We’ve got a debut murder mystery for you to put on your radar. Check out the cover for You’re Next by Kylie Schachte, out June 2020, and read the exclusive excerpt below!
When a girl with a troubled history of finding dead bodies investigates the murder of her ex, she uncovers a plot to put herself—and everyone she loves—on the list of who’s next.
Flora Calhoun has a reputation for sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. After stumbling upon a classmate’s body years ago, the trauma of that discovery and the police’s failure to find the killer has haunted her ever since. One night, she gets a midnight text from Ava McQueen, the beautiful girl who had ignited Flora’s heart last summer, then never spoke to her again.
Just in time to witness Ava’s death from a gunshot wound, Flora is set on a path of rage and vengeance for all the dead girls whose killer is never found. Her tunnel-visioned sleuthing leads to valuable clues about a shocking conspiracy involving her school and beyond, but also earns her sinister threats from the murderer. She has a choice—to give up the hunt for answers, or keep digging and risk her loved ones’ lives. Either way, Flora will regret the consequences. Who’s next on the killer’s list?
Greg Garcy leers at me from his mug shot: bastard doesn’t know I’ve nailed him yet. I clutch his WANTED flyer in my hand and race down the hall, but I can’t look away from his crushed, sneering nose and bleary eyes.
You can’t run from me.
The bell rings. Damn. I’m so going to be late for chem.
I spent my free period in the parking lot listening to the police scanner on my phone and lost track of time. It was worth it. Garcy is wanted for a string of serial rapes upstate. He’s attacked dozens of women, and he was allowed to get away with it for years. Until now. The hot pulse of adrenaline zips through me as I dash through the halls. I got him. I really got him. I need to run a plate, but⎯
I slam into someone. The Garcy flyer, my bag, pens, and various notebooks scatter across the hallway. There’s a brief tangle of sharp elbows, and I yelp when the corner of my chem textbook lands on my toe. Of course this is the day I didn’t wear my steel-toed boots.
“Balls! Fuck! Ow! Shit!” I yell.
“Flora Calhoun, you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
I squint through the red haze of stubbed-toe agony.
Ava McQueen gathers up my papers, pens, and the lone tampon I dropped. One corner of her plum-painted mouth tugs up in a troublemaker’s smile, and a fizzy feeling climbs the back of my neck. It’s been eight months and four days since the last time I kissed her, but I still remember exactly how her lips felt against mine.
“H-hey, Ava.” I drop down to help her.
“How you been? Haven’t seen you around much.”
Yeah. We haven’t talked a whole lot since you started avoiding me. “Um, good. You know, same old bullshit.”
She picks Garcy’s WANTED flyer up off the ground and stands. “Clearly.”
I blush, which is basically the most annoying thing in the world when you’re a redhead. Ava always makes me feel like I’ve just missed the last step in the staircase.
Ava is a year older than me, but we took the same elective on the history of political activism during my freshman year. One day, she shut down this Young Conservatives idiot who called the Black Panthers a terrorist organization. Everyone clapped, Mr. Young Con crapped his khakis, and I fell in love. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she plays bass guitar, or that she’s bananas hot. I mean, with her curls done up in adorable space buns, and the lipstick, and that funny little smile she’s still giving me?
Which is super confusing, since she hasn’t smiled at me like that in a long time.
Eight months and four days.
Can’t be thinking about that. I focus on shoving my stuff back into my bag.
“Oh, uh. You know me. Can’t keep myself out of trouble.”
She does know. I’ve always suspected that’s why she stopped talking to me⎯stopped kissing me⎯in the first place.
Ava stares at the flyer in her hand. When she glances up at me, the teasing smile has vanished, and something dark flickers in her expression. She looks down again, trying to hide it.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s what fear looks like.
I take a half step forward, any weirdness between us forgotten. “Ava? Are you okay?”
She fingers the edge of the paper. “You ever do something stupid? I mean, like, really, really stupid? Can’t-take-it-back stupid?”
“Almost every day.” My face heats again. Why did I say that?
