A talent for murder, p.1
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       A Talent for Murder, p.1

           Carolyn Keene
 
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A Talent for Murder


  Chapter

  One

  CHECK OUT THAT GIRL. Haven’t I seen her on TV?” Ned Nickerson whispered. He leaned close to Nancy Drew and gestured toward a willowy brunette in black leggings and a long, bulky red sweater.

  The young woman had just entered the waiting room of Jane Zachary Associates, where Ned and Nancy were sitting on a soft leather couch. Waving to the receptionist, the brunette disappeared through an interior door.

  Nancy nodded. “She’s in those ads for Belle Cosmetics.” The girl was pretty but not as stunning as she looked on TV with the help of professional makeup and lighting. “You recognized her awfully fast, Nickerson,” Nancy said, nudging her boyfriend. “Got an eye for brunettes?”

  “Who, me?” Ned’s brown eyes glimmered as he smiled. “I prefer a certain redhead with a talent for solving mysteries.”

  Nancy tucked a lock of reddish blond hair behind her ear as she gazed at Ned. She loved the way his smile lit up his handsome face. After a summer of fun, adventure—and romance—in Europe, Nancy had been glad to see Ned, her longtime boyfriend.

  But her heart was still reeling from her summer romance with Mick Devlin, an Australian guy who shared her passion for mystery. Although she’d fallen for Mick, Nancy had realized that it wouldn’t work out in the long run. Now she was back in the States, where she belonged.

  The question is, do Ned and I belong together? Nancy thought. It was the main reason she had agreed to accompany Ned for a ten-day vacation in San Francisco. In a way, this trip could make or break their relationship.

  The invitation from Ned’s cousin, Laurel Franklin Chandler, had come at just the right time. Ned hadn’t yet started his fall term at Emerson College, and who could resist a ten-day stay in a big, beautiful house overlooking San Francisco Bay?

  Nancy and Ned had arrived the previous afternoon. The Chandlers’ house, in the city’s Marina District, was lovely. Ned and Nancy each had a spacious room with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was shaping up to be a fantastic trip.

  Laurel’s husband, Evan, was an agent at Jane Zachary Associates, the city’s top talent agency. JZA represented many of the area’s hottest actors and models. When ad agencies needed actors or models for TV commercials or magazine ads, they came to JZA to flip through photos of their clientele. Often JZA clients landed high-paying assignments, which boosted their careers as well as the agency’s reputation. Everytime a JZA client got the work, the agency got a commission.

  Evan had been explaining the business to Nancy and Ned over dinner the night before when an idea had struck him. Evan had asked Nancy and Ned if they’d like to accompany him as a commercial was being filmed. Of course, the teens had jumped at the offer.

  As they waited for Evan, who was taking care of business in his office, a steady stream of glamorous clients came and went through the double glass doors that led to the elevators. Watching the traffic, Ned shook his head. “Evan is one lucky guy. Can you imagine working around these beauties every day?”

  “The guys are hunks, too,” Nancy replied, though she had to admit that the parade of pretty women was making her feel a little plain. She glanced down at her black jeans and aqua blouse. The shirt set off her blue eyes nicely, but surrounded by models, she felt underdressed.

  At last, the door to the offices opened, and Evan Chandler, a lanky man with curly brown hair, appeared. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.

  Nancy looked up at Evan, whose energetic smile and friendly green eyes made her feel instantly welcome. He was followed by a blond woman in her late thirties. Dressed in a raw silk suit and suede heels, she was sleek and elegant.

  “Jane,” Evan said, “meet my wife’s cousin, Ned Nickerson, and his girlfriend, Nancy Drew. This is Jane Zachary, my boss.”

  “Hi.” Jane shook hands with Nancy and Ned, her gray eyes studying Ned intently. “Evan, your cousin is a knockout. Ever do any acting, Ned?”

  Ned chuckled. “I once played a pilgrim in a fourth-grade Thanksgiving pageant.” Nancy and Evan laughed, but Jane remained serious.

  “No, really,” she insisted, “you’ve got the right stuff. You could do well in this business.”

  “But I don’t act,” Ned protested.

