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Chapter 18

The Battle of Spring Rock

"You are a good Christian," Ned whispered to Nancy tenderly as the affianced couple gingerly crept through the ventilation ducts above the second floor of the Spring Rock Healing Center.

     "Praise from an Anti-Christ is most gratifying," Nancy rejoined sotto voce. She was a Presbyterian and Ned was a Unitarian Universalist.

     "Just because I am a Unitarian does not mean that I am against Christianity," Ned protested. "Unitarianism is descended from your Calvinist Christianity, many Unitarians and Universalists are Christians, many non-Christian Unitarian Universalists revere Jesus, and all good Unitarian Universalists respect the religious faiths of others, Christian and non-Christian." In his religious enthusiasm Ned stopped crawling and Nancy, behind him, was forced to come to a halt as well. "I think I know what Christianity is really. It is not a denomination, or a whole cluster of them. It is not a set of doctrines or beliefs. It is not a label, a theology, or an affirmation. It is a way of being, and, most especially, a way of doing things. A Christian does not ask herself, 'Is this act that I am considering Christian or not?' Nor does she even ask herself whether the act is right or wrong. She just knows what to do, and does it, because she lives, by projection, in the heart and soul of every other person she meets."

     Nancy was not only impatient at the delay, but embarrassed and disconcerted by Ned's soft harangue. She gave him a gentle forward push on his posterior.

     "Ned, I am not generally a good Christian and you know it. There are so many things I have to account for!"

     "I know, so do we all," consoled Ned. "My God forgives me because he is a Christian. Your God forgives you because one act of true Christianity overbalances a universe of evil. I think it is glorious either way."

     "Ned, I can't tell whether you are incredibly wise or blasphemous beyond belief, but I love you either way."

     "And I would adore you Nancy, even if you were not such a Christian saint."

     "You will be a Unitarian martyr yourself soon if we don't get a move on," Nancy prodded. "We must be ensconced above Natalie's room before H hour."

     "Yes, commander," acquiesced Ned as he began to make further progress along the shaft. "We will be in position shortly."

     The two lovers henceforward made swift progress and soon reached their assigned position. Nancy verified their location on a chart she pulled out the purse she was carrying strapped across her back. Ashley had purloined the ventilator plans for her. She set the bag down beside herself and rummaged through the copious contents. She pulled out two revolvers and handed the smaller one to Ned. The amatory commandos held another low volumed conference.

     "Not quite the tools for Christians," observed Ned, holding up his weapon.

     "Yours is made out of licorice," Nancy commented drily. "Just like Spencer Tracy's rod in Adam's Rib."

     "I wondered why it was so sticky."

     "That way you can use it to threaten people, but when the cops bust in you can eat it."

     "No evidence!" Ned said triumphantly.

     "Unless they check your teeth," retorted Nancy.

     "I'll keep my mouth shut then."

     "You do that, mister," Nancy instructed playfully.

     "But your gun?"

     "Tranquilizer darts. It will be just like Wild Kingdom."

     "Where's the capture stick?"

     "Too long to fit in my bag."

     Nancy checked her illuminated watch. "Two minutes."

     She then set about removing the grill from the ceiling vent. With a small Philips screwdriver and a pair of needdle-nosed pliers it was for her dextrous fingers the work of a minute to loosen the sturdy metal fixture. Ned helped her to carefully lift it and set it to one side. They set it soundlessly upon a large square of felt that Nancy had previously arranged on the floor of the shaft. Nancy restrapped her bag. At exactly eleven o'clock on Nancy's synchronized timepiece she dropped nimbly to the hospital room floor, landing upon her ballet-slippered feet. Ned kicked off his loafers and was beside Nancy ten seconds later. The room was dim, lit only by a low-wattage corridor light filtered through frosted glass. But to Nancy and Ned, whose eyes had long grown accustomed to the darkness of the ventilation ducts, the soft illumination was more than sufficient. They crouched down and moved quickly to the bed. In the bed was a young sleeping female figure, intubated and wasted thin. Ned quickly took her vital signs.

     "She's alive," he whispered with evident relief. "But not by much. I think if she stayed here much longer, even a few weeks, she might be beyond our powers to save her. As it is, her heart might easily be damaged."

     "What have they done to her?"

     "They drugged her and have fed her just enough to sustain life," Ned reported. "But as they have been feeding her through this tube, she has missed much of the essential nutrition she would get from real food. And as, in her dazed condition, she cannot report hunger or craving, there is no way these quacks here can know what minerals or nutrients her body really requires. I think they believe that all she needs is glucose and a narcotic. We can only pray that her brain is not fried."

