The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 5

(The adventure continues in the swamp as Leo deals with losing his way.)

A shot of adrenaline cleared his head, and quickly.  He back tracked on his last few paces, and then a few more, before giving up.  The reeds, growing in thick clumps, left too many gaps to clearly make out the way.  The ground was too sloppy to make out footprints.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Leo grumbled as he pawed through his pocket for his cell.  Charles is going to rub this one in, he thought as the screen lit up.

Lost the trail.  Will try to back track,’ he thumbed into the cell.  He waited, hoping Charles would respond quickly.  The message stalled, not going through.  A glance at the signal strength showed a depressing no signal indicator.

“This is bad,” Leo muttered to himself.  He tried holding the phone up high enough to get even a single bar, enough to get the message out, but to no effect.

There were only two choices: keep moving or stop and wait.  Waiting was usually the best approach.  His brother had the GPS and knew the geography.  It would only make sense he would come looking and be better equipped for the search.

Leo wanted to keep moving.  It was a gut feeling that drove him, despite the lack of good sense.  It occurred to him that the air felt heavy, almost suffocating.  His mind wandered to obscure ideas, maybe even facts, about swamp gases and what mild oxygen deprivation could do.  Leo shook his head and got moving.

It made sense that the trails would all be interconnected, Leo reasoned, so finding any trail would ultimately lead to the one he lost.  And odds were good that the original trail would be nearest.  The shotgun stayed in a ready carry, just the same.

The mist got thicker, somehow, making movement trickier and the hand light nearly useless.  Every step was taken with care not to slip or step into soggy ground.  It was like being blind.  Twenty minutes later, Leo checked his phone to find his text message still hanging, unsent.

“Well, in for a penny,” he muttered to himself as he pocketed the cell and started moving again.

Ten steps later he found himself on a trail.  It was hard to make it out, but the gap in the reeds was unmistakable and the ground too firm to be open swampland.  Score one for gut feelings, he thought, moving in the direction that felt right.  It was only a matter of time, and not losing the trail.

A rare break in the clouds flooded the scene with light and, instinctively, Leo took in the surroundings.  The mist limited the light, but for the first time in nearly an hour, he could make out the trail ahead of him for half a dozen yards or so.  The rest was open swamp.  The encouraging detail was a distant house, the Gibson place, off to his right, barely visible between the reeds.  This instantly gave him bearings.  The line from the house to his position was at a right angle to the trail, and the house was on the right side, making his direction north.  The clean geometry in his head, Leo knew, was not as clean in reality, but better than a moment earlier.  The gap in the clouds closed, and the light faded out.

North he continued, hoping to find a way west, presumably back to Charles.  The house had seemed close, though a distance was hard to factor out.  Charles had to be close, and had to be west of him.  The slow, blind man’s walk along the trail continued.

A branch to the left came up some thirty yards later, and Leo nearly laughed out loud.  The trail might have turned or twisted, making this a bad move, but it was more likely it would bring him west.  He moved along, carefully and slowly through the soup of mist and unsteady ground.  Some twenty yards later, he thought he heard something ahead.  It was muffled, the direction difficult to pin point, and sounded like something moving in the reeds.  There had not been puff of wind since they left the truck, so the sound could only be something or someone up ahead.

The easy math suggested it was Charles.  Bears and coyotes were not usually big swamp dwellers, and whatever made the sound was at least that big.

Step at a time, Leo thought.  He moved with more care to be silent, as much for stealth as to hear any more sounds ahead.  Staying on the trail was proving easier, with practice, and Leo was able to focus on staying low and quiet.  He heard the sound again, certain it was something moving in the reeds and directly ahead.  Each step was made with great care, and growing angst.

The clouds broke open, just for a moment, again, revealing a crouching figure ahead of him.  The details were still blurred, but it could only be Charles.  Leo took a short step forward, about to announce his return, when a hand clapped over his mouth and an arm about his waist dragging him back into the reeds.  The clouds closed and darkness smothered the swamp.

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 4

(Mystery adventure.  The brothers continue their search in the face of growing dangers)

Two hours later, they found relatively solid ground again.  Half crawling and half swimming through the muck and slop of the swamp proved a test of endurance.  They felt as though every insect in the area had descended upon them with fury.  The smell was almost beyond suffering.  On several occasions, one or other needed help to avoid getting trapped in the soupy ground that threatened to drag them under; and they both knew a bog could make them disappear for good.  Inky darkness, broken up only by rare moments of moonlight through the clouds, made everything just a little bit worse.  Neither of them thought about gold.  It was all a matter for surviving to reach firmer ground.

They agreed to take a more prolonged halt.

Leo sipped at his canteen, trying to ignore the worse of the mosquitoes.  “I hope you are ready for some constructive criticism,” he said, “because I am going to give it to you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Charles said, already getting his GPS out for another look.

Leo capped his canteen and tried his best to stretch his tired joints.  He had not stood up straight for nearly two hours.  “Let me be entirely reasonable, here,” he began.  “There is no way we can go back this way.  A little bit of body surfing through some shit is one thing, and two hours is another.  We are not athletes.  Point two: there is no way we can haul fifty pounds, let alone a hundred, of anything through here.  Not feasible.  You getting this?”

Charles was distracted with the GPS, not overly concerned with his brother’s gripes.  He knew, though, that keeping Leo’s head in the game mattered.

“Leo,” Charles said, after fully processing both the GPS information and Leo’s words, “this will all work.  This stretch of swamp was worse than I expected, point taken.  It is not the end of the world.  Yes, it is going to be tough, so we just have to work through it.”

“Work through it?” Leo interrupted.  “What’s to work through?  Did you even listen to me?  I’ve lost a quart of blood to mosquitoes and feel like it’s been two hours of wind sprints.  And if you didn’t notice, we both had some close calls back there.  You think adding fifty pounds of gold to that is something we just work through?”

“All we need to do is get some flotation devices,” Charles said, finally taking some liquids for himself.  “Something in foam would be safer than an inflatable, too many pointy branches out here.  It doesn’t matter.  This is only path we have to get us through without being seen, so it has to work.  Anyway, the good news is that we are almost exactly on course.  It’s only about twenty minutes to where we can start looking.”

Leo was slightly calmed.  The idea of bring floats to help them through the swamp had not occurred to him, and the proximity to their goal refocused him.

“Fair enough,” Leo said.  “I am taking another ten minutes of down time, though.”

“No problem,” Charles agreed.  “We have to pace ourselves.  There is more to do.”

“You know,” Leo said, swatting at the latest swarm of insects, “all I want to do is drain this fucking place and pave it.  The bugs are killing me.”

Once rested, they continued toward their goal.  The ground continued to firm up until it was just wet and muddy.  The reeds grew higher than their heads as they approached the search area.  Charles consulted the GPS several times before calling a quick halt.

“This is it,” Charles said, pulling two, odd lights from his pack.  They looked like square cell phone with straps on the back.  “The Gibson house is that way.  It’s just close enough that we would see it, except for the reeds, but we will be getting closer as we search.  That means they could see us, too.  So watch out for breaks in the cover, especially if the clouds thin out; there’s a lot of moonlight coming through.  These lights are red and dim, but enough to see with.  Strap it to your palm, like this.  Just use it in short bursts.  No need to attract attention if anyone happens to look this way.”

“And we are looking for open areas, maybe with recent growth, right?” Leo asked, testing his light.

“That, or anything unusual,” Charles said.  “Watch out for trails, especially as we get closer to the house.  The Gibsons like their skidoos and quads.  If we are lucky, they are using the same paths from years before.  Whatever the case, keep an eye out for anything.  Stay behind me.  I will focus on the right side of our path.  You watch left.  All good?”

“Got it.”

“We have a few hours to do this, so we don’t have to rush,” Charles said.  “It would be a costly miss.”

They set out slowly, moving along in as close to a zigzag pattern as they could.  Charles kept their GPS checks to a minimum, though even he admitted there was some guess work involved.  It was not long before they came across the first trail.  It was also that same time they noticed a thin mist was beginning to form, catching wisps of it with their dull, red lights.

“This is good,” Charles whispered excitedly, going straight to his GPS.  “This is really good.”

“What’s good?” Leo asked.  “The trail or the mist?”

