Someone stepped on a stick buried in the old leaves, and it snapped with what sounded like a rifle shot in the darkness. I froze in mid-step, and Devvy bumped into me, and I heard the others gasp and stop moving.
"Sorry," Rich whispered, after a moment of silence. "I can't see where I'm putting my feet. And this damn gas can is heavy."
Ahead of us, the lights of Muskrat Hill glowed softly in the night, muted, not nearly as bright as you would expect a town to look at just about midnight. The only streetlights were at the corners of the roads intersecting the square, and one short pole light glowed outside the courthouse, near the stone front steps. Most of the businesses showed a dim light inside, and maybe a few of the window signs had been left on; but for the most part, the square was in shadows. None of the practical townsfolk felt any desire to pay to light up an area that hadn't seen a crime in living memory.
We were arrowing in on the back porch light of Annie Ligget's little restaurant, the Come On Inn, a dim yellow bug-light bulb underneath a metal shade that did little to dispense the light beyond the worn wooden stairs at the back door. A light glowed inside the little window next to the door, but certainly the restaurant was closed at this hour. Even on Friday nights most area businesses closed at five, with a few - like places to eat, and the movie theater out on Route Two - staying open until nine.
There was also a bar a little further out of town, where all the local drinkers spent their evenings, but it, too, was closed by ten o'clock during the week, and eleven on the weekends. So the town square in Muskrat Hill should be silent and vacant at this hour. In this neck of the woods, most proprietors pulled in the welcome mats well before sunset, because most people wanted to be home for supper, and business died off to nothing at the dinner hour. The only place right in town besides the Come On Inn that did anything after dinner was the Baptist church, which had Bingo on Friday and Saturday nights. But even those activities were over well before the sun went down.
Proper folk were in bed at this hour, right? Only mischievous teenagers with a half-baked plan in mind were senseless enough to be out at this time of the night.
"Damn, it's hot," Joey whispered. "Makes me itch."
We were all dressed in black sweats, and wore dark brown garden gloves on our hands. We'd cut up and sewn into shape some old black tee-shirts to make headgear - simple tubes of cotton cloth that we pulled down over our heads to cover our faces. They had eye holes cut in them, but no others, and breathing and talking through the material left a lot of heat trapped within. It wasn't comfortable, but it was better than being seen. In the event we did encounter someone unexpectedly, we at least had the hope that they couldn't identify us later on.
"Yeah," I whispered. "Better than getting caught, though."
I received several grunts in reply, which told me that the others were once again considering the danger of what we were up to.
The restaurant was three doors down from the empty hardware store, and the only place on this side of the square that left a light on out back at night. We'd scoped it out with the drone, and so knew exactly where we were. Once we exited the woods near the restaurant, we would turn right, walk a short bit, and we'd be there.
Joey was the only one of our group with a driver's license yet, and he'd borrowed his older brother's pick up truck to ferry us and our equipment over to the spot on Route Two that was nearest the back of the line of stores containing the hardware. Joey's brother, Dave, was in the army, and home infrequently. He'd told Joey he could use the truck if needed during the day, but that he didn't want him out in it at night, cruising or getting into trouble. Joey, who didn't like trouble, anyway, had had no need for the vehicle until now; but it sure came in handy for our mission this night.
Joey's dad owned a gas station in Royce, six miles away over the ridge at the Holly Point exit off the Interstate, and opened it every morning at six a.m. to catch the morning rush. So he was in bed early, and Joey's mom followed suit, for the most part. Taking the truck without disturbing them had been easy enough.
We'd hidden it off the road behind a copse of big red loropetalum, which was kind of like hiding your sins under a streetlight. But it would make it easy to find again, if nothing else. The woods were thin here, with plenty of space between the trees, and while dark as pitch beneath the canopy of leaves, it was flat land and easy to cross. We'd made good time covering the near mile to the back side of the town square.
I blew out a little breath, trying to ease the tension I couldn't help feeling. I let my eyes roam over what I could see through the trees ahead, and there was no movement, no new lights, nothing to indicate that Rich's poorly placed step had garnered any attention at all. I suspected it had sounded a lot louder to us than it really had been, and that the sound had probably been lost among the crickets and frogs and night owls long before it had reached the town.
"It's okay," I whispered to him. "No harm done. We can't help stepping on shit we can't see. Come on, let's go."
