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Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

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BOOK: Line of Fire
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Chapter 8

joe stared at George for a second, a dangerous light in his eyes. "That guy just made a big mistake." , , .

Once Joe had a girlfriend who had gotten in the way when terrorists were trying to get at the Hardys. The result: an exploding car, and Iola Morton disappearing in a ball of fire. Joe had sworn that he'd never let something like that happen again to anyone else.

He thought about it in his mind as he dashed for the corner. His face was set, hard and determined.

Both Hardys raced forward and reached the corner together, staring into the gathering darkness.

But Barbara Lynch was nowhere to be seen. ; Neither was George.

Joe stalked down the street, his legs stiff, his hands balled into fists at his sides. "Go across," 'he told Frank. "We'll head along this way, checking all the side streets."

Urgency rushed their steps as they ran from corner to corner, checking the darkened side streets. They carefully probed the shadows, alert for anything out of place, straining their ears for a muffled scream or the sounds of a struggle.

They reached the third corner and again their search came up empty. Frank looked around nervously. "What if — "

"No!" Joe cut him off. "They had to come this way. They had to!"

He raced to the next corner and turned to look down the side street. Nothing — but wait! His eye caught a movement farther down the street straight ahead. The slight figure of a girl passed a lit window. Seconds later a heavy figure passed also, close behind the girl.

'Come on!" Joe shouted. He and Frank went Charging down the street, not caring if the slap of their feet alerted George.

In spite of their lung-bursting pace, they still had a way to go before catching up to the oblivious Barbara and her pursuer. Half a block loomed before them as George reached out and touched Barbara's shoulder.

Both Hardys prepared to attack, speeding up their pace. But George only spoke to Barbara for a moment, then hurried past her.

Barbara herself turned nervously around. She heard rushing footsteps approaching her. Then she recognized her imagined muggers. "Frank! Joe! What's the big idea?" she demanded. "You nearly scared me to death!"

"That guy," Joe gasped. "What did he want with you? What did he say?"

"That man just now?" Barbara said, blinking in surprise. "He just asked for the time and told me 1 shouldn't be walking alone in this neighborhood."

Frank slammed his hand against an out-of-order streetlight. "Suckered! He suckered us!"

"What do you mean?" Joe said.

But Frank was already heading back down the block. "He must have seen us keeping an eye on Denny, and wanted to draw us off. And what easier way than seeming to threaten Barbara?" he yelled back at them.

"Denny? Denny's in trouble?" Barbara was rushing right beside them.

Frank didn't answer. At the pace he was setting, it was hard enough to breathe. He just hoped they'd catch up with Denny before it was too late.

They hadn't gone very far past the spot where Denny and Barbara had split up when they heard muffled sounds.

"Come on, hold him," a nasal voice commanded. Then came grunting and the unmistakable sound of a punch.

"There's a phone over there," Frank said to Barbara, pointing to the corner. "Call the cops."

He and Joe headed for the mouth of the alley where all the noise came from. Torn bags of uncollected garbage piled up at the entrance. Just beyond them, two guys were working Denny over.

The owner of the nasal voice was a tall punk with acne. He threw a punch into Denny, giving him a big grin as he drew his fist back again. His partner was big and heavy, hanging on as Denny struggled to get free.

Denny's cheek was swollen, and a thin trail of blood dribbled down his chin from a split lip. The moose had no trouble hauling him around for his grinning partner's next punch.

"You go after the moose," Joe whispered. "I'll take care of Smiley."

Frank nodded soundlessly, and they both stepped into the alley.

Coming up behind the guy holding Denny, Frank set his hands deep into his blubbery neck and whipped the guy toward a wall. Denny fought free just as his captor crashed into brick.

"Hey!" yelled the puncher. But even as he was speaking, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned—to see Joe Hardy's fist flying at his face.

Both guys were surprised, but they didn't give up the fight. Big Boy shambled back from the wall, throwing a roundhouse right at Frank. His partner faked a punch at Joe, then kicked his knee.

Frank grabbed the arm in the middle of its clumsy punch and twisted. Big Boy bellowed in1 pain, tearing his arm out of Frank's grasp. Joe sidestepped Smiley's leg and landed a fist in his belly. The skinny punk folded, staggering backward toward the end of the alley.

