The Stolen Show
A Winter Wonderland
FROM WHERE I SAT IN the front seat of the taxi, I was the first to get a full view of the banner that arched over the old cobblestoned street, reaching from one colorful building to another. In festive red letters, it read BIENVENUE AU CARNAVAL DE QUÉBEC! Up ahead, I could see crowds of people milling through the streets, swaddled in winter coats and hats, their hands filled with plates of food or steaming cups of hot drinks. A light dusting of snow was sprinkled over everything, giving the whole of Quebec City the look of a picturesque sculpture in a snow globe, just waiting to be shaken up.
“Look at this place!” George exclaimed from the back seat, leaning between the front seats to get a look out the windshield. She pulled her smartphone out of the pocket of her practical red winter parka and began snapping photos of the scene. “You guys, we have to stop and grab something to eat from one of these shops before we head to the hotel. My kingdom for poutine.”
“Poutine?” Bess asked. Bess and George are cousins. They’re both my best friends, and the three of us are virtually inseparable.
Bess’s fair skin was still flushed from waiting outside in the cold for our taxi from the airport into town. She probably should have worn something a little warmer than her knitted beret and ivory peacoat, but Bess always was more fashionable than she was practical. She smoothed down her long blond hair, calming the flyaway strands thrown up by the wind. “What’s poutine?”
“Only the most delicious thing in the world,” George answered, her dark brown eyes sparkling. “It’s french fries and cheddar cheese curds drenched in gravy.”
“That sounds a little . . . ,” Bess began delicately, “heavy.”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” George countered. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
Bess’s eyebrow quirked. “Ahem—haggis!” she said, pretending to cough.
“What? Haggis is good!” George spluttered.
“If you like spicy oatmeal made of meat,” I muttered with a smirk.
George smacked her hand against her chest in mock dismay. “Et tu, Nancy?”
“Don’t worry,” I said with a laugh. “I’ll try the poutine. We both will—isn’t that right, Bess?”
“Oh, all right,” Bess said. “But right now, I’d much rather have a hot cocoa. How long before you’re supposed to meet Louise at the hotel, Nancy?”
I checked my watch. It was only a quarter past ten, and I wasn’t expected at Château Frontenac until eleven. “We’ve got plenty of time. Why don’t we get out here and walk? We don’t have a lot of baggage to carry, and we can pick up a snack on the way.”
“Sounds perfect!” George replied, pulling the furry hood over her short, dark hair. “Forty-five minutes to stuff ourselves with Canadian delights before Nancy goes to the dogs.”
I chuckled and pulled out some Canadian bills to pay the driver. It was, in fact, dogs that had brought the three of us to Quebec City. A week ago my father got a frantic call from an old friend of his, Louise Alain. She used to work for him as a paralegal many years ago before moving back to Quebec, where she grew up, to raise show dogs. Louise had slipped on a patch of ice outside her house and broken her ankle. But that wasn’t the real problem: the biggest dog show of the year was coming up in a week, and she couldn’t walk! She desperately needed someone to step in and be her show dog’s handler, or else she’d have to drop out of the show. I had recently learned that “handler” was the term used to describe the person who guides show dogs around the arena during competitions. Unfortunately, Louise’s backup handler had been stricken with the flu, and her options were slim. So she was calling
in an old favor, hoping her old boss’s daughter might be willing to take a free vacation in exchange for a couple of days’ work. Being that we were already on a winter holiday from school—and that she was willing to pay for George and Bess as well, so I wouldn’t have to travel alone—I was only too happy to oblige! I didn’t know the first thing about being a dog handler, of course, but Louise assured me over the phone that she would teach me everything I needed to know. “You always had a way with animals,” Louise had said. “I’m sure you’ll do great!”
Still, as I got out of the car and felt the first blast of cold Canadian air on my face, I realized that it wasn’t the only thing making me shiver. Bess must have noticed my expression as we pulled our bags from the trunk of the taxi. “Oh, Nancy, you’re not nervous, are you?” she asked.
“I mean . . . a little bit,” I answered truthfully. “Being in front of huge crowds of people isn’t my favorite thing in the world.”
“Nance, you need to relax and have fun,” George exclaimed, slapping me on the back. “Look where we
are! If you can handle a constant parade of criminals, saboteurs, and petty thieves, you can handle walking a bull terrier around in a big circle. What’s the worst that could happen?”
I smirked. “George,” I said, “did you forget who you’re talking to? I think that statement could probably be filed under Famous Last Words.”
