“Where in the world is Ned Nickerson?” Eighteen-year-old Nancy Drew asked her friend George Fayne as the two girls crossed the Emerson College commons.
“Haven’t a clue,” George teased. “But that shouldn’t stop you, Nan.”
Nancy laughed, then readjusted her small green backpack, wishing for even the slightest breeze. Even in sandals, denim cutoffs, and a light sea green T-shirt, she was sweltering.
Although it was almost nine P.M., most of the students had been driven out of their dorms and onto the moonlit lawn by the September heat wave. Radios, beach blankets, and pizza boxes added to the party atmosphere, which suited Nancy perfectly.
This was a great weekend to be visiting. Her boyfriend Ned’s fraternity, Omega Chi Epsilon, was hosting a Roaring Twenties party Friday night, and Sunday was the gala opening of artist Michael Jared’s work at the school’s museum.
George pulled her baseball cap down low over her short dark curls and scanned the commons. She snapped her fingers. “I bet Ned’s in the library. It’s air-conditioned.”
“All right, George,” Nancy cheered.
The two girls turned onto the path for the library, and George motioned Nancy to stop before they went in. She spoke to Nancy very seriously. “I probably shouldn’t butt in, but I know you haven’t seen Ned or had much time for him lately. I just think you shouldn’t take a great guy like him for granted.”
Nancy’s high spirits sank a little. “I know I do take him for granted sometimes. I try not to, but it happens. I do love him but forget to show it.” Nancy bit her lip. “Maybe I can make up for some of that this weekend.”
George hugged Nancy. “I’m sure Ned’s so happy you’re here for a fun no-work weekend, he’ll forget how long it’s been since you’ve spent time together.”
Nancy pushed through the library doors and stepped into the air-conditioned silence. Almost immediately she spotted Ned studying by the window, and her heart skipped a beat. “There he is.”
George started toward him but Nancy pulled her back. “Let’s surprise him!”
George returned Nancy’s grin. “Since he’s not expecting us until tomorrow, I’d say he’s in for a big one.” George pulled her cap down even lower and hid behind some shelves.
Stifling a giggle, Nancy tiptoed through the maze of tables and shelves, her heart beating double-time. How close could she get before Ned spotted her?
His head was bent slightly as he focused on the book open in front of him. Nancy tiptoed closer. She caught her reflection in the darkened window and fluffed out her hair. Just then Ned glanced up at the window. His eyes widened with surprise, and a huge smile spread over his handsome face.
He shot out of his chair. “Nancy!” He scooped her up in his arms and spun her around. “What are you doing here? It’s only Thursday.” He put her down but kept his hands on her waist.
The librarian cleared her throat, and Nancy tried to subdue her laughter. “Nice to see you, too!” She smiled up into his deep brown eyes.
Nancy took his hand and squeezed it tight. “I finished my investigation for Dad a little early,” she said, referring to her father, lawyer Carson Drew. “And George was free.” Nancy gestured at George peeking out from behind a bookcase. Ned’s eyes flashed George a warm hello. “Bess is off with her parents on a trip,” Nancy explained. Bess Marvin was Nancy’s other best friend and George’s cousin.
“Too bad,” said Ned. “Bess loves a party.”
“So I called the Theta Pi house,” she continued as Ned began to gather his books. “I spoke to Mindy Kwong. She said we could come a day early. We dropped our bags at the sorority and came looking for you.” Nancy paused. “Do you mind?”
Ned stopped packing his books. “Are you kidding,” he said softly, and turned to kiss her gently. In Ned Nickerson’s arms, Nancy felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
Ned slung his backpack over one shoulder and guided Nancy toward George and the door. While Ned and George exchanged a friendly hug, Nancy flipped through a display rack filled with flyers for campus activities. “Here’s a pamphlet for the museum,” she said, tucking one into her pocket.
Outside, Ned turned away from the brightly lit quad and moved down a small moonlit footpath. “Let’s take a shortcut back to Greek Row. Then we can go for ice cream.”
“Now you’re talking,” George said.
As the trio was sauntering along the narrow pathway, Nancy suddenly felt someone whiz up close beside her.
