Curse of the Arctic Star
“NAME AND CABIN NUMBER, PLEASE?” THE efficient-looking porter asked, reaching for the large green suitcase sitting on the dock beside me.
“Nancy Drew. Hollywood Suite.” I shrugged and shot a glance at my two best friends. “That’s all they told us—I don’t know the number.”
The porter smiled. He was a short, muscular man dressed in a tidy navy jacket with silver piping and matching shorts, with a name tag identifying him as James. Every employee of Superstar Cruises wore some variation on that uniform, from the driver who’d
picked us up at the Vancouver airport to the woman checking people in over at the gangway.
“That’s all I need to know, Ms. Drew,” James said. “The Hollywood Suite doesn’t have a number.”
I watched as he scribbled the letters HS on a bright purple tag, then snapped it onto the handle of my bag. He lifted the suitcase as if it weighed nothing, even though I knew that wasn’t the case. I’m no fashion plate, but a girl needs plenty of clothes for a two-week Alaskan cruise! Then he set my bag on a metal cart along with at least a dozen other suitcases, trunks, and duffels.
Meanwhile my friend Bess Marvin was staring up at the ship docked beside us. “Wow,” she said. “Big boat.”
“Major understatement,” I replied. The Arctic Star was absolutely massive. We don’t see too many cruise ships in our midwestern hometown of River Heights, but I was pretty sure this one was even larger than most.
Just then I heard a scuffle nearby. “Hey, give that back—I don’t want to check it!” George Fayne
exclaimed as she grabbed a grungy olive-green duffel bag out of another porter’s hand.
George is my other best friend. She’s also Bess’s cousin, though most people find it hard to believe they’re related, since the two of them couldn’t be more different. Exhibit A? Their luggage. George’s consisted of that ugly duffel, a sturdy brown suitcase that looked as if it had been through a demolition derby, and a plain black backpack. Definitely the functional look, just like her short dark hair, faded jeans, and sneakers. Bess, on the other hand, had a matching set of luggage in a nice shade of blue. Tasteful and pulled together, like her sleek, shoulder-length blond hair and linen dress.
The porter took a step back. “Of course, miss,” he told George politely. “I only thought—”
“Relax, George,” Bess said. “I think you can trust him to get your toothbrush and your days-of-the-week underwear onboard safely.”
“My underwear, maybe.” George already had the bag unzipped. She scrabbled through the mess inside
and finally came up with her laptop and smartphone. “This stuff? I trust no one.”
Bess snorted. “Seriously? We’re going to be cruising the gorgeous Alaskan waters surrounded by amazing scenery. You’re not going to have a lot of time to look for cute kitten videos on YouTube, you know.”
“Maybe not,” George retorted. “But if we need to research something for Nancy’s—”
“Hi, Alan!” I said loudly, cutting her off as I noticed a guy hurrying toward us.
“It’s my lucky day!” the guy announced with a big, cheerful grin. “I found my sunglasses. I must’ve dropped them when we were getting our stuff out of the airport van.” He waved the glasses at us, then slid them on and wrapped an arm around Bess’s shoulders. “Actually, though, every day is my lucky day since I met Beautiful Bess.”
George rolled her eyes so hard I was afraid they’d pop right out of her head. “Sooo glad you found your shades, Alan,” she said drily. “I was afraid you’d be so busy searching you’d miss the boat.”
I hid a smile. About a month earlier, Bess and George and I had been having lunch at one of our favorite cafés when George noticed a guy staring from a nearby table. He was maybe a couple of years older than us, with wavy brown hair and wide-set gray eyes. When he realized he’d been caught, he came over and introduced himself as Alan Thomas, a student at the local university. He apologized for staring and explained that it was because he couldn’t take his eyes off Bess.
That kind of thing happens to Bess all the time, so I didn’t pay much attention. She’s not the type of girl who gets swept off her feet by just anybody.
But apparently Alan wasn’t just anybody. He’d taken her on a romantic picnic for their first date, and the two of them had been together ever since. It was nice to see Bess so happy, even if I secretly thought Alan was a little goofy and overly excitable. George thought so too, though with her it wasn’t such a secret.
