Bess and George's Stakeout





 

I took the corner ofWestern as fast as safety allowed. I could hardly wait to get to George’s house. Ever since that phone call the day before, I'd been worried about my two best friends. Neither one of them had called me back, even though I'd left messages with their parents. I knew if anything was seriously wrong, their families would have called me. But I still needed to find out what had happened!

As I drove down River Street, I glanced up at Berring Antiques. The metal security gate had been pushed aside enough for someone to enter, and there was a dim light on in the back of the shop. Mr. Berrings green sedan was parked right out front. I figured he must be opening up for the day. I pulled to a stop at the corner to let a group of schoolchildren cross with their crossing guard. While I waited, a flash of red caught my eye on the other side of the street. I peered through the group of kids, trying to see what the red thing was.

Then the children made it across, and I found myself looking at a vintage red Mustang parked on the other side of River Street. It was Colonel Lang's rental car! I drove past slowly so that I could look into the car. The colonel wasn't there.

I frowned, trying to remember what the colonel had said about going out of town. I'd thought he was gone for a few days, but maybe he was back already. Or maybe he hadn't left yet.

I put him out of my mind as I turned onto George's street. To my surprise, Bess was already there. Both of them stood on the front porch while George locked the door. I guessed they were on their way out somewhere.

I pulled into the driveway and got out. "Where have you been?" I called as I walked over to the porch. "You guys didn't call me back last night!"

George and Bess exchanged guilty looks. "Sorry, Nancy," Bess said. "We got home kind of late—"

'What happened when we were on the phone?" I pressed. "Did Deirdre discover that you were following her?"

"You could say that," George replied. "We were hard to miss. Bess made quite a splash."

Bess's peaches-and-cream complexion turned a dark shade of red, and she shoved her cousin in the arm. "Don't make fun of me!" she scolded. But a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth.

"Will someone tell me what's going on?" I cried. "I've been worried sick about you two."

"We didn't mean to scare you," George said. "We followed Deirdre all afternoon yesterday. She went into about twenty stores—"

"There's a sale at Sloane's Shoes," Bess interrupted. "I saw the perfect pair of slingbacks to go with those black capris we bought you last month."

George cleared her throat.

"Sorry," Bess said.

"So anyway," George continued the story. "We went to a bunch of different stores, but she didn't go anywhere near an archive, or even a bookstore. It was all about clothes."

I couldn't help smiling. George doesn't have much patience for shopping. Tailing Deirdre must have been torture for her.

"Then Deirdre went into the ladies' room in the department store," Bess put in. "She had about five shopping bags with her, so we thought she might have hidden the legal documents in one of the bags."

"So you followed her into the restroom," I said.

"Yes," Bess replied. "And she dragged all her bags into the stall with her, so we couldn't look in them to check for the documents."

"As if she'd be walking around with old stolen legal papers in her shopping bags anyway," George said dryly. I laughed. I certainly appreciated how much work my friends had done in tracking their suspect, but I just couldn't imagine Deirdre stealing legal documents in the first place.

"We hid in two stalls across from her so she wouldn't see us," Bess said. "That's when I called you."

I nodded.

George took up the story. "When Deirdre went out, she left one bag behind. So my cousin here went into the stall to check out the bag."

"Well, what else was I supposed to do?" Bess asked. "This is while I was talking to you on my cell phone, Nancy."

George continued. "And then she leaned over to look in the bag—"

"Just as George decided to push open the stall door right into me—"

"And she fell over and dropped her cell phone into the toilet," George finished.

I burst out laughing. Now I understood Bess's horrified scream. I could picture her face as she watched her cell phone fall into the water. "Did Deirdre hear you?" I asked, still giggling.

"Are you kidding?" George said. "Everyone in the store heard us! They had to get a janitor to fish the phone out of the toilet since it was partway down the pipe. Then Bess had to explain to Deirdre how she managed to drop a phone into a toilet when she was pretending not to be in the restroom at all, and Deirdre accused her of trying to steal the bag of clothes she left behind... It was a mess."

"Did you ever get to look in the bag?" I asked.

George nodded. "In all the confusion, I sneaked a peek inside. It was nothing—just a really ugly skirt and a few pairs of socks."

"I don't think Deirdre is our thief anyway," I said. "She's just not organized enough to come up with a plan to steal documents from two different archives. I doubt she'd even know what an archive was."

"You're probably right," Bess replied. "It was just a hunch. So what did you do yesterday?"

"I took my first flying lesson!" I announced.

Bess and George both gasped. "Alone?" George asked. "Or with Ned?"

"On my own," I said. "Colonel Lang is out of town for a few days... well, at least he said he would be..." I trailed off, thinking of the colonel's rental car parked on River Street.

"Earth to Nancy Drew," Bess said. "You were telling us about flying."

"Right. Sorry," I said. "The colonel is away so he can't give lessons for a while. And Ned doesn't seem that into flying anyway. But I love it. So I asked Dad if I could take private lessons."

"And he said yes?" George asked. "Your father is so cool."

"I'm signed up for five lessons with a flight instructor I met at the airport," I told them. "It's so much fan."

"What kind of plane do you fly?" Bess asked.

"A Cessna Skyhawk," I replied.

"What does Ned think about all this?" George asked. "Is he going to tag along on your lessons like you did on his?"

That question startled me. In fact, my decision to take lessons on my own had happened so quickly that I hadn't even had time to tell Ned about it. Now that George had mentioned it, I felt bad. Why hadn't I checked to see if Ned wanted to come along with me on my lesson the day before?

