Nancy is on the trail of a dangerous kidnapper --deep in the heart of Texas
"I wish you didn't have to go." Ned Nickerson's lips brushed Nancy Drew's cheek as he held her tightly in his arms.
Nancy looked up into his dark eyes. "I do too," she whispered, burying her face against his shoulder. "Texas seems light-years away."
"I wish this Reigert guy had never contacted you," Ned said.
"Oh, Ned, you know the Reigert case is important to me." But as important as the case was, Nancy didn't want to leave Ned. Not when they had just gotten back together again.
Right at that moment Nancy didn't feel like a detective going off to solve a difficult case; she felt only like a girl saying goodbye to the boy she loved.
She kissed him again. Above them someplace, the airport's public address system announced Nancy's flight for the third time.
Nancy tried to pull away, but Ned's arms tightened around her. "Listen, if you need help," he said, "I could come down for a long weekend or even take a couple of days off from school. Also, my uncle Al lives in Dallas, and by plane he's not too far from where you'll be. He'd come running to help you -- I know he would. He's a great guy -- works for one of the Dallas newspapers."
"Thanks for the offer," Nancy said with a smile. "I'll take you up on it if things get really tough."
Reluctantly Nancy drew away from Ned. "I'm going," she said, slinging her carry-on bag over her shoulder and picking up her portable typewriter. She smoothed her skirt and adjusted her trim khaki blazer. "Well, do I look ready?"
"You look perfect," Ned said, giving her a final, quick kiss. "Hey, Nancy Drew," he said in a husky voice, "don't forget that I love you."
Once on the plane Nancy flipped open her notebook to review the notes she had made during her telephone call with Robert Reigert a few days earlier. Mr. Reigert, at sixty-five, was a retired Texas oil tycoon. He had read a newspaper article about Nancy's having solved an old mystery and been impressed enough to call her when he needed a detective to solve the case of his two year-old daughter's disappearance fifteen years earlier.
He told her she would have to work undercover and alone at his ranch, Casa del Alamo. The ranch was a hundred miles west of San Antonio and forty miles from the nearest town. Forty miles from help, if I need it, thought Nancy.
She looked down at her notes again. If there had been any clues to the girl's disappearance, they were long gone, lost in the mountains of Mexico, in the debris of the private plane crash that killed Mr. Reigert's wife, Isabel. Mother and daughter had been on their way to visit Isabel's wealthy, aristocratic Mexican family. The woman's body had been found at the site of the crash, but the girl had simply disappeared.
For years Mr. Reigert had believed that his daughter wandered away from the crash and died alone in the mountains. But just before his call to Nancy, he received a hand-printed ransom note saying that Catarina, now seventeen, was still alive and being held! Attached to the note, which had been slipped under his front door, was a faded scrap of cloth that Mr. Reigert insisted was a piece of the dress Catarina had been wearing when she left.
Nancy looked at her notebook again. A ransom note and a fifteen-year-old scrap of cloth that might or might not be what Mr. Reigert thought it was. Precious little to go on.
But the story of Catarina had touched Nancy because she, too, had lost her mother years before. She wondered what would have happened if she had lost her father as well and been brought up by strangers? She definitely had a deep personal interest in Catarina Reigert and felt compelled to accept the case.
Anyway, she told herself, snapping her notebook shut, the trail wasn't so cold as it seemed. That ransom note, for instance, hadn't been written fifteen years before. It had to have come from someone who had easy access to the Reigert house -- maybe even someone who worked at the ranch. That was what Mr. Reigert seemed to think. Her first task, she knew, would be to get acquainted with everyone at Casa del Alamo.
Nancy looked down at the portable typewriter she had stowed under her seat. For this job, she wouldn't be Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. She was going as Nancy Driscoll, a ghostwriter sent to help Mr. Reigert write his memoirs. It was a good cover because she could ask questions and snoop around the ranch without appearing suspicious. She had brought the typewriter, a camera, and several notebooks to help with her disguise. She was all set.
* * *
"So, you're a writer, huh?" Mark Blake asked with a smile as he picked up Nancy's luggage and started out to the parking lot of the San Antonio airport.
