White Cat Page 2

He hesitates.

“Forget it,” I say. “Pretend I never—”

He interrupts me. “Do I get a percentage?”

“Twenty-five,” I say. “Twenty-five percent. But you’re going to have to do more than just collect the money for that.”

He nods slowly. “Yeah, okay.”

I grin. “You’re the most trustworthy guy I know.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Sam says. “Except, apparently, off a roof.”

“Nice,” I say with a groan. I push myself off the bed and take a clean pair of itchy black uniform pants out of the dresser.

“So why would you be gone? They’re not kicking you out, right?”

Pulling on the pants, I turn my face away, but I can’t keep the unease out of my voice. “No. I don’t know. Let me set you up.”

He nods. “Okay. What do I do?”

“I’ll give you my notebook on point spreads, tallies, everything, and you just fill in whatever bets you get.” I stand, pulling my desk chair over to the closet and hopping up on the seat. “Here.” My fingers close on the notebook I taped above the door. I rip it down. Another one from sophomore year is still up there, from when business got big enough I could no longer rely on my pretty-good-but-not-photographic memory.

Sam half-smiles. I can tell he’s amazed that he never noticed my hiding spot. “I think I can manage that.”

The pages he’s flipping through are records of all the bets made since the beginning of our junior year at Wallingford, and the odds on each. Bets on whether the mouse loose in Stanton Hall will be killed by Kevin Brown with his mallet, or by Dr. Milton with his bacon-baited traps, or be caught by Chaiyawat Terweil with his lettuce-filled and totally humane trap. (The odds favor the mallet.) On whether Amanda, Sharone, or Courtney would be cast as the female lead in Pippin and whether the lead would be taken down by her understudy. (Courtney got it; they’re still in rehearsals.) On how many times a week “nut brownies with no nuts” will be served in the cafeteria.

Real bookies take a percentage, relying on a balanced book to guarantee a profit. Like, if someone puts down five bucks on a fight, they’re really putting down four fifty, and the other fifty cents is going to the bookie. The bookie doesn’t care who wins; he only cares that the odds work so he can use the money from the losers to pay the winners. I’m not a real bookie. Kids at Wallingford want to bet on silly stuff, stuff that might never come true. They have money to burn. So some of the time I calculate the odds the right way—the real bookie way—and some of the time I calculate the odds my way and just hope I get to pocket everything instead of paying out what I can’t afford. You could say that I’m gambling too. You’d be right.

“Remember,” I say, “cash only. No credit cards; no watches.”

He rolls his eyes. “Are you seriously telling me someone thinks you have a credit card machine up in here?”

“No,” I say. “They want you to take their card and buy something that costs what they owe. Don’t do it; it looks like you stole their card, and believe me, that’s what they’ll tell their parents.”

Sam hesitates. “Yeah,” he says finally.

“Okay,” I say. “There’s a new envelope on the desk. Don’t forget to mark down everything.” I know I’m nagging, but I can’t tell him that I need the money I make. It’s not easy to go to a school like this without money. I’m the only seventeen-year-old at Wallingford without a car.

I motion to him to hand me the book.

Just as I’m taping it into place, someone raps loudly on the door, causing me to nearly topple over. Before I can say anything, it opens, and our hall master walks in. He looks at me like he’s half-expecting to find me threading a noose.

I hop down from the chair. “I was just—”

“Thanks for getting down my bag,” Sam says.

“Samuel Yu,” says Mr. Valerio. “I’m fairly sure that breakfast is over and classes have started.”

“I bet you’re right,” Sam says, with a smirk in my direction.

I could con Sam if I wanted to. I’d do it just this way, asking for his help, offering him a little profit at the same time. Take him for a chunk of his parents’ cash. I could con Sam, but I won’t.

Really, I won’t.

As the door clicks shut behind Sam, Valerio turns to me. “Your brother can’t come until tomorrow morning, so you’re going to have to attend classes with the rest of the students. We’re still discussing where you’ll be spending the night.”

