“Who says I can’t win the contest?” Ned Nickerson asked, a determined expression on his face. Nancy Drew looked over at him and sighed as she maneuvered her blue Mustang down the winding country roads that led to the Old Pine Inn.
“I never said you couldn’t win,” Nancy teased. “I just said that you probably wouldn’t win!”
Ned laughed and then leaned over and nuzzled Nancy’s neck.
“Hey! Quit that or we’ll get into an accident before we even get there,” Nancy said, giving Ned a dazzling smile. She pushed her reddish-blond hair back from her face and adjusted the window to give her hair a break from the wind.
Although it wasn’t quite five o’clock, the air was getting chilly, and Nancy was glad she’d worn her leather jacket. Suddenly the warm early fall days seemed numbered, and Nancy noticed a difference — a new crispness and a shift in the light of the day — that marked the approaching change of season.
Nancy was excited about the upcoming event. Ned’s fraternity, Omega Chi Epsilon, was hosting a weekend at the Old Pine Inn for the brothers and their guests. The inn held a variety of specialty events, and the fraternity had chosen the “murder mystery weekend.” The first guest to identify the murderer and solve the mystery would win a prize. It promised to be an action-packed few days.
The action started a little sooner than Nancy had anticipated when a red convertible sports car raced right up to the back of Nancy’s Mustang and hung there. “Do you know who that is?” Nancy asked Ned. Tailgaters always made her nervous.
Ned looked out the back window at the car behind them. “It’s Number One,” he said, using the nickname for the Omega Chi president, Michael Wentworth.
Michael hit the horn, then smoothly overtook Nancy’s car. Nancy caught a glimpse of the couple inside. Michael’s sunglasses hid his eyes, but there was no mistaking Omega Chi’s president, with his chiseled face and million-dollar smile. “Who’s the girl with Michael?” Nancy asked, glancing at the blond girl in the passenger seat.
“That’s Mia Tyler, Michael’s new girlfriend,” Ned said absently, his concentration on the map he had open on his lap. “Okay, we’d better be watching now. The road to the inn should be coming up on the right.”
When they rounded the next bend in the road, Nancy saw a sign pointing to their turn for the Old Pine Inn. About a quarter mile down the gravel drive, she spied the inn, an impressive Victorian building with turrets and gables. It was surrounded by dozens of stately pine trees. Off to the side was a swimming pool; a set of grass tennis courts was partially hidden by more trees.
Nancy parked the Mustang, and she and Ned carried their bags up the porch steps. Nancy envisioned spending some cozy moments with Ned in the comfortable rocking chairs that graced the wide, wraparound porch.
“This is great!” Nancy said as they stepped inside the lobby. Plush red carpeting and textured wallpaper made for a rich atmosphere, and a crackling fire in the parlor added to the Victorian charm.
“We’d better register before all the good rooms are taken,” Ned said, pointing to the front desk. “There are a few single-occupancy rooms that are given out on a first-come, first-served basis,” he explained, “and I don’t want anybody snoring at me this weekend!”
They walked over to a desk in the lobby where a young woman checked them in and gave them keys to their rooms. “I love this place!” Nancy exclaimed as she and Ned walked up a wide staircase to the second floor. “I can’t wait to see my room. “
Nancy’s room was bright and cheerful, with yellow flowered wallpaper and bedding to match. The window commanded a view of an expansive lawn that sloped down to a small lake. “This is beautiful.” Nancy sighed.
Ned set down Nancy’s suitcase. “It’s a little too flowery for me, but if you’re happy I’m happy,” he said, and gave her a kiss on the nose. They agreed to meet downstairs in fifteen minutes, and Ned went off to his room.
Nancy unpacked quickly. As she was leaving her room, she saw Mia Tyler struggling with an armload of books and trying to unlock the door next to her own.
“Hi. Here, let me help you,” Nancy insisted, taking some books out of Mia’s arms. “I’m Nancy Drew. Ned Nickerson and I saw you speed past us in the Michaelmobile.”
“Hi! Thanks for the help,” Mia said as she finally got the door open. “I brought my bag up earlier, then went out to the car to get my books and papers. I couldn’t find a bellboy, and Michael has already disappeared with his buddies.”
