Read the First Two Chapters
I know something’s up Monday morning when I arrive at my office. The door isn’t quite latched. Careless. Not my style, and that means someone else has been here. I shift my backpack to one shoulder and glance up and down the hall as the bell rings, signaling my truancy. I’m missing homeroom right now, but that’s nothing new—if there’s an award for most truant boy in seventh grade, I’m at the top of the nominee list—and an unwanted visitor in my home away from home takes precedence.
Could be a new janitor, looking for a mop. This tiny hole in the wall where I’ve set up shop used to be a broom closet. In a way, it seems appropriate—I might not be a janitor, but I clean up a lot of messes at this school. You could say Bright Oaks Junior High owes me one, so I don’t have a problem claiming a little space. Besides, they had to mark this particular closet condemned when a leaky pipe ruined one wall. It’s not pretty, but at least people who don’t belong stay away. Most of the time.
I push open the door and see one of my least favorite things: someone’s sitting at my desk, in my chair.
Vice Principal Martin Dodge folds his hands in front of him and shoots me a grim smile. “If it isn’t my favorite seventh grader,” he says.
Neither of us laughs. It’s a joke, but not the kind that’s funny. We both know I’m not his favorite anything.
There’s a kid standing next to the desk—the only place left to stand in this cramped box—and he doesn’t laugh either. He looks about my grade, but I can’t say I’ve seen him before. Blond, tucks in his shirt, and he’s gripping the black and white notebook under his arm so tight you’d think it held national secrets. It has the letters AP written on the side. Apparently he takes his advanced placement classes very seriously.
“My favorite VP,” I say, nodding at Dodge. “To what do I owe this visit? I’ve told you before—wearing a trench coat doesn’t make me a terrorist.” I gesture at the long, tan coat that trails down from my shoulders and just brushes the floor.
He glares at me. “Maybe I’m finally busting you for skipping homeroom. You ever think of that? You’ve been there three days this semester. Three. People have been asking questions.”
“Someone shouldn’t have given me permission, then.” I tap the white laminated card that hangs at my neck. Dodge knows what it is—it has his signature on the back.
He makes a low growl in the back of his throat, but there’s nothing he can do. “That’s your problem, Madigan. Always abusing power.”
“Yeah, well, speaking of abusing power, why don’t we cut to the chase?” I glance over at the blond kid gripping the notebook. “I see you’ve brought a friend.”
The kid stands up a little straighter. His eyes meet mine and stay steady, sizing me up, but he doesn’t say anything.
Dodge gestures to me, then the notebook kid. “Harper Madigan, meet Austin Phelps. He just transferred here last week.”
Austin Phelps. AP. Not so advanced, then.
“My dad got a new job,” he says, as if I care about an explanation for why he’d be transferring in the middle of the semester. “At the plastics plant.” Him and everyone else in this town. Clear Plastics keeps Bright Oaks alive. “Pleased to meet you.” He holds out his hand to shake with me, but I don’t take it.
I ignore him and turn to Dodge. “You explained to him the setup? I take cards, no cash, no exceptions.” I turn to the kid, whose mouth is hanging open a little, like he can’t decide what to say. “Dragon Slayers. You know, the TCG? Once we discuss the case, I’ll tell you my price.”
“Oh, this isn’t a case,” Dodge says. “After that last stunt you pulled? The one that almost got me fired?”
“Oh, that.” I wave it off, hoping he’ll forget about it, or at least see the bright side. “Maybe I took a few liberties, but it worked out in the end, didn’t it? Justice was served, and you’re not fired. Everything’s peaches and cream, or at least it will be once I find out why you’re here.”
Dodge gets up out of my chair—finally—and shakes his head. “I can’t afford to take another risk like last time. You’re down here playing detective while I’m upstairs taking all the heat. And Madigan, you don’t want me to lose my job, because if I do, I guarantee someone’s going to find out about your little… business. And they won’t look the other way like I do. They’ll stare straight on and they won’t think twice about ripping that hall pass from your neck. It can’t go like last time.”
