Murders, heists, secrets and lies, hit men and hidden identities . . . If Julep doesn’t watch her back, it’s her funeral. No lie.
Chapter One: The Stratton Job
I can’t say I have much personal experience with conscience. I wasn’t born with that particular cricket on my shoulder. But people who believe in conscience seem to think it has something to do with compassion. And it could, I suppose, if you tilt your head and squint at it in just the right light.
The truth is, conscience exists because everyone has something in their past they’re not proud of. And if you’re smart enough to use that to your advantage, you can stay one step ahead of the consequences. Any good con man with the right kind of rope can hang an entire mob.
But my story doesn’t start with the mob. It starts with a pair of borrowed pumps and the front walk of a black-shuttered Colonial.
I am Ms. Jena Scott, the youngest attorney at Lewis, Duncan, and Chase Law. Or at least, I am for the next thirty minutes. Then I’ll turn back into Julep Dupree, sophomore at St. Agatha’s Preparatory School and all-around fixer. (Julep’s not my real name, either, but we’ll get to that later.)
It’s the officially unofficial talk around school that I’m a solver of other people’s problems. And I am. I just happen to charge a respectable sum for my services. St. Aggie’s isn’t cheap, and a job at the local deli isn’t going to cover the cost of toiletries, let alone tuition. Luckily, my fellow students can more than afford my rates.
My talent is the one thing I can leverage. I’m a grifter, a con artist, and a master of disguise. I’m the best, actually, because I was taught by the best—my dad, Joe. Never heard of him? Well, you wouldn’t have, because he’s never been caught. And neither have I. The best grifters are ghosts.
For the newbies out there, a grifter is a person who specializes in selling people something that doesn’t exist. At the moment, I’m selling my client Heather Stratton’s parents on the idea that she has applied to New York University. Which, of course, is a load of crap.
Heather doesn’t want to go to NYU; she wants to be a model. But since her mom won’t bankroll that endeavor, my job is to grease the wheels, so to speak, so everyone believes she’s getting what she wants. It’s a win-win-win, really. Heather is happy, Mrs. Stratton is happy, and I get paid. When you look at it like that, I’m in the making-people-happy business.
Heather’s paying for a full pig-in-a-poke package: fake application, fake interview, fake acceptance. And it’s going to cost her. I’ve already had Sam, my best friend and partner in crime, build a fake NYU website showing Heather’s application status. Then came the official-looking brochures and letters on NYU stationery Sam and I spent an afternoon making. And that was easy compared to getting the envelopes to sport a postmark from New York.
Now I’m doing the interview bit. Ms. Scott is a new creation of mine. A lawyer by way of NYU undergrad and University of Pennsylvania law school. She works at a big-deal firm here in Chicago and occasionally does admission interviews for her alma mater.
I straighten my suit skirt in the perfect imitation of a lawyer I saw on television last night. There’s a good chance nobody’s watching, but it never hurts to get into character early. I touch my hair to make sure the longish brown mess is still coiled into a tight French roll. I adjust the thin, black-framed glasses I use for roles both younger and older than my near-sixteen years.
Then I remember my gum—doesn’t exactly scream professionalism. Lacking an appropriate disposal option, I take the gum out and stick it to the bottom of the Strattons’ mailbox. I walk up to the covered porch and rap smartly on the blue door. A few moments later, a brittle, middle-aged woman with a too-bright smile and Jackie O style opens it.
“Mrs. Stratton, I presume,” I say in a slightly lower pitch than usual. People assume you’re older if your voice is deeper.
“You must be Ms. Scott,” she says. “Please, come in.”
She’s easy enough to read. Nervous, excited. She’s an easy mark, because she wants so much for me to be real. I mean, look at me. This disguise is a stretch, even for a professional grifter. But she won’t doubt it, because she doesn’t want to. No disguise is more foolproof than the one the mark wants to believe. I might feel a little bad for her if I were a real person. As it happens, I’m not a real person, and she is not my client.
I cross the threshold into an immaculate foyer. The living room opens off to my left, rich and inviting but lacking in the warmth the plush upholstery implies. It’s a gorgeous room, beautiful and cold, like an ice sculpture in the sun.