It was true—nothing is ever quite so simple when you’re an amateur detective with a penchant for attracting trouble everywhere you go. But George was right about one thing: we were in a winter wonderland, so the best thing I could do right now was enjoy it.
We found ourselves standing on Rue Saint Louis, just under the shadow of a beautiful stone bridge. The bridge boasted domed towers and a crenelated archway that looked like it should be part of an ancient castle. To our left, in a large clearing dotted with trees, some carnival goers were wandering into a modern-looking building made entirely of ice, while nearby a crowd cheered on two teams of young athletes playing a competitive game of hockey.
“This is amazing,” Bess said, her blue eyes taking it all in. “There’s so much to see!”
“I know, right?” George replied. “That’s the annual ice palace over there—it’s where Bonhomme lives. We’ve got to go visit before we leave!”
“Who’s Bonhomme?” I asked.
“He looks kind of like a snowman wearing a red hat,” George replied. “He’s like the king of the carnival. He’s supposed to be the spirit of happiness, who brings the spring after winter.”
“Well then, we’d better get a selfie with him,” Bess said seriously. “You know, for the flowers.”
We walked on, enjoying the wondrous sights and smells of the carnival. The attractions, the shops, the restaurants, the beautiful stone buildings lining the streets . . . it was like a storybook! George got her poutine—which, I will admit, was delicious—and Bess got her hot cocoa. I ended up buying something called a beaver tail, which tastes a lot better than it sounds. It’s actually a warm, tail-shaped pastry topped with cinnamon sugar. By the
time I was done eating it, I had forgotten all about being nervous.
After wandering around for about fifteen minutes in a sugar-and-gravy-induced haze, I finally stopped and realized that we were quite a ways from where we had started. My watch read 10:50 a.m. Darn, I thought. I lost track of time. Now we have only ten minutes to get to the hotel, or I’m going to be late! “George,” I said. “We need to be at the château ASAP! What’s the fastest route from here?”
George handed me the remnants of her poutine and pulled out her phone, poking at it until a map appeared on the screen. “Let’s see here,” she muttered, squinting at the unfamiliar streets.
Up ahead, I watched as a well-dressed woman with ash-blond hair and sunglasses rounded a corner. “I can’t,” she was saying into the phone at her ear. “I’ve got to get Daisy ready for the show, and—”
“George, watch where you’re going!” Bess called out.
But it was too late. Both distracted by their phones, George and the woman collided. They stumbled, and
the phones went flying. I winced as they hit the ground with an unpleasant slap.
“Oh!” George stammered, reddening. “I’m so sorry!”
“That’s quite all right,” the woman said with a quick, reassuring smile. “These things happen.” She went to reach for her phone, but I was standing closer to where they had fallen.
“Please,” I said, “allow me!” I bent to pick up the phones from the sidewalk, and luckily, it looked like they had both managed to survive the fall without much damage. The screen of the woman’s phone displayed a photograph of a smiling family—a handsome man, two young girls in matching dresses, and a large black-and-tan Doberman pinscher, posing for the photo with its pointy ears up and its head cocked in curiosity.
I dusted the phone off with my sleeve and handed it back to the woman. “What a lovely family!” I said. “Though I might have expected ‘Daisy’ to be a poodle, not a Doberman!”
The woman froze and took her sunglasses off to see me more clearly. Her eyes were startlingly blue. “How did you—?” she started to ask.
I blushed. “Sorry,” I apologized. “I couldn’t help but hear you talking about getting ‘Daisy ready for the show,’ and since there’s a big dog show this weekend, I just put two and two together. I didn’t mean to be nosy.”
“She can’t help it,” George added with a grin. “Telling Nancy not to pry is like telling the earth to stop revolving around the sun.”
The suspicious expression dropped from the woman’s face, and she laughed. “Well, you certainly are observant, young lady! And here I thought you were some kind of crazed stalker or something. What a relief!”
“Do crazed stalkers normally go after show-dog handlers?” Bess asked.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Stranger things have happened at Westminster, let me tell you!” she replied. “Are you ladies here for the dog show as well, or the winter carnival?”
“Both, really,” I answered. “We just flew in from River Heights to be here! I’m going to be taking over as the handler for my friend’s dog. She hurt her ankle last week and can’t do it herself. Her name is Louise Alain. Do you know her?”
