Fred and Joe were having coffee with Mother and Aunt Patty. Aunt Patty had made a rich coffee cake with pecan glaze on top.
“This reminds me of Aunt Jane's recipe.” said Mother.
“It is hers.” said Aunt Patty. “She taught me to make all of her pasteries when I was a youngster, but my favorite of hers are her apple tarts.”
“Those are outstanding.” said Mother.
“Better than this? No way!” exclaimed Joe.
“How is Aunt Jane doing?” asked Fred, perking up his ears at the mention of tarts. “I for one would like to try those!”
“Actually,” said Mother. “I had a letter from her just yesterday. Something of a private nature is puzzling her and she wanted to discuss it with me in person.”>
“Maybe we can take the train down on Thursday.” suggested Joe. “Ask her if we can come for tea.”
“I'll ring up now and ask her.” said Mother.
Aunt Jane sounded excited. “I'll make a New England tea party for 3 o'clock .” she said. “My gardener will meet you at the train station.”
Early Thursday morning Mr. Clever drove Mother and the boys to the station. The boys ran ahead to see the big engine at the front while Mother bought the tickets. It was a coal engine and the fireman was just starting the fire with a big bellows. Workmen were loading the tender with coal from a heap along the siding.
“I hope Mother found us window seats.” said Joe as they ran back to the platform. They found Mother just before the engine tooted for the passengers to board. They did have window seats and they watched the buildings of Boston turn into the farm lands of New Hampshire. Long stone walls separated the grain fields from cow pastures. Pine woods and maple trees were plentiful. At last they arrived at the station.
A tall thin man was in the parking lot, standing stiffly beside Aunt Jane's cream colored Rolls Royce.
“That must be the gardener.” Mother said.
“Aunt Jane's car sure is a beauty!” said Fred, running his hand over the hood.
“Don't scratch the paint!” growled the gardener.
It was only a short drive to Aunt Jane's estate. The gardener remained silent, scowling at the road and beeping frequently at the passing cars. He seemed troubled. The estate's long drive was U – shaped and lined with trees. The house was solid brick with three broad steps leading to the front door. The gardener honked rudely upon arrival and Aunt Jane came out to welcome them.
Aunt Jane served an elegant tea. There were English cucumber sandwiches fresh from the farm, served on amber glass plates, crab-apple jelly on walnut scones and tea in blue flowered china cups. Then came the famous apple tarts with whipped cream for dessert.
After the boys had eaten their fill, Aunt Jane sent them off to explore her back gardens. They went out the living room door and there on either side of the door frame sat two enormous china dogs. They came up to the boy's waists and were painted beautifully to look like real dogs. “They are my guard dogs.” said Aunt Jane, who didn't keep any pets. They looked so real that Joe thought he saw one blink. But that seemed strange, so he kept the thought to himself.
The boys went through the gardens to the fruit orchards beyond. The apples were ripe and they ate some. Aunt Jane's tea was good, but she hadn't made quite enough to fill growing boys.
There was a little cottage beyond the orchard.
“Who lives there?” asked Fred when they were back with Aunt Jane.
“That's the gardener's cottage.” said Aunt Jane. “I have just hired a new gardener and he needed a place to rent, so I suggested he clean up that old cottage. He is fixing it up in return for staying there.”
“Aunt Jane was telling me of a troublesome matter.” said Mother. “Her bank account is low on funds and it seems that the balance is less than her withdrawl records show they should be. It is time for her to pay some taxes on the estate lands, and there is not enough money in the account. This has never happened before.”
“Hmm.” said Joe. “It sounds like someone has either been stealing directly from the account inside the bank, or from the outside, making withdrawls. Or the bank account manager isn't honest and he has been stealing.”
“Oh!” said Aunt Jane. “That could never be. My bank manager has been a family friend for over 40 years. He and my late husband were school mates together. He was as concerned as I was over the matter.”
“I'll go visit him all the same.” said Joe. “He could be having hard times himself.”
“But that's not the only way the money could be disappearing.” said Fred. “Are you the only one who has authority to withdraw money from that account?”
“Yes, I'm the sole trustee of the estate accounts.” said Aunt Jane. “But it is far for me to travel to the bank these days. Recently I have been sending signed letters with my gardener. He always brings me back the full amount of my requests.”
“This is definitely a mystery.” said Fred.
“We're on the case!” said Joe.
“Thank you boys.” said Aunt Jane. “I have never been behind on my payments before and I am anxious to track down where the money is going.”
The boys promised to do their best to recover the money and said they would report back soon.
The next day was Friday and the boys went to the bank to meet with the manager.
