Puzzling Burglaries

Quickly, Nancy got dressed and hurried out to the patio where Carson Drew and Señor Segovia lounged over their breakfast.

"Dad!" she cried. "I’m late for Mrs. Palmer!"

Carson Drew laughed, took his daughter's hand, and pulled her into a chair beside him. "Relax, Nancy. I called her this morning and told her what happened last night. I said you were exhausted and would be over later."

"Wow!" Nancy fell back in her chair. "Thanks, Dad. I wouldn't want to upset her a second time. Once was enough. But what are the boys doing here? When did they get in?"

"They had an exciting adventure, those young men," Señor Segovia replied. "Perhaps they'd better tell you themselves. Here they come."

Her friends, having seen her at last, ran whooping and yelling from the pool, all of them dripping with water.

''Ned,'' Nancy asked, "what happened?"

"Oh, we had a problem. After we left you, we got as far as central New Jersey. Then Dave said he wanted to stop at this terrific little farm right off the highway, where they sold great fruit."

"Yes," Burt added, "and soon we were in mud up to our axles. It took us four hours to get a tow truck to pull us out. In fact, the first truck they sent also got stuck, and the second one had to rescue both of us."

"Then," Dave put in, "by the time we got to Washington, the poor old Land Rover decided to call it quits. It stopped running, because the transmission was ruined. The only thing we could do was leave the car in a repair shop and climb on a plane. We got the first flight out this morning and arrived here before anyone was up.

"Sounds perfectly reasonable." Nancy giggled. "I bet you're sorry now that you were bragging so about beating us!"

''Sorry. Humble. Apologetic" Ned said, and the three boys bowed their heads as the girls laughed.

"Hey, come on into the pool, Nancy, it's terrific," Ned invited.

"I will," she said, "later."

Her friends ran back to the water as Nancy ate her breakfast and thought about the smugglers. She suddenly recalled something she and her father had not talked about before.

''The Brotherhood of the Vulture," she mused. ''Remember, Dad, those crooks talking about the Brotherhood of the Vulture last night?"

Señor Segovia frowned and stirred his coffee. Then he looked at Carson Drew. The attorney sighed and nodded. "Yes, my captors mentioned it, so I suppose we should discuss it. Ricardo, would you like to explain?"

Señor Segovia rubbed his chin. "Well, Nancy," he said, "the Brotherhood of the Vulture is a criminal organization that has sprung up in Latin America. Actually, it's a revival of a group that existed more than a century ago and then disappeared. Apparently, some modern crooks have decided to start it again."

"And is Stroessner involved with it?" Nancy asked.

"Yes" Señor Segovia replied. ''We don't know whether he's the head or just one of the more powerful bosses, but we do know he's part of it."

He fell silent. Nancy looked from him to her father. "Don't you want to tell me more?" she asked.

''We don't know any more," Mr. Drew replied.

''Do they have a symbol that looks like a great bird with its wings partly folded?"

"Yes," her father answered. "How did you know?"

"Because," Nancy said, "I had a terrible dream the night before we left that a great, black bird was chasing me through Fort Lauderdale. Then, the man who sabotaged our airplane must have stuck one of them on our plane."

"You didn't tell me someone sabotaged your plane!" her father exclaimed. "When you called, all you mentioned was that there was some trouble. I thought you were talking about a mechanical failure!"

"Well, it turned out that it wasn't. Someone drained half the gas out of our tank before we left. We had to land in the water off the coast of South Carolina with a dead stick. Fred Blaine came out and rescued us. I didn't have a chance to tell you because you got yourself kidnapped, Dad."

Carson Drew heaved a sigh of relief. "At least your luck held and Fm grateful for that."

Señor Segovia added ''I haven't had time to tell you either, Carson, that the vulture symbol appeared on the inside roof of the limousine I sent for Nancy. My driver tore it off but not before it frightened the girls, Tm sorry to say."

"What does it mean," Nancy asked, "when they put the symbol on things like that?"

"I think it's a scare tactic," her father replied. "Possibly, they're trying to get to me through you."

Nancy nodded. "Perhaps they figure if we get worried about the black buzzard, we won't have our minds on catching the gang at their dirty work."

Bess and George ran up at that moment. "Hey, are you going to eat all morning?" George asked. "We need help if we're having another water fight with these three monsters." She pointed to the boys.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Nancy said. "But I have to go see Mrs. Palmer. You want to come?"

"Sure," George said. "If we stay here, those guys are going to drown us anyway."

When the girls broke the news to the boys, they offered to go along. But Señor Segovia suggested that they might like to spend the rest of the morning taking his yacht out through the canal onto the ocean. Ned, Dave, and Burt quickly agreed after their friends assured them they weren't needed at Mrs. Palmer's, and with a few shouted good-byes, hurried down to the dock.

"Well!" Bess said with an exaggerated flounce of the wraparound skirt she had just put on. "If rd known they'd be so heartbroken about us leaving, I wouldn't have agreed to go."

Nancy and George burst into laughter. "That shows how much we count, doesn't it?" George said as they followed the chauffeur Andre, who this time led them to a light blue limousine instead of the gray one. He was more relaxed now that Mr. Drew had been found, but he drove too slowly and carefully for the girls, who were bursting to see Mrs. Palmer's house and the strange and somewhat intimidating old woman who lived there.

When Andre finally pulled up and got out to open the door, the girls leaned forward to stare at the place. There it stood, ominous, gloomy, and three stories high with two turrets. It was surely full of big, impressive rooms, winding staircases, and strange creaking sounds.

"Brrr—" Bess said, hugging herself with her arms as if she had a chill. ''I wouldn't want to spend the night alone in there."

''Me neither,'' George agreed. "But not because I'd be afraid. It's just that I've gotten used to greater luxury at Señor Segovia's!"

