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Authors: Elle Cosimano

Nearly Found

BOOK: Nearly Found
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KATHY DAWSON BOOKS

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Copyright © 2015 by Elle Cosimano

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cosimano, Elle, author.

Nearly found / Elle Cosimano.

pages cm

Summary: High school senior and science whiz Nearly Boswell, called Leigh, is thrilled when she gets an internship in a forensic science lab, since it is a step toward college and a way out of the trailer park—but soon she finds herself the target of a serial killer, one who seems to know a lot about the residents of Sunny View Trailer Park as well as her absent father’s secrets.

ISBN 978-0-698-18942-3

1. Serial murderers—Juvenile fiction. 2. Murder—Juvenile fiction. 3. Criminal investigation—Juvenile fiction. 4. Crime laboratories—Juvenile fiction. 5. Trailer camps—Juvenile fiction. 6. High schools—Juvenile fiction. 7. Families—Juvenile fiction. [1. Serial murderers—Fiction. 2. Criminal investigation—Fiction. 3. Crime laboratories—Fiction. 4. Trailer camps—Fiction. 5. Internship programs—Fiction. 6. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title.

PZ7.C8189Nd 2015 [Fic]—dc23 2014040313

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Version_1

For my parents,
who helped me find myself

Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Author

“W
HEREVER HE STEPS
, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

—Dr. Edmond Locard

PROLOGUE

TJ W
ILES SAT BEHIND ME
in chemistry class for nine months before I knew he was a killer. If I’d ever bothered to pay attention, I might have known sooner. I could have sensed the bitterness he felt for my father, my family, the rage boiling inside him. Maybe I would have felt what he was becoming, in time to save the people he killed.

But my occasional backward glance wasn’t enough to see him for what he was.

I hadn’t been able to see my father truly either. Once upon a time, he’d been the man who took me to Belle Green Park to play, who held me in his lap and did stupid magic tricks just to make me laugh.

But David Boswell was a thief. A liar and a conman who used his ability to taste emotion—by touching a person’s skin—to prey on his own friends, siphoning their assets to finance his illegal activities, using their clean money to launder his own. Because he could always tell what they were feeling, he was uncannily disarming, easily able to gain their confidence and assuage their fears. He played TJ Wiles’s father like a card, then tossed him aside when the stakes got too high, before disappearing altogether five years ago.

TJ had lived in Belle Green once, in a huge brick house with a manicured lawn as green as the golf course it nestled up to. But after TJ’s father went to prison, TJ’s mother committed suicide and TJ was left to live with his uncle here in Sunny View trailer park. A football scholarship had become his only hope for getting out—the same way the chemistry scholarship had become mine. He’d played hard, like his entire future depended on it, until the day he blew out his knee, and his entire future went with it.

My father hadn’t just hurt TJ and his family. He’d ripped TJ apart, leaving a dark hole inside TJ’s chest where his heart used to be. A space TJ imagined he could only fill by taking from me everything he’d lost. Two months ago, TJ testified that his hatred of my family drove him to kill four of my classmates in an attempt to frame me and exact some kind of twisted retribution against my father. TJ’s victims—kids I’d been tutoring, kids I’d cared about—were gone and they were never coming back. Posie, Teddy, Marcia, and Kylie. They’d still be alive if it hadn’t been for what my father did.

TJ hadn’t succeeded in destroying my life like he’d planned. But he had taken my chance at a scholarship, my two best friends, and my ability to trust people without imagining the worst in them.

I’d spent years looking for messages from my father, scanning newspapers, mapping out the places I thought he might have been since he disappeared. I had so many questions—the kind my mother couldn’t answer because she had no idea what my father and I were capable of—that conman David Boswell and his daughter, Nearly, were both capable of tasting other people’s emotions just by touching their skin. I’d believed that if I found my father, I’d have all the answers and my world would make sense.

But the one person I had more in common with than anyone on the planet had caused so much damage that four people were dead.

Knowing who my father was, how could I keep searching for him? What if the only place left to look for him was somewhere in myself?

I pulled out the red thumbtacks from the map on the wall of my bedroom. One for every city where I suspected my father had been—Jersey City, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I tried not to wonder how many other lives my father had ruined along the way.

