Nikki Zenas, Eden Fane, and Wack Leone have barely begun their senior year when Mr. Trout, their beloved computer teacher, is found in the swamp... with poisonous bite marks covering his dead body. Soon a second bite-ridden corpse surfaces. And this time, it's a Ridgeton High classmate named Jon. With the help of their science teacher, who is Mr. Trout's ex-girlfriend, Nikki and Eden learn that the lethal bites might have been made by a certain breed of spider. Then Wack is contacted by a mysterious "Ms. Muffet," who refuses to reveal her true identity until "the time is right." And Nikki starts receiving notes signed by "Mr. Trout," along with spooky valentines. When Wack disappears, Nikki and Eden know they're close to finding the killer. But will they be in time to save Wack from a deadly fate?
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Liz Hill and Anne Wolfe have been collaborating over 2,500 miles for more than ten years. While burning up the phone and data lines between Colorado and New Jersey, they managed to publish young adult mysteries under the pseudonym Hillary Wolfe, including Dead Asleep, the first in their Great Swamp series. The series continues here with Hard Shell titles Web of Death and Raven's Blood. For readers who enjoy a good ghost story, Hard Shell also offers their first young adult mystery, The Newfie Ghost.
Liz Hill has published short stories and feature articles in magazines, newspapers, and trade journals. A native New Yorker, she now lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband. When she's not writing novels or hiking in the Rockies, she works as a technical communicator. Anne Wolfe is the author of WINGS OF LOVE (Bantam Book's Sweet Dreams series), and OVERNIGHT-MARE, and FOREST OF FEAR (Baronet Books' Fright Time series). She works as a technical writer for a large telecommuncations company on the East Coast. A die-hard Jersey girl, she lives in a ranch in the woods with her husband and daughter.
Anne Wolfe is the author of WINGS OF LOVE (Bantam Book's Sweet Dreams series), and OVERNIGHT-MARE, and FOREST OF FEAR (Baronet Books' Fright Time series). She works as a technical writer for a large telecommuncations company on the East Coast. A die-hard Jersey girl, she lives in a ranch in the woods with her husband and daughter.
I CLAPPED MY hands over my mouth and stifled a shriek. Something was moving in the dumpster. It was a rainy Monday morning, and I was scurrying through the rear courtyard of Ridgeton High when the sudden movement made me jump. I stopped short and stood in the pouring rain, my heart hammering against my ribs.
There was no wind, yet a plastic Pepsi bottle flew out of the dumpster and bounced across the pavement to my feet, followed by an empty tomato soup can, grimy plastic sandwich wrappers, and a head of rusty lettuce. Immediately, I thought of all the news reports of newborn babies found abandoned in dumpsters. I ignored the rain running down my face and moved in for a closer look.
Just as I got within sniffing range of the dumpster a hand emerged from between two garbage bags and waved.
"Hey, help me outta here," a voice echoed from inside the dumpster.
I stood there gawking. My mouth opened and closed a few times but no other sound came out.
The wet hand drooped. Before it disappeared beneath the trash again I grabbed it and held on tight. This reminded me of earlier this morning, when I discovered my cat Nelson nesting in my dirty laundry. I thought that was gross, but this was even worse.
"Come on." I pulled.
The hand pulled back and squeezed mine.
"Ouch! What the heck--" Then I recognized the purple watchband and the plastic Barney watch. "Wack! Is that you?"
A loud groan echoed from the walls of the dumpster.
Wack Leone rose from the garbage like Godzilla from the sea, a half-eaten sugar cone stuck to his head like a shrunken clown hat. I never knew what to expect from my friend Wack, but nothing he did could surprise me.
"Oh, crap," he said. He shook his head and the cone splattered onto the wet pavement. "Nikki. You of all people. I didn't want you to see me this way."
"Sure you did. Want a hand?" I stuck my arm out so he could grab on to it. Before I could move out of the way he sprang over the side and landed with both feet squishing my toes.
"Yowch!" I hopped on one foot and rubbed the other toe.
"Geez, you look pretty when you're wet," Wack said.
I was sure my frizzy brown hair was flat against my skull, and I could feel the mascara running down my face. "Yeah, right. I just ran out to Eden's car to get my lab notebook. Tell me the truth, Wack. You saw me, right? You knew I'd be passing this way so you resorted to cheap drama to get my attention. Now what's your problem?"
Wack sniffed, insulted. "You really think I need cheap drama to get your attention?" The rain suddenly increased, splashing in the puddles and crashing loudly against the metal dumpster. "I'm drowning out here. Let's go inside."
