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Chapter Thirteen

Rendezvous on the Common

The cousins made their way briskly away from the Healing Center and took refuge under the ancient oaks spreading in the middle of the Spring Rock common. A few pigeons and squirrels were the only largish sentient creatures within earshot as Bess commenced her confession. By the end of her narrative the ranks of this uncomprehending audience had been swollen by a solitary mangy stray dog. No bipedal ears had managed to sneak under the collective radar of the River Heights cousins.

          "Oh, Bess. You were right to clear out of the pump room. There must be a storm brewing in the clinic right now. You have certainly managed to mess up Mr. Drew's infiltration plan."

          "Don't you see, Georg, I caught those medical malefactors red-handed. I just know they were spying on me! That must be worth something."

          "But we knew that already."

          "I guess so," admitted Bess contritely.

          "Now we can't stay here any more. The management must be furious with you. And, besides, you are cured."

          "Can we not stay for your babies? They are innocent."

          "As babes unborn," completed George. "I'm not sure that having them blessed is really such a big deal. The babies are fine. They seem to be able to kick as well or better than their Auntie Bess," observed George, grimacing in exaggerated pain. "Like just now. Baby A, the one with the lesser amount of attitude, mind you, just gave me a solid poke to the north of my bladder. What if she did that while a doctor was listening to my abdomen? Her ears would never recover. I don't want these babies injuring any more of the staff. But all joshing aside, Bess, I am now really afraid of these creeps. I don't want to risk my babies anywhere near them. They are perfectly healthy, and I want them to stay that way."

          "I suppose we are done then. I will hate to have to report our abject failure as sleuths to Nancy's dad."

          Just then they spotted a familiar stout figure approaching them across the community lawn at a brisk and determined pace. From her aggressive body language the cousins anticipated a brisk tongue-lashing from this Drew emissary, Hannah Gruen, a foretaste of the final feast they could expect on the carpet of the River Heights lawyer's elegant study. But when Hannah was close enough to read her rugged features, they detected an air more of concern than of anger.

          "Bess and Georgiana," she sputtered, panting a little. "I raced after you as soon as I heard the news."

          "How did you know where we were going?" asked Bess.

          "The Dunlop tires on that chair have a very distinctive tread," explained Hannah.

          "Ah, yes," chimed in Watson. "I well remember your monograph on the forty-seven different types of bath-chair treads. And their usefulness in the speedy apprehension of severely disabled felons. It was appreciatively reviewed in the River Heights Gazette."

          By this time Mrs. Gruen had recovered her breath. She just smiled at George's playful dithering. She loved Miss Nancy's two intrepid chums, and wouldn't have traded them for all the undistractable earnestness in the world.

          "Let me fill you in on the events back at the clinic after Bess ran amok," she communicated. "When I heard the commotion I proceeded immediately to see what had transpired. The clinic administrator recognized me and pulled me aside to inform me that young Dr. Belle had sustained a fractured jaw and a concussion. As a consequence they were thinking of pressing a charge of aggravated assault against Bess."

          "Oh dear," whimpered Bess. "I hope Dr. Belle will be all right."

          "She will have to eat her food with a straw for the present, but she will survive," said Hannah with only a modicum of sympathy. "Young people are resilient."

          "I don't know what came over me," admitted Bess. "Although she was not at all nice to me, I have met and failed to maim many less prepossessing physicians in my time. And, why I struck her with my sore foot, I really don't know. It should have hurt me far more than her. Yet my foot is better-in fact, all better-rather than being worse."

          "You don't mean to tell me that kicking that poor little doctor cured your ankle?" asked Hannah incredulously.

          "Strange but true," piped in George, who believed Bess's improbable story implicitly.

          "This is something for the medical annals."

          "I'm afraid I will be a subject for the columns of the Detective Weekly first," moaned Bess ruefully. "Are they going to arrest me right away?"

          "Don't worry, child," Hannah said soothingly. "I merely let them know that the lawyer Carson Drew would come immediately to defend you, and that you were a Nobel Prize winner, and immediately the man realized that they could easily let themselves in for a world of bad publicity."

          "What about me, Hannah?" whined Bess. "I'm a scientist and a deacon and secretary of the state chess club and there's my family and-and I don't want any bad publicity either!"

          "There will be no publicity at all, silly," George piped in. "Hannah has bluffed them into folding their hand-right?"

          "Yes, dear," Hannah answered.

          "Oh, game theory," said Bess, happy whenever a conversation could take on a mathematical turn.

          "Yes, but you couldn't do what Hannah just did," George explained. "You may know the theory, but you don't have the poker face to bring it off."

          "Thanks, Hannah, you are a super dear," gushed Bess as she embraced the Drews' portly and sometime poker-faced housekeeper.

          Hannah was not however imperturbable at this moment. She flushed at Bess's display of demonstrative praise and affection.

          "But our difficulties are not entirely overcome," she reminded them. "You may be out of jail, Bess, but it is by no means certain that any of us can remain here. I am afraid we will have to give up our investigation."

          "We must be able to do something to delay," said Bess. "I feel so responsible for this mess. We have to think of some good reason for them to let us stay, at least for a little while longer."

          "Even one night longer might make a big difference," said Hannah wistfully. And she added in a confidential tone, "I think something is about to break."

          "What!" squealed George and Bess in unision. "Do you have a clue?"

          "I think Nancy is up to something. I believe that she has a tryst this very evening with someone who might provide us with some valuable information."

          "Who?" asked George.

