The Professor and the Puzzle
The Oncoming Storm
IT WAS ONLY THREE O’CLOCK in the afternoon, but the sky over Oracle College looked as dark as midnight. The tiny campus, nestled in the mountains outside River Heights, seemed to huddle more closely under its cover of trees as a driving rain began to fall, causing students and professors alike to race for shelter.
Peeking out the window of my parked car, I winced as a finger of lightning flashed across the sky,
followed closely by a deafening crack of thunder. “It looks like Zeus himself is planning on attending the gala tonight,” I mused, pulling the hood of my raincoat tight around my face.
Next to me in the passenger seat, my friend Bess Marvin was pulling a compact umbrella out of her purse. “If he did, he wouldn’t even be the most famous person there,” she joked. “I still can’t believe we get to attend the annual Greek Gala! Anyone who’s anyone in River Heights is invited. Leave it to you, Nancy, to be friends with the right people and get us on the guest list!”
I smiled. “Yeah, Iris and I go way back.” I remembered fondly those days, many years ago, when Iris Pappas and I played together in the backyard of my house, while Dr. Pappas and my dad talked together on the porch. The two men were fraternity brothers from their college days, and so Iris and I became natural friends. Now Giorgio Pappas was the president of Oracle College, and the host of the annual Greek Gala. After a little cajoling, Iris had convinced her
father to extend an invitation to me and my friends.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” George Fayne, Bess’s cousin and my other best friend, said from the backseat. “Let’s go!”
Bess and I glanced glumly out the windshield at the fat drops of rain pouring down in rivulets. “But it’s so . . . ,” Bess began.
“Wet,” I finished.
George rolled her eyes. “Ugh, come on! A little rain never hurt anybody. To the president’s mansion!” And with that, she slung her duffel bag around across her shoulders, flung open the car door, and leaped into the storm.
Bess and I watched her go. “But she didn’t have a raincoat or an umbrella!” Bess exclaimed.
I smirked. “Well, like she said, a little rain never hurt anybody.”
After a mad dash through the campus, Bess and I came to a wide, cobblestoned pathway that led up to the president’s mansion. Surrounded by manicured hedgerows, blooming pink hydrangeas, and
hundred-year-old oak trees whose leaves were just beginning to change into their autumn colors, the gray stone residence was abuzz with activity, as caterers and other household staff carried in everything they needed for the evening’s festivities.
We found George standing just under the colonnade, looking like a drowned rat, with her short, dark brown hair and clothes dripping into a growing puddle around her feet. I stifled a laugh as George eyed us sheepishly. “Okay,” she said. “So maybe it was more than just a little rain. . . .”
Laughing, I took off my raincoat and tried to shake off some of the water. Bess did the same with her little umbrella.
“Nancy! Oh, you made it!”
I turned toward the familiar voice to see the Amazonian figure of Iris Pappas striding toward me. She swept me into one of her trademark rib-crushing hugs, and then stood back to give me a once-over. “Look at you! You look fabulous, babe.”
“Me?” I scoffed, fingering a sodden lock of red hair
that had escaped my hood. “Between the two of us, you’re the glamour girl, not me! I bet you made that dress, didn’t you?”
“This old thing?” Iris purred. She did a little twirl, which caused the emerald-green, jewel-studded wrap dress she was wearing to flare out around her. The color beautifully set off Iris’s long chestnut hair and olive complexion. “You like it? It’s part of a new line I’m working on for one of my merchandising classes. Catwalk-worthy fashions for tall, curvy ladies—at a reasonable price, of course.”
I chuckled. Iris was pursuing a degree in fashion merchandising from Oracle, a fact that surprised no one. Iris might as well have been born with a sewing needle in her hand.
“I don’t like it—I love it!” Bess exclaimed. “Can you make one in my size?”
Iris turned to the bubbly, blond, blue-eyed girl and said, “You must be Bess. I’ve heard so much about you. Given your own passion for fashion, I can’t wait to see what costume you’ve got planned for tonight!”
“Oh,” Bess breathed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “It’s really good, Iris, it’s a—”
“H-hey!” George interrupted. “Zip it! It’s a surprise, remember? I didn’t keep my costume a secret for three weeks just to have you spilling the beans right before the gala!”
Bess wilted. “Okay, okay. You’re right. I’m just so excited! How often do you get to dress like a Greek goddess at the most well-attended party of the year?”
