EARTH’S SURVIVORS AMERICA THE DEAD
Copyright 2020 Dell Sweet
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Additional Copyrights © 2010, 2012, 2015 by Wendell Sweet.
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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places or incidents depicted are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual living person’s places, situations or events is purely coincidental.
This novel is Copyright © 2016 Wendell Sweet and his assignees. Dell Sweet and Geo Dell are publishing constructs owned by Wendell Sweet. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, electronic, print, scanner or any other means and, or distributed without the author’s permission.
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Some people think that writers craft stories, write them specifically as told to, or as circumstances dictate them to. And there are writers who do that. I don’t. I write what comes through to me. What stories I see when I sit down and begin to write. It is that simple for me. Most times I am along for the ride. If that makes me a lesser writer, or a pawn, so be it. I have always suspected there is more to writing than we know there is. Maybe we who write are only conduits to some other place.
This group of stories about people surviving a catastrophic world changing event and rebuilding their society has been with me since my early teens when I first wrote about it. Many things have come along in my life, changed me, the circumstances of my life and even the way I live it, but the story has always been there: A constant for me.
Dell Sweet 03-04-16
“As long as it never freezes around the wheel it will be fine,” Tim said. “It will still work.”
“If it doesn’t freeze solid?” Tom asked.
“If it doesn’t freeze solid,” Tim agreed. “But it may… We’ll have to see,” Tim added.
“It shouldn’t,” Josh said. “I have never known the rivers and streams to freeze solid in my area, and we’re much farther south here than I was. Plus all the changes that have happened: Two extra hours of sunlight every day would make things warmer, not colder, wouldn’t it?”
“Might do something,” Tom agreed. They were discussing whether the power house could continue to operate through the winter. Whether the stream that fed it would freeze solid and stop the wheel from turning.
“Well, what I’ve done is simple enough,” Tim said. “I’ve just vented the water that keeps the generators cool right back out, just down from the wheel. That’s why no ice is forming anywhere around the wheels. That should keep it from forming, but if the entire stream freezes solid then we’ll have to shut down the plant, no flow, no go,” Tim said.
“We’re going to keep the flour mill open?” Josh asked.
“Keeps the water flowing, keeps the ice from getting a foothold. All we do is take out the drive shaft and the machinery doesn’t move, just the big wheel outside,” Tom said. “Now the sawmill, that’s almost non-stop. I suppose that eventually it will slow down as soon as everyone has built a home, or we finish up projects we want to build, but for now it’s full production every day.”
“I can’t see a day when it wouldn’t be,” Josh added. “People are coming in every week. Slower now, but they’re coming.”
“You should think of something else we can use the flour mill for in the winter, Tim” Ronnie said. “There has to be something.”
“Lots of stuff,” Tim said. “But the smartest would be to generate our heat from there. A small boiler system could heat everything in the valley. Add a laundry center, or hide washing, processing, which could use the steam heat too. Use the water power when we need it to grind flour, which is really only about a month and a half out of the year, use the water after that to drive steam into the valley. The two won’t conflict with each other.”
Tom was nodding. “One thing though. Move the hide processing far away. Down the valley somewhere where it won’t contaminate our ground water: Where the stench won’t be with us all day every day. I’d really move it completely out of the valley if we could.”
Mike added his agreement. “How hard would it be?”
“Not very,” Tim said. “I’d put the steam boiler in another building, close by, just run the pumping system from the mill building. We have tons of pipe we bought back. I’d run that pipe about two feet under the ground and right directly under the path we use in the valley. At two feet we should be insulated from most heat loss, but there will be an accumulative effect that will keep the path free of snow or ice. Sort of like a heated sidewalk. A bonus. We can top the path with gravel, install good drainage too so it doesn’t end up a muddy mess.”
“Then I’d build the wash house, hide houses separate too. It’s just a matter of running pipe to them. We would have our mill; our steam for heating and hot water all from the same building,” Tim said.
“Tim, what did you do in the old world,” Mike asked.
“School… Video games, little innocent hacking,” He answered. He blushed as he spoke.
“And how did you learn all of this?” He let his hands rise to take in the entire settlement.
“Oh… That… I like to read. I have a memory that works kind of funny. It’s like this: I read something and it goes into my head. Maybe I read something else, other ways to do the same thing. That goes into my head too. Then I visualize it, like I’m actually doing it… Maybe a few times, maybe more, but I see how it works. I see the way to do it. I see the mistakes I could have made too. So when I really do it, it’s like I already did it, I already know how,” he said. He looked prepared to be disbelieved.
“Really?” Mike asked.
“Really,” Tim answered.
“I can see that,” Ronnie said. “I’ve done pretty much the same thing in my head when I’m doing construction work. I work it out in my head and I have it. I didn’t trust it at first, but eventually I came to look at the work I was doing in my head as the same as really doing it.”
Tim was nodding in agreement.
“I’ve never tried it,” Mike said, “but I will: Apparently it works.”
“Why don’t we get together tonight, have dinner together and discuss it, vote on it,” Tom suggested.
“Candace will be up there anyway,” Mike said.
“She and Patty are up there helping with the new work on the clinic, germs; concrete sealed floor, plastic walls… They aren’t doing the work all alone, more like directing it. Steve says it will be a big deal… Cut down on infections,” Ronnie said.
Mike nodded. “So, she’ll be there anyway.”
“They’ll come to a meeting?” Tom asked.
“Positive they will. It’s a good idea. We’ll get all of us together and get it approved,” Mike agreed.
They walked out onto the path that lead back up to the cave. A team of horses was passing by, slowly pulling a sledge piled high with logs toward the sawmill that was farther up the valley. Chloe, who was driving the team of oxen that were pulling it smiled and waved as she passed them by.
Lilly waved to Chloe as she passed her a little further down the road, as she waited to cross the slushy path. She was coming from the cave and heading to the school that sat on the other side, the ridge side of the path, nestled up against the steep sides of the valley where it was protected from the winds. The snow next to the path was hard packed. The snow in the field was three feet deep, and there was at least three months of winter left.
A second sledge came following the first, Joe Stevens waved as he approached her where she stood. Tom had hitched a ride from the flour mill, hanging onto the back of the sledge. He peeked around the back of the sledge and smiled. She couldn’t help but return it. He jumped off now as he neared her, and walked across the sloppy path, taking her hand.
“May I,” he asked as he helped her to cross the path. “Going back to the school,” he asked as he walked beside her holding her hand.
She stopped, stretched onto her tip toes and kissed him.
“Yep,” she told him as she began walking once more.
“Is that any kind of English for a teacher to be using,” Tom asked.
“Yep,” Lilly told him and smiled.
“Hey, where’s my kid who’s usually glued to your hip?” Tom asked.
“Annie’s watching him. He fell asleep after he had his lunch,” Lilly told him.
“Nice lunch. Lucky kid,” Tom said with an affected leer.
“Yeah, well, when he’s done with them you’ll get them back,” she said laughing as they walked across the path.
Tom laughed too. “Got a lot to do?”
“Half a day of school. Kids will be back from lunch in just a few minutes. I just stopped off at home to get something to eat myself,” she said.
“Well, I have more to do with Mike and the guys anyway… I just saw you and wanted to see you, you know,” Tom said.
“Yeah? Well, I know what’s on your mind and we’ll see about that later on,” Lilly told him with a smile.
Tom grinned, watched her walk back to the school, and then turned and walked back to the power plant where the others still stood.
When he reached the power plant and jumped up onto the boardwalk all three of the others were looking up toward the main cave. They all looked concerned.
Tom walked closer. “What’s up?” He asked.
“We have a visitor,” Mike said. He jumped down from the board walk and began heading toward the cave with the others.
“Visitor,” Tom asked as he hurried to keep up.
“Rollie,” Ronnie said. “The trader? He’s bringing our new doctor and a whole wagon load of supplies.”
“Debbie Jenkins has post this morning down the valley. She said he passed by her about an hour ago, so he should be popping up over the ridge directly,” Mike said.
“Came through the old state park entrance,” Ronnie told him. “Says the road all the way in is good... Clear.”
“Parkland,” Mike said.
“Right,” Ronnie agreed. “I guess I’ll never remember the name if I don’t keep it in my head. Anyway, Parkland called the day before yesterday. Told us he had gotten there and would be leaving in the morning; that would be yesterday morning. Not bad time for horses pulling a wagon.”
“Hell no,” Tom agreed.
“Who’s the new doctor,” Josh asked.
“Emmett Stiles,” Mike said. “Older guy, don’t know much about him. Candace talked to him more than anyone else. Says he’ll fit right in if he’s anything like his radio personality is.”
“Huh,” Tom said.
“Huh exactly,” Josh agreed.
They made it to the top of the pass just in time to watch the sleigh approach the steep grade that would bring it to the top of the pass. An older man sat high on the wagon, driving a team of four oxen. The other man sat across from him. The trader drove the horses easily up the incline and onto the broad terrace that fronted the cave.
The man, somewhere south of sixty, Mike thought, set the brake on the sleigh and then looked down at the five men.
“How do,” The man said.
“All right,” Ronnie said.
The other man smiled and nodded hello.
“I imagine you’d be Rollie,” Mike said as he offered a hand. “And you would be Emmett.” He shook hands with the doctor also, and helped as both men climbed down to the ground.
“Rollie drives a fine wagon, well, sleigh this time of year, but I don’t recommend this kind of travel over long distance. This thing need shocks… Something.” He laughed as he massaged his back with both hands and then stretched and yawned.
“Well, you better hope these folks want you or you might find yourself walking back,” Rollie said and laughed.
They all laughed and Mike introduced the others. “This is Ronnie, best carpenter we have here. This here is Tom, takes care of our farm with Josh, who actually is a farmer and shows us how to do things right. And this is Tim who knows pretty much everything else.” They all shook hands and said their hellos. His eyes were drawn to the huge tarp covered load, the wagon and then the Oxen. “You’ll stay a while?” Mike asked.
The man’s eyes had caught the electric lights spaced along the tunnel that lead into the cave. The tunnel now ran right down the right side of the main cave. It flowed in a curve all the way to the other side of the mountain and the second cave where it emptied out in the main cave area. You could use the doors there and the built up earthen ramp to continue right down into the third valley. He nodded and then shook his head.
“Yeah… Yes, I thought to stay a bit and rest a little. So… You do have electric. Amazing. I know of no other place that does, excepting Alabama Island, and they are barely up and running with it. I was sure you had it, electric I mean, and so I banked on it: Added a few items you might could use… There a place where I can put up the oxen?” He asked.
“Sure,” Tim said. He helped the man disconnect the team and then he and Josh excused themselves as they lead the team down into the valley.
Candace, Patty, Sandy and Susan came from inside the main cave.
“Hello,” Emmett Stiles said As Candace stepped forward. He used a walking stick, but did not seem to need it for anything more than an affection. His black hair was long, twisted into a pony-tail that hung between his shoulder blades. A smile rested on his full mouth, his skin a light brown.
“Candace, Doctor Emmett Stiles,” Mike said. He turned and looked from Candace to Patty. “Doctor, my woman, Candace, you two talked over the radio. And my friend Patty, Ronnie’s woman. Ladies this is our new doctor. Come to us from Johnson Crossing.”
Sandy overheard the introduction from just a few feet away where she had been looking over the wagon and hurried over with Susan.
“This is Sandy… Susan. Sandy is our nurse. She took over the load after Jessie left,” Mike said.
Everyone said their hellos and Emmett turned to Sandy.
“I wanted to meet you, Sandy. I have heard so much about you,” Emmett said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Doctor. Candace told me all about you,” she said.
