When Peter Smith’s classmate snaps a picture of him during a late night run at the track, Peter thinks he might be in trouble. When she posts that photoalong with the caption, “See the Pretty Boy Run,”Peter knows he’s in trouble. But when hostiles drop through the ceiling of his 6th period Chem Class, Peter’s pretty sure his trouble just became a national emergency.
Because he’s not really Peter Smith. He’s Jake Morrow, former foster-kid turned CIA operative. After a massive screw-up on his first mission, he's on a pity assignment, a dozen hit lists and now, social media, apparently. As #Prettyboy, of all freaking things.
His cover’s blown, his school’s under siege, and if he screws up now, #Prettyboy will become #Deadboy faster than you can say, 'fifteen minutes of fame.' Trapped in a high school with rabid killers and rabid fans, he’ll need all his training and then some to save his job, his school and, oh yeah, his life.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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Colorado, U.S.A. | Fall Semester
It's just after twenty-one hundred hours, and the track and field complex is deserted, but I can't shake the feeling I'm being followed. Seven months after leaving Ukraine, I'm still not convinced people aren't after me, but tonight my paranoia feels less irrational. Someone's out there.
Everyone else at Carlisle Academy should be in the dorms cramming for this week's midterms, but I'm not alone. The night is pitch black and I can't see a thing beyond the few lights around the track, so I rely on my other senses. Still running — in case flight is a better option than fight — I tune out the drone of crickets and hear someone moving along the boxwood hedge lining the port side of the track, twenty feet away. Beneath the scent of piñon pines in the hills above campus, I detect the pungent aroma of pizza from Buy-the-Slice. Which is in town, four point three miles from campus.
I stop running and turn toward the hedge, beyond relieved that there isn't a Ukrainian arms dealer lying in wait behind them.
"Bunker, get out here."
No one responds but the crickets.
"Bunk, I know it's you. No one in his right mind would put garlic, gorgonzola, anchovies, and kimchi on a pizza."
Sure enough, Bunker emerges from behind the bushes, a half-eaten slice in hand. For a guy who's only five-foot-four, the man can eat. He's always eating. But it's understandable. He has a lot of making up to do in the food department. Well, pretty much the whole life-experiences department.
"See," Bunk says around a mouthful of pizza, "that's why I can never seem to get the jump on you no matter how stealthy I am."
"Hate to break it to you, but you're not all that stealthy," I tell him. "Why are you here, anyway?"
"I was at the library and thought you might want a ride home. And don't try to change the subject. There is no way you should have smelled this food from that far away," Bunker says, stuffing the last of the pizza into his mouth. "Either you're a dog-boy or a highly trained killing machine or a covert operative, but you are not a mere mortal."
I try not to let Bunker's accusations rattle me, and resume my run, hoping the fact that he is the most out-of-shape sixteen-year-old I've ever met will keep him from joining me. Until last year, he spent his entire life living in a bunker, hence his nickname. His dad took baby Bunk underground on New Year's Eve 1999 and waited for the end of the world for everyone without his foresight and provision-hoarding skills. He didn't want to give space to any gym equipment besides a full set of barbells, convinced jogging in place would be enough. It wasn't. Bunker's built like a five-foot-four Mr. Olympia but has the stamina of a toddler.
But he won't let a lack of oxygen get in the way of continuing his weeklong interrogation. Bunker has been hitting me nonstop with theories about my "true identity" ever since he witnessed me kick the asses of five townies in the alley behind Buy-the-Slice. It was a regrettable display of force — especially for the townies — but necessary. I've sworn him to silence about the whole thing, and he's been true to his word, except when it comes to me.
Despite the whole Joe Cool thing I've managed to pull off so far, the truth is, his questions are stressing me out way more than any I'll find on a midterm exam. I barely made it out of Ukraine with my cover intact after managing to dupe Marchuk Sr. for weeks. I'd hate to have it blown by a guy who learned everything he knows about interrogation from old cop shows.
"So ... I'm still not buying that story about your dad teaching you a few defensive moves," Bunker says, already starting to pant a little. "Taking out five Crestview High football players with only a six-pack of soda for a weapon is not like fending off a mugger in the mall parking lot."
"You helped. Some."
"By the time I figured out what the hell was going on, you'd already knocked three of them unconscious."
It's October, but unseasonably warm for Colorado. I stop running for a second, peel off my sweat-drenched t-shirt, and search for a dry inch I can use to wipe my glasses, but I only make them worse. I drop the shirt on the ground next to the track and place the glasses on top of it, noticing my hands are shaking just a bit. If Bunker and his questions are making me nervous, I hate to think what kind of mess I'd be if there had been an arms-dealing terrorist behind the hedge.
"Take, for example, those specs," Bunker says. "You think you're pulling a Clark Kent, but you're fooling no one."
"I'm pulling a what?"
"Superman's flimsy disguise? Lois Lane might be hotter, but I'm a lot more observant. There is zero prescription in those lenses."
