About the Book:
“I’d never seen a dead body before, but I was pretty sure the guy in the car trunk was dead.”
Middle school’s tough, and Tyler Higgins just wants to hang with the cool kids. But Dustin’s idea of quality entertainment is spying on parked cars on Lover’s Lane. When two creeps show up with a body, Tyler doesn’t want to stick around. Then again, he might not have much choice.
Targeted Age Group: Age 11-16
I’d never seen a dead body before, but I was pretty sure the guy in the car trunk was dead. Brownish goo plastered the man’s dark hair and spiked it up over his ear. From my spot in the palmettos, it looked like someone had doused a meatball with sauce and dropped it on the floor. And he was so still.
Was I the only almost thirteen-year-old who’d never seen a dead body before? Well, at a funeral once, but I didn’t really look then, and this was different. I shouldn’t have been here—and I wouldn’t if only I hadn’t listened to stupid Dustin. How did I get myself into this mess?
This had to be the second most brainless thing I’d ever done . . .
Chapter One Dustin's Plan
On the edge of town, my bike rolled to a stop in the weeds across from 7-Eleven.
“Heyyy, Ty!” Dustin Stark pulled up next to me with his shiny black hair cut long, muscled up shoulders, and a gleam in his chocolate brown eyes. He gave me that sly, I-can’t-believe-you’re-so-stupid grin of his.
He pointed to a wooden rail fence that marked the edge where Pine County Preserve met up with a two-track road following a canal through the park. Ficus trees and shrubs crowded the corner formed by the fence and dirt road. “We’ll hide there and wait for the lovers to show up.”
I inhaled the muggy Florida air. “What do we do with our bikes?”
“Stash them in the bushes, moron.” Dustin curled his lips as if I was a slug swimming in his cereal.
Was I really going to go through with Dustin’s idea of entertainment? He wanted to check out the cars driving to “Love Canal,” as he called it. A secluded place about a mile farther into the woods where the high schoolers made out and did other things they shouldn’t.
Once he’d scoped out a likely couple, we’d follow them using parallel trails only our mountain bikes could cross, and then we’d spy on them. Dustin had a phone with a pretty good camera and video recorder. Sounded like a good way to get beat up to me. But he swore he’d done it before and hadn’t got caught.
I wanted to put the brakes on it, but Dustin was the coolest kid in Palm Aire Christian Academy. I’d been so into joining his cool crew that he’d tricked me into the most brainless thing I’d ever done. Now he held it over me and had even conned me into dissing my nerd friend, Nathan, in front of the entire class. I felt bad about that, but Dustin had given me no choice really. So now I had no one else to hang out with, and how many Ruin Escape newbs can you pown in a summer?
Then again, maybe hanging with Dustin wasn’t smart either.
“Hey.” Dustin gestured with his chin. “Look who’s here.”
I looked over my shoulder. Nathan, astride his mountain bike, was gliding into the 7-Eleven parking lot. Even though the midsummer sun already had me sweating, an extra burst of something heated my cheeks. I licked salty sweat off my upper lip and slanted my eyes at Dustin’s insanely perfect face. If Dustin said anything, I’d stand up for Nathan this time.
“Watch this.” A smug grin tugged at the corners of Dustin’s mouth. “Yo, Nathan! Come here.”
Stretching out his pencil legs, Nathan dragged his sneakers on the asphalt and slowed his bike to a stop.
“Come on, come on. We won’t bite.” Dustin glanced at me, and his lips pressed together like he was trying not to sneer.
Nathan stared at me from the gas station’s parking lot, then shifted his gaze to Dustin and back to me again. His gray eyes sparked with hurt, resentment, or something else maybe.
I looked away.
“Whatcha want?” he said.
“Your pal Tyler and I were just talking about you.” Dustin’s grin widened.
I winced. Why, oh why, had I betrayed Nathan in front of everybody?
“I don’t care.” Nathan definitely sounded hurt. “Besides, Tyler’s not my friend anymore.”
“Oh, no. It’s all good,” Dustin said in a mocking tone. He nodded toward me. “Tyler’s sorry. He still wants to be your pal, right?” He leveled his brown eyes at me with a challenge.
I turned away and met Nathan’s fiery gaze. “Look, Nathan, I am sorry.” I didn’t speak very loud, and my voice squeaked annoyingly. I cleared my throat. “I mean—”
“Yeah right. Liar. Besides, I thought you were too good to hang out with me.”
“Naw, Nathan, I want to hang with you.” I glanced at Dustin and could tell he didn’t like it, but I didn’t care. “Why don’t you come with us?” I blurted. Anything to convince him.
Dustin’s face screwed up like he was readying to spew.
“Come with you?” Nathan curled his lip. “What are you guys doing over there anyway?”
“Um . . .” Dustin’s plans probably wouldn’t go over well with Nathan, but I couldn’t figure what else to say. I kicked the ground with my toe. I still wanted to be friends with Nathan, but I wanted to be in the cool crew with Dustin too . . .
A cunning look crossed Dustin’s face like he’d changed his mind—and probably not for the better. “Going to spy on the high school lovers.” He pulled his phone out and rocked it back and forth. “Gonna get some photos and footage.” He wiggled his eyebrows up and down. “You coming with us?” He cocked his head.
Nathan straightened his skinny spine. “What? You’re crazy. They’d beat you up if they caught you.”
“Besides, I’m not into that sort of stuff.” He looked at me, and his eyes seemed to drill a hole into my head. “You shouldn’t be either.”
