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By Hugh Holton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1998 Hugh Holton
All rights reserved.
Chicago, Illinois July 7, 1999 2:55 A.M.
The black Lexus LS 400 was parked on Chestnut Street a quarter of a block east of Rush. Its finish reflected light with a mirror clarity and the sleek lines of the body had graced the covers of every major automotive magazine in the world. It was a popular vehicle, although there were few of them found on city streets. This was due to their high cost.
However, the Lexus LS 400 was in great demand. In fact, it would fetch twice the retail sticker price when resold on the overseas black market. This markup made the luxury car one of the favorite targets of auto thieves.
The auto thief considered himself a professional. He was thirty-six, which made him a bit old for his chosen line of work, but he wasn't what could be considered your average car booster either. He was a specialist. He went after only top-of-the-line luxury cars like the Lexus LS 400.
They had been cruising the Near North Side streets for an hour searching for a suitable high-performance, high-sticker-price car to steal. The thief was a rapier-thin African American with ebony skin and short, curly hair. He'd dropped out of high school before the end of his sophomore year, but he could read an automobile technical manual with the comprehension of a Harvard Engineering School graduate.
The girl was a petite redhead, who'd been a member of a notorious West Side street gang since she was thirteen. Her initiation into the gang had entailed her drinking a fifth of scotch and then having sex with ten gang members consecutively. By the time she was fifteen she had a record of twelve arrests, all of which were for felonies. Then she met the thief and learned to drive.
They saw the Lexus LS 400 at the same time. Without a word spoken between them they went into action.
The thief retrieved a black attaché case from the backseat of the souped-up Chevy. Opening the case revealed two racks of hand-sized remote-control devices with numbered keypads on their faces. Removing one, he began punching in various numerical combinations. Between each formula he depressed a red button on the side of the device. Then he waited, his eyes fixed on the target car's taillights. On the third try the lights flashed indicating that the thief had defeated the legendary LS 400's keyless locking device.
Without a word the thief closed the case, returned it to the backseat, and got out of the car. The driver double-parked the Chevy at an angle, which would block anyone from seeing the Lexus from the opposite side of the street. Using her mirrors, she maintained a constant vigil in case a police car showed up. When the thief got the car started, she would follow him. If a cop did get on to them, she'd use the Chevy to block the pursuit long enough for the thief to escape. A reckless driving charge was a lot easier to take than a felony criminal trespass to vehicle.
The thief opened the driver's side door of the Lexus LS 400 and got in. Despite the heat, he was wearing a long-sleeved black jumpsuit with breast and sleeve pockets to accommodate the collection of precision car burglar's tools he carried. Using a couple of slender picks from a sleeve pocket, it took him ten seconds to get the Lexus started. The thief smiled. His price for this car would be a cool ten K. He'd been boosting cars for fifteen years and at the rate he was going, in another year, he could retire an independently wealthy man.
The engine purred softly and the car thief reached for the gearshift lever. He was contemplating buying a Lexus LS 400 after his car-stealing days were over. Of course he planned to install a much more sophisticated security system than the one he'd just defeated. He had no way of knowing that this vehicle's owner had already done that.
The gearshift lever in this car felt different from the ones in other Lexus LS 400s he'd stolen. This one was longer, thicker, and had ... The electrical charge that coursed through him spasmed his body rigid. The air was trapped in his lungs and he could neither inhale or exhale. With all of his might he attempted to pull his hands away from the steering wheel, but the limbs would no longer do the brain's bidding. Then he started to burn.
The girl in the tail car realized that something was wrong. The thief had told her not to stick around if a problem developed before he got rolling. She was about to do just that, but the code of the ex-street-gang member made her hesitate. Then with a "to hell with it" snarl, she jumped out of the Chevy and ran over to the Lexus.
She looked through the driver's-side window at the thief. He was sitting, eyes open, as rigid as a soldier at attention. She could see the wisps of smoke drifting from every orifice in his body. His short, curly hair was standing on end and a blackened tongue protruded from his mouth. Despite her street-gang background, she'd never seen a dead body before; however, she knew that the thief was dead. Slowly, she backed away before turning to run back to the Chevy. Getting in she peeled rubber and rocketed away. She had retired permanently from the auto-theft business at the age of sixteen.CHAPTER 2
July 7, 1999 4:30 A.M.
Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Larry Cole was on a stakeout; however, it was not official. He was alone in his black police car in Jackson Park just west of Lake Shore Drive. He was approximately fifty yards from the exterior southeast wing of the National Science and Space Museum and seventy-five yards from the old wooden bridge leading onto Seagull Island. An island that, until two years ago, had also been known as Haunted Island.
Cole, a tall, well-built black man, was waiting for a woman. A woman whom he was at once in love with and whom he believed to be an imposter.
He stared at the bridge, which he had crossed on a late summer night in 1997. Little did he know at the time that he was charging headlong into one of the most bizarre cases he'd ever encountered. But he'd also met someone who had become very important to him and he was here to find out who she really was.
Cole's car was parked in a small grotto with trees casting dark shadows obliterating the moonlight and reflections from the few streetlights in the area. The park had officially closed at 11:00 P.M. and Cole had taken up his surveillance at 10:30. Waiting had never been his strong suit; however, what he was doing now was very important. He had come prepared to wait all night.
On the front seat was a cooler containing a couple of sandwiches, a candy bar, some fruit, and a bottle of water. Only once had the mind-numbing boredom of the surveillance made him drowsy. He had quickly snapped out of it and forced himself to go over the reasons why he was sitting in Jackson Park in the middle of the night.
In the fall of 1997 Larry Cole, who was then a commander in the Organized Crime Division, discovered that since 1902 over 188 people had disappeared either inside the National Science and Space Museum or from Seagull Island. After he was injured by a century-old booby trap, which was still in operation out on the island, he had begun an investigation into these disappearances. An investigation that had nearly gotten him killed, but had brought him and Detective Edna Gray very close together. He had also discovered that Edna's sister, who had vanished inside the museum at the age of four and had been missing for twenty-five years, was under the influence of an ancient crone known as the Mistress. During a terrifying encounter with Edna's sister, who as the then-curator of the museum was known as Eurydice Vaughn, Edna and Cole had nearly drowned in a subterrenean chamber beneath the museum. Even when it was over there were still a few secrets that the National Science and Space Museum had managed to keep. Now Cole was back to uncover these secrets.
There was movement out on the island. Cole tensed and kept himself completely motionless. It was initially too dark for him to make out anything but a black silhouette. Then, as it came closer, he could discern a black-hooded, full-length cape covering the body from head to toe. He studied the motion of the body beneath the cloth. He could tell that it was a woman, but not just any woman. She crossed the wooden planks of the bridge with long, graceful strides. He recognized Edna Gray's walk. Eurydice Vaughn, aka Josie Gray, who was in a mental hospital, also had a similar walk.
Without looking back, she moved rapidly toward the museum. The area she was heading for had no entrance. At least not a visible one. If Cole's suspicions were correct, the woman in the black cape would find her way inside. Before she could disappear into the shadows, Cole got out of the car and followed her.
She stopped at a wall beneath a statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Cole, who was dressed in a black short-sleeved shirt, black slacks, and black soft-soled shoes, had maintained a discreet distance, but never took his eyes off her. He also stopped. Then she vanished.
He was less than twenty-five yards away, but when he reached the wall there was no sign of her. The wall was made of solid stone with no seam. There were no indentations or protrusions. Nothing that could house a triggering mechanism to open a secret passage leading into the museum. But he knew she had come this way so it had to be here somewhere. Cole ran his fingers across the wall's flat surface.
He missed it the first time. He found it on the second try. There was an irregularity in the stone, which would have gone unnoticed by a less experienced investigator. But this was exactly what Cole was looking for. The irregularity was rectangular in shape with four-inch-by-two-inch dimensions. It extended an eighth of an inch from the smooth stone surface. He pressed it with his hand, but nothing happened. The stone was totally unyielding. He pressed again. Again nothing happened. He tried combinations of twos and threes in rapid succession. Still nothing. He stepped back and looked up at the wall. He had seen the woman in the black cape vanish right here. He was certain of it.
Eurydice Vaughn knew every secret passageway in the museum. She had learned of them from the Mistress, who was discovered to be Katherine Rotheimer. One of the most intricate of these passageways was concealed behind a two-ton display in the previous "Glassware from Around the World" hall. The case itself was virtually immovable by an application of brute force, as was the wall Cole was standing in front of. Later examination revealed that a system of pulleys and levers had been installed behind the case enabling it to move with an astonishing ease. Behind it was a secret passageway leading down into an ancient railroad station lying beneath the museum.
