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Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 3

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound

Annual 3

by Christopher D. Carter, © 2014

Text and Illustration Copyright © 2014 Christopher D. Carter

All Rights Reserved

Also by Christopher Carter available at ebook retailers:

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 1-5 (Book 1)

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 6-12 (Book 2)

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 1

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 2

Discover other titles by Christopher D. Carter at

[+ https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/SawdustEntertainment+]

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

To Be Continued

About the Author

Chapter 1

***

Huit Brighter

*

Three Rivers, California

“Good morning, Mr. Brighter,” the nurse said as she studied the notes on the handheld while standing at the end of the bed. The lines curved up at the edges of her lips as she put on the fake smile that she had practiced so many times over the years, and she held the expression like a professional as she read through the patient’s records. “I see that we have you down for a trip to the cardiologist today. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” she asked though she did not expect a coherent reply of any sort. Mr. Brighter laid in the bed with his head turned toward the morning light in the window, and his eyes lit up at the sound of Nurse Corona’s voice. It took him a good thirty seconds to raise his head and turn it her way, but he managed to slowly turn his pale face toward her and open his mouth as if to say something of significance. Over the next thirty seconds, he slowly rolled out a long, few syllables, but Nurse Corona had already pulled out her stethoscope to take his blood pressure. She neglected to pay any real attention to the words that he worked diligently to form, and as was normally the case, she completed her quick examination before he ever sat forward on the mattress. With a sigh of regret, Huit Brighter watched the round backside of the middle-aged nurse swish back out of the room to be replaced with the short, grumpy nursing assistant who only half-heartedly washed his armpits and crotch before spilling his morning juice all over his bed sheets.

“Well, I see you’ve wet the bed again, Wheaty,” Urina jested at the stain left over from the orange juice. Though she knew that she was at fault for the accident, she also knew that no one would be the wiser if she blamed the spill on Huit. The world moved by in a whirlwind for the young fellow, and his reflexes were unequipped for the rigors of dealing with everyday life in a nursing home. He sighed in disappointment to himself as she removed his gown and slid on his blue pajamas for the trip to the doctor’s office. When Urina had dressed him in everything but his shoes, she stripped the bed down and threw the sheets into the laundry basket outside of his room and disappeared around the corner. Huit stood alone in the white room in his socks on the cold floor, and he waited for her to return with his slippers.

Slippers. It had been three weeks since Huit had last seen the slippers. They had been placed on the inside of the doorway to his room, in plain sight for anyone that strolled by. At midnight on a Tuesday, he had seen the night watchman walk by with the third shift nurse, and their shadows passed out of view as their conversation continued.

“Sugar, are you goin’ to let me come see ya at the laundry room later? I got something that needs cleanin’, baby,” he said as he attempted to put his arm around her waist.

“Now you know that ain’t happenin’, Scoot, so you can just keep movin’ round and punchin’ the keys,” she replied with a smack of his hand.

“Mmm, mmm. Smack it harder, baby,” Scoot teased her, and she turned up her nose at him and walked off in a huff to the nurse’s station. “Shake it like you mean it,” he said to himself under his breath as he watched her strut away in anger. He pulled the toothpick out of his mouth and then scanned the electronic key on the wall at the end of the hall. Then, Scoot strolled confidently back down the hallway outside of Huit’s room and stopped so that only his shadow showed at the edge of the doorway. The shadow knelt down to the floor, and a hand reached in to snatch the pair of slippers that sat just inside the doorway. Just like that, Huit’s slippers were gone, and he had to make his trip to the doctor’s office with just his socks on.

Huit really hated this nursing home. For him, the days passed by as if he were watching a really boring movie, and all he could do was observe. His movements had always been slow when compared to the movements of the other people in this world, and there was nothing that he could do to change that. Nor would he ever choose to change it. He had never known the world to be any other way during his one hundred twenty years on the planet, and there was certainly no reason to wish for a change now. The nurses and nursing assistants helped him as much as they were able. The therapists had determined long ago that there was nothing that they could improve with his ability to move his hands and feet. He could stand up, walk, flex his hands, and eat his food; it just took him eight times longer to do activities than “normal” people. Sometimes his movements were acceptable, for instance, when he played a long game of chess or checkers. At other times, such as now when he had a doctor’s appointment, the need for a speedier process was evident.

All of these thoughts swirled in his mind until the nursing assistant returned with a wheelchair and parked it behind him. She left the room while he slowly squatted, and he sat back sluggishly on the taut fabric seat while she threw another set of sheets onto the wet mattress. She never made the effort to dry the mattress out, and once again, he would have to sleep another lonely night on a wet bed in this filthy environment. He sighed to himself as Urina wheeled him out into the hallway past the empty nurse station and down to the front doors where the handicap accessible van was waiting outside. She waited patiently for Doug, the janitor/facility mechanic/cook, to come out and help load him into the van. Urina drove the van, and she knew how the control mechanisms of the transport vehicle worked. She did not need Doug’s help, but she liked it when someone else participated in manual labor besides herself.

“Damn glad we have her,” Huit thought to himself as the exhaust fumes poured out of the tailpipe and wafted into his lungs.

“Hey, darlin’. You need help with Huit,” Doug asked as he came out the door of the facility and opened the door to the van. He was a strong young man and never hesitated to help, even when he was not asked directly. Doug had learned that Urina depended on him in these situations and that he should just go ahead and plan on helping whenever he saw the need. He quickly worked the lift, rolled the wheelchair onto the platform, and raised Huit up into the vehicle and out of the smog. Doug turned his head and coughed to the side once as the grey smoke covered him in a fog. “Urina, next time, please leave the van off when you’re loadin’. The battery charge can handle the lift for one person even when it’s not runnin’. But the smoke’s killin’ me.”

“It’s cold, Doug bug, and I ain’t about to freeze out here,” she replied as she hopped into the driver’s seat. Before he closed the door to the van, Doug looked eye level and noticed something that he had missed earlier.

“Huit, man, you can’t go out today with just your socks on. You’ll catch cold, boy,” Doug said as he left the van door open and looked in at Urina. “Girl, where are his shoes?” She looked back with a smirk.

“I ain’t his momma. How would I know what he’s done with his shoes?!”

“All right, all right,” Doug said with a wave of his hand. “Wait right here, and I’ll take care of it,” he explained as he shut the door to keep the exhaust out. A few seconds later, Doug came out of the building with a fresh towel to wrap around Huit’s feet. When he was properly bundled, Huit could feel the tingling from the numbness in his toes subside, and a slow smile crept across his face as the van drove away.

“Thank God for Doug,” Huit thought to himself as they made their way to the cardiologist appointment. Urina looked at him from the rearview mirror, and she scratched her head as she considered Huit.

“I don’t know why you go to the cardiologist. You’re too young to have heart problems, and goodness knows, you never do anything. There’s something goin’ on in that head of yours, but darned if I know what it could be,” she blurted out and then turned her eyes back to the traffic at the stoplight. It was true that Huit’s skin was as smooth and unwrinkled as a teenager without the zits, but he was much older than his appearance belied. Maybe Huit would make the effort to write a message down for her and leave it on the cabinet next to his bed. Then she would know that he wasn’t just a person with a disability.

“I might as well be talkin’ to myself. Useless,” Urina remarked.

“Okay, scratch that last thought,” Huit reasoned.

**********

Dr. Lyon checked Huit’s pulse with a stethoscope and a digital timer, and she recorded his heart rate on the sheet. Then she performed the standard blood pressure reading before unstrapping the cuff from his arm. She opened up the large folder of records that went along with his visit, and she leaned in close to his ear to whisper.

“I know your secret,” she hinted with a smile, and then she leaned back in her chair to see his reaction. After an eight second pause, Huit managed to return the grin, and Dr. Lyon confirmed the previous physician’s observations. “Your heart rate should be seventy-two beats per minute, but its consistently nine beats per minute. With that slow of a pace, your blood pressure should be lower, yet it matches a healthy person’s. You,” she pointed at him with emphasis, “live on a much slower pace than the rest of us. But you’re as healthy as any athlete that I’ve ever examined. And what’s more amazing is your age, Huit. One hundred twenty years by our records and by your own admission. Heck, these scanned documents from the military are dated ‘1917’, and yet you look no older than a teenager. You have a slowed metabolism that holds your body young, but you must have grown into a young man by the time you were drafted,” she marveled as she threw her hands into the air. “You’re a mystery, but . . .” she declared with one finger in pointed to the ceiling, “I believe that you live at 1/8th the pace of the rest of the world, and therefore your heart rate is 1/8th of a normal person’s, and you will live 8 times longer than the average person.” When she finished her dissertation, she laid her hands on her lap and waited for his reply. Over the next few minutes, Huit made a request from Dr. Lyon for a pen and paper, and he spent another ten minutes scribing out his reply. Dr. Lyon could not wait for him to hold up the answer, and when he had finished writing, she stood from her chair and looked down at the note.

