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Read the first three chapters of The Case of the Bad Twin, book 1 in my new Middle-Grade series, Piper Investigations!
“Smile!” The reporter says, and I plaster a big grin on my face.
A flash goes off, and as the reporter moves in close to take a few photos of the time capsule, Principal Berger smiles down at me. “Penny-Ann, I’m so proud of you. None of this would have happened without you.”
I love hearing those words. “Thank you, Mr. Berger. I know everyone’s wanted something like this for years. I’m just happy I could make it happen.”
Behind me, Josie scoffs, and I ignore her.
With a pat on my shoulder, Berger strolls across the school library to talk with some of the summer school teachers who have wandered in.
Turning to Josie, I tighten my long ponytail and my smile falls away. “Listen, just because I’m in charge of this thing doesn’t mean you have to be a poo-head about it.”
Her dark brows lift. “Poo-head?”
I roll my eyes.
“Fine, Miss Little Perfect. You and your time capsule have a great time at the ceremony.”
“You’re not coming?”
“No, I’m not coming!”
“But…” I worked so hard putting everything together. The whole island is coming. Like it or not, Josie is my best friend.
She snatches her backpack off a nearby chair. “Oh, and count me out on your ‘save the turtles’ summer project.”
With that, she charges out of the school library, and I yell, “Fine! I didn’t want your help anyway.”
From his crouched position next to the time capsule, the reporter glances up at me, and I plaster on another smile. “Sorry about that. Josie and I do this all the time.”
The reporter stands. “Time capsule, save the turtles, and you also raised money for the skate park. You sure have a lot going on for a twelve-year-old.”
“Just turned thirteen. Piper Island is named after my family,” I proudly tell him.
He taps his notepad. “Yes, I have that notated here. That’s some legacy.”
I nod to the table where all the time capsule items, carefully researched and chosen, are neatly laid out. One item to represent each decade Piper Island has been an official city, six items in all. All donated by local residents.
From the 1960s, the photo of Grandma Susan, the first mayor, signing the paperwork that made us officially Piper Island.
From the 1970s, an old plastic figurine dressed as our school mascot, a mako shark, to commemorate the opening of our public school.
From the 1980s, Grandpa Jack’s hand-carved mermaid to memorialize him starting the weekly Craft and Farmer’s Market.
From the 1990s, a VCR tape of when the President of the United States came to Piper Island on vacation.
From the 2000s, a small album containing photos of when Piper Island was hit with back-to-back hurricanes, displacing our residents for months.
From the 2010s, a national magazine that listed Piper Island as a top ten place to visit.
Six items in all, followed by my handwritten note to whoever in the future might open it. “You done taking photos?” I ask the reporter. “I’d like to put them in the capsule now.”
The reporter nods, and as I begin carefully placing them in a pre-arranged configuration, he snaps a few more photos. I place the last item in, and right on top, I lay my handwritten note. It’s the coolest thing to think one day in the future, someone will unbury this and read my writing. Someone will know this island is named after my family.
When I’m done, I swivel the top closed and pat it proudly with my hand. I can’t wait for the burial ceremony next weekend. It’s going to be great.
Principal Berger crosses back over to me. “Let’s stow it in my office for safekeeping.”
The next morning I peddle Lolli, my red beach bike, onto our six through twelve campus. It used to be a K through twelve school, but about ten years ago they split things up and now the younger kids have their own school in the southwest corner of Piper Island near the ferry.
Being Saturday, the campus sits empty, and I glance at my phone propped in my basket. It’s a few minutes ‘til nine. Good, Principal Berger should be here by now. With the ceremony next weekend, I have a ton of things to do, but today is all about phone calls. I need to follow up with the food trucks, and the band, and the face painter, and the carnival booths, and about a million others.
Excitement bubbles around inside of me. This is going to be great.
I round the football field, cruise past the two-story brick building where the high school classes are held, zip around the one-story building where the middle school classes are held, and then cut across the common area toward the administrative building.
As I slow to coast around the last corner, my shoulders tense when I see Officer Crawl’s car sitting right behind Principal Berger’s tan four-door. Climbing off my bike, I roll it past Crawl’s cop car and wish, not for the first time, Piper Island had more than two cops. Why couldn’t it have been the other one?
It’s been three years, but Officer Crawl still gives me the side-eye every time he sees me. Granted, I was there when he busted my mom on the mainland, and granted I was participating in her latest con, but give me a break, I was ten years old then. That was three years ago, but it’s like Officer Crawl keeps waiting on me to mess up again or follow in my mom’s footsteps, or whatever.
