J.M.J.

A/N: Allow me to kick off the Christmas season with the first Christmas Hardy Boys story of the year! Thank you in advance for reading and possibly favoriting and/or reviewing! I really appreciate it. I know the ending of this story is pretty cliche, but I didn't want to end it any other way. After all, this story is just for fun. I hope you enjoy it!

Operation Santa Claus

Eight-year-old Frank Hardy held out the list to read from. His seven-year-old brother, Joe, and their friend, Chet Morton, were sitting in the snow in front of him, listening to the points he was making.

"So our question is, does Santa really exist?" Frank began.

"He does," Chet interrupted. "He leaves presents every year. Isn't that good enough evidence?"

"It's not bad," Frank admitted. "It's the best evidence in Santa Claus's favor, and I don't have any real evidence against him, but I do have a lot of questions. First off, Saint Nicholas was a bishop a long, long time ago. How did he get to live forever? How did he get to the North Pole? Why does he live at the North Pole? And also, if he's a bishop, Catholic bishops don't get married, so what's the deal with Mrs. Claus?"

"None of that means he's not real, Frank," Joe argued. He wanted as much to solve the mystery of Santa Claus as his brother did, but he was firmly convinced that Santa had to be real.

"Okay, then there's the second point," Frank went on. "The elves make all the toys and presents Santa gives away, right? Well, then, how can he give video games and stuff away? If the elves are making them, then they're pirating."

"Frank, no!" Joe said. "We're not going to bust Santa for pirating."

"It's not just the pirating, either." Frank frowned. "The North Pole isn't in the United States, so he'd also be smuggling."

Chet jumped to feet. "Frank, stop it! I can just see it now: 'Eight-year-old ruins Christmas by busting Santa for pirating, smuggling, and stealing milk and cookies.' Don't do it, Frank!"

"I didn't say anything about the milk and cookies," Frank said. "You leave those out for Santa, so it's fine if he takes them."

"I'll take the video games off my Christmas list," Chet pleaded. "Just don't get Santa arrested!"

"I thought we were just going to try to prove whether Santa was real or not," Joe added, "not that he's, like, a criminal mastermind or something."

"Yeah, well, you've still got to wonder about it, don't you?" Frank insisted.

"Well, what if we wrote to the video game companies," Joe suggested. "We could ask them if they gave Santa permission to copy their games. I bet they did. I mean, come on, we're talking about Santa Claus here."

"That's a good idea," Frank agreed. "If the companies gave him permission, he'd have to be real. But if he is real, that leaves one big question. How does he get in our house without setting off the burglar alarm?"

"That's easy," Chet said. "He comes down the chimney, and there's no burglar alarm in the chimney. Duh."

"That's what we're going to find out," Frank replied. "That's why we set up the ladder. Joe and I are going to climb up on the roof and see if it's possible to go down the chimney."

"Let's go!" Joe said, all enthusiasm for the plan. "Let Operation Santa Claus begin!

He began climbing the ladder up to the roof of the Hardys' two-story home. After he had gotten a few rungs up, Frank started to follow him.

Chet stood at the bottom, watching them with an uncertain expression. "Are you guys sure this is a good idea?"

"Sure, we're sure," Joe replied. "What could possibly happen?"

"Well, if it's such a good idea, why did you wait until your parents were gone to try it?" Chet asked.

"Oh, you know parents," Joe said. "They never let you do anything fun."

When Joe reached the roof, he found that it was a lot higher and a lot more slippery than he had expected. The snow slid off everywhere that he touched, leaving icy tin underneath.

"Careful," Frank warned him. "It's a long way down."

Joe nodded. He wasn't about to let either Frank or Chet know that he was a lot more scared than he had expected to be.

They had set the ladder up close to the chimney. It was only a short way to walk to it. It was right at the top of a ridge, and so the two boys were able to straddle that and gain a little bit better balance on the slippery roof. To their right was the backyard where they had climbed up from with the roof's steep slope and long drop, and to their left was the front yard and the street, which had a much shorter drop to the roof of the front porch.

"Boy, you can see the whole neighborhood from up here," Joe said, looking around him.

"That means the whole neighborhood can see us," Frank pointed out. "We'd better hurry before someone spots us and tells Mom and Dad."

They inched along until they were next to the chimney. It was too high to look down it sitting, so they had to stand up and look down.

"It's awfully small," Joe commented.

"I don't think we could even fit," Frank said, "and Santa's a great big guy."

"There's got to be some way he gets down," Joe insisted. "This is the only way in without setting off the alarm."

Frank looked around him. "How do his reindeer and sleigh land on the roof? It's hard enough for us to find a place to stand."

Joe looked around him also. This wasn't looking very good. Of course, it would take a lot more to absolutely disprove the existence of Santa Claus, but the case against him was getting stronger.

"Joe! Frank! I've found a clue!" The shout came from the front of the house instead of the back, and instead of Chet's voice, it was his sister, Iola.

