Read The Last Laugh Online

Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

The Last Laugh (6 page)

BOOK: The Last Laugh
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Saul was staring up at the third floor, where flames billowed out of the window of Parente's room. The crowd suddenly noticed the flames all at once. A girl screamed, and in the distance, Frank heard the high-pitched wail of a fire truck as it approached the hotel.

Frank's eyes flicked back to where Saul had been standing, but he was gone.

***

Frank wanted to get out of his wet clothes, but he knew he had to report Parente's kidnapping and the fire to the authorities right away, so he and Chet stopped at a pay phone in a back stairwell and called Sergeant Hanlon's office. Then Frank and Chet returned to their hotel rooms to change clothes.

Frank called the convention center and had Joe paged, and within fifteen minutes the three boys had reassembled in the Hardys' room.

"I heard about your daredevil leap into the pool. Are you okay?" Joe said as soon as he'd walked through the door. His blue eyes were shining with excitement.

"We're fine, Joe," Frank assured him. "But the kidnappers got Parente."

"What? Those crooks seem to be everywhere!" Joe said in frustration. After a pause he added, "Well, at least I picked up more info about Johns."

"Is it a lead on the kidnappers?" Frank asked eagerly.

"Nope," Joe replied, "but it is interesting."

Joe took a can of cola from the mini refrigerator in their room and took a long drink.

"I was talking to Morrie Rockwitz, this art dealer who used to deal with Johns."

"What'd you learn?"

"He didn't tell me much," Joe said. "He admitted he'd bought and sold Golden Age artwork with Johns over the years, but he didn't seem too eager to tell me anything else. He did accidentally let me see something real interesting, though," Joe added.

"When I walked up to his table, it was deserted, and Rockwitz was standing behind it studying a piece of artwork. As soon as he noticed me, he slipped it into a big art portfolio, which he left unzipped, fortunately."

"Why fortunately?" Frank asked.

Joe tilted his head back to drain the rest of his soda before answering. "Because when I glanced down into his portfolio I saw a Golden Age cover that supposedly got burned up with the rest of Johns's collection!"

Frank's eyes widened. "Are you sure of that, Joe?"

"Positive," Joe replied firmly. "It was the same cover Tom managed to save part of - the corner from the one with the giant robots. And that means - "

"One of them must be a fake," Frank cut in. "Did you ask Rockwitz about the cover?"

"No, but as soon as he saw me notice it, he got real nervous. He started sweating a lot, and then ended the conversation in a hurry."

"Oh, yeah?" Frank asked. "I think I'd like to talk with this Rockwitz guy."

"You can't," Joe told him. "Right after I got finished talking to him, he left the dealers' room. He made some kind of excuse about a meeting."

"I think we should track him down," Frank said. "There's something funny going on with Johns's art collection. Somehow this collection is tied in with the kidnapping.

"Leave him to me, Frank," Joe said confidently. "Once we find Rockwitz, I can play him like a violin."

Frank grimaced. "Cut the drama, Joe."

"This case is getting more complicated by the minute. First a kidnapping, then two, then three, and now maybe art forgeries to boot. It beats me how we're going to solve this one before our time runs out."

Frank nodded. Obviously, one of the covers was a forgery, but which one - the one that got burned or the one Rockwitz had? Could it be that Johns had sold Rockwitz some fakes? If so, maybe Rockwitz was involved in the kidnappings. Or maybe Rockwitz was working with Harry Saul. But what about Kaner and Parente? Where did they fit in? Frank shook his head. One thing was sure - they needed more information.

"We're up against a gang of pros, Joe," Frank commented. "But like Dad always says, 'To catch crooks, you've just got to outthink them.' " Turning to Chet, he asked, "Is there anyone else from Johns's staff that we can talk to?"

"Dewey Strong," Chet replied. "He's been on Johns's staff longer than anybody."

"You mean that artist we saw this morning?" Frank asked. He frowned, remembering how Strong had given them the cold shoulder. "He wasn't exactly eager to talk to us."

"We've got to give it another try," Joe insisted. "We don't have any choice. Come on. Let's head back to the dealers' room."

When the boys returned to the table where Strong had been earlier, he wasn't there. When Frank and Joe asked about him, they were told Strong had left.

Joe frowned, then turned to Chet. "Do you know where Strong lives?" he asked.

"No, but I bet Tom does."

Chet and the Hardys found Tom in another corner of the dealers' room, sorting through a stack of Golden Age artwork.

"What's up, fellas?" Tom inquired as he saw the boys approaching.

"We need Dewey Strong's address," Joe told him.

"Sure." Tom bent over, zipped up his portfolio case, and picked it up. "I'll take you there," he told them.

"Great," said Joe.

