Hounds and Hares: Episode Three

Hounds and Hares

Episode Three

She did not know in the next instant if she was dreaming or not, but she saw his face very distinctly, in spite of the dimness. He was regarding her calmly, thoughtfully, and she felt for a moment a stark stab of disappointment that he had mistaken her for an enemy. Unexpectedly, he smiled at her. The dream, if it was a dream, ended there. She opened her eyes to hear someone talking to her.

"I'm frightfully sorry, my dear, frightfully sorry . . . "

Fright, fear, fearful. What did frightfully even mean? It wasn't a word, was it?

"Can you hear me, my dear?"

She lifted her head and looked around. Her collar was loosened, her cuffs loosened, her shoes off. The man with the collar was leaning over her, chafing her wrist. He had carried her down to the main floor.

"Can you hear me?" he asked.

She nodded.

"I'm so sorry," he apologized. "I thought you were somebody else. Do you know where my friend Sarah is?"

"Yes," she told him. "She's hiding from those people. At our haunted house. I came to find you."

"I'm truly sorry," he repeated.

"Who are you?" she asked in some awe. "I mean, who were you before you were being hunted down by these people?"

"I am the Doctor. I see now that you are what you seem to be. Sorry I was so hasty."

"How did you know I am what I seem to be?" she asked.

"I looked into your mind."

"You looked?" "I had to. I was nearly sure that you were one of our pursuers, disguised."

"They can be disguised as a girl?" she asked.

"They can be disguised as anything, my dear," he told her. "They are consummate camaflougers. With very little trouble they can blend into their surroundings."

He found her shoes and put them back on her feet for her. She let him help her. His attack had been fierce and effective. Though she could breathe, she could feel the bruises on her throat.

But when he helped her up, she let him, and she was able to lead him out.

"The bike's stolen," she confessed to him as they pulled it out of the bushes where she had hidden it.

"Can you ride double?" he asked.

"Sure, just give me the seat." For the first time she noticed his unusual clothing--the white shirt, silk tie, and black velvet jacket. It was hard to picture him riding a bicycle, but he winked at her, got astride the bicycle, and then patted the canvas seat to tell her to get on behind him.

She took the seat, and he peddled forward. She hung onto him while he labored, and then suddenly it was easy; they were at the top of a hill on Mill Street, passing under the turnpike bridge above. He peddled fast.

"Mill Street goes a long way," she called to him.

"It's all right, got a good head of steam up now!" he called back.

* * * *

"So if you're killed," Bruce said thoughtfully. "This thing pops wide automatically and can be removed and brought back to whoever is holding the bets on you."

Sarah Jane nodded.

"What do you think activates it that way?" he asked. He dug into the bag and brought out several hamburgers from Burger Chef. "I didn't know if you liked cheese or not, so I just got plain. And here's water for tea. Sure you don't want a soda?"

"No, it's fine," she assured him. "Thanks so much."

He let out a sigh without thinking and glanced at the window. The sun's rays were getting quite long.

"Will you try to go find her?" Sarah Jane asked.

He shook his head. "The Fissingers were up at Burger Chef when I came in for the hamburgers, so they either let her go or she got away from them, but I don't know where she went." He set up a clean glass beaker on a Bunsen burner, filled it with water, and lit the burner. "This tea will be ready pretty quickly," he said.

"The Fissingers," Sarah Jane asked. "They didn't bother you?"

"Not at Burger Chef," he said. "It's right by St. Mary's and one of the booths had a bunch of the sisters in it. All the Fissingers go to St. Mary's for school so they behave pretty well up there."

She nodded.

"Jen goes to school there, too," he said.

"You two seem to be such good friends," Sarah Jane observed.

He smiled. "She's always got an idea," he said. He looked sober. "Her dad--he's--he's got some--she's got it rough right now."

"And you're holding it together for her?" Sarah Jane asked.

"Helping her hold it together," he said. "I wish he would stop."

"Hitting her?" Sarah Jane asked.

He nodded. "Yes, he's always been that way. She's the youngest of six, and my parents say he raised them all that way. But he got worse and worse with each one. And now she's the last."

