The school gym was quiet and empty. The late afternoon sunlight drifted in through the windows high overhead. I stood still in a sunbeam, waiting. I was breathing hard. I held my sword defensively in front of me.
I’m in trouble, I thought. Big trouble.
Suddenly, my opponent rushed at me out of the dark! I blocked a vicious swipe at my head and stepped back to avoid a lunge at my torso. I was able to keep from getting hit, but just barely, and I was rapidly being pushed back across the gym. My opponent was breathing strong and steady, almost as though she hadn’t even worked up a sweat.
On the other hand, my ragged breathing and the clang of sword-on-sword echoed through the cavernous empty gym. School was long over. There was no one around. My attacker forced me backward, step by step. Soon I would be pinned against the wall of the gymnasium.
It was time to try something daring. I leaned forward, making an easy target of my head. She’d be stupid to pass up this opportunity.
Sure enough, I heard the whip of her blade swinging through the air, on a collision course with my face. At the last possible second, I ducked low and scooted forward, lunging at her unprotected stomach. For a moment, I thought I had her. But she was impossibly fast. Her sword was down and parrying mine before I’d even gotten close to her.
We strained against each other, our swords connected at the hilt. I grunted, pushing with all my might. Then my opponent twisted her wrist too fast for my eyes to follow, and my sword went flying through the air. A half second later, I felt the point of her blade at my neck.
“Yield!” she said.
Applause drifted in from the open gymnasium door, where the figures of George Fayne and Bess Marvin—my two best friends—had appeared.
“Well done, Lexi!” Bess yelled.
I grabbed my throat and made thick choking noises. I fell to the ground, shuddered a few times, and then lay still, pretending to be dead.
My opponent lowered her blade and executed a short bow.
“You’re as good an actor as you are a fencer, Nance!” yelled George.
Lexi Adams, my opponent, classmate, and one of the world’s best female fencers, removed her mask. Her curly red hair tumbled free, wildly framing her heart-shaped face.
“Hey now,” she said. “She’s getting a lot better.”
She reached a hand down to help me up. It was hard to feel bad about losing to Lexi. She wasn’t just the star of the River Heights High Fencing Team—she was the youngest woman on the American Olympic Fencing Team. She was a world record holder at the age of nine. I’d been getting lessons from her all year. I didn’t think I’d be joining her on the Olympic team anytime soon, but you never knew what sort of skill would come in handy when working on a case. Plus, it was a pretty good workout.
“That was great!” Bess came running over. With her love of fashion—and her model-gorgeous good looks—Bess was the last girl you’d expect to find hanging out in the school gym. But she and her cousin George were both avid exercisers, although George preferred hiking outside to being in the gym. But they could agree on one thing: rock climbing. Which is where the pair had just been before wandering in at the end of our fencing match. I could tell by the chalk dust on their hands and the special climbing shoes they both carried. River Heights High had an indoor climbing wall, and they both made good use of it.
Of course, Bess worked out while wearing a matching pink headband, wristbands, and sweat socks, which coordinated perfectly with her lemon yellow terry cloth short-shorts. She looked like a model from one of those chic athletic-wear catalogs. George, on the other hand, was favoring her usual many-pocketed cargo shorts. I never knew what kind of gadgets she had on her, but they often came in handy when I was working on a case. George’s tech savvy was unparalleled.
“So are you nervous about the Olympics?” George asked Lexi. “The LA blogosphere is really blowing up about it.” From one of her pockets, George pulled out her cell phone. In terms of abilities, it was somewhere between a supercomputer and a video editing studio. It made me feel like I was still tapping out Morse code.
“Look!” she said. “Someone posted your River City High yearbook photo today!”
“What?” said Lexi. “Ugh. My hair was terrible in that photo.”
“The price of stardom,” said Bess. “Besides, you always look cute, you know it.”
“Even though I’ve never been to LA, I’m excited the Olympics are happening there this year,” said Lexi. “Makes me feel like I’ve got a hometown advantage. Plus, it means I can keep practicing here right up until the games start, which makes my dad happier.”
Lexi’s father was also her fencing coach, and he was notoriously protective of her—like a stage mom with a sword.
“You’re going to love it!” I told Lexi. “It’s a really fun city.”
“I don’t know how much of it I’ll get to see,” she replied. “I mean, there are the Olympics to think about.”
“Olympics, Schmo-lympics,” said Bess. “Think about the fashion! You’ve got to hit Rodeo while you’re out there. I’ll give you a list of stores to check out.” She laughed.
“I don’t know, Bess. If what the Internet says is true, Lexi is going to be a little too busy with a certain swimmer to go anywhere.” George waved her phone around, showing a picture of Lexi and Scott Trevor with their arms around each other. Lexi blushed.
