The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 22

Ben indicated for them to circle around the house and head back across the large open and mostly dirt field that lay between the front porch and the small copse of trees where he and Brian had been hiding. The field boasted only patches of brown and scraggly grass and a mild breeze that had sprung up was creating an isolated dirt devil here and there as their feet scuffled along. The surrounding area was incredibly quiet, most likely based on the lack of vegetation that might have supported any birds or other small creatures in the woods in the distance. Even a background buzz of insects seemed to be missing as they tromped along, giving the scene an even more surreal atmosphere than it would be otherwise. Neither Ben nor Josh could ever remember the last time they had been in such a rural setting in which there was a total lack of environmental sounds.

It was not ideal, Ben realized, but it was what it was and he was sure his partners were seasoned enough to adapt to the conditions…INTERPOL even more so. As they crossed the open space and neared the shade of the trees, a clump of old hickories and elms rose high on either side of what passed for a road to the house, forming a natural arch over the rocky and pot-holed lane. Ben slowed his breathing and indicated that they should turn left just beyond the arboreal arch, pointing to his old Nissan Pathfinder that sat just off where the road they were walking on widened and branched to go either left or right. He knew the end, one way or the other, was very close now and he focused hard to not show his hand to their captors.

He pointed to the SUV, but Kelvin touched him lightly on the shoulder.

“Hang up a second, Doc…”

Ben stopped as the man looked over the surrounding area closely as if looking for a potential pitfall. Kelvin, in his own mind, was still wary of this offer—it seemed to good to be true, and in his experience, if something seemed too good to be true, then it usually was not. He had Tom keep Ben and Josh covered while he moved forward and took a closer look. He walked slowly looking both right and left with the keen eye of a true professional that had perhaps been fooled in such a situation before, Ben mused. Kelvin crept step by step both looking carefully but also listening intently to make sure he and Tom had not walked rashly into a trap due to their eagerness to get the documents back to Mr. Richards and save their hides after several shortcomings.

“Your keys, Doc?”

Ben tossed them across the gap between Kelvin and their remaining group. Kelvin caught them on the fly and used the keyless lock fob to open all the doors. He looked inside, both front and back, as well as in the rear cargo space. All seemed empty and clear. As well, he checked under the seats and then popped the hood to have a look at the engine, plus in all the usual as well as unusual places he had seen tracking devices attached in the past. There was nothing. Ben had already anticipated this inspection and had planned ahead accordingly. However, the plan had never been designed to have any such details included, as they all knew the vehicle would be combed over thoroughly.

Kelvin slipped the keys into his pocket and walked back to where Tom waited with Ben and Josh.

“Everything OK, Kelvin?” Harper asked.

“Yeah. Just cannot be too careful, you know?” he replied as he tossed the keys back.

“Understood.”

“Guess you are driving, Doc, but remember…”

“I know…you and Tom are still armed…”

In his memory, the next few seconds seemed to drag on, but Josh knew it had all been in the blink of an eye. He had never been in on what Ben and his team were planning, and in retrospect he saw this had been for his own good as he was sure his inexperience and naivete would have blown it all up. Being taken by as much surprise as Kevin and Tom had insured, Josh thought, of him having no chance at giving anything away. He supposed it could have gone horribly wrong as he looked back now, but fortunately Ben, Iggy, Rich, and Brian had not seemed to have lost a beat since their days as young men in government service.

As soon as Ben touched the handle at the driver’s door on the Nissan, a strong pair of arms grasped Josh from behind and whisked him backwards. At the time, he was sure Tom had perhaps snapped, despite the agreement Kelvin had come to with Ben, but when a huge dust cloud settled around the SUV, Josh saw he was in the grasp of a very large and fit military-looking man dressed all in black who clamped a hand over his mouth and told him to relax…he was with the INTERPOL contingent. Josh initially resisted, concerned that Kelvin and Tom had called in reinforcements. But when he looked up and saw both Kelvin and Tom face down in the dirt, their hands secured behind them with Rich atop Kelvin, Brian atop Tom, and Ben holding all the weapons, he relaxed.

He had no idea how the takedown had come about, as it was like the men from Ben’s team had appeared out of thin air…or perhaps even up through the earth. His natural curiosity was aroused, but once all the dust settled—both literally and figuratively—Josh decided these were details he did not need to be aware of…the old government phrase, “a need to know basis only”, echoing through his brain as the INTERPOL agent released him and clapped him on the back in appreciation of his part of the operation. An additional unit of soldiers from INTERPOL then materialized from the woods as Iggy slid around the corner on his bike and joined his old comrades.

