Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 16
Line of Fire
Franklin W. Dixon
"You've got the wrong guy!" Joe Hardy raised his hands. More than two dozen expectant faces had turned to watch him as he walked in the door. "Save all the shouting until Denny, the real birthday boy, comes in."
Joe brushed back his unruly blond hair with one hand and grinned when he finally spotted his older brother. Naturally, Frank had chosen a quiet corner with a good view of the whole living room. He was talking with his girlfriend, Callie Shaw, their heads close together.
They both looked up as Joe worked his way toward them through the crowd. "This is going to be some bash," Joe said. "Denny Payson's a lucky guy. I hope you guys are taking notes. It would be nice to have a surprise party wheN I turn eighteen."
CalLie laughed. "It won't be much of a surprise if you're all ready for it."
"Besides," Frank added, "I thought you didn't like surprises anymore — not after last time." Their last case, Blood Relations, Had taken some nasty twists that had almost killed the Hardys.
"Well, I wouldn't mind a nice surprise, like Bonnie dancing only with me tonight." Joe nodded toward the middle of the room, where a gorgeous girl with long red hair sat. Four guys were falling all over themselves to get her sodas and snacks.
Frank's gin got bigger. "That wouldn't be a surprise. It would be a miracle."
The two brothers looked very different from each other. Joe, with his blond good looks and sparkling blue eyes, was a little shorter than Frank. He was the stockier of the two, with muscles stretching the chest of his sport shirt. Frank was leaner, with dark hair and eyes, and a deep tan from the summer sun.
Yet, as they both turned simultaneously and their eyes narrowed to watch someone approach, they seemed almost identical.
"Hi, Mrs. Payson," Joe said, recognizing the hostess of the party.
"Hello, boys." Elizabeth Payson put a hand oN each of their shoulders. "I'm so glad you could make it." '
Frank gave her a smile. "This party is the hot event of the summer. Every kid in town is buzzing about it."
"And trying to keep the secret from getting out to Denny," Joe added. "Where is our guest of honor?"
"Barbara was taking him out so we could get things ready," Mrs. Payson explained, smiling at a photo on the mantel.
It was a picture from the junior prom. Denny had his arm around his girlfriend, Barbara Lynch. Her petite frame and dark hair contrasted with the tall, redheaded Denny. He was grinning in the picture, and Frank, Joe, and Callie unconsciously smiled back.
"It's so good to see Denny smiling again," Mrs. Payson said. "And I wanted this to be a special birthday, to wipe out some of the other memories."
Five years before, just as Denny was turning thirteen, his father and three other men had died in the big fire at the Crowell Chemical plant. It had been the most tragic fire in Bayport history.
For the Paysons, it had been a complete disaster. Without Mr. Payson, they had no income, and stood to lose their house, their furniture, everything.
But the people of Bayport, led by Lucius Crowell, had rallied round. Crowell, the owner of the plant, had been the hero of the fire, risking his life to rescue the trapped men. Frank and Joe both remembered Crowell's picture in the newspaper, his face and clothes smudged with smoke as he led a worker out of the inferno.
Lucius Crowell had organized a drive to raise money for the widows and children. He set up a fund to save their homes and take care of the kids' educations. He'd been like an uncle to Denny ever since.
Mrs. Payson glanced at her watch. "I wonder what's keeping them? Barbara should have had him back by now."
"Um," said Joe, "I'm sure they'll be here soon. Oh, by the way, I've got a present for Denny. Are you putting them anyplace special?"
The kids followed Mrs. Payson to a table piled high with packages.
"It's a new book about target pistols," Joe went on. "I saw it the last time I was in the city and picked it up then." He smoothed one of the edges on the thick, sloppily wrapped package. "Hope he hasn't got it already."
Smiling, Mrs. Payson took the package. "I'm sure he'll love it."
