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This story was originally online at Avengers 2000 site.
This is the second story from the files of C.A.S.E. The focus this time is very much on Max Danielson as he is called upon by an old friend to investigate problems at his old university..
In addition it serves as an introduction to some of the other members of C.A.S.E and their reactions to the previous story - "Theatre of Blood". As you'll see as you read this story there is no real villain to combat this time which made the story very interesting to write and pace.
So, read on for a good, old fashioned, ghost story...
“What exactly did you think you were doing Max?” The air of anger in the question raised Max Danielson's eyebrows.
“I don't quite understand Nigel. What…”
Nigel Doig interrupted him. “Can you give me one, just one, good reason that you didn't evacuate your team from the theatre, instead of running downstairs to play samurai hero?”
Max could feel the hackles rising on the back of his neck but fought to keep his temper. He looked over the wide oak desk at the short, balding man behind it. Doig was the Operations Director for the UK division of C.A.S.E and someone Max had known for many years. At that moment all he wanted to do was reach over the desk and smack him on the nose.
“Could you tell me exactly who I should have left behind while I carried out the other? Last time I looked in the mirror I didn't look anything like Arnold Schwarzenegger so how exactly was I supposed to decide who to carry out? Or maybe I should have drawn lots to see if I left Michelle or Trevor behind!”
He slapped the desk in front of him as he finished. All thoughts of controlling his anger had gone. He glared at his superior officer, who, in turn, returned the look measure for measure.
“I don't think that you even thought about evacuating Max. I'm pretty sure that you saw that creature and all you thought about was getting your swords out and proving Giovanni wrong.”
“How dare you?” Max exclaimed as he shot to his feet and leant over the desk looking down. “Did I miss something and you became a telepath overnight? The fact that you would even consider that I would put the safety of my team at risk is insulting in the extreme. I weighed the situation and my actions represented what I considered the only possible course of action. If you don't believe that, or can't accept the decision I made, then you'd better do something about it or live with it.”
Doig rose from his seat and placed his hands, palm down, on the table and looked up at the taller man. With forced calmness he said, “If you weren't so averse to carrying a gun you could have stopped the creature from the balcony and never have needed to put anyone at risk.”
“Barring the fact that I won't carry a gun unless I absolutely have to, it would have made little difference short of me having some sort of cannon.” He paused to catch his breathe before continuing. “What is it that Michelle carries? A .357 Magnum? One of the most powerful handguns in the world if I'm not mistaken? What did that do to the Dybbuk? Little more than annoy it. The silver/cold iron mix of my swords was about the only thing capable of doing more than just hurt it and even then it was a close run thing.”
Max paused once more before pushing himself away from the desk. “Now, I'm heading for Oxford where I'm going to look into something for an old professor of mine. When I get back, and you are thinking more sanely, we are going to talk about finding Giovanni.” With that he turned and left Nigel Doig's office ignoring the red suffusing the man's face.
Doig stood stock still for long moments before stalking around the desk and to the door. He was stopped in the doorway by the tall, statuesque figure of Michelle Jones who, even on crutches, posed an intimidating sight.
“What was it about this time?” she asked with resignation heavy in her voice. “No, let me guess,” she continued, “Max took offense when you told him he made the wrong decision?”
From the look on Doig's face she knew that she had struck gold with her comment. She moved forward forcing Doig back into his office. Trying to regain some control of the situation he turned and moved back to his desk. “Michelle, this is something between Max and myself.”
If he was going to say more Michelle did not give him a chance. “That's a bunch of hogwash Nigel and you know it. While I didn't like Max down there on his own with that thing, it was the only option he had.”
“How is it that neither of you knew about the creature until it jumped up and almost bit you? Have you any idea how difficult this has been to keep a lid on? What exactly was I supposed to tell a relative about their son's missing leg or wife's missing heart?”
“Were we supposed to have moved all of the bodies and checked underneath the pile? You have to admit that it was pretty ingenious of Giovanni to pile the bodies on top of the activated summoning circle and then disguise it with all the nonsense symbols and the candles. As for what to tell the relatives and the press, that's your problem and you knew it would be when you took the job.” Michelle stood, propped up on her crutches, looking down with eyebrows pulled down in irritation. “It's about time the two of you sorted out your differences and worked together again.”
Doig looked away from the accusation in her eyes and out of the window behind him. Eventually he said quietly, “What am I going to tell Trevor's family? He had a young wife with a baby on the way.”
Michelle was spared from answering as another voice from the doorway interrupted the conversation. “You don't have to do anything. Max already talked to Jenny yesterday.”
Michelle swung around and smiled at the figure lounging against the doorframe. Before she could say anything Doig's voice exploded from behind her and she sighed heavily.
“Garner is there something I can do for you or are you just making a habit of listening in on other peoples conversations?”
