“Come on!” Nancy Drew urged her friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne. “We’d better move it if we’re going to make our flight.”
“This is the final boarding call for flight thirty-eight forty-six to Los Angeles, gate two.” The announcement rang out clearly over the din of travelers in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“That’s us!” Eighteen-year-old Nancy whisked her shoulder-length, reddish blond hair to one side, slipped both arms through the straps of her faded blue denim backpack, and started to trot toward the departure gate. George and Bess were on either side of her.
Bess was struggling to keep up, though. “I’ll never make it, running with all these.” She held up two designer totes and her pocketbook — a suitcase in itself — and brought the girls to a standstill.
“If you hadn’t taken so much time packing, we wouldn’t be late in the first place,” George said to her cousin. Exasperated, George took off ahead of Nancy, who was hanging back to keep pace with Bess.
Bess shrugged. “Well, I had to bring the right things to wear,” she said matter-of-factly, “and I couldn’t decide what to leave out. After all, you never know what you might run into.”
Nancy smiled. “Or who.” Bess always dressed as if she was hoping to be discovered by a model scout. She was the complete opposite of George, who wore classic, casual clothes.
“Hurry up!” George called out. She was standing at the gate beside a frowning flight attendant, waving her arm in a come on, come on gesture. “They’re just about to close the doors. ” With only a moment to spare, the three friends boarded the plane to California and settled into their seats.
“See? No problem,” Bess said breathlessly, shoving one of her bags beneath the seat in front of her.
George tried to give her cousin an icy stare, but burst out laughing instead. “Yeah, well, next time just bring half your wardrobe instead of everything you own.”
Soon the flight attendants had served the in-flight breakfast of tiny pancakes and sausages with juice and coffee.
Bess set down her fork with a contented sigh. “I don’t care if we are going out to L.A. to work,” she said, glancing out the window at the blue sky above the clouds. “I’m still glad to be escaping winter for a couple of days.” A big smile spread across her face. “I wonder if we’ll see any Beautiful People.”
“Maybe they’ll stop in at the Ch@t Café,” Nancy said, grinning.
“Working at the Ch@t Café is going to be so cool,” George said. “I love the whole cyber cafe concept: relax with a couple friends, knock back a latte, and surf the Internet, all at the same time.”
“What’s this relaxing bit?” Nancy joked. “We’re going to be up to our elbows in coffee grounds and keyboards.”
A flight attendant leaned over Bess, who was sitting in the aisle seat. “Did you want some more coffee?” he asked as he removed the girls’ trays.
“Only if it’s served up by a computer geek,” Bess said, smiling.
A man across the aisle from Bess picked up the joke from there. “Yeah, and hold the cream and sugar. Just bring me a Net connection with that,” the passenger said, folding his newspaper.
The flight attendant smiled in confusion as he moved on down the aisle. The passenger, an older man in a rumpled business suit, chuckled and tucked his newspaper into his briefcase. “I don’t know why I even bother buying the paper anymore,” he said. “Even The New York Times is on the Internet now, and I carry my laptop everywhere I go.”
“Yeah. Why get your hands all inky turning the pages?” Bess said.
The man laughed again, looking at his own blackened hands. “Tell me,” he said, an inquisitive look crossing his face. “What is a cyber café?”
Nancy smiled at the man. “It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “These cafes are popping up everywhere. You go in for a cup of coffee, and instead of flipping through a magazine or something while you sip a cappuccino, you surf the Net. The café supplies the modems, the computers, everything the customer needs to log on to other computers all over the world.”
“It’s great,” George added. “You can visit people on their Web sites and get to know them.”
“Interesting,” the man said, seeming a little doubtful. “But I just use the Web for business. Well, I’d better get back to work here. Nice talking with you,” he said, booting up his laptop.
“Work, schmirk,” Bess said to Nancy. “The best part about the Internet is that you can chat with other people thousands of miles — ” She slapped the palm of her hand on her forehead. “Oh, I get it. The Ch@t Café!”
George rolled her eyes. “You’re only getting the point of the name now?” she asked, teasing her cousin.
“Whatever,” Bess said, tossing her long, blond ponytail. “Anyway” — she turned to Nancy — “what’s the deal with the Ch@t Café’s owner? She’s your father’s friend’s daughter, right?”
