Nancy's hot on the trail of a stolen bundle of cold hard cash.
"Are we almost there?" Bess Marvin asked. Her teeth were chattering. "I feel like a giant Popsicle."
"Don't you ever think of anything that's not related to food?" her cousin, George Fayne, said. George loved to tease Bess about her love for sweet things.
Nancy Drew tucked her reddish blond hair behind her ears as another gust of wind swept off the Mississippi River. It blasted her face with flying bits of snow that had accumulated from an earlier storm. She nodded toward a glass building at the end of the block. "That must be it."
George squinted at the sign on top of the domed building. The dome was surrounded by tall spires and tapering towers that made it look like a magical castle. "This is it -- the Crystal Palace," George said.
The three girls walked briskly to the ice arena, passing a number of restaurants and colorful boutiques. Nancy looked up at the decorative, turret-like columns gleaming in the sunlight under a light dusting of snow.
"The Crystal Palace is huge," Bess observed. "Alison must feel like a princess owning this. I half expect some little gnomes to run out to greet us any minute."
"I can't believe Alison inherited this whole arena from her uncle Henry," George said.
Nancy smiled. "And to think she used to play go fish with me."
Alison MacDonald was an old family friend of the Drews, and as a teenager she sometimes babysat for Nancy. Nancy still remembered the stories Alison would tell about the summers she spent in Minneapolis with her uncle Henry. Now Nancy understood why Alison had said the Crystal Palace looked like a fairy-tale castle.
"Alison always did love skating," Nancy said.
"When was the last time you saw her, Nan?" Bess asked.
"Not since she left home to go to college," Nancy replied. "I guess it's been six or seven years. After her parents died, Alison didn't have any family left in River Heights."
"How sad." Bess hugged herself to keep warm as they waited for the traffic light to turn green. "I think it's great that you guys have kept in touch all this time. I bet Alison's especially glad now that she needs a good detective."
"I just hope I can help. From what Dad told me, finding Henry MacDonald's missing money is going to be pretty tough," Nancy said.
"So your dad didn't have any ideas at all?" George asked.
Nancy shook her head. In his will Alison's uncle had left his niece a large sum of money in addition to the Crystal Palace. But after he died, Henry MacDonald's lawyers could locate only some of the funds. Alison immediately contacted Nancy's father, a respected attorney in River Heights. Carson Drew was equally puzzled about the money's whereabouts, and since he was wrapped up in a long court case, he couldn't go to Minneapolis for several more weeks. He'd suggested that Alison ask Nancy to look for her uncle's lost money. Nancy had investigated many cases with her father, and on her own, too. She was glad she could use her experience to help her friend.
"Alison and I have both been so busy, I only got to talk to her for a few minutes," Nancy said as the girls dashed across the street. "Dad filled me in on what he knows, but I still have to get all the details from Alison."
"I'm glad Alison invited all three of us," George said as they climbed the granite steps in front of the Crystal Palace. "I can't wait to see the skating competition."
George yanked open a heavy glass door, and Nancy and Bess filed ahead of her into the crowded lobby. They were greeted by a blast of cool, moist air.
Nancy's blue eyes scanned the expansive lobby. The area near the entrance was carpeted and furnished with carved tables and high-back chairs, in keeping with the arena's castle theme. But the mouthwatering aroma of cheeseburgers also hung in the air. Across from the skate rental area, Nancy spotted a snack bar. Sturdy rows of bleachers lined the walls around two full-size ice rinks.
Nancy nodded toward a blond woman who stood near the barrier to the ice. "You're the sports expert, George. Is that Meg Abbott?"
George's dark eyes widened. "The Olympic silver medalist?"
"The one who did those juice commercials on TV?" Bess asked.
"The one and only," a voice said behind Nancy. Nancy whirled around and saw a small, pretty brunette in her midtwenties grinning at her.
"Alison!" Nancy exclaimed, and gave her a big hug. "Do you remember my friends Bess and George?" she asked.
"Of course." Alison greeted them warmly. Her gaze went from tall, dark-haired George to petite, blond Bess. "You two still don't look remotely like first cousins."
"We know," Bess and George replied in unison.
Alison led the group to a table near the snack bar. Bess sat down, discreetly slipped off her fleece-lined boots, and began massaging her toes.
"I hope you didn't freeze walking over here," Alison said, watching Bess. "This is the coldest it's been since I moved to Minneapolis. Usually the weather's pretty similar to River Heights."
"We were fine. Our hotel's only a few blocks away," Nancy reminded her.
Alison leaned forward in her seat. "How is the Excelsior? Are you finding everything all right?"
"AII right?" George repeated. "It's incredible. You should see the fitness center."
"And the room service is the best," Bess added. "We ate lunch before we came over."
"Hot chocolate, ladies?" A man in his mid-thirties wearing jeans and a blue Crystal Palace sweatshirt leaned over Bess's shoulder. He lowered a tray toward the girls.
Nancy smiled and said, "Speaking of terrific service..."
Alison took a ceramic mug topped with whipped cream and a cinnamon stick and passed it to Nancy. "Thank you, Ted. This was so sweet."
Ted smiled, and a small dimple appeared in his cheek. "Just doing my job." He offered the mugs of hot chocolate around, and each young woman took one.
"Ted Marler's my assistant manager," Alison explained. "He's been at the Crystal Palace for ages. I don't know what I'd do without him." She turned to him and said, "But this does go a little beyond the call of duty, Ted."
