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Safehouse, Part Two
A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
The dull haze of pain felt enough like a hangover that I was searching my memory for the part where I'd done all the drinking, and I was having trouble remembering anything. It didn't help that people were yelling back and forth, talking over me, talking like I wasn't even there.
Then I thought maybe I was dead. Then I woke up.
I was on my side with my head resting against a woman's thigh. There was movement. Everything was moving. Bumps and lurches sent white-hot flashes of pain through my skull, and that was the pain that finally brought my memory back.
I was in the back seat of a moving car, my Honda. I was slumped over on my side. My head was leaning against Mrs. Maraton's leg and she was yelling, screaming at Katy, who was up front driving. Mrs. Maraton's kid was in the front passenger seat and she was turned around looking back at me dumbly, and I still couldn't understand anything that was going on so I started yelling too, yelling for everyone to shut up so I could think.
I was rather surprised when that was exactly what they did.
I sat up. Big mistake. The pain came back in waves and I think I might have even blacked out again, but it was a little better after that. I took stock of how badly I was hurt. It could've been a lot worse. My left shoulder was taped up and there was a big gauze patch soaked with blood, but I could move my left arm without too much pain, so I figured the bullet hadn't shattered the bone. My nose was cracked out of place, but I could move my jaw. A dull ache came with each breath, but I was hoping that only meant bruised ribs, not broken ones.
With the pain came the memories, building up from nothing. I'm Chester Hall. I'm a private detective. I can be hired to spy on an enemy or to learn the truth about someone you once trusted. Sometimes I get hired as a bodyguard. That's what I'd been doing all evening, although I was doing a piss poor job of it. A woman named Peggy Maraton had hired me to protect herself and her daughter from some fanatic religious sect was stalking them. I'd been jumped by them twice now. How I got away the second time was still a mystery.
"Are we being followed?" I asked.
"Don't think so, Boss." Katy checked the mirrors. Katy was a month or two shy of eighteen, a small thin redhead who worked for me after school and over the summer. She made straight A's in school, and right now she was carrying way more than her share of a situation that had turned bad too fast.
The road was dark. We were winding along a two-lane road through woods and hills. The few houses were set back from the road, and the headlights would occasionally catch an old bike reflector nailed to a mailbox post.
"Pull into the next driveway. Kill the lights."
Mrs. Maraton looked like she wanted to say something, but she must have decided it could wait. Katy did as she was told and we stopped on a bit of dirt road.
"Okay," I said, "Tell me everything."
Katy and Mrs. Maraton both started talking at once.
"No, no! Shut up! Pardon me, Ma'am, but I think I had the politeness kicked out of me. Katy, I wanna hear it from you. What happened back there?"
"We heard the shot. We were all scattered in the store. Mrs. Maraton ran for the front door and those two punk guys came in. One of them shoved her. I grabbed Susan and got her through the door to the back room and ducked down. I think the store clerk went for a gun. They started shooting and I put my head down and when I looked up, Mrs. Maraton had crawled over to me. We got Susan, made a run for the back door, and snuck around to the car. I couldn't see what was happening in the store, but Mrs. Maraton got you in the car and I got the keys and we drove off. I stopped once on the side of the road so Mrs. Maraton could get the first aid kit. She patched up your shoulder while we drove."
Mrs. Maraton chimed in, "I insisted we go directly to the police, but your secretary refused."
"You said safehouse, boss. I've just been following the directions on the GPS. I figured I should stick to the plan."
"Which has worked out wonderfully so far!"
"All right, Mrs. Maraton. I get your point, but my assistant," Katy smiled at my emphasis of the title, "My assistant was following the instructions I laid out. Doing her job, in other words. How close are we, Katy?"
"Says about ten miles."
"Okay, and that means the only police station would involve backtracking at this point. We'll go to the safehouse. At least long enough to pick up some extra insurance. No more bickering because it's gonna make me get more of a headache than I've already got."
I looked at Susan. "How you holding up?"
"Fine." She didn't sound quite fine, but I was thankful she wasn't bawling her eyes out, all things considered.
I looked at my phone and saw I had a message from Dan Summers. I told Katy to get us on the road again while I called Dan back.
"Hey, Chess. What took you so long?"
"I got shot."
"No shit? You need an ambulance or something?"
"I need a drink. And a gun. Make that several guns. Fortunately I know where I can get several guns. You got information for me?"
"Yeah, Chess. Brotherhood of Light Positive, they're a fundamentalist group with what looks to be a mix of new age and Christian doctrines. They're tied to something called the Straight Edge movement, which, if I'm getting this right, is basically a punk anti-drug movement. I don't think the average straight-edger would have anything to do with these wackos, though. They're on the 'emerging groups' list on the Cultwatch site, but Cultwatch has almost no information on them. They're run like a secret society with a heavy emphasis on anonymity."
