Read The Last Laugh Online

Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

The Last Laugh (7 page)

BOOK: The Last Laugh
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***

The midtown San Diego area where Zenith Publishing was located wasn't far from the convention center. Since it was late, it was totally deserted. Frank checked out the area carefully as he drove up to the rear of the building. If there was trouble, they would be on their own. "I want to park this thing somewhere inconspicuous," he told Joe.

"Okay. I'll open the Zenith offices." Joe got out of the car. "Meet you inside."

Frank parked behind a Dumpster, then slipped inside the building, locking the door behind him.

He tried to call an elevator to the ground floor, then realized the elevators must be turned off for the weekend. Spotting an exit sign glowing in the corner, he headed for it. Swiftly but quietly, he went up the stairwell, pausing at every landing to listen for any noise.

The building seemed totally silent. Joe must already be upstairs, Frank decided. Letting out a long breath, he flexed away some of the tension that had built up in his back muscles and continued up the stairs.

Suddenly the stairwell shook violently, throwing Frank against the wall. A huge explosion rocked the floor just above him.

Chapter 9

Frank felt his legs buckle under him, and he hit the stairs hard. The explosion left a ringing in his ears, but he stood up and knew he wasn't hurt. As Frank shook his head to clear the ringing, he realized ... Joe!

Frank hurried up three or four stairs to get to his brother, but the stairs above these were blocked with rubble from the explosion. A heavy feeling of dread grew inside him as he surveyed the debris blocking his way.

***

The blast had knocked Joe to the floor of the Zenith reception area. Though slightly stunned, Joe knew to roll under the receptionist's desk and wait till the explosion died away.

When everything was still, he crawled out from under the desk to see what kind of damage the explosion had caused. There was shattered glass everywhere, and at the opposite end of the floor an office was on fire. Long tongues of flame shot through the shattered doorway. It was probably Johns's office, Joe figured, but there was no way he was going to take the time to make sure. The Zenith bullpen, with its rows of desks and drafting tables, wasn't burning yet, but it would be soon. It was a good place, Joe decided, to get out of quickly.

Joe picked his way carefully over the broken glass, stepping around the overturned chairs and other debris that littered the reception area. He blew out a sigh of relief when he made it into the darkened hall. As he walked toward the stairwell at the other end of the hall he could see in the dimness that the explosion had blown out one wall of the office, completely blocking the stairwell from below with a heap of brick and chunks of plaster. Smoke was billowing into the hall from the hole in the office. Somewhere on the floor, Joe heard a fire alarm screech on.

"Joe! Joe! Are you okay?" The frantic shout came up through the piles of rubble, and Joe had to strain to hear Frank. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted back, "I'm okay, Frank! Not a scratch!"

"Can you get down?" Frank called.

"Not here! The explosion knocked out the stairs below me!"

There was a tense moment of silence; then Frank called up, "Take the stairs to the roof! I'll take the fire escape and meet you there!"

Joe scanned the stairs leading up, then answered, "All right. The stairs going up look good! See you in a few minutes!"

Once on the roof, Joe took a deep breath to clear his lungs of smoke. Then he looked around the roof until he spotted the fire-escape ladder on the opposite side of the roof. He walked toward it, but paused halfway there when he heard something behind him.

Before he could turn around, Joe felt a sudden stinging sensation around his ankles and his feet were pulled out from under him. He fell hard, and the wind was forced from his lungs in a single breath.

Joe immediately rolled over onto his back to see who his attacker was. In the darkness it was hard to make out details, but Joe did recognize the insect helmet and shiny black costume banded with body armor - Whip Scorpion!

He saw that Whip Scorpion held a long bullwhip in his right hand, and that the end of the whip was wrapped around Joe's ankles. Kicking free, Joe rolled behind an air-conditioning duct.

Crack! The whip struck only a few inches from Joe's head. As he dodged reflexively to the left, Joe's hand passed over a length of rusty pipe and he grabbed it, grateful for the weapon.

Whip Scorpion snapped the whip at Joe's head again, but Joe blocked the blow with his piece of pipe. He tried to pull the whip away, but it flicked all round him too fast.

