George nearly choked on the lemon poppy-seed muffin she’d been munching on. “Are you kidding me? First of all, what boyfriend? Second, how can that be a coincidence? She totally has something to do with this!”
“George,” I started.
But Bess interjected. “Actually, Nancy, I think this time my cousin might be right.”
George looked at Bess in obvious surprise. “You do?”
“Well,” said Bess, standing and brushing crumbs off her lap. “Deirdre was last year’s Daughter of River Heights, right?”
“Right,” I said. “That’s what you said earlier.”
“So maybe she doesn’t like the fact that her ‘Little Sister’ is catching up to her. Look at it this way - how do you think Miss America feels when she relinquishes her crown to the new Miss America? It’s got to be hard being the former best at something, even if you’re not competing against anyone directly.”
“Probably like a has-been,” George joked. We all knew George’s opinion about beauty pageants.
“But that’s true,” Bess countered. “What is next after you win a big distinction like that? I’m not saying that the DRH is comparable to Miss America. But think about it - Deirdre loves competition like nothing else. What does she have now?”
I considered that for a moment. But it was still difficult imagining Deirdre doing anything violent, like throwing a brick through a window. One thing was for sure: If our blogger did have an accomplice, I was going to find out about it, and fast. Before anyone really did get hurt.
I looked at the time on my PDA: 7:52 a.m. The carnival opened at nine, and we were supposed to be there prepping for the big opening by eight.
“Yikes, you guys - we’re going to be late.”
“I’m ready,” Bess said, with a flourish. She wore her opening-day outfit, the one we’d spent forever trying to find at Boom Babies a couple of days before - and it looked gorgeous on her.
Watch out, Scott Sears, I thought.
“Let’s get out of here,” George declared, grabbing Bess’s keys.
Bess grabbed them back. “Not a chance,” she admonished.
“Whatever,” said George. “But Nancy?”
“Make my day, and prove that Deirdre had something to do with this.”
I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“A brick through a window?” Ned asked from behind the ticket counter. “Nancy, I really don’t like this. You could have been hurt.”
He stretched his hand out over the counter to grasp mine and squeezed it, concern filling his warm brown eyes.
“I know,” I said. “But if I don’t help Lexi find out who is behind any of this, someone definitely will get hurt.”
“And there’s no one else who can solve mysteries in this town?”
Behind us, some of the River Heights High faculty were setting up a red ribbon for Mrs. Mahoney to cut before they opened up the carnival to the public. Mr. Steele was in the background, barking orders at everyone and making sure that everything was running smoothly.
He did not look happy. I remembered those looks from when he’d passed back an exam I’d flunked because I’d been out late the night before, trying to solve a mystery.
“You put up with it because you love me,” I said to Ned, smiling.
“You make me nervous because I love you,” he said. “But if I know anything about you, I know that when you set your mind to something, you will not be stopped.”
“You won’t get an argument from me on that one,” I agreed.
“All I can continue to say, then, is be careful. And watch out for Mr. Steele. He’s on the warpath today.”
“I noticed,” I said, looking at the chaos taking place on the fairgrounds. “What’s going on here, anyway?”
“Mrs. Mahoney had very specific instructions about the way she’d like everything to go.” Ned shrugged. “I guess they’re trying to do everything they can to accommodate the person who made all of this possible.”
It really was amazing. Everyone was bustling around, and the smell of hot dogs, funnel cake, cotton candy, and sausage and peppers made my mouth water. There were rides going, the carnival music was flowing, and game booths were set up everywhere you looked. You’d never have believed that just days ago, this was an ordinary high school parking lot.
“It’s time!” Mr. Steele barked through a megaphone.
“See you soon,” said Ned.
We’d agreed to meet up at the end of the day for the big fireworks display that would be happening as soon as the sun went down. It was going to be the only thing that would get me through my day at the fro-yo stand with Lexi and the other girls.
I leaned over the counter and gave him a peck on the cheek, then joined the others in front of the giant red sash that had been set up before the carnival entrance. Mrs. Mahoney, a slight, kindly-looking elderly woman with silver hair and wisps of bangs, stood with Mara Stanfield, who was holding a pair of scissors.
