CHAPTER ONE I took a deep breath
before I pushed open the door of Slim's Diner. My best friend followed me in. The smell of frying burgers wafted through the restaurant and my stomach gurgled.
"Jessica, I don't know why you don't like this place," Eva said. "Everyone comes here."
"It's my brother's hangout," I replied. "At least, it was before he left for college. And besides, the jukebox would always play ‘The Warrior' every time I came near it." If there was one description that didn't apply to me, it was the title of that old song.
We both glanced in the corner where the jukebox was. It was just a regular old jukebox now. I didn't want to admit it, but I kind of missed the random selections it used to play.
"What's the story?" Eva asked. "What happened to it?"
I shrugged. "Who knows? This is Nightshade. Anything's possible."
"I heard that Daisy Giordano trashed it."
"What? Daisy would never do that," I said. As much as I envied my next-door neighbor, I wasn't going to spread rumors about her, even though Ryan Mendez, my first crush, was in love with her.
"I heard she beat up her best friend's dad on Grad Night," Eva continued. "And burned down the Black Opal."
"That's not true," I said. "I was there." The all-ages club had burned down on Grad Night, but it hadn't been Daisy's fault. Her best friend, Samantha Devereaux, happened to be my brother's girlfriend. Sam's dad, Professor Devereaux, had been arrested for the murder of Chief Mendez. Things were complicated here in our little town of Nightshade, California.
"Well, something strange happened," Eva said. "Maybe it was like Revenge of the Pod People,
or something. I can't believe I missed it and you won't even tell me what really happened."
I didn't want to talk about the strangeness of my brother's Grad Night. Or exactly how well my one selfdefense class had worked, enabling me to kick butt. Or the weird tattoo-like mark that had mysteriously appeared on my upper arm one day. It wasn't exactly a tattoo, since it actually moved sometimes, but I didn't know what else to call the swirling black ink.
I'd managed to hide it all summer, which meant no cute camis or tiny bikinis. I'd spent my days at the beach sweltering in a cover-up instead of showing off my bod like all the other girls.
There was only one other person I knew with a mark like this. I scanned the restaurant and spotted her sitting at the counter. Flo used to be my favorite waitress, but I'd been avoiding her since Grad Night, when, among other things, I noticed (a) a similar tattoo on her arm and (b) her fighting abilities.
Flo was awesome. She had almost as big a crush on Ryan Mendez as I did. That is, until Ryan started dating Daisy and I finally realized exactly how hopeless my crush truly was.
I was finally a Nightshade freshman and I'd let go of my little fantasy about my brother's best friend. Now I just wanted to find someone who would look at me the way Ryan looked at Daisy.
Eva was still talking about the Black Opal as we sat down at a table. "They're finally reopening the place," she said. "I think we should go check it out tonight."
"I thought the fire caused too much damage for them to ever reopen." I didn't mention the explosion that started the fire.
"The owner is reopening the club right here in Nightshade," Eva said. "Remember when that enormous big-box store at the edge of town closed down a few years ago? She's relocated the club there. They've been working on it all summer. One of Bethany's crushes worked on the construction. He says it's really cool-looking now."
"How would we get there?" I asked. "My parents are taking my little sisters to some kiddie play tonight."
"Bethany is going," Eva replied. "She has a thing for the lead singer of this band that's playing there tonight. Maybe she'll give us a ride."
I wasn't holding my breath. Eva's sister, Bethany, was a junior and didn't have time for freshmen.
Flo came over to take our order. Her T-shirt read unsupervised children will be given an espresso and a free kitten.
We decided to split a chicken Caesar salad.
"It'll be up in a few minutes," Flo said. She hesitated a second. "Jessica, I'd like to speak to you about something before you leave."
I suppressed a groan. "Sure."
"Are you trying out for the high school soccer team?" Eva asked.
I shrugged. "I survived summer conditioning," I said. "So I guess so."
Eva and I talked about soccer tryouts, but my mind was on something else. When Flo set our salad down, I jumped. I was pretty sure I knew what she wanted to talk to me about, but I just wanted to forget it ever happened and go back to being a normal girl.
