Read The Last Laugh Online

Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

The Last Laugh (4 page)

BOOK: The Last Laugh
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***

The Hardys woke up early Friday morning. After quickly showering and dressing, they took the elevator to the lobby to meet Chet.

Chet arrived fifteen minutes late, bleary-eyed.

"You look like a man who didn't get much sleep last night, Chet," Frank observed.

"Good guess," Chet answered with a yawn. "Try three hours. I ran into some people, and we wound up talking and watching old monster movies in the film room till five. These cons are legendary for their parties. The con runs movies twenty-four hours a day. There's even a comic-con channel on the hotel's cable TV."

"Well, I trust you're awake enough to help us find Tom this morning after a visit to the convention center," Frank told him.

Chet yawned wide. "Sure," he said sleepily. "But I've got to have some breakfast first."

The trio devoured huge plates of pancakes and sausages at the hotel coffee shop, washing everything down with glasses of orange juice.

When they got to the lobby of the convention center, Frank saw that the fire damage had been repaired.

"That was quick work with the fire extinguisher," Chet commented. "The fire would've caused a lot more damage if it hadn't been for you."

Frank shrugged, his mind on the case. "Chet, since the two supervillains we've encountered are from Terrific Comics, how about a visit to the T.C. table?"

Chet led them into the main hall, where the comic-book publishers had set up booths and tables lined with comics and graphic novels. Behind their tables most of the publishers had colorful displays featuring either their stable of characters or the covers of various comics titles. The hall had just opened for the day, and there were only a few fans inside wandering around and leafing through comics.

Chet led the Hardys to the Terrific Comics booth. As they rounded the end of the aisle, both Hardys started in surprise at the sight of the Human Dreadnought, Flame Fiend, and several other characters they didn't recognize. All the characters were looming over a dark shape that was hunched over the table.

"What the - " Frank did a double take, but after a second he realized that the supervillains were simply life-size dummies in costume. Still, the resemblance to the men from the day before was unsettling. The man who'd been hunched over the table straightened up suddenly, and Frank saw that he'd been arranging rows of comics.

The dark-suited man turned in profile, and Joe drew in a sharp breath. "Frank, that's the same guy who drove past Kaner's house right after the kidnapping!" he said quietly. He leaned over to Chet and whispered, "Chet, do you know who he is?"

"Sure, that's Harry Saul, president of Terrific Comics."

"Great," said Joe. Maybe they could get some information to help them discover who the villains were. Joe sauntered over to Saul and asked politely, "Can we speak with you a moment, Mr. Saul?"

Saul looked Joe over, then answered in a jovial tone, "Sure, kid."

As Frank and Chet joined Joe, Saul's dark eyes flicked over their faces before returning to Joe's.

"How well do you know Barry Johns?" Joe asked.

Saul's face hardened. "Why do you want to know?" he asked suspiciously.

"Did you know he's been kidnapped?" Joe asked.

Saul was obviously annoyed. "Of course I know! I was here at the convention. Don't waste my time asking dumb questions, kid!" he snapped.

"Don't you think it's a little strange that Johns's kidnappers were dressed up like your characters, Mr. Saul?" Frank asked.

"I don't know anything about it!" Saul snarled. "If some crooks want to dress up like my characters, I have no control over that or them!"

"Didn't Johns once work for you?" Joe inquired.

Saul's shiny dark brown eyes flicked from Joe to Chet to Frank before he answered. "Yeah, so what? The little weasel used to work for me. It doesn't mean anything. Lots of people have worked for me besides Barry Johns."

"Most of your employees, past or present, don't get kidnapped, though. Isn't that right, Mr. Saul?" Frank asked.

Saul's face darkened with barely contained rage. "Look, Johns used to work for me, but that was years ago. I don't like the guy. He got kidnapped and that's too bad, but you won't find me shedding any tears over him. Now, if you three know what's good for you, you'll stay out of my hair! I have ways of dealing with people who annoy me!"

Chapter 5

Harry Saul sat behind his table and crossed his arms.

"Wait a minute, Mr. Saul," Joe began, taking a step closer.

Frank laid a hand on his brother's arm. "Forget it, Joe," he said quietly. "I think he's told us everything he's going to."

"Now what?" Joe grumbled as he allowed Frank to lead him away from the Terrific Comics booth.

"We find Tom and see what he can tell us about Johns and Saul," Frank answered. Turning to Chet, he added, "Lead the way, Chet."

Chet took the Hardys into the dealers' room, where comics art was being bought and sold. The three boys wandered among rows of tables piled high with boxes of comics. They finally found Tom poring over stacks of Golden Age art.

"Hi, Tom," Chet greeted him cheerfully.

"Hey, Chet," Tom called. "What's up?"

Chet laid a big hand on Tom's shoulder and leaned in to say, "Frank and Joe need some inside info on the comics business."

