The Loneliness of Carson Drew

At two o’clock, he receives a call routed through his secretary. It is from a widow whose rambling house was built over a hundred years ago. She’s calling to complain, again, about Nancy.

          “That girl has been here for hours,” the widow moans, “and all her tapping on the walls is bringing on a migraine. You know my nerves …”

          Carson promises to drive right over. He doesn’t have any clients this afternoon anyway; River Heights is not a very litigated town. He puts on his hat and his coat and he says good-bye to Miss Johnson, who is a sturdy girl typing away efficiently—though what she has to type, Carson does not know. Maybe she’s writing a novel.

          He drives to the Widow Wilson’s multi-gabled and many-turreted mansion. Nancy has always said the place is certain to be full of hidden nooks and secret stairs, false panels concealing who-knows-what. She thinks finding a secret treasure might help the elderly woman somehow, though Mrs. Wilson seems quite well off as she is. In time between other cases, Nancy often visits to tap the walls and woodwork, listening for hollow areas. Mismatched wallpaper is especially intriguing; Nancy has been known to peel a bit away to see what lies beneath. For a while Mrs. Wilson bore it all with a resigned, world-weary smile, but even the most patient of monuments begins to crack under constant battering.

          Carson lets himself in; the widow trusted him with a key long ago. He finds Nancy poking at some wormy woodwork around a fireplace. He has to pry her hands away and hold them in his own.

          The girl struggles against his grip. “But I’m so close, Dad!” Her blue eyes, normally dancing with the thrill of a chase, are now cold and stormy. “I have a hunch that the secret’s hidden somewhere around this fireplace.”

          “What secret?” he asks patiently.

          And with that, the girl falters. She bites her perfect lip till it’s first white, then red. “I don’t know. But there’s got to be something here. Old houses are packed with mysteries—think of what I’ve found in mansions all over the world.”

          At eighteen, Nancy has traveled the globe several times over. Yes, Carson has been indulgent—so many trips, pretty clothes, all of his attention at her command. He can’t be any more firm with her now than he was in her toddlerhood, when her mother died after an illness of which they never speak. He can’t even tell Nancy that she’s mistaken about the Wilson home. Instead he wraps his coat around her shoulders and steers her gently toward the door.

          “I’m sure another mystery will find you soon,” he says, and forces an optimistic chuckle. “You have a knack for attracting tough cases.”

          Nancy brightens. “Maybe there will be a telegram at home!” she says, and she fairly skips to her father’s sedan. She settles into the passenger seat saying, “I think I’ll bake a cherry pie for dessert.”

          “That will be delicious,” Carson says.

          Nancy is as good at cooking as she is at everything else.


Nancy. A once-diminutive form of Ann, the name now made grand by his love for her. Her bright hair and sparkling wit. Her uncanny hunches; her talents in drawing, golf, cryptology, swimming. Her impatience with ordinary life.
Carson is all too aware of the dangers of holding too tight to someone he loves. So he permits his beloved girl to travel the world solving mysteries for other people, just when she is the age at which she might naturally ask about secrets at home.

          In all the time since Nancy’s mother died, they have never spoken of her.


The top lawyer in River Heights, Carson handles a bit of everything: estate planning, property disputes, criminal defense. He has a solid if uninteresting reputation. He gets along well with the police; he is cool-headed and even-tempered. Except, sometimes, where Nancy is concerned.

          Trouble follows his lovely girl like her most loyal friend. Thus far Carson has managed to save her, but there will come a day …

          Acid on her suitcase handle, multiple car crashes, a concussion at Machu Picchu. Thugs with names like Swahili Joe and El Gato, con artists dressed up as old women. These are just the hazards Carson knows about.

          He once beat down a door when Nancy lay bound and gagged in a Scottish castle. He organized a rescue team when she was trapped in a house that fell into the sea. He tore out his hair the time when ___. And when ____.

          Carson will always choose Nancy, above anyone else. Above even himself. He wishes only that more sacrifice were needed.

          More and more, Nancy is rescuing herself. She is their modest city’s titian-haired, blue-eyed sleuth, whose reputation is beginning to eclipse Carson’s. They used to be a team; now she leads a team of her own, two cousins who share the title of best friend and happily zip around in the backseat of her sporty blue roadster, chasing clues and criminals.

