The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 9

Josh sat back in his seat as his thoughts raced. Certainly, his departure from Pragmore had been necessary, but what he now found himself in the middle of was not helping him to find the peace and serenity that he had been looking forward to when he had resigned. Like Dr. Harper, Josh knew he was not directly responsible for Fred Dillard’s murder, but he felt responsible regardless. If I had only not found that damn passageway, Josh said to himself over and over. But he had, and now there was no going back.

If Ben was correct, it seemed this group of artifact thieves would not stop, no matter what. He supposed he could just leave what he had found in plain sight in the house and walk away for a few weeks. Let these weasels take the damn manuscript and map. Had he not already caused enough damage? But Josh pondered the legacy of Father Carlos Crespi Croci. And then his mind wandered to William and Helen Masterson, who had protected the manuscript and map for so many years. He could hardly be the one to let all those efforts fall into the hands of common thieves.

“You OK, Josh? You look like you are a million miles away.”

“Oh…sorry, Doc. Just processing all of this.”

“Wondering what we do now?”

“Among other things.”

“Sure. Wishing you had never gone poking around in your cellar?”

“You a psychic now, too, Doc?”

“Hardly. It just seems logical to me. If I was in your shoes, that is what would have popped into my brain. Just to ease your conscience, even if you had not gone spelunking, it is very likely these men would have paid you a visit anyway. I am pretty sure they were well versed in the Mastersons and that they were protecting your find. When you came to see me, I am guessing their surveillance made them wonder if you had left the map and papers with me to pass along to the proper authorities.”

“They seem…I don’t know…motivated?

“That is a charitable description, Josh.”

Josh’s thoughts again returned to Fred Dillard and felt both angry and ashamed at his flippant description.

“You have a plan?”

“Actually, I do. Since getting that call early today and coming in and finding out the lengths that these men will go to, it gave me lots of time to think.”

“Something tells me this is going to be risky.”

“And if we do nothing?”

“OK…OK…I get it. Should I call you Indiana Jones or would you prefer James Bond?”

Harper smiled and chuckled to himself as he finished the last of his coffee, despite that it had gone stone cold. Josh laughed along. As he pushed his own mug aside, Josh glanced around the café to notice the initial crowds had thinned out considerably. The rain had slowed to something between a drizzle and a mist, but a heavy fog had settled over town and it was hard to see much beyond a few feet outside the windows of the shop. His laugh faded away as he looked intently around the remaining customers and onto the walkways outside.

“Wondering if they are watching us now, Josh?”

“It occurred to me.”

“Could be. As I said, these guys are professionals. Do not underestimate them. They could have gone straight to your house to look, but in the broad daylight…even as semi-daylight as today is…seems too risky even for them. Would not surprise me if they were keeping an eye on us just in case the things are elsewhere.”

“Or if we have involved the police in this?”

“Good point.”

“Think that is a good idea?”

“Not directly. Which brings me to my idea.”

“Uh, oh…what did you have in mind, Indy?”

Harper smiled broadly.

“Whatever we do, Josh, we need to be in total agreement. OK?”

Josh nodded, despite his reservations on not dialing up the cops right this second.

“Would you say we need to get these things to the proper authorities?”

Josh nodded.

“Would you say it is worth a shot to try and have these men arrested if possible? Considering everything they have done to get at the stuff?”

“Um…sure. Especially for Fred. But we are certainly not the professionals to do that, are we, Doc?”

“That is why I plan on calling in some help. I have a plan that might actually work to accomplish both goals. But for sure we will need help. It is not like I mistrust the local police, but if we are being watched closely…and I have no reason to believe we are not, based on what has transpired already…I think getting regular law enforcement on board at this point might scare them off and then we will have no clue as to when they will resurface. Though I am pretty sure they would not just give up.”

“You know of someone to call?”

Harper just smiled and nodded subtly.

“I was never ceased to be amazed by you as a student, Doc. Apparently that is still the situation.”

“I try never to be boring, Josh. Let me make a few calls and I will be in touch as soon as I can. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open. If there is a safer place for the manuscript and map, feel free to stash them there. If you see or hear or even suspect anything out of the ordinary at your house, all me immediately. Even if it is just your intuition, OK?”

