Chapter 1 Free! Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels

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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.

Again.

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.

Carrie Cross’s Advice to Aspiring Writers #7: Use Foreshadowing to Create Suspense

MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN JEWELS FRONT COVER
“Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story.” (Literarydevices.net)

What bigger goal can a writer have than to keep your readers turning those pages, desperate to find out what happens next? Foreshadowing is a technique that can help you accomplish this objective. Remember being a kid, reading a book that you absolutely couldn’t put down, and suddenly it was–bedtime? Did you hide under the covers, reading by flashlight, because you just knew something exciting was about to happen? That built-up anticipation was probably caused by the author’s superlative use of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing can be accomplished subtly, by using a description of the setting for example, or overtly, via dialogue and first person narration. The following excerpts from Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills are used for illustration.

Using setting in foreshadowing:

Even though I was afraid, following a treasure map and investigating caves sounded so adventurous that at the stroke of midnight I found myself following Kat outside. Creaky wooden stairs led down the rocky hillside behind her house to their private beach. Sliding my hand along the rough rail, I hoped that the worst thing that would happen to me tonight would be getting a splinter in my palm.

Silver-gray clouds slid past the moon, casting huge shadows on the sand. All too soon we reached the end of the staircase and I smelled the stench of dead mussels clinging to rocks. A cold breeze kissed my cheek as if to wish me luck. Or to warn me.

Violent waves slammed ocean water against the sand. Each pounding crash sounded like a car accident. Pausing with my shoe still touching the last stair, I wondered if there was any way to talk Kat out of this. I figured that following her was better than getting lost on the beach in the dark, so I stumbled after her, scared to death.

Would the worst thing that happened to our heroine be getting a splinter in her palm? Probably not. The cold breeze seemed to be warning her of something. What? Something worse than the car accident that the crashing waves alluded to, or to getting lost on the beach in the dark?

Using dialogue in foreshadowing:

“My new friend was amazing. “What’s Wiccan?” I mouthed.

She looked around. No one was listening.

“Witchcraft.” She waited to see how I’d react, then continued. “I’ll sleep over Saturday night and introduce you.”

“OK. I’ll ask. Introduce me to what?”

Kat looked at me. “Everything Wiccan. I know all about it. And I’ll let you in.”

A nervous tingle shot down my spine. My brain was spinning. I decided to put my plan to escape from Malibu on hold for now.

An uninvited Saturday night sleep-over where Skylar gets introduced to witchcraft? Skylar was nervous and her brain was spinning. Surely something interesting would happen on Saturday night, wouldn’t it?

Using first person narration in foreshadowing:

Heading for Malibu on a sunny Saturday in June would normally have been a good thing. I could have spent the day bodysurfing with my BFF, Alexa, and playing games in the arcade on the Santa Monica pier. If I was totally lucky I might have shared a bumper car with Dustin Coles, the cutest boy going into Pacific Middle School. Alexa and I liked to lie in the sun and watch surfers ride the waves on Zuma beach. If there were pinball and corndogs ahead of me instead of what I was in for, I would have begged my dad for a ride down the coast. But today? Not so much.

If I’d gotten out of the car right then and spread out my beach towel, everything might have turned out fine. But my dad kept right on driving.

Apparently, everything didn’t turn out fine. ‘Tween readers who enjoy going to the beach, watching surfers, eating corndogs, or playing video games should already have an affinity with the protagonist. If she’d gotten out of the car right then, everything might have turned out fine. But her dad kept right on driving. What happened to her?

Foreshadowing helps to create suspense; so whatever your genre, hinting at exciting events to come will keep your readers intrigued, staying up later than intended, reading just one more chapter.

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills is on sale now on Amazon, or message me for a personally autographed copy plus a FREE pair of kids binoculars using the contact form on my website. My second Skylar Robbins novel, The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels, will be available on Amazon on Read Tuesday, December 9th. More advice for aspiring writers can be found on my website.

10 Free Autographed Books are Up for Grabs!!

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Enter to win my Goodreads giveaway! Ten free personally autographed copies of Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills will be given away in December.

Moms and Dads: Want to get your ‘tweens hooked on books? The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels releases 12/9, Read Tuesday. Preorder a personally autographed copy through www.carrie-cross.com and receive a free pair of kids’ binoculars to start your child’s detective kit!

Click the button below to enter to win a copy of Book 1!

