An agent of the U.S. State Department dispatches the Hardys on an ultra-secret mission to track an international hit man in the Little Panaslava section of River Heights. But the Hardys don't know the identity of the assassin, or of his target, the exiled prince of Panaslava. Joined by Nancy Drew, Frank and Joe Hardy must slowly penetrate a wall of silence surrounding Little Panaslava -- to make a shocking discovery.
"It's weird," George Fayne said to her friends Bess Marvin and Nancy Drew as they moved quickly along the broken pavement in the crisp fall night air. "I've lived in River Heights all my life, and I've never been in this neighborhood before."
"According to Hannah, we've all been missing out by not coming here," Nancy reported. Hannah Gruen, the Drews' housekeeper, had just about raised Nancy after Nancy's mother passed away fifteen years earlier. "There's a bakery here that makes the best pastries in River Heights. Hannah used to take me to it when I was young, and I still remember how excited I'd get. It was a big adventure for a little kid."
"It's still quite an adventure," Bess piped up.
"At least, it has been for me. Hannah's right. We were missing out, and that's why I wanted to bring you guys here."
George stole a glance in the soft evening darkness at her cousin. It was unlike Bess to be so enthusiastic about anyplace, especially one as run-down as Little Panaslava appeared to be. "Hannah said it was like another country here. Too bad it looks like such a poor one."
"George!" Bess scolded. "What a rotten thing to say."
"Come on, Bess," George said, defending herself. "There's broken glass and litter all over the sidewalks, not to mention boarded-up windows in abandoned buildings. Not even the dark can blur the signs of neglect."
"You have to learn to look beyond the surface, George Fayne," her cousin answered.
Nancy could tell she and George were thinking the same thought: Was this the Bess they'd known all their lives? They both shook their heads.
Bess continued. "Little Panaslava has always been an immigrant neighborhood, mostly Eastern European. The people came to River Heights for jobs in factories that are now closed. Ever since the Panaslavan Communist government fell, there's been a new wave of immigrants to River Heights. We don't have jobs for them anymore. So you can't expect Little Panaslava to look prosperous."
Bess's speech stopped Nancy and George in their tracks. Bess couldn't remember when the Declaration of Independence was signed. How could she know about immigration trends of the late twentieth century in River Heights?
"How did you learn all this, Bess?" Nancy asked.
"Yeah," George chimed in. "I didn't know that history was a word in your vocabulary."
Nancy could tell from Bess's grin that she'd been waiting to impress her friends.
"Fess up, Bess," Nancy said. "Have you been watching PBS again?"
"No," Bess said. "I've brought you to Little Panaslava to hear a great band and" -- she paused -- "to meet someone."
"Bess, now you've got me scared," George said. "First history and now ethnic music?"
Nancy hissed at George. "You weren't listening. She said, 'a great band and to meet some one,' as in a guy."
"Oh, I get it!" George slapped her forehead. "It all makes sense now. Sudden interest in Panaslavan history plus Panaslavan music equals..."
Nancy joined George in finishing her sentence. "A Panaslavan guy!"
"Hey," Bess complained, "that's not fair, but, okay, it's true. Come on, let's go -- and not another bad word out of either of you."
As they walked under a streetlight, the girls passed a storefront window with the word Mesar painted on it in old-fashioned gold lettering.
Under that was taped up a piece of paper with the handwritten word Meat.
"I don't think they need the translation," George said. "Not with all those chunks of animal hanging in the window. Look at those poor naked things without their fur -- I think they were rabbits."
Bess didn't pay any more attention to her cousin. She pointed across the street. "There it is."
The "it" was a club that was located in the cellar of an old brick building. The door, which was down a short flight of steps, looked like every other unmarked cellar door on the block.
After passing through the thick, fortresslike opening, Nancy paused in surprise. The inside of the club was nothing like its grim exterior. Special lighting illuminated tiny silver speckles that seemed to be everywhere -- on the walls and ceiling, on the leather-and-chrome chairs, and even on the floor.
The walls of the club were painted an almost black purple near the entrance. The color gradually lightened until, at the far end of the room, the walls had become blazing red. Against this bright color stood a stage, and between the stage and the front door, the room was filled with a crowd in their late teens and early twenties.
"Cheek it out!" George muttered.
"You're not going to hear balalaikas here," Bess said smugly.
As the girls made their way to a table near the front, lights came up on the stage. A young man in a battered leather jacket and ripped jeans walked casually up to the microphone at center stage and tossed back his long blond hair.
"Hey," he called to the audience. "I think we're ready. How about you?" The crowd burst into cheers, whistles, and applause. "All right!" cried the emcee. "And now, who did we all come to hear?"
Obviously, the local crowd knew the routine. Bess joined them in a huge communal response:
Before the shout had died down, four young men stepped onto the stage. As they settled in, a chant arose: "Incogni-to! Incogni-to!"
Nancy was surprised at how normal the band looked. She had expected something a little different from the faded, worn jeans, plaid flannel shirts, and long hair -- "A grunge band?" George blurted out. The guy on lead guitar nodded to the other band members, then stomped a rhythm on the stage with a heavy motorcycle boot. It was joined by a blistering bass beat, and soon Incognito rocked into its version of an old Led Zeppelin tune.
Nancy moved to the music. "Not bad!" she yelled over the amplified sound.
The lead guitarist was also the singer. He had a powerful, slightly raw-sounding voice. Nancy couldn't identify his accent, but it was definitely not Slavic. Perhaps British, she thought.
What's he doing here, especially in Little Panaslava? Nancy wondered. She turned to ask Bess, but her friend's attention was glued to the stage, or, more precisely, to the lead singer.
