Chapter 1: Planning a Business Trip
Nancy Drew kicked her feet up on the desk, leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. She had half an hour until the morning briefing with Riley Adams, her boss at Adam’s Detective Agency in Chicago, Illinois. After the briefing, she could finally head home and get some sleep after a long night spent working surveillance.
“Snoozin’ on the job, Drew?” Riley strode in and smacked her feet off the desk. Nancy grunted as they hit the floor. Her boss leaned in the resulting clear spot and gazed at her impassively. “How’d it go last night?”
She rubbed her hands down her face trying to wake up enough to speak coherently. “Let’s see. While the sub slept soundly in a warm, cozy apartment, I huddled in my little subcompact trying to keep from slipping into a hypothermia-induced stupor. In short it was cold, boring and unproductive. Can I go home now?”
Riley’s look was thoughtful. “Not sure how much longer I’m willing to put a 24-hour detail on this guy. Despite what his debutant fiancee’s father seems to think, the kid appears to be a boy scout.”
“I agree. After following Phil around for the last two weeks, I have come to the conclusion that the guy is a freaking saint. I’m not sure I would want to marry anyone that perfect, but there’s no accounting for taste.” Nancy shifted forward in the chair. “Can I go home, now?”
Riley chuckled. “Actually, I wanted to brief you on one other teensy little job. Then I will let you skip the full briefing and head home to get some shuteye.”
Nancy leaned down and dug in her bag. When she sat up, she had a partial bottle of water and two aspirin. “What do you need Riley?”
“We have a potential new client. Hathaway Adjusters is opening a branch office in Chicago, and is looking for someone local to do their claims investigations here. It’s a new area for our firm, so I asked who they retain out of New York, hoping to get some insider info. Apparently, they work with Hardy Investigators, and since I know you have an in with the Hardys . . .”
“. . . you want me to pump them for info.”
“I was kind of hoping you’d talk to them and find out what they generally get involved in, how they structured their contract with Hathaway Adjusters and anything else that might be pertinent. This is the first claims investigation contract we’ve ever gone after, and I’m a little out of my element.”
Nancy shrugged. “I’m sure they’d be willing to help. I know Joe’s working with the firm now as a private investigator. I’ll call.”
Riley’s brows furrowed. “I thought Fenton Hardy had two boys? Did only one of them enter the business?”
“I think they’ll both enter the business eventually. Joe graduated with his undergrad in criminal justice and went straight into the firm. Frank, on the other hand was offered a research assistantship at George Washington University in DC after his undergrad. He’s finishing up his Master’s in High Technology Crime Investigation there. He only has a couple semesters left to go.”
“GWU, huh? He must be pretty good.”
“Definitely. Frank is one of the best investigators I’ve ever worked with, and that was before he went through any formal training.” Nancy smiled thinking of the elder Hardy. She liked and admired Joe, too, but Frank challenged her intellect in a way that she found invigorating.
She gave herself a mental head slap when she realized that Riley was staring at her, his eyebrows raised in blatant curiosity. She cleared her throat. “Anyway, I imagine Frank still plans to join the firm after he graduates. Right now, though, he’s only there on school breaks.”
“Sounds like you’re carrying a torch for this Frank character. I don’t need to worry about you jumping ship and joining Hardy Investigators, do I?” Riley’s lips were pressed into a thin line, but his eyes were crinkled in amusement.
Nancy could feel the telltale heat in her cheeks. She had enjoyed nearly a month of tease-free Riley, so she was caught off-guard. She carefully schooled her features into a bland expression before responding, “Yeah, maybe I can convince them to open a branch office in Chicago.”
Riley’s expressive mouth turned up in a wide smile that was now openly teasing. “Way to tiptoe around the whole ‘torch’ subject. I find myself wondering, Drew. Just what are you avoiding?”
She had worked for Riley for nearly two years now, and she still had trouble dealing with his persistent ribbing. How she had avoided the topic of Frank Hardy up to this point was a mystery. Then she grimaced, recalling that up until a month ago, Ned had been the topic of Riley’s jibes, usually centering around when she was going to let go of her stubborn independence and marry the poor, doting guy. After she and Ned had broken up, Riley had been unusually kind to her. Apparently his self-imposed moratorium on teasing her had been lifted.
She decided to try ignoring it. Sometimes Riley would take the hint. Sometimes. “I’m going home to get some sleep. I’ll give Joe a call this afternoon.”
Nancy crossed her arms. “Just because I choose not to rise to your bait, doesn’t mean I’m avoiding. For your information, Frank is just a friend.”
“Just a friend, huh?”
“Just a friend.”
Nancy set her mouth in a stubborn line and stared Riley down. Like most people, he couldn’t seem understand why she wasn’t ‘settling down.’ Good girls, these days, were encouraged to get an education, even start a career, but they were still expected to find a man, get married and have kids. The expectation that she was going to marry Ned and promptly get pregnant seemed to be an undercurrent to every conversation she had with her father, her friends, and her boss. It had almost been a relief when the relationship had ended so decisively last month.
After she and Ned broke up, she found herself enjoying the independence she had gained. After spending years tied down to one guy, she really wasn’t interested in pursuing a serious relationship, right now. In fact, she had promised herself that she would take some time to be truly autonomous for awhile. Maybe even a long while. That included not getting hung up on Frank Hardy, no matter how attractive she might find him.
Riley considered her through narrowed eyes for several seconds before slapping his hands on his knees and standing up. “Well, I was going to say that I thought this assignment warranted at least a short trip to New York, but only if you promise to plead my case convincingly, and not abandon me for the Hardys.”
Nancy felt herself relax as she realized that Riley was letting the issue drop, at least for now. If she had learned anything about the man over the last couple years, she knew he was tucking her involuntary reaction to Frank Hardy away for future teasing sessions. The topic was far from dead, but at least he was giving her a reprieve.
She chuckled and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere, Riley.”
He gave her a broad grin and a wink. “Sure you are. You’re going to New York . . . but only temporarily!”
Frank Hardy stopped in the doorway of his brother, Joe’s office. The window behind the desk offered a nice view of the shrubs and trees that made up the foundation plantings around the low office building that housed Hardy Investigators. The plants were in the full bloom of late spring in New York, and lent a colorful backdrop to the clutter on the younger Hardy’s desk.
Joe shoved aside a stack of files, and looked up at Frank. “So how long you home for, big brother?”
“You’re stuck with me until July. I decided to take the first summer session off. I need a vacation before I have to finalize and defend my thesis.”
“You’re taking vacation? Hang on . . .” Joe shuffled files and papers on his desk and snatched the first writing utensil he came to, a stubby little eraser-less pencil, and then shuffled some more papers until he found his calendar. “I have to mark this red letter day down.”
“It’s amazing you can find anything to mark with, let alone on, in that mess.”
“Unlike some of us, I work for a living.”
Frank’s retort was cut off by the ringing of Joe’s telephone.
“Hello, Hardy Investigators, Joe speaking. How can I help you?”
Frank moved into the office and folded into a worn leather chair that sat in front of Joe’s desk. His curiosity was piqued when his brother flashed him a broad, suggestive smile, but he didn’t have to wait long to figure out why. “Nancy Drew, how the heck are you? Jeez, it’s been way too long, lady!”
Frank sat forward. He was sure his own smile was as wide as Joe’s. He and Nancy stayed in contact through email and instant messaging. But between completing semester-end projects and studying and taking finals, he hadn’t been in touch with her for several weeks. And he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her. It had definitely been far too long.
“Tell her I said ‘hello.’”
Joe waved a dismissive hand at him. “A business trip to New York just to visit little ol’ me? I’m flattered, Nan. Of course, my big bro might be a little offended if you ignore him . . . yeah, he’s home from school for a month or so.”
The mocking smile on Joe’s face increased Frank’s initial irritation. He knew he would have no peace now. The increasing irritation at his brother did nothing to overshadow the surge of pleasure he felt at the prospect of Nancy coming to town for a visit.
The first unbidden thing to slip through his mind was the selfish hope that Ned Nickerson didn’t tag along. That was followed quickly by self-contempt, as he purposely squelched the notion. After all, Nancy was just a friend, and they’d get to see each other if Ned came along of not.
Joe was already hanging up the phone. Frank had been so preoccupied with his own thoughts he had missed the end of the conversation.
Joe smirked at him. “Excited to see the lovely Ms. Drew, big bro?”
Frank couldn’t help the smile on his face. “So she is coming to town? Great.”
“Man, you got it bad, Frank.”
He tried for a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just thinking that I haven’t talked to her for awhile. It’ll be nice to catch up.”
“Yeah, catch up. I knew that had to be what you were thinking.”
“Callie’s out of the picture, after all,” Joe prodded.
“But Ned isn’t. Just drop it, baby brother.”
“How ‘bout I just let it dangle for awhile?”
Frank stood up. “It occurs to me that I haven’t told you, lately, just what a huge pain in the ass you can be.”
“But I’m your huge pain in the ass, Frank. You know you love me.”
“Yeah, like I’d love Eddie Haskell if he was my brother.”
Joe winced. “Ouch.”
Chapter 2: Fathers and Their Children
“Thanks for the ride, Dad.”
Nancy threw her duffle into the back seat of Carson Drew’s car as she climbed into the passenger side. It was just before noon on Thursday, and she and her father were headed to the airport early to grab a bite to eat before Nancy’s flight to New York City.
“Are you kidding. I wouldn’t pass up a date with my favorite PI for anything. When does your flight leave?”
“Not until 2:15. We should have plenty of time to eat.”
“I’m surprised Bess is letting you go alone.”
Nancy settled into the front seat and buckled her seat belt. “I take it you haven’t heard about Bess’ new venture in fashion show management.”
Mr. Drew chuckled. “I guess not.”
The drive to Midway took barely enough time for Nancy to catch her father up on Bess’ latest job. Nancy didn’t have any bags to check, so they headed straight to Manny’s Deli for a quick lunch.
Her father looked at her over their lunches. “So, did you manage to find a direct flight?”
“Yes, but I have to fly into LaGuardia to get it. I’ll get a rental from there.”
“Frank or Joe can’t come get you?”
“They could, but I prefer to have my own transportation. I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Something tells me neither Frank or Joe would consider you a bother.”
Nancy smiled. “I know, but I still like to be able to get around on my own. I’ll get the rental.”
Her father shook his head. “That’s my daughter, always independent.”
“You taught me well, Dad.”
“A little too well, perhaps. Are you looking forward to your visit? Frank is home from school, right?”
“Frank is home until July. It’ll be great to spend a few days with the guys and catch up without a case hanging over our heads.”
Mr. Drew’s smile was teasing. “Sure you won’t get too bored, dear?”
“With Frank and Joe around, I think that’s highly unlikely.” Nancy grinned.
“Well, I’m glad to hear you plan to take some time for yourself. You’ve been so wrapped up in work since . . . the last month or so that I was beginning to worry about you.”
She grimaced, realizing her father had caught himself before saying something about Ned. “You don’t have to tip toe around the subject, Dad. I’m fine with how things worked out between Ned and me. I don’t know why everyone else is having so much trouble accepting it.”
“You two were together a long time, Nancy. It’s natural for us to be concerned.”
“Ned and I have been growing apart since the day I decided to attend CSU for criminal justice instead of joining him at Emerson. It’s not my fault, it’s not Ned’s fault, and I’m not bitter about it. Life moves on.”
“I still can’t believe Ned would . . . do that to you.”
“Ned didn’t do anything to me, Dad. I know that’s how you see it, but when I wouldn’t agree to move with him to Decatur, we agreed to keep our relationship open. He just found someone else. It was inevitable.”
Her father took a deep breath and nodded acceptance. “Still, I’m glad you’re getting away. I think a visit with Frank and Joe is the perfect thing to get you over this. After all, Frank is in the same boat, as you. Fenton says he broke up with his high school sweetheart awhile ago, and apparently hasn’t met anyone new. You and Frank have always gotten along so well . . .”
Nancy ground her teeth. “I don’t need to get over anything. And Frank broke up with Callie over a year ago, Dad. Besides, that is immaterial. Why is it that everyone seems to think I need to be with someone to be happy? Frank and Joe are good friends, and it will be nice to spend some time with them. But I am not looking for another relationship. Not right now.”
Mr. Drew spread out his hands in a surrendering gesture. “There’s no need to get angry. I’m sorry I said anything. Just go to New York and promise me you’ll relax and have some fun while you’re there.”
Nancy sat back with a heavy sigh. “Fine. I promise to have fun while I’m in New York. After I’m done with the work that I have to do there.”
Her father chuckled. “Work always comes first with you, doesn’t it?”
Nancy smiled thinly at him. She knew he didn’t mean anything by it, but it still stung. That had always been Ned’s biggest problem with her.
“Once again, Dad, you taught me well. How’s your sandwich?”
“Huge. I never can figure out how to eat these things.”
“Very carefully.” Nancy laughed, and her father joined her. She pushed less happy thoughts aside, and looked forward to her trip to New York. She knew she would enjoy her time with the Hardy brothers. She always did.
Frank glanced at the clock for the third time in half an hour. It was almost 5 pm and Nancy hadn’t arrived yet. He sighed and tried to focus on the computer screen in front of him. He had taken over a spare desk at the office, and was trying to finish his last editing round on his thesis, but he was finding it difficult to focus.
“There you are.” Fenton Hardy looked over the cubical wall, before rounding it and entering through the door.
“Hi, Dad.” Frank waved a hand at his laptop. “Just trying to finish up the thesis while I’m home. It’s hard to find time to do simple editing at school. Too many other things demand attention.”
Mr. Hardy sat on the edge of the desk. “Well, this is the first chance I’ve had to really talk to you since you arrived home, yesterday. How close are you to being done?”
“Close. I’ve finished my closing justification, but I need to go through and make sure I’m comfortable with my supporting arguments. To be honest, I’m getting kind of tired of the topic.”
“Remind me . . .?”
“Data mining to develop red flags for insurance fraud detection.” Frank grinned at his dad. “Doesn’t it sound like something you’d want to spend two years of your life working on?”
Mr. Hardy grimaced. “I’m more of an old fashioned gumshoe. I’ll leave the high tech stuff to you boys.”
Frank chuckled. “Well, maybe to me. Joe and computers don’t seem to get along that well.”
“You may look like me, but Joe definitely takes after me in the technology department.” Mr. Hardy laughed. “You, on the other hand, got your mother’s brains.”
“Whatever you say, Dad. By the way, I don’t think I told you . . . I’ve been offered a PhD research assistantship.” Frank watched for his father’s reaction to the news.
Mr. Hardy’s face broke into a proud smile. “That’s terrific, Frank! Where?”
“University of Illinois and Georgetown have both made offers.”
“So, have you decided where you’re going? U of I would take you closer to a certain young lady.”
Frank opened his mouth and closed it. There was a little too much to contemplate in those two sentences for him to think clearly “Dad, I, uh, well, I’m not sure. And what does Nancy have to do with it?”
“Well, I figured since Mr. Nickerson was out of the picture, perhaps you would finally . . . make your interest in Nancy known.”
“Ned’s out of the picture . . . ?”
Joe’s voice floated to them across the office. “Hey, Nan’s here!”
Frank almost knocked over his chair standing up as he processed the new information.
His father looked at him with a knowing smile. “Yes, Ned is out of the picture. Now let’s go, son. I can see you’re anxious to see Nancy.”
Frank felt the heat in his face, and tried for a non-committal shrug as he walked out the door. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen her, so I guess I am kind of excited that she’s here. Do you know how long she’s staying?”
Mr. Hardy followed Frank down the hall. “I understand from talking to Carson that she plans to stay through Sunday. I think she’s as excited to see you and Joe, as you are to see her.”
“We’ve all been kind of wrapped up in our own lives the last few years. I think it’ll be fun to hang out together.”
The muted sound of voices reached them as they approached the conference room. Frank’s pace increased for the last few steps just before he turned into the room. When Nancy turned to look at him, a wide smile lit her face. Neither of them hesitated as they moved to embrace.
Nancy’s lips brushed his cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Frank.”
He stepped back, careful to keep the time of his embrace brief, though the eucalyptus scent of her shampoo practically begged him to linger. If what his father said was true, then maybe things were aligning to make it possible to pursue a more serious relationship with Nancy. Unfortunately, the conference room of the office was hardly a place to explore the possibility.
He smiled at her. “You look terrific, Nan.”
And she did, her strawberry-blond hair curled softly around her face, and the emerald blue, fitted button-down shirt set off her eyes. Her lips were turned up in a warm smile, and Frank found himself just staring at her as he allowed once-taboo thoughts to play through his head.
Joe cleared his throat loudly. “I hate to interrupt you two, but as usual, I have to be the one to keep us all on track.”
Nancy’s eyes danced, and she winked at Frank. They turned to look at the younger Hardy and spoke in unison. “In your dreams, Joe.”
Frank joined her laughter at the indignant expression on his brother’s face. Already, this was promising to be a particularly enjoyable visit with Nancy.
Chapter 3: Prospective View
Nancy gave Frank a conspiratorial smile as they moved to join Joe on the far side of the table. “I’m glad you’re here, Frank. I thought I was going to be stuck with Joe all weekend.” She smacked Joe’s feet from where he had them propped on the table.
Joe was forced to sit up straight in the chair, and threw a look Nancy’s direction that was an odd combination of feigned anger and amusement. “Hey! I think I’m insulted.”
“I hate to let Joe have all the fun,” Frank said.
“Some things never change.” Nancy looked at the younger Hardy, his blue eyes twinkling with the ever-present mischief that typified him.
Joe flung out an arm and hit Frank in the stomach. “She must be talking about you, bro, ‘cause I showered this morning.”
Frank smacked Joe on the back of the head. Joe grunted and shot his brother a dirty look, causing Frank to laugh at him. Nancy leaned on the table, watching their antics with an amused smile. She was always surprised by the easy camaraderie that she found in the brothers’ company.
She had missed them over the last couple of years. Emails and instant messaging just weren’t the same as face to face visits. She was surprised by how much Frank had changed since she’d seen him last; he had left behind the string-bean physique of his youth, to develop broad, muscular shoulders that narrowed to a trim waist. He was currently sporting a definite five-o’clock shadow, and his dark hair curled over his collar. Adult-hood definitely agreed with Frank Hardy.
“So, Drew, you decided to slum in the PI world with us, rather than pursuing that noble reporter career you kept talking about?” Nancy tore her attention from Frank, to find Joe’s teasing gaze locked on her.