We started walking but then I noticed a foul odor settle over us. "Maybe we better wait a minute. Let the rain water hose you off a little first."
Wack emptied a garbage bag, flattened it, and we each grabbed one edge and held it over our heads. He stood in the rain rubbing water into his face and snorting like a zoo elephant.
"What a gentleman," I sighed. I was already soaked, and I shook out my hair like a wet dog. "So what is your problem, Wack?"
"I'm just down in the dumps." He grinned sadly.
I groped in my pocket for a clean tissue and wiped runny mascara slime from my cheeks. Then I reached over and brushed mushy cake crumbs from his flak jacket.
"Come with me," I said. "We're late for Trout's class already. You haven't been there in ages. Trout likes you, the least you can do is show up."
He shook his head and put on his best puppy dog face.
"Come on. I think I have an idea that might help." I had a plan that just might get Wack permanently interested in his computer. A foul aroma caught me again and I stepped away. "Just keep your distance."
Wack accidentally tilted the garbage bag and all the water on top gushed out over my head. I screamed, then grabbed the bag and tossed it in the dumpster. We were both soaked already. I broke into a trot.
Wack followed me. "I'm on a treadmill, Nikki. Running like crazy and not getting anywhere. Stuck."
This all sounded very familiar. I was pretty stuck myself for most of this senior year, so I knew the story. Me offering to help Wack was like an accident victim volunteering to drive the ambulance. But even if I couldn't help myself, I somehow thought I could pull Wack out of it. I nodded. "You're in a rut. You're not mooooving, right?"
"I'm my own worst enemy," he said, his shoulders hunched. We had reached the front door of Ridgeton High and stood dripping in the hallway.
"I understand how you feel." My voice softened, but I didn't want to get sappy. "It took me nine months to get used to this place, and I still miss Indiana, but I made the best of it. You can, too." I fake-punched his arm.
Wack had returned to school this year after a three-year hiatus. Since his first day back in September, he'd been faking flashbacks and wearing army fatigues in school as if he'd gone to war and returned with a Purple Heart. The only war he ever fought, though, was with himself. Just like the rest of us.
"You can actually graduate this year if you don't blow it by skipping out on all your classes. Now come on. We're going to Trout's class together." Wack and I shared a Keyboarding class, AKA computers for dummies, and it was a required course. Our teacher, Mr. Trout, seemed to really like Wack for some reason. Maybe he saw some spark of potential in the boy, who knows? But if I could get Wack to start going again, and keep him interested, Trout just might let him slide.
Down the hall from Mr. Trout's classroom I pulled Wack to a stop. "Listen."
He cocked an ear and frowned.
"Do you hear that?" I checked my watch. "It's eight thirty, right?"
He checked Barney and nodded. "The silence is deafening."
Usually the hallway outside Trout's class was filled with the roar of clattering keys and the sound of his voice, as he hopped around from desk to desk, cracking jokes and showing us little computer tricks. "There's not a peep coming from that room." I peeked in the window of the front door. Our Bio Chem teacher, Dr. Moore, stood in the front of the room. "Uh-oh. No Trout."
Wack snapped his fingers. "Dang. That could complicate everything."
Dr. Moore glanced over and saw us, then beckoned us into the room. Her perfectly made-up face was twisted in an unattractive grimace. With her long blonde hair pulled back tight against her skull, she seemed downright menacing. Something was bugging her today.
"Mr. Trout is missing in action today," she said. "This is my free period, and I am not happy to be here. Take the last two seats over there and open a book. Any book." Everyone else in the class was pretending to be deep into a book, as if they could tell Dr. Moore was not in the mood for games. She jerked her head toward the back of the room and we obeyed. At least I did. Wack did a double take at her back then twitched down the aisles, assaulting everyone's nostrils with his dumpster cologne.
I slipped into a seat in front of a computer screen, dropped my books on the floor with a bang, and selected The Scarlet Letter as token reading material. Wack slouched beside me and put his head down on the desk.
"Hmmmmm," I said absently, flipping through the pages for something provocative, anything to keep him awake.
"Is something wrong?" Dr. Moore asked from her desk at the front, pencil poised in mid-air, raising her eyebrows at me. Like everyone else, she'd learned to ignore Wack.
"Huh?" I blinked at her. "Oh, no. Sorry, I was just...." I looked over at Wack, who emitted a loud snore. "Never mind."
She pursed her lips, gave me a dirty look, then went back to scribbling.
Wack muttered under his breath, "Man. The woman rides a broom. Lover-boy Trout must've stiffed her at the No-Tell Mo-tel last night."
"You're awake!" I whispered.
"You snooze, you lose." He opened one eye and winked at me.