For fans of A Good Girl's Guide to Murder and Veronica Mars, this whip-smart YA debut crime thriller follows a sapphic detective agency seeking the truth behind a growing trail of missing girls in their hometown ...
A year ago, beloved cheerleader Stella Blackthorn vanished without a trace. Devastated, her younger sister, Iris, launched her own investigation, but all she managed to do was scare off the police's only lead and earn a stern warning: once she turns eighteen, more meddling means prison-level consequences.
Then, a year later, the unthinkable happens. Iris's ex-girlfriend, Heather, goes missing, too-just after dropping the polarizing last episode of her true crime podcast all about Iris's sister. This time, nothing will stop Iris and her amateur sleuthing agency from solving these disappearances.
But with a suspicious detective watching her every move, an enemy-turned-friend-turned-maybe-more to contend with, and only thirty days until she turns eighteen, it's a race against the clock for Iris to solve the most dangerous case of her life.
© 2023 Victoria Wlosok (P) 2023 Little, Brown Young Readers
Release date: September 19, 2023
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 320
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
How to Find a Missing Girl
Everyone knows you wear black to a stakeout. It’s common knowledge, right up there with wlw listen to girl in red and having mental breakdowns at school dances nearly lands you in shitty mental hospitals. Sammy Valdez-Taylor, hacker extraordinaire and one-third of my sapphic amateur detective agency, nods along as I explain this, my gloved fingers irritatedly resting on—but not quite rubbing—the bridge of my nose.
I glance at her neon-yellow Hatsune Miku shirt, short checkered skirt, and holographic jumbo pink platform boots. “So why,” I ask her with my teeth clenched in what I’m guessing is decidedly not my most charming smile, “are you wearing every other color?”
Next to me, Imani—the other third of the agency—snickers and leans back against their car. They parked right in front of the Valdez-Taylors’, which would be more of a problem if Sammy’s parents didn’t love the two of us. But as long as Sammy keeps her grades up, her family doesn’t care where she goes at night—or what she looks like doing it.
“Is it really that bad?” Sammy asks, tugging at the space buns she’s managed to wrangle her thick brown curls into. I sigh, and my fingers start rubbing.
The thing is, Heather Nasato would never forgive us if we screwed up this job. She’s currently our agency’s best client, but that’s only because she’s been a paranoid mess ever since she started dating her douchebag boyfriend Nathan Deveraux last month. Which is exactly why the three of us are out tonight, about to conduct surveillance of said douchebag boyfriend, and not at home working on the soul-crushing process of applying to college. Turns out a customer is a customer, even when she happens to be your last (and only) ex-girlfriend.
“You know the good thing about being a cynic?” Imani asks as they pop open the trunk of their car with a smile. Out of the three of us, Imani’s the only one who can drive—Sammy hasn’t applied for her learner’s permit yet, and I’m pansexual. It goes against my nature.
Sammy shrugs as Imani emerges from the trunk of the Homicide Honda with a stack of neatly folded clothes—black, I note approvingly—and holds it out to her. “You’re always prepared.”
A large grin finds its way onto Sammy’s face. “You finished them already?”
“Last night,” Imani confirms, their smile softening. “I spent way more time on them than on the Pink Ladies’ jacket alterations for Grease, though, so don’t tell Mrs. Landry.”
“This is amazing. Give me, like, two seconds to change!” Sammy says, and then she darts back into her house. Imani and I exchange dubious glances as the door rattles shut, and I shake my head. We’re going to be here a while.
At least the weather is nice. It’s a crisp, cloudless October night in Hillwood, filled with the tantalizing promise of falling leaves and blustery winds that even my favorite black longcoat can’t completely stave off. It doesn’t matter, though, because my blood is electric under my skin. This is my first agency job since my fiasco at the homecoming dance last month—since the one-year anniversary of my older sister Stella’s disappearance—and I’m determined to do it right. To make it through this day, just like I made it through that one, and keep my feelings tamped down and my agency on track.
