They're Watching You
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When a secret society has you in their sights, it can lead to power, privilege... or death.
It's been two weeks since Polly St. James went missing. The police, the headmistress of Torrey-Wells Academy, and even her parents have ruled her a runaway. But not Maren, her best friend and roommate. She knows Polly had a secret that she was about to share with Maren before she disappeared— something to do with the elite, ultra-rich crowd at Torrey-Wells.
Then Maren finds an envelope hidden among Polly's things: an invitation to the Gamemaster's Society. Do not tell anyone, it says. Maren is certain her classmates in the Society know the truth about what happened to Polly, though it's no easy feat to join. Once Maren's made it through the treacherous initiation, she discovers a world she never knew existed within her school, where Society members compete in high-stakes games for unheard-of rewards—Ivy League connections, privileges, favors.
But Maren's been drawn into a different game: for every win, she'll receive a clue about Polly. And as Maren keeps winning, she begins to see just how powerful the Society's game is—bigger and deadlier than she ever imagined. They see, they know, they control. And they kill.
Release date: January 3, 2023
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Print pages: 386
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They're Watching You
“You do realize you’re going straight to detention,” I say to my lab partner Gavin Holt. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt adorned with his signature bow tie—all the boys wear ties. It’s a requirement, though Gavin is the only guy on campus who insists on the bow variety.
But this time he’s gone off the rails and paired it with plaid pajama pants. Strictly against dress code. Torrey-Wells Academy, named after its two founders, has a bit of a double standard when it comes to attire. Guys have to wear slacks and a tie to classes, chapel, and to the dining hall; girls can wear pretty much whatever they want as long as it covers the necessary parts. For example, I’m wearing sweatpants and a ratty TWA sweatshirt—my daily uniform—and am in no danger of violating the code. Apparently, when the school opened up to girls back in the seventies, the board found altering the academy handbook too much of a bother.
Which is fine with me.
Gavin shrugs but scoots his stool closer to the lab table to hide his lower half. “I woke up late.”
I roll my eyes.
“And then I had a small Pop-Tart smoke alarm emergency.”
“Well, you look like you’re ready to crouch by the Christmas tree and unwrap a package of Hot Wheels.”
“You’re one to talk, Sweatpants Girl.”
Fair enough. I scan the list of ingredients again. “I guess this means I’m getting the water. Try not to blow anything up while I’m gone.” I grab the beaker and head over to the sink. There’s a sixty-six-point-six percent chance that Gavin will ignore my warning and blow something up while I’m gone, if we’re basing this on stats from our last three assignments.
With a wave of my hand, the fancy steel faucet turns on. The Lowell Math and Science Building, constructed four years ago thanks to a rich donor named Lowell who made his money genetically modifying crops, is a state-of-the-art facility. No penny was spared, from the touch screens the teachers use in place of whiteboards to the observatory fit with a massive telescope. Handle-less water faucets were important too, I suppose. Water starts spewing out the sides of the beaker before I realize I’ve been gazing off into space. I shut it off with another wave and dump some of it, glancing over my shoulder at Gavin.
His lips are quirked, eyes squinting at the tray full of materials. He’s definitely contemplating lighting something on fire. I watch as he adjusts his glasses, picks up the spatula, and begins prodding at the sodium metal without
Whereas some teachers tend to show leniency toward the athletes, Dr. Yamashiro is extra strict. To keep the GPA required for my financial aid, I can’t get anything less than an A on this experiment. Or on any assignment, for that matter. But with Gavin for a partner, I might have to settle for getting out of the building alive.
I return, setting the beaker onto the glass tabletop with a clank. Water droplets splatter the ingredients list as well as our findings sheet.
“You okay?” Gavin asks, leaning closer, his jade eyes narrowed behind his lenses. His scent is sweet with a hint of smoke, like he downed an energy drink on the way here or tried to ignite a Jolly Rancher.
“Fine. Put your safety goggles on.”
He obeys, placing the goggles over his glasses, and I add a few drops of phenolphthalein indicator to the beaker. But he nudges me with an elbow, and I almost fumble the dropper. “Well, you don’t look fine.”
I take a deep breath and steady my hand. I’m not about to tell Gavin that life pretty much sucks now that my only friend has abandoned me. I’m not about to tell Gavin that I suspect something bad might’ve happened to Polly—that she didn’t just up and run away like her parents and the police say.
I would never tell Gavin Holt that my eyes are stinging with tears because even the best-case scenario means my closest friend chose to leave me and never return my calls or texts again.