“Exactly, my dear,” the note read, and she nodded her approval.

“Now, perhaps, we can get somewhere,” she added and went back to her seat. “Tell me about yourself, how you came to be in your condition? How you ended up in a nursing facility?” Huit began to write, but the process of scribing was so slow that Dr. Lyon realized that she would have to let him complete the answers to the questions on his own time. She raised her wrist and looked at her watch, and Huit instantly knew where this conversation was heading.

“Huit, our visit is nearing an end today,” the doctor explained with a smile. “Can you please bring the notes back with you on the next visit, because I am very curious to hear your story?”

“Sure,” he thought to himself, and he stopped writing a few seconds afterwards. Dr. Lyons called Urina into the room, and the nursing assistant helped him get back into the wheelchair.

“Urina, it’s chilly outside. Where are Huit’s shoes?” the doctor inquired, and Urina shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she had no idea where the man’s shoes were. “He had some the last time he was here because our office provided them for him.” Urina never voiced an opinion one way or the other to the doctor’s questions. She simply wheeled him out of the examination room and signed the forms at the front desk before leaving. Urina really did not know where Huit’s shoes were, but she also did not seem to care. To her, Huit was just another name on the schedule. His life was his own, and she thought very little of his existence when she finished work every day. Actually, she thought very little of his needs while at work. After all, he could not express his thoughts, dreams, or desires to her in a way that she could understand, so she saw him as just another “chore” in the day.

The automatic doors of the doctor’s office opened to let them through the exit, and Urina pushed Huit’s wheelchair into the diagonal lines of the parking space access. She placed both of her hands on her hips with a sigh, and she shook her head.

“I wish Doug was here,” she said aloud, and then she left Huit alone while she started the van. She had forgotten to engage the wheel brake on Huit’s chair, and the wheelchair rolled backwards into the next empty spot and kept moving downhill toward the edge of the sloped parking lot. Butterflies churned in Huit’s stomach as he watched the van move further and further away until the wheels struck the curb at the bottom of the parking lot and stopped. Huit’s body had gone rigid with the excitement, and he bounced out of the seat and onto the grass.

“Man, that’s going to leave a mark,” he moaned to himself as he looked up at the van. Urina now stood beside the van, looking puzzled about where he could possibly have gone in his wheelchair. She had missed the whole event and was standing with her hands on her hips as she finally noticed Huit laying in the grass at the bottom of the hill. “Oh, how I wish Doug was here,” he thought as she stormed down the hill and looked around to see if anyone else had noticed her mistake. There was no one else around the empty cars when she reached him, and she quickly grabbed hold of his hands to drag him face first onto the seat of the wheelchair. The stench from the filthy seat wafted into Huit’s nostrils, and he gagged with the smell.

“That’s what you get, Huit, for trying to run away,” she said as she shook her head and caught her breath from lifting him. “Serves you right,” Urina scolded him, and she yanked on his pants to help lift him up further into the chair with no success. The wheels moved again, and she ran over her own foot with the effort, bringing about a few well-placed words that will not be captured in this writing. “You’ve done it now. I’m going to have to go get help,” she said as she hobbled up the hill. At the door to the office, she turned around and yelled out to him, “Don’t go anywhere!!”

“Yeah,” Huit thought, “I’ll keep that in mind,” he reflected with his face smashed against the filthy seat. A few minutes later, he had his head raised and was making a strong effort to get himself situated into the seat of the wheelchair when Dr. Lyons came running out to help.

“Urina!! What have you done?!!” she exclaimed as she backed the wheelchair down from the curb and started pushing him up the hill to the van. “There is a brake built into the wheelchair for a reason,” she snapped. Urina followed behind with her head bowed, not saying anything and letting the doctor do the work. Dr. Lyons leaned over and whispered into Huit’s ear.

“I’m going to get you out of that facility before you get hurt,” she promised and wiped the loose grass clippings from his stained pants. With a stern eye and a pointed finger, the doctor lit into Urina again. “Use the brake!! That’s what it’s there for!” she snapped and headed back through the door of her office. Urina kept quiet and nodded as she watched the doctor disappear. Then she lowered the lift, rolled Huit onto it, and raised him into the van. She slammed the side door and ran around the van to get in the driver’s seat.

“You’re too much trouble, Wheaty. Too much trouble,” Urina grumbled as she sped off into traffic.

**********

Later that night, Huit laid in his bed and stared at the ceiling. Sines, cosines, and Euler’s formulas danced in his mind as he reasoned out the relationships that the formulas shared with one another, and his nerves calmed from the stressful experiences that he had endured earlier that day. As crazy as it sounds, this was not an abnormal day for him nor for any of the other patients that resided in the facility. He wondered if he was the only one who could deeply reflect on the challenges of depending on others for his every need, and he surmised that he was not the only person in the building who did so. There must be others that were anxious with their place in life. Even Urina. She had not meant for him to have an accident in the parking lot. No, she certainly had not. She was lazy, and the unintended event had caused her more effort in her workday, so he knew that the accident had not been her intention. Urina would have been content to ride around all day with him in the backseat, cruising the city and singing with the radio. It would have saved her from cleaning a toilet or changing a bed pan or any of her many other daily duties. Same pay, easier way to pass the time.

Still, the bruises that covered Huit’s ribs and legs throbbed, and he was having difficulty going to sleep. The whistling that filled the hall let him know that Scoot was on the job again, and he would at least have some entertainment to keep him busy that night. The security guard strolled by the outside of Huit’s room and stopped whistling. He read the number on the door, and then he looked into the room from the dimly lit hallway where he spied Huit on the bed. He looked at the room number again as if he were mentally checking it off in his mind, and he walked away from the door on his rounds. No whistling, just footsteps and the sound of a key check. Huit could hear the door at the end of the hallway open and close as Scoot passed through. A few minutes later, the hinges of the door at the end of the hall squeaked open and closed, and the intermittent scuffling of someone walking on the balls of their feet echoed as the person paced down the hallway toward Huit’s room. A dark hooded figure entered his room and closed the door behind him. Huit tried to cry out, but his words were too slow as the hand went across his mouth and the chemical odor overcame his breath. That was all he could remember.

**********

Dr. Theresa Tatum sat stiffly in the chair on one side of the desk, and she waited for the lecture she knew she would receive from the director on the other side of the desk. The room was dark except for a desk lamp on the dimmest setting that rested at the near corner of her side of the desk. It was an interestingly ugly lamp stick of dark exotic wood in the shape of an upside-down octopus, and it had a bamboo shade that was woven in a patchwork consisting of a tan background with dark mahogany lines, which served to absorb more light than it let through. Dr. Tatum’s hands were entwined in her fingers and resting on her knees as she waited for the out-of-cycle review to take place. The dust motes floated by the ebony eyes of the octopus, and she could have sworn that she saw the irises twitch as they followed the dust particle. In the shadows, the man on the other side of the desk placed his hand on the side of his face, and he tilted his head to the side as if he were resting it on the open palm while he took in a deep sigh of what Dr. Tatum detected as regret. He was rarely quick with his words, and he was rarely forgiving of his assessments. He leaned forward into the dim light, positioning the fingertips of his hands together in a steeple beneath his chin, as if the points of his fingers were holding up a very delicate egg, and Dr. Tatum braced for the discussion.

“Dr. Tatum,” the director began with a long pause after stating her name, “do you believe that bringing grief and hardship to my doorstep is your sole station in life?” She stared through the steeple of his hands where his face was masked, and she tried to glean his mood from his expression, but too much of his face was hidden to tell exactly where the question was coming from. She did have an idea of where it was going, and she answered in a question.

“Sir, I don’t know what you mean?” she replied so that he could clarify. If she could just get him to commit to a specific incident, then she could figure out how to address his concerns. His fingertips parted and then rested on the table as if everything that he had carried to the desk was now laid out onto the cold surface of the wood.

“Let me clarify . . . ,” he started.

“There we go,” she thought to herself.

“Where is Sherry Lance?” he asked. She paused before answering.

“I do not know . . . ,” she started, and then he held up one hand as if to say stop.

“Where is the man that you hired last? Phil?” he continued.