"She's a scrapper."

"Scrapper," he echoed, and smiled. "Is that what you guys call a fighter, a toughie?"

Sarah Jane nodded.

"I wonder," he said. "When a person dies, breathing stops, so maybe the collar is tuned for breathing. Or maybe it tracks something as blood is flowing. Or maybe it's a lot simpler."

"What?" she asked.

"Maybe it's body temperature. If we could get your body temperature to mimic the temperature of a dead person, the collar may come off."

"I don't think I fancy having my temperature drop way down," she said. "Wouldn't that kill me?"

"Not if we took care about it," he said. "My dad's done it with patients who have high fevers. The trick is to keep your head warm and keep your heart rate slow."

"You know a lot for such a young man," she observed.

"Crutches," he told her.

"Crutches?" she asked.

"I was on them for three years. Bad knees. The specialist said I would grow out of the problem, and I did. But there wasn't anything else to do in the meanwhile, so I spent a lot of time fooling with electronics and watching my dad work in his clinic. He taught me a lot."

"Past tense," she said.

"He's gone; they're divorced," he told her briefly. "He still lives in town, but I only see him every so often."

She nodded. They heard a bicycle bell ring three times outside. Bruce leaped up and went to the window. "I think it was Jen and somebody else," he said. He ran to the top of the stairs. Being attached to the frequency generator stopped Sarah from going anywhere.

After a moment Jenny appeared at the foot of the steps with another man.

"Whose bike were you on?" Bruce asked.

"Ned Fissinger's," she said. They came up the stairs.

"Ned Fissinger?" he cried. "How did you get his bike? And why?"

"I hid it in the bushes," she said. "We ought to be safe. Tomorrow morning I'll go put it in their front yard while they're still in bed." She gave him a glance as she passed him on the landing. "Don't even ask why I stole it," she said. "It was the worst three minutes of my life."

"Are you the Doctor?" Bruce asked the tall, white haired man who came up behind her.

"Yes, you must be Bruce. How do you do?"

He offered a hand to Bruce, and they shook. "Fine, glad to see you," Bruce said.

"Doctor!" Sarah exclaimed happily from inside the room.

"Sarah!" His voice, always moderated, nevertheless rang with gladness, and he greeted her gently, mindful of the wires.

"What's this contraption?" he asked.

"Something to counter-act this," Sarah told him, pointing at her collar.

"We'd better get you attached, Doctor," Bruce said, uncoiling additional copper wire.

The Doctor did not seem to hear him. "How very ingenious," he observed. "Who would have thought a journalist like yourself would have access to this type of equipment?" He ran his finger down the copper wire that attached her to the frequency generator.

"Careful Doctor," she said.

"You don't understand," he told her. "The object is for you to run, not spend your time nullifying the signal." He snapped the wire.

"Doctor!" Sarah exclaimed.

The Doctor reached into his coat in the familiar gesture of a man reaching for a weapon. Bruce did not hesitate; did not even seem to have time to consciously realize what was going on before he acted to save their lives. He threw the contents of the Bunsen burner at the figure that was calling itself the Doctor. The scalding water hit it in the face.

"It's not the Doctor!" Sarah screamed.

The impostor covered his face and screamed from the scalding. Jen scooped up the chair from her work corner and brought it down on full force on their would-be attacker. He collapsed onto the floor.

* * * *

Sarah and Bruce hung back for a moment, but Jen fell atop the downed intruder and reached into his clothes, searching.

"Jennifer!" Bruce hissed. She drew out the weapon he had been reaching for, an ordinary handgun.

"Is that all?" she asked, disappointed.

"Look!" Sarah exclaimed. The intruder's face was turning a pasty color. Jennifer got up and backed away. After a moment's consideration she leveled the gun at it.

"It's not a person!" Bruce exclaimed. The creature's face was snow white, but leathery. A fierce mustache of skin stood out on its upper lip and along its cheeks, giving it an aggressive, but alien look. It opened its eyes, saw them and its own circumstances, and put its hand to its mouth. All three humans stepped back, but Jennifer kept the gun on it.

