Mystery of the Midnight Rider
“IS THAT HER?” I ASKED, SHADING MY EYES against the glare of the afternoon sun. “The one in the beige breeches and tall boots?”
Ned grinned. “You’ll have to be more specific, Nancy. Just about everyone out there is wearing beige breeches and tall boots.”
The two of us were leaning on the rail of a large riding ring at the local fairgrounds. At the moment it was crowded with horses and riders warming up for their next class. All of them—male and female, teenagers and adults—were dressed almost exactly alike.
“You have a point,” I said with a laugh. “So how are we supposed to know who to cheer for once the class starts?”
Just then one of the horses separated from the others and trotted toward us. “Ned Nickerson? Is that you?” the rider called.
Ned waved. “Hi, Payton! It’s good to see you again.”
“You too.” Payton halted her horse in front of us and smiled shyly. She was about sixteen, with a slender build and delicate features that made her look tiny atop her horse, an enormous bay with a splash of white on its forehead.
“Payton, this is my girlfriend, Nancy Drew,” Ned said. “Nancy, this is Payton Evans.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Your horse is beautiful.”
“Thanks.” Payton leaned forward to give the horse a pat on its gleaming neck. “He’s actually not mine, though. I’m riding him for my trainer—he’s one of her sale horses. He’s still a little green, but he’s coming along.”
“Green?” Ned raised an eyebrow. “Looks kind of reddish brown to me.”
I rolled my eyes at the lame joke. “Green just means he’s not fully trained yet,” I explained.
“That’s right.” Payton smiled at me. “Are you a rider, Nancy?”
“Not really,” I replied. “But I took some lessons when I was a kid. And I never miss coming out to watch this show.” I returned her smile. “Even when I’m not acquainted with one of the star riders.”
I glanced around, taking in the hustle and bustle surrounding me. The annual River Heights Horse Show was a prestigious competition, attracting top hunter-jumper riders from all over the country.
Payton’s smile faded slightly. “I’m not the star,” she said, her voice so soft I could barely hear it over the thud of hoofbeats and chatter of riders and spectators. “The horses are the stars. I’m just along for the ride.”
“You don’t have to be modest,” I told her with a chuckle. “Ned’s told me all about you. He says you’ve been riding since you were practically in diapers, you’ve had all kinds of success on the A circuit, and you’re super talented and hardworking.”
Payton shrugged, playing with the tiny braids of her mount’s mane. When she responded, her voice was even quieter. “It’s easy to work hard at something you love.”
As an experienced amateur detective, I’m pretty good at picking up clues. But it didn’t take a supersleuth to tell that Payton wasn’t comfortable with our current line of conversation. Time for a change of subject.
“Anyway,” I said, “Ned also tells me your mom and his mom were college roommates.”
“That’s right.” Payton stroked her mount as he snorted at a leaf blowing past. “When Mrs. Nickerson heard I was coming to this show, she was nice enough to offer to let me stay with them so I don’t have to stay in a hotel.”
“She’s thrilled to have you here, and she can’t wait to see you tonight,” Ned assured Payton. “I’m supposed to tell you not to eat too much today, since she and Dad are planning a big welcome barbecue for you tonight.”
I chuckled. “That sounds like your parents,” I told
Ned. “So are Payton’s parents going to be staying with you too?”
“No,” Payton answered before Ned could say anything. A sad look flitted across her face. “They have to stay in Chicago for work today and tomorrow, and then they’ve got a family obligation that will keep them busy for most of Saturday. But they promised they’ll be here in time to watch me ride in the Grand Prix on Saturday.”
“The Grand Prix? What’s that?” Ned asked.
I rolled my eyes at him. “Weren’t you paying attention when I dragged you to this show last year?” I joked. “The Grand Prix is the big jumping competition on Saturday night. It’s sort of like the equestrian competitions you see in the Olympics. Huge, colorful fences that are, like, ten feet high.”
Payton laughed. “Not quite,” she said. “Even the best Olympic horse couldn’t jump a ten-foot fence! The heights are more like five feet.”
“Close enough,” I said with a shrug. “Anything I can’t step over myself looks high to me.”
Ned poked me on the shoulder. “Here come Bess and George,” he said. “I was wondering where they’d disappeared to.”
“Bess said she wanted to grab a soda.” I noticed that Payton looked slightly confused as she watched my two best friends approach. “George is short for Georgia,” I explained with a wink. “But nobody calls her that unless they’re trying to get under her skin.”
Payton nodded. “Got it.”
By then Bess and George had reached us. Both had sodas, and George was also holding a paper cup of French fries smothered in ketchup. The scent of grease wafted toward me, temporarily overwhelming the pleasant horsey smell of Payton’s mount.
“Payton Evans, George Fayne, Bess Marvin,” Ned said, pointing at each girl in turn as he made the introductions. “Bess and George are cousins, believe it or not,” he added with a grin.
“What do you mean, believe it or not?” Payton asked.
I laughed. Bess and George may share the same
family, but that’s about all they have in common. Bess is blond, blue-eyed, and as girly as they come. George is, well, pretty much the opposite of that. For instance, Bess had dressed up to come to today’s show in a pretty dress, stylish flats, even a matching bow holding back her shoulder-length hair. George? She was wearing what she wore just about every day. Jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Bess said. “It’s nice to meet you, Payton.”
“So you’re the superstar rider Ned keeps talking about,” George added, popping a fry into her mouth. “He’s been totally geeking out about how you’re probably going to be in the next Olympics. Is that true, or is he just pulling our legs?”
Payton played with the reins resting on her mount’s withers. “Actually, my trainer tells me the chef d’équipe of the US team is supposed to come watch the Grand Prix at this show.”
