POISONOUS

Poisonous

BOOK THREE
MAX REVERE SERIES
Release Date: April 12, 2016

Teen-aged Internet bully Ivy Lake fell off a cliff and few people cared ... except her mentally-challenged eighteen-year-old step-brother, Tommy. He loved her in spite of her cruelty. He's distraught and doesn't understand why his blended family is falling apart. After a year, the police still have no answers: Ivy could have jumped, could have been pushed, or it could have been an accident. With too many suspects and not enough evidence, the investigation has grown cold.

Tommy thinks that if someone can figure out what happened to his step-sister, everything will go back to normal, so he writes to investigative reporter Maxine Revere. This isn’t the type of case Max normally takes on, but the heartbreak and simple honesty in Tommy's letter pulls her in. She travels to Corte Madera, California, with her assistant David Kane and is at first pleased that the police are cooperative. But the more Max learns about Tommy and his dysfunctional family, the more she thinks she’s taken on an impossible task: this may be the one case she can’t solve.

If Ivy was murdered, it was exceptionally well-planned and that kind of killer could be hiding in plain sight ... planning the next act of violence. Max believes the truth is always better than lies, that the truth is the only thing that matters to gain justice for victims and their families. But for the first time, she wonders if this time, the truth will kill.

Praise

"Longtime bestselling author Allison Brennan reaches new heights in "Poisonous," and this smart, sophisticated entry in the Maxine Revere series raises her to the level of Lisa Gardner and Harlan Coben."

-- Providence Journal

"Allison Brennan's POISONOUS has it all ... A twisty and compelling read."

-- Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of CRAZY LOVE YOU

“A fast-paced, suspenseful read with interesting characters and sinister twists that keep you turning the pages for more.”

-- Karin Slaughter, NYT bestselling author of Pretty Girls

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Audio Excerpt

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 

MONDAY

Maxine Revere and her right-hand everything, David Kane, flew into SFO on Labor Day. Max didn’t like traveling on holidays, but with her hectic schedule she didn’t have much of a choice. They took a shuttle to the car rental lot and David handled the paperwork while Max scanned her e-mail. A dozen messages down the inbox was a message from her lover, Detective Nick Santini.

I know you’re angry that I canceled our plans this weekend. I’ll find time later this week to come up for a day. Let me know when you land.

Max didn’t know why she was still so irritated at Nick. She’d planned on flying in a few days before her scheduled meeting with the detective in charge of the Ivy Lake homicide—thus avoiding flying on a holiday. But Nick called her Thursday night and cancelled. He said he had to swap shifts at the last minute. Something about his excuse didn’t ring true, so she’d pressed him for the reason. Maybe what bothered Max the most was that she’d had to push him before he told her the truth. His ex-wife was fighting for sole custody of their son Logan and Nick had a critical meeting with his lawyer. Max hadn’t met Nancy Santini, but she doubted she’d like the woman who was attempting to prevent a good father like Nick from spending time with his own child. Based on everything Max had been told, Nancy Santini was manipulative and vindictive, and why Nick couldn’t see it, she didn’t know.

She dropped her smartphone into her purse without responding to Nick’s message. What could she say? That she understood? She didn’t, and she wasn’t going to lie to Nick about how she felt. He didn’t want her opinion on the matter, and she certainly wasn’t going to tell him she would be eagerly awaiting his unconfirmed arrival. If he drove the hour to Sausalito to see her, great. If not … well, she really didn’t have much say in what he did or didn’t do. Nick had made that perfectly clear when she started asking questions about his custody battle.

David approached her, rental keys in hand. “Whose head did you bite off?”

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. When she wore heels, she and David were eye-to-eye. “Excuse me?”

“When you’re angry, your eyes narrow and the lines in your forehead crease.”

“You’re telling me I have wrinkles. Terrific.”

“It’s Nick.”

“If you already know, why ask?”

David led the way to the rental car. Max wished he wouldn’t act as if she were on the verge of dumping Nick. She was the first to admit she didn’t do long-term – or long-distance – relationships well.