I couldn’t blame Bess for her enthusiasm. The Greek Gala was an annual event where wealthy and influential donors to the college were invited to dress up as their favorite characters from Greek mythology. Iris’s father dreamed up the idea when he became president of Oracle five years ago and needed a way to boost the college’s flagging enrollment numbers and donations. Being of Greek descent himself, and an ex-classics professor at Oracle, Dr. Pappas thought that a Greek-themed costume party might be just the thing to liven up the boring old cocktail parties his predecessor used to host. And it was. Within a year, Oracle saw its
enrollment—and its bank account—start to grow. So the gala, with each passing year, grew too.
“Where are my manners?” Iris exclaimed. “Here I am talking shop, and your friend is freezing to death on my doorstep. It’s George, right?”
“Y-yup,” George answered, her teeth chattering. She took a moment to shake some of the excess water off her jeans and squeeze a few drops out of her gray graphic tee. Unlike her stylish cousin Bess, George tended to dress for comfort—though right now she was probably anything but comfortable. “Sorry about the puddle, Iris. I may have underestimated the weather a b-bit.”
“Let’s get you into some dry clothes,” Iris said, ushering us inside the front door. “I’m sure I can get the caterers to whip up a few mugs of hot chocolate, too.”
Inside the mansion, we were greeted by a sumptuous entry hall painted in sapphire blue and hung with oil portraits of past college presidents. Catering staff swarmed across the polished wooden floors, carrying blue vases bursting with white lilies, decorative
columns, and silver serving dishes. A large table stood in the center of the room, covered in tiny white cards. I saw that each card was inscribed with a handwritten name, and I scanned the table to find my own. Miss Nancy Drew, the card read, and then beneath that, Polyhymnia. Before I could ask what the word meant, a booming voice broke through the low hum of voices like a crack of thunder. “My, my!” the voice said. “How you’ve grown, mikrí alepoú!”
I grinned and glanced up from the table to see the figure of Giorgio Pappas striding toward me. Like his daughter, Dr. Pappas cut an imposing figure, his steel-gray suit straining to contain his barrel chest and wide shoulders. His curly, raven-black hair and beard framed an angular, noble face that always reminded me of one of those marble busts from Greek antiquity.
“Mikri-what?” George whispered in my ear.
“Mikrí alepoú,” I whispered back. “Little Fox. It was his nickname for me when I was a little girl.” I walked forward a few steps before being enveloped
in another viselike embrace. “It’s so good to see you again, Papa George,” I managed to squeak out once I could breathe again.
“Still getting yourself into all manner of trouble, I expect?” Dr. Pappas asked, his dark eyes sparkling.
“You could say that,” I replied. Dr. Pappas was referring to my reputation as an amateur sleuth, which had gotten me into more than a few tight spots over the years.
“Do you remember ‘The Case of the Missing Cat’?” Dr. Pappas said with a smirk. “It took the groundskeeper’s tallest ladder to get you girls out of that tree!”
Bess and George laughed. “Yes, well,” I muttered, blushing furiously. “I can’t say it was my finest hour. But in my defense, I was only eight. I hadn’t yet mastered all my powers of deduction.”
“Did you ever find the cat?” George asked, curious.
I bit my lip. “He was sleeping under the couch. Not much of a mystery, as it turned out.”
“Ah, yes,” Dr. Pappas said. “Argus—he was a good old tomcat. All eyes, he was. Guarded that house from
vermin like it was his life’s calling.” Suddenly a look of terrible sadness crinkled the man’s face.
“Dad?” Iris said, after a moment’s silence. “Everything okay?”
Dr. Pappas started, like someone just woken from a dream. “What’s that, dear? Oh—fine, fine, of course. Just a lot on my mind. You’ll understand, girls, if I excuse myself to assist the staff with the final preparations. See you all tonight!” With a crisp nod, Dr. Pappas departed, a gaggle of caterers trailing behind, carrying armfuls of decorations and peppering him with questions.
I stared after him, puzzled. “What was that all about, Iris? I know he really adored Argus, but—”
“It’s not the cat,” Iris said with a sigh. “He’s still broken up about losing Cameron Walsh a few months ago. Dr. Walsh was the one who gave Argus his name, you know. They found him as a kitten behind one of the academic buildings one night, and Dad decided to keep him.”
“Who’s Cameron Walsh?” Bess asked.
“The chair of classics here at Oracle,” Iris answered.
“He was Dad’s good friend and mentor for many years. They worked together continuously until Dad became president of the university. Dr. Walsh was ill for a long time and finally passed away three months ago. He kept working up until the very end. Dad was devastated. He still hasn’t been able to bring himself to name a replacement.”
“How awful,” Bess said. “Poor Dr. Pappas.”
