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Safehouse, Part One
A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Melissa broke up with me over IM on a Thursday night about a week shy of Labor Day and I figured that was a good enough excuse to walk down to the packy, buy a bottle of whatever was cheap and drink myself to sleep. It just seemed the thing to do. I woke up on my couch with the SciFi channel halfway through some third-rate rip off of The Omen filmed on the cheap in Eastern Europe on the same set they used for one of their giant snake movies. Daylight was just starting to filter in through my apartment window and I got off the couch, stumbled over to the phone, left a garbled message on my office voicemail telling Katy I'd be in late, and got in bed to finish sleeping it off.
The next time I woke up it was two in the afternoon and I thought about calling the day a complete loss. But there was paperwork that needed doing, and it occurred to me that somewhere in that online conversation Melissa had said something about coming over to get some of her things. Since she seemed to believe I never had time for her, why not live up to her expectations? On my way out I wrote a note that said something along the lines of "take whatever is yours and leave the key." I wasn't worried that she'd trash the place. There might be a couple of items of joint property that would be annoying to lose, but stuff is just stuff, and Melissa isn't a mean or vengeful person, even pissed off. Besides, I felt good leaving it in her hands like that. If she abused the trust, well, it would make the loss of her that much easier.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, of course, but I can't help but look back and wonder what would have happened if the events that led up to me heading into work late that day had been shifted, maybe by just an hour. I arrived to find Katy sorting old case files. I told her to keep it up, grabbed the papers from my inbox, went into my office and had another drink. Just one, though. Okay, maybe two. I got to work after that. A lot of people who visit me in the office are surprised at how much paperwork is involved in my business. Of course, a lot of people have all kinds of odd ideas about what exactly a private investigator spends his time doing.
I'd spent about four hours working on insurance forms that needed updating when Katy walked into my office with a pepperoni pizza and a two-liter of Mountain Dew. I thought she'd gone home. She normally works until four during the summer, and a few afternoons a week when school is in session.
"Still here, kid? It's Friday. Files can wait. Go to the mall or something."
She peeled off a slice of pizza, put it on a napkin and slid it across the table.
"Soon as we've had dinner. Oh, and you can talk about whatever's wrong if you want. Or not. Whatever."
I poured us some soda and chewed on pizza.
"Girl problems. You know how it is."
"Sure, boss. She go totally emo on you or just bitchy?"
"Little of both. Bitchy, mostly, I guess."
And right there I was ready to tell the whole sob story to this kid who was a week shy of her senior year in high school. I was probably, as the saying goes, 'thinker than I drunk I was.'
The buzzer sounded out in the office: someone downstairs. Business hours were posted and we were officially closed, but it was possible to see the office light on from down below if you knew which window to look at. It buzzed again and Katy went to answer it. I followed. I wasn't expecting anyone, and it was a bit late for sales calls.
"Mister Hall? I know it's after hours, but I need your help. It's urgent." It was a woman's voice. No one I recognized. I glanced at the security camera monitor. Two people. A woman and a girl, both in dresses. I nodded to Katy and she buzzed them in.
They came into the office, a short thin woman in her forties with curly brown hair and glasses, and a skinny freckled girl of maybe twelve or thirteen. I could see that the woman had been crying and I could only think one thing.
Shit. Doesn't pay squat and it's dangerous. The most common misconception about my line of work is that it's constant danger and dodging bullets. The second most common is that it's nothing but drudgery and completely safe. In reality, my work isn't as dangerous as driving a truck or working on a fishing boat or even being a night clerk at a 7-11, but it still has some nasty moments, and almost all of them come by way of domestic abuse cases.
With abuse cases, you're dealing with someone who's already used to solving a problem with his fists. And forget what they tell you about bullies losing their nerve when you stand up to them. A few do. Most need to be beat down before they'll back down.
So I ushered the woman and the girl into my office and I told Katy to get the paperwork together while I talked through the situation. I caught the girl eying the pizza as we came in so I went ahead and got her a slice before I sat behind my desk to hear their story.
