The Hidden — Chapter 12: IN THE HOLE — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH 12 #2

CHAPTER TWELVE:  IN THE HOLE

The limestone was cold and damp to the touch.  Zelda shivered as she groped her way around the pitch-black room. It was as if she was the subject of a sensory-deprivation experiment. Total darkness was drawn across her eyes like a thick, black curtain.  Except for the dismal, echoey plinking of water somewhere far-off in the cavern, there was no sound at all.

The one sense that was alive, brilliantly functioning and totally aware, was her sense of touch. Her fingertips traced the damp, crumbly surface of the floor around her, and the low ceiling above. In spite of the thick crust of dirt and limestone dust coating them, they sent back information about every nuance, each irregularity of the stone.  She had been hesitant, at first, tentatively sending her hand out to scout before her; but, as she progressed, she moved with ever-growing sureness, searching out the perimeters of her confinement.

She and Susie had sat and talked for hours it seemed. Susie told her about the Monsters, then about the bridge and the path in the woods. She even spoke of “The Fort”, although she hadn’t mentioned what went on there. Susie was well on the way to blotting the memories of the abuse from her mind.

Susie wouldn’t discuss her abuse with Zelda or even allow herself to think about them. For the past few weeks, she had been alone, dealing with circumstances as they arose. The limited contact she’d had with other prisoners had not been very productive. Most of them seemed under a spell of some kind. They wandered around, rather listless and slow — like zombies from one of those old horror films.

Whenever she tried speaking with one of them, they either ignored her completely or grunted out one-word answers and brushed her aside. In some ways, they had been more terrifying than the creatures.

But Zelda was different — she was alert and active.  Now that there was an adult in the picture, Susie would let her take over and she would follow. It was a great relief to her, knowing that whatever situation occurred, she could let her make the decision as to what their response was to be. It wasn’t a question of trust. Other than exhibiting sympathy for her plight, Zelda had done nothing to actually earn her trust. Susie was tired, on the verge of complete exhaustion.

Life had thrown her a lot of curves lately and her entire being had grown weary of coping. Her heart felt like an old and worn shoe. She ached to let someone else decide what to do and when to do it. In the meantime, she would drift along with the flow, content to allow events to take care of themselves.

Zelda, on the other hand, had benefited somewhat from her ordeal. For so long now she had let other people run her life. Her mother had made all the major decisions of her childhood: Which school to attend, what to pursue as a career, where to live. These and dozens of others in a long chain stretched back as far as she could remember. And then, after she married Nate, she had allowed him to take over, even going so far as to let him tell her what kind of car they should drive and where they should buy a house. All her life she had been a follower. But now, she was totally on her own with nobody to decide for her. In addition, she had little Susie depending on her. Suddenly, she was thrust into the role of leadership, and it suited her well. Having realized this, with some small feeling of satisfaction, she resolved to see them out of this conflict and to return the child to her mother safe and sound. She sat in the dark, trying to decide on a course of action.

Obviously, there was no way they could fight their way out. Susie said there were many of these brutes and they had no weapons. It was also apparent that they couldn’t sneak out past them if, as the child informed her, they could see in the dark. She turned her head, blindly scanning the darkness, and listened to the water dripping somewhere, far-off. Perhaps there was a way out of this cave that wouldn’t bring them in direct contact with their captors.

She asked herself what Nate would do in a similar situation, and she was struck by the realization of just how much she’d admired him. Why couldn’t I have told him that once when he was still alive?

Cold, heartless grief threatened to flood her mind, driving out all productive reasoning. She felt the need to break down, letting her thoughts drown in tears — to bathe in their cleansing depths like a weary traveler at a cool oasis pool. Perhaps, if she simply closed her eyes and cried herself to sleep, she might awaken to find this had all been a horrible nightmare. Bitterly, she cast these thoughts aside.

But Susie needs me… A voice inside  — that hidden voice of power which she had started taping into — spoke to her.

No time for self-pity, she admonished herself. She had to get a grip on herself and keep it together if they were ever going to escape.

“Susie, have you got any idea how big this cave is?” Her voice, although a mere whisper, echoed softly, doubling back to swirl like wraiths in the darkness about them.

“I don’t know exactly.” Susie sounded tired, sleepy. “That room out there is big… real big. That’s where they sleep. It’s kind of like the main hall or something. And there are tunnels going all over.  When they first brought me in kept me penned up in rooms all over the place. But, after a while I guess they realized I couldn’t really get away, so I’ve pretty much been able to go wherever I wanted and they more or less leave me alone.”

Zelda was hopeful. “That’s good. Maybe we can use that to our advantage.”

“Problem is, though, it’s so darn dark down here I can’t really see anything. It doesn’t much matter where I go, it all looks the same.”

“I see. Well, you and I are getting out of here, kid! To start with, let’s see if we can’t get an idea how big this room we’re in is. We know it’s not very tall…” Zelda said as she gingerly touched the knot on her head.  “Tell you what: You work THIS side of the doorway…”

Taking Susie’s hand, she guided it to the wall in front of them, groping around until she felt the opening. She slapped the crumbly limestone and positioned Susie in front of it, facing the wall. Running her own hand along the top of the doorway, she crawled on hands and knees over to the opposite side.

“And I’ll go… this way.” So saying, she began sliding her hands along the wall in front of her, advancing to the left and moving up and down the wall so as to judge its height. She felt her spirits lifting a bit.  It was good to be moving. As long as she kept doing something or taking action, she stayed ahead of those poisonous thoughts — the ones that threatened to wash over her and pull her down in a whirlpool of self-doubt and utterly black grief, much darker even than the lightless void she now explored. With every step she crawled, she made a mental note. She could hear Susie, sidling along opposite her and quietly making little slapping sounds as her tiny hands connected with the hard surface of the cave wall. Apparently, it was larger than she would have guessed as her steps added up and the sounds Susie made began retreating from her.

