Chapter 1: All A-Bored! 1 All A-BORED! FRANK
THERE’S FOUL PLAY AFOOT!” EXCLAIMED the detective in the fedora, one hand in his trench coat pocket, the other gripping a pad and pen. It felt like his bright green eyes looked straight through me. Then he scanned the rest of the train car, full of other passengers seated and sipping drinks at little tables along the walls.
“Didja hear that?” shouted a girl clomping by in a short, beaded evening dress. I choked on the overpowering smell of cheap perfume left in her wake. She paused mid-car and pressed a gloved hand to her chest. “The keen gumshoe over there says something don’t seem quite right!”
“This is painful,” I whispered to my brother, Joe, and our best friend, Chet Morton.
Chet flashed a playful smile. “The Roaring Twenties? More like the Snoring Twenties!”
“Good one, Morton.” Joe fist-bumped him.
The website for the Mayhem Express had promised a three-hour ride on a newly restored vintage train, during which guests could enjoy extravagant desserts and solve a 1920s-themed murder mystery. Since all the real mysteries in Bayport had dried up, Joe and I had been itching to find a way to put our mystery-solving skills to use. Checking out the show had seemed like a good idea when I signed us up in June. A new murder mystery train ride beat out running errands (Mom, Dad, and Aunt Trudy never failed to find tasks for us) and rewatching every single Marvel film on Disney+ with Joe.
Right after I signed us up, Joe and I decided to bet on who could solve the fake mystery first. If I won, Joe would be on dish duty for the rest of the summer, and vice versa.
All Chet had needed to hear was “fancy desserts” and he was in.
And sure enough, before the actors had ushered us into the performance car for the show, they had served us platters in the dining car—lifting silver lids to reveal everything from macarons and precut slices of cake to china bowls of chocolate mousse.
But it wasn’t only the desserts that had delivered. Every inch of the train looked like it’d come right out of an old black-and-white movie: wood paneling, softly glowing lights, and lace curtains pulled back to reveal—what was it the website had said?—a breathtaking view of the coastline overlooking Barmet Bay. The photo on the website had shown a midnight-blue train chugging along the curving cliffside, the little waves of the Inner Harbor tinged orange by a glorious summer sunset. Apparently, the old train no longer ran on steam, but the show’s production company had managed to figure out a way to make it look like smoke still streamed from its tall stack (my guess was dry ice), and had even kept the tender that had once housed coal.
At first glance, if someone had told me we had been mystically transported back in time, I would have believed it. Every passenger, including Joe, Chet, and me, was dressed up in snazzy 1920s garb, as the website had encouraged. The three of us were even wearing newsboy hats Chet had scrounged up from his folks’ attic, which matched our good suits and shined-up dress shoes. Around us, fellow audience members sported everything from panama hats and tweed three-piece suits with wingtips and oxfords to feather headbands and fans.
But the costumes, setting, and grub were where the magic ended.
The train, which wasn’t completely restored yet, stank of paint fumes. And instead of a breathtaking sunset, the view outside my window was shrubbery, trash-filled alleys, and chain-link fences. That, combined with the bad acting, and our fun night out was quickly sliding into the stuff of nightmares. We were still in Act One, and I was starting to suspect that not even the actors knew what was going on in their own script and the #keepthesecrets hashtag on the website had more to do with burying bad reviews than preventing spoilers.
After all, the performance playing out before us was amateurish, overdramatic, and nonsensical. The actors—mostly teenagers playing adults—spelled out clues and stumbled over their lines. Surveying the performance car, we weren’t the only ones who wanted the ride to come to a swift end. Most passengers looked either bored or confused, especially the group of teenage girls sitting at the other end of the coach.
The one bright note was that Charlene Vale, my friend from school, along with our mutual friend Murph Murphy, had bought tickets too. It had been a great surprise to find them aboard, and we’d made sure to sit across from them in the performance car.
“This is so stupid!” whispered a passenger to his date. Both were dressed in sharp black suits.
His date raised a finger to his lips. “Shh! Don’t break the illusion!”
Charlene smiled, leaning forward to address the couple. “I think it’s a little late for that, gentlemen.”
Part of me wished Charlene and I were on a date. If I was being honest, I’d had a crush on her since forever. Charlene looked extra pretty tonight. Even though she was all gussied up in a silver dress, her silk-gloved hands still held a notepad and pen. She was rarely without them. Who knew when she’d get a scoop for the Bayport High News?
