Adventures of a graveyard girl

Adventures Of A Graveyard Girl 

Funeral Crashing Series #2

 

By Milda Harris

 

Copyright 2012 by Milda Harris

http://www.mildaharris.com/

 

Discover other titles by Milda Harris:

Adventures in Funeral Crashing

The New Girl Who Found A Dead Body

Connected (A Paranormal Romance)

 

Cover Art by Brett Gilbert

http://www.brettgilbert.com

 

Edited by Lauren Cramer

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

 

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Homecoming Dancing

Chapter 2: Gawking

Chapter 3: Graveyard Crashing

Chapter 4: Secret Sleuthing

Chapter 5: Reconnecting

Chapter 6: Head Spinning

Chapter 7: Lunch Sleuthing

Chapter 8: Heart Breaking

Chapter 9: Jealousy Seething

Chapter 10: Mind Turning

Chapter 11: Eavesdropping

Chapter 12: Ex-Girlfriend Conning

Chapter 13: Pep Club Faking

Chapter 14: Police Chatting

Chapter 15: Zealous Sleuthing

Chapter 16: Funeral Crashing

Chapter 17: Eulogy Giving

Chapter 18: Football Following

Chapter 19: Murder Solving

Chapter 20: Status Learning

Excerpt - Doppelganger

Excerpt - The New Girl Who Found A Dead Body

About the Author: Milda Harris

 

 

 

Chapter 1: Homecoming Dancing 

I was going to the Homecoming Dance with Ethan Ripley, the most popular guy in school, even though I was the weird girl. Could life get any better? No, I didn't think so, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Wow, I couldn't believe how hot Ethan looked dressed up in a suit and tie. His tie was a bright blue and it made his eyes stand out even more than normal. I was already dying to run my hands through his dark, wavy hair. It was funny, I'd never really thought much past how amazing he already looked in just jeans and a T-shirt, but there was something about a suit and tie that made my stomach do loops. I just never knew that until this very moment. That was probably because this was my first time being on a date to a dance with a guy I thought was really hot already. Well, Ethan was actually my first date to a dance ever.

I thought I looked pretty good too, at least that's what I gathered from the double take Ethan did when he saw me as I answered the front door when he arrived to pick me up. I was wearing a silvery blue dress with spaghetti straps. It was just past the knee and flowing, yet clingy in all the right places. My shoes were these really amazing silver sandal heels and because I had a tendency toward the clumsy and always felt rickety in heels, I had practiced in them, so I wouldn't fall or, simply, look like an idiot walking in them. I had even gone through the trouble to get my hair done at a salon, so it was up in a twist with curls and I had a couple tendrils of hair framing my face. When I looked in the mirror, it was a little scary. It almost didn't look like me, especially after I put on my make-up. I almost wished I had gone to a makeup counter and had that done too. Then I really would have wowed Ethan. Next dance. It was hard to believe that I was already thinking about a next dance with Ethan! I couldn't help it. He was just so amazing. I was gushy about him, I'd admit to that. Well, to myself at least. He didn't need to know. I hoped that he was at least half as gushy about me. I mean, I thought I looked pretty great and I wouldn't normally be saying that.

Nobody would have known that I was in the hospital only a week ago. Yeah, that's right, the hospital and I did have a scar, but it was covered up as best as I could with make-up. I was shot while solving Ethan's half sister's murder case. The upside was that for two whole days afterward, Ethan stayed by my side almost around the clock. It wasn't that serious of a wound, thank goodness, but it was still nice of Ethan to stay with me. Ethan even brought me a couple peanut butter banana milkshakes from my favorite coffee shop, Wired. I love peanut butter banana milkshakes so that was super awesome of him. They are heaven on earth! He didn't need to do that either. Just having him to talk to and pass the time with would have been enough. Well, that and the kissing.

I mean, even though I was out sick from school and really had gotten injured, it had been a pretty amazing week just hanging out with Ethan. Ethan had gone back to school already, but I had hung out with him after school, when I wasn't out looking for a Homecoming dress, resting, and getting better. It was probably in that order too, but hey, I really needed a dress for the school Homecoming Dance!

That reminded me, I was going to have a ton of homework to catch up on when I did go back to school on Monday. I hadn't done anything besides read novels, watch movies, and recuperate and I knew I was going to be totally behind in my classes. I didn't look forward to that. My usual pile of homework was always enough work for me and only just balanced out okay with my after school job at the Palos Video Store. Focus, Kait, focus. You're about to be at the Homecoming Dance with Ethan Ripley, now is not the time to worry about making up homework or think about going back to work.

Ethan and I were about to walk into the Homecoming dance together. A few weeks ago I never would have believed that this moment could happen even in my wildest dreams. Just goes to show you, anything is possible!

We handed our tickets to the teachers at the front entrance and walked into the main hallway. There were a few couples talking in the hall, but I could see that the majority of them were down the way near the lunchroom and the gym. Ethan and I walked slowly down the corridor. We were about to make our entrance. I felt a little nervous.

"You ready for this?" Ethan asked, grinning down at me.

Ethan thought I was worried about nothing. He just didn't understand because of course, he didn't need to be worried, he was Ethan Ripley and used to the whole being popular thing. The only thing popularity had gotten me, though, was a weird girl reputation, so I was understandably nervous. The whole school was about to watch our entrance. That totally freaked me out.

I nodded despite my nerves. Still, I couldn't help but hold my breath as we walked closer and closer toward the area where the entire school was probably gathered, watching and gossiping about the arrivals of all of the new couples like we were on the red carpet of some Hollywood awards show. I knew we were going to be a huge target for the chatter. I braced myself.

Then we were in the lunchroom. I knew people were staring. I wasn't the expected girl that Ethan would bring to the Homecoming Dance and I knew it, even if he didn't seem to get it. People expected someone like my ex-best friend Ariel to be on Ethan's arm. She was popular and gorgeous and well, at the dance with someone else. A college guy, Troy Matthews, that I met and went out on a date with first and introduced her to, actually, even though she's my ex-best friend. I could see a circle of Ariel's friends and hanger-oners surrounding them at a table just inside the gym, next to the dance floor. Ariel was playing the - I'm here with a college guy card for all it was worth. That was so totally Ariel and one reason we weren't friends anymore. There were a lot of other reasons too, of course.

I knew I was being overly insecure about walking into the dance with Ethan and about what other people might think. I couldn't help it. The thought that the most popular guy at my high school might just actually like me back totally freaked me out. That sort of thing only happened in movies likeSixteen CandlesorShe's All That,not in some weird girl who crashes funerals' life. Yet, it was really happening to me. It was flipping me out, albeit in a good way.

"Want to dance?" Ethan asked, breaking into my a zillion miles per minute thoughts.
"Yes," I said, gratefully. Anything was better than standing in the lunchroom awkwardly, watching all of the people look back at us and gossip to each other.

Ethan didn't seem to notice, though. I really envied that quality about him - the obliviousness to all the gossips. He just went with it and then did his own thing, no matter what they said. It was pretty cool, actually. I admired him for that.

Ethan took my hand and led me toward the gymnasium. My heart did a little flip as his hand touched mine. I couldn't help but gasp as we walked all the way into the gym. It had been transformed into a romantic Homecoming Dance room. Yes, it was still the gym where I was forced to play basketball and volleyball (and I was horrible at both), but there was something about the decorations and all of the dressed up couples. Sure, the gym was only decorated with cheap streamers, balloons, handmade signs, and paper mache, but it was still breathtaking just because it was very simply, the most romantic moment of my life. At least it was the most romantic night so far.

I gripped Ethan's hand a little tighter. He smiled down at me. I smiled back at him. I wished it could all last forever.

Ethan led me toward the dance floor, past groups of people that I had stopped paying attention to because for me, it was suddenly just Ethan and I at the dance. For at least a moment, nobody else mattered. I didn't even care what song was playing. My first high school dance with a date and we were actually going to dance! He wasn't one of those - I don't dance guys, where you spend the whole night staring at each other and eating way too many of the chips and cheese and crackers because you have nothing better to do. I've been there and done that when I've gone by myself, which I did once.

It was freshman year and I'd gone to the Homecoming Dance alone, mostly to just see what it was like. Well, and my mom really wanted me to. I mean, the way everyone built it up, it was supposed to be this amazing dance, really romantic, and tons of fun, except that it totally wasn't. First off, Ariel, who was still kind of my friend at the time, ditched me for her new friends, Sarah and Megan. Ariel and I were already getting rocky in our friendship, but I didn't expect her to start making fun of me to her new friends when I approached her at the dance. I left after they started laughing at me. Then I spent about ten minutes trying to look absorbed in the food at the snack table. That was, until I noticed that Ariel and her friends were going group to group to say something mean about me. So, I hid in the bathroom for an hour before calling my dad and asking him to pick me up.

Actually, I ran into Ethan on the way out of the bathroom that night, now that I thought about it. He smiled at me in greeting as I walked toward the exit, while he walked back toward the gymnasium. He was being polite and didn't know me, I knew that even then, but the kernel of my crush started growing with that slight encouragement. We'd already met before, when my mom was in the hospital, but he didn't remember that, I didn't think. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of his head, a kernel of a crush had been growing for Ethan too that night. Maybe. Probably not, but Ethan still made my night by smiling at me even if it didn't mean anything. That night, it was the only encouragement I'd had - the one bright spot. I got home and my mom was already way sick with cancer by then and I didn't have the heart to tell her how much that Homecoming Dance totally sucked, so I told her about the boy who smiled at me outside of the bathroom instead. Consequently, my mom thought I had an amazing time because I had developed a crush. I was pretty gushy about that smile. I'd admit to that, but the truth of the matter is, crushing is never fun if it's unrequited. Now, once it's requited...that is a totally different story!


Page 2

At least I was finally getting that great experience I had heard so much about. I wished I could share it with my mom now, when it was actually true. A wave of sadness blew through me. I missed my mom. I wished she could have known that a mere year later, I'd be at the Homecoming Dance with the smiling boy I had gushed on and on about.

"Kait!" I heard a girl yell behind me and it shook me out of my thoughts.

Ethan and I had just reached the other dancers and were about to join them. I turned to look, wondering if the call was for someone else. I didn't really have any good friends in high school at the moment, but there was always a first. Ethan followed my gaze.

Surprised, I looked to see Suzie Whitsett dragging Kyle Jones towards us. I felt a sudden warmness fill my heart at seeing my friends from Chemistry class. This was the first time I had ever seen them outside of our Chemistry classroom and they were actually acknowledging me instead of pretending they didn't know me. It wasn't me being insecure, by the way, talking like that - it was the simple truth. Ever since my ex-bff Ariel and I had ceased being friends, I had become the freaky weird girl and I had stayed that way all through high school so far. So, this was a very nice first - being at the dance with a date and stopping to talk to what might just be blossoming from more than just lab partner friends into real friendships.

"You guys look so great," Suzie gushed. Normally she was the quiet girl, but since I had helped her and Kyle get together, it didn't seem like she was so quiet around me anymore.

I felt myself turn beet red at the compliment anyway, "Thanks. You guys too."

Suzie turned the full force of her smile on Kyle. He stared back at her like there was no other girl for him in the universe. They were such a ridiculously cute couple.

"Hey, man," Mike Finnigan said, suddenly appearing next to Ethan. He was at the dance with one of Ariel's bffs, Sarah, and had dragged her along to say hi to his best friend. I could tell Sarah wasn't so thrilled to see me, although she was probably taking mental notes so that she could relay them back to Ariel.

I looked around for Dave Rickerson who wasn't usually far behind Mike and Ethan, but he must have been dancing with his date. I wondered who he had brought to the dance. Wow, we were almost starting to form our own group, Ethan and I. It was an odd group too - a strange mismatch of popular kids and totally unpopular kids. Luckily, everyone was being nice to each other despite that, at least so far.

I was only just getting to know Ethan's friends, Mike and Dave, but I liked them a lot. They had come to visit me in the hospital even though they were just Ethan's friends. Their motto seemed to be that any friend of Ethan, was a friend of theirs and they thought it was really cool that I had helped him find out what had really happened to his half sister. Nobody had believed in Ethan's suspicions at first, that she had been murdered, except me, and Ethan had turned out to be right. The fact that I believed in Ethan and supported him in his search, thus, gave me mad points in Dave and Mike's book.

"You look hot, Kait," Mike said to me, to his date Sarah's annoyance.

Ethan smiled and squeezed my hand. He and I both knew that Mike was just trying to make me feel comfortable in their group. Still, I glanced at Sarah again and hoped she'd complain to Ariel about me. She didn't need to know that Mike was just being nice to me.

"Thanks, Mike," I said, smiling back at him.

There was a bit of a silence as our weird group took each other in. I tried to think of something to say to kick-start the conversation, but I was drawing a blank. Mike and Ethan were both sports nuts although Ethan also wrote songs and avidly read sci-fi novels. Kyle was mostly into all things science. Suzie liked to read about as much as I did, which was a lot. I had absolutely no idea what Sarah was into besides make-up and boys. We were all pretty different, actually.

"So, the gym looks pretty cool," I said lamely to our group, trying to break the awkward silence.

"The Pep Club decorated it," Sarah said proudly, like she was the Pep Club, instead of just a member. "Well, with the help of some other clubs too, but I was here until late last night decorating."

"It looks great!" Suzie said, chiming in.

Everyone took a second look around, as if just taking in the decorations. I mean, it was super romantic, but I just noticed it was themed too.

"I like the theme: A Night in Paris. Super romantic," I said, trying to keep the conversation going.

It was well done, actually. There was a big banner at the front of the gym, where the DJ was, announcing the theme for the night. A fake Eiffel Tower stood in the middle of the snack table, separating the snacks and the beverages. An Arc De Triumphe was the entranceway into the gym. The tables scattered around the dance floor were covered with white tablecloths and silver stars. The mood lighting was ultra romantic, with small fake candles sitting on the tables.

"Yeah, it was all Madison's idea. She's our club president. Ariel said it was her idea, of course, but I heard Madison suggest it first," Sarah said.

I stopped myself from asking more about what Ariel had said. Was Sarah really criticizing Ariel? Was there dissension among the new group of bffs? I was dying to know, but there was no way Sarah was going to give me any juicy gossip if I asked her. The group lapsed into silence again. What were we going to talk about?

"It looks very cool," Ethan said, trying to get the conversation started again.

The first notes of a romantic slow song were starting to play. I started swaying to the music. Couples formed all around us. We all watched them as we tried awkwardly to think of a conversation piece.

"So, how about we dance?" Mike asked Sarah.

"I'd love to," Sarah said.

"Bye guys," Mike said, as Sarah dragged him away, totally grateful at the chance to get away from us.

Kyle turned to Suzie, "You want to dance too?"

Suzie nodded and turned to us, "See you guys later."

Then they walked away too, hand in hand. Ethan and I were finally alone. We stared at each other, suddenly awkward with one another. I felt a little nervous. We had been about to dance before, but suddenly the air was charged with possibilities.

"Dance?" Ethan asked.

I nodded and took his hand. Ethan led me a little ways onto the dance floor and placed his hands on my hips, drawing me toward him. I hooked my arms around his neck. I caught the scent of his cologne. He smelled amazing. We started moving to the notes together, side to side. My stomach was doing nervous excited flips. Now this was the best moment of my life.

Ethan looked down at me and I looked up at him, our eyes meeting. I leaned up to kiss him. I really couldn't have asked for a more romantic Homecoming Dance moment. It was so perfect, but just as our lips were about to touch, we both jumped as the music stopped with a screech, ending in dead silence. Then I heard the girl screaming, and screaming, and screaming.

 

 

 

Chapter 2: Gawking 

Within about five minutes, they cleared everyone out of the school. I had never seen the staff and the students evacuate the building so fast. I think they did it even faster than during a fire drill, actually. It was pretty impressive.

The police arrived within fifteen minutes and I saw Detective Dixon among them. I recognized him right away from the Styrofoam cup he was carrying in his hand, which he promptly threw into the trash on his way into the building. I needed to send that guy an anonymous letter about recycling and the environment. Or, maybe I should just drop off a travel mug for him at the station. Anonymously.

Everyone was gossiping and rumors were rampant. The latest thread was that Casey Hunt had found a girl dead in the girl's bathroom. Casey was a junior and a popular girl wannabe, so some people were questioning if her story was even true or if it was an elaborate popularity stunt. In my head, I thought it could go either way. I wasn't a huge fan of Casey's, being that she, like Ariel, enjoyed making fun of me as long as it made her look cool. Still, the police being involved definitely made it look legitimate. I couldn't see Casey lying about finding a dead body and calling the police if it wasn't true.

Supposedly, Casey had been about to go in and pee, when she opened the bathroom stall, which was unlocked, and found a girl dead in the stall. According to the rumors, there was blood everywhere, like inKill Billstyle, but somehow I thought the gossip mill was starting to embellish the gore. We weren't in a slasher movie likeFriday the 13thor something. Someone would have heard the murder happen if it wasn't quick. So, the exact cause of death was unknown and probably greatly exaggerated by all of the student gawkers.

