Rosebush by Michele Jaffe a dark and thrilling almost-murder mystery which is absolutely packed with intrigue – it'll keep you guessing right until the end!
Take Mean Girls, stir in a bit of Film Noir, and add a dash of Gossip Girl just for fun…it's not quite the perfect description, but nothing ever is eh?! Read on for an extract, and you'll start to see what we mean!
The image is stark yet beautiful.
It’s just before dawn, at that moment when the world turns monochrome and everything is subsumed under a blanket of blue-gray light. The streetlights have gone off, the street is a still gray ribbon scarred with two black marks trailing from the upper left of the picture to the lower right. In the background, blurry, large houses hunker down, streaked dark from rain. In the foreground and slightly to the right, set in blue-gray grass, is a fantastic bush. It looks like something from a fairy tale, a witch cursed into an alternate form, gnarled fi ngers reaching for the sky. At the center lies a girl.
Shreds of her tulle skirt are tangled among the branches blowing in the morning breeze like tiny flags. A ceramic rabbit, a mother duck followed by five tiny ducklings, and a squirrel playing the flute stand silent guard around her. One of her legs is bent up; the other juts out of the bush dangling a platform shoe, Cinderella after the ball gone bad. Her left hand is under her and the right one, with a friendship ring on the index finger, reaches up as though to pluck the single deep-red rose that hangs above her—the only spot of color in the image. Her face is lovely, dark hair feathering over half of it. Her body is covered with angry gashes and a magenta river of blood trickles from her head. Her lips part, as though she’s about to say something.
But then you see her eyes and know it’s impossible. They are wide open, pupils fully dilated. And sightless.
It looks like any one of a dozen photos I’ve taken for my Dead Princesses series, with two crucial differences. The girl in this photo should have been dead. And I didn’t take it.
I’m in it. I’m the girl.
It was the police who shot it, responding to the 911 call from Mrs. Doyle reporting a dead body in her front yard on Dove Street. They arrived three minutes after the call. It took them five minutes to stabilize my breathing and thirty-two minutes to cut me out of the bush. When I woke up, I had no memory of how I got there or what led up to it, which is apparently normal. All I remembered was pain and the single thought I must not let go.
But slowly pieces of it have been coming back. An intensive care unit is a good place to do a lot of deep thinking—or a bad one, depending on what you’re thinking about. I stare at the photo in my hand trying to see myself as an object, another clue. In the past three days, much of the puzzle has been filled in and I’m not sure I like the picture that is emerging.
“Hello, princess,” says a cheery voice from the door of my room.
I look up and see an unfamiliar man in scrubs walking in. I miss Loretta.
Loretta’s the regular nurse in the ICU, the one I was used to seeing. Plus she was on duty when I first opened my eyes, and even though I was only in the ICU three days, I felt like she and I knew other well. Time passes in strange ways in the ICU, allowing you to form unusual relationships.
“Oh, that’s ICU time,” Loretta had explained to me.
“It’s like how they say dogs age seven years for every one of ours? Well, every minute in the ICU feels about an hour long. Time here either crawls or flashes by, and let me tell you, sweetheart, you’d rather it was crawling. Flash-forwards never mean anything good.”
The new guy is now saying, “I’m Ruben. And from the looks of this room, you’re Little Miss Popular.”
Ruben, I repeat, mentally cataloging the name. One thing Loretta likes to do is gossip, but I can’t remember her saying anything about him.
He fingers several bouquets on the windowsill, ending up with the two dozen red roses. “This must have set someone back plenty. I wish I could find a boyfriend as generous.”
“They’re not from my boyfriend,” I tell him.
“Woo-hoo, then you’re doing something right. What about this guy?” He picks up a teddy bear wearing a muscle shirt that says GET WELL BEARY SOON! “Not sure if that’s from a friend or an enemy.”
“Me either.” I’m thinking about how that’s true in more ways than one as he moves on to study the rest of the get-well presents covering every surface of my room, so I only half pay attention as he asks about the card with the puppies on it playing instruments from David and the balloon bouquet from Nikki with the card that says cheers.
