Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 37
Franklin W. Dixon
"Big help you are. We're going to miss the second half," Joe Hardy grumbled to his brother, pushing a lock of blond hair off his face. He looked down to make sure he'd removed all the glass from a broken soda bottle from around the left rear tire of the Hardys' black van. Then he gripped the handle of a green car jack and pumped. With a series of sudden jerks the van fell back to the parking lot of the supermarket.
"Hey, I offered," Frank replied, standing beside his brother and slowly crumpling an empty potato chip bag. There was a sly glint in his dark brown eyes as he smiled at his younger brother. "I seem to remember someone insisting on doing it himself so we'd get out of here faster." He opened the rear door of the van and tossed the empty bag into a sack of groceries they had just bought.
Joe slipped the jack off, picked up the flat tire along with the jack, and tossed them in the back of the van. They made a loud thunk as they hit the floor next to the groceries. "And another thing," he said, retrieving the empty potato chip bag and balling it up. "These were supposed to be for the second half of the game." Joe and Frank's friends were joining them in fifteen minutes for the second half of the NFL game.
To Joe, solving crimes was probably the most important thing in his life. But on a Sunday afternoon in the fall, with the maples blanketing Bayport in a fiery display of color, the pro football game of the week was a close second. Unlike sleuthing, football was simple. There were no terrorists involved, no codes to crack, no bomb threats, no high-speed chases. Just grown men knocking together over a piece of pigskin. Simple. Elegant. At a solidly built six feet, Joe sometimes wondered if he shouldn't try to be a pro player after school.
Frank, an inch taller but leaner than his brother, enjoyed football, too. He wasn't in love with the game itself - it was okay - but he was in love with the way the games worked his brother into a frenzy. Their detective father, Fenton Hardy, who was away on some mysterious "security gig in southwestern Massachusetts," was the major calming influence on Joe. Without him it promised to be a better show than usual, Frank decided.
"Joe, there are four more bags in there - family size. Not to mention the pretzels, the popcorn, the burgs, the dogs, the kielbasa, and the ice cream. I think we'll survive for two quarters of a game."
Glowering, Joe stepped around to the driver's door and climbed in.
Frank leaned in through the passenger window. "But if you're really worried about it, I can always go back in and - "
"Very funny, Frank," Joe said. "Come on, let's get out of here. I don't want to be slaving over a hot barbecue when the game's on." As Frank got in he put the key in the ignition and gunned the engine.
Frank nodded. "I can just see it now. The quarterback sweeps around the line for a ninety-eight-yard end run. The crowd is on its feet, screaming. Biff Hooper is so excited he crushes his soda can, sending a geyser of grape soda all over Phil Cohen's new T-shirt. Chet Morton stops feeding his face for a record three full seconds and bursts into hysterics. And where's Joe Hardy during all this action? Outside by the grill, helping Aunt Gertrude arrange hot dog buns around the kielbasa."
The only answer to Frank's scenario was a squeal of tires as the van tore out of the parking lot.
Frank gripped the door handle. "Whoa, ease up! We run over one more soda bottle, and we're walking! That was our only spare."
Joe slowed down as he scanned the asphalt parking lot. "I still say that bottle wasn't there when I pulled in. I would have felt it."
"Maybe some kids smashed the bottle when we were inside."
"Nope. That wouldn't explain how the tire blew unless the kids slashed the tire. Maybe those new shock absorbers Dad put in are doing one unbelievable job, and we just didn't feel it."
Joe turned left out of the lot and drove through the familiar suburban streets of Bayport, taking a strategic route that avoided all the traffic lights. Within minutes they were pulling into the gravel driveway of a large, handsome stone house.
Joe leaned on the horn. "We're home, Mom and Aunt Gertrude! Fire up that grill!"
Frank and Joe climbed out and ran around the back of the van. They yanked the door open, pulled out the four grocery bags, and carried them across the front to the walkway.
Suddenly Frank stopped in front of Joe, almost causing him to drop his bags. "Hey, what are you ... "
Joe's question trailed off when he saw what Frank was staring at.