Frank and Joe turned to look in surprise, but they turned a little too fast. With a startled cry, Joe found himself slipping toward the front of the house. Frank made a grab for him, but only succeeded in losing his balance, too, and sliding after Joe. Iola, who only just now had noticed that the boys were on the roof, screamed.

They fell with a loud clatter onto the roof of the front porch, but that was just as slick. They slid all the way down it and landed in a shower of snow in a shrub that was up against the side of the house.

Joe clawed his way out from where he was practically buried in snow and broken twigs. "Frank! You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah." Frank spluttered to get the snow out of his mouth. "You?"

Joe nodded eagerly. "That was awesome!"

Chet had heard the commotion and come running from the backyard. Iola was already on the scene, trying her best to help the brothers out of the shrub and all the while asking them if they were sure they were all right.

"Oh, man," Frank said as soon as he was able to take a step back and examine the damage. "Mom and Dad are going to kill us for that."

Though the shrub and the deep snow had saved the boys from serious injury, they had certainly not returned the favor to the shrub. Part of it was still intact, but the rest was a sad, drooping mess of broken twigs.

"Mom wanted to take that shrub out next summer anyway," Joe said hopefully.

"Yeah, but they're going to know we were on the roof now," Frank replied.

"I told you guys this was a bad idea," Chet pointed out.

"Well, the good news is that I did find a clue," Iola, the eternal optimist, said.

"What clue?" Joe asked.

"To Santa," Iola replied. "I was over by the old railroad bridge, and I saw…" She paused dramatically.

"What?" the three boys demanded all at once.

Iola was enjoying her moment, and she dragged it out a few seconds longer. "Reindeer tracks."

The boys looked at her askance.

"Reindeer tracks?" Chet repeated. "There aren't any reindeer around here. They must have been normal deer tracks."

Iola shook her head with certainty. "They were not. They were way too big. Almost as big as cow tracks."

"Maybe it was a cow," Frank suggested.

Iola rolled her eyes. "I think I'd know cow tracks if I saw them. Anyway, why would there be a cow by the railroad bridge? It's in the park. And the tracks were going across it. If something as big as a cow tried to go across that rickety, old thing, it would have fallen right down."

"Trains used to go across it, Sis," Chet pointed out.

"Yeah, like a million years ago." Iola put her hands on her hips, impatient that the boys didn't seem to believe her. "Are you guys coming or not?"

"I'll come," Joe said. He wasn't quite sure he bought the reindeer tracks story; after all, why would there be reindeer tracks before Christmas? On the other hand, his dad always said that a good detective didn't let any possible clue slip away.

"We'll all come," Frank added.

That appeased Iola considerably, and she half-skipped in front of them, excited to have been of some help in the investigation.

The old railroad bridge was in Locomotive Park, which was alongside the Willow River. The railroad used to pass through there, including crossing a bridge that spanned the river. Over ninety years ago, a new railroad line had been put in, leaving the original one abandoned. Eventually, most of the tracks were pulled up, but the bridge and a short stretch of tracks were left in the park, along with an old train engine, as a monument to a part of the town's past.

Iola led the boys straight to the place where she had spotted the tracks. They had to agree with her that the tracks were much bigger than a deer's but much smaller than a cow's. The animal - whatever it was - had come from the street where cars had obliterated its tracks, wandered about the park for a little while, and then crossed the bridge, presumably to the small stand of woods on the other side of the river.

"Well, what now?" Chet asked, his gloved hands in the pockets of his coat.

"There's no way to find out where the reindeer or whatever it was came from," Joe said. "Maybe we can find out where it went."

"Then one of us will have to cross the bridge," Iola protested. "It's not safe."

"The animal that went across it was big, much bigger than any of us, except maybe Chet," Joe pointed out with a teasing grin at his friend. "If it could get across, we could, no problem. I'm gonna go."

"To be safe, maybe we'd better go across one at a time," Frank suggested. After the incident on the roof, being cautious seemed like a wise idea.

"I'll go first," Joe volunteered. "It was my idea."

"I don't know." Iola continued to hesitate.

"Aw, what could possibly happen?" Joe asked.

"Last time you said that, you fell off a roof, like, five minutes later," Chet pointed out.

Joe shrugged it off and repeated, "I'm gonna go."

He set out across the bridge with a determined stride, stepping from one tie to the next. He could see the hoofprints where the animal had stepped clearly, and he tried to avoid stepping in them, which would have ruined the evidence. A couple of times there was an ominous creak as one of the rotted beams protested under Joe's weight.

"Careful!" Frank called to him, not liking the sound of the creaks at all.

"I'm fine," Joe called back.

He kept going until he was in just about the exact middle of the bridge. Then he stopped in complete bewilderment. The tracks stopped there. It was as if the animal had simply vanished when it had reached that point.

"Hey, Frank, you'd better come see this!" he shouted, turning all the way around to try to see if there was any clue as to where the animal might have gone.

