Thank you to all of you who voted Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels as Readers’ Choice for Book-of-the-Month. Here is Chapter one free as a thank you.
1: Xandra Collins Mysteriously Disappeared
I didn’t know this when I climbed into the backseat of the black Cadillac, but what was about to happen in the next half hour would change my life forever. And I’m not talking about a little change, either. This one was a monster. It wasn’t just that we were moving out of the house I’d lived in since I was born, or that I was finally about to start middle school. Both of those things were huge, but they seemed like tiny details compared to what came next. The mystery I got tangled up in involved the disappearance of a famous heiress, a million dollars’ worth of hidden jewels, and a threatening gang of bikers who were determined to find them before I did.
Could a skinny thirteen-year-old detective beat them to it?
You bet I could.
Well, I really hoped I could. I was so glad my BFF Alexa had my back, because I was in much more danger than I realized. Going to a new school turned out to be almost as perilous as hunting for the hidden jewels. By the time this case was solved, I’d challenged the biggest bully in the entire seventh grade, kissed my first boy, and news of my detective agency had gone viral. Not to mention I risked my life to solve a mystery.
It all started when my parents decided they wanted to buy a bigger house. They were standing in the driveway of a home we’d just looked at, talking with a woman named Victoria Knight while I sat in the car. My dad’s over six feet tall, but in her high heels Ms. Knight stood eye-to-eye with him, looking like a fashion model. Her jet-black hair was pinned up in a shiny twist, and her pointy hipbones poked forward from under her slinky skirt. I pretended to read something on my iPad while I leaned toward the open window and eavesdropped.
“This next house is a classic. It was built in 1908.” Ms. Knight was a realtor trying hard to sell us a house, and my parents thought that the one she just showed us had stunk.
My mom made a note on her clipboard and shook wavy brown hair away from her pretty face. She has a “widow’s peak,” which I think is a pretty gross name for that little point her hairline comes to in the middle of her forehead. My mom has high cheekbones and a narrow chin, so her face reminds me of a heart. Right now that heart was frowning. “That’s really old,” she commented.
“That just makes it better,” my dad said. He loves old. “A fixer-upper is fine with me. We’ll remodel,” he suggested, looking at my mom with his hands spread wide.
“It’s got six bedrooms, five baths, a ballroom, a library, and more!” Ms. Knight exclaimed.
My mom’s forehead continued to wrinkle. “Six bedrooms when there’s only Skylar and us? Isn’t that overkill?” she asked, glancing at the realtor.
My dad pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and considered this. “So, it’s big. I like big. And it’s in the same school district as our current house, so Skylar can still go to Pacific Middle School with her friends.”
Yes! I thought, squeezing my iPad while I waited for my mom’s reply. It was as if my dad had read my mind: like he knew I couldn’t wait to get to Pacific to see all my friends again, and Dustin Coles: the smartest, cutest, most popular boy going into seventh grade.
“That’s very important to girls her age,” the realtor said.
It sure is. Score one for you, Ms. Knight. I peeked out the window and noticed she had a weird look on her face. Like she wasn’t telling us everything. After the dangerous summer I’d just spent in Shadow Hills, my radar was on high alert for liars.
My mom frowned. “But the place is so old it must be falling apart.”
“It’s not—falling apart,” Ms. Knight said.
“Samantha. 1908.” My dad rolled the date off his tongue as if it tasted good. “Let’s give it a shot, Honey. I’ll bet it has a heck of a history.”
Ms. Knight’s cheeks turned pink. She made her shiny maroon lips into a circle and blew out a slow breath. Then she scratched at a spot on the pavement with the toe of her high-heeled shoe. “Oh, the house has a history, that’s for sure.”
I’ll bet it does, I thought, opening the note-taking app and jotting down some ideas on my iPad:
Ms. K is worried abt nxt house. Posing. Won’t look m & d in the eye.
I watched her for a minute and added another note:
? wrong w/ nxt house?
