"I had a terrible dream that night," recounted Nancy. "Bess was lying in bed, terribly sick. And you were sitting next to her holding her hand. I was standing at the foot of her bed, standing watch, so to speak. Something dangerous was coming, I don't know what. But I knew I had to be alert for it. After a while a nurse came in, walked right past me without noticing and opened up the closet on the opposite wall. The back of the closet was dripping with blood! Two streams were pouring down, one on each side. I instantly knew, without seeing it, that my body was lying dead on an upper shelf. And your corpse was in the closet as well!"
George, who could pretend to be brave in front of anyone else but her chums, quaked at Nancy's uncanny dream tale.
"It is a strange thing to suddenly realize that you are already dead, brutally murdered, and to be confronted with the grisly evidence of the deed. But at the same time I felt safe—somehow disengaged—as if my mortal fate no longer concerned me. You and Bess were there, but it didn't matter. You were both there and not there, and so was I. All was peaceful. Then the nurse screamed, and the blood poured down a veritable torrent, and I suddenly awoke."
Nancy and George were sitting on worn stuffed chairs in a shabby but comfortable, parlor-like room that "Chantelle" had of late called her "office." They had negotiated their way down several halls and up one stairway without major misadventure. Once they had come face to face with a patrolling thug, and George's already palpitating heart had skipped a beat. But Nancy calmly greeted him, gave him an immodest toss of her long eyelashes, threw in a Barbara Stanwyck cluck, and they passed on without consequence. In the "office" Nancy turned on the television and two sturdy fans to frustrate any possible bug or eavesdropper. She talked in such a low voice that George had to carefully focus her ears in order not to miss anything.
"When I awoke it was silent," continued Nancy, holding George spellbound. "But with my sixth sense I knew something bad was afoot. My bedroom in the inn was cold, but I got out of bed without hesitating a moment. I ran to the window and looked towards my 'hobo' guard at the edge of the forest. I saw the light of his fire, then presently I saw much more. Outlined against the flames there appeared a tremendous struggle. The attacker was smaller than the detective, but apparently had the advantage of surprise. It took only a moment before my defender was down and, as I was certain, dead. You can't guess how helpless and impotent I felt to see the detective killed right in front of me—and there was nothing I could do to intervene or to help!
"At that moment I realized that all I could do was to save myself. And this would be no small challenge. I was on my own and with few resources against a person (or persons!) who was clearly an accomplished assassin. The trap was closing upon me and I didn't have much time to formulate, much less execute, a plan. But I did have the gift of forewarning. The killer would not find me asleep. Rather than play a lamb for the slaughter, I was determined to confront my foe on at least equal terms.
"I didn't have an opportunity to signal for help. The phone might be cut, or at least the hall watched. My radio was gone. Mrs. White must have been in my room while I was asleep! So I quickly improvised a scheme. Fortunately, I had part of a plan ready to hand. I had thought that I might need another disguise and had carefully packed it at the bottom of one of my suitcases.
"I quickly donned the secret outfit—a tailored dress, rather like this one, which I had chosen to display a lower-class image of gaudy elegance, something that a female gangster or a gangster's moll might think was posh. I put on rather a lot of jewelry, good stuff that I inherited from my mother. The pearls were tight fitting—a choker. No loose dangling strands. I wanted to make sure it looked like my clothes and adornments wouldn't get in the way of 'wet work.' And it's a good thing that I have long practiced putting on makeup in the dark—just in case of emergencies. It came out a little heavy, admittedly just this side of slatternly. Fortunately this was the very effect that I had in mind. I adjusted my hair quickly, realizing that I would have to brush it out some more later if I were to be passable in daytime. I just hoped that darkness would cover up the mess that my hair really was."
"A bad hair night," commented George.
Nancy smiled rueful assent.
"No glasses," George further remarked.
Nancy nodded. "And I later plucked my eyebrows rather more thinly than I normally like. But that night I realized that I would never have time to make such refined adjustments. For I had to hasten to make further preparations for the expected arrival of my assailant."
"But it sounds like you had a lot of time," said George. "Didn't you worry that he might rush in to murder you as soon as he had eliminated your watcher?"
"I thought that the assassin would feel no hurry and would methodically tidy up after the first killing."
"Clean as you go, as Mrs. Beaton used to say," commented George.
Nancy did not smile this time. It was a real death they were talking about. The man was a good, honest detective whom Nancy had met on several occasions. George, who had seen the poor man's blood, apologized.
The interrupted sleuth resumed: "With an extra pillow and some rolled up blankets, I made up the bed to look like I was sleeping in it. I found my purse and took out a homemade sap. Then I hid behind the door.
"After all my hasty efforts at preparation I had to wait quite a while pressed against the wall. I felt my nerve slowly draining away. What if there were a whole gang out there and they rushed me all at once? Or, even if there were a lone assassin, would I have the strength and nerve to knock him out? Or I might miss. If my aim was not straight, hard, and true I would be a dead girl, just as my dream had foretold.
