J.M.J.

Chapter VI

Monday, April 26

"Isn't there anything you can do about it?" Iola asked. She and Joe were at one of the cafeteria tables at lunch. None of the rest of their friend group had come to sit with them and so Iola had been telling Joe in whispered tones about Sally Marsh's sudden interest in Chet.

"I agree it sounds suspicious and Chet really isn't Sally's type," Joe replied. "But it's not a crime to flirt with somebody. I don't know that there is anything I can do."

"You can help me figure out what Sally's up to, at least," Iola insisted.

"It's no good, whatever it is," a voice came from behind them, making them both jump. They turned just as Biff Hooper set his plate on the table and sat down on the other side of Joe.

Joe narrowed his eyes at him. "Have you been listening in?"

"Just the last sentence." Biff ate a French fry. "If you're talking about Sally Marsh, she's up to no good. That girl is pure evil."

"If you weren't eavesdropping, how do you know Iola meant Sally Marsh?" Joe asked.

"What other Sally would she be talking about? It's not like it's 1950 and there are wall-to-wall Marys and Lindas and Sallys everywhere you look."

"Well, I guess that's true," Joe conceded.

"What do you mean she's pure evil?" Iola asked. "I thought she used to have quite a crush on you."

Biff made a face. "Don't remind me. It was more like an obsession than a crush, but that's how she's treated every guy she's been after. At least, every guy that she's actually been interested in. Say, what is she up to?"

"Currently, she's trying to seduce my brother, or something," Iola said. "I want Joe to find out why."

"Uh, yeah, you better, Joe," Biff agreed. "Even if he wasn't one of your best friends, you'd owe it to him. Heck, even if she was trying to get her claws into Neanderthal Bunyan again, you should try to stop her."

"Don't you think you're taking things a little far there?" Joe teased him. Neal "Neanderthal" Bunyan was the quarterback for the Bayport High football team, and he and Biff were rivals of sorts. They usually kept it good-natured and friendly, but every once in awhile, they'd have a more serious clash.

"I'm not kidding, Joe," Biff said, completely straight-faced. "She's bad news. If she's after Chet, she only wants to get something from him and then she'll dump him like yesterday's potato salad. But Chet's nowhere near devious enough to even think that that's what she's up to. He could get really hurt over this, and then we'd have to deal with him moping around until he starts on some hobby or something to distract himself."

"Biff's right," Iola insisted.

"Okay, okay," Joe gave in. He spotted Sally a few tables away, sitting with some other girls. "I'll go talk to her right now."

"Wa…wait!" Iola stammered, but it was too late to stop him.

Joe strode right over to where Sally was sitting. "Hey, there, Sally."

"Hi, Joe," Sally replied with a sweet smile. "What's new?"

"Quite a bit, actually, so I don't have time to mess around. What's the deal?"

Sally gave a confused smile. "I don't get it. What do you mean?"

"I mean, what do you want with Chet Morton?"

Sally stared at him for several seconds straight without seeming to understand the question. "What difference does that make to you?" she asked finally. Then she formed her mouth into an O. "Oooh! Are you jealous?"

The other girls at the table giggled and Joe felt his cheeks redden slightly.

He scoffed. "Hardly. I wouldn't date you if you were the last girl on earth. But I also am sure you wouldn't date Chet if he was the last guy on earth. So. What do you want with him?"

"You know, this is really awkward, Joe, since you're dating Iola and she's Chet's sister. I really don't want to get mixed up in some crazy love triangle. Or would it be a rectangle if there's four people involved? Anyway, who I date is none of your business, and I'd like for you to leave me alone."

The two locked eyes for a few seconds. Then Joe said, "Okay. That's all I wanted to know. Thanks for being so helpful, Sally."

As he turned and walked back toward his own table, he heard one of Sally's friends whisper to her, "Are you really dating Chet Morton? Ew. Why?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out," Sally replied.

Both Iola and Biff were staring at Joe in confusion as he sat down again.

"Uh, did that actually accomplish anything?" Biff asked.

Joe shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. You guys are right, though. She's not really interested in Chet. I might have confused her enough that she'll hold off on whatever her evil plan is for a little while. That will give you two a chance to figure out what it is."

"Wait, us? Why us?" Biff said.

