Chapter One: The Specter in the Stacks CHAPTER ONE The Specter in the Stacks
“TURN RIGHT HERE, NANCE! THAT’S the driveway,” said Ned, pointing and bouncing like a kid on his way to the zoo. I think it’s cute when he nerds out about a bit of historical trivia or one of my dad’s cases, and I was excited to work with him on his investigation.
I put on my turn signal, even though there wasn’t a single car in sight, and my car rolled through the imposing iron gate onto a long gravel drive lined with two rows of overgrown cypress trees.
Ned went into tour-guide mode. “The guy who owned this place was a ruthless water baron. The farmers and the townspeople hated him. He made most of his money by charging such high prices for water that family farmers were eventually forced to sell their land to him at a steep discount.”
“Is that Coffin Hall?” I asked, looking at the ivy-covered brick building ahead of us. It looked more like a witch’s cottage than a haunted library.
“No, that’s the guardhouse. The Coffins made a lot of enemies back in the day.”
The driveway snaked past the guardhouse and along the iron fence that marked the edge of the property, up and around a large grassy hill. As we drove, I caught glimpses of a many-roofed mansion at the top. With its trees and mossy statues, the Coffin estate could almost be a park. Except the grass had grown long, and there were no picnickers, no gardeners, no couples strolling, no bird-watchers—not even birds. The estate was completely deserted.
“This place is huge,” Ned continued. “The land belongs to the city now. It’s a public park. The library’s public too, but almost nobody knows about it because it’s so far from the center of town.”
“Well, who wouldn’t want to hang out on the grounds of a haunted library?”
“I know, right? It’s the ideal date spot,” Ned said, and laughed. “Anyway, after Hieronymous Coffin died, he left his entire estate to his daughter, Harriet. Then she disappeared, leaving behind a cryptic will that said she wanted Coffin Hall to be converted into a library for rare books. Now it has the largest archive of historical documents in the whole state.”
“In other words, heaven for a bookworm like Ned,” I interrupted. “I’m having trouble getting past the last name Coffin. It just seems too spooky to be real. But I’m also hungry. Did you pack sandwiches?”
“Turkey and cheese. Hieronymous was not a nice guy. But he must have been proud of himself, because he named his daughter Hieronymous Junior.”
I furrowed my brow. “I thought her name was Harriet.”
“That was the name she went by,” Ned explained. “Would you want to be called Hieronymous Coffin Junior?”
“Harriet Coffin is better,” I agreed. “Not a bad name for a sleuth, actually.”
“I wonder what happened to her. Before she became a ghost, I mean.”
Ned shrugged. “In 1925, a few days after she turned thirty and came into her full inheritance, she just disappeared. She didn’t leave a note. All her belongings were still in the house, and there was no sign that she’d packed or made travel plans. Her relatives, her father’s lawyer, his business partners—none of them heard anything. Harriet had vanished, and so had the fortune she’d just inherited.”
“How did you learn all this? Wikipedia?”
“There’s not much about the Coffins online, and Coffin Hall has a pretty basic website. I actually heard the story on a podcast.”
“No offense, Ned, but podcasts aren’t always reliable historical sources.”
“That’s exactly why we’re going to Coffin Hall: to dig up some primary sources for my own podcast. Look, that must be the Coffin family cemetery!” Ned pointed.
I stopped the car and looked over at the cluster of graves arranged around a three-tiered fountain made of white marble. The basin was dry, and the cemetery was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. I noticed something yellow moving on the other side of the fence. It looked like there was some kind of excavation going on, complete with dump trucks and an earthmover.
Ned punched my arm lightly. “Eyes on the road, Drew.”
“You sound just like my dad. We’re not even moving!” I pretended to be disgusted but couldn’t contain my giggles. Then I put my foot on the accelerator and we made the final ascent to the hilltop.
As the mansion came into view, I almost stopped the car again. There are a lot of grand old buildings in River Heights and the surrounding areas, but Coffin Hall might take the cake. Actually, it kind of looked like a cake. The two-story mansion was built of patterned pink and white brick that accentuated the rows of tall, narrow windows and the roofline, complete with a tower that looked straight out of a storybook castle. Ned had described the architecture as “Victorian Gothic,” which made me think of vampires wearing frilly shirts.
