Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
A beam of brilliant red light shot from the futuristic sight mounted on top of the gun. Pencil thin, it pinpointed the exact center of the first white plate. Denny fired, and the plate flopped back.
His hands moved, the beam flicked to the next plate, and Denny fired again. The beam flicked to the next target and the next. With six quick shots, Denny had nailed all the targets.
The gun pointed skyward again, Denny whirled around, grinning. Then he faltered when he saw he had company.
"That was some shooting," Joe said enthusiastically. "No wonder you're a champ."
Denny looked a little embarrassed. "I suppose I shouldn't be using this to practice — at least with the sight. It makes it too easy, and then I get lazy." Then he grinned like a little boy with a new toy. "But I couldn't help trying it out."
"You were very impressive," Frank said, stepping up to inspect the gun more closely. "Six for six—and pretty quick."
"That was standing on top of them," Denny said. "In real competition, you just start shooting at ten yards."
He pointed over to a table. "I set that up at twenty-five yards for a real practice shoot. Want to help?"
"Sure." Joe stood beside the rough wooden table. It held a two-liter bottle of soda, some glasses, a few loose bullets, and two loaded clips for the pistol.
Denny dropped the clip out of his gun and worked the action. "Empty," he said. Putting the gun on the table, he trotted over to the metal plates, setting them up again.
He smiled as he returned to find Frank gazing intently at the gun sight. "I forgot how interested you are in hightech stuff," Denny said. Picking the pistol up by the barrel, he handed it to Frank. "Go ahead, check it out. The gun's empty."
Even so, Frank checked the action again. Denny nodded approvingly. "I heard that you guys knew something about guns. What do you think of this baby?"
"A little heavy," Frank said, hefting the gun. "But not as heavy as I expected."
"Just try holding it with your arms out for a little while," Denny said. "After only a minute it feels like it weighs a ton."
Frank looked at a small pressure switch at the back of the handgrip. "Is that the control for the laser?"
"You got it," Denny said. "Why not give it a try?"
Frank sighted down the range and squeezed the little control. The red beam stabbed out of the gun sight, painting an inch-wide red dot on the edge of one of the plates.
"Not bad," said Denny.
"Well, at least I hit the one I was aiming at— barely." Frank released the control, and the red light winked out. "And that's exactly where my bullet would have gone?"
"Not exactly. The farther back you go, the more things you have to take into consideration. The light beam goes straight ahead, but the bullet's trajectory is curved."
Frank nodded. "I think it might have gone under the plate."
Denny shrugged. "You'd need just a little practice."
"I also saw that the dot on the plate was bigger. How much does the beam diffuse?"
"It's only good for about a hundred yards and you can't use it in bright daylight," Denny said. "But other than that, it can be a big help."
He took the gun from Frank's hand, picked up a clip, and slapped it into the butt of the gun. "Want to time me? I get nine seconds to get all twelve plates."
Frank nodded and held up his wristwatch. "Okay. I'll tell you when to start."
Joe picked up the bottle of soda and a glass from the table. "Well, if I'm going to be a spectator, I'm going to get myself some refreshments."
Denny hardly seemed to listen as he put the gun back on the table. He stood with his hands at shoulder height.
Frank watched the second hand creep up to the twelve. "Now!" he called.
Moving smoothly, Denny's right hand swept the gun up, his left working the action. He took the brace position, and the laser winked into existence. One shot, and the left-most plate fell down.
Two more shots, and two more plates fell down. Denny jerked toward the next, and his shot missed. Shaking his head, he bore down harder, spacing his shots more carefully.
The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh plates fell, one shot to each. But Denny had used up all the bullets in his clip. He ejected the empty clip and started to reach for the full one on the table.
As he did that, another circle of red winked onto the next plate. It was much larger — four inches wide—and it didn't come from Denny's.
Joe whirled around, to see another laser beam shining from the woods to the side of them — a good hundred yards away. Even as he was turning, he heard a gun firing.
Five shots cracked in quick succession, knocking down the remaining plates. Then came a sixth, and that one knocked Joe down!