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Skylar Robbins by Carrie Cross

Skylar Robbins

by Carrie Cross

Giveaway ends December 10, 2014.

See the giveaway details
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FREE KIDS’ BINOCULARS! Preorder The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels

HIDDEN JEWELS COVER

Book 2 in the Skylar Robbins mystery series, The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels, will be available on Amazon December 9th, Read Tuesday! The first ten to preorder a personally autographed copy by messaging me here will receive a free pair of kids’ binoculars! Get your ‘tween reading and start their own detective kit with a free spy tool.

If your 9 to 13-year-old hasn’t read Book 1, The Mystery of Shadow Hills, it’s on sale now on Amazon.

Skylar Robbins is described by several reviewers as, “The new Nancy Drew.”

SKYLAR ROBBINS: THE MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN JEWELS Available December 9, 2014!

MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN JEWELS FRONT COVER

SKYLAR ROBBINS: THE MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN JEWELS, Book 2 in the Skylar Robbins Mystery Series, will be out in paperback on December 9, 2014: Read Tuesday!

Be one of the first 20 people to preorder your personally autographed copy through my website, and receive a FREE copy of book 1: SKYLAR ROBBINS: THE MYSTERY OF SHADOW HILLS! Makes a great holiday gift for a boy or girl, ages nine and up.

To preorder, leave a reply (below), fill in the contact form on my website, or send me a personal message on Facebook. Stay tuned for a free sneak preview (Chapter One) coming soon!

Stay Out of Shadow Hills at Night

“You’re going to have a wonderful time with us while your parents are abroad, Skylar.” She put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes with a sympathetic little pout on her face. Like she knew how I was feeling.

She had no idea how I was feeling.

“Come in, come in,” she said, leading us out of the stuffy foyer and into the living room.

The smell of their house hit me right away: old carpet and boiled cabbage. My mom called their house “a Malibu mansion,” when she talked to her friends about what a catch my uncle had been. When she spoke to my dad in private she used words like “dated,” and “needs remodeling.” I thought the place was pretty creepy, but it was kind of cool, too. Like there’s this spiral staircase that starts in the corner of the living room and leads up to a round mirror on the ceiling. When you look up the stairs and into the mirror it looks like the staircase goes on forever. But it really leads nowhere.

There are other spooky things about the house that you wouldn’t notice right away. One of them has to do with my dead Great-Aunt Evelyn, and the attic. It makes the hair stand up on my arms. Worse yet, there’s a rumor that people do wicked things up in the hills at night. A trail leading into Shadow Hills starts a little way past a row of pines at the end of the backyard. You could see those trees through the kitchen windows, if you wanted to.

My uncle walked in and set down his briefcase. Uncle Jim was still in his business suit but he’d loosened his tie. He was an entertainment lawyer, so sometimes he had to meet clients on Saturdays. When he turned to talk to my dad I saw the shiny bald circle on the back of my uncle’s head. My cousin slouched against a dark wall between two huge paintings, eating ruffled potato chips out of a jumbo-sized bag. Gwendolyn scraped potato off a back tooth with one finger, examined the morsel, and ate it. “You’ve had enough chips, Gwendolyn,” my aunt told her.

“OK,” my cousin said pleasantly. She tipped her head back and poured the last few crumbs into her mouth, then crumpled up the empty bag. “Pick your room carefully,” Gwendolyn warned me. “Hope you’re not afraid of the dark.” She let out a cackle and left the room.

My mom glanced at my dad and then they both turned toward me. I gave them a look like, “See what you’re doing to me?”

Aunt Caroline called after my cousin’s back. “Subtle threats? No bullying, Gwendolyn, remember? Consequences,” she hinted.

Gwendolyn shrugged as she turned a corner. The dark hallway swallowed her up like a frog gulping down a chubby fly. She knew there would be no consequences.

My dad leaned into me and talked softly, as if no one would notice. “Bullies thrive on making people angry. Don’t let her get to you.” Then he ruffled my hair like I was four years old. I looked at my feet, brushing my pink sneaker over a stain on the carpet.

“Pay no attention to Gwendolyn,” Aunt Caroline told me. “There’s nothing wrong with any of the bedrooms. Let’s go pick out yours.”

“Go ahead, Honey,” my mom said. Then she and my uncle started discussing curfews, check-in times, and house rules. If my aunt was anything like my mom, I was sure to get a written list.

