If you had told me when my friends Bess Marvin, George Fayne, and I left for an all-expenses-paid vacation to Costa Rica that we wouldn’t want to get on the plane to come back, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But I wouldn’t have been able to come close to imagining why!
“You feel guilty leaving, don’t you?” Bess asked me as we tried to settle into our tiny airplane seats for the long flight back to Chicago. “After what happened to Sara . . .”
I sighed. “You know me, Bess,” I said, reluctantly clicking my seat belt closed. “I hate to leave a mystery unsolved.”
Maybe unsolved is the wrong word. Partially solved would be more accurate. See, when George won a vacation for two at the Casa Verde eco-resort in Costa Rica, she and Bess decided they couldn’t leave me behind. So we split the cost of my plane ticket, and off we went—to the gorgeous, supposedly relaxing, supposedly “green” Casa Verde resort.
When we arrived, however, it became clear that we were about to get a little more than we bargained for. Almost as soon as we met our fellow vacationers, all journalists who were attending Casa Verde’s press tour to celebrate its opening, things started to go wrong. At first, it was little things—stolen luggage, a dognapping. (The dog in question, Pretty Boy, was quickly recovered—and, in fact, was yapping away in first class with his owner as the three of us prepared for departure.)
But soon, it got more and more dangerous until people were narrowly avoiding getting hurt—yours truly included. After getting a little too up close and personal with an alligator, and finding out firsthand what happens when your zip line is cut (spoiler: you fall!), I was getting the feeling that someone at Casa Verde wanted us gone. And as it turned out, I was right. Several people at Casa Verde had things to hide: Among them, the fact that Casa Verde wasn’t, well, quite so verde after all.
Casa Verde was billing itself as a state-of-the-art eco-resort, but in fact, all those fancy environmentally friendly fixtures and systems that were touted on their Web site were never actually installed. Instead, one of the brothers who owned the resort, Enrique Arrojo, had used substandard systems—and pocketed the money he saved. He claimed he was saving for his daughter Juliana’s college education, but I was beginning to wonder if it was that simple.
One of his veterinary workers, Sara, had confessed to pulling the pranks that had made our stay so eventful—all to bring the journalists’ attention to the ways Casa Verde was really hurting the environ-ment it claimed to be protecting. She had claimed, though, that she wasn’t behind the most dangerous stunts that had threatened me. And right before we left—right after confessing to Enrique and his brother Cristobal that she had sabotaged their press tour—she had been the victim of a poisonous ant attack!
I had so wanted to believe that Casa Verde’s problems were over, but Sara’s attack certainly made it look like someone is still holding a grudge.
“Look at it this way,” George suggested, glancing up from her techie magazine. “At least when we get home, you can do some research on this Cassandra Samuels.”
I nodded. Cassandra Samuels was the final ill-fitting piece of the puzzle. She worked for Green Solutions, the consulting firm that had supposedly advised Enrique and Cristobal on how to build an eco-friendly resort. And—more intriguingly—it seemed that she was Enrique’s secret American girlfriend. Enrique’s daughter Juliana had insisted to me that her father wasn’t capable of all these scary attacks—that he must have had a co-conspirator, someone who had talked him into the scheme. At this point, if such a person existed, Cassandra Samuels seemed the most likely suspect.
“Oh . . . Em . . . Gee,” a bubbly voice squealed in front of me, and then I heard a sharp “Yip!” and groaned. Bess, George, and I all turned to where Deirdre Shannon and her cousin, Kat, were coming down the aisle with Pretty Boy—Kat’s precious, recently dognapped, extremely neurotic Chihuahua. Since Deirdre and Kat were traveling first class—Kat had paid to upgrade both their tickets—we hadn’t been expecting to see them again until we landed. “Are you guys as happy to get on this plane as we are?”
Kat sighed, her platinum blond curls bobbing as she shook her head in exaggerated frustration. Kat lived in Los Angeles, and made her living working as an extra. She fancied herself an actress and, while nice enough, could be a bit overwhelming.
Bess smiled patiently. “We’re glad to be getting home, for sure,” she agreed. “Though we still have some unanswered questions.”
“What do you mean?” asked Deirdre skeptically.