“Both,” Charles said.  “The mist will mean added cover, especially if it thickens up.  This trail is pretty far from the house, and it doesn’t look like it is used much.  I need to mark this point before we split up.”

“Whoa now,” Leo exclaimed.  “When was splitting up ever part of the plan?  I don’t have a GPS to work with.  How the hell do I find my way around with you elsewhere?”

“Listen, chickenshit,” Charles chided, “if it makes you feel all safe and snug, you can hang onto the GPS.  I’m not suggesting you go trailblazing blindly into the Gibson’s back yard.  We each follow this path in a different direction and then return.”

“The trail could be awfully long.  What about that?”

Charles sighed, repacking the GPS.  “Simple.  You follow the path until it ends, starts splitting up too much to follow, or brings you out into the open.  If you check one of those boxes you can scamper back to your stronger, braver brother for safety.”

“You’re such an asshole, sometimes,” Leo said.

“Soon to be a sometimes wealthy asshole,” Charles shot back.  “Just stay on the trail.  When you head back, text me; that way I know you’re coming.  You keep an eye on your phone, too.”

There was not much to disagree with, to Leo’s chagrin; still, he had no love for the plan.  Splitting up had not even been mentioned when they were planning.  Charles set off in what he thought was a northward direction, leaving the other way to Leo.

Leo could feel his fatigue nibbling at his energy reserve.  It was more than just the physical trial of the swamp or late hour; it was that plus the long week of short, irregular sleep and nearly constant work.  The trail was, as Charles had suggested, not recently used.  The mist continued to rise, steadily thickening and swirling, moving higher and higher, until it was nearly at Leo’s chin.  He was not far before he noticed the insects had thinned out in the cool, damp air.

“When the hell did it get so misty in the dead of night?” he half whispered to himself.

The hand light was growing less effective, doing little more than turn the mist into a creepy, red blur.  The trail felt like it was growing closer, tighter; and Leo found it impossible to notice anything unusual.  His path twisted and turned more times than he could count.  The experience felt vaguely surreal and dreamlike, in a spooky way.  It was at that point he noticed two things: he had moved the shotgun to a ready carry; and he had lost the trail.

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 3

(More mystery adventure fun.  Nothing weird.)

A day of preparation got Leo feeling motivated.  The Wiltman case, he decided, would stay warm for a day or two.  The chase for stolen gold was intoxicating, and a strange feeling for Leo.  He kept feeling it was a moth to the flame scenario; and unlike the moth, he felt he should know better.

Charles simply ploughed ahead.  He had been working on this as a side project for some time.  Leo’s sudden interest and involvement was unexpected but welcome.  It was all about execution, moving forward.

The evening drive to the Gillbury Swamp was an uncharacteristically talkative time for the brothers.  A drive was usually quiet time.

“Is the twelve gauge all you are packing?” Charles asked his brother after they hit the main road out of town.  The old Cooey, double barrel had been in the family for two generations, although it had fallen into disuse for many years.

“Yep,” Leo said, casually watching for traffic.  “It’s also a great prop for our cover.  How about you?  Just the pump?”

Charles laughed.  The pump action twelve gauge was a more recent addition; a remnant of Charles’ passionate days of duck hunting.  It, too, saw little use in recent years.  “Just the pump?” Charles chuckled, jovially.  “Let me tell you, brother, that is a fine quality fire arm.  No ‘just’ about it.  But seeing how you asked: no, it’s not all I’m packing.”

Leo’s brow furrowed slightly, thinking about what Charles might have brought along.  They owned very few guns, and rarely had need of them.  “You brought the thirty cal?  Really?”

“What else?” Charles said more seriously, opening his jacket to reveal the holstered pistol.  It was an old, slide action peashooter their grandfather had acquired during the war.  It was inaccurate past twenty feet, only had a six round magazine and was a bitch to clean.  Still, it was very compact and never jammed or misfired.  Their grandfather claimed it was lucky.  As youngsters, Charles and Leo referred to it as the James Bond gun.

“Was it necessary?” Leo asked.

“Our hands will need to be free,” Charles explained, “so if the Gibsons jump us, I need a quick draw.  Swinging a shotgun around is not terribly practical.  And I’m not sure we could win a fair fight with them.”

“Mmmm,” Leo pondered out loud.  “I really don’t think it will come to that.”

“Me either,” Charles muttered, “but better to have it and not need it.”

“Fair enough,” Leo agreed.

They drove along the back ways until they were technically out of Gillbury.  They eventually found the spot they wanted and pulled in.  It was an ancient property entrance, long fallen into decrepitude.  It led into a fair dense clump of trees and brush that was too far from town to be casually used for drinking parties or such.  The truck was invisible from the road.

Then they waited for the light to completely fail.  Darkness would cover their approach to the swamp.

They had a two kilometre hike along a hedgerow, followed by another two kilometre tromp through the swamp; and this was assuming they found what they were after, right away.  Physically, the brothers were in good shape, yet they were aware that moving through a swamp in the dark might push them.  Neither felt any lack of confidence as they waited for darkness to fall.

“How much do you think we can haul out in one go?” Leo asked, more for something to do than for pure interest.

“Depends mostly on what we find,” Charles said, casually.  He had almost every angle of the logistics covered, and it showed.  “If it is bulky stuff, like decorative pieces, then not much.  Tough to conceal that, even slightly.  If we get compact bits like jewellery or coins, then I think we can manage forty or fifty pounds each, at least.  If we hit the mother load and go back with minimal gear, then we could push that to a hundred each.”

“A hundred pounds of gold,” Leo mused out loud.  They had not discussed what would be done with the proceeds if they were successful.  Leo’s mind went over their options, knowing his brother may have covered that base, too.  “How would we move even a hundred pounds?”

“Tiny increments,” Charles said, right on it.  “I have a few options that are likely to keep a trickle of money flowing for, oh, the rest of our lives.”

“Really?” Leo asked, wondering what Charles had in mind.

“Oh, yeah,” Charles went on without much prompting, “there is no point, otherwise.  I suspect it will mean a big haircut on the raw value, but whatever.  I feel pretty comfortable we can nail down thirty to forty percent of market price.  Remember Bo?”

“Bo?  Cousin Bo?”

“Yes, our distant cousin Bo,” Charles laughed at that.  “He is a jewellery maker, did you know?  Brick and mortar set up in Toronto.  He’s not exactly poor, but he could be doing better.  If we fed him gold at thirty to forty percent of his cost, partly as incentive and partly as shut up money, he might just go for it.  Besides, distant or not, he is family.  If we keep supplying him, long term, he is even less likely to say anything.”

“Clever plan,” Leo agreed.  “Would it be enough?  I mean, how much could Bo take on and still not attract attention?”

“Not tons, but he would be our slow, steady mover.  Outside of that, we can pop into enough pawn shops with bits and pieces to add to that.  It’s not a lottery win, and there are some risks, but it would add up.  I was thinking we might never pay for gas, or meals, or office supplies again.  Stuff that we could cover up more easily.”

“Imagine paying bribes for free,” Leo pondered aloud.  “Shit, I hope this pans out.”

Charles smiled.  “Only one way to find out,” he said, taking a good look outside of the truck.  “And I think it is about dark enough to get going.”

They loaded up and disembarked.  Charles led the way, carefully crossing the dirt road and keeping low until they reached the hedge.  The slim remains of sunlight helped cast a shadow along the hedge, making them practically invisible for any distance.  Both of them were used to moving around in the dark, precarious footing and all, and moderated their pace to avoid blowing an ankle or twisting a knee.  The entire trip through the field passed without incident.  They saw no one.

The field ended at a rarely used service road that bordered one side for the conservation area.  It was a muddy track that was nearly grown in.  A simple, wire fence along one side of the road was in bad need of repair, looking like it was a regular transit point for off-road vehicles; and several spots were completely toppled over.  Charles found such a spot after a few minutes of searching and they pushed into the swamp.

They followed a set of vehicle tracks for a while until Charles decided they need to go more directly.  After ten minutes of steady going, Charles stopped them for a short break.

“So far, so good,” Leo commented in a low voice.

“No complaints,” Charles agreed.  “Like it was meant to be.”

“You holding up, then?”

