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  “Schwarz is losing it,” Eric whispered. Thanks to his improvements, the mics were so sensitive that they picked up his every word. “Let’s speed this up.”

  “Code names only,” Max reminded him. “We don’t know who might be monitoring this frequency. And whose idea was it to stick Grunt on the roof?”

  “Mine. And it was a good one.” Eric flipped channels back to Schwarz, hoping he was right. “You still with us up there?”

  “Susie Scott, Sally Sarell. Miss April, Linda Gamble. Ginger Young on the bed. Delores Wells on the beach, Teddi Smith, Miss—”

  “Schwarz!”

  “Ready for Phase Three.” The voice was pinched and nasal, with a hint of a whine. As usual. “Can you, um, please go faster?”

  “We’re working on it.”

  And back to Max.

  “Last load,” Max confirmed. “Hoist it up, Chuckles, and I’ll meet you and Grunt on the roof in five.”

  Eric began unhooking the metal grips and threading the wires back through, winding them in a tight coil. His cheeks burned in the wind. Unlike Max, he wore neither all black nor a mask for their missions, trusting the darkness to protect him—and, failing that, trusting the intruder alert sensors, which could never fail, because he had designed them himself. Max dressed for drama; Schwarz dressed however Max told him to. But Eric dressed for efficiency, flexibility, comfort, and speed. A gray T-shirt inside out, its faded message pressed to his skin: IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION. His lucky socks, sneakers, Red Sox cap, and cargo pants—stuffed with lockpick, RF jammer, micro-scanner set to the police frequency, pliers, extra wire coils, a house key. He carried no ID. Just in case. If he missed something on the scanner, if their detectors failed, and a car pulled into the lot without advance warning, if someone, somewhere, heard something, and a cop appeared, there was always the all-purpose backup plan.

  Ditch the equipment.

  Forget the mission.

  Run.

  “Explain to me again why I have to be Chuckles and you get to be Cobra Commander?” Eric asked Max, hooking the line to his belt and giving it two quick tugs. There was a grinding sound, and then the ground fell away beneath him as the mechanism hoisted him up. He grazed his fingers against the brick facade; it scraped and tickled as the wires hauled him up to the roof.

  It was nothing like flying.

  “Because you always make me laugh,” Max replied in a syrupy sweet voice. “At least, your face does.”

  “You’re hilarious.”

  “Chuckles is a noble leader of covert operations for the G.I. Joe team,” Max said. “You should be proud.”

  Eric snickered. “And you should stop playing with dolls.”

  “They’re not—”

  There was a pause. Eric hoped he wouldn’t have to hear the lecture again, the one about eBay and nostalgia items and untapped gold mines. The one that comprehensively—just not convincingly—explained why Max had a pristine collection of Pokémon Beanie Babies on his top closet shelf.

  “Never mind. Suffice it to say, that’s why you don’t get to pick your own code name,” Max said. “You don’t have the proper respect. Consider this your punishment. Chuckles.”

  Eric scrambled over the edge and, with a thin sigh, planted his feet on the rooftop. Schwarz had already hurried over to the opposite edge, to get started on Phase Three. “So what’d Schwarz do to deserve Grunt?” Eric whispered.

  “That’s not a punishment. That’s a description. Ever catch him with one of those vintage Playboys he loves so much?”

  Eric made an exaggerated retching noise and flicked off the sound. Now if only, he thought, staring at Schwarz and wincing as he pictured what he desperately didn’t want to picture, he could shut off his brain.

  Max was the one who finally explained it to me.

  “Hacks. Not pranks. Never pranks. Pranks are for idiots.” He had his back to me. I’d interrupted him in pursuit of his other passion, hawking eighties nostalgia crap on eBay. That afternoon he was downloading photos of his latest acquisitions, a full collection of My Little Ponies, complete with Show Stable and Dream Castle. He’d pieced it together for a total of twenty-seven dollars, and planned to resell it for at least three hundred. Just another day at the computer for Max, who believed that if you didn’t clear at least a five hundred percent profit on any given transaction, you just weren’t trying.

  “Pranks are for amateurs. Live-action jokes with a total lack of sophistication and purpose. Not to mention sobriety.” Warming to the lecture, he spun around to face me, skidding across the hardwood floor toward the couch. It was crimson-colored, like everything else in the Kim family’s house. I sprawled across it, my feet up on the side, shoes off, to keep Dr. Kim from having a heart attack on discovering I had scuffed his fine Italian leather. Max warned me that my socks would get Maxwell Sr.’s forehead vein pumping just as quickly.

  They were a deep, rich, dark, true blue. A crayon blue. An M&M’s blue.

  A Yale blue.

  So I took my socks off too.

  “Prankers have no vision,” Max complained. “Saran Wrap on the toilet, cows in the lobby, dry ice in the pool, chickens in the gym… .” He rolled his eyes. “So what? What’s the point? Gives us all a bad name. Even a good prank—even the best prank—is just funny. And then that’s it. Over. Forgotten. But a hack … you’re playing in a different league. Higher profile. Higher stakes. Higher calling.” His eyes glowed. I’d seen the look before, but only when he was talking about money. Always when he was talking about money.