She smirked at him. “I decided that even investigative reporting couldn’t hold a torch to the excitement you two have shown me over the years. Guess I became an adrenalin junky.”
“Excitement we showed you?” Joe asked. “I think you have that backward.”
“You got that right, Joe.”
Nancy met Frank’s intense brown eyes with a start. Reminding herself sternly that she was not interested in a relationship right now, she pressed her lips into an accusing pout. “I thought you were on my side, Frank Hardy.”
“Hey, when Joe’s right, he’s right,” he replied with a shrug, the indifference of which was offset by his warm smile.
Nancy felt her own lips turn up in a responding smile, but further banter was cut off by the arrival of Mr. Hardy with Christian Hathaway, the founder of Hathaway Adjusters. Nancy stood to greet the new arrival, who swept in larger than life, walked straight up to Nancy and pumped her arm.
“Ms. Drew, it is such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve spoken with Mr. Adams on the phone, but appreciate him sending such an attractive spokesperson to meet with me here in my adopted home town. That personal touch is so important. It’s how I’ve always done business, and I like to work with folks who are like-minded. Certainly gives Adam’s Detective Agency a leg-up in the competition for Hathaway Adjuster’s claims investigation contract in Chicago.” As he spoke, he put an arm around Nancy’s shoulders and led her to the table, holding out a chair for her to sit in.
Mr. Hathaway exuded generosity, from his wide girth to his flowing white hair framing broad, friendly features, to his booming voice. He finally took a breath, and Nancy opened her mouth to reply, but he didn’t give her a chance. “I am very impressed by the thoroughness of your firm’s research in preparing this bid. Why, when Fenton, here, called and offered to host this meeting I simply couldn’t wait to meet the most likely candidate for my new investigative partner firm. Of course, the head of my investigative department will have final say, and you’ll get to meet him, Martin Kendall, tomorrow, but I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to get involved in this very important decision. I trust you are as excited about this prospective partnership as I am?”
Nancy raised her eyebrows as it registered that the man had actually stopped talking and was looking at her expectantly. “Um, certainly, sir. Adam’s Detective Agency would be thrilled to have the chance to partner with Hathaway Adjusters. We’re very excited about the opportunity.”
“Good, good. Tell me, Fenton, have you filled Ms. Drew in on the type of work that would be expected?”
Nancy spoke up. “My flight was delayed, and I barely had time to say hello to Frank and Joe before you arrived, so we haven’t really had a chance to discuss the contract, yet.” She nearly laughed at herself, thinking that Mr. Hathaway’s verbose tendencies were wearing off on her.
Mr. Hathaway seemed to notice for the first time that Frank and Joe were in the room. “Ah, how rude of me! Joseph, it’s been some time, my boy. How have you been? Still doing good work for your father, I trust?”
Joe nodded mutely, as Mr. Hathaway moved on to Frank. “And you must be Franklin, the son who is working on his thesis on data mining in the insurance industry. Absolutely fascinating! I did bring you a small gift, my boy . . .”
Mr. Hathaway reached into an inner pocket and extracted a jump drive which he held out to Frank. “Your father indicated that you were looking for a real-world dataset to test your thesis on, and I am always looking for new ways to utilize technology. So, as we agreed I made a copy of our claims database for you. I will be very interested to see what you find, young man. Very interested indeed.”
“Thank you very much, sir.” Frank’s gaze was openly curious. “Do you use computer algorithms to kick out the cases for investigation, or do you rely on manual case review?”
“I believe Kendall uses a combination of the two. We’ve had the database for several years, so our data management system is fairly well-established, but we probably don’t utilize it as fully as we could. I’m hoping you will be able to make suggestions on our flagging process. I’m always looking for better, more efficient ways to do what we do. It’s part of our competitive advantage.”
Tapping the drive on his hand, Frank nodded. “Will do, sir. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go get started on this while you continue your meeting with Nancy.”
“Have fun, son!” Mr. Hathaway beamed as he turned to Mr. Hardy. As soon as his back was turned, Frank caught Nancy’s eye and gave her an apologetic smile.
Mr. Hathaway cuffed Mr. Hardy on the shoulder. “That boy is the spitting image of you, Fenton. And bright, I can see it. I’ll be anxiously awaiting a report on what he finds in his analysis. Yes, indeed.”
Mr. Hathaway’s attention then returned to Nancy. “Let’s see, what information would be helpful to Adam’s Detective Agency in developing this bid. We started with two investigators in-house, here in New York, but Hardy Investigators handles all of our overflow work. As we develop the business to add another full-time investigator, we do so. So the work load tends to be cyclical in nature. I’ve spoken with Mr. Kendall about staffing our new office in Chicago, where I think we will likely start out with two investigators, as we did here. To begin with, we will not have a huge need for outside investigative services, but I’m sure Fenton would attest to how quickly our contract grew to be a fairly significant one for Hardy Investigators.”
Mr. Hardy nodded. “The first year was pretty slow, but once you had your client base established, it grew quickly from there. I was impressed by how fast you grew your business here in New York.”
“Absolutely! We did the same in Boston, and in Savannah before that.”
Nancy noticed the receptionist standing in the doorway motioning to Joe, who put a solicitous hand on Mr. Hathaway’s broad shoulder. “I’m afraid I have to bow out, too, sir. It was nice seeing you again.”
“And you, Joseph, and you.”
Behind Mr. Hathaway’s back, Joe stuck out his tongue and made a ‘yapping’ sign with his hands as he walked out the door. Nancy had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing as Mr. Hardy shot his son an irate look. Joe grimaced and slunk the rest of the way out of the conference room, careful to stay out of Mr. Hardy’s reach.
Mr. Hathaway continued, unaware, “Now, Ms. Drew, do you mind if I call you Nancy? Good, good, well I should stop monopolizing the conversation and let you ask me any questions you might have about the business. I want to make sure you have the information you need to develop a proposal that will knock Mr. Kendall’s socks off, and get you and your firm this contract . . .”
Thankfully, Mr. Hardy didn’t abandon her. Nancy focused on Mr. Hathaway, still rambling on, and forced herself to concentrate.
Frank was startled out of his thoughts when Joe breezed into his office. He glanced at the clock on the computer, and was surprised that almost two hours had passed.
Joe dropped into the spare chair. “It’s nearly seven, and way past my dinner time. Poor Nan. She’s gonna need ear splints after having them bent this long by Hathaway.”
Frank sat back and stared at the figures on the screen. All he had really had time to do was run some quick and dirty statistical analyses on the claims data. He had looked at the statistics several different ways, trying to make sense of some anomalies in the death claims data. His last attempt had been to look at the difference between cases kept in-house, versus those outsourced to Hardy Investigators. That had actually raised more questions than it answered.
The distraction that the data analysis provided had been a relief. After leaving the conference room, Frank had too much time to think about Nancy’s breakup with Ned. Once the initial surprise had worn off, Frank found himself wondering why he had to hear about it from his father. When he and Callie had broken up last year, Nancy had been his first call, even before he talked to Joe. It troubled him that Nancy hadn’t bothered to call him under like circumstances. Maybe their friendship wasn’t as important to her as it was to him.
Joe snapped fingers in front of Frank’s face. “Yo, bro, you there? Nan’s just finishing up with Hathaway, and I’m way past ready to eat.”
“I heard you.” Frank had spent far too long in one position, and groaned as he stood up and stretched.
Nancy appeared in the entry to the cubicle, arms crossed, expression a mixture of amusement and accusation. “I thought you two were my friends?”
“Survival of the quickest, Nan.” Joe grinned at her.
“Sorry, Nan. We were cowards. Buy you dinner to make it up?” Frank leaned on the back of the desk chair, his attention torn between the intriguing data on the screen, and the attractive strawberry-blond in the doorway.
Nancy must have noticed his interest in the screen, because she pushed herself off the wall and joined him behind the desk, following his gaze to the computer. “Did you find something, Frank?”
“It’s probably nothing.” He pulled out the chair, sat back down and tapped some keys. “I ran some quick stats on the overall database, and there were anomalies in the data, versus the national averages. The suicide rate in their death claims is on the upper end of the normal range, even for New York. I checked their clientele cross-section against the national data, and it seems to be pretty representative, so I started looking for other clues to the cause of the anomaly. The last thing I tried was looking at cases handled in-house, versus out-sourced. That was when I found this.”
Frank brought up a window showing the standard statistics run on the two sets of data. Nancy leaned down, her nearness distracting him from what he had been about to say.
She clicked her tongue. “The percentage of in-house claims found to be suicide was much higher than those out-sourced to Hardy Investigators. Do they keep a lot of death claims investigations in house?”
Frank looked at Nancy in admiration. “It doesn’t appear to be the result of any bias in case assignment. There are about as many outsourced as managed in-house.”
Joe pushed himself out of his chair with a disgusted harrumph. “Oh, good grief. I’m going to pick up Van. If you two could leave geekdom for awhile, maybe you’d be kind enough to meet us at the hotel, so I can obtain some much-needed sustenance.”
Frank looked up at his brother distractedly. “Oh, ok, Joe. We’ll see you there in about half an hour.”
They had just started going through some of the outlying cases, when Nancy raised her eyes from the screen and looked at Frank. “Did someone turn on a radio? I swear I hear BNL singing ‘Pinch Me’ . . .”
Frank looked at her blankly for a moment, then laughed and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “It’s Joe, we must be late.”
A glance at the clock confirmed that it was nearly an hour later. Frank flipped the cell open. “We’re on our way, Joe.”
“You’re still at the office?” Joe asked. “I’m starving here, and you’re still playing with numbers.”
“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. If you’re that hungry, order appetizers.”
Frank tucked the phone back in his pocket. “Guess we better pack it in and head to the hotel.”
“I just need to stop by the conference room and pick up my brief case.”
“I’m going to pack up my laptop. I may take a closer look at this data tonight. Something is definitely off.”
While Frank packed, Nancy leaned in the entry. “There are anomalies in the data, but don’t you expect them?”
“In a new office, yes, I would expect the data to be screwey, but this is an established office. There are thousands of claims in the database. It shouldn’t be that much outside of the norms.”
“Statistics were never my strong suit. Maybe Mr. Kendall can give you some insight into the reasons when he comes in tomorrow. It does seem strange that the only area that’s off is the death claims.”
Frank shrugged. “Most of the data I’ve worked with is either old, or mocked up based on national averages. I’m sure Mr. Kendall is far more versed in the norms than I am. It will be interesting to talk to him tomorrow. Maybe there’s some local driver, a factory going out of business, a bunch of people laid off. Just because we haven’t found the common denominator in the last hour, doesn’t mean there isn’t one there. I’ll take a closer look at the individual cases tonight, and see if I can find a clue.”
“Frank Hardy, always looking for those clues. Even when there’s no real mystery.” Nancy’s tone was teasing.
He grinned at her as he swung his backpack over his shoulder. “Maybe there is, and we just haven’t defined it, yet. Let’s go get your briefcase and head out, before Joe starts gnawing on the chair legs at the hotel.”
Five minutes later they were walking out of the office building and down the street. Nancy was quiet, her gaze introspective. While Frank generally didn’t mind lengthy silences, especially when he was with someone around whom he was comfortable, he was anxious to know what had happened between Nancy and Ned.
He decided for a casual approach, and cleared his throat. “So, Nan, how’s everything been? I haven’t heard from you in a few weeks.”
Nancy looked up at him, eyes narrowed. She chuckled. “Smooth, Hardy. If you want to know about my breakup with Ned, just come out and ask.”
“That obvious, huh?”
Nancy shrugged. “I figured you knew by now. After all, our fathers are worse then a couple of gossiping old ladies.”
“Yeah, they are.” Frank looked sideways at her, and took a deep breath in preparation for the plunge. “I guess I’m just wondering why you didn’t call, Nancy. It would have given me a chance to repay the favor you did for me last year.”
She crossed her arms, and stared studiously at the ground passing beneath her feet. “It all happened toward the end of your semester, Frank.” She looked up at him, her gaze uncharacteristically uncertain. “I didn’t want to bother you when you were so busy.”
“Ok, now I’m insulted. I would think you’d know me well enough by now to know you’re never a bother, Nan. Anytime you need to talk, I’m more than willing. I’m kind of hurt you didn’t tell me.” He smiled to take the sting out of the last statement, though in truth, it bothered him more than he thought it should.
“What was there to tell? My relationship with Ned has been on life support for the last two years. I have no right to be angry at him when I was the one who turned my back on the whole thing.”
The self-blame in Nancy’s tone was unmistakable, and in Frank’s opinion, very misdirected. “He was the one that moved to Decatur.”
“I could have moved with him.”
“And left your job part way through your licensure? That would have been counter-productive.”
Nancy sighed. “I know, I know all the arguments, I’ve been over them a million times in my head. But . . .”
Frank waited, and when she didn’t continue, he prodded. “But what, Nan?”
“When Ned and I were together, it always felt so right . . . until my career would intrude. Then we’d end up yelling at each other and parting ways in anger. The whole cycle was just painful, and honestly, it was a relief when it was over, but I can’t help wondering ‘what if?’”
Her blue eyes were tight with pain and uncertainty, and Frank wanted nothing more than to wipe that expression off her face.
He took a deep breath and decided on a logical approach. “Let’s say you had left behind the PI work, moved to Decatur, gotten a job at some sleepy small town newspaper so you could be with Ned. Would you have been happy?”
She didn’t even look up. “I guess I’ll never know.”
They had reached the hotel, and Frank stopped and put his hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look at him.
“That is not the Nancy I know. Come on, put yourself there. Every day the same. Writing articles on . . . the high school PTA meetings or the town council debate that almost came to blows. Maybe if you got lucky, the mayor would have an affair you could investigate and reveal. Would that have been enough for you, Nan?”
She stared at him for several seconds before her lips turned up in a slight smile. “You make Decatur sound like a hotbed of intrigue and danger, Frank.”
“I’m sure Decatur is the next east LA.”
They both laughed. Frank dropped his hands to his side, relieved to see her smile return.
She reached out and squeezed his hand. “Thanks, Frank. Really. I should have called you a long time ago. You always know what to say to make me feel better.”
Her hand felt small and fragile inside his, and he felt protective, which he knew could be a dangerous thing where Nancy was concerned. “You can call me anytime, end of semester or not. Promise me that next time, you won’t hesitate.”
“Next time a life-altering event happens you’ll be the first person I call, Frank Hardy. I promise.” Nancy put a hand over her heart.
Frank quirked an eyebrow at her. “I certainly hope so.” He firmly held onto her hand and led her into the hotel. “Come on, we better get inside before Joe faints away from hunger.”
Chapter 4: Worthy of Exploring
“There’s Joe.” Nancy pointed across the hotel restaurant, where Joe was waving to them.
Joe and Vanessa stood and Nancy was struck by what a handsome couple they were. Vanessa was tall and slender, with ash blonde hair, blue-gray eyes, and an open and inviting smile. Her willowy good-looks were the perfect compliment to Joe.
As Frank and Nancy approached, Joe’s gaze went immediately to their joined hands. Nancy read the innuendo in his look, and cringed. She knew Joe’s modus operandi all too well, and this would just encourage him.
“Nancy, it is so wonderful to finally meet you!” Vanessa moved toward her, and Nancy took the opportunity to slip her hand out of Frank’s, accepting an embrace from Joe’s fiancée. “I’ve heard so much about you, I feel like I know you, already.”
Nancy smiled at her. “Likewise, Vanessa. It’s so nice to finally put a face with the voice and name.”
“Hey, Van.” Frank leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.
“Would you people sit down so we can order our meals?”
“Joseph Hardy, be polite,” Vanessa said.
Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “They are an hour late for dinner, and I’m the one being rude?”
“Yes,” three voices chorused.
All four of them were hungry, given the late hour of the dinner. Talk centered around Joe’s and Vanessa’s engagement, and ensuing wedding plans. Nancy found the topic of conversation particularly interesting given that they were served by an attractive young brunette, who flirted openly with both Frank and Joe. Frank’s firm rejection of her overt advances was a stark contrast to Joe’s unconscious acceptance and casual response. She found herself admiring Vanessa more and more as she dealt with Joe’s flirtatious personality with an aplomb that bordered on saint-hood. It was apparent that both of them were comfortable in their relationship, and she found herself more than a little jealous.
After dinner they moved to a booth in the bar. Joe slid into the booth, and held out an inviting arm. Vanessa slipped close and gave him a light kiss on the lips.
Nancy practically jumped out of her skin, when Frank’s hand pressed at the small of her back to guide her to the other side of the booth. She slid into the bench seat, and Frank followed. A waiter stopped by to take their drink orders, and Joe ordered a dessert.
Nancy shook her head at him. “After that huge meal, you actually have room for a dessert called a chocolate volcano?”
“Don’t worry, Nan. I’ll share. I’m well aware of your love for all things chocolate.”
Nancy grinned. “It actually does sound pretty good.”
“That waiter better bring extra utensils,” Vanessa said.
Joe kissed her on the nose. “I’ll share my fork with you, baby.”
“Hm, that could be taken any number of ways,” Frank said. A moment later he yelped, “Ouch! Hey.”
“That’s for being crude, Franklin Hardy.”
“Sorry, Van.” Frank’s smile was far less apologetic then his words.
“Liar.” Vanessa stuck her tongue out at Frank, then turned purposely toward Nancy. “You’ve been really good about leading the conversation away from yourself, Nan.”
“There’s not a lot to tell.”
Frank leaned back and stretched one long leg out into the aisle. “Don’t be modest, Drew. Van knows better anyway.”
“You’re going to trip the poor wait staff, Frank.” Van smacked his leg.
He shifted and moved his leg back under the table. “I’ve been sitting too much today.”
Nancy chuckled. “It’s good to see that Vanessa keeps you two in line. That has to be a full time job.”
Joe made a face at her and smoothly changed the subject. “Well, I’m surprised Frank’s eyes aren’t worn out, staring at that computer screen all day. What was so interesting that kept you two at the office for over an hour, anyway? And don’t start spouting about ‘anomalous data’ because it means nothing to me.”
Frank and Nancy looked at each other and shrugged. Frank held out a hand to indicate that Nancy should start.
“Basically, Hathaway Adjusters has an unusually large percentage of suicides in their death claims, overall . . .”
“And of the death claims that they investigate in-house, an even higher percentage are determined to be suicide,” Frank said.
