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Authors: Marlene Perez

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BOOK: Dead Is Just a Rumor
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"Your shirt," I whispered, as Ryan's dad approached the car. "It's unbuttoned."

Ryan fumbled with his buttons, but I thought he wasn't going to get his shirt done up in time, so I decided to help him. I mean, my telekinesis skills were perfect in a time like this, right? Wrong.

I was so flustered that my concentration was messed up and I popped all the buttons off his shirt, sending them flying in every direction.

"Sorry," I said, but even under extreme pressure, I still had time to admire his chest.

"It's okay," he said. He grabbed a T-shirt from his gym bag and quickly switched shirts.

"Daisy, Ryan, out of the car please," Chief Mendez said.

Humiliation couldn't begin to describe what I was feeling as we scrambled out.

"We weren't doing anything wrong," I said. I could tell that Chief Mendez was unhappy, and I didn't want Ryan to get into trouble.

"I know," the chief said. "But it's very late, and nobody knew where you were. Your parents are frantic. I got a call that you were missing."

"My parents?" I said. "You mean my dad."

Chief Mendez nodded gravely.

"I'll take her home, Dad," Ryan offered, but the chief glowered at him.

"I think I'd better take care of that, son," he said sternly.

Ryan got out of his car and locked it up. "I'm coming with you," he said, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "I have something to talk to my dad about, anyway."

I was glad to hear that Ryan would be coming clean about the blackmail letter to his dad. But then I suffered the humiliation of having the chief drive me home like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent.

Which, technically, I guess I was. I'd snuck out with Ryan behind my parents' backs. Not exactly the behavior of someone who was trustworthy. But I'd gotten used to coming and going as I pleased. Mom had trusted me. Why couldn't Dad?

He was waiting at the door. He shook hands with the chief and then ushered me inside. There was no sign of my mom or Rose or Poppy.

"Where is everyone else?" I asked.

"Your mother is in bed," he replied. "And your sisters are out."

I raised an eyebrow.

"Your mother doesn't know you were gone," my dad said. "I didn't want to worry her."

I didn't want to break it to him that I'd been out much later, and in far more dangerous circumstances. Somehow, I didn't think he'd take any comfort in that fact.

Instead of talking to him like a mature high school senior, I gave him the silent treatment and retreated to my bedroom. I punched my pillow as I tried to figure out how to get through to my father, but the pillow wouldn't talk and I was out of ideas.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

My alarm went off
way too early the next morning. I rolled over and groaned. Early shift at Slim's and I was going to be late if I didn't move it. I grabbed a quick shower and dressed in some relatively clean work clothes before I dashed out the door.

When I got there, however, it was absolute chaos, so nobody even noticed I was a little late.

Flo had her hands full of frozen steaks, and although my boss wasn't exactly visible, I could see the freezer door opening and closing. There were pools of water everywhere.

"What happened?" I said.

"Freezer died," she said. She set down the steaks. "Slim's having a fire sale."

"Huh?"

She shrugged. "We were barely keeping our heads above water before this. Commercial freezers are really expensive. Slim's ready to close."

"He can't do that!" I protested.

The freezer door slammed. "I don't have any choice, Daisy," Slim said. He didn't sound like himself.

"Slim, maybe it can be fixed—"

"Daisy, someone broke in and did this deliberately," he said.

I noticed something else. "Where's the jukebox?" I said.

"What?"

"Where is the jukebox?" I said, panicked. "You didn't sell her, did you?"

"Of course not," he replied.

Flo said, "I put Lil in the office after closing last night."

"Why would you do that?"

"After Circe Silvertongue came by the other day, I started locking Lil in the office after closing."

"A lock isn't going to stop a sorceress," Slim said.

I gaped at him. "She's a sorceress? Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"I thought you knew," he said. "I've heard people talking about her at the restaurant. She's pretty powerful. I'm not sure what we can do to stop her."

"A lock warded by a witch should do the trick," Flo said triumphantly. "I knew she was up to no good, so I had Natalie put a ward on the office."

