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The crossbones, p.5
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       The Crossbones, p.5

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Now if only that good luck could make its way to Springfield, Missouri.

  I have no doubt that Sarah needs it.

  By the time I finally called Sarah she was sitting in her car across the street from the school. She’d been waiting a while and was impatient, so our conversation was brief. A minute after I reached her, Sarah was wandering on the grounds searching the bottom of every lamppost she could find. Some of them were new, because the school had been added on to, but there was an entire wing that still had the old facade and a few statues of patriarchs that Sarah said “looked real, like they were planning to climb off their pedestals and drag me down the street.”

  She found a row of lampposts that looked like they could have been placed there quite a while ago, and then she was feeding me information that felt right.

  “Okay, there’s a bunch of these, like eight or so, and they have big bases on them. It’s like they’re tall and skinny, but wide at the bottom. They’re not numbered, but they’re in a row. That’s good, right?”

  I told her to count from one end of the row until she got to the third one, then see if there was some sort of latch or metal door at the base.

  “Dang it,” she said, louder than I thought was a good idea.

  There was a small metal door, probably for getting access to the wiring, but it required one of those Allen wrenches to get in. Sarah cursed herself for not bringing tools, then ran across the school grounds to her car, where she kept a toolbox in the trunk.

  After what seemed like an hour, she returned to the lamppost, fumbled around with a bunch of different sizes, and found the right one. When she finally got it open, she put her hand inside and felt around.

  “It feels like I might get electrocuted in there,” she told me. “Can you say Frankenstein?”

  I had a terrible urge to tell her the electrocution bit is only in the movie, not in the book, but this was probably not the right time to go all literary on my best friend. I controlled my urge to talk about Mary Shelley and stuck to the business at hand, which was getting Sarah out of harm’s way as fast as I could.

  “Just be careful — it’s not going to hurt you.”

  “Easy for you to say. You’re at home with the doors locked and I’m searching the grounds of a haunted school.”

  “Point taken. Try reaching up into the space where no one would ever think to find something.”

  I could hear her doing her best, imagined her arm in there up to her elbow as she tried to find a hidden key. What if she really did get electrocuted? What if there were loose wires in there and she fried her whole dang arm off?

  “Got it!” she yelled. Whew.

  I yelled “Nice!” a little too loud and my mom woke up. I could tell, because she shouted “You okay, Ryan?” down the hall.

  I didn’t answer. My mom is a heavy sleeper, and she hates to get out of bed at night. Once she’s up, she’s up for like an hour. I could imagine her staring at the ceiling, hoping she’d only thought she’d heard me yell, hoping she could stay where she was. Sarah was yammering in my ear but I stayed perfectly still and quiet. What if my mom was sneaking down the hall, standing at my door? I watched for a shadow under the door for a full minute, then breathed a sigh of relief. She had to be asleep again.

  Sarah had found a small metal box, held inside on a hook, up where no one would ever have a reason to look.

  This was getting good.

  I whispered to her, “Mom’s on alert, gotta stay low. Listen, those statues of people, how many are there?”

  “I was thinking the same thing, and you’re right — there are four.”

  “Then you know what to do.”

  Remove the Key in Lamp marked 3. Go to 4 and open the door….

  I heard Sarah running, her breath heavier than it needed to be. She was starting to get scared or nervous, I could tell. I talked her down, tried to make her feel better, but she was starting to feel the pressure.

  “I don’t like it out here, Ryan. Something doesn’t feel right.”

  “Just stay calm. You can do it. There must be some sort of small door with a key entry somewhere at the base.”

  She told me there was, but that her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t get the key in. Also, the keyhole was totally blocked with crusted old chewing gum.

  “Use the smallest Allen wrench you’ve got and clean it out.”

  This was a good tip, because a ring of Allen wrenches has sizes that are like metal toothpicks, perfect for clearing away old gum.

  “Someone’s here. I can feel it. I’m turning my camera on.”

  I tried to tell her no, just stay focused on the keyhole, but she wouldn’t listen.

  Everything went quiet. I called her name, but there was nothing. Even her breathing had stopped.

  Then the phone went dead.

  I tried calling back twice, but it went straight to voice mail. I paced in my room. Was she seeing things? Was there really someone out there? What was going on?

  My phone buzzed with a text message.

  He’s here.

  I typed back as fast as my fingers would fly.

  Who? Get out of there!

  Her reply was the last thing I wanted to see. Ever.

  Old Joe Bush. He’s here.

  This was as close as I’ve ever come to screaming in my room. Actually, I did scream, but I got my pillow first and held it against my face.

  A few seconds later, my phone rang, and Sarah was back.

  “Tell me you were messing with me. Please, Sarah, tell me you were kidding.”

  “I’m back in my car. I’m safe, but I wasn’t kidding. He was there, Ryan. He was right there, standing in the shadows.”

  “It could have been anyone.” I said these words more out of hope than reality. I knew Old Joe Bush was still out there. I’d seen him myself.

  “My camera was on, so I’ll show you. Right now, I’m getting out of here. This is crazy, Ryan. Like really crazy.”

