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Twenty Minutes Late

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The First in Caroline's Young Adult Series from Fire and Ice

Cree arrives late for her babysitting job to find the mother gone, the older child in a daze, and the baby missing without a trace. The police, the neighborhood searchers, even the FBI can find no clues.

At school Cree makes a new friend, a girl with troubles of her own. Maddie has just escaped from an obsessed and violent boyfriend who continues to stalk her. Her handsome brother Ben, who has Aspergerís syndrome, is also accusing of stalking, although in his case it was unintentional. Cree and Maddie team up to find some answers. But there are those who donít want the answers found. As things come to a head, Cree finds an odd connection between the two cases. If she can live to tell about it.

Chapter 1

In five minutes, the bell would ring. Mrs. Gittelson talked on, showing no sign of ending the French and Indian War.

Stacie Marr wrote a note and passed it across the aisle to Cree. Guess what I’m getting!

Cree made sure their teacher was turned the other way before she answered. Chicken pox?

No, dummy, a car! Daddy’s buying me a car!

The room fell silent. Heads turned to stare at them both.

Gittelson scowled. "Lucretia Penny, I see you’ve found something more interesting than American history. Would you like to share it with us?"

Cree slid the note into her pocket. "The, um—one of the things that led to the Revolution?"

She thought that covered it nicely, but it didn’t get her off the hook. "I"ll see you after school, Lucretia."

Stacie winked, as though they were in it together. No way, when Cree got all the blame.

A car? Stacie’s dad was always giving her presents, mostly jewelry and stuff. But a car?

Gittelson kept her for twenty minutes and allowed her to begin her homework. It wasn’t much of a punishment, except for Troy waiting outside. Her first real boyfriend. How long would he wait?

Troy would be there for her, but what about her job? She tried to explain. Gittelson was unimpressed. Cree had always been super reliable. She should have ignored Stacie’s note.

Finally dismissed, she shot out to her locker. Alicia, her neighbor, sat on the floor with books scattered around her. "Excuse me," said Cree as she tried to climb over them.

"You’re always apologizin’," snapped Alicia.

"Sorry." There she was again, apologizing for apologizing. She grabbed her jacket and backpack and ran for the stairs.

Down in the auditorium, someone was singing. The tryouts. Southbridge High’s big production for this semester was South Pacific. If it weren’t for her job she could at least join the chorus. But the job, and the money it paid, would send her on to bigger things

She barely noticed someone coming up the stairs. The newcomer flattened herself against the wall as Cree rushed toward her. "Can you tell me—"

"Sorry. I’m late." Cree hurtled on past.

Twenty minutes late. She was cooked. Olive, her boss, couldn’t leave for her own job until Cree got there.

She pushed through the outside door into a bright October afternoon and started around to the parking lot. From somewhere in back of her came the cheery notes of a harmonica. Please. Not that weirdo Emerson Santiago.

He broke off "Turkey in the Straw" to greet her with a "Yo."

Yo yourself. Cree walked faster. What could she say to Olive, who had a boss of her own to deal with?

Emerson’s long legs quickly caught up with her. He was a lanky scarecrow with yellow hair that came down over his eyes, and humongous yellow shoes. "You been trying out?"

"Can’t. I have to work." Emerson should know that. Cree swished through a pile of dry leaves.

He pitched an imaginary baseball at the school. "You should try out. I bet you’d be good."

"No, I wouldn’t. I can’t sing."

"You can dance. You could be that girl who doesn’t talk much, the daughter."

"Emerson, I have a job. Why don’t you try out?"

Emerson, too, had a job. He was her weekend replacement at Olive’s, but his weekdays were free.

"I—" He dribbled an imaginary basketball, "am doing the lights." He launched the ball and made an imaginary basket.

The performances would be on a weekend. How could he manage that? She didn’t want to discuss it with him. She only wanted to escape before someone saw them together.

"Hey." He tossed another ball. If it were real, it would have broken the principal’s window. "You going to that thing on Saturday?"

The Harvest Moon Dance. He couldn’t be thinking of asking her!

"You bet I am," she said. "With my boyfriend."

"Who’s your boyfriend?"

She thought everyone knew. Emerson lived in a world of his own.

They rounded a corner into the parking lot. Troy was there waiting by the bicycle stand.

"Him," she said.

"That’s your boyfriend? Doesn’t look like it." Emerson’s voice faded as she hurried on ahead.

