Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Frank and Tony were in the lead as they joined her. "What is it?" Frank asked.
"Look." Callie shined her flashlight on the floor. There lay a muscular, short-haired body-a Doberman pinscher. The dog was on its side, and as they watched its flanks slowly rose and fell.
"Asleep?" Joe whispered, his gun aimed at the Doberman.
Frank knelt next to the animal, gently feeling along its side. He held up his hand, and something glinted in the light.
"Not asleep," he whispered. "Drugged-shot with a dart. Somebody else is in here!"
"TURN OFF THOSE flashlights!" Frank's voice never rose above a whisper, but it had the force of a cracking whip.
Frank took Callie's hand in the sudden darkness and led her back to the group. "We all move slowly and quietly to the right," he said, his voice barely audible.
They crept to the shelter of a big planter with a potted tree. "I guess he hasn't seen us yet, or we'd have been shot with darts," Frank said. "Do we split up to search?" Joe asked.
"Maybe we should - " Whatever Chet had been about to suggest was cut off by the sound of a store grille rattling up. It came from about a quarter of the way around the circle.
"Builder's Paradise-the hardware store," Joe whispered.
They inched forward until they could see the beam of a flashlight. A figure stepped from the store, burdened with a bag in each hand and a roll of wire over one shoulder. The flashlight was held awkwardly in the left hand, pointing downward. It gave enough light to show that the figure was male, but it failed to show the face.
Whoever it was turned away from them, heading for the escalator to the lower level.
Joe leaped to his feet. "Al-Rousasa!" he screamed impulsively, aiming his dart gun.
The figure whirled as Joe fired. The dart glittered in the beam of the flashlight but imbedded itself in the roll of wire.
Al-Rousasa didn't waste a second. He dumped the wire on the floor, tossing down a bag and the flashlight as well. The flashlight rolled on the floor, illuminating the search party as they charged along.
The Assassin ducked as Chet fired at him. He rolled behind a planter, digging into his remaining bag. When he popped up from behind the cover, a gun was in his hand. "Watch out!" Frank yelled.
But even as he did so, Chet gave a choking cry, throwing out his arms. He crumpled to the floor.
Callie fell to her knees beside Chet and dragged him behind a bench, as Frank stood over them, his gun aimed at the planter. Al-Rousasa had ducked down again. Tony crept forward, looking for a shot, while Joe frantically reloaded.
"Chet's unconscious, but still breathing," Callie reported. "He's been hit with a dart."
"A knockout dart for the dogs," Frank said. "We're lucky he wasn't carrying something more lethal." He snagged the bag the Assassin had dropped. Inside were plastic-wrapped blocks of what felt like clay - clay with a pungent smell, when he opened one of the packs.
"What is that stuff?" Callie asked.
"Plastique," Frank replied. "Plastic explosive." He raised his voice, calling to Al-Rousasa.
"We know why you're here. And we know that you only have a dart gun. We outnumber you, so why don't you just give up?"
Tony Prito had reached a place where he could both cover the escalator and get a shot behind the planter. "He's not there!" he shouted. "He got away!"
Frank threw down the bag of plastique. "Fan out!" he yelled. "We've got to catch this guy."
"What about Chet?" Callie said.
"He'll be out for the next couple of hours. We'll have to leave him." Frank stepped forward in a crouch, his gun drawn.
"We'd have seen if he decided to walk down the escalator." Joe stood beside his brother, his gun reloaded.
"And we'd have heard if he pulled another of those grille things up," Tony said. "He's probably lying very still, just hoping we'll miss him in the dark," said Callie as she caught up with them.
"Okay." Frank gestured the others to gather around him. "We spread out," he said quietly. "No lights, no talking unless it's absolutely necessary. Let's go."
Their skirmish line moved forward quickly but quietly, scanning shadows, peeking around possible hiding places. But there was no trace of Al-Rousasa.
"He can't have disappeared," Joe muttered. "Where is the guy?" Rattling noises ahead gave them the answer.
"He's raising the grille at Lacey's!" Joe exclaimed in an urgent whisper. He sprinted forward.
"Boy, is the security director gonna be in trouble," said Tony, following. "This guy has keys to all the stores."
Al-Rousasa had raised the gate only a few inches and was scooting under it. They could see his legs disappearing as they arrived.
