OK. (sigh) So before I actually get to the chapter—one I do rather enjoy—I have to be honest. This fic is kicking my butt, and I'm going to have to put this on a temporary hiatus. (ducks behind sturdy wall) Why am I putting this at the beginning, you ask? You'll see when you get to the end.
I AM SO SORRY.
Chapter note: For once, I get to be historically accurate. (Readers of Dillyn Breeze's fic will recognize what I'm talking about.)
Disclaimer: All of this fic's copyrighted activity lies within the disclaimer's scope.
Never before in my life has three weeks flown by so quickly—I blinked once, and I was off the phone, and then I blink again, and that fated Saturday is tomorrow. At least I know one person who is thrilled about the weekend.
Riley and I are mulling about the small yard of Wes' school; even through the brick walls, the scuffle and hurry of the kids to leave is clearly audible. For a long while, I attempt to conjure up an idea for small talk and fail miserably. What a redundant saying—is there any other way to fail? Show me one person who has failed with a smile on his face.
"So what's this you've been mentioning about another treasure?" Riley asks suddenly, but he's cut off by the oncoming flood of dashing students, Wes among them somewhere. Finally as the throng recedes, his shorter head can be seen bobbing along. "Hey Wes!" he greet enthusiastically. "How was school?"
"Fine," the boy says breathlessly. "We talked about Mount Rushmore in history today, and I tried to talk about Cibola, but Ms. Atherholt thought it was too off-topic, which I don't really get." Neither do I, for that matter.
"Did she now?" Riley says.
"Yeah. She said that a couple days ago when Tara said something about the Templar Treasure. Dunno why."
And speak of the devil; somewhat mechanically moving down the stone steps, Natasha seems to be making a beeline straight for us. Riley, I can tell, is thrilled in a not-so-thrilled way. However, she unexpectedly halts a good four yards away. "Mr. Poole, may I speak with you, please?" Her eyebrows rise, implying the subtle order.
Grudgingly Riley complies, but they remain within earshot, at least for me; Wes thankfully is distracted by something or other. "What?"
No answer is immediately supplied. "I figured you out." Pausing, she cracks a fleeting smirk. "You're Riley McLaughlin. I can't believe I didn't make the connection before."
Her sickly-sweet, overly-sincere tone sends Riley's irked frown spiraling into a near scowl, and I too find myself with a twinge of irritation. "Congratulations," he mutters.
Then, steely cold, she adds, "I don't believe a word about that whole conspiracy." Slowly her eyes fall into a glare, trying to see past the dye and surface façade he still insists on constructing, though part of its infrastructure is wobbling. For a moment, I half-expect him to punch her smack in the nose before my reason reprimands my imagination for thinking too out-of-character.
"You know what?" he says, imitating her fake cheer. "Go to hell." He even cracks a smile.
Beside me, having suddenly decided to pay attention, Wes tugs on my pants leg. "Where's that?" I simply shake my head.
Still with her glare, Natasha leans in close and retorts, "I'll see you there." Then she turns on her heel to return to the school. Well that was interesting.
On the way back to rejoin us, Riley is able to shake all his frustration—I can almost spot its visible tendrils cutting loose as he stretches his arms to relax. "Well then," he sighs. "Back to what I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted—"
"By Ms. Atherholt?" Wes asks, Riley nodding. "She's cray-cray."
"Oh," he says, shooting me a confused face. That's certainly a new but of slang. "So Ben, what's this about a treasure?" Like a Christmas display, Wes' face lights up with wonder so great that all he does is stare up with his mouth formed in a large "o." "What's at stake this time?" he jokes.
But I don't laugh—because serious concerns should not be the subject of jokes at all. What's at stake? Hell, it could be nothing, but that's about as likely as Abigail ever coming back. "Nothing," I lie with a hint of a smile, a rare commodity these past few weeks. "Just something to get us out of the house…"
"Walk and talk," he says, bending down so Wes can climb on his back. "Is it anything I've heard of before?" We've stopped momentarily by the clunky gate, each of us offering a hand to heave it open, the squeaky thing.
