Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Whitey's next team member called himself Clark after the character from Tom Clancy novels. "Clark" pretended to be a former Army Ranger who was now a gun for hire. He sported military-issue clothing and weapons, and would tell anyone who wanted details about his past missions, "You're not cleared for that information." In truth, he had tried to get into the military several times, but his police record, as well as something in his personality, always put off the recruiters.
Whitey knew Clark's military act was just that, but he also knew that Clark prided himself on his professionalism during operations.
Tonight, Clark was wearing camouflage face paint, jungle camouflage clothing, and a Kevlar-lined vest. His military-issue knife and boots, as well as the M16 strapped to his back, completed the image he wanted to project, to himself as much as to others. He took pride in the fact that he had crossed the most dangerous part of the swamp without drawing even the attention of the mosquitoes, much less that of the alligators.
Now Clark was standing in the shadow of a large crypt adjacent to the town cemetery, examining his surroundings with night-vision binoculars. Like an amateur chess player double-checking the diagonals before he makes a move, Clark tried to be perfectly aware of his surroundings at all times. After glancing around himself, he watched for any signs of movement from the street. At the same time, based on the information from that glance, he was plotting a course that would take him another twenty yards up the hill, without ever getting out of the visual protection of the crypts for more than a few seconds at a time.
When he was sure it was safe, he turned to dart to the next point on his planned route, and ran right into a crypt. His first disoriented, crazy thought was, "That wasn't there a minute ago." Then he turned to go back the way he came, and saw a crypt blocking his way in that direction as well.
In the Crows nest, Robin was nearly giggling with delight. When he saw Megan's look of confusion, he said, "They're on hidden casters. We pull them around by underground cables like a cable car." Megan didn't really know how a cable car worked, so she just nodded her head. Robin continued. "You can make a maze just by shuffling the pieces around."
On his computer's monitor, Robin had a display of rectangles with lines leading away from each one. "These lines show the directions each crypt can move. I just snag one with the mouse, and, voila!" On the security feed, Megan could see that Clark was blocked in on a third side. But what Clark didn't know was that, as he darted toward the only opening left, he was going deeper into Robin's maze.
As Clark darted and paused, darted and paused, Robin kept glancing back and forth between the computer screen and the security feed. "Too bad you can't put the intruder on the computer screen, too," Megan said.
Robin said, "That would make it too easy."
After a few moments of apparent confusion, Clark seemed to be trying to get the hang of the crypts' movement. He dodged among them, always moving toward what seemed to be an opening, but finding that opening shut off at the last second.
Megan thought incongruously of those cheap plastic puzzles with the little interconnected tiles that you could slide around until they made a picture. She said, "Why not just box him in and be done with it?"
Robin said, "Always let the mark think he could still win."
One of Joe's team watching on another monitor said, "That's disgusting. You're like a cat playing with its food. By the way, this guy's name is Sherman McGillicutty. A.K.A. Clark."
Megan realized that Joe wasn't in the room. "So where's Joe?"
Robin answered, "He wanted to be there when this special forces wannabe got his."
After Clark's image on the screen had a close escape, and managed to slip a little closer to the western edge of the maze, Megan said, "What do you mean, 'got his'? Are you going to squash this guy?"
"No, now pay attention." On the screen, the last crypt between Clark and the street moved out of the way. Clark would have a clear view of the street and of the swingset beyond it, the one that looked like it came out of "The Pit and the Pendulum." As Clark tore toward the road, Robin said, "Eight ball in the corner pocket," and brought a crypt right up behind Clark, so close and so quickly that it eventually rushed him right into the street. No, past the street. When the crypt hit the edge of the road, it stopped, but Clark hurtled across the street and right into the pit.
Robin saw Megan's eyes open wide. "Don't worry," he said, "It's padded. So's the pendulum, but he won't know that."
As they watched, Clark, who had landed face down in pit rolled over just in time to see the pendulum swing over his chest, missing by inches. He froze into position as the pendulum came back across a few seconds later, an inch or two lower. Into a microphone near his console, Robin said, "He's all yours, Joe."
Over the speaker came Joe's voice. "Thanks Robin." In a few moments Megan heard Joe giving Clark, a choice between being turned over to law enforcement, or turned over to a Ranger team to find out how they would feel about other folks impersonating them for profit. Clark didn't take too long to decide.
