"Innocent creature?" Morris said. "Take a look at this hand. Innocent creature, ha!"
Luther and I went into the back room. The nurse was finished. "Well, now, in all fairness," Luther said, "that skunk was just trying to defend itself."
"You're right, you're right," Morris said. "The real culprits are the ones who trapped the skunk and closed it up in the closet. They're the ones who were endangering a wild animal."
"Is the note signed?" Luther asked.
"It is," I answered. "Want to guess by whom?"
"Sure" Luther said. "The Muskoka Musketeers."
"The what?" Morris asked, sitting up. "The Muskoka what?"
"Musketeers," I answered.
"I know what the Muskoka is," Morris said, gesturing toward the window.
"Please lie still, Morris," the doctor said.
"And I know what a musketeer is," Morris said, ignoring the physician's order and swooping an imaginary sword through the air. "But what does a musketeer have to do with the river? Muskoka Musketeers sounds like a rock band but I'm betting from that note it’s a group of environmentalists. Am I right?"
"You are," Luther said. "And I'm betting this won't be the last you'll hear from them."
"Morris, I want you to stay here for a half hour at least," the doctor said. "And I want you to he quietly—no distractions," he added, looking over at Luther and me.
I could take the hint. "Come on," I said. "Let's get back to town and let him rest."
"Luther, on your way out, stop by the office and pick up your employment papers and ID," Morris said, "I'll let you know about when to report here. Your first assignment will be meeting our screenwriter, Althea. Oh, and please have Rita send one of our security people over here. I want to find out how a Musketeer brandishing a skunk managed to get into a locked trailer."
"Morris—" the doctor began.
"I'd be glad to talk to the security officer for you while you rest, Morris," I broke in. "I can get some preliminary information at least, and I can alert the security staff that there's been a breach."
"Excellent idea, Nancy" he said, lying back on the cot. "Having the famous Nancy Drew as part of my security team... great idea... I need to keep you out here, anyway, so I can bug you to play Esther... perfect." Still mumbling, he drifted off to sleep. They must have given him a sedative.
Luther went to the office building to check in, and I strolled around the compound. I finally found a large trailer labeled security.
I knocked, and the door opened immediately. A young woman peeked out. Her nametag identified her as Jane Brandon. "Whoa, you must have been the girl who was with Morris when the skunk bit him," she said, resting her finger under her nose.
"You guessed it," I said, "although I'm sure my 'perfume' gave me away. Sorry about that. We can talk out here if you like, so I won't drag these fumes into the trailer."
"Good idea," she said, stepping outside. She closed and locked the door, and walked down the steps to where I stood. "Don't be too self-conscious about the smell," she said. "I'm a farm girl—I've been around more than my share of skunks."
We walked along the bluff above the river. I told her that Morris had asked me to talk with her, and she seemed happy to hear that. "One of the first things that struck me when Luther and I arrived earlier was that you guys aren't fenced in at all," I said, "and no one is posted to keep out visitors. Morris seemed to be shocked that someone could just walk in with a skunk, but it didn't surprise me at all."
"There are only two of us in security so far," she explained. "Dave Linn and me. He's over at the supply trailer. This is a really low-budget operation. Morris has promised that when we actually begin shooting and the excitement really starts, we'll have more security people. But right now... he seems to think we don't need any more."
I told her about my background as a detective, and she seemed genuinely impressed and relieved.
"Frankly, we can use all the help we can get," she said. "This production has had a lot of trouble from the get-go, and I wouldn't be surprised if that animal didn't just crawl in there on his own."
"You're right." I showed her the note from the Muskoka Musketeers and told her what I knew about them. "Have you seen any reporters around? The Musketeers love publicity, so they might have alerted the press about what they had planned, so they could make the TV news tomorrow."
"No. No one from town seems to have gotten wind of it," she answered. We looked at each other and, smelling the pungent odor, broke into laughter at her unintentional joke. I had a good feeling about working with her. Sometimes professional security people don't like an outsider working on their cases. But Jane seemed to be really open to the idea.
"I'll be glad to talk to the Musketeers, if you like," I volunteered. "It's a local group. Chances are I know some of the members, and they might be more open to talking with me. I could set up a meeting between them and you and Morris. Maybe have Luther Eldridge sit in too. He's very well known around here as someone who's interested in protecting the history of River Heights. And Morris has just hired him as a script consultant—the Musketeers should like that."