Nancy nodded. “So we started going through the individual cases, starting with the oldest, looking for commonalities that might explain the data . . .”
“But so far nothing has jumped out,” Frank concluded.
Nancy nudged him in the shoulder. “Frank even had to bring his laptop home so he could keep looking. I think he’s bound and determined to figure out what’s going on without Kendall having to tell him.”
Frank grinned. “I may be taking it as a bit of a challenge.”
“Always so serious,” Nancy said.
He leaned forward, eyebrows knitted over intense brown eyes. “I’m not always serious.”
Nancy knew looking into those eyes could be risky from the stand point of her resolve. In fact, sitting this close to him was dicey in and of itself. However, in avoiding his gaze, she ended up examining his wavy dark hair. She couldn’t remember him ever wearing it that long before, and without a conscious thought, she reached out to finger the hair that curled well over his collar.
“I suppose there are signs that you’re loosening up some, Hardy.” She caught herself and pulled her hand back, trying to cover up the gesture with a joke. “Or it’s that hip, grad student lifestyle you’ve been immersed in. The rest of us live in the real world.”
“End of semester, remember? I barely have time to eat, let alone get to the barber.”
Nancy shrugged. “I kind of like it longer. It suits you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Frank’s smile made Nancy’s heart skip, and she kicked herself for leading him on like that. She was going to have to be up front about her stance on the whole relationship issue. This was the first time they’d spent time together when neither of them had a significant other. Thinking of the few stolen kisses with Frank over the last several years was enough to make her breath catch. But it didn’t change the fact that she wasn’t ready to have to worry about someone else, again - especially a certain, handsome graduate student that lived on the east coast.
“I just have one question.”
Vanessa startled Nancy out of her thoughts, and she and Frank both turned their attention to her.
She raised her eyebrows. “Do you two always finish each other’s thoughts?”
Joe snorted. “Yeah, they do. And they are always looking for a freaking mystery to solve, even when there isn’t one there.” He leaned forward and looked at them with what Nancy assumed was supposed to be a severe expression. “I thought we were going to enjoy the weekend hanging out with no mystery to worry about. That was the idea. So, would you two kindly drop this?”
“No,” was the unison response.
Frank pushed papers aside, opened his laptop on the coffee table and turned it on. He then started gathering the sections of the New York Times that were scattered across Joe’s and Vanessa’s living room, and stacking them next to his computer.
Joe came walking out of the bedroom in his boxers and a t-shirt, shoved the papers on the chair onto the floor and sat down. “So, bro, Nan’s footloose and fancy-free.”
Frank sighed and bent down to pick up the papers Joe had just deposited on the floor, folding them and adding them to the stack. “Not exactly fancy-free, Joe. You heard her. She wants to spend some time alone.”
“Oh give me a break. I saw the way you two were looking at each other. Her lips may say ‘I want to be alone’ but her actions were singing a whole different tune.”
“I agree.” Vanessa swept out of the bedroom in a pair of silky pajamas, and perched on the arm of the chair Joe was sitting in.
Frank looked at them, shook his head, and sat down on the couch. He punched the access code into his laptop more forcefully then necessary, and purposely ignored them. He pulled up the database, and searched the most current suicide case. He and Nancy had started at the oldest, and he couldn’t recall where they left off. That made him think of the possibility of doing some trending analysis over time, to see if there was a pattern. That could give him a clue of ‘when’ in the data to start looking for clues to the cause.
The case pulled up, and Frank opened the file. A picture of the covered individual came on screen, along with the case details. The file pictures were a fairly new addition to the database, and hadn’t been present in the files he and Nan had reviewed earlier in the evening.
“Frank, stop ignoring us,” Vanessa said gently.
“I’m working.” Frank maximized the window and skimmed the case details, then looked at the picture. The man looked vaguely familiar, and he racked his brain trying to remember where he had seen him before. It had been very recently.
Vanessa put a hand on his laptop and folded the screen down. “Frank, honey, we need to talk.”
“Van, please, I don’t need a lecture, and I really am trying to work –“
“That’s part of the problem. Ever since you and Callie broke up, you spend every waking moment working. It’s not healthy. You really relaxed tonight with Nancy. It was so nice to have the old Frank back. I don’t think I realized how much I missed him.”
Frank sat back and resigned himself to the conversation. He knew it was futile to avoid Vanessa, anyway.
“I’m fine, Van. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in the throes of preparing to defend my research of the last two years, and that requires a certain amount of focus.”
Van’s lips pressed into a thin line, and Frank felt a slight wave of apprehension. She could be a little intimidating when she wanted to be, and he could see the wheels turning as she prepared to argue with him.
“I know you need focus, Franklin Hardy. But even grad students need to have a life. That’s what Nancy does for you, she makes you live outside your damn numbers. This is less about the work, and more about what makes you happy. You were happy tonight, Frank. Admit it.”
Frank ran his hands back through his hair, thinking that it was getting long. But if Nancy liked it that way, then he’d let it grow. Jeez, he was pathetic. “Yes, being with Nancy makes me happy. Are you happy now? Like she said tonight, she needs some time to get past the mess with Ned, and I’m going to respect that. Until then, this discussion is kind of pointless. This is too important to rush. I want the timing to be right - for both of us.”
Vanessa sighed. “You know, Frank, you always surprise me with how romantic and . . . sweet that analytical mind of yours can be. Perhaps you’re right . . .”
Frank’s shoulders relaxed in relief. “Can I get back to work now?”
“I suppose, but you need to get some sleep tonight, too.”
Frank sat forward, and opened his computer. While he was waiting for the file to reload, he tried to erase the image of Nancy floating in his minds-eye by recreating the picture of the suicide case from memory. It was a hopeless cause. He had studied Nancy’s face minutely, tonight and in the past, and her image was crisp and clear. The suicide victim was a blob of a balding white man, with a big nose and fleshy eyes.
Frank was startled when his brother launched to his feet, glaring at his fiancée. “I cannot believe you’re letting him off the hook that easy, Van. And you . . .” Joe swung around to glower at Frank. “I don’t think you know the meaning of the word ‘rush’ for one thing, and while you’re waiting for the ‘right time’ some other guy, someone who sees her more than once every couple years, is going to sweep in and steal her from under your nose. Quit playing it safe, and take a chance for once, Frank.”
Frank held his brother’s challenging gaze for several seconds, then stood up and picked up the pile of neatly folded blankets on the end of the couch. He tossed the pillow to one end and spread the blankets out.
“I’m going to bed.”
“Stop being such a freaking coward, Frank.”
Frank balled his hands into fists and rounded on his brother. “Just drop it, Joe.”
Vanessa stepped between them, and put a restraining hand on each man’s chest. “Alright, we know where you each stand. I think Frank is right, it’s time to sleep on it. Honestly, you two come close to blows over the strangest things.”
“You just don’t understand how my big brother’s mind works yet, Van. You see, he gets angriest at me when he knows I’m right.”
Frank grunted in irritation. As much as he hated to admit it, he knew Joe was right. He was a coward, especially where Nancy was concerned. He was so afraid of screwing things up with her, he ended up paralyzed into inaction. He dropped onto the couch, staring unseeingly at the stack of newspaper on the coffee table.
“You need to talk to her, Frank. Tell her how you feel, and what you want.”
Joe’s voice was calm with an undercurrent of unbending reason, and Frank nodded in surrender. “Ok.”
Frank’s gaze finally focused, and he found he was staring at a photo of an elderly woman next to an obituary. He straightened, and looked at the picture of the suicide victim on the computer screen. In his mind, the color photo turned grainy and gray-toned. That was where he had seen that guy, while he was picking up the paper, though not in the obituaries. He started tearing through the stack, redistributing the papers in the process, until he found what he was looking for. He folded the paper back, and skimmed the related article, and then held the photo up to compare to the image on the computer.
“I’ll be damned.”
“What?” Joe stepped up beside him, and whistled. “Is that the same guy?”
“No, it’s not the same guy.”
Joe took the newspaper, and read, “Police are asking local residents to be on the alert for this man, Sylvester ‘Sly’ Buccia, wanted for questioning in the brutal murder of a shop owner in Brooklyn. Buccia is 52 years old, five foot eight, 230 pounds, balding, with brown hair and gray eyes.”
Frank read from the computer screen, “Howard Messer. Age: 53. Hair: brown, balding. Eyes: gray. Height: five foot eight. Weight: 200 pounds. He could be Buccia’s doppelganger.”
Joe shook his head. “It’s probably just a coincidence.”
“Maybe.” Frank looked up at his brother. “But if not, there could be way more to this than simple insurance fraud.”
Vanessa gazed at the brothers narrowly. “This isn’t just another avoidance tactic, is it?”
Joe sighed in resignation. “I wish.”
Chapter 5: Wake Up Call
Nancy woke to a knock on her room door. She groaned and rolled over to look at the clock. It was already after seven a.m. But who in the world would be at her door?
She stumbled out of bed and checked through the peep hole. Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw Frank Hardy standing in the hall way. The knock sounded again. Nancy looked down at her wrinkled cotton pajama pants and tank top, and then tried to run fingers through her tangled hair. With a resigned sigh, she opened the door.
Frank held out a large coffee and a single rose. “Good morning.”
Nancy accepted both with a bemused smile. “Thanks, and good morning to you, too.”
She stared at him, admiring the slightly rumpled look that he was sporting. His five-o’clock shadow of the previous evening was becoming pronounced, and his tousled hair practically begged to have fingers run through it. She was finding it nearly impossible to resist Frank Hardy without the barrier that her relationship with Ned had always represented.
“Can I come in?”
She gave a start, realizing she had been standing there daydreaming while he stood in the hallway. Jeez, she was pathetic. “Of course, come in. I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m quite awake yet. I really needed the coffee.”
“I figured. And it’s real coffee, not that fake stuff they give you in the room.” Frank closed the door. “Did I wake you?”
“My alarm didn’t go off. It’s probably a good thing you stopped, or I would have slept the day away.”
Frank put his backpack on the coffee table, and dropped onto the couch. “That actually sounds pretty appealing.”
Nancy smiled and sat down in the chair adjacent to the couch in the sitting area of the room. Frank took a long drink of his coffee before setting it down on the table. He sat back and rubbed his hands down his face.
“You look like you’ve been up all night.” Nancy twirled the rose, wondering why in the world Frank had given it to her, but strangely afraid to ask.
“I caught a couple hours on the couch in the lobby. I thought I should tell you that the night manager thinks we had a fight and you locked me out of the room last night.”
She laughed. “Frank Hardy, have you been sullying my reputation?”
He grinned at her. “The manager told me roses were the way back into a woman’s good favor. Don’t tell me he’s wrong.”
“You were never out of my ‘good favor.’”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
She tilted her head to the side. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you camp out in the lobby last night? I thought you were headed back to Joe and Van’s.”
“It’s a long and sordid tale of a backward brother who has no internet, and a lame-brained and lazy guy who forgot the key to the office and didn’t feel like making another trip. Luckily, your hotel has wireless, and the night manager had seen us together earlier in the evening.”
Nancy cocked an eyebrow at him. “All that for the internet, huh? What are you up to?”
Frank leaned forward, and his fatigue seemed to melt away as he told her about what he had found the night before. “I started going through what I could find of the Times on line, to see if I could find any other connections. I think I need to check out the hardcopies, so I’m going to head to the library, but it doesn’t open until ten.”
Nancy sipped her coffee and considered what Frank had told her. “Do you think this could be an isolated case of identity theft?”
“Could be, I guess. I’m not sure I know enough to think anything yet. Not to mention that I’m starving and haven’t had near enough coffee.”
The hotel room service menu was lying on the coffee table. Nancy leaned forward and flipped it open. “Let’s order some food and a pot of real coffee, and see if we can clear the cobwebs out of that brain of yours.”
“You know the way to a man’s heart, Nan.” Frank’s smile was warm.
Nancy stood up and started toward the phone. “And here I thought it was your brother’s heart that was attached to his stomach.”
“Part and parcel to the male genome.”
“So, Hardy, what do you want?” Nancy raised an eyebrow at him as she lifted the receiver.
The thoughtful smile on Frank’s face gave way to a fleeting look of confusion before his eyes dropped to the room service menu lying open in front of him. “Um, I’ll take a couple eggs, sunny-side up, a stack of pancakes, sausage and a large orange juice.”
Nancy picked up the phone and placed their orders. By the time she turned around, Frank was slouched down into the couch, head back, and eyes closed.
She walked over and took his arm, urging him up. “Come on, Frank. Lie down on the bed and catch a few minutes of sleep. I’m going to jump into the shower. Breakfast should be here in half an hour, 45 minutes.”
Frank lay down and Nancy moved around the room gathering everything she needed to get decent after her shower. Normally, she would have left her clothes in the closet, but she couldn’t very well prance out of the bathroom naked with Frank there. She finished, and spent one last minute surveying the room to make sure she had everything.
Frank was staring at her, and she wagged a finger at him. “You’re supposed to be going to sleep.”
His responding smile was drowsy. “Just admiring the view.”
She could feel the heat rise in her cheeks, and she shook her head. “Sleep, Hardy.”
“I’ll try.” But his eyes remained open and locked on her.
She walked into the bathroom and closed the door, effectively blocking Frank’s evocative gaze. She turned the water all the way to ‘H’ to allow it to warm up while she undressed. The thought occurred to her that Frank Hardy was sleeping in her bed. And as innocent as the reality was, the general idea made her feel warm all over. She reached in and turned the temperature of the water down several degrees until it was on the cold side of comfortable.
He smiled at the sound of Nancy’s voice.
He felt a small hand on his shoulder, a gentle shake.
“Frank, wake up.”
His eyes opened slowly, and he looked up into Nancy’s face. He couldn’t imagine a better way to wake up.
She smiled at him. “Hey, sleepyhead, breakfast is getting cold.”
His eyes popped open and he sat up, as he remembered where he was and why. The vivid dream of moments ago faded into a reality that was far less intimate, and he struggled to get back into a more appropriate frame of mind.
“Sorry, guess I did fall asleep.” He swung his feet to the floor and sat up on the edge of the bed.
Nancy chuckled. “I guess so. Come on, let’s eat. I wanted to be at the office by nine, and it’s after eight now.”
He watched her move to the little dining area, and set their places. She had on a pair of black slacks and a white silk, short-sleeved shirt that hugged her waist. Her blue eyes turned to him, and he was struck by just how beautiful she was. That definitely wasn’t helping the frame of mind thing. He sighed.
“Are you coming, Hardy?”
“Uh, yeah, sorry, just trying to wake up.”
She held up the coffee pot. “Got the go-juice.”
He grinned. “You are my hero.”
They sat down, and were silent for the first several minutes. Frank was glad to have the time to wake up and settle back into reality. Nancy was the one who broke the silence.
“So do you think this possible identity theft and the death claims anomaly could be linked to some kind of insurance fraud?”
Frank had already plowed through his pancakes and was starting on his eggs and sausage. He set down his fork. That was the question that had kept him awake all night. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t really look like any kind of traditional insurance fraud . . .”
“If not insurance fraud, then let’s work the identity theft angle.” Nancy’s blue eyes sparked with enthusiasm.
Frank nodded. “It would be a pretty sweet setup. Thousands of clients in the insurance company database. All sorts of information that would be perfect for identity theft.”
“No kidding. You have to sign away your first born to get insurance. But how could that tie into the high suicide rate in death claims?”
He sat forward, elbows on the table. “Go with me on this . . . what if you were tapped into a population that has periodic need for new ID’s and is willing to pay for them? Let them shop the database, select their doppelganger, pick their new ID.”
“You’re right, pretty sweet setup.”
“You could even charge more for short turns.” Frank leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms in triumph. “When you need the ID, knock off the client, make it look like a suicide, and ride off into the sunset.”
Nancy nodded. “Ok. But what are you going to look for in the Times?”
“I’m hoping to find a couple more Sly Buccia’s.”
“Preponderance of evidence. Seems to me you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, Frank. You don’t even know which cases are legit, and which are potential thefts.”
“Got a better idea, Drew?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I wonder if we could work the search from the other end as we find matches . . . assuming we find more matches.”
Frank picked up his fork and started picking at his sausage. “It is an awful lot of hypothesizing based on one possible coincidence.”
“Your gut is obviously telling you it isn’t a coincidence. That’s good enough for me.”
“What about yours?”
Nancy smiled. “My gut agrees. Let’s approach this optimistically. As you find names, forward them to Joe. I’ll touch base with him when I get to the office. He can run searches on Buccia and Messer, and keep an eye out for more from you as you find them. I’d do it myself, but I anticipate I’ll be tied up in my meeting with Kendall for awhile.”
Frank dropped his fork again, and stood up. “My end is going to be the bottleneck, anyway. Speaking of Kendall, I do think we should play this close to the chest for now.”
“You don’t want to ask Kendall about the data anomaly. You think he could be involved?”
“If someone is guilty of something, I think he’s probably a likely suspect, and I don’t want to take any chances.” He pulled out his laptop and opened it.
“Fair enough. Which library are you going to?”
“Main branch.” Frank rubbed his chin. “By way of Joe and Van’s, so I can get a shower and a shave.”
Nancy warmed up her coffee and Frank’s. She joined him on the couch and handed him his cup.
He smiled. “Thanks, Nan.”
“You haven’t lost your touch, Hardy. I think maybe you’re ready to get back in the game. Does your Dad have your office ready at Hardy Investigators?”
He sat back. “I’m weighing my options for after graduation.”
“I’ve been offered full-ride PhD research assistantships at both Georgetown and University of Illinois.” He watched for Nancy’s reaction with interest.
“Wow, Frank, that’s great!”
She sounded just like his dad, and he glanced away, feeling incongruously disappointed. But when he looked back at her, he recognized the knowing smile on her face.
“You’re pretty lukewarm to those full-ride offers, Hardy. What’s up?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I don’t think Dad noticed.”
“He was too busy being proud,” Nancy said with an understanding smile.
Frank snorted. “His only question was which one I was going to choose.”
“He probably assumed you were as excited as he was about the opportunities.”
“Maybe. It’s just . . . I’m not sure I want to get a PhD, Nan. I think I’m ready to leave academia for the real world. Put some of what I’ve learned to work.”
“I’m sure your dad would be thrilled to have you in the fold at Hardy Investigators.”
He felt a surge of irrational irritation at Nancy. “So that’s my only other option, huh Drew?”