“Emmett.” he lifted his eyes to include everyone. “Emmett is easier on my ears.”
“Emmett,” Sandy agreed.
“Sandy,” Emmett said. “Maybe you could show me around? … You too Susan, of course.”
“Absolutely,” Sandy said.
Rollie spoke up as they walked away.
“She’s telling a different story… Just so you know,” Rollie said in a low voice.
“Who,” Mike asked.
“Jessie. Radio, incoming on a relay a week or so before I left. Says you ran them out in the middle of the night… Says they were lucky to make it out alive. Not all did, in fact.”
Ronnie shook his head and laughed. “Try to do someone a favor and it bites you in the ass. “We walked them out, allowed them to go when we caught them about to go on their own with nothing. Gave them weapons, food,” He shook his head in disgust.
“You called it though,” Mike said. A sad smile curved the corners of his mouth downward. “You said it would get switched up and it did….” He turned to Rollie. “We’ll talk more later… Maybe others will want to hear what she said.”
“How’s a cup of coffee sound?” Tom asked a few seconds later to break the uncomfortable silence.
“You got coffee?” Rollie asked.
“Well, instant,” Tom admitted. “Coffee is gold here. We hope to grow some next year though.”
“Now see, that’s why you need me. I think we can help each other a great deal,” Rollie said.
The door opened behind them and several people flooded out of the cave and surrounded them. Ronnie made introductions as Mike kissed Candace on one cheek.
“Well,” Mike said as things quieted down. “Come on in and let’s get some coffee in you.”
“All right,” Rollie agreed. He turned to the sleigh and in a second one corner of the tarp was loose and flapping. A second later he had thrown it back over the load. Boxes upon boxes, Mike saw. Rollie reached in the midst and pulled out a large sack and then an old fashioned coffee grinder. The smell of ground coffee hit him on the constant wind that blew over the pass and down into the valley. Rollie turned back with a huge smile on his face.
“Let’s make the coffee real. And let’s call this a good will gift to you folks,” he said, holding out the old fashioned coffee grinder and the sack of beans.
“Okay then,” Mike said and laughed. He took the grinder and Ronnie took the sack of coffee beans. They walked into the cave together, the crowd all talking at once.
“Easy, Frank,” Gary warned, “you ain’t got but two inches, and you’ll be over the damn edge of the roof.”
“No sweat, Gar’,” Frank replied. “That about where she needs to be, Joe?”
“Looks sweet to me,” Joe answered smiling.
“Frank! For God’s sake be careful, you’re going to fall, I just know it,” this from Annie on the ground.
No I’m not, not unless Joe pushes me I’m not,” Frank said, and laughed.
“Oh, when you get down from there, Franklin, I’m going to swat that smartness out of you for good,” Annie called up, sounding relieved.
“She will too,” Frank whispered to Gary.
“I heard that,” Annie said from below.
“Shove it up just an inch, Frank,” Joe said.
Frank shoved the solar panel back up, estimating the inch Joe wanted.
“Good, right there, now hold on for just one second…” a heavy thunk sounded as Joe drove a nail into the roof, through one of the panels tabs. “Two more, Frank…”
thunk … thunk.
Gary was holding the side. “’Bout done, Frank. Got ‘er?”
Frank smiled, “Easy as pie…” his foot slipped, and he slid backwards. Gary’s arm shot out quickly, a startled gasp came from Annie below. Frank held onto the panel, instead of holding the panel, and just hoped Joe had enough nails in it. One foot slipped off the edge, the other held however, and the slide stopped.
thunk … thunk.
“Okay, Frank, you can let go,” Joe told him, and looked up. Gary had him by one arm. Joe bent and quickly drove another nail into the roof.
thunk, thunk, thunk,
Frank pulled himself up carefully, with Gary’s help, and then sat down on the rough shingles.
“I didn’t know,” Joe said.
“Neither did I,” Frank told him. He laughed uneasily.
“Honey?” from Annie on the ground.
Frank leaned over the edge of the roof. “I’m fine, Hon. I think I’ll just sit here for a minute though if you don’t mind.”
“Well damn, Frank, lean over the edge and fall off why don’t you!” He drew back.
Joe handed Gary the hammer and the apron full of nails, and began to work on the wiring. He popped the end of the panel open, fished the cable through, stripped it, and began to finish the circuit.
“Uh, uh,” Frank said. He took the hammer and the apron, and began fastening the bottom of the panel. Gary’s arthritis was bad: Bad enough that he shouldn’t even be up here, and he was afraid of heights too.
“Suit yourself, Frank,” Gary said, obviously relieved.
Joe twisted the wire-nut on the last three ground wires, wound a short length of electrical tape around them, and closed the panel front. “That’s it,” he said, as he stood on the sharply pitched roof.
thunk … thunk
“Me too,” Frank said, handing the hammer back to Gary. Gary turned and dropped it over the edge, close to the house, the nail apron went the same way.
Joe grinned. “Let’s go try it,” he said.
Seven months of scrounging solar panels, back-up batteries and wiring, and now the moment of truth. Joe waited anxiously while Gary negotiated the ladder, a slow trip. Gary did fine going up the ladder, it was down that was hard, he knew.
Frank waited nervously beside Dell, Annie, and Peggy on the ground, until Gary finally reached the end of the ladder. Joe fairly flew down behind him, the excitement evident on his face. They all walked inside the cabin.
It was the largest cabin at Snoqualmie settlement, built the first year with some help from Jeremiah and Anson, when they had come up. They needed a large cabin, so that all of them could get together. Snoqualmie had grown a great deal in the last year. Joe and Becky had bought Dell and Peggy when they had come cross country from the east. Six months later Frank had come without Jessie. Shortly after that Annie had come and they had become an item: Jessie had come on her own, but she had not stayed long. Lisa and her man Sam, six other couples had followed. Now there were better than seventy people here in the first encampment, and over three hundred in the small valley by the lake: The numbers kept rising.
In addition to the larger cabin, there were seven others scattered in a semicircle, and more than eighty down closer to the lake. Most had been part of an old summer camp for kids. Joe walked to a large electrical panel, mounted just inside the doorway, and waited for the others to catch up.
The panel held the main breaker. They had wired the eight cabins with florescent lights. No outlets, they didn’t have enough panels for that yet. Six large sodium lights ringed the cabins outside. Joe hesitated, his eyes locked on the overhead light fixture. “Here goes,” he said, and then flicked the main breaker.
For a split second nothing. And then, softly, a low hum, almost insectile, as the fluorescent light stuttered to life.
Gary levered the front door open. The sodium lights had a sensor switch that would automatically turn them on at dusk, but Joe had installed an override switch next to the door. Gary flipped the switch as he stepped out the door, and the sodium arc lights glowed softly. Within five minutes they were at full power, shining brightly in the late afternoon air.
“Think it’ll run anything else?” Dell asked.
“Eventually, if we can hunt up a few more panels,” Joe answered smiling. “We did it, can you believe it?”
“So long as you don’t want to build a nuclear power plant next, Joe,” Gary said and laughed. The others joined in, their laughter rolling across the clearing As they turned to walk back to the cabin they heard the sound of a motor on the quiet mountain air.
“Damn,” Gary said as he dodged inside the cabin and came back with an armload of rifles.
He passed them around as the motor grew louder.
There was one road into the old forest preserve, and none of them had heard the sound of a gas motor in close to a year, the entire settlement used horses. Their outpost was the entrance into the actual settlement a half mile distance deeper into the forest, spread around the lake.
Joe took a rifle from Gary. He ejected and checked the magazine, then slammed it home once more. The rifles were the real deal, full auto at the flip of a switch, taken from some dead soldiers they had come across on one of their excursions for supplies.
Sarah ran Snoqualmie settlement: She had since Jessie Stone had left more than a year before, and had never come back. Snoqualmie had risen from a disorganized settlement of outlaws, desperate men and women, to a respected settlement that was ruled with a somewhat iron hand.
He could clearly hear more than one motor now, maybe three, Joe thought. Frank looked over at him and arched his eyebrows, but the truth was that Joe had no idea who this might be. There were gangs from the larger cities that sometimes raided the smaller encampments, but none had ever come this far out, and Snoqualmie was far from small. Over three hundred people were here. Armed men and women. Gardens were planted. Houses had been built. It was home and they all felt the same about it. No gang would be taking this place from them, stealing their children, raping their women, murdering their men. It was a question that came up often living so close to what was left of Seattle Washington. It was why the rifles had been picked up, cleaned, and put into service. It was why this house was the outpost you had to pass to get down into the actual settlement.
Becky came from the house with her own rifle. She took up a position by a tree on the other side of the main road where it turned in from the old park road and then angled down toward the lake and the settlements. The motors grew louder as the vehicles turned the last corner and rolled out into the clearing that fronted the house. Three sport utilities that had seen better days, Joe saw. Their drivers shut down the motors and silence fell on the day. The tick of cooling motors came to Joe’s ears. The door on the closest sport utility began to open and Beth called out from across the yard.
“I would step out unarmed if I were you,” Becky told them. The others in the yard had raised their own rifles and pointed them at the door and the person who was stepping from the sport utility.
A short woman stepped out, long black hair, black-lensed glasses covered her eyes. Joe began to lower his rifle. She stripped off the heavy leather coat she wore and tossed it back into the truck. She pulled the glasses down her nose and stared over them to where Becky stood, a wide smile on her face.
“Oh god, no way,” Becky said. Her voice caught as she lowered her rifle and moved toward the woman where she stood next to the truck. “Jessie… We thought you were dead, Jessie. We thought you were dead.” she told her when she reached her. Becky wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her tightly.
“I get that a lot,” Jessie joked. She made room for Joe as he came over and wrapped his arms around the two of them. “I get that a lot,” Jessie repeated.
April 11th 1952
Jeremiah Edison drove the old tractor carefully down the side of the slippery hill. It had been raining for close to three days, and it didn’t look as though it was going to let up right quick, he thought.
The rain was causing all sorts of problems, and not just for him, he knew, but for the cows as well. The biggest problem was the creek, and the only way the creek wasn’t going to be a problem was to unplug the thing.
He sat on the tractor as it slipped and slid its way down the hill through the gray sheets of rain. Jeremiah let out a sigh of relief once it reached the bottom. For a second there, he had been sure both he and the old tractor would end up in the creek, but God was smiling on him today.
He slipped the worn gearbox into neutral, and sat looking at the rush of muddy-brown water. The creek was a good four feet above the point of flooding, and he wasn’t sure it was a smart move to try to put the tractor in that. The tractor was sure footed, but so was a goat, and he’d seen more than one goat end up on its ass. But there wasn’t anything else for it. If he didn’t move the trees that were clogging the creek, and flooding it out and over the banks, then he might as well just sit back and watch a couple more cows drown.
Jeremiah knew cows, pretty much anyhow, and every one that he and Maggie owned were just as stupid as any other cow he’d ever seen. The cows didn’t understand flooding, they didn’t understand how the water could weaken the banks, and so the big dummies just walked on down to the creek, just like any other day, and got swept away when the bank crumbled under their weight. Three days of rain and four dead cows, and though cows were stupid, they weren’t cheap.
Jeremiah sat in the pouring rain and stared at the creek. Normally, the creek was no more than eighteen inches deep at the most. Course normal wasn’t what it was today, he thought, and wishin’ it was wouldn’t make it so. It was his own damn fault, he reminded himself. Two of the trees that were clogging it had been there last summer, and hadn’t he promised Maggie he’d take ’em out before fall? He had, but he hadn’t, and so here he was in the pouring rain fixin’ to half kill himself to get ’em out.
