An Informative Conversation





 

The next morning I called Ned before he had even finished his breakfast. "I need your help," I told him. "I have to ask Colonel Lang for a favor."

Ned hesitated. "I think you're closer to the colonel now than I am," he said. "The story of your spectacular landing is all over my dad's paper this morning."

There was a strange sound in his voice, and I suddenly realized that I'd never told Ned about my flying lessons! He'd had to find out what I was up to by reading a newspaper article.

"Oh, Ned, I'm so sorry!" I cried."I've been meaning to tell you all this past week! I loved flying with you and the colonel so much that I asked my father for lessons with Frank Beltrano."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Ned asked.

I bit my lip. Why hadn't I told him? "I guess I thought you might feel uncomfortable with it," I admitted. "Because taking flying lessons was your idea. And I was so excited about it, but you..."

"I wasn't," Ned finished for me.

"Well, no," I said. "I was impatient for more time in the air, but when the colonel said he was going away for a while, you actually seemed relieved."

"That's because I was relieved," Ned said. "Flying terrifies me!"

"What?" I cried. Ned Nickerson terrified? I couldn't imagine such a thing. Ned was the bravest person I knew.

"I don't mind flying in a jet with an experienced pilot and copilot," Ned said. "But up in that little plane, with only my dad's friend at the controls... it scared me."

"Why did you ask Colonel Lang for lessons, then?" I asked.

"I was kidding," Ned replied, abashed. "I never thought he'd take me seriously."

I couldn't help smiling. "But then when he said yes, you felt it would be rude not to take him up on his generous offer to teach you to fly," I guessed.

"You know me, polite to a fault," Ned answered. His voice was back to normal now, and I knew everything was okay between us.

"You should have told me you were afraid," I said.

"I didn't want to ruin your fun," Ned replied. "I knew you weren't scared at all."

"I was plenty scared yesterday," I admitted.

"I'll bet. Are you okay?" Ned asked gently.

"I'm okay," I told him. "Though I wouldn't be if Colonel Lang hadn't been there."

"So what's the favor you need to ask him?"

Evaline Waters and her situation came rushing back into my mind. "I want him to let me see a piece of evidence from the smuggling ring. A stolen document."

"The zoning law for Ms. Waters's lawsuit?" Ned guessed.

"That's right," I said. "But I don't know if the FBI has recovered that document yet. And I don't even know where Colonel Lang is staying, so I can't ask him!"

"Well, that's easy," Ned said. "He's staying here with us. Come on over."

I was out of my chair before he even finished speaking. "I'll be right there!" I said.

When I reached the Nickerson house, Colonel Lang was out on the front lawn, playing ball with Ned and his dad. He didn't look anything like an air force colonel or an FBI agent. He just looked like an overgrown boy, diving to make a great catch. When he saw me, he tossed the football my way. I caught it easily.

The colonel grinned. "Is there anything she can't do?" he asked Ned.

"Not that I know of," Ned said, ruffling my hair.

"Well, there is one thing," I said. "I can't get into locked FBI evidence rooms."

Mr. Nickerson laughed. "She's also not good at beating around the bush," he told his old friend. "Nancy always says just what she means."

I blushed. I guess I hadn't been very subtle. I just wanted Ms.Waters to stop worrying as soon as possible!

"You'd like to see some of the evidence from the smuggling case?" Colonel Lang asked.

I nodded. "There's an old law I need to see to help out a friend. It's so old that there's only one written copy of it in existence."

"And it was stolen," the colonel guessed.

"Yes. Have you recovered all the stolen goods?" I asked.

He shook his head. "We've found the central members of the smuggling ring, but we haven't located all their buyers yet. They're spread out all over the country, if not the world. Plus, they cover their tracks—they're trafficking in stolen goods, so they make themselves hard to find."

My heart sank. I'd been hoping he could just take me to see the stolen documents right away. "I hadn't thought of it that way," I said. "It will probably take months to find them all."

"It will," he replied. His voice was grave, but there was a twinkle in his eye. "However," he went on, "there is one thing I can tell you, sleuth to sleuth."

"Yes?" I prompted.

"When I talked to you in your car, you mentioned that the local archive thefts hadn't started until after Berring moved to town," the colonel said.

"That's right," I said.