Mrs. Stratton motions me into the room and I sit in an armchair next to a brick hearth that hasn’t seen a fire in years. Julep would have chosen the couch, with its army of throw pillows, but “Ms. Scott” is here on business and doesn’t approve of all the touchy-feely nonsense that comes about sitting next to people.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“A glass of water would be most appreciated,” I say.
Mrs. Stratton leaves the room, returning a few moments later with a precisely cooled glass of water. She places a coaster on the polished end table next to me. I smile my approval, and her smile widens.
“I’ll go get Heather,” Mrs. Stratton says, and calls up the stairs for her daughter, who is expecting me.
Heather enters the room in what I can only assume is her Sunday best. Her family is Episcopalian, I’m fairly sure. I can usually tell by the decor of the house, the mother’s clothing choices, and the books on the shelves in public spaces. For example, you can always tell a Baptist household by the oak dining room table, the spinet in the living room, and the variety of Bibles on the shelf next to the television set. Episcopalians don’t often have televisions in their living rooms. Don’t ask me why.
“Hello, Heather,” I say, standing and extending my hand. She shakes it, shooting me conspiratorial glances while acting fidgety, and overall doing a lousy job of pretending she doesn’t know me. But her mother will chalk it up to nervousness as long as I do my part right.
I sink back into the armchair, and Heather sits across from me on the couch. She looks tense, but then she would be. Heather’s mother hangs around for another moment or two before realizing she is supposed to leave and finally whisking herself away to some other part of the house.
I raise my hand when Heather opens her mouth. So many of my clients foolishly think we don’t have to go through with the scam from beginning to end. They assume that once they can no longer see the mark, she’s not still around listening. My dad calls it the ostrich syndrome.
“Tell me about yourself, Heather,” I say. “What do you want to study at NYU?”
What follows is a yawn-fest of questions and answers. I couldn’t care less about Heather’s GPA. And student government? Really? But I’m helping her swindle her parents—I’m hardly in a position to judge.
At the end of the interview I cut her off, almost midsentence, and stand up, not having touched my water. I’m out of the house and at the door to Sam’s Volvo, proper good-byes offered and promises to put in a good word for Heather with the admissions office made. I open the driver’s-side door and slide into the leather seat, exhaling as I settle in. It’s a far cry from the hard plastic chairs on the “L,” which is my usual form of transportation.
I sense more than hear the purr as the engine turns over. I pull away from the curb cautiously, not because I’m a cautious driver by nature, but because I am still in character. Once I’ve turned out of sight of the house, I crank the radio up and slide the windows down while I push the gas pedal to coax the car to a peppier speed. It’s a warm Sunday in early September, and I want to milk it for all it’s worth. With one hand, I pull out the pins holding my hair back, letting the tangled tresses fall naturally to my shoulders.
Sam knows I’m not a legal driver. We’ve known each other since fourth grade, when we started pulling the three-card monte on our classmates, so he’s well aware of my age. You’d think he’d be more nervous about lending his brand-new Volvo to an untried, untested, unlicensed driver. But then, I’m the one who taught him how to drive.
Ten minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of my local coffee haunt, the Ballou, which is half a block from the St. Aggie’s campus, and claim a space next to a souped-up seventies muscle car. Chevelle, I think, though I’m hardly an expert. Black with two thick white racing stripes down the hood and windows tinted black enough to put Jay-Z’s to shame.
I take off my jacket and untuck my blouse. Kicking off the heels, I flip open my ratty old canvas bag and take out my well-worn Converse high-tops. I wriggle my feet into them as I tie my hair up again. Then I toss the glasses into the bag and grab my dad’s old leather jacket.
The Ballou is pretty much what you’d expect a coffee shop to be: wooden tables, scuffed and stuffed chairs, a lacquered bar polished to within an inch of its life, a smattering of patrons sipping lattes and reading Yeats. You see lots of MacBooks and iPads, and the occasional stack of textbooks gathering dust while their owners text or surf the Web.
Sam is sitting at our favorite rickety, mismatched table with the cardboard coffee-cup sleeve under one of the legs.
“To the minute,” Sam says, spotting me over the top of his graphic novel. “I’ll never know how you can guess that close.”
“Just have to know the mark.”
“That’s what you say for everything,” he says, smiling and moving his bag aside.