Looking past the living room and out the kitchen windows, I saw the mountains stretching up behind the end of the long backyard. The sun was overhead, and Shadow Hills looked shiny and bright in spots, shaded and dark in others.

I followed Aunt Caroline up the stairs to the second floor and down a narrow hallway. We passed a row of cave-shaped nooks that held ugly knickknacks. My aunt showed me two of the guest rooms, and they were both dark and kind of creepy. The first one looked old-fashioned. Its pale bedspread was printed with dainty flowers, and the little table in front of a framed mirror was wrapped in a heavy skirt. On the shelves, thick boring books were layered with dust. The windows were tiny and too high up to look out of.

I shook my head.

“Gwendolyn’s room is at the end of the hall, so if you want to be near her, you might like this one.” Aunt Caroline turned a corner and opened the next door. I looked into a gloomy room with dark wood paneling, maroon curtains, and a brown bedspread. An ancient floor lamp stood in the corner. A thick spider web with a bug stuck in the middle of it spread from the shade to the post. Next to the lamp, a wooden chair with stick legs held a thin cushion. There was a painting on the wall of a stern farmer holding a pitchfork. He glared at me. Not only was the room awful, but I wanted to be as far away from Gwendolyn as possible.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Or there’s the rose room, but I’m afraid it’s kind of small.” We walked down another hall, my aunt opened a door, and I knew I’d found my room.

This bedroom was narrow, with a slanted wood beam ceiling that was real high on one side and sloped down sharply to meet the opposite wall. The bedspread and pillow covers were patterned with wild roses. Their swirling dark green vines matched the color of the carpet. At the end of the room there was a cozy alcove with a cushioned window seat. Its bay window opened to a twisted oak tree growing right outside. I thought it would be a perfect place to start writing a mystery story while I waited for the summer to be over. I could call it, “Trapped in Malibu: No Way Out.” It would star a junior detective who had just turned thirteen, and had brown hair and dark blue eyes, like mine.

“I like this room,” I said, and Aunt Caroline smiled.

We walked out of the bedroom and turned a corner, passing a narrow door that my cousin said hid a steep staircase. The hidden staircase led up to the attic. I had never been up those stairs, even when Gwendolyn dared me.

“You know the rule, right?” my aunt asked, and I shrugged.

“Stay out of the attic. Please.” Then the smile dropped off her face. “More importantly, Shadow Hills are off limits. Especially after dark.”


Kindle Edition: Check Amazon for Pricing Digital Only

Skylar Robbins: Excellent children’s fiction, enjoyable by all ages

SHADOW HILLS COVER

By T. Ormiston-smithon September 18, 2014

It’s not easy to write well for children, and Ms. Cross has done a superlative job in this entertaining adventure story.

The book starts with a couple of familiar tropes (the creepy old house, the keen boy/girl detective) and in the opening pages I was expecting a standard ‘Nancy Drew’ kind of offering, albeit very well done. But The Mystery of Shadow Hills unfolds layer by surprising layer, revealing with each turn something that takes us completely off guard. Oh, there’s witches. Oh, no wait, the witches are real and dangerous! Oh, but wait….

Skylar is a wonderfully down-to-earth heroine; there are no child prodigies here, no soaring intellects or paranormal abilities. Just an ordinary little girl with a consuming passion and the patience to learn to use her tools. As we follow her through some really hair-raising experiences, we watch her discover the difference between real and false friendship, and after a few false starts, find her way onto a solid path of common sense.

A wonderfully enjoyable read for ages 8 to 13, but able to be enjoyed by all ages.

Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills Chapter 1

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CHAPTER 1: My Detective Kit

Heading for Malibu on a sunny Saturday in June would normally have been a good thing. I could have spent the day bodysurfing with my BFF, Alexa, and playing games in the arcade on the Santa Monica pier. If I was totally lucky I might have shared a bumper car with Dustin Coles, the cutest boy going into Pacific Middle School. Alexa and I liked to lie in the sun and watch surfers ride the waves on Zuma beach. If there were pinball and corndogs ahead of me instead of what I was in for, I would have begged my dad for a ride down the coast. But today? Not so much.

If I’d gotten out of the car right then and spread out my beach towel, everything might have turned out fine. But my dad kept right on driving.

