Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
"Ambushed!" Frank snapped. "The other side was waiting for them up there. Someone's been one step ahead of us every move we've made."
There was a knock on the door, and Aleko opened it to admit Nicholas Kaliotis, who was immediately surrounded by Frank and the others in the room.
"We heard from Phil. They've been ambushed on the road by guys with machine guns!"
"We've got to do something fast!"
"Have you heard anything about Peter? Is he alive?"
"Listen, we have to get reinforcements up toward the border, they may be — "
"Quiet!" Nicholas's roar cut through the excited barrage. "Now, one at a time, if you please. Did you actually speak to them?"
"No, the interference was terrible," Frank replied. "We were able to make out bits and pieces and then we lost them completely. I tried responding, but I don't think I got through."
"Hmmm. Yes, in the mountains, radio reception might be difficult," said Kaliotis. "But you were able to establish that they were under attack of some kind?"
"The first word we heard was ambushed," Chet exclaimed.
"How quickly can you organize a relief party?" asked Frank. "They may not have much time."
Kaliotis cut off the discussion. "Right," he said. "Stay here for a few minutes. I will be back as soon as I can. I must see to getting a team prepared to go north. Wait." And he was gone.
Frank picked up where he had left off before the arrival of Kaliotis. "I can't see any other explanation for it," he said, flopping back onto the couch. "Somebody is passing information to the other side."
"But — but who?" Alma asked.
"Well, they took out two Greek agents before we arrived in the country," Frank answered. "That suggests the leak is someone from over here. I think we can eliminate Stamos and his family." And then noticing that Aleko looked ready to erupt, he added, "And we also can cross off those who are very close to the family." Aleko subsided.
"But what about Kaliotis? What's his story?"
Alma spoke up. "It could not be him. When he was a young boy his father and mother were killed in the civil war by Communist partisans. The partisans also kidnapped thousands of children over the border into the East. His only brother was taken away, never to be seen or heard from again. Spiros Stamos's father raised Nicholas as one of his own. They are the only family he has. It is not possible that he could betray them."
"Okay, if you say so," Frank said, as he stood and began to pace again. "But we have a weak link somewhere. So we'd all better be careful about who we talk to until we clear it up."
Alma's face was serious until she caught Chet's eye and gave him a beaming smile.
"It is a frightening thing that we are dealing with, but I feel lucky to have such strong, brave men to help us. Have you been involved in such matters before?"
Chet shifted his feet, looked at Frank and then away, and mumbled, "Not real often — not at all, hardly. Well, maybe a little."
Frank put a hand on Chet's shoulder. "Alma," Frank told her gravely, "you're looking at a real hero. Why, he saved my life once already this trip, and two days ago, I saw him take a knife away from a vicious criminal."
Alma's eyes gleamed. "I knew it," she whispered. "A tiger."
"Come on, Frank," Chet muttered, squirming in his chair. "Cut it out, will you?"
"Alma!" Aleko rumbled, giving her a dark scowl. "Enough of this foolishness! This is not the time or place."
There was a quiet tap on the door, and Kaliotis stepped inside. "We must leave at once. I have taken the necessary steps," he said. "Now we'll go to where the group is preparing to leave, but we must hurry. On the way, I will tell you what has been learned about Peter's present whereabouts. Hurry!"
The group followed him outside and piled into an elderly Volvo.
Kaliotis headed away from the newer, central district of Salonika and toward the waterfront. The areas they went through became shabbier and shabbier.
"Where are we headed?" asked Frank.
"It is what is called a 'safe house,' " said Kaliotis. "There we are gathering those who will go to help your brother, and there we will make our plans to rescue Peter Stamos. We will be there soon."
Shortly afterward they pulled up in front of a seedy, run-down building with metal shutters covering its windows. The stucco walls had faded until it was impossible to tell what color they had been.
"This is it?" Chet looked doubtful.
"This is it," answered Kaliotis. "You don't want a safe house to call attention to itself, do you? This place blends with its neighbors."
"That doesn't say much for the neighborhood," noted Chet as he and Frank left the car. With Kaliotis in the lead, they entered a dim hallway. Kaliotis opened a narrow door and stood back, gesturing them in.
"Be careful going down the stairs," he cautioned. "They are steep and the light is poor."