"I didn't tell Ned," I admitted. "It just didn't even occur to me. He really doesn't seem to like flying that much."

George and Bess stared at me, surprised. "You didn't tell him?" Bess repeated. "Won't he be mad?"

"I don't think so," I said. "Why would he care if I'm taking flying lessons?"

George scrunched up her face. She does that when she's thinking hard. "I don't know," she admitted. "I guess it just seems like he might be jealous, since it was his idea first."

"Yeah," Bess put in. "How will Ned feel if you get your pilot's license before he does?"

I thought about that. Ned and I were always supportive of each other, but usually we didn't do the same things. This was the first time we would be in direct competition with each other. Would that change our relationship?

"I don't even know if I'll get my license," I said slowly. "That takes a really long time. And if I do, I doubt Ned would be jealous. That would be silly. We can both get our licenses if we want to."

Bess nodded. "You're right," she said. "If there's one thing that Ned isn't, it's silly. You two will be the most high-flying couple ever!"

I relaxed a little. Bess knew what she was talking about—I'd never seen Ned do a silly thing in his life. And he had never been jealous of my accomplishments. He would be fine with me taking lessons.

"We were on our way to get Bess a new cell phone," George told me. "Do you want to come along?"

I shook my head. "I'm helping Hannah do the final setup for her family reunion tomorrow," I said. "I just came by to make sure you guys were okay."

"Do you want us to do anything on the Evaline Waters case?" Bess asked. "Since our adventure yesterday turned out to be useless..."

"I can't think of what to do next," I admitted. "We have missing historical documents, but only some of them are relevant to Ms. Waterss lawsuit. The archives have such lax security that the guards have no idea who was even in them! The thief could be anyone in River Heights or Silver Creek."

"Or anywhere in between," George said, discouraged.

I sighed. "I need more information," I said. "Maybe I’ll go visit Chief McGinnis later and see if he’s gotten reports of any other documents missing."

"Phone us if you need anything," Bess called as I walked back down the driveway to my car. I waved to them, got in, and backed out into the street. Driving back down River Street, I could see that Berring Antiques was now fully open for the day, and Mr. Berring's green sedan was still out front.

So was Colonel Langs red Mustang. Something about that bothered me. Why would he tell us he was going out of town if it wasn't true? Had he let someone else drive his car while he was away?

When I got home, Hannah handed me a platter of vegetables. "These have to go in your car," she said. "My hatchback has no backseat." I grabbed the cordless phone and hit Ned's speed dial number. Then I carried the veggie plate out to my car and balanced it on the seat while I listened to his phone ringing.

I had to tell him about my private pilot lessons as soon as possible. I didn't think he'd feel angry or jealous, but I did think he might be insulted that I hadn't told him about them. Ned's mom answered the phone.

"Hi, Mrs. Nickerson," I said. "It's Nancy calling for Ned."

"Oh, hi, Nancy," she replied. "I hear you went flying with Ned and the colonel."

"I did," I told her. "It was amazing! I bet Ned can't wait to go again."

"I'm afraid he'll have to wait," she said. "Colonel Lang won't be back in town until next week."

I opened my mouth to tell her about seeing his car on River Street, but something stopped me. Clearly the colonel wanted us all to think he was away. Of course, someone else could have rented the car, but my sixth sense told me this was something suspicious. It wouldn't do any good to blow his cover with the Nickersons. But I couldn't help wondering why Colonel Lang would be lying to some of his oldest friends.

I was so distracted by this that I barely even noticed when Ned got on the line. He asked me if I wanted to catch a movie that night and I said yes, then we hung up. I decided I wouldn't tell Ned about my flying lessons until we met with Colonel Langley, and just have fun for the night.

 

Flying High

 

Over the next severaldays I helped Hannah survive her family reunion, and I helped Dad prepare for the preliminary hearing on the Evaline Waters lawsuit by pulling documents, making copies, and anything else he'd let me do. It didn't look good for poor Ms. Waters. She'd never managed to find the deed to her property, so Dad didn't have much to go on in arguing her case. I decided to pay her a visit to cheer her up. But first I stopped at the police station.

I hadn't even gotten inside when I ran into Chief McGinnis. He took one look at me and his already-flushed cheeks grew even redder. I think the chief likes me, but he never likes to see me at his station. That's because it usually means I've discovered something he didn't know about, or broken a case before he has.

"Hello, Ms. Drew," he said. "I’m on the way out."

"Is there something wrong?" I asked.

He ran a plump hand through his thinning hair. "Just some graffiti on the fence near the middle school," he mumbled.

"Let me guess," I said. "It says 'Go, Wildcats' and it advertises the annual picnic and Softball game."

"That's right," the chief said, disgusted. "You kids have had that silly tradition since before I even moved to River Heights. Why can't you just hang a banner instead of using paint?"

"I always thought the school should stop reporting it and just leave the mural up," I told him. "That way no one would have to repaint it the next year."

The chief just looked at me balefully. "Was there something you wanted, Nancy?"

"Yes, actually," I answered cheerfully. "I was wondering if you've had any breaks in the case of the archive thief."

"I'm not on that case anymore," he said. "After you stumbled on that theft over in Silver Creek, the county police took over the investigation here in River Heights, as well." Was it my imagination, or did he look a little relieved?

"Do you know who the county police chief is?" I asked. "I guess I should give him a call."

