The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 16

Ben Harper drove Josh back to his car where he had left it the night before, just down the street from the Blue Tarragon. At this point, Harper had explained, there was no point in anymore subterfuge or need to try and not have their adversaries not be aware of Josh’s location or movements about town—in fact, the real success of the strategy was to have Josh in plain sight, a very visible and easily followed decoy. The drawback of course, was that this put Josh at a higher level of risk than he had ever been at up to this point. Harper knew in his heart that these operatives were devoid of any humanity, driven only by money, and in that regard could possibly be quite unpredictable and capricious.

Even though Josh was not going to be carrying the actual documents at this point, a part of the plan known only to Harper and his old partners, it still put him in some danger, as the goons at large would not know that either. It was a gamble, Harper knew, but seeing as how Josh was inexperienced in these matters, he wanted his outward reactions, body language, and reactions to be natural; Josh’s ignorance on this detail was vital. Unbeknownst to Josh, Harper had arranged for the real documents to be retrieved from Josh’s car overnight while he was otherwise engaged with the lovely Barb Delmont. They swapped out the originals for a hopefully believable set of fabricated and fraudulent copies. Harper knew that Josh would never know the difference, and was hoping the thieves would be clueless as well—this was not 100% assured, but he felt good about the chances all the same; these guys were hired muscle, not historical experts.

The only real serious gamble in this assumption, Harper realized, was that the men might assume that once they had the real thing, even though they might not know they had been duped, they could eliminate Josh just to remove any connections to them. This was where Harper’s associates came in. It was a fail-safe to further ensure Josh’s safety while making him behave and react as if what he had was the real thing. However…nothing was ever completely guaranteed. Harper dropped off Josh at his car and hoped for the best, knowing he was handing off his dedicated, yet reluctant new recruit into the hands of his old partners that he had convinced to join up again for one last hurrah. He trusted them completely, but not having Josh in his direct control anymore made him uneasy all the same.

Josh did his best to make his movements, walking patterns, and overall behavior look like there was nothing on his mind. At this point he knew that Harper had released him to serve as a very visible decoy, the strategy being he was to draw out the men they wanted to drop this net over. However, despite knowing he had an entire team of professionals on his side now, as well, Josh was still sweating as he strolled around his neighborhood trying to appear as casual as possible. Since he had left Uncommon Grounds he had not picked up on the feeling of being followed, by car or on foot, but then Josh also knew that these guys could make themselves virtually invisible to him if they so desired, seeing as how they were seasoned criminals and he was a novice to all of this…one successful escape by car, and knowing that had been most likely a lot of sheer luck on his part, Josh was hardly thinking of himself as having a leg upon his adversaries.

Going back to his house unnerved Josh a bit, but as Harper had pointed out, the best way to put up the façade of lack of concern was to return to what would have been his normal routine as much as he could. It would, Harper had said, either make them overly confident that they could make a move soon, or baffle them so much that the initial confrontation would come later and in an unexpected venue…Josh was not so sure either option was in his best interest for survival. He waved to his neighbors and even stopped along his stroll home to chat with a person here and there, in hopes that his behavior would add to the strategy of normalcy as well as allow him to feel out the streets for out of place looking vehicles…hell…maybe one of his busy-body neighbors might mention something; even if it was old Herb Tannerman with a report of the latest government surveillance program that was being perpetuated right under their noses.

Josh swung by his car after his tour of the neighborhood and made as big a show as he could, without going overboard, of retrieving his valise with the Crespi files inside and walked nonchalantly inside making sure that anyone that might have been looking with a scope could have seen him unconcernedly sliding the well-worn leather satchel across his dining room table before grabbing a beer from the refrigerator and sinking into an arm chair to watch television. Harper had not really laid out a game plan for Josh one he had arrived home, just telling him to make it look like any other night at home. The sun set as Josh spun around the dial aimlessly as he was unable to concentrate on anything, his mind racing as to what might or might not go down that night.

