Authors: Charles Tang
“Then I’m even more glad that we’re not playing on his team anymore,” said Henry.
Gillian’s team had gathered around her. “Okay, everybody, you all did a good job. If we keep working hard and really trying, we’re going to have a terrific soccer summer,” Gillian said. “See you at the next practice.”
As the soccer players left, Henry and Soo Lee walked up to Gillian to tell her that they were now on her team. “Great,” said Gillian, writing their names down on her clipboard.
“Hooray,” said Benny, giving a little skip.
“I’m glad,” Violet said.
“I’m going to be on your team, too,” said Jessie.
The others all looked over at her in surprise.
Jessie went on, “I like Craig. I think he’s a good coach. But I want to play with you guys on the Panthers.”
With a nod and smile, Gillian wrote Jessie’s name on her clipboard list. “Welcome to the team,” she said. “See you all at the next practice.” She tucked her clipboard under her arm and walked back to the community center.
“Does anybody need a ride home?” asked Elena. She pointed toward a car in the parking lot. “My father’s here to pick me up.”
“I’d like a ride,” Benny declared. “My legs are
“We’re going to get ice cream,” said Elena.
“And my stomach is
,” added Benny.
Jessie ruffled her younger brother’s hair. “You’re always hungry, Benny. Especially for ice cream.”
“I’d like some ice cream, too,” said Violet.
“I guess we do want a ride,” said Henry. “Thank you.”
The six soccer players began to walk toward Mr. Perez’s car. As they got closer to the parking lot at one side of the community center soccer fields, Jessie said, “Look over there, at the other end of the parking lot.”
They all looked. They saw a battered blue van with a man sitting in it behind the steering wheel.
“Isn’t he holding a pair of binoculars?” Jessie asked.
The others turned and looked at the van. Henry squinted a little and said, “I think you’re right, Jessie. He
holding binoculars. And he seems to have them turned in this direction. But why?”
“Maybe he is watching for birds,” suggested Soo Lee.
“A soccer field is a funny place to bird-watch,” said Elena. “If I were a bird, I wouldn’t stay on a soccer field. You might get hit by a soccer ball!”
Just then the man in the van put down the binoculars, backed quickly out of the parking lot, and drove away.
“Why did he leave so suddenly?” Soo Lee wondered aloud.
“Maybe he’s a spy!” exclaimed Benny.
Henry laughed. “Oh, Benny,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
Elena introduced them to her father, and they drove to the ice-cream parlor. The six children all got ice-cream cones and went outside to sit at the tables on the sidewalk to eat them. The ice cream tasted good after the long, hot soccer practice.
“Soccer makes me hungry,” said Benny. He had gotten chocolate ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.
“Me, too,” said Elena, who was eating a butterscotch sundae.
“I’m glad I’m on a team,” said Violet. “I didn’t think Stan was going to let beginners play.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Elena. She looked very surprised.
The Aldens and Soo Lee told her about the conversation they had overheard the day before.
“Well, Gillian should get that coaching job,” said Elena. “She’s a great coach. She’s definitely the best one for the job.”
“Ha,” said a familiar, sarcastic voice.
They all looked up to see Robert standing on the sidewalk in front of them. “Gillian’s a crummy coach,” said Robert. “Stan is the best coach.” He looked at Henry and Soo Lee. “Too bad you quit the Bears. Now you won’t get a chance to win any games.”
“We will, too,” said Soo Lee. “Gillian thinks we are a good team.”
“She’s just saying that,” said Robert. “I bet she’s really upset. Coaching a bunch of beginners is going to ruin her chances of getting that job. The university is only interested in coaches who can coach winning teams.”
He turned and walked away.
For a moment no one spoke. Then Jessie said, “Wow. He might be a good soccer player, but he is definitely not a good person.”
“Robert would be an even better player if he were a better sport,” said Elena.
But Violet wasn’t thinking about that. She looked around at the others. “Do you think it’s true?” she said. “Do you think that if our team loses, Gillian won’t have a chance of getting that coaching job?”
“I don’t know, Violet,” said Henry. “I don’t know.”
It was two weeks later and the last practice for all three teams before the first game. Robert caught a ball and kicked it hard out of the goal and down the field where the Bears were practicing. “Gotcha!” he shouted at the player who had kicked the ball.
“At least we don’t have to play our first game against the Bears,” said Soo Lee.
“Yes. It will be much more fun to play against the Silver City Rockets,” agreed Jessie. The next day all three teams — the Bears, the Panthers, and the Hawks — were going to play against teams at the Silver City Community Center.
Stan had started his team’s practice early and was already yelling at his players. Gillian had gone to the room where each team kept soccer balls and equipment.
Now she and Craig were coming back to start practices for their teams. Each was carrying a big net bag full of soccer balls.
Craig walked over to his team and Gillian came to join the Panthers. “Okay, everybody,” she said. “Each of you take a soccer ball and jog around the field. Practice kicking the ball as you run.”
She opened the bag and turned it upside down, and the soccer balls came spilling out.
But they didn’t bounce everywhere as they usually did. They thudded to the ground and just lay there.
“What is this?” asked Gillian, bending over to pick up a soccer ball. She squeezed it between her hands and frowned. “This soccer ball is completely flat,” she said.
“So is this one,” said Elena, picking up another ball.
“And this one,” cried Jessie.
“They’re all flat,” said Gillian.
At that moment, Craig came running over holding a soccer ball in his hands. “Look at this!
at this!” he cried. “Every single ball, flat. No air. Like a pancake. This is no coincidence. Someone let the air out of my team’s soccer balls.”
“Mine, too,” said Gillian. She looked around at the Panther team members. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke? Did someone sneak into the equipment room and let the air out of the soccer balls?”
