Young, Gifted and Dead

When her room-mate is found face down in the school lake, Alyssa is sure this ‘suicide’ isn’t quite as it seems. A jolted memory pushes Alyssa toward a sinister secret. Soon she’s in too deep, and she's being watched . . .
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1. Chapter One

Nihil sed optimus.

It’s Latin for ‘nothing but the best’. OK, so quoting a dead language might not seem like a cool way to begin, but it’s our school motto and I thought you should know that right from the start.

Anyway, the truth is you can’t get through the ancient oak doors of St Jude’s Academy unless you have a brain the size of a planet and your parents appear five years running in the Sunday Times Rich List.

Nihil sed optimus, like I said.

My brain’s a pea compared with my gifted, hyper- intelligent, living-in-a-bubble fellow students. Oh, and I don’t have rich parents either, so I have no clue why they ever let me in. The only thing that’s special about me is that I have perfect recall: a photographic memory. It’s useful for passing exams, but it’s not always a blessing – sometimes I have no control over what I remember and the things I’d rather forget – my memory catapults back to a time or a place and it’s like living it all over again. And when you see something so awful you want to bury it deep in your mind and never think about it ever again a memory like mine is a cruel thing to have.

Here’s the thing about this school – you can wear the uniform, you can board in a Jacobean mansion in rolling Cotswold countryside with all the protection and privilege in the world, but you can still end up on a mortuary slab four weeks before Christmas, hours after they’ve dragged your body from the lake.

The body I’m talking about belonged to Lily Earle. She was my roommate and the very first student I met here at St Jude’s. She was happy on that first day of term, and that’s how I most like to remember her.

‘Hey, I’m Lily,’ she called across the quad as I lifted suitcases out of the boot of Aunt Olivia’s car. ‘You must be the new girl, Alyssa.’

I nodded and blushed. This girl is mega confident. She’s a breath of fresh air, no hang-ups to drag her down.

Boy was I wrong.

I mean Lily dazzled right from the get-go. Her smile was big and broad, her voice low with a husky edge. On that first day her tousled rock-chick hair and black eyeliner set her aside from the uniformed crowd, not to mention the breathtakingly short skirt and the legs that went on forever. I remember every detail.

‘You want to meet some of the gang?’ she offered. I had no chance to refuse because Lily was as irrepressible as a can of shaken-up Coke – open, hiss and stand back. ‘Luke, come over here. Luke Pearson – Alyssa . . . ? Sorry, I forgot your last name.’

‘Stephens.’

‘Alyssa Stephens. Luke’s a maths genius – yuck! And would you believe – his dad drove Formula One racing cars.’

I said hi to a kid who made it clear he couldn’t have cared less about meeting little newbie me.

‘Gotta go,’ he muttered, hitching his bag further on to his shoulder and staring off into the middle distance.

Lily laughed at him. ‘Gotta go where? Paige isn’t here yet.’

‘Who says I’m looking for Paige?’

‘Yeah, but you are,’ Lily insisted before she dragged me off to meet Zara and Harry.

‘Don’t let the long blonde locks fool you,’ was all Lily said about Zara Maxwell Stirling, who did at least manage a smile when introduced. ‘She understands quantum physics.’

‘Hey,’ Zara said with a backwards swish of the shampoo- ad hair and a half-interested glance in my direction.

‘Whereas with Harry what you see is pretty much what you get,’ Lily explained.

What I saw was a tall, thickset, muscular guy who could have stepped straight off the rugby field. His hair was short and blond, and he’d probably had his nose flattened in pursuit of an odd-shaped oval ball. I expected him to grunt a greeting and wasn’t disappointed.

‘You’re new,’ he said. Not a question but a blindingly obvious statement.

‘Thanks, Captain Obvious!’ Lily grinned, then dragged me on across the quad, pointing out other students and teachers: ‘Jack Hooper – we call him Hooper. He’s kind of shy. That’s Guy Simons – head of sport, yuck!’

‘Sport’s not your thing?’ I ventured.

‘There’s only one kind of physical activity that I enjoy!’ she answered with innuendo so heavy that it made me laugh out loud.

‘Exactly!’ she giggled. ‘So tell me, Alyssa – have you ever been in lurve?’

‘Whoa!’ What could I say to this sudden change of gear except a flat ‘no’?

‘It’s amazing – just you wait!’ she sighed.

From which I gathered she was happy. She had someone she loved and who loved her – lucky girl.

I’d been at St Jude’s for less than a term when, through our first-storey, stone-mullioned window, Paige and I watched them pull Lily Earle’s corpse from the freezing water. Even from a distance of two hundred metres I recognized Lily’s long dark hair and the black leather jacket she’d been wearing when we said goodbye.

