JOE HARDY quickly led the way into the swampy area as the other boys trooped along, everyone talking at once. When they reached the spot, Chet examined the tire and exclaimed:
“There’s no mistake about it! This is one of the tires! When the thief put on the new one, he threw this away.”
“Perhaps the Queen is still around,” suggested Frank quickly. “The thief may have picked this road as a good place to hide your jalopy until he could make a getaway.”
“It would be an ideal place,” Chet agreed. “People coming to Willow Grove have to park at the gate, so nobody would come in here. But this old road comes in from the main highway. Let’s take a look, fellows.”
A scrutinizing search was begun along the abandoned road in the direction of the highway. A moment later Frank and Chet, in the lead, cried out simultaneously.
“Here’s a bypath! And here are tire marks!” Frank exclaimed. To one side was a narrow roadway, almost overgrown with weeds and low bushes. It led from the abandoned road into the depths of the woods.
Without hesitation Frank and Chet plunged into it. Presently the roadway widened out, then wound about a heavy clump of trees. It came to an end in a wide clearing.
In the clearing stood Chet Morton’s lost jalopy!
“My Queen!” he yelled in delight. “Her own license plates!”
His shout was heard by the rest of the boys, who came on a run. Chet’s joy was boundless. He examined the car with minute care, while his chums crowded around. At last he straightened up with a smile of satisfaction.
“She hasn’t been damaged a bit. All ready to run. The thief just hid the old bus in here and made a getaway. Come on, fellows, climb aboard. Free ride to the highway!”
Before leaving, the Hardys examined footprints left by the thief. “He wore sneakers,” Frank observed.
Suddenly Chet swung open the door and looked on the floor. “You mean he wore my sneakers. They’re gone.”
“And carried his own shoes,” Joe observed. “Very clever. Well, that washes out one clue. Can’t trace the man by his shoe prints.”
“Let’s go!” Chet urged.
He jumped into the car and in a few seconds the engine roared. There was barely sufficient room in the clearing to permit him to turn the jalopy about. When he swung around and headed up the bypath, the boys gave a cheer and hastened to clamber aboard.
Lurching and swaying, the car reached the abandoned road and from there made the run to the main highway. The boys transferred to Tony’s truck and the motorcycles, and formed a parade into Bayport, with Frank and Joe in the lead. It was their intention to ride up to police headquarters and announce their success to Chief Collig.
“And I hope Smuff will be around,” Chet gloated.
As the grinning riders came down Main Street, however, they noticed that no one paid any attention to them, and there seemed to be an unusual air of mystery in the town. People were standing in little groups, gesticulating and talking earnestly.
Presently the Hardys saw Oscar Smuff striding along with a portentous frown. Joe called out to him. “What’s going on, detective? You notice we found Chet’s car.”
“I’ve got something more important than stolen cars to worry- Hey, what’s that?” Detective Smuff stared blankly, as the full import of the discovery filtered his consciousness.
The boys waited for Smuff’s praise, but he did not give it. Instead, he said, “I got a big mystery to solve. The Tower Mansion has been robbed!”
“Good night!” the Hardys chorused.
Tower Mansion was one of the show places of Bayport. Few people in the city had ever been permitted to enter the place and the admiration which the palatial building excited was solely by reason of its exterior appearance. But the first thing a newcomer to Bayport usually asked was, “Who owns that house with the towers over on the hill?”
It was an immense, rambling stone structure overlooking the bay, and could be seen for miles, silhouetted against the sky line like an ancient feudal castle. The resemblance to a castle was heightened by the fact that from each of the far ends of the mansion arose a high tower.
One of these had been built when the mansion was erected by Major Applegate, an eccentric, retired old Army man who had made a fortune by lucky real-estate deals. Years ago there had been many parties and dances in the mansion.
But the Applegate family had become scattered until at last there remained in the old home only Hurd Applegate and his sister Adelia. They lived in the vast, lonely mansion at the present time.
Hurd Applegate was a man about sixty, tall, and stooped. His life seemed to be devoted now to the collection of rare stamps. But a few years before he had built a new tower on the mansion, a duplicate of the original one.
His sister Adelia was a maiden lady of uncertain years. Well-dressed women in Bayport were amused by her clothes. She dressed in clashing colors and unbecoming styles. Hurd and Adelia Applegate were reputed to be enormously wealthy, although they lived simply, kept only a few servants, and never had visitors.
“Tell us about the theft,” Joe begged Smuff.
But the detective waved his hand airily. “You’ll have to find out yourselves,” he retorted as he hurried off.
Frank and Joe called good-by to their friends and headed for home. As they arrived, the boys saw Hurd Applegate just leaving the house. The man tapped the steps with his cane as he came down them. When he heard the boys’ motorcycles he gave them a piercing glance.
