“So, Kim, you ready for your first class with Nefarious Nitkin?” Danielle asked the following morning as she, David and I made our descent to the basement classroom where senior History class was held. At dinner the night before they had given me a rundown of all my teachers, but no one had mentioned this guy.
“Nefarious Nitkin?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“Danielle came up with that one,” David said with a laugh. “It’s so perfect.”
“What? Is he really evil or something?”
“You’ll see. I would have told you about him, but no one could ever do Nitkin justice,” Danielle told me, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Within seconds I understood why. Mr. Nitkin was a skinny little man with angular features and a dark mustache that gave him a serious Hitleresque vibe. Judging by the pursed expression on his face as he watched us fill the room, he also had a distinct dislike of all teenagers. When I approached him with my schedule, he eyed me with disdain and gave me a curt welcome.
“Take any empty chair,” he said, waving his arm about. That was when I caught a whiff of his cologne or aftershave or whatever it was. It was so noisome I almost heaved up my nutritious Hereford breakfast.
That was one thing I had to give this place. My first teacher may have been odious, but so far, the food was beyond reproach. After that morning’s yummy oatmeal, fresh fruit and endless supply of OJ, I actually couldn’t wait to see what the chefs whipped up for lunch.
Danielle and David both took seats at the front of the room, saving an empty desk for me right between them. No good. If I sat up front I’d never be able to scan the rest of the classroom and see if either of the other suspects was there. Unfortunately, Danielle was waving at me giddily and I couldn’t ignore her. She was so obviously ecstatic to have someone new to sit with. Poor kid. I sighed, resigning myself to a class period with nothing to absorb except historical facts. Ones I probably already knew.
“Good luck. You’re probably gonna need it,” David said, leaning toward me.
“What, you think I can’t handle this class?” I asked.
“It’s not a commentary on you,” he said with a grin. “None of us can handle this class.”
I smiled. After spending dinner and breakfast with David, I was having a hard time believing this kid could be a drug dealer. He was just so sweet and funny and smart. He couldn’t be the type of person who would get involved with something like that. Could he?
“Did you hear about Cora Klein?” a girl behind me whispered to her friend. “Her parents are sending her off to some school in France.”
“That’s what happens when you flunk the urine test,” the other girl said, snorting a laugh.
Danielle and David exchanged a loaded look. “Who’s Cora Klein?” I asked innocently.
“Just some moron who got busted for E,” David replied as he opened a notebook. “There were, like, five kids booted from here last week. If you get a Big Brother vibe around here, it’s probably because everyone’s watching us like hawks now.”
Interesting. Would David talk about the situation so easily if he were the drug dealer?
“Bet your parents wouldn’t have sent you here if they knew it was Ecstasy central,” the girl behind me said snottily.
On the contrary, I thought. That’s why I was sent here.
“All right, class!” Mr. Nitkin slapped his hands together the moment the bell rang and everyone fell into their seats. “Let’s see who among you has actually done the reading.”
A general groan went up among the students, and I felt a little wave of nerves run through me. A pop quiz? But I wasn’t prepared!
Then I realized that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t a student here. I no longer had to maintain my straight-A average. Kim Stratford had never failed a quiz in her life, but maybe Kim Sharpe did it all the time!
Or not, I thought, the very idea of Fs causing goosebumps to pop out all over my skin. I mean, a person couldn’t go from perfectionist to delinquent that fast. It could give you whiplash.
All my obsessing turned out to be pointless anyway. Nefarious Nitkin wasn’t handing out papers. He was simply standing at the front of the classroom eyeing us like we were the slush he’d kicked off his boots. Meanwhile, all the kids around me were practically trembling.
Revere, whose first name I later was to learn was actually Paul—cruel parents—blanched. “Uh . . . end of 1944 into 1945?”
“That is correct,” Mr. Nitkin said, making a mark in his leather-bound notebook. “Although you should know by now that I do not award full points to a person who begins his answer with ‘uh.’”
Paul sank a bit lower in his seat as Nitkin paced the front of the room.
“Fisher!” he blurted. I was happy to see that Danielle was not intimidated. She stared back at him, her hands folded on her desk, her expression impassive. “Who was the Allied General in charge of the Normandy Campaign?”
“General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mr. Nitkin,” Danielle replied nonchalantly.
“Very good,” Nitkin said with a smirk. I could tell he liked Danielle, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. If someone clearly evil likes you, there must be something wrong.
Everyone turned around as my heart leaped into my throat. Marshall Cone, suspect number two, was sitting at the back of the classroom, his chair tipped onto its back legs and his arms draped over two more chairs that he had pulled closer to him. He lifted his chin at Nitkin and smiled the same cocky smile I’d noticed in his picture. Unlike most of the kids in the room, he was unabashed by Nitkin’s attack.