"You can give her a call," he said. "Her name is Donna Wagner. But I don't think you'll find out anything new. None of the stolen documents have any real value, so it's difficult to find a motive. All Chief Wagner can do is tighten security at the archives, especially after the theft yesterday."

My mouth dropped open. "Yesterday?"

"Yeah, another weird old law document was taken from the historical society in Farmingville," the chief said. He peered into my face. "Don't tell me you didn't know that."

I shook my head.

Chief McGinnis looked the tiniest bit satisfied. "Imagine me knowing something before Nancy Drew does," he said good-naturedly. "It was the same MO as the other thefts—no one around to see, the culprit left a mess all over the floor. And he took just one document: the original copy of a law stating that all married couples had to present the town of Farmingville with a potted hydrangea plant on the day of their wedding."

I laughed. "Why?" I asked.

"Apparendy the founding fathers of Farmingville wanted the hydrangea to be the official town flower, but they lacked the funding to buy enough plants on their own."

"Did it work?" I asked him.

The chief shrugged. "You'll have to ask your friend Luther Eldridge about that," he said. "Now I really have to get over to the middle school. Nice to see you, Nancy."

I thought it was the first time I'd ever heard him say that and mean it. I got the feeling that it made Chief McGinnis’s day to help me out with a case I'm working on. It doesn't happen very often.

When I got to Ms. Waters's house, I found her out in her garden, as usual.

"Hello, Nancy," she said when she saw me. She held up a lilac she had clipped for me to smell.

"That's beautiful," I told her.

Ms. Waters sighed and gazed over her garden. "It's hard to believe that this could be my last season in this house," she said sadly.

"I wish I could help more," I replied. "I've had no luck figuring out who took the document we need for you. The police did try to dust for fingerprints, but by the time they got there, we had already messed up most of the evidence. We had no idea that it was a crime scene when we walked in."

Ms. Waters nodded. "I can see why," she said, "I wouldn't think anyone in town would be interested in those old archives except for Luther and myself."

"I'm starting to think it's someone who's interested in the laws, not the actual documents," I told her. "Chief McGinnis said another old document was stolen a few towns over yesterday. This law was about hydrangeas. Add that to the pickle-eating law and the law about zoning, and you have a collection of strange laws."

"But stealing the papers they're written on doesn't mean you own the actual laws," Ms. Waters pointed out.

"I know," I said. "Still, some people like to collect things that are one of a kind, and these laws are certainly one of a kind!"

The old woman sighed. "If anyone can get to the bottom of this, it's you, Nancy," she said. "But I'm afraid it won't be in time to help me. The preliminary hearing is next week, and your father says that after that we'll know if the case is even worth fighting. It may just be a lost cause."

There wasn't much I could say to comfort her, and I left soon afterward feeling helpless. I headed straight for the airport—it was time for my third lesson with Frank Beltrano. I'd had the second one two days earlier, and it was even more fun than the first time. Frank had actually let me fly almost the whole time we were in the air. Today we were going to be working on takeoff; and landings. I knew it was a little early for me to be doing complicated things like landing the plane, but I hoped I would at least be able to take off once.

The airport was almost empty when I got there. Even Janice Mallory wasn't around. And neither was Frank. I checked my watch. He was late. The sun was already beginning to sink toward the horizon, and once again I was concerned that it would get dark during my lesson. Frank had been right on time for the second lesson, so I'd assumed his lateness the first time had been a fluke. But if that was the case, then where was he now?

He finally showed up almost half an hour late. "Hi, Nancy!" he called cheerfully. "Ready to learn how to take off?"

"Sure," I said. He didn't even seem to be aware that he was late. As I followed him out to the plane, I wondered if I'd accidentally come early. I opened my wallet and pulled out his business card. My father had written the dates and times of my lessons on the back. Sure enough, next to todays date he had scrawled 5:00 P.M. It was after 5:30.

"Hop in," Frank said when we reached the Cessna. "We have a lot to do today."

He was so full of positive energy that it seemed wrong to complain about his tardiness. I decided to mention it later, after the lesson.

When I was all strapped in, I assumed Frank would go over takeoff procedure with me. Instead, he did it all himself without even explaining what he was doing. We were in the air before I knew it.

"Will I take off the next time?" I asked. "I think I saw most of what you did."

Frank started, almost as if he'd forgotten I was there. "You're a good observer," he commented. "That's one of the best ways to learn."

I knew he was right. Still, I had really wanted to take off on my own. I was impatient to be able to do everything. "Why don't you walk me through the takeoff and I'll tell you what you're missing," Frank suggested.

"Okay," I agreed. "First, look at the runway to make sure no other planes are nearby or getting ready to land. Even if the tower says it's okay, I should check with my own eyes."

I tried to remember everything else the colonel had said about taking off.

"When I get to the end of the runway, I line up the nose with the center line. Then I gendy and smoothly speed up and I go to full throttle. I keep checking the instruments."

I paused and looked at Frank. When he noticed me waiting, he smiled. "That's right," he said. "What next?"

"I put backward pressure on the control wheel," I said. "Again, moving very smoothly. That will lift the nose up to the correct angle for takeoff. After the plane lifts off, I slowly release my pressure on the control wheel so that I don't climb at too steep an angle." I pictured the way Colonel Lang took off, and the way Frank did it. They never jerked the wheel around at all—every movement was slow and controlled. "I should be aware that the controls feel tighter as the plane picks up speed," I said. "And if the plane starts bouncing, that means I need to apply more pressure to the control wheel to make the plane lift off. Once I'm off the ground, I need to be ready to adjust for crosswinds."

