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CHAPTER XII

Incriminating Evidence

“FOR several weeks,” Phil began, “my father and a good many other postmasters have been receiving reports like the one you’ve just told me, Nancy. The police and the Postal Inspectors Division have been investigating but haven’t caught anyone yet.” “Hm,” said Nancy. “Then my friend could easily be one of the victims.”

Just then a record of dance music began to play and Ned claimed Nancy. For the remainder of the evening there was no chance to resume the conversation about stolen letters. But throughout the evening, the matter was constantly on her mind. By the time the party was over and she had said good night to Ned, the young sleuth had a theory about the thefts. To start solving this mystery, she must first talk to Joe Swenson.

By ten the following morning Nancy was on her way, with Bess and George in the front seat of the car with her. In her purse was the diary. The cousins were intrigued when Nancy told them about the dinner dance.

“Lucky you!” said Bess, pretending to pout. “Couldn’t Ned have found a couple of blind dates for George and me?” Nancy laughed, then turning serious, said, “If we find Joe Swenson, I’m going to ask him point-blank if he has mailed any letters containing money to his wife.” She did not explain her reason for this, not wishing to betray Phil’s confidence about the money, money orders, and checks being stolen from mail.

“Suppose he says yes,” George suggested.

“Then I’ll ask him where he mails his letters and try a little detective work to see what happens.”

The first shift of noonday lunchers was trickling from Mr. Weston’s factory as Nancy parked nearby. Soon the recreation area was filled with men. Some seated themselves on the ground to eat. Others began to play ball.

“It won’t be easy to find Joe Swenson in such a large group,” Nancy declared in disappointment. “If we had arrived fifteen minutes earlier, we could have spotted him as he came out of the building.” Nevertheless, the girls eagerly scanned the faces of the workmen. A number of them had gathered near a drinking fountain, but Joe Swenson was not among this group. Not discouraged, the girls began to walk about, inquiring for a man named Dahl. The men they questioned had never heard of him.

“I’m sure he works here,” Nancy declared to her friends.

Workmen passing to and fro stared curiously at the girls, obviously wondering what had brought them to the electronics plant.

Nancy was becoming a bit disheartened, when she chanced to observe a light-haired man leaning dejectedly against the high fence which surrounded the grounds. Apparently the man had picked an isolated, tree-shaded spot, away from the other workers. He had his back to the girls, but from a distance Nancy thought his tall, spare build was exactly like that of the stranger she had seen running away from the fire. Could he be Honey’s father?

She watched expectantly, and presently the man turned around. He was the same person she had seen on the previous day’s visit to the factory. Nancy could not mistake the face— he was Joe Swenson.

“You girls stay here a moment, will you?” Nancy requested. “I think I’ve found our man. I must speak to him alone. Be on your guard, and if he tries to escape, block the exit to the grounds. I don’t think he’ll make a disturbance, but if he’s guilty, he may attempt a getaway!” Nancy’s heart beat faster than usual as she approached the man who was leaning against the fence. His downcast manner, the girl thought, could mean a guilty conscience.

“I beg your pardon,” Nancy said courageously, “but aren’t you Mr. Joe Swenson—alias Dahl?”

The man wheeled around, but held his ground. After the first start of surprise, Nancy thought he did not look unusually disturbed at the sudden encounter.

“Yes,” he replied, “Dahl’s my name. Anything I can do for you?”

For a moment Nancy was at a loss for words. She had half expected that Joe Swenson would be defiant and sullen—not a sad-eyed, kindly man. He looked to her as though he could not have harmed anyone in his life.

“It’s all a mistake,” Nancy told herself joyfully. “Mr. Swenson is innocent. He didn’t start the Raybolt fire.” The next moment she had regained her composure and was again the impartial, businesslike detective. She showed him her driver’s license for identification.

“I have news of your wife,” Nancy said to him quietly.

“Helen?” the man demanded eagerly, his face lighting up. “She’s not ill, I hope!”

“Oh, no,” Nancy assured him, “but she’s dreadfully worried about you and is trying to locate you.”

“I don’t understand,” Joe Swenson said, frowning. “I sent my address but didn’t want to go home until—er—a certain matter was cleared up.” “Then you have written to your wife?” Nancy questioned.

“Yes, twice. I sent her two good-sized money orders.”

For a second Nancy wondered if he was telling the truth. Looking him straight in the eye, she said, “Mrs. Swenson never received them.” “What!” her husband exclaimed in such genuine astonishment that Nancy had no further doubts.

“They need money badly,” Nancy said, and summoned her friends to come forward. She introduced Bess and George, then repeated what Joe Swenson had told her.

“Your letters have been stolen!” George said vehemently.

“But how? Where?” the inventor cried out. “I mailed them in the post office myself!”

No one could answer this puzzle. Suddenly he pulled an unsealed envelope from his pocket.

“Here is another letter to my wife with twenty-five dollars in it. I was going to send a money order today. Would you be so kind as to deliver this in person?” “I’ll be glad to,” Nancy answered, smiling, and tucked the envelope in her pocket.