Charles looked up from his pack, which he begun to look through.  “Funny,” he said.  “This stop is for navigation only.  Now that we have some ground cover, I want to check the GPS.  If that bush trail took us too far out of our way, it’s better we find out now.  There are no real landmarks out here.”

“How far before we hit the softer ground?” Leo asked.

Charles turned the GPS on, the night mode hardly shedding any light.  It started looking for a satellite.  “I’m guess only another couple hundred meters,” he said, impatient for the GPS to find them.  “It depends on how far we wandered on that track.  I wish this thing would shit or get off the pot.”

Leo glanced up.  The sky was cloudy, with patches of clear; nothing the GPS couldn’t handle with some patience.

“Here we go,” Charles announced, adjusting the screen.  “Not bad, we are a little too far north, but hardly off course.  This is good.”  He figured out the general direction they needed to go and they set off.

They had hunted in their younger years, but neither thought they were outdoorsmen.  Plodding through the swamp grew more difficult as they moved along.  Charles checked the GPS a few more times as they progressed.  It took them nearly thirty minutes before they reached the truly soggy ground near the middle of the swamp.  Charles paused on a clump of halfway stable ground.

“This is brutal,” Charles admitted, though with no sign of discouragement in his voice.  “All right, the next three or four hundred meters are boggy, watery crap.  The danger is getting sucked in, so stay close and flat.  Remember, too, that the cover is pretty thin here.  You ready?”

“Absolutely,” Leo sighed.  “Close and flat, eh?  I am making you do my laundry tomorrow.”

“Deal,” Charles said.  “Now just stick to the plan and don’t die.”

“So much love,” Leo laughed.

“Fuck that,” Charles laughed back.  “I just don’t want to explain to mom that I got you killed.”

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 2

(More mystery adventure. This posting was delayed by fantastic weather and unscheduled work distractions)

Looking over the maps and documents that Charles had acquired took over a day, even with Leo helping out between checks on Mrs. Wiltman.  Charles worked almost frenetically to gather the details he needed to pin down a search area.  It was late the next evening before they formed solid plans.  They sat back and had drinks while they discussed final preparations.  Their office was empty, not unusual for a Wednesday evening, and a sense of urgency had settled over both of them.

               Leo sipped at a modest quantity of gin.  He was still turning the whole, ancient story around in this head.

               “Humour me,” he said to Charles while looking into his glass.  “Let’s have it from the start, again.”

               Charles was happy to oblige.  His brother had been unusually supportive and helpful, so there was no point in rocking the boat.  Besides, his brother was a good investigator, even if he was too conservative in the field.  Another telling, especially in light of their latest findings, might not be out of order.

               “All right, then,” Charles said, putting down his drink and gesturing to their working copy of the map.  “Gilbury was not much of anything in 1857; a tiny farm town without much more than a church, a general store and a recent stop on the Great Western Railway.  The majority of the land was actually owned by the Gibson family, who held an estate a short distance from the downtown, such as it was.  Publicly, the Gibsons were an upstanding lot of good farmers.  They were blessed with old money from Europe and were hard workers, blah, blah, blah.  It has since been determined that the old, European money was largely gained from illegal activities.  The Canadian branch of Gibsons was probably not involved much those affairs.  Still, they were anything but squeaky clean.”

               “It would be nice to know more about their degree of involvement,” Leo commented as Charles paused to take a drink.

               “Absolutely!” Charles agreed.  “That would clear up a few things.  But we do know they knew about it.  So let’s switch the story to fact mode.  Fact: the European Gibsons start sending gold to the Ontario Gibsons as early as 1821.  Speculation: that gold was stolen and definitely hidden with or disguised as lead articles.  Fact: As early as 1833, these shipments start including precious gems.  More speculation: this was probably the European Gibsons trying to hide ill-gotten money.  Fact: the Gibsons, whether they got sloppy or unlucky, had two shipments discovered by outsiders.  Speculation: we are ninety-nine percent certain they murdered the first fellow, a wagon driver that carried the stuff to the estate.  Fact: the second discovery was in 1857 by a railway baggage clerk, Reginald Bannington, who inspected a damaged chest.  Fact: Bannington foolishly approaches Henry Gibson, the head of the Ontario Gibson family, about it.  Fact: Bannington disappears within a day, his body later discovered in a ditch out in Trunkville.  Speculation: Bannington was probably fishing for a bribe and may have got one, only the Gibsons wanted to completely cover their tracks.”

               “Right,” Leo chimed in.  “It’s too ridiculous for him to have gone to the estate, otherwise.”

               “Exactly,” Charles went on.  “Lucky for us that Bannington was greedy and had a big mouth.  The diary of Carol Benick was such a find.  It was meant to fucking be!”

               “She’s the daughter of Bannington’s friend, right?”  Leo asked.

               “Yeah, and she mentions that her father was told by Bannington about the gold,” Charles said, trying to contain his excitement as if he had just figured things out.  “Wisely, her father, John, shut up about it.”

               “Which had nothing to do with Bannington’s sudden disappearance, I’m sure,” Leo added.

               “Right,” Charles said.  “Now, we fast forward to the prohibition era.  The Gibsons are still into farming, but as a cover.  They returned to their criminal roots, if ever they left them, by entering the booze trade.  In 1920, the estate is raided and the cops find booze and various items made of gold.  According to police reports, fifty pounds of gold items were seized.”

               “Which they mistook for the proceeds of alcohol traffic,” Leo cut in.  “Only they didn’t know about their real origins.”

               “I have only recovered fragments of paperwork related to those gold and gem shipments,” Charles said, “but the Ontario Gibsons probably received an average of four shipments a year, averaging twenty-five pounds each.  I can verify that the first shipment was in 1821 and the last in 1883.  So, let’s get conservative.  If half of those shipments were decoys, and only half of the weight was actually gold, we are still looking at 1550 pounds worth.  Any quantity of gems would be over and above that.”

               “And you figure it has to be in the swamp?” Leo asked.

               “Where else?” Charles said.  “When they raided the estate, they also hit their other property and came up with nothing.”

               “Any chance the cops just shut up and split it among themselves?”

               Charles raised an eyebrow to that.  “It would have been awfully tough to cover that up.  Could they cover that with the twenty-ish cops involved?  And the Gibsons never said anything about it, either.  The swamp bordered their main estate.  It’s a half mile from the house and there is no reason to go there.  It would also explain the Gibson’s territorial nature.  Between 1846 and 1887, there are a dozen complaints from locals being threatened, beaten or shot at for trespassing.”

               “And that was all near the swamp,” Leo said.  “And you think the Gibsons all died before this could be passed on?”

               “Anybody who was anybody in the family either dies in the 1920 raid, or they died in prison.  The Gibsons who took over were all young, and somewhat disconnected from the hierarchy.  It is very unlikely they knew anything.”

               Leo sipped his gin, letting things sink in.  Wading through a swamp for a fortune in gold was making him heady.  He wondered if Charles had been feeling this way for some time.

               “These old maps are vague,” Charles went on, “but they note trails into the swamp.  The notes go on to say the Gibsons claimed to hunt and trap there.  Un-bloody-likely!”

               “What worries me is how far in they hid the stuff, and how well they might have hidden it,” Leo said, looking at their map, covered in scribbles.  “For instance, a good chunk of the swamp is still on Gibson property, and the rest is a conservation area.  That’s a risky venture.”

               “Shit,” Charles laughed, taking a drink.  “Who cares about the conservation area?  We play dumb and the worst we get is a fine.  And nineteenth century people never accounted for metal detectors, so we don’t need to worry about digging aimlessly.”

               “Actually, Charles,” Leo said, finishing his drink, “I wasn’t worried much about conservation officers.  The modern Gibsons are pretty tough customers, and not unfamiliar with violence.  What happens if Red or Tanner catch us prowling around in the middle of the night?”

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 1

(It has been quite a span since my last post.  All is well.  I have not been writing as much in the last month or so, and not really for the blog; not yet, anyway.  I hope that everyone out there is doing well in these challenging times.  I will leave the passengers and crew of the Trailblazer for now.  I have to rethink some of it before I post more.

Rather than let the blog go stale (more stale?) I am posting the first part of this story about a pair of small town, private investigators.  It’s not finished and I’m not entirely sure where it is going.  Normally, I would not post something this undeveloped; however, I am not too concerned about it.  For now, consider it a work in progress.  Better stuff is coming.

