Chapter 1: Grave Rubbers 1 GRAVE RUBBERS JOE
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY YOU get a letter from a notorious convict asking for help locating a scientist who’s gone missing from a remote mountaintop research station. In fact, my brother Frank and I were probably the only people ever to get one. I figured we were definitely the only ones to ever read said letter in a two-hundred-year-old country graveyard.
I yawned away some of the sleepiness from our bumpy sunrise bus ride to the mountains, adjusted my seat in the grass to get comfortable against the mossy old headstone I was using as a backrest, and pulled the letter from my pack. I could practically hear the author’s deep voice and thick Russian accent in my head as I reread the opening paragraph aloud.
“?‘I know is inconvenient for the young detectives, but if you would go please to see the doctor to make sure everything is okay. I have heard not from him at all for too long after he wrote me very worried letter about unscrupulous people skulking in the old neighborhood.’?”
I studied the hastily scrawled handwriting, hoping it might reveal new information to help us on our expedition.
It had been over a year since we’d last seen Aleksei Orlov, the fugitive mobster-turned-feared-hermit-turned-selfless-hero who gave up his own freedom to help us on our previous death-defying trip to Black Bear Mountain. When Aleksei wrote the old neighborhood, I had no doubt he meant the top of the mountain—where he’d faked his death and hidden from authorities for decades while pretending to be a mythical man-eating mountain man to scare people away. Including us. I’d been convinced he wanted to turn me into supper right up until the moment he saved my life.
Usually when I thought of Aleksei and his off-the-wall stunts, it made me smile. His letter from federal prison did the opposite.
“I hope Dr. K is all right and just out in the field doing research somewhere,” Frank commented. The identity of the “doctor” in Aleksei’s letter wasn’t hard to guess either, and he wasn’t a medical doctor. Renowned scientist Dr. Max Kroopnik had been the only other person besides Aleksei to make his home on Black Bear Mountain. “Aleksei wouldn’t have been so cryptic in his letter and asked us to come all the way out here if he wasn’t really concerned, though.”
The early morning sun lit up the sheet of paper Frank had taped to a particularly ancient headstone to hold it in place while he made a rubbing of the dead guy’s name with a fat black crayon.
“I wonder if there’s secret information he didn’t want the prison censors to see,” Frank’s ex-girlfriend Jones added as Frank handed her the finished paper. “Ooh, good one, Frank. Alistair Fritwell, 1691 to 1747. This is the oldest yet. It’s perfect for my project.”
Jones had convinced Frank that making grave rubbings for her school project on colonial life in the Northeast wilderness was a good way for us to kill time while we waited for the general store across the street to open. That was where we planned to catch a ride for the next leg of our trip. Our car was in the shop, so Frank and I had taken the early bus to the tiny mountain town of Last Chance, about two hours away from our hometown of Bayport. It was the last stop before you hit the high peaks, which loomed over the town in the distance. Our final destination—Black Bear Mountain—loomed the tallest.
At this hour, nothing in the town was open yet—not that there was much, just a handful of shops and a couple of restaurants. Which was why we were hanging out in a graveyard. Well, that and Jones’s school project.
“I enjoy hanging out in creepy old cemeteries as much as the next horror movie fan, but messing with graves like that gives me the willies,” I said. My body gave an involuntary shiver to prove it. Jones was homeschooled by her mom, so her homework tended to be more nontraditional than ours. A lot weirder, too, apparently.
“We’re not messing with them, Joe. We’re making a historical record to preserve them,” Jones said as she started in on a large headstone with a spooktacular-looking angel on top.
“Better grave rubbing than grave robbing, that’s what I always say,” Frank added cheerfully. “Besides, you’re the person who’s using someone’s grave as a lounge chair.”
“Thanks for sharing, Karl,” I said to the occupant under my lounge chair as I scanned ahead in the letter for additional clues to our friend Dr. K’s apparent disappearance.
Yup, just another day in the life of the world’s greatest teenage detectives.
“Can you read the rest of the letter again, Joe?” asked Jones, which kinda irked me a little, if I’m being totally honest.
This wasn’t the first time she’d tagged along on one of our investigations. She’d proven herself to be a pretty good detective, too, I had to admit. She’d even saved my tail on one occasion. The only problem was that when she tagged along with us, I was the one who ended up feeling like I was tagging along with them. The Hardy boys had always been a detective duo, and I wasn’t thrilled about Jones turning it into a trio—or feeling like the third wheel in my own outfit.
