Nancy Drew dashed down the hail stairs and picked up the telephone on the second ring. "Hi, Bess!" she said cheerfully. Nancy had been expecting her friend, Bess Marvin, to call back to set a time to meet at the mall.
Instead, a strange muffled voice came through the receiver. "This is the Pentagon calling Nancy Drew."
Nancy grinned. "Come on, George Fayne," she said to her other best friend. "I know it's you."
George chuckled. "I guess I shouldn't play around like that," she said. "Someday the Pentagon might really phone the world's greatest detective for help."
Nancy laughed. "And I'll probably hang up on them, thinking it's one of your jokes."
"Actually, I was wondering if you were in the mood for a game of tennis," George said.
Just then the operator came on the line. "I have a call for Ms. Nancy Drew," she said. "The caller says it's an emergency."
Nancy bit her lip. "Oh, no!" She'd kept the phone tied up all morning. "I'll be right off," she assured the operator.
"It must be the Pentagon now," George quipped.
"I'll call you back," Nancy promised. She put down the receiver, and the phone rang immediately.
"Nancy Drew speaking," she said, tucking a strand of red-blond hair behind her ears.
"Miss Drew!" a man's voice blurted. "Sorry to break in -- but I have an urgent problem. I need to meet with you as soon as possible."
"Can you give me a few details over the phone?" Nancy asked.
"Y-yes, of course," he stammered nervously.
Nancy pulled a pencil and notebook from her purse. "Let's start with your name," she said in a businesslike tone.
The man hesitated, and Nancy wondered whether he was afraid someone was listening in on their conversation.
"My name is Nelson Stone," he said finally, a note of self-importance entering his voice. "I am the curator of the new Clinton Park Museum. A friend gave me your name.
Nancy's mind raced. She recalled her father, Carson Drew, mentioning that the museum was having some kind of legal problem. Nancy's father was a well-respected attorney in River Heights. Then Nancy remembered that a wealthy socialite, Amanda Lane, had donated her mansion to the museum before she died. The papers had been drawn up by Carson, who had been her attorney.
But Amanda's grandniece, Hillary Lane, had been bitter about her aunt's donation. She felt the mansion should have remained in the family, and she was starting a legal battle to contest the donation.
"Does this have anything to do with Hillary Lane?" Nancy asked bluntly. If it did, she knew she would have to consult with her father before taking the case.
"It may," Nelson Stone hedged. "But then again, it may not."
"If you want me to help you," Nancy said firmly, "you'll have to give me specific details."
Mr. Stone sighed. "I've just received a threatening letter. I think someone's out to kill me.
"Where are you right now?" Nancy asked.
The curator cleared his throat. "I'm in my office at the museum.
"I can be there within the hour," Nancy said, glancing at her watch. "But if you really think someone s out to kill you, why don't you contact the police?"
Mr. Stone breathed another deep sigh. "If possible, I'd like to keep the police out of this," he said. "At this point, all I need is a private detective to find out who sent me the letter. Quite frankly, Ms. Drew, I'm in a panic about this. But at the same time, I don't want any bad publicity."
Nancy assured the curator that she would be right over. Hanging up the phone, she wondered why anyone would threaten Nelson Stone. He certainly seemed panicky.
Nancy called George back. "Guess what?" she said. "I may have a new case. Want to drive out to the Clinton Park Museum with me? I have to meet with someone there."
"You've got to be kidding," George said. "It's such a great day for tennis. Can't you put it off for another day?"
"I don't think so," Nancy said. "This guy sounded serious. He thinks someone's out to kill him."
George paused. "I guess that's a good reason for not playing tennis," she said.
"I'd better call Bess," Nancy said. "She thinks we're meeting at the mall."
"Oh, I'm sure my cousin would much rather be at the scene of a murder," George said with a chuckle. She and Nancy both knew how Bess hated to be involved in anything dangerous. "But if you don't call her, she'll probably feel left out."
