Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 77
Franklin W. Dixon
(No. 2 in the Ring of evil Trilogy.)
"I've been giving this case some serious thought," Joe Hardy said, "and I still have one question." He pushed his cup of cold coffee away and slid down low in the booth. "I hate coffee," he muttered. "Why did I order it?"
A faint smile crossed his brother Frank's lips. "Is that the big question?"
Seventeen-year-old Joe rolled his blue eyes toward the ceiling but didn't find anything worth checking out there. "No, that's not it. I was just wondering. We worked as baggage handlers for almost a week until we were let go, and I want to know if we're going to be paid for that time."
"The job was just a cover, you know that," his brother, who was a year older, reminded him. Frank's gaze wandered to the window that looked out on the interior of the sprawling airport terminal. No doubt about it, Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport was big. Thousands of people passed through it every day, bound for thousands of places. The last time Frank had sat in this same coffee shop with his brother, he had seen the mysterious Gray Man - an important member of a secret government agency known simply as the Network - prowling the wide corridors. Now Frank didn't see much beyond the reflection of his own brown hair and eyes.
"I know that," Joe said with a sigh, brushing a lock of blond hair off his forehead. "But I think we should have gotten paid for lugging all those suitcases around."
"Could we deal with that later?" a third voice chimed in. This one belonged to Gina Abend, a checkin clerk for Eddings Air, who was sitting next to Frank. "What I want to know is - what do we do now?"
Joe checked out her enormous green eyes and blond curly hair and knew that she was the best thing he had set eyes on all week.
"When in doubt, the best place to start is with a review of the facts," Frank suggested.
"We know that Solomon Mapes was running a luggage theft ring, and that he got mixed up with an international terrorist group somehow. They then killed him, probably to silence him." Frank observed Gina's reaction. He knew that this rehash was hard for her because she had been in love with Mapes. She seemed to be holding up all right, though.
Michael Eddings, the president and founder of Eddings Air, had hired the Hardys to investigate a growing problem with luggage theft at the airline's main hub in Atlanta. Working undercover as baggage handlers, Frank and Joe had discovered that the leader of the luggage theft ring was Solomon Mapes, a pilot for Eddings Air.
The case had had its share of twists and turns. Frank was used to that. This case had one twist, though, that Frank couldn't unravel. Just as the Hardys were closing in on Mapes, he had been brutally murdered while Frank and Gina watched helplessly.
"Tell me more about these terrorists," Gina said, her voice detached, almost cold. "The Assassins? Is that right?"
Joe nodded. "Yes." He knew what Gina was going through because the first time the Hardys had run into the Assassins, Joe's girlfriend, Iola Morton, had been killed by a car bomb. At the time the only way he could deal with it was to shut down his emotions and concentrate on nailing the killers.
"Sometimes the Assassins work for the highest bidder," Joe explained. "Sometimes I think they just kill people for the fun of it."
Gina frowned as she picked at the salad on her plate. "I don't get it. I know Solomon wasn't a saint, but I don't know why he'd be involved with terrorists."
"The Gray Man told us the Assassins were using Solomon's luggage theft ring to smuggle things around the country," Frank said.
"You don't sound convinced," Gina noted.
"I'm not," Frank replied. "The Assassins run a very tight operation. I don't know why they'd want a bunch of small-time thieves involved."
"Do you think the Gray Man lied to you?" Gina asked.
"It wouldn't be the first time," Joe commented. "The Network operates on a need-to-know basis. If they decide you don't need to know, they don't tell you."
"There are two things that still bother me about this case," Frank said. "First, why did the head of security for Eddings Air sabotage the private jet of the founder and president of the company?"
"I wouldn't waste a whole lot of time on that one," Joe grumbled. "Hank Forrester seems determined to take that secret to jail with him."
"Maybe we'll find the answer to it while we're solving the other riddle that's been on my mind," Frank said. He waited until he was sure he had both Joe's and Gina's full attention. "Just before the Assassins killed Mapes and took off, they grabbed a tube-shaped leather fishing rod case.
"Maybe they didn't want to leave empty handed," Joe suggested.
Frank shook his head. "They opened the case and checked inside first. There was something in it that they wanted, and I think it's the key to whatever is going on with the Assassins and the Network. I want to know what it is."
"If it will lead us to Solomon's killers," Gina said, "then I want to know, too."
"Let's get started," Joe said. He took one last sip of his coffee, made a face, and stood up. "You pay the bill," he told his brother. "I'll leave the tip."
Joe stuck his hand in his pants pocket to dig out some change and came up with something else instead. "What's this?" he muttered as he pulled out a torn strip of heavy paper.
"You're just full of deep questions today aren't you?" Frank responded. "Why did I order coffee? Are we going to get paid? What's in my pocket?"
Joe ignored Frank and studied the ripped band of paper. On one side what looked like part of a name was handwritten. Joe flipped the paper strip over, and his eyes widened as he stared at what was left of the blue Eddings Air logo.
"Gina," he said. "What do you do if a passenger checks a bag that doesn't have any ID tags?"
Gina smiled at him. "What is this? A test of my checkin clerk training?"
Joe smiled back. "Some airlines ask passengers to fill out temporary ID tags, which they then attach to the bags. The tags are usually just paper bands with the airline's logo printed on them. Does Eddings Air do anything like that?"
"Sure," Gina said. "It's standard procedure. Why?"
Joe's smile widened as he put the scrap of paper on the table. "I think I just found our first clue in tracking down the mysterious leather fishing rod case. I must have ripped that off without realizing it when I crashed into that Assassin in the storage room. Remember?"
