The Mystery of Rafferty’s Farm

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Join Francesca and Josephine Hardy as they set out to solve their first mystery!

Frank and Joe Hardy, former teen detectives, have been retired since their youthful sleuthing wiped out all crime in Bayport. But now a new generation of criminal is back – and it’s up the the Hardy Girls to crack the case, while avoiding parental scrutiny and staying one step ahead of bumbling police chief Oscar Smuff.

The Hardy Girls’ mystery series walks that fine line between fan fiction, social satire, and a rip-roaring kids’ chapter book.

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The Mystery of Rafferty’s Farm

Images by Naeomi Castellano

CHAPTER 1: Endangered!

“For sale? Since when?”

Twelve-year-old Josephine Hardy pulled her bike off the country highway on the west side of Bayport. Her sleek black ponytail fell across her shoulder as she turned to stare at the billboard in the middle of the untended farm field.

Her cousin Francesca, also twelve, rolled to a stop alongside a rusty wire fence that marked the boundary of the property. The field was overgrown with dry weeds. Here and there, a scrubby bush fought to take root. In the distance lay a low hill bounded by trees.

“Too bad,” said Francesca, brushing a strand of wavy blonde hair from her face. “Remember when they used to grow crops here? I wonder if another farmer will buy it.”

Suddenly, Francesca jumped. “Look out, Josephine!” Barreling up two-lane Highway 99 was a pickup truck with a big square contraption fastened on the back. The oversized load unbalanced the pickup, and it swerved wildly, kicking up dust along the roadside.

Francesca hit her pedal hard and skidded toward the wire fence. Josephine was right behind her. The girls squeezed against the fence. The truck careened around the curve and raced past the girls. “What an idiot!” Josephine yelled.

The truck sped up the road, then took a sharp turn onto a dirt road and started across the farm field. A cloud of dust rose as it raced down the road. “I wonder where he’s going in such a hurry,” Josephine said. “We should follow him!”

Francesca wasn’t sure it was such a great idea. But she knew that once her cousin set her mind to something, there was no turning back. Josephine was already pedaling down the highway. Francesca took a breath and followed, catching up at the turnoff.

The dirt road, with a weed-filled ditch on either side, was barely wide enough for one vehicle. Loose gravel was scattered around the turnoff. A battered “No Trespassing” sign was nailed to the fencepost.

“Come on,” Josephine called. “If the farm is for sale, people are allowed to check it out. That must be where that truck was going.”

The girls started up the dirt road on their bikes. Deep ruts made it hard to balance. Finally, Francesca got off and pushed her bike. “We should have left our bikes back by the road,” she said. “Maybe we should turn around.”

Before they could decide, a cloud of dust appeared ahead. The truck was coming back down the narrow road!

Francesca steered to the left and clunked into the weed-filled ditch. Josephine followed, landing with a thud beside her. But the load on the back of the truck was wider than the dirt road. The big wooden contraption swept directly at them.

“Duck!” As Josephine leaned sharply away from the road, she lost her balance and tumbled against her cousin. The girls crashed to the ground as the truck flew past.

Josephine wound up on top of the heap. She scrambled to her feet. “Are you okay?”

Francesca disentangled herself. “I think so.” The girls dragged their bikes out of the ditch. The truck had disappeared toward town.

“Why did that guy turn up this road?” Josephine asked. “And why did he come back so fast?”

“He probably thought it was a short-cut,” Francesca said as she brushed herself off. “I’ll bet it’s a dead end.”

Josephine was still agitated. “Let’s find out.”

Francesca shook her head. “We told Antonia we were coming over to see her new kitten right after lunch. She’s probably wondering where we are.”

“You’re right,” Josephine said. They walked their bikes back to the two-lane highway and pedaled a half-mile down to the Prito family’s home, which was on the opposite side of the road from the farm. The Pritos lived in a small brick house with a big yard. The girls leaned their bikes against a tree and went around to the back.

Antonia was sitting on the steps. Her face was pressed into her hands, and the girls could tell she’d been crying. “What’s wrong?” asked Francesca.

Antonia looked up. Tears smudged her face. “The police took my kitten away,” she said.

“Why? Did he belong to someone else?” Josephine asked.

“No — they said he was ‘endangered,’” Antonia said. “Well, I’m the one that found him wandering along the roadside and took care of him. I wasn’t the one endangering him!”

***

CHAPTER 2: The Avery Mansion

When she got home, Josephine told her parents about the police confiscating Antonia’s “endangered” kitten.

“We’ll have to watch the news tonight,” her mother, Callie, said. “If there are endangered animals involved, maybe there will be a story.”

“Sounds interesting,” said Frank Hardy, Josephine’s father. “But right now, it’s time for a Sunday afternoon barbeque. I’m starving!”

Josephine followed them outside, where her father poured charcoal into the big brick grill. Knowing it would be a while, she walked back to the old oak tree at the rear of the yard. Taking hold of the rope ladder that hung from the first branch, she hoisted herself up. The next couple of branches could be reached without too much effort. Then she grabbed a knotted rope and pulled herself up to the thick branch that held the girls’ tree house.

Inside, the tree house was six feet across, with a slanted roof. Josephine pulled out one of the small chairs that sat around a little wooden table. She took a box of crackers from one of the shelves in the back corner, then leaned out one of the windows.

Through the leafy branches she looked down at her mother and father, who were standing by the grill talking. Frank put his arm around Callie as Joe and Iola, Francesca’s parents, came into the backyard. The four adults coalesced into a circle, talking and laughing.

The Hardy brothers and their wives had known each other most of their lives, and had been steady couples since high school. Those were stellar years for Frank and his younger brother Joe, as they confronted dozens of baffling mysteries during the Great Bayport Crime Wave of their youth. With their hometown threatened by ne’er-do-wells of every stripe and the local police force nearly overwhelmed, the sleuthing abilities of the Hardy Boys rescued Bayport from becoming a haven of crime.

Unfortunately, their very success was their undoing. As early as The Viking Symbol Mystery, scofflaws were giving Bayport wide berth, and arrest rates slackened. The brothers went on to gain Criminology degrees from State. But by the time they completed their studies and opened the Hardy Brothers Detective Agency, it had been years since a robbery or assault had been reported in their hometown.

Frank and Joe were reduced to searching for lost pets and missing bicycles. After a year of futility, the brothers took down their sign, went back to school, and emerged as the Hardy Brothers Orthodontic Clinic — Bayport’s leading purveyors of braces, retainers, and headgear.

Soon after, Frank wed Callie. A few months later, Iola Morton returned from several years in the Peace Corps, and she and Joe were married. Using reward money from the boys’ cases, the families purchased houses next door to one another on Maple Street in the residential west side of Bayport.

The next fall, on Halloween night, Francesca was born to Iola and Joe. A few hours later, on All Saints’ Day, Callie gave birth to Josephine. The girls had been raised almost as sisters, with their rooms facing each other across a narrow, weed-filled easement between the houses. All their lives, their families had shared meals, and this day was no exception.

Francesca came through the tree house door. “It’s dark in here,” she said. Suddenly, she jumped back and slapped at her wavy blonde hair.

Josephine looked at her with alarm. “What’s wrong?”

“A spider! It’s in my hair!” She shook her head several times. “Is it gone?”

“Wait, don’t kill it,” Josephine said. She ran her fingers through Francesca’s thick blonde hair. “There it is.”

Francesca flinched as her cousin closed her hand around it. Josephine pulled her hand back, looked at the spider for a moment, then tossed it out the window. “It was a daddy longlegs — they’re harmless.”

“How was I supposed to know? It felt like a big hairy one.” She brushed at her hair again. “Make sure there aren’t any more.”

“I don’t think there are,” Josephine said, casting a quick look around the tree house. “Did you ask your mom about the endangered animals?”

“Yeah. She said she didn’t know anything about it,” Francesca said.

“Mine either,” Josephine said. “But she said there might be something on the news. We should watch.”

“Joey, Frankie,” called Iola from below. “Come on, let’s eat. We’re leaving soon.”

The girls climbed down from the tree and washed their hands in the spigot. Josephine eyed the cheeseburgers but, like her cousin, picked up a couple of veggie-kabob skewers. After seeing a documentary about meat a couple of months earlier, the two girls had become vegetarians. Although it had gone well, giving up fresh-grilled cheeseburgers was hard for Josephine. She wondered if there was a category of people who ate meat only at barbeques.

The girls sat side by side on a low bench. Francesca’s mother sat down next to them. “We need to get ready for the benefit as soon as we’re finished here,” Iola said. “Are you boys sure you don’t want to go? It’s a rare opportunity to see the old Avery mansion.”

Joe held up his hands as if warding off a demon. “I was really hoping to get some yard work done, dear,” he said.

“Me, too,” Frank added quickly. Neither wanted to attend the charity reception for the Save the Whales Foundation.

But the girls were excited. “I’ve never seen a real mansion up close,” Josephine said.

“This is a great opportunity,” Callie said. She gave her daughter a long look. “I want you to behave yourself. No wandering around the house unless you are invited. Is that understood?”

Josephine nodded, wondering what the mansion would be like. “Okay, Mom.” She went next door to change.

Francesca went to her room. She tried several blouses, finally settling on a yellow one with white trim. She studied herself in the mirror, then buttoned the blouse and tucked it into her brown skirt.

As Francesca searched for her brown shoes, her cousin walked into her bedroom. Josephine was wearing a black-and-white print dress that hung below her knees. A white ribbon secured her black ponytail. Over her shoulder was a shiny black handbag.

“Wow, Josephine,” Francesca said, “what a beautiful outfit.”

Her cousin scowled. “It was my mom’s idea. I hate it.”

“Joey, Frankie — let’s go,” called Callie from the hallway. “We don’t want to be late.”

They drove across town and out the North Shore Road. To the right, beyond the bluffs, were the calm waters of Barmet Bay. As Francesca looked out the other window, she snapped to attention. An old pickup truck was coming up the Shore Road toward them.

She nudged her cousin and nodded toward the window. Josephine looked up just in time to see the truck go past. Mounted on the back was a contraption like the one they’d seen that afternoon out by the farm field.

“That was — oof!” Her cousin’s elbow jabbed into her rib.

“Are you okay, Joey?” Callie asked, turning in her seat to face the girls.

“Uh, yeah, fine, Mom, I just swallowed wrong.” She knew the meaning of her cousin’s elbow — if they told their mothers that they almost got run over after ignoring a “No Trespassing” sign, they’d probably get grounded.

Up ahead, the Avery mansion came into view. The old stone building, perched atop a small hill overlooking the horseshoe-shaped bay, fascinated the girls. With its stone turrets and ivy-covered walls, it looked halfway between a college dormitory and a haunted house.

“It’s one of Bayport’s oldest houses,” Iola said. “It was built in the early 1700s by Prescott Avery, one of Bayport’s founders. For generations, the Averys hosted receptions, cotillions, and formal balls. But the current owner is more private. This Save the Whales benefit is the first time in years that he’s invited the public into the mansion.”

“He must really like whales a lot,” said Josephine.

“I bet you’re right,” Iola said with a smile. “In any case, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a piece of Bayport history.”

The attendant at the gate saluted as Callie turned into the driveway. She headed up the circular drive to the big house, where valets opened the doors. One of the men took her car keys and drove off to park.

Callie eyed Josephine up and down. She reached out and straightened the shoulders of her daughter’s dress. “Just let the purse hang, Joey,” she reminded her. “Don’t fidget with it.”

“Can’t I put it down when we get inside?”

“No, it’s part of the outfit,” Callie said.

Josephine felt like a Barbie doll as they were ushered through the big front doors. Servants took Callie’s and Iola’s coats.

“Ah, welcome!” boomed a deep voice. The girls turned to see a tall, hefty man with shiny silver hair. He wore a colorful rhinestone-cowboy shirt with a string tie.

“I’m Reginald Landsdowne,” he said in a broad Texas accent, holding his big hand out to Callie, then to Iola. “And who might these young guests be?” Mr. Landsdowne bent down to greet the girls.

“This is Francesca and Josephine,” said Iola, using the girls’ full names for once. When they completed sixth grade the previous week, the girls had asked their parents to call them by their given names. Although the adults promised to try, this was practically the first time it had happened.

“What grade are you girls in?” Mr. Landsdowne asked.

“Going into seventh,” Josephine said. “We’re starting junior high this fall.”

“Really? Are you excited?”

“Yeah,” Josephine said. “I want to be on the soccer team.”

“Ah, sports — that was always my favorite part of school, too.” The big man looked down at Francesca. “And you?”

“I’m going to sing in the school chorus,” Francesca said. “And hopefully my mom will let me take dance lessons.”

“An artist, I see,” said Mr. Landsdowne. “Well, girls, I’m not sure our adult conversations will be to your taste, but I trust you’ll help yourself to plenty of food. Please, make yourselves at home.”

Josephine curtsied slightly and thanked him. The girls got some cake and juice and wandered over to a window away from the adults. Josephine gazed out at the backyard, which was a vast field of grass and scattered trees. A swing set was in view off to the right.

“Let’s go out there,” she said.

Francesca liked the idea. “But your mom specifically said not to go prowling around.”

“She said not to go poking around the house,” Josephine corrected her. “She didn’t say anything about the yard.”

“True,” Francesca said.

“Besides, Mr. Landsdowne said ‘make yourself at home.’ And at home, we go in our backyard, don’t we?”

“Okay,” Francesca said. She wasn’t sure about the logic, but the lush green yard was too tempting to resist.

The girls wandered down a hallway, through a laundry room, and found a back door. Soon they were seated side by side on the rusty old swings, enjoying their food. The swing set was in the middle of the yard. Beyond it, the grassy expanse sloped downward toward a distant woods.

The mansion itself, which rose to three stories facing the Shore Road, was a more humble building when seen from the back. A structure like a long barn extended into the yard. Underneath a nearby oak tree sat a couple of trailers with their doors open.

Francesca pointed overhead. “Look!”

Josephine looked up as a great blue heron glided over the back of the mansion and disappeared toward the distant woods. “Wow, where did that come from?”

“I don’t think they live by the bay,” Francesca said. “There must be a lake around here.”

“Maybe it’s on the other side of the house,” Josephine said excitedly. “Want to look?”

As they hopped off the swings, a delivery van drove around the side of the mansion. The girls stopped to look. The driver was a short, stocky woman with close-cropped hair. She pulled the van up near the back building and jumped out. Two workmen got out of the other door.

“Let’s go,” she called to the men in a raspy voice as she yanked open the cargo door. “Unload the boxes here. And be careful!”

The girls watched as the workers unloaded several wooden crates the size of washing machines. All at once, Mr. Landsdowne burst out of the house, waving his hands at the workmen. “What are you doing? I specifically told you that I had guests today, and no deliveries were to be made until tomorrow!”

The workers took off their caps. The raspy-voiced woman hurriedly apologized. Mr. Landsdowne lowered his voice, pointing first to the crates, then to the van. The workers quickly loaded the wooden boxes back into the van.

Mr. Landsdowne spun on his heels to go back inside. For the first time, he saw Francesca and Josephine.

“Girls,” his voice boomed at them. “What are you doing back here? There’s so much good food inside!” His words seemed less an invitation than an order. As the girls started to follow him, another heron flew over the house and winged toward the woods. Francesca and Josephine stopped and followed its flight.

“Where are they going?” Francesca asked.

“Oh, the birds,” he said. “There’s an aviary next door on the Strummond property. Sort of an open-air birdhouse. He’s fenced off the lake to keep predators out, and all sorts of birds make their homes there in the warm months. Old Strummond claims he’s photographed 57 species of birds around the pond, including some very rare ones. He’s a bit obsessed, if you ask me, but I suppose it’s a pleasant enough hobby.”

“Sounds cool,” Josephine said.

Mr. Landsdowne smiled. “Quite likely. But now, let’s go back inside. The entertainment is just about to start. Come along, come along.” He made a sweeping motion with his arm to indicate that the girls should precede him through the back door.

The “entertainment” turned out to be a lecture about whales with some slides. The pictures were okay, Josephine thought, but the talking went on too long. Luckily, their mothers were ready to leave soon after.

“Did you girls have fun?” Callie asked.

“Yeah,” Josephine said. “We saw a couple of herons that live at a pond in the next estate. Mr. Landsdowne said there’s a man named Mr. Strummond who fenced in his pond so wild birds can be safe there.”

“That sounds interesting,” Callie said.

Iola looked at the girls in the rearview mirror. “What did you girls think of Mr. Landsdowne?”

“He seemed like a nice man,” Francesca said thoughtfully, “but someone who is used to always getting his own way.”

“Good observation,” Iola said with a nod. “He’s been buying up property all over Bayport. And he most definitely is accustomed to getting his own way!”

***

CHAPTER 3: A Night Expedition

That night on TV, newscaster Biff Hooper, an old high school chum of the Hardys, reported on the capture of several rare lynx cubs around Bayport. Both Hardy families gathered around Joe and Iola’s television to watch.

“It must be connected to Antonia’s kitten,” Callie said. “I wonder where they came from?”

“What I’d like to know is, where were they going?” Joe said. “Lynx cubs don’t just happen to show up in Bayport.”

On-screen, Biff stood with his back to city hall, looking directly at the camera. “Authorities are baffled by the development,” he stated. “This afternoon, Bayport Police Chief Oscar Smuff held a press conference.”

“Smuff!” cried the two Hardy brothers at the same moment. Oscar Smuff, a former private investigator, had often been at loggerheads with the Hardy Boys during the crime-stopping days of their youth. Whenever a big case was about to be solved, the self-important Smuff was sure to be found stumbling underfoot, trying to take the credit.

Ironically, when the Hardy Boys succeeded in driving crime out of Bayport, they also made the job of police chief so boring that no self-respecting police officer would take it. When longtime chief Ezra Collig retired, Oscar Smuff was the only candidate for the largely honorary position.

At the time of his appointment, being police chief meant marching in the Bayport Pride parade, making a few speeches at school assemblies, and handing out parking tickets. Now, with the city’s first potential crime in years, Chief Smuff was suddenly a newsmaker, much to the chagrin of Frank and Joe Hardy.

Smuff stepped up to the microphone. He was wearing a bright blue uniform with a shiny silver “Chief” badge pinned on his chest. His oversized police hat was cocked at a jaunty angle on his head, and he leaned slightly to the other side to balance himself.

He stood on his toes to reach the microphone and spoke in a high, nasal voice. “As the principal official delegated with ultimate responsibility for the well-being of our fair city, it is my duty to warn the good citizens of Bayport about a grave and serious potential endangerment to public safety. Bayport police have discovered several wild lynx cubs within the legal limits of this city. One of these wild animals was captured in the act of being inside the house of a Bayport family, and only the courageous and unrelenting vigilance of police officers operating under my direct command may possibly have averted a catastrophe.”

Joe could scarcely sit still as he watched the TV. “Why are they focusing on Smuff?” he asked. “The only mystery he ever solved was The Case of the Missing Donut Hole.”

On-screen, Chief Smuff took a breath, puffed out his chest, and looked directly at the camera. “As far as police officials can ascertain at this point in time, the animals in all likelihood escaped during shipment through or near the environs of Bayport. To this seasoned detective, it strongly appears that a smuggling ring may well be attempting to spread its tentacles through our city. I have ordered officers to thoroughly investigate all leads, including the possibility that larger and more dangerous animals are still on the loose.”

“Larger animals on the loose?” Biff said.

“Yes, it is entirely within the range of possibility at this point in time,” Chief Smuff declared. “Therefore, I advise all Bayport citizens to limit themselves to strictly necessary travel, and otherwise insofar as it is possible to remain indoors until the duly constituted authorities have completed their official investigation.”

The TV flickered, and once again Biff was on-screen. “There you have it from Bayport’s police chief — an advisory to remain indoors until authorities have determined that no wild animals are loose around Bayport.”

Callie looked concerned. “That sounds dangerous, Joey,” she said. “I think you should stay indoors until we hear more news.”

“Stay indoors?” Josephine asked. “Mom, it’s the first week of summer vacation. How am I supposed to stay inside?”

“You heard the news,” Callie said. “I want you to stay in our yard.”

Iola nodded. “That goes for you as well, Frankie,” she said. “You two can play out back. But don’t leave the yard.”

Francesca looked at her father. Joe shook his head and said nothing.

“But Mom,” Josephine pleaded. “What if we have to go somewhere important?”

“If you need to go somewhere, we’ll drive you,” Callie said. “Otherwise, stay in the backyard.”

Callie and Frank stood up to leave. “Let’s go, Joey,” Frank said. “Time for bed.”

“Wait, one more thing,” Josephine said. She turned to her cousin. “You were going to show me that book about spiders, remember?”

Francesca looked at her blankly. Then she got it. “Yes, yes, that’s right. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“I’ll be right home,” Josephine called to her parents.

They went into Francesca’s room and shut the door. “A book about spiders?” Francesca said, sitting down on the edge of her bed. “I’m amazed they fell for that. Why would I have a book about spiders?”

Josephine sat next to her on the bed. “Sorry, it’s all I could think of on the spur of the moment,” she said. “Anyway, I think we should meet tonight.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure. But if we’re going to be trapped at home all day tomorrow, this will be our only chance.”

“For what?”

“Don’t you see?” Josephine bounced up and paced around the room as she talked. “There’s some sort of animal smuggling going on, right here in Bayport. We know that Antonia found a lynx cub near her home. So whoever was smuggling them must have driven down Highway 99.”

“So what are you suggesting?” Francesca asked. “That we bike out there tonight?”

“Exactly,” Josephine said. “It can’t hurt to take a look. Maybe we’ll notice something unusual.”

Francesca paused. She hated to seem less daring than her cousin. But did it really make sense to bike to the edge of town in the middle of the night?

“Come on,” Josephine said. “It’s not like we haven’t gone out riding at night before.” In fact, over the past couple of summers, the girls had made a regular habit of slipping out and riding around their neighborhood in the dead of night, just for fun. Not that they’d ever found much. But just being outside and trying to avoid getting caught was a bit of an adventure.

“This is different,” Francesca said. “It’s a lot farther away. If our parents found out, we’d get in big trouble.”

“Well, what’s your idea, then? When are we going to check the farm, if not at night?”

Francesca scowled. “Okay, we’ll meet at midnight. But I don’t want to make a habit of this.”

“Midnight — perfect!” Josephine started for the door.

“Wait,” Francesca said. “You better take a book with you, since you said you were borrowing one.” Francesca scanned her shelf. “Here, this is perfect.” She handed her cousin a copy of Charlotte’s Web. “You can say you’re studying all kinds of spiders.”

