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.

Sacrifice, Part 2

(The horror story continues.)

“Yeah,” Colin said, “it is.  That’s all part of the charm, of course.”

     “Are there any neighbours close by?”

     Colin pressed his memory.  The family did not really mix much with friends or neighbours in the area.  That sort of thing only started after the move to New York.  The closest thing he could recall was an older, farming couple that were a short drive away; and, even then, he was under the impression that their property had since been added to the Hardwick estate.

     “Not close by, for sure,” he said.  “The house itself is huge, and the property extends a few miles or so around it.  It is an old estate.  Not many like it, anymore.”

     “You figure it was built about two hundred years ago?” Macy asked, enjoying the start of their chat.

     “The original part of the house was built right before the Revolution,” he said, remembering what his grandparents had explained to him a million times as a boy.  “The exact date is not known because they added the rest of the house about ten years later, when the British were gone and things had calmed down.  So, technically, the building is about two hundred years old.”

     “The Hardwick’s must have made good money,” she said, suddenly into new territory with the history of the mansion.  “What did they do?”

     “Well, the official, family line is has it as a combination of old money from Europe and a mix of local business interests.  We know they owned sawmills, forges and several general stores, but it gets murky beyond that.”

     “Ah,” she laughed, “finally some juicy stuff.  Do tell.”

     Colin smiled.  The conversation was actually enjoyable to him, as well.  “There is a ton of rumour that they smuggled just about anything and everything you can imagine.  It is said this brought the Hardwick’s to the colonies, in the first place.  During the revolution, their smuggling operations went into overdrive.  The expansion to Hardwick House was a result.”

     “So they smuggled goods past the British,” Macy laughed, her knowledge of history quite limited.  Her understanding of the American Revolution was that the British had high taxes, the Americans revolted and won.  George Washington and Thomas Edison were mixed into it, somehow, too.  “You come from patriotic roots,” Macy added.

     “Not likely,” Colin said, half smiling.  “Rumour has it that the Hardwicks smuggled for both sides, until it was clear the British were finished.  Then, they sided exclusively with the American cause.  Business probably trumped politics.”

     “Scandalous,” Macy said, looking at their surroundings.  She noticed, rather suddenly, that there were no power lines flanking the road side.  She glanced at her phone, noticing the reception was at zero bars.  A glance at the GPS showed it was searching for satellites.  She waited a few minutes before bringing her growing angst to her fiancé, who seemed oblivious to it all.

     “You do know where you are going, right?” she asked.

     “Absolutely,” Colin said, suddenly noting the state of the GPS.  “Don’t worry about that, I looked the map over before we left.  The area has always lagged behind with technology.  Your phone probably doesn’t have much reception out here, either.”

     “Are you from a Quaker family or something?” Macy asked, suddenly unsure of what was coming.  “This place does have electricity, right?”

     Colin laughed, almost choking from it.  “Not Quakers, no,” he said, trying to calm down, “but suspicious of new things, yes.  The land is in a bit of a valley and there are no cell towers on or near it.  I am not even sure if Uncle Cyril owned a cell phone; and if he did, he was the first in the family to live at the house with one.”

     “And the electricity?” she asked with growing suspicion of her own.

     “They have a private line running off the grid,” Colin explained.  “My grandparents were very suspicious of outsider access to the property, so they cut some deals to make sure the lines were off limits to government people.  It was only installed after I was born, in fact.”

     “And it is working now?”

     “I am told so,” Colin said, “but the power was never reliable, even after it was installed.  A rural reality.”

     “The charm of the weekend is sure rubbing off quickly,” she muttered.

     “It will all be over before you know it, dear,” he said, lacing in his best charm.

     They did not drive much further when they reached the turn to the property.  It was a private road, complete with a gate and no trespassing sign.  Colin pulled up to the gate, got out and unlocked the padlock with one of the keys that had been mailed to him.  After driving through, he locked the gate behind them.

     “Why bother?” Macy asked when he returned to the car.

     “A minor precaution against trespassers,” Colin said, “and it helps with any insurance issues that might come up.  Stupid, I know.”

