Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 01
Dead on Target
Franklin W. Dixon
"GET OUT OF my way, Frank!" Joe Hardy shoved past his brother, shouting to be heard over the roar of the flames. Straight ahead, a huge fireball rose like a mushroom cloud over the parking lot. Flames shot fifty feet into the air, dropping chunks of wreckage-wreckage that just a moment earlier had been their yellow sedan. "Iola's in there! We've got to get her out!"
Frank stared, his lean face frozen in shock, as his younger brother ran straight for the billowing flames. Then he raced after Joe, catching him in a flying tackle twenty feet away from the blaze. Even at that distance they could feel the heat.
"Do you want to get yourself killed?" Frank yelled, rising to his knees.
Joe remained silent, his blue eyes staring at the wall of flame, his blond hair mussed by the fall.
Frank hauled his brother around, making Joe face him. "She wouldn't have lasted a second," he said, trying to soften the blow. "Face it, Joe."
For an instant, Frank thought the message had gotten through. Joe sagged against the concrete. Then he surged up again, eyes wild. "No! I can save her! Let go!"
Before Joe could get to his feet, Frank tackled him again, sending both of them tumbling along the ground. Joe began struggling, thrashing against his brother's grip. With near-maniacal strength, he broke Frank's hold, then started throwing wild punches at his brother, almost as if he were grateful to have a physical enemy to attack.
Frank blocked the flailing blows, lunging forward to grab Joe again. But a fist pounded through his guard, catching him full in the mouth. Frank flopped on his back, stunned, as his brother lurched to his feet and staggered toward the inferno.
Painfully pulling himself up, Frank wiped something wet from his lips - blood. He sprinted after Joe, blindly snatching at his T-shirt. The fabric tore loose in his hand.
Forcing himself farther into the glare and suffocating heat, Frank managed to get a grip on his brother's arm. Joe didn't even try to shake free. He just pulled both of them closer to the flames.
The air was so hot it scorched Frank's throat as he gasped for breath. He flipped Joe free, throwing him off balance. Then he wrapped one arm around Joe's neck and cocked the other back, flashing in a karate blow. Joe went limp in his brother's arms.
As Frank dragged them both out of danger, he heard the wail of sirens in the distance. We should never have come, he thought, never.
Just an hour before, Joe had jammed the brakes on the car, stopping in front of the mall. "So this is why we had to come here," he exclaimed. "They're having a rally! Give me a break, Iola."
"You knew we were working on the campaign." Iola grinned, looking like a little dark-haired pixie. "Would you have come if we'd told you?"
"No way! What do you think, we're going to stand around handing out Walker for President buttons?" Joe scowled at his girlfriend.
"Actually, they're leaflets," Callie Shaw said from the backseat. She leaned forward to peer at herself in the rear-view mirror and ran her fingers hastily through her short brown hair.
"So that's what you've got stuck between us!" Frank rapped the cardboard box on the seat.
"I thought you liked Walker," said Callie.
"He's all right," Frank admitted. "He looked good on TV last night, saying we should fight back against terrorists. At least he's not a wimp."
"That antiterrorism thing has gotten a lot of coverage," Iola said. "Besides ... "
" ... He's cute," Frank cut in, mimicking Iola. "The most gorgeous politician I've ever seen."
Laughter cleared the air as they pulled into a parking space. "Look, we're not really into passing out pamphlets - or leaflets, or whatever they are," Frank said. "But we will do something to help. We'll beef up your crowd."
"Yeah," Joe grumbled. "It sounds like a real hot afternoon."
The mall was a favorite hangout for Bayport kids - three floors with more than a hundred stores arranged around a huge central well. The Saturday sunshine streamed down from the glass roof to ground level - the Food Floor. But that day, instead of the usual tables for pizzas, burgers, and burritos, the space had been cleared out, except for a band, which was tuning up noisily.