“I’m just tired and sore. Still recovering from hell week.” Every year, at the start of lacrosse preseason, Coach makes us attend 5 a.m. practices before classes, and again at 5 p.m. after classes. It helps to get us in shape. It also makes every inch of my body feel like it’s melting off.
“And maybe a little upset that Polly is…” Gavin pushes a strand of dust-brown hair off his forehead. “You know, gone.”
“Maybe.” But the truth is I started losing Polly months ago.
A few weeks into our Form III school year (Torrey-Wells Academy can’t very well call us juniors and seniors like every other school in the United States), Polly was suddenly too busy for me. Even though we’re roommates—we’ve been roommates since Form I—I didn’t see her as much. Polly’s straight As always came with a healthy dose of cramming; this year, she never felt like studying. Then there was the staying out and sneaking back into the room after curfew, reeking of booze. It wasn’t like her.
At least, it wasn’t like the Polly who was friends with me. She’d vaguely mentioned her wild-child days, but people change. We were content to drink soda from the vending machines and spend Saturday nights in our pajamas.
Until she started getting buddy-buddy with Annabelle Westerly and joined chess club. This has to be the only school in the country where chess club is cool, and it’s all thanks to Annabelle. Polly and I used to joke about how Annabelle Westerly’s endorsement could probably make pin the tail on the donkey the next school fad. But suddenly, Polly wasn’t laughing much with me anymore.
She was laughing with Annabelle, who’s trouble veiled in designer labels and a posher-than-thou lexicon.
conclusion. Polly had left a note, after all, telling her parents she’d taken a break from school to clear her head.
Authorities ruled her a runaway.
I’d seen so little of her this semester, I could hardly argue with them. I wasn’t exactly an expert witness on Polly’s habits or state of mind.
I put on my gloves and slap Gavin’s hand as he reaches for a small green vial he must’ve stolen from the supply cabinet, because it has nothing to do with this experiment. Then I remove a tiny piece of sodium metal from the container with the spatula, drop it into the water, and thrust my arm to the side to keep Gavin back as the liquid sputters and reacts, leaving a pink trail through the beaker.
Across the room, Dr. Yamashiro eyes us, having learned from past experiences. Gavin pulls off the whole clueless thing so well that he hasn’t been busted yet. Take, for example, whatever happened in his dorm this morning with a Pop-Tart.
But I’m on to him.
I think Gavin is actually a freaking genius.
He scribbles down our findings, just as Dr. Yamashiro starts to wrap up class. It’s probably for the best, considering Gavin’s fingers are spider-crawling across the table toward that green vial.
“Lord, help me,” I whisper into the fumes.
“Maren, you know I’d clean up,” Gavin says, “but if Dr. Y saw me…” He glances down at his PJs.
“You wore those stupid pants on purpose,” I say, snatching the beaker off the table. Gavin grins, grabbing his books. He waits for Dr. Yamashiro to turn to the fancy screen that looks like a portal into another dimension, then shoves himself into a cluster of students headed for the door.
Gavin could probably come to class in no pants and still end up with a clean record. My cheeks heat suddenly at the thought, so I rush to the sink and stick my hands beneath the cool water.
Back in my dorm room, a cozy cube still plastered in Polly’s vintage Hollywood photographs and my lone Lionel Messi poster, I throw myself onto the bottom bunk. My gaze drifts toward the photo collage—the one we made together last year—hanging on the wall between our desks, but I force myself to stare at the bedframe slats above me.
Polly’s top bunk remains empty; the school hasn’t forced a new roommate on me yet. It should be nice having the place to myself, except I loved living with Polly. We used to study together in here, comfy on our beanbag chairs, our dusty desks neglected. We’d lie in our beds, chatting for hours after lights-out, keeping our voices low to avoid shushing by the Form IV proctor.
Polly’s parents came by and picked through her things. They took what they wanted but left the majority. Like they’re convinced she’ll regret her
room—over the past few months, we never spoke more than a greeting to one another in here. I’d spotted her out at the Commons, across the large expanse of pristinely cut grass. I watched her for a few seconds, the way she walked with her head tucked into her shoulders. The sun bathed the campus in a warm glow, but she tugged the hood of her expensive new coat—most likely a gift from Annabelle—over her auburn curls.
