Scarlett Undercover


By Jennifer Latham

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Meet Scarlett, a smart, sarcastic fifteen-year-old, ready to take on crime in her hometown. When Scarlett agrees to investigate a local boy’s suicide, she figures she’s in for an easy case and a quick buck. But it doesn’t take long for suicide to start looking a lot like murder.

As Scarlett finds herself deep in a world of cults, curses, and the seemingly supernatural, she discovers that her own family secrets may have more to do with the situation than she thinks…and that cracking the case could lead to solving her father’s murder.

Jennifer Latham delivers a compelling story and a character to remember in this one-of-a-kind debut novel.


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The kid was cute. Her bare, knobbly legs swung back and forth like pendulums between the chipped legs of my client chair. Plastic safety goggles rested on her forehead, held tight by an elastic band that circled her head and pooched her bobbed brown hair up at the crown. She was thin. Delicate, even. But her eyes were clear and blue and smart.

"I think my brother killed someone."

It was a hell of a thing to say, especially for someone who'd just walked into my office wearing a pale pink jumper only a mother could love. I waited for her to keep talking. She didn't.

"How about you tell me your name before we get into that?" I said.

"Gemma Archer. My brother's Oliver." Her hands twisted the strap of her bag.

"Nice to meet you, Gemma. I'm Scarlett."

She nodded like she already knew that. Which, of course, she did.

"Okay. Now, exactly who do you think your brother killed?"

"His friend Quinn Johnson," she said in a voice flat as truck stop pancakes.

The name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.

"He's the boy they pulled out of Las Almas Bay yesterday. The one who jumped off the Baker Street Bridge," she said quietly.

Things clicked into place. I'd just read about Quinn Johnson's death in the paper that morning. The thing was, it hadn't been murder; it'd been a suicide. I looked over at the half-eaten bagel on my desk. My stomach grumbled.

"Well, kid," I said, "I don't think you need me. Two witnesses saw your brother's friend jump off that bridge all on his own. It's an awful mess, and I'm sorry for him and his family and anyone who knew him. But your brother wasn't even there."

"You're wrong," she said. "Oliver might not have been with Quinn when he died, but that doesn't mean he wasn't responsible."

It had happened before—me being wrong, that is. So I shrugged and played along.

"How old's your brother?"


"And what makes you think he had anything to do with the Johnson kid's death?"

She chewed her lip, looked around like she wished she could disappear into the walls.

"He's all dark, like a light went out inside him."

I told her she'd have to be a little more specific than that.

"I don't know. He's just… dark! And he doesn't talk to me or see me or play his guitar anymore. He cleans his room now, too, and mostly only comes home to eat. Then, when he is home, he won't put his phone down. I thought he was on it a lot before, but it's crazy lately."

She got quiet again.

"Look, kid," I said. "I'm not one to turn down a job, but it doesn't sound like there's much I can do for you. Have you talked to your parents about all this?"

Her shoulders slumped, and a soft little hiccup hitched in her throat.

"I tried." She didn't bother to wipe away the tear slipping down her cheek. "They won't listen. No one will."

I dug deep and found my patient voice. "Don't you think your parents would have noticed if your brother was in trouble?"

"My parents don't notice anything," she whispered.

That got me. Right in the gut.

"People change, kid," I said, softening. "And your brother must be pretty messed up after what happened to his friend."

She looked lost. Her mouth trembled. Her head shook back and forth.

"But he's not! Not even a little! That's the problem. Plus I saw him and Quinn together in the courtyard after school last week and…"

Her voice faded to nothing. Her shoulders shook.

"And what? What happened?"

She paused. Gathered herself.

"I was up by the gate and only heard a little. Quinn said, 'We can't let them,' and Oliver said something I couldn't hear. Then Quinn…"

She looked up at me like she wasn't sure she should go on. I gave her my best encouraging smile. She took a deep breath.

"He said, 'Eff you and eff the rest of them, too. You're all crazy.' "

"Only he didn't say eff, right? He said the F word?"

She nodded.

