I hold the magnifying glass over the eight-by-ten glossy of the blood-splattered bedroom, searching for a clue that everyone else missed.
“Piper Monalisa Grimaldi.”
I roll my eyes and lower the photo. “Dad, do you have to call me that?”
He steps forward, snatches the picture from my fingers, and swats me on the butt with it until I step away from his precious French provincial desk. Mom gave it to him for their fifth wedding anniversary. According to him, she gave him a notebook on their first, and told him to write the book he’s always dreamed of. It became his debut crime novel. Her giving him paper and wood is significant because of some ancient list about anniversary gifts. The olden days were weird.
“It’s your name, isn’t it?” He stuffs the picture back into the manila folder, files it into the drawer, and locks it with a key.
I flop into an armchair, sling my legs over the side, and push my purple-framed glasses to the top of my nose. “I don’t want people to hear it. I’m not some creepy painting with death ray eyes.”
He smirks and runs a hand through his thick dark hair. “Your grandmother, my mother, is named Monalisa. It’s a beautiful name.”
“In the twenty-first century it’s weird, and you know it.”
He sits in his tall black leather chair. “Then be grateful your mother’s beauty wooed me into using it as your middle name.”
“Yeah, well Piper may be semi-normal, but being named after a witch from a TV show is not.”
“Your mother was obsessed with Charmed.”
I don’t remember the details, just what Dad’s told me. When the show was airing, I was too young to notice, and by time I got older, Mom had already skipped town.
“Now, how many times have I told you to not snoop through my office? This room is off bounds to you, young lady.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Crime scene pictures don’t bother me.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “That is exactly the problem. My fifteen-year-old should not be unmoved when looking at photos of dead bodies.”
“There is no body in that photo.” Sometimes I’m a stickler for semantics.
He sighs. “That’s not the point. I don’t want you in here. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do.”
“But will you listen?”
“I’ll try.” I jump out of the chair and head to the door.
“You better. Where are you going?”
“To snoop around this town. May I do that?”
“Be home by dinner.”
I turn and smile. “You mean the one you’ll order in?”
“No, Miss Smarty-Pants, I’ll cook.”
I chuckle. Like that’ll happen. The last time Dad cooked, it was pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning six months ago. That was right after he finished writing the first draft of his latest book, Homespun Murder. His publisher always gives him cheesy titles. Being a bestselling author, you’d think they’d let him pick his own.
“I’ll have Kung Bo Chicken, extra spicy,” I call out before slipping into my flip-flops and stepping onto the front stoop.
A small stack of flattened cardboard boxes lie on the porch, beneath the large front windows, the ones that look into Dad’s new office. It should be the living room, but Dad needs a lot of space. The TV and couch are up in the spare bedroom, cramped and uninviting.
Seven hours since the moving van left, and I’ve unpacked the kitchen, bathroom, and part of my room, while Dad’s handled just his office. Knowing him, he’ll end up sleeping on the recliner in there more often than his bed upstairs.
I skip down the steps, stand at the end of the walkway, and stare at the houses across the street. They’re all the same. White, yellow, or light blue with white trim. Small Victorians, two-story, with an attached garage and small front yards. Having lived in a different house and town each year for the last eleven, I know houses and towns. And this is suburbia with a capital S.
I spin to my right and see a girl my age walking up the sidewalk. She has short, straight, black hair with bangs and skin so pale she either never steps out into the sun or wears SPF 100. Since it’s hot enough to melt the tar off the asphalt, it must be the latter.
“Hey,” I say and meet her halfway, in the middle of my driveway. I hold out my hand, a habit I picked up from Dad. “I’m Piper Grimaldi. We just moved in.”
Her skin is super soft, like she just slathered it in lotion and it hasn’t dried yet, but her handshake is weak. We’ll have to work on that. Dad says a firm shake, especially by a woman, shows character.
“I’m Kinley Abbott. I live there.” She points to the yellow house right next door.
Nothing like meeting a potential friend the first day in a new town and have her live within shouting distance. Score one for Hollow Ridge, Massachusetts.
