Hounds and Hares: Episode One
Hounds and Hares
This story, as if most readers could not figure it out, is fiction.
Nestled in the quiet midlands of New Jersey, the suburban town of Forsythia, seen from an aerial view, was actually a gentle swirl of houses and stores, rather than a tight cluster. The old and run down main street formed a weakening center, around which curled the clusters of nearly identical houses and prefabs. At midnight on a Friday, the town was as relaxed and silent as cat in the deepest stages of comfortable sleep, tucked around itself in blissful unconsciousness.
There was something almost holy in the darkness, Jennifer thought, as she lit a cigarette and gazed out at the silent town.
"You know, those things will kill you," Bruce said from behind her where he and Chucky were playing Crazy 8's at the battery operated camp light.
"My mom says it's a filthy habit," Chucky added righteously.
Her reverie shattered, Jennifer regretfully stubbed the cigarette out on the aged window sill, then spit on the ashes to make sure nothing live remained.
"Besides," Bruce added, "You're too visible there with a cigarette in your hand. It would look like a beacon from the street."
"Nobody's out on the street," Jennifer said. "It's after midnight. You coming up tomorrow?" she asked Bruce.
"If I can."
He liked to work up there alone. There were days when Chucky was elsewhere, when he and she could play chess and poker together, undisturbed. Bruce and she had been friends all their lives, since their parents had put them in the wading pool together at the township playground when they were toddlers. Jennifer knew that she did not have his numerical brilliance, but there was something in him that seemed to make her own mind grow a little more..
Establishing a stronghold in the haunted house had been her idea; mapping out exactly how they would have to throw off suspicion and discourage intruders had been his. Bruce usually supplied most of the engineering to carry out Jennifer's ideas.
From far away in the lower regions of the old house, something thumped. Chucky leaped to his feet. As the youngest of the trio--at nine--he was also the most easily frightened
"It's just the house settling," Bruce said confidently. At thirteen, he was already determined to shake off his childhood fears.
"Unless somebody did see that light from my cigarette," Jennifer whispered, crossing to the lamp and cutting it off. They waited in breathless silence in the darkness, but the silence stretched out around them, through the big attic room that they had converted into their retreat, down the long halls of the deserted house, down the stairways, across the main floors below. Nothing moved.
Still, nobody said anything. At last Chucky whispered, "My grandma says there are too such things as ghosts in houses--"
"Shut up, Chucky!" Jennifer hissed. "There's no such things as ghosts." She never believed in them herself, except when she was in the Miller house and it was after midnight. But alongside her fear of the darkness and the bigness of the place, she felt the stirrings of fear of other things. "It could be the Fissingers," she whispered. "They've been looking around for us, wondering where we're hiding."
"They'd never sneak up to the house this quietly," Bruce said. "But maybe the police would, if somebody saw us and complained."
"But there's nobody out there," she argued in a whisper.
Their brief conversation made her feel bolder. She clicked the dim lamp back on. "Bruce is right," she said aloud. "It was just the house settling."
They all three stared at the glow of the lamp in quiet satisfaction. "Want to keep playing?" Bruce asked Chucky, holding up the cards. The younger boy nodded, calmed by Bruce's assurance. Though he trailed Jennifer by about 6 months, Bruce often seemed to be the oldest of the three of them. While he dealt a hand to Chucky, Jennifer dug out the box of powdered doughnuts she had brought.
"I can't figure why the Fissingers haven't found us yet," she said, passing a doughnut to Bruce. "We've been here for nearly a month. I saw them last week looking around for us."
"The Fissingers couldn't find their way out of a box," Bruce said. "The only thing they would think to do with this place is burn it down if they could get away with it." He was usually easy going and forgiving, but years of being bullied by the incredible Fissinger clan had built up a certain grudge in him.
She brought out her pack of Winstons from her jacket pocket, shook out a cigarette, and lit one.
"My mom says that's bad for you," Chucky began.
"Are we going to start that again?" she asked, lighting it.
Bruce grimaced. For one thing, smoking on the top floor of an abandoned house that was as dry as tinder was unsafe, but he knew that Jennifer would not heed any warnings on that score.
He turned back to the game, but just then, unmistakably, something crashed down below in the old house. All three of them leaped up.
"There's somebody down there," Jennifer gulped. She had dreamed up the idea to scatter props around downstairs that would look like furniture draped over in storage. He had supplied the cartons, crates, and boxes stacked together with sheets draped over them to create the effect. Bruce clicked off the battery powered camp light before the words were out of her mouth.