"Mister Hall. I need… Security."
"Something we could all use, Ms…?
"Maraton. Peggy Maraton. This is my daughter Susan. There have been threats made against her."
"Is this a family problem, Ma'am? Ex-husband?"
"Oh, no. I'm a widow, Mr. Hall. There really isn't any family. Just Susan and I."
"So, what is it? Something at school? Bullying? Gangs?"
The kid didn't look like the type to run with that crowd. She was sitting, quietly listening while she took little bites of her pizza.
"No, nothing like that. It's some kind of religious cult. They've targeted Susan. It started on the internet. They found her page on… Susan, what is that thing called?"
"MySpace, Mom. They found my MySpace page and started emailing me all this weird stuff and then they started finding out all these things about us."
Peggy visibly shuddered. "Mr. Hall, these people know where we live, where I work, where Susan goes to school."
"You've reported them to the police?"
"The police and the FBI. But they just kept telling us they were looking into it. And that was before…"
"Before what, Mrs. Maraton?"
"They were in our house yesterday. I just… The police said it was probably just something random, some homeless person or kids in the neighborhood. The key to the back door from under the mat was in the lock when we got home. There were things… rearranged in the house. Little things, just changed. They took Susan's hairbrush. Nothing else was missing."
Not domestic abuse, then. Stalking. Just as bad.
"Did you tell the police that you suspected yesterday's break-in was related to this cyber-stalking?"
"Of course. They said the report is being passed to the detective on the case, and they told me they'd have a patrol car checking the neighborhood. But there were noises last night like someone was in our yard. Nothing happened and I didn't call the police again, but I'm worried something might happen. We spent today trying to find someone who we hire for private security, but no one could start until Monday at the earliest."
Well, I'd been planning to spend the weekend having some quality time with my girlfriend, but recent developments had left my schedule suddenly open. I messaged Katy to come in. She placed the contracts on my desk and started to go back out.
"Katy, run a security check, please."
I'm a planner. I plan for extreme situations. I've got the supply box in my house in case of a natural disaster, and a top-of-the line first aid kit in my car. I also have a lot of contingency plans, and when I hired Katy on I made sure she'd memorized and rehearsed a long list of procedures.
I'd gotten the landlord a discount on a new security camera and alarm system a couple years back and had it wired directly into my office. So while I was talking money with the client, Katy was running a sweep of the security cameras in the strip mall parking lot to check for any sign that Mrs. Maraton had been followed or for anything else that looked fishy.
There were two purposes to this. The first was, well, to make sure there wasn't anything fishy going on outside and that the client hadn't been followed. The second, and more important purpose, was to give assurance that the Lumination Agency was a competent and thorough operation when it came to security. So I explained my hourly rate and expenses to Mrs. Maraton and showed her where to sign and where to initial. I explained to her that I'd be on-premises at their house starting tonight and that during the weekend a security consultant that I do business with would come in to do an evaluation. Mrs. Maraton did look a little bit reassured as she read over the papers and I waited for Katy to come back in with the all-clear.
Except that when Katy came in, I could tell from her face that something was bothering her.
Shit. We hadn't rehearsed this part.
"Um… Boss, could you take a look at something real quick?"
To Katy's credit, she spoke in a smooth, calm voice, and she'd had sense enough not to just blurt out whatever was wrong. It still got Mrs. Maraton's attention, though.
"Everything is fine' Ma'am. Finish up those contracts and I'll be right with you."
I closed the door and moved over to the monitors and asked Katy what was up.
"That SUV. Camera five. There." She froze the image. "That's the kind of thing I should be looking for, right? Guys just sitting in their cars in the parking lot?"
"The comic shop. It's parents waiting for their kids to get out of the Magic tournament." But I wasn't quite convincing myself. The tournament was just getting started, and most parents had better things to do than wait three or four hours in a strip mall parking lot.
"Bring it up on your computer screen. Let's get a timestamp on when our friends outside arrived compared to Mrs. Maraton."
