Adam backed away from the window. Hedda peered over the maps to see who or what was out there, careful to avoid detection, and then looked on as Linda asked, "What's going on?"
Adam whispered, "Remember the science building fire?"
"Well, when I went back to get my laptop, there was a policeman standing guard at the front entrance. I had a chance to speak to him. I remember his face."
"And, that policeman is out there now?"
Adam nodded. Hedda looked at the pair of them, listening carefully.
"How can you be sure he's the same guy?"
Hedda interjected. "What's the story with this copper? How are ya tied up with him?"
Something was telling Adam to get out of there. There was no time for explanations, no time for polite conversations. There was no way that this cop was here by coincidence. Adam heard Ben Wujciak whispering in his ear, "Get out now or you'll be next."
"Hedda. It's too long a story to get into right now. It has to do with the medallion. I think someone is out to get it, and they'll stop at nothing."
"I don't know what this is all about, but don't get me mixed up in it! And, give me back that rod. It belongs to me."
The rod came out with a pop, not unlike a thumb popping out of a perfectly machined bowling ball hole. Adam dropped it into Hedda's outstretched hand, and nodded in the direction of the cop outside. "I think we need to get out of here without him catching on." Adam looked about the room. "I think you'd better come with us, Hedda. Some strange things have happened to artifacts like these. And sometimes to the people who owned them."
He held the medallion in his hand for a moment before going on. "Just a couple of days ago, the laboratory where I had this medallion analyzed blew up, and elsewhere, an old friend died under mysterious circumstances, an old friend who tried to warn me."
Linda tapped Adam's shoulder. "He's turning around. I think he may be coming in."
Hedda motioned with her arm. "This way."
The trio slipped through a set of hanging drapes into a hallway. Linda, last in line, pulled the drapes together and stilled them, as the entrance bell announced the arrival of a visitor. They huddled behind the thick drapes, afraid to move and draw attention to themselves. The sound of leather shoes clapped across the hardwood floor and stopped at the display table that had housed Hedda's curious little artifact. A few moments later, they heard the visitor's voice reading aloud, "origin unknown," a grunt, and the leather slapped again. The sounds grew louder as they neared the hidden alcove.
Hedda was farthest along the hallway, near the back door which led outside. Adam had his arm around Linda, awaiting imminent discovery, when he heard several car doors slam in the street outside. The shoes stopped and skipped their way toward the front door. Adam rose with Linda in tow. Hedda was one jump ahead of them, opening the back door just as they heard the front door jingle. When they regrouped in the backyard, Adam glanced along the side alley and sighted the hood of his Pathfinder. The visitors might be entering the museum. It would take only moments before they would realize the place was empty. The alley connected the main street with a parallel back street. Adam ran up to the front, peered around the corner and saw a black four-door limo parked behind his car. The uniformed cop was standing at the museum entrance. Hedda and Linda slinked up the alley and crouched behind Adam. The police officer was looking in through the entrance door, probably curious about happenings within and not paying much attention to the scant traffic. Adam began having second thoughts.
Was this really the same guy as the one back on campus? Maybe the police were here for some other reason.
He began to think this was all just the result of an overactive imagination, one which pieced together unrelated events into a totally overblown conspiracy theory.
A wacky conspiracy theory.
Maybe he should simply approach the officer and find out what was going on.
What could it hurt?
Adam stood up from his couch and was about to show himself when he heard the squawk of a walkie-talkie. "Did you see anyone out there?"
"Everything's quiet out here."
"They must still be inside, and it looks like they may have Hedda's piece."
That clinches it.
Any doubts Adam had were blown away. These people, police or whoever, were here specifically for them and the artifacts. He found that he was still holding the medallion and quickly pocketed it. Hedda overheard the discussion and did the same with her piece.
The front door cracked open with a jingle and orders barked from within. "Go around back. Make sure no one gets out that way."
Adam's stomach tightened. The three of them stood up in the alley, faces ashen and prepared for the inevitable. They waited. And waited. Adam, closest to the corner, poked his head out again, and much to his surprise, saw no one. He craned his neck a little farther and his eyes focused on the far side of the building. There was another alleyway. The uniform must be rounding the building on the other side. The time to move had arrived.
Adam turned to the other two. "Let's go. Into the car. Quickly. And don't slam the doors."
As Linda ran past Adam, he grasped Hedda's sleeve. "You don't have to get mixed up with this. Those people are probably more interested in the artifact I have than anything else. You could just go back in and pretend to know nothing."
Hedda was quick to reply. "While we were sitting in this alley, Linda told me some more. I know about the explosion, and about your missing friend. I don't feel like goin' missing quite yet. So, if ya don't mind, I'll be joinin' ya for now."
