Unlike all the novels he had read, Josh found his senses again within just a few seconds, though he had to admit his head hurt just as badly as what was described in all those books. He got himself to his knees to retrieve the flashlight which was shining ineffectively against the far wall where it had come to rest. As he massaged the lump on the back of his head, Josh shined the light in the direction from which all the noises had been coming. The cellar was quiet again and he was alone…well almost. Wondering why, on some level, he was still alive, Josh pushed through the fog of his brain to see the short, squat forms waddling away from him as they made their way out through a torn hole in a screen over a window that sat at ground level. Raccoons…Josh finally realized, as he rubbed his sore head and felt his body calm down.
The little buggers had apparently gnawed through not only the flimsy screen to gain access to the basement but had also chewed through his electrical lines as well, throwing the house into darkness. Josh regained his feet and recovered his dignity at having been knocked out by his reaction to a roving band of suburban varmints. He shone his light toward the hole in the window as the last of the group looked back and hissed at him defiantly to see the ragged ends of the electrical cable that fed into the house. After Josh got over his initial embarrassment from the incident, he realized it could have been much worse. What he needed to do, Josh told himself, as he licked his wounds and slowly climbed the stairs from the basement to the dining room, was take this as an omen of what could have happened.
By the time he had reached the dining room and patched up the few scrapes and scratches he had acquired from his fall, the sun was up and the storm from the previous night had passed. Time to check in with Ben…no more taking chances that were well beyond his ability to handle. Josh had no idea if the storm had messed with the network from earlier, but at least when he tried his phone now, all seemed normal.
“Morning, Josh…” Harper replied as the connection was made. “Quiet night?”
Josh thought briefly of skirting around the Attack of the Marauding Raccoons, but in the end figured it was not worth trying to salvage his ego. He and Harper needed to work together as a unit, and now was hardly the time to begin keeping secrets, regardless of how foolish he felt. He filled in the professor fully and finally joined him in a laugh when he had finished his story.
“Sorry, Josh…I know it must have been frightening at the time.”
“It’s OK…looking back now it’s pretty funny.”
“However, “Harper continued, “despite what did happen, I agree with you that it makes no sense to put yourself at any more risk. Be thankful for the warning your little furry roommates gave you. I don’t think we can just sit back and wait any longer.”
“Your plan ready to go, then?”
“Doc…take this in the spirit intended, but mostly does not fill me with confidence. I may have been a bit naïve about an immediate attack last night, and perhaps I was lucky. But after all your stories about this group and what happened to old Fred? I’m jumping at every single sound around the house this morning.”
“I can imagine. I was not real keen on leaving you alone last night, but you seemed pretty adamant about it yesterday. What I want to try just needs a few minor tweaks, trust me.”
“I am sure daylight, especially in this close-knit neighborhood, is relatively safe, Doc. But quite frankly I think I am really pushing the envelope if I stay here alone with no back-ups or other security another night.”
“Could not agree more, Josh. After these guys found nothing in my office, it is only a matter of time before they search your house. And not to put you more on edge, but I am not sure it would make too much difference to them at this point if you are there or not.”
“If this is a pep talk, Doc, it ain’t working. I do get your drift, though, especially after Fred’s murder.”
Harper grinned at his former student’s humor based on what they were facing.
“OK, Josh. Time for us to get proactive. You still with me on this?”
“Sure. Let’s have it…”
“Meet me again over at Melinda’s, the bakery joint as soon as you can. You know it?”
“Very well. The croissants and scones kept me afloat as a very challenged chef as a student.”
“And, Josh? I know this may seem like overkill, and that it may not be your forte at this point, but do not take a direct route there.”
“Just in case I am being watched?”
“Smart lad. And that valise you had with you when you first came to me with all this?”
“Bring it. But make sure it is empty.”
“Yeah. Secure that letter and map as best you can in your cellar or another spot if you think another spot in the house might be better.”
“I’m not following you, Doc?”
“I’m curious as to whether or not they are watching. Just because you do not see anything unusual does not mean they are not around. Number one, it is daylight. Little chance they would try and search your house in the light of day. Number two, I am guessing they already spotted you when you came to see me carrying that valise. Even a stupid crook would figure out you had something in there to show me. And we know these guys are not stupid. And lastly, number three, if they are watching, they will most likely assume you have the items with you in the valise. That will draw them away from the house. And if they are not looking, it will not matter.”
“A decoy? Is that what you want me to be this morning, Doc?”
“Josh…I am asking you to trust me on this one. It is a risk, but a minor one from what I can estimate. If it was dark, there would be no way I would even suggest this. It’s part of the bigger plan which I can lay out for you at Melinda’s. Think you could pick up a tail if one got put on you?”
“Maybe…maybe. All I know of this stuff is what I see in the movies, Doc.”
“That’s why you take a very circuitous route, Josh. Even a careful person would seem obvious in this small burg, get it?”
“Just if you are up to it, Josh. Do not do this if you are feeling any sense of uncertainty. It’s your call.”
“I’m in, Doc. Too much has been done so far since the days of Father Crespi. And with what could well be the double murders of the Mastersons and for sure the murder of Fred Dillard, I cannot just walk away now.”
Harper was impressed with the confidence and conviction in Josh’s response.
“See you as soon as you can, then…”
In a copse of leafy chestnut trees, just a block away from Josh’s place, a man with a spotting scope came to full alertness as he picked up Joshua walking toward his car with his artist’s valise under one arm. He touched the call button that sat just below his chin and spoke.
“Redmond’s on the move again.”
“He has the items with him?”
“It would seem so. He’s carrying that old, beat-up leather case he had when he first went to see the old university professor.”
“Guess we will go for a ride, then. See what he is up to.”
“Think he knows we are on to him?”
“Unlikely. We’ve been very careful, and he’s just a pansy artist. Untrained civilian. My guess is the professor from Tillman has clued him in and they are getting the contents verified further.”
“Want me to search the house since he is out now while you tail him?”
The man on the other end of the communications device paused and thought.
“No. He’s got it with him if he’s got that case with him for sure. Sit tight and I’ll swing by to get you.”
“Bring what you’ve got. You never know. Maybe we can wrap this thing up today after all.”
“Mr. Richards would love that.”
The man broke the connection. They needed to roll and each mention of their boss’ name made his skin crawl as he could not help focus on their fates if they came up short again. He ground out his cigarette and put the cheap Nissan coupe into gear.