Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
The muscles between Joe's shoulder blades bunched in tension, expecting the sting of a dart' to tear into them at any moment. He started to turn his head. If anyone was going to shoot him, Joe Hardy was going to look his killer in the eye.
Frank must have picked up the change of rhythm in Joe's footfalls. "Don't turn! . . . Almost . . . corner." He gasped out the words.
Joe's head snapped forward. Sure enough, there was the corner! He poured on an added burst of speed, feeling his own breath burning in his throat, and then he was beside Frank, making the turn, just as another dart chipped the concrete at the corner.
Frank slowed down slightly once they had the cover of the wall behind them. He staggered a little as he led the way across a parking lot and up to the mall's six-plex movie theater.
"Good thinking," Joe wheezed. "With a dozen theaters to hide in, we're sure to lose this guy."
"Yeah," Frank said. "But how about this? If the guy chases us into the theater, he's walking blind into a pitch-black room - "
"And that gives us a chance to turn the tables on him," Joe finished. "Perfect!"
They reached the box office, and Frank dragged out his wallet, scanning the title board. "uh, two for the Bond movie revival-Theater Five.”
"But the film is almost half over," the ticket seller said.
"That's okay. We just want to catch the ending." Frank grinned at her as he shoved a couple of bills under the partition. He glanced back at Joe. "Our friend arrive yet?"
Joe had a quick impression of sunglasses, a black leather jacket, and jeans as their pursuer came around the corner, then jerked back. "He's here, but he's not coming into the open."
"Well, he's seen us. Let's make sure he sees where we're going." Frank took the tickets from the girl and headed swiftly into the theater.
"I picked Theater Five because it's the smallest," Frank explained as they handed their tickets to the usher. "If we're going to have a roughhouse, I don't want to give him much room to move around in."
As soon as they had slipped through the soundproofed doors of Theater Five, they were hit with blaringly loud sixties music. On the screen above them, Sean Connery was swinging a length of pipe at a heavy, muscular guy. Even though Connery was swinging with all his might, it didn't seem to faze his enemy.
"Turn away from the screen," Frank whispered. "We want our eyes to be used to the dark when this guy comes in. That means we've got eight seconds while he'll be effectively blind enough time to ambush him."
They positioned themselves on either side of the door and waited. Finally the door swung open, and a man stepped into the theater. The screen wasn't radiating much light, so they couldn't see his face. But even in the fuzzy darkness they could see the gun in the man's hand.
Frank struck first, his hand hurtling down like a blade onto the man's wrist. The gun flew from his grasp. Joe stepped in, throwing a punch at the man's stomach.
But even as Joe swung, the man twisted aside, driving his elbow into the pit of Frank's stomach. Frank folded, and the man launched a killing blow to Frank's neck, a blow that missed as Joe kicked desperately into the back of the guy's leg.
The leg buckled, but the man launched a claw like finger at Joe's throat. Joe hunched his shoulders and landed a solid punch into his assailant's face. The man staggered back, and Joe charged forward, butting with his head and knocking him to the floor. Joe jumped for a pin-down.
Even trapped on his back, the man continued to fight like a demon, trying to wriggle loose. A vicious blow to the bridge of Joe's nose had him seeing stars. He recoiled slightly, and his captive nearly twisted free. Joe slugged him again, and then they were grappling. Above them, the film music reached a crescendo, drowning out their grunts of effort.
Frank Hardy scrabbled frantically along the darkened aisle, trying to find the dart gun.
Then the theater doors opened again, and Frank saw another male figure-aiming another dart gun. "Joe! Down!" he screamed. He threw himself, knocking Joe flat just as the dart flew over their heads.
"Wha - ?" Joe said, dazed. "I thought you were on my side." Frank pointed at the outline of the new player I in the game, who was already loading another dart into his gun.
"Uh-oh," his brother said. "Let's get out of here. "
"You going to ask him politely to step aside?" Joe asked as Frank hauled him to his feet.
"I'd say this was an emergency. Let's use the emergency exit."
The soundtrack had grown much quieter, and movie patrons started turning around at the sound of voices behind them. "Shut up, you're ruining the flick!" A few even stood up and turned around. "What's going on back there?"