Her eyebrows shot up, and he was immediately sorry for the tone of his statement. A moment later, he relaxed when he saw the teasing gleam in her eye. “Frank Hardy, rebel. I think I like it.”
“I’m not a rebel. I just don’t like feeling as if my choices have already been made for me.”
She smiled at him. “Somehow, I could never see you letting anyone make your decisions for you. With your talent you can work wherever you want. So, Frank, what do you want?”
It startled Frank to hear his brother’s words of the night before echoed by the very person who prompted them. “I want a lot of things. In the end, I’m just afraid someone is going to be disappointed . . .”
Nancy put a hand on his arm, her gaze earnest. “Frank, I think it would be impossible for you to disappoint anyone, least of all your father.”
He opened his mouth and closed it again. It wasn’t time, yet. Go with Nancy’s interpretation of his statement. “I’m not so sure . . .”
“Well, I am.” Nancy pulled out her cell and glanced at the time. She stood up. “I need to get moving so I have a chance to talk to Joe before Kendall arrives. I’ll join you at the library as soon as I’m done with Kendall. Maybe we can shorten the search for the needle if we’re both looking for it.”
She walked over to the bureau next to the television, and fingered a card briefly, before turning and walking back to Frank. She held it out to him. “Here’s an extra key to the room, in case you lock yourself out after I leave. I’ll see you as soon as Kendall leaves.”
Frank looked at the card in his hand. “I’ll drop it at the desk when I leave.”
Nancy turned at the door and smiled at him. “I trust you, Hardy. You might as well hold onto it. I’ll see you at the library.”
Chapter 6: Assignments, Assessments & Asses
“Hey, Nan. You haven’t seen my big brother today, have you?”
Joe’s blue eyes held a blatant curiosity that made Nancy wonder just what he was thinking. She felt her cheeks redden, as she realized that the answer to that question could be construed any number of ways. Knowing Joe like she did, his interpretation would be less than innocent. Unfortunately, there was no avoiding the topic.
“He, uh, stopped by and we had breakfast together this morning.” There, that was innocuous. She hurried on, so Joe didn’t have a chance to ask the more-probing questions she could see burning in his eyes. “He told me what he found last night. In fact, I have a little chore for you this morning.”
Nancy related the gist of her and Frank’s breakfast conversation.
“As soon as I’m done with Kendall, I’ll head to the library and help Frank. We’ll feed you names as we find matches.”
Joe rubbed the back of his head. “So you talked about the case. Did you talk about anything else?”
She stiffened and stood. “That was about it. I need to touch base with your Dad before Mr. Kendall gets here . . .”
Hands laced behind his head, Joe leaned back in the chair and considered her with an unusually intense gaze. Nancy backed toward the door, but she wasn’t quite quick enough to escape.
“You know, if I didn’t know better I’d swear you and Frank purposely went digging for this damn mystery. Something to distract both of you from the fact that there is nothing standing in the way of you two being together any more.”
That had been her biggest fear. Joe Hardy, matchmaker, could be a major pain. She leveled him with her most uncompromising gaze. “I’m not ready, Joe. I need some time to get over Ned.”
“Give me a break, Drew. I think you’ve been over Ned for going on two years - at least since the last time you saw Frank. It just took Ned awhile to come to grips with it, and you let him hold on because . . .” Joe stopped and tilted his head, curiosity burning in his vivid blue eyes. “Why did you let it go on so long, anyway?”
Nancy crossed her arms and glared at the younger Hardy. It bothered her that Joe always seemed to be able to cut away all of the bull and ask her the questions that required soul searching and honesty - especially when she was least inclined to be honest with herself, let alone him.
Joe smirked at her. “You’ve been wondering the same thing yourself, haven’t you? I’m betting the two issues are related. Let’s see. What scares the intrepid Nancy Drew . . .?”
“Can’t be the commitment thing . . .”
“I said, ‘don’t.’”
“Distance has never really been an issue . . .”
Nancy’s voice dropped to a low growl. “Joseph Hardy, shut up.”
“I know for certain it can’t be a concern about compatibility, so what does that leave us, Drew?” The challenge in Joe’s tone was unmistakable.
“With the fact that you’re an ass.”
She spun away from his goading gaze and walked down the hall, but Joe was hot on her heels.
“C’mon, Nancy, what are you afraid of?” Joe asked just before she turned into the conference room.
Mr. Hardy looked up as they walked in. “Good morning, Nancy. I was just thinking that we could go through case history for the last year to give you a feel for the kind of workload you’ll have . . .” He paused, looking from Nancy to Joe. “Joseph. Is something wrong?”
Joe crossed his arms and shot Nancy an annoyed look. “Nothing that can’t wait . . . a little while longer.”
He turned and walked out of the room.
Nancy took a deep breath and turned to smile at Mr. Hardy. “That sounds like a good idea, Mr. Hardy. It’s nearly nine. Do you want to start now, or wait until after the meeting with Mr. Kendall?”
Nancy held her breath while Mr. Hardy considered her for several seconds before finally responding. Nancy was relieved that he chose to ignore Joe’s cryptic comment.
“Mr. Kendall called. He’s going to be delayed for a couple hours. I hesitated to have him come in on his first day back from vacation, but Mr. Hathaway insisted on meeting with you, and yesterday was the only time he could make it, and he insisted today would be fine for the meeting with Kendall.” Mr. Hardy shook his head, his repentant smile so reminiscent of Frank’s that Nancy caught her breath. “Good grief, just talking about Hathaway makes me run on.”
Nancy laughed and joined Mr. Hardy at the conference table. “He does kind of wear off on you, doesn’t he? We might as well get started if Mr. Kendall is going to be late.”
She was glad to have something to focus on other than the final question Joe had posed.
Frank jogged up the steps to the library only to find that he was a few minutes early. The bus ride from Joe’s and Vanessa’s apartment hadn’t taken as long as he thought it would. He shrugged his backpack off his shoulders and dropped onto the steps to wait for the doors to open.
Ever since she had left the room this morning, he had been preoccupied with a certain strawberry-blonde. He was finding the tangle of thoughts and feelings she aroused difficult to process in any sort of logical manner. The desire to fold her into his arms and not let go had taken hold ever since his argument with Joe the night before. But when she was close, and the opportunity presented itself, he froze.
What if Nancy didn’t feel the same way? What if she wasn’t ready? What if she told him to take a flying leap? Those ‘what if’s were what held him back. He was a coward.
The tell-tale click of the doors being unlocked roused him from his thoughts and he stood and swung his backpack onto his shoulder. Extracting his cell, he turned it to vibrate before walking through the doors. Inside, he headed straight for the periodicals room, with its high ceilings and ornately carved walls adorned with murals by Richard Haas depicting the historical buildings associated with periodical publishing in New York City. As was his habit, he made a slow circuit of the room, admiring the murals before getting down to business.
The New York Public Library had always been one of Frank’s favorite places to spend time. He knew he would be able to find the last three years of the New York Times in the periodicals room. If necessary, he could review earlier issues in their archived form – they had microfilm of the Times going all the way back to the mid-1800s.
He found the most recent bound copy of the Times and took it to a seat near one of the large windows. He quickly became absorbed as he painstakingly cross-checked the Times against the information in the database.
Chapter 7: Clear Indicators
“Where is Frank Hardy?”
The voice in the hallway startled both Nancy and Mr. Hardy, who had been wrapping up their review of the agency’s case history with Hathaway Adjusters over the last year. It had been an interesting exercise, and Nancy now had a good feel for what Adam’s Detective Agency could expect if they won the contract for Chicago. It would also be a definite help in shaping the bid. The two hours spent with Mr. Hardy this morning had made the trip to New York well worth the time.
A man with an average build and smooth, pleasant features wearing a tailored three-piece suit and sporting a head of manicured dust-colored hair came striding into the conference room, with the receptionist trailing after. “Sir, I told you, Frank is not here. He doesn’t work for Hardy Investigators.”
“Not yet.” Fenton Hardy stood, a welcoming smile pasted on his face, though his eyes reflected a wariness that put Nancy on guard. He held out a hand to the man. “Martin Kendall, it’s nice to see you again. I trust your vacation was pleasant.”
“Fenton.” Kendall bit the name off, and barely touched Mr. Hardy’s hand in his hand shake. “Where is your son, Frank? I understand from talking to Mr. Hathaway just a short while ago that the boy has a copy of our claims database –“
“Yes, he does. Mr. Hathaway was kind enough to allow Frank to use the database to test his master’s thesis in High Technology Crime –“
Kendall’s voice took on a placating tone, though his interruption of Mr. Hardy hinted at his continuing tension. “Mr. Hathaway agreed to that without considering our internal policies, I’m afraid. I must get that copy of the database back, as soon as possible.”
“Frank signed the confidentiality agreement, Martin. I assure you, my son would never use the data to harm Hathaway Adjuster’s business in any way.”
Mr. Hardy turned to Nancy. “You saw Frank this morning at breakfast, Nancy. Did he say where he was going today?”
Nancy was careful to keep her expression neutral. “No sir, he said he had some errands to run, and didn’t think he’d be in until later this afternoon, when we were done. I could try his cell if you’d like.”
Mr. Hardy nodded, and turned to Kendall. “Martin, I’d like you to meet Nancy Drew. She is the private investigator from Adam’s Detective Agency in Chicago - the Agency that is bidding on the investigative contract with Hathaway Adjuster’s new office. She is a friend of the family, as well as an excellent investigator.”
Kendall shook her hand perfunctorily, glancing absently at the diamond-studded watch on his wrist. “Please, call Frank and find out where he is, young lady. It really is very important that I get that database secured as soon as possible.”
“Certainly.” Nancy pulled out her cell and dialed Frank’s number. The phone rang once before ringing through to his voice mail. She didn’t bother to leave a message.
“I’m sorry, sir, it rang straight through to voice mail, almost as if he has his phone turned off. I’m sure we’ll see him later on today. It could be he’ll be back before we’re done with our meeting.”
“Our meeting?” Kendall looked at her blankly.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Hathaway said you would come in to discuss the bid development with me today. Adam’s Detective Agency is very interested in securing the contract with Hathaway Adjusters, and I’m here to learn whatever I can to help make our bid the winning one.”
“You have a copy of the bid package, young lady?”
“Yes, Mr. Kendall. I have a copy right here.” Nancy leaned over the chair and found her copy amongst the papers lying with her binder.
Kendall tapped the document she held out to him. “You have the information you need to develop your bid right there. I fail to see why I should spend any more time going over details with you. Fenton, please find your son, and contact me as soon as you do. I want to secure that database, now.”
“I’ll do what I can, Martin.”
“Thank you. You know how to get in touch with me. Good day.”
Kendall’s gaze lingered on Nancy for several seconds before he turned and walked out without another word. She physically shook off the lingering uneasiness that gaze had provoked.
As soon as they heard the outer door close behind him, Mr. Hardy turned to Nancy and crossed his arms. “Alright, young lady, perhaps now you will explain to me why we just lied to one of my biggest clients, not to mention your prospective client. And just where is my son?”
Nancy swallowed. “Frank is at the library, Mr. Hardy. He found some data anomalies in Hathaway’s database and he’s trying to figure out what’s going on. I didn’t think it would hurt anything to stall and give him a little more time . . .”
“I think Frank is definitely on to something, Dad. He’s sent two more texts already this morning with more people to follow-up on. ” Joe stood in the doorway. Nancy had no idea how long he had been there, but he apparently heard enough to know what was going on.
Mr. Hardy glanced from Nancy to Joe, and then motioned to the table. “Alright, sit down and take me through it. Then I’ll decide how we’re going to handle this mess.”
Nancy heard Joe’s cell beep as she gave Mr. Hardy a condensed version of the story. Joe pulled out his cell, and a moment later he was interrupting. “It’s another message from Frank. You aren’t going to believe this.”
Joe turned the cell, and Nancy and Mr. Hardy both stood to get a closer look at the picture on the phone. The photo bore a striking resemblance to Martin Kendall. Frank’s text underneath was chilling:
‘todays times – kendall prepping to skate?’
Mr. Hardy took a deep breath. “Joe, I want you to summarize what Frank has sent you, and what you’ve found in your searches so far, starting with getting me a list of names. Nancy, I want you to head to the library and see if you can help Frank dig up more supporting evidence. We’re going to need more than a couple of possible coincidences to convince the authorities of what’s going on. I’m going to talk to a colleague at the FBI, and see if he can use his connections to help us on the back end of the search. If what Frank suspects is true, we need to move on this - now.”
Kendall got out of his car, and walked over to Fenton Hardy as he left the building. “Fenton, can I have a word?”
“Hello, Martin. I thought you were gone.”
“I was leaving when I thought better of it. I was just about to head back in to talk to you. Listen, I need you to look into something quietly for me.”
“What is it?”
He pressed his lips together and glanced at the ground. “I’m afraid there may be something going on at the office. Someone hacked our database. It’s part of the reason that I’m so anxious to get the copy your son has back.”
Kendall held his gaze steady as Fenton Hardy’s sharp, dark eyes considered him. Hardy was no fool, but Kendall thought it was highly unlikely that his son had managed to ferret out what was going on yet. The boy had had the data for less than 24 hours, after all. Still, Frank Hardy’s girlfriend was acting a bit off. Maybe he was worrying about nothing. She seemed very young, and perhaps she was just nervous about meeting a prospective client.
“Well, Frank is home for awhile, and though he doesn’t officially work at the firm, I’m sure he’d be willing to help. He has a real talent for computer forensics. I have a meeting that I’m running late for right now, but afterwards I plan to check out a couple of Frank’s usual haunts and see if I can find him.”
Kendall gave Fenton a relieved smile and shook his hand. “Thank you so much, Fenton. I knew I could count on Hardy Investigators. You’ve always been our best investigative partner at Hathaway Adjusters.”
“I’ll send Frank your way as soon as I locate him.”
“I’ll look forward to hearing from him soon. Today, if possible.”
Kendall watched as Hardy ducked into his car and eased out of the lot. He pulled out his cell and dialed as he got into his car and started it. A moment later he spoke tersely into the phone.
“I want you at Hardy Investigators ASAP. If you see a reddish blond young woman leaving this building, you are to follow her. For that matter, send over Zap in case Joe Hardy leaves and we need to tail him. I want this situation contained now, or all our work of the last decade blows up in our face. We need to make sure they don’t know anything, and we really need to get our hands on that copy of the database.”
He hung up the phone, and followed Fenton Hardy down the road. He hoped like hell he was worrying over nothing. But Martin Kendall was nothing if not cautious. He had already set things in motion this morning to erase all signs of his manipulation of the claims database. He hoped, for his own sake and for Frank Hardy’s, that the kid wasn’t as good at computer forensics as his father seemed to think. Otherwise, Martin might be forced to get his hands dirty. Usually, he left the messy jobs, like murder, to his underworld clients, but he wasn’t above it if it meant saving his own hide.
Frank smelled her familiar eucalyptus-scented shampoo before he felt her hand on his shoulder. She slid into the seat next to him.
She spoke in hushed tones. “Kendall was in looking for the database, Frank. He’s definitely spooked.”
Her blue eyes reflected the same tension that was evident in her voice. Frank sat back. “What happened?”
“He came to the office looking for you. Your father went along with my white lie, but demanded to know what was going on. So now, we’re on the clock, Hardy. We need to find as much hard evidence to go on as possible. Joe’s going to start pulling everything together into a coherent format, and your dad is calling in the big guns. We’re on the hot seat so I sure as hell hope both our guts are right about this one.”
Frank shoved the computer so it was sitting between them on the table, and indicated the binders holding the last three years of the Times. “Let’s get busy.”
Several hours later, Frank closed the computer and put it away. “That’s it. We’ve found at least eight possible cases, and that’s just the ones that happened to end up in the paper over the last three years. That has to be enough to convince someone that this is worth investigating further, at least.”
Nancy stretched her back and nodded. “Let’s head back to the office and see what Joe and your father have been able to find out.”
“Did you drive?”
“Yes, I’m parked in a garage over on West 43rd.”
As they made their way around the corner of 5th avenue and 43rd, Frank pulled out his cell. “I’m going to drop Joe a text, let him know we’re on our way.”
Frank was on the street side of the side walk, and looked up as the non-descript panel van pulled up next to them. West 43rd was unusually light on traffic, but he didn’t even have time to wonder why the van was stopping on the street.
It happened fast. The side door of the van slid open. That was the last thing Frank saw before a hood covered his head. He felt several strong hands grab his arms and haul him bodily into the van.
He heard Nancy’s scream cut off by a loud slap and the surge of adrenalin at the sound allowed him to get loose for a brief moment, until something solid landed on the back of his head. While it didn’t knock him out, it did incapacitate him long enough to give their captors a chance to lash his hands together behind his back.
He was thrown roughly to the floor of the van, and felt Nancy land with a thump next to him. When she didn’t move he felt his heart leap into his throat. He nudged her gently with a knee, and was relieved to hear a low groan. A moment later, he felt her hand patting his stomach. It only took a moment before he recognized Morse code, as she repeated her assurance, ‘I’m ok.’ He breathed a sigh of relief.
A boot kicked him roughly in the kidney, pushing him into Nancy. “Keep still and stay quiet and maybe we’ll let you live.”
The entire snatch had taken less than a minute, and the van was in motion. He wondered if there had been any witnesses. He gave a start as he realized that he had dropped his phone. He couldn’t even remember if he had managed to send the text he’d been writing to Joe.
Frank cringed as he heard them going through his pack. He mentally kicked himself for not being more alert. Texting as he was walking down the street had been stupid and careless, and not only was he going to suffer the consequences of it, but so was Nancy.
Chapter 8: Underestimated Again
It felt like her head was going to explode, and the resulting queasiness in her stomach was made worse by the motion of the van as it traveled through New York City’s stop and go traffic. At least they had tied her hands in front of her, and they’d done a pretty sloppy job from the feel of it. If she could just get her stomach to stop doing somersaults, she would be able to think clearly.
If nothing else, this confirmed in Nancy’s mind that they were on to something. It was small consolation given that in all likelihood they’d never live to see Kendall brought to justice. The snatch and grab had been a professional job, done in broad daylight on the busy streets of New York City. Whoever these guys were, they knew what they were doing.
