"Life is the art of being well-deceived." -William Hazlitt
Chapter One: Two Trains and a Wizard
The average person tells four lies a day, and the most common one is, "I'm fine." I'm not average. And by that, I do not mean that I am a paragon of truth, someone whose lips speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No, that would be my friend Nate. I'm pretty much the exact opposite. What I mean to say is, I'm a liar. A big one. Lies fall from my lips as easily and frequently as fake moans from a porn star's. And those lies? Yeah, I live by those.
And it's all Nate's fault.
The first time I encountered Nate Hawkins, he gave me a concussion. See, we were in the same physics class, and we were doing one of those stupid math problems. You know, one of the ones where it goes something like, "One train leaves Topeka at 6:02 PM at a speed of 55 miles per hour, and a second train leaves Los Angeles at 7:13 PM at a speed of 42 miles per hour. At what time do the trains meet?" Except we also had to calculate in with how much force the trains would meet, and whether there was any hope of survival for the passengers. Okay, so the survival part I might have made up—liar, remember?
Anyway, my class was not a great fan of this problem, and we decided that we were going to convince our teacher of how utterly stupid it was in the best way possible: a practical demonstration. So two volunteers, namely Nate and I, got up in front of the class, and we ran at each other at slightly different speeds from opposite sides of the room. What we didn't anticipate was that Nate, a much larger and heavier "train" than I, would send me flying. And I mean flying. Like, my feet actually left the ground and I flew backwards to crack my head against the wall.
That was my first interaction with Nate. The first time I actually met him was when he visited me in the hospital, bearing flowers as a "sorry I cracked your skull open" gift. Of course, with those flowers he also brought a dinner invitation. So, within a week Nate had both given me a concussion and taken me on our first date.
We dated. Seriously dated. We were one of those "they're going to grow up and get married and have ridiculously adorable children and grow old together" couples. The problem with this was that Nate was a couple of years older than me. He was a senior when I was a sophomore (I happen to be very good a physics, hence my presence in his class). And when he graduated, he kind of dropped the bombshell that would shatter my life permanently.
He was breaking up with me.
I should have expected it. I mean, a lot of couples—hell, most couples—break up when one or both of the members head off to college. But I didn't see it coming. I mean, I really didn't see it coming. I'd thought we were going to be together forever. This breakup was kind of devastating. And he wasn't breaking up with me because he didn't want to try a long-distance relationship; nothing so simple as that. He broke up with me because our goals didn't match. What he meant by that was, he was going to go off to New York and become a hot shot lawyer and all I wanted was to settle down and have a family. This was not true. I actually kind of hate kids, meaning a family really wasn't anywhere on my plan board, especially not when I was sixteen. What was true was that Nate saw that I was likely to be stuck in Small Town, New Jersey for the rest of my life while he went on to bigger and better things.
I loved Nate. And I don't mean puppy-dog love, either. I mean real, fairytale, forever-and-a-day love. The Princess Bride kiss-to-end-all-kisses love. I had it bad. Really bad. So when he broke up with me, I took it…hard, to say the very least.
So, yeah, when I say I took it hard, I mean I was devastated. What was wrong with me? I mean, Nate is completely and utterly, uhm, perfect, so obviously the problem was with me, not him. And if I just fixed whatever the problem was, maybe he would take me back. This seemed like a pretty solid plan, actually. But there was a major problem, and that was that I didn't know what the problem was. I mean, I knew I had problems, but they weren't anything completely debilitating. It wasn't like I literally had skeletons in my closet or something like that. I was completely normal. And since I was completely normal and he had broken up with me anyway, maybe normal wasn't good enough.
So I embarked on a quest to be perfect. Except I'm a lazy person, so instead of developing a severe case of OCD or something like that, I just became a liar. And a liar I have been ever since. I lied my way into college, and into student loans to pay for it, and into grad school when it became apparent that a bachelor's degree is completely and utterly useless. I lied to everyone about everything. I lied to my parents about what I was doing in New York City and I lied about my reason for being there.
And then I ran into Nate again, and what had already been a problem escalated into a full-blown pathology.
Because Nate could not know.
When I ran into him, I was living in a tiny little hole-in-the-wall apartment with a mouse problem. Like, I had to tiptoe around mousetraps to get to the shower. That bad of a mouse problem. I spent as little time as possible there. Instead, I spent most of it at my school, which wasn't really a big deal, or at the courthouse. See, instead of trying to get a master's degree in English, which I suspected would be just as useless as the bachelor's one had proved itself to be, I had decided to get a higher degree in criminal psychology. This meant I spent a lot of time at the courthouse, watching cases and psychoanalyzing the defendants.
It occurs to me now that I might have chosen this path not so much because I was interested in psychology (I really wasn't) but because I knew Nate was a lawyer. And a damn good one, too. See, lawyer-ing kind of ran in Nate's family. His father was a lawyer, and so was his grandfather, and so on and so forth. It was just expected that Nate was going to be a lawyer, too, and so he'd gone off and gone to law school and had become a smashing lawyer, if I do say so myself. And I am not biased at all. Anyway, the meeting went down something like this.
It was an open trial, so there were a decent number of people in the courtroom. I was sitting in the back next to my best friend Gabe, aka Gabriel Samuels, the human lie detector. By this point in my life, I had started having really weird criteria for how I selected my friends. In the past few months, I'd generally selected them based on whether or not I thought they would help me bury a body. I was fairly confident Gabe would, and so he got to stay on the friend list and accompany me to all the meaningless occasions that made up my sorry excuse for a life.
