The Orchid Thief
1 Island Intrigue
You’re totally hopeless, Nancy. We’ve been in Florida for less than an hour, and you’ve already gotten us lost!”
My friend Bess Marvin was the one doing the talking. And she was right about me being hopeless. When my mind is on a mystery, I’m useless behind the wheel. I get so busy trying to figure things out that I forget about practical details like keeping track of directions. So I guess it’s no surprise that I always end up getting lost on some back road I’ve never seen before.
Like right now, for instance.
Now that Bess had shaken me from my thoughts, I realized I must have turned off Route 1. That’s the main road our friend Delia Duke had told us to take
from Miami down to Key Largo, the first in a chain of tropical islands that curve out from the southern tip of Florida. After spending the morning on a plane from Chicago—the closest big city to our hometown of River Heights—I couldn’t wait to get there.
But now it looked like the drive might take a little longer than we’d expected—okay, maybe a lot longer. I didn’t see any of the things I’d noticed along Route 1 before—malls or fast-food joints or housing developments, or even any traffic lights. There was just a narrow, cracked road that stretched in an endless straight line ahead of us. Next to the road, the ground sloped down to mangrove swamps on both sides that spread out as far as the eye could see. The baking-hot sun sent heat waves shimmering up from the asphalt and glared off the murky water surrounding the mangrove roots. Except for a couple of trucks in the hazy distance—and maybe some alligators—we were totally alone.
“Uh-oh,” I said, biting my lip. “Guess I made a wrong turn, huh?”
“You think?” Bess’s cousin George Fayne said sarcastically from the backseat of our rental car. As she leaned forward, a hot, humid wind whipped over the windshield and sent her short hair flying around her face. “Not to mention that it’s about a zillion degrees out. I never should have let you talk us into renting
this convertible, Bess. Shouldn’t we at least put up the top and turn on the air conditioning?”
“And give up a second of soaking up this glorious tropical sun?” Bess slid her sunglasses to the top of her head and shot her cousin a horrified glance. “Not a chance! This salty air feels great, and if we can smell the ocean, we can’t be too lost, can we?”
“Oh, brother,” said George, flopping back against her seat.
I had to laugh. Even though Bess and George are cousins, they’re polar opposites in the looks and personality departments. Bess is petite with long blond hair. A total dreamer, she can find the silver lining in any cloud. George is way more down-to-earth. She loves sports and keeps her dark hair short. But somehow she and Bess always manage to work out their differences—which is good for me, since I’ve been best friends with both of them practically since the three of us learned to walk.
“This is a record, even for you, Nancy,” George went on, staring out at the tangled mangrove swamp. “You don’t usually get car-challenged until after you start working a mystery.”
Ouch. I guess she had a point. Delia hadn’t said for sure that we’d find any mystery in Key Largo. But she’d definitely hinted at it.
“You have to admit, hearing from Delia out of the
blue was kind of strange,” I said. “Even though she grew up down the street from Dad and me, we’ve hardly seen her since she left River Heights to go to college here in Florida. That was, what, four or five years ago? And when she called, she did say she might need our help with something.”
“So naturally you decided to start obsessing about it before we even find out what the problem is,” Bess teased. “Don’t forget, she also said there might not be anything to worry about at all. Which means we’re in for a week of fun in the sun while we catch up on all Delia’s been doing the past couple of years.”
“If we ever find our way to Key Largo, that is,” George added.
Bess and George like to tease me, but I don’t think they really mind when I’ve got a mystery on the brain. They’re used to this sort of thing. Plus, they’re a huge help. If there’s one thing they do agree on, it’s that I’d be lost without them.
“Maybe I can figure out where we are,” George said. She was already reaching for the laptop case that lay on the seat next to her. “There’s this great mapping system I can log on to.”
“Hear that, Nancy?” Bess said, flicking a thumb at her cousin. “Most girls bring sunscreen and a bikini to the beach. George brings a computer.” George grinned and said, “A vacation isn’t a
vacation without my laptop. You know that.”
Bess just rolled her eyes and reached into her bag for her cell phone. “I’d better call Delia and tell her we’re . . . wherever we are,” she said.
Hearing that, I felt an uneasiness bubble up inside of me. Delia had sounded kind of stressed when I called her from the airport. I didn’t want to add to her worries. “Couldn’t we just—”
“Yes!” George crowed from the backseat. “You can put away that phone, Bess. I just pinpointed where we are. According to my mapping system, this is Card Sound Road. The Card Sound Bridge should be coming up soon. It’s an alternate route to Key Largo.” She flashed me a smile in the rearview mirror. “It’ll take us a little longer to get to the state park where Delia works, but we’re not too far off track. I’ve got the directions right here.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later we caught sight of a high-arching bridge ahead. We cruised past a tiny village of house boats at the edge of the swamp, and then we rose up and over a sparkling deep-blue bay.