She then changed the subject to obtain more information on another topic. “Would you mind telling us, Mr. Swenson, why you’re using the name Dahl here?” “Certainly. I’m an inventor, and I’ve had hard luck. The name Joe Swenson seems to have brought trouble. My mother’s people were always successful. On the spur of the moment I decided to use that name here. A man I know vouched for me, since I didn’t have any references to give.” “I see,” said Nancy. She smiled disarmingly. “Your wife told me of some unfair dealings you’ve had with a man who buys patents.” “Indeed they were unfair. He cheated me. Felix Raybolt is a thief!”

The three girls were unprepared for such an outburst from this seemingly mild-mannered man. Apparently he guessed what was going through their minds.

“I shouldn’t burden you with my problems,” he said apologetically. “Things aren’t any easier, even though I have a job. Did you know the Raybolt house burned?” “Yes.”

“To be truthful I am afraid I may be blamed if anyone finds out I was there.”

“You were there?” Bess asked, a look of feigned innocence in her big blue eyes.

“I had an appointment with Mr. Raybolt early that evening,” Joe Swenson explained. “The house was dark. I had just rung the bell when there was a terrific explosion inside the house, and it burst into flames. I called and called to Mr. Raybolt—but there was no answer.” “Did you try to break in to help?” George asked bluntly.

“Yes, but I couldn’t budge the front door. I ran around to the back. Because of the flames, I knew I couldn’t do any good. Then I heard a car approaching the house. It occurred to me I might be blamed, so I ran away.” “Did you see anyone on the grounds?” Nancy asked.

“No.”

“Do you think Mr. Raybolt lost his life in the fire?” Nancy asked.

“I really don’t know. I didn’t see or hear him inside, and the police haven’t located any evidence,” the inventor replied.

Nancy had been endeavoring to formulate an honest opinion of the man’s story. Her hand went to her purse but she did not bring forth the diary. From their casual conversation so far, she could not be absolutely certain that Joe Swenson was innocent. She must question him further.

“They’ve been searching the grounds for clues,” Nancy said nonchalantly. “A number of articles have been picked up in the vicinity.” Swenson looked sharply at Nancy, as though it had dawned on him that he indeed might be under suspicion. However, his next words were spoken casually.

“I wonder if a diary was found. I lost one. Probably dropped it along the road.”

Nancy made no move to give him the diary, although she was convinced that it was his.

“I hated to lose that little journal,” Joe Swenson continued. “It was written mostly in

Swedish and wouldn’t be of any value except to myself—and to Felix Raybolt. That sly fox!”

“What has the diary to do with Mr. Raybolt?” Nancy asked.

“The diary contains—” Joe Swenson hesitated. “Well, it contains things Felix Raybolt wishes were not written down. That man cheated me out of a fortune, but I haven’t a chance to prove my case without the diary and without money to retain a lawyer. To make matters worse, I’ve even lost a ring I treasured highly.” He made a hopeless gesture and lapsed into gloomy silence.

Again Nancy’s hand went to the diary in her purse. Again she hesitated. Suppose Joe Swenson were guilty, and she was withholding evidence from the police! Nancy made a quick decision: to hold onto the journal until the truth was learned.

Before she could question the man further, the return-to-work whistle blew a shrill blast.

“I must go now,” Swenson said hurriedly.

“When are you off duty?” Nancy asked.

“Four o’clock.”

“Then perhaps we’ll see you again before we return to River Heights.” Noticing the man’s surprise, she added quickly, “Wouldn’t you like me to carry a message to Mrs. Swenson and Honey?” “Thank you. But I’ll write to them again.”

Nancy and her friends watched him until he had disappeared inside the building. The girls then walked slowly back to the car.

“I’ll bet,” said George, “that Joe Swenson is worried about the fire, and will run away again.”

Nancy remained silent, in deep thought. Just as she reached the convertible someone grabbed her arm roughly. She turned to face a tough, cruel-looking man.

CHAPTER XIII

The Law Takes Over

“LET go of me!” Nancy cried out, and tried to shake off the man’s iron grip. When she did not succeed, Bess and George started pounding the man and forced him to release Nancy’s arm.

“What do you want?” Nancy demanded indignantly.

“Some information. Why are you snooping around here?” the stranger snarled.

“Are you a factory guard?” Nancy countered, knowing from his clothes and manner that he most certainly was not.

“Why—uh—yes. That’s what I am. And I got a right to know why you been talkin’ to that workman.”

“The conversation was private,” Nancy told the man firmly. “Now if you’ll just move—”

For a moment the obnoxious stranger did not seem inclined to do so, but finally he strode off down the street. The girls stepped into the car and drove away.

“Nancy, aren’t you worried?” Bess asked. “That man was positively horrible.”

“Yes, I am, Bess. Because I’m more certain than ever that Joe Swenson is in some kind of jam.”

“If we can see him at four o’clock, I’m going to ask him about that crude person,” declared

George. “Say, Nancy, where are you going now?”

“Yes, where?” Bess echoed. “I’m starving!”

Nancy laughed. “I could use some lunch myself. After that, I’ll introduce myself to Phil Roberts’ father.”

“The Stanford postmaster!” Bess exclaimed. “Nancy, you’re not transferring your affections from Ned to Phil already!” “Nothing like that,” Nancy assured her with a grin. “I have a little scheme I’d like to try out and I need his cooperation.” Nancy stopped speaking as she drove into a public parking lot next to a tearoom. The girls went inside and were fortunate to be seated at the last available table. It was such a noisy place that the girls did not try to talk.

