Rebecca Asher leans her head back against the seat in the seafood restaurant where she’s just finishing lunch, and rolls her eyes upward, as she listens to the inane conversation of the three girls seated behind her. She’s in Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break 1999 and stopped in for a bite to eat. The trio behind her showed up just before her food arrived. For the past fifteen minutes, they’ve been discussing the relative “hotness” of NSYNC versus Backstreet Boys and debating whether Joseph Gordon Levitt or James Van Der Beek would be the better prom date. As near as she’s been able to deduce, they are Sandy, Mandy, and Andy, and given the proximity of their voices, it’s Mandy and Andy seated just behind her with Sandy facing them. In addition to their ludicrous prattle, they frequently punctuate the conversation with loud gasps, giggles, and muted expletives, such as “oh my gosh” or “holy heck” prompting Rebecca to dub them “three little Christian girls running wild at Spring Break”.
Of the three, it’s the one they call Andy who annoys her the most. Her voice has a wavering and meandering quality to it, hardly modulating, with a hint of a Southern accent that suggests someone from the suburbs of a large city, rather than rural. Even when she’s expressing a coherent thought, it sounds like she’s rambling on about nothing. Rebecca is strongly tempted to step over to the table and lecture the three about Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, and other “real men” from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who could more than obliterate the teeny bopper idols they’re fawning over — if she thought such a lesson would register with such obvious dim bulbs as these.
Rebecca has been in Fort Lauderdale for nearly twenty-four hours, arriving in the early afternoon the day before in the ancient, rust-bucket Toyota Corolla her mother purchased for her when she was learning to drive to facilitate getting herself and her brother Steven to school. Since it’s Spring Break, all the hotels are booked, and even if they weren’t, Rebecca could not afford the exorbitant prices quoted to her. She ended up in a “no-tell motel” a few miles from the strip, where she’s the only patron booked for more than an hour at a time. She’s certain that if it wasn’t for the ratty condition of her car, she’d have already been robbed of the few possessions she brought with her, and, as a precaution, she propped a chair under the door handle before she went to bed, having little confidence in the latch and deadbolt, and remembers to take her bag with her when she leaves the room, though she’s certain the cleaning staff is nonexistent.
The trip almost didn’t happen and wouldn’t have if Rebecca had not totally defied her aunt, Rachel, who’s been taking care of Rebecca and Steven since their mother, Sharon, died nearly two years before. Rachel is a nurse who specializes in the care of terminally ill patients, and, in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s death, Rebecca did find Rachel to be sympathetic and helpful in dealing with their shared grief. As she’s learned to deal with the loss, however, she’s come to view Rachel as over-protective and too cautious in not allowing Rebecca to explore her independence. When several friends proposed heading to Florida, Rachel expressed doubts that Rebecca was ready for such a trip without adult supervision and Rebecca’s friends headed off without her. The following evening, Rebecca packed a bag, tossed it in the trunk of her car, and a few hours before sunrise, snuck out of the house and headed South. She has yet to hook up with her friends in Fort Lauderdale and has started to suspect they went to Orlando instead.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of something dropping to her right. Investigating, she discovers that the purse of one of the chatty girls behind her has slipped down beside the seat. She listens for any indication that the girl — Rebecca is certain it’s the one called Andy — has noticed it missing, but she’s currently rattling on about something to do with Dawson’s Creek, and sounds as though she’s leaning away from Rebecca, who slides over and slips her hand beside the seat, just able to get her fingers onto the purse. Slowly, she draws it to her, then sets it discreetly on her lap and peers inside, finding it full of makeup, pens, a checkbook, and a wallet that seems crammed with cash or credit cards.
Just then, in the middle of a discussion of of all the “awesome” things they’ll be doing today, she hears Andy say, “Where’s my purse?” The question is ignored by the girl who seems furthest away, so Rebecca unbuttons the first few buttons on her jersey, slips the purse under her left arm, and slides her bag over that shoulder to conceal it, tosses some cash onto the table to cover her meal, then slides out of her seat, and heads toward the door. Apparently, the Braves jersey she has on, with the number ten — Chipper Jones’s number — catches the attention of the girl facing her, who calls after Rebecca, “Chipper!” Rebecca ignores her and walks out and around the side of the restaurant. She makes sure she’s not visible from the door, then takes her time in rifling through the purse.
At last, she finds a driver’s license, with the name “Alyssa Ruth Walker” and, for a moment, Rebecca can’t figure out how they derived “Andy” from that. She finally decides it must be so her name will match those of her friends, which further lowers Rebecca’s opinion of the trio. Alyssa’s photo shows a blonde girl with a pleasant smile — Rebecca definitely finds her attractive — and an address in Lawrenceville, not far from where Rebecca lives in Decatur, which explains Alyssa’s accent. The next thing to catch Rebecca’s eye is Alyssa’s birthdate, 20 April 1981, the same as hers. As she suspects, the wallet is full of money, and an American Express card issued to Paxton Walker, who Rebecca surmises is Alyssa’s father. She wonders if Alyssa is responsible enough to report the card lost once she returns to her hotel, or if she’ll spend an extended time trying to find it, which would give Rebecca the opportunity to purchase quite a bit. Looking back to the photo, then the birthdate, however, another thought crosses her mind. She puts the license into her pocket, replaces the wallet into the purse, and stuffs it under her arm.
Rebecca moves back toward the front of the restaurant and peers at the table where she was sitting. A black girl and an Asian girl are standing, while a blonde girl Rebecca now recognizes as Alyssa frantically searches around the booth. After several minutes, the other girls convince her to leave and they head out to the street, Alyssa still upset. Rebecca follows them at a discrete distance, formulating in her head how she can use the missing purse to work her way into whatever plans the three girls have.