Each of us had a lot to carry, and some of it wasn't light. We were all draped with the dark gray burlap sacks that held our gear, each with a big number written on it in black magic marker, to quickly identify it under the soft glow of the little LED flashlights we each carried. We'd taped clear red plastic over the lenses to mute the lights, and the flashes could hopefully be used without it looking like a team of burglars were skulking about the town. We didn't expect anyone to be in the square at this hour, but some of the houses outside of town were up on Blocker Hill and Hawkins Ridge, and had a good view down on the town square. Wouldn't do to have some up-late local out on his front porch spy all sorts of weird lights moving about down in the town, and get himself on the phone to Deputy Dawson.
Speaking of the local law, that also took in its shingle by dark, just like it did over in Bent Fork. Muskrat Hill only paid its single deputy to be about during the day, and while he was on call after dark, it was from his bedroom over on Shandy Street, between the covers, let the phone ring some, so I'll hear it.
We continued ahead, stepping carefully, and made it to the edge of the woods without setting off any more rifle shots. I breathed a sigh of relief then. We'd scoped the stretch of woods beforehand, during daylight, and it had looked pretty regular to our eyes as viewed through the camera on the drone. But leaves could hide a variety of pitfalls, and I'd had the small worry all along that someone might step in a hidden hole and twist an ankle, or even worse, break something. That would be the end of our plan, not to even mention that one of us would be hurt. I wanted Brad to get his coming around, but I didn't want any of us to pay for it with any further pain.
We squatted at the edge of the woods, behind a rotting pile of old firewood, and examined the back of the restaurant. It looked quiet, and all I could hear was the local wildlife happily conversing about their latest adventures. I pulled up my sleeve and looked at the soft glow from the face of my watch - midnight, just about on the dot.
Here we go!
"Okay," I said quietly, rising to my feet. "Let's get this show on the --"
Just then there was a squeak, and the back door of the restaurant opened and the screen door thrust outward. I simply froze, amazed and horrified at the same time, and only Dev reaching up and pulling me down probably saved me from being seen.
Cupper Dawson, the town deputy, emerged onto the dingy back porch, with Annie Ligget right on his heels.
The deputy wore a great big smile, and as the two emerged into the yellow light from the bug bulb, he turned and took Annie into his arms. She was also smiling, and kept smiling as they kissed and giggled at each other.
"That was wonderful," the deputy said. "Ain't nobody cooks like you do, honey."
Annie wiggled her middle against him, and laughed. "You cook pretty hot yourself, Cuppy."
I had to put my hand over my mouth not to laugh out loud. Cupper Dawson and Annie Liggett! And I thought I had a pretty good idea from the way they were acting that they were not talking about cooking food!
Small towns have their secrets, but they also have stories to tell, and gossip is the wings on which stories get around. My dad heard the best of it, and he and the other deputies passed it around amongst themselves, much to the delight of my mom, who always said that men were just as terrible a bunch of gossips as any group of old ladies.
So I knew what I was seeing right now. Annie Ligget was engaged to Mort Snodgrass, the son of the president of the Wells Fargo Bank in Royce, and the heir to the Snodgrass fortune. Well, it probably wasn't a fortune, if you looked at the house that old Mr. Snodgrass lived in; but it was more money than Annie made running the little restaurant she'd inherited from her mother, for sure. That Annie was 'marryin' into money' was well-known...and yet, here she was, stepping out at night with Cupper Dawson! Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick!
Devin leaned on me from behind, and I could feel him laughing silently. Rich couldn't quite contain himself, and let out an audible gasp followed by a snort, to which Annie immediately started, and pulled back from Cupper, her eyes looking about suspiciously.
"What was that?"
"What was what?"
"I heard a noise."
The deputy turned then, but couldn't see us in our black outfits, hunkered down behind the woodpile. "I didn't hear anything."
"It sounded like someone farted or something."
I squeezed my eyes shut and simply held on, trying not to go off, and heard small sounds from the others as they did the same.
"There it is again!" Annie said, her eyes darting about. The deputy's eyes also moved about, but more slowly, his gaze diving into the shadows and finding nothing there to see.
"Ain't nothing," Cupper said, turning back to Annie. "Deer, maybe. They're probably out in the woods, ruttin' or something."
Annie's mouth pinched up, and she shook her head. "Deer don't rut in the summer, dummy. They do it in the fall."
Cupper sighed, and pulled her closer again. "Honey, the only ruttin' I care about right now is between you and me."
