Danger in the Extreme (6 page)

Joe shrugged. “Jim Edwards sends me into the hay bales twice. Frank almost falls from the ice wall. Something's going on, and I think we need to do some serious investigating.”

“If I could get a look at that rope, it might tell us something,” Frank said.

“And Vale's finances,” Joe said. “We should see how deep in the hole he really is.”

The teens finished eating in silence. When they
were done, Neal asked if they would go watch him practice some jumps.

“Sounds great,” Joe said.

They started to get up, but Agent DuBelle made them wait about fifteen minutes while she had other agents check out the snowboard area.

“See?” Neal said. “It's a big drag.”

At last they were allowed to walk over to the soccer field next to the stadium.

The jump tower rose from the middle of the snowy field. Built of wood and steel rails, the tower rose nearly forty feet from the ground. The ramp swooped down from the top like a big letter
J
. A huge mound of snow sloped away from the lip of the ramp, providing a perfect landing zone.

A little hut at the top of the tower allowed jumpers who were waiting for their turns to hang out and stay warm.

While Neal put on his boots, they watched other snowboarders practice their jumps.

A jumper in a tasseled cap appeared at the door of the jump hut.

“You guys gotta watch this dude,” Neal said. “That's Twist Winiki. He's the boss.”

The rider got himself square, then let go of the handrails. He turned from side to side to control his speed, then straightened out as he approached the end of the ramp.

He held his arms out at his sides, then tucked
them close to his body as he took off. He rose high into the air, spinning like a majorette's baton.

He completed three backflips with three full twists, then landed perfectly.

Neal whistled and cheered.

“Can you beat that?” Joe asked.

“I'll try,” Neal said, marching off with his board under his arm.

A minute or two later it was Neal's turn. He pushed himself out of the hut and centered his board on the ramp.

“Quad-quad!” Frank shouted, calling for the almost impossible quadruple flip with a quadruple twist.

Neal dismissed him with a laugh and a wave of his hand. Letting go of the railings, he tore down the ramp.

Neal zoomed off the ramp into a front flip. When he completed the flip, he was still going higher into the air. At the highest point, he went into a half-twist, then did two back flips and another half-twist on the way down.

He nailed the landing and raised his arms over his head.

“Radical!” Joe shouted.

“Wow!” Jamal agreed. “He's got talent.”

Neal hurried over and glided to a stop, his face flushed with excitement. “Like it?”

Frank held out his forearm, and Neal bashed his
into it. “A front half, double back half,” Frank said. “That's a medal jump for sure.”

“Thanks, man.”

Neal was about to climb the ladder for another jump when a murmur went through the crowd of spectators.

Neal's eyebrows shot up. “Something going on?”

“I don't know,” Frank said.

They watched as people started running across the field and over to the stadium parking lot.

“What's up?” Joe asked, grabbing at someone's arm. The person didn't answer.

The teens, surrounded by the Secret Service agents, went with the crowd.

When they got to the parking lot, Frank looked up. Instantly he stopped in his tracks.

Joe almost bumped into him. “What in the world—” He followed Frank's gaze up to the rim of the stadium.

There, on the narrow railing around the upper deck, stood three figures.

“No way!” Joe said. It was hard to make them out from that distance, but the three people were definitely Sammy Fear, Amanda Mollica, and Rick Salazar. “How high up are they?”

“A hundred and fifty feet, easy,” Frank said.

A Max Games security guard held a megaphone to his lips. “Don't jump!” he said. “Step back from the railing before someone gets hurt!”

“Stay clear!” Sammy Fear yelled, his voice
sounding tinny and small from so high up. “I'm going to jump and no one can stop me!”

Frank watched as Fred Vale and a cameraman muscled their way through the crowd to get a better view.

Rick Salazar tossed something into the air. The crowd reacted, then calmed down as everyone realized that it was a rope.

“Are they going to climb down?” Jamal asked.

Before anyone answered, Salazar hooked on to the rope and rappelled down the outside wall of the stadium like an Airborne Ranger dropping from a helicopter.