The pins prickled the inside of my fist. I dropped them into the wastebasket, massaging the marks they left in my skin and watching them fade. A scientist named Locard came up with the idea that we leave trace evidence of ourselves in every encounter, and that we in turn take something from everyone we touch, even if we can’t see it.

And those traces of my father—the pain he’d left behind in the people he’d stolen from, the genes I carried that made me just like him—terrified me.

1

G
RAVEL CRUN
CHED IN FRONT
of my trailer and the muted bass of a stereo blew in through the open windows. I licked peanut butter from my fingers and pulled back the curtain. The fabric smelled like smoke, even though my mom had quit smoking two months ago.

Outside, heat waves radiated from the hood of the old black Mercedes that blocked my front porch. Reece Whelan sat in the driver’s seat, wearing aviator sunglasses, his lips moving to lyrics I couldn’t make out.

I threw open the front door as he eased out of the car.

“Where’s your bike?” I asked, letting the screen door slam behind me.

He leaned back, his arms thrown wide to showcase the Benz. “What, don’t you like it?”

I bit my lip, taking in the way his T-shirt stretched across the broad planes of his chest. “Oh, I love it. But doesn’t it belong to
Detective
Petrenko?”

Reece took the front porch steps two at a time and pulled me into him, looking smug. I still hadn’t quite gotten used to his tightly shorn hair, the soft prickly way it felt against my fingers when I ran my hands through it. His shirt smelled like Armor All and car leather. Different from the worn leather jacket I loved to bury my face in on the back of his bike. But under all that was the familiar citrus and sandalwood smell of his cologne and I drank him in.

He dangled the keys between us. “He probably won’t miss it. Want to take it for a spin? It has air-conditioning,” Reece teased.

He leaned in to kiss me but I held him at arm’s length. “Wait. You
stole
Alex Petrenko’s car?”

He arched a pierced brow. “I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it. I stopped over at Gena’s place to check in. Petrenko was there. They were . . . otherwise occupied.” Reece let his eyes brush over me in a top-down way that still managed to make my knees watery, even when I wanted to strangle him.

I fought back a smile. “Okay. I get it. And?”

“And his keys were on the kitchen counter. I knocked on the bedroom door, and shouted ‘Can I borrow your car?’ He screamed something that sounded like
Yes, yes. Hell, yes.
Then Gena hollered something about getting the hell out of their house. So I did. And here I am.” He beamed, still waggling the keys. “With air-conditioning.”

The Benz dripped condensation from its underbelly onto the gravel. With every drop, I counted the number of ways we could get in trouble for this. Gena was an undercover narcotics officer tasked with supervising Reece, who was working as an informant in exchange for being let go after a drug bust last year. She was also engaged to Detective Alex Petrenko.

“Don’t look so freaked out,” Reece said. “Petrenko probably doesn’t care. The police department issued him a freaking Charger with his promotion last month. This thing’s just been parked on the street in front of Gena’s place collecting dust. In a couple months, it’ll be mine anyway. I only owe Alex a few more payments—”

“Wait, you’re buying Alex’s car?” I’d seen what he’d earned during the school year narcing for the Fairfax County Police Department. And I’d seen the checks he brought home all summer working in the kitchen at Nico’s Pizza. He barely made enough money at either job to cover rent on his crappy apartment in Huntington. I didn’t need AP Calculus to do the math. “How?”

He stepped toward me, his eyes fixed on mine, making me take a step back. “I told Nico’s I’d work part-time through the winter.” He took another step into me.

“What about school?” I asked, backing up against the door.

“It’s only a few nights a week. I’ll manage,” he said when there was no space left between us. “But I might need a few extra tutoring sessions to keep up.” He brushed peanut butter from my lip with his thumb, knowing full well that I could taste every sweet and wicked thing he was feeling through his skin. His intentions were decidedly more decadent than sharing sandwiches.

“What about your bike?”

“In a few weeks, it’ll be too cold to ride anyway.” His lips hovered close to mine. “Besides, the bike doesn’t have a backseat,” he whispered.

My mom cleared her throat loudly through the window screen.

“I’ll get the sandwiches.” I sighed, pushing him away.

“No sandwiches. We’re going to Gena’s for a barbeque.”

Reece followed me inside. My mother stood in the kitchen in her bathrobe, cradling a mug of coffee in her hands.

