Ned Nickerson knew that staring was impolite, but he couldn’t seem to help himself, couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away.
Despite the nip of autumn chill in the air, everything about the girl reminded him of summer; specifically, summers spent at his grandparents’ farm in Indiana. Her hair resembled the shiny, silken strands that surrounded the dozens upon dozens of ears of corn he and his cousins would shuck, salivating in anticipation of dinner. Her eyes were the color of the cloudless skies from which the sun would blaze down, the close, still heat almost suffocating as they helped Grandpa Nickerson plow his fields. Her skin reminded him of the cream that rose to the top of the bottles of milk that the farm’s dairy cows would produce. And her lips… the shade of her lips called to mind the cherry and sugar syrup that Grandma Nickerson would pour over the ice she’d churn in huge wooden barrels in the barn. Ned briefly wondered if her lips tasted as sweet as that cherry dessert.
“May I help you?” Her voice was low and musical, and she seemed amused rather than annoyed by him.
Ned took that as a good sign. “Yes.” He winced inwardly as he heard the rustiness in his tone, then cleared his throat, trying again. “Yes. I noticed the trim little blue roadster parked at the curb, and wondered if it was yours. I mean, you are the only customer in here – besides me, of course.” He wanted to curse himself for babbling.
“I own a blue roadster,” she replied, and Ned could almost feel the curiosity rise within her.
“Well, I passed it on the way into the drugstore, and noticed that the left front tire was almost flat.”
The girl gasped, raising her white-glove-clad hand to her lips. “Are you certain?”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, miss,” he acknowledged ruefully, “but if that’s your automobile, the driver’s side tire resembles a pancake.” The exchange allowed Ned to spend more time gazing at her, and he estimated that she was barely sixteen to his nineteen. She was gracefully slender, tall and willowy; Ned knew nothing of fashion or style, but her blue cotton dress appeared to be of the highest quality.
“Oh dear,” she sighed, dismayed.
“Perhaps you ran over a nail or a shard of glass on the avenue,” he suggested. “Unfortunately, with the Depression being what it is, some of the storefronts here in Mapleton have had to close down, and they’ve been boarding up their windows.”
She shook her head with certainty. “No, I don’t believe it was accidental. I think someone punctured my tire on purpose.”
Surprised, Ned blinked at her. “Excuse me for asking this, miss, but why do you say that?”
Her lips twisted in a rueful grin. “Because someone is trying to prevent me from following them once again. I should have expected this.”
Now he was truly confused. “Following them?”
The blonde threw back her head and gave a charming peal of laughter. If Ned hadn’t already been smitten by her, he surely would be now. “Forgive me. You were kind enough to tell me about my tire, and I’ve been speaking in riddles.
“I sometimes assist people with their problems, and I happen to be working on a case now. I was following a man in my roadster but lost him when I got to Main Street. That’s when I decided to stop here at the drugstore for something to drink – I’m positively parched.”
“Are you a –” Ned swiveled his head from side to side to make sure no one was listening to their conversation, but still the only two other people in the drugstore were the druggist behind his counter and the soda jerk wiping down the refreshment counter at the far end of the store. “Are you a detective, miss?”
She laughed again, and he decided that it was already one of his favorite sounds. “I am, in a way, but I’m purely amateur. And now I’m a stranded detective – one that’s fairly far from home, too.” She sighed.
“Not necessarily stranded,” he replied quickly. “I know of a garage just down the street. I can ask the mechanic to perhaps plug up your tire so you can at least get home – wherever that is.”
“Oh – I’m from River Heights. “ She shook her head. “Please forgive my manners – I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Nancy Drew.”
“Drew?” Ned inquired, savoring the feel of her small, gloved hand in his when she held it out to shake. “Are you related to the attorney Drew, by any chance?” Everyone within a ten-county range – if not within the entire state of Iowa - had heard of Carson Drew. He was well-known and well-respected for his sharp legal prowess and had earned a strong reputation as the best criminal defense attorney in the Middle West.
Nancy smiled. “He’s my father. And I’m sure he’ll worry about me getting home late this evening.”