“Very funny,” Josephine said. She flipped through the book, looking at the pictures.

“And don’t lose it,” Francesca said. “I want it back.”

Five minutes before midnight, the little bell above Francesca’s bedroom window jingled. She sprang up and grabbed the tin can telephone that linked her to her cousin’s room next door. She pulled the connecting string taut. “Hello?”

“It’s me. Are you up?”

“I am now,” Francesca said. “It’s still five before midnight.”

“I know,” said Josephine. “I was making sure you were awake on time.”

“Well, I am.”

“Okay. Meet me outside.”

Francesca set down the tin can and yawned. She pulled on a new pair of jeans and a tan-and-green sweater she especially liked, tied her shoes, and ran a brush through her wavy hair. At exactly midnight, she slipped through her open window and met her cousin in the ten-foot easement between their houses.

Silently, they got their bikes and walked them out to the street. Fastening their helmets, they coasted away toward the west edge of town.

The moon shone nearly full on the clear night. As always, they stuck to side streets, and when they saw headlights, took cover behind a hedge or garage. Crossing major streets presented more of a challenge, but they had learned the best corners to cross, where they would be in the open for the least distance.

Getting to Highway 99 went easily. But exploring the two-lane road that stretched along the farm field presented more difficulty. Cars traveled at high speeds along the semi-rural road, and there weren’t many places to take cover. Worse yet, a curve in the road to the right made it hard to see anyone coming until the last minute.

“Let’s put our bikes behind that shed.” Josephine pointed to a run-down wooden building near the edge of the field. “We can go by foot from there. It will make it easier to hide when cars come by.”

An old gate in the low wire fence was propped open. They rolled their bikes behind the shed and took off their helmets. “Let’s just walk along the edge of the road and see what we notice,” Josephine said.

They hiked down opposite sides of the highway for twenty minutes, passing a couple more turnoffs for dirt roads crossing Mr. Rafferty’s fields. Several times they had to take cover in the ditch when a car passed. But they didn’t notice anything unusual.

They turned and walked back to the shed where they’d started, and on toward the narrow dirt road they’d been on that afternoon. They were near the turnoff when another set of headlights flashed on the highway. The girls ducked down in the ditch again, waiting for the lights to pass. But instead, the vehicle slowed.

Suddenly they heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Someone was turning onto the dirt road!

***

CHAPTER 4: The Smugglers’ Hideout

The driver stopped at the turnoff. The girls ducked lower. Recent rains had filled the ditch with a fresh outcropping of weeds and grass. Francesca stretched prone on her belly, her head resting on a patch of thick grass. She lay completely still, not daring even to breathe.

A door opened. “Is this it?” came a gruff man’s voice.

Another answered, “How the blazes should I know? You’re the one who’s been here before.”

“Yeah, in the daylight.”

“Well,” said the second man, “don’t run the truck off the road, not with the load we’re carrying. We can’t risk having to call a tow truck.”

“I think this is the road,” said the gruff-voiced man. “Come on, I’ll drive slow.”

Waiting anxiously, Francesca became aware of a tingling on her leg. She wanted to scratch it, but she dared not move. The tingling moved up her leg to her knee. A spider! She wriggled her leg, trying to smash it. But the tingling moved to the back side and continued.

She clenched her teeth, trying desperately not to move. At last the doors slammed, and the truck rolled on up the dirt road.

“Yuck!” Francesca thrashed at her leg, slapping and rubbing it. Any living creature would surely have perished by the time she finished.

Josephine raised her head. All she could make out were two red taillights. “It’s probably the same truck we saw this afternoon,” she said. “And we’re right near where Antonia found the lynx cub. Something weird is going on.”

Francesca stood up and shook herself, then picked bits of weed out of her sweater. She wished she had worn something different. She frowned. “So what are we supposed to do?”

“Follow that truck,” Josephine said.

“On foot? What if it comes back again?”

“We’ll hide in the ditch.” Josephine took off jogging up the moonlit road after the truck. Francesca sighed and jogged after her.

They ran till they came to the edge of a small clearing behind a little hill. On the far side stood a two-story farmhouse. Bright lights burned in the front room. The rest of the house was dark.

“Should we go closer?” Josephine asked. She’d been excited about seeing where the road went, but now that they were here, she wasn’t so sure about going further.

But Francesca was warming to the challenge, much to Josephine’s chagrin. It was a familiar pattern for the girls — Josephine’s curiosity would get them into a predicament, and then, just about the time she would start having second thoughts, her cousin would insist on making productive use of the situation.

“We can’t see anything from here,” Francesca said. She tiptoed across the yard, which was mainly dirt and gravel with some patches of grass and weeds. Josephine followed close behind.

Several pick-up trucks were parked near the house. On the back of each was a contraption made of metal and wood like the one they’d seen earlier. As the girls passed near the trucks, Josephine heard a low growling sound.

“Did you hear that?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.

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Before her cousin could answer, they heard it again, this time louder. “It’s coming from the trucks,” Francesca said. “There are animals inside those boxes!”

The girls moved up behind a big tree near the house. The growling from the trucks had stopped. “What do you think it was?” Josephine asked.

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Francesca said. “I’m just glad it’s in a cage.”

Francesca’s eyes turned to the house, where light illuminated the front room. The girls were only ten feet from a window, which fortunately was closed. Francesca took a couple of steps closer.

“Careful, they might see you!” Josephine hissed.

“Not from inside. We can see them because it’s dark out here. To them, with all the lights on, the window looks like a mirror.”

“You’re right,” Josephine said. “Good thinking.”

Francesca took a couple of steps toward the window and stood on her toes. Her cousin joined her, tense and ready to run.

Inside, they could make out several men seated around a table, and another man standing. The men were engaged in a heated dispute. Exactly who was arguing with whom was unclear. But the girls could easily make out what they were fighting over — stacks of money in the middle of the table.

“I’ll bet they’re the animal smugglers,” Francesca said, “and these cages are full of rare animals.”

“You’re right,” Josephine said. “These are the smugglers that the police are looking for!”

The two girls slipped back to the cover of the nearby tree. “What should we do?” Josephine asked.

“We have to get out of here and call the police,” Francesca said. “They could catch the smugglers red-handed.”

“Agreed,” Josephine said. But as the girls headed back toward the dirt road, the growling began again. It sounded like a large and very angry cat.

From within another crate, a dog yipped. Josephine shivered as the cat answered with a full-throated snarl.

The girls backed away. Another dog started barking. The cat snarled again, and the first dog howled.

All at once, the lights in the house went out. The front door opened. “Who’s there?” came the gruff voice. “Speak up, or I’ll shoot!”

***

CHAPTER 5: Night Flight

“It must be the police,” a second man said frantically. “Let’s get out of here!”

“Who is it,” yelled the man with the gruff voice. “This is your only warning. Identify yourself, or I’ll shoot!”

Josephine grabbed her cousin’s arm. They were near the dirt road, and could take off running and be out of sight quickly. But if the men followed in a truck, they’d easily catch up.

“We have to distract them,” she said. Men were running for the trucks. Josephine cast her eyes around. On the ground she spied an old soda bottle. She scooped it up, took a quick breath, and then heaved it at the house. A moment later, it hit the wall of the house and shattered.

“What was that?” cried the gruff-voiced man. “Someone’s out there!”

A gunshot rang out. “Don’t start shooting, you idiot!” yelled a high-voiced man. “Do you want to kill someone? It’s not the police, you fool.”

“I don’t care — I’m getting out of here!”

One of the trucks’ engines fired up. Francesca grabbed Josephine’s arm again. “Quick — get down!” Francesca dragged the two of them into a muddy ditch along the road. “Duck your head!”

The girls hit the ground as the first truck roared by. Voices at the house sounded panicked. “We don’t have everything loaded! We’re not ready to go!”

“Forget it,” another yelled. “The cops could trap us here any moment. Let’s get out of here!”

Two more trucks fired up, and a moment later, all three were high-tailing it down the dirt road toward the highway.

The girls kept their heads down for several minutes. At last, all was silent.

“Should we look?” Josephine whispered.

“I’ll do it,” Francesca said. She raised her head above the ditch. Josephine looked as well. The house was dark. In the yard, all was silent.

“I think the coast is clear,” Francesca said. She climbed out of the ditch. Her elbows were wet, as were the knees of her jeans. “Let’s go look at the house,” she said.

“The men could come back,” Josephine said.

“I doubt it,” Francesca said. “We’ll listen for them.”

They walked back up by the house. Near where the trucks had been parked, several small cages were stacked. Each contained a large kitten, or more likely, the cub of a wild cat. Next to them were some wooden crates of a larger size. On top of one were several tiny cages with their doors propped open.

“I wonder if the men know they left these animals behind,” Francesca said.

“They are so cute!” Josephine said.

“You shouldn’t get too close,” Francesca said. But she, too, was fascinated by the little creatures, who pawed at the cages. “I wonder when they’re supposed to get fed?”

“We’ve got to do something,” Josephine said. “They could die of malnutrition, and it would be our fault for chasing away the people who were feeding them.”

“You’re right,” Francesca said. “We have to call the police.”

“How will we do that? They’ll want to question us, and we’ll get in all kinds of trouble with our parents.”

“We’ll have to do it anonymously. We can call from a pay phone and disguise our voices. You do your mom’s voice really well. It would fool me.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good, isn’t it?” Josephine said with a touch of pride.

Suddenly, Francesca jumped back, stumbling against her cousin and grabbing her arm for support. “Get back!”

Francesca gripped her cousin’s arm and pointed speechlessly at a row of tiny cages on top of the crate. Nothing seemed to be happening, though.

“What is it?” Josephine asked.

Francesca was still pointing. “In those little cages — something moved!”

Josephine pulled loose from her cousin’s grasp. She stepped gingerly over to the cages. The light was too dim to see much. But as far as Josephine could tell, the cages were empty. “I don’t see anything,” she said.

Francesca shuddered and backed away. “Something moved. I saw it clearly. It must have escaped. Let’s get out of here. Come on. We need to call the police.”

They headed down the dirt road. Back at the shed, they found their bikes and pedaled toward home. The moon was directly overhead as they coasted into the parking lot of a gas station near their house. Josephine dropped a coin into the pay phone, dialed 911, then waited for the operator to answer.

“Hello,” she said in a deep, husky voice. “I need to report a problem in the farm field on Highway 99. There are abandoned animals and — no, I can’t give you my name. This is an anonymous tip. No, it’s secret, I can’t tell you. This is important!”

Josephine stamped her foot and looked at her cousin, who made a “calm down” motion with her hands. Josephine took a breath and focused on keeping her voice low. “It’s in the farm field, at the end of one of the dirt roads. You just follow it and you’ll find the house and all the cages. It’s a bunch of rare animals.”

Francesca made a motion like hanging up the phone.

Josephine’s voice rose. “And you need to hurry — they’re probably starving!” She hung up.

“Let’s get out of here,” Francesca said, “before they trace the call.” The girls pedaled quickly away, turning several corners to make sure no one could follow.

Finally, they pulled into their driveways on Maple Street. They parked their bikes against a tree, then went down the easement between the houses, where each could climb back into her bedroom window. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Francesca whispered. “We’ll have to watch the news and see if the police did anything.”

Upstairs in Francesca’s house, a light came on. “Quick,” Josephine said, “get inside!”

***

CHAPTER 6: A Buried Treasure?

The next evening, Josephine and her parents went over to Francesca’s house to have dessert. “Do you want ice cream, Joey?” asked Iola. “Frankie, get your cousin a bigger piece of pie.”

Josephine watched as the pie and ice cream mounted on her plate. “Are you going to watch the news?” she asked as innocently as she could. “It’s just about six o’clock.”

Iola looked at her curiously. “How nice that you’re interested in current affairs, Joey. Is this some kind of summer assignment?”

“No,” Josephine said. “It’s just that I heard on the radio today about some more wild animals being captured, or something like that.”

“I heard that as well,” Frank said. “Someone at the clinic was talking about it.”

They went in the living room and Joe switched on the TV. Biff Hooper was just opening the broadcast. “Top story tonight: Over a dozen rare and endangered animals are impounded in a police raid at a rural location near Bayport.”

The camera panned over the farmhouse that the girls had visited the night before. Josephine leaned forward as the camera focused on Biff standing near the big tree.

“We’re here at the site of the discovery of a dozen captive wild animals,” he reported. “Police continue to load cages into their vans. So far, they’ve found three wild cats, two foxes, and several rare-breed dogs. The seizure is almost certainly the work of a smuggling ring, and has sent shock waves through the Bayport community, which has grown accustomed to its crime-free status.”

The camera shifted to a close-up of Police Chief Oscar Smuff, standing near the farmhouse. “Oh, no,” Joe groaned. “Not Smuff again!” Frank nodded and laughed to himself.

The chief seemed unaware of the camera. He brushed some crumbs off his uniform, smoothed his eyebrows, and adjusted his big blue hat at a sharp angle. He gave a slight start as the newscaster stepped over.

“We’re here with Chief Smuff of the Bayport Police,” said Biff. “Chief, is it true that there is an animal-smuggling operation right here in Bayport?”

The chief puffed out his chest. “First of all,” he said, “I want to assure the good people of Bayport that their police force has this formerly potentially dangerous situation entirely in hand. We have captured and apprehended numerous wild and fearsome animals, all of which are now securely within the custody of the Bayport Police Force, which I am honored to command. These dangerous animals will be guarded with the most stringent security and precaution, and I can categorically state that I believe they pose no threat to the well-being of the citizens of Bayport.”

“So people no longer need to stay indoors?” Biff asked.

“From this point in time forward, I am pleased to announce that the previously instituted state of emergency has been withdrawn and is now null and void, thanks of course to the efforts of the Bayport Police Department. People may now once again move about freely.”

As the news broadcast broke for a commercial, everyone started to talk. But Joe held up his hand. “Wait, what’s this?”

On-screen, an ad came on for Big Al’s Pet Emporium. Big Al himself stood in front of stacks of cages of yelping dogs. He was a tall, thin man with sunglasses and slick black hair. His voice boomed out of the TV: “Looking for rare animals? Come on down to Big Al’s, conveniently located in the Sunnyside Mall in exciting South Bayport! Plenty of free parking, and all the kibbles you – or your pet – can eat!”

Joe’s mouth gaped. “Can you believe that? This hasn’t been in the news for a day, and here’s some businessman figuring out how to make a buck off it!”

Callie shook her head. “It doesn’t look too complicated. All he had to do was switch his camera on and start talking.”

“Still,” Frank said thoughtfully, “it makes you suspicious, doesn’t it? What if the whole rare-animal thing is a hoax by Big Al’s Pet Emporium to drum up business?”

“You don’t really think so, do you?” asked Callie. “That would mean the police were hoodwinked.”

“Well,” Joe said, “it’s Oscar Smuff we’re talking about here. It wouldn’t take much to pull the wool over old Smuff’s eyes.”

The adults laughed, but Josephine felt disappointed. What if the whole thing was a hoax? Just when the girls thought they’d discovered their first mystery, it could all be an adult joke.

But what about the truckloads of cages the girls had seen? And all the yelping animals? That was no hoax. Something wasn’t adding up.

The newscast resumed with Biff interviewing Chief Smuff. “I’m sure our viewers are all wondering,” Biff said, “Do you have any suspects in this animal smuggling ring?”

“I would just like to take this opportunity to say that for this veteran police official and public servant, whose utmost concern has always been solely for the safety and well-being of the citizens of this fair city — for Oscar Smuff, today is a banner day.”

Biff looked at Smuff oddly. “And who are these animal smugglers, Chief?”

“I further wish to employ this occasion to emphasize the adroit investigative efforts of my department, operating directly under my command and supervision,” Smuff continued. “It was through the diligent yet inspired detective work of the Bayport Police Force that this smuggling ring was smashed, and that the perpetrators are now in the process of being brought to the bar of justice.”

“Wait a minute,” Josephine said. “Is Chief Smuff claiming that he uncovered the smugglers?”

“Of course,” her Uncle Joe said. “Leave it to Oscar Smuff to grab the credit. Don’t take him seriously. He probably had nothing to do with it. I’m sure it was one of his men who cracked the case.”

Josephine inhaled slowly. “Or it could have been a citizen who discovered it,” she said carefully. She couldn’t exactly tell the adults about the girls’ sleuthing. But she could make a general point. “Sometimes ordinary citizens solve mysteries.”

“True,” Joe said. “We’ve certainly seen examples of that.” He winked at his brother.

“Sure enough,” Frank said. “Remember The Missing Chums mystery? The police had no idea what was happening out at Shantytown until they called the Hardy Boys in.”

“Yeah,” said Joe with a sigh, “those were the days.”

On-screen, Biff was looking frustrated as he tried to interview Chief Smuff. “Yes, Chief,” he said. “Congratulations on your fine work. But tell us — who exactly are the perpetrators? Who are the smugglers?”

“Arrests are now in the process of being made even as we speak,” said Smuff with a satisfied smile. “The owner of this property is being taken into official police custody on the extremely serious charges of harboring and transporting fugitive animals across city lines and masterminding an international animal smuggling ring — a man by the name of Rafferty.”

Iola nearly dropped her plate of pie. “Rafferty? Did he say ‘Rafferty’?”

The others looked at Iola with surprise. “What’s wrong, Mom?” asked Francesca.

“It’s just — it’s nothing, I’m sure.” She looked at Joe. “Do you recall when I co-signed the loan applications last winter? That was Mr. Rafferty.”

Iola was a member of the Committee for a Better Bayport, a civic group that worked to preserve historic buildings, create more parks, and sponsor neighborhood festivals. One of her projects was trying to save a small farm near Bayport. Now the girls realized that it was the same property that had just been raided.

“So he was the animal smuggler?” asked Francesca eagerly.

“Quiet, Frankie,” Joe said. He looked at Iola. “Even if you did work with Rafferty on the loans, I don’t see how that would involve you in a smuggling case.”

“Right,” Frank chimed in. “It’s not like you were in business with him.”

“No,” said Iola uncertainly. “But if they investigate Mr. Rafferty’s financial dealings, they’ll see my name on the loan applications. The police might assume I knew something about his dealings.”

Josephine had stayed quiet as long as she could. “Did you, Aunt Iola?”

Callie started to hush her, but Iola looked at her niece thoughtfully. “We only met a few times,” Iola said, “but Mr. Rafferty seemed like an honest man. He has been trying for years to save his farm, which is deeply in debt. But the banks don’t believe a small farm can turn a profit, and so far have denied him any new loans. So he’ll probably have to sell the land to pay his older debts.”

“That’s too bad,” Callie said. “I love driving past that little farm. It reminds you that there’s more to life than cars and concrete.”

“It’s the last farm that actually borders the city of Bayport,” Iola said. “It would be a real shame if it were turned into another shopping center!”

The others nodded, knowing her strong feelings. When her parents died, Iola and her brother Chet had been forced to sell the Morton family’s small farm to pay the debts. Today, the land on which they had been raised was home to a suburban mall.

“Isn’t there some way to stop it?” Joe asked.

“Yes,” Iola said forcefully. “The Rafferty family has owned the farm for over a hundred years. Supposedly, many years ago, Mr. Rafferty’s grandfather prepared a special ‘land-trust’ deed, which stated that the property could neither be sold to a developer, nor to a larger farm. The deed required the farm to remain just as it was, even if it were sold.”

Frank sat up on the couch. “Has the deed ever been tested in court?”

“That’s the problem,” Iola said. “No one knows where the land-trust deed is. Mr. Rafferty’s father was a bit eccentric, and refused to keep his money or valuables in a bank. He kept them in safes that he buried on his land. The present Mr. Rafferty found most of the safes after his father’s death. But none of them contained the land-trust deed. So he believes that one safe is still buried.”

“That’s interesting,” Joe said. “Are there any other clues?”

“Mr. Rafferty said something about a ‘web-in-the-woods,’” Iola said. “But I never got a chance to ask him what it meant.”

“A ‘web in the woods,’” Frank mused. “What an odd clue.”

“So there’s a missing safe buried on the farm?” Josephine asked.

Iola looked at her niece. “Possibly. Of course, it’s possible that the deed has been destroyed or lost forever. But what makes the story even more intriguing is that the present Mr. Rafferty told us that his mother’s jewelry was also missing — diamonds, pearls, and rare gems that had been handed down by her family for generations. Mr. Rafferty said that the jewelry was probably worth more than the property itself. And he believes it’s all in the missing safe.”

“Wow,” Josephine exclaimed. “A buried treasure, right here in Bayport!”

***

CHAPTER 7: Missing Animals

“Whoa, Joey, let’s not get carried away,” Frank said to his daughter. “This whole buried treasure thing has the sound of a family legend. A missing land-trust deed that would save the farm? Rare jewels worth more than the land itself? Don’t we all dream of that?”

“Well,” Joe said with a deep laugh, “it’s not like it’s never happened before. Remember when we solved the mystery of The Tower Treasure? No one believed that treasure existed, either. It took a couple of amateur sleuths to uncover it.”

Francesca and Josephine shot each other a look, but said nothing.

Joe looked at his wife. “Assuming the deed doesn’t magically appear, and the jewels aren’t discovered, will Rafferty have to sell his land?”

“I’m afraid so,” Iola said sadly. “Unless there is a miracle, he’ll have to sell his property to pay his debts and taxes. He just hates the idea of losing the family farm.”

Frank cleared his throat. “It sounds like Rafferty is at the end of his rope, financially speaking.”

“I have to admit,” Iola said, “the last time I talked to him, he sounded rather desperate.”

“That would seem to explain it, then,” Frank said. “Rafferty saw a chance to make some fast money by smuggling rare animals. The temptation was just too great.”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “This case looks open and shut. They caught him red-handed.”

“Not exactly, Dad,” said Francesca. “They didn’t catch Mr. Rafferty with the animals. They found the animals on his land, and arrested him later. That’s what Chief Smuff said.”

Joe smiled at his daughter. “Good attention to detail, Frankie. But I seriously doubt that rare animals could be stored on Mr. Rafferty’s land without him having a fairly intimate knowledge of the situation.”

The newscast had mentioned a court hearing for Mr. Rafferty the next morning. When Iola announced that she would be attending, Joe turned to Frank. “Do you think you can cover our patients in the morning so I can go with Iola?”

“Sure,” Frank said. “But don’t expect any surprises. I hate to admit it, but I think Smuff’s got his man.”