But the defensive gesture was not needed. The creature gave one convulsive gulp, and then suddenly shrank upon itself. In the next instant, its collapsing form burst into a flash of flame, and deep acrid smoke billowed from it.

"Get back!" Bruce exclaimed. But the worst was over. The creature was reduced to vapor and smoke. They scurried back, but in another moment, there was nothing left. Sarah Jane let out a shakey breath. "One down," she said. She was trembling. They were all trembling.

"That was one of them?" Jennifer asked fearfully. The young woman nodded.

"They can be killed too?" Jennifer asked.

"It's not usual," Sarah said. "But they won't be taken prisoner at any cost."

Jennifer lowered the gun and looked at the slightly scorched place on the floor where the creature had combusted.

After a moment, Bruce said, "We've got to get out of here. If one of them learned where we are, the others may know too."

"We still don't know where the Doctor is," Sarah Jane said. "What if they have him?"

"We can't help him at this stage," Bruce said. "But we've got to get out of here."

"We have to find another hiding place," Jennifer said.

"One that has access to an electrical source," he added, with a nod at Sarah Jane's collar. He reattached the copper for for the moment. "At least we can be fairly sure that this signal alteration is working," he added. "The thing needed one of us to get to Sarah."

"That's right," Jenny said. "That thing couldn't home in on you, I guess. He was using me to lead him to you." She paused. "I'm sorry. I brought him here."

"We were all fooled," Sarah Jane told her. "I ran right to him."

"Yes," Bruce said. "And he didn't kill you right off, did he?"

"Always a comfort," she said with a slight shudder.

"I mean, maybe he wanted to take you alive," Bruce said. "Because they want to get you and your friend together, so maybe they don't have the Doctor yet."

"I hope not," she said.

"Okay, how about the basement of St. Mary's?" Jennifer asked. Her voice was still creaky and uneven, but she was determined to force herself into calmness. Bruce considered and shook his head.

"Anybody could go down there at any time," he said. "And tomorrow is morning mass, so it would be even more likely for someone to run down there to get spare hymnals or stuff like that."

They subsided back into silence. Sarah Jane looked from one to the other. "I'm really sorry I got you into this," she began.

"Don't worry about that," Bruce said.

"No, and at least now we believe you," Jennifer added, with a nod to the scorch mark. "Hey, here comes Chucky," she said. She groaned. "Coming right up the tree in broad daylight."

Their young friend, his face eager, clambered up the makeshift ladder. From the window, Bruce gave him a hand and helped him into the room.

"Chucky, the tree is only for emergencies and night time travel," Jennifer began.

Chucky stopped at sight of the newcomer and all the gadgetry. "Who's this?" he asked. He had not yet met Sarah Jane.

"My name is Sarah Jane," she told him.

"She's in trouble," Bruce said.

"She's wearing your shirt," Chucky said.

Bruce nodded to Jennifer to hide the gun. "That's because hers was torn," he told Chucky. "I brought her a spare."

"What happened to the floor?" Chucky asked. "What is all this stuff? Why didn't you guys come to get me?"

"Boy, is that a long story!" Jennifer said. "Chucky, we have to get away. Somebody's found us out. Where's a good hiding place?"

He paused only for an instant. "The hospital tunnels. Bruce told me about them."

Jennifer's eyes lighted up. "The hospital tunnels!" she exclaimed.

"Hospital tunnels?" Sarah Jane asked.

"Bucks County hospital uses steam heating," Bruce told her. "There are steam tunnels underground, and they're lighted, so there's a power source we can use."

"How far is it?" Sarah Jane asked.

"About two miles," he said. "But we've got enough bicycles."

"How do we get in?" Jennifer asked. "They never let kids in hospitals."

"They know me from my Dad," Bruce said. "I can get us in."

"I wish you guys would tell me what's going on," Chucky protested.

Getting established in the hospital steam tunnels took a great deal more time than anybody had counted on. Bruce got in without any trouble, but they had to wait for him to figure out a way to get the equipment inside, unnoticed. They managed it by putting the gear into three huge boxes and bringing them in through the cafeteria area.

