Daddy told me years ago that to succeed in life I need a strong plan, the right tools, and the gumption to follow through. His words of wisdom helped me get elected homecoming queen, become co-captain of the cheerleading squad, and voted on the student council. Now I plan to use them to help me pull off my first burglary.
My plan is solid. I’ve also never backed down from a challenge, not even last year when Brittany Thomas became overly friendly with the entire football team in a sad attempt to deprive me of my crown. People say I started the rumor about the rash of STD cases spreading through the boys’ locker room faster than a brush fire. I didn’t, of course. Why start gossip when the squad of doctors from the local Health Department did it for me?
I take a deep breath as I enter the Trinity Building. At almost four o’clock on a Friday before a three-day weekend, the place is deader than a PTA meeting. It helps that today is the hottest July first on record for Central Texas and the air conditioning in this building is dismally subpar. The Trinity Corporation may claim to have the most upscale rental space in town, but one look at the gold leopard granite floor paired with peach-painted walls shows that’s a downright fib.
The only guard on duty leans back in his chair and sucks down a Sonic Route 44 Coke like his life depends on it. I wave as I pass the security desk, wearing a megawatt smile and fully confident in the strength of my lavender-scented Lavanila deodorant—vegan, of course. Deputy Dawg gives me his usual perv stare before returning to the comic book balanced on his knee.
Centex Therapy, LPC occupies most of the first floor office space. A small bell tinkles when I open the frosted glass door. What decorum the overall building lacks, the waiting room has in spades. Brown leather chairs sit on a bamboo rug and pastel paintings from local artists brighten the walls. A tall grandfather clock in the corner softly chimes four times. This late on a Friday means the room is empty of other patients. Perfect.
Jane, the receptionist, fans herself with a copy of Country Living. “Cutting it awfully close, Gracie. Go on in.”
Dr. McDozzle gives me a pained smile as I enter the room.
“Good afternoon, Miss Mason. Have a seat.” For a head shrinker, he’s incredibly formal. And a non-Texan, who hates football and sweet tea. I haven’t learned much more about him in the last month, but that’s enough to get him tarred and feathered if word got out.
The leather recliner squeaks when I sit down. “Thanks for seeing me on a Friday, Doc.” I twirl a strand of newly highlighted platinum hair around my finger. It goes wonderful with my bubblegum pink manicure. “Mr. Anderson, Daddy’s new lawyer, is now insisting I have two sessions a month with you. Of course, Mama’s lawyer says once a month is just fine, seeing how I’m such a well-adjusted high school senior and all. Almost a senior, I guess, since school’s not started.”
Dr. McDozzle straightens his glasses. “Yes, well, your parents do seem to have quite the barrage of attorneys involved in their divorce. Have you worked on the homework I gave you during our last session?”
This is such a waste of time. My parents have spent the last five years embroiled in a divorce dirtier than a greased pig-wrestling contest. Both sides of the family have more money than sense, much to the delight of every lawyer in the tri-county area. Not that I want my parents to get back together. Anytime they’re within spitting distance of each other, the tension between them gives me a migraine. Besides, if they hadn’t split up, I never would’ve met Ben.
Ben’s the son of Daddy’s ex-girlfriend. Until four months ago, they all lived together in Daddy’s condo. Ben is a sophomore at the local college and is truly hot, in a geeky, stud muffin, save-the-world, kinda way. Crushing on my almost stepbrother might seem a bit sketchy, but it’s legal—I Googled it twice.
Which means it’s time to start step one in my Get Ben Plan.
I toss my hair over my shoulder before pulling out a pink glitter notebook from my Eiffel Tower-shaped mini-purse.
“You wanted me to write down my feelings about my parents’ shared custody thing. Honestly, I don’t understand why the lawyers are so panty twisted about me spending a week with Mama and the next with Daddy. It means I get double the wardrobe. Hello? What girl would say no to that? It’s way better than Heather’s situation. I told you about her last time, I think. The girl with the hideous frizzed-out curls but drives a cute BMW Z4 roadster? Anyway, her parents are insane.” I continue a steady stream of babble until Dr. McDozzle’s eyes glaze over.
