A hunt for missing cougar cubs leads nancy into a sinister trap!
"Wow, Bess, that's fabulous news!" Nancy Drew exclaimed into the phone. Nancy glanced at the clock on her desk in the Channel 9 television newsroom, where she and her friend George Fayne were working as summer interns. "It's nine o'clock now. If Christy okays the job, we'll be at the zoo with a camera crew by ten. See you then."
Nancy hung up the phone, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement. She swiveled her chair toward George, who was sitting cross legged on top of Nancy's desk, sipping a cup of morning tea.
"What's up, Nan?" George asked. "Did Bess meet a cute guy?"
Nancy laughed. "Get off my desk, George, then I'll tell you Bess's news. Christy might not like it if she sees one of her interns goofing off."
George rolled her eyes. "Christy hasn't paid any attention to us since we started here last week," she whispered. "I don't think she'd notice if I was standing on my head."
"I know what you mean," Nancy admitted as George hopped down.
Nancy and George had been thrilled when Otto Liski, the news producer at WRVH-TV -- which were the call letters of Channel 9 -- had hired them to be part-time interns. But Christy Kelley, their immediate boss and an investigative reporter for the network, had barely spoken a word to them since they'd arrived.
"So what's Bess's news?" George asked, sitting down in a chair.
Nancy smiled and pulled her shoulder-length reddish blond hair into a ponytail. "Last night Katie, the female cougar at the zoo, gave birth to four cubs. Since cougars are endangered animals, everyone at the zoo is incredibly excited about them. Bess thought we might want to do a story on them." Bess Marvin was Nancy's other best friend and George's cousin. The week before, Bess had started her summer internship at the River Heights Zoo, working under Sally Nelson, the zoo veterinarian.
"That is great news," George said. "But do you think Christy will let us help with the story? She usually wants to do everything herself."
"We'll see," Nancy said, rising. "I'll go look for her."
Nancy threaded her way through rows of desks in the busy newsroom, skirting an editor who was posting story assignments on a chalkboard. At the desks, a number of reporters pounded out stories on computers or talked on the phone. Most of the desks were littered with papers, used coffee cups, and candy-bar wrappers.
Several reporters had dark circles under their eyes, as though they'd been chasing stories far into the night. So far none of the workers had seemed particularly interested in the new interns, Nancy had observed.
A blond woman wearing a beige business suit and black pumps rushed into the newsroom, nearly colliding with Nancy at the door.
"Excuse me, Nancy," the woman said crisply. "I can't talk now. I'm onto a story."
"I've got a story too, Christy," Nancy said. "I was hoping it would interest you.
Christy narrowed her blue eyes at Nancy. "Well, shoot. But it had better be good. I'm very busy."
Christy tapped her foot impatiently as Nancy told her about the birth of the baby cougars. But when Nancy mentioned that cougars were endangered, Christy's interest perked up.
"A perfect story for the evening news!" Christy announced. "I'll send a camera crew immediately."
"George and I would like to help you with the story," Nancy offered. "We have a friend at the zoo who might give us some interesting details."
Christy pursed her lips and adjusted the tortoiseshell headband that held back her shoulder-length hair. "Hmm, let me think. Tom Hawkins, the cameraman, and Joey Zamboni, the sound-man, need to go to the zoo right away to shoot B-roll -- background film I'll use to flesh out my story. That's enough people for now. We don't want to upset the mother cougar." She cocked her head and looked at Nancy appraisingly. "But who knows? You and George might be useful later. I'll let you know."
Christy dumped some papers on a reporter's desk, then whirled out of the room while Nancy returned to her desk. In a low voice, Nancy told George what Christy had said.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Christy's ignoring us because she's jealous of you," George muttered. "After all, Mr. Liski hired us because of your experience as a detective. Christy seems pretty ambitious. She might be worried you'll do a better job investigating stories."
Although Nancy was only eighteen, she was an accomplished detective who had solved many difficult and dangerous cases. George and Bess had helped her tackle many of them.
