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It's his senior year, and Will Shea has conned his way into one of the country's most elite prep schools. But he soon runs into Andrea, a fellow con artist. With the school not big enough for the both of them, they make a bet that whoever can con Brandt Rush, the richest, most privileged student in the school, out of $50,000 gets to stay at the school. Will starts setting up his con (an online poker scam) with his uncle, who's one of the best grifters in the business, and with the unwanted help of his father. The plot thickens as Will starts falling for fellow student Gatsby, and some of Will's lies start to catch up with him.
In this twisty tale of scams, secrets, lies, and deception, it's hard to figure out who's conning who.
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Joe Schreiber is the New York Times bestselling author of the adult novels Death Troopers, Chasing the Dead, and Eat the Dark. His novels for young people include the critically acclaimed Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick; Perry's Killer Playlist; and Lenny Cyrus, School Virus. He lives in Pennsylvania.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This is how I always start:
“My name is Will Shea. You can probably tell that I’m not from around here.”
It’s 11:07 a.m. and I’m looking out on a classroom of eighteen faces, their expressions ranging from curious to indifferent to the flat-out glassy-eyed stare that you see only in closed-head-injury victims. Somewhere off to my right, Mr. Bodkins, my English Lit teacher, leans back in his swivel chair with his arms crossed. He’s dressed in a charcoal suit and skinny tie, his hip-in-the-’90s haystack-style haircut going gray around the temples, and I’m guessing he probably has a trunk full of unpublished novels stretching back into his undergraduate years. Steam from his Connaughton Academy coffee cup floats above his head like an empty thought bubble.
From the back, somebody coughs, and I realize the silence has gone on too long. Glancing over my shoulder at the wall behind me, I can feel the heat rising in my face, flushing into my cheeks and making the tips of my ears turn red.
“I was born in a part of the world most of you probably have never heard of,” I say, “a tiny island called Ebeye. It’s out in the middle of the Pacific, about two thousand miles southwest of Hawaii.”
“Island living,” somebody from the back mutters. “Sounds pretty sweet,” and there’s a vague murmur of disinterested laughter that Mr. Bodkins chooses to ignore.
“It’s a very small country,” I say. “My parents were missionaries there, but . . .”
Somebody giggles, and I falter, letting the rest of the sentence hang there, and glance over at Mr. Bodkins, but he just nods.
“It’s all right, Mr. Shea. Take your time.”
I draw in a breath, feeling the knot of tension tightening in the room, a kind of silent impatience that you find only in the uppermost echelons of American wealth. These are the children of the elite. Row upon row of entitled faces framed by generations of flawless breeding, exquisite genetics, perfect teeth—future masters of the universe gathered here to prepare for their college years and a lifetime of the best of everything.
Connaughton Academy is consistently ranked among the top five private schools in the nation, which easily puts it in the top ten worldwide. They all wear designer uniforms at Connaughton—tailored suits for the boys, skirts for the girls—but mine wasn’t ready when I got here, so I’m still wearing the jeans and off-brand hoodie that I arrived in this morning. Somewhere outside the arched floor-to-ceiling windows, the great oaks and maples of Connaughton’s campus blaze with the oranges, reds, and yellows of New England fall.
“I’m here on a scholarship.” The words come out of me in an angular lump, like I’ve coughed up a wooden alphabet block. “After my parents died, the people from our church put together a fund to send me here . . .”
In the back row, somebody starts to snore, absurdly loud. I can see the snorer from here, a lanky blond kid with perfect skin and Abercrombie bone structure, sprawled out behind his desk with both legs stuck straight out in the aisle and his head flung back. Everybody around him erupts into laughter, and the kid sits up, shrugging one shoulder and blinking innocent blue eyes. I glance back at Mr. Bodkins, who tries to speak over the roars and hoots.
“That’s enough, Mr. Rush,” he says, but his voice is so tentative that I can barely hear it. He nods at me. “Go ahead, Mr. Shea. Please finish.”
I draw in another breath. If I have to stand up here much longer, my face is going to burst into flames.
That’s when I notice the girl.
She’s sitting three rows back with her hands under her desk, and I realize that she’s texting without looking down at the screen. She’s pretty in a way that I haven’t seen before, like a Jazz Age flapper in the post-Twilight era, jet-black hair swept away from her forehead in a smooth, precise wave, and very dark, full eyes. Skin as pale as milk. Up until this moment she’s been paying zero attention to me, but now I see her slipping the iPhone into the pocket of her skirt so that she can give me one hundred percent of her focus. Her lips are very red, almost shiny, and there’s something in her unblinking stare I can’t read.
