hints aren’t just annoying anymore. At this point, they’re starting to scare me. “What the hell is going on?” I demand.

While I’m waiting for his answer, the noise outside trails off. Another bell rings. Doors shut, and there’s silence once more. Mandel stands and strolls toward me. When he puts his hand on my shoulder, I brush it away.

“Let’s have a look at your room. I think we may find the answer there.”

“My” room is on the eighth floor. Mandel shoves a card into a slot below the handle, and the door slides open. The glass in the window is frosted. Light pours in, but I can’t see out. My computer is on the desk. My books are stacked on the shelves. A pair of my boxing gloves hangs from the closet doorknob. The blanket from my room in Connecticut lies neatly folded at the end of the bed. The life I left behind has been painstakingly reassembled. None of my belongings should be here.

“How did you get all this stuff?”

“Your father had it sent here.” Mandel picks up a throw pillow that my mother made and gives it a light fluffing. “He would like you to attend the academy. We need you to settle a little disagreement for the two of us.”

I assumed that Mandel and my father are enemies. But did Mandel ever actually say that they are? If they’ve joined forces against me, I’m in serious shit. “What kind of disagreement?”

Mandel tosses the pillow back on the bed. “It concerns the academy, of course. Your father and I both care deeply about the future of this institution. But we have very different opinions about the direction it should take. Your father would like the Mandel Academy to operate just as it did when he was a student. I’ve proposed a few changes that could bring this school into the twenty-first century. But I need the approval of the alumni and our board of directors. The graduates have chosen sides, and they’re almost evenly split. So you get to be the tiebreaker.”

“Then I guess you should tell me what the fight’s about.”

“I believe I’ve found a way to recruit a better class of student. But as your father has wisely observed, my theory remains untested, and . . .”

I can’t f—ing believe it. I’ve been dragged into some stupid little spat. I take a menacing step toward Mandel. He shuts up but stands his ground. “Hold on—are you talking about the school’s goddamned admissions policy?”

“Yes. As it happens, you’re the kind of student I’d like to recruit. So your father and I have agreed to a wager. If you graduate from the Mandel Academy, your father will resign from the academy’s board of directors. If you don’t graduate, then I will step down and your father will appoint a new headmaster.”

“What happens if I tell you both to go to hell?”

Mandel nods as if he’d been waiting for that very response. “Your father said you’d never agree. He claims you’re not up to the challenge. I think he’s worried you are.”

He chose the word worried with care. Scared wouldn’t have been believable. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Not at all. You and your father have a great deal in common. I suspect he sees himself in you. Perhaps that’s why he’s tried so hard to crush you. He knows that you might have the power to destroy him.”

Just when I thought that this conversation couldn’t get any stranger. “I have the power to destroy him?” I snicker. “You’re either bat-shit insane or you’ve watched too many movies. This isn’t Star Wars, Mandel. I’m not Luke Skywalker. My dad’s not Darth Vader. And you sure as hell aren’t my Obi-Wan.”

Something I said just got to him. But Mandel hides his annoyance well. “Let me ask you a question, Flick. What do you know about your grandparents?”

Next to nothing. They didn’t play any role in the stories my father told Jude. My mother said she’d never met her in-laws—and based on the few facts she’d been given, she was glad she’d been spared. “I know my dad’s mom was a floozy who ran off when he was a boy. His father was a drunk. He died in a gutter a few weeks before my dad entered the Mandel Academy. . . .”

Mandel stops me with a shake of his head. He doesn’t need to hear any more. “Some of that is true. Your grandfather was an alcoholic, but he didn’t die in a gutter. He died in bed with a steak knife buried in his chest. Your father’s fingerprints were all over the handle.”

It feels like the same blade was just driven through my ribs. But I don’t double over. I laugh. “Are you actually suggesting that my dad murdered my grandfather?”

“No, I’m telling you. It’s a fact. My mother recruited your father during her time as headmistress. The academy keeps files on all students, and I’ve read your father’s file many times. He confessed to killing your grandfather, but the judge presiding over the case thought your father had acted in self-defense. After all, the boy had been brutally beaten every day for years. So the judge contacted my mother and asked for her help. He wanted to give your father a second chance.”

My father’s a crook. I’m a thief. My father was beaten. My dad beat me. His father drank. My dad does too, but I’m the only one left who knows how much. “My grandfather’s name—it was Frank, wasn’t it?”