The girls laughed, then Nancy led her friends along the concrete walk up the five big steps to the front porch. She grabbed the large door knocker and let it go. The resulting boom reverberated so loudly that it made Bess jump. But she smiled as soon as Susan McAfee appeared to welcome the trio. 'Tm so relieved you got here," she said.

"I wish I felt relieved." Nancy chuckled. "Is Mrs. Palmer ready?"

"Yes. And don't worry, she won't bite."

The girls followed Miss McAfee's clickety-clacking high heels through a parlor decorated entirely in mauve into a huge, old-fashioned kitchen.

"Would you like some tea or soda?" Susan asked. "Mrs. Palmer will be right with you."

The girls declined, and chatted with Susan for a few moments.

"Perhaps you think it unusual that Mrs. Palmer is greeting you in her kitchen instead of one of the more formal rooms" Susan McAfee said.

''Yes" Bess replied. ''I was wondering about that.''

"Well, this means you're 'in.' You're practically family when she invites you into her kitchen. Why, she . . ."

''That's enough of that, Susan!"

All four girls jumped at the sound of the voice from the doorway. Wheeling around, they saw Mrs. Palmer, erect and regal with her gray hair piled high on her head in great swirls.

Though Bess's heart went into her mouth, she was so impressed by the old lady that she almost curtsied as one would before a queen.

"Oh, Mrs. Palmer," Susan cried, her cheeks reddening.

"For goodness sake, don't look as if you're going to be executed. I don't mind your telling the girls that the kitchen is my sanctum and only the best people ever enter it. There now, you must feel honored and delighted and all that sort of rubbish. Aha . . ."

She peered from Bess to George, then her eyes fastened on Nancy. "I need glasses to read but I don't need them to spot a Drew. Those blue eyes are an absolute giveaway. They're almost exactly the color of my own. That, plus the titian hair tells me that you're Nancy. Your great-grandmother had hair like that, too, you know. Yes, exactly like that!'' Mrs. Palmer rapped her cane on the floor for emphasis.

The girls stood fixedly, not knowing whether they had permission to speak. Then Nancy smiled. 'I'm glad to meet you, Mrs. Palmer. I’ve heard so much about you.''

"Ah, none of your charm, girl. I know what you heard about me. Cantankerous old lady with one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel."

"Oh, no," Nancy protested.

"Well, never mind. I am cantankerous sometimes. Now, introduce me to your friends."

"Of course," Nancy said. "This is George Fayne and Bess Marvin."

"Welcome. I assume I may speak freely in the presence of George and Bess? Well, good. Now everyone sit down."

The girls did as bidden but the regal old woman remained standing, ramrod stiff. "I don't sit," she said. "I never sit if I can stand. I never stand if I can walk. And up until a few years ago, I never walked when I could run. That's why I outlived all my friends, who used to sit around eating petit fours and drinking tea and wasting their lives on nonsense."

Mrs. Palmer paced back and forth as she talked, her long skirt almost touching the floor. She moved with small steps and so little motion that she almost looked as if she were on rollers. Bess nudged George, and they both suppressed grins.

''Now then," Mrs. Palmer said, ''let's proceed with the business at hand. Some utter fools, for reasons we do not yet know, keep breaking into this house. They steal nothing. They don't really damage anything either, except one vase that they broke, probably by accident. They have done this time and again, and I’m becoming sick of it."

She paused a moment, then continued. "I have complained, most vociferously, to the police, the state police, the mayor, and the governor. They have posted a guard, but frankly, I find it annoying to have someone watching my home, even if he's on my side. So today, knowing that you're going to be on the job, I asked the authorities to remove the officer."

Nancy was somewhat taken aback. "I appreciate your trust," she said, "but I'm afraid that the police are much better at that sort of thing than I am. I simply try to find clues and determine who has been committing these burglaries. But I'm really not capable of guarding this house day and night by myself."

Mrs. Palmer waved her hand airily. "Nonsense! The very fact that you are on the job already has the crooks scared stiff. I have no doubt that you shall have the case solved within twenty-four hours."

Nancy sighed, and then, realizing it was useless to argue, she got out her note pad and began to question Mrs. Palmer, seeking every bit of information she could gather. Where had Mrs. Palmer been each time a burglary occurred? She had been out. When did the burglaries take place? Always in the evening. What about the servants?

Mrs. Palmer grew stiff at the last question. ''I have a butler, a maid, and a gardener, and they're all beyond reproach. Besides, none of them were home during the burglaries, except Errol, the butler, was here the first time. He chased the crooks but didn't catch them. Hit his head in the process, poor man."

"I'll need to speak to him," Nancy said.

"He's not here now," Mrs. Palmer said stiffly.

Nancy did not press the matter for the present, deciding to get back to the subject later when she had better learned how to handle the old lady.

"All right," she said. ''Let's see what we have." She riffled through her notes. Mrs. Palmer arched her neck and looked at the pages.

"May I congratulate you," she said. "Most people today write as if they were handcuffed. But your handwriting is precise and beautiful."

"Well," Nancy said, ''that's more a matter of necessity than of good training. When I first started, I used to scrawl my notes. Then I found I couldn't read some of them, and a detective who can't read her notes may as well take up another profession. So I forced myself to write neatly."

Mrs. Palmer waved her hand. "No modesty. Whatever the reason, I find it admirable. Now you were saying?"

''Well," Nancy continued, "it's obvious we have one of two possibilities here. The burglars are looking for something specific, which they believe is in this house. Now, either it is here or they have been misinformed, and it is not."

Mrs. Palmer nodded, showing signs of impatience. "Yes, yes."

"That's it," Nancy said. "Unless you actually know what it is they're looking for, but for some reason won't reveal it?"