     "Do what you can for her Ned."

     "I have the tube out of her wrist already," Ned reported. "So the bad stuff is stopped."

     Nancy handed him a small case and a tiny bottle that she had extracted from her purse. Ned opened the case, lifted out a syringe, and carefully filled it from the bottle, making sure that no air got trapped inside the hypodermic needle. A few seconds after Ned had injected the dormant girl in the arm her eyes popped wide open. She would have made an unfortunate squeal had her mouth not been so dry. Ned had counted upon that. She made a dry cough.

     "Stay quiet, Natalie," crooned Nancy soothingly. "We are here to help you escape from this place. Your good brother Ashley sent us here to protect and deliver you. You must do as we ask and stay quiet, if we are all to be safe. Do you understand me?"

     The emaciated young woman nodded her head feebly. She tried to smile. Nancy recognized her intent and gave Natalie a broad smile back. She then stood up and took up a position just behind the door.

     Meanwhile Ned scooped up his patient in his arms and took her into the tiny lavatory. He stood well away from the door, almost in the shower stall.

     "Don't be frightened, Natalie, no matter what you hear," he told her. "It will be noisy in here in a moment. It will sound as if all hell is breaking loose."

     "I'm thirsty," she reported. Ned ran a tiny silent stream of water into a paper cup and fed it to his patient as if she were a small child.

     Just then a shrill siren went off. Ned pressed back into the metal shower stall as he continued to feed Natalie. He could hear the sound of feet running down the corridor, approaching Natalie's room. There was a burst of machine gun fire. Ned involuntarily shuddered in fear of Nancy's life. He hoped against hope that she would be safe.

     One burst was all. Nancy popper her head inside the lavatory. "One murderer down for the count. Stay put."

     Nancy was out the door again and back to her ambush station. The sirens continued to wail. Thirty seconds later she was rewarded by the arrival of another thug, the "quality control" assassin. He turned on the light and looked all around. Just as he spotted Nancy a dart landed in his shoulder. He tried to lift his handgun to erase the unexpected intruder but his hand felt too heavy. Before he knew what had happened to him he was sprawled unconscious crossways over the body of the other tranquilized gangster.

     "Two down," Nancy reported loudly to let Ned know that she was all right. "I think the whole crew may be in the net by now. But stay in there just in case. Who knows but they may send even more insurance."

     "Lord, how many darts do you have?" asked Ned through the door.

     "One for every person who walks through this door with aggressive intent," Nancy answered with grim confidence. "I'll make it lights out on the whole gang by myself if I have to."

     Nancy stopped talking and listened for the sound of additional approaching footsteps. She didn't have to wait long. But these next sounds were different. They indicated a more slow and measured tread, emphatic and not stealthy. The person who approached Natalie's room clearly wanted to advertise his benign advent well in advance. Before reaching the doorway he rapped on the wall, two long, one short, three long. A pre-arranged signal.

     "Come in Ashley," invited Nancy in relief.

     Ashley poked his head into the room. "All clear out front. How is it in here? Are you three safe?"

     Ned answered by carrying Natalie back into the bedroom.

     "Natalie!" Ashley exclaimed, as he saw that she was awake.

     "Ashley darling, where have you been so long?" the poor girl almost whimpered.

     "They kept me away from you," Ashley answered. "I tried everything to get to see you."

     Ned delivered the patient into her brother's arms. He sat down in the visitor's chair, caressing her on his lap. "I didn't realize that you had become so small," he said in a quiet voice. Then he burst into tears. Natalie reached up to touch his cheek. The stream of his tears ran down the side of her hand and cascaded along her arms.

     "I am christened by your love, my brother, I am born again. Rather, I am returned to life, my proper life. A life in which I no longer claim godlike powers or excessive authority. My name is plain Natalie again. If I get well, if I am spared, I will be a simple doctor and use my limited human powers to do what any doctor can. Like the doctor who held me in his hands before he gave me back to you. He is younger than I am, but in five minutes he taught me more about real humanitarian medicine than I had learned in a dozen years."

     Ned blushed.

     Nancy interjected. "Don't praise the physician, or he'll get conceited."

     "This is Dr. Ned Nickerson," said Ashley, ignoring Nancy's comment.

     Ned shook her hand. "It is an honor to meet you Dr. Mellencamp."

     "And this over here is the detective Nancy Drew. She protected you from those who wanted to kill you."

