Bess’s mom is on the board of Pet Crusaders, a local rescue organization, and hosts the charity’s annual fundraising gala. Nancy, Bess, and George have attended the event ever since they were kids, and they’re excited for this year’s party, the theme of which is “A Night on a Riverboat.”
The gala will feature blackjack, roulette, and a high-stakes poker tournament, and all proceeds will go to help stray animals. But when the charity money goes missing mid-event, Nancy has to track down the thief—before the ship docks.
With three hours and over two hundred guests, Nancy faces one of her greatest mystery-solving challenges yet!
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“GEORGE, YOU’VE COUNTED THAT MONEY eight times,” my friend Bess Marvin said from the passenger seat of my car. “I promise, you have enough for the entry fee.”
“I just want to make sure,” her cousin, George Fayne, said from the backseat, where she was rifling through a large stack of twenty-dollar bills. I slowly rolled up my car window as I inched forward in rush-hour traffic. The last thing we needed was for any of George’s hard-earned money to fly out the window.
Bess gave me an exasperated look. I shrugged with a half smile. Bess knows that George gets fixated on things she’s passionate about, and there are few things George is more passionate about than poker. Her dad taught her when she was five, and now she plays every weekend with her family; she even watches the World Series of Poker on TV.
Bess is very even-keeled and doesn’t tend to become obsessed with things like games or new gadgets the way George does. In a lot of ways George and Bess are polar opposites, even though they’re incredibly close. George would wear jeans and a T-shirt every day if she could, while Bess is a bit of a fashionista. (Take tonight, for example. Bess had spent weeks looking for the perfect dress for the charity event we were attending before picking a gorgeous asymmetrical ruby-red gown, while George wore the same black pantsuit she wears to any event that requires dressing up.) George loves technology, while Bess would rather send a paper letter than an e-mail. In general, I fall between them—for instance, I didn’t buy a new dress for tonight, but I did spend a good hour going through my closet choosing which dress to wear.
When it comes to obsessive behavior, however, I’m probably closer to George. I’m an amateur detective; I solve mysteries around town, like if something goes missing or someone is being blackmailed. When I’m on a case, I can barely think about anything else.
“Okay,” George announced. “It’s confirmed that I have the entry fee.” She carefully put the money back in her wallet.
“I can’t believe how much money you were able to save,” I told George. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much cash in one place before.”
“Well, if everything goes according to plan,” Bess said, “you should see a lot more tonight. My mom told me that this event is supposed to bring in over a hundred thousand dollars.”
We were headed to the annual charity Casino Night hosted by River Heights Pet Crusaders, the animal-rescue organization for which Bess’s mom—and George’s aunt—sat on the board. We went every year and it was always fun—getting dressed up, eating fancy food, and watching the big poker tournament. However, this was the first year we were allowed to actually enter the tournament, rather than just watch it. Bess and I weren’t big poker players, but we were excited to support George.
“That’s a lot of money for Pet Crusaders!” I said to Bess. “I hope your mom is happy.”
“Yeah,” Bess replied with a smile, “it’s more than they’ve ever raised before.”
“Probably because it’s the first time they’ve gotten Brett Garner to attend,” George suggested.
I saw that Bess was trying hard not to smile. “I’m not sure Brett’s as big of a draw as you think he is, George.”
George looked at us wide-eyed. “But Brett Garner is one of the most famous poker players in the United States. He’s won the World Series of Poker twice!”
“I know he’s impressive,” I said. “I’m just not sure the average River Heights citizen knows who he is. Professional poker is still a pretty niche game.”
“If Ned were here, he’d back me up,” George grumbled. Ned Nickerson, my boyfriend, shared George’s love of poker. Unfortunately, he was out of town at his cousin’s wedding.
“I think the event is so popular because it’s on a boat this year,” I said. For the first time, the gala was being held on the Delta Queen, a refurbished riverboat that was originally built in the late 1800s. Back then, it had transported people up and down the river in luxury. It used to have a full restaurant; entertainment, including a casino floor; and dancing with live music. Now it just hosted short dinner cruises. It was well known in River Heights that Buddy Gibson, the owner and captain, had saved up for years to buy and restore the Delta Queen. His stepdad had been a riverboat captain, and Buddy had always dreamed of continuing the family tradition. It took him close to two years to get it back into working condition; there’d been a big story in the River Heights Bugle when it had finally opened. Tickets were notoriously hard to secure.
Bess grinned. “Mom was really proud when she was able to rent it. Apparently, Buddy gave her a great rate.” She leaned in to whisper, even though it was just the three of us in the car. “Seriously, my mom got him to let Pet Crusaders use it for almost nothing.”
I smiled, then glanced over and noticed Bess clenching her fist, something I knew she did only when she was stressed out. If we were using George’s poker language, it would be her “tell,” or signal, that something was wrong.
“Are you nervous, Bess?” I asked.
“A little,” she replied. “It’s just that my mom has been working so hard on this event that I want it to go perfectly. Margot, the head of Pet Crusaders, is really high-strung. She’s been flying off the handle if anything is even slightly off. The other night I saw my mom crying; Margot yelled at her because the caterers were going to switch green olives for black olives on one of the appetizers.”
“I’ve seen Margot at the galas, but she’s always rushing around, so I’ve never actually met her. But now I have to meet her to tell her not to mess with my aunt,” George muttered.
Bess looked up at her in alarm. “Don’t say that! Margot’s going about it the wrong way, but I understand why she’s putting so much pressure on this event. She’s going to use the money to open a second no-kill shelter in River Heights. That’s twice the number of dogs and cats that will be saved every year.”
George looked chagrined. “Great! Now I sound like a heartless monster.”
We pulled into the parking lot, hopped out of the car, and headed to the boarding area. Well-dressed couples ambled about, slowly making their way toward the bright white boat. The light from the setting sun reflected off the vessel’s surface. Each deck of the three-story riverboat looked almost like an elongated tier of a wedding cake. My favorite detail was the carved railings around each deck that from a distance looked like lace. At the front, large steam pipes proudly stood tall, and a red paddle wheel was at the boat’s rear. It looked both delicate and strong.
Bess led us through the maze of cars, scanning the parking lot for her mother.
“It looks like a good turnout,” I noted.
All of a sudden, a voice called out, “Bess! Over here!”
We turned to see Bess’s mom waving at us and hurried over to her.
“I’m so glad you girls could make it,” Mrs. Marvin said.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” I said.
“There’s no way I would skip out on seeing Brett Garner,” George said enthusiastically.
“Or any event that supports the lives of animals,” I added.
“We got our cat, Joey, from Pet Crusaders, and he’s the best,” George agreed.
“So how’s it going so far, Mom?” Bess asked.
“Oh, well, you know Margot. There was a lot of drama getting everything ready this afternoon, but once we shove off, I’m sure it will be fine.”
Mrs. Marvin led us up the metal boarding ramp. I was about to hand my ticket to the usher when a tall woman with short red hair came marching toward me. Her hair was pushed back so it looked like flames coming off her head. As she tore down the ramp, her black shawl billowing behind her, she reminded me of a picture of an evil faerie I’d seen in a book of Irish mythology. I found myself taking a step back, my hands reaching instinctively for my friends.
“You,” she said with a hiss, “are not allowed on this boat.”