A Grave Discovery
Roger Otis stared into the coffin. A young female lay inside. Despite the age of the grave, which by its markings should be the rotting eighty-nine-year-old remains of Harold P. Tillington, the current occupant appeared to be no more than fifteen. Stranger still, the body was fresh, no hint of decomposition.
Otis looked over at his partner of the past six months, Niall Alchurch. "It can't be."
Niall scratched his head, mussing the graying hair around his temple.
"And yet it is." He pulled out his cell phone, sliding the screen up revealing a photo that was undeniably the same woman. "It's her." He turned the phone out showing the image to Otis.
Roger Otis glanced from the picture to the young woman inside the coffin, and back to the picture again. He blinked; shock evident in his slack-jawed expression.
"Niall, that Missing Person’s report is eighteen years old. She was only a teenager when she disappeared." He pointed down at the open grave beneath him. "This is a girl, not a woman in her thirties. And look at her?" Both men peered at the body reposing in the musty grave. "She should be no more than dust and bones. How the hell is she not decomposed? She looks like she's just taking a nap."
"Like Sleeping Beauty," Niall mused. "I hear what you're saying, and yet, this is undeniably Louisa Jane Alcott." Alchurch returned his attention to the cell phone image. "I suppose we need to call it in," he said, his British accent making the words sound clipped. "The Section Chief will want his report."
Otis climbed out of the open grave. "And the CIA and MI6 too, damn them." He dusted off his hands on his pant legs. "I wonder what happened to Harold Tillington's body?"
Niall lifted the phone to his ear. "Who knows? Might even still be there, underneath. After all, he'd be nothing but dust by now anyhow."
Alchurch shifted his attention as his call was answered. "Agent Alchurch here. I.D. 10, Code 5." He paused. "Reporting in. We've recovered one. Yes sir. In the Glaston Cemetery. Just like the intel stated. No, not alive. This one is from a much older list of the missing." Niall glanced down. The sun had set nearly two hours prior, and the wind was whipping up, blowing the freshly shoveled earth around, some of it landing on the young woman's body.
Otis stood with hands on hips, scanning the grounds. He shivered. It was damned creepy. He wasn't comfortable being there, but he went where the intelligence took him, and the recent information received directed him to this particular longitude and latitude. Where Section 5 gained these logistics was another strange story altogether, but after his experience in Marion, Texas with his former army buddy, Jack Callaghan, he was no longer shocked or surprised by anything. Instead, he was more frequently deeply disturbed by what he and his partner discovered. Often terrified as well, but he kept that to himself. And the number of people in which they could share their discoveries was dwindling rapidly. The circle of trusted confidants was shrinking.
Now, here they stood, in the middle of an old cemetery in England, at the foot of an open grave lit only by the dim light of a quarter moon. The rising wind rustled the decaying leaves on the trees, and the air held a bite promising sleet. It was quiet. Too quiet.
A gurgling sound startled them both. Otis jumped, clutching at his chest, and Niall stopped speaking, his face going pale. Both looked down. The body in the coffin shook, spasming in a coughing fit.
"Jesus Christ!" Otis's eyes widened. His heart lurched, pounding hard.
"Dear God, she's alive?" Alchurch stuttered. His hand dropped to his side; his call forgotten.
The young woman's eyes flitted opened. She looked skyward, blinking before focusing. With difficulty, she sat up. Confusion marred her face as she took note of the dirt walls surrounding her. She had yet to notice the crumbling coffin in which she sat. The girl gazed up at the two men standing at the foot of the hole.
"Who are you?" Her voice gravelly and weak. "Where am I? Am I home? Am I finally home?"
How We Got Here
His fist slammed into the wall sending fragments of gray-green plaster flying. Agent Roger Otis flinched, then flexed his fingers as he shook his hand.
Otis swung around and glared at his partner. Niall Alchurch stood, calm and cool as a cucumber. It annoyed him that the MI6 agent he’d been paired up with never seem disturbed by the increasingly frightening cases they were assigned nor perturbed when they were shut out by higher ups before any solid answers could be revealed. It was becoming clear they were simply pawns in a master’s tournament of chess.
“No!” Otis glowered at the man, and then sighed, shaking his head. He ran a hand over his face trying for some semblance of composure. He remembered being composed once, but that was before his promotion to Section 5, before his worldview had taken a decided hit. Roger Otis had not reacted well at all last summer when, as part of his first assignment, he’d seen something that left him with a deep, abiding terror anchored in his heart, one that gave him nightmares for weeks. As a soldier in the army, he’d seen the horrors of war up close. His tour of duty in Afghanistan left its mark forever on his psyche, but that was about human casualties. What he saw last summer wasn’t…human. In fact, he didn’t know what it was. Every time he attempted to recall the memory; all he could envision were blurry outlines. But it was the panic-inducing fear associated with remembering that moment that left him sick to his stomach, sweating like a fever, and ready to run for the hills. He tried again.
