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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 14

As they passed Hibriten Elementary School, Troy checked his rearview mirror to make sure the ATF agents had pulled out behind them. “I think it’s a good sign they’re letting us ride together.”

“Instead of making us ride with them?” Cheryl glanced back and saw that the agents were right behind them.

“From what Rourke said, they’re leaning toward the arsonists being people who want to scare us or maybe make an example out of us.” Troy exhaled deeply.

“Did you mention being visited by the Hawaiian woman yesterday?”

With a twitch of his shoulders, Troy peered at Cheryl, his lips slightly parted. “I did. You should have seen Agent Rourke perk up.”

“Agent Ginn acted the same way.” Cheryl plopped her hands in her lap. “He almost pounced when I mentioned the Hawaiian woman.”

“I just can’t picture Hawaiians at a terrorist training camp.”

“Especially not the woman who came by your office.” Cheryl shook her head.

Giving his steering wheel a glancing slap, Troy said, “I would never have guessed she was a religious fanatic.”

“You’ve not done anything to offend natives of the South Pacific, have you, Troy?” Although she tried to keep her tone light, Cheryl heard a slight waver of worry in her voice.

“Cheryl, you know my most far-reaching deal has been with the Home Shopping Network. I don’t think their new distribution center extends all the way to Hawaii. I’m pretty sure the California distribution centers cover all the trans-Pacific orders.”

“Still, we both agree that our two agents think we’ve given them an important lead.” Cheryl realized that as they got closer to Nadine’s house, the muscles along her shoulders and back had gotten tighter. She really didn’t want to go back inside that place. Regretfully, she acknowledged that two disturbing encounters did have the power to overshadow eighteen years of pleasant memories.

When Troy turned into Nadine and Grafton’s driveway, Cheryl had a clear view of her and Troy’s first house, her parents’ house. Compared to the Suddreths’ home, it was modest to the point of being humble: two bedrooms, a small den, a slightly larger living room, and a small kitchen. Nevertheless, it was a sturdy little home, full of light. This morning, Cheryl noticed how large the two mimosa trees in the back yard had grown. Up until she was sixteen, the front yard had been occupied by two large maple trees, but during a summer storm, one of the maples had been uprooted and just barely missed crushing their front porch. Always a cautious man, Cheryl’s father had instructed the tree removal crew who were sawing up the fallen tree to go ahead and take down the other one.

Years and years later, even when Cheryl and Troy lived in the house, waiting for their place out at Cedar Run Estates to get built, she had thought the front yard looked bare and exposed without the maple trees. But this morning, with the sun settling warmly on the front yard, Cheryl reconsidered the openness of her childhood home. If she lived there now, she could look out any of the windows and see exactly what was going on outside. No one could get within fifty yards of that house without finding himself completely exposed.

Her father had bought a double lot when he purchased the land. Behind the house stretched another acre which bordered Nadine’s lot along the left and then ended when it bumped into Lucy’s Field. During the summer when her father grew sugar cane, that back acre looked like a jungle. But in the winter, the patch of land was as exposed as the front yard. Cheryl could stand at the kitchen sink washing dishes and gaze through the window above their breakfast table all the way across her field and Lucy’s Field into the back windows of the Loomis house. Back then, she thought of it as the Loomis Mansion because it was so much larger and exotic than any house in their sprawling, blue-collar neighborhood. No matter how early she got up or how late she might stay awake, the Loomis house always had some kind of lights burning. She imagined that Mr. and Mrs. Loomis had to keep constant watch over Lucy in her iron lung. All those years ago, Cheryl found the idea comforting that Lucy always had somebody watching her.

“You sure you can find the key?” Troy pulled up to the garage door on the bottom floor of the house and turned off the engine. He glanced out his window and watched the ATF agents pull up and climb out of their car.

As Cheryl unfastened her seatbelt, she was struck by a memory that sparked a short laugh. “You know, I just realized that the Pritchards used to hide their house key in the same place.”

She got out of their car, waved at the two agents, then walked over to the low rock wall that bordered the back of the house and circled around the front yard. Without any hesitation, she grasped a rather large rock in the middle of this section of the wall and easily wiggled it free. At the back of the hole she’d exposed, Cheryl found a metal case containing the key to the basement door as well as the key to the inside door at the top of the stairs. Come to think of it, she had shown Nadine this hiding place.

