Norah McClintock presents...

Robyn Hunter Mysteries

Out of the Cold

Robyn can’t believe she let Billy talk her into volunteering at a homeless shelter. And she doesn’t appreciate Ben, the cute guy who also volunteers at the shelter, predicting that she’s going to quit after her first day. Robyn’s determined to prove Ben wrong. But as she gets more involved with the centre, and digs into the mystery surrounding one of the homeless men who often visits there, she also finds herself in danger . . .

Scholastic Canada Ltd.
ISBN 978-0-545-99728-7 PBK
240 pages
Ages 12 and up
5 x 7 ¾”


Excerpt

Chapter One

My father's loft was as silent as a mortuary and as dark as the inside of a coffin - except for the glow from his study. I walked toward it.

The glow was coming from the screen of the computer that sat to the right of my father's desk. Staring out at me from the screen was a not-quite-right likeness of Ted Gold, the man my mother had been seeing for almost a year. I looked at the Ted-like picture on the screen and wondered what my father was up to. Knowing him, it was probably nothing my mother would approve of.

Somewhere in the enormous loft that my father calls home, something hit the floor with a bang.

I jumped.

My heart pounded as I called, "Dad?"

I poked my head out of his study just in time to see someone - not my father, but a woman I had never seen before - straighten up after picking up a heavy, hardcover book from the floor. She was wearing a bathrobe and had a towel wound around her head. She didn't look anywhere near as surprised to see me as I was to see her.

"You must be Robyn," she said, smiling. "Mac was hoping to be here when you arrived, but he called to say that he was running late." That was typical of my father. He has made a career out of being late for every conceivable type of occasion, from school concerts to wedding anniversary celebrations, which helps explain why he and my mother are no longer married. "He asked me to tell you he should be home by nine." She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. "Uh-oh. If I don't get going, I'm going to be late." She disappeared into what was supposed to be my room, but which I knew my father also used as a guest room. "Nice to meet you," she said as she closed the door.

Meet me? I still had no idea who she was. She hadn't even told me her name.

Okay, so a woman I had never seen before (an awfully young woman, if you ask me, considering that my father was firmly embedded in his forties) had apparently taken a shower, or maybe a bath, in my father's bathroom and was now getting dressed in my (part-time) bedroom. What was a girl - me - supposed to do in an awkward (for me, if not for her) situation like this?

I decided to bail.

I left my suitcase near the front door where I had dropped it and went downstairs to see if Nick was around.

I hadn't seen Nick in seven days - and before that, I hadn't seen him alone, just the two of us, in weeks. My mother claimed that she had nothing against Nick personally, but that didn't mean she considered him ideal boyfriend material for me. For one thing, Nick had had a few problems, some of them with the law. He also didn't have what my mother would consider the best family situation. Far from it. Both of his parents were dead. His stepfather and stepbrother were both in prison. Nick was supposed to be living with his aunt, but that hadn't worked out because Nick didn't get along with his aunt's new boyfriend. So for the last couple of months he'd been renting an apartment from my father. My mother had never been comfortable with that. She was much, much less comfortable after what had happened last month, before I went on a week-long school trip.

"You were almost killed," she'd said. "And it was all Nick's fault."

In fact, it wasn't all Nick's fault, but there was no point in arguing with my mother. And I hadn't been killed. Everything had worked out just fine. But that hadn't stopped my mother from having a total meltdown. She had forbidden me to see Nick ever again. She had ordered my father to evict him and was furious when he refused. "Fine," she'd said. "Robyn is not setting foot in that building as long as that boy is there." I argued with her until I almost lost my voice. In the end, I wasn't allowed to see Nick or even talk to him for a whole week. For two weeks after that, I could only see him in my mother's or Ted's presence. Nick had been so uncomfortable after the first time that mostly we had just talked on the phone. Who could blame him?

I had hoped my father would cut us some slack. He hadn't. Other than refusing to evict Nick, he had gone along with my mother. He didn't want to make waves.

For the final week, I was out of town. My mother had looked relieved when she saw me off on the bus.

But now, at long last, my punishment was over. I could see Nick whenever I wanted - without a chaperone. I couldn't wait. I had called him a couple of times while I was out of town, but he hadn't answered his phone.

My heart was pounding as I knocked on his door.

There was no answer.

I knocked again.