Jones wasn’t Frank’s ex because they didn’t still like each other. All you had to do was see them making googly eyes at each other from behind their tombstones to figure that part out. They’d probably still be making googly eyes at each other all over Bayport, too, if Jones’s mom hadn’t gummed up the works for them by moving away. They’d stayed good friends, though, and she now lived closer to Black Bear Mountain than we did. So when Frank told her where we were going, she jumped at the chance to join us and took a bus to meet us here. Which, I had to remind myself as I gritted my teeth, made Frank happy and might actually help us solve the case—and Joe Hardy isn’t the type of guy to get in the way of his brother’s happiness or an investigation.
So I un-gritted my teeth, cleared my throat, and did as Jones asked.
“In final letter to me, Doc say new scientist named Drawes muscling in on research territory and wanting to take mountain lion grant funding for himself. He say this man’s research methods are suspect. Not very good scientist. I think maybe is clue for boys.
“Doc sends me letter here every five or six weeks to remind me of home so I do not miss it as much while I am away, but I do not receive one for too long now. Doc is very thoughtful friend. He would not forget about Aleksei. I fear is my fault if something happen to him. You find Doc for Aleksei, yes?
“Your friend for always, the Heroic Hermit of Black Bear Mountain.”
“I like this guy,” Jones declared.
“We do too,” I agreed, smiling at the nickname he had given himself at the end of our last adventure together.
“So you guys told me about the bears, but there are mountain lions here too?” Jones asked apprehensively.
Black bears living on Black Bear Mountain wasn’t a huge surprise, and we’d had a couple of close calls with them on our last trip, but mountain lions were a new twist. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive about it myself. A little excited, too. I wasn’t as into the nature and science stuff as Frank, but the prospect of seeing a real mountain lion in the wild had the adventure bug in me psyched.
“Historically, this was always mountain lion country, but they were hunted virtually to extinction in the northeast nearly a hundred years ago,” Frank informed us, going into junior scientist mode. Dr. K would be proud. “There have been a number of reported sightings in recent years, though, and Dr. K was able to document evidence that two adults have been active in this mountain range! He and some other scientists believe that small, isolated populations of escaped captives and migrated individuals from out west are reestablishing themselves. He’s been trying to capture and fit them with radio collars to study their behavior. If he can prove to the scientific community that there’s a viable breeding population, it would be a huge ecological victory.”
“Bringing back large keystone carnivores can help restore an ecosystem’s natural predator-prey equilibrium by controlling overpopulated species, helping to regulate everything from vegetation health to disease-carrying pests like ticks,” I added casually, earning a raised eyebrow from Frank. “You’re not the only one who pays attention in science class, bro.”
“Don’t mountain lions have huge territories, though?” Jones asked. “That’s got to be really challenging research.”
“Yup, they’re super-elusive, solitary creatures, and there may be only a few of them in the whole region,” Frank confirmed. “The average person could spend years in mountain lion territory and never catch so much as a glimpse. Most people don’t go off searching for them like Dr. K does, though. If we’re lucky, Aleksei is worrying over nothing, and he’s just away from the mountaintop tracking them.”
“That’s what the rangers thought when we contacted them to see if they could check on him. They’ve got their hands full anyway. Their buckets too.” I pointed to the thick gray smoke rising from the mountain range north of Black Bear Mountain. There was a dark cloud over our expedition, and it wasn’t just concern for our friend Max. “That forest fire has all their resources tied up.”
The morning sunlight took on a strange orange glow from the fire. It was kind of beautiful, but also really eerie. You could smell the smoke in the air from miles away. Not ideal hiking conditions, for sure, and we wouldn’t have risked it normally, but making sure Dr. Kroopnik was safe took priority.
“It doesn’t help that Dr. K is so hard to reach,” Frank said. “There’s still no cell service on Black Bear Mountain, and the only way to reach his research station is shortwave radio.”
“And the doc isn’t answering,” I added. “So that means it’s up to us to go find him.”
We’d promised to come back to Black Bear Mountain to visit Dr. K and Aleksei after Aleksei was released from a prison in a few months, but this trip wasn’t the vacation we’d hoped for.
The alarm on Frank’s watch beeped. “Time to get moving. The general store should be opening and we can get the shuttle out to the Bear Foot Lodge.”