‘Are you sure it’s her?’ Paige had asked, wanting it not to be true.

‘It’s her.’

Like I said, I have to force my mind back to the last time I saw Lily alive in late November– it never goes there willingly. But I make myself because maybe I’ll remember something else that will give me a clue. I’m looking for something that happened during those lost four days between her scramble to pack her bag before she dashed from the dorm and the day they found her body.

‘So why the big rush – did your family business go belly-up?’ Paige asked. We quizzed Lily while she frantically stuffed clothes into an overnight bag. Lily did everything at breakneck speed – talking, packing, texting her brother to say she was on her way. That’s how she was, multitasking, hurtling through life until she hit the final obstacle.

‘No.’

‘Does your dad want to make you the youngest ever MD of the digital media section of his multinational news corporation?’ I asked.

‘Give me a break, Alyssa,’ Lily said, stuffing frayed jeans and her favourite silver sequinned top into an overnight bag.

‘Sorry, but we’re only trying to find out why you’re freaking out.’

No reply.

End of flashback.

So it’s not that I didn’t care that Lily was leaving St Jude’s before the end of term and I didn’t know where she was going or for how long. But I pictured her on a train heading for Paddington station, not tangled in pond weed and gasping her last breath within sight of my bedroom window.

I mean, how do you not feel sick when you think of that? How do you not have nightmares?

After Lily left that day, Paige and I immediately felt the quietness of our room without her and her rock-chick music constantly blasting out. The painting she’d been working on was propped on its easel, stinking the place out with the smell of turpentine and oils. It was her usual riot of reds, yellows and oranges, a happy abstract mess. Tubes of paint without their tops lay squidged out of shape on her desk; her brushes stood in a jar.

Weird – Lily left a trail of destruction wherever she went (paint-smeared jeans strewn over the bed, knickers and bras under it, phone charger always flung into some dark corner and lost), but boy did she take good care of those sable brushes.

Paige stinks in a different way – of horses and horse manure, hoof oil and liniment. But people don’t notice their own smells, I guess.

I go the other way – I spray and spritz every personal surface, nook and cranny, maybe to an OCD extent. I just don’t want to walk into a room and see Harry or Zara or Jack’s nose start to scrunch. If I’m honest, especially not Jack’s.

You’re going to think I’m totally heartless for thinking about a boy at a time like this, but my stupid memory is kind of inappropriate sometimes. So let’s pause the action again, press Rewind back to Day 1 then zoom in on Jack Cavendish and my first sight of him.

I guess it’s the eyes – clear honey brown, heavy lidded with dark, straight brows. Or maybe the bod – six foot three with tennis players’ biceps, triceps, six pack and thighs. And you know those sporty little muscles just above the knee? Every time I see Jack in shorts and tennis shoes I can’t take my eyes off them. I’m weird that way, but only with Jack – I should make that clear.

And need I say he’s also exceptionally intelligent, even for St Jude’s? He does things with numbers that a maths PhD student can’t do, and this is according to our Oxford graduate head of department, who’s taken on hundreds of gifted students and seen them through their baccalaureate. She says that even she is amazed by Jack’s genius.

You’d have to hate him if he wasn’t also laid back, gregarious and above all funny. Killer combination.

And the second Lily had stopped dragging me around and introducing me to the St Jude’s gang I noticed him. There in the main quadrangle where families were still dropping off their sons and daughters, and porters were carrying luggage through narrow arched doorways, up stone staircases along low corridors to students’ living quarters, I saw this vision step out of his dad’s red Maserati Gran Cabrio. See – every detail is imprinted in my brain.

There was a glow about Jack as he stood in a shaft of sunlight, shaking his father’s hand and walking away. He moved slowly and gracefully into the shadow cast by the dorm’s weathered stone walls, creating the effect of him walking on water.

‘Alyssa?’ a voice said, and it took me a while to realize it was my Aunt Olivia trying to catch my attention. ‘I have to leave now if I want to make my meeting in London.’

‘Cool,’ I said.

‘You’re sure you can manage to find your room without my help? According to the details the school sent us, it’s room twenty-seven.’

I’d managed trickier situations, starting at a very young age, so I nodded.

‘Then I’ll say goodbye.’ Aunt Olivia, bless her undemonstrative heart, was ready to deposit me in the quad like a parcel neatly tied up and delivered. I had my matching M&S cases at my feet, my whole future ahead of me. Her task was complete.