Frank didn't correct me much. In fact, he hardly said anything at all. He just listened, occasionally nodding or grunting an agreement with me. I wondered if he was really paying attention. Suddenly his cell phone rang.

"Whoops. Excuse me, Nancy," he said, pressing the Talk button.

I glanced outside. The red streaks of another beautiful sunset filled the sky to the west. It was still run to be flying, but I hadn't had the controls even once during this lesson. And I thought it was a little rude of Frank to take phone calls while he was supposed to be teaching me. On our second lesson he hadn't even brought his cell phone along. That was how it should be every time.

Frank ended his phone call and turned to me with a grin. "Let's do a landing," he said. "There's a small airport up ahead—it's just a single runway, really. We'll land there, then take off again and head back to River Heights."

"Great!" I said. "Will I do the landing?"

"Oh, no," Frank replied quickly. "Landing is very tricky. I don't think you're ready for that yet. For now, you'll learn by watching."

But when he landed at the small airfield, he barely even explained what he was doing. I watched carefully, but without Frank explaining his actions, I was lost.

"I'm not sure I really followed that—" I started to say as we touched down.

"You'll get it eventually," Frank interrupted. He wasn't being rude really, but his voice was brusque. He taxied over to the small brick building that made up this tiny airport.

"I'll be right back, Nancy," he said, unbuckling his seat belt. "You can get out and stretch your legs if you want."

"No thanks," I answered as he climbed from the plane. I couldn't hide my surprise. Where was he going? Maybe he had to check in at the control desk inside. I leaned my head back against the seat and watched the gorgeous red sunset. Soon enough it would be dark. We had to take off soon. Would Frank let me do it?

He returned very quickly, and I was surprised to see that he had a small package under his arm. It was a thin brown-paper-wrapped rectangle. Frank stuck it into his flight bag and strapped himself back in.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied. "Can I do the takeoff?"

He squinted into the gathering darkness. "It's getting late.You'd better let me do it," he said. "We don't want the gloom to throw you off."

He taxied quickly to the end of the runway.

"But there are no lines on this runway," I said. "How do you know where to line up the plane?"

"If you don't have a center line, pick a spot at the far end of the strip," Frank said. "Then you keep your eye on that as you take off. That will keep the plane moving in a straight line."

I watched carefully as Frank sped up, applied full throtde, and eased back on the control wheel. The takeoff was so smooth that I didn't even notice when we left the ground. I couldn't wait until it was my turn to try that.

By the time we landed back at the Raver Heights airport, it was almost completely dark. I felt a little irritated. Frank had let me have the controls once we were up in the air on the way back, but he had done all the takeoffs and landings himself. I didn't really feel I had learned much. I thought of the way Ned approached his lessons with Colonel Lang. Ned was patient, and he didn't mind not being in charge of the plane. Maybe I should try to be more like him, and take flying step by step. After all, I had learned about piloting a plane simply from watching what Frank did.

As I walked back to my car after the lesson, I was surprised to see a familiar plane parked outside the hangar. It was Colonel Lang's green-and-yellow Meridian. I took a quick look at the parking lot. Sure enough, there was the colonel’s rental car. On a hunch I went back inside the hangar and took a good look around. No colonel. He wasn't in his car, either. Or his plane.

"Still, it's pretty clear that he's in town," I muttered to myself. The colonel's strange behavior bothered me for some reason. Why would he tell the Nicker-sons he was out of town when he wasn't?

I drove home past Ms. Waters's house. And that's when it struck me—the archive thefts had started only after Colonel Lang came to town! There was no reason to think he'd be involved in something like stealing old documents... but his car had been parked outside the antique shop for a long time the other day. Old legal documents counted as antiques, didn't they? Maybe the colonel stole the papers, then sold them to Mr. Berring, the antique dealer.

A little voice in my head told me that I was leaping to conclusions. I had no evidence that either the colonel or Mr. Berring were involved in anything illegal. But both of them had exhibited strange behavior lately, strange enough to draw my notice. I had a gut feeling that there was some connection between the two men. And my gut is usually right.

I called George. "Are you up for some sleuthing?" I asked when she picked up the phone.

"You bet," she answered. "What are we doing?"

"Staking out Colonel Lang," I told her.

"Isn't he a friend of Ned's father?" George asked. "Why do you want to stake him out?"

"I'm not really sure," I admitted. "But I've caught him in a lie, and I know he was involved in something shady back in Washington a long time ago. He and Mr. Nickerson hinted at it, but they never said outright what it was."

"And now he's lying to the Nickersons about where he is," George finished for me.

"Right. His car was parked near the antique shop for a long time the other day. Both he and Mr. Herring are new in town, and the document thefts didn't start until they got here. I have a hunch that there's a connection between them."

"Well, if there's one thing I've learned from being your friend, it's that even though your hunches are bizarre sometimes, we should listen," George told me. "I'll call Bess. We can take turns watching Mr. Berring's store until the colonel shows up."

"Thanks, George," I said. "You're the best!"

For the next two days, Bess, George, and I took turns parking along River Street to keep an eye on the antique store. Once or twice I spotted Colonel Lang's car, but I never saw him in person. I had to admit, he was pretty good at staying out of sight.

On the third day, I sat alone in my car, gazing at the door to Berring Antiques. I thought over everything I knew about the colonel. He was retired from the air force, and he'd known Ned's father in Washington, D.C. They'd both hinted that the colonel had been involved in a situation that Mr. Nickerson helped cover up. I realized that I barely knew anything about the man. I had been so charmed by his easygoing manners that I hadn't noticed how little information he gave out about himself. For all I knew, he'd been involved in illegal activities all his life.

