Blonde Ops

A Novel

Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

TRICKS AND TIPS FOR THE EDGE-Y GIRL
Little plaid skirts, button-downs, knee socks, and loafers only work in Japanese films or private school. Go for collegiate details rather than a full-blown costume for an A+.
 
1
 
 
There are worse things than being yanked from the middle of lunch, dumped onto a plane to fly cross-country in a stupid school uniform that made me look like an anime reject, and be told that I really effed up this time.
But I couldn’t think of any at the moment.
I unfolded the crumpled paper Dean Harding gave to me before I was dismissed and read it again. Printed on school letterhead, it was officially scary.
Does not adhere to school dress code.
Violates “No Cell Phones in Class” rule.
Does not perform to expected academic and social standards.
“Hacked” into school computer network and changed third-quarter grades.
Yeah, that last one did it—the infraction that sealed my expulsion from Anaheim’s prestigious St. Xavier’s Academy.
In less than three years, I’d been in and out of four—or was it five?—prep/boarding/private schools. This would make St. X’s number six.
Mom’s going to be pissed.
Correction: was pissed. I hadn’t heard a word from her since I’d gotten called down to the dean’s office: no phone call, no e-mail, no personal messenger with papers putting me up for adoption. Just a car sent to shuttle me to the airport and this flight to New York where she was probably waiting to escort me to the next polo-shirt-wearing / rowing-type school where I would finish my junior year. I didn’t think there were any left I hadn’t been kicked out of—on either coast.
The sudden jarring of the wheels as the plane landed churned up the worry in my empty stomach. Closing my eyes, I tried to think calming thoughts, but all I saw was Mom, her perfect brows arched like sickles, ready to cut down any excuse I had to offer.
I turned on my phone and winced. There was an unread message from her. I decided not to look at it yet. It was only going to be more bad news.
Not wanting to fight the crowds or my mother, I waited until the aisle was empty to grab my carry-on and laptop case, then stumbled off the plane, barely acknowledging the forced brightness of the flight attendants’ good-byes.
I lingered in the airport bathroom, staring at my pathetic reflection in the mirror over the row of sinks: mussed pink braids; wrinkled oxford shirt; the cringe-worthy school-issued brown, beige, and taupe pleated skirt and burgundy tie that wasn’t flattering on anyone. My sudden departure left me no time to change into normal clothes. For a second I was tempted to nip into a stall and ditch the uniform and put on my beloved combats and favorite tee, but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to spare the time. Curiosity overcame me and I read Mom’s text—it was curt, and not open to interpretation.
Get off the plane. Find the limo. We have places to go.
A knot formed in my stomach. Where? I wondered. To what new sleepaway school hell?
I spotted the driver quickly, a large man in a gray suit holding a sign with my first initial and last name neatly printed in jumbo black Sharpie.
I waved. “B. Jackson, right here.”
He looked me up and down, his eyes lingering on my neon hair for half a second before sweeping up my bag with a big paw, but he left my laptop to me.
The stench of diesel fumes and rain hit me as the exit doors whooshed open. Of course it would be raining. We headed for the taxi stand, where a long line of dark cars and cabs idled. The driver stopped at a long black Mercedes with tinted windows and popped the trunk to load my luggage. This was it. I opened the rear passenger door and let myself in.
“Rebecca.”
My full name. And another layer of scary: the Quiet Voice.
“Hi, Mom!” I chirped and gave her a huge “I miss you” smile. She wasn’t fooled. Everything about her—makeup, silver-gray power suit, black pumps, slicked-back hair—and pursed mouth—told me this was going to be a tough negotiation.
“I’m very disappointed in you. I thought we had an agreement, and you were doing so well—until this hacking episode.” She frowned prettily, a talent I wished I could learn; when she did it, all anyone wanted to do was please her—even me.
The driver slid into his seat and tilted his head, his face reflected in the rearview mirror. “What airline, ma’am?”
“United,” said Mom and turned to me. “You have really bad timing, Rebecca. Your father is about to close on a property in the Hills and I have to travel. I tried to change my plans—” A ringing cell phone cut the admonishment short. She plucked it out of her bag, tapped a key. “Tam!”
Tamora Smith was Mom’s personal assistant, responsible for making her travel arrangements, fetching her coffee, and remembering birthdays—mine included. Tam was amazing and paid close attention to details. She really impressed me with the original, factory-sealed Cap’n Crunch Bo’sun whistle—a trinket highly prized by the hacking set and hard to find—that landed in my mailbox at the dorm. On my actual birthday. The card was a nice touch too, even if she’d forged my parents’ sigs; I’d done it enough, I knew.
