Secret at Mystic Lake
Just One Small Problem
“I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING this,” my friend Bess Marvin muttered, poking morosely at her eggs.
George Fayne, my other friend and Bess’s cousin, elbowed her and grinned. “It’s because you love me so much,” she said. “Just remember that.”
We were all eating breakfast at the quaint inn where our upcoming three-day bike tour around the scenic, sprawling Mystic Lake Park was about to start.
George’s parents had bought the trip for all three of us as a birthday gift to George, and they’d come to drop us off so we wouldn’t have to leave our cars. Bess wasn’t exactly as thrilled about the trip as George and I were. In fact, she was distinctly unthrilled.
“It’ll be good for you, Bess,” Mr. Fayne said. “Get out of town for a few days. Get back to nature. Get some exercise. . . .”
Bess sighed and looked balefully at her cousin. “Why can’t you be really into outlet shopping?” she asked. “Why can’t your most dearly held birthday wish be, like, sitting on a beach in Saint Thomas for three days?”
George shook her head. “Because I’m not you?” she retorted.
“Come on, Bess. This will be fun. I bet you’ll end up loving it.” Though they were related, Bess and George couldn’t be more different from each other. George was sharp, sensible, and outdoorsy; Bess was cheerful, fashionable, and decidedly not outdoorsy.
“Like I’ve been loving all our practice rides?” Bess asked snarkily, then couldn’t help breaking into a smile. George and I both started laughing.
“Come on, Bess,” I said, gently nudging her. “You only cried for the first hour last time!”
The truth was that Bess had been a pretty good sport on the practice rides the three of us had taken around our hometown of River Heights. We’d started at ten miles and worked our way up to thirty-five, which was the length of the rides we’d be taking on the tour. I was no athlete, but I kind of liked the bike rides; it was exhilarating whooshing through the town, almost like you were flying. I’d been sore for days after the first couple of rides, but gradually I’d gotten stronger. After our last ride, I hadn’t had to take even one aspirin.
“Ooh, look,” said George, pointing at a tall, honey-blond girl who’d just stepped into the dining room. She was wearing bike shorts and a slim tank top, and her hair was pulled back into a sleek low ponytail. Behind her came a boy about her age, also with honey-blond hair, but his was cut short and matched the stubble on his face and chin. He wore a pair of cargo shorts and a baggy T-shirt that read A LEGEND IN MY OWN TIME. “I think that’s Caitlin and Henry—they’re twins, and
they’re leading the tour.” Our tour was run by a business called Adventures & Company that George said ran lots of these types of trips, but Caitlin and Henry had been featured online as the coleaders of our particular trek.
Caitlin smiled and headed toward us, gesturing for Henry, who looked less enthusiastic, to follow. “Hi, I’m Caitlin Moorehead. Are you all here for the bike tour?”
“We are,” said Bess, standing and offering her hand. “I’m Bess Marvin, and this is my cousin George Fayne and my friend Nancy Drew.”
Caitlin and Henry shook each of our hands. “Welcome,” said Caitlin. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.” She smiled, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was something tense behind her smile.
Then again, maybe I was reading too much into it. I have a tendency to do that sometimes. See, my thing is solving mysteries. My friends love to tease me about it, but they’re always happy to join me in cracking a case. Together we’ve snagged more than our fair share of crooks in River Heights.
If there was something odd in Caitlin’s expression, Mr. Fayne didn’t seem to notice. “I’m Russ Fayne, George’s dad,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” Caitlin said, shaking his hand. “It’s beautiful up here, isn’t it?”
Mr. Fayne smiled, but his expression quickly turned serious. “And what are the safety procedures on a trip like this?” he asked. “What if, for example, there were an emergency?”
Caitlin nodded, looking unruffled. “Well, I’ll always have my satellite phone with me, so we can contact emergency services even when we can’t get cell service,” she said. The website for the tour had made it very clear: There was little, if any, cell service in the Mystic Lake region. “But I’ve also taken several courses in first aid, including CPR and child CPR. And I carry a full first aid kit, of course.” She paused, then flashed that same tense smile. “I’ve been a cyclist on at least ten of these trips, though, sir, and nothing’s ever gone wrong beyond some bumps and bruises. I wouldn’t worry too much!”
