[Apply the soothing balm of the previous chapter (in which our hero encounters Wite-Out on a computer screen) directly to your forehead.]
I slammed the lid shut and fought the urge to fling the laptop across the room. “You’ve got to be KIDDING me!”
“I don’t understand,” Angie said. “Why would he send you that message if it didn’t mean anything?”
“Because that’s who he is. I should have known it would be something like this. I should have known this would all be a stupid wild goose chase. He’s probably holed up in some hotel somewhere watching the news, wearing a tinfoil hat, and making up crazy theories about how the government is tracking his brain waves. This is just so…TYPICAL.”
“And what about the man with the gun?”
I opened my mouth to argue and then shut it again. “I don’t know,” I said at last. “Maybe it’s all some sort of bizarre misunderstanding. Maybe his shenanigans rankled the wrong people somehow.”
“Which means he could still be in trouble,” Angie pointed out.
I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed against the sides of my head with my hands. “I can’t keep doing this,” I said. “I can’t keep chasing after him, trying to clean up his messes. I’m not his keeper. I don’t owe-”
But then the voice in my head stopped me, reminding me that yes, I did owe Frog quite a bit. “The trail’s cold,” I went on still trying to justify doing nothing. “We’ve got nowhere left to look, no clues left to follow. The email was it. And now that that turned out to be a farce…there’s nowhere else to look.”
Angie looked like she was pondering what I had said, but before she could respond a piercing whining sound split the air, and then a megaphone-powered from somewhere outside voice announced, “We have you surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”
“This. Can not. Be happening,” I groaned.
“What? Who is that? How did they know we were here? I thought you said no one would be able to find the house.”
“I didn’t say that!” I screamed. “I only said Frog had taken precautions. Maybe he wasn’t careful enough.” I wrapped my hands around my head and squeezed as if I could wring some saving thought from the recesses of my brain. “We have to do something.”
“Like what? I’m a pretty decent shot, but I’m not too keen to jump into a gun battle with whoever it is out there,” Angie said.
“Yeah, and I’m not real excited about the idea of getting pulled into custody during a terrorism investigation,” I replied.
“I don’t see where we’ve got a lot of options,” Angie said. “Unless you’ve got some kind of escape hatch hidden around here, we’re pretty much screwed.”
And then a smile started to spread over my face. “For once in my life,” I said, “Frog’s paranoia, just might have paid off.”
I reached under the desk and pushed the button hidden under the inside front corner. There was an electric hum, a metallic squeal and the bookcase behind us started to move.
About five inches. I mashed the button again and the motor shuddered and bucked, but the case didn’t move.
“I helped him install it about a year ago,” I explained. “Unfortunately,” I added, mashing the button for a third time, to no avail, “neither of us is much of a craftsman.”
The sound of something crashing against the front door sent my heart racing even faster. I jumped out of the chair and heaved my weight against the stuck bookshelf. With a groan it moved, but just barely. There was now a foot of space between the shelf and the wall. Angie was able to squeeze through it but there was no way I was going to fit. There was another crash against the door, and Angie pushed from the inside while I put my shoulder against the edge of the shelf and shoved. It moved, slowly at first, but then suddenly it lurched and let loose all at once.
The crash against the door came one more time and I could hear the frame splintering, but I had the presence of mind to grab Frog’s laptop and toss it into the space behind the bookshelf. Then I drove in behind Angie and yanked hard on the handle on the back of the shelf, wishing now I had put a little more effort into helping Frog get the project right. The bookshelf swung most of the way closed, but it caught on something and shuddered to a halt, leaving a few inches still open just as I heard the door frame finally give way. The sound of booted feet came thumping into the trailer, and I heaved again, but the book case only budged an inch then two, leaving a sliver of space between the shelf and the wall.
The sound of boots drew closer and through the crack I saw the door to Frog’s library being kicked open. A man with a gun and a uniform that looked like something a SWAT team would wear stepped into the room and looked around. I swear I could feel the moment when his eyes passed over our hiding spot. I was sure he would see the bookcase was out of place, that he would notice my frightened eyes looking back at him, but after a moment he reached for the radio mounted at his shoulder and said, “Clear,” and moved on down the hall.
I closed my eyes and pulled on the handle one final time and the bookcase shuddered home. With the gap closed, the space behind the bookcase was closed in total darkness, but before long, I saw the glow of Angie’s cell phone casting a pale light against the walls.
It illuminated a thin space, so thin in fact that I brushed both sides no matter which way I turned, with a rickety wooden staircase leading down into the darkness.
“What is this place?” Angie whispered.
“Escape tunnel,” I whispered back.
“Is it safe?”
It was a fair question. The staircase that Frog had built wasn’t quite level and there were places where it was clear he had become frustrated trying to drive a nail, and simply bent it over.
I shrugged. “Probably safer than going back out there.”
Outside I heard someone shouting, “They’re not here,” and someone else saying, “They must be. Where else would they go?”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Someone’s been watching us.”
“How do you know?”
“They knew there were two of us. Well, I mean, at least they knew there was more than one of us.”
“Maybe they just guessed?”
“No, they sound pretty sure of themselves,” I said, mulling over what this might mean. “Anyway, we need to get a move on.”
Angie led the way down into the darkness, and I followed being careful to step on the outsides of the steps, fully aware of every creak and groan of the boards under my feet. I had a sudden vision of the whole staircase giving way, and me falling, wedged between the splintered boards, my body skewered like a pincushion. But that didn’t happen. Instead we made it to the bottom and by the light of Angie’s cell phone we could see the tunnel ahead, shored up with rough four-by-fours, the ceiling held up by marine-grade plywood.
