Read A Race Against Time Online

Authors: Carolyn Keene

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #General, #Girls & Women, #Action & Adventure

A Race Against Time (3 page)

“Sure,” I answered. I flipped my phone shut and walked back into the CarboCram.

Bess met me halfway to the table. “Charlie Adams is here,” she said. “He wants to talk to you. How’s Ned? Where is he? When is he getting over here?”

“I don’t have a clue,” I answered. I quickly told her about my phone conversation with Mr. Nickerson. I finished just as George and Charlie walked up.

Charlie is a sort of local hero of mine. He drives the emergency truck for the best auto garage in town. So usually when I see him it’s to thank him for pulling me out of a ditch, or for bringing a tire to replace both the blowout I just had
the flat spare tire in the trunk, or for jump-starting a dead battery. But not this time.

“Charlie, hi,” I greeted him. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Nancy,” he said. “You look great. I sure hope your team wins the race.”

“Thanks, Charlie. Is there something wrong with my car I don’t know about?”

“Nope,” he answered. “And not with Ned’s anymore either. I fixed it all up and it’s waiting for him to pick up.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What was wrong with Ned’s car?” Bess followed up.

“Nothing a little tow and a few hammer blows couldn’t fix. He went only partway into that shallow creek. But he banged the front corner into a big boulder. The dent popped right back out when I smacked it, though.”

“What creek? What boulder? Start at the beginning, Charlie,” I demanded. Sometimes talking to Charlie drives me crazy. He talks in unintentional riddles, and I always feel like I’m walking backward through our conversations.

“Oh, you don’t know anything about it, do you?” Charlie finally realized. “Okay. Well, I go on a call. And driving back to town, I look over and see the back end of Ned’s car sticking up out of a foot of water in this creek.”

“Where?” I asked.

“You know that big sycamore out on Shady Road?” Charlie asked. “It was right there before the curve. But it was no big deal. I pulled Ned’s car right out and dragged it back to the garage and fixed it up for him.”

“But where’s Ned now?” I insisted.

“Gee, I don’t know about
” Charlie answered. “I only found the car. It was empty when I found it. Abandoned.”

Where’s Ned?


A bandoned!” I repeated. “Ned
wasn’t with his car?”

“He wouldn’t just leave it,” George pointed out.

“He might have,” Bess offered. “You said his phone wasn’t on. Okay, so what if it was out of juice, and he couldn’t phone for help? He started walking back to town, and . . . then . . . But he’d be here by now, wouldn’t he, Nancy? So where is he?”

Bess had asked the question that kept roaring through my mind.
Ned, where are you?

“Charlie, what time did you find the car?” I asked.

“A few hours ago, I guess. I’d gone out on the other call, but I didn’t have to bring that car in. I fixed it while I was there. House-call Charlie, that’s my name.”

“That’s great service,” I said with a reassuring smile. “Now, did you see anything around the car that might indicate where Ned went?” I continued. “Any footprints? Something he might have dropped?”

“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t looking for anything like that, Nancy,” Charlie said. “I figured—like Bess said—Ned’s walked on into town, so I’ll just take in his car and meet him there. But so far, I haven’t seen him.”

“Did you check under the hood?” I asked. “Was there anything obvious that might have made him veer off the road? Something with the brakes maybe? Or the steering?”

“I gave it a good once-over,” Charlie answered. “Nothing wrong with the brakes or steering. The shocks were good. No tires blown out. You know . . . there weren’t even any skid marks on the road. Nothing to show that he’d lost control of the car. When you get right down to it, it didn’t look like anything
him end up off the road. It’s like he just turned the wheel and drove his car into the creek on purpose.”

“Okay, thanks, Charlie,” I said. I tried to give him a grateful smile, but it didn’t come very easily. Finally I gave up and turned away, so I could think in peace.
It’s pretty hard to stay calm when someone is telling me that it looks like my boyfriend has driven headfirst into a creek.

“I’m going over to the garage,” I told Bess and George. “I want to take a look at Ned’s car. You two stay here and make sure we get all the race information. I’ll come back when I’m finished.”

I asked Charlie if he would let me into the garage and followed his road-emergency truck there in my car. He had done his usual perfect work, and Ned’s car looked even better than the last time I’d seen it. It sure didn’t look as if it had been in an accident that day.

First I checked the wheels to see whether there was anything suspicious stuck in the tire treads. I found nothing but pebbles and a few twigs—the kind of stuff you can’t help but pick up when you’re just driving around. While Charlie answered the phone in the office, I poked around in the trunk, then climbed inside Ned’s car.

A couple of things surprised me. First I found Ned’s phone in the glove compartment. It’s not like him to forget his phone. He usually throws it in a cargo pocket or wears it on his belt. I dropped it in my backpack, then got in the backseat.

The second surprise was what was going on under
Ned’s car seat. He could have had a small yard sale with all that junk!

With an umbrella I found on the backseat, I swept across that dark space under the driver’s seat of Ned’s car. Sure enough, all sorts of weird stuff rolled out—business cards and birthday cards, a CD, lots of coins and leaves, a couple of pens, a small brass medallion, a computer-printed map, a wrench, and a broken plastic hanger. And that was just from one sweep of the umbrella.

I placed everything on the seat for closer examination. All the paper stuff seemed to make sense, as did the coins, pens, and wrench. I recognized the CD—I had given it to him for his birthday.

In fact, the only thing that looked out of place to me was the brass medallion. I had never seen it before. I wrapped it in a tissue and put it in my pocket. Finding nothing more worth noting under the passenger seat, I waved to Charlie and drove back to the convention center.