Half an hour later they came out of the tearoom, glad to breathe the fresh air and escape the din. Since the post office was close by, the girls walked there. Seeing a door sign marked:PRIVATE POSTMASTER

Nancy went to it and knocked. Presently it was opened by a pleasant, middle-aged man.

“I’m Nancy Drew from River Heights,” she said, smiling. “I met your son Phil at a party.”

“Oh, yes! Phil told me. Won’t you come in?”

After the girls had entered and the door had been closed, Nancy introduced her friends.

“I’ve come on an unusual errand, Mr. Roberts,” Nancy said. “A man I know who works at Stanford Electronics has sent two letters containing money orders from here. Neither has been received. Probably all your employees are above suspicion, but would you mind if I make a little experiment?” The postmaster smiled. “What kind of experiment?”

“I’ll mail a note to the man’s wife with a money order in it from your office,” Nancy explained. “Could you possibly find out if that letter is sent out from here?” Mr. Roberts looked intently at Nancy. “You’re a very ingenious young lady,” he remarked. “And if the letter does leave here, then you’ll check with the receiving post office to find out if it has reached there?” “Yes. The family of this man is desperately in need of receiving money from him. I’m trying to help them.”

“And I’ll help too,” the postmaster said suddenly. “Now, will you please give me the name and address of this woman?” Nancy took Joe Swenson’s unsealed envelope from her purse and Mr. Roberts copied the two names and addresses on it. As he handed it back, he said, “Mail this at once.” Then he added, “If you come back in a couple of hours, I’ll have a report for you—after I personally examine all the outgoing mailbags.” “I’ll be here.” Nancy thanked the postmaster and the three girls went into the main lobby. There, Nancy bought the twenty-five-dollar money order, kept the purchaser’s receipt, and tucked the other section, properly filled out, into the letter. Then she sealed the envelope and slipped the letter into the nearby slot.

When the girls reached the street, Bess said, “That was a daring thing to do, Nancy. Suppose the letter is intercepted, and the money order cashed by some unscrupulous person?” “If that happens, I’ll make good on the money. Right now, tell me, where are we going to spend two hours?”

George suggested attending a movie across the street, and the girls went into the theater. They became so interested in the historical mystery film that the time flew by. The feature ended just as the two hours were up, and the girls hurried back to Mr. Roberts’ office.

Again he opened the door. The postmaster was not alone. A policeman stood guarding a man who sat dejectedly in a chair, his face in his hands. He looked up at Nancy, hate blazing in his eyes. The money-order clerk!

“Nancy Drew, thank you for leading us to this thief!” the postmaster said. “Ralph Ringman has confessed to taking not only the letter you mailed, but all money orders of any size. He has two accomplices, a man and a woman, who go to various towns and cash the money orders.” “I’m not the only employee in on this deal,” Ringman cried out.

Mr. Roberts smiled. “I figured that might be the case, and have notified other postmasters who have had complaints of undelivered money orders to try the same ruse that Nancy Drew suggested.” At that moment the phone rang. Mr. Roberts answered it. “Yes, Clyde…. You did? … Good! I guess that little racket is over with.” When he hung up, Mr. Roberts reported to the others that Ringman’s outside accomplices had just been arrested by the police and had confessed their parts in the scheme.

On a hunch, Nancy told about the rough-looking man who had questioned her. “Was he in league with Ralph Ringman?” she asked the postmaster.

“That’s right.” Mr. Roberts turned to the prisoner. “You’ll be interested to hear that your pal meant to double-cross you. He planned to hold up Swenson at the plant and grab Swenson’s money for himself. Just as he was about to emerge from his hiding place in the shrubbery nearby, Miss Drew and her friends came along. When he overheard the conversation about the stolen mail, he got panicky. That’s why he followed Miss Drew and accused her of snooping.” “Nancy Drew, thank you for leading us to this thief,” said the postmaster

“The low-down sneak!” snarled Ringman.

Mr. Roberts said that a man from the Postal Inspectors Division would take custody of the prisoner. “By the way,” he said to Nancy, “do you still want Mr. Swenson’s letter sent?” “Yes, if it’s safe. I’ll give the money order receipt to him.” Nancy glanced at her watch. “We must hurry,” she said. “Thank you, Mr. Roberts. Please give my regards to Phil.” The girls hurried off. At a traffic light they paused, waiting for it to turn green. Behind them stood two men conversing in low voices.

“Where’d you get the tip?” one asked.

“From Raybolt’s wife. She said the man who set fire to the house had an appointment with him there that evening.”

“I heard he ran away. Where’d he go?”

“Nobody knows. But we tracked him here. He’s working at the electronics factory under an assumed name.”

“What is it?”

“We don’t know. But we have the man’s description. We’ll have him in jail by tonight!”

Nancy, Bess, and George hardly breathed during this recital. Did these men mean Joe Swenson?

CHAPTER XIV

An Arrest

THE traffic light turned green and the three girls began to cross the street. Nancy made a point of staying in front of the two men who had said they were going to see that someone, presumably Joe Swenson, was arrested.

