Sleuth chugged slowly beneath the bridge and then roared into higher speed as it entered a broader reach of the river.
The journey did not take them very long. Brockton was a picturesque little place that extended for about half a mile along the river bank. The boys tied up the Sleuth at the village wharf and approached a sleepy-looking youngster who was fishing from one of the docks.
"Can you tell us where Mrs. Baker lives!" asked Frank.
"Right up at the top of the hill, the white building with the green shutters. She runs a boardin' house," replied the boy.
The lads easily discerned the white structure with the green shutters from where they stood. They thanked the youngster, who merely wriggled his bare toes, shifted himself into a more comfortable position, gave his fishing rod a twitch, and settled down again.
A pleasant-faced, middle-aged lady answered the door when the Hardy boys rang the bell at the Baker place.
"Does Miss Binder live here?" asked Frank politely.
"Virginia? She did live here, but you're about an hour too late."
"Virginia has gone away. She left this morning.''
"For good?" asked Joe.
'' She took her belongings. I think she never plans to come back to Brockton."
"Did she leave any forwarding address?"
Mrs. Baker shook her head. "No. I asked her where she was going but she said she couldn't tell me. She might write later on, though. No, I haven't any idea where she went."
"Did she drive away in a car?"
"No. She walked."
Mrs. Baker did not volunteer any further information about the girl and the Hardy boys did not want to arouse her curiosity by asking her too many questions. Sufficient it was for them to know that Virginia had vanished, as it were, without leaving a trace of any kind behind her.
The boys thanked the woman and turned to go down the walk. To their surprise, striding quickly toward them was Eip Sinder.
The boys were startled by this encounter but the man paid no attention to them. He brushed past, a scowl on his face, and hurried up the walk as the Hardys directed their steps toward the street.
"I wonder what he's doing here?" said Frank, puzzled.
The Meeting Place 75
"Maybe he came to look for Virginia. Perhaps he doesn't know she has left the boarding house."
Then it was that the boys had their second surprise. From around a corner there came a familiar figure-the boy who had accosted their father on the street the previous night, and who later had been talking with Fenton Hardy in the shadows of a shop opposite the Bayport Hotel after the theatre hold-up. The fellow was sauntering along in an aimless way, as if he hadn't a care in the world and was going nowhere in particular.
"Now what is he doing here? Following Sinder?" muttered Frank.
"Maybe it's more exciting than it looks," Frank remarked.
''That wouldn't have to be much," said Fred Ware with a yawn. "What do you think of the American League this season?"
"The Yankees ought to win the pennant in a walk."
Ware nodded. "That's what I think," he said. "And they'll go on and win the World Series, too, just you wait and see. No matter who wins the National League, the Yankees will lick 'em."
He continued to gossip about baseball for a while. Suddenly Rip Sinder came down the steps, hurried along the walk and dashed up the street. Fred Ware lounged away.
"So long," he drawled. "Maybe I'll see you again some time."
Thus he drifted away, apparently as aimless as ever, yet the Hardy boys noticed that when Eip Sinder turned to the left at the next corner, Fred Ware turned to the left too.
"He's shadowing Sinder, all right," Frank remarked. "I wonder if he is working for Dad."
Joe was a little put out by this idea.
"Why didn't Dad ask us to do it if he wanted anyone shadowed?"
"Maybe he couldn't find us."
Joe agreed that this might be the reason.
The Meeting Place 77
Both boys were quite convinced that Fred Ware was watching Sinder at the instigation of Fenton Hardy, and for a moment Joe was tempted to suggest that they trail along and follow Fred Ware also. However, he decided finally that their father might not appreciate any such interference on their part.
"I guess we better go back to Bayport," was his remark.
At that moment a colored girl came out of the Baker house. She glanced from side to side in an anxious manner, then hurried down the walk. She crossed the road and proceeded quickly along the street in the direction of the river.
"She seems nervous," remarked Frank. "Maybe we'll learn something if we shadow her instead of watching Fred Ware."
"It's worth trying," returned his brother.
The two boys kept the girl in sight. They surmised that she was employed as a maid in the Baker household, and suspected by her actions that this hurried journey was very likely the result of Sinder's visit to the house.
The girl went down a street that led to the outskirts of the village. The boys, following at a discreet distance, saw her leave the sidewalk and enter a path that led on through the shrubbery toward the river. They lost sight of her for a while as the trail turned and
78 A Figure in Hiding
twisted through, the trees. As they came cautiously around a heavy clump of bushes they saw her again-this time standing on the river bank. She kept glancing impatiently at her wrist-watch, as if she were waiting for someone who had failed to keep an appointment with her.
