“How did he do that?” George Fayne asked. She leaned forward on the edge of the sofa and stared at the television set. “Nancy Drew, put that book down and look at this.”
They were sitting on the sofa in Nancy’s living room. Nancy looked at the screen.
A magician was waving his arms over a woman, who was lying on a table. The sequins on her costume sparkled like thousands of tiny gold coins. The magician lifted his hand, and the woman’s body rose slowly, then floated a few feet over the table. The magician drew a hoop up and down her body. No invisible wires were holding her up.
“Can you believe that?” George asked Nancy. “It looks so real.” She brushed her short, dark curls away from her eyes.
Nancy shook her head. “I’ve heard that magicians can levitate people, but it has to be a trick — it looks impossible,” she said. Her blue eyes flashed, and she grinned. “Bet I can make that magician disappear — just like that.”
She picked up the remote control and pointed it at the television set. She clicked, and the screen went dark. “See? Like magic,” she said, laughing.
George groaned and threw a pillow at her. “Please, Nancy — find a new mystery to solve,” she said. “Don’t torture your friends with bad magic tricks.”
Nancy picked up the pillow and aimed it at George. The phone on the table beside her rang. She dropped the pillow and picked up the receiver. “Ouch!” she cried out, and held it away from her ear. Voices were screaming at her. Then a calm voice broke into the noise. “Boys, please get off the phone — it’s my turn to talk now.”
Nancy brushed her reddish blond hair behind her ear. “Bess? Is that you?” she asked. Bess Marvin was George’s cousin, and Nancy felt as if she’d been friends with both of them forever.
“Nancy? I’m so glad you’re home,” Bess said. Nancy heard shouts and loud laughter in the background. It was hard to understand what Bess was saying.
Nancy heard a loud click in her ear. “Wait! Bess?” She looked over at George, who looked back at Nancy with raised eyebrows.
“What’s going on?” George asked.
“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “Bess said some thing about baby-sitting. We’re supposed to meet her at Twenty-four Sycamore Lane. I think our sunny spring morning is about to get more lively.”
Sycamore Lane in River Heights was guarded by rows of ancient sycamore trees, their branches dotted with buds. Nancy pulled her blue Mustang in front of a two-story house with the name Puentes painted on the mailbox.
They got out of the car and walked up the front steps onto the porch. The door flew open, jerking the knob out of Nancy’s hand. Bess stood in the doorway, holding a wailing little dark-haired girl. Bess’s metallic blue sweater and leggings were speckled with oatmeal, but she was smiling as she greeted Nancy. Then she laughed at George. “Come on in, George. The kids won’t bite. I promise.”
Nancy and George stepped into the living room, then ducked as a soccer ball flew past their heads. Nancy straightened up slowly, looking around for other flying missiles.
“Over here, boys,” Bess said firmly, crooking her finger at the four boys galloping around the Puentes living room. They ran up to Bess.
“We don’t throw things in the house,” she told them. “Now, I’d like you to meet Nancy and George.” Bess patted the heads of two small blond boys. “These brothers are Michael and Mitchell, and their friends are Kyle and Brian.” The boys shouted a greeting, then dashed off to play.
Bess sat down in a rocking chair and picked up the little girl, whose wail had become a sniffle. “And this is Sara,” Bess said. “Blow.” She wiped Sara’s nose. “Sara’s a little upset because the boys want to build a fort with sheets and they won’t let her help. They think she’s too little.” Sara’s lower lip quivered, and she hid her face in Bess’s long blond hair.
Nancy leaned forward and smiled. “Oh, poor Sara. Maybe we can change their minds.”
Sara looked hopeful, then flung her arms out to Nancy. Nancy gathered her up in a hug, but when she tried to put Sara back on Bess’s lap, the little girl’s hand stuck to Nancy’s hair.
Bess chuckled as she gently separated Sara’s hand from Nancy’s hair. “I hate to tell you this, Nancy, but…”
“Oh, no,” Nancy said. She pulled a sticky strand of hair away from her cheek, wishing she had seen the lollipop in Sara’s hand.
A boy jumped out from behind the sofa, shouting, “Carlos to the rescue!” He had curly dark hair and brown eyes flashing with mischief. He caught sight of George and flung himself at her knees, ramming his head into her stomach.
“Ooof! Easy, Carlos,” Bess said. “Uh, Nancy, this is Carlos Puentes.”
George smiled weakly down at him. “He’s on the Pee Wee soccer team I coach.”
“He’s also Juanita’s little brother,” Bess said. “Carlos is home on spring vacation from second grade. He lives here with Juanita and their grandfather, Diego Puentes, the magician.”
“I’m glad to meet you, Carlos,” Nancy said. Six children, she thought. Bess is baby-sitting six children.
Nancy moved a pile of sheets and sat on the sofa opposite Bess. “Is this your new job?” she asked.
“No — it’s Juanita’s weekly play group,” Bess explained. “You remember Juanita. She graduated two years ahead of us at River Heights High. She and Carlos have been living with their grandfather since their parents died. I asked her if I could help her today — these kids are so adorable.” Bess bounced Sara on her knee, making her giggle.
“You asked for this?” Nancy said, shaking her head.
