Read an Excerpt
An Auspicious Beginning
As we touched down on a landing strip only slightly larger than our small plane, Bess squeezed my hand. "Nancy Drew!" she said. "I can't believe we're finally here." Her blue eyes were shining and her smile was even brighter than usual.
I was just as thrilled, of course. How could I not be? Bess, George, and I were about to spend an entire week in a Costa Rican rain forest. We were part of a team of volunteers, studying tourism's effect on wildlife with three scientists from the University of River Heights. "We're going to have the most amazing week," I said as I pulled my strawberry blond hair up into a ponytail.
"Forget about this week," said George. "I'm just thrilled to finally be getting off the plane." As soon as the pilot secured the brakes, George stood up and stretched. "Who knew the trip to Corcovado National Park would take this long?"
Dan Margolis, a tall and handsome environmental scientist, must have overheard George because he kindly corrected her mistake. "Oh, we're not quite there yet."
George raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me I have to get on another plane," she cried. "This is already the third one today!"
Dan laughed as he shook his head. "No, we only have a taxi ride left."
"A taxi ride," George repeated. "That I can deal with. How far is the lodge from here?"
"It's about forty miles away," Dan explained. "But since the only way there is on a narrow, dirt road that cuts through the forest, it'll take us at least two hours."
"Two hours?" Bess asked. She and George exchanged a tired look.
I knew exactly where my friends were coming from. We'd left River Heights many hours ago, and I felt like I'd been traveling for days. Once I stepped off the plane, though, any concern I had about the additional travel time was forgotten. I'd just walked into the middle of paradise!
The deep, blue Pacific Ocean flowed gently on my right, and on my left stood a lush, tropical rain forest. Colorful birds flew overhead, and a stunning beach of soft, white sand stretched for miles down the coast. I breathed in the fresh air and basked in the warmth of the bright, buttery yellow sun. Back in River Heights it was the dead of winter, and I was thrilled to have a week-long break from the cold and snow.
As the rest of the team stepped off the plane, Bess slipped on a pair of sunglasses. "I didn't know it would be this beautiful!" she exclaimed.
Dan pointed to a nearby tree. "Look, everyone," he said. "Someone's watching us."
I glanced up and immediately gasped. Staring down at us from the highest branches of one of the tallest trees were four little monkeys. "Those are white-faced capuchins, right?" I asked.
"Good guess." Dan smiled at me. "You can tell from their coloring, of course. They're the only monkeys in the rain forest that have such distinctive white faces, necks, and chests, in contrast to their dark brown, furry bodies."
"Like a cappuccino," Bess added. "It's got the frothy, white milk on top, and the dark, brown espresso on the bottom."
"Exactly," said Dan, slipping on a pair of aviator sunglasses.
As I pulled out my binoculars to get a closer look, I realized the monkeys were climbing down to lower branches so they could get a better view of us. I'd never seen anything like it.
"I'm surprised they're not afraid of us," George commented.
The monkeys' behavior reminded me of a passage in the field guide I'd studied in preparation for our trip. "This is natural. I read that the capuchins are curious," I volunteered, "and they're much more likely to be around people than the other types of monkeys found in Costa Rica. Since squirrel monkeys are so rare, they only exist in really isolated areas. I can't imagine finding one near an airport." I smiled to myself, since the so-called airport consisted of a cement landing strip in the middle of the sand, and nothing else.
"That's true, and it's why we aren't going to be studying squirrel monkeys this week," said Dan. "I'm really impressed with your knowledge. But do you know about the other two types of monkeys that are found here?"
"Of course," I replied. I'd done a ton of reading about Costa Rican wildlife in the past few weeks. I would have mentioned the other monkeys before, but I didn't want to sound like a know-it-all. But now that Dan had asked...
"Well, there's the mantled howler monkey, which we'd be more likely to hear than see, since their voices can carry from up to a kilometer away, even in a dense rain forest like this one," I said. "And the fourth species found in Costa Rica is the spider monkey. They have long, rail-thin arms and legs, which are very useful for climbing. They're probably the fastest moving monkeys found in Central America. Apparently, to see them swing from tree to tree, you'd think they had wings!"
Dan ran his hand through his thick, blond hair. "You've certainly done your homework," he said.