The thing was, nobody seemed to know who the dead girl was and if she was a date from another school or if she was someone we all knew. People were checking on their friends, to make sure they were okay. It was really kind of scary. I glanced around for the people I'd be worried about, like Kyle and Suzie from Chemistry class. And, of course there was Ariel, but I had to remember not to care too much about her. Still, I saw that she was okay and happily clinging to her date, Troy.

That's when I noticed that Troy was looking at me. I managed a smile. I liked Troy and if I hadn't been totally gaga over Ethan and been wrapped up in a murder mystery where Troy was the prime suspect when I first met him, well, we might have had a shot. Troy smiled back at me and waved. That's when Ariel noticed that he wasn't paying attention to her and started in on him. His attention quickly focused back on her. Poor Troy. What had I gotten him into by introducing him to Ariel?

I was happy to have Ethan by my side, holding my hand in his. He was actually pretty quiet now that I thought about it. I looked at him in concern. I totally understood if this was bringing back bad memories for him. I mean, we had only just solved his half sister Liz's murder and here there was another murder, mere weeks after her death. I wouldn't blame him for freaking out a little. At least her murderer was behind bars, awaiting trial, and would hopefully be put away for a long, long time.

"You okay?" I asked, squeezing his hand.

Ethan looked at me, like he just realized I was there. "Uh, yeah. Sorry. I was just thinking about Liz."

I nodded. I knew it. Ethan frowned at me.

"What?" I asked.

Ethan seemed to think better of what he was thinking, "Nothing."

"You sure?" I asked. Ethan really looked like he wanted to say something, but was torn about saying it. It felt like it might be important. I waited, watching him look at me indecisively.

"Well," Ethan started and then hesitated again. "I was just going to ask you not to get involved in all of this."

"All of what?" I was confused.

"The murder investigation," Ethan said simply.

This time, I frowned. "What makes you think that I would do something like that?"

Ethan smirked at me, "Do I need to remind you how impulsive you were when you stole off with Troy by yourself to get information out of him? Or, when you taunted Liz's killer and almost got yourself killed?"

Ethan did have a point. When I got it into my head that I was right, I didn't pay any attention at all to any realistic opinions even if they were coming from my crush object. I never realized I was so impulsive, though. I guess I really could be when I thought I was right. The thing was, I had done the right thing in all of those instances - those impulsive moments had helped us move forward and solve the case.

The funny thing about this whole conversation, though, was that I hadn't even thought about investigating this murder. Ethan had asked me to investigate Liz's murder with him. It hadn't been my idea. Well, okay, maybe I had offered to help him out of the goodness of my heart and my huge crush, but Ethan was the one who had started investigating first! So far, I hadn't even considered looking into this murder. I didn't think I had, at least. I mean, I was as curious as the rest of the student body about what had happened. It did just shock and freak out everyone at the Homecoming Dance, which I had been attending. For all I knew, it could have been me. That was scary. The poor girl. Her poor parents. They all deserved to know who killed her.

Okay, maybe Ethan had a point because now I suddenly did want to investigate the case. The way he was looking at me, though, sent off warning bells in my head. Even though I had successfully helped him solve his half sister's murder, Ethan didn't want me near this one.

"I promise," I heard myself whisper as I stared into his eyes.

Ethan smiled back at me and I saw the tension around his eyes, dissipate, "Thank you."

That's when I heard it. The girl in front of me whispered it to her date, but I suddenly heard a collective whisper as the gossip passed from group to group, "The dead girl is Madison Brown. She's a senior."

I felt a chill crawl up my spine and goosebumps form on my arms. Did I know her? The name sounded really familiar. I couldn't wait to go home and look up her yearbook picture to find out who she was or her profile, if it was public. It really could have been any of us. I wanted to find out who did it. Uh-oh. Suddenly I realized that it was going to be really, really hard to keep my promise to Ethan, maybe even impossible.


Page 3

 

 

 

Chapter 3: Graveyard Crashing 

I went to visit my mom at the graveyard most Sundays. In the spring, I planted flowers. I wasn't a gardener by any means, so I planted whatever was decently priced and pretty and hoped it would all look nice in front of the headstone. Mostly, I hoped they would make it through at least one season. I knew my mom wouldn't care anyway about what kind of flowers I'd planted. She'd just have appreciated my effort. Then, in the summer, I tried to keep the plants alive in the muggy and super hot heat. The fall had me trying to help them survive for as long as it stayed warm enough and when it finally turned toward winter, I brought cut flowers when I could and just laid them in front of the headstone.

When it was nice outside, I actually brought my lawn chair and a book and just spent the day with my mom at the cemetery. Is that weird? Maybe it was a little different to most people, but it was not totally unusual, actually. Culturally, people did it. Okay, maybe they didn't do it in American culture, but other cultures did have more rituals and customs concerning the dead and their spirits and the afterlife. Consider the Latin American holiday Dia de Los Muertos or in English, The Day of the Dead, where the celebrants build elaborate alters to the deceased and celebrate with their favorite foods and beverages. The intent is to encourage the spirits of the dead to visit their living loved ones. I think that sounds pretty nice, having my mom come and visit me. Still, I wanted to visit her more than once a year. I'd take what I could get on her part and just hoped her spirit stopped in when I was there.

Today, I planned on just sitting with my mom for the day at the cemetery. It was always quiet and serene there. It was probably a good place to meditate actually, if you were into that kind of thing. I needed to think. Originally, I planned to share the details of my date with my mom and the romance of the Homecoming Dance to make up for the lie about the one I went to when she was alive, but the murder at school the night before had shaken me up. I had even dreamt about it. I was a detective trying to solve the case, but just as I was about to uncover the real killer, I woke up. Figured. I hoped Ethan wouldn't be mad at me for dreaming about solving the case. I knew there was a part of me that wanted to do it in real life too, but I had promised.

I hadn't even gone home to look for Madison Brown in my school yearbook, like I wanted to. I stayed off of Facebook and her wall and didn't look at my Twitter stream to see what my fellow classmates had been posting about the dance and the murder. I had changed into my pajamas, taken the pins out of my hair, washed the make-up off my face so I wouldn't get a zit, and went to bed, cuddling with my cat, Scarlett. So, I had been good so far about keeping my promise to Ethan. Well, except for the dream where I had been a detective.

I set up my lawn chair, sat down, and turned on my brand new e- reader. My dad thought I'd love it and gave it to me when I was in the hospital. He was right. I was super excited about getting it. In fact, I was so excited, I didn't know what to download first. I mean, I loved my book, books and I'd always have a bookshelf of the real deal. The cool thing about the e-reader, though, was that it let me carry around a gabillion books at once. I could have my whole bookshelf with me at all times. It was almost as great as Wired's peanut butter banana milkshake. Almost. I had downloaded four books so far. Not that many for a week spent relaxing, but Ethan had distracted me for part of that too, well, him and getting ready for the Homecoming Dance.

I perused my books. I was going to read Amanda Hocking's bookSwitchedfirst. It was inspiring that she had become an indie bestseller and besides, I loved paranormal romance. So, if it was anything likeTwilightorThe Vampire Diaries, I was in. I was just about to start on the first chapter when I saw one of my graveyard friends. No, not one of the walking dead - zombies aren't real.

It was this little old lady who came to visit her husband's grave. Her name was Leonora Viola and she had to be in her late eighties, although I had never actually asked her specifically. She and her husband, Jacob, had this great love affair. They met as kids in the 1930s or something like that and he was the only boy she ever dated. They got married after high school and they lived happily ever after...until he died. She had never felt heartbreak until that day and it almost destroyed her. He was the love of her life and since now he was dead, she made it a point to visit him and keep him as a part of her life. It was the only way she could deal with it. Leonora complained about her kids, who tried to urge her to move on. She didn't want to move on or meet someone else. She was eighty plus years old. She didn't want to wash another man's socks and cook him dinner. She was done with that. Jacob had been the love of her life and there wasn't going to be another one like him. She had no urge to settle. Leonora wanted to spend her free time reading, knitting, and watching old movies, especially ones that she and Jacob had watched during their lifetime together. The rest of her time Leonora wanted to spend at the graveyard, chatting with her husband.

I know a lot of people would think that was totally weird and that Leonora should see a psychiatrist, but I thought it was sweet. Besides, she was eighty something and she didn't seem depressed or anything otherwise. Leonora knew she had a great life. She always talked about how lucky she was that she had met the love of her life so young, married him, and had a wonderful life with him. She still wanted him in her life, even if it was just chatting with him at the graveyard. Like me and my mom, this was the closest Leonora and I were going to get to a relationship with the people we had loved and lost.

So, despite the age difference, we had become great friends. We understood each other. While Leonora wanted to chat and spend time with her husband, I wanted to spend it with my mom. Most of the people in my high school didn't get that. I didn't blame them. Funerals, graveyards, and the like are creepy when you have your whole life ahead of you and don't even think you could possibly ever die. Most of the kids my age had never really known anyone that had died. Even if someone like their grandparents did, they considered them a billion years old and it didn't quite reach them that it was real and a part of life. I knew about real death, though, because of what happened to my mom. So did Leonora. Her kids misunderstood her too, just like the people in my high school. We weren't morbid, wanting to spend a day or two a week in the graveyard. We were visiting the people we loved.

"Morning, Kait," Leonora said, walking over to me after she said hello to her husband.

"Morning, Leonora," I said, putting down my e-reader.

"I read the story in the paper about the high school. Did you go to the dance? Are you okay?" Leonora asked.

She didn't know anything about the whole Ethan's half sister's murder mystery and that I had been shot. I hadn't been to the cemetery in weeks, actually. I had been too wrapped up in crushing on Ethan and solving the murder mystery. If Leonora had known about that, I knew she'd freak out. She liked me a lot, sort of like a granddaughter, really. It was sweet and I felt the same way about her. She was like my grandma and I didn't want to give her a heart attack or something by telling her. So, I just answered her question, without going into details about the real things I was thinking about - like Ethan, solving the murder, and my promise.

"I'm fine," I said. "And, I was at the dance."

Leonora grinned, ignoring the whole murder aspect of the Homecoming Dance immediately, "With a boy? Is it like I said with my Jacob? Did you feel that spark I told you about? Like the one I felt that day Jacob walked me home and I just knew?"

I tried not to smile too big. Leonora had known Jacob was the one since he walked her home from school one day when they were kids. Well, teenagers. It was hard to think of Leonora as my age, but she must have been about the same age when Jacob walked her home, give or take a year, and she fell head over heels in love with him that day.

Things were different now. Nobody walked girls home from school anymore. Well, basically nobody walked. And, Ethan and I had just started going out. I mean, I didn't know if we were technically even dating. How did you know? I mean, we had gone to the dance together and he had kissed me a few times before that. Was that dating? And, then if we were dating were we boyfriend and girlfriend? I mean, I thought you'd just know, but I didn't. It wasn't like we had decided on it or anything. It was all so confusing. Was it supposed to be as easy as just knowing like Leonora said? Was it bad that I didn't already know? Were we doomed? Now, I was suddenly worried. Wait, I didn't need to be worried. Ethan like liked me. I think.

I ignored my inner turmoil, not wanting to bother Leonora with my mental battle about the status of my and Ethan's relationship, so I smiled and said, "Um, I don't know. I mean, I like like him, but we just went to the dance together, so..."

"Maybe bring him by sometime?" Leonora asked hopefully.

I nodded before I thought better of it. Sure, Ethan knew I crashed funerals, but he didn't know I hung out in the graveyard and had graveyard friends. Did I want to introduce him to that world too? I wasn't so sure. He had been so accepting of the funeral crashing. That was one thing. Hanging out in graveyards was another. Still, I couldn't disappoint Leonora. All of my grandparents were dead. She was the closest thing I had to a grandma. It seemed kind of fun thinking about her meeting Ethan, eventually. Like, after we decided if we were really going out. I was a little afraid she'd interrogate him, actually, now that I thought about it.

"So, are you going to that girl's funeral?" Leonora asked.

"Who?" I asked and then remembered after I said it. My brain had been on Ethan, which sometimes glitched my brain into forgetting everything else. Leonora knew about my hobby crashing funerals.

"The girl from the high school who died," Leonora reminded me. "So sad. She was so young. Too young. In this day and age, I can hardly believe it when I read a story like that. You be careful, though. Sounds like some nutcase is on the loose."

I hadn't thought much about it. I mean, even if I wasn't investigating, should I go to Madison Brown's funeral? My brain had been focused mostly on Ethan and the dance in the last week and now, it was mostly on Ethan and the mound of homework from school that I was going to have. Well, and ignoring the fact that I wanted to investigate the murder. Normally, I'd have already found the girl's obituary and started doing research on her for the funeral. Since she went to my high school that would have been easy enough. I just had to pull out my yearbook and check Facebook and Twitter. Madison was bound to be somewhere in one of those online mediums.

"Maybe," I said, wondering if Ethan and I might make plans instead. "Depends on what else is going on."

Leonora looked at me knowingly, "Sounds like love to me."

I felt my cheeks turn pink. I wished I could hide my emotions better. This was embarrassing. I hoped Ethan couldn't read me like that yet. I wanted to be cool, sexy, and mysterious to him.

Leonora frowned, "Just make sure he treats you right. A gentleman should always open your door. And, don't let him kiss you right away. And, make sure you keep him on his toes. Make him work for your affections. And, don't always do what he wants you to - be your own woman."

"Okay," I said, almost choking on my saliva at the last piece of advice.

Leonora did have a lot of life experience and she was pretty much telling me to go with my gut on what I did with my life. Currently my gut really did want to solve this murder mystery. Was this life's way of telling me to go for it, despite my promise to Ethan?

I decided to clarify, to be sure, "So, Leonora, are you saying that you didn't always do what Jacob wanted you to do?"

Leonora looked at me incredulously, "Goodness no. If I did, we would never have done anything exciting. He was a homebody, always happy to stay at home and read the paper when he wasn't at work. I was the adventurous one and booked vacations for us and forced him to get out and see the world."

"Didn't he get mad at you, though? Like when he wanted to just stay home?" I asked.

I wasn't quite sure that investigating a murder was like getting your husband out of his lazy comfort zone and off the couch and into the world, but I was curious now about what Leonora would say. She did have a lot more life experience on the subject than I did.

Leonora sighed, "Sometimes. But that's the thing about love. He always forgave me, no matter what."

I nodded, pondering. That was a true enough statement, I thought. If Ethan really like liked me, he'd see that I had to investigate and find out what happened to Madison. I had even dreamt about it. I wanted to help, just like I had wanted to help Ethan find out what happened to his half-sister. It hadn't been all about my crush that time either. I genuinely wanted to make things as right as they could be in this messed up world, by giving the grieving left behind some kind of closure. He'll love me no matter what, I told myself. Or, well, at least like like me, since I didn't exactly know where we stood just yet on the whole love thing or even the dating thing. How did you find that out anyway?

 

 

 

Chapter 4: Secret Sleuthing 

Feeling immensely lighter at deciding to break my promise to Ethan, for his own good, and to keep us out of a comfortable box, I went straight home from the graveyard, dug out my yearbook and looked up Madison Brown. Even from her photo, it was hard to believe she was dead. She had this contagious smile and lopsided grin, like she was always smiling. She had short brown curly hair that looked like maybe it was permed, but it could have been natural with the help of some hair products. She was a senior this school year, so I didn't really know her and she wasn't in any of my classes, but besides recognizing her name from the night before, I found that she did look familiar for some reason. I stared at her picture, but nothing came to me. I looked at the list of activities under her name, wondering if that might give me a clue. Maybe she was a cheerleader or something, she kind of looked cheer-y.


Page 4

Then I saw it. Madison was in a club: Pep Club. The group that had helped decorate the dance last night according to Sarah. I looked at Madison's picture again. It totally fit with that grin of hers, actually, but that's where I knew her. I had idiotically tried to join Pep Club at the beginning of the school year and it had been a total disaster. My dad had drilled it into my head that I needed to start thinking realistically about colleges. My grades were decent. They were nothing like the straight A's Ethan got or anything. Still, I mostly got A's and B's and I was pretty happy and proud of that. Although, I would have done cartwheels if I ever got straight A's. There was always just one class, though, and usually at least two that always prevented that from happening.

Anyway, I thought Pep Club would be something easy to do, as far as clubs went. I mean, you just went to games and made signs and stuff. It was all about school spirit. I could do that without too much effort. And, I didn't mind the effort of a club or anything. There were just no clubs that I really wanted to join. Still, my dad said I had to join something and so, I decided on Pep Club.

I knew the cheerleaders, the jocks, and most of the popular kids went to all the games from football to basketball to whatever, but people like Ethan went to all the games too. And, I had already thought he was cute. So, what was wrong with spending a night here or there watching some cute guys play sports and cheering them on? Especially if one of those guys was Ethan?