The inner front door was wide open. On a warm late-September afternoon, that wasn't unusual.
It was the storm door that caught Frank's attention. It was open, too.
"What - " Frank muttered under his breath, sensing that something was wrong.
The brothers dropped their bags and raced inside. A bottle of ketchup cracked dully on the path behind them.
They stopped short in the living room. Beside the fireplace a marble coffee table lay on its side. Next to it lay the shattered pieces of a glass paperweight.
"Mom! Aunt Gertrude!" Joe called into the house. He and Frank bolted into the dining room, then the kitchen. There the table had been pushed against a wall, toppling two of the chairs.
"Oh, no." Frank's voice caught in his throat. He was staring at the cutlery drawer by the refrigerator - or, rather, the open space where the drawer had been. On the floor was a gleaming mass of silverware spilled out on the floor.
Joe ran to the back door. It was open. He went outside, calling his mom's name. The deck furniture, the garage, the lawn - everything back there was in place.
Meanwhile Frank checked the den and Mr. Hardy's office. Nothing was suspiciously out of place there. Next he bounded upstairs. Joe's bedroom looked ransacked, but that was normal. In the other bedrooms Frank saw no signs of a struggle, but there were no signs of his mother or aunt, either.
The brothers arrived back in the kitchen at the same time. Joe's brow was creased. His eyes darted from object to object, following the inner rhythm of his thoughts. "Frank, we've got to figure this out," he said, pacing the floor. "Who would do this? What if something has happened to them?"
Joe's last question was an anguished shout.
Frank gripped Joe firmly by the arm. "We can't let our emotions take over, Joe. We owe it to Mom and Aunt Gertrude to treat this professionally."
The words were coming out, but they didn't sound convincing. Joe looked into his brother's eyes and saw the same fear that was in his. But somehow it made Frank's thoughts slow down and focus.
"Okay. If Mom was attacked, she'd know enough to leave a trace of something. Wouldn't she?"
Joe didn't like the tone of doubt in Frank's voice. "Right," he said. "Right." He knelt beside the spilled silverware, looking for something - anything.
Frank turned toward the dining room. He took a step into the room and stopped cold.
"Frank, what if - "
Joe let the question fall off. He froze, listening for whatever Frank had heard.
In the silence, it came. A barely audible bumping noise. Once ... twice ... the third time it was accompanied by a muffled crack.
"The den closet!" Frank shouted. The brothers sprang into action. They sped past the stairs and into the den. Joe got to the closet first and yanked it open.
A cloth bag, five and a half feet high toppled toward him. It was obvious that inside the bag was a human form.
"Mom!" Joe yelled, and he caught her in his arms. He dragged the bag to the sofa and untied a knot at the top. Frank immediately pulled the bag down.
Bound with a heavy rope, her hair matted with perspiration and her mouth gagged was Aunt Gertrude!
Frank pulled off the gag as Joe struggled to untie her.
"Oh!" Aunt Gertrude cried out. "Oh!"
"Are you all right?" Frank asked.
Aunt Gertrude nodded weakly as Frank picked her up and set her gently on the sofa. "I - I think so," she gasped. "It - it was so awful - that man - that terrible, evil - I tried to - I couldn't - "
Joe removed the last of the binding. "It's all right, Aunt Gertrude. Everything's all right."
"Oh, thank you, boys. I tried to knock, but my hands were tied. All I could do was bump my body against the door. I thought you'd never hear me!"
"We're here, Aunt Gertrude," Frank reassured her. "It's all over. Can you tell us what happened? Where's Mom?"
"I - I tried to get a knife from the drawer," Aunt Gertrude barreled on, "but one of them - one of them just pulled the whole drawer out!"
"One of whom, Aunt Gertrude?" Frank asked.
"I don't know! They were wearing masks. Terrible black masks! Ohhh - how could those beasts have done that to her - "
Aunt Gertrude's eyes started to well with tears. Frank and Joe exchanged a terrified glance. - -
"Aunt Gertrude," Frank said softly, "where's Mom?"
