Author's note: Thank you for reading and especially reviewing! May I present to you the last chapter:
Burt, Dave, and the two officers noticed the ghostly figure a moment after Nancy did, and there were gasps from all of them. They knew by now that it wasn't real, that it was just a projection on a sheet, but for the moment, it was so close and so lifelike that they weren't quite sure they believed it. Even Nancy was taken aback, especially when the specter's vague outline began to solidify.
After a few seconds, the shape became the definite image of a boy with distinct features, though still glowing blue and still with something off about him. Nancy realized a moment later that it was his eyes. He had no pupils or irises, just empty, ice-blue orbs.
"What do you want?" She addressed the question off to the side; she knew the phantom wasn't real and couldn't respond.
It was a shock, then, when the boy replied in the same voice that Nancy had heard earlier, both at the river and over the phone. "Peace."
Nancy smiled slightly. "You know I don't believe in ghosts. You know I already know how you're pulling off this illusion. Let's stop playing games."
There was a pause, and then the projection disappeared. A dark figure stepped out from behind a tree, the unmistakable outline of a gun in his hand.
"No use trying to fool you, Nancy Drew," Liam's voice said. "I know when I'm beat, and I'm beat. I'm not ready to completely throw the towel in, though, so if you officers would kindly put your hands high enough that you won't be tempted to reach for your guns, we can talk without any interruptions."
The officers obeyed, but Nancy folded her arms. "What are you really after, Liam?" she asked. "You lured us out here to meet you, didn't you?"
Liam chuckled. "You're flattering yourself, Nancy. You've just been in the way since you came to Emerson, and I've just been trying to get you out of the way. I thought you'd at least go look for your friend. Some loyalty."
Nancy ignored the jibe. "Why did you try to kill Professor Norden?"
"Can't you guess, Nancy? You're the great detective. I'll give you a hint. You saw quite a few headstones out here. Whose headstone didn't you see?"
"I didn't see nearly enough headstones to figure that out, but I'll take a guess," Nancy replied. "Claire Norden's. Are you blaming Norden somehow for his wife's death? But what would that have to do with you?"
"No, his ex-wife's death," Liam corrected her.
Nancy shook her head. "The obituary said they were still married."
"The obituary written by a family friend who didn't want to dredge up all that garbage," Liam spat out. "Okay, it was technically true. They were separated for almost seven years before she died, but they never actually got a divorce. Claire wanted one. She found another man she wanted to marry, but Norden wouldn't give it to her, even though this other man needed her. He had a young son, you see, who had to grow up without a mother first because of a flake of a biological mother who ran off and second because Norden was too stubborn to let go of someone he didn't even want anyway."
"I think even I can figure out the rest from here," Burt broke in. "This guy's name was Rodgers and his son's name was Liam. You really liked Claire and wanted her for a stepmother. It still doesn't explain how Norden was supposedly responsible for her dying."
Liam sighed. "Of course, you wouldn't be able to see it. Well, might as well tell the whole story, so you can know what kind of a man you saved. Claire went to talk to him, one last time, fifteen years ago. My dad went with her, because she was afraid to go alone. It was winter, like this, but that old fool was out in the woods trying to track down the ghost of Jack Delance. It was nighttime, but Claire wanted to get it over with, so they went down to the river to see if they could find him. He was down there, sure enough, out on the frozen river itself doing his ghost-hunting bit. They called to him from the shore, but he wouldn't come in. Finally, Claire had had enough, so she walked out to meet him. She stepped on a patch of thin ice and fell through. My dad rushed to help her, but Norden ran off. Dad pulled her out and got her to the hospital, but she developed pneumonia and a bunch of other complications. She held on for another couple of months, but Norden never even called to see how she was. Some other friends of hers arranged the funeral. They didn't even want Dad anywhere near.
"So, last summer, I decided to make Norden's life miserable before I got my revenge on him. I transferred here to Emerson, started taking classes from Norden. I rigged up the whole ghost of Jack Delance thing to bring back plenty of wonderful memories for him, sent him some messages, both paper and electronic. For some extra class, I used Claire's old phone number as the number that the spoofing system brought up. I figured he'd recognize it. I also did some other acts of sabotage so plenty of other people would notice and be coming up to him and asking, 'Why aren't you looking into the ghost?'"
"And then when Nancy came, you knew her reputation, so you figured you would have to distract her," Dave concluded. "Isn't kidnapping Bess and Hadley a little much?"
There was just enough light from the eastern horizon to show a fleeting look of confusion on Liam's face. "I was in this to make Norden pay for practically murdering Claire. The only way he could pay for that was to die himself. There was nothing I could do that would make things any worse for me if I got caught at that point."
