Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
“Rats,” Frank said, moving away from the
crowd and stopping short in the middle of the arena. “Where'd he go?”
Joe looked around the huge space. Three large circus rings had been set up in the arena with trapezes, a high wire, and brightly painted platforms for animal acts. Seats for the audience stretched upward and in a semicircle around the arena. “He could have gone anywhere,” Joe said. “There are exits at the end of every aisle of seats, plus those two fire exits at each side of the arena.”
Frank nodded. The juggler might have sneaked out through any one of the clearly marked exits.
“I'll look for him outside,” Frank said, pointing to the closest red exit sign. “You look around the backstage area. Check out dressing rooms and offices.”
“Right,” Joe said with a nod. “Meet you at Chet's table in fifteen minutes.” He turned and hurried back toward the red velvet curtain.
Frank quickly headed to his left, in the direction of the exit sign. As soon as he pushed the door open, a blast of cold, damp air greeted him. Frank shivered in his wet shirt, which had been drenched with punch. The December night was brisk, and it felt as if it might snow. Frank circled the arena parking lot, passing between parked cars and looking underneath them. Streetlights at corners of the lot gave off some light, but not enough for Frank to spy the juggler. Finally, he
checked his watch and saw that his fifteen minutes were up. Time to meet Joe, he thought with frustration, and he didn't have anything solid to report. The juggler had escaped.
Frank hurried back into the building. He could at least find out what, if anything, was missing from Chet's bag. Then they could report the theft to the Circus U. authorities. If the juggler was with the circus, or a student at Circus U., they'd find him soon enough.
His brother was waiting for him on the other side of the curtain.
“No luck?” Joe asked when he saw the look of disappointment on Frank's face.
Frank shook his head. “How about you?” he asked.
“I checked a couple of storage rooms and the men's locker room. Nothing. The guy disappeared. Let's find out what he took,” he suggested, leading the way back to the refreshment table.
Chet had righted the table, mopped up the mess, and gone back to pouring punch and sodas for the thirsty crowd. Every once in a while he stopped to readjust his wig. “Hey, what happened?” Chet called out when he spotted Frank and Joe. “Did you find that guy?”
“No luck,” Frank answered, leaning down to pick up Chet's Circus U. tote bag. “But I saw him with his hands in your bag.”
“You're kidding,” Chet said, reaching for the bag. “I hope none of my Circus U. stuff is gone.”
“What's this?” Frank asked as he felt a round metallic object underneath a pair of Chet's jeans. He pulled the object out of the bag. It was a green, studded ball.
“That's just like the ball the juggler lost under the table,” Joe said.
“Right,” Frank said, holding up the ball. It was the size of a softball but much heavier. Dotted all along the outside were penny-size gems that looked like rhinestones. With his other hand, Frank passed the tote bag over to Chet. “Check to see if there's anything missing,” he told his friend.
Chet nodded and started going through his bag. Joe reached for the ball and gave Frank a quizzical look. “The question is, what's it doing in Chet's bag?” he asked his brother.
Frank shrugged. “You got me. But the juggler must have had some reason for stashing this ball in Chet's bag.” He took the ball back from Joe and continued to examine it.
Chet held up his tote bag. “Everything's here, including my wallet,” he told Frank and Joe. “That's weird, isn't it?”
Frank ran his hands over the gem-studded ball. “It sure is. But it's an important clue, too,” he said.
“Why?” Chet wanted to know.
“It means we're not dealing with some common crook,” Joe told him.
“Well, if he's not a common crook, then who is he?” Chet asked.
“That's what we have to find out,” Frank said. He thought for a moment. “Let's ask around. See if anyone knows who the juggler is.”
“Sorry I'm late,” a man's voice called out. Frank turned around and saw a clown, dressed like Chet in a blue and white polka-dotted suit and an orange wig, standing by the table. He was about the same height as Chet and looked to be in his early twenties. “The name's Carl Nash,” the man told Chet in a cheerful southern drawl. “I'm here to relieve you all.”