“Well, it’s true for everything,” I say while I casually steal his cappuccino.
Sam has a gorgeous smile. I often tease him about it, which he hates, or at least pretends to hate. But I think he secretly appreciates being noticed for something besides his status as the only son of Hudson Seward, board chairman of the Seward Group and the richest black man in Chicago. Sam wants to escape his father’s name as much as Heather wants out from under her mother’s iron fist.
Everyone wants something, I suppose. Me? I want a full ride to Yale. Hence my internment at St. Agatha’s.
“How’d it go?”
“Cake,” I say. “But we prepped well this time.” I take a swig of his coffee.
“As opposed to any other time?”
“Granted.” I set his keys on the table. “Thanks for the car.”
He pockets the keys. “And you’re thanking me because . . . ?”
“Hey, I say thank you sometimes.” I cradle the cup between my hands to warm them.
“No you don’t,” he says.
“Yes I do.”
He plucks the cup out of my grasp and leans back. “No you don’t.”
I’ve just conceded when Heather appears. I don’t love that she insisted on meeting up with us, but she’s the sort who needs to know each step of the plan in detail. She’s more her mother’s daughter than she thinks. She slips gracefully into the chair next to mine.
“That went . . . well?” she says with a slight question at the end, like she’s asking for confirmation.
“It did,” I say. I make it a policy to avoid hand-holding. But she’s my client, and far be it from me to begrudge her a bit of customer service.
“So what now?” She huddles into herself and lowers her voice to a whisper. Really, how my clients keep anything a secret when their body language continually screams Look at me! I’m planning something nefarious! is beyond me. I guess it’s true what the French say: fortune favors the innocent. Lucky for me, it also favors the moderately dishonest.
“Now I welcome you to NYU,” I say.
Then I detail the rest of the plan, which involves sending Heather a fake internship offer from a modeling agency to raise the stakes. Mrs. Stratton will be so desperate to secure Heather’s spot at NYU she won’t think to question our irregular instructions for sending the tuition check. In my profession, this is called the shutout, and it works every time.
“But how do I cash a check made out to NYU?” Heather asks.
“It won’t be made out to NYU. It will be made out to me. Or to Jena Scott, actually.”
“You think she’ll fall for that?”
“Fall for it? She’ll be the one suggesting it. Trust me, the check is the easy part.”
Heather’s doubt is evident, but she’s not the one whose confidence I’m trying to steal.
A half hour later, Sam drops me off at my apartment building.
“Catch you on the dark side,” I say as I get out and head to the front door.
“The dark side is a bad thing,” Sam calls after me.
I wave while he pulls away from the curb, shaking his head at me.
“Hi, Fred,” I say to the homeless man sitting between the row of mailboxes and the radiator in the entryway.
“Hey, Julep,” he says in his Dominican accent. “How’s shit going?”
“Shit’s good,” I say, and open our mailbox. I pull the comics out of the paper and hand them to Fred. If anyone needs a laugh, it’s him.
In case the homeless guy hasn’t given it away, my dad and I live deep in the West Side slums—the same apartment building we’ve been in since my mom left us. I was eight at the time, so that’s, what? Seven years? Well, in all that time I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of any maintenance personnel beyond the very occasional plumber.
I’m so used to it, though, that I climb the narrow stairs without seeing the fuchsia and black graffiti or the grime in the corners. In fact, I don’t even notice when I get to our apartment that the door is slightly open. When I try to put my key in the lock, the door swings away from me. Still, I’m distracted by a tuition bill from St. Aggie’s, so I walk right in.
The first thing I notice is my dad’s chair tipped upside down, the stuffing from the cushion littered around it like yellow sea foam. My lungs constrict as I take in the rest of our shattered belongings: Pictures torn down to reveal stained walls. Drawers pulled out and overturned. Even some of the linoleum flooring in the kitchen has been ripped up and left in curling strips.
“Dad?” The sound of my heart hammering is probably carrying farther than my voice.
This makes no sense. We have nothing worth stealing—no one breaks into the apartments in our building for monetary gain. Not that there isn’t violence; it’s just usually domestic or drug related.
