Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Frank, who had pushed his way into a row where the smoke was much less dense, saw Flame Fiend grab Sandy Mendoza and push her off the front of the stage. Then Frank could just make out Flame Fiend turning on Johns, who had let go of the podium and was backing away from him.
Frank covered his nose and mouth with one hand and tried to move toward the stage, straining to see what was happening up there. Through the tears that were clouding his vision, Frank watched the Human Dreadnought leap up onto the stage. Johns dodged behind the chairs that had been set up on the stage, but the Dreadnought tossed them aside with one sweep of his arm. He crossed the space between himself and Johns with one leap. Johns put his fists up and backed up to the rear wall.
"Looks like a pretty unfair fight," he heard Joe call out from quite nearby. "What say we even the odds a little?"
"You read my mind, Joe," Frank shouted. "Better stay put, Chet!"
"Can't do much else right now!" Chet called from his spot against the wall, where the crowd still had him pinned.
Frank jumped onto the arms of a chair, and Joe followed his lead. Leaping from row to row, the Hardys made good speed toward the front of the auditorium.
As they reached the first row of chairs, Frank watched the Dreadnought punch Johns in the stomach, doubling him over. Then before Frank could vault onto the stage, the armored giant had picked up Johns and slung him over his shoulder. The Dreadnought ran for the nearest door, pulling another smoke grenade off his belt and tossing it over his shoulder. Flame Fiend followed close behind his friend, turning to check for pursuers.
The Hardys scrambled onto the stage and charged after the two comic-book figures, coughing as the acrid smoke entered their lungs. Despite the smoke, Joe managed to catch a glimpse of Flame Fiend as he disappeared through the double doors.
"Frank! They went this way!" Joe called. He grabbed Frank and pulled him toward the doors. The Hardys hit the doors as hard as they could, but they held fast.
"They blocked them from the other side!" Frank shouted. "Let's try again."
Frank and Joe hurled themselves against the doors again. This time they heard a cracking noise, and the doors gave slightly. Joe reared back for another try, but Frank stopped him as Chet stumbled onto the stage coughing and waving a hand to disperse the smoke.
"Those guys blocked off these doors, Chet," Joe told him. "We need to hit them one more time."
"I'm your man," Chet replied firmly. "Let's do it, guys."
The trio threw themselves at the doors, and this time they gave way with a splintering crash. A mop handle that had been rammed through the handles fell to the floor in two pieces.
As the boys raced into the hall, Frank saw that the Dreadnought, with Johns slung over his shoulder, had reached the lobby and was heading for a door opening onto the convention-center plaza. The Dreadnought turned just then and pulled off another smoke bomb. He lobbed it to Flame Fiend and bolted through the open doors and across the plaza. To Frank's surprise, Flame Fiend set the smoke bomb in the center of the lobby without pulling the pin. As he sped forward, Frank watched as Flame Fiend strode over to Johns's collection of comics. With a theatrical flourish, Flame Fiend snapped his fingers. A flame appeared in his palm. Frank stopped short, watching in disbelief as the flame grew into a foot-long wand of fire. Flame Fiend walked along the rows of Plexiglas-covered comic-book art, spraying fire over each display stand. This is too much, thought Frank. It's like something out of a comic book, but it's really happening!
"He's burning the whole collection!" Chet shouted. "We've got to stop him!"
Joe charged across the lobby toward the red-and-black figure with Frank. Chet puffed along, bringing up the rear.
"Hey!" Joe shouted, running straight at Flame Fiend as the last of the display stands was sprayed with fire.
Flame Fiend whirled at the shout and faced the boys. He snapped his fingers again, and the column of flame in his left hand vanished. Then with a peal of crazy laughter he kicked over the nearest display stand so it knocked over the stand next to it. The stands cascaded toward the Hardys like a row of flaming dominoes. Joe skidded to a stop, but he and Frank were directly in the path of the tumbling, flaming stands.
Just in time, Frank dived to the left and Joe rolled to the right. The blazing Plexiglas-and- wood frames toppled in a heap, flames separating the Hardys.
Frank pulled himself up, looking over the flames for Joe, who was already disappearing through the lobby doors. Shaking his head, Frank grabbed a fire extinguisher from a nearby pillar and began to put out the fire.