“Continue, Mr. Shea,” Mr. Bodkins drones from behind his coffee cup, and now even he sounds like he’s drifting off. “You’re doing fine.”
I swallow hard. “I know that I’m lucky just to be here at Connaughton,” I say. “I mean . . . I just hope . . .” I shake my head. On the opposite wall, the hands of the antique clock seem to have frozen in place. “That’s it.”
Mr. Bodkins nods one more time, a mercy killing if ever there was one.
I make my way back to my seat through stony silence.
In the dining hall that evening, she walks right over to me—the dark-haired girl from class.
“It’s Will, right?” She sits down close enough that I can smell her perfume, something faint and musky, with a hint of creaminess, like vanilla. It mixes well with her body chemistry, the natural scent of her skin, as she offers her hand. “I’m Andrea Dufresne.”
“Oh,” I say, and look up, smiling, and we shake. Her grip is cool, smooth, and firm, with scarlet fingernails. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” she says, and for a second we just sit there across from each other, neither of us saying anything while the rest of the students chatter around us, largely ignoring their food. According to the material that the admissions office sends out, Connaughton offers a half-dozen dining options every meal, with vegan and dietary-specific choices. There’s a farmers’ market on Saturdays, featuring locally grown produce, along with luaus in the spring and fall, and gourmet representations of all different nationalities throughout the year, “spotlighting our culture of diversity,” although the only diversifying that’s going on here is in stock portfolios. It’s the only boarding school in the country that routinely poaches its chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Paris, and Hong Kong. Picking up my fork, I look down at the thin-cut prime rib arranged on my plate along with fresh asparagus and new potatoes, spear a piece of everything together, and pop it into my mouth. It tastes so good that for a second my tongue doesn’t know what to do with it, like a foreign language composed exclusively of deliciousness.
“Not a talker,” Andrea says after a moment. “That’s cool.” She’s got some kind of complicated salad in front of her, something involving grilled salmon and slivered avocado, but for the moment she doesn’t seem particularly interested in it. “So what do you think of Connaughton so far?”
“This place?” I chew, swallow, and shake my head. “It’s unreal. It’s a dream come true.”
“You like it?”
“Are you kidding me?” I motion toward the kids around us, one sweeping gesture that I hope takes in the campus, the dorms, the student library that supposedly contains an original Gutenberg Bible—everything from the riding stables to the duck pond to the oh-so-secluded wedge of New Hampshire coastline where the sailing club keeps its boathouses—all the sights that my tour guide showed me this morning. “I’m still in a state of shock.”
She sits back and trims off a bit of salmon. “Not much like home, huh?”
“What’s the name of the island that you came from, again? eBay?”
“Ebeye,” I say, and then I realize she’s joking and manage a smile of my own. “It’s part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.”
“And you were born there?”
“No offense, Will”—she cocks her head slightly to one side—“but you don’t look like a native islander.”
“My parents moved back there when my mom was pregnant with me.” After picking up my fork, I shift my food around on my plate, forming complex algebraic equations with my asparagus and potatoes. It gives me something to look at besides Andrea’s penetrating stare. “My grandmother was Polynesian, and my mother was born there—she met my dad in medical school, and they went back to work at the public health clinic.” My fork tumbles from my fingers and hits the plate with a clank. “You don’t want to hear this stuff.”
“You’re right,” she says. “Shut up, already.”
I smile again and it’s actually easier this time, closer to natural. She gazes at me straight-faced and takes a bite of egg, chewing slowly, thoughtfully.
“So, what?” she says. “You’re going to make me squeeze it out of you?”
“You’re serious? You actually want to hear my whole life story?”
A sigh, accompanied by the slightest of exasperated eye rolls. “Okay, Coy Boy, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re swimming in a sea of boring rich kids whose backgrounds are so identical that if they intermarry, their offspring might be born with eleven fingers,” she says. “So yeah. Color me captivated.”
“Okay,” I say. “Back in the fifties—have you ever heard of the Bikini Atoll?”
“Sounds vaguely familiar.”
“It’s an island chain in the middle of the northern Pacific Ocean. The government dropped a fifteen-megaton dry-fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb on the island back in 1954.”
Her eyes get big. “Seriously?”