Joe gave a rueful smile. “It’s about time Smuff got to arrest someone for a bigger crime than jaywalking.” The brothers laughed.

Francesca was disturbed, though. There was one loose end that no one was mentioning – not her dad or uncle, not Biff on the news, and not Chief Smuff. What about the trucks full of animals the girls saw driving away from the farmhouse?

Francesca looked at her cousin. “Let’s go to my room, Josephine.”

As soon as they closed the bedroom door, Francesca turned to her cousin. “What about the trucks?” she asked. “No one is even mentioning the trucks full of animals.”

“Maybe they’re still searching for them,” Josephine said.

“Then why don’t they put out an all-points alert and say that everyone should be on the lookout? It doesn’t make sense. Three trucks and a bunch of animals got away, and the police are saying that the case is closed.”

“Well, they did arrest the ringleader. Maybe they figure it’s just a matter of time until this Rafferty guy talks, and he’ll tell them where to find the missing trucks.”

“Maybe,” Francesca said. “But my intuition says something isn’t right.”

Josephine nodded. “I agree. Something feels fishy. But it’s just a feeling. It doesn’t prove anything.”

“No,” Francesca said, “intuition doesn’t prove I’m right. But it makes me ask questions: Where are the animals we saw? Where are the trucks? And where were they headed in the first place? Remember all that money we saw at the farmhouse? Where did that come from?”

“You’re right,” Josephine said. “Chief Smuff didn’t mention the money or where the animals were going. Do you think we should say something?”

Francesca considered the question. “Well, the problem is, if the police hear that there are three truckloads of wild animals on the loose, they’ll declare another emergency, and our moms will make us stay at home. So if we want to have any chance of solving this mystery, we’d better not tell anyone about the trucks.”

“Right,” Josephine said. “So what should we do?”

“We should go to the court hearing tomorrow.” Francesca said. “Maybe we can get some more information there.”

Josephine scowled. “My mom probably won’t let me. She’ll say it’s not an appropriate activity for kids.”

“Kids? We’re almost thirteen! We’ll just tell our moms we’re going bike riding. We don’t have to give them every detail of our lives.”

***

CHAPTER 8: Chief Smuff Tackles the Case

“I’m going bike riding, Mom,” Josephine called to her mother as she headed out the back door after breakfast.

“Where are you going, dear?”

“Just around.”

“Watch out for traffic,” Callie called. “And don’t forget to wear your helmet!”

“Got it. I’ll be back before dinner.”

She grabbed her bike and joined her cousin. “Let’s go straight to the courthouse,” Francesca said. “We might learn something.”

They rode downtown following a zigzag course of side streets. Bayport was a mid-sized city located on Barmet Bay on the upper Atlantic Seaboard. Once a thriving regional industrial center, the city had seen its waterfront manufacturing district fall into decay. These days, the old shipping docks were used mainly for recreational sailing and cruises. The only remaining maritime businesses were seafood restaurants.

The girls rode along the railroad tracks that separated the old industrial district from downtown. Entire blocks of warehouses sat vacant, their brick and wood walls streaked with colorful graffiti.

Downtown itself was gray and cheerless. Along the commercial streets, struggling businesses mingled with vacant storefronts. Many stores and restaurants had relocated to the south end of town, where new subdivisions and malls lined the highway.

The girls parked their bikes across from the courthouse. As Francesca had guessed, people were already gathering, and the entrance was congested. The girls found a side entrance. Taped to the wall of the marbled hallway was a hand-lettered sign saying that the Rafferty hearing was on the second floor. The courtroom was the largest available, with seating for a couple hundred spectators, including a small balcony at the rear. The girls hurried up the stairs and found spots in the front row of the balcony.

“What great seats!” Josephine said. “We can see everything.”

“Just watch out for my parents,” Francesca said.

“Why? Did they say you couldn’t go?”

“No, but it gives us less to explain.”

They leaned forward on the balustrade and watched people file into the courtroom. Bayport hadn’t seen anything like the hearing for many years, and the large room was filling quickly with curiosity seekers.

They spotted several adults they recognized: one of their old teachers, a woman who ran a gas station near their house, and a guy who worked in a grocery they went to. “And there’s Big Al, the pet shop guy,” Josephine said, watching him take a seat near the front. If this is all a hoax, she thought, this is taking it pretty far.

Suddenly Josephine jerked back. “Your dad!”

Francesca kept looking, keeping her head low. “Where? Oh, I see him!” She snapped back and slouched down in her seat. “He just looked this way.”

They waited a moment before Francesca looked again. “Okay, the coast is clear. He and my mom are sitting down.”

The courtroom was a long, wide space that reminded the girls of a church, with rows of seats facing a broad stage. In the center of the stage, raised a few feet above everything else, was a large wooden desk. Next to it was a lower desk and chair. In front were two long tables, each with several chairs. The girls recognized the courtroom setup from television.

A man in a brown uniform told everyone to rise. The judge, an older woman wearing a long black robe, shuffled into the room. She had glasses perched on the end of her nose and a scowl that looked permanent. She climbed up and sat behind the central desk. The rest of the room took their seats.

A slight, gray-haired man in a bright orange jail jumpsuit was led into the room. “That must be Mr. Rafferty,” Josephine whispered. The woman behind her cleared her throat sharply but said nothing. Josephine scooted closer to her cousin.

Seated with Mr. Rafferty at one of the long tables were a couple of men who the girls assumed were lawyers. At the next table were other lawyerly types.

Finally, the judge called on Daniel Rafferty to step forward. The elderly farmer rose slowly from his seat and took a couple of steps toward the judge.

“Mr. Rafferty,” intoned the judge, “you are charged with transporting and harboring rare or endangered animals within the city limits of Bayport. In addition, you are charged with recklessly endangering public safety. Do you understand these charges?”

“Yes, your honor,” said Mr. Rafferty softly.

“Are you represented by an attorney?”

“Yes.” Two lawyers stepped forward and stood on either side of the frail man.

“How does the defendant plead?” asked the judge.

“Not guilty, your honor,” answered one of the lawyers. “Not guilty on all counts.”

“Very well,” said the judge. “Given the seriousness of the charges, bail is set at one million dollars.”

“That’s too high,” argued one of the lawyers. “Mr. Rafferty will never be able to raise that amount.”

The judge shook her head firmly. “Given the seriousness of the charges, you are fortunate that bail is being granted at all. The next hearing is set for two weeks from today.” She rapped her gavel down. Mr. Rafferty, his gray head hanging, was led out of the room. The spectators stood to leave.

“Stay down,” Josephine said. “Your parents are coming toward the back.” The girls waited a few minutes, then made their way down from the balcony and outside again. In front of the courthouse, a crowd of reporters had gathered. At first the girls thought that Chief Smuff was starting his press conference. But they saw that the speaker was a woman about their parents’ age.

“I bet it’s Mr. Rafferty’s wife,” Francesca said.

Keeping an eye out for their fathers, the girls moved to where they could see better. The speaker, wearing a blue summer dress, was tall and broad-shouldered. She had pulled her chestnut-brown hair back in a short ponytail. Standing on a small podium, she peered down a beak-like nose at the reporters.

“Impossible,” she said, speaking directly into a news camera. “My husband would never do such a thing. He spent his entire life working on a farm, caring for animals. He would never buy and transport endangered animals!”

“Right, lady,” cracked someone in the crowd. “The animals brought along their own cages, and locked themselves up on your land.” The crowd laughed.

“I know it sounds suspicious,” said Mrs. Rafferty in an impatient tone. “But my husband sub-leased the land to someone. He had no idea what they were doing.”

“The police found the cages lined up in the side yard, right next to the house,” said a tall reporter. “How could he — and you — not have known?”

“We haven’t been living on the property,” said Mrs. Rafferty defensively. “We’re renting a flat in town. The men paid us cash to lease the land, and we accepted their money without asking questions. It was a mistake, I admit. But my husband had nothing to do with animal smuggling.”

“So it’s his property and his house, but he had no idea what was going on?” asked the reporter skeptically.

“That’s right,” said Mrs. Rafferty.

The crowd broke up, shaking their heads. A man behind the girls muttered “guilty,” and several others repeated the word.

“What do you think?” Francesca asked her cousin.

“I don’t know,” Josephine said. “I sort of believe her.”

“Yeah, me too,” Francesca said. “Let’s try to talk with her.”

Mrs. Rafferty was standing off to one side, talking with a couple of men. The girls waited until they finished, then approached her.

“Hi, Mrs. Rafferty,” Josephine said, introducing herself and her cousin. “We heard what you said, and we know about your farm.”

The woman’s eyebrows arched. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Francesca said. “My mother works on a committee that tried to help Mr. Rafferty get a new loan for the farm.”

Mrs. Rafferty took off her sun hat. “Well, your mother tried to help, and I appreciate that. But we’ll never catch up on our debts. The sooner we can sell the property, the better.”

Josephine’s brow furrowed. “I thought Mr. Rafferty wanted to save the farm.”

Mrs. Rafferty gave a sharp laugh. “That man wants a lot of things. He’s in no shape to be making these sorts of decisions, even when he gets out of jail. Whatever his illusions, our only hope is to sell the property. Landsdowne Development has offered us a very generous price. We’d be fools to turn it down.”

“But my mother thinks you’re still trying to save the farm,” Francesca said.

Mrs. Rafferty shook her head. “I’m afraid the time for that is past. We — that is, my husband and I, assuming he is out of jail — are going to visit Mr. Landsdowne the day after tomorrow to review his offer.”

“But what about the land-trust deed?” Josephine blurted. “You can’t sell it to developers.”

The woman’s face hardened. “Who told you about a land-trust deed?” The girls explained that Iola had heard it from Mr. Rafferty.

“That old story,” scoffed Mrs. Rafferty. “My husband simply will not give up his fantasy that there is a buried land-trust deed that will save the farm. It got so bad before his arrest that he was out in the woods at night digging holes, trying to find it.”

“What about the family jewelry?” Josephine said. “It’s buried, too, isn’t it?”

Mrs. Rafferty groaned. “I can’t believe Daniel told your mother that story. Did he go into the whole ‘web-in-the-woods’ spiel? It makes him sound like a crackpot. No wonder the banks don’t want to lend him any money. A buried treasure, indeed! The only treasure in that farm is the price it will fetch from developers.”

Josephine shook her head slowly. Who should she believe? Mr. Rafferty? Mrs. Rafferty? Or neither? Was there a buried safe? Was the “web-in-the-woods” a real place, or a figment of someone’s imagination? Even assuming that a buried safe was discovered, would it contain a land-trust deed and jewels that could rescue the farm?

She turned to her cousin. Before she could speak, though, a loudspeaker crackled. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Chief of the Bayport Police Department, Oscar Smuff.”

There was a smattering of applause. The girls made their way over to the courthouse steps, where Chief Smuff was preparing to address the assembled crowd. A podium with a microphone had been set up in front of the steps.

Josephine looked around. “Do you see our dads anywhere?”

“No,” Francesca said, looking through the little crowd. “They probably don’t want to listen to Chief Smuff.”

“True,” Josephine said. The girls worked their way in close so they could see better. Chief Smuff placed both hands on the rostrum and stood on his toes to reach the microphone.

“It is with deep and well-deserved satisfaction and a great sense of accomplishment that I am now able to report and delineate in detail the final outcome of the officially authorized investigation into the present matter of which we are speaking,” he said. “I can now definitively declare Bayport completely secure from the danger of the presence within the city limits or environs of potentially hazardous wild animals.”

Smuff paused dramatically, and several people applauded. The chief nodded in their direction. “Let me emphasize that not only has the Bayport Police Department, operating under my direct supervision, brought to an end the most pernicious smuggling ring to imperil our fair city for many years — we have also achieved the ultimate goal of every dedicated law enforcement official. We have begun the legally constituted process of putting the mastermind of the smuggling ring behind bars where, thanks to the efforts of my department, he is certain to remain for many years.”

He was about to continue, but Mayor Anderson stepped up and elbowed him away from the microphone. “Thank you, Chief Smuff,” the mayor said as Smuff stumbled back to his seat. “The lesson we need to learn is the danger of vacant property. Idle land such as the Rafferty farm offers encouragement to the criminal element and gives lawlessness a place to breed. My administration is committed to seeing this deserted property sold and developed for more contemporary uses.”

“It’s not deserted,” Josephine said to no one in particular. “The Raffertys just can’t afford the payments.” A man in a tight suit standing next to the girls gave her a sharp look. Josephine felt annoyed, but didn’t say anything further.

Mayor Anderson concluded his remarks. “And now I want to introduce a man who can help us realize our bold, modern vision — J. Reginald Landsdowne, president of Landsdowne Development Corporation, which plans to purchase the property.”

Mr. Landsdowne stepped up and raised the microphone to his own rather imposing height. His eyes were veiled by sunglasses, but he seemed to smile and nod at the girls. “Good afternoon, fellow citizens,” he boomed in his Texas accent. “I just want to say how deeply concerned I am for the Rafferty family. Landsdowne Development is prepared to expedite the purchase of the property to help the Raffertys meet this crisis.”

Mr. Landsdowne went on to describe plans for a major new housing and shopping complex on the farm property. It sounded like all the other subdivisions that dotted the south and west sides of town, and the girls were glad when the presentation ended.

They ate dinner that evening at Josephine’s. As they were finishing, Joe came in the back door. “Iola and I were talking about taking a drive out to the Rafferty farm. It’s a nice evening. We could take a look around and see if we notice anything unusual.”

“Count me in,” Frank said.

“Me, too!” the girls said simultaneously.

The girls helped with the dishes, then went to Josephine’s room. “Do you want to borrow a sweatshirt?” she asked her cousin. “You can wear my green one.”

The green sweatshirt, as Francesca knew, featured a picture of Daffy Duck. “Thanks,” Francesca said politely. “I’ll just run home and get one of mine.” She returned a minute later with a brown-and-grey patterned sweater.

On the ride, Iola talked more about the farm. “Mr. Rafferty really doesn’t want to sell. It was his wife who convinced him to put up a ‘For Sale’ sign, just to see what the offers might be. So far he has refused to meet with Mr. Landsdowne or other developers. He still hopes that somehow he’ll get a new loan and get the farm back on its feet.”

Francesca chose her words carefully. She wanted to warn her mother without betraying the girls’ presence at the court hearing that day. “If the banks won’t loan any money and Mr. Rafferty remains in jail,” she said, “aren’t you worried that Mrs. Rafferty will decide to sell the farm?”

Iola nodded slowly. “Yes. With her husband in jail, I suppose Mrs. Rafferty will feel she needs to explore the sale.”

Callie cleared her throat. “I don’t understand why she isn’t making more of an effort to get her husband out of jail. Surely if they own a farm, she could raise bail money.”

“The farm is so deeply in debt that it’s hard to do anything,” Iola said. “I’m sure she’s doing what she can.”

“I suppose,” Callie said. “It’s a shame, though. I’ll miss driving past these fields.”

Joe pulled the station wagon off the road across from the scraggly terrain. “Looks like he hasn’t farmed it in quite a while,” he said. “Where’s the house?”

From the road, the farmhouse was hidden behind a small knoll. Josephine wanted to tell them which road led to it, but she held her tongue.

“Must be down one of these dirt roads,” Frank said. “Let’s check them out.”

Joe drove up the dirt road the girls had followed the night before. Josephine leaned out the window, looking over the area by daylight. The weeds were lower than she remembered, and the field didn’t look nearly so wild.

Joe circled into the dusty yard and pulled up facing the house. Over where the cages had been stacked, there was nothing except broken wood and old wire scattered on the ground. Dirt ruts showed where the trucks had been parked.

The Hardys got out. Frank and Joe wandered up to the house. As the girls started to follow, Callie spoke up. “Joey, stay away from the house.”

“But Mom,” Josephine said, “Dad’s there.”

“Never mind that. You stay away.”

“You, too, Frankie,” said Iola.

The girls wandered away from the adults over to where the cages had been. Josephine wanted to tell their dads about the caged animals they’d seen and the trucks that had driven off. But if the truth came out about their late-night explorations, they’d be in big trouble.

Frank and Joe came back out of the house. “The place is a mess,” Frank said. “It looks like a bunch of people were camping in it. There’s dirty dishes and spoiled food everywhere.”

“Should we head home?” Callie said. “It’ll be dark in a little while.”

Before anyone could answer, they heard a car speeding up the dirt road toward the house, raising a cloud of dust. Farther back were two smaller dust clouds. A moment later, a large black automobile wheeled into the yard and slammed on its brakes.

***

CHAPTER 9: The Hardy Boys Investigate

The Hardy families clustered together with Frank and Joe in front. The black car skidded to a stop. The driver’s door opened, and a tall, uniformed man jumped out. He grabbed the handle of the back door and wrenched it open.

Out clambered a short man in a bright blue uniform — Chief Smuff! The chief got his footing, then leaned back inside and retrieved a big police hat, which he placed on his head at a rakish angle.

Two more patrol cars pulled into the yard behind him, and four officers climbed out. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues with matching berets. The officers lined up behind Chief Smuff, standing at attention.

Smuff used his cuff to polish his shiny silver “Chief” badge, then stepped over to where the Hardys were gathered. “Well, well, look who it is — the Hardy Boys,” he began, looking from Frank to Joe and back again. “What brings you boys out here on this fine evening?”

“Oh, just having a little mosey around the farm,” Frank answered. “Anything wrong with that?”

Smuff rocked back on his heels. “Nothing much, except that this happens to be the site of Bayport’s biggest crime in years. That wouldn’t have anything to do with your visit, would it?”

Joe stepped forward. “This is a free country. We don’t have to explain why we’re here. Unless you’re placing us under arrest, we were just getting ready to leave.”

“Not surprising,” Smuff said. “This case is out of your league entirely. It took a true professional to crack this operation.”

That was more than Josephine could stand. “I bet you didn’t even discover this farm,” she spouted. “Someone probably called the police with a tip, and that’s the only way you even knew what was going on!”

Frank looked at his daughter in surprise. Josephine was standing with her hands on her hips, glaring at Chief Smuff.

The chief waved his arms in agitation. “Why, that’s outrageous,” he sputtered. “I should like to believe that I am fully capable of conducting my own investigations!”

Suddenly he stopped and squinted at Josephine, then at Francesca standing next to her. “And who, pray tell, is this? The ‘Hardy Girls’?”

He smiled over his shoulder at the other police officers, then looked back at the girls. “Ain’t that a joke,” Chief Smuff said. “‘The Hardy Girls: The Next Generation’.”

He winked at the officers behind him. As if on command, they all burst out laughing.

Josephine’s fists clenched. “At least we have a clue!” she said. But before she could say more, her mother intervened.

“That’s enough, Joey! We do not talk to adults that way, and least of all to a police officer.”

“But Mom — he started it!”

“I don’t care who started it,” Callie said. “You’re a big girl. You don’t have to answer every petty remark someone makes to you.”

Chief Smuff fidgeted awkwardly. “Sorry, ma’am, I shouldn’t have spoken harshly to the children. But you know better than to come prowling around a crime scene.” Smuff pointed a stubby finger at Frank and Joe. “I’ll let you go this time with a warning. But this area is off limits to the public until further notice. This is a matter for the legally constituted authorities, not for would-be amateur detectives.”

Callie gave her husband a chilly look. “Let’s go,” she said. Frank took a deep breath but said nothing. He got into the back seat. Joe and Iola got in front, with the girls in the rear of the station wagon.

Joe finally broke the silence as he drove back into town. “Who does Smuff think he is, anyway? Who is he to order us away from a crime scene? We’ve solved more mysteries than he ever will.” He looked in the rear-view mirror at Josephine. “You’re right, Joey. Some citizen probably tipped off the police. Smuff could never have discovered the animal smuggling on his own.”

Frank turned in his seat and looked at his daughter. “What possessed you to say something like that?”

Josephine shuffled around. “He just made me mad, the way he was making fun of you and Uncle Joe,” she said, hoping to shift the focus. She didn’t want the adults to think too much about what she’d said.

“Yeah,” Joe said, “Old Smuff is still jealous that we solved all those cases back in high school. Remember The Secret of the Old Mill? He thought he was hot on the trail of the counterfeiters but wound up having to run away to keep from being arrested himself.”

Frank chuckled. “Poor Smuff wouldn’t recognize a clue if he stumbled over it.”

Callie folded her arms across her chest and looked at her husband. “I wish you boys wouldn’t talk that way in front of the kids,” she said. “How are they supposed to learn to respect the police?”

“Well,” Frank said with an embarrassed grin, “it would help if the chief were someone besides Oscar Smuff!”

They got home as dusk was beginning to settle. Josephine suggested they go out to the tree house.

“Okay, I’ll meet you in a minute,” Francesca said.

Josephine went out back and climbed the old oak tree. Ducking her head, she stepped inside the tree house. The room was dark and seemed smaller than usual. That was a problem. Josephine wanted to grow up, but she didn’t like getting too big for things.

She turned on a camp lantern and set it on a shelf in the back corner. The lantern cast its light on the open two-by-fours that braced the walls of the tree house. In one corner was a low table. A bookshelf ran along the wall.

Josephine leaned her elbows on the windowsill and looked down at the yard below. Something bothered her about the whole animal mystery. It was almost like the police didn’t want anyone asking too many questions. But there were obviously questions to be asked.

Francesca’s head popped through the low doorway. Josephine started to share her thoughts, but Francesca had a stronger concern.

“Have you checked for spiders?” she asked. Josephine admitted she hadn’t. Francesca took a small flashlight off a hook by the door and scanned the corners. “There’s one!”

Josephine sighed. She reached down, scooped up the little spider spinning a web in the corner, and tossed it out the window. “Any more?”

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“Yes, up there on the ceiling.” She shone a light while Josephine trapped it and ejected it from the window.

“Happy?” Josephine put her hands on her hips. “They aren’t poisonous, you know. There are almost no poisonous spiders in this area. And the long-legged ones that we find in the tree house can barely bite. Mainly they eat mosquitoes.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read it in a science book.”

“People write any old thing in books,” said Francesca. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I’d seen it myself. I’d want the evidence from my own eyes. Besides, what about those little cages we saw at the farm? Those men could have been smuggling rare poisonous spiders from anywhere in the world. And now they may be loose in Bayport.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Josephine said. “But how could they get from the highway all the way to our backyard in two days?”

“That’s not the point,” Francesca said. “It’s the general principle. You don’t know where a spider has been or where it’s going. It’s best just to get rid of them.”

Josephine didn’t agree. But there were more pressing concerns. “What do you think we should do?”

