Table of Contents
THE STAR THAT KILLS
WHITE'S ROW, EAST LONDON NOVEMBER 9 2:45 A.M.
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS â¢ A DIVISION OF PENGUIN YOUNG READERS GROUP.
Published by The Penguin Group.
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England.
Copyright Â© 2011 by Maureen Johnson.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Johnson, Maureen, 1973â
The name of the star / Maureen Johnson. p. cm.â(Shades of London ; bk. 1)
Summary: Rory, of BÃ©nouville, Louisiana, is spending a year at a London boarding school
when she witnesses a murder by a Jack the Ripper copycat and becomes involved with
the very unusual investigation. [1. Boarding schoolsâFiction. 2. SchoolsâFiction.
3. MurderâFiction. 4. WitnessesâFiction. 5. GhostsâFiction.
6. London (England)âFiction. 7. EnglandâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.J634145Nam 2011 [Fic]âdc22 2011009003
ISBN : 978-1-101-53569-1
For Amsler. Thanks for the milk.
DURWARD STREET, EAST LONDON AUGUST 31 4:17 A.M.
HE EYES OF LONDON WERE WATCHING CLAIRE JENKINS.
She didn't notice them, of course. No one paid attention to the cameras. It was an accepted fact that London has one of the most extensive CCTV systems in the world. The conservative estimate was that there were a million cameras around the city, but the actual number was probably much higher and growing all the time. The feed went to the police, security firms, MI5, and thousands of private individualsâforming a loose and all-encompassing net. It was impossible to do anything in London without the CCTV catching you at some point.
The cameras silently recorded Claire's progress and tracked her as she turned onto Durward Street. It was four seventeen A.M., and she was supposed to have been at work at four. She had forgotten to set her alarm, and now she was running, trying to get to the Royal London Hospital. Her shift usually got the fallout from last night's drinkingâthe alcohol poisonings, the falls, the punch-ups, the car accidents, the occasional knife fight. All the night's mistakes came to the early-shift nurse.
It had been pouring, clearly. There were puddles all over the place. The one mercy of this doomed morning was that there was only the slightest drizzle now. At least she didn't have to run through the rain. She got out her phone to send a message to let them know she was close. The phone emitted a tiny halo that encircled her hand, giving it a saintly glow. It was hard to text and walk at the same time, not if she didn't want to fall off the pavement or walk into a post. Am running lake . . .
Claire had tried to type the word
three times, but it kept coming up as
. She wasn't running
, she was running
. She refused to stop walking and fix it. There was no time to waste. The message would stand.
. . . Be there in 5 . . .
And then she tripped. The cell phone took flight, a little glowing ball of light, free at last before it clattered to the sidewalk and went out.
“Bugger!” she said. “No, no, no . . . don't be broken . . .”
In her concern over the fate of her phone, Claire first didn't take notice of the thing she had tripped over, aside from faintly registering that it was somewhat large and weighty and it gave a little when her foot struck it. In the dark, it appeared to be a strangely shaped mound of garbage. Something else put in her way this morning to impede her progress.
She knelt down and felt along the ground for the phone, sinking her knee directly into a puddle.
“Wonderful,” she said to herself as she scrabbled around. The phone was quickly recovered. It appeared to be dark and lifeless. She tried the power button, not expecting any result. To her delight, the phone blinked on, casting its little light around her hand once again.
This was when she first noticed that there was something sticky on her hand. The consistency was extremely familiar, as was the faint metallic smell.
Blood. Her hand was covered in blood. A
of blood, with a faintly jelly-like consistency that suggested congealing. Congealing blood meant blood that had been here for several minutes, so it couldn't be her own. Claire shifted around, holding up her phone for light. She could see now that she had tripped over a person. She crawled closer and felt a hand, a hand that was cool, but not cold.
“Hello?” she said. “Can you hear me? Can you speak?”
She got up alongside the figure, a smallish person dressed entirely in motorcycle leathers, wearing a helmet. She reached up to the neck to feel for a pulse.
Where the neck was supposed to be, there was a space.
It took her a moment to process what she was feeling, and in desperation she kept reaching around the edge of the helmet to get to the neck, trying to get a sense of the size of this wound. It went on and on, until Claire realized that the head was barely attached at all, and that the puddle she was kneeling in was almost certainly not rainwater.