We stopped at a red light before heading down the incline to Pacific Coast Highway. Comforted a little by the weight pressing against my leg, I stared out the window and watched the ocean. The faraway water was navy blue where it met the sky. A frosting of whitecaps drifted sideways, winked, and disappeared. The sea was teal-blue in the middle, and the shallow water glowed bright green as if it were lit from below. Small waves welled up, and then the whitewater bubbled forward and sizzled flat on the sand.

Thin sunlight shimmered on the ocean while I tapped my fingers on the detective kit leaning against my leg. I’d always wanted to become a private detective like my grandfather, and used his old leather briefcase to hold my tools. Back when he was a policeman, Grandpa’s case used to be a rich tan color. But after decades of visiting crime scenes, sitting outside in the sun, and baking in a hot cop car, it had faded to grayish beige. There was a burn mark on the bottom from when he’d policed an arson scene. The handle was stained with dark smudges from dusting robbery sites with fingerprinting powder. After he went undercover, the corners got battered from years of being tossed into the trunk of his unmarked car.

I had been adding to my detective kit slowly over the last two years by using my allowance and asking for pieces of equipment for my birthday. The first pocket hid a thin penlight that I used for searching through boxes, suitcases, or suspicious people’s belongings in the dark. Another one held a laser pointer that shot a red beam of light up to a hundred yards. My mom always worried that I would blind myself or someone else with it, but I kept it in case I was ever chased by robbers or someone I needed to blind to save my life. My pink Super-Zoom binoculars, perfect for long-distance spying, rested inside the biggest pocket. A heavy-duty flashlight for nighttime investigations was snug under a strap.

Zipped inside another compartment there was a measuring tape, wax for taking impressions, and a box of chalk in case I had to outline a dead body. I had a pen and sketchpad for describing crime scenes, a magnifying glass, and tweezers and evidence envelopes for picking up and storing clues. There were latex gloves like doctors use, and safety goggles. Pepper spray for self-defense. Best of all was my fingerprinting kit and Case Solution cards for mounting the prints.

I loved my detective kit and everything it stood for. Where I was headed, there was no way I was leaving it behind. Uh-uh. Not today.

The light changed, and we turned onto Pacific Coast Highway and passed the Santa Monica pier. The Ferris wheel spun lazily around, carrying happy people toward the sky. The pink chair at the top of the wheel swung back and forth, empty. I always felt lucky when it was my turn to get on the ride and a pink car stopped in front of me. I didn’t feel lucky today. Wishing I were waiting in line for that ride right now, I looked out the back window and watched the Ferris wheel turn until I couldn’t see it any longer.

A few miles farther up the coast, my mom pointed at a mansion built high up on a cliff. “Look, Honey,” she said to me. The huge house had a wall of windows that faced the ocean. A black Ferrari was parked in the driveway, and a modern metal sculpture dominated the yard. “I bet a movie star lives there. Or a rock star.” She smiled at me over her shoulder. “Maybe that’s Justin Bieber’s house.”

My mom didn’t watch Extra, read People magazine, or download music from iTunes. If it wasn’t in a textbook, she usually didn’t have a clue. “He’s gross, Mom.” My detective kit tipped over when we stopped for a light and I bent sideways to grab the handle and straighten it back up.

“Just because someone can afford a house like that doesn’t mean he’s famous,” my dad said. “Maybe a chemist owns it, for example.” He winked at me in the rear-view mirror and his blue eyes crinkled behind his glasses. Ha ha. My dad’s a chemist. As if we could ever afford a huge beach house. “What do you think, Skylar? Who lives there?” he asked, trying to start one of our old car games like I was a fussy six-year-old.

“Mickey and his roommate Donald?” I stared out the window at the roiling ocean. “I still can’t believe I have to spend the whole summer with Gwendolyn. You know how she is,” I complained, picking at a thread on the seat belt. My cousin and I did not get along. And that was the understatement of the century.

“Gwendolyn acts out because she has low self-esteem,” my mom told me for the millionth time. Like that made it OK.

My dad sped up when we hit a straight part of the coastline. “Just ignore her. If she doesn’t get a reaction she’ll get bored and leave you alone.” His shoulders bunched up and he tapped his fingers quickly against the steering wheel.

“I try to ignore her. It doesn’t do any good. She just gets in my face and asks me if I went deaf.” I flicked the seat belt buckle as we passed a long row of unevenly spaced palm trees.