Nick was different, and she wasn’t being overly romantic to think so; she wasn’t a romantic at heart. Yet when he’d canceled their weekend plans, her gut had twisted. She didn’t want it to be over.

David popped the trunk of the luxury sedan and maneuvered his lone suitcase into the trunk alongside Max’s two large bags. Her laptop and overnight bag went into the backseat. She sat in the passenger seat and slid back the seat for comfort. After five and a half hours on a plane, she needed to stretch her long legs.

If she had to, she could travel light but she didn’t know how long she’d be investigating this case. She’d told Ben she wanted ten days for the Ivy Lake investigation. He’d scowled at her—that was the only word that fit his irritated-with-Maxine expression. Then she told Laura, his admin, not to schedule anything for two weeks. Max had almost managed to skip town before Ben found out she’d blocked off so much time. He called her in a tizzy on the way to the airport and whined. She’d already recorded the October show—early, she reminded him—it wasn’t like she had to rush back. If she needed to do re-takes, they had a sister studio in San Francisco.

“You took a week off in Lake Tahoe, and now for an investigation that shouldn’t take more than a few days you’re taking two weeks?”

She knew what needed to be done to keep her show running smoothly, and she’d do it. She wasn’t going to explain herself. “Good-bye, Ben.” She hung up.

Pulling out of the parking space, David merged the rental into the dense traffic that would take them through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Max stared out the window. She liked San Francisco, but didn’t feel the passion for it like she did for New York City. She’d never once considered living here, though she’d grown up only forty minutes south of the city. She couldn’t put her finger on why—maybe it was that San Francisco was too close to her family.

“Why does he let her get away with it?” Max asked after several minutes of silence.

“What are you talking about?”

“Nick’s ex. The games she’s playing.”

“Nick is not letting Nancy get away with anything,” David said. “There’s a process.”

“She’s trying to deny Nick the right to see Logan.”

“No,” David corrected. “She’s seeking full custody so she can leave the state without violating the joint custody agreement.”

“Why do you know more about this than I do?” Max had mixed feelings about David’s relationship with Nick. While it made her life easier that her closest friend actually liked the man she was sleeping with, she didn’t particularly appreciate that Nick and David had conversations she wasn’t privy to. Lately, it seemed like Nick had been talking to David more than her.

“This is an area I have more experience in than you,” said David.

“Maybe instead of a journalist I should have studied law and become a judge,” she said.

David’s spontaneous laughter didn’t improve her mood.

“I would be a good judge,” she said defensively. “I’m exceptionally adept at weeding through fact and fiction.”

“Maybe in criminal court,” he said, clearing his throat. “Not so, in family court.”

“I’d certainly put a stop to her blatant manipulation tactics. She’s changed her mind three times about where she and her boyfriend are moving. And who is this guy, anyway? First they’re getting married, then they aren’t, but are planning on moving in together. With Logan in the house? And doesn’t Nick have a say in who his minor son shares a house with? The whole situation stinks.”

“You need to stay out of it, Max. Nick knows what he’s doing.”

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“That’s a first.”

Max didn’t respond. She wondered if there something else going on with Nick and his ex that David knew about but she didn’t. But why would Nick hold back from telling her? They’d had a wonderful vacation together in Lake Tahoe six weeks ago—all of them. David and his daughter Emma had joined her, Nick and Logan. At least, it was wonderful until Nick’s vacation was cut short by his ex-wife. Still, Max had been understanding. Sort of. At first.

Okay, maybe she had been a bitch after the fourth call from Nancy Santini demanding that Nick bring Logan back to town. Nick never told Max the nature of his disagreement with his ex-wife but something Nancy said had Nick packing their bags and leaving the same day.

Max hated these sort of games, especially when kids were involved. She had no children of her own and doubted she ever would. But she’d interviewed enough kids over the years and learned one important fact: young people picked up on lies faster than most adults. Even if their parents tried to shelter them, they knew what was going on in their family.