The eyes saw it all.
Then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city whence he fled.
F YOU LIVE AROUND NEW ORLEANS AND THEY THINK a hurricane might be coming, all hell breaks loose. Not among the residents, really, but on the news. The news wants us to worry desperately about hurricanes. In my town, BÃ©nouville, Louisiana (pronounced locally as Ben-ah-VEEL; population 1,700), hurricane preparations generally include buying more beer, and ice to keep that beer cold when the power goes out. We do have a neighbor with a two-man rowboat lashed on top of the porch roof, all ready to go if the water risesâbut that's Billy Mack, and he started his own religion in the garage, so he's got a lot more going on than just an extreme concern for personal safety.
Anyway, BÃ©nouville is an unstable place, built on a swamp. Everyone who lives there accepts that it was a terrible place to build a town, but since it's there, we just go on living in it. Every fifty years or so, everything but the old hotel gets wrecked by a flood or a hurricaneâand the same bunch of lunatics comes back and builds new stuff. Many generations of the Deveaux family have lived in beautiful downtown BÃ©nouville, largely because there is no other part to live in. I love where I'm from, don't get me wrong, but it's the kind of town that makes you a little crazy if you
leave, even for a little while.
My parents were the only ones in the family to leave to go to college and then law school. They became law professors at Tulane, in New Orleans. They had long since decided that it would be good for all three of us to spend a little time living outside of Louisiana. Four years ago, right before I started high school, they applied to do a year's sabbatical teaching American law at the University of Bristol in England. We made an agreement that I could take part in the decision about where I would spend that sabbatical yearâit would be my senior year. I said I wanted to go to school in London.
Bristol and London are really far apart, by English standards. Bristol is in the middle of the country and far to the west, and London is way down south. But really far apart in England is only a few hours on the train. And London is
. So I had decided on a school called Wexford, located in the East End of London. The three of us were all going to fly over together and spend a few days in London, then I would go to school and my parents would go to Bristol, and I would travel back and forth every few weeks.
But then there was a hurricane warning, and everyone freaked out, and the airlines wiped the schedule. The hurricane teased everyone and rolled around the Gulf before turning into a rainstorm, but by that point our flight had been canceled and everything was a mess for a few days. Eventually, the airline managed to find one empty seat on a flight to New York, and another empty seat on a flight to London from there. Since I was scheduled to be at Wexford before my parents needed to be in Bristol, I got the seat and went by myself.
Which was fine, actually. It was a long tripâthree hours to New York, two hours wandering the airport before taking a six-hour flight to London overnightâbut I still liked it. I was awake all night on the flight watching English television and listening to all the English accents on the plane.
I made my way through the duty-free area right after customs, where they try to get you to buy a few last-minute gallons of perfume and crates of cigarettes. There was a man waiting for me just beyond the doors. He had completely white hair and wore a polo shirt with the name
stitched on the breast. A shock of white chest hair popped out at the collar, and as I approached him, I caught the distinctive, spicy smell of men's cologne. Lots of cologne.
“Aurora?” he asked.
“Rory,” I corrected him. I never use the name Aurora. It was my great-grandmother's name, and it was dropped on me as kind of a family obligation. Not even my parents use it.
“I'm Mr. Franks. I'll be taking you to Wexford. Let me help you with those.”
I had two incredibly large suitcases, both of which were heavier than I was and were marked with big orange tags that said HEAVY. I needed to bring enough to live for nine months. Nine months in a place that had cold weather. So while I felt justified in bringing these extremely big and heavy bags, I didn't want someone who looked like a grandfather pulling them, but he insisted.
“You picked quite the day to arrive, you did,” he said, grunting as he dragged the suitcases along. “Big news this morning. Some nutter's gone and pulled a Jack the Ripper.”
I figured “pulled a Jack the Ripper” was one of those English expressions I'd need to learn. I'd been studying them online so I wouldn't get confused when people started talking to me about “quid” and “Jammy Dodgers” and things like that. This one had not crossed my electronic path.
“Oh,” I said. “Sure.”
