What does Bess have in that thing?” Ned Nickerson whispered to his girlfriend, Nancy Drew. He motioned at the gigantic duffel that Bess Marvin was dragging toward them. George Fayne was walking ahead of her with a much smaller bag casually draped over her shoulder.
“I tried to tell her we weren’t going to need much,” George said when the cousins had reached Nancy’s car. “Just jeans, T-shirts, and something dressy for the awards dinner.”
Bess dropped her duffel and sat down on it, brushing her long blond hair off her face.
“But she wouldn’t listen,” George continued as she flung her bag into the trunk of the blue Mustang.
“I didn’t want to leave anything behind that I might need,” Bess explained. “And I know even now that I forgot something.”
Nancy smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said, holding her hand out to Bess to pull her up. “If you did, you can borrow something of mine.
“Thanks, Nan,” Bess said. “You’re the best.”
“I don’t want to break up any female bonding or anything” — Ned picked up Bess’s bag with a grunt and dropped it into the trunk — “but let’s hit the road, okay? It’s going to take us two solid days of driving.”
The four friends were on their way to the coastal town of Rockport, Maine, where Ned was to spend his spring break at the Rocky Isle Marine Institute. Ned, who was attending Emerson College, had entered an essay contest about improving the institute. He had won and was awarded a one-week all-expense-paid working vacation there.
When Ned had asked Nancy to join him in preparing the institute’s grounds for the up coming tourist season, she jumped at the chance. Not only would it give her time with Ned, but she’d be supporting a worthwhile cause as well. When she mentioned her plans to George and Bess, they decided to volunteer their time, too.
“Okay.” George slammed the trunk closed. “We’re ready to go.”
“Not quite.” Nancy had turned to see Hannah Gruen standing on the porch, a picnic hamper in her hands. “I packed a lunch for you for your first day on the road,” Hannah said with a smile. “And some snacks.”
“Thanks, Hannah,” Nancy said as Ned ran to take the hamper. Hannah Gruen had been with Nancy and her father, Carson Drew, since Nancy was three.
“Yes, thanks, Hannah,” Bess added. “Road trips always make me hungry.”
George ran a hand through her short, dark, curly hair and shared a grin with Nancy. “Everything makes her hungry.”
Bess tucked her long blond hair behind her ears and shrugged. “Go ahead and laugh. But I bet Hannah appreciates the fact that I like her cooking.”
Hannah joined the girls and said, “I certainly do, Bess. Now, drive safely, and have a wonderful time at Rocky Isle.”
“We will,” Nancy called as the group piled into her blue Mustang. “See you when we get back in eleven days!”
“If I have to ride in this backseat for one more minute, I’m going to be permanently bent at the waist,” Bess groaned.
“Relax, Bess,” Ned said from the passenger seat. He pointed to the map he was reading. “We’re in Maine and almost there.”
“And if I have to listen to your grumbling one more minute,” George warned Bess, “I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”
Nancy looked through the rearview mirror and laughed. “Come on, you guys. Before we know it we’ll be tramping along the rocky coast, breathing fresh salt air.”
An hour later, with the sun hanging low in a cloudy late afternoon sky, Nancy pulled the car up to the Rocky Isle Marine Institute.
The buildings that housed the institute had been constructed on the grounds of the family estate of its founder, Arman du Roque. The du Roques had made their fortune in the lumber industry, but Arman du Roque had abandoned the family business to pursue the study and preservation of marine life. Paths cleared through the wooded estate led to seaside cliffs and then down to the ocean. It was those paths, as well as others on several nearby islands, that Nancy, Bess, and George were to help clear for the season opening.
“How beautiful,” Nancy said as she stepped out from behind the driver’s seat and stretched her arms over her head. Her friends followed.
“I love New England,” George said, breathing deeply. “The sea air is so invigorating!”
“And Mr. du Roque’s mansion — at least what I can see of it through the trees — seems pretty spectacular.” Ned pointed toward the Gothic-style towers in the distance. “Imagine the view of the ocean from those tower rooms.”
Nancy put her arms around Ned’s waist. “I think this is going to be a wonderful week,” she said, smiling.
“I certainly hope so,” said a man from a short distance away. Nancy backed away from Ned to look at the handsome young man approaching them. He was dressed in jeans, work boots, a sweater, and a canvas work jacket.
“And I hope you like backbreaking labor,” he added as he came near. “Hi, I’m Jason Kalb, assistant trainer. And you must be Ned Nickerson from Emerson College.” Jason put out his hand to shake Ned’s.
“Yes, I am,” Ned responded. “And this is Nancy Drew, and George Fayne, and Bess Marvin. They’re members of your preseason volunteer crew.”
“I’m happy to meet you, Jason,” Nancy said as she, in turn, shook Jason’s hand.
George waved, and Bess, who until that moment had been at the back of the group, emerged and gave Jason a dazzling smile. “Hello, Jason. I’m Bess.”
Nancy bit back a grin. When a good-looking guy was around, Bess could be counted on to flirt.
