Smoked salmon? Caviar?” The flight attendant pushed the food cart alongside Nancy Drew’s seat.
Nancy’s blue eyes shot a challenge toward her best friend, George Fayne. She flipped back her reddish blond hair and asked, “Well? Should we go for it?”
“Why not?” George responded. She smoothed out her khaki pants and patted her stomach. “Isn’t that what flying first class is all about?”
Nancy smiled at the flight attendant. “One of everything, please.”
Within moments Nancy and George were staring at a beautiful array of hors d’oeuvres arranged on china plates.
“This is great,” George said between bites. She motioned toward the clouds floating by like mountains of cotton outside the window. “Maybe we can just keep flying back and forth between River Heights and Hollywood forever. The food beats burgers and fries any day, and you can’t top this view.”
Nancy laughed. “I’m not exactly sure how we’d finance that life-style,” she said, taking a bite of smoked salmon. “Dad’s generous, not crazy.” Carson Drew had been Nancy’s biggest fan and source of support ever since her mother had died, fifteen years earlier.
Nancy’s joking expression shifted to one of concern. “And actually we’re flying first class because James Jackson insisted on it. He needs our help. He’s in serious trouble.”
“You never explained exactly what kind of trouble,” George said.
Nancy sighed and began. “Well, you already know Jackson is an old friend of my father.”
George nodded. “And he’s also the film director who made Me and My Rolls and A Taste to Die For. I’ve seen all his films.”
“George . . .” Nancy lowered her voice and leaned toward her friend. “Mr. Jackson is being blackmailed.” George’s eyes opened wide, but she said nothing.
“He was desperate when he called my father,” Nancy continued. “He didn’t know what to do. He’s gotten a number of threatening messages from someone demanding ten million dollars or — “
“Or what?” George asked.
“Or the newspapers are going to get word of a horrible scandal Mr. Jackson was involved in many years ago. It’s old news, but he thinks it could ruin his career if it makes its way into the headlines now.”
“And he wanted you to investigate?”
Nancy laughed and shook her head. “That’s not exactly why he called. I think he just wanted to vent a little to my dad. But I was sitting right there, so I couldn’t help overhearing part of the conversation.
“And you offered to help.”
“It took a little work, but I finally convinced them to let me give the case a try. And, of course, I needed a travel companion,” Nancy said, grinning at her friend.
“Hollywood, here we come!” George said. She tossed her short dark curls, raised her head, and struck a movie-star pose.
One in-flight movie and a three-star meal later, the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker system. “Folks, we’re currently circling Los Angeles. Ground conditions are a breezy seventy-two degrees.”
As the plane touched down, Nancy’s thoughts were already on the case. If she couldn’t find the blackmailer, James Jackson would have to pay ten million dollars — or risk the biggest humiliation of his career.
Nancy and George deplaned and stepped into the passageway that connected the aircraft to the terminal. They walked down a long corridor, past the point where people who were on departing flights were having their luggage X-rayed. There, a small group of people, some with signs, waited for passengers on arriving flights.
Nancy scanned the crowd, and she quickly caught sight of a short, dark-haired man holding a sign with her name on it. She smiled and waved at him.
“I’m Liam O’Connell, Mr. Jackson’s personal assistant.” He showed Nancy his license as identification and then reached for the girls’ carry-on bags. “Did you check any luggage?” he asked.
“No,” Nancy said. “We just have the carry ons.”
“Then we can go straight to the car,” Liam said, heading toward the exit.
“Mr. Jackson wanted to meet you personally,” Liam explained as the girls followed him, “but the crowds at the airport . . . well, sometimes it’s tricky for him. He’s asked me to drive you back to the house.”
“Is our hotel near his house?” Nancy asked.
“Hotel? Oh, no. You’ll be staying at the Jacksons’ home.”
Nancy and George grinned at each other. Everyone had read about James Jackson s incredible mansion. Among its luxurious features were a movie theater and a ten-pin bowling alley.
Minutes later Nancy and George were sitting in the back of Mr. Jackson’s limousine. As Liam drove through downtown Los Angeles, he pointed out spots of interest among the low, square office buildings. As the car began to climb into the hills, the buildings gave way to private homes and then to larger and larger mansions.
“That used to be Ellen Hyde’s house — you know, the silent film star.” Liam pointed toward an elegant estate.
“I hope we’ll get to catch some of the sights,” George said. “I’d at least like to put my hand in some of those famous handprints on the Walk of Fame.”
“Yeah. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, all those fabulous stars. We’ll see,” Nancy said, not sounding too hopeful.
“How about surfing? Venice Beach? And there’s always — “
“Hold on, George. One thing at a time,” Nancy teased. “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty busy, anyway.”
