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Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

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Cult of Crime

BOOK: Cult of Crime
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Hardy boys Casefiles - 03

Cult of Crime

By

Franklin W. Dixon

Chapter 1

HE WANDERED AIMLESSLY as night fell on the New York City streets. The growling in his stomach reminded him of how long it had been since he’d eaten last. Though tall, he stooped when he walked, and even when trying to beg money from passersby, he could no longer look other people in the eye.

Like many other teenagers who had left home and come to the city, he owned nothing but the clothes on his back. And he was homeless, with nowhere to go.

He searched for a place to spend the night. He had no money to spend on a hotel, and he had learned long ago that if he went to a shelter, the authorities would learn his age and his name and send him home. He hoped he could find a doorway or an alleyway with a cardboard box to sleep in, but he was wary of the other people who slept on the streets. They didn’t like strangers, and choosing a spot that one of them had already chosen could get him beaten, or even killed. He kept walking.

The bells were what startled him. It seemed strange to him that something so beautiful could be heard in a neighborhood of rundown buildings and vacant lots, where honest people didn’t come out at night, and where thieves and rats and insects crawled the streets.

But there they were. Rhythmically they grew louder, then softer, then louder again, like some low, lovely song, and he found himself drawn to them.

He was almost at the building before he realized it. The building rose out of the slums like a beacon, and men and women - boys and girls, really, as none of them were older than he was chanted and swayed both inside it and on the street in front of it.

The men wore white tunics tied at the waist with a sash and long, white slacks that reached down to the cloth, sandals on their feet. The women had scarves wrapped around their heads and wore long, white gowns covering them from shoulder to ankle.

They were happy, all of them. He could see it in their faces. They danced in the glow of the neon lights on the front of the building, the lights that read Mission.

It was a church, unlike any he had ever seen in the little town of Bayport.

He wanted to back away, to run, but the smell of food wafted out of the building. He inhaled hungrily, and on his stomach’s command, his feet marched forward. He moved out of the shadows and into the light.

The dancing stopped and the bells died. Everyone was looking at him.

He felt awkward. These people in their pure white clothes were everything he was not. He ran a filthy hand through his brown hair, and grime fell from it. Again he wanted to run, but the stares and the scent of food sapped him of strength, and without even thinking, he reached out his hands.

“Please,” he croaked, and he could feel the tears welling up in his eyes. What right did he have to expect their help or to share their food?

He didn’t even have to look in their eyes to know what would be there: the same disgust and fear he had seen in the eyes of everyone he had ever asked for help since he came to the city. He hated that look.

A young woman touched him gently on the shoulder.

She was smiling serenely, and on her face he saw none of the fear he had expected. Instead there was kindness. It was in her eyes and in her touch, and for the first time since leaving home, he felt warm inside. He felt almost as if he had come home again.

“You’re tired,” she said, and he nodded mutely. Her eyes were a deep blue, and her skin was smooth and white. There was peace in the graceful way she moved, and her outstretched hand seemed to offer him that peace. “You can sleep in the mission tonight. And have plenty of food. Would you like some supper?”

Before he could answer, the others surrounded him. They laughed and smiled and slapped him gently on the back, as if he were an old friend. He nodded fiercely and smiled back, and before he knew it, they were all going into the building.

“What’s your name?” he asked the woman. His throat hurt, and he realized that he had barely spoken since arriving in the city. “Chandra,” she replied. “Chandra,” he repeated. “I thought you were American, but that name sounds-“

“Indian,” she cut in. “I used to have another name, but that was before I received the Rajah’s peace.”

Inside, the building was almost empty. He could smell food coming from somewhere - a kitchen, probably-but in the main room he saw nothing but rows and rows of woven flaxen mats, with a wooden bowl set in front of each. One by one, and one on each mat, the boys and girls sat down, crossing their legs underneath them. Chandra led him to an empty mat and then sat on the mat next to it. “The Rajah’s peace?” he said, looking at her with suspicion. “This isn’t one of those crazy cults, is it? I don’t want to get hooked up with that kind of thing. “

Chandra smiled at him again, and the smile washed away his fears. “Don’t worry, brother. We make no one stay against his will. When you are fed and rested, you can return to the world if you like. But I pray that the Rajah’s peace will bless you, too.”

A large lump of rice dropped into his bowl, dumped there by a boy who carried a large pot and a ladle. He reached down to scoop it into his mouth, but Chandra put a hand on his wrist and kept him from raising it again.

“Not yet,” she said. “We have to wait, but not long. Do you like the city?”

He sunk his head to his chest and took a deep breath. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes.

“I hate it,” he said.

“But you can’t go home,” she replied. It was a statement, not a question. I came to the city like you once, and I ended up like you. One thing saved me.” “What’s that?”

“The Rajah.” Her eyes seemed to glow as she spoke the name. “He has a place far from here, out in the country. It’s a place where we return to the natural way, where we can be cleansed of the evil of the city and of this society.”

Chandra stared straight into his eyes, and her fingers brushed his cheek. For a moment he felt as if his heart would stop. “You can go there, if you like,” she continued. “Our bus leaves in the morning.”

“I don’t know,” he replied. There was suspicion in his voice, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Be calm,” she said. “We’re happy, and we only want you to be happy. You want to be happy, don’t you?”

“Well … ” He sighed and thought of his days on the street. He remembered the cold and the hunger and the scornful looks. Finally he admitted, “Yes.”

“The Rajah can make you happy,” Chandra said. “You don’t have to stay. You can leave any time you want. But if you really want to be happy, all you have to do is get on that bus.”

“Well, well. What have we here?” a deep voice boomed above him. He looked up to see a golden haired man wrapped in gold-and-scarlet robes. The man gazed down at him with fire in his eyes.

