THE MYSTERY OF THE TREASURE HUNT KILLER
The Hardy Boys © Simon and Schuster Inc.
THE MYSTERY OF THE TREASURE HUNT KILLER © Paul Kupperberg
THE MYSTERY OF THE TREASURE HUNT KILLER © Paul Kupperberg
Chapter one/ The Hunt
Frank Hardy knew he was in trouble.
He could hear footsteps pounding the ground behind him in the woods, slowly but definitely gaining ground. Unlike Frank, whoever was on his tail didn’t keep tripping and stumbling in the dark over every rock and branch on the trail. His pursuer either knew these woods way better than did Frank, or had a flashlight whose dying batteries weren’t dimming it to uselessness.
Either way, Frank realized the situation wasn’t good.
Granted, he had grown up playing in these woods outside of Bayport and knew them about as well as any kid in town. But in daylight. Or walking, not racing blindly ahead on a moonless October night.
Don’t forget the being chased part, Frank reminded himself, then caught his foot in an exposed tree root. He windmilled his arms wildly to stay upright, but he could tell gravity was going to win. He flew forward and, with a muffled shout, hit the ground. His slowly dying flashlight spun from his hands and tumbled through the air before bouncing off a tree and finally winking out.
The footsteps drew closer. Frank snarled at his own clumsiness, working too quickly to free his foot.
Not good, he thought, not good at all!
The bobbing beam of a flashlight bounced off the surrounding trees. The snap and crackle of breaking sticks and autumn dry foliage under his pursuer’s feet grew louder. But Frank’s foot was wedged tight in the forked root and there was no way he was ever going to get free in time.
He was just going to have to face what was coming and take it like a man!
“Oh, man, that looks like it’s gotta hurt!” Joe Hardy, Frank’s younger brother, came jogging from the darkness between trees, slowing at the sight of Frank caught in the beam of his flashlight. “You okay?”
Frank grinned sheepishly. “I’m fine. I’m not hurt or anything. It’s just jammed in there pretty tight. Can you give me a hand?”
“Sure thing,” Joe said with a smile. He picked up his pace and ran past his startled brother. “On the way back.”
“Hey!” The dark haired Hardy called after Joe. “What ever happened to playing fair?”
Joe’s voice came back to him through the darkness, “To quote the master, ‘All’s fair in love and scavenger hunts.’ Later, bro.”
“Oh, sure,” Frank hollered after him into the woods. “Throw my own words back at me, why don’t you?”
The sound of Joe’s laughter, growing fainter and farther away, was all Frank heard.
Of course, Joe was right. Ever since entering Bayport High, Frank Hardy had established himself as the reigning king of the annual October scavenger hunt. For three years running, Frank and his team had easily won Hunt Night, usually with a comfortable lead. But last year, Joe’s team had made a strong second place showing. The only reason Frank had won was because of his secret weapon: Mrs. Beverly Owens.
Frank bent to the task of freeing his trapped foot, smiling. He had to hand it to the Bayport High teachers, whose list of items for the hunt was always truly inventive. But, Joe, like his brother, was a detective. The locating of hidden or unusual items was right up his alley.
And so, judging from the direction Joe was headed, was discovering the identity of Frank’s secret weapon.
Frank had thought he was, as usual, being way clever in safeguarding his secret. Some of the other teams liked to put someone on Frank’s tail and try to second-guess his destination. Keeping in contact by cell phone, these spies would send their teammates on end runs around Frank, hoping to beat him to the next item on the list.
Losing them was easy, ducking out of the car when it stopped for a red light or doubling back on his pursuers. And, frankly, most of his classmates didn’t know the first thing about tailing a suspect. Frank, on the other hand, had experience shadowing real bad guys.
As had Joe.
Oh, well, Frank thought. At least if he wasn’t going to win the scavenger hunt, the victory would stay in the family.
Frank wiggled his foot. Win or lose, he didn’t intend to stay out here all night. It took a few minutes, but he was finally able to slide his foot from his sneaker, which gave him just enough clearance to pull himself free. He retrieved his sneaker and, hopping on one foot, tugged it back on.
He checked his watch. Joe didn’t have that big a lead on him. And, Mrs. Owens wasn’t necessarily going to hand his kid brother whatever he wanted, at least not right off the bat. After all, it was Frank who had been coming on Hunt Night to her old mansion with its incredible store of artifacts, props, and gadgets in its endless rooms and cavernous attic and basement on the far side of these woods. He also visited with her whenever he could during the rest of the year. She was a lonely old woman, long ago widowed and, for reasons she never revealed, abandoned by her family. But Mrs. Owens was always cheerful and full of interesting stories about Bayport in the “olden days,” as she liked to call them.
And she loved scavenger hunts, revealing with some pride that her team had won the Bayport High hunt in 1929. She took positively childish delight in being Frank’s “secret weapon” in his string of victories.
His secret weapon.
Frank smiled and, moving as fast as he safely could, resumed his trek through the dark forest.
“Sorry, Joe,” he said out loud. “You may get to her first tonight, but Mrs. Owens is mine!”
* * *
Frank was huffing and puffing by the time he reached the edge of the woods. Without benefit of adequate light, the trip had taken twice as long as it should and had gotten him whipped across the face by more branches than he could count.
Still, he reminded himself, no pain, no gain. Fortunately, he wouldn’t have to walk back the way he came. His teammates—having made the circuit of town to gather whatever they could from their share of the list—should even now be waiting on Old Warwick Road for his call to pick him up when he was finished at Mrs. Owens’ house.
What were those items he needed again? He ran through the list in his mind, it being too dark to read the photocopied inventory he carried in his pocket.
A portrait of a sailor. A dressmaker’s dummy. A polo mallet and helmet. A top hat. A spittoon. A stethoscope. A theater ticket stub. An example of taxidermy. And half a dozen other items Frank was certain he had seen during previous visits to Mrs. Owens’ house. He knew from past experience that there were plenty of surprises buried in the dusty corners of that old house. He would phone Callie Shaw as soon as he reached Mrs. Owens’ place and find out what was still needed.
But, first things first.
Joe was a good ten minutes ahead of him. Mrs. Owens might have just sent him—sweetly and politely, Frank was sure—on his way. On the other hand, Frank knew his brother was capable of turning on the charm and might, just might, have talked his way into the treasure trove of scavenger hunt items. Not that he believed Mrs. Owens would betray their friendship. But he knew better than to underestimate his brother.
Frank came through the last of the trees, at the rear of Mrs. Owens property. The old house, a rambling blend of 19th Century architectural styles, topped with turrets and lined with terraces, was about one hundred yards from the woods. Frank would have to go to his right, to the kitchen entrance where Mrs. Owens always waited for him on Hunt Night with hot cocoa and oatmeal raison cookies to re-energize him before he continued on his way.
But as soon as he started across the lawn, Frank knew something was wrong. Every light in the huge old house was on, and, from around front, came the sound of too many voices and the static crackle of radios.
And, more ominously, red lights splashed a slow, regular beat across the front of the house and the surrounding property.
The scavenger hunt forgotten, Frank raced to the house. As soon as he rounded the front, his worst fears were realized. Dr. Merlis’ familiar blue vintage Mustang was pulled neatly into the parking area just off the crushed stone circular driveway. Next to the Mustang was Con Riley’s police cruiser, it’s roof light flashing red and white, alternating with the flashing lights of the ambulance pulled to a stop directly before the front door to the house.
Frank slowed to a walk as he came up alongside his brother on the driveway.
“Joe? What happened?”
Joe turned. One look at his face told Frank the whole story, even before he said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “Mrs. Owens is dead.”