Jonathan trudged along the drive to the office of
the White Haven Motel, struggling to compose the message he had to give Dr.
Moorhouse when he called the Institute to explain his unexpected delay in
Exeter. "Yes, I am aware that I said that I would be back on Wednesday, and
that Exeter is not exactly on the direct route back from Madison University. No
one is more sorry than I am that I decided to take the scenic route back to
Georgetown. You'll never believe what happened," he continued, wishing
desperately that the truth would sound more believable. "The brakes on my
car went out just as I pulled into the main intersection here in town. I'm fine,
but the chicken died."
He shook his head, moaning, "She'll never believe it. Even Benedek wouldn't accept a story like that."
"A story like what?"
Startled, MacKensie glanced up, and flushed with embarrassment as he met the amused eyes of a sparely-built, older woman, standing in the doorway. "I'm sorry, it's a long story."
"Sounds like it must be. You MacKensie?"
"Yes, I am." Jonathan dropped his overnight bag, flexing his stiff hand before taking hers. "But how did you...?"
"Nothing psychic about it, son. Mel called from the garage to tell me you were on your way. I'm Kate Manning proprietor of this grand establishment."
"Jonathan MacKensie, but then you knew that already. You do have a room available?" he asked, returning her smile with one of his own, his mood inexplicably taking a turn for the better.
"Certainly do. I've only got one other guest right at the moment. Exeter's sort of off the beaten track since they built the new interstate." Kate reached back into her office, grabbed a key and led Jonathan toward one of the units, snagging his overnight bag as she swept past. "He swears he's going to change all that, though put the town on the map on account of the UFOs."
"UFOs?" Jonathan got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Can't I go anywhere without the paranormal haunting me?
Kate unlocked the door and opened it with a flourish before facing Jonathan, a stern gleam in her eyes. "You may scoff if you like, son, but what we've seen hereabouts is nothing natural to this planet."
Realizing he'd offended his hostess, albeit unintentionally, by allowing his dismay to reveal itself in his voice, Jonathan attempted an apology. "I didn't mean to imply anything at all, Mrs. Manning. I just, well...trust me, it's a long story, but I didn't mean to give offense."
Kate locked eyes with him briefly, and Jonathan felt oddly uncomfortable, as if she could see right through to the core of his being. "No, I don't imagine you did. You don't seem the type. Guess I'm a mite touchy on the subject. Until Mr. Benedek came to town, most people preferred to think I was a bit cracked on the subject of UFOs."
"Benedek?" asked Jonathan raising his eyebrow skeptically. UFOs and Benedek in the same out-of-the-way town in which he'd just been stranded? Wasn't that stretching coincidence a bit far?
"That's the name. You know who I mean the writer?" Jonathan nodded, the sinking feeling intensifying. Again Kate seemed to be studying him. "Wait a minute. MacKensie you're not the MacKensie that works with him?"
"You might put it that way," admitted Jonathan in a tone that said he wished she wouldn't. "Is Mr. Benedek in at the moment?"
"Sure is. Unit Ten."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Manning. Do you want me to sign in or anything?" Jonathan still struggling with his queasy stomach. He had no problem accepting Benedek up to his neck in UFOs and nice old ladies. After all, investigating the paranormal was the way the man made his bread and butter. But the odds against their meeting by chance here in Exeter had to be astronomical at the very least.
Kate shook her head in response, saying, "I know you're here, that's good enough. I've never been stiffed yet." An odd look at the back of her eyes made Jonathan a believer. "If you want anything to eat, the dining room's open till seven." Kate nodded pleasantly and left.
Jonathan dumped his briefcase next to the overnight bag Kate had left on the bed, and, after a moment of reflection, picked up the phone, dialing G.I.'s number automatically. After a momentary delay at the Institute switchboard, he was passed on to the Anthropology Department. "Liz, it's Jonathan. I need to speak to Dr. Moorhouse." He breathed a sigh of relief which vanished when a quick glance at his watch warned him it was his own Anthro 101 course that was delaying her. Knowing his message would not further endear him to his busy chairperson, he asked, "Would you give her a message for me? Thanks."
He kept the message succinct, just enough to mollify Dr. Moorhouse for the present. Liz made no comment, enabling him to hang up, breathing a long sigh of relief. However, he suspected he would be in deep trouble on the home front if the UFOs turned out to be nothing but figments of Benedek's overworked imagination.
That troubling thought galvanized Jonathan into action. After locking his unit behind him, he marched the length of the motel until he found #10. No time like the present, he sighed. Rapping sharply on the door, Jonathan waited impatiently for it to open. When it did, he stared at the man before him. "What exactly is going on here?" he demanded.
"Are there any messages, Liz?" Dr.
Moorhouse paused by her secretary's desk as she returned from covering
Anthropology 101 for Professor MacKensie. Thank goodness he was due back soon
from the Madison seminar. Those eager coeds were beginning to get on her nerves.
"Yes, Dr. Moorhouse." The blonde woman pulled a sheaf of pink slips from a folder. "One from the Dean requesting a meeting as soon as possible. It seems the paranormal research section went over budget again."
"That Benedek and his expense reports. He'll sabotage us yet," muttered Moorhouse. "Who else?"
"Dr. Richards from NYU called to confirm his appointment for tomorrow." Liz continued to shuffle through the papers, "Oh yes, Jonathan called. He's been delayed..."
"Let me see that." This isn't like MacKensie. The seminar ended yesterday, and he knows I can't cover his classes indefinitely. She read the note quickly. "Delayed in Exeter to investigate UFO sightings. Will explain more later."
Dr. Moorhouse frowned in surprise. Jonathan MacKensie chasing flying saucers on his own? The same MacKensie who fights me tooth and nail over each assignment I give the Paranormal Research Unit? Benedek must be responsible for this sudden volunteerism. Her lips tightened at the thought of that yellow journalist infringing on her authority. Yet, if her reluctant colleague were changing his attitude, even if through Benedek's influence, the work of the Unit certainly had to be positively affected. A half-smile lightened her stern features at that pleasant thought.
"See if Wilder can cover MacKensie's classes for the rest of the week, Liz." Dr. Moorhouse retrieved her books and continued on into her office.
"Oh, Dr. Moorhouse," began Liz, remembering what else she'd planned to tell her boss, but her words trailed away to nothing as the door swung closed.
Dr. Moorhouse stared at the apparition lounging at her desk, her smile vanishing. "Benedek?"
"The one and only. Good to see you, Dr. M. I know you've got a busy schedule, so I won't keep you. Just wanted to check on Jonny's ETA. Wait'll you hear about this haunted house up in..."
"What are you doing here?" demanded Dr. Moorhouse sharply.
Puzzled by the woman's reaction, Benny eased to his feet and said warily, "Like I said, I'm looking for Jonathan. Jonathan MacKensie? Remember kinda tall, nervous type wears glasses, works for you?" When the woman failed to rise to his bait, he changed tactics. "Is there something you want to tell me, Dr. Moorhouse? Nothing's happened to Jonathan, has it?"
Breaking her stunned silence at last, Dr. Moorhouse muttered darkly, "Not until I get my hands on him. He said he's investigating UFO's."
"You're kidding, right?" The incredulous look on the writer's face would have been laughable under other circumstances, but now, it gave her cause for growing alarm. MacKensie investigating the paranormal without my instigation I can accept, but without Benedek's?
"Does this look like I'm kidding?" She handed him the note.
After scanning the brief note, Benedek looked up. "I don't know what to say." He shook his head, totally bewildered. "Unless Smilin' Jack's found himself a lady friend..."
"If that should be the reason for this inexcusable behavior, MacKensie's tenure at Georgetown is at an end," replied Dr. Moorhouse frostily, that thought never having crossed her mind. Certainly Jonathan had a reputation with the ladies, but he'd always put his work and his responsibilities first.
Realizing he'd done his friend no favor, Benedek hastily volunteered, "Look, I've got a little free time tomorrow morning. What say I head up to, what is it, oh, yeah, Exeter and check things out. Bring the Prodigal son back home, as they say. You can kill the fatted calf..."
"More likely kill MacKensie," she replied, standing by her chair until Benny took the hint and moved away from her desk.
"Whatever makes your day," he replied with a jaunty two-fingered salute. "Beam me down, Scotty the game's afoot." He ducked out the door before she could respond to his hideously mixed metaphor.
After the three hour drive from Georgetown, the
first hour in heavy traffic, Benedek was less than pleased to learn that his
quarry had gone out in the company of a Mr. Benedek. "Did he give you
any idea when they'd be back?" he asked, trying to control his annoyance.
"No, he didn't." Benny caught the doubtful look given him by the young desk clerk. Guess the kid's wondering what a snappy dresser like me's got to do with a button down collar type like Jonny, he mused, as the teenager continued in a tone that could have frozen Lake Erie in mid-July. "Is there anything else?"
"As a matter of fact yes." Benny pulled out his wallet as he spoke. "Dr. MacKensie's my cousin and we haven't seen each other in years. Could you possibly see your way clear to let me wait in his room? I'd really appreciate it." A twenty dollar bill changed hands after a dutiful hesitation on the clerk's part, and, a few minutes later, Benny found himself ensconced in Jonathan's room.
Unit Five bore unmistakable signs of MacKensie's residence; clothes neatly hung in the closet and laid out in the dresser drawer, several books and a notebook piled on the desk. Sure looks like everything's kosher, buds, but what are you doing up here? And who's the Benedek impersonator? Until the clerk had mentioned the presence of 'Benedek', he'd fully expected to find Jonathan on his own, driven to this subterfuge to get some uninterrupted research time. He meandered over to the desk, but before he could do more than flip the notebook open in a search for clues, a key turned in the lock and the outside door opened.
Benny looked up, his welcoming grin vanishing as MacKensie limped into the room, aided by a strang...no, not a stranger. In fact, he'd have vastly preferred it if the man were a stranger, not...
"You're traveling in bad company, Jack," he muttered, shunting the other man aside, then helping his friend the rest of the way to the bed himself. "What happened?"
Seemingly not at all surprised to find Benedek in his room, MacKensie replied relatively calmly, "We were investigating a sighting near an old quarry. There was a rock slide and I twisted my ankle." He gave the injured extremity a resigned look.
"Young fool won't see a doctor, neither," interjected Jonathan's companion, nervously clearing his throat before adding uneasily, "Good to see you, Benny."
Benedek ignored the older man pointedly, crouching by the bed to pull off Jonathan's shoe and sock to see what damage had been done this time. Clicking his tongue, he studied the already swollen ankle. "This is not a pretty sight, pal. Can't let you out of my sight for a minute, can I?"
"I'll be fine," retorted Jonathan huffily, reaching over to free his foot from the other man's grip. That done, he asked quietly, "Dr. Moorhouse?"
"Dr. Moorhouse." Benny replied in kind, arching an amused eyebrow at his friend. "What can I say? She misses your smiling presence at the Institute. Besides, she wasn't too happy when she discovered you'd decided to go chasing shadows on your own. There's such a thing as back-up, pal, in case you run into hostile natives, or spirits or even wild, ankle-twisting rock gardens."
"I'm not investigating anything alone." Jonathan attempted to pull his dignity together which proved difficult with his injured foot lying on the bed between them.
"He doesn't count, especially as back-up." Benny gave the other man a reluctant look, unwilling to spare any energy for the memories his presence dredged up. "Now, I vant you to lie back und rest your foot," he said, adopting a germanic accent in an attempt to disguise the emotions churning in him.
When Jonathan made an attempt to protest, Benny firmly pushed him back against the pillow, saying, "No nonsense, buds. Besides, I need a consult with your new partner here."
"He's not..." began MacKensie apologetically.
"Hey, relaxovision. I'm not blaming you, Jack. And, trust me, it's not going to be a permanent pair-up. Now, do as I say, or I'll tell Dr. M that I found you shacked up with the Bernini twins. Got it?"
"Got it." Jonathan subsided grudgingly.
"Good. And one more thing." Benny grabbed the phone from the nightstand and unceremoniously dumped it into Jonathan's lap. "As a wise alien once said, call home. It's been known to save lives and paychecks. Capiche?"
When Jonathan nodded reluctantly, the writer turned his attention to MacKensie's companion. Coldly he snapped, "Mr. Benedek would you care to join me in my office?"
"Outside, Pop." Benny prodded his father out, shutting the door firmly on an openly curious Jonathan. All traces of joviality had faded from his face when he demanded, "What the hell's going on here?"