Frank started edging out along the bridge. It seemed as if in creaked and moaned even more as he went. Meanwhile, Joe kept looking around at his feet, as if he suspected that the animal had melted into the bridge itself. It occurred to him that if the animal was a deer of some sort, it could probably jump a long way. Maybe something had scared it when it had reached this point, and it had jumped forward. Joe started walking ahead again to see if he could pick up the tracks once more.

As soon as he stepped on the very next tie, he realized he was in trouble. It was completely rotten, and it gave a loud groan as Joe put his weight on it. Recognizing the danger immediately, Joe tried to step back off, but he wasn't fast enough. The wood gave way, and Joe found himself falling for the second time that day.

"Joe!" Frank, Chet, and Iola all screamed at the same time.

Fortunately, there was another beam directly under the one that had given way. Joe only fell about two feet before he hit it. However, this one also groaned under his weight and threatened to break. The only thing holding him up was that he was wedged between two pieces of the rotten board which were still firmly held up by the iron tracks. The bad part about that was that it meant he was completely stuck.

Frank started forward to help his brother, but then he stopped. If the boards were that rotten, he could fall through, too, and that wouldn't help Joe. "Joe, are you all right?"

"Yeah," Joe assured him. "But I'm stuck, and I don't know how long this is going to hold."

"Hold on!" Frank told him. He turned back toward Chet and Iola. "You guys better go get help!"

"We'll be right back," Chet promised, and he and Iola took off at a run.

"And you'd better get off this bridge, Frank," Joe told him.

"No way." Frank got down on his hands and knees so that he could distribute his weight on two ties at once instead of only one. He also straddled one of the rails, which were firmly attached on either side of the bridge as well as holding the boards up. That way, he'd have less chance of causing any more beams to break. Then he started crawling toward his brother.

"Be careful!" Joe warned him. "It's kind of rickety here."

"Really?" Frank replied teasingly, but he was biting his lip as he examined the area. Joe was wedged in tight and between that and the precarious footing, Frank didn't think he could pull him up. He decided it would be better not to try. "Chet and Iola will be back soon with help."

"It'll take the fire department to get me out of this," Joe lamented. "Man, between falling off a roof and now this, if detective work doesn't kill me, Mom and Dad definitely are."

"Yeah," Frank agreed. "Me, too. And we're not any closer to finding out if Santa Claus is real or not."

Just then, there was another creak.

"Uh, Frank." Joe's voice rose in pitch. "I think the beam I'm standing on is starting to break now, too."

"Don't worry." Frank tore off his heavy gloves and grabbed Joe's coat tightly. "I've got you."

He looked back toward the park, wishing Chet and Iola would hurry. He saw an old man walking past, all bundled up so that practically just his beard was showing.

"Hey, mister!" Frank shouted. "Help!"

The old man looked up and saw the boys' predicament. "Hold on!" he called back. "I'll be right there." He started making his way across the bridge toward them.

"Wait!" Frank told him. "The bridge isn't safe. It'll never hold all of us." He couldn't help feeling extra anxious considering that the man was very heavy.

The old man, however, paid no attention. He kept coming and, somehow or another, made it to the boys' side.

There was another loud crack, and Joe felt the board underneath his feet sink. He shouted as he started to fall, but the old man made a dive for him and grabbed him under the arms. Between that and the grip that Frank already had on his coat, Joe didn't fall, although his feet were now dangling in mid-air.

"Get me out! Hurry!" he pleaded, starting to panic.

"Stay calm, there," the old man encouraged him. "You'll be all right."

"How do we get him out?" Frank asked. "He's stuck. We can't pull him up."

The old man surveyed the situation for a moment. "If you let me lower you down a bit, Joe, I think I'll be able to turn you a bit and then pull you up. I'm not letting you fall. You'll have to trust me."

"Okay."

The old man let Joe down just enough so that the boy was no longer wedged so tightly between the broken boards. Then he turned him just a little and then, as if by magic, pulled him up without so much as his coat getting snagged.

"Are you okay?" the man asked.

"Yeah," Joe said. "Thanks."

The old man chuckled. "The two of you better be more careful. You can't always count on luck to get you out of things."

The boys nodded. Then the three of them made their way off the bridge. To Frank's surprise, the bridge didn't creak or groan at all this time.

They had no sooner reached firm ground when a fire truck with its siren blaring pulled into the park. Chet and Iola climbed down from it along with the firemen and came running up to Frank and Joe.

"We ran down to the fire station," Chet panted. "Hey, how did you guys get off the bridge?"

"He helped us." Joe turned around to point out the old man, but the stranger had vanished.

"Who?" Iola asked.

Frank and Joe looked at each other.

"There was an old man," Frank said.

"With a white beard and he was fat," Joe added.

"He was right here a second ago," Frank went on.

"He knew my name, too, and neither of us told it to him," Joe said. "You don't think, Frank…?"

"Aw, come on, guys, stop putting us on," Chet protested. "How did you really get off that bridge?"

"The old man helped us," Frank insisted. "I do think, Joe."

He and Joe looked all around for any sign of the old man, but there was none.

"Well," Joe said, "it looks like Operation Santa Claus was a success."