In To Catch a Killer, a contemporary mystery by debut author Sheryl Scarborough, a teenage girl uses forensic science to solve the cold-case murder of her mother (available February 7, 2017).
Erin Blake has one of those names. A name that, like Natalee Holloway or Elizabeth Smart, is inextricably linked to a grisly crime. As a toddler, Erin survived for three days alongside the corpse of her murdered mother, and the case—which remains unsolved—fascinated a nation. Her father's identity unknown, Erin was taken in by her mother's best friend and has become a relatively normal teen in spite of the looming questions about her past.
Fourteen years later, Erin is once again at the center of a brutal homicide when she finds the body of her biology teacher. When questioned by the police, Erin tells almost the whole truth, but never voices her suspicions that her mother's killer has struck again in order to protect the casework she's secretly doing on her own.
Inspired by her uncle, an FBI agent, Erin has ramped up her forensic hobby into a full-blown cold-case investigation. This new murder makes her certain she's close to the truth, but when all the evidence starts to point the authorities straight to Erin, she turns to her longtime crush (and fellow suspect) Journey Michaels to help her crack the case before it's too late.
High school’s supposed to be fun.
I soothe my forehead against the icy car window and breathe out a path of fog. If I squint one eye, the neon splashed across the rain-slicked street forms a wide, cruel mouth.
It’s after 2:00 a.m. and we’re just now pulling up to the police station. They took me to the hospital first, even though I swore that not a single drop of the blood all over me was mine.
A hospital would be lost trying to treat my wounds.
The trip wasn’t a complete waste, though. They let me clean up and swap my bloody sweats for scrubs. Now come the questions, hard and fast. They’ll expect me to have answers. But all I have are more questions.
Beginning with, who killed Miss P?
As soon as the car stops, I grab for the handle but swipe an oddly smooth panel instead. It’s like trying to locate a missing limb. You know it should be there, but …
The young officer bends low, checking me out through the window. He opens the door and offers his hand. “Let me help you.” His voice is low and horror-movie shaky.
I wish he could help me. I really wish he could.
Lurching out of the backseat, I bend over the gutter and gulp the cool morning mist until my stomach calms.
The older cop takes his time groaning his way out of the driver’s seat. “Looks like rain again.” He scowls at the sky as if his grumpy attitude could make it stop.
Dude, Iron Rain, Oregon is like ninety miles from Portland. It rains here constantly. Deal with it.
At least by now I’m completely cried out. All that’s left are some sniffs and huffs and they seem to control me more than I control them. My escorts are so relaxed we could be dropping in for a late-night donut and cup of coffee. From the way the old one hikes his belt up over his belly, I’m sure he’d prefer that to dealing with me and my dead teacher.
Same here, buddy. And she’s not just some corpse to me, either. But I doubt he cares. With a sweep of his arm he waves me through the door. A desk sergeant leans heavily on the high counter and quietly tracks us with his eyes as we pass him and enter through a plain, unmarked door.
These guys probably don’t realize that I practically grew up in this building. Once Rachel gets here, they’ll connect the dots. Still, it’s a shock to see the squad room so alive.
Two or three officers are clustered around every desk with telephones and cell phones pressed to their ears. Tears spring to my eyes when I spot my principal, Mr. Roberts, helping out by delivering steaming cups of coffee.
I hope he knows I tried to help her. I really did. But there was nothing I could do.
Once Mr. Roberts sees me, everyone turns to stare. Their gaze is awkward, like a face full of acupuncture needles. Not painful exactly, but not entirely comfortable, either. He threads his way over to me through the maze of desks.
“Oh, Erin. Are you okay?”
My voice sticks in my throat. “Miss P,” I croak and press my hands over my mouth, fighting to keep back another round of tears.
“I heard … over the police scanner,” he says. “Is she—?”
Unable to speak, I nod.
He steps forward as though maybe he wants to hug me, but he doesn’t.
“Excuse us.” The older officer guides me around Mr. Roberts, pointing toward a hallway at the end of the room. I hesitate for a second because I really wish Mr. Roberts could come with us. He’s been in my life for so many years I hardly remember a time without him. I’m sure he would come, too. He’s always been helpful like that. But neither of us knows what to say, so I wave good-bye to my only friend in this whole mess and move off toward the hallway. The officer leads me to the door of an interrogation room. “For privacy,” he says.
The room is small—one table and four chairs. I turn away from the mirror. Everyone knows there’s a secret room on the other side of that glass. Why do they even try to hide it?
The young officer pulls out my chair and offers water or soda. I shake my head. He slips out quietly.
Old Guy transfers his hat to the table and runs his hand over his threadlike hair before dropping into the seat across from me. He flips open a notebook. “Just so you know, they put in a call to your mother and she’s on her way.” He keeps his eyes down on his notes instead of up on me.
“You mean guardian.” This is not meant to disrespect Rachel; it’s just a habit. “She’s not my mother,” I add.
“Yeah. Whatever number you gave us, that’s who we called.” He pats and digs around in his various pockets for a pen. “If it’s okay, I’m going to get started here. Understand that you’re not in any trouble. I just want to take your statement while it’s fresh in your mind. Can I get your full name for the report?”
I stiffen. This is the moment when things always change. My eyes drop to his badge: Baldwin. His name isn’t familiar, but he’s definitely old enough.
“Um. I’m Erin Blake.” I let it hang there. The silence is for emphasis.
Shock dawns as Baldwin’s eyes rise slowly and he looks at my face for the first time. “The Erin Blake?”
I stare at the table. This reaction is not something you get used to. Or, at least, I never have.
