Ned Nickerson knew that staring was impolite, but he couldn’t seem to help himself, couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away.
Despite the nip of autumn chill in the air, everything about the girl reminded him of summer; specifically, summers spent at his grandparents’ farm in Indiana. Her hair resembled the shiny, silken strands that surrounded the dozens upon dozens of ears of corn he and his cousins would shuck, salivating in anticipation of dinner. Her eyes were the color of the cloudless skies from which the sun would blaze down, the close, still heat almost suffocating as they helped Grandpa Nickerson plow his fields. Her skin reminded him of the cream that rose to the top of the bottles of milk that the farm’s dairy cows would produce. And her lips… the shade of her lips called to mind the cherry and sugar syrup that Grandma Nickerson would pour over the ice she’d churn in huge wooden barrels in the barn. Ned briefly wondered if her lips tasted as sweet as that cherry dessert.
“May I help you?” Her voice was low and musical, and she seemed amused rather than annoyed by him.
Ned took that as a good sign. “Yes.” He winced inwardly as he heard the rustiness in his tone, then cleared his throat, trying again. “Yes. I noticed the trim little blue roadster parked at the curb, and wondered if it was yours. I mean, you are the only customer in here – besides me, of course.” He wanted to curse himself for babbling.
“I own a blue roadster,” she replied, and Ned could almost feel the curiosity rise within her.
“Well, I passed it on the way into the drugstore, and noticed that the left front tire was almost flat.”
The girl gasped, raising her white-glove-clad hand to her lips. “Are you certain?”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, miss,” he acknowledged ruefully, “but if that’s your automobile, the driver’s side tire resembles a pancake.” The exchange allowed Ned to spend more time gazing at her, and he estimated that she was barely sixteen to his nineteen. She was gracefully slender, tall and willowy; Ned knew nothing of fashion or style, but her blue cotton dress appeared to be of the highest quality.
“Oh dear,” she sighed, dismayed.
“Perhaps you ran over a nail or a shard of glass on the avenue,” he suggested. “Unfortunately, with the Depression being what it is, some of the storefronts here in Mapleton have had to close down, and they’ve been boarding up their windows.”
She shook her head with certainty. “No, I don’t believe it was accidental. I think someone punctured my tire on purpose.”
Surprised, Ned blinked at her. “Excuse me for asking this, miss, but why do you say that?”
Her lips twisted in a rueful grin. “Because someone is trying to prevent me from following them once again. I should have expected this.”
Now he was truly confused. “Following them?”
The blonde threw back her head and gave a charming peal of laughter. If Ned hadn’t already been smitten by her, he surely would be now. “Forgive me. You were kind enough to tell me about my tire, and I’ve been speaking in riddles.
“I sometimes assist people with their problems, and I happen to be working on a case now. I was following a man in my roadster but lost him when I got to Main Street. That’s when I decided to stop here at the drugstore for something to drink – I’m positively parched.”
“Are you a –” Ned swiveled his head from side to side to make sure no one was listening to their conversation, but still the only two other people in the drugstore were the druggist behind his counter and the soda jerk wiping down the refreshment counter at the far end of the store. “Are you a detective, miss?”
She laughed again, and he decided that it was already one of his favorite sounds. “I am, in a way, but I’m purely amateur. And now I’m a stranded detective – one that’s fairly far from home, too.” She sighed.
“Not necessarily stranded,” he replied quickly. “I know of a garage just down the street. I can ask the mechanic to perhaps plug up your tire so you can at least get home – wherever that is.”
“Oh – I’m from River Heights. “ She shook her head. “Please forgive my manners – I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Nancy Drew.”
“Drew?” Ned inquired, savoring the feel of her small, gloved hand in his when she held it out to shake. “Are you related to the attorney Drew, by any chance?” Everyone within a ten-county range – if not within the entire state of Iowa - had heard of Carson Drew. He was well-known and well-respected for his sharp legal prowess and had earned a strong reputation as the best criminal defense attorney in the Middle West.
Nancy smiled. “He’s my father. And I’m sure he’ll worry about me getting home late this evening.”
Ned smiled back, his heart hammering in his chest. “Well, we can’t have that. Tell you what – why don’t I accompany you to the garage? Then we can come back here and have ice cream sodas while we wait for your car to be ready?”
He watched her deliberate his offer. “That’s very kind of you, Mr...”
“Nickerson,” he supplied helpfully. “Edmund Nickerson, but my friends call me Ned.”
“As I said, it’s very kind of you to offer to assist, Ned, but I wouldn’t want to trouble you. After all, I’m sure you have things to do.”
“No, my schedule is clear – I’m on break from school, and I only came into the drugstore because I was thirsty, too. Please, let me help you?” Ned prayed that he didn’t sound too desperate, but the thought of saying goodbye to her already set him on the edge of panic.
“All right,” Nancy consented with a smile and a nod of her head. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but Ned thought that she seemed eager to take him up on his offer without actually wanting to appear so.
He fished in the pocket of his slacks and held out a few coins to her. “Why don’t you go ahead and ring your father? There’s a ‘phone here in the drugstore.”
Nancy flashed him a grateful smile before making her way to the booth at the back of the store, returning a few minutes later.
“It’s a good thing I called home,” she announced as she approached Ned. “Father was dreadfully worried - I left very early this morning and was only supposed to have been gone for a few hours. He’s also glad that I’m not alone here in a strange town, especially considering the mishap with my roadster.”
“Glad I could be of service, Miss Drew,” Ned drawled.
She shook her head, appearing slightly flustered. “Please, call me Nancy.”
“Nancy it is, then,” he proclaimed, holding the door to the drugstore open and gesturing for her to step outside.
He led the way to the garage down the street and convinced the mechanic to repair her tire, rather than force her to purchase a new one. Nancy shot him a grateful look during his negotiations, and he savored it.
Since it would take a while for the work to be complete, he escorted her back to the drugstore. This time, it was Ned’s turn to be amused as she flushed an adorably becoming shade of pink when he insisted on paying for her chocolate ice cream soda, eventually consenting.
As they sipped their sodas at the counter, he learned that Nancy, like him, was an only child and that she had lost her mother about six years earlier. His estimate about her age had been correct, and Ned was impressed to find out that she had already graduated from River Heights High School. Nancy had modestly attributed her early graduation to the excellent teachers she’d had, but Ned could already tell that she was of exceedingly high intelligence, with a keen and clever mind – after all, she’d have to have those attributes to be a girl detective. She also talked about her closest chums, Helen and Bess and a girl with the strange name of George, and her little bull terrier Togo.
What Ned really longed to know was if Nancy was some other fellow’s girl – she was far too lovely not to have attracted the eye of another man. Just as he was gathering up the courage to ask her, she turned the tables on him.
“Please forgive me – I’ve been going on and on about myself,” she apologized, raising a hand to her throat. “Tell me about Ned Nickerson.” She fixed her keen blue eyes on his face, and for a moment, Ned had to remind himself to breathe.
In order to calm himself, he took a sip of soda. “What would you like to know?”
She cocked her head to one side, studying him. “Wait, don’t tell me – let me see if I can guess.”
Thoroughly entertained, Ned leaned back on his stool and crossed his arms over his chest. “Go right ahead.”
“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips, and again Ned had an almost irresistible urge to kiss them. “Well, I’ll start with an easy one. Like me, your favorite drugstore treat is a chocolate ice cream soda.”
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Score one for you. Go on.”
“Okay. I’d venture to guess that you live nearby – within a few blocks, I’d say. You’re a student at Emerson College - a freshman, I believe – and you’re a member of a fraternity. Oh, and you’re a football player.”
Ned could feel his jaw go slack with astonishment. “You could tell all of that just by looking at me?”
