Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Again, the first two jumpers weren't very good. The announcer even had to scold the crowd when people stopped paying attention and started talking amongst themselves.
When it was Winiki's turn, everyone paid attention.
This time he concentrated even longer than usual. One of the other jumpers mouthed the words “quad-quad” to Frank.
Frank signaled thumbs up. That jump was something he'd like to see.
Winiki pushed off the railing, sending himself
down faster than any other jumper. He rocketed into the air, twisting and flipping even as his board left the ramp.
The twists went too fast, but Frank could count the flips. “One, two, three, fourâ”
Winiki slammed into the landing ramp. He hit so hard that his knees buckled and he almost sat all the way down.
Frank grimaced, then relaxed as Winiki got the landing under control and schussed down the slope.
The crowd went nuts again. They cheered until the scores came up. Then they cheered even louder. A perfect score!
Frank hoped the jump would inspire Neal. Maybe he could work his way into the top ten. That would be great for someone his age, Frank thought.
After a long wait, he saw Neal come out of the hut. He pulled his helmet strap tight.
Frank stood up to get a better view. Neal looked taller and thinner all the way up there.
Neal steered his way down the ramp. This time he performed a beautiful triple twisting gainer. He opened out of his tuck and landed lightly, gracefully, like a bird settling on a lawn.
The crowd roared.
Frank glanced over at Agent DuBelle. Her brow wrinkled. She stared at Neal, a look of confusion on her face.
Frank realized what was wrong. That jumper wasn't Neal! He had on Neal's helmet and pullover. But that person was too tall to be Neal.
“You!” Agent DuBelle shouted. “Take off that helmet now!”
The imposter released his bindings, stepped off his board, and took off running.
The snowboarder wearing Neal's number raced away from Frank, passing right in front of Agent DuBelle. She grabbed for his pullover but missed.
“Stop! Halt!” she yelled. Placing one hand on the top rail, she vaulted the barrier and gave chase.
Frank looked up. Another snowboarder, unaware of all the commotion, had stepped out of the hut to jump. It wasn't Neal, so Frank ran for the ladder at the back of the tower.
Ken Ardis jumped a barrier and fell in behind Frank. They stopped at the base of the ladder.
“Is he up there?” Ardis asked.
Frank was about to start climbing when he noticed a slender figure walking casually around the
other side of the tower. He recognized Sammy's leather sponsor's jacket.
Frank fell into a sprint and shouted for the officials at the athletes' entrance to stop the guy.
He saw the figure slip through the gate. “Stop him!” he yelled. If the person made it into the crowd, they'd never find him.
An official stepped in front of the guy. Frank came up, put his hand on the person's shoulder, and spun him around.
It was Neal.
Ardis grabbed Neal under the arm roughly. “What is going on, young man?”
Neal seemed bewildered, a little confused. “IâI was going for a walk, I guess.”
“A walk!” Ardis marched Neal back to the bench behind the jump tower.
Frank could feel the entire crowd watching them. He saw Neal's face go red with embarrassment.
When they got back to the athletes' area, Agent DuBelle was already there with the imposter. It was Sammy Fear. She shoved him down on the bench.
An official came up and quietly asked if everything was all right.
“Fine,” DuBelle said. “We apologize. Go ahead and restart the competition.”
The official nodded and hustled away.
DuBelle turned to Neal. “What kind of stunt was that?”
Neal scratched his head. “I don't know. I guess I was bummed about my jump. I just felt like taking off.”
“No, no,” Fear said, waving his hand in the air. “It was all my idea, man. I figured it'd be a hoot. I do a jump, Neal takes a walk, everybody gets a big laugh. He wasn't going to go far, were you, Neal?”
“Um. No, I don't think so.”
Frank waited for Ardis to explode, but the agent's attitude suddenly changed. He took a step back and smiled. Then he let out a hearty laugh.
“Either you're very brave or very stupid,” he said to Fear, shaking his head. “That was a good way to get yourself shot.”
“Or at least arrested,” DuBelle snapped. “In fact, I've got a mind to haul you in right now.”