“About what? The animal smugglers?”

“What else? We’re the only ones who saw those trucks and know about the other animals.”

“But we can’t tell anyone,” Francesca said, “or there’ll be a new curfew and we won’t be able to go anywhere.”

“Exactly. So what should we do?”

“Well, let’s think this through logically,” Francesca said, sitting down on a bench against the back wall. “What do we know so far? A bunch of rare animals are being smuggled in or through Bayport. They were being kept on the Rafferty farm, but Mrs. Rafferty says her husband knew nothing of it.”

“And our dads think that’s impossible, that Mr. Rafferty must have known. So that would mean she’s covering up for him, or that he lied to her.”

“Correct. Then when we discovered their hideout and alerted the police, they had to move the truckloads of animals. The question is, where to?”

Josephine pondered the question. “I don’t know. But they left the farmhouse in a hurry. We should go back to check it out.”

“Tonight?” Francesca was tired from the previous night’s exploration and didn’t relish missing more sleep. “What would we see that we didn’t see this evening?”

“The inside of the house, for one,” Josephine said. The idea of going into the old farmhouse scared her, but it seemed like an obvious place to search.

“Yeah, you’re right. We could look for clues.”

“Okay,” said Josephine. “Midnight?”

“Midnight,” said Francesca. Without another word, the girls climbed down from the tree house and headed toward their respective back doors.

***

CHAPTER 10: A Treasure Map!

Francesca set her radio-alarm for 11:55 PM. As soon as the music came on, she sat up in bed, wide awake. She pulled on an old sweatshirt she’d set out especially for this expedition. Then she stood up and put on her jeans. She walked over by the window to ring her cousin. As she reached for the bell-string, her own bell jingled.

She picked up the telephone-can. “Hello?”

“Are you ready?” came a tinny voice.

“Almost,” Francesca said. “I’ll hurry.” Francesca set the can down, slipped on her shoes, and bent over to lace them. Her first wave of alertness was fading. What were they doing, riding to the edge of town and prowling around an abandoned farm that the police had declared was off-limits?

She wondered whether her cousin was feeling the same doubts. Maybe they should just go back to sleep and worry about it in the morning.

Francesca opened her window and slipped out into the easement.

“Ssssst!” Josephine hissed. “Come on!” She already had her helmet on.

So much for sleep, thought Francesca. She fastened her own helmet, and they pedaled off. There was practically no traffic, and they only had to take cover once, when a delivery van was idling at a corner.

The moon was partly hidden by clouds, and Highway 99 was dark. The girls stopped across the street from the dirt road leading to the farmhouse. To the left, they had a clear view. But the bend in the road to the right made it hard to see in that direction.

“Let’s leave our bikes behind the shed again,” Francesca said. “Ready to go for it?”

Seeing no headlights, they darted across the two-lane highway and rolled their bikes across the uneven soil to the shed. Leaving their cycles and helmets, the girls walked quickly up the dirt road. Ten minutes later, they turned the curve and approached the house.

The moon came out of the clouds and shone down on the old two-story farmhouse. Set in the middle of the scruffy, untended yard, the house looked stark and deserted. But was it?

“Maybe we should make sure no one is around,” Josephine whispered. “There could be a hidden guard.”

They tossed a few rocks against the side of the house. When there was no response, they tiptoed onto the front porch. The screen door hung open. Josephine gave the front door a little shove, and it opened a few inches. She pushed harder, and it opened with a loud squeak that made the girls jump.

Josephine stuck her head in and listened. No sound came from inside the house. “Should we go in?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Francesca said, stepping past her cousin.

As she entered the house, she made an awful face. The air reeked of rotting garbage. “What a terrible smell!” Francesca cupped her hand over her mouth and nose. “Let’s work fast.”

The girls pulled out little flashlights and shone them around the entryway. “There’s the kitchen,” Francesca said. She found a switch and flipped on the light. “At least the electricity still works.”

Josephine looked at her anxiously. “Do you think we should turn on a light?”

“Why not? The house isn’t visible from the highway. And if someone comes down the dirt road, they’re going to see our flashlights, anyway.”

The girls searched the cabinets and drawers. All were empty except for a few dishes. The mess in the sink stank, but didn’t seem to offer any clues. They explored the dining room and living room without finding anything. “Upstairs?” Francesca suggested.

The stairs creaked as the girls made their way to the upper floor. Josephine played her flashlight back and forth. The smell wasn’t so bad. But Josephine began to wonder whether the house was deserted after all. What if someone was hiding in one of the rooms? Were they walking into a trap?

She followed Francesca from room to room, not wanting to alarm her cousin, but ready for the worst. Two rooms were completely empty. The third contained a large wardrobe and a smaller dresser.

The dresser was empty. The wardrobe contained a few old suits that smelled like mothballs. “Nothing here,” Josephine said.

“Did you check the pockets?” Francesca stepped over and sifted through the pockets of the coats. From the first few, she pulled out a couple of rubber bands, a bit of spare change, and some paper clips. In the last one, though, she found a small packet of papers.

“What’s this?’ she asked. She unfolded a water bill and a past-due notice for the phone. “Some of Mr. Rafferty’s bills, it looks like.”

The last item was a folded piece of paper, which fell onto the floor. Josephine picked it up and opened it carefully. At the bottom was a short list with most of the items scratched out. The rest of the page was filled with crudely drawn symbols.

She hesitated a moment. Then she grabbed her cousin’s arm. “It’s the treasure map!”

***

CHAPTER 11: This Is the Police!

Francesca shook her head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t look old enough to be a treasure map.”

“Of course,” Josephine answered. “It’s probably a new copy.” On the scrap of paper was a crude drawing showing a little house, a single tree, a half-dozen Xs, and some lines that she took to be roads.

“What was it doing in this coat pocket?”

“Mr. Rafferty must have left it when he moved out. The old bills prove that it’s his coat.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Francesca said. “We know he was searching. If it’s the treasure map, what does it tell us?”

Josephine shone the flashlight directly on the paper. “Assuming that this is the farmhouse,” she said, “then this line must be the dirt road leading out to the highway.”

The map indicated land stretching quite a distance beyond the house. “What are those?” Francesca asked, pointing to several Xs located at various spots on the map. Her eyes fell to the bottom of the page, where there appeared a list of words in bad handwriting. Most of the words were scratched out. But the last item on the list was legible: “Wet Woods,” Francesca read. “Where’s ‘Wet Woods’?”

“No,” Josephine cried. “It doesn’t say ‘wet’ — it says ‘web’! It’s the ‘web-in-the-woods’! The Xs must show where each safe was found. Then he crossed them off the list. Just like we heard, one safe is still missing — the one buried at the web-in-the-woods.”

“Assuming it really exists,” Francesca said. “Just because there’s a map doesn’t prove the treasure is real.”

“But I’m sure it exists,” Josephine insisted. “I can feel it.”

“Sorry, that doesn’t prove anything, either,” her cousin said.

Just then the girls heard a noise outside. “A car!” cried Francesca. Her heart pounded. “We left the lights on downstairs. What if it’s the smugglers? What if they’re coming back for the map?” Instinctively, she folded the paper and stuck it in her pocket.

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Below, the engine shut off, and car doors opened and slammed shut. A moment later, the girls heard footsteps on the porch. The front door creaked open. A voice called from downstairs: “This is the police. We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up!”

The girls froze. Josephine grabbed her cousin’s arm. “The police! We’ve got to get out of here,” she hissed. “If they catch us, they’ll call our parents, and we’ll get in all kinds of trouble and never be able to solve the mystery!”

From downstairs came the voice: “This is the police — come out now!”

Francesca was shaking, but she knew her cousin was right — they had to escape if they were ever to capture the animal smugglers. “I have an idea,” she whispered. “We’ll have to jump out the window, though.”

Josephine looked out the window. “Okay, it’s not too far,” she said anxiously. “What’s your plan?”

Francesca carefully removed a drawer from the dresser. “I’ll throw this down the stairs to scare them. Then, we jump out the window and run for the road.”

Once more the voice called from downstairs: “This is your last warning. We have you surrounded.”

Francesca walked gingerly to the top of the stairs, took a breath, and flung the wooden drawer. It clattered noisily down the old stairway.

“Go!” she cried to her cousin, who had already started out the window. Josephine lowered herself quickly, hanging from the windowsill by her fingertips. With a little “whoop!” she dropped. She hit the ground with a jolt and rolled onto her side. A moment later, Francesca’s feet popped out of the window.

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Josephine scrambled out of the way as her cousin dropped. “Hurry,” she said, jumping to her feet. She looked over her shoulder as they scurried around the house. An officer leaned out of a second-story window.

“Hey, there they are,” the policeman bellowed. “It’s a bunch of kids!”

“That guy saw us,” Francesca rasped as they ran toward the dirt road. Her ankle hurt from the jump. Behind her, she heard the police car start up. “They’re after us!”

“Quick, into the fields,” said Josephine. She grabbed her cousin by the wrist and pulled her across the roadside ditch and into the scrubby fields. The dry weeds offered no resistance, but the ground was broken and hard to run across.

The police car’s lights appeared at the top of the road. “Get down,” Josephine said. They dropped flat on their stomachs, faces pressed to the dirt.

The car slowed. Suddenly, a high-powered searchlight flashed across the field. The beam swung back and forth. The girls scarcely dared to breathe. The light hovered right over them for a moment. Then it shifted to the right.

“Come on out, kids,” croaked a loudspeaker. “There is nowhere to run. We see you.”

“They can’t see us,” whispered Josephine indignantly. “They must think we’re really stupid!”

The spotlight moved again. It swung over them, but kept going. Then it swung over to the other side of the dirt road. “You are trapped,” said the loudspeaker. “Come out with your hands up.”

The girls lay silently. The police repeated their words. But it was clear they had no idea where the girls were.

At last, the car went slowly on down the dirt road, still playing its spotlight over the fields.

“Phew,” said Josephine after the cruiser reached the two-lane highway and drove away. She sat up amid the tall, dry grass. “That was close.”

“We’re not in the clear yet,” Francesca said. “It could be a trick to get us to come out in the open.”

“Oh yeah, I didn’t think of that.”

The girls crept back to the road, keeping an eye on the highway. Several cars cruised past, forcing the girls to leap into the roadside ditch and take cover. From that vantage point, they couldn’t tell if any of the cars were police. But none slowed down. Finally, the girls reached the shed where their bikes were hidden.

“Now comes the worst part,” Josephine said, buckling her helmet. “Once we come out from behind the shed, if a car comes around the bend, there’s no way we can stay hidden.”

She stuck her head around the corner of the shed. “Coast is clear — let’s go!” The girls hopped on their bikes and pedaled as hard as they could until they were over by Antonia’s house. They pulled in behind the Prito’s utility van and caught their breath. “Okay,” Josephine said, “one more stretch till we’re out of sight.”

Just then, a large car came cruising slowly up the highway. “Stay back!” Francesca said.

The car slowed to a stop just beyond where the girls huddled behind the Prito’s van. Josephine and Francesca held their breath as a glaring spotlight flashed on. It shone out over the farm fields, roving back and forth over the grassy land.

Then the beam honed in on the little shed. “The police again,” whispered Josephine. “Thank goodness we moved!”

“Just in time,” Francesca said.

The spotlight played over the little shed, but no one got out of the vehicle. At last, the light switched off. The big car drove slowly away.

Josephine exhaled hard. “Come on, let’s go.” The girls took off the opposite way from the patrol car, pedaling hard for a hundred yards until they turned off Highway 99 onto a residential street. “Now we can relax.”

“I won’t relax till I’m back in bed,” Francesca called back. She reached in her pocket and felt the folded map.

Ten minutes later, they pulled into their driveways. They left their bikes out front. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Josephine said. “We have to figure out what to do next.”

“Okay,” yawned Francesca. “I’m sleeping late tomorrow, though.”

Francesca fell right asleep, but was awakened the next morning far earlier than she had hoped. From the living room came the sound of arguing voices. She shook her head to clear it and heard her father talking heatedly.

“What kind of way is this to treat law-abiding citizens? My wife has done absolutely nothing to deserve this sort of treatment.”

Francesca sat up. Was her mother in trouble? She rolled out of bed and shuffled down the hall. She knew if she walked into the living room she’d get sent back to her bedroom. She went to the edge of the doorway, staying back in the hall and peeking around the corner as her father exploded in anger.

***

CHAPTER 12: Trouble for Iola

“That’s outrageous!” Joe’s face was red.

“Sorry, sir,” came a flat, emotionless voice that Francesca guessed belonged to a policeman outside the door. “I have orders to bring Iola Hardy to the station for questioning in the matter of Rafferty’s farm.”

“Well, those orders are ridiculous,” Joe snapped back.

“They’re my orders just the same, sir, and I intend to execute them.”

Joe and Iola talked in lowered voices, and Francesca couldn’t make out their words. At last, Iola spoke out. “Alright, officer. Let me change my clothes, and I’ll come with you.”

Francesca could restrain herself no longer. She burst into the living room. “Where are they taking you, Mom? Why are the police here?”

Iola looked startled. “Frankie — it’s all going to be fine, dear,” she said in a shaky voice.

Francesca hugged her mother, who patted her on the back. “It’s just a routine matter, dear,” Iola said. “I’m sure I’ll be home by dinnertime. Now go get dressed.”

Back in her bedroom, Francesca pulled the bell cord. A moment later her cousin picked up her tin can telephone. “Hello?” came Josephine’s voice.

“It’s me,” Francesca said. “My mom just got arrested. Not exactly arrested, but the police are here, and they’re taking her to the station to question her. My dad is all upset. You should tell your parents.”

“Okay. I’ll be right over.”

A couple of minutes later, Frank and Callie came through the back door and joined Joe in the living room, haranguing the police officer about freedom and civil rights. Josephine went straight to her cousin’s room.

“Did they already take your mom away?”

“No, they didn’t,” came Iola’s voice from behind her.

Josephine turned red. “Oh, hi, Aunt Iola. I’m sorry the police have come for you.”

Iola smiled sadly. “Yes, I’m sorry, too. I hope to be back by dinnertime.”

“I’ll ask my mom to cook extra so you can come over,” Josephine said.

“Thanks, dear,” Iola said. She hugged her niece, then went over and hugged Francesca, who was sitting glumly on the bed. “I really will be home soon, Frankie. I’m not under arrest. They just want to ask me some questions about Mr. Rafferty. I’ll see you soon.”

The girls followed Iola out to the living room, where she bid farewell to Joe, Frank, and Callie.

“I’ll follow you down there,” Joe said, picking up his jacket and car keys.

“Can I go, too?” Francesca asked.

“No, Frankie,” Iola said. “You stay here. We’ll be home soon.”

“I called Phil Cohen,” Frank said, “and he said he’d come straight down. Don’t answer any questions without a lawyer.”

Iola nodded. She turned and hugged her daughter one last time, then followed the police officer out to the patrol car. He held the door as she climbed into the back seat. Several neighbors stood in their doorways gawking.

“This is outrageous,” Joe muttered angrily. “They could have called and asked her to come down. They didn’t need to send a policeman to escort her. This must be Smuff’s doing!”

Frank nodded silently. “You might as well have some breakfast before you go. They’re not going to let you talk to Iola, anyway. You’ll just be sitting around down there.”

“You’re right,” Joe said, setting his jacket down.

“Frankie and Joey,” Callie said, “Why don’t you girls come over to our house and I’ll make you something special.”

While Callie made a batch of strawberry pancakes, the girls went back to Josephine’s room to discuss the day’s plan. Francesca wanted to go straight to the police station to find out what was happening to her mother.

Josephine nodded sympathetically. “I want to know what happened to her, too. But you heard what my dad said. They’ll never let us near her.”

Francesca scowled. “So what should we do?”

“I have a couple of ideas,” Josephine said. “We have the map of the Raffertys’ property. We need to go back and check out the wooded areas to see if there is some place that might fit the ‘web-in-the-woods’ clue.”

“We can’t very well do that in the daytime,” Francesca said. “Not with the police watching the place.”

“True,” said Josephine. “We’ll have to go back at —” She stopped abruptly as her mother appeared in the doorway.

“Do you girls want to eat back here?” Callie said. “I can bring you a tray.”

Ordinarily, that would have been a special treat. But Josephine saw through her mother’s trick — the adults must be discussing something important. “No, Mom, we’ll come out to the kitchen.” She gave her cousin a sharp glance, and Francesca jumped up from the bed and followed her out to the kitchen.

Frank and Joe were seated at the kitchen table. “We’ve got to find out more about this Rafferty guy,” Frank was saying as the girls entered. He paused for a moment, then resumed. “I think we should pay a visit to the Raffertys’ real estate agent and see what’s really going on with that property.”

“Good idea,” Joe said. “We can say we’re interested in making a bid for the farm and see how they react.”

“Why, what will they do?” Francesca asked.

“If they’re honest,” Joe answered, “they’ll be excited to have another bid and want to show us the property right away. If not, they’ll try to chase us off with some sort of wild story.”

“What will that prove?” Josephine asked as she poured syrup on her pancakes.

“I don’t know that it will prove anything,” Frank said. “But we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on. So far, we have only Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty’s word — and they don’t seem to agree on much of anything.”

Josephine started to ask her father whether he trusted Mrs. Rafferty’s claims about her husband’s innocence. But Callie interrupted. “I think that’s enough questions,” she said. “You girls eat your pancakes.”

“Aw, Mom, we just want to know what’s going on,” said Josephine. “We’re worried about Aunt Iola, too.”

Callie put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “We all are, Joey. But this really isn’t kids’ business.”

“We’re almost teenagers now, Mom,” Josephine said, forcing herself to be patient.

“They’re going to hear about it soon enough,” Frank said to Callie. “This animal smuggling is the biggest news in years. I’m afraid by tonight, everyone in Bayport will know that Iola is being questioned.”

Joe clenched his fists. “Smuff will probably leak it to the media. The press might already be lining up, ready to pounce when Iola comes out. I have to get down to the police station before they release her!” He jumped up from his chair. “Frankie, you stay here.”

“I’m going out bike riding with Josephine, Dad,” Francesca answered.

“Well, stay with your cousin till your mother and I get home!” Joe headed out the door. A moment later, the girls heard his car pull out of the driveway.

Francesca pushed her plate away. “I’m sorry, Aunt Callie, I can’t eat any more.”

“That’s okay, Frankie,” Callie said, patting her niece on the shoulder.

“Me either, Mom,” Josephine said. “Thanks.”

She led the way back to her room. “Now what?”

Francesca didn’t say anything. She was thinking again about her mother getting questioned by the police. Even if she couldn’t get inside to visit, she felt like she had to do something. “I want to go to the police station,” she said. “Just to see what’s going on.”

“Even with your dad down there?”

“He didn’t say I couldn’t,” Francesca said. “He just said I had to stay with you.”

“True. It’s still probably better if nobody sees us.”

The girls rode their bikes downtown. The first couple of times they passed the police station, nothing seemed to be happening. They split a sandwich for lunch and played a game of pinball at a newsstand, then rode back by the station.

By now, a small crowd had gathered outside. Several vans with tall antennae sprouting from their roofs showed that local television stations had sent reporters. The girls pedaled around the left side of the crowd, trying to see what was happening.

“There’s your dad!” Josephine said. She pointed through the crowd to where Joe was standing, surrounded by a group of reporters thrusting microphones at him.

Francesca couldn’t make out her father’s words, but she could see his firm gestures. She knew he must be defending Iola and felt proud of him.

Suddenly, there was a stirring up by the police station door. The television cameras hurried that way. A couple of blue-uniformed officers came out of the building and cleared people off the steps. For a moment, all was quiet. Then the doors opened again, and a short, black-haired woman stepped through.

“Mom!” Francesca called out. But her voice was drowned in the general commotion. Iola stopped at the top of the steps, staring down at the twenty or so reporters and onlookers. The police were holding people back, but Joe pushed his way through and bounded up the stairs. He threw his arm around Iola’s shoulder, and the two of them stepped down to face the media.

From where the girls were standing, the crowd blocked their view. Josephine craned her neck this way and that. “It looks like your mom stopped to talk to the reporters,” she said. “I guess that means she’s alright.”

“I hope so,” Francesca said. “At least the police let her go.”

A skateboarder rolled up the street toward them. The girls stepped aside to let him pass. At that moment, a police car wheeled up to the curb and an officer jumped out of the car. “Hey, you two,” he called. “Come here — I want to talk to you!”

***

CHAPTER 13: Web in the Woods

The policeman strode directly toward them. Josephine rolled her bike away, gliding into the street. But Francesca’s bike was facing the wrong way. She turned the wheel sharply, but the officer was closing in. Francesca saw only one chance. Quickly, she steered right toward the skateboarder coming up the sidewalk.

The guy, a teenager with punkish hair, looked up in surprise. Francesca gritted her teeth and rolled right at him. “Hey, watch it,” he yelled. He swerved to avoid her and collided with the policeman.

“Sorry!” Francesca called over her shoulder. As the policeman scrambled around the skater, Francesca pedaled into the street and curved around to follow her cousin.

“Come back here!” hollered the officer.

“Keep going,” Josephine panted to her cousin as they raced away.

They zigzagged right and left at the next several corners. Finally, they slowed for a stop sign and looked back. “I think we lost him,” Josephine panted.

“I sure hope my parents didn’t see that,” Francesca said as she gasped for air. “What do you think he wanted?”

“Maybe it was one of the guys who saw us at the farmhouse last night,” Josephine said.

“But they didn’t get a good look at us.”

“Well, we’ve got to watch out.”

The girls rode hard the rest of the way home, even though no one seemed to be pursuing them. They were dying to tell Callie that Iola was coming home, but they knew they should stay silent.

A short while later, Frank came in and broke the news. “I just swung by the police station. Some reporters told me that Joe and Iola had headed back home. I thought they’d be here already.”

Just then, Joe’s car turned into the driveway. The girls burst out the door to greet them. Francesca ran up and hugged her mother. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I’m fine, dear,” Iola said. “Thank goodness Phil Cohen was there, though, or they would have had me confessing to robbing Fort Knox.”

Everyone headed back to Callie’s kitchen. Iola dropped into a chair, and Callie handed her a cup of tea. Joe sat next to her, his jaw firmly set. The girls set out dishes while Callie chopped vegetables for dinner.

“Did Smuff question you?” Frank asked as he helped Callie prepare the salad.

“No, it was a couple of other officers,” Iola said.

“Will you have to go back?”