Looked like the best way, Jeremiah thought, might be to try and snag the biggest one right from the bank. He squinted as he shielded his eyes to peer through the rain. One thing was for sure, sittin’ on the tractor and thinkin’ about it, wasn’t gonna get it. Reluctantly, Jeremiah climbed down off the tractor and edged closer to the bank. The rain was coming down hard, but the section he stood upon seemed solid enough. “Probably what the cows thought,” he muttered as he moved closer.
He walked back to the tractor, unwound a long section of chain from behind the seat, and walked back to the creek. The top of the bigger tree was sticking a good three feet over the bank, and he was glad that it was. He could see that the water was rising faster, and moving along quicker, and he had no wish to get any closer to it than he had to. Quickly, but carefully, he wound the chain around the tree and pegged the links with an old bolt to hold them. Looks good, and solid as well, he thought as he slipped the other end of the chain over the bucket. He genuinely didn’t want to try and turn the tractor around. In fact, he thought, as muddy as the ground was, he’d be damn lucky just to get it back up and away from the creek when he finished.
He gave an experimental tug at the chain, and then climbed back up on the tractor. Carefully, without grinding the gears any more than he surely had to, he shifted into reverse, played the clutch out slowly and brought up the slack in the chain.
“Well God?” He asked, looking skyward, “You keepin’ a watch down here? I could sure use a hand about now, Lord. Amen,” Jeremiah finished.
He let the clutch out a little further, playing the gas pedal as he did, and let the tractor go to work. The over-sized tires spun, caught, and the tractor began to slowly back up the steep bank, pulling the tree out of the muddy water as it did. Jeremiah released the breath he had been holding, and just as he did the chain snapped in two. Jeremiah barely had time to register what had happened when the old tractor flipped, crushing him beneath it.
THE STORY OF THE FOLD
Jeremiah Edison stared at the squared board lost in thought. If he moved to the right, he would surely lose two checkers. Maybe, he thought, as many as four. Moving to the left would not help either. There was actually only one semi-safe move to make, and that was straight ahead. But even that move could put a hurtin’ on his few remaining checkers, he thought. Nothing to do for it though, but move it, and see what happened.
He stared into the thoughtful eyes of the older man across the table, trying to read them. No good, he was a master at hiding his thoughts. His face was calm and carefully composed, not so much as a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
Jeremiah gave in and decisively moved one checker forward and then leaned back into his chair, waiting to see what the older man would do.
“Well, I see you have left me little choice, Jeremiah,” the older man said. He picked up one of his own checkers and carefully slid it forward as he finished speaking.
“That was what I was hoping you’d do,” Jeremiah said grinning as he jumped two of the older man’s checkers.
“No doubt about it, Jeremiah, you’re just too good for me,” the older man replied. He smiled widely, and pleasantly, and then changed the subject. “How about we take a short break, Jeremiah, maybe go for a walk. You must get tired of beating me all the time?”
“Well,” Jeremiah replied, “I kind ‘a get the idea you let me beat you sometimes, but sure, I wouldn’t mind a break at all.”
“I would never let you beat me, Jeremiah. It is a good thing we don’t play poker though. I might gamble the entire kingdom away trying to beat you,” the older man replied laughing. “Besides I have my reasons for wanting to take a break right now. I see it like this, if you and I take a break, maybe once we return your concentration will not be so keen, and then maybe I will win one of these games for a change.” He rose from the small table as he finished speaking. “Ready, Jeremiah?”
Jeremiah closed his eyes. He could have kept them open, and a few times he had, but the trip was unnerving enough without adding the visual aspects to it. Not that there was anything to see except darkness for the split second they would be traveling, he thought. Still…
He opened his eyes. They had actually only been shut for less than a second, but in that space of time they had traveled a considerable distance, or at least seemed to have. The small table that had been before him was gone, replaced by a lush green valley. A calm blue river flowed across the valley floor far below. He followed it with his eyes as it wound away in the distance.
“It’s beautiful,” Jeremiah exclaimed, “but will it still be…?” He let the question trail away.
“Yes it will, as will several others, Jeremiah, but it need not be this place, there are so many to choose from,” the older man informed him. “Come.”
Jeremiah blinked, and when he opened his eyes they were standing in a high mountain meadow. Wild flowers covered the meadow, and a large, summer-fat herd of deer grazed peacefully among them. A large buck raised its heavily antlered head and stared at the two men, but perceiving no threat went back to grazing the field.
“This is also beautiful,” Jeremiah said quietly.
“It only matters where, Jeremiah. There are so many. There were even more, and there will be again.”
“I’ll have to tell Maggie about this place, and the other,” Jeremiah replied, still watching the deer graze.
“You should, Jeremiah. In fact, there will be many things to tell her. Things she will need to know, Jeremiah.”
“Yes. The time is short.”
“I was afraid of that,” Jeremiah said slowly.
“There is no reason to be afraid, Jeremiah.”
“I know that. I guess I mean afraid, as in I wish it didn’t have to happen.”
“I knew what you meant, Jeremiah, but it is necessary. As much as I would wish that it was not, it is.”
Jeremiah nodded his head slowly. “I know.”
The two men stood in silence for several minutes, watching the deer in the field. It seemed so peaceful to Jeremiah, a good place to be, a good place to live, and that made it harder to accept that most of it would soon be gone. The older man spoke, breaking the silence that had fallen between them.
“Would you like to look at some others, Jeremiah?”
“I believe I would at that. I think I’d like to look at as much as I kin before it’s gone, I guess. Does that sound wrong?”
“No, Jeremiah, it does not, I too wish to look… Ready?”
Jeremiah nodded, but did not close his eyes. Darkness enveloped him, and a sense of speed. The absence of light was complete; he could only sense the presence of the older man beside him as the traveled through the dark void.
Watertown, New York
Far below the small city of Watertown New York, Richard Pierce sat working before an elaborate computer terminal. He had just initiated the program that managed the small nuclear power plant hidden deep below him in the rock. The nuclear power plant fed project Bluechip, and something else that was hidden from him. He wondered about that briefly but shut it out.
The government had designed all of this project precisely that way, to be unconnected. So that any one person or group working on a particular section would not know what any other group or person working on some other section was actually doing. It made things difficult at times, but he supposed it was for the best. When it came to the government and what they did, it was sometimes best not to know.
A small handset beside the computer station chimed, and he picked it up and listened. He did not speak at first, but as he listened a smile spread across his face. “Very good,” he said happily, when the caller was finished, “keep me advised.” He set the small handset back into its cradle and turned his attention back to the screen in front of him. The plant had powered up just as it was supposed to, no problems whatsoever, and that made Richard Pierce extremely happy. Two more days tops, he thought, and then maybe I’ll get out of this dump.
He supposed he should feel honored that he was even here. It was after all one of the biggest projects in the country, albeit top secret, but he could not help the way he felt. He was close to a mile underground, totally cut off from everything and everyone, and he hated it. If he had a choice, which he had not, he would never have come at all, but he had written the software that handled the power plant, as well as several other sections of the military base and that made it his baby. There were a couple of small bugs, mainly due to the fact that no one had been allowed to know what the entire program was supposed to do. The way the rewrites were going however, it looked as though he would not be stuck here anywhere near as long as he had originally thought, and that was something to think about. He had begun to feel that he would never leave this rock bound prison, and wouldn’t that be a real bitch.
At a large gravel pit on the outskirts of Watertown New York, Gary Jones carefully maneuvered the wide mouth of the loader bucket over the dump box of the truck, and pulled back on the lever closest to him to release the load. Ain’t this something, he thought, as he slowly topped off the dump box, barely 10 AM and we’ve already sent out twenty-seven truckloads of gravel to the base.
Six men out sick, and another forty truckloads to deliver before five tonight. What in hell are they doing with all this gravel? He wondered. It was a question he had asked many times before, and still had not gotten an answer to. Uncle Sam paid well though, and on time to boot, so he guessed he probably shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. He signaled the driver, and he pulled away with a whoosh of air as he released the brakes. Another dump truck lumbered up to take his place, and he pushed the questions out of his mind as he began filling the box.
In Seattle Washington, Harvey Pearlson sat at his wide mahogany desk and talked quietly into the phone.
The extravagantly appointed office was located on the top floor of one of Seattle’s most highly regarded newspapers. Pearlson had worked his way up from the bottom, after starting as a carrier in 1955, sixteen floors below.
“No,” Pearlson said quietly, “I don’t want to know. I just thought that maybe it could be handled in some other way.” He listened for a few minutes nodding his head as he did.
“Yes, yes I see, but?” He rubbed his eyes as he listened. “No, I don’t,” he said emphatically, “I happen to like him a great deal, and if you give me the time…” The voice on the other end of the line cut him off, and he once again listened quietly.
“I see,” he said, once the voice had finished speaking. “No, I do understand. I won’t. Do you think I’m that stupid? Give me a little credit here, will you. You wouldn’t even be aware of it if I hadn’t called you in the first place, for Christ’s sake.” He listened for a few seconds longer, then hung up the phone.
There was no reasoning with Weston, he told himself, he was going to do what he was going to do. For Frank’s sake, he wished he had never called him at all. Too late now though, he told himself, far too late. After all, he had done his best to swing Frank away from the story, but Frank Morgan was not a man who could be easily swayed, and, he told himself, unless he wanted to find himself in the same circumstances, he had better just shut up and let it go. He reached over and thumbed the intercom button.
“I’m going to be out the rest of the day, Cindy, and if Frank Morgan calls looking for me, you don’t know where I am, correct?”
“Anything important comes up you can reach me on my mobile, Cindy.”
“Yes Sir, Mister Pearlson.”
Harvey Pearlson picked up his briefcase and left the office. Whatever Weston had in mind, he wanted nothing to do with it, and he didn’t want to be available for any sort of questions that might arise either. It was unfortunate enough that he had started the whole ball rolling; he had no intention of sticking around to see where it ended up stopping. No, he told himself, the lake was the best place to be. The only place to be, and he intended to stay there until the whole thing blew over just as he had been told to.
He took his private elevator down to the garage area, walked across to his Lincoln, and drove out of the parking garage, turning right on Longwood. He passed a hooker standing at the corner of the building, and thought just how bad Longwood Avenue had gotten as of late. He would have to speak to the security people when he got back from the lake. Putting up with the hookers that had taken over the avenue at night was one thing, but broad daylight? Standing right in front of the frigging building? No, something would have to be done, and if the security people couldn’t take care of it, maybe he’d speak to Weston. After all, he owed him one now, didn’t he? He pushed the thought away, signaled, and pulled out onto the loop. In an hour he’d be at the lake, and then he could forget about the whole mess, for today at least. He eased the car up to sixty, and leaned back into the leather upholstery to enjoy the drive.
Arlene watched the Lincoln drive away. It was cold, far too cold to deal with anything that wasted time. The avenue may still be a respectable area during the daylight, but at night it was a completely different place. It had been in decline for a few decades. Most of the older nearby buildings had been turned into low income housing ten years back. The junkies, prostitutes and runaways had come on the heels of that, and they had never left.
Arlene had been hanging around the garage entrance hoping to catch Frank Morgan. He worked as a reporter for the paper, and more than once when she needed some help with the runaways, he had helped. Today he was nowhere to be found, and if she stayed around the front of the building much longer hoping to catch him she would probably find herself in jail for the night. She pulled her collar a little closer, turned her face into the stiff wind that had sprung up and headed back to her apartment just down the avenue.
Fort Drum, New York
Doctor Jessie Stone moved through the clinic quickly, her eyes falling on the many faces: Mothers, children, all waiting. She passed the desk, nodded at Vera who held her eyes for a moment.