  “TP cubed,” he said. “Target, planning, precision, and purpose.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “That’s what we have, and they don’t. Worthy targets, long-term planning, technically sophisticated and precise execution—and a noble purpose. You want to make a statement, stand up for the right side. You want to take someone down who really deserves it.”

  “And you want to be funny,” I added.

  He glared at me like I’d just set fire to his My Little Ponies. “Funny’s beside the point. In 1961, the Cal Tech Fiendish Fourteen got sick of the annual invasion of Pasadena by football-crazed morons. So they hacked the Rose Bowl halftime flip-card show. They fooled two thousand University of Washington students into flipping over cards that combined to spell out CALTECH. There were more than ninety thousand people in that stadium. Millions more watching live on TV. You think they were going for funny?” His face twisted on the word. “It wasn’t about making people laugh. It was about achieving greatness.”

  “Where’s the higher purpose in screwing up a halftime show?”

  Max sighed, then turned back to his computer. “Forget it. Maybe it’s a guy thing.”

  I glanced toward the stack of My Little Ponies.

  He was lucky I didn’t have a match.

  It took longer than expected, but by two a.m., Phase Three was completed.

  Max stepped back, spread his arms wide, and gave the rooftop assemblage a nod of approval. “A masterpiece, boys. We’ve doneit again.”

  Five rows of small desks and chairs faced an imposing, kitchen table–size desk and padded black office chair. Behind it stood one blackboard, complete with wooden pointer and blue chalk. Corny motivational posters hung from invisible walls—rows of fishing line strung at eye level. And, hanging above them, the pièce de résistance: one oversize, battery-powered clock, so that when Dr. Richard Ambruster, the desperate-for-retirement history teacher and current tenant of the now empty room 131, eventually found his classroom, precisely re-created on the Wadsworth High roof, he would be able to calculate his tardiness down to the second.

  In his twenty-two years of teaching high school, Richard Ambruster had found only one thing in which to take any joy: giving detentions. Speak out of turn? Detention. Request an extension? Detention. Miss a homework? Detention. Refer to him as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.”? Two detentions.

  But the crown jewel in his collection of detention-worthy offenses was tar
diness. Thirty minutes or thirty seconds late, it didn’t matter. Excuses, even doctor-certified ones, carried no weight with him. “My time is valuable,” he would tell the unlucky latecomer in his haughty Boston Brahman accent. “And your time, thus, is mine.” Cue the pink slip.

  Two days before, a bewildered freshman, still learning her way around the hallowed labyrinthine halls, had foolishly asked an upperclassman for directions to room 131. She’d ended up in the second-floor boys’ bathroom. Ten minutes later she’d slipped into history class, face red, lower lip trembling, sweat stains spreading under either arm. She hadn’t gotten two words out before Ambruster had ripped into her, threatening to throw her out of his room—out of the school—for her blatant disregard for him, his class, his time, his wisdom, and the strictures of civil society. As she burst into tears, he shoved the pink slip in her face and turned away.

  And for this, Eric had decided, Dr. Evil needed to pay.

  The freshman was blond, with an Angelina Jolie pout … and eyes that seemed to promise misty gratitude—so Max was in.

  Schwarz didn’t get a vote, and didn’t need one. He just came along for the ride.

  In the morning, Ambruster’s howl of rage would echo through the halls of Wadsworth High School, and Eric would allow himself a small, proud smile, even though no one would ever discover the truth about who was responsible. In the morning, Max would try to scoop up his willing freshman and claim his reward, only to get shot down yet again. In the morning, Schwarz would wake up in his Harvard dorm room, which, two weeks into freshman year, still felt like a strange, half-empty cell, and wish it was still the middle of the night and he was still up on the roof with his best friends. Because that was the moment that counted. Not the morning after, not the consequences, not the motives, but the act itself. The challenge. The hack.

  The mission: accomplished.

  So what was I doing while they were scaling walls and freezing their asses off for the sake of truth, justice, and bleached-blond high school freshmen?

  I was raising my hand, I was doing my homework, I was bulking up my résumé, I was conjugating French verbs, chairing yearbook meetings, poring through Princeton Review prep books, planning bake sales, tutoring the underprivileged, memorizing WWII battlefields and laws of derivation and integration, exceeding expectations, sucking up, boiling the midnight oil, rubbing my brown nose against the grindstone. I was following the rules.

  As a matter of policy, I did everything I was supposed to do. And as far as I was concerned, I was supposed to be valedictorian.

  Except I wasn’t.

  At least, not according to the Southern Cambridge School District. Not when Katie Gibson’s GPA was .09 higher than mine by day one of senior year. All because in ninth grade, when the rest of us were forced to take art—non-honors, non-AP, non-weighted, a cannonball around the ankle of my GPA—Katie’s parents wrote a note claiming she was allergic to acrylic paint.

  I got an A in art.

  Katie got study hall.

  My parents threatened to sue.

  And, only once, on the way into the cafeteria, because I couldn’t stop myself:

  Me: “Is it even possible to be allergic to acrylic paint?”