     The private road to the house was not much different than the last few miles of dirt road.  It was rutted and worn, probably one of the first things needing repair.  The trees were a little closer and the light seemed a bit dimmer, especially for noon.  Macy’s sense of distance was worse than her history, but it was quite a distance from the gate before they reached Hardwick House.

     The building was vaguely Victorian, though it had almost gothic elements on the exterior.  Built on a small rise, just clear of the forest line, the house stood three stories and seemed to sprawl out like a monster on a rock.  The final approach was covered with paving stones, lined with cherry trees.  It was almost beautiful.

     “Wow,” Macy said, taking in the building and grounds.  There were statues and a small fountain in front of the building, now a touch mossy and entangled with vines.  The building exterior showed signs of both weathering and recent repair.  Colin was growing distracted as they came to a stop in front of the main door.  When they stepped out of the car, the world was silent; no sound, wild or otherwise, was to be heard.  The sudden change was almost palpable, and Colin filled the gap awkwardly, despite being awash in his own thoughts.

     “Welcome to Hardwick House!” he exclaimed in a mock showy tone.

     If it had not been for the newest concerns of electricity, cell service, and complete isolation, Macy might have found the place quaint.  The charm was there, yet her mood was off; and she was not confident she would shake it.

Sacrifice, Part 1

(I return from holidays a little refreshed and ready to kick off 2020. I hope everyone had a happy and restful time. Thought I would switch gears from the long, sci-fi and jump back to some shorter, spooky stuff. This is a horror/ghost story with just a hint of mystery thrown in. Hope you enjoy.)

“You have been putting this off for forever, Colin,” Macy nagged playfully.  “Like so many other things.”

            Colin was getting used to the nagging; it was growing more frequent as the wedding day approached.  He put up with it, on account of the bigger picture.  “The old house isn’t going anywhere, so a few more minutes will be okay.”

            “I guess so,” she agreed, keeping things playful.

            The car was already packed and ready for the short drive to the Hardwick House.  Even though he had only brought up the family house recently, the trip to see it was high on both their priority lists.  Macy already knew she liked Colin; he fit her check list so well that it sometimes scared her.  His family had dwindled from several accidents and tremendous ill luck, true, but that also meant fewer in-laws to interfere or quarrel with.  Colin was a junior partner in a mediocre law firm, clean cut and God-fearing.  He was a little older than she had hoped for; that being the worst thing about him.  He had not immediately told her about the family estate in the heart of New England he had recently inherited, perhaps concerned that she was a gold digger, yet this seemed a reasonable precaution to her.  She had not accepted his proposal for his money, but the additional security it provided was welcome.

            For Colin, the house had some value beyond childhood memories.  He had been raised there until he was nine, when his father whisked Colin and his mother away to New York City.  Life had been good at the Hardwick House, a remote, Victorian mansion in a magnificent state of upkeep; especially compared to a busy, loud and crowded New York City.  Twenty five years later, Colin was in a tight spot.  Despite relative success as a business lawyer, his lifestyle and some questionable investments had set his finances back.  Debts were crippling, nearly to the point of breaking.  The family estate came to him as an early surprise; the recent passing of an estranged uncle being the last in a string of unusual deaths.  The place was worth a fair chunk of change; at least, enough to pay his mounting debts and give him a fresh start.  Still, there was always a price, even for an unexpected gift.

            The plan was to spend Saturday night at the house in order to check it out.  Colin’s Uncle Cyril had been keeping the place as a summer residence.  Uncle Cyril had been carrying out some upkeep toward selling the place, so the property would keep them dry enough for a weekend.  They brought camping gear, just in case.

            “How long since your uncle stayed there?” Macy asked as they got underway.

            “Almost a year,” Colin said, sure he had told her before.

            “I still can’t believe it took so long for the will to go through,” she said, mostly to make conversation.  Colin had only told her about it a month ago.  She had been dying to see Colin’s childhood home ever since.

