While on vacation in Oregon, Chris and Sean encounter a meat-locker mystery
Piney Point is one of the most beautiful places Sean and Brian Quinn have ever seen, but as far as Brian is concerned, it's not half as pretty as Jennifer Hicks. And getting to know the hotel manager's daughter while his younger brother goofs off in the pool sounds like the perfect vacation. But when a string of thefts upset Brian's new friend, vacation is over, and the Casebusters spring into action. Large amounts of expensive meat have been disappearing from the Piney Point kitchens, and Jennifer's dad can't figure out who's the thief. Could it be the bellhop? The chef? Or even the security manager? Brian and Sean had better figure it out quickly, or they'll end up just like the missing steaks—dead meat!
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Check in to Danger
By Joan Lowery Nixon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Joan Lowery Nixon
All rights reserved.
When Brian Quinn climbed out of the swimming pool at the Piney Point Resort Hotel, Jennifer Hicks smiled sweetly and held out an ice-cream cone. "Here," she said. "It's on the house. That's the good side of my dad's job as manager of the Piney Point."
"Good side?" Brian said. "I hope there aren't any bad sides to the job."
He sat down next to Jennifer Hicks in one of the lounge chairs at the side of the pool and took a mouthful of the ice cream, which was melting fast. Jennifer, like Brian, was thirteen; he liked her big blue eyes and her friendly smile. He had met her earlier that afternoon. She had been standing in the lobby when he and his mom and his nine-year-old brother, Sean, had checked into the hotel. It didn't take long for Brian to introduce himself.
"Well," Jennifer said, "it's kind of strange living in a hotel with people all around, instead of in a house. But most of the time that's okay. It's just that ..."
She hesitated, and Brian said, "It's just what?"
"Well, sometimes the hotel has ... problems. In February the main heating unit broke down and a convention group got out of hand and started smashing things. Dad always handles the problems, but it upsets him, and that makes Mom unhappy." Jennifer sighed. "Now there's a problem Dad can't fix, and it's been going on for more than three months."
"That's terrible," Brian said. Jennifer looked so concerned, Brian took her hand to comfort her. That's when he realized that his hand was sticky with melted ice cream. "Oops," he muttered, and blushed. He pulled his hand away quickly and wiped it on his wet bathing suit. "Uh, what kind of problem is it?" he asked, hoping Jennifer hadn't noticed the sticky mess.
"Thefts from the hotel's kitchen," Jennifer answered, "but not from hotel guests. We're sure that the thief has to be someone who works at the hotel or has access to it, because the thefts have been going on for so long."
"The police are on the case, aren't they?" asked Brian.
Jennifer shook her head. "The hotel has a security chief," she said. "His name is Mr. Otis. But we don't have a police department out here. The nearest town is about five miles away, and it has a sheriff. Each time there's been a theft, he's come out to investigate, but so far he hasn't been able to discover who the thief is. Mr. Otis hasn't had any luck, either."
At that point Sean climbed out of the pool and rubbed his dripping hair with a towel. "Hi, Jennifer," he said, but he laughed when he looked at his brother. "You're wearing an ice-cream mustache, Brian. Here. Have a wet towel." He flipped his towel at Brian.
Brian's face grew hot with embarrassment, but he caught the edge of the towel, jerked it away from Sean, and wiped off his face and hands. "Little brothers can be real pests," Brian mumbled.
"Not Sean," Jennifer said sweetly. "I think he's cute."
"Cute?" Brian grinned wickedly at his brother. "Yeah, maybe he is kind of cute."
"Cut it out!" Sean muttered.
"Sorry, Sean," Jennifer said. "I was just teasing."
But Brian said, "Maybe I can help solve the problem of your hotel thefts, Jennifer. I'm not a licensed private investigator yet, like my dad, but I've solved a lot of important cases."
Sean threw him a sharp look, so Brian quickly added, "With some help from Sean."
