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It had been a long and frightful week since Bess and George had discovered that their chum Nancy had been kidnapped. They spent most of their days gathered at the Drew residence waiting for tidings of Nancy or news of anything to do with the case. The news came in slowly, in dribs and drabs, and was, for the most part, ominous. Carson Drew had at last consulted the authorities about the his daughter's disappearance. A police raid on the High Road Inn failed to bring about the arrest of Mrs. White, who had apparently already fled. Drew blamed himself for overplaying his treasury agent act and tipping off the sly old woman.

    Acting on information that Nancy had relayed shortly before she disappeared, the police discovered a dozen suitcases full of clothes in the basement of the inn. Some of the clothes were Nancy's. Others were identified as belonging to Joni, Clare, and a few of the other young people known to be missing. The two cousins worried that their friend might be murdered-or worse.

    The police in Carbon City were also brought into action. Within a few days a sweep was made of brothels and other known underworld haunts in that metropolis, but there was no trace of any of the missing young people. Bess and George were both distressed and relieved when Carson Drew briefed them on these results. Although it was frightening not to know what had happened to Nancy, at least they had as yet no tangible indication of a fatal outcome.

    The next day they heard unequivocably bad news. The body of Mr. Drew's detective was fished out of the water, downstream from River Heights. He had been killed by a severe blow to the head with a blunt instrument, probably the rock that George had discovered. Now Drew and his daughter's chums knew that the criminals who had abducted Nancy would stop at nothing, not even murder! Would the young sleuth's bloated body come drifting ashore the next day?

    Ned had come in one day to consult with Carson Drew. Although in evident distress he did not stop to share his feelings with the girls, but hastened directly to the lawyer's upstairs office. When he came back down he was accompanied by Mr. Drew, who was apparently sending him on an important errand. The cousins felt that events were spinning beyond them, that others were in charge, and that now they were "out of the loop."

    Bess didn't blame her friend's father for neglecting to ask the girls for help. She realized that for most of the week George was clearly a "basket case," vacillating between anxiety and depression. She was herself nervous and forgetful, clearly not in any shape to take on responsibility in what had been discovered to be a dangerous and desperate case.

    But she did so wish to help, even if it were only in a small way. And Bess realized that George needed to do something, to be active again, if she were to avoid slipping into the slough of despond. As the week drew to a close, Bess decided that she and George would have a try at solving the fingernail code-the only clue to Nancy's fate that George had found at the High Road Inn.

    Carson Drew and the police had already worked on the secret message, but had found no pattern that suggested a known cipher or code. After this initial effort they thought it a better use of their time to follow other trails. Moreover, as Carson had explained, even if they translated the message, it would not tell them where Nancy went to after she had composed it. The captive almost certainly did not know at that time what fate or destination the criminals intended for her.

    The cousins had little else to do, however, and Bess felt that working on the puzzle might help restore them to a semblance of mental health. The decoded message still might contain information vital to the investigation-for example, the identity or description of Nancy's abductors.

    "I don't know what I was thinking when I made that rubbing," complained George. "Now it looks like nothing at all. Chicken scratches . . ."

    Bess decided that this suggestion, meager as it was, represented an invitation to brainstorm, so she fell in with a random observation of her own. "It looks to me more like Apache war-paint designs."

    "Definitely Arapaho," contradicted George.

    Bess picked up the sheet of paper and rotated it. Something clicked into place in her mind.

    "Cuneiform!" she practically shouted.

    "Don't be ridiculous!" countered George, cussedly responding more to the vehemence than the content of her suggestion.

    "Look again," persisted Bess. She held up the rubbing, oriented so that George could see it just as it had struck her.

    "Yes, you might have a point," admitted George. Then, with a hint of a twinkle in her eye: "Definitely Sumerian, Third Dynasty."

    "No, you idiot," said Bess, with an earnestness that nearly betrayed her calculated whimsy. "Anyone can tell that this message is not in an agglutinative tongue."

    "I guess I wasn't paying attention when we took ancient history," George pretended to admit ruefully.

    Bess alertly noted the change in her cousin's mood. She pressed on just to make sure that George had been entirely drawn out of her funk.

    "It looks Semitic," said Bess ruminatively. "Akkadian, perhaps . . ."

