“This reminds me of the area around River Heights,” Nancy Drew said as the taxi from Schiphol Airport sped along the outskirts of the city of Amsterdam. “All these flat fields and suburbs — except for the windmills, it looks like parts of the Midwest.”
Beside her, her good friend George Fayne nodded. “And except for all the dikes,” she added. “I’ve never seen a field back home with dikes.”
“Holland is surrounded by dikes to keep back the waters of the North Sea,” their cab driver said in very good English. He was a middle-aged man with curly brown hair and a husky voice. “About half of our country is below sea level,” he explained. “That is what Netherlands means — ‘the low country.’ There is an old saying here: God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland. Even Amsterdam is three meters below sea level.”
“Three meters,” Nancy echoed. “That’s more than nine feet underwater.”
The taxi driver laughed. “The dikes have held the water back for hundreds of years. I am certain they will not fail on your vacation.”
“No problem,” George said, winking at Nancy. “We’re both pretty good swimmers.”
The driver glanced quickly at the two Americans in the rearview mirror. His voice was suddenly serious. “The water of the North Sea is so cold, no human being can survive in it for more than three minutes.”
“Maybe we won’t go swimming,” George said. “Besides, I’m sure Merissa has plans for us.” Merissa Lang, who lived in Amsterdam, was George’s friend. Nancy had never met Merissa, but George spoke of her often.
The cab entered the old city of Amsterdam, and Nancy suddenly felt as if she’d plunged three centuries back in time. Amsterdam was a city of narrow brick houses, anywhere from three to six stories high, with elaborately ornamented gables and red tile roofs. Built side by side along the ancient, murky canals, the buildings were so old that many were crooked and leaned into each other for support. The cobblestoned streets in front of the houses crossed the canals on small brick bridges.
Here and there, gray stone church towers rose above the red tile roofs, some with little gold steeples or delicate crowns. Others were tiny bell or clock towers. Everything was clean and prosperous looking, and the extremely narrow streets were filled with people riding battered but sturdy bicycles.
The driver stopped the cab in front of a tail, narrow townhouse on Oude Zijds Voorbuigwal, a canal in the oldest part of Amsterdam, in a neighborhood called Nieuwe Markt. Merissa had explained in a letter to George that it was pronounced New Market — which was exactly what it meant, except that the towers of what had once been a gate in the city’s wall were “new” almost six hundred years ago.
George glanced at the piece of paper she held in her hand. “This is it,” she said. “Merissa’s apartment should be on the fourth floor.”
The two girls got out of the cab, took their suitcases from the trunk, and paid the driver.
“I wish Bess had been able to come with us,” Nancy said as George rang the doorbell. Bess Marvin was George’s first cousin, and the three friends had shared many adventures together.
George smiled. “Bess is in love. There was no way she was going to leave Kyle, even for a chance to go to Amsterdam.” She rang the bell a second time. “And now Merissa is about to get married. I can’t believe it. It seems like only a little while ago that we were kids playing together.”
The girls shivered a little in the cold, damp wind. The gray, overcast sky seemed low and forbidding. The end of November did not have the best weather for visiting the Netherlands, but it was the only time Merissa could take off from her job to spend time with them.
Nancy stepped back on the cobblestoned street and gazed up at the old Dutch house. The date 1691 was inscribed in flowing letters on the fifth-floor gable, just below the red tile roof. Her eyes went to the fourth floor. There was no sign of life behind the delicate white lace curtains that hung in the windows.
“I don’t understand,” George said as she rang the bell for the third time. “Merissa promised she’d be here.” She looked at her watch. “And we’re even an hour and a half later than I told her. I’m sure that she wouldn’t just go out. She’d wait for us.”
“She was probably delayed,” Nancy said. Merissa was a freelance reporter for the International Tribune. Since she had had an interview to do, she had been unable to meet them at the airport, but she had promised to be waiting at her apartment.
“Maybe the bell is out of order,” George suggested. She pulled her wool scarf up over her short, dark hair and turned her back to the chilly wind. She looked up at the townhouse and shouted. “Merissa! Merissa! It’s us!”
Almost immediately Nancy saw the lace curtains at a second-floor window stir. A face appeared, then disappeared. Suddenly the curtains parted again, and the window was flung open. A robust, middle-aged woman with streaks of grey in her dark brown hair peered out.
“Wat willen U?” she shouted in rapid Dutch. George and Nancy exchanged a quick glance. Neither could understand Dutch.
“We’re looking for Merissa Lang,” George called up in a tentative voice. “We’re her friends.”
The woman looked surprised. “From America?”
“Yes!” George shouted back.
The woman in the window disappeared behind the lace curtains without a word. Then her head popped out again. “Wait! I let you in,” she said, her English lightly accented.
Nancy and George stood patiently at the door, both of them listening for footsteps inside. Instead, they heard a muffled thump behind the door.
Nancy looked at George. Then she pushed the wooden door lightly. It swung open, revealing a narrow hallway and a long steep staircase. But no one was there.
“Come! Come!” It was the voice of the woman who had been at the window. She was calling from upstairs. Nancy and George picked up their suitcases and entered the foyer.
Nancy’s eyes flitted quickly around the dim interior. She noticed a rope stretched across one wall and going up the stairs. When she turned to see where it started, she discovered that it was attached to the bolt on the door. Nancy realized that when the rope was pulled, the latch opened. That was the thump they’d heard outside. Footsteps clumped on the stairs.