"Somebody must have seen us up here!" he hissed. "They've fallen over the fake furniture." He ran to his table and began stuffing bits of his precious electrical gadgetry into his jacket pockets.
"What do we do? What do we do?" Chucky squealed.
"Get out on the tree!" Bruce ordered. "Don't go first, Chucky! Let Jennifer lead you down!" She was already swinging one leg over the window sill that faced the back of the house and the huge old oak tree. "What are you worried about that stuff for?" she snapped at him as she straddled the sill. "Let's go!" Typical of them, they had an emergency escape route all planned out, and they had even done drills on getting out of the old Miller House in a hurry. With the threat of the Fissingers, other older kids, and the police all hanging over their late night ventures into the deserted house, fast getaways had seemed a good idea.
"I can't let them take this stuff!" he exclaimed. "Go first! I'll be right behind Chucky!"
"Come on, Chuck, let's go!" She ducked her head under the window sash and reached her leg out for the platform that Bruce had built onto the oak tree. In a second she had swung herself out to the tree. She reached back, took Chucky's arm, and helped him across. Quickly and efficiently following their drill, they scurried down the tree. Fear pressed in on all three of them, but at the back of the fear was a certain pride that they could carry out their plans with such perfect execution.
But as they got to the bottom of the massive oak, a sudden slivery burst of light split the light sky. Jennifer ducked down, trying to find a hedge, mistaking the light for a searchlight. It illuminated the sky too long and too silently to be lightning. It lit up the silent field around the Miller house and pointed them out like scarecrows. Chucky fell to the ground. The light disappeared, and then it was followed by another burst, and then one more. She found herself huddled at the foot of the tree, eyes jammed closed, her arms outstretched for Chucky, who was at her feet. Bruce had one arm around her and one around the tree, as though he would have held them to this safe and familiar thing. The silent darkness of the town returned. All of them were trembling.
"It was just lightning," Bruce said, but his voice was quivering.
"Let's get out of here!" she exclaimed in a whisper.
They helped Chucky up and legged it across the field, across Trenton Road, which formed the border of the newer Forsythia and the older sections. Soon, they were in the safe confines of their neighborhood streets, which were all set down like a gridwork, with nearly identical two-story houses lined up in perfect rows.
* * * *
Bruce knew that she would be braver in daylight, and impatient to effect a reconnaissance of her beloved house. Just after sunrise, at about six thirty, he heard a penny tap against his window. He looked out to see her, hair askew, wearing last night's clothes. Had she slept at all?
"Let's go check!" she called up to him.
"Hang on," he said, trying to sound cheerful. He would have preferred to sleep, as Chucky was doing, rolled into a pile of blankets and sheets on the floor. Chucky had standing permission to spend Friday nights at Bruce's house, an event that was now a tradition. It was safer to take custody of him than to try to rendezvous with him for their night time meetings at the Miller House.
One of Chucky's undeniable gifts was that of untroubled sleep. Bruce envied the younger boy and wished that Jennifer were not so determined about everything. But he thrust his long skinny legs into clean blue jeans and pulled a sweat shirt on over his bare chest. Downstairs, he grabbed two plums, an apple, and a pear before plunging outside into the cool fall morning. He tossed the pear to her while he stopped to tie his shoes.
"Thanks," she said gratefully. "No breakfast." She bit into it. They said little as they hurried to the Miller house. It was Saturday morning, not much traffic. The roads of their subdivision made a perfect pattern, a grid of even streets laid out with identical houses. But after they crossed the highway, the landscape took a far less uniform appearance--rolling meadow to cross, and then they came to the long walkway up to the house. By day they entered through the basement, slipping down through a glassless basement window.
He slid down first, then helped her as she followed. Panting slightly, they both looked around, checking for signs of an intruder. If somebody had come in last night, this was the most likely route. Faint sunlight filtered in on the eastern side of the enormous basement. After a moment's inspection, she traveled the room by walking along the wall, staying out of the middle of the room. He followed.
"Son of a gun," she whispered.
"What?" he asked.
"The wall's wet." From behind her, he could see that she was stroking the wall. "Bruce," she gasped. "It's blood!" She moved aside for him to get a look. He squinted at the wall. The light was not good. It was hard to tell. She was looking at her finger tips. "It's almost dry--just sticky." She spit onto her fingers and rubbed them on the wall again. When she held them out to him, he saw that it was blood, or very like blood.
