“Home, at last,” he thought gratefully, smiling at the thought of his wife and sons waiting for him inside. It didn’t take him long to grab his luggage and briefcase from the seat of his employer’s limo. “I’ll see you in the morning, Patrick.”
“No, you won’t,” Patrick Lynch’s eyes twinkled as he shook his head. “Your wife is just like her mother, Mart. Somehow, I don’t think either of us will survive if we go into the office right after being away for a week.”
Mart grinned. “If you’re sure, I won’t argue.”
“I’m sure,” the older man smiled. “Robin and I may stop in at some point this weekend, but if not, I’ll see you in the office on Monday morning.”
“Sounds great,” Mart replied, waving away Harrison’s offers of assistance as he carried his bags the few feet to his front door. Despite the warm glow lighting the living room windows, he took great pains to be quiet as he unlocked the door and went inside.
He wasted no time in setting his bags in the foyer and putting his coat in the closet, then he snapped off the table lamps Diana had left burning for him before he went up the stairs. Just as he expected, the three-month old twins were sound asleep in the nursery. Only barely able to resist waking them, he silently watched them for a moment, suddenly hating the job that had taken him away from them for so long.
He then smiled ruefully, thinking of the paradox that thought had created. As a junior in high school, he had joined with Gordon Halverson to start a small internet-based business that had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. He had been a freshman in college when Lynch Enterprises had made them a buy-out offer they couldn’t refuse, including both controlling interest in the subsidiary their company would become and prestigious full-time positions on staff.
It had been a surprisingly easy decision to leave school; the classes that he had thought would be so fascinating and helpful had instead proven to be much more basic than what he and Gordon had taught themselves, and with a job offer already on the table, the lack of degree wouldn’t hurt his career. He gave a contented sigh as he lightly stroked Brent’s cheek. If he hadn’t taken that job offer, he would still be in college, probably wondering where and how he would manage to get a job in the tightening job market. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten up the nerve to propose to Diana the night of her high school graduation, and they definitely wouldn’t already be parents. He choked back the sudden lump in his throat as he brushed Trent’s cheek with a feather-light kiss. The necessity of the occasional business trip was definitely worth having them all in his life.
He left the nursery, reluctant to leave his sons, but eager to find his wife. Before looking in on the twins, he had noticed that the light in the study was on, and so he quickly walked the few steps down the hall. He stopped in the doorway, the lump back in his throat as he marvelled at the vision before him. The deep purple silky negligee she wore perfectly accentuated the new curves he found so appealing, and he could smell the faint scent of her lavender body spray. He smiled, reflecting that only his Diana could look so beautiful and so uncomfortable at the same time. Then again, he thought, she was the only woman he knew who could actually fall sound asleep in a computer chair.
He walked over to wake her, barely glancing at the brightly colored balls bouncing around the computer screen. She stirred as he touched her bare shoulder and mere seconds passed before she jumped up and sprang into his arms.
It was almost dawn when he awoke, slipping gingerly out of bed so as to not disturb Diana. He was wide awake when he came out of the adjoining bathroom, and instead of trying to go back to sleep, he silently peeked in the nursery to check on the twins and then went into the study to check his e-mail.
With a quick move of the mouse, the screensaver gave way to the browser window Diana had left open. A silhouette image of a young woman with shoulder-length red hair served as the backdrop for the title graphic proudly proclaiming, “Lucy Radcliffe & Friends.”
He chuckled, only mildly surprised to find a web page devoted to the fictional sleuth the Bob-White girls had once, and apparently still, adored. Curious to find out if the site was anything like the old bulletin boards devoted to Cosmo McNaught that he had been known to spend hours on as a teen, he clicked a few of the links, quickly finding both trivia pages and the message board he had expected. It was the page of fan-fiction stories that astonished him, and he blinked twice when he saw the uppermost link in the section for newest additions: Lucy Radcliffe and the Mystery at Magnolia Manor by PurplePrincess. He quickly clicked on the link.
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I’m making no money from them. Please let me know what you think – my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mart stared at the very familiar address in disbelief, wondering why Diana hadn’t told him that she had found the web site, let alone started writing. A soft cough from the doorway startled him, and he flushed as he saw her standing there, suddenly realizing that she might think he was purposely spying on her.
She raised her eyebrows as she looked at him. “Find something interesting, Martin?”
“Very interesting,” he replied honestly. “Di, why didn’t you tell me you’re a published author?”
“I was going to tell you, Mart, honest.” Her gaze faltered. “I just wanted to make sure it was good before I showed it to you.”