This story is a mystery, detective adventure.  There are no plans to add any geeky elements, such as ghosts, vampires, ninjas, aliens, etc. That may change, but I doubt it.  I hope you enjoy.  Stay healthy.)

***

The Gillbury Swamp Gold

               “What the hell?” Leo exclaimed.  Charles tumbled into their office, arms overstuffed with rolled maps, charts and the like.  He practically fell through the door, dumping everything on his desk.  When he managed to get everything settled, he smiled.

               “I figured it out, Leo,” Charles said, excitedly rubbing his hands together.  “This is the big one.  It’s all going to pay off.  Mark my words.”

               Leo shook his head and sighed, a poster child for exasperation.  It took him a few moments of watching his brother organise the recent haul to gather his thoughts.

               “You will have to excuse my lack of enthusiasm,” Leo grumbled, trying not to lose patience.  “You see, I am doing this thing called ‘working for money,’ which you may have heard of.  It’s an ancient custom.”

               “Still working the Wiltman case?” Charles responded, half-distracted.  “What’s to work on?  We both know the old lady is messing around.  Does he need a feature length video?  I thought you had that nailed down, already.”

               “It doesn’t really matter,” Leo chided.  “What matters is that we are getting paid to provide the proof.  You do remember that part of the business, don’t you?  The getting paid part, I mean.”

               “Oh, we’re feisty tonight!” Charles said, sounding more amused than bothered.  “We generally get paid when the cases are resolved, at the end.  This is no different.  Besides, unlike you with the Wiltman case, I have made a massive breakthrough.  Beat that, Sherlock.”

               “I don’t have the energy to fight about this,” Leo said, dismissively.  “I will mention our credit line is brutally close to being exhausted and will need to be drawn from, again, to make rent.  All that is assuming the Wiltman case is wrapped up and we get paid in full.  Our credit limit will not bail us out next month.  Will your treasure hunt be paying off in the next month or two?”

               “I’m so glad you brought that up,” Charles began, as if it were a cheery conversation.  “I am on the verge.  It’s just a matter of narrowing the location and we are laughing!”

               Leo had a hard time focusing on his brother’s responses.  He had spent the last week chasing the lovely and adulterous Mrs. Wiltman across town in a desperate effort to get conclusive evidence of her infidelity.  She was careful, bordering on paranoid, about her goings on while Mr. Wiltman was away on business.  Pictures or video were tough to get with any quality.  The proof was there, but Mr. Wiltman wanted conclusive evidence.  The desperate push over the last week had meant sixteen hour days, irregular meals and infrequent clothing changes.  Leo was overtired and irritable; his brother was just icing.

               “Have you followed up on either of our prospective new clients?” Leo asked, looking away from his own report and rubbing his eyes.  “O’Connell and Laird were the names, if I recall.”

               “Oh, that,” Charles said, after a delay focussed on organising his mound of papers.  “They were not interested.  I called, I really did.”

               “I can’t remember which one, right now,” Leo said, “but they were practically in the bag.  Open and shut harassment case.  What happened?”

               “I don’t read minds, Leo,” Charles muttered, looking carefully at a large map he unrolled.  “They just said no.  I tried to get them on board, just for you, but they weren’t biting.  If I were a better salesman, I would sell cars or something.”

               “When dad left us the business,” Leo explained, “the idea was to work together, both of us.  You know, earn money.  These goose chases don’t pay.”

               “Bringing dad into this will not help,” Charles said, scribbling something on another paper.  “If we really wanted to make serious money, we’d have moved to the city.  We didn’t, so we get to scratch by on bits and pieces in a smaller town.  Excuse my reaching for more.”

               “Screw the big city,” Leo snarled.  “Higher overhead and tons of competition is all that would get us.  We are the only private investigators in this town.  Dad made this work for most of his life, by himself.  Why can’t two of us?”

               It was Charles’ turn to sigh.  He looked up from his bird nest of papers and properly addressed Leo for the first time since he had come in.  “All right, all right,” he said, holding up a passive hand.  “I concede I’ve put too much time into this venture of mine; point taken.  I get how it looks.  The business could use some TLC from my side.  No disagreement.  That said, I can’t walk away after this latest break.  It’s too big.  If it’s too much for you, I can walk away from the business; sign it over for a dollar.  I can finish it working this from my car if I have to.”

               “What is the rush with it, anyway?” Leo asked.  “If this mother load has been there all this time, where is it going?  What’s the rush?”

               “I’m concerned my activities have stirred up interest,” Charles explained.  “I know most people who are even vaguely aware of what I’m doing think I’m certified, fair enough, but there are some who do not.  Besides, up to today, your point would be rock solid.  I have made a monster breakthrough, however.”

               “What does that mean?  What kind of breakthrough?” Leo questioned.  His brother was a good investigator, when he applied himself.  This always made it difficult when challenging his hairier ideas.

               “I finally found where the older archives went,” Charles said with a pleased smile.  “That stupid, archive bitch had me believing it was all destroyed in the 1939 library flood.  The town should fire her for being so useless.  Anyway, some tireless investigation turned up most of what I needed in Grahamton.”

               “Grahamton?  Really?” Leo asked, finding himself oddly interested.

               “Pretty much everything I needed was only an hour away, brother,” Charles said, almost dramatically.  “Turns out, our 1939 library flood did wreck a bunch of stuff.  A lot of what they salvaged was shipped out of town, to Grahamton, for temporary safe keeping.  God only knows why, maybe the war, but temporary turned into forever.  In 1971, Grahamton moved most of that stuff to a third party site for storage because of renovations or something.  Here’s where the planets align: the storage arrangement was a handshake deal that went sour.  Gordon Brown had stored the crap at his estate, after which the library people quibbled about cost.  Gordo gets pissed and refuses to give the archive stuff back.  The Grahamton library covers up their end by denying the story and the deal, all the easier because it isn’t really their material, anyway.  Gordo holds onto it for spite and dies.  Et voila, the Brown estate has an attic full of gold waiting for yours truly.”

               “And that’s what all this crap is, then?” Leo asked, trying not to get caught up his brother’s scheme.

               “Some of it,” Charles said.  “I told Gordo’s family I was doing work for the university and needed the stuff, some of which is useless.  I took it all to avoid suspicion.  I don’t think they knew much about Grandpa Gordo’s quarrel with the Grahamton Library.”

               “By ‘take,’ you mean purchased,” Leo commented.

               “A couple hundred dollars for the cause,” Charles said, sounding proud despite an obvious sense of his brother’s disapproval.  “We’ve paid more for information before.”

               “Very rarely,” Leo said.

               “No matter,” Charles went on.  “If this ‘goose chase’ doesn’t pan out, I swear I will step up for the business.  Things will get better, either way.”

Dimensional Tourist, Part IV

(The sci-fi mystery continues)

“Highly unlikely,” Pundel said.  “He has too much control over the ship’s systems to qualify.  If he were on a suicide mission, we would already be dead.  The engineer, on the other hand, is not in the clear.  The captain is our best recourse, for now. In the meantime, Lumbsden, can you see what can be done with the power core, assuming we need a straightforward fix?  I know it is out of your specialty, but we need to start a proper repair attempt.”

“Yes, sir,” I said with a smile and a short salute.

“Xiang,” Pundel said, turning to the professor, “this may be a stretch, but is there any way you could determine if the dimensional module or shields could be modified to use less power?”

“It is unlikely I could assist you,” Xiang said.  “My field of study is mostly theoretical.”

“I understand,” Pundel said, standing up and pulling his shirt straight, “but you are more qualified than anyone aboard, with respect to the physics.  You are also very intelligent.  The system specs are all available to us, so you are the only one who could help on that end.”

“It would take several weeks to explain the complexity of the task you request,” Xiang said.  “It seems highly unproductive.”

Pundel half-turned to go.  “As you will,” he said, “however, we may die for lack of a solution.  Consider that before you give up.”  Xiang looked eager to retort, but Pundel was gone too quickly.

“He is such a bastard,” she finally chirped, moments after he was gone.  “He is in no position of authority to order me around.”

I was already bending my mind toward solutions to the power core problem, but heard her clearly.  “True,” I said, “but he is right.”

