Into Thin Air – First Chapter

chapter 1

“Nancy! Wait for us!”

Shading her blue eyes from the late-morning sun, Nancy Drew turned and peered down the street. Her two best friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin, were running toward her from a block away.

Just by looking at their shadows on the sidewalk, it wasn’t hard to tell the girls apart. Although they were cousins, Bess’s curvy figure was easily distinguished from George’s tall, athletic build.

By the time they caught up with Nancy, Bess was breathing hard. “Hi, Nan,” Bess said, sucking in a big gulp of air. “Boy, I haven’t run like that in a long time.”

Nancy brushed a lock of reddish blond hair away from her face. “Hi, and what’s the rush?”

“We went to your house and Hannah told us you went jogging,” George said, placing her hands on her lean hips. Hannah Gruen was the Drews’ housekeeper. “So we ran after you.”

“I get the feeling you didn’t sprint a block on a Monday morning just to say hi,” Nancy said with a puzzled grin. “What’s up?”

“For starters,” George said, “I have a new neighbor. His name is Mark Rubin. He moved into the Bradford house a few days ago.”

“Wait till you see him, Nancy,” Bess put in. “He’s incredibly gorgeous — but taken. He’s in love with a girl at his detective agency.”

George continued telling Nancy about her neighbor. “Mark’s working on a big case, but it’s a secret because — “

“Whoa,” Nancy said, holding up a hand. “I’m lost. Mark has a detective agency?”

George shook her head. “No, it’s not his. It’s Crabtree and Company, a private agency in Brewster. He used to work there.”

“Until he got fired,” Bess threw in. “He ran into a lot of problems on one case. In fact, it’s the one he’s still working on,” George continued. “While we were talking, I happened to mention your name and that I knew you. He said if he could get some help from you, he might be able to crack his case and get his old job back.”

“His girlfriend, too,” Bess added. “She broke up with him right after he was fired.”

“Want to come meet him? We promised we’d ask you,” George said.

“Come on, Nan,” Bess insisted before Nancy had a chance to say anything. “You’ve got to be a little curious.”

Nancy was curious to know what Mark’s case was about, and George’s new neighbor intrigued her, too. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

“I told you she’d come,” Bess said to George. “She could never resist a story like this.”

“Why did Mark move to River Heights?” Nancy asked as they jogged back to her house to pick up her car.

“His lease ran out on his apartment in Brewster, and he didn’t have the money to find a new place. Linda, the girl he was going with, is the Bradford sisters’ niece,” George explained. “She arranged for him to rent their top-floor apartment for very little.”

Though she didn’t know them, Nancy had waved to the Bradford sisters many times when she’d visited George’s house. In good weather the two older women were often out on their porch, sipping iced tea and saying hello to whoever passed.

“There they are now,” George said, as Nancy stopped the car in front of George’s house.

She got out and waved to the sisters. “Good morning!”

One of the women was sitting in a large wicker chair with a needlepoint canvas in her lap. The other was watering a planter full of flowers that sat on a wicker table at the back of the porch. Nancy noticed a thin, black wire leading from the woman’s ear, down her neck to her apron pocket.

“Oh. good morning, George,” the lady with the canvas said. “We just came out to enjoy the sun. Isn’t it a lovely day?”

George introduced Nancy to Frances Bradford, the one doing the needlepoint. The three girls stepped up onto the porch.

“The flowers are beautiful,” George said. She pointed to the planter of geraniums that the other woman was watering.

“Aren’t they? Our niece Linda sent them,” said Frances. She turned her head and spoke loudly to her sister. “Marie, they like the flowers.”

Her back still to the others, Marie Bradford was gently moving her shoulders to an unheard beat as she continued watering the flowers. She was tall and pencil thin, a complete contrast to Frances, who was short and rather plump.

“Marie!” Frances yelled, even louder this time.