“Yeah. I’ll be careful.”
“I didn’t just hear you. Careful isn’t in your vocabulary, so you couldn’t have said that.”
“I won’t take any risks. I’ll lay low for a while. And you need me. This is a two way street. I keep this place a little cleaner than it might be otherwise. That’s worth something.”
Dodge nods. “It’s the only reason I haven’t shut you down. But we both know you can’t lay low, and I can’t afford the trouble. So.” He gestures to Austin. “I don’t think you boys were properly introduced. Harper Madigan, meet Austin Phelps, your new partner.”
My heart freezes in my chest, my blood turning ice cold. I keep calm, the only sign of trouble a slight twitch in my right eye. “No partners. That’s the rule. I work alone or I don’t work at all.” It’s no secret, so what’s Dodge trying to pull?
“You want to tell me who makes the rules here, Madigan? Because last time I checked, I was in charge.” He snaps his fingers. “I make the rules. And today the rule is, no partner, no agency.”
I cross my arms and glance around the tiny closet-turned-office. The ceiling is stained brown and is a little lumpy in a few places. The paint is chipped, tiles on the floor are cracked, and one wall has a hole chewed through it. Probably rats. Big ones. “Gee, Dodge, if you’ve got your eye on snagging my office for yourself, all you had to do was ask.”
“Don’t ever lose that sense of humor.” His phone rings and he squeezes past my desk toward the door. I have to move out of the way for him to get out. “Austin’s going to keep an eye on you. He’ll be giving me regular reports.”
“I don’t need a babysitter. And what is he, in sixth grade? Is he even old enough to go to this school?”
“Try seventh,” Austin says. “My birthday was in the fall, which makes me older than you. Kind of a lot older than you. I looked you up, and you won’t be thirteen until July. That’s still a whole quarter of a year away. If either of us should be in sixth grade right now, well, it’s not me.” He gives an apologetic shrug.
I glare at him.
Dodge smiles as he pulls his phone out of his pocket. He holds off on answering it. “Sounds to me like I made the right choice. I’ll leave the two of you to get better acquainted. I’m sure you’ll hit it off. Well, I’m sure you’ll hit something.”
“You’ll hear all about it in my report,” Austin says, keeping his eyes on me. “I won’t let you down, sir.”
Sir. He’s one of those. Great.
“You see that?” Dodge says to me. “Respect. You could learn a thing or two from him.” And then, before I can tell him exactly how respectful I am, he takes off down the hall to answer his phone.
Austin holds his hand out to me again. “Austin Phelps. I think we got off to a bad start.”
I don’t shake with him. “That’s because I work alone. No partner necessary.”
“Well, Vice Principal Dodge thinks it’s necessary.” He frowns at the walls, then makes a disgusted face at the stain on the ceiling.
“Looks kind of like an angel, if you squint right.”
He clearly doesn’t see it, but he opens up his notebook and starts scribbling something. “This is where you conduct most of your business?”
“What is this, an audit? Listen, Phelps, if you can’t squint at an ugly stain and make the best of it, you’re not going to make it in this line of work. I don’t know what Dodge was thinking—”
“Vice Principal Dodge.”
I take a deep breath, channeling a cucumber. Dodge put this kid here to annoy me. It might be working, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction, even if he’s not here to see it. “I didn’t ask for the VP to stick me with a partner I don’t need. I don’t know why you’re here. Are you getting extra points with accounting club or something?”
“I’m not an accountant.” He pulls his shoulders back, like he’s insulted I thought his goal in life was crunching numbers.
“Chess? Math? Don’t tell me there’s some kind of health inspection club? Come on—you’ve got stuffed shirt written all over you.”
His ears are turning red. “You’re not even close. Try journalist.”