"What did your brother do then?"

She looked at her hands. Sniffled.


"He said, 'Tell us where he is, or we'll kill you and Sam both.' "

"And you don't know who he is?"


"Who's Sam?"

"Quinn's little brother."

"What happened next?"

"Quinn punched him."

"They fought?"

"No." She shook her head. "Oliver just smiled. And even though his mouth was bleeding, he pulled his finger across his throat real slow, like he was threatening to kill Quinn. Then he walked away."

"Where was Oliver when Quinn went to the bridge?"

"At home. But it's like I said, for the last few weeks he's been all dead inside. I know he didn't actually push Quinn, but if it weren't for Oliver, I don't think Quinn would have jumped."

I sat back in my chair and laced my fingers together behind my head.

"You know, there's no guarantee I'll find anything if I take the case. And even if I do, you might not like it."

"I've got money." She pulled a wad of cash the size of a melon out of her backpack. "What else am I supposed to spend this on?"

A long list of things came to mind, but I kept them to myself. That's me. Always thinking.

I leaned forward and folded my hands on the desk. "How about I chew on this awhile and get back to you?"

Gemma's lips quivered, but she kept it together.

"I just want my real brother back," she said. Then she gave me her number and walked herself to the door.

"I'll call you," I said.

She didn't stop. Just dropped her chin and kept on walking.

A couple of hours later, my breakfast was long gone, and Gemma was still on my mind. Rain pattered against the window behind me. Tires swished on Carroll Street's wet pavement two stories below. On any given weekday it would have been busy down there, full of people with places to go. But at eleven o'clock on a gray Saturday morning, the only soul out was the General, peeing against a Dumpster in the alley across the street. He was the cheerful kind of neighborhood drunk who'd tip his hat and say, "Thank ye, guv'nor," when people gave him sandwiches or coffee or spare change. He looked up, saw me in the window, and waved with his free hand. I waved back, shifted my focus to the water stain on the ceiling for modesty's sake, and pondered what Gemma had told me.

She was sincere. I'd give her that. And underneath the layer of cute she wore like camouflage, there was a toughness to her—a kind of grit—that I liked. Maybe my first impression had been wrong, and she wasn't just some hysterical kid making up fairy tales. Maybe there actually was something to what she'd said. Besides, who was I to argue when there was cash on the table?

At the very least, I could nose around and see what the brother was up to, figure out what the fight between him and his friend had been about, and give Gemma a better story to tell herself about the whole deal. I could help a sad little girl feel like someone cared.

I drank a glass of water at the sink in the corner and pushed back my hair. It was black, kinky-curled, and stuck out from my head every which way. My hair had a mind of its own, and just then it was asking for a fight.

"Wear the hijab like Ummi did," Reem would say, "and you'll never have to worry about bad hair days."

But headscarves weren't my thing. Never had been. Not even before cancer swallowed my mother whole.

I dialed Gemma's cell.

"It's Scarlett," I said when she picked up. "I'll take the case."

"Thank you." Her voice was small. Relieved. I asked if it was a good time to come over. She said it was and gave me her address. "I really mean it," she whispered. "Thank you."

"Thank me after I've done something, kid," I said, and hung up.

I grabbed my favorite purple tam from the coat hook and put it on. A raincoat would have been nice, too, but all I had was the fly's eye–green umbrella Mook had given me from the Laundromat's lost and found a few months back.

I put the umbrella in my backpack and gave my Goodwill jeans, white T-shirt, and secondhand men's houndstooth coat a once-over. If I smiled nice and behaved, the outfit would do for a visit to the Archers'. I didn't look like a private detective. I didn't look like an orphan. And that was just the way I liked it.


Gemma's apartment was in a strip of converted warehouses off Daly Street, on the north end of Las Almas Bay. They were trendy, expensive, and full of people who never took time to look out their own windows and enjoy the view.

By the time I got there, the morning rain had lifted, and people with cloth shopping bags and expensive baby strollers were out and about. Farther south, Daly was nothing but pawnshops, liquor stores, and grimy little joints that would cash your paycheck for half of what it was worth. This far north, it was all organic grocers and coffee shops.