“I can’t do this,” Angie said, suddenly, and I saw that her breathing was fast and shallow.
“I can’t handle tight spaces. The idea of being underground…what if it collapses? All that dirt crushing down, squeezing the life out of me. No one would ever find us. We’d be long dead before anyone figured out what had happened.”
I saw something glistening on her cheeks in the darkness and realized she was crying. Almost without realizing what I was doing I reached out and put my arms around her, drawing her close to me. I could feel her shaking as she wept and I said, “It’s gonna be okay, alright? It’s gonna be okay.”
And finally she stopped shaking and just lay there with her head against my chest for a few minutes. The screen on her cellphone timed out and we were plunged into darkness, so that all my focus rested on how it felt to have her resting against me. After a while she sniffed, and pulled away a little and I let her go. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning the cell phone screen back on. “I’m okay now. We can go. Just…stay close okay?”
We ventured forward into the tunnel. The underground space was wider than the stairwell but it was shorter too, meaning that I had to bend my head over pretty far to keep from banging it against the ceiling. The tunnel went on for what seemed like a very long way, but neither of us spoke the entire time.
At last we came to the end of the tunnel. On this end there was no staircase, but rather a simple metal extension ladder propped against the wall leading up to a trap-door.
Since the space was too small for us to switch places Angie climbed the ladder first and poked her head up through the trap-door.
“What do you see?”
“Trees,” she called down. “We’re in the woods.”
“Any of those guys in sight?”
“No. I’m going to climb up and have a look around.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I called, but before I could finish the sentence she had wriggled through the trap door into the forest above.
I hurried up the ladder after her, and heaved myself up and out of the darkness into the sun-dappled forest. Behind me the trap-door fell back against its frame with a bang and I winced at how loud the sound was in the quiet of the forest.
Angie was a few feet away crouched behind a bush, looking through at something I couldn’t quite see.
“I think I can see the trailer,” she said. “There’s a bunch of black SUV’s and one of the those big box trucks parked out front.”
“We need to get out of here. What if they come looking for us?”
“We’re going to be more conspicuous walking along the side of the road than we will be hiding in the forest,” she pointed out.
I crawled up beside her and looked through the trees. It was hard to make out exactly what was going on, but it appeared that people were carrying things out of Frog’s house and loading them into the back of a big truck.
“What are we going to do?” Angie asked
“We need to get out of here. I we can see them, then they can see us.”
“Maybe they’re not worried about us. Otherwise, wouldn’t they be combing the area by now?”
“Are you willing to stake your life on that? You want to just wander back in there and say, ‘Oh hey guys, I just wanted to pick up my car okay?’”
“I’ve been out here a few times before. You’re right about avoiding the roads, but if I’m not mistaken there’s a house through the woods a little less than a mile that way. If we get there, maybe we can call for help.”
“Why don’t I just use my cell phone?”
“You got signal?”
She checked the phone and shook her head.
“Not surprising out this far. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea anyway. Frog always said it was easier to track cell phones than land-lines. Of course I’m assuming he knew what he was talking about but…” I shrugged.
Angie nodded. “Fine. So we walk.”
We started trudging through the wood, and I kept thinking about what Angie had said. Why weren’t they looking for us? For that matter why weren’t there helicopters scouring the area? Something didn’t add up about the whole situation. I thought back to the moment when the guy in the SWAT gear had scanned the room. I pictured what I could remember in my mind, and tried to recall if he had been wearing any kind of identifying marks. Any name badge, a patch identifying what agency he worked with, anything that could give me a fix on who it was we were dealing with. But all I could recall was a man in a black uniform and a plastic visor over his face. No marks. No insignia.
Of course it was possible my memory was faulty, but the idea that we might be dealing with a group that operated outside the bounds of names or insignias made me a little uneasy. Frog was always obsessing about these types of people. Para-governmental agencies he called them. Dark shadowy organizations that operated under the funding of the government, but outside of its jurisdiction.
“Presidents don’t even know about these people,” he would say. “Nobody in Congress either. But when it comes right down to it they’re the ones who are really running the country.”
It sounded stupid then. Now…well it still sounded stupid, but so did everything else that had happened to me so far.
We walked for almost half an hour. The going was slow through the underbrush of the wood, and the shade provided by the trees did nothing to lessen the unbearable summer heat. Before long I found myself sweating hard.
Angelique kept looking back at me and asking if I was okay. I insisted that I was fine, but it was really only for show. I didn’t want her to see what a weakling I really was. Just watching her easy stride made me feel ashamed somehow, as if I was somehow less of a human, less worthy than she was. Worthy of what I wasn’t quite sure.
Pride notwithstanding, I was about to ask her if she didn’t mind stopping for a break when I saw a clear patch up ahead, and through it the strangely comforting right angles of a house. When we finally emerged from the forest I was ready to run for the door and the prospect of air conditioning and rest. But Angie put up a hand and held me back. “Are you sure about this?” she said.
“What’s to be sure about? I go up to the door, knock, ask if we can use his phone. Actually, on second thought maybe you should do the asking.”
“And what if they report us? Or worse, what if the guys from Frog’s place are already here waiting inside for us?”
“Why would they be here?”
“Because it makes sense. If they figured out we ran away, they could have figured out where we would be likely to run to. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come looking for us. They figure they’d cover all the likely exits and save themselves some trouble.” I looked at her blankly for a moment before she added, “It’s what I would do.”
I didn’t want to admit she had a point. But before I could offer a rebuttal the I heard crack of a gunshot and felt a bullet whistle past my ear.