He led me through the crowds of people trying to get into the elevators that took us up to the parking lot. As we left the building and walked into the lot, I felt the first blast of cool breeze. The London air smelled surprisingly clean and fresh, maybe a little metallic. The sky was an even, high gray. For August, it was ridiculously cold, but all around me I saw people in shorts and T-shirts. I was shivering in my jeans and sweatshirt, and I cursed my flip-flopsâwhich some stupid site told me were good to wear for security reasons. No one mentioned they make your feet freeze on the plane and in England, where they mean something different when they say “summer.”
We got to the school van, and Mr. Franks loaded the bags in. I tried to help, I really did, but he just said no, no, no. I was almost certain he was going to have a heart attack, but he survived.
“In you get,” he said. “Door's open.”
I remembered to get in on the left side, which made me feel very clever for someone who hadn't slept in twenty-four hours. Mr. Franks wheezed for a minute once he got into the driver's seat. I cracked my window to release some of the cologne into the wild.
“It's all over the news.” Wheeze, wheeze. “Happened up near the Royal Hospital, right off the Whitechapel Road. Jack the Ripper, of all things. Mind you, tourists love old Jack. Going to cause lots of excitement, this. Wexford's in Jack the Ripper territory.”
He switched on the radio. The news station was on, and I listened as he drove us down the spiral exit ramp.
“. . . thirty-one-year-old Rachel Belanger, a commercial filmmaker with a studio on Whitechapel Road. Authorities say that she was killed in a manner emulating the first Jack the Ripper murder of 1888 . . .
Well, at least that cleared up what “pulling a Jack the Ripper” meant.
“. . . body found on Durward Street, just after four this morning. In 1888, Durward Street was called Bucks Row. Last night's victim was found in the same location and position as Mary Ann Nichols, the first Ripper victim, with very similar injuries. Chief Inspector Simon Cole of Scotland Yard gave a brief statement saying that while there were similarities between this murder and the murder of Mary Ann Nichols on August 31, 1888, it is premature to say that this is anything other than a coincidence. For more on this, we go to senior correspondent Lois Carlisle . . .
Mr. Franks barely missed the walls as he wove the car down the spiral.
“. . .
Jack the Ripper struck on four conventionally agreed upon dates in 1888: August 31, September 8, the âDouble Event' of September 30âso called because there were two murders in the space of under an hourâand November 9. No one knows what became of the Ripper or why he stopped on that date . . .
“Nasty business,” Mr. Franks said as we reached the exit. “Wexford is right in Jack's old hunting grounds. We're just five minutes from the Whitechapel Road. The Jack the Ripper tours come past all the time. I imagine there'll be twice as many now.”
We took a highway for a while, and then we were suddenly in a populated areaâlong rows of houses, Indian restaurants, fish-and-chip shops. Then the roads got narrower and more crowded and we had clearly entered the city without my noticing. We wound along the south side of the Thames, then crossed it, all of London stretched around us.
I had seen a picture of Wexford a hundred times or more. I knew the history. Back in the mid-1800s, the East End of London was very poor. Dickens, pickpockets, selling children for bread, that kind of thing. Wexford was built by a charity. They bought all the land around a small square and built an entire complex. They constructed a home for women, a home for men, and a small Gothic revival churchâeverything necessary to provide food, shelter, and spiritual guidance. All the buildings were attractive, and they put some stone benches and a few trees in the tiny square so there was a pleasant atmosphere. Then they filled the buildings with poor men, women, and children and made them all work fifteen hours a day in the factories and workhouses that they also built around the square.
Somewhere around 1920, someone realized this was all kind of horrible, and the buildings were sold off. Someone had the bright idea that these Gothic and Georgian buildings arranged around a square kind of looked like a school, and bought them. The workhouses became classroom buildings. The church eventually became the refectory. The buildings were all made of brownstone or brick at a time when space in the East End came cheap, so they were large, with big windows and peaks and chimneys silhouetted against the sky.
“This is your building here,” Mr. Franks said as the car bumped along a narrow cobblestone path. It was Hawthorne, the girls' dorm. The word WOMEN was carved in bas-relief over the doorway. Standing right under this, as proof, was a woman. She was short, maybe just five feet tall, but broad. Her face was a deep, flushed red, and she had big hands, hands you'd imagine could make really big meatballs or squeeze the air out of tires. She had a bob haircut that was almost completely square, and was wearing a plaid dress made of hearty wool. Something about her suggested that her leisure activities included wrestling large woodland animals and banging bricks together.