“Who are these men?” she wondered. “Detectives? Or are they in the employ of Raybolt? If

Mr. Swenson is innocent, he mustn’t be sent to jail!”

Nancy immediately made up her mind what she would do: meet Honey’s father if possible, show him the diary, and ask him to translate some of it. “Then I’ll decide what to do next, and whether or not to warn Mr. Swenson of his possibly being arrested. He and his family shouldn’t have to suffer such disgrace if it’s unwarranted!” When the girls reached the opposite curb, Nancy took her friends’ arms and whispered, “Come on! Hurry! We have work to do!” They ran to Nancy’s car. Nancy handed the keys to George. “Will you drive, so I’ll be free to hop out and get hold of Mr. Swenson the instant he comes to the gate?” George took the wheel and they made record time to the factory. She parked in the first space beyond the front of the gate, and left the engine running.

“You girls watch for those men we overheard. I’ll look for Joe Swenson,” Nancy directed.

As she spoke, the four-o’clock whistle blew.

“He’ll be out any minute now!” George exclaimed.

Anxiously the girls scanned the faces of the workmen as they came from the building. “Where is he?” Bess fretted.

At that moment Nancy caught sight of the inventor. She alighted and called his name. With a smile of friendly recognition, he came over to the car.

“Jump in!” Nancy invited, indicating the rear seat. “We’ll give you a lift.”

“Why, thanks,” the inventor returned gratefully. “I live on the south side. Another fellow and I share a room at the outskirts of town. I imagine it’s out of your way—” “Not at all,” Nancy assured him with a worried glance up and down the street.

In her haste to leave the plant area, Nancy climbed in and almost pulled the man in after her. She asked George to press the button to roll up the convertible’s top.

“A man certainly appreciates a ride home after a hard day on his feet,” Swenson remarked, leaning back against the cushion. “I’m not yet accustomed to standing eight hours, but I’ll be all right in a week or so. I’m glad to earn a little money by any means, after being out of work for so long.” As George drove down the street, Nancy said, “Mr. Swenson, the mystery about your lost letters has been solved.” Quickly she explained about the mail clerk who had been arrested.

The inventor was shocked, and shook his head sadly. “I’m glad he has been caught. But what an unfortunate thing for him to do. He probably has a family—they’ll have to suffer with him. Crimes, big or little, are so useless. Whatever profits they may bring are always temporary.” Nancy nodded. She was becoming more convinced every minute that Joe Swenson was an honest person!

“I have another surprise,” she said. “Your diary was picked up near the drive to the Raybolt house.” She took the journal from her handbag. “Would you mind translating some of the Swedish for me?” “My diary! Oh, how lucky!” Almost affectionately he began to turn the pages. “Here is an item about Honey’s birthday. How she loved the little toy I made for her! I was always planning to try to market those mechanical dolls, but I never got to it.” George interrupted to ask which direction to take, and Nancy said, “Oh, let’s just ride out into the country.”

She wanted to elude the men who intended to arrest Mr. Swenson until she could make up her mind what to do. Suddenly the inventor’s face darkened. “Here’s a note about Felix Raybolt.” He translated, “‘I have been warned by my friend Anson Heilberg not to let Raybolt see my invention but I shall take a chance. I must because I need money for rent and food. He will give me an advance.’ ” Mr. Swenson remarked bitterly, “How I wish I had listened to Anson! Felix Raybolt would not give me another cent or any part of a royalty from the use of my electrochemical process for putting a ceramic finish on steel!” “How terribly unfair!” Bess cried out, and the other girls expressed the same opinion.

Nancy then told the inventor that a friend of hers had found the signet ring. “I’ll see that it is returned to you,” Nancy assured him.

“Well, that is good news,” said Mr. Swenson.

Nancy gradually switched the conversation to the Raybolt fire, and said, “The investigators report that the explosions in the house could have been caused by a freak accident: a television set not working properly; a defective electronic heating device setting off some kind of explosive stored in the cellar. Mr. Swenson, have you any idea what really happened at the Raybolts’?” Mr. Swenson looked at Nancy searchingly. “My answer might explain a good many angles to the case,” he said slowly. “As you probably know, it’s against the law to store explosives without a permit. I believe Felix Raybolt was breaking that law. He probably was in the house waiting for me and accidentally caused the explosion himself!” “But they found no evidence of—of a body,” Bess spoke up with a shudder.

“Mr. Raybolt undoubtedly escaped, and then disappeared, knowing he would be arrested,” the inventor said vehemently.

“But you didn’t see him run out?” Nancy queried.

“No.”

“We should have looked for footprints, but I guess it’s too late now,” Nancy remarked.

“Oh, why didn’t we think of that!” Bess murmured. She had turned around to watch out the rear window for any pursuers. Suddenly she gasped. “Police!” George had just passed a side road. From it shot a car with two state troopers. When it turned in their direction, George said grimly, “I hope they’re not after us.” All the occupants of the convertible grew tense, but Nancy said, “Just keep going at this same speed. Let’s not act guilty.” By this time she was convinced of Mr. Swenson’s innocence, and hoped fervently that the officers were not pursuing her car. Nancy doubted they would take her word about the truth of the inventor’s story.