“Need some help with those, buddy?” Alan asked as James returned for Bess’s bags. “I can give you a hand. Should I just toss it there on top of Nancy’s suitcase?”
“It’s quite all right, sir,” James replied. “Your entire party is in the Hollywood Suite, right? Just leave your luggage here and we’ll take care of it. You might want to head over to the check-in line so you can start enjoying all the fine amenities of the Arctic Star.”
“Thanks,” Bess said. “Come on, you guys. Let’s go.”
Alan nodded agreeably. “This is so amazing,” he said to no one in particular as we headed toward the end of the line. “I never thought a poor college student like me would be taking an Alaskan cruise!”
He wasn’t the only one. Just a few short days ago, I’d been wondering what I was going to do with myself for the next month while Ned was off being a camp counselor and my dad was busy with a big case. River Heights is kind of sleepy at the best of times. This summer? It was downright catatonic.
Then Becca Wright had called, sounding frantic. That was my first clue that my summer was about to change. See, Becca is just about the least frantic person I’ve ever known. Just a couple of years out of college, she’d already landed the plum job of assistant cruise
director for the maiden voyage of the Arctic Star, the flagship vessel of brand-new Superstar Cruises. Having known Becca for years, I was sure that was mostly due to her work ethic and friendly, upbeat personality. Although I’m sure it didn’t hurt that her grandfather had been a bigwig executive at the venerable Jubilee Cruise Lines. He’d retired a few years back, but he still knew just about everyone in the business.
So why the frantic call? Some suspicious things were happening at Superstar Cruises, and Becca was afraid someone might be up to no good. Naturally, that made her think of me. See, my thing is solving mysteries. Big ones. And small ones, like the case where I’d first met Becca, which had involved finding her family’s runaway dog. And everything in between.
So which kind of case was this? I wondered, glancing up again at the gleaming white ship looming over the dock. Was someone really out to mess with Superstar Cruises like Becca seemed to think? Or was it just new-job jitters and a little bad luck?
“Earth to Nancy!” Alan waved a hand in front of
my face, grinning. “You look a little nervous. Not worried about getting seasick, are you?”
“Nope.” I smiled back at him. Real mystery or not, I was glad that Becca had called. My friends and I were about to set out on the all-expenses-paid cruise of a lifetime!
The four of us joined the line waiting to board, which was growing with every passing second. George stood on tiptoes, hopping from one foot to the other as she tried to see how many people were in front of us.
“Hey, shouldn’t there be a special VIP line or something?” she complained. “I mean, we’re in the Hollywood Suite! We shouldn’t have to wait in line with everyone else.”
“Yeah.” Alan chuckled. “Plus, we’re contest winners! That should count for something, right?”
“Um, the line’s moving pretty fast. I’m sure we’ll be aboard soon,” I said quickly. The last thing we needed was for Alan to start blabbing to the ship’s employees about the whole contest-winner thing. Mainly because it wasn’t true.
Bess shifted her handbag to her other shoulder and pulled out a packet of paperwork. “Does everyone have their tickets and passports handy? Nancy?”
“Why are you looking at me?” I said. “I’m not that forgetful, even when I’m—” I caught myself just in time, swallowing the last few words: even when I’m investigating a case. “Um, even when I’ve just crossed a couple of time zones,” I finished lamely, shooting a look at Alan.
Luckily, he wasn’t paying attention. He was digging into the pockets of his Bermuda shorts.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “I think I left my passport in one of my bags. I’d better go grab it before they load it onto the ship.”
He rushed off, disappearing into the throng of passengers, porters, and bystanders on the dock. George watched him go with a sigh.
“Okay, this is already getting old,” she said. “Shouldn’t we just let him in on the secret already? Alan’s a huge goody-two-shoes nerd—I’m sure we can trust him not to tell anyone we’re really here to solve a mystery.”
“Shh,” I cautioned her, glancing around quickly.