“I know of her, certainly,” the woman said, chuckling. “Everyone does. Louise has quite the reputation among dog show enthusiasts. I’m not surprised she’s importing a handler from across the border—the woman simply never gives up. She’s quite amazing. Although I think you’ll find that most people in the business of showing dogs are quite unique, each in their own way. Just like the dogs themselves!” She sighed and smiled to herself. “Honestly, I just adore doing the shows. It gets me out of the house, meeting new people—although I do miss my little ones while I’m gone.” She glanced down at the picture on her phone, her blue eyes soft. “Annabelle and Eleanor. Aren’t they the sweetest?”
“Very sweet,” I said, as Bess cooed over the picture. George nodded vaguely—she wasn’t a big fan of little kids in general. They tended to make her nervous.
The woman noticed George’s reticence and laughed. “Oh, honey,” she said. “You haven’t been bitten by the mommy bug yet, have you? You’re so young—you’ll get there! And then you’ll want to hold babies all the time!”
“Um,” George said, paling.
Suddenly the woman clapped herself on the head in dismay. “Goodness, how rude of me! Here I am, chatting up a storm, and I haven’t even introduced myself.” She stuck out her hand with a wink. “I’m Helen Bradley—it’s been lovely bumping into you.”
The three of us introduced ourselves in turn, and Helen was kind enough to direct us to the hotel. She and the rest of the dog owners and handlers were staying there too. Then Bess reminded us that we were already running late, so we quickly excused ourselves.
“Sorry to run off, but we’ve got to go!” I said. “Maybe we’ll see you later?”
“I’m sure you will, ladies!” Helen replied with a cheery wave. “In the meantime, enjoy the city!”
“Ugh,” George muttered as we hurried away. “If
you guys ever see a mommy bug coming to bite me, please let me know so I can squash it.”
“Oh, come on, George,” said Bess, giving her cousin a playful nudge. “She was so nice!”
“Yeah, she was nice,” George admitted. “But that is the type of lady who will make you sit through a slideshow of her baby’s first everything. Better that we got out while we could!”
“Run now, bicker later!” I commanded. We jogged through the streets, wheeling our suitcases behind us and dodging tourists. We arrived at the hotel with only moments to spare.
The Château Frontenac had to be one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. It stood a little above the rest of the city, like a shining castle on a hill, surrounded by skeletal trees made cheerful by a dusting of snow. There was a tall central structure with domes and spires, and the rest of the hotel was built around it in a square that boasted turrets and towers, which looked like they were protecting the inner building. The whole hotel was made of cream
and golden brick, with sage-green metal rooftops, and hundreds of windows providing guests a showstopping view of the city beyond. The girls and I grinned at one another, giddy with excitement, before rolling our suitcases into the lobby.
Inside, everything was gold, crystal, and light. The doors and elevators glistened, reflecting the warm yellow glow of the chandeliers above. The air had the dark, comforting smell of wood polish, and I took a moment to breathe it all in.
“Well, well, well,” a voice said from a few feet away. “Nancy Drew! The last time I saw you, young lady, you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Look at you now!”
I turned to see a sturdy-looking older woman with short, curly brown hair grinning wolfishly at me from a love seat, her foot encased in a medical boot.
“Louise!” I exclaimed, walking over to embrace her. Louise lurched to her feet and gave me a stunningly strong hug before pulling away to do the same for both Bess and George, who each sputtered a breathless greeting while Louise gleefully crushed their ribs.
“Thank you for coming, Red,” Louise said with feeling, using an old nickname that referred to the reddish blond color of my hair. “You saved my butt, you really did. I’d have been up a creek if you hadn’t!”
“Anything for one of Dad’s old friends,” I replied. “And anyway, how could I turn down a free vacation with my friends?”
“How was your trip, girls?” Louise asked, turning to them.
“Well,” Bess began. “The flight was a little delayed because of a storm coming up from the south, but—”
“Oh, good,” Louise said, clapping her hands with finality and rubbing them together. “We’ve got a lot of prep to do for this show, and there’s no time to waste! As soon as you check in and put away your luggage, we’re off to the convention center to practice. We just need to wait for Marge. . . .”
“Marge?” George asked. She looked dizzy from the speed at which Louise seemed to live her life. “Who’s Marge?”
“My bully, of course!” Louise replied. “Ah, there she is now!”
We turned to see a pure white bull terrier striding into the lobby, being led by a porter. “Thank you, Genevieve,” Louise said to the porter, taking the leash from her hand. Louise had written to say that she was checking into the hotel a few days early “to get the lay of the land.” Seemed to me she was already ruling this land. Marge sat on her haunches and regarded us with her small, dark eyes. Like all bull terriers, she had a long, flat head and a muscular body.
