Trouble Is a Friend of Mine

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9780147515438: Trouble Is a Friend of Mine
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Sherlock meets Veronica Mars meets Ferris Bueller's Day Off in this romance where the leading man is decidedly unromantic, and crime novel where catching the crook isn't the only hook.
     Of course Zoe Webster didn't like Philip Digby when she first met him. No one does! He's rude and he treats her like a book he's already read and knows the ending to. But Zoe is new in town and her options for friends are . . . limited. And before she knows it, Digby--annoying, brilliant, and somehow attractive?--has dragged her into a series of hilarious and dangerous situations all related to the investigation of a missing local teen girl. When it comes to Digby, Zoe just can't say no. But is Digby's manic quest really worth all the trouble he's getting Zoe into?

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About the Author:

Stephanie Tromly was born in Manila, grew up in Hong Kong, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. She is the author of Trouble is a Friend of Mine and lives in Winnipeg with her husband and young son.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Of course I didn’t like Digby when I first met him. No one does. He’s rude, he doesn’t ever take no for an answer, and he treats you like a book he’s already read and knows the ending to even if you yourself didn’t yet. Now, if you’re a normal sixteen-year-old like I am, and you spend half your time obsessing about the future and what you’re supposed to be and spend the other half reading about makeup, diets, and all the ways to change who you already are, then the stuff he hits you with is hard to take. Like Digby himself said: The truth is almost always disappointing.

Not that I need him to tell me about the truth. Or disappointment. In the last six months, I went from living in an almost-good part of Brooklyn to my parents divorcing and Mom and me moving to River Heights, a small city in the armpit of upstate New York. Trust me, it’s an even bigger lifestyle demotion than it sounds like.

Here’s my first confession. I hung out with cool people, sure, but looking back, I think maybe we were friends only because we were in the same classes and our parents all got divorced around the same time. Digby calls them circumstantial friends. Right place, right time—it was easy to be friends, and so we were.

My friendship with Digby, on the other hand, while circumstantially convenient—he just shows up, after all—is not easy. Nothing with that guy ever is. At first, I thought I hung out with him because I was bored and wanted to get back at Mom for moving me here. Then I thought it was because he seemed so lost and alone all the time.

But now I’m standing outside a house wired with enough explosives to blow up our entire block into a pile of matchsticks, trying to figure out the best way to get back in, and I realize that really, I’m the one who’s been lost.

But I’m jumping too far ahead. All this began on the first day of school and we need to go back there for you to understand.

ONE

I’d been telling Mom to change the drained batteries in the doorbell since we moved in. The chimes were out of tune and dinging at half their normal speed. They sounded like a robot dying in slow agony. And now some jackass was ringing it over and over. After five minutes of pretending nobody was home, I thought I was going to snap, so I answered the door.

“Nice bell,” he said.

He was my age, wearing a black suit that made him look even taller and skinnier than he already was. It was a hot morning and he was sweating into the collar of his white button-down. He held a black book and I would’ve thought he was a Jehovah’s Witness with a Bible, but I doubted they wore sneakers when they came calling. His messy brown hair had probably once been pop-star shaggy, but now it needed cutting. His sad brown eyes turned down at the corners and he had a bored facial expression that I later realized was one of his main weapons in life.

“Sorry, not interested.” Just to be safe, I yelled, “It’s no one, Mom, just some guy selling something.”

“Why are you pretending your mom’s home? You’re here alone. You guys drove off together, but you’re back and her car isn’t. I’m guessing she dropped you at school and you walked home,” he said. “Next time, fake sick and save her the gas.”

I tried another one. “Dad!”

“You only had the one car in the garage—the tires are squishy, by the way—the grass on your lawn that isn’t brown is a foot tall, recycling isn’t sorted, and you know . . . the doorbell,” he said. “There’s no dad in the picture.”

I was too shocked to deny it.

“What, were you casing the place? Because I gotta tell you, we don’t have anything nice.” The following catalog ran through my head: letter opener in the hall drawer, knives on the kitchen counter, poker by the busted fireplace in the den, and a collection of advice from Sexual Assault Prevention Day, like: “Never let them take you to a second location.”

“Casing the place? No. Well . . . technically, I guess I was casing around your house, but not your actual house,” he said. “Anyway, I’ve watched you photograph yourself every morning—”

“What?! You’re looking in my window—”

“I need to see the photos,” he said. “Although, if you only take them at the same time every day, they probably won’t tell me much because they never do anything interesting in the mornings. Then again, you never know . . .”

“I’m calling the police.”

I slammed the door so hard, the doorbell started ringing on its own.

“Listen, my name’s Digby. Here’s my e-mail address.” He slid a small piece of paper under the door that said: Digby@TheRealDigby.com. “E-mail the photos if that’s less freaky for you.”