Last night, when they’d finished packing, Nadine and her family had driven five hours to Knoxville, where Grafton’s parents lived. Following a ten-minute phone conversation with Agent Rourke, Nadine and Grafton had agreed to come back to Hibriten in two days to be interviewed in their house, but they had given their blessing to the agents and enthusiastically allowed Agent Ginn to record them giving the ATF permission to inspect their home in the company of Cheryl and Troy.

Before unlocking the outside basement door, Cheryl waited for the ATF agents and Troy to join her. After a moment’s hesitation, she handed the key to Agent Rourke and moved back beside Troy. For it to be approaching the middle of the day, Cheryl couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was standing there in the driveway. She caught herself thinking, “It’s so quiet I can smell the mimosa blossoms from my back yard.” Then she recalled that this had always been a quiet place to live. Even as a sensible teenager who loved to stay busy, two or three times a day, as if she were being pushed by an invisible tide, she’d stop what she was doing and realize some wave of peace had just rolled through the neighborhood.

“Let me make it clear, Mr. and Mrs. Moretz, you do not have to accompany us into this house.” Agent Rourke tapped the key in his palm. “If some sort of hallucinogenic agent was used on these premises, you might be exposing yourself to some degree of danger. Judging from what you and the Watts family experienced, I’m fairly certain you were exposed to such a chemical.”

Troy nodded and took hold of Cheryl’s elbow.

“But from all that we’ve been able to observe, whatever agent caused these hallucinations seems to be completely free of any side effects that we can tell. Our medical team also finds it reassuring that people recover from the hallucinations fairly quickly without any signs of residual cognitive distortions.” As Agent Rourke finished his last sentence, he turned from Cheryl and Troy to unlock the door. “Since we’re pretty certain the chemical has probably dissipated by now, would you consider coming inside with us and describe what you saw last night and where you were when you saw it?”

“And you’re sure we don’t need gas masks or something?” Troy released Cheryl’s elbow but didn’t move toward the door.

“It’s like I said before, Mr. Moretz, we’re no doubt dealing with an extremely sophisticated chemical. Frankly, I’ve never seen any sort of weapon function so precisely and cleanly. Given all the protective gear the firemen were wearing at your house last night and all the water sprayed over the area, most conventional chemical weapons would have been seriously degraded. The heat by itself would have, should have, prevented such an even and widespread communal hallucination. But we all saw the same event, the same details of the event.” Agent Rourke stepped inside the basement and took several cautious breaths, each one going a little deeper.

Moving to the door, Agent Ginn held up his digital recorder and asked, “Any perceptual distortions?”

Agent Rourke took a dramatically deep breath then shrugged. “Nothing.”

Turning to Cheryl, Agent Ginn pointed the recorder at her. “How long were you with Mrs. Watts when you visited her yesterday morning before you witnessed the table shifting its appearance?

As she calculated, Cheryl glanced up to the window above where they stood. That was a kitchen window. Sometimes when her mother was washing dishes, she’d glance over at the Pritchard’s kitchen window and see Mrs. Pritchard looking over at her. Her mother would wave then let out a yodel that was supposed to reach Mrs. Pritchard’s ears as “Yoo-hoo.” For the first time in her life, Cheryl felt a little sorry for Mrs. Suddreth who, when she looked out her kitchen window, could see only her secluded back yard. “No more than fifteen minutes.”

“When you and your husband returned later yesterday evening, how long did you have to wait before you experienced the visual hallucinations?” Agent Ginn glanced back at his partner.

For a moment, Cheryl rested her hand on Troy’s shoulder and squinted at him for some sort of confirmation. Keeping her eyes on Troy, Cheryl said, “I think I started seeing the shifting about as soon as I joined Nadine in their dining room. They were all a little hysterical.”

“About the same for me,” Troy said. “I got upstairs shortly after Cheryl because I’d stayed outside to see if I could find any evidence that maybe the Wattses were doing something to fake the changes inside their house.”