“Of course it’s good!” he protested. “You wrote it!”
She smiled and crossed the room to sit on the desk beside him. “Have you read it?”
“Just the disclaimer,” he admitted. “I wasn’t really sure it was yours until I saw your email address.”
“Would you read it?” she asked softly. “I know I was never really good at English when I was in school, but I really tried to get it right.”
“I’m sure you did,” he told her, wishing yet again that she had more confidence in herself. “And I’d like to read it, but only if you want me to.”
“I do,” she told him, jumping as a wail came over the baby monitor. She stood to her feet and grinned. “You read while I go become breakfast.”
He smirked. “What can I say? My sons have good taste.”
She shook her head, swatting at his arm as she passed. “And you would know, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course!” he called out after her, chuckling as he settled down to read.
It was a day in early June when Tess called me, more excited than I had seen her in quite a while, to ask if she and Marge could come over to show me something. I agreed, and after quickly asking the housekeeper, Ann, if it would be a problem, I extended the invitation to include lunch.
The cousins arrived within minutes, and once again I marvelled at how different two cousins could be. Even though they were the same age, both eighteen like I am, Tess was much more feminine than Marge, and since she was convinced that she needed to lose five pounds, she was always deciding that she would go on a diet the next day. Marge is the exact opposite. Slender and athletic, she’s always more interested in outdoorsy-type things than in traditional feminine pursuits. I suppose I’m somewhere in between them, since I like both, but all three of us love to find adventure.
Before we could even sit down to the table, Tess thrust an old, yellowed envelope into my hands. “Remember that box of old letters and photographs our Aunt Mathilda sent Mom? This was hidden in the middle of a stack of old love letters Grandpa sent Grandma when they were courting.”
“This seems to be a lot older than that,” I told her, carefully opening the brittle paper. I quickly skimmed the contents of the faded spidery writing, exclaiming in surprise, “Why, it is!”
Mart chuckled inwardly. “Almost reminds me of our trip to Cobbett’s Island, except that letter was in an old book. Any minute now, they’re going to find directions that say, ‘Half-way to the golden chain tree.'”
“Isn’t this thrilling, Lucy?” Tess gushed. “My great-aunt Agnes actually still lives at Magnolia Manor, and she told Mom that she had heard stories about the necklace, but never found out what happened to it. Since she can’t see very well, once she heard about the letter turning up, she wants us all to come stay with her and try to find it.”
“It” being an heirloom ruby necklace. According to the letter, it had been hidden somewhere on the grounds at Magnolia Manor, where a branch of Tess and Marge’s family had lived for several generations, even since before the beginning of the Civil War.
“Honestly, Lucy,” Marge explained in a slightly calmer manner, lowering her voice as she shared a confidence, “she really needs us to find it. There’s not very much left in the estate anymore, and even though I know she would hate to sell it, she could really use the money.”
He laughed out loud as he recalled his first trip to Cliveden and the search for the emeralds hidden in the tunnel between Rosewood Hall and Green Trees. His interest in the story grew as he remembered other events from that trip, and he wondered how closely Di’s fictional account would match the true events.
“Oh, please say you’ll come, Lucy!” Tess flushed slightly as she added, “The boys have already started their jobs for the summer, but maybe they’ll be able to make it down for a weekend while we’re there.”
“That would be nice,” I admitted. Ted, Curt, and Dale were all college students, currently working during their summer vacations. Between Ted’s classes and job, and my duties for the country, it wasn’t often that we had much time to spend together. This trip to Virginia would already be like a vacation, although it wasn’t unusual for Tess and Marge to join me on unofficial investigations like this one in between my official duties, and the possibility of a weekend in Ted’s company was a pleasant prospect. I knew that Tess and Marge were just as eager to see Dale and Curt, too.
“Then you’ll do it?” Marge asked, and I detected a glimmer of eagerness in her eyes.
My mind was made up. “I will.”
The trip to Virginia was uneventful, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves situated in spacious rooms in the antebellum mansion. Aunt Agnes, as she asked me to call her, proved to be a very gracious host, even though her vision had grown worse than Tess and Marge had imagined it to be. One of her neighbors, Miss Kate, had gotten into the habit of checking on her every day, and confided to Marge that the doctors had said an operation could possibly let Aunt Agnes see again, but that insurance had refused to cover it. Knowing this, we grew even more determined to find the lost rubies.
Mart smiled as he remembered the operation Mr. Carver had needed and his elation at being able to walk for the first time since he was a small child. He made a mental note to call the older man; it had been far too long since he had last talked with him.
