Skip O'Rourke is dragged into one last con . . . but he doesn't know the con's on him in this funny, page-turning debut YA for fans of Winger and Ocean’s Eleven.
Cameron Smith attends an elite boarding school and has just been accepted to Princeton University alongside his beautiful girlfriend, Claire. Life for Cameron would be perfect, except that Cameron Smith is actually Skip O'Rourke, and Skip O'Rourke ran away from his grifter family four years ago...along with $100,000 of their “earnings” (because starting a new life is not cheap). But when his uncle Wonderful tracks him down, Skip's given an ultimatum: come back to the family for one last con, or say good-bye to life as Cameron.
"One last con" is easier said than done when Skip's family is just as merciless (and just as manipulative) as they've always been, and everyone around him is lying. Skip may have given up on crime, but there's one lesson he hasn't forgotten: always know your mark. And if you don't know who your mark is . . . it's probably you.
Witty and irresistibly readable, this standout debut will always keep you guessing.
Excerpt from Thieving Weasels
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Billy Taylor
I would have killed to go to Princeton.
Yale, Dartmouth, and Stanford were my top choices, and the universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas were my backups. They were all great schools, and I would have been happy to attend any one of them. Or at least I would have until I met Claire. Then the only schools I cared about were Princeton, Princeton, and Princeton, though not necessarily in that order.
Pop Quiz: Did you know F. Scott Fitzgerald went to Princeton? And presidents Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland? Even John F. Kennedy went there, but he couldn’t hack it and transferred to some third-rate dump named Harvard. The list of influential Princeton grads is insanely impressive and includes everyone from astronauts and Supreme Court justices to CEOs and Nobel Prize winners. If college was a superhero, Princeton would be Batman. (Sorry, Superman.) If prestige were a sporting event, Princeton would be the Super Bowl. I’m not kidding.
And I’d taken no chances on getting in. I’d read every blog, manual, and how-to guide on the subject, crushed my SATs, and polished my personal essay until it sparkled like a priceless gem. Just as important, I’d made sure my clubs and extracurricular activities were commendable; my sport of choice not-too-obvious or not-too-obscure (lacrosse); and my financial aid form a work of art. In other words, I’d done everything humanly possible to get into Princeton. Then, when there was nothing else left to do, I checked the box for Early Decision, mailed out my application, and waited.
And waited. And . . .
W . . . A . . . I . . . T . . . E . . . D . . .
But here’s the thing about applying to a major university. It doesn’t matter if you’re Prince Albert or Albert Einstein— who once taught at Princeton, by the way—nobody in the admissions office will tell you squat, no matter how much you beg, plead, or threaten. Which in the case of early decision applicants like me, meant one-and-a-half months of pure, undiluted torture. My only solace was that I was not alone. Twenty-one of my classmates at Wheaton Preparatory Academy had applied for early decision to their schools, and for the next six weeks we greeted one another with the same anxious words:
“You hear anything yet?”
The answer was always No, and by Thanksgiving we were twenty-two sleep-deprived zombies. The following week, out of a combination of camaraderie and desperation, we began meeting up in the school mail room to watch—in slow motion and extreme close up—as Mrs. Daulton, Wheaton’s million-year-old and molasses-legged mail lady, squinted at each and every piece of mail and slowly, Slowly, SLOWLY, placed it in our slots.
Finally, on December fourteenth, the letters began arriving. There were tears and cheers, hugs and high fives, wishes granted and dreams shattered. But the one thing that didn’t arrive was my acceptance letter. It was excruciating, and I spent countless hours searching for meaning in my predicament. Was my letter’s tardiness a good thing or bad? Did this improve my odds or decimate them? If a Princeton applicant ran into the woods and screamed his head off and nobody heard him, did that make him a complete idiot? I had no idea. All I knew was that by the end of the semester I was the only one left waiting, and I was losing my mind.
I looked up, and Mrs. Daulton was holding something in her hand. It was white and thin and looked like a letter from a major university. I shot across the room and snatched it from her fingers. The return address read Princeton University, and I swallowed hard.
“Are you going to open it?” she asked. “I guess I better.”
I tore off the side of the envelope, and the first word I saw was “Congratulations.”
I was in.
“I knew you could do it,” Mrs. Daulton said with a smile. “Thank you.”
I jammed the letter in my backpack and floated out of the mail room on a cloud of victory. All my time, hard work, and anxiety had paid off. Poor, cafeteria-working, trust fund–deprived Cam Smith was going to Princeton, and I didn’t even have to kill anyone to do it.
I couldn’t wait to call Claire and tell her the news.
