The Case of the Photo Finish (9 page)

BOOK: The Case of the Photo Finish
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Cheryl shook her head. “I'm in the last heat,” she said. “I still have plenty of time, and my stomach is really starting to complain.”

“Okay, let's go.”

The parking lot was nearly full, but Nancy managed to ease her Mustang out of its slot without scraping the next car. Leaving the parking lot, she turned onto the side street that bordered the athletic field.

Suddenly a battered station wagon pulled away from the curb, right in front of her. Nancy jammed her foot on the brake pedal, then gasped in horror as the pedal sank straight to the floor.

She had no brakes at all!

More Dirty Tricks

Nancy turned the steering wheel sharply to the left, and her tires shrieked in protest. Next to her, Cheryl gripped the dashboard and shouted, “Watch out!”

Nancy's convertible cleared the station wagon's rear fender by only a few inches. She worked frantically to pump the brake pedal to build up pressure, but there was no resistance at all.

Quickly, Nancy forced the transmission into low gear, then yanked up on the hand brake. The little car began to slow down but not enough. Looking ahead, Nancy saw with horror that they were fast approaching a busy intersection. She couldn't possibly steer into that steady stream of traffic without someone getting badly hurt.

“Hold on!” Nancy shouted to Cheryl. She steered the car toward the concrete curb on the
right, grazing it with her front, then her rear, wheel. The steering wheel vibrated madly, but she gripped it tighter and kept forcing the convertible slightly to the right, just enough to keep the tire in contact with the curb. The tortured rubber squealed loudly and sent up a nauseating smell, but the car gradually slowed to a halt. The front end of the convertible stuck slightly out into the crowded intersection, but cars were able to swerve around it.

“Whew!” exclaimed Cheryl. “That was close!”

“Uh-huh. No brakes,” Nancy explained. She unclasped her hands from the steering wheel and wiggled her fingers, which ached from gripping the wheel so tightly.

“What happened?” Cheryl asked.

Nancy released her seat belt and opened her door. “Good question,” she said grimly. She got out, knelt down on the pavement, and peered under the Mustang. Something -was dripping from near the left front wheel, and she reached and caught a drop on her forefinger. It was a fairly thick pink liquid—hydraulic fluid from the brake line.

She straightened up. “Cheryl,” she called, “would you pass me the flashlight from the glove compartment?”

Nancy had to lie down on her side to get a good view under the car, but what she saw confirmed her suspicion. The hydraulic line to the left front
wheel had a break in it, just a few inches from the brake itself. The edges of the break were too smooth for it to have occurred naturally. Someone had deliberately nicked the tough plastic tubing with a knife to weaken it, knowing that it would hold for a while, then burst when the brakes were applied strongly. It was only by chance that she and Cheryl hadn't been killed.

As Nancy sat up, a motorcycle roared up and stopped beside her. The rider was unrecognizable behind his dark visor, but a second later he pulled out a camera, then raised his visor to focus on Nancy, Cheryl, and the disabled car.

“Eric!” Nancy cried. “What are you doing here?”

Taking off his helmet, Eric hung it from the handlebars and called back, “Taking pictures, of course. I saw you and Cheryl leaving and decided to follow you.”

He got off the motorcycle and walked over to the side of the Mustang as Nancy got to her feet. “You didn't get very far, did you?” he added. “What's wrong?”

“No brakes,” Nancy told him. She decided not to say anything about the sabotage yet. Cheryl seemed shaken up enough as it was, and she had to compete soon.

“Wow, you're lucky you weren't hurt! Can I help?”

“Sure, thanks,” Nancy said. “Could you find a
pay phone and call the garage for me? I don't think I ought to leave the car.” She turned to Cheryl, who was just getting out of the car. “What about you?” she asked. “What do you want to do now?”

“I'm going back to the field,” Cheryl replied unsteadily.

“I'll give you a ride on my bike,” Eric offered. “It brought me all the way from Washington, so I guess it'll make it back to the school.”

She shook her head. “I'd rather walk, thanks.”

“What about your lunch?” Nancy asked.

“I'll just have to skip it, I guess,” said Cheryl, shrugging.