Suddenly, her world was illuminated in a blinding flash and she sat back hard on her haunches. Her first response was startled, unreasoning anger; and then it slowly sank into her consciousness that she had collided with another wall, running at right angles to the one she had been following. Something warm slithered down her face and she reached up to feel blood, slick and moist, between her fingers. She hissed softly through clenched teeth.

Pulling herself back up to a crawling position, she quietly called across to Susie to be careful. “Okay.” Whispered the child, her voice sounding tiny and lost in the pitch black.

Following the new wall, she continued on, noticing that the ceiling was getting a bit higher as she went. Soon she was able to rise up into a crouching position, giving her protesting knees a break. But, as she moved on, it started to go back down again and she was forced to resume crawling. To her, this indicated that the room must have a slightly domed ceiling, tapering down to the floor in the back. Her theory was soon proven by her searching hands. If she were any judge, the room seemed to be about twenty feet across, and maybe five feet high at its peak.

A sudden, cold ball of apprehension erupted in the pit of her stomach as Zelda became aware of the silence around her. Susie was no longer slapping the wall. This thought barely had time to sink in before a sharp cry, emanating from somewhere across the room let her know her little friend was in trouble. The cry was followed by a scuffling noise and what sounded like rocks sliding and falling in a well.

“Susie!” She called, afraid to raise her voice too much, lest she call attention to herself. There was no answer at first, and then the child’s quavering voice drifted eerily out of the darkness: “Uhh-Zelda!… Helllp!… UH!… Mph!… I’m gonna fall!” She sounded like she was calling from the bottom of a barrel.

Her heart hammered. “Hold on, kiddo! I’m coming. Damn!” she cursed the dark. Throwing her hands straight out before her, she waved them frantically around, feeling her way across the middle of the room. She tried to direct herself to the point where she had heard Susie’s voice, but it had been so distant — so strangely muffled. Scrambling as quickly as she could, she charged across the chamber until, unexpectedly, the floor disappeared beneath her. A startled bleat escaped her throat as she pitched headfirst into thin air. Then, with a bone-jarring force, her out-stretched arms struck another wall and stopped her fall.

Gasping and panting heavily, she took stock of her situation for a moment. Apparently, there was a hole in the floor, a sort of rock cistern into which her upper body had fallen. Undoubtedly, the rest of her would have followed, had her hands not connected with a small outcropping on the other side. So now she lay, with her hands on one side of the well and her lower thighs, right above the knees resting on the opposite rim. Her head was about a foot lower than her legs. This was an extremely uncomfortable, if not dangerous position to be in. But, at that moment, Zelda wasn’t so much worried about her own safety as that of her new friend. After a moment she took a deep breath and called.

“Susie!” she grunted into the hole below her. “Are you down there?”

The child’s voice floated up to her from somewhere below. “I — I’m here… unh… down here! I’m scared, Zelda. I think I’m gonna fall some more.”

The child sounded like she was going to cry, and right now, Zelda needed her to be brave. “Sh-h-h! Honey, don’t cry. I’m going to get you. Just hold on now.” She tried to sound calm and confident, hoping it would rub off on Susie. In truth, she hadn’t the slightest idea how she was going to reach her. Susie sounded like she was about six feet below Zelda’s current position, as she was becoming pretty good at judging distances in the dark.

Perhaps there was a way to reach her, but the first obstacle she had to overcome was her awkward position at the lip of the well. She tried to take her left hand loose to reach up and pull herself from the well, but her remaining hand couldn’t find a secure enough purchase to hold her weight.  She began to slip into the hole. Frantically she spread her legs farther apart and shoved her hand back into the rough limestone wall, cutting it a bit, but stopping her fall. So, it was painfully apparent that she couldn’t move her hands.

As if proving the point, Zelda felt a huge insect, probably a millipede, crawling endlessly up her bare leg. She didn’t dare thrash around to shake it off, for fear she would lose her grip and plummet, head-first into the chasm. All she could do was grit her teeth and wait for it to traverse her body and move on. The thing was only about four inches long, but, in her helpless position there in the depths of the darkened cave, it loomed much, much larger. She could feel its tiny legs, tickling their way with agonizing slowness across the surface of her skin.  An image of its slick, shiny, segmented body played with cruel clarity upon her mind’s eye.

She knew that there were creatures that lived in caves that, deprived of light for their entire lives developed differently from normal species. Their bodies were pale and colorless, and they grubbed around, sightless, feeling their way with long, hair-like antennae, waving in the eternal darkness. God only knew what weird variety of creepy-crawly thing had been hiding in this hole and was even now slithering its way along the length of her bare calf. Beads of sweat broke out upon her upper lip, and her muscles locked in rigid tension. Her mind reeled with revulsion, and she fought back the giddiness that threatened to overcome her.

When it and the insect had passed, she began to slowly and carefully ease her way, one inch at a time, alternating hands, up the wall. She could hear Susie sobbing beneath her; and when she could get her breath, she sent encouragement down to her. But the process was agonizingly slow, and she began to pray that her strength would hold out. The skin on the palms of her hands burned and stung from being scraped and ground into the rough stone, and her arms trembled with exertion. A warm, numbing sensation began slowly creeping up from her wrists, and Zelda was sure that when it reached her shoulders she would just buckle and plunge into the pit below. Her teeth clamped down hard on her lower lip, and small, mewling squeaks squeezed their way out of her throat.