"And a cheery hello, how are ya to you, too," retorted the elder Benedek, responding in kind.
"Can the social amenities. What kind of a mess are you up to here and why is Jonathan involved?" Benny folded his arms across his chest and waited.
"I never asked your friend to get involved, Benny," protested the older man self-righteously. "Matter of fact, I tried to get him to leave."
"You didn't happen to rig that little accident, did you?" Benny's voice took on more than a hint of menace. "Just to get him to leave, I mean."
The horrified expression on the older man's face convinced Benny that this one suspicion on his part was unwarranted. "No way. Sure, I'd like to lose Jonathan, he kind of cramps my style, if you know what I mean..."
"Somehow I'm not surprised Jonathan's an honest man," Benny interrupted sarcastically.
"I'm surprised you number any among your acquaintances, considering the crowd you run around with," retorted Sam, growing angry in his turn.
Pausing to gather his thoughts, Benny studied his father, noting that the five years since their last disastrous meeting had not dealt kindly with Samuel Benedek. What little hair remained had turned pure white, and his thin face was a crowded map of wrinkles; only the eyes remained the same: bright, curious and more than a little shifty. Eyes that suited the gangly, nervous-looking man, attired in a too-large suit. Trying to bury the sudden, irrational fear that he was looking at his own future self, he finally replied, "Thought I'd try being different from my old man."
Sam gave a nervous laugh. "You sure know how to use words to get your point across, Benny. Always know where a person stands with you." He tried a smile, which failed to get any positive response. "Look, I don't want to fight with you, son. If you can get Jonathan to pack up and go home, I'd appreciate it. He's a nice enough fellow, but he's fouling up the works just being here and I'd hate to see him get hurt."
"The UFOs are a scam," stated Benedek, already certain of the answer.
"You know how I operate." Sam avoided a straight answer, as always.
"Unfortunately." Surprisingly, Benny found himself disappointed. I should know better. Old dogs and new tricks still don't mix. He searched for a wise-crack and came up empty. "What kind of scam?"
"I can't tell you anything." At an impatient sound from Benny, he hastened to add defensively, "Look, the guys I'm involved with they're not exactly on the top-ten nice folks list, if you get my drift." A look of fear passed quickly across Sam's face, to be replaced by the bland expression of the professional con artist.
Benedek discovered, to his horror, that he still could worry about the old crook, a feeling he'd thought exorcised long since. "Pop, are you in trouble?" he asked, starting to stretch out a concerned hand.
Sam shrugged coolly, ignoring the gesture. "I always land on my feet," he replied.
Feeling like he'd been slapped in the face, Benny shook his head, determinedly turning his concern back to his friend. After all, he rationalized, Sam had chosen to tie himself to sleazeballs, he could bear the consequences.
So why does it hurt?
"Forget I said anything." He turned to open the door to the unit.
"What are you going to do?" Anxiety colored Sam's voice.
Probably scared I'll blow his little game out of the water. "What do you think? I'm gonna get Jonathan out of here before he gets more than a twisted ankle. Jack's a smart guy about a lot of things, but he's got a fatal flaw. He trusts people." With his hand on the doorknob, Benny added, deadly serious, "Don't use my name again, Pop."
"Benedek's my name, too," protested Sam weakly.
"But Edgar isn't. I meant what I said last time you pulled this stunt." Benny entered the unit, slamming the door in Sam's face, resolutely burying the unwelcome image of another friend, five years before, badly hurt after dealing with Sam. He looked toward the bed, only to find it empty. "Jonathan?" he called, suddenly anxious.
"In here." MacKensie limped out of the bathroom.
"Thought I told you to stay put," complained Benny, starting across the room to give Jonathan a hand, only to be halted by a firm shake of the other man's head.
"Nature's call has a higher priority than your orders, Benedek." Jonathan replied with dignity. He settled himself back on the bed, allowing Benedek to slip a pillow beneath his injured foot, before asking innocently, "I believe you said you were looking for me?"
You're getting too damned good at the con game, Jack, mused Benny before asking, "How'd it go with Dr. M?"
Rolling his eyes expressively, Jonathan replied, "Actually, once I explained the situation here in Exeter, she was rather pleased that I've taken the initiative in a matter that would have been brought to her attention shortly anyway." He leaned back looking a bit like the cat that ate the canary.
Benny grinned appreciatively, as he perched on the edge of the bed. "Congratulations, Jon-boy. I never thought you'd have the nerve to pull a con on the woman who holds the power of life and death over your paycheck. Did she say anything about the odds of your stumbling accidentally into a major UFO scene?" He probed carefully, wondering just how much his friend had gotten pulled in to Sam's scheme.
MacKensie's smile wavered a bit. "She did mention that she was a bit surprised that no reports of these sightings had come in to her via the usual sources. However, despite her misgivings, she did express, uh, relief that I wasn't in this alone, that my temporary assistant was, in fact, your father."
"Forget it, Jocko." Benny's voice went hard and cold. "If you think Sam's being my father is any kind of a recommendation as a partner to Dr. M or anyone else, you'd better think again."
"Why?" challenged Jonathan, overtly curious. "He is your father."
"Let me put it simply. I'll dance on the moon before I'll recommend Sam Benedek to anyone." Deliberately lightening his tone, Benny continued, "Just trust me, pal, working with Sam is not for the likes of Eagle Scout MacKensie, and will not reassure your boss one iota."
"Then stay and help." Jonathan's tone was a challenge.
"No can do. I'm due in the Big Apple tomorrow for a stint on Donahue. I don't show, and my publisher calls out Guido the Leg Man to fit me with a set of cement overshoes.
Jonathan lost what remained of his smile. "Donahue? Why can't you simply say no, Benedek?" he asked, his voice hiding none of his disappointment. "It would be much easier on the nervous system."
"Why can't you just come on back to Georgetown and leave Sam to his games, Jonny?" countered Benny. "My old man's bad news. Besides, do you have any idea what a Donahue gig means? We're talking big time, pal."
"Perhaps so, but you're not exactly going spare on the talk show circuit these days. And what little I've learned here, interviewing witnesses and visiting the quarry," he pulled a face at his ankle, "makes me suspect that your father is mixed up in something way over his head here. When the scam blows up, he may have need of a friend."
"Whoa! Time out! You know it's a scam?"
"I wasn't born yesterday, Benedek," Jonathan flared. "Besides, exposure to you has certainly opened my eyes to life's little frauds."
"Ouch! Good shot, Jonny." He couldn't keep an admiring grin from forming, even while stating more seriously, "I don't think you're doing him a favor staying. Might even make things worse."
"You don't know that, Benedek, not for certain. Besides, there are innocent people involved who might be injured in some way by this fraud. I don't know how yet, but when the time comes, I might be able to do something to help. At the very least, I might be able to get enough information with which to go to the police."
"And a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do I got it." Benny shook his head, admiring MacKensie's principles while deploring them at the same time. "All right let's compromise. I've got to do Donahue." He held up a hand to forestall any new protest from his friend. "It's not just me, pal. This is a major league commitment. If I cop out, my agent and my publisher get hurt. They work hard to make me a success and I make it a policy not to bite the hand that feeds me. However, I'll stop off at GI on my way to the airport, get Randy cracking on the computer to see what she can dig up. I'll be back in Georgetown Saturday, collect the kid's data and come back here ready and willing to help you, not him. However, there's something I want in return for all this cooperation."
"One, you have Sam take you to the local emergency room and get a picture of that ankle." Benny stared at Jonathan until the man flushed uncomfortably.
"All right," he agreed ungraciously. "What else?"
"You stick to town. Do your research in the library, if they've got one, or at the paper. If they don't have those, read a book, watch TV, whatever. No more quarries or other excursions to the wilderness until I get back. I don't want you taking any chances with Sam's business associates. Deal?" Benny put the full force of his personality into his words, knowing Jonathan would keep his word once given.
Rebelliously, Jonathan acceded to Benedek's demands, knowing he had no choice if he wanted the man's help. "Deal, but only through Saturday, Benedek. Two days." Adding with injured pride, "I am able to take care of myself."
"Uh-huh, sure, like when the ghosts at the Glenbar played king of the person with you..."
Jonathan held up his hands to stem the threatened flood. "I'll be careful, Benedek, I promise."
"That's all I ask, pal." Benny got up from the bed with a bounce. "See you on Saturday." With a wave, he stepped out the door only to bump into Sam.
"Did you have any trouble hearing what we said?" he asked his father sharply. "If you did, I'll give you the highpoints. Jonathan's staying on, Pop. And I'll be back in a couple of days."
"Benny " Sam shifted uneasily, not at all happy with this turn of events.
"Two things." Benny unlocked his car door, and swung inside. "Get him to a doctor. He'll try to squirm out of it, but keep after him. Superman he's not, and that ankle looks bad." He opened the window before closing the door. "And Pop, I don't know exactly what happened to Jonathan today, and I'm not sure I want to know. But, if anything else happens to him, anything at all, you're dead meat. A repeat of Baltimore could be hazardous to your health." Without waiting for a reply, Benny turned the key in the ignition and drove away, caught up in bad memories of another friend who'd tried to help the old man. In his anger and concern, he failed to notice the old woman standing at the door of the motel office, shaking her head disapprovingly.
Sam occupied a corner booth in Exeter's one and
only diner, drawing circles on the place mat with his fork. Come on, Doyle,
you called this meeting. Least you can do is show up on time.
"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Benedek?"
Startled, he looked up to meet the friendly gaze of the waitress. "Uh, thank you, Margie, I think I would. Black."
The girl expertly filled his cup, saying with a smile, "Let me know when you're ready to order."
"I will. Thanks." Alone again, Benedek went back to his circles, wondering how to juggle what was rapidly becoming an impossible set of circumstances. On the one hand was Danny Doyle, his so-called partner, with his various and sundry business associates. And on the other were Jonathan MacKensie and Benny. He knew his son well enough to be certain he'd carry through his threats. But Doyle would be just as efficient if he thought he'd been double-crossed in any way. Rock and a hard place, Sammy, and no way out, not this time. You're getting too old for these games.
"I thought you said you'd dump MacKensie." A bearded man, short, but powerfully built slipped into the booth opposite Sam. "Trust me, Danny, you said. Piece of cake."
Sam shrugged, "What can I say? The guy's stubborn, thinks I need help."
"Might be right, 'specially if I find out you're double-crossing me to get in good with your famous kid. Tell me again how MacKensie just happened to come to Exeter. Maybe you'll convince me this time." Danny signaled for a cup of coffee which Margie brought over immediately, then retreated back to the counter where she busied herself washing dishes.
"Look, he and Benny don't suspect a thing. You think my kid would've left his buddy here on his own, if he thought there was gonna be any trouble? He keeps tabs on me, that's all. Once I snowed him into believing nothing was wrong, he went back to New York."
"If he's convinced there's nothing going on, why'd he leave MacKensie?" Danny leaned his arms against the table, an ominous look in his dark eyes.
"MacKensie's his researcher," Sam ad-libbed hurriedly. "He decided since he was here already, he might as well look into the UFO stories. See what he could work up for Benny to use in the Register. The accident was real, Danny the brakes went on his car. That sort of thing happens all the time. The guy at the garage recommended the White Haven, and Kate mentioned she had Edgar Benedek as a guest and ...you still don't believe me, do you?" Sam wilted under his companion's glare.
Shaking his head, Doyle spoke slowly, "You tell me, Sammy. Dammit, I warned you not to use 'Edgar Benedek' on this scam. We're too close to D.C. and your kid's pals at the Institute. But no, you had to go ahead and do it your way, telling me not to worry. So what happened? MacKensie happens into town where he could blow you right out of the water and didn't? Then your kid shows up and he doesn't do anything either? What would you think?"
"I wouldn't doublecross you, Danny, you gotta know that!"
"Do I?" Doyle's smile terrified Sam, reminding him of a cat playing with a mouse. "Then why is MacKensie still in town?"
"I told you why, and I don't want Jesse starting any more rockslides to scare the guy away. It won't work and it's not necessary. I can handle things, have him come along when I take Kate out to the fake UFO sighting, just like we planned. Might even help things look more legit." Sam leaned across the table, adding softly, "But maybe we could kinda push the schedule up, have the drop on Friday instead of Saturday? I mean, how much trouble could 24 hours be?" Jonathan I can handle, but Benny will be all over me.
"No good, Sam. Our associates would take any change in plan as a sign of bad faith and cancel the deal. We go on Saturday. You got a problem with that?" Doyle's eyes narrowed with suspicion, one strong hand snaking out to grab Sam's wrist in a vise-like grip. "Do you?"
