Authors: Franklin W. Dixon
Hardy Boys Casefiles - 76
Tagged for Terror
Franklin W. Dixon
(No. 1 in the Ring of Evil Trilogy.)
"THIS COULD BE one long summer," Joe Hardy muttered to himself as he stared out the airplane window and half listened to the man questioning his older brother, Frank.
"I don't suppose you two have a lot of experience solving real crimes. Not at your ages," the man said.
Frank Hardy sighed and ran his hand through his dark brown hair. He knew it was no use trying to convince Michael Eddings that he and his brother were experienced detectives. Frank understood how annoyed Eddings must feel at being forced to settle for Fenton Hardy's teenage sons instead of the great detective himself. Eddings's deep brown eyes were strained as he talked, and a scowl was etched on his face.
Joe glanced at Eddings and tried to control his anger. His father had met the man a few years earlier, when he had done some detective work for Eddings's company, Eddings Air. This time when Eddings needed a private investigator, he flew to Bayport and assumed he could hire Fenton on a moment's notice.
"I wish I'd never gotten suckered into this," Joe mumbled.
Eddings turned to frown at him. "What did you say?"
A warning look from Frank made Joe shake his head. "Just admiring the view," Joe said. As usual, Frank found himself in the middle, between his headstrong younger brother and the client. Joe, who usually came to life on a case, was grumpy because Eddings didn't have the proper respect for their abilities. He felt the man had ruined his summer vacation plans. As far as Frank knew, though, Joe's only "plans" had been to sleep late every day.
Eddings was unhappy because he hadn't been able to persuade Fenton Hardy to drop the case he was working on and turn his attention to the baggage theft problems that were plaguing Eddings Air. Reluctantly, Eddings had agreed to fly Frank and Joe down to the airline's base of operations, in Atlanta, Georgia — but only to research and check oul the baggage operations and security systems. Fenton Hardy would take over the "real" detective work as soon as he wrapped up his current case.
"Remember," Eddings told Frank in a lecturing tone, "at the first hint of danger, you're off the case."
"Crossing the street can be dangerous," Joe blurted out, his blue eyes flashing.
"I just don't want you two blundering into something you can't handle," Eddings retorted.
"We can take care of ourselves," Frank said calmly. "Just because we're still in high school doesn't mean we're impulsive and reckless." As he spoke, he shot a sidelong glance at his brother.
Joe squirmed a little in his seat and smiled behind his hand. Frank had called him both impulsive and reckless on many of the cases they had cracked. He glanced out the window at the city of Atlanta spread out far below. They had been circling for almost an hour because of heavy air traffic at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport.
Well, if we have to get stuck in traffic, Joe told himself, this is the crate to be stuck in. The flight was pure luxury. They were traveling on Eddings's private jet, which was outfitted with spacious reclining chairs and a sofa, all coVered in plush fabric - the distinctive blue of the company uniforms and logo.
Although there was room for at least twelve passengers, the only people on the plane were Joe, Frank, Eddings, and the pilot. Eddings, a certified pilot himself, was acting as copilot on the flight. He'd joined the Hardys in the passenger cabin only after the plane went into its holding pattern.
Eddings leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes. Sunlight poured in through the window, bleaching his chestnut skin. "I know we went over everything last night with your father," Eddings said, "but can we go through it one more time?"
Frank leaned forward. Joe nodded vaguely and focused out the window again.
"The thefts started large-scale about six months ago," Eddings began, closing his eyes. "The stolen luggage usually contains valuables like jewelry or cameras. Why we've been hit much harder than other airlines, we don't know. Nobody in the industry has reported losses like ours."
He paused and opened his eyes, looking past Frank to his daydreaming brother. "You can imagine the damage this has done to our reputation," he said loud enough to get Joe's attention. "One of the Atlanta television stations even did a report on our problem a few days ago."
"What kind of security setup do you have?" Frank asked.
"We'll go over the specifics of that later with Hank Forrester, my security chief. He's a top-notch man. He was supposed to come with me to Bayport to brief your father, but he got tied up at the last minute and couldn't make it." Eddings lowered his voice. "Nobody else at Eddings Air knows that we're bringing in an outside investigator."
"We should be getting clearance to land any minute now, Mr. Eddings," a deep voice called from the cockpit.
"About time, Solomon," Eddings yelled back. "I'll be right there."
Eddings got to his feet, straightened his tie, and patted his short-cropped black hair. "The thing I want you boys to remember is that you're here only to do the initial footwork for your father," he said. "Don't get any crazy ideas. I don't want either of you getting hurt. Do you understand?"
"Oh, yes," Frank replied. "We understand perfectly." He saw Joe roll his eyes.
"Boss!" the pilot called out again. "Another ten-minute delay!"
Eddings sighed, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and sat down again. "This is unbelievable. This plane can go four hundred miles an hour yet all we're doing is flying in circles!"
"I've done some flying myself," Frank said. "Could I take a look at the cockpit?"
Eddings sighed again. "Why not? We're not going anywhere for a while."
Frank and Joe followed Eddings to the cockpit. "Solomon," Eddings said as he slipped into the copilot's seat, "I'd like you to meet Frank and Joe Hardy. Their father is a friend of mine, so I'm giving the boys summer jobs to keep them out of their folks' hair."
The pilot glanced back and smiled. "Nice to meet you. I'm Solomon Mapes."
Frank noted that, like Joe, Mapes had blond hair. Unlike Joe, who let his wavy locks do pretty much whatever they wanted, Mapes kept his fair hair slicked down. He seemed to be in good shape, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. His unlined face told Frank that he was still in his twenties or worked very hard at looking young.
"Not too many new employees get to ride in Mr. Eddings's private jet," the pilot said, turning his attention back to the controls.
