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Pepper's Rules for Secret Sleuthing

Nancy Drew meets Harriet the Spy in this action-packed and heartfelt debut middle grade following an overzealous amateur sleuth as she investigates a shocking family secret—and unravels the mystery of her developing feelings for girls.

Rule One: Your loyalty is to the case.

Amateur detective Pepper Blouse has always held true to this rule, even if it meant pushing people away. But when the results of Pepper’s latest case cost her any hope of the girl she likes returning her feelings, she decides that maybe she should lay low for a while.

That is, until her Great Aunt Florence passes away under mysterious circumstances. And even though her dad insists there’s nothing to investigate, Pepper can’t just ignore rule fourteen: Trust your gut.

But there’s nothing in the rulebook that could’ve prepared her for the family secrets her investigation uncovers.

Maybe it’s time to stop playing by the rules.

Rule One: Your loyalty is to the case. Those who are loyal to you will come around.

RULE ONE Your loyalty is to the case. Those who are loyal to you will come around.
Dad and I stand in front of the biggest house I’ve seen in my life. It looks like a row of two-story houses were smooshed together, then decorated with thick Greek pillars and pearl-white shutters. The driveway alone is so large, we had to drive around an enormous patch of frog-green grass that circles a glowing fountain with a perpetually spitting dolphin in its center just to park by the front door.

I crane my neck to take it all in, eyes wide. “It looks like a giant, haunted mansion. Perfect for some summertime sleuthing.”

Dad gives one of my curls a playful tug. He smiles, tired but warm, and pinches my cheek between his thumb and forefinger. “Pepper, please. We talked about this.”

I glance up at the mansion, enormous and brimming with potential. Dad’s still waiting for the doctor to determine the cause of Great-Aunt Florence’s sudden death, and my sleuth senses haven’t stopped tingling since Aunt Wendy—Dad’s recently divorced, semi-estranged sister—called with the news.

Especially after Dad gave me a lecture on the way over about how money adds pressure on people, even families. It seemed like a strange thing to mention—as though some subconscious part of him felt wary of the situation, even if he wrote it off as stress over attorneys and the will.

Now, seeing the bags under Dad’s eyes, I deflate. My arms uncross and I let him grasp my hand in his large one. His wedding ring is cool against my skin.

“I understand,” I say. “But only because you told me to.”

He grins, so wide his cheeks lift. “That’s not the colloquial definition of the word understand, but I’ll take it.”

I want to ask what colloquial means, but answering it myself will give me the chance to do small-time sleuthing in Great-Aunt Florence’s library. Houses this big always have a library.

I tighten the straps of my favorite polka-dot backpack over my shoulders. As Dad reaches for the doorbell, the front door swings open, as though someone had been watching us from a window.

“Look who decided to show up!” Aunt Wendy stands with one hand on the doorknob and the other on her hip, dressed in a knee-length wrap dress and wearing the kind of smile that looks like invisible strings are holding up the sides of her mouth. “I was just about to send out a search party.”

“Very funny,” Dad says, as though the words could somehow conjure a playful laugh (they don’t). “We pulled off at a rest stop on the way here, but I didn’t think we were that late.”

Aunt Wendy raises one of her penciled-in eyebrows. “Your cold dinner says otherwise. So just ditch those suitcases here and go eat.”

Studying Aunt Wendy is like watching a caricature spring to life. Her thin smile and high voice match how I envisioned her whenever she called Dad. I would eavesdrop—like any good sleuth—as she listed off what she wanted him to get her family for Christmas, or offered minutes of unsolicited advice when Dad uttered phrases as simple as “Work was tiring today.”

But he always indulged her orders and rants, just as he does now. He leaves the suitcases by a giant grandfather clock (classic mansion décor), then reaches to hug his sister. I wonder if, even on those phone calls, he knew she was headed for a divorce. Maybe he decided to watch what he said around her, like he told me to in the car. Or maybe this was how his relationship with his older sister has always been, since back when they shared childhood summers here, in this mansion.

