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Did you miss me?" Ned asked with a grin as he helped me out of my hybrid car. It was a bright sunny day, and I was meeting him at the River Heights University student center after having lunch with him just hours before.
"Oh, terribly," I replied with a smile. "So tell me about this classmate of yours who needs my help."
"Right," said Ned, taking my hand as we walked through the parking lot to the food court entrance. "Her name is Portia Leoni, and she's in my psych class. After our lecture today, she asked to see my notes, and we got to talking. It turns out she's really struggling to pay tuition, because of something that happened to her a few months ago."
I nodded as Ned opened the door for me and we stepped inside. "Something that sounds kind of fishy, you said."
"More than fishy," Ned countered as we walked into the seating area. "It sounded like Portia could use the services of the one, the only..."
Suddenly a pretty, petite brunette stood up from her table and started waving at us. "Are you her?" she called to me as we started over. "Are you Nancy Drew?"
I smiled. I do a lot of snooping around, sure, but I didn't know I was famous at the university. "I sure am."
The girl's face erupted into the hugest, whitest smile I'd ever seen. "I'm Portia," she said. "Oh my God, Nancy, I'm so glad you came. When Ned told me he had a friend who investigates things...I was, like, 'This could be it,' you know? You could be the answer to all my problems!"
I glanced over at Ned: What had he told this girl? Still, it was pretty flattering.
"Um," Ned interrupted as I sat down at the table. "You two get started, but can I get anyone anything? Personally, I could use a cappuccino."
"Oooh, me too," I said.
Portia bit her lip. "Oooh, Neddie, that's so nice of you. But those have, like, four hundred calories. Can you just get me a Diet Coke?" she asked, reaching over to touch his arm.
Ned quickly backed away. "No problem. Two cappuccinos, one Diet Coke." As he walked over to the coffee stand, I realized what Portia had said: a friend who investigates things? I was sure Ned would have mentioned my being his girlfriend. He's about the most solid, stand-up guy you could imagine.
"Anyway," Portia was saying, turning back to me. She had gorgeous dark eyes, done up in a kaleidoscope of eye shadow, that seemed to latch on to mine when she spoke. "I'm sure Ned told you I lost my scholarship."
"He said you were having trouble paying for tuition," I replied.
"Right. Well, the reason for that is I lost my scholarship. And the reason for that is..." She paused, looking almost disappointed. "Do you not recognize me at all? Really?"
I shook my head.
"Well." Portia sat up straight and sighed a little. "The fact is, I was involved in a local scandal. You've heard of the Miss Pretty Face pageant?"
I shook my head again, but Portia still looked confused. "I don't really follow pageants," I clarified.
Portia took a good look at me, then pursed her lips and nodded, like it made sense. I wasn't sure whether to feel insulted or not.
"Well," she said, "I won it. I was Miss Pretty Face last year."
"Oh." Right then, Ned came back with our cappuccinos and Portia's Diet Coke. I dove into mine, getting whipped cream on the tip of my nose. Ned laughed and flicked it off with a napkin. Portia didn't look amused.
"So you lost your scholarship when your reign ended?" I asked, trying to get back on track.
"No." Portia leaned over so her eyes bore right into mine. "I was relieved of my reign. I was dethroned. And I lost all my winnings, including the scholarship."
"Wow," I breathed, glancing over at Ned. "That's terrible. But why were you -- "
"I was set up," Portia broke in before I could finish. "I was dethroned for shoplifting. But I was set up!" She smiled a little rueful smile. "I've never shoplifted in my life."
"So how -- ," I began.
"I got a call one morning to go to Fleur," she interrupted again. "You've heard of it?"
I shook my head. I had a feeling if I spoke up again, she'd only cut me off.
"It's a boutique," Portia explained, a little too slowly. "They sell very upscale clothing. Anyway, I was told to go and pick up three dresses for a series of appearances. That kind of thing happens all the time with pageant winners, or any sort of famous people....Stores or designers will loan you clothes to wear, in exchange for free publicity. You mention the store or designer at the event."
I nodded. "Okay. So you went to pick up the dresses, and didn't pay for them?"
