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1 MISSING CASH BOX
Fancy Nancy,” Mrs. Gruen said, knocking on my bedroom door. “It’s time to get up, dear. If it was left up to you, you would just sleep until noon and miss the parade completely. Now get up.”
I opened my eyes slowly but didn’t want to get up. The events of the previous day with the burn blog had completely exhausted me. Even though the burn blog mystery had been solved and Heather Harris busted for running the website, the threatening blue notes were still being written, and I had no idea who was behind them. Which was why I didn’t want to get out of bed, but Mrs. Gruen, our housekeeper, kept knocking on my bedroom door until I could no longer go back to sleep.
“Fancy Nancy,” she said again. “Are you awake, sweetie?”
“I’m awake,” I said. “And why are you calling me that name?”
She didn’t respond.
Classical music played quietly from the stereo in Dad’s study. This particular composer I couldn’t make out, as it sounded muffled through the floor, but I knew somewhere in the house Dad was conducting the orchestra. As far back as I could remember, Dad always loved classical music.
“Fancy Nancy, have you fallen back asleep? Don’t make me come in there.” I suddenly realized why Mrs. Gruen was calling me “Fancy Nancy.” When Lexi Claremont asked me to solve the case of the mystery blogger, I’d had to go undercover to fit in with her clique—which meant dressing in stylish, expensive clothes that were hardly my usual style. Instead of comfortable jeans and T-shirts, I’d been wearing outfits Bess had helped me pick out, like the cashmere sweater and plaid mini I’d had on the day before yesterday. Well, as long as Mrs. Gruen didn’t call me that in front of my friends, Bess and George, it was okay, but I also hoped she hadn’t told Dad about it.
“You are going to miss the parade if you stay in bed any longer.” Mrs. Gruen was a very kind and loving woman, taking care of both Dad and me, and so sweet. Who else would gently nudge me from my deep sleep and make sure that I made it to the River Heights Festival on time? She knew that if I was even ten minutes late, my good friend George would never let me hear the end of it.
I sat up in bed and was stretching my arms over my head when I smelled something amazing and delicious wafting up from the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and threw open the door. Mrs. Gruen stood in the hallway, a heavyset woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her apron tied around her waist, arms folded over her chest.
“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.
“That depends on what you think it is,” she said.
I took my time, breathing in slowly, savoring every second of air. “That smells like Mr. Andrews’s banana bread.”
Mrs. Gruen smiled. “I picked it up special just for you this morning.”
I threw my arms around her neck and gave her the biggest hug I could muster this early in the morning. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“I know how much you like it, and he only makes it once a week, so in a sense I was forced to buy some. It’s like I didn’t even have a choice, really.” She winked at me before walking downstairs to the kitchen.
Joshua Andrews owned the local River Heights Bakery. He made the most delicious foods throughout the week and served pretty good coffee. Not quite as good as Club Coffee, but respectable. The one thing that Mr. Andrews did best of all, though, was banana bread. Once a week for as long as I could remember, Mr. Andrews would bake his famous batch of banana bread, and the line of people waiting to buy it would extend out the door and down the block. You had to get there early; otherwise the supply would run out.
I ran downstairs to the kitchen and found the banana bread on the counter, still warm, and with walnuts today. I served myself a thick slice. It tasted incredible.
Dad entered the kitchen with the newspaper under his arm and a cup of coffee in his hand. He kissed me on the forehead and smiled at the bread. “Hannah got that special for us today.” He was dressed for the office: suit pants, white button-down shirt, and an untied tie draped around his neck. His shirt and tie were both clean, without any stains, but the day was still early.
“I know,” I said almost incoherently, as I chewed on an enormous mouthful of bread. “It’s soooooo good.”
Dad smiled, but his smile dropped off his face when he looked at his hands. They were covered in black ink. “I swear,” he said. “The River Heights Bugle uses the worst ink. It comes right off on your fingers.” He walked to the sink and scrubbed his hands under warm water and with a lot of soap. He finally sat down at the kitchen table and unfolded his paper as the orchestra played louder—a crescendo, as Dad once taught me. He extended his index fingers and began cueing invisible stringed instruments and horn sections and kettledrums. The ink on his fingers was fainter, but not completely gone.
Mrs. Gruen walked behind him and shook her head, laughing. “Carson, you do love your classical music. Maestro Drew should be your name.”
Dad straightened his tie around his neck and began to tie it into a knot. “This is called a Windsor knot,” he said, showing Mrs. Gruen and me. “All the famous conductors wear Windsor knots.”
