“It has to be perfect,” my friend Bess reiterated, twirling around in the three-sided mirror outside the dressing room. “This year is supposed to be the biggest River Heights Celebration yet!”
I glanced over at the cobalt blue sundress she wore. It complemented her shoulder-length blond hair and blazing blue eyes. “Well,” I said, “if you’re looking for perfect, I think you found it.”
George joined us, several strange-looking gadgets clutched in her hands. “I left you guys for the antiques section an hour ago. Bess, you’ve probably found fifteen perfects since then!”
I stifled a laugh. Bess and George were both my closest friends in the world, and they got along fine—but they were cousins and couldn’t be more polar opposites, both in fashion sense and personality. While Bess was ultrafeminine, friendly, and took pride in having the nicest clothes (while spending the least amount of money possible on them), George was more of a tech-head and didn’t care how much her hobbies cost.
Bess bit her lip and turned to the side once again, surveying the outfit. “Nancy?” she asked me.
“Perfect,” I repeated.
George plopped down beside me on the bench in front of the dressing room and surveyed her cousin. “I don’t get why this year is so important,” she said. “There’s a River Heights Celebration every year. Why would this one be any different?”
Bess cocked her hip and turned from the mirror to face me and George. “I can’t believe you guys haven’t heard anything about this one. People have been talking about it for months.”
I raised an eyebrow. Usually I was pretty up on what was going on around town. But lately I’d been so busy solving mysteries, I’d obviously missed something good.
Mrs. Myrtle, an older woman who owned the vintage clothing store we were in, Boom Babies, sniffed at us and passed by with a glint of suspicion in her wrinkle-edged eyes.
I groaned inwardly, and Bess gave me an empathetic, knowing look. As an amateur detective in a town as small as River Heights, every time people saw me, they had a tendency to assume I was investigating them for some reason or another. But I couldn’t blame them—oftentimes they were right.
“This year is the eightieth Celebration,” Bess explained. “And Mrs. Mahoney is donating a ton of money to make it the best and most exciting Celebration yet. This is no ordinary town picnic. They’re setting up an entire carnival at River Heights High—rides, fireworks, and everything.”
George suddenly looked up from fussing with her pile of gadgets. “Rides?”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s an awful lot compared to past years. What do you think made Mrs. Mahoney decide to put so much money into it?”
Bess shrugged, just as George asked, “What kind of rides? Are we talking carousels or roller coasters?”
“I heard that there’s going to be a huge roller coaster going up today—but no one will be able to ride until Friday night, when the carnival opens. And fireworks will be set off at nine o’clock, so it will be dark.”
“Yes!” George exclaimed, looking at me expectantly.
“Oh, don’t look at me,” I warned. “I’ll stick to the carousels with Bess.” Sure, I enjoyed the occasional criminal investigation. But even one of my best friends in the world wouldn’t be able to convince me to step foot on a roller coaster.
“So we’re agreed, this is the dress?” Bess asked.
“Yes,” I said with certainty. “But I have to admit, my judgment might have become clouded by my desperate need for caffeine. Do you guys mind if I run over and grab a caramel macchiato from Club Coffee? It’s just a couple of stores away.”
“Ooh, count me in!” said Bess, giving the sundress one final twirl in front of the mirror.
“I could go for a green tea,” George put in.
I focused all my energy on one single image while Mrs. Myrtle rang up my friends’ finds on the register: an extra-large, extra-carameled, and extra whipped-creamed caramel macchiato.
“You’d think this was the only place in all of River Heights that serves coffee,” George remarked as we walked into a bustling Club Coffee.
“True,” said Bess. “But there’s only one Club Coffee—in River Heights, anyway. I think they’ve invented more coffee drinks than anyone else in the world.”
I scanned the room. Every single table was filled—people were sitting alone at their laptops, others were hanging with their friends, and clusters of people dotted the room, waiting for the chance empty table. The baristas were running around at a crazy pace, making me wonder if they’d been sampling some of their own products.
I pulled my PDA from my purse and checked the time on the upper left-hand corner of the screen: 2:35 p.m.
“School must have just gotten out,” I said.
“Another mystery solved.” Bess giggled.
We placed our orders and stood by the pickup counter. I surveyed the room to see if anyone looked as if they were about ready to leave. My feet were aching from searching for Bess’s “perfect dress” all day, and all I wanted to do was sit down and rest.
My eyes drifted over to a corner table that looked vacant, except for a small pile of papers in the center.
“Hey, you guys—,” I started, but then saw that the occupant of the table had been underneath it, searching for an outlet for her laptop.
When the girl sat back up, I saw that she had midnight black hair, short and cut at a dramatic angle, with blunt-cut bangs. A single barrette, black with a plastic, sparkly red heart at the clasp, held back a small portion of her hair. She had heavy, dramatic cat’s-eye eyeliner and wore all black—something I might wear prowling around, following suspects at night. It was a stark contrast against her ruby red lipstick and powder-pale skin. A bracelet adorned her wrist—a simple black string with a single ceramic red heart dangling from it.