"What do you want to know, guys?" Tom asked.

"About Barry Johns's relationship to Harry Saul and Terrific Comics," Joe told him.

Tom adjusted his glasses and glanced at Frank and Joe. "Johns began by writing fan letters and visiting the T.C. offices in the early seventies. Then, a couple of years later, he worked up some samples and began going around to the comics companies for work. He didn't have any luck until Harry Saul took him on as an office boy."

"An office boy?" Frank repeated. "When did Johns start getting his reputation as a writer and artist?"

"About ten years ago, while he was still at Terrific Comics," Tom replied. "But even the first year Johns worked there, he pestered Saul to let him pencil some comics."

"What do you mean, pencil some comics?" Frank asked, interrupting.

"Uh, well, since comic-book art's always been done fast, the work was usually broken up among a few artists. The penciler lays down the pencil art, then a letterer puts on the balloons and captions, and the inker draws in ink with a pen or brush or marker over the pencil."

"That's all fascinating, I'm sure," Joe said impatiently, "but what about Johns and Terrific Comics?"

"Anyway," Tom continued, "Johns wanted the work so bad he started out doing anything, lettering corrections, erasing pencil lines on inked pages, you name it. He worked hard, and Saul was finally impressed enough to give him a break."

"Uh - huh. Then what happened?" Joe asked.

"Johns penciled some short backup stories. He got good real fast and began getting a lot of fan mail. Pretty soon he was Terrific Comics' star attraction, penciling two of their most popular titles."

"Saul sure didn't have much good to say about his former boy wonder when we questioned him," Frank commented.

"That's because of the Metaman lawsuit."

"Metaman?" Joe asked, puzzled.

"The superhero. What happened was that after Johns worked for Saul for about four years, they had a falling-out and Johns quit. Then a couple of months later, Johns announced he was forming his own company, Zenith. Another guy, Dewey Strong, who'd worked for Saul for over twenty years, also quit, and went to work for Johns.

"Saul slapped Johns with a plagiarism lawsuit right after the first issue of Metaman came out," Tom went on. "He claimed that the character Metaman was a creation he'd been developing secretly, and that Johns or Strong stole it."

"Well, I can see why Johns wasn't popular with Saul," Joe remarked.

"Ah, but the story gets juicier," Tom proclaimed. "When the lawsuit finally came to trial, Strong testified that Metaman was Johns's creation. Saul lost the case, and now Metaman is Zenith's most popular character. Metaman comics made Johns a millionaire. There was supposed to be a Metaman movie, too. It would have made Johns ten times as rich if he'd finished making it."

Frank had been scribbling notes as Tom talked. Tom was being very helpful, Frank thought. Maybe his weird behavior after the fire had been a fluke.

"Saul's got a reputation for being very hot-tempered. He shoots his mouth off a lot, but he never actually threatened Johns as far as I know," Tom replied. "I do know that Johns and Saul haven't spoken since the lawsuit."

"All this makes Saul our number-one suspect," Joe stated.

"There's another thing, guys," Tom put in. "Saul's not the only person Barry Johns ever got in trouble with. He's got a reputation for not paying free-lancers and printers and a lot of other people, too, like letterers and colorists."

"Hmm," said Frank. "So Johns had enemies, but so far most of the circumstantial evidence points to Saul. Except for one thing. Why would Saul use people dressed like his own characters to commit crimes? Wouldn't he be too shrewd to do something that obvious?"

"Saul does seem to have a bad temper, though, and bad-tempered people sometimes make mistakes. Why don't we see what else we can dig up on him, Frank?" Joe asked.

Frank thought for a moment. "Let's go and see Mrs. Kaner first," he said. "We need to know how her husband fits into all this. Maybe she can tell us more about Johns, too."

He turned to Chet. "Why don't you and Tom hang out and then catch some lunch. Joe and I will meet you back here in a couple of hours."

Chet shot him a quick thumbs-up sign, then turned back to Tom. "You going to the costume contest tonight?"

Tom laughed. "I never miss it."

***

The Kaner house looked much more peaceful than it had the previous day. The front lawn still bore the deep tire ruts, but Joe noticed that the battered front door had been replaced. He gestured up the street toward an unmarked car parked at the curb with two bored-looking men sitting in it.

"Except for the two plainclothes boys, it seems pretty deserted. Now might be a good time to go over there," Joe said.

"Yeah, but we'd better try the back door, so the cops don't see us. They might not understand that we're on their side."

Joe waited as Frank quickly stuffed his microcassette recorder into his shoulder bag, along with a new notebook, camera, and evidence envelopes. Then, keeping one eye on the unmarked police car, he and Frank casually strolled to the other side of the street and walked past the Kaner house until they found a wide alley that ran behind the rear of the houses. Joe knocked on the rear screen door. There was a long wait; then he saw a curtain beside the door part, revealing a pair of frightened pale blue eyes. The door popped open a few inches.