          Carson’s very worst fear, one he cannot admit even to himself, is not that Nancy will die but that she’ll stay away simply because she wants to. Times have changed since she cracked the old clock of her first case. Does she really need him anymore?

          Maybe the girls will rent an apartment. Maybe they’ll settle in New York near his sister, whom they often visit overnight as they travel to and fro across the globe. Maybe Nancy will marry her blandly handsome football-playing boyfriend, or (worst) maybe she’ll drive off by herself—vanish like one of the ghosts that tap-tap-tap within the walls of the creaking houses that she loves to plumb for mysteries.


Carson employs an excellent housekeeper, Mrs. Hannah Gruen (her husband’s whereabouts unknown). She is matronly and simple, easy for a teen to boss around.

          Nancy enjoys being the lady of the house. She declares cheerfully that figuring out where to put plates and silverware and laundry is a kind of mystery in itself, but Carson has noticed that her interest in these things is sporadic. She’d rather be digging up mummies in the desert or spelunking sea caves for a tolling bell.

          Sometimes at night, Carson tiptoes into Hannah’s room and gazes at her sleeping form. The middle-aged flesh has relaxed into fat, comfortably swathed in a flannel nightgown. Gray hair loose and spread across the pillow, Hannah Gruen snores with the peaceful righteousness of a woman who has done her job well and said her prayers.

          Carson wonders why Hannah has not fallen in love with him. He has been told sixty times that he is handsome, and yet no woman seems to want him, not even Hannah, who is perhaps the one person who can understand the depths of his loneliness.

          But Hannah isn’t lonely. As the moonlight slants upon her broad features (she might be some part “colored,” but he has never asked), he sees that she is happy by herself. Her husband’s absence is no hardship to her.
Carson doubts she even dreams.

          Nancy, he is sure, does dream, but he has no idea what she sees.

          He dreams of Nancy, as a girl and a child and a baby, but he won’t let himself remember.


Carson keeps a photograph of his late wife, hand-tinted, in a locked desk drawer with his most important files. When he knows he is alone, he takes it out to gaze into that perfect, smooth face. The tinting process removed the pores from her nose, the freckles from her cheeks, the spaces between her teeth. The colors used are slightly off; her hair was redder, more like their daughter’s. Her eyes were bluer, again like their girl’s.

          Attractive. And gone.

          And never has he said how it happened, not once in fifteen years.


The office phone rings and Miss Johnson puts the call through. It’s the teen sleuth herself. She just read about a reward for finding a certain medieval stained-glass window.

          “I have to say I’m intrigued,” the girl tells him, in that cool and precise way of speaking that impresses friends and clients. “I won’t keep the money, of course—I’ll give it to the children’s hospital. And I have a hunch about where to start looking. Bess and George and I can get there in a day if we start driving early …”

          Carson reserves hotel rooms for her and her chums, and he introduces them to a client right here in River Heights who specializes in stained glass. Thank god, he always seems to have a client who knows something about Nancy’s latest case. He dreads the day he runs out of such acquaintances.

          In his office, with a view of a parking lot and an antiques shop where Nancy has found many intriguing and useful objects, Carson imagines the girl’s blue eyes darting about as she connects clues like dots in the coloring books of her childhood.

          As for the reward, he’s relieved she doesn’t want it for herself. One of the worst futures he can imagine is one in which Nancy has money of her own. He encourages her to keep only small tokens from her cases for herself: an ivory charm, a broken locket, her constantly yapping terrier; a rug from Istanbul with a rebus in the border. These items, neat reminders of mysteries solved, are on display in the home that they share.


While Nancy packs her suitcase that night, Carson asks her what a hunch feels like. Those famous hunches are her stock in trade; they often come at the very end of a trail of clues, when the girl appears to have run out of possibilities.

          “Oh”—she shrugs, rolling up a dainty nightgown that Hannah Gruen has just taken off the clothesline—“it doesn’t feel a particular way. I just know something.”

          She seems to think that’s answer enough. She would be surprised if he told her she’s a mystery to him. She is so perfectly flat, so much one thing, that she can’t imagine herself a mystery.

