Watching Nancy O'Donnell falling in love with that degenerate, Ashley Montague, was too much for Ned Nickerson. Not only had he grown insanely jealous, but he was, like Hannah Gruen, becoming increasingly concerned for the poor girl's safety. This "charade" has gone on long enough, he resolved suddenly. As soon as Ashley had paid his bill, the ostensible busboy strode quickly to their booth.
"James Boswell has fully recovered, Allah be praised."
This was the formula Ned and Nancy had settled on as the key that would lift Nancy's amnesia. She looked up at the spotty stranger with a look on her face that mixed puzzlement and distress.
"What are you talking about?" asked Ashley, employing a tone that held the threat of a speedy consultation with the management. He began to get up.
"No, Ashley," said Nancy, her tone strangely altered, and her head lowered. "He is a friend. Sit down and slide over to make room for him."
Ashley did as he was bid, but with reluctance. As soon as Ned was seated, Nancy lifted her eyes and, for a brief moment, surveyed both men. Then she collapsed into a gale of tears. Ned and Ashley reached out for her, but she agitatedly pushed them both away. The two men each separately squirmed in distress and uncertainty.
Eventually the emotional storm subsided. Still looking down, Nancy started to speak. Her voice was tight and thin, like an elastic the instant before it snaps.
"Ned and Ashley, I feel so ashamed of myself. I wake up and I discover that I am two people and each one of me is in love with one of you." She paused, sensing Ashley's mounting fear. "Yes, Ashley, I now know who you are and I remember what you have done to my friend George."
Ashley tried to force Ned out of his way, but Ned remained, immovable, trapping the rapist against the window of the Tub and Basin. Another figure now stood at the end of the booth, further hemming the criminal in. It was the corpulent lady who had emerged from the adjoining booth. She looked sternly at all three of the booth's youthful occupants.
"Nancy, tell me, just what has been going on?" Hannah appealed.
"I'm sorry, Hannah," whimpered Nancy, her tears flowing. "I have deceived you all, I have behaved terribly. I feel so bad."
Hannah, who in her youth had unhesitatingly killed anarchist terrorists with her bare hands, could not resist such an appeal of mixed pain and repentence. She covered Nancy's hand softly with her own. The younger woman did not pull away, but seemed to draw a psychic energy from the motherly touch.
"Hannah, have you been listening to our conversation?" asked Nancy timidly.
"I heard every word," Hannah confirmed, pulling the microphone from beneath the table and showing it to Nancy.
"Oh, Hannah, you do so take care of me!" Nancy lifted Hannah's hand from the table and kissed it gently. "Please, don't be mad at me!"
"I could never be truly angry with you, dear." The mentally-reunited Nancy smiled for the first time. "Then put your hand on my shoulder. I will need support as I apologize fully to the two people here whom I have greatly and truly wronged."
"You have not done wrong, Nancy," consoled Ned. "Throughout this ordeal you have always behaved splendidly."
"No, I have not," said Nancy, her voice drawing some firmness from Hannah's steady grasp. "I have betrayed Nancy Drew's love for you, because I now love another with a portion of the strong passion that was once reserved entirely for you. I cannot help it: Nancy O'Donnell remains a part of me. She is my recent past, and a portion of the woman I now am. You were right, Ned, to warn me against this dangerous venture at hypnosis. I feel as if I have invoked dark powers that are beyond my control!"
"Nancy, I am partly to blame," exclaimed Ned, feeling in his heart of hearts that his claim was the absolute truth.
"No, love," replied Nancy. "Let me take the whole responsibility. It was my plan, and I used my entire arsenal of persuasions, fair and foul, to win you over to my wicked plan." Nancy's voice melted into deep tenderness. "Do you understand that I blame you not at all and that I love you fiercely?"
"Fiercely it is," said Ned. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Nancy turned her attention once more to Ashley.
"I can make it up to Ned more later," she said. "But with you, dear Ashley, I have only this evening to make amends. And much as I feel that I have abused my fiancÚ Ned,"-Ned visibly glowed upon hearing this admission, as Nancy had never previously accepted any of his many proposals-"I am certain that I have treated you villainously, betrayed you even."