“Her name is Lydia Rojas,” Nancy said. “She’s the daughter of one of Dad’s law school buddies. Apparently Lydia left her teaching position in Chicago last summer to start a business in Los Angeles.” Nancy leaned over her backpack and, pulling out a picture of a dark-haired, dark-skinned woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties, showed it to Bess and George. “The building required so much renovation to convert it to a café that she’s really behind schedule and needs help.”
“Why us? Doesn’t she have employees?” Bess asked.
“Sure, but they’re all busy training for their jobs. It’s a pretty sophisticated outfit, and I think the competition is getting intense. Anyway, I kind of hinted to my father that I thought we’d have a great time in Santa Monica, so he volunteered our free labor to help Lydia get ready for Monday’s grand opening.”
“I’m glad your father could get us the tickets with all those frequent flyer miles of his,” George added.
“Free is a great price!” Bess agreed. Nancy and her friends spent the remainder of the trip talking about the places they wanted to visit while they were in Los Angeles and making lists of the famous people they hoped to run into. Before they knew it, the plane had touched down in L.A. and they were on their way to the baggage claim area.
George tucked her parka under her arm. “I almost need my jacket more in L.A.X.’s air-conditioning than I did in Chicago’s heated terminal,” she said, grumbling a little.
The girls grabbed their bags off the conveyor belt, then settled on some nearby seats while they waited for Lydia to arrive.
Almost an hour later Lydia still hadn’t shown up, and Nancy was pacing back and forth.
“Come on, Nan, lighten up. This isn’t the first time we’ve waited for a ride,” George said.
“I don’t know why I’m so nervous. I just can’t believe Lydia isn’t here yet. She wasn’t at the café when I called her.” Nancy looked at her friends. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“She’s just late, Nancy,” George said.
“She probably lost track of time,” Bess added. “No big deal.”
“Yeah. We’re in the Golden State,” George said. “People are more laid back here, remember?”
Nancy laughed. “Okay, okay, you’re right,” she agreed. “Let’s get in line for a taxi.”
The cab headed north on Highway One toward Santa Monica. Soon the girls were riding past the foot of the Santa Monica Pier.
“Cool!” George peered out the window as the cab rolled by palm trees, in-line skaters, and people soaking up the sunshine.
Nancy, George, and Bess gazed out silently at the beauty of the scenery. Further down the coast were the breathtaking Santa Monica Mountains. Nancy watched the Pacific Ocean through her window, as the sapphire-colored sea rolled in to greet them with frothy breakers. Though she’d seen the ocean countless times before, the great expanse of water never failed to thrill her. Winter had been chilling the air for several weeks back home, and compared with the icy grayness of River Heights, the blazing cerulean sky of Santa Monica was absolutely stunning.
Finally, the cab driver dropped the girls off in front of the Ch@t Café, on Montana Avenue. With chic boutiques lining the street, it was Santa Monica’s quaint little shopping district.
Nancy, Bess, and George stood on the side walk, suitcases by their feet, the sun behind them spotlighting the storefront. The vintage building had been transformed into a high-tech, new-age gathering place. Stucco siding had been painted a deep, regal purple with sparkling golden trim, and crystalline awnings, shaped like bubbles, topped the front door and windows. Sun rays beamed through them, making kaleidoscopic lights dance on the sidewalk.
A painter four stories up on a rope-suspended scaffold was busy detailing the trim of a window. The girls marveled at his balance and control. After a moment, he shook his sun-bleached hair from his eyes and smiled down to them.
“Hey,” Nancy said, elbowing George. “Does he come with the building?”
George sighed. “I hope so.”
“Look at how that scaffold’s wobbling,” Bess said. “I don’t see how he can even brush a straight line.”
Their banter was broken by a noise from above them, and Nancy’s eyes darted up to the painter. The rope holding one end of the scaffold suddenly jerked and then snapped, sending a can of paint hurtling to the sidewalk. Missing the girls by a hairbreadth, it splattered them with purple.
In the next instant three more cans exploded against the concrete, splashing the girls with more paint.
“Help!” the painter shouted, frantically trying to get a good grip on the remaining line. Passers by gathered below and heaved a collective gasp as the cord weakened and dropped him a few inches.
Shouting again for help, the man clung to the fragile rope. His life depended on it.