Jason gave Bess a big smile in return. Nancy saw his ice blue eyes twinkle. “My pleasure,” he said. Then he cleared his throat and turned back to Ned and Nancy. “Well, let’s get you guys settled. Unfortunately, you’ll have to leave your car here at the institute and walk to your housing.”
Ned and Jason began to unload the car. “Where are we staying?” Nancy asked.
Jason heaved Bess’s bag out of the trunk and instantly dropped it. “Whoa, what’s in this thing?” he asked. “Never mind,” he added. “I don’t think I want to know. Nancy, you, George, and Bess will be sharing a crew cabin behind the institute. The other volunteers, as well as a few of the regular employees, are staying in the other cabins.”
“Sounds romantic,” Bess said brightly.
“Sounds like roughing it,” George amended. “Which is just fine with me.”
Jason laughed. “And Ned will be staying at the du Roque mansion.” Jason nodded toward the Gothic towers, more difficult to see now as the sky grew darker.
Nancy thrust her arms through her back pack and slung her travel bag over a shoulder. “Okay, let’s go get settled.”
“This way,” Jason said. He indicated Bess’s bag. “Just one thing. Would the owner of this beast mind if I dragged it? I don’t think my back can take it.”
Bess laughed. “Oh, all right. I’ll carry it. After all, I did manage to get it to Nancy’s house all by myself, didn’t I?”
Jason led the way around the administration and lab building and onto a dirt path that looked as if it had been recently cleared.
They hadn’t gone far when Jason stopped in front of a charming wood cabin, one of six that were spread out along the path. “Here you are,” Jason said. “Home sweet home.”
“So when do we start work?” Nancy asked. “Well,” Jason answered, “first you have to get through the awards dinner tonight. It’s being held in the museum. Be prepared for a lot of boring speeches and rubber chicken.”
Ned smiled. “We’ll live. When does the real work begin?”
“Tomorrow morning at seven,” Jason answered. “We have a lot to do before the institute opens to the public in two weeks.”
“Could you elaborate?” Bess asked. “Like what kind of work, exactly?”
Jason’s eyes glittered with mock-evil intent. “Well, winters are tough up here in Maine. No matter how well groomed the grounds are when the institute closes for the winter, by early spring the trails are a total mess. It’s up to the volunteers to clear the paths and make them safe for tourists. You have your work cut out for you.”
Bess didn’t look thrilled.
“Great,” George said. “I could use some exercise”
“What about me?” Ned asked. “When do I get started?”
“You’ll talk to Mr. du Roque tonight, at the awards dinner,” Jason said. “He’ll fill you in.”
Jason reached into a large side pocket of his jacket and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “I’ve got maps of the institute grounds; Rockport, the nearest town; and the surrounding area for each of you,” he said, passing them out. “I don’t want to alarm you,” he continued, “but there are a few things you should know before you go wandering around on your own.”
Nancy folded her arms across her chest. “What things?” she asked.
Jason frowned. “Well, the institute has experienced some budget cuts recently and has had to reduce the number of guards patrolling the grounds. Since we’re practically right in town, and open to the ocean, we’re not very well protected. If someone wants to get onto the grounds, he can do it. Those of us who work with the animals and in the lab are careful about locking up when we leave at the end of the day. But the animals are more vulnerable than we’d like them to be.”
“Have you told Mr. du Roque that you think the cuts in security are unwise?” Nancy asked.
Jason laughed a short, unpleasant laugh. “Unfortunately, talking to Arman du Roque is like talking to a brick wall. Don’t get me wrong,” he added hastily. “I like the man. I just don’t always agree with him. Anyway, there’s one more thing you should know before I take Ned over to the mansion.
When Jason paused, Nancy glanced at her friends. She was sure they were thinking the same thing she was — that they were about to hear something that could spoil their fun for the week.
“Go on,” Ned urged.
“For the past three months the institute’s been harassed by a group of radical animal rights people who call themselves Sea Friends Forever.” Jason looked as if he was about to lose his temper. “They’re opposed to our research and to the sea animal performances we give twice a day during tourist season. They say that keeping wild creatures, like dolphins, in captivity, is wrong. No, actually, they say it’s cruel.”
“And what has this group done?” Nancy asked.
“Well, don’t tell du Roque — or Michael Putnam, the institute’s director — I told you, but we’ve had a series of incidents, mostly vandalism and sabotage.” Jason paused. “It doesn’t matter so much what they’ve done as what they might do. I’m worried that some one’s going to get hurt because of their pranks. Just keep your eyes open, okay?”
“Not a very smart time to cut back on security, is it?” Nancy said.
“Absolutely not. And the real problem is that we have no definite proof that Sea Friends Forever is responsible for the trouble. They’ve never claimed responsibility, but everything points to them.” Suddenly Jason smiled. “Enough doom and gloom,” he said. “Ned, let’s get you to du Roque’s. And I’ll see the rest of you at the awards dinner later.”
“You bet,” Bess said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
“Yeah.” George grinned. “I just love rubber chicken.”