The Hardy boys stayed where they were, for they could watch the girl unobserved from their hiding place. They did not have long to wait for further developments. A motorboat came chugging slowly up the river, and for a moment they thought it might be the Sleuth. Had someone stolen their craft? When it appeared in full view they saw that it was a slow, cumbersome looking boat, vastly different from their own sleek launch. The craft nosed in toward the bank, and a man leaped out.
"Rip Sinder!" whispered Frank.
The man flung a rope around a nearby stump, tied up the launch, and then walked toward the colored girl.
"Where did Virginia go?" he asked her roughly.
"You-all promised you'd give me some money ef Ah told you, Mistah Sinder," the girl answered.
"Oh, all right," he said, and dug a hand into his pocket. "Here's ten dollars. Now talk."
"So!" growled the man. "You're not lying to me, are you?"
"No suh. Ah'm not tellin' you no lie," she assured him.
Sinder turned away from her and walked to the boat. He untied the rope, leaped into the craft, and pushed off from the bank. After he had tinkered with the engine a few moments it burst into a roar. The man sat down at the wheel and headed the boat up the river.
"Come on!" said Joe to his brother. "We'll go back and get the Sleuth and follow him. We haven't any time to lose."
The colored girl, in the meantime, had thrust the ten-dollar bill into her purse and fled down another path that led away from the clearing.
"I'm ready," said Frank. "Let's make it snappy.''
The boys turned to leave. As they did so, each of them received a resounding slap on the back which made them yelp with surprise!
"Instead of standing here talking," Mr. Hardy remarked, "we had better be on our way before Sinder gets too far up the river. Did I hear you say you came to Brockton in your boat?"
"It's tied up at the town wharf," replied Joe. '' Come on, Dad.''
The Hardys lost no time reaching the Sleuth. Very soon they were speeding up the river past the place where they had watched Binder's meeting with the colored maid from the boarding house. From then on they watched the shores closely for the man's boat.
The three saw it finally, about two miles upstream, chugging steadily ahead. Joe cut down the Sleuth's speed and followed at a respectful distance for another half mile or so until Sinder could be seen heading his craft in toward the river bank at a place where a small farm lay beside the stream.
Fortunately a bend in the river protected them from view, and Joe was able to run the craft up without being seen. He headed the boat into a sheltered cove among the trees that overhung the water's edge, and all got out.
Fenton Hardy led the way as they scrambled up the bank and took a trail leading through thick shrubbery to the farm clearing. They reached a fence and hid among a clump of bushes just in time to see Sinder walk across
82 A Figure in Hiding
the field and speak to a boy who was weeding a potato patch.
"Where is Virginia?" the man asked.
The lad straightened up and stared at his interrogator blankly.
"Virginia," said the man impatiently. "Virginia Sinder. She came here, didn't she? Where is she now? I want to talk to her."
At that moment a door of the farmhouse opened and a woman came out.
"What do you want?" she demanded shrilly.
"I want to talk to Virginia Sinder. She came here this morning."
"You get out of here!" snapped the housewife. "I don't know anything about any Virginias. There's no girl at this place."
"But I understand she came here just a short while ago."
'' She did nothing of the sort. I never heard of the girl in my life. She ain't here. Now you clear out of this place or I'll set the dog on you."
Sinder was plainly nonplussed. "I'm sure she's here!" he declared.
"And I'm sure she's not," retorted the woman. "What's more, I don't like the looks of you. You're up to no good and I'll thank you to take yourself away from my farm. Now get out!"
The Eye Syndicate 83
Muttering to himself, Binder retreated. A vicious-looking dog chained to a corner of the house began creating a tremendous racket, barking furiously as he strained at his leash in his effort to get at the intruder.
Sinder had no choice but to return to his boat. Before he cast off, however, he shook his fist at the angry woman.
"You're lying!" he shouted. "That girl is here and I know it. You're hiding her."
"I'm not lying about this dog," the woman shouted back at him. '' He '11 tear you to pieces if I let him loose. So you'd better get goin'."
Sinder apparently took this warning to heart, for he started the motor of his boat which drew away from shore and swung around in midstream, heading back in the direction of Brockton.
"I wonder what he'll do now?" mused Frank.