            “It was a pretty screwy will,” Colin said, playing along with the idle conversation.  “I think he probably didn’t want the place going to me.  He did everything except exclude me from the will.  If he had, there would be an auction right now.”  Cyril had willed his entire estate to a series of friends who turned out to have passed away or disappeared.  The will was clearly old; the old man had not expected to kick off so soon.  When it was clear that no one in the will was available to take it, Hardwick House passed to the next available family member.

            “You were kind of vague about his break with the family,” Macy went on.  “He didn’t get along with your dad, somehow?”

            “The reason I was vague is because I never had it explained to me, either,” Colin explained.  “No one talked about it, really.  What I know came in bits and pieces.  Mom and dad were already dead before I left law school, so there wasn’t a lot of adult discussion of family politics.  Who knows, they might never have told me, anyway.”

            “Your uncle was mad that your dad left the estate,” Macy probed.  “Seems like a weird thing to fight over.”

            Colin smiled.  He had wondered about the full connection to his own understanding of the house and Uncle Cyril’s rift with his father.  “It could be anything, I guess.  For all I know, dad left because of the fight.  The bits and pieces suggest Cyril felt dad owed it to my grandparents to stay.  I just don’t have enough information to say, really.”

            Macy smiled and put her hand Colin’s shoulder.  “You’re funny,” she said, almost giggling, “with your legal need to have it all evidenced out.  You don’t even want to try a few theories?”

            “Not really,” Colin said, really not caring about the details of an event that no longer mattered.

            “Okay,” she said, trying to find a new angle to keep the conversation going.  “What did your uncle do for a living?”

            “He was a building contractor,” Colin said.  “As far as I know, that was all he ever did.”

            Macy nodded.  “And did he have much money of his own?  He was keeping up a pretty expensive property for a few years.”

            “He was planning on selling it in a few years, according to the paperwork.  His contracting business didn’t make a ton of money, but he seemed to manage.  For all I know, he was selling family heirlooms to make the difference.  As it stands, I already sold his business to one of his senior employees to cover the legal costs related to the stupid will.  He was worth that much, at least.”

            “Hopefully he kept the plumbing up,” Macy said, looking to lighten things.  “I don’t really want to do my business in a pot all weekend.”

            “I think the place is livable, including plumbing,” Colin said, checking his blind spot as he pulled onto the interstate.  “A local caretaker was keeping the place up until a couple of weeks ago.  Another provision of the will.”

            “Why did he stop?” Macy asked.  A caretaker was news to her.

            “A short term contract provided for in the will,” Colin said.  “It’s part of why I wanted to see the place now.  If the place is good enough to sell, as is, I may hire him on again until a deal closes.”  He had already explained his intention to fix the house up, if needed, to maximize the price.

            “Would you ever consider keeping it?” she asked.  She had brought it up before, briefly, but never really discussed it beyond that.

            Colin smirked.  “Part of me wouldn’t mind.  The truth is that my life is based in the city.  The commute is almost manageable, except for the winters.  I couldn’t justify the place as a summer residence, considering what year round taxes and insurance would cost.  Besides, just keeping the place up would be a job.  There must be a dozen bedrooms alone.”

            Macy smiled again, suddenly feeling close to him.  “Maybe, when we finally stop waiting to do the deed,” she said, half serious, “we could work on filling those rooms.”  She had casually referenced their state of celibacy.  Macy was not altogether the most religious girl, however she had a strong desire to remain celibate until her wedding night; which was, for Colin, the only thing that mattered.

            Colin looked away to hide the look crossing his face, obvious sadness and regret.  When he turned back, smiling, she seemed not to have noticed.  “That’s a lot of rooms,” was all he said.

            The expressway gave way to a short run on a secondary highway before leading to a genuine side road.  The road was hilly and winding at stops, seeming to hug the landscape.  Irregular intervals of houses and farms quickly gave way to trees and brush.  For Macy, a true city girl, they were suddenly in a wilderness; and she was uncomfortable with it.  They had been fairly quiet for a while, and she needed the comfort of conversation.

            “You weren’t kidding about the place being in the middle of nowhere,” she said, hoping he would converse.

Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

More Casserole

(Just adding a bit more to the last post here. Enjoy)

     I had parked in an alley between a hardware store and a junk shop.  When I reached the car, Mallory was already behind the wheel, smiling mischievously and certainly pleased with herself.

     “Hop in,” she said through the open window, before I could speak, “I’m driving.”

     “Like hell you are,” I snapped.  “Get out.”

     “Listen, Peters,” she said, smirking.  “If you really want to make a scene on a quiet, northern morning, after seriously fucking up a pair of local gangsters, go for it.  Otherwise, I’m driving.”

     She had me, and knew it.  The last thing I could afford was unwanted attention.  Besides, a physical fight between the two of us would be more than noticeable.

     I got in and buckled up, instructing Mal to do the same.  “You already look like a freak,” I told her, “so we won’t be giving the police any more reasons to stop us today.”

     “Fine,” she said, and laughed.  She started the car out of town, driving by Foundation Street.  Two cruisers had already arrived, cherries blazing and sirens silent.

     “They sure took their time,” she commented.

     “For a town like this, they did alright,” I said.  “No gunshots or screaming reported.  They were like lightning.”

     We drove in silence for a while.  Mal kept us heading to the main roads out of town while I nervously tried to appreciate the rural scenery.  I was content to stay quiet; I didn’t want to know why she was here.  Before we reached the last turnoff to the major highway, she pulled into a coffee shop drive thru.

     “We’re barely twenty minutes out of town,” I spoke up.  “This is a bad idea.”

     “I’m hungry now,” Mal said, as if I had not spoken.  “And we were already seen by several people.  You must be peckish, too, unless you stuffed yourself this morning.”

     A dozen doughnuts and two coffees with three sugars were ordered.  Mal smiled at the disinterested clerk like we were out for a Sunday drive.  She hit the highway and set the cruise at one twenty.  She started packing down the doughnuts.

     “Sure you don’t want one?” she asked after the sixth one disappeared.  “They aren’t the best, but I’ve had a lot worse.”

     “I’m fine.  Just keep your eyes on the road.”  The coffee just tasted like sugar.  The calorie value was the only thing that mattered.

     Mallory left two in the box for me.  I would be hungry soon and she knew it.

     “You know,” she continued, sipping her coffee, “if I ever revert to normal I think I’m going to let myself go.  I couldn’t manage a diet if I tried.  Food is just too good, you know, especially the crap stuff.  How could I live on healthy food?”  She paused to light a cigarette.

     “This is a rental,” I spoke harshly.

     She looked at me with a smile, cigarette hanging from her lips.  She took a few insolent puffs before stubbing it out on the dash.  “There,” she challenged.  “Happy now?”

     I rubbed my temples.  I had forgotten how difficult Mal could be when she wanted to.  I settled myself enough to accept two important facts: Mal was here to tell me something and I probably didn’t want to know it.  The rest were details.  The sooner I got this out of the way, the more likely she was to go away.

     “Okay,” I spoke calmly, rubbing the frustration from my temples, “what is it?  Why did you come here?”

     “Long story,” she said, a hint of seriousness creeping in.  “It’s a good thing we have time.  There is a crisis, but not the usual kind.  This one affects us directly.  The timing of it sucks, too, so all the rogues are being called in.”

     “This sounds awfully familiar, Mal.  Am I going to get the usual lines about saving the world and living up to my potential?”  These were the type of lines they fed you, making it feel like a superhero moment when they needed your skills in action.  It was rarely a minor intervention or casual job; high pressure was the intended motivator, as though it were enticing.

     “Except this is the real deal,” Mal answered, a distant look on her face spooking me at the same time.  “I’m not shitting you in any way.”

     “You went through all this trouble,” I said, ready to call her bluff, “so I’ll nibble at the bait.  Let’s hear it.”

     Mal pursed her lips slightly before speaking.  “The Program, our cooperative arrangement with the federal security agencies, and even our own necks are in deep trouble.  Technically, it affects us all, which is why they are calling everyone in.”

     “What kind of threat are we talking about?”