The security cameras were tied into our network and they were writing to a drive that allowed us to rewind up to a week back. We fiddled with it for a bit. One of the problems with a lot of people who buy these systems is that they never practice using them until a real incident comes up. I'd spent an afternoon with Katy learning the thing inside and out, and it came back to us pretty quick.
The SUV had pulled into the parking lot within a minute of the Maratons arriving, in plenty of time to see at least which door they'd gone in. They could have been tailing her. There had been no movement from the vehicle since then.
Katy looked up from the monitor with worry in her eyes and that's when I made the decision to treat the situation as a worst-case scenario.
"Katy, go into the store room. Get the phone surveillance box, a couple of the bug sweepers, a flashlight, and the motion sensor triggers that we put together for the haunted house job. Pack all of that stuff into a duffel bag and put it by the back stairs, then open up the locked box on the middle shelf and get three of the pepper sprays. One in your purse, two in the right-hand pocket of my jacket. Then come get us." I indicated the windbreaker hanging on the clothespole near the door. Katy just nodded and got to work.
I went back into my office and collected the papers from Mrs. Maraton. Her daughter was wandering around the room, glancing over the contents of my bookshelves. I sat at my desk, pretending to look over the contracts, ran Mrs. Maraton's address on Mapquest, and sent the map and directions to the laser printer and got up as the machine spit them out. Then I closed up my laptop and put it into its bag.
Katy walked in with her purse over her shoulder.
"Time to go." I announced.
"Go? What? Where?" Mrs. Maraton looked at me wide-eyed and Susan came to her mother's side.
"You hired me to protect yourself and your daughter, Mrs. Maraton. You're going to need to trust me and do as instructed for your own safety. We're leaving here right now out the back stairwell. You'll wait with my assistant for me to bring the car around."
I threw the windbreaker on as we went out and grabbed the equipment that Katy had set up by the stairs. When we reached the bottom I got out my cell and typed the word "go" in a text message to Katy's number so that I just needed to hit one button to send it.
I turned to Susan, who seemed to be wavering between excited and terrified.
"You go out first, kid. When Katy gives the word. You get in the back seat and stay low."
She nodded, ready as she was ever gonna be.
"Mrs. Maraton, you help Katy haul the bag to the car. It goes into the back seat between you and your daughter. Katy, you ride up front. Here are the directions. I'll be back in a couple of minutes. Stay cool, everybody. And keep the door to the stairwell closed and locked until I give you the word."
I took the bag with my laptop and slipped out the door into a sticky August night thick with gnat clouds. The back of the strip mall was just a narrow bit of blacktop for deliveries. I kept to the shadows and made my way to the end of the strip, went a little way into the woods and circled around to my car. The SUV was maybe 20 yards away, and I stayed low getting to the car, got in, fired the engine, and drove out like I was a regular patron leaving the strip mall parking lot. I did a u-turn a little way up the road, turned into the strip mall, and headed like I was gonna park in front of the comic shop. No lights on in the SUV. That was good. If it was just me I would've swung closer to get his plate number, but I was playing it real cautious with the mom and daughter involved. I picked up speed as I passed the comic store, and sent the "go" message as I came around the corner.
Katy got everyone loaded in and I got us moving again.
"Seat belts and stay low, people." I made the turn and I could see out of the corner of my eye that the SUV was in motion and its lights were on. I was figuring on him not spotting the side driveway at this end of the loading strip and sure enough, I turned out and was on the main road while he was still in the parking lot. From there I wasn't worried; my Honda had pretty decent acceleration and we were out of sight before he had a chance to get a good look. I ducked through a couple of winding back roads and then out onto the highway for a stretch just to make sure we'd lost him.
The Maratons lived in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of Nassua, the rich part of town with the big old Victorian houses. Theirs looked to be the biggest and oldest on the block. I hoped it meant that Mrs. Maraton could afford my fees. From a security standpoint the place was a nightmare. Sure, it was built like a fortress and you could probably hold off an army in there, but you'd need an army to do it. I counted eight points of entry within view of the front walk.