“Don’t call him a nerd,” Bess added with a glare. “He’s just . . . enthusiastic about things.”
“Yeah. Like I said. Nerd,” George said.
I ignored their bickering, realizing I didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing us at the moment. A red-haired young man had just arrived at the dock, and about a dozen other people, from little kids to an old woman with a walker, were pushing and shoving and laughing loudly as they all tried to fling themselves at him at once. Almost every single one of them had bright red hair and freckles.
Bess followed my gaze. “Family reunion?” she murmured.
“Brilliant deduction, detective.” I grinned at her, then turned to George. “We can’t tell anyone why we’re really here,” I reminded her quietly. “Not even Alan. We promised Becca, remember? Besides, we’ve really only known Alan for a few weeks.”
“Oh, please.” Bess shook her head. “What do you think he’s going to do? Call the New York Times so they can publish all your clues?”
“No, of course not.” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Alan wasn’t returning yet. “But he’s not exactly Mr. Introvert. We don’t need him blurting out something at the wrong time, even by accident.”
“Whatever.” George didn’t look entirely convinced. “Guess we’d better talk about the case while we can, then. What’s your plan?”
“The first thing I need to do is talk to Becca,” I said. “All she told me on the phone was that there’d been a few troubling incidents in the couple of weeks leading up to this cruise, including some threatening e-mails or something. Oh, and the Brock thing, of course.”
Bess sighed dreamily. “I can’t believe we almost got to be on the same cruise ship as Brock Walker!”
“No, we didn’t,” I said. “That’s why Becca called us in to help, remember? According to her, Brock Walker was supposed to put the ‘superstar’ in Superstar Cruises. I guess that’s their gimmick—passengers being able to rub elbows with superstars. So when he canceled less than five days before departure, she
knew it was bad news. Then when she heard it was because someone was sending threatening e-mails to his family . . .”
“Sounds like a mystery to me,” George agreed, kicking at a loose board on the dock.
I nodded slowly, still not entirely convinced. Brock Walker was an A-list actor who’d starred in a popular series of bad-boy comedy-action films. But in real life he was supposed to be a hard-working, down-to-earth family man, married to his high school sweetheart, with a couple of kids. Definitely not the type to flake out on a commitment, at least according to his reputation.
“I wonder what they told the paying passengers.” Bess glanced around. “Especially since the rest of the entertainment is C-list at best.”
George patted her laptop, which she’d slung over her shoulder in its case. “I checked earlier today—Brock put out a statement saying it was a scheduling conflict.”
“Yeah.” I shuffled forward as the line continued to move. “But Becca said he’s really mad about the
threats. He told the CEO of Superstar Cruises that if the company doesn’t figure out who did it, he’ll tell everyone the truth.”
“Bummer.” George shrugged. “But that sounds like a job for the cops or the FBI or someone like that.”
“I know.” I sighed. “The trouble is, the CEO is afraid that any bad publicity involving police investigations might scare off passengers and sink the company.” I chuckled, realizing what I’d just said. “So to speak. Anyway, that’s why we’re here—undercover. The CEO used to work with Becca’s grandfather, so I guess she and Becca are practically like family. Since it was too late to re-book Brock’s suite, Becca talked her into flying us out and letting us stay there while we keep an eye on things.”
“Which is totally awesome,” George said with a grin, shooting a look up at the ship. “I’m not sure about this whole cruise thing, but I’ve always wanted to see Alaska!”
“So what else did Becca tell you?” Bess asked me. “You said there were some other suspicious incidents.”
I nodded. “That’s what she said, but she didn’t go into much detail. Just mentioned something about threatening e-mails, and some prelaunch mishaps. She’s supposed to fill me in when I see her. Once we know more, maybe we’ll be able to—”
I stopped short as Bess cleared her throat loudly. A moment later Alan arrived, apologizing to the people in line behind us.
“Found it,” he announced, holding up his passport. “I got there just in time—that porter was about to roll our cart away.”
I forced a smile. Having Alan along was definitely going to make things more difficult. That hadn’t been part of the original plan.