“He died at the hands of . . . ,” she responded, and was once again stopped with the gesture of the same hand.

“And Shakespeare Crush?”

“Ah, that one I know,” she replied in a clearly frustrated manner. Not frustrated with him yet, but with her own inability to give definitive answers to the previous questions. “He’s on assignment in North Carolina.” There. That should slow him down.

“Where is Isaac Pound?” he resumed.

“He’s also on assignment in North Carolina with Crush,” she explained. Two in a row. Her percentage was moving up.

“I’m glad that you can answer for those last two agents. Good,” the director remarked. “I read your report from last week, and it seems that though they are on assignment, they have neglected to report back to you on their progress at the expected interval.” He leaned forward with his dry lips appearing in the dim light. “Is that correct?” he asked as he licked his lips and then wiped the moisture off of the pruned up ridges.

“There are many ways to look at it,” she rationalized. “Crush and Pound are dependable field agents, and as you know with other branches of the government, field agents that go in deep sometimes are not able to communicate back to their contacts. It is all a part of covert activity,” Dr. Tatum clarified. The director remained stoic as he waited for her to finish, but she had no other comments for her defense just then. Once he had digested all of her words, he sat back in the dark, and he contemplated quietly where he was going with the meeting.

“I will make this as plain as possible for you, Dr. Tatum. I don’t like the way you manage, and in my mind, it is time for a change. You will retain your employment with the government of the United States, but you will be reduced in rank to a field agent. Your pay rate will remain locked in where it is, though, it will be several years before you are eligible for a raise,” the director explained as he pushed his chair away from the desk and stood to his feet. “There is an assignment that my last two agents, Seth Hogan and yourself, are required to look into, and I do hope that you two don’t turn up missing like all of your other companions.” Dr. Tatum took the demotion and the subsequent shot across the bow with her head held high.

“Yes, sir. Will do,” she replied and refrained from expressing any of her personal opinions in the heat of the moment. Satisfied, the director reached a file across the desk, and she accepted it with no hint of a smile or frown. She had her pride, but she would have to swallow as much of it as possible to make room for her new duties. She removed the paper clip that held the folder closed, and she opened the file’s contents out onto the desk.

“Dr. Tatum. Please take the file with you and report to the location specified in the instructions,” the director said, and she took that as an order and dismissal. With a calm but brisk effort, she cleaned the contents of the file off the desk as the dust motes swirled uncomfortably in the air. She turned to leave the room with the dismissal, and out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the octopus’ eyes on the lamp blink with the movement. With a gentleness that belied her feelings, Dr. Tatum closed the door to the director’s office and left him alone in the dark. When her shadow disappeared and her footsteps had turned a corner, the director flipped his mobile phone open and texted a message.

“It is done,” the message read, and he waited patiently for the response.

“Will she do your bidding?” the message returned.

“It seems so. When the building in Baltimore is clear tomorrow, please close the doors temporarily until further notice,” the director typed into the phone and pressed ‘Send’.

And just like that, the DAM was closed temporarily for restructuring with four agents on assignment. Four agents who would have no one to contact for assistance except for the director.

**********

Dr. Tatum walked out of the office building and into the warm sunlight, and she clutched the assignment folder close to her chest. She had been demoted, but she had been allowed to keep a job with benefits. It was not ideal, but considering all of the adversity she had experienced over the last few months, it was not as bad an outcome as it could have been.

She turned down the street and walked over to her car, and there was a white slip of paper stuffed under her windshield wiper. When she pulled it out, she found that it was a parking ticket.

“How the hell?” she questioned herself and then looked up to see the expiration on the meter. She looked at her watch and realized that her time had run out just three minutes earlier. “That was fast for a parking cop,” she muttered to herself, and then she saw the black jeep creeping slowly down the street from car to car. The policeman held out a laser scanner at the license plate and then quickly pulled ahead to the front of the perpetrator’s car. Within seconds, a stick with pincers reached out of the window and placed another ticket on that windshield. “Sometimes I really hate advances in technology,” Dr. Tatum remarked as she stuffed the ticket into her purse and got into her car. She opened the assignment file again and read out the destination aloud.

“Three Rivers, California. Hmm, sounds like a good place to go when things are so crummy here.”

Chapter 2

***

Stunned

*

Seth looked down at the empty backpack on the bed, and he stared blankly at it. There was room for a laptop, maps, trail mix, underwear, whatever he thought that he would need, but he could not decide what it was he needed to take with him. Of course, it would be all of those things loaded into the backpack, but his determination was not there. He had lost some of the inspiration for doing his job along the way, and the inability to even load a backpack was a sign that maybe it was time to try something different. He looked up from the unmade bed, and he stared at the condition of his room.

“What am I thinking?” he asked himself as the amount of clutter shouted at him, “CLEAN ME UP!!!”

Seth Hogan’s life had been in a constant state of flux since he had graduated college. There was his time with the military in the Middle East, and there was the time spent in the DAM. Both spans had different duties, but there was never any consistency except with the people he worked alongside. In the military, he had buddies that he toured beside. Likewise in the DAM, he had comrades that he solved mysteries beside. But his home life had consisted of drive-thru meals, pizza, and a few video games and movies. The focus in his life had been his friends at work and the work itself. There was very little time for building up some sense of a unique identity, and there were some days that this lack of self-identification bothered him. This was one of those days, and as he surveyed the bedroom, his mood was not improving. He reached down and picked up the backpack along with a handful of underwear and socks, and he carried the items to the countertop in the kitchen. Within minutes, Seth loaded up the backpack with all of the necessities for work and flight delays, and he headed out the door of the apartment at Inner Harbor.

At ground level, he stepped out into the chilly morning air, and he whiffed in the sea breeze air. The salty odor made him feel alive once again, and as he listened to the sea gulls fight over a bagel that had fallen into the water, he thought that he could cope with the adversity again. Life always moved one step at a time, and he would commit to cleaning up the apartment when he got back from Fresno.

“No, wait a minute,” Seth thought, “it’s Three Rivers, California. The flight goes into Fresno, and then a short drive east to some facility in a small town. But the name of the town sounds relaxing.”

The bus ride over was forgettable, and Seth stepped out onto the sidewalk at ground level of the office building where the DAM was located. He caught a glance of Dr. Tatum as she walked through the path that led to the foyer, and he was surprised to see that she was not wearing a dress suit, which was her normal office attire. The field agents all wore the blue and black shirts that were standard issue, and though Dr. Tatum had her briefcase, she was outfitted in a field agent top. She also had a travel bag in her other hand that presented a mystery to him.

“Funny,” he said to himself as he fell in line behind her. Routinely, he would have called out to her and chatted with her as they climbed the stairs, but the change in outfit and the travel bag caught him off guard. No big deal though since he would have to consult with her this morning about the trip. “I’m sure there’s some reason that she’s underdressed for work today. Maybe she just wants to fit in with the group a little better, though the group has been just the two of us for quite a few days now.” He shrugged off the questions, and he followed her into the office. She arrived a minute before he did, and he expected to see her waiting to greet him at the door, but when he strolled into the entry way, she was nowhere to be found. Her briefcase was sitting alone and unguarded by the desk in her office.

“Where is she?” Then Seth heard some commotion coming from the archive and library area, and he headed down the hall to check things out. “Theresa? Where are you?” he called out with no reply except the sound of banging file cabinets. He turned the corner at the doorway, and he found his boss going through the drawers full of artifacts that had been collected over the organization’s many years of service. In particular, Dr. Tatum held a necklace in her hands, and she attached it around her neck.

“Everything okay, Doc?” Seth inquired, but before she answered, she gave him a long look of disgust.

“Yep! Everything is just fine!” she countered with a slam of a drawer. “Just fine!” she added in case he had not caught the emphasis the first time. Seth knew when to back off, and he nodded his agreement.

“I can tell,” he replied and backed out of the room. Dr. Tatum followed with a scrunched up file folder in her hands. The folder could have been important since she was grasping it with such ferociousness, but given her mood, the folder could also have been the helpless victim that sat on the top of the growing pile of cases. Seth would normally have asked if the file was his next assignment, but he thought that he would give her the chance to speak first. He backed up against the wall in the hallway, and she thrust the file at his chest for him to take.

“The information for our assignment is all there,” she fumed as she let go of the documents and stormed into her office. Seth caught the folder and opened it up to check the information inside. To say that the documents were lightly handled would be an understatement, but he could read everything inside once the papers were smoothed out on the flat surface of his desk. The details were fairly straightforward. A former government employee, Huit Brighter, had disappeared last week from a nursing facility in Three Rivers, California, and there was little circumstantial evidence to go on. By the long personnel file, Huit was an elderly man who had served as part of a government think tank during World War I and World War II.

