"Not yet, sir, but they'll be leaving at any moment.''
"Good work, Alphonse." Fenton Hardy put on his hat. "It's your friends from next door. They've been having breakfast in the dining room and I asked Alphonse to watch them while I came up here."
"Binder and Lemuel?" said Joe.
His father nodded.
"I don't want to lose sight of them this morning if I can help it. No need for you chaps to hang around here any longer. You go home now if you like. I've paid the hotel bill at the desk," he added, vanishing hurriedly on the heels of Alphonse.
The Hardy boys felt a little ashamed of themselves when they realized that had it not been for the alertness of their more experienced father, Kip Sinder and Spotty Lemuel could have given them the slip easily. However, there was more work ahead if they hoped to help the unhappy Chet out of the jam he
Chet in Trouble 57
was in, so they lost no time in making themselves presentable. A phone call to the valet service brought a bellhop to the room with their clothes, and soon they were ready to leave.
"I guess we had better go home first," Joe decided. "Mother may be worrying."
Mrs. Hardy, they discovered when they reached their house, was not worrying about them, but their peppery Aunt Gertrude was in a state of great anxiety. That lady had been trying her best to convince Mrs. Hardy that the boys had certainly come to grief during the night and that their lifeless bodies would be delivered to the front entrance by one of the Bayport morticians at some hour during the morning. It was difficult to tell whether she was relieved or disappointed when they appeared in the dining room just in time for breakfast.
"What in the world has been going on?" demanded Aunt Gertrude. "This detective nonsense is bad enough, what with allowing lads of your age to stay out all night without getting other boys mixed up in it too. That telephone has been ringing since seven o'clock this morning."
"For us?" asked Frank, helping himself to ham and eggs.
They have been phoning here every ten minutes asking for you boys. I have questioned them, very politely and civilly, if there is anything wrong and whether there is anything I can do to help them. But no, not a word will they tell me. You'd think I was just being inquisitive, they've been so short with me."
The boys knew all about their aunt's consuming curiosity and had a pretty fair idea of the dozens of questions with which she must have plied the Mortons in her efforts to learn what was afoot.
" Whatever possessed you to stay at the hotel all night when you have a perfectly good bed at home?" she demanded.
"Fenton wanted them to help him on a case," explained Mrs. Hardy mildly.
"Case!" snorted Aunt Gertrude. "Had it anything to do with Chet Morton? Is he in trouble?"
The spinster had a way of guessing uncomfortably close to the mark at times. The boys were saved from making explanations by the telephone. Frank answered the call.
Chet Morton's father was on the line. "Frank," he said, "can you tell me anything about this terrible mix-up? Chet was with you fellows last night, wasn't he?"
"Of course. It's all a bad mistake. Joe and I just got in. We're coming right up."
Chet in Trouble 59
"That's fine, Frank. Mrs. Morton and I are worried and we'd like to know what's behind all this. We know Chet is innocent, of course, but we can't understand how he came to be mixed up in the affair at all."
"We'll be right over."
When Frank turned away from the telephone Aunt Gertrude said:
"Who was that? Mr. Morton?"
"Correct the first tune, Aunt Gertrude."
"What does he want?"
"Oh, he just wants to have a little chat with us," returned Frank airily. "Hurry up, Joe."
"You'll get indigestion if you bolt your food," observed their aunt with a sniff, as the boys hurried through the remainder of their breakfast.
When Frank and Joe drove up to the Morton farmhouse on the outskirts of Bayport that morning they found the boy's parents in a state of great distress and anxiety over their son's plight. The police had called for Chet early that morning, had made him get out of bed, dress and go with them to the station for questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Morton had been granted very little information.
"We know our son was at the movies with you boys last night for he told us so. He came in late, but-well, Chet didn't have anything
60 A Figure in Hiding
to do with any robbery!" declared Mr. Morton.
"That sure goes without saying," laughed Frank.