In the parking lot I got out Ned’s phone and listened to his voice-mail messages—all in the name of detecting, of course. There were only three messages: two from Ned’s father, and mine.

When I got back into the convention center, Bess and George were waiting for me in the lobby.
“Perfect timing!” Bess exclaimed. “We just got out.”

“Ned still hasn’t shown up here,” George added. “Did you find out anything when you checked his car?”

“Maybe. But wait here a minute. I want to see if he left any messages with the CarboCram people.”

I found one of the women in charge. She checked with several people, but Ned had not called in or left a message with anyone. So I rejoined my friends.

“Nothing,” I told them. “He hasn’t called in here.”

“So tell us what you found in his car,” George said.

“His phone, for one thing,” I told them. “That’s really strange. And it’s working.”

“So my theory about it being out of power is wrong,” Bess said. “But why would he leave it in his car?”

“He wouldn’t,” I answered. “I also found this.” I took out the brass medallion and showed it to them. It was oval shaped with a hole punched on one end. Etched into the metal were two figures that looked like fishing hooks, one hook to the left, one to the right.

“It looks like some kind of symbol,” George said.

“Astrology,” Bess proclaimed.

“That’s it, Bess!” I agreed. “It’s Gemini—the twins.”

“It could be jewelry,” Bess offered. “You could put
a ribbon or cord through that hole and wear it as a necklace.”

“Or it could be part of a key chain,” George suggested.

“Twins,” I repeated. Something was nagging at the back of my mind, but I just couldn’t pull it out. I suddenly felt really restless, like I had to move, take some kind of action.

“I’m going to find Ned,” I told them, heading out of the lobby. “Let’s go out to where Charlie picked up his car.”

My friends didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. We all just hurried out to the parking lot and piled into my car.

We were really quiet on the way out to Shady Road. After eight more miles I stopped the car under the big old sycamore by the curve.

That tree is famous. Whenever someone writes about the state’s largest trees or the most beautiful ones, that white-and-gray sycamore is always a contender. It’s not only huge in the trunk, it has these major branches with three-foot diameters that grow straight out before they begin to slope upward. Three or four men could stand side by side on one of those branches and it wouldn’t even tremble.

“There it is,” George said, racing from the car.
“There’s the sycamore. That’s where Ned went off the road.”

My pulse pounded inside my temples.
Whawmm, whawmm, whawmm, whawmm.
I grabbed my backpack and hurried after George. Bess pounded along behind me.

Ugly tire-tread marks tracked across the road, slashed through the grass and weeds, and stopped in a clump of cattails at the edge of the shallow creek. One set of tracks was much larger than the other and showed double tires. I figured those were probably the marks of Charlie’s road-emergency truck.

“Do you think there are any snakes out here?” Bess asked, looking at the weeds. I could barely hear her, her voice was so low.

“If there are, they’ll hear us coming and slither away,” George said before I could answer.

She sounded impatient with her cousin. That’s sometimes the case. They’re really close, but sometimes what starts as a difference of opinion can escalate into a full-blown battle. I’m never thrilled to be caught between them.

I stood where Ned’s car had been earlier, where it had smashed down all the wild growth. I looked around at the large area of weeds that had been flattened by his car. It was still just light enough to see
footprints in the muddy ground near the little creek. There were a bunch of them, and they left the sole designs of three different pairs of shoes.

I walked along beside the footprints. At first they were indentations in the mud. Then they became deposits of mud in the grass. They all eventually led back up to the road. Only one left muddy paces down the road toward River Heights.

“What are you doing?” Bess asked me.

“I’m checking these footprints,” I answered. “They look fresh—like they might have been made earlier today.”

“But Charlie didn’t mention any footprints,” George reminded me.

“He said he wasn’t really looking for any,” I pointed out. “He was probably concentrating on doing
job. Now I’m concentrating on doing

I followed one set of prints from the location of the driver’s door to the water’s edge, and again toward the road. These prints stopped in the mud a few yards from where Ned’s car had been.

“These could be Charlie’s shoe prints,” I told my friends, pointing to that particular set. “Look. Here he checked to make sure Ned wasn’t still in the car and maybe looked to see if the keys were in it. Then he walked toward the front of the car, probably
to check the depth of the water,” I reasoned. I followed alongside the prints. “Then it looks like he walked to the back of Ned’s car and hooked up the tow.”

“These look like the emergency-truck tire prints,” George pointed out.

“Right,” I agreed. “And here’s where he walked to the truck and got in, so he could pull Ned’s car out of the creek.

“What about these others?” Bess asked.

“Well, there are two other sets of prints here,” I showed them, “which is about where Ned’s driver’s door would have been. That gives us three sets—one is Ned’s obviously. Another is Charlie’s. So who belongs to this third set?”

I felt a small stab of worry. Who else stood on this spot, I wondered. And did they do something to Ned. Where

The three of us followed the footprints along. “They lead back up to the road,” Bess said. “But then they disappear.”

“Whoever made them must have gotten into a car or some other vehicle at this point,” I suggested.

“You’ve got a funny look on your face,” George noted. “What are you thinking?”

“I just wonder,” I answered. “Ned has not shown up anywhere he was supposed to be since this afternoon,
and he hasn’t called anyone to say why. That is definitely not like him. His car was ditched out here, along with his phone. Maybe
was ditched out here too.”

I looked around. The countryside now shimmered in a pale gray twilight.

“Ned!” I shouted. “Ned, are you out here?”

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