"In other words, you can't tell me who these people are?"
"I will, Chess. As they said back in Watergate, you just gotta follow the money. I've got people putting the paper trail together through the hosting services they use for their web server. I should have the FBI knocking on the door of the Dawn Prophet, well, hopefully before dawn."
"Their leader. That's what he calls himself. There's apparently gonna be a war in heaven and on earth, and the Dawn Prophet will slay the child of darkness, who will be reborn in the light to redeem the world. Typical apocalyptic bullshit. Who writes this shit anyway?"
"Nerds gone badly wrong. Call me when you get more information, okay?"
"You got it, Chess. And try not to get shot anymore."
I closed up my phone and leaned on the seat in front of me. Susan was back to playing her video games and Katy was starting to look a bit tired.
"Are you straight edge, Katy?" Something about the sound of that rang a bell somewhere. Of course, I'd had my bell rung quite a bit for one night, so I figured it might be my memory going screwy. But I had to ask.
"You mean do I draw a black 'X' on the back of my hand? No way. But I don't drink or smoke. Personal decision, you know?"
"Got any friends who identify themselves as straight edge?"
"A few. You saw the mark on that punk's hand, then, huh?"
Actually I hadn't. But something was really starting to bother me. I wished for time and quiet, and a head that hadn't been repeatedly kicked, because I thought if I had those things then maybe I could figure out why we couldn't seem to shake these people.
"Maybe they're psychic."
"What was that?"
"You said something about a prophet, right?" Katy asked. "What if he's really got the second sight? You know? Clairvoyance? Remote viewing?"
"Yes, I know clairvoyance and remote viewing. If it was for real, people wouldn't need private investigators and we'd both be unemployed. Although in this case, I'll at least consider it as an unlikely possibility."
That was mostly because there was another possibility that I was trying very hard not to consider.
The safehouse was a one-story cottage about half a mile up a dirt road on a mountainside just past North Conway. I spent a lot of time at the safehouse helping Jake Horner fix the place up back when I was working for him. As vacation homes in the mountains go, it's a pretty nice one. It was also built as a refuge in case Jake or one of his associates or a client needed someplace to get away.
Katy parked the car near the small garden shed at the end of the driveway. I got out and keyed in the alarm code, and then ushered the others inside. The living room has a fireplace, and there is a full kitchen and bath. There are three small bedrooms toward the back.
For the next hour or so we kept ourselves busy. I sent Mrs. Maraton and Susan down to the basement to get some supplies. There's a big freezer down there and shelves stocked with canned food. Katy got some firewood from the stack on the porch.
I opened up the secret panel in the living room floor. That was the most expensive feature of the place. There's a company out of Virginia that custom-builds secret compartments and trick locks. This was one of their smaller jobs and it still cost a couple grand. The floor panel dropped down and slid to one side to reveal a steel locker. I inserted a key and opened up the gun cabinet, selecting a Walther PPK 9mm semi-automatic and a double-barrel pump action shotgun. My own gun was back in my apartment. My work doesn't normally call for me carrying a weapon. I located ammunition, closed the locker and the false panel, checked both guns carefully, and loaded them, and put a couple extra clips into my jacket pocket.
Katy came in and I could tell she wasn't happy to see the guns, but she didn't say anything. We cooked some Dinty Moore beef stew and we had about two hours where we chatted and tried to relax. There was no TV, and the radio reception wasn't good. Cell phone reception was spotty depending on where you were in the house, but I managed to call Jake Horner and explain the situation. He told me he was going to call the State police and get some help out to us, and at this point I was feeling like that was the best idea. I can be pretty stubborn when it comes to refusing to admit I'm in over my head, but things had clearly gone too far too fast.
I'd been off the phone for half an hour when Katy told me we had trouble. She'd spotted lights down the dirt road.
I looked at Katy, who looked worried but determined, and Mrs. Maraton, who just seemed overwhelmed. Susan scrunched down in her chair, seeming to be finally on the verge of tears.
I didn't see what Katy had seen, but I didn't doubt her. I walked over to the switch near the door.
"I'm gonna douse the lights. Everyone keeps low and no loud noises."
We still had some light from the fireplace so we could see. I kept checking the window, but there was no sign of movement. I was second guessing myself as I tried to turn over options in my head. Finally, I decided that I couldn't just wait for everyone to be in danger at once.
I moved over close to Katy. I put the pistol in her hand and quickly went over how to fire and reload.
"Call 911. Get police out here. Then call Jake Horner."
"You're going out there?" she whispered.
"Gotta get proactive here. We're reacting too much. I'll be okay. I just want to see what's out there. Fifteen minutes, I'll be back, we'll deal with this together. You can handle that, right? Fifteen minutes?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I got this. Go kick ass."