“Gwendolyn got suspended for a week last semester for bullying that boy in her class, remember?” my dad asked. “I’m sure she’ll be on her best behavior.”

Gwendolyn doesn’t have any best behavior, I thought.

My cousin had picked on me since we were kids. She made fun of me because I was skinny and got good grades. My mom said it just showed that my cousin wished she were thinner and did better in school. But that didn’t make it feel any better when I was at the end of her pointing finger. I remembered what happened two weeks ago on report card day. I got mostly A’s and Gwendolyn barely made C’s. “Gee Skylar, no wonder you don’t have a boyfriend with your nose always stuck in those big, boring books,” Gwendolyn said. “I don’t know how you can stand to be so bo-oh-oh-ring.”

After she’d said that I pulled out a small notepad that I always carry with me. I jotted a note to myself while staring at Gwendolyn with a little smile on my face: I’m not as boring as you think.

So then Gwendolyn whined, “What are you writing?”

I’d won that time. But she got me back after dinner.

“Hey Skylar, are you sure you’re a girl?” Gwendolyn asked, bending over to stare at my flat chest. “You look like a scarecrow.” She walked away, laughing and stuffing cookies into her face.

It seemed like my cousin only smiled when she was laughing at someone else. She had short, frizzy hair and a round face, and she didn’t shower very often. Sometimes she would stand right next to where I was sitting and fart on purpose. Then she’d hold her nose and look at me like I did it.

“It’s not all about Gwendolyn,” I said. “Staying at her house also means I can’t hang out with Alexa for like, forever.” I couldn’t spend the whole summer without my BFF. No way. And it would be impossible for her, too. Especially if she had to go to summer school and I wasn’t there to help her.

“Maybe one Saturday Caroline can give you a ride and you can meet Alexa and her mom halfway. For lunch.” My mom ran a hand through her hair, which was dark brown like mine, except hers was short and wavy while mine was long and straight.

“I don’t want to ‘do lunch’ with Alexa, Mom. I want to be able to ride my bike over to her house and be there in five minutes. Or go swimming, or go to the mall.” Or what if we just want to hang out and spy on boys? I thought, but didn’t say. Wouldn’t have helped my case.

“You’ll meet all sorts of new friends at Malibu Middle School this summer,” my dad said helpfully. He was trying to make me feel better, but the thought of starting a new school just made me nervous. My situation was like the next wave. It was coming whether I liked it or not, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

My mom craned her neck around and looked at me sympathetically. “I’m sorry we couldn’t take you with us, Honey, but the trip is for the professors and their spouses only. No children are coming. Plus you’d be bored silly. We’re going to visit all the historical monuments I teach about in class. The Berlin Wall—” she laughed, shaking the hair away from her heart-shaped face. “Well actually where the Berlin Wall was….”

“It’s OK, Mom,” I said. Visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall sounded as exciting as a triple helping of detention. But it was still so not OK. “I just don’t see why I couldn’t have stayed at our house.”

“We can’t let you stay home alone for eight weeks, Kiddo,” my dad said, scratching his head through his thin light brown hair. “You’re too young.”

“I’m thirteen, Dad.” I fingered one of the locks on my detective kit, spinning the digits around.

“Exactly.” He put his hand firmly back on the wheel. “Case closed.”

I stared out the window to my right. The rocky hillside was covered with dry tumbleweeds and dead bushes, some still black from last year’s fires. It happened every year when everything was all dried out and the Santa Ana winds blew hot air through the hills. Sometimes a homeless person cooking outside would start a fire by accident, or some crazy person would start one on purpose.

Other times the hillside seemed to burst into flames all by itself. Whenever it got windy and we were at my cousin’s house, Aunt Caroline’s eyes would pinch up at the corners as she squinted out the back window. She’d twist her fingers around as she listened for fire engine sirens, sniffing the air every five seconds to see if she smelled smoke.

The mountain looped and snaked with the coastline, and now there were no plants or trees on the hillside. It was just a wall of striped rock that looked impossible to climb. My parents kept trying to convince me how great my summer would be as we got closer to Gwendolyn’s, which was up in the Malibu hills past Point Dume. Behind her house, a rocky mountain range stretched toward the sky. The face was covered with low bushes and big rocks, creating pockets of light and dark. Each time you looked up at the hillside it looked different. The shadows seemed to move and dance, darting and disappearing with the setting sun. They looked like caves where people or animals could hide.