"There may be a trail of it," he said. They hunted along the wall and then checked the floor.
"I think there is," she said. "Up the steps. Come on."
They silently walked up the steps, creeping on the balls of their feet. The door to the basement was long gone, having given its existence to serve Bruce's engineering plans with the sycamore tree. They peered into the silent kitchen, where the old and ruined stove was half pulled out from the wall, and a worn square track on the floor showed where a refrigerator had once been.
Jennifer crossed to the dry sink and looked in. "More blood," she whispered. "Whoever it was tried to use the sink." Of course there was no water. It had been turned off ages ago.
They eased back from the sink, and Bruce nodded to the floor, where a trail of dried blood drops showed plainly on the dirty linoleum floor.
They passed from the kitchen into the hall, then into their living room. It was too dark in there to see any trail, for the windows were boarded up on the first floor. The boards had not been disturbed.
"Look around," Bruce whispered. He went to the far corner and looked behind each draped pile of boxes. She imitated him, but he almost immediately found their quarry. "It's a woman!" he exclaimed in a whisper.
Wordlessly, she joined him, and they looked down at the face of a young woman, part of the sheet drawn over her. The sheet also was marked by just a few droplets of blood. Whatever injury she had sustained, it had not been serious, only bloody.
Bruce hunkered down, and Jennifer knelt beside him.
"She's got something on her neck," he whispered. For a moment neither of them moved, and then he gingerly reached forward, feeling Jennifer stiffen alongside him, nervous, and he lightly drew down the sheet from the young woman's neck. A metal collar, adorned in three places with small metal studs, hung loosely around her neck.
"What the heck is that?" Jennifer whispered.
The woman opened her eyes and tried to dart up, but they were blocking her only way to exit. She would have climbed over what she thought was the piece of covered furniture hiding her, but the boxes under the sheet collapsed under her, and she fell face down to the ground.
A spasm of fear went through the woman. She'd fallen face down across the sheet, and she did not try to get up. "All right it's over," she said.
"Hey!" Jennifer exclaimed. "She's English!"
"Do it; you've won."
"Do what?" Bruce asked. She turned and looked up at him. For a moment they regarded each other, and the two teen agers saw the fear slowly pass from her face.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"You're in our house," Jennifer told her.
"Where am I? What day is this?"
"You're in Forsythia, New Jersey," Jennifer said. "The nearest big city is Philadelphia. Today is Saturday."
The woman looked at her for a long moment and then looked at her clothing and Bruce's. "Earth?" she asked. "America?"
"We better call the police," Bruce said resolutely.
"Oh please, please don't do that!" she exclaimed. "They're anywhere. Everywhere. There's no safe place until I lose this!" And she tugged on the collar.
"What is that thing?" he asked.
"They track me with it; I thought you were they. But they wouldn't think of children--wouldn't take the form of children. Why should they?"
"Bruce, she's nutty," Jennifer whispered.
He shook his head. "Jenny, she's got a fever. She's developing an infection. I think she's really in trouble."
"Just because your dad's a doctor, you don't know all that much about infection. I say she's crazy," Jennifer hissed.
Bruce gingerly reached out and touched the woman's forehead, then resolutely pressed the palm of his hand against it. "Her skin is clammy, but she's got a fever," he said to Jennifer. "You check her and see for yourself."
"Oh all right," she conceded. "But she needs help."
"Please," the woman whispered, only half with them. "No the police. It would be like a box trap."
He leaned closer to her. "If we don't call the police, what then?" he asked. "You can't go on like this. You're in bad shape."
She nodded wearily.
He glanced at Jennifer. "Is there food upstairs?" he asked her.
"Yeah, a few doughnuts."
"Get them for her, will you?" he asked.
"Should I bring the first aid kit?"
He nodded. She hurried away, and he said, "let me help you sit up." The woman nodded, and he helped her get to a sitting position and then leaned her against the wall. He saw that the shoulder of her sweater was torn, and that blood matted with torn fabric had coagulated together over a wound.
"What did that?" he asked her.
"I'm afraid I did it to myself," she told him. "Impaled myself on a torn fence up the way--"
"That would be the Fissinger's fence," he said. Jenny hurried down with the kit and the box of doughnuts. Bossy as Jenny could be, she was useful in a crisis. "I'll find water," she said to Bruce. "But it might take a while."
