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I was midway through speed-dialing my boyfriend, Ned, on my cell phone when my best friend Bess Marvin grabbed my sleeve. "Nancy, look! It's here."
I totally forgot about my call. Sure enough, the ship was rounding the bend in the river just south of the bluffs in Riverside Park. As it drew closer, I was able to read the bold, black print on its side: THE MAGNOLIA BELLE. Its decks were tiered like a white wedding cake, and it gleamed in the bright morning light. The handful of local residents gathered on the dock to witness the arrival of the latest attraction in our city's Seventy-fifth Midsummer Muskoka River Festival began to cheer.
"Finally," George Fayne remarked. George is my other best friend, and Bess's cousin. "It's sure a slow mover."
"But it's almost here now!" Bess bounced a little on her toes. Though Bess and George are first cousins and best friends, they have two completely different outlooks on life: Bess is an incurable optimist, while George is a glass-half-empty sort of person.
Today, however, they were equally eager to greet the Magnolia Belle. Bess had landed a two-week job as an intern with the ship's maintenance crew and had to check in. George was there on her mother's behalf. Her mom's catering business had snared the contract for the big event the Whodunit Dinner and the overnight cruise between River Heights and Sutter's Cove.
The cruise was a fund-raiser for several charitable organizations in River Heights. About forty of our city's most affluent citizens had purchased tickets for the overnight luxury journey. I was lucky that my dad had bought two tickets for the event. A t the last minute he learned that he couldn't be in town for the cruise business called but he told me to invite Ned.
Ned. Where was he?
I had just finished leaving h im a message when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "Would you look at that!" The voice belonged to one of my good friends from town, Luther Eldridge. He's an expert on the history of River Heights and knows all sorts of trivia about the area.
"Luther!" I greeted him. "I don't have to ask why you're here. How long has it been since a riverboat docked i n River Heights?"
Luther didn't even pretend to think about it. "Sixty-two years, four months, and three days to the day."
"But I bet the last one was bigger." Bess sounded disappointed. "This isn't half as b ig as the ones George showed us online the other night."
Luther and I took a good look at the boat. Bess was right. The image of the paddleboat we saw online was as large as a small cruise ship. This riverboat was probably half that size. But it was still grand and beautiful, and I couldn't wait to board her.
The Magnolia Belles big red paddle wheel was at the rear of the boat, churning up a frothy wake. Plumes of white steam rose from the two black smokestacks on either side of the wheelhouse. But though the riverboat looked like something from another century, I noticed a radar antenna on top of the wheelhouse slowly sweeping the sky.
"What's making the boat go?" George asked as the riverboat docked.
"Superheated water in a boiler," Bess and Luther answered in unison. Luther laughed, then made a gesture toward Bess. " I'll let the mechanical expert explain."
Bess shook her head. "Let's wait to get the real story from one of the pros on the boat."
Just then the boat finished docking, and people began descending the gangplank.
"That guy s an old salt if I've ever seen one. I bet he's the captain." Luther pointed to a stocky man wearing navy blue trousers who was headed for the pier. H e looked a bit older than my dad. His white cap was pushed back over a shock of thick, faded blond hair. His round face was beet red as he argued furiously with a man who followed h im down onto the pier. A n image of a steamboat and the words Magnolia Belle decorated his shirt.
"He sure looks steamed over something," George quipped.
Bess and I cringed over George's pun. But she was right about the " o l d salt's" mood. Both men were having what was at the very least an extremely heated conversation. The other man looked calmer and he bore an uncanny resemblance to Mark Twain. H e had a bushy white mustache, and longish white hair poked out from beneath his old-fashioned pale straw hat.
The Mark Twain look-alike spotted us first. He put a restraining hand on the captain's arm, and immediately the argument stopped. As the captain shifted his gaze toward us, his angry expression swiftly morphed to a welcoming smile. The other man hurried back up the gangplank and disappeared into the ship.
The captain greeted us with a deep Southern drawl. "I didn't expect such a welcoming committee." H e seemed pleasant enough as he stretched out a hand to Luther, then to me and my friends. But his eyes were small and shrewd, and seemed at odds with his smile.
"Captain Mike Jones here. Just call me Captain Mike."
"This is Luther Eldridge, our unofficial town historian. I'm Nancy Drew, and these are my friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne."
Captain Mike turned to George first. "You're one of the Faynes from Ready, Set, Eat!, the catering company?"
George nodded. "I work part-time for my mother, Louise. She sent me to scope out the galley."
Captain Mike waved toward the lower deck o f the ship. A couple of guys were hanging over the railing, staring i n our direction. One was tall and skinny. The other, even from this distance, looked like a well-built hunk."Ken!"the captain shouted."Come down here."
A moment later the skinny guy joined us. " Hi , I'm Ken Perkins," he said.
"Ken's one of our waiters," the captain told George.
" He'll show you the galley, the food-storage facilities, and of course, cabins for you and your mother."
" Hi! " another voice chimed in. We all turned around. The hunk had just walked up. He had dark blond hair and amazing blue eyes. He seemed to light up at the sight of Bess.