I feel sick. My stomach churns, full of loathing. All my cucumber channeling efforts go out the window I don’t have. I grab Austin and shove him against the wall, which sags a little behind him. His face goes white with terror, but he doesn’t drop his notebook. “If there’s one thing I want even less than a partner, it’s some kind of reporter hanging around. You want to report to Dodge? Fine. But I know what kids from journalism are like. You let them sniff around long enough and they start digging up bones you want to keep buried. I can’t have my business showing up in the school paper.”
“I’m not even on the paper! Just journalism club. They let everybody in.” He ducks and slips out of my grasp, brushing himself off as soon as he’s free, like I’ve got a disease or something. “My resume was, well, a bit lacking.”
“And you think hanging out with me is going to give you some story? You think it’s going to get you a position on the paper?”
“I won’t mention you.”
“Right. And I’m supposed to trust an inexperienced wannabe-journalist to make a name for himself with one of my cases, but somehow write me out of it?” I raise an eyebrow in serious disbelief. This kid’s delusional. I mean, he’d have to be to want to work with me, but this is going too far. “You don’t look like the reporter type. You’re too clean.”
He scratches his nose. “Reporters come in all types.”
“Yeah—bad and worse.”
“I want the same thing you want,” he says.
“And what’s that?” He doesn’t know anything about me.
Austin swallows. He holds his notebook under his arm again and blinks once, very slowly. “Justice,” he says, as if it’s the most important word in the English language. As if it’s so important he’s committing some sort of blasphemy by saying it out loud.
I’m stunned, because maybe he knows me better than I thought. But it’s one fact, something he could have guessed at or got from Dodge, and I’m not convinced we should forget our differences and become best friends. “Justice. Great. But like I said, I work a—”
A knock on the open door interrupts me.
“It’s open,” I say, because it is. I turn and see Eugene McAllister, one of my repeat customers, clutching a bathroom pass he must have gotten from his homeroom teacher.
“I’ve got a problem,” Eugene says. Sweat beads on his forehead, and he’s trembling all over. “A big one.”
Austin flips open his notebook and gets a pen ready. His shoulders are tense as he hunches over the paper, waiting for Eugene to start.
I slip behind my desk and take a seat, then motion for Eugene to shut the door. Nothing like a little privacy for hearing about a case. Just me, one of my most nervous clients, and a reporter.
Eugene wrings his hands together, still trembling.
Austin eyes him like a hawk watching a mouse, like he thinks this is going to be his big break. He’s got a thing or two to learn about this business.
“Pretend I’m not here,” Austin says.
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” I mutter. “Why not skip the pretending and go for the real thing?”
“Ha ha.” Austin rolls his eyes, like that was supposed to be a joke. “You know what Vice Principal Dodge said—”
I hold up a hand to silence him. Thankfully, it works. The last thing I need is for him to go blabbing to my clients that the VP set me up with a babysitter. “My client’s time here is very valuable, Phelps. Something you might want to take note of.”
He actually nods and writes that down. I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, hoping that when I open them again this whole partner crap will all have been a bad dream. But when I open them, the room still looks the same: one overly eager and annoying reporter with the wall practically sagging on top of him, and a trembling nerdy kid who’s got disaster victim written all over his face.
I nod at Eugene. “Spill it, McAllister. How can I be of service?”
“It’s theft,” he says, wrapping his arms around himself like he doesn’t even want to think about it. “It’s the most valuable thing I own, and someone took it from me. You have to help me get it back.”
Austin’s eyes light up at the part about it being valuable. He doesn’t stop writing in his notebook, even to talk. “What was it? Jewels? A painting?”
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s got the Mona Lisa in his locker.”
Eugene shakes his head. “More valuable than that. It’s priceless. Irreplaceable.”
It’s almost worth it having Austin here to get to watch his face. I can see his hopes getting higher and higher with every word.
“And?!” Austin practically shouts. “What is it?” As if he thinks he can come in here, wait around two seconds, and a big story’s going to show up just like that and make his career.
“My lucky pencil.”
