Under Cover

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NEW! Third in Caroline's Young Adult Series The Revengers from Fire and Ice.

A senseless murder. A teenager accused. The body was found in his car.

It all happened in the next town, but Cree Penny’s father comes from halfway around the world to help. The youth who is accused might be a relative. His name is Liam Penny.

Liam insists he’s innocent. Of course. They all do. Cree wants nothing to do with any of it. Her mind is on Ben Canfield, the love of her life, who seems to be drifting away.

Then she overhears a gang threatening Liam. He might really be innocent.

Everyone advises her to leave it alone. But Cree is determined to learn the truth, to exonerate the innocent and punish the guilty. To do that, she goes undercover. The gang members have never seen her, don’t know anything about her. She can infiltrate them, and does—until someone blows her cover.

Chapter 1

As usual, I saved a place for Maddie. She would have done the same for me if she got to the cafeteria before I did, but it never happened. Along the way, there were too many people she had to talk to. You’d have thought she was running for Congress.

I sat there, not starting on my tomato soup and cheese crackers, and watched a kid named Robert try to find a place to sit..

He was in special ed, I knew that much. He was long, lanky, and awkward, and he lisped. One time, when bullies were calling him names, like Dummy, he corrected them. “No, ith Robert.” With his lisp, it came out “Thobert,” and that name stuck.

He had his lunch in a bag and aimed for a spot at the table in front of me. Big mistake. The bullies were near there. When they saw him coming, they tipped up the empty chair as if the place was reserved. While Robert tried to figure out what to do, they grabbed for his lunch bag.

He held on tight. I jumped up, shouting, “Stop it, you guys!”

Maddie suddenly appeared, slammed down her tray and screamed “Psychopaths!” She delivered a karate chop to the ringleader’s arm. He let go of the bag so fast that Robert staggered backward.

The bully shouted, “Bitch!” and lunged at Maddie. She kicked him on the shin. I added a kick of my own. My legs were strong from years of ballet.

He pulled up his pants to see if we’d done any damage. “Bitches,” he muttered. His buddies, who had been cheering him on, dispersed and pretended they had nothing to do with it.

Not seeing any damage, he snarled at Maddie, “You’re stoopid, standing up for a retard. You’re as stoopid as he is.”

“And you,” said Maddie, “are a psychopath. You think you’re so big, picking on a handicapped kid.”

She turned away—actually turned her back on the creep, which could have been dangerous—and we both took our places at the table. The Revenger girls had won again.

Revengers is what Maddie and I called ourselves one time when we both set out to right some wrongs. I’ll explain that later. I’m Lucretia Penny, Cree for short. I was on the brink of seventeen and lived in Southbridge, New York, a suburb about thirty miles north of New York City.

I’d been in the Southbridge school system all my life. Maddie, short for Madelyn Canfield, only transferred to the high school a few months ago. That’s when I got to know her. And got to know her brother Ben, who was a year older and had Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a high-functioning form of autism, which made him a little bit weird. But he was gorgeous and brilliant and the love of my life. You can’t write off a person just because they’re unusual. You might be missing something. I certainly would have. As for him, he was getting ready to graduate and go off to MIT, leaving me all alone at Southbridge High.

Maddie and I were a study in contrasts. I had long red hair and always thought of myself as dumpy. My grandma insisted it was an hourglass figure, slender at the waist, curvy above and below. She used to say I was just right for an 1890s chorus girl.

Maddie, on the other hand, was as slim as bamboo and always looked sharp. She had shiny brown hair in a flawless pageboy, and she wore things like blazers to school. Nobody else at Southbridge even owned a blazer.

She carried a newspaper on her tray along with a tuna sandwich and cranberry juice. I asked, “Is that today’s Chronicle? Could I see it?”

“Good luck.” She handed it over.

Maddie knew I was unemployed, with a long, idle summer coming up. I turned to the back where the want ads were, a mere half column of them. And no likely prospects for me. As I folded the paper to give it back, a headline caught my eye.