At last, just when she felt her arms were going to break off at the elbow, she reached an angle where she was able to push herself back out of the hole and roll over onto the flat surface of the cave floor. She lay in the dark, panting for a moment and then she returned to her rescue efforts, realizing there was no time to waste. Scooting back over to the hole, she called down, “Honey, are you still with me?”

“I’m h-here.” came the tremulous voice.

“Sweetie, tell me about your position… Where are you? Can you stand up?” Blood had rushed to Zelda’s head, making her ears sing, but some feeling was rapidly returning to her arms.  Her skin prickled with pins and needles.

“I’m up against the wall, and there’s like a… a ledge, or whatever.  I’m standing on it. But Zelda, I’m scared! How’re you gonna get me?”

There was a note of quiet desperation in Susie’s small voice, and she didn’t like it. What it said was, “I’m scared, yes… but, more than that, I’m on the verge of panic. At any moment, I may try something desperate and stupid that will send me sprawling into space with a shrill cry that will haunt you until the day you die. As long as you live, you will hear it in your dreams and it will drag you screaming and sweating from your sleep to ponder why you couldn’t have done something — ANYTHING to save me!” She had time to consider this for just a moment and then she shook it off.

“Okay, now be a brave girl. Susie, don’t look up, I’m going to drop a rock into the hole so we can see how deep it is. Hang on now and flatten yourself against the wall, okay? Okay!”

She dropped a small pebble into the void and waited for the sound of its fall to come echoing up to her. After a few seconds of silence, all she heard was Susie’s voice. “I don’t think there IS any bottom. This one’s just like the one they throw the bones in, only it’s out by the entrance where there’s enough light to see it. Don’t fall, Zelda.”

The cavern room felt suddenly claustrophobic. What a horrible way that would be to die, falling endlessly until the air ran out and you suffocated, or until you picked up enough speed that a brush against the wall shattered your skull… She pictured herself tumbling over and over, plummeting toward the center of the earth. The walls were whizzing by at enormous speed and abrading pieces of her body away bit by bit as she fell until there was nothing left but an irregular-shaped bloody chunk.

Vertigo gripped her and she shook her head, trying to clear out the nightmarish images. Sucking in a deep gulp of the cool air, she called again: “Susie, are you wearing a belt?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Good. Take it off, and toss it as hard as you can straight up in the air.” She waited, listening closely to the sound of Susie’s movements in the dark.

“Here it comes.”

The belt flew through the air and hit Zelda.  The metal buckle raising a small welt where it struck the corner of her eye. She was able to snatch at it before it tumbled back into the hole.  She rolled over and worked on her back, connecting it with her own belt, which she had removed while waiting for Susie. This gave her about a six-foot extension on her arm-span. She lowered the belt into the hole and leaned in as far as she dared.

“Susie,” she whispered. “I’m lowering the belt to you, do you  feel it?” Nothing. She must be lower than Zelda had thought. Removing her sweat-shirt, she tied one sleeve through one of the belt buckles and lowered her “rope” back into the hole.  Still, it came up short.

“Sweetheart, take off your shirt.”

There was no movement below her.

“Honey, are you still there?” she asked, anxiously. Panic gripped her voice and made it squeak.

Susie didn’t answer, she was hearing voices in her head: “TAKE YOUR SHIRT OFF, SUZE… C’MON… TAKE IT OFF… WILL YOU DO ME NEXT?  WILL YA… TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF FIRST!” The voices swarmed around her like little demons, echoing and resounding, bouncing off the walls and piercing her skull to float achingly inside. They dug their claws into her brain and scratched at the back of her eyeballs. She felt as though she were going to vomit, and she shut her eyes tightly, forcing the demons to go away.

Snatching off her tee-shirt, she tossed it high into the air. “Here comes!”

Zelda breathed a sigh of relief and joined the shirt with the other. This time when she swung the flimsy ladder into the hole she was rewarded with an answering tug on the other end. Bracing herself, she coaxed Susie off the ledge and began slowly drawing her up to safety.

Then, just as she was about to reach down and grab the little girl’s arm, Susie stopped. “Zelda,” she whispered. “There’s a tunnel here.”

She leaned down into the hole once more, and this time she connected with Susie. Grabbing her beneath the arms, she hauled her on out, where she held the shivering child tightly in her arms. After a few moments, the trembling abated, and she could tell the child was overcoming her fright.

“Here,” Zelda said, untying the tee-shirts and belts. “Put this back on before you catch your death.”

When they were dressed again and had rested a minute, Susie showed her the tunnel, running horizontally away from the shaft of the well, which it joined at a spot about three feet beneath the floor they were lying on. The two of them were reaching into the hole, flailing their arms in the darkness.

Facing Susie, she said, “Sweetheart, this could be a way out. Are you up to risking it?”

Silently in the dark, Susie nodded, and Zelda sensed it.

“Atta girl. What’ve we got to lose? We’ve pretty much outgrown this room anyway, right?”

With a reluctant sigh, she turned to the task of lowering them both safely into the tunnel.

Above them, in the doorway to the room they were quitting, a large bristle-haired creature sat watching them with eyes that pierced the cave’s eternal night. After a moment, it grunted once, low and menacingly.  It shuffled into the room where it poked its head in the hole and stared after them down the tunnel.

 

Elude Part One — Excerpt #5… — Derek Barton

EL #5

5 – AIR OF SUSPICION

 

Dominic Witherspoon sat facing the television, an amber bottle of Coor’s Light in hand and a remote in the other.  His eyes were glued to the set, but nothing registered in his mind.  He was in a zone of thought, a zone of depression, anxiety and loss.  It was an old habit and what one would call a defense mechanism.