“I am sorry to hear of Aunt Jane's troubles.” he said sincerely. “I have been reviewing her account material and noticed something suspicious. Look at these two withdrawl letters. They are written on the same paper, with the same letter head and date, but the handwriting is slightly different. I compared them to correspondence from several years back and they are not in the same hand.”
The boys looked too and saw immediately that the bank manager was correct.
“Someone is forging these letters.” said Fred.
“And they've stolen Aunt Jane's paper too.” added Joe.
“It does appears that way.” said the manager. “But Aunt Jane is getting old. You must know that. Some people become forgetful, and shaky with age.”
“Not Aunt Jane. She's sound and healthy.” said Fred. “Besides, look at these two letters. One is just like her writing and the other is not. We'll find the thief, if you can help us sir. Please ask your tellers not to approve Aunt Jane's transactions without checking with you first. If you get any more of these fake letters please call the police.”
“I will do that.” the manager promised.
The boys called Aunt Jane and told her they planned to visit her tomorrow.
“Saturday is my market day dears.” said Aunt Jane. “But, I can send the gardener with my lists and he can pick up what I need.”
The boys took a taxi from the train station, and when they arrived at Aunt Jane's she said the gardener had just left for town. Over plates of warm cherry pie and cups of sweet tea, the boys told Aunt Jane that someone was forging letters on her letterhead.
“It must be someone with access to your house.” said Fred. “Can we look around for clues?”
“Yes. I only have my Wednesday cleaning maid and the gardener helping me.” said Aunt Jane. “When company come I see them in the parlor or dining room. They are never near the office, which is where the paper is kept.”
The boys went to the office and looked around. It was a small room off the kitchen, where the house hold accounts had been kept for years. Big binders of papers lined the book shelf and in a corner of it, near the window were two reams of pale pink paper, stacked on top of each other. The top one was open.
“Anyone could easily take a few sheets, without them being missed.” said Fred.
Joe looked out the window. A boot print was in the soft ground below. It looked to be about the same size as the gardener's.
“When do you expect your gardener to return?” asked Joe.
Aunt Jane checked the kitchen clock. “In about an hour.” she said. “He has to stop at the bank for me on the way home.”
“Do you have a spare key to his cottage?” asked Fred, catching on.
“No. There was only one. It's old and the other was lost long ago, but you can look around the outside of the cottage, if you'd like to explore.” said Aunt Jane.
“Lets see what we can find out.” said Fred.
The two boys went out the back door and Joe turned to pat one of the china dogs on the head. It moved slightly under his hand.
“You go ahead Fred.” said Joe. “I want to check something out on my own.”
Fred ran to the cottage and peaked in at the window. The place was small and messy. The bed in one corner was unmade and a rumply pile of clothes lay in a heap on the floor. Crumbs and dirty dishes littered the counter tops, but the table was perfectly clean. Fred noted the contrast and then saw a pile of papers hastily stacked on a chair. It looked like they were covered with handwriting and signatures. One pale pink piece of paper stuck out near the top.
“Aha! There's the evidence.” said Fred to himself and hurried back to find Joe.
Joe had stayed to see the china dogs. He had imagined them to be quite delicate and light, like Aunt Jane's blue china tea cups. But the one he had put his hand on was slightly heavy, and the eyes seemed to be blinking at him again in the sun light. The other one was light and hollow sounding.. “But there is something in this one, and it's making a clinking noise inside,” he thought. “It sounds like metal, or money, like in my piggy bank.”
Carefully he tipped the china dog onto its side. It was indeed hollow and had a round hole in the bottom, but it was not empty. A flood of gold coins came out when he tipped it over.
“Aunt Jane.” he called. “Here's your money!”
Then everything happened at once. Fred came in to report that he had seen evidence of forgery in the cottage. The telephone ran from the bank. The gardener had been caught with a fraudulent letter and the police were holding him in their custody. Fred and Joe talked to the police chief and gave him the whole story plus their evidence from the estate.
“I wonder why he hid the money?” asked Joe.
“Maybe he didn't have a bank account of his own,” said Fred. “And he was hoarding it here so that he couldn't be accused of theft if his house was searched.”
Aunt Jane was overjoyed to have her money returned to her. The only thing she still needed was her car. The boys took a taxi into town and recovered the Rolls Royce full of groceries. Fred was very happy to drive the beautiful car home.
“Those china dogs are a blessing to have.” Aunt Jane said when they returned. “They've saved my money.”
“I'm glad the gardener stored the money close to home.” said Fred.
And Joe added, “I'm glad we've stopped that thief!”
“How do you happen to have such interesting dogs?” asked Fred.
“They have been in the family a long time.” replied Aunt Jane. “They were given to my great grandfather who was a merchant sailor. At that time, he was one of just a few Europeans to trade in a particular port in the orient. They were gifted to him by a Chinese Emporer... but that is a story for another time.”