“I’m so excited we have the same lunch,” Madison said as Cindy joined her at the table with Bryce. “Who do you usually sit with?”
“Them,” she said, pointing at a table in the corner.
Madison looked over and decided that while she knew the names of a couple of those kids, she didn’t actually know any of them. They were the kids with neck tattoos and strange piercings and more strangely colored hair. Now that she knew Cindy, she wondered whether some of those kids were similarly interesting.
“Any of them know what you do outside school?” Madison asked.
Cindy shot her a shocked look and motioned with her eyes toward Bryce.
“Oh,” Madison laughed. “Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him anything. He knows about the hacking but not any of the other stuff. Bryce is too self-absorbed to care what is going on in anyone else’s life.”
“Hey!” Bryce protested. “Wait. No, that’s true,” he said casually, then looked back down at his phone.
Cindy laughed. “You guys are a riot. And no, nobody except you has any idea, Mads. And it’s really important that it stays that way. Capisce?”
Madison smiled. “I understand, Godfather,” she deadpanned.
“So what’s going on with your thing?” Cindy asked.
“I chased down my last lead,” Madison said. “I found the guy who helped me get out of the warehouse when I broke in there. Turns out he doesn’t know anything about the operation.”
“And he’s your dad,” Bryce mumbled.
“What?” Cindy asked.
“It’s absolutely nuts,” Madison said. “Turns out the guy who helped me is my biodad. He left when I was little, so I didn’t recognize him. But he recognized me right away. He stalks my Insta.”
“No way! That’s crazy. And you talked to him?”
“Yeah. He was in the mall, creeping around my store. And I chased him down and confronted him. Then we went and got a coffee.”
“Hold up,” Cindy said. “You chased down your dad, who you haven’t seen in—”
“14 years,” Madison interrupted.
“Who you haven’t seen in 14 years, and you were like, ‘Hey, let’s get a coffee’?”
“Welcome to the Wonderful World of Madison, where just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, they get totally weirder,” Bryce said.
Cindy laughed. “Okay. Wow. Okay. So he works for them, but he doesn’t know anything?”
“Yeah, he’s just muscle, I guess.”
“And he was your last lead. And we killed the video feed and locked the door behind us,” Cindy said.
“Right,” Madison said. “It’s probably for the best. Some other stuff has happened I didn’t tell you about. They threatened me.”
“Seriously?” Cindy asked.
“Yeah. Old lady with a gun. Told me to drop it,” Madison said.
“So that’s it? That’s too bad, because I was really curious,” Cindy said.
“Me too,” Bryce added.
“Me three,” Madison said. “I need to drop it. There’s no way I could publish this story anyway, since I’ve broken so many laws and ethics rules getting the info.”
“You aren’t dropping it,” Cindy said.
“Nope,” Madison said. “But like I said, I don’t have any more leads. Except talking to the man in charge.”
“I forbid it,” Bryce said.
“Great, now I’ve got three dads,” Madison said.
Cindy laughed. “Who’s the man in charge?”
“They call him Mr. Black. His real name is Richard Wagner.”
“Like the operas?” Cindy asked.
“Um. Yeah,” Madison said, somewhat surprised.
“You know who writes operas?” Bryce asked.
“Not everyone, but I mean, who doesn’t know Wagner,” she said, using the German pronunciation. “The Ring Cycle?”
Bryce shrugged and Madison shook her head.
“Philistines,” Cindy said.
“We also don’t know what that word means,” Bryce replied.
“Anyway,” Madison continued, “I know where the big boss lives. I’ve gone over there a couple times but never managed to go in and talk to him.”
“Judy literally told you she’d put a bullet in your brain if you didn’t drop this, Mads,” Bryce said. “You walk in there, and you’re done. And then who am I supposed to eat lunch with? This opera freak in combat boots? She’s like a walking fashion catastrophe.” He looked at Cindy who smiled back at him. “No offense.”
“None taken,” she said.
“You know that Judy was just bluffing,” Madison insisted. “She just thinks I’m some kid doing the Nancy Drew thing. I’m harmless.”
“Like a mosquito,” Bryce said. “That she’s going to squash.”
Madison shook her head. “Don’t mind him,” she said to Cindy. “He’s just overprotective and overdramatic.”
“Did she seriously threaten to put a bullet in your brain?” Cindy asked.
“Well, yeah,” Madison said.
“I don’t know, Mads. Maybe you should listen to Bryce.”
“Thank you!” Bryce said. “Listen to her telling you to listen to me.” He paused and thought a second. “Yeah, I think I said that right.”
Madison laughed. “Okay,” she sighed.
Bryce stage-whispered to Cindy, “That means she is done arguing with us, but she’s totally going to do it anyway.”