Sammy emerges ten minutes later, newly changed and beaming. The turtleneck and flared pants Imani made her fit her perfectly, and she’s even wearing a black knit beanie pulled low over her forehead. Except the hat’s rim is studded with at least twenty star-shaped stick-on jewels, and she’s wearing plastic earrings shaped like tiny babies.
I level her with a look. “Sam, we need you to take this seriously.”
Her smile drops off her face. “I am,” she insists. “Look, just because I don’t entirely dress the part doesn’t mean I’m not a valuable part of this team. I developed a GPS-based app and synced it with a highly illegal tracking device on Nathan’s car. I can hack into any database. I inject some much-needed levity into our group dynamic, and I also made a really kickass stakeout playlist for our ride to Bellevue Estates, so you really shouldn’t judge me for choosing to bedazzle my wardrobe a little.” She tugs a stray curl out of her beanie. “It has all the hits: ‘Every Breath You Take’ by the Police, ‘People Watching’ by Conan Gray, ‘Paparazzi’ by Lady Gaga—”
“Enough talking,” Imani interrupts, thankfully sparing me from having to listen to more of Sammy’s song choices. “Both of you, get in the car.”
I open the door of Imani’s sleek black Honda and slide into the back seat, letting Sammy take shotgun so she can keep an eye on our position relative to Nathan’s. If he makes it to Bellevue Estates before us, we’ll have to call the whole night off.
Imani starts the engine, and their speakers roar to life with a jarring guitar riff. I catch their eyes—and Sammy’s self-satisfied smirk—in the rearview. “‘One Way or Another’? Really?”
Imani grins. “Blondie or bust, baby,” they say, and then they shift gears and expertly speed out of Sammy’s driveway.
I curl a protective hand around the strap of my camera bag as we roar away from the Valdez-Taylors’. The Nikon DSLR within it is one of my most prized possessions: It has a high-res adjustable lens and a quiet shutter, it performs well in low light, and it’s come in handy for the slew of clients our agency has amassed since the three of us became friends and started doing detective work together after my sister went missing last fall. It was a gift from Imani and Sammy when we officially decided to launch the agency in mid-January—a decision that pulled me out of one of the lowest points of my life—and it serves as a tangible reminder that the three of us are a unit. A team.
And that none of that shows better than when we’re about to execute a job.
“It looks like he’s taking a back road,” Sammy says, scrutinizing her phone. “If we hurry, we can cut him off.”
“Why would we cut him off?” Imani asks as we fly past beaten-down houses, magnolia trees growing half-heartedly out of dusty red dirt, and a big sign for JOAN’S DINER: THE BEST CAJUN & CREOLE BREAKFAST IN TOWN! “We’re supposed to be on a stakeout. Right now, we need to focus on getting to Bellevue Estates before Deveraux, because someone”—Imani takes a sharp right turn, their dark brown hands flexing against the steering wheel—“threw off our entire schedule by blatantly disregarding our dress code.”
I grin. Imani’s really serious about clothes.
Bellevue Estates is our town’s sole gated community. It’s filled with huge houses that all look the same, about one species of grass, and a whole lot of rich white people. The Nasatos live there, but the Deveraux don’t—and last Thursday at 10:00 PM, Heather thought she saw Nathan’s pickup pull into the cul-de-sac even though he wasn’t coming to visit her.
Hence the stakeout.
“All I’m saying is, he turned onto Nouvelle Lane,” Sammy insists. “We can beat him if we drive right up to the gate, but we’ll need a keycard to get through.”
“I have a keycard.”
It’s meant to be an offhand remark, but Sammy’s wide eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror as her mouth falls open anyway. “You did not.”
“What?” I ask innocently, pulling out my phone and sliding off the WORLD’S OKAYEST PANSEXUAL plastic case. Underneath, Heather Nasato’s golden ticket to Bellevue Estates blinks up at me. “She won’t miss it—I took it from her half a year ago.”
