HIGH ROAD INN
"George, you're driving too fast!" Bess Marvin shouted as she squirmed in the "shotgun" seat of her cousin's sporty maroon roadster.
George Fayne's real name was Georgiana, though she told everyone, including their close friend Nancy Drew, that the name on her birth certificate was really plain George. She said that she loved to amaze people with the perversity of her name. In truth, she closely watched the reaction of others upon being introduced to her: if they bought her story without skipping a beat, they were okay folks, but if they made a big fuss, she enjoyed the fun of the moment, but didn't bother with them later.
Bess knew George's name secret and also had one of her own. For, in truth, the name on her birth certificate was plain Bess, and not Elizabeth, as one might suspect. Nothing was said of this embarrassing fact, by either Bess or George. Bess was always called Bess, and the world was left to infer, incorrectly, that this was a nickname or diminutive. The two girls had, as it happened, become best buddies at an early age in a sort of conspiracy to conceal the origin of their names. Now, at eighteen, their friendship had matured and blossomed and bade fair to be lifelong. They knew many other secrets about each other, none of which-even under torture-would they dream of divulging.
George wasn't really driving fast, and her cousin knew it. This was another game they loved to play. George would pretend to be brave and daring. Bess worked herself up into a state of timidity and fright. In this way the simple act of transportation was transformed in their feverish young minds into a dance with death. But they were quite safe, as George prided herself on driving competency. It was the driving of Nancy Drew that frightened them both. When she was on one of her detective cases, she was capable of any speed, would often swerve unexpectedly, and had been known to manoeuvre in such a way as to force other cars off the road. Bess was glad that George was presently behind the wheel and she could indulge her fantasies of doom in perfect safety.
The two girls were a contrast in appearance. George was lean and wiry, and looked boyish to match her chosen name. She kept her hair quite short and generally affected masculine or at least unisex clothing. On this occasion though she was wearing a yellow party frock. This did not detract from her usual gamin charm. Whatever she wore-unless in deep disguise-she appeared to be nothing less than a girl called George, and as such she was irresistible to both women and men. Bess, on the other hand, was soft and plump in appearance. She had a full feminine figure, long and carefully curled hair, and wore makeup that intentionally fell short of the ideal of "the art that conceals art." Her pink dress accented her femininity, making her appear either voluptuous or pre-matronly according to her mood or intent. She affected a horror of her incipient obesity, always commenting about the effect on her figure of the food which she unstintingly ate, yet retained an inviting pulchritude.
"Lavender, won't you buy my sweet lavender," sang George with confused and tuneless abandon as she continued her drive on the way from a bridal shower they had attended in Ansonburg back to their homes in River Heights. Bess joined in the spirit of things with a much more musical counterpoint of "Oranges and Lemons." The two cousins loved the old London street cries with an Anglophile passion intensified in a sort of rivalry with their friend Nancy's love for the banks and braes of Scotland. Nancy had only recently returned from the Hebrides, where she had visited her great-uncle Angus Og MacDonald in his wind-swept island castle. There she had been caught up in The Mysterious Clue of the Secret Loch. At the climax of her thrilling adventure, Nancy and her Scottish friend, Fiona MacPhee, had rowed across the sea from Uist to Skye bearing the unjustly accused fugitive, Charles Prince, to safety.
George and Bess, though they would not admit it, were jealous of Nancy's trip. They had visited the south of England once when they were young, so they played that up as much as they could.
"Damn," said George unexpectedly.
This ejaculation startled Bess, who had been getting quite into the spirit of "Cockles and Mussels, Alive Alive O."
"We're running out of gas," George explained.
"I though you checked it just as we were leaving Jane's house."
"I made a mistake. It was the rpm meter I was looking at."
Just as George made this explanation the car began to slow. Fortunately the road was dipping at this point and the car was able to coast for quite a distance. When she saw Knob's Hill ahead George hoped they would have enough momentum to get over that rise. Beyond that, after two miles of steady downhill they would come to a service station. But the cousins were out of luck. Their vehicle, in its fuelless condition demoted in their minds from roadster to jalopy, barely made it halfway up the hill. George had to apply the brake smartly to prevent their rolling back even further from the crest.
"We'll never get the car up the hill. What will we do?" whined Bess.
The old highway had very little traffic ever since the nearby interstate had been put in. Besides they knew it was inadvisable to hitchhike. They were faced with a four mile trek, in heels, to fetch gas. Bess, not a fan of exercise, looked around in desperation.
On the other side of the road, down the hill a few hundred feet, she spotted what at first looked like an abandoned restaurant.
"George, let's check out that old place down there. Maybe someone still lives there and can lend us some gas."
"That's the High Road Inn," observed George. "I heard it went out of business years ago."
"Let's look anyway," insisted Bess.
George was not enthused about starting a long hike down the side of the highway by first making a futile excursion backwards, but at length gave in to Bess's pleading. They crossed the highway and approached the old inn.