The boys gave Chet's parents a fairly complete account of the events of the preceding evening although they did not relate their own adventures encountered in the Bayport Hotel.
"It's a case of mistaken identity, I'm sure," Joe said. "Perhaps the fellow who really hit Cordoza actually looked like Chet."
"The trouble is that our boy really hasn't much of an alibi," Mrs. Morton pointed out. "After he left you he walked home alone. It's a half hour's hike and he didn't meet anyone. ''
"Chet shouldn't need an alibi. Everybody knows he wouldn't commit a robbery. I'm going to call up Chief Collig and see what he has to say about it."
Frank went to the telephone and called Bayport Police Headquarters. In a few moments he was talking to the man he wanted.
"What's the idea of holding Chet there, Chief1?" he asked. "He had no more to do with taking that money than we did."
"I don't think he took it, Frank," returned Collig, readily enough. "But when Cordoza gave us his name we had to question him. Chet is at home now."
Chet in Trouble 61
"Well, he started for home at any rate," said the Chief. "He told us his story and I didn't think there was any need of our keeping him here. He promised to be on hand if we decide to make any more inquiries."
"And you say he left for his own place?"
"About an hour ago. He wasn't wasting any time, either. Said he was late for breakfast."
"Thanks, Chief." Frank replaced the receiver. "That's strange," he mused. "Collig says Chet left for home an hour ago."
Joe sprang to the window and looked out. But there was no sign of their chum anywhere on the road from the town.
"I hope this isn't going to be another mystery," he said.
THE STOLEK OAB,
"I hope he isn't afraid to come home," said Mrs. Morton anxiously. "He knows that we believe him innocent."
"It isn't like Chet to do such a thing," Frank declared. "I should think he'd return as quickly as possible, so that you wouldn't be worrying about him. At least he might have telephoned."
"We'd better get busy and look for him," Joe said.
The boys were greatly upset by the news but not half as perturbed as were Chet's parents. Frank tried to allay their fears.
"Probably he went to find a lawyer. Or he may have gone looking for us," he said. "I shouldn't worry about it. If we find him we'll telephone to you right away."
The Hardys left the house and climbed into their roadster.
"I don't like the looks of this at all," Frank muttered, obviously worried. "If Chet
The Stolen Car 63
Morton left the police station an hour ago he should be here by this time."
"What could have happened to him?"
"I don't know. It seems to me that we became involved with more than one rogue when we got into that hold-up affair last night."
The Hardy boys drove back toward Bayport. They kept a careful look-out for Chet but the familiar figure of their fat chum was nowhere to be seen. They drove to the police station and there had a talk with Chief Collig, who refused to attach any importance to the failure of the Morton lad to return home directly.
"He said he was going straight to his house when he left here," announced Collig, "but that doesn't mean anything. Do you fellows always go directly home when you say you will?"
"We aren't carted off to the police station very often," grinned Joe.
"He'll show up," said Chief Collig comfortably. "Don't worry."
"But we are worrying," insisted Frank, as he and his brother went out to resume their search.
First they went home, but found that Chet had not called there. They saw Callie Shaw on the street. She had not seen the stout lad. They met Tony Prito, Phil Cohen and Biff
64 A Figure in Hiding
Hooper. Still no news of Chet. They patrolled the main streets of downtown Bayport and visited all Chet's favorite ice cream, candy and fruit stores. Their chum, who had more than an average fondness for food, had not been seen at any of these places.
"Perhaps he has reached home by now," Joe suggested.
Frank telephoned the Morton house from a convenient pay station.
"No, he isn't here yet," declared Chet's father. "Do you mean to say you haven't found any trace of him?"
"Hasn't he called up?" asked Frank.
"No. Have you tried the hospitals? Maybe he got knocked down by a hit-and-run driver.'' Mr. Morton's voice was trembling with anxiety now.