Multiple Hummer vehicles followed as well breaking the unnatural silence that had engulfed the farmland just minutes before. Ben and Iggy zip-cuffed Kelvin and Tom and hustled them into the enormous transports and watched as the entire INTERPOL contingent jumped aboard as well and sped off with just a brief salute to Ben and his team. In a matter of just minutes, Josh figured, the whole operation had come to a quick and successful conclusion. The INTERPOL team had vanished, and much like the helicopter pick-up back at the barn, it was like they had never been there at all. The old homestead went back to its serene silence again and Josh got in the Nissan with Ben after a warm farewell and round of thanks to Brian, Rich, and Iggy. Iggy sped away on his bike, while Rich pulled off brush that had been hiding his old pick-up truck and he and Brian likewise drove off leaving Ben and Josh alone once again.

“What the hell just happened here, Doc?” Josh asked as he rubbed his sore and raw wrists.

“You really want to know?”

Deep down he did, but there was something in the tone of Ben Harper’s question that made Josh think maybe it was best if he did not.

“Well, Doc, I…uh…”

“Josh…how about this. This operation involved a lot of different people and agencies from around the globe. In light of that, it required a very high level of secrecy and covert cooperation. Trust me, this is not something that happens often anymore if at all. So, how about if I give you a broad overview versus details? I feel bad about how deep you got involved and that that Tom character began to beat on you. That was never, ever in the plan and I apologize. Maybe a fair payback is a glimpse into what was done and what we hope to gain from this point out?”

“OK, Doc. And don’t worry about Tom. The punch did hurt, but I’ve had worse. No harm, no foul.”

“One last thing, Josh?”

He looked over at Harper.

“If I pass any of this along to you, I need your solemn word that it goes no further.”

“Sure, Doc.”

“I mean it, Josh. No one. That includes your friend, Barb Delmont. This is not over yet by any stretch of the imagination, and there is still too much at stake to have this leak out, OK?”

“Sure, Doc…I promise.”

“OK. Deal. Tell you what…let’s take a breather from all of this and I can meet you in say…two weeks…back at Uncommon Grounds to give you a version I am comfortable with and that I think will satisfy your curiosity.”

Josh nodded and Ben put the SUV in gear and drove them back to town.

………..

2 Weeks Later……

Josh was waiting for Ben in the rear of Uncommon Grounds at the table that had seemed to become their regular meeting place. Since his involvement in the Crespi Collection case, as he was referring to it now, his life had finally returned to the routine and vision that he had planned on when he had left Pragmore to try and fulfill his lifelong dreams of being a professional artist. The renovations at the house were humming along, and his contractor promised that the major exterior work on the weathered house would be done well before the winter weather came calling. Of that Josh was thrilled, since he had been hard at work refinishing his new studio—what had been the Masterson’s guest room, just down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor.

In addition, he had hired an electrician to overhaul the wiring of the whole house as it was significantly underpowered for the structure as a whole as well as being in violation of several town building ordinances—apparently the Mastersons had not kept up with even some vital basics. But then, Josh understood this seeing as how they had higher priorities on their list at the time. As well, the raccoons as well as Kelvin and Tom had done significant damage to the fuse box and major electrical outlets in the basement that could not be simply patched up. Other interior TLC on Josh’s list were the refinishing of all the wood floors on all levels, which now had been brought back to the glorious luster he was sure they had possessed when the house had been built in the 1920’s.

These were the main projects that he wanted to get accomplished before the first snowfalls, knowing he could throw his hand at other minor touch ups over time when he needed a break from his art. Among these would be an overhaul of the old attic on the floor above the bedrooms. It had never been much more than just a musty storage area, but Josh had his sights set on turning the large space—despite its somewhat low head clearance—into a quiet room for meditation and other healing work on his body and spirit…a recommendation from his therapist, Lauren Remolds, that he had ignored for a long time. The Crespi adventure had been the final push that Josh needed to finally make these activities part of his daily routine.

Maybe a new kitchen in time and some furniture, he mused as well, but that was down the road. The only other space in the house that Josh struggled with in terms of what to do with it was that secret passageway dating from the days of William and Helen Masterson. After all he had been through with Ben and the whole Crespi scenario, his initial inclination was to have the passageway simply walled off to blot out the entire space from his memory of having been perhaps too curious in the first place in going in there. But as he really gave this more thought. Josh realized that Kelvin and Tom would have arrived on his doorstep regardless of whether or not he had gone into that tunnel. And more importantly, what really swayed him to leave it be was as a tribute to the Mastersons themselves. They had given everything in defense of the files. How could he not honor them by leaving it intact?