Nancy carried the books into Mia’s room and set them on a bureau. “I thought this weekend was for fun, not for schoolwork!”
“I know,” Mia said, “but I can’t afford to get behind.” She blew her blond bangs off her fore head with a soft phew.
“Well, I hope you take some time off to enjoy yourself,” Nancy said as she let herself out the door. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, okay,” Mia said as she began arranging the books and binders into several piles.
Nancy hurried downstairs to find Ned in the lobby, laughing and joking with a group of fraternity brothers. “Here’s my winning ticket now,” Ned said, reaching out to put his arm around Nancy’s shoulder. “The world-famous detective, Nancy Drew, is going to help me solve the mystery and win that prize!”
“No way, Nickerson!” Nancy said. “No help from me on this one!”
The guys laughed. “Excellent! You’ll be as clueless as the rest of us, Ned,” said Matt Gervasio, a tall, blue-eyed Omega Chi and one of Ned’s best friends.
“Come on, Ned,” said Nancy before he could defend himself. “Let’s take a look around outside.”
Nancy and Ned took a long walk around the lake, then headed back up the spacious lawn, toward the swimming pool.
“It’s cool to be here with the guys,” Ned said. “But I’m really glad to be here with you.”
“I know,” Nancy said softly. “It seems like forever since we’ve spent any time together.”
They sat on one of the lounge chairs around the pool, and Ned gave Nancy a long, lingering kiss.
Although Nancy lived only a couple of hours from Emerson College, she’d been busy and hadn’t seen Ned for a few weeks. Her father, Carson Drew, was a prominent criminal lawyer in River Heights and had needed Nancy’s help. And then when she’d been free, Ned had been busy trying to get a jump on the semester’s workload. They always kept in touch by phone, but Nancy often found their conversations unsatisfying.
“You can’t get one of these over the phone,” Ned murmured, kissing her again.
“You read my mind,” Nancy replied, glad that, as usual, their time apart hadn’t cooled their relationship one bit.
They sat, talking quietly, until it was dark. “We’d better head in for dinner,” said Nancy. “I’m starved, and the sample menu I saw in my room looked delicious.”
Nancy and Ned went inside and found the dining room. Full-length windows graced with heavy draperies lined one wall of the grand room. Many of Ned’s fraternity brothers and their dates were already seated, and the room hummed with conversation.
Michael saw Nancy and Ned and waved them over to his table. “Join us. Mia should be here any minute,” Michael said. A moment later she arrived, and when Michael started to introduce the girls, Nancy told him they had already met.
“She’s the one with all the books and no time for fun,” Nancy said, smiling.
“I’ll make sure she has fun this weekend — right, Mia?” Michael said.
“Tons of fun, Michael,” Mia answered as she picked up her menu. “But you know I’ve got tons of work, too. We’ve talked about this before,” she said, sounding exasperated.
“I know Mia seems very serious and very studious,” Michael said to Ned and Nancy. “But deep down, under all those textbooks and study notes, is a girl who knows how to have a good time. She’s actually the one who came up with the idea of holding our frat weekend here,” he said with a tinge of pride.
They ordered dinner and talked, and Michael filled them in on the plans for the weekend. “What happens is, we watch an ongoing murder mystery play, and some of us get to join in the action,” he said.
“And to the victor go the spoils,” said Ned. “Victory is mine, with Nancy on my team. “
“Sorry, bud, I told you before — you’re on your own,” Nancy said, trying to hide her smile. “Besides, who says I don’t want to win the prize myself?”
“Oh, great,” Ned said, feigning dejection. “Never mind then. How about we heighten the stakes?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Care to place a friendly wager just between the two of us?”
“You’re on, Nickerson,” Nancy said. She looked up to see a waiter bringing their dinners. “But since we don’t even have a single clue yet, let’s eat!” Everyone laughed.
Once the food was served, Michael ate a few bites, then excused himself to make a phone call back to the fraternity house. A few minutes later Mia also excused herself.
As she ate Nancy looked around the elegant dining room. Nancy recognized nearly all the Omega Chis and some of their dates. At a table in the corner, however, sat four people — two men, an elegantly dressed woman of about fifty, and a striking redheaded girl who looked to be about Nancy’s age.
