Chapter One: Enter the Iron Dragon CHAPTER ONE Enter the Iron Dragon
“THAT’S IT FOR TONIGHT, NANCY!” Chef Kathy called out, waving goodbye to our last customer and locking the front door. “Time to clean this place up.”
I set down my ladle and breathed a sigh of relief. I loved volunteering at the River Heights Soup Kitchen, but standing at the counter and serving dinner to two hundred people was not an easy job. My feet were throbbing, my ladling arm was sore, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I hauled the now-empty stockpot over to the big, industrial sink and helped Chef Kathy, the kitchen manager, wash the dishes and get everything ready for the next meal in the morning. Kathy was a petite woman—with sparkling eyes and black hair hidden under a hairnet—but she carried vats of food and heavy boxes of supplies around with a strength that defied her small size. “I don’t know how you do this every day,” I said, awed. “I only work once a week, and I’m exhausted!”
Kathy, her hands full of suds, shrugged. “You do the impossible often enough, it becomes routine, I guess.”
By the time Kathy and I were finished, it was almost eleven p.m. I peeled off my rubber gloves and hung my apron on a hook by the kitchen door. “See you next week?” I called out, slipping into my jacket and slinging my backpack over my shoulder.
“Yep, I’ll be here,” Kathy replied. “Thanks so much for your help, Nancy. And tell your dad I said hello!”
With a nod and a wave, I stepped out onto the street and turned my collar up against the cool night air. The soup kitchen was in an older section of downtown River Heights, where many shop fronts sat empty and burned-out streetlamps rarely got replaced. There was a campaign going to help fix up this part of the city and get more help to the people who lived there. Dad was helping to organize it—that was how I became interested in volunteering at the soup kitchen in the first place. River Heights was my home, and I always tried to do what I could to make it better for everyone.
The street outside the soup kitchen was deserted, and only a few pools of light illuminated the sidewalk in front of me as I walked to my car. A slender crescent moon hung in the sky, dark clouds churning past it, reminding me just how late it was. I yawned, fighting to keep my eyes open. All I could think about was getting home to the warm comfort of my bed. I just wanted to sleep.
And then—a sound broke the silence.
Footsteps. Behind me, and approaching fast.
A bolt of adrenaline shot through me and I was instantly wide awake. Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I turned to face whoever was coming—but I was too late. A figure in dark, nondescript clothes was already on me, grabbing me by the arm and knocking the phone from my hand. In slow motion, I watched it skitter across the pavement out of arm’s reach, right before I was slammed against a wall. I shouted out in pain as my face bounced against the brickwork, making my vision blur.
The mugger tried to pull off my backpack, but it was tangled around my arms and wouldn’t come loose. I tried to focus my mind and figure out what to do, but I was dizzy and disoriented. “Don’t do this,” I managed to groan. “You don’t need to do this.”
“Just be quiet and let go of the bag,” the mugger muttered.
“Look, if you need something, maybe I can—”
The mugger shook me violently, making the world spin. “I said, be quiet!”
“Hey!” someone shouted from down the street. “What do you think you’re doing? Get off her!”
The tight grip on my shoulder loosened slightly as the mugger froze. I turned to see a stocky young woman running toward us, moving in and out of the light cast by the streetlamps. She stopped just a few feet away from us and raised both hands to the sky. “Look, man,” she said. “I don’t want any trouble. Just let her go. Okay?”
The mugger’s grip on me tightened once again. “If you didn’t want any trouble, little lady,” he sneered, his voice low and dangerous, “you came to the wrong place.”
Swinging me by the handle of my backpack, the mugger threw me to the ground. I gasped with the impact and struggled to a sitting position against the wall. Fighting to stay conscious, I watched as the mugger advanced on the young woman, cracking his knuckles. He was easily a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than she was. I could now see she had tawny brown skin and a halo of black curls poking out of the hoodie she was wearing. She dropped into a low, wide stance, her hands in front of her face.
The mugger chuckled. “What’s all that, eh? You know karate or something?”
“Not exactly,” the young woman said. A moment later she shot forward, slamming into the mugger like a freight train. In one smooth movement, she took his knees out from under him. He toppled over with a grunt of surprise.
He wasn’t the only one. I was pretty surprised myself.