"That sounds great," Jane said. "Try to get something going for tomorrow, will you? That will give Morris a chance to rest a little, and also give us time to jump into our investigation. Then we'll be primed for the meeting."
I agreed to her suggestion and started back to the office to track down Luther. He was there waiting for me, and he couldn't stop talking as we walked to his car. This was rare for him. I had met Luther through his daughter, who had been a friend of mine. She and the rest of his family were all killed in a car accident a few years ago. He's been almost a hermit ever since—so it was great to see him excited again.
Luther pulled his car out of the compound and we started back along the Muskoka toward River Heights. Even though it had been over an hour since the spraying, we both still stunk from the skunk.
"My car will never be the same," Luther said with a sigh. "Oh well, maybe it's time to trade it in anyway. Although I don't know anyone offhand who'd take it at this point."
"It'll air out eventually," I said, "in maybe ten years or so!"
We hadn't gone more than a couple of miles when I noticed a few small tents in a clearing ahead. "There they are," I pointed out. The Muskoka Musketeers had set up a small protest site on the river-bank. A half dozen people waved and held up signs as we zipped by.
"Do you want to stop?" Luther suggested. "We could walk all through the camp and stink up the place."
"Not now," I said, smirking. I told him about my conversation with Jane Brandon, and about setting up a meeting for the next day. "Besides, I don't want to give them the satisfaction of knowing their skunk ambush worked so well."
"Good idea," Luther said as he pulled into town. "Thank goodness they tend to be a pretty peaceful bunch. We should be able to work something out with them."
Before long we were turning onto Park Street. "I assume you want to go home," Luther said.
"Absolutely," I answered. "I'm supposed to meet Bess and George at Sylvio's, and there's no way I can go smelling like this."
After a few more minutes, Luther stopped his car in my driveway. "Well, thanks for another adventurous afternoon with Nancy Drew," he said. His grin crinkled his face into a dozen wrinkles. "So... I'll be seeing you on the set, right, Esther?"
"I said I'd think about it," I told him. "And I will." That was the truth. I really hadn't made up my mind yet.
I waved good-bye, then went inside to clean up. Well, at least I tried to. I was kind of glad no one was home to greet me. I live with my dad and our housekeeper, Hannah—my mom died when I was three. If Hannah had been home when I came in smelling like a skunk, I'd be cleaning up for weeks.
The thing about really bad smells is that they go through your nose and up into your sinuses. Or maybe it's just such a shock to your senses, that it stays in your memory. All I know is I scrubbed for half an hour, and I couldn't tell whether it did any good or not. My head was still full of skunk stink.
I finally gave up and drove to Sylvio's. No one seemed to notice when I walked in. I figured that was a good sign. The waitress I walked by didn't hold her nose, and people didn't jump up and run out like they do in cartoons when a skunk walks in. I sat down with Bess and George at a table by the window.
"We didn't think you'd ever get here," Bess said. "Tell us everything—and don't leave anything out." She leaned in to hear my report. Bess is really pretty—blond, with perfect features. And right then, her perfect little nose began to twitch. She's also kind, and doesn't like to hurt people's feelings, so she didn't say anything. She just leaned back in her chair and casually rested her hand in front of her nose.
George, on the other hand, is very direct. "Where have you been?" she exclaimed. "Or should I ask, what have you been rolling in?"
I told my friends about my afternoon with Luther and Morris Dunnowitz.
"You're going to be in the movie?" Bess said, ignoring the part about the skunk. I knew she'd think working on the film was a great idea. And to be honest, just hearing the enthusiasm in her voice got me excited about it.
"Do you think you can do it?" George asked. "I've heard film acting can be pretty boring. A lot of waiting around, endless retakes. Besides, you haven't had any experience in something like that. Are you good enough to be in a real movie?"
"Of course she is," Bess pointed out. "She was Buttercup in Pinafore, and she was wonderful!"
"That was in the seventh grade," George reminded her cousin. "And she was all right—until she ran off the stage in the middle of Act Two, sick. Remember? I'm not sure that really counts."
"Who else is in it?" Bess asked, leaning across the table. "Who are the stars?"
"I have no idea," I said, "I don't really know anything about it except the story. Wouldn't Ned be great as one of the Rackham brothers? The camera would love his dimples. Too bad he left for that book fair in Chicago."
"But the part of Esther is small, right?" Bess asked. "Esther Rackham was the sister of the bad guys, wasn't she?"
"Yes," I answered. "If I remember the legend correctly, it should only be a couple of scenes."