Murph gave a sly grin. “Hey, this show is priceless!”
“I’d say it’s a train wreck,” Chet chimed in. “Get it? Train wreck?”
I shot him a deadpan stare but couldn’t help chuckling along with Joe.
“Is anyone still trying to figure out the mystery?” Charlene asked.
“Maybe we can solve the mystery of how to turn this train around,” Joe quipped.
“When you do, can you let me know?” asked a college-aged passenger seated across the aisle from us. She was wearing a black cloche hat and a flowy black dress with a sequined purse.
Joe, Chet, and I laughed as the detective cleared his throat.
“I suspect one of you has a dark and terrible secret!” he announced, pressing on the little black mustache that’d been glued to his upper lip. It was already curling off. “Can you all hear me back there?” he shouted loudly. “I said, somebody here has a dark secret!”
“It’s them you want!” the actor playing the bootlegger shouted, pointing at the gangster and a girl standing next to him.
The gangster was being played by Biff, our football-loving friend from school. Somehow, he’d nabbed a role in the production. He tipped his fedora, then folded his muscular arms over the front of his black pinstripe suit.
“Who? Us?” The girl had shoulder-length brown hair, a fuzzy cardigan, and a hawkish expression. She glared at the detective.
“Mama Garafalo!” Over the top of his notepad, the detective fixed his green eyes on her. “I got questions for you and your boy. What brings you aboard this swell and swanky rattler?”
The mafia mama shook her fist at him. “Why don’t you scram, Detective Parrot?”
Biff snapped his suspenders. “Yeah! You’re tootin’ the wrong ringers!”
“Boooring.” Chet sighed. “This makes me want to watch Snowpiercer again.”
“I’m so confused. What’s happening?” said the college-aged passenger dressed in all black. She was speaking to herself, but loud enough for us to hear. “I need some air.” Huffing, she stood up and strolled to the car ahead.
“Yeah, I don’t blame her,” Chet said.
“Frank, we have you to blame.” Joe nudged my shoulder. “I can’t believe I spent my hard-earned fun money on this. Not to mention the ticket prices were highway robbery!”
“Or rather, railroad robbery…,” Chet cut in, waggling his eyebrows.
“Even worse!” Joe continued. “I’m calling off our bet, bro. Instead, for tricking me into joining you on this miserable train ride, dish duty is all yours for the rest of the summer. Ha!”
“Hey, I’m regretting paying for my ticket too, you know,” I confessed.
“At least the money from ticket sales goes to a sweet cause,” Chet said. “Trainsville needs all the money it can get!” It was true. Trainsville was Bayport’s beloved, but near-broke, railway museum, dedicated to preserving and showcasing historic old trains like the Mayhem Express.
“It’s the milkman you wanna grill!” Biff insisted in a hybrid Boston-Brooklyn accent. “He’s a wrong number, ya see”—he turned to speak to the audience—“and heeled to boot!”
“Didja hear that?” the flapper exclaimed to the passengers, clasping her hands together. “It seems the milkman’s got a bean-shooter! We think maybe the fella’s off the track!”
“My goodness!” cried an actress playing the aristocrat, bedecked in sparkling jewels. “Have you all heard? The milkman’s got a gat!”
“What’s with the game of telephone?” Joe whispered. “We could hear Biff fine.”
I sighed. Another unfortunate part of the production, it seemed.
An older passenger in a brown three-piece suit with a comb-over and an orange spray tan stood up, exiting the corner booth beside us. “I need to iron the old shoelaces, as they say,” he whispered to his boothmates—a little boy seated beside a woman with stringy white hair. “Dessert may have been a bit too decadent for me.” He pressed a hand to his belly and stepped into the aisle, moving swiftly toward one of the bathrooms. His face had a sickly sheen. The only thing worse than being stuck on this train was being stuck on this train with an upset stomach.
“I wish we had our phones,” Joe whispered to Chet and me. “Anything to keep me from nodding off.”
“It’s too bad they collected them at the Trainsville station to ‘keep up with the 1920s realism,’?” I said.
“Are you packing heat?” the detective asked the milkman.
I forced my attention back to the action onstage.
A tall, skinny actor wearing owlish eyeglasses, a red tie, and a white collared shirt peeping out from an ill-fitting overcoat held a tray of chattering milk bottles. “I—I’m an innocent milkman!” He pointed a finger at the bootlegger and the flapper, who both stood at the other end of the coach. “It’s—it’s them you want! He’s no dewdropper—he’s a fakeloo artist and bootlegger! And she’s his squeeze!”