“Well,” I said, “for instance, what happened to Sara?”
Kat shrugged. “You mean those ants?” she asked. “That stunk. But I guess those are the hazards you face working with animals. Right, boobie-boo? ” She turned to Pretty Boy, cooing at a high pitch, and George gave me a desperate look, like Make her stop!
“Um,” I said quickly. “Well, yeah . . . But it seemed like more than an accident to me, you know?”
Kat looked thoughtful. “You mean like when Pretty Boy was dognapped?”
“Yeah,” George agreed, nodding. “Maybe someone was trying to send a message.”
Kat stared off into space, seeming to think about this, but Deirdre didn’t look convinced. “Either way,” she snapped, “who cares? That was the worst vacation I ever took. Thank goodness we got it for free, otherwise I would be on the phone with my credit card right now, disputing the charges.”
Kat glanced back at her cousin, then nodded. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Whatever was really going on there, I’m just glad to be done with it.”
Deirdre glanced at me. “Not everyone feels the need to snoop around in other people’s business, Nancy. All I know is I’m going to kiss the ground when we get back to Chicago! I’ve had enough nature to last a lifetime.”
George smirked. “Does that mean your environmental phase is over, Deirdre?” Before we’d left on our trip, Deirdre had claimed to “heart” the earth.
Now Deirdre sighed dramatically. “I suffered through a whole week with a low-flow showerhead,” she complained, reaching up to grab a lank, dark lock of hair. “I think I’m all paid up on the environmental front for at least a year.”
Just then, a flight attendant tried to make her way up the aisle, but paused behind Deirdre and Kat, who were blocking her. “Ladies,” she said, “I’m afraid you’ll need to take your seats. We’re preparing for takeoff. And miss, your dog will have to return to its carrier and be placed under the seat.”
“I know, I know.” Kat rolled her eyes, hugging Pretty Boy close and glancing sideways at me. “I swear,” she whispered after she and Deirdre had moved aside to let the stewardess through. “The way people treat Pretty Boy sometimes! It’s like he’s an animal or something. Well, ta!”
“Ta,” echoed Bess, waving gamely. Then Kat and Deirdre disappeared behind the first-class curtain, and we settled in for our flight.
“Well,” George said with a sigh, “I guess this is ‘;good-bye, Costa Rica.’”
I nodded, looking out the window at the gorgeous scenery with regret.
Good-bye, Costa Rica, I thought. You’ll be out of sight, but not out of mind.
Back in Chicago a few hours later, Bess, George, and I stumbled out of the plane, cranky and sleepy-eyed. It was only mid-afternoon in Chicago, but after hours in the sky, it felt much later.
“Where do we go to get the bus to River Heights?” Bess asked, groggily searching the signs overhead. We’d all taken an express bus to the airport last week, and planned to return to River Heights, our hometown, the same way.
George playfully poked her arm. “We have to get our luggage first, ditz,” she reminded her cousin. “Remember all your beloved clothes? Not to mention the bags and bags of souvenirs you brought home.”
Bess shrugged. “I like to remember the experience, okay?”
I snorted. “Bess, I don’t think you’ll ever forget our week at Casa Verde.”
We’d walked down the long terminal and now stepped onto the escalator that led down to baggage claim. We’d already said our good-byes to Kat, who was catching a connecting flight to L.A.; Deirdre had followed her to her new gate to see her off.
“Hey,” George piped up, pointing lazily to the left as we stepped off the escalator. “Is that kinda weird?”
Bess rolled her eyes. “Is what kinda weird, George?” she asked, looking in the general direction George was pointing. “Cinnastix? Not really. They just use a lot of butter and—”
“Not Cinnastix,” George insisted, grabbing her cousin’s shoulder and spinning her to face what she was facing. “Those guys in the suits. Look at their signs.”
I glanced at the men George was referring to. One was a pudgy Latino man in his forties or so; the other was tall, Caucasian, and bald, perhaps a little younger. Both were wearing dark suits and holding up signs, like dozens of car-service drivers who were waiting at baggage claim to pick up their charges. But George was right: There was something weird about these two.
Their signs read BESS MARVIN AND GEORGE FAYNE and NANCY DREW, respectively.