I watch his smile shatter. I watch the bubble of ridiculous hopes he just built up pop and disappear. Talk about priceless and irreplaceable.
“Your… lucky pencil.” For the first time since Eugene walked in, Austin stops writing. He closes his notebook. “Is it made of gold?”
I laugh. I’m trying not to, but I can’t help it.
Eugene glares at Austin. “It was better than gold—it was lucky. It was green with shiny shamrocks all over it, and it got me an A on every test, even in PTA History. Only the untouchables get As in that class— everyone knows that—and I have a record to maintain. Now it’s gone.”
“It’s just a pencil. And you’ve got some weird classes at this school, you know that?”
“Just a…” Eugene gapes at him, then looks to me. “Where’d you find this guy?”
“Cat dragged him in, all the way from… Where’d you say you were from?”
“Kansas,” Austin says.
“Right.” Far enough away that he wouldn’t know anything about Bright Oaks or who calls the shots. “They must not have PTAs down there.”
I can tell Austin doesn’t appreciate any part of this scenario. He ignores me and takes a small step away from the wall, ever so slightly ushering Eugene towards the door. “Are you sure your pencil was stolen? That’s a big accusation when you could have just lost it.”
“Eugene,” I say, “how many pencils do you have?”
“Nine and a half. Well, eight and a half now. I’ve still got five at home—three unsharpened, two mechanical—and three number twos in my binder. Plus one broken one. But it still works if you hold it at the right angle.”
“Uh huh. And how many pens?”
“Five, but one of them is about to run out of ink. Three black, one red, one blue. I’m thinking of getting a green.”
“Five hundred and sixty-eight, plus two in Canadian, but those are at my grandma’s house. I stuffed them in the couch cushions for safe keeping two years ago. They’re still there. I checked at Thanksgiving.”
I fold my hands over my desk and grin. “You see, Phelps? Eugene here never loses anything.”
“Why would I?”
Austin clenches his teeth. “So someone stole a pencil.”
“You’re going to be interested in this,” Eugene says, ignoring Austin and looking me straight in the eyes. “It disappeared right before a test. Someone wanted me to fail.”
“Someone in my second period class, in PTA History. You know who’s in second period with me?”
I do. Even more interesting.
The bell rings, signaling the end of homeroom. Austin looks to the wall for a clock that’s not there. Eugene checks his watch. “Gotta go,” he says.
I stand up to show him out. Not that there’s much showing to do, and it takes me longer to wriggle out from behind my desk than it would have for him to have just opened the door and left. But it’s the little courtesies that make the difference. “I’ll take care of it,” I tell him.
“Usual rate? Two Dragon cards?”
“It’s a deal,” I say, just as someone knocks on the door. I open it to find Danigail Bates. My heart beats faster and my palms start to sweat. My stomach lurches the way it did the first time I saw her, back in second grade, and the way it did the first time we kissed last summer. It seems like forever ago. There’s a reason I’ve been avoiding her, but the sweaty palms and the jumpy stomach aren’t it.
Danigail smiles, giving me a knowing, lopsided grin. She’s got me right where she wants me, and there’s no avoiding her now. “Hiya, Harper. Long time no see.”
Eugene gives Danigail the double-take, then gets this look on his face like he knows something big is about to go down and doesn’t want to be a part of it. Austin blinks at her, then at me, processing something. Maybe he senses a history between us, but he doesn’t know what happened. He wasn’t here last summer during the incident. He wasn’t even here last month. He knows as much about why I became a detective as he does his way to the secret third story teacher’s lounge. Even Dodge doesn’t know the whole story, and that’s how I’d like to keep it.
“Danigail.” Saying her name makes my mouth go dry. I don’t recognize my own voice. I smile at her anyway. “We were all just on our way to first period.”
She raises her eyebrows, taking a step back. Nervous Eugene bolts like he thinks she might bite him, or that being late for first period might spoil his perfect attendance record, which it will. He takes off down the hall without so much as a “See you later,” or “Thanks for taking my case,” or even a “I’ll have your dragon cards tomorrow.”