Ned smiled back, his heart hammering in his chest. “Well, we can’t have that. Tell you what – why don’t I accompany you to the garage? Then we can come back here and have ice cream sodas while we wait for your car to be ready?”
He watched her deliberate his offer. “That’s very kind of you, Mr...”
“Nickerson,” he supplied helpfully. “Edmund Nickerson, but my friends call me Ned.”
“As I said, it’s very kind of you to offer to assist, Ned, but I wouldn’t want to trouble you. After all, I’m sure you have things to do.”
“No, my schedule is clear – I’m on break from school, and I only came into the drugstore because I was thirsty, too. Please, let me help you?” Ned prayed that he didn’t sound too desperate, but the thought of saying goodbye to her already set him on the edge of panic.
“All right,” Nancy consented with a smile and a nod of her head. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but Ned thought that she seemed eager to take him up on his offer without actually wanting to appear so.
He fished in the pocket of his slacks and held out a few coins to her. “Why don’t you go ahead and ring your father? There’s a ‘phone here in the drugstore.”
Nancy flashed him a grateful smile before making her way to the booth at the back of the store, returning a few minutes later.
“It’s a good thing I called home,” she announced as she approached Ned. “Father was dreadfully worried - I left very early this morning and was only supposed to have been gone for a few hours. He’s also glad that I’m not alone here in a strange town, especially considering the mishap with my roadster.”
“Glad I could be of service, Miss Drew,” Ned drawled.
She shook her head, appearing slightly flustered. “Please, call me Nancy.”
“Nancy it is, then,” he proclaimed, holding the door to the drugstore open and gesturing for her to step outside.
He led the way to the garage down the street and convinced the mechanic to repair her tire, rather than force her to purchase a new one. Nancy shot him a grateful look during his negotiations, and he savored it.
Since it would take a while for the work to be complete, he escorted her back to the drugstore. This time, it was Ned’s turn to be amused as she flushed an adorably becoming shade of pink when he insisted on paying for her chocolate ice cream soda, eventually consenting.
As they sipped their sodas at the counter, he learned that Nancy, like him, was an only child and that she had lost her mother about six years earlier. His estimate about her age had been correct, and Ned was impressed to find out that she had already graduated from River Heights High School. Nancy had modestly attributed her early graduation to the excellent teachers she’d had, but Ned could already tell that she was of exceedingly high intelligence, with a keen and clever mind – after all, she’d have to have those attributes to be a girl detective. She also talked about her closest chums, Helen and Bess and a girl with the strange name of George, and her little bull terrier Togo.
What Ned really longed to know was if Nancy was some other fellow’s girl – she was far too lovely not to have attracted the eye of another man. Just as he was gathering up the courage to ask her, she turned the tables on him.
“Please forgive me – I’ve been going on and on about myself,” she apologized, raising a hand to her throat. “Tell me about Ned Nickerson.” She fixed her keen blue eyes on his face, and for a moment, Ned had to remind himself to breathe.
In order to calm himself, he took a sip of soda. “What would you like to know?”
She cocked her head to one side, studying him. “Wait, don’t tell me – let me see if I can guess.”
Thoroughly entertained, Ned leaned back on his stool and crossed his arms over his chest. “Go right ahead.”
“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips, and again Ned had an almost irresistible urge to kiss them. “Well, I’ll start with an easy one. Like me, your favorite drugstore treat is a chocolate ice cream soda.”
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Score one for you. Go on.”
“Okay. I’d venture to guess that you live nearby – within a few blocks, I’d say. You’re a student at Emerson College - a freshman, I believe – and you’re a member of a fraternity. Oh, and you’re a football player.”
Ned could feel his jaw go slack with astonishment. “You could tell all of that just by looking at me?”
Nancy grinned, clearly proud of herself. “Well, given the fact that you don’t have an automobile parked outside, it led me to believe that you must have walked here from your home. And, the pin on your sweater,” she gestured to the gold disc with the Omega Chi Epsilon symbol affixed to the front of his lightweight grey wool pullover, “was a dead giveaway.”
He had to laugh. “You’re quite the detective, Miss Drew. And just how did you determine that I play football at Emerson?”