Mr. Fayne didn’t smile. “And what is your background?” he asked. “How does one become qualified to give a tour like this?”
Again, Caitlin didn’t seem bothered in the least as she launched into a description of how she’d grown up doing long-distance biking trips with her parents, camped all over the country, was a varsity athlete in high school, and was planning to study environmental science at Yale in the fall.
“Yale?” George asked, her eyebrows raised. “Wow, that’s impressive.”
Henry smirked. “My sis is too modest to tell you, but she’s going on a full merit scholarship from Grayson Industries, a biotech firm in our town,” he put in. “She beat out loads of impressive candidates with her 4.5 GPA!”
Even Bess looked impressed by that. “How did you get higher than a 4.0?” she asked Caitlin. “Isn’t that the best GPA you can get?”
Caitlin rolled her eyes, looking embarrassed. “It’s the way our school counts advanced placement courses,”
she said. “You get some extra points. No big deal.”
But Bess still looked puzzled, as though she was trying to do the math in her head. “How many AP courses did you take?” she asked.
Caitlin was turning slightly pink. “Eight,” she replied quietly.
“Wow,” Bess said breathlessly, shaking her head. “Well, I guess I should feel confident putting my life in your hands!”
She turned to Henry. “What about you?” she asked. “You’re coleading the ride, aren’t you?”
Henry gave her an easy grin. “I am. But only because the tour company insists on having two people lead, if they’re under twenty-one. And it makes my parents happy, honestly. Caitlin’s done most of the planning. She’s the overachiever in the family. For instance, while Cait’s up pulling all-nighters next year, I’ll be relaxing in the south of France!” He elbowed his sister. “I’m taking a year off to travel.”
Henry smiled as he said that, I noted, but Caitlin didn’t. She turned back to us, all business.
“Are there any other questions I can answer for you guys?”
As Mr. Fayne interrogated Caitlin and Henry some more, George reached over and touched my arm. “Let’s make sure we have all our gear together,” she suggested.
“Sure,” I agreed, and got up from the table to follow her and Bess out to the foyer, where we’d placed our packs.
We each had a large backpack containing a few extra clothes, changes of underwear, toiletries, aspirin—the bare essentials. Caitlin and Henry had provided a list of items we’d need for the trip, but they didn’t include too much. “Probably so we don’t get bogged down with stuff during the ride,” George had noted happily. We all also carried a big bottle of water, and George’s parents had gotten us some protein bars, “just in case.” (Meals were included in the tour, but the Faynes didn’t want us to get hungry.) The Faynes had also sprung for a super-fancy, superlight tent that the three of us would take turns carrying on the rides and share at night. It
was separate from the packs, and George suggested that we draw straws to figure out who would take it first. I “won,” so I would carry it on the first leg of our trip, until lunch today.
As George and I peeked outside, where our tour-issued bikes were waiting, Bess sauntered up to us, took one look at the packs, and shook her head. “I hope you know,” she said, “that this is by far the most outdoorsy thing I have ever done.”
“OMG, me too!” a female, slightly nasal voice piped up from the top of the stairs, and we looked up to see a curly-haired brunette with startling blue eyes walking down, carrying a huge backpack and tent. “Are you guys leaving on the tour?”
“We sure are,” George said, smiling. “We’re really excited. I’m George, and this is Bess and Nancy. You are . . . ?”
The girl smiled, revealing a slightly crooked bottom tooth. “I’m Zoe. Zoe Ferullo. Gosh, I’m so glad to meet you guys. I don’t know anyone on this tour—I signed up to go with my friend Gemma, who is totally outdoorsy,
but then she backed out at the last minute. She got mono.” She paused, looked off to the side, and smiled wickedly. “I told her that would only make her as lazy as I am, but she wasn’t buying it! Haw, haw, haw, haw.”
Zoe bent over laughing at her own joke, and Bess giggled too.
We all looked up to see George’s parents approaching the doorway from the breakfast room, already getting misty-eyed.
“It’s about time to get going,” Mr. Fayne said, walking over to George and putting an arm around her shoulders.
I smiled at him. “Caitlin and Henry passed your interrogation?”