In the meantime, Megan noted that Whitey was literally dozing on his perch. His head would droop, then bob, then snap up and he would blink furiously. Then the cycle would start again.
"Is that it?" she asked Robin?
"No, there's a mark close to your house," he said, pointing to a glowing spot behind the carriage house. "I think he's the last one."
This wasn't like having the ghost-chasers in the house. Megan said, "Tell me you're going to keep him out of my home."
Robin looked disappointed (or as disappointed as he could look through his makeup), but pushed the broadcast button on his radio mike. "Robin here. We have a mark behind the Forrester's carriage house. Any chance of an intercept before he gets to the house?"
Joe radioed back, "My team is too far down the hill. Anyone else who can intercept safely?"
Inga's voice said, "I'm close; let me see what I can do."
On the video monitor, Megan could see three, no, four bright blurs approaching from the west side of the house. Robin said, "He's headed around the east side of the house, Inga, you should be able to see him in a second."
Whitey's third team member was born and bred in the bayou. Zydeco described himself as half alligator and two-thirds wildcat, and it didn't matter to him or his friends if the math didn't add up. Except for his now-muddy alligator boots, and a necklace of alligator teeth, he dressed all in black every day. His muddy black dungarees, black denim shirt, black leather jacket, and black leather broadbrimmed hat were his partyin' clothes as well as his work clothes. Actually, for Zydeco, there wasn't much of a difference. An automatic in his shoulder holster, another in his belt, a .38 strapped to his ankle, and a bowie knife in a hidden pocket of his leather jacket gave him confidence that he was ready for anything. And he usually was.
In the Crow's Nest, one of Joe's men was using the video feeds to trace this perp's progress up the hill, on the off chance that one camera had picked up his face. None had. In fact, he had somehow avoided all but two cameras as if he knew where they were.
Over radio, Robin said, "Careful, Inga, this guy's sharper than he looks."
As Zydeco closed in on the Forrester's front door, Megan could see four forms creeping in behind him. "Hold it right there," said Inga's voice. In the glow of her home's porch lights, Megan could make out the silhouette of the stranger as he stepped back from the door and put his hands on his head. One of the cloaked figures accompanying Inga pulled out a pair of handcuffs and snapped one loop over the stranger's right wrist. Then Inga said, "Put both hands behind your back."
For a half-second, it looked like the intruder was going to comply. Then he hit the ground rolling and bowled over the figure who was trying to cuff him. By the time he had rolled onto his belly and elbows, he had an automatic pointed at Inga. One of her people kicked the gun out of his hand, and the shot went wild, but it hit another one of Inga's people in the shoulder. Then the intruder grabbed the leg of the man who had kicked him and, with a quick, simple motion, broke the man's lower leg.
A split-second later, the intruder was standing again, holding yet another gun. Inga spun and kicked that gun away, too, but in that motion exposed herself to a bowie knife Zydeco was holding in the other hand. She staggered back from the encounter clutching her side, just as the intruder spun and kicked the fourth defender in the head, knocking him senseless. A split-second later, he was in the house.
Megan said, "You have to do something."
"We will," said Robin, sounding slightly less sure of himself than he had a few minutes ago. Joe's cameras could pick up light that the intruder couldn't even see, and the homelanders watched with anticipation as he approached the motion detector that would send Boney hurling across the room. One of Joe's people said, "I got a good shot of his face just now. Checking, checking."
As Megan had hoped, Boney appeared on queue, and he clipped the intruder on the head. But Boney did no serious damage, certainly nothing compared to the bullet hole Zydeco put in Boney's plastic skull as he swept toward his hiding place in the ceiling.
Megan gasped. "My God, how many guns does he have? My children are in this house. Stop the games and get him out of here."
Robin said, "Don't worry. The room they're in is lined with concrete."
Megan chose to worry anyway. "Get them up here now," she said. Robin gave the "com" to an associate and disappeared down the stairs. In a moment, he had come back up the secret staircase with Jesse, Harry, and Bert. By then, Granny Applecheeks had escaped with only a hole in her dress. But now, the intruder realized that he was shooting at ghosts, literally, and stopped wasting bullets. He even paused to reload his .38.