“Give me five minutes, Vera, then start sending them…” She caught the concern in Vera’s eyes. “One in particular?” She asked.
“Little girl… Infection, maybe pneumonia,” she shrugged. “Sounded bad to me.”
Jessie nodded. “Then send her in first, Vera.” She pushed her way through the doors that lead to the back area and shrugged into a gown before grabbing the first chart off the board and beginning to read.
The wind kicked up along Beechwood Avenue in L.A.’s red light district. A paper bag went rolling along the cracked sidewalk: Skipping over Willie Lefray’s feet where he stood watching the traffic… thinking. One trick… The right trick… Somebody with money and he could call the night good. Just enough to get a good high… Or enough to get enough shit to get a good high tonight and maybe a good high tomorrow when it all wore off and the jingle jangles set in? … Maybe, he decided. Maybe. Willie stood watching the cars as the paper bag bounded over his feet and tumbled along the avenue.
Watertown, New York
Frank Morgan flipped the map back onto the passenger seat of the small red Toyota Prius and glanced at his watch.
He had figured the trip from Syracuse to Fort Drum would take about an hour and a quarter. He hadn’t, however, counted on the traffic. The whole day can’t be great, he thought. The trip into Syracuse International had gone well. One short connection in route and other than that the whole trip had been uneventful. But now he had to deal with this. Something up ahead was slowing the traffic down, and he was pretty sure he knew what the problem was. Still, if he lost much more time, it would probably be close to dark when he arrived in Fort Drum, and the possibility of arriving after dark, and trying to find the house didn’t appeal to him.
Frank eased the Prius out into the passing lane, and slowly coaxed the car up to speed again. He had been right; the problem was the same as it had been coming off the thruway from the airport to get on route 81. Army convoys, and if you didn’t get around them quickly, you could spend forever in the left hand lane. He had learned that lesson the hard way coming off the thruway. Not only couldn’t he get around them, at first, but when he did eventually get around them he hadn’t been able to get back in for the exit to Route 81 north. He had ended up heading south instead, and had wasted twenty minutes getting turned around and back to the northern exit.
What the hell kind of military base needs that many trucks, he had wondered. It was a question that actually didn’t need to be answered, but he answered it anyway. The base doesn’t, the caves do. They may unload at the base, but I bet they just drop the load and ship it into the city at night, he told himself.
He stared out the window of the car, and looked over the traffic as he passed it. Jeeps, dump trucks, and tractor-trailer combos carrying who knew what. All of them heading to northern New York, he knew. He also knew that the airfield, at the base outside of Watertown, had been quite busy as well, the convoys of trucks weren’t their only supply source.
Frank reached towards the dashboard and fished a cigarette out of the pack that rested there, lighting it just as he passed the last olive-green truck on his right. He tossed the lighter into the plastic console, and it landed with a hollow plastic bong. At the same time, he pulled back into the right hand lane, and leaned back into the seat as he took a long pull on the cigarette.
From what he had been able to determine from the map, and what he already knew from his investigation, the military base was about twenty miles north from Fort Drum. Jimmy, his reporter friend, was right, it didn’t seem as though any of the trucks would be passing through Fort Drum on their way to the base. Watertown was only about nine miles away from the base though, and that was where the loads would end up. Not in the city actually, he reminded himself, but under the city, and he hadn’t found that little piece of information on the map. The map said exactly nothing about the caves.
When he had first started to seriously investigate the base, he had gotten the first hint of the caves from one of his informers. The informer was an ex-private turned junky, who had been stationed at the base when the project had started. The rest he had gotten from the articles he carefully culled from the Watertown Daily Press, and Jimmy, an old friend who worked at a Syracuse paper. Some things could be hidden, but there was always a clue if you knew where to look.
The first article he had read had seemed harmless enough, but coupled with the information he’d already had, it had been intriguing. The United States Army had purchased some abandoned property from the city to use as a storage depot. The story had gone on to say that the land was close to the old train depot, and the base would benefit from the purchase as they would no longer need to truck shipments from the base to the depot every time they used the rail yards. The ex-private had tipped him off about the caves, which also happened to be located on the same piece of property.
Even then, it still hadn’t made a lot of sense to Frank. What would they save? They would still have to ship whatever came in there, to the base. Wouldn’t they?
In other articles, most of which had been written years before in the Watertown paper, he had learned what the property actually consisted of, and at first it had seemed like an unlikely purchase. It hadn’t been all that hard to dig up the old articles, especially with the help of his friend in Syracuse. Although Watertown had its own local paper, the Times Reporter in Syracuse, which was only seventy miles away, often reported on the events that took place there.
It had been an easy matter of looking through the archived data files, pulling the stories that pertained, and with the help of an internet connection, the reporter friend sent the stories to Frank in Washington via e-mail. He had learned most of what he knew about the actual property from those stories, some of which dated from the early thirties.
The property was located on the river bank in the heart of the down-town section of Watertown. It consisted of a stretch of road that began in the center of the city, and then extended out of the city along an old set of rail road tracks. An old defunct coal company and some run down out-buildings were also included. Perhaps the most important of all, an abandoned series of caves that ran under the city. The city had bricked up the caves decades before in response to the community.
In June of 1935, a large group of school children, along with two adults who supposedly were well acquainted with the caves and their various twists and turns, had set out on a field trip to explore them. They had never returned. A subsequent search had turned up no trace of them at all. Three weeks later the city had sent a Public Works crew to brick up the entrance, and it had been closed since.
When the Army had bought the property it was considered unsafe, and had pretty much been allowed to go to seed. The road leading out of it had likewise been closed off some years before, and the area had become a hangout for young kids and vagrants. On any given night the police ended up being called to the area several times, and the city had debated for years about what they should do with the property.
When the Army had offered to purchase the property, the City Council had considered it a Godsend, and had been more than happy to sign over the deed and accept the check they offered. It had seemed to be the end of it. Frank had read later articles, however, that seemed to indirectly touch on the property. There was an increase in traffic after the sale, and an unusual amount of security that surrounded the site.
The local paper had down-played it to normal, or as close to normal as they could. Watertown had always been a military town, and so most of the complaints of increased traffic, were actually seen in a good light. Increased activity at the property might eventually mean more jobs, and in a depressed economy, which depended heavily on the nearby base, anything the Army did was always reported in a positive light. As far as the local paper was concerned, there was nothing negative to report.
So the real clues had come from the Syracuse paper. Franks’ friend, Jimmy Patrick, kept in touch, and had contacted Frank whenever he came across anything that was related to the smaller northern city. Syracuse itself had had tremendous problems, initially, with the traffic.
When Frank had called Jimmy, he had only wanted to know what he knew about the place. But after Jimmy had told him about the traffic problem, he had asked him to keep in touch, and he had. He had also filled him in on everything else he knew about Watertown. As he drove along, Frank mentally ticked off what he knew about the northern New York City.
The Black River split the city in two, and there were four bridges that spanned it. Three of the four also spanned the property that the military had purchased, and those three bridges were new. When they had been replaced, the road that ran to the old abandoned coal mine had been blocked off and abandoned. Ironically, or maybe not, Frank thought, the Army Corps of Engineers had done all the work.
The result was a small discarded piece of property, with its own road leading in and out, in the heart of the city. It was bound on the south side by the Black River and the north by a sixty foot rock ledge that rose just behind the old historic downtown district. That was, besides the caves, what Frank knew about the city itself. Jimmy had seemed to have caught Frank’s enthusiasm for the mystery, and had also sent him other articles he found as well.
Some of them, although at first glance seemingly innocent, were quite revealing about what was actually going on in Watertown.
The first one Jimmy had dug up and sent him, was from the Public Notices section of the Syracuse paper.
“I thought it was kind of strange,” Jimmy had said, “that they didn’t print the notice in the Watertown paper.”
Frank had read the long notice carefully. It boiled down to a statement of facts concerning the property in Watertown, and the Governments intended use of it.
The whole notice hadn’t made a lot of sense. It seemed to be saying that they intended to invoke the privilege to the mineral rights that had been deeded to them along with the property. It also stated that the Army Corps of Engineers had decided that the closed caves would need to be reopened for a feasibility study, to determine whether they could be used as a storage facility. It had been the first direct mention of the caves at all.
The notice went on to say that since this would involve transportation of, as well as disposition of, excess material from within the caves, the Corps had asked for, and via the printing of the notice, been given permission to begin the process without the necessary permits. They were also granted permission to transport radioactive materials to and from the site, the notice stated, and had like-wise been granted a waiver of the Clean Water Discharge Act, to allow undisclosed drainage into the Black River.
Subsequent notices and articles had detailed contract awards for “unspecified” electrical and plumbing work, along with contracts for per-piece orders of drywall and lumber. Another notice Frank had read, contained contract awards for concrete and asphalt to a Texas corporation. The amounts were unspecified, and were listed as needed for road repair, and sub-wall replacement. Jimmy had thought some of it was unusual, and probably even illegal, and although Frank had agreed, there was not much that either of them could do without further proof.
Jimmy had also told Frank that the Army had been building up the area for some time and that from what he’d been able to determine, they had begun work on the caves even before they had completed the purchase of the land.
They both suspected that the notices were only a cover for some larger project the Army was carrying out, and the radioactive permits bothered him a great deal. Jimmy had promised to stay in touch, and he had, up until last week.
Last week he had sent Frank two stories that had made no sense to Frank then, and still didn’t.
The first had been a story clipped from Military Times concerning a Major Richard Weston. Major Weston had been appointed special liaison to Fort Drum three years before: Since then he had dropped off the radar. No mention of him in any further announcements until last week when he had been named director of Special Projects and some obscure military think tank: Project SS.
Jimmy had been unable to dig up anything at all on Project SS. What it was: Where it resided; who belonged to it or even what they were discussing. He had dug up a few more articles on Richard Weston. One named him as Director of Special Projects in the Airborne Germ Warfare Division of the Army’s special services wing. That was a little known outfit that seemed to have its roots somewhere back in the Vietnam era… Cambodia. Some airborne chemicals that were sprayed on U.S. Troops who were in a country they were not supposed to be in in the first place: Sprayed from cargo planes that may have been Chinese, or may have been American. Hushed up. Nothing but rumors, but Weston had been appointed to a committee to look into it. A committee that, as far as Jimmy had been able to find, had never issued a single ruling or finding of any kind at all.
The second article Jimmy had sent seemed to have no correlation at all. It was a translated article from Ecuador. The gist of which were numerous incidents of villagers near the small town of Esmeraldas, seeming to come back to life and then becoming violent: Also hushed up after just a few mentions in local and international papers. Nothing more. No explanation, something that Frank knew Jimmy hated.
Frank had tried to contact him at work several times, but to no avail, and the messages he left were not returned. He had tried calling Jimmy at home and his cell as well, and had only been rewarded with his voice-mail. That had seemed strange to Frank as well. Jimmy was a damn good reporter who knew the value of answering his phone whenever it rang. At work, at home, in the middle of the night, it made no difference. Jimmy always answered the phone. Jimmy wasn’t answering and now instead of four rings before voice-mail, the phone was directing to voice-mail after the first ring.
He had even tried contacting Jimmy’s editor, but he had refused to talk to him. He hadn’t given up though, and had tried to call just this morning before he had flown out of Washington. His call was put through, but all he had gotten was a steady busy signal at his home, and when he had called his work number, a business like secretary at the paper informed Frank, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that Jimmy had left just the day before on an assignment. When he had asked her where he had gone to, her voice had gone even more business-like, and she had told him the paper did not give out that sort of information. Just when Frank had been about to try a different, more tactful approach to find out what was going on, she had hung up on him. The whole thing weighed heavily upon him. He had vacation time coming so he had taken it. He had three weeks to figure out what had happened to Jimmy and what was going on that was so secretive that everyone had decided to keep their mouths shut.