Six months, two weeks, and five days ago, in fact.
Imani smirks. “That sounds like the Iris Blackthorn we all know and love,” they say, turning onto a freshly paved road and coasting to a tall metal gate. The large sign in front of it proclaims the area beyond as BELLEVUE ESTATES: RESIDENTIAL GATED COMMUNITY; I can practically smell the privilege and see the ugly, bug-eyed white dogs already.
A single swipe later, we’re winding through a neighborhood of luxury homes while Nathan Deveraux is still inching his way along Nouvelle Lane. It’s funny that Bellevue Estates boasts so many, especially since Hillwood was just a poor Cajun Country fishing town before the Deveraux came in and set up their chemical plant along the Bayou Lafourche, but the place Heather lives in might as well belong to an entirely different world.
Hillwood sounds like it’s filled with lush trees and wooded forests, but most of it—the part that isn’t swallowed by twenty miles of sprawling swampland, at least—is run-down trailer parks, cracked pavement, and gray skies. But in Bellevue Estates? The grass is perpetually green even in the middle of fall, the artificial lake contains families of ducks that get fed instead of hunted, and the homogenous houses are as pristine as the Francophiles who live in them.
It’s a paradise. And a little bit of hell, too.
Sammy frowns. “I just texted Heather to let her know where we’re at, but I don’t think she’ll respond in time. She’s kind of been ignoring my texts lately.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re already here,” I say, tipping my chin to Heather’s boring gray-shuttered two-story. It’s dark enough outside that no one should notice the Homicide Honda idling in front of the residential pool three houses down the street, but also light enough to get plenty of close-ups to satisfy Heather if her boyfriend isn’t paying her a visit. Which I kind of hope is the case.
Sammy nods, and Imani lowers the volume on the stakeout playlist just as an engine roars behind us. And yeah, maybe it isn’t ethical for us to have a tracker on Nathan Deveraux’s car. Maybe his parents, the revered Edward and Elizabeth of Deveraux Industries, would take the three of us to court and sue us to high hell if they knew the kind of shit we get up to after hours, and maybe not even Mayor Nasato’s influence would be enough to save us from the wrath of the family that truly runs Hillwood if that were to ever happen.
But even knowing everything I do about the precarious position Imani, Sammy, and I hold as under-the-table high school detectives, nothing beats the exhilaration I feel as Nathan’s white pickup ambles into view.
Right on schedule.
“We have a visual,” Sammy whispers, pressing record on her phone just as Heather’s boyfriend gets out of his car and I take a silent photo. Nathan Deveraux, heir to his family’s industrial plant empire: tousled hair, broad shoulders, terrible ego, dark brown eyes. I have no idea what Heather sees in him, but then again, I put a lot more weight behind personality than most people do. I know enough to gauge that Nathan’s is shit, though, no matter how many times he runs his fingers through his amber curls.
My lens zeroes in on the black plastic bag in his other hand. I can’t see through it, but it looks sketchy as hell. Is it for him and Heather? Is she still doing drugs?
Imani catches my eye, and I know they’ve spotted what Nathan’s carrying, too. They shake their head a fraction of an inch, their face a warning. Finish the job, Iris. That’s all we’re here for.
I grit my teeth. There won’t be a job to finish if Nathan’s just going to his girlfriend’s—they’ll smoke together, we’ll lose the money from tonight, and Aunt Megan will get onto me about applying for a real job instead of spending my free time playing detective. We’ll have to have The Conversation again.
But then, just as I think Nathan’s going to turn into Heather’s driveway, he keeps walking. Frantically, I adjust my lens.
Out of focus.
Not in the shot.
Knowing exactly what I risk for me—for all of us—if I get caught, I lean forward and change the settings of my camera. Those few seconds of adjusting make me lose sight of Nathan, and I panic until I see him again. There.
I watch it all through my lens: Nathan turning. Nathan bounding up the steps of another bland two-story. Nathan knocking once. Twice.