“I'm Chet Morton,” Chet said. He looked at his watch. “Bo told me someone would show up to take over right about now.”
Nash grinned as he looked around the backstage area. “It's pretty busy, isn't it? I'd better get started pouring punch for these thirsty people,” he said. With that, Nash edged his way past Frank and stationed himself behind the table. He took a quick look at the ball in Frank's hand, smiled, and drawled slowly, “Nifty prop. Are you all Circus U. students from Bayport, too?”
Instead of answering Carl Nash's question, Frank said, “One of the jugglers must have lost a ball. Got any idea who it could have been?”
“Can't say I do,” Nash replied, putting some
ice in a cup and pouring a drink for a little boy who stood by the table.
“Where are you from?” Joe asked Nash.
Nash's bright blue eyes lit up behind his white clown makeup. “Funny you should ask. Not from around here, that's for darn sure.”
“I didn't think so, from your accent, that is,” Frank offered.
“You got it,” Nash said, raising his bushy orange eyebrows. “I'm a good ol' boy from deep in the heart of Texas.”
“Are you a student at Circus U.?” Chet asked eagerly.
“That's right.” Nash's clown mouth spread into a wide red smile. “I graduate this year. Trapeze is my specialty.”
“Wow,” Chet said, impressed. “I guess you're not afraid of heights then.”
Joe laughed. “He'd better not be.”
“I used to be,” Nash said with a chuckle. “But I got over it pretty fast.”
“I'll bet,” Frank said. He kept passing the ball back and forth between his hands. “Are you ready to go, Chet?”
“If Carl thinks he can handle the crowd on his own,” Chet said, turning to the trapeze student.
“No problem,” Nash said. “It's thinning out, anyway. There are just a few circus folks and some VIPs left, from what I can tell,” he added, scanning the crowd. “Go on home.”
“Thanks,” Chet told him, pulling off his wig and putting it in his tote bag. “I'm just glad to be able to take this thing off,” he said with a grin.
“I know what you mean,” Nash said, scratching at his wig. “It sure does itch. Oh,” he went on, turning to Frank and Joe. “I almost forgot. Why don't you two guys come with your friend to class tomorrow? Circus U. is having an open house for students and friends. You'll also get to watch the circus performers in rehearsal. It should be fun.”
Chet's eyes lit up. “That's a great idea.” He turned to the Hardys. “I can give you guys a behind-the-scenes tour of the circus.”
Frank looked at Joe. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Why not,” Joe answered. “We are on vacation after all.”
“Thanks for the invitation,” Frank said to Carl Nash. “We'll see you tomorrow then.”
“Great,” Nash said. He went back to working the refreshment stand.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Chet commented as he and Joe followed Frank away from the refreshment table.
“Maybe he can show you some tricks on the trapeze,” Joe said, grinning.
Chet shook his head emphatically. “Not me. No way. This clown stays on the ground.”
Frank led them to a less crowded part of the backstage area. He stopped at the edge of a room filled with circus props.
“Why are we stopping?” asked his brother.
“We need to plan our strategy,” Frank replied. “How we're going to find out who that juggler was, why he left this”âFrank held up the gem-studded ballâ“in Chet's bag, and what it all means.”
Chet bit his lip thoughtfully, smearing his red makeup. “Why don't we just turn the ball in to the circus officials and let them take care of finding out the answers to all those questions.”
“Come on, Chet,” Joe said. “Where's your sense of adventure?”
“You two are the detectives,” Chet replied. “I'm here to learn how to be a clown, not to solve mysteries.”
“But Frank and I will need your help,” Joe pointed out. “You're in a perfect position to supply us with info on the people here.”
“Look, you guys,” Chet went on, shaking his head in exasperation. “Don't mess things up for me, okay? If you start snooping around here, the circus people might not like it, and then I could be in trouble.”
“Wait a minute,” Frank said. “Since when have we put solving a case above our friendship?”
Chet frowned slightly. “Never, I guess. But don't do it now, either, okay?”
