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Authors: Franklin W. Dixon

Running on Empty

BOOK: Running on Empty
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Hardy Boys Casefiles - 36

Running on Empty

By

Franklin W. Dixon

Chapter 1

"Blast him, Frank!" Joe Hardy yelled, his blue eyes flashing.

With deadly aim, Frank Hardy squeezed the trigger and let loose a stream of lethal bullets. A look of surprise and horror grew on the face of the man on the receiving end of Frank's gun burst.

"Yeah!" Joe shouted as the man leapt into the air and crashed to the ground - dead. "That should set the record."

Frank stepped back from the video machine and smiled. A computerized metallic voice chirped, "You have achieved a ninety-eight percent accuracy rate, ThugBuster. Please put your initials into the ThugBuster Hall of Fame."

"Ho - hum." Frank faked a yawn as he brushed back his brown hair. He pressed the trigger on the game's joystick and punched in FH1 - Frank Hardy, Number One. He turned with a mock bow and offered the machine to his younger brother.

"That won't last long," Joe declared as he stepped up to the machine. He pressed the play button and immediately began blasting away at the cartoon thugs in a high-speed car chase through a cartoon city.

"You two waste more time and money trying to outdo each other on these stupid games," said a bored Callie Shaw. She turned away from the machine.

"Why the faraway look?" asked Frank as he slipped an arm around Callie's waist. Actually he knew why. Callie was leaving on a two-week cruise with her parents the following morning, and she didn't want to waste a Friday evening watching Frank and Joe play video games at the Bayport Mall's video arcade center.

"What do you think is taking Chet so long?" Callie asked, ignoring Frank's question.

Frank took his arm from around Callie and cleared his throat. "I don't know. Joe said he was excited about something. You know Chet. He probably found a great new restaurant."

They all knew Chet Morton well. He loved food and disdained any form of physical labor.

As tall as Frank but much heavier, Chet was to the Hardys what a good solid lineman was to a running back - big and slow but always there when needed most. He had stepped in on more than one occasion to help Frank and Joe out of a dangerous situation.

What Chet Morton lacked in speed and motivation, he more than made up for in loyalty and heart.

"What do you think his big surprise is?" Callie asked.

"No telling," Frank replied. "Joe talked to him on the phone. All Chet said was that he wanted us to meet him out front at six o'clock."

"It's six now," Callie declared without looking at her watch.

Whatever Chet's surprise was, Frank thought, it would be a welcome break from crime fighting. Their father, Fenton Hardy, the world-famous private detective, and mother were vacationing, and things were nice and quiet around the Hardy home for a change.

"Hey! You two interested in my score or what?" Joe cut in.

"There he is," Callie announced, ignoring Joe.

Frank followed Callie's finger and was surprised to see Chet squeezing out of a classic maroon Corvette.

Before Frank could say anything, Callie was bounding out the front door.

"Come on, Joe. Chet's here. And wait until you see his new toy," Frank said.

"Hey, can't you wait?" Joe called out as he ran after Frank and Callie. "I almost beat - "

"Hey, guys! What's happening?"

Chet leaned against the maroon Corvette, arms folded, one leg crossed over the other, a sly grin on his face. His clothes looked new and pressed - a drastic change for Chet, who usually wore whatever was on top of the pile on his bedroom floor.

"What lottery did you win?" Frank asked as he walked around the Vette.

"Win?" Chet replied. "My friends. Haven't I always said that hard work is its own reward?"

"Hard work? You?" Callie asked with raised eyebrows.

Chet shook his head. "O ye of little faith."

"Come on. Where'd you get the Vette? And those clothes?" Joe was growing impatient. He liked quick and easy solutions to any mystery.

Chet stepped away from the Vette, his arms opened wide. "This, my friends, is the true fruit of my labors." He pretended to pick lint from his new designer shirt. "And this is a little gift I allowed myself because I've done such a good job."

Frank finished his inspection of the car. Come on, buddy. 'Fess up."

Okay." Chet laughed. "Remember that job I told you about at the end of last semester?"

"The car-washing job?" Frank asked.

"Car-washing job?" Chet was disappointed and hurt. "No, the one selling used cars for my uncle Ed."

"You don't have an uncle Ed," Joe stated.

"Ed Brooke. He's been dad's friend since they were in high school, and he insists I call him Uncle Ed. He owns AutoHaus Emporium."

"That used-car joint in Southport?" Callie asked.