Mr. Fayne nodded and smiled. “Just be happy you have Georgia’s mother and me looking out for you girls.”
George winced at the sound of her real name. Nobody ever used it except for her parents. But she quickly recovered and leaned in to give him a hug. “Oh, we are,” she assured him.
Caitlin and Henry appeared in the doorway then. Henry looked relaxed as he checked his phone, but Caitlin looked slightly stressed. She put on a bright smile and said, “Bike tour participants, I have to apologize. We had a printer malfunction last night”—here she shot Henry a meaningful glance—“and I was unable to print out your tour maps. But Henry and I have maps, and I promise you’re safe under our leadership!”
Zoe laughed that awful laugh. “Haw, haw. What would a map even have on it out here—‘You pass more trees here, then more trees’?”
George cleared her throat. “I think what Zoe means is . . . it’s fine,” she said, shooting Caitlin a comforting smile.
Caitlin’s grin seemed to become a little more relaxed then. “Great. Well, let’s all go outside. It’s time to get ready to roll!”
Twenty minutes later I settled myself on my bike seat and pushed off, following behind Bess, George, and four others, including Zoe.
The Faynes stood waving on the steps of the bed-and-breakfast.
“Have fun!” Mrs. Fayne called. Bess turned around and shook her head as if to say, Like that’s possible.
George turned her head and flashed a sincere smile at her parents. “Thank you so much, you guys!”
We all kept waving and calling our good-byes until we rounded a corner out of sight. We passed a low wall of pine trees and suddenly a gorgeous vista came into view: rolling hills surrounding a glimmering blue lake. Mystic Lake. Everyone oohed and aahed.
Henry, who was in the lead with Caitlin, turned his head to call back, “This is just the beginning! You guys won’t believe the beauty we’ll experience on this trip.”
Bess, who was already panting behind me, let out a little sigh. “I hope we experience lots of resting, too,” she muttered, too low for most of the group to hear. But Zoe, who was in the back of the pack with us, laughed that same crazy laugh.
“Haw, haw, haw, haw! You said it. This is pretty
and all, but I’d be just as happy at home in front of last night’s Project Runway.”
Bess glanced at Zoe with a surprised, wide-eyed stare that said something like, You just might be my soul mate. “Who’s your favorite?” she asked, tossing her long blond ponytail.
“Angelo,” Zoe replied quickly. “Heather is too avant-garde for me. And Justin can only do pants.”
Bess nodded appreciatively. “Oh my gosh, come ride by me,” she said, gesturing to the space next to her bike. “You could be the one thing that gets me through this tour.”
I couldn’t help smiling—trust Bess to find a fellow fashionista and outdoors-hater, even in the least likely of places. But then I caught George’s eye as Bess pedaled ahead, making space for Zoe.
She gave me a skeptical look. “Figures,” she whispered. “I finally get Bess out of the mall, and she finds a fellow shopper.”
By the time we stopped at a still green pond for lunch, we’d seen a family of deer, two groundhogs, a bald
eagle, and something George swore was an elk but just looked like a big log to me. We’d also seen, as Henry had promised, tons more breathtaking scenery.
Still, I could feel my muscles complaining as I dragged myself off the bike and walked the short distance from where we’d left our gear by the side of the road to the picnic tables a few yards through the trees, by the pond. It’s going to be an aspirin night! I thought.
George took in the clear, still pond, ringed by wildflowers, with a towering purple hill in the distance, and let out an appreciative sigh. “Isn’t it amazing?” she asked. “This is exactly what I was dreaming of when I told my parents about this tour.”
A short, gray-haired man beside her, one of our fellow bikers, looked out at the same vista and nodded sagely. “Communing with nature makes us feel more alive,” he said solemnly.
George looked over at him and smiled. “I don’t know if we’ve met. I’m George,” she said.
“Dagger,” he replied, nodding.
“And I’m Nancy,” I added.
“Nice to meet you both.”
Dagger was the only person on the tour we hadn’t yet met. The group was made up of Bess, George, myself, Henry, Caitlin, Zoe, and Dagger. So far Dagger, Caitlin, and Henry seemed like serious bikers, while George, Bess, Zoe, and I pulled up the rear. Caitlin was very patient with us, though. She pointed out that we were all there to see the sights, first and foremost—how fast we saw them was unimportant.