"That's just what we're going to find out," his father replied. "It ought to be easy enough to keep sight of him."
The three Hardys headed down the trail to the cove, being careful to keep themselves well hidden until Sinder should go by. Then they got into the Sleuth and resumed their pursuit of the man.
Sinder, however, evidently had decided to give up the search for the time being because
84 A Figure in Hiding
he did not stop at Brockton again. Instead, he proceeded downstream toward Barmet Bay and from there on in the direction of Bayport.
Frank and Joe had long since learned that it was unwise to question their father about any case on which he might be working. If he deemed it wise to give them any information he would do so in his own good time. They were very curious about the Sinder affair, however, and were consumed with eagerness to ply him with questions. Their curiosity was somewhat appeased when their father began to talk.
''How does it happen that you are trailing Sinder?" Fenton Hardy asked his sons.
"We were looking for Virginia," Frank explained.
The boys then told of the search for Chet that morning, and explained how they had happened to hunt for the Sinder girl instead.
"Were you seeking Virginia, Dad?" asked Joe.
"No," replied Mr. Hardy, "as a matter of fact, I was shadowing only her father. I had no idea where he was going, nor why. He and this fellow Lemuel are a pair of rascals. I suppose you wonder why I asked you to watch them at the hotel last night."
"We've been trying to figure out what they're up to," Joe admitted.
The Eye Syndicate 85
'' They are operating a very cruel and heartless racket which I call the 'Eye Syndicate.' When I get the evidence I need I'm going to see that their activities are stopped."
"What do they do?" Frank asked, interested at once.
"They hunt up people who are suffering from eye troubles. To some they write, while others they contact personally. They promise a cure, no matter how bad the case may be. As a matter of fact, I understand they even promise to effect cures in people who are totally blind-all for a handsome sum of money, of course."
"And isn't there anything to their method of healing?" asked Joe.
"Of course not. Binder and Lemuel are merely the scouts who hunt up patients. The real head of the syndicate is a crook who calls himself Doctor Grafton. He is a distinguished looking gentleman but a heartless fellow. The patients interview him, whereupon he performs some sort of hocus-pocus with a promise to cure them. When the money has been collected he either moves to a new locality or else denies that he ever did promise a cure."
"So that's why Sinder and Lemuel were writing all those letters last night!" Frank exclaimed.
"Yes. They secure lists of persons with eye
86 A Figure in Hiding
trouble and write to them, asking them if they would be interested in Doctor Graf ton's great new cure. If any poor victim is foolish enough or desperate enough to reply, the inquiry is followed up, and before long the self-styled physician has another patient."
Fenton Hardy removed a crumpled envelope from his pocket. "The chambermaid who cleaned up the hotel room after Sinder and Lemuel went out this morning found this in the wastebasket," he continued, unfolding the paper, upon which was written a name and address.
"Mr. Henry Zatta, 42 Pine Street, Bayport," read Joe. "Who is Mr. Zatta?"
"I don't know," returned his father, "but I intend to find out. It looks like a very good lead. I'm pretty sure it is the name of one of the Eye Syndicate's prospective victims. You'll notice that the ink has been smeared. Sinder and Lemuel must have thrown the envelope into the wastebasket because of the blot and addressed another one in its stead. If this Mr. Zatta will cooperate with me I think I can get evidence against Graf ton and his gang."
"Wish you could tell us now."
The Sleuth was slowly approaching the boat-house. Sinder had reached shore, but
The Eye Syndicate 87
Fenton Hardy said there would be no purpose in following the man farther, now that he knew the reason for the crook's visit to Brockton.
"We'll go and look up Mr. Zatta," the detective decided.
A STRANGE MESSAGE
henby Zatta's dwelling on Pine Street was a humble frame building in considerable need of repair. The owner was a feeble, white-haired old man who wore dark spectacles.
"Why yes," he admitted, when Fenton Hardy asked him if he had received a letter inquiring if he might be interested in a cure for his failing sight. "I got a letter this morning. Here it is."
"Do you intend to answer it?"
"I certainly do," declared the old man. "It must be a wonderful cure, just what I've been looking for because I've had a lot of trouble with my eyes in the past few years. I'm half-blind now and I'm afraid of losing my sight entirely. If this Doctor Grafton can do all this letter says he can, I don't care how much it costs me."
