“Why are we picking up Bess so early? I thought she worked until five on Saturdays,” George Fayne asked her friend Nancy Drew.
Nancy skillfully eased her blue Mustang into a narrow space in the Riverside Hospital parking lot. “Bess has to leave early to go to a meeting,” Nancy explained as she got out and closed the car door. Her reddish blond hair brushed the collar of her turquoise pullover. “And she said she wanted to talk to us first.”
“Oh, no,” George groaned, unfolding her tall body out of the car. “Not one of Bess’s goofy projects.” Sliding her sunglasses on top of her head, she followed Nancy up the hospital steps.
The sharp smell of hospital disinfectant filled their noses as they walked across the large, brightly decorated reception area. “Where is the volunteer office, please?” Nancy asked the man who sat at the information desk.
“Just follow the blue line,” he said, pointing down over the side of the desk. Stripes of blue, red, yellow, and green were painted on the floor, each one leading to a different wing of the hospital.
Nancy and George followed the blue stripe to the North Wing. Noticing a door marked Volunteer Office, Nancy pushed it open.
“Great! You found me.” Bess Marvin jumped up from her chair, her long straw blond hair bouncing.
Over her pale yellow dress she wore a long pink- and white-striped tunic with full sleeves pushed up to her elbows. Nancy recognized the tunic as the uniform of the candy stripers, a group of teenage boys and girls who donated several hours each week to help at the hospital.
Candy stripers delivered flowers and mail, assisted patients who needed help eating, and played with the children in the pediatric wards. Once in a while, they got to rock the newborn babies — one of Bess’s favorite duties.
“Quick, let’s go,” Bess said. She darted past Nancy and George and bustled out the door. “Maria’s waiting.”
“Who’s Maria?” George asked, hurrying along with Bess. Although the two girls were cousins, they were total opposites — George was dark-haired, slim, and athletic, while Bess was blond and ever so slightly plump.
“She’s a new friend I met here,” Bess answered. “I’ve been trying to cheer her up — she’s been kind of moody lately. I don’t know what’s bothering her. Nancy, you’re the detective — maybe you can find out.”
The girls followed Bess down the hall and around the corner to a small lunchroom that was equipped with a refrigerator, vending machines, two microwave ovens, and chairs and tables.
Bess headed for a window table, where a pretty, dark-haired girl was sitting. She smiled warmly when she saw Bess.
Bess quickly introduced the girls to one another. “I see you’re a candy striper, too,” Nancy said to Maria, nodding at the girl’s striped top.
“Yes. It was sort of expected of me, but I do love it,” Maria said, her dark brown eyes lighting up.
“Maria’s father is Dr. Armando Diaz,” Bess explained. “He’s one of the most important doctors here at Riverside.”
“Shhh, Bess,” Maria said, looking around. “I told you, we don’t need to broadcast that. I don’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else at work.”
On the table in front of Maria sat a half-eaten slice of apple pie. George eyed it hungrily. “That looks good. Where’d you get it?” she asked Maria.
“From the machines,” Maria said, pointing.
George dug into her pocket for some coins and headed for the vending machine. “Can I get you anything, Nancy? Bess?”
“Sure, I’ll have a piece,” Nancy replied, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
“None for me,” Bess called over to George. “It’ll be swimsuit weather in less than a month, and I have to lose five pounds by then.”
“But, Bess, you didn’t have any lunch today,” Maria reminded her, looking concerned. “You shouldn’t starve yourself. That’s not a healthy way to lose weight.”
“If you really want to lose weight, why don’t you start exercising a little?” George remarked, returning to the table with two plates of pie.
“That’s easy for you to say — you like sports,” Bess complained.
Nancy heard the hurt in Bess’s voice and decided to change the subject. “So what did you want to talk about?” she asked Bess gently.
Bess’s mood changed almost instantly. “This is so exciting, I know you’ll want to do it.”
“We will?” George said. “Do what?”
“Be a Heartliner hostess!” Bess announced. “Tell them, Maria.”
“As you probably know, the Heartliner is docking tomorrow in River Heights,” Maria began.
“Oh, yes,” Nancy said. “I’ve been reading the articles about it in the paper. It’s not often that a medical missionary ship comes to town.”
“The ship sails to Central and South America twice a year, staying three months each trip,” Maria explained. “She takes medical supplies and doctors and nurses to areas that don’t have any medical help at all otherwise.”
“It’s wonderful!” Bess chimed in. “They help all these people, especially little children. It’s like a real hospital, only on a ship.”
“My dad is chief of staff during the ship’s tours,” Maria said, “and it was his idea to bring the Heartliner here. The people of River Heights have donated lots of money over the years. Now they’ll be able to see her for themselves.”
“What’s a Heartliner hostess?” Nancy asked.
“While the ship is here, several schools will take field trips on board,” Maria said.
“The kids will love it!” Bess interrupted. “They’ll really get to see how a hospital works.”
“Heartliner staff members will give eye tests and hearing tests to the students and demonstrate medical procedures,” Maria went on quietly. “They’ll show how the different wards and clinics on ship operate — that sort of thing.”
Nancy noticed that Maria seemed distracted and a little sad as she talked, even though she appeared to be genuinely interested in the ship and proud of her father’s role on it.