In the lot adjacent to the mansion, I parked next to a golf cart decorated with a crow perched inside an ornate letter C. “For Coffin,” I said, grinning. Ned grabbed his messenger bag from the back seat before climbing out, and we stood in the parking lot for a minute, taking it all in.
“I’m going up to the tower room first,” Ned said. “That was Harriet’s study. The librarians and patrons say she still haunts it.…”
I stared him down. “You can’t scare me, Ned Nickerson. Ghosts aren’t real. Whatever those people saw was a product of their overactive imaginations. What do you expect to find that will explain Harriet’s disappearance?”
“The podcast mentions Harriet’s diary. It’s written in some kind of code. I think I can crack it.”
“A code! Okay, now I’m really interested. But Ned, there has to be a reason no one has cracked it after almost a century.”
“I’m going to be the exception. I’m Ned Nickerson, super researcher! That’s what NED Talks is all about.”
“All right, don’t get too full of yourself yet. Let’s go inside and see what stories the Coffins have to offer. Unless you’re chicken?”
“No way. First one inside is a rotten egg!”
Ned and I took off running up the stone steps to the library’s front door. We were both out of breath by the time we got to the top. While I waited for my pulse to slow down, I looked around and spotted two stone crows perched over the doorway, looking down at us. There was a crow carved on the front door, too, just above a sign that read COFFIN HALL LIBRARY—A PUBLIC RESOURCE.
Ned took my arm before I could go inside. “We’ll have to keep our voices down in there, so let’s go over the plan now. I’m going up to the tower room to look through Harriet’s papers. Meanwhile, maybe you can ask around about Coffin Hall’s history. See if any of the library staff would agree to an interview. I just need a couple of good sound bites. Ghost sightings, levitating books, eerie music, that kind of stuff.”
“You want me to encourage people to make up scary stories? That’s not my kind of thing, Ned, you know that.…”
“No! NED Talks isn’t a horror podcast. I want to tell the real story of Harriet Coffin. We’ll just use the spooky hook to get people interested.”
“Okay, as long as we’re on the same page here,” I said, watching him closely.
“Ha! Good pun,” Ned said, pointing to the library sign with a grin.
The library lobby, the mansion’s former entryway, was a round, high-ceilinged room with a skylight above a marble-topped circulation desk, where a silver-haired librarian sat in front of a computer. The walls were lined with glass cases displaying old maps and documents, and I spotted another stone crow perched on the archway that led to the main reading room.
The quiet in the building was stifling, interrupted only by the occasional beep of the book scanner and the snuffling of a bored-looking security guard at the entrance to the reading room.
Ned and I approached the circulation desk. I said hello to the librarian, but she didn’t look up. She was tiny, no more than five feet tall, but with her strong nose, serious brown eyes, and silver hair swept up in a perfectly smooth chignon, she gave off the unmistakable air of being in charge. A nameplate on the desk read IRENE WISEAU, LIBRARIAN.
“Ms. Wiseau? My name is Nancy Drew, and I’m a resident of River Heights. How do my boyfriend and I sign up for library cards?”
“You may call me Miss Irene,” the librarian said primly. I could tell she was the kind of woman who always spoke in complete sentences, who crossed every t and dotted every i precisely. Miss Irene removed two forms from a file in her desk drawer and slid them across the desk. I wrote in my full name, date of birth, address, and phone number, and Ned did the same. Usually, I would think twice before giving a strange woman my personal details, but I was pretty sure that if anyone could be trusted to keep sensitive information safe, it was a librarian. While I wrote, I tried to get the librarian to come out of her shell.
“My boyfriend, Ned, and I are researching the history of Coffin Hall for his podcast,” I said, keeping my voice friendly and open. I decided not to mention the ghost right away.
“The real story of Coffin Hall is written in Harriet’s papers, if you have the wherewithal to actually read them. I’m just here to preserve the collection,” Miss Irene answered, her face stony.
“But surely you know a lot about the Coffins,” I prodded her.
