Friday, October 7, 2016

Breakdown in Axeblade (#94)

Breakdown in AxebladeI know I said I was going to return from my hiatus with The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120), but I lied. Well, not really a lie — I found Breakdown at Axeblade (#94) at a used bookstore, and since it was an earlier digest, I decided to start with it instead.

In Axeblade, Frank and Joe drive into the movie Bad Day at Black Rock. Despite having three more arms between them than Spencer Tracy’s lead character, Macreedy, does in the movie, they seem to combine for about half the brains, which makes the challenge of getting out of a corrupt town about the same for Macreedy and the Hardys.

While on a summer vacation road trip, Frank and Joe’s super-duper ex-police van develops engine trouble in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. The van limps into Axeblade, a town of 300 people, without giving up the ghost; I was disappointed the brothers weren’t forced to use the knowledge they gained in Seven Stories of Survival, but maybe that’s for the best, since they don’t even think about how they’d have to survive if the engine quits outside of civilization.

Frank says the van has a bad fan belt, while Joe says it’s the water pump; the smiling garage mechanic, Bill Hunt, says it’s both. Frank imperiously tells him to get cracking then, but Bill says the repairs will take a few days, as he doesn’t have a replacement pump. Bill’s demeanor changes when the brothers say they’re going to camp in the nearby national forest the van is being fixed. (Which forest? Who knows! Take a look at this map if you want to make a guess; the text gives us no real hints except that it’s near a four-lane highway and some grasslands.) Bill tells them they should drive on to nearby Lawton — or stay with him, or at a motel. Lots of bears around, you see.

But Frank and Joe are not dissuaded. They go camping, and while being pummeled into unconsciousness during the night, they are warned to leave the area. They wake up dumped by a four-lane highway, several miles from town. After hiking back to Axeblade, the sheriff rebuffs their attempts to report a crime, and a desk clerk tells them the vacant motel is full up. (Frank and Joe don’t question why a town of 300, in the middle of nowhere, has a motel at all, especially since the town seems to discourage tourism.) After spending the night in their van, Joe is unsuccessful at “flash[ing his] baby blues at the waitress” (22) to get free food; the brothers can’t get any service at the Morning Glory Restaurant. Even the drugstore won’t sell a sticky bun to them.

Fortunately, they don’t get the cold shoulder at Becky’s Café, operated by the eponymous Becky and her adopted Vietnamese son, Kwo. Becky’s husband had an “accident” a few years before, and she blames rancher Ben Barntree, who runs Axeblade. Kwo supplies that a weekly fleet of tanker truck dumps toxic waste on Barntree’s ranch, the B-Bar-B. (I like to think the B-Bar-B raises several hundred head of Ken, Skipper, and Barbie dolls.)

After Frank and Joe get in a scuffle at the café, they remember some of Fenton’s advice: “Sometimes people start a fight to change the subject” (38). Since they were talking about Barntree’s toxic waste dumping at the time, the boys decide to head out to the B-Bar-B. Becky loans them her husband’s classic Harley and tells them her husband’s not the only opponent of Barntree’s to die from a fall … and suddenly Axeblade is looking a lot more like a Casefile repurposed into a digest.

The reconnaissance of the B-Barbie is a dud; the boys are chased around and around by dogs, then are showed off the ranch by Barntree and his cronies. The boys do get a ride in a groovy van with “an expensive, detailed airbrush painting on the side — a skeleton riding a beautiful galloping mustang horse with fiery eyes” (46). The van’s owner, Robbie McCoy, is a bit of a jerk, though.

Back in Axeblade, Bill’s sister, Sara, invites Frank and Joe to supper, despite being married to one of the cowboys who tangled with the Hardys at Becky’s Café. Before they go, the interior of their van is set on fire, although the blaze is quickly extinguished. The arson causes Frank to contemplate homicide, although not on the arsonist: he “wanted to strangle the old man” (65) who stood around squawking that their van was burning. Good to know Frank has a dark side.