Frank inhaled deeply from the cigarette, and then tossed it out the open window.
That was why he was here. None of it figured. The base itself had thousands of acres of land, so why did they need more? Why the caves? And what the hell had happened to Jimmy? After nearly a week of hearing nothing from Jimmy at all, he had called in the middle of the night. Awakened Frank from a sound sleep: That had turned out to be the last time Frank had heard from him, and that last conversation with Jimmy had been a hurried one, late night, cryptic, Jimmy had sounded worried.
He had located an employee from the new base that had given him some information he wasn’t sure he should believe. The new base, according to this source, was a top secret virus facility. They were working on a virus that could build a better soldier and they had made a huge breakthrough a few months before. Finding a compound that could help the average soldier survive much longer without food and water in combat conditions. He had kept the kid talking most of the night, doing nothing more than buying the beer at a busy downtown bar that was geared toward the nearby base as most of them were.
Most of what Jimmy was told sounded unbelievable to him, but he had passed it on to Frank anyway. The kid had even come up with a code number for the Virus, SS-V2765. Frank had jotted it down on a pad, the rest of the conversation he had filed away in his head.
The Watertown paper had come out, just last week, with a long article that had been picked up by the wire service. Frank had read it, and wondered why they were suddenly going public about the caves. The Army was now saying they intended to convert the old caves into a large underground storage area. Frank already knew that from the Syracuse paper though, and he didn’t believe it was that simple. The rest of the story was bullshit, as far as Frank was concerned, and actually didn’t say a much of anything. Certainly nothing he hadn’t already known or suspected. The article actually seemed to serve only one purpose, and that was to mention that they were doing something with the caves.
Why would they feel the need to do that? Frank wondered. Had the Army found out that he and Jimmy had been digging into the base? Is that why Jimmy was nowhere to be found? Had they scared him off somehow?
Frank didn’t believe it was possible to scare Jimmy off of anything he was determined to find out about, so if they hadn’t scared him off, what the hell had happened? It all raised a lot more questions than it answered, and once he had lost track of Jimmy it had made it personal to him. He needed to know what had happened to him, so here he was cruising down the interstate, twenty-eight hundred miles from home, to find out. And even that had not been an easy thing to accomplish.
The airlines were running without reliable satellite communications. Apparently most of the world was, and it touched on every aspect of his life. How fast he could get information: Where he could get it from. How, or even whether he could book a flight, and when he might expect to get one back.
Frank supposed it had everything to do with DX2379R, an errant meteorite that was supposed to come very close to earth later tonight or early tomorrow. All the best minds said it would pass so far away that it would be nothing but a tiny blip in the history books, and he had too much on his mind to be concerned with that too. After all, if it were going to pass too close or hit and cause damage, they would know it. It was yet another case of overreaction. The cable news channels had so much competition that they tended to blow all the news out of proportion. So much so that the real things going on in the world were often overlooked entirely.
That was how they had nearly ended up with a joke for president a few years back. Inattention to the real things. The countries Entertain Me attitude. The other side effect was what he was witnessing right now. Everything slowed to a crawl. The internet superhighway went down, or clogged. Satellites became unreliable, or switched offline when they overloaded. Like cars passing a bad accident on the highway: Everyone had to slow down to get a look.
His hand reached automatically for the cigarette pack on the dash and just as abruptly stopped. I’ve got to cut back, he thought, that’s the second pack today. He wrestled with the urge for a full thirty seconds and then gave in. To hell with it, he told himself, I’ll have plenty of time to quit once I get settled in at Fort Drum. In fact, I’ll probably be so busy that I won’t have time to smoke at all, he lied to himself. Once again the lighter hit the tray, and Frank settled back into the seat, mentally ticking over what he knew, or suspected, about the caves.
As Frank neared the exit for Fort Drum, he mulled the possibilities over in his clouded mind. He had just flipped the turn signal on to exit the interstate, when he felt a shimmy begin at the rear of the car. It quickly turned to a deep pounding vibration as he slowed the small car and pulled to the side of the road.
Frank climbed out of the small cramped car, and, walking to the rear, stared down at the flat tire that he knew was there. Muttering under his breath, “Damn rental car,” he returned to the front; retrieved the keys, and unlocked the trunk to search for the spare he hoped was there. It wasn’t.
Frank locked the small car, and taking his laptop bag with him, set off in the direction of the exit to find a service station.
Two miles away, Joe Miller tossed a steel clipboard onto the passenger seat of his Camaro as he pulled into the long driveway at 6620 Main Street, in Fort Drum.
Joe hadn’t seen the old brick house since three weeks before, when he had been sent out as part of the clean-up crew from Bud Farling’s real estate agency. The house had looked horrible then. The windows and doors had been boarded up, and the now graceful grounds had been choked with weeds.
The old house looks damn good, he thought. He hadn’t been there himself for most of the work as Bud had kept him busy with his other properties. Joe tended to get most of Bud’s work, probably due to the fact that he was dependable, and showed up every day ready to work. To Bud, Joe knew, that meant a great deal. A low whistle escaped his lips as he stared at the imposing estate, which had always seemed so forbidding before.
The van that he usually drove was in the shop for the third time in as many weeks, so he had come in his own car. This time it was the transmission, and Bud had been downright pissed about it. Not pissed at Joe though, the van was old, and, Bud had told him, he supposed he’d have to buy a new one soon.
When Bud had asked if Joe minded driving his own car out to the house to put in the locks, Joe had told him he didn’t mind at all, and that considering the way the van was constantly breaking down lately, he felt better taking his own car. At least that way he wouldn’t end up walking like he had last week when the van had broken down in the middle of nowhere.
Joe Miller actually had a large amount of expertise in home repair, and it had always seemed to him that all the different aspects of it had been easy to learn. He had made Bud a lot of money, and he worked as a sub-contractor so Bud could work him as many hours as he wanted without having to pay overtime.
The arrangement worked out well for both of them. It meant Bud could count on Joe, and because of that he paid him well.
Joe had no family, so even if Bud called in the middle of the night with some emergency at one of his properties, it wasn’t a big deal for Joe to get dressed and take care of it.
Joe retrieved the new locks from the seat and headed towards the front door. The keys had already been mailed to the man who was renting the property, Bud had explained.
“Just remove our master locks, and swap ’em out for these,” Bud had said, “And oh, don’t forget to bring the keys and the master locks back with you tomorrow.”
Joe had lost a set of the master locks a year ago, and Bud had never let him forget it.
Whenever Bud had a crew working on a property, the master locks were used. That allowed everyone to come and go whenever they needed to, and all the tradesmen that worked for Bud had a master key. It had come in handy on several occasions.
The keys fit all the rental properties Bud owned, or managed, as well, and Joe couldn’t count the times that had come in handy to him. Half the time when there was a problem with an apartment, it was usually reported by one of the other tenants, and nine times out of ten, the tenant who lived in the apartment wasn’t home. The master locks solved that problem nicely.
Joe reached the door; slipped the master key into the lock, and entered the house. He squinted in the gloom, peering cautiously inside at the shadowy hallway.
The old house had long had a reputation of being haunted. Joe didn’t necessarily believe it, but he had always found the old house to be unnerving.
It still seems spooky in here, Joe thought as he stepped into the entrance way. Stupid though letting this old house get to me. He couldn’t explain why he suddenly felt nervous about entering the house, and he glanced nervously back out the doorway at the driveway, where the Camaro sat gleaming brightly in the late afternoon sun.
The light stupid, he reminded himself, turn on the fracking lights.
He turned his attention back to the hall, and let his searching fingers locate the switch, and with a small push of the old button-style switch the lights came on.
Soft shards of light flickered across the walls of the entrance way, from the large chandelier, suspended from the old tin ceiling in the middle of the entrance way. Joe carefully edged the door shut with the heel of one scuffed work boot, and stared child-like around the room as the splashing patterns of light danced on the dark mahogany of the walls.
The wood panels reached more than twelve feet to the old tin ceilings, and intricate flowing lines covered the tin panels in an ornate flower design.
The dark walls were divided with carefully scrolled moldings, which broke the walls into squared sections, and a matching mahogany stairway curved away from the dark gray marble flooring, towards the upper reaches of the house.
He could make out the darkened upper floor where the staircase ended, and a small balcony that looked down over the entrance way.
To the left of the staircase, at the end of the long entrance way, massive double doors were set into the wall. A smaller single door led off to the right, directly across from those doors, which was the kitchen area, he knew.
To his immediate right, was another set of double doors, and directly across from that a graceful arch led into the living area. He knew that the doors set into the wall at the end of the hall led into a formal dining area, which also had a small door that opened into the kitchen area. The doors to his right opened into a large den, with book shelves from floor to ceiling, and a massive stone fireplace.
Joe had seen it before, when it had been stuffed full of the dusty old furniture that had been left in the house when the owner had died. The house had been tied up in probate court for years, Bud had explained, and so everything had been left pretty much untouched.
He hadn’t been here when the final cleaning had been done however; he hadn’t seen just how imposing, and elegant, the house actually was, without the dust and dirt that had covered it, and to him the transformation was astounding.
Joe carefully set the cardboard box containing the new locks on the floor by the front door. He decided that he wanted to take one more look at the house before he put in the locks. He walked down to the far end of the dimly lit entrance way, pushed open the double doors at the end of the hall that led into the dining area, and sent his left hand skittering across the wall for the switch. Sparse light from the hallway fell through the doorway and beyond.
Suddenly, a silver flash swept from the darkness towards him. His hand was still looking for the light switch, and his mind did not immediately register what it was.
…WHAT? His mind cried out in alarm as his eyes watched the shining flat arc sweep towards him.
…A knife? …At me? …Why?
“Not real,” he muttered aloud backing away, but his hands came away from his chest with bloody drops clinging to them. His eyes watched as a disembodied hand plunged the knife deeply into his chest again.
Hand, he thought… Is that my Blood?
The hand with the knife flickered quickly out of sight into the darkness, only to reappear a split second later and plunge deeply into his chest once more.
KNIFE …KNIFE …KNIFE! His mind screamed.
Two men stepped from the shadows. The larger one still held the knife threateningly in his hand as Joe slumped to the floor.
NO… He tried to say, but found he could not.
Strong hands closed around his wrists and were joined by others as his bleeding body was lifted from the floor. He tried to scream, but he found he could make no sounds. His chest felt as though a large boulder rested on it.
It doesn’t actually hurt, he thought, but they could have killed me, and I can’t breathe well, and, WHY?
His chest hitched once and stopped.
Can’t breathe, he thought, and next… The bastards did kill me! They did! They did…
He seemed to be falling into a dark void, and he could not see, but he could hear, he realized.
They’re scared, he thought, they’re, Scared. Oh, isn’t that funny. They killed me, and they’re scared.
He could hear them talking in hushed tones.
“Do you think he’s dead?” One asked.
“Maybe,” the other replied.
I’m not! Joe tried to scream.
“Well he sure as shit ain’t breathing…”
“That don’t make him dead, you idiot,” the other one, with the deeper voice replied, “I read where it takes four minutes for the brain to die, he could start breathing again or somthin’.”
“Well…” The one with the whiny voice began.
“Shut the hell up and let’s get going,” the one with the deeper voice said, cutting him off.