Dozens of kids were busily laying out banners. Soon, hand-lettered messages like Youth for Walker and Bayport Supports Walker for Prez! covered the walls. The band members looked around. "Ready?" one asked.
The kids working on the banners nodded.
With amps cranked up to max, the band launched into an old Elvis number. But instead of the usual lyrics, there were new words pushing Philip Walker's candidacy.
The music blasted up to the roof, echoing in the huge open space. Heads began appearing, staring down, along the safety railings that lined the shopping levels. Still more shoppers gathered on the Food Floor. Callie, Iola, and four other kids circulated through the crowd, handing out leaflets.
Even the local congressman showed up, making a speech for Walker. "And remember," he finished, "this rally is only the dress rehearsal. Come back next week for a bigger and better show, with a special guest star - Philip Walker himself!"
The Food Floor was packed with people cheering and applauding. But Frank Hardy backed away, turned off by all the hype. Since he'd lost Joe after about five seconds in the jostling mob, he fought his way to the edges of the crowd, trying to spot him.
Joe was leaning against one of the many pillars supporting the mall. He had a big grin on his face and was talking with a gorgeous blond girl. Frank hurried over to them. But Joe, deep in conversation with his new friend, didn't notice his brother. More importantly, he didn't notice his girlfriend making her way through the crowd.
Frank arrived about two steps behind Iola, who had wrapped one arm around Joe's waist while glaring at the blond. "Oh, uh, hi," said Joe, his grin fading in embarrassment. "This is Val. She just came - "
"I'd love to stay and talk," Iola said, cutting Joe off, "but we have a problem. We're running out of leaflets. The only ones left are on the backseat of your car. Could you help me get them ?"
"Right now? We just got here," Joe complained.
"Yeah, and I can see you're really busy," Iola said, looking at Val. "Are you coming?"
Joe hesitated for a moment, looking from Iola to the blond girl. "Okay." His hand fished around in his pocket and came out with his car keys. "I'll be with you in a minute, okay?" He started playing catch with the keys, tossing them in the air as he turned back to Val.
But Iola angrily snatched the keys in midair. Then she rushed off, nearly knocking Frank over.
"Hey, Joe, I've got to talk to you," Frank said, smiling at Val as he took his brother by the elbow. "Excuse us a second." He pulled Joe around the pillar.
"What's going on?" Joe complained. "I can't even start a friendly conversation without everybody jumping on me."
"You know, it's lucky you're so good at picking up girls," said Frank. "Because you sure are tough on the ones you already know." Joe's face went red. "What are you talking about?”
"You know what I'm talking about. I saw your little trick with the keys there a minute ago. You made Iola look like a real jerk in front of some girl you've been hitting on. Make up your mind, Joe. Is Iola your girlfriend or not?"
Joe seemed to be studying the toes of his running shoes as Frank spoke. "You're right, I guess," he finally muttered. "But I was gonna go! Why did she have to make such a life-and-death deal out of it?"
Frank grinned. "It's your fatal charm, Joe. It stirs up women's passions."
"Very funny." Joe sighed. "So what should I do?"
"Let's go out to the car and give Iola a hand," Frank suggested. "She can't handle that big box all by herself."
He put his head around the pillar and smiled at Val. "Sorry. I have to borrow this guy for a while. We'll be back in a few minutes."
They headed for the nearest exit. The sleek, modern mall decor gave way to painted cinderblocks as they headed down the corridor to the underground parking garages. "We should've caught up to her by now," Joe said as they came to the first row of cars. "She must be really steamed."
He was glancing around for Iola, but the underground lot was a perfect place for hide-and-seek. Every ten feet or so, squat concrete pillars which supported the upper levels rose from the floor, blocking the view. But as the Hardys reached the end of the row of cars, they saw a dark-haired figure marching angrily ahead of them.
"Iola!" Joe called.