Teen Questioned in Death of Friend

A murder? In Hudson Hills, the town just south of us? High school kids? This I had to read. I didn’t know anybody in Hudson Hills, but it felt very close, being right next door. According to the article, a man named Albert B. Franzen of Loomis Avenue was walking his dog in River Edge Park in the very early morning when he made a “shocking discovery.” Facing the river in an otherwise deserted parking lot, was a car that had evidently been there overnight. Franzen thought he recognized it as one that belonged to a friend of his son, Albert, Jr. Through condensation on the window, Franzen saw there was someone inside, lying across the center console.

The article continued:

Police were on the scene immediately. Franzen identified the body as that of John Kinsser, 17, also of Loomis Avenue. According to the medical examiner, he had evidently been strangled with some kind of wire, possibly a coat hanger.

I asked, “Did you see this?”

“I haven’t looked at it yet.” Maddie took the paper and quickly skimmed the article. She muttered, “Psychopaths.”

Maddie had it in for psychopaths. It was a term she preferred over sociopath, which means the same thing. As she put it, “Psychopath sounds so delightfully psycho. I love it.” She used to know one. Her own ex-boyfriend, to be exact.

“Anybody’d who do something like that,” she said, “is a psychopath. No regard for human life, or human feelings, or any kind of life or feelings. Like those creeps just now with Robert. Kids like that used to pick on Ben, till he got big enough to deal with them.”

Ben, her brother, was six feet tall, and built. He did a lot of hiking, which kept him in shape. He also had more brains than all those idiots put together.

Speaking of, I looked up to see Ben coming toward us. He didn’t often eat with Maddie and me, but there he was. We were halfway through lunchtime and he didn’t have a tray or a bag. He carried a wrapped burrito, which he couldn’t have gotten in the school cafeteria.

The chair across from me was newly empty. I pushed it out with my foot. As he sat down, Maddie asked, “Where have you been?”

“Meeting,” he said, and unwrapped the burrito.

“A meeting? In the middle of the day?”

“Advisor.” He took a bite of his burrito.

“Is everything okay?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?”

“You make it sound like an emergency.”

“I didn’t make it,” he said. “That’s your interpretation. I couldn’t do it any other time, is why.”

Ben was gorgeous. He had eyes like Hershey kisses. Dark wavy hair that curled adorably at the back of his neck. A proud straight nose like a classical statue, and a strong jawline with a dimple in his chin. He’d started out life as a foundling before the Canfields adopted him. Nobody knew his ethnic origin but I figured it had to be somewhere around the Mediterranean.

The reason he couldn’t do it any other time was that he had an after-school job, even with final exams coming up. The job was afternoons and weekends and it would be good for the whole summer. Furthermore, it was an ice cream parlor, which seemed to me like heaven.

“You know?” I said brightly. “Summer’s coming. I mean, it’s here.”

“No kidding,” Ben replied, and snagged a sip of my lemonade.

“Frosty Dan’s going to be busy. Won’t they need extra help?”

“Not at the moment that I know of.”

“Can you ask?”

“I thought you had that babysitting gig.”

“I lost that months ago.” Which showed how closely Ben kept track of me.

“You did?”

“You never noticed I wasn’t working?”

He looked sheepish. If he did notice, he hadn’t given it any thought. I had to remind him, “She was so freaked when her baby got kidnapped, she had her mother come and live with them. So there went my job.”

“That’s what your mother did, isn’t it?” Maddie said.

“Sort of. But I wasn’t kidnapped. I told you what happened. My dad took one look at me and flew off around the world, so Mom had to get a job and a babysitter. My grandma raised me more than Mom did.”

“Your grandma’s a hoot,” said Maddie.

“Sometimes. Other times, not so much.” I told Ben, “She’s madly in love with you. She thinks you’re gorgeous.”

He hadn’t been listening. “Who does?”

“My grandma. Don’t tell me you never noticed that either.”

He shook his head. He might have been wary of females, even sixty-nine-year-olds. The whole reason I met him was because of a girl. All their lives, he and Maddie had gone to a private school near their home. Their parents thought, with Ben’s Asperger’s, a smaller place would be easier on him than the big, noisy public school.