Too many times, Shellie watched as her father drop into the old lime green recliner and disappeared.  He had no answers for what plagued their lives.  More and more, he fell into the evening ritual, pieces of Dom slipping away.  She was losing him.

A blaring commercial for Red Apple Snapple broke her own reverie and she glanced at the television.  She watched him from atop the stair steps near the second-floor landing.  Her little hands gripped the stair banister bars as she put her face between the posts to watch.  She resembled a prisoner.  Much like her father’s life, it had devolved into more of a life sentence.

He sipped from the bottle.  In reality, Shellie knew she was lucky that he didn’t do more than the one bottle each night.  He nursed the same bottle for two to three hours then would fall asleep in the chair, often while watching Discovery or History specials.  The drone of the narrating voice would lull him to sleep.  On more than one occasion, she had also fallen asleep in the hallway only to be woken up in the late hours and carried to bed by her father.

“…a task force combining local police, homicide detectives and state investigators are concentrating their search efforts for Vicente Vargas in the Phoenix area, but there is speculation that he might be using resources to get back to Puerto Rico where he has family.”

Shellie was hungry but decided to hold off sneaking into the kitchen until he fell asleep.  He was angry with her, but more than that, he was deeply disappointed in her.  That hurt laid on her heart pressed on her like a heavy boot standing on her chest.  He had no real idea of what to be mad at her for — she had no real idea what she had done either — but it was there nonetheless.

The police left only an hour and a half before.  They had come with a search warrant and ransacked their house.  The uniformed men left with her laptop and her father’s computer tower.

This was their third visit within the last two days.  The first was “routine”.  They knocked on their door about an hour or two after Ms. Baxter left that morning.

Somewhat apprehensive, Dom opened the door to the uniformed police.  It was a learned reaction and a belief that one grew into when you lived in a rough city neighborhood.  He was originally from Chicago and his Irish father worked on occasion for some known, shady associates.

From an early age, Dom was taught that police knocking on the door was a bad omen.  If you were doing anything illegal, then you had to be guarded when you spoke with them.  If you weren’t doing anything illegal, it still meant bad news because they wanted you to give them information on one of your neighbors or friends.  It could actually be worse than the first outcome.

The two policemen relayed the grim message that Ms. Bernice Baxter had died that morning in a traffic accident.

“We have some questions for you.  Can we come in and discuss them with you, sir?”

“No.  We can talk right here on the doorstep,” Dom snapped, a little too sharp.  The pair of cops stared at him with startled expressions.

“I… mean, no.  Sorry. My ill mother is inside and she’s resting right now.  I don’t want to disturb her.  What do you need to ask me, officers?”

The first officer, Antony Royas, a Hispanic man with a thick mustache and short-cropped hair replied, “Well, there were some extenuating circumstances that we cannot go into, but could you tell us what Ms. Baxter’s emotional state was when she left this morning?  Did she seem upset, depressed or stressed over anything?”

“Uh… Well, no, not really.  Why?”

“Like I said I cannot go into details, but I have to ask.”

“She died in a car accident, you said.  Why are you investigating?”

“Any fatalities have to be investigated per procedure. I’m sure you understand.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, Shellie heard their conversation.

Ms. Baxter had died! Part guilty relief and part fear washed over her. What would they do for a nurse now?

She never liked the mean-spirited Bernice, but she knew how much her father relied on her.

Officer Peter Gordon, Royas’ partner spoke up, “How about in the last two or three weeks?  Was she having any financial problems or maybe was she suffering from any illnesses that you know of?”  He used the end of his pen to scratch at a graying black beard as he waited on Dom’s response.

It was Dom’s turn to stare.  Officer Gordon was lanky with a “runner’s body” but also seem bored and distracted.  Officer Royas was heavier, but his set of keen eyes stared back with annoyance.  The heat roasted the two men standing on the sidewalk.

He carefully worded his reply, “I’m not on a personal level with my mother’s nurse so I don’t know about her health, but as far as her finances, I just offered to pay her more hourly while she takes care of my mother.”

The officers nodded and jotted down the information in a hand-size notebook.

“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I really do need to tend to lunch for my mother and daughter.  Is there anything else or are we done?”

Officer Gordon frowned.  “Is there an issue or anything you want to tell us, Mr. Witherspoon?  You seem a bit… nervous.”

Her father did not like being pressed.

“Okay.  We’re done.  Good day, officers.”  He shut the door in their faces.  The whole conversation would come back to haunt them.

He rubbed his neck and shook his head.  It was obvious they rattled him with the news and the sudden stress of the nurse’s death.   They relied heavily on her and it would be hard for him to find a replacement.

“It’s okay, Dad.  They’ll send someone out.”  She was referring to the Nurses Service Association.

“Uh… Yeah.  Eat your grilled cheese now.”  He passed by her and went upstairs to his room on the second floor.

She guessed he would be calling into work and trying to find someone to take his shift at Carmen’s All-Nighter Laundromat.  Without Ms. Baxter, Dom wouldn’t be able to leave her alone with Grannie.

At times like this, Shellie especially missed her mother.  Her father tried to be attentive and provided what he could, but he was awkward with affection and emotional connections.  She didn’t doubt his love, but feeling it was another story.

She realized then for the first time that Ms. Baxter was the only other person she knew who died other than her mother.  Both died the same way too — in a car accident.

 I don’t want to go to her funeral!  He won’t go, will he? She didn’t even like me, Dad or even Grannie!  All she ever did was yell at us and hog the TV when dad wasn’t aroun—

She gasped.  Do ghosts come because you thought bad things about them after they died?