Trying not to react to the pain, Sam's words flooded out, "No problem, Danny, not a one. We go on Saturday as planned and I'll keep Jon...MacKensie with me. He'll never know the truth."
"We'll see." Doyle released Benedek's arm, drained his cup and stood. "Who knows, you might have a point about workin' him into the UFO action professional spook hunter and all that. As long as he doesn't spill the beans, and you're gonna make sure he doesn't do that, aren't you?" With a malicious grin on his face, he turned to leave, pausing to lean back toward Sam. "Remember, it's 11:00 PM Saturday, partner. No screw-ups and we'll all be rich." He straightened and left the diner with a casual, "Thanks for the coffee," tossed over his shoulder.
"Damn!" Sam stared down at his hands and noted to his horror that they were shaking. Curling the fingers up into fists, he considered his options. Cut my losses and run for the rest of my life and that wouldn't be very long. Or stick it out and hope for the best.
Margie's voice interrupted his depressed thoughts. "Mr. Benedek, are you ready to order now?"
"What?" He glanced up to meet the youngster's concerned eyes and wondered just how much she might have heard. Remembering she'd been doing dishes, he decided, Nothing, not over the water. We got no problem with her. With what he hoped was a reassuring smile, he shook his head in response to her question. "Guess I lost my appetite, honey." He pulled a handful of bills from his jacket pocket. "For the coffee. And keep the change."
"But it's too much..."
"Not for a big time writer, kid, trust me." Praying that the tip would take her mind off his meeting with Doyle, Sam gave her another smile as he got up and hurried out the door. Something about the way Danny had mentioned working Jonathan into the scam twinged the same bad memory Benny had Baltimore. No violence, Danny, please.
"Kate, there's going to be trouble."
Margie's words came in a rush, as her hands twisted uneasily in her apron.
"Calm down, child. You're in a terrible state." The older woman rose from her desk chair and placed her hands on the girl's shoulders. "It's something to do with Sam Benedek and Danny Doyle, I understand that much, but the rest is coming out as a jumble." She spoke slowly, calmly as one would reassure a small child stumbling over her words.
"I'm trying, but everything's getting worse. Doyle was in the diner with Benedek and..."
"Start from the beginning." Kate's hands dropped from Margie's shoulders to take her trembling hands. They locked eyes, Kate's dark ones and the girl's blue. Margie told her story again. After a moment of silence, the older woman dropped her hands, saying angrily, "Damn the man. The son won't be back in time to help his friend if there is trouble. Why should he? He doesn't know how little time there is. Perhaps I made a mistake when I involved MacKensie." She spoke more to herself than her young companion. "I'll have to contact Simon."
"He's the only one who might be able to reach Benny before it's too late." Kate eased herself into a large, old-fashioned rocker, suddenly feeling her age. "We've got to take a chance, there's no other way..."
"Would you rather Doyle and his men complete their business and get away scot free? Perhaps killing an innocent along the way?" Kate shook her head. "That would be against everything we stand for; what so many died for." She glanced up at the frightened girl, and took her hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "Go back to the diner, Margie, and keep your ears open. We need more details."
"All right, and Kate..." Margie stepped away a few paces. "Say hello to Simon for me." She gave the woman a brief smile and was gone.
"I will." Kate's calm smile faded as she settled back in her chair. Locating Simon down in Washington would take a bit of work, but it was necessary. They needed all the players in place to prevent Doyle's plans from reaching fruition. And to save the life of an innocent pawn. One she herself had involved.
Benedek looked up from the papers he'd found
scattered over Jonathan's desk to find the department's research assistant at
"Hiya, Randy," he greeted the girl with a broad smile as she deftly maneuvered her wheelchair into the office. "Looks like you've really been hitting the megabytes, kid, but could you give me the Reader's Digest version? I promised Jonny I'd be back today, and I'm running late." After a closer inspection of her discouraged face, his own smile wobbled. "Please don't tell me your news is as gloomy as your face.
"Are you sure the sightings Jonathan mentioned were in Exeter, Virginia?" she asked, sinking his last forlorn hope that something about this ill-conceived investigation would turn out to be legitimate.
"That's where I found the prodigal prof," he quipped in a bright tone that wouldn't fool a ten-year-old, let alone the intelligent young woman before him. "What'd you find?"
"Nothing recent," she answered, resting a hand on one of the stacks of paper on the desk. "In 1966 there was a claim that..."
"...that ten alien ships hovered over the township before disappearing in a blinding light. Emphasis on the blinding because people talked about old man Grummon and his blind cow for years afterward."
Randy and Benny turned their heads in unison to find themselves staring at a tall, blond youth, about nineteen. Randy gave a short laugh. "Simon! You startled us."
"Simon?" Benny got up from the desk, studying the youngster, his eyes dancing with curiosity. What did he know about Exeter and its UFOs?
"Simon McFarland. He's in Anthro 101." Randy gave her fellow student a friendly nod. "Professor MacKensie's not in, if you're looking for him."
"Actually, I was looking for Mr. Benedek here."
"Call me Benny." Benedek gave his automatic response, holding out his hand. "How did you know all that about Exeter?" he continued once the amenities had been completed."
"That's where I'm from." Simon looked more than a bit uneasy, the way most folks did when they admitted coming from a place where odd things were supposed to have occurred. "I've got a message for you, Mr. Bene Benny. From my Aunt Kate."
"Huh?" Benny stared at Simon, totally lost, but eager to be found. "Who's Aunt Kate and why's she sending me a message?" This is too much, he thought. Randy can't find anything on the computer and in walks the Encyclopedia Exeter?
Ignoring the facetious tone, Simon said earnestly, "She runs the White Haven Motel in Exeter. She told me to find you and give you the message. I've spent the last two days trying to find you, but you were out of town. Then I missed you at the airport."
When he hesitated, Benny demanded sharply, "Forget the travelogue, Simon. Give me the message." And why isn't it from Jonathan? Or even Sam?
"Your friend's in great danger. You've got to be back in Exeter before 11:00 tonight, if you want to help him." Simon glanced at Randy, adding, "It was nice to see you," before stepping back and letting the office door swing shut.
After a beat Benny reacted, "Whoa hey, Simon, you can't just come in here, give a mysterious warning and then disappear without..." He ran across the office, yanked open the door and stared at an empty corridor. "Then again, maybe you can."
Pop, I meant what I said, he thought, trying to control his anger as he turned back to face Randy whose eyes had gone wide at the bizarre encounter.
"You'd better get going," she said, "if you want to beat the deadline.
"Thanks, kid, I owe ya one." Benny darted out once more only to freeze as Dr. Moorhouse's voice echoed down the hall.
"It's after six already go." Randy had wheeled herself out of the office to join him. "I'll explain things to her."
As he took off at a lope down the hall, Benny called over his shoulder. "Forget about my owing you just one, Randy...I owe you my life!"
"I'm writing it down, believe me." Randy's voice floated after him, then both women's voices were lost as he ducked into the stairwell and clattered down the stairs, mind racing as fast as his feet. Twenty minutes best time to the lot where he'd stashed his car. Three hours to Exeter. No sweat. He'd make it before the mysterious Kate's deadline. Piece o' cake.
Piece o' cake. Those words taunted Benny
as he sat in his car, trapped from behind by a multitude of other anxious
motorists all crowding close, and from the front by a jack-knifed semi that had
spewed cashew nuts across all three lanes of the highway. Cashews!
He tried not to glance at his watch, but a sense of time escaping him forced his eyes down. Ten twenty and he was still well over an hour from Exeter. Maybe I should've become a doctor like Mom wanted me to. They get police escorts in emergencies. That random thought sent his mind skipping back through time to avoid the growing sense of doom pervading his thoughts in the present.
The raucous music of The Rolling Stones pulsed
from a radio somewhere nearby as a newly-made-legal Benedek emerged from the
courthouse with his mother, his real, honest-to-gosh mother. Sarah Benedek
smiled at her son, tears glistening in her eyes.
"What're you crying for Mom?" Benny savored the word as a prize, a reward for his first ever successful investigation. He'd found his family, his real family.
"I'm thinking how proud your grandmother will be when we tell her you've taken her name."
"And Pop's. Don't forget him." Benny's smile dimmed briefly at the reminder that the one member of his family his dogged, and sometimes illegal, investigation hadn't turned up had been his father.
"How could I forget Sam?" Sarah grew distant briefly, then her smile returned, brighter than ever. "Let's get to your grandmother's, Benny, and tell her Benjamin Benedek has come home."
"Should've taken the hint, Mom, and left
well enough alone," Benny muttered, coming back to the present as the State
Police finally managed to free up a single lane. One car, then another made it
through the gap in the infuriatingly polite manner that always drove his
impatient spirit to distraction. Just as he was about to take his turn, the car
before him came to a jarring halt, overheated by the long wait.
"Damn!" Benny gave the steering wheel a resounding thump before
stealing a look at his watch. The digital readout told him that it was now ten
fifty-eight. Be careful, Jack and Pop, just this once, be there for
Benny ran up the three flights of stairs to
his grandmother's small apartment, clutching a plaque to his chest. "Hey
Grandma, is there anything to eat? I'm starved."
"And why should I still have dinner at this hour of the night?" Rose Benedek stood with hands on hips, glaring at her tardy grandson as if daring him to slam the door.
Taking the hint, Benny quietly shut the door, testing it to make sure the bolt had shot home. "Some day I'm gonna buy you a big house in the country..."
"And who's going to do the cleaning, Mr. Big Shot? Paul Newman?
"Nah Robert Redford and he'll sweep you off your feet like Barbra Streisand." He gave her a big hug and kiss while he spoke. "Did he call?" Benny asked, changing the subject, casually placing the award on the kitchen table.
"Who Redford?" Rose shook her head, reaching out to take the plaque in her hands. "It's beautiful, Benny, and you deserve it, all the hard work you put in on that story."
"You're stalling, Grandma."
"I told you, he's not going to call. The only time Sam has ever called has been when he's needed money." Rose fell silent, frustrating yet another of Benny's ongoing and not too subtle attempts to learn more about his father.
Five years a Benedek and he had yet to meet the man who had given him life. Mom only talked about the man who had swept her off her feet, and Grandma would start to say more and stop, as she had just now. Even the neighbors who'd known Sam as a kid seemed to remember nothing more than that he'd been a loner, not sharing in the neighborhood celebrations and sorrows. One old man, a friend of Grandpa Edgar Benedek would sigh, and call Sam a snake. Charming when he chose, but a snake nevertheless.
Despite his frustration, Benny's hopes never dimmed. For Sarah to have loved him, Sam had to have some good traits. Some desire to see the son he'd sired at least. "He's gonna call one of these days. When he finds out Edgar Benedek is back, he'll want to know what the hell is going on, someone using his father's name."
"Taking your grandfather's name isn't likely to bring Sam around."
"Don't talk like that, Grandma, please...you'll see. He'll call and be proud of me.
Maybe he was, but could I be proud of him? Benny sighed, glancing down at his wrist one more time. Eleven thirty-two and another forty minutes at least until he reached Exeter. Tempus was fugiting too fast. His foot slammed the gas pedal to the floor as he broke free of the last few cars blocking his passage.
Brakes squealing, Benny brought his car to a halt
and hurried up the short path to Unit Five. Lights burned inside, raising his
spirits briefly as he raised his hand to knock. Maybe Jonathan had had the good
sense to stay put, to wait for him to return. The door opened inward at his
touch and he knew the warning had been all too real.
Benny stood in the entrance to Unit Five, and stared accusingly at his watch as though it had betrayed him. One A.M. He'd missed the deadline by two hours. Two lousy hours! Kicking the door shut behind him, he stalked into the room, swearing bitterly. "Damn you, Jonathan! You promised not to go off without back-up."
"He promised you two days."
Benny spun around, caught off-guard by the stern voice, and found an older woman standing just inside the room.
Recovering his composure, if not his temper, Benedek gestured eloquently around the room. "Where is he then?" His eye fell on the closed door behind her, and he frowned. "And while we're playing Twenty Questions, how the hell did you get in here?"
"How would you say I got inside?" she countered with a slight smile, which vanished as she continued. "As for your other question, the two days were up this evening and you hadn't returned. Why couldn't you get back sooner?"