Portia nodded furiously. "Which is normal. It's totally normal in the pageant world. But that night, the police showed up at my house. The police."
I nodded. I was pretty friendly with the River Heights police, and it was hard for me to imagine them being scary or intimidating. But I could see why it had upset Portia.
"They arrested me," she continued. "For shoplifting. And when I got down to the station, they showed me this tape -- from Fleur's security cameras. It showed me leaving with the dresses, without paying. And suddenly the shop owner was saying she knew nothing about the whole thing!"
"Maybe she didn't," I suggested. "You said you got a phone call. Maybe she really didn't know anything about the dress pickup."
"But she did," Portia insisted, playing with the straw in her soda. "Nancy, I talked to her while I was there. I asked her where the dresses were. And she said, 'Right there on the counter.' She knew what I was talking about."
"Hmmm." I frowned, trying to puzzle this out. Portia took a quick sip of her drink and then beamed at Ned, reaching over to touch his arm again.
"Neddie was so thoughtful and understanding when I told him about this," she said. "He always makes the most insightful comments in class. He's very sensitive."
Ned blushed and cleared his throat, shooting me a look that said, I wish she'd stop too.
"Right," I said shortly. "Okay, Portia, I..."
What? What was I going to tell her? Her story was interesting, but did I believe it? I try not to judge the people I work for, but I also try not to work for criminals. Portia seemed to be telling the truth, but she could also be a good liar. Was she somebody I'd want to put my reputation behind?
Ned was giving me a thoughtful look. "It's really the scholarship money that's important," he explained. "I mean, the dethroning, that's embarrassing, right?" He glanced at Portia, who nodded. "But losing the scholarship means Portia might have to drop out of school."
For the first time, Portia looked truly upset. "He's right," she told me softly. "I'm working two jobs right now and still can't keep up with the payments. This isn't just some silly pageant, Nancy: It's my whole future."
All right. I'm not made of stone. True, I got a funny vibe off Portia, but really, how much of that was coming from her flirting with Ned? Besides, just because someone annoys you doesn't mean they can't be a crime victim.
"Okay," I said, plopping my empty cappuccino cup down on the table. "I'll stop by Fleur tomorrow, Portia, and do a little snooping. If something seems off, I'll keep investigating. But if they appear to be telling the truth -- "
But Portia didn't hear that part. She'd already leaped up from the table and thrown her arms around Ned. "Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she cried. "Neddie, you're the best!"
Ned gave Portia a quick hug and then nudged her away. "Thanks, Nancy," he said with a smile, reaching over and wiping yet more whipped cream off my nose (how did that get there?). "You're the best."
I couldn't help smiling back.
"Is it my birthday?" my friend Bess asked, fluffing her hair in the rearview mirror as she slid into the passenger seat of my car. "Do you owe me a favor? Or is it just my lucky day?"
I smiled as I pulled the car back into the street. "Bess, what are you talking about?"
"How many times does Nancy Drew call me up and say she wants to go shopping? I'll tell you how many times: never."
"Bess, come on." But I couldn't help smiling a little: Bess was right. She was always decked out in the latest fashions; I was happy if my pants matched my shirt. When Bess talked to me about clothes, she usually had to stop and explain what a "bubble skirt" or an "empire waist" was.
"Let me guess," Bess went on, pausing to turn to me with a mischievous grin that showed her dimples. "You don't really want to go shopping. I'm betting you have an ulterior motive -- a little snooping to do? Some questions to ask?"
I shook my head and pretended to sigh. "Oh, Bess, you know me too well."
"I was surprised you even knew what Fleur was."
I nodded. "Have you shopped there before?"
"Actually I just heard about it." Bess reached into her purse and pulled out a fashion magazine. "Pose magazine says it has the best espadrilles for summer. But I never heard a word about it before -- you know, before the big scandal."
My mouth dropped open. "You know about the scandal?"
"With Miss Pretty Face and the shoplifting? Sure. Nancy, where have you been?"
I shrugged. I was beginning to wonder how I'd missed out on the River Heights scandal of the year myself. "I guess...snooping?"