Just as Nancy was about to ask her friends if anyone knew the women, the innkeeper, Mrs. McVee, entered the dining room and asked for everyone’s attention.
“Welcome to the Old Pine Inn,” she began, “and to our special murder mystery weekend. There will be several rounds of action, during which actors in character will reveal things about themselves and about each other. Pay careful attention. You’ll be given opportunities to ask questions of the players, and you do not have to share your findings with other guests. Remember, it’s a competition to the finish! Please notice the schedule of scenes posted in the lobby. Don’t miss any, or you’ll severely limit your chances to win a special prize. Now enjoy your dinner, and let’s begin!”
Ned smiled fiendishly at Nancy. “Remember, Drew, a competition to the finish!”
“You don’t have to — “
Nancy was interrupted by the older woman she had noticed earlier, now speaking in a loud stage voice.
“Hello, excuse me. Yes, hello,” the woman said, looking around the dining room. “When ever I stay at the Old Pine Inn, I like to meet my fellow guests; it’s such an intimate setting. I’m Mrs. Katherine Wendham, and this is my daughter, Olivia,” she said, placing a hand on the redheaded girl’s arm.
Ned leaned in to Nancy’s neck to whisper. “So the players are supposedly guests, too?”
“Oh, you’re quick, Ned,” Nancy whispered back, teasing.
“This is Derek Waverly, my late husband’s business partner and a friend of the family,” Mrs. Wendham continued, smiling at the handsome, dark-haired man at her table who looked to be in his early forties. Although he was well-dressed, Nancy thought his clothes seemed slightly out of date.
“And sitting beside Olivia is Robert Jones,” said Mrs. Wendham, beaming at a young man Nancy thought was probably twenty. He smiled nervously, revealing a pronounced overbite, and pushed his eyeglasses up onto the bridge of his long nose. Olivia visibly squirmed during this last introduction.
“Robert,” said Mrs. Wendham. “I’m so pleased you could join us this weekend. Olivia is delighted, too, aren’t you, Olivia?” she added, looking sharply at her daughter, who rolled her eyes.
“Jeffrey!” Mrs. Wendham called. Immediately a tall, stooped man in his late sixties entered the dining room and walked toward Mrs. Wendham as briskly as he could manage. “Yes, Jeffrey. Would you take this plate away, please?” She turned to the guests. “Although I’d never say so to Mrs. McVee, I find I have to bring my own butler if I want to be sure to have the attention to which I’m accustomed.”
Just then another woman rushed into the dining room. She was wearing a stylish outfit in rich autumn tones and a crushed velvet hat. She looked to be in her early twenties.
“Mickey Sloan,” announced Mrs. Wendham. “Late for dinner, but never late on a deadline for one of her society-page nonsense columns.”
Mickey Sloan didn’t sit with the other actors. Instead, she joined Nancy’s large table and sat beside Ned. Nancy noticed in particular her intense green eyes.
“Well, I guess that’s everyone,” said Mrs. Wendham. “I look forward to talking with all of you throughout our stay this weekend, but now I need to see to some personal business. Robert, could you join me, please?” Jeffrey helped Mrs. Wendham from her chair, and the three of them walked out of the dining room. The remaining actors continued a staged conversation.
“At last, I am alone with the lovely Olivia Wendham!” Derek Waverly said in a joking manner.
“Please, Derek, you’re wasting your time on me,” Olivia said, putting down her fork. “My fiance will be here any minute!”
“I’m sure your mother didn’t invite him this weekend,” Derek said, grinning slyly.
“That’s true, but I’m hoping the information he’s bringing will make Mother see that intelligence and honesty are more important than money. She’ll just have to accept that I’m in love with him and that he’s the one I’m going to marry,” Olivia declared as the doorbell rang faintly in the distance.
“What could he possibly say that will change your mother’s mind? She obviously wants the wealthy Robert Jones for you,” Derek said as Olivia stood up from the table.