Ah-ha, Nancy thought. That's the Panaslavan guy, but why no accent?
Well, the guy was good-looking. His moves showed off his great muscle tone, and his intense, chiseled features were set off by long jet-black hair. He seemed to Nancy to be a handsome, classic Greek statue come to life.
Nancy glanced over at Bess again and could almost feel the intensity radiating from her. Yep, Nancy thought, Bess has really fallen for this guy.
The band continued with a couple of other well-known tunes -- a Metallica song and a real head-banging number by Megadeth.
Then people in the crowd began calling out requests for songs Nancy had never heard of. "'Ocean Between Us'!" a guy yelled.
Bess shouted, "'She's a Lady'!"
The lead singer smiled at her and nodded. "'She's a Lady,"' he agreed.
The song was a bluesy love song, and Bess's smile couldn't have been bigger.
"These guys aren't your average garage band," George pronounced as the song ended. "That guitarist is hot."
Bess nodded proudly. "They've sent audition tapes to a couple of major record companies," she said. "Cass thinks Incognito is on the verge of a contract."
"Cass?" George inquired.
"The lead guitarist," Bess said. "You'll meet him in a minute."
George looked at Nancy for confirmation. "Did I miss something?" she asked.
Nancy nodded affirmatively. "Guitarist equals Panaslavan guy" was all she said.
As soon as Incognito finished its first set and left the stage, Bess had Nancy and George on their feet and heading toward the dressing rooms.
Backstage reminded Nancy of a gym locker room -- especially when they found Bess's handsome guitarist rubbing his bare torso down with a towel.
Bess went right up to him and kissed his cheek. "Nancy Drew, George Fayne, meet Cass Carroll."
Cass nodded politely but didn't act thrilled at seeing either Bess or her friends invade his private space. Maybe Bess was pushing too hard with this guy, Nancy thought.
"Would you like to go to that little coffee shop down the block, Cass?" Bess suggested softly. "It would give you guys a chance to get to know one another."
Now Cass Carroll seemed even less comfortable. "Okay. I need to clean up a bit, though." He softened a little and gave the girls a truly killer smile. "I'm afraid rocking is sweaty work."
Nancy and Bess waited by the entrance to the club while George paid their bill. "Bess," Nancy said carefully, "was it a good idea to spring us on Cass like that?"
Bess had stars in her eyes. "Cass and I have been going out for a couple of weeks now, and I just couldn't keep it a secret anymore."
Nancy didn't like the idea of secrets, either. "So what's the story with Cass?"
Bess grinned, eyes sparkling. "He's a man of mystery. Just try asking him some questions."
"That doesn't sound good, Bess." Nancy frowned. "Men of mystery sometimes have mysterious extra girlfriends."
"No way!" Bess shook her head. "I've seen enough of Cass and the guys in the band to be sure of that. Oh! Here they come."
George joined them, and so did Cass, now in a fresh flannel shirt and a hooded red sweatshirt. "I can only spend a little time with you," he apologized. "We've got to go back on in half an hour. And there's supposed to be a guy from one of the record companies here tonight."
They walked down a block lined with old stores that had been converted into homes. Nancy could see bits of flaking gold paint on the old windowsills, which framed sagging blinds, and, here and there, blankets used as drapes.
At the end of the block was a big plate-glass window from which warm light streamed. Nancy had been expecting some sort of diner, but instead she entered a turn-of-the-century coffee bar with blindingly clean white walls and dark wood tables and chairs. Glittering coffee machines, reflected in a large mirror, were each brewing a different blend. The mingled aromas of coffee and pastries were heavenly.
They were greeted at the door by an elegant older man with a hawklike nose and thinning silver hair brushed straight back. In spite of his age, he stood tall and straight.
"Welcome to Egon's," he said in a slight Panaslavan accent as he bowed to the girls. Then he shook a finger at Cass. "Three young ladies now? Please sit down here." He led them to one of the larger tables. "No need to order. Egon brings the best in the house!"
Moments later they were sipping strong, sweet coffee from fine china cups with gold rims. The golden pastries that accompanied the coffee were equally delicious. Nancy's first bite filled her mouth with light, buttery pastry dough and drenched her taste buds in warm apricot filling.
"Delicious!" Nancy declared. "Cass, how did you find this place?"
"It's the other way around," Cass said with a grin. "Old Egon found me. He's kind to starving artists." He winked. "Besides, the pastry would go stale if someone didn't eat it."
"How did you and Bess meet?" George asked abruptly. Nancy frowned at her lack of tact, and George responded with an innocent look that Nancy read as I-just-want-to-know-don't-you?
"It was at the Seven-Eleven," Bess said.
"I work there," Cass explained. "My day job, you see."
As he laughed, Nancy again wondered about what she had definitely identified as Cass's British accent. Bess might joke, but this guy was a man of mystery -- a Panaslavan with an American job and an English accent, hanging out in an Eastern European neighborhood.
Nancy was trying to figure out how to ask for some answers, when Egon came rushing out of the kitchen. His smile had disappeared, and his face was gray. "On the overseas radio -- I hear -- " He had suddenly lost his almost perfect English. "King Boris -- shot dead in Paris!"
An elderly woman at one of the other tables burst into tears. But most of the people in the cafe -- especially the younger ones -- said, "King who?"
"I don't understand," Nancy said. "I thought that Panaslava had been broken up into six separate republics since the Communists -- "
Cass interrupted. "Before the Communists, a king ruled Panaslava. Boris was this king's son -- the pretender to the throne." His upper lip twisted as if he'd tasted something bad. "I guess that's over now, if he's dead."
The young man rose so quickly, he almost knocked the table over. Before anyone could follow, he was out of the cafe.
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