“Deal,” Frank said, reaching out to shake Chet's hand. The polka-dotted sleeve of Chet's costume flapped wildly as Frank pumped Chet's hand. “So tell us,” Frank continued, “who should we talk to tomorrow to find out who that juggler is?”
Chet shook his head and shrugged. “You got me. So far, I've only met Bo Costello. You could ask him, I guess.”
“Sounds good to me. Have you got any ideas, Joe?” Frank asked his brother.
“Let's take another look at the ball,” Joe suggested. “Maybe there's something about it we missed the first time we looked at it.”
“True,” Frank said, squinting at the ball. “This may be an ordinary prop, but who knows?”
He held the ball up to the light. The white gems looked like rhinestones or glass, but he took out his pocketknife and scraped at each one of them just to be sure. The gems flaked away under the pressure of the knife. “That tells us one thing, at least.”
“What's that?” Chet asked.
“The gems aren't real,” Joe explained to Chet. “Otherwise, the knife wouldn't have scratched them.”
Frank looked at the ball carefully again. This time, he saw a thin seam running around the middle of the ball. “I think I've found something,” he told Joe, pointing out the seam.
“Try twisting the ball to see if it opens,” Joe suggested.
Frank turned the ball over in his hands. Sure enough, Joe was right. The two halves turned and the ball popped open. A small folded-up piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the ground.
Joe picked up the paper and unfolded it. “Weird,” he said, handing the paper to his brother. “Definitely weird.”
Frank looked at the paper. On it were three pairs of letters with numbers written on them.
“Are you thinking what I'm thinking?” Joe asked his brother.
Frank nodded. “It looks like we've just found some kind of coded message!”
“Well, what do you know,” Joe said, looking at the slip of paper. “I get the feeling our juggler friend left us with more of a mystery than we thought.”
“I wonder what this code means,” Chet said, taking the paper from Joe and reading the figures 1220, 103, and 214. “That's a strange set of numbers,” he remarked.
“And look at the letters next to them,” Frank said, pointing. “CN, JL, GU. I don't see any patterns, do you?”
Joe thought for a moment, quickly running down a sequence of simple codes he'd learned over the years. “Nope,” he said finally. “Frank, if
this really is a coded message, that juggler was passing information, whether he knew it or not.”
“But why was he passing information to me?” Chet asked.
Joe shook his head. “Who knows? But I think we had better try to find out.” He looked around the backstage area. The place was clearing out. Most of the guests had gone, and only a few circus performers remained. “I doubt we'll learn anything here tonight, though,” Joe said.
“You're right,” Frank agreed. “Let's go home and see if we can crack this code.”
“Hey, guys,” Chet protested, pointing to the two halves of the gem-studded ball in Frank's hand. “We can't leave here with that. It belongs to the circus, or Circus U., depending on who that juggler was. We have to return it.”
Joe reached out for the ball, which Frank had put back together. “We will,” he said firmly. “As soon as we find out just who this mystery juggler is and what he's doing passing coded information.”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
The next morning, Joe woke up bright and early. He got out of bed, showered, and went down to the kitchen, taking the coded message with him.
He read the numbers and letters on the slip of paper: CNâ1220, JLâ103, GUâ214. “There's got to be some way to crack this code,”
he muttered to himself as he sat at the table and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
Joe was still at it when Frank came down to breakfast half an hour later. “Any luck?” his brother asked, opening the refrigerator and taking out a pitcher of juice.
“Nope,” Joe said, shaking his head and staring once more at the arrangement of letters and numbers.
“Where is everyone?” Frank asked, sitting down next to his brother.
“Dad left a note saying he had to go out of town to the police headquarters in Philadelphia to run a check on someone. A new case, I guess.”
Frank nodded. The brothers' father, Fenton Hardy, was a private investigator, and his hours often started early and ended late. “What about Mom and Aunt Gertrude?” he asked.
“They left a note saying they'd be gone all day,” Joe said, looking up for a second from the coded message. “They're visiting friends in New York.”
“We'd better hurry if we're going to pick up Chet,” Frank said. He checked his watch. “You shouldn't have let me sleep this late.”