I instantly disliked him and all his little friends. They reminded me all too much of the so-called “popular kids” at my high school—the ones who thought they were so cool and that everyone loved them, even though everyone hated them for being such egotistical jerks. Ironic how the kids that are called “popular” are usually only friends with a very small group of people.
“Cone, name the United States’ primary Allies in World War II,” Nitkin said.
“Iraq and Iran?” Marshall said, his grin widening. A group of kids around him laughed and slapped hands, and a pretty but way-too-dolled-up girl in front of him rolled her eyes and smiled.
Nitkin’s face hardened. “I suppose you think you’re funny, Mr. Cone,” he said. “But you get zero points for the day.” He made a note in his book and resumed with the rapacious questioning. I continued to stare at Marshall for as long as I could without drawing attention to myself. He wasn’t even remotely ruffled by the zero he’d just earned. As an overachiever by nature, I just couldn’t understand people like that. Besides, wasn’t this kid on scholarship? How could he afford to pull a stunt like that?
The class period dragged on endlessly. Nitkin spent the entire hour quizzing us incessantly. He even threw a couple of queries my way, but I answered them both correctly, much to his obvious exasperation. He seemed determined to prove that wherever I had come from, my education had been substandard. But I like to think I debunked that theory. Still, by the end of the class I was exhausted from trying to remember all the facts I’d learned the year before. And then Nitkin assigned a ten-page paper. I couldn’t believe it. In all my excitement to go undercover I’d neglected to realize that this job was going to require actual homework of the precollege variety.
Now I had yet another motivation to solve this case quickly. I had to get the heck out of here before that paper was due!
Even though Marshall and his friends were sitting at the back of the room, they were the first ones out the door when the bell rang. I grabbed my stuff and raced after them, hoping David and Danielle wouldn’t want to chat and detain me from my mission. I was too fast for them, though, and the second I hit the hallway I called out Marshall’s name.
Every single person in our vicinity stopped and gaped at me. Not that I could blame them. How dare the new girl deign to speak to this exalted popular one?
I have to admit, I felt pretty cool. If this were last year I probably would have been intimidated by this crowd, but it was like my mission had sparked some kind of previously untapped well of audacity within me.
I turned beet red as Marshall turned to face me, a question in his eyes. He really was gorgeous. Arrogant, but gorgeous.
My heart pounded nervously and I hated it. This kid wasn’t supposed to be able to make me nervous! He was in high school!
“Who’re you?” he asked, shoving one hand into the front pocket of his jeans and squaring his shoulders, a maneuver that only made him seem more imposing. The pretty girl from class reached out and clasped his free hand, glaring at me as I approached.
Jeez. Possessive, aren’t we?
“Don’t worry, I’m not after your boyfriend,” I heard myself say.
The girl pressed her high-gloss lips together. “Like I’m threatened,” she said with an indifferent scoff. (She clearly was.)
“Cheryl, I’m telling you, I don’t even know this girl,” Marshall said.
“No, you don’t,” I said. “I’m Kim Sharpe. I hear you’re the person to talk to about the karate program.”
Marshall and the guys that hovered around him laughed, but Cheryl’s face took on a wicked gleam.
“Oh, you’re the poor thing who got stuck rooming with Danielle, aren’t you?” she said with calculated fake sympathy. She made a face as if the name tasted rancid on her tongue. “I feel sorry for you.”
“Well, don’t,” I said. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from lashing out with the rest of the caustic comebacks that were bouncing around inside my head. If I was going to investigate Marshall, I had to infiltrate this crowd. The last thing I needed was to implant myself at the top of his girlfriend’s list of enemies.
“Sorry, new girl,” Marshall said with a sneer. “We don’t have chicks on our team.”
Ugh! He was so puerile I was surprised he wasn’t sporting Pampers. He started to turn away, but now he had me fuming and I refused to be rebuffed. I stepped in front of him and glared right into his eyes.
“You do now,” I said.
Marshall paused and looked me up and down, clearly impressed by my attitude, but trying not to show it. Cheryl’s grip on his hand tightened, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“All right, new girl,” Marshall said finally. “You wanna get your ass kicked after classes today, then show up at the gym at five o’clock.”
“I’ll be there.”
Marshall and his followers moved away, muttering and laughing. Freakin’ popular kids. I couldn’t stand them. Who did they think they were, anyway? A few of Marshall’s friends cast wondrous looks back at me and shook their heads as if they thought I was doomed.
They obviously had no idea who they were dealing with.