Shellie bolted up the stairs and jumped onto her laptop to research it.  Within five minutes she was lost in a series of animated YouTube videos and completely forgot about the car accident, Ms. Baxter’s haunting and her father’s work woes.

At about 7:30 that night, it all returned like a curse with the Phoenix Homicide Detectives Dale Kenton and Jerry Pence.

Dom answered the door and spewed out his excuses before they could introduce themselves. “Look, it’s late, Officers. I’ve already answered the questions put to me by the first two.  My mother is ill.  Can we do this another time?”

Pence rebuked her father in a stern voice.  “Actually, no, Mr. Witherspoon.  This is a serious matter involving the death of your mother’s nurse.  I would think you could take time out to help us and provide closure for her family.  After all, the woman donated her last year to care for your sick mother.  It would be the most humane thing to do. No?”

The thin, white detective was dressed in a gray suit pressed sharp and neat with a black tie.  He already had his hand-sized notebook out and an impatient air about him.

Dom sighed loudly but didn’t say anything else.

“May we?” Kenton poked his hand toward their kitchen table behind Dom.

Again, her father sighed and muttered under his breath, but opened the door invitingly.

“Go upstairs and check on your grandmother,” he ordered Shellie who was standing next to the television.

Detectives Kenton and Pence sat across the table from Dom, going over some information.  Shellie tried to listen as she checked on Grannie, but their voices were low and too garbled to hear.  The machines whirred and hummed like always.  Above her grandmother’s head, bright blue numbers displayed her heart rate, blood pressure and temperature.  All seemed normal.

Shellie raced back quietly to the stairs and perched in her favorite spying spot to listen.

“…several of them have reported seeing a heated conversation between you and Ms. Baxter.  You neglected to tell this to the officers this morning.”

“It was just a… a… Well, it wasn’t as it appeared.  She was upset with me because I ran late coming home from work.  Threatened to quit,” Dom rambled on, crossing his arms over his chest.

“So, you’re saying she was angry…Emotional?”

“Yes, but before she left she agreed to stay if I gave her a raise.”

“When the officers asked you about this, why did you keep it hidden?  According to those officers, you were rather ill-tempered and unresponsive,” Kenton said, applying the pressure.

“No! Not at all.  I was just shocked to learn of her death.”

“Yet, you were present enough to keep information from them?”

“What’s this all about?  I know you’re not digging this hard into a simple car accident.  I… I’m not answering any more questions until you level with me or you can leave.”  Dominic was a good man, but the stress had been wearing on him all afternoon and it was all too easy to be angry at that moment.

“Whoa, whoa, let’s not raise our voices, Mr. Witherspoon.  You’re going to upset your family,” Kenton warned.

Pence leaned over the table on his elbows.  “You seem under a lot of strain.  We’ll be out of your hair if you’ll tell us what you last talked about this morning with Ms. Baxter. We’re not ‘digging’ as you put it for no reason.”

“What’s this all about then?” Dom insisted again.

“We can do this at the station if you would prefer,” Kenton whispered, but it was a barely-veiled threat.

Dom slouched in his chair.  “No, I… I can’t leave my mother and daughter unattended.”  He’d rubbed at the back of his neck again.  “She…Ms. Baxter was angry like I said when I got home.  She’d gotten into an argument with my daughter and was mad that I was late.”

“What was this argument with your daughter about?”

“She found Shellie on her laptop watching videos on how to hack computers.  She’s always watching videos and such.  It wasn’t a big deal, but Ms. Baxter said Shellie hit her and she couldn’t take it here anymore.”

The detectives gave each other sidelong glances.

“Wait… What?” Dom shouted seeing their expressions.

“Nothing.  Go on,” Pence insisted, trying to appear friendly.

“NO! Leave now!  You won’t talk to me, I’m not talking to you.”  Her father rose from his seat, stormed over to the door and held it open for them.

As Kenton strode past, he leaned in and whispered once again, “You can expect a call for an interview sometime tomorrow, Dom.  This conversation’s just getting started.”

The Hidden — Chapter 11: OUT ON A LIMB — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH 11a

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN:  OUT ON A LIMB

Nate’s body was protesting loudly. His legs were cramping and his back, especially between his shoulder blades, ached dully, no matter which way he arranged himself on the branch. The sun had traveled past its zenith, and still, the creature in the bean field had not relaxed its silent vigil.

Nate felt helpless.

If he had just himself to consider, he would wait the bastard out — no matter how long it took. But the thing that drove him to distraction was his concern for Zelda. He kept telling himself that she was alive, which meant she was out there somewhere waiting for him to save her.  She had always depended on him, and now she must be wondering why he hadn’t come looking for her.

Restlessly, he stood up and stretched his back for about the thousandth time that day. As soon as he moved, the beast below him clambered to its feet, all attention focused on him.

“You’re burning for it aren’t you, pal?” he growled at his tormentor. Reaching up, he climbed higher in the tree. He let his legs hang down and limbered up their screaming muscles by pedaling in mid-air. This was followed by a few old-fashioned chin-ups on the branch above his head. Stopping for a moment, he gazed up at the sun and sighed. There was nothing else to do, if he were to have any hope of finding Zelda, he was going to have to climb down from this tree. He slipped the gun from its holster, broke it open and took stock of its chambers. His count had been accurate — two bullets remained.

He’d purchased the weapon while they still lived in Chicago. The man behind the counter at the gun shop insisted he buy a “wheel gun” rather than an automatic, due to its simplicity and dependability. At the time, his main consideration had actually been the price.