Nick refused to say a negative word about Nancy in front of his son, and while Max could respect his position on the one hand, telling the truth was not being negative. The truth was neither good nor bad, it simply was, and Logan was smart enough to come to his own conclusions.

“You’re thinking quite loudly,” David said.

“I haven’t said a word.”

“Sometimes you don’t need to.”

“Speaking of kids, will you be allowed to see Emma?” She winced at her tone. David didn’t deserve her anger, though he seemed to be trying to irritate her. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Yes you did,” David said. “I’m going to Brittney’s tonight. She said we’d play it by ear.”

“Another manipulative bitch,” Max said under her breath.

“She is,” David concurred, “but I want to see my daughter, so I deal with it. I have fewer rights than Nick because Brittney and I never got married. I will not risk my time with Emma.” He paused, then added, “Stay away from Brittney, Max.”

In one sentence, David’s tone had gone from normal to threatening. A few months ago, Max would have pushed the conversation, but she’d realized over this last summer how deeply she valued David’s friendship. She wasn’t risking her relationship with her best friend and business partner by arguing with him about the mother of his daughter. So, as difficult as it was for Max to shut up, she shut up.

Brittany treated David like garbage. She insulted him in front of Emma and refused to let David have more time with his daughter than the court mandated. The one consolation was that Emma was a smart and completely wonderful girl. She’d be thirteen next week and adored her daddy. Considering her parents didn’t get along, she was surprisingly well-adjusted. Brittany may be a bitch, but David got along with his ex-wife’s parents and apparently they had a lot of clout over her. If it weren’t for them, David said, he couldn’t have been part of Emma’s life.

Max put David and Nick and their respective children out of her mind and spent the remainder of the drive responding to messages from her producer, Ben Lawson, and staff. Ben had wanted to send a small crew with Max because he sensed this case was going to be good—meaning good for “Maximum Exposure” ratings. Max axed the idea of traveling with anyone but David. She needed time in the field without a cameraman. The interpersonal connections she made were key to her investigative success. Nuances in tone, expression and body language could be lost when a camera was involved. Before agreeing to host “Maximum Exposure” for the cable network NET, Max had been a freelance reporter for years and she still preferred to work a case alone, asking questions, pushing people to be truthful, proving or disproving evidence.

She’d be the first to admit she was happy to let the competent NET research team take over much of the grunt work. They’d compiled all the public information on the Ivy Lake investigation, including news clippings, profiles of Ivy’s friends and family, and television coverage.

After going back and forth with Ben on the news crew until her irritation overflowed, she sent back a message:

I’ll call in the crew when I see fit. TTYL.

Ben just didn’t know when to drop a subject, or how to give up control.

She could relate.

While Ivy’s stepbrother’s letter had affected Max and prompted her to act, she’d grown even more curious about the case after actually speaking on the phone to Tommy Wallace. Or trying to; Tommy barely spoke. She’d tried to get him to talk about why he wrote the letter, and his responses were simple and brief. Any other case and she would have been suspicious and likely dropped the matter altogether, but after reading the Ivy Lake media reports, she realized Tommy might be mentally handicapped.

Which made her wonder if he wrote the letter himself or if someone helped him. And if so, why?

After talking to Tommy Wallace, Max had spoken to Grace Martin, the detective in charge of the Ivy Lake investigation. Max wanted to feel out whether law enforcement was inclined to help or hinder her investigation, and then specifically to ask about Tommy.

“I spoke to Tommy Wallace several times,” Grace had said. “He’s slow, not stupid.”

Grace seemed amenable to Max’s involvement when they talked on the phone—the case was fourteen months cold with no leads. She agreed to meet with Max in person, which was a big win for Max—too often she had to fight for access with the local police.

Max read Tommy’s letter multiple times. What really hit her was the lack of anger or grief. Maybe Tommy’s “slowness” made him less emotional. Generally, when people wrote to Max of tragic events, there was pain and anger evident. Rage on the page, Ben called it. But Tommy’s plea was unlike any she’d read before. And while he may have had help writing the letter, there was no doubt its sentiments were all his. There was a truth in the words that pulled her in immediately.

