Authors: Shari Barr
McKenzie nodded but didn't feel any better inside. When they came to a corner, she realized she didn't know which hall they had taken. She looked at Alex. “Do you know how to get out?”
“I was too busy filming to pay attention.” Alex looked both ways down the hall.
“I thought I knew,” McKenzie said, peering down the hall to her right. “But now I'm not sure.”
While they considered their next move, Alex pointed to her left. “I think I hear voices. Let's see if we can find someone to ask.”
The girls headed toward the voices and stopped when they came to an open door. An angry voice floated out. “These coolers were full of fish yesterday. Now this one is half empty. And one of our portable coolers is missing, too.”
Another voice responded, “You know, I thought there were fish missing a couple of days ago. Our animals can't eat that much. Where's it all going?”
McKenzie peered through the doorway and saw two teenage boys surveying the contents of the coolers on the back wall. At first the boys didn't notice them, but then the taller one turned and glanced at them.
“Do you know how to get out of here?” McKenzie called across the room. “We're sort of lost.”
The shorter boy waved a fish in one hand as he spoke, “If you're looking for the front door, you're way off track. You probably don't want to go that way, though. A show is going on and is about to let out. But if you want the back door leading to the employee parking lot, head down the hall to your right and go through the exit door.”
After thanking the boys, the girls hurried down the hallway and out the door with E
lit in red letters. They walked between the parked cars toward a stone wall that separated the lot from the street. Finding a shady spot, the girls hopped onto the wall, while McKenzie called Aunt Becca.
“She'll be here in about ten minutes,” McKenzie said, flipping her phone shut.
While they waited, movement at the far end of the lot caught McKenzie's eye. A short-haired blond woman had come from behind the far end of the building carrying a large duffel bag. She climbed into a white pickup parked nearby and backed it up to a door on the side of the building. McKenzie recognized the man who quickly stepped out and loaded a portable cooler into the truck. After throwing a tarp over it, he climbed into the front seat.
Nudging Alex, she said excitedly, “Look. Mr. Franks is leaving. But who was that girl with him? He told us he had to train the seals. That didn't take long.”
“Maybe Nina is training them,” Alex suggested.
The girls watched the pickup disappear down the street into the busy flow of traffic.
“That woman was too far away to get a good look at her,” McKenzie said, frustrated. “But wasn't she dressed like Nina?”
Alex thought for a minute. “I think you're right. Do you think the woman in the pickup was Nina? But her hair was different. Do you think she was wearing a wig earlier?”
“You know, that hat looked like one of those funny disguises we saw in Emerald Bay's gift shop the other day. Maybe she was trying to disguise herself.” McKenzie grew excited.
“Why would she do that?” Alex asked.
McKenzie thought for a moment. “The person I saw in Mr. C.'s cabin had short blond hair, and so did the girl we saw in the truck.”
“So you think Nina was the person you saw on Mr. C.'s sun porch?” Alex asked.
“It could have been her. When I stepped outside that night to get my camera, I bet she saw me. That's why she was wearing a disguise earlierâso I wouldn't recognize her.”
“Wow!” Alex's eyes flashed. “Maybe we're on to something.”
“Something is definitely funny about them, whether they know anything about Mario and Bianca or not.” McKenzie pulled her legs beneath her on top of her rocky perch. “Do you remember when Nina brought those two wet suits out of the storage room? She threw them on top of a black duffel bag. The girl we saw just now was carrying a black duffel bag.”
Alex's eyes grew wide as she suddenly remembered something. “That one guy in that room said fish and a portable cooler were missing. Maybe that was the missing cooler that Mr. Franks carried out. Maybe it was filled with fish.”
“Yeah. I just thought of something else. Those seals were tossing beach balls with their noses. Could they be trained to do that already if the Frankses had just captured them a few days ago, like they said they did?”
Alex shifted her position on the rock wall. “Hey, good point. They must be some really talented seals if they can learn that quickly.” She hesitated and added, “Do you think that little boy really did see them steal Mario and Bianca after all?”
McKenzie sighed. “It seems possible, but I felt so horrible when I accused them. We don't know that they had fish in the cooler they carried out or that it was even the missing cooler. We still don't have evidence.”
“I also think it's weird that Colby arranged this tour that amounted to practically nothing. Something is so strange about this whole thing,” Alex said, swinging her legs.
“Yeah, he was so anxious to help us get the answers we needed for our report, but then Mr. Franks acted like he couldn't wait to get rid of us,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie's mind whirled. Pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place, but something still wasn't right.
We've missed something, but I don't know what,
“I don't get it. Why would Colby plan this tour?” Alex shooed a fly away. “It's almost like he wanted us to see those seals.”
McKenzie's pulse quickened. “You're right, Alex. The Frankses are all working on this together. When I told Colby we were trying to find Mario and Bianca, he called someone at Sea Parkâprobably his dad. They
want us to see the sealsâseals that could be mistaken for Mario and Bianca from a distance. He thought if he could convince us they captured seals instead of sea lions, we would no longer suspect them. This whole tour was rigged to throw us off, so we'd give up on the investigation.”
Alex stared at McKenzie with bewilderment in her eyes. “So, what now?”
“I bet Mario and Bianca are alive and well. We just have to find out where!”
“If the man at the cave did steal Mario and Bianca, where would he take them?” Bailey asked.
McKenzie pushed her phone's speaker button and settled into a lawn chair beside Alex.
McKenzie dug her feet into the sand absentmindedly, eating her last bite of a ham sandwich as she talked. “That's a good question. We know they aren't at Sea Park. Even if they were in a tank we didn't see, some employee there would have seen them. If the Frankses have them, they must be hiding them somewhere else.”