“You’re really going to get it now, you little—” he started to say as he pushed himself up, fire in his eyes. But before he could even finish his sentence, the young woman had clambered onto his back and laced her arms and legs around his body like a human backpack. He struggled to stand, clawing at her hands and feet as he tried to wriggle free. The girl wrapped one of her arms under his chin, braced her other arm against the back of his head, and started to squeeze. I watched as after just a few seconds, the mugger’s eyes fluttered closed and his entire body went limp. He collapsed into a heap, snoring.
After a moment, the young woman stood up and dusted off her jeans. She leaned down to pick up my phone from the ground and walked over, holding it out to me as I got to my feet slowly. My head was still spinning. It didn’t even look like she’d broken a sweat.
“Here you go,” she said pleasantly. “Are you okay?”
Maybe it was the head injury, or maybe it was the shock of witnessing this girl completely wreck a man twice her size, but instead of, Yes, I’m fine or Thank you so much for saving my life, I said, “Who are you, and how in the world did you do that?”
The young woman smiled, her brown eyes twinkling. I was amazed at how someone could look so tough and intimidating one minute, and so sweet and friendly the next. “Double leg takedown followed by a back take, and a rear naked choke for the finish,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Nothing you couldn’t manage with a little practice.”
“Me?” I said.
“Sure, why not?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out.
“Oh, uh, while you’re thinking about it,” the young woman said, nodding at the phone in my hand, “you should probably call the police to come arrest this punk before he wakes up.”
“Right,” I said, unlocking my phone and dialing the number. “The police.”
“I’m Carly, by the way. Carly Griffith.”
I reached out to shake her hand. “Nancy Drew,” I said with a grin. “You wouldn’t believe how glad I am to meet you.”
About half an hour later, after giving my statement to the police, I was sitting in the back of an ambulance, being monitored by the paramedics. With an ice pack pressed to my forehead, I watched as the mugger was read his rights and shoved into a squad car.
“That girl was definitely wearing brass knuckles or something!” I heard him saying. “She attacked me! She’s dangerous!”
“Yeah, yeah,” the police officer said, slamming the car door shut. “Whatever you say, buddy.”
As the police car drove away, Carly walked up to me. “Not used to being beaten up by a girl, I guess,” she said with a shrug.
“You were amazing,” I said. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
Instead of replying, Carly turned around so I could see the logo on the back of her hoodie. It depicted a silvery white dragon head, its mouth open in a roar, with the words IRON DRAGON MMA encircling it. “It’s a mixed martial arts academy a few blocks from here,” she explained. “That’s actually where I was coming from when I heard you cry out. There’s a twenty-four-hour takeout place around the corner that I sometimes like to go to after class. Anyway, I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Iron Dragon for about six months now. Before that I was at other schools for years.”
“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?” I asked. “What’s that? I’ve heard of karate and kung fu and tae kwon do before, but that one’s new to me.”
Carly blew out her cheeks. “Wow,” she said after a moment. “That’s a tough question to answer. There’s no striking in Jiu-Jitsu, like in those other martial arts you mentioned. It’s kind of a combination of wrestling and judo, which involves being able to throw your opponent to the ground and maintain a dominant position. But Jiu-Jitsu’s more than that. It’s self-defense, but it’s also a sport. Kind of like chess, but with people. Really, it’s a whole way of life.…” Carly must have noticed the confused expression on my face. She chuckled. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”
“?‘Crazy’ is a strong word,” I replied. “?‘Passionate’ is more what I was thinking.”
“Honestly, it would be easier to just show you than try to explain it,” she said.
“Show me?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know—” I shook my head, then winced as a wave of dizziness crashed over me.
“Hey,” Carly said, putting a steadying hand on my shoulder. “You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, leaning back against the ambulance door until the dizziness faded. “The paramedics said it’s just some bumps and bruises. I should be as good as new after a solid night of sleep.”
“Oh, perfect!” Carly said, her face lighting up. “Then you’ll be all set for tomorrow night’s class.”
I blinked. “Excuse me, what?”
“Jiu-Jitsu class at Iron Dragon,” she said. “Eight o’clock to ten thirty. Our coach is great. You’ll be fine!”
“I—but—” I stammered.
“Trust me,” Carly said, as she started to back away. “Just give it a try! Bring a friend. Bring two! Once you train with us, muggers will think twice before coming after you again!”