I blew out a breath, grateful to finally hear the barista call my name. But when I looked up, there was no drink on the counter.
That’s when I felt a sort of sharp poke in my shoulder. I turned abruptly.
“Nancy Drew?” she asked again.
“Yes?” I said, searching the stranger’s face for some hint as to how I might know her.
She had gorgeous platinum blond hair done in the kind of beachy curls that looked effortless, but you knew took a ton of time to achieve. She wore natural-looking but flawless makeup, including the perfect shade of pink, shimmery gloss—recently reapplied.
The girl thrust her hand toward me, and I reached out to shake it. She had a surprisingly strong grip for someone so slim and with such … pink clothes.
“I’m Lexi?” she asked. “Lexi Claremont?” I felt my face growing warm. Was I supposed to know this girl?
“Um,” I started. “I—”
“I go to high school at River Heights High?” she continued. “And I saw your picture in the newspaper, in that article about how you recently helped solve that cyberbullying case at the middle school?”
Ohhh. Finally I realized … Lexi wasn’t asking me questions. She was just one of those people who made every sentence sound like it ended with a question mark.
“Oh, okay,” I said out loud. “Nice to meet you, Lexi.” I smiled, waiting for her to say something else. But she only looked around the coffee shop, as though she was looking for someone else. Okay. Well, maybe she’d simply wanted to tell me that she’d seen the article in the paper. Sweet of her.
“Nancy Drew!” This time it was my coffee, and Bess grabbed it and handed it to me over the crowd of people waiting at the counter.
At long last, the sweet, foamy, caffeine-infused drink was all mine. I bent my head to take a tentative sip of the hot beverage when I felt my arm being yanked away from my mouth.
“Omigosh!” Lexi squeaked. “I didn’t mean to do that,” she said, looking at the tiny puddle of caramel macchiato that had soaked into my white cardigan sleeve.
“That’s okay,” I said slowly. “Lexi, is there—?”
“Nancy,” she whispered, leaning into me. “I need your help.”
I glanced at my friends, both of whom were used to this sort of thing randomly happening to me.
“We’ll be outside, Nance,” George said. “We’ll wait for you to finish up and then you can meet us out there?”
I nodded gratefully while Lexi snagged a table that had just opened up by the front door. I sat down and took my first sip of the caramel macchiato … mmmmmm. Totally worth the wait.
“What kind of help do you mean?” I asked Lexi, feeling less hostile toward her for spilling my drink now that I’d tasted it.
“Okay.” Lexi leaned forward, her necklace—a thin silver chain with a heart locket at the end—dangling over her pale pink cashmere cardigan. “So, two weeks ago I get this e-mail from someone named CandyApple88? At first I thought it was an e-mail from my favorite online makeup store—CandyApple.”
I nodded, trying not very gracefully to suck all the rest of the whipped cream from off the top of my drink through Club Coffee’s trademark red straw. “But it wasn’t?” I asked.
Lexi let out a breath, her eyes darting around the room. “No,” she said. “It wasn’t.”
For a moment I saw her gaze settle on something in the back of the room, and her wide-eyed, sweet, pep-squad look went away for a few seconds. She narrowed her eyes, and her mouth went into a straight line. I turned to see what she was looking at, but just as I did, she began to talk again.
“It was … this link?”
“To a website,” I added.
“Right.” Lexi chewed on her bottom lip for a minute, her eyes on my drink.
“Lexi?” I asked.
Her eyes met mine, and her bright blue eyes were now a stunning, practically aquamarine color from the tears she was trying to keep from spilling out.
“What was the website?” I leaned forward, concerned. Suddenly I felt my heart thumping, and that adrenaline feeling that kicks in right when I know I’m about to be on the trail of a huge mystery warmed my arms and legs.
“It was awful,” Lexi said softly. “I don’t even know why I clicked on it. It was called hatethesegirls.com.”
“That’s an awful name for a website,” I said, taking another sip of my drink. “What was it, some sort of celebrity gossip site?”
“It was a gossip site all right,” she said. “All about me and my friends.”
That did sound mean … but after what I’d learned when I’d helped Bess’s younger sister and her friend with her cyberbullying problem, I wasn’t surprised. There were all kinds of scary people in the world, and a lot of them seemed to find computers an easy conduit for targeting and hurting people.
I took in Lexi’s appearance again. Pretty, blond, I’d imagine popular … and wealthy, if her designer handbag and cashmere sweater matched the rest of her wardrobe. It didn’t surprise me that she’d be a target of some sort of mean blog.
It was unfortunate, but high school girls could be really vicious. I could only imagine how intimidating an entire group of Lexis would be. Whoever created the blog could have been extremely jealous of all or even just one of those girls, and decided to try to make them feel a little less special by creating something that made them feel bad about themselves.
