A WILD KNIGHT
Are we ready to par-tee down?" my friend Bess Marvin asked with an impish grin as she climbed into the backseat of my Prius. Next to me, in the passenger seat, my friend George Fayne groaned. She and Bess might be cousins, but their personalities are very different.
"Ready as I'm going to get," I replied, pulling out of Bess's driveway. "Hopefully this party will be a little quieter than the last one we went to."
"You mean, we won't catch any criminals?" George asked, faking a disappointed pout. "I do so love a party that ends with someone being led away in handcuffs."
I smiled. The three of us were headed to a joint bachelor/bachelorette party for George and Bess's cousin, Sydney Marvin. Syd was scheduled to get married in a week, and so far, the preparations for her wedding had been a little too exciting. First Syd got a very creepy reply card in the mail. Instead of just information about who would be coming to the wedding and whether he or she would bring a guest, this card was printed to look like the original invitation, and read:
RSVP: I WILL ATTEND BUT IF YOU KNOW WHAT'S BEST FOR YOU, SYDNEY, YOU WON'T.
Sydney is a pretty successful model, so if this had been the only strange incident, we might have written it off as a practical joke from an overzealous fan. But then, within hours of arriving in town, her fiancé, Vic, was sent to the hospital after someone tried to poison his drink with jet fuel! Thankfully he'd come out of it fine, but just days later, Syd was the victim of another attack — this time she was given a lei infested with tiny biting ants. That may sound odd — what do leis have to do with wedding preparations? — but truthfully, this whole wedding is a little odd. For one thing, it's being filmed by the producers of Daredevils, the reality television competition, as a TV special. And for another, the wedding seems to be under attack. It looks like somebody out there really doesn't want to see Syd and Vic say "I do."
"Has Syd mentioned any more creepy e-mails or texts?" I asked my friends as I pulled into the parking lot for Mead, a medieval-themed chain restaurant that would be hosting the party. Over the last few weeks, Syd had received a couple threatening e-mails — all sent from public computers — and at least one scary text message.
Bess shook her head. "Nothing since the shower," she replied. At Syd's bridal shower, we'd gotten at least some answers as to why the wedding seemed to be cursed. Putting two and two together, I'd realized that a friend and fellow model to Syd, Candy Kaine, was the most likely suspect for wedding saboteur. When we'd questioned her, she'd admitted it: she had sent the RSVP card, given Syd the ant-infested lei, and even wrapped up a scary reminder of a stalker Syd had dealt with in the past — a Mr. Silhouette — as a "present" for the blushing bride. Oddly, though, she claimed not to know anything about the e-mails or the jet fuel incident. At first I had assumed she was lying and just didn't want to be charged with any serious crimes, but then, after Candy had been questioned by the police and had her cell phone taken away, another creepy text arrived for Syd:
And we'd known it wasn't over.
"Maybe whoever's trying to destroy the wedding got scared off by what happened to Candy," Bess suggested.
"What?" George asked. "You mean how the police determined she hadn't committed any serious offenses, and how she graciously just flew back to New York today because she felt awkward? I don't know if that's going to scare anyone off."
Bess shrugged. "No, I mean that she was caught at all." She glanced at me. "Whoever's doing this must know that Nancy's on the case. You know, that someone's paying attention. That might be enough to convince them to cool it."
I pulled into a parking space as close to the front door as I could get, which wasn't very close at all. It looked like this was going to be a huge party. "Maybe," I allowed. "But if this person is Mr. Silhouette, I don't think attention will be enough to scare him off. That's exactly what stalkers want: attention. And if he can't get the good kind — befriending Syd, or getting her to fall for him — he'll take the bad kind, by just scaring her to death."
George shuddered. "Gosh, this has to be so weird for Syd. It's one of the happiest times of her life, and this totally creepy thing is taking away from that."
I nodded grimly, unclipping my seat belt. "That's why we're going to catch whoever's behind this A-S-A-P."
We got out of the car and started strolling over to the entrance. As we got closer, I saw that the entire restaurant was surrounded by security guards watching every exit and even the big windows! At the front door, where members of the production crew were already clustered, trying to make sure only wedding party members and invitees got in, a group of security guards were further examining all the entrants. I noted that a large metal detector had been installed in front of the entrance, and guards were forcing all partygoers through it, as well as examining the contents of all their bags and pockets. Donald, the geeky production assistant we'd met before, was checking people's names off of a list.