Nancy shivered, but she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Officer Hendrix had been slowly lowering his hands without Liam noticing. Now he was pressing down the button on his radio. Someone at headquarters would notice before long and come looking for them. All they had to do was stall.
"You couldn't have pulled this off by yourself," Nancy said, directing her attention back to Liam.
"No," Liam admitted. "I bribed the maintenance guy, Clark, to help me with the sabotage and the apparitions. Turned out if you paid him enough, he was down for anything. Very handy guy to have around."
"But he wasn't the only one," Nancy continued.
"Yes, he was. There wasn't anyone else."
"There's no need to feel bad about throwing her under the bus," Nancy said. "She's already done the same to you, several times."
Liam shook his head in an unconvincing attempt to look as if he had no idea what Nancy was talking about. "There wasn't anyone else."
"Hadley was in on the scheme," Nancy said, "but not all the way. I'm guessing she thought that you were just playing a harmless prank on a professor and she has enough of a sense of humor to be willing to go along with that. Once she found out what you were really doing, she knew she had to get out and stop you, but she was afraid to admit to her part in the plan. First, she alerted me to the fact that you were using Claire Norden's number and got us her name in a way that I thought was a little too convenient even then. She tried to talk to Eliot earlier tonight, but got cold feet. Then she tried to talk to Bess, and when you interrupted got scared off again. She never was kidnapped. I was sure of that the first time I heard her story from Burt, and you confirmed it a minute ago with how surprised you looked hearing about it. She said she was knocked out immediately after leaving the dance, but she came to the hospital hours later with her head still bleeding. I figured from that alone that she had to be lying about where she got her head injury. I still don't know where she got that, but I do know she came to the hospital specifically to tell the police where Bess was being held."
Liam raised his eyebrows. "That little sneak. It doesn't matter, though, I guess. The plan's ruined, thanks to you, Nancy, and Hadley, apparently, and that pest Eliot. He's been snooping around about the ghost and finding out way too much. Hadley was supposed to tip him off to come to my dorm room so he could find the convenient clues that led you here and Clark and I could deal with him. We figured he'd be a little easier to deal with than Nancy and her whole troupe of friends, anyway. When the plan started blowing up tonight, we canceled that – Hadley didn't even do her part, anyway – but then I saw the police car outside the dorm and knew the game was up. I figured I might as well meet you out here and go out in a blaze of glory."
"I don't see how stupidly getting yourself caught is going out in a blaze of glory," Dave replied.
Liam smiled. "I have the drop on you three and the two cops. If I shoot straight enough, I could take you all out with me." He raised the gun and pulled back the hammer.
George rushed to Bess's side, with Ned following as close as he could, although he had a little harder time squeezing behind the door than George did. By the time he reached the girls, George had already pulled the gag out of Bess's mouth and was working on the knots binding her hands. Ned went to work on the ropes on her ankles.
Bess sighed heavily. "Thank goodness you guys found me. I was starting to think they were planning on just leaving me here to starve." Once her hands were free, she wrapped both her rescuers in a giant hug. Then she pulled back, a look of confusion on her face. "Wait. Where's Dave? And Nancy and Burt?"
"Long story," George replied, speaking briefly to avoid sounding overly emotional. "Can you stand up?"
"I twisted my ankle." Bess looked at it. "Having the rope around it probably didn't help matters, either. If you guys help me, I think I can."
Ned offered her a hand and pulled her to her feet. She winced a little in pain, but her ankle didn't buckle under her. With help from both her friends, she was able to hobble out of the little room once Ned had pushed the bookshelf farther to the side, and then up the stairs.
They met the officers, who asked Bess several solicitous questions and pulled out a chair for her to sit in. Mandy stared at her, wide-eyed, and turned an accusing look toward Clark, who was trying keep any vestige of emotion from his countenance. Then Officer Brady turned to Ned and George.
"I just got a call from headquarters," he said. "Your friends are out at the cemetery with Officers Hendrix and Montoya. We need to get out there right away."
The eastern sky was growing lighter every moment as Nancy tensed every muscle as she heard the hammer on Liam's gun cock. The time had suddenly run out, and a false move now would mean disaster.
"You don't want to do this, Liam," Officer Montoya said from behind Nancy. "You haven't killed anyone yet, and you're not going to escape. If you pull that trigger, you'll never see the outside of a jail again."
"Or I'll never see the inside. No one's taking me alive." Liam turned the gun toward himself. "There's nothing more for me. You said so yourself. Why should I stick around for it, then?"