And as to his art, that was finally back on his radar where he had hoped it would land when he resigned his old corporate gig. He had touched up some of his old work that he had not been so happy with at the time and had begun a new phase of his work that Barb plus other cheerleaders of his were encouraging loudly. And speaking of Barb? Well…that was a bit more complicated. The day after Ben had dropped Josh off at his car following the capture of Kelvin and Tom as well as the academic conspirators from the barn, he had dropped by Barb’s to just let her know it was all over and that other than a few bruises, he was fine. It was a relief to her to know all was well following this diversion Josh had gotten himself into with Ben Harper that he had been very coy and secretive about. She was still confused as to his reticence over disclosing to her what exactly had happened with it all in the last couple of days since he had left her condo—maybe even to the point of being annoyed. But Josh remained adamant in his position.

“Look, Barb…it’s nothing personal and I’d love to fill you in on all the details, but I made this promise to Ben. At this point, not even I am privy to a lot of the information. I am supposed to meet Ben tomorrow morning at Uncommon Grounds where he has agreed to tell me as much as he can relative to the secrecy that he says has to remain with the whole operation. I swore to him I would not reveal anything other than what he tells me is within limits to discuss. I am afraid you may have to live with that.”

Barb sighed with frustration but agreed, seeing as how it was all she would ever get out of him anyway.

“OK, OK, OK…I give, Mr. Bond. Seems your double life as a secret agent for Ben Harper will just be one of those things for you and him.”

Josh chuckled. Barb always could make him laugh, even when she was annoyed with him. As far as their personal relationship, that was as far as Josh could tell still being negotiated. It did not seem as if either of them had experienced a change of heart since their last night together, but at the same time neither seemed overly eager to jump back into the fiery and volatile relationship they had once shared that ultimately flamed out. Both Josh and Barb seemed agreeable to take this one day at a time and see if what they had once had could be rekindled. If not, that was fine with both of them as well, as neither wanted to ruin a wonderful friendship by forcing an intimate relationship.

All these feelings and thoughts floated through Josh’s consciousness as he cupped his hands around his coffee awaiting Harper and anxious to hear what part of the operation Ben felt he could reveal. At this point, all Josh knew was that the bad guys had gotten nabbed and had been extradited to Europe to answer to a multitude of crimes that extended far back, prior to his involvement. As the gloomy sky outside finally surrendered its contents and the threat of rain actually began to fall in heavy sheets, Josh looked up to see Ben enter the café. He shook off the rain from his hat and coat and waved to Josh.

“Getting back to where you had planned on when all the Crespi stuff came across your radar, Josh?” Harper asked as he sat across from him at the small table.

“Blessedly so…” Josh replied. “House is finally getting the makeover it needed when I got…um…I guess distracted is as good a term as any. Hoping to get back to my art fulltime once the majority of the noise and dust and workers coming and going goes away. Few other projects over the winter planned as well, but, yeah…things seemed to be returning to at least semi-normal considering my typical life pre-Crespi.”

Ben smiled, nodded and chuckled at his sense of humor.

“You see Barb already I am guessing?”

“Yep. Since she took me in that night when you were making all the plans and I needed to be scarce on the streets, I figured she deserved to at least know I was OK.”

“And?”

“Not to worry, Doc. My promise to you is iron-clad. Unless I hear differently from you, everything that happened stays between you and me and your team.”

“That’s fine, but I was actually inquiring about the two of you in a more personal sense, Josh.”

“Oh. Well, Doc, that’s a bit more involved.”

He gave a brief synopsis of how he and Barb had left things between them and how they had decided to approach any type of closer relationship down the road. It was, Josh figured, the lest he owed Ben considering how instrumental he had been in untangling the mess he had unwittingly stumbled into when he had gone poking around in the passageway.

“Good, good…Barb’s a great person, Josh. I wish you all the best.”

Ben thought back to the time when Mary Ann had come into his life right after he had left his old life at the government agency behind. She had made all the difference in his new life from that point forward and he sincerely hoped that Barb Delmont might be that missing piece for Josh. He paused as he sipped his coffee and the thunder outside rumbled louder, the sheets of heavy rain lashing the windows of the coffee shop.

“I’ve been thinking of what to reveal to you, Josh, and how to frame it in the couple of weeks since we wrapped everything up. I had no intention of putting you in such danger when you agreed to sign on. I still feel a bit guilty on that front. And as part of that, I feel like you deserve to know as much as I can tell you without putting the subsequent investigation and hopefully successful incarceration of key members of this syndicate at risk. Plus, I have full confidence in you to keep a lid on all of this.”