At that Annie smiled, and allowed herself to be pawed a little. "Just remember, I'm spoken for, Cupper Dawson. Me and Mort will be married 'fore the end of the year, and then we'll probably have to stop playing like this."
Cupper drew back, and grinned. "Probably?"
Annie smiled coyly. "Well...we'll see."
The deputy sighed. "I don't get why you want to marry that guy. He's not like you at all. He's one of them...one of them nerd fellas, what with those binoculars on his face, and all."
"Morty can't help it if he's farsighted," Annie admonished, giving the deputy a playful little slap right over his badge. "And it's mean of you to even say that!"
"You're a head taller than he is, too," Cupper went on, not to be silenced. "He's a runt."
Annie's smile only grew. "He's bigger in some places than others."
The deputy snorted, and shook his head. "I sure didn't need to know that!"
Annie sighed, and patted the front of the deputy's shirt. "You just be good now, and stop worrying. We'll still be friends, even after I get married. I already told Morty I wasn't giving up the restaurant, and he agreed with me. So I'll be here all day, and Morty will be in Royce all day, waiting for me to come home." She smiled. "That give you any ideas?"
Cupper snorted at that, and rolled his eyes. "Well --"
"Just wait and see," Annie said reassuringly. "Now git. I have a stand on the green, and I expect some extra business 'cause of the festival tomorrow. And you'll be busy keeping order and things. It's late, and we both need to get ourselves to bed."
"Yeah. We can talk more about this later." The deputy smiled again, and offered another kiss.
By now we had controlled our laughter, and were simply watching as the two sucked face a moment. I didn't know Annie or Cupper beyond a passing acquaintance, both gained from visiting the town with my dad. But I kind of found I didn't like either of them much just now. All I could feel at the moment was sorry for Mort Snodgrass, who obviously had no idea what he was getting into.
The pair parted then. Annie locked the door, and then they each went in different directions. There were narrow alleys every third or fourth shop, that let one through into the square, and they each went through a different one, to emerge near their parked cars. We heard them start up, and then drive away, and none of us moved until the night was once again silent save for the things that belonged there.
"How about that?" Rich finally whispered.
"Shit," Joey returned, sounding less than amused. "Talk about timing. If we'd gotten here a little earlier, we mighta walked right into that!"
I had to agree. We'd figured on no one being about the square at midnight, but now we had to consider the unforeseen, like what had just happened now. That meant being even more careful, and watching everywhere before moving or doing anything in the open. That would surely add to our time here. I'd allotted ninety minutes to get everything ready, and hoped it would be closer to an hour. The sooner we got out of here, the better. We all needed to get some sleep before tomorrow. The festival started at ten, and we needed to be back here and up on the roof of the hardware by nine.
"Let's go," I said, rising again. This time, no doors opened, and no one popped up to confront us. I guess every plan has unexpected moments where something can go wrong and ruin everything, and I hoped we'd just had our one moment, and narrowly avoided the consequences. Maybe there would be no more surprises.
We stepped quickly down the truck drive behind the buildings, past dumpsters and bins and empty crates and boxes, and rounded the corner to our destination. The back of the hardware was absent most of these things, but did have the one thing that all the other shops also had, and which we now needed: a steel ladder running up the back wall to the flat roof. We paused there, because here was where we split up.
We'd all practiced what we had to do, and knew our parts. We'd all be working together, but some things did not require all of us at once. By splitting up we could accomplish a lot more in the same amount of time, and reduce the risk presented by all four of us needlessly clomping about together.
I turned, and leaned over and pressed my face against Devvy's. "Be careful. I love you."
"Yeah, I love you, too. But I'm Rich."
I heard Joey laugh, and then another dark shape loomed closer. "Care to try again?" it asked, in Dev's voice.
I grinned, but leaned forward again, and pushed my cotton-clad face against his. "Be careful," I repeated. "I love you."
This time, I got a fond squeeze in return, and the little click of a kiss against my cheek. "I love you, Kelly. You be careful, too. 'Specially that climbing."
Joey and Rich exchanged kisses, too.
"Was that as good as what Kelly just gave you?" Joey whispered.
Rich laughed. "One more? Just to be sure."
They pushed against each other again, and more fond noises issued from between them. And then one figure turned my way. "Sorry, Kel. I have to go with Joey here."
"Like I expected anything else. Let's get to work!"