  Jane made a gesture of dismissal. “With your looks, who cares? Commercials don’t need great acting. I’ll bet the camera would like you, though we’d have to test you to be sure.”

  Ned caught Nancy’s eye and grinned in disbelief. “Thanks for the compliment,” he said. “But this is just a vacation. I’m in the process of earning a degree at Emerson College.”

  “Finish your education, by all means,” Jane replied. “But after you graduate—”

  “Evan!” A stout young man emerged from the doorway to the JZA offices. “Nob Hill Studios is on the phone, and they say it’s urgent. Line two.”

  “Thanks, Ziggy,” Evan said, walking to the receptionist’s desk. “That’s where we’re going to watch the shoot,” he explained to Nancy and Ned as he picked up the phone.

  “Evan Chandler here. Hi, Sid . . . She’s not? When was she due? . . . Really?” He looked at his watch and frowned. Nancy saw Jane approach Evan, a look of concern on her face.

  Evan continued. “Did you call her apartment? . . . No, she’s always been dependable. . . . Okay, I’m on my way. I’ll put someone on it from this end. Right.” He hung up, scowling.

  “What’s the problem?” Jane demanded.

  Evan shook his head. “Ursula Biemann hasn’t shown up for the shoot. She was due by eight-thirty this morning, which makes her almost two hours late.”

  “She’s an actress?” Nancy asked.

  Evan nodded, looking distracted. “One of the busiest.” He pointed to one of the photographs arranged on a wall. “That’s her.” Ursula was a striking young woman with round, soulful eyes, high cheekbones, and a wide, expressive mouth. “She’s in that commercial we’re shooting today.”

  Jane had begun to pace nervously in front of the reception desk. “Ursula’s never late,” she said. “Evan, you’d better get over to the studio, before they go crazy.” Nancy noted that Jane was gnawing on her lower lip, her look of cool elegance giving way to worry.

  “Ziggy!” Evan called. The squat young man who had called Evan to the phone reappeared. “Ziggy Matson, my assistant,” he said, introducing Nancy and Ned to the man with stubby blond hair and a fleshy face.

  “Ursula Biemann is a no-show,” Evan said.

  Ziggy pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. “What should I do?” he asked.

  “Keep calling her place,” said the agent. “Leave word with her service for her to contact us immediately. Start calling actresses on our list and see who’s available. The producers might want to replace her. You’ll be able to reach me at the studio or on my car phone.” Nancy was impressed by Evan’s poise and decisiveness.

  “Right,” Ziggy said, ducking behind the door to the offices.

  “I’m out of here,” Evan told Jane. “Coming?” he asked Nancy and Ned.

  “You’re sure we won’t be in the way?” Ned asked.

  “Trust me, no one will notice you in the chaos,” Evan said as he led the way through the doors and down the elevator. In the underground garage of the glass and steel office building, Nancy gave Evan’s sleek sports car an admiring glance.

  “Cross your fingers,” Evan said as they fastened their seat belts. “If we’re lucky, Ursula will be there when we arrive.”

  A ten-minute drive took them to Nob Hill Studios, a three-story building in an industrial district. Nancy and Ned followed Evan through a lobby hung with framed movie posters. After speaking with a receptionist, he pushed open a steel door labeled Stage 1, and Nancy found herself in a huge room that resembled a dar
k, empty warehouse.

  Dozens of people were clustered in one corner, where a modern kitchen was surrounded by cameras and lights. The crew talked in hushed voices. Some sat glumly in canvas director’s chairs, sipping from paper cups, while others paced nervously.

  “Evan!” The shout came from a harried-looking, balding man in his forties, who ran to meet them. He was casually dressed in khaki pants and a denim shirt, though his hand-tooled leather boots were obviously expensive.

  “You find her yet?” he demanded.

  Evan shook his head. “No such luck.”

  The man glanced at his watch and groaned. “This is costing a fortune.” He waved at the milling workers, adding, “I’m paying them to wait around, and the equipment rental is—”

  “Can you work around her?” Evan asked.

  “Work around her?” The man looked ready to cry. “She’s in every shot! We’re stuck!”

