“You’re Nancy Drew — the detective?” Dean William Jarvis blurted out. “I thought you’d be, well, older.” The dean, a bear of a man wearing a tweedy brown suit, paused halfway between sitting and standing to stare at the slim young woman in front of him.
Nancy grinned and pushed back a strand of reddish blond hair. “I am only eighteen, but it’s easier to go undercover as a college student when you look like one.” She extended her hand to the dean, and he took it, looking somewhat sheepish.
“I didn’t mean to insult you,” the dean said quickly.
“That’s okay,” Nancy continued. “I should apologize for wearing jeans to our meeting, but it’s a long drive from River Heights to Emerson College. You can’t beat jeans for comfort.”
The dean’s round face reddened, and he gestured for Nancy to sit down. “No apologies, please. Excuse my rudeness. I know you’re a top-notch detective, and that’s all that matters. Pat Burnett, our basketball coach, told me how great you were at finding the prankster who was harassing his team. I’m just nervous and about at my wit’s end.”
Nancy settled into an overstuffed chair next to the dean’s desk. She purposely kept her tone light and casual. The dean was alarmed. Besides, she’d get more information from him if she acted totally together.
“You mentioned a theft and the need for secrecy on the telephone last night. Can you give me any details?”
The dean leaned forward, touching his fingertips together nervously. He gave her a helpless smile. “That’s part of the problem. I can’t give you details. This involves the government — and it’s all very hush-hush and top secret.”
Nancy drew back, startled. “Top secret?”
Dean Jarvis had been very abrupt when he called her the night before and asked her if she could come to Emerson immediately. Nancy had been planning a short vacation with her friends Bess and George but had leapt at a chance to work at the college instead. Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, was a student at Emerson, and Nancy hadn’t seen him for ages.
Now, looking at the worry lines in the dean’s face, Nancy knew she’d have to think of Ned second. Reaching into her brown leather purse, she pulled out a notepad and pen.
“You don’t have to tell me government secrets,” she assured the dean. “But I’ll need to know all the facts that you can tell.”
“Are you ready? It’s a long story.” Dean Jarvis smiled and took a deep breath. “Emerson is host to a visiting professor, Josef Maszak. Maszak is working on a top secret experiment sponsored by the U.S. government. You do know what a visiting professor is, don’t you?”
“Someone who’s on campus for only a semester or two?” Nancy suggested.
“Yes, usually. But this is a little different. Our government is running a special visiting-professor program involving scientists only. Each one is a specialist working on a secret government experiment. It’s considered a great honor to have one of these scientists placed at your school.”
“I’m sure you’re proud that Emerson was chosen,” Nancy said politely.
“Very,” the dean agreed eagerly. “We worked five years to qualify. We had to expand our entire science program. This project is important to me — I won’t let it fail.”
“No,” Nancy said, careful to keep her comments neutral.
“I can’t tell you much about what Maszak does,” the dean said, “because it’s secret and because those parts I can share are far too technical. But twice a month, the government sends him a quantity of a substance called CLT. It’s a rare chemical, and the government monitors it closely.”
The dean anxiously ran his fingers through his hair. “Twice now, just as Maszak reached a crucial stage of his experiment, someone has broken into his lab and stolen the CLT.”
“Is CLT dangerous?” Nancy asked.
“Maszak says no,” the dean responded. “He swears there’s no known use for CLT, except for his experiment. But it is a rare chemical, so he keeps it under lock and key. I tell you, Ms. Drew, I never dreamed it would be stolen.”
“Useless,” Nancy repeated thoughtfully. “But someone went to a lot of trouble to steal it.” Nancy quickly went on. “Who knows about the thefts?”
“No one.” The dean’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I haven’t reported either of them to the government yet,” he admitted. “The first time the CLT was taken, I decided it was some kind of a prank. I thought whoever took it might return it. I admit it, Ms. Drew, I was afraid. Afraid that if I reported the theft, the government would order Maszak to leave. Emerson would be disgraced, our reputation ruined. But after the second theft…” His voice trailed off.
Nancy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure I like keeping secrets from the government.”
The dean looked flustered. “Ms. Drew — Nancy — please help me. Help Emerson. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. If you can’t take the case, I’ll understand, but I’m asking you to try.”