My shift at the cafeteria had ended early, and when I checked the time on my phone I saw there were five minutes left before her parents were due to pick her up. That was all the time I needed, and I broke into a sprint. Twenty- four hours earlier, I would have crashed into a dozen students wearing Wheaton blazers as I raced across campus, but finals were over, and my classmates were winging their way to Aspen, Taos, and the Caribbean for the holidays. I was spending Christmas in the comfort and splendor of my dorm room, but that hardly mattered because in a few short months I’d be going to Princeton. With Claire.
Or at least I would be if Claire completed her application. She had been putting off writing her personal essay for weeks, and her lack of anxiety about it was giving me anxiety. Not that she had anything to worry about. As a third-generation Princeton legacy with a 3.95 GPA and outstanding SATs, Claire Benson was as close to a slam dunk as there was. Still, legacy or not, all applications had to be postmarked by January first. No exceptions.
I was obsessing over this when I approached the dorms and spotted Claire standing in the parking lot surrounded by suitcases. As a young girl Claire had studied ballet, and with her dancer’s poise and brown hair pulled back tight she still resembled the ballerina she’d wanted to be in grade school. God, she was beautiful. And smart. And rich. What she was doing with a scholarship student like me, I had no idea. But I wasn’t complaining. Well, except for her not finishing her essay. Otherwise, she was like one of those flawless and dazzling specters you met on the highest level of a video game.
I vaulted over a hedge and was about a hundred yards away from her when the biggest Mercedes I’d ever seen glided into the parking lot, and Ken and Barbie hopped out. Okay, so maybe Claire’s parents weren’t really named Ken and Barbie, but that’s who they looked like—only older and with better skin.
Claire claimed her parents wanted to meet me, but one look at their car, clothes, and diamond-crusted accessories, and I was so intimidated I hid behind an azalea bush. Yes, I know this was 110 percent pathetic, but I’d spent zero time around people like the Bensons, and something told me they would not be impressed by my floppy hair, chipped- tooth smile, and JCPenney attire. Not to mention that at five foot nine, Claire was an inch taller than me—three if she wore heels. Claire swore this wasn’t a big deal, but I knew it was the first thing people noticed when they saw us together. I kept hoping her parents would dash off for a quick game of tennis and give Claire and me some time alone, but this did not happen. Instead, they loaded up their Mercedes and drove off without so much as a glance in my direction.
Embarrassed at myself and despondent, I climbed out from behind the azalea bush and watched as their taillights grew smaller in the distance. By the time they disappeared, my heart had turned to Jell-O, and there was nothing left to do but trudge back to my room and endure the passing hours until classes resumed in January. I counted every crack in the tiles as I moped down the hallways and every step on the stairs as I climbed to my floor. I was so caught up in my misery I failed to notice that the door to my room was open.
Then I did and froze.
I was certain I had locked it that morning, and there was no reason for someone from Student Services to be inside. But someone was inside, and I looked around for a weapon. My only options were a pizza box and an old brass fire extinguisher. Neither would help if the person inside had a gun, and I figured my best bet was the element of surprise. I decided to kick open the door, grab my lacrosse stick, and impale whoever was in there.
It was an excellent plan, and would have worked if my lacrosse stick had been where I’d left it. Unfortunately, it was not, and before I could think of a Plan B, my legs were knocked out from under me, and I landed on my back with a thud.
I looked up, and Uncle Wonderful was standing over me with my lacrosse stick in his hands.
“What’s this thing?” he asked, pressing the business end of the stick against my throat.
“It’s a lacrosse stick,” I sputtered.
“What’s that? Some fancy new game rich kids play?” “Lacrosse is actually the oldest team sport played in America. The Plains Indians invented it to prepare for battle.”
Uncle Wonderful looked at the stick with newfound respect. “No shit?”
“But enough of a history lesson,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Taking you home.”
I shook my head. “No way. This is my home now.” “Save it. Your mother wants me to bring you back, so
I’m bringing you back.”
“Why didn’t she come herself?” I asked. “Because she’s in Shady Oaks.”
“What’s that? A retirement home for convicted felons?” “No, smart guy, it’s a mental institution. Your mother tried to kill herself last week.”
The first time I got arrested I was four years old.
Actually, arrested is the wrong word for it. It was more like I was taken into custody. My mother was the one who got arrested, although we both wound up with our pictures in the paper. In the photograph, we’re being led out of Macy’s in handcuffs and beneath it the caption reads “The Littlest Criminal.” Except that was wrong, too. Not the little part, the criminal part. Mom and I were never criminals. Criminals rob banks. Criminals steal cars. Criminals deal drugs. Mom and me? We were weasels. We were thieves. We were slime. And so was everyone else in our family. I’d bet a million dollars there hasn’t been one minute in my entire life when at least one of my relatives wasn’t collecting welfare under an assumed name. And I’d bet another million there were at least two more cashing disability checks for jobs they never held.
