“Tell me, Carlee… why did you deserve to live?”
When a dead body is discovered in Harborside with a gruesome message tied around its bruised neck, Carlee realizes the childhood trauma she thought was over has come back to haunt her.
It’s been more than a decade since a serial killer slaughtered Carlee’s eighth-grade class—including her twin brother—only to vanish into thin air, leaving Harborside, Carlee’s once-beautiful lakeshore hometown, haunted by the memories of dead children who will never find true rest.
Now in her late twenties, Carlee is a successful—if eccentric—private investigator in downtown Chicago.
But when the body of a popular high school volleyball player is discovered in Harborside, Carlee knows she must confront the horrors she left behind.
As she races against time to catch the killer, she finds herself in a deadly game of cat and mouse. More bodies pile up, each accompanied by a cryptic note that seems to taunt her.
It’s clear the Eighth-Grade Killer knows she’s back in town, and they’re coming for her to finish their macabre mission.
Can Carlee finally bring the notorious killer to justice and stop the killings, or will they claim her as their next victim?
The Eighth-Grade Killer is the first book of Katy Pierce’s Harborside Secrets unforgettable mystery series, where the danger is real, and the stakes are deadly.
THE EIGHTH-GRADE KILLER
A Harborside Secrets Novel
© 2023 Katy Pierce
Amber hopped down from a haphazard pile of driftwood and peered off across Lake Michigan, watching the sunset spill its reds and oranges across the dark water.
At her back, Harborside was already tucking itself into bed. There wasn’t much to do in her hometown—it was mostly filled with boring old shops and creeps walking around with big maps, listening to murder podcasts. But Amber did love this beach. The summer wind blowing off the lake was already cooling down the evening, and she was happy she’d remembered to grab her hoodie.
The crowd of swimmers and beach volleyballers was already disappearing behind her as she trudged through sand in the opposite direction, the distant cheers swallowed by the gentle lapping of waves and an occasional bark from her dog, Cooper. Amber giggled at the big, dumb yellow lab. His tail was wagging at an almost dangerous speed as he trotted ahead along the shoreline.
“Cooper,” she called, knowing the cheeky mutt would ignore her. “Cooper, get back here!”
Amber smiled as he barked at a bug crawling toward the water, batting it with his paw before the next distraction drew him away.
“Are you even listening to me?” Jaclyn, Amber’s friend, snapped her attention back to their gossip. “I asked if you saw what Bethany is wearing.”
Mild curiosity grabbed Amber as she picked up the perfect stone to toss into the lake. Meanwhile, Jaclyn huffed in frustration as she struggled over a tree trunk. They had been coming to this beach all their lives, yet Jaclyn still had trouble navigating nature.
Feeling unusually gracious, Amber decided to humor her. “No, what?”
“It’s the sluttiest bikini I’ve ever seen!” Jaclyn threw her arms into the air, her body exploding with the news. She often made comments like that, and Amber picked out a slight twinge of jealousy in her tone.
“Sounds about right for Bethany.” Amber tried to stifle a chuckle, grabbing at Jaclyn’s mouth to bring her volume down. Jaclyn tended to shout her opinions, and while Amber loved her candor, she didn’t want anyone overhearing what they really thought of their mutual friend.
Amber could appreciate a good slutty bikini, but wearing one was an art form and Bethany was no artist. She didn’t understand that deciding when to wear a swimsuit was almost as crucial as the choice of swimsuit itself. For Bethany to wear something like that at Whittler’s Cove, at night, was a bold statement.
“Bethany’s probably still trying to ride Abigail’s brother. I saw them there too.” Jaclyn rolled her eyes at how obvious Bethany was being. She was normally too savvy to do something as stupid as wearing a string bikini in early summer.
“Probably. She’s gone into whore hyperdrive since graduation. Abigail’s brother is pretty hot, though.”
“Oh, is he? I guess so…”
Amber squawked with realization. “So that’s why you’re being bitchy about Bethany’s bikini! You’re jealous that she’s out-whoring you, is that it?” She poked Jaclyn’s ribs and grinned.
Jaclyn threatened to shove Bethany’s head into the sand, and they had a good long laugh until Amber noticed Cooper standing in the lake, snapping at the water.
“Cooper!” Amber shouted, determined to get her wayward dog’s attention. “Get out of there! You’re going to be a mess!”
“What is he doing this time?”
“God knows. Cooper has dog ADD—he probably saw a fish or something.” Amber shrugged. “Cooper!”
Finally heeding his owner’s warning, Cooper loped back to Amber, splashing water over the two girls. She leaned down and playfully grabbed him by the ears, scratching them as he tried his hardest to lick her face.
“You’re lucky you’re so cute.” Amber’s heart burst a little against her chest when Cooper barked in response, his tongue flopping out. “Or I might be tempted to leave you out here.”