It is then, and only then, that Frank and Joe think to call someone to let them know they’re in a dangerous place where they don’t understand the rules. They call home, but Fenton and Laura aren’t there, so they give up. I mean, who else could they call for advice / aid? Well, in no particular order:

  • Con Riley or Ezra Collig, from the Bayport Police Department
  • Sam Radley, who has worked for Fenton (although he hasn’t appeared since The Revenge of the Desert Phantom, #85)
  • Gertrude, who probably isn’t with Fenton and Laura
  • The Mortons, who have probably been drawn into enough of Frank and Joe’s nonsense to know the drill
  • Any of their other chums
  • Anyone of authority who owes them from a previous case, like Andrew Crawford, the police commissioner of Philadelphia, whom they helped in Shield of Fear (#91)

Of course Frank and Joe don’t do that. Why would they? They’ve been beaten, shunned, and threatened. That’s just an average vacation for them. Their reluctance to call home becomes stranger after they are arrested; the address Sara gave them was vacant for the week, and the brothers are accused of stealing silverware, which was planted in their van. The brothers realize the cop is corrupt, so they call … Becky. Sure, why not? With all their contacts in law enforcement, a café owner who was friendly toward them seems the right call.

(Also: Joe is arrested while playing the arcade game Flyswatter. It’s one of his favorites … probably right up there with Hack Attack.)

Becky is reluctant to help them, and when she leaves, she tells the sheriff she was wrong about Frank and Joe, who are sure they’re sunk. You idiots — no matter what she thinks, she has to tell the police that. Otherwise, she’ll be arrested (or killed) next. Becky returns later, seducing — as much as anyone is ever seduced in a Hardy Boys book — the sheriff over pie and drugged coffee. (The sheriff is already talking marriage.) Frank and Joe can’t see this middle-aged steaminess, but then again, they don’t realize the sheriff’s complaints about the funny-tasting coffee and his difficulty forming words indicates he’s, you know, been drugged. Morons. If anyone should recognize the symptoms of being doped, it’s those two dopes.

Becky frees the halfwit Hardys, then loans them a car. Frank and Joe drive the car to the toxic dump site. Turns out, it’s on federal land! Whodathunkit? The dumping is actually killing animals; Frank and Joe see a dead raccoon and squirrels. Unfortunately, Frank and Joe don’t cover their tracks well, and Barnwell’s men start searching for them. The brothers run across a random missing boy; they tell him to yell for help, but he has no real effect on the story.

The brothers hide in the mountains, but Joe is awakened by a rockslide that gives Frank his second concussion of the book — his eyes don’t focus when he wakes up, and “his brain [was] temporarily scrambled” (114). Geez, that sounds bad. Joe’s more broken up about Barntree’s pollution than any possible TBI his brother has, though. I see the logic: The bill they’ll have to pay for repeated blows to the head won’t come due until they reach an age they will never be allowed to reach.

Barntree’s forces catch the Hardys without much trouble the next day, and Barntree wants to kill them; fortunately, some of his men are squeamish about killin’, including Robbie (the guy with the cool skeleton on his van). Barntree agrees to just tie them up and leave them in his basement for a while, but he and his wife know they’re going to have to kill the boys. While Frank suggests to Joe that their next vacation be to Hawaii — something that doesn’t happen until The Treasure at Dolphin Bay, #129 — they manage to free themselves with Frank’s pocket knife.

After radioing Kwo to get the police from Lawton, they escape from shotgun-packing Mrs. Barntree, who misses with both barrels, despite the basement’s close quarters. They tie her up and try to delay Barntree and the toxic-waste tankers. Joe fails to slow Barntree, though, losing a more brutal than usual fight with the rancher: Joe gets his head slammed against the steering wheel, and he throws Barntree out of his jeep after grabbing him by the “seat of his neck” (138). (That should be scruff, I’m guessing.) Frank bluffs Barntree, though, threatening his wife, and Joe puts Barntree in handcuffs. Barntree is furious when Frank tells him they left Mrs. Barntree in the basement: “Our mom and dad didn’t raise kidnappers,” Frank says (142), although after being serial kidnapping victims, you’d think Frank and Joe would have picked up some tips.

The cops arrive in time, with the aid of Robbie, who got cold feet. Everything is sorted out, but Frank and Joe can’t leave town, even after they unload everything onto law enforcement … because Bill still doesn’t have their water pump.

*sad trombone*

Still, other than Frank and Joe being, you know, morons, this is one of the better digests. ON the other hand, Frank and Joe are so often incompetent that I can’t really hold that against Breakdown in Axeblade.

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