“Did you say something?” Marie turned around and took the girls in with smiling aqua eyes. “Why, hello,” she said. As she spoke she reached into her pocket and withdrew a portable stereo. She lifted a set of delicate ear phones off her curly silver hair, dropped them around her neck, and clicked off the stereo.

“Lovely morning, isn’t it?” she said, dropping the stereo back into her apron pocket.

“She loves that rock and roll music, but I can’t stand it,” Frances Bradford explained to the girls, with a slight note of consternation in her voice. “The radio was driving me crazy, so I finally got her one of those walking stereos for her birthday last week. Now she can’t hear me or anyone else when we talk to her!”

“It’s got a great sound,” Marie chirped.

Bess smiled. “A belated happy birthday!”

“Thank you, Bess. I’m seventy.”

“And you don’t look a day over sixty-nine.” Frances winked, then said to the girls, “Are you here to see Mark?”

“Yes, Nancy wants to meet him,” George began.

At that moment a muffled thud came from the second floor of the house, followed by a crash.

“Well, go on up,” Frances Bradford said, casting a brief, worried glance at the ceiling. “That door right next to ours leads up to his apartment. He was just bringing things in, so his door should be open.”

The girls went up the stairs to the second floor. The apartment door was standing open, so George knocked on the door frame. “Hello?” she called out.

“Hi!” a male voice answered. A tall, young man with blue eyes and golden brown hair stepped out from another room, a hammer in his right hand. He gestured for them to come in, smiling warmly.

“Mark, this is Nancy Drew,” George said.

“Nancy Drew,” Mark repeated. “This is great.” Reaching out to shake her hand, he forgot he was holding the hammer. It slipped from his fist and fell, landing on his foot.

“Youch!” he cried, making a face of exaggerated pain. “Good thing I have shoes on.” He laughed and bent to pick the tool up.

“Nice to meet you, Mark,” Nancy said. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll live.” This time he shook the hand she offered him. “It sure is good to meet you, Nancy. I’ve followed a lot of your cases, and I’m a fan.”

Bess certainly had been right about Mark, Nancy thought. He was gorgeous! His features were strong and well defined, and his dark blue eyes were set off by his golden tan.

“George said something about a case you’re working on?” Nancy began.

“Oh, yeah!” Mark ran a hand through his hair as he peered around the almost-empty room. “I guess we can pull up a few cartons to sit on,” he ventured. “I do have a sofa, but it’s not coming until later today.”

When the girls were settled on their makeshift seats, Mark closed the door softly. Nancy watched him draw the curtains on the windows. Why all the extreme precautions? she wondered.

“It’s kind of complicated,” Mark began in a lowered voice.

“I’ll stop you if I get lost,” Nancy assured him.

Mark flashed her a grin. Then his face became intense. “I was working for a detective agency, Crabtree and Company. Have you heard of them?”

“Yes. They’ve got a good reputation,” Nancy replied. She knew their offices were in Brewster, a small town not far from River Heights.

Mark beamed. “They are good. I considered it a real break to get a job there, right out of college. See, I majored in criminal justice.

“Anyway, at the agency I got assigned to be under Hal Slade, Crabtree’s top investigator,” Mark went on. “He was a tough boss, but we got along — at first. He did teach me a lot. I aced a few cases for him, but after a while, we started having problems. It was weird. The better my work got, the colder he was to me.”

“Sounds like he was jealous,” Bess concluded, leaning in to Mark.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” Mark said cautiously. “When the Anderson Industries case came up — “

“Anderson Industries, the real estate developer?” Nancy interrupted. The Anderson embezzlement case had been all over the papers a few weeks earlier. She had followed the story with interest.

Mark nodded. “Crabtree and Company got the case when the chief financial officer of Anderson came to us for help. Slade was assigned to the case, and he put all of his assistants on it, including me.” Mark’s voice dropped, and he lowered his eyes. “But I guess I blew it. Royally.”

“I never heard about this case,” Bess said, leaning forward on her carton. “Why did Anderson Industries need to hire a detective agency?”