"She always does," said George, raising her camera and taking a few pictures of the monkeys. "What else would you expect from the famous Nancy Drew?"
Dan's jaw dropped. "You're Nancy Drew, the detective?" he asked. "That's so wild! I've read about you in the River Heights Bugle."
As I nodded I felt my cheeks blush red. Regardless of how often I get recognized, I never get used to it. I'm probably the best-known amateur sleuth in River Heights, but it's not like I set out to earn this reputation. It seems to be the natural consequence of helping people whenever I can. While it is true that I sometimes seek mysteries out, it's also the case that there's always something fishy brewing in River Heights and just as often, mysteries have this funny way of finding me.
George pointed her camera toward Dan, and he put his arm around me as she snapped a shot.
"I'll want a copy of that one," said Dan.
George grinned, saying, "No problem."
"Careful, George," Bess called. "You're going to run out of film before we even get there."
"It's a digital camera," George replied. "Its memory can hold up to two hundred pictures."
"Of course my cousin has a digital camera," Bess said as she giggled. "I should have known!"
Dan looked back and forth between my two friends. "You two are cousins?" he asked.
He wasn't the first person to be surprised by this fact. George is tall and thin, with short, dark hair. She was decked out in her usual sporty clothes. Like all of us or, I should say, almost all of us her outfit was pretty wrinkled after a long day of travel. In contrast, Bess is shorter and curvier, with long, blond hair. Her khaki pants and pink, cotton shirt seemed as if they'd just been pressed. George looked ready for a hike, and Bess looked like she was about to pose for a magazine spread.
Just because Bess is into fashion does not mean she's a flake, though. She has this amazing mechanical mind, and can fix any type of engine or motor blindfolded and with one hand tied behind her back. It's a talent that's come in handy to me more than once when I've been on a case.
Once our baggage was unloaded from the plane, the head scientist, Parminder Patel, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted to the entire group. "Please get your packs and meet me by that large boulder. The taxis should be here momentarily."
Parminder and I had gotten to know each other that morning when we sat together on our first plane trip of the day. The pretty scientist, with shoulder-length dark hair and large brown eyes, was born in India and raised in North London. That's why she had a British accent. She moved to River Heights to head the science department at the university ten years ago. A passionate environmentalist, she was the first person to conduct research at Corcovado Ecologica.
I heaved my pack onto my back and went over to say hello.
"Hi, Nancy," said Parminder. "How are you doing?"
"Really great," I replied. "And I'm totally thrilled to be here, of course!"
When Parminder smiled at me, her entire face lit up. "Just wait until you get to the lodge. It's lovely. This is my tenth year visiting, but I can never get enough of the place. The flora and fauna will knock your socks off." Parminder motioned to an old truck that rattled toward us. Its heavy tires kicked up a huge amount of dust, which lingered in its wake like a thick storm cloud. "Splendid!" she said. "Here's the first taxi, right on schedule."
This taxi was like none I'd ever seen. It was a pickup truck with narrow wooden benches lining either side of the flatbed in back. Parminder climbed right on up, and was followed by Mary Wu, the third scientist. It was strange that I hadn't met Mary before the trip, since she was born and raised in River Heights, and her parents own my favorite Chinese restaurant. She had her father's warm and open smile, and she would have had her mother's thick, beautiful black hair, except she'd dyed hers purple. Mary was wearing ripped jeans and a black tank top that read, THE KITCHENETTES. Apparently they're some new, cutting-edge band based in Toronto. I'd never heard of them but Mary let me listen to a couple of their songs on the flight, and they'd sounded pretty good.
Four other volunteers climbed into the taxi. Their names were Stephanie, Kara, Elise, and Benita, and they all belonged to the same University of River Heights sorority, Kappa Delta Theta.
"Since we're twelve people, we'll have to split up into two groups," said Parminder. "We've room for one more in here, though."
"I'll go with Nancy," said Dan.
"Me too," Bess added. "I'd rather wait for a regular taxi, if that's okay. These open-air ones would do horrible things to my hair."
Mary giggled. "Bess, we're in the rain forest now, remember? This is a regular taxi."