Derek Garner straightened up and slipped into the room. Michelle stood a good head taller than him but his white shirt strained around his muscled frame. Dark hair was cropped tight to his scalp and his dark skin shone with health. “No sir,” he answered, “I don't make a habit of listening in, but it was hard not to notice you know? Good thing I did too by the looks of things or you'd be upsetting Jenny again for nothing. I talked to Max this morning and he told me he'd been out to see her.”
“Afternoon Michelle,” he added as an afterthought.
“Hey Derek. Haven't seen you in a while. The old buzzard keeping you busy?” Michelle replied with a smile.
“Was there anything else the two of you wanted or should I just invite the entire staff into my office?” Doig interrupted tersely trying to cover his obvious discomfort at the situation he was now in.
Derek gestured with his hand that the floor was hers and Michelle said, “Yes. I came up to tell you that I'm heading off for the next few days. Monique told me to take things easy until my head is convinced my leg should be working properly. Chris and I, yes Chris is going too,” she continued before he could interrupt. “We've both got a pile of leave built up so we're heading out and taking Alison off to Wales for the weekend. I'll see you Monday. In a better mood I hope.”
Not giving Doig a chance to reply and with a farewell to Derek she headed out of the office.
Derek grinned at her retreating form before returning to look at Doig with a deadly serious expression lining his face. “We've come across a situation that we need to get involved in,” he said as he took the chair opposite his boss.
Max slowed the e-type Jaguar to a sedate seventy miles an hour as he roared down the M4 motorway towards Oxford. The traffic heading out of London had been lighter than usual as it was still early in the afternoon but it had still taken almost forty five minutes to leave the city behind. The slow driving had done nothing to improve his mood but once on the open motorway he had ignored the speed limits and sent the car careening down the road. Thirty minutes of that, along with some deep breathing exercises, had finally improved his mood to the point where he would be able to see Professor Taylor with some good grace.
As he passed the sign indicating that his destination was another twenty two miles distant he mused over the reason for this trip. Marius Taylor had been his assigned tutor when he had been at Oxford University some twenty years ago. They had discovered a mutual love of backgammon in their earlier acquaintance and Max remembered the hours he had spent with Marius and his wife Elizabeth.
They had parted on good terms when Max had graduated with his degree in Electrical Engineering heading to learn the family business and be groomed as his Uncle Gerald's successor. However, when Max had changed direction some three years later and gone to study Parapsychology at Edinburgh University it had caused tensions not only inside the family. Max grinned as he remembered the ear-lashing he had taken from Marius at the time.
Things had gotten better over the intervening years, and although Marius had never really accepted Max's change in career he had chosen to ignore it. That made the call he had received the previous day all the stranger. He shook his head as he realized his musings had brought him to the outskirts of the city of Oxford and with practiced ease he headed the sleek sports car towards Magdalen College.
Max noted that it was almost four o'clock when he pulled the Jaguar into the parking spot to the right of the Deans. As he got out of the car he grinned at the admiring faces looking at the car and set off for the Deans office. Five minutes later found him standing in the office of the Marius' assistant.
“Hello Janice, is the Professor in?” he asked cheerily of the matronly woman sitting behind the desk.
She looked up and her eyes crinkled with delight when she saw Max's lean, five foot eight frame standing there. “Well, if it isn't the prodigal son. Professor Taylor is in a meeting right now, but should be done in about twenty minutes. Time enough for you to get a cup of tea don't you think?”
Max grinned broadly in response. “Only if you are planning on making it Janice. I'll not put my stomach in any one else's hands around here.”
“Well, I guess that you'll just have to go thirsty, won't you. There's no time for special treatment around here, even if you belong to some fancy government agency.”
Max laughed at the tartness in her reply, although the mention of the 'government agency' soured his disposition slightly.
“Oh, so things not going so well over there are they?” she observed alertly.
“Same old, same old,” he answered with a sigh. “Now about that tea,” he began again.
Twenty minutes later the two old 'friends' were still bickering light-heartedly back, and forth and Max was nowhere nearer getting his cup of tea, when the door to the adjoining room opened and several men and women filed out. The last man to exit was much taller than Max but as lean as a rake. His brown eyes danced merrily as he took in the identity of his next visitor.
A surprisingly deep voice erupted from the depths of a thick, shaggy beard, “Max. I wasn't expecting to be able to pull you away from your work this quickly. Come in so we can talk. And Janice,” he added looking at his assistant, “make us a couple of cups of tea would you?”
Max winked insolently at Janice as she got up and went over to the small electric kettle. She refused to acknowledge him except for one very distinct humpff as she busied herself making the requested cups of tea. Marius Taylor shook his head and smiled wryly at the exchange as he steered Max back into his office.
“Well I had some down time after the business over the weekend and you did sound like you needed me to get here sooner rather than later,” Max said as he collapsed into an old, padded leather chair.