“I’m afraid so,” Iola said. “They told me not to leave town and to be available for questioning at any time.”

“That’s absurd,” Frank said, setting a plate of celery and cheese on the table. “They can’t treat people like that.”

“I’m afraid they can,” Iola said glumly. “If I refuse to cooperate, they can issue a warrant for my arrest.”

The adults were silent for a moment, so Francesca spoke up. “What were they asking you about, Mom?”

Iola sipped her tea and looked at her daughter thoughtfully. “Mainly it was about Mr. Rafferty and his finances. But then they started asking about my finances, about our house, and whether we were in debt. I started to feel like they were accusing me of doing something illegal.”

“Didn’t Phil interrupt?” Joe asked as he spread cheese on a celery stick. “That’s what lawyers are supposed to do.”

“He did,” Iola said. “But it didn’t matter. I don’t think the detectives cared whether I answered their questions. They just wanted me to know that they’re suspicious.”

“Yuck,” said Josephine as if she had bitten into something sour. “Sounds awful.”

“It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s for sure,” Iola said. “And when I think of poor Mr. Rafferty…” Her voice trailed off sadly.

“Do you think he’s innocent, Mom?” Francesca asked. Josephine leaned forward, thankful her cousin had asked the question.

Iola shook her head slowly. “I don’t know, dear. The police certainly seem to think he’s guilty of animal smuggling.”

Francesca wanted to mention talking to Mrs. Rafferty and how the woman had insisted that her husband had nothing to do with the smugglers. But there was no way to bring it up without admitting that the girls had been at the hearing, which didn’t seem like a good idea.

Luckily, her cousin saw another approach. “Dad,” Josephine said to Frank, “weren’t you going to talk to the Raffertys’ real estate agent today?”

Frank gave her a bright look. “As a matter of fact, yes, I did, and Mrs. Rafferty was there at the time. And I must say, she sure acted quite oddly, especially when they learned I was one of the Hardy Boys. I asked about going out to see the property, and Mrs. Rafferty made all sorts of excuses why we couldn’t do it anytime soon.”

“That’s strange,” Joe said. “I talked to a reporter who interviewed Mrs. Rafferty after the court hearing, and he said that she wanted to sell the property as soon as possible.”

Exactly, thought Josephine. The same thing the girls had heard.

“Perhaps someone already made an offer,” Callie said.

“It still doesn’t make sense,” Joe answered. “Why wouldn’t the Raffertys be glad to get a second offer? A little competition could raise the price.”

Frank nodded. “Something isn’t adding up,” he said. “I got the distinct feeling Mrs. Rafferty was trying to keep me from visiting the farm, and was trying to get rid of me altogether.”

Josephine looked at her cousin, who was lost in thought. She moved over and tapped Francesca on the arm. “Want to go back to my room?”

Francesca followed her and closed the door behind them, then sat down on the bed.

Josephine paced back and forth. “I have a plan to get us some more information,” she said. “Remember when we talked with Mrs. Rafferty, and she said something about going to meet with Landsdowne ‘the day after tomorrow’?”

“Yeah,” Francesca said.

“Well, the day after tomorrow would be tomorrow, assuming you said it yesterday.”

Francesca stared at her blankly. “Huh?”

“In other words,” Josephine said, “they’re meeting tomorrow. And when they do, we should be there, listening.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Josephine admitted. “But we know they’re meeting at Mr. Landsdowne’s estate, and they’re talking about selling the farm. So all we have to do is go out there in the morning, find a place to hide, and wait until she shows up.”

“And when she does?”

“Then we have to get close enough to hear what they’re saying. But we can’t figure that out until we see where they meet.”

Francesca pondered the proposal. “Okay, I guess it makes sense.” She let out a long yawn. “I’ll see you in the morning.

“Wait,” said Josephine. “One more thing — can I have the map?” She took the folded paper from her cousin and headed home.

Francesca was sound asleep when the jingling of the little bell by her window startled her awake. She jumped out of bed, and her head spun. She leaned against her big oak dresser for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. It was still dark outside. What was going on?

The bell jingled again. Francesca picked up her tin can. “Hello?”

“It’s me. Can I come over?”

“Okay. Why?” Francesca switched on a lamp and tried to clear her head. Were they supposed to meet at midnight? Had she overslept?

She stood waiting for an answer, tin can to her ear. A moment later, her cousin climbed through her bedroom window. Once inside, Josephine reached in her pocket and produced the map they’d found at the farmhouse.

“Look at this,” she said excitedly, jabbing her finger at the map.

“Shhhh, you’ll wake my parents!”

“Sorry,” Josephine said in a loud whisper. “But look!” She pointed to a little symbol of a tree near the center of the paper. Several long lines intersected at the tree in a star pattern. The lines ran to the edges of the paper, crossed by other lines here and there.

“So?” Francesca said. “There are lots of trees on the farm.”

“Exactly,” said Josephine. “So if someone sketched in just this one, they must mean for it to stand for ‘woods.’”

Francesca nodded slowly. “You could be right.”

Encouraged, Josephine continued excitedly. “And these lines — look how all three lines cross exactly at the tree.”

“They’re probably paths through the woods,” Francesca guessed.

“But their shape — it’s a web! This is Mr. Rafferty’s map of where he thinks the last buried safe is hidden. It looks like a new drawing, so I’ll bet he just figured it out, and then got arrested before he could dig it up.”

Francesca stared down at the map. “Do you think so?”

“Yes,” Josephine said firmly. “I’m sure this is the map to the buried safe. But we’re probably not the only ones who know about it. He must have told his wife about it.”

“Well, for that matter,” Francesca said, “practically anyone might know about it, since it sounds like Mr. Rafferty wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret. He told my mom, and his wife thinks he told the bank. Anyone could know.”

“True,” Josephine said somberly.

“I think we’re getting distracted from the real question,” Francesca said. “Whether or not Mr. Rafferty is an animal smuggler. That’s the real crime here.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Josephine conceded. “But we shouldn’t forget about the buried safe either. We should go back to the farm and try to find the web-in-the-woods. We can see if there’s any sign that someone has been digging already. That’s something we can do right now.”

Francesca shuddered. She looked at the clock. “It’s almost three in the morning. Don’t you think it’s a little late?”

Josephine’s shoulders slumped. “I guess we wouldn’t have enough time to do a thorough search. We’ll have to wait till tomorrow night and start earlier.” She looked at the clock. “We should get some sleep.”

“Great idea. And how about no more calls till morning?”

“Okay,” Josephine said. “Unless it’s really important.” She got up and climbed back out the window. “See you tomorrow,” she whispered as she dropped to the ground.

Francesca switched off her lamp and climbed back in bed. Her body craved sleep, but her eyes wouldn’t stay shut. She rolled over a couple of times. A sliver of light shone under her door. She gazed at it, then shut her eyes again.

A minute later she jerked awake. The sliver of light had grown into a beam across the floor. Was it moving? No, something was moving through the light! Something small and creepy. Francesca clutched her blankets tighter, never taking her eyes off the moving form. It crossed the beam of light again — it was huge! Then it disappeared into the shadows.

Francesca sat up with a start. One of the endangered spiders was in her room! She looked over at the door. The sliver of light barely shone and cast no beam across the floor. Had she been dreaming? She switched on her lamp and looked around. Nothing. But that didn’t prove anything. Maybe the spider was hiding.

Were spiders nocturnal? If she left her lamp on, would it be scared to come out?

She shook her head sharply. What was she thinking? It was all a dream. There was no spider. Just a disquieting dream.

But she left the lamp on just the same.

***

CHAPTER 14: A Spy Mission

Francesca woke early the next morning. She lay in bed thinking about the day’s plans, especially the idea of going out to Mr. Landsdowne’s estate and spying on the meeting between him and Mrs. Rafferty. It wasn’t a bad idea. But how would they get close enough to overhear anything?

Josephine came over after breakfast, and the girls headed out. “Where are we going to leave our bikes?” Francesca asked pointedly. It bothered her not to have important details worked out in advance.

“Hopefully we can find a spot nearby,” Josephine said, ignoring her cousin’s impatient tone.

They pedaled quickly across town to the North Shore Road. The estate was on the inland side of the road, to the girls’ left. They stopped on the right side of the road. A large car whisked past, and the girls pulled farther off the pavement.

“Okay,” Francesca said. “Where do we leave our bikes?”

Josephine looked around. “How about behind that tree?” She pointed to a tree about fifty feet from the road. “We could lock them together. You don’t think anyone will mess with them out here, do you?”

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“I don’t know,” Francesca said. She pushed her bike over to the tree and watched as her cousin chained them together.

Another car cruised past. Josephine craned her neck trying to see who it was. But the car didn’t slow down. “Now we have to figure out how to get near the house,” she said.

“Let’s walk down to the next neighbor’s property,” Francesca said, “then circle back and approach the mansion from the far side. I remember seeing some woods down that way.”

“Right,” Josephine said. “That’s where the bird-pond is.”

They hiked quickly down the Shore Road. As they reached the neighbor’s property line, marked by a line of trees, they looked back and saw a car turn into Mr. Landsdowne’s driveway. “That must be Mrs. Rafferty,” Josephine said.

“It could be anyone,” Francesca answered.

“Well, in case it’s her, we’d better hurry up.” The neighbor’s front yard was a huge meadow surrounded by a low wood-rail fence. At the far end of the meadow were the woods the girls had seen when they visited Mr. Landsdowne’s mansion. No house was visible from where the girls stood.

Josephine looked quickly up and down the road. Then she hopped over the low fence. “If we angle a little way through these woods, it should bring us out alongside Mr. Landsdowne’s backyard.”

Francesca trailed after her cousin in a game of follow-the-leader: over the wooden fence, across the meadow, over another fence, through some tall weeds, and into the woods. The trees were tall and spindly. Wild bushes grew between them.

A hundred feet into the woods, the girls came to a tall chain-link fence overgrown with vines and low bushes.

“This must be the boundary marker,” Josephine said. “We can probably climb it.” She hoisted herself quickly to the top. “No — there’s barbed wire.”

Francesca poked around amid the vines. “There’s an opening down here,” she said. “There’s a lot of thistles, but we can squeeze through.” She was glad she’d had the foresight to wear an old sweater.

Pushing the brambles aside, the girls wriggled through the narrow hole, then huddled against the overgrown fence. Between them and Mr. Landsdowne’s house lay a hundred yards of open lawn. No one was in sight, but anybody casting a glance their direction would be sure to see them run across the lawn.

Josephine scowled. Her plan had seemed so great when she thought about it at home, but now that they were here, she didn’t see how they would ever be able to get close enough to overhear a conversation. “What should we do?”

The situation didn’t look very promising to Francesca either. But she figured they might as well give it a shot. She beckoned to her cousin. “Come on,” she said. “We’ve gone this far. Let’s make a run for the house. If someone sees us, we’ll dash back to the woods. They’ll never catch us.”

She took off across the huge backyard. Her cousin jumped up and raced after her. Francesca was savoring the lush grass beneath her feet when she realized why it was so thick and green — the ground was soaking wet. Water seeped into her shoes and soaked her socks.

She grimaced but kept running. “Keep going,” she called. “Over to that woodpile.”

They made it behind a stack of firewood and collapsed on the ground. “I think we’re safe here,” Josephine said.

Still gasping for breath, Francesca pointed toward the house. “Let’s see if we can spot them through a window. If not, we’ll have to get closer.”

Before Josephine could answer, they heard a car coming around the side of the house. The girls pressed against the firewood, barely hidden from view. The car pulled up alongside the house and stopped. A door opened, and a moment later closed.

Josephine started to look around the edge of the woodpile, but Francesca grabbed her arm. “Stay still.”

“I want to see if it’s Mrs. Rafferty.”

“Give her time to get past us.” The girls held themselves still for a long moment. “Okay, check now,” Francesca said. “Stay low.”

Keeping herself close to the ground, Josephine peeked around the edge. The visitor was almost up to the side door. “It’s a woman, that’s all I can tell. It must be her.”

“Good,” Francesca said. “We need to get right up by the house.”

Easier said than done, Josephine thought. She looked again around the edge of the woodpile. Between them and the house were fifty feet of open space broken only by a low hedge that offered even less cover than the woodpile.

But Francesca was already set in a sprinter’s stance. “Ready? Go!” She dashed for the hedge, thirty feet away. Josephine raced after her, and the girls ducked behind the shrubs, seemingly undetected.

From there, they could peer through openings in the leaves and see into the windows of an enclosed sunroom. So far the only person visible appeared to be a maid.

“That must be who you saw,” Francesca said.

“No, the person I saw was taller and was wearing a fancy hat. That’s not her.”

“We might be watching the wrong part of the house,” Francesca said. “Maybe one of us should stay here, and the other should circle around to the front.”

“Okay, I’ll stay here,” Josephine volunteered. “We need a signal if we see them. Do you know any birdcalls?”

“No, not really. Even if I did, how could you tell them from a real bird?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true.” Josephine pondered the problem. “I know — how about ‘hoo-hoo’ like an owl? You’d never hear a real owl during the daytime.”

“Fine, if one of us sees something, make that sound.”

“Practice it, so I’ll know what you sound like,” Josephine said. “Here’s mine — ‘Hoo-hoo!’”

Francesca felt impatient, but complied. “‘Hoo-hoo.’ There, do you have it?”

“I think so.”

“Good. I’ll circle around front.” Francesca hurried away, disappearing behind some shrubbery along the side of the house.

Josephine settled onto her knees. She moved a branch of the hedge aside. Through the sunroom windows, she could see the maid, still working. Then the woman stopped and spoke to someone that Josephine couldn’t see. The maid pointed, then walked to the side of the room.

A moment later, another figure appeared in view — Mr. Landsdowne. Josephine recognized him immediately by his big chest and belly. She started to make the owl signal, then halted. So far she’d seen no sign of Mrs. Rafferty. It could be a false alarm.

Mr. Landsdowne turned so he was facing the row of screened windows. Even though she was well concealed, Josephine instinctively ducked lower behind the hedge. She moved another branch to get a better view of the windows.

The big man was speaking to someone, smiling and gesturing broadly. At last, the other person stepped into view — Mrs. Rafferty! Josephine’s heart jumped as the woman turned and faced the window.

“Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!” Josephine signaled. “Hoo-hoo!” She hoped her cousin would respond quickly since she had no idea what to do now that she had actually spotted their prey.

A minute later, Francesca came tumbling back behind the hedge. “Did you see them?”

“Yes — they’re right inside that room!”

Francesca looked through the opening in the hedge. “It’s her, all right,” she said. “We have to get closer.”

“Closer?”

“What’s the point in coming this far if we don’t get close enough to hear? We can crawl along the ground and come up right under the windows. If we get that close, we can probably hear them.”

“You should go, and I’ll keep lookout,” Josephine said.

“Okay. If you see anyone, make the owl signal.” Francesca crawled around the side of the hedge. The ground was warm, but the gravel scratched her. She inched her way to the wall of the house. The windows started about three feet off the ground. Francesca eased herself against the wall, coming into a seated position just under an open window.

From inside, she could make out voices, but they weren’t distinct. When she finally made out some words, it seemed like they were talking about dogs. Mr. Landsdowne said he was very happy about something or other, and Mrs. Rafferty congratulated him for it. Maybe he won some sort of dog show, Francesca thought.

Then their voices turned serious. Francesca could hear first one, then the other. Words like “mortgage” and “development” stood out, but she couldn’t tell what they were saying.

She was about to give up when Mrs. Rafferty’s voice grew louder. It seemed to shift, as if she were pacing around the sunroom. “I want to finalize the sale while we have the chance. Someone else inquired about the property this week. I got rid of him, but if my husband hears that there are other offers, he’ll insist on starting the whole process over again. We need to do it now and present him with a completed deal when he gets out of jail.”

Aha, thought Francesca. Mrs. Rafferty really did try to chase Frank away when he visited the real estate office. She was trying to close the deal with Mr. Landsdowne before her husband could get out of jail and stop it.

“I just need to transfer the necessary funds,” Mr. Landsdowne said. “After that, I’m prepared to sign at any time.”

For a long moment, Francesca heard nothing. Then she heard Mrs. Rafferty again, loud and clear. “Let’s do it.”

“And you are confident you can speak for your husband as well?”

“My husband? If he refuses, I’ll have him declared incompetent. It’s hardly an exaggeration. I’ll just get him talking about the buried safe and the missing land-trust deed and the web-in-the-woods, and the judge will declare him crazy. If I sign the papers, the deal is as good as complete.”

“Excellent!” boomed Mr. Landsdowne so loudly that Francesca jumped.

All was silent for a moment. Francesca wondered if she should move. But she didn’t want to miss any final details.

When Mrs. Rafferty spoke again, she seemed to be standing at the window, directly above Francesca. “What a beautiful yard,” she said.

“Indeed,” said Mr. Landsdowne, also at the window. “Why don’t we step outside?”

***

CHAPTER 15: Run For It!

Francesca was trapped. If she stood up, they’d see her from the window. But unless she got away fast, they’d catch her when they came out into the yard.

There was only one chance — wait till they started for the door, grab her cousin, and make a run for it.

Francesca sat perfectly still. The voices ceased. Had they left the sunroom? Or were they standing silently at the window?

She had to risk it. Catching a breath, Francesca leapt to her feet. “Let’s go!” she hissed as she sprinted past the hedge.

Josephine clambered to her feet and raced after her cousin. As they crossed the driveway, they heard the house door slam. Mr. Landsdowne’s Texas accent boomed out, “Hey! What are you doing?”

Josephine glanced over her shoulder — Mr. Landsdowne had started after them! The big man huffed and shouted, “Come back here! I want to talk to you!”

The girls ran as hard as they could, but the soggy ground slowed them. Francesca had to stop for a second when one of her shoes almost came off in the muck. Josephine grabbed her arm and pulled her along.

Mr. Landsdowne stopped short of the bog and yelled: “What were you kids doing? Come back here!”

Francesca and Josephine reached solid ground and bolted for the fence. They found the opening and squeezed through, Mr. Landsdowne’s voice echoing in their ears.

Even though no one seemed to be chasing them, the girls moved quickly through the little woods, following what seemed like a path away from the fence.

“So,” Josephine said after they’d gone some distance through the trees, “could you hear anything they were talking about?”

“Bits and pieces,” Francesca said. “One thing is for sure — Mrs. Rafferty is selling the farm, and she wants to do it fast, while her husband is in jail.”

“Did they talk about the buried safe?”

“Not really.” She stopped and looked around. “I think we’ve gone the wrong way. We should have reached the meadow by now.”

Josephine stopped a little ahead of her. “I can’t remember how far it was.”

“I guess if we keep following this path, it has to come out somewhere.” Suddenly, Francesca’s eyes caught a quick movement overhead. “What’s that?”

Josephine looked up. A large black bird with a long hooked beak was flitting from tree to tree, as if looking for the perfect perch from which to spy on them.

“What a funny bird,” Francesca muttered. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”

Josephine shook her head. “It must be one of the rare birds that Mr. Landsdowne told us about. What was the guy’s name, Strummond? Maybe we’re close to his pond.”

The girls followed the path a bit further. It wasn’t well-marked to begin with, and as they got deeper into the woods and the underbrush grew thicker, it got hard to see which way to go. Finally, the path disappeared altogether. The trees grew denser and the undergrowth was even thicker. The girls felt like they were lost in a jungle.

Francesca stopped and looked around. “I don’t think we’re getting anywhere.”

Josephine walked a little ahead. She slipped between two trees and came to a wall of greenery. Strands of ivy seemed to grow straight up from the ground, then droop back down over the girls’ heads. Josephine could make out rusty chain-link behind the ivy. “A fence,” she said with disappointment as her cousin joined her. “We must have reached the edge of Mr. Strummond’s property.”

Overhead, a large black bird squawked as if mocking the girls, then sailed down and soared over the fence.

The girls looked at one another. “We found it!” Josephine cried.

They parted the strands of the ivy curtain. Peering through, they could see the greenish surface of a pond. A small flock of ducks swam this way and that. Among the reeds stood a stork, perched on one leg. A wide-winged bird soared low over the water, then swooped up into a nearby tree.

“This is amazing,” Josephine said breathlessly. “Think we can get inside the fence?”

“If it’s a nature preserve, we shouldn’t go inside,” Francesca said. “Let’s find a place where we can see better.”

Josephine nodded. She started along the perimeter to the right, picking her way among ferns and seedlings. Francesca followed, stopping now and then to catch a fresh view of the pond through the ivy.

As they circled the aviary fence, which surrounded an area half the size of a football field, the girls were surprised to find the undergrowth thinning. Partway around, the girls came to a small clearing. The weeds had been recently mowed.

On the opposite side of the clearing, alongside a dirt road running back into more woods, stood a big barn that looked like it had just been built. “It must be Mr. Strummond’s barn,” said Francesca. “I’ll bet it has something to do with the aviary.”

Suddenly, they heard a vehicle coming down the dirt road from the other side of the barn. The girls ducked behind a tree as a delivery truck came around the corner of the building. “We should get out of here!” Josephine said.

“Stay still!” Francesca said under her breath.

The truck rolled past the barn and stopped fifty feet from the girls, close enough for them to hear the driver complaining about the condition of the dirt road.

Staying close to the ground, Francesca poked her head around the tree. Two men and a woman got out. The woman was smoking a cigarette, and coughed sharply. Then, in a raspy voice, she commanded the men to unload two large wooden crates from the back of the truck.

“Don’t drop it!” she said sharply. “Set it here. We’ll get the forklift and move it inside later.”

The men set the crate on the ground. “I need a break,” said a burly man. Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked directly toward the tree where the girls were hiding.

It only took Francesca an instant to realize what sort of break the man was about to take. “Run, Josephine!” she cried. Her cousin jumped up, and the two girls sprinted back along the trail around the aviary.

“Hey, what’s going on?” the man called in a startled voice. “Who’s that?”

“Stop them!” shrieked the woman. “They were spying on us! Stop them!”

The girls raced back along the trail. The workers pounded after them, yelling and cursing.

As the undergrowth thickened, Josephine veered to the left, guessing that was the way back to the Shore Road. “Come on, Francesca!” she called over her shoulder.

Heavy footsteps tore through the brush behind them. Josephine risked a glance back — the burly man was gaining on them!

The girls darted between trees, but there was no way to elude their pursuers. The big man was closing the gap, shouting at them to stop. Behind him came more shouts.

Up ahead, the undergrowth thickened again. Tangles of vines sprawled this way and that. “It’s Mr. Landsdowne’s fence!” Josephine cried. “We can escape through the hole in the fence!”