“So where’s Juanita?” George hobbled over to join them, with Carlos still attached to her leg.
“She’s at the police station,” Bess replied. “Juanita baby-sits for some families in River Estates. They’ve had a few burglaries there lately. The police want to find out whether Juanita saw or heard anything while she was baby-sitting.”
Nancy nodded. “I remember reading about the burglaries in the paper.”
Nancy looked down at Carlos. He was sitting on the floor tying George’s shoelaces together. Bess gave him a stern look. Carlos grinned and ran off to join the other boys. George looked down at her shoes in surprise and bent down to fix the laces. Nancy laughed.
“Anyway,” Bess continued. “Juanita never expected to leave anyone else in charge of the play group, but the police wanted to speak to her right away. I told her I’d call you guys, so the kids would have plenty of supervision.”
“Thanks a lot,” George said.
Bess stood up, still holding Sara. “Could you play with the boys while I clean up Sara a little?” Bess asked. When George nodded, Bess headed for the kitchen.
Nancy looked for the boys. “Uh-oh. Where did they go?” she asked George.
Carlos and the other boys raced into the living room. Each was holding an open cereal box. As if on cue, they dug their hands into the boxes and flung cereal into the air. George and Nancy gasped while the boys ran in circles around them yelling, “Look — it’s snowing!”
“Wait — boys — please,” Nancy begged. “George, you coach Pee Wee — can’t you do something?”
“Like what?” George asked, frantically scooping up cereal from the rug. “Kids don’t act this way at soccer practice — their parents are with them.”
Nancy looked around in desperation. The living room was beginning to look like a cereal bowl. She had to stop them before they ran and got the milk.
The boys gave Nancy challenging stares while she sized up the situation. She grabbed a sheet off the couch and draped it over two armchairs. She crawled under the sheet. The boys knelt down to peek under the sheet.
“Come on in,” Nancy said. “But put down the cereal boxes first.” The boys giggled, threw the boxes down, and piled in. “Isn’t this a great fort?” Nancy asked, “We could build it bigger in the backyard, hang sheets over a rope tied between the trees. Want to try it?”
The boys yelled and cheered. Over their noise, Nancy heard a loud knocking on the front door. She peeked out from under the sheet.
Bess hurried into the room. She opened the door cautiously, then stepped back with a gasp. A snarling Doberman pinscher stood in the doorway, barely restrained on a leash held by a tall woman, who was frowning.
“I am Alice Mendenhall,” she said. “And I want to talk to Juanita!”
Nancy scrambled up, pulling the sheets off her head. “I’m sorry, Ms. Mendenhall, but Juanita’s not — “
“Don’t tell me she’s not here — I want to talk to her now! And it’s Mrs. Mendenhall.”
Mrs. Mendenhall had graying brown hair and wore what looked like pajamas. She waved a plastic dump truck in Nancy’s face. “Those kids are throwing toys over my fence! Do you know what this is?” she asked Nancy. “It’s plastic. Buster could die if he eats plastic. Are you trying to kill my dog?”
Nancy held out her hand for the truck and said calmly, “Look, I’m sorry that someone threw toys over the fence, but we’re just filling in for Juanita. I’m sure when she gets back she’ll — “
Straining at his leash and barking, Buster snapped at the truck in Nancy’s hand. The children ran out of the room, screaming. George ran after them.
Mrs. Mendenhall jerked Buster back to her side. “I work the night shift at the bakery, and I have to sleep during the day. If Juanita can’t keep those kids quiet and away from my fence — I’ll find a way,” she said. Mrs. Mendenhall left, dragging Buster down the steps.
Nancy started picking up the cereal. “Buster sure knows how to empty a room, doesn’t he?”
“What happened, Nancy?” Bess asked. “This room is a disaster!”
“Sorry, Bess, it’s been a long time since I baby sat,” Nancy said. “I should have tried to distract the boys in the first place. Don’t worry, we’ll get it cleaned up. Will you hand me that wastebasket?” Nancy scooped up cereal with her hands and tossed it into the wastebasket. “Juanita sure has her hands full, doesn’t she?”
Bess started gathering up the sheets. “Yes, but she’s wonderfully patient with the kids,” she said. “She even wants to run a nursery school someday. She’s taking classes at the university to get a degree in child psychology.”
Bess folded a sheet and shook her head. “I don’t know when Juanita has time to study,” she said. “She runs this play group every Friday. Then she baby-sits in the evenings and sets up birthday parties for her grandfather.”
George poked her head in. “I’m going to take the kids outside and get started on that fort, okay?”
“Yes — please!” Nancy said as Bess handed George the sheets.
Nancy was vacuuming a few minutes later when she heard the front door open. A young woman with long, curly black hair and dark brown eyes came into the living room.
“Hi, Juanita,” said Nancy, turning off the vacuum. “Do you remember me? Nancy Drew?”
“Oh, Nancy. Of course I do. Bess said you might come over. I’m so glad to see you.” Juanita turned to Bess. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I had no idea it would take so long downtown.”
“That’s okay,” Bess said. “But you look terrible, Juanita. What’s the matter?” she asked.
Juanita looked at Bess and Nancy with tears in her eyes. “The police almost arrested me,” she said. “They think I’m a burglar.”