Bess laughed. "I guess. Seriously, you should make more time to watch the local news. Or at least Extra." She pointed to a small, neatly landscaped mini-mall on the right. "I think it's in here, way in the back."
I pulled in and we drove around for a while before I realized what Bess meant: way in the back, hidden on the other side of the building. Finally, I parked in front of Fleur, a handsome store with two big display windows filled with mannequins in sparkling cocktail dresses.
"So what are you investigating now?" Bess asked, shoving the magazine back into her purse. "A shoplifting ring? A credit card scam? Is Fleur unwittingly selling counterfeit purses or jewelry?"
I shook my head. "Believe it or not, it's the scandal you mentioned."
"Miss Pretty Face?" Bess looked surprised. "Portia Leoni?"
"I thought that was over and done with," Bess said. "She did it. They caught it on tape. End of story, right?"
I shook my head again. "It's not that simple. She says she had an agreement with the store to borrow the dresses for free publicity. But after she picked them up, the shop owner changed her story. She thinks someone set her up. And if I don't find out who, she might lose her scholarship and have to leave the university."
"Hmmmm." Bess stared at the display window, thoughtful. "Well, if anyone can get to the bottom of this, it's you, Nancy."
Inside, Fleur was abuzz with activity. Businesswomen swished skirts off display racks, high school kids tried on accessories, and an angry mob surrounded the espadrilles, all fighting to grab the ones featured in Pose magazine. Bess split off to join the mob as I walked around, getting the lay of the land. I had to admit, a lot of the clothes they carried were really cute. But I never would have found this place if Bess hadn't known where to go.
Near the counter, a middle-aged woman with short auburn hair was helping an older woman match a bracelet to a cocktail dress. "We just got these in last week," she said, holding a jet bracelet up to a red-and-black-beaded dress. "I wasn't sure when I ordered them, but in person, they're absolutely gorgeous."
Aha, I thought. If she'd ordered merchandise for the store, she had to be the shop owner, my target.
I lingered around the counter while the older woman bought the dress and bracelet. Then I sauntered over. "Good morning," I said warmly.
"Good morning," the shop owner responded, giving me the once-over. Her voice cooled a bit when she saw my outfit of worn T-shirt and khakis. "I'm Candy. Can I help you with something?"
"I hope so," I said, smiling. "I actually have some questions."
She nodded. "Need help with sizes?"
"Not really," I said, and leaned closer. "I was actually wondering about an incident that happened here. A shoplifting incident. With -- "
But Candy's face had already changed, closing off completely. "If you're asking about the Miss Pretty Face scandal, I've already discussed that matter with the police."
I decided to try a different tactic. "Actually, I work for the university bookstore," I lied, "and Ms. Leoni just applied for a position with us. I told her we couldn't possibly hire a shoplifter, but she had a different version of what happened here. She says she was told to pick up the dresses by someone from the pageant, and that you seemed to know about that when she came by to get them. Perhaps there was some kind of misunderstanding?" I raised my eyebrows hopefully.
But Candy was having none of this. "Portia Leoni is a liar," she whispered fiercely, looking around the store to see if anyone was watching. "The camera doesn't lie, Ms. -- "
"Drew," I supplied.
Candy nodded. "Ms. Drew. I'm not going to discuss this any further. What reason could I possibly have to lie about a theft in my own store?" She looked up at me, but I caught something strange in her expression. Nervousness -- almost as though, deep down, she was worried I might know a reason she would lie.
"Nobody's calling you a liar," I said carefully. "I just -- "
"Good day," Candy spat, and abruptly turned away to approach another customer. "May I help you find a size, miss?"
I stood at the counter for a moment, stunned. Wow. She really doesn't want to talk about it, I thought. Here's something funny about people who are telling the truth: They'll talk about anything. Embarrassing incidents, controversies, whatever. A person who's telling the truth has nothing to hide. Liars, on the other hand -- they'll avoid the subject at all costs. And half the time, they'll try to make you feel bad for bringing it up.
I had a pretty strong suspicion of which category Candy fell into.
