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Chapter Six

The Strange Disappearance

"Bess, did you note anything interesting about the story of Lady Asta?" asked Carson Drew, tapping his gold-plated pen thoughtfully against the bridge of his nose.

          Bess had moved from the ancient bath chair and was now sitting comfortably on the couch, with her foot swathed in a bandage and propped up on a hassock. Hannah and Ned had gently ministered to her injury. The newcomers remained in the room with Bess, George, Nancy, and Carson Drew. It was now time for a "council of war" on the mystery of the disappearing Spring Rock evangelist.

          "Pixie dust," said Bess confidently, munching enthusiastically on a freshly-baked brownie. "She was either drugged with the dust, or else with something very much like it."

          "But, Bess, the Christines could not possibly know about pixie dust unless you told them," protested Nancy. "It's a government secret."

          "Nancy, I think your friend here can be assumed to clear of all such suspicion," said her father reprovingly.

          "Oh Bess, I didn't mean to say it was you," apologized Nancy. "I only meant to say that it was impossible the Christines should know about it."

          "Government secrets are the best-known secrets of all," said Ned with a knowing look. Ned was in possession of more than a few government biological warfare secrets himself.

          "And what one scientist, however brilliant," said Carson Drew looking at Bess, "may discover, another may also find out. Many discoveries are made independently at about the same time, when the time is ripe."

          "In that case, I don't like you sending Bess in the way of the dust again," said Ned in his best cautionary doctor voice.

          "It's okay, Ned, I am willing take that risk," said Bess.

          "Don't sound too eager," teased George. "You will give yourself away."

          Bess just looked "Georgiana" at her offending cousin. Then, composed, she smiled and said with a drawl and a sly grin, "The dust will make my sore foot feel sooo much better."

          Carson got up and paced around the room. Nancy could tell that he was in a serious mood because he was wearing his Lapis Lazuli smoking jacket. He didn't smoke-at least not when Nancy was watching-but he liked to sport the comfortably elegant jacket while mulling over a "three-pipe" problem.

          "Girls," he said, "let us concentrate. Any other features of this case that struck your attention?"

          "Just questions," said Nancy.

          "Ask away," said the senior lawyer.

          "I just want to interrupt this wonderful enlightening discussion to say that these brownies are delish," interjected Bess as she smacked her lips and dabbed at them delicately with a lacy serviette. Carson Drew momentarily forgot his gallantry and looked a few daggers at his daughter's winsome but ravenous friend.

          Bess, ever sensitive to such disapprobation, sputtered in protest, "Someone has to preserve the social amenities amongst this scheming cabal of doctors, lawyers, and spies. Hannah, these are wonderful!"

          "Thank you," said Hannah. "Special for my noble Bessie."

          "End of commercial," apologized Bess.

          "Dad, tell us more about Lady Asta," prompted Nancy. "Starting with the story of Natalie Mellencamp as she was before she abandoned allopathic methods."

          Carson extracted a large embossed leather pocket calendar from within his jacket. Opening it up, he unfolded a piece of computer paper that he had stored inside. He handed the printout to Nancy. She devoured the contents intently.

          "Hey Nancy, let us peons in on it," instructed George impatiently.

          "Natalie Mellencamp is only thirty-five years old," said Nancy, apparently unwilling for the moment to deal out information in large doses.

          "Just the right age for you, Mr. Drew," teased Bess. Since winning the Nobel Prize she treated her friend's father with more familiarity than she had previously been in the habit of doing.

          George leaped in. "We sure could use a mystical healer around this house. Just think of all the scrapes we get ourselves into. No more post-concussion syndrome for me!"

          Mr. Drew, his patience restored, just smiled. He was waiting for Nancy to continue.

          "She comes from a broken family," said Nancy grimly. "Her father shot two of her older brothers. In the head. Both of her parents have since that time been institutionalized. Her mother is completely insane."

          "How awful!" exclaimed Hannah.

          "Trauma to the head all around," observed Ned.

          "How old was Natalie when this tragedy occurred?" probed George.

          "Ten," answered Nancy laconically.

          "The worst," concluded George.

          "Yes," said Nancy. "When my mother died I was four. If it had happened when I was ten it might have been much harder."