Ten minutes and six nail salons later, I was standing in front of Gemma's building. The place was flat-roofed and long, boring as a nun's underwear, and full of blank-looking picture windows. Gemma was an Archer. The Archers lived on the top floor. I pressed their intercom button, smiled for the camera, and wondered how many freckled, sixteen-year-old brown girls showed up on their video monitor any given day. The door buzzed. I went in and took the freight-sized elevator up.

Gemma opened the door in her goggles and stepped back to let me in. Her movements were quick. Unhappy.

"Hi," she said.

"Your folks home?"

"They're at work. Dad owns Archer Construction. It's a big deal. Mom does interior design."

"What about Oliver?"

She gave me a somber look. "He's here."

"How about an introduction?"

"Come on," she said, and led me down a hall lined with framed black-and-white photos of skyscrapers. The carpet under our feet was thick enough to lose an ankle in. Spotlights lit the pictures like Rembrandts.

"Those are my dad's." She motioned toward the frames. I gave them a closer look.

"He owns all those buildings?" I asked.

"No. He built them."

I was impressed.

We passed an archway leading to a white-walled room with white leather furniture, floor-length white curtains, and white rugs over bleached hardwoods. Lionfish roamed an enormous saltwater aquarium.

"Fish were Dad's hobby last year," Gemma said when she saw me looking. "They were supposed to help him with stress. Now he just pays a guy to clean the tank."

"Maybe he should have tried goldfish first," I said. She shrugged and kept walking until the hall dead-ended at a closed door.

"Ollllivvvverrrr!" She hammered on the wood with a pale fist. There was shuffling behind the door before it opened.

Oliver was easy on the eyes. Handsome, even, in a boy band kind of way. He looked like he worked out, and the zit fairy had only paid a courtesy call instead of an extended visit.

"What?" He scanned me with his blue eyes like a cashier scans frozen peas.

"Oliver, this is my friend Scarlett. I wanted you to meet her."

"Hello, Scarlett. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

He didn't sound like he meant it.

"The pleasure's all mine."

I didn't sound like I meant it, either.

I stuck out my hand, meaning for it to feel like a challenge. Oliver hesitated, his top lip curling into a sneer before he gave in and took hold of my fingers with a grip three notches too tight. As he did, the sleeve of his rugby shirt pulled back, exposing a line of angry red scabs along the inside of his wrist. He noticed that I noticed, jerked his hand back, jammed his fists into his pockets.

"Aren't you a little… mature to be hanging out with a nine-year-old?" His voice had gone hard.

"It's a Big Sister kind of thing," I said.

He looked at Gemma. Gemma looked worried.

"Funny," he said. "She's hardly underprivileged. And she has a real big brother."

"Yet she still came to me.…" The sweetness in my voice was anything but.

Oliver scowled. "If you'll excuse me, I've got things to do."

He grabbed the messenger bag leaning against his bookshelves and pushed past us, slamming the bedroom door as he went. A few seconds later, the front door slammed, too.

Gemma slipped her palm into mine. I wasn't much of a hand-holder, but just then I didn't mind the touch of someone warm and good.

The kid was all right.

Her brother was not.

I never could stand a closed door, and Oliver's was no exception.

"I'm going in," I said.

"So you believe me that something's wrong?" Gemma asked.

"I believe I agreed to take the case," I said, turning the knob.

At first glance, the room was nothing special. Sports posters on the walls. Body spray and locker room funk in the air. It was clean, though. Neat. No clothes piled on the floor, no clutter.

"This isn't normal," Gemma said.

"You mentioned he's not the organized type."

"Yeah. He and Mom used to fight over the mess all the time. He'd say it was his space; she'd say no it wasn't unless he started paying rent. Now that he cleans it, though, she doesn't even come down to this end of the apartment. She thinks she won." Gemma snorted at the last bit.

"Good to know," I said. "Now stay put."

