The Red Slippers CHAPTER ONE
An Old Friend Returns
“I NEED A THING,” BESS said with a sigh between sips of hot chocolate.
“Christmas was just last month. What more could you possibly need?” George shot back.
Bess rolled her eyes. “Not like that. I mean a thing that defines who I am.”
“I don’t get it. We all know who you are. You’re Bess,” George said with a shrug, turning her attention back to a game on her phone.
George and Bess are cousins and my two best friends. Even though they seem like total opposites—George doesn’t care about looks or clothes, while Bess is a bit of a fashionista; George loves technology and always has the latest gadget, while Bess prefers snail mail to e-mail—they’re as close as sisters. Sometimes, though, George can get so caught up in her Twitter feed that she doesn’t notice the people sitting right in front of her.
In general, I’m somewhere in between: I like to look nice and put together, but I don’t keep with the latest trends; and I like my smartphone, but I’m not obsessed with it. Sometimes I have to be a bridge between them. I could tell this was one of those times.
Bess had been acting weird all day. We’d gone into town to do some errands—mostly just to get out of the house—and she had barely said a word. At first I thought it was the weather—a cold snap had moved in overnight with the threat of snow later—but even after we’d stopped at the Coffee Corner, our favorite café in River Heights and George’s place of employment, to get warm, she still hadn’t cheered up.
“What’s going on, Bess?” I asked as gently as I could. Ironically, Bess is the most emotionally intuitive of the three of us. Whenever George or I are upset, Bess knows exactly what to do or say to make us feel better. I wished Bess could talk to Bess, but I’d try my best instead.
“Remember New Year’s Eve?” Bess asked.
I nodded. Bess’s parents throw a big party every New Year’s Eve. Each year they pick a different theme. One year it was An Evening in Wonderland, and they hung at least a hundred different clocks on the walls, replaced the furniture in one room with doll furniture, spread stuffed bunnies throughout the house, and made place mats out of playing cards. They even hung half a mannequin dressed in a light-blue dress with a white apron from the hallway ceiling, so it looked like Alice was falling through the rabbit hole into the house. It was always the party of the year, and half of River Heights attended.
George, Bess, and I have been going to that party for as long as we can remember. When we were younger, Bess’s parents would herd us up to her room and we’d be asleep long before midnight. As we got older, we kept the tradition of heading up to Bess’s room early, only now we watched the ball drop in Times Square on TV, drank glasses of sparkling cider, and shared our resolutions for the coming year.
This year had been no different. The theme of the party had been the 1960s, and George, Bess, and Ned, my boyfriend, had scoured As You Wore, the vintage shop in town, for the perfect outfits. Bess’s parents had outdone themselves with the decorations. Entering the house felt like stepping through a time warp. The walls, the furniture, and the rugs were all from the 1960s or earlier. They’d even swapped out their TV for an older model. We ate a ton of food, danced, took goofy pictures in the photo booth the Marvins had rented, and headed up to Bess’s room to watch the ball drop. It had seemed like Bess was having as good a time as the rest of us, so I couldn’t imagine what would have made her upset.
“Sure. I remember New Year’s,” I said.
“Do you remember my resolution?” Bess asked. I thought back, but it wasn’t coming to mind. Bess noticed my hesitancy. “George said she wanted to crack five thousand followers on Twitter. Ned said he wanted to make the dean’s list. You said you wanted to beat your personal record for solving a case.”
Suddenly it all came rushing back. “You said you wanted to floss more,” I said.
Bess nodded glumly. I could see tears brimming in her eyes, and I felt like a horrible friend because I still didn’t know why this was making her so upset.
It was especially frustrating because I’m an amateur detective. I help people track down stolen goods, or figure out who’s behind a blackmail attempt. My dad’s a prosecutor, and he says that I solve more cases than some of the detectives he works with, so I should have been able to put the clues together and figure out why Bess was so sad. I understood that flossing wasn’t the most exciting resolution in the world, but it didn’t seem worth crying over.
Fortunately, Bess noticed my confusion. “You all have your things. Like George is a computer nerd.”
“Hey!” George piped up. She had finally noticed Bess’s mood and had put down her phone.
“Excuse me. A computer geek,” Bess corrected.
“Thank you,” George replied.
“You’re a detective. Ned is a brain. But I don’t know who I am or what I’m good at or even what I want to be when I get older.”
I thought for a second before answering, because I wanted to get this right. I finally understood what Bess was saying, and there was some truth to it: she wasn’t as easily categorized as me, George, or even Ned, but that didn’t mean she had no identity.
“You’re the most compassionate and empathetic person I’ve ever met, Bess,” I said finally.
“That’s different,” Bess countered.
“Yes, but it’s still an amazing ability. Don’t dismiss that.”
“She’s right,” George agreed. “People like you; that’s a skill! Besides, lots of people our age don’t know what they’re good at or what they’re going to be when they grow up. You have time to figure it out.”
Before we could try to console Bess any further, the café’s door flew open and a voice boomed out, “Nancy Drew and Bess Marvin? I thought I saw you through the window!”
Bess and I turned. A tall, statuesque girl stood in the doorway, looking at us expectantly.
Bess and I exchanged a confused glance. Neither of us had any idea who she was.
