Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
"I just never realized comic art was so valuable, Chet," Frank said.
"It hasn't always been worth much," Chet pointed out. "For years, and I'm talking two, three, four decades, newspaper syndicates and comic-book companies would just dump artwork in a storeroom until it was full. And then they'd toss it out or burn it."
"Then how did Johns get so much of it?" Frank inquired.
"He got a lot of it from Golden Age artists," Chet told him. "He'd find the artists and get to know them. He'd either buy the artwork for a low price, or they'd give it to him because they liked him."
"And now people pay a lot of money for this stuff?" Joe asked.
"Sure. Collectors like my friend Tom and movie stars and rock - 'n' - roll singers. You'd be surprised. But, hey, if you want a real expert's opinion, ask Tom. He knows more about comic-book art and cartoonists than anyone else I know."
Frank suddenly remembered how strangely Tom had acted right after the fire. He was about to mention it to the others, but then he saw their exit coming up. "Get off here, Joe," he said.
Soon they were traveling through the hilly streets of a pleasant suburban neighborhood. Frank spotted a couple of street signs, then buried his nose in the map again.
"Take a right at the next corner, Joe," he instructed. "Then go down two streets and hang a left. That ought to put us right on Lake Baca Drive."
Chet leaned forward between the Hardys. "I sure hope we don't run into Flame Fiend or Dreadnought again," he said with a worried expression.
"But that's exactly what we want," Frank told him. "Why are you so worried, Chet? What could we be up against?"
Chet leaned back and ticked off the points on his fingers as he spoke. "Let's see - in the comics the Human Dreadnought has superstrength, can run seventy miles an hour, and is invulnerable to anything smaller than an artillery shell."
Joe rolled his eyes. "What about the firebug in the red suit?" he asked.
"Flame Fiend? He can shoot blasts of flame or bursts of blinding light from his hands. He's impervious to fire and bullets and doesn't need to breathe."
Joe slapped the steering wheel and hooted. "Oh, come on, Chet. You can't possibly believe those guys are real?"
Chet replied with a noncommittal shrug.
When Joe turned the corner of Lake Baca Drive, all he saw was another ordinary suburban street lined with neat split-level homes. A minute later, however, he noticed a trio of police cars clustered around a split-level house at the end of the street.
There were tire tracks digging a double arc into the neatly manicured front lawn. An outdoor light had been knocked at a crazy angle, and the front door of the house had been battered in and lay on its side against the inside wall.
"Pull over, Joe," Frank directed, "but not too close to the police cars."
"What's the plan?" Joe asked.
"Just a little eavesdropping on the police band to see what they know," Frank answered.
Just then a green BMW drove slowly past the Kaner house, speeding up as soon as it passed. As the car swung by the Hardys' sedan, Joe got a quick glimpse of the driver, a dark-haired, middle-aged man with a large nose and a sharp profile.
Reports of related crimes poured in over Frank's radio. There was a burst of static; then a loud, tinny voice announced, "This is Charlie One at the intersection of Ashwood Avenue and Lake Murray Boulevard. I've got a make on a van resembling the one reported in the Syd Kaner kidnapping going northeast on Lake Murray." There was another burst of static before an answering voice came on.
"Roger, Charlie One. Pursue suspect vehicle immediately. Backup is en route, and you have eyes in the sky."
Joe heard the faint buzz of beating rotors. He stuck his head out the car window, and quickly spotted a San Diego police helicopter in the sky to the northeast.
The helicopter pilot's voice cut in on the police band. "Charlie One, this is Icarus. I have you and suspect van in sight, going northeast on Lake Murray. Your backup will rendezvous at Mono Lake Drive."
Frank studied the map. "Hey, that van's heading back toward us," he announced.
The chopper pilot's voice cut back on the radio in a crackle of static. "Hey, where'd they go? Charlie One, do you have a visual?"
"Negative," the boys heard Charlie One respond. "The van disappeared down a side street. Can you see anything?"
"No," the chopper pilot responded. "The trees are too thick. I'll circle. Pick a side street, and we'll flush them out."
"I think I know where they're going, Joe," Frank announced.
"And how do you know this when the cops just lost them?" Joe asked.