Still no answer. He wasn't home.

I heard footsteps in the stairwell. Nick? But no, the footsteps were going in the wrong direction. Instead of coming up from street level, they were coming down from the third floor. It must be the mystery woman from my father's place. I waited in the second-floor hallway until I heard the door on the ground floor swoosh open and clang shut again. Then I went down to La Folie. Nick had landed a job there (thanks to my father) right after he had supposedly almost got me killed and right after he had broken his ankle. He was probably in La Folie's kitchen right now, perched on a stool, scraping plates and loading them into the industrial-sized dishwasher.

I was wrong.

"Isn't Nick working today?" I asked Lauren, the hostess.

She gave me a funny look. "No," she said. "He isn't." I was pretty sure she was going to say something else, but just then a party of six arrived and wanted to be seated. "Excuse me, Robyn," she said as she bustled away.

If Nick wasn't at home and he wasn't at work, maybe he was visiting his aunt. Or maybe he was just out. I went back up to my father's place and lugged my suitcase to my room. I'll say one thing for the mystery woman - she was neat. Everything was exactly as I had left it. You would never have known that she'd been there at all. I was on my way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea when I heard the door. It was my father. His face lit up when he saw me.

"Robbie! How was the trip?" he said. "Did you have a good time?"

I had spent the past week on what my school had billed as a cultural field trip, but there had been no fields involved. There hadn't even been any in the vicinity. This trip had been decidedly urban - three days of lectures and hands-on learning behind the scenes at a museum, two days of educational sightseeing, and an evening at the theatre. My best friend Morgan had gone, too, and we had been billeted together, which meant, "I had a pretty good time, Dad."

My father was still smiling while he looked around. "Where's-"

"She said she had to run. Who is she, Dad?"

"Tara?"

So that was her name.

"Are you hungry?" my father said as he hung up his coat. "Because I'm starving."

"I'm fine." I followed him into the kitchen and took a seat at the counter while he rummaged around in the fridge. "So who exactly is she?"

"She's a very old friend," he said, smiling. There was a twinkle in his eye that made me think he wasn't telling me everything.

"She doesn't look that old," I said. "In fact, she seems kind of young."

"Does she?" He pulled a knife from the drawer and sliced the tomato and then the ham. "I think she's just about right." He rinsed the knife and cut into the cheese. "Are you sure you're not hungry?"

"I'm sure. How long have you known her, Dad?"

"Long enough, I guess." He pulled out another knife and used it to spread one of the slices of bread with a thin layer of mustard. "Did you tell your mother you're back?"

"I called her as soon as the bus got in." Which reminded me. "Have you been snooping on Ted?"

He looked confused. Or maybe he was just acting confused. With my father, it's sometimes hard to tell.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"I saw a picture of him on your computer. Have you been checking up on him?"

"Checking up on him? Why would I do that, Robbie?" my father said. He had been layering ham, cheese, and tomato onto the mustardy bread, but he stopped and looked me straight in the eye to show that he was innocent of any wrong-doing. The thing is, though, my father is pretty good at deceit. He's the first to admit that it's often necessary in his line of work. He had been a police officer for eighteen years. Now he runs his own private security and investigations business. He says that sometimes, if you want to get the truth out of a liar, you have to lie yourself. My mother sees it differently. She says that lying comes as naturally to my father as breathing does to the rest of the world. "I promised your mother that I wouldn't snoop into her affairs," he said. "And I always keep my word."

Uh-huh. I studied him for a moment, trying to decide if he actually expected me to believe that. Then he said, "Robyn, about Nick-"

"I was going to ask you about him," I said. "I went to look for him, but he wasn't home and he's not at work. I thought for sure he'd be here. Have you seen him?"

"You went downstairs?"

"Yeah, but he wasn't there."

"Did you talk to Fred?"

He meant Fred Smith, owner of La Folie.

"No, but I talked to Lauren," I said.

"What did she say?"

"That Nick wasn't working today." Wait a minute. "Did you just call me Robyn?" The last time my father had called me by my proper name instead of using my nickname was when he'd told me about the divorce.

"Is something wrong? Did something happen to Nick?"

My father dropped the top piece of bread onto his sandwich.

"I wish I knew," he said. He cut the sandwich in half, carried it and the container of coleslaw over to the counter, and sat down opposite me. "I haven't seen him since you left for that school trip."