Hedda surged past Adam with surprising speed and jumped into the backseat of his car. Adam followed close behind, slipped into the driver's seat and turned over the engine. He moved the car out slowly to avoid attracting attention, but he had only gone a few car lengths before the museum door flew open and two men came running out, shouting for them to stop. As he accelerated, he saw a third, shorter man, catch up to the now moving black sedan. The chase was on.
A couple of blocks down the street Adam tried the usual maneuvers-sharp turns, left and right, all with the only perceptible effect being that the pursuers were steadily closing in. The problem was that in this part of town, Main Street was about all there was and side streets were only a block or two deep. Adam had to get uptown, to the middle of Pittston where there were bound to be more people, more traffic and a better opportunity to shake the pursuit. He floored the car. Light traffic made it possible to ignore a few traffic signals, but the limo kept up with him. Its tinted windshield made it impossible to see inside. There was no siren, no blinking headlights, no screeching car horn. The scene was surreal, as if taken from some action movie without the sound running. Adam approached midtown and traffic picked up. Instead of offering a chance to slip into a side street, the cars and trucks on the narrow, single lane Main Street soon led to congestion. Fighting against a surge of panic, Adam saw an opportunity arise at the next intersection a few car lengths ahead. Spotting a yellow reflection on a traffic signal side shield, he made an abrupt turn into the empty oncoming lane, accelerated to the head of the line, and darted back into his lane across the intersection just as the light turned red. Luckily there was no cross traffic. The limo, which had been only seconds behind, now found itself facing oncoming traffic and an assortment of screaming brakes, horns, and angry shouts.
Hedda cupped her hand over Adam's shoulder. "Take the next right."
Without hesitation, Adam made a right while checking his rear view mirror. Hedda positioned herself between Adam and Linda, and continued in a steady voice. "Now, take the second right."
With no limo in sight, Adam made the turn and asked, "Where are you taking us?"
"One more right … the next one. Then head over the bridge, and make the first left you can. It'll be dirt road."
"That takes us across the river, but to where?"
The dirt road led them south along the other side of the Susquehanna river, a route parallel to Main Street on the museum side. Adam noticed the river islands, or aits, left over from the time of the mine flood. Desperation had driven the mining community to attempt to plug up the whirlpool draining into the mines with all kinds of debris, including railroad cars. Now all that remained were several uninhabited mounds in the river. Judging from the tall grass and the vague hint of wheel ruts, the road had seen little traffic in recent years.
"There's a gate ahead."
A few minutes later, they reached a rusty chain-linked gate with a weathered sign hanging askew on one surviving rivet. Adam craned his neck to the side and read out, "River Slope Mine – No Trespassing."
Linda asked, "Hedda. Why did you take us here?"
"Only a few locals like me know about this road. And there are back ways to get outta here besides this road."
Adam agreed. "Not a bad idea, Hedda. That bunch will likely be scouring the side streets in town, and if they are the police, they'll send out a description of our car along with the license plate number. In a small town like this, we wouldn’t have a chance. At least this way we could stay here for a while, maybe until nightfall, and slip out some other way."
"In the meantime, ya might want to go on into the mine. There'll be somethin' there you'll need to see."
Both Adam and Linda raised their eyebrows in a nearly comical synchrony while staring at the locked gate. Hedda got out of the car, walked over to the gate, and pulled it open waving them inside.
"Go ahead. Drive on in, and I'll close it behind us."
Once Hedda was back in the car, Adam again checked for anyone following them. She directed him along a few more minutes of the bumpy road which wound its way alongside the river until they reached a wider expanse, a clearing made up of tall outcroppings of grass sprouting through holes in cracked tarmac. It looked as if the area was once used as a parking lot. Surrounding the clearing was more of the rusty chain-link fencing, with several dilapidated one- and two-story colliery buildings grouped together at one end. Adam noticed a tall, angular, dark and ominous structure just beyond them.
"What's that?" He recalled the model in the museum's window, and asked, "Is that the breaker building?"
Hedda looked to where Adam was pointing. "Sure is. Ten stories high." It was a corrugated metal structure punctuated with a seemingly random array of square window openings. "It's where the raw coal was broken into smaller chunks, stones removed, and such. The stuff would move along conveyor belts to the top."
Hedda pointed to the summit of the nearly triangular building where a chute emerged. "Up there, the coal would come out and slide down into the waitin' railroad cars."
Adam followed her pointing hand to the road below, where the vague outline of a set of rails was barely visible. At Hedda's urging, they headed toward the smaller building just ahead and arrived at yet another gate. Huge patches of brown rust covered most of their dull gray metallic walls, and most windows were intact.
When they stopped by the gate, Hedda once again scurried out of the car and directed the pair. "Go on through to the back of the office."