[Story switching to Pundel’s perspective]

Lumbsden was a bright tech, no doubt about it.  He had picked up on the matter of the engineer quickly.  If I could count on that kind of reasoning from him, we might just have a chance.  It would be important to reach the captain and access the engineer’s records and personal logs.  A long shot, yes, but if the engineer was the saboteur and foolish enough to record her activity we would be in a better position.  I knew how to find the bridge from the ship specs and the computer reported the captain was there.  Jordan intercepted me in the corridor before I made it.  He was unhappy I had left engineering unescorted.

“You all require escorts while outside passenger areas,” he said tersely, before agreeing to bring me to the bridge.  “What do you need the captain for, anyway?”

“I need some general information about the transit of the ship and so forth,” I said, carefully adding, “as well as taking up a personal request with him.”  I did not want to give insult to the acting engineer.

The bridge was a cozy spot, certainly a change from the stark, functional ones on military ships.  If fact, it looked more comfortable than the lounges on military vessels.  Captain Trussman was slouched back in a padded, oversized seat, focussed on a personal viewscreen to his left.  The other bridge crew looked disinterestedly busy at their stations.  What struck me was the utter silence of the room.

The good Captain Trussman was surprised and hesitant in his greeting.  I was subtle about requesting private information, though Jordan may have picked up on my desire to leave him out; Trussman definitely read my signals.  I was in a briefing room with him a minute later.

“I may not be a seasoned military man, Pundel,” he said, offering me a drink with a gesture, which I declined with a wave, “yet I know when something unusual is happening.  I would prefer you get straight to it and spare me the nonsense.”

“That is fair, captain,” I said, joining him at a briefing table.  “I will try to be brief, but there are some layers, here.  To start, I think the vessel has been sabotaged.  Your injured engineer is likely the culprit, or involved somehow.  If we are to survive this, I will need your help.”

The captain poured himself a drink, after all, looking deep in thought as he did.

“So,” he sighed, “you think it was foul play.  Fair enough.  What do you need from me?”

“Several things, actually,” I replied.  “I will need access to the engineer’s personal logs and effects.  I will also need to speak with your officers and crew.  It would also be helpful to borrow your dimensional technicians during this.  Xiang is knowledgeable, to be sure, but her potential is wasted without guidance.”

“Is that all?” Captain Trussman said with a smirk.  “You do know that we are already operating on emergency protocol.  How do I pull my people away for this little hunt of yours?”

“Good question,” I replied.  “It’s a simple matter of logistics, really.  The general repairs in engineering should be a matter of hours, really.  Then there is the power core and computer system.  Those will require substantially more time, even if we can be sure of the computer and devise a fix.  You don’t have enough crew hours, even if the engineer was available, to make that happen.  Is this ship provisioned with stimulants?”

“Stimulants?” Trussman asked, suddenly looking uncomfortable.  “You mean the military variety designed for full duty hours?”

“Exactly that sort.  According to my understanding of things, we are a few days from our exit point.  If we do not have this vessel ready for dimensional transit by then, it might be pointless.”

Trussman looked pensive and troubled.  I felt bad for him.  This was not a scenario he, or his crew, were prepared or equipped for.

“The personal affairs of our Engineer are a detail,” he said, up and pacing now.  This emergency gives me full authority over privacy matters.  Ordering this crew to full duty hours, assuming we have the proper stimulants…that is more difficult.  Very few of them have a military background to handle that.  That level of stimulation, for so long, it could be lethal.”

“No less lethal than the alternative,” I countered.

“True,” the Captain agreed.  “I will see what we have available.  Access to the crew is yours, only let me advise them, first.  This will be difficult.”

“And one last thing, Captain,” I asked.  “Your officers seem set on monitoring our movements.  I appreciate the need for this, under ordinary circumstances, however we well past that, are we not?”

“I can have those restrictions relaxed,” Trussman said.  “But I have to review it with my security people.  Until then, let’s have a look through my engineering officer’s personal effects.”

He summoned a security man and we made our way to the officer quarters.  They were comfortable, compact cabins designed for modest comfort on short voyages.  The quarters of engineering officer Major Peggy Flint were simply and sparsely decorated, nothing suspicious in that; pictures of a few relatives and friends amidst her credentials hanging on the walls.

Trussman opened her private consol and gave a coded command to unlocked everything in the room and open her computer files.  He motioned for me to proceed as he began opening compartments and searching.  I also began with a physical search.

“What do you know about her?” I asked him.

“Standard information has her as single, divorced a few years back, actually,” he answered.  “A bit too dedicated, perhaps, not much room for a relationship, on top of regularly being away.  She is from one of the mining colonies on the periphery.  The space program gets a lot of recruits from remote places like that.”

“She mixes well with the other officers and crew?” I asked.

“Near as I can tell, yes,” Trussman answered, rummaging through her things.  “She is not overly social, mind you.  As I said, very committed to the job.”

“How about her politics?” I asked, cutting closer to a dangerous possibility.

“Not much there,” Trussman said.  “She is almost apolitical, really.  In addition to standard screening, our crew was then screened by the military.  I went through it, too; and they leave nothing to chance.  If you have the slightest gripe, you had no chance.”

“I see,” I said, having completed the search of her cabin.  “There is nothing obvious here, not that it matters much.  She would be unlikely to have left a physical clue.  Still, if your security man is worth anything, he should be familiar with a full search procedure and execute one.  Hopefully, her private computer files offer something.”

Trussman was already at her consol, glancing through her private information.  “I do not access officer and crew files lightly, Pundel,” the Captain commented.  “There is something I need to ask you, however.  You seem…almost too versed in the investigation process.  You were a technical officer, correct?”

I smiled at his comment.  This question was bound to come up at some point.

Dimensional Tourist, Part III

(More of the same!)

“I will answer your last question first,” Captain Trussman replied.  “We have lost roughly seventy percent our power capacity.  The precise figure is somewhat unimportant, for now.  As to what happened, we do not know with any certainty.  Lieutenant Jordan has been trying to work this out, but we need all the help we can get.”

     “The patchwork looks mostly complete,” Pundel said.  “What is it that you need?”

     “Lieutenant Jordan, you have a better technical sense of all this,” the captain said.  “Please continue.”

     Jordan paused a moment before speaking, the slightest hint of a nervous tick starting.  “The damage is relatively superficial, but has crippled key components of the power core.  We have lost most of the activation inputs and equalisation arrays, which is the majority of the problem.  This is not a fix that can be handled with the core in operation.”

     “Perhaps you should let us in on what happened, in the first place?” I asked.  “It might help to know what caused this before we attempt a fix.”

     Jordan exchanged a knowing, uneasy look with Patel, the security officer.  “We don’t know anything, for certain.  The diagnostics are inconclusive, but it could have been a system malfunction.  We have not ruled out foul play.”

     “So what do you know, beyond the immediate state of the damage?” Pundel asked.

     “Six hours ago, the computer detected a power surge in the power core arrays,” Jordan explained.  “The system compensated in time to prevent damage, except for the equalisation arrays; most of which overloaded and burnt out.  The activation inputs became damaged when the core became unstable.  We have managed to correct the instability by lowering the core’s output and making manual adjustments, which is extremely difficult with so few equalisation arrays operating.”

     “And you don’t trust the system to handle it,” Pundel suggested, “which is probably wise, considering.”

     “Yes,” Jordan continued.  “We haven’t had enough time to dissect the computer functions for signs of foul play or malfunction.  Even then, we do not have the personnel for a full diagnostic if it was a carefully concealed sabotage.  The basic functions are operating normally, though we are monitoring them carefully now.”

     “You need our help to brainstorm up a stability solution for the power core,” Xiang said, bluntly.

     “That is most of it,” the captain said.  “We would also need to know if there is an ongoing issue that needs addressing before we even try to play with the power core.  A repeat of the previous issue would be the end of us.”

     “I cannot speak for the professor, but Terry and I will need to see specs, system reports and diagnostic data before we can do anything,” Pundel said, sounding ready to jump in.

     We were brought to a terminal alongside the control panels.  A screen displayed a series of hub menus, all of which were familiar to me.  Jordan set the screen to an observation only mode and pulled up a file.  A series of files opened, presenting time stamped readings from system sensors.  It was slightly different for the format I knew, but made sense to me.  Jordan forwarded us to the point, just prior to the power surge that set everything off.

