Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
"Ah, but Fenton Hardy has often spoken of his sons," Gray said. "And since I was in town when this sad event took place, I wanted to offer my condolences." He looked at Joe. "This must be especially hard for you."
Joe managed a nod. But Frank saw that his brother was just barely restraining himself from ramming the guy out of his way. As Gray stood blathering on, Frank dropped a hand onto Joe's arm.
"Well, it was, uh, very nice of you to speak with us," Frank said, "but we shouldn't be blocking the door - "
The man stuck with them. "I have a car," he said. "If you need a lift home ... "
Silent warning bells began going off in Frank's head. A complete stranger claims to be an associate of Dad's and offers us a ride. Maybe the guy is legit, he thought. But after someone has just blown up our car, it doesn't seem like a good idea.
"Thanks just the same, but we'd rather walk for a bit - kind of clear our minds," Frank said.
For a second, something flickered in the man's eyes. Then he nodded, adding, "I understand that your father isn't in town right now. Please feel free to call on me for anything." He pressed the cards on both of them. "You can reach me by dialing this number. Just ask for Mr. Gray."
Frank and Joe said their goodbyes and headed into a nearby park. "Who was that bozo?" Joe muttered.
"I wish Dad were around so we could ask him," Frank said.
Joe glanced at his brother as they walked through the park. "Where do you think Dad went?"
"I'm not sure," Frank replied. "You know he was working on a big case - top secret all the way. Maybe it's that." He faltered for a second. "Or maybe it's Iola."
"Yeah," said Joe. He stopped in the middle of the path. "We have to talk."
"I was wondering if we'd ever do that again." Frank stood looking at his brother.
Joe looked away. "I spent a lot of time thinking. About me, and about Iola." "Joe - "
"All last night, I kept seeing her," Joe said.
"She was so pretty, so delicate." His hands bunched into fists. "How did she ever wind up with a guy like me? All the stupid stunts I pulled..." "You didn't know what was going to happen," Frank said. "You can't keep blaming yourself."
"I'm going to get whoever did this," Joe broke in. "And when I'm through, he'll wish he'd never been born."
The good-natured face that had cracked a thousand jokes was gone. The new Joe Hardy was a stranger, his expression cold and hard as a statue's. But his eyes were alive with a light that promised lethal action.
"Know where I was this morning?" he went on. "Back at the mall. The cops had just about finished looking for evidence. But I talked to a couple of bomb experts.
"As far as they can figure out, the whole car was filled with plastic explosive. The guy even put a detonator in the gas tank, to make sure it went up. There was hardly anything left of the car, much less Iola. The guy who did this ought to be squashed like a bug."
"Joe - "
With choppy motions, Joe ripped off his tie.
"You say I shouldn't blame myself, but it was my fault. I can't forget that. Remember these?" He pulled a chain out of his shirt.
On it were a pair of keys, twisted and melted together. The last time Frank had seen them, they'd been jingling in midair, with Iola's hand grabbing for them.
Joe tucked them back inside his collar. "I'm keeping them to remind me that we've got work to do. Somebody's got to pay. Are you with me?"
"Are you kidding?" said Frank. "We're in this together. And don't forget that."
For the first time that day, Joe Hardy smiled. "Okay. So where do we start?" "The cops," Frank responded.
The Bayport police station was on Main Street, a short walk from the park. It was a solid, old fashioned brick building with an old-fashioned brick jailhouse in the back. As the Hardys walked up the worn stone steps, they were greeted by a friendly face. It belonged to Officer Con Riley. "Con?" Frank asked. "Who's handling the Morton case?"
"That's the new guy," Riley responded. "Butler. He's supposed to be a real hotshot, with a big arrest record for the NYPD."
"A hotshot detective from New York, huh?" said Joe. "Let's go in and check this guy out."
The boys walked through the offices of the Detective Division, and Joe knocked on a door labeled S. BUTLER - DETECTIVE INSPECTOR.
The desk inside was piled high with papers, and behind them sat a tall, black-haired man. His tanned face was long and thin, his eyes so dark they looked black. He stared at them, pokerfaced, until he heard Frank and Joe's names. Then his eyes narrowed.