    "Hey, Bess, don't try to kid me. You are no hand at languages, ancient or modern. You only got a B in French."

    "B plus. And I was sick on the day of the test," argued Bess. "I ordered us dinner in Quebec City last summer. I was quite fluent. The waiter didn't ask me to repeat a word. And you have to admit that the meal was delicious."

    "But what was it?" George asked. "I'll bet the waiter just wrote down the special of the day on general principles. And, to this day, you don't know what it was that we ate. Admit it. I sure don't!"

    "Well, they speak so fast up there, and they don't leave any spaces between the words!"

    "So, and you're able to read Akkadian now?" pressed George.

    "We had a very good Sunday School!" Bess could no longer continue her "explanation," but collapsed in a sea of giggles. George dove in and joined her.

    Soon they were both hysterical and writhing on the floor. Carson Drew came running into the room to find out what was causing his guests distress. Bess held out the piece of paper with the markings on it, now quite crumpled. "The message," she sputtered.

    "Calm yourselves, girls," he soothed. "There is nothing in the message. I am quite assured of that. I sent a copy to the National Security Agency and they tell me that these markings are quite random and very unlikely to be a code."

    "We know," said Bess, now calmly. "We figured that out just before you came in."

    "But I think there is a message in the marks," said George, now quite serious, and no longer despondent. "They may be random, but I think they were made by Nancy and that she is telling us that she was all right when she made them, and that she was hopeful at that time. It is the first good news we have received all week."

    "The first good news, I think, are the looks on your faces right now," countered the lawyer. "I am so glad to see that you are no longer so downcast. I am terribly worried about Nancy. But I have also been concerned about you both."

    "Well, thanks to Dr. Siegmund Bess's linguistic therapy," quipped George, "we are now ready and raring to go. What can we do to help find Nancy?"

    "It so happens that I have a plan," Drew confided. "And there are jobs for you both."

    The lawyer sat on a chair and the cousins got up off the floor and seated themselves attentively opposite him.

    "I am going into Carbon City to look for Nancy. I am going in disguise and I hope to penetrate this nest of slavers. While I am doing this I will need a line of communications. That's where you come in. I want you to come to a certain bar-Stanley's on Water Street in the dockyard section of Carbon City-once a day. You are to disguise yourselves as young hooligans. Come at five o'clock sharp each afternoon and don't loiter long. I don't want you to get yourselves in any trouble. If I have a message you will see me when you walk in. I will leave it taped under my table. If you don't spot me right away, leave as quickly as possible and camp out in the Rogers Motel on the edge of town. Do you understand?"

    "Yes," the cousins acknowledged simultaneously.

    "I must ask you to stay out of danger," the lawyer demanded.

    "We will enjoy this adventure, even in a minor role," equivocated Bess.

    "Good," said Drew as he got himself back to his feet.

    The girls arranged with him to explain to their parents, who were in ignorance of Nancy's disappearance, that they would be with Nancy visiting acquaintances in New York City for the next week or so. Hannah Gruen, in that city tending a sick sister, would answer the telephone should the Faynes or Marvins call and through equivocation would protect their cover story.

    After Mr. Drew left, George and Bess looked at each other knowingly. They would go to Carbon City and visit Stanley's regularly, but they did not plan to spend the rest of their time watching TV in a comfortable non-smoking room at the Rogers Motel. They would improve the time by pursuing their own investigation. All of this they comprehended in a single glance. The general plan being understood, as soon as Bess opened her mouth it was to discuss details.

    "I will pretend to be a hooker," she said.

    "And I will be your pimp," added George. "It looks like I will be trying to sell you into slavery! Poor Bess!"

    "Poor George! I think we'll both be walking into danger," Bess predicted.

    "I can protect myself," boasted George, preening and trying to look as much like Marlon Brando as was possible in her stylish frock. "And I can protect you, too!"

    "We laugh at danger!" they shouted in unison.

    Later that night, alone in the bedrooms of their separate homes, as they prepared their dissolute wardrobes for the next day and contemplated the work of the morrow, George and Bess were no longer so cocky as when they had been together. But they were steadfast in their determination to face any criminal underworld peril to help preserve the safety and honor of their dear friend, Nancy Drew.