"Jeez," George murmured. "They're really taking this threat seriously!"
Bess nodded. "Yeah, I think that's how they convinced Syd to go ahead with this party at all," she replied. "After all, she and Vic didn't really want bachelor or bachelorette parties, but the producers were pushing hard for it. When Syd told them what happened after her shower, they agreed to guard this place like Fort Knox if Syd would just agree to attend the party."
Fishing our invitations out of our pockets and purses, we began the long process of being vetted by production and then again by the security crew. Finally we were able to make our way inside.
"Wow," breathed Bess as we entered the main restaurant — a huge room, complete with jousting ring, that had been decorated in a soft rose-pink, Syd's color. Hundreds of tiny lights twinkled in arrangements hanging from the ceiling, and small votive candles made every table glow. Gorgeous floral arrangements graced each table, and larger ones circled the jousting ring and dining area.
"I guess we should be used to TV-budget-decorating by now," George observed. "But you know, it never gets old."
We walked in among the tables, glancing down to locate our names on the place cards. The three of us were at a table with the three other remaining bridesmaids and their dates. But most of the partygoers who'd arrived so far were wandering the room, enjoying some mouthwatering-looking appetizers, and chatting. Bess, George, and I put our things down and walked over to a group of familiar faces.
Ellie Marvin, Syd's mother and Bess and George's aunt, smiled when she saw us approach. "Well, my favorite bridesmaids have made it." She greeted us with a smile, pulling each of us toward her in turn for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "How are you girls? Ready to celebrate?"
"We're all doing well," Bess replied. "How's Syd? She's not here yet, is she?"
Ellie's smile seemed to flicker. "She just called — she's on her way from the hotel."
"Hotel?" I asked with a frown. Syd had been staying at her parents' house — at least up until the disastrous shower.
Ellie nodded, her mouth tight. "The producers felt it would be best." She glanced around, then leaned in toward us and dropped her tone to a whisper. "Safer. They felt they could keep a better eye on her there. With, you know, all this..."
Her voice ran out, and Ellie shook her head as if she were shaking off a terrible thought.
"The person sending these messages," George supplied in a whisper, placing a comforting hand on her aunt's shoulder.
"You know Nancy's on the case, don't you?" Bess asked her aunt, gesturing grandly at yours truly. "It's only a matter of time till we catch this mystery joker. Nancy never lets a crook get away!"
Ellie nodded, smiling at me warmly. "Well, you did find out the truth about Candy," she said. "Not that she got what she deserved..."
"The police decided she hadn't committed any major offenses, right?" George asked.
"Right." Ellie sighed. "But more than that, Syd told them that she didn't want to press charges. Candy was her friend, she hadn't caused any lasting damage..." Ellie waved her hand in the air, shaking her head as though she couldn't make sense of her daughter's decision.
There was some truth to what Sydney decided: Candy's offenses were more annoying than actually harmful. She'd caused headaches for Syd without permanently hurting anyone. Whoever was behind the rest of the attacks, though, was anything but harmless. He or she had tried to poison Vic with jet fuel, and their messages for Syd were creepy and threatening.
"Oh well," Ellie concluded. "That's just one of the many things Syd and I have disagreed on as we've prepared for this wedding. If it was up to me, you know..." She gestured dismissively to the decorations and camera crew, which was still setting up. "I wonder if this whole reality TV business has made Syd less safe."
Bess looked confused. "I thought you and Syd had both changed your mind about that," she said quietly. "I know in the beginning, neither of you liked the TV idea, but..."
"I do think it's in Syd's best interest overall," Ellie replied, but her face remained skeptical. Strangely, it almost looked to me as if she were reading off a cue card. "I didn't like the idea at first, but...but..." Ellie sighed and shook her head. "Ignore me," she said finally. "I'm just a stressed-out mother of the bride at the end of her rope. But I'm sure the wedding will go beautifully."
With that, she smiled, patted each of us on our shoulders, and walked away.
"Hmm," I murmured, glancing at each of my friends. "There's something strange about Ellie and this whole television business, isn't there?"
