Authors: Matt Christopher,The #1 Sports Writer For Kids
Tags: #JUV028000, #General Fiction
Before Mac could think of an excuse, she had whisked him into the middle of the dancers. Mac was sure he looked ridiculous and couldn’t stop thinking about the way he and the others had poked fun at their friends.
Boy, I’d hate to hear what they’re saying about me, he thought, sneaking a peek at them.
Yet to his amazement, he found that he was enjoying himself. Deanna was a good dancer, and in time his natural athletic ability took over and he stopped jerking around like a puppet with a few broken strings.
He relaxed even more when he saw other friends on the floor: Mel and Sandra stayed together a lot of the time, and Billy and Margie danced every so often. Even Dougie had screwed up enough courage to ask Ann Leonard to dance.
Time flew by, and before Mac could believe it, the lights came up and the disc jockey announced that the dance was over. But after a game of soccer and a night of dancing, he was tired enough to be ready to go home.
Jimmy, who had been dancing with one of Deanna’s friends, took a ride home with Deanna, the friend, and some other kids instead of Dougie and Mac. The two exhausted friends were quiet most of the way home, but when the car pulled into Mac’s driveway, Dougie asked, “So, tell me. Do you still think Jimmy is the cartoonist?”
Mac leaned down into the open door. “I hope not. Deanna s really nice and I was kind of thinking of asking her to a movie next week. But how can I if her brother has it in for me?”
“Guess we’ll find out on Monday,” Dougie said as he closed the door.
Mac stood in the driveway for a moment, then muttered, “Yeah, I guess we will.”
re you ready for today’s paper?” Dougie asked him when they met up at lunch on Monday.
“Yeah,” said Mac. “Just make sure I’m not anywhere near Jimmy when it comes out. Just in case.”
“You got it,” promised Dougie.
But Dougie couldn’t keep his promise. Moments later, Jimmy and a few other boys joined them at the table. Jimmy sat down, then with a flourish handed Mac a copy of the
“Hot off the presses,” he said. “I haven’t even looked at it yet. Thought you’d like the honors.”
“Oh, man,” said Mel from beside Jimmy. “I hope it doesn’t have another dumb drawing in it.”
All eyes turned to Mac to see what he felt about that.
“You mean, the one that’s being drawn by the head of my fan club? Gee, I can’t remember if
told him to put one in this week,” he said sarcastically. But his heart was racing as he opened the paper to the center section.
Everything was quiet for a moment, then Dougie broke the silence.
“Well, at least the cartoonist didn’t picture you in the goal this time.”
Even so, everyone knew who was the brunt of the joke. Nervous laughter broke out around the table.
Mac stared at the cartoon. It showed a boy in a Cougars goalie uniform dancing with a girl wearing a blazer. Not only was the boy looking like he had no control over his limbs, but the artist had also shown him trying to talk to the girl—and failing because his mouth was crammed full of food. Instead of words coming out, he was showering his dance partner with crumbs.
The caption underneath read,
Bet she wishes Motor Mouth would keep his trap shut (who doesn’t!?).
Mac crumpled up the paper, then raised his eyes to look at Jimmy. Jimmy’s grin faded, and he cleared his throat. “I wonder if my sister’s seen this,” he said.
Mac tossed the wad at him and said savagely, “You mean you didn’t even ask her if it was okay to put her in your latest cartoon?”
Jimmy’s eyes widened. “What?”
“You heard me! I guessed it was you a while ago, so you can forget about the innocent looks!”
Dougie coughed. “Uh, Mac, I think you’re forgetting something —,” he started to say.
“Dougie, keep out of this,” Mac snarled.
“But Mac —”
“I mean it! This is between Jimmy and me. So how ‘bout it Jimmy? You gonna confess finally or what?”
Jimmy stood up, his fists clenched. “You’ve already tried and convicted me, so what is there for me to say?” He picked up his lunch things and stormed off.
The other boys quickly and silently ate their lunches, then melted away with a few mumbled excuses. Finally only Dougie and Mac remained at the table.
“Mac, I wish you had let me say something before you cheesed off at Jimmy,” Dougie said.
Mac sighed. “Okay, what is it?”