Miss Irene wouldn’t budge. “Coffin Hall is a public institution,” she said primly. “Its collection belongs to the people. Harriet Coffin willed the house and everything in it to the city. You can read all about it on the library website.”
“Yes, we did read that, thank you,” Ned replied. “But the episode is actually about Harriet: specifically, what happened to her and the Coffin family fortune. We were hoping to interview someone who knows her story. On the record.”
“I don’t indulge in speculation or sensationalism when it comes to Harriet Coffin. As I’ve said, the history of the Coffin family is all public record. All I can do is show you to the relevant documents.”
“In my experience, the truth isn’t always written down,” I said, watching her face carefully. “And people usually know more than they let on.”
I noticed a lanyard decorated with enamel pins in the shapes of different birds looped around Miss Irene’s neck.
“Cool pins. Is that one a crow?” I asked.
The librarian seemed to warm up a little. “A raven. They’re very bright. I keep one as a pet. I find his intelligence refreshing.”
“I didn’t know ravens were so smart,” Ned said.
“Birds are smarter than we think,” I replied, and the librarian nodded.
“Corvids like ravens and crows keep stashes of food in many different places,” she said. “Science has shown that they can remember up to two hundred locations—what’s buried in them, and how quickly the food is decaying.”
“They sound smarter than a lot of humans I know,” I said.
The librarian’s lips twitched slightly in something like a smile. She took the forms from us, looked them over, and then filed each carefully away in the file cabinet behind her. Then she took two cream-colored cards from another drawer and wrote each of our names in blocky capital letters, followed by the date, and handed them to us. The front of each card was printed with a line drawing of Coffin Hall and the letters CHPL.
“Thank you for your help, Miss Irene!” I said, and she nodded.
“I help those who help themselves,” she replied. The librarian turned her back to us, picked up her desk phone, and dialed a three-digit number. “Rosie? Are you in the tower? Come down and cover me, won’t you? I’m showing some patrons to the tower room and then I’ll be taking my much-deserved break. Please don’t dawdle.”
Miss Irene hung up the phone. She waited patiently while we passed through the metal detector, underwent a bag check, and signed our names in a register before we could go into the stacks, which seemed like a lot of security for a public library.
The guard who scanned us seemed really checked out, like his mind was somewhere else. He was a handsome, stocky Asian man in his late twenties, with a topknot and beefy forearms.
“Hi!” I said, and he looked up, startled. “I’m doing some research on the history of Coffin Hall for my boyfriend’s podcast. Would you like to talk to me on record about Coffin Hall? It would only take a few minutes.”
“I’m new here, kid,” he said in a bored voice. “And I’m working a double shift, so I’m not really in the mood to chat.”
“Do you mind my asking why you’re working double shifts? Can’t the library afford other guards?”
“Just the two of us, and the regular guy went on vacation. There’s not usually supposed to be a guard here during the day, but after yesterday’s incident, Miss Irene called me in. At least the other guy’s coming back tonight so I’ll finally get a break,” Victor answered wearily.
“What happened yesterday?”
“Victor,” Miss Irene chided. “No chatting!”
“Sorry, boss,” the guard grumbled.
“You can’t be distracted and do this job.”
“The kid was asking me questions. You want me to be rude? I’m not even supposed to be working right now, man,” he grumbled. I heard him and tried to give a sympathetic smile.
I knew better than to interrogate Miss Irene about the incident. Maybe I could get Victor to say more when his boss wasn’t breathing down his neck.
Ned and I followed Miss Irene across the empty reading room, which was full of long wooden tables topped by rows of brass reading lamps, and went down a hallway lined with plush carpets and oil paintings of peaceful farms and orchards. The hall ended at a spiral staircase, at the base of which hung a large oil portrait that depicted a young woman with a serious expression, dressed in a light-blue evening dress with a 1920s-style dropped waist and a tasseled skirt made of long strings of silver beads. The portrait sitter wore an elegant silver tiara in her dark hair, and diamonds sparkled on her neck and ears, but the beauty of her attire couldn’t hide the sadness in her eyes.
“The Blue Lady herself,” Miss Irene said. “Her father had this portrait commissioned to try to entice a husband for Harriet, but she rejected every suitor. This is the way to her tower. From here on, I’ll have to escort you.”
