A Conversation Overheard
Hannah Gruen knew how to tail suspects, even those who did or might know her face. No one who saw her occupying a side booth at Spring Rock's genteel food emporium, the Tub and Basin, would for a moment suspect that it was her. No longer portly, she now presented herself as utterly obese. Her flesh overflowed the table at which she sat alone. Her clothes, ordinarily well-cut, crisp, and fashionably out-of-date, were on this occasion quite dowdy habiliments: she sported a faded and shapeless dress that had never pretended to be fashionable, tattered hose, and fifth-rate costume jewelry. Instead of her normal straight and honest gray hair, her locks were tightly curled and obviously dyed, the result only this side of an unnerving electric blue. All in all, this tub of aging feminine corpulence was so revolting-in a commonplace way-that no one bothered, or dared, to give her a second look. This is just how Hannah wanted it. And, master of martial arts that she was, she strove to look as harmless and ineffectual as was humanly possible. In this she was a resounding successs.
In the booth adjoining Ashley and Nancy, Hannah squatted behind Nancy, facing away from the self-absorbed couple. In spite of her advanced middle-age her ears remained preternaturally sharp. She could hear most of what Nancy was saying without any aid or effort. As the conversation progressed, however, Ashley's voice became lower and softer. Fortunately, Hannah had taken the precaution of attaching a powerful, though minute, microphone to the underside edge of their table as she had passed. The entire content of the couple's conversation was known to her. She was greatly interested in what Ashley had to say, and had hoped that he could be induced to continue his confession. For Hannah had recognized him as she passed Nancy's booth. Ashley was the villain who had raped George!
Knowing this, Hannah resolved not to let Nancy out of her sight until she could think of some pretext to get her away from this monster. In the meantime, as long as they stayed put in the restaurant, she would continue to collect evidence against both the treacherous fiend Ashley and those dastards who employed him.
The conversation, unfortunately, was veering away from Ashley. Nancy was saying that she was going to tell him all about herself. Hannah at first worried that Nancy was going to unnecessarily reveal her identity in an effort to speed the man to reciprocal confidences. She was reassured when Nancy began retailing that peculiar tissue of inventions that Mr. Drew had taught Hannah, just before they began to treat Nancy as if she were a real maid. Nancy had taken to the charade, apparently, like a fish to water, for Hannah had been unable to distinguish Nancy's behavior from that of a real maid who had suffered actual amnesia.
"And that's my story, Ashley," said Nancy with a hush in her voice. She hoped against hope that he would neither disdain her nor flee the restaurant in horror.
Ashley had not interjected a word during his companion's lengthy narration. Although deliberate in his response, he had not in the meantime been slow to understand the implications of what he had been told. And, given the new information, he looked at her with fresh eyes. He now understood the reason for the complete transformation in Nancy's appearance that evening: behind her lapse of mind, she really was another person. He now recognized her as Nancy Drew, young woman detective and lawyer, loyal friend to George Fayne, the girl whom he had been compelled to wrong. Should Nancy recover her memory she would instantly despise and execrate him. And call for his prosecution and incarceration. The longer he remained in her presence, he felt, the more certainly she would "wake up," and assist him further on the endless road to self-loathing and utter despair. But worse than that, he still liked the girl. At that moment he would not willingly quit her company. Yet the suspense of waiting for the blow to fall was unbearable. With an almost suicidal, but fundamentally generous, impulse, Ashley decided to try to search for a key that might unlock the girl's shuttered mind.
"Nancy," Ashley spoke at last. "I know who you really are. You looked familiar to me when I met you the other day, but I did not fully recognize you until tonight. I met you briefly last year in River Heights. You were with your friends Bess and George on that occasion."
"Bess and George?" ejaculated Nancy incredulously. "You can't mean Dr. Marvin and Mrs. Watson. They are my employer's guests. I'm sure they could not have been friends of a lowly someone like myself."
"That is because, Nancy, you are not in fact someone like yourself," said Ashley enigmatically.
"No," he continued, "you are really Carson Drew's daughter, Nancy Drew."
"Whose dress are you wearing, Nancy? It is not like Nancy O'Donnell's other frocks. Where did you get it?"
Nancy blushed crimson.
"I borrowed it, from one of the unoccupied rooms at Mr. Drew's house. I guessed it must belong to his absent daughter. I will return it. I just wanted something nice to wear at Spring Rock. Something a little finer than I could afford."
For a brief moment, in defending herself from her self-accusation of being a felonious character, Nancy had blocked out the full import of Ashley's revelation.
"I am not a thief," she sputtered. "Honest!"
The flustered domestic nearly spilled her wineglass as she involuntarily spead her arms wide in dismay. Ashley nimbly snatched the glass out of its course, saving the purloined dress from stain. He then took Nancy's hand in his own and squeezed it reassuringly. This did much more for her composure than any words that he could have uttered at that moment.