Nancy grinned, clearly proud of herself. “Well, given the fact that you don’t have an automobile parked outside, it led me to believe that you must have walked here from your home. And, the pin on your sweater,” she gestured to the gold disc with the Omega Chi Epsilon symbol affixed to the front of his lightweight grey wool pullover, “was a dead giveaway.”
He had to laugh. “You’re quite the detective, Miss Drew. And just how did you determine that I play football at Emerson?”
She let loose a little giggle. “That, I must confess, was not the result of any outstanding investigative skills on my part. My father often reads the sports section of the paper, and just the other day he commented on an article about a skilled punter at Emerson – a freshman named Ned Nickerson.”
Impressed, Ned shook his head. “You have a very good memory.”
“It’s essential for good sleuthing,” she informed him before taking another sip of her soda.
“Then you must be the best sleuth in all of Iowa,” he declared, enjoying the flush that spread across her cheeks from his compliment. “So, how did you get started?”
“Well, my father’s casework sometimes requires the need for an investigator, but sometimes people come to me and ask for my assistance. For example, I met a destitute family that thought they would be the heirs to their wealthy relative’s fortune, but it initially appeared that the money was left to two dreadful girls after his passing.” Nancy shuddered. “With some luck, I was able to prove that the fortune really belonged to the lovely family I’d met – which was nice because they desperately needed the money.”
“That’s very impressive.”
She shrugged nonchalantly, though Ned could sense that she had an easy confidence about her abilities. “Not really – anyone who likes puzzles and logic could do what I do.”
“I highly doubt that. One must be very smart and brave to be a detective, I’d imagine.” Ned sensed an opening, and took it. “Do you have help on your cases, or do you solve them all on your own?”
Nancy shook her head, finishing her soda. “Heavens, no. Helen and Bess and George are invaluable assistants – they’ve been by my side for all of my cases. And it helps to have my father as a sounding board, too – his legal expertise and calm, measured thinking are often the key when I get stuck.”
Ned tried to sound casual as he asked his next question. “What about your steady fellow? Does he like to assist, too?”
“I don’t have one,” she replied quickly, blushing again.
Ned was both surprised and intrigued by this particular bit of news. “I find that very hard to believe, Miss Drew.”
Nancy tilted her head, and he couldn’t tell if she was offended or curious. “And why is that?”
He swallowed hard. “Someone as pretty as you must have tons of fellows chasing after her.”
“Thank you.” There was that sweet pink flush blooming on her cheeks again. “I do have a fair number of escorts that accompany me to moving picture shows and dances and other social events, but there’s no one serious.”
He had to ask, mimicking her words from a moment earlier. “And why is that?”
She gave a little laugh. “Because they don’t take my sleuthing seriously. They believe I should leave my cases to a real detective – or the police. Most young men would rather I devote all of my attention to them rather than spending time searching for clues or following suspects.”
“Then perhaps you’ve been spending time with the wrong fellows,” Ned blurted out before he could stop himself.
Nancy’s eyes met his and their gazes held. “Perhaps I have been,” she replied pensively.
He couldn’t let the opportunity pass. “You know, I often have chance to be in River Heights, assisting my father with his work in real estate. Plus, since I’m a native of Mapleton, I know my way around this place like the back of my hand. I’m sure you could put me to good use on your current case,” he urged. “Tell me about it.”
Still keeping her eyes on his face, she appeared to be considering his offer. Finally, she gave a little nod of her head. “Well, there’s this lovely young girl I met when I was volunteering at the Orphaned Childrens’ Home a few weeks ago. She’s got these divine chestnut-colored ringlets and just the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen-“
“I think I’ve just met someone with the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen,” Ned couldn’t resist cutting in.
“Thank you, “she murmured, appearing flustered. It took her a second to continue on with her story. “Anyway, Selah – that’s her name – was orphaned last year, when her father died of influenza; her mother had passed on the year before. Her parents didn’t have much, but they’d always spoken of an extremely valuable urn that was passed on through their family.”
“Yes, according to the story Selah’s parents told her, the urn was crafted by a very famous ceramist back in their home country of Ireland and is supposed to be made of extremely delicate porcelain with a hand-painted design in real twenty-four-karat gold. If that were the case, it would be worth,” Nancy lowered her voice, even though the soda jerk was nowhere nearby, “thousands of dollars.”
Ned whistled. “Wow, sounds like quite an urn. So, what happened to it?”
“That’s the mystery. When Selah’s father passed away, temporary custody was granted to her uncle Mickey Swanson. Because he lived in New York, she’d never met him – he only came to Iowa once he’d heard of his brother’s death.
“However, once she did meet him, she knew that he had no interest in raising a child – all he cared about was playing cards or spending time at the speakeasy in Davenport. He’d leave her alone for days at a time while he traveled back and forth, gambling and partaking of liquor. Selah even suspected that he fell in with a crowd of bootleggers and was transporting Templeton Rye back and forth between here and the city. One evening, he had some friends over and they were having some not-so-veiled conversations about their distribution methods. They also kept referring to him as ‘Shifty Swanson’.”
“An upstanding citizen,” Ned commented sardonically.
“Exactly. And when he came home intoxicated on that illegal whiskey, he’d ask Selah about the urn.”
“How would she know about it? Didn’t you say that her parents’ didn’t know where it was?”
“Not quite,” Nancy corrected him. “They told Selah about the urn as part of their family’s legend, but they never exactly stated whether or not they had it in their possession.”
Completely drawn into Nancy‘s story, Ned put one elbow on the counter and leaned towards her. “Did she ever search the house for it? Surely if they kept talking about it, they had to have it somewhere.”
Nancy beamed at him. “That’s exactly what I asked Selah, but she said that whenever she mentioned the urn to her parents, they would act as if it were a huge secret. It was almost as if they didn’t want her to know so there would be no danger of anyone else getting the secret from her.”
“And what did Selah’s uncle say when she told him she didn’t know where it was?”
Nancy sighed. “He’d become very angry and lock her in her bedroom until the following morning, the poor child. After months and months of this, he decided that he no longer wanted to care for her and turned Selah over to the Orphaned Childrens’ home.”
“That’s a shame,” Ned commented. “Could he even do that?”
“According to my father, the courts could have tried to determine whether he was a fit guardian; if so, he could’ve been made to keep her. Of course, given what I just said about his gambling and other possible illegal activities, it would be highly doubtful things would’ve turned out that way. In any event, since Selah had no desire to live with her uncle, she went gladly.”
“How did you promise to help her, Nancy?”
“I told her I’d try to possibly recover the urn. Or, at the very least, try to confirm that it actually exists. While it won’t bring her parents back, at least it could bring her a hefty sum that she could live off of once she turns eighteen.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” By now, Ned was completely curious.
“I haven’t managed to get into Selah’s former house yet, but that’s my goal. In the meantime, I learned that Shifty Swanson is still living in that house – and he’s got quite the upgraded wardrobe. Every time I’ve seen him, he’s been wearing the finest bespoke suits from London, neckties made from real Chinese silk, and spats that are so immaculately shined that you can practically see your reflection in them. Not to mention the fact that he’s driving a brand-new maroon-colored sports roadster from Europe. I think that he’s perhaps found the urn and sold it, Ned.”
“Couldn’t some of his newfound wealth have come from bootlegging?” he suggested. “After all, you said yourself that he was transporting illegal corn mash throughout the state.”
“Yes, but some of my father’s contacts with the authorities that crack down on prohibition violators advised that as a low-level runner, Shifty Swanson wouldn’t have made much money; certainly not enough for the flashy clothes he’s been sporting and the expensive automobile he’s been tooling around town in.”
“But the sale of a rare urn with real gold etchings definitely could have paid for all of that.”