"Well, I thought it would be right for Dead-Eye Denny." Joe used the nickname the Bayport Times had given Denny after he won his test pistol competition. Denny's superior abilities as a marksman were responsible for his getting his picture on sports pages all over the state.
Joe leaned forward as Mrs. Payson put his package on top of the pile. He'd just noticed : that one of the presents was unwrapped. At the front of the table, propped up in a special presentation case, was a customized target pistol.
"Hey, that's some gun." Joe whistled as he took in the clean lines of the automatic pistol. It was an old-fashioned Army Colt, but it had been reworked for competition. Most of the exposed metal was chrome plated. A specially weighted and vented muzzle shroud had been added for extra accuracy. There was even a special trigger.
And clamped to the top of the Colt was a hightech gunsight that made Frank take a second look. "Is that — " he began.
"A laser sight," a voice boomed behind him. "My present for Denny."
They all turned to see Lucius Crowell standing behind them, a big smile on his face. He was a little heavier than the hero in the newspaper photos, and a lot slicker-looking now.
His hair rose in carefully rumpled curls that tried to hide his receding hairline. The trademark bushy mustache he had always worn was now carefully trimmed. But the slightly oversize features of his face were still handsome, and his suit fit his stocky form perfectly. Now that Joe thought about it, the only time he'd seen Crowell out of a suit and tie was on the night of the big fire.
Crowell carried one reminder of the fire: the sturdy cane he was leaning on. He'd gone back into the blaze once too often, trying to save Denny's father, and was injured when the roof collapsed.
But that memory was long behind him as Crowell told Frank about the gunsight. "Since I knew Elizabeth was getting the custom gun for Denny, I had them add this little piece of hardware. It's one of the new generation of micro-laser sights," he said. "It weighs only half a pound, and it's good for almost a hundred yards. The laser plants a little red dot that shows where the bullet will go."
"Amazing," Frank said.
"I can hardly wait to see the results," Crowell went on. "The sight is excellent for quick targeting, and I'm sure it'll help Denny a lot. We may yet be seeing him on an Olympic team. And think what that would mean to Bayport."
Joe whispered to Frank, "The way he says 'Bayport,' you'd think he'd invented the town."
"It's the election," Frank whispered back. "That's the way all the politicians talk just before an election."
The special election for town supervisor was coming close, and the campaign had heated up. Lucius Crowell was the front-runner.
"He's about the only public figure in town with clean hands," Frank went on. Corruption and scandal had rocked the local government after the Hardys proved that Jack Morrison, the former supervisor, had been murdered by some of his crooked associates in their See No Evil case.
Joe grinned. "Well, I know one person who's sure to vote for him — Denny turned eighteen at just the right time."
"Speaking of Denny," Lucius Crowell was saying to Mrs. Payson, "are you sure you told Barbara the right time?"
She gave another worried look at her watch. "I told her to bring him back by seven-thirty. It's way after that now. ..."
At that moment, the front door opened. Barbara Lynch walked in. She turned and looked nervously at the lanky boy who was now standing framed in the doorway.
Denny Payson had been frowning as he stepped in. He stopped, blinking in astonishment as everyone yelled, "Surprise!"
The frown quickly returned to his face after he scanned the crowd and his gaze stopped beside Frank, Joe, and Callie.
He roughly pushed his way through the crowd, ignoring all the kids who were trying to congratulate him and shake his hand.
Then he halted just past Frank to confront Lucius Crowell.
"I've just learned the truth about you, you hypocrite!" Denny shouted. "You killed my father!"
Joe Hardy stared out the side window of the van as the Payson house disappeared from sight. "That was about the shortest party I've ever been to," he said to Frank and Callie.
Frank glanced over at him as he turned onto the highway. "There wasn't anything to celebrate after Denny and Lucius Crowell got finished yelling at each other."
"The person I felt sorriest for was Mrs. Payson," Callie said, shifting in her seat. "She had to listen to her son scream at the man who did so much to help them. And then watch Mr. Crowell storm out and everybody else slink off. Poor Mrs. Payson. I bet she's stuck with enough food to feed an army."