          "I don't know about that," said Ned. "I think it was more difficult than you realize for you to lose your mother at four. But I agree that, in Natalie's case, losing her two brothers at the age of ten must have been especially damaging. And to have her father then demonized, losing all benefit of her mother's care, and having the family totally self-destruct, must have been the worst possible thing for her."

          "What happened to her after that?" inquired Bess.

          "She was adopted by a very loving family," answered Nancy. "They took good care of her and paid for her to have the best education."

          "So she studied science, went to medical school, and trained herself to fix people's heads," said Ned.

          "Right," confirmed Nancy.

          "All the King's horses and all the King's men . . ." said George, ever ready with a sophisticated literary quotation.

          "You mean," asked Hannah, "that all this time Dr. Mellencamp has been trying to fix her own family, by fixing up other people?"

          "You hit the nail on the head, Hannah," said Ned. "It's called sublimation."

          "It's crazy," said Bess.

          "Yes and no," corrected Ned. "Mentally healthy people do it all the time. It only becomes abnormal when a person does it obsessively and on a grand scale."

          "I do it," confessed George.

          "What?" asked Bess.

          "I try to compensate for what happened to me by doing other things, like washing myself more than I have to," George explained. "It is because I feel dirty. I know that what I am doing is physically futile. But I do it anyway. It sometimes makes me feel better. For a while. A very short while."

          George began to tremble as she spoke. It was hard for her to get this matter out in the open, even among her friends. But she felt that the insight might help the others to understand Natalie better. Nancy rewarded her with a light squeeze to her hand.

          "Do you think that Dr. Mellencamp's sublimation has driven her religious conversion as well as her medical career?" asked Bess.

          "I do," said Nancy. "I think that her internal agony was so intense, that even her frequent and successful brain surgeries were not enough to preserve Dr. Mellencamp's sanity. She then had to take more extreme measures."

          "But nothing can raise the dead," protested Bess.

          "Tell that to the subconscious," instructed Ned. "There is no scientific logic that can control feelings, especially damaged ones."

          "So now we all think we know what drives Lady Asta," said Carson Drew, puffing contentedly on his gold pen. "Now what do you think motivates her followers?"

          "Desperation," suggested George.

          "Greed," guessed Bess.

          "Envy," put in Ned. "I'll bet the Christine doctors were all sub-par practitioners."

          "Any of those motives may be present in an individual Christine," Nancy speculated with an intense look on her face. "But I'll bet that none of those reasons are what is really behind this cult."

          "What is it then?" prodded Mr. Drew. "What is the real driving force behind the Christines?"

          "Among the practitioners there is no driving force at all," pronounced Nancy, her blue-green eyes now sparkling with the contentment of a girl who thought she now understood it all.

          "No motivation?" asked Ned incredulously.

          "None," explained Nancy. "Or at least none that is important to us. The cult itself has many driving forces, but they are relatively benign. And not strictly relevant to our case. The truth we seek is located behind a veil that we must pull aside. For in my estimation the Christines are little more than a cover for a more secular operation. And, unless I miss my guess, that underlying operation is knee deep in crime!"

          Nancy's young companions let out a chorus of ooohs and aaahs.

          Carson Drew blew an imaginary smoke ring. A dreamy Bess watched the spiritual smoke settle over a bust of Count Cavour, and then saw elderly marble head sporting a wispy crown of ecto-plasmic laurel.

          "Very good Nancy," said her father with no little pride and satisfaction. "I hereby deduct a week from your term of servitude. Just three weeks to go."

          "But what are the crimes that are being concealed by the activity of the Spring Rock healing cult?" asked Ned, somewhat perplexed.

          "That is what we must find out," answered Carson Drew. "As soon as we have reasonable cause to believe that crimes are being committed, I will take the evidence to a Connecticut judge, and then the appropriate authorities will move in."

          "I sure hope it's not the FBI," said Bess. "I've had enough experience with them to last a lifetime."

          "Maybe it will be counterfeiting," quipped George with a knowing look at her cousin. "Then you will be able to meet some of those gorgeous Secret Service men again. I saw you making eyes at one during dinner."

          "Georgiana! That wasn't making eyes! I was looking around for someone to rescue me from Dr. Johnson!" protested Bess as she stuffed another piece of cake into her mouth.

          "I was just trying to help you nab a husband before you blow up like a monstrous blimp on all those brownies," pursued George.

          "Gmrmphh," said Bess, her mouth still stuffed with chocolate and walnut goodness.