"He's pulling it down!" hissed Callie.
Joe turned his run into a dive, sliding along the polished tile floor. He jammed his flashlight under the gate just as it slammed down. The grille bounced up, failing to lock. Al-Rousasa disappeared into the darkness again.
Frank stormed over to his brother. "You made yourself a perfect target, lying on the floor like that," he said to Joe. "If he had stayed two more seconds, he could have put a dart right in you.”
"At least we're not locked out," Joe shouted back.
"Yeah, but this is bad," said Tony. "Lacey's has its own escalators and service stairs. It even has separate exits."
"And about a million more places to hide than that walkway out there," Callie said. "He headed down this aisle," said Joe. "Come on."
It was the main cosmetics aisle, and the Hardys and their friends could smell the various perfumes as they moved forward.
They were just passing the Makeover Bar when a crash from the left caused everyone to swivel around. Then they heard Tony Prito cursing and thrashing in the darkness. "Who moved that stupid chair out into the middle - "
"Three guesses," said Joe, moving ahead faster.
Al-Rousasa popped up from behind the bar to send a dart whizzing toward him. Joe dropped down, and the dart smashed into a display case behind him.
Before Frank or Callie could get off a shot, the Assassin vaulted over the counter and ran down another aisle.
Tony untangled himself and charged after him, only to run into another stool.
"This guy is good," Joe whispered as they set off down the aisle.
"Shhh," said Frank, listening hard for footsteps.
Ahead of them, a glass bottle smashed to the floor, knocked over by Al-Rousasa's elbow. They rushed toward the noise. But Al-Rousasa was still ahead.
They had reached ladies' hats when Joe suddenly stopped, waved the others back, and grabbed a mannequin head from a counter. He poked the head around the corner, and was rewarded with the hiss of a dart. The plastic head rolled down the aisle with a dart in its right eye. "Heard him reloading," Joe explained as he ran in pursuit.
He was well ahead of the others when a figure popped out of a rack of clothing, tossing a sweater into Joe's face. Tony fired and missed. "We'll have to split up to find him," Frank said.
They were like hunters beating their way through a forest - a forest of Orion, Dacron, and wool.
Callie and Frank met at the end of one aisle. "It's weird," said Callie. "I've been in this store a million times. Now everything seems spooky."
"That's because we don't know - " From the corner of his eye, Frank caught movement. "Down!"
One of the trio of mannequins on a platform had whirled around, drawing a bea on them. As a dart flitted over their heads Frank and Callie crashed to the floor together, their guns going off. Neither shot hit Al-Rousasa. 'The "mannequin" had disappeared. "Over here!" Frank yelled.
The quick slap of footsteps indicated that Joe and Tony were coming on the run. "Oh no you don't!" they suddenly heard Joe yell. Then they heard the hiss of a dart. Frank, Callie, and Tony changed course.
"Caught him trying to sneak down the escalator to the next floor," Joe said. From the distance came sounds of footsteps on metal treads.
"So he went upstairs instead." Frank ran for the other escalator, only to throw himself flat as something came flying at him.
"I think he's discovered the cutlery department," Tony whispered. "We've got to get upstairs” Frank said.
"Well, he can't be guarding every way up," Callie pointed out. "You and Joe keep him here. I'll go up the other escalator."
"And I know a set of service stairs," Tony added. "How do you know about Lacey's service stairs?" Frank asked. "I, uh, kind of had a thing going with one of the sales girls in ladies' underwear.'!
"'I'm not going to touch that line," Joe said. “Get going," whispered Frank.
While Callie and Tony set up the flank attack, Frank and Joe tried to keep Al-Rousasa's attention. They made lots of noise and fired a dart up the escalator. Joe even threw the knife back upstairs. No response.
“Frank? Joe?" Callie's voice floated down from upstairs. “There's nobody here."
"Then where'd he go now?" Joe asked.
A muffled shout gave him the answer.
"Oh, no!" Callie said. "Tony!"
They found the unlocked door to the service stairs - and Tony painfully crawling out of it.
"What happened?" Frank asked.
"Turns out he knew about these stairs, too," Tony said. “He was coming down."
"You met him?" said Callie.
"Met him?" Tony groaned. "I think I've got one of his footprints on my chest!"
