Chapter two. Enjoy!

Watch the Ball Drop

" Gone!" someone cried. " Who's gone?"

The guests all glanced about, trying to see who was missing. Mr. Milweed's voice rose above the din. He was stomping toward Joe and shouting. " Where's my daughter?"

Joe threw his hands up in a placating gesture. Then, pointing to Joanna's vacated chair, he explained, " She was sitting right there, sir. I don't know-"

" You were the last person seen with her!"

Keeping a tight reign on his temper, Joe explained himself to the irate man. " I only left to get her some punch, sir. The lights went out; and when they came back on, Joanna was gone!"

Frank stepped in. " We'll help search for Joanna, sir."

Mr. Milweed was a tower of rage and worry. He was about to release an angry retort on the young sleuths when Mr. Peterson came hobbling up, looking frazzled. Frank noticed that the host's suit seemed rumpled. " Is there a problem, Mr. Harrow?" the older man asked.

" Joanna is missing!" Reed cried in dismay before Frank could answer.

Mr. Peterson decided to mount a search party. The three detectives immediately volunteered to help. Reed also offered to look.

" We do not need your help, Mr. Smothers." Mr. Milweed shot the young man a scathing look.

The detectives filed away the obvious hostility between the young man and Joanna's father for future reference. Nancy and Joe moved off to hunt for clues; while Frank stayed behind to fish for answers from Mr. Peterson.

" Sir, are the servers here tonight your regular staff?"

Fiddling with his tie, the host replied, " Oh mercy, no! I wouldn't take the hotel staff away from the guests, especially not on New Year's Eve. The servers here are all temporaries from an agency; Rudson, the butler, is the only normal staff in my home."

Nodding, Frank fired off another question. " If you don't mind my asking, why did you leave the room just a few minutes before the lights went out?"

The older male got testy. " Surely you don't suspect me, young man. I stepped out to speak to Rudson; he's managing our extra staff for the night. I wanted to check with him about how everything is going." He raised his brows. " Any more questions?"

Frank knew when to retreat. " Not now, sir." Mr. Peterson walked away, his cane tapping harshly.

A full fifteen minutes had passed before Nancy signaled for the brothers to join her by a shadowy doorway.

" I've found some footprints in here. I think that they're from a pair of heels." Nancy took a pocket flashlight from her purse and led the way down the dusty corridor. She explained that the prints at the beginning of the shadowy hall were smudged, as if the person who had made them had been dragging his feet.

" Okay, here." Nancy pointed the light downward; then she frowned. " These other prints weren't here before!"

Crouching, Joe examined the prints. " You were right about heels, Nance. The others look like men's dress shoes."

" Joanna's feet looked about my size..." Nancy made her own footprint next to the unknown set of heel prints and noted the length. " That's about right."

" Let's split up." Frank suggested. " Nancy and I can take the corridor and follow these prints. Joe, you go back and look for any more clues. Ask people if they saw or heard anything suspicious before the lights went out, okay?"

Joe quirked a brow. " How come you two get paired off?"

Nancy and Frank regarded the younger Hardy in silence until he went back up the corridor.

Keeping the light low to the floor to pick up the prints, the two friends followed the trail to its end, a door marked EXIT. A pair of men's dress shoes were lying in a jumble by the door.

" Check this out." Frank said. He held the left shoe bottom-up. Something had been written on it. Although one of the words was smudged, the detective was able to read: Property of (smudge) Carassa.

Nancy read the incomplete message over Frank's shoulder. " It looks like Carassa took the back exit." Suddenly, Nancy let out a huge sneeze. She rested her hand on the door to steady herself, and she nearly toppled over when it swung open. " Guess the lock didn't catch." she mumbled.

" Nancy, look!" Frank pointed his light to the snowy ground. " More prints!"