"I began to tremble. I wanted to crawl out the window and take my chances hiding in the woods. But I knew that I couldn't. That would violate the 'Code of the Drews.' Therefore I had to wait, and trust in my own skill, rather than darkness, for salvation.
"Finally, the door began slowly to open. At first I was amazed how quiet the hinges were, then it dawned on me that it was no accident that the door was so silent. This was a room in which abduction had long been practiced. I moved away slightly so that my shoulder would not give me away by impeding the progress of the door. I saw the assassin's shadowy form enter the room and drift like a specter towards my bed. I lightly followed, trying not to make the slightest noise. My shoes, which were new and not broken in, must have squeaked and betrayed me, for just as he was about to reach the bed, his head started to turn around. I realized that it was now or never. I sprung towards him aiming my sap at the top of his head. It hit him so near the temple that I was afraid that I might have killed him. He crumpled instantly into a heap on the floor.
"I felt his pulse and checked his breathing to make sure that he was still alive. I suppose if you are an assassin you must take your chances, but I had no wish to become anyone's killer if I could avoid it. To my relief, unconscious as he was, he seemed to be breathing. His gun had dropped next to him, and I frisked him for other weapons. I found what amounted to a miniature arsenal of saps, knives, and guns. He even had a small amount of plastic explosive! I put all of these in my bag. I made room by taking out a length of rope with which I tied him securely."
"Did you make the message on the wall with your fingernails?" asked George.
"You found that did you?" replied Nancy. "Good job. I hoped that it would reassure you and that trying to decode it would keep you occupied. I didn't have time to make up a really tough code. So I settled for semi-random. I made it look like cuneiform, because I knew that would make it appear more meaningful than it was. But I guess it didn't delay you as long as I had hoped. You got here a day too early. I am about to spring a trap that will capture the whole slaver gang. With you and Bess here, it complicates my plans."
"Sor-ry," protested George with a touch of hurt sarcasm in her voice, "but we came here to rescue you!"
"And I appreciate that you came," said Nancy reassuringly. "You and Bess really are darlings. But you being here turns out not to be much help and it puts two extra people in mortal danger."
Nancy looked at George wistfully for a moment, then suddenly there was a mischievous glint in her eye. She stood up and walked over to George and pulled the hat off her friend, exposing the incongruous pill-box.
"That's it!" she exclaimed. "I have a plan that will take care of you."
"How?" asked George as she tossed aside the anachronistic headgear.
"All in good time," stalled Nancy. "I'll tell you after we go to see Bess."
George took this as an invitation and made a move to stand up.
"Stay put, George," ordered Nancy. "It is better that we wait a bit before visiting her. I think that in about an hour she will be much better prepared to receive us. We can pass the time comfortably here. Do you wish to hear the rest of my story?"
"Please," responded George.
"Well, since I was almost a killer myself, that gave me an idea. I had thought that I might merely disappear, then show up on the edge of the underworld and slowly work my way in. But at that moment a better scheme occurred to me that would allow me to penetrate at once the heart of the criminal enterprise. I would become my own assassin! I would pretend to be the killer that had been hired to take out that interfering Nancy Drew!"
"How could you do that?" inquired George. "Wouldn't they know who they sent to kill you?"
"It is the usual practice for Carbon City gangs to hire outside talent for their hits," Nancy explained. "That way, if the killer is caught there is nothing to tie him to the gang that ordered the deed. Since the villain came from so far away, the police would have to assume that he—or she—was just a mercenary. Besides, it is quite hard to pursue investigations across state lines without bringing in the F.B.I. And the local cops hate that. The victim would have to be really high profile for them to agree to submit to the Feds. I guessed that in this case it would be no different."
"You are pretty important and well known, Nancy."
"Thanks, George," responded Nancy. "But I know that I'm at best a medium-sized sleuthing fish in a pretty small mystery pond. When I went missing Dad didn't yank the chain for Elliot Ness did he?"
"No, he kept it pretty quiet."
"That is Dad's way. He likes to do things himself. There's less risk that way. Only call in the cops when overwhelming force is necessary."
Nancy felt a change in the light entering the room through the window. She inspected her watch.
"I'd better get on with my story, if I'm going to have time to tell it."
"Are you in a hurry?" inquired George.
"Not just yet," answered Nancy. "But I plan to be quite busy later. And there will be much to do before then. Maybe I'd better stop now. We will have ample time to share stories when this adventure is over."
"Please tell me now how you infiltrated the gang," implored George. "I'm just dying to know."
"All right," conceded Nancy after another glance at her watch. "I think there is still just enough time."
George drew up her legs on the chair and composed herself to listen to the rest of Nancy's tale.