Wedging my kickstand down, I grab my vintage messenger bag that Grandpa Jack used to carry, and I open the front door and swing inside. I step left across the hallway and through the propped open interior door that leads into the administrative area. Principal Berger and Officer Crawl stand in his office in the back corner, and both of them glance up at me. It occurs to me then with their thinning gray hair, bushy brows, and pooched bellies, they kind of look like old-man brothers.
I step up to the counter that divides the waiting room from the secretary’s desk and the principal’s office. Ignoring Officer Crawl, I focus on Principal Berger’s strained face. “What’s going on?” I ask.
With a sigh, he runs a hand over his thin hair. “Someone broke in here last night and stole the time capsule.”
Mr. Berger steps from his office. “Luckily that’s all they took.”
Luckily that’s all they took? Did he really just say that?
Turning around, I look up at the security camera in the corner to see where someone spray-painted the lens black. I swivel around to the door I just walked through to see the knob scraped and picked where the person broke in. Beside the door sits the security panel, and I jab my finger in its direction. “They knew the code?”
“Apparently,” Principal Berger says. “Because the alarm was never triggered.”
Or rather they knew where to find the code. Principal Berger changes the code every month and the school secretary can never remember it, so she writes it down in the back of her desk calendar.
If I know that, other students probably do, too.
No, this can’t be happening. I worked so hard on that capsule. Who would break in here specifically to take it? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s nothing of real value in it. Everything is more sentimental than anything else.
“Did you dust for prints?” I ask, and Officer Crawl just looks at me.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s a time capsule,” Officer Crawl says in this bored tone that makes me grit my teeth. “Nothing else was taken. This was a prank, obviously. We’re not going to dust for prints. Besides, do you know how many prints we would find? Between teachers and students, way too many people come in and out of this area.”
I plant my hands on my hips. “So you’re just writing this off as a prank? You’re going to do absolutely nothing?”
Clicking his pen, Officer Crawl slides it into his clipboard. “I’ll ask around, of course, and Principal Berger’s going to send out an email to all the parents and students. Someone has to know something.”
“B-but.” I shoot Principal Berger a desperate look, and in return, he sends me an I’m-sorry smile. An I’m-sorry smile? He’s got to be kidding.
Principal Berger walks Officer Crawl out of the administrative area, and I charge straight past the counter and into Berger’s office where we put the capsule last night. I stare at the corner where it was sitting right next to his potted tree. A corner now empty except for the gray carpet and the tree.
I turn a slow circle, my gaze traveling over his office—the tree, the dark wood desk, the fake leather chairs, the row of black file cabinets, the picture frames with Berger’s kids and grandkids, the piles of papers, the folders… Nothing looks different. It looks just like it did last night.
Kneeling down, I look under everything and other than a few dusty clumps, I find it empty. As I’m standing back up, my eyes track back across to the tree, and something glints in the dirt. I move the leaves aside and pull out a black leather bracelet with black and brown beads.
I know this bracelet.
Principal Berger strolls back into his office. “Penny-Ann, I know how disappointing this is. I know how hard you worked. We should probably—”
“Don’t cancel the burial ceremony. Not yet. Will you give it a few days?” My fingers curl around the bracelet. I think I might know who pulled this prank. I’m not going to tell Principal Berger, though, not until I know more.
“Okay,” he agrees. “We’ll give it a few days.” Pulling his chair out, he sits down behind his desk and opens his laptop. “I’ll send an email out to parents and students like Officer Crawl suggested. Hopefully, we’ll get a response. Hopefully, someone will know something.”
Yeah, well, while he’s doing all that hoping, I’m heading straight to Rocco Garcia.
The last time I saw Rocco Garcia was a week ago on the last day of school. He was coming out of the ocean sporting orange and white board shorts, a surfboard under his left arm, and water dripping from his dark hair. His light eyes narrowed in on me, and I ignored my squishy stomach as he strutted straight toward me. He came to a stop, his bare feet protruding onto my striped beach towel, and gave me a squinty-eyed study that I returned with my best-bored expression.
Those light eyes shifted off of me and over to Clover, my Pocket Beagle. As if on cue, her dark eyes popped open and her whole body waggled in excitement as it did every time she saw Rocco.
“You’re dripping on me,” I said, to which Rocco responded by leaning over and shaking his head, getting me, Clover, and my book even wetter. But I didn’t respond because that’s what he wanted so instead I just kept looking at him as if he was the most uninteresting person in the world.
He grinned at my dull expression, and his dimples sunk in. “See you around Penny-Ann Piper.” Then he turned and walked off. Or rather strutted.
As I said, that was a week ago and the last time I saw him.
He lives on the north end of Piper Island, and I figure this is as good a place to start as any.
Fifteen hot Florida minutes later, I pull up alongside the apartment building where Rocco and his grandmother live. It’s two-story and brick with eight total units. They live in the bottom right one.
