Authors: Diana Renn
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #People & Places, #Caribbean & Latin America, #Sports & Recreation, #Cycling
ALSO BY DIANA RENN
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
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First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Diana Renn
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Latitude zero / by Diana Renn
Summary: Tessa, an aspiring investigative journalist, travels to Ecuador as she investigates the sudden death of young cycling superstar Juan Carlos Macias-León at a charity bike ride.
[1. Bicycles and bicycling—Fiction. 2. Bicycle racing—Fiction. 3. Murder—Fiction. 4. Investigative journalists—Fiction. 5. Reporters and reporting—Fiction. 6. Organized crime—Fiction. 7. Ecuador—Fiction. 8. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title.
PZ7.R2895Lat 2014 [Fic]—dc23 2013043837
through the busy parking lot and looked for the easy way out. Riding close to Jake’s back wheel, I followed his crooked path through the cars circling the lot and the cyclists unloading their gear. And the bikes! I’d never seen so many, not even at Jake’s races.
Some guy opened a car door right by me. I sucked in my breath and swerved hard.
“Hey, watch it!” Jake shouted at the driver. “You okay?” he asked me, softer. “That idiot almost doored you.”
“This place is an accident waiting to happen.” Jake stood on his pedals and scanned the crowds. “This way.” He steered toward the edge of the parking lot, bunny-hopped his bike onto the sidewalk, and entered into the street.
As I followed him toward the starting line, I tried to ignore the passing cars, whose heat I could feel on my legs. I focused on the positives. We were gliding down brand-new asphalt: a black licorice whip of a road. And it was the perfect morning for a bike ride. A milky June sky, a breeze at our backs, miles of training rides stored in our muscles. The warm air was drying out last night’s rain, and steam swirled up from the road.
But my front tire wobbled. My breath came fast. This was my first time bandit riding with Jake. It wasn’t exactly breaking the law, but it was the closest I’d come. We were unregistered riders who’d raised zero dollars for this charity ride.
A few minutes later, we reached the edge of a middle school parking lot. It had been transformed into the cyclists’ staging area. And a party. Music from a live band pulsed from speakers. Balloon clusters danced in the breeze. A red-and-white banner stretched between two poles announced the name of the ride:
CHAIN REACTION. FIGHTING
CANCER BY THE MILE
Hundreds of cyclists swarmed like bugs riding or walking their bikes toward the starting line, organizing themselves into zones. The zones were separated with yellow tape and signs displaying average speeds:
12–13 MPH, 14–16 MPH,
My heart pounded out of sync with the music. I’d known this event would be big, but now it really hit. Ten professional cycling teams from all over the United States would race the one-hundred-mile route. The top three teams would donate their prize money to cancer research. The regular fundraising riders—“recreational” riders—would start the charity ride shortly after the race, riding one hundred miles or one of the shorter route options.
Not that “shorter” was short. Jake and I would be doing the thirty-miler. Jake could knock out those miles like nothing, but I’d never done more than twenty. Still, when Jake had casually suggested I join him on this ride, I’d jumped at the chance. He’d be off to UMass at the end of August. I still had one year of high school to go. I wanted to be the one he’d come back to. To be gritty, daring, tough as steel. The fun roadie girl of his dreams.
As we wove through the crowd, the professional team vans and trailers at the opposite end of the parking lot caught my eye. An electric thrill buzzed through me as I read the names on the trailers: Team Velo-Olympus. Bose Pro-Cycling. Team Trident-Crisco. We’d get to ride in their wake!
I gripped my handlebars and sucked in my breath as a group of cyclists strolled past the cycling gear expo booths, wearing cycling kits or uniforms I was all too familiar with. White spandex shorts and white jerseys, with a writhing pattern of green jungle vines.
Of course they’d be here. They did charity rides all the time. And this one was in their backyard, starting in the town of Cabot and lacing through Boston’s western suburbs.
I glanced at Jake. His shoulders hunched as we passed those cyclists. I couldn’t read his expression.
“Looking for el Cóndor?” Jake’s words zinged at me. “Is that why you wanted to ride with me today?”
“What? God. No. I’m here for
. I am riding with
“Good to know.”
I fixed my eyes on the road as Jake pulled ahead. “Great. Here we go again,” I muttered.