“I’m so sorry, Iris,” I added. “I had no idea. Is there anything we can do?”
Iris squeezed my shoulder. “How sweet of you to ask. But the best thing you can do is have a wonderful time at the gala tonight! Seeing your smiling faces will drive away the dark clouds hanging over Dad’s head for sure.”
Outside, a bolt of lightning flooded the room with a flash of white light. “If only they could drive away the ones up in the sky as well!” George grumbled.
Iris put her hands on her hips, glancing out onto the rain-soaked lawn beyond. “Ugh, this weather!” she exclaimed. “I just hope we don’t lose the power tonight.
Dad said that the caterers have brought in cases of tea lights and electric candles, just in case.”
“Oh, how romantic!” Bess gasped.
George rolled her eyes. “Only you could find the romance in a widespread power outage,” she said.
“And only you would walk out into a torrential downpour with no umbrella! If you don’t get out of those wet clothes soon, you’re going to be stuck in bed with a box of tissues tonight.”
George glanced down at her sopping T-shirt and jeans and sighed. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “Iris, can you tell us where our rooms are?”
After giving us directions to the bedrooms upstairs, Iris added, “And I’d love to give you girls a tour of the mansion, when you’ve got a chance.”
“That sounds great, but I really need to get started on my hair,” Bess replied. “It’s a bit, um, involved.”
Iris turned to me. “How about you, Nancy? Are you game?”
“Sure!” I said. “I should have plenty of time to get dressed before the gala. Let’s go!”
While Bess and George—her shoes squishing with every step—headed upstairs, I followed Iris deeper into the house, leaving my luggage and wet coat at the foot of the stairs. It was a wondrous place, filled with art and history, and more books than I’d seen in any one place. “If you liked the library,” Iris said after we had been exploring for a while, “wait until you see the ballroom.”
With a dramatic flourish, she threw open a door that led straight into the grand ballroom, where tonight’s Greek Gala was to take place. I gasped as I got a glimpse of the two-story circular chamber, with its ivy-strewn white columns, its colorful frescoes of dancing Greek figures, and the magnificent crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling high above. An elegant spiral staircase led to a second-floor balcony level, which encircled the ballroom, edged with metal railings. On one side, the balcony jutted out over the waxed wooden dance floor. I could just imagine someone presiding over the party from up on that balcony, like a king overseeing his subjects.
On the other side of the room from the dance floor, dining tables dressed in midnight blue and silver were placed, with ten chairs set around them. In the center of each stood a two-foot-tall white statue, each one different from the next. Curious, I approached the closest one for a better look. It depicted a robed woman leaning on a column, her chin perched on one hand, and her face set in an expression of deep thought. The card at the base of the statue read, Polyhymnia.
“Hey,” I said to Iris, “this is the name on my seating card. Who is she?”
“One of the Muses,” Iris replied. “I thought it would be a fun way to identify the different tables, since there are nine of them. Dad’s not the only one who knows a thing or two about ancient Greece.” She winked. “Polyhymnia is the patron of religious hymn, prayer, and sacred dance.” She gave me a playful nudge. “Dad doesn’t let me do much of anything for the gala—he says I shouldn’t be distracted from my studies—but he did let me choose where you guys would sit. I put you at this table because I thought she looked a lot like you
did when we were kids and you had some problem in your head you were trying to solve.”
I glanced back at the face of the statue and chuckled. Polyhymnia, with her furrowed brows and her mouth pressed into a serious line, really did look like she was in the middle of a hard-to-crack case. “Guilty as charged,” I said.
“Well, let’s hope that tonight, the most you’ll have to puzzle out is whether you want the chicken or the fish!” Iris chuckled.
As we walked around the room, admiring the decor, I felt something crunch underneath my shoe. I lifted my foot to see that I’d stepped in a pile of small, clay-colored fragments scattered on the floor. I rubbed a few of the fragments between my fingers—they were a bit glossy on one side, almost like paint. “What’s this, I wonder?” I asked, almost to myself.
Iris leaned over to look. “Oh, probably just some grit the caterers forgot to sweep up when they cleaned the room. Don’t worry about it.”
I dusted off my shoe and we went on. Iris looked
around the room with pride before squeezing my hand inside her larger one. “I really am glad you’re here, Nance. It’s been too long.”
“It has,” I agreed. “We’ll start making up for lost time tonight. And what better place to do it than here?” I glanced out one of the large picture windows, where the last of the day’s dim light was fading. The time for the gala was fast approaching—and from the look of it, it promised to be a legendary night!