As I got out of the van she called, “Au
a!” in a penetrating voice that could cause a small bird to fall dead out of the sky.
“Call me Claudia,” she boomed. “I'm housemistress of Hawthorne. Welcome to Wexford.”
“Thanks,” I said, my ears still ringing. “But it's Rory.”
“Rory. Of course. Everything all right, then? Good flight?”
“Great, thank you.” I hurried to the back of the van and tried to get to the bags before Mr. Franks broke his spine in three places hauling them out. Flip-flops and cobblestones do not go well together, however, especially after a rain, when every slight indentation is filled with cold water. My feet were soaked, and I was sliding and stumbling over the stones. Mr. Franks beat me to the back of the car, and grunted as he yanked the bags out.
“Mr. Franks will bring those inside,” Claudia said. “Take them to room twenty-seven, please, Franks.”
“Righto,” he wheezed.
The rain started to patter down lightly as Claudia opened the door, and I entered my new home for the first time.
WAS IN A FOYER PANELED IN DARK WOOD WITH A mosaic floor. A large banner bearing the words WELCOME BACK TO WEXFORD hung from the inner doorway. A set of winding wooden steps led up to what I guessed were our rooms. On the wall, a large bulletin board was already full of flyers for various sports and theater tryouts.
“Call me Claudia,” Claudia said again. “Come through this way so we can have a chat.”
She led me through a door on the left, into an office. The room had been painted a deep, scholarly shade of maroon, and there was a large Oriental rug on the floor. The walls and shelves were mostly covered in hockey awards, pictures of hockey teams, mounted hockey sticks. Some of the awards had years on them and names of schools, telling me that Claudia was now in her early thirties. This amazed me, since she looked older than Granny Deveaux. Though to be fair, Granny Deveaux had permanent makeup tattooed on her eyes and bought her jeans in the juniors department at Kohl's. Whereas Claudia, it was clear, didn't mind getting out there in the elements and perpetrating a little physical violence in the name of sport. I could easily picture her running over a muddy hillside, field hockey stick raised, screaming. In fact, I was pretty sure that was what I was going to see in my dreams tonight.
“These are my rooms,” she said, indicating the office and whatever splendors lay behind the door by the window. “I live here, and I am available at all times for emergencies, and until nine every evening if you just want to chat. Now, let's go through some basics. This year, you are the only student coming from abroad. As you probably know, our system here is different from the one you have at home. Here, students take tests called GCSEs when they are about sixteen . . .”
I did know this. There was no way I could have prepared to come here without knowing this. The GCSEs are individual tests on pretty much every subject you've ever studied, ever. People take between eight and fourteen of these things, depending, I guess, on how much they like taking tests. How you do on your GCSEs determines how you're going to spend your next two years, because when you're seventeen and eighteen, you get to specialize. Wexford was a strange and rare thing: a boarding “sixth-form college”â
here meaning “school for seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.” It was for people who couldn't afford five years in a fancy private school, or hated the school they were in and wanted to live in London. People only attended Wexford for two years, so instead of moving in with a bunch of people who had known each other
, at Wexford, my new fellow students would have been together for a year at most.
“Here, at Wexford,” she went on, “students take four or five subjects each year. They are studying for their A-level exams, which they take at the end of their final year. You are welcome to sit for the A levels if you like, but since you do not require them, we can set up a separate system of grading to send back to America. I see you'll be taking five subjectsâEnglish literature, history, French, art history, and further maths. Here is your schedule.”
She passed me a piece of paper with a huge grid on it. The schedule itself didn't have that day-in, day-out sameness I was used to. Instead, I got this bananas spreadsheet that spanned two weeks, full of double periods and free periods.
I stared at this mess and gave up any hope of ever memorizing it.
“Now,” Claudia said, “breakfast is at seven each morning. Classes begin at eight fifteen, with a lunch break at eleven thirty. At two forty-five you change for sportâthat's from three to four. Then you shower and have class again from four fifteen until five fifteen. Dinner is from six to seven. Then the evenings are for clubs, or more sport, or work. Of course, we still need to put you into your sport. May I recommend hockey? I am in charge of the girls' hockey team. I think you'd enjoy it.”