It sounded like a good idea at the time, but when I got to the first Pep Club meeting, I found Ariel there. Sarah and Megan were probably there too, but I focused on Ariel. I mean, didn't she have boys to chase or something? How did she have time for Pep Club and shopping too? Still, for her, I guess it was an easy club. She was already cheer-y.

So, long story short, the day I signed up for Pep Club, I quit. My name was still on the list, though, and I never actually quit, quit. I just never made it to the meetings. I still planned on putting it on my college applications. I did go to the first meeting, after all. I had the rest of the year to attend another one too, to make it really official. Two meetings was enough, right?

Still, that day proved to be important in terms of my investigation. I remembered Madison pretty well. She was the President of Pep Club. She was super into it too and tried to get all of us potential new people excited and peppy about joining. I've never seen someone so on, unless they were onstage, but this girl was totally all over the place and trying to ramp us up. It would have been a really fun and energetic club meeting too, if Ariel hadn't spent it giving me dirty looks at crashing her club meeting. At one point, I got frustrated enough that I wanted to walk over and tell Ariel off. I didn't know that she was going to be there and the looks were getting super annoying. Not that I was actually going to talk to Ariel and tell her that. I'd let Ariel think that I was trying to follow her or emulate her or something. That was a better revenge. Besides, Ariel would think it anyway. She was narcissistic like that.

I was sure I had seen Madison in school too, but it was definitely that day in Pep Club that I remembered her from. She had been so full of life. Why would anybody want to kill her? And, why at the Homecoming Dance? There were way more private places to kill someone. Was it a crime of passion instead of a planned and thought out crime? That was something to really consider. It would be way better to go after someone in a dark alley than a crowded dance and it wasn't like girls weren't in and out of the bathroom every few seconds fixing their hair and make-up. I was surprised nobody had seen anything.

It occurred to me that school on Monday was going to be insane. Madison Brown's murder was going to be the talk of the entire student body. There hadn't been a tragedy like that in my school since I had been there, so it was going to be interesting to see the after effects. I wondered if they were going to close off the bathroom near the gym that they had found her in. I knew I wasn't going to be paying it visits anytime soon. I'd have to find out which stall too and definitely avoid it. I wondered if prom would be cancelled even though it was seven months away. Would Ethan have asked me? I ignored the thought, instead just hoping that Ethan wouldn't still be mad at me by then for breaking my promise to him regarding investigating the murder. It was important that the case be solved, although a prom date when it came time would be nice too.

I wondered how Madison's friends and family were doing. I felt really bad for them. I knew how big of a hole a loss like that could be, especially when it came so unexpectedly and totally blew your world apart. I opened a window on the internet and logged onto Facebook. I hadn't been friends with Madison, but her profile was public so I was able to check it out without a problem. Her wall was filled with posts from grieving friends. I read through them one by one. Madison sounded like an amazing girl. She seemed like the real deal - smart, nice, peppy, and she had tons of friends. I almost wished I had decided to stay in Pep Club and gotten to know her. Then I reminded myself that doing so would have meant a lot of quality time with Ariel making posters and going to games and I knew it would never have happened.

From Madison's Facebook page I garnered a few tidbits about her: She was a big fan of Lady Gaga. She kept posting lyrics from her songs as her status updates. Her favorite movie wasThe Notebookbecause it made her cry. On an opposite note, she was a huge sports fan. It looked like she even took part in a fantasy football league, which was so not in type with how she looked. Still, guys probably thought it was super hot. And, Madison loved, loved, loved the Pep Club. There were tons of pictures of her at games, making posters, and cheering her heart out. She was all about the school spirit.

I also noted that I knew some of Madison's friends. I didn't know if they were close friends because it was Facebook and Madison might have just added people and well, I didn't know, know them exactly. Like, we weren't friends, but they were in some of my classes and in my grade, so I knew of them even if we never really talked. I wondered if I should start by talking to them, to get more of an idea about her and who might have had reason to kill her. Then it occurred to me that I might weird them out by doing that. I had never spoken to them before this and the first thing I did when I finally talked to them, was talk about a murder. Yeah, they might legitimately think it was weird.

I opened a window outside of Facebook and googled Madison Brown's name to see if there had been an obituary posted. It was already online, including the date, time, and location of the wake and funeral. That had happened fast.

Madison Brown, 18, died Saturday. She was an honor student at Palos High School. Her motto in life was to live life to its fullest. She always did and will be sorely missed. She is survived by her parents Jennifer and Kevin Brown and her sister, Lana Brown. The wake will be held on Friday from 3-9 pm at Palos Funeral Home. The funeral is Saturday at 10 am.

It was so sad, but at the same time I was surprised. I thought maybe they'd keep the body a little longer to do forensics stuff. Then again, we were in a small Illinois suburb. They probably didn't have a forensics unit. Maybe I watched too muchCSI.Actually, I almost felt sorry for Detective Dixon. He was probably buried in paperwork after this sudden jump in the city's murder rate in the last couple of months.

Still, Madison wasn't being buried until late in the week. The police must be holding the body for forensic evidence or something. Usually, people got the funeral over with quicker than that for the simple fact, that you had to get it over with, in order to start moving on with your grief.

Actually, I didn't feel the full extent of my grief over my mom until after her funeral. It hit me a couple of days after and I couldn't get out of bed. At that point, my dad wanted to take me to the doctor and get me on antidepressants, so I dragged myself out of bed and went to school. I'm not a big fan of pills and in my opinion I kind of had a reason to be sad, you know? I was pretty okay after that. Especially after I started funeral crashing and visiting my mom at the graveyard. She kind of found a way back into my life again. What had destroyed me so much after the funeral was that I had thought I lost her entirely, but she was still out there even if it wasn't in exactly the same way.

I found myself thinking back to the dance. If it was a murder of passion, did Madison have a fight with her killer at the dance? Was it someone Madison knew and was friends with? Maybe it was even one of the people posting a sympathy comment on her Facebook wall? Or was it an enemy, someone that hated her for some reason? I looked back on Madison's Facebook page. She was listed as single. I wondered if she had any exes to worry about or a new potential guy that could have turned killer. I knew how that is he or isn't he my boyfriend thing went, so it was also possible that she wasn't single at all. I mean, I was still listed as single on Facebook, technically, and what were Ethan and I? I hoped I wasn't sabotaging myself on that front.

I ignored my thoughts of Ethan and pulled a blank notebook out of my desk drawer. I always kept a couple in case I needed one for school to replace the one I had filled up. I was an excessive note taker. It probably wasn't a good thing. I wanted to write everything the teacher said down, which meant I also had a lot to study when it came time to prepare for a test.

I started writing down the names of Madison's friends. There were over three hundred of them on Facebook. That was a lot of suspects. I stopped. What was I doing? Nobody had asked me to investigate Madison Brown's death and here I was starting to write up a list of potential killers to start crossing suspects off. What was wrong with me? I had almost gotten myself killed investigating the murder of Ethan's half sister. Ethan was totally right. I should stay out of this.

I felt torn. I wanted to investigate the murder and find out what happened. I knew I didn't get to really talk to Madison that day in Pep Club, but she seemed really cool. She definitely didn't deserve to be murdered. I wanted to find out who did it and who took her life away like that. Maybe she would have become the first female president or something equally as cool and society changing amazing, but now it was never going to happen.

I thought about my mom. If I could have prevented her death I would have done it in a heartbeat, but cancer was her killer. Madison's parents didn't even have that knowledge. She was just killed by some unnamed person in her high school girl's bathroom during a dance. It wasn't right. Madison deserved justice. And, besides, what if the killer didn't stop with Madison? What if he or she killed someone else? I couldn't let that happen knowing that maybe my investigation could have stopped it from happening.

I ignored the little voice in my brain that was telling me that I had almost died the last time I had been involved in a murder investigation. The other part of my brain was telling me that there was no way Detective Dixon was going to solve this case without my help. Hey, it had been true the last time.

I continued with my list of potential killers, throwing out names that didn't seem plausible at all. There were twenty-three names in all that I thought were possibilities from their comments on Madison's wall. They were all guesses, in the thought that Madison was killed by someone she knew, in the heat of the moment. Where did I start? The killer might not even be on my list. I didn't know Madison well enough to know if there were other people that could have found a motive. I didn't even know anyone on the inside, who knew Madison well, that I could easily talk to.

An idea I didn't like occurred to me. I scanned through the Facebook posts on Madison's wall again. Ariel had quite a few posts on her wall and not just since Madison died. Madison wasn't one of Ariel's best friends like Sarah or Megan because I saw Ariel with those girls all the time, but Madison definitely seemed like a friend of sorts to Ariel, if the following wall banter counted for anything:

Ariel:Can't wait to mall it up!

Madison:Pizza!

Ariel:Salad! You want to fit in the dress right?

Madison:Only if I can have pizza.

Ariel:Fine. No pepperoni. And we blot the cheese with a napkin.

Sounded like they went Homecoming dress shopping together. That's a big deal for a girl, especially one as into looks, clothes, and popularity as Ariel. So, it looked like Ariel and Madison had grown decently close since the start of the school year. They even had some Pep Club pictures together, making posters. I hated to admit it, but Ariel actually looked happy in the photos and like she was having fun. Maybe I just hadn't seen that side of Ariel in a long time. At this point in our relationship when we were together, Ariel usually scowled at me or made fun of me. Neither was pleasant.

I thought for a moment. Ariel would definitely be the easiest person for me to talk to about Madison, in that I probably could get her to talk to me, if I tried. She did owe me one for roundaboutly introducing her to Troy. I looked through some of the other people who looked to be friends with Madison. Even with going to the dance with Ethan, I was doubtful that they'd open up and talk to me about their friend. I was still the weird girl even if I was dating one of the most popular guys in school. We were technically dating right? I stopped my brain right there and went back to my original train of thought. Yeah, they'd probably think I was obsessing about their friend because she died or something creepy and weird like that and then they probably wouldn't talk to me about anything significant. It could ruin my investigation entirely if people didn't talk to me at all and the graveyard girl rumors spread like fire again.


Page 5

Yeah, Ariel was the lead I'd have to take. Surely, my ex-best friend would take a moment out of her day to talk to me if...if I made her. The question was, would I be able to survive the conversation?

 

 

 

Chapter 5: Reconnecting 

I suppose I should have called. At the time just showing up at Ariel's house on a Sunday in the late afternoon seemed like a better idea. Ariel wouldn't be able to say no to talking to me (followed by hanging up on me or calling me names and then hanging up on me) and that was right, but what I didn't consider was Ariel's mom answering the front door.

"Kait? Kait Lenox?" Mrs. Walker said in surprise.

Mrs. Walker looked the same. I nodded, feeling suddenly nervous. I hadn't considered Ariel's parents. I hadn't seen them in eons and there had never been an official goodbye to them, even though for a period of time, both sets of parents were like my own since Ariel and I spent so much of our time together. What did Mrs. Walker even think of the whole situation? She had to take Ariel's side. Ariel was her daughter.

So, I was a little shocked when Mrs. Walker's surprise quickly turned to excitement. She was happy to see me. That was actually sort of nice. I found that I was glad to see her too. It really had been too long. Too bad I wasn't sure that Ariel was going to be having the same aw-this-is-a-nice-visit reaction.

"How are you? What have you been up to? How are your classes? Have you thought about colleges?" Mrs. Walker asked in a breathless rush, like she knew I'd have to leave once Ariel came into the picture and she wanted to get all the questions out in time before then, "I haven't seen you in such a long time. Are you here to see Ariel?"

"Yes, actually," I started, thinking rapidly. "I just needed to get some notes from her. I spilled pop all over mine and I know she has the same class."

Mrs. Walker considered this, "You know, you should stay awhile. You girls haven't hung out in ages and you were such good friends. I'll make a pizza."

I froze. I didn't want to disappoint Mrs. Walker, but I doubted Ariel was going to want me to stay the thirty minutes it took to make a pizza. Ariel probably wouldn't want me to stay the length of time it took to make a bag of microwave popcorn, which on my microwave was three minutes. I had it down to a science.

"Ariel!" Mrs. Walker called before I could think of a way to dissuade her from making the pizza, "Ariel! There's a friend here to see you!"

"What, Mom?" Ariel screamed from her room up the stairs.

I heard Ariel's bedroom door open and then listened to her heavy barefoot footfalls as she walked to the top of the stairs. I had a clear view of Ariel as she froze there, in shock at seeing me in her house. We stared at each other.

"It's Kait, Kait Lenox!" Mrs. Walker said, as if she had to clarify this to Ariel, who I've gone to school with and known since forever, "Isn't it nice that she came over?"

Ariel declined to reply and instead walked down the stairs slowly, as if she was trying to give herself time to figure out what in the world I might be doing at her house. By the time she made it to the bottom of the stairs, Ariel had a deep frown on her face. She was definitely thinking something.

Ariel put on a fake smile for her mom, "Yeah, it's great. We're going to go talk in my room, Mom. Okay?"

"Great! I'll make that pizza," Mrs. Walker said, running off to the kitchen before Ariel could try and dissuade her. She seemed so happy. Both of us just looked after her helplessly.

"Ariel," I said, as soon as her mom seemed out of earshot.

"Let's talk upstairs," Ariel said and motioned me to follow her to her bedroom. "My mom will totally eavesdrop if we talk down here."

As much as I hated to admit it, I knew Ariel was right. Her mom was so excited that I was over at their house that she'd be dying to find out what we were talking about. She probably had this misplaced idea that maybe I was there to make up with Ariel. I was sorry to disappoint her. If that was ever going to happen, Ariel would have to make up with me. And, just to use the cliché saying because in this case it was probably true - it would be a cold day in hell if that ever happened.

Besides, if Ariel was going to flip out on me and throw me out, I'd rather her do it out of earshot of Mrs. Walker. I was kind of glad Mrs. Walker still liked me, even if Ariel didn't. They really had been a second family to me for a long time when we were friends. Then when I lost Ariel's friendship, I lost them too.

I was in Ariel's bedroom for the first time in just over two years. It was amazing how much it had changed. When we were friends, her walls had been decorated with pictures of us and ripped out pictures of celebrities from our favorite movies and television shows. Now, all of the posters were gone. Her room had become more adult with white bare walls with red trim and a pop art looking painting of a sky of hearts on one of the blank walls of the room. The only traces of the old Ariel I knew were on her makeup table and her mess of a closet - full of trendy up-to-date clothes. She had always been all about being a girly girl and loved fashion and makeup. I should have seen the popular girl high school train coming from a long ways away, but I had thought our friendship could survive anything. It had survived junior high intact, after all. Still, I was wrong. High school was a whole different animal.

Ariel shut the door and turned to me, seriously, as soon as the lock had clicked into place, "I'm dating Troy. You have Ethan. End of story."

It took me a second to follow her train of thought. Ariel thought I wanted to talk about Troy and dating him again. The one and only time I had dated Troy, I had been helping clear him as a murder suspect in Ethan's half sister's murder. The date, unbeknownst to Troy and Ariel, had been a ruse to get information out of him. Troy was pretty cute and maybe if I wasn't dating Ethan, I'd go out with him again, but I would never in a million years try and steal a guy away from a girl. Even if that girl was Ariel. It just wasn't my style. I believed in true love and I wasn't going to be the reason someone else broke up.

"This isn't about Troy," I said, simply.

"It's not?" Ariel looked confused. "Then what do you want?"

"I wanted to ask you about Madison Brown," I said.

"What? Why?" Ariel looked suspicious. "Are you trying to get into her funeral or something?"

"No," I shook my head, "It's not about funeral crashing. You seemed like you were her friend and I just wanted to know a little bit about her."

"Are you going to her funeral?" Ariel asked flatly.

I was honest, "Probably. I genuinely want to know about her, though. I'm not trying to exploit her. I mean, does that really seem like something I'd do? You know me, Ariel, even if we aren't friends. I know you remember all the sleepovers we had and the best friend bracelets and stuff, you know who I am. I genuinely want to know about Madison. I swear."

"But why?" Ariel asked again. "There has to be some kind of angle. I mean, you showed up at my house and talked to my mom. That's crazy."

"I know," I said. I thought fast. Should I be honest with Ariel? Or not? I felt weary about it. The last time I had been honest, Ariel had told the whole school about how I crashed funerals. From then on, I was a graveyard girl. Not a good nickname for a high school girl if you ever wanted to have a social life, even a small one.

The funeral crashing started about a month after my mom's funeral. I was still really struggling and I happened to catch the obituary section of my dad's newspaper. Yes, he still got the real paper. He was old school and liked the idea of the real thing. I started reading them and found myself fascinated that so many people died. I mean, it made sense, but I never really thought about it until it happened to my mom. People died all the time, of course, but until then it hadn't happened to someone I knew. Then I saw there was a wake being held that night, just after I got out of school. So, I decided to go. The people there would know how I felt. I wouldn't be alone.