"It's perfect," Bess declared. "The movie's about the most famous River Heights mystery, and it will star the most famous River Heights detective! You have to do it."
"That's just what the director said," I told her. "Except the word star is a little extreme. But it does seem to be a natural fit, personality-wise, doesn't it? Besides, this production is going to be really important to Luther. Playing this part will sort of be a way to support him." I paused, thinking about some of the other bit parts I had played in grade-school plays. I had been nervous every time—but I was older now. I would be able to handle it, right? "I guess I'll do it," I finally muttered.
While Bess and George dove into the pizza, I called Morris and told him my decision. Hesitant as I was, I was really happy to hear that he was feeling better, and that the accident with the skunk wasn't going to slow him or the filming down.
Bess, George, and I spent the rest of the evening talking about our favorite films and movie stars. When I told them that Morris was looking for extras and bit players, their eyes lit up at the prospect of seeing their own names in the credits.
Sunday morning I reported early for orientation, costume fitting, and makeup tests. Morris had told me to go to the editing building to meet with Rita Clocker, the production assistant and continuity chief. She would give me my schedule.
From the moment I arrived at the compound, the general mood seemed to be panic. When I had worked on a theatrical production before, it was a pretty weird experience. Everyone was stressed about meeting schedules, meeting the budget, and a hundred other crazy details. I could tell from the minute I arrived at Rocky Edge that this production wouldn't be any calmer.
People were running from trailer to trailer, yelling questions back and forth. At first I thought these people were talking about Morris's encounter with the skunk. Maybe they were worried about him, and about what would happen to the production if he got sick from the animal bite.
As I moved closer into the compound, I heard the same questions over and over.
"Does yours work?" several people shouted frantically.
"I have to have one now!" a couple of people called out.
I walked toward the editing building, and finally got a clue what the uproar was about. A woman standing in the doorway yelled, "How about notebooks or laptops? Who's got notebooks?"
Suddenly a familiar voice cut through all the panicked strangers. "Nancy! You're here! And you're going to be our Esther."
"Luther," I said. "At last—a calm, familiar voice." I turned to see my friend striding from the writer's trailer.
"I'm right, aren't I?" he asked. "You're going to accept Morris's offer?"
"I am. But what's going on here this morning? Even for filmmakers, this group seems pretty frenzied. And it's only the first day!"
"It's not a pretty picture, is it?" he said as we took in the chaotic scene.
"I heard one of the members of the editing team say something about laptops and notebooks," I told him. "Is something wrong with the editing machines?"
"You might say that," Luther said in his calm, drawn-out way. "Every computer out here has been fried."
"Fried?" I repeated. "What happened?"
"No one knows" Luther answered. "Could be some computer virus. All I heard was that no database, no files, and no software are available to anyone."
"But they must have backup systems," I said.
"They do—and they're also totaled. They can't figure out what's wrong—"
"George can." I didn't mean to interrupt Luther, but the words just poured out. This whole deal sounded suspicious to me. All the computers out of commission—even the backups? My antennae were quivering.
"That's right," Luther agreed. "She's pretty good with technology, isn't she?"
"She's a total genius when it comes to computers. I can pretty much guarantee that she'll figure out what's wrong—and fix it. Come on, let's find Morris."
It didn't take me long to convince Morris to bring on George. He was really desperate for help. "Believe me," I promised him, "if it's a computer virus, George can snuff it out, and if it's a worm, she can squash it." I decided to keep the last promise to myself: If it's sabotage, she can detect it!
"I don't care what's caused the problem," Morris said, "as long as my computers get fixed." He waved his hands through the air as he talked, and he looked and sounded like he was extremely edgy. "Every aspect of my production depends on those blasted machines," he continued. "Just get her out here as soon as possible!"
"I'll call her right away," I assured him. "We also talked about meeting with the Muskoka Musketeers today. When would be a good time for you?"
"Today?" Morris said, rubbing his forehead. "We've got the table read this afternoon. I don't know... with the computers all down... I can't schedule anything right now, Nancy. Get back to me later."
I could tell I wasn't going to get anywhere with him. With the computer problem, all the priorities changed. I decided to check in with the Musketeers by myself if necessary. But the first goal was to get George on site.
George not only reported immediately; but she brought three laptops from her own private stock. She's so into computers that she buys or scrounges outdated and half-dead ones to rebuild and reconfigure.
