“This really your first time leading a group, Sam?” Lorne asked as he greeted participants streaming into the Glacier Village community center. “Oh hey there, Ralph! Good to see you coming out to make sure your team comes in last place this year! Heh, heh, heh!”
“Well, I’ve helped with the families for the past few years,” Sam replied, smiling at Granny Givens, who walked over and handed her a homemade cookie.
“Yes, that’s right. I remember watching Sammy help the Fujikawa’s and Keiko on the climbing wall part of the mini-course last year, though that little girl hardly needed any help. Only five years old and she made it up and over faster than Daddy. Quite the sight!” said Granny Givens. She looked Sam over with a dissatisfied squint and stuffed a second cookie into her pocket. “You’re too skinny, Sammy. I’m saving an extra muffin for you for after the Challenge. You come find me.” She walked away before Sam could respond, spotting another participant’s pocket to home a cookie.
“Yeah, no, that doesn’t count. Who’s on your team again, Sam?” Lorne flipped through his tablet. “Let’s see, 19 to 45 are in here, family division in there, 46 to 65 down the hall and to the left, old-timers in there…who’d I miss? Ah, figures. 13 to 18s. You’re in that room over there,” he said, gesturing in front of him. “Tom’s leading the other group in your age category.” His eyes darted away quickly, distracted by the incoming participants.
Sam wandered into the room Lorne had pointed out and sat in the corner at the front beside Tom Gomez.
“So I figured I’d take the group with the newbies,” Tom said in a hushed voice, nodding to a wide-eyed group sitting at the other side of the room. “First time even camping for a few of them. And I’ve got a couple of older, more seasoned ones to help. Your group should be easier to manage, I think. They’ve all had a bit of backpacking experience. There were supposed to be three groups, but that crazy flu that’s going around got ‘em.”
Too bad the Black boys had such strong immune systems, Sam thought. She spotted them together now. Wesley gave her a dirty look out of the corner of his eye and said something to Ben, who then glanced over at her. Sam felt her shoulders tense. Clearly they were talking about her, but what were they saying? What were they plotting?
The lights dimmed and an image of Lorne was projected onto a large screen at the front of the room. He stared stiffly into the lens without smiling. After a minute of wide-eyed blinking, he realized the feed was live and started with his usual welcome message, followed by a test to ensure that all participants had read the basic safety materials and rules of the Challenge.
“Okay, anyone here need a smartphone for the quiz?” Tom asked the group.
Cara Walker raised her hand and approached Tom, her eyes glued to the floor. “Just broke mine,” she said in a tiny voice.
“Anyone else? I only grabbed one extra, but there are plenty more in the old-timers division, just let me know and I can run over. Anyone? No? Well, then, please check that the app is working on your phone.” Tom looked around the room for a response, but only found silence and a sea of floating lights. He poked his head out of the room and joined a chorus of shouts from other groups confirming their readiness to move forward.
“Looks like everyone’s ready,” Lorne’s big head on the screen said with a smile, “Okay then, question number one—”
“WAIT,” a voice yelled out in front of Sam. “My phone’s dead, where’s the outlet in this room?”
Sam turned on the lights and saw Wesley holding up a phone with a black screen. What was he doing when Tom asked everyone to check their phones? Without a word, she handed her phone to Wesley, who grabbed it without acknowledging her, like it was her failure that had caused the delay. She turned the lights back off and sighed. What else could she expect from him during the Challenge, she wondered.
“Well, as usual, looks like everyone’s passed the test,” Lorne announced on screen a few minutes later. “Though good ol’ Ralph fat-fingered his way to a sixty-seven percent, heh, heh, heh.”
“I know all the answers, Lorne! Freakin’ smartphone keyboards are too darn small!” a man’s voice echoed from down the hall.
“Well, anyway, heh, heh, it’s time to hand out the maps and let you all get going on your way. Now, y’know, we had some questions about this last year, but I can assure you all that these maps have been double and triple-checked and they are all equal in terms total distance and elevation gain. But as you know, each map is unique to make sure that every team is isolated and runs its own race. That means some of you will be higher on the mountains earlier, while other teams will have to tackle the steep climbs later on in the Challenge. First leg for everyone is short though, eh. So tonight, the goal is to set up camp, complete the first tasks set out at the checkpoint and prepare for the rest of the Challenge. Good luck, everyone!”
Sam gathered her group and opened her map. “So, Checkpoint 1 is close — just outside of the village. It’s on the other side of a steep hill, but we could also just walk on this flat trail around it. The marked trail is probably the best way to go, since the distance is so short and we wouldn’t save that much time hiking there directly.”
Wesley shook his head in disgust. “Listen, I’m not doing this to end up in second place. Last year’s winners got the photo of their victory pose plastered on the Ice Bridge noticeboard. The faster we get to the checkpoint, the faster we can finish whatever challenges they’ve set up for us there. That means we can get to sleep earlier and get an earlier start tomorrow.” He paused to look around at the group, giving Sam an eyeful of daggers before adding, “There’s a lot of stuff that’s gonna happen and the sooner, the better.”
A feeling of unease swept through Sam and she stepped back, letting the group debate their options.
“Remember what we talked about, Ben,” Wesley said, shooting Sam another malicious look.
“Yeah, Wes, I’m with you,” Ben said.
“This isn’t that complicated, people. Let’s just take a vote, okay? Who wants to follow the trail?” Penelope asked.
Everyone except Wesley opted for the trail, with the caveat that they would be packed and ready to go by 4:30am the next morning.
Sam’s thoughts drifted back to Wesley’s comment. What was the “stuff” Wesley had mentioned? What exactly had the Black boys discussed? Were they planning something out of spite? How far would they go? Was Ben’s friend Drew also taking part of their secret plot of revenge?
Although she disagreed with Wesley on the strategy for the first leg, she had no intention of spending a minute longer in the Challenge than was absolutely necessary. The faster she finished, the less time she would have to spend with the Black boys and the sooner she could return home to care for her dog, who needed her much more than the awful boys who wanted to kill him.
But maybe, just maybe, the Challenge would be a good opportunity to talk to the Black boys, get to know them, reason with them and change their minds about her and her dog. Maybe it was a lucky break to have been asked to help and assigned to this group after all. That was it. She would reach out to Wesley and Ben and help them see that her dog wasn’t a threat to anyone.
“Here,” Wesley said, thrusting Sam’s phone back at her, his voice sharp as a knife. “Don’t get too attached to that dog. You aren’t going to be able to keep him…alive.”
Sam looked at her phone. Dr. Henry Chow had texted her, “Your dog responding well to treatment. Will be back to your home to check tomorrow and send update.” She had left a key under the mat and asked Henry to check in on her dog while she was at the Challenge. And now Wesley had read her message and knew everything. She cursed under her breath. She wouldn’t be able to hide her dog from the authorities anymore. Sam needed a new plan. Of course, her plans had not been very dependable lately.
Are you enjoying the first chapters of Fool’s Bluff? Please share this with your friends and family who would also like this story!