Passport To Danger – First Chapter

Chapter 1

“Nancy stop a second, okay? I want to take a picture of you.” Bess Marvin propped her sun glasses on top of her head, holding back her long blond hair. “Over there, so I can get that church in the background.”

Nancy Drew grinned as she stood where Bess indicated. “Bess, we’ve only been in San Miguel de Allende for an hour, and already you’ve taken a whole roll of pictures.”

“I can’t help it. This place is gorgeous!” Bess snapped the picture, then flipped her sunglasses back down over her blue eyes. “Anyway, I promised George I’d take a lot, since she couldn’t come to Mexico with us.”

“It’s too bad she came down with the flu,” Nancy said. “I know she’d love it here.”

She and Bess had paused at one side of the town’s central square, which Nancy had learned was called el Jardin. It was dotted with carefully trimmed Indian laurel trees, and locals and tourists alike lounged on benches m the shade to escape the hot June sunshine. Around the square were hilly cobbled streets lined with stucco houses partially hidden by high walls. Bright purple bougainvillea and azaleas peeked over the walls, and the air was rich with the aroma of flowers and lemon trees.

“This is such a romantic place,” Bess gushed. “I bet you wish Ned could be here.”

Just the mention of her boyfriend’s name made Nancy’s heart skip a beat. “It would be nice,” she admitted. “But he’s got his summer job at the insurance company. Anyway, it’s not as if this is a pleasure trip.”

She suddenly remembered the three people who were waiting a few feet away. “Oh! I was so busy looking around that I almost forgot about the Obermans.”

Helen and David Oberman had been friends of Nancy’s aunt Eloise in New York City before they moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to open an art school seven years earlier. Nancy didn’t know much about them or their nineteen-year-old daughter, Claire. All Eloise had said was that there was some sort of trouble at the art school and the Obermans needed Nancy’s help.

“Sorry,” Nancy said, hurrying over to the Obermans. “I’m afraid Bess and I are being hopeless tourists. All we’ve done so far is shop and go sightseeing.”

Mrs. Oberman was a tall, slender woman in her forties. Her brown hair was cut short in a no-nonsense style that suited her tan shorts and white sleeveless blouse. “Don’t be silly,” she said with a warm smile. “We love to show off San Miguel. And as for shopping” — she pointed to the woven leather sandals Bess and Nancy had both bought in San Miguel’s open-air market — “it’s important to have comfortable shoes on these cobbled streets. Those huaraches are perfect.”

“We’re proud of San Miguel’s beauty,” Mr. Oberman added. He was the same height as his wife but stockier, with unruly russet hair and metal-framed glasses. “That’s the main reason we decided to open our art school here. San Miguel was founded in the fifteen hundreds and was built up as a supply center for the silver mines in this area. A lot of wealthy mine owners built lavish homes here.” He gestured to the elegant pink stone building complete with wrought-iron balconies across the street. “That was originally the mansion of one of them.”

Claire rolled her bright green eyes. “Dad can’t help making a lesson out of everything.” she said, shaking her head. Her curly red hair bounced around her face. “But don’t worry, I’ll show you the fun things. We’re going dancing tonight with Luis and — “

“Luis?” Mr. Oberman cut in, stiffening. “You know how your mother and I feel about him.”

Claire shot him an icy glare. “You’ve made yourselves perfectly clear, but if you think — “

“Let’s talk about this later,” Mrs. Oberman cut in with an embarrassed glance at Nancy and Bess.

Nancy could tell Bess felt as uncomfortable as she did. To change the subject, she said, “Maybe you could tell us more about why you wanted our help.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Oberman said gratefully. “I’m sure Eloise told you how hard we’ve worked to build up the Instituto San Miguel,” she began. “We are open to both American students and students from the university at Guanajuato, the main city in the area. In fact, the institute is the largest English-speaking art school in Latin America.”

“That’s something to be proud of,” Bess said.

“We are,” Mr. Oberman said. “I just hope what’s happening now doesn’t ruin all the work we’ve put into the institute.”

Mr. Oberman glanced around el Jardin to make sure no one was within hearing distance. Moving a nearby bench, he gestured for the others to sit down while he paced in front of it. “A few days ago a janitor came to me with something he found behind a potted plant in the institute’s cantina.”

“What was it?” Nancy asked.