The girl didn’t seem to realize our obliviousness and approached our table with a big grin on her face. “I’m going to grab some green tea, but then we have so much to catch up on!”
I sat there with a frozen smile on my face, not sure how to respond. “We can’t wait to find out about you as well,” Bess said genuinely. That’s what I mean about Bess being a people person. She always knows exactly what to say and never makes anyone feel uncomfortable.
The girl smiled broadly. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, and got in line to buy her tea.
“Who is that?” George asked once she was out of hearing range.
“I have no idea,” I answered.
“Me neither,” Bess confirmed.
“Well, this is going to be supremely awkward if you don’t figure out who she is before she gets back,” George said.
The girl was just waiting for the barista to pour her hot water. She waved at us with a smile. Bess and I smiled back.
Bess turned toward me urgently. “You need to solve this case and figure out who she is.”
By my estimate the girl would be back at our table in less than a minute. There wasn’t time to do much investigating.
I studied her as discreetly as I could, looking for any important details. Her hair hung loose, just brushing her shoulders, but instead of parting in the middle, it flowed back, as if she wore her hair tied back most of the time. She was carrying a small duffel bag; it looked like a gym bag but had a pink satin ribbon poking out of it. I knew that was important, but I couldn’t figure out what it signified. She wore a skirt, and I noticed the muscular definition of her calves through her tights. She was absentmindedly rotating her ankle, turning her foot out at a ninety-degree angle.
All of a sudden, a memory flooded back—standing behind a girl doing the same move in Miss Taylor’s ballet class eight years ago.
As the girl approached us, I could feel Bess’s nervous eyes on me. I stood up, holding my arms out for a hug. “Maggie,” I said. “It’s so good to see you again!”
“George,” I said, “this is Maggie Richards. She was in Miss Taylor’s ballet class with Bess and me.”
“But then she moved to Cleveland to attend a prestigious ballet academy,” Bess continued, her face alight in recognition.
Maggie nodded, blushing a little.
“From our very first class,” I explained, “it was clear Maggie was a star.”
“Oh, that’s not true,” Maggie said bashfully.
But it was true. Even at five years old, you could tell that Maggie truly had a gift. Miss Taylor was always complimenting Maggie on her technique, her extension, and her line, but more than that, there was something inherently expressive about the way she moved. When she danced the part of one of the polichinelles (the children who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt) in The Nutcracker, you could see true joy in her movements. Even just doing barre work, the exercises we did to warm up, you couldn’t take your eyes off Maggie. She was magnetic. No one had been surprised when she was accepted into the Cleveland Ballet Academy to train as a professional ballerina.
“What are you doing back in town?” Bess asked.
“I’m in a touring production of Sleeping Beauty, and there’s a performance tomorrow in River Heights,” Maggie explained.
“That’s great!” I exclaimed. “Does this mean you’re a prima ballerina now?”
Maggie shook her head. “Not yet, but this tour is specifically for the most promising dancers in the region. They auditioned dancers from the top dance schools in three states. It’s to give us a taste of what touring would feel like if we did turn professional.”
“Fantastic,” Bess said. “We’re so happy for you!”
Maggie looked around the shop for a second, then leaned in close, as if she was going to tell us a secret. “Actually, this River Heights performance could be my big break,” she whispered.
“How so?” I asked.
“Supposedly, Oscar LeVigne will be in attendance.”
For the second time that day, Bess and I exchanged confused glances. We didn’t have any idea who Oscar LeVigne was.
Maggie noticed and started laughing. “Wow, you guys must have quit ballet ages ago if you’ve forgotten Oscar LeVigne. Miss Taylor used to talk about him all the time.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I stopped in middle school. I just didn’t have the time with my cases.”
“Cases?” Maggie asked. “Like a detective?”
I nodded as she tried to process this. People always seem surprised when they find out I’m an amateur sleuth.
“I do remember you always reading mysteries before class,” Maggie remembered. “What about you, Bess? You were a really talented dancer, if I recall.”
Bess blushed. “I just lost my passion for it. I felt like I wasn’t getting any better and I’d never be as good as I wanted to be.” She paused for a moment. “I do miss it sometimes.”
“Well,” Maggie continued, “Oscar LeVigne is a famous ballet critic. He’s known for spotting upcoming stars. A review from him can make or break careers. If I get a good one, there’s a really good chance I’ll be asked to audition for a professional company. If I get a bad one . . . I don’t even want to think about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll do great,” I said.
“Yeah, and we’ll be there cheering you on,” Bess said. “Just like we were at the recital when the ballet academy scout showed up all those years ago.”
Maggie gave us a grateful smile. “It’s so good to see you two. I’ve missed you.”
“You too,” Bess said.
“I’d love to stay and chat, but I have to get to rehearsal by three o’clock and I can’t be late. Jamison, our choreographer and my teacher at the academy, is really strict. You have to do an extra grand plié for every minute you’re late; if you’re more than twenty minutes late, you sit out the next performance. Maybe we could meet for dinner later?”
“That sounds great,” I said.
“Wait,” George interrupted. “Did you say three o’clock?”
“But it’s ten after three right now!” George exclaimed, holding out her watch.
“What!?” Maggie practically shrieked. “My phone says it’s ten after two!”