Nancy felt Frank’s foot tapping at her leg and tried to concentrate on the Morse code. She remembered the visit to the Hardy’s years ago when she, Frank and Joe had first discovered the old code and resolved to learn it. She and Frank had outpaced Joe, who bored with the task rather quickly. It wasn’t until she and his brother started having secret conversations with him in the room, that Joe finally decided it was a worthy skill. The memory made her smile, despite the dire circumstances.
Frank was asking her if she knew how many men there were. She closed her eyes and thought back to the chaos just before that behemoth had slammed his ham hock of a hand across her face and covered her head with the sack. There had been three, plus the driver.
It took several minutes for them to take inventory of their situation. There wasn’t much they could do in the van. They would have to hope that an opportunity to escape would present itself once they stopped. It was a good sign that they were still alive. Something was keeping their captors from killing them outright. It was a slim hope, but at least it was something to hold onto.
Joe scanned the periodicals room and grunted in frustration. Frank still wasn’t answering his cell, and neither was Nancy, and being in the library wasn’t their excuse. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps they had headed back to Nancy’s hotel room for some privacy. Then he smirked in amusement – it was Frank and Nancy, who were still dancing around the fact that they were perfect for each other. Not to mention that they would never be that indulgent when there was a mystery to solve.
A pretty, blond co-ed caught his eye and smiled coyly at him. He returned the smile and walked over to her. He held out a hand. “Hi. I’m Joe Hardy.”
“Sherry. It’s very nice to meet you, Joe.” She held his hand in a light, but persistent grip.
Joe extracted his fingers, and motioned around the room. “Hey, you don’t happen to remember seeing a tall, good-looking guy with dark hair in here, would you? He would have been joined by a real pretty reddish-blond a few hours ago.”
“Tall with wavy brown hair, dark brooding eyes . . .” A dreamy smile curved her glossy lips. “Oh, I remember him. I guess there was a girl with him. He sat right over there.” She pointed to an empty table nearby.
“How long ago did they leave?”
“Hm, I’m not sure. Less than an hour ago, say about 45 minutes, maybe. I tried to catch his eye when he walked by, but he was pretty absorbed in that girl he was with. He was drop-dead gorgeous.” She dropped her chin in her hand and batted her eyes at Joe. “Kind of like you . . .”
Joe smiled absently at her. “Thanks, Sherry. You’ve been a big help.”
The disappointed look on the co-ed’s face was lost on Joe, who spun on his heel and practically ran out of the library. He flipped his phone open and hit the speed dial for his father.
“Yeah, Dad. Nancy and Frank left the library about 45 minutes ago. I’m parked in the same garage I told Nan to park in. I’m going to retrace their steps, just for kicks. If they show up, give me a call.”
He snapped the phone shut and tucked it into his pocket as he walked quickly down 5th Avenue. He took the turn onto 43rd at a near-jog but something near the sidewalk caught his eye. He crouched down to take a closer look.
It was a cell phone that lay open on the edge of the street, just off the curb. He picked it up and hit the down arrow, bringing the screen back to life. On the screen was a text message ‘leaving now, b to office i’. The automatic signature line read ‘Frank Hardy.’
Joe hit the end key, and dialed his father.
“Frank, where in the hell are you?”
“Dad, it’s me, Joe. I found Frank’s cell lying on 43rd Street. Whatever happened, it was in the middle of him texting me. I think he and Nan are in trouble.”
“Get off the street and wait for me there.”
It seemed to Frank like an eternity passed before the van finally came to a stop and the engine turned off. They had left the sound of traffic behind some time ago, and where ever they were, it was quiet. He heard the van door slide open, followed by hands grabbing him and pulling him to his feet. He stumbled on limbs that had fallen asleep during the ride. Nancy was shoved up against him, and they were guided down a short set of steps and through a door.
Their hoods were removed once inside. Frank felt a brief sense of hopelessness. If their captors didn’t care if they saw them it meant that they weren’t planning on letting them walk out alive. That reality made escape essential.
He and Nancy stood side by side in the center of a dank and filthy concrete room with two doors and no windows. There were a few folding chairs, and a single table in one corner, but other than that, it was bare. There were only two other men in the room with them, both holding guns. Frank looked down at Nancy, noting the darkening bruise on the side of her face. His blood started a slow boil.
Neither of them had spoken a word since they had been shoved in the van, and Frank decided to test the waters.
“Are you ok?” He asked.
“Wonderful.” Nancy’s tone dripped with sarcasm, and he couldn’t help but smile.
“Shuddup.” The larger of the two men poked Frank in the shoulder with his gun to emphasize the order. He was bear of a man, with beefy arms, a barrel chest, and hands the size of dinner plates.
The other man, a bird-like slip of a guy with large, brown eyes set in a thin face, handed his large companion his gun and moved two folding chairs to a spot near Nancy and Frank, motioning to them. “Sit down.”
They did as instructed.
Bear waved the two guns. “Don’t try anything, or I’ll blow you away. Got it?”
While Bear trained the guns on them, Birdman untied their existing bonds, and rebound them so they were each tied to a chair. Moments later the other two men came striding into the room, carrying Nancy’s briefcase and Frank’s backpack. Both bags were emptied onto the table in the corner.
“Now what, boss?”
“Now we find out what they know, and who they’ve told.” Boss had a distinctive New Jersey accent, and turned his dark eyes on Frank, a thin smile curling his lips. “Use the girl. He’ll talk.”
Bear walked over to Nancy and ran a gun down the side of her face, where a bruise the size and shape of his hand was slowly becoming pronounced. He leaned down and grinned at her. “We’re gonna have some more fun, sweetheart. What do you say?”
“You haven’t even told me what you want to know!” Frank said angrily.
Nancy’s expression remained impassive, and she studiously ignored the big man. Without warning, Bear backhanded her across the face. The crack was sickening, and Frank lunged against his bonds.
“You answer when I ask you a question, girl.”
Boss laughed, and put a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “I didn’t think Romeo would like seeing his Juliet hurt.” He turned to Bear with a sharp, “Back off!”
Bear obediently took a step back from Nancy, giving Frank a clear view of her face. The ring on Bear’s left hand had left a gash in Nancy’s cheek, and her lip was split, but her blue eyes sparked with a defiant anger that Frank knew well.
“I’m ok, Frank.” Her voice was strong and firm.
Boss smiled. “For the moment. She has spirit. It should be interesting to watch how breaking her breaks you.”
Frank consciously squelched the rage that threatened to cloud his judgment. He kept his tone flat and unemotional. “You’re going to kill us anyway. What’s the point of this?”
Boss walked around them. “I want . . . no, I need to know what you know.”
“His computer is password protected.” Birdman sat at the table staring at the screen.
“What’s your password?” Boss looked at Frank.
Frank hesitated, Boss nodded at Bear who moved toward Nancy with an evil grin.
“No!” He rattled off the password.
“Did you get that?” Boss looked at Birdman.
“Now, if you don’t want the lady hurt, all you have to do is tell me what you know.”
Bear ran a hand through Nancy’s hair. “Ah, can’t I have a little bit of fun? She’s awful pretty.”
Frank’s hands clenched into tight fists. “I don’t have any reason not to tell you what you want to know, but I’m not saying anything until your stooge gets the hell away from her.” Boss nodded and Bear backed off.
“Kendall has been selling identities out of the Hathaway client database. I’m assuming you, or friends of yours are the buyers . . . probably the murderers, too.” Frank flashed a mocking smile at Boss. “I have to admit, Kendall’s pretty smart . . . or you’re pretty dumb. He gets your money, and then lets you do his dirty work. Maximum reward, minimum risk. Even if this whole mess comes out, he’s looking at a few years in minimum-security at Edgecombe. You, on the other hand, will be a guest upstate in Attica. I think they’ll like you up there.”
The flick of a wrist, and Bear punched Frank first in the stomach, then in the face.
Boss smirked at Frank. “No one calls me ‘dumb’ Hardy. Show a little respect for the man that holds your measly life in his hands.”
Frank spit out the blood from his own split lip, and chuckled at Boss. “You sound like something out of the Godfather. Talk about your delusions of grandeur.” He was hoping that if he could keep attention focused on him, they would leave Nancy alone.
Boss did not look amused. “Who have you told about what you found?”
“My father and brother both know.”
“And Mr. Hardy was going to talk to the FBI,” Nancy interjected.
Boss bent down in front of Frank. “And how many copies of the database did you make?”
“Just the one on my hard drive.”
The barely perceptible nod from Boss set Bear onto Nancy, one large hand closing on her throat. Frank strained against his bonds but it was no use. There was nothing he could do to stop it.
“You’re sure you only made the one copy besides the one Hathaway gave you on the jump drive?”
“I’m telling you, it’s the only copy. Now let her go!”
Boss’s cold, nearly black eyes considered Frank for several of the longest seconds the young detective could ever recall living through as he watched Nancy’s blue eyes glaze over.
“Third time is a charm, Hardy. Tell me, do you have any other copies of the database?”
“I swear, I didn’t make any other copies of the database other than the one on my hard drive. Please, let her go.”
Boss stood up and crossed his arms. “I think you’re telling the truth.” He turned and looked at Bear. “Let her go.”
Bear didn’t listen this time. “I could snap her like a twig.” His eyes were empty pits, and something akin to a perverse joy gleamed in them.
It took a hefty cuff to the big man’s shoulder to get him to release his grip. Nancy sucked in a ragged breath, her head lulling in semi-consciousness.
Boss leaned in close to Bear and spoke in a stage whisper, “You’ll get your chance with the girl, but for now, we need her alive.” He cast a goading glance back at Frank, leaving no doubt who the message was intended for.
Boss turned to the fourth man, a non-descript, average thug. “Get Kendall on the horn. He’s going to want to get out here.”
He turned back to Frank. “You’ve earned yourself and your girlfriend a reprieve, kid. We’ll let Kendall decide how to deal with this cluster.”
With a wave of his hand, Boss moved out of the room, followed by Bear and the fourth man, leaving only Birdman behind. He walked over and checked Frank’s bonds, tightening the knots painfully. He then walked to Nancy, who was slumped forward, and unmoving. Frank felt his heart sinking into his feet when she didn’t stir as Birdman checked her bonds.
Apparently convinced that they weren’t going anywhere, Birdman headed back to the table. Setting down his gun, he sat in front of Frank’s laptop and started working. It was silent for several minutes, the only sound that of Birdman’s fingers on the keys of the computer.
Frank looked across at Nancy, his anxiety about her mounting as her head remained bowed.
“Nan, are you ok?”
She lifted her head, and he nearly yelled out loud with joy when he saw the smug look in those blue eyes. She pursed her lips, and glanced pointedly at Birdman, who seemed to be ignoring them.
“’m ok,” She mumbled, sounding like she was half-out-of-it.
No longer focused on Nancy’s bowed head, Frank realized that she was busy working at the ropes on her hands. Her bonds had not been tied as securely as Frank’s, and she was making progress. He glanced at Birdman, who remained totally absorbed in what he was doing on the computer.
Nancy freed her hands and glanced warily at Birdman before leaning down to work on her feet. Within a minute she was loose. The concrete floor was a blessing, allowing Nancy to move without a sound. She snatched up Birdman’s gun by the barrel and knocked him over the head with the handle. He slumped forward onto the computer.
She tucked the gun into the back of her pants, and grabbed a hunting knife out of a sheath on Birdman’s belt. With it she was able to make short work of getting Frank free. He hurried to the table and shuffled through the items scattered across it until he found his jump drive. He shoved it in his pocket, and poked through everything one more time.
“Is my cell phone there?” Nancy asked.
“No. And neither is my wallet.” Frank’s frustration sounded in his voice. “We better get moving.”
They headed out the back door, feeling lucky that no alarm had yet been raised. Once outside, they stopped to get their bearings. They appeared to be at an old bunker of some sort. Dusk was falling, and it was difficult to make out any details of their surroundings. Staying was a death sentence, so they decided to make for the only other cover in sight – a tree line about 100 yards across a wide open field.
“Up to making a run for it?” Frank looked at her.
“Ready when you are.”
Frank took a deep breath. “Alright, let’s go.”
They made it about half way across the field before they were spotted. They heard warning shouts, and bullets started kicking up dust behind them urging them on faster. Frank held firmly to Nancy’s arm, dragging her along. They reached the cover of the trees and kept running.
“We have to find somewhere to hide,” Nancy gasped.
“The dark is going to help, but we need to get further in.” Frank kept pulling her along. They could hear their pursuers entering the woods.
“Frank, there.” Nancy pointed to a thicket.
They made for it as quietly as possible as calls of ‘Which way did they go?’ reached them.
They slipped into the thickets, ignoring the brambles and twigs catching at skin and clothing. They crouched low in the middle of the tangle of branches and looked at each other.
“That hair of yours is a dead giveaway,” Frank hissed. He slipped out of his jacket. “Lay down and I’ll cover you with my jacket.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll join you as soon as your beacon hair is out of sight.” He flashed her a tight grin.
In moments they were both laid out flat in the middle of the thicket huddled together with heads under Frank’s jacket and struggling to control their breathing. Their only chance now was being able to hide in silence and avoid detection.
They listened to the sound of Boss and his minions closing in and hoped they were well enough hidden, and that it was dark enough, that they walked right past.
If not, they would be sitting ducks.
Chapter 9: Rescued?
Joe paced, trying to work off his mounting anger and frustration. They had found Nancy’s car almost immediately, still in the parking garage where she had left it. Joe didn’t think they needed anything more. Nancy and Frank had been kidnapped, and he was ready to go beat the truth out of Kendall. It had to be him. It had to be.
His father came walking toward him, dragging his hands back through his hair in an uncharacteristic sign of agitation. Joe stopped his pacing, and waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“I can’t seem to convince the detectives that this is a kidnapping. They want to know how we know they didn’t just go somewhere for a bite to eat. They just don’t believe there’s enough evidence of foul play.”
Joe growled. “This is getting us freaking nowhere. The longer they dick around, the more likely that Nancy and Frank are going to end up . . . dead.” He swallowed around a lump in his throat, as the unspoken thought that they already might be dead slipped unbidden through his mind. He wanted to hit something, or someone in frustration. “We should confront Kendall. Get him to tell us where they are. I’d bet my bottom dollar he knows.”
“I agree he probably knows. But, while I’ve always admired your straightforwardness, son, I don’t think confronting Kendall is a good idea. He’s not a killer – he’s a white collar criminal with some heavy-hitting friends. Those friends, not Kendall, are the ones that grabbed Frank and Nancy. And if they think the operation is blown, they’re likely to kill them and skip.”
Joe recognized the logic, but they had to do something. “Ok, then, what now?”
His father put an arm around his shoulders and steered him toward the car. “Now we’re going to do some good, old-fashioned detective work, son. Let’s go see if we can find Mr. Kendall.”
“I thought we weren’t going to confront him?”
“Confront, no. Follow, yes.”
The only sound for the last half hour had been the wind through the trees. Nancy lifted her head cautiously and stretched her back. Next to her, Frank was doing the same.
She glanced at Frank’s profile in the dim light of the stars. “Do you think we dare move, yet?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
His response was equally soft, as Nancy strained to hear him. “We’re definitely going to have to move before daybreak. It’s going to be tricky with the new moon.”
“I’m just thankful we aren’t tied up anymore where the behemoth can get his hands on me.” She shuddered at the memory of that large hand clamped around her throat. The uncontrollable tremor stilled with Frank’s comforting squeeze of her hand, and she took a deep breath. “At least there are stars to navigate by so we won’t wander around in circles.”
“I’ll take any favors we can get at this point.”
They both froze as the distant sound of leaves crunching underfoot reached them. They ducked back under the jacket, and listened, as the sound came closer and closer.
“Did anybody find anything?”
Nancy twitched in surprise when Boss’s voice sounded. It was farther away then the approaching sounds, which meant more then one of the goon crew was nearby.
The footsteps stopped and a chorus of intangible voices all answered the same. “Nothing.”
Nancy felt a rush of relief that they didn’t seem to have heard her and Frank talking. She concentrated on the voices, grumbling about the dark. The nearest voice sounded like Birdman, who was moving away from their hiding place. It sounded like Boss and his men were congregating at a central location, not too far from where Nancy and Frank still hid.
“This is pointless. We can’t see a goddam thing out here, and neither can they. They’re probably holed up somewhere. Let’s just wait ‘til morning. They’ll be easy to find then.”
Boss’s distinctive Jersey accent answered tersely. “They aren’t going to just hang around and wait for us to find them, asshole. But you do have a point, this stumbling through the dark isn’t doing us any good.” Several seconds of silence, and then Boss spoke again, “We each take a perimeter. They can’t have gone far. You, take the north perimeter along the main road, but stay out of sight. You take the east, you the west, and I’ll take the south access road, and wait for Kendall. Move quiet, and keep your ears open. It’ll be slow going for them in this dark, and they’re bound to make some noise. I’ll call Tyler and let him know to keep alert for them, too, in case they stumble into the MPs before we find ‘em. Be careful, since idiot, here, let ‘em get away with his gun. If you have to shoot ‘em, fine, but make sure it isn’t a kill shot. You got that?”
It sounded like the last remark was directed at the behemoth, as he was the one they heard respond, “Yeah, I got it.”
They waited until the sound of footsteps had faded away, and then waited awhile longer. Finally, they eased up to sitting positions.
“He said there’s a main road to the north. That’s probably our best bet,” Nancy whispered. “I wonder where the heck we are.”
Frank looked up, his gaze thoughtful. “How long would you estimate we were on the road?”
“Thirty minutes, at least . . . but no longer that 45.”
Frank nodded. “I think I have a general idea where we are. Boss mentioned the MPs. The Military Training Academy is located about 30 miles north of New York. I’m betting we’re in one of the state parks that surround it – Harriman or Bear Mountain . . . probably Harriman.”
Nancy took a deep breath. “Well, at least we have an idea where we are. Based on how easy Boss thought we’d be to hem in, though, I’m guessing we have a bit of a hike to get to civilization.”
“Yeah, and none of it flat terrain.”
“Do you think you can find your way once we’re out of this underbrush?”
Frank sighed. “Biff has been working at the Academy for the past year or so, and Joe and I have met him out here to go hiking and camping a couple times, but I doubt I’ll recognize anything in this light. Our best bet is probably to head straight north and hope we hit a road before we run into Boss or one of his goons.”
“Heading north is a plan. I think maybe we should wait for a little longer to move. They’ll lose focus the longer that they’re out there waiting for us.”
“There’s going to be a fine line between waiting long enough that they aren’t paying attention, and waiting too long so that we end up sitting ducks.”