The girls darted this way and that, searching for the opening. “It’s near that blackberry bush,” Francesca yelled, pointing to a patch of brambles.

Their pursuers reached the fence. The burly man charged toward them. “There’s the hole!” Josephine cried, shielding her face from the thorny branches as she plunged toward the opening. She tumbled through the fence and rolled on the ground.

Behind her, Francesca stuck her head through. But her pursuer caught up and grabbed her leg. “I’ve got you,” he hollered. “Come back here!”

“Help!” cried Francesca. Her arms were through the hole, and she clawed at the fence, trying to get a grip as the man pulled on her leg. “Help!”

Josephine scrambled up and grabbed her cousin’s arms. She tugged, but the man was too strong. “Kick!” she yelled. “Kick him!”

Francesca twisted in the hole. The man yanked on her leg, and the fence jabbed into her side. She kicked and flailed with her other leg, hitting only air. Josephine pulled as hard as she could on her cousin’s arms, but she was losing the tug-of-war.

Francesca screamed and thrashed with her free leg. At last her foot hit flesh. The man groaned and lost his grip. Her cousin was still pulling on her arms, and Francesca skidded through the hole in the fence and tumbled on top of Josephine.

“I’m out! Run!” The girls jumped up and took off across the field toward the Shore Road. Behind them, the men’s voices faded. Josephine cast a glance across the lawn toward Mr. Landsdowne’s house, but didn’t see anyone paying attention.

Gasping for breath, they reached the road. Spotting a break in the traffic, the girls raced across, dropping into the ditch on the other side. They ducked behind a pile of dead branches as more cars went past.

Then all was quiet. Francesca raised her head slowly and looked out at the road. “I think it’s clear,” she whispered. “No, wait!”

At that moment, a pickup truck came speeding toward them!

“Duck!” cried Francesca. The girls dropped flat into the ditch, scarcely daring to breathe.

The truck seemed to slow, but it didn’t stop. Gradually, its engine disappeared toward town.

As her breathing returned to normal, Josephine looked at her arm, which was lined with scratches from the blackberry brambles. Francesca rubbed a scrape on her leg from the fence. “What are we going to tell our moms?”

Josephine shrugged. “Maybe we should just tell them what happened. If they knew we’re trying to solve the mystery of the smuggled animals, maybe they’d understand.”

“Are you crazy? Your mom will be even more upset than mine. We wouldn’t be allowed out of the yard all summer.”

“You’re right,” Josephine sighed. “I hate not telling them what we’re doing, but if we get grounded, we’ll never solve this mystery.”

Francesca nodded slowly. “We don’t actually have to lie about anything. We can tell most of the truth and just leave a few parts out.”

“Good thinking. How about if we say that when we were riding our bikes, we did a trick that didn’t work and landed into a blackberry bush?”

“Both of us?”

“Well, that’s my story,” Josephine said. “You can come up with your own.”

“Okay, I’ll say I ran into a fence. That’s sort of what happened.”

Cars continued to roll past. “Let’s hike down near the bluffs, away from the road,” Francesca said, “in case those workers are watching for us. We can circle around to where our bikes are.”

“Good plan,” said Josephine. She walked behind her cousin in silence, looking out at the spectacular view of Barmet Bay from the tall cliffs. It was along this very stretch of highway that their fathers solved The Shore Road Mystery, one of the first cases to gain international acclaim for the Hardy Boys.

Josephine sighed. Their fathers’ success as teen crime-fighters posed a daunting legacy for the girls as they undertook to solve their very first mystery. And to tell the truth, they weren’t getting very far. They had no clue as to who the animal smugglers might be. Mrs. Rafferty was about to sell the farm. Iola was in trouble for trying to help Mr. Rafferty. And the buried safe containing the missing land-trust deed might not even exist. Not a very good start. She wondered if her father and uncle had ever felt this way when they were solving mysteries.

Francesca turned on a footpath that led back toward the highway. “This is far enough. I think our bikes are under that tree up there.”

The girls crossed a grassy knoll. “I’m starving,” said Josephine. “Let’s go home and —”

She stopped abruptly. “Someone cut our tires!”

***

CHAPTER 16: Vandalized Bicycles

The bikes were still chained together and leaning against the tree. But all four tires were completely flat. Francesca bent over and inspected her front tire. “Cut right through,” she said.

She noticed a piece of paper tucked into her brake wires. She unfolded it. Scrawled across the paper were two words: “Get lost!”

Josephine stared at the crude lettering. “It must be from those men who were chasing us,” she said. “I bet that was them we saw go past in the truck. They must have seen our bikes.”

Francesca frowned. “I’m not so sure. Why would they be so upset about two kids running around in the woods? What’s it to them?”

“I don’t know,” Josephine said, “but they sure were trying hard to catch us. And now they’re trying to scare us away.”

Francesca looked sadly at her bike. “I guess we’ll have to walk home.”

They unlocked the bikes and started pushing them back toward town. “We’d better not let our moms know about this,” Francesca said, “or they’re going to ask too many questions. We should go by Mr. Prito’s shop and get them fixed now.”

It took an hour to walk back to the middle of Bayport. Neither of them was carrying much money, but luckily, the owner of Napoli Boats & Bikes was Tony Prito, father of their friend Antonia. Mr. Prito was an old schoolmate of their parents as well, so they knew he would take their IOU for the repairs.

“How did this happen?” Mr. Prito asked as he examined the tires.

“Oh, it was just a prank that went a little too far,” Josephine said. “We let the air out of their tires, and this was their way of getting even.”

Mr. Prito looked concerned. “Was this some of your schoolmates? Antonia told us there was a bit of hazing last year, but this seems rather extreme.”

Josephine shuffled uncomfortably. What if Mr. Prito mentioned it to their parents? “Oh, it is extreme,” Josephine said quickly. “They said they were really sorry and admitted they’d gone too far and promised they would never do it again. And Antonia had nothing to do with it.”

Mr. Prito’s eyebrows arched. “I certainly hope not.” He looked at their bikes again. “Well, let’s get these useless old tires off and get you rolling again.”

The Hardy families cooked dinner together in their backyard that evening. When they bought the adjacent houses thirteen years earlier, the first thing they did was tear down the fence and build a big brick grill straddling the property line. During the summer, they used it more than the kitchens.

To cover up her scratches, Francesca came outside wearing brown slacks and a burgundy sweater, which despite the warm day didn’t arouse any comments from the adults.

But when Josephine came out in jeans and a long-sleeved turtleneck, Callie looked at her curiously. “Are you feeling cold, dear?”

Beads of sweat formed on Josephine’s forehead. “Uh, no, Mom, I just felt like wearing this. Maybe it’s going to cool down.”

Callie put her hand on her daughter’s forehead. “You’re hot. In fact, you’ve broken out in a sweat. I think you’d better take some cold-remedy right away.” Josephine groaned as her mother went inside to get the bottle.

She walked over by the grill where Joe and Frank were cooking hamburgers and veggie-burgers. She wanted to ask whether they had discovered anything else about the Raffertys. But with her long clothes, it was too hot to stand by the fire.

Callie came back out and made her take a dropperful of the foul-tasting liquid. It puckered her face and stung her tongue. Josephine took a drink of water and rinsed out her mouth, but it was no use. For the next hour, everything she ate would taste like cold-remedy.

Francesca tried not to laugh. There were advantages to wearing nice clothes — no one thought it odd when you showed up overdressed. Maybe at last her cousin would learn the value of a good wardrobe.

But Josephine had other thoughts on her mind. She drew Francesca away from the adults. “We have to find out what our dads learned. Based on what you heard Mrs. Rafferty say to Mr. Landsdowne, we’re running out of time to search for the hidden safe. Once the land is sold, they might start building the new subdivision right away.”

The phone rang at Francesca’s house. Joe went in to answer it. When he came back out, his face was red with anger. “That was Phil Cohen,” he said. “The police want to question Iola again. And Phil said that they want to see the financial records for our house!”

Frank nearly dropped his hamburger flipper. “That’s unbelievable.”

“This is Smuff’s doing,” Joe said angrily. “He’s always been jealous of us. And now he’s getting his revenge.”

“Now, now,” Callie said, holding up one hand, “let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s probably a routine matter.”

Iola was sitting quietly, staring at the flowers along the back fence. She spoke without moving her eyes. “We don’t have anything to hide.”

Joe shook his head. “No, but it’s the principle of the thing. They don’t think they’re going to find any incriminating evidence in our bank records. It’s just intimidation. They’re trying to pressure you to tell them more about Rafferty and his possible connection to the smuggled animals.”

“Well, I don’t know anything more, and I don’t believe Daniel Rafferty does, either. So their pressure isn’t going to do any good.”

Listening to them talk, Francesca remembered hearing stories about how her mother was arrested in protests when she was in college. She’d even seen a photo of Iola with her brother Chet at a protest in Washington, DC. She could imagine her mother standing up to Chief Smuff and the police, refusing to answer their questions or give them information on Mr. Rafferty.

Francesca felt a swell of pride. Iola had always stood for justice. If she thought Mr. Rafferty was innocent of the animal smuggling charges, surely it must be true.

The problem was how to prove it. After all, if the girls could prove Mr. Rafferty was innocent, then the police would have no reason to question Iola. But where were they supposed to start?

What if they could find the missing animals? They were probably being hidden somewhere around Bayport. If the animals were discovered somewhere else, it might prove that Mr. Rafferty wasn’t involved.

The adults talked more, but finally Iola insisted that they needed to consult Phil Cohen before making any decisions. “We need a lawyer to tell us what options I have,” Iola said. “What will happen if I refuse to talk? Can they put me in jail or make me pay a fine? Without Phil’s legal knowledge, we’re just spinning our wheels.”

Dinner was ready. Francesca took a veggie-burger from the grill and walked over to the salad table, thinking about what to do next: talk to their dads, of course. They needed to find out whether Frank or Joe had learned anything more about the Raffertys.

She sat down next to Joe. “Did you do anything interesting today, Dad?”

Joe looked at her curiously. “Well, as a matter of fact, yes. We tried a new orthodontic procedure for attaching braces to the teeth, and it seemed to go well for our first couple of experimental patients. That was quite interesting.”

Francesca cleared her throat. “Uh, I meant besides work, Dad,” she said.

“Oh, besides work,” Joe said. “Nothing really. It was a quiet day. At least until we heard that the police want to question your mother again.”

Francesca was disappointed. But Josephine picked up her hint. “What about you, Dad?” she asked Frank.

Frank finished chewing a mouthful of hamburger. “Well, Joey, I must admit to being intrigued by the new orthodontic procedure as well. But aside from work, you might be interested to know that I spoke again with Mrs. Rafferty, and she insisted as adamantly as ever that her husband is innocent.”

“Not surprising,” Joe said. Josephine shot a glance at her cousin, but said nothing.

“There’s more, though,” Frank said with a hint of mystery in his voice. Everyone waited expectantly. “Mrs. Rafferty said that the police questioned her. They asked her to swear that her husband hadn’t visited the farm in the past several weeks — during the period when the smugglers were renting the land.”

“And did she swear?” Josephine asked excitedly.

Frank looked at her. “No. She admitted Mr. Rafferty had been to the farm repeatedly.”

“So he was involved after all,” Joe said. “I thought so.”

“It’s not so simple,” Frank said. “Mrs. Rafferty said that her husband was nowhere near the house where the animals were kept. He was going to the farm to dig for the buried safe!”

***

CHAPTER 17: Digging for Treasure

“The buried safe!” cried Josephine. “I knew it really existed!”

“Well, now,” Frank laughed, “I wouldn’t go that far. Just because Mr. Rafferty was digging holes doesn’t mean there was any treasure to be found. Mrs. Rafferty sure doesn’t seem to think so. She clearly thinks her husband is crazy.”

Josephine gripped the sides of her chair, trying to appear calm. “Did she say where Mr. Rafferty was digging?”

Frank nodded. “Apparently Mr. Rafferty thought he had figured out the location of the missing safe — something to do with the ‘web-in-the-woods.’ He dug for it several times, according to Mrs. Rafferty. But he never found anything.”

The cousins looked at each other. Each knew what the other was thinking — Mr. Rafferty must have been digging at the spot they’d found on the map.

That settled it, Josephine thought — they had to go out to the farm and search for the buried safe that very night. Before someone else did.

After all, she reasoned, it sounded like Mr. Rafferty had been telling everyone who would listen about the web-in-the-woods. If the girls went out to the farm that evening, would they be alone? Who else might be trying to find the treasure?

The smugglers, for sure. They must have heard about it by now.

What about Mrs. Rafferty? What if she secretly believed in the buried safe and was just denying it to keep others from looking? Was she digging for it herself?

And then there was Mr. Landsdowne, Josephine thought. When it came right down to it, his behavior seemed pretty odd. Why was he so eager to buy this particular property right now, just when Mr. Rafferty was in jail? Maybe he didn’t care about building a shopping center at all, but simply wanted to get his hands on the buried jewels.

Iola sat down next to Frank. “Did you hear any more news about Mr. Rafferty?” she asked.

“I heard that he won’t be getting out of jail any time soon,” Frank said. “The judge refused to lower his bail. So unless someone can prove his innocence, Rafferty will be in jail until his trial, which could be several months.”

“That’s terrible,” Iola said. “Imagine being in jail for months when you didn’t even commit a crime.”

Francesca set her soda down. “What about you, Mom? Could they put you in jail?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t think so, Frankie,” Iola said. “I’m not too worried about that.”

Francesca nodded, but she didn’t really believe her mother.

No one spoke for a few moments. Finally, Callie pointed above the houses. “Look at the moon,” she said. Just over the treetops, the full moon was rising. Josephine gazed at the glowing disk. What lucky timing, she thought. They’d have the light of the moon for their mission that evening.

Callie brought out a cobbler for dessert. She handed a big piece to Frank, who sat down in a lawn chair. “You know,” he said slowly, “this whole Rafferty matter is bothering me. The smuggled animals, the pressure to sell the land, the alleged missing safe — something just isn’t adding up.”

Joe took a plate from Callie. “Maybe we need to do some investigating of our own.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” said Frank. “I don’t care what Oscar Smuff says. We should take another drive out to the farm property and have a look around.”

Josephine winced. Just don’t decide to go out there tonight, she thought. Suddenly it seemed like everybody and their brother — or wife, or father — was heading out to the farm.

Josephine helped carry dishes inside, then pulled her cousin aside. “Midnight?”

Francesca shook her head. “How about eleven? We’re going to need a lot of time.”

“Okay. Our parents may not be asleep yet, so we’ll have to be really quiet,” Josephine said.

Francesca nodded. “We’re going to have to be really careful, anyway. There’s no telling who might be looking for the buried safe.”

Eleven o’clock came too soon for Francesca, who never really got to sleep. She hadn’t heard her parents go to bed, so she figured she’d better ring her cousin before Josephine rang her.

But as she reached for the cord, her own bell jingled. Francesca grabbed the tin can. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me. Are you ready?”

Francesca contained her irritation. “Just about. I’ll be right out.” She pulled on an old sweatshirt and laced some worn-out running shoes. This whole detective business was hard on clothes, she thought. Best to wear your worst.

She slipped out the window, fastened her helmet, and rolled her bike out to the street. A moment later Josephine appeared. Without a word they took off toward the west end of town.

As they approached the two-lane highway along the farm property, Francesca pulled alongside her cousin. “We need to be super careful. If the police spot us, they’re bound to come after us.”

They rolled up to the intersection and looked both ways. No cars were in sight, although the curve of the highway made it difficult to see very far to the right. “Ready?” Josephine said. Francesca nodded, and they took off, pedaling hard for the little shed up the road. They pulled in behind it and stashed their bikes.

Josephine took off her helmet. “Let’s look at the map.” She pulled out the scrap of paper and studied it in the moonlight, even though she had practically memorized it. “Here’s the road we’re on, and here’s the farmhouse. We need to walk beyond it and try to find this trail.” She pointed to another line leading away from the house.

The girls headed up the dirt road and came to the house. No lights shone in the old two-story building, and the grounds were eerily quiet. “There could be a guard,” Francesca said. “What if they’re waiting to trap us?”

Josephine didn’t think it was likely. But it was better to be safe. “Let’s go around the edge of the yard,” she said. “If we see anyone, we’ll run into the field.”

They skirted the edge of the yard. Framed like a silhouette in the moonlight, the house seemed to watch them as they crept along in the shadows.

On the far side, they found a trail wide enough for a small tractor-mower. “This must be it!” Josephine said excitedly. With faster footsteps they headed along the trail, which ran between two fallow farm fields. Here and there they passed little clumps of trees, but no other trails.

After ten minutes, the trail entered a bigger stand of trees. It hardly qualified as “woods,” but they found a clearing in the middle, which was illuminated by the moonlight. In the center they could see their trail crossing another. Josephine cried out: “This is it!”

As the girls turned in place, they could see the dim outline of a third trail crossing the other two. “We found it,” Josephine said. “The web-in-the-woods!”

Francesca scuffed her foot on the ground. “Possibly,” she said. “So now what? We can’t just get down on our hands and knees and dig up the entire area.”

“No,” Josephine said, “I guess not. We should have brought a shovel. Maybe we can find something to dig with around here.” She searched in the shadows, but nothing leapt to hand. She felt angry at herself for not having thought of the shovel ahead of time.

Francesca poked around a bit, too. As she walked toward a clump of small trees, she stumbled in a hole. “Ouch!”

Josephine ran over to where she lay on the ground. “What happened?”

Francesca pointed at a foot-deep hole near where the three trails met. The hole was freshly dug, with no weeds growing in it.

“I bet Mr. Rafferty was here,” said Josephine. “It must be one of the holes he dug. That proves we’re in the right place!” She looked at her cousin, who was wincing in pain. “Are you okay?”

“I twisted my ankle. Help me stand up.”

With Josephine’s assistance, Francesca hobbled to her feet. She tested her ankle. “I think it’ll be okay,” she said. She tried a few limping steps.

Josephine looked around the clearing. “Let’s see if there are any other holes.” Within a few minutes, they’d found several more. The deepest was less than two feet.

“I bet he knew from finding the other safes that they weren’t any deeper than that,” Francesca said.

Josephine nodded. “I wonder how he knew where to dig?”

“Maybe he had a metal detector. When it beeped, he dug down a foot or so.”

“Smart,” Josephine said, more about her cousin’s deduction than Mr. Rafferty.

“And he must not have found the safe,” Francesca continued, “since none of the holes is any deeper.”

Josephine nodded. “If we had a shovel, we could dig for a while.”

“How would we know where to dig?”

“We’d have to guess. But we have several hours till dawn. We might as well give it a try. What do we have to lose?”

Sleep, thought Francesca. But she said nothing. Why argue when there was no shovel in any case?

But Josephine was not to be deterred. “There must be a shovel around here somewhere,” she said. “How far did we come from the farmhouse?”

“Are you serious? It’s at least fifteen minutes.”

“We can make it in ten if we hurry,” Josephine said. “I’ll bet we can find a shovel there.”

“It’d take me a lot longer,” Francesca said, pointing to her ankle. She wasn’t sorry to have the excuse. “Why don’t you go, and I’ll wait here and rest.”

“Okay,” Josephine said. She didn’t like the idea of splitting up, but it made sense. “I’ll hurry.” Josephine took off down the trail back toward the farmhouse.

Francesca sat on a tree stump, but then wondered if that was the best idea. Was it better to rest a sprain or to keep moving? She bent down and massaged her ankle, which was swelling.

Suddenly, she heard a stirring. Footsteps and hurried voices were coming her way.

“Right up ahead,” came a man’s voice. “Right in these trees.”

Francesca jumped up from the tree stump, then almost fell over from the pain. She could barely walk, let alone run.

The voices came closer. “Here’s the clearing.”

Desperately, Francesca lurched toward a shadowy, wooded patch on one side of the clearing. A fallen tree trunk blocked her path. She threw herself over it, thudding to the ground on the other side. She landed on her back and lay perfectly still.

From the clearing came a woman’s voice, raspy yet commanding. “Okay, start over here.” Several sets of footsteps shuffled across the clearing, moving a little farther from her. Francesca scarcely dared to breathe.

She heard a little beeping sound. They had a metal detector. They were searching for the buried safe!

The woman gave crisp, blunt orders to the workmen. As Francesca listened, she felt a chill go up her neck — she recognized the woman’s raspy voice! But from where? It wasn’t a voice she’d heard often. But she’d heard it somewhere recently.

Whom had she met in the past few days that might be digging for the safe? The woman was speaking too low to make out her words, but the urgency of her tone was unmistakable.

Francesca rolled slowly onto her side. She wished she could see what was going on, but she didn’t dare sit up. She had to rely on hearing. The search party was working intently, with a minimum of talk. Now and then she would hear the beeping, followed by a flurry of voices and hasty digging.

Suddenly, Francesca felt a tickling on her neck. She reached up to scratch it, then flinched as she touched something — a spider was crawling up her neck! She jerked her head back and forth, snatching at her hair.

“What was that?” one of the workmen called out. All talk ceased. “I heard something in the woods.”

Francesca froze. She was propped awkwardly on the other elbow, with one of her hands still tangled in her hair.

“It was nothing,” came the woman’s raspy voice.

“No, I heard something,” the man insisted.

“Okay, I’ll have a look,” the woman said. “You get back to work.”

Francesca could hear the woman walking around the perimeter of the clearing. Her flashlight beam raked over the trees that surrounded the clearing. Francesca lowered herself slowly from her elbow prop, hugging the ground as the light grazed over the top of the tree trunk.

Francesca burrowed herself deeper behind the trunk. A spider web grazed over her face and snagged in her hair. The tickling sensations were spreading over her leg. Her back. Her neck.

A sickening image crossed her mind — the little empty cages that she and Josephine had seen on their first visit to the farmhouse. If any poisonous spiders escaped from those cages, they could have traveled this far in the past few days. She clamped her teeth together to keep from screaming.

The tickling crossed her face and passed to her arm. She held perfectly still, her breath hissing between her clenched teeth. As the creature crept down her arm, she strained to see it. At last it reached her elbow, where a bit of moonlight shone.

Even in the dim light, Francesca could see that it was an ordinary long-legged spider. Relieved, she let her breath out, remaining motionless as the spider crawled down her arm and onto the ground. As it disappeared under the log, she shivered, feeling desolate and alone.

