Down to the Liar
Author:Mary Elizabeth Summer

“Ha. I’m so amused by you right now,” I say, and scarf another spoonful of Angela’s abuela’s famous mole poblano.

Mike and his wife, Angela, both work odd hours—him as a sometimes-undercover FBI agent and her as a nurse—so dinnertime shifts from four in the afternoon to eight-thirty at night depending on the day.

“Knock it off, Ramirez,” Angela says to Mike as she stacks our plates to take to the kitchen. But when she passes me, she rests the back of her free hand against my forehead. “Perfectly normal.”

“I’m surrounded by comedians,” I say.

“Better than being surrounded by teen-eating sharks,” Mike says.

“I’m not sure I’m not surrounded by teen-eating sharks, actually.”

“Explain,” he says, eyeing me sharply.

So I tell them about Skyla. When I’m done, Angela’s expression is a typical momlike mixture of horrified and sympathetic. “That’s awful. That poor girl.”

“The first thing I’d do is report it to Facebook,” Mike says, slathering butter on a second piece of corn bread.

I lean forward to snag another piece myself. “Whoever’s doing this would just create new accounts. We need to shut it down permanently.”

“Then you have to find out who’s doing it,” he says.

“Any ideas on how to do that?” I ask.

“Start with the victim.”

“I did. She says she has no idea who’s behind it.”

“Doesn’t mean following her around won’t give you leads,” he says. “It worked with you.”

I chew on that while he chews on corn bread. He has a point. Following me did lead him to Petrov (the mob boss I mentioned earlier). And I was too big an idiot at the time to realize that was what Mike was up to before Mike took Sam out of the game.

That night I lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling in Mike and Angela’s guest room, flipping through memories of the time before I became Julep Dupree, rescuer of human-trafficking victims. Tyler…I will always regret that I happened to him. But tonight I feel the loss of Sam more. We were in fourth grade when we started running the three-card monte scam on our classmates. I should be brainstorming this job with him, not Mike. We were eleven when we played our first false Good Samaritan scam to get out of gym class. He’s the best hacker I know, wicked smart and sensitive, all of which I desperately need on this job. We were thirteen when my dad disappeared the first time with no explanation, and all that stood between me and panic was a scrawny, half-black kid in a Clone Wars T-shirt. But he’s almost a thousand miles away, being brainwashed by military school. We were fifteen when he confessed that he was in love with me and then put his life on the line to help me save my dad. If he ever comes back, he won’t be my Sam anymore.

My phone rings and I answer.

“Hey, Bryn. What’s—”

“Have you checked Facebook tonight?”

“No,” I say, sitting up. “Why?”

“Looks like they’re going after you now, too.”

The Setup

“Good morning, brindle-coated, dogface bitch,” Murphy says as I join him in St. Aggie’s computer lab the next morning.

“Skyla’s frenemies are nothing if not creative in their insults,” I say, snorting in amusement as I hop up to sit on the table across from him.

Brindle-coated. I can’t even take that seriously. The other two posts Skyla’s antagonizers wrote about me were equally asinine. But the creepy part I can’t laugh off is that the posters knew Skyla had met with me so soon after the fact.

Hence our campout in St. Aggie’s computer lab. We’re starting the job with a Trojan horse scam to see if we can breach the Internet trolls’ defenses through their personal computers. That’s right—good old-fashioned spyware, baby. God bless governments and creepy corporations.

Ms. Shirley, the computer science teacher and chief overlord of the lab, thinks we’re conducting a research experiment on Internet surfing patterns. She has no idea we’re actually planting hacker bugs into the computers, phones, and tablets of a couple dozen of Skyla’s closest friends, so we can monitor every click and swipe they make over the next few days. No doubt we’re violating several school rules, a dozen or so ethical principles, and maybe even a law or two. But hey, if it finds us the culprits, well…what’s a little loss of privacy among friends?

“If Sam were here, he could hack into the Facebook servers directly and get the IP addresses without breaking a sweat,” Murphy says, clacking away on his laptop. But Sam isn’t here is what he doesn’t say. He probably knows I’d sense the judgment. Murphy thinks I shouldn’t have let Sam leave. Or maybe it’s me who thinks that.

“Why bother taking the easy road when we can go the hard way instead?” I say with a shrug.

“Incoming,” Murphy says, nodding toward Bryn, who’s hurtling toward me at a velocity that can only mean she’s pissed about something.

“Bracing for Bryn-pact in three, two…”

He looks annoyed. “Funny.”