“Yessir,” the man had told him, with a glint in his eye. “This here revolver will shoot, reload and shoot again faster than you can pull the trigger — just slicker’n cat shit on linoleum. And, statistically speaking, a .357 will break up a fight faster than any other handgun. It’ll stop a man quicker than anything else you’re apt to lay your hands on. If you’re buying a gun for protection… well, you got the right one, baby. Uh… HUH!” His laugh had been just a little too practiced and forced to sound sincere, but Nate bought the gun anyway. There had been a rash of crime in their neighborhood, and when a gunman held up the store which he worked in, he’d decided it was time to own one.

He had taken a course to learn to shoot, and he’d discovered he was pretty much a natural marksman. The man at the pistol range said it was because he aimed with his head instead of his eyes, making the gun a natural extension of his arm. At the time, he’d tried to get Nate to sign up for target shooting competitions, but he wasn’t interested. Never before had he been more grateful for this talent than now, when he planned to put it to the test.

It was Go Time!

Having made up his mind, he moved smoothly and decisively. First, he grasped the branch on which he stood with both hands. Swinging down quickly to hang beneath it, he dropped to the next lower branch, and then on to the ground. Before his feet even touched the earth, the monster was up and charging toward him. Nate landed in a squatting position. Straightening up, he slid the revolver from its sheath and leveled it at the beast. The creature skidded to a stop as if it were on a short tether. Pawing the ground in frustration, it growled and hissed threateningly.

Nate was impressed. “You learn pretty quickly, don’t you, Brutus?” His voice was low, but it carried to the creature’s ears, as was evidenced by its answering snarl of rage.

“Now, now! Don’t get cocky.” He brandished the gun menacingly and moved along the fence row toward the forest. He figured this was his only choice of directions, the timber at least offering some form of retreat should the creature overcome its fear of the weapon.

The monster in the field followed, paralleling his course, but staying just out of range for a safe shot. Nate made it to the next grove of trees and leaned up against the bole of a large shag-bark hickory. It looked as though it had been there since God was a little boy, its branches large and gnarled with time. A vine the size of Nate’s wrist ran down the side of the tree which he took note of, should he need quick access to the lowest branch.

Patiently waiting for an opening, it sat down, eyeing him and following his every move.  Just as Nate lowered the gun to rest his arm, the thing was on its feet and advancing. Quickly, he raised the gun again and the creature retreated again to a safe distance.  He heaved a sigh and started for the next grove of trees.

This game of cat and mouse continued for some distance down the fence row, as he made his way from one stand of trees to the next. At one point a red-tailed hawk screamed high above them, soaring in slow, looping circles as it rode the air currents above the field. When he looked back down, the creature had closed the distance by several paces and was advancing stealthily.

“You sneaky son-of-a-bitch!” He yelled, startled by how quickly it had moved. He brought his left hand up to join his right in its grasp on the gun.  The ugly beast leaped to safety. Unnerved a bit, he continued on, keeping a careful watch on his pursuer. It was when he was almost in reach of his goal that all hell broke loose.

As he had passed the final trees in the fence row and was within fifty yards of the woods another beast, which appeared to be the size of a grizzly, leaped up out of the tall grass to his left and took a swipe at him. He flinched, ducking his head, and the mighty paw passed within inches of his scalp. Uttering a curse, he thrust the muzzle of the gun into the face of the slavering giant and pulled the trigger. Its face erupted like an exploding melon and the beast toppled over backward, twitching like a beheaded rooster, prepared for Sunday dinner.

Nate twisted in time to see the one that had been following him was closing fast. But, worse than this, he saw two more approaching from the other side. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure out he couldn’t split his one remaining cartridge three ways, so he did the only thing he could think of. He ran for his life again.

Heart pounding and feet flying, he raced for the woods and he had a pretty good start on all three of these beasts, but he’d seen how fast they could move. All the same, fear was a marvelous equalizer when it came to a footrace. He was closing fast on the forest, and there was a veritable mother–lode of trees to choose from. An enormous white ash stood out against the backdrop of forest tangle, its branches raw and gleaming in the sun like exposed bones. It was a giant, holding back the verdant green press of the wood with its shoulders and reaching out friendly arms to welcome him.

Snapping a fast glance over his own shoulder, he saw that he was going to make it.  He began to look for a low-hanging branch to carry him to safety.

Suddenly, he saw something that almost made him lose his footing and stop. Loping out of the forest on a collision course with him was another of these pug-ugly bastards.

Jesus wept! he thought. I’ve stepped in it this time… It’s a whole freaking nest of ‘em!

Without breaking stride, however, he aimed the gun dead-center of the newcomer’s broad chest. It was snarling viciously, its tongue trailing along the left side of its mouth, sending little droplets of slobber in its wake. Forcing himself to wait until the last possible minute, Nate squeezed the trigger and was gratified to see the beast go down in a heap, rolling over and over in the dirt.

Leaping high in the air, he tried to vault over the fallen body, aiming to sprint the last few yards to safety.  But, at the last second, as it rolled on the ground, one of its hoary legs flopped up, catching the toe of his boot. To his dismay, he found himself sailing through the air and diving head-first into the hard dry ground at the edge of the forest.

Rolling to his feet and spitting out a mouthful of dirt, he looked to see how much time his spill had cost him.  There wasn’t much doubt now, it was going to take a miracle to come out of this one, for all of the beasts were almost upon him. His old friend from the bean field lead the pack.