"Let's get moving before they block the aisle." Frank took off at full speed toward the screen, with Joe right behind him.
"Down in front!" patrons began to scream as the Hardys blocked their view, rushing toward the screen. Above them was a huge close-up of Sean Connery, his face twisted in a grimace of rage. Just ahead of them was the Exit sign.
Together, the Hardys hit the panic bar on the door, smashing it open. They tumbled through the emergency exit, out into brilliant sunlight.
"Come on!" Frank lurched into the parking lot, half-blinded. But three steps from the exit, he crashed into something. He stepped back, blinking, and then froze. Blocking their retreat was a long black car, rear doors open. "Get in," a cold, hard voice commanded.
FRANK AND JOE hesitated just an instant-until a dart scored the paint on the fender beside them. "No choice," Frank said.
He and Joe got into the car. The door closed behind them, muffling the noise as the vehicle screeched away from the curb.
"What's going on?" said Frank in surprise. "I thought those guys were coming along."
"Looks like they thought so, too," Joe said, glancing out the rear windshield. Two figures sprinted from the theater emergency exit. One aimed a pistol, and they saw the gleam of a dart fly at them and bounce off the trunk of the car.
The smoked-glass partition hiding the front seat rolled down with a whirring noise, bringing both Hardys' heads front. "Don't jump to conclusions until you know all the facts, boys," said the driver of the car, turning around.
Frank and Joe sat in shock, staring at Arthur Gray.
"What are you doing here?" Joe finally managed to say.
"Rescuing you," Gray replied, turning back to the road. "From the looks of things, I arrived just in time."
"Yeah," Frank said, suspicion in his voice.
"You came along very conveniently. Too conveniently."
Gray smiled as he glanced in the rear-view mirror. "I took the liberty of keeping a discreet electronic eye on you."
"How?" Frank demanded. "Remember those cards I gave you? They're, not cardboard, they're plastic. And inside they're marvels of microelectronics."
"You bugged us?" Joe burst out.
"Not exactly. They're locator devices. We could plot your movements. When your movements suddenly became rather erratic, we knew something was up. So I came to collect you. And you're right. I'd say it was very convenient that I came along."
The car had pulled out of the parking area, and Gray poured on the speed.
"You know, I've had just about enough of this cloak-and-dagger stuff," Frank said. Gray didn't turn or even respond. "I want to know what's going on here. And I want it straight."
Still Gray didn't answer.
"Kind of tough, arguing with the back of somebody's head," Joe commented. "Do you hear me?" Frank said, reaching out to grab the man by the shoulder.
Before Frank's hand reached the front seat, the glass divider came up like a reverse guillotine. Startled, Frank jerked his hand back. The divider rolled back down.
"Sorry about that," Gray apologized. "Security measure. Although I am a bit surprised. Our files said your brother was the hot-headed one." "Ah, come on, give him a break," Joe said. Frank was staring. "Files?" he repeated. "Just who are you?" "Let's say I'm connected with the intelligence community," the Gray Man replied.
"CIA?” The government man shook his head. "Nothing so crude. The Network does more . . . delicate . . . information gathering."
"The Network, huh? CBS instead of CIA?" Frank was having a tough time accepting Gray's transformation from nerd to secret agent. His eyes narrowed in thought. "So that story about your company being a client of Dad’s that was all phony." He stared at the man. "I suppose even the name on the card isn't real."
"It's close to my code name," the government agent said. "Gray Man. World Import-Export exists. It's a cover company for the Network. And your father has given us some help from time to time. That's why I'm here. He's called in some favors, wants his family kept safely out of sight."
"While he does what?" Frank asked.
"I've got people trying to find that out," the Gray Man replied. He took a deep breath, as if wondering where to begin. "It all revolves around the Walker campaign."
Joe stared. "You mean Iola was blown up because she supported Philip Walker?"
"No." The Gray Man shook his head. "We’re’, pretty sure that bomb was aimed at you-and, through you, at your father. He's head of security for Philip Walker's campaign."
"So that's the big job he's been so tight-lipped about," Frank said.