“Wait a minute,” Seth said aloud. “This guy that’s missing, he’s over a hundred years old?! Holy crap, what would anyone have to gain from his kidnapping?”

“You tell me? I have no clue either, but as the only DAM agents on site, it’s up to us to figure it out,” Dr. Tatum answered with a yell from her office.

“Did I hear what she just said?” Seth wondered. “Doc. Are you an agent?” Another slam of a desk drawer, and out came Dr. Theresa Tatum with her bags packed for travel.

“I am now,” she said in a more agreeable tone. “Well, it’s good that I still have a job, and I like the people I work with,” she added as she handed Seth his plane ticket. He accepted it, and they quietly collected their necessities for the trip before locking up the office. Crush and Pound would have to let themselves in if they returned before Seth and Dr. Tatum made it back.

**********

The security line at the airport was long, and Dr. Tatum was ahead of Seth. The TSA man checked her ticket and then motioned for her to step forward to the x-ray machines. The doctor sat her items on the bench, removed her laptop from its case, took off her shoes, and emptied her pockets of their contents. The last thing that she did before going through the scanner was remove the necklace from around her neck, and she hesitated before placing it into the plastic bowl by itself. This was not her first trip to the airport, and she wanted to make sure the jewelry came out of the other side of the conveyor. Her change had been stolen from the scanner bowl on her last journey, and no one had admitted to the petty larceny. Perhaps if she placed the necklace alone in its own bowl, it would have a better chance of not disappearing. An empty bowl would be hard for an airport security agent to explain. The body scan was quick for both of them as neither of them had shrapnel or metal implants from medical procedures, but the conveyor scanner went off immediately when Dr. Tatum’s items passed through the line. The alarm drew the attention of everyone in the area, and the TSA agents stared at the x-ray screen as if it were something magical. The operator let the items all go through, and he paused when the bowl with the necklace came out the other side. With a blank expression, he picked it up out of the bowl, and then ran the empty bowl through by itself to see the results. So much for the empty bowl theory. Then he placed the necklace back inside of the empty bowl and ran it through the machine again with the same resulting alarm. A crowd of agents had gathered by this time, and they were uncertain about what to make of the necklace.

“What? A girl can’t wear pretty things,” Dr. Tatum said with her hands raised in question to the surprise obstacle the artifact had presented.

“Ma’am, what’s in this necklace?” the operator asked her in a stern voice.

“It’s a family heirloom,” she replied as she reached out and touched it with one finger. “See the design?”

“Really? Because all I’m getting on the x-ray is a black hole where the necklace should be,” he replied. “Something’s fishy here.”

“Nonsense,” Dr. Tatum reassured him. “It’s a necklace, and I wouldn’t be caught dead with a trout around my neck,” she jested him at his previous comment. His eyes shot over to her, and then his eyebrows raised as if he were open to her suggestion. The operator turned the necklace over several times in his hands, and then he put it back into the bowl for one last check. When the necklace went through this time, the outline of the metal was highly visible as it should be.

“My bad,” he admitted, and when the bowl passed through the other side, Dr. Tatum snatched the necklace out and put it back around her neck.

“Third time’s the charm,” she joked with a smile, and she walked out of the security area with no further complications. Seth acted as if the event was all part of the normal process, and he waited until they had moved on into the terminal area to bring up his concerns.

“What happened back there?” he asked her, and she shrugged her shoulders.

“I’m not really sure, but the necklace functions like a magical sponge. It has been known to absorb energy of certain types around it,” she explained. “Maybe it absorbs x-rays??”

“In which case, the video would show a black screen where the necklace was located,” Seth theorized.

“Exactly,” Dr. Tatum agreed. “It’s a good thing I know how to disengage it, or we would never have gotten through.”

“Wait a minute. Do you think that it will affect the plane?” he asked with a serious look on his face.

“Like I said before, it’s in airplane mode,” she added with a thumbs up, and he nodded though there was still some lingering doubt in his mind as he followed her to the terminal. They sat back to back in the airport seating as they waited for boarding time to arrive, and Seth whipped out a copy of the area map to study their destination a little more with the free time. He noticed that Three Rivers was just outside of the Sequoia National Park, and this fact piqued his interest. He had always wanted to see the giant sequoia trees in their natural habitat (as if you could see them anywhere else), and he turned his head around to talk to Dr. Tatum when he noticed an odd looking fellow sit down directly across from her. The man was dressed in an all-black suit, and the bulges of his muscles beneath the coat were strikingly evident. Seth thought he projected the presence of a bouncer, and he averted his eyes to the intended conversation with Dr. Tatum before the fellow noticed him staring.

“Doc, do you think we could make a trip out to Sequoia National Park while we’re in Three Rivers? It’s just outside the town about fifteen to twenty miles,” he explained.

“Sure, let’s go for it one evening if we get a chance,” Dr. Tatum replied. She might as well see the world if her career was going down the toilet anyways. Seth caught a quick glance at the bouncer who was now hiding behind a newspaper, and he thought it might be worth mentioning to his partner.

“Ebony suburban, twelve o’ clock,” he whispered, and her eyebrows crinkled as if she did not understand his meaning. He pointed with his eyes and a nod, and she flicked her eyes over toward the bouncer without moving her head. Then she gave an affirmative sigh. She understood Seth’s coded language, and she was on her guard from there on. When Seth turned around in his seat, he discovered a similar character seated in the chair directly across from him. He had the same black suit and even the same newspaper. What a coincidence! They had not even made it out of Baltimore before the fun began! Surely, they would not try anything violent inside of an airport or an airplane. The repercussions would be too great for them, but once they left the safety of the airport, Seth and Dr. Tatum would have to be on the defensive. It was no secret where they were flying, but they could alter their path out of the airport if they were being followed from Fresno to Three Rivers.

Still, if they were being tailed by the government, then their destination in Three Rivers was a foregone conclusion to their followers. Seth turned around to let Dr. Tatum know about the other suspicious character that sat across from him, and he realized that she was not there. She was now standing in front of the first suspicious character with only the newspaper separating her unhappy frown from his spying eyes. When she stuck out her hand and lowered his newspaper with one finger, Seth gulped down a mouthful of fear and anticipation. He both admired her and felt the need to scold her all at one time, but Dr. Tatum was a strong-willed lady who did not like to be toyed with. The black-suited man looked up at her in silence, and she decided to continue with her face-to-face confrontation.

“Can I do something for you, agent?” she asked with a fake smile. The agent gently closed the newspaper and sat it down in the seat next to him.

“I might ask the same, miss,” the mysterious agent replied and reached into his jacket with one hand to retrieve something. Dr. Tatum waited patiently for him to pull out a gun in the busy airport, but she was thankfully let down when he brought out a business card. “Call me if you need me, ma’am. I won’t be far away,” he said, and Seth could not tell if it was a threat or a promise of help. Dr. Tatum accepted the card and read the heading and name.

“’Superior Tactical Universal Negotiators – Mike Heavy Treble, Master Combatant’,” the words read, and she placed it into her pocket for future reference.

“Have a nice flight,” she added and came back to sit down peacefully behind Seth so that she could keep her eye on her new friend. Seth could not help but ask her what was going on.

“I don’t know,” she replied, and she handed him the card for his inspection. Seth examined it, and then handed it back to her.

“STUN,” he said. “I’m familiar with the organization from my time in the Middle East. They perform reconnaissance missions for hire, and there are usually casualties associated wherever they go,” he continued as he handed the card back to her.

“I haven’t heard of them before,” Dr. Tatum countered, and she returned the card to her pocket.

“Count yourself lucky. Most civilians that have heard of them haven’t lived long afterward, and that worries me somewhat,” he said as he turned to look at the other ‘Master Combatant’ that sat across from him. Seth considered the implications, and he could only think of two reasons that STUN was involved. They were either interested in stopping Seth and Dr. Tatum from completing their assignment, or they wanted to acquire the fruits of their labor at the end of the assignment. In either case, their own safety was in question, and he knew that they would have to be careful every step along the way. “Doc, with these guys around, we can’t afford to get out of sight of one another.” Dr. Tatum thought about that for a minute, and she leaned back to share her thoughts.

“I need to use the restroom, and there’s no way that you’re going in with me,” she answered, and he could not argue with her logic.

“The same goes for you, but we can take turns. I’ll wait outside the door for you, and you can wait outside for me,” he explained. “That much is allowed.”