     “This is the point where the power surge began,” Jordan pointed out, probably for the benefit of Xiang.  “I compiled this file about an hour ago, trying to chase down answers.  My time has been limited, so I have only looked it over briefly.  Let me know if you find anything.  I will not be far, if you need me.”

     The next hour was spent looking over the information.  The sequence of damage that happened after the fact was easy enough to evaluate.  The lead up was far more mysterious.  Pundel and I made comments, here and there, but largely just reviewed the information.  Xiang had watched with cool interest, not speaking until Pundel and I were finished.

     “So,” she asked, “what happened?  Is there an ongoing concern?  Can we begin to find a solution to the power core damage?”

     Pundel rubbed his temples, squinting.  “I think Jordan is correct about finding a computer flaw, created or otherwise.  In either case, a technician’s solution is a full power down, disconnection and data wipe.  We can’t do that on an operating vessel.  Everything relies on the computer.”

     “So you don’t know what happened, then?” Xiang said, sounding angry again.

     “To be blunt: no.” Pundel said, completely calm.  “My opinion is that foul play is the most likely cause of all this.  A power surge of that magnitude should not occur in any system, especially an essential one.  Then the system disperses the surge to all but one type of array, and the excess power funneled back to these panels, blowing them out quite violently.  All of this together is too suspicious to be anything but a careful sabotage.”

     “Could this have been done before the ship departed?” Xiang asked, calmed down by Pundel’s assessment.

     “I suppose,” he said, “but I am speculating on that point.  Nothing is certain.”

     “So the saboteur could be on board,” Xiang muttered.

     “It is possible,” Pundel said, looking absently at the screen.  “Such a person would be insane or suicidal, if they were.”

     “Did you notice the smell when we arrived?” I asked Pundel.

     “Hard not to,” he replied.  “I take it you have the same concern about the fate of the engineer?”

     “It only makes sense,” I said.  “And it might just explain the foul play.”

     “What are you two talking about?” Xiang interrupted.

     “The sanitizer we smelled,” I explained, “is rarely used in this environment, unless there is…a biological cleaning.  Jordan is the acting engineering officer, which is unusual aboard a ship of this size.”

     Xiang expression told me that she needed no blanks filled in.  We were all on the same page.

     “What do we do now?” Xiang asked, very seriously.  “Is there a solution?”

     “I have a long shot hunch,” Pundel said.  “It assumes the engineer was the saboteur, and sloppy about his task.”  He waved Jordan over to us.

     “Please have good news,” Jordan muttered.  He looked tired.

     “No promises,” Pundel said.  “I am going to be direct with you.  I mean no offense, and I am not trying to cause difficulty.  This is all to strike a solution.  Am I clear?”

     Jordan’s brow furrowed, plainly surprised at Pundel’s approach.  He nodded in agreement.

     “Good.  I have some questions that need quick answers.  Was the engineering officer killed when the panels blew?”

     “No,” Jordan responded slowly.  “He is seriously injured, however.”

     Pundel looked at Xiang and me before continuing.  “Has he been questioned?”

     “Her injuries were quite substantial,” Jordan said.  “She has not been conscious since.”

     “Is she expected to live?” Pundel asked.

     “What are you getting at?” Jordan asked, sounding slightly defensive.  “If you want to wake her for more information you are out of luck.  The medical staff has already said her condition is terrible and will not push her.  We have already asked about this.”

     “Have you tried looking into her files?” Pundel went on, unfazed by Jordan’s agitation.

     “There was nothing unusual about her entries to the engineering log.  I’m sorry, Pundel, but that is a dead end.  We would love to have her expertise, as well, but her condition is too dire.”

     “That is too bad,” Pundel said.  “It would have been helpful to know what happened immediately before the incident.  Anyway, we are almost finished with our review.  Thank you for the information.”

     Jordan nodded coldly and left the engineering area.  Pundel looked pensive as we watched Jordan depart.  “What was that about?” Xiang asked.

     “I always thought I would die in space,” Pundel half-mumbled.  “I am concerned about our situation, here, deeply concerned.  We need to speak with the captain.”

     “Why?” Xiang asked.  “Do you think Jordan might be involved?”

Sacrifice, Part 5

(Horror. The full story of the Hardwick House is revealed in a disturbing conclusion)

The smell was what hit her first, followed by the nasty sound of something metallic clanking against something else.  Her flashlight cut through the darkness, tracing through lines of chains and hooks and other things less clear to her.  She could not make out a stairway, ladder or other door; her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her chest in raw panic.

“Colin,” she whispered hoarsely, “is someone else here?”

Before she could react, the flashlight was knocked out of her hands, smashing on the floor and sputtering out.  Colin’s camping light was somehow distant or failing; she could barely see for the shadows.  Her arm was pinned behind her, followed by the other.  She raised her knee and kicked out, though it seemed not to affect her attacker.  A moment later, something slipped over her wrists and held them in place behind her back.  As if remembering she could, Macy screamed for Colin; the last thing she could remember before blacking out, wild with fear.

            Colin felt ill.  Reality, ugly and dark, was sinking in fast.  The presence had materialised in front of him. The gloomy figure of Charles Hardwick, founder of the American Hardwick clan and resident, undead psychopath stood before Colin.  His image was indistinct and blurred, though it was unmistakably the old man.  Colin had known him for a long time.

            “The appointed time hath come, young Colin,” Charles said in his usual mix of mumbles and groaning.

            “I know, Grandfather,” Colin said, strangely self-conscious about speaking aloud to the apparition, “and I am here.”

            “’tis well,” Charles said.  “Time doth drain me, though it be a curse of my own making.  Art thou prepared?”

            “Almost,” Colin said, hanging his head.  “I have to tell her before it is done.”  He could feel a wave of angry disapproval emanate from Charles, as easy to notice as a sudden change in temperature.

            “A waste,” Charles spat.  “What is gained by it, young Colin?”

            “My conscience will be appeased, if only a little,” Colin said flatly, not wishing to debate his decision.

            “Ye throw the minutes to the wind as a wastrel, child,” Charles uttered with distaste.  “My curse holds as ye dally with idle talk.”

            Colin had prepared for this exchange as he had for the one to convince Macy to explore the secret passage.  It was just a matter of executing the plan.

            “I am no longer a young boy, Grandfather,” he said calmly.  “Still, I plan to honour my oath to end the curse.  Midnight has not come or passed, so the time between is mine to use as I please, and it pleases me to explain all this madness to her.  You have lingered here for over two hundred years, a few more moments should be an easy matter.”  Grandfather was angry and impatient, yet shrewd enough to try hastening things.

            “Your conscience will cause ye no ill, lad,” Charles said, still angry.  “Mind ye, I might.  Think on it.”

            “You never had a conscience, Grandfather,” Colin said, remaining calm despite his rising temper, “so your advice has no weight to it.  And harm me if you want.  I know you will not.  I am the last Hardwick, the final heir to the family, and if I fail tonight your own curse will deny you rest for eternity.”

            “As ye will, child,” Charles growled, simmering rage beneath his words.  He stood silent and still, hovering over the room with the appearance of patience.  Colin felt energized after standing up to his grandfather.

            Colin tied Macy’s ankles tightly before lifting her onto the ancient table, securing her further with chains.  It would be enough to hold her until it was over.  He gently shook her.  “Macy,” he said, “you need to wake up for a while.  Just for a while, darling.”

            Macy was slow to come around.  The moments of fear she last remembered were distant and dreamlike.  It took a minute for her to recall her situation; her fear was less frantic, abated, perhaps, by her helpless condition.  Colin looked menacing in the strange light, yet his presence was a bizarre comfort.

            “There are things you need to know,” Colin began explaining, not wishing to drag the ordeal out.

            “Why?” was all she asked.  “What is happening?”

            “The family has been troubled by accidents and tragedy for many generations,” Colin said, keeping it plain.  “This is not chance.  Rather, it is a curse from beyond.”

            “What are you talking about?” Macy asked, understanding his words but not really following his meaning.