“Nancy, are you coming with?” Ned asked.
“I’d like some fresh air. Is it all right if I take a stroll through the grounds?”
“Certainly. It’s public property. But a word of warning: watch where you step.”
I glanced at Victor to see if he’d noticed the librarian’s ominous tone, but he had his earbuds in and was humming to himself. Some security guard.
“Let’s meet back in the lobby in an hour for an update,” I said. “Promise me you’ll try not to anger any spirits, living or dead.”
“I’ll do my best,” Ned laughed.
I watched him climb the stairs and disappear into the darkness, feeling uneasy without quite knowing why.
I wandered from room to room without seeing anyone. What was the point of a public library without patrons? Who was I supposed to interview? The librarian and the security guard weren’t exactly open books, and I hadn’t signed on for ghost hunting. Maybe the grounds would be livelier.…
Outside, the sun was high in the sky and the Coffin Hall estate appeared serene, but up close, the lack of upkeep was more obvious. The ground was muddy and the grass was patchy. I had to hop from one spot to the next to keep from getting stuck. Soon I came to the chain-link fence that surrounded the Coffin family graveyard. I’m not a morbid person, but the dry fountain gave me the chills. A plaque at its base read:
H. Z. “HARRIET” COFFIN JR.
LET HER FIND REST
I stared hard at the two Xs and couldn’t help but imagine how I’d feel if I disappeared and no one ever found out what happened to me.
The sound of heavy machinery startled me. On the other side of the cemetery fence, the earthmover had shuddered to life. Construction workers shouted directions over the beeping of trucks. I walked up to the fence and looked out over a huge rectangular hole.
Not far from where I stood, a tall blond woman in a sharp white suit, snakeskin ankle boots, and a long golden braid was hissing into a walkie-talkie, her back to me.
“I don’t want to hear excuses, Jeffrey! I won’t apologize for being hands-on. It’s my vision. Don’t you believe in that? Good! Because it’s your job to execute it, so stop wasting time talking to me and get to work!” The woman switched off her walkie-talkie and threw it to the ground. “I’m working so hard. I deserve a new purse. Two new purses. And a tennis bracelet. I could be in the Cayman Islands right now. Instead I’m here in this hole, up to my waist in mud.”
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing—”
The woman’s head shot up, and she took me in. She obviously didn’t like what she saw. Putting her hands on her hips, she stared down her nose, her perfect red lip curling. “Can I help you? This is private property.”
“Where I’m standing is public property.”
“Why are you watching me? Are you some kind of cub reporter?”
“I didn’t mean to startle you, I’m just a naturally curious person. My name is Nancy Drew. I’m helping my boyfriend research his podcast. It’s called NED Talks, because his name is Ned, and he talks.… Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“I definitely have not. Do I look like someone who listens to podcasts?”
“You don’t, you’re right. You look like a… boss.”
“A girlboss, you mean. I always dress for the role,” she answered, tossing her braid over one shoulder.
“We’re making an episode about the history of Coffin Hall. You must know something about that, seeing as you’re excavating right next to it. Would you like to speak on the record?”
“Yes, actually,” she answered quickly. “I have a lot to say about that eyesore.”
“Thanks. I’ll start my recorder. Do you mind introducing yourself?” I asked, holding my phone up to the fence.
“Certainly. I’m Yvonne Coughlin, She-EO of Coughlin Capital.”
“Coughlin… Coffin…? Any relation?”
Yvonne continued speaking as though she hadn’t heard me.
“I have an MBA from Harvard Business School. Last year I was named one of the Top Ten Women in Real Estate under Thirty by the Developers’ Association. And now I have turned my talents to creating the greatest investment opportunity River Heights has ever seen.”
“Here’s my card. Do you have a card? No? Too bad. Do you know what I love about swans?” Ms. Coughlin said, her eyes sparkling.
“Swans? Weren’t we just talking about an investment opportunity?”
I examined her business card, which was printed on heavy paper in fine gold ink. Yvonne had spent a lot of money on the printing. The office address was right in the heart of downtown River Heights, in a swanky new building. Coughlin Capital must have been turning a profit.
