Loving And Losing – First Chapter

Chapter 1

“I know what you mean,” Frank agreed. He stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and looked out from the wharf where he and Joe stood. Before them, the muddy waters of the Mississippi River flowed lazily past. High-rise hotels and the International Trade Mart towered over the stores and tourist attractions of the renovated waterfront. Beyond it, Frank caught a glimpse of colonial houses, ornate wrought-iron railings and balconies, and tropical flowers and trees he couldn’t begin to name. Farther upriver were the rotting back sides of some abandoned warehouses and docks. “It feels like a mix of everything that’s exotic, exciting, and decadent,” he declared.

“Not to mention gorgeous,” Joe added, glancing appreciatively at a tall blond who was just passing by. “I think I’m going to like it here.”

Frank had to roll his eyes at that one. It figured that the biggest flirt in North America would be his own brother. “We’re here on a case, remember?” he reminded Joe. “Finding half a million dollars?”

“And the thief who stole it from Hugh Gatlin’s riverboat casino,” Joe added. The playful gleam disappeared from his blue eyes and was replaced by a look of steely determination. He nodded toward a low glass-and-concrete building next to the wharf. A sign over the entrance read Delta Princess Casino Tours. “We might as well head to Gatlin’s office and get all the details.”

Hugh Gatlin was the owner of the Delta Princess riverboat casino. He’d known the Hardys’ father, Fenton, since their college days. Late the night before, Mr. Gatlin had called with disturbing news:

Someone had broken into the riverboat’s safe and made off with over half a million dollars. The police were on the case, but Gatlin had decided to call in Frank and Joe, too, hoping that would increase the odds of finding the thief quickly. The brothers had flown to New Orleans on the earliest flight that morning. They had dropped off their bags with the housekeeper at Mr. Gatlin’s house, quickly eaten sandwiches she had prepared for them, then made their way to his office immediately.

“Hi,” Frank said to the receptionist as he and Joe stepped into the Casino Tours office. She was standing behind a long, sleek counter covered with schedules and publicity brochures. Framed photographs of New Orleans and the Delta Princess, an old-fashioned steam-powered paddleboat, decorated the walls. When Frank introduced himself and Joe, the receptionist smiled and nodded.

“Mr. Gatlin is expecting you,” she said in a lilting drawl. “Why don’t y’all come on back with me?”

She led Frank and Joe behind the counter and through a door to a network of offices, then up a flight of stairs, where she stopped outside a door. “You can go on in,” she said.

“Pretty impressive,” Joe said softly to Frank as they entered the large office. There was a mix of antique furniture and high-tech computer and audiovisual equipment. Huge windows wrapped around the office on three sides, providing a breath taking view of the waterfront.

“Frank! Joe!” The man who got up from behind the mahogany desk was portly and amiable, with short dark hair and astute gray eyes. His linen suit jacket was draped around the back of his chair, and his sleeves were rolled up. A wide smile spread across his face as he came over and gave each of the Hardys a firm handshake. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“No problem,” Joe said. “Frank and I can start right in as soon as you brief us about what happened.”

Mr. Gatlin sat back down behind his desk and gestured for the Hardys to take the two chairs in front of it. “I guess I’d better start at the beginning,” he said, rubbing his chin. “The Princess goes out on half a dozen cruises a day, docking for the night around eleven-thirty. An armored truck meets the boat to pick up the money. There’s a safe on board, of course, as well as security cameras, an alarm, guards — ” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I thought it was a foolproof system.”

“Do you have any reason to believe it was an inside job?” Joe asked.

“No,” Mr. Gatlin replied. “I trust my employees. Most everyone’s been with me for years. I feel I know the people who work for me pretty well.”

“How exactly did the thief strike?” Frank asked.

“He knocked out the guard from behind,” Mr. Gatlin explained. “Then he sprayed paint over the security camera’s lens, blew open the safe with plastic explosives, and was gone before anyone knew what had happened. With all the commotion of people leaving the riverboat, no one heard or saw him. The only person who noticed the explosion was J.J.”

“J.J.?” Joe echoed, sitting forward in his chair. “Who’s he?”

“J. J. Johnson. He plays the trumpet in the brass band that provides entertainment during our evening cruise,” Mr. Gatlin answered. He grimaced before adding, “Unfortunately, J.J. didn’t actually see anything, since he’s blind. He was on the deck, not far from the office where the safe is. He heard the explosion and then heard the thief run past and climb down the paddle wheel. Whoever it was got away on a motorboat.”

That doesn’t glve us much to go on, Frank thought, but at least it’s something. “We’d like to talk to J. J.,” he told Mr. Gatlin. “And to the guard who was knocked out. Maybe one of them remembers something that could help us.”