“Maybe they’re after someone else—for speeding,” Bess said, though without conviction.

Nancy stole a glance out the rear window. Her spirits sank. The State Police car was gaining on them, but did not look as though it was going to pass the convertible.

An uneasy thought crossed Nancy’s mind. “If those troopers are after Joe Swenson, then George, Bess, and I might be arrested for aiding a suspected criminal to escape!” George was forced to slow down for a sharp curve. Directly beyond it, two men were driving a small herd of cattle across the highway.

“What luck!” George cried, slowing down.

She honked her horn and tried to edge through, but only succeeded in frightening the cows so that they stood motionless. The convertible came to a halt. Behind it, the police car drew nearer.

Nancy had a sudden impulse to tell Joe Swenson to duck down out of sight, then checked herself. Such an action would indeed make the officers suspicious. Instead, she slipped the diary into her handbag.

Nancy glanced at her companion. Mr. Swenson’s face was grim. The police car pulled up alongside the convertible. Nancy’s heart was in her throat, but she tried not to show any agitation.

The two herdsmen had headed the cows off to the side of the road. Affecting nonchalance, George started to drive off. But a shout from the troopers’ car stopped her.

“Hold on!” one of the officers cried out. “Pull over!”

“They were following us,” Bess groaned.

Quickly Nancy whispered to Joe Swenson, “Don’t worry. We’ll stick by you.”

The officers had jumped out. They strode up to the convertible.

“We’ve had a call to pick up this car,” said one, while the other thrust his face through the open rear-door window and peered intently at Mr. Swenson.

“This is the man!” he declared.

“What do you mean?” Nancy demanded coolly, with as much conviction as she could muster.

“Are you Joe Swenson?” the trooper barked, ignoring Nancy’s question.

“Yes.”

“You are wanted by the Mapleton police for deliberately setting the Raybolt house on fire.”

At this accusation the girls gasped and Joe Swenson blanched. Then a flush of anger mounted to his cheeks.

“What nonsense is this? You haven’t a shred of proof. I don’t know anything about the fire. You have the wrong man.” “Well, you can explain that at headquarters. You’ll have to come along with us. The less trouble you make, the better it will go for you.” One of the troopers flipped a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. Joe Swenson shrank back.

“Don’t put them on, please! I’ll come without any trouble.”

“O.K. But don’t try any funny stunts. Climb out and be quick about it!”

“Just a minute, Officer,” Nancy interposed. “Aren’t you making a mistake? I feel sure Mr. Swenson isn’t the man you’re after. Please let him go free. I’ll be responsible for his appearance in court.” Joe Swenson added, “I started working at Baylor Weston’s factory just recently. I don’t mind answering your questions, but if I’m detained in jail, I’ll lose my job.” Protest was useless. Joe Swenson gave Nancy a courageous, apologetic smile, and alighted.

“You girls will have to come along too!” the officer announced. “Drive on ahead, and not too fast! You have some explaining to do too. Don’t try to get away!” CHAPTER XV

Nancy Is Accused

“THIS is an outrage!” Bess gasped. “You mean we actually must go to police headquarters?”

“I’m sorry I involved you girls in this,” Joe Swenson murmured. He turned pleadingly to the officers. “It wasn’t their fault. They merely offered me a ride.” “They’ll all have to come to headquarters for questioning,” the officer insisted.

Mr. Swenson was escorted to the State Police car. Before the troopers started off, they again cautioned George to drive ahead slowly.

“For two cents I would step on the gas and try to get away!” she fumed to her companions.

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Bess said uneasily. “We’re in enough trouble now.”

“Oh, Bess! I was only kidding,” George retorted.

The three girls fell into gloomy silence. The prospect of unpleasant notoriety for their families was anything but reassuring. The friends were glad that at least they had been permitted to drive a short way ahead of the police car, for their entry into Mapleton attracted less attention than would otherwise have been the case.

When they reached headquarters and parked, Nancy warned, “Whatever happens, don’t say anything that will incriminate Joe Swenson!” Outside the building, the girls were confronted by the two men they had overheard talking in Stanford.

“This is our man, all right!” one of them said as the troopers’ car bearing Joe Swenson pulled up. The inventor was hustled out, and into the custody of the men.

“Trying to help Swenson make a getaway, eh?” the other of the pair accused the girls. “Come along, you three!”

“Plain-clothes detectives!” Nancy murmured.

As they went up the steps, George teased, “What would Ned Nickerson think if he could see his Nancy now!”

“If it comes to the worst, we can call on him.” Nancy smiled. “Before we’re through, you may be glad he is my friend!” Inside headquarters, the situation lost all suggestion of humor. Here Nancy and her friends were told by Police Captain Johnson that the detectives had learned at the plant of Joe Swenson’s departure in a car bearing Nancy’s license number. He made no reference to the detectives’ source of information. To the girls’ dismay, the inventor was booked on a charge of arson.

No charge was placed against them, but the girls were asked a great many questions, and their names and addresses were written down. When Nancy gave hers, significant looks were exchanged among the captain and the detectives, Davil and Rock. After that, the girls were treated less peremptorily.

But if they had hoped that the name of Drew would release them at once, Nancy and the cousins were disappointed. They were informed that they must submit to further questioning.