But then it took time for him to find the utility closet that had a ladder going down to the steam tunnels. Jennifer had never known how many utility and maintenance closets hospitals could have, and Sarah Jane said she had never known either.

The cafeteria was closed on Saturdays, and so they waited in the dimness for Bruce to come back with the all clear sign. But all this while there was Sarah's collar to think about. Not only was it unsightly, but until they had it connected to the frequency generator, it was also emitting a signal to her pursuers.

At last, Bruce came back and led them to the utility closet on the ground floor. Then they had to figure out how to get the equipment down that ladder, and it took a great deal of effort, broken finger nails, and bruises to do so.

And finally, the steam tunnels themselves were so unpleasant, so dark, so damp, and so filled with bugs that they were all frightened to go on. Bruce found a light switch and flipped it on, but the naked bulbs were of low wattage and set very far apart down the long tunnel. For a long moment, nobody moved. Sarah Jane took the lead.

"Look," she said, "If you three are going to stay with me, you've got to get me hooked up again. You're endangering yourself by hesitating. You've got to either go on with me or leave me and let me go on."

"Nobody said anything about leaving you!" Bruce snapped, surprising both Sarah Jane and Jennifer.

"Then it's forward," Jennifer gulped, and they all hesitantly took a step forward. Only Chucky was not loaded down with a box, but he did not dart out ahead.

Jennifer suddenly smiled slightly. She took another step forward. "Oh come on!" she exclaimed. "We've fought one of those guys and won. What could be worse!"

"You're right!" Sarah Jane told her, and they plunged ahead.

To Jenny's mind, it was a long trek into the dark, muggy, dusty interior of the heating system. But actually it was only a minute or two later when Bruce spoke up. "That's perfect!" He nodded at an alcove in the wall. It was a station for a junction box and pipe connectors, doubling as a storage room. It was only about 8 by 8 feet, and though shallow water stood in a pool in the center of it, some careless worker had stacked wooden chairs in it in storage.

They set the boxes down on chairs while Bruce examined the junction box on the wall.

"This will do," he told them. "Let's get set up."

* * * *

Going to Sunday morning mass was a part of maintaining the veil of good deeds that Jennifer covered herself with in public. To herself she admitted to two opposite and seemingly contradictory things: she only went to church to satisfy everybody else's expectations for her, and yet she liked the silence, and the stillness, and the volumes of stories and history that each of the statues and candles seemed to represent.

She was nearly ready for Catholic high school, and already she had heard some of the theology that went beyond the stories and the stations and the feast days. It often happened to her in Mass, when she was not even paying attention to the ceremony, that she felt as though she could almost reach through the veil of all that she saw and felt and find the things behind it all--the mysterious vastness that hid . . . what?

She jerked her head up from a deep nod and realized she was falling asleep in the pew. Across the aisle, Sgt. McKenna shot a glance over at her. He would be on duty later today and was already in his uniform. The good Sgt. was fond of her. He knew that her father was rich and harsh, and this knowledge seemed to bring out all the chivalry that his good Irish heart had stored up, towards Jennifer. But at that moment, his gaze was thoughtful. She desperately forced herself to keep her eyes open. Seven o'clock mass on a Sunday morning was never very full, and so there were no distractions to help her stay awake.

They had been at the hospital for hours yesterday, exploring the steam tunnels, devising escape routes, breaking apart old chairs to lay across the puddle as a sort of flooring. Her muscles still ached from the labor. The best part was that they had found an outside access to the steam tunnels. The worst part was that they had committed theft again, bringing down blankets and food for their visitor. It was amazing to her that Bruce, normally the most rigidly ethical of the three friends, was so good at stealing and so quick to foresee what had to be stolen. He had pointed out to her that if they could just return the electronic equipment to Hodgson's it would not really be the worst form of theft, and if they confessed to the crime openly when it was all over, perhaps they would be decently forgiven.