“What did the blog say?” I asked Lexi.
“Personal things,” she said. “Have you ever heard of a burn book?”
I shook my head, curious.
“Well, basically, it’s a book where people put pictures of people they know and write horrible things about them. Some are total lies, and some things are . . . well, sometimes there are things that are true. But always mean. Hatethesegirls.com is like an online burn book. It’s awful.”
“That really is terrible,” I admitted. “Have you told anyone? Your parents, or anyone at school?”
“Are you kidding?” Lexi asked me. “Why would I draw attention to something like that?”
“Well—,” I began.
“It’s bad enough that it’s out there to begin with? But now the blog posts are getting super personal, and they’re really focusing on me.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Well, like me being chosen to be the Daughter of River Heights.”
“Daughter of River Heights?” I asked, confused.
“Didn’t you, like, go to River Heights High?” she asked.
Ignore the snark and take a sip of caramel-caffeine deliciousness, I commanded myself. “Lexi,” I said after a nice, long drink. “If you want my help—which I haven’t agreed to yet—I have to ask as many questions as possible … and get as many answers as possible.”
Lexi sighed. “The Daughter of River Heights is like a mini Daughter of the American Revolution type of thing. Every year, one girl from the senior class is selected by the faculty and her fellow students to be that year’s Daughter. It’s supposed to be, like, someone with really good grades who exhibits exemplary leadership skills.”
“Okay,” I said, taking this in. “That sounds competitive. Had you been competing with someone who might have been jealous that you won over her?”
Lexi shook her head, her blond curls bouncing. “There isn’t a list of nominees or anything, so no one even knows who their competition is … or at least, not officially. Everyone just votes, and then the winner is announced.”
So that only narrowed it down to most girls in Lexi’s class. Suddenly I noticed that Lexi was looking more and more nervous. Bouncing her feet under the table, playing with her necklace—sliding the heart pendant up and down the delicate silver chain so roughly I worried it might break.
“And it’s not even that big a deal,” she continued. “I mean, my biggest responsibilities are that I ride a parade float on the second day of the River Heights Celebration, and then I present the Mahoney Scholarship Award on the last day of the Celebration. But other than that …”
I nodded, though I was sure there were plenty of other girls who would have killed for such a distinction—for their college applications alone. “But what does the Daughter of River Heights have to do with hatethesegirls.com?” I asked.
Lexi stopped moving completely, her already pale skin turning a paler shade of white. “Well, that’s the thing,” she said. “The author of the blog found out I was the winner even before it was announced.”
And that’s when I felt the click. Like trying a hundred keys to one lock, and landing on the hundred and first to find that it actually opens the door.
We had a mystery on our hands.
“Lexi,” I said, “I’ll work with you to find out who is creating this blog on one condition.”
“Anything,” said Lexi, leaning forward.
“Any question I ask, no matter how weird it may sound, you have to answer me honestly.”
Lexi looked at me, perplexed. And then, perhaps, a little critically. “Okay? But—”
But this time it was my turn to do the interrupting. “It’s a deal breaker,” I said. “I need you to tell no one about coming and speaking to me about this … and I need you to make me a promise that you’ll tell me the truth about everything that’s going on.” I’d worked on too many cases where the person I was trying to help had held back information vital to the mystery for so long that it took me twice the amount of time to solve it.
“Okay, then,” she said. “I agree.”
“For now I have only one more question.” I took a huge gulp of my macchiato. “Is there anyone you can think of who would deliberately want to hurt you? Anyone at all?”
Something flashed in Lexi’s eyes—nervousness? Regret?
“Well,” she said, “I just broke it off with my boyfriend, Scott Sears? He, like, didn’t take it too well.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Oh, just—you know …”
I could tell there was something off about the way Lexi was talking about Scott. What I couldn’t figure out was, what was the source? Lexi or Scott?
“It was a bad breakup?” I prompted.
“Yes,” Lexi said definitively—and too quickly, I thought.
“Why did you break things off ?” I asked.
Lexi paused. “It was just … we’ll graduate soon, go off to college. He’s going to go to Penn State and I’m going to UCLA. We’ll be across the country, and I guess I just wanted to be … free?”
I nodded my head, secretly thinking how happy I was that my boyfriend, Ned, and I had both wound up staying in River Heights. But I doubted that if we’d traveled far away from each other to go to different colleges things would have been any different. Sure, we wouldn’t see each other as often. But I felt one hundred percent confident in our relationship. There was nothing that could come between us—not even an entire country.
I rustled around in my purse for paper and a pen and handed them to her to write down her contact info, as well as the website address.
She looked at me, pen in hand, hand hovering above the page. And then she started scribbling.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I told her, taking the pen and paper back. At the bottom of the page, I wrote Scott Sears and then headed outside to meet my friends … and get to work.