My mom obviously hadn’t noticed Ms. Knight’s strange reaction, because when she looked at my dad, she smiled. She was an American history professor at UCLA and loved anything “with a history”. My dad loved anything classic, antique, or just plain old. He’s a chemist and an inventor, but with his short, light brown hair and his wire-rimmed glasses my dad looked like he could be a college professor himself.
No one would suspect the laboratory he worked in looked like a mad scientist’s and that he’d almost blown off his eyebrows when I was in first grade. Faint pink scars still speckle his forehead from when one of his concoctions exploded. If he hadn’t been wearing his goggles he could have ended up blind. Whenever I want permission to do something my mom thinks is dangerous she brings up my dad’s accident and asks me if I want to “follow in the risk-taker’s footsteps,” or “think it through more carefully first,” like she would.
I usually end up taking the risks.
After finishing my detective notes I looked out the window trying to catch my mom’s eye, hoping they’d hurry up and get in the car so we could get this over with. I didn’t want to move in the first place.
The house I grew up in is in Santa Monica, real close to the beach. I’ve investigated every square inch of our neighborhood, and I know its woodsy streets by heart. My best friend Alexa O’Reilly lives right around the corner. We’ve been BFFs since second grade when she moved here from Texas. She still has a tiny bit of a Southern accent. Like she calls cement, “SEA-ment.” Then I’ll say, “Sea-ment?” and Alexa’s green eyes look surprised. Then her freckled cheeks will bunch up and she’ll laugh at herself.
I’ve never had a friend as good as Alexa. Her excitement always makes everything fun and she cracks me up. This summer I got stuck at my cousin Gwendolyn’s house in Malibu for eight weeks while my parents toured Europe. That’s when I realized the meaning of true friendship. I went to summer school in Shadow Hills, and met a girl in art class named Kat who claimed to be a witch. She passed me notes in backward writing and thought up all these cool art projects we could do together. After casting dangerous spells with Kat in an abandoned garden and getting to know her better, I wondered if she just liked to trick everyone for her own benefit. Hanging out with Kat made me realize what a good friend Alexa really was. What real friends would do for each other, and wouldn’t do to each other.
When my parents got back from Europe they had huge news. My dad finally sold the formula for a non-alcoholic cough syrup he’d invented, and while they were in Paris a major drug company paid him a huge fee. Suddenly we were in the market for a much bigger house, and my mom couldn’t wait to move out of our small one. I didn’t care that we suddenly had more money than we used to have. The only thing that mattered to me was that my family was about to move. If my parents buy a home very far away, Alexa and I won’t be able to go to the same middle school, and we’ve been looking forward to going to Pacific together forever.
My mom climbed into the backseat beside me and I quietly closed the cover on my iPad. Ms. Knight turned around and gave us a big smile. “I’m excited about the next house.” She sounded like she was acting. “I can’t wait to see how you like it,” she told my dad. He was sitting next to her in front because he was too tall for the back seat. We drove for a couple of blocks and I watched the ocean while we waited for the light to turn green so we could turn onto Pacific Coast Highway.
The white water rushing toward the sand churned messily, like each swirling bit couldn’t decide in which direction to go. The dark blue water near the horizon looked calm, but between the deep water and the shore there was a threatening, shifting movement. It made me nervous. Like something was welling up and heading toward us. Something dangerous that couldn’t be stopped. One wave after another loomed slowly in the distance, rising higher and building power before rolling steadily forward. Then each one crashed down onto the sand, exploding into bubbly white froth.
We’d lived a few minutes away from the Santa Monica pier since I was born, so I know its roller coaster and game booths like I know my backyard. Looking out the window, I imagined the smell of buttered popcorn and corndogs as we drove up the coast with the windows rolled up. I remembered how good it felt to ride the Ferris wheel, like I was soaring over the sea. My favorite car was the pink one. I didn’t mind its rusty sides or the cracked leather seat. When you rode that Ferris wheel up into the sky and looked out over the sparkling ocean it felt like you were on top of the world.