“Hi, Mona.” Reece handed her one of the PB&Js I’d made for us, and then he proceeded to scarf down the other. My mother raised a sleepy eyebrow at him. As much as she liked to lecture me about “taking things slow” and “being careful,” she adored him in her own distant, cautious way. She dipped the crust in her coffee and smiled to herself.

“I’ll get my books.” I snatched a corner of the sandwich from his hand.

“Leigh, it’s Labor Day! Also known as The Day Nobody Does Any Labor Because We’re All Stuffing Our Faces With Pie and Deviled Eggs.” Reece followed me down the hall, as did my mother’s watchful eye, so I left the door open.

“You are aware that school starts tomorrow and we still have two chapters of algebra to cover before your placement tests this week?” Reece had been suspended twice last semester because of me, and I was determined to get him caught up so he wasn’t stuck in remedial classes his senior year.

“No books,” Reece said in a low voice when we were alone in my bedroom. “I don’t plan on studying.” He made a clumsy grab for my waist and groaned when I reached for my backpack.

He wasn’t like anyone I had ever met. He walked into every room—into my life—with a reckless confidence. Like he had nothing to lose.

“Did you get your orientation packet?” I asked.

“Yes.” He plucked the backpack from my hands and dumped it on the floor.

“Can I see it?”

He pulled me in close and nuzzled my ear. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

“Deal.” I pushed him away and handed him the school letter off my nightstand.

He sighed and fished a folded envelope from the back pocket of his jeans. I sat on the edge of my bed and peeled it open. My heart sank at the return address on the envelope.

“You’re going to Spring Run? That’s all the way on the other end of the county.”

Reece shrugged. “It’s my safest option. Too many people know me here, between West River and North Hampton.”

I tried to picture the city bus route from Sunny View trailer park to his school, but gave up after the third transfer.

Reece was thin-lipped as he read my letter from West River. He eased down beside me. “Are you going to be okay? You know, going back there?”

I pasted on a convincing smile. “I’ll be fine.”

He cupped my face and traced a thumb over my cheek. His touch was bittersweet, a mix of compassion and concern. “Are you sure it’s not too soon? I could talk to Nicholson. Maybe he could find a way for you go to Spring Run with me.” As soon as the words left his mouth, I tasted how foolish they sounded to him.

“As much as I love the idea of being in the same school together, I live too far out of the way for you to drive me. And besides, you’ll be working. It’s not like we’d be able to hang out.”

“What if the nightmares start up? You just started sleeping again.” The dreams had plagued me all summer—images of TJ staring at me down the length of a barrel in the moment before he fired the gun, the dead faces of my friends, TJ’s voice telling me I hadn’t been smart enough to save them. The nightmares had only subsided after his conviction. After the news channels and papers had finally stopped showing his face.

“Have you looked at my class schedule? I’m not going to have any time to think about what happened last year, much less sleep. I’ll be fine.” I had to be. College applications would be due in December, which meant I only had a few months left to sharpen my cumulative grades and my test scores.

Reece studied my class schedule, as if committing it to memory: AP Government, Introduction to Spanish, AP Physics II, Computer Science, AP Calculus, and AP English Lit. His gaze lingered on my new locker assignment. It was close to the main office—too close for Reece to risk being caught visiting me on campus. “Guess you’ll have a pretty heavy load this semester.”

“You too.” He’d be juggling two jobs, between the pizzeria and narcing for the police. “I’m not worried,” I said, trying not to sound worried. “We’ll figure something out.”

Reece snatched his school schedule from my hands and tossed both of them over his shoulder. “Screw this. School doesn’t start until tomorrow. Right now, we’ve got more important things to do.”

“More important than school?” I teased. He pulled me in close and fell back against the mattress with a glance toward the door.

“So much better than school.” His rich, low voice tickled my ear. He peeled off my glasses and tossed them aside. Then he gently pulled the ponytail holder out of my hair which fell in disheveled brown waves over my shoulders.

“Aren’t we supposed to be going to Gena’s?”

“I can be quick,” he said, kissing a trail down my neck.

But I didn’t want what was left of our summer to be quick. I wanted it to linger. I wanted to savor it, like the lazy Saturday summer afternoons we’d spent curled up together on a picnic blanket under an old tree in Jones Point Park, Reece’s textbooks abandoned in the grass.

“We don’t have to go to Gena’s,” he said. “We could go to my place.”

