Hi, I'm Nancy Drew, and I've got a case to crack. Actually make that two cases. First a gorgeous Fabergé egg has been stolen. Who would have the heart to snatch such a precious family heirloom from someone new to town? Some housewarming that is! And if this isn't enough to keep me busy, someone's running through gardens and stomping on all the zucchinis. Needless to say, it's a big mess -- in more ways than one. Especially for Mr. Safer, who is suspected of squishing the squash. I'm pretty sure Mr. Safer's innocent. But who's the real vegetable vandal?
My name is Nancy Drew. My friends tell me I'm always looking for trouble, but that's not really true. It just seems to have a way of finding me.
Take last week, for instance. I arrived home on Friday afternoon from a volunteer luncheon and stepped into the house to hear the sound of shouting.
"...and if something isn't done about this, things are going to get ugly!" The angry voice rang through the empty front hallway. "I can guarantee that!"
"Uh-oh," I muttered, immediately on the alert. I didn't recognize the voice, but I have a sort of sixth sense about anything odd or mysterious, and it started tingling right away. The shouting man sounded intense. Desperate, even. Definitely not business as usual for a quiet, lazy, Midwestern summer day.
I hurried toward the source of the voice: my father's office. Dad has been both father and mother to me ever since my mom died when I was three years old, and I happen to think he's pretty great. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. If you ask anyone in our hometown of River Heights to name the best, most honest and respected attorney in town, Carson Drew will always be at the top of their list. His main office is downtown, but he also sometimes sees clients in the cozy, wood-paneled office on the first floor of our spacious colonial house.
Tiptoeing toward the office, I brushed my shoulder-length hair out of the way and carefully pressed my ear to the door's polished oak surface. My friends would probably call it eavesdropping. I prefer to call it staying informed.
My father was speaking now. "Let's just settle down for a moment," he said in his calmest, most authoritative voice. "I'm sure we can get to the bottom of this."
"I certainly hope so!" the other man exclaimed, though his voice was a little quieter now. "If not, I'm perfectly ready to press charges. This is a violation of my rights as a tax-paying property owner."
I tried to place the voice, which was beginning to seem familiar. It took me a second to notice the sound of footsteps walking toward the door. I jumped back just in time to avoid falling on my face as the door swung open into the office.
"Nancy!" My father raised an eyebrow in my direction as he exited his office, obviously a little displeased to find me lurking in the hallway. A portly, well-dressed man walked out after him, his wavy gray hair in a mess, and beads of sweat dotting his brow. Dad gestured toward him. "You know our neighbor, Bradley Geffington."
"Oh, right!" I exclaimed as the familiar voice clicked into place in my mind. Not only does Bradley Geffington live a couple of blocks away, but he manages the local bank where Dad and I have our accounts. "Er, that is, of course I know him. Nice to see you, Mr. Geffington."
"Hello, Nancy." Bradley Geffington shook my hand, though he still seemed distracted and a little annoyed. He glanced over at my father. "I'm not going to rest until I get to the bottom of this, Carson," he said. "If Harold Safer is behind the damage to my property, he's going to pay. Mark my words."
I blinked in surprise. Harold Safer is another homeowner in our quiet, tree-lined riverside neighborhood. He also owns the local cheese shop. He's a little eccentric, but generally mild mannered and well liked.
"Excuse me, Mr. Geffington," I said. "If you don't mind my asking, just what is it that Mr. Safer has done to you?"
Bradley Geffington shrugged. "I don't mind at all," he said. "I want everyone to know, so no one else will have to go through this. He demolished my zucchini!"
"Your zucchini?" I repeated. It wasn't quite what I was expecting to hear. "Um, what do you mean?"
"Yes, why don't you give Nancy all the details?" Dad spoke up. "She's the amateur detective in the family. Maybe she can help you get to the bottom of things. Then we can figure out how to proceed from there."
Dad sounded slightly bemused. I guess you'd have to know Dad as well as I do to have picked up on it. He always takes his cases very seriously -- he knows his clients count on him to help them in their darkest hours. But after all his famous trials, huge lawsuits, and important summaries in front of grand juries, I'm sure he never expected anyone to ask him to initiate a suit over zucchini!
Luckily Bradley Geffington didn't seem to notice a thing. "Yes, I've heard that Nancy has a certain talent for solving mysteries." He gazed at me thoughtfully. "Very well, then. Here are the facts. I had a thriving zucchini patch going in my garden as of Tuesday afternoon. Five plants. At least half a dozen beautiful, perfect zucchinis almost ready to pick. I could almost taste them grilled and sautéed and baked into zucchini bread...." He clasped his hands together, smacked his lips, and then shook his head sadly.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I woke up Wednesday morning and headed outside to water the garden before work as usual. That's when I found them -- my zucchini. Or at least, what was left of them." His voice shook slightly and he closed his eyes, clearly upset at the memory. "It looked as if someone had taken a club to them. Little green bits and pieces everywhere!"