Ted set down a plate of pastries. "Nothing but the best for our VIP guests," he said. "Nancy, Bess, and George, I presume?"
Alison nodded and said, "By the way, thanks for recommending the Excelsior Hotel. They love it."
Ted beamed. "I'm glad. Let's hope all the skaters who are staying there during the competition feel the same way." Then his expression grew more serious. "Al, do you think you could stop by my office when you're finished here? I'm having a little problem with one of the sponsors."
Nancy saw her friend's shoulders tense. "Thanks," Alison said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
As Ted disappeared to the back of the arena, Alison drummed her fingers on the marble table-top. "I wonder what's wrong now." She sighed. "I can't believe Uncle Henry ever thought I was ready for this. You can't imagine how much work goes into preparing for a major competition."
"I don't blame you for being a little worried," George said sympathetically. "The Midwestern Sectional Championships are a pretty big deal."
Alison rolled her eyes. "Please, don't remind me. I can't believe they're starting in two days."
Nancy leaned forward. "Alison, you seem anxious. I know there's a lot riding on this competition, but is there something else going on here?"
Alison sighed. "Yes. If things don't go perfectly this week, I'm afraid I'm going to run the Crystal Palace out of business."
Bess glanced at the groups of teenagers milling around the lobby. Most came to skate, but some came to hang out with their friends. "Business looks pretty good to me," she said.
"It is for now," Alison agreed. "But if anything goes wrong, I'm in big trouble, because I won't have enough money to fix it."
"What happened to the money you inherited from your uncle? Nancy asked. "I didn't think all of it was missing."
"Oh, it isn't. But before I arrived, Ted had to make emergency repairs to the pipes under both ice rinks. They were necessary but expensive," Alison explained. "My budget's almost wiped out."
Now Nancy understood. No wonder Alison was so anxious to locate her uncle's missing money.
Alison gestured toward the platter of rich desserts Ted had brought with the hot chocolate. "Have something to eat. We can talk about the case after I've given you the grand tour."
Bess reached for a coconut-covered fudge brownie. Then she hesitated and pulled back her hand, taking a small bunch of grapes instead.
George sighed. "Are you on a diet again?"
Bess popped a grape in her mouth and said, "Look at all these skinny skaters." She nodded toward the main rink. "Meg Abbott looks even thinner in real life than she does on TV."
"I thought she retired from skating years ago," Nancy commented, hoping to distract Bess from the topic of dieting.
"Is Meg here to watch the competition?" George asked.
"Sort of," Alison replied. "She's a coach now, and a few of her students are skating in the sectionals. The rest of the competitors aren't arriving until tomorrow, but Meg trains all her skaters year-round at the Crystal Palace."
"Do you think Meg would give me her autograph?" Bess asked.
"Well," Alison said uncertainly, "we can try." She motioned for Bess to follow her.
The group walked past a hockey game on the rink nearest the snack bar. "If I remember correctly, you were a terrific hockey goalie as a kid," Alison said to George. "Do you still play?"
George nodded, her eyes on the game. "It's great that you have two rinks here. At home we're always competing with the figure skaters for ice time."
"Well, hockey will be on hold here for a few days, I'm afraid," Alison said. "The competition will keep both rinks busy from dawn till late at night almost every day."
On the other rink a Crystal Palace employee was driving the tractorlike Zamboni machine across the ice, scraping snow and squirting water that would freeze and create a smooth surface. A pretty teenage girl had just glided off the ice. She was about sixteen, with long, dark hair and a slight build. An Ace bandage was wrapped around one knee. She walked over to Meg and spoke intently to her.
"She looks familiar," George said. "Wait -- I think I read an article about her in a sports magazine. Her name's Sarah something."
Alison nodded. "Sarah Phillips. She's Meg's prize pupil." Alison pointed out a pair who were just entering the arena with skates slung over their shoulders. "And that's Scott Ogden and Amanda Choi. They skate as a pair. Meg's their coach, too."
Scott was wiry and handsome and looked about eighteen. Stylish Amanda, wearing black leggings and a wraparound skating skirt, stood barely as tall as his shoulders. Her silky black hair was pulled into a French braid.
Amanda stood on her tiptoes and whispered something in Scott's ear. Her delicate laugh rippled across the lobby.
"Scott!" Sarah waved from the other side of the arena, then slipped plastic guards over her skate blades. Nancy saw that she narrowed her eyes at Amanda, who quickly moved away from Scott.
Could it be that Sarah was jealous of Amanda? Nancy wondered. Something was definitely going on.
Just then Sarah rushed into Scott's arms. "I haven't seen you in two whole hours. I've missed you so much!"
Meg broke away from the skaters and hurried over to Alison, who introduced her to Nancy, Bess, and George.
"Hi," Meg said curtly to the three girls, then turned to Alison. "I hate to interrupt your social hour, Alison," she said, "but we have a problem here."
Nancy could see Alison gritting her teeth as she turned to face Meg. "Yes?" she said politely.
"Sarah's scheduled to practice during the free style session that's about to start. So are Scott and Amanda." Meg frowned. "I specifically requested a separate practice time for them. You know pairs can't get anything accomplished during a crowded freestyle session. And I certainly can't coach them all at the same time."
"I'm sorry, Meg," Alison began. "I -- "
"Don't even bother to explain. I'm sick of your excuses," Meg said. "If you keep running things the way you have been, this competition is going to be a total disaster!"
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