She could see what he meant. Troy was not alone. Stacie Marr had gotten there ahead of her and they were deep in conversation. Stacie rolled her foot back and forth and watched it thoughtfully as they talked. She didn’t notice Cree.

Troy looked up and waved.

Then Stacie looked up. Her smile was as golden as her hair. "Oh! Hi, Cree. We were just—" She giggled. She had forgotten all about the trouble with Gittelson.

Cree bent to unlock her bike.

The lock stuck. She twisted the key back and forth.

Crouched, half kneeling, she sensed something going on above her head. She heard a whisper. Stacie’s pink sneakers walked away. Troy’s green and white ones came into view.

"Hey, uh—"

When Troy Zoller began with "Hey, uh—" it usually meant bad news.

He watched her wrestle with the lock. "Give it a shot of WD-forty. That should loosen ’er up."

Cree knew all about WD-40. Her grandmother used it for everything except, thank goodness, cooking. "I don’t happen to have any right here, do you?"

He chuckled. "Not on me. Who carries it around?"

"Well, then."

He knelt beside her. She could feel his breathing.

He said, "You should get wheels."

"This is wheels."

"I mean real ones."

It was true, almost nobody else rode a bike to school. She didn’t live far enough for the bus, and walking took too long.

Another twist and the lock sprang open. She picked up her backpack.

Troy stopped her. "Hey, uh—"

He hadn’t finished his announcement. Or even started it. "About Saturday."

"What about it? Come on, Troy, I’m really late."

He shuffled his feet. "I don’t think I can make it, see."

The Harvest Moon Dance. Her first big event with her first real boyfriend. "What happened?"

Across the parking lot, something moved.

Something blond. It disappeared behind Troy’s pickup truck.

A numbness crept through her. This couldn’t be real.

She straddled her bike, ready to leave. "Why? You have better things to do?"

He caught her ponytail. It was long and easy to grab. "It’s not like that. I—"

She snatched her hair away. "Troy, I’m not stupid. She’s over there waiting to see what happens when you tell me. Now move, please. I am so late."

It was Stacie’s fault she was late. Stacie, who was once her friend.

She felt a trembling deep inside but couldn’t let it show. Troy moved and she pedaled away, not too soon to see his face turn red.

Her first real boyfriend. She should have known. He never really cared about her. He only used her to get to Stacie.

Dummy that she was, she fell for it. Even her own father didn’t like her. Stupid, stupid.

And fat, except for her slender waist. Grandma insisted she wasn’t fat and called it an hourglass figure. "Like an eighteen-nineties chorus girl. Wish I had a shape like that."

Stacie Marr was skinny all over, as a ballerina should be.

Merging onto Grand Street, she relived those few minutes. What if she’d gotten it wrong? Misunderstood the whole thing and now had burned her bridges and made an idiot of herself.

Not likely. Not with Stacie’s giggles and false brightness. Troy’s shuffling and red face. She was nothing but a loser and everybody knew it.

The only thing to do was retreat, as she often did when things went bad. Instead of Grand Street in Southbridge, New York, she was on Broadway. She saw it clearly, the stage boards under her feet. The ropes and pulleys and lights above her head. From out in front, the darkened audience sent waves of love. Because she was the best.

A truck driver honked. "Watch it, sister, you want to get killed?"

She swerved back toward the curb.

Her ponytail felt loose, thanks to Troy’s manhandling. She turned onto Maple Avenue and pulled off the butterfly-shaped clip that held it.

Free at last, her hair swirled around her. It was reddish brown and almost down to her waist. Troy said he liked it long. He called its color mahogany.

Stacie’s used to be long, too, when they both studied ballet at Madame Olga’s. After Madame closed her studio, Stacie cut hers. Now it was short, pale, and fluffy. She looked like a dandelion gone to seed.

From Maple, Cree started down a hill that flattened into Riverview Boulevard. In spite of its fancy name it was an ordinary street with ordinary houses. Her own home, on the western side, overlooked the lower village and the Hudson River. Olive Hurlow and her two little boys lived across from her, two houses down.

Olive was always home until Cree got there. Today her car was gone. Because Cree was late. Twenty whole minutes. She parked her bike on the crabgrass lawn and found the front door locked.

She used her key. "Olive? Are you here? I’m really sorry. I came as fast as I could."

In the living room, five-year-old Davy watched TV. Cree said, "Where’s your mom?"