Joe was sweating in the cool night air as the Scorpion's whip drove him toward the edge of the building. Where was Frank? he wondered. The whip cracked again and Joe dodged, taking a step backward, closer to the edge.

Joe saw Whip Scorpion draw back his arm for another strike. He tensed, ready to dodge or parry it, but the crook had frozen in place, his arm locked in position over his head.

Joe looked past Whip Scorpion and saw Frank with one hand tightly gripping the tip of the bull whip. Whip Scorpion tried to yank the whip from Frank's grasp, but Frank jerked back on it, throwing Whip Scorpion off-balance.

Knowing he'd never get a better opportunity, Joe lunged at the crook with his pipe and struck a glancing blow on the side of the insectlike helmet, causing Whip Scorpion to stagger backward.

Frank yanked on the whip again, but to Joe's surprise, Whip Scorpion easily jerked it from his grasp, then turned two backflips and landed lightly on his feet in front of Frank.

Before Frank had a chance to react, Whip Scorpion landed a right cross to his jaw that sent him reeling. Then Whip Scorpion scuttled down the fire-escape ladder.

Joe threw down his pipe and charged after Whip Scorpion. He descended the ladder two steps at a time, determined not to let the crook escape. Joe saw Whip Scorpion stop on the landing below him and pull something shiny from his belt.

"Duck!" Joe heard Frank call from above.

Joe ducked, and narrowly missed being hit by a five-pointed ninja star, which clanged off a fire-escape rung.

Just then, a nondescript white sedan appeared at the entrance to the alley and screeched to a halt near the bottom of the fire escape. Joe saw Whip Scorpion start at the sight of the car, but he didn't slow down, even when a huge, dark figure popped out of the driver's side of the car and brandished something in the air.

"Police! Hold it!" the man shouted.

Whip Scorpion ignored the command and vaulted down to the bottom landing, nimbly catching himself at the last instant. He hung there for a second, then somersaulted into a pile of cardboard boxes behind the Dumpster.

The dark figure fired a warning shot in the air as Whip Scorpion sprinted toward the end of the alley.

Joe watched from the fire escape as a silver van roared up to the mouth of the alley. Dreadnought's angular helmet was clearly framed by the open driver's window. A split second later the door on the side of the van slid open, and Whip Scorpion dived in. The Hardys heard the van's powerful engine rev, then the tires screech as it raced off.

In the next instant the dark figure spotted Frank and Joe on the fire escape. He swiveled and pointed his revolver at the boys, standing in a marksman's crouch.

"Freeze or I'll blow you away!"

Chapter 10

Frank and Joe raised their hands.

"Don't shoot," Frank called out. "We're unarmed."

"Come down where I can see for myself," the dark gunman commanded in a strangely familiar voice. "And keep your hands where I can see them."

"Play it cool, Joe. This guy seems edgy," Frank said in a low voice as he caught up with Joe. Frank and Joe reached the bottom of the fire escape and dropped lightly to the ground. The gunman stepped out of the shadows. It was Sergeant Hanlon.

"What are you two doing here?" Hanlon demanded angrily, lowering his gun.

There was an awkward silence, which was filled by the loud whine of an approaching siren.

"Well, speak up," Hanlon told them.

Joe broke the silence. "We were checking out a lead in the Johns case, Sergeant. Dewey Strong gave us his keys to the Zenith offices so we could see a threatening letter Johns got a few days ago."

"And I suppose you don't know anything about the bomb your buddy set off," Hanlon said sarcastically.

"Our buddy!" Frank said incredulously. "Detective, we were chasing that guy!"

Hanlon gestured for them to come forward. "Yeah. Sure. Tell me about it at the station house."

***

"I've already told you, Sergeant. We went to Zenith to look at a letter Johns got from Harry Saul," Frank said, feeling his exasperation growing. They had already been in the station over an hour, but Hanlon was still giving them a hard time. They'd told him what Strong had said about the letter from Saul, and had filled him in on all they knew about Johns, Kaner, and Parente.

"Look," Frank said, trying hard to keep a lid on his temper. "We're trying to cooperate. What else do you want to know?"