  And then she started laughing. She was thrilled and scared to death all at once. Sarah Fincher loved this kind of ride, where the stakes were high and the shocks were off the charts. But even this one got to her more than usual. She was laughing, but it was a hair shy of turning into crying. I knew her well enough to know that much.

  Someone was watching us. Someone knew. And that someone was out there with my friend, keeping an eye on what was his.

  “I got it. I got what we were supposed to find.”

  Those were the last words Sarah said before stepping into the hotel lobby.

  Sarah was calm when she called back fifteen minutes later. She was in her hotel room, and I could tell she’d hit the wall. She was safely tucked away in a locked room. We both felt better.

  She’d gotten the small metal door open and had found another small reel of film, which meant the Apostle was about to start talking again.

  And there was something else.

  Sarah’s parents were more upset than she’d expected, and they wanted to know exactly where she was and why she’d drifted off course.

  “Not a great phone call earlier tonight,” she told me. “I thought they were going to make me turn around and head back home.”

  She’d called them at around 9:00 to tell them she’d made a mistake in St. Louis and was headed toward Springfield instead of Little Rock, but hadn’t realized it until she found herself four hours off course.

  “The part that stung the most was them thinking I was actually that dumb,” she went on. “I mean, seriously, do they really think I’d drive four hours in the wrong direction without doing it on purpose?”

  They weren’t “onto us,” as I’d been so worried about. No, they were something far worse in Sarah’s book: They were worried their daughter was an idiot. I tried to convince her that having her parents think she’s dumb is actually kind of useful in this particular situation.

  “You can make as many mistakes as you want. They’ll just think you have a bad sense of direction.”
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  “Ryan, you don’t get it,” she corrected me. “This was the only slipup they’re going to allow. They got me a hotel room here, but only after grilling the front desk lady like she was a convicted felon. So embarrassing. If this happens again they’re pulling the plug. My dad said so.”

  Not good. Not good at all, since there were at least a couple more times on this journey where showing up on time would require a small miracle.

  She was road weary. Too much junk food, too many headlights in the face, and not nearly enough sleep had pushed Sarah to the brink.

  Now I’m exhausted, too. It’s time to get some sleep.

  If I can.

  Sarah was up very early. I can tell because she posted another video before hitting the road for Little Rock.

  This thing is scary in so many ways.

  There’s her troubling documentary about the words 311 door goes SLAM and you’re dead! I never liked that phrase to begin with, but now I don’t want to hear it again for as long as I live.

  Then there’s a new message from the Apostle, which is stranger than the first.

  But the most terrible part, by a mile, was what her camera caught while she was at the school. I had no idea what she’d seen. She hadn’t told me. Nope, not good old Sarah — she had wanted to show me so I could be just as scared as she was.

  This video changed everything, and I don’t recommend continuing with this journal until you see it.

  The stakes just got a lot higher.

  sarahfincher.com

  password:

  slam

  I understand why she didn’t tell me. I think she was in shock, but also I think she thought seriously about turning for home. She says she’s on her way to Little Rock, that she’ll take a break when she gets there and decide if she wants to keep going. She’ll be there by early afternoon, get some real rest — and then what? Turn for Boston or Austin, Texas? Home is safe. Austin is the Driskill, the most haunted hotel in America. I’d encourage her to quit and go home or just drive straight through to UCLA and forget about the Apostle and everything else.

  But I know she won’t listen to me.

  Neither one of us can turn back now.

  We’re in too deep.

  I’m not going to take the time to recap the documentary footage about the school — that’s going to stay in video form only. But I will lay out the new information we have about the Crossbones and the message the ghost of Old Joe Bush sent.

  First Joe, then the Crossbones.

  I’ve heard of these things that are like benevolent spirits, ghosts who are there to protect or warn us, not to bring us harm. If I believe in ghosts at all, I sure want to believe in that kind. Here’s what it said: I’m not here to harm you. Quite the opposite. Keep going, but tell no one. It would only anger him more. You’ve awakened the Raven.

  Okay, first off, who the heck is the Raven? I know the poem, and Sarah has used it as a password, but apparently the Raven is also a person or a being of sorts who’s angry at us. Just what we need — a giant black bird gunning for us. What if it’s bigger than me? I don’t even want to think about the beak on a raven that big.

  The most interesting thing about that footage, though? Old Joe Bush might be on our side. I’ve had some experience with this sort of thing, and it adds up. Henry pretended to be the ghost of Old Joe Bush, but that doesn’t mean the ghost never existed to begin with. Whether this thing has taken over Henry or Henry isn’t even in the picture and this ghost is real, the same thing is true: The real Joe Bush was a good guy. He was all about protecting the town from the very beginning.

  I think he’s trying to protect me and Sarah now.

  But protect us from what?

  The Raven — whatever or whoever that is.

  Section two of the four sections of the puzzle showed itself in the video, just as the first one had. The word is GROUND. Put it together with the first word, UNDER, and it makes another word: under — ground. Underground.

  It does not have a nice ring to it.

  The last place I want to be when this thing goes down is underground.