As they got closer the girls noticed signs of movement in one of the windows. The place looked a little seedy, but it was not abandoned. The sign was freshly painted. Their hearts leapt as they spotted a car parked around the far side of the building.
"Someone is here, and they almost certainly have some gas," Bess observed.
George tried the door, which opened easily. They stepped into a lobby and were immediately greeted by a girl, not much older than themselves, in a threadbare but tidy waitress's uniform. According to the name tag her name was Joni.
"Will that be a table for two?" she greeted.
Thoughts of food immediately drove the need of gas from Bess's mind.
"But, Bess, the gas," George reminded her.
"That can wait," said Bess firmly. She knew that she could face any crisis much better on a full stomach.
George gave in, and the two girls followed Joni to a booth. There were no other customers. This relieved George, who was concerned that the car belonged to a patron who might suddenly drive away.
Joni took their orders. When she came back with the drinks, George asked her about the car at the side.
"That's mine," she admitted. Then, after looking at them carefully, Joni confided, "I wouldn't stay here without my car. I would feel kind of trapped."
"Cabin fever?" asked George.
"Not exactly. And it's not that I'm alone. Mrs. White, who owns this place, is always around. And we do get customers, from time to time."
"How many?" inquired Bess.
"Once we had a whole busload. They could barely fit, and Mrs. White had to come out to help me serve them. But most days, only a few. You are the only ones so far today. Yesterday there was nobody. Maybe six customers all told, this last week."
"How does Mrs. White stay in business?" pursued Bess.
"I don't know," Joni replied. "But she never complains of the scarcity of customers and she never seems in want of money. I get paid every week, though I admit it's not much."
"You can't get much from tips," George observed.
"No," Joni admitted ruefully.
"Why do you work here then?" asked George.
"I'm only here for the summer. By the time I found out how poorly I would be tipped it was too late to look for another position. I need the money for my tuition at Emerson College. So I figure I will have to stay at least a few more weeks."
"You sound as though you would like to leave right away," Bess intuited.
Joni's body language said yes, though her answer died on her lips. She looked around the room, and especially at the door to the kitchen. Then she walked over to that door and looked through the small half-moon windows. Coming back to the booth, she sat down next to George, who accommodatingly slid closer to the wall.
"To tell the truth, I'm scared of this place," Joni confided. "If I didn't need the money real bad and if I wasn't worried about leaving Mrs. White in the lurch, I would be gone in a New York minute."
"What is it?" anticipated Bess.
"I think the inn is haunted." The cousins encourage the oncoming narrative by opening their eyes in surprise.
"Several times in the dead of night," Joni began, "I have heard sounds that made my spine tingle and my blood curdle. There were groans. Male and female voices groaning. Then the sound of beating, sharp cries, and silence. And in that silence, I did not hear, but I felt, the biggest groan of all. It was eerie. This happened two or three times. Once I was wakened not by groans, but by the sound of chains rattling. Then I heard the sound of someone running, running in their chains, then I heard them stumble, then," she paused, "a shot was fired! I heard a little high-pitched gasp, and silence again."
George and Bess were on tenterhooks. The story was far more riveting than anything they had expected to hear. This was not a story of ghosts, but of nefarious doings!
The cousins pressed Joni to leave right away.
"I can't yet. I need to stay at least two more weeks and then I'm set. After that, if I hear a peep in the night, I'm leaving."
George glanced around and spotted a phone booth in the corner.
"Call us up if you hear, or see, anything else strange or mysterious," George instructed. "We have a friend, Nancy Drew, who is a whiz at solving mysteries, and we will all come up here in a trice. If you feel that you, yourself, are in danger or trouble, ring us up or get in your car and come to us."
George pulled a pen and a pad out of her purse and wrote some notes on the top page.
"Here are our addresses and phone numbers. And also Nancy's. Her father is a lawyer, so he can be a real help too. Have you heard of him, Carson Drew?"
"Oh yes," Joni said. "Didn't he get a poor man off death row recently?"
"Wasn't that a marvel?" Bess gushed.
"And he can help you, too," informed George, comfortingly. "He charges high prices, but if we and Nancy interest him in a case, he will often do his work for very little, or nothing."
"I don't know that I need a lawyer," protested Joni.
George handed her the paper. "Take this information just in case."
Joni tucked the note away in her dress pocket.
"Tell us where you live," asked Bess. "We'd like to visit you when you are back home. We'll bring Nancy with us. I'm sure she would love to meet you, even if there is no mystery to solve. I'm sure we will all be good friends."
Joni smiled nervously and said that she would write it down for them.
Then George asked their real favor, and Joni readily complied. She even had a short hose in the trunk of her car.
"I often siphon it out of Daddy's," she admitted. "I am so frightfully strapped for cash."
While Bess was enjoying strawberry cheesecake, outside the restaurant, George sucked on a large straw connected to a vat of petroleum. As usual she got a nasty mouthful before she could get it to draw into the can. As she was spitting it out on the ground, she noticed a dour, dark woman looking at her suspiciously through the side window of the inn!