Frank nodded. "You did run right into the guy who was carrying the case." He looked at his brother. "I can understand how you might have torn the tag loose during the scuffle - but how did it get in your pocket?"
Joe shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes I do weird things when people are shooting at me."
"Remind me to go through all your pants pockets when we get home," Frank said. "Maybe I'll find important clues to unsolved cases."
"We don't have any unsolved cases," Joe countered. "You're just jealous because I found a clue."
"I'm suspicious because you realized it was a clue," Frank retorted.
"Why don't I just leave while you two beat each other up?" Gina interjected. She picked up the torn tag and squinted at it. "When you're finished playing king of the mountain, we can figure out who this Nikolai Stavr - something is."
Frank's eyes shifted to Gina. "There's a name on the tag?"
"Yes," she replied. "Well, part of one, anyway." She showed Frank the scrap of paper. "See? There's the first name, Nikolai. And there's part of the last name. S-t-a-v-r. The rest is missing."
"Let's hope it's enough," Frank said.
"Enough for what?" Joe asked.
"Enough for the computer to tell us who it is," Frank answered.
They both looked at Gina.
"I don't know," she said. "I guess we could check the passenger lists for the past few weeks to see what comes up. But that's a lot of names. It could take a while."
"There might be an easier way," Frank said. "If the case was reported missing by the owner, it should show up in the lost luggage data base that Forrester told us about. We'll still have to search for names that start with those five letters - but there should be fewer of them, and they'll all be in one place."
"I don't know anything about tracing lost luggage," Gina responded. "I just check bags in. I don't check them out."
"Don't worry about that," Joe said confidently. "We just need your password to get into the system. Frank can handle it from there."
"Okay," Gina replied. "All we need is a computer terminal."
Frank thought about it for a minute and then grinned. "I think I know where we can find one to use.
A few minutes later Frank was tapping away on a computer keyboard in a private office.
"Even if Hank Forrester makes bail, I doubt he'll show up here," Joe commented while Frank worked. "Too bad we don't have his personal password. As the Eddings Air security chief, I'll bet he had access to a lot of interesting files."
"The only thing I'm interested in right now," Frank replied as he waited for the screen display to change, "is who that leather case belongs to."
"I hope you guys know what you're doing," Gina said nervously, her eyes darting to the door. "Nobody gave us permission to use this office."
"Nobody said we couldn't, either," Joe responded casually.
"We won't be here long, anyway," Frank said as he studied the data on the monitor. "I think I've got it."
Joe moved around the desk to check the computer screen. "What did you find?"
"Dr. Nikolai Stavrogin reported a fly-fishing rod case missing two weeks ago," Frank answered. "It matches the description of the case the Assassins took."
Joe frowned. "Two weeks ago? The case just showed up here two days ago. Why did it take so long to get to Atlanta?"
"Maybe we should ask Dr. Stavrogin," Frank said. He took a notepad out of his pocket and started writing. "His home address is in Washington, D.C., and there's a phone number listed, too. Let's give him a call."
Frank picked up the phone on Forrester's desk and punched in the number. After two rings there was a faint click on the line and a heavily accented voice said, "Hello. This is Nikolai Stavrogin. I am not here now. I have gone fishing. If you have urgent business, leave a message with my assistant, Denise Wallner, in the Georgetown University physics department." The message gave the telephone number, which Frank quickly jotted down.
"He's on vacation," Frank said, and hung up the phone. "Let's see if the computer can tell us where he went." His fingers moved across the keyboard. "Here it is. He flew to Anchorage, Alaska, and caught a connecting flight to Fairbanks."
"Any address or phone number in Fairbanks?" Joe asked hopefully.
Frank shook his head. "I can't find one, but maybe I'm not looking in the right place." He tapped a few more keys.
Just then the office door flew open and was smashed against the wall. Frank raised his head and sucked in his breath at the sight of two deadly gun barrels aimed at them.
Joe grabbed Gina and dragged her down behind the desk. The guys holding the guns looked like cops, but Joe wasn't taking any chances. They might be Assassins dressed in phony police uniforms.
Frank's mind was racing, too, as he pushed his chair away from the desk and dived to the floor. He knew the desk wouldn't protect them for long - a bullet from a powerful handgun would punch through the wood without even slowing down. They had only a few seconds to plan their next move, and Frank frantically tried to think of what it should be.
"Freeze!" a harsh voice barked. "Police!"
Frank cautiously peered out from behind the desk and saw two pairs of legs clad in the black uniform pants of the Atlanta police. "Don't shoot!" he called out. "We're not armed!"
"Come out with your hands up!" a voice ordered. Frank didn't like the sound of the voice. It was full of nervous tension. Nervous people made mistakes, and Frank definitely did not want to be on the receiving end of any mistake involving weapons that put large holes in people.
"Okay," Frank said, slowly raising his hands above the desk and waving them in the air. "See? I'm not holding anything. I'm going to stand up now."
One at a time Frank, Joe, and Gina came out from behind the desk, holding their hands in the air.
"This is all a misunderstanding," Joe said as one of the officers whirled him around and cuffed his hands behind his back. "There's a simple explanation."
"I'm eager to hear it," a familiar voice replied.
Joe saw Michael Eddings, president and founder of Eddings Air, the man who had hired the Hardys to uncover the luggage theft operation.
Eddings kept the Hardys and Gina waiting outside his private office for over half an hour before his secretary told them they could go in. As they walked into the office, Eddings murmured something into the telephone, put down the receiver, and leveled an even gaze at the Hardys.