Ashley could stand it no more. "But you all comprehend what I have done!" he protested. "I am the most grievous offender. I have wronged your friend in a way just short of murder. The crime of rape is the worst sort of personal invasion. I deserve to die!"
"No Ashley," said Nancy firmly, "you do not deserve to die. No one, no matter who they are and what they might have done, deserves premature death. And, you, least of all, deserve to be judged harshly. As bad and ill-judged as your action was, you did it for love, and you have since partly repented of it. On the other hand, I have raped you."
"What!" shouted Ned.
"Be quiet, Ned," said Nancy to her espoused mate. "I need you here for obvious physical reasons and for moral support, but please let this conversation be between Ashley and me. I owe it to him."
"You did me no wrong, Nancy," whispered Ashley. "Except to make me love you."
"And that is my sin. It was alright in its way for me to mess with my own mind. If it brings me distress, it is distress I deserve, and a distress that I had told myself in advance that I was prepared to bear. But you, love, did not sign on to this harm in advance. Although I was out of my mind at the time that I seduced your affection, this love was the result, however unintended, of a wrong that I perpetrated beforehand. It is like manslaughter or second-degree murder. I may not have planned the exact result, but my criminal behavior resulted in the casualty nonetheless. I, and I alone, am responsible for the reprehensible deed which is nothing other than a rape of your affection, a rape of your mind!"
"If I have been raped," allowed Ashley glumly, "it is nothing less than exactly what I deserve."
"You don't understand," said Nancy. "Crimes do not cancel out. You still have a score to be settled with George. And no less do I have to submit my wrongdoing to you. I cannot make my sin disappear. I can only say that I am so sorry. I wish that I were free to love you, but I cannot, I am taken. I wish that I could assist you, throughout the remainder of my life, to redeem yourself, but I am not free to do so. I can only promise to behave myself in future towards others with the same degree of forgiveness that I require from you. Please, Ashley, try to forgive me."
"I forgive you."
"Do you, really?"
"I am glad you have said that," said Nancy. "I do not feel entirely forgiven. But I think you have made a grand start. I will try to win your continuing forgiveness by what I do from now on and forever. I think you must do the same."
"I do not feel that I can be forgiven."
"I freely forgive you for the wrong you did to George. I'm not sure Ned and Hannah here can forgive you right this moment, but I am nearly certain that they will have absolved you by tomorrow morning. There are, however, two other customers that you must win over, before you can be fairly started on the road to a new life."
"Who are those?" asked Ashley with trepidation.
"George, and yourself. If you can get a blessing from those two people, I will consider myself blessed by you, and able to resume my interrupted life."
"What about the law?" asked Hannah. "Does he not owe a penalty to the state?"
"We will let George be the judge of that," said Nancy. "Ashley, do you agree to this condition?"
"Yes." He pronounced the word in a hushed voice.
"Good," said Nancy, for the first time approximating her normal voice and addressing all assembled in the booth. "Now we must hold conference on what to do about the gang that has captured and is controlling the healing center. Ashley, will you help us bring these criminals to book? Not as a condition of our regard, but because it is the decent thing to do."
"I will do it because it is right, Nancy," Ashley agreed. "But I will also do it for you, and I will do it to help free my sister."
"Good," said Nancy. "I had hoped that you would so readily consent. For I think you are indispensible to any plan we might make. The safety of your sister Natalie may depend upon the information you give us. And we will need all the forces we can assemble. Here is my plan."
At that very moment, in their spartan accommodations at the healing center, Bess, after only a few hours of simulating catatonia for the benefit of eavesdroppers, was roused out of her psychic withdrawal by an urgent appeal from her cousin George.
"Bess, where are the towels?"
Bess opened her eyes and quickly looked all around trying to spot the impending danger. All she saw was a small puddle on the floor. George was polishing her nails rather haphazardly over the phone.
"No, I didn't mean 'Watch out,'" explained George. "My waters have broken. I'm afraid that I am going to have the baby right now. I mean, where are the towels?"
"Under the bed," Bess volunteered. She quickly extracted the irridescent green terrycloth monstrosities and began to tidy up the mess. "I hid them under the bed so that I wouldn't have to look at them. I was feeling so depressed, and I guess that was good, but I just couldn't stand both to be depressed and to contemplate the towels. If I had to do both, I might have thrown myself out of the window."