"I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, Mr. Zatta," said the detective gently, "but you must be prepared for a shock. I have every reason to believe that Doctor Grafton cannot
A Strange Message 89
effect a cure. In short, my contention is that he is nothing but a swindler who makes money victimizing unfortunate people like yourself."
"Then there is no cure for me!" exclaimed the old man, appalled.
'' Something might be done for you if a good doctor should take up your case; I can't say for sure," returned Mr. Hardy. "But I know you cannot expect a cure from Doctor Grafton. All he wants is your money, without helping you."
"Then I won't answer the letter and I'm grateful to you for warning me," was the reply.
"I'd like you to answer the letter, nevertheless," said Mr. Hardy.
"You won't lose a cent. I'm a detective," explained Mr. Hardy. "A medical association has asked me to bring Doctor Grafton and his gang to justice. That's why I'm here. I want you to answer the letter and ask the so-called specialist to call on you. If we can get him here and prove that his alleged cure is nothing but a fake I'll have enough evidence to take him into court."
"I see," said Mr. Zatta. "A man like that should be sent to prison, of course."
He readily agreed to write the letter. The one he had received that morning had stated
90 A Figure in Hiding
that Doctor Graf ton's fee would be five hundred dollars. Mr. Zatta said that this amount would consume every cent he had in the world; yet he had been fully prepared to pay such a sum if it would restore his eyesight to him.
"Offer him the money," instructed Mr. Hardy. "The entire sum. That should bring him."
Under the guidance of the boys' father the old man got out pen, ink, and paper. He promptly sat down to write a reply to the letter from the Eye Syndicate. When it was completed to the detective's satisfaction, Mr. Hardy took it, promising to drop it into the nearest mail-box.
"If we can trap those rascals," he said grimly, "it may be a means of preventing a lot of people from losing their hard-earned savings."
The next two days the Hardy boys heard nothing further from their father concerning the Eye Syndicate; nor did they make any progress with the mystery of Chet Morton's disappearance. There had been no word from their chum and not the slightest clue as to his whereabouts. The Bayport police had failed to find any trace of him, and Mr. and Mrs. Morton were almost frantic with anxiety.
At the Bayport High School the disappearance of Chet was the main topic of conver-
A Strange Message 91
sation. No one could be found who recalled having seen the boy after he had left the police station. Mr. Morton, who at first had held the opinion that his son had been kidnaped, gave up this idea when no demand for ransom arrived, and came to the more gloomy conclusion that Chet was dead-that he had either been drowned or struck by an automobile. He refused to believe that his son had run away because he feared disgrace on account of his arrest.
It was the third morning after the visit to old Mr. Zatta, as the Hardy boys were eating breakfast, when a messenger boy arrived with a telegram addressed to Frank. The lad tore open the envelope, glanced at the message, and uttered a whoop of joy.
"It's from Chet!" he shouted.
"From Chet!" cried Joe. "Then he's alive after all! Where is he? Let me see it."
He leaned over his brother's shoulder and read the message, which had been sent from the Pioneer Hotel in Boston.
"Still waiting here but have used up all the money stop When are you coming?
The Hardy boys stared at each other blankly.
92 A Figure in Hiding
"Used up all the money!" exclaimed Joe. "What money? What does he mean?"
"And he says he is still waiting, as if we know all about it."
"And he wants to find out when we're coming. How can we when we don't know where he is?"
The lads were completely mystified by Chet's strange message. Frank's first move was to dash for the phone and call the stout lad's home. In as few words as possible he told Mr. Morton about the telegram.
"At least we know your son is alive and well," said Frank in relief. "That's the main thing. I'll call him on a long distance wire at once and get to the bottom of this business."
"Call me back as soon as you hear from him," said Mr. Morton in excitement. "How in the world did he get to Boston? And why? And what prevented him from writing to us?"
"We'll soon find out," promised Frank.
It did not take very long to put through the call to Boston. The boys had a dreadful suspicion, for a while, that the message might be a hoax. It would be a terrible disappointment to them if they were to find Chet was not at the hotel after all. There was no hoax, however. Frank readily recognized his chum's voice on the wire.
'«Hello, Chet!" he exclaimed. '' What in the
A Strange Message 93
world are you doing in Boston? Why haven't you let anyone know where you've been staying? And what does your telegram mean?"
"You should know," said his friend in an aggrieved tone. "I've a few questions of my own. What was your idea in sending me here in the first place? Why didn't you get in touch with me? I've been hanging around here expecting to get word from you and now my money is gone and I'm in a fine jam."