Beaming, Nancy reached over and patted his forearm, and Ned felt his heart patter in time with her movement. “Now you’re catching on. And that’s why I’ve been following Shifty Swanson - to see who he could have contacted about the sale of the urn. I’ve already checked with all of the art and antiques dealers here in Mapleton, and in River Heights, too, but none of them purchased any type of vase within the last several months.
“Unfortunately, I must not have done a very good job of following Shifty, because he caught me today. He managed to slip onto a side street and out of my sight, which is when I parked by the curb of the drugstore. Apparently, Shifty found my roadster and found a way to let the air out of my tire, as a way of deterring me, I guess. But it won’t work.” She raised her chin almost defiantly, making Ned pity anyone who thought they could stop Nancy Drew when she was on the hunt.
“What will you do now?”
She was about to answer him when she raised her arm and checked the delicate gold wristwatch encircling her dainty wrist. “Oh my goodness, the time!” she gasped. “I’m sure the mechanic must be through with my car by now.”
Ned checked his own wristwatch and sighed internally, disappointed that his time with her would be coming to an end. “Then let’s get back to the garage.”
He escorted Nancy back to the garage and waited patiently while she paid the mechanic. “Looks like he did a decent job,” Ned commented as he and Nancy inspected the patched tire.
“It should do, I guess,” she replied, her lips pursed as she ran one fingertip over the patched rubber. “I think I’ll be able to make it back to River Heights on this. Then I can have the garage near my home order me a replacement tire.”
“That may take several days,” he warned her.
“I know,” Nancy sighed, wrinkling her pert little nose. “And I feel like I’m so close to solving the mystery for Selah! Oh, my poor little roadster.” She lovingly patted the gleaming blue fender of the automobile.
“Say, how about I help you?” Ned offered immediately without a second thought. “After all, I have no plans for the remainder of my break from Emerson, and I do have an automobile of my own. It’s not a stylish little roadster like this one, but it gets the job done. Like I said earlier, I know Mapleton very well and it may be good to have a fresh pair of eyes on the case.”
“Oh, I couldn’t trouble you,” she replied; Ned didn’t know if it was wishful thinking, but he thought he detected a note of reluctance in her tone.
“No trouble at all. Tell you what – why don’t I ‘phone you tomorrow morning and you can tell me what time to pick you up? I can drop you at your garage and we can come back here to Mapleton and keep following Shifty Swanson.”
“That’s an awful lot of driving for you to do and I don’t want to be an inconvenience,” she murmured, ducking her head slightly.
“You won’t be,” Ned told her firmly. “May I get your number?”
Nancy opened the door and climbed into her roadster, deftly turning the key to start the ignition. “I’m in the ‘phone book, Mr. Nickerson.” And with that, she pulled away without a backwards glance.
Ned found himself rooted to the same spot, a wide grin on his face as he watched her drive off towards River Heights.
The following morning at ten sharp, Ned pulled into the driveway of the Drew residence, a large brick colonial-style home with an impeccably manicured lawn and perfectly tended-to flower beds leading up the walkway. He had called Nancy two hours earlier, his heart pounding in his chest the entire time they were on the ‘phone. She sounded glad to hear from him, but not overly effusive – Ned liked that she didn’t gush or act phony, the way some girls did. He had offered to come to her house first, then follow her to the garage; once she dropped off her automobile, he’d drive back to Mapleton where they could start their sleuthing.
Ned got out of his green jalopy and noticed the other two cars in the driveway. One was Nancy’s roadster, of course, but the other was a large, imposing black sedan. He gulped nervously, assuming that the presence of the sedan meant that Nancy’s father was also at home. He walked slowly to the front door, pressing on the doorbell.
The door was answered by a plump, middle aged woman wearing a bluish-grey uniform with a white apron over it. He realized it was probably Mrs. Gruen, the housekeeper that Nancy had told him about while they were having sodas at the drugstore yesterday.
“Nancy! Your guest is here!” the woman called out quietly before disappearing into the kitchen.
When Nancy slowly descended the stairs, Ned felt tongue-tied. She was just as beautiful as he had remembered, and once again, he was overwhelmed by a sense of summertime whenever he looked at her. The crisp floral-print dress she was wearing brought back memories of the riotous patches of wildflowers that grew by the pond at his grandparents’ farm, and her hair gleamed like the July sunshine.
“Hello, Ned,” she greeted him shyly. For a moment, they just stood in the foyer, staring at each other. Ned could’ve stayed that way all day long – until he heard the sound of someone discreetly clearing their throat.
“Nancy, aren’t you going to introduce me to your caller?” The tall, distinguished man asked, the hint of an amused expression crossing his face. He was dressed in a three-piece suit that was clearly expensive, and his silvery brown hair had obviously been styled by a professional barber.
“Oh! Father, this is Edmund – Ned,” she corrected herself, “Ned Nickerson. He was the one who discovered my flat tire while I was parked in downtown Mapleton yesterday, and he was nice enough to help me find a mechanic. Ned, this is my father, Carson Drew.”
“It’s good to meet you, sir,” Ned responded, automatically taking Mr. Drew’s proffered hand and returning his hearty handshake.
“Nickerson, hmm?” Mr. Drew had the same way of sizing up a new acquaintance that his daughter did, but Ned felt only slightly more nervous under the senior Drew’s gaze. “Not the star punter that won the big game against Iowa State?”
Ned flushed. “Well, all of the fellows on the team helped, sir.”
“You are far too modest, Ned,” Mr. Drew proclaimed. “Everyone who pays attention to college football surely has their eye on you – remarkable, considering that you’re only a freshman. You have quite the college career ahead of you, son.”
“Thank you – I hope you’re right,” Ned laughed. “And if all goes as planned, we’ll meet up with Notre Dame at the Middle West championship later this year – so far, they’ve been the ones to beat.”
“Thanks to your terrific playing this year, Emerson is making quite a name for itself, so I can’t imagine you not making it to the championship.”
Ned gave a sidelong glance to Nancy, who had been silently listening to their conversation, the tiniest hint of a smile twisting up her pretty lips. “Father, you know I’m not a football fan,” she chided him lightly.
“Forgive me, dearest daughter,” Mr. Drew replied teasingly. “This is one of those situations where it’s nice to have another male in the house, one that can appreciate sports. It’s one of those rare topics that you and I don’t discuss.”
From their repartee, Ned could tell that Nancy and her father held great affection and respect for one another; anyone could see that they were devoted to each other and that father and daughter clearly adored each other.
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying your conversation, Father, but it’s going to make Ned and me late for my appointment at the garage,” she reminded him pointedly.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Drew conceded with a mock sigh. “You heard my daughter, Ned – no more football talk. But before you go, I would like to thank you for helping my Nancy yesterday. I didn’t like the idea of her stranded in a strange town, especially one where a potential criminal was just lurking and waiting for an opportunity to slash her tires.”
“Father,” Nancy chided him lightly, “you know I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can, sweetheart,” Mr. Drew replied, patting her on the back, “but it was nice to know that you weren’t alone. You were very fortunate that Ned came along.”
“That’s true,” Nancy replied, shooting a quick, dazzling smile at Ned, who felt his heart speed up in his chest. “Now, let me just pop into the kitchen for a moment and then we can be on our way.”
After thanking Ned once more, Mr. Drew announced that he needed to be off to work and left through the front door; a moment later, Ned could hear the sound of an automobile driving off.
Nancy emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later carrying a large wicker basket, which Ned immediately took from her hands. “Since you’ve been so kind to me, I thought that the least I could do was bring luncheon with us. Hannah makes the most scrumptious chicken and dill sandwiches on the lightest, flakiest biscuits you’ll ever eat, and there’s a delicious three-bean salad, too.
“I also coerced her to make a chocolate layer cake - her cakes are the best anywhere. Since you like chocolate sodas, I assumed you’d like chocolate cake, too?”