There’s no clocks in the room, but Dr. McDozzle keeps checking his watch. I’m sure the poor man created a nice therapy plan for me, but I’ve completely derailed it. Mama always says a girl has many tools to choose from in her arsenal—perfectly curled hair, well-placed boobs, and endless chatter are my faves. Besides, Daddy’s been paying therapists a fortune for years to show the divorce court how concerned he is about me. Dr. McDozzle’s earning his car payment today.
I snap my notebook shut and sit up straight. “Thanks, Doc. I feel so much better. Maybe I should go to the reflection bench for a spell?”
He nearly trips over himself to hustle me out to the courtyard in the center of the building. The concrete patio surrounded by four walls radiates enough heat to grill a steak, not that I eat meat anymore. Ben’s a founding member of the Texas Animal Army Movement, which preaches a vegan lifestyle and the rescue of abused animals.
Dr. McDozzle wipes at the sweat running down his reddening face. “You have fifteen minutes until the doors are locked for the weekend. We’ll continue our, uh … conversation next time. Jane will email you with an appointment date.”
I sit down on the edge of the bench. My hot pink and black-checked miniskirt is mucho cute, but doesn’t offer my thighs much protection from blistering plastic. “Will do, Doc. Enjoy your holiday.”
He leaves with a quiet sigh. During our first session, I blathered for a solid forty minutes while barely taking a breath. Daddy says I’d make a natural politician. In desperation, Dr. McDozzle hit on the idea of the “reflection bench” out here. He’s not really a bad therapist, but I only chose him ‘cause his practice is in the Trinity Building.
My iPhone beeps a two-minute warning. I head inside. The lights appear off at Centex Therapy. I hotfoot it to the Ladies’ room across the hall. It’s not the most sanitary place to wait until the coast is clear, but I brought santi-wipes.
I scroll through my photo album to pass the time. Ben has an entire folder dedicated to him. When he and his mom first moved in with Daddy, I thought he was an obnoxious douche with his constant sermons about how humans are destroying the environment and enslaving animals.
After a few stormy months, I shut my trap and listened to him. Ben knows what he wants out of his life and is determined to get it. I’ve never met anyone so brave and determined.
So, I gave up meat, and threw out my makeup in favor of vegan-only skincare lines. Now, I can’t live without my fuchsia metallic lip tar from Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. I even got Barksie, my cream-colored, toy Yorkiedoodle, on an all-natural diet. I haven’t gone all cray cray and converted Barksie to a vegetarian, but it is my responsibility as a pet parent to ensure he gets the least processed food available.
Fate is a true bitch, though. Just as I realized Ben was The One, Daddy decided his mom wasn’t. Now, Ben and his mom live across the city in a tiny apartment and Daddy is dating Whitney, who really knows how to put the “w” into witch.
Ben’s gone through a lot of turmoil lately. Not only did he move to a new zip code, but also his girlfriend of two years dumped him. Sad for him, but perfect for me. I now have the chance to catch his attention.
My plan? Simple. To get information that really means something to Ben. He’s too soulful to be distracted by short skirts and tight shirts; trust me I’ve tried. No, I need to prove I’m a true partner in his cause—rescuing abused animals.
The mission: break into the office on the fifth floor of this building.
Labpartners, Inc. sounds like an innocent enough company. In truth, their office owns two huge warehouses that supply care products for lab animals. All I need to do is break in, riffle through their files until I find their mailing list. And then I can hand over a list of every animal broker they sell to. Ben will be so stoked. Not only will we know who’s raising the poor bunnies to be tortured, we’ll also know where their labs are.
Footsteps ring in the hall. I duck into the last stall with my heart hammering against my ribs. As expected, the security officer cracks open the door. “Anyone in here?” He waits a few seconds before turning off the light and shutting the door.
Too bad my bestie is on vacation, ‘cause no one’s better at creating a diversion than Abigail. And my usual wheelwoman, Seraphina, is also out of the country. Without my girls, I had no choice but to recon the building last Friday in my cheerleading outfit under the guise of seeking new sponsors for the school’s booster club. The Lanier Day Spa actually agreed. I need to remember to tell Coach Sanders. Mr. Smith, the accountant, offered me his cell phone number so we could discuss my college plans, as long as I don’t call on the weekend when his wife is home.