"I've got confidence in you two," Joe replied. "Besides, I've got this whole case with Angelo to deal with and I think that's probably a bigger deal than whatever Sally's got up her sleeve."

"I don't know," Iola said. "Neither of us have ever tried to solve a mystery by ourselves before."

"Now's the time to learn," Joe insisted. "It's perfect. Sally won't realize that that's what you're doing."

Biff looked at Iola. "Well, I guess we could give it a try, anyway. You just wait, Joe; this is going to turn into one of the biggest cases ever seen."

Joe grinned. "I won't hold my breath."

HBHBHBHBHB

Fenton Hardy and his partner, Sam Radley, were silent as they made their way to the door of the Southport Police Department station. Neither was impressed by the rundown condition of the place. They were even less impressed when they went inside and found the officer at the front desk scrolling on his phone instead of paying attention to his job with his top button undone and his uniform wrinkled.

Fenton cleared his throat and the officer looked up.

"Oh, can I help you people?" he asked, putting his phone away immediately.

"I'm Fenton Hardy and this is my associate, Sam Radley. We have an appointment with Chief Osmund."

"Oh, yeah. You're Hardy. That makes more sense than those kids. You can go right in."

He pointed toward a door and Fenton and Sam went through it. They found a man with graying hair looking through a file cabinet. He jumped when he heard them and he looked just the slightest bit annoyed, but he quickly smoothed that away.

"Mr. Hardy and Mr. Radley?" he asked.

"That's right," Fenton replied. "I take it you're Chief Osmund."

The men shook hands all around.

"Sorry if I seem a little taken off-guard," Osmund said. "I'll talk with Ewing again about announcing it when people come for an appointment. Anyway, why don't we all sit down and get started? Oh, but before that, I'd like to apologize about that news story about your boys, Mr. Hardy. I want to assure that it's not true and we certainly wouldn't be allowing teenagers to investigate something as serious as this."

"Yeah," Fenton replied. "Frank and Joe told me all about it. I just hope they continue to keep out of this case."

Osmund chuckled slightly. "It makes me glad that my sons were only interested in cars and basketball when they were that age. Anyway, I hope it doesn't cause any trouble."

"Hopefully not."

"So, about this case." Chief Osmund switched subjects easily. "The fact is that since January of this year, there have been four unsolved disappearances in Southport. There are enough similarities between the disappearances that we think they could be connected. However, despite what our yellow press continues publishing, we do not know for certain that it is a serial killer. It's likely, but I don't need to tell you gentlemen that assuming the likeliest solution to a case without facts to back it up is a great way to really make a mess of an investigation."

"That's true," Sam said. "So, what are the facts here?"

"Well, the similarities between the cases are that they all happened in Southport, obviously, and being a small town, I think it's fair count that as a similarity. They've also all happened on the first of the month. January, February, March, April, the first day of each, like clockwork. Otherwise, I honestly don't I'd believe these cases to be connected. The victims don't seem to have much in common, except that they've all been twenty-one or younger. They are three females and one male. One is white, two are African American, and one is mixed race white and Asian American. None of them are from particularly wealthy families, but their families don't have any more in common any other random group of families in this town. One of the victims was engaged, two others were in relationships of varying degrees of seriousness, and one was single. Two were still in high school, one was a dropout, and the last was a graduate who went directly into the workforce. They were different religions; they had no social activities or hobbies in common; we haven't found any place or friend that they all had in common. No common thread to connect them at all."

"If they were any more different, I'd say that they were specifically chosen because they had nothing in common," Sam commented. "They're almost too different from one another to all be living in a small town."

Osmund nodded. "We've looked at that, too. But you take any two of them and you'll see that they do have several similarities. It's just when you try to find something that all four of them have in common that you run into trouble."

"What are the racial demographics of Southport?" Fenton asked. "With three out of the four victims being from minority races, that could be the motivation."

"The majority of Southport is white," Osmund confirmed. "It is possible that the motivation is race and that one white victim was chosen to try to cover that up, but we would need some evidence before we could assume that."

"Right," Fenton agreed.

"Anyway," Sam said, "it seems to me that the ages are the more likely motivation, since that's the only thing they truly have in common. It could be someone with a weird fixation about teenagers or young adults."