“Aw, the little twerp is scared. Afraid you’ll go blind, Romeo? Oh, I know. You need a new set of glasses, huh, four eyes?”
I glared at Dustin. We’d already embarrassed Nathan enough with the Romeo thing. “Leave him alone,” I growled.
But Nathan just said, “I’m out.” He turned his back on us and power-pedaled toward the 7-Eleven door. For a skinny little guy he had spunk.
“Nathan, wait!” I yelled.
“Blah, blah, blah. I’m not waiting on a lying jerk,” he called over his shoulder.
Ouch. That really stung, especially the lying part, but I stuffed that thought. I wouldn’t—couldn’t go there. Sucking in a deep breath, I looked at Dustin.
“You wanna bail on me too?” He gave me his stink eye.
Nathan disappeared inside the store. I’d no one else to hang with, nothing to do at home and no idea how to make things right. I blew out the breath I’d been holding. Dustin’s adventure sounded like trouble—again. But what choice did I have? Besides, maybe I could keep Dustin from doing anything too crazy.
“Well?” Dustin lifted his eyebrows.
“I’m in. If you’re sure we won’t get caught.”
Dustin’s grin returned. “Would I ever lie to you?”
I stared at the black SUV resting at an angle on the uneven ground at the canal. From the back, nothing was visible through the heavily tinted windows; it looked like an FBI cruiser or something. But Dustin swore he saw a babe in the passenger seat.
I wormed my way to the right, and the smell of something rotting grew stronger.
“Shhh, what are you doing?” Dustin hissed.
“Trying to get a better look.” Lying prone, I carefully lifted a palmetto frond, giving me a better view of the passenger side. Nothing.
“Well?” Dustin’s whisper held an edge of excitement.
“Let’s get out of here.” I released the frond and turned on my side. Dustin lay back from me in a bare spot on the sandy soil beneath the clump of palmettos, which I had to admit, provided perfect cover for spying.
“No way.” Dustin gave me a quick glance; his dark brown eyes sparkled with mischief. “I’ve got a feeling about this.” He lowered his voice to a gravelly rumble. His deepening voice resonated while mine remained high, kid like, wimpy. Like a bass next to a banjo. I hated that.
I dropped back down to my stomach. From the corner of my eye, I watched Dustin lift his smart phone and peer at the screen. He’d be ready to take photos or videos, if we got the chance. I swept my gaze around the ground for the hundredth time. Had to be sure no fire ants were about. Hadn’t seen any in this cool, dim hollow, but it only took one run-in with the little devils to make a person wary. I saw none, but my legs itched, and I wished again for long pants instead of shorts.
I glanced at the SUV again.
The driver’s door popped open, and a tall dark man in blue jeans and a green polo shirt stepped out. His head slowly rotated, viewing everything from the canal in front of the SUV back around to where Dustin and I hid in the thicket. When the man’s dark eyeglasses seemed to land directly on our position, his searching gaze paused.
My heart leapt into my throat. Did the man see us? I doubted it. We were hiding a good twenty yards away, the cover was thick, and Dustin had said he’d never been caught spying here before. Still, this man wasn’t a moonstruck high school jock focused on his date. There was something wrong with his hard face, close-cropped black hair, and his careful, measured movements. The man’s gaze continued moving to the right of our little spy nest.
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.
Not until the man had completed a 360-degree sweep of the area did he bark what sounded like a command in a foreign language. Immediately, the passenger door swung open and a woman emerged. She too was dark-complected, with long, flowing raven black hair, and sunglasses. Her face could’ve been beautiful, but her mouth was drawn into a thin hard line and her mechanical movements made her look, well, scary. Not a couple that looked like they’d come here for fun.
Why, oh why, had I agreed to this stunt?
I began edging backward through the tunnel-like trail that led through the fronds to the clearing where we’d stashed our bikes after following the SUV into the park on back trails.
Dustin stretched out his right arm, grabbed my shoulder and squeezed.
“I’m out,” I whispered.
With a shake of his head, Dustin pointed back toward the SUV.
Thinking curses I’d never say over Dustin’s bossiness and major stupidity, I blew out a breath and wormed back toward the spy hole.
The couple had circled to the rear of their vehicle where the trunk hatch was opening. The woman continued turning her head as though maintaining surveillance, and the man stared into the opening hatch.
I held my breath. The spy hole provided a straight line view of the trunk, and a creepy feeling that something was terribly wrong came over me. I stared hard at the trunk. There was something in there, rumpled clothing, maybe a pile of laundry? Then I saw a human head coated with something like dried barbecue sauce on one end of the rumpled lump. Fear squeezed my chest like a pair of giant pliers.
It was a body.
My mouth went bone dry, my heart pounded, and I couldn’t catch a breath of air.
The lean man reached behind the rumpled mass with both hands. Metal clinked as he pulled a chain out of the trunk and dropped it on the ground.
I fought down the heaving in my stomach. A body? A chain? What had Dustin gotten us into? I tore my eyes away from the gruesome scene and cut a glance toward my friend. Paler than I’d ever seen him, Dustin had dropped his smart phone and stared—frozen. I forced my hand over and lightly touched his shoulder.
He turned, his eyes hollow. Looked like he was headed for a meltdown.
I pointed toward the phone and pantomimed for him to take a picture. But my so-called friend didn’t move. I glanced back at the SUV.
The woman was staring right at me. She said something in a low voice, and the man’s head snapped up. He too was staring at our position.
My stomach went numb. We were toast.