Jennifer perked up. "Your dad's a private investigator?"
"Yes," said Brian, "but he's not here. He's working on a case back home in Redoaks, California. Mom's on the committee putting on the artists convention that's here all week, so she brought Sean and me with her."
No doubt about it, Brian thought, the Piney Point Resort Hotel was a great place for a relaxing vacation. The sun shone bright and warm, and the Oregon air was crisp and fresh and carried the scent of the ocean, which lay just beyond a row of hills.
But this was a case he and Sean might be able to solve on their own. What could be better? he thought. I want to try, Brian decided. Besides, it looked like Jennifer really needed his help.
"How about it, Jennifer? Will you give us a chance to solve the case?"CHAPTER 2
"We're on vacation, Brian, remember?" Sean complained. "And this case sounds like it could involve a lot of hard work."
Brian tried to look solemn. "I don't mind all the hard work, if it will help Jennifer," he said.
Sean made a gagging face and rolled his eyes.
Jennifer raised an eyebrow. "Brian, do you really, honestly think you can solve a case that the authorities haven't been able to solve?"
"We've done it before," Brian said.
Jennifer glanced at Sean. "Is Brian kidding, or is what he says really true?"
"Brian's telling the truth," Sean said. "We've helped my dad on some of his most difficult cases. We broke up a gang of burglars, and we even caught a guy pretending to be Bigfoot."
"Neat," said Jennifer.
Sean laughed. "Besides, Jennifer, if Brian wants us to work on your case, there's no way you're going to be able to talk him out of it."
Jennifer's eyes sparkled. "If you take the case, can I help?"
"Are you hiring us?" Brian asked.
"How much will it cost?"
Sean gave a bounce. "How about a thousand dollars?"
"No charge," Brian said. "We'll be glad to do what we can."
"You're hired!" Jennifer said.
Brian smiled. "Then okay. You can help us."
"I don't think she should, Brian," Sean blurted out. "She's not an experienced investigator, like us." Girls, Sean thought. Yuck! Then he made a face at Brian.
Brian ignored him. "Just one thing, Jennifer. Grown-ups think that kids don't know what they're doing. So if you tell your parents, they might keep us from investigating. We'll have to keep the case strictly between the three of us. Okay?"
"Okay," Jennifer said.
"We'll change clothes and meet you at that garden behind the hotel in fifteen minutes," Brian told her.
By the time Brian and Sean changed and returned, Jennifer had already settled on a bench in a shady spot under a tree. She greeted them eagerly.
From a pocket in his shorts, Brian pulled out the notebook and pen he always carried with him. "Okay," he said to Jennifer. "Let's get some basic information. What kinds of things have been stolen?"
"Meat," she said.
"You mean like hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff?" Sean asked.
"No," Jennifer said. "I'm talking about huge and very expensive roasts and hams and packages of steaks. It's like the thief keeps getting more and more greedy and more sure he'll get away with it."
"Well, we know one thing for sure," said Sean. "The thief is definitely not a vegetarian!"
Brian frowned. "Be serious, Sean."
"Okay," he said. Boy, Sean thought, Brian was turning into such a grouch! And all on account of Jennifer Hicks. "I don't get it," Sean said. "Why would anybody want to steal so much meat?"
"To sell it," Brian answered. "Isn't that right?" he asked Jennifer.
Jennifer nodded. "And, as I said before, the thief is probably someone who works at the hotel."
"I'm guessing that the thief is reselling the meat to another hotel," added Brian. Jennifer nodded again.
"Do the people who work at the hotel live here?" Sean asked.
Jennifer shook her head. "No. Only Dad, Mom, and me. We have an apartment on the second floor, but most of the other employees live in town."
Sean jumped to his feet. "Solving this case is going to be easy," he said excitedly. "All we have to do is watch the employees when they leave, and if one of them is carrying a big package, we can open it." He waved his arms. "Ta-da! And find a ham!"