George and Bess joined me in the crowd.
“This is some turnout,” George said.
“Much bigger than any year before,” said Bess. “Which is great for the scholarship fund.”
“What scholarship fund?” I asked.
“Remember?” Bess said. “The Mahoney Scholarship Award - you’re the one who told me about it. Isn’t that one of Lexi’s duties as this year’s Daughter? To present the award?”
“Oh, right!” I said, remembering. “It’s the last duty that she’ll have to carry out for the Celebration. Tomorrow is the parade, and Sunday is the scholarship presentation. But what does that have to do with this year’s turnout?”
“Mrs. Mahoney is putting up enough money for one full college scholarship to the winner. But the other three candidates get to split the ticket sales money from the carnival.”
“Wow, that’s actually pretty cool,” George chimed in.
“Very cool,” I said. “I can’t believe I forgot about that scholarship. I’d love to get my hands on a list of the candidates. Bess, today I want you to shadow Scott, see if you find him scribbling notes on any sky blue papers. My instinct tells me he’s not our guy - but I’d still like to know more about him.”
Bess grinned sheepishly. “Well, I guess I could do that.”
George rolled her eyes. “I want a job!” she said.
“I’m going to be working at the fro-yo booth with Lexi and the rest - I’ll try to get more information out of Aly, see if there’s any strain on her relationships with any of the other girls. But George, if you could get into that password-protected file and hang around Sunshine Lawrence whenever you’re done, that would be a huge help.”
“Done,” said George.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Mara’s voice boomed out over the crowd. That woman definitely did not need a microphone to be heard. “Welcome to the 80th annual River Heights Mahoney Celebration. This year we honor Mrs. Mahoney and her late husband, Cornelius.”
I heard someone snort behind me, but when I turned around, there was only a row of people looking attentive and interested in what Mara was saying.
“The Mahoneys have been a huge part of the history of this town, and we owe Mrs. Mahoney a great deal for her philanthropy and the goodwill that she has made sure to spread throughout our beloved town.”
Mrs. Mahoney turned a bit pink and swatted Mara’s doting words away like a fly buzzing near her ear. But her mouth was turned up in a smile. I grinned just looking at her.
“In fact, we owe all of this” - Mara gestured toward the carnival - “to the Mahoneys and their generous donations to our schools. Before Mrs. Mahoney cuts the ribbon, I want to remind you all that there will be a fireworks display this evening starting at approximately nine o’clock. Tomorrow there will be a River Heights town parade, featuring this year’s Daughter of River Heights, Miss Lexi Claremont.”
She paused while people in the audience clapped. During the applause, I looked around at the sea of faces around me, searching for any sign that someone was unhappy at the mention of Lexi’s name. But only Sunshine, who I already knew disliked Lexi - and with good reason - was scowling.
“Finally, to close out this year’s Celebration, we will be handing out the Mahoney Scholarship Award, which will offer one of four candidates the opportunity to get a full four-year college scholarship. The money made from your ticket sales here will be split among the runners-up.”
“And without further ado, I would like to hand the ceremonial scissors over to Mrs. Mahoney, so that she may cut the ribbon and the carnival will be open for business!”
At this, the younger kids in the audience cheered loudly. I anticipated seeing many children in near sugar comas sleeping through the fireworks display by the end of the evening, judging by all the candy-selling food stands I saw being set up yesterday.
“I just want to thank the citizens of this town,” Mrs. Mahoney said into the microphone in a shaky voice.
I felt the kids go still. I could read their minds: Not another speech. Give us candy!
“It’s an honor,” Mrs. Mahoney continued, “to be here to witness all the people I saw first as children grow up to be fine, upstanding young citizens. It is my honor to do my part in bettering this community in any way possible. I look forward to this weekend as much as any of you.”
Mara handed Mrs. Mahoney the scissors and held the red ribbon taut for her to cut the fabric.
Mrs. Mahoney made the cut, and the ribbon fluttered delicately to the ground in two pieces.
The Celebration had begun.
FUEL TO THE FIRE
This. Is so. Boring,” Deirdre said, leaning over the counter, playing with select strands of her raven hair.