"Anything you guys have learned about Johns that might have a bearing on this case," Hanlon responded.

"Did you know Saul was in the vicinity of the Kaner kidnapping?" Joe asked suddenly.

"Or that he was also nearby when Parente got kidnapped from the hotel?" Frank added, remembering that he'd seen Saul in the crowd after his leap into the pool.

Hanlon nodded and made some notes on his pad.

"Here's another angle you may want to look into," Frank told Hanlon. "Where's my bag? There's a piece of evidence that I want to give you."

Hanlon got up and left the room, returning a moment later with Frank's bag. Frank opened it and pulled out the scorched page fragment Tom had given him.

"Okay, I'll bite. What is it?" Hanlon asked.

"It's a piece of art from Johns's collection that got burned during his kidnapping," Frank replied. "We think that piece of artwork you're holding is a forgery.

"Can you have it sent to the police labs to test the age of the paper?" Frank asked. "If it's less than fifty years old, it's a forgery."

"Forgery?" Hanlon shook his head quizzically. "Wait a minute, I thought we were dealing with kidnapping here."

"It's more complicated than that, Sergeant. Johns has been selling off his art collection to one art dealer," Frank explained. "We think it's possible that Johns replaced the art with forgeries so it would look like he still owned them."

Hanlon made several notes, then looked up at the Hardys with a flinty expression. "Maybe I was a little hasty calling you boys amateurs. You've turned up some real interesting information. But smart or not, you're still civilians, and if you stick your noses into police business, I'll arrest you for obstructing justice. Got me?"

"We understand, Sergeant. We'll stay out of your way," Frank said, hoping that Hanlon would believe him.

To Frank's relief, Hanlon sat back in his chair and dismissed them with a wave. "Okay, then get out of here. I don't want to see you guys around this case again. I mean it!"

***

"Hey, guys, are you okay?" Chet asked.

The Hardys had found him browsing the convention art show, on the floor above the dealers' room. Frank was surprised the exhibits were still open, but then remembered what Chet had said about the weird hours of comic-book cons.

"We ran into Whip Scorpion on the roof of Johns's building right after the bombing," Joe said.

"Whip Scorpion! What happened?' Chet asked.

"He got away, and we ended up getting hauled down to the station house by Sergeant Hanlon," said Frank.

"Have you learned anything new, Chet?' Joe asked.

"The kidnappings are the talk of the con, but nobody really knows much. What I'm hearing is mostly rumors about Harry Saul."

"Well, it seems like all roads lead to Saul," Frank cracked. "I have a feeling we won't get much more done tonight. How about hitting the sack so we can make an early start tomorrow?"

"I'd like to eat something first," Joe replied. "I'm so hungry, those stale doughnuts on Hanlon's desk were starting to look good. You want to join us, Chet?"

Chet shook his head. "Nope. I'm meeting Tom in a little while so we can hit the costume contest. Hey," he added, "if you're knocking off working on your case, why don't you guys come with us? The San Diego Con costume contest is one of the best in the country. Some of the costumes are amazing!"

Frank shook his head. "Sorry, Chet, I'm just too beat. Nearly getting blown up does that to me."

"What about you?" Chet asked, turning to Joe. "There are bound to be plenty of pretty girls in the contest."

Joe looked as if he might consider it, but then he, too, shook his head. "Chet, you know I hate to be a wet blanket, but if I don't catch some Z's tonight, I'll be worthless. Besides, I've already seen enough costumes for one day."

***

"Today's the day the kidnappers' deadline runs out, Frank," Joe said the next morning. "Where to first?"

"To see the only person connected with the kidnapping we haven't talked to yet, Barry Johns's wife. I heard her name was Phoebe," Frank replied.

The Hardys got their car from the hotel garage, stopping only to buy a bag of sweet rolls and two large glasses of juice.

With Frank navigating, Joe pulled their blue sedan up in front of the Johnses' home half an hour after leaving the hotel.

Frank and Joe got out and rang the bell beside the front door of the large ranch-style house.

"Who is it?" a woman's voice asked from a small speaker next to the doorbell.

"We're Frank and Joe Hardy, ma'am. We're investigating your husband's kidnapping," Frank answered.