"That's terrible." It did sound like vandalism of some sort, although I couldn't imagine why anyone would bother to vandalize a bunch of zucchini. "But what makes you think it was Mr. Safer who did it?"
Bradley Geffington rolled his eyes. "He's been moaning and complaining all summer about how my tomato cages block the view of his blasted sunsets."
I hid a smile. Aside from selling an amazing variety of cheese in his shop, Harold Safer is well known around town for two things: his twin obsessions for Broadway theater and sunsets. He travels east to New York City a couple of times every year and spends a week or two seeing every Broadway show he possibly can. And he built a huge deck on the back of his house, overlooking the river, for the express purpose of watching the sun set over the bluffs each and every evening.
However, Harold Safer is also well known for being kind and sensitive. He even rescues stranded worms from the sidewalk in front of his house after it rains. I couldn't imagine him taking a club to anything, let alone someone else's garden.
"Okay," I said tactfully. "But if it was your tomatoes that are troubling him, why would he attack your zucchini?"
"Don't ask me!" Bradley Geffington exclaimed. "You're the detective -- you figure it out. All I know is that my whole zucchini crop is ruined, and he's the only one who could have done it." He glanced at his watch. "I've got to go. My lunch break is almost over, and I want to stop by the garden center and see if they still have any zucchini plants."
Dad and I walked him to the front door. As Dad closed the door behind our neighbor, he glanced at me. "Do you mind looking into this?" he asked. "I know it's a bit silly, but I hate to think of something like this coming between two good neighbors."
I nodded, realizing he was right. Besides, if there really was someone wandering around the neighborhood smashing things with a mallet, it was probably best to find out who and why.
"I'll do what I can," I promised. "Bess and George are supposed to come by any minute now. We were supposed to go shopping, but I'm sure they'll be willing to help out with a little sleuthing instead."
As if on cue, the doorbell rang. I hurried to open it and found my two best friends standing there.
Even though they're cousins, it never ceases to amaze me how different Bess Marvin and George Fayne are from each other. If you looked up the word girl in the dictionary, you'd find Bess's picture there to illustrate it. She's pretty, blond, and curvy in all the right places, with dimples in both cheeks and a wardrobe full of flowery dresses and lots of delicate jewelry that sets off her perfect features. But angular, athletic-looking George prefers jeans to jewelry. She keeps her dark hair cut short and is quick to correct anyone who calls her by her given name, Georgia.
Dad greeted my friends, then returned to his office. As I led Bess and George into the living room, I quickly filled them in on the zucchini smasher.
"You're kidding, right?" George commented in her usual blunt way. "Are you really so desperate for a mystery that you're going to investigate this?"
Bess giggled. "Be nice, George," she chided. "Poor Nancy hasn't had a burglar to bust or a kidnapper to capture in...what? At least a couple of weeks? Who can blame her for being desperate?"
"I know, I know," I said with a smile. "It's not much of a case. But I want to figure out what's really going on before it causes trouble between Mr. Geffington and Mr. Safer. It would be terrible if they actually went to court over something so foolish. This could ruin their friendship forever."
"That's true," Bess agreed.
"Good," I said. "Does that mean you're going to help me?"
Bess looked a little disappointed; she loves shopping. But then she smiled gamely. "I suppose so," she said.
George nodded. "Besides," she added with a sly grin. "Maybe investigating the Case of the Vegetable Vandal will help keep Nancy away from any real trouble!"
A few minutes later the three of us found ourselves seated in the comfortably elegant living room of Mrs. Cornelius Mahoney, who lives down the street from Bradley Geffington. Two other neighbors, Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Zucker, were there as well. As soon as we'd arrived on her doorstep, Mrs. Mahoney had graciously insisted that we come in out of the hot sun and join them for tea.
"There you go, girls," Mrs. Mahoney said in her thin, reedy voice, her kind hazel eyes twinkling beneath her neat gray bangs as she set a tray of drinks in front of us. "Some ice tea for a warm day. And please do help yourselves to the cookies." She gestured to a huge platter of baked goodies on the polished mahogany coffee table.
"Now this is what I call investigating," George whispered to me as she leaned forward to help herself to several cookies. No matter how many sweets George eats, her slim frame never gains an ounce -- a fact that is a constant source of irritation to her curvy cousin.