“Agreed. Especially since we have no idea how long it’s going to take us to get to that main road Boss mentioned.”
Frank shifted. “Either way, I think we can get out of this thicket. I need to stand up and stretch before we start hiking.”
They extracted themselves from the tangle of branches. Nancy stretched and sighed in relief as she looked up at the sky. “It’s amazing how much light the stars give off. Maybe it won’t be as difficult going as we thought.”
“Your eyes are adjusting. We’re still going to have to move slowly.” She turned and nodded in agreement at Frank. His face tightened when he looked at her, and his tone was angry when he spoke again. “Jesus, Nan, it looks like somebody used your face for a punching bag.”
The swearing was characteristic of a Frank that was allowing anger to cloud his mind. She tried to shrug it off. “They did, remember? I’m fine. Nothing a couple weeks won’t cure.”
“I see that asshole again, I think I might just kill him with my bare hands.”
Nancy shook her head, and tried to tease him out of the mood. “You’re such a man, Hardy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He still sounded angry.
“It means, I can take care of myself,” she retorted, starting to get a little irritated herself.
He snorted. “I know that. Who was the one that got us out of that mess? Not me, that’s for sure. I just managed to get us into it.”
Nancy found herself snapping at him. “Do you practice that self-accusation BS, or does it come naturally? As I recall, we were both on that street. It was a professional snatch and grab. I doubt we could have avoided it, even if we had been on guard. Either one of us.” She ran hands back through her hair. Snatching out dried leaves and twigs in irritation. She recognized that she was lashing out at the situation more than at Frank. It was his nature to be overly protective, and usually she found it endearing. She took a deep breath. “Personally, I’d prefer not to run into the behemoth again. There’s no conscience in that big empty head of his. To be honest, he scares the shit out of me.”
“I’m sorry, Nan.”
She couldn’t really tell what he was sorry about, and she bit back the scathing comment that leapt to her lips, trying to evaluate what had happened and offer Frank rationale for the way it played out. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about. They knew they could use me against you, and they did. Luckily, just as predictably, they focused on the threat you posed and ignored me. Otherwise we never would have gotten out of there alive. It took both of us to escape, Frank, and together I think we played the situation the best we could.” Her tone started out sharp, but ended on a placating note.
“Sometimes you’re just too damn logical for me, Drew.” Frank’s gaze wandered skyward, and he pointed. “There’s the north star. The road must be that way. Are you ready to move, or do you think we should wait for awhile longer?”
Nancy looked in the direction he was pointing, noting the periodic dense underbrush, closely spaced trees, and thick carpet of dry, crunchy leaves. For once in her life, she wished it was raining to dampen the unavoidable noise those leaves would make. “I suppose we should get moving. You’re right, it’s going to be slow going to avoid tipping the goons off to our location.”
Frank nodded, his expression determined. “Let’s go.”
Slow going ended up being an understatement. The leaves had been flattened by snow cover over the winter, and now formed a continuous, crunchy layer underfoot. Every step sounded deafening in the surrounding hush of the forest. They took to moving when the wind would pick up, the high whistle of it whipping through the trees and blowing around the loose detritus providing some cover for the noise they made as they moved.
Frank couldn’t decide if they were lucky or not that the wind was fairly steady. While it provided cover for their movement, it sucked every last drop of warmth from their bodies. Spring might have sprung, but the last of winter’s icy grip could still be felt, and he worried that injury, cold and weariness were going to take a toll, especially on Nancy, who had taken the brunt of the abuse.
The wind had died down, and they had stopped for a rest near a clump of bushes that were just starting to sprout. Frank felt Nancy’s hand on his arm.
“Did you hear that?” She whispered.
He felt a rush of hope, as he nodded. “A car. We must be close to the road.”
“Do you recognize anything yet?”
Frank gave a frustrated snort. “I might if I could see it.”
Nancy gave his arm a squeeze. “Let’s just find the road. There’s bound to be a sign somewhere.”
“We’ll be way too exposed walking along the road.”
“Maybe we can find cover near the road and wait for the next car to come along.”
Frank nodded. “Sounds like a plan, but we’re going to have to be extra-careful. One of the goon squad is bound to be patrolling nearby.”
Ten minutes later they had found light cover with a good view of the road, and they hunkered down to wait for a passing car.
Nancy sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, and her arms wrapped around them. She looked battered and tired, and it was all Frank could do to resist the desire to wrap his arms around her.
“You alright, Nan?”
She looked over at him, and nodded. “I will be. You?”
“I’m thinking I should have gotten more sleep last night.”
Her lips turned up at the corners, and then she grimaced, lifting a hand to her mouth. “Ow, it hurts to smile.”
He gave in to the urge and moved closer to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She rested against him as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“We’re going to be alright,” he whispered, pressing his cheek against her hair.
“I know. I always feel kind of invincible when we’re together.”
Frank tightened his arm around her, and the words left his mouth before he had a chance to think about them. “Me too. Maybe we should think about trying the together thing on a more serious basis, Nan.”
Nancy stiffened, her gaze focused toward the road. He loosened his grip as he realized what he had just said out loud. Embarrassment and disappointment warred for top billing but both were dispelled a moment later.
“There’s a car coming.” Nancy turned and smiled despite the split lip, squeezing his arm in excitement.
They rose as one and left their cover to flag down the approaching vehicle. Their shared relief was palpable when it slowed, and rolled to a stop.
A spotlight was trained on them, and a disembodied voice boomed, “Keep your hands where we can see them.”
Nancy and Frank looked at each other, as two men in uniform came toward them, guns at the ready. They raised their hands over their heads slowly.
This really wasn’t the reception they had expected.
Chapter 10: The 'Locals' Arrive
Nancy lay back on the bench and closed her eyes. There wasn’t an inch on her body that didn’t ache. Kidnapped, knocked around, and then forced into a lengthy cold hike, only to flag down a couple of MPs who accused them of a violent robbery, cuffed them and hauled them back to the jail at the military academy – Nancy was certain that by now Frank and she had earned a perseverance award.
While Nancy was concerned about their current identity crisis, she was incredibly relieved not to have to worry about Boss’s minions anymore. Not to mention that the jail was warm and she was bone-tired. She was sure the mess regarding who they were would sort itself out eventually, so for now, she was content to let Frank handle their defense. Besides, her mouth was killing her.
He had finally finished filling in the ranking MP, Sergeant Miller, regarding what had happened in the last 24 hours. “And please be careful with the jump drive. It has the information on it that we need to expose this whole thing.”
“You tell an interesting story, buddy.” Nancy cringed at Sergeant Miller’s derogatory tone. She knew Frank’s normal cool could only be pushed so far, and it had to be approaching its limits right about now.
“Listen, I don’t know where you got the idea that we attacked and robbed someone, but I’m telling you it is not true. If you would just let me call my father or talk to my friend -“
“When the county sheriff gets you to the local lockup then you’ll get your chance to make a phone call. Until then, just relax.”
“At least get a doctor for my friend. She’s been badly hurt and she’s exhausted.”
“I’ll get the medic to come check her over. But tell me something – who beat her up?” The accusatory tone was unmistakable.
“I already told you. Besides, if you think I did it, why in the hell are you putting us in the same cell?”
Frank sounded as tired and frustrated as she felt, and still he kept his cool. She had always admired his ability to think and speak rationally despite the situation. Nancy cracked an eye open to check on him. He leaned against the bars near the door, looking intently at the MP who stood nearby. Disheveled, dirty, and sporting a black eye, Nancy found herself thinking how roguishly handsome Frank looked. She closed her eyes and sighed. Pathetic, indeed.
Miller was dismissive as he responded to Frank’s jibe. “I said relax. I’ll get a medic here as soon as I can.”
The door clicked shut behind the exiting MP.
She heard Frank’s familiar step move closer to her.
“Nan, are you sure you’re ok?”
She looked up into warm, brown eyes that were tight with tension and fatigue. “I’m fine, Frank. Really. What about you?”
Frank took a deep breath. “I’m worried.”
“Me too, but I don’t think there’s much we can do from here, other than what you’ve done. Thank you for handling that. If I had opened my mouth I think I might have jumped down Sergeant Miller’s throat.”
“It looked like it was painful for you to open your mouth, anyway, Drew.”
She sat up and patted the seat next to her. “The Sergeant did give you one good piece of advice, Hardy. Sit and relax for awhile. I think it’s just going to take us some time to sort this out. That’s all.”
He dropped onto the bench and Nancy moved closer. She wanted nothing more than to have Frank’s arm around her again. She had almost been disappointed that the car had come along when it did. She wondered at the uncertain glance he cast at her before he lifted his arm around her shoulders.
Though it went against the grain to lean on anyone, she had to admit that this was what she needed – Frank’s strong, comforting presence surrounding her. It frightened her just how quickly she allowed herself to give in to the desire to be close to him. Frank had the most calming presence of anyone she had ever met, and there were times, even when he was half a continent away, that she craved that harbor.
The sound of the door opening caused both of them to stiffen. Frank stood to confront their latest visitor.
“This is them, Lieutenant Carlucci. This guy here claims to be Frank Hardy, and the girl says her name is Nancy Drew, but they match the descriptions given of the two thieves.”
“Lieutenant, if you’d just let me call my father, or talk to my friend, Lieutenant Hooper, we could get this sorted out –“
Lieutenant Carlucci turned to face Frank, whose eyes flickered to the name badge on his chest. Nancy recognized the flash of anger in Frank’s dark eyes as he raised them to gaze at the Lieutenant in challenge. “Tyler.”
She felt her heart plunge. The Boss’s named cohort. If the Lieutenant was Tyler, they were in trouble. Again.
Carlucci’s brows furrowed. “Yes, Tyler Carlucci is my name, but you can call me Lieutenant Carlucci, boy. Now sit down, before you get in more trouble than you already are.”
Frank reached a hand through the bars, but it only took one step for Carlucci to move out of his reach.
Frank’s voice was a low growl. “You son of a bitch.”
Fear flickered in Carlucci’s eyes. “Control your prisoner Sergeant!”
The MP got in Frank’s face. “Go sit down!”
Frank’s knuckles were white on the bars. “Sergeant, this man is in bed with the guys that kidnapped us. You have to listen to me.”
Nancy recognized the flash of pure terror in Carlucci’s face, though it was quickly hidden as he grabbed the MP’s arm. “They’ll say anything to get out of this won’t they?”
The MP’s gaze flickered to Frank, who leaned forward. “Please, Sergeant, if nothing else, can I at least speak to Lieutenant Allen Hooper. I know he’s here, and he would vouch for me. Just let me talk to him.”
Carlucci’s eyes darkened. “Ignore him, Sergeant. I’ve already contacted the local PD. They should be here shortly. You’re to turn the prisoners over as soon as they arrive.” He herded the MP out of the lockup area, leaving Nancy and Frank alone again.
The voices faded behind the closed door. Nancy pushed herself to her feet and walked to Frank’s side, following his gaze to the closed door.
She snorted as an incongruously amusing thought crossed her mind. “You know, it’s almost like being stuck in a Keystone Kops movie.”
“Keystone Kops meet the Godfather, with a twist. The idea has potential.” His serious gaze was a stark contrast to his words. “Let’s just hope Carlucci has slipped up somewhere.”
She nudged his arm. “C’mon, Hardy, it is a little funny.”
Frank took a deep breath. “Still feeling invincible, Drew?”
“I told you, always when I’m with you. I actually am feeling amazingly optimistic. I certainly don’t plan to go quietly.”
She recognized the resolve in Frank’s face. “I’ll wake the whole damn place up if I have to.” His dark eyes turned to her. “I want you playing opossum in case the medic materializes. Maybe, just maybe we can convince him that he needs to take you out of lockup and to the infirmary.”
Nancy pursed her lips, ready to argue, then thought better of it. “What about you?”
“I was kind of hoping you might come back and get me once you were out from behind bars. We could be the next Bonnie and Clyde.” She was relieved to see his face relax into a teasing smile.
Nancy smiled, ignoring the pain in her split lip. “Bonnie and Clyde, the Keystone Kops, and the Godfather? Now it’s starting to sound like a Mel Brooks movie.”
Frank took her arm and led her to the bench. “I always did like those old slapstick comedies. Now lie down and play half-dead, Drew.”
“Yes, Mr. Brooks.”
Joe and his father just barely missed Kendall at the office, but found him at his apartment. It was obvious from Kendall’s frenzied activity that he was getting ready for something, but what? When he came out of the apartment in early evening, he had a substantial computer bag and a large, stuffed carryall. He stowed these in his trunk and headed out. He hadn’t even bothered to turn the lights off in his apartment.
They followed him as he sped out of the City and headed north. In Harriman State Park, Kendall quickly led them off the formal park roads, which made following difficult. Luckily, along the path he was taking, there weren’t a lot of choices. They finally found him where he had turned down a rutted track that led to an old concrete bunker. They passed the track and pulled into the woods a few hundred yards further along the dirt road they had been following.
Kendall was met outside the bunker by a man. Through the binoculars, Joe could see enough to tell that Kendall was arguing with his companion, but he couldn’t tell about what.
“I’d bet Nancy and Frank are in there, Dad. We should go in.”
“Not without backup, Joe.”
Fenton Hardy began making calls, the first to Con Riley to enlist his help in getting the authorities involved, and the next to his contact at the FBI, Special Agent Daniel Jarvi. Meanwhile, Joe felt like he was in limbo. Time crawled as they sat in the gathering dark, watching the general inactivity outside the bunker. Aside from a single man on watch, nothing seemed to be happening. At least for awhile.
“There’s Kendall now, Dad.” Joe lifted the binoculars to his eyes, and trained them on the insurance investigator, who was talking to the same guy he met when he first arrived. It appeared they were having another heated argument. Kendall pulled his computer bag out of the trunk, and set up a small laptop and printer on the hood of the car. He waved a dismissive hand at his companion, and began to work on something.
“I can’t tell what he’s doing, but he’s pissed at the other guy. Maybe this would be a good time for us to try moving in, while they’re distracted . . .”
“Not without backup, Joseph.” Mr. Hardy’s voice was firm.
About ten minutes later, Kendall had finished whatever he was doing. He packed up his computer and printer, dumped them back in the trunk and got into the car. With a parting rude gesture at his companion, who stood there looking very smug, Kendall started his car and began backing down the rutted track.
Joe lowered the binoculars. “Kendall’s on the move, Dad. Now what?”
“Damn. Riley and Jarvi promised to meet us here as soon as possible, but I hate to let Kendall out of sight.” Fenton Hardy’s face reflected his displeasure at the situation. “I don’t think we have any choice but to split up. You follow Kendall and I’ll stay here and wait for our backup. Under no circumstances do I want you to approach him and as soon as you know where he’s going, I want you to call me. Understood?”
Joe recognized his father’s uncompromising tone, and nodded his head. “Understood.”
His father got out as Joe started the engine, the sound masked by that of Kendall’s car. He left the lights off as he backed out and waited for Kendall to leave.
It was a tricky tail, given that it was the middle of the night, and the narrow roads of the state park were deserted. Joe decided to the risk leaving his lights off, and hoped that Kendall was intent on where he was going. He was able to stay back quite a ways, but did not want to chance losing the man.
He recognized the main entrance to the Military Academy where Kendall pulled in and stopped. Joe pulled over to the side of the road and waited. He was surprised when minutes later Kendall’s car moved through the gate and onto the base.
Joe opened his phone and called his father. “Hey, Dad, Joe here. Sounds like you got company . . . Just thought I’d let you know, Kendall came to West Point. I’m going to try and find out what’s going on . . . No, Dad, I promise, I won’t confront Kendall alone. I’ll call you with an update soon.”
Kendall was already out of sight as Joe put his cell phone back in his pocket. He flipped on his lights and sped to the gate.
He recognized the barely-disguised suspicion in the attending soldier’s face when he pulled to a stop and opened his window. He offered the earnest young woman a winning smile. “Hello, I’m Joe Hardy, a private investigator out of New York, and I need to talk to someone about that man that just entered – Martin Kendall?”
“You mean Sergeant Harris of the local PD?”
Joe’s brow furrowed in confusion. “That was Martin Kendall of Hathaway Adjusters.”
“No sir, you’re mistaken. That was Sergeant Harris of the Highland Mills PD. I’ve been waiting for him and checked his credentials myself. Please move along.”
Joe shook his head, trying to make sense of what was going on. Why would Kendall be going into the Military Academy posing as a local police officer? He came to a decision. “I need to see Lieutenant Allen Hooper. Could you get him for me?”
“Sir, not to be rude, but it’s the middle of the night. Perhaps if you come back in the morning –“
“Listen, I need to see Lieutenant Hooper immediately. It’s a . . . matter of life and death. Please, help me out here.” Joe felt uncomfortable embellishing like that, but he had promised he wouldn’t confront Kendall – alone. What better backup could a guy ask for than a 6-foot, buff, boxing instructor at West Point?
She considered Joe for several long seconds before giving him a resigned nod. “Fine. Park in the visitor’s lot, right there, and come into the office. We’ll get this sorted out with Lieutenant Hooper.”
Sergeant Miller, escorted a medic into the lockup area. Nancy was lying down on the bench, head resting on Frank’s lap, eyes closed. Frank ran a light hand over her hair. Her face was showing definite signs of the abuse she had taken earlier, angry, purple bruises showing brilliantly in the fluorescent light of the cell. The cut on her cheek was crusted with dirt and blood, and her split lip was swollen. Frank could feel anger start to boil over every time he thought about what Bear had done to her.
Sergeant Miller pointed a warning finger at Frank. “You stay right where you are, and don’t try anything.”
“You brought the medic. I really appreciate that. She’s hurt pretty badly.”
The medic walked in and knelt next to Nancy, setting his kit on the floor next to the bench. He glanced up at Frank. “What happened?”
“Some thug used her as a punching bag. What does it look like?” He dropped his accusing gaze from the MP to the medic and took a deep breath. “The guy gave her a couple of good cracks across the face, and then choked her until she passed out. To top it off, we spent the next few hours creeping through the forest in this cold, windy weather.”
Nancy’s blue eyes fluttered open. “Hm?”
The medic had started pulling things out of his bag. “Ma’am, the first thing I’m going to do is clean up the cuts on your face and lip and see how bad the damage is. It looks like this one on your cheek could probably use a couple stitches.”
He turned to the MP. “This would really be much easier if I could take her back to the infirmary.”