"What are you doing in my backyard?" the woman snapped.

"Are you Mrs. Sydney Kaner?" Joe asked politely.

"Who wants to know?" she shot back.

"My name's Joe Hardy, Mrs. Kaner, and this is my brother, Frank. We're investigating your husband's kidnapping."

"We'd like to talk to you for a few minutes, Mrs. Kaner," Frank added.

Mrs. Kaner peered at them suspiciously. "You're not the police. Who are you?"

"No, ma'am," Joe assured her. "We're not with the police, but we are detectives. We want to help get your husband back."

"You boys are a little young to be detectives," she said pointedly.

"Please, Mrs. Kaner," Frank said. "We saw Barry Johns kidnapped yesterday, and if your husband was kidnapped by the same gang, he might be in for a rough time. Anything you could tell us would help us find his kidnappers."

"Well," she said reluctantly, "I don't know what I can tell you that I didn't already tell the police and those FBI men." And with that, Mrs. Kaner closed the door.

Joe was afraid that was it, that Mrs. Kaner wouldn't talk to them, but a moment later he heard the chain being unhooked, and the door swung open.

"Come on in, boys. I'm Amelia Kaner." The petite silver-haired woman was about sixty. "Sorry if I seemed rude, but with the reporters, the police, and the FBI, I haven't had much of a chance to recover my wits."

Amelia Kaner led them into the living room. The first thing the boys noticed was that there had obviously been a terrific struggle in that room. There was a hole in the wall, a smashed mirror was on its side, leaning against a wall, and an untidy heap of papers and books was laid haphazardly on an end table.

"Looks like there was quite a fight here, Mrs. Kaner. What happened?" Joe asked.

"Well," she began, "I was in the kitchen making dinner, and Syd was in the living room going over some papers. All of a sudden I heard a car drive right up to the front of the house, and the door split right down the middle. It made quite a crash, I tell you. Syd jumped up and shouted something like, 'Hey, what do they think they're doing?' Then a big man dressed up like a tank walked right into our house!"

Amelia Kaner stopped suddenly and buried her face in her hands.

"Take it easy, Mrs. Kaner," Frank said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to tell us anything that upsets you."

"It's all right, son," she replied, meeting his gaze with sad eyes. "It's just that talking about it brings it all back so vividly."

She cleared her throat and sighed, then said, "Why don't I bring out some iced tea?"

"That'd be great," Frank said. "Let me help."

Mrs. Kaner led the way into the kitchen, and Joe heard Frank drawing her into conversation. As their voices retreated into the rear of the house, he started to check out the living room for any clue the police might have missed.

Going through the untidy stack of books and papers, Joe pulled a sheet of paper out and scanned it. It was a legal document, and on the top of the page were two names in bold type: Sydney Kaner and Jack Parente. They were the plaintiffs in a legal action against a third name that was prominently displayed on the sheet - Barry Johns.

Joe did a double take. Tom had said Johns had a bad reputation with free-lancers, but here were two of his own staff suing him!

Joe started to read the document, but he knew Frank and Mrs. Kaner would be returning soon, so he slipped it back. Quickly flipping through the stack, he saw more legal documents and a few newspaper clippings about Johns.

Mrs. Kaner reentered the room, followed by Frank, who was carrying a tray with tall glasses and a pitcher of iced tea.

"Anyway, Mrs. Kaner," Frank was saying, "how did your husband like working at Zenith?"

"Syd's been very unhappy with Barry for the last year or two," she said delicately.

"Do you have any idea why?" Joe asked.

"Syd didn't share his work with me." Mrs. Kaner paused for a moment. "But I do know he felt he was being cheated out of royalties. That's about all. Sorry."

"Do you think he had any idea he was in danger?" Joe asked her.

Amelia Kaner shook her head. "Nothing he shared with me."

"What was his relationship with Harry Saul?" Frank inquired.

"Syd used to do some work for Harry from time to time. They got on all right, until Syd went to work for Barry. After that, Harry stopped talking to Syd." Amelia Kaner fell silent and took a long drink from her glass of tea. She lowered her eyes. Joe sensed they weren't going to learn any more from her. Catching Frank's eye, he cocked a thumb at the door. Frank nodded, then gulped down the rest of his glass of tea and stood up.

"Thanks for talking with us, Mrs. Kaner," Frank said, extending a hand to her.

"Yeah, and thanks for the tea," Joe added, coming to his feet.

"You're welcome, boys," Amelia Kaner told them as she showed them out.

As Joe and Frank went out the Kaners' front door and got into their car, they noticed the two sleepy-looking cops come alive. Just as Joe'd suspected, they weren't too tired to take notice of the Hardys. Joe watched one of the cops take down their license number, while the other one talked on the radio.