Agent Ginn frowned. He turned toward Agent Rourke who had wandered toward the stairs. “Did he talk to you about his suspicions?”

“Yes, we went into detail about his initial doubts.” Agent Rourke returned to the doorway. “How long since I exposed myself?”

Agent Ginn checked his watch. “Ten minutes.”

Taking a step back into the basement, Agent Rourke asked Cheryl, “When you left this place yesterday morning, did you experience any hallucinations when you were driving or when you got to your office?”

“No.” Cheryl reviewed her memory. “The only unusual encounter I had after leaving here was meeting the Hawaiian woman.” Taking a step closer to Agent Ginn, Cheryl raised her fingers to her lips. “Could she have been a hallucination?”

Not waiting for the agents to respond, Troy blurted out, “No, she was real! I talked to her before you got to the office, before I was exposed to the chemical.”

Pausing a moment to check his recorder, Agent Ginn nodded then pointed it toward Troy and Cheryl. “She might have actually come by your office just to see if Mrs. Moretz was showing residual effects.”

“Like they were experimenting on me?” Cheryl leaned against Troy. Once she had learned the craft and art of being a real estate agent, she had taken pride in her ability to calculate a property’s worth with just a casual inspection. Even more satisfying was how astute she could be in sizing up a potential buyer’s interest in a property. Less than a year after she’d gotten her real estate license and sold several houses, she discovered that she could instinctively detect a customer’s strategies for getting her to lower the asking price. In knowing those strategies, Cheryl had also learned how to detect a customer’s weak points. Often, over the years, she and Troy had talked about how calculating a successful real estate agent had to be. It was a profound bond they shared. But she found herself alarmed to think that someone else had followed her around, monitoring her behavior.

“Burning your house might have been just part of the experiment.” Agent Ginn checked his watch again.

This time when Agent Rourke appeared in the doorway, he was sniffing a plastic, two-gallon gas can. “I’m not finding any suspicious chemicals in the garage, but you ought to go ahead and call the lab boys to come over and get some air samples.”

While Agent Ginn moved back toward their car to use his phone, Cheryl approached Agent Rorke. “You’ve not found something in there that makes you suspect Nadine, have you?”

“No.” Agent Rourke set the plastic container on the floor and slid it over to one side with his foot. “It’s the all American basement. But your husband did make some interesting observations about possible motives. And where there’s a motive, we have to investigate.”

“But if Nadine were just trying to get out of her mortgage, she wouldn’t cook up such an elaborate plot.” Cheryl spoke first to Troy, then turned her attention back to Agent Rourke. “You said yourself that this chemical is something more sophisticated than you’ve ever seen. How could Nadine and Grafton concoct such a complicated chemical?”

“Let me try to answer both of your questions, Mrs. Moretz.” Agent Rourke sniffed his fingers then wiped his hands together. “You’re right about the mortgage being a flimsy reason to go through all this elaborate deception. But what if Mr. and Mrs. Watts somehow got involved with people—people who have more serious motives—and were acting out of pressure put on them by those other people? If your friends got into trouble with their mortgage, then maybe they got into trouble over something else, something more serious than their mortgage.”

As much as Cheryl didn’t want to accept what Agent Rourke was suggesting, she knew that people could get desperate. She wondered how she would respond if some shadowy group came to her and offered to get her a child. Would she be willing to persecute friends she’d grown up with? Subject them to nerve gas? Burn down their house?

“In regards to manufacturing such a sophisticated chemical, you did say that Mrs. Watts is a nurse?” Agent Rourke reached in his jacket pocket and took out the two keys Cheryl had given him. “While I’m not saying she invented this hallucinogenic agent, she most likely has the lab skills to manufacture it. And consider her husband’s occupation: long distance truck driver. He probably has access to chemicals and laboratory apparatus all over the country.” Agent Rourke selected the key to the door at the top of the basement steps. “Didn’t you tell me, Mr. Moretz, that although Mr. Watts’s truck was here you didn’t see any sign of a trailer?”

“No. There was no trailer here last night.” Troy put his arm around Cheryl’s shoulders.