"Well, that got me thinking," Colonel Lang said. "Why would Berring come here to River Heights to restart his life of crime? It's not a major hub for the type of art he usually smuggled."

I thought it over. "Because there was something here that he wanted?" I guessed.

"Exactly," Colonel Lang replied. "He wanted your historical documents!"

Ned looked doubtful. "Why?" he asked. "The things that were stolen weren't valuable. Even the police weren't very interested in them."

"That's true ," Mr. Nickerson put in. "But the fact that they were stolen means they must have been valuable to someone."

"So Mr. Berring found a buyer who was interested in old laws," I said, thinking it through. "Maybe it was one of his big art customers, or someone with lots of money to spend. Mr. Berring thought it was worth the trouble to steal those historical documents for his buyer."

"It wasn't a hard job," Colonel Lang said. "As you know, the archives weren't well guarded, and no one really cared that obscure documents were disappearing. In fact, I don't think anyone even noticed the pattern of thefts until you came along."

"How many documents were stolen?" Mr. Nickerson asked.

"Twenty-three, from archives in River Heights and six neighboring towns," the colonel revealed.

I gasped."Twenty-three!"

Colonel Lang nodded. "It was Berring's downfall. The thefts were so simple that he did the dirty work himself."

"You mean he didn't hire anyone to steal the documents? It was actually Mr. Berring who went into the archives and took the papers?" I asked. I wondered how that could have been the man's downfall. And suddenly it came to me! "So you had hard evidence of Mr. Berring committing a crime," I said. "You were able to tie him to the crime scenes—the archives."

"Yes, thanks to you," Colonel Lang said. "Yesterday while you were taking your flying lesson, we had FBI teams visit the county archive. The local police hadn't found any fingerprints, but we have more sophisticated equipment. We located one fingerprint on the bottom of a file folder that had been tossed on the floor. It matched Berring's fingerprint."

"And then what?" I asked. I couldn't believe my information had been so instrumental in bringing down an international smuggler!

"And then I was able to threaten him with jail time for breaking and entering unless he cooperated with our investigation," Colonel Lang said. "Once I did that, Berring was happy to snitch on his colleagues."

"Including Frank Beltrano," I said. Something still didn't add up. "But why was Mr. Berring's buyer so interested in old laws from this county?" I asked. "Why did he have to come to River Heights?"

"Good question," Mr. Nickerson put in. "I expect that every town has its share of strange old laws."

"That's the best part," Colonel Lang said. "This buyer wanted obscure local laws."

"You mean the buyer is from around here?" I asked excitedly. "From this county?"

"According to Berring, this was the only county the buyer was interested in," the colonel replied. "But they always communicated via e-mail. Berring swears he doesn't know the buyer's identity."

"That's okay," I said. "Because I have a pretty good idea who it is!"

 

Finding the Culprit

 

I knocked on thedoor of Kaylin Marshall's office. Ned and Colonel Lang stood right behind me.

"I hope you're sure about this, Nancy," Colonel Lang said. "I'd hate to accuse an innocent person."

"That's why we're here," I told him. "To find out for sure."

The door creaked open to reveal Kaylin. "Nancy, Ned, hi," she said, surprised. She glanced at Colonel Lang. "What can I do for you guys?"

"You said we could come to you for information," I told her. "Any public information, right?"

"Of course," Kaylin said. "Come on in. Sorry the office is a mess."

"Where's your boss?" Ned asked. "Mr. Williams?"

"Out demonstrating," Kaylin replied. "It's lunch hour."

I took a seat at Kaylin's desk and smiled at her. "He really goes out every day, huh?"

"Like clockwork," she said.

"And do you always know where he is?" I pressed. "Which town hall he's picketing?"

Kaylin frowned. "Well, no," she said. "I don't really care that much, actually. I get more work done when he's not here. He's always talking on and on about archive security when he's in the office. I'm just happy he's gone for an hour every day."

I exchanged a glance with Colonel Lang. "So Mr. Williams could actually be running a private errand—for instance, picking up a stolen document—during lunch hour?" Colonel Lang asked.

Kaylin looked surprised. "I—I suppose so. Nobody pays much attention to Mr. Williams. He's sort of a local joke."

I smiled. "Kaylin, is Mr. Williams's address a matter of public record?"