I push open the door to my dad’s room and it gets stuck about a third of the way open. This room is in even worse shape than the rest of the apartment. Books and papers and blankets and broken bits of furniture cover the ratty carpet like shrapnel from a bomb blast. But still no Dad. At this point, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
Not as much damage in my room, but it’s still trashed. Curtains trailing along the floor. Desk knocked over, the bulb from the lamp shattered and ground into the carpet.
I pick my way back toward the kitchen as I study what was left behind. I’m certain someone was looking for something, but I have no idea what. It’s not like we stashed a Monet under the floorboards.
My dad does have a gambling problem. He’s the best grifter you’ve never heard of, like I said, but we’re still living in the ghetto. I’m sure you’re wondering why, since I keep telling you he could con Donald Trump out of his toupee. Well, that’s the reason. No sooner does he get a “windfall” than it gets spent on the ponies.
But he never borrows to bet. He bets everything we have but nothing we don’t. His bookie’s his best friend. Ralph even comes to my birthday parties. So I seriously doubt it’s a payment problem.
It has to be a con that’s gone south somehow. Which means my dad’s in trouble. He has something his mark wants. And not just any mark—a mark willing to break in and do this. That means a mark on the shadier side.
I reach the kitchen and tip a chair upright. What could my dad be into that would have resulted in this? What could he have that somebody would be looking for? The answer is lots of things: forged documents, information about something incriminating, who knows? The two bigger questions, though, are did the person find what he was searching for, and why didn’t my dad tell me what he was doing?
My dad is not the sort to shelter his offspring. We’re a team. I sometimes help him brainstorm when he’s planning a con. He doesn’t often use me as a roper, mostly because I’d stick out like a sore thumb in the circles he tends to work. But he always tells me his angle.
I lean against the wall, surveying the destruction in the kitchen. Something tells me that whoever tossed the place did not find what he was looking for. That might very well be wishful thinking, but I decide to act on the hunch anyway. Can’t hurt to do a bit of searching of my own.
But before I turn over even a plate, two thoughts occur to me. One, I should call the police before I tamper with any potential evidence. Two, if the home-wrecker didn’t find what he was looking for, he might come back.
I reach for my phone and tap a nine and a one before I come to my senses. I can’t call the police. Police plus abandoned minor equals foster care. Hello! I let out a shaky breath at how close I came to screwing myself nine ways to Sunday. I delete both numbers and quickly pocket the phone, as if my fingers might somehow betray me.
I’m sure you think I’m being melodramatic. But I’m not an idiot. Everyone knows that foster care is a prison sentence. Umpteen thousand crime procedurals cannot be wrong. Besides, my dad and I are our own system. I’m the only one who knows him well enough to figure out where he’s hidden whatever the intruder was searching for. If the police get involved, they’ll be the ones ruining the crime scene, not me.
I picture my dad, every detail from his thick brown hair to his scuffed oxfords. If I were my dad and I had to hide something . . .
What hasn’t been touched? I turn in a slow circle till I find it—the perfectly upright, not-even-a-millimeter-out-of-place trash can.
Only cops dig in the garbage, Julep, and even then, only on TV.
Before considering the consequences, I yank the bag out of the can and empty it onto what’s left of the linoleum. Last night’s chicken bones come tumbling out, along with several plastic wrappers and a lump of grease-covered foil. Gross, yes. Illuminating, no. I root around in it anyway, holding my breath and hoping. But there’s nothing in the bag that can remotely be construed as valuable. No pictures, no papers, no money, nothing.
I plop on the floor next to the mess, swearing to myself. I mean, who am I kidding? How am I supposed to find my dad in a pile of half-eaten chicken? The trash can mocks me with its dingy plastic lid. Still upright, it is the only thing in the apartment that’s exactly where it should be.
I kick out and knock it over. Might as well finish the job, right? But as it falls to the floor, I hear something bang around inside it. I pull the mouth around to where I can see. Inside the can is a padded envelope.
Ignoring the muck, I reach in and grab the envelope. As I rip it open, I have this strange sense of doom, like liberating its contents is some kind of point of no return. I ignore the feeling. He is my dad, after all.
But when I pull out said contents, I’m even more unnerved.
In one hand, I hold a note:
Beware the Field of Miracles.
In the other, I hold a gun.