George and Bess were thoroughly frightened and Joe Swenson had become so agitated that he could not speak in a normal tone of voice. Nancy realized that he was in no condition to defend himself. The four were given chairs opposite the two stern-faced detectives and their captain.

One could have heard a pin drop, the room became so quiet. The officers stared fixedly at Joe Swenson, who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. Suddenly Detective Davil pointed an accusing finger, and his voice rasped out so sharply that Nancy jumped.

“Swenson, when did you first plot the death of Felix Raybolt?”

“When did I—I don’t know what you mean,” Mr. Swenson stammered.

The keen glance of his questioner did not waver.

“You know well enough what I mean. It won’t do you any good to try to lie. You were seen near the Raybolt estate on the day of the fire.” “Who says I was there?” Swenson demanded. “You’re accusing me because you can’t find the real criminal!”

His shot went home, for the detective blinked, briefly nonplused. But he went on, “You were seen by the railroad station agent, and as soon as he identifies you, we’ll have you behind bars. Now out with your story! It will go easier for you if you make a complete confession.” “There’s nothing to confess,” Swenson returned bitterly. “I did go to the Raybolt estate—”

Nancy’s heart began to pound. Was the inventor going to confess something he had not told her?

“So!” his questioner cried triumphantly. “Then you admit going to the house!”

“I’ve admitted nothing damaging!” Swenson retorted hotly. “I went to the house because I had an appointment with Felix Raybolt.” Nancy was sure now that Swenson intended to make a clean breast of everything; and while admiring his honesty, she realized that he was apt to make his case appear worse than it might be. She longed to warn him to remain silent until he could consult a lawyer.

Bess and George sat transfixed.

“So you had an appointment with Raybolt, eh?” Detective Rock took up the questioning. “What kind of appointment?” “He had a patent of mine and I wanted him to make a settlement.”

“Raybolt owed you money?”

“Yes. He stole my invention. I wanted either the money, or my drawings back.”

“What did Raybolt say?”

“I never saw him. There were no lights in the house. He didn’t answer the bell. Then there was an explosion and I ran away.” “You knew he was in the house and you didn’t try to save him?” the captain interjected.

“I don’t believe he was in the house!”

“When did you last see Raybolt?”

“In a restaurant here in town.”

“I see,” Detective Davil observed with satisfaction. “You had an argument, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Swenson admitted unwillingly, “we did have hot words.”

“Which ended in a threat from you,” the officer concluded.

Joe Swenson shook his head vehemently. “No, I swear it! I’ll tell you everything—right from the very beginning. Raybolt seemed uneasy, as though he were afraid I’d attempt physical violence—he had a guilty conscience, all right!” “You argued about the invention?”

“Yes. He admitted he had deliberately stolen my ideas, but he defied me to prove anything. That made me angry.”

“You threatened him?”

“I told him I would take the matter to court. Of course I didn’t have any money to engage a lawyer, but my bluff frightened Raybolt and he told me to come to the house where we could talk privately.” “What do you think caused the fire?” the captain asked.

“The explosion—which nearly knocked me off my feet. I was sort of dazed for several minutes—”

“What happened next?”

“It came over me that if I were found near the place I might be accused of causing the fire. When I heard a car coming up the driveway, I decided to make a getaway. I scrambled through the hedge and ran into the woods.” “You’re sure you didn’t leave Raybolt inside on purpose?” Detective Rock asked.

“A thousand times, no!” Mr. Swenson cried out indignantly. “I hated that man, I’ll admit, but I didn’t plot his death.” “Why didn’t you tell your story right away?”

“I was afraid it would be misinterpreted. I had no idea Raybolt was missing until I read it in the newspaper.”

The three officials took turns questioning Swenson. They quizzed him about details and time but were unable to confuse him.

Nancy was certain that the inventor’s account was true, yet she had to acknowledge that the story sounded somewhat implausible. The fact remained that Felix Raybolt was missing and that Joe Swenson was the last person known to have an appointment with him.

Nevertheless, the inventor’s straightforward manner had impressed the officers, and Nancy thought they were on the verge of letting him go. Felix Raybolt had been generally disliked, and it was common knowledge that he had made his fortune by ruthlessly adopting the ideas of various inventors.

The three officials held a whispered conference, then began questioning Nancy and her friends. The girls told no more than was necessary, with Nancy stressing the story of the inventor’s lost letters and the thieving mail clerk. She put in a good word for Mr. Swenson at every opportunity, and it was apparent that she was creating a favorable impression.

The unpleasant session was drawing to a close, with every prospect of vindication for Joe Swenson, when there was a knock at the door.

An officer entered, addressing himself to his superior. “Mrs. Raybolt is here now. Shall I send her in?”

As an affirmative answer was given, Nancy ex changed despairing glances with her friends. She sensed that since Mrs. Raybolt had set the detectives on Joe Swenson’s trail, the woman would create a scene. “I’m sure she’ll do all in her power to damage his case,” Nancy thought.

Her premonition was correct. Mrs. Raybolt’s very appearance aroused the sympathy of the officials. The woman evidently had worried herself into a state bordering on nervous collapse and the sight of Joe Swenson made her distraught.

“Can you identify him?” the police captain asked.