Nancy thought about George's comment for a moment. Could Christy really be jealous of me? She doubted that an experienced reporter like Christy would be so easily threatened. But it was clear to Nancy that Christy resented having assistants whom she hadn't chosen herself.
Once again Christy breezed through the door way of the newsroom, her heels making staccato clicks on the linoleum floor. A tall, dark-skinned young man trailed after her. He wore khaki pants and a blue cotton shirt with rolled-up sleeves. A friendly smile lit up his handsome face. Nancy recognized him as the WRVH cameraman, Tom Hawkins. Everyone called him Hawk.
"Nancy, George," Christy called, hurrying over to where the girls stood, then stopping abruptly right in front of them. "It turns out I do need your help after all. My workload today is impossible."
"I had this great idea -- " Hawk began excitedly, when Christy cut him off.
"Hawk suggested we include a brief photo montage of cougars in the wild with our story," she said. "Would you two be good enough to run over to the library and check out a few magazines with pictures of cougars? And while you're there, I'd like you to do some research on cougars for my presentation -- just the basics."
"Sure," Nancy said. She stood up, smoothing her sleeveless black linen blouse and beige slacks.
"Anything you can find out about the species would be great," Christy went on. "Once I get your material, I'll head over to the zoo to tape my stand-up report. I'd like it no later than one o'clock." Without waiting for a reply, Christy turned on her heel and strode out of the news room. Hawk shrugged apologetically, then followed.
"Whew," George said. "Was she a drill sergeant in a previous life or something? I feel like I should've saluted. And I wish she'd sent us to the zoo instead of the library."
"At least she's assigned us some work," Nancy pointed out.
"Yeah -- we won't have to sit around anymore, sharpening pencils and pretending to be busy," George said. "C'mon, Drew. It's library time."
"That's it for this article." Nancy flipped her magazine closed. She and George were sitting at a table in the periodicals section of the River Heights public library. Several brightly colored magazines were scattered around them. Nancy placed her magazine aside, then opened up another one and peered at the large, glossy pictures of wild cats.
"Look, Nan," George whispered, pointing to a picture in her magazine. "Cougar cubs are a different color from their parents. The mother is plain yellow-brown, but the babies are lighter with big black spots."
"That's interesting." Nancy leaned toward George and studied the picture of two baby cougars being nursed by their mother.
"This says," George went on, "that unlike other wild cats, cougars won't usually attack humans, unless you threaten a mother or her cubs. Then she'll treat you like prey. She'll leap on you, drag you to the ground, and break your neck, not to mention maul you extensively with her claws and teeth for good measure." George glanced at Nancy. "Wow. That's some maternal instinct. They're big animals, you know."
Nancy raised her brows. "I don't think you have to worry. I bet Bess's mother cougar is locked safely behind bars." Nancy jotted down George's information on a piece of yellow lined paper and looked at her watch. "I think we've got enough material for Christy's story. We've gone through several encyclopedias and magazine articles, and it's only eleven-thirty."
"I'm getting a little tired of being inside on this sunny day, anyway," George said, frowning at the fluorescent lights. A soft breeze blew in through an open window. "What do you say we swing by the zoo on our way back to work? I'd like to see those cubs and also say hi to Bess. We can still get this material to Christy by one o'clock."
Nancy slid her pad of paper into a canvas satchel. "Great idea. We also might learn some things from Bess and the vet that we haven't found in a book."
"There's no substitute for the real thing," George agreed. "Let's go."
After noting which magazines had the best pictures, George and Nancy left the library and drove off toward the zoo in Nancy's blue Mustang.
Nancy found a parking space near the entrance. As the girls stepped out of the car, George pulled a maroon baseball cap from her purse and pulled it over her short dark curls. "Christy might not like the look," she commented, "but at least this hat keeps the sun out of my face."
Nancy smiled. George and Bess were so different, she mused. George loved sports and wearing jeans and sneakers, while her cousin Bess preferred boy-watching, hot fudge sundaes, and shopping at the mall. But despite their differences, George and Bess were loyal friends.