The first thing I did inside the room was walk its perimeter. Next, I memorized the positions of everything I might move or misplace. This had to be a clean sweep. Oliver couldn't know I'd been there.

Once I had the lay of the place, I looked under the bed, mattress, and pillows. Opened desk and bureau drawers all the way to the back. Sifted through anything siftable. Then I hit the closet, reaching between stacks of sweatshirts and sweaters, making sure nothing was hidden behind the perfectly spaced hanging clothes. That's when my hand hit something pinned to a jacket.

"This new?" I held up the small baggie of dried leaves.

"No. He's smoked that stuff since he was thirteen," Gemma said.

I put the baggie back and inspected the rest of the room, right down to fanning the pages of each book on the shelves. Other than Oliver's weed, the place was clean.

It didn't surprise me. Real detective work wasn't anything like what they showed on TV. On TV, clues sat around like giant Easter eggs waiting to be found. In real life, they dressed up like normal things, so that half the time you didn't even know it when they were staring you right in the face.

I wiggled my eyebrows up and down at Gemma to make her smile. She didn't. Then I gave the room another quick once-over and, because I'm a thorough kind of girl, swung the door around to make sure nothing was hiding behind it.

Something was: a clue. And it hadn't bothered to dress up at all.

"This new?" I asked.

Gemma came to my side and pulled the goggles down over her eyes.

"Mom's gonna kill him," she whispered.

Every inch, every single bit of wood on that door, had been carved with different versions of the same interlocking ring design. Some of the rings were ovals, some were shaped like cats' eyes. A few were rectangles with rounded edges. Each had a square at the center with its four corners formed by the overlapping points of the lines.

"Go get a dark crayon and some paper. Quick," I said.

Gemma stared for a few seconds longer and ran out. I studied the door, knowing from the fresh wood smell that the marks hadn't been there long, wondering if maybe the design had something to do with the cuts on Oliver's wrist. A deep, dusty part of my brain told me I'd seen it before. But the kid came back faster than I could clear out the cobwebs and remember where.

"Thanks," I said, tearing the wrapper off her purple crayon. I tucked the shreds into my jeans pocket, flattened a piece of paper over one of the biggest sets of rings, and rubbed the side of the crayon back and forth until the whole image appeared. I did the same thing to a second, more squared-off knot. Then a third. And a fourth. Gemma watched, still as a cat about to pounce. "Let's get out of here," I said when the fifth was done.

As she led me to her room, I put the crayon in my coat, reminding myself to ditch it in a trash can somewhere far away from the Archers' apartment. Maybe I was being too careful, since the chances of Oliver finding a peeled crayon and figuring out it had been used to make rubbings of his artwork were slim to none. But for someone who'd written Gemma off just a few hours earlier as a wound-up kid with an overactive imagination, I was starting to wonder if maybe she was on to something.

"I've got a few more questions," I said once she'd stashed the unused paper in a desk drawer.

"I thought you might." She pushed the goggles onto her forehead and smiled the first real smile I'd seen on her Kewpie doll face.

"I'm going to figure this out, kid," I said, which made her smile even bigger.

Just like I'd hoped it would.


I took my time walking back to the bus stop, window-shopping as I went. Four blocks later, I'd managed to pick something up without spending a dime.

I had a tail.

She was tall and blonde and white as marble, with clothes that matched her skin and a face like a cemetery angel. Her tail job wasn't subtle; she slowed when I slowed, stopped when I stopped, and was either lousy at her job or didn't care if I spotted her.

It wasn't the first time I'd been followed. Not by a long shot. Still, I took a second to screw my head on straight. Get over it and ditch her, I told myself, and started glancing up and down cross streets for a metro station, wondering what I'd done or who I'd ticked off enough to earn myself a shadow.

I'd gone nearly six blocks when a crowd of men and women spilled out of the building to my left and blocked the sidewalk in front of me. They were damp-headed, glassy-eyed, and moving slow. FYRE, the sign over the door said. HOT YOGA STUDIO.