Mandel lifts his nose to the air, like a hunting dog that’s picked up a scent. “No, I believe it was Doyle. What made you think it was Frank?”

Because my dad called me that once. I must have been about twelve at the time. I remember it was a Sunday, and he’d spent the afternoon alone in his study, quietly working his way through a decanter of Scotch. His silence always scared me. So I stood in the hall with my ear to his door, waiting for him to make a trip to the toilet. When he finally did, I snuck into the room and watered a fichus with the rest of his whiskey. He caught me just as I was returning the decanter to its tray. His punch knocked me off my feet and into a wall. When I slid to the floor, I stayed there. I wasn’t terribly hurt—just playing dead while I figured out what to do next. Maybe my brain was a little bit rattled, but I could have sworn I heard my dad whisper, Frank. When he left, he closed the door behind him.

Even Jude never set foot in my father’s study. He and my mother wouldn’t have thought to look for me there. Who knows how long I’d have lain on that floor if I’d actually been badly injured.

“Never mind. For some reason the name Frank just popped into my head,” I tell Mandel. “Do you think my dad really stabbed his old man in self-defense?”

“There’s no doubt about it. Your father wasn’t cold-blooded back then—far from it. I remember when he first arrived at the academy. I was just a young boy at the time, and he made a big impression on me. I’d seen troubled students before, but I’d never met anyone quite so pathetic. According to the file, his instructors thought he’d amount to nothing. And by the end of his first month here, they were demanding he be expelled. But my mother resisted. She looked past your father’s unpromising exterior and saw the potential hidden inside. She made him the man he is today. And until she died, my mother always claimed that he was her masterpiece. And you, Flick—you could be mine.”

Jude was right. Our dad lied. The bastard lied about everything that mattered. My father never ran wild on the streets of the Lower East Side. He wasn’t a badass; he was an abused little boy. He was nothing before he came here. He was just like me.

“I’m not interested in being anyone’s masterpiece.”

“That’s not the correct response, Flick. You should have asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Okay. What’s in it for me?”

Mandel reaches into his suit pocket and hands me a piece of paper. A page torn from a grade school yearbook. It’s been folded and unfolded so many times that it’s coming apart at the creases. I don’t need to open it. I know all forty pictures on the page by heart. Thirty-nine little schoolboys in blazers and ties—and one ten-year-old in a green felt hat with a red feather sticking out. In the photo, he’s thrusting a wooden sword at the camera.

That piece of paper was the one thing I planned to take with me when I went AWOL from military school. It’s my most prized possession. I almost lost my nerve when I wasn’t able to find it.

“I know what really happened to your family,” Mandel says. “Do you?”

“Jude.” His name is suddenly the only thing left in my mind.

“Have you put all the pieces together yet? You must have suspected that your father had a hand in Jude’s death.”

Yes. “But why?”

“Your brother discovered that your father hasn’t been the most upstanding citizen—and then Jude made the mistake of confronting him.”

The room dissolves as if its atoms are no longer glued together. The only thing I can see through the blur is a bright patch of light. It must be the window. I keep my eyes fixed on it and hope it’s enough to keep me tethered to earth. There must be something Jude wants to show me, but I can’t let him pull me away. Don’t crack up. I plead with myself. Don’t go with him right now. Wait until you’re alone again. No one’s going to help a freak who talks to Peter Pan. Please, please, please! Don’t f—ing crack up!

“How do you know?” I have to force the words out of my throat.

“Your father needed the academy’s assistance to cover his crime. Which means I have proof. Photographs of the scene. Audio recordings that amount to a confession.”

Mandel’s face is the first thing I see when the room begins to take shape again. Freckled. Boyish. Friendly. Could he actually have it? The one thing I want more than anything else? The only thing on earth I’d be willing to kill for?

“You’ve suffered a great deal in the past few months,” he tells me. “That’s why I’m gambling my life and my legacy on you. Pain destroys the weak, Flick. But it makes the strong invincible. If you survive—and I believe you will—you could turn out to be the finest graduate we’ve produced in some time.”

Screw all his sweet talk. “You’ll give me the proof?”

“As soon as you graduate. Then you may use it however you see fit.”

“How long will I have to be here?”

“That depends on your performance. Nine of our top students graduate every year, and the ceremony always takes place in September. You’ll be eighteen by then, which means you’ll be eligible to graduate. But you will have to prove that you’re ready for a Mandel degree. Until you are, you will not be allowed to leave the academy.”

BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
6.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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