Nancy locked her car, and the two girls headed for the zoo entrance. They walked along the eight-foot-high stone wall surrounding the grounds and through the wide-open gates made of iron bars.
The first thing Nancy noticed inside was a monorail track leading to a quaint, old fashioned-looking train platform and station. It looks like a station where Sherlock Holmes might catch a train, Nancy thought.
After paying their admission fee, the two followed the signs for the cougar habitat. Down a leafy path, which curved past a group of elephants and zebras, Nancy spotted a blond girl sitting on a bench in a patch of sunlight. Her eyes were closed, and her pretty face was tilted dreamily toward the sun.
"Bess!" Nancy shouted. She jogged up to her. "Caught you -- asleep on the job."
Bess jolted to attention, then tugged her lavender miniskirt toward her knees. Her blue eyes darted guiltily from Nancy to George. "Uh, hi, guys. I...I was just trying to relax. The WRVH camera crew left about an hour ago, and things were really hectic."
"An hour ago?" George exclaimed. "And you've been sitting here all this time? I hope you're wearing sunblock," she chided her cousin, "or you'll be burned to a crisp."
Bess frowned, anxiously poking her cheeks. "Do I look burned? I was trying to catch the perfect tan -- for Randy."
"Randy?" Nancy said. "Who's he?"
"Randy Thompson, the assistant vet," Bess gushed. "Wait till you guys see him. He's almost as cute as the baby cougars."
"And much more endangered, if you've got your eye on him," George muttered, looking pointedly at Bess.
Bess shot her cousin a withering look. "If you think I've been hounding Randy, you're totally wrong. He barely knows I exist." Bess suddenly frowned. "Why aren't you guys at work?"
"We are," George said, with a laugh. "It's a tough job, I know."
Nancy gave George a friendly shove for being so silly. "We've been at the library doing cougar research for Christy. We have plenty of time before we have to be back to the station, so we thought we'd stop by."
"To see the cougars, I bet," Bess said.
"And you, too, dear cousin," George added.
"You're just lucky that the little guys are so cute; otherwise, I might be offended. Come on. Their cage is this way. They're inside the nursery next to the cougar habitat."
"Lead on, Bess," Nancy said. She scanned the ten-foot-tall chain-link fence on her right. About twenty feet beyond it, a male lion rested on a rock. His yellow eyes looked proudly around his domain, while a lioness roamed the grassy field below.
"Each cat species has its own bit of land -- about two or three acres that resembles the cat's natural habitat so it will feel right at home," Bess explained as they walked along. "The habitats are separated by big moats of water. Most wild cats hate to get wet -- just like house cats -- so they won't cross the moats."
George smiled. "I'm impressed with how much you know, Bess. I guess you haven't spent all your time here sunbathing."
Bess flashed George a sly grin. "I've been doing my homework. I can't have Randy thinking I'm just a dumb blond."
"Here we are," Bess announced, pointing to a field full of bushes, trees, and rocks. A low stone building with a chain-link fence sprouting from either side stood between the walkway and the habitat. The front of the building had three entrances, and Nancy assumed that the back of the building also had doors, so the cougars could go back and forth, inside and out, as they wished.
Bess opened the nearest door to let them in. "The nursery cage is separated from the others to give Katie and her four cubs some peace and quiet. We're not letting the public in here until the cubs are older -- except, of course, for the TV crew this morning."
Inside, there was a small spectator area in front of a large, clean cage with a padlocked gate. Katie, a tawny cougar about five feet long, was asleep in the cage on a thin bed of straw. Snuggling close to her belly were the cubs, all making high-pitched squeaks.
"They're so adorable," Nancy said, admiring the tiny bodies covered with spotted fur. "The way they're squirming, you can't tell where one stops and the next one begins." She tried counting them.
Suddenly, she frowned and quickly scanned the cage. "Didn't you say there were four cubs, Bess?" she asked, her eyes wide.
"Yes," Bess said, staring into the cage. "One, two, three -- " She stopped and started counting again. "One, two, three -- "
Bess shot Nancy a look of sheer panic.
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