It wasn’t long before the limousine drove through a pair of wrought-iron gates and up a long, curving driveway. In front of the huge house with its tall white pillars and dozens of windows stood a short, balding man wearing jeans, a black button-down shirt, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches. Liam pulled to a stop.
“That’s James Jackson,” George whispered.
“Thanks, George, I’d never have guessed,” Nancy said, rolling her eyes.
Next to Mr. Jackson stood a tall, willowy blond wearing a stylish suit and a long string of pearls. Nancy recognized James Jackson’s wife, a famous actress — whom Nancy knew by her stage name, Raye Brodburne — and a teenage girl with high cheekbones, wearing a short black dress that showed off her long, slender legs.
Nancy knew the girl was the Jacksons’ daughter, Lori, a popular television actress. Though she was only eighteen, Lori was already well on her way to stardom, making the jump to the big screen as the lead in her father’s current project, Dangerous Loves.
Liam got out of the limo, opened the back door for Nancy and George, then whisked their luggage inside. George hung back, seeming a bit nervous, but Nancy smiled confidently and stepped toward the famous family.
“Hello, I’m Nancy Drew,” she said.
“Oh, Nancy, we would have recognized you in a second from the pictures your father has sent us over the years,” James Jackson said.
“I recognize you from your pictures, too, Mr. Jackson,” Nancy said, meaning, of course, the ones she had seen in newspapers and magazines. She extended her hand toward him.
Instead of taking it, James Jackson pulled her into a big bear hug. “No need to be formal,” he said. “Please call me James.”
Nancy smiled. “Okay . . . James.” She introduced George, and in turn, James Jackson introduced his wife and daughter.
“We’re so grateful you could come,” his wife said warmly. “Your father says you’re the best detective he knows, and that’s just what we need right now.”
“We sure do,” Lori agreed. She flashed Nancy a Hollywood smile.
“They’re right,” the director said. “We’re all glad you could come.” His smile disappeared briefly, and he sighed, with what Nancy could only interpret as anxiety and weariness. In the next moment, however, his face reflected gracious charm once again.
This must be killing him, Nancy thought. Trying to keep it all together in front of his family — in front of George and me — when his entire career is on the line.
James motioned toward the house. “Let me show you around,” he said. Nancy stood for a moment looking at the outside of the house, with its long, elegant portico and tall, graceful columns. Bright, showy flowers blossomed in a garden that ran the length of the massive front lawn. At one side was a huge open garage that held a red Maserati, among half a dozen expensive vehicles.
James took George on one arm and Nancy on the other and led them inside the house.
The entryway was vast and elegant, the area anchored in the middle by a granite pedestal on which sat a huge bouquet of fresh flowers in an ebony vase. A grand staircase led to an upper floor of the home.
“Would you like to see the place?” Lori asked.
“Would we ever!” George exclaimed, and grinned at Nancy.
Lori, followed by her mother and father, led the girls along wide polished oak-floored corridors. In addition to a huge living room with a fireplace and an elegant dining room, Lori showed the girls an English-style library straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and an entertainment room with a television screen that covered an entire wall, as well as two offices and a wicker-filled sunporch. Nancy and George followed, somewhat in a daze.
“Don’t worry.” Lori’s mother smiled as she noticed the girls’ startled looks. “You’ll find your way around the house before you know it.”
“It’s like going to a new high school,” Lori commented. “At first you’re always getting lost, and you can’t even find your locker, but soon you know it like the back of your hand.”
“Could we finish the tour a bit later?” James Jackson interrupted. “Right now, I’d like a private moment with Nancy.” He turned to Lori. “Princess, could you show George to the guest wing?”
“See you in a bit, Nancy,” George said over her shoulder as she and Lori headed off down yet another corridor.
James motioned Nancy into his study. He sank into one of two black leather couches, and Nancy sat in another. Through the tall French doors of the study, she could see yet another beautiful flower garden.
James let out a heavy sigh. “I wish I had better news.” Gone was his cheerful expression.
“Mr. Jackson — James,” Nancy said, “you know I’ll do my best to help you.”
James managed a tired smile. “I hope you can,” he said. “You know that someone has been sending me threatening messages demanding a ridiculously huge sum of money. For a while I wrote it off as an annoying prank.”
“But?” Nancy prompted.
“But recently the notes have made it clear that the blackmailer isn’t kidding around. He or she has information about me — personal information — that could ruin me.”
Nancy was silent for a moment. Then she said, “If I’m going to help you, I’ll need to know the details — the personal details.”
James held Nancy in his gaze for a moment. “I know I can trust you.”