Suddenly he straightened up, his teeth gritted in pain as he hurled a bag of garbage at the Hardys. The bag was half-torn, and it showered Frank, Joe, and Denny in glop.

The two guys took that moment to run off. A siren howled nearby, and seconds later two police officers stood at the alley entrance, hands on the butts of their pistols. "All right," one called. "What's going on in there?"

"Two guys attacked our friend," Joe said, pointing at Denny, who was leaning against a wall as Barbara dabbed at his lip with a tissue. "They ran when they heard you coming."

A flashlight beam cut through the darkness, to rest on the four of them. "Attacked you with garbage, it looks like," one of the cops said. "Unless you boys play funny."

"We'll hear all about it," said his partner. "At the station."

The back seat of the patrol car had a sour smell, part disinfectant, part unwashed bodies. It probably wasn't the first time someone reeking of garbage had sat back there.

"At least they saw Barbara back to my car," Denny said. "Lucky she has an extra set of - keys."

"Yeah," Frank agreed, staring at the cage - work that set them off from the front seat, and the doors with no handles. "Real lucky."

Early the next morning Frank stepped out of the shower, his fourth since the evening before, and cautiously sniffed the air. At least he didn't smell like a walking landfill anymore. His father had looked torn between yelling or laughing at them when he saw their bedraggled appearance the night before.

"Well," Fenton Hardy had said as he went to pick them up, "at least you had some consideration. If I have to show up at the police station, I'd prefer to go early in the evening, rather than at two a. m. Just do me a favor on the way home. Keep all the windows down."

As he walked down the stairs, Frank thought that neither his mother nor his father was very happy about their adventure. Sure, he and Joe had saved Denny Payson. But they hadn't done a great job of protecting him.

Frank walked into the kitchen, where Joe was halfheartedly dipping a spoon into a bowl of cereal.

"Not hungry?"

Joe shook his head. "Every time I take a bite, I smell last night," he said.

Frank's hand went to his stomach. "Thanks."

He poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat at the table.

"You know," said Joe, "we need a new plan. As long as Crowell and George are around, Denny's in danger. They can get to him. Last night proves that. So what are we going to do?"

"Talk to Denny," Frank answered promptly. "Then get to work cracking this case open."

"Well, we'll get a chance at step one pretty soon," Joe said, looking out the window. "Here comes Denny now."

They opened the back door before Denny even knocked. He had a newspaper crumpled in one hand, and his face was white with rage. The swelling on his cheek had gone down and was now a livid bruise, and his lip was still puffy and cut. "I thought you guys were helping me, until I saw this."

Unfolding the paper, he held up the front page. "Payson in Alley Scuffle," the headline read. Under it was a photo, obviously shot by a reporter who happened to be at the police station. Frank remembered the camera flash. It showed a wild-eyed Denny being hustled up the station house steps. The photo had been cropped to cut the Hardys out.

"You're not in the picture, and you're not in the story either." Denny's finger stabbed at the columns of type beside the photo.

Frank zipped through the story, growing angrier with each line he read. "During the day Payson caused a scene at the Crowell Chemical Plant - upset a number of ex-Crowell employees with wild accusations ... ended in a fight in the worst section of town . . . Unstable since losing his father five years ago . . . Neighbors describe him as 'troubled.' "

" 'Troubled'!" Denny shouted, crumpling the paper again. "They're trying to make me out as some kind of crazy to discredit what I'm saying about Crowell."

"Somebody's certainly managing the news," Frank agreed grimly.

"That wasn't the Times, was it?" Joe asked.

"No, it's the Courant," Frank answered. "They eat up the spicier news."

"Let me see that." Joe reached out for the paper.

Frank turned to Denny, who was pacing up and down. "You know who's behind all this — " he began.

Then the phone rang. When Frank answered it, he stared in amazement. "Speak of the devil," he said.

"This is Lucius Crowell." The agitated voice was unmistakable. "I called the Paysons and heard that Denny was coming over there. Please. I've got to speak to him. I was very upset to learn what happened last night."

"What are you going to tell us, the right hand doesn't know who the left hand is punching?" Frank asked. "Don't try to kid me. I was there last night. Your man George set it up."