***

Twenty minutes later Joe rounded the corner of the street that Dewey Strong lived on. Tom pointed out a five-story brick apartment building at the end of the street. Behind it was a fifteen-story steel-and-glass monolith that dwarfed Strong's building.

Joe came to a halt in front of the apartment building, and the four boys hopped out and headed for the entrance. The front door of the building was unlocked and the lobby was empty, so Frank, Joe, Chet, and Tom simply got on the elevator and rode to Strong's fifth-floor apartment.

As soon as the elevator doors opened, Joe saw that one of the apartment doors had been kicked in, just like the doors in the other kidnappings.

He sprinted down the hall and into the apartment, which was a shambles. All the furniture was overturned, and the floor was littered with books, broken glass, and the scattered pieces of a chess set. The TV was hissing on a dead channel, and a framed comic-book cover hung at a crazy angle on the wall, its glass smashed in a jigsaw puzzle of cracks. He felt a sick sensation of dread in the pit of his stomach as he scanned the room.

Joe's attention was drawn to something in the center of the wall: a note pinned to the wall with a steel ninja star.

"That's just like the ninja stars Whip Scorpion uses," Joe heard Chet say behind him.

Joe reached for the star to pull it from the wall, but a hand clamped around his arm, stopping him.

"Don't touch it, Joe. You'll smudge the prints," Frank insisted.

Pulling out a handkerchief, Joe wrapped it around the star and pulled it from the wall. He carefully set the star down, then opened the envelope, using his handkerchief. The note inside was in word-processor printing on plain white paper, like the first ransom note, Joe recalled.

We want $100,000 for Strong. If all ransoms are not paid by midnight tomorrow, he will die with Kaner and Johns.

Whip Scorpion.

As he finished reading, Joe heard a crashing thump overhead. He shouted, "Someone's on the roof!"

Joe ran out into the hall and headed for the red exit sign at the end of the hall. He ran up the wide, twisting stairwell to the roof, hearing Frank a few steps behind him.

Joe threw open the door to the roof with a loud bang, startling two people climbing up the corner of the adjoining building. They were about eight feet off the roof of Strong's building. Joe recognized one of them as Dewey Strong. His abductor looked like a creature from another planet - or from the pages of a comic book, Joe thought wryly. He wore a black costume that featured flexible bands of body armor around his legs, arms, and torso. His head was covered by a grotesque black insect-head mask topped with antennae. He held Strong with one arm locked around his chest, and the other twisting Strong's left arm behind his back. But in the gathering dusk, it was hard for Joe to see exactly what was going on.

Joe sprang into action and scrambled up a big air-conditioning duct. Strong's legs were still within reach, so he grabbed both of his ankles and tugged. Backing up the wall, Whip Scorpion began to pull on Strong's upper body, but Joe hung on determinedly.

Suddenly Whip Scorpion kicked away from the wall and released Strong's upper body. Joe knew he couldn't hang on to the wiry old cartoonist, so he let go of Strong's legs, too. Joe winced as he heard Strong hit the roof with a loud thud.

Then, before Joe had a chance to react, Whip Scorpion leapt and swept Joe from his perch. He held him in a hammerlock.

Joe heard Whip Scorpion whisper, "Haul me up," and then his words were followed by a burst of static. Joe felt himself being jerked up into the air, and then Whip Scorpion pushed off from the side of the tall building.

Caught in Whip Scorpion's iron grip, Joe swung out over the edge of Strong's building in a wide arc. Far below he could see the street and sidewalk. Suddenly Whip Scorpion pushed off from the building again and let go of Joe.

Joe yelled and watched in horrified fascination as the pavement far below rushed up at him.

Chapter 8

Joe fell past Frank, then was lost to sight.

"Joe!" Frank shouted.

Frank heard a loud crash below. He and Chet and Tom rushed to the edge of the roof and looked down. Joe was several feet below them, dangling by one hand from a bent metal bar supporting some solar panels that were bolted to the front of the building.

"Joe!" Frank yelled again. He tried to reach his brother's hand, but Joe dangled several feet out of reach.

"Hurry, Frank!" Joe called.

Just then the bar Joe had grabbed on to bent with a screech, dropping Joe another foot closer to the ground.

"This thing won't hold!" Joe shouted. "Get me up, quick!"

Frank turned to Chet. "Chet, you've got to hold my ankles while I grab Joe!" Frank felt Chet's strong grip on his ankles, and he wormed his way over to the edge of the roof to hang down headfirst. Joe's outstretched right hand was only inches below his grasp.

"Drop me down a little, Chet," Frank called. He felt his friend ease him a few inches lower, just enough so that Frank managed to grab Joe's wrist in both his hands. Joe let go of the support and grabbed Frank's right arm.

"Pull us up!" Frank ordered through gritted teeth.

Chet gave a mighty heave. Sweat beads popping from his forehead, he rocked back and slowly pulled Frank toward him.