But when he’d heard that the three of us had won a free cruise to Alaska in a four-bedroom suite—cover story, remember?—he’d begged to come along. As an environmental studies student at the university in River Heights, he’d pointed out that Alaska was the perfect place to get a jump-start on his sophomore-year research project, and he’d never be able to afford that
kind of trip on a college kid’s budget. Especially when he lavished what little spare cash he had on his new girlfriend, Bess.
Okay, so he hadn’t actually mentioned that last part. He hadn’t had to. Bess had invited him along and told us we’d just have to deal with it. The girl seems sweet and agreeable most of the time, but she’s got a backbone of steel when the situation calls for it.
Soon we were inside, being checked in and issued our ship ID cards. “Enjoy your time with Superstar Cruises!” the smiling employee told us.
As we thanked her and stepped away, I nudged Bess in the side. “Can you distract you-know-who for a while?” I whispered. “I want to look for Becca.”
“Leave it to me,” Bess murmured back.
Alan had just moved away from the check-in desk to tuck his ID into his wallet, but he looked up quickly. “Did you say something?” he asked Bess.
She stepped over and looped her arm through his. “I was just telling Nancy we’d meet her and George at the suite later,” she told him with a flirty little tilt of her
head. “Want to go for a walk to check out the ship?”
She didn’t have to ask twice. Seconds later they were strolling out of the check-in area hand in hand. George shook her head as she watched them go.
“That guy’s got it bad,” she said. “I really don’t know what Bess sees in him, though.”
“That’s a mystery for another day.” I headed out after them. “Let’s not waste time. Becca said we’d probably find her on the main deck.”
George glanced around as we emerged into what appeared to be a sort of lobby area. It was carpeted in red, with murals on the walls depicting famous Hollywood landmarks. A pair of winding, carpeted staircases with gleaming mahogany banisters led upward, with a sign in between that showed the layout of the entire ship.
I barely had time to glance at the sign before a smiling young female employee rushed toward us. She was dressed in shorts and a piped vest and was holding a tray of tall, frosty glasses with colorful straws and umbrellas sticking out of them.
“Welcome to the Arctic Star,” she gushed. “Would
you ladies care for a complimentary Superstar smoothie? They’re made with a refreshing fruit mixture, including real Alaskan wild blueberries. A specialty of the ship!”
George was already reaching for a glass. She’s not the type to turn down anything free. “Thanks,” she said, then took a sip. “Hey, Nancy, you’ve got to try this! It’s awesome!”
“Thanks, but I’m not thirsty,” I told the waitress. Grabbing George’s arm, I dragged her toward the stairs. “Focus, okay?”
“Whatever. A girl’s got to stay hydrated.” George took another big sip of her smoothie as we hurried upstairs.
A couple of flights up, we found the lido deck. It was a partially shaded area spanning the entire width of the ship, and appeared to be where all the action was at the moment. As we emerged out of the stairwell, we almost crashed into another employee. This one was a lean, tanned man in his late twenties with slicked-back brown hair.
“Welcome aboard, ladies,” he said with a toothy grin.
“My name’s Scott, and I’m one of your shore excursion specialists. Our first stop the day after tomorrow will be Ketchikan, where you’ll have the chance to experience anything from a flight-seeing trip to the fjords to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show or . . .”
There was more, but I didn’t hear it. I’d just spotted Becca halfway across the deck chatting with some passengers, looking trim and professional in her silver-piped navy jacket and skirt.
“Sounds great,” I blurted out, interrupting Shore Excursion Scott’s description of kayaking in Tongass National Forest. “We’ll get back to you on that, okay?”
“Save me a spot on those kayaks,” George called over her shoulder as I yanked her away.
“Ladies!” someone called out cheerfully. Suddenly we found our path blocked by yet another uniformed employee. This one was a short, skinny guy with a wild tuft of blond hair and a slightly manic twinkle in his big blue eyes. “Hollywood Suite, right?” he asked.
“Yeah.” George sounded surprised. “How’d you know that?”