Slim surveyed the freezer ruefully. "I wish you'd had her ward the entire place," he said.

"I will now," Flo promised.

"Do you think Circe used magic to ruin your freezer?" I asked.

"Probably," Flo said.

"Then could Natalie use magic to reverse the damage?"

Slim picked up the phone and started dialing. "Daisy, you're a genius."

An hour later, the freezer was running again and Slim had calmed down enough to decide that he wasn't going to close Slim's, at least not yet.

I wanted to blame it all on Circe, but part of me wondered if there was anyone else in town who had something against Slim.

After the freezer was up and running, Natalie warded the entire building. I watched her do it and marveled at how quickly her power had grown since she was out from under her grandmother's thumb.

Afterward, I helped Flo move the jukebox into her usual spot. Flo hadn't even plugged the machine in before Lil let forth a stream of songs.

I recognized "Blackmail" by the Runaways, "Help, I'm Alive" by Metric, and "Blackhearted Love" by PJ Harvey.

"What's wrong with her?" Flo said.

The jukebox was definitely agitated. The last song cut off and there was silence. Then she repeated the sequence one more time before finally going mum.

"She's trying to tell us something," I said. Lil had never been so talkative, but I couldn't figure out the clues she was giving me.

Flo nodded. "Do you have any idea what she's talking about?"

"Unfortunately, no," I said.

Flo shrugged and then bent down to plug in the jukebox.

"Can I borrow a quarter?" I asked.

Flo handed me a stack of shiny coins. "We need all the help we can get."

The quarters went in and I looked at my selection choices. Maybe it was time I tried speaking her language. I punched in E4, which today was "Talk to Me." Nothing. My next try was "Tell Me" by Stevie Ray Vaughan, then "Tell Me Something" by Selena Gomez.

Lil didn't respond for a long time. Finally, the music started playing. The song was "Help" by the Beatles.

This time I got the message, loud and clear.

I put my hand out and touched the warm smooth surface of the jukebox. "I'll help you, Lil," I said.

Fortunately, we had a steady stream of customers. Samantha showed up with a group of anniversary party volunteers, who grabbed a table in the corner. Nurse Phillips and the rest of her band filled up one of the booths. I headed toward the Side Effects May Vary booth, but Flo waved me off and took their order instead.

Gradually Slim's bad mood lifted. The ticket wheel shook occasionally with the force of his agitation, but by the time the breakfast rush had ended, Slim was back to his usual self.

The people at Samantha's table, however, didn't look very happy. In fact, Lilah Porter was in tears. I asked Samantha what was up, when she approached me during my break at the counter.

Samantha said, "Didn't you hear?"

"Hear what?" I said.

"Lilah Porter got one of those notes a few weeks back. And later, someone sent her parents some incriminating photos."

"Photos of what?"

"She didn't say," Sam replied. "But she's getting shipped off to boarding school."

"But it's her senior year," I said.

"Harsh, huh?" Sam said. "But her parents won't budge."

A thought occurred to me. "Is Lilah ... you know?"

"Why don't you ask her yourself?" Sam suggested. She motioned to Lilah to join us at the counter.

Lilah's eyes were rimmed in red and she held a box of Kleenex. "What do you want?" she said. She sniffled noisily.

"Daisy has a couple of questions for you," Sam said.

I wasn't sure how to start. "So you're leaving for boarding school soon?" I finally said.

"Yeah, can you believe it?" she said bitterly. "One little slip-up and my parents couldn't wait to ship me off."

"About that slip-up," I said. "I heard you got a blackmail letter."

"I thought it was a joke or something," Lilah said. "At first."

"Then what happened?"

"Then all hell broke loose," she said. "My parents got the photos in the mail and it was all over."

"Can you show us the photos?" Sam asked.

"No," Lilah said. "My dad was so mad, he put them through the shredder."

"This is kind of a sensitive question," I said. I dropped my voice and made sure nobody else in the diner was listening in. "But do you happen to have any ... powers?"

"You mean, am I psychic or anything?" she asked. "Like your family? Not exactly."