“On our drive over here, we checked on Mr. Watts, and it turns out that he does own a trailer. In fact, he owns three trailers.” Agent Ginn joined Cheryl and Troy.

“But since he’s a truck driver, should it be suspicious that he owns trailers?” Cheryl faced Agent Ginn, oddly disappointed in him.

“If it was just a man and his truck, it wouldn’t be suspicious, Mrs. Moretz. But put that man in context with a suspicious fire, a suspicious chemical, and a suspicious lack of three trailers.” Agent Ginn checked his watch. To Agent Rourke, he said, “Seventeen minutes.”

“Are you willing to go upstairs with us?” Agent Rourke held up the key.

Once upstairs, what Cheryl first felt was embarrassment. In their rush to get out of the house last night, Nadine and Grafton hadn’t bothered to clear the table of their supper dishes. A slightly soiled tube sock lay on the floor next to the table. Faintly, the smell of meat loaf tinted the room. It looked like one of Nadine’s sons had dropped a spoonful of mashed potatoes beside his plate. After several seconds of silence, Cheryl realized that all four of them were gazing at the table.

“Anybody see any shifting?” Agent Rourke didn’t take his eyes off the table as he spoke.

“Give it a little more time.” Cheryl stepped closer to the table and stooped down to get her eyes level with the dishes. “Last night, the meat loaf kept turning into pork chops.”

Troy squatted beside Cheryl. Both of them were very careful not to touch the table. The two ATF agents maneuvered themselves to opposite ends of the table. They remained standing, with their hands locked together in front of their crotches. When Cheryl realized they looked more like ushers than government agents, she became restless.

“I don’t think anything’s going to happen.” She leaned against Troy but kept her eyes on the table.

Troy returned the pressure she’d put on his shoulder. “I’m not seeing anything.”

“Have we really given it enough time?” Agent Rourke continued to stand as if on duty at a funeral.

After a few more minutes of stooping beside the table, Cheryl felt the first twinges of a cramp in her lower back. She straightened up. As she massaged the tightened muscles along her spine, she surveyed the arched doorway that led to the living room. Not only was nothing happening, nothing seemed about to happen. Yesterday morning, Cheryl had felt something in the air before the table began shifting. It was not exactly a vibration, more like being part of someone else’s expectation. Of course, last night, the whole place was vibrating with Nadine and her family’s panic. For a moment, Cheryl had the melancholy sensation of being left behind.

When Agent Ginn noticed that Cheryl was staring at the doorway, he turned to face in the same direction. “Do you see something, Mrs. Moretz?”

Casually, Cheryl massaged her back a few seconds longer then slipped her hands to her hips. “That doorway got pretty active for a while last night, going back to its original shape. It was kind of throbbing back and forth .”

Agent Ginn walked to the doorway and ran his hand along the inside of the doorway. During his inspection, he asked Cheryl, “While the doorway was shifting, did you feel any sort of trembling or shaking?”

“Do you mean under my feet or just me?” Cheryl crossed her arms over her chest, moving next to Agent Ginn. “Do you see any trick joints or hidden buttons?”

“No.” Agent Ginn continued to tap and squeeze the inside of the door frame. “This is what it is. Without any devious extras.”

Brushing by Agent Ginn, Cheryl slipped into the living room. First, she wanted to see if Nadine’s lamp sat on the end table or if she might catch a glimpse of that panther lamp with the red venetian blind shade. Next to the love note she’d seen scrawled under the Pritchards’ table yesterday morning, Cheryl believed that lamp conveyed the most convincing proof that it came from her past. And Knox’s past. However, no matter how intently she stared at Nadine’s cream-colored ceramic vase lamp, it remained Nadine’s lamp. Out of the corner of her eye, she tried to catch some abnormal behavior coming from the mission couch next to Agent Ginn. The calm in this room was almost philosophical.

From the dining room, Agent Rourke called, “Anything going on in there?”

“No.” Cheryl walked over to the couch and sat down.

Not bothering to turn on his recorder, Agent Ginn asked, “How are you holding up?”

When Cheryl leaned back, she realized how uncomfortable Nadine’s couch was. The Pritchard’s red velvet love seat had been much more contoured to the human body. “So confused, Agent Ginn.” It felt good to answer the agent without worrying about somehow implicating herself.