I almost miss the shot. Almost, because a year of practice forces my finger to click the button instead.
“Holy shit,” Imani breathes.
The door of the house closes, echoing down the street just as the last photograph I took loads: one of Nathan Deveraux pulling a blonde girl into a passionate kiss, the two of them perfectly in frame.
A girl who isn’t Heather Nasato.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15, 9:13 AM
I stare at the crumpled wikiHow article in my lap, angling myself over my desk so my AP Chemistry teacher can’t see I’m not actually doing my atomic theory worksheet.
So you think you saw your friend’s partner
cheating on them. What should you do? First, know that the decision to tell your friend can be a difficult one to make. Always think of the potential emotional, psychological, and physical fallout from disclosing what you saw. Next, decide whether your information will—
I cram the wikiHow article I printed out before class between my thighs and lift my head, making eye contact with Ms. Eastwick. She adjusts her horn-rimmed glasses and glares at me, her hawklike eyes locking on mine. “Are you already finished?”
One of the girls sitting next to me smirks, and I can feel the tips of my ears burn. “Yeah,” I lie, forcing myself to keep looking at my chemistry teacher.
“Excellent,” she says, turning back to her digital whiteboard. I’m hoping that’s the end of it, but Eastwick pulls up a blank copy of the worksheet and taps it with the end of her pen instead. “So then you’ll be able to give us your answers.”
She holds the pen out and inclines her head to the board. I narrow my eyes, stuff the wikiHow pages back into my pocket, and pull the edge of my beige sweater over it. Eastwick knows I haven’t done shit, and she’s testing me. But this is nothing. I can do this.
I stand up and walk to the front of the classroom, taking the pen from her and scrutinizing the questions in front of me. They’re all multiple choice, thank God, so I hastily circle some letters at random and shove the pen back into Eastwick’s hand. The bell rings, and Eastwick glances from the board to me. Ridiculously, hope swells in my chest. Have I actually done it?
She smiles a wolf’s grin. “See me after class, Iris.”
Fuming, I grab my messenger bag and wait for the classroom to clear. It takes a couple of seconds, but then it’s just me, Eastwick, and the four Galileo thermometers sitting on her desk. Let’s get this over with.
“I’m concerned about your work ethic, Iris,” Eastwick begins, the same way she always does, and I let my eyes glaze over until she needs me to nod or go “uh-huh” so it sounds like I’m listening. It’s the same lecture every time with her: You’re a bright student, but you need to try harder. Your effort drops off considerably in my class. Your grades are slipping.
You’re not Stella, and I can’t stop judging you.
I’m used to this by now; no one in Hillwood knows how to see me for myself anymore. Apart from the agency, everyone knows me only as Iris Blackthorn, Stella Blackthorn’s little sister. I constantly live in her shadow: She was the star student, the varsity cheerleader, the girl who’d give you her left arm if you asked. I’m the useless one. I’m the one she left behind.
I glance up at the clock. My older sister’s favorite teacher is still talking, but I’m supposed to be meeting the agency for our debriefing with Heather right now. Before I can interrupt Eastwick with an excuse to leave, though, the door bursts open and Delphine Fontenot walks in.
Sharp-faced, pale-skinned, and with white-blonde hair that falls to her mid-back in the kind of ringlets you might expect to find on a porcelain doll, Delphine Fontenot dominates almost every room she enters. She’s the captain of the cheerleading team, the president of our National Honor Society chapter, and the resident mean girl of Hillwood High. I don’t know what she’s here for, but she couldn’t have come at a better time. She comes to a stop beside me, entitlement practically radiating out of her high cheekbones, and I don’t hesitate to take advantage of the clear distraction her presence creates.
“Are we done here?” I interrupt Eastwick, finished playing nice. “Because I actually have things to do, so…”
My chemistry teacher frowns. “Yes,” she says, her gaze flicking to Delphine warningly. She probably doesn’t want her to ask for extra credit or whatever the hell she’s here for in front of me, but I couldn’t care less. “We’re done here. For now.”
