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Authors: Kirsten Miller

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BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
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Nine months. Nine months is nothing.

Mandel slides his hands into his pants pockets. His eyebrows are arched, and he’s bouncing a bit on the balls of his feet. “So what do you say, Flick? Will you help me win my little wager?”

I tuck the yearbook page into my back pocket. I’d rather Jude didn’t hear my answer. I know he wouldn’t approve. “Yes.”

“Excellent! However, there are two conditions to which you must agree before you’re officially admitted. Graduates may pursue any career of their choosing, but they must always remain in the employ of the Mandel family.”

It’s a meaningless formality. I have no intention of pursuing a career. “Fine. And the second condition?”

“Our students are a special breed. Everyone here is gifted in one way or another. But many arrive lacking discipline and self-restraint. Over the years, we’ve found it essential to keep a close eye on our students until they acquire those two traits. On the first day you arrive, a small chip will be inserted beneath the skin of your forearm. It will allow the academy to monitor your location. As soon as you graduate, the chip will be removed.”

“What?” This is a problem. “There’s no f—ing way I’m going to let you put a chip in my arm.”

Mandel makes a show of sympathy. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid the chip is non-negotiable. But I do understand your reluctance. It’s a terribly old-fashioned method of keeping our less disciplined students in line. A pharmaceutical option would be more state-of-the-art. We’re looking at ways to update the system, but for now, the chips remain a necessity. However, I can assure you that your father will not be able to access the data. And I don’t waste time tracking students who don’t cause trouble. I’d let you in without a chip, but I don’t think you’d want to stand out from your schoolmates.” He sees I’m still not convinced. “Tell you what. Why don’t you take a little while to think about it? Have a hot shower in your private bathroom. Change into some clean clothes. You’ll find everything you need is here in this room. I even took the liberty of adding a few items to your wardrobe. I’ll drop by in an hour to hear your final answer. If it turns out to be yes, there are a few people downstairs who would love to give you a proper welcome. Believe it or not, Flick, you already have fans.”

He leaves me sitting on the bed. Once he’s gone, I take it all in. The mattress is firm. The room’s furniture is simple and elegant. My mother would have called the pale shade of gray on the walls something like Nimbus or Dove. It’s all so incredibly tasteful. There won’t be much suffering in a room like this.

I don’t trust Mandel. I don’t buy a bit of his flattery. And the tracking chip is disturbing as hell. But at the end of the day, none of that matters. Mandel knows that my father killed Jude—and he says he has proof. And there’s nothing—nothing—I won’t do to get it.

CHAPTER SEVEN

THE WAKE

I
’m getting drunk enough to enjoy my own going-away party. The people I pass either gawk or get out of the way. It’s not every day that a rich-looking kid is spotted staggering through the projects with no coat and a bottle of his father’s favorite Scotch in his hand.

“Thirty-thousand dollars a pop,” I inform a young lady. She steps off the sidewalk, into a patch of mud. You know you’re a mess when girls ruin their shoes to avoid you. “And you just piss it out the same evening!” I shout at her back.

A seven-foot hulk in a black North Face coat and knit hat emerges from the lobby of one of the buildings. In the darkness, he looks like a bear standing on its hind legs. And I’m trespassing on its territory. Suddenly the bear takes off toward the west, moving more quickly than you’d think possible for a beast of his size. I have a feeling he’ll be back with friends.

“Go get ’em!” I call out. “I’ll wait right here for you!”

I drop to the ground with a thump and sit with my back against a tree. I take a swig from the bottle and gag. You’d think Scotch this expensive would taste like something other than whiskey. I wonder if stealing a thirty-thousand-dollar bottle of liquor is grounds for expulsion from the Mandel Academy. Seems highly unlikely. I guess I’ll find out in the morning.

Scotch or no Scotch, Mandel can’t be too happy that I slipped out of his little cocktail party. Six of his favorite alums had shown up to check out the horse he’d backed. And these weren’t your average gamblers. A lady senator. A CEO. Two big-shots from Goldman Sachs. A businesswoman who’d flown in from China. And some dude with a scraggly beard and camouflage pants. Everyone else chuckled when he told me he “works from home.” I knew they were all there to place their own bets. So Mandel made sure I’d been cleaned up and decked out in the finest duds. As soon as we stepped into the alumni lounge on the first floor, the guests began examining my physique and picking my brain. I suspect a few of them wanted to pry open my mouth and have a good look at my teeth. Or make me drop my trousers, turn my head, and cough. I kept my pants on, but they still seemed to walk away satisfied. When they began to pair off to compare notes, I grabbed a bottle from the bar and headed straight for the exit. Now that I think about it, there’s got to be plenty of security at the academy. Mandel must have let me leave because he figured I’d be back. But if he was really smart, he’d have stopped me. His cameras probably caught me with a bottle in my hand, but nobody saw the contraband tucked into the waistband of my fancy new pants.

