Shades of gray streaked the river valley. Nearby trees cast long shadows across their path. A few leaves danced by the group as an early sign of the autumn to come. Ben and Adam paused to look back at the women and considered their next steps. They were walking along the river bank, and the dark triangular outline of the breaker hovered over nearby tree tops. The one story mine office was a few hundred feet south of it, largely obscured by vegetation. The people chasing them were either still in the mine or had gone back to the office.
Adam was the first to speak. "I don't want to depend on the police to save the day since we don't know when they will arrive, or even if they will. I was thinking that maybe we could sneak around to the breaker and go through it to reach the office building from the back? This way we could size up the situation. Get an idea of what we're up against."
Ben agreed, "That should be possible. What do you think, Hedda?"
Hedda responded in a wary tone. "Ya should know, Ben. Of course it's possible. We're gonna lose light awful soon, so it's best to get goin' as there's no electricity in the breaker and that's a damned dark place."
Without waiting for Ben to acknowledge, Hedda shook her head, took Linda by the hand and led the way. Ben shrugged and turned to Adam. "Looks like we take up the rear guard."
They trudged through a scattering of trees and shrubs that had grown wild over the years, carving out a path by pushing aside vines, kicking through brambles and stepping over scattered debris hidden by dense tufts of grass. They crossed the remnants of several tracks running in parallel, one of which wound its way back to the Slope Mine. These were the rails used to move raw coal to the breaker. Hedda made a turn to the left following one of the tracks. They were able to pick up the pace by avoiding some of the thick undergrowth, despite running into an occasional tree sprouting from between the rails. The darkening gloom of early evening descended, making the going more difficult. When they arrived at the rail entrance to the breaker, Adam looked up at the massive building and was at once captivated by the stark contrast it posed to anything he'd seen before. This looming edifice was the one remaining testament to a harsh, merciless way of life that had once been the norm in this valley. A tattered, rust-encrusted, black and decaying corrugated metal collage soared ten stories above him. The building cut an enormous black wedge into the remains of the twilight sky. He tried looking into the entrance, but there was little to see. It was like the mouth of a cave.
Hedda turned to the group. "We're here. This here's where the raw coal from the mines were delivered," and with a wave of her arm sweeping upward she added, "The coal got loaded into these conveyor bins which moved them up to the top where they got crushed and sorted."
The conveyor bins and belts were mostly gone, but several sections of the ramp and the corpse of a huge electric motor sitting astride several wheel assemblies were clearly visible. Adam's eyes followed the ramp up to a chute perched at the very top of the breaker.
Hedda added, "We can get in through this door."
She pointed at a small entryway beneath the shadowy outlines of machinery. The group followed her inside into a cavernous recess, dimly lit by a dozen small windows scattered along the walls. Muted shards of failing light fell across the vast space. The tall coal-black wooden beams could have been ebony columns majestically ascending toward an invisible domed roof of a long-forgotten cathedral. Faded colors of mold and decay covered the remains of flooring, staircases and broken gangways arrayed at odd angles along the high walls. Adam made out several mechanical sorters and crushers suspended in midair above him. He imagined a time when the breaker was filled with the noise and dust of coal being smashed, scoops and belts moving the crushed rock from floor to floor.
And now, the machines stood idle, like they were waiting for something. Their dragon teeth rollers patiently waiting for their next meal.
"Spooky," is all that Linda could conjure.
Hedda motioned the group to follow while she stepped into the musty gloom beyond the entrance. They slowly padded their way along the nearest wall in single file. All manner of debris was strewn over the broken concrete flooring. In minutes they had reached a side door which Hedda eased open to reveal about fifty feet of crumbling macadam leading to the office building. To the right Adam spotted his Pathfinder, Ben's VW and farthest out, a black limousine. The rear entrance stood a few feet beyond the cars and no one was stirring.
Adam turned to see two figures standing beyond the cars at the edge of the parking lot. One was in a policeman's uniform and carrying what looked like Ben's desktop computer. The group ducked back into the dark recess of the breaker. They could hear the two men outside scrambling towards them from across the lot.
Adam motioned to the girls. "You two hide." He pointed to a jumble of twisted rubble stacked against a corner, obscured by shadows. "Ben and I will try to get them to follow us, and if they do, you guys get to my car. We'll come around through the far entrance and meet you in the parking lot." He reached into his jeans pocket and tossed Linda the keys.