Who said that, Joe wondered as if it made a difference? Are they picking me up? Why? He couldn’t tell if they were picking him up or not. In fact, he couldn’t feel anything, he realized, and it was beginning not to matter to him. Is this what it feels like to be dead? He wondered.
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“I told you I don’t know.”
“Well the bastard’s looking right at me is all, and it bugs me,” the smaller man whined.
Joe knew that they had to be lying, because he couldn’t see them. I can’t be dead ’cause I can hear, and I can’t be staring at them, ’cause I can’t see anything, Joe thought as he tried to open his eyes.
“He ain’t fuckin’ dead! He ain’t! He ain’t…”
The panicked scream was brought about by the flicker of his eyelids as Joe had tried to open his already open eyes, and was cut short by a sharp slap delivered across the face of the terrified smaller man, that Joe heard perfectly well.
“Shut the fuck up Eddie, just shut up ya fuckin’ baby.”
Eddie shut up.
“I stabbed him nine fuckin’ times,” Bobby Lawton, the bigger man insisted, “he’s dead already… Okay?”
Nine Fuckin’ Times? Nine fuckin’ Times, you’re dead already, Joe’s mind informed him.
Joe felt nothing during the trip through the kitchen to the car, which was parked at the rear of the house.
“Open the damn trunk,” Bobby said.
They had carried the body out the back door, to where they had parked the Cadillac earlier.
“Open the damn thing…It’s not locked, just lift up the lid,” the voice continued as Joe listened.
I gotta tell them, Joe thought. I ain’t dead, and they can’t put me in the friggin’ trunk.
HEY! Joe tried to scream, I ain’t dead, and you can’t put me in the trunk!…I’m claustrophobic, I can’t stand tight places!
But his lips would not move, and his throat would make no sound. His lungs could pull no air into his body to make his throat work, he realized.
I’ve got to replace the locks, he reasoned, please… Please? He pleaded as the trunk lid slammed home.
Fuck you, he thought, just fuck you, I ain’t dead! He was tired though. Very tired it seemed.
Joe Miller did not feel the bumpy ride to the old Jefferey’s farm, and he did not feel the dirt and stone striking his face as he lay at the bottom of the shallow grave. Joe was dead. Oh yes, he was truly dead indeed.
Eddie pushed dirt quickly into the grave they had hastily dug, when they had reached the farm. Back at the house, after they had put the body in the trunk, Bobby had gone back inside to clean up the mess while Eddie had gone out front to bring the light green Camaro the guy had been driving, out back. The guy had looked awful young to Eddie. He hadn’t looked old enough to be a reporter. Either way he was going into a hole. The second one in as many weeks, but Tetto, Alice as Bobby liked to call her behind her back, paid cash. She gave them the details both times. If her facts were wrong that was her problem. This one was going right into the ground next to the other reporter from last week. And now here he was filling the hole. They had a regular little cemetery going on up here in Jefferey’s back forty.
Probably went to college, his mind told him, college kids get all them easy jobs anyhow. Probably how he got the job.
It had never occurred to either of them to check Joe’s pockets. After all, it was the right house, and there sure as shit hadn’t been anyone else there, Eddie had reasoned.
They had ditched the car off one of the dirt roads, which honeycombed the woods that surrounded Fort Drum. It would take some time for someone to find it, and that would give them some time to dispose of the body, and for things to settle down a bit.
Eddie bent harder into the shovel, spraying dirt down into the hole. Whoever said it was easy to kill someone with a knife, was sure wrong, Eddie thought, the guy’s eyes were still open when we opened the trunk!
Bobbie’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“Hey Ed, I’m gonna go call Alice,” he said, “let her know, you know, so we can pick up the money later on… Finish that and hang tight. I’ll be back.”
“Yeah?” Eddie asked. “Why don’cha call her Alice when you talk to her,” Eddie laughed.
“Ha, ha, funny man,” Bobby said.
“Rip your balls off and feed them to you if you did,” Eddie muttered as he launched another shovel full of dirt down into the hole.
“Maybe I’ll tell her, I dunno, you know,” Eddie was saying, ‘Hey, you know I’d like to bang that Alice Tetto. I really would.’… Maybe I’ll tell her that, smart-ass.” Bobby didn’t wait for a response simply got in the car, slammed the door and drove away.
Eddie watched Bobby back the big car down the narrow dirt road, and out towards the main highway. After a few minutes, he bent back to the task of filling in the grave, wishing he had never said a word about Alice Tetto.
When he was done he spread a couple of handfuls of leaves over the ground; sat down nearby, and smoked while he waited for Bobby to come back.
Frank Morgan had found a run-down-looking gas station at the end of the exit, just two miles outside of Fort Drum. An old rusty Chevy truck, with a newer-looking Holmes 220 wrecking unit mated to the back, was pulled part way into one of the bays with its hood sticking up into the air.
Not good, his mind told him, not too good at all.
It turned out to not be bad at all though, at least not with the wrecker.
“Just lookin’ her over, friend,” the old gray-haired attendant, and as it turned out, owner, said.
“‘Placed the plugs, is all. Just checkin’ the timing to boot.”
The old man had disconnected the timing light and slammed the hood back down with a rusty protest.
“Yuh, she’s jess fine,” he said, “What can I do ya for?”
He had taken Frank back to the car, hooked it from the rear; turned it around, and towed it back to the station. His young son had watched the station while they were gone.
Getting the car back had been no problem. Getting the tire replaced had been. He’d had to send the kid into the city to pick up a replacement, and the kid had seemed to take forever.
Frank supposed he was lucky though as the old man had just gotten the tire place on the phone before they closed, and had persuaded them to stay open until the kid could get there. The old man had said he could call a cab if Frank wanted him to, but Frank decided to wait for the car. After all, he thought, I probably won’t get there any quicker.
It was full dark by the time the kid got back with the new tire, and after 11:00 pm. before the car was off the lift and ready to go.
The old man gave him directions to the house after Frank had paid the $250.99 bill. No wonder the tire place stayed open late, Frank thought.
He pulled the small car out on the road, and two blocks down, made a left on Main, and began looking for the house. When he reached 6620, he pulled the small car into the driveway and parked it in the rear, in the old garage. He once again picked up the laptop case, along with one battered suitcase he had brought with him, and headed for the rear door.
The key would not fit in the lock.
Frank tried the knob, and breathed a sigh of relief when the door swung open into the shadowy kitchen area. He set down the suitcase, and felt along the wall with his hand until he located the old-style push button, and thumbed the switch on.
The kitchen floor was wet, he noticed, and a sharp pine odor lingered in the house, mingled with something else he couldn’t quite place. Must have just finished cleaning, he thought, maybe they didn’t have time to change the locks yet.
He picked up the suitcase once again, and nudged the door shut with the toe of one shoe as he walked off into the house.
Much nicer than I thought it would be, he marveled as he entered the front hallway from the kitchen area. He climbed the staircase to the second floor and tried the first door he came to.
It opened on a large bathroom, and an old claw foot tub stood gleaming in one corner of the room. The room was finished in an off-white color. The narrow wooden slats that comprised the lower wall, were broken about four feet from the floor with a decorative molding, and then finished to the tin ceiling above him with contrasting flowered wallpaper. Frank closed the door and moved further down the hallway.
The next door opened on a huge bedroom, decorated in the same style as the bathroom had been. A large four poster bed dominated the room, flanked on either side with dark oak dressers, which matched the bed. The linen, as promised, looked fresh.
Frank set the suitcase down and placed the briefcase on one of the dressers. He stripped off his jacket and hung it on one of the corner posts. Pulling his cellphone out of his pocket he muttered as he noticed that he had no service. “Figures” he muttered, and then headed down the stairs to see if the phone was working.
He wanted to call Maggie and talk to the kid’s tomorrow. He had called that morning before he had left, and Tim had extracted a promise that he would call as soon as he could. They’re in bed by now, he realized, looking at his watch.
He wasn’t sure if there were two, or three, hours difference, but he knew it was earlier there than here. Either way it didn’t make much difference, he decided, they would probably either be in, or getting ready for, bed, so there wouldn’t be any sense in calling tonight. The phone call could wait until tomorrow morning, he was beat. His body felt it as well, he realized as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
When he had come through the front entrance-way, on his way upstairs, he had turned on the lights as he went, and he could see another set of switches by the front door. Must be a three way switch, he thought.
Over the years, he had replaced a lot of things in the house back in Richmond Beach, and light switches had been among them. You can’t own a house and not learn about maintenance, he thought. After Janey had died he had kept up the house himself, rather than call a repair man every time something wore out, or became broken. His eyes slipped down from the switch-plate, and he noticed a small cardboard box sitting on the floor by the front door, and walked over to investigate.
The box contained a screwdriver, and two new-looking lock-sets. He picked up the screw driver.
Nice multi-bit job, he thought, bet whoever left it is wondering what the hell they did with it.
Frank tried the keys he had been given to the house, and they fit in the new locks that were in the box.
He sighed, “Whoever they sent to clean up and put the locks in, forgot the locks,” he said aloud.
To hell with it, he decided, I’ll swap the locks out myself if I can.
At first he was a little pissed off that they had forgotten the locks. They did do a good job on the cleaning though, he thought, and I would probably only get the guy in trouble if I called Bud and complained.
Frank used the screw driver to remove the old locks, and after examining them, switched the cylinders and replaced them. The holes were new, and the dead bolts were the same brand, so it was an easy job to accomplish.
He put the screwdriver back in the box, along with the old locks and pushed it back into the corner where it had been below the light switch.
Whoever left that screwdriver will probably come back. At least for that, Frank thought. Maybe I’ll give Bud a call tomorrow, I don’t have to mention the locks, I’ll just tell him whoever he sent left some of their tools here.
The thought reminded Frank that he had come down to check the phone. He walked into the living room and picked up the old rotary dial phone to check for a dial tone. A familiar hum told him that it did indeed work. He replaced the receiver on the hook, and, turning the lights out as he went, climbed the stairway to the bedroom. He was beat, and sleep came quickly, even in the unfamiliar surroundings.
He met old man Peters, who lived across the road, the next morning.
Twenty feet away from Junior’s Palace on Beechwood Avenue, the prostitutes were just beginning to show up in force, waiting for the early morning traffic. Willie Lefray sat with his back against the wall of an alley: A needle ready, and a speed-ball cooking over a tin of shoe polish. There was a bum sleeping a little further down the alley. Willie ignored him, watching the mixture in the blackened spoon begin to bubble, melting together.
Two days before he had been sitting in a diner off Fourth avenue south waiting for his world to end. He had paid for the bottomless cup of coffee the place advertised, but ten cups had done nothing to improve his situation. He was still sick. He was still broke, and he needed something to take the edge off the real world, which had been sucking pretty hard at that time. A trucker had come in and ate his dinner just two stools away from Willie, but every time he had worked up the courage to ask him for a couple of bucks the guy had stared him down so hard that he had changed his mind.
He had just made up his mind to leave: Even the waitress was staring hard every time he asked for more coffee, the cops couldn’t be far away, when the trucker had reached back for his wallet, pulled it free and took a ten from inside and dropped it on the counter top.
Willie watched. It was involuntary. One of those things you did when your head was full of sickness and static. Just a place for your ever moving eyes to fall. The wallet was one of those types he had seen bikers and truckers use. A long chain connecting it to the wide leather belt he wore. Hard to steal. Hard to even get a chance at. The man stuffed the wallet back into his pocket. Sloppy, Willie saw, probably because he knew the chain was there and so if it did fall out he would know it. He turned and put his ass nearly in Willie’s face as he got up from the stool. The wallet was right there. Two inches from his nose, bulging from the pocket. The leather where the steel eye slipped through to hold the chain frayed, ripped, barely connected. The man straightened and the wallet slipped free. The chain caught on the pocket, slipped down inside, and the wallet came free, the leather holding the steel eye parted like butter, and the wallet fell into Willie’s lap. He nearly called out to the man before he could shut his mouth. His hand closed over the wallet and slipped it under his tattered windbreaker. The waitress spoke in his ear a second later.