"At this point, just about anything's possible," Osmund said. "I'm going to go ahead and give all the reports and information we have on these disappearances. Unfortunately, it's much more than what I've already given you. Of course, there is also the fact that they all disappeared in different places and at different times of day and that their disappearances were complete. We haven't found a trace of any of them. No bodies, no reliable witnesses who might have seen them. It's like they vanished. I'm going to warn you upfront that this is going to be a difficult case."

"We've investigated cases like this before," Fenton assured him. "No one can really make their victim completely vanish. If we look hard enough at each of the four cases, we're bound to find some clue."

"Eventually, no doubt, but don't forget that we've less than a week until the next first of the month," Osmund reminded him. "I know it's a lot to ask, but I'd like to have this case solved before we have to add a fifth victim to that list."

The other two men both nodded solemnly. They knew that the old adage "haste makes waste" was particularly true of detective work, but with a life potentially hanging in the balance, they wanted to solve this case as quickly as possible, too.

"There's one other thing," Osmund said. "The killer or kidnapper or kidnappers aren't the only ones who are going to give you trouble in this case. There's a reason that I called on private detectives instead of calling in the FBI or the state police."

"I've been wondering what that reason was," Fenton said.

Osmund hesitated. "I wouldn't give this information to you if I didn't believe that you were trustworthy and will keep this in confidence and if it wasn't essential to your investigation. You saw the state of this police station. You even saw Ewing, and once you see him you realize what kind of a mess we're in. The economy of this town is shot. There are hardly any businesses here that can hold on, which means there are hardly any jobs and people can't afford to support the businesses that are here, and that keeps on in an endless spiral of worsening economic recession. Our city council is, to put it simply, corrupt. Instead of fixing up the town or funding the police and fire departments, they, shall we say, misappropriate taxpayer funds. They absolutely refuse to give me funds to hire another police detective in addition to Durant. Even what they allow me to pay Durant is pathetic, especially considering that he's usually at least half a dozen cases that he's trying to solve. The only reason he stays is because he's young, enthusiastic, loves the job, and probably couldn't get a job in any other department. Don't get me wrong; he's a good detective and my best officer, but he's not very professional. He's been begging me for month to call in the FBI, but the city council absolutely vetoes it. I guess they don't want any federal investigators finding out how they do their jobs. If I call in the FBI, I'll lose my job and they'll appoint someone who's a little more favorable of them in my place. Hiring you two was the best I could do. If you don't want to get involved in this three-ring circus, I don't blame you. It could even hurt your reputations. Kelly Alston, that reporter that wrote that story, has no compunction about slandering the police or anyone cooperating with them. Her fiancé is the mayor's son, after all, and it no doubt wins her points with her future in-laws. After all, there could come a point in time when the city council would find it in their best interests if the police could be discredited."

"Are you sure you want us to investigate a serial killer and not political corruption?" Sam asked.

"Just the disappearances. But I had to warn you what you were in for."

"I'm glad you did," Fenton said. "I wouldn't have been too happy to have to find all that out for myself. But we're still in. Now, how about we look at those reports?"

HBHBHBHBHB

"Man, I feel sorry for your wife someday." Tony Prito shook his head as he surveyed the pile of groceries on the table in one of the common rooms in his dormitory.

Phil Cohen raised an eyebrow. "Why? I thought we did pretty well."

"Well, yeah, you bought enough food to feed ten girls for a month, but you took so much time figuring out what was the best buy on everything. I thought we'd never get out of that store."

"We had a budget and we needed to stick to it. And you also know that Allison doesn't have any of her own money, so who knows when she'll get another chance to stock up?"

The two young men had just finished making a run to the grocery store at the behest of Belle Beretta, who had recruited them into helping her to help Allison Given. Neither would have minded under any circumstances, but as it turned out, the task Belle had given them was simple. Apparently, in her free time, Belle volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center whose mission was to do precisely what Belle was doing now: to help pregnant women who were in a difficult situation whether financially or emotionally. Because of that, she had a good idea from the beginning exactly what sort of help Belle would need and where to get it. She had promptly contacted a more local pregnancy center in Gresham which was lining up a place for Allison to stay since she didn't want to stay at Marshall's apartment, knowing that Angelo could come back there. They were also lining up appointments for prenatal care and would be helping her with her necessary expenses, as well as helping her pay for everything she would need for the baby, not to mention giving her the emotional support she needed right now in dealing with her pregnancy, her boyfriend's betrayal, and her brother's injury.