I shifted toward the curb, brushed up against a parked SUV, noticed the second tail. This one was short. Turquoise streaked through her square-banged black hair. She wore skintight yoga clothes and carried a mat across her back, but she wasn't sluggish or soaked like the yogis leaving the studio. Her getup was all for show.

Shorty moved behind me; Blondie stuck close to the shops. I cleared the crowd, picked up my pace. At the next intersection, I caught sight of a station entrance a hundred yards to my right and crossed fast against the light, metro card in my hand before I hit the turnstiles. I swiped it, went through, looked back. My tails might not have used public transportation enough to have a pass, but they jumped stiles like pros. I kept moving, cutting behind strollers and slow-moving tourists. The pair stayed close, rolling off my picks like WNBA point guards.

The sound of an incoming train rumbled up the stairs to my left. I banked hard, ran down, dove through the mass of people shuffling toward the platform's edge. By the time the train screeched to a stop, I'd put three cars' worth of space between the pale women and me. The train doors opened. I hopped on. Three cars down, so did they. I hugged the pole just inside the door, fighting the crush of bodies as it tried to push me farther inside, ignoring the nasty looks I got for my trouble. The platform cleared. I crouched low and waited for the recorded voice to tell us to stand clear of the closing doors. The voice came. The doors' hydraulics kicked in. I dove for the platform.

All of me made it through. All of my clothes did not.

One corner of my jacket was pinched tight between the sealed doors, and I'd read enough horror stories in the paper to know that these were old, unforgiving trains with safety features that hadn't been state of the art since 1960. I dropped my bag, threw my shoulders back, and slipped the jacket off just in time to watch it disappear into the dark mouth of the tunnel ahead.

My eyes shifted to the car windows gliding past. This was supposed to be the fun part—the part where I got to grin a shit-eating grin and wave a smart-assed wave as my tails rolled helplessly by. Trouble was, they weren't on the train; they were fifteen yards down the platform and closing fast.

Turned out I wasn't so clever after all.

I made for the stairs to my right, trying to forget how much longer Blondie's legs were than mine. In a fair fight, I'd win nine times out of ten. Going two-against-one changed those odds, and not in my favor. So when I spotted a transit cop leaning against the ticket window, I nixed the idea of taking on the pair myself and hoofed it over to him fast.

"Sir, I saw two women back there acting really strange."

I was trying hard to catch my breath. He was trying hard to keep his eyes on my face instead of my chest.

"They went up to this abandoned bag sitting on a bench. It might have just been a yoga mat, but…" I dropped my head lower so he'd realize it wasn't my T-shirt talking. "I heard them say something to each other, and one of them picked it up. I know it's probably nothing, but with all the signs around saying we should report anything suspicious…"

I'd picked the right story. My chest got a lot less interesting.

"Is that them?" He pointed to my tails as they stopped short behind the turnstiles just a few feet away. It was the first head-on look at them I'd had, the first time I'd noticed the rings of pale gold circling the outside edges of their irises. All the better to see you with, my dear, I thought, shaking off a shudder and nodding to the cop.

"Stay put," he said.

I gave him my good-girl smile. "Yes, sir."

My tails bolted. The cop took off running. Once he'd cleared the turnstile, I headed up to the street, took a quick look around to make sure I was really alone, and told myself I'd have to do something about my problem with authority.


I snagged the first taxi I came to and slid down low in the slippery vinyl seat. The rolling lilt of a Hindi radio show filled the cab so that when I gave the driver my address, I couldn't tell if he was nodding at me or agreeing with the announcer. It wasn't until angry honks blared around us and we'd picked up speed that I sat tall, drew a full breath, and considered the particulars of my situation.

Since the Archer case was the only one to come across my desk in the last few weeks, it stood to reason that the women I'd just ditched had gone on the job sometime between Gemma showing up at my office and me leaving her place. That meant Oliver must have called them in, and that meant things were getting hot. Fast.