            “The family has been under a curse, imposed by one of its own patriarchs many generations ago,” Colin said, simply moving along without concern if she did not follow in detail.  “You see, Charles, the grey haired man in the portrait in the master suite, came into conflict with his son over…business matters.  The old man wanted to continue illegal practices as part of the regular business.  His son wanted to phase that out.  Things became tense between them, threatening to divide the family.”

            “Colin,” Macy said, eyes growing wide with fear, “what is going on?  Did you drug me?”

            He glanced to his side.  Charles hovered there, half mist and half shadow; every bit the ghoulish beast he had always been.  Macy must be feeling his intense malice and anger at being denied an immediate resolution, he thought; something he had grown used to.

            “Sorry,” Colin said, only wanting to finish his explanation without distraction.  “The old man turned on his son, threatening to disown him, or worse, if he failed to obey.  The son was not pleased with the threats and mustered his own supporters, turning on the old man.  They stormed the house.”

            Macy was growing hysterical.  “Not real, not real, not real…” she began to whisper, like a protective mantra.  Colin was tempted to slap her, shock her out her state.

            “The old man was unprepared,” Colin went on.  “They took him and were not certain what to do with him.  They worried he would return with hired help, or something, if they simply cast him out.  The biggest thing, really, was the money.  Charles had hidden the greater share of the family fortune somewhere, and was not telling.  The money was critical to the Hardwick future, no matter what direction the business took.”

            Macy had stopped her whispered chant but hardly seemed to be absorbing Colin’s explanation; which was mattering less and less to him.

            “They brought him here,” Colin said, “to this very room.  I am sure they did not plan for things to be overly brutal, but it was a dark age and things turned ugly.  A few days beatings turned to whippings, and escalated from there.  The torture became something grotesque, medieval.  It was long and terrible, ending in the death of old Charles, keeping his secret to the end.  The family found the money some years later, making the horrendous act meaningless.”

            Macy finally seemed to regard Colin in a lucid state.  “They killed him?” she asked, almost numbly.

            “Yes, Macy,” Colin said, tenderly, “and in his later moments he cursed them, us, to lives of tragedy and suffering for several generations.  He committed his own spirit to enforcing the curse in this world.  His rage and resentment is not diminished.”

            “Why this, Colin?” Macy asked gently.

            “Old Charles became a regular companion of mine, as a boy,” Colin explained, “until my father caught wind of our communications and moved us away.  The curse can be lifted with a sacrifice.  The Hardwick heir must kill his betrothed, here in this room, by the end of today.  It is the only way.”

            “I love you, Colin,” she said, almost as if she welcomed her fate.

            “I love you, too,” he replied, not meaning it but wishing her a touch of comfort in her last moments.  The blade was an old one, suggested by Charles so many years earlier.

            Colin turned to the apparition beside him, feeling the eagerness flow off him, and narrowed his eyes with resentment.

            “What I do now,” he said, as much to Charles as he did to whatever God might be out there listening, “is not of my own free will.  I am coerced by a demon beside me, may his soul reside below for all time.”  Charles stayed silent, seeming concerned only with what was to come.

            Macy was strikingly silent, only gasping slightly as the blade punched through her chest; her heart broken twice by the blow.  She struggled to breathe for a few moments before expiring.  It felt like she had passed in less than a minute.

            “Is it done?” Colin asked.

            “Her passage is beginning now,” Charles said.  “The soul is holding to the flesh as a babe to the womb before birth.  It will be done soon.”

            “Then what?  Do you move on?  Am I truly free?”

            “I shall pass to the beyond and be judged,” Charles said, with the first tinge of sadness Colin had ever heard from him.  “With that, I or my curse shall trouble thee nevermore.”

            After some moments of standing over Macy’s still body, Charles finally reacted to something invisible to Colin.  “Her departure begins,” he said, as if in awe.

            Colin felt relieved, somehow.  This thing had stayed with him, troubling him like a monster under his bed for his lifetime.  He could truly live, now.

            An irksome, troubling feeling from Charles struck Colin as harshly as a bucket of ice water might have.  The look and feel from the elder ghost grew into a state of malice and rage such that Colin had never known from him.  Something was extremely wrong, and Colin could not think of what it might be.

            “What is it?” he asked, fearfully.

            “Thou wouldst cheat me,” Charles said in blood soaked words.  “Such is the manner of mine own kin, sadly.”

            “I did everything my oath required,” Colin said, never so afraid as this before.  “How did I cheat you?”

            “Ye bring a betrothed to me, already known to a man before,” Charles spat, raw rage a torrent from him now.  “Ye, the last Hardwick, shall suffer worldly torments worse than mine own before we ride to the seven hells together.”

            Colin was too shocked to respond or take any action, at all, as Charles descended upon him, a force of pure wrath.  Colin’s screams found him as Charles began his vengeance.

Sacrifice, Part 4

(Horror. Things get properly weird when Colin reveals a new secret of the Hardwick House)

They lingered in the woods before returning.  The presence, as if sensing Colin’s fatigue and resentment, returned with less urgency and intensity, giving him room to breathe.  The day was starting to pass away, the sun dipping toward the tree line.  They walked through cellars with care.  “The newer wings of the house,” Colin explained in the dim light of the first cellar, “have separate cellars because the original never had one.”

Macy was actually relieved when they finished seeing the cellars.  The low, dark rooms were dusty and filled with odd, creepy tools and devices that looked frightening in the poor lighting.  She kept close to Colin and tried to imagine she was in a museum.

They ate sandwiches and drank some wine for their supper.  The evening seemed to take root earlier than usual.  “The valley,” Colin said when she mentioned it.  “It makes it seem like the sun comes up later and goes down earlier.  I had forgotten.”

The darkness brought on an entirely new feel to the building.  As the light retreated from the sky, and the full moon took over, what had been a cosy, odd house felt forbidding and eerie.  Macy noticed the change quickly, while Colin barely felt it.  Some of the lights in the house were not working and Colin could not tell if they were burnt out or had other issues.  Macy decided it would be best to stick close to the master suite until morning.

Colin made the pretense of working on his laptop for a while, supposedly recording his observations of maintenance.  Macy played a game on her phone to kill time.

It was beginning to feel quite late when Colin, now starting to feel a growing urgency from the house, closed his laptop and moved closer to Macy, trying his best to be mischievous and charming.  “I almost forgot to show you something very important,” he said.  “It just occurred to me when I was recording all the maintenance stuff.”

Macy was equally interested and suspicious.  “And what’s that?”

“The secret passage!” he said.  “It is really neat.  I used to love it as a kid.”

A few hours earlier and she might have gone for it, straight away; now, the house had bad feeling about it.  Something just did not seem right and she could not explain it.  Colin was looking at her with keen excitement for the first time since they left, making her challenge her instincts about staying put.  She was pleased to see him looking happy and did not want to spoil the moment.  She let her guard down, pushing her instincts aside.

“Really,” she teased, not wanting to give him no fight on the matter, “and why would this place need a secret passage?”

Colin had expected the question in the way a professional tennis player expects the ball to return to them at a certain place on the court, hitting it back with seeming comfort.  “The family had been smugglers,” he began smoothly, still working his charm.  “When they build the place, Charles Hardwick, the grand old man of the family, got it into his head he should have a comfortable way out in case they had issues with the law.”

“You’re not going to tell me there is an underground tunnel leading off the property,” Macy challenged, drawing the line at creeping through a dark, icky hole in the ground.

“Nothing like that, although there were plans for it,” Colin explained, trying not to sound too forced.  “The old man wanted to build an escape tunnel, but never got around to it, and his successors didn’t think it was needed.  Of course, they were slowly moving away from the illegal work and focussing on legitimate business by then.  Anyway, old Charlie had his secret passage though the house and it stayed, even without the tunnel.”

“And you want to see it now?” Macy asked in a negative tone, hoping he would settle for seeing it during the day.

“Call it an adventure,” he said, smashing the ball back in her court as he had expected he would have to.  “It was a fond memory for me when I was a kid, playing around in the secret passage, even if it was not a secret anymore.”  This was partly true.  Colin did enjoy the mystery and adventure of the passage when he was young.

Macy tried to think of some way to bail on the idea, but Colin was so excited and she wanted to make him happy.  In some way or other, she had lingering guilt about sexually withholding herself from him, and it was times like this when she felt the pang of it.  Her heart gave way and she agreed to go.