The locals had nicknamed those mountains, “Shadow Hills.”

Excerpt From: Carrie Cross. “Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of Shadow Hills.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=3484045733971AE645ABB6A57571342A

Available on Amazon

Enter to win a free autographed copy! Post a comment on this website and message your email address to carrie@skylarrobbins.com

Interview with Indie House Books

AuthorProfileGive us the first five facts (about you) you think of:

1. I’m tall and I have long hair. (OK, that’s two, but who’s counting?)

2. I love to cook, barbeque, and eat sushi.

3. My dream house would have an ocean view.

4. Blue Jays and squirrels eat peanuts out of my hand in our backyard.

5. I’m obsessed with words. Not just forming them into sentences that turn into paragraphs that end up as chapters and wind up as books. Puns, riddles, making up silly names for things, playing Words With Friends, reading…I just love words.

Your latest book is part of your Skylar Robbins series. Tell us about the series.

Skylar Robbins is a smart, thirteen-year-old sleuth who plans to become a private detective like her grandfather. In The Mystery of Shadow Hills, Skylar is forced to stay at her bullying cousin Gwendolyn’s Malibu estate for the summer. She brings her detective kit, portable spy tools, and her journal for taking notes in secret code. On the first day of summer school an odd classmate passes a note in backward writing, introducing Skylar to the secret world of witchcraft. Practical Skylar didn’t believe in magic—until the spells they perform in an abandoned garden actually begin to work.

One reviewer likened this book to, “Nancy Drew meets Harry Potter,” but the series itself is not about magic. It’s about a spunky teen detective who is a compassionate friend with a penchant for finding and solving mysteries. Skylar shows readers creative ways to stand up to bullies, and has inspired more than one group of girls—and boys—to start their own detective agencies. Their pictures can be seen on my website: www.carrie-cross.com.

Teen Mystery Press will publish the second book, Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels, in November. The Mystery of the Missing Heiress and The Curse of Koma Island will follow.

What was your inspiration for the series?

When I was six years old, my parents decided we needed to buy a bigger house. We looked at a creepy two-story in Santa Monica Canyon, and I played hide-and-seek with the little girl who lived there. There were closets and secret hiding places with doors that opened into other rooms. Later I wondered, “What if there was a clue hidden in one of those closets?” I never forgot that house, and it inspired me to write a mystery series featuring a quirky teen detective. That sleuth is Skylar Robbins.

When I write, I use a game I call, “What if?” for inspiration. What if I explored that creepy old house and found it had a hidden floor? What would I find when I got there? What if I used an ultraviolet light in the attic and found a secret message written on the wall in invisible ink? What would it say? What if I discovered a tunnel hiding under some leaves in my backyard? Where would it lead? What if someone scary was hiding at the other end of the tunnel? I put my main character in that type of situation and let my imagination go wild.

What is it about Skylar that makes her a great character for young readers?

Skylar is a rational girl who demonstrates deductive reasoning skills while she deciphers clues during each exciting mystery. She has strength of character and is tenacious, self-reliant, and courageous. In addition, she has a big heart. She’s not afraid to befriend the unpopular kids at school, and learns sign language so she can communicate with a hearing-impaired boy in her summer school class. In The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels, she helps her dyslexic BFF deal with her learning disability.

I asked my beta readers for feedback after reading The Mystery of Shadow Hills, and they all seemed to love Skylar’s character. Some of their quotes are printed on the back cover of the second Skylar Robbins mystery:

“I love Skylar because she is really brave and does not give up.” ~ Miriam W., age 12

“Skylar taught me to choose friends wisely, and don’t believe everything anyone tells you.” ~ Jared W., age 10

“Skylar shows readers like me that anyone can uncover amazing secrets!” ~ Ella M., age 11

“I learned from Skylar to be fearless. You can do anything if you just try. And trust no one while solving a case, even if you think they are telling the truth.” ~ Kalyn M., age 11

What are some of the themes and story elements you touch on in the series?

The kids’ quotes in the previous question touch on some of my themes. Skylar is courageous and self-confident, and shows readers the importance of using your brain to determine the difference between reality and fantasy, and between real friends and phony ones. Shadow Hills has the element of witchcraft and magic woven through the story. In Hidden Jewels, Skylar races against a threatening gang of bikers to decipher a string of clues leading to a hidden fortune in jewels. Skylar teams up with the cutest boy in school to solve The Mystery of the Missing Heiress in the third book, and then they travel to a remote location with an unusual group of gifted classmates to investigate The Curse of Koma Island in book 4.

