For the first time since Claire Kennedy died last week, there wasn’t a police officer guarding the site of her murder.
Kayla peered out from behind the boarded-up beauty salon. Seeing no one, she hoisted her backpack and set out, kicking stones, her gaze fixed on the ground. She was careful to walk slowly. If you ran, grown-ups paid attention. Kayla hated it when they paid attention. She liked being invisible.
Until her mom was murdered last year, Kayla had always been invisible. But now it wasn’t just the other kids who whispered behind her back, calling her weird or—in grown-up language—“an odd little thing.” Adults did, too. It wouldn’t help if they found her sneaking into the place where her mom had been murdered.
Kayla knew the rear door would be locked. She had lock picks from her Junior Detective kit, but they were just toys. She knew a way in, though. A boarded-up window on the first floor with a gap big enough for a nine-year-old to squeeze through. Concrete blocks scattered behind the building made a good stepladder.
She pushed her backpack in first. It hit the floor with a thump. As she hoisted herself through the window, she avoided the broken glass she’d cut herself on last time. Grandma had flipped out and taken her to the clinic. Grandma was like that. She worried a lot. After Mom died, Kayla thought Grandma would have less to worry about. No such luck.
She dropped to the floor and rummaged in her backpack for her flashlight. Plastic, of course. She’d considered asking Grandma for a real one for her birthday, but hadn’t figured out yet how to explain why she needed it.
Kayla shone the flashlight around. Empty. No, that was the wrong word. The building was only empty of people. Abandoned.
There was tons of crap here, all of it dirty and old and broken, but Kayla barely needed the flashlight to get where she was going. She’d been here five times since her mom had died. She’d recorded every visit in her notebook. There hadn’t been much to see, though. By the time she thought of coming, the police had cleared the place out.
This time it would be different. If Claire Kennedy had been killed here just over a week ago, there had to be a connection to the murder of her mother and her mother’s best friend. There just had to be.
She opened the basement door and shone her light into blackness. She went down one step, then stopped, working up her nerve as she always did, before shutting the door and letting the darkness of the basement envelop her, her plastic flashlight barely strong enough to cast a pale, distant circle.
Halfway down the stairs, she heard the thump of a door shutting above. An officer back on duty? That was okay. He’d peek inside the main floor, assure himself all was clear, then sit outside in his pickup. Kayla knew the routine.
Still she listened for a minute. When no more noises came, she resumed her descent. Down into the basement, where the chill was enough to make her wish she’d brought her jacket. Lissa would say it was the chill of death.
Lissa talked like that. When Kayla confided that she came here, her friend’s eyes had gone round and she’d said, “Are you trying to contact her ghost?”
“Your mother’s, dummy. If you could talk to her, she could tell you who killed her.”
Kayla thought that was silly, but she didn’t say so. Lissa was the only friend she had.
It was just a dark, cold, smelly basement. Where her mom had died. And no one knew who’d done it or why. That’s why Kayla kept coming back. To find out what had happened to her mom. And to Brandi, though really she didn’t much care what had happened to Brandi. But Grandma would say she shouldn’t think like that. She did want to find out what happened to Claire Kennedy, though. She hadn’t really known Claire—she was one of the girls from the cookie place—but she’d seen her around town a few times, and she’d seemed nice, always smiling and waving, even though they’d never met.
From the bottom of the basement stairs, Kayla picked her way around piles of junk until she saw the yellow crimescene tape wrapped around a pillar, the broken end trailing across the floor.
She stopped. It was exactly the same spot where her mother’s and Brandi’s bodies had been found. She shivered and maybe it wasn’t the cold this time, but she told herself it was.
She crept forward. There was blood on the cement floor. The spot wasn’t very big, not like the big stains she could still see, almost hidden under a layer of dust.
She shone the flashlight on those old blood stains and, for a second, she could see her mother lying there, her eyes open, her—
Kayla shook her head sharply and swung the beam away. She wasn’t here to think about her mother. She was here to find out who killed her. And she didn’t need ghosts for that. She needed science.
She took her backpack off and unzipped it. Inside was her Junior Detective kit. She had a camera, too. A real one. It was on her mom’s old cell phone, which Grandma let her keep for emergencies. She took it out for a picture of the blood. Blood stains were important. They could tell you—
A creak overhead. Kayla froze. Then she shook her head. Just a noisy old building. She aimed the flashlight with one hand, holding the cell with the other—
This time footsteps sounded above her, crossing the first floor, the distinct thump-thump of someone walking.
Just the police officer. Or maybe Chief Bruyn, come back to check something. Or someone from town, also trying to sneak a peek at the crime scene.
But what if it was someone else?
Kayla had read every book in the library on murder investigations. One line came back to her now. The killer may return to the scene of the crime.
It seemed crazy to come back after you’d gotten away, but Kayla trusted the books, and listening to those footsteps, her heart hammered.
Then it hit her. If this was the killer, maybe she really could solve her mother’s death. All she had to do was hide and see who showed up.
A click from upstairs—the basement door opening.
Kayla turned off her flashlight and tucked herself into the shadows beside the old furnace.