This was the part I'd been dreading. I am not a very sporty person. Where I come from, it's too hot to run, and it's generally not encouraged. The joke is, if you see someone running in BÃ©nouville, you run in the same direction, because there's probably something really terrible right behind them. At Wexford,
physical activity was required. My choices were football (a.k.a. soccer, a.k.a. a lot of running outdoors), swimming (no), hockey (by this they meant field, not ice), or netball. I hate all sports, but basketball I at least know something aboutâand netball was supposed to be the cousin of basketball. You know how girls play softball instead of baseball? Well, netball is the softball version of basketball, if that makes any sense. The ball is softer, and smaller, and white, and some of the rules are different . . . but basically, it's basketball.
“I was thinking netball,” I said.
“I see. Have you ever played hockey before?”
I looked around at the hockey decorations.
“I've never played it. I really only know basketball, so netballâ”
“Completely different. We could start you fresh in hockey. How about we just do that now, hmmm?”
Claudia leaned over the desk and smiled and knitted her meaty hands together.
“Sure,” I heard myself say. I wanted to suck the word back into my mouth, but Claudia had already grabbed her pen and was scribbling something down and muttering, “Excellent, excellent. We'll get you set up with a hockey kit. Oh, and of course you'll need these.”
She slid a key and an ID across the desk. The ID was a disappointment. I'd taken about fifty pictures of myself until I found one that was passable, but in transferring it to the plastic, my face had been stretched out and had turned purple. My hair looked like some kind of mold.
“Your ID will get you in the front door. Simply tap it on the reader. Under no circumstances are you to give your ID to anyone else. Now, let's look around.”
We got up and went back into the hallway. She waved her hand at a wall full of open mailboxes. There were more bulletin boards full of more notices for classes that hadn't even started yetâreminders to get Oyster cards for the Tube, reminders to get certain books, reminders to get things at the library.
“The common room,” she said, opening a set of double doors. “You'll be spending a lot of time here.”
This was a massive room, with a big fireplace. There was a television, a bunch of sofas, some worktables, and piles of cushions to sit on on the floor. Next to the common room, there was a study room full of desks, then another study room with a big table where you could have group sessions, then a series of increasingly tiny study rooms, some with only a single plush chair or a whiteboard on the wall.
From there, we went up three floors of wide, creaking steps. My room, number twenty-seven, was way bigger than I'd expected. The ceiling was high. There were large windows, each with a normal rectangular bit and an additional semicircle of glass on top. A thin, tan carpet had been laid on the floor. There was an amazing light hanging from the ceiling, big globes on a seven-pronged silver fixture. Best of allâthere was a small fireplace. It didn't look like it worked, but it was incredibly pretty, with a black iron grate and deep blue tiles. The mantel was large and deep, and there was a mirror mounted above it.
The thing that really got my attention, though, was the fact that there were three of everything. Three beds, three desks, three wardrobes, three bookshelves.
“It's a triple,” I said. “I was only sent the name of one roommate.”
“That's right. You'll be living with Julianne Benton. She does swimming.”
That last part was delivered with a touch of annoyance. It was becoming very clear what Claudia's priorities were.
She then showed me a tiny kitchen at the end of the hall. There was a water dispenser in the corner that had cold or boiling filtered water (“so you won't need a kettle”). There was a small dishwasher and a very, very small fridge.
“That's stocked daily with milk and soya milk,” Claudia said. “The fridge is for drinks only. Make sure to label your drinks. That's what the pack of two hundred blank labels on your school supply list is for. There will be a selection of fruit and dried cereal here at all times, in case you get hungry.”
Then it was a tour of the bathroom, which was actually the most Victorian room of them all. It was massive, with a black-and-white tiled floor, marbled walls, and big beveled mirrors. There were wooden cubbies for our towels and bath supplies. For the first time, I could completely imagine all my future classmates here, all of us taking our showers and talking and brushing our teeth. I would be seeing my classmates dressed only in towels. They would see me without makeup, every day. That thought hadn't occurred to me before. Sometimes you have to see the bathroom to know the hard reality of things.