"You've got to be Simon's Aunt Kate? Kate Manning?" The woman acknowledged his words with a regal nod, which only served to set off Benny's temper. He advanced on her, his eyes sparkling dangerously. "What's your part in this little game, lady? You made sure Jonathan hooked up with Sam, didn't you? Suckered him into this scheme? Must've been easy for you to pull the wool over the eyes of a gullible type like Jack. He'd never believe anyone who looked like you could be a crook. Me, I know better." He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake the information he needed out of her, but after taking a closer look at her troubled face, decided on a change of tactics. "Look," he said, trying to sound reasonable. "You did warn me about Jonathan being in danger. I'll give you points for that, but where is he now? What happened to him at eleven? Was..." He swallowed, not wanting the answer. "Was Sam with him when he left?"
Funny, she doesn't look scared or nervous, even if Sam's left her holding the bag.
"Your father was with me when Jonathan left, Mr. Benedek. I don't know where he is now. And I don't know what happened to your friend."
Frustrated by his lack of information, Benny pounded his fist into the open palm of his other hand, while looking about for a clue, any clue. His glance landed on a small square of paper stuck to the front of the television set with a single line written in Jonathan's precise handwriting.
He reached out to snag the paper while saying, "Lady, I don't know what you are, and how you're involved in this mess, but we are gonna have one heavy duty chat lat "
Kate's hand on his arm froze him in mid-motion. "Mr. Benedek, I truly wish I could tell you more, but the one thing I know for certain is that your friend's life is in great danger. You must go now, follow the directions he left you and be careful. There is still danger for Jonathan and for yourself. I'll send you help later."
With that, her anxious grip on his arm was released and when Benny recovered from the intensity of her warning, he turned to find the woman had vanished as quietly as she had appeared.
The temptation to pursue her nearly overwhelmed him to the point that he took a step toward the door. Benny stared at the plain wooden barrier. The door! It's been closed since I got here. I'd have heard if she used it. How did she do that?
Putting the intriguing question aside for later consideration, he turned his attention to Jonathan's message, absorbing the brief sentence with a pained smile on his face. I'm flattered, Jack. You never doubted I'd be back. The bad penny that always turns up. Shying away from the image of his father that thought conjured up, Benny went outside, after giving the door another curious look, and got into his car.
Pulling away from Unit Five, he noticed a single light burning in the motel office and fancied he could see a graying head at the window. We're not finished yet, lady, he thought. Not by a long shot.
Benny drove like a man possessed departing
Exeter, following the occasional signs automatically, fearful of what he might
find at his destination.
After a series of sharp curves, the road straightened, and headlights reflected briefly in his mirror, half-blinding him. Wonder why anyone else'd be out here this hour of the night?
After yet another long curve, he forgot the other driver as his headlights reflected against metal off to left side of the road. He slammed on the brakes, recognizing the remains of what had been Jonathan's car. In a flash he leaped from his car and stumbled down the embankment. "Jonathan? Jack? C'mon, buddy, it's not very friendly to try and scare me like this. Whaddaya think it is, April Fool's Day?"
Unreasoning fear clutched at his heart when the familiar voice failed to respond.
The flashlight he'd somehow remembered in his hurried exodus revealed that the front end of the car rested against a huge rock, fender crumpled like an accordion. The driver's side door hung open and as Benny waved the beam inside, his thoughts whirled along the same paths they'd traveled since he'd reached Exeter. Why couldn't you wait a couple of more hours? I warned you Sam was trouble looking to happen, Jack. Benny's thoughts stopped their mad dance while he struggled to decide whether to be relieved or not when his flash flickered across the empty interior. No body implied minor injuries, right? But
"What the hell...?" He reached into the car and pulled out an opened spiral notebook. A loose sheet of paper fell away into the darkness and he scrabbled on the ground until he found it.
Under the light of the flashlight he read, "Jonathan. Be at Grummon's Rock, Cumberland Road, 11:00 P.M. sharp. S."
He crumbled the sheet into a tight ball, pitching it out into the darkness. You set him up, Pop. You did this to my friend. After everything I said, you went right ahead and did it anyway.
Leaning in to search the passenger side, Benny rested one hand against the steering wheel, then pulled away, breathing in sharply. He stared at the wetness clinging to his hand, glinting redly under the glare of his flashlight. Blood.
Above, a pick-up truck screeched to a halt on the highway behind his car. Benedek heard a door slam and started forward. Maybe the driver would help him search for Jonathan. He heard footsteps coming his way, then a bullet whined close by his head. The headlights in the rearview mirror! His mind slammed into high gear as he dropped to the ground. The bastards must have followed me from town.
Another shot buried itself in the car behind him. Staying as close to the ground as he could, Benny scuttled away from the wreck. Can't get myself trapped, he thought, wincing at the noise he made in his progress.
A third shot rang out, spending itself somewhere to the right. Good, maybe I'm getting out of range. Footsteps crashing down the embankment killed his brief feeling of relief.
The ground fell away beneath him, and Benny rolled into a rock-strewn gully. His breath whooshed out of his lungs as he came to an abrupt halt in the middle of a bush.
"You see any sign of him?" The question came out of the darkness, a few yards to his right.
"Nothing." The second voice was filled with disgust. "Might've winged him though."
"Don't think so. He was movin' awful fast." The first voice came again, closer now, and Benny held his breath. "We're never gonna find him or MacKensie out here tonight. I vote we go back to town. Gotta tell Doyle that MacKensie didn't croak in the car like he was supposed to."
The relief that swept over Benny nearly betrayed his presence to the unseen speakers, he shook so hard. Jonathan hadn't died in the trap set for him, and he wasn't a prisoner either.
Undergrowth rustled as the two men worked their way back toward the highway. The last words he heard were hardly reassuring. "...be back in the morning...do the job right."
After an eternity, Benny caught twin roars as the pick-up truck pulled away, accompanied now by his car. Hope Kate calls in reinforcements like she promised, he thought, gingerly pulling himself free of the brambles that had saved his life. I sure can't.
Morning brought two things to Edgar Benedek: the
knowledge that he was completely lost and a driving rain that quickly soaked
through his thin jacket. He'd stumbled through the woods in the dark after his
close encounter of the dangerous kind, only to realize after an hour and a mass
of bruises, that that was a one-way ticket to the hospital. A clump of pines had
provided a limited shelter, allowing him to doze uneasily. Until the rain had
Now what do I do? He fought to overpower a sharp twinge of panic that threatened to leave him paralyzed where he was. So I'm not Daniel Boone, he berated himself, slapping his arms against his sides in a vain attempt to get warm. So I'm lost, who knows where. I watched TV. Hoss and Little Joe always got out of messes a lot worse than this. His bravado failed miserably. Of course they got out...it was in the script. His shoulders sagged defeatedly as he stared around at the wooded hills that surrounded him.
Then the crack of branches being broken underfoot brought his head up to attention. He wasn't alone after all a less than comforting thought, considering his 'friends' from the previous night.
Okay, so someone's here too, he thought nervously, fighting down a resurgence of his fear. It doesn't have to be one of the bad guys. Might even be Jonathan.
Despite that cheering thought, Benny edged forward as silently as possible, his Nikes squishing in the mud, only to find himself staring at a miserable-looking figure in a bedraggled business suit, covered with a blanket, who looked even worse than he felt. Surprised, he called out, not even waiting to be sure the man was alone. "Pop?"
Terrified, Sam dropped his armful of wet branches, and turned to run.
"Oh no you don't!" Benny jumped out of his shelter to grab his father's arm. "I didn't spend all night ducking your buddies so you could pull another vanishing act. Look at me, Pop," he demanded sharply.
Sam's face turned a sickly shade of green when he reluctantly met his son's threatening gaze. "I didn't know what Doyle was up to I swear it!" he cried out hysterically before Benny could say another word.
"We'll talk about that later. Do you know where Jonathan is?" asked Benny, tightening his grip on Sam's arm.
"He's with me. When Kate told me Doyle planned to trick Jonathan out to Grummon's Rock, I tried to catch up with him, warn him, but I got there too late. They'd already..."
"Skip the newsreel, Pop and get to the main feature. Where's Jonathan?"
"Back there," Sam pointed to his right. "There's a cave. Found it by accident when I dragged Jonathan down here so Doyle couldn't finish the job. Some kids must've used it for camping. There's blankets and some matches and stuff. I'm sure Doyle doesn't know about the place." Before Benny could deliver another warning, Sam raised his free arm in surrender. "Look, I'll show you."
Silently, Benedek released his death grip and gestured for his father to lead the way. Just as quietly Sam obeyed, crossing the clearing to duck through some tall bushes to enter a cave, the dank interior illuminated by what faint light passed the leafy barrier and a small fire burning almost smokelessly.
"There." Sam pointed to a blanket-covered figure huddled perilously near the flame.
Benny found himself kneeling by Jonathan's side, shaken by the sight of an improvised bandage near the closed eyes. Why hadn't Sam warned him that his friend had been badly hurt? Guess I didn't give him much of a chance, did I? But, you sure are a mess, pal. Jonathan's eyelids were reddened, puffy, and dark bruises circled them, giving the man a raccoon-like appearance that might have been humorous another time. Carefully lifting the bandage revealed a nasty gash that would probably leave an interesting scar. The only other apparent damages from the accident seemed to be bruising and a few relatively minor cuts. And the already-abused ankle swelled twice normal size.
"It's not broken," offered Sam, trying to sound positive.
"No thanks to you." Benny gave his father a furious look before returning to his inspection. "Has he been conscious at all?"
"Not yet but it looks like he took a terrible knock to the head, so it's to be expected. He'll be just fine. I'm sure...Benny!" Sam backed away from the threatening figure suddenly advancing on him.
"You're sure Jonathan will be all right? You? You're a great medical expert now? Pop, I warned you. I said if anything happened to Jonathan, you were dead meat." Furiously Benedek stalked his father, his hands reaching out to give the older man a hard shove against the cave wall. "Didn't I? Huh?" Benny raised his clenched fists. "I don't hear you, Pop, but that's nothing new. Is it? Cat got your tongue again? Just like last time..."
"That kid wasn't supposed to get hurt." Sam's voice emerged a frightened whimper as he sank back against the wall, arms lifted to protect his face nowhere to run. "He wasn't!"
"Benedek?" Jonathan's voice startled both men from their argument.
"Jonathan?" Benny returned to his friend, hunkering down by his side. "How're you feeling?" he asked, unable to keep the concern from his voice.
"I've been better," croaked MacKensie, wincing in pain as he shifted position. "Is there anything to drink?"
Benny looked questioningly at his father who handed him a canteen. After taking a test sniff and swig, he said, "Here you go, buddy," assisting Jonathan to a seated position. Satisfied that his friend wasn't about to keel over, he held out the container. When the other man made no move to reach for it, Benedek frowned. "Hey, I'm sorry it's not Perrier," he tried to joke when the anthropologist continued to stare about, a puzzled look on his battered face.
"Why is it so dark in here?"
The simple question floored Benny. Still supporting Jonathan with one arm, he dropped the canteen to the ground, and waved his other hand in front of his friend's eyes and got no reaction from the man. Nothing at all. Jonathan MacKensie was blind. Stone blind. Blind as a bat. The clichιs played through his mind, barely scratching the surface of his anger and concern. Temporary it's got to be temporary. Desperately, Benny seized on that thought to ease his resurging panic.
"Benedek?" Oddly enough, MacKensie's voice revealed no such reaction, only the slightest hint of a tremor revealing his own fear. "It isn't dark, is it?"
Sam leaned forward as though to answer when Benny remained silent, but a dark look from his son moved him back into the shadows, dumb.
Responding to the pleading tone, Benny finally found his tongue. "No, Jonathan, it isn't dark in here." He grabbed the canteen once more and placed it in his friend's hands. "Drink up. Then I want you to lie down again. I need to take a good look."
"Dr. Benedek's orders again?" A faint smile touched Jonathan's face as he carefully raised the canteen and took a long drink.
"You've got it, Jack and you vill obey." Benny adopted the mock German accent, again to hide the emotions threatening to overwhelm him. "Or else."
"I'm terrified." After another swig, Jonathan handed the container back, and eased himself down onto the blanket. Only a nervous twitching around his mouth revealed how true those words were. "Ready when you are, Herr Doktor."
After rummaging through the scanty supplies Sam had found in the cave, Benny pronounce himself ready to practice the primitive first aid he'd learned on the streets as a kid. He nodded reluctant approval at Sam for the increased light from the fire. "Here goes nothing, buds," he said lightly.
"How very reassuring," replied MacKensie dryly, trying not to flinch from the other man's touch.
