Shudder Preview


As always there were eight of them in the group.
            Frank was near the middle of the room, his hip against a molding chair that looked like it might have come off the Ark. He checked his watch for maybe the hundredth time. It was finally almost midnight. He sighed and looked around him. The only light in the room came from a small kerosene lamp which was hissing hysterically as it tried to illuminate all the dark corners. He assumed the tech guys were fooling with them – surely the intelligence community, if that’s who was running these ops, had more high spec equipment than a kerosene lamp? The others in the group leaned against the walls, sat on one of the dusty chairs or stood sentry just inside the windows looking out into the unending darkness beyond.
            He knew that all of them would have been hand picked, the elite, top of their field, trained to kill. And here they waited in the near dark, miles away from anything, ready for action, armed to the teeth; and wearing Halloween masks.
It looked bizarre – combats and heavy army-issue boots topped by various witches, ghouls, devils and one of the ‘Scream’ movie masks. Frank was a green witch. He sighed again. The heavy latex was making him sweat and the witch hair was tickling his neck. A ghoul by the window asked for a cigarette. Two of the others patted down inside pockets and came up with a box of Marlborough and a red lighter. Frank could see the name of a bar on the lighter. He looked away fast. It was one of their orders – no-one makes any buddies and no-one gets into a position where he can ID one of the others. Knowing too much could cost you your job. Or worse.
He found himself thinking that it could be the same eight every time. Being well trained had its downside when you were able to recognise voice patterns and accents no matter what kind of mask was being worn and no matter how clear your orders had been. He wondered if she knew. If his voice was as familiar to her as hers had become to him. The idea made him shiver.
            The ghoul headed into what was left of the bathroom and lit up, the hiss and click of the lighter unnaturally loud in the silence. Ghoul man inhaled deeply and sighed contentedly. Frank checked his watch again.
            “We keeping you from something, soldier?” asked the scream guy.
            Frank looked at him for a moment. “As a matter of fact, Angelina Jolie’s waiting for me in one of the other rooms.”
            “In this place?” A purple devil gestured around the filth.
            “Sure. Angie likes a little mess with her rough and tumble,” Frank grinned under his mask. The others chuckled softly.
            Frank checked out their surroundings to keep his mind away from the direction his thoughts had been heading. This must have been a decent hotel once, just built in the wrong location, for a city that had died before it had even become a town. The carpet was a deep blue, with swirls of green and red. The walls might once have been a light sky blue, with wall lights near where the bed would have been and a main lamp over near the desk. The bed was long gone, ingrained marks on the wall showed where it had been until the vandals or looters had their way with it. The desk had been bolted down and it remained against the inside wall, thick with dust and mouse droppings. The chairs were standard hotel issue, lumpy and uncomfortable. Frank couldn’t see why they’d been left here. Or perhaps they’d been moved in yesterday, once the rendezvous point had been decided.
            A low whistle sounded from just outside the door - the signal that someone was coming. The men in the room fanned out immediately, checked their radios and then stood ready. No more leaning against the walls or inhaling borrowed smokes.
            Frank stood up and checked his radio with a soft “S19”, their code for the night. There was an answering burst of static and command whispered “Received” into his earpiece. So far so good. Frank checked his weapon and took the safety off.
            A car came slowly up the long drive towards the hotel. “Standby S19” control was saying. The full beam from the car lights pieced the gloom of the little room and Frank winced at the brightness. Sweat trickled down his back and he shifted as it tickled him.
            The car stopped, the lights went out and a car door opened, then closed. The gravel crunched as the occupant of the car walked slowly towards the doorway and stopped. Frank could see the shadow on the stoop. He took a breath as control told him to “Proceed”.
            “Confirm.” he said in a loud voice.
            “S19” was the answer and Frank spoke to his radio, “Confirmed.” He stood back and the woman stepped into the room. She was wearing plain blue jeans and a black t-shirt with “Mrs. David Boreanaz” stenciled on it, along with an old crone witch mask. The hair on the mask was long and purple. She studied them all for a moment.
            “I feel stupid,” she said.
            Frank laughed. “You were Bill Clinton last time. “
            “Yeah, but I didn’t have a wart the size of Boston on the side of my nose.”
            “Or purple hair,” Frank pointed towards the table and grinned as she tsked in disgust.
            “Housekeeping is shabby. Let’s not stay here again,” she told him, pulling over a chair. Her voice was husky and mellow with an American accent dulled by the rhythm of another – English maybe? – Frank pretended once again not to notice and motioned to Ghoul man who moved forward, spreading a large piece of plastic over the table. The woman looked up at him. “Better,” she said.
            Another agent moved forward and put a heavy briefcase on the table. Scream guy moved to her right and produced a key. He opened the briefcase and they both stepped back out of the way. They were all wearing latex gloves.
            “Perimeter,” Frank spoke into his radio again. Two of the men in the room moved outside and he could hear exchanges from the others stationed outside.
            The woman sighed. She sat looking at the briefcase for a few moments and then leaned forward and opened it.
            Frank stood on the left of the table, facing her. No matter how many times he watched this, the chill that slid down his spine when she worked never faded. He felt it now as she removed the evidence bag from the case. She shook it and it unrolled. Inside was a toothbrush, totally unremarkable in its ordinariness, a blue toothbrush with white bristles. The woman studied it from all angles and then reached into the case again, removing a pair of scissors. She slit the top of the bag quickly and took the brush out; holding it carefully like it was made of porcelain. She never wore gloves. Closing her hands around the tooth brush she began to speak. Frank had a notebook ready. He was good with shorthand.