Aspies often have a problem with social connections. For some reason, their neurological set-up makes it hard for them to understand how those things work. In his junior year, Ben got to be friends with a girl who shared a lot of his interests. He must have thought he’d found his soul mate. After a while he got up the nerve to ask her out, something he’d never done before with any girl. When she refused and started avoiding him, he thought he must have done something horribly wrong. He kept trying to find out what it was and apologize. She, the neurotic bitch, accused him of stalking and got him in real trouble.

Ben? Stalking? He might have come on a bit strong, but he thought they were friends and never dreamed she’d see him as a danger. It’s tough being an Aspie, with people thinking the worst of you. They always seem to.

The school bigwigs were too dumb to know that his persistence was part of the Asperger’s, that he had no malicious intent whatsoever. They held all sorts of hearings and were getting ready to expel him. Before they actually did, Ben transferred to Southbridge High.

Even so, Maddie wanted his name cleared and she enlisted my help. Aside from being neurotic, that girl must have been a real idiot not to want Ben. But I was glad she left him for me.

True, he had some odd quirks. Most Aspies do, but it didn’t mean he was dangerous. In fact, I thought his quirkiness made him even more interesting. As Maddie said, the ones you really have to watch out for are those who seem perfectly reasonable, presentable, and oh, so charming. Probably most of them are, but that sort of façade can mask a dangerous psychopath like her own ex-boyfriend. She should know. She’s been there.

I asked Maddie, “Don’t you have any extra work I could do?”

Maddie did typing at home for her dad’s law firm. She had a laser printer that looked really neat and she got paid by the hour.

“If I ever do,” she said, “you’ll be the first to know.”

Both she and Ben had cars, so they needed their income. I had nothing, not even my bike, which somebody ruined last fall. I’d been saving my babysitting money so I could take dance lessons in New York, along with singing and acting. I wanted a career on Broadway, with people throwing roses at my feet. Like that was going to happen.

After Kippie Hurlow, the baby I sat for, was kidnapped, I got a little more realistic. Aspiring dancers and actors are a dime a dozen. Where I could really make a difference would be if I knew some child psychology and could help with traumatized kids like Kippie and his brother. Kippie wasn’t even two years old when he went through that ordeal no one should have to face. Things like that get buried and lie there festering.

His brother Davy was five, but some people, even his mother, had the idea he must have done something to make the baby disappear. All those questions and suspicions could cause plenty of damage.

If I went to college instead of ballet school, Mom would pay for it. She refused to pay for dance. With that, I wouldn’t need the money for Broadway anymore. What I’d earned so far was sitting in the bank. It wasn’t enough for a car, but I could get a new bike.

Trouble was, I liked having money in the bank. So I left it there and hoofed my way to school. Or got a ride with Ben or Maddie.

* * *

It was June and school would be over soon. I always loved summer, but I wanted a job. Every day I studied the want ads and kept trying. One afternoon in desperation I called Frosty Dan for the second time. That was where Ben worked. They still didn’t have any openings, but I asked them to keep me in mind.

I would have loved working with Ben. We’d be together every day, all day. What could be better than that? Even if half his mind was on MIT.

This was my second turndown from Frosty Dan and my eleventh for summer jobs in general. I put away the phone, not knowing who else to call. In a daze of discouragement, I flopped on our sofa and stared out the living room window at Riverview Boulevard. If I leaned sideways, I could barely see Olive Hurlow’s house. Damn those people for kidnapping the baby, scaring everyone to death, and screwing up my whole life. Grandma says things happen for a reason. I seriously doubt that. Things don’t just happen, people make them happen because people are selfish and greedy.

Am I cynical, or what?

Jasper, our Brussels griffon, jumped up on the sofa to keep me company. Mom had rules about dogs on furniture, but she wasn’t home. Nor was Grandma, who spoiled him even more than I did. A few months ago, Grandma took driving lessons and got a car of her own. With that, she was always on the go.