          "I think it is a young man," guessed Hannah.

          "That Mata Hari!" exclaimed George. "She plays it so cool, running a kindergarten in the corridor, and all the while she is running circles around us presumptuous sleuthing layfolk!"

          "So we have to find a reason to spend the night," concluded Bess. "Anything to keep the healing center from kicking us out until after Nancy has done her undercover best."

          "I know," said George. "Hannah, you must fake an injury. Like a broken hip. You old people are always breaking your hips. Then we might be able to stay, or at least Nancy might remain, to take care of you. We two unwanted scoundrels could make ourselves scarce, and the mission could proceed."

          "I'm afraid not, Georgiana." Hannah looked around to see if there was anyone lurking in the underbrush before proceeding. "I fear that Nancy might be in some danger tonight, during or shortly after her assignation. We need to keep her and her shady companion under strict surveillance. I am the one for this kind of job. With my commando training I will be best prepared to intervene if the need arise."

          The cousins had often heard tales of the younger Hannah Gruen's daring deeds breaking up terrorist cells in Central Europe. If only a fraction of what they had heard was but partly true, the Drews' housekeeper would be a formidable protector-or avenger-of Nancy Drew if she were to get into serious trouble. George and Bess instantly acknowledged that Hannah would make the most suitable operative to shadow Nancy's nocturnal activities.

          The cousins looked at each other for a moment, as if willing an idea to pop out the other's racing mind. The requisite stratagem, on this occasion, emerged from the contents of Bess's cranium.

          "This is the plan," announced Bess. "After the startling events of today, in the examining room at the clinic, I will go into shock. Or have a nervous breakdown, or brain fever, or whatever we call it nowadays."

          "I like brain fever," voted George. "It sounds so deliciously Victorian."

          "Shock is best," recommended Hannah. "Keep it simple and modern, if you want to be remotely plausible."

          "The plan works on three levels," Bess explained. "One, it makes me look properly contrite for kicking the poor doctor-I am in fact very sorry and cannot think what came over me. And, since I am in shock, I can pretend to rest and should not have to see a lot of people and can plausibly barricade myself in our room. And, three, I am by virtue of psychic prostration, a patient again. We have an excuse to stay on while Nancy and Hannah investigate."

          Then Bess glanced at her cousin and timidly asked, "If I am to look like I am in shock, can you coach me on that Jorge?"

          "As a thespian, or as a frequent victim?" asked George with more sorrow than humor in her voice. George had undergone severe post-traumatic stress several times in the course of her adventures with Bess and Nancy. She well remembered that those episodes had brought in their train depression, emotional turmoil, and other unpleasantness. Lasting impressions of being in a living hell haunted her dreams-and some of her weaker waking moments as well.

          "I know, Sandy, how horrible it must be for you to think of those times," pleaded Bess. "But I will need help to do this!"

          "Of course, I'll help," said George earnestly. Hannah and Bess, however, could tell that George was tottering on the verge of tears.

          "No, I can't make you do this. We will have to think of something else. Something easier," retracted Bess. She could tell by a twitching of George's cheeks that her cousin had agreed to her proposal only with the most profound reluctance.

          "We will do it, Bess," cried George nobly. "You and I together. I swear that I am over my weeping."

          "No you are not. I can see the incipient moisture forming on the periphery of your eyes."

          "Well," admitted George, "then my lachymose reactions will just have to set a proper example for you. You will learn to be traumatized from a master. Come on, Bess, let us do our psychically shattered best for Nancy."

          Although she was concerned about the emotional dangers facing George and Bess in the practice of their bizarre psychological deception, Hannah was much more anxious for Nancy. The cousins had each other for support and their lives, at any rate, did not seem to be in any immediate peril. But Nancy might that evening face a mortal danger at any moment. So Hannah wished the cousins well in their scheme and lauded them perfunctorally for their resourcefulness. Then she hastened away to get herself prepared for her evening stalking.

          "I think I would prefer it if you went into a kind of catatonic shock," said George. "There is less acting in that."

          "What about my using Gregory Peck as a model?" asked Bess. "Didn't he get an Oscar for just twitching just the muscles on the back of his neck?"

          "No, he got an Oscar for being Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It was in the rest of his movies that he concentrated on the neck thing. But you are right in a way. A lot of the skill in acting is in knowing when not to make an overtly hysterical scene. Like Greta Garbo, at the end of Queen Christina, staring into the camera and thinking of nothing. But it will take an even greater amount of mental concentration for you to pose as a catatonic. You will not be able to do it as simply as by making your mind a tabula rasa. The tortured mind must be focused on escape from agony. And the only way out of such unthinkable pain is to close the mind down entirely, holding the mental portals shut with white knuckles."

          "It sounds dreadful."

          "It was," said George flatly. "And it will be a just a little bit horrible for you, even in simulation. Are you up to it?"

          "I think so. I have had my share of horrors too," observed Bess, thinking of her several nerve-shattering episodes recovering from the accidental addiction to pixie dust.

          "Poor Bess."

          "Poor George."

          "No, hold just that one thought. 'Poor Bess.' Focus on that. It is going to be a long night."

          Bess pushed George back onto the sidewalk and they made their way slowly back to the bedroom wing at the clinic. Part way back, George began to chuckle uncontrollably.

          "What's that Georg?" asked Bess anxiously. Are your dreadful memories leading you into hysteria?"

          "No," sputtered George at length. "I was just thinking to myself-thank God we won't have to be talking in code tonight!"