“I could use more information,” Nancy said, feeling frustrated.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” the dean said. “Try to find the thief. If you fail, I’ll call in the government. But not just yet. Losing Maszak now would be a blow Emerson might never recover from.”
Nancy hesitated. “Dean Jarvis,” she finally asked, “if I did agree to take the case, could I trust Maszak?”
“Absolutely,” the dean swore. “Maszak’s an honest man, a truly dedicated scientist…” The dean’s voice trailed off as he looked directly at Nancy. “At least that’s what I used to think,” he said slowly. “I guess I don’t really know anymore. At this point, I’m not sure whom to believe or whom to trust.”
Nancy saw a look of confusion pass over the dean’s eyes. “It makes no sense!” he exclaimed. “The lab is constantly locked. The CLT is in an inner lab, sealed by another lock, which also has an alarm. The security guard on that floor gives me the security logs to check each day. Only Professor Maszak and his assistant are even allowed near the CLT, and they all have government clearance.”
“And yet,” Nancy said thoughtfully, “the CLT has been stolen twice, and the thief knows exactly when to take it. Every sign points to an inside job. But from what you’ve told me, it can’t be an inside job.”
The dean got up, walked around, and perched on the edge of his desk so he was closer to Nancy. “This sounds impossible, I know, but what we have here is an impossible crime.”
Nancy stood up, too. “I’ll need as much information as you can get me on Professor Maszak and his assistant,” she said briskly.
“I’m sure I can find something in the files.” Dean Jarvis sounded hopeful for the first time. “Does this mean you’ll take the case?”
Nancy grinned in return. “I may be young, Dean Jarvis, but I am experienced. And the one thing I’ve learned as a detective is that there is no such thing as an impossible crime.”
The dean looked pleased. “You do inspire confidence. I can’t thank you enough, Nancy.”
“Don’t thank me until I’ve solved the case,” Nancy said. “Well, I guess we’re done for now. I’d like to see Professor Maszak’s lab this afternoon, if that can be arranged.”
“Professor Maszak already knows about you. I’ll tell him you’ll be stopping by. As for going undercover, you’ll need a story and a place to stay. I’ve made arrangements for you to take an empty room in one of the dorms. Holland, I believe it is. We’ll say you’re a transfer student. You’re going to work on the school newspaper, and you’re writing a story on Professor Maszak. If anyone checks on you, my office will be able to back up your story.”
“Good,” Nancy said approvingly. “I’ll be able to ask as many questions as I need!” She glanced at her watch. “I’ll have to start right after lunch.”
“Let me take you to your dorm,” Dean Jarvis offered.
Nancy colored slightly. “Actually, Dean, I’m late for a lunch date — with my boyfriend.”
The dean beamed at her. “Ned Nickerson, right? A star athlete in both football and basketball — a nice young man.”
“Yes, he is,” Nancy said. Nancy had a vision of her tall, handsome boyfriend pacing his fraternity living room waiting for her. She hadn’t seen him in almost a month. Her heart had raced when she realized that because of this case they would have some time together.
Nancy flipped her notebook closed and slipped it back in her purse. “Can you tell me the quickest way to Omega Chi Epsilon from here?” Omega Chi was Ned’s fraternity.
“There’s a shortcut no one ever uses,” Dean Jarvis said. “Go straight down the main road, and take your second right. I’ll send whatever information we have on Maszak and his assistant to the dorm for you.”
“Thanks.” Nancy scooped up her purse.
Outside the administration building, a chill wind was attempting to dislodge autumn leaves from their branches. It had rained while Nancy was inside, and the ground was slick with wet leaves. Shivering, she zipped up her soft suede jacket and slipped on her sunglasses to protect her eyes from the afternoon sun. She climbed back into her Mustang, flipped on the tape deck, and headed for Ned’s fraternity house.
Emerson was a large college with lots of trees and wide-open spaces. The road the dean had recommended was narrow and looked deserted as it wound through the campus arboretum. Nancy enjoyed handling the Mustang around the road’s many curves.
As she came around an especially tight turn, Nancy saw a dull green shape lying in the road just ahead. Instantly she stepped on the brakes, her heart thumping. The car screeched to a halt, only inches from the lifeless body of a young man.