Josh just nodded as Harper explained, still anxious inside to hear as much as he was willing to divulge. Ben took a long draw on his drink and then stared out at the storm before telling Josh what he felt he could. Josh listened intently as Harper went through how the task force from INTERPOL had jettisoned both Kelvin and Tom out of the US to one of their European partner’s secure locations for a thorough debriefing and interrogation. The small group of men that had been arrested in the barn, being some US citizens and some not, had been split up based on their country of origin for more questioning as well.

“Since the members not directly involved in the thefts and other more serious crimes are more malleable than our friends Kelvin and Tom, it is likely that the FBI or CIA or whoever along with the European equivalent, will be able to convince them that it is in their best interest to hand over any information they are privy to that would lead them back to the head of the snake.”

“The Mr. Richards Kelvin spoke of?” Josh asked.

“On one level. As you might imagine, he is just another level in a very complex and intertwined organization. I guess their plan is to move up the ladder of the organization one step at a time until they are satisfied they have thrown a net over the whole cabal.”

“And Kelvin and Tom?”

Ben sighed.

“That may be a tougher nut to crack. From what I hear, they are quite hesitant to cooperate.”

“Reprisals from their boss?”

“Apparently so. My contacts tell me they can pick up on a real sense of fear in their eyes and body language when the topic of turning against Richards is brought up.”

“Even with the tight security I assume they are being held under?”

“Yep. I do not know if it has been explicitly stated so far, but it would seem they do not think being locked up somewhere, or being given what I guess is the foreign equivalent of our witness relocation program here would ensure their safety. Though based on their other alleged offenses, I am not sure the authorities would be willing to trade all of that just to get Richards.”

“You mean the murder of Fred Willard?”

“Just the tip of the iceberg, Josh.”

“The Mastersons as well?”

Ben shrugged.

“Like I said, they are not really talking so far, but that would be my best guess. And since this organization goes back many years, it is likely these two have had their fingers in many pies. Probably more mayhem than you or I could dream of.”

“I can see why they would be reluctant to trade all of that for just how to get to Richards.”

“But on the positive side, I think it is just a matter of time. If they are that petrified of Richards, then incarceration will most likely make them very uncomfortable once Richards figures out they have gotten nabbed. My guess is the authorities may even leak this to their own network to make sure he finds out.”

“Maybe pressure them into talking?”

Ben nodded.

“My understanding is that both Kelvin and Tom feel like this Richards has a long reach, and that prison, no matter how secure, is still within his reach. The man is, from all accounts, ruthless and brutal beyond comprehension.”

“Put them between a rock and a hard place, so to speak?”

“Maybe…maybe…just have to wait and see.”

“Anything else to be worried about, Doc?”

“Probably not. The Crespi files and map—the real ones—have been forwarded to museum officials in Ecuador who will take over from here. This is likely to be an explosive international story once they are prepared to announce the arrival of the material…assuming they even choose to do so. The good news is that the road map to the legendary Crespi Collection is back where it belongs. Where Father Crespi, I am sure, would have wanted them to be in the end.”

Josh smiled and exhaled with relief.

“Last words on this, Josh. We all truly appreciate all that you did in this effort. You really put yourself at risk when you could have simply handed the stuff over and walked away back to your life. You handled yourself about as well as was possible considering you have no real background or training in this type of thing.”

“How could I not, Doc? When I consider all that the Mastersons, and maybe others we have no solid knowledge of, sacrificed to preserve the Crespi Collection it was just unfathomable in my mind to ignore it. Besides, wouldn’t they have come to the house anyway, regardless of what I did?”

“Good point. It was still a selfless gesture, Josh. Thanks again.”

Josh offered up his mug and clinked it against Ben’s in a show of cheers and salute.

“Any chance I could count on you for anything like this that might rear its ugly head in the future, Josh? You seem to be a real natural…”

“No, Doc…I am done with all this cloak and dagger stuff. Glad I could help out, but it is nothing I would want to make a career out of—no offense intended.”

“None taken. I promised my guys I would at least ask. Like you I am hoping to go back to my research and teaching. Quite frankly, I have had my fill of it as well.”

They sat a while longer in silence just drinking coffee and watching the storm outside until the clouds blew over and the sun finally broke through. Ben offered his hand and said his farewells as Josh sat back with a second cup of coffee and ordered a sandwich from the shop. The clearing storm was a fitting analogy, Josh thought, as he thought back on all that had happened in the last couple of weeks. He looked up suddenly as Ben Harper called to him from the door of the café.

“And Josh…don’t be a stranger, OK? Drop by anytime if you want to chat. And I expect to get a personal invitation to your new show…”

With that he turned and left. Josh grinned as he watched him disappear through the door and still could not believe it had all been real…

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