I tried to dismiss this dawning fear as we returned to my room. Claudia rattled off rules to me for about another ten minutes. I tried to make mental notes of the ones to remember. We had to have our lights out by eleven, but we were allowed to use computers or small personal lights after that, provided that they didn't bother our roommates. We could only put things up on our walls using something called Blu-Tack (also on the supply list). School blazers had to be worn to class, official assemblies, and dinner. We could leave them behind for breakfast and lunch.
“The dinner schedule is a bit strange tonight, since it's just the prefects and you. The meal will be at three. I'll send Charlotte to come get you. Charlotte is head girl.”
Prefects. I had learned this one. Student council types, but with superpowers. They who must be obeyed. Head girl was head of all girl prefects. Claudia left me, banging the door behind her. And then, it was just me. In the big room. In London.
Eight boxes were sitting on the floor. This was my
, my clothes for the year: ten white dress shirts, three dark gray skirts, one gray and white striped blazer, one maroon tie, one gray sweater with the school crest on the breast, twelve pairs of gray kneesocks. In addition, there was another box of PE uniforms, for the daily physical education: two pairs of dark gray track pants with white stripes down the side, three pairs of shorts of the same material, five light gray T-shirts with WEXFORD written across the front, one maroon fleece track jacket with school crest, ten pairs of white sport socks. There were shoes as wellâmassive, clunky things that looked like Frankenstein shoes.
Obviously, I had to put on the uniform. The clothes were stiff and creased from packing. I yanked the pins from the shirt collars and pulled the tags from the skirt and blazer. I put on everything but the socks and shoes. Then I put on my headphones, because I find that a little music helps you adjust better.
There was no full-length mirror to gauge the effect. Using the mirror over the fireplace, I got a partial look. I still really needed to see the whole thing. That was going to require some ingenuity. I tried standing on the end of the middle bed, but it was too far over, so I pulled it into the center of the room and tried again. Now I had the complete picture. The result was a lot less gray than I'd imagined. My hair, which is a deep brown, looked black against the blazer, which I liked. The best part, without any question, was the tie. I've always liked ties, but it seemed like too much of a Statement to wear them. I pulled it loose, tugged it to the side, wrapped it around my headâI wanted to see every variation of the look.
Suddenly, the door opened. I screamed and knocked the headphones off my ears. They blasted music out into the room. I turned to see a tall girl standing in the doorway. She had red hair in an incredibly complicated yet casual-looking updo, and the creamy skin and heavy showers of golden freckles to match. What was most remarkable was her bearing. Her face was long, culminating in an adorable nub of a chin, which she held high. She was one of those people who
walks with her shoulders back, like that's normal. She was not, I noticed, wearing a uniform. She wore a blue and rose skirt with a soft gray T-shirt and a soft rose linen scarf tied loosely around her neck.
“Are you Au
?” she asked.
She didn't wait for me to confirm that I was this “Aurora” she was looking for.
“I'm Charlotte,” she said. “I'm here to take you to dinner.”
“Should I”âI pinched a bit of my uniform in the hope that this conveyed the verbâ“change?”
“Oh, no,” she said cheerfully. “You're fine. It's just a handful of us, anyway. Come on!”
She watched me step awkwardly from the bed, grab my ID and key, and slip on my flip-flops.
o,” CHARLOTTE CHIRPED, AS I STUMBLED AND SLID over the cobblestones, “where are you from?”
I know you're not supposed to judge people when you first meet themâbut sometimes they give you lots of material to work with. For example, she kept looking sideways at my uniform. It would have been so easy for her to say, “Take a second and change,” but she hadn't done that. I guess I could have demanded it, but I was cowed by her head girl status. Also, halfway down the stairs, she told me she was going to apply to Cambridge. Anyone who tells you their fancy college plans before they tell you their last name . . . these are people to watch out for. I once met a girl in line at Walmart who told me she was going to be on
America's Next Top Model.
When I next saw that girl, she was crashing a shopping cart into an old lady's car out in the parking lot. Signs. You have to read them.
I was terrified for a few minutes that they would
be like this, but reassured myself that it probably took a certain type to become head girl. I decided to deflect her attitude by giving a long, Southern answer. I come from people who know how to draw things out. Annoy a Southerner, and we will drain away the moments of your life with our slow, detailed replies until you are nothing but a husk of your former self and that much closer to death.