The crew in the Crow's Nest soon learned that the intruder was named Frances Rutledge, street name Zydeco. And that he had the longest criminal record of the intruders they had encountered so far, including two indictments for murder that hadn't led to convictions because the key witnesses mysteriously recanted their testimony.
As Zydeco continued to work the first floor, he paused at every corner, making sure there were no human defenders before crossing into the next room. As the ghosts came at him, he batted some away with his gun, and slashed at others with his knife.
"I'm turning off the ghosts," said Robin. "He's just tearing them up."
Joe's voice came over the radio. "I'm here with Inga's crew. Most of them will be okay, but we need to get help for Inga now. Can we wrap this up?"
On the monitor, Megan could see Joe directing two of his crew how to care for the wounded. Then Joe and one other entered the house cautiously, guns drawn.
Unfortunately, Harry could also see the monitors. He asked his mom "Are those people hurt?" He looked quite worried. Jessie was biting her lip and looking pale. "They'll be okay," said Megan. To Robin, and Bert, who was standing next to him, she whispered, "Do something."
Robin pulled a small pistol, like a .22, from a drawer and stuck it into his belt at the small of his back. Then he motioned to Bert, and they went downstairs toward to the third floor. The only reason they didn't encounter Zydeco coming up was that they were using a different staircase.
On reaching the third floor, Bert was confused at first, then he realized that he was standing in a hall of mirrors. A moment later, he gasped, as Zydeco raised and pointed his gun at point blank range. Bert dropped to his knees and shouted, "No!" just as Zydeco fired. But the .38's roar was accompanied by the sound of breaking glass, and suddenly there was a black rectangle where the image of Zydeco had just been. Robin pulled Bert to his feet, and back into the maze.
Then began a peculiar hunt through the maze of mirrors. Sometimes Bert could see six or seven Zydecos at a time, but he was never sure that even one of the images was the real thing. He was mostly hoping that Zydeco was just as confused as Bert was. Bert was also a bit annoyed that Robin seemed to be enjoying himself so much.
"Can't you use your gun?" Bert asked.
"It won't come to that," said Robin.
During the pause, they could hear Zydeco reloading the empty chamber in his pistol. Then, Zydeco spoke out, in a calm, deep, raspy voice that sounded like something heavy being dragged across a gravel driveway. "This always looks like so much fun in the movies," he said. "Of course what they don't take into account is that I've got more bullets than you have mirrors. So you can't hide forever." Bert had another view of Zydeco pointing a gun at him, and stood still this time, only to be knocked out of the way by Robin, as the bullet whizzed passed his head. "That was really him," Robin said.
Robin's hand spurted blood from a shard of glass that had flown into it, and he was trying to stop the bleeding. "Don't want to leave a trail," he whispered.
Then a blast from a .45 broke the silence, and more glass shattered. Robin shouted, "Joe, hold your fire. You're going to hit one of us."
Then Robin ducked as a .38 bullet whizzed over his head and more glass shattered. "Keep giving away your position, freak!" shouted Zydeco. "Come on. Marco. Marco."
Robin shouted "Polo," and dodged again as a bullet whizzed through the space where he had been standing. More glass shattered. Grabbing Bert's shoulder he whispered, "This way."
Bert whispered, "Why do you even carry that gun if you never use it?"
"Because Joe won't let me do stuff like this if I don't have a gun. He can make me carry it, but he can't make me use it."
Zydeco said, "Marco," again. Again, Robin shouted "Polo," then ducked from another bullet and explosion of glass shards. By now both Robin and Bert had been cut several places. "Will you cut that out?" Bert whispered to Robin.
"I've got a clear shot," said Joe in Robin's headset. "I'm going to take it."
"No," said Robin, just as Joe fired again.
The .45 roared. More glass shattered. But Zydeco just laughed. "Mirrors work both ways, you know. Marco."
"Polo," answered Robin, pulling Bert down behind another row of mirrors, as the glass shattered above their heads. "Will you cut that out?" Bert demanded again.
Robin whispered back, "No, we have him right where he wants us. Stand right behind that mirror over there." Robin stood behind the mirror next to it.