When it came to money, Polly was like me. In fact, money was the way we’d met. During Form I orientation, we both attended the financial aid seminar with our parents. Torrey-Wells is ridiculously expensive, and my parents are not rich. They had to figure out how to send me here through a combination of payment plans and scholarships. There are only a handful of us scholarship kids at Torrey-Wells, and something about sticking together made sense. It felt safe. After a few minutes of listening to the droning financial aid advisor at our parents’ sides, we stole through the side doors of Henning Hall, giggling as we explored our new campus, inventing histories for every statue, giving imaginary freshmen the tour. Bonding over lattes in the café.
During our first two years, while the other students were out gallivanting all over town on weekends, throwing around wads of cash, Polly and I were content to hang out in the dining hall and watch movie marathons in the common area of our dorm. At least, I was content. I guess Polly had her sights set on Annabelle and the rest of them.
That day on the grass, I called her name and waved her down. We were both headed to chemistry. But she turned and spotted me, and for a split second, I thought she might keep walking.
“Hey,” I said, jogging to catch up. “Can I walk with you?”
She nodded, and up close I could see beige-colored patches where her attempt to conceal the dark purple bags beneath her eyes had failed.
“Where’d you sleep last night?” I asked, though it was obvious she hadn’t slept at all.
She shrugged, pursing chapped lips. “In a friend’s room.”
“So, Annabelle’s room.”
Another shrug, but she wasn’t running away from me. Her fingers fidgeted and her gaze floated away, searching the grounds. My chest pricked. She was probably worried about being seen with me.
“Are you okay? You look…stressed,” I said.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind. Chess isn’t going so well.”
“Chess?” I asked, wondering how a club could be the cause of whatever I was witnessing in my normally lively and fresh-faced friend.
“It’s not really working out. There’s a lot more to it than I thought.” She hitched her bag higher on her shoulder and massaged her temples with her fingertips. The hood fell back, and her tousled curls glimmered bronze in the spring sunlight. Then the words came out in a jumbled rush. “It’s not just pieces and a board. It’s…more. Too much, maybe.” Her eyes widened as she finished, shining with something like terror.
At first, I was too stunned by her rambling to respond. Had the sleep deprivation really gotten to her? Was it drugs? Or was this something more?
She exhaled through her teeth, rustling her curls. “No, it’s—forget I said anything.” She reached up, removing my hand from her arm, and slowly, her fingers began to squeeze. “Please, forget it.”
“Yeah, fine.” She dropped my hand, and another pang shot through me.
“Polly!” a voice shouted from across the grass. I glanced over to find Annabelle Westerly, dressed in a slouchy sweater and tall leather boots.
“I’ve got to go,” Polly said softly, looking at the ground.
“I miss you.” I cringed at the way my voice cracked. “I miss our movie nights and our beanbag chats. I miss—”
“Let’s meet tonight,” she interrupted, spinning around to face me. We reached the end of the grass, and a large statue of Lord Torrey himself towered behind her on the cobblestone walkway. The cathedral bell tolled in the distance, reminding us to hurry along. “We can catch up.”
“Okay,” I said, the word dragging. “We don’t have to meet. You could just come back to the room for a change—your room.”
She shook her head and glanced over her shoulder. “I want to show you something. Meet me at the fountain.” I knew which fountain she meant. Our fountain. The one with the white iron bench where we always had a quick coffee while waiting for our next morning class. “I’ll see you in chem,” she said, rushing over to Annabelle.
My heart buoyed in my chest. The meeting. It meant something. She was coming back to me. She’d seen the error of her ways.
After dinner, I sat on the bench by the fountain. Beneath the glow of the lamppost, I waited for an hour, checking my phone every ten seconds for a text from Polly that never came. I thought about texting her, asking if she was on her way, but it felt even more desperate than sitting alone in the cold night air.
When she never showed, I was furious. Hurt too, but mainly incensed that she’d gotten my hopes up. I made my way back to my dormitory, panic streaking through my chest that I would miss curfew and be locked out. Torrey-Wells is one of these sprawling New England establishments built on two thousand acres, complete with two orchards, four ponds, and fifteen student housing buildings; ancient, ivy-laced brick buildings stitched occasionally with newer models, like the Hamilton Fitness Center, to keep up with the times. I had to sprint to make it, and when I did, a cocktail of anger and adrenaline pumped through my veins, making sleep impossible.
As I lay there, the silent hours passed as I prayed for the beep of the room key. I hoped the door would click open and I would find Polly standing there, an apology ready on her lips.
Instead, in the early hours of the morning, I finally drifted off, and the top bunk remained empty. No creak of the door. No soft steps on carpet.
