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"We're here." Frank nudged Joe before pulling the car up to the small hotel. It was situated at the centre of what seemed to be the main street—a completely deserted main street. The dashboard clock read 10:30, but the place looked like it had been locked up for the night. Only a small light shone through the heavily curtained windows. Even the old-fashioned tube-neon sign announcing the "Castle Rock Inn" had been turned off. 

"Doesn't look promising, does it?" Joe said sleepily, voicing his brother's thoughts. He reached for the door handle and started to get out. "Wait here. I'll go see…" 

Grabbing Joe's arm before he could leave, Frank pulled him back into the car. "Let me go check. You're not feeling well. Just relax." 

"Yes, Auntie. I'll wait right here for you." Joe gave his brother a guileless smile. "And I'll be sure to lock all the doors, too." 

Groaning in mock frustration, Frank gave Joe's shoulder a small shove. "I won't be long." 

The younger Hardy watched as Frank disappeared into the hotel. Closing his eyes, he leaned his pounding head against the cool glass of the window. If he had been honest with his brother, he would have admitted to the wave of dizziness that had hit him as he tried to get out of the car. Now that he was sitting still again the spinning sensation was lessening. He knew that all he needed was a solid night's sleep and a decent meal. It had been hours since they had had a celebratory meal with their friends in Boothbay. But for all his earlier teasing, he knew that if he were to mention it, it would only worry Frank unnecessarily. He smiled to himself as he thought about his big brother's overly developed protective streak. Frank could, and would, worry about the smallest thing if he thought that it affected someone he cared for. A quiet tap on the window broke into his thoughts. Expecting to see his brother, he was surprised to see a man dressed in the tans of a sheriff's uniform. Pressing the window button, Joe lowered it a crack.

"Yes, sir?" He winced and shaded his eyes as a flashlight blinded him.

Standing at least five inches taller than Joe's six feet, the sheriff took a step back from the car and gestured for Joe to exit it. "Just step out of the car, son." 

Slowly opening the door, Joe got out and waited for the next instruction. Nothing in the sheriff's expression or demeanor said that the man was going to warmly welcome him to his small town. "Is there something wrong, officer? My brother's just inside, seeing if there's a room we can have for the night." 

"You're here to rent a room?" The sheriff's hawk-like features seemed to relax and he lowered the beam of the flashlight from Joe's face. "So you're lookin' to spend the night. Sorry, son, we don't get many visitors and even fewer this late at night. I thought, for sure, that you were here to cause some trouble." He extended his hand. "Name's Brad Meyers. Welcome to Castle Rock," he said, smiling now. "And I know what you're thinkin'. Yup, it's for real. C'mon, let's go convince Maddie and Ike that they've got a room for you and your brother." Chuckling, he steered the teen into the hotel. "They're probably just as suspicious as I was."  

Joe climbed the steps behind Meyers and walked into a lobby that probably hadn't seen redecorating since the day the hotel had been built. There were none of the modern conveniences anywhere in sight. No computer sat behind the high wooden counter. No vending machines, cheerily advertising cool drinks and an appetizing selection of treats, stood in a corner he realized as his stomach growled. No comfortable chair to sink into to wait for the spinning to stop while Frank sorted out the problem of a room. Even the phone, he noticed as he moved up to the desk to stand next to his brother, was a rotary dial. The place was immaculately clean, though, and surprisingly, the outdated furniture seemed hardly worn.  

"Frank?" Joe lightly tapped his brother's arm. Frank was busily signing what looked to be a register. Figures, he thought, no computer registration.  

"Hey, I thought," Frank stopped speaking when he saw the sheriff standing behind Joe. "What…?" 

Meyers' slow New England drawl interrupted Frank's question. "No need to worry." Leaning against the front desk, he gave both Hardys a warm smile. "I met your brother outside and he told me that you were in here lookin' for a room." He turned his attention to the withered old man behind the counter, nodding slightly at him in greeting. "I thought that maybe you might need some help in convincin' Ike, here, that you need a room. I was telling your brother, that being a small town and all, we don't see much business this late at night. 'Fraid we get a little wary of strangers." He looked at the register. "But I see, Frank, that you didn't need any help after all." 

Before answering the sheriff, Frank gave his brother a questioning look. Small town or not, it seemed a little strange that they'd need a police escort to rent a room. Getting a small shrug of the shoulders from Joe, it appeared as if his brother was as puzzled as he was. "No sir, Mr. Wellwood said that there'd be no problem getting a room for tonight, but that we'd have to be out by 6:00 tomorrow night." He saw Joe's raised eyebrows. "Convention coming in." 

"But we plan on leaving first thing in the morning, don't we, Frank?" Joe stepped a little closer to his brother. He wasn't sure if it was the headache or the fatigue, but both Meyers and Wellwood were watching them with near identical expressions—expressions so intense that they seemed almost predatory.  