We both laughed at him, mocking his orchestral conducting by waving our index fingers through the air.
“Thank you again for getting this bread. It’s my absolute favorite,” I said.
“You know, Fancy Nancy,” Mrs. Gruen finally said, “Joshua Andrews was acting pretty strange today about his bread.”
“Really?” Dad said, adjusting his knot tight to his neck. “How so?”
“Well, I was the first one in line this morning, before he opened, and I overheard him on the phone inside. He was talking to Mark Steele.”
“He’s the head of the River Heights Carnival committee this year, isn’t he, Nancy?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, but why would Mr. Steele be speaking with Mr. Andrews?” I asked.
“Like I said, it was early, and I was the first one in line outside waiting for the store to open, so I could hear Joshua loud and clear. And, boy oh boy, was he furious. Apparently, Mark Steele refused to let Joshua rent a table at the carnival to sell his banana bread.”
“How strange,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Dad.
“The last thing I heard Joshua say was that he wasn’t going to let Mark Steele bully him around anymore.”
“Huh, I wonder why.” I finished my banana walnut bread, got up from the table, and kissed Dad good-bye, before returning to my room to get ready for the carnival.
As I got dressed, I remembered all the advice Bess Marvin, one of my best friends and the girliest of girls I know, had given me about how to dress for the fro-yo stand, so that I wouldn’t stand out from the other girls. It was part of my job to infiltrate their preppy clique and dress like them, but now that the mystery was solved, I wasn’t sure if I even had to return to the fro-yo stand. I actually hadn’t planned on returning, until Dad brought it to my attention that I had already committed to volunteering and that it would be bad form for me to cancel on them last minute. He was right, but he didn’t know these girls. And it wasn’t like I could just show up as me. I had to continue to fit in if I wanted to get through the day with my sanity intact.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Ugh, somewhere Bess was squealing again. Gray and blue mini. White polo shirt with a blue horse. Sunny yellow summer sweater draped over my shoulders, like Dad’s tie. And cute, white strappy kitten heels. Ugh, I hated these kitten heels. What self-respecting detective runs around a carnival solving crimes in kitten heels? My feet still ached from wearing them all yesterday.
My gasoline-electric hybrid car that Dad had bought me for my birthday eased into an open spot in the high school parking lot. Across the way, I could see the ticket booth where Ned was supposed to be volunteering, but I couldn’t see if anyone was inside yet. I was readjusting my sweater over my shoulders when a fist pounded down on the glass of my driver’s side window.
“Nice outfit, Fancy Nancy. You ready to make froyos all day?” George said, still pounding her fist on my car.
My heart raced into my throat, and after a few seconds to collect myself I realized she had called me Fancy Nancy. I opened my door. “What did you just call me?”
“Nancy,” she said.
“And?” I asked.
“Fancy in front of it. I called you Fancy Nancy. It was Mrs. Gruen. I called your house looking for you because you were, obviously, late and she said, ‘Little Miss Fancy Nancy has already left for the carnival and will be there soon.’”
I rubbed my head. “Do not call me that. And do not let anyone find out about it. Okay?”
“Sure thing,” George said, rummaging through her backpack.
“What do you have there?” I asked.
“I couldn’t wait to show this to you. Check it out.” She pulled a box from her bag and placed it in my hands. “It’s my new high-tech NASA-developed Element Disintegration Chemistry Set. It was developed for space walks so astronauts could collect data from the moon rocks and stuff, but now it’s used by crime scene investigators to analyze evidence.”
Georgia “George” Fayne, George being her self-chosen nickname, of course, always made me smile, even if her nickname was way cooler than “Fancy Nancy.” She was into her own things and didn’t care what anyone else thought. She loved being a technology geek and a whiz at electronics. Her favorite hobby was to buy old, broken-down computers and rebuild them from scrap parts. She had five working laptops that I knew of and probably a few more that didn’t work, waiting to be resurrected. This new über-science chemistry set was no different from the other hip-techno-supersleuth gadgets she spent her money on. But I had a feeling it would come in handy sooner than expected.
“George Fayne, where do you find out about these bizarre toys?”
“The Internet, naturally. And from my spy magazines. And my encyclopedias. And I read a lot of nonfiction about groundbreaking technology.”
“Of course you do.”
“Don’t you read about plaid minis and summer sweaters?” she said, teasing me.
“Quiet,” I said, locking my car behind me. “This outfit is in the name of fro-yo stands everywhere.”