          “Where do your hunches come from?” he asks.

          To his mind, there is only one answer, and it involves that of which they never speak.

          “Careful detective work,” says the girl, and she slams down the lid of her suitcase and sits on it to do up the locks, even though it’s only half-full.


There have been moments, Carson is ashamed to say, when he has regarded his daughter’s friends with something other than paternal concern. He is suspicious of them, maybe even jealous. The two cousins, luscious blonde Bess Marvin and athletic, oddly named George Fayne, are so young, so full of life. So close to his daughter and yet not her.

          As a father, he counts himself lucky that Nancy has two “best” friends. Both are utterly devoted, ready to follow to the ends of the earth; but when Nancy goes off on her own, pursuing a clue or a hunch, Bess and George can keep each other company. Best of all, two make a tie, meaning the true “best” is someone else.

          He can’t recall ever meeting the parents of those cousins, though he has spoken with them over the phone to exchange updates about the girls’ travels undertaken, injuries suffered, clues uncovered. The parents seem unremarkable. He wonders if they miss their girls as much as he misses his. He wonders if the cousins have sisters and brothers and what their fathers do to support their families. He always forgets to ask.

          And then there are the boys. They are young Ralph Waldos in the making; they attend the college (sometimes a university) named after the great transcendentalist. They have summer jobs selling life insurance; they take educational trips on which girlfriends are welcome. They smell of shoe rubber and Brylcreem.

          Carson is glad, he must be glad, that these young people are always on hand when his daughter needs them. But he wonders when his little girl stopped seeing him as a hero. Not that she’s looking for heroes now; she, more than the boys, is skilled at the Emersonian art of self-reliance.

          What is it that girl George is always exclaiming? Oh yes, “Hypers!” Whatever that means.

* * *

Carson mulls other possibilities. If he hadn’t gone to law school. If his wife hadn’t _____ed. If ____. If they’d had a “normal” daughter, the kind who settles down to one thing and goes to college to study home economics. A daughter with pimples and a bit of a weight problem. A daughter slightly less complete. But the stars and the circumstances aligned themselves to produce precisely this one girl.

          Coincidence is part of the detective’s trade. In a given week, Nancy might be engaged in three or four mysteries at once; but during that week, they all lead back to a single troublemaker, a lone lost or stolen object. An elaborate ruse involving ghosts and codes and Nancy dressing up as a marionette or a living statue. Some special skill at which she naturally excels.

          Carson wonders where Nancy comes by all her gifts. Certainly her mother, pretty as she was, had no extraordinary talents, nor did she aspire to them. She was happy, for that brief time they were together, to be a lawyer’s wife. She did most of the cleaning herself, and a hot dinner was always waiting when he returned home from the office. She made love simply, yieldingly, letting him do to her whatever he pleased, so long as the top sheet still covered their bodies. When she was pregnant, she was a large, placid cow endlessly knitting. After Nancy was born, she refused to put the baby down, ever.

* * *

While Nancy is gone, Carson decides to throw a party. He gets rather excited about the idea and discusses his plans with Hannah for perhaps altogether too much time. He calls her from the office in between clients and keeps sending her to the grocery store and the butcher and the cheese shop and the bakery—so many separate errands that a lesser woman would crumple under the pressure of his expectations.

          Carson has a client who’s a stationer and only too happy to rush a printing of the invitations: “Anything for the father of my favorite sleuth!”

          On Saturday night, the house blazes with light from chandeliers and floor lamps. Every horizontal surface is covered in silver platters of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and tiny ham sandwiches, pickles carefully skewered with cellophane-frilled toothpicks.

          Nobody comes.

* * *

The real mystery, Carson thinks mournfully, is why nobody likes him. Him, Carson Drew, widower and father, who raised River Heights’s most famous figure. Even Police Chief McGinnis, for whom Carson and Nancy have apprehended dozens of criminals, didn’t bother to RSVP for Saturday.

          At ten p.m., Carson and Hannah get out the tinfoil and Tupperware and start moving around the house, systematically packing up all that food. Hannah will take it to her church in the morning; there’s always a funeral or robbery or a new family down on its luck, some occasion for a feast among the congregation. They turn off the lights and wipe down the already spotless, gleaming tabletops.