"Well, you saved me the trouble of calling you downtown," he said crisply. "Maybe you'll smarten up and confess." His stern, unmoving face swiveled between Frank and Joe. "I want to know what you two clowns had in that car, because whatever it was makes you responsible for Iola Morton's murder!"
JOE'S FACE TURNED pale, then brick red. "Are you accusing us . . . ?" He was so angry his voice choked off.
Butler looked him straight in the eye. "Did you really think I'd fall for that ridiculous mad bomber story? Nobody would waste a bomb on a pair of punk kids. But punk kids playing with the wrong toys might blow themselves up. Especially kids who get involved in politics."
"If you're trying to make us look like a pair of political crazies, maybe you should talk to Chief Collig." Frank's voice was quiet but icy. "We've worked on cases for him. He knows us."
"Oh, sure. I heard this song all the time in New York." Butler's lips started to twist into a sneer; then the poker face slid on, almost as if it hurt him to show any expression. "Human slime with important friends to cover for them. Even if they're caught red-handed, there're always people to say, 'Oh, Inspector, they're really good boys.' That does not impress me."
Joe's rage finally found a voice. "You do a real terrifying tough cop. Where do you get those lines? Watching 'Kojak' reruns?"
For a moment, Butler gave him a blank, almost startled stare. "Never mind where I get my 'lines,' "he snapped. ”Just remember this. I hear you two go around playing junior detectives. Well, don't get in my way. You're my prime suspects right now.
"If I catch either of you muddying up the waters, I'll arrest you for impeding an investigation. I'll do it so fast your heads will spin. And it won't do any good to go whining to your important friends to bail you out."
The corners of Butler's mouth went up two millimeters in the faintest of smiles. "I'm sure I'll have questions for you as I go on . . . lots of questions. And it goes without saying-don’t leave town.”
He turned back to the papers on his desk, as if the Hardys had disappeared.
Joe followed his brother through the office door, slamming it behind him. "That miserable - " He bit off the rest of what he was going to say. "Well, I can see that the cops are gonna be a lot of help!" He glared at Frank. "So what's our next brilliant move?"
"We borrow a car and head for the mall." Only Frank's eyes showed his anger. "But that guy just said - " "I know," Frank interrupted with a grin. "And I can't think of a better place to start impeding his investigation. "
Joe insisted that they check out the parking lot, even though it had been cleared of wreckage. "There's nothing," Frank said, looking at the large scorched spot on the concrete.
"Then why are we here?"
"We want to see if anyone remembers anything odd about Saturday - anything out of the ordinary."
"Out of the ordinary!" Joe burst out. "There was a political rally going on! How much more out of the ordinary do you want? Besides," he said, "the Saturday shoppers are long gone. How are we going to question them?"
"We're not," Frank replied. "I want to talk to the people who are always here - the store owners. They'd be the ones to notice something-or someone-out of place."
Their first stop on entering the mall was Mr. Pizza. The fast-food joint was the prime hangout, and the manager was an old school friend of theirs, Tony Prito.
Tony's cheerful grin wavered for an instant when he saw the Hardys. He stepped out from behind the counter, grabbing Joe's hand. "I didn't get a chance to talk to you at the chapel," he said as he led them to a table and they sat down. "Have they caught whoever was behind it?"
"I don't think the cops even have a clue." Joe scowled.
"It's hard to figure out who blew up the car if you don't know why," Frank said.
"Well, it was your car," Tony pointed out.
"Right. But was the bomb aimed at us?" Frank shook his head. "That's the question. For all we know, it could have been a random thing, some nut who just blows up yellow sedans."
"Yeah, but there are a lot of guys who might want to get back at you - or your father." Tony smiled. "Detectives who put people away aren’t popular with crooks."
"I got Dad's assistant working on that angle this morning," Frank said. "He's checking to see if anyone who might have a grudge against us, was recently released."
"Wait a second," Joe burst out. "Maybe the bomber knew that Iola and Callie were with us. Maybe he - or she - had a grudge against the Mortons or the Shaws."
He thought for a moment. "And the bomb was set in the middle of a political rally. Could the person have something against the Walker campaign?" He shook his head. "But Frank and I didn't even know there was going to be a rally.
We didn't know we were going to be at the mall. This doesn't make sense."