I sit here for a minute pondering his front door. If I told Officer Crawl I found Rocco’s bracelet in the tree, would Crawl come here? Probably not. I’m sure he thinks everything else is way more important than looking for a missing time capsule, though I’m not sure what. This is a small island and the most exciting thing that ever happens is an occasional shark siting.
If I were Rocco and I had stolen the capsule, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be hiding out somewhere, staying low.
Okay, so what am I going to do exactly? What if I knock and Rocco actually answers? Do I just say, I found your bracelet, and I think you stole the time capsule? I would like to know why and also, may I have it back, please?
Yeah, right, he’d laugh.
Or what if I knock and his grandmother answers? Ugh, his grandmother. I’ve encountered Mama Garcia off and on over the three years I’ve lived here—at school, in the grocery store, at the Craft and Farmer’s Market, etcetera—and she’s always in a perpetual bad mood. Adults usually like me, but not Mama Garcia. I don’t care how many smiles I’ve given her, none of them seem to work.
Either way here goes nothing. I throw my kick stand down and march across the dry grass to the front door. A little green speckled lizard clings to it, and I’m careful not to jostle it as I rap my knuckles against the wood panel. Straightening my silk neck scarf, I take a step back and wait.
A few seconds go by, and I knock again with no answer. I can’t say I’m surprised.
I cut off around the side of the apartment building to the back, noting all the blinds are drawn. I find one with a slight gap and step up, cupping my hands around my eyes, but the gap isn’t enough for me to really see anything. I have a quick image of someone’s face suddenly appearing, like in a horror movie, and I immediately step back.
Maybe the neighbors know something.
I start knocking on doors, but of the eight units, only one opens. It’s an elderly lady, propped up with a walker.
I put on my best Penny-Ann smile. “Hi, I’m looking for Rocco Garcia. Have you seen him?”
The woman grins, and her mouth lights up with an impressive set of dentures. “Who?” she yells.
“Rocco Garcia,” I yell back.
Still, with the grin, she shakes her head. “Not for a few days, I think.”
“Okay, thanks.” With a sigh, I head back across the dry grass to Lolli.
For a good solid minute, I stand with my hands on my hips, staring up and down the one-way street, like I think Rocco and the time capsule will miraculously appear.
But, of course, nothing happens.
Just as I’m about to peddle away, a loud clanking car rattles down the street, slowing as it nears, and then pulls right into the small parking lot of the apartment building. Out of curiosity, I decide to wait and see.
The door creaks open on the gray dented two-door and out steps a tall, skinny boy who probably just got his driver’s license. Piper Island is small, and I know pretty much everyone, but I don’t know this boy. Maybe he’s from the mainland.
With his dark hair and skin, he looks like Rocco. It could be a cousin or something. He crosses over the same dried grass I had, retrieves a hide-a-key from under a weathered porcelain frog, and lets himself into Rocco’s front door.
I scoot my bike over and under a tree, not really hiding, but also not completely out in the open, and I wait to see. Maybe Rocco hid the time capsule in there and sent this boy to retrieve it.
A few minutes go by, and the boy comes back out of the house carrying a blue and black backpack that could easily hold the capsule. He tosses it into his open window, cranks the engine of the tired car, and backs out.
I wasn’t thinking I might be following someone, but that backpack may have the capsule. This whole thing could be over within a matter of minutes. Lucky for me, the car is barely holding on and the speed limit on Piper Island averages around 30.
Still, I throw my weight into peddling and anticipation jigs around inside of me as I begin to follow my lead. I don’t bother with the sidewalk and stay instead in the street. This is when I really wish I had a bike with gears. Ooh, and a siren. That would be cool.
This part of Piper Island switches back and forth in a maze of single-lane streets, cut off every block with a stop sign, and every time the unknown boy comes to a stop, the car hiccups and nearly shutsoff, making it easy for me to track.
Eventually, he pulls over in front of an old one-story stucco home with a yard full of rocks. Grabbing the backpack from his car, he knocks on the front door, and someone, though I can’t see who, opens it. The boy disappears inside, and a few minutes later he reappears without the pack.
He climbs back in his rackety car and clanks off, but I stay right where I am. Grabbing my coconut water from my basket, I take a big swig as I stare at the home, wondering if Rocco is in there going through everything inside the capsule.
I keep staring, hoping he’ll appear with the backpack. Then I can tackle him to the rocky yard, retrieve the stolen capsule, and save the day.
Let’s get this over with. I throw my kick stand down, toss my blonde braid over my shoulder, and adrenaline pops through my blood as I march straight across the rocks and up to the front door. By the time I reach it, my heart is racing, and I tell myself it’s like stage fright and perfectly normal.
I take a few breaths, and then I knock on the opaque glass panel that runs the length of the door.