"Yes," Nancy said, studying her companion covertly. Mr. Reigert had sent his twenty-five-year-old stepson, Mark, to pick Nancy up and drive her to the ranch. Mark was tall, dark, and good-looking, but his charming smile had an arrogant twist to it. Nancy wasn't sure she liked it or him. He was wearing a fancy cowboy shirt, with jeans and snakeskin boots.
"It's funny the old man didn't tell my mother and me about working on his memoirs," Mark observed, tossing Nancy's bag into the backseat of a white Cadillac.
"Perhaps it was a sudden inspiration," Nancy remarked noncommittally. She looked at the car. Mark Blake certainly drove an expensive automobile. "Your mother must be the second Mrs. Reigert," she added. "I understand that Mr. Reigert's first wife died in a plane crash."
"That's right," Mark said, climbing into the car. "But that was a long time ago. He and Jonelle got married last year."
"My mother," Mark said. "I call her that some times."
"Oh," Nancy murmured. "How did she and Mr. Reigert meet?"
"It's a long story," Mark said, starting the car. He gave her another charming smile that made deep dimples in his cheeks. "Why do you want to know?"
Nancy smiled back. "Part of my job," she replied, pushing back her red-gold hair. "If I'm going to help Mr. Reigert, I need to know about his family."
"Yeah, I suppose." Mark shrugged. "Anyway, it's no big secret. They met at a club in Dallas, where Jonelle was a hostess." He laughed. "You might call it a whirlwind romance. In a couple of weeks they were married and we were living at the ranch."
"Do you work at the ranch?" Nancy asked, looking at Mark's boots.
"Me? You mean, punching cattle? Heck, no. I'm into investments." Mark quickly turned his head to glance at Nancy. "You know, you don't quite fit my image of a ghostwriter."
Nancy grinned back. "Well, I guess ghostwriters come in all shapes and sizes."
"Yes, but you look so young," Mark persisted. "I got an early start." Nancy realized that she should have thought more about her cover. "My -- my father helped me in the beginning."
Before Mark could ask any other questions, she started asking some of her own. Mark's answers were all friendly enough. But she got the feeling that his easy charm wasn't quite sincere.
It was late afternoon and the sun was dipping toward the horizon. As they drove toward the west, the hills became steeper and rockier, and the vegetation more sparse and brown. Low, gnarled mesquite trees were interspersed with clumps of dark green cedars and gray green sage. Spiky clumps of prickly pear cactus grew among the grasses. Grazing in a stand of oak trees, Nancy counted five small deer, all brown with white markings on their tails.
"White-tailed deer," Mark told Nancy. "The only native deer in this country. They're small, but around here hunting is very big business and the size of the deer doesn't matter."
They turned off the main road and drove under an impressive stone archway that bore the words Casa del Alamo and what looked like a ranch brand, a circle with an R in it.
Finally, at the end of the two- or three-mile-long lane, they came to a low, sprawling house with a red tile roof, shaded by several huge old cottonwood trees. The house had a wide, Spanish style veranda across the front, and heavy shutters stood open at all the windows. It was all surrounded by a luxuriant green lawn and a colorful garden. As they pulled up to the main entrance, a woman stepped onto the veranda.
"You must be Nancy Driscoll," she said as Nancy got out of the car. "I'm Jonelle Reigert." Mrs. Reigert was dressed in designer dude-ranch clothes -- tight white pants and a silk shirt with silver buttons. Nancy noticed that the buttons were embossed with the brand she'd seen on the gate.
"I'm glad to meet you, Mrs. Reigert," Nancy said, joining her on the veranda and extending her hand. While her son was dark, Mrs. Reigert was a platinum blonde. She had fixed her hair in an enormous bouffant style. Her carefully made-up mouth wore a vivacious smile, but Nancy thought that it was plastered on and that Jonelle Reigert seemed rather nervous.
"Glad to have you here," Mrs. Reigert said. "We hope you'll enjoy your stay. Mrs. Arguello will show you to your room."
Nancy turned. An elderly Mexican woman stepped silently out of the house. Her high cheekboned face was like weathered parchment, brown and wrinkled. And her hawklike black eyes were fixed on Nancy, seeming to pierce right through her. She must be seventy years old, perhaps more, Nancy thought. Had she been with Mr. Reigert long enough to know anything about Catarina?