Now, as he stood behind the museum in the predawn hours of this summer morning, Cole recalled that the case in the "Glassware from Around the World" hall had two triggers installed to activate the opening mechanism. Cole began searching for the second trigger.
It took him longer to find the second one than it had the first. It was at the base of the wall on his right, whereas the irregularity was on the left at waist level. Stepping forward, he simultaneously pressed the irregularity in the wall while pressing his foot against the indentation. The wall swung sideways so quickly and silently that it startled the policeman.
A dark passage led down beneath the museum. Having come too far to turn around now, Cole stepped through the opening into the National Science and Space Museum.
The area beyond the entrance was immersed in pitch blackness. Pulling a small but powerful flashlight from his pocket, Cole illuminated the darkness in front of him. He was on a stone-floored ramp, which slanted down at a twenty-five-degree angle. The walls were of raw brick and the ceiling, which was so low Cole's head nearly touched it, was of the same rough stone as the exterior of the museum. Cole had to use one hand to steady himself against the brick surface as the incline continued for a hundred feet before leveling off.
He realized that he was now far below the National Science and Space Museum. He attempted to get his bearings and estimated that the underground cavern, which had been the train station and now housed the museum's "Transportation of Yesteryear" exhibit, was somewhere off to his right. He swung his light in front of him only to have the beam vanish in the vast darkness up ahead. He shivered, as memories of him being trapped beneath the museum all those months ago came back to him. He considered returning to the surface and waiting for the woman to emerge. Then he would confront her and find out the truth. But what if she lied or refused to tell him who she really was? How could he disprove that lie or uncover the truth? The only thing he could do was continue his search down here until he found her.
Cole started forward again. The National Science and Space Museum took up over 100,000 square feet and it appeared to Cole that the subterranean chamber where he was now was just as large as the museum above. He continued to walk in a straight line, because if his search proved fruitless it would be a simple matter to turn around and retrace his steps. He refused to think what would happen if the light malfunctioned or the batteries failed.
He had been walking for perhaps five minutes, but the surrounding darkness and his being alone made it seem twice as long. He noticed that there was no dust or signs of vermin infestation. This was undoubtedly due to the museum's cleanliness and air-filtration system. For this Cole was grateful. It was bad enough being down here in the dark alone without having bugs, spiders, and rats running across his feet or watching him from the shadows. He was just about to make the decision to turn around and go back when he heard voices. He stopped and listened. They were coming from somewhere directly ahead of him. He switched off the flashlight.
The darkness enveloped him with the suddenness of an unexpected physical attack. He steeled himself and waited for the initial wave of panic to recede. Slowly his eyes became adjusted, enabling him to make out the light source up ahead. He turned his flashlight back on, adjusted the beam to emit a less intense light, and started forward again.
He could detect the familiar voice of Edna Gray. Then there was a male voice. A male voice Cole recognized, which was spoken with the slow deliberation of someone who not only had a speech impediment, but whose mind had never developed beyond the age of twelve.
The door from which the light came led into a tunnel. Cole remained in the darkness and peered inside. The tunnel was large enough to accommodate a locomotive and about twenty yards of track remained. However, it was obvious to Cole that the tracks were very old, as the iron had rusted and the wooden ties were rotted.
The train tunnel had never been completed and ended less than fifty yards from the door. Electric lights were strung at ten-foot intervals along the walls and the area was air-conditioned by way of a ceiling vent making the tunnel's interior twenty degrees cooler than the dark passageway Cole had just come through. The abandoned tunnel was also occupied.
There were a few old pieces of furniture, a Formica-topped table with the legs of tube- shaped metal, a couple of scarred wooden chairs, a television set that was wired into the electric lighting system, a refrigerator that received power in the same fashion as the TV, and an old army cot.
The woman was standing over the cot. Her back was to Cole, but he was able to see past her to the figure lying on the bed. When the police officer recognized who it was, he reached for the semiautomatic pistol he carried in a belt holster beneath his shirt.
The man on the bed was Homer, a seven-foot-tall giant who was badly deformed, had the mind of a child, and the strength of ten men. He was also very dangerous, especially when he dressed in a Halloween death costume and kidnapped people inside the museum. After the incident two years ago, he was the only member of the Mistress's band who had escaped.
Cole stepped into the room keeping the gun down at his side. He was aware that Homer was not only extremely strong, but also agile and fast. Then Cole saw that the giant had changed dramatically since they'd last met.
Excerpted from Red Lightning by Hugh Holton. Copyright © 1998 Hugh Holton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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