"Mommy went out." He stayed fixed on the screen.

"When? Just now?"

"She said she had to go out."

The portable crib next to the couch was empty, except for a wadded up blanket. Even the baby’s pacifier was missing, that rubber thing with the blue plastic ring.

"She took Kip to work?" Olive was a cocktail waitress at Bernie’s Bar & Grill. What would she do with him there?

"Huh?"

"Davy, wake up. Where’s Kip? Was there some sort of emergency and Mommy took him somewhere?"

"I don’t know."

"Davy! Get it together. You were here, you must know. Tell me what happened."

He flinched.

"I’m not mad at you," she said. "I just want to know. When Mommy told you she had to go out, did she say where? Or why?"

He scrunched his face and tried to focus. It was a good-looking face with big hazel eyes and long lashes. He seemed in a fog, as if he just woke up. But he had been awake when she got there.

"Kippie was in his crib," he said.

"Before your mom went out, or after?"

"Before and after."

Kip, at eighteen months, had learned to climb out of his portable crib that doubled as a playpen. After the first time, he could do it without tipping it over.

She turned off the TV. Davy made a faint protest.

"If he got out by himself," Cree said, "he must be around someplace. We have to find him."

They scoured the living room, the kitchen, dinette, even the half-bath. She listened for sounds. He might have gone somewhere and fallen asleep.

He had never yet crawled up the stairs, but there could be a first time. They looked there, too, all three bedrooms. The bathroom. The linen closet and every clothes closet.

The front door had been locked. He couldn’t have gone out.

She sat on the stairs and tried to think. This whole day could not be real. It was all screwed up, a bad dream.

"Was your mom here when you got home from school?"

"That’s what I said. Then she went out."

"Did she get a phone call or something?"

He frowned, trying to remember. "Yeah. Then she went out."

"Are you sure she didn’t take Kip?"

"I told you. He was sleeping."

"What about after she left?"

Davy sighed. "He was. In his crib. Sleeping."

"I know. I believe you. This just doesn’t make sense."

None of it did. It was all part of her nightmare.

Davy might be mistaken. Maybe Olive said something and he was too busy watching TV. She would give it a few more minutes and then call the police. Or maybe Olive first.

She checked the back door. It was closed but not locked. Kip wasn’t out there. The front door had definitely been locked. She remembered using her key.

The lock was a simple twist type. If by some fluke he got it open, then by another fluke locked it again, how far could he go on his short, unsteady legs? He had just started walking and fell down a lot.

She opened the front door and looked both ways, up and down the sidewalk.

Across the street, old Mr. Culpepper watched from his porch rocker. She waved, then went over to him. "Have you been here long?"

"A while," he said. "I saw the missus go out before you came."

"Did she have the baby with her?"

"Not that I could see. She went rushing off."

"When was that?"

"More’n an hour ago."

"Did you by any chance see the baby come out by himself?"

"That little tyke? ’Course I went in a couple of times. Pit stops, if you know what I mean."

"So you could have missed him."

"Not long pit stops. I’da had time to see him. I’da gone over there and caught him before he went in the street."

She believed he would have. She thanked him and went back to the house.

It was time to get hold of Olive. What could she possibly say?

Olive didn’t answer. Cree took one last look around and called her grandmother. Maybe another pair of eyes. Or another brain.

"I’ll be right there," Grandma said. "But I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about."

"Just hurry. I’ll tell you when you get here."

Grandma was there in three minutes, with bright red lipstick to match her hair, and Jasper, their Brussels Griffon, on his red leash. Cree told her what happened.

"Davy and I looked everywhere. Mr. Culpepper saw Olive driving away but she didn’t have Kip. It’s all because Mrs. Gittelson—"

"Never mind the blame game," Grandma said. "That won’t help. Could be they wanted her early and you were late. Did you call her at work?"

"I tried her cell. She doesn’t answer."

"Honey, there’s got to be a number for Bernie’s."

There was, next to the telephone. "I can’t," said Cree. "I’m too upset. I can’t talk to her."

"You’re chicken, is what you are." Grandma made the call for her, and whispered, "They said she just came in the door. Oh! Olive! You wouldn’t happen to have your little guy there with you, I hope."

Cree heard a shriek, and Grandma handed her the phone.

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Twenty Minutes Late is available from the publisher, fireandiceya.com, and from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

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