CHET MORTON’S jalopy was such a brilliant yellow that the boys were confident it would not be difficult to pick up the trail of the auto thief.
“The Queen’s pretty well known around Bay-port,” Frank remarked. “We should meet someone who saw it.”
“Seems strange to me,” said Joe, “that a thief would take a car like that. Auto thieves usually take cars of a standard make and color. They’re easier to get rid of.”
“It’s possible,” Frank suggested, “that the thief didn’t steal the car to sell it. Maybe, for some reason, he was making a fast getaway and he’ll abandon it.”
“Look!” Chet exclaimed, pointing to a truck garden where several men were hoeing cabbage plants. “Maybe they saw the Queen.”
“I’ll ask them,” Frank offered, and brought his motorcycle to a stop.
He scrambled over the fence and jumped across the rows of small plants until he reached the first farm hand.
“Did you see a yellow jalopy go by here within the past hour?” Frank asked him.
The lanky old farmer leaned on his hoe and put a hand to one ear. “Eh?” he shouted.
“Did you see a fellow pass along here in a bright yellow car?” Frank repeated in a louder tone.
The farmer called to his companions. As they ambled over, the old man removed a plug of tobacco from the pocket of his overalls and took a hearty chew.
“Lad here wants to know if we saw a jalopy come by,” he said slowly.
The other three farm hands, all rather elderly men, did not answer at once. Instead, they laid down their hoes and the plug of tobacco was duly passed around the group.
Frank grit his teeth. “Please hurry up and answer. The car was stolen. We’re trying to find the thief!”
“That so?” said one of the men. “A hot rod, eh?”
“Yes. A bright yellow one,” Frank replied.
Another of the workers removed his hat and mopped his brow. “Seems to me,” he drawled, “I did see a car come by here a while ago.”
“A yellow car?”
“No-‘twarn’t yeller, come to think of it. I guess, anyhow, it was a delivery truck, if I remember rightly.”
Frank strove to conceal his impatience. “Please, did any of you-?”
“Was it a brand-new car, real shiny?” asked the fourth member of the group.
“No, it was an old car, but it was painted bright yellow,” Frank explained.
“My nephew had one of them things,” the farmer remarked. “Never thought they was safe, myself.”
“I don’t agree with you,” still another man spoke up. “All boys like cars and you might as well let ‘em have one they can work on themselves.”
“You’re all wrong!” the deaf man interrupted. “Let the boys work on the farm truck. That way they won’t get into mischief!” He gave a cackling sort of laugh. “Well, son, I guess we ain’t been much help to you. Hope you find the critter that stole your hot rod.”
“Thanks,” said Frank, and joined the other boys. “No luck. Let’s go!”
As they approached Bayport, the trio saw a girl walking along the road ahead of them. When the cyclists drew nearer, Frank’s face lighted up, for he had recognized Callie Shaw, who was in his class at Bayport High. Frank often dated Callie and liked her better than any girl he knew.
The boys brought their motorcycles to a stop beside pretty, brown-eyed Callie. Under one arm she was carrying a slightly battered package. She looked vexed.
“Hi, Callie! What’s the matter?” Frank asked. “You look as if your last friend had gone off in a moon rocket.”
Callie gave a mischievous smile. “How could I think that with you three friends showing up? Or are you about to take off?” Then her smile faded and she held out the damaged package. “Look at that!” she exclaimed. “It’s your fault, Chet Morton!”
The stout boy gulped. “M-my fault? How do you figure that?”
“Well, dear old Mrs. Wills down the road is ill, so I baked her a cake.”
“Lucky Mrs. Wills,” Joe broke in. “Callie, I’m feeling terribly ill.”
Callie ignored him. “That man in the car came along here so fast that I jumped to the side of the road and dropped my package. I’m afraid my cake is ruined!”
“What man?” Joe asked.
“The one Chet lent his car to.”
“Callie, that’s the man we’re looking for!” Frank exclaimed. “Chet didn’t lend him the car. He stole it!”
“Oh!” said Callie, shocked. “Chet, that’s a shame.”
“Was he heading for Bayport?” Joe asked.
“Yes, and at the speed he was making the poor Queen travel, you’ll never catch him.”
Chet groaned. “I just remembered that the gas gauge wasn’t working. I guess the car had more gas in it than I thought. No telling where that guy may take my Queen.”
“We’d better go to police headquarters,” Frank suggested. “Callie, will you describe this man?”
“All I saw,” she answered, “was a blur, but the man did have red hair.”
“Red hair!” Frank fairly shouted. “Joe, do you think he could be the same man we saw? The one who wrecked his own car?”
Joe wagged his head. “Miracles do happen. Maybe he wasn’t hurt very much and walked to Chet’s house.”
“And helped himself to my car!” Chet added.