“OK.”

………..

Josh drove slowly back home wondering what exactly Dr. Harper had up his sleeve. When he had been one of the professor’s students, he never would have imagined that the scenario he now found himself in, tied in tandem to what he had always thought of as a mild-mannered, book-wormish history professor, would be his reality. Every car he passed, every pedestrian he slipped by made him wonder if they were the men who might soon be coming to his house for what he had discovered and then secured away in his cellar. The same men who had so little value for human life, that they held whatever monetary value the map and its associated papers possessed more important. The longer Josh dwelled on what had happened to Fred Dillard, the more certain he was that he had to continue along on whatever path that he and Ben Harper had found themselves.

Josh’s neighborhood was quiet and the streets empty as he turned into the cul-de-sac and eased his old car into the driveway. He had been in the house long enough now to know that all the cars parked along the street belonged there. There was not a single vehicle that he might have picked out as not belonging or out of place. He was not sure if that was a good thing or not. Perhaps at this point, these men might have assumed that he and Ben Harper were on to them and would be looking for an out of place vehicle, and they would be moving in on him on foot so as not to be immediately conspicuous.

And what if they made a move before Josh heard from Dr. Harper? Josh was certainly no milquetoast, but on the other hand he knew in his heart that he would be no match for the professional criminals that Dr. Harper had described. And it was just him. From what Harper had indicated, though Josh did not know how he might know this, it seemed as if there would be at least two men. Maybe the evidence at his office indicated this. Josh did not have any type of proper weapon to defend himself. He had never been a strong believer in guns in general, but at this moment he suddenly wished differently. Then the voice in his head told him otherwise. The last thing he needed, he told himself, was a deadly weapon that he had no real idea how to use or had been trained on when up against professionals that would be well versed in all manner of weaponry.

Or maybe they would not even need a weapon. If Ben was right, and they were as dangerous as they seemed, perhaps they had dispatched poor old Fred Dillard with bare hands. Also out of Josh’s expertise. Hell…all he had at his disposal were a few kitchen knives…hardly of any real use for defense…and a few little used tools that he had hung onto from his days as David Garrison’s assistant when a student. Before going inside, Josh sat on his porch and pulled his rain slicker tighter, and snugged his ratty, thread-worn baseball cap from his youth down on his head as he stared out at the street. The rain which had let up while he was at Uncommon Grounds had found new energy and though not a downpour, was new a steady shower. The low clouds hung thick in the sky as well and the whole atmosphere was giving Josh an uneasy pain in his stomach.

It seemed so stereotypical from all the mystery novels that Josh had entertained himself with over the years, but there it was…danger lurking in the air, while a gray, miserable, rainy pall filled the late afternoon. Why was it that in all those tales that nothing untoward ever happened in the bright sunlight of day? It was always rainy or dark or the trifecta, rainy, dark and bolts of electricity ripping across the sky. Josh supposed he should be thankful for just a gray, rainy day. After a few minutes, Josh was getting chilled sitting on the hard, wooden chair on the porch, and he rose to go inside. The damp of the afternoon felt as if it had seeped into his bones and Josh was actually shivering as he opened his front door. He knew for sure that the rain and the overcast day were having little to do with his discomfort. The temperature was not all that cold, and Josh was not a person who got chilled easily.

He hung his coat and hat on the rack just inside the front door and headed to the kitchen to make some tea. He was still wired from all the coffee from the day but still felt a hot drink would hopefully warm his bruised spirit. Josh thought of moving the manuscript and map to a more secure location, but in the end, he thought better of it. First of all, he had secured the things away in a location on the small room off the passageway that would not be immediately obvious…he hoped. And secondly, he was at a loss as to where he would relocate them anyway. As what little light remained from the day slipped away, Josh heated up some leftovers for dinner and settled into the living room to try and relax as much as possible, all things considered.

Not that he was such an expert in this situation, but Josh had decided that if the men were to come to his house next in their quest, that it would not be tonight. He had no idea why he felt this, other than just on an intuitive basis. For once he truly prayed his normally reliable and dependable intuition served him well. Night was certainly an ideal time for them to come. But after talking to Ben today, Josh knew he would not sleep, and reasoned that a well-lit house would be an added deterrent. He did not expect to hear from Dr. Harper that night, but Josh knew if he could make it until morning…hopefully a morning with some sun and blue skies…he would not be so on edge.