She let loose a little giggle. “That, I must confess, was not the result of any outstanding investigative skills on my part. My father often reads the sports section of the paper, and just the other day he commented on an article about a skilled punter at Emerson – a freshman named Ned Nickerson.”
Impressed, Ned shook his head. “You have a very good memory.”
“It’s essential for good sleuthing,” she informed him before taking another sip of her soda.
“Then you must be the best sleuth in all of Iowa,” he declared, enjoying the flush that spread across her cheeks from his compliment. “So, how did you get started?”
“Well, my father’s casework sometimes requires the need for an investigator, but sometimes people come to me and ask for my assistance. For example, I met a destitute family that thought they would be the heirs to their wealthy relative’s fortune, but it initially appeared that the money was left to two dreadful girls after his passing.” Nancy shuddered. “With some luck, I was able to prove that the fortune really belonged to the lovely family I’d met – which was nice because they desperately needed the money.”
“That’s very impressive.”
She shrugged nonchalantly, though Ned could sense that she had an easy confidence about her abilities. “Not really – anyone who likes puzzles and logic could do what I do.”
“I highly doubt that. One must be very smart and brave to be a detective, I’d imagine.” Ned sensed an opening, and took it. “Do you have help on your cases, or do you solve them all on your own?”
Nancy shook her head, finishing her soda. “Heavens, no. Helen and Bess and George are invaluable assistants – they’ve been by my side for all of my cases. And it helps to have my father as a sounding board, too – his legal expertise and calm, measured thinking are often the key when I get stuck.”
Ned tried to sound casual as he asked his next question. “What about your steady fellow? Does he like to assist, too?”
“I don’t have one,” she replied quickly, blushing again.
Ned was both surprised and intrigued by this particular bit of news. “I find that very hard to believe, Miss Drew.”
Nancy tilted her head, and he couldn’t tell if she was offended or curious. “And why is that?”
He swallowed hard. “Someone as pretty as you must have tons of fellows chasing after her.”
“Thank you.” There was that sweet pink flush blooming on her cheeks again. “I do have a fair number of escorts that accompany me to moving picture shows and dances and other social events, but there’s no one serious.”
He had to ask, mimicking her words from a moment earlier. “And why is that?”
She gave a little laugh. “Because they don’t take my sleuthing seriously. They believe I should leave my cases to a real detective – or the police. Most young men would rather I devote all of my attention to them rather than spending time searching for clues or following suspects.”
“Then perhaps you’ve been spending time with the wrong fellows,” Ned blurted out before he could stop himself.
Nancy’s eyes met his and their gazes held. “Perhaps I have been,” she replied pensively.
He couldn’t let the opportunity pass. “You know, I often have chance to be in River Heights, assisting my father with his work in real estate. Plus, since I’m a native of Mapleton, I know my way around this place like the back of my hand. I’m sure you could put me to good use on your current case,” he urged. “Tell me about it.”
Still keeping her eyes on his face, she appeared to be considering his offer. Finally, she gave a little nod of her head. “Well, there’s this lovely young girl I met when I was volunteering at the Orphaned Childrens’ Home a few weeks ago. She’s got these divine chestnut-colored ringlets and just the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen-“
“I think I’ve just met someone with the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen,” Ned couldn’t resist cutting in.
“Thank you, “she murmured, appearing flustered. It took her a second to continue on with her story. “Anyway, Selah – that’s her name – was orphaned last year, when her father died of influenza; her mother had passed on the year before. Her parents didn’t have much, but they’d always spoken of an extremely valuable urn that was passed on through their family.”
“Yes, according to the story Selah’s parents told her, the urn was crafted by a very famous ceramist back in their home country of Ireland and is supposed to be made of extremely delicate porcelain with a hand-painted design in real twenty-four-karat gold. If that were the case, it would be worth,” Nancy lowered her voice, even though the soda jerk was nowhere nearby, “thousands of dollars.”
Ned whistled. “Wow, sounds like quite an urn. So, what happened to it?”
“That’s the mystery. When Selah’s father passed away, temporary custody was granted to her uncle Mickey Swanson. Because he lived in New York, she’d never met him – he only came to Iowa once he’d heard of his brother’s death.