“Huh,” I muttered, frowning at my friends. “You guys didn’t arrange for car service, did you?”
Bess shook her head. “No way. To River Heights? That would have to cost hundreds of dollars.”
George nodded in agreement. “Town-car service is too rich for my blood,” she said. “I thought we were taking the bus home.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
“Well,” said Bess, sighing as she shifted her purse to her other shoulder, “there’s one way to get to the bottom of this.” She began walking toward the suited men. “Excuse me? I’m Bess Marvin, and these are my friends George Fayne and Nancy Drew.”
The two men nodded at Bess, and the one holding the sign with her and George’s name smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Miss. We can just go help you retrieve your luggage and then be on our way.”
Bess shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m a little confused,” she said. “We didn’t arrange for any car service.”
The taller man nodded. “Yes, but it’s part of the prize package you won,” he explained. “I believe it was an all-expenses-paid trip to Costa Rica?”
Bess turned to George and me, and we all exchanged skeptical looks.
“Um,” I spoke up, “I don’t think that was mentioned in any of the information we received. And we came to the airport by bus—if it were part of our prize, wouldn’t it have applied both ways?”
The men looked confused, and the taller man reached into his inside jacket pocket. After a little digging, he fished out a folded computer printout. Unfolding it, he frowned and then nodded. “That’s right. I’m sorry. This was arranged by a Mister Cristobal Arrojo, to make up for some difficulty you encountered during your stay.”
Hmm. “Can I see that?” I asked, and the man politely handed it over. I looked down and read:
I would like to arrange a car service for three young ladies traveling from Chicago O’Hare to the town of River Heights. You will find their itineraries and addresses, as well as my credit card information, attached. They will not be expecting this service, so please seek them out. Please let them know that I have arranged for their comfortable journey home with deepest apologies for the difficulties of their stay. I am deeply grateful to all three girls for their assistance and their patience.
“Hmm,” I murmured, looking over at my friends with a raised eyebrow.
“That definitely sounds like Cristobal,” Bess said.
I nodded. “And this is his correct e-mail address,” I added. “I remember from my . . . um . . .” Snoop-
ing? “. . . visits to his office.” I looked down at the paper, then back up at my friends, whispering, “It’s not an easy e-mail to guess . . . you know, since he has that extra r in there.”
George nodded, seeming to accept this. “Well, that was nice of him.”
“Definitely,” agreed Bess. She turned back to the drivers. “Thanks so much—we just need to find our luggage now.”
After a few minutes, we all figured out that our flight’s luggage was being distributed at bay #4. Other passengers I recognized from the flight waited there, all looking as bored and ready to get home as we felt. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a matter of minutes, Bess and George had both reclaimed their suitcases. Mine, however, was still missing—and the flow of new bags was slowing down. Most of our fellow passengers had already claimed their things and left.
“Uh-oh,” I said with a sigh, after it had been a few minutes since the last bag had appeared. “Do you think they might have lost my bag, after everything else that went wrong on this trip?”
Bess sighed and shrugged. “Anything’s possible, Nance,” she said, looking sympathetic. “Here, we can come to the luggage office with you.”
The shorter man cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Actually,” he said, looking a little sheepish, “I have another pickup in ninety minutes. I don’t want to rush you, but . . . if I could take Miss Marvin and Miss Fayne?”
Bess and George looked at each other, then to me, both wearing an expression of dismay.
“It’s okay, guys,” I assured them. “I’m sure this gentleman”—I pointed to the other, taller driver—“and I will be fine. If they lost my luggage, there’s not much they can do right now, anyway. I’m sure they’ll just send me home and send it out to me when it shows up.”
Bess nodded, reaching in to give me a hug. “Get home safely, Nance,” she said.
George leaned in to hug me too. “Thanks for coming,” she added. “I know it wasn’t quite the vacation we all had in mind.”
I grinned. “Are you kidding? For Nancy Drew, no vacation is complete without a mystery to solve.”
“I’m sure I’ll be in touch soon,” I promised. “You know, with new thoughts on the case.”
Bess nodded. “Sounds good, Nance. Talk to you then.”
They disappeared out one of the doors leading to the parking lot, and I glanced up at my driver.
