The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 17

As Josh jogged away down the tree-lined street where he now lived, dim lights shone across the short hallway that led from the access door into the hallway into the dining room and two figures outfitted in their standard dark clothing entered, softly closing the door behind them.

“Guessing we were not quite quiet enough?” the shorter man said to his partner.

“So it would appear…” he replied as he caught the last glimpse of Josh fleeing into the long shadows cast by the streetlights outside.

“Thought you said this guy was just some pansy artist?”

The taller man removed his mask and glared at his partner. For sure it was time to change up his professional working partnership once this all over…assuming they succeeded and avoided the wrath of Mr. Richards. He had just about had enough of his more than obvious observations and equally snide comments during this operation.

“He is…”

“Then how did he get the drop….”

Another piercing stare from the man caused him to go silent, remembering his partner’s

“How about you shut up and let’s finish what we got hired for, OK?”

“Sure…”

“It would seem we may have underestimated Mr. Redmond, and if it’s one thing you never do is…”

“Underestimate your opponent?”

“Amazing….guess you are not as dense as I thought after all.”

He hated these little confrontations that seemed to be popping up more frequently with his partner lately, but he just sucked it up and soldiered on, knowing it might soon be over. If they succeeded in securing the map and other details that would lead them to the Crespi files, then he would be amply rewarded when he got back home. If, on the other hand, they failed…well…he was trying not to think about that scenario. If they failed, it was highly unlikely either of them would be around much longer after Mr. Richards met with them. In either case, he figured, he would be rid of this moron they had saddled him with as a partner; he was just praying it was not the latter option. Living to see another day had always been very high on his list of positives…

No more was bandied about on this back and forth sniping.

“I guess you saw he bolted with the valise under one arm?” the man finally replied.

“I did. I had not expected him to just abandon the material out in the open, but I also never expected him to abscond with the files either. A man of Redmond’s limited experience with these things would have, I assumed, simply tried to hide them away back in whatever hidey-hole the Mastersons had been using, and run for help. After all, a thorough search for the files came up empty long before Redmond took ownership of the house.”

“Not thorough enough, I guess…” his partner replied recalling the prejudicial methods their boss had employed in expressing his displeasure at the failure of the team put on this operation prior to them.

“You sure he is not doing that anyway…you know, running for professional help?”

“With who? That old fossil from the history department?”

His partner just shrugged.

“I seriously doubt it. My guess is he is trying to beat feet so he can hide them away in a place far from the house until he can call in the cops or some other agency.”

“Which means we need to act fast.”

“Exactly. Bring the car around. I am pretty sure we can cut him off on the other side of the park. Redmond may know the town well, but he’s on foot, alone, and there are two of us to act as a pincer trap when he resurfaces. And before sunrise would be optimal.”

His partner nodded and jogged off, bringing the generic sedan they had stolen earlier to try and blend in fully in the neighborhood. They sped off, spraying loose gravel as they screeched around the next corner, heading for a spot they knew would be near impossible to escape from when it was two-on-one…especially the two of them against a very green novice.

…………

Iggy watched from his hiding place on the near side of the park and texted Brian to let him know things had heated up. Brian acknowledged the message and picked up Josh’s flight from the goons as he raced through the park, circling the large lake that lay in almost the exact center of the expansive green belt. As soon as Josh was out of his immediate sight, he then passed on an alert to Rich who slipped from his own hiding spot and picked up Josh’s mad dash with the night vision gear he had brought along. It might have been considered overkill during the planning stages, and he took the good-natured ribbing from his partners in stride, but now that Josh had fled in the darkest part of the night and since clouds had moved in to conceal the sliver of moonlight that had initially been lighting the town, Rich supposed he was having the last laugh.

He had been on enough of these late-night surveillance missions in his day, far more than Ben, Iggy, and Brian combined, that he knew better. He wanted no one to notice his presence, Josh as well as his pursuers. And though he did not harp on his background, Rich was the only one of the four that had been recruited into the agency when they were young men merely on his military credentials. They teased him mercilessly about all the high-tech gear he routinely employed in the field, but Rich had seen enough disasters or near-disasters in his time to utilize every tool he had available. From Josh’s rookie moves, Rich could already predict that they were about to encounter the first instance of having to improvise on the fly, as Ben had cautioned his young recruit about. They had all been anxious that Josh might bolt at the first sign of trouble, not knowing he had only a copy of the files, though outside of Ben and a handful of other historical experts on the planet, no one would be able to ID them as a very skillfully-forged set.

Rich repositioned himself in the muck and weeds in which he had taken up his hiding spot and sent Ben the one-word code they had prearranged to let him know immediately if they might be going off-script and that he needed to be ready to move. Ben acknowledged the receipt of the heads up and left his car to move into place to back up Rich if it came to that. Meanwhile, Josh continued his rapid movement away from his house, through the park, and deeper into a greater spot of vulnerability, though he had no idea that was the case. Josh was still relying on his memory of the park layout since his undergraduate days, and had no idea that a major landscaping project had been undertaken, when he was still working at Pragmore, to alleviate the annual flooding problem that occurred each spring when Emerson Creek’s flow was too much for the pond into which it fed.