It was the best decision I ever made. The deceased name was Jacob Viola. That's right. That's how I met Leonora. Her husband's funeral was the first one I crashed, although we didn't talk too much that night. I was sort of out of it when I went. It immediately brought back memories of my mom. Some people started talking to me and I had no idea about any of the rules to not getting caught funeral crashing and said I was a relative when someone asked how I knew the deceased. They assumed I was a granddaughter and brought me over to say hi to grandma. Except, Leonora didn't know me. That's when Ariel swooped in and saved me, even though she didn't know that's what she was doing. I had made a fateful mistake. It turned out Leonora was Ariel's great aunt and Jacob was her great uncle.

Ariel claimed me as her friend and then took me off to the outside back of the funeral home to talk. At first, Ariel, very typically, thought it was all about her. She thought I had stalked her to her great uncle's funeral. That was so not true. I wouldn't have come if I'd known Ariel would be there. We weren't friends anymore and she made fun of me every chance she got. Still, I, in a moment of weakness, admitted that I was funeral crashing. I tried to explain how alone I felt and why, but Ariel must not have heard me continue on after my grimly shocking revelation. Thus, Ariel found out the one thing that I would have definitely kept a secret if I had taken the time to think about it and hadn't been in a really vulnerable state of mind.

I trusted Ariel and of course, she took the opportunity to blab it to the rest of the universe known as our high school. I guess it would have been a totally awful night if I didn't run into Leonora as I was trying to get out of there, away from Ariel and her freaking out about my weirdness and wondering how we had ever been friends. Leonora had stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. I was crying and she stopped to ask me what was wrong and then we connected despite the vast age difference. Leonora started telling me about Jacob and I started telling her about my mom and it was like kismet. It's the one thing I really love about funerals, the sharing of stories and the remembering of loved ones who were gone. It created a bond between Leonora and I, although I made sure she never told Ariel about it. Leonora, at least, could keep a secret.

I hesitated a little longer as I thought about if I could tell Ariel the truth about investigating Madison's murder. I knew Ariel and deep down a part of her still had to be the same girl with whom I had grown up. When we were kids, Ariel and I really were the best of friends. I had one memory when Ariel had this favorite toy. We were about five. It was this doll that Ariel always carried around. For some reason, I took a fancy to it and asked her if I could borrow the doll. Her name was Miranda. Ariel freaked out and burst into tears, but after her mom calmed her down, Ariel let me borrow the doll because I was her best friend. It was only for a day, but still. Her mom didn't force her. She wanted to lend it to me to be nice because I was her friend. That had to still be there, somewhere inside of Ariel.

I took a deep breath and then just said it. Maybe it was foolish, but a part of me hoped that Ariel had grown as a person in the last year and wouldn't just announce my plans to the whole school so that she had some ammunition with which to make fun of me, "I'm investigating Madison's death. I want to find out who murdered her."

"What?" Ariel looked at me in shock. "Are you crazy? You almost died like a week ago and now you want to go chasing after some murderer again?"

I was shocked into silence. She and Ethan had the same reaction to my investigating this murder. That was weird, right? They should in no way be on the same wavelength. Ever.

"Yeah," I said finally.

"Why?" Ariel asked, frowning at me.

I thought about this for a moment. "I just feel like her parents and the people who loved her deserve some answers. They should know who did this to her and why, so they can be caught, charged with murder, and go to jail. If my mom's cancer could have been locked away in prison, I'd feel much better, but all I can do about that is donate to Ovarian Cancer Research and try to do Cancer walks. I'm totally for both of those and I do think they really help the cause, but at least with Madison, I can personally dig around and see if I can find anything out. Maybe I can help her family and friends deal with what happened."

Ariel looked at me like I was insane, "But that's the police's job."

"Yeah, I know," I nodded. "And, they're great at it, but if I happen to find something out, it's not going to hurt. And, I'll tell them all about it. I swear. I'm not dying to get shot again or anything."

"Wow," Ariel said, "I never thought I'd say this, but you should just stick to funeral crashing."

I shrugged. Ariel was probably right, but I couldn't help myself. I wanted to find out what happened to Madison and who was it going to hurt if I did a little asking around about her friends and enemies? If I didn't find anything out, nobody would even know and if I did find something, I'd go straight to the police. I, in no way wanted to put myself in danger again. I had learned more about hospitals in the last week than I cared to know.

Ariel sighed, "But you're not going to, are you? I just don't get you, Kait. You can be so totally smart, but sometimes you just throw it away on the wrong things."

That's where Ariel didn't understand me and it was the crux of why we had stopped being friends. Our values were different. She coveted the acceptance and admiration of her peers. For her, the wrong things were anything that didn't make you popular. As much fun as popularity looked, I didn't actually need it. So, those things that Ariel thought were important, didn't mean anything to me. Sure, it made life a lot easier if people thought you were awesome, but I shouldn't have to be someone I wasn't for that to happen. I was just me and that was all I wanted to be.


Page 6

"I am who I am," I said.

Ariel looked at me and seemed about to say something, but changed her mind as she exasperatedly said, "Fine. You want to know about Madison? I'll tell you all I know about her. Where should I start?"

Mrs. Walker chose that time to knock on the door. Ariel and I froze as if we were doing something wrong by being in her room together, talking like almost friends.

"Pizza's ready!" Mrs. Walker yelled through the door.

It had only taken Mrs. Walker about fifteen minutes to make the pizza. She must have known my time was limited. Mrs. Walker was using her time wisely to keep me there a little longer by forcing me to eat.

Ariel unlocked the door and Mrs. Walker brought in the pizza. I didn't realize how hungry I was until I smelled the freshly baked dough and cheese. Yum. Ariel didn't look as thrilled. She was probably on a diet. I remembered her wall banter with Madison about eating salad and not pizza. I took a big bite of my slice and looked at Ariel curiously, as she blotted away at hers with a napkin, getting off all the grease.

"So, you were friends with Madison?" I asked again, after Ariel had relocked her bedroom door and we were sure Mrs. Walker was out of earshot.

"Yeah," Ariel said, taking a tentative bite of her pizza, "We were both in Pep Club together. That's how I met her, actually. She was a senior and I mean, I saw her around school because she was always involved in stuff, but we had never talked until the beginning of this year when I joined Pep Club."

"What was she really like?" I asked and took a big bite out of my slice of pizza. It was good. I wondered what brand Mrs. Walker bought. We needed some more good pizza to eat in the freezer at home.

"She was amazing," Ariel gushed, thinking about her friend, "I mean, Sarah and Megan are my bffs, but Madison was really starting to be a good friend. I mean, we just went shopping for Homecoming dresses together and I don't just go to the mall with anyone."

I knew that was a dig at me, but I ignored it. In the weeks before our friendship had blown up, Ariel blew me off to go shopping at the mall with other friends - namely, her new, more popular, cooler friends, Sarah and Megan.

"Can you be more specific?" I asked. "Like what were some of her key character traits?"

"She was really positive and upbeat although she could be a little sarcastic like you sometimes. It was just in a funny way. She was a lot of fun to be around," Ariel said. "Like when we were dress shopping, she said the funniest thing and..."

Ariel froze. I could see that it had just occurred to her that Madison wasn't going to be making any more funny comments, ever. Ariel's eyes started tearing up. I didn't know what to do. I would have hugged my old best friend, but since we weren't friends, I wasn't sure how to react.

I moved toward her, but Ariel stepped back in reaction and wiped at her eyes quickly. I tried not to feel hurt as I saw the mask come down over Ariel's face, hiding her emotions from me. She was always trying to maintain the cool. It finally occurred to me how really hard that must be for Ariel to do, especially when she was hurting.

"What about her close friends? Who were they?" I asked, trying to ignore what had just happened. I knew Ariel would prefer it. Besides, I had an idea about this from the posts on Madison's Facebook page, but it would give me more evidence if Ariel actually told me who her friends were.

"Leslie Frank, Dana Julian, and Desiree Reed were her closest friends, I'd guess," Ariel said.

I nodded, " They were in Pep Club too, right?"

"Yeah," Ariel said, "Why didn't you stay in Pep Club anyway?"

Ariel remembered that I was there. Why did she care if I quit anyway? I mean, I couldn't exactly tell Ariel that seeing her there had made it a total turn-off for me to ever go to another one of the meetings again, especially since Ariel was being so nice to me at this very moment. I didn't want to piss Ariel off just as she was opening up to me.

I shrugged, "I just got caught up with school and work and stuff. No time."

"Funeral crashing?" Ariel said haughtily.

So much for Ariel being nice. Still, I ignored her, "So, did Madison ever fight with her friends or anything?"

"You think they might have killed her? That's laughable. You are so not good at this detective thing," Ariel said. "They're so upbeat and awesome. No way."

"Well, I have to ask and not assume," I said flatly, refusing to take Ariel's bait to start a fight.

"Well, if you asked me who might have had a good reason to murder Madison, I'd tell you to check out Noah Robertson," Ariel said pointedly. "Noah definitely had a reason to off Madison."

I didn't know Noah Robertson, although I vaguely thought he was a football player. I'd have to look him up in my yearbook and online to get a clearer picture of him.

"And what was that reason?" I asked.

Ariel paused for effect, "Well, Madison was all excited after the first football game and she was jumping around, doing cartwheels and stuff. We were all goofing around. Noah wasn't paying attention and she accidentally tripped him. It was a total accident, but Noah broke his leg and he's a senior, so that means he won't get to play his last season when it might be important for college scouts to see him. He was super upset about it and harasses her all the time now. Well, harassed. I'd say Noah Robertson should be your number one suspect."

 

 

 

Chapter 6: Head Spinning 

My head was spinning by the time I got home. For one thing, I had just spent over an hour talking and hanging out with Ariel and we hadn't killed each other. Sure, there had been moments where we almost went for each other's throats, but all in all, it was almost kind of, sort of, dare I even think it...fun? I mean, besides the very somber topic of death and murder. Still, things had gone so well, it had to be an anomaly. Ariel and I didn't hang out...anymore.

More importantly, I hadn't thought about Ethan in at least three hours. Oh, and I had my first murder suspect. Of course, I wouldn't have a chance to try and purposely run into Noah Robertson until tomorrow morning at school.

I also needed to track down Casey Hunt and hear her account of finding the body. That was where Detective Dixon had a leg up on me. He had a legitimate reason to ask people about a murder case. I didn't. Still, I was hoping Casey might talk to me. I was hoping she'd talk to everyone, actually, just to keep the gossip train focused on her. She did like the attention, normally. That would make it easier for me to approach her anyway, if she was being super open about it. Casey might have seen something that could help me pinpoint the killer. I could only hope.

Going back to school after having been out of school for a week was always a shock. Everything changed and yet it was like you had never left. Even though I didn't really have any friends, I still missed out on any of the little dramas that made school interesting. Okay, maybe I did listen to some of the gossip. It was definitely more captivating than some of the lectures. It was like a real life soap opera going on around me, you know? And, speaking of getting behind, need I mention, all the homework? The teachers were all sad and sympathetic that I had been in the hospital, but not enough to let me out of doing the assignments entirely. In fact, I had to make-up everything. It was so unfair. Did they know how much work that was going to be?

Everyone was a little distracted, though, at school. The high school had used the murder as an incentive for better security since it was obvious that the "it will never happen at our school" attitude wasn't true. Metal detectors were being installed at all of the entrances and a couple of off duty policemen were stationed at points around the school. It was definitely about time for us to catch up with the times. It's sad it took a tragedy to make the school revamp their school safety protocols.

Besides that, the murder of Madison Brown was by far the hot topic of the school and to my dismay, Casey Hunt was nowhere to be found. The rumor was that she was hiding out at home. It was totally out of character for her, but Casey had found a dead body, so maybe she was still in shock or having a nervous breakdown. I could understand that. The gossip vultures were definitely going to pounce once Casey came back to school and she should be ready for it. It was disappointing, though, Casey's account of what happened was pretty important to my case. I'd have to hope, for now, that she came back to school in the next couple of days. Otherwise, I might have to hunt her down since I didn't see Detective Dixon giving me a copy of Casey's police statement so that I could read it.

I kept a lookout for Noah Robertson, who would have no reason to skip school, unless he was on his way to Mexico, but I didn't see him in the first two hours. I wasn't even sure what I was going to say or do when I saw him. I mean, I couldn't exactly go up to him and say, "Hey, did you murder Madison Brown? Oh, and can you tell me your motive?"

It was before third period and I was rushing to my locker to grab a book, so I almost missed him. It was obviously Noah, though. He was tall, broad shouldered, and had brown hair clipped super short, like he had let a buzz cut grow out. I don't know what was wrong with me because I didn't even stop to think about it as I walked as hard as I could into him. It's not like little old me was going to make a dent in this massive guy, but then again Madison Brown had managed to break his foot by accident. Still, at least I took the time to notice that Noah was wearing a walking cast on his right foot and smashed into him on the other side.

As I felt myself fall backwards, my books scattering out of my arms, I pondered the intelligence of my choice. Sure, it had worked with getting to meet Troy. And, really, I couldn't just walk up to a random guy in high school and start talking to him out of the blue, could I? That would be crazy. So, yeah, the old fallback, run into someone and run into them hard, had to work.

"I'm so sorry," I said automatically as my butt hit the hard tile floor. I did mean it. I shouldn't have run into him so hard. That hurt.

Noah was still standing, looking down at me with a frown, like I was a total idiot, and didn't saying anything to me. Then he just turned and walked away, leaving me looking stupid, sitting on the ground with my books scattered down the hall. I could hear a couple passersby snickering because they had seen the impact, my fall, and the odd results. I ignored them and gathered up my books. Okay, obviously the old run into him as hard as you can fallback didn't work. Now, I had a lead in to talk to Noah, though. I definitely wouldn't mind yelling at him for ignoring me when I apologized to him. That was totally rude. Did the guy have no manners? I glanced around, suddenly anxious. Okay, good, Ariel hadn't been witness to this. That, at least was promising. I ran to my locker, grabbed my book, and made it to my third period class just as the bell rang.

I kept a watchful eye out for Noah as I walked to my fourth period Chemistry class, but we didn't cross paths again. I was still mad even though an hour had passed. My butt still really hurt. I was almost positive that I had a black and blue mark from my fall. I didn't see why Noah couldn't even acknowledge me when he was the person that had made me hit the ground. Sure, I had made it happen, but Noah didn't know that. He was so totally rude. Maybe it was just this easy and I had stumbled across the killer right off the bat. Either that or Noah sure had a lot to learn about manners. I really couldn't wait to find him again so that I could tell him off and, of course, continue with my murder investigation.

I made it to class a couple of minutes before the bell and saw Kyle and Suzie talking at my lab table. I felt a pang. Even though Madison Brown had been murdered, it looked like Kyle and Suzie's big Homecoming date had been a huge success. Suzie's hand was on Kyle's arm and she was laughing. Kyle was smiling up at her from his chair like she was the only person in the entire world. I, on the other hand, didn't know where I stood with Ethan and I had repeatedly broken my promise to him in the last twenty-four hours. That probably didn't bode well for any romantic thoughts I was having.

I hesitated in the doorway, not wanting to interrupt Kyle and Suzie's moment, but I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I moved forward and toward them. Besides, my books were heavy. I had to put them down before my arms fell off. My butt already hurt. I didn't want to add my arms to the list.

"Hey guys," I said cheerily as I walked behind Kyle to sit in my lab chair, setting my books down on the table in front of me.

Kyle and Suzie both looked over at me, surprised. They had been so absorbed in their world that they hadn't even paid attention to me walking around them. Wow, was I like that with Ethan? I hoped so.

"So, how'd your date with Ethan go?" Suzie asked, entwining her hand in Kyle's.

Yeah, they were totally an official couple if they were holding hands in public. I wondered if they had defined themselves. Were they officially boyfriend and girlfriend now? I felt a little more envious. I really wished I knew what was going on with Ethan and I.

I shrugged, "Good, well, except for the whole cancelling of the dance because of a murder thing."

Kyle nodded, "I know! I was so glad Suzie was with me at the time. She had just gone to the bathroom like fifteen minutes before they found the body. She was so lucky nothing happened to her."

Suzie smiled at Kyle, "You would have protected me, though, right?"


Page 7

Oh dear, they were going to be one of those super cutesy couples that drove you insane to be around with all their cute talk. Then again, I would have given anything to do the cutesy thing with Ethan, so I was a total hypocrite. Was breaking my promise going to affect us doing that? I pushed the worry away and focused. This was important too.

"Did either of you guys know her? Madison?" I asked. Even if they weren't bffs with Madison, any details other than what I knew could be helpful just because they were from another angle.

Kyle shook his head. Suzie paused. I looked at her curiously.

"I kind of knew her," Suzie admitted after a moment.