Mrs. Raybolt stopped sobbing long enough to take her first good look at the prisoner. Nancy, who was watching her closely, saw uncertainty flash over her face. The young detective was convinced the woman had never seen Mr. Swenson before in her life!

Mrs. Raybolt hesitated only an instant, then cried hysterically, “Yes, I’m sure this is the man my husband went to meet—Felix feared him. He is a heartless criminal who deliberately burned my home and plotted my husband’s death!” She burst into tears again and an officer led her from the room. However, the damage had been done. If the three officials had ever seriously considered freeing Swenson, the decision was instantly changed.

“You girls are free to go,” the captain told Nancy and her friends. “If we need you again, we’ll summon you.”

“What about Mr. Swenson?” Nancy inquired hopefully.

“We’ll have to lock him up. Sorry if he’s a friend of yours. His story may be on the level, but he’ll have to prove it.” There was nothing more to be said. Joe Swenson thanked Nancy for her interest in his case.

“You’re the only real friend I have,” he said unhappily. “I’ve told them the truth, but they won’t believe me.” “If you only had a witness!” Nancy murmured. “Someone who saw you at the door.”

“No one was around,” Mr. Swenson returned gloomily. “The place was deserted.”

“Don’t give up hope,” Nancy said encouragingly. “I’ll find a lawyer for you. And I’ll bring your wife and Honey to see you, too.” The conversation was abruptly cut short as an officer took the prisoner by the arm and led him away.

When they entered the outside room, Nancy and her friends found Mrs. Raybolt, slumped on a bench, sobbing. Nancy, provoked that the woman had testified unfairly against Joe Swenson, started to pass her without a word. Then pity surmounted indignation and she paused.

“Don’t grieve about your husband,” Nancy pleaded. “He’ll be found alive—I feel confident of it.”

Mrs. Raybolt wiped her eyes and stood up. She glared at Nancy with an almost insane look in her eyes.

“You dare to tell me that!” she cried out. “You’re an accomplice of Joe Swenson! My husband is gone! You probably helped plot his death!” Mrs. Raybolt slapped Nancy’s face, then began to shake the girl by her shoulders.

“Captain,” she screamed, “come here! I demand that you arrest this—this accomplice!”

CHAPTER XVI

A New Assignment

SHOCKED by Mrs. Raybolt’s angry outburst, Nancy stepped back to dodge the blows.

Bess and George had jumped forward to her defense. But just then a sergeant burst into the room and interceded. Mrs. Raybolt stopped fighting with her fists but not with her tongue.

“I demand the arrest of this girl! She’s in league with Joe Swenson and helped to kill my husband!” she screamed.

At this point Captain Johnson appeared. “Mrs. Raybolt,” he said sternly, “the law will handle this case. I advise you to calm down or you may find yourself in a hospital under the care of a psychiatrist.” The distraught woman started to reply to this, but apparently thought better of it.

Nancy said calmly, “Mrs. Raybolt, I don’t blame you for being upset. But please try to believe that people are trying to help find your husband. The fire investigators are sure no one was in your home at the time of the explosion and fire. Therefore, Mr. Raybolt must be alive.” “Then where is he?” Mrs. Raybolt demanded.

“No one knows.” Nancy looked directly at the woman. “Unless you do,” she added disarmingly.

Mrs. Raybolt gave a startled quiver. Then she sank into a chair and covered her face with her hands. The others in the room looked at one another. Was the answer going to be yes or no?

Nancy had a strong hunch that it should be yes, but that as soon as Mrs. Raybolt recovered from the shock of Nancy’s unexpected question, she would say no. Finally the woman raised her head. She did not have the look of a grief-stricken widow. Instead, she glared balefully at Nancy.

“This girl is crazy,” she said. “Another one of those meddling teen-agers. Why doesn’t she stay out of other people’s business? Of course I haven’t heard from Felix. How could I? He’s dead! I tell you he’s dead!” Mrs. Raybolt’s voice had risen to a high pitch.

Captain Johnson asked a sergeant to take Mrs. Raybolt to her car, but requested that the girls remain. After the woman had gone, the officer asked Nancy what had prompted her question.

The girl detective smiled. “I’m sure that many other people think Mr. Raybolt is alive. He has the reputation of having cheated people, including poor Mr. Swenson. Talk is going around that he felt it best to disappear. But wouldn’t he get in touch with his wife?” The police captain looked at Nancy in astonishment. “You are a very clear thinker,” he said. “The theory that Mr. Raybolt is alive is being worked on. Hospitals, airlines, railroad companies, steamship companies—all have been questioned. No clues have come up yet.” Nancy thanked the officer for the information, then said, “I hope Mr. Raybolt will be found, and when he is, that he will clear Mr. Swenson of any blame in connection with the fire.” The officer did not reply. Nancy turned to Bess and George. “I think we’d better leave now.”

When they reached the sidewalk, George said, “Wow! What a session! Where do we go from here?”

“Home,” Bess replied. “What a day this has been!”

“Do you insist?” Nancy asked.

Bess eyed her chum intently. “What’s on your mind?”

“I was wondering if Mr. Weston could help us clear Joe Swenson,” Nancy replied. “Do you mind driving back to Stanford with me so I can talk to him?” “Let’s do it,” Bess urged. “Anything to help dear little Honey’s father.”