“We’re not going to move far from here, are we?” I asked my mom for the tenth time. “I’ll die if I can’t go to Pacific with Alexa.” Not to mention Dustin, I thought, but didn’t say. Dustin Coles was president of student council, got almost straight A’s, and his huge hazel eyes and dimples were off the charts. I’d only admitted this to Alexa and to my own diary, but I’d been crushing on him for two years. And over the summer something amazing happened: Alexa told me that while I was away she saw Dustin at a party I’d missed. She said it like she was about to spill a delicious secret.
And then she did.
“He asked where you were.”
“He did? No way.” I snuggled into the cushion, eager to hear more.
“Swear. I told him you went to summer school in Malibu and he thought that was really cool.”
“He really said that? Did he say, ‘that’s cool,’ or, ‘that’s really cool’?”
Alexa laughed. “I’m pretty sure he said, ‘Malibu? Wow. That’s cool.’”
“Awesome,” I said, hugging my pillow and smiling.
Why had Dustin asked where I was? Was he just curious why I wasn’t with Alexa as usual? Or maybe he was worried that I was off having fun with some other guy. Wondering if I’d met a cute surfer in Malibu and had forgotten all about him. I wished he was worrying about me. Then I came to my senses. As if Dustin Coles would actually get jealous thinking about me, right? But he did ask about me. That had to mean something.
If I couldn’t go to Pacific Middle School with Dustin, Alexa, and all of my other friends, it would absolutely destroy me. Not to mention what it would do to my BFF. She’s carrying around a big, embarrassing secret. And I’m trying to help her keep it.
My mom grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “We’ll have to see which house is the best fit for us, Sweetheart. It may be in a different neighborhood. If it is, you’ll adapt, and we’ll come back and visit the pier.” This made my stomach knot up.
A few black-bellied clouds edged across the mountains toward us. Their reflections were the color of pencil lead on the green-blue part of the water. Then the wind kicked up, and the treetops on the hillside started to dance. “Rain’s coming,” my dad said, squinting up at the sky.
“There’s supposed to be an unusually strong summer storm on its way,” Ms. Knight agreed, her dark eyes catching mine in the rearview mirror. “Hopefully we’ll make it to the top of the hill before it hits.” She glanced at my dad. “This house is the last one in the area that is in your price range, and it’s quite a bargain, considering the breathtaking views and its size.
I didn’t care how big our next house was, I just didn’t want to move far away from Alexa. Our house had already sold, so we needed to find a new one to move into very soon. We had looked at homes all day last Saturday and Sunday and I was sick of it.
“So what else can you tell us about the house?” my mom asked.
“Well, the woman who owned it was Xandra Collins.” Victoria Knight said the name like she was letting us in on a juicy secret. She pronounced it Zandra, not EX-andra.
“Why does her name sound familiar? Did I read about her somewhere?” my dad asked.
“I’m sure you saw stories about her in the tabloids.”
My mom let out a little snort and smiled. “We don’t read gossip magazines.”
Victoria Knight raised one eyebrow. “Well she was all over the regular news too. The Collins family was rich. Really rich. When her parents died, Xandra Collins inherited millions. Many millions. She gave tons of money to various charities. That’s one of the reasons she kept making the news. Xandra Collins was wealthy and beautiful, but also quite—unusual.” She looked sideways at my dad. “Three years ago she mysteriously disappeared. Her mansion has been vacant ever since.”
“What happened to her?” I leaned toward the front seat, eager to hear more.
“Skylar,” my mother warned.
“What? I’m just curious.” I’m going to become an undercover detective like my grandfather, so I love anything mysterious. I looked out the window as a jagged bolt of lightning streaked across the windshield and lit up the gloomy sky. Moments later, thunder boomed above us like an exploding cannon. Ms. Knight didn’t answer my question.
“Xandra Collins’s jewelry collection was legendary too. Every magazine showed her dripping in diamonds. The house is incredible. Wait ‘til you see it.”
