You’ve chosen and chosen well. Maybe this one will be the one who stops you. Maybe she’ll be different. Maybe she’ll be enough.
The only thing that is certain is that she’s special.
You think it’s her eyes—not the color: an icy, see-through blue. Not the lashes, or the shape, or the way she doesn’t need eyeliner to give them the appearance of a cat’s.
No, it’s what’s behind those icy blues that brings the audience out in droves. You feel it, every time you look at her. The certainty. The knowing. That otherworldly glint she uses to convince people that she’s the real deal.
Maybe she is.
Maybe she really can see things. Maybe she knows things. Maybe she’s everything she claims to be and more. But watching her, counting her breaths, you smile, because deep down, you know that she isn’t going to stop you.
You don’t really want her to stop you. She’s fragile.
And the one thing this so-called psychic won’t see coming is you.
The hours were bad. The tips were worse, and the majority of my coworkers definitely left something to be desired, but c’est la vie, que sera sera, insert foreign language cliché of your choice here. It was a summer job, and that kept Nonna off my back. It also prevented my various aunts, uncles, and kitchen-sink cousins from feeling like they had to offer me temporary employment in their restaurant/butcher shop/legal practice/boutique. Given the size of my father’s very large, very extended (and very Italian) family, the possibilities were endless, but it was always a variation on the same theme.
My dad lived half a world away. My mother was missing, presumed dead. I was everyone’s problem and nobody’s.
Teenager, presumed troubled. “Order up!”
With practiced ease, I grabbed a plate of pancakes (side of bacon) with my left hand and a two-handed breakfast burrito (jalapeños on the side) with my right. If the SATs didn’t go well in the fall, I had a real future ahead of me in the crappy diner industry.
“Pancakes with a side of bacon. Breakfast burrito, jalapeños on the side.” I slid the plates onto the table. “Anything else I can get for you gentlemen?”
Before either of them opened their mouths, I knew exactly what these two were going to say. The guy on the left was going to ask for extra butter. And the guy on the right? He was going to need another glass of water before he could even think about those jalapeños.
Ten-to-one odds, he didn’t even like them.
Guys who actually liked jalapeños didn’t order them on the side. Mr. Breakfast Burrito just didn’t want people to think he was a wuss—only the word he would have used wasn’t wuss.
Whoa there, Cassie, I told myself sternly. Let’s keep it PG. As a general rule, I didn’t curse much, but I had a bad habit of picking up on other people’s quirks. Put me in a room with a bunch of English people, and I’d walk out with a British accent. It wasn’t intentional—I’d just spent a lot of time over the years getting inside other people’s heads.
Occupational hazard. Not mine. My mother’s.
“Could I get a few more of these butter packets?” the guy on the left asked.
I nodded—and waited.
“More water,” the guy on the right grunted. He puffed out his chest and ogled my boobs.
I forced a smile. “I’ll be right back with that water.” I managed to keep from adding pervert to the end of that sentence, but only just.
I was still holding out hope that a guy in his late twenties who pretended to like spicy food and made a point of staring at his teenage waitress’s chest like he was training for the Ogling Olympics might be equally showy when it came to leaving tips.
Then again, I thought as I went for refills, he might turn out to be the kind of guy who stiffs the little bitty waitress just to prove he can.
Absentmindedly, I turned the details of the situation over in my mind: the way that Mr. Breakfast Burrito was dressed; his likely occupation; the fact that his friend, who’d ordered the pancakes, was wearing a much more expensive watch.
He’ll fight to grab the check, then tip like crap.
I hoped I was wrong—but was fairly certain that I wasn’t. Other kids spent their preschool years singing their way through the ABCs. I grew up learning a different alphabet. Behavior, personality, environment—my mother called them the BPEs, and they were the tricks of her trade. Thinking that way wasn’t the kind of thing you could just turn off— not even once you were old enough to understand that when your mother told people she was psychic, she was lying, and when she took their money, it was fraud.
Even now that she was gone, I couldn’t keep from figuring people out, any more than I could give up breathing, blinking, or counting down the days until I turned eighteen. “Table for one?” A low, amused voice jostled me back into reality. The voice’s owner looked like the type of boy who would have been more at home in a country club than a diner. His skin was perfect, his hair artfully mussed. Even though he phrased his words like they were a question, they weren’t—not really.
“Sure,” I said, grabbing a menu. “Right this way.”