There was no time for further discussion as the footfalls drew nearer. The girls sought cover, and Ben and Adam ran down the center of the building making sure they were visible in the scant light. They arrived at the gnarly remains of a rusty stairway when another shout erupted from the doorway.
"Hey, stop! We just want to talk with you!"
Ben pointed at Adam and up the staircase, then at himself and the opposite end of the breaker. The communication was complete. Adam started up the stairs, while Ben took off, moving quickly for a man of his age. As Adam ascended the groaning staircase, he wondered about why people always seemed to choose to run up something when chased.
The rusty iron framework held decaying wooden treads. He heard and felt several boards crack as he reached the second floor platform. When he paused there for a moment to look back, he saw that the hastily formed plan was working. The men had raced into the breaker past Hedda and Linda, and one was now veering toward the stairs, while the other ran headlong down the center of the floor below. Adam turned to continue his climb, but not before catching the movement of two figures slipping out the door.
There go Hedda and Linda.
He stared into the gloom, trying to make out where he was, and perhaps more importantly, where he was going. Each floor consisted of a narrow wooden gangway hung along the inner walls of the building, interconnected by assorted flights of stairs and wooden chutes. Caged rooms devoted to sorting screens and grinding machinery hung suspended throughout the hollow building. Many of these had sunken through the rotted flooring or completely collapsed, having come to rest on the first floor in mangled heaps. Parts of shuttles and chutes designed to move the raw coal were still visible, hanging precariously from balcony to balcony, draped with the tattered fragments of leather conveyor belts. When Adam heard a staccato shuffle arriving at the base of the staircase, he headed up to the next level, taking care to leap over missing treads, and all the while trying to sort out an escape plan.
Herman straightened himself up and crossed his legs. His right hand slipped into a jacket pocket to cradle his Luger. It was all that he had left of his war time mentor. Ludwig had always referred to it as his Parabellum, from the Latin, 'Si vis pacem, para bellum,' – if you want peace, prepare for war. Holding the weapon in his pocket was a personal habit, as it connected Herman to better times and gave him a deep sense of confidence. He looked up at the two uniformed visitors entering the office.
"Good day. How can I help you?"
The police officers took off their caps and stared at Herman in surprise. The lead officer, a sergeant, spoke up first. "We are so sorry for the intrusion, Mr. Borman, but we received a call that there was a problem at the mine."
He gave his partner a furtive sideways glance and rolled his eyes up in a secretive look of shared embarrassment. Herman recognized the man and managed a pleasant smile. "A call? Perhaps there was some confusion. There is no problem here officers. Can you tell me more about this problem?"
The sergeant held his cap in both hands, and responded in a quieter tone. "Well, it would appear that someone may be playing a prank. According to the dispatcher, someone was chasing a group of people here at the mine. It sounded serious, so we came to investigate."
"Hah!" Herman guffawed. "I've been napping here for the last hour or so, you fellows just woke me. I know of no chase. Everything in fact is very quiet."
"It's a matter of formality, Mr. Borman, but I need to ask you, why you are here?"
Herman's advanced years had no effect on the quickness of his mind. "I've invited a few friends to tour the mine this afternoon."
"So, that explains the cars parked outside?"
"Why, yes. They followed my limousine here. My assistants, Steve and Paul, have volunteered as tour guides."
"And who exactly are your guests?"
Herman was careful on this point. "You know Hedda, from the museum?"
Both officers nodded.
"And, Ben Wuicjak?"
"Her boyfriend?" The two officers snickered.
"Hedda and Ben, and two out of town visitors from Schill University are at this moment in the midst of a walking tour of the colliery." Herman unconsciously increased his grip on the Luger as he continued. "If you would like, we can go out and try to find them."