“I definitely remember hearing about her,” my father said as we turned off Pacific Coast Highway and headed up into Santa Monica Canyon.
“I’m sure you did. There was quite a scandal concerning her disappearance.” Ms. Knight steered onto a winding street that was so narrow we had to pull partway into someone’s driveway so a car on the other side could get around us. The wind gusted and a bunch of dead leaves splatted against the windshield. She edged carefully back onto the road.
“What was the scandal about?” I asked, my fingers on my iPad, ready to take notes.
“It doesn’t matter,” my father said, turning around to look at me. My dad has light blue eyes that crinkle around the edges when he smiles. But right now he wasn’t smiling.
“I don’t remember all the details.” Ms. Knight played with her earring as she glanced at my dad again. I could tell this was a lie. She definitely remembered the details. But for some reason she didn’t want to give them up.
“Oh, go ahead and tell her,” he said. “She’ll figure it out anyway.”
Ms. Knight took a deep breath. “Rumor was, Xandra Collins was being stalked. Then she disappeared without a trace. So people thought maybe…someone killed her.”
My mom started flicking the metal clamp on her clipboard. Someone murdered the woman whose house we might buy? She didn’t like the sound of that at all. Ms. Knight looked at her in the rearview mirror. “But it might not be true. They never found her body.”
“I’ll bet she was kidnapped,” I suggested.
My dad looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Maybe she ran off with a mystery man,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Maybe she went on a secret cruise around the world looking for more diamonds,” I suggested, “Or—”
My mom laughed. “All right, you two.”
Tapping my iPad, I continued my notes, hoping my mom wouldn’t look over and read them.
3 yrs ago X.C. disappeared, “without a trace.” Everyone leaves a trace.
“Xandra Collins’s heirs finally stopped fighting over the house and decided to sell it,” Ms. Knight continued. “The place just went on the market this morning so I haven’t had a chance to preview it yet. I think it may need some work since it’s been vacant for three years,” she admitted.
A fistful of raindrops hit the windshield. “Are we almost there?” I asked.
“Just about,” Ms. Knight said. Right after that it started to pour. She took her eyes off the road for a second to glance at the address while the rain drummed on the roof of the car.
“Careful!” my mother warned as we swerved around a wet bend. She grabbed the door with one hand and the front seat with the other. Her clipboard slid off her lap onto the seat between us. I looked down the side of the hill and realized how high up we’d climbed. Now the ocean looked like a cold, gray sheet of steel as it reflected the cloud-filled sky.
The street ended in a cul-de-sac. This was good. I remembered something Grandpa used to say: Criminals don’t bother with houses in cul-de-sacs. They don’t want to get trapped with no way out. I found out later that not every criminal knew the rule about cul-de-sacs. Ms. Knight steered up a driveway that curved into the hill and I stared at the house that loomed above us, perched on the edge of the hillside like it was growing there. A steel gate with pointed spikes guarded the house, as if it were warning us to keep out. Or maybe it was keeping something in.
“Well folks, we’re here.”
Framed in the wet windshield, dark storm clouds hung over the abandoned mansion, their bottoms bulging like they were about to burst. The front of the house was covered in multi-colored stone. Behind cracked windows and torn screens, tattered curtains fluttered into the house, billowing inside on the damp breeze. The roof had several different levels and was missing a bunch of shingles. A round tower with a tip like an upside-down ice-cream cone stretched up the front of the mansion, pointing at the sky. Ms. Knight called it a turret, and sounded like she was proud the place had one. There was a tiny room at the top of the turret that was higher than any other part of the house. It seemed to be calling my name. Skylar Robbins, it whispered. Come explore.
We got out of the car into the wind and rain and hurried toward the house. Crumbling stepping-stones led us through a lawn that was overgrown with knee-high weeds. Dead trees sported black branches that ended in grasping claws. As Victoria Knight fumbled with the key, I saw that the curtains were stained with something that looked like blood.
“Here we go,” she said, opening the tall front door. She let out a loud shriek and ducked.
Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels is available now on Amazon.