"But there is something different about you," I said. It was a statement, not a question. I had a pretty good idea that Lilah was like the blackmailer's other victims. She had some sort of paranormal gift, although she obviously didn't want anyone to know about it.

She nodded. "Let's just say that there's a reason I was protesting showers after PE." Lilah had successfully lobbied to make showers after gym class optional.

"You mean...?"

"Mermaid," she whispered. "On my mother's side. My dad is freaked."

"There's nothing wrong with being a mermaid," I said.

"Tell that to my father," Lilah replied.

"And the photos?" Sam asked.

"Midnight swim. I thought I was alone, but obviously I wasn't."

"Do you remember when the photo was taken?"

She shrugged. "Right after school started. I wanted to get one last swim in before the water got too chilly. Even mermaids get cold."

"Did the note ask for money?" I asked her.

"Not the first one," she said.

"There was more than one?"

"Yes. Three, total," she said. "But I didn't find the last two until it was too late."

"Where did you find it?" Sam asked. I was pretty sure I already knew the answer to her question and Lilah's answer confirmed it.

"In my gym bag," she said. "But I'd lost track of it for a few days and I finally found it in lost and found. So anybody could have put the note in there."

"Do you still have the notes?"

"Nope," she said. "I gave them to my dad."

"Anything else you can tell us?"

"Just that I hope you catch whoever is doing this," she said.

"We will," I said. "E-mail me if you think of anything else." I wrote down my e-mail address and cell phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to her.

Lilah headed back to the table.

I didn't say anything until she was out of earshot. "Boarding school."

"Yeah. Boarding school. And the worst part is that they found a school miles from any ocean or river. No pool. Lilah will be miserable," Sam said.

"Did you know about her?" I asked.

"I can keep a secret," she said. "And Nightshade's full of them."

She was right. Nightshade was full of secrets, but wouldn't be for long if we didn't stop the blackmailer.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I wished I could
do some investigating after work that day, but Dad had laid down the law. I had to come home right after school and work, no dates—not even group dates—until further notice. I'm pretty sure Mom stopped him from checking me into a convent, but just barely. She was busy with a case, which meant long hours and a certain distracted air.

"Mom, can't you talk to him? Please?" I said.

"I will, but Daisy, your father is still adjusting to being back in Nightshade," she said. "Could you please be tolerant for a little while longer?"

I sighed. "He's not like this with Rose or Poppy."

"You're still in high school, Daisy," she pointed out. "And I can't really say I disagree with your father's decision to ground you after your shenanigans last night."

"Mom, it's not my fault that Dad missed out on half of my childhood," I said.

"It's not his fault, either," she said gently. "Maybe you should try to remember that."

I nodded. "I'll try," I said. A tiny part of me
was
still angry that he'd been gone so long, but it was time to get over it. I spent the rest of the weekend looking at old photographs of Dad and me.

Monday at school, Ms. Tray called me out of class. I headed to her office begrudgingly. I'd avoided her as long as I could, but I'd run out of excuses.

I ran into Penny Edwards in the hallway. She put her nose in the air and tried to ignore me, but I stepped in front of her. "What's your problem with me, Penny?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," I said.

She started to stare me down but dropped her gaze at the last minute. "I know you don't like me," she finally said.

"Of course I like you," I said.

"You don't have to lie, Daisy," she replied. "I know what everyone thinks of me."

"I
do
like you, Penny," I said.

She gave me a knowing look.

"Most of the time," I amended. "But I thought we had been getting along better lately. Until the past couple of weeks, that is."

"I thought so, too. So why did you say that about me?"

"Why did I say
what
about you?"

"You don't have to deny it," she said. "Ms. Tray told me that you told her I was the least popular person in school."

"Penny, I never said that," I said. "In fact, I don't even talk to Ms. Tray."

"Where are you going right now?"

"To Ms. Tray's office," I said, without thinking.

"You never talk to her, huh?" If possible, Penny looked even madder than before.

"This is the first time I've been to her office," I said. "And besides, I would never say anything like that. Does that sound like me?"