Bess, instantly smitten, knelt down in front of Marge and began rubbing her behind the ears. “Oh, aren’t you just the most adorable puppy on earth?” she cooed. “Aren’t you?”
“Careful,” Louise chuckled. “You keep going like that, she’ll never leave you alone.”
George and I introduced ourselves to Marge with some pats and ear scratches as well. For her part, Marge sniffed my hand intensely before leaning in and giving me a very long and slobbery lick across the face.
“Ah, good, she likes you,” Louise noted with approval. “Can’t have her despising her new handler, can we? Now, go check in. Marge and I will meet you girls back here in fifteen minutes.” She took up the crutch leaning against the table in front of her and hopped toward a comfortable chair.
The three of us checked in, stowed our luggage in our rooms, and quickly freshened up. We got down to the lobby just in time to hear Louise asking the porter to call a taxi to the convention center.
A few minutes later, with Marge leading the way, we piled into the taxi and took a short ride to the nearby convention center, a large, modern building made mostly of glass. We walked inside, where dogs of every imaginable size and variety were there with their owners, checking out the numerous vendor tables that were set up in the lobby. While the people pursued jewel-encrusted collars and hand-painted pet portraits, the dogs sniffed at jars of treats and one another’s rear ends with interest. Louise hobbled in like she owned the place, and immediately accosted a
petite, middle-aged woman with deep brown skin and red-framed eyeglasses.
“Angie, my girl!” Louise said, clapping the woman on the back with her free hand.
Over black leggings, Angie wore a bright red sweatshirt that was covered in paw prints and read DOGS ARE MY FAVORITE PEOPLE. She had been engaged in conversation with a tall blond man who was impeccably dressed in a light gray blazer and slacks.
“Voyons donc, Louise!” Angie sputtered, rubbing her shoulder where Louise’s hand had landed. “Is it impossible for you to say hello to me without leaving me in tatters?”
“Clearly not,” the blond man said, brushing an invisible speck of grit off his sleeve.
“Oh, I’m sorry, old girl,” Louise replied. “I’m just so excited! Here’s my new handler: the young Miss Nancy Drew! I’m here to show her and her friends the ropes. Girls, this is my very best friend, Angie Wilson.” Louise glanced at the gentleman next to her. “And the fancy boy next to her is Chuck Dubois. He’s all right.”
She pronounced the name “Doo-boys,” which seemed to make Mr. Dubois wince.
“Charles, s’il vous plaît,” the man said, shaking our hands. “Miss Alain is fond of nicknames, but me, I am less so.”
“And who is this handsome fellow with you?” Bess asked, looking at Charles’s dog. The dog was almost the same color as his owner’s blazer and sat on its haunches, watching the crowd with a sort of detached amusement.
Charles’s face brightened. “Ah, oui, this is my Weimaraner, Coco Diamonds Are Forever.”
George gave a long whistle. “Wow,” she said. “That’s quite a name!”
“She’s quite a dog,” Charles replied.
“A lot of the show dogs have very complex names,” Angie explained. “Oftentimes the names reflect the dog’s credentials or pedigrees, or sometimes they just help breeders distinguish one litter of pups from another.”
Louise huffed. “Nope,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Just ‘Marge’ is enough for me. Her quality speaks for itself.”
“Or at least her owner certainly does,” Charles murmured.
Louise raised her eyebrow at him. “Someone needs a muzzle over there,” she said. “And it isn’t the Weimaraner.”
I leaned over to whisper in Angie’s ear. “Are they always this . . . hostile?”
Angie nodded. “It’s just their way. Don’t worry—they’re all bark and no bite.”
“Where’s your dog, Angie?” Bess asked, stepping over to us.
“Oh—Marshmallow Fluff is just having a snooze in her crate. I’ll take you to her!”
Angie led us to a side area, past a checkpoint, where lines of dog crates stood. As we walked, George turned back to me and mouthed, Marshmallow Fluff?! I smiled and shrugged. The dog names certainly were entertaining!
“Here she is,” Angie said, stopping at a very large
crate in the corner. “Wakey, wakey, Marshy! You’ve got some fans who want to meet you. . . .” She knelt down to open the door to the crate and look inside. A moment passed as Angie reached inside, the expression on her face changing from excitement to horror.
“Oh!” Angie cried out.
“What?” I said, suddenly alert. “What is it? Is your dog okay?”
“She’s breathing,” Angie said, her face suddenly pale. “But she won’t wake up! I think she’s been drugged!”