“It’s just that I don’t think the cartoonist is Jimmy after all. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
“Because Jimmy wasn’t there when your mouth was so full of brownie that you couldn’t speak to Deanna. He was in the bathroom, remember? So how could he use that in his cartoon?”
Mac stared at Dougie as the truth of that fact sunk in. Then he slumped across the table.
“I really blew it, didn’t I?” he said dejectedly. “Some detective I’d make. But Dougie, if it isn’t Jimmy, who
Both boys were silent for a while. Jimmy let his eyes roam around the room. Suddenly his gaze stopped on someone.
“I’m not positive,” he said, still staring. “But the possibilities are a lot narrower now. It had to have been someone who was standing with us at the dance, right?”
Mac shifted his glance to his friend. “So what do you say we try laying another trap? And this time, we’ll be sure our net catches the right culprit!”
“I’m in,” Dougie agreed enthusiastically.
“Good. Now all I have to do is get Jimmy to forgive me. Because without him, my plan won’t work!”
Mac cornered Jimmy in the hallway later that day. Jimmy tried to get around him, but Mac wouldn’t budge.
“Jimmy, I want to apologize. I went crazy when I saw that cartoon. Shoot, I’ve
crazy ever since I saw the first one. But I—I should have known you were too good a friend to pull something rotten like that.”
Jimmy was quiet for a moment, then he sighed. “I guess I know why you thought it was me,” he said. “I do work for the paper, after all. And I was at the games where you said those things the cartoonist made fun of. And probably the fact that I used to play for the Hornets didn’t escape your memory.”
“You read my mind! Except you forgot about how the coach mentioned he’d use my help on the sidelines if I ever got injured.”
Jimmy gave him a wry smile. “Thanks for reminding me. Now I feel a
Mac gulped. “Aw, Jimmy, don’t —”
Jimmy’s laughter cut him off. “Don’t worry, pal,” he said, giving Mac a light punch in the arm. “I got over that a long time ago. I like reporting on the games. And besides, once next season rolls around and the coach sees my stuff, he’ll be begging me to break another bone so I can be on the sidelines with him!”
Mac grinned. “For a moment there, I thought I’d blown it again! But since I’m forgiven, Jimmy, I wonder if you would like to join Dougie and me in a little sting operation to catch the real culprit. We’re calling it Operation Payback.”
“You got a deal!”
“Great! Meet me at my house tonight so I can tell you all the details. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to try to convince Coach Robertson to join our plan, too.”
By the time Mac crawled into bed that night, he had secured Coach Robertson’s agreement to go along with his plan. Dougie and Jimmy had come over as promised, and together they had hashed out the finer points of Operation Payback.
“I just hope this doesn’t backfire on you, Mac,” Dougie had said once. “If it does, you could find yourself facing more than one onslaught of offense single-handedly.”
Mac had shrugged, saying, “It’ll be worth it if it stops those lousy cartoons.”
As he stared at his ceiling now, he mulled over his plan one last time. He finally fell asleep convinced that it was foolproof— and that his suspicions about the cartoonist’s identity would be confirmed when the
came out on Monday.
riday morning was one of the coldest of the year.
“You ought to be wearing down parkas to play today,” said Mrs. Williams, pouring a second cup of cocoa for Mac.
“It’ll warm up,” he said. “Besides, during a game you don’t even have a chance to think about the cold.”
“Unless you’re in the stands like your father and me,” she said. “Or on the sidelines. But I guess you don’t get much time away from the goal.”
“Nope,” he said.
“Well, at least one of us will be toasty,” she said.
But by game time, the cold had moved on and it was a beautiful, sunny day.
The sparkling green field under the blue sky looked particularly colorful as the Hotspurs in their deep-blue-and-orange uniforms shared space with the Cougars in their usual bright-yellow-and-black attire.
“Okay, Cougars! Everyone who’s ready to get those Hotspurs, give me a high five!” Mac called, holding his hands in the air.
His teammates ran by him and slapped one palm or the other. All but one of them gave him a conspiratorial wink.
Those were the signals Mac was looking for. They told him that Dougie and Jimmy had completed their part of Operation Payback. Mac had asked his friends to tell all but one of his teammates about the plan. That way, when it came time for him to do his “acting job” in front of the coach, everyone but the suspect would know that his behavior was just a smoke screen.