As helpful and courteous as Miss Kate seemed to be, another of Aunt Agnes’s neighbors proved to be the exact opposite. Neil Jackson had recently bought Stately Oaks, which Aunt Agnes told us had been built by the brother of the ancestor that had built Magnolia Manor, and was trying to convince her to sell her estate as well.
There was something in his eagerness that worried me, and Tess and Marge agreed. As soon as we could, we hurried out to the cemetery that had been mentioned in the letter, since we had decided that it would be a good place to start.
We had almost decided that we were on the wrong track when Tess gave a sudden cry. Marge and I rushed into the mausoleum she had been searching. We found her holding what looked like a small trinket box.
“Hypers, Tess!” Marge exclaimed. “We thought you were hurt!”
“I almost was,” Tess admitted shakily. “I had to stand on that bench to look up on that ledge, and my foot slid when I reached farther than I should have. I almost fell, but look what I found!” She handed the box to me. “Will you open this, Lucy? I can’t seem to manage it.”
After a few minutes, I discovered the secret of the lock. Remembering that it had belonged to their ancestors, I handed the box to Marge so that she could be the first to look inside. She removed first a silver locket that she asked Tess to open and a folded note that she only glanced at before passing it to me.
Inwardly, I groaned when I looked closely at the note and realized that it had been written in Latin, but it didn’t take me too long to translate the instructions to look behind a certain brick in the secret passageway.
He grinned over the Latin note. Even though the only Latin he could remember from the case was the phrase “Lux et Pax,” he knew Diana had always been impressed by the three years he had taken in high school. He shook his head, remembering that she was the only reason he had taken that third year.
Suddenly, though, his grin became a frown as he thought about the locket Mr. Carver had given to Trixie. She had kept a picture of Jim Frayne in it until they had broken up, at which point he assumed it had gone into the same keepsake box as the identification bracelet he had taken such pleasure in teasing her about. It had been several years, though, since their break-up, and while Jim was happily dating Joeanne Darnell, he couldn’t remember the last time Trixie had actually gone out on a date. It was true that she stayed busy with her classes and job, but he knew that she couldn’t be happy just going to school and baby-sitting.
He almost smiled remembering how proud of her he had been when she had insisted on helping Sergeant Molinson with six-month old Erica after Heather’s death, but it had been over three years, and she was still the one taking care of the child while the policeman worked. A brief glimmer of a thought crossed his mind, but he dismissed it as quickly as it came. He would admit that Trixie had done some foolish things in her time, but there was absolutely no way that she would ever be that foolish!
The three of us went back inside to ask Aunt Agnes about the secret passage. To our surprise, she had never heard of a secret passage at Magnolia Manor. Tess, on the verge of despair, quickly left the room. Marge recognized the signs and followed her cousin up the stairs. I spoke a few words of hope to Aunt Agnes, and then headed outside to take a walk.
While it wasn’t likely that she would have never heard of such a passage if one existed, there was the possibility that no one had wanted to risk having a visually impaired child find the passage and possibly be injured.
Unless someone was looking for it, no one would have ever noticed the significance of the fact that the windows on one side of the house didn’t quite line up with the windows on the other end. I had a hunch that I was on to something, and so I quickly hurried back inside.
Once I knew where to look, it wasn’t very difficult to find a panel that slightly stood out from the others on that wall. Years had passed since it was last opened, and the opening mechanism was rather rusty. Still, I managed to slide the panel open, and soon I had an opening that I could easily fit through, and I hurried upstairs to find Tess and Marge.
As tempting as it was to rush into the passage, none of us wanted to risk being exposed to the dead air we were almost certain to encounter. We quickly set up an electric fan to help the air circulate, and by the time we felt confident enough to try it, we heard a car pull into the driveway.
Taking care so that no one else would realize we found the passage, Marge agreed to close the panel while Tess went to answer the door. I waited only long enough to make sure that Marge would have no problems getting the panel closed, then I rushed to the front porch. I was just in time to see Tess fly down the steps into Dale’s waiting arms.
I shared a warm smile with Ted while he and Curt took their duffel bags from the trunk. I waited patiently while they came up onto the porch. To my own surprise, I soon found myself in Ted’s strong embrace, and I realized that the time was coming when I would have to make my decision. That day would be soon, but it wasn’t quite here yet, and I discreetly held to his hand as Tess and I led them to the panel Marge had only just managed to close.
While Marge and Curt shared a greeting only somewhat less effusive than Tess and Dale’s had been, I took the opportunity to let Aunt Agnes know that our friends had arrived. Once the introductions had all been made, Tess happened to glance at the clock, and realized that it was well past time to start preparing dinner.