  Evan put a hand on the agitated man’s shoulder. “Take it easy, Sid. I’ll call and see if Ursula’s been located. If she’s still missing, you and the account executives can probably arrange for a replacement within the hour. You’ll be able to start up after lunch.”

  Sid nodded and made an effort to calm down. He was about to turn back to the crew when he noticed Ned and Nancy standing behind Evan.

  “This is Ned Nickerson and Nancy Drew,” said Evan. “They’re in town on vacation. Guys, meet Sid Pearl, the producer of this commercial.”

  “If there is a commercial,” Sid muttered.

  “I need a phone,” Evan called to a passing assistant, who hustled off. He turned to Ned and Nancy. “If you’ll excuse me . . .”

  “No problem,” Ned told him.

  “Why don’t we take a walk, and get out of the way?” Nancy suggested. “We’ll be back,” she assured Evan, who waved.

  Outside, the fog that had covered the city earlier had vanished. The sky was clear and blue, the sunshine dazzling.

  Ned looked up and down the street, which was lined on both sides with drab industrial buildings. “Hmm,” Ned said thoughtfully. “It’s not exactly a tourist’s dream around here, is it?”

  Nancy pointed to the end of the block where a green awning marked Café shaded the sidewalk. “That looks like our only choice. Let’s head over and get something cold to drink.”

  “Okay,” Ned said, adding, “Poor Sid. I wonder what’s keeping Ursula?”

  “I’m sure everyone on the crew is wondering the same thing,” Nancy said as they walked away from the studio entrance. The stucco facade of the building stretched ahead, ending at an alley.

  Ned laughed. “Can you believe Jane Zachary thinking I could make it as an actor? I mean, can you picture me in— Nancy? What’s wrong?”

  Nancy had stopped short and was staring intently down the alley. In the shadowed recess was a large, square object, and lying in front of it was a woman’s shoe. Something about the shoe triggered a feeling of alarm inside Nancy.

  “What is it?” Ned repeated.

  “Probably nothing,” Nancy replied, slowly making her way into the alley. “Just curious.”

  Picking up the elegant shoe, she saw that it was an imported brand made of soft blue leather—definitely out of place in this grimy passageway.

  The large object turned out to be a shipping carton, which almost filled the width of the alley. She squeezed by it, feeling a sudden chill of anticipation.

  “Ned!” she gasped. Her heart twisted at the sight of a motionless body. A young woman lay sprawled behind the carton.

  “What is it?” Ned asked, pushing past the carton. When he took in the grim scene, his face paled with shock.

  Nancy bent down to study the girl’s face. A large, discolored bruise was visible on her temple. Still, somehow the woman’s lovely features seemed familiar. Where had Nancy seen those high cheekbones and the wide, expressive mouth?

  Suddenly her mind flashed back to the huge glossy posters in the JZA reception area. There was no mistaking this face. She slowly straightened up. Her throat felt tight and constricted.

  “We’d better get Evan,” she said quietly. “I think we’ve just found Ursula Biemann.”

  Chapter

  Two

  NANCY KNELT to confirm what she feared—there was no pulse, no breath, no sign of life.

  Ned stood stock-still, eyes fixed on the corpse. “Is she—”

  Nancy nodded. “I’m afraid so. Go get Evan, but don’t tell anyone else. I’ll wait here.”

  As Ned raced away, Nancy stood up, fighting hard to ignore the shaky feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a dead body, but the sight was always upsetting. Taking care not to disturb possible evidence, she checked out the alley.

  A jagged hunk of concrete sat a few feet from the body. Could it have been the weapon used on Ursula? Nancy saw no sign of blood but decided to point out the concrete to the police.

  She studied the body. The dead girl was dressed in a violet silk, off-the-shoulder evening dress. She wore a slender gold necklace and a slim watch with a gold band.

  One foot was bare. The other leg was awkwardly folded. Nancy saw that the sole of the shoe was almost unworn, but there was an ugly scuff mark on the back of the heel. She found the other shoe similarly disfigured.

  Near the body was a fancy, beaded purse. With a pencil from her own purse, Nancy gently lifted the flap and peered in. She saw a wallet and a business card stashed beside it. Squinting, Nancy could make out the print on the card: Top Flight Artists, Marty Prince.

