THE NEW WAITRESS
In her guise as the new waitress at the High Road Inn-her name tag said "Dorothy Pleasant"-Nancy greeted her first customers. The now unbespectacled undercover detective wore a tawdry worn-looking pink dress that George had once sported as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Together with a little white apron it constituted a respectable uniform. With her welcoming demeanor Nancy hoped to make a good impression on her harridan employer, Mrs. White, whom she could sense, with the tiny fair hairs running down her back, watching her deportment closely from behind a ratty partition.
It did not take much to rouse Nancy's rapport with, and even sympathy for, these diners. One was an elderly lady in a wheelchair. Although the lady's face was quite desiccated and covered with revolting sores, the she had a gentle and kind appearance. She was wearing an outmoded and faded print dress with a yellowed lace collar and clutched a small needlepoint cushion in her hands. Her companion was a cheerful and extremely overweight nurse whose flesh seemed only partly restrained from bursting out of her otherwise tidy hospital white dress. Nancy calculated that she must be two hundred and eighty pounds at least. She quickly realized that for both these ladies a booth would not be the right choice.
Pulling away one of the chairs, Nancy offered the couple a table in the center of the dining area. The nurse rolled the old lady into the vacant spot and surprisingly plumped herself down not next to her charge, but opposite. Nancy could see from the engraved name plate that the nurse's name was Emma. She touched her own little plastic identifier and commenced her friendly introduction.
"Hi! My name's Dorothy. I'll be your waitress today."
"Well, hello Dorothy," was the jocular reply. "And I'm Auntie Em!"
"Dorothy" laughed appreciatively. She cast her eyes over toward the wheelchair to see how the aged lady was affected by the cinematic cultural-reference witticism. The poor woman was fast asleep. A streak of greenish spittle had escaped her mouth and was wending its way down her chin. Noticing that the nurse made no attempt to tidy up her charge, Nancy felt her hand itching to grab a napkin in order to wipe the emergent fluid from the poor lady's mouth.
"Don't worry about her," explained the hungry nurse. "She comes and goes. When she's out nothing can stop that damn drool. Just bring her some applesauce and a scone. I'll feed it to her when she wakes up."
Nancy thought this seemed awfully callous of the nurse, and not quite professional. Forgetting to maintain the indifference that was her own proper attitude, she flashed the woman a look of pointed disapproval. The nurse smiled back broadly and handed her a napkin.
"Please go ahead, if it offends you."
As Nancy was leaning over to clean the old lady's face she noticed writing on the back of the napkin. "Caught you!" it said. She started. Looking back at the nurse she was confronted with what was now transparently Bess's idiotic grin. The old lady awakened suddenly and pushed at the back of her arm with the cushion. When Nancy turned the object was thrust in her face. Stitched on top was "Nancy, don't you recognize your old chum George?"
Collecting herself immediately, Nancy resumed her role. She cleaned the saliva from George's face, then extracted her notepad and stood expectantly facing Bess.
The obscenely fat Bess settled back to look at the menu. Her eyes appeared to devour even the names of foods. Nancy began to fear that Bess might ingest the menu itself, and wondered how she would explain that to Mrs. White.
"You all alone up in this lonely spot?" Nurse Bess casually inquired as she closely inspected the list of appetizers.
"No, I just work for Mrs. White who owns and operates the inn."
"So, it is her cooking that we are about to enjoy," observed her super-corpulent friend with evident relish. "I think I've heard of the fame of Mrs. White. Wasn't she famous for mango chunky chocolate surprise at the Antoinette Pope Cooking School?"
"In the past Mrs. White has done much of the cooking here, I understand," "Dorothy" explained. "But now she is much preoccupied with administration and renovations. She trusts me with most of the food preparation. But I do it under her supervision and to her specifications," she added just in case Mrs. White happened to be listening.
"All right!" said the big "nurse" with even more enthusiasm than she had before offered at the prospect of eating the dainties of the famous Mrs. White. "Honey, bring on the food and show me what you can do!"
The huge nurse then ordered two entrees, together with four appetizers.
"I don't want to faint for lack of sustenance while we're waiting," the corpulent nurse observed with a little self-deprecating smile. "And don't forget the applesauce."
The "poor old lady" in the wheelchair appeared to be snoring.
As Nancy prepared the several meals that Bess had ordered she wondered what highjinks her friends would be up to next. She would be sure not to trust to first impressions with the next "couple" that came in the door!
There weren't many customers who came to the High Road Inn, Nancy quickly learned. The traffic on the old highway was very light, and almost all cars sped on by. It was doubtful that many of the passersby even recognized the place as a functioning eating establishment. She had offered to paint a bigger sign, but Mrs. White had dismissed that radical notion with distaste. In fact, the proprietress did not seem to desire an increased clientele. Nancy soon abandoned her campaign of reform. After all, she was only a short-timer.