I didn't even like the idea of coming here at all after the incident in the parking lot. If someone was following Mrs. Maraton and lost her, this would be high on the list of places to check. When I'd originally printed out the directions I'd been figuring there was about a seventy-five percent chance that the SUV in the parking lot was just an oddball coincidence. But it hadn't acted that way when we drove out.
Still, Mrs. Maraton was insisting they at least needed to pack some things, and there were apparently some threatening notes and recordings that Mrs. Maraton had at home that might clue me in on what we were up against. I told her that I'd scope the place out and get ideas for security recommendations, but one look at the place and I knew what I'd be recommending: Alternative accommodations for the night.
I asked Mrs. Maraton for the key with the intent of giving the lock a look over when we went in, and I was thinking about how I was going to secure all those first-floor and basement windows, and probably I was thinking a little too hard about those things because it turned out that none of them mattered one bit.
They were already in the house.
The porch lamp was on. It cast enough light for me to catch the first guy's shadow moving. He came at me from the right side swinging a fireplace poker. I got my left arm up to deflect it right around the time Katy started to scream. He went to raise the poker over his head again, which was a stupid thing to do in close. My right hand brought out the pepper spray and I maced the bastard pretty good, enough that it had me coughing too.
I could see the second guy coming at me and I backed hard into Katy and Mrs. Maraton and shoved them back and slammed the door on the guy's arm.
Katy was reaching into her purse for the other pepper spray can, which I was glad to see, even if it wasn't the right thing to do. I yelled at her to get the car started and threw the keys in her direction while I leaned on the door keeping the arm trapped while its owner was screaming bloody murder on the other side.
Thankfully, Katy started making progress on herding mom and daughter into the car. As far as I could tell they'd been standing there watching the whole thing like it was a goddamned sporting event.
I had maybe thirty seconds to think over what was happening, and I came to one conclusion. The first bastard had been ready to bash in the skull of whoever had walked in that door, whether it was Mrs. Maraton or me. Or Katy.
I grabbed the trapped hand by two fingers, bent them back to straighten the arm and put a carefully aimed uppercut elbow strike into the guy's elbow. The sound of the bone snapping was more satisfying than the scream that followed.
Then I turned and ran for the car.
"You got your license, kid?"
Katy nodded. "Since three days after I turned sixteen."
"Good to hear. Keep driving, kid. Daniel Webster Highway north."
I turned in the passenger seat, wincing when the seat made contact with the bruise that was spreading all over my forearm.
Peggy Maraton was clinging to her daughter protectively, but the kid looked like she was holding it together.
"You got a cell phone?" I asked.
She looked up, contemplating the question for a second, and then nodded.
"We both have them. One of those two-for-one plans. They're supposed to be very good, but I get lost with all the different features. Susan is better at that stuff."
"All you need to use is the phone. You're gonna call 911. You're gonna give them your name and your address, tell them there is a break-in at your house. Tell them you heard two men downstairs and you took your daughter and fled out the back door. You don't mention me, or anything that happened tonight. They're gonna tell you to meet the officers on the scene. Tell them you'll come to the station. Can you do all that? Exactly like I said, okay?"
She did. And she didn't question my decision not to go to the police station. That was a tough choice to make, and looking back I think maybe I let my ego get the better of me. I'd been hired on to protect these people, and as soon as we showed up at the police station, that responsibility would be taken out of my hands and put into the hands of people who didn't have a sense of what we were up against, and who we might have difficulty convincing of anything. Especially since I had a strong suspicion that the cops weren't gonna find those two guys still in the house when they arrived.
But what were we up against? I hadn't gotten a good look at either of them, but I had the impression they were young. Late teens or early twenties. They weren't trained fighters from what I could tell, but they didn't have any hesitation when it came to killing, and that alone made them very dangerous. And they were organized. I think that scared me more than the viciousness. They'd damn near outmaneuvered me just when I'd been congratulating myself on giving them the slip.