The flashlight grazed over the top of her tree trunk again. Then it roved away. “It’s nothing, I tell you,” the woman said, her raspy voice receding across the clearing. “Keep digging. The boss said to check every inch of this place.”

What did that mean? Francesca wondered. Who was “the boss”? Who were the workers reporting to? And where was this mysterious boss? Hopefully not at the farmhouse, where Josephine must be right about now.

Suddenly, Francesca had a horrifying thought. What was going to happen when Josephine returned? She had no idea about the search party. She was walking into a trap!

***

CHAPTER 18: Captured!

She had to find a way to warn her cousin. Luckily, Francesca was hiding close to the trail on which Josephine would return. But how was she going to get her attention without tipping off the diggers?

Of course — their secret owl-signal! But would Josephine hear it in time and realize what it meant?

Francesca rolled onto her back. A spider ran across her arm. She watched it for a moment, then flicked it off. They really weren’t all that terrifying, she had to admit.

She tuned her ears to the trail. A few minutes later, she heard footsteps. Francesca took a breath and let out a low sound. “Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!” She paused, then repeated it. “Hoo-hoo!”

After a moment came the return call: “Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!” The signal had worked perfectly.

Unfortunately, Josephine’s response sounded like the owl was laughing. Instantly the workmen were silent.

“Hoo-hoo!” came Josephine’s laughing owl. “Hoo-hoo!” Francesca groaned inwardly, but there was nothing she could do. If she called out, or repeated the owl call, the workmen would surely catch both girls. She had to stay silent.

Josephine walked into the clearing carrying a small camp shovel. “I found —”

Before she could finish her sentence, strong hands grabbed her.

“Bring her over here,” commanded the woman’s voice.

“Let me go!” cried Josephine as she struggled with the men holding her arms. “Let me go!”

They lifted her and carried her over to the woman, where they plopped her back onto her feet, still gripping her arms. “Who are you?” demanded Josephine angrily. “What do you want?”

The woman ignored her questions. “Don’t we have enough trouble without having to deal with some stupid kid?” she muttered.

“We’re not stupid!” Josephine cried, still struggling. She realized her mistake immediately, but it was too late.

“‘We’?” said the woman. “So there’s more than one of you?”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Josephine desperately.

But the woman was already barking orders. “Search the woods. There must be more.”

Josephine twisted in her captor’s grip. “Hoo-hoo!” she called, trying to warn her cousin.

“Get her out of here,” ordered the woman. “Lock her in the truck.”

The men dragged Josephine down one of the trails to where a pickup truck was parked. Josephine recognized the large cage mounted on the back. “You can’t do this!” she cried.

“Shut up, pipsqueak,” said a gruff voice. “You’re lucky nothing worse has happened — yet!”

He shoved her in and padlocked the door. The smell was awful, like a giant litter box. Josephine rattled the cage and yelled. But she knew there was no one to hear. The only hope was that Francesca could elude the workmen and get to safety.

Francesca, who had heard everything, tried to hide deeper behind the tree trunk. With the search crew scurrying around, she didn’t have to worry about making noise. Using a flat rock, she clawed the dirt and twigs together to use as camouflage.

She scraped something hard. A large rock? She poked at it more. It seemed like a piece of metal.

Francesca slumped. How could she dig into the ground if there was a piece of metal in the way?

The workers were across the clearing. Francesca looked behind her into the dark of the woods. Should she make a run for it? The trees didn’t stretch very far, and after that she’d be in a field and could get her bearings.

But she knew she’d never make it. With her gimpy ankle, she’d get caught right away. Angrily, she scraped at the metal sheet. Her rock reached the edge, which was curved slightly, like a custom-fitted box.

A custom-fitted metal box? With a shock, Francesca realized what it was — she had found the missing safe, buried directly underneath her!

She almost cried out in her excitement. But despite her discovery, her predicament was no better than before. In fact, it was getting worse.

“How about over here?” came the woman’s raspy voice, sounding like it was just on the other side of the tree trunk. Men’s footsteps came tromping her way. If they came around the trunk, she would be caught. She swept some dead leaves over the edge of the metal she had uncovered.

“Keep looking,” the woman said. She was quite close, and Francesca wracked her memory, trying to recognize the voice.

The voices and feet came right up to the other side of the fallen tree. The metal detector beeped faintly. Francesca lay as still as possible. The workers jabbed around at the far side of the log, muttering and cursing.

Then came the woman’s voice, sharp and clear: “Check the back side.”

Francesca had but an instant to decide. If they came around the log, she would surely be discovered. And if they pulled her out, they might notice that she’d been digging. She acted quickly.

“Okay — I give up!” She stumbled up to her feet, keeping the weight off her bad ankle. She held her arms up like she was under arrest. “I give up!”

The man took a step backward, as if he had seen a ghost. If Francesca could have run, this was her chance to escape.

But the woman, short and broad-shouldered, jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Put her in the truck with the other one.”

In the dim light Francesca peered at the woman, hoping to recognize her. But she didn’t look familiar.

The man took Francesca’s arm and led her to the truck. Josephine jumped up as her cousin was thrown into the cage. “Hey,” she shouted at the workers, “what are you doing with us?”

“Shut up,” the woman snarled as she padlocked the cage. She turned to the workmen. “Let’s go. There’s nothing here. This whole buried safe story was ridiculous. We looked everywhere, and all we found were a few old coke cans and a broken watch. The boss can rest assured there is no safe, and no land-trust deed.”

Francesca crossed her fingers. As bad as things were, their captors hadn’t discovered the buried safe. If they left now, the secret would be secure.

“What about these kids?” asked the gruff-voiced man. “We can’t just turn them loose.”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. “We’ll see what the boss wants to do.”

Once again Francesca wondered — who was “the boss”? Did they mean Mr. Rafferty? Was he running some sort of crime racket even though he was in jail?

Her cousin shifted around, and for the first time, Francesca became aware of her surroundings. She crinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”

“We’re in the animal cages,” Josephine said. “On the back of one of the trucks.”

“The trucks we saw at the farmhouse that first night?”

“I think so. Which proves they must be the smugglers.”

“Interesting,” Francesca said, covering her nose. “I recognize the woman, but I’m not sure where from.”

“I know where we saw her,” Josephine said. “Remember the benefit at Mr. Landsdowne’s estate, when we saw those delivery people in the back yard? I think she was the driver. I remember her.”

“Really? I have the feeling it’s somewhere else. She keeps talking about ‘the boss.’”

“Well,” Josephine said, “she could mean Mr. Landsdowne.” Before Francesca could respond, the girls heard a scuffling behind the truck. A tarp was thrown over their cage, and they were plunged into darkness.

The truck lurched into gear. The ground was bumpy, and the girls were jostled around inside the cage. Then the truck pulled onto a level road. They drove for a while, hearing no sounds of other people.

At last, they pulled off the level road and back onto what sounded like gravel. “I bet they’re taking us to the Rafferty’s farmhouse,” Josephine said as she jostled against her cousin.

“No, we drove too far for that,” Francesca answered. They tumbled the other way and ended up in a heap as the truck came to an abrupt halt. The doors opened. A moment later, the back flap of the tarp was lifted. The moonlight was a welcome relief after the pitch black of the cage.

“Still breathing in there?” came the woman’s raspy voice.

“Where are we?” demanded Josephine.

“You’re in a cage,” the woman rasped. “Now shut up!” She dropped the flap, and the cage was plunged back into darkness.

“Hey! Let us out of here! Hey!” Josephine banged on the wire cage until her fist hurt. “Hey!”

Francesca joined her, but she knew there was no hope of being heard. “They wouldn’t have stopped here if there was anyone to hear us,” she said.

“Maybe we can break out,” Josephine said. On her knees, she felt along the cage, rattling and tugging on the bars, searching for some sign of weakness. “Or maybe we can rush them when they open the door, especially if it’s only one or two people.”

Francesca reached down and touched her ankle. “I don’t think I’m going to be rushing anyone.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Josephine said.

“But maybe you could get away and get help,” Francesca said. “If you see a chance, run for it. Be ready.”

Before Josephine could respond, the tarp was yanked aside. “Okay,” came the gruff man’s voice. “Get out of there.” He unlocked the padlock. “Come on, outta there!”

***

CHAPTER 19: Leave Our Dads Out of This!

Josephine didn’t want to cooperate. But neither did she want to stay in the smelly cage. “Should we get out?” she asked her cousin.

“Yeah,” said Francesca. She crawled up to the door. The man took hold of her arms and hauled her out. He passed her on to the woman, who fastened a grip on her wrist. Josephine got the same treatment, but the gruff man kept hold of her, and there was no chance of escape.

A cool ocean breeze swept over them, and Francesca realized they must be near Barmet Bay. The girls were marched up a dirt path and around the side of a large building that smelled of freshly cut wood.

Suddenly Francesca knew where she was and who the raspy-voiced woman was. “We’re at Mr. Strummond’s barn,” she said aloud.

“You’re right,” Josephine said. “These are the same workers who chased us this afternoon!”

“And this time we caught you,” the raspy-voiced woman said.

“This is your hideout, I bet,” Josephine answered.

“Good guess, kid,” said the man with the gruff voice. “Now shut up.”

A wide door swung open, and the girls were led into the darkness. A lantern was lit, illuminating a cavernous interior. “This way,” the woman said. The girls were led across the mostly empty space. On the left, a bunch of large wooden crates were stacked against the wall. The boxes had small round holes drilled randomly through the wood.

“Are there animals in those crates?” Josephine asked. She didn’t expect an answer, but she got one as the girls were led past — from the crates came a snarl, followed by the yapping of dogs.

“It’s the endangered animals!” she cried. “You have the smuggled animals in those boxes!”

“Well, well, we have a junior detective here,” said the gruff-voiced man. He took a stick and whacked the sides of several of the containers, setting off a melee of growling and barking.

“Knock it off, idiot,” the woman said. “Don’t let the boss see you.”

The crates fascinated Josephine. She listened intently, trying to figure out which noise was coming from which box.

Francesca, though, was focused again on the word “boss.” It must be Mr. Strummond. So he was behind the smuggled animals.

But why were his workers searching for the safe? Why did Mr. Strummond care whether or not the safe existed? Well, Francesca reasoned, anyone who’d heard the rumors could be looking for the buried treasure. Why not Mr. Strummond?

But somehow, it didn’t quite add up.

Before she could tell Josephine her thoughts, a door opened on the far side of the barn. The torchlight didn’t carry that far, and all the girls could see was a person of middle height approaching. But Francesca easily guessed who it was — Mr. Strummond.

He was a slight man with hunched shoulders and a few strands of hair combed over his balding head. “Let’s finish this business up,” he said as he walked up. His bald head glistened in the flickering light. “Get the forklift and move those crates over to the enclosure. Everything’s ready to go.”

Suddenly he noticed the girls, still held by their guards. He pointed a craggy finger at them.

“Who are they?”

“Nobody,” said the woman with the raspy voice. “Just a couple of nosy kids.”

“Why’d you bring them here?”

“What else were we going to do? They saw us digging for the safe. If we chased them away, they might have told the cops.”

“What do I care about the safe?” Mr. Strummond said. “Now they know about the animals, you fool!”

The woman muttered something. Francesca looked from one adult to the other, taking in their worried expressions. What was going to happen now that the girls knew the truth?

Mr. Strummond seemed to have the same concern. He pointed shakily at the girls. “What are we going to do with them?”

“For now, tie them to that post,” said the woman. “We’ll have to see what the boss wants to do.” The workmen quickly lashed the girls’ wrists to one of the posts under the loft, so the girls were forced to stand facing the wooden pole. Josephine glared at the workmen and jerked her arms back and forth to make their job harder.

Francesca took a breath and collected her wits. Who was “the boss” if not Mr. Strummond? The old man obviously wanted nothing to do with the hard decisions. And he denied any interest in the buried safe. Then who had hired the workers to dig for it?

Could it be Mr. Landsdowne? He could afford to hire all the workers he needed. And with his estate next door, Francesca thought, what could be more convenient than having the smugglers’ headquarters on Mr. Strummond’s property?

But why would a millionaire developer be digging for a buried safe? Even more, why would he engage in animal smuggling and risk years in prison? It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t the most logical answer.

No, Francesca realized with a shock, there was a much simpler explanation. Who was desperate enough for money to risk animal smuggling? Who would know all about the buried safe, and yet try to convince everyone else it didn’t exist? Who would be the former boss of a bunch of farm workers? There was only one person.

At that instant, that person walked through the barn door — Mrs. Rafferty. Striding directly up to the raspy-voiced woman, the farmwife demanded: “What’s going on? What did you find?”

The raspy-voiced woman shuffled her feet. “Nothing, ma’am — just like you hoped.”

“Are you sure? Did you check every inch?” Mrs. Rafferty’s hands planted firmly on her hips. Her mouth was set, and she stared down her beak-like nose at the shorter woman.

“We had two metal detectors and covered the whole clearing,” the woman said. “I don’t see how we could do more, unless you want to dig up the entire farm.”

“No, only the woods where my husband was digging. I just need to be sure that blasted land-trust deed doesn’t turn up and ruin everything.”

“We checked the whole clearing, ma’am, and found nothing.”

“Very good,” said Mrs. Rafferty, rubbing her hands together. “Let’s get these animals unloaded and wrap this business up. Now that I’m selling the farm, I don’t need to run this operation any longer.”

“Uh, boss,” said the raspy-voiced woman carefully. “There’s one problem.” She nodded her head toward the post where the girls were tied.

Mrs. Rafferty looked startled. “What’s this? What are they doing here?” She glared at the workers, who seemed to tremble.

“Sorry, ma’am,” said the raspy-voiced woman. “We caught them prowling around, and we didn’t know what to do.”

“So you brought them here?” Mrs. Rafferty’s face glowed with anger. “What am I supposed to do with them?”

The smaller woman spoke tentatively, as if answering a question in class: “Uh, get rid of them?”

“We don’t have a lot of choice, do we?” said Mrs. Rafferty.

Her businesslike tone chilled Francesca. But Josephine was more concerned with the animals in the crates. “It’s you,” she said, chafing at the ropes lashing her wrists to the post. “You’re the smuggler!”

“So what are you saying,” Mrs. Rafferty said mockingly. “That I’m a bad person?”

“Well, you are,” Josephine said. “You put animals in boxes, and you cut our bike tires!”

Mrs. Rafferty looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“You slit our bike tires.”

Mrs. Rafferty looked puzzled. “I find this an amusing accusation. But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Uh, boss,” the gruff-voiced man said, “that was us. After they made us chase them into the brambles, we saw their bikes, and we cut their tires as payback. We figured it would scare them away.”

Mrs. Rafferty laughed, but Josephine looked angrily up at the gruff-voiced man: “Too bad it didn’t work,” she said. “We’re still here.”

“Too bad for you,” Mrs. Rafferty said sharply. “Now we’re going to have to get rid of you altogether.”

Francesca shivered. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, summoning up her courage. “There’s only one problem,” she said as calmly as she could manage. “The land-trust deed. Just because your workers didn’t find it doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist. And if it shows up, it would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Josephine added, “then you couldn’t turn the farm into a shopping mall!”

Mrs. Rafferty squinted down her nose. “What are you driving at? You’re worse than my husband. My workers just proved that the buried safe doesn’t exist. I’m selling the land, and I’ll be happy to see them develop every inch of it!”

“You’ll never succeed,” Josephine said. “People want a farm, not another mall.”

“Once I sell the property, it won’t matter what the people of Bayport want.”

Francesca clenched her teeth, trying to keep her voice calm. “But you keep forgetting the land-trust deed,” she said. “What if we found it?”

Mrs. Rafferty looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You? You found the land-trust deed? That’s a good one! I think you’ve been reading a few too many of your fathers’ detective stories.”

“Leave our dads out of it!” Josephine said, trying to shake her tied-up fist.

Mrs. Rafferty ignored her, looking intently at Francesca, who glared right back. “Just what do you know?” the woman demanded.

“They saw us digging,” said the gruff-voiced man.

“Well,” said Mrs. Rafferty, “you didn’t find anything, did you? So there’s nothing to tell the police.” She looked at Josephine, then Francesca. “What were you two doing out there, anyway? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“Very funny,” said Josephine. “We were solving the mystery, and you know it!”

Mrs. Rafferty turned her head slowly. “You were meddling in adult business,” she said rudely. “You weren’t solving anything.”

“Oh, yes we were,” Josephine insisted. “We’re the ones who discovered the animal smugglers and called the police!”

Francesca groaned inwardly. The girls were in bad enough trouble without antagonizing their captors further. But her cousin was on a roll, and Francesca knew there was no point in trying to stop her.

“We discovered the animals,” Josephine said, “and we also know that Mr. Landsdowne is in on the plot.”

“Landsdowne?” Mrs. Rafferty said in surprise.

“Yeah,” Josephine said, tugging on the ropes that bound her wrists to the post. “We saw your workers delivering animals to him.”

Mrs. Rafferty snorted. “Dogs,” she said. “They were delivering a couple of hunting dogs that I gave him as a gift to soften him up for the sale. Why would Landsdowne be involved in smuggling animals? He’s making a fortune off his shopping malls. He has no idea about my operation.”

She swept her arm around the barn. “And now,” she said, “the sale of the farm is complete, and I don’t need to do this sort of work either. It was always too risky. And occasionally you have to do the most unpleasant things.” She gave the girls a cold stare that they understood all too well.

“And Mr. Strummond?” Francesca said hurriedly, hoping to keep Mrs. Rafferty talking until the girls came up with a new plan.

“Mr. Strummond has been a most generous customer. Thanks to my efforts, he now has not only the largest aviary in the region, but also his own personal carnivorous zoo. These cats put on quite a show at dinnertime.” She glowed with pride as she spoke.

The workers came up. “Should we start moving the crates?” asked the gruff-voiced man.

“Yeah,” said Mrs. Rafferty. “Let’s get this wrapped up. Then we’ll figure out what to do with these two.”

She turned away from the post where the girls were tied, seeming set on her course. There was only one chance to stop her, Francesca knew — to use the safe as a bargaining chip.

“We can show you the missing safe,” she said flatly. Her cousin shot her a perplexed expression, but Francesca stared directly at Mrs. Rafferty.

The woman turned and glared at her. “Why are you still going on about the safe?”

“I tried to tell you — we found it. I know exactly where it’s buried.”

“Listen — I have work to do. You better not be messing with me…” Her voice trailed off ominously.

Francesca’s hands were shaking, but she repeated her words in a level voice. “I know exactly where it’s buried.”

Josephine studied her cousin’s face. Francesca was a cool operator. She could stare down a teacher or hall monitor as well as anyone. But to lie about the safe? What good would that do? Was she just stalling for time? Or did she have a plan?

“I’m warning you,” Mrs. Rafferty said. “If you waste my time, you’ll pay for it.”

Francesca stared at her and said nothing. Finally, Mrs. Rafferty spoke again. “Where is it?”

“I have to show you.”

“Is it on the farmland?”

Francesca paused, weighing how much to say. “Could be,” she said carefully. “What’s it worth to you?”

“How dare you!” Mrs. Rafferty’s face turned red with anger. “You little blackmailer!”

“All I’m doing is bargaining with you,” said Francesca. “What is it worth for us to show you the safe?”

Josephine held her breath. Would Mrs. Rafferty buy her cousin’s story? Even if she did, how would the girls escape, especially with Francesca unable to run?

Then Josephine remembered her own role — she was supposed to look for a chance to make a break. Maybe her cousin was trying to confuse everyone with the story about the safe to get them to untie the girls. But Mrs. Rafferty didn’t look very confused. “What’s in the safe?” she demanded angrily.

“How should I know?” Francesca said. “It’s still mostly buried.”

“So you really know where it is?” Mrs. Rafferty waited for her to nod, then continued. “Okay — show me the safe, and I’ll let you and your sister go.”

“We’re not sisters,” Josephine said indignantly. “We’re cousins.”

“Whatever you are — I’ll let you go.”

“Don’t tell her,” Josephine urged her cousin. “She just wants to get her hands on the land-trust deed. Then she’ll destroy it so she can turn the farm into a mall.”

“That’s my business,” Mrs. Rafferty said coldly. “My offer to you is most generous. I advise you to cooperate.”

“And if we don’t?” Josephine said.

Mrs. Rafferty looked at her coldly. “I believe we’re done with that old truck. Letting it ‘accidentally’ roll off the cliffs down by the bay would be an easy way to get rid of it. And if a couple of meddling kids happened to be playing in the truck at the time of the accident — oh, what a tragic story for tomorrow’s news!”

***

CHAPTER 20: A Desperate Escape

Mrs. Rafferty laughed sharply. The gruff-voiced man laughed, too. “How tragic!”

“Okay, we’ll tell you,” Francesca said. “The safe is buried on the farm.”

“Where?”

“Take us there.” She paused for a moment. “I’ll have to show you.”

Mrs. Rafferty looked at her for a minute longer. Then she turned to the workmen. “Cut them loose. And get my car ready.”

“What about us?” Josephine said as the gruff-voiced man cut the ropes and took hold of her arm. “How are we getting back there? I am not riding in that cage again.”

Mrs. Rafferty looked at her. “It’s either that or my trunk. Take your pick.”

“We’ll take the cage,” Francesca muttered, shooting a glance at her cousin. She had a plan, but it required exact timing. They needed a chance to talk, even if it was in the smelly cage.

Francesca looked up at the sky. The moon was not quite overhead, and shone brightly against the backdrop of hazy stars. Nowhere near morning. How early would their parents wake up? When would they discover the girls were missing?

And what then? Would they have any idea where to look? Why hadn’t the girls left a message, just in case something like this happened? Maybe Frank and Joe would deduce that they were at the farm. They had enough clues, if they would just put them together.

Mrs. Rafferty’s car, a silvery late-model sedan, pulled up. “Get them in the cage,” she ordered.

The ride seemed half as long and twice as bumpy. Taking hold of her cousin’s arm, Francesca told Josephine her plan. “They’ll take us back to the clearing in the woods. You know the way out. Just watch me. When I create a commotion, you make a break for it.”

Josephine’s mind spun. Would their captors fall for it? Could she remember the trails? Could she outrun the adults, even with a head start? It seemed like a lot of question marks. But she didn’t have a better plan. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Whatever you do to distract them, make it good!”

The truck wrenched to a stop, banging the girls against the front of the cage. A moment later someone peeled back the tarp. “Let’s go,” said Mrs. Rafferty as she stepped out of her sedan. Josephine had no sooner set foot on the ground than a workman grabbed hold of her arm. The short woman with the raspy voice fastened a firm grip on Francesca’s wrist.