Mr. Oberman pulled a small card from his wallet and held it out for Nancy and Bess to see. Nancy took it and scrutinized it. The card was pale pink, with a blue heading that read Resident Alien, United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Services. At the bottom of the card was a small white circle with a blue eagle inside it.

“This is what most people call a green card — it’s what foreigners need to live and work legally in the U.S.,” Mr. Oberman explained. “The janitor found a pile of about a hundred of them.”

“Actually, David and I are pretty sure they’re fake green cards,” Mrs. Oberman corrected. “We compared it to the valid green card of a friend of ours, and the colors were just different enough for us to think these cards were printed by forgers.”

Nancy raised her eyes. “And you think someone is selling these to people who want to live and work in the States but can’t do it legally?”

Mr. Oberman nodded. “Right. All they have to do is include a picture, a thumbprint, and their name and birth date. With a valid green card, a foreigner can enter and leave the U.S. as many times as he wants. Plus, he can work there legally. People will pay a thousand dollars or more for that chance.”

“A hundred cards at, say, a thousand dollars apiece…” Nancy let out a whistle. “We’re talking about a hundred thousand dollars!” She looked at the card one more time, then handed it to Mr. Oberman, who put it back in his wallet.

“At least. Helping people enter the States illegally is big business,” Mrs. Oberman said. “Apart from buying phony papers, people will pay hundreds of dollars to a ‘coyote’ — a person who helps smuggle illegal aliens across the border. Every year thousands of people from Mexico and South America try to make the trip.”

“Wow!” Bess exclaimed. “I guess they think it’s worth it if they can make better lives for themselves.”

“Yes. But unfortunately, many coyotes are more concerned with making money than with the welfare of the people who pay them,” Mrs. Oberman said. “David and I have heard dozens of stories of people who were deserted along the route or led right into the arms of the border patrol.”

“That’s disgusting,” Bess said.

“What’s worse,” Mr. Oberman said, “is that there’s a good chance someone at the institute is involved. There’s no shortage of artists who are talented enough to create a convincing fake. Plus, the blank cards were found on the institute grounds.”

“You can understand why we’re so upset,” Mrs. Oberman added. “If it turns out that someone at the school is involved, the publicity would be very bad for enrollment. Hundreds of American students, including Claire, come here for summer school and transfer the credits they earn to their universities in the States.”

Mrs. Oberman smiled at her daughter, but Claire didn’t seem to notice. “Mom and Dad have made a great school,” Claire said, leaning forward on the bench. “Too bad they’re living in the Dark Ages when it comes to dating — “

“Claire — ” Mr. Oberman began, but his wife put a hand on his arm to silence him. Then she continued speaking.

“Every year a panel of experts from Mexico and the U.S. visit to make sure the institute meets the academic requirements of both countries.” She shook her head ruefully. “It’s just our luck that this year’s panel is to arrive next Tuesday.”

“That’s only five days from now!” Bess exclaimed. “It would be terrible if the school’s reputation was ruined because of one person.”

Mr. Oberman nodded. “That’s why we came to you instead of contacting the police. I just hope you can find the culprit and resolve the situation quickly and quietly before the panel arrives and we have to contact the authorities.”

“I’ll do my best,” Nancy promised. “Is there anyone you suspect?”

Mr. and Mrs. Oberman shared a quick glance. “We don’t have any solid leads,” Mr. Oberman said. “The only person we can think of is Maria Sandoval. About three months ago she took over running the cantina where the blank green cards were found. We thought someone who printed the cards might be using the cantina as a drop-off place. Maria hasn’t done anything overtly suspicious, but — “

“She could be involved,” Nancy finished. “I think we’d better start our investigation there.”

Mr. Oberman glanced at his watch and sighed. “Good. Helen and I have a meeting now, but well see you back at our house for dinner.”

“‘Bye,” Mrs. Oberman said, getting to her feet. “And thanks for everything, girls.”

After Mr. and Mrs. Oberman left, Claire let out a huge sigh and turned to Nancy and Bess. “I thought they’d never leave!” she burst out. “As you probably noticed, Mom and Dad and I aren’t exactly getting along.”

Nancy just stared at Claire. She didn’t seem to care at all about the fake green cards or the impact the crime could have on her parents’ art school. “Umm,” Nancy said hesitantly, “It was hard not to notice.”

“The problem is that they totally hate my boyfriend, Luis,” Claire said. “I finally meet a guy I’m crazy about, and they tell me they don’t want me to go out with him! I mean, I feel awful about what they’re going through, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to tell me how to run my life.”