“You know”—Ava’s eyes flick from Garcy’s face to mine—“I believe that.”
That stings, but I ignore it. “Ava, if you’re in trouble, I can help you.”
She opens her mouth, but her eyes catch on something over my shoulder. She stills.
I glance behind me. Nothing but the usual throng of people trying to get to their lockers. No one looks this way.
Ava folds the Garcy flyer in half, then quarters. “No worries. I have it under control.”
I take another step toward her. “Seriously, I do this kind of stuff all the time. I know we haven’t, um, talked much lately, but I can⎯”
Ava’s smile is cold, nothing like before. Shit. I shouldn’t have brought up the her-and-me stuff.
“I got it. Just being dumb, right? Nothing I can’t handle. You take care of yourself, Flora.” She tucks the flyer back into my bag. For a second, she’s close enough that I smell her warm, woodsy perfume, but she walks away before I can get another word out.
I’m being dumb, right? She just remembered that she doesn’t want to talk to me, that’s all.
So why is my chest suddenly tight with dread?
I shake off my confusion and chase after her, but by the time I round the corner, she’s already gone.
I tap my pen on the worksheet in front of me.
Balance the equation: C5H8O2 + NaH + HCl → C5H12O2 + NaCl
I usually like the tidiness of balancing equations, but today I can’t focus.
Was Ava worried, or am I manufacturing an excuse to talk to her? Or maybe she was scared, but she didn’t want to talk to me about it?
“Dude, please. You have to listen.” Two tables away, Damian Rivera scribbles on a slip of paper and slides it across the desk to his best friend, Penn Williams.
Penn knocks the note to the floor without looking up. The space beneath his desk is littered with scraps of paper. I lean forward in my seat. Is that a bruise on his cheek? It’s a faint yellowy-purple, like he tried to cover it with makeup.
That’s not sketchy at all.
“Please,” Damian hisses. “Let me explain.”
Penn’s chair scrapes against the linoleum as he stands. He grabs the bathroom pass off its hook and stalks out of the room. Is it me, or is he limping a little?
Mrs. Varner calls out, “Ten more minutes, guys, then we’ll discuss.”
I’m only on question two. Between Garcy and Ava, I have enough intrigue in my life for one day. I drag my attention back to the double displacement reaction on my paper.
Balance the equation…
Penn never returns to class.
When the bell finally rings, Damian races out the door. Rushing to hunt down his friend, maybe?
Those abandoned scraps of paper are still on the floor.
I shouldn’t. The last thing I need is to get sucked into the breakup of Penn and Damian’s bromance.
I bend down and scoop the notes up. The first one says: I’m sorry. Please talk to me. The second: You have to understand. And the third: You don’t know what she’ll do to me.
I pocket the scraps of paper and leave the classroom.
“I have so much to tell you.” Cassidy Yang, my best and only friend, waits for me in the hall. She’s kind of impossible to miss in her oversize safety-orange sweater. Straw-like blond hair peeks out from under her gray beanie. She bleached her hair months ago, and now the black is making a comeback. When I try stuff like that, I look like an idiot. When Cass does, she looks like she’s in some magazine spread on street style.
“What’s up?” I ask, my mind still half stuck on Ava’s terrified face.
Cass and I make our way down the hall. She’s practically vibrating with enthusiasm. One kid winces as he passes, like he’s blinded by her sweater.
“They did it!” she says. “They finally approved the funds for rock ensemble.”
“Seriously? That’s awesome.” For the first time this afternoon, my anxiety about Ava fades a little.
“I know!” Cass does a gleeful little shimmy. “There are only seven spots in the class, though. I have to do some intense practice tonight. Auditions are tomorrow.”
“You should bring some of your original songs.”
Cass stops dancing. “Maybe.”
I roll my eyes. I was a little surprised a year ago when Cass bought a guitar and started teaching herself to play from YouTube videos. She’d never expressed any kind of interest in it before, but she’s already really good. She still gets shy about her own songwriting, though.