He charged into the brush at the treeline’s edge. Looking frantically about, he spied a large branch and made a dive for it. As he hurtled through the air, he heard the closest of these hell-hounds crashing through the undergrowth behind him. A sharp, raking pain in the calf of his leg flared as he wrapped his arms around the tree limb. He bent and peered down into the enraged face of the creature.  It was standing on its hind legs with its claws buried in his leg, and it was pulling.

Frantically, he struggled to hold on, but it felt as though the horrid thing was about to twist his leg from its socket like a child ripping the wings from a fly.  He knew his gun was useless, but he slipped it from its holster anyway, hoping to bluff the creature. In vain he thrust it directly in its ugly, upturned face, but it took no notice, continuing to drag his leg irresistibly toward its snapping jaws.

He then threw the empty gun at the rock-hard skull of the creature, but again it didn’t react or even flinch.  Scrambling he found the camping ax on his belt.  Raising it high above his head with one arm, he clung desperately to the tree with the other. When he brought it down, the blade buried itself between the beast’s evil beady eyes, and great gushing streamers of blood sprayed in every direction. Nate was splattered heavily with it as it ran warm and sticky, into his eyes and he could taste its saltiness in the corners of his mouth.

The creature, who had been snarling and gibbering, exhaled sharply and fell away. Its claws snagged briefly in the fabric of Nate’s jeans, giving him one final tug before the weight of it pulled them free and it thudded to the ground.  With his strength ebbing, he made one last wrenching effort and drew his legs up just as the other creatures reached his tree.

There was no silent vigil for these two. They leaped and snapped their frothing jaws at him, exhibiting no fear whatsoever.

And why should they?  Nate asked himself, as he gaped at them in exhaustion from his perch. I’m unarmed now — no gun, no bullets, not even an ax.

He looked down at the corpse beneath the tree. The handle of the ax protruded from its head, making it look like some grotesque unicorn.  He leaned back carefully against the trunk of the tree, trying to get his breath back. Below him the two monsters went on snarling, snapping and raking their claws through the bark, ripping off huge chunks in the process.

“This was a great idea, Natey Boy.” he chided himself miserably. “Just great.”

 

***

 

 

While Nate waited in his tree-top sanctuary, he dozed, his two keepers having settled down to keep their guard. After snarling and carrying on fiercely for a while, they fell to sniffing about the body of the one he had adorned with his ax, much the same way this beast had carried on with its mate before. Occasionally one or the other would cast a reproachful glare up into the tree and snarl. Eventually, though, they both lay down to rest.

While he slept, Nate dreamed of Zelda. In his dreams, they were laughing and loving in the yard behind the house. Both of them were nude, and he had a garden hose, spraying Zelda as she laughed, gleefully, and tried to fend him off. She looked radiant. As the light from the westering sky fell upon her face, it became a smoothly glowing sun and her hair was its corona, leaping and flashing in a magnificent aura, shining just for him. The water clung to her skin in tiny droplets, beading up on her breasts. Her skin was awash with goose bumps and her nipples stood out tautly proud against the cool air. He reached out and ran the back of his hand across her cheek, feeling its cool, satiny softness, and he longed to wrap her in his arms. He let the hose fall to the ground and stretched out his arms to her, but she was gone.

He looked for her. “Zel, where are you?” he cried. “Help me, Honey, I can’t find you!”

Turning, he saw her sitting in a tree. She had a picnic basket in her hands and a ridiculously quaint checkerboard tablecloth which was spread over a branch. She was wearing a pale yellow sundress with a broad-brimmed hat, decorated with flowers. Her skin, deeply tanned, contrasted nicely with the bright colors of her outfit, and one strap on her dress kept falling down over her shoulder.  She was alluring, as only love could see her.

Then he was in the tree at her side, the bark rough and course against his bare legs. She laughed, coquettishly and leaned against him for a moment. He was as happy as he could ever remember being. He looked at her and said with disbelief, “You’re not dead, I knew that.”

On impulse, he looked down and saw there were dogs — big dogs, they had gorilla faces, and they were staring… staring… and their eyes were hot. He could feel the heat from them.

Zelda laughed at his remark and reached into the basket. It was one of those old-fashioned creels, with a lid on either end, hinged in the middle. She pulled out a small parcel, wrapped in wax paper. He hadn’t seen wax paper since he was a kid… nobody used wax paper anymore. He told her so, but she paid no attention. She was busy unwrapping his food.

Suddenly he was ravenous. His stomach felt cavernously empty, and his mouth watered at the very thought of food. He realized he hadn’t eaten all day, and this was just what he needed.  Taking the appetizer eagerly in his hands, he thanked her and prepared his mouth for a treat.

Just then one of the dogs below shouted “Come down here,  Meat! Come down! We are sick of waiting to rip you to shreds and lick the blood from your bones.”

He looked to see the gorilla dogs, staring up at him and wagging stubby tails. Fierce, dagger-like teeth stretched beyond their thick lips, and a wild, anxious look filled their eyes.

The sandwich in his hands squirmed nastily, like something alive and slimy. Removing the top slice of bread — His mind screamed NOOOOOO!!!… DON’T LOOK AT IT!! — he saw that the sandwich meat was a decaying face. The face had been peeled from a rotting corpse head. It draped over the bread like a grotesque rubber mask for Halloween — a death mask. Flies squirmed darkly in the sockets of its eyes and its stiff black tongue protruded from purplish swollen lips. As he gasped in horror, he could feel the spinal cord, like a piece of cold, wet string, curling across the back of his hand and tickling his bare leg.

Nate screamed in revulsion while Zelda laughed, hysterically. When he looked, he saw that her neck was broken and her head hung crazily at an impossible angle to her body.