“Listen… Buy something else of get the fuck out. You hear me? Otherwise, my boss,” she turned and waved one fat hand at the serve through window, “Says to call the cops.”
Willie stared at her in disbelief. He was sure that everyone in the diner had seen the wallet fall into his lap. He swallowed. “Yeah… Okay… I’m leaving,” he said with his croaky voice. Sometimes, getting high, he didn’t speak for weeks. It just wasn’t necessary. When he did he would find his voice rusty, his throat croaking out words like a frog. Sometimes he was right on the edge of not even being able to understand the words. Like they had suddenly become some foreign language. He cleared his throat, picked up the cup of cold coffee and drained it. “Going,” he said.
He got up from the stool, kept one hand in his pocket holding the wallet under the windbreaker and walked out the front door.
“Christ, don’t say nothin’ bad about ’em while they’re around,” Robert Peters said.
“Why’s that?” Frank asked as he chuckled.
Frank was sitting on Peters’ front porch which overlooked the large house he had rented across the road; leaned back in a cane backed chair with a cold bottle of beer in his hand at 9:15 in the morning.
Frank had met Peters that morning as he had exited the house. The old man had been peering through the dirty windows of the garage at the small red car inside. He’d seemed pretty embarrassed at getting caught, and had told Frank that he was just, “Checkin’ on the house,” as he usually did.
“Didn’t ‘spect to see no one ’round here! I wasn’t told that the old place had been sold.”
The old man was of course fishing, and Frank knew it. Frank figured that the old guy probably saw himself as the unofficial caretaker of the place, and he had seemed to be harmless, so Frank had told him he was only renting the place for a couple of weeks.
“S’spected somethin’ was up,” Peters said, “There’s been one hell of a lot going on over here the last couple of weeks. I been sort’a watching the place for the last couple years, you know, so the kids don’t break into it and ruin it… …When’d ya get in?”
“Yesterday… Well, last night, I guess,” Frank replied, “drove down from the airport in Syracuse.”
Peters nodded. “Yep, thought I saw some lights on over here last night. Thought maybe it was the same crowd twas here just after dark…Raised a hell of a ruckus, and nearly scared the bejesus out’a me. Thought somebody was gittin’ killed or something.”
Frank had eyed the old man.
“Well I think I can set your mind to ease on that. When I got in last night I noticed that somebody from the agency had been here, cleaning the place up. In fact, the kitchen floor was still wet,” he said.
“Yep.” Peters said, “you got that right, seen him my-own-self. Joe, I think his name is. Young kid with blonde hair. But, I ain’t talking ’bout him. There was a couple other guys’ here too. They were here before he was. The kid left with ’em too. Sounded like they had themselves a little fight first though. Say, it’s damn hot already, what’s say we go kick back on my porch a bit? I got some cold ones in the General?”
The old man had caught the suspicious reporter in him, so here he sat at 9:15 AM with a cold beer in his hand, wondering what the old guy had actually seen.
The beer wasn’t bad, despite the early hour. He’d expected some off brand or something, the Coors was a nice surprise. Social Security, which was what the old man said he lived on, must pay a lot better than it used to, Frank thought.
“Really,” Peters was saying, with a big grin on his face, “they’ll get ya fer it. They really will.”
He continued. “I ‘member this one time when I said something to Old Jay.” Old Jay was Peter’s mangy looking orange and white cat. “He’s an uppity old cuss, thinks his shit don’t stink, ya know?”
Frank couldn’t help but laugh.
“No shit,” Peters bellowed over the top of the laughter.
“Son-of-a-whore shit in my shoe.”
That was it for Frank, and he let the laughter roll out of his belly unchecked.
“Well fuck you,” Peters said, a stern look on his face. “I’m just trying to tell ya, that animals’ kin understand, when ya say somethin’ bad about ’em. That bastard shit right in my shoe. If I’d a caught him, he’d a been a sorry little bastard too.”
Frank just laughed and shook his head. What could you say to a man who thinks his cat can understand him?
Peters chuckled a little, right along with him.
“Course…There was this dawg, I once owned. I swear to God that dawg not only knew what I was saying, but worse than that, the little son-of-a-whore knew what I was thinking too. Not always, but most the time mind ya.”
Peters raved about the dog for a few more minutes, as Frank got the laughter under control, and did his best to look serious.
He felt Peters was probably a pretty good guy after all, and was still waiting for the old man to get around to the subject that had begun across the road. Whatever the old man had witnessed was probably worth hearing, Frank thought.
Peters got to it eventually, but you wouldn’t have known that anything had clicked in Franks mind by the look on his face. Frank had been a reporter for too long to let his face betray what his mind suspected.
The old man had been sitting out on his front porch with a can of Old Milwaukee last evening, when the incident across the street had occurred.
Frank was on his second beer, and the Coors had been replaced with Old Milwaukee. Turns out the Coors had been brought over by the kid Peters called Joe, the previous week, when the work on the old house had been going on.
Peters had liked the kid, so he said, and the kid had taken to dropping by every night and sitting on the wide front porch with the old man.
They, “Watched traffic mostly,” Peters said, “that kid didn’t have no family, and he wasn’t raised up here, so I guess he didn’t have many friends to hang around with. Told me he come up from Florida lookin’ for work and lucked out. Guess he decided to stay. That’s why it struck me kind ‘a funny that he didn’t drop over last night. Course it was full dark when him and the others left, and I didn’t have the porch light on, so maybe he figured I twasn’t to home.”
“Ain’t a whole hell-of-a-lot to look at here ya know,” Peters continued. He seemed to feel the need to defend himself for watching the old house across the street, and Frank nodded his head in agreement as if to say, “Yes indeed, it looks as though it could be pretty boring, and no, I wouldn’t consider that being nosy.” The nod seemed to put the old man at ease, and he continued his narrative.
“Well anyhow, I was just kicking back with a beer, when I saw Joe’s car come down the street an pull in the driveway over there,” he flapped his hand towards the large brick house across the street. “Figured that somethin’ must a happened to that old piece a shit van he usually drives. He didn’t wave, so I just figured he probably didn’t see me sittin’ over here. Never saw the other car till later, but it must have already been there, parked around back, kind ‘a sneaky like, ya know?”
Frank nodded his head as if he did.
“Well anyway, he gits the door open, and just sort’a stood there lookin’ in as if he ‘spected somethin’ to jump out and bite ‘im. Looked fer a second as though he might just jump back in that car of his, and hit the road instead a doing whatever it was he needed to do there. But he didn’t, he went on in, but I didn’t see him come back out. I went in the house a few minutes later to git me a fresh one, and feed Old Jay, and I know his car was a sittin’ there when I looked out about an hour later, but after I got up from my nap about of an hour after that, it was gone. I figured he was gone, so I just sat down on the porch and watched the cars go by fer awhile. Just when I got my old ass back inside to get me another beer, is when the hollering started.” Peters took a long sip from his beer, before he continued.
“I figured that someone else had showed up over there. Maybe that cheap prick Joe works for, but when I got my beer and went back out, twasn’t nobody there. I sat there for another ten minutes or so, when all of a sudden Joe’s car come flying out the driveway, along with a big car of some kind. That was strange too, as I ain’t never saw Joe drive that car that-a-way. He liked it too much, and it wasn’t set up the way some of these kids set their cars up, it was just sort’a regular, ya know?” he eyed Frank speculatively, and Frank nodded for him to go on.
“Anyway, that’s it. They went a tearin’ off up the road, and then about a half hour later you showed up and pulled around the back. I was thinking ’bout headin’ over there, but I ain’t one to stick my nose in too far, ya know? I did call up Alan, down the town hall though. Course, that fat piece a shit never did come by. Told me to stop being so damn nosy, and he’d call Bud up the city tomorrow to see what was going on.”
“So, I just said to hell with it. That’s when I come back out and saw you pull in. Besides,” Peters continued, “that fat bastard ain’t worth the time a day. I asked Old Jay and he feels the same as I do about it.” Peters grinned.
The whole tale didn’t sit well with Frank, and it jogged his memory about his arrival the night before. He had been tired and the other smell he had detected along with the pine odor had slipped by his tired mind. He had been unable to place it and so had ignored it. Peter’s story though had served to place it for him.
He’d had a friend, back in college, that had worked at his father’s meat packing plant on Houston’s west side, and Frank had taken the friend up on the offer of part-time work at the plant one summer. He had never been able to stand the smell in the plant though. Strong pine disinfectant, and an under-smell of coppery-blood. That was what the other smell in the house had reminded him of last night, he realized, a slaughter house.
When he’d awoke this morning the smell had been gone, but he was certain it had been there last night.
Frank resolved to check out the house closely later on.
“…doin’?” he heard peters say.
“Huh?” Frank asked.
“I said, how’s that beer doin’?” Peters asked again, “I’m fixin’ to get myself another. Ya want one?”
“Tell you what,” Frank replied, “I’ll take a rain check for later on, if you don’t mind. I’ve got to make a couple of phone calls, and I also have a couple of errands to run. It should be my turn to buy anyway, isn’t it?”
Peters grinned. “Far be it from me to turn down an offer like that’un, and it maybe just might be. I’ll be kickin’ around later on. Com’on over when ya git back, and I’ll help ya drink a couple fer sure.”
Frank said he would and headed back across the road towards the imposing old house.
Once he had reached the door; unlocked it, and stepped inside; he let the breath he hadn’t known he was holding escape in a low groan.
The old man’s story, along with his memory of the odor he had smelled the previous evening, had shaken him. He knew it was possible to stick your nose too deeply into a story. He had seen several young, eager kids lose their jobs over stepping on the wrong toes. He had also known a couple of older reporters who had as well, and it also wasn’t unheard of for a reporter on the tail of a possibly damaging story to just disappear. Maybe it was unlikely, but not unheard of.
Like Jimmy maybe? His mind asked.
He pushed the thought quickly away, and shifted his attention back to the house, and the odor he had detected last night.
Had something happened here last night? He wondered. Had someone grown concerned over what they suspected Frank might know, and wanted him removed? Was it strictly something to do with the kid, or did the kid just happen to be there at the wrong time?
Frank suddenly realized that if the tire hadn’t blown on the rental car that he would have been here. He would have been here for sure, he told himself, and probably a lot earlier than the kid had been. Had someone, or a couple of someone’s, been waiting for him? The uncertainties bothered him a great deal. He walked back into the kitchen area where he had entered the house the evening before.
The kitchen still smelled faintly of pine-cleaner, but this time the under odor of blood was not present. He scanned the kitchen area with his eyes, until they fell upon a small white object by the door that led back into the front entrance way.
Frank walked over and bent down next to the small, white square of cloth that lay in the corner by the doorway, and picked it up. His eyes were drawn to a tiny rust colored stain on the cloth.
Blood! His mind told him.
The cloth appeared to have been torn from a shirt, and one small edge of a broken button was still sewn to the tiny scrap of cloth. He made a mental note to ask Peters what the kid had been wearing the night before when he had saw him, but he knew it probably belonged to the kid’s shirt. Frank walked back into the entrance way, to retrieve the screwdriver he had replaced in the cardboard box. Looks like no one will be coming back for this after all, he thought, as he carried it back with him to the kitchen.