"Marco," said Zydeco.
"Polo," said Robin.
Zydeco's next bullet sounded different to Bert's ears. It made a ka-ping sound that implied it had ricocheted. The glass that shattered this time sounded like it was across the room, nearer to Zydeco than to Robin.
Bert glanced at Robin, who made a motion with his hands to indicate that these mirrors, the funny curved ones, were thicker than the rest.
"Ain't you dead yet?" shouted Zydeco.
"Keep talking," shouted Joe. "I'll find you if they don't."
"Sure," answered Zydeco. "Marco."
The moment Robin said "Polo," the .38 fired again, followed by a ka-ping sound and a heavy grunt. "You freak!" Zydeco shouted. "Come out here and fight like a man.
"No need," said Joe. "I really can see you this time, and if you don't get a tourniquet on that leg in the next minute, you'll bleed out. What about it, Robin, should we call it a night and collect the corpse in the morning?"
"Okay, okay," shouted Zydeco. Bert could hear the sound of a pistol sliding across the floor, followed by the sound of something lighter. Zydeco's knife?
Joe shouted, "Come out, boys, I wasn't kidding about his wound. Either of you willing to sacrifice a belt to save this lowlife?"
Bert was. Joe showed him how to put it on, and even used Zydeco's knife to punch an extra hole so Bert could use the buckle to snug the belt up. Between the glass cuts and Zydeco's blood, Bert looked like he had been drenched in blood before he was done. But eventually, Zydeco's bleeding stopped, and two of Joe's people were helping him back down the stairs.
In the Crow's Nest, Megan suddenly realized she had been holding her breath and started breathing again. Harry, whose mother had ordered him not to watch said, "Sweet."
In the monitors, Megan could tell that Inga and her team had gotten some preliminary medical attention and were being transported. She joined the rest of Joe's people in a collective sigh of relief. Then she glanced back to the station camera to see what Whitey was up to now.
Whitey was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't in the station; he wasn't on the station platform. He wasn't on the street. Next to her, one of Joe's people was looking for him, too. "Joe, get up here," he radioed. "Reynolds is in the wind."
When Robin and Bert got back to the Crow's Nest, Megan panicked at all the blood on Bert. But then she realized that most of the blood wasn't his. Robin asked, "Any sign of Whitey yet?" No one answered.
Bert said, "He's coming up the tunnel!"
Bert started for the hidden staircase, but Robin redirected him to the other one. "Those stairs don't go to the basement," he said. The two tore down as fast as they could until they reached the first floor. Then Robin motioned for Bert to stop. "He could already be here. How long did it take you to get up here when you came?" Robin whispered.
"I don't know, a half hour, maybe, but I was hurt. How long has it been since Whitey was at the station?"
Robin shook his head. "I'm not sure. Maybe a half hour." He drew his gun and held it with both hands, pointing the gun up like a TV cop.
Bert couldn't help asking, "Where did you get that thing, anyway?"
"I won it off a lion tamer in a poker game," Robin whispered. Then he gestured for silence and started moving down the stairs. Bert was close behind him. Every time a step squeaked, they both cringed.
The basement was dark. Reflexively, Robin removed one hand from the gun and pawed for a light switch. That was all the time Whitey needed to grab the gun out of Robin's other hand, step back, and point it. "Hands in the air, both of you. Bert, hit the lights, then come this way. You there"—Whitey pointed at Robin—"Tell your people to stay out of sight." Robin complied.
Whitey blinked reflexively as the lights came on, but the gun did not waver. Then he looked at Robin's gun. "What is this, a starter pistol?"
"It does the job up close," Robin said. "Here, let me show you."
"Not a chance," said Whitey. "So what's you're name?"
Whitey laughed. "Oh, that's rich. Do your friends know?"
"Know what?" Bert said.
"He's a carney," said Whitey. "What are you doing here? Have you moved up to the big con?"
Robin retorted, "Have you, sky grifter?"
Whitey gave a smirk. "Why are you hanging with these lot lice?"
Bert interrupted. "Would you guys talk English?"
Robin ignored him. "Not that I owe you an explanation, but they're family. Even this forty-miler. Give it up, Whitey. Your friends are all out of the show. And you're out of snakes, or you wouldn't have snagged my pea-shooter. Time to bail."