I barely suppress an eye roll as I collect my phone from the front bin next to Delphine and leave Eastwick’s classroom, letting her door bang behind me. So much for her concern.
“Where have you been?” Sammy demands when I stop in front of Mr. Cooper’s physics classroom a few minutes later. She’s wearing an oversize pink raincoat with knee-high yellow go-go boots; Imani, by contrast, is dressed in a faded Wicked shirt, a black-and-white flannel, and a pair of cuffed black jeans. For someone whose life revolves around designing outrageous theater clothes, it’s ironic Imani’s so casual about their own. It makes sense, though. They’d much rather be backstage collecting gossip and fixing wardrobe malfunctions than parading around in the spotlight—a factor that will eventually win them a Tony for Best Costume Design in a Musical, and currently makes them a vital asset to the agency.
I grimace. “Eastwick kept me after class.”
“Again? God, you’d think that woman would let you catch a break.”
“Well, we’re glad you’re here now.” Imani appraises me and hands me a brand-new flash drive. “Have you decided how you’re going to break the news?”
Last night, the three of us decided I should be the one to tell Heather what we found out about Nathan. The depth of our information regarding her stupid cheating boyfriend is limited, especially since a Bellevue Estates security guard noticed us before we could get the identity of Nathan’s mystery girl and the gated community’s online registry is firewalled to perfection, but we have the photos. And while we don’t know the people who live at 343 La Belle Lane, Heather might.
“Yeah,” I tell Imani, forcing myself to believe it.
“Good,” they reply, glancing down the hallway. “Because here she comes.”
I turn my head as Heather Nasato walks toward us—slim, tall, dark-haired, and dressed to the nines in Hillwood High’s signature green-and-gold cheerleading uniform. She’s clutching a glittery diary to her chest, and confidence—the real kind—rolls out from her in waves.
Our school’s current golden girl, I think as she comes to a stop in front of us. The mayor’s daughter. My ex-girlfriend.
“Hey,” Heather says. She doesn’t look so golden up close.
Something tugs at my chest as I look at her, an opening floodgate of memories that somehow feel both real and half-imagined: sharing slushies on the bleachers at cheer practice. Pretending it was nothing when her leg brushed mine. Asking for her Instagram under the guise of comparing homework answers and then texting constantly, sending song recommendations and long vent-rants and stupid memes about AP Environmental Science long into the night. Making her a playlist. Having her make me one back.
“Um, hi,” Sammy says, her large brown eyes darting to me. Willing me to stop staring. But I can’t. Now that there’s less space between us, it’s easy to see that the girl in front of me isn’t the one I remember. She’s not the one I used to kiss for hours, the one who called me Butterfly, the one I once cared so much about. And even though she hasn’t been for a while, I’ve never seen her look like this: dark eyes bloodshot, sleek black hair snaking out of her high ponytail in strands, pleated skirt wrinkled and dirty. She looks over her shoulder for a half second before turning back to me, and my thoughts from last night come back in a haunted whisper: She’s a paranoid mess.
Heather smiles, but the motion is tired. “Want a picture?”
I shake my head and hold out the flash drive. “Here.”
She doesn’t move to take it. Instead, she readjusts her grip on her purple diary and glances around the hallway like she’s looking for someone. “Just tell me,” she says. “Tell me what you found.”
I bite my lip as more students rush down the halls, chatting and laughing with one another on their way to our thirty-minute club meetings between first and second period. This is it. The moment of truth.
“It’s Nathan,” I say softly, forcing myself to meet my ex-girlfriend’s eyes. “He’s cheating on you, Heaths.”
I don’t know what I expected from Heather—denial, numb shock, tears maybe—but her face doesn’t change. She just keeps standing there, hugging her glittery notebook to her chest, looking tired. “Is that all?”