We all settled down by the pond while Caitlin fished around in a cooler and brought out sandwiches and fruit. Henry walked up to the table and sat down heavily. I noticed he made no move to help his sister, who arranged eight sandwiches on the table, all in color-coded plastic bags.
“The red are ham and cheese, the green are turkey with lettuce and tomato, and the yellow are hummus and cucumber,” she said, smiling sheepishly. “I didn’t know if we had any vegetarians or vegans in the group.”
“No animal products for me! I’m vegan, and I’m
starving,” Dagger said, reaching for a yellow bag. “Thanks!”
Bess seemed restless; she kept glancing back at the road with an uncomfortable expression on her face.
“Something wrong, cuz?” George asked, taking a big bite of her ham and cheese sandwich.
Bess grimaced. “It’s just—is it really safe to leave our stuff by the side of the road like that?” she asked. “I know we’re in the middle of nowhere, but it feels wrong.”
Caitlin laughed. “We’re in a beautiful, rustic spot—not quite the middle of nowhere,” she said, gesturing to the pond. “Would nowhere have scenery like this?”
Bess looked unamused. “It’s very pretty,” she said, “but you know what I mean.”
Zoe spoke up. “It feels a little weird to me, too, Bess—it must be a city girl thing!”
George glanced at me and rolled her eyes. We’re all city girls, she mouthed.
Zoe went on, “But who’s going to take our stuff out here?”
Henry nodded. “Exactly—it’s totally safe, guys. If anyone happens by, it will be another hiker who knows how precious that gear is. They’d never steal.”
Bess shrugged. “Okay—if you say so.” She sat down and we all dug in to our sandwiches, making polite conversation about where we were from, what we did, and what had brought us to the tour. Dagger was a bookkeeper from Chicago who wanted to feel closer to nature, and offered to lead us all in meditation just after dawn the next morning. Henry and Caitlin were recent high school graduates from the nearby town of Taylorville. Zoe was a college student who was spending the summer with her parents in nearby Cedar Village.
“I only came on this tour,” she said, dramatically waving her orange section, “because my friend Gemma made me.”
Caitlin raised an eyebrow. “Oh, great,” she said. If she was being sarcastic, Zoe didn’t pick up on it.
“I’m really not a nature person,” she went on. “I like comfy beds, and good sheets, and manicures, and cable TV. But Adventures and Company said my deposit
was nonrefundable, so I’m doing my best to be a good sport. Like, I brought a ton of nail polish, so if anyone wants a manicure tonight, you know where to go.”
Bess raised her hand. “Me!” she said cheerfully. “I want a manicure tonight.”
Zoe smirked at her. “We can complain to each other about all the good TV we’re missing.”
Caitlin bunched up her lunch bag with a loud crinkling sound. “Anyway,” she said, “we have another twenty miles or so before we get to our campsite, so we’d better get going.”
Everyone stood, and when I struggled to get to my feet, I fully realized how stiff my muscles had gotten during our short rest—and how sore I would be that night. Oh well. I was really enjoying the ride and the scenery so far. Caitlin led the way through the trees back to our bikes and gear, but stopped short when she got to the road. “Oh . . . oh no,” she murmured.
“What is it?” Zoe asked, crashing through the trees behind her. “Is something wrong?”
Caitlin was staring at the ground. “That’s strange,”
she said, turning to look at Henry with a confused expression.
“What?” Zoe asked again.
Henry looked where Caitlin was staring, and his face paled. “Uh—it looks like . . . ?” he said, glancing at his sister.
“Exactly,” she said to him. “Weird, no?”
Bess held up a hand, like she was in class. “Can someone please tell me what’s wrong?” she asked.
Henry turned to her, clearly trying to look calm. “Oh, it’s no biggie,” he said, adding in a tense chuckle. “It’s just . . . one small problem . . .”
Caitlin shook her head, then pointed at our packs—where, I noticed suddenly, there seemed to be slightly less gear than there was before.
“A bunch of our stuff is gone,” she said in a hollow voice. “It looks like . . . our tents are all missing.”