"Tell me about it," Frank agreed sarcastically. "Here's the thing I can't figure out-why the mall? If I were going to blow somebody up, I'd do it right in front of the person's house - a nice, unmistakable message. Why would this guy follow us to a crowded parking lot to do the job? It's got to have something to do with the mall." He looked up at Tony. "Were the cops around asking questions?"
"They gave us the once-over lightly. I was kind of surprised." Tony shrugged. "Maybe they'll be back today."
"Well, we want to ask some questions now," Joe said, leaning over the table. "Think you can give us a hand, Tony? Introduce us to some of the store owners?"
"Sure. Most of them come down here to get a slice for lunch. Hey, Jean," he called to the girl behind the counter, "I'm taking an early break. Be back in five minutes."
Tony led the Hardys up the mall escalators to the first floor of shops, then into the Builder's Paradise hardware store. "Dan Stone runs this place. He's a good guy, and he's president of the Mall Association. You can get all the help you need from him."
Stone turned out to be a friendly man in his late thirties. He was only too eager to help, and the Hardys spent most of the next two hours talking to store owners. None of them had noticed anything other than the bedlam of the political rally, but lots of them had things to say about the mall. Frank mentioned it as they took a shortcut to their car through Lacey's department store.
"Did you notice how many of those people complained about the security?" Frank stopped beside a mannequin in a low-cut gown to pull out his notebook.
"Do we have to stop here? It looks like you're trying to get that dummy's phone number," Joe said.
Frank paid no attention. "Every store owner we spoke to says he or she is being ripped off. Look at this list. Hundreds of feet of wire missing from the Audio-Video Den. Electric clocks disappearing from the Gift Shoppe. Mr. Stone losing wire clippers, electrical supplies ... " Frank suddenly went silent. "That's all stuff you'd need to build bombs."
Joe stopped dead in his tracks. As he turned to his brother, he felt a tiny tug on the sleeve of his jacket. A flash of movement caught his eye, a glittering something that cut through his jacket, whizzed past him, and stuck with a dull thud in the mannequin's plaster "flesh."
His breath caught in his throat as he stared at the silvery dart quivering in the dummy's chest. "It tore right through - "
Frank grabbed his arm. "Let's get out of here before they try another shot!"
Joe followed his brother, looking over his shoulder at the people around them. A typical mall crowd, hundreds of shoppers clogging the aisles - except that one of those "shoppers" was trying to kill them!
THEY FOUGHT THEIR way through a mass of people, all intent on their shopping and hardly suspecting that a silent killer stalked among them. Frank turned back to Joe as they reached the men's department. "Spot anyone following us?" he asked. "Too many people," Joe responded, scanning the crowd. "But I don't - " Another dart hissed between them, burying itself into a pile of sport shirts. Joe banged his fist in frustration.
"Come on!" he snapped, muscling his way through the crowd, moving like a broken-field runner as he raced for the nearest exit. Frank kept close on his brother's heels, ignoring the annoyed looks he got from jostled shoppers. He threw a glance over his shoulder as they drew near the exit and the crowd thinned. There was still no trace of the mysterious gunman. Joe took advantage of the empty space to break into a run.
Before they reached the door, however, a store security guard bustled into their path. "Hold it, you kids. What do you think - " A silvery streak whizzed past them just as the guard brought a walkie-talkie to his lips. The man jerked back a step, stared in surprise at the dart sticking out of the shoulder of his red security blazer, then collapsed without a word.
Joe started to lean over the man, but Frank pushed him toward the door. "That's just what they want you to do. Go!"
They burst out the door, and Frank bolted off to the left. "There's the movie theater! If we make it around that corner - "
“IF!" Joe burst out, running hard on Frank's heels. The corner was at least fifty yards away, at the end of a plain concrete wall that gave no cover at all - not even a planter stand. "Great escape route, Frank."
"Save your breath for running," his brother replied.
Behind them, the boys heard screams and hub-bub, people responding to the sight of the collapsed guard. With luck, maybe a crowd would gather, blocking the door and giving them a few more seconds' lead. Joe's legs pumped, bringing him almost even with Frank. It was like a nightmare. He was running as fast as he could, but that corner didn't seem to be coming any closer. And behind them . . . surely by now the guy with the gun had reached the door of the department store.