Everyone on the Panthers shook their heads.
“Well, whoever did it, it’s not funny.” Gillian’s normally pleasant expression was cross. “We’re going to have to pump all these balls up before we can begin practice.”
“No one on my team knows anything about it, either,” said Craig. He raised his hand and waved vigorously. “There’s Stan. Stan! Come over here, please.”
“What’s the problem?” asked Stan as he approached the two coaches.
“This is the problem,” said Gillian. She showed Stan the balls, and she and Craig told him what had happened.
Stan didn’t change expression as he listened. When Gillian and Craig were finished, he said, “I wonder how that happened,” as if he weren’t really interested.
Jessie stepped forward. “Who has a key to the equipment room?” she asked.
Stan raised one eyebrow. “I do. Craig and Gillian do. So does the director of the community center, of course. And the janitor.”
“Five people,” said Henry.
“I hope you’re not implying that one of us would pull such a childish trick,” Stan said.
“Someone did,” Benny said.
“Well, it could have been anybody,” said Stan. “I unlocked the equipment door when I got here, a little before practice was scheduled to begin. I usually do that, and I don’t lock it back up until after practice is over.” Stan checked his watch. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a team to coach.”
“But what about our teams’ soccer balls?” protested Craig.
“There’s a hand pump in the equipment room,” said Stan, sounding bored. “I suggest you get started.”
“He wasn’t much help,” said Craig.
“No. But we’d better get started pumping up those soccer balls,” said Gillian.
Craig, Gillian, and some of the players on each team took turns pumping the balls up as fast as they could. But it still took a long time. When it was finished at last, Craig’s team took the balls back to their field and began to practice.
Gillian gave each Panther a ball. Still looking cross, she said, “Let’s get this started. With our first game tomorrow, we need every minute of practice we can get.” She glanced toward the Bears, who were practicing on the next field, and her expression was unhappy.
The Panthers had worked hard. They were better players than they had been. But the Bears were better still.
“Who would let all the air out of the balls?” asked Elena as they ran and dribbled their soccer balls. “That was a mean thing to do.”
“Robert’s mean,” said Benny. “Maybe he did it.”
“You can’t just say someone did something because they’re mean,” said Henry. “You have to have proof.”
“Maybe we can find a witness,” said Jessie.
“We’ll look for clues after practice,” said Henry.
“I know who might have done it,” said Soo Lee suddenly. “Look. It’s the same blue van that was here before.”
The van was in the same place, on the far side of the parking lot. They could see someone in it, but they could not tell if the person was using binoculars.
“Wow,” said Benny. “Do you think the spy did it?”
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “But we’re going to find out, as soon as practice is over!”
After practice, however, the van was gone. And when they asked Gillian if she had seen anyone suspicious-looking loitering near the equipment room, she shook her head. “I’ve thought and thought about it,” she said. “But I don’t remember seeing anyone near it before practice. Except, of course, Craig. He was on his way to get his teams’ practice balls and I ran into him.”
“It sounds as if almost anybody could have gotten into the equipment room,” said Henry.
“Yes,” Gillian said. “But I’m going to talk to Stan about keeping the door locked from now on. We don’t need any more pranks like this.” She fished around in the pocket of her windbreaker and brought out her car keys. “See you at the game,” she said.
The Aldens waved good-bye to Gillian and to Elena. “See you tomorrow in Silver City,” Elena called out the car window as she drove away with her father.
Then they went to get their bikes, which they had left along one side of the soccer field.
Violet picked up her bike and was about to get on it when she stopped. “Look,” she said, pointing. “The blue van is over there now!” She wasn’t pointing across the parking lot. She was pointing toward the road that ran down the other side of the fields.
“Yes!” said Henry. “I think that’s the same van.”
“The spy,” said Benny, getting excited.
“Not a spy,” said Jessie. “But I think we should ride our bikes in that direction to see if he has binoculars this time.”
Quickly the Aldens got on their bicycles and rode around the community center and down the sidewalk along the road where the van was parked.
Just as they pulled up next to the van, the driver turned and looked out the window. He had on dark glasses and a blue-and-gold cap pulled low on his forehead.
When he saw the Aldens, he started the van and drove quickly away.
The Aldens tried to follow him, but the van was too fast. By the time they got to the corner, it had disappeared from sight.
“He doesn’t want us to see him,” said Henry as they pulled their bikes to a stop. “That’s for sure.”
“But who is he?” asked Jessie.
“And why is he watching us?” added Violet.
“He had binoculars this time, too,” Soo Lee said. “I saw them on the dashboard.”
“Well, even if he isn’t a spy,” said Benny, “it’s a mystery, isn’t it?”
“It is, Benny,” agreed Jessie. “But this time, it’s a mystery without any clues!”
he Silver City Rockets look like a good soccer team,” said Violet.
“Good. They will be fun to play against,” said Jessie cheerfully. “And look. There’s even a locker room where we can change into our new shirts.”
All the soccer teams had gotten new shirts in their team colors, with the name of the team and a number on each shirt. The Panthers’ colors were purple and white.
Jessie, Violet, and Soo Lee went into the locker room. They each put their packs into a locker. They took off their sneakers and put on their soccer cleats and their new shirts. Then they hurried out to join the other Panthers on the soccer field.
The two teams lined up on opposite ends of the field. Then the referee blew her whistle and the game began!
“Go, Panthers!” shouted Grandfather.
Not everybody could play at once. Only eleven players from each team were allowed on the field at any one time. Benny didn’t start out playing the game. He stood on the sidelines with Jessie.
They cheered loudly whenever the Panthers got the ball. Gillian clapped and cheered, too. Then suddenly Elena got the ball. She ran as fast as she could with it, dodged around one of the Rockets, and kicked it into the goal!