A moment later Chet saw one of Joe's hands suddenly appear on the edge of the roof, then the other hand, then Joe's face, grimacing as he hauled himself up.

When his brother was safely on the roof, Frank let go of him. "You all right, Joe?" he asked with concern.

Joe moved his legs and arms around gingerly. "My right arm almost got pulled out of the socket," he said, "but I'm still breathing."

Frank saw that there were some scratches on Joe's face and arms, but there didn't seem to be any serious injury.

"Man!" Joe said. "Another second and I would have been testing my flying skills!"

The joke suddenly reminded Frank of the costumed kidnapper, and he looked over at the next building. In the dim purple-and-orange glow of sunset, he could make out no movement, but he thought he saw a slender glint of metal along the side of the building.

"They got away again!" Frank exclaimed in frustration.

"Yeah, but at least they didn't get Strong," Joe reminded him. "Let's see how he is."

Joe, Frank, and Chet joined Tom, who was bent over Strong. Strong lay on his side unmoving, his eyes closed, his face a rigid mask of pain.

"How is he?" Frank asked Tom, kneeling down by him.

"His leg might be broken. I don't know what else," Tom said.

"Chet, call an ambulance. You and Tom wait here with Strong. Joe and I will join you at the hospital later," Frank said.

"They'll probably take him to Saint Mary's. It's three blocks from here," Tom said as the Hardys turned to go.

***

Frank and Joe talked their way into the neighboring apartment building by explaining to a bewildered security guard about the kidnapping attempt. On the roof they found a large winch chained to an upright drainpipe.

"Here's the cable Whip Scorpion descended on," Joe observed, pulling up a length of strong steel cable.

Frank held up an aluminum mountaineer's D-ring. "He must have rappelled down the side of the building, then gotten hauled up with the winch for a quick getaway."

Joe joined him beside the winch. "Any clue as to where this equipment came from?" he asked.

"Nope." Frank pointed to the side of the winch, where an identifying metal plate had been pried off. "They took off the nameplate and filed away the serial number. This stuffs clean as a whistle."

Disappointed, Frank and Joe left the apartment building, and after a quick supper drove to Saint Mary's Hospital, where they joined Tom and Chet in Strong's room.

Strong's leg was broken and in an elevated cast; he was dressed in a white hospital gown. The old man looked sleepy from the sedation, but Frank thought he saw Strong's expression brighten when they came in.

"How're you doing, Mr. Strong?" Frank asked.

"I'm alive, thanks to you Hardys," Strong replied. "At least that's what Tom and Chet told me."

"Do you have any idea who these kidnappers are?" Frank asked him.

Strong's face hardened. "No, but I got a pretty good idea who hired them - Harry Saul! There's a lot of bad blood between Saul and Johns. It'd be just like old Harry to use his characters to get back at the enemy."

"Sounds pretty fantastic," Joe observed.

"Harry's about the meanest son of a gun I ever met," Strong said quietly. He paused. "Besides, I know where there's proof."

"Proof?" Frank asked urgently.

"A letter," Strong told them groggily. His voice was fading as the sedative was making him sleepier. "A couple of days before the kidnapping, I saw Barry reading a letter. He got - real scared. Told me - told me afterward it was a threat from - Saul."

Strong's voice became an inaudible whisper. Frank thought he'd fallen asleep, until Strong opened his eyes a crack. "Take my keys - Go to - the Zenith offices - Letter's in Barry's desk - "

Joe found the keys in Strong's pants, and the Hardys, Chet, and Tom left.

Out in the hall Joe tossed Strong's keys up in the air and caught them with a snap.

"You must be raring to go to find that letter, Joe," Frank said with a grin.

To Frank's surprise, Joe shook his head, and an intensely thoughtful expression came over his face. "That can wait," Joe said. "I have a hunch that now might be a good time to double back to the con and find Rockwitz."

Frank opened his mouth to argue, then changed his mind. Usually, when Joe had one of his hunches, it was worth acting on.

The dealers' room was abuzz with talk of the kidnappings when Joe, Frank, Chet, and Tom returned. Chet and Tom went off by themselves, while Joe led Frank toward the far end of the room, where he'd spoken to Rockwitz earlier that day.

The room was packed and Joe and Frank made slow progress. They were constantly forced to sidetrack around thick groups of conventioneers who were examining and buying artwork. They still hadn't reached Rockwitz's table when they ran into Tom, who was upset.

"Frank, Joe, I've got to talk to you right away," Tom said.

"What's wrong?" Joe asked.

"I just got offered a piece of artwork that I know has to be either stolen or a fake," Tom said miserably.

"What?" Frank asked.