“Hey!” Nancy barely kept her balance as the skater’s oversize backpack grazed her arm. She glared at the hooded figure retreating in the dark.
“You okay, Nan?” Ned asked.
“Fine,” Nancy assured him. She watched the in-line skater vanish around a curve in the path.
“That person was crazy,” George commented. “The path’s hard to see at night. How can he skate on it?”
Nancy shrugged and wondered why anyone would be in such a rush at that hour and in that heat.
They were soon passing below the art museum. The darkened glass-and-concrete building was perched on the hill above them bathed in moonlight. “I can’t wait for the art gala Sunday,” Nancy said.
“I can’t believe we’ll really get to see Michael Jared in person,” George said.
Ned groaned. “All the girls are saying that.” He ran his fingers through his dark hair. “You’d think he was a rock star, not an artist-in-residence.”
Nancy flashed Ned a wicked grin. “You can’t blame them. He looks like a rock star. His picture was on the cover of Art Today.“
“Not to mention the cover of that pamphlet you snatched up back at the library,” George reminded her.
“Oh,” Nancy said innocently. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Since when does River Heights’s star detective not notice something,” Ned remarked.
Before Nancy could shoot back a reply, the museum on the hill grabbed her full attention. It had become flooded with light.
“Hey, what’s going on?” George asked.
“I don’t know,” Ned answered. “My frat brother Bryan is a guard at the museum. He was expecting a quiet night.”
A siren wailed in the distance. Minutes later a police car zoomed up the steep museum road, its red and blue lights whirling. “Trouble,” Nancy announced. Without a second’s hesitation she took off, sprinting up the steep stone steps to the museum with Ned and George close behind her. The police car was now at the entrance to the museum, its doors flung wide. Parked right next to the police car was a shiny black sports car. Light flooded out from the museum’s massive doors.
Nancy raced into the grand foyer, with Ned and George close behind. Though all the lights were on, the hall was empty. Loud voices came from the gallery just ahead. Nancy hurried to investigate, but stopped at the gallery entrance.
Two uniformed police officers prowled the far side of the brightly lit gallery, their backs to the entrance. Two other men and a petite blond woman about Nancy’s age were staring at a blank spot on the far wall. Nancy could see two hooks where a painting had once hung.
“There’s been a robbery,” Nancy gasped.
“This is the Jared gallery!” Ned exclaimed.
“One of his paintings was stolen before the opening?” George sounded horrified.
“It looks that way,” Nancy said.
Nancy glanced around the room. A bright pink and blue rope was dangling from a shattered ceiling skylight. Glass shards littered the floor. “That’s how they got in,” she said.
Nancy knew the burly man in the tweed jacket was Dean Jarvis, but the overweight man next to him was unfamiliar. She asked Ned who he was.
“Dr. Morrison, the museum curator.”
“And who’s the girl?”
“Debbie Lakin,” Ned replied softly. “She’s a Theta Pi, a transfer from Montana State last spring. She’s an art history major and the museum’s assistant curator, which has always been a student position.”
That explained the girl’s professional-looking outfit, Nancy realized. Debbie was extremely well groomed for a student, in a sleek cream-colored suit and high heels. Even with her blond hair swept up in a sophisticated twist, she most resembled a scared little girl, though.
Just then Dean Jarvis turned to the entrance and recognized Nancy. “Nancy Drew, am I glad you’re here,” he said, and gestured the three into the gallery. When the police officers turned around, Nancy instantly recognized the tall wiry one as Sergeant Weinberg. They had worked on earlier cases together.
Debbie Lakin smiled weakly at Ned as Sergeant Weinberg greeted Nancy warmly.
“What was stolen?” Nancy asked him. At her words the curator turned to face her. Dr. Morrison was bearded, but underneath, his face was ashen.
“The centerpiece of the Jared exhibit,” he replied tersely. “First Kiss. The most valuable piece in our Jared collection.” He seemed about to go on, then stopped himself and squinted suspiciously at Nancy. “Who are you?”
Dean Jarvis introduced Nancy and Ned, and Ned introduced George.
Dr. Morrison stared at the rope dangling from the ceiling. Suddenly he slapped it. “I requested a new security system months ago, Jarvis,” he said, angrily. “Now look what’s happened.”