“I’ll bet it would be less boring if you actually lent a hand,” I chimed in, trying to tame my stream of fro-yo into an elegant spiral. It was my seventh one of the day, and it had turned out just like the others - in strange, awkward squiggles that were barely contained by the cups we’d been given to pour into.
“I want sprinkles!” said the kid in front of me, whose head barely cleared the counter.
“Me too!” said his brother.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wiping my brow with the back of my hand. “We don’t have sprinkles, but we do have fresh-cut fruit and granola.”
Kid Number One stuck his tongue out in obvious disgust. Kid Number Two shook his head in disdain. I’d rather have sprinkles too, I wanted to tell them. Their mother paid, gave me a fleeting smile, and then struggled down the fairway juggling her children’s hands, two oversize stuffed giraffes, and a shiny green balloon in the shape of a bullfrog.
“I don’t know,” Deirdre drawled. “Looks like you’ve got it covered.” She smirked at me.
I only sighed. So far, all I’d managed to do was follow or give instructions at the fro-yo stand. I thought we’d have a slow morning, considering that it was, well, morning, but I’d underestimated the heat, and we’d been swamped the whole time.
“Hey babe,” a deep male voice said behind me.
I turned around, a look of barely contained surprise on my face as a guy with dark, brooding eyes and an outfit to match wrapped his arms around Deirdre. Hel- lo, Deirdre’s new boyfriend. Where were you at, say, 9:52 yesterday evening?
“This is Josh,” Deirdre said, introducing him to Lexi first, then Heather, then Aly, and finally, with a flip wave of her hand, to me.
Josh nodded at each of us. I noticed that this guy was not the type that Deirdre normally went for - if her never-ending, not-even-close-to-contained crush on Ned said anything about her type. Whereas Ned was All-American, clean-cut, warm, and charming, Josh fit more into the “bad boy” category.
He was tall, with shaggy dark hair and a lanky body, and scruffy stubble covered his chin and jawline. He wore loose, vintage-looking jeans with a studded belt and a tight-fitting white T-shirt. And by the way he looked at all of us, I doubted he cared to be anywhere near the fro-yo stand with his new girlfriend.
“When’re you gonna get outta here?” I heard him whisper to Deirdre.
Deirdre pouted at us. “You guys, this is, like, so unfair. I’m the only one here with a boyfriend, and I could totally be doing better things than hanging out here.”
And that was when I noticed something odd pass between Aly and Heather. Right after Deirdre said she was the only one with a boyfriend, Aly got a weird, uneasy look on her face and glanced at Heather. Heather looked… the only way to describe it was furious.
And Lexi, who’d just broken up with Scott - a bad breakup, as I recalled - looked oblivious to the tension around the rest of the group. She simply poured the world’s most perfect cup of fro-yo, handed it to the teenage girl waiting in line, smiled, and said, “Have a great day!”
What was all that about?
But before I could even begin to think about it, the screaming started. At first it was only a few people. And then the screams got louder, and more people were joining in. It was maybe thirty seconds before I could make out what they were saying, but it felt like an eternity.
Finally I heard it. One word, over and over: Fire! Fire! Fire!
And then I saw it, licks of flame rising up above the crowd. I traded looks with the other girls before whipping off my apron and sprinting toward the center of the screaming mob.
Bess appeared at my side, fire extinguisher in hand and Scott beside her, also with a fire extinguisher. It wasn’t as bad a fire as I’d thought - though big enough to cause alarm in such a large crowd with so many fire hazards. But with the help of Bess, Scott, and their two fire extinguishers, the fire was out in a matter of seconds.
“What happened?” I asked Bess breathlessly, once the crowds had dispersed.
Bess shook her head. “I was talking to Scott here at his corn-dog stand.” She pointed to the booth right next to where the fire had broken out. “And all of a sudden, the whole sausage-and-peppers cart went up in flames!”
“Is everyone okay? Was anyone hurt?” I asked.
“No one was hurt,” Scott cut in. “Everyone got away in time - but what we can’t figure out is how the fire even happened in the first place.”