Ellen Zucker, thirtysomething and attractive, smiled at me and stirred her tea. "So Nancy, how are your father and Hannah? Please tell Hannah I really enjoyed her recipe for...excuse me a moment." Mrs. Zucker stood and hurried toward the open front window. "Owen!" she called out. "I told you, if you're going to play out there by yourself you need to stay away from the street. Why don't you play in the backyard for a while instead?"
My friends and I exchanged an amused glance. Energetic four-year-old Owen Zucker had been playing baseball in the driveway when we'd arrived. All of us had taken our turns baby-sitting him in the past, and we all knew it only took a moment to lose track of the active, energetic little boy.
Mrs. Zucker sighed and sat down again. "Poor Owen," she said. "I'm afraid he must get terribly bored following me around from house to house like this. I've been out visiting throughout the neighborhood all week raising money for the Anvil Day fireworks display."
I smiled, knowing that Mrs. Zucker had come to the right house for that. Mrs. Mahoney is one of the wealthiest people in town. Her late husband was the only descendant of Ethan Mahoney, who founded the Mahoney Anvil Corporation back in the early nineteenth century. The anvil business is long gone, except for the town's annual Anvil Day celebration, but the Mahoney fortune is bigger than ever. When Cornelius was alive, most of that fortune went toward classic cars and obscure financial schemes. According to all sources, old Cornelius was a stingy, mean-spirited man who never revealed a kind or likable side in public. But Mrs. Mahoney is a generous soul who is beloved by all who meet her. Her bountiful contributions to various charities have gone a long way toward repairing the reputation of the Mahoney name.
"I imagine Owen knows how to entertain himself," Bess commented, glancing out the window as the little boy scurried around the corner of the house, ball and bat in hand. "I remember the last time I baby-sat him -- he decided he wanted to make cookies, and had everything in the refrigerator out on the floor before I could get across the kitchen to stop him."
"That sounds like my Owen!" Mrs. Zucker exclaimed as the other women laughed.
"Now then, what brings you girls here today?" Ms. Thompson asked. She is a bright, birdlike woman in her forties who is on a couple of volunteer committees with me. She works as a nurse at the local hospital. "Are you on the trail of another exciting mystery, Nancy?"
I smiled sheepishly as my friends chuckled. Did I mention that I'm sort of famous around town for solving mysteries?
"Well, sort of," I admitted. "It seems that someone has been causing trouble in Mr. Geffington's vegetable patch."
Mrs. Zucker gasped. "Really?" she exclaimed. "The same thing happened at my house! Someone stomped all over my zucchini a couple of nights ago."
Very interesting. Mrs. Zucker lives across the street and a few houses down from Mr. Geffington.
"Do you have any idea who might have done it?" I asked.
Mrs. Zucker shook her head. "I figured it was just some teenagers on a dare, or maybe animals," she said. "It must have happened while I was out collecting for Anvil Day after dinner that night. I was out quite late, my husband was downtown at a business dinner, and Owen was probably playing a game with a sitter I hired for the night, so none of us would have noticed a thing. I didn't really think much about it beyond that, especially since neither my husband nor Owen likes zucchini much anyway."
"I don't blame them," George said, reaching for another cookie. "I hate the stuff myself."
"So you didn't see the culprit," I mused. I looked at the other two women. "What about you? Did either of you notice anything strange going on in the neighborhood three nights ago?"
"Not me," Mrs. Mahoney said. "Have you asked any of the other neighbors? Harold Safer lives on that side of Bluff Street. Maybe he saw something."
Her comment reminded me of something. "I heard that the old Peterson place just sold," I said, referring to Mr. Geffington's other next-door neighbor. "Do any of you know who bought it?"
"I do," Ms. Thompson spoke up. "I heard it was a young, single French woman by the name of Simone Valinkofsky."
"Valinkofsky?" George repeated. "That doesn't sound very French."
"Well, I wouldn't know about that," Ms. Thompson replied. "But she moved in three days ago from what I hear. I haven't met her yet myself, but I understand that she has a very important job at the museum downtown."
"Interesting," I murmured. I knew better than to assume that the newcomer's recent arrival had anything to do with the zucchini situation. But I couldn't help noting that as far as I could determine so far, the vandalism had started the same day she'd moved into the neighborhood. Was it a connection, or merely a coincidence? Only further investigation would tell.
My friends and I finished our tea and then excused ourselves. We walked out the door, and made our way down the sidewalk. Mr. Geffington and Mrs. Mahoney both live on Bluff Street. I glanced at Mr. Geffington's house, a neat colonial with well-tended flower beds surrounding it. A set of concrete steps led down from the sidewalk to his curving front walk and the lush lawn that swept around the side of his house. In the backyard, I knew, lay Mr. Geffington's vegetable garden -- along with the spectacular view of the river that all the homes on this side of the street shared.
