Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
"What's going on here?" Joe asked, trying to ignore how huge the man was.
"Pipe down, kid. I'm asking the questions," the suited man told him. The expression on his broad face was hard. He loomed over the Hardys as he asked, "You kids are Frank and Joe Hardy, right?"
Frank estimated that the guy stood a good half-foot taller than either he or Joe. Frank knew he'd be tough to take on in a fight.
"Mind identifying yourself before we answer that?" Frank asked.
With a bored expression, the massive black man flipped open a worn black leather wallet and flashed a San Diego P.D. detective's shield. "I'm Detective Sergeant Drew Hanlon. I'm working on the Johns kidnapping, and I have reason to believe you boys might have some information about the case."
Frank let out a sigh of relief. At least they wouldn't have to fight the guy. "I'm Frank Hardy, and this is my brother, Joe," he told the officer. "What do you want to know?"
"I'd really like to know why you two kids were badgering Mrs. Kaner."
"Badgering?" Joe practically shouted. "We weren't badgering anybody. She invited us in!"
"Keep your voice down when you're talking to me," Hanlon said sternly. "All I know is that when I called her today she sounded pretty upset. I asked her why, and she told me about your little visit."
Hanlon fixed the Hardys with a hard glare. "I don't know who you two kids think you are, but remember this. Kidnapping is a federal crime. I don't appreciate people who hassle witnesses in cases I'm working on. So just stay away from Mrs. Kaner."
"Sorry, Sergeant," Frank said in what he hoped was a humble tone. "We just thought we could help."
Hanlon snorted. "Maybe, just maybe, the San Diego P.D. can get along without your help. I know I can."
"We're not exactly inexperienced at investigating crimes," Frank told Hanlon. "Sometimes we work on cases with our father, Fenton Hardy. Perhaps you've heard of him."
Hanlon nodded. "Works on the East Coast. Yeah, I've heard of him. Good man. Fine detective," he said. "But that doesn't change anything. I still don't want you nosing around my case."
"But - " Joe objected, a rush of anger creeping up from under his collar and over his face.
Hanlon leaned over so that his face was only a few inches away from Joe's.
"Take my advice and keep away from this case. Me and the San Diego P.D. take a dim view of amateur detectives."
"Amateur!" Joe sputtered. "Why, you - "
Frank quickly stepped in front of Joe to prevent him from saying something that might get both of them into trouble.
"Don't worry, Detective," Frank assured Hanlon. "I'll see that we keep our noses clean."
"You'd better," Hanlon warned before turning on his heel and stalking off.
Joe glared at Hanlon's retreating back. "I don't like that guy," he announced to Frank. "He really rubs me the wrong way."
Tom and Chet, who had remained silent during the exchange with the detective, were relieved when Hanlon was out of sight.
Frank looked at his brother with a hard smile. "Let's find Parente. The clock's ticking on this case."
Finding the Zenith Publishing booth was easy. There was a huge life-size mural depicting Zenith's stable of characters, and above it, foot-high letters announced "Barry Johns's Zenith Publishing Co." It left no doubt as to where they were. The banner stretched behind three tables that were draped with red cloth. At one end of the table was a life-size cardboard standup of a smiling Barry Johns. Johns had a pretty big ego, Frank thought to himself. I wonder if he has the talent to match.
The Zenith booth was deserted. It didn't look as if anyone had been working all day.
"Parente's not here," he observed.
"Maybe he's in his hotel room," Tom suggested. "He's probably got a room at the Vasco. He always stays there during conventions.
Joe frowned. "I don't like the looks of this."
Tom looked uncomfortably from Joe to Frank. "Uh, there's something I should have told you before. About Johns's collection," he began.
Frank looked at Tom, wondering why he suddenly seemed to be so ill at ease. "What is it?"
"Uh, well, the fact is, the kidnappers didn't burn up everything in the collection."
"What do you mean?" Joe asked. "I saw what was left of it - nothing but ashes."
"Uh, not quite," Tom replied. He turned away, bent down, and began to dig through a black vinyl portfolio case bulging with artwork.
A moment later he handed Joe a piece of illustration board; it had one charred side, but the top right-side corner was more or less intact.