A closer observation told me that Country Club was about my age. A smirk played across his perfect features, and he walked with the swagger of high school nobility. Just looking at him made me feel like a serf.
“This okay?” I asked, leading him to a table near the window.
“This is fine,” he said, slipping into the chair. Casually, he surveyed the room with bulletproof confidence. “You get a lot of traffic in here on weekends?”
“Sure,” I replied. I was starting to wonder if I’d lost the ability to speak in complex sentences. From the look on the boy’s face, he probably was, too. “I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu.”
He didn’t respond, and I spent my minute bringing Pancakes and Breakfast Burrito their checks, plural. I figured that if I split it in half, I might end up with half a decent tip. “I’ll be your cashier whenever you’re ready,” I said, fake smile firmly in place.
I turned back toward the kitchen and caught the boy by the window watching me. It wasn’t an I’m ready to order stare. I wasn’t sure what it was, actually—but every bone in my body told me it was something. The niggling sensation that there was a key detail that I was missing about this whole situation—about him—wouldn’t go away. Boys like that didn’t usually eat in places like this.
They didn’t stare at girls like me.
Self-conscious and wary, I crossed the room.
“Did you decide what you’d like?” I asked. There was no getting out of taking his order, so I let my hair fall in my face, obscuring his view of it.
“Three eggs,” he said, hazel eyes fixed on what he could see of mine. “Side of pancakes. Side of ham.”
I didn’t need to write the order down, but I suddenly found myself wishing for a pen, just so I’d have something to hold on to. “What kind of eggs?” I asked.
“You tell me.” The boy’s words caught me off guard.
“Guess,” he said.
I stared at him through the wisps of hair still covering my face. “You want me to guess how you want your eggs cooked?”
He smiled. “Why not?”
And just like that, the gauntlet was thrown.
“Not scrambled,” I said, thinking out loud. Scrambled eggs were too average, too common, and this was a guy who liked to be a little bit different. Not too different, though, which ruled out poached—at least in a place like this. Sunny-side up would have been too messy for him; over hard wouldn’t be messy enough.
“Over easy.” I was as sure of the conclusion as I was of the color of his eyes. He smiled and closed his menu.
“Are you going to tell me if I was right?” I asked—not because I needed confirmation, but because I wanted to see how he would respond.
The boy shrugged. “Now, where would the fun be in that?”
I wanted to stay there, staring, until I figured him out, but I didn’t. I put his order in. I delivered his food. The lunch rush snuck up on me, and by the time I went back to check on him, the boy by the window was gone. He hadn’t even waited for his check—he’d just left twenty dollars on the table. I had just about decided that he could make me play guessing games to his heart’s content for a twelve-dollar tip when I noticed the bill wasn’t the only thing he’d left.
There was also a business card.
I picked it up. Stark white. Black letters. Evenly spaced. There was a seal in the upper left-hand corner, but relatively little text: a name, a job title, a phone number. Across the top of the card, there were four words, four little words that knocked the wind out of me as effectively as a jab to the chest.
I pocketed the card—and the tip. I went back to the kitchen. I caught my breath. And then I looked at it again.
Tanner Briggs. The name.
Special Agent. Job title.
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Four words, but I stared at them so hard that my vision blurred and I could only make out three letters.
What in the world had I done to attract the attention of the FBI?
After an eight-hour shift, my body was bone tired, but my mind was whirring. I wanted to shut myself in my room, collapse on my bed, and figure out what the Hello Kitty had happened that afternoon.
Unfortunately, it was Sunday.
“There she is! Cassie, we were just about to send the boys out looking for you.” My aunt Tasha was among the more reasonable of my father’s various siblings, so she didn’t wink and ask me if I’d found myself a boyfriend to occupy my time.
That was Uncle Rio’s job. “Our little heartbreaker, eh? You out there breaking hearts? Of course she is!”
I’d been a regular fixture at Sunday night dinners ever since Social Services had dropped me off on my father’s doorstep—metaphorically, thank God—when I was twelve. After five years, I still hadn’t ever heard Uncle Rio ask a question that he did not immediately proceed to answer himself.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said. This was a well-established script, and that was my line. “Promise.”
“What are we talking about?” one of Uncle Rio’s sons asked, plopping himself down on the living room sofa, dangling his legs over the side.
“Cassie’s boyfriend,” Uncle Rio replied.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Cassie’s secret boyfriend,” Uncle Rio amended.