Mrs Maraton came over from where she'd been trying to calm Susan down when she saw me heading for the back door with the shotgun.
"Have to. Just taking a look. I don't want you or Susan or Katy in harm's way if it can be avoided. Police are on the way, Ma'am. We'll be fine. Just let me take a look."
She slouched and took a step back. She was shutting down. We'd all been through too much for one night. I could tell Katy was close to crying, Mrs. Maraton was ready to just give up, and Susan kept retreating further into the world of her Tetris.
I tried for a moment to convince myself that we could get through this, and when that didn't work, I opened the door and stepped out into the darkness.
I moved away from the house and into the woods. About ten yards away, it occurred to me to switch my cell phone to vibrate mode, and I couldn't help thinking that dying because of the Theme from Dragnet would have been one hell of an embarrassing way to go.
I circled through the woods, holding the shotgun and taking slow steps, stopping to listen between each step. The progress was excruciatingly slow and I immediately regretted the estimate of fifteen minutes that I'd given Katy.
About half way down the dirt road, I spotted flashlights at the far end. They weren't moving. Whoever they were, they were just standing around. There were at least three. Maybe they were waiting for backup.
I started to move closer when the phone went off in my pocket. I let it go to voicemail, got my back to a big tree and crouched down to listen to Dan Summers confirm my worst fear, the one I'd been trying to shut down every time the idea crept into my thinking.
I had to get back to the house.
I called Katy. No answer. I was moving now, still keeping to the woods, but I wasn't stopping to listen after each step anymore.
I caught sight of someone walking, coming down the road from the house. Peggy Maraton, the woman whose name was on the credit card that paid for Brotherhood of Light Positive's website. These people weren't psychic at all. We'd been set up.
She was keeping close to my side of the path, walking a little unsteadily. I froze where I was, considering my options. I figured I better try to get information out of her. If she refused to talk, at least she'd be one less that Katy and Susan and I would have to deal with to get out of this. If Katy and Susan were even...
I didn't have time to finish that thought and I was glad. I came out of the shadows and took her down hard, and she gave almost no resistance at all. I'd been trying to keep quiet, and I was lucky because she didn't scream immediately even though she probably could have. I got her on the ground and she recognized me and stopped trying to fight.
"Mr. Hall... Chester... You're okay?" She whispered. She sounded relieved, almost happy.
"Just keep it quiet and give me answers." I showed her the business end of the shotgun to make my point.
"Mr. Hall, what are you..."
"Shut up! What did you do to Katy and Susan? So help me God I will..."
She started to cry.
"I know I shouldn't have left them," she sobbed, "Please don't be mad. We thought you were hurt."
"Wait. I haven't been gone that long. Why did you think I was hurt?"
I already knew the answer.
"You called us."
The dirt road next to us lit up with headlights as an engine roared to life. The lights were high and bright, a truck or a van, and it sped past us kicking up dust.
For a second neither of us said anything. Mrs. Maraton seemed to be descending into shock again, and I was in the middle of figuring out everything that I should have realized hours ago.
"Mrs. Maraton, does your phone have a GPS device?"
"A what? Maybe. It has all these features that I never use. Why are you asking me about my phone? Those people are after my daughter! Do something!"
"Mrs. Maraton. You said I called and told you I was hurt out here. Who took that call?"
"Susan. Susan told us."
"Oh my God."
I pulled my phone out. Incoming text message. Katy.
<CHESS SHE FUCKIN MACED ME. THE KID. SHES 1 OF THEM>
I forgot all about Mrs. Maraton and started moving through the woods back to the house, taking a second to glance at the message screen as I got closer.
<CHESS? SOME HELP HERE? LOCKED IN CLOSET.>
I took enough time to type in <ON MY WAY> and kept moving.
Next time I looked at the screen things had gone worse.
<SHES LETTING THEM IN>
I typed back.
<ATTIC CRAWLSPACE. CLOSET CEILING.>
That might buy her time if she could get herself up there. I stopped short realizing there was a guy with a rifle watching from the front door and another one over by the garden shed.
There was movement in the woods behind me and to the left. The guy with the rifle aimed and fired three shots. I didn't hear anything else back there and I hoped Mrs. Maraton had found some cover.
Two more, a man and a woman, emerged from the house and unloaded something from the truck. I looked down at the phone.
<CHESS THEYRE GONNA BURN THE HOUSE>
I typed <ATTIC WINDOW BACK SIDE>. It was just a vent. I couldn't have fit out if it, but Katy might have a chance.
I moved back close to where the road approached the house. One guy came out of the house and walked toward the van. I made my move right when the van was between him and the rifleman. He reached for something as I came at him, but not fast enough.