"Follow me, se這rita," the old woman said. Mark had set Nancy's bags on the porch, and Nancy bent to pick them up. "No," Mrs. Arguello said simply. She went to the edge of the porch and raised her voice commandingly. "Joe Bob! Pronto!"
A stooped man wearing a shapeless brown jacket of some indefinable leather -- perhaps deerskin -- appeared from around the corner.
Nancy had the distinct impression that he had been listening there.
Mrs. Reigert smiled again. "This is another member of our staff," she said. "His name is Joe Bob and he looks after the horses."
As Joe Bob picked up Nancy's bags, he glanced furtively at her out of the corner of his eye and muttered something that Nancy couldn't make out. Nancy just about walked into the next person to come out of the house, a tall, good-looking young man, holding a well-worn cowboy hat at his side. His jeans were dusty and faded at the knees, and he wore a blue chambray work shirt.
"Howdy," he said in a broad Texas drawl. "I'll bet you're that writer Mr. Reigert's brought in."
Nancy suppressed a smile. This authentic looking cowboy made Mark Blake look like a fancy-dress dude. "You're right," she said. "I'm Nancy Driscoll."
"This is Gene Newsom," Mrs. Reigert said. She smiled warmly at Gene and laid a hand on his arm. "Gene is our foreman. We couldn't get along without him -- could we, Gene?" Nancy noticed that her voice had taken on a soft, almost purring sound that instantly made Gene uncomfortable. His smile faded and he took a step back, jamming his battered Stetson on his head.
"Good to meet you, Nancy," he said briefly. Then, stepping off the veranda, he was gone quickly.
"Don't let Gene fool you with that cowboy look," Mrs. Reigert said. "He graduated from Texas A and M at the top of his class. He knows all there is to know about cattle. My husband relies heavily on his ideas about range management."
"That's your trouble, Jonelle," Mark said with thinly disguised contempt. "You're too easily impressed. Just because -- "
"Mark," Mrs. Reigert said with a quick glance in Nancy's direction. "Not now." She turned to Joe Bob. "Joe Bob, take those bags to Miss Driscoll's room." Reluctantly, Nancy followed him and Mrs. Arguello. She wished Mrs. Reigert hadn't stopped Mark. She was curious about his animosity toward Gene.
The outside of Mr. Reigert's home looked like a typical southwestern ranch house. But the inside was decorated like a mansion. Each public room was elegantly furnished with Persian rugs covering glossy hardwood floors. There were cabinets filled with silver and crystal, and paintings covered the walls. It looked to Nancy as if the Reigerts had an unlimited decorating budget.
Nancy's bedroom, in a first-floor wing with the other bedrooms, was small but comfortable and beautifully done. There was even a desk for her typewriter and a telephone on the table beside the bed. Nancy pointed to it as Joe Bob put the bags down and left the room.
"Can I use this to make a long-distance call?" she asked Mrs. Arguello. She was thinking of her promise to Ned.
Mrs. Arguello nodded. "If someone is on this line, there is another phone in Se這r Reigert's office," she said. "It is a separate line, for the se這r to do business."
Nancy turned. "Have you been with Mr. Reigert for a long time?" she asked.
"Sí. Since the old days."
"The old days? When the first Mrs. Reigert lived here?"
The woman gave her a wary glance. "Sí."
"Then you must remember their child, Catarina."
Mrs. Arguello refused to meet her eyes. "Perhaps." She shrugged. "Why do you ask?"
At that moment a girl rapped once on the door frame and walked into the room. She was very pretty, close to Nancy's age, with long dark hair and flashing black eyes. She wore a full skirt and a white embroidered peasant blouse and carried herself almost regally.
"Se這rita Driscoll?" she asked softly with a heavy Spanish accent.
Mrs. Arguello scowled at the girl. "I thought I told you to stay in the kitchen, Angela," she scolded.
The girl glanced at Nancy and then lowered her eyes. "From Se這r Reigert," she said, handing Nancy a white envelope. "A note for Se這rita Driscoll."
"Well, let's leave the se這rita alone to read it," the old woman said, shepherding Angela to the door. It was almost as if, Nancy thought, Mrs. Arguello didn't want the two of them to meet.
Nancy opened the sealed envelope and took out a folded piece of paper. The writing on it was scrawled in pencil, in a strong slanted hand. "Come to my office at once," she read. "I've received another ransom note!"
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