I don’t push it. “Hey, you’re in history with Penn Williams, right? Have you noticed anything weird lately?”
Cass considers it. “Not really, but that’s normal. Penn’s so quiet.”
I tell her what I saw in chem class.
“You think he’s in trouble?” she asks.
“Maybe. Or maybe I’m sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t,” she says dryly. “Should we try some good old-fashioned internet stalking? If Penn’s got issues, bet you it’s all over Instagram.”
We spend the rest of the walk to her car discussing post frequency, content, and filter choices as possible clues of distress. A few times, I almost tell Cass about the strange, tense conversation I had with Ava, but then I don’t.
Maybe I was imagining it. Maybe it was the same old awkwardness between Ava and me, left over from last summer. If I bring her up now, Cass will want to talk about it. It might have been eight months and four days, but I’d still rather launch myself into the blazing sun than deal with all those feelings.
Cass drops me off, and I promise to call later to help her prep for the audition.
“I’m home!” I call out, dumping my stuff in the doorway.
“Yes, I was able to deduce that from the sound of the door opening at precisely the same time you come home every day.” My grandfather appears in the doorway. I’m about 99 percent certain he’s ex-CIA from the golden years when they had free rein to deal with those pesky Russians. William Calhoun has been retired for years, but he still wears a custom-tailored suit every day.
“You know, most parental guardians open with a ‘Hello, honey, how was your day?’ when their progeny return from the battlefield of high school education.”
“How quaint.” He retrieves my bag from the floor and throws me a pointed look as he hangs it neatly on its hook.
The scents of butter and cinnamon draw me into the kitchen. “Did you make cookies?”
“Yes, I thought you might appreciate a post-battle snickerdoodle.”
“Forget those other loser grandfathers, you’re the best,” I call back. I’ve always wondered if he learned to bake when he was undercover. He’s a little too good at it.
Gramps hums to himself as he dons oven mitts and pulls out a fresh batch of cookies. He’s downright cheerful today.
I guess it’s as good a time as any to ask. “So, I need a favor.”
He ignores me and grabs a spatula. Maybe some buttering up is in order.
“I have a new theory about you,” I tell him. “You were attempting to unveil a Soviet spy stationed within the French government. You went undercover as a baker’s apprentice at the patisserie where the pinko went every morning for his petit déjeuner, and that’s where you learned this delicious sorcery.” I brandish my cookie in the air for emphasis.
“Inventive.” He scrapes dried batter off the tray.
“So, this favor…”
No one sighs like William Calhoun. So soft, and yet weighted with such vexation.
He begins transferring cookies from the baking sheet to the cooling rack.
“In case I have not mentioned it yet today, I must tell you that your tenacity is a rather ugly character flaw. What can I do for you this time? Plant listening devices in the home of a Venezuelan dignitary? Order the assassination of your physical education teacher?”
“Nah, I’m saving that one for a graduation present. I was hoping one of your old buddies could run a plate for me?”
“I thought we had finally realized that potential love interests seldom appreciate stalking as a precursor to courtship.”
“Yeah, well, if I never have a serious relationship, we’ll know who’s to blame. No crush. It’s Greg Garcy.” I pull the WANTED flyer from my bag.
“The case has been cold for months, but I heard on the tip line he’s been spotted a few times in the area. I’ve got a lead on the car.”
“Flora, we have discussed this.” He scoops fresh cookie dough onto the baking sheet. “I do not mind you illegally tapping into the police phone system; I simply don’t wish to hear about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’ll call some of your friends in Virginia?”
He blinks. “I have no idea what you mean. I was nothing but a humble midlevel diplomat.”
“Is that why there’s a framed photo of you and William J. Donovan, founder of the CIA, on your desk?” I ask through a mouthful of cookie.
“Has anyone mentioned how off-putting it is for young ladies to be so observant?”
“Yes. You. Frequently.”
“Well, all right, then. I will call up some of the old boys for you.”
“I love you, and not because you’re my affable and genteel grandfather, but because of the goods and services I can extort from you.”