We walked across the parking lot together and could see that a long, somewhat unruly line had formed rather quickly at the carnival ticket booth. The line was ten people deep—each person grumbling and muttering under their breath. George and I bypassed the angry line and cut directly to the side door. We knocked several times, but without any answer. I was beginning to think that maybe everyone was so upset because no one was stationed at the booth collecting money for their tickets, but just then the door swung open from all my knocking.
It was Ned. He didn’t realize George and I stood behind the door. He was clearly distraught. The booth looked like it had been hit by a tornado. Flipped and emptied boxes. Overturned chairs. Twisted blinds. Trash littered the floor.
“Ned,” I said, stepping into the booth. “What’s going on here?”
Ned turned, startled at first, but then threw his arms around me in a hug.
George looked at me, scared and confused, which was exactly how I felt, as this was not at all like Ned.
“Nancy. Nancy. I tried calling you. I am so glad you are here. I am in really big trouble. Super huge trouble.” He was pacing now, his hand wiping sweat from his forehead and under his eyes. “I mean, people say that all the time, that they are in serious trouble, but I really mean it. Oh wow. Oh boy. I need to sit down. I don’t feel good.”
George turned one of the chairs upright and placed it under him. “Sit down,” she told him. “We’re here, Ned. How can we help?”
“Tell us what happened,” I said. “Start from the beginning.”
“I came in this morning and opened up the ticket booth, right?”
“Okay,” I said.
“It was eight a.m., and the ticket booth wasn’t supposed to open for another hour. People kept calling and stopping by, asking me questions, and asking me for favors. I was tired and just wanted to rest a bit and be left alone before I opened the booth, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I just closed my eyes for a bit, you know. So I closed the door and rested. I didn’t sleep, obviously. But just rested.”
“Ned,” I said. “What happened?”
“Well, I closed my eyes, and it was only for a few minutes, I swear, because I was going to open the blinds and windows and get the tickets ready to sell, but when I woke up …”
“When you woke up?” George asked.
“When I woke up, the cash box … the cash box was gone.”
George and I looked at each other. Secretly and separately, I’m sure, we had both been hoping for a more relaxed day at the carnival, but here it was nine thirty in the morning and an angry mob of people milled outside the ticket booth, wanting to get into the carnival, but they couldn’t because another crime had been committed. Another case had presented itself. Another question needed an answer.
“Have you told Mr. Steele yet? I asked.
“Not yet. It all just happened so fast. I thought I would be able to find it.”
“Let’s all three look around the booth before we sound the alarms and get people involved,” I said. “Sometimes it’s a simple solution to a seemingly scary situation.”
“Good idea, Fancy Nancy,” he said.
I shot him a look of disdain. “Mrs. Gruen?” I asked him.
“George, actually. She told me that you had a new nickname,” he said.
George shrugged. “Now is not the time to be mad at me about your name. We have a cash box to find,” she said.
All three of us began to clean the booth as a means to undo everything Ned had done and search for the missing cash box. We flipped chairs upright and untwisted the blinds and put the trash back into the trash can and packed miscellaneous items like T-shirts and tickets back into boxes. Before long, the booth was put back together, everything in its appropriate place, and we hadn’t yet found the cash box.
“Oh boy,” Ned said, sitting down. “Oh man. I am in very big trouble.” He held his head in his hands.
“George, can you please go find Mr. Steele and ask him to come here? Ned, you need to stay calm and think about the last thing that you remember,” I said.
But just as I said that, the door to the booth swung open and Mark Steele stormed inside. A short man, balding, his clothes baggy and oversized from the weight he’d lost recently—oh, and very angry.
“Nickerson, do you know what I just found outside in the trash can?”
“No, sir,” Ned said, standing now.
I looked at George and whispered, “Looks like Mr. Steele is on the warpath.”
“I found the cash box,” said Mr. Steele.
“You did,” Ned said, excited and somewhat relieved.
“Don’t sound so happy, Nickerson,” Mr. Steele said.
“Why is that, sir?” Ned asked.
Mr. Steele opened the metal box, flipped it upside down, and shook it, but nothing fell or floated out of it. It was empty. He tossed the empty cash box into Ned’s lap.
“It’s empty?” asked Ned, lifting it, shaking it, running his fingers inside, hoping to find the money tucked away or stuck inside somewhere.
“Yes,” Mr. Steele said. “And you’re the last person in possession of it, so that begs the question: Ned Nickerson, why did you steal the River Heights Carnival money?”
© 2010 Simon & Schuster