“Good day!” he growled in a grudging manner and went on his way.
“He must have been asking Dad to take the case,” Frank said to his brother, as they pulled into the garage.
The boys rushed into the house, eager to find out more about the robbery. In the front hallway they met their father.
“We heard the Tower Mansion has been robbed,” said Joe.
Mr. Hardy nodded. “Yes. Mr. Applegate was just here to tell me about it. He wants me to handle the case.”
“How much was taken?”
Mr. Hardy smiled. “Well, I don’t suppose it will do any harm to tell you. The safe in the Applegate library was opened. The loss will be about forty thousand dollars, all in securities and jewels.”
“Whew!” exclaimed Frank. “What a haul! When did it happen?”
“Either last night or this morning. Mr. Apple-gate did not get up until after ten o’clock this morning and did not go into the library until nearly noon. It was then that he discovered the theft.”
“How was the safe opened?”
“By using the combination. It was opened either by someone who knew the set of numbers or else by a very clever thief who could detect the noise of the tumblers. I’m going up to the house in a few minutes. Mr. Applegate is to call for me.”
“I’d like to go along,” Joe said eagerly.
“So would I,” Frank declared.
Mr. Hardy looked at his sons and smiled. “Well, if you want to be detectives, I suppose it is about as good a chance as any to watch a crime investigation from the inside. If Mr. Applegate doesn’t object, you may come with me.”
A few minutes later a foreign-make, chauffeur-driven car drew up before the Hardy home. Mr.
Applegate was seated in the rear, his chin resting on his cane. The three Hardys went outside. When the detective mentioned the boys’ request, the man merely grunted assent and moved over. Frank and Joe stepped in after their father. The car headed toward Tower Mansion.
“I don’t really need a detective in this case!” Hurd Applegate snapped. “Don’t need one at all. It’s as clear as the nose on your face. I know who took the stuff. But I can’t prove it.”
“Whom do you suspect?” Fenton Hardy asked.
“Only one man in the world could have taken the jewels and securities. Robinson!”
“Yes. Henry Robinson-the caretaker. He’s the man.”
The Hardy boys looked at each other in consternation. Henry Robinson, the caretaker of the Tower Mansion, was the father of one of their closest chums! Perry Robinson, nicknamed “Slim,” was the son of the accused man!
That his father should be blamed for the robbery seemed absurd to the Hardy boys. They had met Mr. Robinson upon several occasions and he had appeared to be a good-natured, easygoing man with high principles.
“I don’t believe he’s guilty,” Frank whispered.
“Neither do I,” returned his brother.
“What makes you suspect Robinson?” Mr. Hardy asked Hurd Applegate.
“He’s the only person besides my sister and me who ever saw that safe opened and closed. He could have learned the combination if he’d kept his eyes and ears open, which I’m sure he did.”
“Is that your only reason for suspecting him?”
“No. This morning he paid off a nine-hundred-dollar note at the bank. And I know for a fact he didn’t have more than one hundred dollars to his name a few days ago. Now where did he raise nine hundred dollars so suddenly?”
“Perhaps he has a good explanation,” Mr. Hardy suggested.
“Oh, he’ll have an explanation all right!” sniffed Mr. Applegate. “But it will have to be a mighty good one to satisfy me.”
The automobile was now speeding up the wide driveway that led to Tower Mansion and within a few minutes stopped at the front entrance. Mr. Hardy and the two boys accompanied the eccentric man into the house.
“Nothing has been disturbed in the library since the discovery of the theft,” he said, leading the way there.
Mr. Hardy examined the open safe, then took a special magnifying glass from his pocket. With minute care he inspected the dial of the combination lock. Next he walked to each window and the door to examine them for fingerprints. He asked Mr. Applegate to hold his fingers up to a strong light and got a clear view of the whorls and lines
on the inside of the tips. At last he shook his head.
“A smooth job,” he observed. “The thief must have worn gloves. All the fingerprints in the room, Mr. Applegate, seem to be yours.”
“No use looking for fingerprints or any other evidence!” Mr. Applegate barked impatiently. “It was Robinson, I tell you.”
“Perhaps it would be a good idea for me to ask him a few questions,” Mr. Hardy advised.
Mr. Applegate rang for one of the servants and instructed him to tell the caretaker to come to the library at once. Mr. Hardy glanced at the boys and suggested they wait in the hallway.
“It might prove less embarrassing to Mr. Robinson that way,” he said in a low voice.
Frank and Joe readily withdrew. In the hall they met Mr. Robinson and his son Perry. The man was calm, but pale, and at the doorway he patted Slim on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything will be all right.” With that he entered the library.
Slim turned to his two friends. “It’s got to be!” he cried out. “My dad is innocent!”