"Come now, boys, there's no need to hurry out first thing in the morning." A small woman appeared at Joe's shoulder from out of nowhere. At first look she seemed pleasant, her round face giving her a motherly look. A second look had Joe cringing from where she had placed her hand on his arm. He could feel the coldness of her grasp through his flannel shirt. And like her husband and the sheriff, her gaze was too intense—never wavering from his or Frank's face. The expression on Maddie Wellwood's features wouldn't be described as predatory, though. Was it a desperate hunger he saw there? And was that relief he saw in her smile?  

"It's a long drive back to New York, ma'am," Frank answered. He cast a concerned look in his brother's direction. He knew that Joe needed to lie down and get some real rest. He hadn't missed the slight sway as Joe stood next to him or the pinched look around his eyes. Soon as his brother's head was feeling better, he was going to give it a good swat. Frank didn't know what it was going to take to get Joe to admit that he wasn't indestructible. But for all his worry, the longer he was there, he realized that there was something about the Castle Rock Inn, its owners and the sheriff that set his teeth on edge, making him want to get himself and Joe out of there. "In fact, maybe all we really need is some strong coffee and a couple of sandwiches and we'll hit the road again."  

The smile left the woman's face immediately and her eyes hardened. "Well, of course, if that's what you'd prefer, but I think that you'd have a better trip after a good night's rest." Her voice stayed calm and soothing as she tried to coax her guests into staying. "But if your mind's all made up, I suppose there's not much that we can do. I'm sure that I could fix up a thermos or two of coffee for you." She turned to her husband. "Ike, we've still got some of that roast for sandwiches, don't we? You haven't been nibblin' on it out here, have you?" She laid her hand on Joe's arm again and smiled as she felt him shiver at her touch. "But look at you, you're hardly dressed for a night like this. You're shaking with the chill of that fog already. You've got something heavier out there in your car, don't you?" At Joe's nod, she gave him a slight push towards the door. "Why don't you and your brother go and get some nice warm clothes that you can change into while I put that snack together for you." 

The words were right. The sentiment and tone of her voice were what you'd expect of a motherly, old woman. It was her dark eyes that shattered any semblance of a kind and nurturing soul. They remained stone cold, never trying to hide her annoyance. Both Frank and Joe were treated to her piercing stare as they made for the exit.  

Reaching the car, Frank leaned against it and heaved a sigh. "What was that all about?" He shuddered for effect. "Did you get the feeling that they're just a little too eager to have guests?" 

"No kidding," Joe agreed. "What did I say about Stephen King making this place up? I'm sure I've seen that bunch in one of his books. I guess we'll have to accept the coffee and the sandwiches, but there is no way I'm eating that stuff. We can always get something further on down the road." He shivered against the cold. "Every time she touched me… I think I do need that sweater. Can you pop the trunk?" 

"Sure." Frank opened the door and reached in to pull the trunk release. "Want to grab mi…. Joe!" He had turned in time to see his brother's knees buckle and Joe sink to the pavement. Within seconds he was kneeling next to him. "Take it easy, just lie down," he ordered, but Joe was already fighting against him, trying to stand.  

"I'm okay, Frank. I turned too fast. Help me up," Joe gritted out. "I just got a little dizzy. I'm ---" 

"Fine. Yeah, I know. I already heard that one." Frank gently hoisted his brother to his feet, keeping a firm grip on his arms in case he couldn't stand on his own. "Maybe you are fine, maybe you aren't, but I'm not taking a chance either way. We're going in there and asking where we can find a doctor. " 

"Just as long as we don't have to stay here." The words had barely left Joe's lips when Brad Meyers came thundering down the front steps of the hotel. 

The sheriff took hold of one of Joe's arms and helped to keep him steady. "I was just lookin' ta see what was keeping you boys when I saw you go down. Maddie's on the phone to the doctor. He should be here any minute." He looked over the top of Joe's head to Frank. "We'll get him settled in a room so the doc can have a proper look at him. Is that all right?" 

Frank found himself nodding at the seeming genuineness of the sheriff's concern. Maybe his earlier apprehension had been just a product of fatigue. "Yeah, that'd be great. Joe got hit with a baseball earlier this afternoon. He said that he was all right, but…" 

"Will you two stop talking about me like I'm not here?" Joe growled from between them. "And I am all right! Just tired."  

"Why don't we let the doctor decide that, okay?" Frank pulled his brother to him and out of the sheriff's grip. Wrapping an arm around Joe's shoulders, as much for comfort as for support, he whispered into Joe's ear. "We're still getting out of here tonight, don't worry." 


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The Hardy Boys belong to Simon and Schuster and the Stratemeyer Foundation. The Hardy Boys Fan Fiction author(s) of the Hardy Detective Agency have just borrowed them for an adventure or two. The author(s) promise to give the boys back when they are done with them. The authors do claim copyright to any original characters in their stories. Please do not borrow original characters without express permission of the author(s) in question.