“Sorry, Niall. I just can’t let it roll off my back like you do. I mean, we’re the ones out there risking our lives in ways no one outside of the section would understand. Don’t we deserve some answers?”
Alchurch’s brown eyes held a world of understanding. He was three years older than his new American partner, but they had something in common. Past military experience. For Otis, it was army infantry. For Alchurch, British special forces. Both of them parlayed their service into government positions in intelligence. Those career paths led them here, to SECTION 5, a joint international intelligence division that dealt with national security cases of unusual origin. He’d been working for the section for two years now. In that time, he had been assigned two partners. The current one, Roger Otis, a tall, athletic, detail-oriented gentleman of color, and Arissa Cartwright, deceased. That wound was a mere seven months old, and he refused to speak of it. Instead, he bottled up those feelings shoving them deep down into some far corner of his soul. It was not a subject he would ever share, not even with Otis, although his life might one day depend on the details.
“Our personnel file documents say otherwise. We deserve nothing except a paycheck. Our job is to go where they send us, discover what we can, report back, and then move on.”
Otis shook his head. “And never know what happens to them? To Louisa Jane Alcott? That's messed up, Niall.”
Alchurch patted his partner’s shoulder. “Agreed, but what can we do, Roger? We have no authority other than what they grant us. What happens to any of them is above our paygrade.” He sighed. “We have new coordinates.”
“What?” He turned, his brows drawn. “When?”
“Alexander shoved them into my hand while you were signing off on the Alcott girl.”
Neville Alexander was the section chief of operations in the United Kingdom. His counterpart in the U.S. was George Milley, the man who recruited Roger Otis following the Marion, Texas affair.
Roger Otis took a deep breath. Apparently, there would be no rest for the weary. And he couldn’t complain because it was, in fact, what he’d signed on for.
“Where to now?”
“Phoenix, Arizona, just northeast. Superstition Mountains.”
“As in, the legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine?”
Alchurch smiled, but it held no joy. “Worse.” He turned and began walking toward the exit.
Otis followed. “What can be worse than chasing after old legends?”
Alchurch reached for the door handle, glancing over his shoulder. “According to Apache folklore, the site we’re investigating is the gateway to the underworld.”
Roger Otis stopped. “And just what are we looking for at the gateway to Hell?”
“My guess, another body.” Alchurch stepped out leaving Otis staring after him.
The night air rushed in washing over his startled face. It was then that Roger Otis had to admit, if only to himself, there was still room left in this crazy world to surprise him. He thought about his daughter, Danielle. She was currently in her first year of college at the University of Pennsylvania studying political science. At least, he hoped she was studying. He remembered his own first year of college as more of a time to party and enjoy the freedom of being an adult. The irony is that those were the years he made the most immature decisions possible. It wasn’t until after his four-year stint in the army that he finally grew up. The first actual adult decision he’d made was asking Carrie Marshall to marry him. Although their marriage hadn’t worked out in the long run, he could never regret it because it gave him his daughter. And he still loved Carrie, but in a different way. He understood that the failure of their marriage fell to him and the career he’d chosen.
All he wanted was for Danielle to have a normal life, with two loving, supportive parents behind her. He hoped for her to one day fall in love, get married, have children of her own. Being a granddad was high on Roger’s bucket list. But those hopes had been dashed after last summer. With each new case, he was losing hope in any future entirely.
“Dammit,” he muttered, pushing the door wide and walking out into the night.
The plane landed on the hot tarmac, the tires skidding as the engines were drawn down. Agents Otis and Alchurch retrieved their suitcases from the overhead compartment and exited the plane. Once they made their way to arrivals, they proceeded to the car rental area. Arrangements had been made ahead of time by the home office securing a black sedan. All the easier to blend in. The type of work they did should never draw attention.
By the time they signed off on the paperwork, loaded their luggage in the trunk, and left the airport, the temperature in Phoenix hit a scorching one-hundred seven degrees Fahrenheit. It was a shocking difference from the wet, bone-chilling cold of England. The arid heat of Arizona had Alchurch shrugging out of his suit coat and loosening his tie. Otis noticed and chuckled.
“If you think this is hot, you should experience Afghanistan at the peak of summer.”
Alchurch quirked an eyebrow and glanced at his partner. “I have, thank you.”
This surprised Otis. In the six months since he’d been paired up with the Brit, Alchurch had not once volunteered any personal information about himself. Not that he’d asked. Even so, it was unusual for a person not to share at least some basic background information. All he knew of Niall was that he’d been assigned to SECTION 5 for two years and came from MI6. Those credentials alone were impressive, but how he got into intelligence to begin with was the real story, and the man had been tight-lipped where his personal life, and professional life, were concerned.
