Authors: Shari Barr
McKenzie's jaw dropped open as she looked at Alex, then back at Colby. “Really? We can do that?”
“They're making an exception. Go through the main doors to the souvenir shop and ask for Nina. Don't mention this to anyone else, though. This isn't something they normally do. But since you're doing this special report, they wanted to help out.”
“Do we need tickets?” McKenzie asked, glancing at her watch.
“No. Just tell the cashier I sent you. You should have no problem,” Colby said with a pleased expression. “Oh, and be sure to bring your video camera. You'll want to take pictures of the marine animals.”
“We'll have to ask my Aunt Becca first. She'll be here in a few minutes. But I'm sure it'll be okay,” McKenzie said with excitement.
“All right, then. I'll call Sea Park and let them know it's all set,” Colby said as he walked over to the railing and motioned for the tour group to gather.
McKenzie and Alex were so excited they barely heard Colby as he wrapped up the tour. “If the Frankses are hiding the sea lion pups there, maybe we'll find them,” McKenzie whispered to her friend.
McKenzie called out “thank you” to Colby and headed to the parking lot as she saw Aunt Becca's car. Both girls began talking at once as they climbed in the backseat. They told her all about the Sea Lion Harbor tour and Colby's offer of a tour at Sea Park.
“I've never heard of them giving free tours,” Aunt Becca said skeptically as she turned up the air-conditioning. “That must be something new they've started. I can drop you two off there while I run errands. After that, we're going on the Cape Perpetua tour. You'll love it. The views from the top of the lighthouse are amazing. You can see for miles.”
A few minutes later Aunt Becca dropped them off at Sea Park. She promised to come pick them up the minute they called and told her they were finished.
A line was forming outside for the next show, so the girls moved around the crowd. The souvenir shop next to the lobby was busy with people waiting to get tickets. The girls passed row after row of sea lion knickknacks, T-shirts, and stuffed toy sea lions. Slinking through the crowd, the girls walked to the cashier's counter and waited their turn.
“We're looking for Nina,” McKenzie said to a black-haired young man with “Warren” on his name tag.
“She stepped out for a while. Can I help you?” he asked as he tucked a receipt into the cash register drawer.
“We're here for a private tour of Sea Park,” McKenzie explained.
Warren looked quizzically at the girls. “I've never heard of any private tours.”
“Colby, the tour guide at Sea Lion Harbor, arranged it. He set it up,” McKenzie stated firmly. “He said to ask for Nina.”
Warren reached for the phone. “That figures,” he muttered. “Those Frankses are only here in the summer, but they're always pulling stuff like this, acting like they own the place.”
The Frankses? Could Colby and Nina be related to Mel and Tia Franks? Oh no!
I told Colby we were trying to solve the mystery of the missing sea lion pups.
McKenzie turned to Alex while she listened to Warren's phone conversation. “Hey, Nina. The kids are here that your brother sent over for a tour. Do you know anything about it?”
Warren listened and then turned his back to them, muttering into the receiver, “What do you mean, you want me to give the tour? Okay, okay. I'll show them the tanks.”
Warren groaned as he hung up the phone. He motioned for the girls to follow him. “Come on. Let's go.”
He told his assistant he was leaving and ushered the girls out a side door past the crowd of people lined up for the show. He led them down a long concrete hallway lined with several metal doors. A damp, fishy smell wafted up the empty corridor. The girls' footsteps echoed as their shoes slapped the cement floor.
Something is really strange,
No one seems to know anything about this tour.
McKenzie swallowed and spoke to Warren, “I'm really sorry, but Colby set it all up. We're doing a video report for public TV, and we go home in a few days.”
Warren turned and gave a slight smile. “It's not your fault. Colby and Nina think just because their parents are trainers that they can do anything they want. Actually, I need a break from the souvenir shop anyway.”
“So Colby and Nina are Mel and Tia Franks' kids?” McKenzie asked.
“Yep,” he said, stopping at a door with a tiny glass window in it. “They sure are. Nina wanted to make sure I showed you the inside of this room. In here you'll see the tank where we train some of our sea mammals.”
Warren opened the door. Alex lifted her camcorder and swept the viewfinder across the room. A large tank sat in the center of the room, with ledges built along the sides. At first McKenzie thought the tank was empty, but then she saw dark shadows near the far end.
She stared at the two shimmering gray bodies beneath the water. Her jaw dropped open, and her heart pumped wildly. The two mammals swimming in the tank looked exactly like Mario and Bianca!
McKenzie edged toward the tank for a closer look. The two mammals swam forward and raised their heads out of the water. McKenzie's heart sank. They weren't Mario and Bianca, after all. They weren't even sea lions; they were young seals.
“For a minute, I thought we'd found the missing sea lion pups,” McKenzie said with disappointment.
“Yes, from a distance, seals look a little like sea lions.” Alex stepped forward and stopped recording.
Warren grabbed a beach ball from a basket on the floor and tossed it into the tank. “Everyone seems concerned about Mario and Bianca. But you won't find them here, that's for sure. We get all of our mammals through reputable sources. Supposedly some kid saw the sea lion pups being stolen. If that's the case, the thief will probably sell them on the black market.”
“Where?” Alex asked as she watched the seals playing.
“ âBlack market' means selling something illegally,” Warren explained as he walked to the far side of the tank and leaned on the edge.
McKenzie thought about that for a moment. “Why would anyone want to steal a sea lion and sell it?”
Warren shrugged his shoulders and glanced at his watch. “It's hard to tell. Maybe some kind of collection. Twin sea lions are rare.”
“What happens to the animals that are trained here?” McKenzie asked, watching the seals swim toward the beach ball.