Through the glass panel in the door, I saw him start to knock, so I grabbed the letter opener and flashed it in an I’m-gonna-stab-you way. I guess I was convincing, because he said “Whoa” and backed away. When he got to the sidewalk, he looked up to my bedroom window, then stared at the mansion across the street for a long time.

And that wasn’t even the weirdest thing that happened that day. I’d just started as a junior at River Heights High and didn’t know they phoned parents of absent students after first period bell. They called it the Ferris Bueller Rule. Apparently the school board made the new rule after a girl disappeared during summer vacation. Marina Jane Miller (TV news always used all three of her names) had been kidnapped while friends were sleeping over in her room. They hadn’t heard a thing. The whole of River Heights was freaked, especially the rich people, because Marina Miller was rich.

The school called Mom at work and she called me, but when I didn’t pick up, she rushed home only to find me napping. Naturally, she had a mini conniption fit but much worse than that was the fact that cutting school landed me in an early intervention meeting with thirteen other kids who got busted that day.

Which is where I saw Digby again.

TWO

The truancy officer was a hard-ass named Musgrave. He was the kind of man about whom Mom would say, “Poor thing wasn’t held enough as a baby.” He sat us in a circle and slowly walked around outside it. When I was first summoned to the meeting, I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but Musgrave’s black uniform and shiny badge were intimidating.

Meanwhile, our guidance counselor, who introduced himself as “please-call-me-Steve,” stood in the middle of the circle handing out chocolate chip cookies he’d baked for us. He’d also made HELLO, MY NAME IS stickers. Mine had ZOE WEBSTER in swirly red ink like all the girls’. The boys’ were done in blue.

Musgrave scowled when Please-Call-Me-Steve offered him a cookie. Funnily, the two of them looked evil-twin/good-twin alike. Both were short, dumpy men with bad haircuts and red splotchy faces, but where Steve’s was red with sunburn from riding his bike to work, Musgrave’s was red from, I’d guess, drinking and rage.

Musgrave was halfway through his threats about unexcused absences and summer school when Digby arrived. It had taken Musgrave twenty minutes to wind up to this climax, so he was totally derailed when Digby sauntered in.

“You must think you’re a funny guy, almost missing a disciplinary meeting on truancy,” Musgrave said. “Grab your name tag and get your butt over here.”

Digby had to write his own tag, which he did in swirly red letters. Then he sighed and dragged a chair to the circle. The metal legs screamed the entire way. The other truants clapped and laughed. To my horror, Digby parked himself next to me and greeted me like we’d planned to sit together.

I tried to look saintly and refused to acknowledge Digby’s muttered asides. He stage-whispered things like, “It’s nine a.m.—he smells like jerky. Discuss,” and, “Do you think it’s fun to stay at the YMCA in that outfit?”

I sat, frozen, but Musgrave threw me the same evil stare he pointed at Digby. As far as he was concerned, we were in it together. Finally, after repeating the policy on truancy and summer school twice more, Musgrave ended the meeting.

“Okay, everybody,” Please-Call-Me-Steve said. “Please come and leave your information on the sign-up sheet here. Make sure you take a look . . . and help yourself to some snacks. Give pepitas a chance!”

Meanwhile, Musgrave cornered Digby and me.

“How’s it going, Harlan?” Digby said to him.

“Welcome back to River Heights, Mr. Digby,” Musgrave said. “I haven’t gotten your file from your school in Texas. Did they teach you manners there or are you and I gonna have problems?”

“Harlan and I go way back . . . before his demotion, when he was an actual police officer,” Digby said.

“Guess that answers my question about manners,” Musgrave said.

“Don’t be sad, Harlan. You should learn to see the positive in this new job . . . after all, I believe children are our future,” Digby said.

“You will call me Mr. Musgrave,” he said. “And you, Zoe Webster, your fancy Manhattan psychiatrist called.” Everyone in the room was listening. Musgrave checked his clipboard. “Didaskaleinophobia? That’s a mouthful. Fancy way of saying you don’t like school. That’s a thing now? When did that become a valid excuse?”

“That’s confidential student information,” Digby said.

“Excuse me?” Musgrave said.

“I’m pretty sure if she told her parents you read all that to her classmates, they’d call their ‘fancy Manhattan’ lawyer and sue you and the school board for violating her privacy,” Digby said.

“Still a troublemaker,” Musgrave said. “I remember you were fractious and disruptive to our investigation. Nothing’s changed, I see.”

“And might that be more confidential student information you’re revealing?” Digby said.

Musgrave’s left eye twitched but, thank God, Please-Call-Me-Steve called him to the other end of the room.