Ned nodded, already picturing a romantic little spot in Mapleton where he could take her for their lunchtime picnic. “It’s my favorite.”
“Good,” she declared with a quick nod of her head. “Then we can be on our way.”
Mrs. Gruen remerged from the kitchen. “You be careful today, girl. No more repeats of what happened yesterday.”
“I’m always careful, Hannah,” Nancy declared, affectionately placing her arm around the woman’s shoulders.
“Hmmph,” Hannah replied, not looking at all convinced. “Yesterday it was your tire; don’t let it be you today.”
“That won’t happen.” Nancy sounded completely confident. “After all, I’ll have Ned with me.”
The housekeeper turned her gaze towards Ned. “Then I’m leaving it to you to make sure she returns all in one piece.”
Ned gulped, feeling almost as nervous as he had during his conversation with Nancy’s father. “I’ll do my best, Mrs. Gruen.”
“Good – although I’m well aware there are no guarantees when Nancy’s around.”
Nancy placed a kiss on the housekeeper’s cheek. “We’ll be fine – I wish you wouldn’t worry so, Hannah.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t take such risks,” Mrs. Gruen fretted. “Please promise that you’ll at least be back in time for dinner.”
“I will,” Nancy vowed. “Ned, shall we be going?”
Within an hour, they had dropped off Nancy’s car at her local garage and were on their way to Mapleton in Ned’s jalopy. During the drive, he had to force himself to pay attention to the road and not stare at his pretty companion. Luckily, she was a good conversationalist, as well-versed about current events as she was about the latest picture shows and radio programs, so the time passed quickly.
When they arrived at Main Street, Ned turned to Nancy quizzically. “Where to from here?”
“Selah’s former home is on Pine Street – do you know where that is?”
Ned nodded, skillfully maneuvering his machine into a left turn. “Only a few minutes from here. What do you expect to find there?”
“Well, either Shifty Swanson’s automobile in the driveway - in which case we wait until he goes out somewhere and follow him again – or that no one’s home. And, if no one’s home, we’ll find a way to get in and do a little investigating.”
Ned turned his head again to give her a look of surprise. “You’d break into his house?”
Nancy had the grace to flush. “Sometimes it’s the best way to get information. And there’s a chance that one of the doors or windows isn’t locked – so we technically wouldn’t be breaking in. But if it bothers you, I can go in myself-“
“No, no,” he hurriedly reassured her. “I’ll go with you, Nancy. It’s too dangerous for you to be in there by yourself.”
She bristled. “Why, because I’m a girl? I’ll have you know that I’ve gone sleuthing alone before, Ned.”
“No, that’s not it at all,” he reassured her, worried that he’d just inadvertently offended her. “I just meant that it would be safer if there were two of us – that way, one of us can be the lookout, in case Swanson or someone else comes home.”
“Good point,” Nancy replied, sounding somewhat mollified.
They rode along in silence until arriving at Eleven Pine Street. The house wasn’t large or fancy, by any means, but it appeared neat and tidy, if somewhat worn. The cream-colored clapboard was slightly faded, the black paint was chipping off a few spots on the shutters, and the roof needed patching in one area.
“Looks like Swanson isn’t here,” Ned commented, shutting off his engine after Nancy urged him to park down the street, in an area slightly hidden by overgrown bushes.
“Then it’s the perfect opportunity for us to do a little investigating,” Nancy declared, her expression vibrant and her eyes sparkling. Ned could see that she was already keyed up by the idea of it.
He followed her down the sidewalk to the house and watched, amused, as she looked around before trying the front door.
“It’s locked,” she sighed. “Guess we’ll have to try one of the windows.” She crossed the front porch and tried the two large windows overlooking the street, but they wouldn’t budge, either.
She led the way to the side of the house, then the back, and let out a low cry of triumph when the knob of the back door turned easily in her hand. “Come on, Ned!” she whispered excitedly.
Ned followed her into the house’s kitchen, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the darkness after the bright sunlight outside. “I guess Swanson doesn’t believe in pulling back the curtains,” he commented.
“Even better for us, Ned – this way, no one can see us in the house!” Nancy declared.
He looked around, shaking his head slightly at the disarray that he saw in the kitchen: there were dirty pots heaped in the sink, the stove was stained and full of crumbs, and someone had left their used dishes and utensils from breakfast on the kitchen table. “Boy, I sure hope the rest of the house is neater than this.”
“I don’t,” she replied, gingerly making her way across the worn linoleum, taking care not to step in any sticky spots. “It means we don’t have to worry about putting things back exactly in their place to cover up our sleuthing.”
“You know, you’re very good at this,” Ned told her, admiringly.
Nancy made a dismissive sound, though Ned could tell she was pleased by his compliment. “I’ve just had more practice than you, that’s all. So, let’s start in the study. Perhaps Swanson has some papers that can give us a hint about what he’s been up to – and whether he sold the urn.”
They made their way through the house until they found a small library at the front of the house. It didn’t hold much: two bookcases with a few books resting on each, a desk and chair, and an overstuffed armchair. At Nancy’s request, Ned slid back the curtain a little bit so they could listen and watch for Swanson’s arrival, should he decide to return home from wherever he was.
“Why don’t you check that row of drawers, while I check this one?” Nancy proposed, crouching down in front of the battered walnut desk. “Look through everything, even if it seems unimportant or unrelated to the case.”
Ned settled down in front of the desk and opened the first drawer, carefully rifling through the papers to see if anything stood out at him.
“Nothing on this side,” he reported after going through all of the drawers. “All I see are papers that Selah’s parents must’ve used for the running of the household: bills and things like that. And there’s no mention of anything that could be related to an urn.” He stood up, glad for the opportunity to stretch.
“Nothing here, either,” Nancy sighed, a discouraged look on her face. She moved to rise to her feet and Ned held out a hand to help her up.
“There’s plenty more for us to search,” he tried to reassure her. “This is only the first room we tried, Nancy.”
“You’re right,” she sighed again. “I’d just hate to let Selah down.”
“You won’t,” Ned reassured her. “I know you’ll figure this out.”
Nancy perked up, appearing to be reenergized. “Thanks for the vote of encouragement, Ned. Come on, let’s try the bookcases. Maybe something’s hidden in one of the volumes.” She was about to cross the room when something stopped her.
“What is it?”
She pointed down at the wastepaper basket, which was half-full of crumpled papers. “I think I see a clue!” she announced excitedly. Bending down, she fished out a torn piece of paper. “This looks like it could be a legal document!” she gasped.
Ned moved to her side, taking in the lovely floral scent of her perfume. Wildflowers, he thought to himself. He forced himself to focus on what she was looking at. “What does it say?”
“I’m not sure,” Nancy replied absently, turning the paper around and around in her hands. “But I can make out parts of words: ‘Jonat’, ‘Ren’, ‘Esq’, ‘Moir’, ‘Danie’ ,‘Jun’ ,‘193-‘, ‘Last Tes’, ‘beque’, ‘all of our’ …”
“Okay, so how do we decipher it?”
“Ned, I think it’s a part of Selah’s parents’ will!” Nancy exclaimed after studying it another moment. “I remember Selah telling me that her parents were named Moira and Daniel – this looks like it could be their last will and testament, and I think it mentions the items that were bequeathed to someone!”
“To Selah, do you suppose?”
“Possibly!” Exhilarated, she reviewed the piece of paper once more. “’Esq’ must stand for ‘Esquire’ , which would be the lawyer they used to validate the document! I’ll bet that my father can help me find him.”
“If Shifty Swanson tore up the document, then aren’t we out of luck?”
“Not necessarily. It’s very likely that the lawyer has a copy of this document in his records, and it was also probably filed with the courts. It was probably created in the month of June a few years ago, right before Selah’s mother died, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.”
