“George, I’m so glad you persuaded us to come to Connecticut with you,” Nancy Drew said. She slid out from behind the steering wheel of the car they’d rented at the train station. “What a pretty town Fairport is!”
George Fayne smiled. She closed the car door and joined her slim, golden-haired friend on the sidewalk. “It’s like a postcard picture, isn’t it?” she said.
George looked into the backseat of the car and saw her cousin, Bess Marvin, struggling with the clasp of her backpack. “Hurry up, Bess,” George called.
“Sorry,” Bess apologized as she clambered out. “I was looking for my camera, but I guess I must have packed it in my suitcase.”
The town green of Fairport stretched out before them. The square took up several blocks and was anchored at one end by a white spired church and at the other by a gazebo, festive with crepe paper decorations fluttering in the spring breeze. In between lay an expanse of clipped grass and tall, stately trees.
Frowning, George ran a hand through her short, dark hair and scanned the crowd gathering around the gazebo. “Aunt Elizabeth told me she’d meet us before the ceremony, but I don’t see her.”
“Why don’t we follow the crowd?” Nancy suggested. “After all, they’re here for the same reason we are — to see your aunt.”
George’s aunt, Elizabeth Porter, was her great-aunt on her father’s side of the family. The people of Fairport had gathered to give her an award for her lifelong efforts as a conservationist. Since George’s parents hadn’t been able to attend, George had asked Nancy and Bess to join her instead, offering a week’s vacation at her aunt’s colonial home as an added enticement. The two friends had eagerly accepted the invitation.
“Is that her?” Bess asked. She pushed a strand of blond hair behind her ears and placed her other hand above her eyes to shade them from the bright spring sun. She pointed to a gray-haired woman standing in the middle of a circle of people.
“That’s her,” George replied, walking faster. Nancy and Bess hurried after her.
“Aunt Elizabeth!” George called.
Elizabeth Porter turned when she heard her name, and her face broke into a wide smile. “George! I’m so glad you’re here.”
George gave her aunt a big hug. “These are my friends,” she said, introducing Nancy and Bess.
Elizabeth Porter shook their hands. “I’ve heard so much about you both,” she said, her blue eyes twinkling, “and all your adventures. I hear you’re quite the detective, Nancy.”
“I’ve solved a few mysteries,” Nancy replied, smiling modestly.
“Well, there’s nothing mysterious going on here,” Elizabeth Porter said, laughing. “Just an old lady getting a plaque.”
Nancy knew right away that she was going to enjoy getting to know George’s aunt. Elizabeth Porter was a spirited woman who clearly wasn’t afraid to make a joke at her own expense.
According to George, her aunt was an avid gardener who had spent many years launching and organizing beautification projects around the town. She was also a strong-willed woman who had definite opinions about almost everything, but who was also admired for her ability to get things done.
“Mrs. Porter?” A young man came up to George’s aunt and took her elbow. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Mrs. Porter replied jauntily. She let herself be led to the gazebo and climbed the stairs to the platform.
Nancy, Bess, and George stepped back into the crowd and waited for the ceremony to begin.
“Well, she’s gotten herself involved in another controversy,” Nancy heard someone behind her mutter. Without turning, she continued to listen.
“And for bats, of all things!” another voice replied.
Were they referring to Aunt Elizabeth? Nancy wondered. And what kind of bats? The ones that flew or the ones you hit a ball with? What could they possibly mean?
Before she could hear any more of the conversation, the band behind Aunt Elizabeth struck up a rousing tune, signaling the start of the ceremony.
“There’s John Stryker, the town manager,” George said to Nancy with a nudge of her elbow. Pointing to a distinguished-looking man in a business suit stepping up to the microphone, George added, “He’s the bane of Aunt Elizabeth’s existence.”
“How so?” Nancy asked.
“He’s always trying to kill her projects by telling her the town doesn’t have the money,” George replied. “But Aunt E. just holds a fundraiser and gets around him.”
“Shhh!” Bess whispered. “I want to hear!”
John Stryker took the microphone and gave a long-winded speech praising Mrs. Porter for her hard work and determination. Then he shook her hand and gave her an engraved plaque along with an enormous smile.
George gave Nancy a knowing look and rolled her eyes. “Politics,” she whispered with a sigh.
Now it was Aunt Elizabeth’s turn to speak. Her speech was short and to the point and ended with a joke about how her work had never felt hard — because it had always been exactly what she wanted to do.
The crowd applauded appreciatively.
Nancy was about to whisper to George what she’d overheard the two people behind her say, but the band began to play again. Aunt Elizabeth graciously accepted a bouquet of flowers from a little boy and was then escorted down the gazebo stairs and into a crowd of well-wishers.
Nancy watched as the townspeople of Fairport clustered around Aunt Elizabeth, laughing and hugging her exuberantly. But before George could join her aunt, Nancy pulled her to one side and told her what she’d overheard.
George frowned. “I can’t imagine what that’s about,” she said. “Aunt Elizabeth has a habit of getting people riled up, but in the end she always wins them over to her side.”
Bess interrupted. “Look,” she said, pointing to a little girl carrying an ice-cream cone. “Do you think that’s part of the celebration?”
Nancy nudged George and the two laughed. Bess had a serious sweet tooth.