"Used-car joint?" Chet's chest fell again. "AutoHaus Emporium deals only in classic sports cars. Uncle Ed is the best salesman in the state, and I'm his assistant."

"Congratulations, Chet. This is really something," Frank said.

"Yeah," Joe chimed in. "Fantastic."

"Thanks," Chet replied, his face reddening with embarrassment. He really wasn't the show-off type, but he did want his friends to know that he had done well at something. "Since I posted the second highest sales for the past month, Uncle Ed gave me a bonus and is letting me drive this little baby around."

"Are you going to take us for a ride?" Callie asked.

Chet smiled. "Sure. But first - Mr. Pizza."

"I told you he wanted a free meal," Frank teased.

"Tonight, my friends, pizza, bread sticks, lasagna, whatever you want is on me," Chet announced.

"What?" Frank, Joe, and Callie exclaimed simultaneously. Chet rarely offered to buy one of them a meal, let alone treat all three of them.

"I told you Uncle Ed gave me a bonus along with my regular commission check and, well, let's just say that Chet Morton is doing all right!" Chet started around the Vette. "I'll meet you at Mr. Pizza. I want to park this baby in a safe area."

"Yeah," Joe said. "Wouldn't want it ripped off the first night, huh?"

Chet stopped cold. He shot Joe an angry look. "That's not very funny." He squeezed into the front seat, fired up the engine, and peeled away from the curb.

"I didn't mean anything by it," Joe hollered as Chet and the Vette disappeared down the ramp of the mall's underground parking garage.

Chet took a long time getting the car parked. By the time he joined the trio at their favorite Mr. Pizza booth, two supreme pizzas, three baskets of bread sticks, and two large pitchers of soft drinks cluttered the table.

"Hope you don't mind," Frank said, indicating the food. Chet slid in next to Callie.

"Listen, I didn't mean anything by that remark about the car being stolen," Joe apologized.

"Forget it," Chet said with a smile. He grabbed a slice of pizza, dumped ground peppers and Parmesan cheese on it, and took a big bite. "Southport has had several cars ripped off lately."

"Why?" Frank asked.

"So many cars have been stolen, especially the expensive imports and American sports cars, that the police think some dealers are ripping themselves off and then reselling the cars to foreign buyers overseas. The market in Japan is so good that even a low-priced classic that may sell for eight thousand dollars in the States goes for fifty thousand dollars over there."

Joe whistled.

"The police even questioned Uncle Ed."

"A conspiracy?" Frank asked.

"Yeah, can you believe it? If you knew Uncle Ed, you'd know he wouldn't cheat anyone. He's not like other used-car salesmen."

"How's that?" Frank asked.

"He's honest." Chet gulped down his soft drink. "Well, who wants to be the first to go for a ride in the lean mean Chet machine?"

"Callie and I are going to the movies tonight," Frank said.

Joe smiled. "You two can go to the movies if you want, but I'm going cruising with my good buddy and his Vette."

"Right after I finish eating," Chet replied, as he and Joe high-fived each other.

After leaving Mr. Pizza, the foursome split up. Chet and Joe headed for the underground parking lot while Frank and Callie walked out to the van parked in the mall's spacious outdoor parking area.

Dusk was settling, and Frank turned on the headlights. He backed the van out of its parking space and headed for the exit.

"Watch out, Frank!" Callie shouted.

Someone had just run in front of the van. Frank slammed on the brakes, and the van screeched to a halt. He was getting ready to yell at the guy when he recognized - Chet!

The van's headlights lit both sides of Chet's face in an eerie white harshness that washed out all of Chet's features except his round eyes.

Chet looked like the walking dead.

Frank hopped from the van and darted to his friend. Before he could ask Chet what was wrong, Chet stumbled forward, his mouth trying to form words.

"It's gone," he gasped after several tense moments.

Frank shot him a puzzled look.

"The Vette's been stolen!"

Chapter 2

"Are you sure you didn't see a maroon Corvette drive out of here?" Joe asked the garage attendant.

"I told you I just came on duty ten minutes ago," the attendant answered angrily.

"Anything?" Frank asked as he joined Joe.

"No. He says he didn't see anything," Joe said, flipping a thumb at the attendant.

"You sure?" Frank asked the man in the booth.

"I told your pal here that I didn't see nothing," the attendant spat out.

"How about letting us check the time tickets?" Frank asked.