Juan Carlos Macias-León was a name we steered around like a downed power line. Jake couldn’t stand his former rival from the EcuaBar junior development team. Jake was a sprinter, Juan Carlos a climber. The way Juan Carlos attacked the hills, passing teammates and competitors, had earned him his nickname el Cóndor, the national bird of his native Ecuador. Back in January, when he turned eighteen, Juan Carlos snagged a coveted spot on EcuaBar’s pro cycling team, even though most riders didn’t turn pro until they were in their twenties.
I swallowed hard. On some level I’d known Juan Carlos would compete today. Maybe that was why I’d tried on five cycling jerseys before finally going with the black extra-fitted one.
And the shorter cycling shorts.
I caught up with Jake and rode by his side.
“I’m sorry,” said Jake. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know riding in big crowds isn’t your thing. And I’m glad you’re here.”
“Thank you.” I relaxed a little. This ride was supposed to bring us closer together, after all the hard stuff we’d been through lately. I was not going to keep an eye out for el Cóndor.
The band paused between songs. Hundreds of biking shoes clopped on asphalt. Gears clicked and clattered, and tires hummed.
My head turned automatically to watch a woman with a prosthetic leg pedaling by.
was inked in black marker up and down her real leg. I looked down, suddenly self-conscious. Unlike almost all of the recreational riders, we weren’t wearing the official red-and-white Chain Reaction jersey. Dressed in all black, with no rider numbers pinned to our backs or our bikes, we stood out here. And this was a big-deal fundraiser. Maybe we could get in trouble.
I stared at a girl with no hair and no eyebrows, waving a handmade poster that read:
THANKS TO U
I AM 10 TODAY
AIN REACTION RIDERS!
I let out a long breath. “Jake, some of the riders and spectators here today are survivors,” I said loudly, as the band started up again. “I mean, this event is a huge deal. I was thinking. Maybe we could do the ride, then fundraise later and send in money.” I’d wanted to raise the $1,500 minimum, but Jake had only mentioned this ride a few days ago. There was no way I could have raised that kind of money so fast. “I don’t get why you can’t suck it up and do the fundraising for all these charity rides you’re hijacking.”
Jake sighed. “Because for
ride, there’s a fundraising minimum. Let’s say I busted my ass and raised the fifteen-hundred-dollar minimum for Chain Reaction. Okay, fine, I could do that. But how I could I ask all the same people for another five hundred dollars for burn victims? And then multiple sclerosis?”
“But we could at least try to—”
“Babe,” Jake interrupted. “There are over three thousand riders here today, not counting the pro teams that are going to race. If you’re going to freak out, you shouldn’t be here.”
I lifted my chin. “I’m not freaking out. I can do this ride. I just don’t want to get caught.”
“So don’t get caught. Act like you belong. If we do get questioned, don’t worry. I’ll do all the talking.”
“And if we get separated?”
“Just be your honest self. Maybe they’ll let you off easy. Or”—he flashed me a grin—“maybe your honesty’ll buy you a nice view from the backseat of a cop car.”
“Oh my God. My parents would
His face softened. “Hey. Don’t worry about bandit riding. Worst that happens is some ride official asks us to leave. It’s not that big a deal.”
I chewed my lip. This
like a big deal. I was the kind of person who sat in the front row at school and took notes. I never cut classes. Or corners. Or lines. And I was in the media, the host of a popular kids’ TV show about young social activists and kidpreneurs. I’d always loved the way Jake brought out my inner rebel and steered me away from everyone else’s expectations. But maybe this cancer ride was going too far.
Jake pulled ahead again. I churned my pedals to try to catch up, then swerved to avoid slamming into a girl carrying baskets of free samples.
“EcuaBars! Free EcuaBars!” the girl called out, not seeming to notice our near collision. She had a heart-shaped face and voluminous red hair—like someone from a shampoo commercial or one of those podium girl models who give flowers to bike race winners. She shook a basket of energy bars at me. Beside her stood a tall, superskinny guy with stooped posture, a long brown ponytail, and bushy eyebrows. He also waved baskets of bars. Both wore white pants and white EcuaBar T-shirts with
PURE ENERGY, NO ADDITIVES
spelled out in green letters. The guy and the girl looked college-age. I felt a flicker of envy. It looked like a fun volunteer job, handing out free samples. Something I’d probably do with Sarita and Kylie, if I weren’t bandit riding with Jake.