“Absolutely not. She walked in here under her own power. Get her patched up and ready to transport. The front gate just called, and the local PD is here to take them.” Lieutenant Carlucci stood in the doorway between the lockup and the outer offices.
The medic glanced at Sergeant Miller who nodded.
“Alright. I think I have some butterflies in here for that cut on her cheek, but I’m still going to have to clean the wounds up. It’s gonna take me a few minutes.”
“Make it quick,” Carlucci snapped before leaving the lockup.
Frank turned to the MP. “Sergeant, please help me out, here. Call Lieutenant Hooper.”
The MP crossed his arms and shook his head. “Lieutenant Carlucci said it’s just a delaying tactic. Apparently the family you attacked was related to one of the officers. You just might face a lynch mob when you get to Highland Mills.”
If it hadn’t been for Nancy lying on his lap, he would have been standing at those bars yelling at that moron of an MP. “We aren’t going to Highland Mills, but the lynch mob probably isn’t far off. You might as well sign our death warrant.”
The medic gazed at the MP narrowly, and then looked up at Frank with interest. “You know Lieutenant Hooper?”
Frank leaned forward, hoping to finally have found an ally. “Yes, I’m Frank Hardy. Biff and I graduated high school together. Do you know him?”
Miller pointed at Frank in warning. “You shut up.” Turning to the medic he snapped, “C’mon, Lou, you heard the LT, wrap it up.”
Nancy grimaced as Lou cleaned the cut on her face. Frank rubbed her arm soothingly. Lou dabbed the cleaned wound dry, carefully pulled the ragged edges together, and applied three butterflies.
“I still think you should have stitches, but that will hold it until they get you to a doc. I left the liquid stitch back in the infirmary, or I could do a better job myself.” He cast an irritated glance at the MP, and then handed Nancy a couple of pain killers. “Here, take these. They’ll make you more comfortable.”
As he bent to gather his things back into his kit, he spoke under his breath. “I’ll see what I can do about Lieutenant Hooper.”
Frank’s lips didn’t even move as he whispered, “Thank you.”
The medic left, and Sergeant Miller was joined by his partner. He motioned Frank and Nancy to their feet. They were both cuffed and led back out into the office area.
Carlucci motioned toward the door. “The paperwork is already taken care of. The car is waiting out front.”
Frank and Nancy went quietly with the MPs through the front doors and part way down the steps toward the car waiting in front of the building.
Frank planted his feet “I am not going until I talk to someone in charge.”
“Lieutenant Carlucci is in charge in this case. Now get moving.” Sergeant Miller gripped Frank’s arm and nodded to his partner.
Nancy moaned, “I don’t feel so good.”
She went limp and forced Miller’s partner to catch her. This left Miller alone to deal with Frank, who became very vocal.
Unfortunately, Frank’s voice echoed across an empty courtyard.
Chapter 11: The Cavalry Arrives
Corporal Lou Unger stopped Lieutenant Allen ‘Biff’ Hooper mid-stride on his way to the front gate.
“Lieutenant, you are up. Your friend and the woman he was with were being escorted out of lockup right now. You better hurry!”
Biff looked at the Corporal in confusion. Sweet Jesus, what was everyone doing out of bed in the middle of the freaking night? The tall, muscular blond ran agitated hands back through his hair and snapped, “Lockup? What in the hell are you talking about? They told me Joe was waiting at the gate.” Biff was trying to shake sleep from his mind and catch up with whatever was going on.
“Joe? I thought you were going to see Frank Hardy. I just met him in lockup. He said he graduated with you. He was asking for you, but Lieutenant Carlucci said to ignore the request. Did he come get you after all?”
As usual, when something involved the Hardys, it was anything but straight-forward. Biff put a hand on Unger’s shoulder. “Are you telling me that Frank Hardy was in jail?”
“Um, yes, sir.”
It only took Biff a few seconds to come to a decision. “I need you to do me a favor, Corporal. Go to the front gate and bring Joe Hardy back to the MP offices. I’m going there now to find out what’s going on with Frank. Whatever it is, I’m sure that’s why Joe is here.”
He heard shouting coming from the general direction of the MP offices, and broke into a run.
The MP grabbed Nancy’s arm and held her up as she feigned a fainting spell, leaving his partner to struggle alone to restrain a raging Frank.
Carlucci appeared out of the building and joined the fray. He walked up behind Frank and clubbed him across the neck with his forearm, forcing him to his knees, and then hit him again. One look told Nancy the hits had taken a toll, Frank’s eyes were glassy and staring.
“Get your prisoners under control, gentlemen.”
She was furious, and the adrenalin surge spurred her forward. She used the MP’s support to get her feet back under her. She then let loose a piercing scream as she charge Carlucci, aiming low and hitting him in the midriff with her shoulder. He fell back on the steps, his eyes wide in surprise.
Unfortunately, Nancy was overbalanced, and followed Carlucci down. Carlucci had the advantage of not having his hands cuffed behind him and regained his feet quickly. He turned and raised a hand to hit her. She braced for the impact, but it never came. She watched as a blond-haired gorilla of a man in tank top and army-green slacks landed a solid punch on Carlucci’s jaw, knocking him out cold.
“Man, I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.” He turned and helped Nancy to her feet, motioning the MP to remove the cuffs. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, but my friend is hurt.”
“Yeah, Hardy always has had a glass jaw.” He flashed Nancy a cocky grin, before turning to help Frank to his feet. “You alright, Frank?”
Frank gave his friend a grateful, if dazed smile. “Biff, I have never been so happy to see anyone in my life.”
“I’m glad to see you too, buddy.” Biff turned to the two MPs. “Get the cuffs off of him and put them on Carlucci.”
“But, sir, what are the charges against Lieutenant Carlucci?” Sergeant Miller asked.
“We’ll start with assault, Sergeant. I’d like to know just what the hell is going on here, anyway. This man is a private investigator with Hardy Investigators out of New York. When he asked to see me, why wasn’t I notified?”
Miller indicated the prone Lieutenant Carlucci. “He told us not to bother you. And then Officer Harris showed up to take them into custody –“
Shit, the driver of the car they were being led to. Nancy began to turn to see where the driver had gone. Before she could move the barrel of a gun press against her temple, and an arm snaked around her neck.
She recognized Kendall’s voice as he whispered in her ear. “You’re my insurance policy to get out of the gate, my dear. Don’t worry, when the time comes I’ll make it quick.”
“Nancy?” Frank’s voice was laced with anxiety. They all turned to face her and Kendall.
“Ah, gentlemen, I believe Ms. Drew and I will be leaving. If you’d like to see her alive again, you’ll call the front gate and make sure that they will allow me to drive through.”
Frank took a step forward, but Biff stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Careful, bud. He’s the one holding the gun.”
Kendall smirked. “Yes, I am.”
The insurance investigator had slightly loosened his grip on Nancy’s neck as he was talking, and the gun was no longer pressed against her head. She looked up at Frank who nodded imperceptibly. He shook Biff’s arm off and took another step forward, further focusing Kendall’s attention on himself. His voice was sharp when he spoke.
“You’ll never get away with this Kendall. I may not have all the pieces pulled together yet, but it’s only a matter of time before your identity theft scheme is blown wide open.”
“What do you have, kid? A couple names, a couple possible identity theft cases that may or may not be real.”
“Then why don’t you stay?” Frank goaded. “If you’re so confident you’re in the clear, why risk this?”
“I was already setting up to retire. You just pushed me a little faster then I planned.”
Nancy was tired, sore, and pissed. She had been watching carefully for her chance, and when the insurance investigator motioned away from her with the gun, she caught him totally off guard. She snatched the gun out of his hand, stomped on his instep and slammed her elbow back into his midriff. Kendall lost his balance on the steps and landed hard, skidding down a couple feet. He sprawled, winded on the ground, staring up at her stunned.
She pointed the gun at him. “That’s the last time you and your friends underestimate me, Kendall.”
Frank rushed to her side, as one of the MPs hauled Kendall to his feet and cuffed him.
She looked up at Frank, her voice tight, but her words light. “Is that a wrap, Mr. Brooks?”
Frank’s responding smile relaxed her immediately, as Sergeant Miller extracted the gun from her grip.
“Thanks to you, Drew, I think it finally is.” He squeezed her arm, and she took comfort in the touch.
They both turned at the sound of Biff’s voice. “I could use some help with the new women’s self-defense class I’m teaching. Are you interested?”
Biff’s gray eyes were wide with admiration, and locked on Nancy. Out of the corner of her eye she noted the dark look that crossed Frank’s face and wondered at it, but only briefly.
From nearby the sound of Joe’s voice reached them.
“Ah man, did you guys start the party without me?”
Relief was apparent on his brother’s face as he approached, but Frank saw the expression change to anger as he got closer. “Looks like you two took a beating tonight. Jeez, Nan, you look especially . . . awful.”
“Thanks, Joe. You really know how to make a girl feel special.”
Joe watched as the MPs led Kendall and Carlucci into the building in handcuffs. He nodded their direction. “Ok, Kendall I know. Who’s the other guy?
Biff spoke up, “Lieutenant Tyler Carlucci. He just started in our department about six months ago. Guy’s got a fat head.”
Nancy seemed transfixed by the men being led through the door. “Carlucci reminds me of Boss, don’t you think, Frank?”
Frank nodded. “Now that you mention it, he does kind of resemble him, especially around the eyes.”
“Who’s ‘Boss?’” Joe asked.
“He’s the head of the goon squad that grabbed us,” Frank said.
“Oh, shit, speaking of goons, Dad’s sitting on a crew at the old bunker where Kendall went before coming here. We thought for sure you two were being held in there. I gotta call him and let him know you’re safe.” While he was talking, Joe had already pulled out his cell and dialed.
“We were.” Nancy and Frank answered in unison.
“Dad, yeah, I followed Kendall onto the academy grounds, and lo and behold Nan and Frank are both here. Kendall’s in custody, along with another accomplice here at the Academy . . . Nancy and Frank? . . . well, they’re walking and talking so I guess they’re fine, even if they have looked better.”
Frank held out a hand. “Let me talk to him.”
“Here, Frank wants to talk to you.” Joe held out the phone.
“Frank, you have no idea how glad I am to hear your voice. You and Nancy are both Ok?”
“Like Joe said, it looks worse than it is."
“Good. Do me a favor and call your mother. She’s worried sick. Carson is there, too. He caught a late flight yesterday. I doubt either of them is sleeping.”
“I will. Listen, Dad, the bunker has two entrances, and no windows. You’re going to have to take them by surprise or they’ll be a pain to get out. There were four of them, and they didn’t have much in the way of supplies. They took everything Nan and I had on us, including my laptop. The database is on that laptop, and that seemed to be their biggest issue. They wanted to know how many copies I had made. I’m guessing Kendall sanitized the original database at Hathaway’s office, and was trying to recover any copies I had because they’re the only ones that contain the information necessary to reveal the identity theft scam.”
“Take a breath, Frank. You’ve had a long night. We’ll sort this out when we get to the Academy. I imagine the Bureau will want to pick up Kendall and talk to you and Nancy. Try to get some rest until we get there. I’ll see you soon.”
Frank closed the cell and handed it back to his brother. “Dad said they’ll be here as soon as they round up Boss and goons. Apparently he finally managed to get the FBI interested enough to get involved.” He turned to Nancy. “They’ll want to talk to us when they get here.”
Frank noticed the medic from earlier hovering nearby, and turned to him. “Did you need something, Lou?”
“I’d really like to take both of you to the infirmary and get you patched up properly.”
Nancy moved purposely up the steps toward the doors to the MP offices, and Frank realized with a jolt that he was watching her butt.
He looked away, only to find his brother smirking at him. “What’s wrong, Frank? See something you like?”
Both their attention returned to Nancy as she turned and spoke. “I don’t know about you, Frank, but I’m not willing to chance missing a second of this by going to the infirmary.”
Frank glanced at Biff, and caught the admiring gaze on his face. He consciously squelched another flash of irrational jealousy as his friend turned to him and said wonderingly. “Is she always that spunky?”
Looking back up at Nancy, hands on hips, blue eyes vivid in a bruised face framed by wild red-highlighted hair, Frank couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, she is.”
Joe snorted. “That’s an understatement.”
“I am not ‘spunky,’” Nancy snapped. “I am capable and self-sufficient. Are you guys coming, or not?”
Biff’s eyes went wide. “I thought ‘spunky’ was a good thing . . .”
“I am not a freaking cheerleader.” Nancy mumbled as she turned and strode into the building.
“Ok, don’t call her spunky. Got it.” Frank looked at his brother and they both burst into laughter at the expression on Biff’s face as he turned to Corporal Lou Unger, who waited inconspicuously, and had somehow avoided getting wrapped into the confrontation over the infirmary trip that he had suggested.
“Guess you’ll have to bring the infirmary to them, Lou. Go get what you need and come back here to patch them up.”
Chapter 12: Answers
Nancy looked at Mr. Hardy as she was led into the conference room the FBI had commandeered when they arrived. His smile was encouraging, as she accepted the seat Special Agent Jarvi held out for her. There were other suits in the room, but Jarvi was obviously in charge. He was a compact and powerfully built man with an unusually easy manner about him. He had stick straight, straw-blond hair, and surprising green eyes that Nancy was sure didn’t miss a thing.
“I know you must be exhausted, Nancy, so we’ll try and keep this brief. According to Fenton, you arrived in New York City about a day and a half ago. Why don’t you take us through the events that followed your arrival?”
Nancy did as asked. Her narrative took half an hour or so with periodic interruptions for questions. When he seemed to be wrapping things up, she decided to ask a few questions of her own.
“Special Agent Jarvi, I was wondering if you could tell me something?”
“I can try.”
“Who is Boss, um, the guy in charge of the kidnapping crew?”
Jarvi walked to the end of the table, and pushed a pile of manila file folders around until he found the one he was looking for. Back at her end of the table he dropped it in front of her and flipped it open.
“Angelo Cervelli. Enforcer for the DeCavalcante Family.” Jarvi looked at Nancy as if waiting for something.
“I thought that family was all but defunct?”
“This was their shot at resurgence. The new boss is a young up and comer, and he wanted to rebuild.”
“And you need capital to rebuild. The identity theft scheme was their ticket back into the game in New York.” Nancy nodded in understanding.
“Is Cervelli related to Carlucci?”
“Observant.” Jarvi opened another file in front of her. “Yes, they’re cousins. Tyler Carlucci seemed to have left the family behind, and had to work his butt off to get where he is. Too bad the kid threw it all away to get back in good with his family.”
Nancy ran a hand back through her hair. She had a lot of other questions, but at the moment, none of them would surface through the fog in her head.
Jarvi smiled and took her arm, helping her up from the chair. “I promise, Nancy, that we will fill you in on the whole story, but right now probably isn’t the time. Would you go out and tell Frank that we’re ready for him?”
When Nancy walked out of the conference room, she found Biff talking to the two MPs and the medic.
“Hey, Biff, do you know where Frank is?”
Biff waved a hand toward the corner. “Frank and Joe are both sacked out over there. Good luck waking up Frank. He was snoring as soon as he was horizontal. Joe lasted a little longer, but it wasn’t long before I was talking to myself.”
“Frank’s been up about 48 hours, he’s dead on his feet.”
“I could get you a bucket of ice water.” Biff gave her a mischievous smile.
Nancy raised an eyebrow at him. “I think Frank’s had enough abuse, tonight, Hooper.”
Biff chuckled. “Are you like his body guard or something?”
She chuckled. “Or something. I need to go get Frank. They’re waiting for him.”
Nancy saw Joe first. He was snoozing slumped in a chair in a corner of the office that Biff had indicated. As she got closer, she realized the younger Hardy was sitting protectively by his brother, who was fast asleep on a nearby cot.
She put a hand on Frank’s shoulder and shook it, but kept her voice low in an attempt not to wake Joe. “Frank . . . Frank . . . wake up.”
His eyes finally opened, and he smiled up at her. Nancy’s heart fluttered at the warmth in his sleepy smile, but a moment later, his eyes popped open, and he seemed to realize where he was.
He sat up and stretched “Nan? What’s up, are they done with you?”
“Yes, and they’re ready for you.”
Frank yawned. “Hopefully I can stay awake through the questions.”
Nancy motioned to the other side of the room. “There’s coffee over there if you need it. It’s pretty horrible, but it is caffeinated.”
He stood up, put his hands on her shoulders, and pushed her down to the cot. “You should lie down and get some shut eye, Drew. Hopefully this won’t take long and we can find a soft, warm bed somewhere and sleep a couple days.”
Nancy watched Frank’s retreating back until it disappeared behind the conference room door. She knew he hadn’t meant anything by it, but the thought of finding a soft, warm bed with Frank propelled her thoughts into forbidden territory. Sleeping was probably not the best idea at the moment given the vivid dreams she knew waited for her behind her eyelids.
Frank walked in and shook hands with Special Agent Jarvi. “It’s nice to see you again, sir.”
“Have a seat, Frank.”
But Frank’s gaze had landed on the pieces of a laptop lying in an evidence bag. “Is that my laptop?”
Jarvi nodded. He picked up the bag and placed it in front of the chair at the head of the table. Frank dropped into the chair and poked at the dismembered pieces of the computer dejectedly. “They wiped the hard drive, didn’t they?”
“I’m hoping our techies can recover something off it, but we found an electromagnet kit, so I’m guessing we’re out of luck.”
Frank shoved the bag away with a grunt. “I was kind of attached to that computer.”
“For all the good it’ll do you, you can have it back as soon as the techs are done with it.” Jarvi placed another, smaller evidence bag on the table in front of Frank. “Is this your jump drive?”
The lump of blackened plastic and metal in the bag was unrecognizable. “Who knows? Probably. Damn.”
Jarvi’s gaze was earnest. “So, you can see how important it is that we know absolutely everything that you and Nancy can remember about what you found in that database.”
“Huh? Oh, that’s no problem. The original copy of the database that Hathaway gave me, along with a copy of all my preliminary evaluations, is back at the Hardy Investigator’s offices in the night drop box.”
Jarvi leaned on the table and gazed at Frank in surprise. “Nancy said that you told Cervelli that the only copy you made was on your hard drive.”
“Of course that’s what I told him, his gorilla was beating the . . .” Frank cut himself off and ran an agitated hand back through his hair. He leaned forward and looked at Jarvi earnestly. “He had to think he was holding all the cards, hopefully with enough doubt that he’d call in Kendall. It was the only way I could think to buy time. And I knew . . . well, hoped that Joe and Dad would be watching Kendall.”