Next I looked at Mr. Geffington's immediate neighbors. On the right side of his house was Mr. Safer's cozy-looking Tudor-style home. To the left was a small cottage-style house with a large front porch and an overgrown tangle of shrubs and vines peeking out of the backyard.
That would be a perfect place for someone to hide out, I thought, my gaze wandering from the overgrown weed patch back to Mr. Geffington's yard. The two yards were separated only by a three-foot picket fence. Anyone who really wanted to could clear that easily.
Of course, opportunity wasn't the mystery here. The real mystery was motivation. What would make someone want to destroy a garden full of innocent zucchini? So far, I had no convincing theories about that.
George followed my glance. "The scene of the crime, eh?" she said. "Aren't you going to go over and dust for fingerprints on the eggplants or something?"
I gave her a playful shove. "Come on, let's see if the new neighbor is home."
All the yards on the river side of Bluff Street slope steeply down from the sidewalk. I stepped carefully down the stone steps in front of the former Peterson place. Leading the way across the narrow front yard onto the porch, I rang the bell.
The door opened a moment later, revealing a smiling young woman of about twenty-nine with shoulder-length dark hair and gorgeous black eyes. She was dressed simply but stylishly in a linen dress and chunky-heeled slides.
"Hello," she said in a soft, accented voice. "Can I help you?"
I introduced myself and my friends. Before I could explain why we were there, the young woman gestured for us to enter.
"Please, come in," she urged. "My name is Simone Valinkofsky, and I have been hoping to meet some of my new neighbors."
Soon my friends and I were standing in the little house's surprisingly spacious living room. I had never been inside when the Petersons had lived there, but I suspected it hadn't looked anything like it did now. While there were still boxes here and there waiting to be unpacked, the new homeowner had already done much of the decorating in the room. A large oil painting hung over the fireplace, and tasteful curtains lined the large windows overlooking the backyard. Embossed books were set on built-in shelves on either side of the room, and several exotic ivory-handled fans were displayed on one wall. Bess stared openly at several gorgeous pieces of jewelry that decorated an end table.
"Wow," I commented, trying to take it all in. "You have a lot of cool stuff, Miss Valinkofsky."
"Please -- call me Simone."
"Good," George said. "Because I'm not sure I could pronounce Valin -- Valik -- whatever. That sure wasn't in any of my high school French courses!"
Simone laughed, seeming surprised and delighted by George's frank comments. "No, it is not a French name," she said. "My great-grandfather fled to Paris from Russia during the revolution."
My gaze had just landed on an elaborate gold, jewel-encrusted orb in a glass display case with a lock on the mantel. "Did that come from Russia?" I asked, pointing it out.
Simone nodded. "Yes, you have a good eye," she replied. "That is a genuine Fabergé egg -- the most prized heirloom of my family. It is not one of the world-famous imperial eggs that Fabergé made for the czars, of course. Most of those are in museums or elsewhere on display. But it is still quite a treasure, and we are all very proud of it, and of our Russian heritage."
She went on to describe several of the other unique and beautiful items in the room. It was so interesting that I almost forgot why we were there for a moment.
Finally Simone interrupted herself with a laugh. "But forgive me," she said. "I'm talking only about myself. Please, tell me more about you. What brought you to my doorstep today?"
"Nancy is a detective," Bess explained.
"Is that so?" Simone said in surprise. "But you are so young! I thought American detectives were old, gruff men like Humphrey Bogart, not pretty young girls."
I blushed. "I'm not a real detective," I explained quickly. "That is, I don't have a license or anything. I just help out my dad with some of his legal cases, stuff like that. For instance, today we're trying to figure out who has been going around and demolishing the zucchini in people's vegetable gardens."
"Zucchini?" Simone repeated.
"That's the American name for the vegetable you probably know as a courgette," George explained.
I shot her a surprised glance. Did George remember that random word from French class? But she's always coming up with odd trivia like this that she finds on the Internet -- so maybe that's how she knew the word. Sometimes her quirky memory comes in very handy.
Simone laughed. "I see. Well, I'm afraid I can't be of any help," she said. "I've been so busy unpacking for the last three days that I've barely glanced out the window, let alone left the house. I can guarantee you it wasn't me, though. I would never demolish zucchini -- I'd deep-fry it! And of course, I don't have a garden myself, so the culprit has had no reason to visit here."
I stepped toward the back windows, still looking around. When my gaze wandered toward the view outside, I gasped.
"Hey," I blurted out. "Isn't that a whole bunch of zucchini right there in your backyard?"