As he jogged into what had once been a brief open field on the south side of the pond, Josh came to an abrupt stop sliding a few inches in the loose dirt and gravel as he came face to face with this towering retaining wall made of landscaping timbers and rough-hewn rocks. He looked up at the imposing barrier and for a few seconds could not reconcile what he was seeing…like he had made a wrong turn somewhere, since he had not been in the park in some time, his brain scrambling to make sense of it all. Suddenly realizing that it made no difference whether this was a new feature or if he had gone astray somewhere in his rush to put distance between himself and his pursuers, Josh spun to retrack, knowing he did not have much time before they might catch up to him.

But as he turned to go, Josh felt a cold shiver of dread clamp onto his spine, making him feel as if each individual vertebra was, one by one, turning to ice as a subtle but unmistakable rustling of vegetation came from just behind him and to the left. Josh turned his head, with his reluctant body following suit, his heart pounding like a jack hammer against his ribs. Though he had never gotten a clear look at the men who he had been running from for the last couple of days, Josh knew in his gut that this was them. And soon his suspicions were confirmed:

“Mr. Redmond, I presume?” the taller and heavier of the two men said as both pointed serious looking revolvers at him.

…………

It took all his concentration just to keep breathing as Josh hugged the valise tighter to his chest wondering if all his luck had just expired…and hopefully this did not include this being his last day on the planet. As he squinted into the light being shone in his eyes, Josh wondered if this wasn’t about the time that Ben and his partners burst from the darkness, like the cavalry in old westerns. Except that this was no laughing matter, Josh was feeling a wave of levity come over him, recalling the old bugle call in all those old movies he had seen as a kid indicating the good guys were coming to the rescue. He froze where he was, knowing even if there had been a way out of this predicament, the guns now leveled at him made that out of the question…besides the fact that the only way out of this natural-looking cul-de-sac he had boxed himself into was through them.

Josh instinctively held his hands up in a defensive gesture of surrender, the valise hanging off the fingers of one hand. But there was no movement. This concerned Josh more than if they had just rushed him and knocked him to the ground and stolen the files. From films and books, this lack of initiative and action had never been a good sign, even in fiction. He finally could stand it no longer.

“Do not think I have had the pleasure, guys?” Josh quipped as he slowly lowered his hands, seeing as it seemed unnecessary.

“Real cute, art-boy…” the smaller of the men replied as he smirked.

“Knock it off, Tom!” the other man barked.

The smirk fell from his face only to be replaced with a cloud of disdain at being dressed down in front of their quarry.

“Guessing you gave come for this.” Josh said as he waggled the valise in his hand.

The larger man, obviously the one in charge and calling the shots, Josh saw, stepped forward and prodded Josh in front of them with the barrel of the revolver. Josh was now really petrified.

“How about I just hand over what you came for, we each go our separate ways, no harm, no foul, and we all forget about this unfortunate incident?” Josh offered as the man did not change his expression but poked harder into his ribs with the gun.

“Afraid not, Mr. Redmond,” he finally replied. “We will need you to come with us.”

“No, really…” Josh said with a sincere petitioning tone in his voice, “just take the case and no one ever has to know anything, OK?”

“Sorry, son…with all the effort you have been putting into this chase around town protecting those files, I am afraid I find it hard to believe you would so easily just hand them over now. We will need someone with a greater knowledge of the files than the two of us to confirm them as genuine. Plus…and I am sorry if this may come off sounding like a movie cliché, but you have seen a bit too much for us to just take the files and walk away.”

Josh felt any semblance of humor he had been relying on to cope with the stress of the situation drain from him in a torrent and was coming to the unfortunate conclusion that he might in fact not get out of this predicament alive after all. He handed over the valise to the man’s partner and plodded along in front of the pair as they guided him back through the brush and around the pond toward a battered, gray/blue Honda Accord that sat just down a side street next to a fence enclosing the park that had seen better days.

“Hands behind your back, please, Mr. Redmond,” the man said as his partner tossed the valise in the trunk and got in the passenger’s side.

Josh complied, seeing no other option at the moment, only praying there would be some moment down the road when he might escape. He held his hands together at the small of his back as the man lashed his wrists tightly with a pair of plastic zip cuffs and ducked his head as the man shoved him into the back seat.

Ben looked at his phone at the incoming text from Rich:

You sure about this?

About 85% I guess.

OK…he’s your boy…we will follow your lead…just remember, this may be our one and only shot at these assholes…

Ben signed off, hoping his gamble was not putting Josh into a jam the four of them could not resolve. He suddenly felt as if he knew why his old station chief back in the day had done what he had with Pete Geller. Ben only hoped this did not go as badly for Josh…

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