Agent Ardis rebuttoned his overcoat. “They were just having fun. I don't think we should make too much out of it.”
“Since when did you go soft?” DuBelle asked.
Ardis smiled. “I don't want Neal to think I'm a hard case all the time.”
Neal stood there, watching the exchange in silence. He took off Sammy's jacket and handed it back to him. “Can I have my pullover, man?”
“Sure thing,” Fear said. “Hey, little prez. You want to help me and Amanda go over our sky-surfing gig?”
“Uh, I don't know,” Neal said, turning to Frank. “What are you gonna do now, Frank?”
“I was going to go help my brother get his sled together.” Frank checked his watch. “The snocross finals are in less than an hour.”
“Can I go with you?”
Everyone, especially Frank, was surprised that Neal didn't want to hang out with Sammy anymore.
“Sure,” Frank said. “I'm sure he could use the extra help.”
Neal said goodbye to Sammy and packed up his snowboard and other gear. Then Ardis and another stocky agent led the way back to the stadium, while DuBelle hung behind.
As they approached the tunnel leading under the stadium, Frank looked back over his shoulder.
When he was satisfied that DuBelle was out of earshot, he said, “So, Neal, I figured you'd be dying to help Sammy with his routine. What's up?”
Neal stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I don't know, man. I didn't feel like it, that's all.”
“Whose idea was it, really, to pull that stunt?”
“It was Sammy's idea,” Neal said. “I guess that weirded me out a little.”
“How come?” They passed into the tunnel and headed toward the snocross pit area.
“Because I wasn't just going for a walk, like Sammy said. It was a whole big plan. I was supposed to sneak away and go find Amanda all the way on the other side of the stadium.”
“He said she was going to let me in on a big stunt they'd planned.”
“What kind of stunt?”
Neal switched his duffel from one hand to the other. “I asked, but he wouldn't say.”
The whole situation seemed kind of strange to Frank, but before he had time to ask Neal more questions, they ran into Joe and Fred Vale. A cameraman was right behind them.
Vale held the microphone under Joe's nose. “Do you have your snowmobile all tweaked out for the finals, Joe?”
Joe stared hard into the camera. “I've got a few more things I can do to get extra horsepower,” he said. “But I'll be ready by race time.”
“How about Justice Edwards? You nervous about going up against him again in the finals after those two big wipeouts?”
Frank saw his brother's jaw muscles twitch at the mention of Edwards's name.
“No way,” Joe said. “I'm ready for anything he's got. Tell him to bring it on.”
“Great!” Vale said, motioning for the cameraman to stop filming. “Great interview, Joe. Good luck in the finals.”
Vale and the cameraman hurried off in the direction of Edwards's pit.
“Hey, fellas,” Joe said. “Neal, man. How'd the jumping go?”
When Neal didn't say anything, Frank spoke for him. “Pretty good. He almost had a top-ten finish, but he doesn't want to talk about it. Where's Jamal?”
“He had to go help his dad get the planes ready for the sky surfing tomorrow,” Joe said, stepping back over to his snowmobile. “Vale wasted a lot of my time. I've got to rush to get ready.”
The three of them made some final adjustments to the sled. Then it was time to help Joe push it out to the course.
Frank and Neal sat in the same seats they'd had the night before. Frank tried to pick out the Secret Service agents around them, but this time they weren't so obvious.
Down on the track, Joe idled his sled up to the starting line. This was what he lived for. The stands were full of fans. It was late afternoon and getting dark, and the stadium lights would click on at any minute. He loved racing under the lights; it made him feel as if he was going extra fast.
He looked to his right, down the line of racers. Edwards was three places away from him, but Joe expected him to come flying across his path at the start. That maniac would do anything to get a hole shot.
Joe cranked the throttle. His sled sounded good. The ski was fixed. The race was his.
The green flag fell, and Joe bolted for the first turn.
Everything became a blur. He could feel someone coming up on his right, but he didn't dare look over. One second of lapsed concentration could send him skidding out of control.