“Then this is an important clue,” Ned stated, caught up in the excitement of the mystery.
“It is.” They smiled at each other for a moment before Nancy turned her gaze back to the wastepaper basket. “Maybe there’s something else in there, too. Let’s check.”
She dumped the bin over and Ned and Nancy settled onto the floor once more to go through every single piece of paper, but they weren’t as lucky a second time.
“Just regular trash,” she declared a few minutes later, sounding disappointed. “Once we’re done searching the books, I still want to check Shifty’s bedroom – maybe there’s another clue in there.”
Another fifteen minutes went by, during which they checked each of the books on the shelf – and during which Ned made sure to keep his ears cocked for any noise outside signaling the return of Shifty.
“Ready to check the bedrooms?” When Ned nodded, they got up and moved to the back of the house once more, searching for the bedroom that Shifty would likely be using.
Nancy opened one door and found a tiny room painted in a soft pink, its twin-sized bed covered in a simple white eyelet spread. “This must have been Selah’s,” she commented sadly, sitting down on the mattress.
“It’s a shame that this creep chased her out of her own home,” Ned replied, wandering the room and picking up a glass picture frame. “Is this her?”
Nancy got up to look at the picture Ned was holding up. “Yes – it must have been taken years ago. She looks like a small child here; now, she’s about twelve or so. And those are likely her parents.”
“She looks like her mother.”
Nancy smiled. “That she does. “
“Do you look like your mother?” Ned couldn’t resist asking.
“Yes,” she replied quietly. “It’s quite remarkable - same hair, same eye color, and she was also on the tall side, like I am.”
“She must have been very beautiful,” he told her sincerely.
“That’s very sweet of you to say.” There it was again - that cute little flush spreading across her cheeks. “But let’s get back to work.”
Nancy was all business again as she opened all of the drawers and the closet door in Selah’s room, disappointed but not surprised when she found them all to be empty. Ned even searched under the bed, but came up with nothing but a few dust bunnies.
“What’s next, Detective Drew?”
She led him across the hall to a larger bedroom, which must have been Selah’s parents’ when they were still alive; now, it looked like Shifty Swanson had taken it over. His expensive clothing was strewn about the floor and the bed, which he hadn’t even bothered to make that morning. The wardrobe door was open, showing a heap of more clothes piled inside instead of being hung neatly on the racks. Each drawer in the bureau was open and there were socks and undergarments spilling out of them.
Ned whistled. “This guy needs a housekeeper like nobody’s business,”
Nancy laughed, though the sound was devoid of humor. “I see he made himself right at home,” she commented bitterly. “It also appears that he’s spared no expense when it comes to his clothing budget.”
“I’d hate to think that he’s purchased all of these things using money that could belong to Selah.”
She grimaced. “So would I, Ned. That’s why we have to find out about that urn!”
Now, more determined than ever, Nancy began going through one of the nightstands. Taking a cue from her, Ned went to check the nightstand on the other side of the mattress.
“Nancy, I think I have something,” Ned called out quietly a few minutes later.
She rushed over to his side, examining the piece of paper he was holding up. “Is this what I think it is?”
“Looks to me like a bill of sale from an establishment called Miller’s Fine Merchandise, one dated from a few months ago,” Ned stated. “Judging by the address, I’d say that Miller’s isn’t in the best neighborhood.”
“And judging from the price listed on the invoice, I’d guess that it’s the receipt for the sale of the urn! Oh, Ned, this is just what we needed!”
Her excitement was contagious, and Ned loved that he was the one to bring Nancy such happiness. “Maybe the salesperson at Miller’s can tell us what they did with the urn-”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they heard a key fit into the lock of the front door, and the door creak open.
Nancy and Ned turned to look at each other, matching expressions of panic on their faces.
“What do we do?” Ned whispered frantically.
Nancy didn’t speak; instead she pointed to the narrow window on the side of the bedroom, indicating that they could use it to climb out and escape. However, that plan was dashed when they heard footsteps heading in their very direction.
“The wardrobe!” Nancy murmured, taking Ned’s hand and all but dragging him inside as they made quick work of pushing aside the clothing heaped at their feet. She had just closed the door behind them when they heard someone enter the bedroom.
Ned intentionally kept hold of Nancy’s hand as they held their breath and prayed they wouldn’t be caught. Under any other circumstance, he’d be thrilled to be confined to a dark space with her, their bodies so close he could smell that lovely wildflower perfume again; this situation, though, was more nerve-racking than he would’ve liked.
They heard someone’s shoes squeak on the hardwood floors and the sound of drawers opening and closing; the bedsprings creaked as someone sat on the mattress.
“Oh, I hope he isn’t planning on going to sleep,” Nancy whispered directly into Ned’s ear, and the feel of her warm breath in his ear made Ned quiver, despite the dangerousness of their predicament. He could feel her pulse pounding as his hand encircled her slender wrist.
“Maybe he’s just resting for a moment,” Ned whispered back.
After what seemed like hours but was likely minutes, they heard the person get up from the bed and heard their footsteps recede, signaling that they had left the room.
“Should we get out of here?”
“Let’s wait another minute, just in case he comes back,” she suggested.
When there was silence for a while longer, Nancy tentatively pushed open the wardrobe door, peeking her head out. “I don’t see or hear anything.”
Just as Ned helped her climb out of the wardrobe, they heard the front door slam. “Oh, what a relief,” she sighed, slumping against the furniture.
“I thought for sure we were going to be caught,” Ned agreed.
“Well, I don’t know about you, Ned, but I think I’ve had enough sleuthing for right now,” she announced.
“I feel the exact same way. Let’s get out of here before whoever that was comes back.” He looked over and noticed that one of Nancy’s golden curls was sticking out from the back of her head. After a second’s deliberation, he reached out and smoothed it down. It felt like silk against his palm.
She looked startled but didn’t push his hand away. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Shall we go?”
He wanted to keep stroking her hair, but Ned decided not to push his luck. “After you, Miss Drew.”
They left through the back door and hurried to where Ned had parked his jalopy. After a quick inspection of the automobile to ensure that no one had tried to damage his tires the same way they had done to Nancy’s, they hopped in and he drove away.
“Are you ready for luncheon?” she asked as they made their way down the street.
“I’m always ready for luncheon,” he grinned, patting his stomach. “Sleuthing is hungry work.”
Ned drove on for a few minutes until he reached a park. “I thought we could spread out our picnic on one of the areas overlooking the river,” he proposed.
“That sounds nice,” she smiled. “After all, it’s a lovely day.”
It was true: the sun was shining brightly, glimmering off of the serene waters of the river, and the leaves were just starting to change color into brilliant shades of orange and yellow. It was slightly cool, but not really chilly. Ned insisted on carrying the picnic basket until Nancy had picked what she called the perfect spot.
She spread out the blanket and took the food out of the hamper. After insisting that Nancy serve herself first, Ned eagerly took a bite of his sandwich. “Absolutely delicious,” he informed her after he had finished chewing.
“Told you,” she grinned, sampling her own sandwich. “Hannah’s the best cook in the entire state, if not the country. We’re lucky to have her.”
“I thought my mom was terrific in the kitchen, but she’s got competition. You were right about these biscuits, too – I think they’re melting in my mouth,” he groaned.
“That’s because of all of the butter she uses. It’s an extravagance, but it’s worth it.”
Nancy took out two glass bottles of cola from the basket and handed them to Ned. He deftly twisted off the caps and passed one back to her. “Mmm, still cold,” she sighed after taking a sip from her bottle.
“I was originally planning on taking you to a luncheonette when we made plans today, but this is far nicer,” Ned commented, digging into his bean salad.
“The food is better, I’d suspect,” she grinned, popping the last bite of her biscuit into her mouth.
