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STRANGE HOUSE CALL
“Of all the people in River Heights, you’re interviewing us?” I said, ripping a slice of pizza from the pie. “Must be a slow news week at the Bugle, Ned.”
Ned Nickerson flashed one of his Über-cute smiles. He’d been my boyfriend since junior high, but the way he looked at me with his brown eyes still made my heart do a triple flip.
When Ned wasn’t dating me or studying English lit at our local university, he was honing his journalist chops at his dad’s paper, the River Heights Bugle.
His latest assignment: interviewing me, Bess Marvin, and George Fayne about our latest case on trendy Malachite Beach in Malibu, California. As the four of us sat in Sylvio’s Pizzeria sharing a jumbo mushroom and olive pie I couldn’t think of a better—or yummier—place to do business.
“Think about it,” Ned said, passing the oregano to George. “You just got back from three weeks in California, where you blew the whistle on a crazy cult leader, apprehended a fugitive, and cracked the case of a mysterious oil spill. This story is going to be huge!”
“Did we do all that?” George teased. She held her slice up and let the oil drip into her mouth.
Bess shot George a disgusted look as she neatly cut her slice with a knife and fork. She and George were as different as pepperoni and anchovies, which made it hard for anyone, including me, to believe they were actually first cousins.
“Do people still read newspapers?” George asked. “I usually get my news online.”
“You’d get air online if it were possible, George,” Bess joked.
“The Bugle has a huge readership,” Ned said. “Not just in River Heights, but in surrounding cities and towns.”
“Cool,” Bess said excitedly. “Will our article be on the same page as the fashion news or the horoscopes?”
“Are you kidding?” Ned asked. “Try page four.”
Bess gasped and said, “That’s the River Heights Spotlight—the most-read section of the paper.”
“Besides the sports page,” George said. “Okay, I admit to picking up a newspaper every once in a while.”
“Page four will be awesome, Ned,” I said with a smile. “Thanks.”
Ned smiled back with a little wink. He was smart and handsome and nice—no wonder so many girls in River Heights had crushes on him. Luckily, the only one I had to worry about was Deirdre Shannon. Deirdre was the daughter of a super-successful attorney, and whatever she wanted, she got. That was okay with me, as long as she didn’t get Ned.
“Nancy?” Ned interrupted my thoughts. “I have another question. It’s about Roland.”
Roland. Ugh. The mere mention of the crazy cult leader’s name made my skin crawl. “What about him?” I asked with a frown.
“Was he really that evil?” Ned asked, pushing a digital recorder closer to me. “I mean, did he really abuse his followers?”
“Depends on how you define abuse,” I said. “Roland used mind games to get his followers to walk across hot coals and sit for hours in an airless sweat lodge.”
“He and his sidekick Inge injected those poor people with a mind-altering drug they thought was vitamins,” Bess said.
Ned whistled through his teeth. “I’d call that abuse,” he said. “What did the oil spill have to do with Roland?”
“We thought Roland had blown himself up in his yacht to keep the police from taking him alive,” I explained. “The explosion caused an oil spill that damaged Malachite Beach and its wildlife.”
“Turns out it wasn’t Roland who blew up the yacht,” George said. “It was our gracious hostess, Stacey Manning.”
George said the word “gracious” with a sprinkle of sarcasm. Stacey, a star Hollywood party planner, had lent us her trendy Malachite Beach house for three whole weeks. Little did we know she and Roland had planned something a lot more sinister than a party.
“If Stacey blew up Roland’s yacht,” Ned said slowly, “then . . . what happened to Roland?”
“Bess, George, and I discovered that Roland had plastic surgery to totally alter his appearance,” I said.
“Now he’s on the run,” Bess said with a sigh.
“You mean the crazy cult leader who almost killed dozens of people is still out there?” Ned said. “Did the police ever question the plastic surgeon? He must have been in on it.”
“You mean the world-famous Dr. Raymond?” George snorted. “Yeah, the police questioned him.”
“Dr. Raymond insisted he didn’t know Roland’s sinister intentions,” Bess said. “He even described to the police what Roland would look like now.”
“So, what does he look like?” Ned asked.
“According to Dr. Raymond, Roland has a receding hairline, a cleft chin, and a long, angular nose,” I said.