Like I said, we were slime.
The kid in the paper told the police his name was Michael Dillon, but that was an alias. Over the years I’ve been Bobby, Timmy, Richie, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For a long time I wanted to be called Waldo after the guy in the Where’s Waldo? books, but my mother said no to that because it would have stood out too much. And in our line of work that’s the last thing you want. My real name is Stephen O’Rourke, although I’ve never seen my birth certificate or any legal proof of my existence. My mother calls me Sonny, and everybody else calls me Skip. The best thing about a nickname is you don’t have to change it every time you change your identity, which I’ve done more times than your average seventeen-year-old has flossed.
Here’s how it worked: Mom would lease an apartment under a fake name, pay first and last month’s rent, and after that we’d rob the place blind. People were always happy to talk to a jolly fat lady and her cute little boy, and by the end of the first week we’d have learned everything there was to know about everybody who lived there: the hours they worked, when they were gone, and when they were born. After that, it was simply a matter of slipping into their apartments and finding their Social Security numbers. We’d take out credit cards in their names, shopped till we dropped, and sell what was left of their identities for a few hundred dollars. Three months later, and we were on to the next place.
I once asked my mother if she felt guilty for stealing from the people who lived next door.
“Why?” she replied. “It’s not like they’re family.”
Then she’d rip off one of my uncles, and when I asked her about that she’d say, “That’s because he’s a real A-hole.” I’ll say this about my mother: she may have been a cold-hearted thief, but she rarely cursed in my presence.
That said, she did lie about everything. Especially to me, and especially about who my father was. Sometimes he was an Irish tenor. Other times he was a diesel mechanic. Most of the time he was just “some guy.” When I asked my Grandpa Patsy about it, he’d just sigh and say, “Talk to your mother. That’s her deal, not mine.”
So, there you have it. Most kids have a father. I have a deal.
I was seven years old when I started to realize just how messed up my life was. This was a challenging time for Mom and me. My value had always been my size, and as I grew I became a liability. People began to wonder why the kid wandering through the Fragrance Department at Lord & Taylor on a Tuesday afternoon wasn’t in school. In other words, they paid attention to me—which is something you really don’t want when your mother is trying to stuff bottles of Chanel No. 5 in your Buzz Lightyear backpack.
We had two options: I could hang around our apartment all day, or I could go to school. We tried the former, but there are only so many hours a day a seven-year-old boy can watch television, and after I almost burned down the third floor of the Cheshire Arms Apartments, we tried the latter.
The night before my first day of school I was super nervous. With the exception of my cousin, Roy, I had never spent time around kids my own age and didn’t know how to act. Was school like jail, where you were supposed to punch out the toughest guy in your cell? Or was it like a convenience store, where you flirted with the lady behind the counter while your mother stole milk and Mylanta? I had no idea.
What surprised me the most about school was how easy it was and how much easier it became. I could barely read when I got there, so they put me in a class with the dumb kids, and let’s just say the contrast was more than a little obvious. I had grown up fast-talking sales ladies and police- men while my fellow students could barely wipe their own noses. By the end of the first week I was the star pupil, and by the end of the second I was transferred to a class where, if nothing else, the kids knew which end of a pencil to stick up their noses.
What I liked best about school was the companionship. No one had ever wanted to be my friend before, and over- night a whole new world opened up. I had been living in this alternative universe where playdates, class trips, and just about everything else a seven-year-old boy might en- joy had no value. Sure, my mother stole plenty of nice stuff for me, but even the best toys aren’t much fun when you have no one to play with. In school, however, I was just like everyone else, and it was glorious.
“Don’t get too attached,” my mother said when I told her about my new friends. But I didn’t listen and made pals with everyone from the strange kids who smelled like pee all the way up to the principal. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to have people I barely knew call me by my name in the halls. Even if it wasn’t my real name.
Then the inevitable happened.
“Get your things together,” my mother said one Saturday morning.
“Why?” I asked. “I don’t have school today.” “We’re leaving.”
Her words were like a punch in the stomach.
“But I have a test on Monday,” I begged. “And Mrs. Fleagler said I could sing the song from Cats in music class.”
“You can sing in the car. Now grab your stuff and let’s go.”