Danigail spares him the barest of glances, then flicks the laminated card dangling from my neck. “Word is you’ve got carte blanche. That makes homeroom optional.”
“For me, not for you. And you’d better be careful because Phelps here”—I jerk an elbow towards Austin, who’s crept up close enough behind me that instead of gesturing at him, I accidentally jab him in the ribs—“is a hall monitor in training. He’s got a quota of tardies he’s got to fill to earn his sash, and he doesn’t care who he turns in.”
“Since when do you hang out with stuffed shirts?” Danigail asks. She purses her lips and shakes her head. The second bell rings, signaling the start of first period, and she shrugs. “Now I’m late. Doesn’t matter if I’m two minutes late or ten minutes late. Let’s talk.”
“No time, DG. I’ve got a case.”
A hint of sadness washes over her eyes, as if she’s suddenly remembering how I got into this whole business, but then it’s gone again and I’m not sure that I didn’t imagine it. “This isn’t about that,” she says, and we both know what she’s talking about. “But… I mean, Oliver’s not dead, you know. You were his best friend. It’d mean a lot if you went and saw him.”
I swallow down a sudden bitter taste in the back of my throat at the mention of her brother. “I said I have somewhere to be.” The words come out almost a growl, which isn’t how I meant them.
Danigail holds up a hand. “Harper, wait. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need your help.”
Austin scribbles something in his notebook. The scritching of his pen sounds extra loud all of a sudden, like nails on a chalkboard.
“Phelps. You’re late for homeroom.”
“Dodge is going to want to hear about this.” He leans in and whispers, “I might be new here, but even I know trouble when I see it.” He looks Danigail up, then down. “She’s a capital T.”
Lucky guess. “I can handle her. Alone.”
It might be a lie—I’m not sure—but I grab his notebook and fling it into the hallway.
Austin bites his lip, visibly torn between staying to spy on me and running after his belongings. The notebook wins out and he takes off. As soon as he does, I pull Danigail into my office and shut the door, locking it behind me. I spread my hands on my desk, taking a deep breath. “So, you need my help.”
“You’re not going to ask me to sit down? You don’t show any hospitality to your clients?”
“Who said you’re a client? You haven’t even told me what your case is and I certainly haven’t agreed to take it.”
She swallows and clutches her hands together. “They’re saying I did something real bad.”
Danigail winces. “No. It’s Veronica Jones. We were working on the musical together. She was the lead.”
“ Was?” Always a key word, “was.”
She nods. “I didn’t like her. Everybody knows that. And she was a real first class D to Ollie.”
Danigail licks her lips. “Diva.” The hanging light in my office jitters, the bulb buzzing and dimming, threatening to burn out. It adds a sinister feel to the word. “He wrote the musical, you know. He’s there every day, putting in more work than she does, constantly making changes to keep up with her outrageous demands. It’s like she was trying to make his life hell, even after all he’s been through.” She shrugs. “I’m not the only one who had a problem with her, and anybody who says otherwise is lying.”
I raise a skeptical eyebrow. Maybe everyone hated this Veronica girl, but I’ll bet Danigail’s the only one who had a vendetta against her. “So she makes trouble for Oliver and then you make trouble for her, is that it?”
Danigail glances away, not meeting my eyes. She folds her arms across her chest. “Maybe I made a few threats, but I’m not the one who sent her to the hospital.”
“You’ve gotten protective about him. Maybe too much. Word gets around, DG. You used to have such a clean rep, but I know how many times you’ve been suspended this year.” Even before the Board passed a new school policy two months ago, retroactively making even Danigail’s minor offenses count as big red marks on her permanent record, her suspension list wasn’t exactly short. Now her rap sheet fills a whole notebook. Her and every other kid at this school who’s ever so much as gotten caught chewing gum. And it doesn’t take a genius to guess who pressured the Board into passing their new policy. I’ll give you a hint. Their initials start with P, T, and A.