With all three of us girls helping, it wasn’t long before the seven of us sat down to eat. As we ate, we took the time to tell the guys about everything that we had so far discovered. Once dinner was over, Aunt Agnes insisted that she was capable of washing up while we explored the secret passage.
It did us absolutely no good to argue with her, and so we did as she wished. Marge and Curt were the first of us to go into the passage, and it was a matter of some minutes before they returned with the news of a long tunnel that could certainly be the one described in the note.
Tess and Dale went next, and to our surprise, we soon heard Tess scream. Before anyone could go after them, we heard their rapid approach back through the tunnel. Tess was shaking when she stepped back through the entryway. “There’s a ghost down there!” she exclaimed.
“The tunnel,” Mart thought with a grin. He knew he would never forget his and Diana’s panic when it had seemed like poltergeists were after them, and he would especially never forget the stolen moments in that same tunnel before they had returned home.
Leaving Marge to comfort Tess, Ted and I hurried into the tunnel. A faint tapping sound steadily grew louder as we went deeper into the passage, and we eventually found ourselves at a dead end. At some point in time, a portion of the tunnel had collapsed, and a pile of rock and bricks formed a wall that effectively sealed off the rest of the tunnel. It was from the other side of the barrier that we could hear what seemed to be someone trying to break through the wall.
“Look!” I whispered to Ted. I pointed out a brick that was missing the grime and dirt of a hundred years that covered the rest of the wall. He instantly reached for his pocket-knife and pried the brick loose.
My eyes widened as I saw a metal box set back in the opening: a modern-day fire-proof lock box. Like lightening, I reached for it, and grabbed Ted’s hand as I pulled him towards the opening. We would return to look for the hidden necklace, but I had a hunch that the contents of the locked box would prove to be even more valuable.
Once we were safely back in the house, Ted quickly shut the panel, and I motioned for everyone to follow me into a room in the middle of the house, a room that had no windows. Until I knew just what was in the box, I would take no chances.
I took the time to retrieve my lock-pit kit from my purse, but I wasted no time in unlocking the supposedly unbreakable lock. My eyes widened when I saw what was inside. Somehow, I was holding the top-secret classified plans that had been stolen from the Pentagon the previous month. I automatically closed the lid, and quietly asked Aunt Agnes if I could use the telephone.
Since the line was insecure, I spoke in code to my superior at the U.G.A. He promised me he would send back-up immediately, but informed me that it would be at least an hour before anyone could possibly arrive.
The sound of a sudden crash from the direction of the tunnel startled me, and I realized that not only was the thief actually in the tunnel, but that he had also broken through the barrier that kept him from his cache. Desperate for immediate back-up, I called the local sheriff’s office for assistance.
It was with misgivings that I left Tess, Marge, and Aunt Agnes to guard the plans, but I hoped that Dale and Curt would be able to protect them if the thief somehow found the entrance that led into Magnolia Manor while Ted and I ran to meet the sheriff.
Until my superior arrived from the U.G.A. headquarters, I had no authority to reveal my status as a secret agent, and so I was thankful that Sheriff Barnes believed me when I told him that the house at Stately Oaks needed to be surrounded immediately.
A team from the U.G.A. somehow managed to appear within minutes, just in time to hear Dale and Curt yelling from inside the house. We all ran inside, where we found them fighting off Aunt Agnes’s furious neighbor, Neil Jackson.
Agents quickly subdued the snarling man, and I gasped when I realized just who he really was. His hair had been both cut into a different style and dyed, and the beard and mustache were gone, but there could be no doubt of his true identity. Wendell Webster, traitor and Russian spy, was right there in the hallway of Magnolia Manor.
My superior agent agreed, and astounded the sheriff and his deputies by arresting the so-called upstanding citizen on behalf of the United States Government. Once he was safely in custody, I whispered to Aunt Agnes to hand over the box of papers to the agent.
He slightly raised his eyebrows, but then smiled when he realized what I was doing. Since I was technically off-duty and not assigned to this case, if she was the one to actually turn in the evidence, she would be eligible for the rather substantial reward offered for information leading to Webster’s arrest.
At the time, I didn’t let her know that she would be getting the money, but I knew that the U.G.A. would make sure that she did get it. In the meantime, though, my own case was unsolved, and I was anxious to head back into the tunnel.
We waited until all of the policemen and the rest of the U.G.A. agents had gone, then Tess and Marge urged me to finish the search for the rubies. My conscience stopped me, though, and I realized that Tess and Marge should be the ones to actually make the discovery. I translated the note once again, and made sure that the cousins knew exactly where to find it.