If I was the suspicious type, I'd be finding it very numerically insane the amount of people that Suzie came into contact with that got murdered. And, she was a quiet girl who kept to herself and did nothing wrong, so it was a weird coincidence. I mean, what were the odds, you know? She didn't know that many people. Still, it wasn't like Suzie was the rebellious type who went out of her way to find trouble. Or, was there more to Suzie than I knew from seeing her every day in Chemistry class?

"How'd you know her?" I asked after Suzie didn't say anything more.

"Well, I used to know her. She and I had this tennis camp together the summer after sixth grade. Madison was a year older than me and in seventh, but at tennis camp it didn't matter," Suzie said. "I was terrible at tennis and hated it, but my mom forced me to finish camp anyway. Madison hated tennis camp too, so we bonded and spent the afternoons after a morning of getting yelled at for being terrible tennis players, getting ice cream, going to the mall, or catching a movie. We both gained like five pounds that summer with all the junk we ate. She joked that we were going to have peanut butter M&M, cinnamon bun, popcorn, soda babies with all the junk food we were eating. It was a really good summer and we kind of stayed friends when school started up, but it wasn't the same. Because Madison was a year ahead of me, we never had any classes together and Madison had her own school friends in her grade, so we drifted apart in the first couple of months after the school year started. Then one day Madison just stopped calling me back. I didn't talk to her for a while after that, although I probably saw her from a distance here and there at school, but we never spoke. Then I ran into her at the beginning of the summer before I was going to be in eighth grade, so before her freshman year, and she was totally different from the Madison I was friends with in tennis camp."

"Peppier?" I offered.

"No," Suzie said, "Totally depressed, actually. I mean, we complained about tennis camp, but we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs anyway. The Madison I ran into that summer was almost totally out of it and a little chunky, like she had totally let herself go."

"What? But..." I started trying to wrap my head around the idea of a depressed Madison. It was impossible. All I could see was the peppy girl I had seen at the first Pep Club meeting - the girl who was full of life and positive energy.

Suzie shrugged, "I don't know why she was depressed or anything. I mean, maybe when I saw her she had just broken up with a guy or something. But still, you could tell she had major problems and I only talked to her for a few minutes."

I was still trying to grasp a depressed Madison and I had to say it, "But she was president of the Pep Club."

"Well, only this year. She must have gotten better over the last two years. Or gotten meds or talked to a counselor or something," Suzie started, thought for a moment, and then continued, "And, that happened by her junior year because I saw her at a bunch of basketball games cheering like a maniac with the Pep Club last year and she looked totally alive again and way healthier."

"Can you think of anyone who might want to murder her?" I asked.

Suzie looked at me strangely, "Are you investigating again?"

"You did just get out of the hospital," Kyle warned me. He was always so realistic and rational. That's probably why he was a science genius. Still, did everyone have to take Ethan's side on this? I had a side too.

Suzie and Kyle were in the small group of people who knew the whole story about how I had ended up in the hospital. At least, I think they were one of a few. I didn't seem to be the talk of the school so far. Then again, there had been a girl murdered at the Homecoming Dance over the weekend, so that might have blown any story about me being a female sleuth in addition to a funeral crashing graveyard girl weirdo out of the water.

"I was just curious," I said, not wanting to admit my sleuthing to anyone in case Ethan found out by way of casual gossip, "So, can you think of anyone?"

Suzie gave me a look, but instead of questioning me on my motives again she thought for a moment and said, "Maybe."

"Who?" I asked after Suzie didn't say anything more.

"Well, if I had to guess a suspect, and I mean, she may not be guilty at all..." Suzie started.

"Just say it," I demanded. Suzie was the type to feel guilty about naming names and normally I would too, but this was murder we were talking about.

Suzie sighed and then said, "Madison's ex-best friend, Julia Morgan. They were friends forever, even when we were in tennis camp, but at the beginning of this year, they had a huge falling out when she claimed Madison stole the Pep Club presidency from her."

"How do you know about that?" I asked, wondering why Ariel hadn't said anything about Julia. Then again, maybe Ariel was friends with Julia too and biased against her being a murder suspect. "You're not in Pep Club, are you?"

Suzie shook her head adamantly, "No. It's so not my thing to yell and cheer at games. I'd rather be reading a book. Actually, I kind of know this guy Logan who used to be friends with them too in junior high and he's the one that told me that Julia and Madison had a huge falling out about Pep Club."

I had no problem believing the idea that the killer was a girl. Girls could be just as murderous as guys when they put their minds to it. Was the Pep Club presidency worth a murder sentence, though? I didn't know Julia Morgan. Still, it was possible that she thought it was completely worth it. I mean, crazy was crazy. I'd have to talk to Julia and see what I could find out.

"Do you think Julia really could have done it then?" I asked Suzie to clarify.

Suzie shrugged, "Who knows, you know? I didn't know her that well even when Madison and I were friends, just because a big group of us only hung out a couple of times. Still, the one thing I do remember about Julia, though, is that she was kind of ruthless. Madison got this shirt for her birthday that Julia wanted, but her mom wouldn't pay for it, and Julia spilled fruit punch all over Madison on purpose, to ruin it when we were at the mall. Things like that."

I nodded, considering this. Spilling punch on your best friend's shirt wasn't the same as murder, but I still put Julia on my short list to talk to, right behind Noah. For Madison being such a happy peppy girl, I was surprised how easily murder suspects were finding their way out of the woodwork. Of course, I was only at two real leads, but I wondered how many more would be on the shortlist by the end of the day. It was only fourth period and I hadn't even really done much investigating yet.

The bell rang and Suzie kissed Kyle quickly on the lips and ran to her lab table. They sure were disgustingly cute and I probably would have teased Kyle about it as we prepared for our Chemistry lab, but I was too busy thinking about what Suzie said. I had my second suspect. I was going to have to think of a more clever way to talk to Julia Morgan. The bump into a person had lost its effectiveness and I didn't have much hope for the just talk to them tactic either. I guess I could lie and come up with a clever facade, a part to play that would get people to tell me what I wanted. That worked in books and movies too. The problem, as far as high school went, was my weird girl reputation. People already assumed I was a certain type of person and I couldn't break that stereotype in one conversation. I'd have to ponder further.

My stomach grumbled. I was already hungry for lunch. I didn't want to be. Lunch meant seeing Ethan and I'll admit it, I was a little nervous about that. Did I admit to breaking the promise? Or did I just not say anything so that by the time Ethan found out, I'd already have solved the case? Maybe Ethan would be really proud of me instead of mad? I hoped.

 

 

 

Chapter 7: Lunch Sleuthing 

I walked into the lunchroom and looked over toward my usual spot. Ethan had joined me for lunch a few times before my hospital stay and it had definitely made us the gossip of the school. Then we had gone to the dance and sealed our high school reputation as a dating couple. At least that was my interpretation of things. The question was, would Ethan take this time to get some space from me and sit with his friends at lunch or would he further cement us as a couple to the student body by officially sitting with me at lunch again? It was a good question and that and the breaking of my promise were both warring with my thoughts as I walked toward my lunch table.

I was disappointed to see that Ethan wasn't at my usual table as I walked by it to the cafeteria food lunch line. I glanced over to see if he was with his friends at the popular table, but he wasn't over there either. I hurried into the lunch line and ordered cheese fries and a Coke. Murder investigations made me want junk food. Maybe Detective Dixon had something similar going on with his Styrofoam cups.

Besides, I deserved the grease, caffeine, and sugar after the hospital stay and everything. I actually missed the high school cheese fries, even if that was crazy. I hurried through the lunch line and paid the cashier with exact change. I didn't want Ethan to not see me at my usual table and think that I was the one that needed space or something.

Rushing toward my lunch spot, just in case Ethan decided to show up and hadn't because I wasn't there, I felt my heart plummet a little. I really wanted to sit with Ethan at lunch today. I wanted to spend the hour hearing about his classes or the latest sci-fi book he was reading or the song he was working on. The last time I saw him, he had dropped me off after the dance, after the police had cleared us away from the murder scene. It was definitely an anticlimactic end to what was supposed the have been the most romantic evening of my high school life. Ethan hadn't even kissed me goodnight. We had both been distracted.

And, we hadn't talked since then. Of course, it had just been a short twenty-four plus hours, okay more like thirty something hours. I felt a pang in my heart at the thought of more time passing without talking to him, especially if Ethan was only across the lunchroom sitting with his friends. That was a no man's land to me. Unless Ethan invited me, there was no way I was going over there to sit with him.

Wow, was I really this obsessed with Ethan? I couldn't help wondering if this was what it was like to fall in love. Or, maybe it was just me going crazy because they sure felt pretty similar and I was very confused.

I walked toward my lunch table feeling more melancholy. Ethan wasn't there. He wasn't having lunch with me. Oh well, I forced myself to think, that's okay. No big deal. I have a murder mystery to solve and suspects to think about. I had my crime notebook and my cheese fries and my caffeine filled, sugary soda. If I really got bored, I could do my makeup homework. I'd totally be fine.

That was when I slammed full force into Noah Robertson again. My fries went airborne. The lunch tray slammed into my chest, spilling cheese and fry grease down my shirt. This was not good. I didn't have a change of clothes and it meant that I'd have a stained shirt for the rest of the school day. Just what I needed to remind people what a freak and obvious klutz I am.

This time it was a total and complete accident on my part. I didn't even see Noah. I definitely would not have purposely spilled cheese all over myself. This was high school. I didn't need the mortification.

"Did you do that on purpose?" Noah was glaring at me.

With some relief, I noticed that I hadn't smashed into Noah anywhere near his hurt foot. It would totally have been an accident if I had. Seriously.

I felt my anger from our morning meeting returning. And, yes, that time I had purposely run into Noah, but this time really was an accident. Didn't this guy know the simple words I'm sorry? Geesh.

"No. What the hell is wrong with you?" I felt my anger rising, along with my voice. I was mad and I rarely got mad, "I should be asking you the same thing Mr. I Can't Apologize Because I'm Way Too Cool For That Since I Play Football. I have cheese all over my shirt. Do you know how embarrassing that is? I have to wear this shirt the whole rest of the school day. I would not have done that on purpose. And, how rude can you get? No, I'm sorry or anything? I mean, are you a total dumb jock or what? I hate to apply stereotypes here, but come on. Really? All you had to do was say I'm sorry, but noooo..."

I was on a roll. I was venting. This felt good. Why didn't I do this more often? I should express myself like this all the time, especially to Ariel. It didn't even cross my brain to actually worry that this guy was a buff football player, potential murderer, and could use my tirade as a motive to kill me. At least until this very second, when I stopped short at that thought.

"Whoa," Noah said, backing away from me and holding up his hands. "Calm down. Sorry, okay? Sorry."

His apology completely deflated my sails, that and the fact that he might kill me for going off on him if he was the murderer. Besides, the apology was all I had really wanted even if he was only probably saying it because I was flipping out on him. I didn't hold my anger long usually anyway, "Okay. Thanks."


Page 8

Now it was awkward. Noah was staring at me and I was staring at him. There was silence.

"Fine then. I'm going to my table," Noah said.

"Wait," I said. He totally did not mean that apology and both of us knew it, but I held my tongue. "You owe me."

"I owe you?" Noah looked at me. "For what? Crashing in to me twice today?"

"No. For this," I said pointing at my shirt "This cheese is not gonna be coming out anytime soon and I like this shirt. A lot."

It was true. I had picked out my shirt purposely as my back to school after being gone a whole week shirt. Plus, I had wanted to look cute for Ethan. Now I had cheese all over me. Maybe it was good that Ethan was sitting with his friends today. I didn't need him to see me like this.

Noah frowned, definitely wanting to get away from me, but probably not sure if I'd run after him and cause another scene. He looked torn. I needed to convince him.

"I just want to talk to you for five minutes," I said simply, trying to sound as rational and normal as I could, "Five minutes and then you can go."

Noah studied me with narrowed eyes for a moment and then said, "Fine."

I led Noah back to my lunch table. Ethan still hadn't showed up, I found myself thinking. I pushed the thought aside by reminding myself I was covered in cheese and probably did not look my best. I had to focus. What did I ask Noah? Did I just ask him about Madison up front? Hint? What was the best approach? Actually, the decision was easy. I was lucky if Noah would even give me five minutes to talk.

"How did you know Madison Brown?" I asked, seizing the day, and just going for it.

Noah almost dropped the soda he was about to sip, despite the fact that Madison's name was probably one of the most popular topics in school. If Noah had spilled his soda all over me too, I found myself thinking, I would have killed him on the spot and then we'd be talking about another murder. Overreaction? Yeah, probably, but I didn't need to add to the lunch mess on my shirt. It would really ruin my day.

Noah was sputtering, oddly terrified that I was asking him about Madison, "What? Why? Do you think I did it or something? That's insane. A guy can't go into a girl's bathroom. There were like teachers around watching out for that stuff."

It was so weird. One minute Noah was calm and the next he had totally flipped out and snapped into this strange freaked out mental state. That was something to note.

"Uh," I was surprised that Noah was flipping out. I didn't know what to say. My brain couldn't grasp onto any ideas about how to calm him down.

"You should talk to Sebastian Zane, that's who you should talk to. He freaking took Madison to the dance. He was totally messing around with her. He's probably the one that did it. Why the hell are you talking to me?" Noah was the one on a rant now.

It was kind of scary seeing it from the other side, I had to admit. Still, we were in a public place. It wasn't like Noah could attack me in the middle of the lunchroom, right? I got ready to bolt anyway, just in case he gave me a reason to run. Until then, this was a fascinating development.

I also made a mental note to check out Madison's date to the dance. That should have been an obvious one to put on my list. I just wanted to talk to Casey Hunt first, find out if she had seen anything when she found Madison. I guess the whole girl's bathroom thing, had me wanting to lean toward a female killer. I had to remind myself that a murderer might not care what it said on the door. Regardless, Noah, was rapidly becoming number one on my list with this potential toward a freak out by me just asking him a couple of questions about the murdered girl.

"Calm down," I said slowly and calmly, "I'm just talking to you."

"Well, I'm not talking about Madison! I don't care if you got cheese on your shirt!" Noah yelled and got up, stalking away from me.

Whoa. Now Noah was the one causing the scene and I was definitely the center of attention at lunch again if all of the eyes staring at me were any measurement to go by. That's when I saw him - Ethan. He must have gotten to lunch late because he was just walking out of the lunch line. Normally, Ethan ate pretty healthily or brought a lunch from home, but today he was carrying one of those pre-packaged cherry pies that I had told him I was craving in the hospital. I knew that tasty treat was meant for me. Ethan was the sweetest, most romantic guy ever. I felt my heart melt.

Then I noticed the expression on Ethan's face. I registered hurt, then anger, and suddenly Ethan wasn't moving toward my table anymore.

 

 

 

Chapter 8: Heart Breaking 

I spent the first part of lunch gazing over toward Ethan's table as he talked to Mike and Dave and some of the other people at his table. Some of them were girls. I felt a pang of jealousy. Ethan had his back to me the whole time and didn't even look at me. He was totally mad and yet, I couldn't bring myself to walk the distance to his table and apologize for breaking my promise. I had known in my heart of hearts that Ethan was going to be angry about it all, but somehow I had convinced myself that it would be okay in the end. Now, I wasn't so sure that things were going to be okay. We had been on the maybe boyfriend/girlfriend track, but it was now looking like we might be on the maybe broken up track.

I couldn't even eat my cheese fries, I was so upset about the tension emanating across the lunchroom between Ethan and I. I knew he had to be talking about me to his friends too because I saw Mike try and sneak a glance at me. Then when I caught Mike's eye, he looked guiltily away. Dave was more stoic, but I'm sure he was dying to look too.

I knew I should just suck up my pride and walk over there and tell Ethan how I felt and how much he mattered to me and that I was sorry, but I just couldn't do it. Part of it was that all of the people sitting at Ethan's table intimidated me in some way. They were all popular and by default I felt inferior at the power they held at this school. Still, if that was all, I would have done it - gone and apologized. What was stopping me was that Ethan mattered to me so much that I just didn't know what to say. An apology didn't feel like nearly enough. What if he didn't hear me? What if he stalked off? Or worse, what if he yelled at me?

Ethan and I had gotten into disagreements before, of course. They mostly had to do with his half sister's murder case and at the time, our differences in opinion were on investigative styles and suspects. This was different, though. Back then, we had just been tentative friends and I didn't expect Ethan to stick around and actually be my friend for the long haul. When Ethan asked me to the Homecoming Dance, though, and spent those couple of days with me in the hospital, all of that changed. Ethan became a part of my life. I wanted him there for a good long while too, maybe even forever. The problem was, now it looked like I had ruined everything.

There was a question bothering me. Was it worth it? Who was right? Was I wrong to investigate the murder? Was he wrong to ask me not to? Sadly, I didn't think it mattered because I just kept coming back to the fact that I had, regardless of right or wrong on the issue, broken a promise to someone I cared about, someone who trusted that my promise was real. I had betrayed Ethan.

I knew I needed to stop staring at Ethan's table longingly, but I couldn't focus on anything else. I thought about jotting the latest in my crime notebook, but now case solving left me with a sick feeling. I had let Ethan down.