Frank led the way down the flight of creaky steps and into a cellar lit only by a couple of low-wattage bulbs in wall sockets. They found a number of men cleaning and loading pistols and automatic weapons.
"Looks like you've got a real task force here," Frank observed to Kaliotis.
Then his eyes fell on what seemed to be a bundle of clothes piled on the floor against a wall. As his eyes got used to the lack of light, Frank realized with a jolt that he was staring at the bound and gagged body of Peter Stamos.
Frank spun around to discover that most of the guns in the room were now aimed at him and his friends. Kaliotis had led them directly into the hands of the opposition!
PRYNNE, JOE, PHIL, Clea, and Andreas stared unhappily at the ruined ATV. Joe slammed down the hood. "We need new wheels," he said.
Prynne took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. "There's a very nice Mercedes just around the corner," he said.
Phil shook his head. "There'll be guards— and I'll bet they won't be ready to lend it to us."
"Then I guess we'll have to persuade them. Got any ideas?" Joe turned to Prynne.
The agent shook his head. "The problem is getting close enough without getting shot."
Joe took Prynne's arm, leading him back to where their four prisoners lay tied. Joe pointed to one of them. "He looks just about my size. With his clothes and that knit cap of his to cover my hair, I could pass for him."
"Maybe at a distance," Prynne said dubiously, looking at the prisoner's stubbly face.
"We could all walk around the curve with me holding you at gunpoint as captives," Joe went on. "We'd get as close as possible to the Mercedes, then all we'd need was some sort of distraction to let us rush the guards."
Joe smiled. "Phil could make a very loud distraction with the explosives in the ATV. Let me try this guy's outfit on for size."
When Prynne and Joe walked back to the others, Joe was wearing a pair of baggy khaki pants, a grimy black sweatshirt, and a black knit cap. "Well, what do you think?" he asked. "As a fashion statement," said Phil, "it's the pits. Is there a point to this?"
Joe swiftly outlined his strategy, then turned to Phil. "We need an explosion—something with a lot of noise and smoke but no damage. It should go off forty-five seconds from the time we start walking toward the Mercedes."
Phil examined the area, marking a spot with his toe. "About here, you'd get lots of echo, and it'd be harmless." "Excellent," Prynne said. "You stay here with one of the AK-forty-sevens. When your explosion goes, fire a few short bursts, just to add to the noise and general confusion. After that, act at your own discretion. Understood?"
Phil nodded and went to work.
"You know," Joe said, "it would be a good idea if I knew a few words in their language."
"Serbo-Croatian." Prynne nodded. "Let's see, I'll teach you. 'It's all right, these are prisoners,' and 'Help! Come quickly!' That'll be enough for our purposes."
While Prynne was drilling the phrases into Joe, Clea came up with a handful of mud, which she smeared over Joe's cheeks, jaws, and chin.
"It will look like the face of an unshaven man, from perhaps thirty yards," she said.
Joe shrugged. "If we get that close and Phil's bomb hasn't gone off, we're in trouble anyway."
"It's ready." Phil picked up his AK-47.
"Right." Prynne started out of the cleft. "Phil, we'll be expecting your explosion forty-five seconds from when we go around the turn."
"You got it," Phil answered. "Good luck, guys."
A moment later, Prynne, Clea, and Andreas appeared around the curve, their hands clasped behind their heads. Joe came just behind, carrying an AK-47 and muttering his two Serbo-Croatian phrases under his breath. The Mercedes stood about one hundred and fifty yards away, with two men guarding it.
"Slow down," hissed Prynne. "We don't want to get too close too soon."
The guards had by now caught sight of them. One yelled something.
"Don't answer yet," whispered Prynne. "Make a show of not being able to hear him."
On they trudged, and the guard called out once more and brought his gun up to his shoulder.
Joe waved one arm over his head and shouted out what he hoped would pass for assurance that everything was all right. The guard lowered his gun and called out something else.
"What's he saying now?" whispered Joe.
"He wants to know where the others are. Try the first phrase again."
Joe repeated the first line as they moved steadily closer.
Fifty yards. The guard shouted out more sharply, and both men now trained their AK-47s on the approaching group.