Tommy’s letter got her looking at Ivy Lake’s death, but the circumstances themselves propelled Max to action. Ivy had been seventeen when she’d been killed—pushed off a cliff, according to the forensics report. The police had interviewed dozens of individuals, mostly minors, and it seemed many had reason to hate Ivy.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, the keyboard is mightier than the pen. Perhaps unwisely, Ivy had used her keyboard to expose the secrets of her schoolmates through social media—including one girl who’d committed suicide after bearing the brunt of Ivy’s attacks.

Ivy’s dramatic death from being pushed or thrown off a cliff had spun a web of coverage in the media about cyber-bullying, but in the end, the news stories stopped, the investigation hit a dead end, and life went on. With no killer in custody. No answers for the family.

No justice for Ivy.







CHAPTER TWO


Max had reserved two suites in the mansion at the Casa Madrona, one for her and one for David. The facility was less than an hour from the airport and had amazing views of the San Francisco Bay. She’d stayed at the Sausalito luxury hotel and spa several times before. Once, during a particularly contentious meeting of the Sterling Trust, the multi-million dollar fund that had been established by her great-grandparents, her family had reserved the entire mansion at $25,000 a night for three days.

This week, she’d reserved two deluxe suites on the second floor of the mansion, each with a living room, bedroom and spectacular views. Max found the sight of water soothing, comforting in a way she didn’t fully understand. She’d picked her penthouse in New York because of the view of and its proximity to the Hudson River; most of her vacations—rare though they were—centered around the ocean.

“You should take a nap before your meeting,” David told Max after they checked in.

“I don’t nap,” she said.

“Start.”

She ignored him. “Go see Emma’s mother and try to get into her good graces for the week. If you’re not back by five, I’ll take a taxi to my meeting with Detective Martin.”

He glanced at his watch, then turned and left her suite without further comment.

You need to stay out of it, Max. She suspected David’s advice was not only directed toward her relationship with Nick.

While Max had three hours, she had no time to take it easy—for a soak in the jacuzzi bath or for a nap. First, she unpacked. She hated living out of suitcases. She’d done that for the first ten years of her life. She took the time to put away her clothes in drawers or hang them up in her closet. She unpacked her toiletries into the bathroom drawers, then frowned. There was no bathtub. The shower was large and wide, but no jacuzzi. Dammit.

She caught a glance of herself in the mirror. David was right; she looked tired. A cross-country flight would do that, and she hadn’t slept well last night. Insomnia was par for the course—when Max did sleep, she slept deep, but when she woke up, whether it was 2:00 a.m. or four or six, she could never get back to sleep. Last night she went to bed at eleven and woke up at two. And that was it.

Once she stowed her suitcases, she went to the living room and opened the doors that led to the balcony. The salty air of the San Francisco Bay refreshed her and the mild headache that had followed her from New York faded. The bright blue sky crystallized the bay, jewels of light sparkling as far as she could see, the water dotted with boats. She loved Sausalito, a community nestled on the edge of the bay, with its unique shops and delicious restaurants and numerous bike trails.

Sitting on a chair on the balcony, she kicked off her shoes. She could take a minute before getting to work. The last time she’d stayed at the Madrona had been solely for pleasure. Was it really three years ago? Before she’d started hosting “Maximum Exposure,” she’d had a major argument with her then-lover, FBI Agent Marco Lopez, and Max had travelled almost as far from Miami as she could get while remaining in the continental United States. Still, Marco had followed her. They’d argued and made up, basically the cycle of their on-again/off-again relationship. After a weekend of hot sex, good food, and invigorating sailing she’d talked herself into the false idea that everything would work out between them.

The peace didn’t last. Marco wanted to change her. Max didn’t want to change, and resented that Marco thought he could mold her into his perfect woman. And how many times had he interfered with her job?