Navy Seals we were not. If this had been a secret mission behind enemy lines, we'd probably have been nabbed while kissing behind the target structure. I could imagine the newspaper headlines over that!
"Leave that gas can here," Joey told Rich. "And bags three and four. We'll take them around and leave them at the corner of the building. No use hauling them up there, and then lowering them back down."
Rich grunted. "I couldn't haul that heavy-ass can up this ladder, even if I tried."
Joey gave a soft laugh. "I was kidding."
Rich set the gas can down by Joey, and then pulled bag three off his shoulder. "At least this is light."
Dev set bag four beside me, and patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck."
I nodded. "You, too."
Dev started up the ladder to the roof of the hardware, and Rich watched until he was about eight feet up, and then followed. An alley was at the other end of the store, and Joey and I picked up the gas can and the extra bags, and headed for it. We quickly passed through it to the square, and paused there, surveying the quiet and shadow-filled green across the street. The pole light in front of the courthouse, which was down the street before us, was the only real light we had to contend with. We could see no one - no movement, anywhere - and no sound came to our ears. It was just what you might expect to find at midnight, and it was wonderfully reassuring.
"Let's set this stuff here, back a little from the sidewalk," Joey suggested. "It's shadowed, and someone could walk right by and not even see it."
We did that, and then looked out on the green once more. It was still quiet, the shadows draped about everywhere, still undisturbed.
"Let's go, Joe."
We emerged from the alley and headed down the sidewalk, the sacks we were still carrying bumping against us at we moved. The front of the courthouse was set out further than the facades of the shops to either side of it, and we'd had a devil of a time finding the access ladder that led up to the bell tower. We'd expected it to be out back, where every other business structure in town had its roof access ladder. And there was one for the roof of the courthouse out back, but a quick look via drone had shown no path from the flat rear roof to the bell tower up front.
I'd been getting nervous over this apparently serious flaw in my original plan, when Joey had leaned forward and pointed at the laptop screen. "There!"
The access ladder for the bell tower had turned out to be on the side of the left front corner of the courthouse, behind a small possumhaw holly tree growing at the corner of the building. From even the street it looked like more of the decorative brickwork that adorned the old building; you had to get right up on it before it was revealed to be the curved rungs of a steel ladder embedded into the brickwork. We arrived at the bottom of the ladder, and I put a hand on one rung and looked up.
The spire of the bell tower stood out against the stars, a great black void in an otherwise beautiful sky. The moon didn't rise tonight until almost two-thirty a.m., good for us when it came to sneaking about the poorly-lit square, not so good for things like climbing a ladder in that same darkness. This was why Joey and I had this part of the mission; neither Dev nor Rich could deal with heights. They could manage the fifteen feet or so to the roof of the hardware okay, but climbing almost four stories on an open ladder was beyond them.
To tell you the truth, I was not too thrilled about it myself. But I knew I was more stable with heights than Dev and Rich, and I would not allow them to take the risk if I could do the job. Joey wasn't scared of much except attention, and could have made the climb if it had been twice as high. Hell, three times as high.
We'd come ahead of plan a little to check things out. But everything looked clear, our signal to proceed. "Wait here," I whispered. "I'll get the line."
I hurried back to the hardware store at the corner of the square, looked nervously about, and then looked up. A dark figure was leaning over the edge of the roof, looking down at me. "Ready for it?"
"Yes!" I motioned with my hands, and felt something drop down into my arms. I quickly gathered up the thin line, and started back to the courthouse, feeling little tugs on the cord as it played out behind me.
For this critical part of our plan, we were using 550, type III, seven strand paracord. It was pale blue in color, had a diameter just over an eighth of an inch, and would, like its name said, hold up to 550 pounds of weight. Not that we needed anything like that much strength; but the ability not to stretch much under load meant that we could pull it tight between the bell tower and the roof of the hardware store, which is what we needed to do in order for our plan to succeed.
It's small diameter and light color meant that it would hopefully be nearly invisible against the sunlit sky, reducing the chance that anyone might notice it and give us away. There were a number of wires and lines up above the businesses around the square - hopefully this would just be one more, blending in. People sometimes notice anything new or out of place, even small things, and I wanted to reduce that possibility as much as I could.
You'd think something as utterly cool as cord made to work with parachutes would be expensive; but we'd purchased a thousand-foot roll on Amazon for twenty-eight bucks. We'd estimated that we'd need five-hundred feet of line to reach to the bell tower balcony and back down to the roof of the hardware store again, but had played it safe and got double that amount. Nothing would kill the plan quicker than being ten feet short on our line.