“For good reason, I should say.” Agent Ginn wandered over to the window and looked out.

Lulled by the casualness of the moment, Cheryl decided to take a risk. “Agent Ginn, in cases like this, is it odd for a person not to know how she feels about her house burning down?”

As he turned back to face Cheryl, Agent Ginn hooked his thumb in his belt and straightened his tie with his other hand. “To tell you the truth, Mrs. Moretz, it’s more suspicious when a person behaves exactly the way she thinks she’s supposed to. To say the least, it’s a real shock when your house burns down—especially under suspicious circumstances. And you should feel thrown off balance. That means you don’t know what you’re feeling or thinking.”

“I’m not sure how Troy is taking all of this.” Cheryl realized that they hadn’t talked that much about what they’d lost. Photo albums. But neither she nor Troy had felt much like revisiting all those old photographs after they found out they couldn’t have children. Even if they had decided at some point to adopt, they would still feel like the end of their family lines.

“Except for the family heirlooms you lost, you and your husband are still pretty lucky.” Agent Ginn strolled around the room, often letting his fingers drift along the wall. “First of all, nobody was hurt. And that may be why you aren’t experiencing extreme sadness. You may be more philosophical than you imagined. Without trying, maybe you’ve put this event in perspective, a house, even a very expensive one, can be replaced.”

“And we’ve got time to fill up a few more photo albums.” Although Cheryl knew she was saying what Agent Ginn expected her to say, she realized that her mother had plenty of photographs that she could get copies of. And she’d made copies of her wedding photos for her mother and Troy’s mother.

Agent Ginn had wandered back to the window across from where Cheryl was sitting. “And you grew up in this neighborhood?”

“Right next door.”

“Must’ve been a nice place to grow up.” Agent Ginn rotated his body to get a full view of the front yard.

“The only bad thing that happened that I can remember was once I fell out of the back of my father’s pickup and broke a front tooth.” Cheryl laughed.

“I grew up in Raleigh. My neighborhood was surrounded by construction sites. I broke three teeth, had two broken shins, and . . .” Agent Ginn paused to calculate, “. . . one hundred and thirty-four stitches by the time I was sixteen. If I hadn’t finally gotten my driver’s license and fallen in love with cruising, I’d probably been killed in one of those construction sites.”

“That sounds awful. Did you hate your childhood?” Cheryl hadn’t thought about childhoods full of injury and construction sites.

“Actually, I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world. To me a construction site was better than Disneyland. You know, they usually leave the keys in the bulldozers and backhoes on construction sites. To be a ten-year-old boy and being able to crank up a bulldozer was better than six or seven birthday parties.”

“You sound like you were a handful when you were a child.” It occurred to Cheryl that when she and Troy talked about having children, she had always assumed their child would be a girl. And if it had been a boy, she knew that Troy would get him involved in organized sports as soon as he learned to walk.

“Not much more than any boy who had daily access to a world of ten-foot deep trenches, concrete pipes, piles of bricks and cinderblocks, bulldozers, and stacks of lumber.” Agent Ginn walked over to the arched doorway.

Now that she thought about it, Cheryl’s childhood had been more daring than she’d realized. She had spent her share of time tramping around in the patch of woods across the road. Of course, back then, the trees seemed to stretch on for miles and miles. She and Knox sometimes picked their way through the pine trees to wade in a creek that couldn’t have been more than two hundred yards from their front yards, but back then, they assumed they’d pushed their way through two or three miles of undergrowth. Still, it was a miracle that neither one of them had been bitten by a snake or kidnapped by perverts. Definitely, if she’d had her own child, she’d never let it wander around the neighborhood the way she and Knox had.

On the other hand, she was certain that childhood justified wanting to have a child. She and Troy could give their son or daughter everything. But she knew childhood was more than that. It was also having a home that made you feel safe, part of a family. It was having a house that made you feel close. She could remember being in her bed at night and hearing her parents talking, sometimes laughing. It was a sound that she loved hearing even more than rain on the roof or sleet pecking against her window.