Back in Gemma's room, I'd squeezed her for more info on her family. She'd filled me in on Archer Construction and her mother's interior design business, told me how she and Oliver went to Chandler Academy, a ritzy private school where tuition cost an arm and two legs. I didn't like that she spent a lot of time alone in the apartment with her brother, but the way she told it, he'd all but ignored her for the last month. "He's not home much, and when he is, he mostly stays in his room or Dad's office," she'd said. "He never bugs me anymore."

Still, I'd made her promise to stay out of Oliver's way. "Act normal, don't go in his room, and don't let on that you think anything's wrong," I'd said. It had seemed like enough of a warning at the time. Now I wasn't so sure. I took out my phone and dialed.

"Hello?" Her voice was shaky as an old man on skates.

"It's Scarlett," I said. "What's wrong?"

Nothing came back but the fast breathing of a scared little girl.

"Gemma? Are you okay?"

"Oliver's really mad because I went into his room," she said.


I'd screwed up somehow, and now the kid was in trouble.

"It's just Mom again, Oliver," Gemma hollered, her voice loud but blunted, like she'd turned her head away from the phone. "I told her I'm sorry for messing with your stuff."

"Are you safe there, Gemma?" I asked.

"I'm fine, Mom. It's no big deal."

I could hear the lie in her voice. It made me uneasy. Oliver made me uneasy. And I was starting to think that the less time Gemma spent around him, the better off she'd be.

"Listen," I said, "is there anyone you could go stay with for a few days?"


"Can you get yourself over there today?"

"I think so."

"Good. Do it, and sooner rather than later. Once you're settled in, send me the address. And don't let Oliver get ahold of your phone. I don't want him figuring out you weren't talking to your mom."

"Sure, Mom. I can do that. But you know, things are so crazy I might not be able to finish my book report this weekend. Maybe I should stay home with Aunt Lucy on Monday so she can help me."

Smart, I thought. Gemma was telling me where she was going and asking if she should avoid being near Oliver at school, all in the same clever breath.

"Go to school," I said, "but only straight there and straight back home to your aunt's. Take everything you'll need for a few days, and stay close to adults you trust."

"All right, Mom. Love you."

"Be careful," I said.

"You too," she answered. And hung up.



  • * "This whip-smart, determined, black Muslim heroine brings a fresh hard-boiled tone to the field of teen mysteries."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • "Scarlett is tough and fiercely independent...The supernatural mystery is engaging and the Muslim American teenage sleuth will be a welcome addition to YA shelves...An heir apparent to Veronica Mars."—SLJ
  • "Latham's noir-flavored narrative is a lot of fun."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A delightful, unique blend of hardboiled detective story and Middle Eastern folklore...The action and suspense, as well as the engaging detective at its core, make this a worthy read."—Booklist
  • "Why didn't they have splendidly thoughtful and executed books for young adults when I was one myself? Jennifer Latham touches a deep pulse of teenage angst, introduces a grandly original P.I. heroine, and taps a yet-deeper pulse of 2015 America. Embracing a unique debut novel."—James Ellroy, bestselling author of L.A. Confidential and Perfidia
  • "Scarlett Undercover is a unique mystery, drawing readers into an underworld full of jinn and ancient family secrets. With its capable, relatable heroine, a twisting plot, and a cast of diverse characters, Latham's tale will keep you on your toes, turning pages long into the night."—Ryan Graudin, author of The Walled City
  • "Witty and suspenseful, Scarlett Undercover is an inventive mystery steeped in Islamic tradition, starring a hard-boiled heroine with a heart."—Sheba Karim, author of Skunk Girl
  • "One part snarky Veronica Mars in its noir-meets-adolescence setup and one part levelheaded Da Vinci Code with its religious symbolism-tinged quest."—The Horn Book
  • A Junior Library Guild selection
    A Kirkus Best YA Book of 2015

On Sale
Nov 1, 2016
Page Count
336 pages

Jennifer Latham

About the Author

Jennifer Latham is an army brat with a soft spot for kids, books, and poorly behaved dogs. She’s the author of Scarlett Undercover and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband and two daughters.

Learn more about this author