“The police have already spoken to both J. J. Johnson and Mike Keyes — he’s the guard,” Mr. Gatlin said. “I’ve let J. J. know that he’ll be hearing from y’all. And Mike said he’d stop by to talk to you this afternoon.” He glanced out the window, then flashed a quick smile. “As a matter of fact, he’s pulling up right now.”

Frank saw a beat-up red convertible pulling into a parking spot in the lot next to the Casino Tours office. A tall man wearing mirrored sunglasses, black jeans, and cowboy boots hopped out. Even from the office, it was impossible to miss the way his biceps bulged beneath his black T-shirt. When he appeared in Hugh Gatlin’s office a few minutes later, the guy seemed to fill up the entire doorway.

“Hey, Mr. G.,” Mike said in an easy drawl. A few long strides carried him across the room to Hugh Gatlin’s desk. As he pushed his sunglasses up on top of his head, Frank saw that Mike was only a few years older than he and Joe — maybe in his early twenties. Even though he had a formidable build, his windblown brown hair and freckled face gave him a boyish look.

When Gatlin introduced Frank and Joe, Mike stood beside Mr. Gatlin’s desk and carefully looked the Hardys over. “So, y’all think you can do a better job of finding Mr. G.’s money than the New Orleans Police Department?” he asked.

Frank could see Joe bristle at the challenging tone of Mike’s voice. He leaned forward in his chair, his eyes flashing with anger. “For your information,” Joe said, “Frank and I have solved hundreds of — “

“We’re just trying to help. It’s not a competition,” Frank cut in, giving Joe a warning look. Getting into an argument with a guy who was built like a Mack truck didn’t seem like the greatest idea — especially since they needed Mike’s help.

“Mike takes his job very, very seriously,” Mr. Gatlin said to Frank and Joe. “When something goes wrong, he gets upset about it.”

Mr. Gatlin turned to the guard. “These boys are not trying to muscle in on your territory, Mike. Just tell Frank and Joe everything you remember, and maybe we can solve this thing even faster.”

“There’s not a whole lot to tell,” Mike said, shrugging. “Let’s see . . .” He went over to the window, leaned against the sill, and crossed his arms over his massive chest. “It happened after the Princess docked for the night. I was making a final round of the boat, and then I went into the office where the safe is.

“Was the room locked?” Joe asked.

Mike nodded. “It was locked and the alarm was on,” he answered. His eyes held a mocking glint.

He obviously wasn’t taking them seriously, Joe thought, but at least he was cooperating.

“After I disabled the alarm, unlocked the door, and went inside, someone came up from behind and hit me,” Mike continued. He reached up, grimacing as he touched a spot on the back of his head. “When I came to, the safe was busted open, and whoever had knocked me out was gone.”

“With half a million dollars of my money!” Hugh Gatlin added. “The police found small bits of plastic explosive near the safe, and a metal pipe in the hall where Mike was knocked out. They dusted the whole area for prints, but everything was clean.”

“They found the pipe in the hall? I thought you said you were inside the room where the safe is when the thief hit you,” Joe said, turning to Mike.

Hugh Gatlin shook his head and frowned. “He’s right, Mike. I was right there when you spoke to the police. I clearly remember you telling them you were struck from behind in the hall.”

Mike hesitated a moment before he answered. “I guess you could say I was right at the doorway. Not exactly in or out.”

Frank couldn’t be sure, but he had the feeling Mike wasn’t telling them the whole story. Judging by the doubtful look on Joe’s face, Frank thought his brother felt the same way. “You didn’t see anyone else, either before you were knocked out or after you came to?” Frank asked.

Mike shook his head. “Not till I went out on the balcony and found J. J. there,” he replied.

“The safe’s located on the upper level of the riverboat, above the gaming rooms, snack bar, and jazz club. The area’s usually fairly deserted,” Mr. Gatlin explained. “That’s why no one else heard the blast.”

So, except for J. J. there was no one else who could confirm or contradict Mike’s story, Frank realized. As Mike crossed one ankle in front of the other, Frank noticed his cowboy boots. They were made of shiny black snakeskin and looked brand-new — and very expensive. Of course, having new boots didn’t make the guy a criminal, Frank reminded himself.

“You don’t have any idea at all who could have stolen the money?” he asked Mike.

Instead of answering, Mike turned to Hugh Gatlin and asked, “You didn’t show them the tape?”

“Not yet.” Gatlin picked up a videocassette from his desk and went over to the TV and VCR in a built-in console against one wall. “There was a man at the blackjack table last night,” he said, talking over his shoulder to Frank and Joe. “He was losing big and wasn’t happy about it. One of our security cameras got him on tape.”

He pushed a few buttons, and seconds later the blackjack table flashed onto the screen. The camera gave a distorted, black-and-white view of half a dozen people around the table, with others watching or threading their way through the crowd behind. The atmosphere was lively and chaotic, from what Frank could tell. Then he spotted a man at the edge of the screen.