          Such nice things, Carson thinks, surveying his home. Why does nobody want to share them with him?

* * *

A restless midnight, a crash of breaking glass. The dog barks. Carson puts on his robe and runs downstairs. Someone has thrown a brick through a plate-glass window, and around the brick a note is wrapped and rubber-banded:


          Carson calls the police station, and Chief McGinnis himself comes to take a report. The two men delicately avoid the topic of the party, all evidence of which is now tucked away in pantry and refrigerator.

          The chief says the brick and the note probably have something to do with one of Nancy’s mysteries.

          Carson says no kidding. He is tired and feels impatient with crooks who haven’t noticed his daughter is not at home.

          If she’d been here, surely the guests would have shown up to the party.

          Somehow Hannah Gruen sleeps through all the excitement.

* * *

Meanwhile, Nancy has had another one of her hunches. Her case has turned out to involve a sham spirit-medium, and she believes the note has something to do with her. She’s excited to hear about it on Monday morning, when she calls to say hello and request more money wired to her hotel.

          The girl’s reasoning runs this way: The likely villainess pretends to be a medium; she has performed a rare job for some greater client who hides behind her, and the job was done well.

          Wonderful, thinks Carson as he hangs up and buzzes his secretary to have her prepare the wire transfer. Not even the mail, not even the sinister threats, are his anymore. They are all for Nancy.

          After a brief chat with Miss Johnson, Carson is struck by an idea and calls his daughter back. He’s lucky to catch her just as she’s leaving the hotel to begin sleuthing for the day, as she informs him peevishly.

          Before the impulse can leave him, Carson asks whether Nancy has consulted this medium herself. Whether she has asked about any messages from her departed—

          The line goes dead. The girl has hung up on him.

          Or, as she will tell him when her convertible breezes into the driveway that evening, the gang of thieves and charlatans she was working to apprehend cut the wires at the hotel’s switchboard. A blow to the head knocked her temporarily unconscious, but she was soon well enough to see the criminals apprehended, then to drive herself and her chums home again.

          She kisses him lightly on the cheek, declaring she needs a shower.
No, of course she never asked the psychic any questions of her own. He should know she doesn’t believe in that kind of thing.

          He watches her strawberry blond hair bounce as she skips up the stairs, leaving him to bring up her luggage once she’s showered and dressed. He wonders how she can face so many grim stories, so many desperate people, and still remain so thoroughly wrapped up in herself that she never notices the great mystery within her own life.

* * *

The next morning, Carson’s precious daughter is wistful, which means she’s cranky. It’s always this way when she’s just solved a mystery; she’s hungry for the next one. For a while she tosses a ball for her excitable terrier. Carson watches from the window of his den; he’s working at home so as to spend time with the girl. Eventually she leaves the dog in the yard and wanders off.

          The Widow Wilson telephones fifteen minutes later. Carson drives over to bring Nancy home.

          All afternoon, Nancy vexes Mrs. Gruen by changing the dinner menu several times. She also undertakes an enormous layer cake, stirring the batter so vigorously that the kitchen is covered in powder, the counters with banks of it. White dust drifts spectrally through the house vents and enters every room. It makes Carson sneeze in the comfort of his green club chair, where he wishes the girl would join him to talk over what they’ve been doing all week while apart.

          Four o’clock: the phone rings and Nancy pounces. He hears her voice rising excitedly from the hall. He catches a handful of words: clipper ship, Boston, intruder, ghost. Once again Nancy has stumbled onto a mystery involving supernatural manifestation. It will be exactly the sort of case she most likes to debunk, proving that unsavory and not terribly intelligent people were behind the manifestations all along. Sometimes she poses as a ghost herself, to confound the foolish criminals and others, like the sham medium of the week before.

          She hangs up the phone and comes into Carson’s den, and she does slide onto the arm of the club chair until she’s almost sitting in her father’s lap. “It looks like I’m off to Boston,” she says. “An old seadog has his heart set on buying an antique clipper, but he thinks she’s haunted. He sees lights on her at night, and sounds of a hatchet down in the forecastle. And the buxom figurehead is missing, so he wants me to find it if I can. Just imagine! How that wooden lady has parted the waves!”