I still needed to go and clean off my shirt. It was pretty gross. I took one last long look at Ethan's table and went to ask a teacher for permission to use the bathroom.

After a few minutes of rubbing a wet paper towel on my shirt, the stain didn't want to completely come out. I gave up and dabbed at it a few more times. My shirt was now soaking wet. The day could only get better, right?

"You okay?" a girl asked from the doorway.

I looked over and watched the girl walk into the bathroom. I hoped she hadn't been there for too long watching me fight the stain on my shirt. It was not my best moment. Wait, should I be nervous that there was a stranger in the deserted bathroom with me? I thought of Madison and wondered if I was being silly, feeling suddenly on high alert.

I didn't know the girl. She had long blonde hair with dark brown and red highlights, so her hair looked sort of multicolored. I knew she wasn't in any of my classes, so I had no idea why she was suddenly next to me, peering at my face, looking concerned.

"Who are you?" I had to ask. I blurted it out too, but I hoped I didn't sound too rude. I just didn't have the energy to be polite and she was kind of creeping me out.

"Julia. Julia Morgan," Julia smiled and I saw that she still had braces.

I wasn't sure what to say. Julia had sought me out instead of the other way around. I hadn't even had a chance to find a picture of her yet so that I knew what she looked like and here she was standing in front of me. That was kind of weird. Cool, but weird.

It must have sucked to have braces as a senior. Most people had them off by sophomore year. I wondered if the braces had been what hurt her chances for the position of Pep Club president. It didn't matter to me, but the sad fact of it was that it was a high school reality. People were that judgmental about things like that. Braces really could have meant the difference between her and Madison for president.

"Uh, why are you here?" I asked awkwardly. I didn't know how else to ask it or what else I might say to be less blunt and besides, as Anne Shirley fromAnne of Green Gableswould say - I was in the depths of despair about Ethan and I would have preferred to be left alone to wallow if I had the option, that and to continue getting the stain out of my shirt.

"I heard that you're looking into Madison's murder," Julia said. "Is it true?"

I felt my stomach sink. People knew. Wait. How did they know? Although Noah's outburst had been a great hint at that, most people other than Ethan wouldn't actually assume I was investigating Madison's murder. Even me talking to Noah about the murder, regardless of the fact that he had gotten so upset, wasn't that out of the ordinary. Everyone was talking about the murder. Ethan definitely would not have publicized the fact that I was playing teen sleuth, except maybe to Dave and Mike in the form of complaints, and only in the last five minutes when he figured out what I was doing. I groaned inwardly. This was Ariel's doing. Ariel had gone and gossiped about my investigative plans to who knows who. Now, the school was going to think I was a funeral crashing, witchcraft practicing, drug dealing, pet cemetery caretaking graveyard girl female sleuth. And, no, ninety-nine percent of that sentence was not true, but according to the rumors I seemed to have quite the amazing reputation for being a girl that in reality, mostly just went to classes, work, and every once in awhile, funerals.

So much for thinking that maybe Ariel and I had bonded the night before. Although, I would admit, I didn't exactly tell Ariel not to tell anyone that I was looking into Madison's death. I had hoped she wouldn't, but I hadn't actually said anything to her about it. I didn't really want to give her any ideas, you know? Still, you'd think she'd have some common sense that I didn't much like being the butt of her gossip and might pass on some gossip of my own, like that we had hung out at her house and had pizza.

I had to admit, though, that in this case it seemed like Ariel had actually helped me. Julia might not have talked to me on her own and I definitely saw what a disaster talking to Noah out of the blue had been. So, I took a shot and was honest.

"Yeah, I'm looking into it," I said.

"Have you found anything out?" Julia asked.

I wondered if Ariel was paying me compliments because Julia actually sounded like she thought I might be doing a good job as an amateur detective, "Still in the beginning stages. You were Madsion's best friend right?"

Julia hesitated, "Used to be one of them. I mean, I wish we had made things up before she died, but it wasn't meant to be."

"What happened?" I asked, even though I already knew. I just wanted to see how Julia would interpret it.

"Well, she became the biggest bitch," Julia said simply and then rushed on as if she had been holding the whole thing in for too long, "She stole the Pep Club presidency from me. We've been best friends since we were eleven and she gets the opportunity to be president of a club we're both in and she totally backstabs me. I told her I wanted to do it, be the president. Then, she put her name in the hat too."

"So, you guys just broke off a friendship because you both wanted to be Pep Club president?" I asked.

There was definitely more to my and Ariel's friendship ripping apart than some stupid club presidency. This was high school, though, and that sort of thing could really, really matter here. And, okay, maybe mine and Ariel's breakup had to do with the popularity issue, which was also way high school or maybe it was just time that we parted ways. Maybe it was the same for Madison and Julia too.

"No," Julia shook her head, "It was the way Madison treated it. Like suddenly she was so much better than I was. I knew Madison could be like that, all hoity-toity and stuff, but she had never turned that on me. Suddenly, Madison started acting like I was the dirt underneath her shoes or something. I mean, I knew all her dirty little secrets, we were friends since we were kids after all, and believe me, no matter what I've done, hers weren't pretty either, but Madison badmouthed me to all my friends in the club anyway."


Page 9

"What did she say?" I asked.

Julia smirked, "Oh, she was good. Madison told the girls in the club that I was secretly after their boyfriends and that if they weren't careful, their guy would be hooking up with me after school. Madison claimed I had done it to her. And, if she was talking about Logan, it was in junior high, and we went out for a day. Big deal. It was junior high. I didn't even know they were dating. That's lame and it was so a billion years ago. We were just kids. Or, even Ray Newton. I mean, he dates someone new every week. Besides, you'd think some of these girls would talk to each other and find out that Madison was telling them all the same thing. I couldn't be after everyone's guy, you know? It's statistically impossible. But no, they were all freaking out and jealous and wondering if their guy was cheating on them. It was insane."

"What did she tell the guys? I mean, Pep Club does have guys in it right? The girls couldn't just push you out," I said, and besides I was curious. Julia was making me think that Madison was a lot like Ariel, spreading stories and that was a totally different picture than the one I previously had of Madison.

"There are way more girls, actually, but Madison didn't have to tell the guys anything. Once she turned the girls against me, the guys were already turned. Ninety percent of them are only in the club to meet girls anyway. They're not jocks, so they have to talk to them somehow. They weren't going to go after the girl who was alienating all of the other girls and risk making their dating pool into a pool of one," Julia charged ahead, venting her frustrations.

"Wow," I said.

That was really mean of Madison. I had no idea from what others had said so far that she had such a cruel streak in her. Madison wasn't just a peppy, sweet, nice girl that was unjustly murdered. There were some ugly layers underneath. Maybe there was a good reason for it. Maybe it was the call of the Pep Club presidency that had caused her to act that way. Still, she had pretty much stepped all over a friend and made pretty permanent dents in said friend's high school social life. Was that a good enough reason for murder?

"Yeah, it totally sucks, right?" Julia said. "I just couldn't believe Madison shattered my reputation like that. I couldn't even get a date to the Homecoming Dance. I had to go with a friend. And, I totally had to drop out of Pep Club even though I loved it. It was just too miserable with all the dirty looks. I had gone from a group of great friends to being a social pariah. Thank goodness it mostly stayed there, well except for the finding a date to Homecoming part. I'm hoping that's temporary, though. Those girls just happened to tell all their friends and then it snowballed and I don't know which guys know and which guys don't. Not that I'm going to give up on dating or anything. Madison is not taking that away from me."

I felt like I had to empathize with the horrible situation Julia was going through. I had pretty much been in the exact same place with Ariel, "That's almost worse than what my ex-best friend has done to me since we've stopped being friends."

"Who's your ex-best friend?" Julia asked.

"Ariel Walker," I said without thinking, totally involved in our conversation of bashing our ex-best friends.

"You were friends with Ariel Walker? Really?" Julia seemed incredulous at that fact.

I felt sort of off put by how surprised Julia sounded that Ariel and I had once been friends, "Well, yeah, up to the start of freshman year..."

"Wow," Julia shook her head, "Sorry, but I can totally see why that friendship imploded."

I had liked Julia at first and really empathized with her plight regarding Madison, but now she was staring at me like she thought Ariel's and mine friendship break-up had totally been my fault. Suddenly, I didn't like Julia so much. Did I look like some kind of a freak to her or something? I mean, I knew the rumors, but here we were having a totally normal conversation and now she was insulting me in a roundabout way. It was kind of weird. It definitely made me wonder if there was more to Madison's side of the whole Julia/Madison story than Julia was telling me. Like maybe Madison didn't have such an ugly personality layer and Julia was embellishing on it.

I tried to be polite to Julia regardless of how I was suddenly feeling about her, which was suspicious and angry, "Well, yeah. I actually don't want to talk about it. There's more to the story than just me being a freak, I promise. No matter what Ariel tells people. I have photographic proof if I ever wanted to use it."

I added that last sentence in for effect. I wished there was some kind of proof, but there wasn't. Our friendship just fell apart.

Julia nodded, hesitated, and then said, "Well, have you thought that Ariel might have done it?"

I was confused. "Done what?"

Julia looked at me like I was a total idiot, "Killed Madison."

My brain froze as the question - Did Ariel kill Madison Brown? filled my brain. The answer my brain fired back with after it recovered from the shock was a resounding - Absolutely not! No way! And, then I started to think about it. Ariel was friends with Madison, at least sort of, but what would her motive have been? She had no reason to kill Madison. Julia, who was watching me react to this startling news, with an amused look on her face, had way more of a personal reason to kill Madison.

"Why would you say that?" I managed to ask as my brain started processing thoughts again. "As much as I don't like Ariel anymore, I don't think she could murder someone. She had no reason to kill Madison."

"Are you sure about that?" Julia asked, almost sarcastically.

I was definitely becoming less and less of a Julia fan by the moment. At first, she had come off all nice and sweet and I had empathized with her since we had both lost our best friends to horrible situations. Besides, Julia still had braces as a senior and that really sucked, but now Julia was insinuating that I was weird and that Ariel was a murderer. Even as Ariel's ex-best friend, I felt I had to defend her against that accusation.

"I know Ariel pretty well," I said adamantly, "Even if we aren't friends anymore."

"Okay," Julia smirked, "Then why don't you ask Ariel what she was doing coming out of the bathroom just before Casey Hunt went in there and found Madison Brown dead?"

My brain froze again, pondering what Julia had just said. I think my mouth dropped open too. Julia didn't give me a chance to recover either. Seemingly happy with totally flooring me, she left the bathroom.

A moment later, I made my way back to the lunchroom almost forgetting to worry what people would think about the giant wet stain that was now my shirt because my mind was on Ariel. I totally forgot about it, though, when I got back to my lunch table and noticed the table that Julia had sat down at in my absence. Despite her self-claimed pariah status, Julia was sitting at the popular table, specifically, Ethan's table, right next to him, almost too close to him.

Wait, was this a coincidence? Was Julia trying to get her status back by going after Ethan? Or, was Julia trying to throw me, personally, multiple curve balls starting with Ariel and moving on to Ethan? Who was this girl?

Ethan was looking at Julia, surprised at how close she was sitting to him when she didn't have to be. I saw the side of his face and wanted him to turn all the way around to look at me, so that I could warn him about the poisonous snake that was getting ready to wrap herself around him and go in for the kill.

 

 

 

Chapter 9: Jealously Seething 

I had to force myself to bolt out of the lunchroom as soon as the bell rang so that I wouldn't run over to Ethan and rip Julia away from him. What was Julia even playing at? I really didn't get her. One minute she was sweet, the other she was going after Ethan and proving Madison's accusations about boy stealing right even though Julia was telling me about that and denying it all in the same breath. I was getting the distinct impression that Julia enjoyed toying with people. Why did she want to toy with me? Was I an easy target? Or maybe she was afraid I'd figure out she was the murderer? Then again, maybe she was just evil. Okay, maybe there was more to her and Madison's friendship breakup than just the Pep Club presidency. I knew from firsthand experience how complicated a bff or an ex-bff relationship could be. Regardless, Julia was most definitely a piece of work and I was going to have a major problem distinguishing what was true and what was not in her story.

At least I felt better knowing that Ethan hadn't even been paying much attention to Julia during lunch. Believe me, Julia tried to get him to notice her. He just wasn't having it. That fact made me feel a little better. Not a lot better, but still. It helped curb the jealousy a little since it looked like even if Ethan was mad at me, he wasn't just going to jump into Julia's arms because she was ready and waiting. That was the Ethan I knew. Well, and I hoped that Ethan was already leaning toward forgiving me when I figured out how to apologize to him.

I had to find Ariel. I didn't want to talk to her, being that she was spreading gossip about me again, but I had to ask her about what Julia had said. I was reluctant to believe Julia because she seemed to be a total barracuda intent on catching Ethan just to get at me (or maybe also because he was hot and popular), but I couldn't ignore it either. If Julia's story was true and Ariel had been in the bathroom just before Madison's body was found, it was too sensational to ignore and Ariel had to have something to say about the accusation. A kernel of worry started forming in my stomach. I still cared about Ariel deep down even if we weren't friends.

I made a detour to try and catch Ariel at her locker before my next class. I had a general idea of where she was at all times, scarily enough, just so I could try and avoid her. It was a necessary evil. I made it just in time. Ariel was shutting her locker when I saw her. I had to ask. I took a deep breath and ran toward her before she could take more than a couple of steps away from her locker.

"Ariel!" I yelled and had a brief flashback to the first day of freshman year. When I got to school that first day, I sought Ariel out at her locker and we talked about how exciting and cool high school was going to be. Sigh, so much for that potential future.

Ariel turned, smiling, and then saw me. Her smile turned into a frown. She considered walking forward, I could tell, but turned around to face me instead. She knew I could be relentless if I truly wanted to talk to her. Ariel was getting it over with. We were sort of the same in that respect since it's how I usually felt about talking to her.

"What?" Ariel asked as I walked up to her.

"I just talked to Julia Morgan," I said, watching for Ariel's response.

"So?" Ariel asked, not seeming to care.

"She said that you walked out of the bathroom at the Homecoming Dance just before Casey Hunt found Madison dead," I said softly. Ariel might like to spread gossip, but I didn't.

"What?" Ariel practically yelled it.

Ariel took note of all the people that suddenly turned to stare at us, grabbed my arm, and dragged me down the hallway into the semi-private shelter of a closed back classroom door. It occurred to me as Ariel did this that maybe I should be scared that she was going to murder me, but I was more annoyed at how hard she was gripping my arm. I was going to have a bruise. I guess I really didn't think Ariel did it. Still, it was a bad thing if Ariel was at the scene of the crime when it happened or just after.

Ariel could still be accused and charged. The wrong person went to jail all the time in the movies, so I knew it could happen. Like, in that movie with Harrison Ford,The Fugitive, where he's accused of killing his wife and has to find the killer before the cops catch him. Although, I couldn't really see Ariel on the run - she's so not the kind of girl that could hide out in the woods and rough it. She'd need to toughen up and become a hardened woman like in that movieDouble Jeopardywith Ashley Judd where she's accused of killing her husband and sentenced to jail, only he isn't actually dead, so she sets out to really kill him. Still, she wasn't guilty the first time around. Actually, I hoped it didn't come to any of that for Ariel. All of those situations made life way too complicated.

Ariel turned to face me and I could see that she was terrified, "Who told you that? Who told you I was in the bathroom?"

"Julia Morgan," I said again.

Ariel frowned, "I don't know a Julia Morgan. I don't think."

"She seems to know you," I said.

I summed it up for Ariel. Ariel was looking at me blankly. I could see she was trying to figure something out.

"Well, I don't know her, know her," Ariel said, "She wasn't in Pep Club this year at all. She must have dropped it at the end of last year or something, but I do remember some Pep Club people talking about her. I bet you she was just jealous that Madison and I were friends and she wasn't anymore. I really don't know her. Madison never even talked about her to me."

"But is it true? Did you walk out of the bathroom just before Casey Hunt walked in?" I asked.

Ariel looked at me and I could see the answer in her eyes. Oh no. Julia wasn't a complete liar.

"No," Ariel lied.

I ignored her answer, "Ariel, look, someone saw you go out of the bathroom that night. I don't know if it was Julia or if Casey said something and now it's getting around school or if it was the murderer, but anybody might have seen you. You have to tell the police before they think you're involved."
"No," Ariel whispered. "I can't."


Page 10

"Yes, you can," I said adamantly. "They're going to find out."

"No," Ariel said flatly.

I sighed, feeling exasperated. Ariel wasn't going to listen to me. There was nothing I could do. I had to take a different tactic.

"Well did you see anything?" I asked.

"No," Ariel said.

"Ariel, come on," I tried again.

"What? I didn't see anything," Ariel's voice cracked on the last word.