"That's part of the original cover art for Wonder Comics Number Twenty-Three," Tom told him. "I saved it from the fire."
"That was a crazy thing to do!" Joe told him angrily. "It's evidence."
Tom gave a helpless shrug. "You've got to understand how it is with us original-art collectors. I saw my all-time favorite comic cover burning, and I just snapped. I tried to save what I could."
Only a small area of the art had survived, Joe noticed, but it clearly showed a part of a giant robot climbing over a crumbling skyscraper. He remembered it from the show.
Joe handed the cover to Frank, who examined it quickly. That explained why Tom had acted so shiftily right after the fire, Frank thought. He said, "You should have turned this over to the police."
Tom lowered his eyes. "I know. But after I took it, I was afraid I'd get into trouble, so I hung on to it. I didn't think anybody had noticed me take it."
"Look, if you're afraid of getting into trouble with the police, give it to us and we'll see that they get it."
Looking relieved, Tom gestured for Frank to keep the charred cover. "Maybe it'll turn out to be an important clue," he said with a thin smile.
Joe was studying the cover as Frank held it. "It might be a good idea to get a list of all the artwork that was displayed. Maybe there's some connection between Johns's collection and his kidnapping." He turned to Tom and asked, "Tom, do you know everything that was in Johns's collection?"
Tom shook his head. "Not everything. But there's an art dealer who would, though. Morrie Rockwitz. Johns sold him some of his best pieces. He's one of the few people who knows Johns's collection better than me."
"Sounds like a good person to start with," Joe said with a grin. He turned back to his brother. "Frank, do you have your tape recorder handy?"
"Of course." Frank pulled it from his shoulder bag and handed it to Joe.
"I have a hunch I might need this today," Joe told him, slipping the recorder into the pocket of his brightly colored Hawaiian shirt.
"I think we should split up now," Frank told his brother. "I'll take Chet and see what we can learn about Parente. Why don't you two nose around the dealers' room and see what you can turn up?"
"Good idea." Joe nodded. "We can cover more ground that way."
The boys agreed to rendezvous back in the dealers' room in an hour. Then Frank and Chet went into the lobby to find a pay phone.
Frank punched in the number for the front desk of the Vasco and was quickly put through to Jack Parente.
"Hello," answered a gravelly voice with a faint trace of a Bronx accent. Frank thought the man sounded tense, on edge.
"Mr. Parente, my name's Frank Hardy. I'm a friend of Tom Gatlin's. He told me you were at the Vasco."
"Tom Gatlin." Parente's voice sounded slightly friendlier. "How is he? I haven't run into him yet at the con."
"He's fine, Mr. Parente," Frank replied. "The reason I called is that I'm investigating the Johns kidnapping. I'd like to talk to you."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause at the other end of the line. "That might not be such a healthy topic," Parente said finally.
"Look, I don't know if you're aware of this, but the kidnappers have a deadline, and it's running out. I don't think the police really have a clue where Johns is. If we don't find him first, he may wind up dead," Frank said forcefully.
"All right," Parente told him. "Come on up to my room. It's Room Three-oh-two. But make it snappy. I've got another appointment."
"I'll be there in a few minutes," Frank replied.
Suddenly Frank heard a tremendous battering sound at the other end of the line. There were sounds of voices shouting and sounds of a scuffle.
"Mr. Parente, are you okay?" Frank shouted into the phone. There was no reply, only another loud crash.
"Hello! Hello!" Frank shouted.
Then the line went dead.
"What is it, Frank?" Chet asked anxiously.
"I'm not sure, but whatever it is, it's bad. Come on!" Frank dashed across the lobby toward the plaza. He ran across Broadway toward the Vasco, dodging among conventioneers, tourists, and sailors from San Diego's big naval base. Chet followed as fast as he could but he was far behind Frank. By the time Chet puffed into the lobby, Frank had had time to get an elevator and was holding the door open.
Chet stumbled heavily through the elevator doors and slumped against the rear wall of the car, red faced and panting. Frank hit the button for Parente's floor, then turned to Chet.
"I hope we're not too late," he said, a grim set to his face.
When the elevator doors slid open at the third floor, they took off down the hall toward Parente's room.