“However, once she did meet him, she knew that he had no interest in raising a child – all he cared about was playing cards or spending time at the speakeasy in Davenport. He’d leave her alone for days at a time while he traveled back and forth, gambling and partaking of liquor. Selah even suspected that he fell in with a crowd of bootleggers and was transporting Templeton Rye back and forth between here and the city. One evening, he had some friends over and they were having some not-so-veiled conversations about their distribution methods. They also kept referring to him as ‘Shifty Swanson’.”
“An upstanding citizen,” Ned commented sardonically.
“Exactly. And when he came home intoxicated on that illegal whiskey, he’d ask Selah about the urn.”
“How would she know about it? Didn’t you say that her parents’ didn’t know where it was?”
“Not quite,” Nancy corrected him. “They told Selah about the urn as part of their family’s legend, but they never exactly stated whether or not they had it in their possession.”
Completely drawn into Nancy‘s story, Ned put one elbow on the counter and leaned towards her. “Did she ever search the house for it? Surely if they kept talking about it, they had to have it somewhere.”
Nancy beamed at him. “That’s exactly what I asked Selah, but she said that whenever she mentioned the urn to her parents, they would act as if it were a huge secret. It was almost as if they didn’t want her to know so there would be no danger of anyone else getting the secret from her.”
“And what did Selah’s uncle say when she told him she didn’t know where it was?”
Nancy sighed. “He’d become very angry and lock her in her bedroom until the following morning, the poor child. After months and months of this, he decided that he no longer wanted to care for her and turned Selah over to the Orphaned Childrens’ home.”
“That’s a shame,” Ned commented. “Could he even do that?”
“According to my father, the courts could have tried to determine whether he was a fit guardian; if so, he could’ve been made to keep her. Of course, given what I just said about his gambling and other possible illegal activities, it would be highly doubtful things would’ve turned out that way. In any event, since Selah had no desire to live with her uncle, she went gladly.”
“How did you promise to help her, Nancy?”
“I told her I’d try to possibly recover the urn. Or, at the very least, try to confirm that it actually exists. While it won’t bring her parents back, at least it could bring her a hefty sum that she could live off of once she turns eighteen.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” By now, Ned was completely curious.
“I haven’t managed to get into Selah’s former house yet, but that’s my goal. In the meantime, I learned that Shifty Swanson is still living in that house – and he’s got quite the upgraded wardrobe. Every time I’ve seen him, he’s been wearing the finest bespoke suits from London, neckties made from real Chinese silk, and spats that are so immaculately shined that you can practically see your reflection in them. Not to mention the fact that he’s driving a brand-new maroon-colored sports roadster from Europe. I think that he’s perhaps found the urn and sold it, Ned.”
“Couldn’t some of his newfound wealth have come from bootlegging?” he suggested. “After all, you said yourself that he was transporting illegal corn mash throughout the state.”
“Yes, but some of my father’s contacts with the authorities that crack down on prohibition violators advised that as a low-level runner, Shifty Swanson wouldn’t have made much money; certainly not enough for the flashy clothes he’s been sporting and the expensive automobile he’s been tooling around town in.”
“But the sale of a rare urn with real gold etchings definitely could have paid for all of that.”
Beaming, Nancy reached over and patted his forearm, and Ned felt his heart patter in time with her movement. “Now you’re catching on. And that’s why I’ve been following Shifty Swanson - to see who he could have contacted about the sale of the urn. I’ve already checked with all of the art and antiques dealers here in Mapleton, and in River Heights, too, but none of them purchased any type of vase within the last several months.
“Unfortunately, I must not have done a very good job of following Shifty, because he caught me today. He managed to slip onto a side street and out of my sight, which is when I parked by the curb of the drugstore. Apparently, Shifty found my roadster and found a way to let the air out of my tire, as a way of deterring me, I guess. But it won’t work.” She raised her chin almost defiantly, making Ned pity anyone who thought they could stop Nancy Drew when she was on the hunt.
“What will you do now?”
She was about to answer him when she raised her arm and checked the delicate gold wristwatch encircling her dainty wrist. “Oh my goodness, the time!” she gasped. “I’m sure the mechanic must be through with my car by now.”