Just as I was thinking this, my passenger-side door opened. And Colonel Lang got in.

 

Revealing Conversation

 

"Hello, Nancy," the colonel said pleasantly as he settled himself in my car.

I was so surprised to see him that I just sat there and stared.

"Are you on a stakeout?" he asked. He nodded toward Berring Antiques across the street. "See anything interesting?"

What was I supposed to say? I'd only been watching the store in order to find the colonel, and here he was in my car! I decided to go with the truth. Well, some of the truth, anyway. "I haven't seen anything at all," I admitted.

"What are you looking for?" Colonel Lang asked.

I hesitated. I didn't want to tell him my suspicions about him and Mr. Berring. And besides, I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking for. I studied the colonel's face. He was smiling, but I still found it intimidating to have him in my car. Who knew what this man had been up to? I decided to take the offensive." I thought you were out of town, Colonel," I said. "Ned and his family all think you're in Washington."

A flicker of amusement crossed his face. "I just got back," he replied.

"I've been seeing your car around all week," I told him. "And I saw your plane at the airport the other day."

Now the colonel looked surprised. "What were you doing at the airport?" he asked.

"What were you doing at the airport?" I countered. "You obviously weren't in D.C."

"No, I wasn't," he agreed. "I'm here on business that I can't really discuss."

"Why would you lie to the Nickersons?" I pressed.

"Because I don't want to get them involved," he said.

"Involved in what?" I asked.

"What do you think?" he replied.

I paused. He was asking me what I thought was going on with Mr. Berring, and the truth was that I didn't know for sure. I didn't even have that many clues. But if Colonel Lang was doing illegal business with the antique dealer, that meant he had to protect himself. If I told him that I suspected him of wrongdoing, it could put me in danger.

"I think Mr. Berring may be involved in selling stolen historical documents," I said. That was true, and it didn't imply that I thought the colonel was the one supplying those stolen documents.

"Really?" Colonel Lang sounded surprised.

"Why?" I asked him. "What do you think?"

He looked at me for a moment as if he'd never seen me before. "You really are quite the detective, aren't you?" he said, almost to himself.

"Yes, I am," I replied. I was relieved that my voice sounded normal, since my heart was pounding. If Colonel Lang ready was involved in Mr. Berring's scheme, would he try to keep me quiet somehow?

"What makes you think Berring is selling stolen merchandise?" he asked.

"A hunch mostly," I admitted. "Someone has been stealing old documents from archives around the county, and Berring Antiques is new in town. The thefts only started after he got here."

Colonel Lang nodded. "I can see why you would draw that conclusion," he said. "These documents are antiques, and he sells antiques."

"Do you know something more about it?" I asked boldly.

"Why would I?" the colonel replied.

"Because I have a hunch about you, too," I admitted. "You've been lying to the Nickersons, and you've been staking out the antique shop."

"You noticed that, huh?" He chuckled.

"Do you know Mr. Berring?" I asked.

"In a sense," he said. "But he doesn't know me."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

In response the colonel reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a large, flat leather wallet. He handed it to me.

I opened the wallet to find an FBI badge with Colonel Lang's name and photo.

"FBI?" I cried. "You're an FBI agent?"

"That's right," he said, taking the badge back. "Surprised?"

"Yes," I said truthfully. What I didn't say out loud was how relieved I also was. Here I'd been thinking that one of Mr. Nickerson's oldest friends was some kind of thief! I was certainly glad to know he wasn't here for any illegal reasons. But the fact that he was an FBI agent meant that he was here for a reason. "You're investigating Mr. Berring, aren't you?" I asked.

"Yes, I am," the colonel replied. "I've been investigating him for some time, in fact. He relocated here after his last scheme fell apart. Of course, he used a different name then."

"I knew it," I said. "There was just something about his behavior that made me suspicious. And then when the archive break-ins began, somehow it made me think of him."

"The archives are the least of his crimes," the colonel said. "In fact I'm not even sure he's the one stealing the documents. We have reason to believe that he's involved in the smuggling of not only historical papers, but also valuable artworks."

"Why hasn't he been arrested?" I asked.

"We believe he's a small part of a larger smuggling ring," Colonel Lang explained. "We're not sure how he's receiving the pieces, or how he ships them to his clients."

"So you don't want to arrest him until you can identify the whole group," I said.

The colonel smiled. "You got it," he replied. "I must say, I'm impressed with you, Nancy. You almost blew my cover! No one else realized that I was connected to Mr. Berring in any way."

"I just notice things," I told him. "For instance, I first noticed Mr. Berring at the airport when we were there for our first lesson with you. He seemed so angry. It stuck in my mind. That's why I noticed him when he was driving around and around on River Street. It almost seemed as if he was looking for someone."

'I didn't see that" the colonel replied. "Did you find out who he was looking for?"

I shook my head. "He may have been looking for a parking spot for all I know," I admitted. "But now that you've told me he's a smuggler, I think he was probably looking for his contact."

Colonel Lang nodded thoughtfully. "I did notice him at the airport," he said slowly. "I wondered what he was doing there."

"He was there to yell at somebody," I told him. "But I never found out what it was about."

"Thanks for the info, Nancy," Colonel Lang said, putting his badge back in his pocket. "But now that you know what's going on, I'd like you to drop your investigation."