The party made its way down a trail and past some fallen trees to the clearing. The moon still partly illuminated the clearing. Mrs. Rafferty and a couple of others had flashlights, which they shone around randomly, as if expecting the safe magically to appear.

“Alright, let’s get down to business,” said Mrs. Rafferty coldly. “I’m tired of messing around. If that land-trust deed exists, we’re going to find it. Where is that safe? Show me!”

“I need to look for it,” Francesca said.

“Let her move around,” Mrs. Rafferty instructed. “But keep hold of her.”

The short woman grunted and slackened her arm as if it were a leash, allowing her captive to move about. Slowly, favoring her sore ankle, Francesca made her way across the clearing, towing the short woman behind her. She studied a couple of logs, then shook her head.

“Let’s go,” said Mrs. Rafferty tersely. “Quit stalling!”

Josephine’s heart was racing as she stared at Francesca. Did her cousin really have a plan, or was she making it all up? What would the signal be? How would she recognize it? And even if she did, how was she going to escape from the big man holding her arm?

Francesca came back toward the others, still towing the short woman. Mrs. Rafferty walked up to her impatiently. “If this is a trick —”

“No,” Francesca said slowly. “It’s not a trick. But this is!” Balancing on her bad ankle, she lifted her other leg and stamped it down on the foot of the short woman holding her arm.

The woman cried in pain, but didn’t release her grip. Francesca staggered back and shrieked as her weight fell on her weak ankle. She stumbled against the short woman. Mrs. Rafferty grabbed at her, and one of the other workers ran over.

Josephine saw her chance. As her captor gaped at the commotion, she raised her foot and stamped down just like her cousin had. At the same instant, she let out a horrible scream and yanked her arm as hard as she could.

The gruff-voiced man jumped back and threw up his hands as if to protect himself. Josephine bolted into the center of the clearing.

“Stop her!” shrieked Mrs. Rafferty, turning loose of Francesca. “Don’t let her get away!”

The workmen blocked every exit behind her. Josephine’s only escape was across the clearing, where the trail back to the farmhouse was dimly visible among the trees. She broke in that direction.

The workmen were caught flat-footed, and the short woman was grappling with Francesca. That left Mrs. Rafferty. The sturdy farmwife moved surprisingly quickly to block her escape.

Josephine’s eyes darted around. Should she turn and run directly into the woods? She’d get bushwhacked in a moment. Reaching the trail was the only hope.

Mrs. Rafferty stood squarely in her path. Josephine shot a look at her cousin, being held just behind the stocky farmwife.

As if on signal, Francesca shouted: “Go, Josephine!” Jerking the short woman along, Francesca threw herself at the back of Mrs. Rafferty’s knees.

The big woman cried in surprise as her legs buckled. She clutched at Josephine, who shot past. Mrs. Rafferty bellowed as she lost her footing and tumbled backward on top of the short woman, who still clung to Francesca.

Josephine dashed through the trees, her eyes desperately searching for the trail. The angry shouts of the workmen spurred her on. She kept her head low and her arms up to protect her from branches.

Ahead, she saw moonlight through the trees. She straightened up and ran toward it. A branch whacked her across the chest, but she kept running. The pursuing voices seemed fainter.

She reached the edge of the woods and burst into a large, moonlit field. For a moment, she was confused. Then a pair of passing headlights told her that the two-lane highway was a hundred yards ahead. Josephine called for help, but she knew her voice would never carry that far.

She glanced over her shoulder. The men seemed to have given up the chase. She set out across the field, tromping as fast as she could across the lumpy soil.

Up ahead on the highway, another car appeared. It slowed to a stop. Josephine picked up her pace, stumbling in her desperation to reach the road and alert the driver.

Suddenly she slowed. What if it was Mrs. Rafferty or one of her workers? Was it a trap? Another car pulled up behind the first. Josephine jerked to a stop, still fifty yards from the road. Someone got out of one of the cars. A third pulled up. Clearly they had spotted her.

A glaring spotlight flashed out across the field. It panned back and forth for a moment, then froze Josephine in its beam.

“Stop where you are,” came a crackly voice over a bullhorn. “This is the police! Do not move!”

The police! Josephine’s heart leapt. They were saved!

Then her spirits crashed. Where was Francesca? What if there was a shootout, and her cousin got caught in the crossfire? She had to tell the police what was happening. She started toward them.

“Halt!” came the bullhorn. Josephine stopped in surprise. Before she could react, the voice crackled again: “Put your arms in the air and walk toward the light.”

Josephine stiffened in shock. She slowly raised her arms and walked toward the spotlight. As she got closer, she could make out voices:

“It’s a kid, Chief! It’s just a kid.”

From out of the glare stepped Police Chief Oscar Smuff. His hat was perched at its usual jaunty angle. He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and stared at Josephine, who had to stare directly into the blinding light.

“Well, well, wouldn’t you know it — one of the Hardy Girls, snooping around. I should have suspected as much. Sorry, kid, your ‘detective’ days are over.”

“But Mr. Smuff! The criminals! They’re getting away! They have Francesca!”

“Now, now,” said the chief with a knowing nod. “Don’t try to pull a fast one on old Oscar Smuff. I’ve seen all the tricks way too many times. And believe me, I’m not falling for them again.”

“No,” Josephine cried, “it’s true! They’re digging up the treasure and they have Francesca and they’re going to push her over the cliff and they have the rare animals in boxes and they’re getting away!”

Chief Smuff shook his head. “Why don’t you do us all a favor and tell us where your little friend is, and we’ll take a ride down to Juvenile Hall and call your parents.”

“It’s true!” Josephine screamed at him. The chief jumped back, grabbing his hat as it tumbled off. At that moment, a car roared out of the woods and sped down a dirt road a hundred yards north, heading for the highway. Moonlight glinted off the silver roof of the sedan, and Josephine knew instantly who it was — Mrs. Rafferty!

“It’s them,” she said frantically. “They’re getting away!”

For a moment, Chief Smuff looked befuddled. Then he jerked around. With a wild waving of his arms he sent the other officers racing to cut off the fleeing car.

Bouncing down the dirt road after Mrs. Rafferty’s sedan came the pickup truck. The cage on the back rocked back and forth. Josephine’s heart leapt. Was her cousin in it? What if the truck had an accident?

“Be careful!” she yelled after the police, who were streaking to head off the escaping vehicles. The first squad car, siren wailing, reached the turnoff of the dirt road just before Mrs. Rafferty. The police cruiser swung directly across the road. Mrs. Rafferty jammed on her brakes, but her sedan skidded on the loose gravel and slammed into the side of the cruiser.

Josephine screamed in terror. The rear end of Mrs. Rafferty’s silver sedan bounced up, then dropped heavily just as the pickup truck plowed into it from behind. Amid the crush of metal, the cage on the back tore loose. It flipped over the top of the truck, bounced off the roof of Mrs. Rafferty’s sandwiched car, and tumbled noisily to the ground.

For an instant, all was silent. Then Josephine let out a cry and sprinted down the road toward the accident. The police jumped out of their cars and drew their guns. Mrs. Rafferty staggered from her smashed-up sedan with her shoulders stooped and her hands up, looking like a hunted criminal.

Josephine ran over to the cage, which lay smashed on the ground. “Francesca!” She climbed on top of the twisted metal, trying to see inside. “Francesca!”

A police officer came over behind her. “Hey, kid — there’s no one in that cage.”

Josephine looked bewildered. “She has to be! She was in it! She has to be here somewhere!”

She ran around to the other side of the wreck, looking everywhere — was her cousin thrown from the wreckage? Was she lying unconscious on the ground? “Francesca!” she yelled at the top of her voice.

“What?” came a faint voice. It was her cousin, but it sounded strange, distant. Josephine spun in a circle. “Francesca?”

“Over here,” the faint voice came again. Josephine spotted her, off in the moonlit distance, hobbling out of the woods. Josephine took off running and didn’t stop until she nearly bowled her cousin over. “I thought you got smashed to pieces!”

“No,” Francesca said. “When you escaped, they panicked and ran for their cars and left me lying on the ground. It just took me a while to make it out of the woods.”

“I’m so glad you’re okay! I can’t believe you tricked them into looking for the safe again.”

“It wasn’t a trick,” Francesca said. She explained her accidental discovery of the missing safe to her cousin.

“That’s amazing,” Josephine said. Suddenly she looked alarmed. “Look out!”

Francesca jerked her head around. “What?”

“There’s a spider in your hair!”

“Oh.” Francesca brushed lightly at her hair, which was snarled with twigs and bits of leaves. “I guess I got used to spiders in the past few hours. Did I get it?”

Josephine looked at her in surprise. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Come on,” Francesca said, “we should get out of here.”

“Yeah,” Josephine said. “Chief Smuff wants to arrest us and call our parents. Of course, that was before I informed him that we’d trapped the animal smugglers and solved the entire mystery!”

“We should still get out of here,” Francesca said. She threw her arm over her cousin’s shoulder, and the girls took off across the field as fast as Francesca’s sore ankle would let her move.

They found their bikes and rode home. Dawn was breaking as they made their way up the easement between their houses. “See you soon,” Francesca said. “Good work.”

“Thanks. You, too,” Josephine said as she headed for her window. “Just one thing bothers me — now that we found the safe, will the land-trust deed be in it? And will that save the farm?”

***

CHAPTER 21: An Anonymous Tip

“Wake up, dear,” came Callie’s perky voice.

Josephine rolled groggily over. Hadn’t she just gone to bed? “What’s happening, Mom?”

“Get up, Joey. Your Aunt Iola is on TV.”

“What? Why?” Josephine pulled the sheet back and sat up, trying to clear her head. “Why is Aunt Iola on TV?” She grabbed a clean T-shirt and some sweats, pulled her black hair back in a ponytail, and went out into the living room.

Francesca and her father were sitting on the couch. Callie and Frank were each in an armchair. All were glued to the television, where Biff Hooper stood in front of city hall interviewing Chief Smuff. “So does this wrap up the case, Chief?”

The chief adjusted his hat at a sharper angle. “Yes, thanks to the devoted and painstaking work of detectives operating under my direct supervision, the Bayport Police have broken up the largest rare animal smuggling operation in the history of our fair city. The animals have been captured and turned over to the humane society, and their ‘owner,’ a man by the name of Strummond, has been arrested. Most crucially, we have apprehended the mastermind of the smuggling ring, Geraldine Rafferty, who has made a complete confession.”

The camera cut to footage of Mrs. Rafferty, along with Mr. Strummond and several others, being led to jail in handcuffs.

“Mrs. Rafferty!” exclaimed Joe. “Who would have thought? Right under her husband’s nose.”

On-screen, Biff took the microphone back to ask another question. “Chief, what about the previous suspect, Daniel Rafferty — is he involved?”

Chief Smuff looked embarrassed. “It’s very important to realize that these sorts of things do happen now and then, even to the most distinguished and painstaking crime fighters. While all of the initial evidence did indeed point to Mr. Rafferty’s involvement, and the mistake is certainly entirely excusable and justifiable from a professional viewpoint, it now appears that he was the innocent dupe of his wife’s machinations. I have already ordered him released, and I expect him to emerge from the station at any moment.”

“Well, Chief, let me say congratulations on your fine work.”

“Certainly, Biff. On behalf of my entire department — operating directly under my supervision — I heartily accept your congratulations. All of us on the Bayport Police Force can be proud of our outstanding work in solving Bayport’s first mystery in many a year.”

Joe could contain himself no longer. “What? We’re supposed to believe that he solved the case? Smuff couldn’t find the prize in a crackerjack box. I’ll bet someone stumbled onto the smugglers and called the police with a tip. Smuff probably had nothing to do with it.”

“Yeah,” Frank said wryly. “Wouldn’t you like to know what really happened?”

Josephine looked at her cousin, who shook her head slightly. Josephine nodded. Some secrets weren’t meant to be shared. She felt relieved that Chief Smuff had made no mention of the girls. Hopefully now that the case was solved he’d forget about his threat to call their parents.

On-screen, the show paused for a commercial. “Big Al here,” barked a familiar voice. The pet emporium owner was holding up a goldfish bowl. “I’m here to assure our many satisfied customers that Big Al’s pets always come with an official seal of approval.” The camera panned downward to catch a seal flopping across the studio floor. “If the law allows it, Big Al’s got it!”

“Well,” Frank said, “I guess that proves Big Al wasn’t in on the plot.”

“No,” said Joe, “but he sure knows how to make a buck off it.”

As the newscast returned from a commercial break, Callie shushed everyone. “Look, it’s Iola and Mr. Rafferty!”

On the TV, Biff turned to Mr. Rafferty. “How does it feel to be free?”

The elderly farmer gave a tired smile. “Well, I’m hungry, mainly. But I want to say thank you to the people who believed in me and who worked to establish my innocence.” He nodded toward Iola.

“One question remains for many of us,” Biff said. “What will become of your farm?”

The farmer shook his head. “I’m not sure. I have an idea for starting a farmers’ market on the land, but it will take a new loan to get it started. I guess we’ll continue to seek financing…”

Francesca felt a thrill as Iola stepped forward. “Biff, we at the Committee for a Better Bayport are hoping that in light of these unfortunate events, the banks of Bayport will grant an extension on Mr. Rafferty’s loans and give us a chance to seek additional financing. Perhaps new funders will emerge. I appeal to all the people of Bayport, and especially to Mayor Anderson and the city government, to help us in this quest — let us work together to preserve the last farmland adjacent to our city.”

“Do you expect success in that quest?”

Iola took a breath. “I don’t know, Biff. I just don’t know.”

“That’s so sad,” Callie said as the program ended. “Even though Mr. Rafferty is out of jail, he’ll probably still have to sell the farm.”

“I imagine that’s true,” Frank said. “That will be tough for Iola, to see another farm sold to developers.” Joe nodded glumly.

Francesca suddenly stood up. “Josephine — I have something to show you.” She started back toward her room. Josephine followed, shutting the door behind her.

“We have to tell them about the safe!” Francesca said. “We’re the only ones who know where it is.”

“Okay,” Josephine said. “But how do we do that without letting on how we know?”

“We have to call somebody and report it. You can use your adult voice and tell them where to look.”

“Call who? The police?”

“Ugh,” said Francesca. “Not them. There must be someone else. How about Mr. Rafferty?”

“Do you have his number?”

“No, I guess that’s a problem.” Francesca thought for a moment. “Wait, I know. You can call our dads. You can say you’re calling for the ‘Hardy Boys,’ and you have a tip on a mystery.”

“Great idea!”

Telling their parents they were running an errand, the girls rode down to a gas station that had a pay phone. “Call my dad,” Francesca said. “He’s at your house, so you can leave a message instead of having to talk to him directly.”

Josephine dropped in some coins. She waited impatiently as the phone rang several times. Finally the machine picked up. “Hello,” she said in a smooth, resonant voice she had nearly perfected. “This is an anonymous tip for the Hardy Boys! The missing safe for the Rafferty farm is buried in the middle of the little wooded area, behind a log. It’s already partly exposed.”

She pressed the receiver against her chest and looked at her cousin. “Anything else I should say?”

“Yeah,” Francesca said. “Tell them not to call the police, or Chief Smuff will take all the credit.”

Josephine nodded and put the phone back to her mouth. “And don’t call the police! Is that clear?”

As she hung up, Francesca laughed. “You sounded just like your mother when you said that last part.”

“Uh oh,” Josephine said. “I hope they don’t think it was my mom calling!”

***

CHAPTER 22: Watch Your Step!

An hour later, Frank Hardy turned the family car off the highway and onto the dirt road. The girls did their best to sit still as they drove up the familiar road. Frank parked the car behind the farmhouse, and everyone climbed out.

The back door opened, and Mr. Rafferty came out onto the porch. “Thanks for coming out so quickly,” Mr. Rafferty said excitedly. “Do you think the phone call was serious?”

“There’s no telling,” Joe said. “But I have to say this — the caller certainly sounded serious!”

“I don’t see what we have to lose by checking,” Frank said. “Do you know what they meant by ‘the little woods’?”

“I believe so,” said Mr. Rafferty. “It fits perfectly with the note my father left about a ‘web-in-the-woods.’ Follow me, this way.”

He picked up a couple of shovels and a pickaxe and handed them to Frank and Joe. The whole troupe set off down the trail that Josephine had followed the previous night. Soon they arrived at the clearing. “The message said to look behind a log,” Joe said.

“Joey and Frankie, stand back,” Callie said. “Let the grown-ups work.”

The adults poked around awhile, not getting close to the buried safe. Francesca walked around in circles, trying not to look too impatient. Would the adults never look in the right place?

Francesca picked up a stick, and when no one was looking, she tossed it beyond the log that concealed the safe. It made just enough noise to get Joe’s attention. “What was that?” he said, walking over next to the fallen tree. Yet he still didn’t see the spot.

Exasperated, Francesca called out, “Watch out, Dad! Watch your step!”

Joe looked over at her, then down at his feet. “What?” he said. “What’s — hey!”

He dropped to his knees. Frank and Mr. Rafferty ran over to where Joe was clawing at the ground. “The safe!” cried Mr. Rafferty as more of the metal appeared. “It’s just like the others! That’s it, I’m sure!”

With shovels and the pickaxe, the men made quick work of excavating the metal box, which wasn’t much more than a foot on each side. The corners were a bit rusty, but otherwise it looked solid. “Do you have the combination?” Frank asked.

“It’s supposed to be the same on all of them,” Mr. Rafferty said. “Let me try it.” He spun the dial several times in either direction, finally stopping it precisely on the number forty. Slowly, he reached out and took hold of the handle. Everyone leaned forward as he twisted.

With a grating sound, the handle turned. Mr. Rafferty tugged, and the door swung open. He reached inside and took out a small metal box, which he handed to Iola. Then he pulled out a stack of papers. He put them to his nose and made a face. “Moldy,” he said with disgust.

But a moment later his expression turned to one of delight. “This is it! The land-trust deed!” Clutching the paper in one hand, he jumped to his feet and danced around. “Now they’ll never build a mall here!”

He wrapped Joe and Frank in bear hugs, then ran over and hugged Iola. “This is wonderful!”

“I should say so,” said Iola in a hushed voice. “Look at this!” She held out the small box for all to see. Inside glistened an assortment of antique jewelry atop of diamonds and gems.

Mr. Rafferty staggered backward, and Joe and Frank had to grab his arms to keep him from falling. When he regained his breath, his eyes swept around the little circle. “My mother’s jewelry — the farm is saved!”

*                      *                      *

By the time the Hardys got home, it was nearly dinnertime. “Wash up, girls,” Iola said as she heated up a casserole. “What a day!”

Frank and Joe were elated. “Just like the old days,” Joe said to his brother. “Wasn’t it great to be right in the middle of a mystery again?”

“Sure enough,” Frank said. “Maybe we’re not quite through with the detective business after all!”

Joe nodded. “Still, what an odd case. Who’d have guessed that Mrs. Rafferty would betray her husband?”

Callie set out the dishes on the table. “I feel like we should have guessed it when she didn’t try harder to raise bail for Mr. Rafferty. Can you imagine us doing that? That should have tipped us off that something was wrong.”

“Maybe so,” Frank said, looking at his wife thoughtfully.

As the girls sat down at the table, Callie’s brow clouded. “Joey — what are all those scratches on your arm?”

“You, too, Frankie,” Iola said. “And were you limping earlier? What have you girls been up to?”

Josephine blanched. “Uh, nothing. We were, uh, riding our bikes, and then we sort of had an accident.”

“Both of you?” Callie said. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Well, yeah,” Francesca cut in. “We were trying something new, and it didn’t quite work the way we thought, and we landed in a blackberry bush.” Josephine nodded vigorously.

Callie groaned. “How many times have I told you to be careful? Were you wearing your helmets?”

“Yeah, Mom, we always do,” Josephine assured her.

“I should hope so,” Callie said. “I’m going to have to keep a closer eye on you.”

Great, thought Josephine. Just what they needed, with summer vacation starting. At least they’d had time to solve the mystery.

The girls went back to Josephine’s bedroom. “Well, I guess that wraps it up,” Josephine said with a hint of sadness in her voice. “I’m glad the farm is saved, but I don’t know if we can exactly claim that we solved the mystery. We found the animals by accident. I never suspected Mr. Strummond at all, and I was totally wrong about Mr. Landsdowne being involved.”

“Well,” Francesca said, “it’s not like there was no reason to suspect him. We saw the smugglers on his estate, and then we saw him meeting with Mrs. Rafferty. That’s pretty suspicious, if you ask me.”

“I guess so. I just wish I could trust my intuition.”

“Sometimes you can,” Francesca said. “You were sure the buried safe existed when no one else believed it.”

“True. Sometimes intuition is right, sometimes it’s wrong. It’s confusing.”

Francesca thought about it. “Maybe the challenge is learning when to trust it.”

Later that night, Francesca stretched out on her bed, looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. She buried her head in her feather pillow and was just dozing off when the little bell by her window jingled.

Francesca snapped awake. Was something wrong? Had she forgotten something? She stepped quickly across the room and picked up the tin can telephone. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” came Josephine’s voice. “Are you awake? I had a really cool idea. Want to hear it?”

Francesca sighed. She knew it would take longer to explain why she didn’t want to hear it than just to say okay and listen. “Okay, what?”

“Well,” Josephine said, “do you think anyone will write the story of our mystery, like they did for our dads? Because if they do, I have a title: ‘The Case of the Missing Buried Safe at Mr. Rafferty’s Farm and the Rare Endangered Animal Smugglers’.”

Francesca mulled it over. “Hopefully we can find more mysteries to solve. Each title should start with ‘The Mystery of,’ so people will know it’s a series.”

“You’re right,” Josephine said, impressed at her cousin’s foresight. “But I still like the word ‘Case.’ It makes it sound like we’re real detectives. How about if we compromise and call it ‘The Mystery of the Case of the Missing Buried Safe at Mr. Rafferty’s Farm and the Rare Endangered Animal Smugglers.’ What do you think?”

Francesca paused for a moment. She could tell how excited her cousin was, but she had to be honest. “It’s not quite right.”

“Do you think I left something out?”

“Let’s sleep on it,” Francesca said.

And sleep they did, more soundly than ever. But not for long. Before the summer was half over, the Hardy Girls would be up to their necks in a new case that would test their ingenuity, their courage, and their ability to outrun Chief Smuff and the Bayport Police: The Mystery of the Derailed Train.

HG02-pic-ClimbInsideCar

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