“You have to stay with me the whole time,” she said, setting limits as soon as she agreed.  “And no fooling around, I’m already a little scared about it.”

Colin soothed, “I will be with you the whole way,” he said.  “It will be all right.”

She instinctively grabbed her phone, until she remembered it was no use.  Colin, still playing the game as if it were practiced, grabbed one of the camping lights he had packed in case of power failure; brandishing it for her to see.  She used the bathroom before they were to go, finally preparing herself by taking a flashlight of her own.

“Okay,” she said, after a deep breath, “where does it start?”

“Right here,” he said, grinning.  He moved to one of the paintings and gently pulled it back.  The man in the portrait was typically grim and practically frowning; he looked almost angry with his high collar and dark eyes.  “Excuse me, Charles,” he apologized, pressing a small notch in the wood trim behind the scowling picture.  “Yes, that is the old man himself,” Colin remarked.  As he approached another wall and ran his finger along the base board until it reached a specific groove, pressing it firmly.  A loud set of clicks and one of the panels opened, just an inch or so, like a door.  Colin gave her his best, reassuring smile and pushed the panel back, revealing the passage beyond.

“Shit,” was all Macy managed to say.

Colin turned his light on and shined it down the corridor.  The walls were rough wood but dry and clean, even less dusty than the rest of the building.  He stepped through the door, ducking slightly through the entry.  Macy grabbed his arm, “We will be okay, right?”

He turned back to her, ready to win another point in this planned tennis match, “I have done this many times as a kid.  The passage is nothing to be afraid of.”  Her eyes looked carefully into his, as if searching for some doubt; when she found none, she relented.

The passageway was smaller than he remembered, though he was nine when he last set foot in it, but roomy enough for an adult man to walk upright with a little shoulder room to spare.  They took a turn ten feet in, leading to a steep stair that felt more like a ladder to Macy; this lead to a series of short passages, ending in stairs.  Macy was a bit disoriented, but knew they were trending down in their travels.  “Where does this come out?” she whispered ahead to Colin as they reached another stair leading down.

“The exit is just below us,” he said, whispering back.  The presence, which had mostly given him some space since their walk outside, was starting to build again; it was growing anxious, Colin could tell.

The final set of stairs was the easiest set, leading to a small room with stone walls and floors.  “Are we in the basement?” Macy asked in sudden panic.  She had not liked their earlier trip to basement and her nerves were not taking the return well.  It was an unreasonable fear, she knew, yet could no longer contain it.

“Macy,” Colin said, a little harshly, “it will be all right.  Just calm down and understand we are safe.”

“I just want to go back to the bedroom, okay,” she said, a little franticly.  “The adventure has been awesome, now it’s time to fucking go back, okay?!”

“Macy,” he said, rather firmly, “We are almost out, now.  It is faster if we just go to the next room and go straight back into the house.”  The presence was growing agitated, as if anticipating things to come, spurred on by Macy’s burst of emotion.

“Okay, okay,” she said impatiently, “then just go quick, I can’t stand it.” She was shaking, now.

A heavy, wooden door was the only other exit in the room.  Colin turned an ancient latch and shouldered the door open.  Macy stayed right with him as he pushed though.  She squeezed past as he closed the door behind them.  The room was just wrong.

Sacrifice, Part 3

(Horror)

            Colin fussed with the keys before finding one that worked, commenting on how they were all using skeleton keys when he left.  The door opened to a fairly modest entrance, strangely small for the size of the house.  It smelled old and a bit damp.

            “Seems a bit small for such a big place,” she commented.

            “This is part of the original house, before they expanded it,” he said, trying to ignore a familiar, awkward presence.  “Some of the old house was changed around, just not the entrance or halls.  When I was growing up, the decor was very much a rustic, old style.  Most of the furniture and wood is original.”

            “It looks in decent shape,” Macy commented, looking over the walls and windows as they passed through the halls.  “Are these paintings all originals?”

            “Yeah,” he said leading the way down the hall, “and only a few have needed restoration work.”

            “And these are family portraits, then?” she asked, slightly awed by the stern folk, depicted in rigid, firm stances.  They were like something out of an early Victorian museum.

            “Pretty much,” he said, hardly looking at them.  “The odd one is some family friend or something.  They were a tight knit clan from all the history I was ever told.  And here is the staircase.”

            The oak stairs were in perfect shape, other than a bit of dust, and curved up to meet a landing that branched off into the upper floors.  The wood was not ornate or decorative.  It was a simple, sturdy construction meant to last; similar to the rest of the house.

            “So far, it doesn’t look like Cyril took anything from the place,” Colin said, finding it better to talk than address the growing presence stirring around him.

            “I can’t wait for a proper tour,” Macy said, starting to forget her earlier concerns and enjoy the moment.

            “Cyril probably lived in the master suite while he was here, so that is where we are headed,” Colin explained as they moved through another dusty hall.  “It should be set up for modern living, or close.”

            The master suite was large without being expansive.  It had a full bathroom, sitting room and study.  It was all right out of a history book.  Of all the things in the room, only the bed struck Macy as being over the top.  It was high and deep, with immense oak posts supporting a velvet canopy.

            Colin pulled gently on a cord that hung down from the high ceiling and the lights came on.  Macy gave him a looked of awe and surprise.  “That is so weird,” she said, “and cool at the same time.  What the heck?”

             Colin laughed at that.  He had taken the strange light switches for granted as a kid; in fact, normal wall switches took him a while to get used to.  “They used to have these connected to a bell downstairs for the servants.  They never got rid of them, so now they turn the lights on and off.”

            Macy gave the cord a short tug and the lights went off.  She laughed, too.  It was all so strange and wonderful; and it helped her connect with Colin’s unusual past.  She felt closer to him than ever.

            The room had fresh bedding and was otherwise set to live in.  Colin took Macy on a tour of the building, checking the state of things as they went.  The house had changed very little since he left so many years ago.  The odds and ends repairs that Cyril had made really took care of the worst issues; the rest was all a matter of details.  The rooms were in order, drop cloths protected anything worth protecting, and the worst cleaning needed was some dusting.  The returning memories helped Colin manage the increasing pressure from the presence in the building.  It took them nearly two hours to see everything except the cellars, by which time he had a headache from focussing on the tour and denying the presence.

            “We don’t have to see the cellar,” Macy said, noticing his changed temperament, assuming fatigue or emotional strain.  “We can just rest a bit, if you want.”

            “Actually,” Colin said, “how about I show you the old stable house?”  They had seen the building from the windows facing the back of the property.  Macy agreed, thinking the fresh air would be a good change.

            The presence in the house had less strength when Colin was out.  He found a bit of clarity and release as they crossed the yard to the stables.  He found the key for that lock and opened it up.  There wasn’t much to see.  The family only kept a couple of horses when he was kid, and they were older animals kept mostly for the nostalgia of it.  Faint traces of manure and damp wood lingered.  The wall was littered with traps, chains, tackle and harness, tools and supplies.  Most hung on nails or hooks.  Not much to see, but the distance from the house was a relaxing change for Colin.

            “How about a walk around the grounds?” he asked her.  The weather was pleasant enough and they toured the remnants of the garden.  It had completely grown over and gone wild.  Some failing fruit trees had suffered greatly from strangling ivy.  They walked through the path into the forest beyond the garden.  The stones were covered in moss and forest litter, but the path remained clear enough to pass comfortably.  The pair of stone bridges over the creek stood strong as ever, adding a pinch of civilization to the forest.  They walked in silence; Macy trying to give Colin some space to deal with whatever was ailing him.

            For Colin, the ground past the last foot bridge was safe ground from the nagging pressure within the house.  His mind was completely clear after they crossed it.  He recalled, as a youth, that it was so.  He was not sure if the presence had become stronger, somehow, or he was simply not used to it after the long absence.  The respite would be short lived, he knew, though it was welcome.

            He looked at Macy like he had not seen her before.  She was not an ugly girl, to be sure, though modelling would never be an option.  She was slim and kept good care of herself.  Her personality was generally pleasant, though she was a bit needy and tended to nag.  She was from a working class family with no major red flags for him.  In all, not a bad girl; but not one he really cared to marry.  He regretted her part in the events to come.