"Sure," she said. "Why?"

"Because we'd like to pay him a little visit," I said. "We want to see what kind of historical documents he has 'archived' at his house."

Kaylin scrawled the address for Felix Williams on a piece of note paper, and Colonel Lang drove us straight there. We found Mr. Williams just locking up.

The colonel flashed his FBI badge. "Would you mind if we took a look inside?" he asked.

Felix Williams turned red from his pudgy, sandalclad feet to the top of his bald head. "I—I'm on my way back to work," he stammered. "I just came home for lunch."

"Weren't you out protesting today?" I asked.

Mr. Williams just gaped at me.

"Are you sure I can't just take a peek inside?" Colonel Lang asked. "We've just broken a smuggling ring, and we're looking for their stolen merchandise. There would be a very severe penalty for anyone who tried to hide their involvement with the smugglers."

Mr. Williams's mouth dropped open.

"It’s really in your best interest to tell us what you know," I told him.

"I'm sorry!" he burst out. "I didn't mean any harm! There were all these fascinating old documents and nobody was paying attention to their safety! I thought they would be lost forever in those musty, ill-kept archives!"

"So you paid to have someone steal them?" Ned asked.

Mr. Williams looked him up and down. "Well, I couldn't steal them myself," he retorted. "I'm not a criminal."

Colonel Lang stepped forward. "Hiring someone to commit a crime is also a crime," he pointed out.

"How can it be a crime to try to protect these whimsical old laws?" the red-faced man protested. "No one else even knows they exist!"

"You could have organized the archives better to ensure the safekeeping of the historical documents," I said. "Or you could have made sure the wording of the old laws was transferred onto the county computer systems. That way they wouldn't have been lost."

"Computers!" Mr. Williams said contemptuously. "What's a computer file compared to a two-hundred-year-old piece of parchment? That's history, young lady."

I didn't say anything. I was just glad George wasn't here to argue with him about the virtues of computers.

"I'm afraid that you've committed a crime, Mr. Williams, no matter how good your motives were," said Colonel Lang. "I'm placing you under arrest."

While the colonel read Mr. Williams his rights, I pulled out my cell phone and called Dad. He and Mr. Shannon would have to get down here immediately in order to see the original copy of the zoning law that affected Ms.Waters's property.

Soon enough the police appeared to take Felix Williams into custody, followed by Dad in the passenger seat of Mr. Shannon's car. It always surprised me how friendly they could be, considering that they were usually on opposite sides of a lawsuit.

"Colonel, do you mind if we look for the legal document we need?" I asked. "We won't touch a thing. We just need to read it."

"Okay, but I'll need to be there at all times," Colonel Lang replied. "And only the concerned parties can come in—-just the lawyers."

I felt a prick of disappointment. It would be nice to see that piece of paper after all I'd done to find it. But I knew my father would take care of everything. I nodded.

"I'm not guaranteeing that this is legally binding, Carson," Mr. Shannon said cheerfully.

"I know. We're just going to see what it says," Dad replied. The two men followed Colonel Lang inside. Ned and I stayed on the front porch, watching the county police drive off with Mr. Williams. For a moment there was silence. Then Dad and Mr. Shannon came racing out the door.

"Get your own ride back, Carson!" yelled Mr. Shannon. He sprinted toward his car.

Dad turned to me. "Who drove here?" he cried.

"Colonel Lang," I answered. "What's going on, Dad?"

The colonel came running out of the house. "I can't leave the crime scene until the FBI investigators get here," he said quickly. He fished his keys out of his jacket pocket and tossed them to Ned. "Take my car."

Dad grabbed my arm and pulled me to the car. Ned jumped in the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition.

"Head for Ms. Waters's place," Dad commanded. Ned hit the gas and took offtoward the retired librarian's house.

"What's happening?" I demanded from my place in the backseat.

"The law," Dad gasped, breathing hard. "It says that in a land dispute without proper documentation, whichever party reaches the town courthouse first can lay claim."

"What?" I cried. "That's ridiculous. What kind of way is that to settle a dispute?"

"It's a law from back when there were only about a hundred people in River Heights," Ned said, never taking his eyes from the road.

"Evaline needs to get to the courthouse and say, 'The land is mine,' three times before someone from Rackham Industries does," Dad added.