"Honestly, your 'blaze of glory' keeps getting less and less glorious," Burt said in a convincingly bored tone. "At least, when you were planning on killing us, it was a little bit more impressive."
Liam lowered the gun slightly. "What…?"
He didn't get the chance to continue the question, because as soon as his attention was diverted, if only for a moment, Nancy kicked a deluge of snow into his face. He staggered back, spluttering and waving his hands wildly. In a flash, Montoya had her own gun out of the holster, Hendrix had jumped forward to take Liam's weapon from him, and Dave had grabbed Nancy and Burt and pulled them to the ground lest Liam's gun go off before Hendrix could take it from him.
A moment later, Montoya was on the radio, calling in that they had a suspect in custody, and Hendrix was putting handcuffs on Liam. Nancy and the boys stood up, brushing the snow off themselves.
"I had things under control," Burt said.
"Yeah, we could see that," Dave replied dryly. "Now can we go see about Bess?"
"Yes, let's," Nancy agreed.
However, they were obliged to wait for police backup to arrive. They were surprised and thrilled to see George and Ned help Bess out of the back seat of the first car. Dave ran forward and caught Bess in a hug, and as soon as they could, Nancy and Burt also greeted her with hugs.
"Well, it looks like this one is about all wrapped up," Bess observed as she noticed Liam in handcuffs. "Unless there's more people in on the plot?"
"There's no evidence of any," Nancy replied, "but I don't think we quite have everything tied up yet."
"I guess I owe Eliot an apology," Dave commented. "It looks like he wasn't involved after all."
"Well, we did step right into a trap that was meant for him," Burt reminded him, "so maybe he can cut us a little slack there."
Nancy smiled. "True, but what I was thinking of was Jack. I hope he's all right."
"Yeah," Ned agreed. "I'd like to talk to him, now that I'm a little more coherent."
Officer Brady overheard the exchange and said, "We had a search party go out to the cabin. It's funny. They didn't find any sign of anyone leaving it in a different direction than the one all of you took. It hasn't snowed, he must have simply walked over the same path you took, but they can't find any indication that he left that path."
"That's not the only thing that's funny about it," Nancy said. "He was pretty vague about himself, and he mentioned that I should go out to the cemetery. Honestly, if I hadn't had that in the back of my mind…Well, Liam's clues were pretty obvious. We would have still figured it out, I guess."
"Nancy Drew, you're not saying you think that kid was actually a ghost or something, are you?" George asked incredulously.
"No," Nancy said. "It must have just been a coincidence. But you've got to admit, it was a pretty strange one."
Author's note: Once again, thank you very, very much for reading this story! I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you especially to drogorath, angelicalkiss, Rose12, and Aurora Mandeville for your reviews throughout. I'll admit, this is the fewest reviews I've ever gotten on a story this long, which is a little disappointing, but it does mean that every review I did get meant even more. So thank you for them! Thank you also to any future readers who review! I'll still see those reviews and I'll still appreciate them, and if you have an account, I'll PM you to thank you personally.
You're probably wondering about Jack - is he the ghost or not? I'm intentionally leaving that one vague in the story itself, because Nancy wouldn't have any way to acquire all the proof she would need to actually believe that he's a ghost. Plus, with the whole CW series making ghosts to some extent solve the mystery for Nancy, I've been kind of backing out of the idea of having him be a real ghost, but it was too late at that point. In my mind, though, yes, he is actually meant to be a ghost.
That being said, there are a couple of things I want to mention. First, I really wanted to have a short Christmas story for this Christmas season, but at this point that's definitely not going to happen before Christmas. If I'm still in the mood, I might write it in January and post it then. Otherwise, I do have a Christmas story from last year that you might enjoy if you haven't read it yet: Operation Santa Claus. It's not as good as I think it is, but it's probably my favorite thing I've ever written, fanfiction or otherwise.
Speaking of otherwise, I have finished my series of twelve mystery stories that I've published on Amazon. Yay! Well, not exactly finished. These twelve are short with an overarching mystery, but I plan on writing more in the future that can stand on their own. They're more for middle-school aged kids, but then so are Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, so you all might enjoy them anyway. If you want some more details, then shoot me a PM or mention it in a review.
Since I'm not doing a Christmas story, it looks like this is it for my fanfiction for 2019. I'm planning on more in the future, but until life slows down a little, I don't have as much time as I would like to devote to writing, so I'm going to really focus on my original work for now. I'll be back soon, though. I have way too many ideas to abandon fanfiction altogether. ;)
Merry Christmas and may 2020 be a great year for you all!