After hanging up with George, Nancy punched Bess's number into the phone. She knew she was lucky to have the two cousins for friends. They were both loyal and fun, always eager to help Nancy solve a mystery, but they were complete opposites in other ways. Blond and pretty, Bess was a few pounds overweight and was always talking about a new diet. She loved shopping, eating, and thinking about boys. Dark-haired George had a slim, athletic build. Gutsy and practical, she often joined Nancy on dangerous missions.
Bess picked up on the third ring and quickly agreed to join Nancy and George.
Nancy hurried up to her room and slipped a yellow linen blazer over her T-shirt and jeans. Then she ran a comb through her shoulder-length hair, tucked a spiral notebook in her shoulder bag, and rushed downstairs again.
Ten minutes later Nancy had picked up Bess and George in her blue Mustang, and the girls were on their way to the Clinton Park Museum.
A soft breeze blew through the car as Nancy braked for a red light. "Do either of you know anything about a guy named Nelson Stone?" she asked her friends.
"Not much," Bess said from the backseat. "My mother's friend is the real estate agent who rented a house to him here. He's only been in the area about six weeks, since the museum opened."
"And last weekend," George offered, "he was a guest at the club. I was paired with him in a tennis match."
Nancy glanced at George. "So, what did you think of him?"
George ran her fingers through her short dark hair. "Well, he has a great serve," she said, "and an awful backhand."
"Get serious!" Bess told her.
"All right," George laughed as the traffic light changed and Nancy drove across the intersection. "To tell you the truth, he seemed kind of stuffy. "
"I got the same impression over the phone," Nancy said. Making a right turn, she entered the town of Clinton Park and drove up a steep hill. A few moments later the Clinton Park Museum came into view.
"What a neat place," Bess gushed, gazing wide-eyed at the majestic mansion. It was surrounded by large formal gardens and neatly clipped hedges.
"It sure is," George agreed.
Now Nancy could understand why Hillary Lane was so bitter that her aunt donated the mansion. Hillary had probably had a sentimental attachment to the gorgeous building. Nancy drove slowly through the front gate and followed a long gravel driveway to the parking lot. Finally she pulled into a space, and the girls scrambled out.
Nancy tucked her keys into her purse and took out the spiral notebook. Her mind was now fully focused on meeting Nelson Stone.
"I know that look in your eyes," George teased as the three of them hurried toward the museum. "You're ready to start a new case.
Nancy grinned. "The beginning is easy," she said. "The problems come later."
"Oh, no!" Bess cried suddenly. A sign in front of them read: The Clinton Park Museum Is Closed for School Tour.
"So much for seeing the museum, George said, sighing. "I guess we'll have to wait for you outside, Nancy."
"At least there's a refreshment stand," Bess said brightly. She pointed to a striped awning near the front entrance where a group of school children were gathered. "It looks as if it's open."
George rolled her dark eyes. "I thought you were on a new diet."
"Oh, I am," Bess replied, flashing a naughty grin. "It's called the junk-food diet. I'm going to get some ice cream," she added. "Catch up with you later."
Crossing the manicured grounds with George, Nancy was aware of the fragrance of fresh-cut grass. The chopping sound of garden clippers filled the air as they passed a man shaping a tall hedge.
"Wow!" George explained. "Take a look at that mermaid."
Nancy turned and glanced at the smiling gardener, thinking her friend was joking. Then she realized that the gardener was shaping the hedge into the graceful form of a mermaid. "That's really beautiful," she told him. He nodded pleasantly.
George admired the sculptured hedge from another angle. "I wonder how he did that," she said.
"Listen," Nancy said, glancing at her watch, "I'd better get a move on. I'll meet you out here after I talk with Mr. Stone, okay?"
A few minutes later Nancy was inside the cool marble halls of the museum. A silver-haired security guard sat behind a desk in the hallway. The name tag on his lapel read Ralph Hayes. He told Nancy that the museum was closed for a special school tour, but Nancy quickly explained that she had an appointment with Nelson Stone.
The security guard studied her with watery blue eyes. "Oh, right," he said. "You must be Ms. Drew. Just sign your name in the visitors' book." He pushed a large leather-bound book across the desk and handed her a ball-point pen.