“Having to plan pee breaks. This is pathetic, you know it,” she grumbled.

“Yeah. What are we going to do about the hotel rooms?” he asked with an uncertain tone. She thought on that question as well, and she shook her head.

“I don’t know. Let me think about that,” she decided. “We should ditch these guys if we can.”

“We can try, but they know where we’re going,” Seth countered.

“It doesn’t mean that we can’t delay them, though,” she advised. “Follow me.” With that, they took their bags and walked down the terminal to the women’s restroom, and of course, the two goons in black suits followed. Dr. Tatum went around the corner and into the restroom while Seth waited on the outside for her to return, and the STUN operatives hovered nearby. A few minutes later, Seth felt a hand reach around the corner and grip his wrist. As soon as he felt the touch and pressure of the fingers, he sensed the blink of an instantaneous energy transfer, and then the world around him seemed to go dark though he could still see.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Dr. Tatum whispered, and he felt reassured that this was somehow a part of her plan. She tugged on his arm, and though he could not see her, he reluctantly followed her pull into the women’s restroom.

“You’re going to get me arrested for going into a women’s room,” he told her before they could get around the next bend.

“You’ll just have to live on the edge for a while,” Dr. Tatum reassured him, and she pulled him back behind the trash can near the exit. “Now squat down and be quiet,” she told him before he could complain anymore. Together they waited in the short exit corridor of the restroom, and within a few minutes, one of the STUN operatives peeked around the corner to see if he could get a look at where they had gone. Seth peered around, and he was slightly disoriented about how they were hiding in plain sight, but in the end, he waited patiently to see how things would turn out. He was pleased when the STUN operative tiptoed past them without noticing them behind the trash can, and he was even more surprised when Dr. Tatum quickly stood up and whacked him in the back of the head with her bag. The man in the suit lost his balance, stumbled headfirst into the edge of the sink, and fell unconscious to the floor. Dr. Tatum was standing out in the open, but to Seth, she appeared to be no more than a shadow at best.

“How did you do that?” Seth whispered to her, but the shadow waved for him to come over and help her drag the unconscious man into an unoccupied stall. They dragged him by his feet into the stall, and then propped him up on the toilet to rest. Seth reached in his suit jacket and removed the man’s wallet and cell phone for his trouble.

“He’ll be okay in a little while, but I don’t think he’ll make the flight,” Dr. Tatum noted as she touched the necklace on her chest and changed from a mere shadow to a person again. “That’s one down though I don’t know if we will have as much luck with the other one,” she said, and she closed the stall door behind them. No one else had bothered to enter the restroom during this ordeal, and they believed they might get away without discovery until they rounded the corner to leave the restroom and bumped into the second STUN agent in the short corridor going out. Dr. Tatum quickly touched the necklace and instantly turned into a shadow before the goon in the black suit, and when his face showed surprise at the bit of magic, she gave him a quick uppercut to the jaw followed by a sweep of her foot that brought him to the tiled floor. Before he could react, she struck a nerve in his neck at just the right angle, and he passed out in a pile on the floor. They quickly dragged him into next stall in the women’s room and propped him up the same way as the first. Seth took his wallet and phone as well, and he wrapped all of the stolen items into a length of paper towel and tossed all of their belongings into the trash. They heard a groan come from the first stall, and Dr. Tatum’s shadow passed into the stall where the sound of a thud was the only thing that followed. When the shadow came out, Dr. Tatum touched the necklace again and became visible just as the first boarding call was announced for their flight. She grabbed Seth’s hand, and they walked out together with their bags as if nothing had ever happened. When they reached the terminal, they showed their boarding passes to the airline attendant, and they silently boarded the plane.

“You know, I never did get to use the restroom,” Seth said with a grin as they boarded. The line of passengers had been short, and they all piled in the front of the plane. Dr. Tatum and Seth’s tickets were in the back, and she pointed to the vacant stall behind their seats.

“Now’s your chance,” she said, and Seth wasted no time placing his baggage in the tiny storage bins above their heads and rushed to the restroom. The attendant flagged him down before he could go inside, and she lost no time in telling him that the restroom was closed until after they were in the air.

“Whatever is flushed goes outside, and no one wants to clean up the parking lot,” she said with a grin. “Do you think that you can hold it just a wee bit longer?”

“I guess I have to,” Seth replied with a hint of disappointment as he went back to his seat and snapped the safety belt on, but not too tight around his waist. He had the aisle seat, and he looked up ahead to see a man in a black suit coming down the aisle toward them. The man had the look of a STUN agent, and he did not shy away from eye contact with Seth until he took his seat in the middle of the plane. Another agent followed that one across the aisle, and then another, and another. Very shortly, the plane had filled with STUN agents all the way to the back seats with Seth and Dr. Tatum. Seth became nervous with the anticipation of a fight, and Dr. Tatum placed a calm hand on his wrist. He turned his head to look at her, and she returned an expression of solitude. Whatever was going on, they were in this together.

Within a few short minutes that seemed an eternity, the plane was taxiing down the runway, and they were in the air on their way to the first stop in Dallas. Seth laid his head back in the seat, and he waited as patiently as he could for the seat belt sign to disengage. It had been difficult enough to hold his bladder before the plane filled with STUN agents; now, his situation seemed untenable as his bladder ached from the strain. The light flicked off while a blast of muscle strain passed his midsection, and Seth unstrapped his seat belt and bolted into the empty restroom nearby. His muscles had seized up from the strain, and he stood there for the longest time until he was finally able to take care of business. With a sigh of relief, he washed his hands and unlocked the door to get out of the restroom, and he found himself face-to-face with one of the goons from STUN. The goon was built with a large stature, but Seth was taller and wider. He sized him up quickly, and he knew that if it came down to a fight, he could take this STUN agent down in twenty seconds. The trouble with doing that on a commercial jet was the time in jail that he would have to spend for the offense. He concluded that there was no sense in provoking an incident when it could be avoided. Seth broke eye contact and walked past him cautiously to his seat as Dr. Tatum relaxed with an airport magazine in her lap. The STUN agent entered the restroom and locked the door behind him.

“Aren’t you nervous?” he whispered, and she nodded her silent agreement. Whatever his own past experiences had been with STUN, it did not seem to bother his partner. Dr. Tatum was as calm as a basset hound on valium. It bothered him that she showed no more concern for their safety, but Seth had learned over their time together not to underestimate her ability to squeeze out of a tight spot. After he realized that there was nothing that he could do to remedy their situation on the tightly packed plane, he finally relaxed his own shoulders and nodded off to sleep for a few minutes while Dr. Tatum kept watch on their belongings.

The beverage cart rubbed his leg when the flight attendant pushed it to the back of the plane, and Seth woke up to the bright smile of the attendant who had delayed his bathroom break earlier.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asked, and Seth sat up in his seat and wiped the bubbles of drool from the side of his mouth as he stretched.

“Sure. I’ll take some water,” he answered, and she poured a cup full of ice water and handed it to him. He started to guzzle it, and Dr. Tatum gently placed her hand on his forearm.

“You might want to sip that slowly since we don’t have much time between flights in Dallas,” she advised, and he sat the cup down after a tiny sip that was just enough to wet his lips. He then turned to her and whispered.

“Has anything happened?” he asked, and she shook her head and leaned next to his ear to whisper.

“I’ve been thinking different scenarios through in my head, and I have an idea about how to handle these guys,” she said quietly. “We’ll have to play along with their game and try to lose them in Three Rivers.”

“That’s a long way from here,” he suggested. “Don’t you want to do something now?”

“What are we going to do? Parachute out?” she answered rhetorically. She had a point, but Seth did not like feeling cornered. She handed him an airline gift magazine and then leaned back in the seat as she closed her eyes. “Read through it. You might find some new invention to take on a camping trip.”

“Yeah, like a stun gun,” he answered in a loud voice. Several of the black suits turned around as if they heard his comment, and Seth smiled and saluted them.

Chapter 3

***

Stranded

*

The plane landed fifteen minutes behind schedule in Dallas, and the layover was just long enough to allow them to get to their next connection by the airport rail system. Dr. Tatum and Seth lugged their carryon gear into the boarding line with the rest of the black suits, and they kept quietly to themselves as they waited to board the next flight. The flight attendant greeted the passengers one by one and received mostly grunts from the STUN agents whereas Seth returned a friendly smile and a question.

“Is it okay to use the restroom, ma’am? We had very little time between flights,” he asked, and she pointed down the hallway.