“So that means—” He snaps his fingers. “What was her name? Oh—Sarah. Sarah Blake was your mother?” I think I detect a tinge of awe in his voice, even though that would be highly inappropriate.
“Wow.” His chair whines as he leans forward, resting his cheek on a meaty hand. “We all remember that one.” His tone is reverent but his eyes darken, as if the pain of recalling the details of my mother’s murder is almost too great. I know this look, too. The next question is never asked out loud but I do him the favor of answering it anyway.
“I don’t know why he didn’t kill me, too.”
“And they never caught him, right?”
I shake my head. But I will … someday.
“What about your father, where’s he?”
I offer a shrug.
Baldwin’s head twitches. More shock. “He just took off?”
I shrug again. It’s all I’ve got. “Mom never told anyone who he is. I guess she was independent like that.”
“Wow. That’s got to be tough.”
“It is, kinda. My life’s like this huge blank.” I lay my palms flat on the table, framing a dark expanse of space between them.
His eyes—light chocolate, flecked with moss—study me quietly and without pity. “Tabula rasa, sweetheart.”
“You were an innocent baby when all that went down. A blank slate. You don’t have to let any of it affect you.”
I push my lower lip up into my upper one. It’s the closest I can get to a smile. Adults always say this, as if it’s true.
He shakes his head. “And now this. So, this Laura Peters was your science teacher?”
He frowns. “You don’t have any reason to believe your mother’s … uh, death could have anything to do with this, do you?” I notice the way he sits, shoulders hunched over the table and legs tucked back under his chair. He forms the perfect human question mark.
A dizzy thrum rises in my ears. He just labeled the giant ball of worry I’ve been avoiding since the moment I knew there was another murder. I grip the edge of the table. “I don’t know how they could be connected, but I guess there’s always a chance.”
He looks up toward the ceiling while thinking this through. “Yeah, I don’t think they’re connected, not after all this time.”
I desperately need him to be right about that.
His gaze drops to the dark rings of blood so caked into my cuticles that even a thorough scrub at the hospital couldn’t remove them. “What can you tell me about Miss Peters? Was she a good teacher? Did you like her?”
I slide my hands off the table and tuck them under my legs. Miss Peters always said I reminded her of herself when she was younger, and it felt so important to finally be like someone. Especially her. I picture her darting from lab table to lab table like one of those birds on the beach, pecking at our projects. “She was the best,” I say, my voice a ragged whisper.
“And your relationship was…?”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“Alive. When did you last see her alive?”
“Today, last period. Well, maybe I should say yesterday.”
“So, Thursday at…?”
“Two-ten to three-oh-five.”
“Do you remember the last conversation you had?” he asks.
I actually can’t stop thinking about it. Just before the final bell, she had moved close to my lab table. Her glasses were on top of her head, tangled in a mass of blond curls held in place by chewed pencils. She’d tipped her head close to my ear. “Listen, Cookie, this isn’t the only way, you know.”
But it was. She’s the one who showed me how it worked. “It’s my best shot. You said so yourself,” I argued. “Besides, what have we got to lose?”
A savage cramp twists my stomach. It was such an easy thing to say at the time.
She’d handed me an orange from her pocket, clicked her fingernails on the Formica, and pointed at me. “Be careful.”
I looked back once before heading out the door. Her smile had urged me on. There was no way I could fail.
I realize Baldwin’s waiting for my answer but a lump the size of a walnut has swelled in my throat and it’s a few seconds before I can talk again. “Um.” My voice cracks. “She basically just said to be careful.” I don’t care if telling him that makes him suspicious. It’s what she said. I wasn’t. And now she’s dead.
“Careful of what?” Baldwin’s eyes narrow as he scribbles notes. “Was she worried about something?”
I shake my head. “It was just her way of saying good-bye. Like, bye, be careful.”
We’d made a deal. She would run the test if I promised two things. One: I wouldn’t do anything illegal. And two: I’d go to the prom. The legal thing was easy. If someone throws something in the trash, it’s not illegal to pick it up. And as for the second, she knew I wasn’t the prom type, but she pushed it because I couldn’t say no. “High school’s supposed to be fun,” she said.
“You said you were passing her house and saw the door open. Why so late at night?”
“I left some things in her mailbox … for a science project.”
His head snaps up. “What kinds of things?”
“Some trash with DNA on it. It was like an extra credit thing.” I make sure to add the part about extra credit because if he checks, he won’t find any other students with the same assignment. And he is going to check.
He squints. “DNA, like, from a person?”
I bob my head slowly. I want to be honest but I worry where this will take me.
“Are you in one of those forensic classes?”
He frowns. “Did this DNA belong to anyone in particular?”
I shrug. “No. It was just kind of random.”
My first lie.
There was nothing random about the cigarette butts, coffee cup, and bloody towel I left in Miss P’s mailbox. But I can’t tell him that, and there’s no way he’ll find out now. It was only supposed to be three quick stops for bits of trash from three specific men.
“Are you saying your biology teacher told you to leave an assignment in her mailbox in the middle of the night?”
“She said where to leave it but she didn’t say an exact time.”
“Hang on. I want to call over there and make sure they get those things from the mailbox.” Baldwin rises from his chair and disappears out the door.
Dead. The word hammers in my head. Along with Who did this? And Why?
I can’t think of anyone who didn’t love Miss P. I rest my elbows on the table and stare quietly at my reflection in the secret mirror.
Copyright © 2017 Sheryl Scarborough.
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Sheryl Scarborough worked as a writer, story editor, and series developer in children's television before receiving her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adult from Vermont College, where she studied under Rita Williams-Garcia, Tom Birdseye, Susan Fletcher, and A.M. Jenkins, among others. She lives and works in Kalama, Washington. To Catch a Killer is her debut.