Spunky widowed Cealie Gunther is a woman of a certain age whose zeal for adventure keeps her in the thick of things—like trouble. She pops up in town early to watch her motherless granddaughter Kat graduate, only to discover that because of a custodian's death—accidental—or murder?—graduation might not take place.
Determined to find the truth, Cealie snags a job as a substitute teacher, exposing much violence, lurking menace and more disturbing questions than answers. The only thing certain is that a killer has decided Cealie and her grandchild need to be expelled—permanently.
"Best Mystery of the Year nominee" - Deadly Ink
"Suspenseful" - Publishers Weekly
"An absolute winner!" – Author Hailey North
"Keeps you guessing" - Kirkus
"Refreshing twists" - Romantic Times
"Way fun!" – Author Alice Duncan
"Sexy" - Armchair Interviews
Kat released a deep sigh. “I didn’t really know the man who died. Mr. Labruzzo seemed nice. When I saw him in the halls, he and I told each other hello.”
“Then why would a stranger’s death affect you so much?”
She stared at the concrete floor. “I’ve had this great teacher, Miss Hernandez.”
“I remember you mentioning her.” Kat had spoken the woman’s name with the same reverence as she reserved for Nancy. “But what does your Spanish teacher have to do with a custodian dying?”
“He died in the auditorium. And the police have been acting like they think Miss Hernandez killed him.”
“Somebody murdered him? At your school?”
“He died after our classes were over. Mr. Labruzzo was cleaning the balcony and fell over the rail. He hit his head.”
“Falling doesn’t sound like murder,” I said.
“At first we heard it was an accident. Now the police are saying his death remains unclassified, but they’re treating it like a homicide.”
“Why would they suspect Miss Hernandez?”
Kat looked away. “I don’t know.”
I understood her concern about her favorite teacher but wasn’t sure if she knew why the woman was under scrutiny, or if she just wasn’t ready to tell me. “So why would your grades drop?”
She peered down. “Because I quit going to classes.”
Splotches sprang to her cheeks. A passing car honked. More vehicles rumbled by while I managed to absorb that Kat had stopped attending her classes. She said nothing else and only stared out at the road.
My memory of how to relate to sullen teens had long ago vanished. I’d taught some of them briefly way back when, and, of course, reared my own. But if I were graded today on how to understand teens when they didn’t want to reveal themselves, I’d probably earn a D-minus. But Kat wasn’t a belligerent troublemaker. She was tenderhearted. Sensitive. Maybe too much so. And maybe too attached to a murderer? I shuddered.
My favorite teacher then came to mind: Mrs. Tabor, with her warm smile and hug for us students near the door of her fourth-grade classroom. I knew everybody had a special teacher who helped direct her life. “Miss Hernandez has been really important to you,” I said, trying to prompt more information from her.
Kat’s face brightened. “She’s been like a mom. I always go to her room before classes start, and she sits down and talks to me. She really listens.”
“I’m glad you found someone like that, but I’m sure Miss Hernandez wouldn’t want you to let your grades go.”
The cloudy eyes returned. “Lately she’s been ignoring me. I try to talk to her, but she’s always too busy. She seems to be constantly looking over her shoulder.”
“Maybe she knew the custodian well, or she’s concerned about what his death is doing to students. Especially one of them.” I watched my granddaughter tighten her arms about her small waist. Maybe she knew more about her mentor’s involvement than she was saying. “Kat, you have to go to school.”
“I can’t think, I can’t study, it’s miserable over there.”
“But you’re about to start finals, and your senior year is almost over. Your average could drop tremendously if you don’t show up for exams.”
She shook her head. What had gotten into the child? A horrible thought occurred to me. “The police haven’t implicated you?”
Kat’s arms jerked. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Alarm spiked from my heels up to my scalp. I stepped closer to hold Kat, but she backed away.
Fearing for her, I knew my arguments weren’t going to counter her resolve or get answers to my questions. She loved going to malls. We could probably make more progress with girl-talk in a clothing store. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow,” I suggested. “You can pick out treats for yourself and help me find something special to wear while I watch you march across that stage.”
“You don’t have to. I might not even show up for graduation.”
I locked my knees to keep from falling. How could she choose not to attend? Maybe some kids received diplomas without taking part in the ceremony—but I’d promised Nancy I would see Katherine in a cap and gown. We needed a stage and her hand reaching out, accepting a diploma.
But she wasn’t willing to talk now, and I couldn’t think. I kissed her cheek. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
“All right.” She spoke without emotion.
By the time I started my car and drove past her house, the front door was shut. Kat had disappeared inside.
Throughout her school years, she’d made top grades her mother was proud of. Kat couldn’t let that all go now. I needed to get her back into classes.
Who in this town could help me?