“And so are the surroundings,” he replied, looking around. “But no matter where we ate, the company still would have been perfect. And beautiful.”
She blushed lightly. “That’s very nice of you to say. Especially since I almost got you caught at snooping this morning.”
He laughed heartily, not really surprised that she had changed the subject. “We didn’t get caught, but I must say that was the first time I’ve ever nearly been apprehended by a potential bad guy during a date.”
She paused, the cola bottle halfway to her lips. “Date?”
Ned felt slightly uncomfortable, but pressed on. “Why, yes. I thought this was a date. Do you feel differently?”
Nancy put the bottle down onto the blanket without drinking from it. “No,” she replied slowly, not looking at him. “It’s just that, most of the time, my escorts wouldn’t think that a morning of sleuthing would count as a date.”
“We already went over this before,” he teased. “Those fellows were all wrong for you. I definitely consider my time with you today to be a date, Miss Drew. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
She finally tilted her head up to meet his gaze. “I am too,” she admitted with a small smile. Relief coursed through Ned’s veins.
“I’m glad. So, tell me what we’re going to do next. Did you want to see if we can locate Miller’s Fine Merchandise? It shouldn’t be too far from here.”
Her smile widened, and it was like Ned was hit by a bolt of lightning. “Yes, let’s go there as soon as we finish our luncheon!”
After they ate all of the sandwiches – Ned polishing off a total of four to Nancy’s two – they dug into the chocolate cake, which Ned pronounced unbelievably delicious. He helped her to throw away their trash in a nearby receptacle and pack up the dishes and bowls in the basket, and soon they were on their way to search for Miller’s Fine Merchandise. Based on the address on the bill of sale they’d found, Ned followed the river to the area near the docks.
At one point, Nancy turned around in her seat, watching the road behind them.
“What is it, Nancy?
“I’m probably just imagining things, but I could swear that we’re being followed, Ned!”
Ned was about to turn his head, but she placed a hand on his forearm. “No, don’t look! It could be my imagination, but I’m not sure.”
His pulse started racing in anticipation as he tried to discreetly check his rearview mirror. “What should I do?”
“Turn down this street on the right,” she suggested. “See if that yellow sedan follows us or keeps going.”
Ned followed her command and made a right, noticing that the yellow automobile also made the turn. “He’s right with us. Do you think it’s a coincidence?”
“It’s possible,” Nancy mused. “But not likely. Make a left turn this time and see what he does?”
Turning onto the avenue that ran alongside the river, Ned caught sight of the yellow sedan in his mirror. “Now what?”
“Do you know this area well enough to try and lose him?” He nodded. “Then, let’s give it a shot.”
Ned proceeded to zigzag up and down the streets in the area, frustrated when he couldn’t seem to shake his tail. Finally, when he’d just about given up hope and he and Nancy had talked about starting back for River Heights, the yellow automobile disappeared out of sight. He drove a few more blocks but there was no sign of the other car.
“Good work, Ned!” Nancy praised. “Nice driving!”
“I was just following orders, Detective Drew,” he grinned. “Now, do you think it’s safe to go to Miller’s?
“Let’s give it a shot,” she declared.
Finally, he pulled up in front of a seedy-looking storefront that was surrounded by a boarded up grocery store, a tailor’s shop, and a hair salon that appeared to be closed.
“Wow, wonder how Shifty Swanson found this place,” Ned commented as he got out of the automobile, still holding the bill of sale with the store’s address.
“It does make one curious,” Nancy admitted, thanking him for opening her door.
Just as they were about to make their way onto the sidewalk, a shady-looking, immaculately dressed fellow ran up to them, snatching the bill from Ned’s hand and running off in the other direction.
“Ned!” Nancy gasped. “That’s Shifty Swanson, and he’s getting away with our proof of the urn’s sale! We can’t let him get away!”
Together, they took off at a run, Ned quickly overtaking Nancy. He tore after the man, but just as he was about to catch up to him, Swanson climbed over a chain link fence. Grunting, Ned managed to get over the wall, ripping the knee of his pants in the process, but Swanson was quicker.
“Sorry, Nancy,” Ned panted as Nancy hurried over to his side. “I couldn’t get him.”
“You’re hurt!” she blurted out, pointing to his knee.
“It’s fine,” he replied, waving his hand dismissively. “But I let Swanson get away.”
“You tried your best,” Nancy told him sincerely. “Please don’t worry about it.”
“Now he has our proof,” Ned lamented.
“Well, we may not need it,” she consoled him. “Perhaps someone at Miller’s will confirm the sale without it. Do you feel well enough to go into the store?”
“I’ve been hurt worse during a football game. Really,” he added when Nancy gave him a skeptical glance.
After he once more reassured her that he was okay, they walked back to Miller’s Fine Merchandise.
A tired-sounding bell jangled as Ned held open the store’s front door for Nancy. The store’s interior was dimly lit and the cheap-looking knickknacks on the shelves needed a good dusting.
Nancy craned her head around but wasn’t able to find a salesperson. “Hello? Is anyone here?” she called out.
Finally, a heavyset man of middle age emerged from the back room, a few wispy grey strands combed over his bald pate to give the appearance that he had more hair. His shirt’s buttons looked as if they were about to burst over his round stomach.
“What do you want, girlie?” the man demanded rudely.
Ned didn’t like the man’s disrespectful attitude. “We’ve come here to ask some questions. Are you Mr. Miller?”
“Who wants to know? Are you coppers?” he snarled.
“No,” Nancy replied, and it sounded to Ned like she was forcing herself to remain polite. “We’re here investigating a private matter for a friend, and we have some questions.”
“I’m Ralph Miller, but I don’t think I’ll have your answers,” the salesman replied matter-of-factly.
“Well, may we please try?” When the man didn’t answer, Nancy continued. “Do you know a Mickey Swanson, by any chance?”
Miller paled. “No idea who that is.”
Even Ned could tell he was lying. “Did Mickey Swanson come in here and try to sell you something?”
“You two need to get out of my store,” Miller ordered.
“Please, we need your help,” Nancy pleaded. “Did you buy something from Mickey Swanson?”
Ralph Miller leaned over the counter menacingly and Ned automatically moved closer to Nancy’s side as if to shield her. “Are you deaf, girlie? I told you to get out! Trespassing’s illegal!”
Nancy straightened her spine, signaling to Ned that she was getting angry. “So’s dealing in stolen possessions,” she announced coldly. “In fact, I think my father – who’s a lawyer, by the way – would definitely agree with me. Perhaps I should bring him here.”
Her words caused Miller’s entire expression to change: instead of appearing belligerent, he now looked stricken. “S-s-s-tolen? Miss, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do,” she countered. “So I’d like you to answer my questions. Did you buy something from Mickey Swanson?”
Miller sagged against the countertop. “Yes,” he mumbled.
“Was it an urn, by any chance?” Nancy pressed on, her voice still firm. By this point, Ned was completely impressed and more than a little in love with her.
“Yes,” Miller repeated.
Ned wanted to feel like he was helping, so he decided to jump into the conversation. “You paid him an awful lot for that urn. Did you have a buyer lined up?”
“It was a priceless treasure. The gold on that thing was worth a fortune, never mind the quality of the porcelain. It wasn’t hard at all to find someone willing to buy it.”
“And when you did, did Swanson provide you with anything proving the urn’s provenance?” When Miller gave her a blank look, she explained. “Did he show you something proving that he was the rightful owner?
Ralph Miller started to chuckle, until Nancy shot him with another steely look. “Look, miss, that’s not the way things work around here. Someone wants to sell me something that others are willing to buy, and that’s the end of it.”
“Well, that’s not the end of it this time around,” she informed him. “That urn belongs to a little girl, and it was stolen from her. I want you to return it to her.”
“Miss, I can’t do that,” Miller told her, sounding desperate. “I already paid Swanson for it.”