I reached the ladder, and wrapped the line around my waist and tied it off. Then I placed a hand on the first rung of the ladder, and turned to Joey. "Ready?"
"Yep. You go first. But if anything happens, yell, so I can get out of the way. No use both of us falling."
I grinned, recognizing gallows humor when I saw it. Joey was just as nervous as I was, underneath his veneer of cool.
"Right." I started up the ladder.
Actually, climbing at night was probably easier. It wasn't pitch black out - I could see the town square around me, in the dim lights from the buildings, and the starlit sky was quite beautiful overhead. But the ground below was dark, and as I ascended, I really didn't get the same sense of height I might have gotten during the day. Still, I could somehow feel the height, and it did nothing to settle my already jangly nerves.
Climbing nearly four stories takes time, but at long last I reached the balcony beneath the big clock. The face of the clock was lit, and the time was now twelve-twenty-two; but the glow of it didn't come down to the balcony much, and when I climbed over the railing, I was still mostly in darkness. The ladder continued upward past the balcony to a steel door that must have let into the guts of the clock or something. I would think that there had to be a way to get to the same place from inside the building, but you never know how these things work until you see them.
A moment later Joey was beside me. "Piss your pants?"
I laughed. "No. Came close, though."
He patted my shoulder. "Don't feel bad. Made me a little nervous, too."
I grinned under my cotton hood. That sort of admission from Joey was a rare one, indeed!
We moved to the center of the narrow balcony, beneath the big clock, and looked down. Across the street, on the center green, was the grandstand, in perfect view. I could even make out the podium at the front of it. Anyone standing there and turning to look up would have a perfect view of the balcony, and anything on it.
And perfect was just what we wanted.
"Oh, man," Joey breathed, taking in the view. "This is gonna be killer."
I nodded, and shrugged off the burlap sacks I was carrying, breathing a sigh of relief. They were fairly heavy, and I'd really felt that weight while climbing up the ladder. Joey did the same, and we quickly went to work.
It was easy to see where I needed to drill into the brickwork. We wanted Boney to look like he was a human being standing up here at the railing, so I drilled the four holes just above my own height, using the portable drill in the number one sack. I had a stencil, so that the holes would be properly placed. My portable drill made short work of the job, and after setting it at my feet, I found the hammer and the inserts, and quickly pounded the latter into the holes by feel. These would properly anchor the screws that held the pulley mount.
Next I got the pulley out. It was a five inch affair mounted on a swivel, so that it could turn ninety degrees to either side. I switched out the drill bit for a hex-head driver, and just as quickly drove in the three-inch screws that would secure the pulley mount to the wall. Once mounted, I grabbed hold of it and did a quick couple of pull-ups, just to make certain it was solid. It was. Then I returned the tools to the first sack, and turned to see what Joey was doing.
He'd removed Boney from his own sack, and was setting him up. We'd altered the scarecrow a little for what we wanted him to do, and repaired his lower section so that it looked like he had legs again. Joey had fixed Boney so that he could bend double at the waist for transport, yet become fairly rigid again by the simple insertion of a half-inch dowel rod between the two hinged halves. The missing legs and feet had been re-framed in light pine rods, glued together with builder's cement. After we'd dressed Boney in a pair of old jeans, we'd covered the framework of his feet by gluing cardboard over them, and painted them black to look like shoes. This kept him as lightweight as possible.
Joey had also altered the electronics inside the scarecrow, adding a tiny, multi-channel receiver between the control panel and the little motors that activated Boney's arms. A transmitter with a joystick that was in bag six back on the hardware store roof could now be used to control his arm movements. Pull the joystick left, and Boney's left arm waved. Pull it right, and Boney's right arm would respond. Push the joystick forward, and both arms would wave at the same time. The nice thing was that the joysticks gave Boney's arm movements a finesse that he had never had when he'd been standing out in a field guarding corn. Just tap the joystick and the arm in question would make half a cycle, bringing the arm up and stopping it extended in front of the scarecrow. Tap it again, and the arm cycled around again to the downward position.