"And cake," Joe added mournfully. "I wonder if they were going to have chocolate birthday cake."
"You're beginning to sound like Chet Morton," Frank said, kidding him. "What I wonder is how this will affect the election."
Callie looked at him. "You think it will?"
Joe began to look interested. "Denny accused Crowell of murder, in front of a whole roomful of people. They're sure to talk. It'll be all over town soon."
"But it doesn't make sense!" Callie protested. "Crowell didn't murder Mr. Payson. He tried to save him."
"Denny didn't say anything about murder," Frank cut in. " 'I've just learned the truth about you. . . " he murmured, repeating Denny's words. " 'You killed my father.' "
Joe shrugged. "Killed, murdered. What's the difference?"
"Denny wasn't accusing Crowell of shooting his father, or anything as direct as that," Frank said. "He's got to be talking about the fire where his father died."
Callie looked disbelieving. "So? Did Crowell set the fire?"
"I can't see it happening like that." Frank frowned. "But what if the disaster turned out not to be an accident? What if it could've been prevented? That fire is what made Lucius Crowell a hero and big man in this town. Suppose it turned out to be his fault, though .. ."
"That would be hot news — especially if he's running for town supervisor." For a second, Joe looked excited, then his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute, if he'd done something to cause the fire, why hasn't it ever come out? It would have been hot news five years ago."
"Maybe he covered it up," Callie said. "He sure looked furious when Denny started in on him at the party. I thought he was going to pick up that gun on the table."
"It was close," Frank agreed. "Except my money would have been on Denny. He actually looked over at the gun for a second."
"I just hope it all turns out okay." Callie sounded worried. "Crowell is rich and powerful. And Denny is standing up to him all alone."
"If he needs help — " Frank and Joe both began to speak, stopped, looked at each other, and laughed.
Callie started laughing too. "What's the matter, guys? No cases lately?"
At that moment they had reached Callie's block. Frank brought the van to a stop in front of her house.
Callie leaned over and kissed Frank goodbye. "Night, guys." She popped out the door and headed up the walk.
Frank pulled away. "Where to?"
Joe shrugged. "Home, I guess."
They had just come through the door when the telephone began ringing. Joe grabbed the phone and grinned as soon as he said hello.
"Hey, Callie, couldn't get enough of us, huh?" But his eyebrows went up as he listened. Then he handed the phone to Frank.
"Were you guys serious when you said you'd help Denny?" Callie asked.
"Well, I was serious about helping him," Frank said. He repeated her question to Joe, who nodded. "Why?"
"I just got a call from Barbara Lynch," Callie said. "She thinks Denny has bitten off more than he can chew."
"Maybe Barbara thinks so. But does Denny think so? Last time we saw him, he didn't look in a mood to take anyone's advice," Frank said.
"She wants us to stop by the Payson place tomorrow," Callie said. "What do you say?"
Frank shrugged. "We've got nothing planned," he said. "I don't mind going over to the Payson place—as long as Denny doesn't come out armed."
But as they stepped out of the van the next morning, the first thing they heard was a gunshot.
Barbara appeared from around the side of the house. "Denny is out back, test-firing that new pistol," she explained.
They followed her to the backyard. The Payson house was on the outskirts of Bayport, without any houses close. And the yard continued back for at least a hundred yards. It was bounded by woods on three sides.
With all this space, Denny had no problem setting up his own shooting range. A rough dirt wall acted as his backstop, ready to catch any stray bullets.
In front of the wall stretched two lines of targets — eight-inch metal plates spaced a foot apart. White paint glistened even though the day was overcast.
Denny stood about ten yards from the targets. The pistol they'd seen the night before was in his right hand, its muzzle pointed straight up. He brought it down to eye level, his left hand cupped around his right to brace it.