Olivia stopped and looked Derek Waverly in the eye. “Either way, that lets you out, Derek. Not that I’d ever be interested in a man who is way too old for me, can’t swim, can’t dance, and doesn’t know how to party. Besides, Michael told me he’s bringing information that will lead to the thief who stole Mother’s diamonds!” She dashed out the dining room door.
Nancy and Ned turned to each other and playfully gasped as the crime was revealed. Ned put his arm around Nancy’s shoulder as they turned their attention back to the drama.
Derek Waverly was now alone at the table. “I wonder what kind of evidence that boy could have found,” he said, as if to himself. He stared after Olivia for a moment, then rose and followed her out. Mickey Sloan, too, got up from where she sat at Nancy’s table, saying she wanted to get her pen and pad from her bag in the lobby.
Olivia reentered, and following close behind her, to Nancy’s amazement, was Michael Wentworth! He stole a quick grin at his friends in the dining room before turning to Olivia.
“I found an important lead, Olivia. And what I have to tell you is going to be quite a shock.” A smattering of applause and a couple of catcalls from the fraternity brothers heralded their friend’s debut, breaking the mood briefly.
At that moment Mrs. Wendham returned to the dining room. “What are you doing here?” she said to Michael. “I told you to leave Olivia alone!”
“I asked Michael here, Mother,” she said. “He has some information.”
“What information?” asked Mickey Sloan as she entered the room carrying a notepad. “Is it about the diamonds? That’s it, isn’t it? Olivia’s fiance knows who took them!” she said. “What a great story this will make!”
Mrs. Wendham glared at Mickey. “There won’t be any story,” she said. “Michael was just leaving.”
“No, not yet,” Olivia pleaded. “Why don’t we all have some tea and calm down?” She took Michael’s hand and led him to the table.
“No, I’ve had enough of this,” Mrs. Wendham said. “I’d prefer to have my dessert with Mrs. McVee. Olivia, I expect your guest to be leaving shortly.” She turned to leave the room and took Mickey by the arm. “Why don’t you join me?” she asked, leading her out the door.
“I’m sorry about your mother, Olivia,” Michael said. “But I had to see you today. Wait till you see what I’ve found….”
His voice trailed off when Jeffrey entered the room with a tea tray and put it on the table.
“Thank you, Jeffrey,” Olivia said as the butler left the room. She fixed two cups of tea and handed Michael a cup. “Milk, no sugar, right?” she asked him. Michael nodded and took a big sip from the cup.
“Michael is doing a terrific job, isn’t he?” Ned whispered to Nancy. She nodded. “Maybe he should skip medical school and take up acting!” he added.
Olivia was looking intently at Michael. “We’re alone now,” she said. “What do you have?”
“This,” Michael said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a crumpled bit of newspaper. As he dramatically held it out to Olivia, his hand began shaking. He dropped the paper onto the table. “But I need to explain…”
“Look, Ned,” Nancy whispered, pointing to Michael. “He looks kind of funny.”
Suddenly pale, Michael was wiping his fore head with a napkin. He picked up his teacup, but his hand was shaking so badly, he dropped the cup, and tea sloshed all over the white tablecloth. Then he grasped his throat with both hands and moaned.
Olivia sprang toward him. “Michael!” she cried. “What is it?”
Michael turned his gaze to Olivia. “The tea,” he choked, pointing to the tray on the table. “I think I’ve been poisoned!”
Michael collapsed in the chair, his body half sliding onto the floor. Olivia lightly slapped his cheeks, trying to get him to come around. “Michael,” she whimpered, “please, wake up!”
The guests sat silently, intently watching the action. The overhead lights in the room slowly brightened, changing the mysterious mood and signaling the end of the scene. “Dessert and coffee in the front parlor,” Mrs. McVee called.
People now started moving toward the door, but Nancy’s eyes were still on the couple. Olivia cradled Michael’s head in one arm and was frantically waving the other at the innkeeper. Mrs. McVee was showing people out the door and didn’t notice Olivia.
Nancy grabbed Ned’s arm. “Something’s wrong!” she hissed, pulling Ned with her toward Michael and Olivia.
“What happened?” Nancy asked as Ned eased Michael onto the carpet.
“I don’t know.” Olivia moaned. “But I think Michael’s dead!”