I pull out the course catalog and flip through its pages for the third time tonight. Mandel says the catalogs can’t leave the academy. But I think he’s being a little too cautious. No one would ever take this shit seriously. I mean, who’s gonna believe that the prestigious Mandel Academy offers classes on assassination techniques? (Wish I had a pencil handy. I’d circle the hell outa that one.) So despite my sticky fingers, his secrets are probably safe. Too bad. I was hoping I’d be able to skip all this BS and persuade Mandel to make a trade. His catalog for my dad’s ass. But there’s no way he’ll go for it. I guess I’ll have to learn how to skim credit cards and clean crime scenes after all. But at least I’ll be able to make it through high school without touching Moby-Dick. I cackle and close one eye so the words on the catalog’s pages stop squirming. There isn’t a single art class listed. No literature, either. No sex education. Nothing useless. It’s all business all the time at the fabulous Mandel Academy. No wonder the alumni have the personalities of cyborgs.

The more I read, the more nauseous I get. Finally I have to put the catalog down and wash the vomit back with a glug of Scotch. I’m cold. Starting to drift off, but my eyes pop open. A little boy is standing a few yards away, snapping my picture with the camera on his crappy phone.

“Hey, what time is it?” I shout.

The kid jumps about three feet in the air. He probably thought I was dead.

“What time?” I repeat. “Look at your goddamn phone.”

“Eight,” he squeaks, and runs away.

“That’s what I thought.” My eyes flutter shut again.

I left military school seven months ago, but there’s an alarm in my head that still goes off at eight every evening. That’s when they turned on the Wi-Fi for an hour. You were supposed to cram all of your Internet research into sixty short minutes. I could have slept through every class and still been named the school’s valedictorian. So I used the time to talk to Jude.

He was always there when I logged on—even on weekends when he must have had better things to do. We chatted about stupid stuff. Boxing and girls and dirty southern slang I’d picked up from my fellow cadets. Never once did he give me any reason to suspect that he had something planned. Then the night before I went AWOL, I found a message in my in-box. He’d sent it just before two o’clock that afternoon. You’re coming home soon, it said. I know something. He won’t hurt you or Mom again.

My fingers couldn’t type fast enough. Don’t do anything! Swear you won’t!

I hit send and waited for a response. I was still waiting when the lights went out. Sometimes I imagine my message floating around cyberspace for the rest of eternity.

• • •

The next morning, I left for my daily cross-country jog with sixty-five dollars and three sets of clothing hidden under my tracksuit. I hopped the fence at the mile mark and waded through part of the Okefenokee Swamp until I hit the highway.

An old lady at the bus stop let me borrow her phone. A maid answered at my parents’ house. I asked for Jude and hung up when she started to cry.

I didn’t come to New York first. I went to Connecticut instead. To the Beaumont Funeral Home—the only mortuary in my hometown that my father would trust with his youngest son’s corpse. It was late when I got there, and the entrance was locked. I started searching for a way inside. I would have broken a window or kicked down the door if a woman hadn’t shown up with a key. I don’t recall her name. I can’t even see her face in my mind. All I remember is the black box she was carrying.

“You’re the brother, aren’t you?” she asked. “The one who went missing.”

I must have managed a nod.

“They said you might come here,” she added. “We’re supposed to call your father if we see you.”

“Don’t,” I croaked.

“I wasn’t planning to,” she said kindly. “I made up my mind about that when I saw your brother.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“They say he fell. Down the stairs in your house.” I could tell she didn’t buy the story.

“Can I see him?”

She held up the black box. “They just finished cleaning him up a little while ago. I haven’t started his makeup yet. I don’t think . . .”

“Please.”

She sighed for my sake and unlocked the door.

• • •

Jude was lying on an embalming table. I could see his freshly washed hair sticking out from beneath the sheet that covered the rest of his body. It was the only time I’d seen my brother so perfectly still. I stood at his side and slid the cloth down to his shoulders. The face I saw wasn’t the one I remembered.

I thought I recognized my father’s handiwork in Jude’s broken nose and shattered bones. But if my dad’s fists could inflict that kind of damage, he must have been holding back all those times he beat me. I couldn’t figure out why he’d let loose on Jude. And I knew I’d never be able to prove that he had. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Jude’s email, I might have bought into the story that his death was an accident. But I knew. I only had a single small clue, but I knew my brother must have died trying to help me.

“He used to be handsome,” I said.

“He looked like you. They gave me a picture,” the woman whispered behind me. I thought she might have been crying. I couldn’t turn around.

“Would it be okay if I stay here until you’re finished?”

I heard her take a deep breath. “Sure,” she said on the exhale.

“My father will have you fired if he finds out.” It was only fair to warn her.

“That’s okay, honey. Some things are more important than a job.”

I found a chair and sat with my forehead resting on the edge of the embalming table and one hand on my brother’s cold arm. I honestly thought I might die on that spot. The only thing I’d ever really believed in was Jude. He was my evidence that our father was full of shit. That you could choose to be something other than weak or strong. But it turned out that my father had been right from the start. You’re either one or the other. There are no alternatives—and no space in between. Jude died because he had one fatal flaw. A chink in his armor. A soft spot that he couldn’t keep hidden. Jude was killed because his weakness was me.