"I think they'll come out on Lake Ashmere Drive," Frank said excitedly. "On my map, Lake Ashmere intersects with a little access road that runs right out to the highway. It'd make a dandy getaway route."
Joe smiled and threw the car into reverse. "How do I get there?"
Four minutes later Joe had parked their rental car across the mouth of a narrow alley that ran parallel to a steep hill.
Chet leaned forward between the Hardys, a worried expression on his face. "I hope you guys know what you're doing."
Joe smiled. "Relax, Chet. This isn't a comic book, you know. Those crooks may have fancy costumes, but I'm willing to bet they're not immune to a punch in the jaw."
Frank continued to monitor the police band, hearing the growing frustration in the officers' voices as they tried unsuccessfully to locate the fugitive van.
He glanced over at Joe. "All we have to do is hold them up long enough for the police to get here."
"And how are we supposed to do that?" Joe asked.
Before Frank had a chance to answer, Joe saw a silver van barreling down the alley toward them.
"That's the same van that Flame Fiend loaded Johns into at the convention center!" Joe said.
The van screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust, and the door on the driver's side popped open. The Human Dreadnought jumped out, carrying a silver device with a long handle. He charged over to Joe's window and pounded on it. "Move that car, sonny, now."
"No way," Joe said firmly.
"Okay, punk, you asked for it!" the Dreadnought replied in a gravelly voice.
The Dreadnought began battering at the windshield with his fist, bringing his metal-studded gloves down again and again on the glass. The car was rocking with his pounding. Spiderweb cracks appeared in all directions, and the boys could hardly see out.
A second later they heard a scraping sound on the underside of the car, then a series of loud, ratcheting clicks. Frank could see the Dreadnought bent over at the rear passenger-side door.
Suddenly Frank felt his side of the car being lifted up.
"Hey - he's picking the car up!" Chet shouted.
The boys grabbed at the door handles for support as the car landed on its left side, wobbled in that position for a few seconds, then rolled over onto the roof and rocked from side to side with the boys suspended upside down.
With the blood rushing to his head, Joe could hear another scraping of metal on metal. Then the ratcheting clicks began again, and the car fell on its right side and then onto the wheels. Joe had only a moment to brace himself before the car began its dizzying roll once again. It kept rolling over and over, down the steep hillside, steadily picking up speed.
This is it, Frank thought, reaching out to steady himself against the jolting of the car. He was ready for the car to burst into flames at any second. Then suddenly the carnival ride stopped, and the car came to a shuddering halt on its broad wheel base.
Frank glanced at his brother and Chet. "You guys okay?" he asked anxiously.
Joe moved his head back and forth gingerly, grimacing a little from the pain of a stiff neck. "I'll be all right."
Chet tried to force a smile and gave a thumbs-up sign. "I can't believe I almost got killed by a comic-book character," he muttered.
"Me either," Joe agreed. Seeing that they were all unhurt, he turned on the ignition to see if by some miracle the car still worked. The engine kicked on with a high-pitched screech that gradually died away, leaving an almost normal engine hum.
Frank was astounded. "Pretty good, considering that battering. Well, if this heap can make it that far, take us back to the spot where the Dreadnought pitched us over the cliff," he told Joe.
Peering through the fractured windshield, Joe drove the battered sedan along the bottom of the hill until he came to a spot where the incline leveled off. He shifted into low and made it back onto the road. In a few minutes they were back to the place where they'd blocked the alley.
Joe and Frank began examining the ground around them, while Chet stood nervously scanning the area.
"You don't think those crooks are still around, do you, Frank?" Chet asked.
Frank looked up from the dirt. "Afraid they'll come back?"
Chet nodded sheepishly. "A little. I don't mind helping you guys catch regular crooks, but fighting people with superhuman strength gives me the creeps."
Joe stood behind Frank, a scornful expression on his face. "Nobody's got superstrength, Chet! The Human Dreadnought is just a guy in a costume."
"But you saw him. He picked up our car and rolled it down the hill!" Chet sputtered.
"Joe's right," Frank stated flatly. "Nobody's strong enough to pick up a car with three people in it."
Frank waved Chet over to where he was kneeling and pointed to a pair of deep parallel furrows in the dirt.
"What do you think these are?" Frank asked.