  Katie: “Is it even possible for you to mind your own business?”

  Me: “Look, I’m not saying you lied, but …”

  Katie: “And I’m not saying you’re a bitch, but …”

  Me: “What’s your problem?”

  Katie: [Walks away]

  By the second week of senior year, the truth had sunk in. I wasn’t going to be the Wadsworth High valedictorian. Salutatorian, sure. Number two. Still gets to give a speech at graduation. Still gets a special seat and an extra tassel. Probably even a certificate.

  But still number two. Which is just a prettier way of saying not number one. Not a winner.

  Then, in late November, something, somewhere beeped. A red flag on Katie’s record, an asterisk next to the entry for her tenth-grade health class, indicating a requirement left unfulfilled, a credit gone missing. She could make up the class, cleanse her record, still graduate—but not in time for the official valedictorian selection. She was out.

  I was in.

  The rumor went around that I’d given the vice principal a blow job.

  Eric held out his hand, palm facing up. “Give it.”

  “What?” Max’s beatific smile didn’t come equipped with a golden halo, but it was implied.

  “Whatever you’ve got in your pocket,” Eric said. “Whatever you took out of Ambruster’s desk.”

  “What makes you think I—”

  “Excuse me?” Schwarz said, his voice quaking. “Can we get down off the roof now?”

  “You can go,” Eric said. “But he’s not leaving until he puts it back.”

  Schwarz stayed.

  Max rolled his eyes. “You’re crazy.”

  “You’re predictable.”

  “Clock’s ticking,” Max said, tapping his watch. “If the guard shows up after all and catches us here …”

  “It’d be a shame. But I’m not leaving until you put it back.” Eric stepped in front of the elaborate pulley system they’d rigged to lower themselves to the ground. “And you’re not either.”

  “You wouldn’t risk it.”

  “Try me.”

  Schwarz’s skittery breathing turned into a wheeze. “I am sorry to interrupt, but I really do not think we should—”

  “Schwarz!” they snapped in chorus. He shut up.

  Max stared at Eric. Eric stared back.

  And after a long minute of silence, Max broke.

  “Fine.” It wasn’t a word so much as a full-body sigh, his entire body shivering with disgruntled surrender. He pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of his pocket.

  “Next week’s test questions?” Eric guessed.

  Max grunted. “And the password to his grading database. You know how much I could make off this?”

  “Do I care?”

  Max sighed again and began folding and unfolding the sheet of paper. “So how’d you know?”

  “I know you,” Eric said.

  “And just this once, couldn’t we …”

  Eric shook his head. “Put it back where you got it.”

  “You’re a sick, sick man, Eric,” Max said. “You want to know why?”

  “Let me think … no.”

  “It’s this moralistic right/wrong bullshit. It’s like you’re infected. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Thou shalt not steal the test answers. Thou shalt not sell thine term papers and make a shitload. Thou shalt not do anything. It’s a freaking disease.”

  Eric had heard the speech before, and he finally had his comeback ready. “Oh yeah? I hope it’s not an STD, or I might have given it to your mother last night.”

  Schwarz snorted back a laugh, and Max, groaning, shook his head in disgust. “First of all, I think the term you’re looking for is yo mama,” he said. “Second of all …” He pulled out his cell phone and pretended to take a call. “It’s Comedy Central. They say don’t quit your day job.”

  “Put the test answers back, Max.”

  Max glared at Eric, but slid the paper back into Ambruster’s desk. “If you’d just get over it, we’d be rich by now.”

  “If I didn’t say no once in a while, we’d be in prison by now.”

  “Excuse me?” Schwarz began again, timidly.

  Once again, the answer came back angry and in unison. “What?”

  Schwarz spread his arms to encompass their masterpiece, the orderly silhouettes of desk after desk, the inspirational posters blowing in the wind. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

  It was.

  Three proud smiles. Three quiet sighs. And one silent look exchanged among them, confirming that they all agreed: Whatever the risk, whatever their motives, whatever the consequences, this moment was worth it.

  “Now can we please get off the roof?” Schwarz led the way down, holding his breath until his feet brus
hed grass. And a moment later, the three of them disappeared into the night.

  It was their final dry run, their final game in the minor leagues. Max was the only one who knew it, because Max already had the plan crawling through his mind, the idea he couldn’t let go. He hadn’t said anything yet, but he would, soon—because up on that roof, he decided it was time. The hack on Dr. Evil had gone so effortlessly, with almost a hint of boredom. It was child’s play, and Max was getting tired of toys.

  He knew the idea was worthy.

  He knew the plan was ready—and so were they.

  I wasn’t there, of course. But I’ve pieced it together, tried to sift the truth from the lies, eliminate the contradictions. And I’ve tried to be a faithful reporter of the facts, even the ones that don’t make me look very good.

  Maybe even especially those.

  The three of them agreed not to broadcast what they’d done. But much as I know now, close as I’ve gotten to the center of things, I’m still not one of them, not really. And that means that I never agreed to anything. I’m not bound. I can do what I want—and I want to speak.