  Nancy turned to the cardboard carton that had concealed the body. On it was a shipping label with an address on the same block as the studio.

  “Nancy!” Ned ran down the alley with Evan following behind him. As the agent pushed past the carton and saw Ursula, he groaned.

  “That’s her,” Evan said faintly. He sagged against the wall and closed his eyes. “This is awful, horrible. . . . What do we do now?”

  “First you call the police,” Nancy answered.

  Evan nodded. His face was chalky white.

  “Then see that everyone stays put until the police say otherwise.” Nancy looked closely at Evan. “Are you all right?”

  Evan took a shaky breath. “I guess so,” he said. “My wife told me about your detective work. I guess you’ve seen this kind of thing, but I’m not used to it. What happened to her?”

  “That’s not for me to say,” Nancy said. “Ned and I will wait for you out here.”

  While Evan went back inside, Ned and Nancy walked out to the street. Nancy’s detective instincts were stirring, and at the same time her hopes for a quiet, romantic vacation were fading.

  “What do you make of it?” Ned asked.

  “From the bruise on her temple, I’d guess that someone hit her,” Nancy said. “Though she could have fallen and bumped her head on something. It doesn’t look like robbery, since she’s still wearing gold jewelry and her purse seems to be—”

  “The police are on the way,” Evan called, striding up the alley. “Sid’s handling things inside.”

  Sirens wailed in the distance. A few minutes later, police cars pulled up at the curb. Uniformed officers scrambled out, and a tall, thin man in a brown suit got out of an unmarked car. He walked up, fastening a gold badge to the breast pocket of his jacket.

  “Lieutenant Antonio, San Francisco Police Department, Homicide,” he said. His wide, thin-lipped mouth and jutting jaw seemed to be set in a permanent scowl as he eyed Nancy, Ned, and Evan. “Who found the body?”

  “I did,” Nancy replied, facing the tall man. “It’s down that alley, hidden by a big carton.”

  “Wait here,” said the lieutenant. He walked down the alley, followed by officers carrying a camera and large cases.

  By the time the lieutenant returned, two officers were blocking off the area with crime-scene tape. Antonio summoned another officer and approached Nancy, Ned, and Evan.

  “Let’s get some statements,” he said.
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  As the other officer took out a pad and pencil, Sid rushed up to the group.

  “I called Jane. She’s on her way. What—” He stopped as Lieutenant Antonio glared at him.

  “Who are you?” demanded the gruff lieutenant.

  “I’m Sid Pearl, the producer—”

  “Wait inside with the others, Mr. Pearl. I’ll get to you shortly.” He faced Nancy. “Let’s hear how it happened.”

  Nancy told him about finding the body. “I noticed a piece of concrete nearby,” she added. “It might be important.”

  “My officers are very observant,” the lieutenant said dryly. “I’m sure they’ll see the concrete, too. Mr. Nickerson?”

  Ned confirmed Nancy’s story, and the uniformed officer took it all down in shorthand.

  When Ned had finished, Antonio swung his gaze to Evan. “You identified the body, Mr. Chandler?”

  Evan nodded. “That’s right. I—”

  “What was your connection with the deceased?” the lieutenant asked crisply.

  “I’m a talent agent—she’s—” Evan stammered, clearly shaken. “Ursula was a client, an actress and model. She was due to work here today, and Sid called me at the agency when she didn’t show.”

  “Are these two with the agency, too?” the lieutenant asked, indicating Nancy and Ned.

  “Ned is my wife’s cousin,” Evan explained. “He and Nancy are visiting San Francisco.”

  “Tourists,” the lieutenant grumbled, then continued his questions. “Did Ms. Biemann have a habit of missing appointments?”

  “No,” Evan insisted. “Ursula was reliable and businesslike, at least until recently.”

  “What happened recently?” Nancy asked.

  “For one thing, she just broke up with her boyfriend, Sean—” Evan began, but Lieutenant Antonio stopped him with an upraised hand.

  “Just a minute,” he snapped. “It’s not your place to ask questions, Ms. Drew, just to answer them. Is that clear?”

  “Sorry,” Nancy said. “Force of habit.”

  The lieutenant narrowed his eyes at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

 
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