I could hardly believe my ears. But it made a strange kind of sense. Felix Williams had been mostly interested in oddball laws, and this one certainly qualified.

When we reached Ms. Waters's house, I leaped from the car and ran to her garden. Sure enough, she was there pulling up weeds. ''Come on!" I yelled. "Get in the car if you want to save your land!"

Ms. Waters can run fast for an elderly lady. She almost beat me to the car.

Ned peeled out and drove as fast as the speed limit allowed all the way to the courthouse. On the way, I filled Ms. Waters in on what she had to say to the judge. When we pulled up in front of the stately brick building, she didn't even wait for Ned to stop the car. She just leaped out and ran up the steps. After she disappeared inside, I saw Mr. Shannon pull up with the head of Rackham Industries. Dad went over to meet them, but I didn't even bother following them into the courthouse. There was no way they would be able to catch up with Ms. Waters—she had too much of a head start.

I looked at Ned. Both of us were still breathing hard from the stress ofour race to the courthouse. He met my eye, and we burst out laughing.

"I guess Ms. Waters will keep her house after all," I said happily.

"Another victory for Nancy Drew, supersleuth," he teased. All I could do was grin.

 

A few days later I visited Evaline Waters with Bess and George. As soon as she had made her claim with the judge, Rackham Industries had dropped their suit against Ms. Waters. Mr. Shannon had seen the wording of the old law, and he knew my father would win in court if that law was brought up. Ms. Waters's home was safe. Now Dad was filing papers to get her a new copy of the deed to the property.

When we got there, she gave us each a bouquet of clipped flowers from her garden.

"These are beautiful!" Bess cried, burying her face in the fragrant blooms. George sneezed.

"You girls have saved my home!" Ms. Waters said gratefully. "You can have as many flowers as you want!"

"It was really Nancy's doing," George said. "She's the one who figured out the smuggling ring."

"And George is the one who figured out there was an old law to protect you in the first place," I pointed out. "It was teamwork."

"I still don't understand how that Mr. Berring actually stole the documents from the archives," Ms. Waters said.

"He made a full confession," Bess reported. "He would go into the archives, hide the documents in his backpack, and make a mess to throw police off the trail for a little while."

"He had someone else who stole artwork from galleries and museums," I added. "He didn't want to get caught doing that."

Ms. Waters made a tsking sound. "Artwork I can understand," she said, "because it's valuable. But why would anyone want those silly old legal documents?"

"That was a recent addition to Mr. Berrings business," George said. "Mr. Williams had been on a crusade all his life to save those oddball parchments. Apparently he'd saved up for years to have enough money to pay for their theft."

"In fact, he'd already bought almost thirty old legal documents from Mr. Berring," I added. "Laws from all over the county. These documents were so obscure that nobody noticed they were being stolen in bulk."

"Until Nancy Drew came along," Bess teased.

My cheeks grew hot. "No, until Ms.Waters's case came along" I corrected her."That's why we started looking for old documents."

"Then I'm glad I could help!" Ms. Waters said. "But I'm sorry it put you in such a dangerous situation, Nancy. I get chills just thinking of you having to land that plane all alone."

"It was pretty scary," I agreed. "At first I thought I'd never fly again. But Colonel Lang said I needed to get back on the horse."

"Don't you mean get back in the pilot's seat?" Bess asked.

"Yup," I said. "I'm going up this afternoon!"

When I got to the airport later, I spotted Frank Beltrano's Cessna under a tarp. No one would be using that for a while. I made my way to the green-and-yellow Piper Meridian. Colonel Lang was already there, and so was Ned.

"Hi, guys," I called.

"Hey, Nance," Ned said, giving me a kiss. "Ready to fly?"

"You bet," I replied.

As Colonel Lang did the flight precheck of the plane, I pulled Ned aside. "Are you sure you want to come along on my lesson?" I asked. "I know flying makes you nervous."

"Flying with me at the controls makes me nervous," Ned said. "But I'd trust you to pilot any plane in the world after your spectacular first landing!"

"I’ll second that," Colonel Lang said, coming around the plane. "Are you ready for your next lesson, Nancy?"

"Absolutely," I said, squeezing my boyfriend's hand. "Let's fly!"

 

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