When Cheryl glanced at the arched doorway, she saw that Agent Ginn had gone back into the dining room. Before she could stand up, Troy leaned into the living room and said, “Do you feel like inspecting the other rooms?”

“Might as well.” As Cheryl crossed the living room, glanced once more at Nadine’s bland lamp. She knew that a woman who preferred that kind of lamp couldn’t be the kind of woman who’d be mixing hallucinogenic chemicals for terrorists.

On their way to the den, Agent Rourke pushed open the bathroom door. “Did you witness any unusual activity in there?”

“I didn’t go in there.” Cheryl couldn’t keep herself from leaning inside the bathroom door, just to see if it stirred any earlier memories. She did recall that from the bathroom window, she could see through the trees Knox’s tree house in one corner of the back lot and Lucy’s Field in the opposite corner. She couldn’t understand why his trumpet had sounded so nice when he played it beside Lucy’s Field but so raucous when he tried to play it for her when they were in the tree house. At that moment, she thought she heard, very faintly, “The Indian Love Call.”

She pulled back from the door so quickly that she bumped into Agent Ginn.

Catching her shoulders, Agent Ginn steadied her. “What’s wrong, Mrs. Moretz?”

Agent Rourke pushed past Troy and touched Cheryl’s elbow. “Did you see something in the bathroom?”

More alarmed by the agents’ concern than by the music she’d heard, Cheryl freed one arm from Agent Ginn’s grasp and as casually as she could, swept her hand toward the bathroom. “Go stand in there for a minute, next to the window.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Agent Rourke patted Cheryl’s arm and stepped into the bathroom. For several seconds, he surveyed the bathroom from ceiling to floor. Then he glanced back at Cheryl.

“Do you hear anything?” She took a step closer to the bathroom door.

Tensing his shoulders, Agent Rourke frowned and cocked his head. Again, he let his gaze drift purposefully around the room. But this time, it was clear that he was searching for unusual sounds. Troy eased beside Cheryl and took her hand.

“What did you hear?” he whispered.

Finger to her lips, Cheryl shook her head slightly and then nodded toward Agent Rourke. The longer she waited for Agent Rourke’s response, the more uncertain she became of what she’d heard. She’d heard that same song earlier in the morning, but she hadn’t heard it yesterday, not when she first visited Nadine, not when she and Troy visited last night.

Finally, Agent Rourke shrugged. “I don’t hear anything.” He turned to Cheryl. “What did you hear?”

“Do you know that old song ‘The Indian Love Call’?”

“That’s the one that Slim Whitman sings in Mars Attacks! isn’t it?” Agent Ginn went into the bathroom.

“I’m not sure. My neighbor used to play it on his trumpet. He loved those really old movies. But he would practice outside, down at the back corner of their lot.” Cheryl nudged Agent Ginn toward the bathroom window and pointed to the spot.

“Did you hear anything like that music yesterday, either of the times you came here?” Agent Rourke joined Cheryl in the bathroom.

“No. Am I hallucinating again?” Cheryl touched her ears.

“This is the first time anyone’s mentioned the possibility of auditory hallucinations.” Agent Ginn tilted his head closer to the window.

“Not one of the firefighters I talked to said anything about hearing music.” Agent Rourke moved back into the hallway with Troy. “Of course, with all the noise during the fire, they might not have paid attention to distant music.”

“Did anybody hear anything after the fire was out?” Cheryl glanced at Troy. She wondered if she needed to mention they’d heard the same music when they were under the willow at the Suddreths’ house.

“Nobody’s mentioned anything about hearing music.” Agent Rourke had produced his own notebook and was flipping through its pages.

While Cheryl debated about telling Agent Rourke that she’d heard the song earlier that morning, Agent Ginn’s phone rang.

Following a series of cryptic remarks, Agent Ginn said to his caller, “We can get there in about fifteen minutes.” He returned his phone to his jacket pocket without making eye contact with anyone. But when he finally looked up, Cheryl thought he had turned noticeably pale.

“We need to get back to Cedar Run.” Agent Ginn took an uncertain step toward the door then stopped to run his hand across his forehead. “That was the fire chief. He said that the ruins of Mr. and Mrs. Moretz’s house are back and still smoldering.”

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