Once again, I found myself waiting, but it was well worth it when they reemerged from the tunnel smiling triumphantly. In Tess’s arms was an old metal box that was different only in size to the one she had found in the mausoleum.
I showed her the secret of unlocking it, and we all held our breath in anticipation as she finally lifted the lid. She shared a glance with Tess and together they lifted out a beautiful ruby necklace and pressed it into Aunt Agnes’s trembling hands.
Ted took my hand, and we slipped outside, leaving the family alone in their joy. He gently tilted my face up to look at him. “I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you, Lucy. You’ve done a lot of good today.”
I smiled, and deep inside I felt that feeling of excitement I always feel when I finish a case. I wasn’t ready to make my decision yet, but I knew that whatever the future held in store, it would definitely be an adventure.
“So? What do you think?” Diana asked, returning just as Mart finished reading the story. “Did you like it?”
“Of course I did!” he assured her, pulling her down into his lap. “But now I’m curious. What is this decision that she keeps talking about?”
Diana smiled as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “In the last book of the series, Ted asked her to marry him when he finishes college. If she does, she’ll have to give up her secret agent status. We all know that Ted will never ask her to give up her detective work, because he’s always so supportive. But Mr. Appleton always set the books in a time when women didn’t have careers after they were married, and so the U.G.A. won’t let her keep her secret agent status if she does.”
“So what did she decide?” he asked.
She laughed. “Mr. Appleton never said. You should see all the debates on the boards about what she should do! There are even some people who do modernize her in their stories and let her do both.”
“So what do you think she should do?”
“I have no idea,” she confessed. “I do like the modern fan-fiction, especially since I kind of compare Lucy to Trixie and Honey.”
“Speaking of comparisons,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “When did Sleepyside’s most famous policemen become an infamous traitor?”
“When I needed a name and couldn’t think of another one,” she giggled. “You have to admit that Wendell Webster makes a good name for a spy.” She suddenly sat up straight. “Oh!”
“Di? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing….” She paused. “I hope. That just reminded me that your Moms called before you got home last night. It seems she’s worried about Trixie, and wanted to know if I knew anything that was bothering her.”
“Do you?” Mart asked.
She shook her head. “No. It’s just that she’s quit her job with Lieutenant Molinson, and no one knows why.”
Even though it had only been just a few minutes since he had told himself that she needed to, he found himself worried by the fact that she actually had. “Have you talked to her?”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “But I had an idea. I thought maybe we could call and ask her to have dinner with us tonight. If something’s really wrong, I know you’ll be able to find out.”
He nodded. “Sounds good, baby.” He held her tight for a moment, then broke away. “There’s just one more thing I need to do on the computer, and then we’ll decide what we want to do today.”
With a swift kiss on his cheek, she stood up. “I’m going take a shower while you finish up, and then I’m inviting you to take me out for breakfast.”
“An invitation I can’t refuse,” he grinned. He waited until she had left the room, then clicked the back button on her browser. He soon found the link that led to the message board and was pleased to see that someone had already started a thread commending Diana on her story. He quickly clicked the reply button, then began to type.
Wonderful story, PurplePrincess. I’m so proud of you.
He flinched, realizing that while no one would recognize his own handle, Diana would be thrilled if he signed his post with the alias she had tried so hard to get him to choose. It wasn’t easy, but he forced himself to type the letters he devoutly hoped no one he knew would ever see.
Author’s Notes: This story is my submission for Kathy K’s challenge Write Your Own Lucy Radcliffe Adventure. I chose the story within a story option.
I’ve also infringed copyrights fourteen ways from Sunday. I’ve broken with tradition and based Lucy Radcliffe on another eighteen-year old detective with red hair (er, titian hair, anyway), so I suppose I need to credit the Stratemeyer Syndicate for my thinly disguised usage of Nancy Drew. Diana decided to send them on one of the mysteries she helped solve, so I also need to credit The Mystery of the Emeralds for supplying the basic plot of the Lucy story. I’m also going to give homage to The Pet Show Mystery for inspiring Mart’s career path in this universe.
In keeping with the fact that Trixie mentions Lucy is a secret agent, I decided that she works for the U.G.A. and then solves mysteries with Tess and Marge in her time away from her duties as an agent. Credit for the creation of the U.G.A. (which stands for Undisclosed Government Agency) goes to Jeff Darlington and his comic, General Protection Fault.
And as always, thanks to Cyndi, not only for her usual editing duties, but also for the background she graciously let me steal from her. *g*