I tugged at the neon yellow nylon cord around my neck and pulled out the whistle; I wore it everywhere. Mom caught me doing it and shook her head. What would she say if she knew Tam paid $250 for it? What would she do if she knew what it was for? Probably something worse than complain about my bad timing.
“You weren’t able to change the flight?” Mom went on, clearly annoyed. “That’ll mean getting into Belize at eight in the morning.”
Belize?
I fought to suppress the instant giddy feeling that came over me. I’d be going along with Mom for once, to stay in one of her sweet beachfront hotel rooms with twenty-four-hour room service and bronzed lifeguards.…
I gazed out the window. Rain pelted the glass as the car snaked slowly around the airport. The sun-drenched shores of Belize would be a nice change from Cali—and way better than this chilly East Coast drizzle.
Mom hung up and tilted her head at the window. “I don’t have a lot of time.” She dropped her phone back into the pit of her purse. “I convinced Dean Harding, when I talked to him last week, to allow you to complete your junior year off-campus in an independent study.”
Last week? Mom had been in cahoots with Dean Harding for days and I’d had no idea? Wow. She was better than I thought. I tried to look contrite, really, I did, but inside I was screaming, Belize, here I come!
“He’ll be sending the coursework requirements”—she peered at me over the top of thin, sleek glasses—“and all your assignments have to be printed out and mailed in—no technology. Not after what you did to his e-mail.”
“Seriously? Oh my God, Mom, that is—”
“—very generous of Dean Harding,” she interrupted, and narrowed her eyes at me. “Let’s forget about the hacking for five seconds. You’re a bright girl. Why are you giving your teachers a hard time? And getting a D in World Civilizations?”
I twisted in my seat. That wasn’t on the list of violations—okay, it’s why I had to adjust my grade, but I deserved at least a B+ for that last paper. It was a work of political genius.
“Mr. Benning doesn’t teach. In fact, he doesn’t have a clue about anything—especially current events. You’re just supposed to agree with him. Whatever happened to independent thinking?” I slumped back into the leather seat. “What does he want, a robot?”
Mom sighed, not impressed. “You’re not always going to like who you have to work with.”
Here we go …
She eyed me sharply. “Or for.”
I got it. It wasn’t the time to argue. “Okay.”
“That’s better,” she said, but tapped my knee with a French-tipped nail. “And don’t you dare miss a single assignment. There won’t be any second chances this time, understood?”
“I promise,” I said, figuring I’d gotten off easy. She could have confiscated all my devices or sent me to a tech-free “retreat” for wayward teens. One of my off-grid pals, R2Deterent, was sent to one of those when his parents caught him tapping into his neighbor’s wi-fi to cover his illicit activities. When he didn’t show up in our weekly chat room, DR#4, haxorgrrrl, and I—Cap’nCrunch—knew something was up. When we finally heard from him again—three months later—he told us what happened. He’d been caught, all of his technology was confiscated, and then he was carted off to somewhere in Lancaster, PA. He’d been lucky to find a power socket out there, let alone a cell phone signal.
The car rolled to a stop in front of the Alitalia departure area. Didn’t Mom say United? From her purse, she dragged out two tickets and handed one, along with my passport, to me. “You land in Rome at—”
WTF?
My heart sank. If Mom was going to Belize, who was going to Rome with me?
“Rome? I’m not going with you?”
She looked at me like I was insane. “No. What would you do in Belize?”
I shrugged. “Homework?”
She laughed. “I’m going to be in meetings for the next three weeks. Daddy may join me at some point, but with his schedule…” She put a hand to her temple, then stared at me with a very serious expression. “I don’t have time to keep an eye on you.”
“Come on, Mom! I don’t need watching.”
Up went that cutting eyebrow. “Really?”
“You know what I mean.”
“The decision’s been made. You aren’t in any position to bargain, Rebecca. My friend Parker from college owes me a favor and agreed to watch you until Daddy and I are back in the States.”
I ran down a mental list of Mom’s friends. “Parker?”
“Parker Phillips. She’s the editor in chief of Edge magazine. I really think you’ll like her. She’s a good role model. Successful, respected—”
Basically, everything I’m not. I shrank down in my seat, smarting inwardly at the unintentional barb, and looked away from her.
“I think you’re making out quite well, all things considered.” She fished her wallet out of her bag and pulled out a few bills and a credit card. “Do not go crazy with this,” she warned.
The driver opened the door, letting in the roar of the airport.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. Not a reassurance but an order. “Be good, and I’ll call you once I’ve landed.” She kissed me, giving me a little nudge out the door. “Love you!” Then her phone rang and she was back in full executive mode again. I should’ve known better than to get my hopes up. Numb, I slid out and retrieved my carry-on waiting for me on the curb. The driver shut the door behind me, got back in his seat, and sped away to the next terminal.
Ciao, Mama.

 
Copyright © 2014 by St. Martin’s Press, LLC.