“Ach, that is typically Dutch,” the woman said, appearing at the top of the first landing and seeing Nancy’s eyes on the rope and latch. She walked halfway down. “I am Mevrouw — Mrs. — Wouters. I am the owner of this house — how do you say it?”
“Landlady?” Nancy suggested.
“Yes, that is it.” Mevrouw Wouters nodded emphatically. “Merissa has told me her friends are coming.”
“I’m George Fayne. This is my friend Nancy Drew,” George said. “It’s so unlike Merissa to forget.”
“Merissa is always busy with her job, coming and going. And with a friend, too.” Mevrouw Wouters looked at them knowingly. “He is very handsome and very rich, too, I think.”
“That must be Andrei,” George said to Nancy. She turned back to Mevrouw Wouters. “That’s why we’re visiting. They became engaged recently, and Merissa wants me to meet her fiance.”
The Dutch landlady brandished a key. “I will let you in to wait.”
Carrying their bags, Nancy and George followed her up the staircase to Merissa’s fourth-floor apartment. The stairs grew steeper as they climbed, and Nancy began to wish that she hadn’t packed quite so much. By the time they ascended the last flight, the steps were almost as steep as a ladder leaning against a wall.
The wooden floorboards creaked loudly under foot, and the old house smelled of plaster and ancient wood. Nancy couldn’t help marveling that families had lived here for more than three hundred years.
“When was the last time you saw Merissa?’ George asked Mevrouw Wouters when they stood on the tiny landing outside Merissa’s door.
Mrs. Wouters inserted the key in the lock, then turned to George and pursed her lips. “Two, three days perhaps,” she said dismissively. “But Merissa always tells me if she’s going away, and she has said nothing. So I am sure she will be back very soon.”
Mevrouw Wouters pushed the door open, revealing a cheerfully decorated apartment with simple modern furniture upholstered in brightly colored prints. White lace curtains hung at the large, old-fashioned windows.
The landlady left them, closing the door behind her. Nancy and George set their bags down in the living room. Nancy strode over to the windows and pushed aside the delicate lace. The living room overlooked the canal and the cobblestoned street.
George sank into the couch and heaved a disappointed sigh. “Not much of a welcoming party.” She picked up a photograph in a silver frame from the side table. In it, a handsome young man in his early twenties had his arm around Merissa’s shoulder. They were both laughing.
“This must be Prince Andrei,” she said.
“A prince?” Nancy said, turning from the window. “You told me he was rich and lived in a castle, but you didn’t tell me he was royalty.”
“Merissa says he’s very casual about it. She specifically said we’re to call him Andrei, not Your Royal Highness or anything like that.”
“What else has she told you about him?” Nancy asked. Walking back to the center of the living room, she noticed a vase of tulips on a credenza, next to the television. They were drooping, and petals had fallen on the polished wood.
“He’s got something Merissa calls old-world charm,” George reported. “He’s been treating her royally. He flew her to Paris for lunch, took her skiing in Switzerland, and gave her a sapphire pendant that she told me she wears all the time.”
“No diamond ring?” Nancy teased.
George rolled her eyes. “Merissa said it’s been ordered from Cartier, but according to her last letter, it hadn’t arrived yet.”
As George was talking, Nancy gazed around the living room and glanced into the kitchen. There was another vase of flowers on the table, also dead for at least several days. Strange, Nancy thought, frowning slightly.
“What’s the matter?” George asked, seeing the expression on Nancy’s face. “I can tell when you’re sleuthing.” Nancy was a well-known amateur detective and seemed to attract mysteries the way a magnet attracts iron filings.
Nancy shrugged. “Probably nothing,” she said. “I just wondered why these dead flowers haven’t been thrown away.”
“Merissa probably didn’t have a chance to clean up before we got here,” George said. “She works really hard.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Nancy said, but she couldn’t stop herself from looking around. She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, which was only half as high as American ones and fit under the counter. She took out a carton of milk and sniffed at it. “Sour,” she said. “And there’s something here that looks like a science project. I think it was salad once.”
George frowned. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. A lot of people forget to throw out things from their refrigerators.” She walked to the bedroom at the back of the apartment. Nancy was right behind her. Heavy drapes covered the windows, throwing the room into partial darkness. Nancy flung the drapes aside. Windows, securely bolted, overlooked a courtyard filled with sheds and little gardens.
George flicked on the overhead light to dispel the gloom. The room contained a bed, neatly made, and a desk, tidy and clear of everything except a blotter, a jar filled with pens, a telephone answering machine, and a laptop computer.
“Everything looks okay…” George began.
Nancy didn’t say anything but pointed to a dresser between the desk and the window. The surface was covered with Merissa’s earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. Most of it was costume jewelry, but a sparkling sapphire pendant rested in a blue velvet box.
George picked up the necklace. “This must be the pendant that Andrei gave her,” she said. “I can’t believe she’d go out and just leave it lying here like this, especially after telling me she wears it everywhere.”
Nancy glanced at the answering machine — a zero in its display indicated no messages, but she tried pressing the buttons anyway. All she got was Merissa’s prerecorded outgoing message.
Suddenly Nancy put her fingers to her lips and said, “Shhh!”
They heard footsteps on the stairs. Someone was approaching the door.
As a key turned in the lock, George turned to Nancy and said excitedly, “She’s here!” With Nancy right behind her, George hurried to the door. She turned the handle and opened it, then jumped back in alarm and shock.
A tall, well-built man, wearing a long black cape and holding a leering white Harlequin mask over his face, leapt menacingly into the apartment!