"Why?" I asked. I was still hoping to find the thief so that I could recover the original zoning law document to help Ms. Waters.

"Because the people in this smuggling ring are professional criminals," Colonel Lang said. "That means that anyone who finds out about them will be in danger. These people will resort to violence to avoid being caught." He held my eye for a moment, a serious expression on his craggy face. "It's too dangerous for you, Nancy. Promise me you'll stay out of it."

I never like being told to drop a case. But when an FBI agent gives you a direct order, you'd better do as you're told. "Okay," I said reluctantly.

"Good. But when this is all done, I'll give you your own flying lesson to thank you for your help," he said.

"I may not need it," I said with a smile. "I'm already taking lessons with Frank Beltrano."

"Really? Good for you!" Colonel Lang looked pleased.

"Flying with you and Ned inspired me," I added.

"Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it." The colonel opened the car door. "Have fun flying."

"Thanks," I called as he closed the door and headed off down the sidewalk. I glanced up at Berring Antiques. It was frustrating to know that Mr. Berring might be in possession of the original copy of the zoning law that could save Ms.Waters s home. If only I could go in there and search for it...

I turned on the car and prepared to pull out of my parking space. Colonel Lang had told me to stay out of it. So I would.

 

A Lesson in Disaster

I wasglad to have a flying lesson that afternoon to take my mind off the situation with Colonel Lang and the smuggling ring. I knew the FBI would solve their case, but it could take weeks, or even months. That would be way too late to help Evaline Waters. Plus, I still wished I could assist in the investigation. I hated dropping the case before it was solved. In fact, I had never done that before.

On the way to the airport I called Bess and George to tell them that our stakeout of Berring Antiques was over. I didn't want to reveal that Colonel Lang was FBI, so I simply told them I had made a mistake about him and that I no longer suspected him. I knew they were curious, but they were just going to have to wait to hear the whole story.

I also called Ned to invite him along on my flying lesson, but his mother said he was studying at the university library. I felt a little relieved—I was nervous that I hadn't told him yet about my lessons. And the more time that went by without my telling him, the more I felt as if I was hiding something from him. Ugh. I promised myself that the next day I'd sit down with him and explain the whole thing.

When I walked into the hangar, I half expected to find that Frank was late again. But instead he was sitting on his counter reading a magazine. As soon as he saw me, he hopped off. "Let's get going," he said, putting on his sunglasses.

I felt a bounce in my step as I followed him out to the plane. The lesson was starting on time, it was a beautiful sunny day, and I felt confident in my flying abilities. "Do you think I can cake off today?" I asked. "I feel ready."

Frank looked me up and down. "I don't see why not," he said. "I'll take off first, so we can go through the steps slowly. Then we’ll land, and you can take off the second time."

"Great!" I replied. It was strange how Frank's teaching style changed so much from one lesson to the next. We strapped ourselves into our seats, then I radioed the tower for permission to take off. Frank slowly went through the entire process, explaining each move he made.

By the time we were airborne, I had memorized the whole procedure. "Since I only have one more lesson after this one, do you think I could practice taking off today and then practice landing on Friday?" I asked.

Frank glanced at me in surprise. "Our next lesson is Monday," he corrected me.

"I don't think so," I said. "I'm pretty sure it's on Friday. Let me look." Since Frank was still at the controls, I leaned over the side of my seat and pulled my bag from the mesh compartment under the chair. I still had the business card that Dad had written my lesson schedule on. I stuck my hand into the bag and felt around for the small piece of stiff paper. Bess is always telling me to organize my bag better, but I never find the time to do it.

Finally I felt the business card. I pulled it out and checked the dates Dad had inked on the back. "Yeah, it's Friday," I said.

"Huh. I guess I remembered wrong." Frank shot me a smile. "Friday it is."

"Can I land the plane on Friday?" I asked.

"We'll see," he replied. "Landing is tricky."

While he spoke I turned his card over in my hand and idly studied the front of it. I had never really looked at the printed side before. It featured a cute little cartoon of Frank in the Cessna, along with his name and phone number. I grinned when I saw thenumber.

"Your phone number is close to my boyfriend's," I told him. "Yours is five-five-five, four-three-seven-oh. His is four-three-four-oh. You have to picture the dial pad. The four is just above the seven. It’s an easy dialing error. I bet you two get each other's wrong numbers all the time!"

As the words left my mouth, I felt realization dawn. The strange caller Ned's father had told me about—that was someone trying to call Frank Beltrano. Ned’s father had been getting Franks wrong numbers. And as soon as I realized that, all theother bits and pieces of suspicion I'd been feeling began to make sense. Mr. Nickerson's mystery calleralways said there was a package delivery that night. But that message was really meant to tell Frank that there was a delivery.

I was willing to bet that the call he'd gotten during our last lesson was one of those very phone calls—after he'd received it, he landed at the other airport and picked up a package. He'd gotten two calls during our lessons, now that I thought about it. And both times it had been at sunset. Harold Safer’s story about sailors and sunsets filled my mind. What had he said? Red sky at night, sailors' delight... When the sunset showed a red sky, it meant the weather would be clear for a little while.

And clear weather meant easy flying. Frank could fly out during a clear night to pick up one of his mysterious packages. But why all the secrecy about package delivery? Why would he need to go at night?