“All the way down,” she replied. “Liquids only. No solids,” the attendant added, and Dr. Tatum grimaced.

“Yes, please, Seth. I warned you about drinking the water on the last flight,” Dr. Tatum admonished him, though she knew she should mind her own bodily functions.

“We’re going to a dry place in California. The last thing I want to do is show up dehydrated, Doc,” he explained as they moved single file down the aisle. When they arrived at their seats near the rear of the plane, they stowed the baggage away, and Seth headed straight for the facilities. Dr. Tatum kept an eye on him, and thankfully, none of the STUN agents followed him to the back. Within a few minutes, he strolled back down the aisle and reclined in the seat with relief on his face. He fastened his seat belt, and the plane took off for California.

“Read this to yourself,” she said as she handed him her notebook. Dr. Tatum had been scribing notes in code since the beginning of their journey, and she pointed to one sentence in particular. Seth was trained in the shorthand code, and he absorbed the information with a gulp. He frowned, and his forehead wrinkled with concern. She returned the look with a nod. The message had read, “I was demoted to field agent,” and Seth was perplexed at this turn of events. As his mind lingered on the subject, he realized why she was wearing a uniform like his own instead of her usual business attire that went along with management. Rather than ask any questions that would make her feel awkward, Seth reached out his hand for her to shake.

“Glad to have you on board,” he said with a wink of his eye. She shook his hand, and he handed her back the notebook which she stuffed into her carryon bag. The seat belt sign turned off, and they remained silent for a couple of hours while the plane traversed over the western deserts of the United States. Just then, two of the STUN agents stood up from their seats and wandered past Seth to the back of the plane. He closed his eyes to get some rest for only a moment when he felt an arm reach tightly around his throat. His air supply was cut off by the black-suited arm, and he glanced over at Dr. Tatum as she struggled with the other STUN agent. Apparently, the two agents had faked their interest in the restroom, and they had intended to attack the DAM agents. Dr. Tatum grabbed Seth’s wrist with one hand and the necklace with the other, and they both turned into shadows. Dr. Tatum was new in the use of the necklace, and she found herself along with Seth and both STUN agents suddenly outside of the safety of the plane. The jet rushed away from them at several hundred miles an hour, and all four of the unlucky participants found themselves stranded in the clouds, thousands of feet above California. Amazingly, they were not falling toward the earth with any great speed. In fact, Dr. Tatum wondered if they were falling at all, but she held on tight to Seth and the necklace for fear of the outcome if she let either one go. For his part, Seth quickly adapted to the severity of the situation, having experienced the effects of the magic on his body in the airport previously. But the same could not be said for the STUN agents. The one that had Seth in a chokehold released his death grip and fell off Seth’s back. Seth quickly snatched the agent’s coat with his free hand and saved his life. The other agent panicked and smacked Dr. Tatum’s wrist as she held the necklace, causing her to rip the thin gold chain from around her neck. She squeezed the charm between her fingers, and she refused to let go with the struggle while the determined agent clawed at her hand. He thrust his open palm at her clenched fist, and he lost balance for an instant and tumbled off her shoulders toward the earth below with a scream that faded as he pierced the clouds beneath him. Her eyes opened wide with the understanding that the use of this artifact had deadly consequences, and she cut her gaze toward the other STUN agent who fought to keep grasp of Seth’s arm.

“Stop struggling with us if you want to live,” she instructed, and as he listened, he looked down to where his partner had punched through the fluffy vapors below. There was no sign of him, and the agent looked back up at Dr. Tatum with a nod.

“You have my attention,” he simply said as he grabbed Seth’s arm with both hands. Dr. Tatum thought introspectively for a moment, but only random thoughts of fear were running through her mind. She needed a plan, something to work with to get them safely out of this mess. Some better way of getting to ground than falling would be preferred. As she thought long and hard, a look of fright came across Seth’s face, and Dr. Tatum turned her head in the direction of his eyes. A bright, shiny object was in the distance and growing quickly in size. It was a passenger jet heading toward them, and when she understood that the time for thinking was over, Dr. Tatum released the charm of the necklace from her grip. Instantly, the three tumbled through the clouds below toward the earth, and they all screamed as if they thought that this was the end. The broken chain slipped through her fingers, and Dr. Tatum thought that she had lost the item entirely, but she managed to clamp down on one end as she fell. The other end flapped around loosely in the wind, and she let go of Seth’s arm and grabbed the loose end of the necklace with her hand before the charm could free itself from the chain. The three people fell through the clouds, and they watched helplessly as the shadow of the jet passed by in the clouds above. It was a fearsome and wonderful sight to behold, and Seth yelled out in excitement as they narrowly survived the near collision with a jet in the sky.

“Doc!!” he screamed as he and the remaining STUN agent drifted slowly away from her in the sky. They had not let go of each other’s hands though Dr. Tatum had released them to catch the necklace, and they stretched out their bodies to drift slowly toward her. Her body was angled with her feet pointed down, and with the decreased wind resistance, she fell faster than they did for a time. Seth passed over her head, and he angled his body straight up and down so that he would fall faster. The STUN agent followed suit, and the three danced through the atmosphere as they plummeted to earth. Ground was steadily approaching, and when he felt that Dr. Tatum was close enough, Seth desperately reached out his free hand to grab the collar of her shirt. He succeeded, but with success came failure. They were now all joined together again, but the sudden tug of her uniform disturbed her hold on the necklace, and the charm flew off the chain and into the air. As the treetops below gained definition, Dr. Tatum swiped out at the falling charm, and it passed through her fingertips. With a final strike of her palm, she nicked the charm from the air, and the magic suddenly worked. She had only a novice level of control of the enchantment, but the most miraculous event came true with their feet dangling just feet above the tall pines of the cliffs of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though not well understood or controlled, the magic of the charm had worked to save them from bursting upon the rocks of the mountaintops, and Dr. Tatum was suddenly reminded of the pumpkin chucking contests she had watched on television. They remained suspended in the air just long enough to get their bearings on what to do next. Seth spoke up first.

“Doc, I think we can drop down into the limbs of the tree below,” he explained. “One of us should try to climb down to the ground, though it might be better if he goes first,” Seth said as he nodded his head toward the STUN agent. “What’s your name, dude?”

“The name is Steven,” the agent replied with a deep, gruff voice and looked down at the treetop under his feet. “If you can swing me out a little to the left, I can grab the limb when I fall.” Dr. Tatum was new at this herself, and she had her doubts, but since the STUN agent had instigated this whole event by attacking them on the plan, she agreed with Seth that it was his responsibility to go first. Seth swung the man back and forth in midair until Steven’s body was lined over with the tree, and together, they released one another’s hands. With the liberation from body contact, Steven was subject to gravity once again, and he fell in an arc to the treetop below. The first limb caught Steven’s body weight full on and bent down into the needles of the limbs beneath. With a snap, the limb bent past the point of recoverable deformation and broke with the man’s weight. Steven fell a few inches onto the next limb, and he came to a stop as his fall was arrested in the multitude of limbs that branched out beneath. The STUN agent then slowly descended the tall pine into the thick foliage below. Dr. Tatum then looked over at Seth and frowned.

“If I toss you over, you’ll be able to get down, too,” she explained. “But that will leave me suspended out over the open ground with no way to swing and reach the tree.” Seth listened and analyzed all of the variables before answering, and he did not have a smile as he spoke.

“You’re right, and if I swing you over, then I fall when you let go of me,” he acknowledged. “I’m not married to that solution either.” They held hands and thought over the options quietly while Steven climbed to the ground, and then Seth came up with a thought. “Doc, have you ever square danced?”

“What?” she replied with a look of surprise at the completely absurd question. It was bad enough that they had literally missed their flight; dancing was not on her mind.

“Here,” Seth said, and he grabbed her with one arm around her waist as he held her other hand. He then twirled her around in midair, and they actually moved horizontally in space above the trees. The dance had taken them too far to the right of the tree, and Seth spun her one rotation in the opposite direction, moving them just a little closer than they had been before.

“Hey! This seems to be working,” she admitted with a smile. “I’m glad that STUN agent is down already. It would have been awkward if he had tried to cut in our dance,” she joked, and they both laughed together as he looked into her eyes. For a moment, he felt the flutter of butterflies in his stomach again, the same way that he had felt at the ghost sawmill months before.