A rapid set of snuffles was all the answer Aunt Gertrude could give. Her trembling right hand reached up to her heart, and she closed her eyes.
When she opened them they were shot through with cold, naked fear.
"Boys, your mother - " Aunt Gertrude's lips began quivering, and Frank was afraid she wouldn't finish her sentence.
But she did.
"Your mother has been kidnapped!"
"Are you sure, Aunt Gertrude?" Joe said urgently. "Did you see them?"
Aunt Gertrude nodded. "Yes, yes. Of course I'm sure. Oh, the poor dear. There was nothing I could do." She shook her head, fighting back tears, starting to get angry now. "You boys - I always told you this detective nonsense would amount to no good! Look at what's happened."
"Please, Aunt Gertrude," Frank said softly, "describe what happened. You were in the house when - "
"I was not in the house," Aunt Gertrude contradicted him. "I was out taking a walk. It seemed so splendid outside, and the old maple tree by the Remsens' house is one of the first to turn, so I figured I'd go there to check it out and chat a bit. I brought them some jam - "
"And you came back," Joe pressed on impatiently.
"Yes. I came back and noticed both front doors open. Well, of course, I thought, That's not like Laura to leave the doors open, even on a beautiful day. You know flies and mosquitoes are still thriving. ..."
Frank realized that Aunt Gertrude couldn't have been hurt too much. She was rambling on like her old self. Frank felt himself getting as impatient as his brother.
"Then I repeated to myself, Laura just wouldn't leave both doors open like that!" Aunt Gertrude continued. "So I went inside, and the first thing I saw was the mess in the living room. Well, I was shocked. Then I heard noises inside - rough male voices. I called out, 'Laura?' and walked to the kitchen. And that's when I - saw her." Aunt Gertrude shuddered. A small sob escaped, and her eyes began to mist over.
"What happened?" Joe demanded, his eyes on fire. "Was she - "
"Alive?" Aunt Gertrude cut in. "Yes. At least I think she was. She - " Suddenly she began sobbing violently, and tears started to flow down her cheeks. "To tell the truth, boys, I don't even know for sure! She was on the floor, and they were - oh, it was so barbaric! - they were stuffing her into a sack like that one!" She pointed to the bag that had been covering her.
Frank handed her a tissue from a nearby box. "How many of them?" he pressed.
Aunt Gertrude's fingers fluttered nervously as she dabbed her cheeks. "Two. Yes, there were two men holding the bag. They both looked up as I walked in. I screamed - oh, I thought I'd lose my voice - "
"And then they turned on you," Joe interjected.
"Well, no, they didn't. They were both just staring at me when that horrible old bag was pulled over my head."
"So there had to be at least three of them," Joe interrupted. "One to pull the bag over your head."
"Yes, I suppose there were three."
"What did they look like?" Frank asked.
"I - I couldn't tell. ... " She looked away as her thoughts wandered back. "The blond one was wearing a ski mask - "
"Blond one?" Joe repeated. "How could you tell his hair color if he wore a ski mask?"
"It was tucked up in back, and I saw a blond fringe," Aunt Gertrude answered.
"Did you notice anything else about him?" Frank asked.
Her eyes lit up. "Come to think of it, I did notice something else. Yes - in fact, I know who he was!"
Frank gave her a strong, encouraging smile. "Way to go, Aunt Gertrude! Who?"
Aunt Gertrude looked at her nephews with renewed confidence. She set her chin triumphantly and said, "A forest ranger."
Frank's face fell. He could see his brother's shoulders slump. "A what?"
"Am I not enunciating clearly, or do you both have cotton in your ears? A forest ranger! Yes, that must be who it was. I knew I'd seen one of those shirts before. It was exactly like the shirts those rangers wore on my trip to Yellowstone National Park - oh, about ten or twelve years ago, do you remember? Probably not - you were so young at the time. Back then I had hoped that you boys might become rangers. But will you listen to me ramble on and on? You'd think I was an old lady."