Cooper wagged his tail and darted into the forest that bordered the beach, weaving his way in and out of needly trees. Amber groaned, but secretly, she loved how he always reacted to her half-hearted threats by immediately running away to get into more trouble, as if he understood she was full of shit.
“Speaking of people not knowing what they’re doing…” Jaclyn quirked an eyebrow. “Did you see Tina?”
“As if I’d ever give Tina my attention. What did she do?”
“She was trying to spike in the sand. Like an idiot. And Coach picked her to replace Elsie as libero?”
Amber scoffed, feeling her nose wrinkle up. “Whatever. Harborside isn’t our problem anymore. If Coach wants some idiot playing libero, that’s on him.”
“I swear we’re the only reason that asshole still has a job.”
As they walked along in silence for a few moments, Jaclyn’s gaze drifted toward Whittler’s Cove, the last place they had seen Elsie before she’d taken off. Amber knew the question was coming. It was the same one Jaclyn asked every time anyone so much as mentioned their friend’s name.
“Have you heard from her at all?”
Jaclyn nodded. “Where do you think she ran off to?”
Amber hated playing the guessing game about Elsie’s departure. Part of her was still upset that Elsie hadn’t told her what she was planning, whatever it was. They had known each other their whole lives and shared most of their secrets, so why had she disappeared with no explanation? What was so big that she couldn’t tell her oldest friends about it?
“Who the fuck knows,” Amber sighed, unable to hide her resentment. “She could be anywhere by now.”
In the meantime, Cooper had found a squirrel, chased it up a tree at the edge of the woods, and was barking at the base of the trunk.
“Cooper!” Amber yelled. “Leave it alone!”
The dog let out one last growl, as if to teach the squirrel a lesson, then darted after some unseen creature.
“Maybe she finally ran off? To—I don’t know—Canada or something?”
“Canada? You’re kidding, right?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I mean, you don’t need a passport for that. Maybe she got fed up with living at home and just took off.”
“Maybe,” Amber conceded. “I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Her dad’s a no-show and Holden wasn’t going to stop breaking her heart over and over again.”
“I guess. Or maybe she’s just blowing off some steam in Chicago, bouncing from party to party the past few days.”
“Without telling you? I doubt it, Amber.”
As the gathering at the beach drifted farther and farther away, something subtle changed between the two of them. It was as if a weight had lifted, enabling them to escape the prying eyes and ears of Harborside. Amber stopped and looked out at the lake, letting her toes dig into the sand. Jaclyn stood next to her. She knew when to just shut up and let a moment happen, and Amber always appreciated it.
“I’m not sure who Elsie is anymore, Jaclyn. I keep playing that night over and over in my head, but I come up with nothing.”
“She didn’t say anything about taking off?”
“No. I was off grabbing us drinks after listening to her bitch and moan about Holden, and when I got back, she was gone.”
“Oh, wait a second!” Jaclyn chuckled under her breath, but this time, it sounded cruel. “You know why she ditched us, right?”
“Why?” Amber wasn’t used to being out of the loop.
“Because the rumors are probably right.”
“He probably showed up.”
Jaclyn arched an eyebrow at her as if she’d cracked the code.
“I don’t think he would’ve talked to her. Elsie said they broke up again.”
“Well, Ray’s friend, Nick, told Bethany that his brother’s girlfriend thought she saw Holden driving out of the party that night. It was dark and she couldn’t make out who was behind the wheel, but she swore it was Holden’s car pulling out of the woods. And someone was with him.”
“That’s just a rumor.” Amber couldn’t believe it—not after the way he’d treated Elsie. Just thinking about their latest breakup was enough to make her heart leap so far up her throat it hit the back of her tongue. “He… wouldn’t have. I mean, how could he show his face after their last fight?”
“Right?” Jaclyn blurted. She seemed to realize it was too loud a second too late and snapped her chin around, studying the shapes of beachgoers playing in the distance. Satisfied that no one had overheard her, she went on. “Everyone saw their shitshow on full display. They’d been fighting all week, so why would he even show up at the party?”
Why, indeed. Amber swallowed her heart back down, reeling in her emotions. Jaclyn was the last person alive who needed to see her freak out about Elsie and her fucked-up fascination with Holden O’Hara.
“So you think they took off together?” Amber had to consciously unset her jaw as she listened to Jaclyn speak. “I hope not, for Elsie’s sake. She should’ve known better.”
Amber loved Elsie—always would—but the girl was dumb as mud when it came to Holden. That trumped-up pretty boy was way out of her league, and Amber had tried her hardest to warn Elsie away for her own good. Holden needed a ruthless girl, not a gullible one. He needed someone who wouldn’t let her heart break. But Elsie insisted he was misunderstood.