“What are you doing?” I smacked Digby’s arm.

“You wanted him to announce your private business to the whole room?” Digby said.

“Stop helping and get away from me, please—I don’t want him to think we’re friends.”

“Don’t knock it. Spend some time in River Heights and you’ll know it ain’t easy making friends around here.”

“I’m serious. I can’t get in trouble. I need a clean transcript or I’ll never get out of here.”

“Which makes your decision to skip school super-interesting,” Digby said. “Are you transferring out of this fine establishment?”

“Hope to.”

“To where?”

“A school in New York. The Prentiss Academy.”

“Sounds uptight.”

“It’s a feeder school for Princeton.”

“Princeton? You wanna go there?” He was laughing at me.

“Not that I have to explain myself to you, but I have the grades.”

“Your answer to having school phobia is applying to a really hard school so you can get into a really, really hard college?”

“I’m not phobic anymore.”

“Were you ever really?” Digby took a bite of cookie. “Hey, these cookies are good.”

“Yeah, the guidance counselor made them.”

“Wait. He said he physically made them?”

“Yeah . . .”

Digby rifled through the tray of cookies. A few of the kids standing near us groaned in disgust.

“You’re touching all the cookies. That’s gross,” I said.

Across the room, Steve and Musgrave argued loudly.

“Wanna get out of morning classes this semester?” Digby said.

“How?”

“Think fast—Steve’s losing against Musgrave—are you in? Now or never, Princeton.”

I meant to say no, but as I later found out, something about Digby makes me do the exact opposite of what I know is the right thing. Over and over again.

“I guess . . . I’m in?”

Digby ran over and inserted himself into their argument.

“Steve, I gotta talk to you about our independent project,” Digby said.

Steve looked blank but played along. “Oh?”

“What independent project?” Musgrave said.

“Our approval form’s right here,” Digby said.

“It’s new,” Steve said. “Students work on projects off campus to pursue interests the curriculum doesn’t address.”

“They don’t come to school?” Musgrave said.

“They meet with a faculty advisor, but they work on it outside the classroom. They come to school for the rest of their credits,” Steve said.

“That’s ridiculous! That’s kids schooling themselves. Blue state liberal garbage . . . what’s this project anyway?”

Digby used his extra-bored expression. “We’re calling it ‘Convicted in Absence.’ We’re looking at whether skipping class leads to criminal behavior, or whether being punished like a criminal for skipping class actually causes the criminal behavior. Bet it’s the second one.” It came out fast and shiny, like he’d spent time polishing up his spiel. “We’re talking about securitization . . . schools as an extension of the police state. ‘Convicted in Absence.’ Good title, right?”

“This crap is destroying this country,” Musgrave said.

That sealed it. Anything to annoy Musgrave. Steve signed the form.

I caught up with Digby in the hall. “What just happened? How’d you do that?” I said.

Manhattan psychiatrist, but downgraded to a falling-down house in a B-grade suburb? Your parents are divorced. C’mon, you never use divide and conquer? It’s a divorce-kid classic.” Digby looked at me hard. “Although . . . no makeup, no piercings, loose jeans.” He looked at my butt a little too hard for my taste. “I don’t see a whale tail . . . good girl who doesn’t play that game? Yeah . . . that’s you. The girl in the music video before the makeover.”

“Half the school’s got divorced parents. You had a fifty-fifty chance,” I said. “What was with the cookies?”

“When Mommy, or Steve in this case, lies about store-bought cookies being homemade, it means the battle for the kids’ affection is not going well for her. I gave Steve a way to win the battle,” he said.

“How’d you know these weren’t homemade?”

“Unless they’re OCD, people don’t use cookie cutters on chocolate chip cookies. Perfect circles.” He held up cookies he’d swiped. All unnaturally round. “Plus, they’re warm, so the guy microwaved them, meaning he really cares.”

“Great, Professor Pillsbury. But now we have to actually write this.”

“Read the room. Steve will give us a good grade no matter what we turn in just to freak out Musgrave,” he said. “What’s with you, anyway?”

“What’s with me?”

“The psychiatrist. Bipolar? Plain vanilla depression? Rainbow sprinkles of phobias and anxieties? What’s your deal?”

“That’s personal.”

“Is it like you can’t get out of bed because you feel like someone’s sitting on your chest, but who cares anyway because what’s the point?” he said. “Or like you can’t be around people because you feel like everyone knows?”

Fine. I skipped class a bunch when my parents were divorcing, but Dad said it’d look bad on my transcript, so he called his psychiatrist friend and . . . I’m a fake, okay?”

“Just because your psychiatrist’s note’s fake, it doesn’t mean you’re not really depressed.”

I hadn’t consider...

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