As Nancy scribbled in her name, she was surprised to see Hillary Lane's name on the line above.
When she looked up, she saw a dignified-looking man, dressed in a navy blue suit, walking toward her. For a moment she studied the short, well-groomed figure. Everything about him was neat and precise.
That's got to be Stone, Nancy thought, moving toward him. "Mr. Stone?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied in the same refined, nervous voice she had heard earlier on the phone. "May I help you?" Then he raised a thick eyebrow. "Just a moment," he said. "You're Nancy Drew? I thought you'd be . . ."
"Older," Nancy finished, with a smile. At eighteen, she had grown accustomed to such comments.
The curator shrugged. "I suppose age is not important. Anyway, you seem to have an excellent reputation as a detective. I understand you've solved a number of cases.
"A fair number," Nancy replied, looking squarely into Nelson Stone's deep-set brown eyes.
"Very well then," he said, guiding Nancy past a display of Babylonian vases. Nearby, a teacher was leading a tour of chattering schoolchildren. "Let's go to my office," Mr. Stone said. "I'll show you the letter."
Nancy followed the curator into the Egyptian section, which was lined with huge bronze statues of Egyptian pharaohs. "The museum certainly has an interesting collection," Nancy remarked as they passed a glass case filled with ancient Egyptian jewelry.
"Most of these artifacts are on loan from other museums," Mr. Stone explained. "Though we are very proud of our permanent collection," he added quickly as they passed under a marble archway into the next room. "Especially our most recent acquisition, the Golden Horse."
A shaft of sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window as they entered the Tibetan section, a small room filled with Buddhist artifacts. Nancy's eyes were immediately drawn to a small golden statue of a horse, displayed in a glass case in the center of the room.
"It's magnificent!" Nancy stepped forward to admire the Golden Horse. The statue was no more than twelve inches high, made from the same burnished gold as the other artifacts in the room. With its prancing stance, the horse looked as if it were about to jump out of the case.
"It's also very valuable," Nelson Stone told her. "The museum has just bought it for a little over a million dollars."
"It must be very old," Nancy commented.
"Indeed it is," the curator said, stooping down to the floor panel beneath the case.
Nancy watched as he slid back a false panel and flicked a switch.
"I'll just deactivate the burglar alarm system before I open the case," Mr. Stone said. He rose and took a key from his jacket pocket. Then he unlocked the glass case and carefully removed the Golden Horse.
"It's pure gold," he said, handing the horse to Nancy.
Nancy took the statue, surprised at how heavy it was. She ran her fingers along the horse's intricate mane, its smooth arched back, and its bridle of rubies. The horse's flowing tail was carved in minute detail, and every straining muscle was clearly defined. "It's gorgeous," Nancy said.
"A treasure," Mr. Stone remarked as Nancy handed back the Golden Horse. "But so far it's brought me nothing but trouble."
"Why do you say that?" Nancy asked as the curator returned the artifact to the case.
"I'm afraid I stepped on a few toes when I purchased it for the museum," he replied, leading Nancy down the corridor. "I outbid some people who wanted it for their own private collections. And then the museum trustees frowned on my spending so much on one piece. But I'll tell you more about that after you read the letter."
Turning left, Mr. Stone led Nancy past a partly open office door. As she glanced in, Nancy noticed a red purse lying on a chair.
"This way, Ms. Drew," Nelson Stone said as they reached his office. He closed the door and sat down behind his desk. "Please have a seat."
Nancy settled into a plush leather chair and looked over the many artifacts Stone had displayed in his office. The curator pulled a piece of paper from his desk drawer and handed it over. Nancy was just unfolding the letter when Nelson Stone suddenly jumped up from his seat.
"I can't remember if I locked that case," he muttered over his shoulder as he headed out the door.
Nancy skimmed the contents of the letter the curator had given her. It was typed on thick bond paper, and the letters were very faint. The sender hadn't bothered to put in a fresh typewriter ribbon, Nancy thought.
The next moment Nancy was startled by an anguished cry from the corridor.
"It's gone!" she heard Nelson Stone shout. "The Golden Horse has been stolen!"