Quick job description. Aunt Olivia is my closest living relative since my parents died in a plane crash when I was three years old. She’s my mother’s older sister, childless and career focused, named in the will as my guardian in the event of Mum and Dad’s early death – you have to wonder if maybe a spooky premonition came into play here.

To tell you the truth, there wasn’t much family money and, anyway, it’s held in trust until I reach twenty-one.

My aunt obviously loved my mother, but she doesn’t love me. Couldn’t, actually, and this is because I remind her too much of the sister she’s lost – the same long, flame-red hair and pale skin, the green eyes.

I know this mostly from family photos, since even my miraculous power of recall doesn’t go back into babyhood and to actual, living memories of my flame-haired mother. No, what I do remember is the endless procession of nannies (Helens and Joannes and Brigittes) employed to allow my aunt to pursue her career. I lived in a big house without siblings, where there were birthday visits to the ballet, and Christmases minus any attempt to con me into believing that Santa Claus did exist. Which is how come I grew up the way I did – feeling like the odd one out, a serious, literal- minded kid with not much in her life to laugh about.

Aunt Olivia, to give her credit, was the one who’d done her research and found out I could sit a scholarship exam for St Jude’s. ‘It turns out you’re an exceptional pupil,’ she’d said in a who’d-have-thought-it way, at the same time digesting my clutch of ten A*s at GCSE. ‘So we need to find you a sixth-form college where you won’t stick out like a sore thumb.’

That’s me – all my life, a sore thumb. Thanks, Aunty Ol.

‘Bye,’ I said on the day she deposited me in the quad. No backward glances, no kisses, no regrets on either side.

I was still thinking about Jack Cavendish and the way he seemed to glow.

‘Alyssa?’ A girl with fair, wavy hair broke my bubble. She rushed up behind me on the narrow stone staircase leading to Room 27, grabbed one of my suitcases and bumped it unceremoniously up the steps. ‘I’m Paige Kelly. We’re roommates.’

Roommate number one – Lily Earle – hyper, artistic and in love. Roommate number two – Paige Kelly – horse-mad and easily surpassing me in the sarcasm stakes, as you’ll see.

Fast forward through one week of being the shy newbie, getting used to my ‘exceptionally gifted’ fellow students, when Jack Cavendish ran up in full tennis gear and talked to me. Miracle.

‘You’re Alyssa Stephens – right?’

I nodded, glanced down and caught sight of those little knee muscles that I mentioned earlier. Quads. Quadriceps femoris – ‘four-headed muscle forming a large, fleshy mass which covers the front and sides of the femur’. I looked it up on Wikipedia.

‘You’re rooming with Paige and Lily?’

Another nod and a tragic sense that my pale cheeks had turned the colour of boiled lobster and my tongue was suddenly three times too big for my mouth. Open it to speak and the uncontrollable organ would slobber out over my bottom lip like some ancient, panting bulldog.

‘Can you give Paige a message from Luke?’ Jack asked, then took one look at my broiled cheeks and crazed attempt to keep on breathing, and quickly changed his mind. ‘Hey, on second thoughts I’ll pass it on myself. Any idea where she is?’

‘Stables,’ I mumbled, only it came out ‘stubbullz’ or ‘stblz’ with a kind of horsey cough hanging off the end. I mean, I totally mangled the vowels and came out with a sound that didn’t in any way resemble human speech.

Jack frowned – a tiny crease appeared between those beautiful eyebrows. ‘Oh yeah, Paige is inseparable from that horse. I should’ve known where to look.’

Idiot. You’d never think that my great-aunt, Lady Caroline Stephens, was a code breaker at Bletchley Park (she had the photographic memory thing going on too). With her attention to detail, she’d proved herself to be one of the best female brains of the Second World War. Or that my great-great-grandmother wrote seminal feminist pamphlets and went to prison with the Pankhursts. I come from a long line of super-intelligent women, for Christ’s sakes.

‘But anyway,’ Jack continued, ‘there’s something else I want to ask you.’

‘Fire away,’ I mumbled. From coughing horse to a fair imitation of Her Majesty the Queen in a nano second. Fire away, yah. Shoot me right between the eyes like a sick horse; put me out of my misery and make it quick.

Jack grinned. (Whoa, that grin!) ‘It’s nothing bad. At least, I hope not.’

‘Oh.’ Gulp. How much worse could I be handling this, my first conversation with Jack Cavendish? I say ‘conversation’, but you have to have two participants to hold one of those, and so far my contribution was nil.

‘You can say no if you like. I promise not to fall apart.’

‘No to what?’ God, my blushes had spread through my entire body, and I was leaking from every pore.