"This is fantastic," Morris exclaimed when George handed him the loaners. "Maybe we can reconstruct some of the lost files on your computers while you're working on our machines. I'll give one to Rita and one to Althea, and keep this one for my-self. You're an angel, George! And you are too, Nancy, for bringing her in."
George actually blushed—not something she does very often. But then, she's not called an angel very often either.
"I'm on my way to meet with Rita to get my schedules," I told Morris. "I can take this computer to her, if you like."
"And I can take this one to Althea," Luther said. "We're working through the script today."
"Great," Morris said. "George, you come with me. We've rounded up all the computers for you in the office. Okay, everyone, let's get to work. We're losing time every second—and that means we're losing money."
I headed straight for Rita Clocker's trailer. As I walked through the compound, I began to understand why Morris was verging on panic. The pace of the compound had now slowed to a crawl. People sat around or stood in groups. No one seemed to be working. A few stretched back in lawn chairs, catching some rays. Others read books, watched battery-operated TVs, or talked on cell phones.
It wasn't until I got to Rita Clocker's trailer that it felt like I was on a movie set again. I could hear her voice through the thin trailer walls as I approached— and she didn't sound like a happy camper.
"Look, people, we're in trouble! I need all of you working at top speed. We have to get this production back on track or you're all out of a job. So move it!"
The trailer door popped open and a young man and young woman burst out and ran off toward different buildings.
I stepped inside the trailer and introduced myself. "I'm looking for Rita Clocker."
"You found her," a woman said without looking up from her desk. I recognized her voice as the loud one that I'd heard as I walked up. She was somewhere in her forties, and was pretty average looking except for a gorgeous mane of dark red hair.
"Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew," she recited. "Oh, yes, you're Esther, aren't you? Let me see..." She pawed through stacks of papers until she finally pulled out a small folder. "I suppose you've heard," she said. "Our computers are all shot. So everything's at a standstill right now. A good time for you to get caught up."
She looked me up and down, her eyes sort of squinty, as if she were checking me out. "Mmmmm, I think you'll do nicely as Esther." She scrawled some notes on a torn piece of paper. "You're new to this, aren't you? I think Morris told me that. Your parts really small right now, but it might be expanded. Go get fitted right away for your costumes, and then report to makeup. I'll have a cameraman meet you there, and he can do some testing while they're developing your face colors."
She talked so fast, I had to really focus to catch every word. And she never seemed to actually take a breath.
"Because the computers are all out of whack, I have no idea at this point when we'll be shooting your scenes," she barreled on. "We'll take up the slack time with rehearsals, blocking, and coaching. Lunch is at noon sharp in the mess hall. That's the long metal building over on the bluff. The actors and crew chiefs are doing the table read at two o'clock in the same building. Be there. I'll give you the rest of your schedule then."
She gave me a quick smile, then ducked her head back down to her desk and began studying a clipboard full of charts. I thanked her and headed straight for the wardrobe building.
Rita's rat-a-tat speech was still rattling in my brain, and I found myself hurrying across the compound.
The costume fittings went quickly. They already had some dresses made up, and they just needed to alter them a bit to make them fit perfectly. I usually hate getting fitted for clothes—it's so boring and seems to take forever. But this session turned out to be very interesting.
"Wow, did they create that blue cloth just to match your eyes or what?" Tripp Vanilli said when I came out of the dressing room in my first costume. "Honey, you’re going to be a great Esther." Tripp was the head designer, and admitted this was only his second film. His assistant, Julie Wilson, had done more movies, but this was her first big-time project.
Julie handed me a long apron to put over the dress. "He's right, you know. This dress isn't exactly evening wear, but it'll be great for the film."
"So how was Rita?" Tripp asked as he pulled some dresses off the rack. "Totally hyper, I bet. She acts like the only reason the computers went down was to inconvenience her."
"If you ask me, it's kind of a blessing," Julie said, pinning up my hem.
"Blessing?" I repeated. "How do you mean?"
"This whole production was a .ness long before this morning," she answered. "It’s probably a good idea for everyone to stop and take a breath."
"But why?" I asked. "Aren't you just getting started? How could it be a mess already?"
"Money, honey," Tripp called over from the cutting board. "Not enough of it."
"This is a budget flick if there ever was one,"Julie added. "There wasn't enough money to start with, and some of that's been thrown down the wrong tube."
"Morris seems so sure of himself," I said. "I'm surprised he'd let that happen."
"He's spread pretty thin, trying to be both producer and director," Tripp pointed out. "Sometimes he's so wrapped up in one job, he loses control of the other."