“Before a race? Are you sure?” Nancy asked. Seeing the puzzled look on Eric's face, she explained about the protein drink.

“Hey, no problem,” he said. “After I call the garage, I'll run by your house and pick it up. Will somebody be there?”

“Good idea.” Nancy found the number of the garage in the glove compartment and wrote it down. Then she scribbled a note to Hannah.

Eric put on his helmet, started the motorcycle with a roar, and wheeled off down the road.

“Is it okay if I leave you here all alone?” Cheryl asked. “I feel like I need some time to get myself together before I have to warm up for the hundred-meter sprint.”

“I understand,” Nancy said. “Don't worry about me. I'll just wait until the tow truck comes, then come back to the field. I hope I don't miss your race.”

“Don't worry about it if you do,” Cheryl replied. “It's only the preliminary.” With a wave, she started back toward the athletic field.

Nancy smiled at Cheryl's self-confidence. It didn't even occur to her that she might not make it to the finals. But after all, she knew her own ability, and she probably had a pretty clear idea of the abilities of her opponents as well. If Cheryl was sure that she would make the finals, then she almost certainly would—unless she was sabotaged. It was up to Nancy to make sure that didn't happen.

With a soft toot of its horn, a gleaming red tow truck turned the corner, zipped past, made a quick U-turn, and backed up to the front of Nancy's car. The driver climbed down and said, “Hi, Nancy. What's the trouble? Battery dead?”

“Hi, Frank,” Nancy greeted him. “Worse than that, I'm afraid. I've got a broken brake line.”

“Really? That doesn't happen much. There was a guy last year whose brake line got chewed up by raccoons, but he lives way out of town. Let's take a look.”

He lay down on the pavement and looked under the car. When he sat back up, the smile
had vanished from his face. “Nancy, I hate to tell you this—”

“I know. Somebody doesn't like me.”

“You said it.”

“How hard will it be to fix?” Nancy asked.

“A cinch,” Frank assured her. “Just put in a new hose, replace the fluid, and bleed the system.” He glanced at his watch. “If my parts man has the right hose in stock, I can have it done this evening.”

“Great,” she told him.

“Give me a call around four,” he added. “I'll know by then.”

“Thanks a lot, Frank,” Nancy said. She left him hooking up her car to his truck.

Back at the field, she observed that the games were in full swing. The shot-putters were still competing. A group of athletes had collected at one end of the long-jump runway, and at the other end of the field, a pole-vaulter soared into the air and came down, bringing the crossbar down with him. On the track, a girls' relay race was about to start.

Nancy noticed Bess standing near the javelin throw, and she went to join her.

“Where have you been?” Bess demanded. “You missed all the excitement.”

Nancy gave Bess a concerned look. “What happened?” she asked. “Was anybody hurt?”

“Hurt? Of course not,” Bess said. “Why? You mean there have been more accidents?”

Nancy told her about the near-accident in the Mustang.

“Wow!” Bess exclaimed, giving Nancy a worried look. “You guys are lucky to be alive!”

“I know. And now it's more important than ever for me to get to the bottom of this case,” Nancy said. “What was the excitement you mentioned?”

“A guy from South America just tied the world record for the hurdles,” Bess told her. Her round face became flushed with excitement. “Isn't that fantastic? A world record, right here in River Heights!”

Nancy chuckled. “You're going to be a devoted sports fan by the time the weekend's over,” she teased.

“I can't help it,” Bess admitted. “They're really great athletes, and they're so totally wrapped up in what they're doing. It's pretty inspiring. I'm even thinking about starting an exercise program myself,” she added, patting her tummy. “I could stand to drop a few pounds.”

“Watch out,” Nancy said mischievously. “Muscle is denser than fat, you know. The better shape you're in, the more you'll weigh.”

“Really? Well, then, I guess I'll have to forget that idea.” Bess grinned. “Hey, I have some other
news, too. I was talking to that girl Annelise before, and you know what she told me? I said something about Willy and Cheryl, and she said that Willy and
had a big romance going a while back. Then Helga made Marta break it off because she said it was interfering with Marta's training.”