  As to the Crossbones, it gets weirder by turns, and so does the Apostle. It’s clear to me now that the Apostle was near the top of the Crossbones hierarchy and took it upon himself to document what he knew. Also, he was disgruntled. These clues he’s left are some sort of insurance against the Crossbones, a way of saying, Hey, treat me with some respect or I’ll tell everyone what you’ve done. My finger is on the trigger, so don’t mess with me.

  The Apostle video also connects the Crossbones to Thomas Jefferson, whom they distrusted. They wanted to destroy the former president, trying on three occasions: setting his house on fire, driving him into bankruptcy, and — the third item is only hinted at, but it sounds like it has something to do with taking Jefferson’s assets. And finally, the Apostle has opened the door to the dredge and why it mattered. The New York Gold and Silver Company was a Crossbones invention. All that gold, including the riches dug out of Skeleton Creek, was Crossbones gold.

  I think the Apostle wanted more than they were willing to give him. He got greedy.

  Unfortunately for him, he might have been a little too loud for his own good.

  He ended up floating facedown in the river, and who took credit for that little “accident”?

  Henry.

  Little doubt remains: Henry and the Apostle were big-time members of the Crossbones. They were enemies in the end.

  If there were three at the top of this shadowy organization, I’d have to guess the third person was the Raven.

  The big question this raises for me right now:

  How is my dad involved?

  A bad thought has entered and I can’t stop rolling it over in my head.

  What if my dad is the Raven?

  Me and Fitz went down the street for a burger and fries at the café and talked about fishing, fishing, and more fishing. Why the hatch was off so severely we didn’t even go out today. What makes a good fly and a bad fly (the person making them, obviously), biggest fish ever, most fish in a day, an hour, and a minute (three in one minute, although I think he’s lying). Fitz could talk about the arcane business of hooking a trout like my mom could talk about Bon Jovi.

  I mention this because my mom is a product of the 1980s and she will not stop listening to music from her “era.” Journey is a particular favorite. Also Asia, Def Leppard, REO Speedwagon, and Styx. But Bon Jovi is the king of ‘80s rock and roll in my mom’s view, the perfect antidote after a long day at work. I’ve heard this one song, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” at least five million times.

  My mom has two friends from college who live in Seattle and the three of them are going to a Bon Jovi concert next Tuesday night. It’s all my mom has talked about for days, and I mentioned this fact to Fitz, which produced a good result:

  “That dude is like a hundred years old, right? He must have sold his soul to the devil.” “All I know is she’ll be gone Monday to Wednesday and I’m looking forward to it. Me and dad eat out, watch TV, and fish until midnight. It’ll be sweet.”

  “Sounds like heaven. Say you’ll invite me.”

  “It’ll cost you four dozen flies with my name on ’em. But you can’t make them perfect, they have to be almost perfect. Otherwise my dad will know you did it for me.”

  “Deal.”

  It was nice to know I could cash in on forty-eight Fitz-tied flies whenever I wanted. It represented hours of work, and it was time I wanted access to in case I got left in the fly shop alone anytime soon. I thought about that and changed tactics.

  “This is an up-front payment deal, Fitz,” I concluded. “I’m going to need those flies by tomorrow morning, just to be safe. Never know when I might need them.”

  “The only problem I see is making them imperfect. That’s gonna really test my skills.”

  I like Fitz. He’s into the same things I am and he’s funny. I have a feeling the next football season was going to be a hoot with th
is guy during the long ride on the bench.

  It’s not the same as having Sarah around, but it’s something.

  After the lunch break, my dad and I hit the river for a few hours to see if things had improved and found that they had. We weren’t guiding anyone, but the fish were slamming dry flies on the surface of the water again, so things were looking up. Chances were pretty good the weekend would produce some serious fishermen heading in from Boise or even Portland.

  Fitz tied all the flies he owed me while we were gone, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. He showed the results when my dad wasn’t looking and I had a hard time finding the imperfections.

  “Trust me, Ryan — these aren’t perfect. I’d lose all respect for myself if I gave these to your dad.”

  “Did I mention we caught more fish than you could shake a stick at?”

  “You did, and you’re a loser.”

  Me and Fitz had great shop banter. It was really enjoyable. I had forty-eight flies in my backpack, a friendly doofus for a shop mate, and a successful day of fishing under my belt. I could only hope that Sarah had enjoyed her day in Little Rock as much as I’d enjoyed mine in Skeleton Creek.

  For dinner I went home and talked to my mom, who was blaring Bon Jovi all the way out into the street. No amount of barbecue is worth this torture, and I told her as much while she flipped burgers.

  “No one else in town wants Joe Bonjy blaring down the street through the screen door.”

  I had long since stopped calling this guy by his real name and my mom hated it.

  “Bon Jovi is a legend. One day you’ll realize that and thank me for introducing you to some real music.”

  Fat chance, Mom. Can I please just get my cheeseburger? And for the sake of teenagers everywhere, please stop dancing on the porch.

  I watched in horror as my mom raised the spatula like a drumstick and started wailing on the grill, then I returned to drawing in my journal. I’d only encouraged her bad behavior. Best to stay quiet until my dad came home and made her shut down the concert.

 
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