"Way hotter," I say, hoping to get his focus off me and onto his favorite subject. When you grow up with only your dad for company, you miss out on a lot. Bunker lost about four years of lusting over real live girls that he will never make up for.
Unfortunately, he doesn't take the bait.
"Despite the glasses, playing clarinet in the band, that sermon you gave me last weekend about the difference between hacking code and code- hacking, even your mad D&D skills, you are not a geek," he says, shaking long red curls out of his face. They immediately flop back over his forehead, nearly covering his eyes, like a sheepdog's. "In fact, your whole cover is a cliché. Nobody is that much of a nerd, even the hipsters trying hard to be nerds because it's cool now, and I should know. Besides, real geeks don't usually have biceps like that."
"Um," I say, as I point to him and back to me again. He might need one of those spray-on tans, since Bunker's the whitest white boy I know — due to his only source of ultraviolet light since birth being a battery-operated lamp, and just enough to prevent rickets — but he would blow me away in a bodybuilding contest.
"Yeah, but I'm a freak thanks to fifteen years underground with nothing to entertain me but weights and my dad's pre-millennium comic book and DVD collection. I'm The Thing from Fantastic Four. You, my friend, look like a boy-bander with a well-used gym membership. Big difference. A guy who looks like you cannot be oblivious that he looks like you."
Speaking of looks, I give one to Bunker that suggests he's given way too much thought about mine.
"What?" Bunker asks, looking genuinely surprised by my reaction. "I'm just trying to make the point that you are fooling no one."
Actually, I'd been fooling everyone, including Bunker, until the Buy-the- Slice alley incident. That was the exact opposite of flying under the radar and a total rookie mistake. But I go into denial mode anyway. You always deny.
"I think you inherited your father's gift of paranoia, Bunk. Sorry, but no one can live underground for one-point-five decades and not be a little ..." I finish the sentence by twirling my index finger next to my head.
"See, that's what I mean. A regular person would just say fifteen years, or maybe one and a half decades, not 'one-point-five.' The way you talk sometimes is so, I don't know, precise. And you know all those languages."
"This is Carlisle. Plenty of people here speak multiple languages."
"You speak five. I'm pretty sure there has never been another student in the whole history of Carlisle, one allegedly born in the United States, who spoke Farsi, Urdu, and Mandarin," Bunker says, making me wish I'd never divulged my aptitude with foreign languages. Good thing I never told him I actually speak eight. Nine if you include the Tlingit I picked up working a summer job in Alaska, but I'm not really fluent in that, so it probably doesn't count.
"I mean, when the most pedestrian foreign language you speak is Ukrainian —"
"Stop," I say, and not only because Bunker's now wheezing like an old man, or because the word Ukraine is like my Kryptonite. It's mostly because I know we're not alone. The shhh sound I just heard didn't come from either of us.
Bunker bends over, hands on knees, obviously grateful for the break. For the second time tonight, I tune out the crickets, and now Bunker's raspy wheezing, and listen. The intruder has gone silent, but I know he's there. It could be another student come to burn off some midterm stress with a late run. Or it could be an assassin dispatched by Pavlo Marchuk. There has been no sign of him since he escaped our capture, and word is one of his clients found him before we could, which would make him very dead if true. But that doesn't mean he didn't take out a contract on me before he kicked off, intent on avenging his father from beyond the grave.
Okay, now I'm the one being paranoid. They can't possibly know I'm here, or who I am. Still ... someone is out there, watching me.
I take a defensive stance — imperceptible, at least, to anyone but Bunker — who has regained the ability to breathe.
"What is it?" he asks, looking around us. "Is someone after you?"
I ignore his questions and scan the field beyond the track, looking for points of entry I may have missed.
"Look, Bunk," I whisper, "if something goes down in the next minute, don't try to play tough like you did in the alley last week. Just run like hell and get help."
Bunk looks simultaneously terrified and vindicated. "I knew you weren't just mild-mannered Peter Smith. Smith. Is that even your real —"
I put my finger to my lips. Still I hear nothing. But the wind stirs, and I detect a familiar scent in the direction of the same hedge Bunker hid behind. Floral, but in a chemical way. Perfume. Girls.
No sooner do I think it than a gang of them jumps from behind the boxwoods, their leader pointing a weapon that I fear almost as much as Japanese shurikens (hate those): her phone.
All I can make out of her is shiny blond hair and long red nails wrapped around the phone as it creates a momentary flash of light.
Five townies seeking revenge, even Ukrainian black ops, I'm prepared to handle. But giggling, camera-wielding girls? What are they doing out here in the dark, anyway — stalking me just to get a picture? I'm not that good-looking, no matter what Bunker says.
I'm thrown off my guard for a few seconds. By the time I regain it, the damage is done. They've taken my photo and are already running away toward the dorms, their laughter sounding conspiratorial. They might as well have hurled a ninja star at my heart.
By morning, I've put the camera incident into better perspective. It was weird and random, but equating a bunch of freshmen taking my photo to a ninja-star attack was a total overreaction. Bunker said it only confirmed his point about me looking like a member of a boy band, suggesting they just wanted a photo of me with my shirt off. He also was convinced the girls had put me and my cover in grave danger, though I had neither confirmed nor denied the fact that I even have a cover.