"Doubt it," I gasp as we move onto the sidewalk, "unless the name Thomas Jefferson Beale means anything to you." Honestly, this coincidental find is like a treasure in itself. Could it be any more convenient that there's lore of treasure around Bedford and the Peaks of Otter?
"Nope." He pauses. "But he's got that founding fathers thing going on with his first and middle names, like your family."
Must have been a trend back then, but whatever. "In 1817, Beale and a group of thirty men went west to hunt buffalo and grizzly bears, but along the way they discovered gold in what is suspected to be New Mexico, Arizona, and south-central Colorado. They returned in 1819 and went back once more in 1821 to continue their mining. Of course, they needed a place to put it all, so Beale and his men dug a six-foot hole in sight of"—here I draw a deep breath, prepping for his inevitable reaction—"the Peaks of Otter."
Like I guessed, and involuntary grimace flashes across his face, vanishing before anyone else can detect it. "So this one's nearby? Fun…"
"What's fun?" Wes asks, craning his neck from his position on Riley's back.
"Nothing, Wes," Riley sighs, and Wes then seems disappointed. "Continue; I assume there's more?"
I nod. "To protect the vault's location, Beale composed three codes: the first to tell its location, the second to tell its contents, and the third to name the original thirty men involved. These were left with Robert Morris who ran the Washington Hotel in Lynchburg, a larger city nearby. Two months passed, and Beale contacted Morris to say that those codes are meaningless without the key—"
"Shouldn't that have been obvious?" he interrupts.
"I don't know," I shrug. "Beale also said that if the thirty men hadn't returned by 1832, then he would give the instructions to a friend to mail. No letter ever found its way to Lynchburg, and Morris forgot about the codes until 1845. They proved too difficult for him to crack, but his family friend James Ward later found that the second code is solved using—get this—the Declaration of Independence."
"Typical," he chuckles, and once more we fall silent, his musings slowly inching along his face. Already after only hearing the lore and legend, the gears are whirring, steam hissing, and electricity of thought sparking a true grin, not one of appearances. But it's all a lie: his moments of happiness are built on a lie, deception.
I could tell him that hundreds are currently scouring Bedford for the treasure and have wasted their life savings in the process. I could tell him that not even the most skilled cryptologists have been able to solve the last two codes. I could tell him that a prominent theory in the matter is that the whole thing is a hoax and that Beale's ghost is laughing at us. I could tell him why I'm actually interested in traveling down there. I could tell him what I'm really up to.
But I don't, and he the act of keeping it down is burning. Lie accomplished—where's a trashcan…I can feel my lunch crawling up my throat.
"Are we going on a treasure hunt?" Wes exclaims enthusiastically. "We should go do stuff this weekend. Monday's a holiday!"
How much easier could this get? Now even Wes is doing the grunt work of suggesting. If only this plan would fall apart…
"What is it," Riley thinks aloud, "like a four hour drive down there?" I nod. "That's a pretty plausible long weekend. You up for it, or would you rather wait for some other time?"
The second, please, anything but do this to you! "Sounds like a plan."
I'm waiting for it to blink. From inside the protective spherical casing, the pupil-like lens stares coldly from its base of the rock face. Like before, the device brings to mind Star Wars, only that thought disappears in the muck of images to follow: the mud and beads among our feet, the eerie foliage in the moonlight, Carl Newman's body sprawled near where I stand now. And again I wonder why the Peaks of Otter have no otters.
Such cute, furry creatures were probably driven away by the monstrosity that has granted me entry.
As I was expecting, someone new (and clearly older) sits at the front-guard desk, obviously bored. He surveys me with a sigh. "Benjamin Gates?"
"Yes, sir." With a glance up at the ceiling, I note how the grill to the air ducts has been fastened with a plentitude of extra security measures.
"All right," he sighs, handing me a badge. "You are to go straight down there; someone will show you." And then at the last second he adds, "Please don't break anybody out this time. I like this job."
Like I'd want Ingram out of prison. At any rate, I give him the warmest smile I can muster and shuffle, sloth-like, to the designated room. How can history repeat itself so exactly? Even the terrifying, looming guard is here, and he glares down at me so fiercely that I'm surprised I haven't turned to mush.