“Well, Miss,” he said, looking around the baggage claim, “the baggage office for your airline seems to be over there. Shall we? My name is Stan, by the way.”
I nodded and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Stan.”
Together, we walked to the edge of the baggage claim area, where the small, glassed-in baggage office was positioned. Inside, we waited in line, then I gave the woman behind the counter all of my info—name, flight number, bag description, etc.
“If you’ll have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the plastic chairs that flanked the walls, “we’ll be right with you.”
I thanked her, and Stan and I took our seats. There was silence for a moment, and I felt awkward, so I blurted out, “Do you live in River Heights too, Stan?”
He glanced at me, looking surprised that I’d spoken to him. “No.”
I nodded. “Do you, um . . .,” I began, searching for a good conversation starter. “Do you have any children?”
He frowned at me, still seeming a bit confused by my attention, when his cell phone suddenly went off. He glanced down at the screen, then cupped it in his palm, hiding it from me. “Excuse me,” he said. “I have to take this.”
I nodded, and he stood up and walked out of the office and out of sight.
Friendly guy, I thought with a frown.
Just then, a woman in the bright-colored uniform of the airline we’d flown came over to me, dragging something behind her. “Miss Drew?” she asked.
“That’s me,” I confirmed, standing up.
She pushed the bag in front of her. I was happily surprised to see it was mine—blue with a red luggage tag. I smiled gratefully.
“I’m sorry, Miss Drew,” she said, looking confused. “It seems that your bag has been here the whole time. Someone from the airline separated it from the other luggage and placed it here. I’m not sure why.”
Hmm. “So it was never really lost?” I asked. That was unusual.
“It seems it never really was,” she confirmed with a nod. Then she shot me a tired smile. “Anyway, I’m sure you must be relieved. You can head home now.”
I nodded. “Thanks!”
I grabbed my suitcase and rolled it out of the office, wondering where Stan might have gone. There he was—several yards away, just out of sight of the baggage office, still on his phone. I caught his eye and smiled, gesturing to my suitcase, like Yay! If he was amused or relieved, though, he didn’t show it. He continued speaking tensely into the cell phone, then abruptly shut it as I moved within earshot.
“It was here the whole time,” I told him cheerfully. “Someone just grabbed it and put it in the baggage office. Weird, right?”
He nodded, but his expression didn’t change at all. “Let’s get going, Miss Drew,” he said, taking the suitcase from me and briskly wheeling it down the corridor toward the exit.
I stood where I was for a moment, frowning. Stan seemed in an awful hurry to get going. Maybe he just had another pickup, like the other driver, but still . . . it was making the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. And that was always a telltale sign that something might be wrong.
“Hold on,” I called, gesturing to the women’s restroom to our left. “I’d just like to run in here first, please.”
Stan turned around, not looking thrilled. He nodded impatiently. “Okay.”
Leaving my suitcase with him, I darted into the bathroom and entered a stall, closing the door behind me. I fished my cell phone out of my pocket and sighed, then hurriedly dialed the number I’d memorized while in Costa Rica.
It rang three times. Then came the voice mail greeting. “Buenos dias, you have reached Cristobal Arrojo at Casa Verde. I’m unavailable right now. . . .”
I sighed. Okay, so I wasn’t going to be able to get Cristobal to confirm this car-service plan. I left a quick message, and then locked my phone’s keypad, suddenly aware of just how tired I was—not just from the flight, from the whole experience. For a week I’d been questioning everyone’s motives, second-guessing every kindness, trying to get to the heart of what was going on in Casa Verde. Now I was home, and I was doing the same thing. Was I just being paranoid? Stan was probably just doing his job—it wasn’t his job to be BFF with every passenger he ferried from place to place. It was his job to get them there in a timely manner, which probably explained his hurry.
Unlocking my phone again, I quickly texted Ned and my father:
GETTING INTO A CAR AT THE AIRPORT NOW, ON MY WAY HOME. MISS YOU!
Then I locked my phone once more, stood up, and walked out of the restroom.
“Okay,” I said to Stan, when I found him standing against the wall outside, checking his watch. “I’m ready to go home now.”
© 2010 Simon & Schuster, Inc.