Dean Jarvis shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other and sighed. “We’ve never been burgled before. Our present security system seemed adequate.”
“Why did the current system fail?” Nancy asked.
“Because it secures only the museum doors and ground-floor windows. Not the skylight, that’s why,” Dr. Morrison snapped. Then he shifted his gaze to Debbie. His pale gray eyes narrowed accusingly.
“Wait a minute….The security system wasn’t even on.” He stepped closer to Debbie. “Why?”
Debbie cowered slightly and stared at the floor. “I turned it off for a moment,” she mumbled.
Nancy leaned closer to listen. Why was Debbie so scared?
“Just for a second,” Debbie continued, her voice quavering, “so I could leave the building. Then I went back to the storage room to check on something and I forgot — “
“You forgot?” Dr. Morrison bellowed. “You forgot? And why are you here so late anyway? You should have left the museum hours ago.”
“Umm, I — I was in the storage room working on inventory,” Debbie began shakily. “Those paintings that we’re selling to that dealer in New York to raise funds — “
Dr. Morrison cut her off. “What about that shipment?”
“I wanted to update the inventory before the shipment goes out next week, and I lost track of time.”
“You were working on inventory this late at night?” Dr. Morrison scoffed.
Nancy eyed Debbie closely. She sensed Debbie was hiding something.
“Nancy,” Dean Jarvis broke in, “you’ve solved cases for Emerson before. Would you consider looking into this robbery as our representative?”
Nancy took a deep breath and gazed at Ned. He met her glance and slowly shook his head. Nancy looked at him helplessly. She knew how disappointed he’d be if she spent the weekend sleuthing instead of partying with him. Nancy knew because she’d be disappointed, too.
Her resolve to stay out of it wavered. She paused and blew out a breath. She could never resist solving a mystery. “Okay,” she told the dean. “You can count on me.”
Ned managed a halfhearted smile.
George groaned softly.
“Thank you, Nancy,” said the dean. He turned to Dr. Morrison. “Nancy Drew has been of tremendous service to Emerson in the past,” he explained. Dr. Morrison nodded solemnly. Sergeant Weinberg smiled at Nancy. “Welcome on board, again,” the officer said. “We’ll give you all the cooperation you need.”
“Great.” Nancy turned to Debbie. “How did you discover the theft?” she asked.
“Oh — I didn’t!” Debbie protested.
Dean Jarvis cut in. “Dr. Morrison and I did. After dinner Geoff — Dr. Morrison, that is — offered to give me a preview of the show. We discovered the burglary and called the police.”
“I see,” Nancy said thoughtfully. “But, Debbie, didn’t you hear anything? You were in the museum.”
“No. Nothing,” Debbie insisted. “I told Sergeant Weinberg that.”
Skirting the shards of glass, Nancy walked back under the skylight. She ran her fingers up and down the rope. “George, you’ve done rock climbing. Isn’t this a climber’s rope?”
George nodded, then fingered the rope gently. “A new one. You can see the tracks the jumars made — the gadgets you use when you climb up the rope. Otherwise the rope’s barely been used.”
Nancy studied the little marks closely and turned to George again. “Would it take an experienced climber to manage this height?”
“To make the climb fast? You bet.”
“My frat brother Bryan is an experienced climber,” Ned offered. “He may be able to give you some leads, Nancy.” Suddenly Ned became worried. Nancy knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Where is Bryan?” she asked quietly.
Dr. Morrison gasped. “Bryan? The security guard. He’s gone!”
“We’d better find him,” Nancy said urgently. “He could be hurt.”
Sergeant Weinberg and his partner set off to search the interior of the museum. Nancy, George, and Ned headed outside. Nancy and Ned went in opposite directions on the stone path that snaked through the museum gardens, while George circled the building.
The moon was full and high in the sky, so Nancy could see quite clearly. As she scoured the well-tended flower beds, she found no sign of the missing guard. She met Ned by the rosebushes at the far end of the garden. “Not a thing, Nan,” Ned declared.
Just then a scream pierced the night.
Ned grabbed Nancy’s arm. “It’s George!” Nancy cried.
“Nancy! Ned! Help me!”