“I think I’ll follow that cone,” Bess said, heading after the little girl. “I’ll find you two later!”
The crowd around Aunt Elizabeth thinned out enough for Nancy and George to approach her and add their own congratulations. Aunt Elizabeth’s face shone with happiness.
“Aunt E., what’s this I hear about you and some bats?” George finally asked when the last well-wisher had left.
The smile abruptly disappeared from Aunt Elizabeth’s face. “How did you hear about that?”
“I overheard someone in the crowd saying something about it,” Nancy explained.
“Well,” Aunt Elizabeth said, “we’ve got a bit of a predicament here in Fairport. And I’m afraid I’m in the middle of it.”
“Tell us,” George said. She led her aunt off to the side of the gathering to keep their conversation private.
“It’s complicated, but I’ll try to explain,” Aunt Elizabeth began. “You see, there’s an old road that leads from the town green to the outskirts of Fairport. It’s narrow and winding — a typical country road.
“There have been several accidents on that road over the years,” she went on. “They usually happen at night. If people aren’t familiar with the turns and they’re driving a bit too fast, they miss the curves and end up tipped over an embankment or bending a fender on a tree.
“But last year there was a terrible accident. A driver hit a bicyclist — a boy named Tommy Connor. He was killed.”
Nancy and George sucked in their breaths. “But what does that have to do with bats?” Nancy asked.
“I’m getting to that,” Aunt Elizabeth said. “Some people think the road should be widened to protect drivers and cyclists. They’ve filed a petition with the town to begin the work.
“I’m all for saving people’s lives, of course,” Aunt Elizabeth continued, “but the problem is, there’s an endangered species of bat that lives in a grove of trees right on one of the most dangerous turns. If we widen the road and take down the trees, we’ll destroy their habitat and the bats will die.”
Nancy nodded. “I think I can see where this is leading.”
“The road wideners have also filed a petition with the federal government’s Fish and Wildlife Service to allow them to take the trees down,” Aunt Elizabeth continued. “So I’ve gathered together a group of people like me, who want to protect the bats. We need to come up with evidence that proves the bats will die if the trees are taken down. If we can prove that, the federal government will forbid the road widening.”
“I’ve read about this kind of thing in the paper,” Nancy said. “Sometimes the disputes get so complicated and difficult that they have to be settled by the United States Supreme Court.”
Aunt Elizabeth sighed. “We’re hoping to avoid that. But we don’t have much time. Our dissenting opinions have to be filed in two days, and I’m not at all sure we have everything we need to make a convincing case. But you can find out all about it at the town meeting we’ve called for tonight,” she concluded.
“A town meeting!” George exclaimed. “I’ve heard about them,” she said, turning to Nancy. “They can get pretty heated.”
“Do you have a sense of how most of the people in Fairport feel?” Nancy asked Aunt Elizabeth.
“Folks are pretty much split down the middle,” Aunt Elizabeth admitted. “Bats aren’t the most warm and cuddly of animals, so most people don’t care for them. Some are actually scared of them. They don’t understand the important role they play in the natural world.”
“I’ve never been afraid of bats,” Nancy said. “But I can’t say they’re my favorite member of the animal kingdom.”
“Well, there you have it,” Aunt Elizabeth said with an understanding nod. “I hope you can handle all of this,” she said, “because I’m about to become the Batwoman of Fairport.” She laughed heartily.
George poked Nancy with her elbow. “Oh boy!” she whispered out of her aunt’s earshot. “Aunt E. is at it again.”
“But enough of this,” Aunt Elizabeth said. “I see there’s ice cream, and since it’s all in my honor, I’d like to get some before it disappears.”
Nancy and George kept pace with Aunt Elizabeth as she walked determinedly through the crowd. They were sure they’d find Bess when they found the ice cream.
They were just about to reach the ice-cream table, when a teenaged girl planted herself in front of Aunt Elizabeth.
“Why, Sarah!” Aunt Elizabeth exclaimed. “How nice to see you. Is your mother here?”
The teenager scowled at Aunt Elizabeth. “Yes, she is,” she replied in a low voice. “But don’t try to keep me from saying what I have to say to you.”
Aunt Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Is something wrong, dear?”
Sarah’s face reddened with anger. “You know there is!”
Aunt Elizabeth looked baffled. “I wish I could say that I did,” she replied. “Won’t you tell me?”
“It’s you!” Sarah yelled. “You and those stupid bats!”
Aunt Elizabeth stepped back from Sarah. Nancy could tell George’s aunt was perplexed by the sullen young woman in front of her.
“You know my brother died on Old Fairport Road,” Sarah said angrily, her hands balled into fists. “Are you trying to make sure that other people die as well?”
Aunt Elizabeth reached out to put her arm around Sarah’s shoulder to comfort her, but Sarah pushed it away with a ruthless shove.
“You’re one of my mother’s best friends. You’re the one who helped her through her grief when Tommy died,” Sarah said, her voice rising. “And now you’re betraying us!” She began to cry with choking sobs. “Doesn’t his death mean anything to you?”
“Of course — ” Aunt Elizabeth began, but Sarah cut her off.
“You care more about animals than you do about people,” Sarah cried in anger. “And I’m going to make you pay for it!”