Seventeen-year-old Joe Hardy took a seat on the chair near the sofa in the cozy living room. His parents looked at him expectantly as he gave them his most winning smile. "I was wondering if I could have an advance on my allowance?" he asked.
Laura smiled indulgently at the tow-headed youth who took after her in looks if not in manner but kept quite as her husband gently applied a little pressure to her shoulders where his arm was resting.
"Joseph, we have already advanced your allowance for the next two months," Fenton said, his brown eyes a sharp contrast to his son's blue ones. "You're going to have to learn to budget or get a job."
"This is a no, right?" Joe asked dryly. His father nodded and watched as his dejected son rose and went upstairs. Fenton Hardy, world-renowned private investigator, formerly of the New York City Police Department was, after all, a good father. Like his wife, he wanted to give his children everything but he knew if Joe didn't learn to control his finances now then he never would.
Fenton gave a sigh wondering if Joe was mad at him. Laura tilted her head and kissed him on the cheek. "You did the right thing," she told him.
"Well?" asked brown-headed Frank Hardy when his year younger brother entered his bedroom and flopped down on the bed.
"No," Joe replied. "You were right, as usual. If I want any more money until school starts back up then I am going to have to earn it."
"No time like the present," Frank suggested, smothering a grin when Joe threw him a dirty look.
"You know," Joe huffed as he got to his feet. "Just once I wish you would be wrong."
"Okay. Where can I go to apply where I might actually get hired?" Joe wondered aloud as he left the house. "The mall!" he answered his own question. Joe was grinning as he backed the van out of the drive. There were so many stores in the place he was bound to find a job there.
Two hours later Joe had long since realized that finding a job wasn't as easy as he had thought it would be. A lot of the stores' managers knew Joe by name if not by sight and were well aware his activities as a detective would take precedence over being at work on time.
"Sorry, Joe," said the manager at the ice cream shop on the first floor. "I just don't have anything for you."
"I understand," Joe said, giving him a half-hearted smile. "Um...I don't suppose you know of anyone desperate enough for help to hire me?"
The manager broke out laughing. "You make it sound like you're an undesirable," he said.
"Isn't he?" asked the man who had been standing behind Joe since the manager had turned him down.
"Good Heavens, no!" the manager declared. "Joe's one of the most honest guys in Bayport. He just can't guarantee he will show up for work everyday."
"Why is that?" the man inquired.
"Excuse me," interrupted Joe. "Who are you?"
"This is Herb Jennings," the manager introduced the stranger to Joe. "He runs the hardware store two doors down."
"Nice to meet you," Joe said, shaking Jennings' hand.
"Now, why wouldn't you be able to report to work on time?" Jennings inquired.
"My brother and I are amateur detectives," Joe answered. "Occasionally, something happens beyond our control that prevents us from being somewhere at a particular time."
"You're a detective?" Jennings asked, amusement evident in his voice.
"And a darn good one!" the ice cream shop manager inserted in Joe's defense. "His dad, Fenton Hardy, trained him."
Jennings' mouth fell open and his brown eyes widened. Joe glanced at the guy behind the counter, his blue eyes twinkling. "Sorry," Jennings apologized after closing his mouth and clearing his throat. "My son and I operate the hardware store," he said. "But it would be nice to have an extra hand occasionally. Your absences wouldn't cause much of a problem," he continued, smiling at the excited anticipation showing on Joe's face. "I just require someone who is honest and does his best while he is at work."
"That would be great!" Joe enthused.
"It pays minimum wage," Jennings warned him.
"Great," Joe repeated. To him, anything was better than nothing.
"Can you start tomorrow morning at seven?" Jennings asked.
"I thought the mall didn't open until ten," Joe said in confusion.
"We have our own entrance," Jennings told him.
"I'll be here at seven sharp," Joe agreed, smiling.
Joe was waiting at the door of Jennings' Hardware and Supply when Jennings and a younger man arrived. "Joe Hardy, this is my son, Tim," Jennings introduced the two youths. The two boys exchanged greetings while the elderly Jennings unlocked the door and turned the alarm off.
"Tim, watch the register while I show Joe around," Jennings ordered his son. Forty minutes later, Joe knew the layout of the place and had been shown how to operate the register.
"Ah, our first customers of the day," Jennings said as the bell tinged and two men entered the store. "They are all yours," he told Joe, moving away.
Plastering a smile on his face, Joe approached the two men. His eyes held a hint of recognition although Joe couldn't place either of the men at the moment.
"Welcome to Jennings' Hardware and Supply," Joe greeted the two men. "Can I help you find something this morning?"
"We need two shovels," said the taller of the two men. At six feet he was no taller than Joe was but the man's shoulders were almost twice as broad. His green eyes kept darting around the store nervously.
"Yeah, and be quick," came the whinny voice of the dark-haired man beside him. "We're in a hurry."
"Of course," Joe said affably as the bell tinged to announce another customer. Joe led the men to the aisle where the shovels were located.
"Hardy!" shouted a friendly, familiar voice. Joe saw the two men look around anxiously. "What are you doing hanging around here? And so early in the morning too?" asked the speaker, a boy who played on Bayport High's football team with Joe.
"I work here," said Joe.
"Yeah, right," the boy snickered in disbelief. "What kind of mystery is there to solve in a hardware store?" he demanded. "And for that matter, if you are working on a case then why aren't you wearing a disguise?"
Sighing, Joe turned to answer his friend. When he turned back around the two men were gone. A second later Joe heard the bell and knew they had left.
At eleven Jennings told Joe to take a break and grab some lunch. Promising to be back in thirty minutes, Joe left and headed for the food court. As he neared it, he thought about the two men earlier that morning. Deciding to play a hunch he changed direction and headed for the alcove near the exit where several phones were available.
Joe grabbed the handset and put through a call to home, dropping the required fifty cents in the receptor. He held his breath, hoping his dad or Frank would answer but instead the answering machine picked up. At the beep, Joe began speaking. "This is Joe. There were a couple of men in the store this morning that were acting suspicious. One was six feet tall with..."
Joe broke off as something small and hard was shoved into his back. The receiver was taken from his hand and hung up. Joe looked at the man who had taken the phone away and immediately recognized him as the man with the large broad shoulders from earlier. Joe didn't have to turn around to know that the man with the gun on him was the five foot eight buddy.
"We're going to leave nice and quiet," Joe was told by the short man behind him in his whinny voice. "You draw any attention and you and anyone else around dies."