     “I’m not supposed to give you any more than I already have,” Mal sighed.  “Unfortunately, you are as predictable as hell and I know you’ll fight me the whole way if I don’t do better.  So here is the teaser: the government is making moves to eliminate the program and us with it.”

     “That talk was in the wind even before I left,” I countered.  “Corbin has always handled that end, anyway.  You have to do better than that.”

     “Corbin is…”  The word caught in her throat, her tone somber.  “…is not well.”  She popped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it.  This time I said nothing.  She took a long drag and continued.

     “I won’t go into much more detail, Peters.  The information about our elimination came to us accidentally.  There is more to it, of course.  All I can say is that the intelligence we have right now is extremely legit.”

     “What is wrong with Corbin?” I asked abruptly.

“You already know more than you should,” she snapped back.  “Just go with this for once, will you?”

I wasn’t feeling like going back.  It was a part of my life that I remembered too well and despised too much.  Still, Corbin was Corbin.  He was something of a father figure to the members of the program.  In most cases, he had either saved our lives or made them worth living.  It was unlikely that Mal would use his health as a ploy to bring me in, not like this.  I was stuck, and however much I hated it, I knew it.

“Fine,” I said, angrier than intended, “I will go.”

“Good.”

“Where exactly is this meeting?” I asked, more gently.

“Not far, actually,” she said.  “Just enjoy the drive.”

This was not likely to happen.  I had too much to think about to just enjoy a drive to an unknown place, to meet people I would rather avoid and see a man I cared about in a state of illness.  My plans for an easy fortune and a quiet retirement seemed gone already.  What the hell could I do?  Even if I could ditch Mal, with violence or not, neither of which were foregone conclusions, where would I go?  Where could I hide that they wouldn’t find me, eventually?  And then, how would I feel about abandoning Corbin when he might need me?  It was not worth thinking about.  I reclined the seat slightly and reached for the remaining doughnuts.  I had a feeling I would need the calories.

A Long Way Down

(This is a dark fiction I wrote a while back. It sits around two thousand words, after a painful edit.)

“I don’t know about this, Mitch,” Bobby said, scratching his head.  “It’s a long way down.”

Mitch held the fishing line where they had marked the depth of the hole.  It was twenty feet deeper than they had estimated.

“No biggee,” Mitch said, his usual confidence shining through, “we still have enough rope.”  Bobby kept his doubts to himself.  Mitch was fourteen, two years older; he was practically an adult.  If he was sure they could do it, then it could be done.

The two boys had scavenged sixty feet of rope and miscellaneous items for their fortune hunting.  Their fishing line and sinker measurement had the hole almost fifty feet deep.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Bobby asked.  “Your Gramps said it was only thirty.”

“He said it was about thirty,” Mitch corrected.  “It was a long time ago, but this is the place.  There aren’t any other holes like this near Camby Road.  We checked, remember?”

Mitch’s grandfather had spent a great deal of time in jail over the years.  It was only in the last couple of years that he got to know his grandson.  A week earlier, he died in hospital from a chronic lung infection.  His legacy was a poor one, rife with years of robbery, assault, and prison.  The only thing of value he left behind was stowed in an abandoned mine, the unmarked entrance to which was located on INCO property.

“We can’t chicken out,” Mitch went on as he double checked the rope.  “This might be the only chance we have to make it out of Bear Valley.  I don’t want to spend my life here with some shitty job or welfare.  This is it.”

“We could die down there,” Bobby said, as though they had not covered that possibility before.

“Listen,” Mitch said.  “You are the only guy I can trust, that’s why I brought you in on this.  I might need your help down there, too.  Remember, if I go down there alone, I keep it all.”

“I know,” Bobby said, feeling a little ashamed of his last minute fear.  “I’m not chickening out.  I just want to make sure we do this right.  Y’know, be safe.”

“There’s not much more we can do about that,” Mitch said, looking through his pack sack.  “Everybody is talking about INCO opening up this mine again, because of the price of gold and all that.  If we wait too long we might not get a chance to do this.  I would rather die in this hole than live poor my whole life.”  This had been something of a mantra since Mitch’s grandfather revealed the hidden inheritance.