He certainly would be. But what would she say to Dad if it ever got back to him? Perhaps Sgt. Mckenna would help her. And then there was the Fissinger's bicycle. She didn't know whether she feared the Fissingers more or her father more.

Mass was ending. She had missed communion. She stumbled to her feet for the benediction and then made her way out of the pew.

"Jennifer, my dear," Sgt. Mckenna said to her in the aisle.

"Good morning, Sgt.," she said sweetly.

"Good morning my dear. I thought I might have a word with you," he said.

"Yes sir, anything," she agreed at once.

They moved to the back of the sanctuary where the pamphlet racks were kept.

"I see you did not take communion today," he said.

"No sir," she told him.

"Is there something on your conscience then?" he asked her. "Something you would like to make a clean breast of and be freed from?"

She looked at him quizzically. "It's a matter of conscience, Sergeant," she said with some dignity. She knew from her catechism that such matters were private--or anyway that they were between a person and the church.

His eyebrows puckered thoughtfully, and she saw that he was weighing things out--some new doubt about her was in the balance against his own high regard and fondness for her. She could have kicked herself for not taking communion, but even in her regret she felt a spark of doubt at receiving it with the sin of theft hanging over her head. No matter what Bruce or anybody else said, they were in possession of things that just did not belong to them. She could fight Fissingers without a qualm of conscience, sneak out on Friday nights to spend long evenings playing chess in the haunted house, even smoke and try an illicit beer now and then. But no matter how you cut it, stealing was a sin.

"I had a report yesterday that you stole a bicycle, my dear," he said. Her heart seemed to turn to lead inside her, but she braved it out. "And I'm trying to track down a man in the community--perhaps dangerous--and I was told yesterday that you and he were seen together," McKenna added.

"A man?" she gasped, hoping it would sound real. "You mean my friend Bruce?"

"No , my dear, a tall, white haired man dressed in evening clothes," he said. He looked uncomfortable. "You and he were seen on the same stolen bicycle, peddling up Mill Street."

Her jaw dropped open. "Somebody told you I was on a bicycle with a man in evening clothes?" she asked. "When you say evening clothes, do you mean pajamas?"

"More like a tuxedo or such like," he said. She could see that the description was so ridiculous that even he had trouble believing it.

"I bet the Fissingers told you all this," she said. "You know what they do to me every time they catch me. They're just trying to get me into trouble."

"Maybe I got a report from the Fissingers," he conceded to her. "And maybe I know not to swallow every yarn that they spin for me. But I have been looking for a tall white haired man dressed in dark evening clothes. He attacked a night watch man at the electric company sub station two nights ago."

"Attacked?" she asked. "Killed?"

"No, no, nothing like that. We think he just wanted a dry place to spend the night," he assured her. "But what I want to know, is have you seen him, yourself?"

She sighed and hesitated, pretending to rack her brain. But her thoughts were racing. Was it the real Doctor that had broken into the electric station? Bruce had found some help for Sarah Jane through the use of electricity. Perhaps this Doctor fellow had figured a way to get rid of the collar as well.

"Was he on a bicycle at the electric station?" she asked, stalling and hoping to get more information.

"Now now, Jennifer, you just answer me," he said.

She fell silent and looked at him. At last she said, "If I tell you everything, I'll get in trouble."

He understood her fear of her father and assumed a much more gentle attitude. "My dear, tell me the truth. You know old Sgt. McKenna will protect you if I can."

She still hesitated.

"Ah, you've never been afraid to tell me the truth before," he coaxed her. "You've always been a good girl, Jennifer. If you're in a fix, trust me to help you."

His words went deeper into her than she had anticipated they would. "It's about the Mason house," she said hesitantly.

"Oh, a bad place for children to be," he said, but not unkindly. "I've told you before to stay away from it," he said.

"There was a man with a funny necklace on," she told him.

"Necklace?" he asked. "Like pearls?"

"No sir, like steel it looked like. Big, strange, maybe more like a collar than a necklace. He had dark clothes, too. Was that the man who attacked the night watch man?"

"He said naught about a necklace or metal collar," the Sgt told her, puzzled. "Just a great fellow with white hair and long legs."

