The prim, bespectacled young woman, nattily attired in a Scaramouche blouse and a Gordon hunting kilt, was already familiar to the receptionist at Shady Rest Home and Clinic. Miss Rawlins, a stern figure to many supplicant visitors, smiled at Nancy as she arrived at the beginning of visitor's hours for the fourth day running. She liked the girl for being such a faithful visitor. Most who came to see the patients did so only to apply a salve to soothe their conscience, and rarely found that more than one dose was required. Nancy, she knew, had a professional interest in the girl Lucy, but Miss Rawlins could detect the concern and friendship that exuded from the young sleuth. Moreover she had heard the nurse's stories of how this visitor had entertained her patient friend with long readings from Sir Walter Scott. One day she had even prepared an elaborate Japanese tea ceremony.
"Good morning, Miss Rawlins." Nancy liked and respected the receptionist as she did all of the staff at Shady Rest. They did their best at a hard job, and it was to their credit that many people who entered these halls as wrecks were, by the time they went home, so far recovered as to be able to lead normal lives.
"What have you got there in that shopping bag?" Rawlins asked only because she had to.
"Some new clothes for Lucy. I had a great time yesterday with some friends of mine, shopping for Lucy at Zinderneuf's."
Nancy pulled out a package and laid it on the desk. Gently prying open the cardboard box, and spreading the tissue paper, she drew up a stylish pale blue dress by the shoulders.
"We bought slacks, skirts, and blouses and stuff, but I thought she might like a little something a touch more elegant, in case she wants to look her best. I think she is looking better, don't you?"
Miss Rawlins knew better than to divulge an opinion that might be construed as medical, even in the guise of fashion chat. She smiled, and said, "You know that you had better ask the doctor about that."
Unperturbed by the gentle rebuke, Nancy essayed another question. "Well, this is her color, and I think when she is feeling herself, that she will find this a charming outfit, don't you?"
The receptionist could only nod a silent assent.
Nancy refolded the garment so that it once again appeared as if it had been undisturbed since expertly packed in the store.
In the upper hall she saw a slim, dark-haired nurse that she knew was on Ned's shift, but worked in a different ward. She was hurrying by, her white skirt swirling and her crisp starched apron crackling. "Cherry, how are you doing?" Nurse Ames smiled, then threw up her arms in a gesture of being overwhelmed, and passed up the hall quickly. Knowing how friendly Cherry usually was, but also how diligent, Nancy could only assume that her rapid departure was motivated by the urgent need to attend to the sufferings of a patient.
She found Lucy's door closed. Was she asleep at this time of day? Surely she should be expecting my visit, Nancy speculated. She had told her yesterday as she left that she so looked forward to Nancy's visits. She didn't want to barge in and intrude on her privacy, however, so she trekked down the hall to check in at the nursing station. There, she found Ned stolidly entrenched behind the counter. He was a tall, blond young man, not dressed at all like Cherry Ames who affected crisp classic nursing whites, but looking like an intern in grimy green scrubs.
"Sister Nickerson, I presume?" she teased.
"Why if it isn't Dick Deadeye, gumshoe extraordinaire!" he countered. "Your flat feet must be so uncomfortable in those tiny little high heels."
"Well I love your green slime costume," Nancy replied, sliding her glasses down the bridge of her nose as if to accommodate presbyopia. "In this afternoon light it is so, so . . . so becoming, especially against your jaundiced complexion!"
"Oh this old thing?" Ned did a little pirouette. "I only wear this when I don't care how I look! But you . . ." He paused, as if in appreciation. "You look like the Divine Sarah, in her farewell performance as the Lady of the Lake!"
"Ned, stop it!"
"You started it."
"Okay, I give in. No more teasing of the gentlemen nurses."
"Who look after, cosset, guard, and otherwise protect the lady detective's clients," he explained. "And," he appended warningly, "I have to warn you, Miss MacGregor, that there will be no further reading of Redgauntlet. I think the hero's situation cuts too close to the bone."
"A medico-literary critic, I see!" pronounced Nancy.
"Give her some Burns instead. 'My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here . . .'"
"Ned, seriously, how is Lucy today?"
"She was fair the last time I looked in on her. Why don't you go and look for yourself?"
"Her door was closed," Nancy explained.
"Ah, that's unusual." Ned looked up. "I have it. The doctor would have been in here this morning. Perhaps his visit tired her out."
"Ned, you know doctors rarely do that. Most often they move in and out of the room so fast that the patient is left confused and dizzy, but they never outwear their welcome. When I was in hospital two years ago . . ."
"I remember, you had your inhibitions removed," interrupted Ned.
Nancy ignored him.
"I had to trap my doctor in a net just to speak five words with him."
While Nancy was blathering Ned pulled out Lucy's chart and riffled through its clipped pages. His eyes widened and his jaw nearly dropped.
Always observant, especially when she was talking at random, Nancy quickly asked what was the matter.