Danigail glares at me, a sudden fire flaring in her eyes. “Don’t you dare criticize me for protecting him when you haven’t even spoken to him since the accident. ’Accident.’” She shakes her head. “Other kids are mean, and if I can make things easier for him, even just a little, then I do it.”
“Is that a confession? Because I’m not a lawyer. I don’t help criminals.”
“You’re the one person who has to believe me. You’ve just got to. I didn’t do it. I didn’t even touch her!”
“Then why are they saying you did?” Whoever “they” are.
She swallows and picks at a string hanging off the edge of her sleeve. She tugs at it until it starts to unravel. “Because I was the only other person there, and that makes it Veronica’s word against mine.” Her voice is tense, but quiet. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now it looks like the evidence points at me. They’re having a Board meeting about it today.”
“And if you get one more suspension, you’ll be expelled. Right? Nice try, Danigail, but I’m not a sucker. Not even for you.”
“I don’t care about being expelled. I mean, I do, but…” She clenches her fists. “It’s not about that. I didn’t do it. And you’re the only one who can help me. You’re the only one who will believe I’m innocent.”
“Oh yeah? And why’s that?”
“Because Veronica’s on crutches. She can’t dance in Ollie’s musical anymore.” Danigail swallows. “Not with that sprained ankle. Someone pushed her. Right off the stage. Someone who didn’t want her on her feet anymore.”
A heaviness settles into my chest. She’s right. I do believe her. “You’re innocent.”
“I know.” She says it with conviction, but I see some of the tension in her shoulders relax, like a part of her worried that maybe I really wouldn’t believe her, even about this. “It gets worse. It’s not just her who’s saying I did it.”
She shoots me a quick glance, then looks away, and I get the feeling I’m not going to like what she says next.
“It’s the PTA. I don’t know why they care who pushed Veronica, but they’re more than willing to buy her story and pin it on me.”
“The PTA.” I feel like she just pulled the floor out from under me. Considering we’re in my office, I wouldn’t be surprised to look down and see it crumbling beneath us. But I glance at my feet and I’m still on solid ground, despite the flip-flopping feeling in my stomach and the shiver that spreads from my spine out to my fingers, carried on an electric current of fear. “You’re asking me to go up against the freaking PTA?!”
She puts a hand on her hip, unfazed by my outburst, or maybe she’s just so desperate that she can’t afford to back down. “You’re all I’ve got, Harper. The evidence points right at me, the PTA is pushing for the Board to say I’m guilty, and given my record these past few months… No one thinks I could be innocent, not for a moment. Not even Oliver. Oliver! He won’t say it out loud, but I can see it in his eyes, how he’s contemplating how much I’ve changed, how he isn’t really sure how far I’d go. But to have him think I did this after what happened to him?”
A tear slides down her cheek. She blinks her eyes shut and a couple more follow. “I could live with being expelled,” she says, and I remember how only last year all she could talk about was the tours she took of Princeton and NYU during her family vacation and how she’d give anything to go to colleges like that someday. Getting in seemed so far away—who knew ruining her chances of getting in could be so close? “But I can’t live with Oliver thinking that about me.”
I should help her. I really should, but I don’t know if I can. “It’s the PTA. What even makes you think I could get you off the hook?”
“Nothing. But you’re the only shot I’ve got.”
“If the PTA got a whiff of me on their trail, they’d have me shut down. Just like that.” I snap my fingers, indicating how fast it would be. “And if they didn’t, Dodge would.” And then how would I find redemption? How would I ever set things right? Maybe Oliver thinks Danigail’s guilty, but he knows I am. And I can’t live with that any more than she can.
She’s staring at me with big, hopeful eyes, and for a second I see the old Danigail looking back at me. But things have changed and even though it hurts—and it does hurt—there’s no way I can do this. “I’m sorry,” I say. “The answer is no.”