Two high school guys - I assumed the ones manning the sausage-and-peppers grill - were wiping down the fine white dust that the fire extinguishers had left on everything in their path, and Mara and Mr. Steele were bickering behind them, discussing whether or not they should call the fire department.
I walked toward the charred, blackened soot, looking to see if there was anything out of place, anything that could have caused the fire.
Scott held up an arm, blocking my way. “Be careful,” he said, lowering his arm slightly.
I nodded and inched a bit closer. Something smelled… off. I could smell the burning and the smoke, but there was something else I detected too. Something that didn’t belong anywhere near the gas stove that had been cooking the sausage and peppers.
“Does anyone else smell that?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bess said, looking down at her new dress with a frown. “I’m going to smell like charred onion for weeks.”
“No, I’m serious,” I said, waving both Scott and Bess over toward the black mess.
“I was being serious too,” Bess complained. “And my hair - is that… gasoline?”
“Lighter fluid,” Scott said with certainty. “It’s the same stuff my dad uses to pour over the coals when we barbecue at home. But there’s no reason to use it on a gas stove.”
“Someone had to have thrown the fuel on this fire to ignite it,” I said. “I’m sure of it. This was no accident.”
“Who would have done something like that?” Scott asked.
Bess and I traded looks. Good question.
“So no one knows who did it?” Lexi asked.
“Nope,” I answered. “We questioned the two guys who were manning the stand, and they had no clue. One of them had just left to get a soda from a nearby stand, and the other was so busy he lit up a third burner that they hadn’t turned on until right then.”
“So the lighter fluid could have been on there from the very beginning, and it was just luck that they hadn’t used that burner yet,” Aly said.
Lexi shuddered. I could tell that she was thinking what I’d been trying not to think this whole time: What if the fire was related to the threats toward Lexi? It seemed unlikely, just coincidence, but something told me not to rule it out just yet. I walked toward Lexi, about to try to soothe her nerves, but something attached to the corner of our tent caught my eye. Something flapping in the breeze.
I stopped midstep and squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that I was just imagining things. That I was overtired and I hadn’t just seen what I thought I’d seen. But when I opened my eyes, it was still there. A small, sky blue note taped to the tent pole of our fro-yo stand.
I snatched it off the pole right away and immediately identified the telltale smudged black ink and the too-faint receipt lines printed on the other side. I braced myself, then looked at the slanted writing.
YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO ME, LEXI. SHOW UP AT THAT PARADE, AND
YOU’LL REGRET IT. YOU THOUGHT THE BRICK FLYING THROUGH YOUR
FRIEND’S WINDOW WAS SCARY? THAT’S NOTHING COMPARED TO
WHAT I’VE GOT PLANNED FOR YOU TOMORROW.
I tried to control the look on my face, because I knew Lexi was watching me. But the truth was, these notes were getting more and more serious, and I really was starting to get scared. Maybe Ned was right. Maybe it was time to involve the police.
“What does it say?” said a fragile voice behind me.
“It’s just more of the same,” I said, forcing a strong voice. “I don’t think you should even read it, really. It’s just more like the others, and I -”
Lexi pulled the note out of my hands. Not roughly, like she was grabbing it away. She just took it gently. Like we were passing a note in class.
When she looked back up at me, there were tears in her eyes. Despite everything I’d seen about Lexi - her vanity, the way she’d treated Sunshine, her impatience toward me earlier - all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around the girl and tell her that everything was going to be okay. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure that was true.
“Why would someone do this to me?” Lexi whispered.
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “Lexi, I’m not going to stop trying to find out who this person is, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. But I think it’s time to involve the police. This has escalated to a level that -”
“No!” Lexi shouted, anger adding strength to her voice. “If we do that, they won’t let me do any of the things I’m supposed to do this weekend. The parade, the scholarship presentation, all of it will be ruined!” Her voice was gaining power with every word. “And I am not going to let some jealous loser scare me out of taking what I deserve!”
I tried to reason with her. “Lexi, we’re not just talking about some gossip website anymore. These notes, and that brick - that was real life, all of it. This is getting a little beyond my reach.”
“Then quit,” Lexi said simply.
“I said, quit.” Lexi folded her arms over her chest.