The next day, Polly missed all of her classes. When she didn’t come to dinner, Annabelle Westerly started asking around, and eventually Headmistress Koehler reported her missing. The academy’s state-of-the-art security cameras failed to pick up anything useful, so the police were brought in. Being her roommate, I was soon questioned. Her teachers were also questioned. Polly’s parents were notified, and by the time their plane landed, the police had discovered Polly’s note in the top drawer of her desk.
I voiced my concerns to the police. To her parents. Polly was supposed to meet me. Why would she run away?
But her parents took one look at the note, in Polly’s own handwriting, and their faces fell. They pressed the cops to look for her, but even their pressing was half-hearted. Apparently, Polly had run away before. Back in middle school. Part of the reason they’d opted to try private school in the first place was to keep her on the straight and narrow. Yet here they were again, thousands upon thousands of dollars later, their daughter wandering somewhere out there in the wide-open world.
Now I force my lids back open and stare up at the wooden beams strung beneath the top bunk. The white of Polly’s mattress peeks between the beams, edged in mauve-colored roses from her sheets. I’ve called her at least ten times. Left half that many messages. Please, Polly. Call me back. Let me know you’re okay.
She never has. I can’t stop thinking about that flicker of fear in her eyes that day. Her incoherent words. It’s not just pieces and a board. It’s…more.
I sit up so fast I nearly whack my head on the top bunk. Polly’s words. They echo in my head with the thunderous force of lacrosse cleats on concrete. What if they weren’t supposed to make sense? What if they weren’t m
eant to communicate her feelings about chess?
Because they were meant to communicate something else.
I get down from the bed and pad over to the closet, sliding open Polly’s half. After two weeks of digging through the leftover contents, I know her chess set is buried at the bottom of a box of random paraphernalia. I remove her playbill for the academy’s performance of The Crucible, in which Polly played Abigail, and dig the heavy, wooden folding chess set from beneath a blow-dryer, a tattered copy of The Iliad, and a black ballet flat.
The chess set—another gift from Annabelle—is engraved Polly St. James at the bottom. I undo the two golden latches and open it, lifting the flap and dumping the marble pieces out. They tumble over Polly’s gray IKEA rug; queens and kings, pawns and rooks, all elaborately carved. I don’t know what I’m looking for, so I take up every piece in hand, inspecting one before casting it aside to grab the next.
When I’ve checked the base of every piece, only to find the same set of initials left by the artist, embarrassment creeps from my neck up to my cheeks. I examine the board next, unfolding and flipping it. But there’s nothing. Polly’s babbling the day she disappeared was simply a symptom of the stress she’d written about in that note the cops found. She’d had enough. Of chess. Of school.
I start to tuck the board back into its case when my eyes fall onto a ripple in the red silk lining. A ripple that seems out of place in a chess set worth as much as all of my belongings combined. I tug at it, and my heart skitters.
The fabric is loose. I remove it, uncovering a little white envelope that lies flush with one corner.
The envelope’s seal, a heavy wax emblem of a circle slashed through the middle, has been broken. I tug out a sturdy white card, printed with the same emblem, which sort of reminds me of this T-shirt clip I found in my mom’s old junk. She said they used to wear them in the eighties. The print on the card is an embossed gold that looks like it was meant for the Queen of England.
You are cordially invited to attend the semiannual initiation meeting of the Gamemaster’s Society, located in the old cathedral. Please wear your finest attire and arrive promptly at 11 p.m. on Friday, the 17th of September. Within this envelope, you will find the tokens required for entry.
Do not forget your tokens.
Do not tell anyone about the meeting.
Do not mention a word of the society.
VICTORY OR DUST.
I dump the envelope over and shake it. But nothing falls out. Polly must’ve used whatever was in here to get into this meeting. This meeting that was months ago.
I’ve only heard the vaguest whispers of a secret society. One with access to liquor and parties after curfew, like the fraternity over at Langford School. This must explain why Polly was so distant this past term. It even explains that trip she took to the headmaster’s office a couple months back, a trip she refused to explain to me. She must’ve gotten in with the wrong crowd—some weird club that forced her to break lots of rules.
But why wouldn’t she tell me about it? Sure, the fancy card says it’s a secret. But we shared everything—at least, we did back in September. Did this society really want only Polly? Or did she simply choose not to include me?
Then a thought hits me so hard I drop down onto a beanbag chair.
If Polly was spending all her time with this society, someone in it might know where she is.
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