"I had business in Bayport," Eddings responded a little stiffly, and took his seat. "And, as I said, their father is a friend of mine. Anyway, don't mention this to anybody. Otherwise, everybody will want me to find jobs for their kids."
Mapes raised an eyebrow curiously. "Whatever you say, boss."
Eddings wasn't a very good liar, and Joe could tell that Mapes suspected something was up. The best thing to do, he decided, was change the subject. He nodded at the site below them. "I wouldn't mind paying a visit to the Atlanta Motor Speedway."
"Atlanta's a great town," the pilot said in a distracted tone, his attention on the instrument panel.
"A modern city with a colorful past," Eddings added. "And it looks even better close up. Isn't it about time we got permission to land?"
"We'll just have to be patient and wait our turn," Mapes responded. "Isn't that what you're always telling me?"
"Solomon's not the patient type," Eddings remarked. "He doesn't like waiting." Eddings glanced back over his shoulder at Frank and Joe. He's only been working for me as a pilot for a couple of years, and now he wants to head up the new freight division we're starting."
Frank guessed that Eddings probably admired Mapes's drive. His father told him that Eddings had grown up in a poor family in one of Atlanta's toughest neighborhoods. Now, of course, Eddings headed up his own prosperous airline.
A frown creased Mapes's brow. "The freight division was my idea in the first place."
Eddings chuckled. "And it's a good one, too. But this isn't the time or place to discuss it."
"You boys go back to your seats and buckle up," Eddings told the Hardys. "We should be landing soon."
The boys backed out of the cockpit and took two window seats facing each other in the main cabin.
"At least the delay's giving us a chance to get the lay of the land," Frank noted, pointing out the window at the airport below. "Two main terminals and five concourses that can handle fifty-five million passengers a year."
Joe yawned. "You sound like a brochure — a really boring one. Just like this case. Somebody's walking off with a few suitcases. Big deal."
Frank heard a faint whine and felt a rumble under his feet that told him the landing gear was coming down.
"You boys strapped in?" Eddings called out from the cockpit.
"Are we finally going to land?" Joe shouted back.
"Not just yet," Eddings replied. "But when we do, it might be a little rough."
Frank and Joe responded by jumping out of their seats and heading straight for the cockpit.
Frank took in the instrument panel in a single glance. It didn't take him long to figure out what was wrong. "You've got lights on for the rear landing gear but not the front. Is the nose wheel stuck?"
"Either it's not coming down or it isn't locking," Eddings said.
"Trouble either way," Joe responded.
Eddings nodded. He seemed cool enough, and so did Solomon. Frank knew good pilots were trained to keep their cool. He also knew how serious the situation really was. With a lot of luck, a skilled pilot could put a plane down safely without landing gear, but he wasn't eager to test the limits of Mapes's luck or skill.
Mapes pulled the lever for the nose wheel again and again, but the light on the instrument panel didn't blink on. At the same time, Eddings radioed their situation to the tower.
"Only one thing to do," Mapes said after one final pull on the lever. "We'll have to try to release it manually."
"Can we help?" Frank asked.
"As a matter of fact you can." Mapes pointed to the floor behind him. "There's a trapdoor under the carpet that goes below deck to a crawl space." He gestured to the side of the cockpit. "And there's a hand crank in the toolbox over there. It's a fairly simple operation, but it takes a lot of muscle."
"Sounds like my kind of job," Joe responded.
"You're hired," Eddings said.
Frank and Joe rolled back the carpet and lifted the trapdoor. Joe wriggled into the crawl space, clutching the manual crank in one hand and a small flashlight in the other.
Joe rubbed his hands on his shirt and took a tighter grip on the crank. "Here goes!" he shouted back to his brother.
He tugged on the crank. It didn't budge. He squirmed around in the cramped space, trying to get more leverage. He gave the crank another sharp tug and felt a slight movement. Another tug, and ice-cold air rushed in as the hatch started to open. Now the crank was moving easily. Light streamed in through the very small opening and the wheel swung down into place.
"That's it!" he yelled triumphantly when the wheel was all the way down and the crank wouldn't turn any farther.
Joe scooted out of the crawl space, and Frank hauled him back up through the trapdoor. They stood looking at the pilot.
There was a long pause. "Still no light," Mapes said grimly. "You guys better pray that the bulb is just burnt out, because we're so low on fuel we're running on fumes. I'm taking this baby down with or without working landing gear."
FRANK AND JOE strapped themselves into their seats as the plane began its descent. There was nothing left to do but wait.
Joe stared out the window. He could see fire trucks and ambulances racing along the runway. Joe held his breath, his fingers digging into the plush armrests of his seat.
Joe squeezed his eyes shut and felt a small jolt as the tires hit the pavement. Then a roar filled the plane as the pilot shifted the wing flaps to help slow the jet. Joe opened his eyes. That wasn't so bad, he thought.
"So far, so good," Frank said tersely. He knew the ride wasn't over yet. The plane was still rocketing down the runway at over a hundred miles an hour. If the nose wheel didn't hold ... Just then the world tilted at a crazy angle as the plane pitched downward. The agonized screech of grinding metal filled Frank's ears. His body strained against the seat belt. Everything that wasn't bolted down suddenly became a lethal flying object. A coffee mug whizzed past Frank's nose and smashed into the window, shattering into a thousand tiny shards and leaving one long crack in the thick glass.
The right wing hit the ground and sparks flew past the window as the plane started to spin around. Joe felt limp like a rag doll as he was jerked first one way then another. All he could do was grit his teeth and hang on.
He was still grinding his teeth together several seconds after the plane stopped moving. He was waiting for the next surprise. When nothing happened, he decided to start breathing again.