Harry Grogan sat down in the diner and ordered a coffee with the special. He
looked around. It was a small town with a small diner and most of the sparse patrons looked older than God. None of them looked like feds, or mob lackeys.
            Harry gulped down his coffee before the pancakes arrived and got a refill from the waitress along with a big smile. He grinned back feeling relaxed. He’d been on the run for almost six weeks, although he was starting to wonder who exactly he was running from. If he was such a big deal then surely someone would’ve found him by now. Maybe he was too good for them all.
            The problem was that he had information. Lots of it. Information linking Anthony Boccanegra, Cesar Delfino and Walter Pescetti with organized crime throughout Washington. He’d worked for all three of their houses for almost forty years and when the feds had approached him, he’d jumped ship with no qualms at all. His money was safe and they could give him a new identity to enjoy it. And then his family started disappearing – his brothers first, then his sister, his wife. He received a photograph of his daughter, Chloe, taken outside her school, and he snapped.
            Escaping from the feds had been easy; killing the two who’d been assigned to protect him had been disagreeable but necessary. And so here he was, living off the money he’d cleaned out of his accounts during the past two years – no-one misses money when it walks out little by little – and keeping his head down by moving from place to place and staying off the pay-rolls and the police and busy body radars.
            The pancakes were good, served with syrup. A great stack of them, hot from the griddle. He thought about Chloe, wondered for the thousandth time how his baby was and then pushed her from his mind. Looking back was going to get him caught, and getting caught was going to get her dead.
            Harry shoveled the last piece of pancake into his mouth and grinned in satisfaction. It wasn’t a bad life.
            The feeling came over him all of a sudden – the hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention and fear roiled in his gut. Harry looked around. Someone was watching him. That’s what all of his senses were screaming at him. His eyes darted around checking it all out. The diner’s patrons were more interested in their food or the morning paper; the two cars parked outside were empty. No-one lingered on the side walks. There was nothing. But the feeling wouldn’t leave him.
            And then his heart almost stopped. For just a moment it had felt as though a cold hand had pressed onto the hot skin at the nape of his neck.
            Harry shuddered.

            In the dirty ruins of the Southern Belle Hotel, the woman sat back from the table. She had been sitting there for almost an hour. Her voice had grown more and more tired, and Frank had been close to kneeling down beside her, taking her hand and asking if she’d like a rest. That would’ve been a serious breech of protocol and probably the end of his involvement in this project. He’d managed to resist the temptation.
            “Did you get all that?” she asked, sounding shaky.
            Frank nodded and flipping back the pages of the notebook, spoke into his radio. “S19. Main information following. He’s in Kentucky, a small town called Redbrook, staying at the “Four Paces” guest house. He pays in cash. He’s dyed his hair brown, has plenty of money to keep going and intends to make for his brother’s summer place in Maine. There’s no record of it in any of their books – it’s a retreat.” He paused and received a confirmation from control. He knew that a team was in place already and would be underway within ten or fifteen minutes. Their job was done. He motioned to the others who began to pack away the suitcase and all traces of their visit. The woman mumbled something and Frank leaned in to listen.
             “He’s eating pancakes with syrup.” she whispered, turning exhausted gray eyes to him. “And he worries about his daughter.”
            Frank felt that chill again. He straightened up, longing suddenly for his warm bed and the simple pleasure of curling up beside his wife. He thought he should ask if the woman would be okay driving to wherever she was supposed to go but he knew it was against the rules. Get there, get the info, and get out. It was a simple mission every time. He backed away from her and out of the door, walking swiftly away without looking back.