"I'm watchin' you," he says simply, opening the door.
"I don't doubt it," I murmur as I enter. The door slams behind me, and in the window I can catch his squinting eyes plastered on my every move. How comforting. At least if Ingram tries anything, I'll know I have—
"Ah, hello." Tearing away from the other guard, I turn to find the man sitting at one of the booths, clad in orange just as Ian—Charlie, whatever—was. He seems a little too jovial to have been imprisoned for so long. "I wasn't sure if you'd come."
"Ingram," I mutter stiffly as I take my seat. Over the years, he hasn't changed: toothy grin, large chest, scheming eyes, his balding head so sparse that the short stubble's hue is barely discernable. And it's only now that I'm face-to-face with him once more that I serious puff of hate has ever been aroused in my gut. This should have been over long ago—he lost, we won, the end. What else is there?
"Curious…how'd you lose Riley?" Tilting his head and smirking, Ingram stares out of the corner of his eyes with an implied sneer. At my silence he adds, "Ah, Ben, Ben…may I call you Ben?"
"Well, Ben, incompliance will not be tolerated." How can he do anything about it when he's under closer surveillance than Fort Knox? "Satiate an old prisoner's curiosity. What did you have to tell him?"
Despite my picketing, outcrying reasoning, my mouth mumbles, "Local treasure legend…he's in Lynchburg researching some things…" By now he's probably abandoned the venture to take Wes to that children's museum we passed. But after all Ingram has done, the name Wes Poole is never going to register in his brain.
"I always knew you were the intelligent one," he says. "Now. Down to business. You're wondering why you're here, and most likely here against your better judgment. Is that correct?" When no response is given, he keeps on anyway. "Even if that's so, that particular enlightenment will have to be pushed to the end of our agenda because there are some things that require clarification."
"What do you want, Ingram?" The bomb of anger that was supposed to detonate landed instead beneath the sea of everything, the one of guilt and doubt, and muffled the explosion to an exasperated grumble.
"It's…" he sighs. "Not anything that I want." Does he think he's adding to the drama of the moment by pausing like this? "You should want it, or at least want to know about it since you left this certain something…and someone I might add…back in the lovely paradise of French Guiana."
Slowly I try to make sense of the blipping scenes obscuring the edges of my vision—thick vines, crowds of soldiers, Ian crumpling, flying knapsacks, insurrection, fear, death, confusion—"Wh-what are you talking about?"
"You don't remember? But you guys went through so much pain trying to retrieve it; what a shameful dishonor to that poor girl's memory…"
Briefly my mind flashes to Abigail, but before her picture can be fully focused, another presents itself, the right one: Caroline. And orange…Ingram's wearing orange…she used to juggle oranges as an anger management strategy before we went to Thailand—
Words, pictures, functioning cease. All I process is a blank canvas of shock, the buzz of static whirring futilely in the background to drown out the inevitable. I'm barely aware of my fingers running roughly across my forehead.
"The orb," I splutter. "We never got the orb back—"
Only a raise of his eyebrows is enough to silence me, and one lone corner of his mouth perks up the slightest bit. "Such a shame that you forgot it…but it's in good hands…which brings me to my second point, here."
My God, if he's saying that it's safe, then all hope is lost. That demonic yellow sphere has too many untapped, unknown properties to reckon with, and now Caroline's death was in vain. They got it even when we tried and I failed to keep it away. Once Riley finds out—if he does—he'll kill me, and brutally.
"You recall when I was arrested, don't you? In late 2008?" he says.
"How can I forget?" Despite my efforts, a smirk slips past the barricade.
"Hilarious. Did you happen to realize that I was the only one caught when I most definitely was not the only one involved? All my subordinates—Rôcher, Vernay, Baker, all of them—walk free, and some are even with the Bureau still, with our dear old pal Peter. Scattered, most of them are…undevoted."
He waits for me to pale but somehow his last words force the panic to ebb. "What's your point?"
"There's one more."
"The news won't be very comforting in your current predicament; however, that problem is not mine to fuss over."
