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Authors: Kristen Kittscher

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BOOK: The Tiara on the Terrace
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I sneaked a glance at Rod as he watched them and wondered if he thought they were pretty. Then I wondered if I'd ever look like them when I was in high school. It was hard to imagine. Something about them seemed faded and weirdly
stretched out, like a Photoshopped magazine picture.

“C'mon,” Grace said. “We only have two more minutes until Lund—”

A bone-chilling shriek rang out next to us. We whipped around to look.

“What the heck . . . ?” Trista's mouth fell open in surprise.

There, beside the campfire feature of the Beary Happy Family float stood Kendra Pritchard, her face twisted in horror.

A wisp of smoke hovered over her head.

Chapter Three
Fire in the Hole

K
endra Pritchard unleashed another bloodcurdling scream as she slowly backed away from the float. Behind her, a group of Beary Happy Girl Scouts froze in confusion before two rushed to her side, nearly tripping over the float's s'more replica on the way. A smell that reminded me of an early experiment with my mom's curling iron hung in the air.

“Looks like her hex rebounded,” Grace joked, but her worried expression didn't match it.

Barb Lund whipped her megaphone out so fast it felt like she was in a duel in some old Western. “Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!” she cried out.

“Pyrotechnics test misfire,” Trista clarified when she saw my ashen face. “We'd better clear out.” The tools on her leather utility belt clanked together as she broke into a jog
past the Royal Court float near the warehouse door. “Sparks must've singed her hair. She got off easy. One of these days the Festival's going to learn the hard way that flames and ten thousand pounds of palm fronds don't mix.”

“She's screaming like that over her hair?” Grace asked, looking back to Kendra Pritchard and the Girl Scouts. They weren't the only ones treating her hair accident like a national state of emergency. Kids at the nearby flower-cutting tables poured forward to help, but a Brown Suiter held up his hand and murmured urgently into a tiny radio microphone clipped to his lapel. Seconds later several officials on scooters buzzed into the warehouse and came to a screeching halt in front of the Girl Scout float.

Barb Lund didn't need any convincing to raise her megaphone. “Keep the area clear!” she shouted so urgently you'd have thought armed troops were invading. “I repeat, keep the area clear!” She shooed us toward the large, open warehouse door.

My legs felt shaky as we streamed onto the Ridley Mansion grounds. I tried to convince myself it was from balancing on the scaffolding so long, but the nervous fluttering in my stomach wouldn't let me. Grace hung back, craning her neck for a better view. I looked over her shoulder. Kendra Pritchard hiccuped sobs as a Brown Suiter
gently led her away. The two Girl Scouts who'd rushed to Kendra's side wobbled behind them, their faces a sickly gray green.

Murmurs rushed through the crowd as we headed up the stone path under the rose arbor toward the mansion. “She burned off her hand,” a girl next to Grace said, eyes so wide I worried they might launch themselves right out of her head.

“No, she found a hand,” another voice chimed in. “I saw it. I swear.”

“Just a hand, like, sitting there?”

“C'mon, people,” a slouchy eighth grader ahead of us scoffed. “They found a bomb. This parade is totally the perfect terrorist target.”

Maybe he sounded so convincing because his voice had already changed, but suddenly I was sure the warehouse was about to explode, turning tiny bits of plastic bear replica into speeding projectiles. I fought the urge to run. Better to die by fireball than be the girl who ran for her life because Kendra Pritchard singed an eyelash.

I tried to calm down by reminding myself that Festival officials were the leading experts in overkill. The year before they'd practically called in the National Guard when bugs infested the rose crop. I wouldn't have been at all surprised
if they'd ordered up a SWAT team to clear out some dead field mouse barbecued in a float pyrotechnics test.

Grace strode ahead of me, her watch glinting in the sun as she undid her ponytail and let her long hair flop over her shoulders. From behind, she could have been part of the Royal Court front-runners' shiny-haired crew. A couple of months ago, she would have been begging me to hang back and investigate. Now that seemed to be my job.

“Grace, wait up.” I jogged to catch up. “Don't you think we should check it out?” I nodded toward the float barn.

“Nah, it's probably nothing. You know how Kendra is.” Grace tossed her hair over one shoulder. Her eyes flicked to Marissa and the twins.

“Sure doesn't look like nothing,” I said as three police cars came blazing down the mansion's side driveway toward the float barn, lights flashing.

We watched as the officers spilled out of their cars and jogged inside. A gleam came in her eye. She was curious. She had to be.

“C'mon, Agent Yang.” I nudged her. “One last mission. For old time's sake? Then we retire for good. Promise.”