She didn’t want to change—and Marco couldn’t change. That it took her so long to realize the truth was a testament to how much she cared for him and had wanted their tumultuous relationship to work.

If Nancy Santini was Marco’s ex-wife, he would never have put up with her bullshit. Max instantly regretted the thought. Comparing Nick to Marco—she didn’t want to go down that path.

Nick wasn’t weak. He more than held his own against Max, and she knew she wasn’t the easiest woman to be involved with. Nick was methodical and cool-headed and extremely intelligent. She had a thing for smart guys. Nick went above and beyond not to make waves or disrupt his son Logan’s life in any way. She loved how Nick was with his son. How he played baseball with him. How he talked to him daily about schoolwork or sports or movies or whatever Logan was interested in. Yet Max could see, as clear as this beautiful late summer afternoon, that Nancy Santini used Nick’s love for and desire to protect his son as a weapon against him.

“Stay out of it,” she whispered, trying to take David’s advice to heart.

Maybe it was best that Nick had canceled this weekend. Max didn’t know if she could have kept her mouth shut for that long about Nancy.

Her stomach growled and she considered ordering room service, but Max didn’t like eating in her hotel room. Back inside, she unpacked her carry-on—her laptop and all the files related to the Ivy Lake investigation. She unrolled a long piece of butcher paper and affixed it to the wall next to the desk. At home she’d created the timeline based on the facts: when Ivy was killed was the midpoint. Prior to that event was the suicide of Heather Brock, the girl who’d allegedly been bullied by Ivy so severely that she’d killed herself. “Allegedly,” only because Max had seen none of the evidence—Ivy’s social media accounts had been taken down, Heather’s family hadn’t returned Max’s call, and no police charges had been filed against Ivy or her family.

There had been a civil case filed by the Brock family, but the filing wasn’t yet online. Max had read a copy that had been sent to her, but it was poor quality and names had been redacted because they were minors. None of the exhibits had been attached. Still, the allegations had been serious.

It wasn’t that Max necessarily assumed Heather’s suicide had anything to do with Ivy’s murder … but two teen-age deaths in six months in a town as small as Corte Madera? Her staff was putting together an archive of all of Ivy Lake’s deleted social media pages. Most people thought once something was deleted from the Internet it was gone forever but that was rarely the case. Time, skill and sometimes bribery could retrieve almost everything. Heather Brock’s family would likely have documentation to prove their civil case.

Max changed into a sundress that, with a light jacket, would work for her meeting with Grace Martin, then she grabbed her over-sized purse and left the hotel in search of a light meal. Later tonight she and David had reservations at Scoma’s, one of her favorite seafood restaurants, but a salad or sandwich would tide her over until then.

The streets were crowded, and while Max thrived in the pace of New York City, the crowds in California didn’t move. They crept along, stopping without warning or care, meandering and blocking the way, unmindful of anyone possibly in a hurry right behind them. East Coast, West Coast ... two completely different mentalities.

She crossed the street and as she stepped up on the curb noticed a kid who looked familiar. Odd, considering she didn’t know anyone here … She looked again. He was about thirteen and carried a skateboard. It took her a second, but she thought she’d seen him earlier, outside the hotel when she and David had first arrived.

Max never forgot a face. This kid had been at her hotel and was following her. Dark hair in need of a haircut weeks ago, dark eyes watching her. When she caught his eye, he immediately turned away.

Max could ignore him, but that wasn’t in her nature. She strode toward him, brushing past lazy tourists window shopping. As soon as the kid saw her approach, he hopped on his skateboard and tried to speed up, but he had the same problem that she did—people—so he stepped off the sidewalk and into the street.

Signs everywhere stated that skateboarding was prohibited, but he didn’t care. He took off in the bike lane with a glance back to her, a half grin on his face.

Max was irritated, but curious. Who knew she was in town? Nick. Detective Grace Martin. Tommy Wallace. The kid wasn’t eighteen, so couldn’t be Tommy. And the Wallace’s lived in Corte Madera, ten miles north.