She sways her head left and right. “I know, I know, you’re thinking, how can a Korean-American girl have a name like that?”
Actually, I wasn’t thinking that.
“I’m adopted,” she tells me.
“That’s cool. That you weren’t stuck in foster care or something.” Okay that sounds lame, but I’ve met a lot of adoptees, so it’s not a shock.
“Where are you from?” She waves her hand at her face, trying to cool off.
“Everywhere. We move around all the time, so there really isn’t a hometown anymore. But Dad has family in New York.”
“And your mom?”
I shrug. “She’s gone. Not dead-gone but walked out on us when I was little. I guess in a way it’s the same thing.”
Her dark, deep-set eyes widen. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
“No sweat, but speaking of which, you wanna go inside?”
She gives a grateful smile. “I hate the heat.”
“I hear ya. You definitely don’t want to live in Georgia or Miami. Super hot. We could go in my house, but the air conditioners aren’t installed yet, and we only have water and Ritz crackers to eat.” Sometimes Dad gets carsickness.
Her laugh is kinda crazy, bordering on hyena, but it’s also cool because it’s so weird. “Come on. We have A/C, snacks and soda.”
“Ohmigod, we’re gonna be best friends.”
The biggest suck-fest about moving all the time is that I don’t make long lasting friendships. I follow some old classmates online, but there isn’t much interaction.
We start walking, and a shiny, white stretch limo passes us and stops at the white house across the street, diagonal from mine.
I expect someone old to get out, so when a teenage girl exits, I’m taken aback. “Whoa, who’s that? She’s our age.”
“That’s Linzy Quinn, and she’s fourteen.”
I don’t get a good look, only notice her brown hair, yellow miniskirt and white top, before she enters the house, and the limo drives off.
“Is she famous?” I can’t place the name, so she’s obviously not too well-known. Then again, if she’s starred in anything but horror or suspense, I wouldn’t know.
“Are you serious? She stars in One Day at a Time and just won a Daytime Emmy award. Don’t you watch TV?”
“Yeah, but not soaps. I’m in school.”
“That’s what DVRs are for, silly. Come on.”
I take one more glance back then enter Kinley’s house. Instantly my sticky skin becomes cool, and I can finally breathe through my nose, rather than shallow breaths through my mouth.
We walk through the hall and into the kitchen at the back of the house. Our homes are set up exactly the same. Except her kitchen is macked out in Mexican decor with red, yellow, blue, green, and purple canisters and curtains. Chili peppers hang from the center of the curtain rods, and matching rugs, stool covers, and placemats make me hungry for enchiladas and chicken mole.
I was only seven when Dad wrote Illegal Strangulation, about an immigrant found strangled in an Arizona motel bathtub, but I recall how much I loved the chile sauce they slathered on everything in that state. I think that’s where my obsession with spicy food began.
“Mom, this is Piper. She and her dad just moved in next-door.”
An older woman with short, pale blonde hair is bent at the waist, putting a casserole dish into the oven. She pushes the door shut with her hip while turning to face us. She wears wire-rim glasses and a red apron around her thick waist. “Hello, nice to meet you.”
Kinley reaches into their old-fashioned fridge and pulls out a can of Diet Coke. She looks to me. “Diet or regular?”
“Regular.” That diet crap has a vile aftertaste.
She reaches back in, hands me an orange soda and pulls out a bag of carrots. Seriously? When she said snacks I was thinking more along the lines of chips or Little Debbie cakes. Then she reaches into a cupboard, grabs a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and I swear I hear angels sing.
“We’re going to watch TV downstairs, okay?” she says to her mom.
“Sure, but only a few of those. Dinner will be ready in an hour.” Her mom smiles at me then turns to wipe down a counter.
Kinley leads me down to the basement, which is totally finished with wall paneling and a plush rug on the concrete floor. A huge flat screen TV takes up the right wall, and an L-shaped, dark brown, leather sectional sits across from it. Three sheer curtains cover the half-windows at the side of the house, above the sofa.