For her second batch of customers Nancy had to wait another day. Again there were two, but they were even more interesting than the obese nurse and her doddering charge. They appeared to be middle-aged high-caste tourists from the Indian subcontinent. The gentleman was of spare build and quite distinguished-looking, with a pencil-thin mustache and goatee, and dressed like an old-fashioned diplomat-even down to the striped pants. The woman was plumper and darker of skin. She wore a sari and had that characteristic mark on her forehead. Nancy forgot what that was called. The woman bustled about her husband, attending to his every need. He seemed incapable, or rather too aristocratic, even to blow his nose by himself.
Nancy pointed out with pride the curry on the menu.
"No thank you, dear lady," the gentleman replied, sounding just like Ronald Colman. "In America we have your ethnic food. Vegetarian Cheeseburgers, if you please, thank you."
Hearing that Ruritanian voice, Nancy knew that the gentleman had to be George!
Acting the perfect American waitress, Nancy turned to the "Indian lady," who had been defrauded of speaking for herself, to confirm the order. Not looking as though she felt at all abused, the dark woman smiled and, sounding like a punjabi Gracie Allen, said, "much ketchup."
It was two days before the High Road Inn was graced with any further custom. Instead of arriving at lunch time, the next party came at mid-afternoon. Nancy was in the kitchen preparing chicken enchiladas for the freezer when she heard the front door signal bell. When she got out front she found two young mothers in advanced pregnancy waddling about vainly trying to herd some six or seven hyperactive toddlers towards a large booth in the corner. (Nancy never saw all the children at once and so she was never able to get an exact count.) Viewed as a scientific demonstration it was the neatest representation of Brownian motion she had ever witnessed.
One of the mothers, in an unflattering lime-green stretch suit, rammed two toddlers onto the bench between her and the wall. The other, in a garish bright yellow and white dress, made no attempt to manage any of her kids. These wandered, back and forth, to and from the bathroom and the candy machine and other places of childish interest and concern. Nancy was relieved that none seemed disposed to run out the door and onto the road.
Tough mom smiled up at the waitress.
"It's a real relief to be able just to sit here and be waited on," she sighed, all the while giving a two-year old boy an affectionate swat. "What a pleasant quiet little spot you have got here! I'm so thirsty!"
"Dorothy" pointed out the drink portion of the menu. Both ladies ordered large milkshakes.
"With a pickle in it," laughed the more casual mom. "I'm feeling perfectly gravid."
Nancy had recognized her chums from first glance this time. Bess was wearing the stretch suit and George the hideous dress. She could not but admire the convincing way they had carried themselves as they walked. They were such realistic late-term mothers that she half-expected their waters to break at any time. She wondered, however, where her friends had gotten all the children and hoped that they would all be safe while Bess and George had a grand old thespian time.
The "pregnant ladies" ordered small chocolate milks for the youngsters and asked for lids if possible. Nancy graciously complied with all their requests, but prudently supplied pickles on a separate little plate. When she returned with the first load of drinks she noticed a different cast of children wedged into the booth. She deduced that there was at least one child under the booth because she felt someone's hot breath on her stockings. And when she tried to start back to the kitchen she immediately stumbled and fell over a chair. The laces on her sensible shoes had been tied together!
Bess and George laughed uproariously.
"Such a clumsy oaf of a girl!" exclaimed Bess.
"Must be gravid like us," said George. "Better sit down, darlin', you don't want to damage that unborn child."
By the time the unruly group had shepherded their charges back into their car, the inexperienced waitress was haggard. Although she appreciated that her friends were only trying to help and to keep her safe, she wondered if their appearances had to be so flamboyant-and their entourage so exhausting. Nancy felt that she could stand for a little less chaos and frazzling of the nerves for the moment. Little did she know that these would be the last customers she would ever serve as waitress at the High Road Inn!
That evening on her radio she asked her chums why their customer characterizations had been so over the top.
"Nothing exceeds like excess," George had quipped.
Bess, more sensibly, had replied that they had wanted to make each of their appearances as different as possible from two young girls, and from each other, as possible. And how could Mrs. White suspect that foreigners, senile old ladies, and harrassed pregnant ladies with scads of children represented a threat to her?
"George, I forgot to ask before, but I am still wondering how you got up your ingenious needlepoint message so fast."
"You know I took a class in needlepoint last fall. I wanted to take hang-gliding, but Mom vetoed it. So this was my second choice."
"Your second choice?" asked an incredulous Nancy.
"Well, you see, I had a plan to turn this particular domestic skill to account," claimed George "You see how it worked out the other day."
"But you couldn't have been planning your old lady caper last fall. You only knew about my undercover waitressing a few days ago!"
"Ah!" said George, with a rising inflection, indicating that she was preparing to turn over all her cards. "I hadn't been planning to fool a waitress for very long. But it has been my long term intention to trick that clever sleuth, Miss Nancy Drew!"
"One day a nice old elderly lady would show up at the door of the Drew residence and Hannah Gruen, that most useful and motherly housekeeper, would show her in. Miss Drew would be summoned and told a story about missing Chippendale chairs and a lost heiress and a missing blueprint. And just when you were beginning to search for clues, you would find the little cushion with its not-so-secret message, cleverly waiting for your inspection on an antique sofa."