Arms and legs pumping furiously, Joe sprinted across the broad plaza. Flame Fiend had a good lead, but Joe was faster and was gaining on him.
Joe saw the crook glance behind him. Then Flame Fiend's left hand flipped open a small black box on the back of his belt. A second later Joe heard a rapid metallic clattering.
Before Joe knew what was happening, he lost his footing and felt his feet shoot up in the air. He slammed into the ground, hard.
The fall knocked the wind from his lungs, and Joe just lay there for a moment. He shook his head to clear it, and when his eyes focused, he caught a flash of movement near the corner of the parking garage. It was Flame Fiend, climbing into a silver van with tinted gray windows. The van roared off as Joe watched in angry frustration.
Fuming, Joe glanced around him and spotted a shiny metal ball lodged in a groove in the pavement. Then he noticed several others.
"Ball bearings," Joe muttered, plucking one of the metal balls from the pavement.
He examined the ball bearings to see if it could give any clue to its origins, but it was featureless. He almost threw it down in disgust. But then he remembered his father's advice that no clue was too small for a good detective. Joe pocketed the ball bearing, got to his feet, and walked briskly back to the lobby.
Frank was standing near the burned pile of display stands, holding a fire extinguisher, when Joe got there. Frank barely noticed Joe's arrival. The stands were no longer burning, Joe saw, but the artwork they'd displayed was reduced to ashes. The room was still smoky, and people had begun to open doors on either end of the lobby to air the space out. A handful of people wearing convention badges milled about, talking excitedly.
"What happened?" Frank asked as Joe joined him.
"They got away. I almost had the one in the red-and-black long Johns, but he dropped a bunch of ball bearings and I slipped on them."
"Cute." Frank grimaced.
"I saved one," Joe went on, "and I got a look at the getaway vehicle."
Frank's expression brightened. "Good going. What was it?"
"A silver van, one of those new ones with a real sleek aerodynamic design. It had a gray-tinted wraparound windshield, so I couldn't see inside."
"Did you get the license number?" Frank asked.
"Nope." Joe shook his head. "The van pulled out too fast."
Using a handkerchief, Frank held up a smoke bomb. "I picked up one of these as evidence," he told Joe. "I hope it'll tell us more about the kidnappers than your ball bearing."
"Is that the smoke bomb Flame Fiend set down in the lobby?" Joe asked.
"Yes." The look on Frank's face grew thoughtful. "Didn't it seem odd that he set that one smoke bomb down so carefully when Dreadnought just flung the others around?"
Joe nodded. "Yeah, I thought so, too."
A sudden babble of voices caused Frank to look up at a small crowd of people that had gathered near them to stare at the smoking ashes of Barry Johns's collection of comic-book artwork. Frank had already moved away when he noticed Chet's friend Tom Gatlin. Gatlin seemed nervous and was looking around furtively. Suddenly he slipped through the Crowd and out of sight.
Frowning, Frank absently rolled the smoke bomb around in his hand. He was about to mention Gatlin's behavior to Joe when an idea struck him.
"Hey, this bomb feels too light," he said, shaking it beside his ear. He heard a rustling sound.
Chet walked up then and eyed him nervously. "Take it easy with that thing," he warned. "It might go off."
"The pin's still in it, Chet," Frank replied as he turned the smoke bomb over to examine the bottom.
Then, as Chet watched uncertainly, Frank grabbed the top of the grenade and began to unscrew it.
"Are you crazy!" Chet exclaimed, but Frank paid no attention. As he suspected, the bomb was hollow. Inside was a small envelope made of metallic silver paper. Frank opened his handkerchief and carefully shook the envelope into it. Touching the metallic paper only with a handkerchief, Frank opened it and withdrew a small square of white paper. Then he set the envelope down beside the hollow grenade and carefully unfolded the paper.
"What's it say, Frank?" Joe asked impatiently.
Frank read silently, then handed the note to Joe with a grim expression.
In neat computer printout type, the note read: Mrs. Barry Johns,
You will give us $500,000 in two days, or your husband's a dead man. We mean business. Ransom-delivery instructions to follow.
The Human Dreadnought.
Joe Hardy stared in disbelief at the note in his hand. "This has got to be the weirdest kidnapping I ever heard of.
"It's real, though, unfortunately," Frank said.