I wandered over to find Bess, who was eyeing a butter-colored leather handbag while she chatted with a salesclerk.
"...one hundred percent leather," the salesclerk was saying. "And if you feel it, you can tell it's of the highest quality."
Bess sighed, running her fingers over the purse's surface. "It is beautiful," she agreed. "It's just a little outside my price range. Do you think it might go on sale soon?"
The salesclerk -- her nametag said dahlia -- shook her head, looking apologetic. "Probably not," she advised with a little shrug of her shoulders. "Business has been so busy lately. We haven't had a sale since...well, since before that Miss Pretty Face thing."
Hmmmm. I leaned in.
"So business picked up after that?" Bess prompted.
Dahlia nodded. "Oh yeah, tons. It went from being dead in here to being packed, all the time. In fact" -- she glanced over at Candy, saw that she was still busy helping the woman she'd left me for, and lowered her voice -- "it's kind of weird, but before the shoplifting? We were told the store might close at the end of the month. With this lousy location, we couldn't get any customers."
Bess turned to meet my eye. I could tell she knew I was putting something together.
"Hmmm," she said, stroking the purse one last time. "Well, thanks for your help, Dahlia. I'm going to pass on the purse today. But congrats on the great business -- I'll have to come back and check out your new stock next week."
Dahlia smiled, took the purse back, and then turned to help another customer. I gave Bess a little nod, and we strolled out of the store and back to my car and climbed in. Still thinking it over, I turned the key in the ignition.
"So," said Bess with an expectant look. "Any helpful info?"
I nodded slowly. "The owner sticks to her story, that it was a shoplifting," I said. "But there's something off about her. She seemed tense -- like she had something to hide."
Bess nodded. "And what Dahlia said?" she said. "About the store almost closing? I could see all the gears turning in your mind."
I smiled. "It's odd, isn't it? The store was losing money until Portia supposedly shoplifted, and then all of a sudden business was booming."
"What do you think it means?" Bess asked.
I sighed. "Maybe someone paid Fleur's owner to accuse Portia of shoplifting," I replied. "If they were losing money and the store was about to close, that makes them ripe for a bribe."
"Hmmm." Bess reached out and tapped her fingers on the dash. "So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "It's possible that someone did set Portia up. But who, and why? And how can I even figure out the answers to any of these questions when I know nothing about the pageant itself?"
I drove a bit, and suddenly became aware of a change in Bess's expression. She was staring at me, grinning. When I turned and looked at her at a stoplight, she looked like she was about to explode -- like Christmas, her birthday, and a half-off sale at Macy's had all arrived on the same day, right then.
"Nancy," she said. "You know what you have to do?"
I shook my head. "What?"
Bess bounced up and down in her seat, fishing a pamphlet out of her purse. "You have to compete for Miss Pretty Face!"
She handed me the pamphlet. In the few seconds before the light changed, I read:
Are you the next Miss Pretty Face River Heights? All young women age 16-18 are invited to join our pageant! Compete for scholarships, endorsements, and the opportunity to represent the best in your generation!
"You have got," I said, pulling away as the light changed, "to be kidding."
"Nancy, it's perfect! You qualify, and you're adorable! Plus, it would get you right into the middle of things -- meeting all the pageant bigwigs, figuring out who had the most to gain!"
I bit my lip.
"You know it makes sense," Bess argued. "I could help you, be your fashion coach. I'm sure George would help too. It's a great opportunity! Maybe you'd even win!"
I shuddered. "Nancy Drew, Pageant Girl?"
Bess rolled her eyes. "Don't be a snob, Nancy. Come on."
I sighed, pulling up to Bess's house. I'm about the least pageanty person in the universe -- I hardly ever wear makeup, and I doubt "snooping" counts toward the talent competition. I tried to picture myself up on a stage, huge hair, sparkly dress, blinding smile, crying demurely as a tiara was placed on my head.
Not that I'd ever win.
I looked at Bess, who was looking at me with that excited, expectant look. If this was Christmas morning, I had become Bess's Santa Claus.
"All right," I said, covering my ears to block out Bess's shriek of joy. "I'll do it."
Copyright © 2008 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.