The door hung open crookedly, and through the open space Frank could see two figures struggling inside. One of them wore bright red tights with a black hood, belt, and boots.
"It's Flame Fiend!" Frank shouted to Chet. "He's after Parente!"
Frank charged through the doorway. Parente was holding a chair in front of him for protection, but Flame Fiend had him backed into a corner. Flame Fiend turned and met Frank's eyes for a moment; then he eyed Chet. The two teenagers spread out and came at Flame Fiend from different directions. The masked kidnapper turned away from Parente to face Frank, who approached him in a combat crouch, his hands held in front of him, ready to parry any blows. Smiling, the criminal pointed his left hand at Frank with a flourish. Frank could see that Flame Fiend had something in his palm.
A second later fire shot from Flame Fiend's sleeve. Frank ducked, and the column of flame splattered on the wall behind him. Seconds later, the smoke alarm whined on.
Flame Fiend moved his hand to the left and set fire to the wall where the doorway was. Flames quickly covered the entire wall. The room's sprinklers came on, but the spray of water had little effect on the rapidly spreading flames.
The flame compound must be mixed with gasoline to burn like that, Frank thought. Quickly he turned back toward Parente, who was leaning against the wall with a dazed expression. Before Frank could do anything, Flame Fiend strode over to Parente and cut him across the jaw with a terrific right cross. Parente collapsed in a heap in the corner.
The red-costumed figure gestured again, this time hurling a shaft of flame that nearly struck Frank.
Then Flame Fiend turned back to the unconscious Parente and lifted him onto his shoulder. Laughing crazily, the criminal turned and strode through the wall of fire with Parente slung over his shoulder.
By now, choking clouds of smoke had begun to fill the room, and Frank began coughing as he breathed it in. Across the room he saw that Chet, too, was coughing and choking.
Suddenly Frank realized with horror that the deadly wall of fire that covered the exit was advancing on them. Flames leapt from the burning walls, driving Frank and Chet farther against the far wall. Heat scorched Frank's face, and he could feel himself growing dizzy from the choking fumes.
We're sunk. We can't get through the door, Frank thought. There's no other way out of this room!
Frank doubled over in a sudden coughing fit. When he straightened up, he noticed a patch of blue next to him. It was just visible through the smoke.
In a flash he realized that the window looked out over the hotel pool. That's it! he thought. Grabbing the heavy desk chair Parente had been holding, he shouted, "Chet, follow me!" Frank swung the chair at the window with all his strength, smashing it outward in a bright shower of glass shards.
"We're going to jump for it, Chet!" Frank shouted over the roar of the fire.
"Out the window?" Chet shouted back, not believing his ears.
"It's our only chance!" Frank shouted.
The curtains framing the picture window had caught fire now and were flaring toward the boys. Chet scrambled up on the windowsill, Frank right behind him.
"Aim for the deep end," Frank told Chet.
Then Frank pushed off from the sill as hard as he could. He heard Chet's yell right beside him.
Frank cut the water cleanly, sinking almost to the bottom of the pool's deep end, then kicking straight back to the surface. Almost numb and sputtering for breath, he looked wildly around for Chet, and was relieved when he saw his friend bob to the surface.
Chet choked on the water as he made his way to the pool's edge.
"Boy, that was a cannonball to end all cannonballs!" he gasped.
"At least we're alive," Frank told him.
Suddenly Frank was aware of being the focus of attention of a growing crowd. "Chet, everyone's staring at us," Frank muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
The perimeter of the pool was rapidly being filled by comic conventioneers, some of them already dressed in the costumes they would wear in that night's costume contest.
"I've got an idea, Frank," Chet whispered. "Just follow my lead."
Chet stroked over to the nearest ladder and hauled himself out of the water. As Frank followed him, Chet bowed deeply to the crowd, and the conventioneers immediately applauded and cheered. The cheering increased as Chet turned to another portion of the crowd.
Frank smiled disbelievingly. "Chet, why are they cheering for us?" he whispered as he joined his friend.
"Because we made it into the pool from a third-floor window," Chet explained with a smile. "They think it was a stunt."
Just then Frank caught a fleeting glimpse of a face that set off warning bells. He twisted his head around to get a better look, and sure enough, it was the familiar hawk-nosed profile of Harry Saul.