“The chef de what?” Bess asked as she reached over and snagged one of George’s fries.
“That’s the person in charge of the Olympic team,” Ned explained. “Mom and Dad were talking about it last night after Payton’s dad called to make final arrangements.”
“Wow,” I said. “So this big-time Olympics head guy is coming to watch you ride? Maybe so he can decide if you should try out for the US team?”
“I guess so.” Payton shrugged again. “I mean, we don’t know for sure that he’s coming to see me in particular. But my trainer and my parents seem to think so.”
“Awesome.” George reached out and tentatively patted Payton’s horse on the nose. “So is this the horse you’ll be riding when he’s watching?”
“No. I’ll be riding my own horse—my most experienced jumper. His name is Midnight.” Payton smiled as she said the horse’s name. “He’s really cool. Maybe you guys can meet him later.”
“We’d love to,” Bess said. “As long as it’s not too much later. Because I’m sure Nancy and Ned have other plans this evening.” She waggled her eyebrows at me.
“Sure we do,” Ned said. “My parents are throwing
that barbecue tonight, remember? You’re both invited.”
“Oh, right.” Bess pursed her lips. “Okay, but that’s not what I’m talking about.” She wagged a playful finger in Ned’s face. “I certainly hope you’re planning to take Nancy somewhere more romantic than a family barbecue—or a horse show—this weekend. It’s your anniversary, remember?”
“How could he forget? You’ve only been reminding him twice a day for the past month.” I was exaggerating, but only a little. Bess is nothing if not a romantic.
“Yeah. Give it a rest already,” George told her cousin. “I’m sure Ned has it all under control.”
“Of course I do. I mean, what could be more romantic than this?” Ned slipped one arm around my shoulders, helping himself to a couple of George’s fries with the other hand. “Fried food, horse manure—what more could any girl want?”
“Heads up!” a voice barked out, cutting through our laughter. It was another rider—a sharp-chinned teenage girl on a lanky gray horse. The horse was cantering straight at Payton and her mount!
Payton glanced over her shoulder, then shifted her horse aside just in time to avoid a collision. “Um, sorry,” she called to the other rider, even though from where I stood it looked as if the gray horse was the one at fault.
The gray horse’s rider pulled him to a halt and glared back over her shoulder. “Is this your first horse show, Payton?” she snapped. “This is supposed to be a warm-up ring. If you want to stand around and gossip, do it somewhere else.”
“Sorry,” Payton said again, though the other rider was already spurring her horse back into a canter.
“Nice girl,” George commented with a snort. “Friend of yours?”
Payton sighed. “That’s Jessica. I don’t even know her that well—she rides at a barn a few miles from mine, and we end up at most of the same shows. I have no idea why she doesn’t like me, but she’s never exactly made a secret of it.” She grimaced and gathered up her reins. “But she’s right about one thing—I shouldn’t be standing around. I’d better get back to my warm-up. I’ll see you guys later, right?”
“Sure. Good luck,” Bess said.
We watched her ride off. “She seems nice,” I said to Ned.
“Yeah, she is.” Ned reached for another fry despite George’s grumbles. “Our moms try to get together as often as they can, so I’ve known Payton for a long time. Haven’t seen her in two or three years, though.” He licked the salt off his fingers. “Her parents both have pretty intense jobs. Mr. Evans is some kind of high-powered financier, and Payton’s mom is a medical researcher at one of the top hospitals in Chicago.”
“Wow.” George whistled. “Impressive.”
“Yeah. And I guess what they say is true—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Because Payton’s kind of intense herself.” Ned glanced out toward the ring. “Her parents say she started begging for riding lessons when she was about three or four, and she’s spent every possible minute in the saddle since. I guess it’s no wonder people are starting to talk about the Olympics.”
Turning to follow his gaze, I saw Payton cantering the big bay horse near the center of the ring, where
several jumps were set up. Her face was scrunched up with concentration as she steered around the other riders going every which way. As I watched, she aimed her mount at the highest of the jumps. I held my breath as the horse sailed over easily.
“Nice,” Bess said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I can’t wait to see her compete. How long until it’s her turn?”
“I’m not sure.” Ned glanced at the gate a short distance away. A steady stream of riders had been going in and out the whole time we’d been standing there.
“I guess you’ll have to follow the clues to figure it out, Nancy,” George joked.
I grinned. My friends like to tease me about my recreational sleuthing. But the truth is, they seem to like it just as much as I do. At least they never complain when I drag them into yet another case. Not much, anyway.
We all watched Payton and her horse glide easily over another jump. As she landed, I caught a flurry of activity immediately behind where my friends and
I were standing. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a woman striding in our direction. She was petite and deeply tanned, with close-cropped reddish-blond hair a few shades darker than my own. As she rushed past us to the rail, the woman was so focused on the activity in the ring that she almost knocked Bess’s soda out of her hand.
“Payton!” she hollered. Her voice was surprisingly loud for such a small person, cutting easily through the clamor of the warm-up ring. “Over here—now!”
Soon Payton was riding over again. “Dana!” she said breathlessly. “I thought you were going to meet me at the in-gate.” She glanced at us. “So did you meet Ned and his friends? Guys, this is my trainer, Dana Kinney.”
“Huh?” Dana barely spared us a glance and a curt nod. “Listen, Payton, we need to talk—now.”
“What is it?” Payton checked her watch. “I was about to leave for the ring—I’m on deck, I think.”
“Then I’ll make this quick.” Dana clenched her fists at her sides, staring up at Payton. “One of the
show stewards just received an anonymous tip about you.”
“About me?” Payton looked confused. “What do you mean? What kind of tip?”
Dana scowled. “Whoever it is, they’re claiming that you drug all your horses!”