If Mac’s suspicions were correct, the cartoonist wouldn’t be able to resist using Mac’s performance as Monday’s cartoon. And then Mac would have him!
When the ref’s whistle blew to start the game, the Cougars lined up, raring to go. A strong effort from their two wings might just start things off on the right track. Just as important, it gave them a broader defense against the powerful league leaders in scoring. The Hotspurs were definitely going to keep Mac on his toes.
He felt up to it. He’d been practicing hard all week, and his instincts were razor sharp. Now all he needed was to keep his focus on the game. Operation Payback wouldn’t begin until halftime.
The kickoff went well for the Cougars. Within seconds of play, they had the ball in Hotspur territory. Within two minutes, they had taken their first shot on goal. Dougie had risked a slightly oblique angle on an open strip of space. The ball hit a defending Hotspur a few feet from the goal area. But it sent out a message. This was going to be a hard-fought game.
“Come on, you Cougars! Show ‘em your stuff, guys! Nice try, Dougie!”
Mac’s stream of encouragement went on as usual. Sometimes the fans joined in with him; sometimes they didn’t seem to notice that he was even there. That was standard for a goalie, he knew. Still, it was nice when they responded to something he had shouted.
Even better was when he was able to help his team. Many of the opposing players paid little attention to what came from his mouth.
And that’s just the way he liked it. Their mistakes were highlighted more and more as parts of Mac’s ongoing patter. When the play came down to the Cougars’ goal, this could mean a big difference.
“Back! Back! Mickey, go back! You’re losing ‘Big Red’ there! Come on, Stevie! Heads up, ball’s coming your way! Right wing’s fancy dancing, guys. Watch for the pass!”
Mac could see how hard the Cougars were trying to keep the ball from coming his way. But that didn’t prevent the occasional Hotspur boot being taken at the goal.
“Left wing on the march!” he shouted, just before the tall, bespectacled Hotspur forward let fly in his direction.
Mac extended his hands, joining the thumbs together, and leaped for the top section of the net. His outstretched fingers managed to deflect the ball as it started its descent toward its target. The ball fell to the ground in the penalty area a few feet in front of the net. Mel, who had seen. Mac do that move a hundred times, was right there to snag the ball and send it in the opposite direction.
A snarl of defensive Hotspurs broke up any chance for a quick “rebound” attempt. For the next several minutes, the ball was passed back and forth between the two teams with no real movement toward the goal or the opposite side of the field. And as often as the ball went out of bounds, it always seemed to stay in the same area once it was thrown back into play.
Mac could tell that the Hotspurs were surprised that they hadn’t managed to score yet. From what he’d read or heard about their other games, they were used to getting onto the Scoreboard first, and early in the game at that. At least the Cougars had succeeded in breaking that pattern. It could be what was needed to break their stride and cause them to make mistakes.
But so far neither side had made many visible mistakes. Except for the occasional ball out of bounds, few penalty whistles blew. Basically it was a pretty clean game. That’s why it was a surprise when a major foul was called on Billy for tripping.
The kicker was the tall redheaded wing who had been frustrated in three shots at the goal so far.
Mac tried to read him as he lined up his wall to defend the goal. But “Red” was a real stone-face. His deep brown eyes gave away nothing.
There was complete silence on the field and in the stands as the approach was taken.
It was much too high! Mac didn’t even have to extend himself as the ball sailed over the net. He could practically hear the sigh of relief from the Cougars as play resumed.
Inspired by their defensive work, the Cougars dug in and turned the ball around in the other direction. Dougie dominated the play as the ball inched closer and closer to the goal. There was no way that the Cougars were going to let the first half of this game end without a score.
“Team play! Team play!” Mac hollered from his lonesome post at the opposite end of the field. He wanted them to remember to set up plays that had been worked out in scrimmages that week. True, a good player always had to be alert to an opening for a goal shot, but just as many goals were scored on well-worked-out plays.
Mac’s voice must have penetrated someone’s head, because a Cougars offensive play was set up. Dougie made the fake, then took the shot. The ball zoomed behind the goalie and into the net for the first score of the game.