Taking the ransom note back from Joe, he set it and the metallic-paper envelope on the floor. He fished around in his shoulder bag and drew out a small black leatherbound notebook and pen. Frank copied the ransom message in the notebook, making notes about the appearance of the envelope and note paper.
The wail of approaching sirens cut through the air. Glancing through the glass-and-chrome doors at the front of the lobby, Joe saw two black-and-white police cars and a couple of red fire trucks rumbling toward the convention center. Soon some San Diego cops were shooing people out of the way of the firemen, who rushed in carrying big-tank fire extinguishers. They relaxed when they realized that, despite all the smoke, the fire was out.
A tall cop with a thin mustache quickly took charge. Frank stowed his notebook, picked up the dummy grenade and ransom note, and walked over to the cop.
"Officer, there's just been a kidnapping!"
"What?" The cop regarded Frank dubiously through dark aviator shades. "We got a call only about a possible fire here. Who got kidnapped?"
Joe stepped up beside his brother. "It was Barry Johns, the guest of honor at this convention," he told the cop.
"I think this is a ransom note for Johns," Frank added. He held out the note and fake smoke bomb to the tall police officer, whose badge said Leinster.
The cop looked annoyed. "You shouldn't disturb evidence. What's your name, kid?"
"Frank Hardy, officer. Look, I can explain why I picked it up. It seemed to be one of the smoke grenades the kidnappers used. I just wanted to get it outside before it went off. But when I picked it up, it felt too light, so I opened it and found this note. But don't worry, I didn't smudge the prints," Frank explained.
Another cop walked up with quick strides. He was a short, very muscular Hispanic officer. Whipping out his own handkerchief, he took the grenade, ransom note, and envelope.
"Hold that stuff for the FBI guys, Mario," Leinster told the other officer.
"Did you get a look at the kidnappers, Mr. Hardy?" Leinster asked.
"I saw their van," Joe volunteered. "It was a new silver panel van with a tinted wraparound windshield."
"Did you see the plates?" Leinster asked sharply.
Joe shook his head. "Sorry. It was too far away."
"Could be that the van's still in the area," Leinster said. "From your description, I'd say it was a Futuro Five Thousand. They're new, not many on the road yet, so it ought to be easy to spot." He reached for the walkie-talkie hooked on his belt and called in the description.
Officer Leinster took down the name of the Hardys' hotel and told them he'd be in touch. As he walked toward his partner, who was standing by the double doors, a bulletin crackled over their radios. The dispatcher described a kidnapping that had just taken place and gave the address: 8311 Lake Baca Drive, the home of a Sydney Kaner. His wife had phoned in the distress call.
Chet was standing a few feet away from the Hardys, watching morosely as the firemen dug through the ashes of Johns's collection. Suddenly his eyes bulged in surprise. "Syd Kaner! He works for Barry Johns!"
Joe and Frank exchanged a startled look.
"Think there's a connection?" Joe asked.
"There's only one way to find out. Let's get over there right away!" Frank and Joe headed for the lobby door, with Chet bringing up the rear, shouting, "Wait for me, fellas!"
They sprinted along the plaza to the garage. As Joe opened the driver's-side door of their rental car, Frank opened the trunk and pulled out a radio with police and emergency bands and a San Diego road atlas. Closing the trunk, Frank dived through the front passenger door as Chet got in the back. They were still buckling their seat belts when Joe threw the car into reverse, backed out, and roared off toward the exit ramp.
"I'll navigate," Frank said, while trying to tune in the police band.
Frank had the radio locked onto the police band by the time Joe reached street level. He directed Joe to turn north on First Avenue, then east on A Street.
Joe wove expertly through the late-afternoon San Diego traffic, following Frank's directions. Within ten minutes they'd left the downtown area and were on the Ocean Beach Freeway, heading toward the suburban neighborhood where, according to their map, Lake Baca Drive was located.
"You looked so sad about Johns's art collection getting fried, someone would think it was yours, Chet," Joe said, glancing at Chet in the rear-view mirror.
"I'm upset about the waste, Joe," Chet replied. "A whole collection of irreplaceable comic art, gone like that!" He snapped his fingers to punctuate the statement. "There were some real classics in there, some of the most beautiful comics covers of all time."