Ned is back in town for a class project and desperately needs help from Nancy and the gang. Though he refuses to tell them what they'll do, he picks them up and takes them to the mall. It turns out that he has an assignment for his marketing class. His team will hand out samples of Spotless, a new acne cream, and get feedback from users.
The team consists of: Justin, a smart ass and super smart guy who reminds me a lot of Winston; Marcia, a kind of rich girl who seems nice; Brad, a super hot guy who falls head over heels for Bess despite her being super sick; and Heather, who makes it clear from the very start that she's out to snag Ned for herself.
Bess volunteers to try some of the cream for herself, but Justin freaks out when she grabs one tube. He laughingly claims he poisoned it before running out to his car for more. After doing some work, Bess starts feeling even worse. Brad volunteers to grab her a lemonade and winds up with so many things to pick up for others that he has to take help with them. Not long after finishing her lemonade, Bess passes out and winds up rushed to the hospital. The doctor determines that she was poisoned.
To make things worse, five more kids show up at the hospital with the same symptoms. Tests reveal that everyone has arsenic in their bloodstreams and that they most likely used something on their skin with arsenic in it. Gee, I wonder what that could be?
Since Bess is recovering nicely, everyone goes to a party at Heather's house. She gets Ned alone to give him a tour of her house that probably leads to her bedroom and seems pissed when he ignores her in favor of his actual girlfriend. Marcia gets Nancy alone to warn her that Heather has a reputation on campus, I bet she does!, for breaking up happy relationships.
Though she doesn't have any suspects, Nancy does learn that Justin did an internship at Asco, the maker of Clearly, which is the main competitor to Spotless. She sneaks into the head office, goes through their employment records, and learns there is no proof he ever worked there. Nancy calls and pretends that she's checking references for him, but HR tells her that no one by that name ever worked there.
Not a whole lot happens for a good chunk of the book. Nancy and Ned double with Brad and Bess to some concert. I guess being in the hospital isn't an excuse to miss a party. She also overhears Marcia having a heated phone conversation, which makes it odd when Marcia suddenly gets sick and winds up in a coma. The doctors announce that someone gave her a lethal dose of arsenic.
Though everyone seems to think it's Justin, I have my doubts. Heather claims she's so scared that she's changing majors and dropping out of the competition. George, while in Chicago though, sees Heather dressed smartly and walking out of an advertising agency. Ned and Nancy talk things through and decide it might not be Justin working for the competition because corporate espionage doesn't happen in the real world. Sigh.
Brad's family conveniently owns a big ass orchard, and since it's Halloween and there's a big party coming up, Bess convinces them to visit and pick up some pumpkins. Brad's dad lets it slip that they use arsenic in the greenhouse where they grow the pumpkins, and Brad then gets Nancy alone to gossip about Justin. He tells her that he doubts the guy did it and that he thinks Marcia just used too much of the cream. Too bad the doctors already determined that was impossible. Nancy then hears from Ned, who talked to his professor who is best buddies with the owner of Asco. The owner vehemently denies that his company would ever stoop to such low tactics.
The gang shows up to the big party dressed like characters from The Wizard of OZ. Bess is Dorothy, Nancy is the Scarecrow, Ned gets the Cowardly Lion, and George is the Tin Man. Nancy tells them her suspicions about Brad, and even though she literally has absolutely no evidence, they all agree with her. Bess, who was in love with the guy 60 seconds ago, now agrees it was him and says she won't go anywhere alone with him.
Brad cuts in on Ned and Nancy dancing and begs her to go outside with him to get away from the crowd and talk. As soon as she tells him she knows he's behind everything, he attacks her. The two fight, and he hits her over the head and knocks her out. When she comes to, she has her hands tied in front of her. They fight some more until she head butts him and runs away.
This leads to a fight in the woods that has Nancy clasp her hands together and punch him in the throat, which slows him down until Ned arrives. The cops are right behind him and take Brad away. We then learn that Heather was at the ad agency in Chicago to tell them in person that she was no longer interested in the job. Also, Justin really did work for the company, but his personnel file was on someone's desk because they were calling to offer him some work. Ned jokingly says that he wants to fight for the Spotless job, and Nancy silences him with a kiss, telling him that marketing is way too dangerous.
*Nancy sneaks into the Asco corporate office by walking in with her toolbox and claiming she's a computer repair tech. I realize this was the 80s, but what kind of repair tech carries around a normal toolbox?
*Bess wears a black leather miniskirt and a bright blue silk shell top on a date with Brad, which is just about the most 80s thing I can think of right now.
*So, Nancy and Ned are on their way to see Marcia and find a bunch of cop cars there because of her poisoning. The freaking chief of police pulls them aside to ask how they knew the victim and acts super suspicious of Ned. Like my beloved Ned would ever do anything wrong!
*How realistic is it anyway that the chief of the whole police force would come out for this?
*Ned has a good point in that if the cream was tainted, it might turn people off from using all kinds of acne creams and not just one brand. That's why he doubts Asco was behind the poisonings.
*Asco must not be a very big company if it literally has one file for everyone who works there!