"Tracks of some kind, maybe from something heavy," Chet guessed.
"Like what, Chet?" Frank prompted.
Chet shrugged. "How should I know? You're the detective, not me."
"Maybe those marks were made by whatever the Dreadnought was carrying when he got out of the van," Frank suggested.
"Which was probably a hydraulic jack. That's what he used to tip our car over," Joe added, "not superstrength."
Chet nodded dubiously. "I guess that makes sense. But why go to the trouble of faking superstrength? I don't get it."
Frank was quiet for a moment. "That's just one of the things we'll have to figure out."
Frank picked himself off the ground. "I've seen enough," he said as he dusted off his hands. "Let's swing by Kaner's home. Maybe we can find out something about what happened to Kaner before the kidnappers' trail gets too cold."
The trio got back into the battered sedan and Joe drove back to Lake Baca Drive, with the car clanking and squealing every inch of the way. When they arrived, Joe noted that the police cars parked before the Kaner home had been joined by several plain black sedans.
"They look like FBI cars," Joe guessed.
"How can you tell?" Chet asked.
"They're unmarked sedans. Standard FBI issue," said Joe.
"We might as well go back to the hotel now, Joe," Frank added. "I doubt we'll get to talk to Mrs. Kaner tonight."
"Yeah, the cops and FBI will keep her tied up for hours," Joe agreed.
The battered car protested loudly anytime Joe drove over thirty miles an hour, but he managed to coax it back to the rental agency without stopping. They decided not to tell the truth about what had happened to the car - who'd believe their story about the Dreadnought, anyway. The story they did tell convinced the manager to rent them another car after they filled out an accident report with the police.
Frank felt tired and discouraged as Joe pulled into the parking garage. They went upstairs, stopping only to pick up some soda and a few pretzels and chips at the snack bar in the lobby. Up in the Hardys' room, Joe sat on his bed while Chet flopped on Frank's bed. Frank took the straight-backed chair that stood in front of the small desk.
Pulling out a notebook and pen from his shoulder bag, Frank asked, "Chet, if this gang keeps impersonating Terrific Comics supervillains, what are some other characters we might run up against?"
Joe rolled his eyes in disbelief. "Frank, will you give this comic-book stuff a rest? I didn't think you actually believed we were up against real supervillains."
"I don't," Frank answered. "But it never hurts to have an idea of a criminal's possible methods."
Chet chewed a potato chip thoughtfully before answering. "Well, the Human Dreadnought is Terrific Comics' main villain, and Flame Fiend pops up a lot. They've got a character called Peregrine, too. He's a flying villain from the Green Cyclone comic. He's got a lot of advanced weaponry and a spaceplane," Chet explained.
Frank nodded, scribbling notes, then motioned for Chet to continue. Chet had finished the small bag of potato chips and was opening a bag of pretzels as he replied.
"There's Electro-man, who can throw lightning bolts and destroy electronic hardware. There's also Whip Scorpion, a really nasty villain from the Z-Crew comic. He wears flexible body armor and carries a bullwhip. He throws knives and ninja stars and can walk on walls and ceilings."
"Brother," muttered Joe, shaking his head. 'I hope we don't have to tackle a big gang of costumed warriors. The two so far have been bad enough."
Frank paused, flipping through the pages of the notebook that he'd already filled. "Chet, do you know of any connection between Johns and Terrific Comics?"
Chet popped a pretzel into his mouth. "Hmmm - I think Johns used to work at T.C."
Frank made another note in his book. "What else do you know about that relationship?"
"Not much," Chet admitted, "but Tom could tell you. He's an expert on every phase of Johns's career. He knows a lot about Terrific Comics, too."
"Let's go talk to him," Joe suggested.
Chet checked his watch. "We've probably missed him. Knowing Tom, he's probably at a party. I doubt we could find him now."
Frank flipped his notebook closed. "There's not much more we can do tonight. What do you say we pack it in and go grab a pizza?"
"Dinner?" Chet beamed. "I thought you'd never ask."
Joe looked at Chet in amazement. "How can you even think about food after all the chips and pretzels you just put away?"
Chet just smiled. "That was only an hors d'oeuvre, Joe. Now I'm ready for the main course."