Their decent was slow and careful.  Mitch went first, holding the rope with white-knuckled effort as he lowered himself down.  The walls of the hole were close enough to reach, and had plenty of ledges, but the rope was the only secure thing to hold.  The edges had grown mossy and crumbled, making them dangerous handholds.  Bobby watched as Mitch descended into the gloom; the sight did nothing to alleviate his concerns.  Bobby watched a faint light grow stronger down the hole, Mitch barely visible in the greenish glow.

“How’s the rope holding?” he called up to Bobby.  He sounded a thousand miles away.

“It looks fine,” Bobby yelled back.  “The knot is solid and the log hasn’t budged.”

“Good, I’m almost there,” Mitch replied.  “Start down after me in a minute.”

Bobby waited for about a minute, as near as he could reckon.  The trip down was not as bad as he had expected.  The tightness of the walls around him made a fall seem less likely; the illusion of safety being a comfort against the dangerous reality.  When Mitch spoke, Bobby almost fell from the sudden shock of broken silence.

“It took you long enough,” Mitch grumbled.  Bobby looked down for the first time since entering the hole.  Mitch stood not more than ten feet below.  The green light of a glow stick made him look sinister.

“Sorry, Mitch,” Bobby said sarcastically as he lowered himself to the floor.  “Where did you get the glow stick?”

Mitch smiled in the eerie green light.  “Lifted a couple from Garner’s store,” Mitch answered.  “He won’t miss them.  Besides, I can pay him back once we get this gold out of here.”

“Right,” Bobby said, trying to sound like he was cool with it.  His parents were not much better off than Mitch’s father, a widower since Mitch was three, though they frowned on things like stealing.  Mitch’s father, on the other hand, was an alcoholic from a family well acquainted with the judicial system.  As much as Mitch’s behaviour bothered him, Bobby couldn’t shake his loyalty to his best, lifelong friend.  Mitch may have been rough around the edges, but he was always there to scare off bullies or share a stolen chocolate bar.

“The tunnel ahead is where the old mine starts,” Mitch said, pointing with his glow stick.  “It’s exactly how Gramps said it was.”

“It’s not too far, though, right?” Bobby asked.  “Like, maybe a hundred feet or something?”

“That’s what he said,” Mitch replied, “but it was a long time ago, so it might be more or less than that.  What’s for sure is that this is the right place.  We’re going to be rich, Bobby.”

Bobby smiled at that.  He knew it would be harder than just showing up at a bank or pawn shop with a bar of gold, yet the promise of long term wealth was hypnotic.  Ever since Mitch had approached him, Bobby imagined a life of comic books, pizza and video games.  He would live with Mitch in a mansion and never need to work.

They had agreed Bobby would go first in the tunnel since Mitch went first down the rope.  Bobby had taken a small flashlight from the shed.  It definitely threw less light than when he tested it in his room the night before.  Still, it was enough with Mitch’s glow stick providing light from behind.  They made better time once they reached the old mine level, where the floor was mostly level and ceiling high enough to stand straight.  Considering how narrow the way had been before, the mine passage was spacious.

Bobby was certain the walk felt longer than it was.  His sense of distance was clouded by the dark, unbending and featureless ruin of a mine.  The only sounds came from their nervous breathing and crunch of loose stone underfoot.  It felt like the world above was a million miles away.

Suddenly, the floor was clogged with loose rock that blocked their way.  A quick look with the flashlight made it clear the ceiling had collapsed at this point.

“The dead end,” Bobby whispered.  “Just like your Gramps said.  This has to be it.”

He looked to the right, where the box was supposed to be.  Mitch was looking, too.  Bobby moved into the corner until his flashlight was only a few feet from the wall.  A rotten box, hinges and lock heavily rusted, appeared in the beam.

“The box!” Bobby exclaimed, almost jumping at the sight of it.  “I can’t believe it.  It’s right there.”

“Holy crap, you’re right,” Mitch said.  “Gramps wasn’t crazy.  This is the real deal.  Go ahead and open it, Bobby.  You saw it first.  I’ll get the pack sack ready.”