Instead of turning around, Iola put on speed. "Hey, Iola, wait a minute!" Joe picked up his pace, but Iola darted around a pillar. A second later she'd disappeared. "Calm down," Frank said. "She'll be outside at the car. You can talk to her then." Joe led the way to the outdoor parking lot, nervously pacing ahead of Frank. "She's really angry," he said as they stepped outside. "I just hope she doesn't - " The explosion drowned out whatever he was going to say. They ran to the spot where they'd parked their yellow sedan. But the car-and Iola-had erupted in a ball of white-hot flame!
"FRANK! WAIT up!"
Hearing his name, Frank Hardy turned to see Callie Shaw walking quickly along the sidewalk. He stood and waited, glad for one more excuse to delay going into the funeral chapel.
Dressed in a suit, with his dark hair neatly combed, Frank didn't look at all like the guy in jeans and sneakers who'd slugged it out with Joe all over the parking lot two days before. Only a closer look at his lean face showed the remains of a split lip and the fatigue smudges under his eyes.
Callie took his arm and matched strides with him. "Why are you here alone?" she asked. "Where's Joe?"
"Inside - I think. I haven't seen him since early this morning." Frank's face was tight. "But I heard him all last night, pacing around his room."
Frank reached over to take Callie's hand. "The whole family seems to be going crazy. Dad looked like he'd seen a ghost when the cops finally brought us home. He told us to stay in the house, then locked himself in the den, making phone calls. Now he's disappeared. Maybe it has something to do with this case." "He didn't tell you anything?" Callie asked.
"I saw Dad for about two minutes last night." The frustration was clear in Frank's voice as they headed up the walk to the quiet, white-painted chapel. "He was carrying his suitcase to the car. All he said was that I should apologize to the Mortons and represent the family today. Mom and Aunt Gertrude are supposed to stay at the house. Something to do with those phone calls." Callie squeezed his hand. "Frank, it all sounds so weird."
He shook his head as they reached the chapel door. "I know. It's crazy. The cops are saying somebody planted a bomb in the car. But there's nothing to go on. No clues, nothing."
They froze in the doorway when they caught sight of the broad-shouldered figure sitting in the last row of seats. "I don't think I've ever seen Joe in a suit," Callie whispered. "He looks like a different person." "He's acting like a different person," Frank whispered back. "Did you ever see him sit anywhere for five minutes without tapping his fingers or shifting around?"
But Joe remained unnaturally still. When Frank and Callie stopped beside him, he didn't turn. His face looked as if it were carved out of marble, as pale as his white shirt. His smile lines had been erased. Staring at the front of the chapel, he didn't even notice Frank and Callie.
"I guess he really did love Iola, in spite of his wandering eye," Callie said quietly.
"I suppose. He hasn't said anything since the explosion. For the first time in our lives, I can't get him to speak to me." The strain showed on Frank's face.
The service itself was brief-all about Iola being taken "in the flower of her youth." No one touched on the fact that she'd been killed. There was no mention of bombs or police investigations.
Then the people in the chapel filed out, offering condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Morton and to Chet, Iola's older brother. Frank held his breath as Joe approached the Mortons.
"I - I can't tell you how sorry ... " Joe began. "If I had known - if I could ... " He choked, turning abruptly to Frank. "Help me get out of here," he whispered.
Frank took his brother's arm and headed for the door. Joe was quivering like a machine on overload that was about to fly apart. Frank had to get him into the open so he could let off steam.
But a short figure stood silhouetted in the doorway, blocking their path. "Frank and Joe Hardy?" it said.
The boys stopped in surprise. The person before them was a stranger, the most ordinary looking man they'd ever seen. From his balding head to his black lace-up shoes, he virtually screamed, "Don't remember me!" Reaching inside a slightly rumpled raincoat, the little gray man said, "I'm sorry. Let me introduce myself."
He pulled two cards out of his pocket. Frank took one. "Arthur E. Gray," he read, "World Import-Export."
"My firm is a client of your father's," Gray explained. "He's never mentioned you," said Frank.