“I can’t wait to see the lodge,” Jones said as she rolled up the gravestone rubbings she and Frank had made. “From everything you’ve told me about it, it seems like an amazing place.”
“It sure is. Too bad we won’t be there for long, though,” Frank replied. “With a little luck, we’ll find Dr. K, and be able to get back there to enjoy it before heading home in a couple days.”
The Bear Foot Lodge wilderness retreat had been the launching point for our last adventure to Black Bear Mountain and would be again this time. Black Bear Mountain was about as remote as it gets, and the lodge made the perfect home base to set out from. They were even providing us with a wilderness guide to take us into the backcountry and up to the research station. The reason we’d arrived in Last Chance so early was to give us time to make the trek to the top of the mountain while it was still light out. If everything went well, we’d be waving hi to Dr. K before the sun set that night.
We shouldered our hiking packs, stepped through the wrought-iron cemetery gate, and headed across the street toward a large, hand-painted sign that read:
LAST CHANCE GENERAL STORE
GOODS • GIFTS • TAXIDERMY • BUS STATION • POST OFFICE
“With a town this small, I guess it’s good to multitask,” Frank observed.
We stopped in front of the glass window to look at the display of hiking and fishing gear, souvenirs, and dead animals. Yup. Dead animals. Lots of them. A fox chased a rabbit past a pyramid of honey jars on one end. Hats and fishing lures dangled from the antlers of a white-tailed deer on the other. A skunk perched on a mannequin’s shoulder in the center. And a turkey swooped above them all with a salami gripped in its talons.
“It’s creepy, if you ask me,” Jones said.
“Little bit,” I agreed.
The sign on the door flipped from CLOSED to OPEN and the door swung open with a jingle.
“Welcome and good morning!” a middle-aged man with sandy hair and a wispy mustache greeted us from the doorway. “You must be the famous Hardy boys. Everyone was talking about you after your last visit to the area. Quite the hullabaloo that stirred up. Folks will be telling their kids about it for ages.”
“Ooh, I didn’t know I was traveling with celebrities,” Jones teased, giving Frank a playful nudge, causing him to blush and me to roll my eyes.
“And you must be Jones,” the man said. “The Bear Foot Lodge called ahead yesterday to reserve our shuttle service for the three of you. We run the most reliable shuttle service in the whole area. We also happen to run the only shuttle service in the whole area.” He gave a good-natured laugh. “Come in! Come in!” He held the door open as we walked into the store.
“I’m Ken Fritwell, by the way, proud proprietor of Last Chance General—the first and last stop for just about anything you could ever need in Last Chance. Whatever it is, there’s a good chance we sell it, supply it, stuff it, shuttle it, or ship it.”
“Fritwell? Are you related to the Fritwells that are buried in the cemetery?” asked Frank.
“Ah, I see you stopped across the street and paid a visit to ol’ Uncle Alistair,” Ken guffawed. “There have been Fritwells living in Last Chance since before it was founded. We used to run the whole town back in the good old days. Times are a little harder here than they used to be, but no one knows these hills better than a Fritwell.”
He paused to straighten one of the displays. “If you’ll excuse me for a minute, my wife, Cherry, and I are still getting set up for the day. Give us a few and we’ll get you in the van and on your way to the lodge. Why don’t you three leave your packs at the front of the store, while I bring the van around and load everything up? We’ll get you on your way to the lodge in just a few minutes.”
“That would be great. Thanks, Mr. Fritwell,” Frank said.
“Ken,” he replied with a click of his tongue and a friendly finger gun in Frank’s direction. “Take a gander around the shop while you wait and see if anything strikes your fancy. We’ve got some great camping gear on sale and all kinds of souvenirs for the folks back home.”
We left our packs by the door and ventured into the store. Looking around, we quickly discovered that the inside of the Last Chance General Store was just as weird as the outside. Mounted taxidermy animals everywhere—some of them dressed in human clothes. I had to agree with Jones. Creepy.
A lifelike raccoon seemed to stare at me from a shelf full of packages of trail mix. The raccoon wasn’t exactly appetizing, but the trail mix made my stomach growl and reminded me I reminded me that all I’d had to eat since we’d gotten on the bus was a handful of grapes and a dry energy bar. Thoughts of macadamia nuts, dried cherries, and dark chocolate danced in my head as I reached for the bag.
That’s when the raccoon shrieked and leaped straight at my face.