“New flavors!” the ponytail guy called out, jogging after me. “Chocolate Chipotle and Sweet Tomatillo! Dulce de Leche Delight! Great fair trade product! EcuaBar gives back. Eat one and help the rain forest and its native cacao farmers!”
I shook my head and pedaled on, though I would have loved one. I was an EcuaBar junkie. I hoarded them—in my backpack, my locker, my room. These bars were a delicious cross between an artisanal chocolate bar and a sports energy bar, with more instant energy than a cup of espresso, thanks to a superfood—leaves from the guayusa
plant—which was grown in the Ecuadorian rain forest. (Why, yes, I’d memorized the ads.)
But I couldn’t eat one in front of Jake. The other day, at Jake’s house, we’d seen the new print ad in
magazine: Juan Carlos, drenched in sweat, tearing the wrapper off a bar, the scar at his neck neatly Photoshopped out. Jake had pitched the magazine into the trash.
As I left the free samples behind, I could see our goal not far ahead: the edge of the parking lot, Great Marsh Road, and the woods beyond. Jake’s plan was to cut through a patch of conservation land. We’d join Great Marsh Road again on a quiet stretch where it curved left, merging with the ride about a half-mile from the ride’s starting line. There wouldn’t be any ride marshals or spectators there to notice our lack of rider numbers.
Jake slammed on his brakes, so I did, too.
“Damn. I forgot my drinks,” he said. “I have to go back to the car.”
I looked down at the two empty bottle racks attached to his frame. It wasn’t like Jake to forget something like that. “It’s already eight twenty. Can’t you take some sports drink samples?”
home brew. It’s all measured out.”
This was true. He always concocted his special mix of blueberry-flavored electrolytes and water like a chemist, measuring out every molecule. “But Jake . . .”
“I’ll find you right here. Ten minutes, tops.” Jake hooked an arm around me and pulled me into a sideways hug. He touched my chin, lifting my face toward his, gazing at me with his piercing green eyes. “Hey,” he whispered.
“Hey,” I whispered back.
“It’s us,” he said. “Remember? We’re on our own ride. Forget all these idiots around us here. This is about you and me today.”
I managed a smile. I reached out to tuck a stray lock of dark hair behind his ear. He’d been growing out his hair lately—it looked good, windblown and below his chin—but he sometimes forgot it was there.
Jake pressed his lips to my bike helmet, then turned around and curled over his drop handlebars. He downshifted smoothly, fingers barely tapping the gearshift. His lanky body, all angles and bones, with smooth shaved legs, looked like an extension of his bike frame.
I’d had that exact same thought when I first met Jake last summer, for that
interview. I’d first seen him on a high-speed circuit training course. The way Jake leaned into his turns, or descended hills in a full tuck, had left me breathless. I couldn’t tell where his bike ended and his body began.
Now, as Jake rode off against the stream of cyclists, I imagined derailleurs in place of kneecaps, well-oiled chains for legs. When he saw an opening in the crowd, he shot forward, as if he had springs in his calves. My sprinter. I smiled. There he was. The athlete I’d cheered from the sidelines. The smart strategist, the fierce competitor. Not the mopey cynic who’d taken over his body the past two months. If bandit riding was what it took to relight his fire, then fine.
In the mirror attached to my handlebar, I noticed two men watching me with apparent interest. One held a microphone. The other shouldered a TV camera with GBCN on the side.
GBCN—oh, no. My employer!
I breathed hard, as if I’d been riding for miles, not yards. My sunglasses and bike helmet should have disguised me. Still, I felt exposed. I couldn’t be caught on film. A viewer might recognize my trademark hairstyle, my long sideways blonde braid draping over one shoulder. Surely someone would figure out I was Tessa Taylor, teen host of
. Maybe Jake didn’t care if anyone recognized him, but I did. Kids looked up to me. They sent me emails and handwritten notes. They assumed I was someone who Had It All Together, and who set a good example. What would they think if it leaked out I hadn’t raised a dime for this cause? And why hadn’t I even
that there’d be a major media presence here?
I hopped back on the bike saddle and shoved off, heading into the thick of the crowd.