The Gray Man nodded. "And it's turned into a bigger job since Walker began talking about terrorists. Certain groups weren't happy about that. They were even less happy when your father began gathering information on them."
He looked back at the Hardys. "You see, Fenton Hardy got lucky. He got a line on a group nobody's been able to crack - the Assassins." Joe laughed. "Sounds like a cycle gang."
The Gray Man didn't crack a smile. "These are very, very dangerous men. They started as a bunch of fanatics in the days of the Crusades. And they've stayed in the business of terrorism ever since-almost a thousand years of experience.
"They hire themselves out nowadays, and they use the most modern technology. The bomb that blasted your car, for instance - the local police are still scratching their heads over it. "
"But we still don't understand why they did it," Frank said.
"To silence your father," the Gray Man answered. "Your father found out about a major Assassin project, a series of terrorist attacks in cities all across America. They wanted to scare him into silence or, even better, use him for their own propaganda." "They don't know Dad very well," Joe said. "Probably not. But they trust to their own motto Kill one, frighten a hundred. And they're usually right. They needed Fenton Hardy. They couldn't threaten him, but they could threaten his family. And to show they meant business, they blew you up." "Except they didn't get us." Joe's voice was hard. "They got Iola."
"Well, that explains why Dad got so grim after the bombing," Frank said. "It explains his quick disappearance, too." He turned to the Gray Man.
"He's gone underground, trying to use his connection to the Assassins, hasn't he? But wait a second! What about that threat? That means Mom and Aunt Gertrude are in danger."
"Your mother and your aunt are with our agents," the Gray Man explained. "They're already out of Bayport, headed for a secret destination." He smiled. "We'll be doing the same with you. We have a nice Marine base in South Carolina picked out for you."
"No way!" Joe replied heatedly. "I want the guy who set that bomb. And that means I've got to be in Bayport, not boot camp."
"Look, sonny, I don't care what you want."
The Gray Man didn't even look away from the road. "We're keeping you under wraps until the case is closed." "Will you be staying on Iola's case?" Frank asked.
"The Assassins are my case," said the Gray Man. "I've got a lead that their headquarters is now in London. That's where I'll be headed after I drop you off." "Drop us where?" Joe's voice was raw with rebelliousness.
"At your home, of course. Our people will meet you there, and you'll be on your way."
"You're not going to ship me off someplace! Pull over," Joe said, reaching for the door handle “I'm getting out here!"
The Gray Man glanced at them in the rear-view mirror as he pulled onto the gravel shoulder! They were on a quiet secondary road, two lanes of blacktop in the middle of a scene that looked more like country than suburbs.
No one was around. Even the road was deserted, except for a telephone repair van that disappeared in a dip in the road behind them.
"Listen, kid," the Gray Man began as Joe struggled furiously with the door handle.
"Look, I'm not a kid. I've made up my mind. So stop screwing around with these locks and let me out!"
"You're not leaving," the government man growled, turning in his seat. "Get that clear." At that moment, the telephone van appeared behind them, putting on speed. It came abreast of the car, then swerved onto the shoulder ahead of them. The back door flew open, revealing a masked figure with an Uzi submachine gun in his hands. As the Hardys watched in horror, he emptied half the clip of his gun point-blank into their windshield.
FRANK AND JOE sat frozen as a dozen bullets hit the windshield and ricocheted off.
The Gray Man let out a long breath. "Another security feature - bulletproof glass," he said, watching the van pull off ahead of them. "They'd need a bazooka to hurt us."
"Y-you might have mentioned that earlier," Frank said, trying to get control of his voice.
No answer from the Gray Man. He was dialing a number on a cellular phone on the dashboard. "We're about four miles along the Interstate. Hostiles attacking. Get some backup here to intercept." He hung up with a smile. "Nothing more to worry about."
The van had roared down the road about a hundred yards. Now it whipped around in a tight U-turn and came careening back toward them.
"What would happen if those guys tried to ram us?" Joe asked.
"Let's not find out," the Gray Man replied, gunning the engine. From a standing start, the car shot forward, but it wasn't entirely out of the way when the van barreled up from behind.