I knew the answer immediately. Frank wasn't really a flight instructor—that was just his cover. He was a smuggler! He was the one Colonel Lang was looking for. Now I understood why Mr. Berring had been at the airport that day: He was there to yell at Frank. Mr. Nickerson had gotten one of the wrong-number calls the night before, which meant that Frank hadn't gotten the call meant for him. He'd probably missed his cue to go and pick up one of the stolen documents or a piece of artwork. Mr. Berring had come to the airport to find out why—and he'd been pretty angry about it. No wonder Frank hadn't wanted to admit to me that he knew Mr. Berring!

I pictured the thin, rectangular package Frank had picked up during our last lesson. Could that have been the very document my friends and I were looking for—the one that would help Ms. Waters? I felt sick just thinking about it. I had been with him while he was transporting stolen goods. I had participated in the smuggling ring!

"Why so quiet, Nancy?" Frank asked. "Thinking about your takeoff? We're still about five minutes from the airport."

I just stared at him. I didn't know what to say.

"I'll land there, and then you can take off again," he told me.

"Okay," I whispered. Now I had to figure out how to get out of the plane when we landed so that I could notify the authorities. Maybe I could pretend to be sick...

He squinted at me. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asked. Suddenly he reached for my arm. I gasped and pulled away. Surprised, he jerked back. His elbow hit the control wheel and knocked it forward. Frank's eyes met mine for a brief moment, and then the plane went into a steep dive.

It happened so quickly that Frank was taken by surprise. He fell forward, his loosened seat belt not stopping him. His head smacked against the control panel with a dull thud. Without thinking, I grabbed the control wheel and yanked it up. The plane pulled up so quickly that Frank tumbled backward against his seat. His head lolled to the side. He was unconscious.

There was no one to land the plane!

 

Dangerous Landing

 

"Frank!" I yelled, gripping the control wheel tightly.

"Frank, wake up!" I pried one hand off the wheel and swatted at him, hitting him as hard as I could without jostling the wheel.

It was no use. Frank didn't even twitch a muscle. He must've hit his head harder than I thought.

"Okay, Nancy, calm down," I told myself. But it was hard. I was alone in a plane with only three lessons under my belt. When I glanced down at the ground rushing by, I feltsick to my stomach. I had never been so afraid in my life.

Luckily I had some experience in dangerous situations. Never as bad as this, but I'd felt threatened before on my cases. The most important thing was to keep a clear head. Remembering this, I took a deep breath.

"I'm in control, and I know how to keep us in the air flying in a straight line," I said aloud. "So I just need to keep doing what I'm doing while I get help."

Talking to myself made me feel more in control. I forced myself to look at the bright side: At least I wasn't in any danger from Frank the Smuggler. For now, I could concentrate on flying without having to worry about him. I held the wheel steady and reached for the radio. With one thumb, I flipped the switch to turn it on.

What should I say? "Mayday," I whispered into the microphone. That's what they always say in movies. I figured maybe it would work. I cleared my throat and spoke louder. "Mayday, mayday. Cessna Skyhawk in need of assistance."

I released the Talk button and waited for someone—anyone—to answer. For a moment there was nothing but a crackling sound.Then a woman's voice came over the airwaves.

"Copy, Skyhawk. Is that you, Nancy?"

"Janice?" I cried. I was thrilled to hear the manager's voice. "I need help," I said in a rush. "Frank's been knocked unconscious and I have to land the plane."

There was silence on the other end. Then Janice said, "I'm not a pilot, Nancy." Her voice shook. "I don't know how to land a plane."

My heart stopped. The people on the ground were my only hope. If they couldn't help, what would I do?

"I'm going to try to find someone," Janice said. She sounded as frightened as I felt. "Just keep flying, okay?"

"Okay," I said numbly. I glanced over at Frank. He was still out.

After what felt like forever, the radio crackled again. "Nancy?" cried a deep male voice. "It’s Colonel Lang."

When I heard him, relief washed over me. The colonel would get me down safely, I just knew it. "I'm here," I said. "What should I do?"

"The first thing is to stay calm," he said. "I'm in the tower and I can see you on radar."

"Good," I said. "I'm flying toward the airport. Frank was heading back that way before he got knocked out."

"Did something happen?" the colonel asked. "Why is he unconscious?"

I felt a little weird saying this over the radio, but I had no choice. "I realized that Frank was the smuggler you're looking for. He noticed that I was acting strange and he reached out for me. I panicked and jumped, then he hit the wheel and the plane started to go into a dive. That's when his head hit the control panel."


"I see," Colonel Lang said, sounding dazed.

"Colonel, I can see the airport now," I told him. "How do I get down?"

"Okay, Nancy, listen carefully," he said. "I'll talk you in. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I told him.

"You’re not going to start your landing until you're pretty low," he said. "About twenty feet. That's roughly the height of the hangar roof. Okay?"

"Okay," I said. I could see the hangar in the distance. "Should I start lowering the plane now?"

"Yes, very gently," said the colonel.

I pressed the control wheel down ever so slightly, and the nose of the plane eased downward.

"Now, Nancy, in order to land the plane, you're going to do something called a power-off stall," the colonel said.

That didn't sound very safe! "I'm going to stall on purpose?" I asked doubtfully.

"It's okay; it's a normal way to land," he said soothingly. "It means you'll be going as slow as possible when you touch down."

That sounded good. "Okay," I said.

"As you land, don't watch the ground in front of you," he said. "It will distort your depth perception."

I felt a trickle of sweat on my brow as I tried to process what he was saying. "Don't look forward?" I asked. I was looking over the nose of the plane right now.

"No," he said. "Because when you land, you're going to lift the nose up. And then you won't be able to see the ground over the top of it."