“The hostesses and hosts will help lead the students around, give tours, and help with demonstrations,” Bess broke in enthusiastically. “All of us candy stripers were asked to be hostesses and hosts, but two girls had to bow out this morning, so we want you to fill in for them. Oh, please say you’ll do it! It will be so much fun — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“You don’t have to sell me,” Nancy said. “It sounds wonderful. I’d love to.”
“Me, too,” George said, licking her fork.
“Oh, good.” Bess sighed with relief. “Because I already signed you up. So hurry up and finish that stupid pie — we’re all due at a meeting at Maria’s house in twenty minutes!”
“Bess!” Nancy protested, gulping down a bite.
Twenty minutes later Nancy swung her car around a curve heading to the Diazes’ house. “Turn left at the next stop sign,” Maria instructed her from the front passenger seat.
“Who’ll be at this meeting?” George asked from the backseat.
“There are eight hostesses and six hosts. Oh, and the Diazes, of course,” said Bess, seated beside George. “Nancy, your dad may know Maria’s mother — she’s a lawyer, just like he is.”
“Mr. Clayton will probably be there,” Maria added. “He’s the chairman of the Heartliner‘s board of directors.”
“Will Sara Lawson be there, Maria?” Bess asked with dread in her voice.
“Who’s she?” Nancy asked.
“She’s director of the Heartliner nursing staff,” Maria explained. “And when the ship is docked, she supervises the candy stripers.”
“I’ve only had to deal with her a couple of times, but that was enough.” Bess shivered. “She’s famous for her mean temper. All the candy stripers are afraid of her.”
“Hmmm,” George muttered. “I can’t wait.”
“And Pepe Morales will be there!” Bess added. Nancy could hear her friend’s mood brighten instantly.
“I read about him in one of the newspaper articles,” Nancy said. “The boy from Argentina?”
“Right,” Bess said, grinning. “He almost died from some sort of fever, and the staff of the Heartliner saved his life. Now he’s coming to live with the Diazes so he can go to Riverview College and study to be a doctor. I saw his photo — he’s really cute. Aren’t you excited, Maria?”
Maria looked out of the window at the passing lawns and houses. “I guess so,” she said in a distant tone of voice.
Nancy caught Bess’s eye in her rearview mirror. Bess’s pointed gaze clearly said, See what I mean? Nancy nodded briefly, wondering to herself what was bothering Bess’s new friend.
The drive leading to the Diaz home was lined with crab apple trees in full flower. Nancy pulled into the parking area at the side of the large, grand Tudor-style house.
Mrs. Diaz, a petite woman in a red suit, met the girls at the door. “The meeting hasn’t started yet,” she said, “because we’re waiting for my husband to bring Pepe from the airport. Come on, you all can help me get the refreshments ready.” She led them down the hall to the back of the house.
The kitchen was huge, with glistening slate counters and white cabinets. Six windows flooded the room with light. A couple of trays of appetizers — tiny wedges of pizza and sausages wrapped in flaky pastry — were laid out on an island counter. Bess leaned over the trays, staring hungrily with her hands behind her back.
Maria walked into a small pantry off to the side. Nancy watched her reach for a package of party napkins on a high shelf. As the cellophane wrapping broke, bright orange and pink napkins fluttered down to the floor.
“Ahhh!” Maria wailed. Instead of picking up the napkins, she sank down on a nearby step stool and covered her face with her hands.
Nancy frowned. Maria’s reaction was too strong for just a package of spilled napkins, she decided, and she started toward the pantry. Bess beat her there. “Maria, what is it?” Bess murmured, kneeling down by her friend.
“No, please, I can’t talk about it,” Maria said, her voice quavering.
“Maria, I know we’ve just met,” Nancy said gently, “but if there’s anything we can do — “
“I told Nancy and George that you’ve been upset lately,” Bess blurted out. “I know they’ll be happy to help — we all will. Nancy is really good at tracking down answers and solving problems, and we’re all good listeners.”
“I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. It’s just — ” Maria darted a worried glance over Bess’s shoulder toward the kitchen. “I’m so worried about Dad,” she admitted in a low voice. “He’s been acting crazy lately. Half the time he’s yelling at me and Mom for no reason — he’s never done that before. The rest of the time he looks like he’s lost his best friend.”
“Maybe he’s anxious about the Heartliner‘s visit,” Nancy suggested. “With the student tours and everything, he could be concerned about everything going smoothly. Have you talked to your mother about it?”
Maria looked at Nancy and her dark eyes were sad. “I mentioned it to Mom, and she says it’s stress from his job, but I think it’s more than that, and I want to help him. Do you really think we can find out what it is?”
“We sure can try,” Nancy said.
“If Nancy says she’ll help, the mystery’s practically solved already,” Bess said loyally.
Maria wiped her eyes and smiled weakly. “Thank you. Bess said you were good friends, and she’s right.”
Bess and Nancy helped Maria gather up the napkins and returned to the main kitchen. Nancy noticed that a frown still crumpled Maria’s forehead as she picked up the pizza tray.
Maria left the kitchen, carrying her tray down a short hall. George followed her with a coffeepot and a pitcher of juice. Bess carried out a plate of cookies, while Mrs. Diaz brought up the rear with the tray of sausage rolls.
Left alone, Nancy went to the refrigerator to fill an ice bucket. Placing it under the dispenser in the door, she watched the cubes fall.
Suddenly the back of Nancy’s neck tingled. She had a creepy feeling that someone else was there with her.
She wheeled around toward the window — and looked straight into a pair of large green eyes. Just outside stood a man she’d never seen before, staring at her intently!