“I don't know, Sophie.” Grace looked back as Barb Lund marched the troops toward the mansion, her sturdy arms swinging. “It's not worth landing on the Watch List for.”

“Lund'll never even notice,” I lied. The truth was, I'd have scrubbed down ten port-a-potties with toothbrushes if it meant Grace would go back to being her old spy self.

“Officer Grady's on the scene,” I said, pointing.

“Uh-oh. They're doomed.” Grace smiled. Officer Grady had nearly botched Deborah Bain's capture a couple of months ago, but we'd set him straight. Grace bit her lip and looked back to the group heading up the path.

“Don't tell me you're worried what they'll think,” I said, jerking my head toward Marissa and the twins.

“Of course not,” Grace said, but she didn't sound convincing. “Okay. Five minutes,” she said, holding up five fingers.

I broke into a grin and slapped her hand as if she'd been angling for a high five. Then we launched ourselves toward the warehouse. As we raced ahead, half crouching, a burst of happiness surged through me and I could practically hear the
Mission: Impossible
soundtrack swelling up in the background.

“Now, that's more like it,” I said, as we flattened our backs against the warehouse metal siding, spy style.

Grace laughed. “Roger that.”

She jerked her head toward the open door, counted down silently on her fingers, then flashed me a signal
before springing around the corner. I followed, trying to keep my sneakers from squeaking on the polished warehouse floor as we crept up to the ocean-themed Royal Court float, its rippling blue “waves” rolling toward a huge figure of a grassy-bearded Neptune at the front of the float. We climbed aboard, slipped past the giant half clamshell where the Court would wave from on parade day, then tucked ourselves into hiding behind two leaping dolphins along the side of the float.

Slowly, we peered over their sunflower seed–decorated backs. Grace leaned forward and—cupping both hands behind her ears—opened her mouth wide. She looked as if she were imitating a surprised fish. “Spy trick,” she whispered to me when she saw the look on my face. “Helps you hear better.”

I imitated her, trying not to laugh. She was back in the game. But my giddy, happy feeling fizzled away as soon as I saw the expression on Officer Grady's face. He stood with his hands on his hips next to the Girl Scouts of America Beary Happy Family float, frowning. Goldilocks and the Three Bears posed stiffly in their Girl Scout uniforms, flashing toothy daisy-petal grins as other officers swarmed around, taking pictures of the float from every possible angle. Meanwhile, a gangly, pink-faced officer who couldn't
have been all that much older than my brother Jake roped off the area with yellow crime-scene tape. A deputy kneeled by the fake campfire, muttering and jotting down notes.

Grace let her hands fall to her sides again and shot me a dark look. My stomach fluttered.

The Festival vice president, Harrison Lee, paced back and forth in front of the float, jangling the change in the pockets of his brown suit pants. Head of the Asian American Business Association and a local car dealer in town, he was known for his big grin and goofy commercials where he ran around “cutting” prices with an assortment of chainsaws and other sharp instruments. He sure wasn't smiling now.

Officer Grady pointed to a giant hard-plastic marshmallow on the float's s'more feature and muttered something in his gravelly voice that I couldn't catch.

“He'd make his rounds every night around ten or eleven,” Harrison Lee replied to more of Grady's mumbling. He patted his jet-black hair nervously. It was so stiff with product I almost expected it to shatter on contact.

Officer Grady pursed his lips and gazed down at the campfire pit on the float. “Looks like blunt-force trauma to the head.” He sighed and walked over to inspect the s'more.

Meanwhile the young pink-faced officer had finished
roping off the scene. He rested his hands on his hips like Grady, then turned to Mr. Lee and shook his head. “We can't rule out homicide.”

Grace grabbed my arm so tightly that I had to clench my teeth to keep from crying out.

“Homicide?” Harrison Lee repeated, his voice flying up an octave. His normally light-brown skin looked closer to gray.

“It's a possibility we have to consider,” the officer said, hitching up his belt.

Homicide.
As in, someone had been killed. Murdered. Grace turned to me, eyes wide. My pulse throbbed in my ears, and my hands started to sweat.

Harrison Lee sipped nervously at the purple thermos he held in one hand. His gaze flitted over the campfire, the officers at work, and the worried Brown Suiters huddled nearby. Then he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sure is shaping up to be one heck of a Festival anniversary,” he said.

Grace, hands cupped around her ears again, leaned over the dolphin's back to hear better. Her long legs barely touched the ground anymore. I cringed, hoping no one could see her.

“We'll need to interview the witnesses,” the officer
continued. “It'll take a bit before the coroner's report is ready. LA's got a backlog. But things should be clearer in a couple of weeks.”