“If my mom found out, I’d be grounded for the rest of the year,” I said, wriggling out from under him. I fished around the comforter for my glasses. It was our last day of summer with Gena too, and I didn’t want to let her down. “Besides, you have to return Alex’s car. Maybe he’ll be more forgiving over a burger.”

Reece flopped over on his back. “Fine, we’ll go to Gena’s.”

I pulled him to his feet. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him, reconsidering our options. He kicked the door shut with his heel. My mother cleared her throat again, and he smiled mischievously before wiping his lips and opening it.

“Later, Mona,” he said.

“Not
too
late.” She glanced up from the newspaper she’d been pretending to read, clearly noticing the absence of my backpack. Her sly expression said “Don’t do anything stupid,” in the same direct-and-yet-totally-indirect way the condoms had when she left them on my nightstand back in June.

My face felt hot when I kissed her good-bye. She tasted faintly amused. And maybe a little nostalgic.

Reece held the passenger door open. The interior of the old Benz had been vacuumed, and the dashboard shone. A “new car” air freshener dangled from the mirror.

I got in and thought about my neighbor Lonny Johnson and his obsession with his Lexus. How it projected an image of what he wanted to be—a rich, successful businessman rather than the neighborhood teenage drug dealer struggling to get out of Sunny View trailer park. Detective Petrenko used to sell drugs alongside Lonny when he was working undercover as a narc. He’d driven the Benz back then. Now Reece would have it. My eyes crossed toward Lonny’s trailer, but there was no sign of him or his car.

Reece drove to the end of my street and pulled in front of the Bui Mart.

“Why are we stopping?” I asked. A white Honda Civic was parked beside us. It belonged to my ex–best friend, Jeremy Fowler.

“I asked Gena what we should bring. She put us in charge of soda and chips.”

“There’s a 7-Eleven up the street.”

“We’re already here,” Reece said, unbuckling his seat belt and getting out.

I sunk lower in my seat. “I’ll wait in the car.”

Reece eased back in. I stared out the window at Jeremy’s Civic. Reece took my hand and gave it a squeeze, infusing me with a little shot of confidence.

“You can’t avoid them forever,” he said. I wished he were wrong. The two people I’d cared about most, besides Reece, treated me like I didn’t exist. Which sucked, because Anh Bui and I would probably end up lab partners, like we had every year. And since Jeremy and Anh were dating, seeing them together at school seemed inevitable.

I followed Reece into the store. The bells on the door announced our arrival and Anh looked up from the register. Her brother, Bao, the store manager, must have had the night off. Jeremy was perched behind the counter. He glanced at me over the rim of his glasses and, clearly finding me unworthy of his time, returned his attention to his magazine. Anh’s face floundered and settled on a non-committal half smile, like she wasn’t sure where her obligation to customer service began, given that our friendship had ended. I saved her the headache of figuring it out and headed for the walk-in cooler at the back of the store. It was probably warmer in there anyway.

I opened the heavy glass door and stepped inside, rubbing the chill from my arms. The walls were lined with shelves of beer and soda on one side, and big glass windows on the other that looked out into the store. I was grateful for the posters Bao had papered over the glass, so I wouldn’t have to feel Jeremy and Anh staring at me. I grabbed a two-liter of Coke and some Diet for Gena, while Reece hit the ATM machine and picked out some chips.

Anh rang up our total. “Nineteen dollars and eighty-three cents. Please,” she added quietly, like she didn’t want Jeremy to hear. Her eyes lifted to mine, then quickly away as she bagged my purchases. Reece dropped a twenty on the counter and Jeremy snapped the page of his magazine.

“Tough crowd,” Reece observed when we were back in the car. The entire summer had gone by and they still hadn’t forgiven me. Anh’s family was still angry that I hadn’t gone to the police when the murders began last spring, before she’d been drugged and abducted by TJ, and almost killed. And Jeremy was still angry about a lot of things, not the least of which that he’d spent the entire summer in outpatient rehab. It was hard to believe we were the same people who used to share twin packs of Ho Hos and sneak into each other’s houses when our parents weren’t home, just to spend time together. That we used to talk every day, about everything.

“I told you, nothing’s changed.” I dug around in the grocery bag for the salt and vinegar chips. My hand closed on something spongy. A Twinkie.

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