"You're the ham," Brian said. "Sit down and stop jumping around."
"Sorry, Sean," Jennifer said, "but your idea won't work."
Sean plopped onto the bench. "Why not?" he asked.
"The hotel has an electronic security system and four security guards," Jennifer explained. "Every single one of the employees, including the guards, must check in and out at a desk by a special door and pass through a metal detector."
"Meat wouldn't set off a metal detector," said Sean.
"You're right," said Jennifer. "But it would be very bulky, and everything an employee takes out of the hotel is examined."
"Everything?" asked Brian. "What about bags and purses?"
Jennifer nodded. "All purses have to be made of clear plastic so that the contents can be seen. The security check was the sheriff's idea because a lot of big hotels—even department stores—use it. But it hasn't helped a bit in stopping the thefts or finding the thief."
She sighed. "Our hotel's chief of security, Mr. Otis, is going crazy because even though he keeps someone on his staff in and around the kitchen area, he can't find out who's stealing the meat or how it's being taken out of the hotel."
"Good surveillance," Brian said, and made a note. "Tell me, what's the sheriff been doing?"
"He went over the personnel files with Dad, took some fingerprints from the meat lockers, questioned some of the employees, and checked records. He comes out every time Dad calls him about another theft, but he can't figure out what the thief's doing, either."
"It's called the MO," Brian said, and explained. "Modus operandi. It means the thief's method of operation."
"Wow!" Jennifer said. "You sound so professional, Brian."
Sean made another gagging face, but Brian ignored him. "I may have the answer to part of the problem," he said. "I remember that Dad once told me about a hotel where food was being stolen from the kitchen. Two employees were wrapping up big roasts and hams and throwing them out with the day's garbage into the trash bins outside. Then when they left, late at night, they'd pull their food packages out of the trash and drive off with them. They sold the meat to a restaurant owner who was more interested in getting a good bargain than in being honest." Brian smiled importantly at Jennifer. "What we need to do is keep watch tonight near the trash bins."
"I'm sorry, Brian, but that idea won't work, either," Jennifer told him. "Meat thefts have been done that way so often, it's the first thing Mr. Otis looked for."
Sean grinned smugly as Brian stopped looking so important. "Any more questions?" Sean asked.
Brian scowled at him, then turned back to Jennifer. "Do you know what time of day or night the thefts take place?"
"No," she said, "but when one of the cooks notices that something is missing, it's always been during the daytime, never at night."
Brian made another note. "How many people are employed at the Piney Point?" he asked.
"Almost two hundred," Jennifer answered.
"Two hundred!" Sean groaned. "Brian, if we investigate all of them, we'll never have time to go swimming!"
Brian shook his head. "We only need to investigate the people who have access to the kitchen," he said. "Jennifer, besides the hotel employees, who else can get into the kitchen?"
"The people who deliver the food each morning," she answered, "but the sheriff told Dad he didn't see how they could be involved. The meat deliveries are checked to make sure everything in the order is there. The delivery men leave, and the order is double-checked as it's put into the refrigerated meat lockers."
"What about the hotel staff the sheriff questioned?" Brian asked. "Is there any way we can find out their names and why he questioned them?"
Jennifer nodded. "Dad was with the sheriff, and he talked about the interviews with Mom at dinnertime, so I heard it all, too. There's Caesar, the head chef. He had an argument with immigration authorities about his official papers. Immigration suspects that some of Caesar's papers are forged, but it takes a long time to trace records."
"That's very interesting," Brian said. "But that information alone doesn't explain why he would steal meat. We'll have to keep looking." He continued making notes. "Okay," he said finally. "Who's next?"
"Edna Marker," Jennifer said. "She's the daytime hostess for the coffee shop. A few years ago she served a prison sentence for burglary."
Brian looked up, excited. "You're kidding!" he said.
"No, I'm not," Jennifer insisted.
"If she's a burglar," Sean asked, "why would your dad have hired her?"