Aunt Wendy turns to me next. “And Pepper.” She extends her arms and I lean in for a hug. Instead, she pinches a handful of my curls between her fingers. “Oh my gosh, did my birthday gift not reach you?” she asks, a mortified edge to her voice. “I sent a flat iron that would’ve taken care of this.”

I tighten my grasp on my backpack straps to resist the urge to swat her hand away. As if I’d want to get rid of the orange curls that bounce like a giant, frizzy halo around my head, the way Mom’s did. After all, my fiery hair is the reason my parents named me Pepper.

Aunt Wendy gives my backpack the same once-over she did my hair. “Why don’t you take off your bag, get comfortable? We’re going to sit down for dinner.”

“I like to keep it on.” It’s stuffed with my detective supplies, like my flashlight, binoculars, and magnifying glass.

Dad lets out a soft chuckle. “It’s true. She doesn’t go anywhere without it.”

Footsteps approach from the next room over. I turn to see a boy my age standing in the dining room. His hair is like Aunt Wendy’s: blond and so flat it looks glued to his head. He has a small, upturned nose and beady blue eyes. I immediately recognize him from a picture on our fridge.

“Come in, Andrew,” Aunt Wendy says. “Meet your cousin.”

I figured he was scowling in that photo because it was taken at school. I hate picture day. They always ask me to say rooster, and just as I get to the oo, they snap the photo so I look like a shocked emoji. But apparently that’s just Andrew’s face, because he’s wearing the same look now as he glares at me from the next room over.

“Andrew can show you to the dinner table,” she says. Then, wiggling her fingers, “After you hand me your phones.” She gives Dad a tight but familiar smile. “My no-phones-at-the-table policy still stands.”

Dad digs in his pocket, rolling his eyes but obliging. “It’s not like I’d get much use out of it anyway. Aunt Florence never had Wi-Fi or cable, did she? I don’t know why I bothered lugging my work laptop all the way here. She was never one for technology. Kind of like you.”

She shrugs her thin shoulders. “I like to live in the moment.”

He slaps his cell into her hand. “Maybe if you weren’t so anti-technology we wouldn’t have to wait for family deaths in order to see each other.”

I’ve seen Dad Skype old friends and former coworkers before, but we only talk to Aunt Wendy over the phone. His tone is light and playful now, but there’s a tinge of hurt in his eyes. Aunt Wendy must notice, because her resting-scowl-face wavers for an instant, though she doesn’t return his phone.

Dad seems used to Aunt Wendy’s bossiness, but I don’t want to give up our phones—especially not when Dad’s waiting for an important call from the doctor. I make a rebellious show of checking my notifications (nothing but an update on today’s screen-time usage) before relinquishing my phone.

It’s not that I have anyone to text; my classmates from West Higgins are still a bit bitter after I solved my last case. I should have never set out to prove Sophie was gossiping about Ashley with her new best friend, Vanessa. I couldn’t help but hope, though, that Ashley might choose me as Sophie’s replacement. And maybe I did it to help prove the theory in my bones, about the new part of me that had begun to emerge at the end of sixth grade.

That was the part that wrote Ashley’s name in the bathroom stall next to all the boys’ names and hearts. The part I hadn’t asked Dad about yet, but kept sort-of-not-really meaning to. The part that prayed for a text and, at the same time, hoped it never came. Especially when Aunt Wendy had my phone.

Dad steps through the entryway, head craned up toward the high ceilings. “Exactly as I remembered it.” He adjusts his glasses on the bridge of his nose and grins at Aunt Wendy. “You used to love this place when we were kids. I remember you exploring every nook of this old house, daydreaming about travel and adventures.”

Looking at my aunt, dress perfectly ironed and each blond hair smoothed into place, I can’t imagine her ever being a traveler or adventurer. That sounds more like Mom than Aunt Wendy.

Dad’s smile and tone soften as he says, “You were always talking about how you wanted to be just like Aunt Florence when we grew up.” His eyes flicker with realization. “And I guess you succeeded, huh? You’ll have to show me those photos from your most recent stay in Europe, like you promised on the phone.”

Aunt Wendy releases an exasperated laugh. Not the look I’d expect from a world traveler when asked about her adventures. “Just like Aunt Florence? As in, marry rich to afford those adventures and travel?” She waves her empty ring finger. “I tried. Look how that turned out.”

