Ned Nickerson looked down at the deserted, but illuminated, warehouse through the open skylight. It was a good thirty feet from the rooftop where he crouched to the floor beneath. He was about to lower his rope through the opening when a door opened and quite a number of people began streaming in. It was a near thing for Ned. He was almost caught in the act of breaking in!
The hoodlums arranged themselves in two teams. One group set about removing boxes and crates from the edge of the room using dollies and hand trucks. The other group brought in folding chairs and a podium. These they arranged as for a congress of some sort immediately below Ned. Even before this layout was complete a few people began to seat themselves on some of the chairs. It was apparent to Ned that the meeting, or whatever it was, was to be held soon. These developments convinced him that yet another avenue of entry into the building was closed to him. He had tried so many routes, he hardly knew what other path could conceivably remain. The place was guarded like a fortress. And Nancy was somewhere within, perhaps a prisoner or in some other desperate situation!
Ned was not one to trust to others when his girlfriend Nancy was in peril. Not that he thought of her as a "damsel in distress." This archaic term did not fit the intrepid girl sleuth at all. But danger was danger, no matter how resourceful the person in such a situation. And Ned was not one to let the team down. As a football star quarterback he was well aware of the importance of his team-mates, especially his linemen. Without the husky linemen in from of him, blocking effectively, he would never have the time to throw his accurate downfield passes or to orchestrate a deceptive hand-off manoeuvre. Grateful to this supporting cast when he had had his moment in the athletic limelight, Ned was now determined to go into the "trenches" and play an anonymous blocker, sheltering "quarterback Nancy."
He had performed this kind of role often. Not usually with violence, or even with overt intervention. Rather Ned had a way of showing up just when Nancy's rash curiosity was about to get her in trouble and whisking her off to a party, a football game, or some other orderly school event. These occasions were relished by Nancy as a refreshing break from her crime-solving labors. And, Ned realized, they gave her time to rethink her strategies and plans. Quite often the Nancy who emerged from her night spent as cheerleader or belle of the ball was a less headstrong-and wiser-girl than she had been before. Therefore Ned's role as escort was one in which he took great pride.
When he had been called to Carson Drew's study during the week after Nancy's disappearance Ned had been hopeful that he would be sent to Carbon City. Rather the lawyer had put him in charge of communicating with the families of various kidnapped children, a task that under normal circumstances would have been performed by Nancy. Nor could Bess and George, in the condition they were in at that time, be entrusted with such a diplomatic mission. Ned had to admit that he was good at such things. At Shady Rest he was always the one that was sent in to prepare the families in the waiting rooms for the arrival of a doctor bearing what was anticipated to be bad news. While Nancy and her chums teased him as "Sister Ned," the staff at the nursing home had christened him "Father Ned." Tied down to pastoral care in River Heights and to his nursing and guard duties at Shady Rest, Ned had been long prevented from inserting himself on the front line of Nancy's current adventure.
After Carson Drew himself left town, no doubt for Carbon City, Ned decided that the time had come for him to follow along to the northern metropolis. He had already delegated many of his official responsibilities to George's current escort, Montague Forsythe. Monty was a thespian, a good sport, and a bit of a card. He knew a bit about nursing from summer volunteering as a "candy striper" while in high school. The rest, being an actor, he could improvise. On his first night at Shady Rest Monty showed up in a white nurse's dress, a dead ringer for Cherry Ames, who it turned out later was his co-conspirator. Ned at first thought that he was seeing double. It was only when Monty had rushed up and given him a big, sloppy kiss that he was apprised of the joke. Monty, it turned out, was Cherry's identical cousin. Ned had given Monty and Cherry a lecture on the seriousness of the medical calling. Then they had all gone out for a beer.
Monty, having made his dramatic point, was afterwards more suitably attired and better behaved. So much so that Ned felt that he could trust his chum with "Operation Watchfulness," while he himself pursued his own undercover investigation and rescue.
Ned was actually not much of a sleuth himself. He couldn't locate a secret passage, decode a cipher, or retrieve a missing heiress to save his soul. He demonstrated so little talent for detection that Nancy had often laughingly warned her beau away from attempting medical research. But Ned was not the dullest knife in the drawer and knew that there was more than one way to skin a cat. He decided to follow George and Bess secretly. If they found Nancy, he would be on hand to help.