The thing is, Bunker is mostly right. I technically do still work for the Company, also known as the CIA. Rogers's high-school recruitment program, Operation Early Bird, will likely be shut down, but I was able to talk her out of completely firing me and agreed to an indefinite suspension. I also convinced her to get me enrolled at Carlisle Academy. I told her I chose Carlisle and its stellar STEM programs for my senior year because it was always a dream of mine to attend. I also pointed out that, given the student body, I could amass quality intel on some of the nation's top science research laboratories and the scientists working inside them. The Company is never supposed to spy on the homeland, and technically I'm off the job, so it was a hard offer to refuse.
Rogers wrote in the Ukraine final incident report that I was good at what I did, but tended to get a little too "emotionally invested." Until Rogers recruited me, I hadn't been emotionally invested in anything. I was only hacking because I could, because no one could stop me, because it was all I had of my own. This job gave me a reason to ... I don't know, just a reason, period. So hell yeah, I get worked up about it sometimes. Rogers doesn't see it that way, but I'll prove her wrong when my skills and my passion for my job help me capture the most dangerous member of Marchuk's team. Pavlo may be dead, but I've been watching his hacker-for-hire since we left Ukraine. Over the summer, I caught him monitoring our defense command center down in Colorado Springs, as well as some of our country's top research labs right here in town, and in my book that makes him a threat to national security. Which is why I've tracked him to Carlisle.
Even before Rogers gave me the job, I always kept a low profile because of being, well, a criminal. I was never a fan of selfies or social media, so it wasn't hard to stay low. But once I started hacking for the right side of the law and became an operative, the Company searched for and removed every trace of me or my face from the internet. What they say about the internet being forever? It's true unless the CIA eradicates the old you and creates the fake you.
So while I got zero sleep thinking about the girl with the camera, remembering my bigger mission has kept me from freaking out. At least until Bunker found me at my locker this morning.
"Bro, how're you holding up?" he asks me. "I'm guessing not well, since you sneaked out of the house so early this morning."
Bunker's just worried about me, but I can't deal with an interrogation this morning, so I fake being chill about the whole thing.
"I didn't sneak ... I just wanted to get my mind right for the calculus exam today and used the walk to think," I say, banging on my stuck locker door until it finally unsticks and flies open. "Wouldn't happen to have any WD-40 on you, would you?"
But Bunker will not be distracted.
"You had the Morrisons worried, but I covered for you," Bunker says, referring to our host family. He was assigned to them because he's attending Carlisle on a scholarship that doesn't include the outrageous boarding fees. I live there because spies who are suspended, and gathering intel that is only potentially useful, rate the lowest expense budgets possible. "Mrs. Morrison made me bring you this."
He hands me a brown paper bag. I open it to find a partially eaten blueberry muffin, half a banana, and a string cheese wrapper, and give it back along with some serious side-eye.
"I got hungry on the drive to school," he says, looking guilty as he stuffs it into his Phantom Menace backpack, a relic from his dad's bunker. I tried to tell him no one beyond middle school carries a Star Wars backpack, and certainly not one from a movie two decades old, but Bunker doesn't care about that kind of thing. He likes what he likes, including my food, apparently.
Just thinking about that muffin makes my stomach growl, but missing breakfast was worth avoiding another interrogation from Bunker. Of course, he'd have tried to mask his questions, but Bunk isn't exactly a whiz at subterfuge. It's hard to learn the nuances of interpersonal deception — also known as lying — when you spend your whole life with only one person, sharing a three-hundred-square-foot space. Pretty hard to hide anything in that situation.
"Look, we've only known each other a short time, but we're already like brothers from another mother. Except for you actually being a brother. Wait — since I'm not black, is it okay for me to call you that?" Bunker asks, but doesn't wait for an answer. "What I'm saying is, you can confide in me. Come on, aren't you just a little worried about ... the incident?"
I consider pretending I have no idea what he's talking about, but I know evasion won't work with Bunker. He'll only pester me until I concede or punch him in the face. I like Bunk; in fact, he's my only friend at Carlisle, even if we aren't quite at the 'brother' level yet. That's something Rogers would consider further evidence of my emotional attachment issues. An operative should never have actual friends, only assets.
Still, I'd rather avoid punching Bunker in the face, so I try a confusion tactic instead.
"I'll admit I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Depending on how those freshmen frame the whole thing, if she ever saw that photo, Darlene would make my life hell."
"My girlfriend, you know, back home in Texas? I told you about her."
"No, sir, you did not. First time I have ever heard of this Darlene person," Bunker says, sounding skeptical. I don't dare look at his face to get a read. Not that I need to. It's clear from his voice he doesn't believe me. "How is it possible that we've shared a home for eight weeks and I have never heard a single mention of a girlfriend 'back home'?"
Excerpted from "Prettyboy Must Die"
Copyright © 2018 Kimberly Reid.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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