“But what would they want the pups for? Sea Park already has lots of marine animals. So why would they steal animals when they can capture them legally?” Alex twisted the cap off a juice bottle and sipped.
McKenzie leaned back in her chair, flicking the sand with her toes. “Maybe they're doing something illegalâlike selling them on the black market. You know, like Warren was talking about earlier.”
“But how can we prove any of this?” Bailey said, sounding frustrated. “We have no idea where the sea lion pups are or even if they're still alive.”
“We'll both be going home in a few days. If we don't find them soon, nobody will. We're the only ones who think they might still be alive,” Alex said.
“You know more about sea lions than we do, Alex,” McKenzie said. “Where do they live around here besides Sea Lion Harbor?”
Alex thought for a minute and then answered, “There are probably other caves along the coast where they could live. But I don't know how anyone would keep the pups from swimming away. If the Frankses stole the pups, I would think they would steal more. After all, more sea lions, more money. Right?”
“Could be,” Bailey said. “If the Cave Man knows all about sea lions, he would know the best place to hide them.”
The three girls chatted longer, then hung up. McKenzie glanced up the beach. They had planned to keep an eye on the Frankses. But so far, that hadn't worked out. She hadn't even seen the couple on the beach or out in the cove in their boat. As far as McKenzie could tell, they simply went to work.
“We could go see if their boat is docked. If it's gone, maybe the Frankses are hunting more sea lions,” McKenzie said.
“Or maybe they're just taking a break from work to go out in their boat,” Alex said.
McKenzie sighed and leaned her head back. A screen door slammed. Turning, McKenzie saw Mr. Carney coming down his back steps. “Hey, Mr. C.,” she called out.
The older man raised his hand in greeting as he strolled across the yard to the girls. “I've been looking all over for that book on caves, and I just can't find it. I must have laid it down somewhere and forgot where I put it. Those maps in it were really interesting. You girls would have fun looking for those old caves. The minute I find it, I'll bring it over.”
“Thanks Mr. C.,” Alex said. “But we're leaving at the end of the week.”
“So soon?” he asked, frowning. “I'll miss you girls. I like being around young 'uns. I don't feel quite so old then.”
“We'll miss you, too,” McKenzie said. After a moment, she continued, “Do you remember where any of the cave entrances were around here?”
“I didn't have a chance to look at the map before I lost the book,” Mr. Carney said, rubbing the back of his neck. “But in the last chapter I read, I learned there are several cave entrances on public land near the Sea Lion Harbor area and Emerald Bay Resorts.”
“Is there another copy of the book somewhere? Maybe at the public library?” Alex asked, popping a grape in her mouth.
“No. It has to be special ordered through the bookstores. I guess I'd better get busy looking for it.” He scratched his head as he muttered about where he might have left it. Then he headed back to the house.
McKenzie felt sorry for Mr. C.
“Alex, do you think the book was stolen?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Alex said. “You mean by the woman in his cabin. But how would she know about the book, and why would she steal it?”
McKenzie heard Mickey bark and Aunt Becca's door slam. She turned around. There was Aunt Becca, coming out of the house. The dog bounded down the steps, his slobbery tongue dangling out of his mouth. Seconds later he put his paws on McKenzie's lap and licked her face.
“Girls,” Aunt Becca called, “I just got a call from my boss. The other pilot scheduled to work this afternoon called in with an emergency. So I need to go in right away and take a tour group up in the Skyview.”
“What about Cape Perpetua and the Heceta Head Lighthouse?” McKenzie asked.
“I'm sorry I can't drive you two up there like we planned. But I called the resort and got you on the next tour bus. It leaves in half an hour, so if you've finished lunch you can go over to the parking lot and meet the bus. You'll need to go inside to the front desk and pick up your tickets.”
McKenzie pushed Mickey off her lap and stood. “Thank you, Aunt Becca, but I'm really sorry you can't go with us.”
“Me, too,” Aunt Becca said as she let Mickey back in the house. “You'll love the lighthouse. The view from the top is breathtaking.”
Within minutes the girls climbed aboard the waiting charter bus. McKenzie slid into a window seat as Alex slipped in beside her. Tourists of all ages filled the seats. An elderly man with powdery white hair ushered his wife into a window seat before sitting beside her.
Across the aisle, a young mother held a baby on her lap. A brown-haired preschool-aged girl wearing a yellow sundress dug around in the diaper bag until she pulled out a small green plastic pouch. As she ripped the top off, McKenzie caught a whiff of grape fruit snacks.
A group of teenagers scurried toward the back of the bus, filling the last seats. Chattering voices filled the bus as the tourists settled in for the ride.
As the bus traveled up the highway, the tour guide, a college-aged girl named Ally, started giving the tourists facts about what they'd see along the road. Soon the bus pulled into a parking lot of a scenic overlook.
“We'll take about thirty minutes here to look around and take pictures. For those of you who want to hike a bit, I'm taking a group down to the beach to see the sights. It's a fairly steep hike, but it's not long, maybe a half mile down and back,” Ally said as she stepped off the bus. “Those who don't want to hike can feel free to wait here at the overlook. It's a beautiful photography spot.”
McKenzie and Alex headed for a hike with the group of teenagers and Ally. A few middle-aged couples and families brought up the rear. As they hiked down the rocky trail, Ally pointed out vegetation around the beach. McKenzie breathed in the salty smell of the ocean and various wildflowers growing along the trail. After the group hiked about fifty yards, they reached the beach.