“Patience, Nelly. It’s all connected. As I was saying, what I love about swans is how serene and beautiful they look on the surface. Meanwhile, underneath, they’re paddling like crazy. That same thing is true of all fashionable women.”
“I don’t really like swans. They’re mean. And my name is Nancy, not Nelly.”
“See, if you had a business card, I would’ve remembered that. What I’m trying to tell you is I’m a swan—a visionary. I’m building a pond for other swans—a comfortable home for people like me, who know how to make a real impact.”
“What kind of people are those?”
“Movers and shakers! App inventors, designers, content creators, influencers, entrepreneurs, celebutantes, modelebrities.”
“So, you’re building fancy condominiums?”
Ms. Coughlin’s face contorted with disgust. “We don’t use that word. I can’t stand when people shorten it to ‘condo.’ Ugh! No, this project is called the Coughlin Cooperative. It’s all about building a community that is creative, but also luxurious. Think high-end bohemian. Artist studios with indoor Jacuzzis. My real dream to is create an all-inclusive resort, with hot-yoga studios, gelato shops, luxury boutiques, the works!”
“That sounds… fancy,” I said. “But what did you want to tell me about Coffin Hall?”
“That building is a safety hazard. I wish they’d condemn it before someone gets hurt. It’s only a matter of time, with those people in charge. The city refuses to sell the estate to someone who can make real use of it… someone like me, for example. It’s the perfect location for my resort concept.”
“What do you know about the building’s history?”
“Who cares what happened a hundred years ago? I’ve spent too much time stuck in the past. Now I want to live for the future. That’s what Coughlin Cooperative is all about.”
Yvonne’s walkie-talkie crackled from where it was still lying on the ground. “Ms. Coughlin!” someone yelled.
Yvonne rolled her eyes, then picked it up and answered. I couldn’t make out what the foreman said to her, but whatever it was, Ms. Coughlin did not want to hear it. She gave an angry shriek. “I cannot believe this. You’re all a bunch of clods! Don’t do anything until I get there.”
It looked like our interview was finished. Ms. Coughlin turned and sashayed away along a plywood walkway, as though she’d forgotten I existed.
“Okay, nice talking with you…,” I called after her, watching through the fence a minute longer to see if I could figure out what had happened to make her so upset, but my view was blocked by the row of dump trucks.
I carefully made my way back to Coffin Hall, mulling over my interview with Yvonne. Ned and I were due to meet in the lobby in five minutes. As I approached the library, I heard a faint wailing, like a siren or an alarm, that grew louder as I got closer. I smelled smoke, and up ahead, a black cloud billowed from the window of the tower room where Ned was supposed to be doing his research.
I hurried ahead, no longer worried about the mud. If Ned was in danger—if he’d gotten hurt while I was wandering around—I’d never forgive myself. I took the front stairs three at a time, and just as I was about to fling open the main doors and run inside to rescue my boyfriend from the flames, Ned barreled through the doorway and ran smack into me.
We both tumbled to the ground and Ned’s messenger bag went flying. He scrambled after it, as though he hadn’t even seen me. “Hey!” I yelled.
“Sorry,” he said. His eyes were wide, and he was out of breath.
“You look scared! Is everything okay?”
“She’s after me! We have to go, now!” Ned said.
“Who’s after you? Miss Irene?” I asked. Ned shook his head, then grabbed the bag and raced toward the car. “What’s going on, Ned?”
“Small fire. It’s out! Not my fault. I’ll explain later. Just—come on!”
I hit the remote unlock button. Ned threw open the passenger door, tossed his bag inside, and dove into the front seat.
Still a little stunned, I tried to get up to follow him, but my ankle had twisted under me when I fell and was already swelling up.
“Help!” I called.
Ned came running back up the stairs. He basically threw me over his shoulder and carried me down as fast as he could. Before we reached the car, I heard a man’s voice shouting after us—Victor the security guard?—followed by a furious Miss Irene. Her face was smudged with soot and her hair had escaped its tidy twist.
The librarian raised a trembling finger and pointed it straight at Ned. “Stop, vandal!”