Frank snapped his fingers. “Say! Maybe the wrecked car didn’t belong to that fellow-“
“You mean he’d stolen it, too!” Joe interrupted.
“Yes-which would make him even more desperate to get away.”
“Whatever are you boys talking about?” Callie asked.
“I’ll phone you tonight and tell you,” Frank promised. “Got to dash now.”
The boys waved good-by to Callie and hurried into town. They went at once to Chief Ezra Collig, head of the Bayport police force. He was a tall, husky man, well known to Fenton Hardy and his two sons. The chief had often turned to the private detective for help in solving particularly difficult cases.
When the boys went into his office they found the police chief talking with three excited men. One of these was Ike Harrity, the old ticket seller at the city ferryboat office. Another was Policeman Con Riley. The third was Oscar Smuff, a short, stout man. He was invariably seen wearing a checkered suit and a soft felt hat. He called himself a private detective and was working hard to earn a place on the Bayport police force.
“Smuff’s playing up to Collig again,” Joe whispered, chuckling, as the boys waited for the chief to speak to them.
Ike Harrity was frankly frightened. He was a timid man, who had perched on a high stool behind the ticket window at the ferryboat office day in and day out for a good many years.
“I was just countin’ up the mornin’s receipts,” he was saying in a high-pitched, excited voice, “when in comes this fellow and sticks a revolver in front of my nose.”
“Just a minute,” interrupted Chief Collig, turning to the newcomers. “What can I do for you boys?”
“I came to report a theft,” Chet spoke up. “My hot rod has been stolen.”
“Why, it was one of those crazy hot rods this fellow drove!” Ike Harrity cried out. “A yellow one!”
“Ha!” exclaimed Oscar Smuff. “A clue!” He immediately pulled a pencil and notebook from his pocket.
“My Queen!” shouted Chet.
Chief Collig rapped on his desk for quiet and asked, “What’s a queen got to do with all this?”
Chet explained, then the chief related Harrity’s story for him.
“A man drove up to the ferryboat office and tried to hold up Mr. Harrity. But a passenger came into the office and the fellow ran away.”
As the officer paused, Frank gave Chief Collig a brief account of the wrecked blue sedan near the Morton farm.
“I’ll send some men out there right now.” The chief pressed a buzzer and quickly relayed his orders.
“It certainly looks,” Joe commented, “as if the man who stole Chet’s car and the fellow who tried to hold up the ferryboat office are the same person!”
“Did you notice the color of the man’s hair?” Frank asked Mr. Harrity.
Smuff interrupted. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“It may have a great deal to do with it,” Frank replied. “What was the color of his hair, Mr. Harrity?”
“Dark brown and short cropped.”
Frank and Joe looked at each other, perplexed. “You’re sure it wasn’t red?” Joe asked.
Chief Collig sat forward in his chair. “What are you driving at, boys? Have you some information about this man?”
“We were told,” said Joe, “that the guy who stole Chet’s car had red hair. A friend of ours saw him.”
“Then he must have turned the jalopy over to someone else,” Chief Collig concluded.
At this moment a short, nervous little man was ushered into the room. He was the passenger who had gone into the ferryboat office at the time of the attempted holdup. Chief Collig had sent for him.
The newcomer introduced himself as Henry J. Brown of New York. He told of entering the office and seeing a man run away from the ticket window with a revolver in his hand.
“What color was his hair?” Frank asked eagerly. “Did you notice?”
“I can’t say I did,” the man replied. “My eyes were focused on that gun. Say, wait a minute! He had red hair. You couldn’t miss it! I noticed it after he jumped into the car.”
Oscar Smuff looked bewildered. “You say he had red hair.” The detective turned to Mr. Harrity. “And you say he had dark hair. Somethin’ wrong somewhere!” He shook his head in puzzlement.
The others were puzzled too. Frank asked Mr. Brown to tell once more just when he had noticed the red hair.
“After the fellow leaned down in the car and popped his head up again,” the New Yorker replied.
Frank and Joe exchanged glances. Was it possible the red hair was a wig and the thief had put it on just before Mr. Brown had noticed him? The boys kept still-they didn’t want any interference from Smuff in tracking down this clue.
Harrity and Brown began to argue over the color of the thief’s hair. Finally Chief Collig had to rap once more for order. “I’ll send out an alarm for both this holdup man and for Chet’s car. I guess that’s all that can be done now.”
Undaunted by their failure to catch the thief, the Hardy boys left police headquarters with Chet Morton. They were determined to pursue the case.
“We’ll talk with Dad tonight, Chet,” Frank promised. “Maybe he’ll give us some leads.”
“I sure hope so, fellows,” their friend replied as they climbed onto the motorcycles.
The same thought was running through Frank’s and Joe’s minds: maybe this mystery would turn out to be their first case!