The man appeared to be extremely agitated. His dark, thick brows were knitted together. He muttered angrily at the people around him while he played. When he lost the hand and the dealer swept away his chips, he jumped up and started yelling. Then he grabbed the dealer by the shirt.

“Whoa,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“The guy threatened the dealer, accused him of cheating,” Mike said. “That’s where I came in.

A beefy arm flashed onto the screen. Then Mike could be seen, wearing a jacket with a badge saying Security on the lapel. He pulled the dark-haired man away from the dealer.

The next few moments were a blur of flailing arms and shouting faces. Finally, the dark-haired man reached down and grabbed a white canvas tote bag from the floor. He put the straps of the bag over one shoulder, and Frank could make out that the logo on the bag was a chef’s cap with some letters emblazoned on it.

As the man stormed from the gaming room, Mr. Gatlin stopped the tape. “His name is Remy Maspero,” Hugh Gatlin said. “Mike was able to find that out from some of the other people who were at the blackjack table with him. Apparently, he’s about to open a new Creole restaurant here in New Orleans.”

Frank nodded, mentally filing away the information. “Did you see where Maspero went after that?” he asked Mike.

“To the Dixieland Jazz Bar we have on board. I checked up on him a few times, but he was quiet,” Mike said. “Once the Princess docked, I stopped worrying about the guy. I assumed he had left along with everyone else. But who knows? Maybe he decided to steal back the money he lost.”

“And then some,” Joe added. “We should talk to him, Frank.”

“I’d like to talk to J. J. Johnson, too,” Frank said, “and take a look at the Delta Princess.”

Hugh Gatlin nodded out the window at the empty wharf next to the office. “The Princess is upriver on a cruise now, but I’ll arrange for you two to be on the evening tour. It leaves here at seven forty-five. Mike will be working, so he’ll show you the area around the safe. I’m going to be busy the next few days, preparing a speech for a conference of local business leaders. My daughter, Faye, said she’d help you find your way around town and get you anything you might need.”

“Great,” Joe said. “Was she by any chance on the Delta Princess last night, too?”

“No. Faye and I were out celebrating my birthday with a late dinner when Mike beeped me and relayed the bad news,” Mr. Gatlin answered. “Some birthday present, eh?”

“Mmm,” Frank said distractedly. He wasn’t crazy about the idea of including Mr. Gatlin’s daughter in the investigation. She would probably just get in the way. “About your daughter — Joe and I can handle things fine on our own,” he told Mr. Gatlin. “We’re used to “

“Hi, Daddy,” a bright voice spoke up from behind Frank. “Sorry I’m late.”

Turning around, Frank saw a tall young woman striding through the office doorway. She was about his age, Frank guessed, with intelligent green eyes and straight dark hair that fell halfway down her back. As she stepped lightly across the room toward Hugh, Frank couldn’t help noticing the way her flowered skirt billowed around her slender legs.

“Hello, darlin’.” Hugh Gatlin gave her a kiss on the cheek, then smiled proudly as he turned to Frank and Joe. “This is my daughter, Faye. Faye, meet — “

“Frank and Joe Hardy,” Faye supplied. She held out a hand, grinning. “Daddy’s told me all about you. I don’t know if I’ll be much help to y’all. but I’m willing to give it a shot if you are.”

As Frank shook her hand, he found himself staring into her eyes longer than he’d intended. “I, uh — that’d be great,” he mumbled.

“Smooth, Frank,” Joe said under his breath. More loudly, he added, “What was it you were just saying, Frank? Something about how we work alo — “

“It was nothing,” Frank cut in.

“Good. It’s settled, then,” Mr. Gatlin said, with a broad smile. “I have business to attend to, so if you don’t mind . . .”

“I’m sure we can find some place to talk every thing over.” Faye raised an eyebrow at Frank and Joe. “How about coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde? It’s not far from here. It’s right in the thick of the French Quarter.”

Frank didn’t even know what beignets were, but he found himself smiling back at Faye. “Sure,” he told her. “Sounds terrific.”

Joe stared across the cafe table at Frank and Faye Gatlin. Here I am, sitting outside at the Café du Monde with the most gorgeous girl in New Orleans, he thought. And she’s flirting with my brother.

Joe took a sip of his coffee. He felt out of place, and he didn’t like it. Frank wasn’t usually the flirting type — that was more his department, Joe thought. But Joe recognized the signs — the subtle gleam of interest in his brother’s eyes, the way he listened so attentively to everything Faye said. It was enough to make Joe choke on the square powdery doughnuts Faye called beignets.