“A couple of weeks?” Harrison Lee sputtered in disbelief. He rubbed the back of his neck. Other officers huddled with Grady to inspect the giant marshmallow. They rolled out measuring tapes at different angles, calling out numbers and scribbling them down. Lee swiveled back to the young officer. “Please tell me you won't have to announce it as a murder investigation—”

“Take some more pictures of the scene, Carter,” Officer Grady interrupted, striding back.

“Yes, sir!” The young cop straightened. “S'more pictures of the s'more, on the double,” he added with a smile as he scooted off. Grady rolled his eyes. “Second day on the job,” he explained to Harrison Lee. “Rookies, I tell you.”

Lee ignored him. “The press is going to go nuts over this, Paul, you know that. It could go national. First all that business with the fugitive? Now, this?” He tugged at his collar uncomfortably. “We have to get to the bottom of this. Fast. We've got six days till parade day. The Royal Court will be announced this
afternoon
. What am I supposed to tell—?”

“Mmph!” Grace's stifled cry interrupted him. I turned to
see a flash of jeans and red Converse sneakers flip skyward, followed shortly by a thump as she planted herself face-first in a tangle of fake seaweed.

Every head in the warehouse turned toward us. There was no time to think. I ducked out of hiding, pulled Grace to her feet, and we tore off—vaulting over the lip of an ocean wave and out the open warehouse door.

Chapter Four
S'more Struck

W
e raced up the steep hill to the mansion, stumbling over sprinkler heads and zigzagging past flowerbeds. By the time we'd reached the terrace, my lungs were on fire. Grace leaned on the white stone railing. “Oh my god, Soph,” she said, gulping for air. “I never thought it'd be something
real.

It was real all right. My head buzzed, and my heart pounded against my chest like a frantic bird was trapped inside it. Dazed, I followed Grace through the French doors into the mansion.


Murder
. In Luna Vista,” she whispered, still catching her breath as we tiptoed unsteadily down the dark hallway toward Barb Lund's voice blaring from the front living room. Ridley family ancestors stared out at us from gold-framed oil portraits, cold blue eyes following each of our
steps. The hair rose on my forearms.

“Let's keep this beehive bling-a-blinging,” Ms. Lund's voice rang out from behind a partly open wood-paneled sliding door off the front foyer. If we hadn't been so shaky, Grace and I would have laughed about her newest crazy slang. Instead we approached the door warily and peered inside. Barb had planted herself in front of a flickering fireplace, not at all fazed that her float-prep assembly line was taking place in a living room decorated with hunter-green fabric wallpaper and antique brass lamps.

The volunteers were still rattled, though. They sat cross-legged in clusters around the room, trading worried looks as they snipped dried petals and jumped at Ms. Lund's commands. A few kids glanced uneasily at the flames licking the fake logs in the gas fireplace. I looked around for Rod but didn't see him anywhere.

When Barb fumbled for something in a neon fanny pack slung around her overalls, we slipped in and plunked ourselves down by a potted plant against the back wall. Grace borrowed a pair of scissors from the ninth graders next to us, I grabbed two dried strawflowers, and we huddled together as if we'd been hard at work for years—though I'm pretty sure no volunteers had ever worked so hard cutting petals that they had to pant to catch their breath. Trista shot
us an odd look from across the room.

“Young and Yang, report to me immediately at the lunch break,” Barb grunted. She hadn't even raised her head. How did she
do
that?

I was about to mumble an apology when there was a gentle knock at the oak-paneled door. It slid open to reveal Lauren Sparrow. A hush fell over the room.

The special adviser to the Royal Court and one of the official Festival spokespeople, Ms. Sparrow was always perfectly put together, from the sleek copper waves of her hair to the rose-patterned skirt and tailored silk blouse she was wearing that day. Her features were so delicate and birdlike that sometimes I wondered if she'd invented her last name just so it would match her. If there's one thing Ms. Sparrow seemed to love, it was matching.

“Forgive me,” she said quietly, her face pale and pinched. When she stepped into the light, my stomach dropped. Her mascara was smudged. Lauren Sparrow's mascara was never smudged. Worse yet, her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed as if she'd been crying. There was no doubt about it. She'd known the person who'd been found on that parade float. And if she knew them, chances were we did too. I squirmed. Grace pressed her knee into mine. I pressed back so hard I think I bruised us both.

“If I could make a brief announcement . . . ?” Ms. Sparrow asked.

Barb Lund tossed up her hands as if Ms. Sparrow had cut her off in traffic. “Be my guest! It's not like we're doing anything
important
here!”