“We’ll need that copy.”
Frank flipped the jump drive over, and grimaced. “Yeah, sure. You guys are golden. But why the hell didn’t I back up my thesis?”
Jarvi’s smile was sympathetic. “That sucks.”
Frank sighed. At least all he had lost were a couple days of edits. “So, what else do you want before I can go home?”
“Take us through the events since Hathaway gave you the database.”
Frank was grateful that they kept their questions brief, as he took them through the past day and a half in painstaking detail. By the time it was over, he didn’t care about anything but crawling into a warm, soft bed. In his mind’s eye, Nancy was lying in that bed. He ran a hand over his face, trying to shake the persistent image.
His father put a hand on his arm. “I’ll be out in a few minutes, and we can head out.”
Frank nodded in acknowledgement and walked out of the conference room. Just outside the door he stopped dead in his tracks, suddenly wide awake. Nancy was slumped in a chair by a desk, with Biff hovering over her. They were both laughing at something Hooper had said, their heads bowed together. The pose looked achingly intimate, at least to Frank, and the resulting flash of jealousy was intense. Without a second thought, Frank strode over to them and cleared his throat.
“Are they finally done with you, Frank? I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to come back out.” Nancy’s upper lip was swollen, and when she spoke her lips barely moved. Unreasonable anger was threatening his usual calm, and he clenched his hands in an effort to control it.
Biff stood and clapped him on the shoulder, a broad grin on his face. “Good to see you’re no worse for the wear, Hardy.”
Frank pushed Biff’s hand off his shoulder and snapped at him. “Yeah, I’m great.” He turned to Nancy. “We need to talk. In private.”
Biff’s smile disappeared, and he motioned to an empty office. “You can use the office over there.”
“Thanks,” Frank said tersely.
Nancy’s face reflected confusion as he led her into the office and closed the door. She crossed her arms. “Alright, Frank, we’re in private. What’s up?”
Frank just stared at her. Now that they were alone, and out of danger, he knew it was a good time to broach the subject, but as his anger cooled, his usual reservations started resurfacing, and caused him to hesitate. What was he going to say to her?
Her gaze narrowed. “You were kind of rude to Biff. I mean, he did save our skins tonight.”
Joe’s words echoed through his head: ‘While you’re playing it safe, some other guy is going to swoop in and steal her from under your nose.’ Frank recognized the way Biff was looking at Nancy, and to say he didn’t like it was an understatement. He hadn’t thought he’d have competition from one of his good friends, but did he have any right to be jealous, let alone rude to him?
He sighed. “I know. I’ll apologize to him when I go back out there, but first, I need to get something off my chest.”
Nancy’s gaze was almost wary, and it was all Frank could do to stifle the rising panic he felt. He rushed forward to avoid losing his nerve.
“I don’t know if you were paying any attention earlier, so I’m going to say it again, without any interruption. That way there isn’t any doubt about where I stand.” He took a deep breath. “With Ned and Callie both out of the picture, I think it’s time for you and me to give a more serious relationship a chance. I want us to be more than just friends, Nan, and I need to know if you want that, too.”
Nancy’s mouth had dropped open slightly, but her gaze was steady. He’d said what he had to say, and now his heart pounded with a jumble of hope and dread as he waited for her answer.
She turned away from him and started to pace. “Dammit, Hardy.”
That wasn’t the response he had imagined in any of the dozen or so scenarios that had flashed through his head. Frank leaned wearily against the desk and heaved a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell if that’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ and I’m too tired to try and figure it out.”
The irritation in those flashing blue eyes was unmistakable. He cringed inwardly, but waited quietly as she made a couple more passes. He suspected she was gathering her thoughts and trying to decide how to let him down easy. Finally, she came to a stop directly in front of him, and he braced himself for what he thought was coming.
“We’re going to get a couple of things straight, right out of the gate.” She held up her left index finger. “First of all, you are one of my best friends, and under no circumstances is that allowed to change.”
Frank blinked in surprise. That had been about the last thing he expected. “Ok.”
A second finger popped up. “Second, I like my job. I like working for Riley. And I am not leaving Chicago. At least not right now.”
“Ohhh-k.” Frank wondered where she was going with this, but waited for her to finish.
She crossed her arms, fingers beating an agitated tempo on her arm. When her eyes rose to his, the look was almost defiant. “We can give ‘us’ a try as long as those two conditions are met.”
It took a moment for the ‘yes’ in that speech to sink into Frank’s sleep-deprived brain. He laughed in relief, but found himself a little stymied by the conditions.
“Did I say anything about you leaving your job or Chicago? I am not Nickerson, Nan. I love that you’re a private investigator, and I think Riley’s lucky to have you. I still have at least one more semester of school left, anyway, and after that, who knows what’s going to happen? We’ll just have to make the long-distance thing work for awhile, that’s all. The future we’ll sort out later . . . together.”
“And our friendship is precisely why I think our relationship is going to work. If there’s any change to that . . . well, I’m hoping it’ll only be for the better.”
She shifted. “Ok. So, we’re really going to give this . . . us a try?”
He was surprised as the defiance in her gaze was replaced by an uncharacteristic uncertainty. Nancy Drew was unsure of herself. This time he didn’t resist the urge. After all, she had said ‘yes’ in a round about way. He stepped forward and folded her into his arms, kissing her forehead, which was about the only place he thought he could kiss her without hurting her.
“Try? We’re gonna make this work, Drew.”
Her hands slipped up to his shoulders, and she looked up at him. He was certain he saw his own feelings for her reflected in those beautiful blue eyes, and his heart soared. They moved together without thought, lips brushing.
Nancy pulled back with a light chuckle. “Ow. I forgot.”
Frank sighed. “It figures. I finally get the green light, and nearly your entire face is black and blue.” He gently turned her head slightly, and ran a finger along her jaw line, to a place near her ear that was bruise-free. “Except here.” He leaned down and kissed her lightly. He found another space of creamy, clear skin and kissed it, murmuring against her neck, “And here.”
He felt her shiver in response to his touch, and would have pressed his advantage, but the door flew open without a knock. Neither of them was surprised to look up and find Joe standing there.
“Dad’s finally ready to go . . . oh.” A huge grin broke across Joe’s face. “It’s about freaking time.”
Chapter 13: Options & Opportunities
Frank stood and stretched. “I’m going to head to bed. I’m still whooped.”
Nancy stood, too, as did Fenton, Laura and Gertrude Hardy, and Carson Drew.
Frank heaved a silent sigh of frustration. Since he and Nancy had awakened, early Saturday afternoon, their family had been an unshakable presence. Even Joe and Van had been here earlier. Frank couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of the fact that they had an apartment to escape to. All he wanted was to spend some time alone with Nancy, and that was the one thing he hadn’t been able to accomplish.
At first he had been happy when his father had informed them that they would be staying at the house. He and Nancy under the same roof for the rest of the weekend had sounded like a slice of heaven. Unfortunately, he hadn’t taken the crush of relatives into account in those fantasies. There had been nowhere to go to get away from them.
“I think I’m going to go to bed early, too.” Nancy kissed her father on the cheek and smiled at Frank’s mother, father and aunt. “I think we’re still recovering.”
“Of course you are, dear. You had a terrible ordeal, both of you. You need your rest,” Aunt Gertrude said.
Frank walked over and kissed his mother and aunt each on the cheek, then joined Nancy. He put a hand at the small of her back and guided her up the stairs.
“Do you think they’ll leave us alone?” He asked under his breath.
Nancy chuckled. “We can hope.”
In the upstairs hallway, rather than turning to his own room, Frank followed Nancy into the spare room. He closed the door as she flipped on a small bedside lamp.
“Whew. I love my parents, but they have been driving me insane all day.”
“Now, Frank, to be fair we’ve only been awake nine or ten hours. It’s not like it’s been an entire day.” Nancy’s smile was teasing, and he growled and pulled her into his arms.
“Not even two days to spend together, and we sleep half of it away. Then our parents are like hovering, ever-present sentinels.” He looked down at her and smiled. “This is all I’ve wanted to do, all day.”
He leaned down and kissed near her ear, carefully avoiding the bruised areas of her face. Her lip still appeared painfully swollen, even though she said it wasn’t as bad as it looked. She melted into him, and he moved on to sample the curve of her neck, pulling her tighter against him. Her fingers tangled in his hair, and her breath tickled his ear as she let out a contented sigh.
He lost track of how long they held each other. Nancy’s hands wandered in distracting patterns across his back as he sampled the sweet taste of her skin while being enveloped in the soothing scent of her shampoo.
When she nibbled on his earlobe, the touch of her lips sent a pleasant warmth through his body. But he couldn’t help but worry about her injuries. “Don’t hurt yourself, Nan,” he murmured against her neck.
“You’re such a mother hen, Hardy.” Her husky voice and throaty chuckle sent his pulse racing.
He pulled back and looked into her upturned face. His own desire was reflected plainly in the brilliant blue of her eyes, and he lifted a hand to cup her face gently. “We better watch ourselves, here, Drew. For one thing, I don’t have any protection on me.”
“Is there something I need to worry about, Hardy?”
“No, no concerns, other than the potential for a little Hardy.” He couldn’t believe they were actually talking about this. Nancy had always seemed so unattainable, and it was like a dream that she was standing in his arms.
She turned her head slightly to kiss his hand, then looked up at him, her eyes twinkling in the dim light. “I’m on birth control, so little Hardys should not be a problem, but the idea of . . . well, you know . . . with our parents and your aunt just downstairs is a little disturbing. I’m really beginning to wish Dad hadn’t checked me out of the hotel.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “Did that sound slutty?”
“No.” He leaned his forehead against hers. “You’re testing my resolve, Nan.”
“We have lots of practice at abstinence,” she teased.
“In this case, I don’t think practice makes perfect.” Frank decided to give in to temptation and leaned down to kiss her again when he was brought up short by a knock at the door.
Nancy slipped out of his arms, and walked over to the door, her heart pounding. At the moment she felt like a wayward teenager caught making out with a boy in her bedroom.
She cracked the door open to find Laura Hardy smiling at her apologetically. “I’m sorry to bother you, dear. But, Special Agent Jarvi just arrived, and wanted to talk to you and Frank.”
Nancy felt a rush of panic. Laura’s next stop was probably Frank’s room, where Frank obviously wasn’t.
“I’ll get Frank and be right down,” she offered quickly.
Warmth flooded her cheeks at Laura’s knowing gaze. She smiled and pushed the door opened further, looking in at her son. “You heard that, didn’t you Frank?”
“We’ll be down in a minute, Mom.”
Laura winked at her and gave her arm a comforting squeeze, letting Nancy know she wasn’t upset. “I’ll go let our guest know you’ll be right down.”
Nancy sighed as Laura disappeared down the stairs, and pressed her back against the wall just inside the door.
Frank was laughing at her. “You look embarrassed, Drew.”
“I cannot tell you how glad I am that it wasn’t Aunt Gertrude.” She smiled and shook her head in heart-felt relief.
Rational thought ceased as Frank moved closer, one hand on the wall on either side of her as he leaned down and nuzzled her neck. She pressed her hands flat against the cool paneling and struggled to hold on to some shred of her senses.
“Special Agent Jarvi is waiting.” Her voice sounded breathless, but at least the sentence had been coherent. She took that as a small victory.
Frank’s low chuckle threatened to scatter the little bit of sensibility she had managed to gather. She felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief when he took her hand to lead her down the stairs.
“You know, I think it might have been kind of interesting if Mom had sent Aunt Gertrude up to get us,” he teased.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re a cruel man, Frank Hardy.”
As they approached the bottom of the stairs, Nancy could see Special Agent Jarvi who had been cornered by Aunt Gertrude. Laura tactfully extracted him from her sister-in-law’s grip, leading him to a chair and handing him a cup of coffee.
“Frank and Nancy are still recovering, but they hadn’t gone to sleep, yet. They should be down momentarily,” Laura said.
Jarvi caught sight of them first, and rose, setting his coffee aside. He held out a hand. “I’m sorry to bother you on a Saturday, but I knew Nancy was leaving tomorrow, and I figured you would both want an update.”
Nancy and Frank both shook his hand in greeting. Laura motioned for Nancy and Frank to sit on the couch next to Fenton, while she brought in a chair from the dining room.
Jarvi resumed his seat near the front window, and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “I thought you’d like to know that in the short time since we talked last night, we have rounded up no less than a dozen wanted criminals, with more collars in the works. Unfortunately, Kendall had intercepted the list of names you had identified during your search on Friday, and alerted those men to abandon their current identities. We have actually managed to capture a couple of them, and have BOLOs out on the rest. It’s been a very productive day, thanks in large part to the two of you.”
“And Joe and Dad,” Frank said.
“Of course, and Joe and your father. We couldn’t have pulled down one of the largest identity theft rings without everyone’s involvement, but you were instrumental in setting things in motion.” Jarvi’s gaze was intense as he continued. “Kendall had a sweet gig going. He created a regular mobster protection program, and helped dozens of wanted mobsters start new lives. It turned out that his ‘vacation’ last week was a scouting trip for himself. He already had his new identity, but as a safeguard had decided to find a locale with no extradition arrangement, and set up his new life there. That way if the scam ever was discovered, he’d still be home free.”
Jarvi continued, “As you suspected, Frank, he had totally sanitized the database at Hathaway Adjusters. If Mr. Hathaway hadn’t given you that copy, and you hadn’t discovered the anomalies before Kendall returned to retrieve it, we would never have known. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Kendall himself had made a backup of the files containing the data for the identities he stole. It greatly shortened our search for the cases to focus on, at least in New York. Apparently, he had vague ideas of blackmailing his clients in the future, if he needed extra cash.”
“How long has he been dealing in identities?” Nancy asked.
“The first theft in New York occurred about eight years ago. He only did a couple that first year, but it grew quickly from there. By the time he was getting ready to close up shop, he was relocating over a dozen mobsters and other criminals per year. We’re still tracking down the money, but he probably made several million dollars, with a potential for millions more in future blackmail.”
“What about Hathaway’s other offices?” Frank asked.
“Mr. Hathaway has already turned over the remaining databases, and our techies are working on it, using some of the same algorithms you used, Frank. Luckily, New York was Kendall’s first sanitation stop. He planned to make quick stops at the other two offices on his way out of the country. We’re lucky he didn’t sanitize as he went. I think the only reason he got nervous about it was because he noticed that the identity theft scheme was making a notable change in the death claims data.”
“So, basically he noticed what I did, and decided he needed to start cleaning up after himself.”
“Exactly. Good thing he didn’t succeed.” Jarvi’s eyes locked on Frank. “Speaking of which, our ranking egghead was very impressed with the work you did, Frank. At the risk of alienating your father,” he cast an apologetic look at Fenton. “I’ve been authorized to make you an offer for employment when you finish your thesis work.”
Nancy reached over and put a finger under Frank’s chin, closing his mouth. “Don’t look so surprised. I’m not.” Though she had to admit, she wasn’t entirely happy about the thought of Frank working for the Bureau. They were notoriously nomadic about their assignments. Who knew where he would end up? She consciously squelched those selfish thoughts, and joined the others in offering congratulations.
“What about Nan?” Frank asked Jarvi.
Her cheeks warmed in embarrassment. “I already have a job, Hardy.”
Jarvi grinned. “Actually, I’ve already run that flag up the pole. We don’t usually make offers to undergrads with less than 5 years experience, but I think they may make an exception in your case, Nancy.”
“See.” It was Frank’s turn to put a finger under her chin.
Jarvi gave them an understanding nod. “And the Bureau is very good about stationing couples together, too.”
Frank’s arm slipped unobtrusively around her waist, and she wondered at how comfortably and easily they had become an obvious couple. The implications of the last few minutes were a little too far-reaching to absorb all at once. She said the only thing that came to mind, “Thank you, sir.”
“Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time.” Jarvi stood and handed business cards to Nancy and Frank, and then shook their hands, again. “I’ll be in touch next week to discuss the job offers in more detail. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Fenton, Laura, it was good to see you again. Gertrude, Carson, it was very nice to meet you.”
Jarvi shook hands all around, and then Laura walked him to the door.
Nancy turned to Frank. “That was . . . unexpected.”
“I thought you weren’t surprised?” Frank teased.
“I wasn’t surprised about you,” Nancy clarified.
Fenton chuckled. “Well, they’re obviously terribly worried about alienating me, offering my own son a job while I’m sitting right here. I notice that you didn’t mention your PhD research assistantship, Frank.”
The uneasy look the crossed Frank’s handsome face was quickly hidden, but Nancy saw it and nudged him with an elbow. “Tell him.”
Frank took a deep breath. “I’m not sure I want to go on for my doctorate, Dad.”
Fenton shrugged and gave Frank a proud smile. “You appear to have plenty of options, son. The hard part is going to be making a decision, especially now.” He glanced pointedly at Nancy. “I’m sure you’ll both continue to be successful, whatever you choose to do.”
“Very well said, Fenton.” Nancy’s father smiled, obviously just as proud.
Returning from showing Jarvi out, Laura waved Nancy and Frank off the couch. “Come on, you two were headed to bed, and you really do need your rest, so off you go. The rest of us are going out to watch a movie, and then maybe try out that new coffee shop. That way we won’t disturb you.”
“I don’t want to go sit in some cramped theatre . . .”
Aunt Gertrude’s protest died in her throat at one look from Laura. Nancy found herself admiring Frank’s mother more and more.
Laura winked as she ushered them to the stairs, offering one parting warning under her breath, “I’m not quite ready to be a grandmother . . . yet.”
Nancy pursed her lips as Frank took her hand and led her upstairs. The warmth from the embarrassment was further heightened by the suggestive look that he cast her direction as they entered the guest room, and closed the door.
Frank’s face broke into a warm grin, as he swung her into his arms. “Alone, at last.”
She melted into his embrace, allowing his touch to arouse emotions she had kept bottled up for far too long. Nancy honestly couldn’t remember why she had been so adamant about remaining independent. She wasn’t sure when she had finally accepted that she didn’t have to be alone to be capable and self-sufficient. The reality was that being with Frank like this made her feel stronger and more complete then she ever had before.
Nancy looked up into Frank’s warm, brown eyes and knew with unwavering certainty that this was where she belonged. Together, they were invincible.
But really, the beginning ;)