Frank threw himself down, then began wriggling across to Joe. Callie, Denny, and Barbara had all dropped flat, trying to stay below the hidden gunman's line of fire.
Frank stayed low as he continued to snake his way to Joe's side. "Joe," he whispered, reaching out and fingering the large wet stain on his brother's shirt.
"Don't sweat it." Joe grinned up at his brother. "That's root beer. Nothing wrong with me except maybe a bruise or two. This is what got hit."
He held up the two-liter-size plastic soda bottle. Two holes showed where the bullet had passed through. Soda was still leaking out.
"That shot packed quite a wallop," Joe said. "Nearly tore the bottle right out of my hand."
"So instead you held on and let it knock you flat on your back." Frank shook his head in exasperation.
Both Hardys turned as Denny Payson snatched a clip of bullets from the table. No more shots came from the woods as he slapped the magazine into the gun still gripped in his hand. He jumped to his feet, aiming the pistol at the woods.
"Hold it a second," said Joe. "We all saw how well that guy shoots. And you want to go charging across this open yard into the woods where he's hiding?"
"You're going to let him get away, after he shot at us?" Denny stared at the Hardys in disbelief.
"There was no shot when you grabbed that clip. He's probably gone already." Frank frowned thoughtfully as he stared at the woods in the distance. "And he wasn't shooting at us."
"You could have fooled me," said Callie. "Were those spitballs flying past us?"
"No, they were bullets," Frank said. "But as you just said, they flew past. That guy was shooting around us." He pointed at the downed plates and the wounded soda bottle. "With that sight, he was able to put a bullet into each of these targets, which are a lot smaller than we are. If he'd wanted to, he could have nailed all of us."
"So why didn't he?" Denny challenged.
"Because he didn't want to," Frank answered coolly. "Or, more likely, he'd been told not to." He stared at Denny's pale face. "This was a warning, something to let you know the kind of trouble you've let yourself in for."
"I can handle it." Denny's jaw stuck out, and he gripped his gun tighter.
"Looks like you could use some help," Joe put in.
Barbara Lynch looked' nervously at her boyfriend. "Denny — " she began.
"Don't you start too, Barb," Denny burst out. He glared at the Hardys. "I don't need any help, in spite of what you all think." Turning his back on them, he stared off at the woods. "And I really don't need help that tells me to wimp out when some guy shoots at me. I thought the Hardy brothers had a better rep than that."
Joe opened his mouth to answer, but Frank shut him up with a look.
"Now, thanks to your so-called advice, you've kept me here while that guy got away." Denny rose to his feet, his gun ready. He started stalking toward the woods in a combat crouch. "If you want to help so much, why don't you do something useful, like call the cops?" he threw over his shoulder.
Frank got up and took a step after him. "We shouldn't let him go alone."
Barbara Lynch took his arm. "One of you can go with him. There's something upstairs I want you to see."
Joe shrugged. "You go take a look. I'll babysit Captain Commando." He took off across the yard as Barbara led Frank and Callie into the house.
"Mrs. Payson is out at the mall, shopping," Barbara explained as they entered the house through a basement door.
"Probably just as well," Frank said, glancing around a neat, carefully tended workshop. He gazed at a vaguely familiar piece of equipment clamped to a workbench.
"A reloading machine!" he said with interest. "So, Denny doesn't just shoot, he makes his own bullets. He must be a fanatic."
"Fanatic," Barbara echoed. She started up the stairs. "A good way to describe Denny. I never really thought about that, until — well, I'll let you see."
They followed her to the first floor, where Callie went to the phone to call the police. But Barbara beckoned to Frank, continuing on to the second floor, and one of the bedrooms— Denny's, from the look of it.
"I think you should have a look at this. Since Denny's out beating the bushes, this is a good chance." She pointed at the desk facing the bedroom window—and the thick scrapbook sitting on it.
Frank sat at the desk and began turning pages. They were covered with newspaper clippings, all about the Crowell Chemical disaster. He saw pictures of the firemen fighting the flames, the shot of the smoky Lucius Crowell leading a worker to safety, and portraits of the men who had lost their lives, including Mr. Payson.
