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CHAPTER XII

A Desperate Situation

FOR A moment Nancy stood frozen to the spot, positive that the man who was coming to the Topham cottage was one of the thieves.

But she hesitated only an instant. Then she turned and ran back into the study. Too late she realized that she had trapped herself, for this room had no other door.

Nancy started back toward the living room. But before she had taken half a dozen steps she knew that escape had been cut off from that direction. The man had reached the porch steps.

"It won't do a bit of good to talk to him," she reasoned. "I'll hide, and when he leaves, I'll follow him in my car and report him to the police!"

Frantically the young sleuth glanced about for a hiding place. A closet offered the only possible refuge. She scurried inside and closed the door.

Nancy was not a second too soon. She had scarcely shut the door when she heard the tread of the man's heavy shoes on the floor just outside. Peeping cautiously through a tiny crack in the door, she saw the heavy-set man come into the study. His face wore a cruel expression.

As he turned toward the closet where she huddled, Nancy hardly dared to breathe, lest her presence be detected. Apparently the man noticed nothing amiss, because his eyes rested only casually on the door.

Nancy's hiding place was anything but comfortable. It was dark and musty, and old clothing hung from nails on the walls. As dust assailed her nostrils, she held a handkerchief to her face.

"If I sneeze he'll surely find me," she told herself.

She felt around and once came close to ripping her hand on a sharp nail. Then she came upon something soft on a shelf and imagined it was a sleeping cat. She drew back, then touched it more cautiously.

"Only an old fur cap," she told herself in disgust. "Ooo, now I feel like sneezing more than ever!"

She held one hand over her mouth hard and waited in agony. But presently the desire to sneeze passed and Nancy breathed more freely.

When she dared to peep out through the crack a second time, she saw that two other rough-looking men had come into the room. One was short and stout, the other taller. Nancy was sure that neither of these two men was the caretaker, because Helen Corning had mentioned that the man was skinny.

The heavy-set man who had come in first seemed to be the leader, for he proceeded to issue orders. "Get a move on!" he growled. "We haven't got all day unless we want to be caught That girl you saw, Jake, may be back any time from the shore. And she just might get snoopy."

The man addressed as Jake scowled. "What's the matter with you, Sid? Going chicken? If that girl comes around, we'll just give her a smooth story and send her on her way."

"Cut out the yaking," said Sid. "Parky, you and Jake take that desk out of here."

There was no doubt now in Nancy's mind. She was trapped by a clever gang of thieves! She could only continue to watch and listen helplessly from her hiding place.

The two men lifted the heavy piece of furniture and started with it to the door. But they did not move swiftly enough to satisfy the leader, and he berated them savagely.

Jake turned on him. "If you're in such a hurry, why don't you bring the van back to the driveway, instead of leaving it hidden on that road in the woods?"

"And have someone driving past here see us!" sneered the leader. "Now get going!"

Little by little the men stripped the room of everything valuable. Nancy was given no opportunity to escape. Sid remained in the room while the others made several trips to the van.

"Well, I guess we have all the stuff that's worth anything now," Sid muttered at last.

He turned to follow his companions, who already had left the room, but in the doorway he paused for a final careful survey of the room.

At that same moment Nancy felt an uncontrollable urge to sneeze. She tried to muffle the sound, but to no avail.

The thief wheeled about. "Hey! What—"

Walking directly to the closet, he flung open the door. Instantly he spotted Nancy and angrily jerked her out.

"Spying on us, eh?" he snarled.

Nancy faced the man defiantly. "I wasn't spying on anyone."

"Then what were you doing in that closet?" the thief demanded, his eyes narrowing to slits.

"I came to see the caretaker."

"Looking for him in a funny place, ain't you?" the man sneered.

Nancy realized that she was in a desperate situation. But she steeled herself not to show any of her inward fears.

"I must keep calm," she told herself firmly. Aloud, she explained coolly, "I heard someone coming and I just felt a bit nervous."

"Well, you're going to be a lot more nervous," the man said threateningly. "This will be the last time you'll ever stick your nose in business that doesn't concern you!"

A fresh wave of fright swept over Nancy, but resolutely she held on to her courage. "You have no right to be here, helping yourself to the Tophams' furniture!" she retorted. "You should be turned over to the police!"

"Well, you'll never get the chance to do it." The ringleader laughed loudly. "You'll wish you'd never come snoopin' around here. I'll give you the same treatment the caretaker got."

"The caretaker!" Nancy gasped in horror. "What have you done to him?"

"You'll find out in good time."

Nancy gave a sudden agile twist, darted past the man, and raced for the door. The thief gave a cry of rage, and in one long leap overtook her. He caught Nancy roughly by the arm.

"Think you're smart, eh?" he snarled. "Well, I'm smarter!"

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