The woman did not have much to say while she was gone. Exhaustion and shock were taking their toll on her, and she seemed more than half convinced that she was actually his prisoner. About twenty minutes passed, and then Jennifer came back with a pail of water and a handful of paper cups. Bruce looked at the water doubtfully. The woman's shoulder needed attention, but spigot water did not seem like the best way to avoid sepsis.
First he gave her a long drink. She was clearly very thirsty, and exhausted. She drank eagerly, and after a moment some color came back to her face.
He felt uneasy about cleaning her wound. There was something embarrassing in it, perhaps because the young woman was beautiful. But he saw that Jennifer was matter of factly rummaging in the pathetic first aid kit for antiseptic, clearly expecting him to perform the medical procedures.
Doctors treated beautiful women all the time. He gave himself a mental shake. She was injured, in shock, in some sort of danger, and afraid of the police. He would have to do the adult thing and take care of her until he could decide what to do or until she told him more. This was no time to be fascinated with adolescent ideas.
He had seen his father work before, and he imitated the one example that he knew. "All right Miss," he said in a confident tone that startled the woman. "I'll need to look at that shoulder."
She gave a slight nod. Jenny took the lead by carefully cutting away the shreds and cloth fragments of the woman's torn shirt, revealing a wound that did seem to be a superficial but very long laceration. The worst part ran as a single prong wound, or runnel, into the skin and then subcunctunaeously for about two inches. A real bleeder, all right. She was not kidding about having impaled herself, but luckily the prong of the fence had turned to run lengthwise up her skin rather than through muscle or into any veins or arteries.
Now that he looked at it, he forgot his unease. He poured antiseptic all over his own hands and scrubbed them as best as he could, then had Jenny pour water over his hands for him. There was nothing to dry them on, so he operated with them damp.
"You'll have to lie back on the floor," he said. "The one incision from that fence is pretty deep."
She nodded, and Jenny helped her down to the floor.
He tried to be gentle. There were other, less deep prong marks from the fence. In one place her poor skin hung as in a flap. He cleaned it all as best as he could with the gauze pads, first using the water as a solvent to remove the old blood, then liberally applying the antispetic. The young woman winced during this painful procedure, then groaned out loud. He was clearly hurting her. He stopped when she cried out.
"Do you want to take my hand?" Jennifer asked her, and the young woman took Jennifer's hand in her good one. "Just squeeze real hard. You won't hurt me," Jennifer assured her, then turned stark white as the poor woman wrung her hand almost in two.
"That's right," she gulped, as though nothing had happened. "Go on Bruce. Do it as fast as you can, but it's better not to stop," and the injured woman nodded assent.
At last he had scrubbed out the entire wound. He pressed medicated pads to her shoulder and taped them into place. Panting slightly, the stranger let Jennifer assist her back up to a sitting position. She relaxed against the wall. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you both." But she was white and faint.
"There's more water, Miss," Jennifer said, swayed by pity for the woman, who had suffered with a certain bravery. "I held some back for you in a paper cup." She gave the woman water, and the young woman drank it down in hesitant gulps.
"Look, what do we call you?" Jennifer asked her.
"My name is Sarah Jane Smith," she said faintly.
Only then did Jennifer make introductions for herself and Bruce, while Bruce picked up the huge litter of spent gauze pads, wrappers, tape tins, and the two empty antiseptic bottles. He was also white and nearly as shaken as the woman.
"I can't stay," Sarah Jane told them. "It's too dangerous."
"You can't leave," Bruce told her. "You won't get very far in your condition."
"I've got to get to UNIT. Get a message to them. If I gave you a number, could you ring it up?"
"Sure," Jenny said.
"A number in England?" he asked doubtfully.
He looked at Jennifer, but she gave a fierce nod. There would be trouble to pay for an overseas call, but they would figure something out. Sarah Jane gave them the number. "And look," she said, if you get the answering machine, press the pound key and the system will kick you back to the switch board--"
She noticed their puzzled stares. "What is it?" she asked.
"What's the pound key?" Bruce asked. "What does that mean?"
"What's an answering machine?" Jennifer added. "Is that one of those big machines that lawyers attach to phones to tape conversations?"
Sarah Jane swallowed, looked at their clothes, and tried to calculate. He was wearing blue jeans--nice, unfaded blue jeans--and an unmarked sweatshirt. The girl was wearing peddle pushers. Neither of them wore anything that looked like polyester or rayon.