"Forget it, kid," he said, and sneered. "These tickets are the property of the Bayport Mall Merchants Association, and you're not going to get your hands on them."

Although he didn't want to, Joe turned and followed Frank to the van.

Chet was sitting in the chair behind the driver's seat, his face pale and sweaty. He questioned Joe with his eyes.

"Nothing," Joe replied. He slammed the door shut.

"What happened, Joe?" Callie asked as Frank steered the van out of the parking lot. "Chet won't say anything."

"We took the elevator down to the garage and the Vette was gone. Chet was like a madman running up and down the garage looking for the car." Joe frowned. "We're going to get that car back," Joe said with steel in his voice.

Frank glanced at his brother. He knew Joe like a book. Joe took personal offense whenever something happened to one of his friends, and he wouldn't stop at anything to solve this crime.

"We've got to report this to the police," Frank said. He turned the van onto Bayport's main street and steered it toward the Bayport police station.

***

"Can I help you kids with something?" asked a friendly voice as the foursome walked into the police station.

"Officer Riley!" Frank said, glad to see a friendly face. Officer Riley was an old friend who, while not approving of the Hardys' involvement in police matters, admired their accomplishments.

"Chet's car was stolen about an hour ago," Joe said.

"Who would want to steal that old clunker of yours?" Officer Riley asked Chet with a smile.

"Not his car," Frank explained. "A mint-condition classic Corvette."

The expression on Officer Riley's face became serious. He glanced at Chet once more but talked to Frank. "Let's use interrogation room one."

Once in the room, Chet explained why he was using the Corvette and all about his job at AutoHaus Emporium. Then he gave a detailed description of the Vette.

After scribbling down all the information provided by Chet, Officer Riley put his pencil on the table, looked Chet in the eye, and said, "You may not want to hear this, Chet, but I'm afraid you'll never see that car again."

"What?" Frank asked in disbelief.

"Chet's Vette is the third expensive sports car stolen in Bayport in the last two weeks," Officer Riley replied.

"What's that got to do with it?" Joe was growing angry.

Officer Riley leaned forward, his hands clasped together. "I don't know how I can put this gently, Chet, but your car is probably in a thousand little pieces headed to a thousand illegal parts houses."

Chet gasped.

The police veteran leaned back in his chair. "Ever hear of a 'chop shop?'"

"It's a garage where they dismantle stolen cars and then sell the parts," Frank replied.

"Exactly," Officer Riley confirmed.

"And you think Chet's car has been taken to a chop shop?" Callie asked.

"Yes." Officer Riley sighed.

"Why?" Callie asked.

"It's easier for the car thieves to sell a high-profile car like Chet's Corvette one piece at a time than to try to unload it intact," Joe explained.

Officer Riley nodded his head in agreement. "Plus the thieves actually make more money at it. The Vette would probably bring fifteen to seventeen thousand as is. Individual parts, however, are worth at least twenty-five thousand dollars. The fenders alone fetch three thousand apiece."

Chet groaned and put his head in his hands. "Uncle Ed'll kill me."

"I'm sorry, Chet," Riley said.

"What about finding the chop shop?" Joe asked.

"That's the problem. Southport's had a rash of thefts in the last six months, and it looks like the choppers are moving into Bayport."

"Choppers?" Callie asked.

"The guys who strip the cars, chop them up for resale as parts," Frank said.

Officer Riley rubbed his eyes and yawned. "So far, we haven't been able to link Bayport's thefts with Southport's so there's no coordination of investigations."

"Perhaps we can do something about that." Joe stood, ready for action.

"You kids stay out of this," Officer Riley warned. "Choppers aren't known for their good manners. They won't take kindly to you two trying to take away their livelihood." Officer Riley stood and opened the interrogation room door. "We're doing our best. Believe me, no one wants these choppers more than I do."

"Except Chet," Callie said solemnly.

Chet groaned.

They walked in silence to the Hardys' van and rode in silence to the Morton home. Chet politely refused several suggestions from the Hardys to go to the movies or the mall. Chet wouldn't say anything, only shake his head.

"He's really depressed," Frank said as he watched Chet slouch into his house.

"It wasn't his fault," Callie said. "He'll get over it."

"Let's hope so," Frank said.

The trio rode in silence once again.

Joe tried to come up with a plan that would help his buddy. But instead of thinking rationally, Joe became angry. By the time the Hardys reached home, Joe's anger had ignited into white heat.

BOOK: Running on Empty
4.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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