"Bess, it is only two and a half feet from the sill to the ground."
"It's the thought that counts."
George grimaced. "I think I need your full attention to my own situation starting right now. I have just felt what I think is a strong contraction. Are you up now to playing the coach's part?"
"It is better than being catatonic and it even beats talking in code. But won't we need some additional help? This is a medical facility, right?"
"Not by my standards," declared George. "I want a real doctor, with not so many sparks and the singeing of the nail polish. And much as it goes against my long-held principles, if someone offered me total anaesthesia now, with a wakeup call to two mysteriously-produced cherubic children, I would be tempted to take it."
"No!" protested Bess. "You would miss the experience!"
"That's easy for you to say," said George teasingly. "You are the Daddy."
"But I'll help you count your breathing and everything."
"Thanks, cuz'. You are the best," said George warmly while squeezing her cousin's plump hand. "But do you remember what it is like getting onto a roller coaster? You want to get on it. You are going to have a ball. You are so excited when you seat yourself in that little car. Then it starts to move, and, all of a sudden you notice that you are going up a huge slope. There is no way to change your mind. You can't go back. You can't get out. The only thing you can do is to go over the top of the peak and to go down again at a speed that feels faster than a free fall. You just have to hope that you will be able to survive. So, as you reach the summit you realize that you have no other option but to go through with it. That is where I am right now. These two babies are inside of me. They have just signaled that they are ready to come out, soon. And I just don't know how they are going to manage it short of tearing my body to shreds. I feel like those poor human incubators in the movie Aliens. Sometime, at any moment, they could pop right out of my abdomen, and leave my body an inert and ravaged hulk."
Bess smiled at this burst of anxious eloquence.
"Are you timing the contractions?" George asked.
"Uh huh," Bess confirmed.
"Should I be loquacious or shut up?"
"Whatever feels good," said Bess. She felt George squeeze her hand and then the expectant mother started her remembered breathing exercise. A moment later she began breathing more normally and relaxed. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a tiny pencil-like walkie-talkie. She touched a miniature switch with the tip of her fingernail.
"Open Channel D," she intoned.
"Where did you get that?" asked Bess.
"A little fail-safe present from Dr. Ned," she confided. "I wouldn't come here without it."
After a few moments of static there came a male voice, "Georgie, what's up?"
"The baby express is on its way!" George told him.
"When did labour start?"
"Just a few minutes ago, well maybe half an hour. I had trouble rousing Bess from her coma."
"I'm all right!" screamed Bess. To save time she told a white lie. "George exagerrates. I had just dozed off."
"Well you folks hold on," said Ned. "By the way, where are you?"
"In our room," George said. "Do you know where that is?"
"I visited there earlier, just to make sure. I can get there in a few moments when the time comes."
"When the time comes!" shouted George in no little panic. "The kids are almost here!"
"Relax. What is the interval between contractions?"
"They seem irregular so far," said Bess, who was counting. "The closest pair have been twelve minutes."
"Well you girls keep at it. It could be a long night. A woman's first labour can take a while, maybe many hours. Settle in for a long siege. Don't eat or drink anything, George. Bess, if she is thirsty, dole out some chips of ice. Bess, can you get some?"
"Yes," said Bess. There was a machine down the hall.
"I will be there in a few hours. We have a situation here. Criminals to catch, a prisoner to release, and souls to save, and all that. When we get that wrapped up, I will be entirely at your service. My portable hospital, together with nurse Nancy, recently promoted from housemaid, will be at your door. If you think, George, that the pain is at a level that you can't take any more and that you must have anaesthesia or else you will die, give me another buzz. I will know then that baby time is just around the corner. Bess, do the babies feel like they are presenting normally?"
"I think so."
"Well, if you want to know so, get out the ultrasound kit I left in your drawer. The instructions are in the box, and a tube of jelly. If anything looks amiss buzz me right away. Saving the world will then have to take second place to safely delivering Georgie's kids. But we gotta go now. Nancy has on her game face. The commandos must strike, she tells me, at H hour. Over and out."
Bess was opening the drawer.
"Here is the electronic equipment, just like Ned said. Hey Jorge, are we going a blast tonight!"
George, between contractions, caught the spirit. "Who needs movies or TV, when we have got George-o-vision! The channel that brings a new family to life!"