George nodded. "I know, officially, she's happy the TV crew is here," she replied. "I just wish you could have heard some of the terrible things she said about TV weddings before she changed her mind."
"And then," Bess added, "she pulled a complete one-eighty. The TV show went from the most despicable thing in the world to this great idea."
I nodded, thinking. "I know what motivated Syd to go along with it," I said. "Money. She and Vic will be able to buy a house and more with what they're making off this wedding. But Ellie...I just don't understand why she's suddenly okay with it."
George caught my eye, looking suspicious. "Do you think she's not really okay with it?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Someone's trying to stop this wedding," I said. "If she still wanted Syd to have a small wedding in a church..."
"But Aunt Ellie would never hurt Syd," Bess insisted.
"Whoever's doing this never really did," I pointed out. "They've sent messages to convince her to stop the wedding...but the only person they've tried to hurt is Vic, with the jet fuel."
George shook her head. "I still just can't see Aunt Ellie hurting anyone," she said. "I don't think she was crazy about Vic at first, but...I just can't picture it."
At that moment a cheer went through the crowd, and the three of us turned to see the happy couple-to-be, Vic and Syd, beaming as they walked into the room.
"Look at her," Bess said with a smile as we watched Syd take in the room, exclaiming over every beautiful decoration. "You'd never know she wanted to cancel this party."
"Maybe she changed her mind," I suggested.
"Or maybe she's just becoming a better actress," George guessed.
Syd looked beautiful in a green silk wrap dress that accented her eyes, her long hair pinned up in a loose bun. As she moved through the room, greeting guests and accepting compliments, she truly seemed to be glowing with happiness.
Until she reached us. As soon as Syd spotted me, her blissed-out expression seemed to melt into one of concern verging on panic. "Nancy," she hissed, taking my hand. "Thank goodness you're here. I'm so worried our little friend is going to strike again!" She glanced around, trying to hide her fear from the other guests, then turned back to me. "Have you learned anything new? Is there anything you can tell me?"
I shook my head regretfully. Despite tons of Internet research and a whole lot of thought, I still had no idea who was threatening her wedding. "But I'll find the person," I promised her. "Just you wait."
Syd squeezed my hand and nodded. Just then Donald Hibbard, the mousy young production assistant, stepped into the middle of the room and raised his hand to get everyone's attention. "Hello?" he asked, his voice barely audible in the huge space. "Can I have everyone's attention?"
It took at least five minutes, but with people in the crowd helping out, finally everyone quieted down enough to hear what Donald was trying to tell us.
"We're going to begin filming the party," he explained. "First we'll all eat dinner, and then we'll enjoy Mead's medieval-themed floor show. After that the men and women will break into two separate groups and enjoy their bachelor and bachelorette parties in the event rooms downstairs."
"Whoopee," George whispered sarcastically.
"I think, in this case, 'bachelorette party' just means, you know — a party," Bess explained. "Syd and Vic wanted this to be the kind of event people could bring their kids to."
Donald was still trying to urge people to their seats, but everyone had started chatting after he announced the plan, and it seemed he had lost control of the room. I felt a little sorry for him as he gestured and yelled and tried to get everyone's attention back with his soft-spoken voice. Finally Hans Eberhart, the very talented but impatient director of the reality show, spoke up. "Everyone sit down!" he shouted, his voice loud enough to cut through the chatter. "That is, if you want to get any sleep tonight. And I know I do."
Gradually the din grew quieter, and people began to split off and search for their seats among the carefully arranged tables. Hans led Syd and Vic over to their private table right by the jousting floor, whispering some last-minute instructions. Bess, George, and I walked back to the bridesmaids' table, where our fellow bridesmaids Deb, Akinyi, and Pandora had already gathered.
"Isn't this something!" Giggly Deb Camden, one of Syd's old friends from River Heights, greeted us as we walked over to our seats. "All these people! These beautiful decorations! I bet this is going to be a knight to remember! Ahahahahahahahaha!"
Snorting, Deb turned to George and firmly poked her shoulder a couple times. "Get it? A knight to remember, like the knights of the round table? Get it?"
George looked pained. And actually, those pokes looked like they hurt. "Ha...ha," George replied weakly, settling into her seat with a stone-faced expression. "Hilarious, Deb. As always."