“Someone was embezzling from them,” Mark explained. “An employee, someone in side the company, was stealing from Anderson Industries by playing with the books. You know, fudging the accounting to drain money out. It added up to a million dollars.” Bess looked impressed. “Yeah,” Mark continued, “it was a lot of money. Whoever embezzled it set up a dummy company to bill Anderson for nonexistent supplies and services. This had gone on for several years before anybody really noticed because all the money had been transferred to the dummy company directly. It was all handled by computers.”

“So it had to be someone with access to the accounts,” Nancy said quickly. “What kind of security system did the computers have?”

“There were only five executives other than our client who knew the password to get into the system,” Mark told her. “So it was pretty secret. Slade assigned each assistant to the five guys.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Nancy said.

“Yeah, but after two weeks of pretty solid work — and I can vouch for the other assistants I worked with — all five suspects came out clean as whistles. That left only one other possibility, as far as I could see — the guy who came to us with the case. Christopher Johnson, the CFO.”

“CFO?” Bess asked.

“Chief financial officer,” George answered offhandedly. “But why would he go to a detective agency?” she continued skeptically.

Mark turned to her. “Maybe he figured his scam was about to be uncovered, and he wanted to throw everyone off the scent.

“I told Slade about my hunch,” Mark continued.

“And what did he do?” Nancy asked.

“Laughed in my face. He thought I was nuts, wanting to investigate our own client. He told me to stick with the guy I was assigned to, but I didn’t. Without telling Slade, I went after Johnson instead.”

“What did you find?” Nancy asked.

Mark turned to her, his dark blue eyes glinting. “A paper trail,” he told her. “The dummy corporation had put the embezzled money into dozens of different accounts, all of which I eventually traced back to one person.”

“Johnson,” George offered.

Mark nodded. “So this is my big break, right? I mean, it should have been good at least for a raise and a promotion!”

“Sure sounds like it,” Nancy agreed.

“That’s when everything started going wrong. With the help of the police, we started monitoring the accounts. One by one, Johnson withdrew the money from all of them — in cash.”

“A million dollars in cash?” Bess cried in disbelief.

“In large bills,” Mark confirmed. “A suitcase full. We knew he was getting ready to split, so we kept a tail on him at all times.” He shrugged. “Maybe he knew he was being followed, but whatever it was, something went wrong. When we started to close in, Johnson was ready for us. He led us and the police to the airport, where he stole a helicopter to make his getaway.”

“It blew up, right?” Nancy asked. The story of the fiery helicopter explosion had been in all the newspapers.

“Right! To smithereens. They never found his body or any of the missing money — just a few pieces of his bloody clothing were recovered.”

“So what did that have to do with you?” Nancy asked Mark.

“Slade decided I was the one who had tipped Johnson off! At least he accused me of it. He gave me the heave-ho. Fired me on the spot.”

“What kind of evidence did he have?” Nancy asked.

“None that he shared with me — I was just out. My whole life fell apart after that,” Mark continued, gazing at the curtains. “Slade wouldn’t give me a recommendation to find another job, and when I couldn’t keep up my car payments, I lost my car. My apartment was too much for me, too. Then to top it off, my girlfriend, Linda Bates, broke up with me.”

Mark focused on Nancy and her two friends now. “I can’t give up,” he said. “I have to solve the case and recover my reputation.”

“Hmm. What have you done?” Nancy asked.

Mark frowned. “Not much yet. I had to get a job first — I’m working at a pizza place. But the way I figure it, Johnson must have stashed the money somewhere in River Heights. After all, it’s where he ran to. I’ve got to find that money — that’s my main priority.”

“Johnson is dead, though. Who’ll lead you to the money?” Nancy asked. “You can’t dig up all of River Heights.”

“But that’s just it, Nancy,” Mark said, shaking his head, his eyes narrowed. “Johnson isn’t dead. I know because I saw him just the other day.”

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