Max gave up. She couldn’t keep up with the kid. Frustrated, she entered a nearby cafe and ordered a salad and glass of white wine. She pulled her iPad out of her purse and started reviewing the Ivy Lake files sent by her staff. She skimmed the file names and descriptions, looking for photos. She spotted the Wallaces’ wedding announcement from seven years ago.

She tapped on the screen to open the pdf file. It was a page from the local paper, saved from their online archive. Bill Wallace had married Paula Alden Lake. They’d included their wedding picture—a bit elaborate, Max thought, considering it was a second marriage for both of them—as well as an engagement picture that showed their entire blended family sitting around a park bench, with San Francisco Bay behind them. Bill’s two children, Tommy and Amanda, then 11 and 9, stood behind the couple; Paula’s two children, Ivy and Austin, then 10 and 6, sat on either side of the couple. Boys on the left, girls on the right. Artistically, the photo was perfect. White shirts and jeans—trendy for family photos—contrasted well with the red bench, blue sky, darker water. Green grass around the edges. It was the kind of picture families framed and hung above the fireplace.

The only one of the six with a genuine smile was Tommy. The engaged couple looked as if they were made of plastic, heads tilted toward each other just so, too perfect smiles on attractive faces. Amanda had forced a smile; Ivy had a closed-mouth I-have-a-secret grin; and Austin … he wasn’t smiling or frowning.

It was Austin who’d been on his skateboard following Max from the hotel.

Here in the photograph, he seemed contemplative, looking older than his years. His eyes—sharp. The kind of eyes that her great-grandmother would call “an old soul.”

She’d often told Max that she was an old soul.

Max surprisingly felt a kick of nostalgia and grief thinking about her great-grandmother Genie who’d died twelve years ago, when Max was nineteen. She should have had more time with her.

Thinking more about Austin, Max drained her wine and closed her iPad.

Max had e-mailed Tommy on Thursday to tell him she’d decided to look into his step-sister’s death and would be in town “next week.” She hadn’t been specific because she hadn’t finalized her arrangements with Nick. She rarely gave anyone outside of the people she worked with her entire itinerary. She usually wanted a day or two to immerse herself in the community, talk to people before they found out she was a reporter, visit the crime scene without anyone waiting for her or pushing her to think one way or the other. In her head, Max started with a pencil sketch about each cold case she investigated, faint lines that gave her a direction based on the information she knew and the research she’d done. She fleshed the picture out with her own impressions, then added detail and color by talking to the individuals involved. Family. Friends. Law enforcement. Suspects.

Max had planned to talk to Austin. She’d prefer to get his mother’s permission, but she wasn’t sure yet how she was going to handle the investigation and wouldn’t be until after she’d spoken to Detective Grace Martin. According to Tommy, his step-mother thought he’d killed his step-sister, so Max couldn’t know if Paula Wallace would support her involvement.

Max would have to tread carefully. She’d let it go for now. Austin was long gone, and this time alone gave her the chance to review her notes and maybe even dig around a little more on Tommy’s step-brother.

Max’s instincts twitched. She sent a note off to Ben to find out if anyone on staff had fielded a call about her today. As a reporter, she had to be accessible, but her staff would not give anyone her exact location. Could a thirteen-year-old boy have conned one of them into giving out her hotel information? Possibly.

Just because he was a kid didn’t mean he wasn’t a seasoned liar.


#


Before hopping a bus back to Corte Madera, Austin made sure that the reporter wasn’t following him.

He’d almost blown it.

He probably shouldn’t have sat outside the hotel, waiting for her to arrive. What had he expected? Well, he knew what he expected—he expected her not to show up. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe she would … but most people disappointed him. And she’d never told Tommy when she’d get here. If she sent that email, then changed her mind, Tommy would be distraught. He was already nervous about sending her the letter.

But then Emma called him last night.

“I can’t talk long, my mom is in one of those moods,” Emma said.