From within, a shadow shifts, and air sticks in my lungs. What am I doing? If I think Rocco is in there with the capsule, shouldn’t I get backup?
Then again, why am I suddenly so afraid? It’s just Rocco Garcia, the boy who sits behind me in math and swishes my ponytail back and forth with his pencil. The boy who snatches a fry off my lunch plate when he passes by. The boy who orders a ginger/apple/chocolate smoothie from Aunt Grace’s Juice Truck.
Other than his questionable taste in smoothies, its’ not like he’s a murderer or anything.
I see his shadow, or rather a shadow, and I think whoever it is can see me, so I give a wobbly smile, letting the person know I come in peace. I hope to God it’s not Mama Garcia.
A few more seconds go by and I can almost hear whoever it is mentally ping-ponging if they should open the door. I lift my hand and wave, letting the person, hopefully, Rocco, know that I know he’s in there. A few more seconds, and the bolt clicks open.
The door swings wide, and there stands Rocco. I know it’s only been a week since I saw him on the beach, but he seems different. He seems bigger, or something, and angry. Or maybe his narrowed eyes have more to do with annoyance.
He glances beyond me like he’s checking to see if I’m alone, before bringing his light eyes back to mine. He takes a second to survey my white neck scarf and yellow sundress, before dropping his eyes to my green painted toenails. I’m not sure why, but it makes my toes curl.
Rocco leans into the doorjamb and then he grins. Grins. “Yes?”
“Were you on campus last night?”
He pauses. “How’d you know that?”
My eyes widen. “You admit it?”
I hold my hand out. “Give me back the time capsule. I know you took it.”
“I didn’t take your stupid time capsule.”
“It’s not stupid.” I worked all year putting that thing together. Reaching into my dress pocket, I pull out his bracelet. “I know you were there.”
He snatches the bracelet from my fingers. “I’ve been looking for that.” He takes a second to tie it onto his wrist like it’s no big deal he broke into the school and left his bracelet behind in the tree.
Shifting my weight, I tap my flip-flop, waiting for an explanation.
Rocco glances up. “What?”
I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Okay, let’s say you didn’t take the capsule. Why then were you on campus?”
He gets this sneaky look in his light eyes. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. He could care less about the “stupid” time capsule. But I know he loves his grandmother, or at least I think he does.
“What about Mama Garcia? What is she going to tell everyone when her grandson gets busted for stealing and goes to juvy? She’s worked hard to raise you the right way, and this is what you turn out to be?” Inwardly, I wince. Given who my mom is, I would hate it if someone said those words to me.
Plus, I have no clue if what I’m saying is right or not, but I’m trying here. I mean, I know Rocco lives with his grandmother, and I know his parents travel around surfing, but that’s about all I know.
“That’s the best you got?” Rocco rolls his eyes. “Listen, I gotta go.” From behind him, he grabs the blue and black backpack, closes the door, and strolls right past me.
I eye the backpack that may or may not contain the time capsule. Rocco is known for his pranks. Maybe that’s all this is. “Where are you going?”
“None of your business.”
“Listen,” I say, trailing behind him. “Just give me what I want. I’ll return it, and no one will think anything about it. Prank’s over with.”
He barks a laugh.
“Fine! But I’m not giving up. You can run, but you can’t hide!” I can’t believe I just said that. The truth is, I was lucky to find him just now, and the only way I’m getting him to hand over the capsule is if he does just that—hands it over.
He cuts across the rock-filled yard and over to the side where an electric scooter sits. “Don’t bother following me. I’ll lose you. I guarantee it.”
After slinging on the backpack, he starts the scooter, and I narrow in on the motor. He’s right, he’ll lose me.
Rocco rolls down the driveway and into the street and then puts his foot down to stop. He turns and looks at me, and I’m so irritated right now, I don’t know what to do with myself.
His grin makes another appearance, dimples and all. “I like it when you wear your hair braided.”
My irritation transitions into full-on embarrassment and my entire face heats up. “I don’t care what you like.”
“Sure you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
I sigh. “Well, at least tell me if you were alone or not.”
“Why don’t you ask Josie?” Then he scooters away, leaving me standing alone beside my bike.
I dial her number, it goes straight to voice mail, and I start talking, “In case you haven’t heard someone broke into the school and stole the time capsule. I happen to know you and Rocco were on campus last night. I know we’re mad at each other right now, but this isn’t funny.”
I jab my finger down on the END button and throw my phone into the bike’s basket. I would go straight over to her house, but I know she’s on the mainland today. I can’t believe she would sneak onto campus, break-in, and steal the capsule. Is she really that jealous?
Well, I’m not going to waste a day waiting on Josie to get back. I know exactly who to talk to.