Tom bit his lip and squinted uncomfortably behind his wire-framed glasses. "I went over to Rockwitz's table, but it was a mess. A lot of his artwork was packed in boxes. I asked what was up, and he tells me he's leaving the con early.

"But then he comes over and says that since I've been such a good customer, he's going to offer me a special deal," Tom went on. "He pulls out the Wonder Comics cover with the giant robots from Johns's art collection."

Joe shot a knowing look at his brother. That was the same cover he'd seen earlier.

"Go on, Tom," Frank said, nodding.

"So I say to him, 'What this? This piece of art got burned on Thursday.' Rockwitz just laughed. He offered it to me for a thousand bucks. That's about a tenth of what it's worth. Said he had to unload it quick. Rockwitz wouldn't be selling it at such a low price if there wasn't something shady going on."

Joe's mind clicked into action.

"We better get over there fast," Joe said to Frank.

When they got to Rockwitz's table, it was almost bare. Rockwitz was moving with frantic haste as he piled boxes in a low cart. When he caught sight of Joe, his face grew pale.

"Can't talk now, guys," Rockwitz said with a nervous look. "Got to go. There's been a - uh, death in my family. Uh, so if you'll excuse me ..."

Joe stepped right in front of Rockwitz and shook his head. "No, you don't. You're not going anywhere until you answer a few questions."

Rockwitz stared at Joe and dismissed him with a shrug. "I don't have to talk to you. You're not the cops."

"No," said Frank, leaning across the table, "but they might be interested in an art dealer who's involved in fraud."

"Tom told us you offered him one of the pieces of art that supposedly got burned yesterday. What's going on with Johns's art collection?" Joe asked in a hard voice.

"Nothing. There's nothing illegal going on," Rockwitz said quickly. "Johns sold me some stuff from his collection, but it was all perfectly legit. What he did on his own after he sold me the art is none of my concern. I'm just an honest businessman."

"Maybe not so honest," Frank put in. "If Johns ever tries to get the insurance money for phony work, then you're an accessory to insurance fraud."

Rockwitz's mouth fell open. He started sweating heavily, clearly rattled.

"Just tell the truth, Morrie," Joe prodded. "If you know anything about Johns, it could help us solve his kidnapping."

Rockwitz sat down abruptly as if he'd been deflated. "Okay," he said softly. "What do you want to know?"

"First things first," Joe told him. "What's the story with the burned artwork?"

"All that stuff was fake!"

"How do you know?" Frank asked.

"It had to be! I bought Johns's whole collection," Rockwitz told them.

Frank and Joe exchanged glances.

"When?" Joe asked.

"He started selling it off four or five years ago. He sold more of it every year until about two weeks ago, when he sold me the last big batch of it. I paid him a lot of money for it, but Johns acted like the money almost didn't matter. He was acting weird that day, distracted."

"Did you know the fakes were going to be burned?" Frank asked.

"No!" Rockwitz replied indignantly. "I'm just an art dealer, not a crook! I didn't even know there were any fakes until I arrived at the convention. I was pretty steamed when I saw the display, but Barry was kidnapped before I could talk to him about it. And after - well, I didn't want to end up in the same boat he's in, so I kept my mouth shut."

It seemed to Frank that Rockwitz was telling the truth, although he couldn't be sure until he'd asked Sergeant Hanlon to have his lab check the charred cover to determine its age. Frank rubbed his chin as he and Joe and Tom walked away from Rockwitz.

"What is it?" Joe asked. "Did you figure something out?"

"Not yet," Frank replied.

Noticing that Tom was hanging on their every word, Joe said, "Tom, could you find Chet? Tell him we'll meet him at the hotel later."

"Okay," Tom said, and a second later he disappeared into the crowd.

"Good," Frank said. "We need to go over what we already know."

Joe ran a hand through his sandy blond hair and blew out a long breath. "Whew! Where do we start?"

Frank pulled out his notebook and ran a finger down a page of notes. "Okay. One. We know that Johns, Parente, and Kaner have all been kidnapped by unknown persons disguised as Terrific Comics supervillains. Two. We know Harry Saul hates Johns, maybe enough to kidnap him, and that he probably wrote Johns a threatening letter."

"Besides which he was seen near Kaner's house and Parente's hotel at the times of their kidnappings," Joe added.

"Three. We also know that Johns secretly sold his art collection to Rockwitz before it got burned, and that means there could be some kind of scam to get Johns's insurance money," Frank said. "Maybe it's the insurance money that the kidnappers are after." Frank scanned his list again. "Four. The kidnappers' deadline runs out at midnight tomorrow. That doesn't leave us much time."

"Let's go to Zenith Publishing now and find that letter Strong mentioned," Joe suggested. "If the letter is there, we might be able to pin the kidnappings on Saul and save Johns before the deadline runs out."

Frank stowed away his notebook. "Let's go."

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