I bit my lip, weighing my options. It was clear that Lexi didn’t want to involve the
police. And to be honest, I didn’t blame her. Even though the sabotage was clearly escalating, I’d solved enough mysteries in this town to know that involving our local police department on a hunch wouldn’t necessarily ensure Lexi’s safety more than my own investigation. Still, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea that I was the only person who could help in such an extreme situation.
I blew out a breath and placed my hand on my hip, hoping to look more authoritative than I felt. “Okay, Lexi,” I said. “Let’s make a deal.”
She eyed me warily.
“Give me until the end of today,” I continued. “If I can’t at least find a strong lead suspect by then, you agree to alert the police as to what’s been going on.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but I cut back in. “Give me today,” I said again. “And then we’ll talk about it.”
Lexi looked doubtful, but I could tell that she was happy that I’d given her a deadline to look forward to.
“How many suspects do you have now?” she challenged.
I counted in my head. There was Scott Sears - the guy with whom Lexi claimed to have had a bad breakup. But was a bad breakup enough motive to write threatening notes and throw a brick through a window? Besides, Bess claimed he seemed happy as could be. But something about the way Lexi talked about the breakup unnerved me, and I wasn’t willing to let him go as a suspect yet.
There was also Aly Stanfield. She was an insider in Lexi’s group and would have plenty to spill on the blog. Plus, she had a motive - being passed over for this year’s DRH by her own mother. Suspect number two. But I was stuck on the brick going through her own window. Would she really have asked her accomplice to do that, even if it would divert attention from her? Possibly.
Much to George’s amusement, I wasn’t counting Deirdre out as a suspect either. She’d been the only one outside when the brick had been thrown into Aly’s living room the night before. She claimed to have been speaking with Josh. But could I get him to confirm that?
And then there was Sunshine Lawrence. More motive than anyone else we’d spoken with, plus she’d been on her laptop at Club Coffee when we’d first seen her. She had more than enough reason to want to destroy Lexi and her clique of friends.
“So far, we have four,” I told Lexi. “But we need to find out more to be sure.”
“Four?” asked Lexi, incredulous. “There are four people you’ve spoken with who would want to hurt me this way?”
I shrugged. “Like I said, we need to find out more, but -”
“Names,” said Lexi bluntly.
“Names,” she repeated. “Of the suspects. I want to know who they are.”
“I can’t do that,” I said firmly. “There’s no reason for me to incriminate anyone without being sure that they’ve done something wrong. And besides, if you go after any of the people I tell you about, you’ll scare them off and blow the whole investigation.”
“Fine,” Lexi groaned. “But Nancy? End of the day today.”
Bess and I met up at the picnic tables on the outskirts of the carnival, where we’d all had our hot dog lunch yesterday.
“Scott has been a perfect angel the whole time,” she said, a starry look in her eyes.
“I suspect your personal feelings are beginning to cloud this investigation,” I said, laughing.
She played with a lock of her golden hair, twisting it around her index finger. To most people, this would be a sign that she was acknowledging how right I was. But I’d known her since we were kids, and I knew better.
“Spill it,” I said.
She sighed and dropped her wound-up lock of hair. “Sometimes I hate how well you know me.”
“Spill,” I repeated, with more urgency this time.
She examined her manicure. “Well,” she began. “There is this one weird thing that’s been happening.”
I stared at her, urging her on, but she only continued to stare at her nails.
“Bess!” I shouted.
She jumped. “Jeez, okay,” she said. “It’s just that… some people who have been buying the corn dogs at Scott’s food stand have been complaining of feeling a little… well… queasy afterward.”
My jaw dropped. “Like food poisoning?” I asked.
“Like queasy,” said Bess. “I mean, who knows if it’s the corn dogs? Although it might seem a little suspicious, I guess. If he were, you know, a suspect.”
“Which he is,” I reminded her.
“Okay, fine.” She looked up and then looked directly at me. “It’s possible that it’s food poisoning. And if we’re leaping to conclusions, I suppose it’s possible - logistically - that if Scott is running the food stand, he might be sabotaging the food. But Nancy, I’m serious. I honestly don’t think he’s our guy. The look on his face when people started complaining about the food - he looked absolutely heartbroken. He takes great pride in those corn dogs.”