"What do you mean, you haven't seen him? You mean he hasn't been home?"

My father laid a hand on my shoulder. Uh-oh.

"Dad, where's Nick?"

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?"

"He's gone, Robbie. I don't know where. I don't know why. I don't even know exactly when he left. All I know is, he's gone."

* * *

"Gone?" Morgan said at school the next day. "What do you mean, he's gone?"

"I mean, he's not here. He's someplace else."

"Someplace else where?"

That was the million-dollar question. I told Morgan everything I knew, which wasn't much. Two days before we got back from our trip, my father had been downstairs having lunch at La Folie. After he ate, he went back to the kitchen to say hi to Nick, but Nick wasn't there. When my father asked Fred Smith how Nick was doing, Fred told him that Nick didn't work there anymore.

"Did he get fired?" Morgan said.

"He quit." Fred had told my father that Nick was nice about it. He thanked Fred for giving him a job and apologized for leaving on such short notice.

"He didn't say why he was quitting?" Morgan said.

I looked grimly at Morgan. "He said he was going out of town."

"Why? For how long?"

"Fred didn't ask, and Nick didn't say."

"What about your dad? Didn't Nick say anything to him?"

I shook my head. "My dad checked Nick's apartment after he talked to Fred. Most of Nick's things are gone." He'd left his furniture, almost all of which my father had given to him, and the few kitchen things he owned - dishes, a couple of pots, some cutlery, all bought at thrift stores - but he had taken his clothes and his more personal possessions.

"I don't get it," Morgan said. "Why didn't he call you and tell you where he was going?"

I had asked myself the same question a hundred times.

"Didn't he even leave you a note?" Morgan said.

"If he did, he wrote it in invisible ink on invisible paper."

"You don't think he's in trouble, do you?"

All I could do was shrug. Then I said what had been on my mind all night. "Morgan, what if he left because he didn't think he had any reason to stay?"

"What do you mean?"

"He's not getting along with his aunt. His stepbrother's in prison. And he wasn't allowed to see me unless either my mother or Ted was right there with us. He didn't like that. And he knows how my mother feels about him. What if he got fed up?" Maybe he'd decided that putting up with my mother just to be with me wasn't worth it. Or maybe - I hated to think about it, but it was possible - maybe he'd met someone else.

"He knows you were away." Morgan said. "He knows when you were supposed to be back. If he cares about you, Robyn, he'll call."

If he cared so much, why hadn't he told me he was leaving? Why hadn't he called me already?

I got the key to Nick's apartment from my father and checked the place myself after school. Apart from a film of dust that had accumulated since he'd left, the place was spotless. I looked for a note but didn't find one. I even checked under the furniture in case it had fallen behind a dresser or under a table. Nothing. He was really gone.

I called Nick's Aunt Beverly and asked if she knew where he was.

"Why?" she said. "He isn't in trouble again, is he? Don't tell me he got fired from another job."

He obviously hadn't told her that he was leaving, either. I said that I had been out of town and that I was trying to track him down. I didn't have the heart to say anything else.

I went to the group home where Nick had been living when I first met him. It was for kids who had been in trouble with the law and who had been sentenced to open custody - no locks, no bars, just strict discipline, lots of chores, and special programs in life skills and anger management. Nick had at least one friend there, a guy named Antoine, whom I'd met during the summer. Maybe he knew where Nick was.

"Sorry," the woman who answered the door told me. "Antoine isn't here anymore."

"Do you know where I can find him?"

"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to give out that information."

Judging by her sombre expression, wherever Antoine was, he wasn't at liberty. Otherwise she would have told me.

For the next couple of days, I jumped every time my cell phone or the phone at my mother's house rang. When my mother finally said, "For heaven's sake, Robyn, relax," I burst into tears. My mother gave me a sympathetic look. She said she was sorry that Nick had taken off without a word. She said she understood how I must feel. She was trying to be nice, but I couldn't help thinking that she was relieved that Nick was out of my life. Then she said the very last thing that I wanted to hear. She said, "Maybe it's for the best."

* * *

"I still don't understand," I said. "Should I have done something different? Should I have snuck out to see him?" My mother would have grounded me for life if she'd found out I'd done that.