“I would expect no less.”
Olive walks into the kitchen. She’s dressed for ballet class, every strand of her hair pulled up tight in a perfect bun. I finger the ends of my own sloppy braid. Olive is only thirteen, but she has her shit way more together than me.
“Mom called.” She grabs a banana from the fruit bowl to put in her bag.
“You just missed her.”
Yeah, I bet.
My mother has lived in Germany for the last year and a half. She’s a painter at this artist-in-residence thing in Berlin. She was only supposed to be gone for six months, but here we are.
She knows my school schedule, and yet somehow she always calls about fifteen minutes before I get home. It’s a convenient way for her to pretend to be my mother without having to, you know, mother me.
“Hm,” is all I can think to say. Gramps watches me, but I avoid his eyes.
“She’s good, if you were wondering. Her gallery show is next weekend.”
Olive’s spine has gone very straight. She does that when she’s annoyed⎯practices her dance posture.
“That’s great.” I try to sound sincere, but it mostly comes out exhausted. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about my mom anymore. Olive rolls her eyes. My attempts to appease her only piss her off.
Olive and I get along about as well as any sisters would, for the most part, but it’s no secret she blames me for Mom leaving.
She’s not wrong.
Olive turns to my grandfather. “Can we go?”
“Of course.” He wipes the flour from his hands with a dish towel. As they’re about to leave, he turns to me with pretend sternness. “Allow those cookies to cool before gorging, please.”
I give him a salute. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ll get that license plate for you this evening.” The look in his eyes is gentle, and a little sad. He doesn’t really know how to feel about the Mom stuff, either.
That night, after my grandfather has plied me with more tacos than I should reasonably be able to fit inside me, I call in the Garcy tip. The cops aren’t particularly thrilled to hear from me—we don’t have the best working relationship—but Gramps cashed in a favor with the Department of Transportation and got me the tollbooth photos of Garcy entering the area, his face and license plate number clear as day. Hard for the police to ignore me when I hand them a perp on that kind of silver platter.
In the state of New York, you must be at least twenty-five years of age and have a minimum of three years’ relevant experience to apply for a private investigator’s license. Needless to say, I fall short on all of the requirements.
The cops pretend that I’m some dumb kid who barely stays out of their way. I play along because it protects their delicate egos and keeps them occupied while I do my job.
Because it is a job. Garcy was a special case—I found him in an article about how the NYPD finally tested thousands of rape kits they’d held in storage for years—but most of the time I work for hire, and I get paid. All under the table, of course, and if the IRS ever calls, Cass and I are running a very lucrative babysitting business.
I pull up all of Penn’s and Damian’s social media accounts and start combing through them. The two of them are part of that crowd that hangs out in the art studio during their free periods, so most of their pictures are of their work. Half of Damian’s feed is taken up by progress shots of a giant white snake sculpture. There are no obvious signs of distress, but one thing sticks out to me right away: up until about three weeks ago, both Penn and Damian commented on every single one of each other’s posts. And then nothing.
I hesitate, then pull up Ava’s profile. I haven’t let myself look at this in a long time, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong and Ava was too afraid to talk.
Not much has changed on her feed. Lots of pictures of her and her friends, laughing and goofing off. A screenshot of a bell hooks quote. A dark, grainy video of her playing her bass in her bedroom.
I scroll down farther. I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.
There: last July. One picture, the only proof that the two of us were ever anything. A selfie she insisted we take. We’re lying on our backs; our cheeks are pressed together. I’m flushed with giddy embarrassment. Ava’s smile is as dopey and glittering as mine. No hint that a month later she would refuse to speak to me, let alone be in the same room. If you look closely, you can see the floral print of my pillowcase under her head.
My phone vibrates. Ava McQueen’s name lights up my screen.
There’s a flutter of fear and pleasure in the no-man’s-land below my belly button. Does she know I was looking at her, somehow? Does she want to talk to me?
But she had that look on her face earlier. That dark look.
“Flora?” Ava whispers. “I need your help.”