          Nancy’s sleuthing teaches her more than a college education. She learns something from every mystery; this time, it will be about ships.

          “I’ll need to fly,” she thinks aloud, twirling one red-gold lock around her index finger. Her shoulder digs into Carson’s chest and he represses the impulse to hug her; she doesn’t want hugs at times like this. “I have a hunch this case is going to move fast. And I should see if Bess and George can come with me. They’re such good company for each other, and George’s judo comes in handy.”

          Carson hears himself promising to buy three tickets for the next day.

          He wonders what he’ll find to do while the girl is gone yet again. He runs over his mental client list and assigns himself some paperwork, to keep busy while the billable hours roll by.

* * *

With Nancy gone again, Carson again wants company—someone other than (younger than) Mrs. Gruen. He invites his secretary home to dinner.

          Miss Johnson thinks he’s bringing her there to work, so she uses the office washroom to comb her hair even more firmly away from her face than usual and to scrub her fingernails clean. As they drive toward his pleasant residential neighborhood, Carson’s heart pounds. He can see fine lines and freckles in her skin; maybe she’s older than he believed, almost a decade older than Nancy. For some reason this thought pleases him.

          But when they walk in, Togo the terrier doesn’t like the visitor, and he yaps until Hannah Gruen locks him in the kitchen. There the barking only increases in volume and urgency. So Carson leads Miss Johnson into his den, as seems natural. He realizes he’s made a mistake when she sits down in the green chair with her steno pad already out for dictation.

          On an impulse Carson opens his desk drawer and pulls out the picture of his late wife. He thinks they can have a nice conversation about her; he can demonstrate what kind of a husband he was. He can say a lot without confiding too much. He props the picture up using the cardboard easel on the back.

          Miss Johnson says nothing. After an awkward pause, Carson tells her who is in the portrait. He calls her Mrs. Drew.

          “Oh,” Miss Johnson says politely. “How nice. Why do you keep her in a drawer?”

          The following silence lasts uncomfortably long. Carson wasn’t prepared for this question and he can’t decide what to do with the picture now, whether to leave it on his desktop or put it away again. Suddenly he hears himself babbling about the mistakes in the tinting, the hair that should be warmer, the eyes that should be deeper …

          Hannah Gruen opens the door without knocking. “The roast is ready,” she announces. She stares with a disapproving eye at the two women, the one in the chair and the one on the desk.

          Carson sweeps the portrait into its drawer again, turns the key, and pockets it.

          They go down to dinner. The roast is dry and gray; the potatoes, done au gratin, are raw in the middle and mushy on the edges. Hannah has dressed the salad with too much pepper.

          Miss Johnson saws through her meat and resolutely chews. She has a few forkfuls of the potatoes but says she’s on a diet and can’t take such a rich sauce. So she settles down to the peppery lettuce and a glass of milk that Hannah pours for her with a triumphant flourish.

          Carson keeps waiting for Miss Johnson to ask, How did your wife pass away?, and he keeps waiting at last to explain. But Miss Johnson keeps the conversation light and professional, touching on people in the newspaper who might need legal counsel: a downtown jeweler who is about to host a show of synthetic gems somehow more valuable than the real thing; an eccentric who plans to move a castle over from England brick by brick; a young bride whose wedding photos came back covered in dire spirit writing.

          At the end of the meal (weak coffee and something that might have been fruit pudding, or perhaps a sauce for some other dish), Carson offers to drive Miss Johnson home in his air-conditioned sedan.

          “Oh no, thank you,” she says. “The bus on the corner should take me straight there.”

          She leaves, and Carson thinks about how happy her parents must be. What a well-mannered, practical girl they raised.

          As he lets the dog into the backyard to relieve himself for the night, Carson feels depression settling over himself like fog. When the dog comes back, he locks up and goes to bed in his underwear, without brushing his teeth.

* * *

Carson’s daughter calls from Boston. The sea captain is pleased with her work.

          “He says he’d be proud to have a daughter like me,” she reports, and somehow she manages not to let it sound like bragging. Her clients are forever complimenting her, and one of their most frequent comments is about her modesty.

          Of course the old man wants a daughter like Carson’s. Anyone would. People would kill, even, to be sure of her affections.