With the help of Monty and another member of the local theatrical troupe, Ned had disguised himself as a much stockier and older man, with a striking long scar disfiguring his face. He prowled around Carbon City in the wake of Nancy's undercover chums. Most of the time he kept out of sight. But once, seeing George and Bess so obviously at sea in their roles as pimp and prostitute that they were in danger of blowing their cover, he jumped out and confronted them as if he were a rather sinister customer. That put the girls on their mettle right away. After they sent him away with a view of Bess's apparently diseased posterior, he noted with satisfaction that their demeanor improved radically and that they had become more circumspect.
When the cousins were arrested, Ned had waited patiently for the girls in their usual haunts. He was quite certain that they would not be detained for long. He knew the character and spunk of Nancy's faithful chums. And he suspected that behind it all was the long arm of Carson Drew.
Bess's sudden and unexpected abduction had created a dilemma for him. He was tempted to run and intercept the real pimp, then he noticed that George was behaving as if the incident had been part of her plan. So Ned followed along with George, about a block further behind. Unfortunately this left him, just like George, on the wrong side of the busy road when Bess was bundled into the warehouse. Then George rather incautiously entered the building and did not reemerge. Ned was certain that the lighted entry would be watched, and constituted a trap. So he stayed in the shadows and probed the vast building all around for a means of unobserved ingress. This had taken him many hours, but he had pursued this task doggedly and with patience. Ned realized that he would be very little use to Nancy, or to Bess and George, should he be likewise apprehended.
At length, after exhausting alternative pathways, he found himself on the roof. Fortunately he had brought with him a long rope and a grappling hook. For some ninety minutes he had been shifting from ledge to ledge and moving in and out of sheltered niches in order to avoid the gangsters' patrols. There had been no guards aloft in the past hour, however. As Ned watched the room beneath, and counted the dozens of people there assembling, he began to realize why the watch was currently so negligent. The gang had clearly been called to some sort of general meeting. For the duration of the assembly there might be very few guards anywhere in the building. When they were all gathered, and the proceedings were underway, that might be a good opportunity for him to essay probing the rest of the building once more. Perhaps some avenue that had been formerly blocked would now be left untenanted by the hoodlums. He decided to wait in his rooftop perch and to see what would develop.
To improve the time Ned checked and prepared his arsenal. He had a gun, but it was unloaded and only for show. As a medical professional he had vowed to "do no harm." So he could not fire a bullet even if he were intending to miss. He might strike someone by accident, doing a damage that would be irreparable. He had a collapsible staff and a sap. These he would use in self-defense, but only to render a person unconscious. He was confident that he could avoid striking the places on a foe's cranium where a blow could most likely be fatal. Yet even these blunt devices disturbed him. His weapons of choice were a syringe filled with a fast-acting sedative, a bottle of chloroform, and, best of all, a chemical spray of his own concoction. This gas would render those touched by the fumes temporarily blind and disoriented. He wondered how many below he could subdue if he constructed the right sort of gas "bomb," but concluded that it would be too dangerous to attempt to toss one in. It was unlikely that the whole crowd could be subdued. The remainder-and he was certain they would all be armed-would be alerted of his presence and location. They would quickly hunt him down. So he decided to fall back on his previous plan. When the meeting began, he would search out an unguarded entrance elsewhere.
Ned checked the assembly downstairs again. A good fifty people were now gathered below. Not all the seats were filled, but the stream of people coming in the room had slowed to a trickle. He scanned the crowd for signs of organized activity. Seated a little apart from most of the others was a young woman in a rather lurid two-piece red dress. As she casually glanced up at the skylight Ned, fearing discovery, hastily withdrew his watching eyes. But, as he did so, he knew that the upturned face belonged to his girlfriend, Nancy Drew!
He had recognized her in spite of her uncharacteristic clothing, heavy makeup, and lack of eyeglasses. Earlier he had lovingly memorized the pattern of her dimples, her "laugh lines" (he would never, never call them wrinkles), and the location of every little bump and spot. Moreover, he had seen her several times in fancy dress. Nancy had never been able to fool his discerning eye. He would know her anywhere.
This unforeseen development left Ned without a plan. There was Nancy almost straight below him, whom he was determined to protect. She had been produced magically and without his effort, before his very eyes. Yet in the midst of that sinister company he was uncertain that he could be of any assistance to her. The best kind of weapon he could deploy was likely to injure her or render her helpless along with others. And if she had a plan of her own, his rash action would do nothing but to frustrate it. Ruefully, he realized that there was nothing useful that he could do. For the moment. He could only hope to improvise when a crisis came. All he could do, in the meantime, was to watch and wait. Perhaps a good, practical supporting task would in time become evident to him. He hoped that, when the inevitable crisis came, he would not be reduced to the role of impotent spectator at the downfall of his beloved friend.