The officers looked at each other and shrugged. Borman was a pillar of the community. His history with the River Slope Mine had deep roots, and even the officers knew of him through stories told by their parents. After the flood of 1959, Herman had made Pittston his home. In the intervening years he had become a successful businessman first specializing in mining equipment and clothing, and eventually branching out into outdoor supplies for campers and hunters. His business enterprises had provided jobs for many miners displaced by the collapsing coal mining economy. After the River Slope Mine had declared bankruptcy several decades ago, Herman managed to quietly purchase the land. He had considered preserving it as a testament to local mining history, but was more interested in what might be buried in its inner reaches. To this end, he had provided funding for the maintenance of the mining museum and the research Ben and Hedda were conducting. Hidden behind a philanthropic corporate sponsorship, the real source of the funds remained undisclosed.
The sergeant spoke up again. "We are so sorry to have disturbed you. I'm sure there must have been a misunderstanding."
He turned to the door and waved to his younger partner. "We'll be on our way then. Good afternoon, Mr. Borman."
Herman stood. "It is no trouble. I understand you are doing your job, and if there is anything you need from me …" He left the statement unfinished as he walked over to the backdoor and held it open. The two uniforms emerged, turning back to tip their caps, and entered the cruiser astride the limo. Herman threw them a cheerful smile and returned their farewells with a wave of his own. He flicked on the office light as he shut the door.
Once inside the cruiser the sergeant's smile faded. He stared straight ahead as he spoke. "There's a wide area near the mouth of this road. Let's park there for a while. With the sun setting, these folks should be leaving soon. I just want to be sure everything here's copasetic. Something's not quite what it seems."
Seeing no obvious exit, Adam continued upward, jumping two and three stairs at a time, occasionally breaking through a tread board. He paused on the fourth flight, but had trouble hearing the scuffling steps from below through his heavy breathing.
A rhythmic wheezing drifted up from the dark in syncopation with each foot step. It slowed as it neared. His pursuer appeared to be running out of steam.
Adam shouted, "What do you want with us?"
The reply was a rasp. "We just want to talk with you."
"About what? Why the chase?"
"Mr. Borman wants to discuss the artifact."
To Adam, the circumstances suggested that more than a discussion was afoot. This chase was serious. Adam jumped when he heard a wooden plank creak halfway up the staircase. He turned to start up the next flight of stairs, but stopped short at the sight of a wide, empty maw separating him from the floor above.
Parts of a wooden gangway dangled from the corrugated metal wall. He sidled to the narrow walkway and edged along its entrails, careful to stay close to the wall where the metal bracing seemed strongest. It took all his concentration to focus on each step, avoiding broken slats and missing boards. He heard a voice uncomfortably close by and almost pleading. "Hey. We just want to talk to you. Come on, be reasonable."
Adam looked back. The owner of the voice was partially visible in the darkness. He caught a flash of blue.
A police uniform.
"I don't think I can trust you. You're not a real officer are you?"
The uniform jumped to the balcony, precipitating series of metallic groans accompanied by popping sounds. Adam pictured the heads of corroded rivets decapitating, tearing loose from their moorings. He choked on a plume of loosed coal dust. The walkway swayed and Adam heard several planks land on the floor below. There was no more time for talking. From below he heard choking. At the far end of the narrow set of boards he could see a protruding structure, a caged room. He moved toward it as his world began to sway again. The planking ended several feet short of the cage. Chain-linked fencing made up its walls. A quick backward glance confirmed the uniform was getting closer, almost within arm's reach. Adam sucked in a breath and leaped across the dark void. One hand struck was deflected by an unseen metal cross-bracing, while his other reached the fencing. His fingers penetrated the links while momentum swung his body into the bottom of the cage. His loose hand groped the air, frantically seeking purchase. He cried out when his legs crashed into the base of the cage; both shins smashed into something solid. His legs were numb, presaging excruciating pain at any moment. His free hand found the wire fencing, and he turned his head, trying to size up options. He was four floors up, twisting above a bottomless black hole filled with the sharp-edged remnants of machinery and tangled scraps of broken wood and steel, all obscured in shadow.
… and all patiently waiting to impale my helplessly flailing body.
At precisely that moment and entirely out of context, he found himself recalling a very pleasant fishing trip that he had taken as a child with his father. Their row boat was gliding silently over a deep, smooth portion of a lake when he happened to glance down at the vague outlines of sinewy and ghostlike shapes in the water beneath them, the vestiges of rotting tree limbs passing beneath. They were calling to him just like the ghostly shadows below were whispering to him now. He felt his grip weakening. His shins began to burn.
Imagination was a bitch.