Five video games later and my phone buzzes a warning. It’s six o’clock, time to get started. Conventional wisdom might say a burglar needs to dress in black and wait until midnight to do the deed, but screw that. If I get caught, all I need is a few tears about getting locked in and a weak cell signal. Besides, who’s gonna believe I’m a thief in Michael Kors wedges and pearls?
Time for step two.
Most of the security cameras I’ve seen are focused around the elevators. I head toward the stairs next to my therapist’s office. None of the doors to the stairs have alarms, or at least the SWAT team has never jumped me for using them before. After climbing three flights, with two more to go, I’m seriously rethinking my choice of footwear. And what the heck is the smell in here? The Trinity Corporation really needs to change janitorial services.
At the fifth floor, I’m forced to take a breather for a few minutes. My heart is pounding and my knees shake. Thanks to my daily kickboxing routine, I know it’s not due to poor fitness. Once I leave this stairwell, I’m committed. Should I really do this? Then I think of Ben in his cute glasses and cargo shorts.
Hells yeah, I’m doing this.
I edge open the door, cringing at the squeak. The hall is dim with security lights mounted on the walls offering the only illumination. Four quick steps and I enter a dark breakroom. The Coke machine chooses this moment to kick in, startling me into swallowing my gum. Too gross.
The room has a well-used appearance to it. I scanned it last week under the pretense of a desperate PMS need for a Snickers. The soda and candy machines are crammed along one wall. Across from them is a small table holding an icky microwave splattered with the Ghost of TV Dinners Past and a coffee pot missing its carafe.
Businesses have come and gone in the building. This wasn’t always a breakroom, since the microwave table blocks a door leading into Labpartners, Inc. When the nice receptionist let me in last week, I spied the other side of this door. A potted palm tree tried to hide it.
I shove the table to the side. My knees are still shaking, but my hands are steady as I retrieve the hot pink lock picking kit I bought online for $12.99. It even came with a brochure, though it warned its customers not to use the product for criminal deeds. After watching a few online videos, I spent a week roaming around Mama’s house, practicing my skills. The front door gave me some fits at first, but I opened the cupboard in the hallway where she hides her erotic novels and European chocolates without a hitch.
Daddy gave me a faux diamond encrusted pocket light for Christmas three years ago. I balance it in my mouth, while I bend down to work on the door lock.
Footsteps sound in the hall. The flashlight tumbles from my mouth, and I freeze rabbit still. Ringing in my ears makes it hard to determine if the footsteps are coming toward me or moving away. Should I replace the table and bluff my way out or quickly open the door? Is it the security officer or some dimwitted, no-life office worker?
Damn it. Make a decision.
Opening the door, it is.
It’s a simple generic lock. I can do this. The footsteps stop and then start again. I balance the flashlight on the microwave table and aim it at the lock before inserting a tension wrench into the keyhole. I turn the wrench, then insert the pick, hoping I can rake the lock pins up. I try the handle. It doesn’t move. Freaking fantastic.
Sweat dots my forehead as I listen for footsteps. Someone’s close by, muttering something in a singsong fashion. Italian, maybe? I use a wider pick on the lock to try again, though a voice in my head loudly tells me to stop. The door still won’t open, and I want to throw the tension wrench across the room.
Why won’t it work? I can tell the pins in the lock are moving. It should freaking work. The Italian singing in the hall gets louder, more like chanting. Stomach acid burns a strip up my throat. I’m failing, and I don’t do failure.
I stare at my kit, unsure of which pick to use, before acquiescing defeat. My concentration is blown due to the idiot outside. Ben’s adulation will have to wait for another day. I edge my way to the door and peek outside. Some guy in a dark hoodie is kneeling and sprinkling something on the floor. If he’s the cleaning crew, no wonder this place is a mess.
His back is to me, giving me the opportunity to sneak across the hall to the stairway. I step outside and my shoe skids across chalky powder. I flail my arms, eyes going wide.
A bright blue flash blinds me and then there’s nothing.