Only then did Adam notice the 'Office' sign over the door of the nearest one-story building. As he rounded its corner, he saw a pale white VW Beetle nearly as rusty as the building parked alongside the office.
That looks familiar.
He stopped his car next to it just as Hedda rejoined the group and pointed to the back door. "Ya can go on inside. I'll be with ya in a couple o' minutes."
Without offering another word, Hedda walked away in the opposite direction, toward what looked like several footpaths branching out to the old mine shafts in the rear of the complex. They watched her disappear into the overgrowth.
Adam asked, "Well, what do you think?"
Linda shook her head. "I don't know what to think. Let's go inside and try to figure out what just happened."
They proceeded into the office. Expecting broken furniture, debris strewn floors and dirt on everything, Adam found instead, an orderly arrangement of desk and chairs, working light fixtures and clean floors. There was a small refrigerator and microwave on a counter top. Adam opened the fridge and pointed to its well-stocked condition. The astonished pair sat down and waited.
"Someone's obviously been here, maybe even living here."
"No doubt." was Linda's sharp response.
The tone of her voice surprised Adam. "You know we don't have to stay here. I'm sure we can sneak out tonight and avoid those crazies that are after us, or after the artifacts … or both for that matter."
Linda nodded. "Sorry about that. It's just that I'm a bit nervous … not too happy about being chased. It's not a big town. They could easily be watching the main roads. And if they are cops, then they would have a lot more eyes looking for us."
"You're not the only one with anxiety. Here's a thought—we could simply let them catch us, and see what happens. I mean, it's not like they'll arrest us. We didn't do anything wrong."
Linda said, "Only one of them had a uniform. And what about Dr. Wujciak? What if it's the same bunch of whackjobs? Maybe they'll make the artifacts and us disappear."
"Yeah, but what if they're just following up on the science building explosion. These guys could be detectives who trailed us here, thinking we may know something."
Linda smirked. "Uh-huh, and what about that 'they may have Hedda's piece' remark? How do you explain that?"
"Hmm. They are looking for the artifacts…" Adam hunched over with his head down, staring at the floor. Linda, too nervous to sit still, got up and walked over to one of the rear windows overlooking the flat area leading out to the mines. The yard was mostly gravel and dirt, with vague outlines of narrow paths leading away toward several low lying hills. A few weeping willows caught the late afternoon sun and threw their oblong shadows across the yard. The trees looked like they started to grow when the mines were shut down decades ago. Adam noticed Linda staring through the window and followed her gaze. In the distance, near the mines, a stand of willows moved in rhythm to a gentle breeze. The criss-crossing patterns of leaves seemed to weave a spell, drawing him into a sense of calm, a feeling that there was a logical explanation for everything that had happened these past few days.
Linda blinked. "Someone's coming."
Adam straightened up and focused, but there was nothing to see but a few empty walking paths.
"Wait. There's no one there now. My eyes must be playing tricks."
She moved her head from side to side. Adam squinted but only saw scrub and high grass waving in the riverfront breeze. He rubbed her back and said, "Maybe it's just a play of light amid the trees. I don't blame you for seeing things. This whole situation seems crazy. I just want to get us out of here."
"What about Hedda?"
"She can decide what to do on her own. I don't think those people, whoever they are, mean any harm. I think they must be after this medallion and whatever they think Hedda may have. Perhaps an overzealous collector, maybe a secret government organization. Who knows, maybe a black helicopter is about to land out there."
Linda turned to see Adam's playful grin, and returned one of her own. "Yeah, some secret organization … showing up in a very obvious black limo and chasing us across town. Besides, they can't be any good if we lost them."
She turned away to look out the window again.
Adam asked, "So, are we going to wait here forever? Did you see which way Hedda went?"
Linda scanned the distant shrubbery beyond the trees and saw nothing out of the ordinary. "I think she went out along the main path. That way."
She pointed as Adam looked along her arm, spotting the path leading to the trees.
"Maybe we should go look for her."
Linda agreed with a nod, and they both exited the office backdoor. Adam noticed his laptop on the rear seat of the Pathfinder. "Hold on. I don't like the idea of leaving my laptop in the car."
He grabbed the case and popped into the office for a minute. Rejoining Linda by the car, the pair marched off along the main footpath. Although the trees, shrubs, tall grasses and a variety of nameless but gnarly species were claiming the trail for their own, there was a perceptible, narrow path which looked as if it had seen some occasional use, and the two gratefully stepped along its winding course.
The limo's engine continued its soft feline purr as a uniformed man swung open the rusty gate. Moments later, the purr gradually changed to a menacing growl as the limo proceeded through and into the River Slope Mine property. The driver stared ahead at the winding road as his stooped over, white-haired passenger peered at a small green screen illustrating an aerial view of several buildings ahead and a yellow-green dot pulsating between them.