“You can come over,” Austin said, both hopeful and nervous at once.

“I don’t dare leave my room. But I overheard her talking to my dad. Max will be here tomorrow. I don’t know what time, but my dad is coming over tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s cool.” Austin was cautiously optimistic. He didn’t want to tell Tommy, just in case.

“Not really,” said Emma.

“I thought you liked your dad.”

“Of course I do! I just hate how my mom is when he’s around.”

“Divorce sucks.”

“Yeah, well, maybe—anyway, I gotta go.”

“Wait—where’s she staying?”

“Why?”

“I don’t know—I guess I’m just surprised she’s really coming.”

“I told you she would. I’ll find her hotel and text you. I really gotta go.”

Austin considered going to Emma’s and waiting until her mom went to bed, then texting her to meet him at the park. It’s not like anyone would miss them for an hour or two, or that they’d be doing anything wrong. Emma’s mom was ultra-strict and Austin’s mom mostly didn’t give a shit what he did. All he wanted to do was talk with Emma. Try to figure out what was going to happen when the reporter came and what he should say to her.

But Austin didn’t want to get Emma in trouble so he didn’t go. He was jumpy. He didn’t know what to expect, and that kinda scared him. He really didn’t think a famous reporter with her own TV show would actually come here to Corte Madera all the way from New York just to find out who killed Ivy. Why? Ivy wasn’t anyone special. Truthfully, she was a total bitch and Austin hated her.

Guilt washed over him as he turned his face against the bus window. Ivy was dead. She wasn’t coming back. He must be an awful person not to miss his own sister. He’d never wanted her dead, he just wanted her gone. And now she was, but things were even worse than before. Tommy was banned from the house and Austin’s mom wanted to keep Bella too busy to be sad. She had to make sure Bella was entertained 100 percent of the time. Ballet. Gymnastics. Playdates. Bella was starting Kindergarden tomorrow and you’d think it was the first day of college with all the supplies and clothes his mother had bought for the kid. Austin knew his mother missed Ivy, but she didn’t really know Ivy. She didn’t even want to. She ignored everything that didn’t fit into her pretty box. And now Ivy was on this pedestal, all perfect and glowing like an angel and if anyone said one word that wasn’t how perfect and beautiful Ivy was, his mom would lose it. Austin steered clear of home whenever possible, and no one missed him. He had baseball in the spring, and in the summer he just rode his bike and hung out with Tommy.

Of course, he couldn’t tell his mom he saw Tommy nearly every day. She’d have a shit fit.

The bus ride was short, but Austin was antsy and couldn’t wait for the doors to open. Hopping off, he walked to the bike rack and unlocked his bike. Today was the first day not being grounded in two weeks. He supposed he had his stepdad to thank for it, but he didn’t like thanking Bill for anything. It was just as much Bill’s fault as his mother’s for Tommy not being at the house. Ivy had once said Bill was pussy-whipped. At the time, Austin had no idea what it meant, so he asked someone at school. He wished he hadn’t. He knew all about sex, but he sure didn’t want to think about his mom that way.

Still, it fit Bill Wallace. He’d do anything Paula said, even if that meant kicking his own son Tommy out of the house for no good reason.

Jerk.

Austin rode his bike the two miles from the bus stop to Tommy’s house. It was a trek he made all the time.

Maxine Revere had better do what she promised. Emma thought she was some sort of superwoman, but Austin was skeptical. Why did she care what happened to Ivy? No one else did. His mom said she did, but she already had her mind made up. She didn’t care about the truth, she only wanted to hurt Tommy.