Boney also had a voice now. A tiny amp in his chest delivered twelve watts of acoustic energy from the receiver to the lightweight speaker hidden inside the frame beneath his shirt. Joey had rigged a simple frequency modulator into the circuit, which would give his transmitted voice a deep, quite sinister tone as it emerged from the speaker. Demonic was the word that had actually come to mind, when we'd tested it back at the shack. I had a feeling that when Boney talked, people would stop and listen. The powerful amp assured that there would be plenty of volume, and that the voice would easily reach the square below.
"Okay," Joey said, nodding at me. "I need the battery."
I went to bag two, and pulled out the twelve-volt, sealed, lead-acid battery that would power Boney in his next life. We'd found a wrecked UPS back-up power supply at the thinking place, a big, desktop model in a sleek black case. The control panel in the front was cracked, and the case was dented as if the whole thing had taken a spill to the floor. The unit didn't work, of course, but it had two batteries inside that were still perfectly good. It had been a great find, because we'd happened to be in need of two good power sources for our little project, and after charging them, they'd both proven to be usable.
But at ten pounds each, the batteries were a fair load to carry. This battery was the single heaviest part of Boney's new gear, and would replace the smaller battery that had been charged by the solar cells in the scarecrow's hat. Those solar cells would still provide a charge to the new battery, though there would not be enough to counter the drain. But the battery would last more than long enough to complete Boney's star performance.
Joey had made a new mount for it inside the aluminum frame of Boney's chest, and he set the battery into it, and wrapped the leather strap around it that would secure it in place, and fastened the buckle. He connected the push-on connectors, and then closed Boney's shirt. Then he pulled down the scarecrow's shirt pocket, and pushed the switch that activated him. A tiny green LED lit on the panel, and Joey refastened the shirt pocket over it.
"Okay, I need the headset."
I went back to bag two, and pulled out the two headsets with attached mics, and handed one to Joey. I put my own set on as he donned his, and squatted down to watch.
Joey positioned the mic in front of his mouth, and cleared his throat. "Testing. You there, Rich?"
I could hear his voice in my earphones, and then Rich's reply. "Yeah. All set?"
"Yeah." Joey stood Boney up against he wall of the tower, and looked out at the hardware store. "Right arm first."
"Okay. Moving the right arm."
There was a soft whirr from within the scarecrow, and the right arm raised and waved, and then settled back to Boney's side.
"Good," Joey said, "Now the left one."
"Left one," Rich repeated. Again the soft whirr, and Boney's left arm came up, waved, and dropped back.
I felt a pulse of excitement pass through me. It worked!
"Now the voice," Joey said. "Just whisper, Rich. We don't want to wake up the whole town."
"Testing," Boney whispered, in his devil's voice. "One, two, three, four."
Even at a whisper, it was scary enough to send a chill up my spine. Boney could now give any movie demon a run for his money!
"That's good enough," Joey said quickly, following it with a nervous-sounding laugh of his own. "Man, is that ever good enough!"
"So we're ready to go with Boney?" Rich asked.
"Yeah. We need the line now."
"I'm on my way," came Devin's voice over the headset.
I got to my feet and reeled in a length of the paracord hanging over the balcony, so that a large loop lay at my feet, and then put a foot atop it. Then I untied the end of the cord from my waist. "Anchor it?" I asked Joey.
He nodded, came over and placed his foot on the back side of the loop. I could lift my own foot then, and took the end of the line to the pulley and fed it around it, and then pulled out the guard that would keep the line from coming off. I walked back to the rail, carefully drawing the line through the pulley, and began feeding it back over the railing.
"I'm below you," Dev's voice said over the headset.
"I'm feeding the line down," I returned.
It took a couple of minutes, but then I heard Dev speak again. "I see it...almost there...okay, I got it. I'm heading back to the store."
The cord took on a new life, and began feeding over the railing by itself. I looked below, and could just barely make out Devin as he walked slowly back to the hardware store. Our outfits were actually pretty good, and Devin only really showed as he passed near the faintly-lit shop windows. And even then he looked like a ghost, and not a person at all.
Finally, Devin reached the hardware store. I knew he would now be fastening the end of the paracord to a length of clothesline hanging down the front of the building, and that in a moment, Rich would be drawing the line upwards. I couldn't actually see that happen, and only knew it had been done when I saw Dev vanish down the side alley on his way back around to the ladder to the roof.
"Okay, I got it," Rich said, "As soon as Dev gets back, we'll start drawing it in."