"Venereal disease. They ran a test, and it says Lucy has syphilis. They started treatment today." Ned explained.
"Oh my gosh," cried Nancy. "Did they tell her what the treatment was for?"
"They had to."
"And has no one been watching her since then?"
When he shook his head, Nancy turned, dropped her bag, and began to run down the hall. Ned leaped gymnastically over the counter and followed in her wake, making up ground with his long strides. Nancy pushed on the door to Lucy's room. It didn't open!
Ned, by now at the frantic girl's side, pressed all the weight of his sturdy, athletic frame on the resisting portal. Nancy contributed her widow's mite by his side. After three attempts the door gave in, so suddenly that Nancy was hurled across the room and fell on the floor next to the bed. She quickly rolled over and looked up. To her immense horror, there were feet dangling just above her head!
Before she could shout for help, Ned was supporting the hanging girl, taking the weight of her body off of the cord that was slowly strangling the life out of her. Nancy sprang to her feet and helped to free Lucy's neck. Together they laid Lucy upon the bed and called for assistance. As the emergency team entered, Nancy, not wanting to be in the way, slipped out into the corridor and went to haunt the waiting room. She knew that Ned would look for her there as soon as he had any news.
Nancy was seriously disappointed in the clinic. Lucy had been sent there for her protection, and the carelessness of the staff had let the poor girl down. She should have been more carefully watched, especially after such dreadful news as the doctor had given her. After a time Nancy's anger gave way to her worry and concern about the victimized girl's fate. She paced the room, her heels busily clacking on the parquet floor like hastily played mah jong tiles.
After what seemed to the impatient and anxious sleuth an age, but was only half an hour, Ned came to meet her.
"She will be all right," he announced soothingly.
"You mean she is currently alive," corrected Nancy aggressively.
"Yes. And she is under sedation."
"But what about tonight and tomorrow? What about tomorrow night and the day after that? How will we keep her alive then? What will you do when the sedation wears off?" she persisted. "You can't make her sleep indefinitely."
"We will do our best. She will be put on suicide watch. We will use a television screen to monitor her at the nursing station at all times."
"Why wasn't this done before?" asked Nancy accusingly.
"She showed no signs. There was no cause for such concern."
"But you, Ned-you should have known that the situation had changed. You were specially briefed by my father."
"I had only just come on my shift," he explained. "I hadn't had a chance to read the charts."
Her beau looked so concerned and contrite that Nancy could not long remain angry with him. She was actually more frightened than mad. It had been such a close thing. What if she had chatted longer with the receptionist? What if Cherry Ames had been at leisure to pass the time of day? What if she had been in the mood to tease Nurse Ned a moment longer? If they had come to Lucy's rescue even a minute later, the poor, afflicted girl might be dead. Nancy shook with shame to think that her own frivolity could easily have led to a young girl's death.
Back at home that night she confessed her fault to her father. Carson Drew was not impressed with the magnitude of her sin. He was, rather, disposed to view Nancy's role in the affair in quite another light.
"Nancy, you are a hero. You saved a girl's life!"
That turned out to be her chums' opinion as well, when she saw them the next day. George was impressed with Nancy's quick thinking. Bess was inclined to think that Nancy must have been brave just to maintain consciousness for a moment in a room that contained an asphyxiating girl hanging like a side of beef from a hook in the ceiling.
"I'll bet you felt queasy right afterward," George ventured.
"I would have been awfully sick had I been there," offered Bess.
As the conversation progressed Nancy, whose stomach had actually behaved like a trooper the previous day, was beginning to feel a little green about the gills. After her friends departed Nancy was forced to repair to the kitchen to self-administer one of Hannah Gruen's old home remedies.
The day after that the three girls went together to visit Lucy at Shady Rest.
When they got to the nursing station, Ned was not there. Another nurse, Sandy, a cherubic middle-aged woman in teddy-bear scrubs, told them to wait. Nancy was pleased to notice that every minute Sandy glanced over to the monitor that displayed Lucy's room. When Ned arrived and saw all three girls there, bearing packages as if for a friendly and social visit, he immediately took them aside into a waiting room.
"I'm afraid that what I have to tell you will be disappointing. You can't help Lucy by visiting today. You won't want to see her either." He hesitated. "She won't be much company for you and you won't be for her." There was another pause before Ned concluded. "She doesn't speak or respond in any way. She just sits there and seems not to notice anyone or anything. She is catatonic."
Nancy was stunned. Ignoring her pals she slowly walked down the hall to Lucy's room. When she entered, Nancy observed that Lucy stared straight ahead at an empty spot on the wall. When the sleuth walked back and forth in front of that spot the deranged victim's pupils did not deflect one iota. Nancy pulled up a chair and faced her client just a few feet away, staring into her living, but lifeless face. A fly crawled casually and unafraid on Lucy's nose. There was not even a reflexive twitch on that pallid skin. When Nancy broke into convulsive sobbing, the silent patient made no sign whatsoever that she noticed her comforter's distress.