“You can always tie me to the bedposts,” I say, but Valerio doesn’t find that very funny.

My mother explained the basics of the con around the same time she explained about curse work. For her the curse was how she got what she wanted and the con was how she got away with it. I can’t make people love or hate instantly, like she can, turn their bodies against them like Philip can, or take their luck away like my other brother, Barron, but you don’t need to be a worker to be a con artist.

For me the curse is a crutch, but the con is everything.

It was my mother who taught me that if you’re going to screw someone over—with magic and wit, or wit alone—you have to know the mark better than he knows himself.

The first thing you have to do is gain his confidence. Charm him. Just be sure he thinks he’s smarter than you are. Then you—or, ideally, your partner—suggest the score.

Let your mark get something right up front the first time. In the business that’s called the “convincer.” When he knows he’s already got money in his pocket and can walk away, that’s when he relaxes his guard.

The second go is when you introduce bigger stakes. The big score. This is the part my mother never has to worry about. As an emotion worker, she can make anyone trust her. But she still needs to go through the steps, so that later, when they think back on it, they don’t figure out she worked them.

After that there’s only the blow-off and the getaway.

Being a con artist means thinking that you’re smarter than everyone else and that you’ve thought of everything. That you can get away with anything. That you can con anyone.

I wish I could say that I don’t think about the con when I deal with people, but the difference between me and my mother is that I don’t con myself.


I ONLY HAVE ENOUGH time to pull on my uniform and run to French class; breakfast is long over. Wallingford television crackles to life as I dump my books onto my desk. Sadie Flores announces from the screen that during activities period the Latin club will be having a bake sale to support their building a small outdoor grotto, and that the rugby team will meet inside the gymnasium. I manage to stumble through my classes until I actually fall asleep during history. I wake abruptly with drool wetting the sleeve of my shirt and Mr. Lewis asking, “What year was the ban put into effect, Mr. Sharpe?”

“Nineteen twenty-nine,” I mumble. “Nine years after Prohibition started. Right before the stock market crashed.”

“Very good,” he says unhappily. “And can you tell me why the ban hasn’t been repealed like prohibition?”

I wipe my mouth. My headache hasn’t gotten any better. “Uh, because the black market supplies people with curse work anyway?”

A couple of people laugh, but Mr. Lewis isn’t one of them. He points toward the board, where a jumble of chalk reasons are written. Something about economic initiatives and a trade agreement with the European Union. “Apparently you can do lots of things very skillfully while asleep, Mr. Sharpe, but attending my class does not seem to be one of them.”

He gets the bigger laugh. I stay awake for the rest of the period, although several times I have to jab myself with a pen to do it.

I go back to my dorm and sleep through the period when I should be getting help from teachers in classes where I’m struggling, through track practice, and through the debate team meeting. Waking up halfway through dinner, I feel the rhythm of my normal life receding, and I have no idea how to get it back.

Wallingford Preparatory is a lot like how I pictured it when my brother Barron brought home the brochure. The lawns are less green and the buildings are smaller, but the library is impressive enough and everyone wears jackets to dinner. Kids come to Wallingford for two very different reasons. Either private school is their ticket to a fancy university, or they got kicked out of public school and are using their parents’ money to avoid the school for juvenile delinquents that’s their only other option.

Wallingford isn’t exactly Choate or Deerfield Academy, but it was willing to take me, even with my ties to the Zacharovs. Barron thought the school would give me structure. No messy house. No chaos. I’ve done well too. Here, my inability to do curse work is actually an advantage—the first time that it’s been good for anything. And yet I see in myself a disturbing tendency to seek out all the trouble this new life should be missing. Like running the betting pool when I need money. I can’t seem to stop working the angles.