     "Thank you, Miss Drew, I know of you by reputation. You are a remarkable woman. But this carnage, I reproach myself that this was on my account."

     "They do but sleep," assured Nancy, holding up her tranquilizer gun.

     Hannah Gruen strode into the room toting an AK-47. There was a wisp of smoke issuing from its muzzle. All four young people stared at the steaming automatic weapon, evidence of the unfortunate taking of life in another arena of the clinic battle.

     The Drew's housekeeper, sensing the collective dismay, speedily set about reassuring them. "I comandeered this from a tranquilized hoodlum downstairs. Mr. Drew took him down with a gas canister, but he got off a fruitless spray of bullets before he collapsed choking."

     "Was anyone hurt?" asked Ned. He was prepared to report for duty in the emergency room.

     "Three policemen took bullets in extremities, and we have some two dozen outlaws suffering from tear gas, bruises and bumps, and tranquilizer darts. The police doctors have taken all the casualties in hand, except these," Hannah said, pointing to the two would-be assassins prostrate on the floor. "It was a good operation."

     For the first time Nancy took a good look at the men sprawled at her feet. She kicked at the top one. When he rolled over, presenting his visage for display, she got a shock.

     "I recognize him!" she exclaimed. "He is one of the gang who enslaved the young people in Carbon City. When he and the other thugs were rounded up by the police, he was the one who threatened me with revenge for my part in turning them in."

     "It looks like they had their revenge on you," commented Hannah grimly. "Through George." Nancy shuddered. Ashley went white.

     "What on earth were these criminals doing here at Spring Rock?' Nancy went on resolutely. "Why did they have to silence Lady Asta, that is to say, Natalie?"

     "They were making pixie dust, or, at least something very much like it," answered Ned. "They must have been distributing it to a sizeable portion of the so-called patients who came to the spa."

     "How do you know?" asked Nancy surprised.

     Ned smiled. "I got a whiff of the stuff after I took the tube out of Natalie's arm. It smelled like fried gladiolas."

     "How on earth do you know what fried gladiolas smell like?" challenged Nancy.

     "I don't really. You will be happy to know that I have never fried a one. But pixie dust in a six to eight percent solution gives off an odor that is like what I imagine gladiolas would smell like if fried in canola oil."

     "Pixie dust again!" wailed the crestfallen detective. "Will Bess and I never be spared the fruits of our sins!"

     "You girls both did what you did with all the best motives in the world," Ned insisted. "Bess-Natalie, Bess is the celebrated Dr. Bess Marvin-invented the drug to help people to free themselves of narcotic addiction. She hoped that the dust would be a non-addictive substitute to help people get off heroin. She was wrong, but you cannot blame her for trying. You, Nancy, also not knowing its sinister properties, introduced pixie dust to a criminal gang, hoping to free their slaves from heroin. You gave it to Bess and George as well, hoping to save their lives and their honor. And in this you succeeded. All to whom you mistakenly gave the drug are now free and clear. And in addition they have been delivered from sexual slavery and returned to their families."

     "But," said Nancy, refusing to be consoled, "we have let a terrible genie out of the bottle."

     "Yes," admitted Ned. "You opened Pandora's box. And what has been released upon the world cannot be recalled. But many scientists have done that. The discoveries of science and technology have no moral value, for good or evil. Take atomic energy for example. They are just what we make them."

     "Nuclear weapons!" shrieked Nancy. It was clear that Ned's example would be of no comfort to her.

     "Out of Pandora's box also comes hope," offered Natalie weakly.

     "But what can we hope for from that cursed pixie dust?" moaned Nancy.

     "It is up to us medical scientists to find out," answered Natalie more firmly. "I have been treated with pixie dust most improperly. But we know that there are drugs which in large doses are addictive or lethal, but which in smaller doses, and applied in proper measure, can benefit the mind and body with no ill effect." She paused for breath. "I made a small fortune while I was a celebrated surgeon. Much of it I invested in this center, but I reserved a portion in a secret fund before my mind and the center were abducted by the drug gang. I pledge at least half of it, and some of my own efforts, to finding a proper use for Nancy's and Dr. Marvin's drug. I owe it to you to draw the hope out of your Pandora's box, for, Nancy, you and your friends have given me both life and hope."

     Nancy, nearly reduced to tears, looked over to Hannah for support. Over the housekeeper's shoulder she spotted a middle-aged man bearing a familiar craggy paternal visage.

     "Nancy!" he intoned sternly. "I'm afraid you have a lot to answer for!"