Tommy, who used to be a happy guy, wasn’t happy anymore. Before Ivy was killed, Austin and Tommy would bike to his house after school because Tommy’s mom Jenny Wallace often worked late and Tommy’s sister was either out or in her room talking on the phone or doing homework. Tommy didn’t like being alone. They’d play video games, or go to the park, or watch cartoons. Tommy loved cartoons. “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “the Fairly Odd Parents,” and his favorite—“Jimmy Neutron.” Bill had an old collection of “Looney Tunes,” which he would let them watch, and Tommy could watch Bugs Bunny for hours. He didn’t like the Road Runner because he said the Road Runner made Coyote feel stupid. They’d take Bella to the park down the street and Tommy never got tired of pushing her on the swing or spinning her on the merry-go-round. He’d play as long as Bella wanted, or until it was time to go home for dinner.

All that ended last year. Now Austin lied about where he was going so he could hang with Tommy. Sometimes he snuck out of the house. His mom didn’t care, so Austin grew careless. Two weeks ago she’d caught him sneaking back into the house—someone had ratted him out, probably Tommy’s old fart neighbor. Austin didn’t mind so much being grounded, but now Tommy thought it was his fault that Austin got in trouble.

Ever since Paula wouldn’t let Tommy come to Bella’s birthday party, Austin had known they had to do something. Paula had even told Bill that all the other mothers were scared of Tommy, that they didn’t trust him around their little girls. Paula said no one would come to Bella’s party if Tommy was there and she would be heartbroken. Austin didn’t believe his mother--but Bill did.

Tommy had cried. Austin didn’t know what to do. He went to his mom and pleaded with her to let Tommy come to the party. She said no. Austin found her favorite earrings in the bathroom and pushed them down the drain. She would never find them.

Tommy still talked about the party.

“Did you give Bella my present? The baby doll with the pretty blue eyes and the pink dress? Pink is Bella’s favorite color.”

“She loves the doll, Tommy. She sleeps with her every night.” That was the truth.

“Did you tell her thank you for the piece of cake? I love cake almost as much as ice cream.”

“I told her.” That was a lie. Tommy was so sad the day of Bella’s party that Austin brought over a piece of cake and told him that Bella saved it just for him. In truth, Bella had missed Tommy for about five minutes until all her little friends showed up and the man with the ponies came.

Tommy had said one thing that got Austin thinking. “I wish we knew who hurt Ivy so Paula will let me be in the family again.”

Austin told everything to Emma earlier that summer. It came out in a rush the night the police wouldn’t talk to him and Tommy. A year after Ivy was murdered. They were sitting in the park late at night down the street from Emma’s house. She’d snuck out, but they weren’t doing anything wrong. Just talking.

“I don’t know what to do,” Austin said. “I want to help, but I can’t force my mom to stop being a stupid bitch. I can’t force Bill to see how sad Tommy is all the time.”

“I know,” Emma said. “Max would help. I know it.”

“Who’s Max?”

“Maxine Revere. My dad works for her. She’s a reporter, and this is what she does--solves cold cases. She has a television show where she talks about crime and stuff. She’s like a private investigator, sort of, but not really. She’s a reporter, but not like the newspaper or anything. She’s written four books about murder and stuff.”

“Your dad works for her? Can you see if she’ll help us?”

Emma frowned. “It’s just--my mom and dad don’t get along, and my mom and Max had a big fight last summer when I visited my dad in New York. I don’t want my mom finding out that I’m doing this. Does that make sense?”

In a twisted way, yeah, Austin understood. “You think your mom will get mad at your dad or something.”

“She hates that I like spending time with him, and one time I told her that Max took me shopping and she had a total meltdown. I really don’t know why--she knows Max and my dad aren’t together or anything.”

“Maybe you can get her phone number and I can call her?” He had no idea what he would say.

“I know what I can do—my dad and I are going up to visit Max and her boyfriend in Lake Tahoe next week. It’ll ask her a bunch of questions about her cases, she likes talking about them. I’ll find out how she picks which cold cases she investigates, and then we’ll know how to get her here.”

“You think that would work?”

“My dad says that Max has a compulsive need to solve puzzles, and she looks at unsolved murders as puzzles. I just have to figure out how she decides which unsolved murders she investigates.”

“You’d do that for me?”

“Of course. Tommy didn’t hurt anyone.”

“I wish everyone else believed that.”