“How gorgeous!” Bess exclaimed.
George and I weren’t going to argue with her. I felt like I was looking at a postcard, complete with sailboats, swaying palms, and herons perched on mangrove branches. As pretty as it was, the sight I was happiest to see was a plain green sign at the end of
the bridge that read WELCOME TO KEY LARGO.
“We made it! Thanks, George,” I said. “Am I good, or what? Turn right at the light, Nan,” she told me. “We’ll be back on Route 1 in a flash.”
Pretty soon, the dense trees gave way to a sun-bleached strip of motels, restaurants, tourist boutiques, bait-and-tackle shops, boat rentals, and places advertising scuba, snorkeling, and fishing expeditions. Bess raised an eyebrow as we passed a Jeep full of tanned guys with Hawaiian shirts and windblown hair.
“This is more like it,” she said. “No wonder Delia decided to stay here in Florida after college!”
“I don’t think she came just for the guys,” George commented dryly. “There are tons of exotic plants and animals around here. Not to mention amazing tropical fish that live around the coral reef. People come from all over to see it. It’s the perfect place for a marine biologist like Delia.”
From what I had read, the coral reef was amazing. It stretched alongside the Florida Keys from Key Largo all the way down to Key West at the very end of Route 1—a hundred miles away. Delia had told us a big chunk of the reef lay inside the state park where she worked, and she’d promised to show us the best snorkeling and scuba-diving spots. It sounded like the perfect way to spend our week with Delia. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what Delia meant
when she’d said something weird was going on.
“Earth to Nancy! Didn’t you see the sign for the state park? Delia told us to meet her there, right?”
Ooops! I couldn’t believe I had spaced out again. I pulled myself back to reality in time to see a sign for the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park out of the corner of my eye. “Right! Sorry, Bess,” I said, shifting into the turn lane. Seconds later we cruised into the entrance.
I pulled to the end of a long line of sedans, mini-vans, and SUVs. None of them were moving. A blaring horn made me jump, and I heard someone shout, “Hey! Quit blocking the way!”
“What’s the problem?” Bess wondered. But a black SUV in front of us meant we had zero visibility.
I got out of our car and stepped around the SUV. We were about ten cars back from the entrance gate. A truck had stopped there and the driver had gotten out. He was waving his arms at the entrance worker, and neither one of them looked very happy.
“Why doesn’t he move to the side? There’s enough room,” I muttered. I was already heading toward the entrance gate. “Excuse me!” I called. “Ma’am? Sir?”
Neither the entrance worker nor the man who had gotten out of his truck heard me. They were too busy arguing to notice anyone else.
“I told you, sir. I can’t let you in unless you pay the fee,” the woman inside the booth was saying. She
gave an annoyed tug at the green collar of her parks uniform. “Now, if you don’t move your truck, I’ll have to call security. . . .”
The driver of the truck stood with his back to me, so all I saw were long baggy shorts, a broad back covered with an orange T-shirt, and sun-bleached blond hair that peeked out from under his black baseball cap. “You can’t keep me out of here,” he drawled. “My folks have been on the Keys since before Florida was even a state!”
“You still have to pay, like everyone else,” the entrance worker said patiently.
“Excuse me!” I said again, louder.
This time, both the entrance worker and the driver of the truck turned toward me. Except the guy did more than just look. His eyes were like green lasers that zeroed in on every detail.
“Well, hello there! What can I do for you, ma’am?” he asked. A slow smile spread across his face.
Oh, brother. I could tell he was used to turning on the charm. I just wanted to get past him so we could find Delia. “I, um, my friends and I need to get in to see Delia Duke,” I began. “She’s expecting us. Would you mind moving your truck?”
The guy glanced over his shoulder at the beat-up blue pickup truck that blocked the park entrance. Actually, it wasn’t totally blue. Silver paint covered a
couple of dings along the side, and the rear left fender was dented and painted silver.
“Why should I?” he said. “I have every right to be here. And I don’t appreciate a couple of tourists trying to muscle into the park ahead of me.”
He was still smiling, but his eyes had a challenging gleam in them now. He didn’t make a move to leave. “You give Delia Duke a message from me, okay?” he went on. “You tell her that Chick Russell does what he wants, where he wants, when he wants. And a nosy out-of-towner like her isn’t going to stop me.”
At that moment something jump-started in my brain. I guess you could call it a sixth sense, a kind of signal that I needed to pay close attention.
“Do you know Delia?” I asked him.
“Just tell her what I said,” he replied.
“That’s it. I’m calling security,” muttered the entrance worker.
Chick Russell’s gaze flickered from the woman inside the booth to me. He must not have wanted to go head-to-head with parks police, because he sauntered back to his truck and climbed in behind the wheel.
“You take care now,” he said, tipping his baseball cap at me.
He pulled his truck in a U-turn around the booth to the exit on the other side. Then he turned onto Route 1 and was gone.