Frank and Joe called up Bayport General Hospital, where Chet was well known to the staff. The boys hardly knew whether they were relieved or sorry when they learned that Chet had not been brought in as an accident victim.
"Do you think he could have gone up to the Willow Eiver bridge?" Frank suggested.
"Why in the world would Chet go there?" demanded Joe.
"That's where we found Cordoza, isn't it? That's where Cordoza is supposed to have
The Stolen Car 65
been beaten and robbed. Perhaps Chet thought he might do a little detective work on his own and hunt for evidence to clear himself."
"That's a real thought!" Joe declared admiringly. "It wouldn't have occurred to me in a dozen years."
"It's a gift," returned his brother with mock modesty.
"Well, shall we drive out to the bridge? It's worth trying."
"Let's take the boat."
Joe needed no further urging. The most prized possession of the Hardy boys was their high-speed motorboat, The Sleuth, which they had purchased with the reward money they had received for solving one of their first big mysteries. If it was to be a choice between going to the Willow River bridge by car or by motorboat the Sleuth would win the verdict hands down. It would be an easy run on Barmet Bay from their boat-house to the mouth of the river and thence upstream to the bridge.
The boys drove their car past their own home to the boat-house at the foot of High Street and there unlocked the door. In a few minutes the trim, smoothly-running motorboat was purring gently as it nosed its way among the craft in the harbor.
66 A Figure in Hiding
Wlien they were in open water Joe put on full speed, and the Sleuth slid swiftly forward, the purr of the engine changing to a roar as the powerful boat raced down the bay. It drummed through the water and made a speedy run to the river-mouth. The boys noticed that it was low tide.
"Maybe we'll be able to get Virginia's car out of the river," Frank remarked. "It should be high and dry now."
"We'll see what we can do about it when we get there."
The Willow was a pleasant stream with high banks and bluffs thickly overgrown with the trees that gave the river its name. At low water, however, it was not so inviting nor as easy to navigate as at other times. Joe, at the wheel of the Sleuth, had to run the boat at slow speed and watch the channel carefully.
Eventually the boys rounded a bend and came in sight of the bridge that had been the scene of their adventure the previous night. The small coupe that Virginia Binder had driven so recklessly over the river bank lay in the mud by the water's edge.
"Don't see any signs of Chet," remarked Joe.
The bridge was deserted. There was no one near the nlace where Nick Cordoza's car had "been driven into the ditch the night before.
1'he Stolen Car 67
The boys ran the Sleuth up beside a pier and flung a rope around one of the timbers. Then they went ashore.
If Chet had been at the Willow Eiver bridge that morning he had left no indications of his visit. Frank and Joe hunted around, paying special attention to the place where they had found Nick Cordoza's car, but could see nothing in the way of a clue that might help them solve either the mystery of the Morton boy's disappearance or the puzzle of the stolen theatre funds.
"Guess we better give up," said Joe. "I'd like to try moving Virginia's car before we go."
They found that the coupe was not badly damaged. The water and the soft mud of the river bottom had broken the force of its crash. Beyond a bent mudguard and fender they could see little wrong with the car.
The boys had a good supply of tools in their motorboat, including a coil of stout rope and some hooks and pulleys. After considerable figuring on the basis of what they had learned at school about the law of physics they rigged up a pulley arrangement to a telephone post
68 A Figure in Hiding
by the roadside. Then, with a hook attached to the car and another to the rear of the Sleuth, they began the task of hauling the coupe up onto higher ground.
Joe worked in the motorboat while Frank supervised operations on land. When the hook-up was considered satisfactory Joe threw in the clutch of the Sleuth. The engine roared, then slowly the boat edged its way out into the river.
The pulleys creaked, the ropes moved, and finally the car lurched over on its four wheels. It rolled slowly backward through the mud, and at last was dragged up the bank.
There was a cheer from Joe when he saw that the salvage feat had been a success. "Smart pair of engineers, us!" he shouted.
