“Wait!” Nick whispered in her ear, resisting her pull. “The voices are coming from that way.”
“Just trust me,” Kiernan shot back, dragging him along.
To keep the pop machine from sitting out in the middle of the hallway, a nook had been notched into the wall. The machine fit snuggly in the alcove with only a foot of space to spare.
Slinking low to keep in the shadows so the two adults at the other end of the dark hall couldn’t see them, Kiernan dashed into the free gap, yanking Nick in behind her. She crouched down, urging him to follow. The heat from a constantly-running pop machine warmed her left arm as the cool concrete wall chilled her right. In front of her, Nick hunkered and squished her even further into the crevice.
In the dark, she barely made out him lifting his finger to his lips to hush her.
“Well, thank you for your help, Mr. Childler,” Mr. Riggs said. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick around a few minutes and check around the outside for some more clues.”
“Fine, fine,” her father said as the two of them passed directly by the pop machine.
Kiernan drew in a deep breath and held it, freezing as her heart pounded through her ears. Next to her, Nick was as still as stone. The two adults disappeared around the corner, and Nick’s body went lax.
She sighed out a silent breath of release.
“You can look anywhere you want if you think it’ll help you prove Farrow was the culprit.”
Nick tensed, and Kiernan grabbed his arm, hoping he didn’t expose himself to defend his dad and get them both into even deeper trouble.
The adult voices drifted off, and Nick shifted, turned toward her. She lifted her eyes. Their faces were only an inch apart. His breath sifted across her cheek.
“What kind of shampoo do you use?” His fingers touched her hair.
She blinked. “What?”
“You smell like peaches,” he whispered. “Did last night too.”
Kiernan swallowed, too afraid to breathe.
His forehead bumped against hers. “I really am sorry I lied to you. I just knew you wouldn’t talk to me if you found out I’d snuck in.”
“It—it’s okay,” she heard herself say as she licked her lips.
“When we find out who the arsonist is—”
But his quiet words broke off again at the sound of more approaching footsteps.
A cell phone rang. Kiernan jumped out of her skin, instantly worried her mom was calling back to apologize for hanging up on her. But then she realized the sound wasn’t coming from her purse and it was a normal ring tone that sounded like an actual phone ringing, not Carrie singing “Before He Cheats.”
“Hello,” her father said; he was closer than she’d originally thought.
Biting her lip, she hoped he hadn’t heard her and Nick talking.
“I thought I told you not to call me today,” her father growled. “I was meeting with the arson investigator… No, he didn’t mention you. And no, he doesn’t suspect the fire was started by anyone other than Farrow…Hey, don’t go getting cold feet on me. I paid you good money to frame Nicholas. You’re not going to shoot your mouth off now. Just stay calm and no one will suspect a thing.”
Nick turned and met Kiernan’s gaze. She could barely see him in the dim light, but the whites of his eyes looked huge as he gaped at her. “Oh, my God,” he wheezed. “You’re dad’s framing mine.”
She gripped his arm. “We have to tell someone.”
He shook his head. “But who? Who’s going to believe us over Hilton Childler? We need proof.”
Kiernan frowned, her face falling. Then her grin spread. “I've got it,” she whispered, digging into her purse. She whipped out her cell phone and snapped it open.
Nick shifted closer. “What’re you doing? Who’re you going to call?”
“I have video on here.” She bit her lip. “Somewhere.”
As her phone’s screen lit up, Nick moved to block the light for her. Kiernan held her breath with every button she pushed and every beeping sound she made. She glanced over Nick’s shoulder a few times, but her father was too busy talking on his own phone to notice the racket she made.
Finally, she found the video application and started the film rolling. The light was too dark to catch her dad’s face, but as long as it picked up his voice, she knew they’d be okay.
Come on, come on, she thought. Say something about the fire again.
But her father had moved onto a different topic as he stopped in front of the machine to buy himself a soda. “Have you sent a listing to the paper to advertise the new job opening yet? I want Farrow’s spot filled within the month, Morris. We need someone bad. I didn’t realize how much work he did until he was gone.”
“Stay here,” Nick whispered suddenly.
Before she could stop him, he wiggled out of their hidey-hole and pushed his way into the hall.
“Nick,” she hissed, but her dad had already whirled around and was gaping at him with wide eyes. She jerked back into the shadows and lifted her phone to catch the scene. Nick moved so her father would turn with him, bringing his face into the light.