Forty yards. Suddenly the roar of an explosion filled the air, followed by the rattle of an automatic weapon.
Joe spun around, yelling to the alarmed guards. He kept his face turned away and fired a couple of short bursts in the general direction of the blast. The three "prisoners" moved aside.
The two guards came running up. Joe let the first go past, then tackled the second man. He caught him at knee level from behind, cutting him down and sending the man's AK-47 skittering away.
The other guard turned back, his gun wavering as he tried to find a shot that wouldn't hit his comrade. Before the guard had a clear shot, Prynne rushed in to knock the gun aside. The man pulled free but Prynne drove a shoulder into him, sending both of them sprawling into a gully.
Meanwhile Joe tried to pin his man, but the gunman kicked out, sending Joe flying. After a bone-jarring landing, Joe struggled to rise. He turned to see that the guard was scrambling for his fallen AK-47. With a desperate lunge, Joe caught the man's foot, and Clea darted in to snatch up the weapon.
The man now tried to kick loose and grab for Clea, but Andreas jumped in, kicking him hard as he could in the stomach. The guy sagged to the ground, while Joe took the AK-47 from Clea and covered him.
"Where is Mr. Prynne?" Clea asked, "and that other man?"
"I was hoping someone would ask," came Prynne's voice from alongside the road. They peered into the ditch. There lay the gunman. On top of him sat Prynne, holding a gun.
"Way to go, Mr. Prynne!" Joe exclaimed, as Phil came running up.
"How are you all doing up there?" Phil wanted to know.
"Everything's under control," Joe replied. Prynne looked up at the students, and they suddenly noticed that he was pale and sweaty. "My leg," Prynne said. "I think I've torn a ligament in my ankle. That means I won't be doing any long-distance walking for some time. Could someone give me a hand?"
Joe helped Prynne over to the Mercedes, while the others took the guards to join their fellow captives. Then, taking the radio and the captured guns, they piled into the liberated car and resumed their northward journey with Joe at the wheel.
Prynne watched the barren countryside roll by for a while and then spoke up. "What worries me now is that whoever set up that ambush is likely to take another shot at us. I wish we could get off this main route."
From the back seat, Clea spoke up. "There is an old road leading directly to the ruined fort."
"Our rendezvous is an abandoned shepherd's hut, right on the border," Prynne said. "Do you know it?"
"I don't know the cabin," admitted Clea. "But it should not be hard to find."
Prynne sighed. "I had hoped to make that hike myself, but under the circumstances Joe will have to undertake it, if he's willing."
"It'll be a pleasure," Joe said with a grin. "Clean mountain air, beautiful scenery—and I've never seen Yugoslavia. I wouldn't miss it."
"And I will go with you," announced Clea.
Before Joe could protest, Prynne nodded. "You'll need a guide," he said. "But there is the possibility of a great risk."
"Don't worry, Mr. Prynne," Joe answered, "I'll look after her."
Clea smiled. "We will look after each other."
The road began to climb until at the crest of a hill they saw the fort. Some of its walls were crumbling, but one tower stood intact, rising about twenty-five feet. The only way to the top of the tower was a narrow set of steps. It was an easily defended stronghold.
With Andreas and Clea helping Prynne, they brought their gear up the stairs. Joe and Clea began preparing backpacks for their hike.
Phil, who was standing lookout, seemed troubled. "How will anyone coming to reinforce us know where we are? That turnoff we took — there's no way we would have found it without Clea's help."
"Ah!" Andreas exclaimed. "I can go back to the place where the road meets and show them."
"What do you mean, 'go back'? You might drive right into the enemy," said Joe.
"Not drive — run!" Andreas said. "I can do that distance in less than one hour."
"And when we raise Salonika on the radio, we can advise any relief force to look for him," Phil added.
"It sounds like our best choice," Prynne mused. "Phil and I will hold down the fort here, while Joe and Clea are — " He stopped abruptly and held up a hand for silence. "We have company."
Phil darted to the wall nearest the road. He called back over his shoulder, "Two cars — ten or more guys with guns getting out of them."
Joe joined Phil. They watched as the group of men fanned out and began to search the area. Prynne positioned himself near the top of the stairs. Shortly afterward a couple of heads peered up at him. Prynne fired two rounds, and the heads vanished.