"What year is this?" Sarah Jane asked.
Bruce shot her a look of disbelief, but Jenny said, "This is 1964."
She closed her eyes. 1964. Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was a colonel in the British army at this point, and UNIT had not yet been founded. There was no UNIT, no help that way.
"Never mind," she said softly. Then she repeated. "I've got to get away. Staying still is too dangerous."
"Why is it dangerous?" Bruce asked her. "Can we help you?"
"No," she said.
He touched the collar. It surprised him to feel a slight hum emanating from it. "You said you wouldn't be safe until you got rid of this," he said. "Maybe we could get it off of you."
She shook her head. "It's all one piece. Can't be cut off. Anything else would take my head off with it as well."
"How did you get it on?" Jennifer asked.
"It was put on against my will," and she wouldn't say anything else about it, but Bruce told her, "Look, if you go outside with that shirt like that, the police will arrest you. Like it or not, you're going to have to stay right here and let us help you, at least until we get you some clothes."
"It's too unbelievable," she told them, but they both saw that her exhaustion was taking over. As the pain from Bruce's scrubbing was subsiding from her shoulder, and as the water she'd drunk was slowly rehydrating her overtaxed nerves and muscles, she was falling asleep.
"You won't make it very far without sleep," he told her, and Jenny nodded.
"You two have to get away from here," she said soberly. "I present a very great danger to you."
He touched the collar again. "Is this thing giving off a signal?"
Jennifer cocked an eyebrow at him, and Sarah Jane seemed at a loss to answer for a moment. She nodded. He looked thoughtful.
"Anything that has a signal," he said slowly. "Anything that has a signal--well, it can be blocked, right? You just have to mix it with another signal."
"How do you mix a signal?" Jennifer asked. "And what kind of signal?"
"You add to it," he told her. "You can even subtract from it."
"How old are you?" Sarah Jane asked him.
"Fourteen," he told her. "Almost. But I've been fooling with electricity since I got my first train set when I was six." He touched the collar again and for a moment he seemed to be taking its pulse as he felt and listened to it. The hum was barely discernible to his fingers. He bent closer, but he could not hear anything when he listened to it.
"If it's humming, that means the power is pulsing," he said. "AC. We need an oscilloscope to map the wave length."
"What's an oscilloscope?" Jennifer asked.
Bruce sighed heavily. "It's a really expensive piece of equipment," he said. "We'll have to steal it."
"I don't steal!" Jenny exclaimed. "My worst sin is smoking, and I do fight Fissingers--if that's a sin--but I do not steal!"
Bruce looked at her. "If she's telling us the truth--"
"She hasn't told us anything!" Jenny exploded. "She showed up here bleeding all over our floor, hungry and thirsty, and you do minor surgery, and now we're talking about stealing something that sounds like it must cost a thousand dollars! And where in this town do we steal an oscilloscope anyway? It sounds like something the navy uses!"
"We can get one from Hodgson's electrical surplus," he told her. "They have old military issue stuff from the war."
"She's right," Sarah Jane told him. "There's no reason for you two to get mixed up in this."
"Who is chasing you?" Bruce demanded.
She shook her head.
"You may as well tell us," Jenny said.
"The collar is proof of something," he said to Jenny. "She didn't put this thing on her own head."
"Why not?" Jenny asked him.
He shook his head. "This is some super technology," he told her. "Look how lightweight the collar is."
She gingerly touched it, felt the hum in it, hefted it on her finger. It looked like steel, and yet it was as light as paper. She glanced at Sarah, then used both hands to deliberately rotate the collar to look at it from every angle. Sarah lifted her head to allow the inspection.
"It's seamless," Bruce said as Jenny examined it. "Not welded anywhere. No visible power source. How did they get it on you?" he asked Sarah.
"It was larger than this," Sarah said. "The diameter I mean, and they dropped it over my head. When they charged it somehow, it just shrank into place."
"It can't be removed?" he asked.
She hesitated. "When I'm dead," she admitted.
He looked at her. She swallowed and tried to speak steadily. "It's a proof--proof of death. When I'm dead, it will re-expand and it can be pulled over my head." They were looking at her, wide-eyed, for the moment reduced to children by the startling import of her words. "It's like a game," she said to them softly. "They find me, kill me, and take the collar. It's a game like Hounds and Hares."
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