I nodded, taking this all in. Something just didn’t feel right about this whole thing. Writing a burn book blog about a group of popular girls was one thing - and the notes definitely took the danger quotient up a couple of notches. But a fire at the sausage-and-peppers stand, and possibly now a food poisoning case at the corn-dog stand? How were those incidents related to the sabotage of Lexi Claremont? If anything, it felt like someone was trying to sabotage the carnival itself. But who would want to do that - and why?
My phone buzzed in my pocket - it was a text message from Ned.
I had no idea what the text meant, but I knew my boyfriend, and he wouldn’t have written something so cryptic had there been time to explain.
I shot up and grabbed Bess, not even stopping to explain as I pulled her back to- ward the carnival.
The closer we got, the louder the crowd became. Soon we could hear screaming. Terrified screaming.
I looked up at the roller coaster as we approached and realized it wasn’t moving. The people at the top were screaming the loudest - they were also hanging upside down.
I spotted Ned and ran over to him. “What’s going on?” I asked.
Ned shook his head. “It’s stuck - and the machine operator has no idea how to fix it.”
Bess marched over to the man who was trying to keep the customers in line calm. “Who is in charge of fixing this ride?” she demanded.
“Look, miss, we’re doing everything we can. We’ll have it fixed in no time.”
“Let me rephrase that,” said Bess. “Tell me who is in charge of fixing this ride, or I’ll spread a panic throughout this carnival that will have you fired before you can even change your mind.”
The big, burly guy she was talking to held up his thick hands in submission, then gestured to a wiry man past the gates of the roller coaster, who was frantically running his hands across a large, gray box at the base of the ride.
Bess moved past the burly man quickly, ignoring his plea of, “Miss, you can’t go back there!” and waving me away as I called out to be careful.
I moved closer to see what she was doing and, against the burly man’s orders, followed her to the machine operator.
“What’s going on?” Bess demanded, digging around in her purse.
“Who are you?” the man replied, staring at Bess in all her breathtaking beauty.
“Is the ride broken?” I asked, distracting him.
“We’re working on it,” he tried to assure us. But the screams were sounding more panicked, and I could tell from the look on his face that this guy was out of his comfort zone.
“Look, maybe we can help,” I said. “What went wrong, and how long have those people been stuck up there?”
The man sighed, scratching at the stubble on his face. “Too long,” he admitted. “Fifteen, twenty minutes.” He ran his hands over the large gray box again, seeming to search for something only he knew existed.
“Where is it?” Bess asked.
He looked at her, stunned.
“Where is what?” I asked my friend.
“The lever,” Bess responded. “It’s what keeps the ride going and what stops it. And it should be right” - she placed a finger on a narrow slit on the box - “here.”
“Who are you again?” asked the man, dumbfounded.
At that moment, Bess pulled a travel tool kit out of her purse. “Someone,” she said, holding up the kit, “who might be able to save your job.”
More screams erupted from the top of the coaster as the cars lurched forward a fraction of an inch and then stopped. I couldn’t imagine how those poor people felt!
“I - I have no idea how this could have happened!” the man said, frantic. “Whoever did this must have done it on purpose. Without the lever, there’s no control - and there’s no damage to the box. Whoever did this had to have taken the box apart quickly, and they knew exactly how to extract the lever.”
“Let me try it,” Bess said, pushing him aside with her shoulder.
“Miss, I appreciate your help, but this could be dangerous.”
“Trust me,” I intervened. “You want her help.”
I knew more than anyone how good Bess was with machines. She might look like a sorority girl who knew nothing more than the new “it” color this fall and what shoes to wear with which length pants, but she was the savviest person I knew when it came to fixing any type of machinery. She was a whiz when it came to cars, in particular, but she knew her way around a toolbox when it came to almost any other type of machine.
Bess opened the travel toolbox and shifted around some tools I’d never even seen before. Before we knew it, she’d taken the entire box apart and had wedged a screwdriver into a small place between two round, jagged gears. Then she pried the screwdriver back and forth and finally seemed to hit something. Soon the screaming rose and then fell silent as the roller coaster slowly began to move again.