What do you wish more juvenile novels had? Do you try to include those in your books?

I wish more juvenile novels had strong, fearless female protagonists, and I created one in Skylar Robbins. There are some exceptions, like Gilda Joyce, the Gallagher Girls, and Amanda from The Amanda Project series. But unfortunately so many of the ‘tween and teen books today have female protagonists that are silly, weak, or suffering from bad parenting. I wanted to create a gutsy hero that readers would cheer for and want to emulate. One who could survive against seemingly impossible odds, and defeat bigger, stronger, more threatening opponents. So far, Skylar Robbins has done just that. And in each mystery, her foes and challenges become more difficult to overcome.

What was your favorite book as a child? Do you think it had an effect on the type of books you write now?

My favorite book as a child was Judy Blume’s, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Not because of Margaret’s religious dilemma, but because of its coming-of-age theme. I read that book over and over as a kid who was dying to get her first bra, and who, like Margaret, didn’t fill it very well once I had one. Waiting for and wondering when we would get our periods was an exciting time for my preteen friends and me, and as in Margaret’s life, “getting it” was a badge of honor when it finally arrived. Margaret got to play “Two Minutes in the Closet” with the cutest boy in school. What a thrill that would have been! All of Judy Blume’s books are excellent, but that one is an absolute classic, and it did have an effect on my Skylar Robbins series. During each mystery, Skylar deals with some of the same issues Margaret faced as a girl just entering puberty: fitting in at a new school, feeling left out when she’s the last girl to get her period, and crushing on a cute boy.

Describe your perfect writing space.

I enjoy writing anywhere that has a beautiful view. When I write at my dining room table and look up from my computer I can see through trees, across a mountainside, and over a canyon. At night I can see distant neighbors’ nights twinkling against the hills. I love to write in bed when it’s raining—the harder the better! Throw in some loud thunder and crashing lightning and I’m ecstatic.

My favorite place to write is at the beach in a lawn chair with a pad and pen, or on the patio of a tiny condo we have in San Jose Del Cabo. Looking at and listening to the ocean is so inspirational to me.

I was listening to waves crash when I wrote the following scene from The Mystery of Shadow Hills. Skylar’s friend Kat challenges her to search three caves at midnight for magic seeds she promises will grow into gems.

“Sky,” Kat cried suddenly, pointing across the black sand. “Look. There they are.” I was more concerned about the rising tide, and looked out over the dark rumbling ocean. White spray flew up in the air as another huge wave crashed nearby. So loud it sounded like a refriger­ator fell off a tall building and landed right next to us. I hurried after Kat as the water rushed forward. “This is it. Three caves.” Moonlight cast shadows behind the boul­ders that guarded the entrance. We darted around them and climbed under the rock arch.

The dark cave stunk of washed-up kelp, dank and rot­ten. I shuffled forward on the damp sand with my hands out in front of me like a sleepwalker, hoping I wouldn’t stumble over a rock or bash into a wall. I pulled out my flashlight and turned it on. As soon as its beam lit up the cave, heavy flies woke up, buzzing around the seaweed and bonking into my face. I ducked, swatting them away. Kat hurried past me and rushed toward the back of the cave, peering at the ground. Suddenly she cried, “Sky—here they are. I found the gem seeds!” Hidden between the boulders, disguised as wet pebbles, shining gem seeds winked up at us.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in the final editing phase of Skylar Robbins: The Mystery of the Hidden Jewels, which Teen Mystery Press will publish in November. I have a rough draft of a third book, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress, and an outline of a fourth, The Curse of Koma Island.

Finally, what advice would you give to your young readers and writers?

Enjoy the writing process and revise, revise, revise. Get as many people as possible to read your manuscript and give you constructive criticism. Don’t just rely on family and friends for feedback. They love you and will tell you your book is great, even if it isn’t. Find beta readers in your target age group who you don’t know personally. For instance, I asked my account base at work if they had children who would be willing to read my book before publication, and emailed the manuscript to those kids. Finally, don’t let rejections from agents deter you from getting published. Self-publish if you don’t get a contract; you’re going to do most of your own marketing anyway. Calvin Coolidge said it best: Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!

Thank you, Indie House Books for the nice interview.