“Who’s he?” he murmured to Chandra. She bowed where she sat, her face to the floor and her arms outstretched before her.

“Vivasvat, the right hand of the Rajah,” she whispered. “All glory to Vivasvat.”

A strong hand gripped his collar and lifted him up, and he found himself gawking at the man in scarlet and gold. “This filthy boy has no place in the Rajah’s temple!” Vivasvat shouted. The room grew silent. “He is unclean.” Then Vivasvat shook him, and dirt flaked offhim and fell on the floor. The others began to laugh, and Vivasvat grinned and let him go.

“Unclean things cannot stand the light of the Rajah’s truth. Take him upstairs and bathe him,” Vivasvat ordered two boys who sat nearby. “Burn his clothes and give him our finest garments to wear. For only when he is purified are we pure, and only then shall we eat the Rajah’s Food.”

The boys each took him by an arm and began to hustle him out of the room. They had almost reached a door leading to stairs when Vivasvat’s voice boomed again. “Boy!” he said. “What is your name?” “Frank,” he replied. “Frank Hardy.” Then they whisked him through the door and up the steps.

Chapter 2

WHEN THE BUS pulled away from the building the next morning, Frank Hardy was on it. He was dressed as all the others were dressed, and anyone would have mistaken him for one of the Rajah’s followers, except that his hair was-thick and full while theirs had been cut short.

Long ago, the bus had been a school bus, but the Rajah’s followers had transformed it. They’d painted it, and slogans praising the Rajah were written all over the walls. Smiling, happy faces beamed all around him.

This is where I have to be careful, Frank thought. A dinner and a breakfast that were heavy on starch, new clothes, getting up early in the morning. They never let me out of their sight, and they try to keep me involved in their activities. They want to break down my defenses. I can’t let them. For Holly’s sake, I can’t let them.

“Let’s pass the time with a sing-along,” a jolly voice said. Cheers greeted the suggestion. Slowly someone started singing a familiar melody, and the song sped up as more people joined in.

Chandra, seated in front of him, turned around. “Join in, Frank,” she said. “It’s fun.”

He smiled and nodded. Blot it out, he told himself. Don’t play their mind games. Think about something else. Try to remember what you’re trying to do, how you got here.

“Join in, Frank,” Chandra repeated, and immediately other voices chimed in, crying, “Join in, Frank. Join in.”

In his mind, he drifted away, while his lips began to mouth the words of the song. And without realizing it, he began to smile. In his mind, Frank Hardy could see his family’s house in Bayport. It was an old house, built around the turn of the century, but it was large and warm in a way that more modern buildings never were. It was home. He and his brother, Joe, had grown up there, as had their father, the famous detective Fenton Hardy, and his father before him.

Was it only a week since Frank had been home? It seemed as if years had passed since the morning Emmett Strand had come to their door.

The weather had been unseasonably hot, and Frank, a light sleeper at the best of times, tossed and turned in his bed all night. He had dozed on and off for hours, getting up now and then to play a game of chess with his computer in the hopes that it would tire him out.

Someone was moving about downstairs. Frank knew it wasn’t a burglar, because the alarms hadn’t gone off. He had put in the security system himself, so he knew the alarms worked. More likely, the “prowler” was either Joe or his father, who had been out of town on a case.

Frank felt like going downstairs for a chat, but that wouldn’t help him sleep. He pressed his face into his pillow and closed his eyes.

He was finally drifting off when a loud pounding on the front door of the house jarred him awake again. He looked at the digital clock on his nightstand. 5:03 A.M. No one comes around at this time of morning, he thought. He leaped out of bed and threw on his robe. Not unless there’s trouble.

Frank heard the front door creak open. Footsteps echoed on the wooden floor of the foyer by the door. He opened the door to his room and jumped back.

Joe was on the other side of the door. He was an inch shorter than Frank, and his blond hair was matted down on his head. Though a year younger than his brother, Joe was the huskier of the two. In the dim light of the hall, his blue eyes gleamed with surprise. They had both startled each other. “What are you doing out here, Joe?” Frank whispered. He sighed with relief. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I can’t sleep,” Joe replied. “It’s too hot, and I had this funny feeling that something was going to happen. It looks like I was right. Dad got home half an hour ago and called Mr. Strand. He just came over.” “Emmett Strand? The banker?”

“Right,” Joe said through a yawn. “And since I couldn’t sleep, I sneaked downstairs to find out what Dad was up to these days. I think he’s been doing some work for Mr. Strand, but it sounded like Dad couldn’t finish the case.”

Frank blinked with surprise. “That’s not like Dad. Let’s-try to find out what’s going on.” Quietly they slipped down the hall, passing their mother’s room and then their Aunt Gertrude’s. Both women were sleeping soundly. The boys crept down the stairway to the main floor, trying hard to keep the old steps from creaking.

From the stairs they could see that a desk lamp was on in their father’s office. Mr. Strand was there, too, pacing back and forth and dabbing the sweat from his face with a handkerchief. His eyes were wide and dulled with worry, and frustration and fear could be heard in his voice.

In all the years Frank had known Emmett Strand, he had never seen him display the slightest uneasiness. Mr. Strand ran his life as he ran his business-with clear logic and very little emotion-and that style had made him one of the top bankers on the East Coast. Not even when his wife died, leaving him to raise their infant daughter alone, did Strand let his emotions run away with him.

“Maybe I should have been more like you,” Strand was saying as the Hardys moved closer to the door. His voice cracked as he spoke. “Your boys turned out all right. Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“I’m afraid not, Emmett,” Fenton Hardy replied. “And there’s nothing the police can do, either. Holly’s of age now, which means you can’t control her anymore. We can always hope she’ll change her mind, but in the meantime, you’d better protect yourself.”

BOOK: Cult of Crime
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