"He's not my man," Crowell said angrily. "He's in charge of security for the plant, and for me personally."

"Well, you'll be glad to hear that he loves his job."

Crowell sighed, but he wasn't about to say anything on a line that might connect to a tape recorder. "I've got to talk to Denny. No matter what mistakes I may have made in the past, I've got to make him understand. He's setting himself up as a target—and I'm afraid for him. He'll get himself hurt."

This wasn't a threat. Nor was it the bogus "sincerity" of one of Crowell's campaign speeches. It was pleading from a man who sounded genuinely fond of Denny, and worried for him.

Frank was a little surprised to hear himself saying, "Let me see if he'll come to the phone."

He turned to Denny. "It's Crowell. He wants to talk with you."

Denny stared at the phone as if Frank were handing him a rattlesnake. Then he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

His face was cold as ice when he turned back in the doorway.

"Tell him, sure, I'll talk to him—as soon as he brings my father back!"

Chapter 9

After Denny Payson stormed off, the Hardys tried to get a new handle on the case. "We know that Crowell did something wrong, which resulted in the disaster at the chemical plant." Frank leaned his elbows on the kitchen table. "The question is, how do we prove it?"

"Not easy," Joe had to say. "Especially with Crowell's lawyers trying to block the use of those files we found. What else do we know?"

They went over and over what they had found out so far. "Wait a second," Joe finally said. "Remember when Chet took us down to the town records?"

Frank nodded.

"Remember, he mentioned a picture that Corrigan kept in his office. Corrigan visiting his rich friend at his ritzy house in Florida."

"Zale." Frank frowned as he dug up the name. "Howard Zale."

"Right!" Joe exclaimed. "He was the fire inspector. Chet thought he had taken money."

"We know he was taking money," Frank cut in. "George said as much when they were taking those papers to be shredded."

Joe nodded. "You're right. It just slipped by me in all the excitement."

"Well, we remembered now." Frank pushed himself away from the table. "Let's see what kind of story we can get on Howard Zale. I wonder if he had anything to do with the fire."

He led the way upstairs to his room, pulled the dust cover off his computer, and started attaching his modem unit to the phone. In moments, he was plugging into local information networks.

"The town data base lists him as a fire and safety inspector. I'll bet that he was in charge of the investigation of the fire. And as the safety inspector he probably knew that Crowell was violating safety regulations." Frank hit some buttons as he read from his screen, and the computer printer began to rattle as it printed out the information. "Hmmmm. Retired very recently. Shortly after Jack Morrison was murdered."

"Maybe he got cold feet," Joe suggested. "Now that he wouldn't have his buddy around to take care of him."

But Frank was barely listening, working hard at the keyboard. "There are no Zales listed as living in Bayport," he said, wiping out the screen. "No family members to help us track him down."

He frowned for a second, then reached for a box of floppy disks. "One of my hacker friends got some access codes we might use — "

Popping a disk into the computer, he bent over the keyboard. New writing appeared on the screen.

"What's this?" Joe asked, leaning forward to get a look.

"The town's pension list. If Zale is retired, he's probably getting a pension."

They quickly ran to the end of the list, but there was no Zale to be found.

"This is weird," Joe complained. "From what we know about him, Zale was picking up money wherever he found it. I can't believe he'd give up on his own pension."

"I know of one reason." Frank's face was grim as he hit more computer keys. A new list appeared on the screen, and he quickly rolled to the end of it.

"There he is!" Joe pointed. "Howard Zale! We found him!"

"Yeah," Frank said flatly. "On the list of deceased town workers." He hit some more keys, then read something off the screen. "Died of a heart attack, about six weeks ago. Long before anyone started digging into the case."

"We spend all this time finding one good lead, and he's dead and buried." Joe sighed.

Frank turned off the computer and disconnected the modem. Just as he was putting the cover back on, the telephone rang.

He picked up the phone. "Hi, Mrs. Payson. No, Denny's not here. He left a while ago." Suddenly Frank was leaning forward in his chair. "What? He hasn't shown up? Okay, Mrs. Payson. We'll take a look around."

BOOK: Line of Fire
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