“Has your prospective buyer paid you?” Ned asked.
Miller hesitated. “Not yet, but-”
“Then why don’t you tell him the sale’s off?” Nancy suggested patiently. “That way, you can do a good deed and return the urn to its rightful owner.”
“Then I’d be out a lot of money!” he squawked. “Besides that, the buyer is not the kind of person you want to double cross, miss, no siree.”
“There has to be a way,” she declared patiently. “What if we brought the police-”
“No police!” Miller shouted.
“Wait, I’m not finished. What if we brought the police and they worked with you to capture the buyer? I’m sure they’d be willing to go easy on you if you cooperate.”
“I don’t know,” Miller hedged. “I don’t wanna go back to jail.”
“Of course not,” Nancy soothed. “But since my father’s a defense attorney, I’m sure that he would be able to work something out for you with the police. Helping a poor little orphaned girl would go a long way, I’m sure of it.”
Miller stared at her for a full minute. “Okay,” he finally consented with a sigh.
“Thank you. You’re doing the right thing.” He didn’t look convinced by Nancy’s words, but shrugged in defeat.
When they walked out of the store, Ned gave Nancy an admiring glance. “You’re really something.”
She turned her big blue eyes in his direction. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re a bundle of contradictions, Miss Drew. You’re so pretty and well-mannered, but you can be tough as nails when it comes to confronting crooks.”
“Helping poor, defenseless people and trying to make things right is important to me.”
Ned caught the edge of defensiveness in her voice. “I know, and that’s what I like about you, Nancy. A girl like you could live a comfortable, easy life, spending all of her time going to country club dances and playing tennis and riding horses with the social set. But you want to do more. I think it’s nice,” he told her almost shyly.
“As I said, it’s important to me.” Her voice was softer this time around. “From a very early age, Father made me aware that I have privileges other people don’t have. He always made it clear that I could either take those advantages for granted – wasting them, really - or use them to try and help the disadvantaged. He instilled a sense of justice and fairness in me, and I would never want to let him down. My father’s worked hard to build his good name and reputation, and I want to carry that on.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that, Nancy. From what I witnessed this morning, he’s very proud of you. With good reason.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, Ned,” she replied simply. “And you’ve been a very big help today – I really appreciate it.”
“It’s been my pleasure – really,” he told her, meaning it with all of his heart.
The next afternoon, Ned picked up the ‘phone at his parents’ house and dialed Nancy’s number. Part of him wanted to know what she’d found out from her father about the piece of the missing will, but mostly he just wanted an excuse to hear her sweet voice again.
“Hello, Ned!” she greeted him enthusiastically. “Calling me to take me up on the offer of having Hannah mend your torn pants?”
He laughed at the teasing note in her voice. “Sure, if it means that I’ll get to see your pretty face again.”
“That could probably be arranged, with or without Hannah’s assistance.”
Encouraged by her reply, Ned continued. “So, what did your father say about the document we found at Shifty Swanson’s place yesterday?”
“Oh, it turned out to be a fabulous clue!” Nancy bubbled. “My father recognized the lawyer’s name immediately – it was Jonathan Renk, an estate lawyer from Des Moines. He called Mr. Renk, who confirmed that he had definitely helped Daniel and Moira Swanson draft their will two years ago, shortly before Moira died. And here’s the best part!”
“What’s that?” he asked, his curiosity growing.
“He has a copy of that signed will, so it doesn’t even matter if Mickey Swanson tore it up. What’s more, the will clearly states that Selah is the only heir to all of Daniel and Moira’s possessions if they should predecease her! She gets it all, Ned! The house and all of its contents, and the eighteenth-century Irish urn passed down through Daniel’s family!”
Ned was stunned. “Wow. That’s incredible news, Nancy!”
“Wait, there’s more! After making a few calls of his own, Mr. Renk confirmed that the Mickey Swanson isn’t really Selah’s uncle!”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What?”
“That’s right! Daniel Swanson did have a brother named Mickey, but according to an overseas call that Jonathan Renk made this morning, the real Mickey Swanson died in a fire about a year ago in Dublin. The police are still trying to figure out who’s impersonating Selah’s uncle.”
“So what happens now?”
“A few things. First of all, since Selah’s underage, the house can be sold, with all of the proceeds going into a trust for her until she reaches age eighteen. Or, she can live in the house with a legal guardian until she’s eighteen. Of course, since Shifty Swanson isn’t really her uncle, the police are going to evict and arrest him. Unfortunately, we don’t know of any real living relatives yet.” Nancy sighed.
“They shouldn’t be too difficult to find, especially since you’re such a fine detective,” Ned praised her.
“More flattery?” she teased, although he could hear the smile in her voice.
“Well-deserved flattery. And the urn?”
“My father made some calls and the police have agreed not to press charges against Ralph Miller, since he’s completely willing to cooperate with them. Apparently, the buyer has quite the reputation for buying ill-gotten gains - such as emeralds and ivory- that have been smuggled into the country illegally. Since he’s the one they really want to catch, the police have asked Mr. Miller to call the potential buyer to arrange a meeting tonight; that’s when they’ll arrest him. “
“And Miller will return the urn to Selah?”
“He’s going to give it to my father so we can return it to her. We’d like to make a special dinner here in her honor tomorrow night so we can give her the news. Jonathan Renk and his wife will be here: apparently, Mr. Renk met Selah when her parents went to his office to draw up the will, and he was quite charmed by her.”
“That sounds very nice. I hope you have a good time.”
She giggled. “You know that you’re invited, too?”
“Of course,” Nancy declared. “After all, you helped me to solve the case. Unless you have other plans?” Suddenly, she sounded hesitant.
“No, I’m completely free. I’d be glad to come, Nancy.”
“Oh, and I passed on your compliments about her food to Hannah, and she wanted me to let you know that she’s making a pork roast with carrots and potatoes and a coconut lemon cake for tomorrow evening.”
Ned laughed. “So, a delicious meal and the opportunity to spend more time with you? I’m convinced.”
When Ned arrived at Nancy’s home at seven the following evening, there were already a few people there that he didn’t recognize. Nancy looked as lovely as usual in a pink satin frock with a full skirt, the nipped-in waist showing off her lovely figure, a strand of milky pearls circling her slender throat, and matching pink high-heeled slippers on her dainty feet. He was glad he’d chosen to wear his best navy flannel suit and a dark blue silk tie rather than a sweater and slacks.
“Ned, nice to see you again,” Mr. Drew greeted him.
“Thank you for inviting me to this dinner,” Ned told him.
“Actually, Nancy would have been very disappointed if you weren’t here,” Mr. Drew told him with a wink.
Cheered by this news, Ned allowed Nancy to lead him around the living room as she introduced him to the rest of the guests. Selah Swanson was a pretty little girl with those brown curls and wide blue eyes that Nancy had mentioned; her height made her seem younger than her twelve years. Like Nancy, she was wearing a pink dress, but the color was darker and the style more youthful. Jonathan Renk and his wife Martha were an attractively dressed couple in their mid-forties: Mr. Renk, his hair greying at the temples, wore a well-tailored charcoal suit, and his wife was clad in a dark green satin dress that set off her red hair and a strand of pearls.
Once everyone was seated in the Drews’ den and got acquainted, Carson Drew cleared his throat. “I think it’s about time we provide everyone with an update about what we’ve found out since yesterday; Nancy, wouldn’t you agree?”
Nancy rose from her seat next to Ned on the couch and smiled at the group, her blue eyes dancing. “I don’t know about all of you, but the excitement is practically killing me!” Everyone laughed. “I’m not quite sure where to start.”