"Ariel. Please. Help me. Did you see anything?" I pleaded. "I'm not going to tell anyone. I'm just looking for a lead."

Ariel hesitated, "Fine. I was in the bathroom with Madison before she died. We went in together to fix our make-up. She was having hair issues that wouldn't resolve themselves and it was taking her forever. I was done and I wanted to get back out to Troy and dance, so I left her in there. I did pass Casey on my way out. We actually stopped to talk outside the bathroom. I didn't have blood on me or anything, I swear. I didn't kill her. Casey will tell you. Troy will tell you that too. I didn't do it."

"How long did you stop to talk to Casey?" I asked, as I felt the ball of dread in my stomach start growing. Ariel had been at the scene of the crime within minutes of the murder, maybe seconds. That wasn't good.

Ariel shrugged, "A few minutes. I mean, we were telling each other how great we looked and bragging about our dates. Casey was trying to one up me, but there was no way she was going to one up me going to the dance with a college guy. You know?"

"Could anyone have walked past you guys and into the bathroom while you were talking?" I asked.

Ariel shrugged, "I didn't notice anyone, but my back was to the bathroom. Casey would probably have been the one to notice that. So, maybe, but I didn't notice. I mean, we were talking so..."

"Did you hear anything?" I asked. "When you were talking to Casey? Like a struggle? Anything?"

"No," Ariel said. "Nothing."

"So, you were literally the last person to see Madison alive besides the murderer?" I asked. This looked so bad.

Ariel turned pale, "Yes. But, the thing is, I think there might have been someone else in one of the stalls. I wasn't thinking about it at the time. It was just Madison and I talking at the bathroom sink when I left, but I'd almost swear there was someone in a stall. I think."

"That's huge! Can you remember any detail? Like their shoes? You can usually see shoes under the stall. Did you see them?" I asked, thinking rapidly.

Ariel was freaking out, realizing that maybe she had seen something of the killer and what that meant. Ariel didn't hear my question or didn't want to answer it and just said, "What if they heard me talking? What if that person knows who I am and decides to murder me too because they think I saw them? I can't talk about it. Nobody can know."

I grabbed Ariel by the arms and looked at her in all seriousness, "Ariel, what did you see?"

Ariel's eyes were worried, but she whispered, "I saw red Chuck Taylor high tops with black and white striped laces. I remember thinking that some weird girl had to be in the bathroom wearing chucks to the Homecoming Dance. That's the only reason I noticed. I thought it might be you actually, but..."

I frowned at Ariel, "And, you're sure it was a girl? Could it have been a guy?"

Ariel looked at me, like she hadn't even considered the gender change, "Maybe it could have been a guy. I mean, I wasn't thinking in that direction. I just thought it was some punk rock girl or something. I guess it could have been a guy, if his pants were high. I don't remember legs. I just saw the red of the chucks. The stalls are kind of low, though, so I could have just missed the legs. I don't know."

I took this in. This was a huge clue. I looked down at my own black Chuck Taylors. Thank goodness I stuck to the classic color of black in this case and I actually hadn't worn mine to the dance. I had gone all out and worn heels, even though they made me feel rickety.

If only Ariel could have told me about the legs. I knew what she meant about the school bathroom stalls, though. They were low. Like, you could easily look over them low if you wanted to because the teachers needed to be able to look into the stalls if they, say, smelled something that wasn't legal emanating from a stall and to discourage making out in one. The doors thus, were oddly low to the ground. Like it mattered if people could see your feet if they could already see a lot more if they looked over the bathroom stall wall.

"Don't tell anyone, okay?" Ariel was pleading with me.

"I won't," I said, although I wasn't sure it would matter if the gossip had already started spreading that Ariel was the last one to see Madison alive.

The bell rang, startling both of us. Ariel and I looked at each other in panic and bolted in opposite directions for our classes.

 

 

 

Chapter 10: Mind Turning 

I was in no mood to pay attention to teachers for the rest of the day. First off, Ethan and apologizing to him was totally on my mind. And, then, interjecting into those thoughts were their polar opposites. I kept going over the details and suspects in Madison's murder and over Ariel's confession at seeing the potential killer's shoes.

I had taken no notes in any of my classes since lunch, so I was glad when the bell rang. I hoped the teachers hadn't said anything too important and that most of it wouldn't be on any tests. If it was, I'd be failing that test and my grades were already probably going to take a hit if I didn't finish all the make-up work I had to get done. The teachers were relentless, even though I had a valid excuse, like being in the hospital. They didn't care. Homework was homework and the general gist was, in the real world you'd have to get the work done, blah, blah, blah.

Speaking of the real world, I was heading straight from school to my job at Palos Video Store. I hadn't been back since I had been shot there. My boss, Anne, had ended up in the hospital too, but she had completely recovered. Luckily, there hadn't been much damage to the store in the shooting and after the police crime scene tape came down, it opened right back up like nothing had ever happened. Anne couldn't even afford for it to close for a day with the current competition of Netflix, Red Box, Blockbuster, etc. cutting into her DVD and Blu-ray rental profits. Almost as a blessing, business spiked after the incident. Ethan told me that the parking lot was packed every afternoon when he drove by it on the way to visit me at the hospital. It was all the free press and curiosity seekers reminding people that the store was still there. I guess that's what people meant when they said the phrase - a blessing in disguise. It was a good thing. I liked my job at Palos Video Store. I wanted to keep it at least through high school, so it had to stay open.

I walked in right on time. I had been a little flakey a couple weeks before and I wanted to impress upon Anne my commitment to doing my job. She was in the back watching a movie when I got there. I hadn't seen her since the whole shooting debacle and things felt a bit awkward.

"Hey," I managed. It was a normal thing to say to your boss, right? I just wanted things to be normal, at work, at the very least.

"Hey," Anne said, looking up from her movie,Before Sunrise.She mostly stayed in the back and supervised the employees unless we got really busy and then she ran up front to help. It was the perk of owning the place and everyone thought she was a cool boss so it didn't matter, "You okay?"

"Yeah," I nodded, feeling a cold sweat come on. I couldn't help but feel that Anne ending up in the hospital was half my fault. I had led a killer straight to us. "You?"

Anne nodded, "Took a few days, but much better."

"Good," I said and not knowing what to say commented on the movie she was watching, "Ethan Hawke is cute."

Of course, just saying the name Ethan made me think of my Ethan. My heart hurt. It couldn't be over between us. It had barely just started.

Anne nodded, not noticing that my head was already not in the conversation, "This movie is one of my comfort food movies. You just watch them talk about life for two hours. It's great."

I smiled, "Yeah... I should go up front."

I left Anne to watch her movie. I had my own things to think about and talk over in my head or better yet, avoid thinking about. I walked over to the counter and set down my bag. I felt like getting out my ereader and reading for fun to try and push out the Ethan thoughts, but I had too big of a mound of homework to finish to even consider that. I pulled out my Chemistry book and a worksheet I had to complete. I vaguely wished Kyle had let me copy his. I was all about learning, but I had a billion worksheets to make up. It was going to take me forever. I sighed and started on the first question.

It took me almost the entire night to finish the one worksheet. I could never afford to miss school again. I still had current homework from other classes to finish when I got home, not to mention my murder investigation work. I wondered if I should call Ethan. He hadn't tried to call me or anything. Not that I blamed him. I was the one that had messed up. It had been hours and I still couldn't think of a way to apologize. What was wrong with me? Why was I avoiding this? I couldn't wait much longer or Ethan might think I wasn't sorry. Did he already think that? I looked at my phone. I only had about thirty minutes until the store closed.

I'd call Ethan as soon as I got into my car after work. I couldn't let him think that I wasn't sorry. I just... No, I had to do it. Ethan was important to me. I had to say I was sorry to him and then I could expound on it and make it a huge apology as I went along. I wasn't beneath groveling. I had totally disregarded my promise to him. The fight was completely my fault. Yet, there was a small part of me that felt like looking into this mystery was something that I had to do. I pushed that away. No, my promise to Ethan should have been more important.

Just as I was thinking that I couldn't wait for work to be over so I could get all this Ethan thinking off my brain, I heard someone walk into the store. I froze and had a weird deja vu flashback. Ethan had walked into the store. It was just like the first time he walked into my life. I felt giddy and nervous and I didn't know what to do.

"I'm so sorry," I gushed and walked around the corner of the cashier counter toward him, not caring if Anne heard my blithering apology to Ethan.

Ethan walked toward me, "I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have made you promise. It wasn't fair of me to do that. I..."

Then suddenly we were kissing in the middle of the store. It was like a romantic movie moment in any of those great movies likeTitanicorGone With the WindorPride and PrejudiceorSixteen Candles. It was just me and Ethan and the kissing.

I heard Anne clear her throat and I jumped away from Ethan, guiltily.

"I'm so sorry, Anne," I said, feeling my cheeks burning bright red. This was so unlike me to make out with a guy at work. Oh, who was I kidding? This was really the first opportunity I had to do that and I totally went for it. I just couldn't believe I had done it at work. I had such good intentions when I got there to do nothing scandalous or flaky, but so much for good intentions.

Anne looked between us and frowned trying not to crack a smile, "Just wait until your shift is over."

I nodded and whispered to Ethan, "See you in twenty."

Ethan grinned and walked out of the store. I went back to the counter and packed up my things. Homework was over for the night. All I could think about was kissing Ethan. After about a minute, my thoughts returned back to normal. Was our fight over? Who won? Was it okay if I continued investigating the murder? Or, by kissing Ethan had I told him my promise to not investigate was back on? I was really confused. Was this a we need to talk moment? Because I kind of dreaded saying those words to Ethan.

Anne told me to leave about five minutes early. I was done with all the usual close up tasks and pacing, waiting for Anne to pack up and leave the store with me, like was the norm for closing. I think I was getting too antsy for Anne to take. I grabbed my bag and forced myself not to run out of the store. Ethan didn't need to know how eager slash nervous I was, after all. It was important that I act totally normal.

I walked out of the store and saw Ethan's car parked on the street, a little ways down. I left my car in the parking lot and walked to his and knocked on his window. He unlocked his doors and I got into the car, feeling suddenly first date nervous.

"Hey," I said automatically and then felt stupid.

Ethan smiled and leaned in toward me. Then we were kissing again. I could totally get used to this making up after an argument thing. It was totally amazing and awesome and great. I'd even give up Wired's peanut butter banana milkshakes if it meant this could last longer. And, then suddenly I was pulling away from Ethan. What was wrong with me?

"Um," I managed, my brain trying to assemble its thoughts into a cohesive statement, "Where do we stand on the whole investigating Madison's murder issue?"

Ethan looked at me blankly like he didn't understand what I was saying at first. Wow, did me kissing him have that effect on him too? I felt a giddy happiness in my stomach, but it quickly disappeared as I started worrying about why Ethan wasn't answering my question.


Page 11

"So?" I prodded.

"Uh," Ethan ran a hand through his hair. It was great hair, but I stopped myself from running my hands through it and getting both of us distracted. Ethan took a ragged breath. "I'm not thrilled with the whole investigating thing, but..."

I could take a but! What was the but? Ethan was hesitating again, like he was deciding something.

"But what?" I asked.

Ethan frowned at me, "But I'd like to investigate with you."

I was surprised. That was so not something negative. I'd rather have Ethan on the case with me, holding my hand, stealing kisses, making out in parked cars. Oh wait, we didn't need to be investigating a case to do that. I smiled.

Ethan smiled back at me and I felt a weight lift off of my chest, "You can be like my sidekick."

Ethan's smile quickly turned into a frown, "What about partner?"

I smiled at him, feeling silly. "Nah, sidekick. Definitely sidekick."

Ethan looked at me sideways, studying me and then I saw the corners of his mouth turn up wryly, "You want me to be a wacky sidekick, don't you?"

"Yeah," I grinned. "That would be pretty great."

Ethan looked at me.

"What?" I asked.

"Should I wear a costume?" Ethan asked.

"Sure!" I said, thinking of all the cute Ethan costume sidekick possibilities. There was something adorable about the thought of seeing him in a cape like a superhero or a trench coat like Mulder and Scully wore inThe X-Files.

"Okay. So, just one more thing then: What's the pay for a good sidekick these days?" Ethan asked as seriously as he could, but I could tell he was trying not to smile.

"Kisses!" I said, taking the bait, and leaned in toward him.

Ethan laughed and kissed me back and then pulled away to look at me, "So, where are you in the investigation anyway?"

I recapped all of what I knew so far to Ethan. I was glad when he stopped me to claim that even he had thought Julia Morgan coming onto him was really weird because he had never talked to her before and that, just in case I wanted to know, he was not at all interested in her. Good.

Other than that, Ethan listened and nodded in all the right places and didn't distract me with kissing even once. At least, not until after I was done giving him all the details.

As we broke off from kissing again, Ethan looked at me seriously. "So, you still haven't talked to Casey Hunt, then?"

"No," I said. "She hasn't been at school. I heard she was out sick."

"I think I can get to her," Ethan said.

"Really?" I asked. "How?"

Ethan shrugged, "We used to date."

I felt my stomach drop out from under me. I had just been feeling so confident and un-jealous about our dating relationship. That was fast. Now my stomach was churning wearily.

I didn't know that Ethan had dated Casey. Where was I when that happened? I mean, I hadn't been stalking him or anything, but surely I would have heard they were going out if they had been an item.

"When did you date her?" I asked.

"Freshman year," Ethan said, "But we're cool now. I have a plan."

I was definitely not going to like this plan. I was not going to like it at all. Not even one little bit. My stomach hurt. No, I was so not going to like this plan, even if I knew that we had to talk to Casey Hunt to move forward in the investigation. Maybe I really should have dropped the case instead of having Ethan join me in murder solving. We didn't really need to talk to Casey did we?

 

 

 

Chapter 11: Eavesdropping 

I didn't sleep well. Then I got up early to try and look extra good for meeting up with Casey Hunt after school. Well, the looking good part was actually for Ethan, but I also wanted to look amazing standing next to Casey, or at least my very best attempt at looking amazing. It was a bit of a disaster instead. I tried to curl my hair and ended up with some burnt hair. It smelled totally bad. Then when I made myself some maple brown sugar oatmeal, I spilled some on myself, so I had to change my shirt. I really was not having luck with keeping food off of my clothes lately. It was not a good morning. I hoped my luck would turn by the time Ethan and I met up with Casey.

On the bus on my way to school, I looked over my investigation notebook. Besides wanting to talk to Casey and keeping my eyes open for anyone - guy or girl - wearing red high top Chuck Taylors, I also wanted to talk to Madison's date to the dance, Sebastian Zane. I wasn't sure how that was going to happen, even though I knew what he looked like from a quick glance at my yearbook this morning. I just had no idea where to run into him or if I did, how to approach him. After my run-ins with Noah and Julia, I was kind of weary of talking to anyone in the student body about the murder.

I got to school about ten minutes before the bell was going to ring for first period. I threw the books I didn't need into my locker and got out the ones I did and decided to walk the halls looking for Sebastian. It couldn't hurt. I could decide if I wanted to talk to him or not after I found him.

I was busy walking randomly down a hallway near where my Chemistry class was on my search, when I heard it. I didn't normally follow gossip, but my ears caught this piece and took it in.

"And, I can't believe that Julia Morgan swept in and became Pep Club President. It's just so unfair. She hasn't even been to any of the meetings this year even if her name is on the roster," a girl with long black hair was saying to her friend.

"Why? Did you want to be President?" her friend with a short pixie cut and flaming red hair asked.

The black haired girl paused, "Yeah, you know, I would. It's my senior year. I've been to every meeting and yeah, I mean, it would look good on my college applications. I might have been the next in line for it. I know Madison would never have wanted Julia to take over for her. I might have to quit now. I hate Julia. She totally went after Paul last year. This totally sucks."

I had to keep walking, but I really wanted to pay more attention to their conversation. I glanced around, but there was nowhere within earshot for me to hang around near the two girls gossiping without being noticed. In addition, the crowd of students was rapidly thinning out since the five minute warning bell was about to ring to signal that students should get to their classes. So I kept walking, my brain flying with thoughts.

Julia had gotten the Pep Club Presidency just like she'd wanted. It was definitely a plus for her that Madison was out of the way. I'd also admit that Julia hadn't left the best impression on me with the way she'd decided to torment me by coming onto Ethan at lunch the day before. I could definitely see why she and Madison might have stopped being friends in the first place.

The warning bell rang and brought me out of my thoughts. I headed to my first class, still not having found Sebastian. I'd keep looking for him and anyone with red Chuck Taylor high tops. So far black ones seemed the most popular, though. That was good, since it meant if I found someone with red high tops, they might actually be the killer. Or they'd be a really good witness, at the very least. Still, with the short time window Ariel had given me, it was looking like Red High Tops was the only person who would have had the time and access to kill Madison.