“I’ll bet Roland dyed his hair from blond to dark,” Bess said. She tossed her long blond hair and added, “That must have been the hardest part.”
“Give me a break,” George said, popping a mushroom into her mouth.
Ned studied the three of us. “Maybe I’m wrong, but you don’t seem worried that Roland is somewhere out there,” he said.
I shrugged. “That’s because Dr. Raymond gave the police a concise description of Roland. Hopefully the psycho is being picked up as we speak.”
We took a short break from Ned’s interview as Sylvio brought us some of his famous garlic knots.
“Thanks, Sylvio,” Ned said. “Add it to my bill.”
“Bill, schmill!” Sylvio said, wiping his hands on his apron. “It’s on the house!”
“Really?” I asked.
“Sure!” Sylvio boomed. He pressed his hand to his heart. “It is an honor to have River Heights’s own girl detectives in my humble establishment. I might even name a pie after you girls someday!”
“Sweet!” Bess said with a giggle. “As long as it doesn’t have anchovies.”
“I guess we are celebrities in this town,” George said as Sylvio hurried back to the counter.
“Speaking of celebrities,” Ned said. “I hope you don’t mind my next question.”
“Ask away,” I said.
“Okay,” Ned said, leaning over with a gleam in his eye. “What were the Casabian sisters really like?”
What? Had Ned Nickerson, rising star reporter, just asked me about the Casabian sisters?
“You mean Mandy, Mallory, and Mia?” I said. “Don’t tell me you watch their ditzy reality show too, Ned.”
“Um . . . I might have seen it once,” he said, blushing a bit. “Or . . . twice.”
“Oh, Ned.” I groaned.
“Hey, give me a break,” Ned said. “I’m only asking because you rescued the youngest sister from Roland’s cult. You did, didn’t you?”
“We sure did,” Bess said. “Nancy and I pretended to be followers of Roland so we could infiltrate his cult and save Mia.”
“Wait a minute, Ned,” George said. “I thought the River Heights Bugle was a serious paper and that your dad refuses to print celebrity gossip. So what’s up?”
“We don’t print celebrity gossip,” Ned said. “My question about the sisters was a personal one—and totally off the record.”
“Yeah, well, those annoying sisters and their dumb show are back on Malachite Beach where they belong,” George said. “I hope we never see those three again.”
“Whoa!” Bess said. She nodded at the recorder. “Make sure that’s off the record too, Ned.”
“No problem,” Ned said as he turned off his tape recorder. “In fact . . . my interview is over.”
We finished our pizza and plowed into Sylvio’s complimentary garlic knots. Being with Ned and my friends at our favorite hangout reminded me how happy I was to be back home in River Heights.
Sure, Malachite Beach was exclusive and beautiful—especially before the oil spill. But the little midwestern city of River Heights would always be home.
“Guess what, Nancy?” Ned said as he slipped his recorder into his canvas messenger bag. “I just bought my friend Dave’s old kayak. It seats two, so we can go paddling on the river together.”
“Great,” I said. “But we’ll have to do that when I’m not working my summer job, Ned.”
“You just got back. Already working on a new case?” Ned asked.
“Not exactly a case,” I said. “Yesterday I landed a part-time job at Safer’s Cheese Shop on Main Street.”
“Safer’s?” Ned asked, surprised. “Not very intriguing for a rising detective superstar.”
“Which is exactly why I asked Mr. Safer if he needed help,” I said. “I wanted to do something totally down-to-earth and predictable for a change. At least for the rest of the summer.”
“After what we went through in Malachite and with Roland,” George said, “boring is the new black!”
But working at Safer’s would be anything but boring. Mr. Safer was a Broadway theater fanatic. He was known throughout River Heights for singing show tunes behind the counter—and even making his customers join in on the chorus.
After we left Sylvio’s, Ned kissed me good-bye and headed for the Bugle office. As I walked down Main Street with Bess and George, they shared their own plans for the summer—or at least what was left of it.
“I’m helping my dad arrange his toolshed,” Bess said. “It was just painted, so all the tools and equipment have to be returned to their correct places.”
“Sounds riveting,” George joked.
“It is for Bess,” I said with a smile.
