She shouldn’t have been surprised. It seemed the Hardy brothers were making it something of a habit to turn up in her life, whether she was on a case or not. There was the crazy case that had taken them to Transylvania, when maybe she and Frank Hardy hadn’t gotten off to the best start. He had irritated her right from the start when they had unknowingly bumped up against each other following the same trail of clues, but Nancy wondered if maybe some of his behavior on that case hadn’t been caused by concern for his father’s whereabouts.
Then they had met again at the detectives’ convention in Hollywood, when they had helped to catch a would-be murderer. Getting him to put some stock in her theory about the criminal using The House on Bracken Moor as an inspiration had been an adventure, but eventually they had worked together and been a success. Sometimes, she thought there was a spark of… something with Frank Hardy, but other times he could drive her completely up the wall with his overprotective streak and his apparent lack of respect for feminine intuition. It couldn’t solve every case – something Nancy herself would be the first to admit – but it could help a lot. Sometimes she just noticed things that they did not.
Feminine intuition had brought her to where she was now, a chilly and slightly damp secret passage in a house owned by a possibly certifiable lunatic, trying to find the Hardy brothers by candelight. Some vacation, she told herself, wishing for the hundredth time that her evening gown was a bit thicker, or that she had some better protection against the elements than a shawl. Her evening shoes were not the most comfortable pair she owned, but they were better than bare feet against damp stone.
She had been invited, as had the Hardys and a variety of other young amateur detectives, to a murder. It was supposed to have been a pretend murder mystery, a game for the detectives to compete at and prove themselves in. It had turned out to be horrifyingly real. They were isolated on a private island, with no way to communicate to the mainland in the middle of a storm, with a crazy person on the loose. When Nancy had read a book with this plot, she had enjoyed it.
Living it, however, was another story entirely. One of the amateur detectives she had eaten dinner with only three hours before was now dead – poisoned. They had been threatened over the house’s intercom system by someone whose voice was barely recognizable as that of the hostess who had graciously welcomed them to her home. Nancy wasn’t sure if it was their hostess, or if perhaps the woman had met some sinister fate. This whole thing made no sense, and the only comforting thought she had was that if it bothered her, it was probably driving Frank Hardy up the wall. He liked things to be orderly, logical and to make sense. Nancy smiled grimly – the phrase “method to the madness” had been created for a reason.
So had “safety in numbers”, which was why the brothers had agreed to meet Nancy at her room. It had seemed like the safest option, because at least she knew them. Maybe not inside and out, but she was relatively sure neither of them were homicidal maniacs. At the very least, she knew more about them than any of the other nine detectives, all of whom she had just met.
When thirty minutes had elapsed with no sign of the brothers, Nancy was willing to admit that she had been worried. Not just for herself, but for them. Both Frank and Joe were pretty good in a fight, and the scenario that would allow someone to take both of them out definitely had her concerned.
*** *** ***
The candle flickered sharply, and Nancy stopped, cupping her hand around the flame to protect it. She wished she had a flashlight, something a little more reliable and longer-lasting than the candle and matches she had found during a search of the drawers in her guest room. The search had been a hasty one, cut off when she heard unfamiliar voices in the hallway and someone trying her doorknob. Nancy had locked the door out of habit, and now she was thankful for that fact. The only place in the room that was feasible to hide in was the closet, and she ducked into it. It was small, and fairly full of the clothes she had brought. Nancy had stood in the back behind her dresses, and hoped that anyone who looked in the closet wouldn’t look too hard.
She had been lucky on that score, as they only glanced into the closet. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to get a look at them, so she wasn’t really any closer to an answer than she had been. Nancy had stood there unmoving, wanting to be sure they really were gone and not playing a trick on her. When Nancy had decided she was alone, she sat down on the floor. It was entirely possible that they could come back.