Roger Otis wasn’t one to pry unless it had to do directly with a case. He respected a person’s privacy figuring if they wanted him to know anything about them, they’d spill the beans. But it was difficult to form a strong working relationship with someone if you knew next to nothing about them. Shared stories were the basis for trust, and from trust came friendship. That was how it was for him and Jack Callaghan, two young men sent into Afghanistan by the army. It was how they met. Battle brought them together but sharing bits and pieces of their lives in the thick of it all is what built the lasting bond of friendship between the two. They knew everything about each other, had gone through marriages, the birth of his daughter, Jack’s traumatic loss of his leg during 9/11, and the incident in Marion, Texas that launched this new path in his career. That one still gave him the willies, but not nearly as much as what happened over last summer. It was something he tried hard not to remember, even as his memories of the event were not very clear. The overall impression, however, stayed with him. If anyone asked, he’d liken it to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But no one had asked, and he preferred it that way. It was why he never spoke of it, not to anyone.
“Is that your roundabout way of saying you were also in the military?”
“It is.” Alchurch left it at that and returned his attention to the road.
Otis shook his head. The man threw him breadcrumbs of information and he didn’t appreciate it. He couldn’t complain much though. Agent Alchurch, at least, had never treated him like a lackey. Despite being the senior agent in their duo, he didn’t lord it over him. And so far, he’d proven to be dependable, resourceful, and by the book.
They drove for nearly half an hour moving steadily northeast. Their destination was a small hotel near the Yavapai Indian Reservation. When Otis asked why they were heading northeast instead of east directly to the Superstition Mountains, Alchurch had invariably replied with his usual brevity.
“We’re meeting a guide.”
That was it. No name given. Nothing else to explain how they would proceed to these mountains or find their way to the mysterious Gateway to Hell. One thing Roger did know without a doubt, if it involved riding on a mule, it wasn’t happening. He’d stay at the hotel and do all the paperwork before he’d hoist himself atop a cantankerous jackass.
Before long, they were pulling off the highway into a dusty parking lot. The hotel was actually a motel. A cheap, Norman Bates and his psycho mother style motel. Otis wasn’t sure if it was a reflection on the section’s travel budget or simply the best that could be found near where they needed to be. Either way, his spirits plummeted another ten degrees. His back hurt already in anticipation of a hard mattress and his skin itched just thinking about the possibility of bedbugs, fleas, or the bodily fluids of past guests still lingering in what he was sure would be filthy bedding. He’d slept on the hard, cold ground at night in Afghanistan without complaint. He’d gladly do so again if it meant avoiding the D-rated, rent-by-the-hour excuse of a motel before him.
Alchurch parked the sedan in front of the office.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, getting out of the car. He left it running, the air conditioning blowing hard in the Arizona heat.
Otis sighed and glanced around the grounds. The motel was single story and sat in a row of rooms. The blue paint on the doors had long ago faded and chipped and what were once white walls now presented as a drab, dirty gray. Even the motel’s road sign looked sad and neglected with rust overtaking the pole. The E and L in motel were missing in action. Next door to the establishment was a truck stop diner. A few big rigs were parked on the far side of the lot and maybe five cars parked in front. It looked as dirty as the motel. A queasy sensation filled Otis’s gut when he realized that was probably the only place nearby where they would be able to eat. In that moment, he was thankful for the antacid he’d had the forethought to pack.
The driver’s door opened and Alchurch slid back into the car.
“You’ll be shocked to know there’s no turndown service,” he said. Then he tossed a bag at Otis. “And these are the only towels we’ll likely get. Maid service is weekly.”
Roger Otis peered into the bag. It contained two large white towels…with old stains, and two washcloths. He made a mental note to pack towels, washcloths, and even fresh sheets and a blanket when next he traveled. Maybe some MREs, too. The army’s meals-ready-to-eat would surely be better than what the greasy spoon next door had to offer.
They drove to the far end of the row of rooms, to number thirteen. It was perhaps one-hundred yards from the greasy diner.
Alchurch parked in front of their room and killed the engine. They got out, grabbed their luggage from the trunk, and went inside. Both men stopped and stared, their faces reflecting their disgust.
“A veritable colonial palace,” Alchurch muttered.
“A dung heap,” said Otis.
Two full-sized beds occupied most of the space inside. They were covered in green and orange striped bedspreads that had seen better days. Both mattresses sagged visibly in the middle promising all kinds of discomfort. The orange rust shag carpet was an original throwback to the ‘70s and smelled like the backside of every sweaty body that ever slept there. The room was hot and the air stale.
Shaking his head, Otis tossed his suitcase on the first bed and immediately located the AC unit by the window.