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Chapter One: Welcome to the Everglades
"Are we there yet?" eighteen-year-old Bess Marvin grumbled. "It feels like we've been driving forever."
Nancy Drew glanced into the rearview mirror of the rental car and smiled at her friend, who was fidgeting in the backseat. "Almost. The sign back there said that the entrance to Everglades National Park was coming right up."
George Fayne, who was sitting next to Nancy, spread the map of southern Florida across her lap. She smoothed the crinkles and creases with her fingertips. "The Everglades is huge. Like millions of acres. The place where we're staying, Flamingo, is only a tiny part of it."
"Flamingo is way at the bottom of the Everglades, right on Florida Bay," Nancy explained.
Nancy turned off the air conditioner and rolled the window down slightly. A hot breeze blew against her face and ruffled her reddish blond hair.
The scenery was the same as it had been for the last half hour: dry, flat fields; orange farms; and the occasional grocery store, house, or strip mall with forlorn-looking For Rent signs.
The scenery didn't look anything like what Susan Bokan had described to Nancy in her many postcards. Susan used to be a good friend of the girls back in River Heights.
The girls had met Susan five years earlier. Susan's parents owned a fancy inn on the outskirts of River Heights. The Bokans were clients of Nancy's father, Carson Drew, who was an attorney.
The girls hadn't seen Susan since she moved to Florida a couple of years earlier to work as a volunteer for the Everglades National Park. Her parents were still in River Heights, although they spent part of every winter in Florida to visit their daughter.
In her postcards, Susan described the beautiful, wild, and junglelike Everglades. The photographs on the cards showed exotic-looking plants and animals with exotic-sounding names like gumbo-limbo trees, strangler figs, roseate spoonbills, and manatees.
In her last postcard Susan had asked Nancy to visit her as soon as possible, and to bring George and Bess along. Nancy had wondered about the invitation. There was something out-of-the-blue and mysterious about it. Still, she and her friends were eager to visit the Everglades, so it didn't take much to convince them.
"There it is." Bess's blond head appeared between the two front seats. "There's the sign?Everglades National Park. We're here, finally!"
"I can't wait to see Susan," George said eagerly. "I can't wait to go on hikes and canoe trips and -- "
"I can't wait to have dinner," Bess interrupted. "It's after six o'clock. The last thing we ate were those itty-bitty bags of peanuts on the plane, and I'm totally starving."
Nancy chuckled. Despite the fact that George and Bess were cousins, they were as different as night and day. It wasn't just that George was tall and slender with short, dark hair, and Bess was short and curvy with long, curly blond hair.
Nancy could already anticipate the rest of their Florida vacation: George would be off on hikes and canoe trips and kayaking expeditions, while Bess would be more interested in hanging out in a beach chair, working on her tan, and sampling the local cuisine. For weeks Bess had been talking about checking out such Florida specialties as conch chowder, Key lime pie, and blackened grouper.
Nancy pulled up to the ranger station. A gray-haired man in a khaki-colored uniform put down his walkie-talkie and smiled at her. "May I help you, miss?"
"I'm looking for the volunteers' dorm at Flamingo," Nancy explained.
The ranger scribbled some directions on a brochure map and handed it to her. "Follow my red arrows. Be there in no time."
"Thank you," Nancy said.
She waved goodbye to the ranger and drove through the gate, into the park. Almost immediately, Nancy could see that they were in a totally different world.
This is the Florida Susan described in her postcards, she thought.
It felt as though they had gone back to prehistoric times. Nancy was reminded of the scenery in dinosaur movies. The landscape consisted of huge, sweeping palm trees, brightly colored tropical flowers, and tangly vines that wound around everything. Massive birds swooped through the air or perched on branches, preening their feathers with their enormous beaks.
Driving around a bend in the road, Nancy and her friends passed a wide field of tall, greenish brown sawgrass that billowed in the breeze. Just beyond the field was a large, murky pond bordered by tall, skinny cattails. Nancy could make out a family of alligators sunning themselves on the muddy banks. There were tiny white birds perched on their backs.
Bess pointed at the alligators. "Are...are those what I think they are?" she asked in a shaky voice.
"They're alligators," Nancy said, and then she hesitated. "Or are they crocodiles? I don't remember what the difference is."
"I think crocodiles have pointier snouts," George said. "Plus, they're supposed to be meaner than alligators."
Bess's eyes grew wide. "Which ones eat people?"