He went on through the pages, finding maps and diagrams, then stories about the building of a new, modern Crowell plant. "He must have everything that was ever printed about the fire and Crowell Chemical. There are even stories about Lucius Crowell's campaign for supervisor." He flipped through the book again. "And the pages are pretty worn. He must go over them a lot."
"All the time," Barbara said. "He keeps reading and rereading those stories, still trying to make sense of it all."
The scrapbook fell open to one page. It was a story about the lost workers. Lined up at the top were five photos, evidently collected from their families.' Frank looked from the picture of Mr. Payson smiling up at him to the wall, where the same picture was framed.
Over it hung a long-barreled pistol. "A plinking gun," Barbara said, following Frank's eyes.
"Denny's last present from his dad. They used to go out in the forest and knock over tin cans."
She took a deep breath. "The two biggest things in Denny's life are his shooting and what he calls the mystery of the fire. Everything else takes second place, even me. I mean, I love him, and he loves me. But — well, yesterday proved it."
Frank shut the book. "What got him started on Mr. Crowell?"
Barbara shook her head. "I don't know. I was supposed to take him out, so Mrs. Payson could get ready for the party. We went downtown first, to the town hall to look at some records—"
"Then to the county and state offices, and then over to the federal center?" Frank asked.
Barbara stared. "How did you — ?"
"I should have guessed. It makes sense, now that I've seen this," Frank tapped the scrapbook. "Denny's been collecting everything he can get his hands on about the Crowell fire. He just turned eighteen. That means he can finally get access to government files. I'll bet he wrote letters months in advance, setting up those visits. And whatever he saw — "
Frank abruptly cut himself off and got up from the desk. "I can see Denny coming back. Don't tell him you told us, okay?"
"Are you kidding?" Barbara said. "If he found out, he'd kill me."
"I'd hate to put it that way," Frank said, heading downstairs. «
As they reached the first floor, the phone began to ring. Callie picked it up. "Just wait a second," she said as Denny came in the front door.
Callie held out the phone. "For you."
Denny took it, listened for a moment, then began to shout. "You're not going to scare me off, and you can tell that to your boss. People besides me are starting to ask for a grand jury investigation. And I can prove — "
He stared at the phone for a second, listening, then yelled, "You'll do what? You slimy — "
White-faced, he smashed the handset down on its cradle.
"That was the guy who shot at me. He described it all. Told me I should forget about my stupid accusations."
Joe nodded. "That's when you began shouting, I guess."
"I'm more interested in what he said to make you shut up," Frank said.
"He told me I might not be the only one to get hurt if I keep on going," Denny said. "Asked if I wasn't alone enough in the world as it was."
Callie sucked in her breath.
"Sounds like a really nice guy," Joe said quietly.
"I don't care — " Denny began. 'Well, you'd better start caring," Frank cut off. "You're in a game where the other side plays dirty, and you can't win all by yourself."
"So I should put myself in your hands, the way my mom let Crowell take over our lives?" Denny was about to go on when a loud creaking bounded outside.
"Old board on the porch," Denny whispered as he homed in on the sound. He moved the target pistol up easily, like a natural extension of his body.
Joe slipped silently to the side of the door and reached out to grasp the doorknob. Frank herded the girls to the other side, out of the line of fire.
Then Joe threw the door open, revealing a tall figure in a police uniform, about to knock on the door.
The man caught sight of Denny, yelled, "What the — ?" and went into a crouch.
With one hand he grabbed the door and pulled it closed again. While his other hand streaked for the gun in his holster.
"Hold it!" Frank Hardy yelled at the top of his lungs. He leapt on Denny, wrestling his gun upward. "Joe, open the door slowly. Con Riley's out there!"
The door swung open again, this time revealing Patrolman Con Riley and his partner, both in firing positions.
"Get away from him, Frank," Con called out. Con Riley was the Hardys' closest friend on the force. And there he was, aiming a gun at Frank.
"Take it easy," Frank said. "It's not what it looks like."
Denny let go of his gun, and Frank stepped back, holding it out butt-first.