He felt something knock against him as he leaned into the first turn. He was in front! He had the lead!
Then a sled slammed into him from the right. Pain shot up his leg. He looked over. It was Edwards. The light green sled came at him again, trying to run him off the track.
Joe's souped-up machine was faster going up the jumps. He pulled ahead slightly.
It was a two-man race. Edwards took the lead for a lap, then Joe stole it away again. They were dead even heading to the last jump. Joe crouched down to cut wind resistance and opened the throttle wide. He blasted into the air. Whoever jumped farther would take the race.
Joe was so high up he had to look down to his left to see the race official waving the checkered flag. He hit the ground less than a foot in front of Edwards. He'd won!
The crowd stood up and cheered. Joe took a victory lap, standing up on his snowmobile and holding one fist in the air.
By the time he pulled off the track, Vale was already interviewing Jim Edwards.
Joe pulled his helmet off and went over to shake Jim's hand. Vale stepped between them, holding the microphone as usual.
“Joe Hardy. Edwards says his snowmobile wasn't running well. What do you think? Did you get lucky and catch him on an off night?”
“I don't know anything about that,” Joe said. He tried to push past Vale. “Jim. Good race, man.”
“Forget you!” Edwards shouted. “That race was mine!”
Vale stepped away, perhaps hoping for a fight.
Joe waved his hands at Edwards dismissively. “Whatever, man. Good race anyway.”
Vale grunted and dropped the microphone to his side. He looked at his cameraman. “Maybe we'll get some better fireworks between these two at the medal ceremony tonight,” he said.
Joe went back to his sled. Frank and Neal were there. “Awesome race,” Neal shouted. “You smoked him!”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “It looked like he tried to knock you off the course again, but this time you were too strong.”
“Thanks, guys,” Joe said. “I have to admit that revenge does feel good.”
They pushed Joe's snowmobile back under the stands. When DuBelle and Ardis showed up to take Neal back to his hotel, Neal reminded Frank about his family's being on vacation in the Catskills.
“Yeah, I remember,” Frank said. “You said you were going to join them after the Max Games.”
“There's been a change in plans,” DuBelle said. “We're going tonight.”
Agent Ardis frowned. “I don't see why they should know this.”
Neal ignored him. “It would be excellent if you guys could come visit after the games,” Neal said. “You could tell me all about the sky surfing, since I'm going to miss it.”
Both Frank and Joe were about to answer an enthusiastic yes, when Ardis tried to nix the idea.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We'd have to clear it with the president and the chief of security first.”
“I'm the chief of security,” DuBelle said. “And I clear the visit.”
“All right!” Neal shouted. “Cool. I'll see you guys later then.”
The Hardys said goodbye and watched Neal lope off, surrounded by Secret Service agents.
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Twenty minutes later Joe had all his stuff packed up and ready to go.
“I'll pull the van around behind the stadium,” Frank said. “Then we can hook up the trailer and load your snowmobile.”
“I'll meet you out there,” Joe replied.
Frank jogged to the parking lot. It was about six in the eveningâdark now, though the moon was almost full. He jumped in the van and drove around behind the stadium. A row of snowmobile trailers were parked along the outer wall. No one else seemed to be loading up yet.
Frank backed the van up to their trailer, then
hopped out. Joe was waiting at the double doors. He slowly piloted the sled out the doors and up onto the ramp.
Using chains and padlocks, he swiftly secured the sled to the trailer.
“Ready,” he said.
Frank got in the driver's seat. “Let's get home and eat.”
“I second that motion,” Joe answered, clambering in the passenger side.
Frank was about to turn the key when a tremendous bang echoed through the van. The roof over Joe's head buckled and creased.
Frank's eyes went wide. “What? Someone's up there, Joe!”
They heard the sound of metal ripping, and the gleaming blade of an ice ax punctured the roof.
Joe grabbed for the ax head, but it disappeared. The night went silent.
“Where'd he go?” Joe whispered.
The answer came quickly. An ax-shaped shadow passed over the windshield, then Frank's side window exploded in on him.