“You framed my dad?” he said, his voice loud and accusing.
Hilton Childler’s mouth fell open. For a moment, he could only gape. Then his face grew red and angry. “You,” he hissed. “Where’d you come from? Where’s my daughter?”
Kiernan tensed, ready to hop out of the alcove and help, but she wasn’t sure what she could or should do. Besides, Nick didn’t resist when her father stomped toward him and grabbed his arm. She bit her lip, hoping this was part of the plan, and panned from Nick being held captive to her father’s face.
“What are you doing here?” Hilton demanded, stepping close enough she could squeeze them both on the screen.
“I came here to find proof my dad didn’t start the fire. And it looks like I did.”
Hilton threw back his head and let loose a loud, evil laugh. Shaking Nick’s arm, he sneered. “And just who do you think’s going to believe you, huh? You’re nothing but a poor, dirty, thief.”
Nick lifted his chin, his jaw tight. “And what would you say if I did have proof that you paid that guy Morris to start the fire, then framed my dad, and now he’s blackmailing you to keep it quiet.”
Her father’s face turned red, the vein in his temple bulged, and he drew Nick closer. “So, where’s your proof?”
Nick’s lips twitched with a secret grin and he glanced toward the shadows where Kiernan still hid. “You just gave it me,” he said, and then kicked his foot forward, right into her father’s shin.
Hilton bellowed in rage and pain. Nick wiggled free of him and scurried backward, losing his footing and beginning to fall to the floor on his backside.
Snapping her phone shut, Kiernan darted from the pop machine and caught his hand, helping him back up.
“Run!” she screamed.
He didn’t need to be told twice. Clutching her hand, he found his footing and shot ahead of her, leading their escape.
Her father’s bellow made her cringe and falter enough that Hilton caught a hold of her ponytail and yanked her back. She let out a yelp of pain and fear, losing her grip on Nick’s hand.
He glanced over his shoulder once. For a split second, she thought he was going to abandon her and keep running. But he skidded to a halt and came back around, gritting his teeth as he shoved her father’s arm, causing him to let go of her hair.
Nick snatched her hand and once again, they were off.
Not daring to look behind her, Kiernan sprinted after her hero. She couldn’t tell if it was her father’s booming footsteps or her own heart making that mighty pounding sound. But no way was she going to pause long enough to glance over her shoulder and find out.
Following a red exit sign, Nick led her outside. But as soon as he shoved open the door, the bright daylight make Kiernan gasp. She couldn’t see anything, though she did hear another adult shout. “Hey! What’re you kids doing out here?”
Nick veered to the right, away from the voice. “This way,” he urged.
Kiernan followed blindly, her eyes watering as she tried to blink them back into focus. But as soon as she could see and glanced over to catch sight of the man’s face, she faltered.
“No, wait. It’s the arson investigator.” Instead of evading the adult, she tugged on Nick’s hand and charged straight for him. “Mr. Riggs. Mr. Riggs.”
“Miss Childler,” he said, puzzlement wrinkling his brow. “What’s wrong?”
“We know who the arsonist is,” she rushed out, panting hard as Nick landed at her side.
“It’s Mr. Childler himself,” he added.
Her father skidded to a stop not ten feet behind them.
When Mr. Riggs saw him, he frowned and set his hands on his hips. “What’s the meaning of his, Childler?”
“I… I don’t know what they’re talking about,” her father said, sending a glare Kiernan’s way, his narrowed eyes promising a punishment she didn’t even want to think about. But she merely dragged her phone from her purse and pushed buttons.
“This boy is Farrow’s son, and he’s been brainwashing my daughter into—”
“Here,” Nick broke in, taking the phone from Kiernan and thrusting it at the investigator. “Just watch this.”
He pushed play, and everyone froze as Nick’s voice came through the small phone speaker. “You framed my dad.”
Mr. Riggs eyebrows wrinkled as he took the phone from Nick and held the screen out a couple inches further from his face. No one moved as the investigator watched the entire revealing truth. Once he was done, Kiernan held her breath. Mr. Riggs calmly shut her phone and slid it into his pocket. “I need to keep this for evidence,” he told her.
She nodded, bobbing her head up and down.
Then he turned and looked directly at her father. “Hilton Childler, you are under arrest.”