"Do you want any help?" offered Sam kneeling on Jonathan's other side.
Benny lifted his eyes briefly. "You've already helped enough." Dipping a piece of what had been his favorite 'I Love NY' T-shirt in water, he bent to his task, then froze in consternation. "Jack, what exactly happened out there? These are burns." Benedek fought to keep the shock out of his voice.
MacKensie turned his head in Benny's direction, admitting with difficulty, "I wasn't as smart as I thought." He shrugged, ignoring the pain the movement caused. "I walked right into a trap."
"I didn't know Doyle meant to kill him, Benny, I swear." Sam broke sank back on his heels in despair when his son stared intently at him, daring him to continue.
"Benedek it's not Sam's fault. He pulled me out of there..." Whatever else Jonathan might have said was lost in a sharp gasp of pain as Benny dabbed cautiously at the injuries.
"Sorry." He grabbed Jonathan's flailing hands to prevent his touching the burns. "Uh-uh, Jonny. I just cleaned that spot. And you really don't want to blow all my fancy first aid do you?"
MacKensie shook his head, fighting to subdue the pain that spread through his head. "No," he gasped finally.
"Good. Don't want to risk an infection lousing things up more than they already are." As much to take Jonathan's mind off his pain as to learn the details of the previous night's events, he continued in a deceptively light tone, "I want you to pretend we're back at GI and you're giving Dr. M a report on this little party. The facts, buds, and only the facts, without any editorial comments on the side. Okay?" Benny waited for Jonathan to nod before adding, "And Pop you stay out of it. Comprende?" Sam mutely retreated to a corner where he huddled under his blanket, staring at Jonathan.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly in a vain attempt to relax, Jonathan fell into the spirit of the game, speaking slowly and precisely, his voice wavering only when Benny touched a particularly sensitive spot with his cloth. "I got to Grummon's Rock early, about a quarter to eleven, and settled down to wait. I thought I'd take the opportunity to catch up with my notes."
Jonathan paused a moment when Benny dabbed at the deep cut on the side of his face, turning white. Then he continued, "I waited about a half hour and nothing happened; Sam still hadn't made an appearance. That worried me, since I'd gotten the impression that something important was up. I decided to drive back to Exeter, check for any messages at the motel. He'd gone out for dinner with Mrs. Manning earlier, but he might have phoned the desk clerk."
Benny gave his father a veiled look at that, before asking encouragingly, "Then what? Come on, MacKensie. Dr. Moorhouse is waiting, and you know she hates being in the dark...sorry." He mentally kicked himself for not being more careful of his words.
With an understanding grimace, Jonathan went back to his narrative. "I started the car, but before I could start backing up to the road, I heard a roar. I leaned out the window to get a better look." Again he stopped, courage stolen by the memory.
"Jack, I can't read minds. Give." Benny studied his handiwork and decided he'd done as much as he safely could. More would have to wait on professional hands. He took the other half of his T-shirt and wrapped it gently around MacKensie's head. "It's better to let it out," he added.
"From Dr. Benedek to Dr. Freud? Without waiting for a reply, MacKensie nodded agreement. "All around me was a rain of blazing lights. No matter where I looked, I couldn't get away from them. It felt like the world was on fire. Even when I closed my eyes, they hurt." Jonathan's voice grew shrill as he relived the painful moment.
"Then what?" Benny kept his voice carefully neutral, but held tightly to his friend's hands as they convulsed in remembered pain.
"Something came up and rammed my car from behind. I must have hit my head on the steering wheel, or the window because that's the last thing I remember. That and those lights. Benny..." The last came as the whimper of a frightened child caught out in the dark. "I can't be blind, not forever..."
"It'll be all right, Jack, it'll be all right." Benny soothed the other man with words he hoped held a modicum of truth. Yeah, it'll be all right maybe in a million years.
As the gray day faded back into darkness, Benny
emerged from the cave, ostensibly to make certain none of Doyle's men lurked in
the vicinity. Actually, he had jumped at an excuse to put some distance between
himself and the others, needing to think, plan how they were going to get back
to Exeter in one piece. Only right now, I'm not sure I'd know an idea if it
hit me over the head with a baseball bat.
Rubbing his aching head, he remembered when Sam had reluctantly taken up the story. "Doyle didn't do the dirty work himself. He was off picking up his smack twenty miles in the other direction, over toward Byfield. That was the whole purpose of the UFO scam, to set everyone looking for bug-eyed monsters in this direction so no one would notice the drop. One of Doyle's men has a cousin hereabouts, knew the story about Grummon's Rock."
"And you just naturally volunteered to con old ladies, hicks and Jocko, here." Benny nodded at his friend, lip curling in a sneer.
Sam nodded, too dispirited to offer any defense. "I'd worked cons with Danny a few times in the past. Nothing like this though. We were gonna be rich. I'm gettin' along, Benny. Thought I'd retire somewhere warm like Fort Lauderdale."
As if sensing Benedek's temper reaching the boiling point, Jonathan asked quietly, "How did you get me here?"
His lips twitching at his friend's attempt to put Sam in a more favorable light, Benny met Sam's eyes, twinging again at how similar they were to the eyes that reflected back at him every morning in the shaving mirror. Retreating from that thought, he added, "Yeah, Sam. Let's hear the story of how you played hero."
"Benedek!" Jonathan's exasperated plea sounded reassuringly normal.
"Not much to tell." The elder Benedek shrugged his thin shoulders. "I already told you Kate warned me." His tone grew wistful. "Wish I knew how long she'd been on to me."
Benny thought back to his own encounter with the White Haven's owner. "From what I've seen of the lady, I'd bet from the beginning. I don't think anything gets past her."
Again the shrug. Ruefully Sam sighed. "You're probably right. To make a long story short, I went back to the motel, found Jonathan gone and drove out to Grummon's Rock."
"There weren't any cars there except Jonathan's when I arrived. What happened to yours, Pop?" Must be more tired than I thought. Never occurred to me to ask.
Sam squirmed under his son's close inspection, but his voice was steady as he explained. "When I got there, a couple of Danny's goons were sitting in their pick-up truck, having a beer and waiting " He faltered briefly. "Waiting for Jonathan to die."
Benny caught MacKensie's convulsive movement, and placed a reassuring hand on the man's shoulder. "Easy, buds," he soothed, "Didn't happen." His gaze returned to his father. "Why did they wait?"
"I'd like to know that myself," said Jonathan in a carefully neutral tone. "After all the trouble they'd gone to, you'd think they would simply finish the job."
"Doyle wanted your death to look like an accident, a hit and run. Easier to explain than foul play. But Jesse, he said they had to hang around, make sure you didn't get up and walk away before exposure did you in."
"That still doesn't explain about your car," muttered Benny, although he had a pretty good idea what had happened if his dance partners of the previous night had been the same two goons.
Giving Benny a weak smile, Sam finished his explanation. "Jesse doesn't have any use for finesse, so naturally he resents a man of my talents. He's also about six three. And he was tired of hanging around. He decided he and Ralph would leave me to make sure Jonathan died before any help came. Then I could claim I'd been in the car, but was lucky enough not to get hurt in the accident. You can fill in the rest, I'm sure."
"Yeah," Benny stared at his old man with a hint of dawning respect. "I think I can." Although where Sam had found the strength to drag Jonathan this far from the wreck...MacKensie was no featherweight.
"Thank you, Sam." Jonathan shifted, reaching out sightlessly to his rescuer.
That image obliterated much of Benny's new-born respect. "Save your thanks, buds. It was the least he could do after getting you in this fix in the first place."
And somehow I've got to get us out of it. Benny preferred not to think of the mournful look his father had given him after that statement, or of Jonathan's troubled, "Benedek."
Taking a deep breath, he ducked back through the bushes into the cave. By the failing light of the fire he found things pretty much as he'd left them. Sam crouched at the back of the cave, jumping at every sound, looking hunted. Jonathan lay quietly on his back, only the rapid rise and fall of his chest indicating that he was awake, and probably trying to deal with the nightmare of his blindness.
"No sign of Doyle out there?" blurted Sam, dragging himself to his feet.
"What...?" Startled, Jonathan pulled himself up, face paling under the rough bandage covering his eyes.
"Easy, Jack, easy," Benny crossed the cave to kneel by his friend, adding in a soothing tone, "It's just me. Time to hit the road."
"Didn't mean to spook you, son," offered Sam apologetically before returning to his original question. "What did you find?"
"Nothing, but I don't know what's got you shaking in your booties there, Pop. It's Smiling Jack here Doyle wants dead, not you. Not his good buddy and partner, Sam Benedek." Turning his back on Sam, Benny urged MacKensie to his feet. "Easy does it, Jon. Lean on the shoulder that's it."
Fire filled Sam's voice. "Not partners, not any more. Doyle doesn't forgive or forget. When I pulled Jonathan out of that wreck, I burned my bridges but good. Danny'll kill me if he ever gets his hands on me."
Benny busied himself draping a blanket around Jonathan's shoulders, refusing to admit, even to himself, that he'd been unfair. "Don't you think you're exaggerating just a tad?" he asked with raised eyebrows.
Sam flared, "Dammit, Benny, just this once, can't you credit me with trying to do the right thing?"
"You knew I'd keep my promise!" Forgetting Jonathan's presence for the moment, Benedek turned to face his father, waving his hands belligerently.
"The hell with your promise! I did it because I liked him!"
Outraged by the old man's presumption, Benny shouted back. "Don't give me any of this 'you liked him' crap, Pop! In your entire life, the only person you've ever cared about is yourself!"
"Benedek." Jonathan broke into the rabid discourse, saying, "I think you two might want to save this discussion for another time?"
To his dismay, Benny found Jonathan back on the ground, looking decidedly ill. "Jonathan, what's wrong?" he asked, crouching down to get a better look at his friend. "We've got to get out of here."
Jonathan shook his head. "No, you've got to get out of here and get help. I'm staying put."
"Uh-uh, boyo, we go together or we stay together. And you don't really want to watch me..." Damn! Why did he have to keep pointing up his friend's condition? "Self-sacrifice is definitely not on the menu tonight, pal. You're coming."
"I am hurt, tired, hungry and cold, Benedek, but not a martyr. This is a completely selfish decision on my part." An echo of the teacher that he was when not chasing shadows colored Jonathan's voice, bringing a faint smile to Benny's somber face.
Amusement and exasperation warred in his voice as he made himself more comfortable on the ground beside his friend and said, "Lay it on, MacDuff and explain away. And make it good while you're at it."
"All right. Do you plan to carry me?" Jonathan asked quietly, no histrionics. Without waiting for a reply, he continued, "I can't walk. Just now, while you two were having your little tκte-ΰ-tκte, I tried to put weight on my ankle. It's no use pretending I can walk when I can't touch my foot to the ground or even see to grab something to support me. Sam worked wonders getting me here, but I suspect getting all the way back to town is another matter altogether" His voice rose, but he caught himself, and finished more sedately, "Ergo, since I can't go to the mountain, you've got to bring the mountain to me."
When Jonathan fell silent, Benny sighed. "I hate to admit this, Jack, but when you're right, you're right." More lightly, he added, "Besides, how can I possibly refuse a guy who uses the word 'ergo' correctly?"
MacKensie allowed himself a tight smile of his own before saying, "I assume you don't trust Sam to bring help on his own?"
"You got that right. He'd either bring Doyle here in an attempt to get back on the guy's good side, if he's got one, or get lost again. He's got a history, Jack." Benny stared at the ground, unable to face Mackensie even though the man couldn't see the emotions playing across his face.
Sam protested, "I wouldn't do that!"
Ignoring the emotions surrounding him, Jonathan went on. "I also assume you wouldn't want to leave Sam with me for the same reasons."
"Dammit Jonathan, I wish you wouldn't do this to me!" Benny rose, unsuccessfully stifling a groan when his stiff joints protested the move.
"Do what?" asked MacKensie innocently, trying and failing to hide his own smile of victory, knowing he'd won this round.
Benedek glared down at his friend, positive that if it weren't for the bandage, he'd catch his friend's eyes dancing with mischief at besting the professional conman's arguments. "Use logic on me. I can't stand it!" He paced the tiny area, then returned to stand by Jonathan. "All right, you win. Sam and I go for help, and you stay here, on one condition."
"What's that?" Benny caught the rush of relief in the other man's voice. So Jonathan wasn't as sure of himself as he'd let on. Perversely, that made him feel better.