Using the screwdriver as a crude pry bar, Frank removed the molding that finished the kitchen wall to the floor. The usual dust and plaster that he had expected to see, was congealed with the dark red blood, which he had also expected to see. Frank replaced the strip of wood using the handle of the screwdriver as a hammer.
It was as he thought. Peters had been more correct than he knew, when he had said it had sounded as though someone was being killed. What did it mean, he wondered, and why hadn’t the sheriff of the local community come down when Peters had called him? Did he think Peters was just an old crack pot? Or was it something else?
Frank tossed the screwdriver back in the box as he passed it on the way to the living area. He decided to call the sheriff himself and find out. Obviously someone had been at least seriously injured… killed, Franks mind whispered, and someone should be looking into it.
Frank picked up the phone to call information, but set it back down after only a few seconds. It would be of no use to him, it was dead.
He walked back through the kitchen, left the house; locked the door behind him; and opening the garage door, he climbed into the small red car and keyed the ignition… Nothing happened.
Frank, who was starting to feel a little nervous, went around to the front of the car, lifted the hood, and peered down into the engine compartment.
The battery cables were both cut and it looked like whoever had done the job had thought a little overkill was in order, as they had also removed all the wires running into the small greasy distributor cap. Frank looked around the small garage, but the wires were nowhere in sight.
“Fuck me,” he muttered, as he removed the prop rod and let the hood fall back down with a loud clang. He kicked the front tire of the small car viciously as he walked past it on his way towards the house.
“Bastards,” he said aloud.
Frank was sure now, that he had gotten himself into something deep this time. He could no longer pretend about that at all. His mind continued to run through the growing list of suspicions he had, as he walked around the side of the house searching for the phone line.
As it turned out the phone line came in through the back of the house. It was cut, and as with the car, whoever had done it had thought maybe a little more overkill was in order. They had cut an additional ten feet or so of it, and had apparently taken it with them when they had left.
The remainder terminated about three inches above Frank’s head. Angry, but also a little shaken, Frank turned to start across the road to see if Peters had a phone. He had just begun to turn, when a horn blared on the highway.
Frank turned just in time to see the old man leave the mouth of his dirt driveway, and wave as his old Plymouth farted blue smoke and drove away.
Peters waving hand had followed the honk, and Frank, not really thinking all that clearly, had raised his own hand and waved good-by as the car disappeared down the road.
Frank mentally kicked himself, as he gazed down the now empty stretch of highway.
“Shit!” he muttered. “Guess I’m going to do a little walking.”
Frank closed up the garage and headed down the road. Two miles down he turned right, and headed towards the service station he had stopped at the previous night. When he arrived hopefully he would be able to get the old guy to come back and fix the car.
If he’s there, he thought. The way things are going today he probably won’t be.
When Frank arrived at the gas station, the old man walked out to greet him.
“Howdy,” Bill Freeman queried, “blow out another tire?”
“No… Looks as though some kids might have had themselves some fun with my car though,” he lied, “they ripped out the distributor wiring and cut the battery cables on me.”
“That so?” Bill questioned, “Seems as though them city kids is always up to something, and it ain’t the first time it’s happened.”
Frank, who knew it hadn’t been any City kids, nodded his head in agreement. He climbed into the wrecker beside Bill, and rode along as bill retrieved the red Toyota and towed it back to the garage for the second time in as many days.
It only took an hour for Bill to replace the wiring and cables, and after Frank paid him, he had stopped at a small store he had passed on the way to pick up something to eat, and a case of beer he hoped would pry a little more out of Peters.
While he had been standing in the garage waiting on Freeman to fix the car, he had begun to wonder if he were overreacting. He had come close more than once to asking Freeman if he could use his phone to call the Sheriff. In the end he decided against it. Best to wait. Talk to Peters again and see what he could get out of him. If it turned out someone really had been injured or even died in the house the night before, he could call the Sheriff then.
When Frank got back to the old house he pulled the car back into the garage, and this time he locked it before he went back into the house.
He popped the top on a fresh brew, and drank it as he built two monstrous sandwiches; grabbed another cold beer, and walked into the living area to sit down.
The dining area had a long oak table, he had noticed, but Frank had always taken his meals into the living room at home, or out on the rear deck, and old habits were hard to break.
He had started this particular habit after Janey had died. The kids were usually in bed or at Maggie’s for the night, by the time he ate, and the television took the edge off the loneliness he had felt trying to eat in the kitchen.
When he finished he headed back towards the kitchen to get another beer. He had just entered the hallway when his eyes told him that something was wrong. It took a few seconds of looking around the empty hallway, before he realized what it was. The box that he had put the old locks back into was gone.
He remembered tossing the screwdriver back into it earlier, and it had been right by the front door. He had replaced it there himself last night, after he had installed the locks, and it had still been there just a short while ago when he had retrieved the screwdriver to pry the molding loose in the kitchen.
Frank walked warily to the front door and opened it. It was not locked, and he was sure he had locked it.
Someone, he realized, had been in the house while he was gone.
Might still be, his mind told him.
Frank closed the door and re-locked it. He quietly set the empty beer can down on the floor by the door, and began searching the house.
When he had searched all the rooms, except the bedroom he was now entering, he had begun to wonder if his imagination was working overtime. The house seemed empty. Frank looked around the room silently and cautiously, noticing that the laptop bag that he had placed on the dresser was still there.
He looked under the bed.
Nothing, he saw, and getting up returned to the dresser. He was mentally chiding himself as he opened the laptop bag, but stopped as the bag popped open, to reveal only an empty satin lining.
“Shit,” he muttered, “all the damn notes are gone along with the laptop.”
The realization frightened him, as the missing notes confirmed all the suspicions he had. No one would want them, unless they were specifically connected to the investigation he was conducting. He knew now that the killer, or killers, had been after him all along.
Frank let the case fall shut, not bothering to fully close or lock it, and went back down to the kitchen with the suitcase he had picked up in the bedroom.
He now knew that he was in real danger. If the killer had tried once, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that he or they would know by now they had gotten the wrong person. When they did figure it out they would be back, he knew, and Frank had no intention of being there when they did. He also had no intention of letting them get away if they did come back, and he could catch them.
I wonder if old man Peters really is as salty as he seems to be? Frank thought. His place would be a good place to sit and wait for them to come back, and on the heels of that thought came another. I wonder if he has a gun, or an old deer rifle? Probably, Frank thought. Hadn’t he said earlier that he used to do some hunting when he was younger?
Frank was pretty sure he had mentioned hunting when he had been rambling on about the old dog he had once owned.
Either way it would be a lot safer there than here, he told himself.
With his mind made up, Frank stuffed the beer and the groceries back into the bag and walked out the back door. He decided to leave the small car in the locked garage, to make it appear as though he was still in the house.
Frank walked behind the house, peered around cautiously, and entered the woods behind it, walking a long curving route around the old place until he found the highway once again.
As he crossed the road and entered the woods on the other side to cover himself as he moved towards old man Peters’ house, he realized how stupid he would look to someone if they had seen him walking through the woods with a grocery bag. He remembered then that he had left the suitcase sitting on the kitchen floor.
I guess it’ll be staying there for a while, he thought, as he tramped deeper into the woods.
He came out in back of Peters’ house, and quickly walked the ten yards from the tree line to the house. The car was still gone, he saw, as he entered the unlocked rear door. After putting the sack in the refrigerator, he moved to the living room.
He sat in the old man’s recliner, drinking a beer as he stared out the window at the house across the road and opened a fresh pack of cigarettes. He smoked, as he waited for Peters to return.
The two men faced each other across the playing board. The younger man thought for a second, and then moved a nearby red checker towards the other side of the board in a series of jumps; set it down, and said, “King me.”
The older man obliged, and then with his chin in his hand sat studying the board.
He had only two black checkers left, neither of which were crowned. He smiled and moved one forward a space. The young man reciprocated by jumping both of the remaining pieces, and removing them from the board.
“Ain’t often I kin say I beat the Lord,” he said, and smiled at the older man.
The older man smiled back at him. “Guess you’re just too good for me”, he said. ”Jeremiah…I was wondering if you would like to take a little walk with me. I have a couple of things on my mind I wanted to talk to you about, do you mind?”
“Mind? Heck no I don’t. I was gittin’ a bit itchy about thing’s myself,” Jeremiah replied.
They had both been talking during the checkers game, and Jeremiah had been waiting for an opportunity to ask about how things were going. But how did you ask God what he’s been up to? He wondered.
“You just ask,” the kindly older man said.
Jeremiah was sure that he hadn’t spoken the question out loud, but it wasn’t the first time the man had seemed to read his thoughts, and he had actually become accustomed to it.
Jeremiah blinked his eyes, and when he opened them, he found himself standing in a small stand of woods with a stiff, though cool, wind blowing long dead leaves across his shoes.
He did not feel inclined to question it. It had happened before. One minute they would be in one place discussing something, and the next instant they would be somewhere else. He was used to it.
The older man stood beside him staring at a freshly turned rectangular patch of ground before him, which had been swept clean by the wind.
“His blood cries out to me,” he said.
Jeremiah could somehow see through the dirt, and down into the earth where a young man lay encased in the soil.
“One of many,” the older man said, “Look,” his finger pointed at the ground.
They were in a small alleyway in what looked to Jeremiah to be a very bad section of a large city.
A young girl struggled desperately, as two men ripped at her clothes.
Tears leaked from the older man’s eyes, and Jeremiah could feel his own tears falling onto his cheeks. He tried to move but couldn’t.
“Don’t,” the older man cautioned. “Look!”
Jeremiah was standing at the base of an old wooden cross, looking up into the eyes of the man who hung there.
“It has never changed, Jeremiah,” the man on the cross said, “It will never change until I force it to change.”
The man on the cross was crying as well, Jeremiah saw.
“I love them so much, but it has never changed.”
Jeremiah’s eyes were suddenly assaulted with images that seemed to go on forever. Horrible human atrocities of every imaginable kind, and the older man held him as he sobbed.
“Do I have to see so much? Do I have to see it?” Jeremiah asked.
As quickly as the images had come, they disappeared, and they were back at the table, with the checker board spread out before them. The older man held Jeremiah’s hand in his own.
“I felt the question in your heart,” the older man said. “I did not want to hurt you, but I want you to know that I have no choice.”
Jeremiah nodded his head. He knew that he never would have been able to look at some of the things the man had shown him.
“When?” Jeremiah asked.
“Tomorrow,” the older man answered. “Will you be able?”
Jeremiah thought for a second. Not about the answer, but the things he had seen.
“Yes, Lord,” he answered, “I’ll be as ready as I kin be anyway.”
“I knew you would,” the older man said, “and I truly wish it could be different.” He seemed to think for a second, and then changed the subject.
“Have you picked a place to settle?” he asked.
“I saw a right nice place just today,” Jeremiah replied, “when we was looking over Oklahoma.”
The older man smiled. “I had hoped so, Jeremiah, I think Maggie will like it just fine too. I cannot wait to meet her in person.”
“I ‘spect she will,” Jeremiah answered, “and I know she’s lookin’ forward to it. We talked about it the other night.”
“So you did, so you did,” the older man agreed. “Hey?” he questioned, and waited for Jeremiah’s eyes to turn to him. “How about another game? And try to go a little easier on me this time, Okay?”
Jeremiah grinned as he began to set up the checkers. “Best three out’a five?” he asked.
The older man nodded his head. “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he agreed, as he began to set up his side of the board.
America The Dead: #iTunes #horror #dead Dell Sweet books… https://books.apple.com/us/author/dell-sweet/id722382569