The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 18

Josh lay on his side, his hands cuffed and a blindfold over his eyes, viewing the whole thing as about as stereotypical as it could possibly get, all things considered, but he sure did not feel like laughing. The car felt as if it was moving in a random pattern, taking turns at unpredictable and irregular intervals as it travelled over both smooth pavement and rougher, bumpier terrain, like a potholed, washboard dirt road if Josh had to guess. He assumed it might be to keep him off-balance and confused as to what direction they were actually heading in case he might be able to figure out a route from some internal compass. The jostling and rough ride was secondary only to the feeling that something had gone really wrong with Ben and his team and this plan of theirs. He did not think they would just consciously abandon him to these guys, but was sure they would have intervened by now unless something inexplicable had arisen…especially considering Josh’s lack of experience in such matters.

As the nondescript sedan rolled out of town and into the surrounding rural acreage beyond, two other just as plain and generic-looking vehicles joined the progression, though the drivers of these cars never gave Josh’s kidnappers any indication they were on the road at all, much less that they might be following them. The dark of the night began to change over to a milky dusk of early morning before the Honda finally branched off the long straightaway it had been on now for nearly an hour and headed northwest toward a heavily forested area. At this point, the man in the passenger seat stretched back and whipped the blindfold from Josh’s head and he struggled to sit up against his shaky equilibrium from having his hands secured at his back.

“Might as well wake up, kid…” the man muttered, “from this point on there’s no way in hell you could ever figure out where we’re going…not that it will matter in a few hours anyway…”

The driver glared over at his partner yet again.

“Mild suggestion, Tom?” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Why don’t you let that cut under your nose heal…”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“He’s diplomatically and gently trying to tell you to shut the fuck up…” Josh interjected.

The driver chuckled out loud.

“Well said, Mr. Redmond…” the man replied as he continued to laugh. “Guess that liberal arts degree wasn’t wasted on you after all…”

“College prick…” Tom spat out as he fumed in his seat.

“Maybe, Tom…” the driver said, “but at least I didn’t have to explain it to him.”

Tom turned his head to glare at Josh now and Josh supposed he might have been better served to have kept quiet. But it did not look as if his smart-ass comment was going to matter considering his precarious position at the moment. On some level, Josh had just never been able to keep his trap shut, but the line had been one of his favorites from Wayne Rogers as Trapper John on the old TV series, “MASH”. It was rarely understood, even among his colleagues and friends, but he still loved the line. Hopefully it would not be added fuel to anger that Tom might exhibit toward him with whatever fate these two had in store for him. Right now, it felt as if he was on his own…Ben et al appeared to be miles away and Josh was sure now that they had no idea he had gotten himself pinched.

They rolled on along, bouncing over a dirt road until it petered out and as far as Josh could tell they were now just driving cross-country through fields with no discernible roads at all. Just as the sun was making a vain effort to break over the ridgeline beyond the trees they were passing by, heavy banks of clouds began to gather, blocking out any light or warmth the early day might have brought. A light wind arose, with occasional stronger gusts as a pesky and annoying drizzle began to fall. Naturally, Josh thought to himself…In another few hundred yards, Josh sat more erect as an old barn came into view illuminated from inside by a soft, warm light that in any other situation might have made him feel comforted against the cool morning gloom. The driver turned off the engine and Josh listened to the eerie pinging of the cooling engine against the patter of rain which had now grown to a bit more than just drizzle.

“Sit tight, Mr. Redmond….” the man offered, not turning his head to face him. “We need to have some of our associates check out the files. Make sure you’ve been carting around the real deal, you know?”

Josh nodded feebly as a lump of icy fear hung in his throat. The man known as Tom joined his partner once he had retrieved the valise from the trunk and the pair walked slowly toward the glowing barn after locking the Honda’s doors. When Josh heard the click of the automatic locks, his heart sank further. He had been pretty sure they would not have been so foolish as to just leave him in an unlocked car, despite his restraints, but that had been his last fleeting glimpse of hope for escape when he had been told to sit tight. Maybe in a Hollywood production the hero might kick out the windows or discover some other nuance that the villains had overlooked with which to affect an escape, but this was no movie, and Josh was sure not feeling like any kind of hero.

He was certainly not the type of person to just give up and accept what appeared inevitable, regardless of how hopeless the situation might seem. But at present, Josh was clueless as how to get away, knowing their return, once the papers and map had been verified as genuine, would end any usefulness he had served them up to this point. The minutes ticked by, and Josh lost any concept of time. He was not sure if them being gone this long was better or not, other than it prolonged his life. As the rain morphed from a gentle shower to a steady downpour, accompanied by some distant rumbling thunder, Josh looked out his window to see both men making their way back to the car. They did not appear to be too pleased from what he could see, but the added anomaly was that the driver still had his old valise clutched in one of his giant fists as he walked closer.