“So it was Marta who broke up with Willy, was it?” Nancy mused. “I hadn't heard that part of it. I wonder how he took it?”

“I guess now he's too wrapped up in Cheryl to care one way or the other,” said Bess.

Nancy thought for a moment. “Yes, but that could be partly an act,” she pointed out. “What if he's harassing Marta to get back at her?”

“But then, why all the dirty tricks directed at Cheryl?” Bess protested.

“Maybe as a smoke screen, to keep us from suspecting him—although some of the tricks have been really dangerous. How about this? Willy makes threatening calls to Marta, steals her special honey, and so on. And
, thinking that Cheryl is behind the harassment, tries to get back at her with these dirty tricks.”

“Sure, that works,” Bess agreed. “And it explains why all the incidents are so different—because different people are behind them!”

“First call, girls' hundred-meter sprint,” a loudspeaker voice boomed.

“That's Cheryl's event,” Nancy said. “Come on, let's get over to the starting line. If someone's trying to sabotage Cheryl, this would be a good time to strike.”

The competitors in the event were on the grass near the starting line. Some were sitting down, doing last-minute stretches. Others, Marta and Cheryl among them, were simply standing around waiting. Both Eric and Steve were circling around, snapping photos.

“Hello,” Annelise called as Nancy and Bess approached. She was standing with her legs apart, bending down and touching the toes of each leg in turn. “You have come to watch us run? It is hard work but great fun.”

Cheryl, who was standing nearby, turned around and smiled. She looked looser and more relaxed than she had been after the incident in the Mustang.

“Annelise is right,” she said. “Maybe you two should work out with us tomorrow.”

Bess backed away, a look of genuine horror on her face, and Cheryl, Annelise, and a couple of other runners laughed.

“Did Eric get back in time with your lunch?” Nancy asked.

“He sure did,” replied Cheryl. “He even brought me two cans. One vanilla and one strawberry.”

“What is this?” Annelise asked. “Lunch in a can?”

“Sure, it's protein drink. Here, there's one left. Take a look.” Cheryl bent down and looked into her gym bag, then stopped. For one instant she remained there, frozen. Then she straightened up, and with a cry, flung the bag away from her.

A Telltale Photo

Nancy and Bess rushed over to Cheryl's side. “What is it?” Nancy asked. “What's wrong?”

“I can't take any more of this!” Cheryl was practically in tears. “Every time I turn around, there's something else!”

The other runners had clustered around and were murmuring to one another. Nancy kneeled down and looked into Cheryl's gym bag. There, on top of a spare set of running gear, was a sheet of paper. The words pasted across the top read, “You just blue your last chance.” Underneath was a photo of Cheryl crossing the finish line in a race. A red
had been savagely scratched across her image.

Nancy straightened up. “Did you touch this note yet?” she asked Cheryl.

“Oh, I don't know, I might have,” Cheryl
replied. “I guess I must have, when I reached in for the can of protein drink, to show Annelise.”

“Would you have seen it if it was there before, when you took out the can you drank?”

“What does it matter? All I—” Cheryl paused to rub her eyes and forehead. “I'm sorry, Nancy,” she resumed in a distraught voice. “I know you're trying to help. Let me think . . . Wait, now I remember. Eric brought the drinks to me. I took the vanilla and asked him to put the other one away.”

“So the last person to handle your gym bag was Eric?” Nancy asked.

“I guess so, but—”

“Cheryl, over here!” Eric called. The circle of spectators parted just enough for him to take a picture. “What's the problem?” he asked, coming over to Cheryl.

“Cheryl just found a threatening note in her bag,” Bess explained.

Nancy added, “It wasn't there when you put her protein drink in, was it?”

“I don't think so. Let me see.” Before Nancy could warn Eric not to touch the note, he bent down and picked it up.

“Hey,” he said, staring. “That's my photo! What's it doing here?”

“What do you mean, your photo?” Nancy asked. She took the note from him, holding it by the corner, though she didn't have much hope of
lifting prints from it after the way Eric had handled it.

BOOK: The Case of the Photo Finish
11.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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