"Oh! I just love parties!" Deb giggled, settling down next to George.
"Me too," George agreed, shooting a look at Bess and me. "And I have a feeling this is going to be a long one."
I kept an eye on Syd throughout dinner (a huge hunk of meat we had to eat with our hands, per the medieval theme). She was visibly nervous, but she did seem to push her worries to the back burner and have a good time chatting and laughing with Vic. It always made me feel better about this whole wedding insanity to watch the two of them together. However bumpy their ride to the altar might be, they clearly loved each other very much.
As dessert was winding down, Bess poked my arm. "Want to go chat with Syd?" she asked me and George. "It looks like Vic excused himself to the restroom, and she's sitting there all alone."
I moved to get up. "Sure. Why — "
But I was cut off by an announcer's voice.
"WELLLLLCOME TO MEAD, WHERE EVERYONE HAS A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR! If everyone will just return to their seats, we're about to start the jousting show..."
Bess, George, and I thunked back into our chairs.
"There goes that idea," George muttered.
As she spoke, the lights dimmed, and bright spotlights illuminated the jousting floor, which seemed to be just a huge pen covered in sawdust in the middle of the room.
"Please welcome our jousters tonight, Malvolio, the black knight, and Romeo, the white!"
As we watched, two knights on horses suddenly rode in from a far entrance, each elaborately costumed in shiny armor and their color of choice. They each circled the ring, waving at the crowd and pumping their arms for applause. The crowd went nuts.
"Let's get started!" the announcer continued. We all watched as the knights faced off in the center of the ring. When the announcer said "go," they began jousting, which was much more complicated than I'd thought. There was lots of dodging on the horses and running around the ring. It seemed that both knights had fans in the audience, and people were very loud about supporting their favorites!
"Come on, Romeo!" Deb Camden cheered next to us. "Rip him off his horse!"
"Deb," Akinyi, the maid of honor, cautioned from across the table. "It's just a display, you know? It's all fake." Akinyi shook her head and sighed, looking like she felt very above this whole display. Ever since she'd arrived in River Heights, Akinyi had seemed slightly out of sorts — complaining about her wardrobe, the town, the way she was going to look on camera, you name it. I wasn't sure what to make of it, except that Akinyi must be a very particular person — and not used to leaving New York City very often.
Deb looked a little chastened, and I could tell Bess felt bad. "Rip him off his horse?" she asked Deb, poking her on the shoulder. "Give me a break! Malvolio's got this all wrapped up."
Recognizing a kindred soul in Bess, Deb grinned. "Are you kidding? Malvolio couldn't joust his way out of a paper bag."
Suddenly the cheers and jeers all through the room intensified. I glanced back to the jousting floor, and saw the white knight advance on Malvolio, knocking him off his horse!
"The winner..." the announcer cried, "is Romeo, the white knight!"
Deb went crazy, cheering and hooting, and I noticed Akinyi rolling her eyes at her boyfriend, Josh, as she pulled out a compact to check her makeup. Bess booed, and George and I clapped politely.
The black knight mounted his horse again, and they both moved to the center of the ring. I noticed a man with a microphone — he must be the announcer, who we hadn't seen until then — moving into the ring to join them.
"Let's hear it for the black knight!" he called, and the room erupted into cheers and applause. The black knight took off his shiny helmet, revealing a smiling, bearded face. He waved and smiled, gesturing proudly to his horse. The applause intensified.
Beaming, the announcer turned from him to the white knight. "And let's hear it...for Vic Valdez!"
A confused hush went through the crowd as the white knight directed his horse to the middle of the rung and pulled off his helmet, revealing Vic! I glanced over at Syd, who was beaming and laughing, and realized that, sure enough, Vic had never returned to his place at their table.
"Your white knight in shining armor, Sydney!" the announcer called, gesturing at Vic. Vic was laughing and waving enthusiastically, doing muscleman poses (as best he could atop his horse) and showing off. I looked over and saw Syd cracking up, seemingly totally at ease now — that made me happy.
But suddenly there was a loud noise, and everything seemed to happen at once. Vic's horse, a gorgeous white stallion, spooked and started running for the exit. Vic, caught off guard and still preening, lurched backward — and with a sickening thud, he fell off the stallion and landed headfirst on the ground! Copyright © 2009 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.