“I think you have me confused with Sofia and Kate,” I said. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have thrown any of my female cousins under the bus, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “They’re far more likely to have secret boyfriends than I am.”
“Bah,” Uncle Rio said. “Sofia’s boyfriends are never secret.”
And on it went—good-natured ribbing, family jokes. I played the part, letting their energy infect me, saying what they wanted me to say, smiling the smiles they wanted to see. It was warm and safe and happy—but it wasn’t me.
It never was.
As soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be missed, I ducked into the kitchen.
“Cassandra. Good.” My grandmother, elbow-deep in flour, her gray hair pulled into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, gave me a warm smile. “How was work?”
Despite her little-old-lady appearance, Nonna ruled the entire family like a general directing her troops. Right now, I was the one drifting out of formation.
“Work was work,” I said. “Not bad.”
“But not good, either?” She narrowed her eyes.
If I didn’t play this right, I’d have ten job offers within the hour. Family took care of family—even when “family” was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
“Today was actually decent,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Someone left me a twelve-dollar tip.”
And also, I added silently, a business card from the FBI.
“Good,” Nonna said. “That is good. You had a good day.”
“Yeah, Nonna,” I said, crossing the room to kiss her cheek, because I knew it would make her happy. “It was a good day.”
By the time everyone cleared out at nine, the card felt like lead in my pocket. I tried to help Nonna with the dishes, but she shooed me upstairs. In the quiet of my own room, I could feel the energy draining out of me, like air out of a slowly wilting balloon.
I sat down on my bed and then let myself fall backward. The old springs groaned with the impact, and I closed my eyes. My right hand found its way to my pocket, and I pulled out the card.
It was a joke. It had to be. That was why the pretty, country-club boy had felt off to me. That was why he’d taken an interest—to mock me.
But he didn’t really seem the type.
I opened my eyes and looked at the card. This time, I let myself read it out loud. “Special Agent Tanner Briggs. Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
A few hours in my pocket hadn’t changed the text on the card. FBI? Seriously? Who was this guy trying to kid? He’d looked sixteen, seventeen, max.
Not like a special agent.
Just special. I couldn’t push that thought down, and my eyes flitted reflexively toward the mirror on my wall. It was one of the great ironies of my life that I’d inherited all of my mother’s features, but none of the magic with which they’d come together on her face. She’d been beautiful. I was odd—odd-looking, oddly quiet, always the odd one out.
Even after five years, I still couldn’t think of my mother without thinking of the last time I’d seen her, shooing me out of her dressing room, a wide smile on her face. Then I thought about coming back to the dressing room. About the blood—on the floor, on the walls, on the mirror. I hadn’t been gone long. I’d opened the door—
“Snap out of it,” I told myself. I sat up and pushed my back up against the headboard, unable to quit thinking about the smell of blood and that moment of knowing it was my mother’s and praying it wasn’t.
What if that was what this was about? What if the card wasn’t a joke? What if the FBI was looking into my mother’s murder?
It’s been five years, I told myself. But the case was still open. My mother’s body had never been found. Based on the amount of blood, that was what the police had been looking for from the beginning.
I turned the business card over in my hands. On the back, there was a handwritten note.
Cassandra, it said, PLEASE CALL.
That was it. My name, and then the directive to call, in capital letters. No explanation. No nothing.
Below those words, someone else had scribbled a second set of instructions in small, sharp letters—barely readable. I traced my finger over the letters and thought about the boy from the diner.
Maybe he wasn’t the special agent.
So that makes him what? The messenger?
I didn’t have an answer, but the words scrawled across the bottom of the card stood out to me, every bit as much as Special Agent Tanner Briggs’s PLEASE CALL.
If I were you, I wouldn’t.
You’re good at waiting. Waiting for the right moment. Waiting for the right girl. You have her now, and still, you’re waiting. Waiting for her to wake up. Waiting for her to open those eyes and see you.
Waiting for her to scream. And scream.
And realize that no one can hear her but you.
You know how this will go, how she’ll be angry, then scared, then swear up and down that if you let her go, she won’t tell a soul. She’ll lie to you, and she’ll try to manipulate you, and you’ll have to show her—the way you’ve showed so many others—how that just won’t do.
But not yet. Right now, she’s still sleeping. Beautiful—but not as beautiful as she will be when you’re done.
Excerpted from The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
First published in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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