“I’ll start,” her father told her, also getting up from his armchair by the fireplace, where a crackling fire blazed. It was a slightly chilly evening, signaling that fall had most definitely arrived. “First things first. Thanks to the help of Ralph Miller, the police were able to apprehend the potential buyer of the urn, who also had a warehouse full of other stolen items here in River Heights.
“And as for Mickey Swanson – or the fake Mickey Swanson,” Mr. Drew corrected himself, “the Mapleton police also picked him up yesterday – he was trying to board a train to Chicago at the time - and he confessed about everything. He admitted that he wasn’t really related to Selah – he heard her parents talking on the train back to Des Moines after their meeting with Jon Renk to establish their will. When he heard about the urn, he decided to stick around to try and find it.
“For a while, he was going back and forth between here and Davenport, all the while searching for the urn. However, when Daniel Swanson passed away, he realized that he’d been given a new opportunity. That’s when he posed as Daniel’s long-lost brother – by claiming to be Selah’s uncle, he realized it would allow him the opportunity to search the house for the urn. Luckily for him, his name is really Michael Swanson, so it wasn’t difficult for him to turn that into Mickey.”
“He waited a long time,” Jon Renk commented. “That’s quite some perseverance.”
“Father, you never told me where Shifty Swanson found the urn,” Nancy reminded him.
“I didn’t?” Mr. Drew replied in surprise. When Nancy shook her head, he laughed. “It was so simple, really. Daniel and Moira had put it in a box that they stored in the kitchen pantry, right next to the flour and sugar canisters. To anyone else, it would have seemed like a regular cooking staple.”
“Mother and Dad sure were clever,” Selah interjected, and everyone laughed. “They used to joke about Mother’s special ingredient in the pantry, but I never guessed.”
“They were very clever,” Nancy confirmed, bringing a smile to the little girl’s face.
“Mickey Swanson only found it by accident,” Mr. Drew continued his story. “And thanks to some good detective work by my daughter and her new friend, we now know that the urn was sold to Ralph Miller, which is where Shifty Swanson got the money for his new car and his fancy clothing.”
“Some brilliant detective work,” Jon Renk added, and Ned enjoyed watching Nancy’s cheeks turn as pink as her dress.
“Ned was a very big help,” she told everyone in the room.
“How did Shifty Swanson know we were going to Miller’s Fine Merchandise?” Ned asked.
“And, did he admit to puncturing my tire?” Nancy wanted to know.
Carson Drew laughed. “Nancy’s question first, since that incident happened first. Shifty Swanson knew that she had been tailing him for a while, which made him nervous. When he saw her following him in Mapleton the other day, he decided to put a hole in her tire to throw her off the case. However, he didn’t count on two things: the fact that my daughter isn’t easily deterred, and the presence of Ned Nickerson.”
Ned grinned. “And that’s where my question comes in.”
“Shifty saw the two of you leaving his house the other day, which made him even more nervous. Since he knew that Nancy recognized his maroon roadster, he quickly borrowed a friend’s car and followed you to Miller’s Fine Merchandise. That’s when he knew that you had figured things out. When he saw the bill of sale in Ned’s hand, he thought that stealing it would destroy any possible proof you would’ve had to pin the theft on him, figuring that Ralph Miller would never talk about his part in the scheme.”
“Thank goodness he was wrong,” Nancy added.
“So now Shifty Swanson is lounging in the county jail with a host of charges against him, and he won’t be getting out anytime soon,” Mr. Drew concluded.
“May I… May I see the urn?” Selah asked timidly.
Nancy smiled at the girl. “Of course you may, honey – after all, it’s yours. I’ll be right back.” She left the room and returned a few minutes later, the large urn in her hands.
“It’s beautiful,” Selah breathed as Nancy carefully set it down on the floor next to her. “Just beautiful.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Nancy agreed. “This is a very special family heirloom, Selah. You must treasure it always and hand it down to your own children.”
The little girl’s eyes filled with tears. “I wish my parents were here. I’d rather have them than an urn, no matter how pretty it is.”
Nancy and Ned exchanged a look, and Ned could see the pity etched on Nancy’s face.
Martha Renk spoke for the first time “I’m very glad that the criminals have all been caught and the urn has been returned to Selah, but what about her family? Has anyone found a relative to care for her, no matter how distant? I hate the idea of such a sweet girl living in a home for orphans.” Selah smiled at her.
Jon shook his head. “That’s the only bad news we have. Carson and I have spent the last two days making various overseas calls to Ireland and getting in touch with our contacts, but no one can find any of Selah’s living relatives. We don’t believe there are any.”
“The home isn’t so bad,” Selah piped up in a watery voice. “They’re pretty nice to me and I live in a room with a bunch of girls my age.”
“Well, Martha and I have been talking about things,” Jon told her. “I know you only met me once two years ago, but at the time, I thought you were a very special young lady. Now that I’ve met you again, I’m even more certain of it. What do you say to living with Martha and I – for a trial period, at least?”
Selah’s eyes widened in an expression of shock and disbelief. “What?”
“We weren’t blessed with any children of our own,” Martha added, “and Jon has been talking about you nonstop since he saw you with your parents two years ago. When Carson called out of the blue about your situation, we thought it was a sign.”
“Now, we know you’ve been through a lot and that we’re strangers to you, Selah, but we’d at least like you to consider it. Martha and I would put your house and the urn into a special trust for you until you become an adult – they would be yours to do with as you wish.”
“Unlike that dreadful Shifty Swanson,” Martha shuddered, “we would only want to give you things, not take them away from you.”
“Well, Selah, what do you say?” Mr. Drew asked. “Would you like to go live with the Renks?”
Selah nodded eagerly, her brown curls bouncing around her shoulders. “I would love it,” she replied shyly.
Martha Renk got up from the loveseat and put her arms around the little girl. “We are so glad.”
Just then, Hannah Gruen emerged from the kitchen. “I hate to interrupt, but dinner is ready. I hope everyone’s hungry, because I made a lot!”
“Perfect timing, Hannah,” Mr. Drew declared. “Your meal is a perfect way to celebrate such good news.”
Once dinner was over, the group enjoyed Hannah’s magnificent coconut lemon cake with coffee for the grown-ups and milk for Selah. They kept talking for a while longer, making arrangements for the Renks to pick up Selah and her things from the orphanage the following day.
Eventually, the Renks left, eagerly offering to drive Selah back to the home as an excuse to spend a little more time with her. Ned reluctantly looked at his wristwatch, hating the fact that it was also time for him to go.
Nancy accompanied him outside, where they stood on her porch in the cool night air. The sky was filled with stars and the moon was large and full.
“Well, it looks like this is the end of our case.”
He noticed the wistful tone in her voice. “It does,” he confirmed. “But I hope… I hope this isn’t the end of our friendship.”
Nancy’s gaze met his and he held his breath as he waited for her reply. “I hope so, too,” she answered, her voice so soft that he could barely hear her.
“If I give you my address, will you write to me when I return to school?” She nodded quickly. “And would you consider going to the Omega Chi Fall Formal with me at the end of the month?”
“I would like that very much,” Nancy told him quietly.
He couldn’t stop the ear-to-ear grin spreading across his face. “I’m already looking forward to it.”
“I am, too,” she admitted with a little smile.
Everything inside him was urging Ned to kiss her lips and find out once and for all if they tasted like cherries. However, he knew that it was probably too soon and that a good girl like Nancy would be dismayed by the idea of making a spectacle out in public, where one of her passing neighbors could see them.
Instead, he took one of her hands, then leaned forward and placed the briefest press of his lips against her cheek, which was as soft and smooth as cashmere against his mouth. “Good night, Nancy.”
She flushed, and Ned could feel her hand tremble in his. “Good night, Ned,” she whispered.
Ned all but floated down her walkway to his jalopy, already imagining what it would feel like to hold Nancy in his arms at the dance – and already anticipating working on another mystery with her.