That night was the first time he appeared to me in a dream. He wasn’t the dead sixteen-year-old with the broken face. He was the ten-year-old Peter Pan. Impish. Immortal.

“Jude, please don’t leave me here,” I begged him.

“This isn’t goodbye,” he insisted. “You know that place between sleep and awake? The place where you can still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll be waiting.”

“That’s not f—ing good enough!” I shouted, almost choking on snot and tears.

“It’s not good, but it’s enough,” he said. “You’ll see. Did you get my gift?”

“Gift?”

He wiggled his fingers at me. “Use them wisely, and you’ll have everything that you need.”

The makeup lady shook me. “It’s morning,” she said. “You need to leave before my boss gets in.”

“Did you fix him?” I asked. “Jude has to look like himself when he gets there.”

She must have thought I meant heaven—not Never Never Land. She didn’t realize I’d lost my mind. “I worked on him all night. Would you like me to show you?”

“No,” I told her. “I have to keep him alive.”

It was as simple as that. I began to believe. That Jude wasn’t gone—just far, far away. And that as soon as I’d punished the man who had murdered my brother, I’d finally be able to join him.

• • •

There’s a bear standing over me. I’m a goner for sure. That’s okay. A bear attack is a perfectly dignified way to die. There are probably bears in Never Land too.

“Can you carry him?” I can’t see Joi. She must be standing in the bear’s shadow.

“Yeah,” says the bear.

“Be careful, he likes to fight,” some kid offers in the background.

“He’s not going to be doing any fighting tonight,” says the bear with a chortle.

When he bends down to pick me up, I recognize the man in the North Face coat who’d been watching me. He’s even bigger close up. I almost throw up when he tosses me over his shoulder.

“Thanks, Jimmy,” Joi says.

“Anything for you, baby,” the bear replies.

“Don’t call her baby.” I try to sound tough. Everyone laughs.

When I come to, I’m under Joi’s sheets. She’s taken off my clothes and put a bucket next to the bed. I have a pounding headache, and my mouth is parched. But I’m sober enough to see that there’s someone sitting in a chair across the room.

“Jude?” I whisper.

“Who’s Jude?” It’s Joi in the chair.

“My brother.” I know I’m still drunk when I hear myself say it.

“You have a brother?”

“I had a brother.”

“Oh,” Joi says, as if that explains it all. She’s smart, so I guess maybe it does.

“I’m sorry about what I said to you yesterday.”

“Good,” says Joi. “So can I ask you something, Flick?”

“What happened to ‘Always listen, never ask’? Are you breaking your own rules?”

“Just tonight,” Joi says. “Just for you.”

“Okay, then.”

“Are you in trouble? I mean, some guy in a sports car drops you off yesterday, and you get out looking like hell. Tonight you were roaming the projects dressed in head-to-toe Prada. Jimmy said your bottle of Scotch must have cost two hundred bucks.”

“That Jimmy really knows his Scotch,” I say.

“Don’t f—ing joke about this! You could have frozen to death out there!” She probably just woke up everyone in the colony.

“Why are you shouting at me?”

“Because . . .” She shakes her head. We both know why she’s so angry. It doesn’t need to be said.

“I came to the city to find something, Joi. I didn’t even know what it was at first, but I think I just found it. So I won’t be getting drunk anymore.”

“I’m glad to hear that ’cause the next time I have to go save your ass . . .”

“There won’t be a next time. I promise.” There won’t be. That’s one promise I’ll keep. “Come here. Please.”

She crawls into the bed beside me. Paradise must smell like cocoa butter and jasmine. It feels and tastes like Joi’s kiss.

“Can I ask you a question? I swear it’s not about heaven.”

Joi laughs. “Shoot.”

“Why do you love me?” I ask her.

“Because you love me back,” she says without hesitation.

“You have no idea how much,” I tell her.

“Yes, I do,” she says.

• • •

It’s the first time I’ve seen Peter Pan so pissed off. He’s pacing the room and muttering to himself.

“What?!” I demand.

He attacks, holding the blade of his wooden sword to my throat. “I won’t let you do it. You can’t take it away from her.”

“She’ll find another good thing,” I say, pushing the sword back. “And I can’t let her get in the way. Girls like Joi make you soft and vulnerable. Remember Lois Lane? Why do you think the comic guys invented her in the first place? ’Cause they needed Superman to have a weakness other than kryptonite.”

“You’ve lost your mind.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, Peter Pan. And then let me finish what you sent me to do.”

He’s stunned. “You think I brought you to New York for my sake? I brought you here to find Joi, you idiot. Who else is going to sew your shadow back on?”

“I haven’t lost my shadow, Jude. It’s the rest of me that’s missing.”

“She’ll help you find it! I bet she knows just where to look!”

“I don’t want to look. I want to deal with Dad, and then when I’m done, I’ll come be with you.”

“What if I don’t want you in Never Land?”

BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
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