Mario and Belle had also pooled together some of their own money to buy food, clothes, and toiletries for Allison right away. It turned out all her clothes and other belongings, meager as they were, were still at Angelo's apartment, and since she had left her key there, she couldn't go back if she wanted to, at least not without police assistance, and that would take some time. Belle had taken Allison shopping for clothes and toiletries and Mario was working with the pregnancy center to find a satisfactory place for her to stay, so they had asked Tony and Phil if they would be willing to buy some groceries after their classes for the day.

The grocery run had taken longer than expected because both friends agreed that they should use the opportunity to buy a good stock of food for Allison. They had added some of their own money to the amount that Mario and Belle had given them, and Phil had taken some extra time to make sure they got as much value for their money as possible. Mario had arranged to meet them at their dorm to pick it all up once he had a place to take it to, but they weren't sure how long he would be, and they didn't want it all to sit out in the car for an indefinite amount of time. So they had brought it all inside and set it on the table. There was a fridge in the common room and Phil and Tony were currently sorting through the groceries to determine what needed to go in there.

Such a pile of food was not a usual thing to see in a men's dormitory and it was beginning to excite some attention from the other young men rooming there.

"Say!" one said as he walked past. "When's the party?"

"Hands off!" Tony told him. "This isn't for any party. This is for charitable purposes."
"Giving it to me would be charity," the fellow insisted. "I'm a starving scholar."

"If you're broke, it's probably just because you had to buy one of those expensive meal plans," Phil retorted. "You're fine. Just go on."

That particular student took the hint and went on, but another one was apparently taking more of an interest in the food. "What kind of a charity?" he asked.

"Someone who needs some help," Phil told him.

"Yeah, obviously, but, like, why? Is it for a disabled person or something?"

Tony sighed in annoyance. "No. Don't you have homework or something?"

The guy shook his head. "Not tonight. Besides, I want to help. I volunteer at charities all the time at home."

"We don't really need any help," Tony told him. "We're just waiting for another guy to come and pick this stuff up."

No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't convince their new acquaintance from insisting on helping. He talked a lot and kept asking them questions about where they were from and the nature of the charity they were helping with, in between telling them all about himself, including that his name was Rhett. It was a relief when Mario arrived.

"What luck in finding a place?" Tony asked.

"We found her a hotel room for the next few nights. It's not too sketchy, at least, and she should be safe there," Mario explained. "We're working on finding her an apartment, although she's thinking she wants to go to a different town, maybe even Boston. Honestly, not a bad idea. How about you guys? Looks like you did well."

"Not too bad," Phil agreed with a modest grin. He was actually quite proud of the job they'd done, but he didn't want to sound like he was bragging.

Tony didn't quite have the same inhibitions. He patted one of the grocery sacks. "Allison won't have to worry about food for a long time."

"Say, guys," Rhett said, reminding them all that he was still there. "I've got to go now. Tell this Allison girl that I hope she gets on her feet soon." He hurried away before the others could say anything more to him.

"Who's that guy?" Mario asked.

Tony shrugged. "Some guy who insisted on helping. He seemed kind of weird to me, but you meet a lot of weird people at this college."

Author's note: Yay! I really wanted to have this chapter done today, which was a bit of a task since it turned out to be another longer one. It would have been longer still since I wanted to have a scene with Frank and Callie, but I figured I'd better save that for next chapter. All three scenes that I do have in here were important to have in this chapter. So, we finally got to learn a little bit about that serial killer. He'll be showing up again soon, and there's still the question of what Sally's up to. There's so many moving parts in this story, I'm afraid it's getting too complicated, but believe me, it's less complicated than the original version. If there are any question in particular that you have, be sure to mention them in a review so I definitely remember to answer them. ;) Speaking of reviews, thank you so much to all the awesome reviewers so far! It will probably be later next week when I get the next chapter out, and I'm going to be busy all next weekend, so I'm not sure if there will be two chapters. I'll do the best I can. In the meantime, I hope you're all having a fantastic weekend!