When the TV offerings got just too inane and boring to bother with, Josh clicked off the set. He moved the valise into a cupboard in the hallway just to move the items out of clear sight, just in case he had visitors, and headed to bed. He tried picking up with the novel he had begun a few weeks earlier, but just could not focus on the words and knowing it was not likely to be a restful night, what with two roving scumbag thieves on the loose and all, Josh doused the light by his bed and tried anyway. He was sure he was in for a long night of tossing and turning as his nerves were on edge, but within the hour, Josh dozed off and was soon dreaming of Barb Delmont.

…………

Much later, Josh was aroused as a strong wind picked up and some young tender branches from a maple tree outside his bedroom dormer slapped in an uneven rhythm against the house. Josh awoke in a dream-addled stupor, his heart thumping wildly as his full attention was eventually shifted to the slapping of the tree branches on the dry clapboard. Once he realized what the noise was, he felt the sudden wave of anxiety wash away and he fell back into his bed letting his pulse and respirations slow. However, just as he relaxed and even found himself able to laugh at his overreaction to the noise outside, the wind died off, apparently between gusts, but there was still noise in the house. Unfortunately, Josh thought to himself, it was not from the wind, and it was coming from the basement. And as much as he would have liked to believe otherwise, he was pretty sure it was not part two of the Marauding Raccoons. This was quieter and more measured and regular in its movements, hardly what he had heard before when the clumsy Procyon clan, the genus of the common racoon, had paid a call.

Josh eased himself out of bed and walked silently across the floor and listened at the head of the stairs. Though he had limited experience in such matters, Josh was pretty sure he could recognize what it might sound like if someone had broken in and was trying to sneak around. He grabbed a T-shirt off the top of his bedroom door and slipped it on before beginning his careful descent to the main level of the house. His old sneakers were still at the bottom of the stairs where he had left them a few hours ago, and he eased into them just as the few nightlights he had left on around the house to help him navigate in the dark, if necessary, went dead, plunging the house into darkness,

The muted but hard to miss sounds from the basement continued, getting more distinct as the seconds ticked off, and Josh had to make a decision. Did he make a stand where he was at the moment once the intruders appeared? Or was a better option to get on the move, in order to draw them out and away from what was to some degree a confining space of defense? Staying put had the advantage of his familiarity of his house, though he guessed seasoned criminals would find the strange environment not much of a challenge, considering they most likely had maneuvered around in many places foreign to them in the course of their past break-ins…also, Josh assumed they had most likely already become at least somewhat familiar with his home’s layout on other occasions when they had come looking for the files and come up empty handed.

The pros and cons of grabbing the files and getting out of the house were equally perplexing, weighing being on the run from some serious muscle versus nor being confined by the physical limitations of the house’s interior. Josh had no misgivings about his limited abilities to go up against these guys based on what he knew of them already and what they were capable of in the pursuit of the Crespi files. But in the end, he figured getting at least a bit of a head start away from the house made more sense in the few seconds he had in which to make this snap decision. He retrieved the valise from the cupboard and as quietly as he could slipped from his house as he donned his baseball cap and began what he hoped was a successful escape route through the neighborhood and then across town…at least until he could formulate a better plan or perhaps get in touch with Dr. Harper, et al

No sooner than Josh had moved down his street and was heading through the shadows of the night toward the large park that he knew like the back of his hand, Ben Harper’s phone chimed with an incoming text message:

Ben…your boy’s on the move. Just a heads up. Iggy.

Ben smiled at the message from his old partner.

Thanks, Ig…Guess our targets came calling. I figured he might take flight if this happened. You and Brian and Rich on him? Ben

Like flies on a roadkill, Ben…we will take it from here. Iggy.

Ben signed off and headed to the vantage point he needed to act as the final fail-safe location if necessary, though with Iggy, Brian, and Rich now taking the lead, he thought it unlikely he would have to intervene until later…

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