Bobby was too excited to argue the point.  Three bars of gold, stolen from the mine by Mitch’s grandfather, lay before them; money enough to live rich for three lifetimes.  The lid broke apart before Bobby could get it all the way open.  Three dirty bricks lay at the bottom of the ancient, ruined box.  Somehow, they still gave off the slightest shine of yellow.  Bobby rubbed one of them with his sleeve and the golden colour was undeniable.  The deal was two for Mitch and one for him, but that was more than enough for a life of comic books, pizza and video games.

“Aaahh!” Bobby cried as the beam from his flashlight crossed a bony hand next to the box.  “What the hell is that?!”  He stumbled back and looked again.  The hand was connected to the remains of a skeleton, with only scant remains of clothing clinging to it.

“That’s Scott McMurphy,” Mitch said, looking far too calm for the circumstances.  “He was my Gramps’ partner.”

Bobby took a moment to process this.  It was the only thing between him and pure panic.  “What happened?  Why is he here?  Did he come back to take it and fall or something?  Did your Gramps know about this?”

“Yeah, he knew,” Mitch said calmly.  “I just didn’t want to tell you.  You might not have come if you knew there was a body down here.”

“But what happened?  How did he die?”  Bobby was in shock.  He wanted to look away, shine the light somewhere else, except for the horrible, mad fear that dead Scott McMurphy would stand up and kill them.

“Gramps killed him,” Mitch said.  “He needed to be sure the hiding place would stay secret.”

“He was his partner…” Bobby trailed off in thought for a moment.  “Why?”

“Nice guys finish last,” Mitch said in the same, steady voice.  Bobby looked at his best friend, bathed in the sick, green light of a stolen glow stick, suddenly noticing he held a knife.

“Mitch?” Bobby squeaked out.  “What are you doing?”

“What Gramps told me to,” Mitch said, slowly approaching.  “You’re a loose end, man.  I hate to do it, but I can’t risk this getting out.”

“You can have it all, Mitch,” Bobby whined, backing away.  “I won’t say anything, honest.  Just don’t kill me down here, okay?”

There would be no fighting Mitch.  Even without the knife, he was a head taller with a deceivingly strong frame.  Bobby was wiry, yes, but knew he could never win.  Bobby scrambled over the loose, fallen rocks until he was cornered.  He lashed out with a wild kick, hoping to get lucky.  Mitch countered with a punch that came short.  In a last, desperate attempt to survive, Bobby tried to lunge past him and run for the hole.  If he could only get clear he might make it.

Bobby flashed his light into Mitch’s eyes and jumped over the rocks awkwardly.  The flash of pain in his left leg took a moment to register; the adrenaline nearly muted it out.  Bobby kept moving forward, half crawling and half running as Mitch pawed at him.  When they cleared the rocks, Mitch struck again, cutting Bobby’s left Achilles through to the bone.

Bobby tried to stand, only his foot could not hold him.  Terror subsided into angry resignation in a flash.

“Why, Mitch?” Bobby shouted.  “Why did you bring me here?  Why did you even tell me about it?  Are you just a psycho or something?”

Mitch hesitated, breathing hard.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Gramps couldn’t remember if he booby trapped the box or not.  I needed you to open it, just in case.”

Bobby suddenly felt light-headed.  “But why me?  You could have brought someone else.  I’m your friend.”

“You were the only one I could trust not to blab,” Mitch replied, the first hint of remorse entering his voice.  “It had to be you.”

“Mitch,” Bobby pleaded, his strength fading, “you can still trust me.  I can say it was an accident or something.  You can keep the gold.  I’ll never tell…”

“That treasure is all I’ll ever get from my family,” Mitch said, sounding tired.  “Mom is dead and Dad is just a drunk bum.  Gramps wasn’t much better, really, but at least he left me something.  I have nothing else.  I can’t risk it.  Sorry.”

Mitch struck again.  Bobby, weakened and shocked, put up a poor defense.  As his friend finished him off, Bobby couldn’t escape the thought of how far down he was.