“So do you think they got back together?” Amber asked, clearing her throat to disguise her shaky voice.
Jaclyn shrugged, visibly bit the inside of her cheek, and chewed. “They always do.”
“I don’t know. I really thought this was the last time. I mean, they were going to different colleges. How did she think that was going to work? And why did he even—damn it, Cooper!”
The lovable lunk had ventured back toward the shore and was digging sloppily in the sand. Probably obsessed with some defenseless water flea trying to burrow away from him. It took Amber a few jerks on his collar to get Cooper to give it up. He finally stuck by her side, tongue slipping from a goofy grin as he gazed up at her.
“I do think that Holden’s been off over the last few weeks,” Jaclyn said, releasing her lip from her teeth as Cooper trotted ahead.
“He has? I didn’t notice.”
“Yeah, I’d say so. First, he blew up at Elsie right after graduation. And he’s been real cagey since.” Jaclyn stuck her thumbnail into her mouth to gnaw it off. “I just hope she didn’t do anything stupid, like elope with him or something.”
“Even Elsie Caldwell isn’t that stupid.” Amber forced a dry laugh that hurt her throat. “But I get your point. I don’t think she was in her right mind, you know? Getting shut down like that, who knows what she did or where she went? Here’s hoping she just got some shitty tattoo or something.”
“Yeah, maybe. Coming to that party, though…” Jaclyn frowned. “He still played her.”
The crackle of broken sticks in the surrounding trees caught Amber’s attention. It was Cooper again—he’d wandered much farther away than usual. She clapped loudly and whistled to rein him back in, but the mangy mutt just whined and hurtled off into the woods. The underbrush was thick here, and if he raced off too far, it would take forever to find him again. Amber dashed after him, Jaclyn close behind her.
“Cooper, you walking sack of ticks! What are you doing?” Amber shouted as he halted in front of a dirt mound and began to furiously excavate it.
“He probably found a rat,” Jaclyn offered, grimacing. But Amber hardly heard her. She knew how Cooper acted when he caught a whiff of wild animal, like opossum or raccoon, and this wasn’t that. She looked at the mound of dirt and a sense of dread overtook her, made all the worse because she couldn’t tell why.
Amber glanced at Jaclyn in a useless search for answers, but she was clearly just as confused. They leaned in for a better look while Cooper desperately burrowed deeper.
Before long, the sound of shifting earth slowly gave way to something else. Cooper’s claws started pawing at wood—a plank or slat of some kind. Jaclyn grabbed the wood’s dirt-encrusted edge, a single tug pulling it loose from the pile.
“It’s a sign,” Jaclyn observed.
“‘I’m a slut,’” she read aloud. “What the hell is this?”
A pit tunneled into Amber’s gut—she knew something was deeply wrong. Without thinking, she lunged at the pile and started shoveling the dirt with her bare hands while Cooper nosed at the growing hole. After a frantic moment, she uncovered a handful of something strange. Something soft. Something terribly, chillingly familiar.
She wiped off a little remaining dirt, revealing black fabric emblazoned with the Harborside High logo and the word Caldwell stenciled underneath.
“Get out of the way,” Jaclyn snapped as if she’d awoken from a trance, breaking Amber’s daze. She swooped in like a crow, swatting her fingers away, and grabbed the jacket, giving it a hard tug to dislodge it from the earth. It wouldn’t budge.
“Oh my god,” Jaclyn breathed.
Cooper stood behind them in the freshly turned soil, still wagging his tail, barking urgently over the rush of the surf.
“Don’t just stand there, Amber! Help me!” Jaclyn choked, covered in dirt. “Amber, wake the fuck up!”
But Amber didn’t want to wake up. She didn’t want to know what any of this was—not what was in the mound, not whatever the hell the sign was about, not why the jacket wouldn’t move.
But she couldn’t stop Jaclyn, who stuck her cupped hands deep into the soil, clawing and clawing just like a dog, leaving Amber to watch mutely as her heart threatened to jump all the way out of her body. She was crying, she realized, though she had no idea when she started. She knew something awful, something unforgettable, was only seconds away.
She knew the jacket wouldn’t move because Elsie Caldwell was still wearing it.
KATY PIERCE is an outspoken, cynical, born and raised New Yorker, that’s not afraid to aim her writing where others steer clear of.
In a perfect world, Katy’d be writing books 24/7, since it’s the ultimate opportunity for her to blend her most twisted and thrilling thoughts with her passion for creating page-turning novels for her readers.
With every new book of hers that gets published, she feels she can breathe just a little bit deeper, so, she vows to keep at it for as long as humanly possible, for as long as her audience will have her, and for as long as her husband and two kids don’t vote against her in their secret weekly tribal council.