My classes until lunch flew by. Kyle and Suzie shot each other goo-goo eyes all of Chemistry and I tried to ignore them. They were almost too gushy at this point. I sure hoped Ethan and I weren't like this. Just the thought of Ethan, though, made me wish it was already lunchtime. I wanted to see him! It hadn't even been twenty-four hours and I was already craving his presence. What was wrong with me? Maybe Ethan and I were just as grossly lovey-dovey as Kyle and Suzie. Oh well. I was a happy hypocrite.

I felt a little nervous walking into lunch. I didn't want either Noah or Julia to join Ethan and I at lunch today. I still wondered if Ethan was weary about me investigating Madison's murder despite what he said the night before in the car. I would understand it if he was still bothered by it. I mean, Liz's death wasn't that long ago and it had to bring up some unhappy thoughts. I hoped Ethan knew he could talk to me about it.

Then I worried if Ethan would actually sit with me at lunch again. We hadn't actually discussed it. And, it had never been a permanent thing. The thing was, I didn't relish sitting alone at lunch anymore. Prior to Ethan I had enjoyed the time alone, using the lunch hour to read or finish homework, but it was much more fun to hang out at lunch and talk to Ethan than eat cheese fries by myself and read a book.

I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me as I saw that Ethan was already sitting at my lunch table, waiting for me. I had to act normal, though. I couldn't let him know he affected me like this.

I walked up to him and set down my books, "Hey."

Ethan looked up from his sandwich, "Hey."

I walked to the lunch line and started breathing again. I still felt like things were on tender hooks. I knew we had just made up from our fight only the night before and that technically we weren't anything yet anyway, but it just felt like so much was at stake even with simple word exchanges. Did all relationships feel like this? I quickly grabbed a healthy slice of pizza and a pop and hurried back to Ethan.

All it took was those five minutes for the whole school day to change. I was barely at my lunch table when the intercom buzzed on.

"Classes, after school activities, and sports are cancelled for today. Busses will be waiting outside shortly," The principal said.

My mind shorted out. The last time we had been forced to leave the school someone had been murdered. I walked to Ethan in a daze. He stared at me with what I thought was a similar expression.

"It sounds like someone died," I said.

Ethan nodded as if in slow motion, "I just heard it was Julia Morgan."

 

 

 

Chapter 12: Ex-Girlfriend Conning 

Even though Julia had made a bad impression on me, I would not have wished her dead. This was insane. Two people in the span of days, both killed while they were technically in school. I wouldn't blame people for starting to ditch at this point. You might be safer in an out of school suspension, at home, or out on the town. The murderer definitely had to be someone in the student body. Well, unless it was a faculty member or a parent.

Ethan and I were forced to toss out our lunches without eating much of them. We quickly made plans to meet at 3:30 pm and carry out our plan to talk to Casey Hunt, despite the insanity of the day's events. I wanted to ride the bus home and listen to the gossip, actually. Even if the faculty said nothing, the other students might know what happened to Julia. It now seemed even more imperative that our investigation continued. In fact, we needed to hurry up and find the murderer before they killed someone else.

According to the gossip I heard running rampant on the bus, this was what happened to Julia. She had been seen in her first two classes, bragging about the Pep Club Presidency. Well, only one girl said that on the bus, but I'm sure it was true. Then just before first lunch hour, Julia got a pass and she went five minutes down the street to pick up a bunch of cupcakes some mom baked for a Pep Club bake sale that had been organized to happen at lunch. It was Julia's first duty as president and her only duty. Julia never made it back to school because the brake lines in her car had been cut and she careened into a brick wall. Of course, I'm sure the police were still investigating the exact cause of the collision and it hadn't been ruled a murder yet. The school, with another tragedy, had gone by the books and cancelled classes. The two deaths were totally connected, of that, I was sure. Why else would two Pep Club presidents die within the span of days? Someone definitely didn't have school spirit.

I was having trouble processing the fact that Julia was dead even though I didn't much like her. I was probably in shock. I knew the whole school had to be. The obvious secondary connection between the two girls was that they had been best friends at some point. I wondered which connection - the Pep Club presidency or their friendship was the important common link. Unless, of course, I was missing some information and there was another connection. Still, I wouldn't be rearing to become Pep Club president anytime soon. It seemed like it was turning out to be a deadly job.

I was home at a little after 1:30 pm. That gave me about two hours before Ethan came to pick me up. I spent the time touching up my hair and makeup and doing some online research. I glanced at old Facebook posts between Julia and Madison and they seemed like they had been really good friends, until they completely stopped being friends, even on Facebook. I looked at their friends in common, but that was really no help. They were both friends with half the school. It was too many people for me to weed through if we hoped to find the killer anytime in the next six months, much less the next few days. Besides, they might not be friends with the killer. Oh, who was I kidding, it could be anyone. I was still gunning for Red High Tops, though.

Then I checked out the Pep Club group page for Palos High School that had been set up. It had a little over a hundred online members. Somehow, I was betting not all of these people actually showed up to meetings. I recognized a few names like Ariel and about ten people I went to class with, but I didn't know a lot of the others. I took note that Madison's date to the dance, Sebastian Zane, made an appearance on the list. Maybe Pep Club was the way to find him, although he might be totally irrelevant now, since there had been a second girl murdered that wasn't his date to the dance. Still, it couldn't hurt to talk to him if I got the chance.


Page 12

As I scrolled through the members of Pep Club my thought was that in general, they really seemed like one happy and cheery bunch. Of course, it couldn't be all true if someone was murdering them, well, unless that person really did have a vendetta against school spirit. I mean, could the answers to these murders be as simple as an anti-high school psycho or misfit? Maybe, but so far, in my experience, I'd guess at something more personal.

I definitely needed to re-up my Pep Club membership and go to a meeting and not just for my college transcripts either. Maybe not all of these people were as happy and cheery as they seemed to be. There sure seemed to be a lot more to Madison and Julia than met the eye. I put it on my list of things to do. Between investigating murders, work, and my pile of homework, not to mention time kissing Ethan, I was going to be a busy girl.

Ethan showed up promptly at 3:30 pm. He had changed clothes and was wearing dress pants and a button down shirt. I looked down at my t-shirt and jeans and wondered if I too should have dressed up to talk to Casey Hunt. I mean, it was a cute t-shirt, but nothing dressy.

"Not at all," Ethan said and then smiled sheepishly, "When we were dating, Casey always used to try to get me to dress up. This is a buttering up technique."

I wasn't sure that I liked the thought of Ethan using his hotness to butter up another girl that wasn't me, but since he knew Casey best, I'd have to take his lead - at least, for now.

Casey lived about five minutes from my house and we were already there before I could get really nervous about this plan. Besides, my brain was still going over the facts of Julia's murder and who I might want to talk to about it. Truthfully, the whole school had access to the parking lot and anybody could have stepped outside for a quick brake line cutting if they really wanted. Still, it was good that I was preoccupied. I could be thinking about other things - like being jealous that Casey used to date Ethan.

"Are you ready?" Ethan asked, getting out of the car in front of Casey's house.

I nodded, even though my stomach was full of freaked out butterflies. We could do this. I could do this. Although, Ethan was actually the one who had the toughest job ahead of him. Well, I was hoping it was going to be at least a little hard for him to talk to Casey, being that they were exes and all.

Ethan walked up to the front door, while I walked around the corner and watched from behind some bushes and a tall oak tree. I hoped nobody would think I was scouting the house out to rob it or something. I saw the door to the house open and after saying something I couldn't hear, Ethan walked inside. He was in. All was going according to plan so far.

I was supposed to wait ten minutes. The ten minutes felt like eons. Ethan thought he was anxious when I had gone off with Troy during our last murder investigation together. That was nothing compared to stamping approval on letting Ethan go off into a house with his ex-girlfriend for ten minutes. My brain kept wanting to imagine what might be happening with the two of them. Nothing, I kept telling myself. Nothing was happening except talking and Ethan conning Casey, well, sort of - most of that part was up to me.

I tried not to run toward Casey Hunt's house when my alarm went off at the ten minute mark. I forced myself to walk calmly up the steps. I took a deep breath, preparing to go into character, glad for once at my insane reputation.

I started banging on the door like there was no tomorrow. I tried not to feel bad for what I was about to do. Ethan had assured me that this was the only way to get Casey to talk to us. Otherwise, I'd feel a little bad at conning a girl who had just gone through a really traumatic event.

The door flew open and I almost fell forward with the force of how hard I had just been banging on the door.

"Is Ethan Ripley here?!?!?" I yelled, like I had gone totally insane.

Casey Hunt looked back at me, face white with shock.

I tried not to let it bother me, "Is Ethan here? Because his car is out front and if he is, he needs to explain to me what he is doing at some other girl's house when he's my boyfriend and... Well, is he here?"

Casey definitely didn't know what to do. I could see the war raging in her head - did she tell this psycho girl that yes, Ethan was in her bedroom or did she lie?

"Uh, no, actually..." Casey started, choosing the lie, hoping I'd believe it.

"Really? Because his car is right in front of your house," I stared Casey down, daring her to challenge me again.

I saw Casey glance at Ethan's car, which was very obviously parked right in front of her house. Casey looked back at me and I could tell that she didn't know what to do.

"Well?" I said. "You want to tell me why his car is in front of your house if he's not inside?"

Casey sighed, relenting, "Yes, he's here, but seriously nothing is going on. It's a long story, but..."

"I need to see him," I interrupted her.

Casey was totally caught off guard, "Yeah, sure. Uh, follow me."

Casey walked up the stairs and her room was the first door on the right. She kept looking back at me nervously, like she was having major second thoughts about letting me into her house instead of just calling the police. Ethan was sitting on her bed. I tried not to feel jealous. It wasn't a pleasant sight for me to see, so this whole acting thing was not going to be too hard.

"Ethan Ripley, what are you doing here?" I asked. I felt like I went a little over the top, though, by using his full name. I saw Ethan raise his eyebrows. So much for thinking this acting thing was easy.

I snuck a glance at Casey as she was looking at Ethan, who was doing his best to appear guilty and surprised. At least Casey seemed to be buying the whole charade. That was good. Ethan's whole theory was that Casey would be super glad to see him, which was good in that she might confide her feelings to him, but bad because she'd probably be more likely to try and make-out with him. So, I was there to put the kibosh on a make-out session and get Casey to talk because Ethan had spent ten minutes consoling her. I glanced at him eyes narrowed, that was all that better have been happening. Wow, I was getting great at being in character!

"I'm just here to talk to Casey about Madison. I wanted to make sure Casey was alright," Ethan said and then added, "I swear."

I believed Ethan and felt the ball of tension building in my stomach disappear, but I looked at him unsurely anyway. Let him worry. Then, I looked at Casey with raised eyebrows.

"Oh, yeah," I paused, trying my best to sound instantly sympathetic instead of the angry girl I had been seconds ago, "You found Madison, right? Are you okay?"

Casey looked suddenly teary as if all of this talking about the murder and her finding a dead body was finally getting to her, but nodded, "Yeah. It was just so awful."

"I'm so sorry," I said and I meant it. It had to be awful to find a dead body.

Casey nodded, "Yeah. Thanks."

I put a hand on her shoulder, sympathetically, "What happened?"

Then it just spilled out of Casey. She must have been dying to talk to somebody, "It was so freaky. I mean, I was walking into the bathroom and I saw Ariel, you know, Ariel Walker? And, we stopped to talk. Then I walked into the bathroom. I really had to pee. I had like three Diet Cokes and I pushed open the stall and there she was...dead. I just keep thinking if I hadn't pushed open that stall..."

"Wow," I interrupted before Casey could get off track and then asked, "Like, how was she dead?"

"Someone had shot her," Casey replied.

"Wow," I said again, thinking that the gossipmongers had been embellishing the murder with their talk of aKill Billstyle scene.

Shooting someone in the middle of a dance worked, though. With or without a silencer, the noise from the dance would probably drown the whole thing out. Or, people would assume it was part of the beat of the song.

Casey nodded, "Yeah, but definitely dead. It was insane. I know Ariel had just walked out, but I don't think she did it at all or anything. Really. I told the police that too."

"Why not?" I asked.

Casey looked at me, "Because she's Ariel Walker. She's beautiful, popular, and she has a college guy boyfriend."

I wasn't sure those reasons would be enough for the police to not think of Ariel as a suspect, much less a judge or jury. I hoped it wouldn't come to that.

"Anything else?" I asked.

Casey hesitated, "Well, there was one more weird thing. I mean, someone had to have been in the bathroom between when Ariel left and I walked in or something. I didn't notice anybody because I was busy looking at Ariel's dress and trying to figure out the designer. Did you see her dress?"

I had seen it, but it hadn't struck me as amazing or anything. I couldn't even remember the color, "Uh, no."

"It was fantastic," Casey gushed and then went on, "Anyway, but in the bathroom when I walked in on Madison, I did notice something."

"What?" I asked.

"In the bathroom stall above her, the killer wrote - Who's peppy now?" Casey said.

Ethan and I both stared at her. This was a detail that hadn't been released to the gossips at Palos High School and it was a definite help to the case. Did it mean that the killer was simply anti-pep club? Or, maybe they just didn't share Madison's school spirit. It was an extra fact that helped set the scene. We just couldn't jump for joy at learning it until we were out of Casey's sight.

"What did you do after you found her?" I asked.

"I screamed and freaked out and ran out of the bathroom to find a teacher," Casey said. "It's kind of a blur. I couldn't stop screaming. It was horrible."

If the murderer hadn't gotten out of the bathroom before Casey walked in or escaped when Casey and Ariel were talking, the killer had another chance to get out of the bathroom after Casey found the body. I supposed they could have crawled into a vent or something too and done a disappearing act that way, but that would have definitely meant planning and premeditation since you'd need a tool to get into the vent. Still, all of this meant that it was possible the murderer had totally gone unseen and with a gunshot, they might not have had any blood on their clothes. The killer could be anyone. That wasn't good for our investigation.

"Okay, Kait, I think we've bothered Casey long enough," Ethan broke the silence.

Casey looked at Ethan longingly. I resisted the urge to pull Ethan out of the house. Casey smiled at Ethan.

"Yeah, I think you're right. I'm sorry for freaking out and banging on your door and stuff, Casey," I said and I really meant it.

Casey nodded, but I had a feeling there would be some more rumors spread about me once she went back to school. It was worth it, though.

Ethan walked over to me, but spoke to Casey, "Feel better and let me know if you need to talk or anything."

"Thanks," Casey managed a smile.

I grabbed Ethan possessively by the arm and dragged him out of the house. Casey followed us to the front door, unsuspecting, and watched us drive away. I didn't think about the weirdness of that - Ethan and I driving away together - because we had come separately to Casey's house, until we were down the street. Oh well, at least we had gotten some information out of her before Casey could start suspecting us of conning her.

When we were out of eyesight of the house, I turned to Ethan, "We got something."

"Yes, we did," Ethan said. "How do you think it fits?"

"Well, it could be a signature..." I said, thinking. "Something the killer does in all his murders."

On TV and in movies, I was sure I'd seen fictional serial killers leave signatures of sorts. Of course, this wasn't like inDexterwhere the way the killer drained the bodies of blood the first season was the signature. Maybe this killer wrote pithy comments near their victims. Or, maybe it was just Madison. It was too bad we couldn't get a look at the writing - maybe it would tell us if the killer was more likely to be a guy or a girl. Although, somehow I couldn't picture someone who wore red chucks to the Homecoming Dance writing in bubbly letters with hearts over the i's.

Ethan nodded, "Maybe it really is all about the Pep Club."

"It definitely could be," I said. "She...or he particularly focused on Madison's peppiness for the comment. That has to mean something."

"So what next?" Ethan asked.

"How about we stop for peanut butter banana milkshakes at Wired?" I said, smiling.

"Of course," Ethan grinned back at me, "But I meant, about the murder?"

I turned my brain off of the mouthwatering thoughts of Wired's milkshakes, "Well, how do you feel about joining Pep Club with me?"

 

 

 

Chapter 13: Pep Club Faking 

Through Facebook, I found out that we were in luck. Pep Club was having an emergency meeting after school on Wednesday. They didn't say what the emergency was exactly, but my guess was that it had to do with the murder of two of their members and presidents in a matter of days. They were now without a student leader. I wondered who was going to step up to be the next target, er, Pep Club president.

The morning went by in a quick breeze of boring lectures, until I went to Chemistry. There I found Suzie waiting for me outside of class with one of the most good looking guys I had ever seen. I would have stopped short of them in a dead stare of shock if my brain had continued to work at the sight of them looking at me as I walked toward them. I had, of course, seen this guy in school, but we had never spoken. That being said, Ethan was still way hotter in my book, but this guy was an otherworldly super model hot. His name was Logan Collins and he was a senior, easily the most popular guy in his class. Every girl knew who he was, even if they never dared dream that he'd speak to them. How did quiet, shy girl Suzie Whitsett know him? And, what was she doing standing outside of our classroom with him? Kyle was going to freak. Logan Collins blew all guys out of the water with his hotness. Well, except Ethan...to me.

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