After a deep breath, I took a long sip from my soda. It was as flat as the milkman’s delivery.
The bootlegger turned to the flapper. “Snitch doesn’t know when to shut his trap!” he snapped, shoving the detective away. “We got nothing to hide, snooper!” Just then, a faux pistol fell from his vest.
The detective and the aristocrat let out exaggerated gasps, while the milkman fled the dining car.
“Uh-oh! Let’s dangle!” the flapper insisted, tugging on the bootlegger’s sleeve.
I glanced down at the list of eight characters in the notebook I brought everywhere: detective, flapper, bootlegger, milkman, aristocrat, gangster, gangster’s mom, and reporter. “My bet’s on the bootlegger and the flapper,” I whispered. “I don’t know what they did, but they seem guilty.”
Joe laughed. “You think?”
“The way this is going, they’re all guilty of overacting,” Chet said.
My bro grinned at me. “Frank, we said we weren’t gonna share who we thought did it until the crime happens. Right now, I don’t think anyone’s committed… anything yet.”
It was safe to say Joe was correct in his assumption. Maybe our bet was still on.
The Hardy boys had always been a renowned detective duo, sleuthing and solving mysteries together to uphold our shiny reputation as Bayport’s number one teenage sleuths. But not when make-believe mysteries needing cracking. Tonight, it was every Hardy for himself.
Biff whistled as the flapper vanished into the train car ahead, followed by the bootlegger. “Wouldja look at the getaway sticks on that spiffy kitten?”
Charlene arched an eyebrow at me, sending my stomach into somersaults. I gave her a silly shrug and nervously averted my eyes, tucking my notebook into my suit jacket.
I watched as Biff and the mafia mama made a show of plucking the necklaces and bracelets off the aristocrat, who was too preoccupied with Detective Parrot’s theatrics to notice.
“I’d better tail those two before they lam off?!” the detective announced. “There’ll be no foul play! Not on my watch!” And with that, he chased after the flapper and the bootlegger.
As the detective followed them into the train car ahead, a new actress entered through the same door, decked out in a crisp bow blouse paired with a sweater and pleated skirt. She shook out her short black bob and observed the carriage, holding the doorframe with a hand to keep from falling over. From the looks of her wire-bound notepad in her other hand, my guess was she was the reporter.
As the aristocrat droned on about how her jewels had been stolen (and as Biff and the mafia mama crammed the necklaces and bracelets into their pockets behind her back), a very pretty passenger around my age in a purple lace dress, pastel fur collar, and chic blond wig stood up and headed into the coach ahead. It was as good a time as any to step out.
“Oh, my dear lady! What are glad rags without ice and oyster fruit?” the reporter asked.
“What? Did they google every bit of 1920s slang?” Joe whispered.
“I’m sure crabbing whoever stole your jewels will be duck soup,” the reporter continued.
“Duck soup? Where? I thought they were only serving dessert,” Chet said, scanning the tables around us.
Biff looked at the door leading into the car ahead. “What was that noise?”
Everything went silent except for the clack of the train on the tracks.
I could tell Joe was trying hard not to burst out laughing.
“I said, what was that noise?” Biff hollered. When nothing happened, he sputtered, “I—I thought I heard screamin’ from somewhere onboard. Ya know, from a train car or two ahead.”
“I—I did too! I—I think it was that private eye fella!” the mafia mama piped in.
“The detective’s been snatched!” Biff proclaimed to the car. “But whodunit?”
No luck. As Joe laughed, a chuckle escaped my own lips. My eyes slid back to the production. Four actors were huddled up mid-car, whispering animatedly back and forth, their expressions rapidly shifting from somber to perplexed. Next thing I knew, Biff was sprinting into the car ahead. He returned seconds later with the flapper and the bootlegger, while the reporter scampered back into the dining car and reemerged with the milkman. Then the seven resumed their meeting.
“How come everyone’s being weird?” Charlene whispered.
“The show’s actually getting good,” Murph murmured.
“Seriously!” Chet said. “But fancy desserts aside, I still wouldn’t recommend it to my subscribers.”
“Your subscribers? All five of them?” Joe teased.
Chet was always finding new hobbies, his latest being uploading videos to YouTube reviewing shows and eating, mukbang-style.