Bess might be totally girly, with her perfectly blown-out blond hair and cutting-edge outfits, but in a flash she could roll up her sleeves and build or fix anything. George could fix anything too—as long as it was high-tech or electronic. That’s why she would be spending the summer fixing and upgrading computers, MP3 players, even mobile phones.
“It’s time you got a new phone, Nancy,” George said, nodding at the one in my hand. “It’s practically retro.”
“I thought retro was cool,” I said.
Bess saw me reading a new text and said, “Let me guess. It’s from Ned. He misses you already and can’t live without you. Right?”
“Wrong. It’s Hannah,” I said with a grin. “She wants me to pick up olive oil and a container of ricotta cheese.”
“It’s just an errand,” George said. “So . . . why do you look so excited?”
“It’s a clue that Hannah is making her amazing baked ziti,” I said. “She must have really missed me. Ever since I got home she’s been baking and cooking all my favorite foods—day and night.”
Hannah Gruen was much more than a housekeeper. For years she had been just like a mother to me. Sure, I missed my real mom, who died when I was only three—but Hannah was truly part of my family.
I was about to pocket my phone when a new text came in. This one wasn’t from Hannah or Ned. In fact, I couldn’t identify the sender by its number or name.
“It’s from somebody called ‘Shanager,’” I said. I read the message out loud. “‘N, B, G—go to 1717 Water Street ASAP.’”
“Who’s Shanager?” Bess asked.
I shrugged and said, “I have no idea.”
“Isn’t 1717 the old house with the peeling paint that’s been empty for more than a year?” George asked.
“Didn’t someone die in it?” Bess asked uneasily.
“I think so,” I said. “I guess I should text back, huh?”
“You should ignore it, that’s what you should do, Nancy,” George said. “Sounds like a prank, if you ask me.”
“Yeah, Nance,” Bess said. “For all we know, this Shanager is a dangerous kook—or another crazy cult leader like Roland—”
“Bess,” I cut in. “We’re not on Malachite Beach anymore—we’re home in River Heights. What can go wrong here?”
“A lot,” Georges admitted. “Or we wouldn’t be in business.”
I stared at my phone, more intrigued than worried. Who was this Shanager? Why did he or she want us to go to the house?
“I want to check it out,” I said.
“There you go following another clue, Nancy,” Bess said. “Whatever happened to wanting a nice, boring summer?”
“I’ve been solving mysteries since I was eight years old, Bess,” I said. “Don’t stop me now.”
Bess needed a little more convincing, but after I suggested that it might be a “Welcome Back to River Heights” surprise party, she caved.
The three of us set out for Water Street, finding the house at the end of the block. Instead of looking broken-down and abandoned, it had a fresh coat of paint, new windows, and a neatly mowed lawn.
“That’s funny,” I said as we made our way up the flagstone path through the front yard. “I didn’t know it was renovated.”
“Which makes it even weirder,” Bess said.
The wooden porch, also painted, creaked as we stepped on it. There was a brass knocker on the front door, but I chose to ring the shiny new doorbell. We’d waited a mere ten seconds when Bess blurted, “No surprise party here. Time to go.”
“See?” George said. “I warned you.”
“Wait!” I said as another text came through. “It’s that Shanager again.”
“What does this one say?” Bess asked.
“‘See you in the back,’” I read out loud.
This time I quickly texted back, WHY?
The reply: YOU’LL SEE.
“Just ignore it, Nancy,” George said firmly. “Let’s go.”
“No way.” I waved my friends off the porch. “Let’s see if this Shanager is waiting in the back.”
“With a chain saw,” Bess said.
The three of us rounded the house to the backyard. No one was there. Almost immediately my phone went off with another text.
“Shanager again?” George asked.
“We’re being watched,” Bess said quietly.
I read the text. “Shanager wants us to proceed to the cellar door and open at our own risk.”
The sensible, mature part of me said, Don’t even think about it. The curious detective part told me, Go for it.
“Nancy Drew,” George cried as I made a beeline for the cellar door. “Are you nuts?”
Before my friends could talk me out of it, I grabbed the handle on the door and pulled it open.
Looking down into the cellar, I saw only darkness. I’d taken one step when I felt a bony hand grab my ankle.
Needle-sharp nails dug into my flesh. The coldest chill ran up my spine. I screamed, “Bess, George! HELP!”
© 2012 Simon & Schuster
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