‘A kid from the local comp is holding a party in the village this Saturday.’

‘He is?’


‘We’d need special passes.’


‘We would?’


‘Yeah, Cinders. Otherwise we’d have to be back before the clock strikes twelve.’


‘What are you saying?’ The ‘we’ was confusing me, plus the chimes of midnight reference. I clearly wasn’t following Jack’s train of thought.

Significant pause on his part, then, ‘Come to the party with me?’

My mouth fell open. Literally. Major slobbery-dog moment. ‘With you?’ I echoed.

‘Why not? No, listen, forget it. Harry Embsay probably already asked you and you said yes.’ Jack was hanging his head, turning away, jogging across the quad towards the archway that led to the stable block.

‘He didn’t, I didn’t!’ I called after him. I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, ran a few steps to catch up. ‘And yes, I’ll come. I’d like to. That’s so cool. Thanks for asking me. Wow!’

‘Jack?’ Lily did the jaw-drop thing, just like me. ‘Jack Cavendish asked you to Tom’s party?’

‘He did.’


‘You’re sure it wasn’t Jack Hooper?’


‘I’m sure.’


‘Jack Hooper’s the one with googly eyes and the big Adam’s apple. He’s a nice guy, but Jack Cavendish is sex on legs.’

‘I know.’

‘Wow!’ Lily seemed impressed. She sat cross-legged on her bed with her hair twisted up and piled on top of her head, surrounded by debris – empty paint tubes, sweet wrappers, broken Kindle. ‘Until Luke came along, Paige fancied Jack Cavendish forever – all through Years Nine to Eleven when we were in main school. In fact, she admits to creepily stalking him, don’t you, Paige?’

‘I wasn’t the only one.’ Busy polishing something to do with Mistral, her equine Olympic hopeful, Paige sat at the window with her back stubbornly turned.

‘Honest to God, she did,’ Lily insisted. ‘Any time Paige wasn’t jumping cross-country fences or doing dressage, whatever the hell that is, she was sneaking down the boys’ corridor and listening at Jack’s door or watching him out on the tennis courts with her binoculars trained on his butt...’

‘Bollocks,’ Paige muttered through clenched teeth.

‘Oh, sorry – not his butt but his bollocks,’ Lily laughed. ‘Alyssa, believe me – if you steal Jack from her, she’ll never speak to you again.’

‘Look who’s talking,’ Paige remarked without elaborating.

At this stage – seven days into my first term at St Jude’s – Paige didn’t speak to me much anyway, not once she’d realized that I didn’t know a horse’s fetlock from its withers. She’d made it crystal clear that non-horsey people were low life, ranked alongside plankton.

‘I didn’t know I was stealing him from anyone,’ I pointed out.

‘You’re not,’ Paige cut in, expertly applying the metal polish. ‘Not from me, at least. Actually I’m going to Tom’s party with Luke. You know – Luke Pearson, son of the Formula One racing supremo and big-time property developer.’ More polish and a whole lot of rubbing. Then she attached pieces of bit to bridle, fastened buckles and slung the whole thing over her shoulder. ‘Who are you going to the party with, Lily?’ she asked pointedly as she strode out of the room.

Lily reacted as if she’d been slapped in the face.

‘You OK?’ I checked. I think now of how vulnerable she was – up one minute and down, down, down the next – the type of car-crash personality you quickly learn to look out for. I remember the startled hurt in her eyes and how I wanted to smooth it away and make everything all right.

She nodded then pasted on a fake smile.

‘So you’ll be going to the party with your special guy – the one you mentioned the first time we talked?’

Lily shook her head. ‘No. Actually, Paige was referring to the fact that my beloved boyfriend just dumped me,’ she confessed quietly. ‘Anyway, I guess I deserve whatever she throws my way.’ Then she was up off the bed and playing loud music, preparing her brushes, squeezing paint, mixing colours while I found Jack C on Facebook.

‘What exactly are you looking for?’ Lily asked, leaving her canvas to glance over my shoulder and managing to dribble red acrylic on to my white top. ‘Do you want to know how many girls he’s slept with? Whether his current status is single, and, if so, how the hell that happened, even for a nanosecond?’

‘Why he even asked me to the party in the first place,’ I added, rubbing at the paint with my fingertips and making even more of a mess, plus revealing to Lily the fact that in the sphere of boys and relationships my self-confidence is zero.

Her jaw dropped again and more paint dribbled. ‘You’re not serious?’

‘Yes, I’m serious.’

With her free hand, Lily marched me to a mirror and made me stare into it. ‘That’s why,’ she told me with her wide, beautiful grin.

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