My friends nod, and Heather mirrors them. “Okay. Thanks.” She takes the flash drive and turns on her heel, her shiny black ponytail swinging as she drifts to where Delphine Fontenot and Arden Blake—wearing the exact same cheer uniforms—are waiting. The two slide apart to make room for her, Heather slotting perfectly into place beside them both, and then they turn around together. The notorious cheerleader trifecta, my ex-girlfriend floating in the middle like a phantom. An enigma.
“Huh,” Imani says, watching her leave. “That was… interesting.”
Sammy shrugs. “Maybe she already knew? She must have suspected something. There’s no reason she would hire us otherwise.”
“Who knows?” I tell the agency lightly as the three of us walk into Mr. Cooper’s classroom, trying to mask the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Either way, it’s out of our hands now. We’ve done our jobs.”
Except this time, I can’t fully force myself to accept the words as I say them.
“Right. So, what’s next?” Sammy asks with a grin as we slide into our usual desks. Although Mr. Cooper is a Very Serious Physics Teacher, he’s also a massive nerd who’s barely out of college. He runs the Media Appreciation Club, which basically means he plays anime for thirty minutes every day while occasionally mediating arguments between FIRST Robotics nerds avoiding their fundraising duties, and he doesn’t mind if we text—or in our case, furtively whisper—throughout episodes. It’s the ideal club to be a part of if you also happen to run an underground detective agency. Or if, like Sammy, you happen to fall in love with every anime girl who’s come on screen thus far.
“We’re going to the game tonight,” I remind her, taking my honey-brown hair out of its signature bun so I can put it back up tighter. “Luz Lorres-Torres is late on her payment from last month, and I don’t think we’re ever going to see the money she owes us unless we corner her in person.”
I’ve been eyeing a forensics kit for months now. It would be the perfect upgrade to our agency gear—which currently consists of a couple of disguises Imani designed to bolster their fashion school portfolio, my Nikon, and a pocketknife I got from my mom on my twelfth birthday—so it would be great if our paying customers could actually start, you know, paying.
Mr. Cooper hits PLAY on the latest episode just as the last few stragglers file in, and then the three of us lapse into silence. Sammy focuses intently on the show, Imani flips their sketchbook to a new design for Grease, and I wait until the OP before I pull out my phone and start scrolling through the posts on Reddit’s r/WithoutATrace.
A pang shoots through me each time I read a new title:
Nala Riós, 23, Missing Since 10/11.
46yo 6′3″ Steven Andrews, last seen Tuesday in West Point, Virginia.
On September 7th, my dear friend Lara P. Hannigan disappeared. I am asking…
As I keep scrolling, though, the pangs turn into an all-too-familiar aching hurt. Because there’s nothing here about Stella.
There’s nothing new about my sister.
I put down my phone, unable to look through the subreddit any longer. I’m not sure why I expected to find anything—Stella went missing over a year ago. But still, there’s a part of me that holds out hope. I know it well; it’s the part of me that started the agency after her case went cold in early January. The part of me that believes in justice. The part of me that wants, more than anything, for the sister who raised me to be found.
It’s funny: After word spread about how invested I was in Stella’s case—after I made myself notorious by getting detained for looking into my sister’s disappearance last December—Luz Lorres-Torres unofficially kickstarted the agency when she cornered me in Media Appreciation Club to ask if I could identify a catfisher who was using her photos on dating apps within thirty miles of Hillwood. I wouldn’t have agreed to do it if the quiet short girl who always wrote code at the back of the classroom hadn’t volunteered to help me, or if she hadn’t commissioned her friend to design us outfits for a sting operation that would have put MTV’s Catfish to shame. But the three of us did it. We finished that first job. And things have just taken off from there; now Luz is one of our most frequent clients, and Imani and Sammy have become my best friends.
“Anything new?” Imani asks, glancing up from their sketch.
Except even with all the investigating we do, I still have no idea what happened to my sister on the night. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...