"Isn't this the most perfect dress in the world?" Bess Marvin sighed and held up a short, ruffled pink dress with skinny shoulder straps. Straightening its hem, she carefully laid the dress on the Drews' living room couch. "It's a little tight," she explained, "but I'm going to lose five pounds before the wedding. What do you think? Isn't it adorable?"
Nancy Drew brushed back a strand of reddish blond hair and studied the dress. She bit back a smile. Bess was always going to lose five pounds. And she was always buying some adorable dress that didn't quite fit. Nancy tried to find a tactful answer. "Well," she said, "it's very pretty, but . . ." Nancy paused.
"But is it really the sort of thing you wear to be a bridesmaid?" asked Bess's cousin, George Fayne.
"Joanne says everyone should wear whatever they want," Bess said.
"That sounds like Joanne," Nancy said. Joanne Koslow, who was a few years older than Nancy and her friends, had been one of Bess's neighbors. Even as a little girl, Joanne had loved unusual clothing. She and Bess had been especially close friends. Now Joanne lived in northern California, where she worked as a photographer. She was marrying her boyfriend, Keith, and she had invited all three friends to the celebration. Nancy knew the wedding would be fun. She was also sure it would be anything but traditional. "Have you picked out your dress yet?" she asked George.
"No, she hasn't," Bess answered, looking genuinely worried. "And the wedding is less than two weeks away. George, we have to find you a dress."
Although they were first cousins, Bess and George were very different. Bess considered clothing to be one of the most important things in life. George, whose first love was sports, didn't care what she wore as long as it was comfortable. And their looks were as different as their personalities. George had an athletic physique, dark eyes, and short, curly brown hair. Bess's hair was long and blond. She had blue eyes and was shorter than her cousin.
Bess put her dress back in its box and tugged on her cousin's arm. "Let's go. I'm taking you shopping now.
"Help," George moaned.
Just then the door to Carson Drew's study opened, and Nancy's father stepped out, casting a worried glance at the cousins. "Is there a problem here?" he asked.
"Yes," George said quickly. "I'm being taken shopping against my will."
"I see," Mr. Drew said.
George shook off her cousin's arm and ran a hand through her short, dark hair. "Isn't there a law against that -- forced shopping?"
Carson Drew, who was a well-known lawyer, tried to keep a straight face. "Not that I know of," he replied with a chuckle, "but I'll check into it. Speaking of things to check into, Nancy, do you remember Terry Kirkland?"
"You mean your friend in California?" Nancy asked. "The artist who makes those gorgeous stained-glass windows?"
"The very same. I just got a call from him. It seems he's having a rough time. His wife died a few years ago, and he's been raising his daughter, Amy, on his own. Well, his house was broken into twice in the last week. That frightened the sitter so badly she quit. Meanwhile, there's been a lot of interest in his work. He has a few big art shows coming up, but Amy's in school, so he can't take her with him. Naturally he's afraid to leave her alone."
"Can't he hire another person to take care of Amy?" George asked.
"I'm sure he could," Carson Drew replied. "But that isn't the sort of thing you do overnight. It's hard to find someone to trust with your only child. Nancy and I were unusually lucky to find Hannah."
Nancy's own mother had died when Nancy was very young. Even though she'd never met Amy, Nancy felt immediate sympathy for the girl. Nancy had been raised by her father and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. To the Drews, Hannah was a great deal more than a housekeeper. She'd become part of their family, and Nancy couldn't imagine life without her. Nancy's blue eyes, so much like her father's, sparkled as they met his. "Sounds as though Terry could use some help."
"I was thinking the same thing," Mr. Drew said.
George grinned. "I can see it now. Nancy could be a combination baby-sitter and detective."
"Exactly," Carson agreed. "What do you think, Nan?"
She didn't have to think about it at all. Although Nancy was only eighteen years old, she was an accomplished detective. She'd solved dozens of cases. The idea of helping Amy and figuring out who had been breaking into Terry Kirkland's house intrigued her. "Ask Terry when his next show is scheduled,"' she answered. "And tell him I'll be there."
"Ahem," Mr. Drew said. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I already took the liberty of doing that."
"And?" Nancy asked eagerly.
"He has three shows coming up next week," Carson replied. "They're all in northern California, so he'll only be gone a day or two at a time.
"That's the week before Joanne's wedding," Bess said. "She asked me if I wanted to fly out early. You know Joanne, she's doing everything herself and could use a few extra hands."'
"I offered to help with the food,"" George said. "I figured I ought to put my catering experience to use.'" George had worked for a caterer when Nancy had solved the mystery of The Double Horror of Fenley Place. "But then we found out that most of Joanne's family will be staying with her, and there really wasn't room for us."
"Terry's got a big, beautiful three-story house," Mr. Drew said thoughtfully. "Maybe what he really needs are three baby-sitter detectives."'
Bess and George had often accompanied Nancy on her investigations. Bess wasn't quite as fearless as George, but their company always made solving mysteries more fun for Nancy.