“You didn’t REALLY think they’d let me live, did you?” Her mocking voice echoed hollowly, sounding as though it came from a cave somewhere deep underground. The last of her words were garbled as blackened blood flowed from her mouth.  He shrunk away from her on the limb. Out into space, he sailed, his arms scrabbling desperately for a purchase on the tree, as the gorilla-dogs snarled triumphantly: “YES, That’s it! Come on down so we can eat you! Come on down Natey Boy!”

Lurching violently, he was yanked into wakefulness by a strange sense of vertigo. When he opened his eyes he realized that he WAS falling. In his sleep, he had leaned too far and was toppling from his perch to a horrid fate below.

Clumsily, he jammed his hands into the side of the tree, and at the last second, averted disaster. He shook his head savagely, trying to clear away the cobwebs. What a ghastly nightmare that had been! Of course, his waking hours had all been nightmare lately, so what more could he expect?

The voices of those devil-dogs in his dream had been so eerily real he could almost hear them still… “Come down, Meat! Nate, come on down.” Suddenly he snapped completely awake and his skin began to crawl as he realized that he DID still hear them. Someone was talking to him from down there… and the voice was that of his dream. With a shudder of fear and a sense of unspeakable loathing, he lowered his eyes to the ground below.

“We are sick of waiting! Come down, Natey Boy. Come down.”

2018 March & April Bi-Monthly Goals — Derek Barton

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It is that time again to recap my progress on the Bi-Monthly goals I had for January & February and reveal what I want to accomplish this March & April.

For January & February:

** Complete the 2nd wave of edits for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by 3rd Week of Jan  —  This has been completed, but now I have a ton of writing and adding of material to bolster the manuscript.  I have two people helping me do even more in-depth editing and that is nearing the midway point.

** Start 1st wave of edits for Elude #1 — Begin by the 4th week of Jan — Started and worked up to the third scene.  I will continue this project with more intensity once the editing and additional writing have been completed for Bleeding Crown.

** Work of Cover for The Bleeding Crown — Begin by 2nd week of Jan —  This project took up a lot more time than it should have and I used it as an easy excuse to avoid writing…  The additional chapter material I have left for The Bleeding Crown is complex and will take a lot of plotting and organizing (battles, chase scene, etc!).  So far I have 12 different covers worked up but I am not happy with any of them.  I will be putting up the “favs” so far for a vote on my newsletter for this month.  Please let me know what you think!

** Complete Marketing Campaign for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by the 4th week of Jan — Started but not in earnest as I still have more research on proper marketing techniques to accomplish.  I want to advertise but I need to be sure it is the best use of my marketing budget.  If anyone has suggestions — things that have worked well for them, please comment below!

** Complete story subplot and finalize The Bleeding Crown (25,000+ words) — Begin by 2nd Week of Jan — Wrote only 8,000 words of the 25,000 I need.  This goal will definitely be carried forward and will have to be done PRONTO!

** Finalize work on Marketing Campaign for Consequences Within Chaos Audiobook — Begin by 2nd week of Jan  — The audiobook is still being worked on but the project had a setback due to some unforeseen issues.  No worries, as it is coming along and sounds great, however, I pushed this goal to the backburner until the audiobook is closer to being completed.

** Write a separate blog entry outside of goals and The Hidden Saga — Finish by 2nd Week of Feb — Really happy with this accomplishment and the blog itself has been attracting a lot of attention.  If you missed it:  Essential Elements of Book Covers

** Lose 15 pounds by end of February — Lose 2 pounds a week  — UGH.  I seesawed back and forth with a few pounds both months, but overall not much success.  Damn Burger King and its 2 for $6 offer!!  LOL    I am going to change the goal focus next month.  I want to start with baby steps to ensure that I have some weight loss.  In other words, I am going to make a goal as walking a mile a night for the next 60 days which equals to 60 miles.  I know that sounds like a lot, but last year I was in the habit of walking 3 to 4 miles each night.  Then if that works, the next goal set will add some possible weightlifting or dietary goals.  This should kickstart my weight loss, but we shall see!

** Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of the month — Completed by Feb 15th — Done and will continue to carry this goal forward.

** Keep up The Hidden saga on the website every 2 weeks — Finished by 4th Week of Feb — Done and will continue to carry this goal forward.  If you are behind, CATCH UP!  Chapter 8, Chapter 9 & Chapter 10 are available…

So… excluding the Audiobook goal, I completed 6 out of 9 (67%) which isn’t horrible and getting closer to “success” (80%).

Now for the next Bi-Monthly goals:

  • Outline new chapters for subplots and additional material – Finish by 2nd week of March
  • Finish writing new subplots/additional material – Finish by 3rd week of March
  • Complete 3rd Wave of edits & send out to Beta Readers – Finish by end of March
  • Complete 1st Wave of edits for Elude #1 – Finish by end of April
  • Complete the Cover for The Bleeding Crown – Finish by end of March
  • Get feedback from beta-readers – Finish by end of April
  • Complete the 4th wave and final edit for The Bleeding Crown – Finish by end of April
  • Write a separate blog entry outside of goals and The Hidden Saga — Finish by 2nd week for April
  • Walk 1 mile a day (60 miles for the two months) – Complete for both months
  • Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of the month – Complete for both months
  • Keep up The Hidden saga on website every 2 weeks – Complete for both months

Thanks again for everyone’s support and interest in my progress.  I am super thrilled with the storyline for The Bleeding Crown and anxious to hear everyone’s input on it.  And Elude is also an exciting project that I cannot wait to sink my teeth in.

Let me know if you had any suggestions for marketing!  What was your experience with Facebook ads?  Any success with Amazon Ads or did you have a different source for advertising?

 

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