" And this," the captain said, sounding decidedly less enthusiastic, "is my nephew, Dylan."
"Oh , Dylan Jones," Bess remarked. "I think I'm supposed to be working with you. I'm Bess Marvin."
Dylan just gaped at Bess. "You're the intern?"
George and I exchanged a quick glance. When guys first meet Bess, they always take her for pretty and helpless and then get the shock of their lives. Bess can fix cars and solder plumbing pipes. She shops for tools with the same relish w i t h which she hits stores like Boutique and Beyond at the mall. Not your average pretty blonde.
Bess smothered a smile. "Yeah." She pulled an envelope out of her bag, reached across Dylan, and handed it to the captain. "Here's my acceptance letter"
Captain Mike looked at the letter. "Right. You're the one who's a certified carpenter. I'm impressed. Maybe you can teach Dylan something!" From his tone I wasn't sure he was joking . Neither was Dylan. He winced.
Bess looked puzzled. " Oh , no. I 'm the one here to learn," she protested. "I certainly don't know a thing about steamboats...except what I've read."
"Time to cure that!" the captain said to Bess. "Dylan, show our new intern the engineering department, the boiler room, the ship's workshop, and then where she'll be bunking." H e turned to Luther and me and added, "I bet the town historian official or not would like to tour the boat. Come on, you two. I'll show you the ropes."
While Ken led George directly to the galley, Bess and Dylan went below. Luther and I followed the captain. We learned that the Magnolia Belle was a scaled-down version o f some of the cruise-ship-class riverboats that used to supply the shores of the M i s sissippi and Ohio Rivers. It had only three passenger decks, with sixty cabins.
As soon as we reached the Main Deck, Captain Mike took us to the back of the boat. "This is the paddle wheel," he pointed out. "Because it's attached to the back or stern of the boat, this kind of vessel is called a stern-wheeler."
"As I recall," Luther contributed, "stern-wheelers came along and gradually replaced side-wheelers."
"What's a side-wheeler?" I asked.
"They were the first type of riverboats and had two paddles, one on the port, or left side of the ship, and one on the starboard, or right side o f the ship," the captain explained.
Narrow stairs led from deck to deck on the outside o f the ship. Inside, the captain told us, there were regular staircases, and an elevator for passengers who were unable to climb stairs easily.
A set of double doors led to the dining room. I could see through the glass that a stage was set up, and actors were still rehearsing for that nights performance.
As we headed up past the Plantation Deck, to the Star Deck and Observation Lounge, I noticed a lifeboat suspended by ropes off the side o f the ship toward the bow of the Main Deck. It was covered with a black tarp."Do you ever need that boat?" I asked him.
"No, thank goodness. Generally, river cruises are pretty quiet. We watch for weather. We just cancel if a bad storm is predicted."
"So its not like the old days, when there were boiler explosions and ships were caught on snags," Luther commented.
The captain laughed. " N o way. Believe me, all the kinks were worked out o f steam engines some time ago. We undergo a topside Coast Guard inspection once a year, and every two years there's a bottom inspection when the hull and general structure is checked out.
"We follow all navigational rules. We have a good supply of life jackets. A n d you'll see life preservers on every deck, just i n case someone falls in the river. Now that has happened once or twice." Captain Mike chuckled. "Mainly kids leaning too far over the rails. No one ever got hurt, though."
"They could i f they fell near that paddle wheel," Luther noted.
The captain frowned. "True. Even though we seldom travel more than five miles an hour, it's heavy, and churns up the water. As for the lifeboats they're not mandatory, but I like the idea of them."
"You've got more than one?" I asked as we mounted the last o f the steps leading to the top deck.
"Yeah, two. The life jackets are all stowed under those benches along the railings and in other places on the ship."
Captain Mike held open the door leading into the Observation Lounge. I walked in first, followed by Luther. The wood-paneled lounge had plenty o f easy chairs. Card tables sat catty-corner along the far wall. Another wall held a three-foot-high bookshelf filled with all sorts of reading material. Hung above the shelf were framed maps and prints. A wooden flat file jutted out from beneath one of the windows. Someone had spread out a map on top.
Luther made a beeline for the framed prints. He moved from one to another, studying them. Suddenly he let out a low impressed whistle. "Captain Mike, do you realize what you have here?"
The captain shook his head. I hurried over to Luther, curious. H e tapped the glass of the framed print. "This is the Lucinda Lu"
"Didn't she sink or something?" the captain asked.
"I'd say so!" Luther exclaimed."She went down in local history as the biggest steamboat disaster ever on the Muskoka River."
"She sank around here?" The captain seemed surprised.
" A few months ago I came across some old articles about the disaster. It was supposed to be an accident, but..." Luther paused for effect and looked at me and winked. "Nancy will love this. It turns out the accident was suspicious because it happened just as the boat was passing Stony Lonesome Island just a few miles up from River Heights twenty-four hours after a bank heist in Willow Bend, a little farther downstream."
"You mean the crooks somehow engineered an explosion?" I asked.
"No one ever knew for sure but lots o f people died, and no one ever learned the truth or found the loot."
Copyright © 2005 by Simon and Schuster, Inc.