Biff broke from the huddle, sprinted over to us, and knelt down. “Frank. Joe. We have a problem,” he whispered. “I told my castmates maybe you could help.”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
Biff leaned in closer. “So, the actor playing our detective—Trent—well, he’s gone.”
“Gone?” Joe asked skeptically.
“This is part of the show, right?” I asked.
Biff shook his head. “It looks like Trent’s… no longer on the train.”
“What do you mean?” Joe’s eyes were wide. “Like he jumped out?”
“No one can find him,” Biff replied with a shrug. “Could you guys come check it out?”
I nodded. Even if it was all part of the act, humoring him would be more fun than whatever we’d been doing for the past half hour. “You got it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Joe told Biff, his eyes flicking to me. But I knew Joe. What he meant was he was going to get to the bottom of this. Dish duty would be mine until I was up to my ears in dirty soapsuds.
Ha! Not if I can help it, little brother of mine.
Chet cleared his throat. “We’re on the case! Consider me a detective in train-ing.”
“Awesome.” Biff stood and tipped his fedora at us. “Follow me.”
Joe, Chet, and I got up, ignoring the other passengers’ curious glances. We trailed after Biff into the library car ahead, which was now a bona fide gift shop. Books about trains filled the walls of shelves zigzagging throughout the room, old railroad lanterns were arranged in a decorative lineup, and a spiraling clock motif was carved into a wood panel between the windows. A clerk our age wearing a conductor’s hat and a plum-colored bow tie sat reading a book behind the cash register.
Oof! Someone stepped out from behind one of the bookshelves, and I ran smack into them. “Sorry!”
It was the girl in the purple lace dress I’d seen earlier. “It’s cool,” she said. Up close, she was supercute in her art deco headband. I got lost in her green eyes and felt heat growing in my cheeks.
“My brother, the romantic!” Joe teased from up ahead. “Come on! Keep up!”
Blushing even deeper, I passed by the girl, nearly running into the college-aged student in the black cloche, who looked over at me from the bookshelf she’d been perusing.
The next car was a first-class sleeping-car-turned-dressing-room for the actors. A glossy wooden stretch of wall to the left contained doors opening into eight separate compartments.
Biff turned to us. “This is where Trent always goes during this scene.” He gestured into a compartment. Trent’s name was written on a strip of tape on the door.
Inside were two cushioned benches cluttered with clothes. A satchel was slouched on the floor beside them. There was no Trent in sight.
Joe, Chet, and I popped our heads into the two bathrooms and the other seven compartments. There were mounds of props and tangles of costumes, but still no play-detective.
Biff stopped before the door leading to the next coach. It was solid wood with a window like the rest. “And look.” He jostled the brass handle. “It’s locked. From the inside.”
“Maybe he went through, and someone locked him out,” Joe suggested.
Biff shook his head. “The other actors insist that they didn’t touch it. Trent would never go missing during a show. I mean, yes, he gets kidnapped in this scene, and we don’t see him again until curtain call, but something about this seems off.”
“Well, where’s the key?” I asked.
Biff shrugged. “Not sure.”
“What do you mean? Doesn’t somebody typically have a key?” Joe asked.
“I guess.” He gave us a sheepish grin. “I usually show up a little late.”
Chet pointed his finger skyward. “Looks like something foul may be afoot after all!”
I wasn’t convinced. “We’ll help you find him.” Meaning I’ll help you find him.
Joe nodded. “Right. We’ll find out where Trent went.” He leaned in, so only I could hear him. “And when I do, dish duty and garbage duty are all yours until September.”
I knew it was still game on. “Yeah, right,” I whispered back.
“Hey, what’s in there, anyway?” Chet peered into the window of the locked door. When he was done, I looked through the glass pane but saw only darkness.
“Just a sleeping car,” Biff said. “None of the other cars beyond this point are in use, since it’s a short trip. Dining car at the back, then performance car, then library car, then here. There’s no reason Trent would venture off to the empty cars, not during the show. And even if he did, there’s no reason the door would magically lock itself behind him.”
Chet had been poking around a heap of items on the floor. He snapped open a fan with the words STAY BACK! scrawled across it. “Is this a clue?” he asked, eager to help as always.
Biff scrunched up his mouth. “That… would be a stage prop.”
“Great.” I took the fan. “So how are we supposed to tell a real clue from a phony one?”