He hit the ground and stepped back a few steps from the wall. “Come on down!” he shouted to Fear and Mollica.

Without hooking on to the rope, they launched themselves into space.

7 The Imposter

People in the crowd screamed.

Frank didn't want to look, but he couldn't pull his eyes away. As Fear and Mollica jumped, he saw each of them throw something clear.

They plummeted in the classic skydiving position—arms out, legs spread-eagled.

Frank squinted against the glare of the sun. The objects they'd thrown trailed above them as they fell, then popped open.

“BASE-jumping chutes!” Frank shouted. He watched the canopies open completely. Fear and Mollica were using the compact, quick-opening chutes that enthusiasts used when they jumped from stationary objects like buildings and bridges.

Neal's jaw dropped open as Fear and Mollica once again drifted safely down over the crowd.

People in the crowd followed them as if mesmerized. When the two jumpers landed at the far end of the parking lot, they were quickly overwhelmed by fans and security guards.

“Wow! That was totally amazing,” Neal said. He pushed his way through the crowd, obviously determined to talk to Sammy Fear.

Joe watched as Agent DuBelle grabbed Neal's arm and asked him to stop.

Then, from out of nowhere, Agent Ardis stepped in and cleared a path for the president's son. “Let him have some fun,” Ardis said.

Frank, sensing his opportunity, dropped back and headed for the stadium wall. He found the rope hanging where Salazar had rappelled down.

He couldn't see anything wrong with it. The rope looked similar to the one at the ice wall, but there was no way to be sure.

• • •

Joe and Jamal followed Neal and the Secret Service agents through the crowd. By the time they got to Fear and Mollica, Fred Vale was already there. Security guys were holding fans back, while Vale interviewed Fear on camera.

Looking over, the promoter spotted Neal. He smiled broadly into the camera. “Look,” he said, “it's the most famous participant in the Max Games. Come over here, Neal.”

Vale pulled Neal over next to Fear and Mollica.
“What'd you think of that stunt?”

Fear and Neal exchanged high fives. “That was wild!” Neal shouted. “How'd it feel, man?”

“Trippy, man,” Fear said. “All these faces were looking up at us all worried. What a total hoot!”

Vale shoved the microphone at Mollica. She blushed. “I guess it was fun,” she said, hesitating. “I was pretty nervous.”

Vale lost interest in her and went back to Neal and Fear, who were now acting like best friends.

Fear put an arm around Neal's shoulder. Escorted by Max Games security and Secret Service agents, they made their way through the crowd to the athletes' lounge under the stadium. Frank joined them there.

Once the security guards had cleared out, Fear turned to Agent DuBelle.

“Neal asked me if I'd hang with him at his snowboard competition this afternoon,” he said. “Is that cool?”

Neal looked at DuBelle hopefully.

The agent crossed her arms. “I don't know, Neal. Things are getting out of hand around here.”

Agent Ardis spoke up. “I think it's okay,” he said. “We've got plenty of agents on duty, and Frank and Joe will be there.”

Joe leaned in, “I've got to work on my sled. Sorry, Neal. Wish I could be there.”

“It's okay,” Neal said. It was clear he was willing
to trade Joe for Sammy Fear. He looked at DuBelle. “Let Sammy be there instead of Joe.”

Michelle frowned. “Okay, but no antics.”

Both Sammy and Neal nodded vigorously.

Joe stuck his hand out to shake with Neal. “Good luck. I'll catch up with you later.”

But Neal and Fear were already yammering about the BASE jump and the aerial contest.

As Joe started out of the room, Frank pulled him over. “You need help getting your sled together, bro?”

“I should be okay. Stick around here and keep an eye on our daredevil friend there,” he said, nodding toward Fear. “I don't trust him.”

“I'll help you wrench your sled,” Jamal said.

“Thanks.”

Joe and Jamal headed back to the snocross pit area.

• • •

A couple of hours later, at around two in the afternoon, Frank, Sammy, Neal, and a group of agents arrived at the snowboard jump.

The stands were packed now, and everyone cheered as Fear and Neal walked past the bleachers. Fear waved up at the crowd, then blew kisses at the contest judges, who sat in a special box in the front row.