Scott was the darling of this year’s Olympics, a multi-gold-medal swimmer with the body that went along with being in a pool for six hours a day. His face was on everything, from cereal boxes to swimwear. I’d even heard a rumor that he was going to be hosting Saturday Night Live this month!
He was also Lexi’s boyfriend, a secret they’d been trying to keep for almost a year.
“I’m excited to get to see him! We’ve both been training so hard, it’s been almost impossible. This is a big year for him—he’s set to break the record for the most individual gold medals held by any athlete in the world!”
Lexi’s face suddenly darkened. The smile faltered on her lips. George and Bess were cooing over photos of Lexi and Scott on George’s phone, but I couldn’t help noticing that something seemed to be wrong. Call it my detective sense—I smelled a mystery.
“Is something wrong, Lex?”
“What? No. No, it’s—it’s nothing, really.”
The tone in her voice caught Bess’s and George’s attention. Bess threw her arm around Lexi.
“Spill it girl,” she said. “Boy problems? Talk to me.”
“Oh no! Everything is fine with me and Scott. I’m just worried about him. There’s been some… stuff happening recently.”
“Stuff?” I said. Something about her voice made me worried.
“Is this about the threats?” George broke in.
“Yes—how did you know?”
George waved her phone again. “The Internet knows everything.”
“The Internet might, but I’m in the dark,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Lexi sighed and looked down.
“It started a few months ago. I mean, star athletes get a lot of fan mail in general, and some of it’s always the crazy stalker type or threats or whatever. You just learn to live with it. But Scott started getting really intense, crazy hate mail as the Olympics got closer and closer. He just laughed it off and tried to focus on the swimming, but…”
“But what?” I asked.
“Last month, someone stole his laptop and put all his information online—cell phone number, e-mail address, credit cards, everything. He had to quit the gym he used, move, get a new number. It was a mess. And the letters started saying there was worse to come if he didn’t drop out of the Olympics now.”
“Has he gone to the police?” I asked. This was serious stuff. He needed some protection.
“Yeah, they’re looking into it, but they haven’t found many leads. The Olympics assured him there would be good security, though, and he lives in LA anyway, so he won’t have to travel or anything.”
Lexi grew quiet, but she didn’t make a move to leave the gym. Something else was clearly on her mind.
“Lexi,” I said. “You’ve been getting threats, too, haven’t you?”
“How did you know?!” She shot a look at George’s phone. George shook her head.
“That’s Nancy for you. She knows more than the Internet—especially when it comes to mysteries. So what’s the deal?”
“I didn’t want to mention anything. My dad—he’s so protective, you know? But I’ve started getting e-mails that say if Scott doesn’t quit, I’m the one who’s going to get hurt.”
“Lexi! You have to tell someone.” Crazed fans had been known to hurt stars, even to kill them. Lexi was putting herself in terrible danger by not reporting these threats, even though it was likely they would never amount to anything.
Lexi bit her lip for a moment. A host of expressions struggled to cross her face. Finally, she forced herself to smile.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine. Just nerves. This stuff happens all the time.”
She tried to laugh, but it came out hollow.
“Lexi, I think—” I started to say something, but she cut me off.
“Listen, don’t mention this to anyone, okay? I’ve got to go shower. My dad will be here any minute to pick me up.”
With that, Lexi ran out of the gym. I stared at her retreating back. A thought started to form in my head.
“I know that look,” said George. “What are you thinking, Nance?”
“Nothing,” I said. “But you know… I’ve never seen the Olympics. And it’s in the country this year. It would be a shame to miss it.”
Bess looked at George, a smile spreading across her face.
“Rodeo, here I come!”
They gave each other a high five.
“Well, if you think about it, Dad, it’s important that I go to the Olympics. I mean, who knows when they’re going to be in the country again, right? And as a civic-minded citizen, I think it’s important to support any event that promotes global collaboration!”
Carson Drew was a big-time lawyer, and a firm believer in taking part in important events. He was also my dad. Right now, those two parts of him were battling it out over whether I should be allowed to go to the Olympics. I’d cornered him after dinner—he washed the dishes; I dried them.
“A week on your own in LA Nancy? I don’t know.”
“I won’t be on my own—Bess and George are going to come too. Plus, Lexi will be there. You always say how important it is that I support my classmates.”
I was pulling out all the stops on this one. Something told me that Lexi was going to need my help—even if she wasn’t able to ask for it yet. Of course, I wasn’t going to mention that to Dad.
“All right, all right!” Dad threw up his soapy hands. “You can go.”
“Thanks, Dad!” I gave him a big hug. I hated hiding anything from him, but this was important. I knew it.
“Just be careful with whatever case it is you’re working on. I expect a full briefing and daily check-in calls, you hear?”
I laughed. Of course Dad wasn’t fooled. But he was letting me go, and that was all that mattered!
© 2010 CAROLYN KEENE