That made sense. "But then where should I look?" I asked.

"Look to the left," he instructed me. "Past the left side of the nose and to the ground in front of it."

I tried looking where he said, and I realized I got a much better idea of how far down the ground really was when I did it this way. Looking over the top had given me the impression that I was moving much faster than I really was. "Okay, I get it," I told him. I didn't feel nervous anymore—I was too busy concentrating on doing what the colonel said.

"You're at the right height now," he said. "You're going to begin the stall. Ready?"

"Yes," I said. "What should I do?"

"Ease back on the wheel," he said. "But make sure you do it gradually. If you pull too hard, the plane will shoot back up."

"Got it," I said, gently pulling back on the wheel. The plane's nose tilted up into the air. I forced myself to keep focused on what I was doing, even though a part of me wanted to panic. I remembered that I was supposed to stall, that it was normal.

"Just keep that gentle pressure on the wheel, Nancy," Colonel Lang said. "You're doing great. We want to keep the nose tilted up."

I nodded, even though he couldn't see me. I kept my eyes glued to the ground outside the left window of the plane. As I got lower and lower, it got harder to keep the nose up. I held on tightly to the wheel and kept pulling back.

Suddenly I felt a bump, then another.

"Your back wheels are down!" the colonel cried excitedly. "Keep the nose in the air. It will help slow you down."

I kept pulling back on the wheel until he told me to ease off. Slowly the front of the plane came down and gently touched the runway. I applied the brakes, and the plane gradually slowed. Finally it stopped.

I had done it! I was down!

Then everything happened at once. I noticed flashing lights on the runway. The door opened and a police officer stuck her head in. She helped me out while a paramedic climbed into the plane to tend to Frank. When my feet touched the ground, my knees buckled a little. I was so relieved!

"Nancy!" My father came running from the hangar and threw his arms around me.

"Dad? What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I asked Janice to call him when we heard what was going on," said a deep voice from behind. I turned to see Colonel Lang with a big grin on his face.

"Colonel! Thank you so much!" I cried.

"You did all the hard work," he said. "Most people would have panicked in your situation, but you kept your cool. I can see why your dad is so proud of you."

Dad gave my shoulders a squeeze. "You were just touching down when I got here," he told me. "I'm glad I missed most of it. You may have kept your cool, but I doubt that I could have! Thank goodness you were at the airport, Colonel."

I frowned. "Why were you at the airport?" I asked.

"I was worried about you," the colonel replied. "We had just caught Berring with a stolen etching in his possession, and he confessed to everything... including his connection to Frank Beltrano. I guess you figured that out too."

"Yeah, at the worst possible time!" I joked. Now that I was safely back on the ground, the events of the last half hour were starting to feel like a dream.

"Well, at least you're safe now," Dad said. "My heart is still pounding."

"Actually, I was hoping to land at the next lesson," I said. "I guess I got what I wanted a little early."

The paramedics helped Frank Beltrano from the plane. He was conscious now, and looking confused. "I'd better go," the colonel said. "We’re taking Beltrano into custody. He should be able to tell us the names of the rest of the operation."

I didn't bother to watch Frank being arrested. Dad and I turned and walked slowly toward the parking lot. We passed Chief McGinnis, who was heading for the planes.

"I guess you cracked your stolen documents case, Nancy," he said. "Are you all right?"

I nodded. "I'm fine, thanks, Chief."

He glanced at my father."I should've known she'd get to the bottom of this," he said. "We had no idea a few archive thefts could be such a big deal." He sounded a little miffed.

"Well, how could you know we would find a major smuggling ring?" I said, trying to make him feel better. I don't think it worked though. He just raised his eyebrows.

"I'm going to get Nancy home," Dad said, leading me away.

"Bye, Chief!" I called. Since Dad had caught a ride to the airport with a friend, he drove us home in my car. And that was fine by me. I didn't want to be behind the wheel of anything—car or plane—for a long time!

But as we drove past Ms. Waters's house, I realized with a start that we might be able to find the zoning law document now. "Dad," I said, "do you think Colonel Lang could help us recover the stolen document from the university archive?"

Dad furrowed his brow. "I doubt it," he said slowly. "Even if the FBI has found all the stolen items, they would be considered evidence. We wouldn't be allowed to have access to them."

"But we wouldn't need to bring the actual document into court, would we?" I asked. "I mean, you and Mr. Shannon and the judge could all go and read the document while it's still in FBI custody, and then you could use it in the case."

"Are you a lawyer now too?" Dad teased. "It's possible that we could do that, but it would be up to the judge. And we don't even know if the colonel has found that particular stolen document."

"I bet Colonel Lang would help me find out," I said. "I'm the one who alerted him to the connection between Mr. Berring and Frank Beltrano. He owes me one."

Dad turned the car into our driveway. "The colonel helped you land that plane. I think you owe him one."

He was right. But I still thought Colonel Lang might be willing to help me one more time. As Dad parked, I noticed Hannah rushing out the front door with a worried look on her face. I climbed out of the car and got ready for a bear hug, Gruen-style.

"Nancy, thank goodness you re all right!" Hannah cried, throwing her arms around me. "I knew you were crazy to be flying around in little planes like that. Promise me you'll never do it again."

"Well, I don't know, Hannah," I said. "I'll have to think about it." There was one thing I didn't have to think about though—finishing the Evaline Waters case. Colonel Lang may have wrapped up his smuggling case, but I hadn't wrapped up my case yet. And I was going to, no matter what.

 





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