“Wow, this is great. I wish Dad would fix up our basement like this.” It’s exactly where we should put our living room stuff.
We plop onto the couch and tear open the bag of Doritos.
“Why don’t you ask?”
I shake my head and crunch on two chips at once. “We won’t be here long enough for it to be worth it. That’s what he’ll say.”
She grabs the remote and sticks a chip and a baby carrot into her mouth at the same time. “What do you mean?”
“We never stay in any place for more than a year.”
Her mouth hangs open, displaying a chunk of mashed up orange goo on her pink tongue. It’s chewed up so well I can’t tell the difference between chip and vegetable. Not an attractive look. “You move every year? Why?”
I stare at her, trying to figure out if I should tell her the whole truth or the condensed version. Some people don’t really want to know what Dad does. They can’t stomach the grisliness. And then there’s the cops. A lot of times Dad ends up disproving the police’s theory and figuring out the true culprit. Those towns aren’t fun to live in. Word gets around, and before you know it, the cute, new girl in school with the witty repartee and decent fashion sense becomes the devil’s spawn. It’s not pretty.
“Because of his job.” I start there. If she wants to know more, she’ll ask.
She turns on the TV and flips the channel until she lands on TruTV—a documentary where the police discuss and reenact a real crime. This episode is about the death of a former model-turned-housewife. It’s a rerun, and I’ve watched it a good four times.
“I love these kinds of shows, but you probably prefer MTV or something else. I can change it…”
“No. MTV doesn’t even play music anymore. I love this channel.”
“Actually, this is what my dad does.” Okay, so sometimes I bring it up on my own when I think it will be well received. I pop the lid on my can and slurp a mouthful. The bubbles tickle my throat.
“He works for cable television?”
“No, he writes books on true crimes.”
She freezes. I mean, a mid chew and holding her arm in the air while reaching for her drink kinda freeze. Then she jumps up, knocking the bag of chips onto the floor, and hurries to the bookcase in the corner of the room.
I pick up the bag and stuff three more chips into my mouth, like a squirrel storing nuts. I’m not normally such an aggressive eater, but Dad gets so caught up in his books in the beginning that he sometimes forgets to go food shopping for a while. My last meal was a gross meatball sub from a truck stop along I91.
Kinley grabs a book and faces me, holding it behind her back. “You said your last name is Grimaldi?”
“Yep.” I lick the speckled flavoring off a chip.
“As in Vincent Grimaldi?” She shows me a copy of Illegal Strangulation.
“That’s him, but his friends and family call him Vinnie. And that book is old. His latest should be out next year. It’s the best so far.” From what I can tell. He hasn’t let me read it yet. Well, he never lets me. It’s more like I’ll sneak one of his copies into bed after I should be asleep.
She squeals and twirls, then heads toward the couch. I hold down the chips as she lands with a whoosh on the cushion. “I’ve read most of his books. I’m a huge fan. Do you think he’ll autograph one for me?”
I roll my eyes. “Oh yeah. He’s a complete ham when it comes to his books. I’ll ask him later.”
The telephone rings upstairs. Her mom’s footsteps sound overhead, and I hear a distant “Hello?”
Kinley squeals again. “You are the best neighbor ever. So what’s he working on now?” She covers her mouth with her hand.
“Is it the McDougal case?”
Cameron McDougal, a photographer, was killed and found in his home a year ago. It was in all the papers and splashed across every television set. Dad’s been super tight-lipped about this one. Not that he’s usually talkative about his work, but this one feels different.
“Yep, that’s it.”
“Kinley, your father’s on the phone. His car won’t start, so we need to pick him up,” her mom calls down.
Kinley’s shoulders slump. “His car never starts.”
“Okay, Mom. I’m coming.” She switches off the TV and gathers the snacks. “Can we chat later?”
“Of course, but how come you have to go too? How old are you?”
She looks to her feet. Her hair falls forward shielding her profile like a veil. “Fifteen, but I always need to be supervised so I don’t die.”