Dad bites his lower lip as though he could swallow down his misspoken words.

“You go enjoy dinner,” she says, our phones stacked in her free hand. “I have to finish setting up the guest beds for you.”

Andrew’s scowl falters and his eyes widen. “You’re not eating with us, Mom?”

He shoots a sideways glance my way, as though silently telling her, Don’t leave me alone with these people. I’d be more offended if I didn’t find it so strange. Why would Aunt Wendy make a big deal about our phone-free family dinner if she didn’t plan on joining it? Shouldn’t she have set up the guest beds before we arrived?

Dad hesitates in the dining room entryway. “Wen, you don’t have to—”

“I want to,” she insists, already at the bottom of the stairway. “Now go eat, before the food gets any colder.”

I stand in the hall, watching as Aunt Wendy heads up the carpeted stairs. Dad gives the room one last wistful glance before taking my arm and guiding me after Andrew into the dining room.

I practically inhale my plate of cold chicken and green beans, eager to get my phone back. I’m pretty used to speed-eating after sitting alone in the cafeteria the last two weeks of the school year. There were days I could barely eat, hearing Ashley and the other girls laughing a few tables over and feeling curious stares burning into my lonely back. But I kept Mom’s Detective Rulebook—her handwritten list of tips for great detective work—placed beside my lunch tray and pretended she was there, encouraging me to go after the truth at all costs.

After all, rule number one reads: Your loyalty is to the case. Those who are loyal to you will come around.

Aunt Wendy reenters, this time through another door leading into what looks like the library I knew the mansion had. Once my plate is empty, I plop my fork down with a proud clang. “Can I have my phone back now?”

She passes my phone over the floral tablecloth and I snatch it eagerly. “I can’t promise you’ll have service out here, though. It’s spotty at best.”

When I turn my phone on, I have a shocking zero bars. I was sure I had at least some service when I gave her my phone.

Aunt Wendy sits beside Andrew and pats his smooth, blond hair. “Andrew’s only a grade ahead of you, so I’m sure you’ll have plenty to bond over this summer.”

Andrew scoffs. Actually, audibly scoffs.

Dad yawns. “I’m pretty wiped from the drive. Do you mind if Pepper and I turn in early?”

Aunt Wendy rolls her eyes and laughs softly. “Always in bed before eight. At least some things haven’t changed since we came here as kids.”

As we rise and head toward the main stairs, Andrew dashes off as if he’d been perched on the edge of his seat, ready to escape socializing from the second we sat down.

I try to imagine Dad and Aunt Wendy my age, playing together in this giant, wonderfully creepy house. The holiday cards she sent us listed return addresses from all over the globe, as far away from our apartment in Connecticut as can be. Other than a few phone calls a year, my dad didn’t seem to spend much time with Aunt Wendy. It’s tough to picture them spending an entire summer together with a great-aunt I never knew.

I make a mental note to ask Dad more about his sister later. If I can’t explore the house’s other mysteries, I might as well decode what that relationship must have been like.

Aunt Wendy ushers us up the main staircase to the second floor. I take my time on each step, pressing my weight down to check for squeaks that could suggest at secret, removable floorboards. But when Dad glances back and shoots me a glare, I remember my promise to him in the car. I hurry to meet them at the top of the stairs.

Aunt Wendy leads me down a narrow hall, past a series of closed doors and scenery paintings. “This is your room,” she says, gesturing into a small bedroom with a wooden bed frame and quilted bedspread. “I’m sure you’ll find everything you need.”

While she hovers in the doorway, Dad leans down to plant a big kiss on my forehead. “I’ll be right down the hall if you need me.”

I wrap my arms around his neck, wishing for a second that I didn’t have to sleep alone in this new place. But, closing my eyes and conjuring the memory of my mom, my courage reignites.

Dad releases me and heads back into the hall. Aunt Wendy makes a show of closing the door securely behind her, trapping me in the guest room.

I fall onto the quilt. Its prickly fabric scratches my skin, and I jolt back up to rub my arms. For a moment I take in my surroundings—the plain wooden dresser and chipped surface of the nightstand—before pulling out my phone.