"Oh, but I still have a way out," Whitey said. He backed toward the open door to the tunnel, and motioned for the others to follow him. They did.
In the Crow's Nest, Megan could hear snatches of the conversation, but the single camera in the basement was only picking up Whitey, not the others. As the conversation progressed, she saw Whitey apparently relax. As his speech patterns slowed, Megan became more alarmed. She sensed from her previous encounter that Whitey was the most dangerous when he seemed the most relaxed.
Megan grabbed the microphone. "Joe, you have to do something. He's about to make his move."
"Not yet," answered Joe. "They're still talking."
"That's when he's the most dangerous. I'm coming down."
What Joe didn't remember at the moment was that there was one more staircase that nobody used but the spiders. Megan floundered and felt her way all the way to the basement, then pushed through the false back of a storage unit, stepped around the brooms, mops, and buckets, and pushed the door to the storage unit open a crack.
Whitey was saying, "Bert, I have to say, you already look half dead. And what's with the fur? You goin' native?"
"It's a bood disease, and I'm out of Nair, if that's any of your business," said Bert. "Listen, by now, they've got people at the other end of the tunnel. Robin's right. You'll never get out."
Whitey was dangling the gun from his trigger finger, as if the last thing in the world he intended to do was shoot. Megan realized, if Bert didn't, that Whitey's casual attitude resembled that of a cat trying to look disinterested while waiting for the prey to get close enough to grab. "Look at this from my point of view," he said. "My boss sends down a team to take care of you, and I get them out of the way and bring in my own team. How do you think they'll like it if I fail, too?" Suddenly, Whitey snapped the pistol back into firing position, pointed right at Bert's head.
Megan couldn't take it any longer. She shouted, "Wait," and pushed open the door she was hiding behind. Her entrance would have been more dramatic, if she wasn't covered with spiderwebs, and if she hadn't tripped over a bottle of bleach and kicked a pail onto the floor.
Whitey was amused, "This keeps getting better. What are you doing here? Oh, and I love the 'Whiter Shade of Pale' look."
Megan had forgotten that she was in makeup, too, but she tried to look casual as she straightened up. "Listen, Whitey, I just talked to your wife. She knows you came down to see us and she wanted me to remind you about your father-daughter banquet this week."
"You see?" said Whitey. "That's exactly why I had to come."
"You're not making any sense," said Megan.
Whitey started dangling the gun again, not a good sign. "You see, of all the folks I've shaken down, you were the only one who actually thought about my family, and not just your own."
"And that's why you're holding a gun on my husband?"
"That's why you're still alive. And Jesse and Harry. The boys I marooned on that ferry wouldn't have worried about collateral damage. And I couldn't have that. So my boys had special instructions not to hurt you, just Bert here."
"Well, your friend Zydeco hurt plenty of people before he shot himself in the leg."
Whitey laughed. "He shot himself in the leg? Of course."
Megan said, "Never mind that. Why don't you call it even and let Bert go, too?"
Whitey snapped the gun up into firing position again and said, "Sorry, Bert was never negotiable. Come here, Bert, you're going to be my hostage. And then I'll bring you to some mutual friends, if you live long enough." Whitey backed toward the tunnel again until he was up against the little cart Harry had brought up. "Nice and easy, Bert. You don't want to do anything that would get Megan hurt, would you?" For a second, Whitey turned the gun toward Megan and she thought her knees would dissolve into Jello. But then Whitey laughed and twirled the gun once. At that moment, Bert punched Whitey in the jaw so hard he fell backwards into the cart. Bert rushed in and started to give the cart a shove.
A shot rang out and Bert was thrust back as if he had been punched in the chest. Then he seemed to shake it off. He leaned forward again and pushed the cart as hard as he could. As he released it, Megan heard two more quick gunshots, then the racket of the cart tearing down the hill.
Bert turned back toward Megan, and said, "I guess that's the end of that." Then he saw Megan's shocked look and glanced down at his own torso. There were three black holes in his shirt, surrounded by powder burns. And much of the blood on Bert's shirt was fresh. While Megan gasped, Bert said, "Oh, crap," and fell on his face.