“Was it infatuation,” he thought to himself, and he quickly broke the gaze by looking down at the tree that was positioned below them now. He cleared his throat, and when he was confident of his next move, he let go of her hands and fell down onto the limbs of the evergreen below. Within seconds, he had climbed around to the other side of the tree, and though he could no longer see Dr. Tatum in her shadow form, he guessed that he was out of the way of her fall. Suddenly out of the bright sky, she appeared, and she dropped smoothly down onto the many limbs of the treetop. She slid the magic necklace safely into her pocket, and she turned to Seth while Steven was on the ground out of sight.

“Look, we are really in a very awkward circumstance,” she whispered. “We’re alone on a mountaintop forest with an enemy agent waiting for us at the bottom. No matter what we did to save his life, we have to remember that his partner fell to his death trying to steal the necklace from me. I don’t know that we can trust Steven, but I have always believed that it’s better to have your enemies close by so that you know where they are.” Seth nodded.

“Yeah, unless we use the necklace to sneak away while he’s asleep and unaware, he’ll be able to follow us by our footprints and the sounds of our footsteps in the underbrush,” he explained, and from the vantage point of the treetop, he looked around at the surrounding area. “You know, winter is coming on soon, and this is very rugged wilderness. If we leave this guy out here and escape from him, he may not survive. I don’t think that I can carry that burden around on my conscience. Can you?” Dr. Tatum digested his assessment, and she could not argue with her own conscience either.

“He can stay with us if he behaves,” she declared, “but if he can’t behave himself, then we will have to resort to binding his hands.”

“Agreed,” Seth replied. “Look at it this way, we don’t have any documents to steal or anything else besides the necklace. Becoming a shadow in the wilderness will not buy any of us water, food, warmth, or safety from wild animals with a keen sense of smell.”

“Nice, that makes me feel better,” she countered, and she started climbing carefully limb by limb down the tree. “I hope they don’t find my notes on the plane,” she added. Seth followed and within a few minutes, they could see the forest floor through the foliage below. Steven was waiting impatiently by the trunk of an adjacent tree with his arms crossed.

“About time you two showed up,” he grunted and stayed right where he was. He watched them petulantly at the base of the other tree, and he never offered to help them down the last few limbs to the ground. Dr. Tatum did not seem to care as she was happy that he kept his distance, but Seth thought that Steven could have shown some appreciation for their fine work in keeping him from plummeting to his death like his partner. He was a STUN agent though, and they were not trained to be merciful, thankful, or easily distracted from their goals. Seth would keep a close eye on this one, and he would discuss sleeping arrangements carefully with Dr. Tatum before he would let Steven pull a trick on them during the night. If they had to sleep in shifts, then so be it.

“Where do you think we are?” Dr. Tatum asked, and Seth shrugged his shoulders in naivety while he examined the forest around him.

“By the looks of the trees, the woods are pine and incense cedar mixed together,” Seth said as he rubbed his hands across the bark of several surrounding trees. “This is the type of thicket you would expect to see in eastern California. Before we were attacked on the plane, I thought I saw the Sierra Nevada range, but I can’t be certain.”

“Maybe you should look before you leap the next time,” Steven grunted. “Thanks to you two, my friend is dead, and we’re stranded out in the wilderness.” Dr. Tatum bristled at the STUN agent’s comments, and she hesitated as she glared at him.

“Take some ownership for your actions,” she ordered him. “If you guys hadn’t attacked us, then we wouldn’t be out here. And don’t think for one minute that the DAM won’t be looking for us, so don’t get any ideas about taking care of us out here in the woods. I sent a message out to the agency while we were in the airport, and your fellow agents will be snatched at the Fresno airport,” she informed him, which was only a bluff, but what he didn’t know would only help them. “If we’re missing, the authorities will be looking for us, including you and your partner. By the looks of your provisions, which are none, you aren’t prepared for what we’re about to go through. These mountains and forests go on for hundreds of miles, and you still need us if you want to have any chance of getting back to civilization.” Steven pulled back his suit coat and showed them his holstered pistol, but Dr. Tatum was not deterred. How he had gotten such an item past airport security was a mystery to them, but STUN was an organization that had contacts in every part of the government, and since they were not labeled as a terrorist organization, at least not yet, there were always options for getting weapons past security. Hands could be greased, eyes could be averted, and misdeeds could be overlooked as long as there were never any serious investigations. And there rarely were in the case of STUN.

“You may need that for the bears and mountain lions before we ever get back to civilization,” she told him with a glare. Dr. Tatum was not afraid of the agent, and Seth admired her for her bravery and yet wondered just how smart her display of bravado was. Still, he felt that showing fear of the enemy agent would have been a far worse choice. Dr. Tatum then turned her back on Steven and faced Seth.

“We’re going to need food and protection from the weather,” she told him, and he knew she was asking him for his help. Seth had been a survivor in the Middle East, and he had extensive experience in survival training, but that was mainly desert regions. They were in a forest region now, and he scanned the surroundings for clues on what they might need.

“Winter will be here shortly,” he said as he brushed his bare arms for warmth. “It’s a long way out of the mountains, and though I know this goes against your love of wildlife, Doc, we are going to have to make fur coats for protection.” She winced at the suggestion, but then she nodded her agreement. “There will also be rain, snow, and ice, and the snow and ice probably won’t melt once the ground is blanketed. At night, we’ll need fire, and luckily, we’re surrounded by wood.”

“How far out do you think we are?” Steven asked as he listened in on their conversation. Seth had gotten a good look from the top of the tree, and he remembered seeing the desert of Nevada in the far horizon. If they went more towards Nevada instead, they would be taking a chance on entering Death Valley. That seemed a poor choice since they could at least find water easily in the rivers on the California side of the mountains.

“At least a hundred miles. Maybe more,” Seth replied, and Dr. Tatum agreed. “Since you have a gun, would you mind sparing the gun powder from the bullets for starting fires?”

“Yeah, I can share my gunpowder with you, but I don’t think you’ll like the results,” Steven replied and laughed with a dark mirth as he crossed his arms. Seth’s expression was unchanged.

“Suit yourself,” he said as he searched around on the ground for a branch. When he found one long enough to use as a walking stick, he handed it to Dr. Tatum. She accepted it while he searched for another.

“Are we just going to stand here all day?” Steven said as he tested Seth’s patience. No one replied, and Seth stood up and cleaned off the debris from another dead branch. When he was certain it was right for his needs, he started walking out into the forest with Dr. Tatum following closely behind. Steven huffed at their disregard for him, and he fell in behind, making sure to keep ten paces between himself and the agents of the DAM.

They walked on that day for what seemed like hours, occasionally coming out of the forest and onto an outcropping of rocks. Daylight kept them warm as they started out their journey, and Seth led the way until they reached a valley between two mountains. It was a narrow pass made of rock and brush that led between two mountains of solid stone, and it rose high into the sky and blocked the sun from their view. The rocky ground that they walked on was slanted upward towards the mountain on either side, and the slanted surfaces met in a crack that meandered through the crease in the divide. The only way to hike through was to pick a side and lean toward the mountain. After a hundred yards of leaning, the angle of the slant increased, and they found it difficult to maneuver forward without favoring the walking sticks they had made. Steven held up the rear, and he discovered that he was having to hold onto the side of the rocks to keep from tumbling into the crease below. If he fell, he would roll down into the crack, and the angle was so harsh on both sides, he knew that he would never be able to get out on his own.

“Hey! Seth! I can’t keep up!” he yelled out as he held onto the side of the mountain, and sweat beaded up on his forehead. It was cool outside, and the sweat indicated the nervousness that had been building in his mind. His fear of falling behind had outweighed his pride, and he decided to ask for help this one time. Seth carefully slipped by Dr. Tatum on the narrow ledge, and he warily crept back along the slant until he reached Steven. He then placed one hand on his ribs to steady him, and he felt the holstered gun beneath.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Steven warned as sweat dripped from his forehead down onto his nose.