“Oh, they send us photos of our guests ahead of time. You’re Nancy and you’re Georgia, right?”
“George,” George corrected with a grimace. She hates her real name. “Call me George.”
“George it is!” The guy seemed as if he couldn’t stand still. He sort of bounded back and forth in front of us. It reminded me of my neighbor’s over-enthusiastic golden retriever. “My name’s Max. Oh, but you probably figured that out already, right?” He grinned and pointed to his name tag. “I’ll be your personal butler.”
“Our what?” I said.
“Whoa!” George exclaimed. “Seriously? We get a butler?”
“Absolutely.” Max nodded vigorously. “Each of our luxury suites has its own dedicated staff, including a butler and two maids, to make sure your trip is as pleasant and comfortable as possible. You can call on me day or night for all your needs.”
“Cool,” I said briskly. Max seemed like a really nice guy, but I was feeling impatient. Over his shoulder, I
could see Becca moving on to another set of passengers. “We’ll get back to you, okay?”
But Max had already whipped out a handful of pamphlets. “Here’s a partial list of our available services to get you started,” he said brightly. “Our room service menu, the shipboard activity schedule, spa services, our exclusive pillow menu . . .”
George was already examining the pamphlets eagerly. I could see that it wasn’t going to be easy to shake Max.
Then I had an idea. I grabbed one of the pamphlets. “Er, the pillow menu, huh?” I said. “Come to think of it, I can’t sleep well on anything but a . . . um . . .” I quickly scanned the list. “A buckwheat pillow. Do you think you could find me one right now? I might need to take a nap soon.”
“Certainly, Ms. Drew!” Max beamed as if I’d just asked him to be my best friend. “I’ll take care of it right away. Just text me if you need anything else.” He handed us each a card with his name and number on it, then scurried away.
“Wow,” George said. “A real butler! This is awesome. Maybe I should tell him to get me a special fancy pillow while he’s at it.”
“Forget it,” I said, slapping her hand as she reached for her cell phone. “Becca. Now.”
This time we actually made it over to her. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, but she looked pretty much the same—curly dark hair, sparkling brown eyes, a quick smile. She was chatting with a rather weary-looking couple in their thirties. The man wore a T-shirt with the Canadian flag on it, and the woman was keeping one eye on the eight-year-old boy dribbling a soccer ball nearby.
“Careful, Tobias,” she called, interrupting something Becca was saying about the dinner schedule. “We don’t want to be a bother to the other passengers.”
“Maybe you don’t,” the boy retorted, sticking out his tongue. “I told you I didn’t want to come on this stupid ship!” With that, he kicked the ball into a column. It bounced off and almost hit a passing woman.
“Wow,” George murmured in my ear. “Brat much?”
Becca’s smile never wavered. She glanced toward me and George briefly, then returned her focus to the parents. “We have lots of activities for our youngest guests,” she told them. “Perhaps your son would enjoy checking out the rock-climbing wall or the arcade. There’s also a kids’ tour of the ship scheduled for first thing tomorrow morning. One of our youth activities coordinators can give you all the details if you’re interested.”
She gestured toward a good-looking young Asian guy standing nearby. Tobias’s parents thanked her, then grabbed their son’s hand and dragged him toward the youth coordinator.
“Nancy!” Becca exclaimed as soon as they were out of earshot. “Thank goodness you made it. Hi, George.” She glanced around. “Where’s Bess?”
“She’s, uh, busy right now.” I didn’t want to waste time explaining about Alan. I knew we probably only had a few seconds before Becca had to return to duty. “So when do you want to meet to talk?”
“Soon.” Becca shot a cautious look around, her smile fading. Then she lowered her voice. “Something
else has happened, but I don’t have time to fill you in now. Can you meet me at my office later?”
“Sure. Where is it?”
She was writing the deck and cabin numbers down on her card when a sudden, shrill scream rang out from somewhere farther along the huge deck area.
“What was that?” George exclaimed.
Becca instantly looked worried. “I don’t know, but I hope—”
Before she could finish, someone let out a shout. “Help! There’s a bloody body in the pool!”