"Oh," said Bess. Although momentarily stunned, she recovered quickly. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a pink silk scarf to tie around her head. When the second taxi, identical to the first, pulled up moments later, she was the first to climb in.
Dan got in after Bess, and was followed by George, then Bud and Cathy Reisling. After our introductions, I learned that Bud was a freelance photographer, and Cathy taught philosophy at the university. They'd traveled to many countries, but this was their first time in Costa Rica. Besides helping out with research, Bud planned to take lots of pictures of rain forest animals.
When George heard this, her ears pricked up. She and Bud immediately began comparing their digital cameras and various lenses.
As we traveled down the narrow dirt road, we felt every single bump. We had to duck whenever the taxi drove under low-hanging branches. And let me tell you, there were lots of bumps and even more low-hanging branches. I held on tightly to the sides of the truck as we rumbled along.
Despite the less-than-comfortable ride, it was a thrilling experience. The thick trees created a canopy, under which the air was clean and damp. Over the roar of the truck I heard mysterious chirping and humming coming from the rain forest's many wild animals. Even though we followed a clearly defined dirt road, ours were the only two vehicles driving on it. I felt as if we were miles away from civilization, exploring brand-new, uncharted territory.
After about an hour had passed, George pulled her laptop computer out of her backpack.
"What are you doing?" Bess asked, raising her voice to be heard over the low rumble of the truck's engine.
"I barely had time to install my Spanish-English translation software before we left," George explained.
"Hola means 'hello,'" Bess teased. "That was off the top of my head. I didn't need to take my computer all the way to the rain forest to know that!"
"Well, it's a good thing," George countered, pointing to Bess's things. "Because with all of the clothes you brought, you'd have no room for a computer or anything else practical in your bag!"
Bess sat up straighter. "As we all know, our research will involve hiking through the rain forest and observing and counting monkeys. I have my hiking boots and my brain. I even brought a notebook and a few pens to record data. What else do I need?"
George, the biggest technology buff I know, ticked off her list of necessities on the fingers of one hand. "A digital camera, a computer to record and organize the data, a portable global positioning system you know, a GPS so you know where you are, and if you don't have that, then a compass. I prefer digital models, though, because they're much more accurate. And I could go on."
Bess faked a yawn. "Please don't. I slept enough on the plane."
Looking back and forth between them, Dan laughed. "Are you two always like this?"
"Nah," said George, wiggling her eyebrows. "We're just getting started!"
Everyone in the taxi burst into laughter.
"Between the crazy cousins and the famous detective with the prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen I have a feeling this week is going to be fantastic," said Dan.
Suddenly feeling a little flustered, I stared down at my feet. "Most people just call me Nancy," I said softly.
"Okay, then," Dan replied. "Nancy it is."
"So, tell me more about Corcovado National Park." I was genuinely curious, but I also wanted to change the subject. "You've been here before, right?"
Dan nodded. "It's my fifth time here. I'm not a full professor yet, like Mary and Parminder I'm still finishing up my degree. These trips are part of my research. Even if it weren't for school, though, I would still come. The lodge is amazing. It's miles away from any town or village, yet it's so well run. Everyone there is very careful about respecting the environment. The lights are solar powered, and the staff recycles almost everything. And even though the place is always booked to capacity, with people visiting from all over the world, it's completely serene. The land is so vast, it's possible to go on a hike and feel like you're the only person in the universe."
"Sounds amazing," I said. "Do you think we'll spot all four types of monkeys at the park?"
"I can't say for sure," said Dan. "As you know, those squirrel monkeys are tricky. You'll definitely see the other three types during your research. And of course, there are also armadillos, butterflies, iguanas, and frogs. If you look carefully, it's possible to spot sloths. They're hard to see because, true to their name, they don't move around too much, so they blend in with the scenery. Oh how could I forget the tropical birds? They're incredible!"
I couldn't think of a more exciting way to spend a week. Once I got used to the bumpiness of the ride, I slipped into a daydream, imagining myself traipsing through the rain forest, surrounded by all types of exotic animals.
The rest of the journey passed quickly, and soon the taxi came to an abrupt halt in front of Corcovado Ecologica.
The place looked nothing like what I'd imagined. The minute I took in the scene, I felt a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was seriously wrong.
Copyright © 2004 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.