After a minute or two of Jasper therapy, I recovered enough to notice some mail on the cluttered coffee table. That was where Grandma usually dumped it. Along with the catalogs and other junk was a tissue-thin airmail envelope addressed to Mom and me. He always wrote us together, as a unit, so he wouldn’t have to do separate, personalized letters. That was my dad. Since he included me, I had the right to open it.

First I took a moment to admire the exotic stamps. He was still in Borneo, where he’d settled after going around the world a few times. He took off right after I was born, telling Mom he needed space. He flew all over, taking pictures, writing articles, and working at odd jobs to supplement whatever tiny income he got. That was what sent Mom into real estate, where she did very well. Better than he was doing.

I picked up the cheese knife Grandma kept there and slit the tissue-thin envelope. I unfolded the tissue-thin letter and started reading.

Hey, buddy, it began. I hope by now you’re out of prison.

I had to go over it twice and finally concluded he didn’t mean us.

Who did he mean? Maybe if I read the whole letter, I could find out.

The rest of it only got weirder.

It grieves me no end to learn about your troubles. How did you get into such a mess? Do those people have some sort of hold over you? I hope to find out more when I see you. I’ve made a reservation that gets into JFK on Friday.

Dad was coming! But not to us. He gave the date, time, and flight number of some exotic airline, and hoped Hey Buddy would meet him.

How would Hey Buddy know to do that if he didn’t get this letter?

Dad signed it with an initial, D. It was the same flourish he always used, but a different character. For us he signed J as in Jules, because that was his name. Could it be that my dad was leading a double life?

I didn’t know how to find out. Nobody was home except Jasper, snuggled beside me on the sofa.

I felt like calling Maddie. She and Ben were relative newcomers in my life. They wouldn’t know my family history, so they couldn’t tell me anything.

There was this girl, Stacie Marr, who I grew up with. But how would she know more than I did?

Besides, Stacie had vanished. Completely. To begin with, she stole my first ever boyfriend, so I didn’t want to talk to her. Not only didn’t, but couldn’t. Shortly after the boyfriend thing, her father got arrested for molesting her. It made her so humiliated, she dropped out of school and disappeared. I didn’t mind her being gone, but I couldn’t help some curiosity about where she went and what she was doing.

I read Dad’s letter again and was no more enlightened than the first time. Who in heck was Hey Buddy? The very term Buddy made me think it was a man. He must have been somewhere near enough Kennedy Airport to meet Dad there. How could he do that if he was in prison?

I perked up when I heard a key in the lock. We always locked up since the time some lowlife sneaked in and stole Jasper. Luckily we got him back, but it made us a lot more careful.

Grandma came in wearing sweatpants and sneakers. She had short red hair with some natural curl that I didn’t inherit. Mine was more a mahogany shade, long and straight. She had on blue mascara to match her eyes, and she carried a mesh bag with her bowling shoes in it.

I said, “Is there something you people never told me?”

She straightened up from petting Jasper, who’d been jumping all over her.

“What are you talking about?” She set her bowling shoes on the floor and sat down next to me. The sofa faced a picture window that looked out on Riverview Boulevard. She kept one eye on the street in case anything interesting happened, which it almost never did, and one eye on me.

I showed her the envelope. “We got a letter from my dad, but it’s not for us. I want to know what’s going on.”

“Who said anything is? What are you talking about?”

“Take a look.” I pushed the letter into her hand.

She read it. A frown appeared on her forehead and got deeper as she went along.

“Huh!” she said, and gave it back to me. “How can you be sure it’s from him?”

“Grandma! How many people do we know in Borneo? That’s his address and his typewriter, I’d recognize it anywhere. And his signature, except it’s D instead of J. Is he leading a double life?”

It sounded crazy and I got embarrassed. But what other explanation could there be?

“Double life?” She spoke thoughtfully, as if considering it.

Then she tossed the whole thing back at me. “You’ll have to ask your mom.”

“Grandma! If you don’t know, why can’t you say so?”

She looked at me with those blue eyes. “Fine. Now I’m saying so.”

My eyes are brown, but they have the same ability as hers. We can both look completely innocent even when we’re not. At least I think I can. I know she can.

I also knew that was all I would get from her.

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