          “Have you located the missing figurehead?” he asks.

          Unfortunately the answer is no, though Nancy feels close to a discovery. She has a hunch about why the wooden lady is so important; in the clipper’s logs, she’s read that a hundred years ago, the captain was bringing his beloved a precious ruby from the Orient and hid it somewhere in the ship.

          “I’m certain it’s in or on the statue!” the young sleuth declares in excitement. “Can you imagine that beautiful stone sailing the seas back and forth at the heart of the wooden lady …”

          Carson thinks a savvy sea captain would surely hide his treasure somewhere less risky than a detachable statue riding the prow of his ship. But people have been known to do stranger things, as Nancy’s sleuthing has shown.

          “I may need to stay a little longer than I planned at first,” she informs Carson, “if I’m going to find the ruby.”

          Before she finishes the sentence, Carson is gesturing toward Miss Johnson, who stands in the doorway with her notepad—that awkward dinner all but forgotten—that he’ll need to wire his daughter more funds.

* * *

Carson half-remembers a Bible verse: A virtuous woman has a price beyond rubies. He must remember to repeat it to Nancy, though she’s unlikely to see it as a clue. It’s more an observation.

          Perhaps (he thinks as he signs for the money transfer) he should buy Nancy a ruby necklace or ring. A real one, not a fake. Pigeon’s blood, the rarest and most precious kind. It can be her souvenir of this case.

          After stopping off at the jewelry store, Carson drives home to Hannah Gruen. They have a pleasant dinner (perfectly cooked) and spend the evening listening to a concert on the radio. Carson reads the newspaper, looking for the articles Miss Johnson mentioned, while Hannah crochets some lace for the edges of Nancy’s pillowcases.

          Both of them are waiting. For a call, a telegram. A visit from the police.

          An enigma, thinks Carson. His daughter is an enigma, running after a mystery, shrouded in a question she doesn’t want to turn around to examine. Why is she so fascinated with the mysteries of other families but not her own? And why does it matter so much to him now that she care?

          He remembers more of the proverb: What has more value than rubies?

          The answer is knowledge.

          So simple: He wants her to know him. He wants to be known.

          As he mulls this over (so very simple), the dog’s ears prick up. It barks wildly. An intruder? Another brick?

          No—a key turns the lock of the front door. Nancy!

          “I found the missing lady!” she says, dropping a hatbox and her purse in the foyer. “And the treasure. It was in a little compartment set into the figurehead’s shoulder! So I flew back and caught a taxi at the airport.” She flings her arms wide. In this position, her powder blue suit looks boxy and attractively awkward. “I’m home!”

          At first, Carson and Hannah simply gape. And then, before this precious moment is over, they rush in for an embrace.

          “It was a good case, Dad,” she says into his shoulder. “But I wonder what my next mystery will be.”

          Ah, Nancy.

          “Why don’t you tap the walls here at home?” Carson blurts out. He can’t help himself. “Why don’t you go through our attic?”

          Nancy and Hannah pull away.

          “I mean,” he falters, “why don’t you stay and look for our mysteries?”

          Nancy blinks those dancing blue eyes. She speaks simply: “If I solve the mystery here, will I be able to come back? Will I even want to?”

          It seems the girl knows more than Carson has suspected. He opens his mouth to speak, to tell her everything, when—

          There’s a sharp rap on the door. Hannah answers it. On the other side is a young man in an airport uniform, holding a battered brown suitcase.

          “You left your satchel behind, miss,” he says, setting it down inside the door. The fellow is pimply faced and shifty eyed, exactly the sort of person you don’t want going through your things.

          Nancy stands with arms akimbo, gazing at the suitcase. “That isn’t mine,” she says—and then the old light leaps back into her eyes. “But I have a hunch that I can find the owner!”

          Ah, Nancy—Nan, Ann, her father’s delectable cy.

          “Whatever you need, my dear,” Carson says.

          In the battered brown case of his heart, there is astonishing space for her.


SUSANN COKAL’s novels are Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Her work has appeared in periodicals such as Electric Literature, The Cincinnati Review, The Journal, The New York Times Book Review, and more. She is the editorial director of Broad Street magazine and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit her online at