"The sad thing is how it affects all of us—the crew and the artisans," Julie said, standing back to check her work. "When we first came on board, everyone was like this great team—a family. We all really believed in the project and were willing to put up with the low budget in order to get the job done and make a really good film. But now..."
Her voice trailed off and she just shrugged her shoulders.
"You'll see what we mean," Tripp said. "Everyone's on edge. Our little family has turned into a collection of bickering brats." He brought over a beautiful piece of paisley material and draped it around my shoulders. "Mmmm, nice?" he murmured.
"Absolutely," Julie said. "Okay, Nancy, you're through for now. We'll get right on these, and let you know when we need you for the next fitting."
I thanked them and went over to the makeup trailer.
"Well, now, no mistaking who you're gonna be in this movie, is there?" a cheerful voice greeted me as I stepped inside the trailer. The long room smelled like face cream and hair spray. "Hi, I'm Degas." A short man with broad muscular shoulders and an inky-black ponytail reached up and fluffed my hair. "I'm not going to be doing much here," he said. "You're practically perfect as is."
A woman bustled out of the bathroom and joined us. "You must be Nancy Drew," she said, "our Esther. I'm Pam." She was pretty in a natural kind of way, but it was hard to guess her age. She could have been anywhere from forty to sixty.
"Cosmetician to the stars," Degas added, smiling proudly at his colleague. "You're really lucky, Nancy. Pam has made up some of the most famous faces in the world."
"Have you seen this?" she asked, pointing to a large portrait of a young woman hanging on the wall. It was a blowup of a brownish photograph I'd seen once in the River Heights library. A small sticky note with the word Blue had been placed over one eye. Another note stating Reddish blond was stuck next to the long wavy hair.
The original photo in the library was old and marred with cracks and spots and smudges. But this version had been cleaned up on the computer, and I immediately saw the resemblance between the young Esther Rackham and me.
"You're definitely that girl, babe," Degas said. "Especially after we get through with you."
"After a couple of hours or so, no one will be able to see the difference," Pam said, gently dabbing my face with globs of a sheer cream.
"If I already look so much like Esther, how come it's going to take that long?"
"That's showbiz, babe," Degas said. "Welcome to the movies."
It took even longer than they'd thought, because they stopped periodically to videotape my head from every possible angle. They made up my face and fashioned my hair for daytime, nighttime, working, barn dancing, and gardening. And they barely stopped talking the entire time.
A lot of the conversation was about people I didn't know or hadn't even heard about. So I steered them in another direction. "I hear this production is having a little trouble getting off the ground," I said.
"Staying off the ground, you mean," Degas said. While Pam held the camera, Degas was pinning different hair extensions on my head. I’d just had my hair cut to shoulder length, and Esther's hair was supposed to be about a foot longer.
"This isn't exactly a big-budget production, you know," Degas continued. "We've certainly been there before, right, Pam?"
"Ohhh, yes," she said. She squinted one eye as she looked through the viewer with the other.
"And small films have to cut corners sometimes," Degas said. "We all get that. But this production... whoa, it's been a train wreck. One problem after another just eating up the money. And there's just not that much extra to spare."
"But from what I've heard, every film production has problems along the way," I said. "How is this one any different? Some people have said that Morris might not be able to handle producing and directing. Do you think that's it?"
"Hey, it's a nutty business to begin with," Degas said. "And you're right—there are always disasters along the way that eat into the budget. But this one is different somehow—and I don't think it's really Morris's fault, do you, Pam?"
"No, I don't," she agreed, putting down the camera. She looked over at the portrait of Esther Rackham. "The things that happen... well, they just don't seem to be accidents, that's all. It's like this whole production is jinxed. Reminds me of a picture I worked on thirty years ago. No one ever figured out who—or what—was causing all the problems. Some even thought the ghost of the main character was kicking up the trouble... didn't want her story to be told. Finally had to close the whole production down for good…"
Pam's voice just sort of faded off as she ended her sentence. I glanced over at Degas. He raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips as he looked back at me, but he didn't say anything.
By the time the two of them had finished with me, my head had been pulled, plastered, and peeled, dabbed, jabbed, and scrubbed—at least a dozen times. Amazingly, when I finally left the trailer, my face felt soft and tingly.
I was also hungry, and late for lunch, so I headed straight for the mess hall. It was one of those metal temporary buildings assembled on the grounds just for providing food to the actors, crew, and staff.