"You don't do anything stupid like go into shock or catch pneumonia while we're gone. Randy'd never forgive me, and I already owe her my life."
Distracted by the apparent non sequitur, Jonathan started to ask, "What's Randy got to do..." until he got a warning nudge in the shoulder. "I promise," he promised meekly, allowing himself to slump back against the cave wall now that he'd gotten matters arranged satisfactorily.
"Good." Benny bent down to whisper lowly, "And don't think for a minute I can't see right through you, MacKensie. It's a nice, soppy, sentimental thought, sending the two of us off together, but forget it. Not all reunions are happy ones."
Long after the noise of Benny and Sam's departure
had faded into nothingness, Jonathan continued to strain to identify the sounds
that filled the night. Even the constant drip of the rain had an ominous ring to
it when accompanied by total darkness.
Get a hold of yourself, MacKensie, he chided himself in an unconscious imitation of Dr. Moorhouse. If you go on like this you'll be a gibbering idiot in no time. Benedek would never let you forget it either.
Resolutely, Jonathan lay back, taking several deep breaths in an attempt to slow his jumping pulse. Of its own volition, his mind went after the two men as they made their way out of the woods. Be careful.
He reached down to pull the blankets over him in a futile effort to warm his shivering body. As a simple safety precaution, he'd insisted that the fire be doused. Now, he wished for the heat that fire had provided, although he could feel a new fire starting deep inside himself as fever gained a foothold in his abused body.
His hand strayed to his forehead, lingering instead on the soft cloth binding his injured eyes. I wonder what atrocious t-shirt you were wearing I wonder if I'll ever know.
A bitter laugh escaped MacKensie, shaking him with its intensity. No good, Jack. If Randy can cope no, do far more than cope I should be able to manage a small problem like blindness, at least until my sight comes...
His spirits plunged from the momentary lift the memory of his young research assistant had given him, to his more normal doubts and anxieties.
If my sight comes back. He shifted restlessly and regretted the move immediately when he banged his injured ankle.
Sharp pain brought the release of tears which he'd steadfastly refused to allow before Benedek. But, along with the release, the tears brought an agony of their own, stinging as they touched the burns on his face. In a moment Jonathan hunched up in a ball, as miserable as he could ever remember being in his lifetime.
After an eternity the flood lessened and he waited for the pain to ease. His mind returned uneasily to the thought that had given him his release. If I am blind for the rest of my life he half-choked on the thought, but refused to break down again. Things will certainly change, no more digs, that's certain. He felt real regret at that. No more chances for discoveries, to make a name for myself, to 'get down and play in the dirt', as Benedek calls it.
A most unexpected burst of laughter startled him as did that last image. Jonathan frowned. I didn't think he'd rubbed off on me that much. How odd. He considered further, and decided that for all the resentment he'd felt at being blackmailed into the paranormal research the investigations have been more of a challenge than anything else, and a large part of the excitement has come with the changes Benedek has forced onto my staid vanilla-flavored life...
No more spook-hunt jaunts with the crazy journalist not much call for a blind ghost hunter. He surprised himself at the sharp pang that thought gave him. Once I would have jumped at the chance to return to my academic shell, but now? His spirit rebelled.
The only bright spot Jonathan could find involved his teaching. He'd have to work hard at rehabilitation, but with time, he could continue reaching eager and not-so-eager young minds, and fill them with a hint of the joy he'd found in tracing mankind's development, of piecing the fragments of the long-past together into a coherent whole...and not be able to see the glow understanding brought.
Ruthlessly he pushed that traitorous thought aside. Can't afford it. MacKensie drifted into a fevered sleep, which dulled the constant ache from his burns and his tortured ankle. He felt himself completely covered by a thick, black blanket...
Try as he might, there was no escape from the ebony covering. From somewhere he could hear voices. Benedek...Randy? Yes, Randy, calling desperately for him.
I'm here, he tried to call, but the blanket choked his words, tightening its grip on him. NO! His silent scream reverberated through his skull. Suddenly he couldn't breathe...darkness sucked away all the air...
"Jonathan, Jonathan..." Hands reached through the darkness to cup the sides of his face.
"Dr. Moorhouse?" Still caught in his airless void, Jonathan reached up to touch her face and found nothing but more darkness. Terrified, he tried to roll into a ball, to hide from the void, but other hands held him firmly, forcing him onto his back, while the woman's voice returned.
"Shush...easy, now, it's all right, Jonathan, everything will be well. I promise."
Her words faded into a comforting blur, while she tightened her grip on his face.
"Mother...?" Miraculously, Jonathan found he could breathe again and he was warm, deliciously warm and comfortable. "I couldn't..."
"Sleep, Jonathan. Rest." The voice of Dr. Moorhouse/Mother soothed him. The warmth spread to his eyes and on to the throbbing distress that was his ankle. "Rest."
As he drifted off into deep sleep, Jonathan heard another voice, male, murmuring something about, "...it's done...it's done..."
Benny slogged through the drizzly night, uncaring
of the noise his progress made. While neither he nor Jonathan had mentioned it
back in the cave, both were aware that MacKensie's best chance for a complete
recovery lay in expert medical care, promptly received. He meant to find that
help, even if it meant risking detection by Sam's associates. With any luck,
Doyle wasn't crazy enough to be out on a miserable night like this, searching
for loose ends. If I was a crook, I'd cut my losses and run, he thought. Then
again, if I was a crook, I'd probably be him. Glancing back at his father,
Benny slipped on a patch of wet leaves and would have fallen, if a strong hand
hadn't reached out to catch him.
"Hurting yourself's not gonna help your friend, son." Sam released his son's arm, responding to the angry look Benny sent him. "Besides, what happened none of it's your fault. You can't let it affect you."
"Damned right it's not my fault!" Benedek snapped, vainly trying to shove his wet hair out of his eyes. "But I'm the one who'll have to clean up the mess, right? Or do you think I should just forget my friend? Like you did? Where was it, Atlantic City?"
"Jerry understood. We were pals from way back. You didn't have to do anything." Uncomfortably aware that Benny's attack was justified, Sam backed away from the other man. "It wasn't necessary."
Again Benedek cut his father short, jabbing his finger in the air to make his point. "Maybe not from your point of view. After all that was my name you were using, Pop, not yours, mine. And when the law came sniffing, you cut out and left Jerry holding the bag! The man didn't even have enough common sense to be mad at you!" His voice changed, took on an authoritative air. "There are some people in this world who take responsibility for their actions. Not you, of course, not the great Sam Benedek. You could use Jerry to pass bad checks, but when somebody finally caught on...so long chump, right?" A part of him watched the argument, utterly amazed. I sound like Jonathan or worse, Dr. Moorhouse!
"I thought he'd get away." Sam's voice rose, shrill with guilt.
"He got sent away five years worth." Shaking his head disgustedly, Benny started to climb again, but yet another memory surged to the surface and he whirled on Sam, who barely managed to keep his balance on the wet slope. "And, as if what you did to Jerry wasn't bad enough, you pulled the same stunt again five years ago, remember? Only it got worse. Jordy sent a kid down to find out why I was sending in expenses from Baltimore. It took that poor kid all of six months to recover from the beating your 'associates' gave him. Good thing Wick's tough. Good thing he managed to find help before he bled to death. He'd have died waiting on you."
"I was sorry about the kid, but..."Sam barely managed to get a word in edgewise before Benny pounced on him.
"You weren't sorry enough to warn him you had visitors coming, to make sure he was all right. If I'd left you with Jonathan..."
Sam finally managed to break through Benny's avalanche of words, saying with what little dignity he retained, "I'd have stayed."
Snorting his disbelief, Benny shook his head. "Right and pigs can fly. Five minutes after I was gone, you'd have bolted, stumbled over Doyle and watched while he finished the job on Jonathan. Oh, you'd be sorry like you were about Jerry and Wick, but you'd watch." Bitterly he added, "You'd probably watch him kill me too." With that last barb, Benny turned his back on Sam and started working his way up the slope once more. I haven't got the time or energy for this heart-to-heart stuff, he thought wearily, grabbing a sapling for balance when his foot threatened to slip out from under him..
"Just one cotton-picking minute, Mr. High-and-Mighty Edgar Benedek." Sam's anger gave his voice unusual depth. "You're a fine one to give lectures on how to live a respectable life, aren't you? Writing for that supermarket rag? Skinning people with those pseudo-expert books? Using people to get to the high life? Where do you get off telling me what I'd do? You don't know me well enough for that." He scrambled after Benny, grabbed the younger man's arm, forcing him to meet his burning eyes.
Ignoring the slur on his own life, Benny retorted defiantly, "Whose fault is that I don't know you, old man? Who ran out when Mom found out she was pregnant, leaving her all alone so she had to give me up for adoption at birth? You never bothered to call and find out if she had a son or a daughter." He choked back an unwanted sob, refusing to yield to any emotion other than anger. I won't give him the satisfaction of knowing I care! Forcing himself to speak more calmly, he continued, "Who is it never bothered to call Grandma to ask if she knew who this Edgar Benedek was when I started making it known? She told me you wouldn't, that I shouldn't get my hopes up, but I didn't want to believe her. Hell, I was just a dumb kid. I said you'd call. You'd want to know if I could be your son. Talk about a great snow job, the conman conned himself." He shook himself free and completed the climb to the top of the slope in troubled silence. Dredging up the old memories hurt, more than he cared to admit.
"I knew who you were the first time I saw you on TV, but I couldn't call." Sam's voice became that of an old man in the space of a moment. "I was in prison."
Likely story. "I checked the prisons."
"You wouldn't have found me. I was using an alias when I was arrested. Mom would have killed me if she knew I was there Ossining, five years for forgery." Sam stared down at his feet. "I watched the first time you made the talk shows. That book about ghosts in Europe?"
Hugging his anger, Benny refused to allow any sympathy for the beaten man before him creep into his voice. "Do you have any idea how hard I looked for you? Can you guess how hard Mom and Grandma worked to keep me from finding out what a slimeball you were?" He waved his arms furiously. "They kept feeding me this bull about how you were a hero in World War II so I wouldn't go into anything that happened after the war."
Stung, Sam scrambled up the slope until he was on a level with Benny. "I was a hero in the war!" he yelled, stabbing at his son's chest with his finger, defending the one moment of glory of his life. "I saved my whole company with my sharpshooting!"
"Big deal." Eloquently Benny looked his father up and down, his eyes flaming with anger. "What've you done lately?"
"Not much, squirt."
Startled by the unexpected interruption, Benny hesitated just long enough for a rough hand to shove him to the ground. Trying not to panic, he stared up at three strangers who had materialized out of the darkness.
One of the men sneered condescendingly down at him. "Except let his pals down when they rely on him. Course, from what you were saying just now, that's nothing new for him." He favored Sam with an injured expression on his face. "Not very smart, Sam, changing horses in midstream."
Sam shrugged, an apologetic smile blossoming on his face, the professional tone back in his voice. "I got carried away, Danny. The Professor, he was a nice guy."
"Was?" Doyle's face hardened. "Where's MacKensie?"
"He died this morning, like you wanted, only in a cave instead of the car." Sam's voice reflected regret, then a pleading note entered into it. "Danny, I didn't really cross you. It just got to me, sitting there, watching him. All we have to do is change the story a little. I'll say MacKensie seemed all right after the accident, then we got lost looking for help. We found the cave, but he must've had internal injuries. It'll work, I'm sure of it. Everyone in town knows he and I were working together. Who'd think I was lying?"
Benny stared open-mouthed at his father's adroit way with words, but before he could do more than sullenly admire the technique, one of the thugs nudged him in the ribs with a boot.
"What about this one? He's not gonna go along with that story." His hand went to what Benny had to assume was a shoulder holster under his jacket that probably held a very large gun.
Doyle grinned, his eyes narrowing as they went from Benny, seated awkwardly on the ground, to Sam, waiting anxiously for a reply. "You're right, Jesse. Two Edgar Benedeks could cause us a lot of trouble. Give me your gun."
"Sure, Dan." The thug calmly produced a Magnum and handed it over obediently, an expectant grin on his face.
"I think there's something out there," called the third man, breaking his silence, while his eyes tried to probe the darkness.
"Probably the State Police," bluffed Benny, deciding he'd been left out of the conversation too long. "I left a call with them last night before I left Exeter. Your guys followed me, Doyle, they know I stopped."
"Shut up, squirt." Danny nodded at Jesse, who gave Benedek a sharp kick that doubled him over, gasping for breath.