Hannah nearly intervened at this moment. Nancy's cover was blown! The man was a known rapist. In order cover his crime, he might try to silence Nancy!
Unfortunately for the intrepid housekeeper she had misjudged the amount of bulk that her booth could sustain. Having added ever so slightly to her girth by eating her own meal, she found herself unable to move! And both the the table and the bench were firmly bolted to the floor. The only way that she could restore any freedom of movement would be to remove some of the padding from under her dress. She tried twisting herself around so that she was facing the wall. She hoped that she could then partly obscure her movements as she undid several buttons on the front of her dress.
"Are you all right, Madam?"
The waitress leaned over Hannah in genuine concern. The fat old lady looked like she was feeling quite unwell. If she were to be sick, it would be best for business to hustle her out of the room as quickly and quietly as she could.
Hannah thought quickly. She did not want to make a spectacle of herself, so she had to account for her strange movements in a way that would not call for a rescue party.
"My dress is torn," she whimpered. "I ripped it on a sharp edge on the underside of your table."
"I'm sorry, Madam," apologized the waitress. "But I'm afraid it is a bit snug for you in there. You really should have taken the table in the middle I offered you when you first came in. You would have been much, much more comfortable there."
"I know, it's really silly. I know I'm fat, so you needn't be diplomatic," explained Hannah. "It's just that lately I am so ashamed of how gross and corpulent I have become. So I wanted to hide over here in the corner of the restaurant where it is darker."
The waitress smiled at Hannah in what she hoped was a manner that would lead to a tip as fat as her customer. Hannah, undeceived, smiled back. She would give the girl her enhanced gratuity, but not as payment for the quasi-sympathetic grin. She wanted much more practical assistance.
"I think I can do this repair, Miss, if you will just stand there, looking away, so that I can have some privacy for just a minute."
"Okay, but only for a second, because there is a limit to how long I can stare at my order pad before my supervisor thinks I'm idle."
"I promise to be quick," Hannah reassured her.
The supremely portly lady was as good as her word. In less than twenty seconds she tapped the accomodating waitress on the tie of her apron. The girl sped across the room to attend to another diner, while Hannah slid back and forth on her seat, making sure that she could leave in a hurry if Nancy needed her. Meanwhile she deposited the superfluous padding in the depths of her capacious purse. She made sure that it did not block ready access to either her blackjack or her service revolver.
There had been a lull in the conversation in the adjoining booth, so when Hannah resumed training her full attention on Nancy and Ashley she had not missed a great deal.
"I have heard of people losing there memory, but not waking up believing themselves to be another person," Ashley mused. Then suddenly he snapped his fingers. "I have it! You haven't suffered an electrical shock at all. You are not an amnesiac. You are the victim of hypnosis!"
"Hypnosis!" Nancy nearly shrieked. "No! Who would do that to me?"
"It must have been your father. Carson Drew!"
"Assuming that I am Nancy Drew, as you say, why would my own father play such a cruel trick on me?"
"I don't know, Nancy," Ashley commented. "He is a strange and devious man. From what I know of his history he is capable of sending innocent young girls into danger in strange disguises. But this escapade would have to be the strangest of all."
"I just cannot believe that anyone would do this to me, much less someone who is supposed to love and protect me."
"I think he is a desperate character, Nancy," warned Ashley. "Trust me, I know about parents. They look fine and caring one minute. The next they would scratch your eyes out or put a bullet in your brain. I suggest you stay away from him until you are better, and until he has had a chance to explain his highhanded and unnatural conduct."
Nancy shivered. "I am frightened," she admitted. "Can I stay with you until this is over?"
Until this moment Hannah was satisfied that Nancy was playing her part to perfection. With her identity revealed, it was apparent that Nancy was playing a very deep game with her opponent. Even the frightful and nasty aspersions cast upon kindly Mr. Drew did not shake his loyal housekeeper. Ashley was, after all, a criminal of the deepest dye and Nancy was clearly playing along with him. But to accompany this rapist to his lodgings was just not the kind of offer that a Nancy Drew in her right mind would make. And, what if she was not, after all, her real self? What if she had forgotten to be the careful and resourceful Nancy Drew that Hannah herself had always known? In that case, Nancy was completely defenceless. Alone in company with this degenerate individual, there was no telling in what kind of trouble she could find herself. And, since he knew who she really was, and how dangerous she might eventually be to him, he might take the first opportunity to silence her forever!
And, worse, Hannah could sense another sinister presence in the room. There was someone else, she was sure, that was keeping an eye on Nancy-possibly a confederate of the wicked Ashley! Very soon Nancy would be in need of all the help she could get!