Now Ruben is standing in front of a heart-shaped wreath of roses that’s flanked by a figurine and a doll. “What are all these over here? ‘From your secret admirer,’” he reads aloud from one of the cards. “All this?” He gestures. I nod. “So let me see—you’ve got a boyfriend, a not boyfriend, and a secret admirer.” He shakes his head at me. “Girl, no wonder someone tried to run you down.”
He’s right. I have a lot of presents because somehow—unaccountably—I’m actually popular. And most of the “We miss you!” and “Get well soon” messages are lies—because I’m very popular.
That’s the irony, isn’t it? The cruel lesson I’ve learned. In movies everyone loves the princess, but in reality it’s different. Popularity isn’t a double-edged sword; it has only one edge—kill or be killed. There’s a finite amount of space at the top of the social pyramid and once you’ve reached it, there’s only one direction to go and no shortage of people who want to push you there.
I know now who tried to kill me, but I don’t want to believe it. Every part of my mind seeks out other solutions, any other possible explanation, because the truth is too horrifying. I’ve had every clue I needed to figure it out in front of me all along, but I’ve been willfully blind. It’s like that moment when you’re framing a shot and what was blurry comes finally and acutely into focus. Only in this case I don’t want it to.
“I’ll be back to check on you in a tic, princess,” Ruben says.
I could try to stop him, but it won’t change anything. This killer can get at me anywhere.
My gaze returns to the photo of me in the rosebush and it’s all completely clear. There is only one person who could have done all of this. One person to whom everything points. The drink. The slammed door. The kiss. The car. The ring.
I’ve seen the writing on the wall. I know what has to come next.
"Hi, Jane,” the male voice says from the door.
It’s hard to talk when you’re being kissed. I experienced that for the first time with Liam Marsh when I was in ninth grade. I was experiencing it again with my boyfriend, David Tisch, as a junior in front of Livingston Senior High School at two forty-five on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend.
Which was why I had planned a surprise for that night. Because as much as I loved the Flintstone-vitamin-plus-pot fl avor of David’s kisses and the way he used his tongue to nudge my lips apart while he held my shoulders in his big hands, I had something important to talk to him about.
I pulled away now. His eyes opened halfway, slowly, and focused on me. “What are you doing, babe?”
“I told you, I’m saving up. For tonight.”
“Right. For the surprise.” He twisted a piece of my long dark hair between his fi ngers. “I wish you wouldn’t go to all that trouble. We can just be together like we always are.” His fi ngers moved to knead the muscles in my neck, almost too hard. He didn’t realize how strong they were from all his drum practice. “Why do we have to drive all the way out to the shore and go to some stupid party?”
“It will be worth it,” I said, giving him a look I hoped was at once cute and suggestive. “I promise.”
He shook his head but seemed more amused than annoyed. “You and your plans.”
It had rained almost continuously for the past week, but today was clear and fine and blazed with sun so bright that the white trim on the brick face of the main building shimmered. The big elm tree above us moved lazily in the breeze, the leaves rich spring green. Shadows fell like puddles around us. It was the kind of day, the kind of moment, when anything can happen.
The seniors had planned to make the long weekend even longer by ditching Friday and naturally we juniors were going to stand in solidarity with them, so everyone who was anyone was headed to Jocelyn Gunter’s party in Deal on the Jersey shore that night. The sun picked out the golden highlights in David’s brown-sort-oflong-sort-of-curly sort of hair, framing his face, making him look like a cross between Jesus and Jim Morrison, a comparison I knew he’d like.
David’s hand was on my chin, tilting it toward him, looking into my eyes over the top of his glasses. “Hey babe, where’d you go?”
“I’m right here,” I said, and brushed my hip against him.
But the truth was, I hadn’t been listening. Not because I wanted to avoid something, which was what my mother would say. I was trying to think about how I would capture the shot, what it would look like framed by my camera lens, and half wishing that David hadn’t set down his drumstick bag because the tilt of his shoulder would have made a more interesting picture. I’m a photographer; I can’t help it if my mind wanders to how things would look from the outside.