"You won't get away with it, Doyle," Benny whispered hoarsely when he could finally see past the mist fogging his vision. "Trust me."
"Maybe not, but you won't be around to see what happens, so what do you care?" Smiling broadly, Doyle pointed the gun at Benny, cocked the trigger, then paused, "Sam, you want back in, right?"
"S-sure, Danny." The elder Benedek's face was beaded with sweat as he tried to avoid his son's accusing eyes. "You know me."
"Yeah, I do." He returned his attention to Benny. "I met your old man in Ossining, kid. He'd do anyone dirt to keep himself ahead." His eyes slid speculatively from Benny to Sam. Benny stared, horrified, at the trigger being pulled as far back as it would go. "Even watch me kill his own kid."
His smile grew even wider when Benny failed to suppress the shudder that shook him. "You were right about one thing, kid. He'll be real sorry about it. He's always sorry. Might even keep him awake for a few nights, but that'll pass. He'll be alive. And free."
"I won't be that sorry." Sam's voice had changed, gone hard. "Benny's been nothing but trouble from the first time we met, a bleeding heart like his mother." Sam spared Benny an unreadable glance before returning his attention to Doyle. "Why don't you let me do the job?" he offered.
"Kill his own kid?" Jesse broke his silence. "He ain't got the guts, Danny. You can't trust him. Look how close he came to blowing the whole deal here."
"I won't fail you, Danny. You know I wouldn't make that mistake twice. Try me." Sam held out his hand for the gun.
Swallowing hard, Benny watched in horror as Doyle nodded, the criminal's face lighting with a perverted pleasure, releasing the trigger. He's getting a real boot out of father killing son here.
Sam's fingers closed around the Magnum, taking it from Doyle's hand. You'd probably watch him kill me too. The words returned to Benny, with all the force of prophecy come true. "Figures," he said, pure venom dripping from his voice. "I had you pegged wrong again, old man. Never thought you'd do your own dirty work. But it's the last time, right? Third time lucky?"
He attempted to sit up, but Jesse forced him flat. "Go ahead, Sam," Benny gasped, his thoughts winging back to his friend. Sorry Jonathan. I didn't mean to let you down. "Do it."
"Yeah, go ahead, Sam." Doyle pulled his own, smaller caliber pistol out and trained it on his erstwhile 'partner'. "Or you'll be knocking on those pearly gates just a minute before he does."
"You never should have tried to find me, Benny. I wasn't worth it." Slowly, Sam pulled the weapon up, supporting its weight with both hands while he took aim. "Stay still and it'll be over fast and easy."
"Can't always have it easy, Sam." Benny's mouth went dry as the pistol barrel drew his eyes, leaving him unable to look anywhere else. I didn't really think you'd do it, Pop. Never thought that even you could sink this low. As Sam's finger tightened on the trigger, Benny managed to pull his eyes away, and noticed that Jesse had stepped back, out of the line of fire. Seizing on the unexpected reprieve, Benny gathered himself together and rolled in the opposite direction.
Behind him he heard the Magnum roar, a scream of pain following, then two more shots in rapid succession. Each time he expected the bullet to slam into his exposed back as he scrambled frantically for cover. Two more shots. Two more screams. And nothing.
After the ominous silence had stretched out over several minutes Benny decided to risk a quick look from the shelter he'd taken behind a large rock. No sooner had he made his move than a new voice boomed out, amplified by a loudspeaker. "Put down your weapons. This is the State Police. You are surrounded. I repeat, drop your weapons and stand with your hands above your heads and no one will be hurt."
"Hey, I'm one of the good guys!" Benny started to his feet, only to drop back as a shadowy figure pressed a gun into his hand before vanishing into the trees beyond.
The voice behind the loudspeaker repeated its message, then searchlights speared into the clearing, bringing the aftermath of the battle into stark relief.
Amazed, Benny stared around at the carnage left in the wake of the brief shootout. The gang leader, Doyle, lay on his back, clutching his bleeding right hand to his chest. To his right, Jesse sat staring stupidly about, obediently holding his hands out for the cuffs a uniformed officer pulled from his belt. A spiderwork of blood down the side of the thug's face explained the loss of his previous pugnaciousness. And just beyond Jesse, the third man stood with his hands raised, muttering, "I never thought that old fool had it in him...never..."
Sam! Reminded of his father, Benedek stumbled to his feet, the Magnum falling from his nerveless fingers. Nowhere in the midst of this now-organized chaos was there a sign of the elder Benedek. The shadow? Benny stared down at the gun nestled in the damp grass at his feet, admiration warring with annoyance in his mind. Damn, you skipped out again! But he couldn't hold the anger and a relieved grin broke out o his face. But what an exit.
Before he had the chance to examine his mixed feelings any further, one of the state policemen approached him. Automatically, Benedek started to raise his hands, unwilling to risk being identified as one of the bad guys in this bizarre scenario.
The man shook his head, motioning for Benny to lower his arms. "It's all right, Mr. Benedek."
"Ah, a fan." He slipped on an ingratiating grin, eyes still watching for any sign of Sam. I hope you make it, old man.
"Not exactly." The officer bent down to retrieve the Magnum as he spoke. "Mrs. Manning described both you and your friend when she called in."
Thinking he meant Sam, Benedek didn't know what to say. If the old man had told the truth, and obviously he had about being a sharpshooter, then an ex-con tied into a shoot-out would be in deep trouble. Particularly since his former partners wouldn't be inclined to be forgiving after his second and far more damaging betrayal. On the other hand...
Relief and guilt in equal portions surged through Benedek. Relief that he'd have some time to sort out his feelings for his errant father and guilt that he'd forgotten Jonathan for even an instant.
"Jonny" Benny gulped. "He's back that way, in a cave we found. Doyle and his bunch set up a trap, hurt him too badly to travel." After giving the man a brief summary of events, he found himself trailing the officer up to the highway and his car radio. The road was this close?
Swallowing his disgust at his own wilderness ineptitude, Benny added, "Jack's eyes were pretty badly burned. I did my best, but he really needs proper medical help."
While the officer made arrangements, Benny leaned tiredly against the car. Pop, I think I hope you get away. It'd be kinda hard to talk with bars between us. And we've got a lot of talking to do ...even if I have to tie you down myself next time you screw up. But I've got to hand it to you. You saved both of us. Of course, you nearly gave me heart failure along the way.
He rubbed his burning eyes. Later, I'll sort it all out later.
In what seemed a matter of minutes, Benny found himself leading the state policeman, Barton, according to his nameplate, and a pair of husky paramedics back along the route he and Sam had taken from the cave. Funny how different things look in the light, he mused, glancing up at the sky, noting gray streaks on the horizon heralding the start of another day.
His hand wrapped around his ever-present good luck charm, Benedek pondered how well MacKensie had fared through the long night, hurt and alone in the darkness. Remember, you promised, Jack no shock or anything stupid while I was gone. It'll be hard enough to face Dr. M if you're blind permanently. That thought sped his steps, overriding the aches that warned him he'd walked a lot more miles in the recent past than his feet were accustomed to handling. Later, I promise, we'll rest later, in a nice hot tub.
"There." He pointed out the entrance after nearly an hour of silent hiking. "The cave's behind that clump of bushes."
"I'll be damned, the haunted cave." One of the paramedics, a blond giant, grinned. "I'd almost forgotten it existed."
"Haven't been out this way since Scouts," added Barton with a smile.
"Haunted?" Tiredly Benny wondered if he'd heard the two men correctly, but the word sent a surge of adrenalin through him. With any luck, once Jonathan was in good hands, he could salvage something solid out of this fiasco, salve Dr. Moorhouse's anger with a peace offering. Yeah, Jack's blind, but there was this cave. Stepping hard on that bitter image, he listened to the EMT's reply.
"Yeah, the cave's tied into Grummon's Rock and the blind cow a local thing." The blond shifted uncomfortably under Benny's suddenly intense scrutiny.
"I'd like to hear more about it later." Benedek studied the man's nameplate. "MacFarland." Memory sparked suspicion. "You wouldn't happen to have a brother Simon by any chance? Or an Aunt Kate?"
After getting a satisfactorily uncomfortable look from MacFarland, Benny hurried ahead, eager to check on Jonathan. I'll take care of you later, you and the ubiquitous Aunt Kate, even if she did send the help she promised. He slipped through the bushes into the cave. Blinking while his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he called out cheerily, "Rise and shine, Jonny I'm back!"
When he got no response, his tone changed, grew questioning. "Jack?" The blanket-covered figure at the back of the cave remained silent and still, sending Benedek's spirits into a nosedive.
"Come on, Jack, this isn't funny." Crossing the small space in a few quick steps, he went down on his knees to study his friend. "You promised! Nothing dumb." Benny fought to keep a handle on his rising panic. If Sam's earlier line to Doyle had proved prophetic...no, Jonathan's chest rose and fell steadily.
Breathing a fervent sigh of relief, Benny stretched out a hand to test the other man's forehead for fever, but froze, the gesture uncompleted. Despite the deep shadows in the cave, he could see that a clean, white bandage covered Jonathan's eyes, hiding the damage done by the burns; a proper bandage, not the T-shirt reluctantly sacrificed the previous day.
"What the ?" His eyes darted about and found two objects lying on the ground near MacKensie's head his T-shirt, both parts neatly folded, and an old-fashioned, woman's handkerchief. A faint scent of lavender greeted him as he lifted it from the ground to read the monogram embroidered in one corner.
Eyebrows raised, Benedek tucked the linen square away for a later conversation, and returned his attention to his friend. "Jonathan," he called, shaking the man's shoulder gently. From the entrance he could hear the other three men approaching with the stretcher, Barton's voice raised in a suggestion for clearing the cave entrance. "Come on, Jack, you've got to wake up."
MacKensie stirred, then jumped as he realized he wasn't alone. "B-benedek?" he asked in a hopeful tone.
"Who else?" Feeling the man's muscles tense beneath his hand, Benny added quickly, "Everything's just fine, buds. I brought the cavalry. And just what do you think you're doing?" he added irritably when Jonathan started to shift position.
"Sitting" Giving up the effort as a mistake, MacKensie slumped back onto the blanket. "But I think I'll forget about it for now," he concluded, a plaintive note creeping into his voice. He jumped at the sound of the bushes being torn away. "What sort of cavalry did you find, a flock of beavers?" he asked curiously.
Got your sense of humor back, guess things are starting to look up. With a grin, Benny replied, "Naw, just a couple to get rid of that mess out front. They've got to get the stretcher in so you can ride back to town in style."
"I don't think that's really necessary," Jonathan protested feebly, a matter of form that Benny recognized for what it was.
"Don't even think about the macho routine, pal. I didn't slog through that typhoon last night, get shot at and hike back here so you..."
"You were shot at? Benedek, are you all right?" Agitated, Jonathan again struggled to sit up, hands seeking his friend for reassurance. "What about Sam?"
"Who's Sam?" MacFarland had appeared suddenly, crouching by MacKensie with a frown on his face.
"No one. Jack's,uh...he's just disoriented. You know, the injuries and all." Benny nudged Jonathan, hoping he'd take the hint.
"Benedek!" Jonathan turned his head toward the other man, but the sudden movement brought on a crashing pain and he lay back, clutching at his aching head.
"Relax, Dr. MacKensie," soothed the paramedic, getting down to work. "Let me get a good look at you." Placing a portable lantern on the cave floor for illumination, he investigated Jonathan's injuries, clucking solicitously over the varied cuts and abrasions that covered his face and upper torso. "I'm Deric MacFarland, by the way."
"Jonathan MacKen-ow! MacKensie " Apologetically he added, "Sorry about that, my ankle's a bit tender."
"Tender," scoffed Benny. "Last time I looked, it was about to rival an elephant's ankle in size, if not beauty."
"Actually, the ankle doesn't look too bad." MacFarland looked up, a puzzled expression on his face. "Sore, sure, but with a little ice to bring down the swelling, you should be able to walk on it in no time."
"Let me see." Benny leaned over the paramedic's shoulder and stared. Jonathan's ankle, which had been so badly hurt the man had been unable to put any weight on it, now looked as though it had had a two-week rest. "Didn't know you healed this fast, pal."
"What's wrong?" asked Jonathan apprehensively.
MacFarland offered, "Could be with the shadows last night, things looked worse than they really were."
"Right." Benny sounded unconvinced, but decided to let things slide for the present. "What about his eyes?"
Looking at the bandage, MacFarland shook his head. "You did a professional job, Mr. Benedek. I think I'd rather leave the eyes alone until a specialist can take a look at them."