The three teens sat down on a heated bench next to the jump tower. Other snowboarders paced nervously or sat, quietly concentrating on the
jumps they would soon perform. Twist Winiki sat far from everyone else, studying the edge of his board.

Contest officials walked around, speaking quietly to each athlete. A young woman carrying a clipboard came up to their bench. “Neal Jordan?” she asked, looking at Neal's number bib.

“Yeah,” Neal answered.

“You'll be jumping fourth,” she said. “You can go up to the hut when there are two jumpers ahead of you.”

“Can I go up with him?” Fear asked.

“Are you his coach?”

Neal and Fear glanced at each other. “Yes,” Neal answered. “He's my coach.”

“Sure. Then you can go up.”

Neal nodded and the official moved on to the next athlete.

“Okay,” Fear said to Neal. “Remember what I told you, man. Visualize yourself nailing the jump.”

“Right.” Neal stood up and did some stretches.

A few minutes later the announcer called the names of the first three jumpers and told them to climb the tower and report in at the jump hut.

Neal didn't want to watch the jumpers in front of him, but Frank was excited to see the competition.

“Number one, jump when ready,” the announcer bellowed. The crowd went silent.

Frank looked up to see a figure in loose-fitting ski pants and a sweatshirt step out of the hut door. The
guy adjusted his goggles, then headed down the ramp.

He pulled off a double layout back flip but touched his hand on the landing.

“Decent jump,” Fear said. “Little sketchy on the landing, but decent.”

“You can go up to the hut now,” Frank said to Neal. “You're third in line.”

Neal pulled his helmet and goggles from his duffel bag. He pinned his number bib to his fleece pullover and headed up the ladder. Fear followed.

The next jumper was unspectacular. He performed a basic flip, double twist, and botched the landing, falling on his butt and sliding all the way down the landing slope.

Low scores flashed on an electronic board.

Frank spotted Agent DuBelle standing behind the crowd barrier. She looked up into the hut intently.

The jumper just before Neal was Twist Winiki, from Hawaii. Now we'll see some serious jumping, Frank said to himself.

Winiki stepped from the hut and raised his arms over his head. He seemed to be going over the jump in his mind.

Then he zipped down the ramp in a blur of speed. He hit the lip of the ramp and shot into the air, spinning so fast Frank couldn't count the rotations.

Somehow, Winiki made himself stop flipping and
spinning at the perfect time. He opened up out of his tuck and executed a smooth, brilliant landing.

The crowd jumped up for a standing ovation.

The scores were nearly perfect.

“Okay, Neal,” Frank mumbled. “Concentrate. Nail this thing.”

Neal appeared at the top of the ramp, looking much thinner and younger than the more experienced Winiki. He stood quietly for a moment, then started down.

He did the same jump he'd practiced, a front half, double back half.

Frank clenched his fists as he watched Neal turn through the air. “Get the landing, Neal!” he shouted.

Neal opened up a fraction of a second too early. He didn't rotate far enough and landed on the nose of his board.

For a split second he held on. Frank sucked in a breath.

Then Neal went down, skidding down the slope on his face.

Frank groaned.

Sammy Fear climbed down from the tower and met Neal when he came back around.

Neal looked as though he was about to cry.

“Suck it up,” Fear said. “You barely missed it, man.”

“Tough luck,” Frank added. “I thought you had it nailed.”

Neal couldn't answer. He flopped down on the bench and waited for the scores.

Frank watched the numbers flash on. “Well,” he said, “they liked the jump, but the landing cost you. You'll just have to stick the next one.”

Neal looked down at his boots.

They watched as the rest of the athletes jumped. By the time the first round was over, Neal was stuck in eleventh place.

“I might as well drop out,” Neal grumbled. “I don't have any chance for a medal now.”

“Don't quit,” Fear said. “Stick it out. That's the way you get stronger.”

Frank handed Neal his helmet. “Get back up there.”

The announcer started the second round, and Neal and Fear trudged back up the ladder to the hut.

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