Besides, if I was avoiding something, would I have organized a whole special dinner to talk about it?
“I can’t wait until we’re on our camping trip, babe,” he said, smiling lazily. I saw myself reflected in the lenses of his glasses, a distorted fuzzy image. “Just you and me and the wilderness. None of these other people, no distractions, no—”
I stood on my tiptoes now and kissed him on the lips. He took it as me agreeing with him, not me wanting to change the subject.
“Hold that thought until tonight,” I said.
He sighed and tucked a piece of hair behind my right ear. “Temptress. I don’t know how long I can control myself around you. I’d better go.”
I laughed. He gave me a goofy grin, said, “Stay soft” (his version of goodbye), then lumbered off.
I loved the way he moved, smooth and relaxed, his fingers drumming on his leg. He high-fived Dom, the guitarist in the band, and put his arm around Chelsea, their lead singer. I might have been a little jealous if he hadn’t turned around at that moment and shot me a smile and a peace sign over her shoulder.
God, I was lucky.
He disappeared into the crowd and I turned and spotted Langley and Kate already in Langley’s five-and-a-half-month-old red BMW convertible. I was about to walk over when I noticed Ollie leaning against the passenger-side door. Maybe I should take a sec and do a few shots of the facade of the school, I thought. The light really was perfect and it hardly ever—
“Jelly bean,” Langley said as I was reaching for my camera. She waved at me. “Come on, we’ve got so much to do.” I slid the camera back into my bag and started toward the car. As I walked over, Ollie’s olive-green eyes raked me up and down lazily.
Oliver “Ollie” Montero was David’s best friend and his complete opposite. While David wore James Brown Loves Y’all T-shirts and Chuck Taylors, Ollie wore button-downs and Gucci loafers. Where David liked me, Ollie didn’t. Talking to him always made me feel insecure, like he’d ordered filet mignon and someone brought him a burger instead.
Now he was blocking my access to Langley’s backseat. “Will we see you at Joss’s party tonight?” I asked, just to be saying something. I also always had the sense that, like a dog, Ollie could smell my fear and it amused him.
He looked at me two beats longer than he needed to. “I never went to Livingston High School parties before, why would I start now?” According to rumor, Ollie only dated girls from the fancy schools in New York City like Chapin and Spence, girls whose last names were almost as long as the strings of zeros on their trust funds.
“Can a girl ask who your date is tonight, Mr. Montero?” Kate drawled from the passenger seat, giving Ollie a sugary smile and batting her eyelids. She was doing her Scarlet O’Hara imitation, which was one of her best and usually had a subtle barb at the end. “Blair? Muffy? Brent?”
Unlike me, Kate had no problem dealing with Ollie. With longlidded gray eyes edged with a dark blue ring and wavy golden-brown hair, Kate was pretty much drop-dead gorgeous. She ruled the drama program at Livingston High, getting every lead since her first day on campus. She also had what my political-consultant mother described wistfully as perfect political-wife manners, a way of looking at you like she cared about what you said, like you were the only person she wanted to talk to in the room. Her style was slightly bohemian. She never rushed, never seemed concerned about anything and yet always looked perfect, unsmudged, unchipped, un-covered-with-crumbs-from-the-cupcake-she-scarfed-before-English. Unlike me, the mess magnet.
Kate also had a wild streak that I didn’t exactly advertise to my mother. It came out onstage, in her laugh, and when operating motor vehicles.
Which was why Langley was our designated driver.
Langley looked like someone Vikings would fight over: hair like fresh ice, eyes like the light-blue of the Arctic ocean, skin like carved alabaster, and a mouth that always appeared as if it was on the edge of mischievous laughter. That impression was half true and half from the faint scar that ran across her right cheek. Langley was short and petite but gave the impression of being much bigger, one of those people who didn’t just enter a room but filled it. Her favorite color was red, like her car and like the beret, sweater, skirt, and ankle boots she was wearing.
Leaning his elbows against the shiny red door of the BMW, Ollie spread his hands in mock consternation. “If only one of you harridans would go out with me, I wouldn’t have to roam so far from home.”