"Not really," she said. "But why would Ms. Tray say something like that?"

"I have no idea," I said. "I know we haven't been the best of friends, but we can try harder."

Penny nodded, but she didn't look like she felt any better.

"The bathroom wall," I said. "That was you, wasn't it?"

She nodded again and looked slightly less tense.

"Why did you do it?" I asked. "
How
did you do it? When did you become a witch?"

"I felt horrible after I did it," she said. "After I saw what the spell did, I tried to fix it, but I couldn't. If I'm a witch, I'm not a very good one."

"It's okay," I said. "My friend Natalie Mason fixed it, but I wouldn't try anything like that again."

"I won't," she promised.

"Maybe I can introduce you to her," I offered. "She might have some pointers for a beginner witch."

"I'd like that," Penny said.

I shifted on my feet, uncertain what to say next. I didn't want to leave. "Hey, do you want to hang out with us at the anniversary party?" I asked.

"Really?" she said. Her face brightened and she smiled for the first time since we'd started talking. "I-I have a date," she confided. "Is it okay if he comes, too?"

"Sure," I said. I wondered who she was going with, but had more pressing concerns. "I've got to go, but I'll see you there."

I hurried off to Ms. Tray's office. I saw Wolfgang Paxton's parents on their way out, looking troubled. Parents talked to guidance counselors all the time. Still, I wondered what kind of advice she'd given the Paxtons.

The door was shut, so I knocked and then tried the door. It was locked.

"Just a moment," Ms. Tray called out. There was a flurry of shuffling papers and then the sound of a drawer
whoosh
ing shut. The door opened and Ms. Tray said, "Please have a seat." She gestured toward a chair full of stuffed pillows. "I'm so glad you could join me," she said.

"Uh, sure," I said. I didn't know why she'd called me into her office, but I'd go along with it.

She didn't say anything else, so I looked around. Her office had been redecorated in early ick. There was a painting of men hunting and killing a unicorn. The decorations on the wall were all vaguely violent, with dripping red hearts and wounded things.

"So Valentine's Day is your favorite holiday?" I asked. I couldn't think of any other reason someone would do that to a perfectly harmless room.

She ignored my comment. "I'm sure you know why I've called you here."

"Not really," I admitted slowly.

"I've been so looking forward to visiting with you," she said. "I've heard so much about you."

"You have?"

"Why of course I have," she said.

"From who?" I folded my arms across my chest.

"That charming young man of yours, and your friends, even your employer," she said.

She'd talked to Slim about me? What did my part-time job have to do with my college education? I'd never heard of a guidance counselor investigating her students.

"You seem to know an awful lot about me," I said.

"Why, of course I do," she said, with a sparkling smile. "It's my job to know everything there is about the students at this school."

"Everything?" I said without thinking. "That seems a little extreme."

Her toothy smile faded. "Everything. Now, about your plans to hold Ryan back by keeping him in Nightshade."

"What?" Her dainty lace gloves were definitely off. "I'm not holding him back," I declared.

"It's just that you two are so attached—it's unhealthy."

"What?" I said, incredulous. "Is that what you told my father?"

"Now, Daisy, part of growing up is letting go."

I wanted to let go of a few choice words. Instead, I stood up. "This meeting is over."

Part of me knew I was behaving badly, but I was beyond caring.

I thought she'd tell me to sit back down or maybe send me to the principal. Instead, she gave me a smile that made my blood freeze.

"I'll decide when it's over," she said.

My response was unintentional. The candy in the bowl on her desk shot into the air like a geyser and then clattered to the floor. I stood there with a hand to my mouth.

What had I done? My abilities weren't exactly a secret, but Ms. Tray was an outsider, and someone I didn't like or trust.

"I'm so sorry," I said. I dropped to the floor and scrambled around to pick up the candy.

"Leave it," she said. "You'll be late for class."

I did as she told me, but as I left, I caught a strange gleam of satisfaction in her eyes.

Great. Instead of a college consultation, I'd made a new enemy. Way to start senior year.

BOOK: Dead Is Just a Rumor
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