Of course. When was I expecting to have things become any easier?
He slowly leans in toward the glass, thin as it is, dividing us, and twitches a sneer. "Chester Burr lives."
Suddenly the back of my skull sears with pain, as does my knee, and once my vision clears I note how my leg is twisted oddly around my chair and how I am staring up at the fluorescent lighting. "Gah…"
"I'm not sure I caught that, Ben. Would you like to demonstrate again?" Ingram chuckles, leaning as far over the counter as he can to see me sprawled across the carpet. So I had a panic attack—it's not funny. Nothing about this is funny.
"I…" I say as I resituate myself back in the seat. "I saw him die in Guiana; the soldiers attacked him, he wasn't moving—"
"That's because he was badly injured, but he certainly was not dead," he spits. "Burr alone has remained faultlessly loyal to the cause and continues to do my bidding." Glaring, he pauses. "That should scare you."
Without realizing it, my grip on the counter closes even more tightly. "It does." I'm not even looking at him any longer. But what can he expect when he's just relayed that our own personal boogeyman is still lurking in the shadows and eaves of our lives? And we had been thinking all was well.
"Now for my favor…" he sighs contentedly.
"Excuse me?" He can't be serious.
"Ah, ah, ah, Ben. You don't want to come home to another dead friend, do you?"
And my resolve had been so controlled until now, now when moisture is welling up and my fists are clenching themselves sore. It's so unnecessary to bring that up, even if he does know, which he shouldn't. "Shut up!"
"I know how you must be feeling—"
"Don't pull the empathy card on me," I spit, feeling my face redden. "Just tell me what you want to tell me and let me get on my damn way!"
Like he has a migraine, he rubs the corners of his eyes in slow circular motions—perhaps if it's not an actual headache, the process of sifting through his thoughts is enough to induce pain.
Good. He deserves it.
"All right, then, Ben," Ingram begins. "Burr is great and all, but he, as well as I, can only do so much by ourselves. That's where you come in." Hold on now—"Upon your return to your vehicle, you will find an envelope with the names and addresses of all my former agents, plus further instructions. You'll be informing them that the operation is still a go."
"Operation…?" Before my eyes flash more snapshots of the bleak halls of Area 51, the surrounding desert, and French Guiana. This doesn't make any sense. "That operation ended when you were exposed, in case you forgot."
And he actually laughs at me. "The unpaid World War I debts? Money…heh…it's just a big green cover for any idea like this. The central argument may consist of numbers and dollar signs, but there's always something more. It's never about the money—shouldn't you know that, of all people?"
So we're been seriously deluded about the conspiracy even still? Holy…this is derailing my senses so I can't think straight. "So then…I don't…?"
"You're not meant to understand," Ingram sighs with an air of impatience. "That's the point. And you're going to help."
Greetings to the arrow of dread. "What if I don't?"
We commence to staring at each other, and his eyes steel over with a dark chill that shines from the depths of his pupils. "Wouldn't it be awful to be alone in the world?" When I don't immediately reply, he continues, "Riley will never know the difference, unless you refuse." Now he decides to wait.
My hands start to shake, but to combat it, I inhale deeply and weigh my options like Sadusky taught me so long ago…door number one: I could refuse to be Ingram's accomplice and feel great about myself until they kill him. And door number two: I could agree, save Riley's life, but…
But I could be destroying everything that's making these lives stand tall—trust, reliance, the lines of bondage tied between us. Never before in my history of decisions have the options been so awful.
What's the lesser of two evils, death or betrayal?
"I'm waiting," he sings tauntingly, and I finally face him. Where did this turn so wrong?
Yeah, it's a cliffhanger. Would you really have wanted me to say, "Oh by the way, hiatus!" right now? Eh… Anyway, considering the story's supposed to continue, you can probably guess which option Ben chooses…
I believe my writer's block stems from the fact that I've dealt solely with these characters for over a year and I just need a break. You'll definitely see some random oneshots pop up, one per random fandom. And once NT calls me back, I'll go. And it will—Riley's a jealous little boy with a very long lasso.
Please review. (sigh)