Still no bars. It’s almost as if Aunt Wendy tampered with my service. There’s no reason she would do that, though, and a good detective wouldn’t let paranoia cloud her judgment. But Dad did mention she was anti-technology. Perhaps she’s so eager to reconnect with Dad that she sabotaged our phones.

I go to my gallery instead, clicking on a photo of my mom. It’s a little blurry since it’s a snapshot I took of a framed photo that rests on Dad’s desk back at home. She’s in uniform, posing with me and an award for excellence she earned after solving a string of local robberies. I’m smaller, but my hair is just as big, our two red heads taking up half the image.

None of Mom’s coworkers believed her when she had a hunch that the robberies were staged by a collection of business owners, working together on their block to cash in on their individual insurance payouts. But she followed her hunch and pursued the lead anyway—despite everyone’s objections—and proved she was right by solving the case and winning an award.

When Mom was getting ready for the awards ceremony—fluffing up her hair in the mirror rather than brushing it down—she told me that being the only female cop in her district meant it was harder to take risks, but also more important. She had to prove herself in ways the boys didn’t have to. Her colleagues wanted her to prove herself by following their rules. But—running her hands over my poof of hair and beaming that big, toothy smile of hers—she told me that she needed to prove herself by taking that risk, following her lead, and showing that she could solve any mystery, no matter how big. Which, I’m guessing, is why she wrote rule fourteen: Trust your gut.

If Mom were here, she’d probably be able to fix my phone and figure out how I lost service in the first place. Then I could ask her about the other little mystery that was emerging inside me.

It’s not that I didn’t trust Dad. But I was scared if I told him, he’d take it too seriously. I wasn’t sure enough to say I only wanted to draw hearts beside names like Ashley’s. After all, I’d cried for a day when Tyler Waters stood me up at the Homecoming dance, and that heartbreak still felt real—just as real as the last weeks of school when Ashley avoided eye contact.

I was scared Dad would obsess over it, and I didn’t even know what it was. But if Mom were here, she’d treat it like a case, weighing the possibilities and exploring the answers along with me. And if we discovered Ashley was a red herring, she would let it go and let me move on without feeling changed in her eyes.

My phone screen fades to black. Maybe I can’t solve that mystery right now, but I might be able to figure out what happened to my phone. Dad told me to put my sleuthing on pause for the summer, but the Detective Rulebook says to dig deeper each time someone tells you to stop looking. To trust your hunch, even when everyone else says you’re wrong.

So I follow my hunch, like Mom would want me to. With my backpack strapped on, I slip through the door and peer down the hallway.

Empty: check.

Next I slither down with my back to the wall and peek along the stairs. All clear, but I take this slower. I’ve already checked that the stairs aren’t creaky, so I make it down silently, but still have to be careful not to be spotted the closer I get to the first floor. I crouch low to the steps, peering through the railing.

As I reach the bottom steps, I hear voices. I should be afraid, but I’m also excited; I need to determine Aunt Wendy’s location if I intend to spy on her and find out the truth about our phones. I duck behind the grandfather clock, forehead pressed to the cool, wooden surface to keep myself (and my hair) from view as she approaches from down the hall.

“… thought I told you to go to sleep,” she’s saying. “I have some work to get done, and you need your rest. Alanna will be by at nine tomorrow morning.”

“I know, I know,” Andrew whines. I peer around the clock and see them at the end of the hall, Aunt Wendy ushering him forward like she did Dad and me. Like she’s in a rush to get somewhere. “I don’t get why I need tutoring this summer. My grades are as good as they were last year.”

“Wolestone Prep demands better than good,” she says. “And for excellent grades, you need excellent rest.”

Wolestone Prep. I hadn’t heard of it, but it sounded expensive. I thought back to what Dad said about money, and how it can add pressure to families.

Andrew’s pouty expression doesn’t change, so Aunt Wendy leans down and plants a kiss on the top of his blond mop of hair. Her voice lowers, and I can barely make it out over the creaking of old floorboards beneath their feet.