Before I could protest any more, Carly had waved goodbye and disappeared into the night.
I pulled into our driveway a little while later, after the paramedics had cleared me to drive. Every part of my body was aching, and my mind had gone numb. I could hardly believe that it was still the same night that I’d spent ladling out chicken noodle soup!
I staggered to the front door, my bag dragging behind me, but it swung open before I could even reach for the knob. My father stood silhouetted in the doorway, dressed in his navy-blue bathrobe, which matched the dark circles under his eyes. “Nancy,” he said, a mixture of anger, worry, and exhaustion coloring his voice. “Where were you?”
Seeing Dad like that blew the cobwebs from my brain. I realized that he had been expecting me home almost two hours before. In all the chaos of the mugging and the aftermath, I had completely forgotten to call. Plus, I’d turned my ringer off at the soup kitchen and never thought to turn it back on. “I’m—I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I called you over and over again, and you didn’t pick up,” he said, his voice rising. “Then I called Kathy on her cell around twelve thirty, and she said you’d left at eleven. I was about to call the police when I saw your car coming up the street. Do you have any idea how worried I was? How could you—?”
As I stepped closer, into the light, Dad’s face went pale. He reached out to touch the side of my head that had hit the brick wall, and I winced. Between my battered face, ripped jeans, and dirty jacket, I must have looked like a mess. “Honey,” he whispered. “What happened?”
“I was walking to my car and this guy came out of nowhere,” I began as Dad gently wrapped an arm around my shoulder and guided me into the welcoming warmth of the house. While he brewed us mugs of herbal tea in the kitchen, I sat at the table and told him the whole story: the attack, Carly’s appearance, talking to the police, and something miraculous called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
“Well,” Dad said, taking a sip of his tea, “you had quite a night.”
“Yeah… I did. I really am sorry I didn’t call. I don’t know how I could have forgotten.…”
Dad laid a hand on my back and gave it a reassuring rub. “It’s totally understandable. You were in shock. I see it all the time in witness statements after run-ins like this. People can’t always think straight right after a traumatic event. I’m just glad you’re okay. And I’m also glad Hannah is away visiting her sister this week and not here at the house. If you think I was worried, she would have been climbing the walls!”
Hannah Gruen, our housekeeper, was a bit of a mother hen. “Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “You’re not going to call her, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, she’d just come running back here to make a lot of soup and force you to stay in bed. Not that I don’t enjoy her soup… but that woman needs a break! I’ll let Hannah enjoy her vacation and tell her about your exploits when she gets back.” With a chuckle, he added, “You’d think I’d be used to this kind of thing, what with my daughter being the preeminent amateur sleuth of River Heights. But even after all this time… I still worry about you, kid.”
I smiled, a blush rising in my cheeks. “I know, Dad. But I really wasn’t looking for trouble this time. I should have been paying more attention walking alone like that, but it happened so fast.… I was really lucky that Carly showed up when she did.”
Dad sighed and leveled a serious look at me. “You sure were. But you might not be so lucky next time, which is why I think you should take that young woman up on her offer.”
“What?” I sputtered. “You mean you want me to learn Jiu-Jitsu?”
Dad nodded. “Absolutely. Honestly, I can’t believe we’ve gone this long without you learning some kind of self-defense. If you’re going to continue taking on cases and dealing with criminals, you’ve got to know how to protect yourself. This is the perfect opportunity to do just that.”
I bit my lip. Without a doubt, Dad was right. I loved being an amateur detective, but it wasn’t the safest job in the world. There’d been plenty of times that I’d faced off against dangerous people, with no real idea of how to defend myself, but I’d never actually considered learning a martial art. I wasn’t particularly athletic, either—I mean, sure, I played a little soccer and softball in school, but I had a feeling that one-on-one combat would be a whole different ball game.
Dad placed his palms on the counter and leaned in close. “Look, what’s the worst that could happen? You decide it’s not your cup of tea, you walk away with a little bit of new knowledge and experience. If you don’t try it, you’ll never know. And anyway, I think there are two girls you could probably convince to go along with you.…”
I sighed and rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, Dad?”
He grinned. “I mean, I am your father. You do get it from somewhere.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. “Oh, all right,” I finally said. “I’ll do it.”
Dad clapped his hands. “Good girl. You’ve made your old man very happy. Now, let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow, your training begins.”