Frank unhooked the rope. "Let's see how smart we are as car-cleaners," he suggested.
They took down the rigging and inspected the coupe. The upholstery was badly water-soaked, of course, and the car was smeared with mud, but the damage was for the most part superficial. Joe liked nothing better than a mechanical problem of this kind. Soon he had the hood up and was tinkering with the engine, while Frank got busy with a rag from the Sleuth and a pail of water from the river and washed the mud off the body of the automobile.
The Stolen Car 69
It took some time before the car was drained and dried. Once having set themselves to the task they were determined that the car should be in running order before they were finished. Fortunately it was a hot, sunny morning. Nature helped with the drying-out process. Finally, with the car scrubbed until it shone, Joe slipped in behind the steering wheel and pressed his foot on the starter.
At first there was no response. The boy tried again and again. Finally, deciding water had become mixed with the gas, he emptied the tank, and refilled it with some from an extra supply in the Sleuth. The engine showed signs of returning life. Another attempt, and the motor began to throb. Joe released the clutch and backed the car slowly over to the road.
"Success!" cried Frank.
"I don't know why we should be doing this when we ought to be looking for Chet," said Joe, "but maybe Virginia will appreciate it when she comes back for her car."
"We can't leave it here," Frank pointed out. "Someone will steal it. We had better drive it to that address we found in the girl's purse. I'll take the Sleuth back to the boat-house. You drive the coupe around and pick me up there."
"O.K." Joe jumped out. "We had better
70 A Figure in Hiding
put these tools back in the boat before we forget them," he added.
They gathered up the rope, hooks, pulleys, and all the paraphernalia they had used on the salvage job. After a few trips they had them all back to the Sleuth and were stowing them neatly away when they heard a sound.
"What's that?" Joe looked up.
"Just another car coming."
Joe uttered a howl. He had spied a figure seated behind the wheel of Virginia Sinder's coupe. The engine was roaring. At the same instant the car backed up and turned.
"Hey! Stop!" yelled Joe.
The boyish form at the wheel did not obey. The car lurched ahead and shot down the road.
The Hardys leaped out of the Sleuth and ran up on the bank. They were too late to do anything. Already the coupe was disappearing around a bend.
THE MEETING PLACE
"Or all the dirty tricks!" stormed Joe. "Who was it? Did you get a good look at himT He must have been watching us all the time we were fixing up the car."
"I just caught a glimpse of him. He wasn't a man, though. Just a boy."
"I've a hunch it was a girl wearing boy'B clothes," said Joe. "Maybe Virginia herself."
"Why should she steal her own car?"
"Maybe she came back here to find out if the coupe was badly damaged. Then, when she saw us taking it out of the river, she decided to wait. When she got her chance she jumped into the car and drove off."
"She might have stopped long enough to thank us," grunted Frank.
"Maybe she didn't want to talk to us. Afraid we'd ask a lot of questions she wouldn't care to answer."
"There may be something in that," agreed 71
72 A Figure in Hiding
Prank, "though I think you're on the wrong track. Perhaps the person was Chet."
"Sure. You know what a hand he is for playing practical jokes. He may have been out here at the bridge after all, and when he saw us working so hard he couldn't resist the temptation to make us look foolish."
"Perhaps," said Joe dubiously. "Somehow I think it was not Chet, though. I believe Virginia took her own car."
"What was that address you found in her purse?"
"I wrote it down somewhere." The boy searched through his pockets and produced an old envelope on the back of which he had scribbled Virginia Binder's address. "Care of Mrs. Baker, Brockton," it read.
"Brockton. Why, that's the little village up the river, about three miles from here. Perhaps that was where Virginia was going in the car last night. Maybe she didn't run the coupe into the river on purpose at all."
"What do you say to our going up there? Maybe we'll find her and the car too," Joe suggested.
"There are a lot of questions I'd like to ask that girl," mused Frank. "Let's go. It won't take long."