“If you’d like, we can talk to J. J. Johnson before tonight’s tour on the Princess, “Faye was saying, her green eyes fixed on Frank. “According to Daddy, he spends a lot of time at Dupre’s, a jazz club over on Bourbon Street.”

“The sooner the better,” Joe said. He was itching to get started on the case, but neither Faye nor Frank even seemed to hear him.

“I’d like to learn more about Mike Keyes, too,” Frank said. He inched his chair slightly closer to Faye’s, then took a sip of his coffee. “There’s something about the guy I don’t trust.”

“Like the way he hedged about where he was when he was knocked out?” Joe put in.

This time Joe noted that Frank actually looked at him for half a second and nodded before turning back to Faye. “What do you know about Mike?” he asked her.

“I’ve known Mike just about all my life. He was a few years ahead of me in school, but our families have always been friendly. He and my dad play golf together. I don’t socialize with him, though. He travels in a much faster crowd than I do.” Faye ran a hand through her long dark hair and stared out from beneath the cafe’s striped awning at the tourists bustling past. “Mike likes to have a good time,” she continued, “tearing around in his convertible, staying up till all hours playing poker . . .”

She seemed perceptive, Joe had to admit. And smart. She reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t put his finger on who it was.

“I’m busy with college and a job at Michaud’s Department Store at the mall, so I don’t see Mike much anymore,” Faye went on. “Still, I’d say he’s harmless. Daddy wouldn’t keep him on at the Delta Princess if he thought otherwise.” Suddenly she looked worried as she turned back to Frank. “You don’t think he had anything to do with last night’s theft, do you? Our families have known each other forever.”

“It’s a possibility we should keep in mind, that’s all,” Joe said. “We can’t afford to — “

“Frank and Joe Hardy!” a familiar voice called from the street. “Is it really you?”

Joe whipped his head around, and his mouth dropped open in surprise. “Hey! It’s Nancy and Bess!”

Nancy Drew, Bess Marvin, and a blond-haired young woman Joe didn’t recognize were standing in front of a redbrick building whose double porches were lined with decorative ironwork, fancy pillars, and mossy hanging plants. The girls waved as they crossed Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square and headed toward the Café du Monde.

“I don’t believe it!” Frank cried as he and Joe jumped up to give Nancy and Bess hugs.

Nancy grinned, her blue eyes flitting back and forth between Frank and Joe. “What a great surprise!”

“I’ll say,” Bess chimed in. “What brings you two to New Orleans?”

“My father,” Faye Gatlin spoke up. “Someone decided to help themselves to half a million dollars from my daddy’s riverboat casino.” Faye’s face lit up as she smiled at Frank, who was dragging three chairs over from a nearby table. “Frank and Joe are helping to get it back.”

“We heard about that on the news this morning,” Nancy said. Joe noticed the curious once-over she gave Faye as she sat down on Frank’s other side. Obviously, she had noticed the chemistry between Faye and Frank, too.

“Faye Gatlin. meet Nancy Drew and Bess Marvin,” Frank said. “They’ve teamed up with Joe and me more than a few times in the past.”

As Joe looked back and forth between Nancy and Faye, he realized who it was that Faye reminded him of: Nancy! They were both smart, pretty, and quick-witted. Although Frank and Nancy had never acted on it, Joe knew there was an attraction between the two. Hmm, he thought, this could get interesting. . . .

“This is our friend Shelley. She moved here from River Heights back in high school, and now she’s a business major in college here.” Bess’s voice broke into Joe’s thoughts. She grinned at the blond-haired young woman sitting next to her. “She has a break from school, and she promised Nan and me a week of totally excessive eating and partying, so naturally we flew here right away.

“Doing everything to excess is what New Orleans is all about, after all,” Shelley said with a laugh. She was petite, with short blond hair, broad cheeks, and big brown eyes that shimmered with merriment.

There’s a lot to celebrate,” Nancy put in. “How often does one of our friends elope with a dashing Creole chef who’s about to open his own restaurant?”

Frank blinked at Shelley. “Your husband’s opening a Creole restaurant?” he asked, frowning.

Joe knew exactly what his brother was thinking. Remy Maspero, the guy they’d seen threatening the blackjack dealer on the Delta Princess security tape, was starting up a Creole restaurant, too.

“It opens tonight,” Shelley said, with an excited nod. “It’s a little scary. Being a restaurateur is a competitive business in New Orleans, and Remy’s sunk all his money into the place. But I know it’s going to be a success.”

“Remy, huh?” Joe echoed.

Suddenly he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Before he could even look at Frank, Shelley smiled and waved at someone passing by. “Remy — over here!” she called.

Joe took one look at the guy — and gulped. There was no mistaking his thick black brows or the serious, intense expression on his handsome face.

Shelley’s husband was their biggest suspect in the theft from the Delta Princess!

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