"Sounds like him," she agreed uneasily, feeling her way along. "We were playing hide and seek in there, and we came on him in the upstairs."

"What did you do?" he asked.

"Oh we ran," she lied.

"You and your friends need to stay away from that place," he told her sternly. "It's still private property."

She hung her head. "Yes sir."

"What about the bicycle, Jennifer?" he asked her. "And who were you with?"

"I was with my friend Bruce all day yesterday," she told him.

He sighed, still with doubts but tending to believe her. The one scandal of her life in the Irish Catholic community was that her best friend was a Jewish boy.

"All right then, dear. Just you behave, and if you think of anything else, please tell me," he said.

"Is that man with the tuxedo dangerous?" she asked. "Can we go outside or do we have to stay in?"

"Oh no, no," he said, calming her. "He's just a vagrant of some sort. The nightwatch man found him all in a heap on the floor, like, and suddenly the feller springs up, hits him some funny way over the heart that stuns him, and scrambles out of there."

"That's right near my house," she said worriedly. She hoped he would pick up the hint and tell her where the man had gone off to.

"No, no, last report we had of him was on a bicycle yesterday on Mill Street, and then last night we think someone saw him making his way towards the center of town--back alleys and such."

She nodded. "I'll be careful, Sgt.," she said.

"You do that, my dear."

They separated at the door to the vestibule. She had walked her bike up to the church. She found it and went around to the back of the church building to the small recess in the trees that the children called the Arbor. Perhaps some good soul had designed it as a secluded place for meditation, but most of the kids used it to catch a smoke or steal kisses. Jennifer used it that morning to shuck off her Sunday clothes and change into slacks and a sweater.

She lit a cigarette and considered her options.

If electricity had been the answer to getting rid of the collars, perhaps the Doctor fellow was also trying to track down Sarah by means of electricity. Chances were, he would need equipment as much as they had needed it. And if he were in circumstances like Sarah Jane's, stealing or begging would be his only option. And there was only one place to get electrical equipment, and that was Hodgson's.

She stubbed out the cigarette, fished out a piece of gum to chew on, and set off on the bicycle for town. It was just then eight o'clock.

* * * *

If somebody wanted to break into Hodgson's, they would most likely have to try the back door, she thought. It faced a spare parking lot, some trash containers, and the backs of several other stores. It took her ten minutes to leave Forsythia's suburban sections behind and get into town. The streets were empty and still with a Sunday morning stillness. Bright sunlight stared back at her from empty windows and drawn blinds. She peddled right into the delivery lane for Hodgson's, but stopped and dismounted before she got into the parking lot.

After leaning the bike against the wall of the building, she carefully came around the back, sticking her head around the corner to get a look at the rear door. It was closed.

She came up to it and tested it with her fingers. Hodgson's, of course, would have an alarm system on the back door. But she felt the door give under pressure. She stooped down and looked around the door knob carefully. There were no marks of a jimmy, but a few faint scratches around the key hole made her wonder if the lock had been picked.

She decided to take a risk, and she turned the knob. If the alarm went off, she would just have to make a dash for it.

The knob turned under her hand, and she slowly opened the door. The inside of the store was dark. She waited a moment to see if the alarm would go off, but it did not. After a brief hesitation when she wished she had not left the gun with Sarah Jane, she entered the store.

The darkness was created only by drawn blinds and closed shutters. Sunlight peeped in around every crack and hole. She looked around while her eyes adjusted. In one of the alcoves of the repair room in the back, a light still burned. She crept inside, straining her neck to look around carefully.

Every store on Main Street was closed on Sunday, owing to the Blue Laws. Could it be, she wondered, that this Doctor fellow would have just came in and made himself at home? Sarah Jane had told her and Bruce that the Doctor would commandeer anything that he needed, and he usually got away with it.

She stepped closer to the alcove and was only half surprised to see a pair of trousered legs peeping out from under a table. She crept closer.

The body of a man lay on the floor, huddled atop some collapsed cartons, with a man's evening dress cape thrown over himself.

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