The dining hall is wood-paneled with a high, arched ceiling that makes our noise echo. The walls are hung with paintings of important heads-of-school and, of course, Wallingford himself. Colonel Wallingford, the founder of Wallingford Preparatory, killed by curse work a year before the ban went into effect, sneers down at me from his gold frame.

My shoes clack on the worn marble tiles, and I frown as the voices around me merge into a single buzzing that rings in my ears. Walking through to the kitchen, my hands feel damp, sweat soaking the cotton of my gloves as I push open the door.

I look around automatically to see if Audrey’s here. She’s not, but I shouldn’t have looked. I’ve got to ignore her just enough that she doesn’t think I care, but not too much. Too much will give me away as well.

Especially today, when I’m so disoriented.

“You’re late,” one of the food service ladies says without looking up from wiping the counter. She looks past retirement age—at least as old as my grandfather—and a few of her permed curls have tumbled out the side of her plastic cap. “Dinner’s over.”

“Yeah.” And then I mumble, “Sorry.”

“The food’s put away.” She looks up at me. She holds up her plastic-covered hands. “It’s going to be cold.”

“I like cold food.” I give her my best sheepish half smile.

She shakes her head. “I like boys with a good appetite. All of you look so skinny, and in the magazines they talk about you starving yourselves like girls.”

“Not me,” I say, and my stomach growls, which makes her laugh.

“Go outside and I’ll bring you a plate. Take a few cookies off the tray here too.” Now that she’s decided I’m a poor child in need of feeding, she seems happy to fuss.

Unlike in most school cafeterias, the food at Wallingford is good. The cookies are dark with molasses and spicy with ginger. The spaghetti, when she brings it, is lukewarm, but I can taste chorizo in the red sauce. As I sop up some of it with bread, Daneca Wasserman comes over to the table.

“Can I sit down?” she asks.

I glance up at the clock. “Study hall’s going to start soon.” Her tangle of brown curls looks unbrushed, pulled back with a sandalwood headband. I drop my gaze to the hemp bag at her hip, studded with buttons that read POWERED BY TOFU, DOWN ON PROP 2, and WORKER RIGHTS.

“You weren’t at debate club,” she says.

“Yeah.” I feel bad about avoiding Daneca or giving her rude half answers, but I’ve been doing it since I started at Wallingford. Even though she’s one of Sam’s friends and living with him makes avoiding Daneca more difficult.

“My mother wants to talk with you. She says that what you did was a cry for help.”

“It was,” I say. “That’s why I was yelling ‘Heeeelp!’ I don’t really go in for subtlety.”

She makes an impatient noise. Daneca’s family are cofounders of HEX, the advocacy group that wants to make working legal again—basically so laws against more serious works can be better enforced. I’ve seen her mother on television, filmed sitting in the office of her brick house in Princeton, a blooming garden visible through the window behind her. Mrs. Wasserman talked about how, despite the laws, no one wanted to be without a luck worker at a wedding or a baptism, and that those kinds of works were beneficial. She talked about how it benefited crime families to prevent workers from finding ways to use their talents legally. She admitted to being a worker herself. It was an impressive speech. A dangerous speech.

“Mom deals with worker families all the time,” Daneca says. “The issues worker kids face.”

“I know that, Daneca. Look, I didn’t want to join your junior HEX club last year, and I don’t want to mess with that kind of stuff now. I’m not a worker, and I don’t care if you are. Find someone else to recruit or save or whatever it is you are trying to do. And I don’t want to meet your mother.”

She hesitates. “I’m not a worker. I’m not. Just because I want to—”

“Whatever. I said I don’t care.”

“You don’t care that workers are being rounded up and shot in South Korea? And here in the U.S. they’re being forced into what’s basically indentured servitude for crime families? You don’t care about any of it?”

“No, I don’t care.”

Across the hall Valerio is headed toward me. That’s enough to make Daneca decide she doesn’t want to risk a demerit for not being where she’s supposed to be. Hand on her bag, she walks off with a single glance back at me. The combination of disappointment and contempt in that last look hurts.

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