"They both do, if you bother them," George said. "Just stay away from them, and they'll stay away from you. That's Alligator and Crocodile 101."
"I'm staying way far away from them, believe me," Bess said with a shudder.
Nancy grinned. "Ditto."
They proceeded down the road, past more palm trees and marshes and other spectacular scenery. "This place is really beautiful," Nancy remarked. "No wonder Susan likes working here."
"I can't wait to explore the park," George said.
"I can't wait to explore the pool," Bess said. "Our hotel does have one, right?"
"We're staying in a cabin near Susan's dorm. I kind of doubt it has a pool," Nancy replied.
George began folding up the road map. "I guess we won't be needing this anymore," she said. "You know, I wonder why Susan suddenly invited us down here, after all this time?"
"I've been wondering the same thing," Nancy said.
"I think she just missed us," Bess said. "I mean, wouldn't you miss us? We're so much fun to have around!" She reached into her oversize straw bag and pulled out a pair of pink rhinestone sunglasses. "What do you think, girls? I got these for the trip."
"They're...interesting," George said politely.
Nancy glanced into the rearview mirror. "They're very you, Bess," she said with a laugh.
After a few minutes they arrived at what looked like a small village. To the left of them was Florida Bay. There was a marina crowded with sailboats and motorboats. Near the marina was a cluster of buildings, including shops and a motel and a visitors' center. A flock of seagulls sat on the roof of the visitors' center, shrieking and squawking and flapping their wings. The colors of the sunset shimmered on the water.
"Why don't you park, and I'll go ask someone how to get to Susan's dorm?" George offered.
Nancy nodded. "Good idea."
She pulled into a parking space, and George hopped out of the car. Nancy watched as George jogged over to a young guy in a ranger uniform.
A minute later George jogged back and slid into the car. "Go straight a quarter of a mile and to the left," she said. "He says we can't miss it."
Nancy continued down the road. She was getting really psyched about seeing Susan. It had been a few years. Would their friend have changed much? Nancy couldn't wait to hear all about Susan's experiences as a park volunteer.
They soon reached the dorm building, which was surrounded by half a dozen small cabins. Nancy parked the car, and the girls got their bags and headed for the front door.
Even though it was late in the day, the air was incredibly hot and humid. Nancy was glad she was wearing her favorite white shorts and a powder blue tank top. Bess was wearing a yellow sundress, and George was wearing denim cutoffs and a red T-shirt. The climate definitely demanded a summery wardrobe.
The girls walked on a path that was made of broken-up seashells. A small, shiny green tree frog hopped across the path, just ahead of them.
"Isn't it cute?" Bess cried out, pointing to the frog. "Back home, all you ever see in the yard are squirrels."
"We're going to see lots of stuff while we're here," George told her cousin with a grin. "Frogs, lizards, snakes, panthers -- plus your good friends, the alligators and the crocodiles."
"Stop it, you're just trying to scare me," Bess protested.
George wiggled her eyebrows. "Okay, whatever. I'm just telling you what I read in my guidebooks."
Nancy swung open the heavy wooden door to the dorm and went inside. George and Bess followed. They found themselves in a lobby with turquoise-colored walls and white wicker furniture. A big ceiling fan spun around slowly, making a creaking noise. There was a bulletin board covered with official-looking memos and flyers about upcoming events: "Canoe the Wilderness Waterway," "Backcountry Camping Trip to Shark Valley!"
"Yeah, like anyone's going to want to go to someplace called Shark Valley," Bess remarked.
There was no one around. "Helloooo!" Nancy called out. There was no reply.
"Why is this place so deserted?" George said, glancing around. She wandered over to an adjoining room and poked her head in. "Looks like the TV room," she called out over her shoulder. "No one in here, either."
Just then Nancy heard the sound of footsteps clattering down the stairs. A woman with a clipboard appeared. She had short, bushy gray hair, and was dressed in khakis and a pale green T-shirt that said Save the Manatees. She wore a pair of tiny gold-rimmed glasses.
"May I help you?" the woman asked with a friendly smile. "I'm Mrs. Fitzgerald, the dorm mother. You girls looking for someone?"
Nancy set her suitcase on the floor. "We're looking for Susan Bokan. I'm Nancy Drew, and this is Bess Marvin." She turned and pointed to George, who was still standing in the doorway of the TV room. "And that's George Fay -- "
Before Nancy had a chance to finish her sentence, Mrs. Fitzgerald glanced over at George and let out a piercing scream.
Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.