"Well, we know now that Kaner felt Johns was cheating him. Did you learn anything else while I was in the kitchen?" Frank asked.

"I saw some legal papers about a lawsuit with Kaner and someone named Parente, against Barry Johns," Joe told him. "The lawsuit could be over royalties, but I didn't have time to read it."

"Hmmm. I wonder if the kidnappers know there's bad blood between Johns and Kaner? Looks like the case has just gotten a lot more complicated," Frank said.

"Where do you think we should go next, Frank?" Joe asked.

Frank was chewing his lower lip. "The hotel, I guess," he answered distractedly. "But take your time, I want to hash the case out on the way."

"Suits me," Joe answered. He threw the car into gear and guided the sedan down Lake Murray Boulevard.

"Judging from that paper you saw, Johns seems to have a lot more enemies than we thought," Frank pointed out.

"Where do you suppose that stuff about Kaner's stolen royalties fits in?" Joe asked.

"I wouldn't even guess without more information," Frank replied. "I mean, judging from what we just found out, I'd say Kaner and Parente are suspects. But Kaner's a victim, too. It doesn't make sense. And another thing - I still don't understand why the crooks torched Johns's art collection." Frank shook his head.

"Maybe it was for revenge," Joe speculated. "It's one way Saul could get back at Johns and really hurt him."

"Possibly" - Frank shrugged - "but why not steal it and sell it?"

"Maybe the crooks had only enough time to set a fire," Joe suggested.

After an hour of driving and talking, Frank and Joe were no closer to solving the two kidnappings, so they drove back to the convention. Joe wasn't surprised to find Chet in the dealers' room with Tom. Both boys were hunched over a pile of plastic-wrapped Golden Age artwork.

"How'd it go, fellas?" Chet asked eagerly when he saw the Hardys.

"Well," Joe began, "we know more, but there are still too many blank pieces in the puzzle."

"I'd like to talk to some other people from Johns's staff and see how they felt about their boss," Frank put in.

"Try artists' alley," Tom suggested. "Dewey Strong is Zenith Publishing's main penciler. He's got a table there. Come on. I'll show you.

Joe, Frank, and Chet followed Tom to a part of the dealers' room where the tables had been arranged in big rectangles. The artists sat behind the tables on the inside of the rectangles. In front of them stacks of original comics pages were for sale, and there were a few hand-painted signs with the artists' prices for doing sketches.

Tom stopped and gestured toward a cartoonist in his sixties who sat in the center of a table facing the three boys. He was a medium-size, ruddy-faced man with a shock of uncombed white hair. He wore ink-stained khaki pants and a T-shirt with the figure of Metaman.

A mixed crowd of younger and older fans stood around watching as Strong sketched on a pad.

"That's him," said Tom. He walked over to the man and said, "Hello, Dewey. How are you?"

Strong's face split into a crooked grin. "Hi, Tom. How's the boy, huh?"

"Good, Dewey. Hey, listen, these are the Hardy brothers," he told Strong, then stopped to clasp Chet's shoulder. "And this is my pal Chet Morton, a big fan of yours."

"It's nice to meet you guys," Strong said. "Sorry, but I've got a lot of fans here waiting to buy sketches. I can't chat right now."

"We'd like a little of your time, Mr. Strong," Joe insisted.

"It's about Barry Johns's kidnapping," Frank added. "We need any information you can give us about Johns's enemies."

Strong's expression soured. Turning away from the Hardys, he carefully tore the sketch from his pad and handed it to a pudgy youngster wearing a vest covered with superhero buttons.

"Barry didn't have many enemies," Strong said slowly as he began a new sketch. He was obviously picking his words carefully. "I liked the guy. He always treated me okay. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of sketches to do."

With that, Strong bent his head and concentrated on sharpening his pencil.

There was nothing more they could do, Joe realized. Strong would only ignore them until they left. He turned to Tom. "Is there anybody else at the con from Johns's staff?"

"Sure," Tom answered immediately. "Jack Parente is Zenith's head writer. He usually mans the Zenith public-relations table at cons."

"That's the other name from the lawsuit," Joe whispered to his brother.

"Then I definitely think we should talk to Mr. Parente. Let's try the exhibition hall," Frank suggested.

As the Hardys rounded the corner of an artists' table, a massive form suddenly planted itself directly in their path.

The first thing Joe noticed was that the black man in front of him was big. Hard muscles rippled under his conservative brown suit, and his white shirt was stretched tight across his broad chest. His dark eyes glittered with menace as he held up a hand.

"Not so fast, boys," rumbled the man's deep voice.

Joe drew in a sharp breath and took a step back.

He's big enough to be the Dreadnought, Joe suddenly thought.

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