It also helped that Gabe is a wizard. By that, I mean that he's exactly what I described him as before: a human lie detector. He can just look at a person, from a fairly respectable distance, and know if they were lying or not. I mean, he can't do this without fail—no wizard can. But only a quarter of one percent of the population can do it as well as Gabe can. And let me tell you, it's nice to have at least one person around who can always tell when I'm lying. Because it's gotten to the point that I lie pretty compulsively, and then just have to go along with whatever happened to fall out of my life. Around Gabe, though, I don't have to do this. He just looks at me when I talk, and goes, "You're lying," at which point the truth tends to come out and we just go along with our lives.
Anyway, Gabe and I were sitting in the back row of the courtroom at the end of the day's segment of the trial. People were already filing out, but Gabe was sitting patiently by, waiting for me to finish scribbling in my notebook so we could leave. We were a few of the last people in the courtroom. I let out a sigh of relief and put my pen away, shaking the cramps out of my writing hand and rolling my head on my neck to work out a crick, when a voice that was all-too-familiar said, "Jamie?"
I froze. He wasn't supposed to be here. I was always acutely aware of Nate's whereabouts, and I never went to cases he worked on, because I didn't want to risk running into him. I mean, I was still crazy about him, all these years later. Like, really crazy about him. I hadn't had a boyfriend since he'd broken up with me. A string of one night stands throughout college, sure—a girl has needs, after all—but no boyfriend. Nate had been the first and the only. I'd connected to him in a way I hadn't connected to anyone else before or since, and I hadn't been eager to let anyone else intrude on that. But still, I avoided his cases, because, well…I missed him. I didn't want to make a fool of myself mooning after him. But now, here he was, looking perfect as ever, staring down at me in his cursed three-piece suit while I was looking like a hot mess in a wrinkled blouse and pencil skirt with my hair falling out of its bun.
Gabe elbowed me sharply in the ribs, and I winced. However, the nudge served its purpose, that being alerting me to the fact that I was staring. "Oh," I said. How eloquent. "I mean, yeah, it's me. Hi, Nate. Fancy seeing you here. Do you, uhm…" …come here often? Do not say that, Jamie, do not!
"I'm working a case," he said, with that polished smile that women are genetically programmed to fall for. I practically melted. I probably would have if Gabe hadn't jammed his heel down on my toes.
"Ow! I mean, erm, that's great. I mean, it's not great. That you have to prosecute a case, I mean. Because that means there was a crime, right? Obviously. Uh." It was pathetic how easily he knocked me down from competent grad student to bumbling, stuttering schoolgirl. "Oh! Let me introduce to my friend!" Thank God for Gabe. He could say a few charming things and then the two of them could just chat about guy stuff while I slunk off into a corner to die. "Nate, this is my friend Gabe Samuels. Gabe, this is my friend Nate Hawkins. Nate and I grew up together, and he's a lawyer now, isn't that great?" Lower the cheer, Jamie. No need to sound so enthusiastic.
"Hey," Gabe said, standing and reaching over me to shake Nate's hand. "Nice to meet you, man. Jamie talks about you all the time."
Nate raised an eyebrow. "She does?"
"No, not really." Gabe grinned. "So, you're a lawyer. Working an interesting case?"
"Yeah, actually. The Dawson case."
My pen fell from fingers to clatter on the floor. I had forgotten. I mean, I had known Nate was prosecuting the Dawson case, but he was just part of a team, and I had forgotten he was on it. The case was against Peter Dawson, who was, quite frankly, one of the sickest people I had ever…not encountered. And I was glad I hadn't encountered him, because if I had, I would probably be dead. He'd kidnapped, raped, and murdered a string of girls in New York, torturing them in the process by forcing each to watch the downfall of the one before her. Only the last one had escaped alive, but she wouldn't be testifying because she was currently in a coma that she probably wasn't going to wake up from.
The case had been going on for months, and I had been avoiding it like the plague both because I didn't want to even look at a psycho like Peter Dawson (sad, being as I was studying criminal psychology, but I was hoping I might be able to work my way up to his level of sadism) and because I had known Nate was working the case.
"The Dawson case isn't being tried today," I said, the words falling out of my mouth before I could really think of them. It was true—it wasn't on the schedule. I had looked.
"It got moved due to some scheduling conflicts with the defense team," Nate said. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Taking notes, obviously," Gabe said. "She's studying criminal psychology. Didn't you know, being as you two are so close and all?"
"We aren't that close," I said automatically.
"You're studying criminal psych?" Nate asked, looking at me with a peculiar expression on his face. "Why?"
"I don't know." I shrugged. "It seemed more interesting than anything else." I hurriedly scooped my pen off the floor, shoved it and my notebook into my bag, and stood. "Sorry, but we're kind of in a hurry," I said, grabbing Gabe's arm and pulling him out of the row of seats after me, pushing past Nate. "So if you'll just excuse us…"
"Hey, Jamie, wait a second!"
And because it was Nate, I did. I couldn't resist. Just the sound of him saying my voice made my insides go all warm and melty.
"We should catch up sometime," he said. He reached into a pocket and pulled out, of all things, a business card. He unclipped a pen from his breast pocket and scribbled something on the back. "Here's my cell number. Shoot me a text so I have your digits, okay? We'll get dinner or something." And he smiled.
My knees actually went weak, and I was glad I was already holding onto Gabe, or I might have actually fallen over on the courtroom floor. Which would not have been the picture of grace and elegance I was going for. Not that I had pulled such a thing off already, but still. "Yeah," I said, reaching out and taking the business card. The tips of our fingers brushed—just the tips, and just barely a touch, but it was enough to send an electric jolt through me. "Yeah, that sounds great."
And then I let Gabe pull me from the courtroom before I made an even bigger fool of myself. But it was too late—the damage had been done. Not making a fool of myself, though I had certainly done that. But the feelings I'd had for Nate in high school had come back, full force, from just those few brief minutes. He was back in my life—and my downfall had begun.