“We only train animals we're going to use in our shows,” Warren said. “We're planning to add these two seals to our main attraction.”
“Are your trainers working with any sea lions right now?” McKenzie asked hopefully.
“No. We're concentrating on these two seals,” Warren said. “Training is a lot of hard work.”
McKenzie frowned. She watched Alex film the seals playing with the ball.
This isn't what I was hoping to find out. I really thought I would find Mario and Bianca in here. But all they have are seals,
she thought with dismay.
Maybe the Frankses aren't the thieves, after all.
The seals flung their upper bodies from the water and popped the ball into the air. When it plopped back into the tank, they scooted it around and around. One seal came up beneath it and flung it in an arch toward the girls. McKenzie reached out her arms and caught it, showering Alex with a spray of water.
“Toss it back in,” Warren said with a laugh.
The girls watched in amazement as the seals played with the ball. They were so absorbed in the show that they didn't notice anyone had arrived. Then a man called out. “Okay, Warren, I'll take over now.”
McKenzie turned. Mel Franks stood in the doorway. Beside him stood a young woman with straight brown hair, wearing a khaki-colored fishing cap pulled low over her forehead. She disappeared through a door that looked like it led into a storeroom.
She looks familiar.
McKenzie's stomach began to churn.
“Hey, Mr. Franks, I didn't know you were here,” Warren said with surprise. “I'm giving these girls a behind-the-scenes tour. They said Colby arranged it. Do you know anything about it?”
“Of course,” Mr. Franks said, smiling at the girls. “I'm glad we could accommodate you so quickly. Do you have any questions? We need to get busy with our training in here.”
“I thought training was over for the day,” Warren said with a confused look.
“These seals need more work,” Mr. Franks said with an annoyed tone. “Why don't you head back to the lobby, Warren? We'll take over from here.”
“Well, sure,” Warren said, surprised. “I'll leave the girls to you then. We were just starting the tour. This was our first stop.”
The girls thanked Warren and watched him head out the door. McKenzie suddenly had a funny feeling.
Was that girl his daughter, Nina?
She does kind of look like Mrs. Franks.
Mr. Franks ignored the girls. He reached into the tank and retrieved the ball. He tossed it into the large basket against the wall.
“Did Warren answer all your questions?” Mr. Franks asked, turning to the girls.
McKenzie thought for a moment, then spoke. “I thought for sure we had found the missing sea lion pups when we first came in here. These seals look so much like them.”
Mr. Franks' tone of voice softened. “Seals and sea lions can easily be confused. Like I told you the other day, killer whales probably got the pups. You should probably give up on ever seeing them again. It's just one of those things.”
I think he's trying to convince us that the pups are dead,
Does he have something to hide?
“Are you guys the only trainers at Sea Park?” McKenzie asked, forcing herself to look Mr. Franks in the eye.
“Yes, my wife and I train most of the sea mammals, but we're teaching our daughter here to help out,” Mr. Franks answered with a stern gaze.
Nina emerged from the storeroom carrying two wet suits. After tossing the suits on top of a black duffel bag, she glanced at her watch. “Don't you think we should start training, Dad? It's getting late.”
“Good idea.” Mr. Franks kept his gaze fixed on the girls. “I hate to cut your tour short, girls, but we've had a change of plans. We have to do one more training session today, and the seals train better without an audience. Why don't you scoot on out of here?”
Mr. Franks seemed almost anxious to get rid of them.
Is he upset with Colby for arranging this tour without their permission?
Their tour had amounted to viewing seals in a tank, and now they were finished.
This is too weird. Something is going on here, but what?
She knew she should leave. But she also knew this might be her only chance to ask a few questions about the missing sea lion pups.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to get straight to the point. “Do you have a permit to capture sea mammals for your show at Sea Park?”
Nina glared at her and disappeared into the storeroom again.
Mr. Franks walked toward McKenzie, his dark eyes blazing. “What's this all about?”
McKenzie took a step backward. “Some kid said he saw a man with a fish tattoo and a woman take the sea lions. And you have a fish tattoo.”
The moment the words came out of her mouth, McKenzie wished she could take them back.
I can't believe I just accused them of stealing!
Mr. Franks was silent. Then he threw his head back and laughed. “So that's what you two are getting at. You think we stole the sea lion pups?”
McKenzie's face burned with embarrassment as Mr. Franks turned to his daughter, standing just inside the storeroom door. Nina chuckled.
“I admire your spunk, kiddo,” Mr. Franks said. “But the kid was mistaken. He saw Tia and me getting these two little seals. And, yes, we have a permit to capture them.
“You might as well forget about Mario and Bianca, or whatever their names are,” he said. “I'm sure they're long gone.”
McKenzie touched Alex's arm lightly and turned back to the Frankses. “I'm sorry. We just care about Susie's pups, that's all.”
“No harm done,” Mr. Franks said as he ushered the girls to the door. He still acted cheerful. But a flash of anger remained in his eyes. “Can you find your way out?”
McKenzie assured Mr. Franks they knew the route back to the lobby.
“Let's go,” Alex said softly, tugging McKenzie's arm. “We need to get to Cape Perpetua so I can photograph the whales. By the time we get there, it will be time for the tour.”
The girls stepped into the hallway and let the heavy door close behind them.
“Oh, Alex! I was awful,” McKenzie said, guilt bubbling inside of her. “I accused them without evidence. I feel terrible.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I was thinking the same thing,” Alex said sympathetically. “We thought because he had a fish tattoo that he was the thief. I can see now that the little boy was mistaken. Seals look a lot like sea lions. He probably didn't know the difference. Don't feel bad. You did the right thing and apologized.”