“It was the most powerful nuclear device ever deployed,” I say, “about a thousand times more powerful than the ones Enola Gay dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War Two. Radioactive fallout from the mushroom cloud poisoned the entire Marshall Islands chain for more than seven thousand square miles of the Pacific. Eventually Greenpeace got involved, and islanders from all the surrounding areas started evacuating to Ebeye, but it was too late for most of them. They were already dying of radiation poisoning . . . including my grandmother.”
“Whoa,” she says, and most of the smart-aleck bravado has gone out of her voice. “That really happened?”
I nod, staring down at my meal. “My mom left the island to come to the States when she was a teenager, but she promised her mother she’d get medical training and go back—to help where she could. By the time she finished med school, her mom had passed away.” I glance up, just for a second. “I never knew her.”
“What about your parents?” Andrea asks. “Were they . . . ?”
I look back down at my plate. “There was an accident. A small plane—they were flying antibiotics to a children’s orphanage on a nearby island, but the weather conditions weren’t ideal. They knew the risks—”
My voice breaks off and I push my chair back and stand up.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and my voice sounds thick and awkward. “This is stupid. You don’t even know me and here I am—”
“Will.” Andrea reaches out and takes my hand, holding on. Her fingers feel different from when we shook hands—warmer somehow, and soft. “Just chill, okay?”
“It’s just . . .” I sink back down into my seat. “Everybody here has been so nice. And I’ve never been anywhere like this before.” I take in a breath. “It feels unreal. Like a dream.”
Andrea just watches me with that same quiet, inscrutable interest. “When you were in class today, you kept looking over your shoulder. Why?”
“I was looking for a map,” I say. “I just . . . I thought maybe I could at least show everybody where I came from. I mean”—I shake my head—“I know it was English Lit and not Geography, but I thought it would be cool if I could at least point out how far away Ebeye is from . . . all of this.”
Andrea is still holding on to my hand, and her voice is soft now too.
“I’ve got a map in my room,” she says.
My dorm is closer, so we end up walking over there instead. As a late transfer student, I’ve got my own little single at the end of the first floor of Cardiff Hall, one of the oldest dorms on campus. According to the housing brochure, it was built in the early 1900s in the Arts and Crafts style, all oak and dyed leather, with Prairie School bronze sconces on the walls and Gustav Stickley chairs in the lobby. Old money, and lots of it.
“They put you on the first floor?” Andrea asks.
“I don’t like heights.”
We follow the hallway to my room, which I unlock with the heavy brass key that the housing officer gave me earlier today with an air of weighty solemnity.
“I haven’t really had a chance to unpack,” I say apologetically as we step inside. The room still feels vacant, with just a few framed photos on the otherwise empty desk. Andrea stands there looking at them, picking up a faded beach photograph of a happy couple standing next to a palm tree with a two-year-old boy between them.
“Your folks?” she asks.
“Your mom’s so young.” She holds on to the photo for a long moment before putting it back. “They look happy.”
“You must miss them.”
I turn and look out the window. It’s dark out now, and I can hear the wind off the ocean, rustling through the leaves. A lonely, restless sound.
“I was going to show you this,” I say, opening my backpack and unzipping an inside pocket to pull out a battered old map so I can point to the tiny flyspeck of land in the middle of the Pacific. “Here—this is me.”
Andrea comes up behind where I’m standing and reaches around past me to the map, and all of a sudden I’m acutely aware of the closeness of her body heat as her red fingertip traces its way across all that endless blue.
“Here?” she says.
“It’s so tiny.”
“Just a speck on the map.”
“Like it’s hardly there at all,” she says.
There’s nothing to say to that, so I just stand with my head cocked slightly toward the window, waiting to see what’s going to happen next.
I turn to glance at her. “Yeah?”
“Here’s the thing.”
“Your whole life story . . . ?”
“I don’t buy a word of it.”
For a moment, my world goes pin-drop silent. Somewhere, a clock ticks. I stare at her, blinking. “What?”
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen South Pacific, let alone actually lived there.” She’s smiling widely now, grabbing hold of my hand as she glances back at the framed photo on my desk. “And if this picture was taken anywhere besides Florida, I’ll tear it out of the frame and eat it.”
“Wait,” I say, frowning. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh,” she says, “I’m pretty sure you do.”
“I admit,” she says, “you had me going at first. It takes a lot of guts to stand at the front of the class wearing those clothes . . . and the whole atomi...
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