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and began his story. “It happened thirty years ago. I’d already made a few hit movies, but I wasn’t married yet. I was summering at a beach resort on Rapid Island. There were starlets, parties that went on for days — the works. One night, I was driving around with a young actress in her car — I was at the wheel — and we decided to drive over the bridge between the resort and the mainland. It was such a small thing, foolish, really. I swerved to avoid some animal in the road. But the surface was oily, slick with rain, and I lost control of the car.” Nancy watched him closely as he spoke. His face looked old and sad.
“We didn’t make it,” James said. “Halfway over the bridge, I plowed through the guardrail, and we crashed into the bay.”
“How terrible!” Nancy exclaimed, feeling dread in the pit of her stomach. “What happened to the actress?”
James looked into Nancy’s eyes and shook his head. “Bianca didn’t know how to swim. I tried to find her, but it was dark, and I couldn’t locate her in the water. Bianca drowned.” He took a deep breath, and Nancy saw tears in his eyes.
What a tragedy. How could it be that she had never heard anything about it before? It was the kind of thing that tabloid magazines loved to bring up — over and over and over again, no matter how many years had passed.
“There’s no question it was my fault,” James said, agonized. “And then I made things worse. I covered it up. I told the police Bianca was driving, and since it was her car, they believed me. As a result, no charges were ever brought against me. And more important, the story never went beyond the local newspapers. That would have ruined me. And, Nancy, it still could.”
“But how? It was an accident. And you tried to help Bianca,” Nancy noted.
James shook his head. “That wouldn’t matter. If anyone ever found out I was driving, I’d be ruined. The tabloids would make me out to be a monster. And you know, they wouldn’t be totally wrong. After all, it was my fault we crashed.
“Anyway,” James continued, “that was all in the past. Or I thought it was. Then, a few weeks ago, the messages started. Last week, the blackmailer mentioned Rapid Island and told me to pay up. Ten million dollars!”
Nancy nodded. She already knew about the money. “And who knew about the incident at the time?”
James pressed his lips together. “Rapid Island is a small place. I’d say no one knew anything at all. Bianca’s family, the people at the hospital, and the coroner all believed it was a tragic accident — that she had been behind the wheel of her car and had crashed through the guardrail. They didn’t know about my part in it.”
“And have you confided in anyone in all the years since the accident?”
James thought for a moment. “Well, my wife, of course. And since the threats started, my daughter.” He looked ashamed. “But that’s it. I have never mentioned it to a soul outside my family.”
Nancy sighed. She didn’t say so to James, but it didn’t really matter. There was surely a record of the incident at the Rapid Island Police Department, small as it was. Any decent snoop could get at that information, as well as dig up a local newspaper article. If James had ever even hinted that something had happened that long-ago summer, it could have been enough to tip off his blackmailer.
James hit the arm of the leather couch with a frustrated slap. “Nancy, I’d pay the ten million — if I had it. But I don’t. You may not believe this, but I’m just about broke.”
“Broke?” Nancy thought about the huge house, the Maserati, the other expensive vehicles, the servants, the first-class plane tickets.
“Oh, sure, I’ve made enough to set up this Hollywood life-style.” He gestured around the room and shook his head bitterly. “But cash? I don’t have much of that left. I’ve sunk every penny into this house and my film. I couldn’t scare up ten million if my life depended on it. And it does.”
“But you’re James Jackson,” Nancy broke in. “The films you’ve directed have been huge hits all over the world.”
James gave Nancy a slight smile. “So you’ve seen my movies,” he said.
“Yes,” Nancy answered. “They’re terrific.”
“But where have you seen them?”
Nancy thought for a moment, confused. Then, she understood what he was getting at. “Well, mostly on the late-night shows on TV,” she admitted.
“Exactly,” James said. “I haven’t had a box-office hit in a decade. I’m famous, I’ve made several films in recent years, but I haven’t made a successful film in a long time.”
“Don’t you get residuals or percentages or something?” Nancy asked.
“Certainly not to the tune of ten million dollars. I just don’t have the money.”
Nancy looked at the man who was one of her father’s oldest friends. He seemed lost in thought.
“Let’s talk about suspects,” Nancy said. “Do you have any enemies? Anyone you think might have learned about the Rapid Island incident?”
James shook his head. “I know I’m not perfect,” he joked, “but for a film director, I’m a pretty nice guy. No big enemies. No Hollywood infighting. I do have a producer right now whom I’d like to strangle, and I’m pretty sure she’d like to strangle me.”
Before Nancy had a chance to ask another question, a bloodcurdling scream ripped through the mansion, instantly bringing Nancy and James to their feet.