She needed to get out of her room. She needed to find Frank and Joe. They needed to find some way to get out of this, to contact the authorities, to trap the killer. As much as she liked the competition , she knew that sometimes detectives needed to stick together. If this didn’t qualify, she thought grimly, nothing would. It was while she sat on the floor that she had realized something. There was a definite rectangular outline on the wall behind her that seemed different, and when she tapped the wall, it sounded hollow. It took her a few moments to figure out how it worked, but she felt a thrill of accomplishment when she made the panel swing inward. If nothing else, she could use it to hide. Armed with candle and matches, she had crawled into the secret passage, closing it behind her.
A set of narrow stairs led down into the darkness, and she had gone down them carefully. It seemed as if the stairs had gone down forever, but she finally had found herself in what must be the basement. People kept interesting things in basements, she knew, and had started looking around. Now, she listened carefully, trying to hear anything that might be of use. Nancy wished she could risk calling out the Hardys’ names, but she had no idea who else might be down here with her.
Finally, her exploration brought her to a locked door. Nancy shivered as she saw the bars in the door, and not just from cold. She lifted her candle higher to look through the bars, and nearly jumped when she found herself staring into Frank Hardy’s surprised eyes.
“Can you open the door?” His whispered question made her bristle with annoyance as her hands went to her hair. Surely he hadn’t forgotten how he was the one who had been locked in the cell under Dracula’s castle. She had done the locksmith work that time with a hairpin, too. The door only took a minute, and then it was open.
“It’s good to see you,” he said quietly. “Joe and I have been having a lovely visit with some of our fellow detectives.”
“Speaking on which, we should probably get out of here before they come to add to the collection,” Joe said, gesturing at the five other young men in the locked room. “Our hostess appears to have some issues.”
“Then it is her?” Nancy said as she closed the door, hearing it lock automatically.
“Oh, she has some pretty efficient help,” Frank said, grimacing as he rubbed at a spot on the back of his head. “She’s not in good enough shape for the physical side, but she has something of an obsession with detectives. How did you get down here?”
“I found a secret exit from my closet, and decided to explore.” She looked at him, glad she had found them in one piece. “Any ideas on what we do next?”
“Let’s get out of the dark,” Joe suggested. “Then we can figure something out.”
*** *** ***
In the end, they settled on a fairly simple plan. It put Nancy in danger, but even Frank couldn’t argue against the suggestion from one of the other detectives, a sharp archaeology student from Indiana, that they use her as bait. The seven of them had been taken prisoner already, so they would rouse suspicions. The plan required Nancy to appear to be alone, searching the parlor that was located on the second floor. The others were concealed, waiting for something – anything – to happen.
She tried to relax. Nancy was taking a big risk putting her life in the hands of the Hardys and five detectives she didn’t know. They seemed like good guys though, and they were happy enough to have been rescued that they didn’t even mind that a girl had done the rescuing. It had not escaped her notice that the plan would allow them to say they had caught the killer. She should be used to it by now, Nancy thought – being underestimated because she did her detection in a skirt and heels.
Fenton Hardy had been different, she thought as she rifled papers in the desk. He hadn’t underestimated her, had trusted her, had even praised her work. She wished some of that would rub off on his sons, especially the older one. Frank Hardy was really the kind of guy she could go for – a guy who loved mysteries as much as she did – when he wasn’t being overprotective and vaguely condescending.
The sudden heavy footsteps, the hands grabbing her, took her by surprise. Nancy realized that she had stopped paying attention for a moment, a critical moment, and she had a panicked few seconds wondering if everyone else had done the same. Then she was on the ground, buried under one bad guy and what felt like two detectives. She could hear a woman yelling shrilly, and turned her head to see Joe holding their hostess.
The weight lifted, and she was able to roll away and stand slowly. Frank and the archaeology student were holding onto one guy, with another one face down on the floor near the entrance, unconscious. For a few moments, the small group was busy, getting their assailants and hostess tied up. When the storm lifted, they would be able to contact someone from the outside to assist them.
“Somehow things always get exciting when you’re around,” she told Frank. “I was getting a little worried there for a moment. I owe you one.”
“No,” he said as he handed her one of the hairpins that had fallen from her hair when she hit the ground. “We’re even.”
For now, Nancy thought. We’re even for now.