“I agree,” said George.

Nancy slid into the driver’s seat and took the main street which led toward the highway to Stanford. As the car passed one Mapleton store after another, Bess kept gazing at the window displays. Finally she asked Nancy to stop.

“I want to run in and buy a new dress for Honey,” she said.

“I’ll come with you and get her some underwear,” George spoke up.

Nancy chuckled. “I’ll follow and pick up some shoes for her. First I’ll phone Mr. Weston. If he can see us, I’ll call home and tell Hannah to notify your families.” The friends alighted and Nancy hastened into a drug store to make the telephone calls. Then she went to a children’s shoe store. When she rejoined the cousins back at the car, the girls showed one another their purchases.

“They’re lovely,” said Nancy. “These things should make Honey very happy. Glad you thought of it, Bess. Mr. Weston will see us, so let’s go!” They reached the impressive Weston home about six-thirty. Both the manufacturer and his wife were amazed to hear of the arrest of Joe Swenson, known as Joe Dahl.

“Even in the short time Dahl has been working for us, he has become a very valuable man in our organization,” the plant owner said. “On my desk is a recommendation from the manager for a promotion.” “Then if he’s cleared of this charge against him,” said Nancy, “you’ll take him back?”

“Yes, indeed.”

The young sleuth gave Mr. Weston a warm smile in appreciation, then said, “I wonder if you or your factory manager can give us any information that might help to exonerate Mr. Swenson?” The manufacturer thought for several seconds, then shook his head. He arose, went to the telephone, and called his plant manager. There was a lengthy conversation, then Mr. Weston came back to report: “I’m afraid we haven’t any clues to help you, but my manager feels certain Mr. Dahl—that is, Swenson—would never resort to seeking revenge on an enemy. He is a highly ethical person. I’d be glad to defend him in this way.” “I’ll pass the word along,” Nancy said. “Thank you so much.” She arose to leave.

At once Mrs. Weston insisted that the girls remain to dinner, an invitation which her husband heartily seconded.

“We wouldn’t think of your driving back to River Heights without first having something to eat,” he declared.

The girls were persuaded to stay. A four-course dinner was perfectly served by a butler. Mr. and Mrs. Weston were charmingly informal and conversation took on a less serious tone.

Soon after dinner the girls said good-by to the manufacturer and his wife and headed for River Heights. After taking her friends to their homes, Nancy continued to her own residence. She was surprised to see a familiar car standing at the curb.

“Ned must be here!” she thought. “I wonder if he has any news for me?”

She met the young man on the porch as he was leaving the house.

“Nancy, what luck!” he exclaimed with evident pleasure. “I was afraid you weren’t coming.”

“Any news?” Nancy inquired hopefully.

Ned shook his head regretfully. “I guess I’m not very good as a detective. I haven’t been able to learn anything of value. I just drove over thinking you might like to go to a movie with me.” “I’ve already seen one today,” Nancy said. “And I’ve had all sorts of adventures. So, if you don’t mind, I’d rather stay here and talk. I have a lot to tell you.” The suggestion was not displeasing to Ned, for he had mentioned the show merely as an excuse to spend the evening with Nancy.

“You look tired,” he said sympathetically. “I shouldn’t have come tonight.”

“I’m glad you did,” Nancy told him quickly. “There’s something I particularly want you to do for me.”

“At your service!”

Nancy then recounted to the astounded young man all that had happened at Stanford and Mapleton.

“Since you live in Mapleton, it will be easy for you to see Joe Swenson,” she concluded. “I wish you’d go to the jail and talk with him—try to cheer him up.” “You bet your life I’ll go,” Ned assured her promptly. “Anything more I can do?”

“Well, tomorrow you might drive over to Sandy Creek and take some packages to Honey.” She indicated the gifts now lying on the hall table. “I’d go myself, only I want to concentrate on finding Mr. Raybolt.” “I’ll be glad to go. I sure feel sorry for those folks. Tell you what! Suppose I take both of them —Mrs. Swenson and Honey—to see Joe. That should cheer him up a little.” Ned and Nancy discussed the mystery of Felix Raybolt’s strange disappearance, and Ned was of the opinion, too, that Raybolt’s wife might know more than she was telling. It was his conviction that Raybolt had gone into hiding for some nefarious reason.

Seeing that Nancy was very weary, Ned cut his visit shorter than he had intended. When he left her it was with the promise that he would do all in his power to help her locate Felix Raybolt.

Nancy did not retire immediately. She noticed that a light was burning in her father’s study, and she decided to tell him her suspicions. He was buried deep in a lawbook, but he looked up and smiled as his daughter perched herself on the arm of his chair.

“Nancy, you look worried,” he observed. “I hope this new case of yours isn’t getting you down.”

“I’m worried about Joe Swenson,” she explained. “What do you think of his chances, Dad?”

“If the account on tonight’s newcast is correct, I’m of the opinion he’ll be convicted—unless Felix Raybolt shows up.” “That’s what I want to talk to you about. I’m sure Mr. Raybolt must be hiding somewhere.”

“And I agree,” her father said. “Nancy, I obtained one bit of information today that might prove this. I thought you might track it down for me.”

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