Ned checked his own wristwatch and sighed internally, disappointed that his time with her would be coming to an end. “Then let’s get back to the garage.”
He escorted Nancy back to the garage and waited patiently while she paid the mechanic. “Looks like he did a decent job,” Ned commented as he and Nancy inspected the patched tire.
“It should do, I guess,” she replied, her lips pursed as she ran one fingertip over the patched rubber. “I think I’ll be able to make it back to River Heights on this. Then I can have the garage near my home order me a replacement tire.”
“That may take several days,” he warned her.
“I know,” Nancy sighed, wrinkling her pert little nose. “And I feel like I’m so close to solving the mystery for Selah! Oh, my poor little roadster.” She lovingly patted the gleaming blue fender of the automobile.
“Say, how about I help you?” Ned offered immediately without a second thought. “After all, I have no plans for the remainder of my break from Emerson, and I do have an automobile of my own. It’s not a stylish little roadster like this one, but it gets the job done. Like I said earlier, I know Mapleton very well and it may be good to have a fresh pair of eyes on the case.”
“Oh, I couldn’t trouble you,” she replied; Ned didn’t know if it was wishful thinking, but he thought he detected a note of reluctance in her tone.
“No trouble at all. Tell you what – why don’t I ‘phone you tomorrow morning and you can tell me what time to pick you up? I can drop you at your garage and we can come back here to Mapleton and keep following Shifty Swanson.”
“That’s an awful lot of driving for you to do and I don’t want to be an inconvenience,” she murmured, ducking her head slightly.
“You won’t be,” Ned told her firmly. “May I get your number?”
Nancy opened the door and climbed into her roadster, deftly turning the key to start the ignition. “I’m in the ‘phone book, Mr. Nickerson.” And with that, she pulled away without a backwards glance.
Ned found himself rooted to the same spot, a wide grin on his face as he watched her drive off towards River Heights.
The following morning at ten sharp, Ned pulled into the driveway of the Drew residence, a large brick colonial-style home with an impeccably manicured lawn and perfectly tended-to flower beds leading up the walkway. He had called Nancy two hours earlier, his heart pounding in his chest the entire time they were on the ‘phone. She sounded glad to hear from him, but not overly effusive – Ned liked that she didn’t gush or act phony, the way some girls did. He had offered to come to her house first, then follow her to the garage; once she dropped off her automobile, he’d drive back to Mapleton where they could start their sleuthing.
Ned got out of his green jalopy and noticed the other two cars in the driveway. One was Nancy’s roadster, of course, but the other was a large, imposing black sedan. He gulped nervously, assuming that the presence of the sedan meant that Nancy’s father was also at home. He walked slowly to the front door, pressing on the doorbell.
The door was answered by a plump, middle aged woman wearing a bluish-grey uniform with a white apron over it. He realized it was probably Mrs. Gruen, the housekeeper that Nancy had told him about while they were having sodas at the drugstore yesterday.
“Nancy! Your guest is here!” the woman called out quietly before disappearing into the kitchen.
When Nancy slowly descended the stairs, Ned felt tongue-tied. She was just as beautiful as he had remembered, and once again, he was overwhelmed by a sense of summertime whenever he looked at her. The crisp floral-print dress she was wearing brought back memories of the riotous patches of wildflowers that grew by the pond at his grandparents’ farm, and her hair gleamed like the July sunshine.
“Hello, Ned,” she greeted him shyly. For a moment, they just stood in the foyer, staring at each other. Ned could’ve stayed that way all day long – until he heard the sound of someone discreetly clearing their throat.
“Nancy, aren’t you going to introduce me to your caller?” The tall, distinguished man asked, the hint of an amused expression crossing his face. He was dressed in a three-piece suit that was clearly expensive, and his silvery brown hair had obviously been styled by a professional barber.
“Oh! Father, this is Edmund – Ned,” she corrected herself, “Ned Nickerson. He was the one who discovered my flat tire while I was parked in downtown Mapleton yesterday, and he was nice enough to help me find a mechanic. Ned, this is my father, Carson Drew.”