"It's a second chance kind of thing," Jennifer explained. "Hotels that hire people who have served their sentences or have been paroled get a federal tax break. A few of our other employees are in that program, too."
"Like who?" Brian asked.
"One of the bellmen, a gardener, and a housekeeper, but they wouldn't have an excuse to be in the kitchen area."
"No waiters or cooks or busboys?" asked Brian.
"Yes," Jennifer said. "There was a cook, too, but he quit at least three months ago."
Brian frowned. "Dad always starts his investigations with a computer search. The personnel files are probably on computer. Is there any way we could see them?"
"That's private information," Jennifer said, shaking her head. "We'd never be able to get to them."
"Could you at least make a list of the people the sheriff interrogated?" Brian asked.
"Sure," Jennifer answered. "When the sheriff asked for one, Dad printed out a list of employees who work in the kitchen and restaurants. He has a copy in one of his desk drawers."
"That makes it easy," Sean said.
Jennifer got to her feet and brushed some grass off her shorts. She looked worried. "It's only going to be easy," Jennifer said, "if Dad isn't in his office."CHAPTER 3
As Brian, Sean, and Jennifer walked through the main lobby, they had to weave their way through a crowd of guests waiting to take the hotel van to the airport.
A couple suddenly cut in front of Sean, who was trailing behind Brian and Jennifer. Sean sidestepped to avoid them, lost his balance, and fell over a suitcase. "Oompf!" he grunted.
"Careful!" a voice said.
Sean looked up at a tall young man with dark hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in a hotel uniform.
"I'm sorry," blurted Sean, jumping to his feet. He was afraid the man would blame him for knocking down the suitcase. He took a quick look at the large dark brown leather suitcase. It looked like a million other pieces of luggage, Sean thought, except for a deep scratch across a top corner.
"Oh no," Sean groaned. "I didn't make that scratch," he protested. "It was already there."
The man smiled and put a friendly hand on Sean's shoulder. "It's okay," the man said as he picked up the suitcase. "Help me get all this luggage into the van," he told a bellman. "I'll be leaving for the airport in a few minutes."
Sean sighed with relief as Jennifer led Brian and Sean down the corridor toward the elevators. "That suitcase was already scratched," Sean said. "Honest. There was a deep scratch across one of the top corners. It wasn't my fault."
"Nobody blames you," Jennifer said. "Jed didn't." Sean looked puzzled, and she explained. "That was Jed Anderson. He drives the hotel van."
Jennifer turned down one hallway, then another, and finally reached the door that led to the hotel's business offices. Inside, a middle-aged woman was seated at a desk. She smiled when she saw Jennifer.
"Hi, Martha." Jennifer introduced Brian and Sean. "Martha Wood is Dad's secretary," Jennifer said. She turned to Martha. "Is Dad in his office?"
Martha shook her head. "No, dear. He was called to the dining room. Is there something I can do for you?"
"It's okay," Jennifer said. "There's something I need in Dad's office, but I know where it is. I can get it myself."
With Brian and Sean right behind her, Jennifer opened a door and walked across the large room to her father's desk.
"Shut the door," she whispered to Sean.
Jennifer quickly found what she wanted. "Here," she said as she held out some sheets of paper to Brian. "This is the short list of employees with their names and addresses."
Brian looked through the sheets. "There are some check marks by a few of the names. Do you know what they mean?"
Jennifer leaned over Brian's shoulder. "Blanca?" she wondered, reading the first name on the list. "I know Blanca. She was one of the cooks, but she quit and moved to California. I remember that the sheriff questioned her. Maybe Dad put the checks by the names of people the sheriff questioned."
Brian quickly thumbed through the pages, writing down seven names, then handed the pages back to Jennifer.
She was in the process of putting the report away when the door opened. Startled, Jennifer looked up and said, "Oh! Hi, Martha."
Excerpted from Check in to Danger by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 1995 Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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