“I don’t think any of us want what you have,” Langley said.
"What’s that?” Ollie asked. “Charm? Charisma?”
“Crabs?” Kate said, still sugar sweet.
“Always a delight to chat with you, Ollie,” Langley said, revving the engine. “But for now, please move your Ralph Lauren–clad ass so Jane can get into the car.”
“You’re slipping, angel. It’s John Varvatos.”
Langley raised an eyebrow at him. “Freals, you’re slipping if you think I care.”
Ollie laughed, said, “Touché,” and sauntered over to a dark-blue Mercedes with a driver waiting for him at the curb.
I got in and we touched pinkies, our friendship salute. Langley started to say, “Okay, lovelies, let’s—” but interrupted herself to look at Kate. She sighed.
“You know what you need to do.”
“No.” Kate shook her head and made her eyes very wide. “That is why God created windshields.”
“So you can crash your head through them?” Langley asked. “Put on your seat belt.”
Kate sighed. “With the way you drive, Safety Officer Langley, it’s hardly necessary.”
“It’s very simple,” Langley said, holding up a finger. “The first rule of Langley Motors is: Don’t talk back to Langley. The second rule of Langley Motors is: Don’t talk back to Langley. The third rule—”
“Let me get a pen so I can take these down?” Five bangles tinkled on Kate’s wrist as she pulled her seat belt across the faux-fur vest she was wearing over a cotton minidress. “It’s sad that you have to lord this over me when I have no other options.”
“You had the option to not run the second Mercedes your parents bought you this year into the front of Madame Yong’s. There is such a thing as delivery, you know.”
“That’s brilliant,” Kate said, clapping with mock enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you could do impressions of my father. Do another one! Oh please?”
Langley shook her head. Her pale-blue eyes moved to me in the rearview. “Jane?”
“I’m locked in, ma’am,” I assured her with a little salute, tugging on the seat belt strap that crisscrossed my ruffled T-shirt.
“Kiss ass,” Kate said, rolling her eyes.
“No, just a law-abiding citizen,” I countered.
Langley went on. “Here’s the plan. We’ll go to my house to get the costumes, then—”
My cell phone started to ring, interrupting her. I glanced at the caller ID, winced inwardly seeing the same number for the second time that day, and sent it to voice mail. Langley didn’t like being interrupted and I didn’t feel like talking to that particular caller anyway.
“Sorry. Go on.”
“After we get the costumes, we’ll change at Kate’s place on the beach and then walk over to the party so no one has to worry about driving. Joss is going to make everyone leave their keys at the door and I don’t want anyone touching my baby.”
A horn blared behind us. Turning around, I saw Nicky di Savoia leaning out the open window of her lemon-yellow Karmann Ghia.
Nicky was David’s ex-girlfriend and not a huge fan of mine. I waved.
She sneered. “Could you please discuss lip gloss or whatever hugely important issue you’re debating elsewhere, vapid bitches?”
“Takes one to know one,” Langley shouted pleasantly. Nicky kept honking, but Langley ignored her. She buttoned her red-leather driving gloves with care, signaled with her turn indicator, and slowly steered out of the driveway.
Nicky sped past us, flipping us off.
“Tsk-tsk, that’s no way to drive,” Langley commented. “DJ Kate, will you please do the honors?”
Kate flipped on the stereo and it started blaring Blondie. With “Heart of Glass” screaming from the speakers, I closed my eyes and pictured what we must look like. In my mind I framed the shot, the two of them with two different colors of blond hair up front, me with my dark hair fanned against the cream leather of the backseat of the red convertible, blue sky and green trees a blur in the background. It was a perfect image, the perfect snapshot of three popular girls embarking on a great weekend. I was happy, happier than I could ever remember feeling. I wished I could freeze the moment like that forever, click, to assure myself that it was real.
Because I still had trouble seeing myself in the snapshot. Kate Valenti and Langley Winterman were the top of the social pyramid. Even after two years I could hardly believe I was friends with them. Being popular wasn’t something that came naturally for me. I’d worked at it. And paid for it.