“It’s good to meet you, sir,” Ned responded, automatically taking Mr. Drew’s proffered hand and returning his hearty handshake.
“Nickerson, hmm?” Mr. Drew had the same way of sizing up a new acquaintance that his daughter did, but Ned felt only slightly more nervous under the senior Drew’s gaze. “Not the star punter that won the big game against Iowa State?”
Ned flushed. “Well, all of the fellows on the team helped, sir.”
“You are far too modest, Ned,” Mr. Drew proclaimed. “Everyone who pays attention to college football surely has their eye on you – remarkable, considering that you’re only a freshman. You have quite the college career ahead of you, son.”
“Thank you – I hope you’re right,” Ned laughed. “And if all goes as planned, we’ll meet up with Notre Dame at the Middle West championship later this year – so far, they’ve been the ones to beat.”
“Thanks to your terrific playing this year, Emerson is making quite a name for itself, so I can’t imagine you not making it to the championship.”
Ned gave a sidelong glance to Nancy, who had been silently listening to their conversation, the tiniest hint of a smile twisting up her pretty lips. “Father, you know I’m not a football fan,” she chided him lightly.
“Forgive me, dearest daughter,” Mr. Drew replied teasingly. “This is one of those situations where it’s nice to have another male in the house, one that can appreciate sports. It’s one of those rare topics that you and I don’t discuss.”
From their repartee, Ned could tell that Nancy and her father held great affection and respect for one another; anyone could see that they were devoted to each other and that father and daughter clearly adored each other.
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying your conversation, Father, but it’s going to make Ned and me late for my appointment at the garage,” she reminded him pointedly.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Drew conceded with a mock sigh. “You heard my daughter, Ned – no more football talk. But before you go, I would like to thank you for helping my Nancy yesterday. I didn’t like the idea of her stranded in a strange town, especially one where a potential criminal was just lurking and waiting for an opportunity to slash her tires.”
“Father,” Nancy chided him lightly, “you know I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can, sweetheart,” Mr. Drew replied, patting her on the back, “but it was nice to know that you weren’t alone. You were very fortunate that Ned came along.”
“That’s true,” Nancy replied, shooting a quick, dazzling smile at Ned, who felt his heart speed up in his chest. “Now, let me just pop into the kitchen for a moment and then we can be on our way.”
After thanking Ned once more, Mr. Drew announced that he needed to be off to work and left through the front door; a moment later, Ned could hear the sound of an automobile driving off.
Nancy emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later carrying a large wicker basket, which Ned immediately took from her hands. “Since you’ve been so kind to me, I thought that the least I could do was bring luncheon with us. Hannah makes the most scrumptious chicken and dill sandwiches on the lightest, flakiest biscuits you’ll ever eat, and there’s a delicious three-bean salad, too.
“I also coerced her to make a chocolate layer cake - her cakes are the best anywhere. Since you like chocolate sodas, I assumed you’d like chocolate cake, too?”
Ned nodded, already picturing a romantic little spot in Mapleton where he could take her for their lunchtime picnic. “It’s my favorite.”
“Good,” she declared with a quick nod of her head. “Then we can be on our way.”
Mrs. Gruen remerged from the kitchen. “You be careful today, girl. No more repeats of what happened yesterday.”
“I’m always careful, Hannah,” Nancy declared, affectionately placing her arm around the woman’s shoulders.
“Hmmph,” Hannah replied, not looking at all convinced. “Yesterday it was your tire; don’t let it be you today.”
“That won’t happen.” Nancy sounded completely confident. “After all, I’ll have Ned with me.”
The housekeeper turned her gaze towards Ned. “Then I’m leaving it to you to make sure she returns all in one piece.”
Ned gulped, feeling almost as nervous as he had during his conversation with Nancy’s father. “I’ll do my best, Mrs. Gruen.”
“Good – although I’m well aware there are no guarantees when Nancy’s around.”
Nancy placed a kiss on the housekeeper’s cheek. “We’ll be fine – I wish you wouldn’t worry so, Hannah.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t take such risks,” Mrs. Gruen fretted. “Please promise that you’ll at least be back in time for dinner.”
“I will,” Nancy vowed. “Ned, shall we be going?”