That was the day I stopped trusting my mother. After that, I was always careful not to tell her too much about school or my classmates. Is that crazy or what? If I couldn’t tell my own mother about my life, then who could I tell?
No one, that’s who. And here’s the thing about lying: not only is it exhausting to keep a thousand stories and fabrications in your head, it’s also incredibly lonely. And I hate being alone. Not to sound overly dramatic, but I left a major chunk of my heart in that elementary school on the day we moved away. I’ve been trying to get it back ever since.
The only positive thing about my predicament was that I got to keep my textbooks, and by the time my mother got around to enrolling me in a new school I had them memorized. Math, science, and spelling, I knew them backward and forward.
No more classes with dumb kids for me, I told myself. This time it’s going to be different.
And for a while it was. I made a point of not telling my mother about school, and on the rare occasions when she did ask, I was careful not to reveal too much. I’m sure my mother knew something was up, but she was a little fuzzy in the head from the grapefruit and tuna fish diet she had started the month before. My mother was always trying some crazy diet, and this one turned her into a complete space cadet. Unfortunately, she zoomed straight back to earth on the night my second grade teacher called.
“What did she want?” I asked when my mother hung up the phone.
“Get packing.” “What?”
“You heard what I said. And if you ever do something like this again, I’ll break your arm.”
“What did I do?” I asked as tears filled my eyes.
“Your teacher said you were the best student she’s ever had and wants to put you in a class for gifted students.”
“But that’s good, right?”
“No, it’s not good. Gifted students stand out. People remember them. Use your head, Sonny. Two years from now this lady could see your picture in the paper, and we could all wind up in jail.”
“I didn’t think about it that way.”
“Of course you didn’t. That’s what school does—it makes you stupid. From now on you get only Cs and Bs, and the only exceptional thing I want to hear about you is that you’re exceptionally average.”
“Good. Now let’s get out of here before the National Honor Society tries throwing a car wash in the living room.”
I was thirteen years old when I finally had enough, al- though it wasn’t for the obvious reasons. Yes, I was sick of the lying, and the loneliness, and the constant moving around. Yes, I was sick of my mother, and my family, and the never-ending stream of disgusting apartments. Yes, I was sick of acting stupid, and conning my classmates, and throwing tests. I was sick of it all, but I would have kept on going because it was the only life I knew.
My mother always said ordinary people were stooges— chumps and goody-goodies who slaved away at crummy jobs, had no hope, and owed their souls to the credit card companies. She said we were above all that. We lived where we wanted, did what we wanted, and took what we wanted. We were free.
But were we really free? Between the lies, and scams, and never-ending fear of getting busted we put in as many hours as the next guy, except we had a lot less to show for our effort. Think about it. Here I was thirteen years old, and I’d never played Little League baseball. I’d never joined Boy Scouts. I’d never had a best friend, or slept on the same mattress for more than a couple of months. It was crazy. The only taste of real life I saw was in the empty apartments of the people I robbed. It was pathetic. I was pathetic, and I yearned for something better.
The opportunity came, like everything else in my life, through a jimmied window.
One of the most common residents in every apartment complex where Mom and I lived was the newly divorced dad. Growing up, I saw literally hundreds of them shuffling down hallways and carrying bags of Chinese takeout and convenience store beer. They rarely had anything worth stealing—alimony and child support took care of that—but I still enjoyed breaking into their apartments and pouring stale beer down the back of their TV sets. Yes, I knew this was a really mean thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself. There was something about these losers that made me so incredibly angry. It must have been because they had everything I wanted out of life—a real house, home-cooked meals, birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese—and threw it all away. It made absolutely no sense to me.
All that changed on the afternoon I slipped into some ex-husband’s apartment and came across what can only be described as a shrine to Wheaton Preparatory Academy. I’m not exaggerating when I say the entire place was covered, floor to ceiling, with every type of pennant, banner, and poster imaginable, as well as dozens of photos of foot- ball, baseball, and lacrosse teams. Creepy doesn’t begin to describe it, and right in the middle of this sea of crimson and blue—like it was the single greatest achievement in this poor schnook’s life—was his Wheaton diploma. In eight years of breaking into apartments I’d never seen any- thing like it.
My first impulse was to tear the place to shreds. Just yank every piece of Wheaton memorabilia off the walls and rip it into teeny-tiny pieces. Except I couldn’t. It would have been like cutting out the man’s heart.
Instead, I slipped out the window (without touching the TV, I might add) and headed straight to the library to find out about this Wheaton place. It was dark outside when I was finished, and my eyes burned from having read so much, but I was sure of two things:
• I really wanted to go to Wheaton Academy.
• I’d have to run away from my family to do it.