For the life of him, Josh could not figure out why they would be returning with the files. Wasn’t this what they had been looking for all along? So why were they still holding onto them? Unless whoever was to ultimately receive the papers and map was yet another stop, this barn just an intermediate step to confirm the contents. But as the rain suddenly came to an abrupt halt and the sun finally began to peek through the low-lying clouds, Josh picked up on an expression in their faces that, at least to him anyway, did not look like the end of a successful operation. And the man who had driven was not giving the valise the same careful, attentive handling that he had exhibited on the way to the barn. And Tom looked utterly pissed. But also a tad unnerved and maybe worried if Josh’s classes in reading unspoken communication were accurate. Now he really wished he had not lipped off earlier…

The driver activated the key fob and ripped Josh from his seat after opening the door. He pushed Josh roughly against the side of the Honda, looking as if he might explode at any moment. Up until now, Josh had been relying on the man to be the more reasonable and saner of the pair, but that façade was now long gone.

“What exactly is this bullshit, Mr. Redmond?” he demanded as he thrust the valise forward in his face.

“Huh?” Josh replied having no idea what he meant.

“This package you’ve been guarding with your life, asshole! This is just worthless, though I guess you already knew that, right?”

The man slammed Josh’s valise to the muddy grass. Josh was utterly baffled and confused. What in the hell was this maniac talking about? Had Ben been wrong all along about the Crespi papers? Or was it…suddenly it dawned on Josh as to what had happened. Harper had sent Josh off with what was apparently a counterfeit version of the papers or maybe what was in the valise was just newspapers or some other junk papers. But as the men had been in that barn so long, the latter choice had to be wrong, otherwise they would have been gone only a few seconds. That had been the ploy. That was what Harper had meant when he had asked Josh about how he felt being a real decoy.

So, Harper and his old cronies had given Josh a set of files that might have looked authentic to the average person, the muscle now confronting him at the car for example, but anyone with a real knowledge of the Crespi legend, say Dr. Ben Harper for example, would eventually know they were bogus. Josh got it, but it hardly remedied his precarious position at the moment. He had no idea what Harper and his gang had up their sleeves, but it seemed to Josh his only possible way out was to plead ignorance and try and convince these two that he had been fooled as much as they had.

“Look…” Josh finally said trying to calm the man’s growing rage, “I have no idea what you are talking about. As far as I knew, the contents of that valise were the real thing. I found them in the old Masterson place and found out all about the story of the Crespi Collection soon afterward. If what is in that case is not genuine…well…I am not sure what to say. Seems I have been hoodwinked just like you.”

The man eased his sizeable forearm away from Josh’s chest as he listened to this tale, but in his eyes, Josh could see he still felt he was being fed a line. He glanced over to his partner, Tom, and then back at Josh, staring intently into his eyes as if he was trying to read any lies in his face.

“Thing is, Mr. Redmond,” he replied, “despite your story, which I am sure you truly believe is the actual truth, I just do not buy it. Part of it rings true, but there is something in your eyes that tells me otherwise. Too much concern on your part up til now, plus the good professor over at Tilman. And that car chase you took us on a few days ago? That seems to me to not quite line up with your version of events.”

Josh just shrugged, wondering if the man assumed he would all of a sudden lay out some other version…one that he supposed he could tell, but deep down he was just guessing. One that described being used by Harper to pull them away from the genuine Crespi files…one that Josh himself could not confirm until he saw Harper again… assuming that day ever came.

“I am thinking maybe you need a little encouragement or motivation to tell me the whole, real series of events. You see…we have this boss. And…well…Mr. Richards is not so understanding and tolerant of shortcomings among his employees. Tom and I cannot just go to him and say, ‘gee, boss…we did our best, but it seems Mr. Redmond was just a pawn…’. Do you understand?”

Josh swallowed hard, seeing this was about to get a whole lot worse. And ten minutes ago, he would have bet anything that was impossible. He had always heard that you should avoid saying or even thinking: “how much worse can it get?” as there were forces in the universe that were more than willing to illustrate that point for you.

“That sort of thing…the motivation I mentioned…is not my real strong suit. But Tom here? Different can of worms completely. I am thinking maybe it is time to let Tom work his magic on you and see if you change your tune. Maybe you know where the genuine cache is or maybe you are being up front with me and do not. A few minutes with Tom will clear that up.”

Josh looked over at Tom who was smiling a smile that made Josh quake to his core.

“Guess we will see who should let cuts heal now, huh smartass?” Tom said as they loaded him back in the Honda putting the barn far behind them.

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