"This is perfect!" Bess cried. "We'll go out early with Nancy. And while she works on the case, we'll work on the wedding."'
"Actually, I think I'd rather work on the case, George said.
Nancy held up one hand, laughing. "Let's check with Terry first and make sure he's willing to take in all three of us. If he is, I'm sure we'll all find plenty to do."'
Four days later, on a Friday afternoon, Nancy stepped out of the San Francisco airport terminal and into the warm California sunshine. "I can't believe this is winter,"" she said to Bess and George. "It must be over seventy degrees out."
"You're lucky. You've caught us during one of our February warm spells," Terry Kirkland said to the girls. He and his daughter, Amy, had met them at the gate. Terry was a tall, slim man in his late thirties. He had longish, slightly graying hair and a warm, easy going manner that made Nancy like him at once. "I hope you can get in a little sight-seeing while you're here," he said. "But if it's the city you want to see, I'm afraid it's going to be a drive. Cherry Creek, where we live, is a good hour and a half away.
That didn't bother Nancy at all. She had been in San Francisco before on other cases. This time she was looking forward to being in the country.
"Actually, it's perfect," Bess said. "You live about half an hour away from our friend Joanne."
"We really appreciate your letting us stay at your house," George said.
Terry grinned. "I think it will work out for every one. I can't begin to tell you how glad I was when Carson called and told me he was sending the three of you.
"Me, too," Amy piped in. "Ever since our house keeper quit, Dad's been worried about me."
Terry took his daughter's hand as they began walking through the parking lot. With her long, straight black hair, nine-year-old Amy resembled her Vietnamese mother.
"Lots of houses are broken into around here," Amy said matter-of-factly. "It's nothing to get scared about."
"As you can tell, Amy is the calm one in the family," Terry said as he opened the side door of his van. "So I'm panicking for both of us."
Terry loaded their suitcases into the back, and the three girls got into the backseat of the van. Amy insisted on sitting beside Nancy.
"How bad were the break-ins?" Nancy asked as Terry pulled out of the airport parking lot.
"In terms of what was taken, not bad at all," he answered. "The first time they took the stereo system and TV."
Nancy nodded. "Electronics are the easiest items to fence."
"I guess so,'" Terry agreed, "because the next time they came back and cleaned out my computer, the microwave, the answering machine, and Amy's portable cassette player. What's surprising is they didn't take any of the really valuable stuff -- my glasswork."
"That would be much harder to resell," Nancy explained. "Someone might recognize your work. It sounds as if these were fairly typical robberies."
"Not exactly,"' Terry said. "After the first break-in I had a very sophisticated alarm system installed. Who ever broke in the second time dismantled the alarm as easily as unplugging a lamp."
"The thief must be a real pro," George observed.
The three girls caught their breath as Terry drove onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Below them San Francisco Bay sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. Directly across the bridge lay the low green mountains and windswept coast of the Marin Headlands.
"We live over there,"' Amy said, pointing to the west. "Our house is all the way on the other side of Mount Tamalpais, beyond Stinson Beach."
Nancy glanced briefly at the beautiful coastline, but her mind was focused on the crime. "It sounds as if your thief was casing the house. The first time he, or she, broke in to see what you had that was worth stealing. Maybe there was only time to take the two obvious things, the TV and the stereo. The second time was the real robbery."'
"Or maybe it was two different thieves," George suggested.
"Good point," Nancy said.
"I just hope they got what they wanted," Terry said as he turned onto a winding mountain road. "All that matters to me is that they don't come back."
"Don't worry, Dad," Amy said confidently. "Nancy and I will get to the bottom of this."
Terry gave his daughter a wry smile. "I hope you work quickly."
Amy winked at Nancy. "No problem, Dad."'
"I guess I've got a new partner, Nancy said, smiling at the girl. "I can always use another detective's help. There's only one condition. If things get dangerous, then you'll follow my instructions.
"Definitely!" Terry agreed.
Amy rolled her eyes at her father, then grinned at Nancy and said, "It's a deal."
More than an hour later Terry drove through the tiny town of Cherry Creek and into the steep green hills above it. The town itself was built along the Pacific Ocean. A row of shops led to a wide white beach edged with redwoods and scrub oak. Terry slowed the van as he turned off the paved road and onto a narrow dirt one, edged by a steep ravine.
"This is our driveway,"' Amy informed them. "You should see it when it rains -- Mud Hill."
Nancy peered out the window curiously. There was no house in sight, just the rough dirt road, bordered by evergreens and eucalyptus trees. The van moved slowly up the hill.
"I'll probably be using the van while you're here," Terry said. "But you three can borrow my car. It's -- "
His voice was cut off by a loud explosion. Amy cried out as the van swerved suddenly, teetered on the edge of the ravine, and then tilted to the left. Nancy braced herself against the seat in front of her as the van slid sideways down the ravine.