“What? Like helping you?” he replied as he steadied Steven and himself along the steep incline of the rock surface. Steven never returned an answer; he simply followed side-by-side with the DAM agent and kept as tight a hold on the wall of the mountain as he could. Dr. Tatum waited patiently until they were within a few footsteps of her, and then she moved on ahead. The last thing she wanted was to be near her enemy in such a treacherous environment. It was a tricky task trying to maneuver through the pass, and she did not want the added distraction of a hand-to-hand struggle included with the labor. The hike turned around a dark bend between the rocks, almost like a stone tunnel that led a hundred feet through to daylight on the other side, and Dr. Tatum was able to place one leg on each side of the wall and lean on the walking stick to stagger through the crease in the mountains. Seth followed and led the way for Steven, never once fearful of the strong, calloused hand that rested on his shoulder. The stone surfaces were cold, and Seth’s hands tingled from the heat transfer that occurred from his body to the rock at his slightest touch, and Seth tried to minimize the surface area by using only his fingertips and the walking stick. In fact, if it had not been for the walking stick, he was sure that he would not have been able pass through the dark seam successfully with the added pressure of keeping Steven’s body balanced against his own. A few minutes later, they had tracked through the darkness and reached the exit of the seam where the opening led into daylight on the far side. One would have hoped that coming out of the light at the end of the tunnel meant that they would have a much easier hike on the other side. That was not the case. Dr. Tatum stopped at the end of the precipice, and she surveyed the broad expanse of mountains that spread out before them. The colors were varied with dark greens, greys, the blue of the sky, and the white of the clouds, and the scene was quite picturesque. The dilemma was not with the beauty of their surroundings, but in the peril that came with the beauty. From the slit in the rocks, she looked down the sides of the mountains to the earth below, and there was a seventy-degree incline that sloped downward into a deep canyon. On either side of the slit, there were no safe paths to tread along the mountainsides. There was, however, a thin rock protrusion that jutted out from the mountain on the left side, and the protrusion led out for at least a hundred yards to meet an outcropping of manzanita trees. Dr. Tatum looked at her fellow travelers for input, and Steven spoke up first.

“This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” he said as he scowled back at her. “You could have just given us the files at the airport, and we would have been on our way.” Dr. Tatum remained cool and calm.

“If your partners are any good at their jobs, then they now have the files since we’re not in the plane to protect them. That means your sacrifice paid off for STUN. Maybe they’ll erect a bronze statue in your likeness,” she replied with a wily smile. “For my part, I would like to have the files for kindling over the next few weeks until we find our way to civilization.” She then dropped the argument that she had held back, and she looked at Seth for support. “Do you have your phone?” Seth nodded with a slight frown.

“Yeah, I’ve already thought about that. There’s no reception out here though, so I turned it off to keep the battery from dying,” he explained, and then looked to Steven with raised eyebrows as if he were passing the question to him as well.

“I don’t have a phone,” Steven replied a little too quickly. Seth was betting that he did have a phone, maybe even a satellite phone, and if that were true, then they could be tracked by STUN if it were on. There was nothing that they could do about it now, but if the chance presented itself, they would have to see what could be done to disconnect the phone if it did exist. It would be nice to be rescued from the wilderness, but there was no way that he wanted to be captured by STUN. As Seth gazed back through the tunnel which they had climbed through, he noticed a movement of the light at the other end, and he thought that he saw a shadow creep through the light and disappear into the darkness. It was followed by the snakelike motion of a tail. He blinked, and the motion was gone.

“Come on, Doc. Let’s keep going along the ledge. Maybe there’s a trail that leads down into the canyon,” he rationalized though he was only hoping or guessing in an attempt to keep moving. Dr. Tatum examined the narrow ledge hesitantly, but when she thought back to where they had come, she bargained that he was right about the forward progress. The air was cold, snow had collected on the peaks above, and it would not be long before they would be caught out in the air with very little protection.

“Seth, can you take the lead in this section?” she asked, and Seth was reluctant to let Steven get too close to her, especially on such a tight ledge where a fall could be so easily engineered.

“You’re doing fine, Doc,” Seth complimented her. “Just turn sideways and edge along and try not to look down. And you should probably leave the walking stick behind so that your weight is balanced,” he advised and placed his own stick into the tunnel. Dr. Tatum handed her walking stick to him, and he placed it alongside the other. She turned sideways and placed her left foot onto the ledge. She then tested her foot for traction, and when she was certain that she was safe, she stepped out onto the narrow rock ledge with her back facing the mountain. She then slowly made her way along the track, and Seth gave her a few minutes to get ahead. While he and Steven waited, the sounds of pebbles falling echoed through the tunnel, and Seth looked over Steven’s shoulder into the dark. Something was moving inside there, maybe even following them. There were many wild animals in this country, and some of them like the bears and mountain lions were predators. He wondered if they were going to make it back to civilization without coming across any of them, and he doubted they would be lucky enough to travel the hundred mile distance without having to confront one or both of the creatures. It seemed that they were already being stalked at the outset. Steven heard the movements as well, and he placed his hand inside his suit where the pistol was holstered. For once, Seth was glad that his adversary and companion had such easy access to a weapon.

“I hear it, Seth,” Steven replied as he turned his head to look into the dark. “We better keep moving. Whatever’s back there will have to skirt the ledge, too, if it wants to get us. I’d rather take my chances in the daylight than in the dark.” Seth was in front of Steven, and he looked out into the great openness of the mountain sky and felt a little sick to his stomach.

“This would not be a good time to succumb to vertigo,” Seth thought to himself. He agreed with Steven that they needed to put distance between themselves and their pursuer, but that notion did very little to help his sudden anxiety. He cautiously stepped over onto the ledge where he could follow Dr. Tatum along the mountainside, and he kept a safe distance from her so that she would not also feel pressured to hurry dangerously along the slender passage. As he stepped side-to-side along the narrow course, he looked out over the peacefulness of the view and tried to clear his mind. He succeeded in resisting the strong temptation to look down, and Seth’s nerves began to relax.

With Dr. Tatum and Seth many feet ahead, there was ample space for Steven to move. He joined them on the ledge, and he started out on the tapered shelf with more urgency than even Seth had. He must have seen something in the dark and found that he could not bear to wait any longer. The sound of a loud meow and purr came from the slit between the mountains, and they all froze in their tracks on the mountainside. They waited for a moment until they got up the nerve to keep moving, and they started shuffling along the narrow ridge to the far side again. While Seth moved, pebbles fell down onto his shoulders from above, and he recalled the threat of falling rocks that always went along with rock protrusions. He felt the need to look up and risk a rock falling into his eyes, and he wished that he had stayed ignorant. Climbing along this narrow ledge was dangerous enough, but what he saw above made him fear for his safety. The teeth and whiskers of a mountain lion were stretched out in a yawn above him. The giant cat was situated on a ledge ten feet above with its belly pressed against the stone. Another meow came from the cat, and a paw reached down as far as it could stretch to snatch his head, but thankfully it missed by a couple of feet.

“Guys! Keep moving!” Seth yelled, and Dr. Tatum hurried her pace toward the far end of the ledge. On her way, she noticed that the ledge that held the cat also followed along to the short trees at the end of their own path. It may be that they were going to be caught by the cat somewhere, but there was no hope for them on the ledge so she kept going. When she was within ten yards of the end of the ledge, she saw something gray move from within the manzanita trees, and she stopped where she was until she could positively identify what lay within the shrubbery. She held her breath as the animal rubbed its head and then its hind legs across the trunk of the short but thick tree. In an effort to hold her calm, she turned her head and looked out across the peaceful scene of the canyon below, and she saw a flake of white drift across the dark background of the trees. It was snow, and it began to come fall from the sky and coat the trees of the valley. She sniffed in the brisk, fresh air, and she was reminded of her childhood. Behind Steven, a grey head popped out of the slit of the tunnel, and a third great cat tilted its head in wonder at the three hikers of the lonely mountains. Seth bent over to dodge the cat’s great paw that reached down to him from above, and he nearly fell into the abyss of the canyon below, but Dr. Tatum blocked all of this out of her mind.

“Where are you, Crush?” she said as she felt hope slip away on the side of a cold mountain.

**********

The black suits marched single file from the airplane, and when they gathered outside the coffee shop in the terminal, one of them held up Dr. Tatum’s bag. Inside, there was a file folder and her notebook, and the STUN agent retrieved them before tossing the remnants into the trash. There would be an investigation concerning the four missing passengers, and it was imperative that they disperse for now and regroup later at Three Rivers. He slid the file and notebook into his own briefcase, and he disappeared into the crowd.

###

To Be Continued

Dr. Tatum, Seth, and Steven, the STUN agent, are trapped in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas. Their only hope is to find their way back to civilization, but can they survive the attack of the pride of mountain lions??? Will Crush and Pound return from the lost world of Scalus Mountain in time to save them??? What is the importance of Huit Brighter to the DAM, and will they find him before the STUN agents capture him and bend him to their will??? Find out in the further adventures of the DAM, to be continued in Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 13.

About the Author

Christopher D. Carter is an engineer by day, and transforms into a writer and artist by night. He lives with his wife and cats in central North Carolina.


Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 3

  • ISBN: 9781940451275
  • Author: Christopher D. Carter
  • Published: 2016-03-05 19:20:07
  • Words: 15852
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 3 Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 3