“Thank you, Barb.” Lauren Sparrow smiled frostily and crossed to the center of the room. Ms. Lund flashed her a look that suggested she'd be releasing a thousand angry scorpions into her bed later.

Once Ms. Sparrow had taken the power position at the fireplace, she stared down at her shoes, then cleared her throat. It was strange to see her so unsure of herself. Though she'd been part of the Festival for years, she'd recently also become a bit of a local celebrity, thanks to the line of skin-care products she'd developed called Pretty Perfect. Testimonials from some big Hollywood stars in nearby LA had made the brand really popular. So, on top of being “pretty perfect,” Lauren Sparrow was also pretty rich.

Ms. Sparrow drew in a deep breath before she finally spoke. “As you're aware, we've had an emergency here at the Festival. I'd like to thank the Festival leadership”—she tilted her head stiffly in Ms. Lund's direction—“for ensuring such a smooth evacuation. It seems there was a problem testing the campfire feature at the Girl Scouts of America float,
but I'm relieved to tell you the misfire caused no damage or injury.”

A ripple of relief ran through the room. Grace and I traded puzzled looks. We were both pretty sure that murder counted as injury.

Ms. Lund stood up from her plush armchair as if it were a throne, ready to send us back to work. Lauren Sparrow held up a hand. “I'm afraid, though, we've made a terrible discovery as a result.” She bowed her head and smoothed down her skirt before looking up at us again. “I am heartbroken to share that our Festival president, Jim Steptoe, has passed away.”

What little air was left in the room rushed out of it all at once. The bright-pink roses on Lauren Sparrow's skirt spun before me like a kaleidoscope pattern as I tried to take in her words.
Passed away.
She made it sound like Mr. Steptoe's death had nothing at all to do with Kendra's shrieks or the police crawling all over the Girl Scout float—and certainly nothing to do with murder. He had simply tiptoed off when no one was looking, never to be seen again.

“The float barn will be closed while the police conduct a very thorough investigation.” Ms. Sparrow raised her voice above the murmurs. “It goes without saying that this is a deep blow to all of us in the Festival family.” She paused
to collect herself. “Harrison Lee will be sworn in as Festival president. He will be taking over Jimmy's—I mean, Mr. Steptoe's—duties immediately.” She stared, glassy-eyed, at some invisible point over our heads. I could tell she was fighting to keep her emotions under control, but her lower lip trembled.

Grace turned to me, looking as sick as I felt. It didn't seem possible. Jim Steptoe—jolly, lively Mr. Steptoe, king of corny puns and knock-knock jokes—had been wandering around Luna Vista's Root Beer float just the day before, laughing his deep belly laugh as he joked around with Grace and me. “Ah, Young and Yang,” he'd called out. “The too-wise two
Y
s!” He'd winked and slipped us each a piece of gum, even though he probably knew that, under the Floatatorship, gum chewing by anyone other than the Grand Pooh-Bear herself was an offense punishable by roughly eighty-two years of hard labor. Then he'd gone back to remembering the “good old days” that he'd spent with Rod's dad as middle-school float volunteers. They were still good friends. Or
had been
. A lump swelled in my throat.

It wasn't hard to see why the Festival hired Lauren Sparrow to train the Royal Court each year—or why Harrison Lee had chosen her to deliver the bad news that day. As a CEO of a company, she was used to giving speeches. Her voice
cracked occasionally, but she gave matter-of-fact replies to each question—no matter how ridiculous they sounded. Kendra had discovered Mr. Steptoe lying hidden from view behind the fake logs stacked around the Girl Scout float's campfire feature. The morning's pyrotechnics misfire was unrelated and “did not affect the victim at any time.” From what they could tell, he had been struck in the head by the fake marshmallow in a giant animatronic, dancing s'more that had swung down unexpectedly. A full police report would be made available when it was ready. Counselors were on-site if we needed to talk to anyone. We should contact our parents right away.

When Trent Spinner asked whether someone was more likely to be killed by a ginormous fake marshmallow or a velociraptor, Lauren Sparrow wisely wrapped up the Q&A and announced that all Festival activities—including the Royal Court announcements—would be on hold until further notice.

“I'm so sorry.” Ms. Sparrow blinked at us, her voice catching. “If we do return to normal operations, I ask that you all be very careful. The floats are complicated, heavy machines with a lot of moving parts.” She looked pointedly at Ms. Lund and cleared her throat. “It's important that you be properly supervised at all times. You never know when
an accident might occur.”

The gas flames flickered against the ceramic logs in the fireplace behind her. I shuddered and looked away. Maybe supervision could protect us from accidents, but what could protect us from a killer? Something told me the Winter Sun Festival was going to be more dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined.

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