There was a short pause; then the door swung open and the Hardys found themselves staring at a tall, pretty, dark-haired woman. She quickly sized up the Hardys. "If you're reporters, you should leave now. I'm not talking to any more of you people," she said sharply.

"We're not reporters, we're detectives," Joe reassured her. "We just want to help find your husband."

"Please, Mrs. Johns, we need your cooperation if we're going to save your husband before the deadline runs out. There's not much time," Frank told her.

"You boys seem like a long shot to me, but at this point I'll try anything." Phoebe Johns's face remained stern, but she stood aside to let them in. Silently she led them through the ultramodern house to a large living room furnished with black leather-and-chrome chairs and an expensive-looking black leather sofa. The Hardys took the chairs, and Phoebe Johns perched on the edge of the long sofa, looking at them tensely.

"Did your husband ever say anything about being afraid of Harry Saul?" Frank inquired.

"Barry rarely mentioned Harry after they had their falling-out," Phoebe Johns said.

"Do you think Harry Saul is the kind of guy who'd kidnap your husband for revenge?" Joe asked bluntly.

Phoebe Johns's expression hardened.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Johns, but we have to ask these questions if we're going to find your husband in time," Frank said uncomfortably.

"I don't know what I'll do if you don't find him," she told the Hardys. "I can't possibly pay the ransom."

"What!" Frank and Joe said simultaneously.

"I'm broke," Phoebe Johns said tightly. "After I saw the ransom note, I called our bank. They told me all our accounts were empty except for a few hundred dollars in the household checking account."

"But everyone I've talked to assumed Barry Johns was rich," Frank said.

"I never paid much attention to our finances. Barry handled everything. And until now, I've never wanted for anything. Maybe that's where a lot of our money went. Barry was so status-conscious. He always had to look like a big success and have the best of everything."

Joe thought for a moment, then asked, "Did your husband gamble, Mrs. Johns?"

She shook her head. "No, Barry never went in for that sort of thing. Though he did take a couple of gambles recently."

"What do you mean?" Frank asked.

"Business gambles. He lost a large sum of money on the Metaman movie. I'm not sure how much, but it was a lot, because Barry insisted on producing the movie himself."

"Did your husband have any other unsuccessful projects recently?" Joe asked.

Phoebe Johns thought for a moment. "There was a toy deal the year before, to merchandise his characters as action figures. That was a big disappointment. He got very irritable and preoccupied after that deal fell through."

"But if Zenith Publishing was as successful as we've heard, your husband could have afforded a few setbacks," Frank pointed out.

"Zenith was successful, but Barry plowed a lot of the money back into the business. The last few years, he's been complaining about how his labor costs eat up most of his profits."

"Wait a minute," Joe cut in. "I thought Barry Johns was famous for writing and drawing his own comics. Why did he need to pay his staff so much?"

Phoebe Johns looked down at her lap. "Barry used to do two or three books a month, but lately, running the business has been taking up so much of his time that he had Kaner and Parente ghosting most of his work."

"What's ghosting, Mrs. Johns?" Joe asked.

Phoebe Johns sighed wearily, then explained, "A ghost is someone who does work for an artist or writer but lets the other person sign his name to it. Barry wouldn't talk about it with me, but I knew he couldn't work. He was burned out. For months he just couldn't come up with any new ideas. Jack Parente was writing all the titles Barry was supposed to be handling."

Frank listened intently. Everything Phoebe Johns was telling them only confirmed all they'd heard about trouble between Johns and his staff. But what was the connection between Johns's business troubles and Harry Saul? That was one thing that just didn't make sense, even though Saul obviously had the biggest motive for wanting Johns kidnapped.

Changing the subject, Frank asked, "Do you know where the kidnappers want the ransom delivered?"

"Not yet." Phoebe Johns shook her head. "The first ransom note said only that they'd contact me."

She abruptly stood up. "Since I don't know when the message is coming, I want to be ready for - whatever comes next. I'll have to ask you boys to excuse me."

Frank and Joe stood up and said goodbye. "Don't worry, Mrs. Johns. We'll find your husband in time, I promise," Joe said.

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