"You're lucky he didn't kill you," said Joe. “Nah. He just knocked me down a flight of stairs and stole my flashlight." Tony started a shaky effort at standing up.
"Take it easy," Callie advised.
"No way. If he took this route, I think I know where he's heading." Tony got to his feet. "I really want to get him now. He hurt my pride." He groaned again. "As well as my chest.
He led the way down the service steps. "When we saw this guy first, he was out in the mall. Now he's in Lacey's."
"Isn't Lacey's part of the mall?" Callie asked as they raced down the stairs.
"Yeah, but it's pretty much cut off. Once they get you in this store, the idea is to keep you there. Even the maintenance passageways don't hook up. Except ... " "Except where?" said Frank.
"There's a connecting doorway in the third subbasement. I used it on break time to see Debbie." Tony stopped for a second. "I mean, my-friend."
"You've got to hand it to this Al-Rousasa guy," Joe said. "He knows all the make out spots in town." "Uh - uh!"" said Tony. "I think only Debbie and I know about this combination-the door and the service stairs. The only other person who might know is somebody who spends a lot of time in the third subbasement. And I don't think anybody works down there."
"So you're saying it must be Al-Rousasa's hangout," Joe said.
"Or hideout," Frank suggested eagerly. "Where are we now?" He pushed ahead. "First subbasement," Tony said.
Frank swung around the landing, then suddenly halted. "I think you may be right," he said quietly, waving the others back. Kneeling down, he shined his flashlight just above the steps.
Callie, Joe, and Tony stared at the thin black line revealed in the light. "What is it?" Callie asked.
"A trip wire. I caught it just in time," Frank said as he examined it. "Somebody drilled a little eyebolt into the wall here and stretched the wire across to the banister. Want to guess who?" He shrugged. "Still, it could have been worse." "How's that?" Tony looked puzzled. Frank's face was serious. "I thought the wire might be attached to something." "Like a bomb, you mean?" Joe said.
Frank nodded. "But all it's set to do is send you down the next flight of stairs on your face."
Callie shuddered. "Nice guy."
"It means we'll have to be more careful as we head toward that basement. This guy isn't just a fanatic. He's cunning, too cunning for our health. "
They found one more trap after reaching the third subbasement-a deadfall in a corridor, rigged to drop concrete blocks on anyone who tripped it. "Looks like we're getting closer," Joe said, stepping carefully over the trip wire. Callie put a restraining hand on his arm. "What's that ahead?"
Ahead of them, the darkness was no longer absolute. The corridor made a sharp turn, and from beyond that bend came a sickly, pale illumination.
"Somebody's got a light on," Tony whispered. "Maybe we should take a look."
They stole down the length of the corridor, Frank checking for any traps. Joe reached the corner and whipped around it, scanning the new corridor, his gun instinctively following his eyes. "Empty," he finally whispered.
The new corridor was indeed empty, but it was better lit. About halfway down the hall stood an open door. The light streamed from a room beyond.
"Some kind of storeroom, I think," Tony whispered. "Nobody uses it, so that light should not be on."
They cat-footed down the corridor, then bolted through the door, guns out, and froze.
Joe was the first to enter the room. "I don't believe this," he said. "Nobody home." The room was small, walled in dirty gray cement blocks. A heavy concrete support pillar rose up in the middle of the floor. Around its base was a pile of grayish plastic explosive blocks, a lot of electronic equipment, several clips of ammunition-and an Uzi submachine gun.
Joe darted behind the pillar. "Well, he's not hiding here. We really have lost him."
"It's not a waste," Frank said, scooping up some of the plastic bricks. "We've got evidence that someone was here, and these show what he was trying to do. The cops will have to listen to us now."
"Very good work," a voice said from the doorway.
The Hardys and their friends whirled around to see the grim face of Inspector Sam Butler, giving them his two-millimeter smile. He was leaning against the door frame, only his face in the light.
"Well, if it isn't the tough cop himself," Joe said. "What's the matter, Butler? Began having second thoughts about laughing us off? Now we've got proof. It's lucky you came along."
"Not exactly," Butler said, stepping into the light. For the first time, they saw the Uzi in his hand.
"Put your pop-guns down," Butler commanded. "You came looking for Al-Rousasa. Well, now he has found you."