Atop the hardware store, Dev would already have mounted a pulley of his own to the brickwork. His was a slightly more complicated affair, with two pulleys instead of one. His was also motorized like a winch, and designed to be able to move line at a pretty fair speed. Now that they had the original end back with them, they could cut the line off the spool and tie off that end.They would then pull the line from the bell tower through the pulley assembly, start the motor on low, and draw in the excess line, until it grew taut. Then they would fasten the two ends of the line together with two clamps, just outside of the pulleys, and cut off the excess. They would then have a closed loop that could run a length of cord from the bell tower to the roof of the hardware store, like a clothesline strung between two apartment buildings. The clamps would not pass through the pulleys, but then, they wouldn't need to.
Joey and I stood and watched our end, as the line slowly drew up the side of the building and grew taut. Even then it continued to vibrate another minute, and then Rich's voice came over the headset again. "I think that's all we can get. How does it feel?"
I reached up and felt the line. It certainly felt taut to me. Joey did the same, and nodded.. "Feels good." He went and checked the pulley, to make sure that the line was properly in the groove. "Okay, we're good here. Now run the line through, until the clamps get up here. Go slow, and stop when I say. Once we have the end here, we'll attach Boney, and then move on to the next phase."
There was a grunt over the radio circuit, and the line above us started moving. It took a full three minutes for the clamps to get to us under low power, but we didn't want to risk ramming them into the pulley on our end and possibly gumming something up. Joey kept a hand up on the bottom line, the one moving in our direction, just in case he didn't see the clamps until too late.
At last they arrived, and Joey called a halt to the line's progress, and then had Rich bump the winch pulley until the clamps were right up to our pulley. The power to the motor on the other end would now be reversed, so that when it was started again, the clamped joint of the line would head back to the roof of the hardware. When that happened, we would be there to receive the line's cargo.
Boney had two hardpoints, one on the back of each shoulder, where he was meant to be suspended from whatever sort of mount was used in a cornfield. There were two to presumably keep him from swaying and rocking in the wind, and that worked in our favor now. Joey had simply bent a steel bar into an inverted 'vee', so that the ends could be attached to the hardpoints on each shoulder, while allowing for a single attachment up top. I held up the scarecrow, while Joey reached up and fastened the two halves of Boney's cord mount together over the line, with the top of the mounting rod set into grooves between them, pushed bolts through the holes on each end, and slid lock washers over the end of them. He twirled the nuts down until they were snug, and nodded at me. I went back to bag one, retrieved the ratchet and the box wrench, and Joey quickly tightened the mount bolts. Boney was now securely attached to the paracord, his back against the wall, and no amount of wind short of a twister could turn him away from that position. His present placement should keep him from being seen from below until we were ready. Then, a light tap on the motor drive for the pulleys on the hardware roof would bring him forward to the railing, where he would easily be seen by anyone below.
"I think we're done here," Joey said, sounding relieved.
"This might actually work," I said, grinning beneath my face mask.
"I think it will," Joey returned, sounding pleased with himself. He'd put a lot into this project, and I felt he had a right to sound pleased. I clapped him on the shoulder, and sensed his grin, even if I couldn't see it. And then we helped each other get our sacks back on.
Mine was a lot lighter now, minus the pulley, its mount, and the battery, and Joey's was now almost empty, Boney himself having been the primary cargo. The trip back down to the ground was going to be a lot easier for both of us. The last thing I did was to pull out my flash, and, shielding the front with my hand, I played the red light over the floor of the balcony, just to make sure we hadn't left anything behind.. But it was clear, and so we headed back to the ladder.
"We're on our way down now," I said into my mic. "Have a line ready, so we can send up our bags."
"Okay," Dev replied. "See you in a few minutes."
This time, Joey started down first. He again told me to sing out if I slipped, so that he could get out of the way, and I just laughed. Joey's dark humor often masked his nervousness, and I'd come to understand that his serious facade hid a pretty sweet guy underneath. I think he really only ever deliberately showed that inner self to Rich, and perhaps that was the way it should be. But Dev and I had seen enough glimpses of it to know that Joey's darkness was only skin deep.
Going down was faster than coming up had been, and soon we were standing in the grass behind the possumhaw tree again. I gave a sigh of relief, feeling that the hardest part of our set up was now complete. I'd probably never be able to look at that bell tower again without remembering our midnight climb beneath the stars. But I also felt a sort of warm inner glow, that can only come from doing something you'd rather not, and completing the task successfully.