“New Orleans,” I said. “Well, not New Orleans, but right outside of. Well, like an hour outside of. My town is really small. It's a swamp, actually. They drained a swamp to build our development. Well, attempting to drain a swamp is pretty pointless. They don't really
. You can dump as much fill on them as you want, but they're still swamps. The only thing worse than building a housing development on a swamp is building it on an old Indian burial groundâand if there
been an old Indian burial ground around, the greedy morons who built our McMansions would have set up camp on it in a heartbeat.”
“Oh. I see.”
My answer only seemed to increase the intensity of the smug glee waves. My flip-flops made weird sucking noises on the stones.
“Your feet must be cold in those,” she said.
And that was the end of our conversation.
The refectory was in the old church, long deconsecrated. My hometown has three churchesâall of them in prefab buildings, all filled with rows of plastic chairs. This was a
ânot largeâbut proper, made of stone, with buttresses and a small bell tower and narrow stained-glass windows. Inside, it was brightly lit by a number of circular black metal chandeliers. There were three long rows of wooden tables with benches, and a dais with a table where the old altar had been. There was also one of those raised side pulpits with its own set of winding stairs.
There was a small group of students sitting toward the front. Of course, none of them were in uniform. The sound of my flip-flops echoed off the walls, drawing their attention.
“Everyone,” Charlotte said, walking me up to the group, “this is Aurora. She's from America.”
“Rory,” I said quickly. “Everyone calls me Rory. And I love uniforms. I'm going to wear mine
all the time
“Right,” Charlotte said, before my quip could land. “And this is Jane, Clarissa, Andrew, Jerome, and Paul. Andrew is head boy.”
All the prefects were casually dressed, but in a dressy way. Like Charlotte, the other girls wore informal skirts. The guys wore polo shirts or T-shirts with logos I didn't recognize, and looked like people in catalog ads. Out of all of them, Jerome looked the most rock-and-roll, with a slightly wild head of brown curls. He looked a lot like the guy I liked when I was in fourth grade, Doug Davenport. They both had sandy brown hair and wide noses and mouths. There was something easygoing about Jerome's face. He looked like he smiled a lot.
“Come on, Rory!” Charlotte chirped. “This way.”
By now I resented almost everything that came out of Charlotte's mouth. I definitely didn't appreciate being beckoned like a pet. But I didn't see any other course of action available, so I followed her.
To get to the food, we had to walk around the raised pulpit to a side door. We entered what had probably been the old offices or vestry. All of that had been ripped out to make a compact industrial kitchen and the customary row of steam trays. Tonight's dinner consisted of a chicken casserole, vegetarian shepherd's pie, a pan of roasted potatoes, green beans, and some rolls. There was a thin layer of golden grease over everything except the rolls, which was fine by me. I hadn't eaten all day, and I had a stomach that could handle any amount of grease I could get inside it.
I took a little bit of everything as Charlotte looked over my plate. I met her eye and smiled.
When we returned, the conversation had rolled on. There was lots of stuff about “summer hols” and someone going to Kenya and someone else sailing. No one I knew went to Kenya for the summer. And I knew people with boats, but no one who “went sailing.” These people didn't seem richâat least, they weren't a kind of rich I was familiar with. Rich meant stupid cars and a ridiculous house and huge parties with limos to New Orleans on your sixteenth birthday to drink nonalcoholic Hurricanes, which you swap out for real Hurricanes in the bathroom, and then you steal a duck, and then you throw up in a fountain. Okay, I was thinking of someone very specific in that case, but that was the general idea of rich that I currently held. Everyone at this table had a measure of maturity I wasn't used toâ
, to use the SAT word.
“You're from New Orleans?” Jerome asked, pulling me out of my thoughts.
“Yeah,” I said, hurrying to finish chewing. “Outside of.”
He looked like he was about to ask me something else, but Charlotte cut in.
“We have a prefects' meeting now,” she informed me. “In here.”
I wasn't quite done eating dessert, but I didn't want to look like I was thrown by this.
“I'll see you later,” I said, setting down my spoon.
Back in my room, I tried to choose a bed. I definitely didn't want the one in the middle. I had to have some wall space. The only question was, did I go ahead and take the one by the super-cool fireplace (and therefore lay claim to the excellence of the mantel to store my stuff), or did I take the high road and choose the other side of the room?