“Only the best for you, okay?” she murmurs against his hair. “I know a lot has changed, but that won’t. I promise.” She straightens up and gives him a nudge toward the end of the hall. “But for that, I’m going to need you to get to bed.”

Andrew huffs and heads up the stairs. I duck in the shadow of the clock and pray he doesn’t spot me.

Aunt Wendy lets out a sigh of relief and heads back down the hall. She’s staying on the first floor, which is a huge plus for me; that means I can spy from outside a window.

I wait for the distant slam of Andrew’s bedroom door before I dash through the foyer and out the front entrance. I’m greeted by the hum of crickets and the rush of the fountain’s stream.

Pressing one hand against the side of the building, I follow the wall around to the back of the house. There isn’t much room to hide; the grass is chopped half an inch to the dirt, and the bushes are trimmed to plump ovals. Great-Aunt Florence must have been passionate about landscaping, and it’s working against me. In order to remain hidden, I have to hop from shadow to shadow, stretching my freckled legs as far as they will go.

Toward the center of the house, I spot a stream of light escaping onto the lawn. I slow my pace, inching forward. It’s a wide bay window with thick curtains drawn back just enough for me to get a look inside.

I peer over the sill to catch a quick glimpse through the open window and into the room. Aunt Wendy’s in a small office by a mahogany desk, her back to me. She drums her fingers on the wooden surface—a sure sign of anxiety—and when she turns a bit to the side, I see she’s on a cell phone rather than the old landline on Great-Aunt Florence’s desk. Her voice is lower and more brusque than usual.

I duck back into the bush, my heartbeat thumping in my ears. Why would she have service when we didn’t, unless she really had tampered with our cells?

“I’ve taken care of it, okay?” she says, voice low and tense. “I can’t have this conversation right now. We’ll talk about it another time.”

Another tip I learned from Mom: Always look for the omen in the omitted. Words like it sound empty, but usually refer to the meat of the issue.

“I have a delivery I need to make tonight,” Aunt Wendy says, dismissive. “Meet me tomorrow. Alone.”

After a beat of silence I poke my head back up to the sill. I watch Aunt Wendy shove the phone into her purse before popping open the lid to a small, white box. Her body blocks its contents from view as she reaches inside. Her arm shifts, placing the lid back down. Her free hand clutches a knife covered in bloodred splotches.

I clasp a hand over my mouth to keep from gasping. I was expecting something, but not this.

This. Another placeholder for an omitted word. What is this? As Aunt Wendy grabs a wad of tissues from a box on the desk and wipes red stains from the blade, it all becomes clear. The lack of service, the expensive prep school, the it she mentioned on the phone…

On our way to the mansion, Dad had told me to put my sleuthing on pause. He’d said there was enough tension in the family since Great-Aunt Florence’s death, and spying on my relatives would only make it worse.

Dad was right when he said money can tear families apart. And Aunt Wendy had torn our family apart herself and had the murder weapon right in her hands.

Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women WritersMarathon Literary ReviewThe Stonecoast Review, and more. She is a book reviewer at The Literary Review and a reader for CLMP’s Firecracker Awards. She is an academic advisor at Columbia University. Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing is her debut novel. Find out more at BrianaRoseMcDonald.com.

"Exciting and fast-paced... A fun debut that is notable for its thematic depth and queer characters."

– Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2020

“Irrepressible and lovable, Pepper joins the ranks of the best kid sleuths—and shows that sometimes the heart is the toughest mystery.”

– Eliot Schrefer, author of National Book Award Finalist Endangered

“McDonald has crafted a debut chock full of heart. Pepper isn't just a queer Nancy Drew—she's a relatable and lovable character all her own.”

– Nicole Melleby, author of Hurricane Season

“A modern take on a classic genre. Pepper is a hero kids will root for.” 

– Eric Bell, author of Alan Cole is Not a Coward

“This Nancy-Drew-style sleuthing tale with a modern sensibility will delight middle grade readers craving suspense, mystery and puzzles. A page-turner packed with wisdom and heart.”

– Barbara Dee, author of Star-Crossed

"A great modern... mystery classic."

– School Library Journal, September 1, 2020