"Wonderful," muttered Jonathan, one hand reaching up to touch the bandage lightly.
"Uh-uh, Jack, want to spoil my professional work?" Benny slapped his friend's hands away.
"You really are good, Mr. Benedek. Looks like you must've had some medical training." The younger man waved behind him for his partner and Barton to bring in the stretcher.
"Nah. It's just some down home first aid I picked up when I was a kid. There was this social group I hung around with..."
Tired of being excluded from the conversation, Jonathan contributed sourly, "A gang, he means the Deaftones."
"Deathtones, Jack, and who invited you into this discussion anyway?" Benny rapped his friend's arm lightly, but the relief he felt must have shown up in his voice, because Jonathan managed a weak smile.
"Dr. MacKensie, we're ready to go. Just relax. George and I will do the work, getting you onto the stretcher. Okay?"
"Okay." But Jonathan tensed again when he felt the paramedic rise to help with the stretcher.
"Cake, Jonny, that's what it is, nothing but cake." Benny spoke quickly, trying to sound confident, but he was almost as antsy as his friend.
"That's easy for you to say," fretted Jonathan, his hands twisting anxiously together. After a moment of silence he asked, "What happened to Sam?" His voice so low Benny had to lean down to catch the words.
Grateful for the man's discretion, Benny replied with a quick glance over his shoulder. "Long story, buds. I'll tell you later. For now, remember there is no Sam Benedek here in Exeter, never has been. Comprende?"
"No, but that's nothing new." Jonathan bit his lip, his headache intensifying.
"You all right?" When Jonathan nodded, he decided to ask the question that had been burning in him since he'd found the handkerchief. "Jack, inquiring minds want to know. Who spent the night with you? It sure wasn't Dolly Parton."
"Of course not. It was Kathleen Turner." Awkwardly, MacKensie twisted to face in Benedek's direction. "What are you talking about? I was alone."
"Uh-uh, Jonny that line won't scan. I didn't do this bandage job on your eyes. Remember, I used a T-shirt." Benny pressed, hearing footsteps and cheerful curses coming their way.
"You grumbled about it loudly enough, but..." Jonathan frowned, his hands going up to the bandage once more. "There wasn't anyone here. I-I'm sure of that." His voice rose, revealing his distress.
"All right, Jack, there was no one here," soothed Benedek, sorry he'd brought the subject up so soon. "Now, relax, or old Deric there's gonna revoke my first aid badge."
Before Jonathan could reply, the paramedics and Barton arrived, quickly shifting him to a stretcher and manhandling him out of the cave.
For a moment Benny remained behind, eyes fastening first on his ruined T-shirt and then on the handkerchief he pulled from his pocket. He frowned, remembering Jonathan's almost healed ankle.
"In a pig's eye you were alone, buddy. In a pig's eye."
Hospital waiting rooms were all the
same, thought Benedek, pacing restlessly past the uncomfortable plastic chairs
filled with anxious people all awaiting attention. Why didn't I claim
Jonathan was my long-lost brother or something so I could have gone in with him?
Dumb move. Very dumb. Now I'm stuck out here, as much in the dark figuratively
as JJ is actually.
"Jonathan will recover completely, Mr. Benedek."
Spinning on his heel, Benny found himself staring into the calm eyes of Kate Manning. "I wish you wouldn't do that," he complained. "Next time can't you announce your arrival with a drum roll or something?"
"I'll see what I can do," replied Kate, a faint sparkle in her eye. "Meanwhile, I meant what I said. Your friend will be just fine."
"Somehow I knew you'd say something like that." Benny yanked the handkerchief from his pocket. "Jack wasn't alone last night, was he?" He watched the woman for a reaction, but all she did was smile, triggering his temper.
Mindful of the other people in the room, he kept his voice low. "Look, I know you did something to him on your little nocturnal visit. Jack's a clever guy, but he doesn't go into Vulcan healing trances when he's hurt, and he was a whole lot better when we found him than when I left. You want to keep your visit secret, I'm cool, but why did you leave him there? His eyes needed a lot more than simple first aid. Jack's blind, lady, as in 'like a bat'. Do you have any idea what that does to his life? I'll tell you. It knocks everything he's worked for right out from under him, that's what it does."
"I never wanted anyone to be hurt." Instead of soothing him, the woman's quiet words only fueled Benny's rage.
"You never wanted anyone to be hurt," he mimicked cruelly. "Of course not, but if you hadn't had to play mysterious lady, giving vague warnings through 'nephews' who appear and disappear out of nowhere, none of this would have happened. Matter of fact, you're not too shabby at the magic tricks yourself."
"There were and are good reasons for everything I did, Mr. Benedek." Kate raised troubled eyes to meet his angry gaze. "I wish I could tell you more, but I've already taken more chances than I should coming here this morning." She touched the handkerchief he still held. "Keep this, if you like. A souvenir of our meeting," she said softly.
The sound of a gurney being rolled past distracted Benny briefly. He turned and spotted MacFarland and George off on another call. Glancing at his watch he found that a mere half hour had passed since the paramedics had wheeled Jonathan into a treatment room; not a long time, actually. Not for a crowded emergency room like this one. Except when you were waiting for news like all the other anxious people.
As he turned back to face Kate, Benny said, "Now about this souvenir business..." and stopped short, staring about wildly. The woman was nowhere to be seen.
Not again! She's gotta stop doing this to me, it isn't fair. He studied the handkerchief in his hand, frowning. A souvenir, huh? When what I need is a story?
"Mr. Benedek?" Startled from his meditation, Benny looked up to see a tall, cadaverously-thin man in surgical greens standing at the door. "You came in with Jonathan MacKensie?" Mutely, Benny nodded. "I've been taking care of your friend. My name is Estin."
"How's Jonathan?" asked Benedek, barely managing a polite acknowledgement of the man's introduction.
Estin gave him what was supposed to be a reassuring smile. "He's doing very well, Mr. Benedek. He does have a nasty headache due to the aftereffects of a concussion, various cuts and abrasions, but, frankly, he's in much better shape than I expected after hearing the report of his accident from the EMTs."
"What can I say? Jack's a fast healer. What about his eyes?" Benny waved off the smaller injuries, going right for the rough part. He hadn't imagined those burns or the sightless stare Jonathan had given him back in the cave.
Estin gave him a curious look before continuing with his report. "You did a very professional job with the bandaging, but I have to wonder why. At that stage of healing, those burns would be better off exposed to the air."
"At what stage of healing?" stammered Benny uneasily.
"Well, the injuries are obviously several weeks old." Estin stumbled to a halt as Benny leaned forward, a frustrated look in his eye.
"Wait a minute, Doc. This doesn't make any sense. For one thing, those 'old' injuries happened night before last. And for another, I've seen bad burns before in my line of work, and those were probably second degree. And lastly, Jack's eyesight was involved, as in destroyed."
Realizing that Estin was not the enemy, Benny softened his tone, backing away a few paces. "Sorry about that, Doc. Guess I'm more tired than I thought. But I had to make sure you knew that my buddy, well, he's been through the mill, and I don't mean a few weeks ago."
The look the doctor gave him was unreadable. "I think I understand your concern for your friend, Mr. Benedek, and what you thought you saw last night. However, I can only report how things look to my eye now. If you'd like, you can see for yourself. Dr. MacKensie has asked for you to be present when I remove the pads from his eyes." The doctor delivered the message flatly, and waited expectantly for an answer.
"Huh?" Total panic filled Benny. Oh, no, you don't, Jonathan. You can't ask me to be there if the news is bad. I can't deal with this, no way. It's not fair to ask me to. Even as he fought to control a desire to refuse the request, Benny heard his own words to Sam come back to haunt him. 'You weren't sorry enough to hang around, make sure he got help.'
"Mr. Benedek?" Estin looked concerned. Probably expects to end up with two patients for the price of one, the way I've been acting.
Reaching a decision, Benedek nodded acceptance. "Lead the way, Doc. Can't let Jonathan wait too long for his grand unveiling. He tends to get impatient."
Benny trailed after Estin, his hands jammed in his pockets. We've had two miracles, Jon-boy. Let's try for three. Please.
Taking a deep breath, he rubbed his good luck charm with one hand, and with the other held tightly to Kate's souvenir.
The small examining room had been darkened to put as little strain as possible on Jonathan's injured eyes. Lying prone on the bed, Jonathan looked terrified, and too proud to admit to it all at the same time. The bandage that had covered his head earlier had been replaced with a large gauze pad over the cut above his left temple.
Benny frowned, staring at the now-visible burns. Damn, but Estin knows what he's talking about. "Hey Jack, you look like spent too much time at the Exeter Tanorama last week. Next time you should try the local place around the corner from GI, the mileage up here is the pits."
"I'll keep that in mind, Benedek." MacKensie acknowledged his partner's presence with a slight nod. "Dr. Estin, I guess it's time." His cool voice might have fooled Benny if he hadn't seen the way Jonathan's fingers kept pleating the sheet thoughtfully provided to prevent any embarrassment caused by the hospital dress of the day.
"Very well." The doctor stepped up to the bed. "You'll feel the pads being removed, but I want you to keep your eyes closed until I tell you otherwise."
While Benny watched the doctor at work, he started up a steady stream of patter, aimed at distracting Jonathan. "So, Jonny, did I tell you what happened after I left you last night? No? Well, the bad guys caught up with me about a half-mile from the highway. They were about to blow me away, when I knocked one over, grabbed his Magnum and made like Dirty Harry make my day and all. I'm an honest-to-gosh hero, buds. Can you picture that? Jordy ought to give me a cover story out of this. 'Famous Journalist in Death Battle with Desperate Drug Smugglers.' That's what Doyle and his bunch were up to, by the way using the old UFO stories to build up a distraction for their own activities. See they had these two helicopters..."
His voice trailed off as Estin lifted the pads clear and began examining Jonathan's eyelids. Somehow, overnight, like the rest of the burned areas, these had also healed to the extent that Jonathan seemed to have suffered nothing more severe than a bad sunburn. "This is crazy!" he exclaimed. His hand brushed the handkerchief once again. Kate, I swear, if he can see, I'll turn a 'blind eye' on your little nocturnal jaunts and settle for the drug story.
"What is it?" A sudden tremor shook MacKensie when Benny failed to answer. "Benedek, what's wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong, Dr. MacKensie," injected the doctor, giving Benny a dark look. "Nothing at all. I'd like you to open your eyes now, slowly and carefully." Estin's voice was cool, but a slight touch of hope seemed to break through the professional tones.
Ever so slowly, Jonathan did just that, until his eyes were open all the way, and blinking. Blinking! He stared about, no expression at all on his face, driving Benedek mad with impatience.
"Jonny? Jack come on, tell me everything's gonna be all right in the final reel. I can't wait for Finis to flash on the screen." Benny leaned past the doctor and gave his friend's arm an impatient shake.
After an eternity, Jonathan spoke. "Forget the Don Johnson look, Benedek." A huge grin spread across his face. "Dr. Moorhouse would kill you for sure."
Running a hand over his stubbled chin, Benny let out a whoop of triumph. "You can see? Whoa! Talk about your last minute reprieves! This is fantastic!" He sobered abruptly to scold the other man, "Don't ever give me a heart attack like that again, MacKensie, or I won't come up with a cover story for you with the dragon lady."
"You've got a deal," replied Jonathan fervently, before giving his attention to the smiling man beside Benny. "You must be Dr. Estin."
"Yes I am, and let me tell you how glad I am that the injuries to your eyes weren't nearly as bad as I'd been led to believe...Dr. MacKensie? What is it?"
Jonathan stared past the two men. "Benny, isn't that Sam?" Pointing, MacKensie sat up too quickly, and paid for it, falling back with a resounding groan as his headache suddenly intensified.
But Benedek had turned fast enough to spot his father at the door, a wide grin on his face, giving Jonathan a thumb's up signal before ducking away. "Be right back, Jack!" exclaimed Benny dashing out the door after Sam. He came back! The words played like a litany as he searched futilely for any sign of his fugitive parent.
After fifteen minutes, Benny gave up the search to return to the emergency room. Hopefully, Jonny would have come up with some semi-believable explanation for his abrupt departure; otherwise the good doctor might be arranging to fit him with a new wraparound suit. But, not even that could worry him now. Things are great, Grandma. Jonathan's all right and Pop called. After all these years, he called. Not exactly a normal call, but the guy's a Benedek what can you expect?
© Mary F. Wardell. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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