Bess nodded sympathetically. “Did they say why they don’t want you to date Luis?”

“They think I’m too young to be seriously involved. But I’m almost twenty, and if I want to keep on seeing Luis, I will.” Claire’s green eyes flashed with determination as she added, “In fact, we’re even thinking of getting married.”

“Wow! That’s so romantic,” Bess said.

“We’ve been dating for a month, ever since I got to San Miguel for summer vacation,” Claire explained, her expression softening. “My parents don’t think I should be so serious about him after so little time, but I know how I feel. The second I met Luis I knew we were meant for each other. You two can see for yourselves how great he is when you meet him tonight.”

“I can’t wait,” Nancy said warmly.

“Too bad my parents aren’t as enthusiastic about Luis as you two are,” Claire said, frowning again.

In one way Nancy could understand how Claire felt. Nancy didn’t know what she’d do if her father ever forbade her to see Ned. But a month didn’t seem like much time to get to know someone. She didn’t feel she knew Claire well enough to comment on it, though. “Maybe they’ll ease up as they get to know Luis.”

Then, changing the subject, she asked, “Do you think we could go to the cantina now?”

“Good idea,” Bess agreed. “It’s three-thirty, and I’m starving!”

Claire nodded. “I have my figure-drawing class at four, but I can show you where it is first,” she said. “The cantina has great tacos. And you should definitely try a banana-mango licuado. It’s kind of like a milkshake without ice cream.”

Nancy and Bess followed Claire down one of the cobbled streets curving away from el Jardin. Nancy noticed the heavy wooden doors of the buildings they passed. All the doors had brass knockers. Over the tops of high garden walls, she caught glimpses of colorful, exotic flowers.

“Here’s the institute,” Claire announced ten minutes later, turning left into a wide, open door way. “This property used to belong to one of those silver barons my dad was talking about. There are four different courtyards and about a dozen connecting buildings.”

As soon as she turned into the entrance, Nancy fell in love with the Instituto San Miguel. The open courtyard was filled with flowers and greenery and flanked by elegant pink stone buildings. Through open windows, she could see students in classrooms.

“This place makes me want to take up painting immediately,” Bess said. “It’s beautiful!”

“That’s the idea,” Claire said. “Mom and Dad wanted the institute to be a school that would inspire creativity.”

“I’d say they’ve done a pretty good job,” Nancy commented as she followed Claire across the court yard and around the side of another building. When they came to a second courtyard, Nancy and Bess stopped short.

“Oh! This is charming!” Bess exclaimed.

The courtyard was edged by a long arcade, adjoining the surrounding buildings. In the middle of the courtyard was a reflecting pool. A geometric metal sculpture had been installed at the pool’s center. Lemon trees and ferns gave the courtyard a cool, shady feel and provided some privacy for the wrought-iron tables scattered about. Groups of students sat or stood around, eating, drinking, and talking.

The girls found a table by the arcade. As she sat down, Nancy’s gaze was drawn to a part of the long arched building that had been closed off to form a kitchen and ordering counter. She noticed a short, middle-aged, heavyset woman behind the counter. Her graying black braids were twisted into a knot at the back of her head.

“Is that Maria Sandoval?” Nancy asked Claire. Claire nodded. “That’s her. Listen, I have to get to class, but I’ll meet you two back here when it’s over. Good luck!”

“I’m starving,” Bess said, grabbing the plastic-coated menu that was stuck in a holder behind the salt, pepper, and hot sauce. “I think I’ll have some tacos de pollo and one of those licuados Claire was talking about. How about you, Nan?”

Nancy turned her attention to the menu. “Hmm. Maybe I’ll try one of these local specialties. The sopa azteca sounds good — tortilla soup with avocado and cheese — “

A deep, throaty man’s voice coming from the covered arcade caught Nancy’s attention. “Cuando puedo tener la tarjeta de residencia para los Estados Unidos?”

“Tarjeta,” Nancy echoed, frowning. “That’s Spanish for ‘card.’ Bess, he’s talking about getting a card for living in the U.S.!”

“What?” Bess asked.

Nancy was too busy listening to the man to answer. “Sí. La fuente en el parque Benito Juarez esta noche, a la medianoche. Está bien.”

“Bess, I think I just overheard someone making arrangements to buy a green card!”

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