The restaurant got busy and Flo was the only server there. Taking the opportunity to avoid her a little longer, I hurried Eva along, trying to get her to stop talking and eat. She finally finished her meal, and I handed her some money.
"Would you mind paying the bill? I need to use the restroom," I said.
While she was paying, I slipped outside.
Flo saw me leave, but was forced to take care of a customer waving an empty cup in the air. She gave me one last look as she went to refill his coffee.
Eva spotted me outside and came out. I started walking down Main Street at a brisk pace.
"What's your hurry? I didn't even get any dessert."
"No hurry," I replied. "Hey, look at that. Nightshade is getting a new store."
There was a sign in the window that read, in flowing script, The Look of Love coming
"The Look of Love?" Eva said. "What kind of store do you think it is?"
We pressed our faces to the window, but couldn't see anything.
"Take a flier," a boy said.
Eva whirled around to face the boy, who looked to be about our age. "What do you think you're doing, sneaking up on us like that?" she asked.
"What are you?" he taunted. "A scaredy-cat?"
He wasn't unattractive, but he looked at us like a buzzard eyeing particularly tasty roadkill. The boy wiped all expression from his face, but not before a gleam of anger showed.
"Take one," he repeated. "It's for our grand opening."
He stood there blocking our path, so I took a flier just to get him to leave.
Eva grabbed one and crumpled it into a ball before she threw it into her bag.
"Eva, he'll see you," I said.
"I don't care," she replied. "How dare he say I was scared. As if! I've seen The Shining five times and didn't even flinch."
I glanced back, and the boy was still watching us. I shivered and linked arms with Eva.
"I'm going back to give him a piece of my mind," Eva said. She was practically snorting fire.
"I thought you wanted to go to the Black Opal to- night," I reminded her. "Don't you need to go home and butter up Bethany?" I didn't really care one way or the other if we went, but it was better than Eva getting into a fight with a strange guy.
"You're right," she said. "I'd better hurry and catch her. I'll call you!"
We'd reached the bus stop, where she went one way and I went the other. Our houses were in the same neighborhood, so we always met at the bus stop.
The buttering up must have worked, because Eva called me a little while later. "Can you meet me at my house in fifteen minutes?" she asked. "Bethany said yes, but she'll leave without you if you're not on time."
There was no way I'd make it in time if I walked. I still had to get ready. I was wearing my old soccer shorts, footie socks, and P.E. T-shirt from sixth grade. "Mom, can you drop me off at Eva's?" I shouted.
Mom appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Jessica, what did I tell you about yelling?"
"Sorry," I said. "Can you drop me off at Eva's? Her sister is going to give us a ride to the Black Opal. If that's okay."
She glanced at her watch. "Yes, but you need to hurry. We have to leave soon for the play."
I ran upstairs to get changed. Sean and his girl- friend, Samantha, used to hang out at the Black Opal all the time when they were in high school, and she'd always dressed up. I didn't have a lot of clothes to choose from. Mom had promised to take me shopping for new school clothes, but she was always busy with the little ones.
I found my favorite jeans, paired them with a cute silvery silk top, and decided I'd put my makeup on at Eva's. I raced down the stairs as Mom and Dad and all my little sisters were piling into the van.
"You're giving me a ride to Eva's, remember?" I said.
"Of course," Mom said placidly. "You know it takes a long time to get everyone settled."
I sat next to Katie and put an arm around her. "Have fun tonight," I told her.
"I will," she said. "Sam is coming, too."
"Samantha is going to the play with you guys?" I asked. "You didn't tell me that, Mom."
"Would it have made a difference?" Mom replied. "Sam misses Sean."
My brother was attending college in Southern California, but his girlfriend had chosen to stay in town to go to UC Nightshade.
"No," I said. "But you could have mentioned it."
Even though Sean was gone, I couldn't seem to shake his girlfriend, no matter how hard I tried. Samantha Devereaux had been the It Girl of Nightshade High and that hadn't changed one iota just because she'd graduated. I would be starting my freshman year in her shadow.
My number one goal was to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.