Somewhere in all of this mess I'd made another decision that I later had reason to question. That was the decision to keep Katy with us. She was handling everything so well it was easy to just accept her as a full partner, forgetting that she'd never signed on to put her life at risk. There was also the paranoia that was beginning to influence my thinking. They'd followed Mrs. Maraton to my office. They could track down my address. I certainly knew a dozen ways to do that. What if I dropped Katy at home and they decided to go after her to get to me? It was giving me a headache just running the possibilities and all I wanted was everything lined up where it was under control. So I had a quick conversation with Katy and of course she insisted on staying. She'd come up with an excuse for her parents when she needed to. So I moved on to other worries, and by the time I got back around to questioning the decision it was too late.
We drove north in stop-and-go traffic, passing by supermarkets and drugstores and the occasional auto dealership, and we got burgers at a fast food drive through once we'd gone far enough that I was sure we weren't being followed. Susan hardly touched her food. She curled herself up in the corner, staring out the car window for a while before settling down to playing video games on her phone.
While we drove I had Mrs. Maraton fill me in on everything she could think of about this cult that was making all this trouble for her and her little girl.
She didn't know much. They called themselves Positive Light or possibly some variation on that maybe with the word "brotherhood" thrown in there. They had apparently singled out Susan as some kind of prophesied demon-spawn on the basis of images she'd posted in an online dream-journal.
I directed Katy to keep us heading north and east, and passed through Manchester and out into the country roads. I made a couple of phone calls. I called Jake Horner in Nashua and let him know we'd be making use of his safehouse up in North Conway. Jake is the man who got me into the P.I. business, and I was an investor in the safehouse, basically a glorified vacation cabin up in the White Mountains. While I had Jake on the line, I asked gave him a quick explanation of the fix we were in and asked him if he could handle things with the police for us. He wished us well and said he'd be happy to help.
There were a couple other partners in the financing of the safehouse that I knew of. One was Fred Boyle down in Billerica, Massachusetts. He owned a company that installed alarm systems and consulted on private security. I'd been planning to invite him out to Mrs. Maraton's house before things had escalated. Another one was Dan Summers. Dan was my techie. I'm no slouch when it comes to computers, but Dan is an old school hacker who's probably forgotten more about computer security than I ever learned. Dan Summers was the second person I called. I told him I needed everything he could find out about this Positive Light Brotherhood. He told me he should have something in an hour.
Outside of Wolfeboro I told Katy to pull into a gas station and convenience store parking lot and I explained how things were gonna work.
"We're buying time for the police to do their work right now." I told Mrs. Maraton. "I know this seems unfair because it was such a random thing, but these psychos are apparently very determined to do you harm and they're well organized. We need to continue to exercise caution. That being said, there's no way that they followed us out of town. Just don't make any calls, any of you. That's how witness protection breaks down. Someone decides it would be okay to just call up a friend in their old neighborhood. You know, someone they're sure they can trust. I'm gonna write up the details of what's gone on and that'll go to Jake Horner in Nashua along with everything that my tech guy can find out. First thing tomorrow morning Jake will give the full report to the police and the feds and he'll let us know when they start making arrests. By Monday morning we should be able to head home and then we'll look into ongoing security if it seems necessary at that point. We good?"
Mom and daughter nodded. I told them and Katy to go into the convenience store and buy some food for the weekend while I gassed up the Honda. I must have been getting tired, because the two skatepunk looking kids that pulled up to the other side of the pumps in a Ford pickup just seemed like part of the scenery until the window came down and I caught sight of the gun out of the corner of my eye.
I twisted my body and got hit in the left shoulder and that spun me the rest of the way around and then my legs tangled in the gas hose and I went down and the side of my jaw hit the concrete.
The punk who'd shot me stepped out of the truck and waited a second for his buddy. Then they laid into me with steel-toed boots. They started walking toward the store and I think I was finally able to yell something because one of them turned around. He walked back my way and landed one more kick to my face. Then there was just a dull pain that faded slowly with the darkening lights.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006