With all the lights he could fire up blazing away, Josh flipped on his television for company and settled in to greet the sunrise. It was a few hours later that Josh was roused from a sleep by an unusual sound. With a start, he snapped to consciousness wondering how long he had been out. The TV was still on, now airing an infomercial that seemed to be aimed at some sort of kitchen peeling device that the host assured you could not survive without. Despite the company of another voice, Josh found the man on the program more annoying than comforting and he switched off the set. No sooner than he had killed the power to the set, then there was a loud pop along the side of the house and his brightly lit home was plunged into darkness.

Josh felt his heart skip a beat and then his pulse race as he sat in the black of the living room listening with all his might. For a few seconds there was nothing. Just Josh and the beat of his pulse in his ears. He made his way to the kitchen to retrieve his emergency flashlight so he could at least navigate the house. After a few frustrating seconds of fumbling in the dark for the flashlight, Josh retrieved it and snapped on the beam. All still seemed quiet and Josh laughed at his overreaction to what must have been a blown fuse. He really needed to get that electrician in to check out the wiring.

Josh was on his way to the basement door so he could go down and check on the fuses to see if it would be as simple as replacing a fuse. As soon as his hand touched the brass knob, Josh stopped dead in his tracks as a series of regular scratching and scaping noises began to filter up the stairs from the cellar floor. Not a blown fuse or a breaker, Josh knew. Someone was in the house. He willed his pulse and pounding heart to calm down so he could hear what was going on below. He took deep breaths to slow the sounds in his ears that were over whelming him, but he was not having much success. What to do…

He grabbed his phone to give Dr. Harper a quick call. Probably just paranoia, but better safe than sorry, Josh figured. He went to call but got the message that the network was temporarily out of service. You have got to be fucking kidding me, Josh muttered under his breath as he closed the phone and set it on the kitchen counter. In a moment of dark humor, Josh wondered when the jagged bolts of lightning would begin, since everything seemed to be a parody of every mystery movie he had seen or intrigue book he had read.

Any type of weapon he might have was downstairs in the tool box. He now cursed himself for not having thought ahead, and having let his poor judgement not prepare him. Too late now for chastising myself, Josh said internally. He turned off the flashlight, stuck the handle into the back pocket of his jeans and eased open the door that led onto the stairs to the cellar. The door opened smoothly and quietly, and Josh patted himself on the back for at least having remembered to oil the hinges the day before. Going on memory and feel, Josh eased himself onto the old wooden stairs, staying far to the side as he made his way down to keep the old steps from creaking under his weight.

He reached the uneven cellar floor without incident or having his presence detected…as far as he could tell, anyway. The scratching and digging sounds were definitely louder down here, but the cellar itself was just as dark as the upper floor of the house had been. Even desperate thieves, Josh reasoned, would have light so they could see what they were doing, in a relatively unfamiliar location. His tool box was on the other side of the cellar’s main room. And the sounds were between Josh and the tool box. There was no letup in the noise. Despite going against all manner of common sense that Josh was well instilled with, he did not feel he could just wait this out. Though not logical, and perhaps extraordinarily foolish, Josh decided that perhaps surprise would be his best weapon at the moment. Before he talked himself out of it, Josh eased the flashlight from his back pocket and flooded the darkened cellar room with a bright beam as he unleashed the most banshee-like howl he could conjure up.

The sets of eyes that reflected back at Josh were not nearly as terrifying as the howl of surprise that went with them and Josh lost his footing as he skittered backward at what he saw. His rear hit the hard cellar floor, sending a reverberating shock wave up his spine. The flashlight shot out of his sweaty palm and rolled away from him, sending a wild array of beams in all directions until it came to rest against the far wall. Josh felt his head collide with a 2X4 that was sticking out from a workbench and before he went down for good, all he saw were stars…again about as stereotypical as you could get he supposed…before it was all black and he feared he had perhaps stepped into a mess from which he would not survive.

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