Operation New Briar Rabbit was simple. Dress Julian in the uniform of the of the neighboring public high school and situate him at The Mud Room, a self-proclaimed college coffee house with board games and WiFi avoided by Hanscom students because it was frequented by New Briar high schoolers who were trying to look grown-up by ordering lattes and messaging on Facebook all day.
According to Candace, simply by being free of braces and acne, Julian would be the hottest guy there and would be invited to a New Briar Academy kegger. For this, Julian’s uniform was an age-appropriate disguise as well as bait.
“They won’t be able to resist wanting to parade you around their Lake Shore mansions,” Candace said.
Julian smirked and said he didn’t mind being a millionaire’s slumdog as long as he didn’t end up in jail.
“You’re in love with a woman, so I hardly think these New Briar chicks will provide much temptation. Otherwise, these parties are tame compared to the ones you go to, just be sure you’re out of their before their parents get home.”
For now, all Julian had to do was get an invitation. Then he’d bring Candace along, and they’d ask the increasingly intoxicated guests what they knew about Jason Baxter, Snag, and Stella, which they discovered was the name of the comatose girl.
* * * * *
Candace had done her homework.
By the next afternoon, Julian had an invitation to two parties in houses along Lake Michigan, and they decided to attend the one hosted by the head master’s daughter because Julian said she looked like she knew how to party and Candace said they’d hear student and teacher gossip there.
So Friday night, dressed as a vision of hot Asian ho-bagness, Candace met Julian at my room to leave for the party. Julian and I said later that we were less surprised by Candace’s appearance than by the ease with which she wore clothes she had ridiculed on others.
The party was in full swing when Candace and Julian arrived at 9:30 p.m.
Delia, the headmaster’s daughter, answered the door.
She slurred that her parents would be at a charity event at the Shedd Aquarium only until midnight, so they’d had to start things “earlier than normal.” Candace knew this was a lie.
Most of the kids were drunk and several already passed out. Candace wished they had come earlier, cursing herself for insisting that high schoolers, though completely unfashionable, do believe in being fashionable late.
Candace stood with her head down and a pout on her lips near the keg. She pretended not to know how to work the tap and soon the captain of New Briar’s lacrosse team (Candace could tell because he wore his letter jacket despite the heat) came over to help.
Yeah, he knew Jason Baxter. But, more importantly, he knew a few other guys who could really help them have a good time. Forgetting the beer she hadn’t intended to drink anyway, she let him lead her upstairs.
Downstairs, Julian mentioned Stella to Delia, who began to cry.
“I just saw her at the hospital today,” Delia said. “It’s just so sad to see her like that. I was there when it happened, you know?”
“When what happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
Delia turned and walked to the kitchen, where she took three Jell-O shots. She returned with a beer for Julian.
He sipped it silently until she spoke.
“My dad’s lawyer said not to talk about it, especially since it doesn’t really have anything to do with her ‘current condition.’ ” Julian sneered at the air quotes, but softened when Delia dropped her hands and began to cry, leaning in to Julian and resting her head on his shoulder.
He patted her head and whispered, “Don’t you think you might feel better if you told someone? Maybe not the police or her parents, but someone Stella was close with who would understand?”
“I know her sister, Sophia, would want to know.”
Delia instantly sobered up.
“Who are you?”
“Julian Jackson. What do you mean?”
“Stella doesn’t have a sister, and I don’t know anyone named Sophia.”
The party broke up pretty quickly after that.
Delia said she thought Julian and his friend should leave, but before she got the triumphal effect of kicking them out in front of the rest of the party attendants, someone in the front room yelled that headlights were coming up the driveway.
Delia’s parents were home early.
Julian ran upstairs for Candace while everyone else ran out the back door.
Julian found Candace in the master bedroom, sitting on the bed and rubbing the lacrosse captain’s back. His head was between his knees, and a puddle of vomit was on the floor.
“Poor kid,” she said.
“We gotta go.”
Candace stared back at him, unmoved from her place on the bed.
“The parents are home.”
She stood up, took his phone and entered her number, mouthed ‘call me,’ and grabbed a flabbergasted Julian by the elbow. She led him down the stairs and out the door, they were nearly back to Hanscom less than five minutes later.
“Were you really interested in that tool?” Julian asked.
“Well, maybe a little. But mostly, my identity wasn’t blown, so there was no use losing a source if he knows something. Then, if he’s sober and not grounded, we might go out. Did you find anything out?”
“Only the best lead so far. I’m waiting to tell Grove all the details, but suffice it to say that the girl of my dreams is a complete liar.”
“Yet she remains the girl of your dreams?”
“There must have been a good reason,” Julian said.