"George, you wouldn't have!" exclaimed Nancy.
"I guess not," admitted George. "But my little fantasy sure made the stitching go quicker. The teacher thought it was an odd little item indeed."
"My next question is for you, Bess," Nancy announced. "How did you and gravid George learn how to waddle so convincingly today-as though you were each carrying forty pounds extra in your tummies?"
"You would waddle too if you had to balance that much gelatin dessert strapped in front," answered Bess.
"Jello?" asked Nancy, trying to imagine how it could all have been secured and fastened on.
"Lime," explained George. "There's always room, you know."
Nancy had to agree that her chums were very clever with their disguises and characterizations. She just hoped that her friends hadn't overdone it, and been too clever. For she suspected that, under her gruesome exterior, Mrs. White was herself both cunning and observant.
All of this play-acting was meant to help provide a margin of safety so that Nancy could take her time and look for opportunities to investigate the inn for clues as to the whereabouts of the slavery gang. The young sleuth felt that she was letting her team of protectors down, however, because she had as yet found not one single clue.
The biggest problem was Mrs. White. Her boss didn't do anything herself, and always seemed to be lurking just around the corner or looming over Nancy's shoulder (an extraordinary feat since Nancy had a good six inches on Mrs. White). Moreover, that ubiquitous lady seemed to have a sixth sense as to when her new employee was about to run out of tasks to perform. Just as Nancy washed her last dish, Mrs. White would appear as out of thin air with new instructions-dishes to be prepared and frozen (for what army? Nancy wondered), extra cleaning to be done on the lower surfaces in the kitchen, inventory, exterminating, and rearranging supplies. Nancy was not allowed a moment to herself.
The only unsupervised time Nancy had was when she was in the washroom or in her own room late at night. Both of these areas she had thoroughly explored, but found nothing, except for a few earring studs, six bobby pins, and a dog-eared paperback romance novel. To get in character Nancy read as much of this story as she could stand. For Joni's sake she hoped that it was an earlier occupant of the room who had left the insipidly sub-pornographic book.
From the first day the one place that Nancy had most wanted to explore was the cellar. But that area was always kept under lock and key. She waited patiently, never even turning her gaze in the direction of the padlocked door. Her chance came on the day after the visit of her faux-maternal chums. Mrs. White had apparently stumbled over one of the errant infants the previous day and that morning her ankle had been frightfully swollen. They were short of canned tomatoes for cooking, so the proprietress unlocked the door and sent Nancy downstairs with careful instructions as to the location of supplies.
Nancy tried hard to restrain her eagerness as she started down the first few steps. Once out of sight of the kitchen, she raced into the center of the basement and looked all around. Nothing showed any sign of being other than it should have been in a restaurant cellar. The room was rather neatly kept. There was a furnace and hot water heater, an oil tank, and wooden shelves piled high with boxes, which a quick hands-on inspection showed to contain cans. The alert girl quickly located the requisite number of tomato cans and carried them in a box lid to the base of the stairs. Then, feeling that she might have half a minute at least to investigate further, she cast her eyes around one more time.
This time Nancy instantly spotted the side room door. She ran over to it and pulled. Locked! Her eagerly pounding heart skipped a beat in frustration. How much time had already passed? How much longer could she respectably delay? While her mind was indulging in such calculations Nancy's nimble fingers were already busy using one of the recently-acquired bobby pins to release the old skeleton key type lock. In a flash she had the door open. She no longer questioned that she should proceed further and go inside. She might never be granted another such opportunity.
She entered a very small chamber, not much bigger than a walk-in closet. Enough light filtered in through the grit-encrusted window that she was able to discern that the room was filled with suitcases, scattered in heaps as though thrown inside. Nancy pressed her hand against one soft case then another. She was certain they were filled with clothes. She lifted a hard suitcase and found it heavy. Quickly opening it, she discovered clothes appropriate for a young woman. Perhaps these once belonged to Joni!
Realizing that she had now not a moment to lose, lest she arouse the suspicions of Mrs. White, Nancy hastily refastened the suitcase, tripped out of the room and pulled the door behind her. She had to run the risk of leaving it unfastened. Gathering up her cans she dashed upstairs, slowing down just in time as she emerged into the harsh bright light of the kitchen.
Her boss was ensconced on a stool next to the door.
"Girl, so long down there, what took you?" demanded the fierce proprietress.
"I found it hard to see which box was which down there in the dim light," answered Nancy, trying to find the right balance between apology and defensiveness.
"Down there, right enough, I can see. I warrant your eyes, young lady, much sharper than mine are."
Nancy was tempted to protest further, but thought it wiser to desist. She hoped that Mrs. White merely suspected that her employee was an idle girl who had dawdled a bit while away from her mistress's immediate supervision.
That was the end of the scolding. As she thought of it later in the day, it seemed to Nancy that Mrs. White had made her brief criticism only for form's sake. Nancy would have felt more at ease if the lecture had gone on longer. That evening as she closed up the restaurant, she decided that the next day would be her last in the employ of the inn. It might not be safe for her to stay any longer.