I broke his jaw with the stock of the shotgun and stomped him as he was going down. I put the boots to him a couple more times, taking out some of the frustration of the night.
I looked up in time to see the guy with the rifle come around the van, and he walked right into a blast from both barrels that ripped into him before he had a chance to point his weapon. Two to go plus the kid.
I reloaded the shotgun and came the rest of the way around the van and nearly got knocked on my ass by a wave of hot air that singed my skin as the gasoline went up. I yelled for Katy but my voice was lost in the rush of wind from the spreading flames.
A little way off, Susan was standing with the woman and the remaining man, admiring her handiwork as the safehouse burned. They saw me and started moving apart. The man and woman both had pistols. I kept turning, pointing the shotgun at one, then the other.
"Susan, why are you doing this?" Getting them talking is the oldest trick in the book. She didn't go for it. She started to step back while the two fanatics continued to spread apart so I wouldn't be able to take them both out.
Susan looked on, smiling in the firelight more than I'd seen her do all day. I was the last thing standing between her and whatever baptism she'd arranged with her true believers.
I figured I'd get one of them and then the other would probably get me. They both seemed a little shaky, though. Maybe one would miss. I was trying to decide which one to try to take out, when Mrs. Maraton came running out of the woods screaming at them to leave her daughter alone. The poor mom still didn't get it.
The goth-looking woman shifted her aim toward Mrs. Maraton and I fired. I aimed center-of-mass, and the shotgun blast knocked her backward. She did this shaky, stumbling dance and the momentum sent her into the flames of the burning house.
Somewhere while I stood there watching the scene like it was in slow motion there was loud thump for the other side, and then I started wondering why I hadn't been shot yet and turned toward the remaining punk.
He was laid out. Katy was standing over him with a garden shovel.
Mrs. Maraton ran to her daughter, but Susan twisted away.
"You ruined everything!" Susan started to stomp off and found herself looking up at Katy, who put the kid on her backside with a slap that must've stung like hell from the sound of it. Then Mrs. Maraton tried to go after Katy and I had to get between them.
I pulled Katy aside.
"You done?" I asked her.
I went back to Mrs. Maraton and told her that as far as my services as bodyguard went, I quit. Fortunately, that was about the time the cops showed up.
The story of the child cult leader who tried to have her followers murder her mom and fake her death had plenty of legal twists and turns, and it still shows up on the cable news channels every so often as the various trials get closer. Occasionally I get a call from the prosecutor's office to go over this detail or that, and I go in and tell them the same story every time.
Cultwatch dot org lists Brotherhood of Light Positive as "reported inactive". I think they got most of the members who were really capable of committing criminal acts for the cause. A few others might have quietly dropped out, fearing attention from the feds or maybe just embarrassed that their Dawn Prophet had turned out to be a twelve year old girl with some computer skills and a power trip. Of course her lawyers argue that she was never a leader at all. In fact, if you listen to them, Susan Maraton was nothing more than an innocent victim caught up in the fanaticism.
But I saw her smiling when that building went up, a building where she thought a person was trapped to be burned alive. No, I'm not buying into the victim theory, and I hope a jury won't either, although with talk of an insanity defense it may never get to trial.
The last time I saw Katy was about a week after the police finally finished questioning us and let us go home.
She came into the office with a couple of bags of gear I'd let her borrow over the last year or so.
"Hey, kid. You're not supposed to be here." Her parents had ordered her to quit and had threatened to have me charged with criminal negligence if I so much as spoke a word to their daughter ever again.
She just put the bags down and unzipped one and brought over two slices of pizza and a bottle of Mountain Dew.
"You always forget to eat, Chess. Who's gonna make sure you eat?"
"I don't know, kid. And I don't know who I'm gonna get to drive getaway or take out the bad guys with a shovel either."
"I'll be back. Things will settle down and I'll come back."
I shook my head. "Senior year of high school, kid. Get your grades, pick your college, have fun. Your Dad is right. I could've gotten you killed."
"It was my choice to stay."
"Yeah, kid. But it was my responsibility to not let you make that choice."
"Why? Because you care about me? Because you don't want to see me hurt? Chess, if you really cared you'd have some respect for the work I do for you! I'm not a wife or a girlfriend or your goddamned kid, Chess. I'm part of what you do here!"
She looked at me, waiting for some little sign, something to give her hope, and I wanted more than anything to just hint that maybe, maybe after people calmed down, maybe after the trial was over and the media was done with the case, maybe after she finished college. But I couldn't allow myself that.
"I screwed up when I put you in danger, kid. And you screwed up too when you let me do it. You're fired, Katy."
She turned her back and slammed the door on the way out. I figured she didn't want me to see her cry. I guess we both wanted it that way.
Photo and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006