"It was only a few weeks, Robyn," Morgan said. "It wasn't exactly the end of the world. And you said you talked to him on the phone almost every day before the school trip.

"I thought if I did what my mother wanted - if we both did - she would see that he was okay. She would relax. I was more worried about what she thought than about what Nick thought."

I didn't mean to cry again, especially not in the school cafeteria where everyone could see me. But every time I thought about Nick, tears burbled up and I felt hurt all over again. Why had he taken off? Why hadn't he told me where he was going? Why hadn't he at least left a note?

"What if something has happened to him? What if he's met someone else? What if-?" Morgan pulled a wad of tissues out of her purse and thrust them at me.

"I like Nick," she said. "You know I do."

In fact, I didn't know that. I knew she thought he was good-looking, which he was - tall and lean, with jet-black hair and startling purple-blue eyes. I knew she thought he was exciting and kind of dangerous - mostly because of all the trouble he had been in and because of the hairline scar that ran diagonally across his face from the bridge of his nose to the bottom of his right ear. It made him look like the kind of person who didn't shy away from a fight. And it was true. He didn't. I also knew that she respected the fact that I liked him, a lot. But, no, I didn't know that she actually liked him.

"But," she said - the word I had been waiting for - "you haven't known him for very long, which means that you may not know him as well as you think you do."

"What are you saying, Morgan?"

"There could be a dozen reasons he left - and why he didn't tell you. Until you hear from him, there's nothing you can do. You just have to wait."

"For how long?"

"I don't know." She squeezed my hand. "But I do know that whatever happens, it's not your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. If he wasn't prepared to wait a couple of weeks for you, that's his problem, not yours. I also know that if worst comes to worst, you can't keep crying over him. And don't give me that look, Robyn. You know what I mean. It's been almost a whole week since we got back and two weeks since he took off."

"Hey, guys," a cheery male voice said. I looked up. It was Billy Royal, my other best friend in the whole world and, recently, Morgan's boyfriend. He slipped an arm around Morgan and kissed her on the cheek before dropping into the empty chair beside her. "What's up?"

"Robyn is still beating herself up over Nick's disappearance," Morgan said, as if I were doing something wrong.

Billy gave me a sympathetic look. "Still haven't heard from him, huh?"

I shook my head.

"She needs to get her mind off him," Morgan said.

"I don't want to get my mind off him," I said. "I want to know where he is and why he left."

"What I mean is, you need to get your mind off thinking about him all the time," Morgan said. "It'll drive you crazy. You need to get busy with something."

"Why don't you come to the drop-in centre with Morgan and me?" Billy said. "They can always use extra help."

Billy volunteered at a drop-in centre for the homeless. He also volunteered at an animal rights organization and at the Humane Society, and was a founder of and the most active member in the Downtown Avian Rescue Club, which rescued injured migratory birds. Needless to say, he's a vegan.

"I don't know," I said. I admired Billy, but the way I was feeling, I would probably just depress the destitute.

"Seriously, Robyn, you should try it," Billy said. "The best way I know to feel good about yourself is to help someone else. Isn't that right, Morgan?"

Morgan nodded. "Although, to be honest," she said, "I feel just fine about myself."

I was sure that was true. Morgan was not given to self-doubt, self-pity, self-loathing or, especially, self-criticism. The person who liked Morgan best was Morgan herself. Billy was her number two admirer.

"We're going down there tomorrow, right, Morgan?" Billy said. "And I know they're looking for more volunteers. The colder it gets, the more people use the drop-in centre." It was really cold now, and the nights were long and getting longer. It was pitch dark by five o'clock in the afternoon. "They need as many people as they can get to make soup and sandwiches, set out coffee, clean up after meals, sort and hand out donations of warm clothing and sleeping bags - stuff like that. It'll make you feel better. And you'll meet a lot of interesting people. Who knows? You might be surprised by what goes on down there. Come on, Robyn. What do you say?"

I wanted to say no. I didn't feel like doing anything. But Billy was so enthusiastic and he made it sound as if I'd be welcomed with open arms, so instead I said yes.

Billy beamed at me. "It's a great place to volunteer, Robyn. You won't regret it."

As it turned out, he was wrong. It wasn't long before I was sorry I had ever agreed.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Out of the Cold: A Robyn Hunter Mystery. Text copyright © 2007 by Norah McClintock. All rights reserved.