He was surprised when Marius did not take the one opposite his and he turned to look at the older man who now stood looking out of the windows into the courtyard beyond. “Which dorm did you stay at while you were here Max?” he asked in a quieter voice.
“The Quad,” Max replied. “Why?”
Marius Taylor turned to face his former student with eyes that held something Max had never seen in them before - doubt.
He stood staunchly upright, almost at attention as he said, “I have a room on the third floor of Mallard House that no one will take. Three students that had taken the room over the last two years have left the college and returned home. They all complained of noises, hot and cold spots and feelings of depression. However,” he held up a hand forestalling Max's question, “two other students have occupied the room and not talked of any problems. You know how rumors travel around here and now I have a room that no one will take.”
“So why call me?” Max asked.
“Last week I telephoned one of the students that left the college and spoke with them at great length. In their words,” he emphasized the word 'their', “he said that he had done some research since returning home and he was convinced the room was haunted. He wanted me to bring in a priest and have an exorcism done.”
Max kept the smile trying to inch its way onto his face under control as he replied, “I can see how you wouldn't want that to happen. Or for the stories to reach the press.”
Marius Taylor looked at him with tired eyes before replying quietly, “No, anything but that. We don't need their sort hunting for ghosts around here. Or any ghost hunters that the stories are sure to bring for that matter.” He walked slowly over to the vacant chair and collapsed heavily into it.
Max felt sorry for the older man who was being asked to wade far out into waters he had no wish to be in. “I'll take a look at it,” he said in response.
“Understand,” Marius said quickly, “that I believe this is all a bunch of nonsense. But if I have a specialist's word that there's nothing untoward happening then things will calm down again.”
Max nodded. He wanted to say, “Keep an open mind Professor,” but he knew this was not the time and it was not important. Instead he said, “Can you show me which room it is?”
At that moment Janice entered bearing two steaming cups of tea and set the tray on the dark oak table that lay between the two chairs. “Anything else Professor?”
“No Janice, that will be all thank you.”
“Thanks Janice,” Max added nonchalantly.
“You're very welcome Max,” she replied neutrally.
After she had left the room Marius reached for a slim manila folder lying under a pile of papers on his desk and handed it to Max. “This is all the information I have. Why don't you look this over first while we drink our tea and then I'll take you over to Mallard.”
Max accepted the folder with a nod and balancing it on his knee he picked up his cup and sipped the hot liquid. Twenty minutes later Marius Taylor was leading Max across the courtyard towards Mallard House.
“Do you actually expect to find something?” Marius asked skeptically.
Max looked over at the professor and as his eyes focused he replied, “Umm, what was that?”
With an irritated glance Professor Taylor repeated the question.
“It's certainly possible, although based on the reports you gave me I suspect that I'd have better luck after eight tonight. Did you notice that all the reports said that the problems started around that time and lasted for about thirty minutes? Did you also notice that two of the students were enrolled in Arts courses while the third was in Humanities? On the other hand the ones who remained in the room were all scientists. Skeptical, hard-headed lot scientists, you know,” he finished with a grin in his companions direction.
“So you've mentioned before,” he replied. “How does the course the student is enrolled in make a difference?”
As Marius opened the door to Mallard Hall Max answered, “It's not so much the course itself, but rather the mindset of the individual. In general,” he emphasized 'general', “science students tend to be more directed and focused, whereas Arts students in particular are more open-minded and curious.”
As they moved into the Hall and made a sharp right turn towards the staircase Marius replied, “I can see where you would think that argument applies but I can…”
Max held up his hand to forestall his friends comment. “Marius, I was making a general statement, but my point is that anyone with a closed mind would not have felt any of the things that the three people did. The fact that the ones who didn't notice anything were scientists gave me a chance to poke some fun in your direction.”
Marius Taylor harrumphed at the comment and the smile that covered Max's face. “So, if that is the case, why has this only started happening in the last two years?”
Max frowned. “Did anything change two years ago?”
Marius thought for a moment then his face reddened. “Umm, well, eh…”
Max pounced on the hesitation like a springing cat, “You opened up the Hall to non-science students!”
Marius' face soured but he nodded his head. He turned at the top of the stairs and moved to the third door on the left. Taking a large key from his jacket pocket he unlocked the door and swung it open. “This is the room.”
Stepping past the professor, Max walked into the room and gestured for him to wait outside. The room smelled a little musty from being closed up for several weeks but no other scents came to him and he breathed a sigh of relief at that. With a minor effort of concentration he focused his mind on the room. Nothing immediately changed so he stepped further in and opened himself fully to the sensations he could feel overlaying the room.
To anyone else it would have appeared as though a layer of colors overlay everything in the room, but to Max each color leapt up and vied for his attention. Angry reds clamored the loudest. The blues that overlay the bed and small sofa spoke of peace, while the bright sunshine yellows called for him to come and play. Each tone told him different things, but with an effort he focused on the pale gray circle that lay in the middle of the room stretching up to the raftered ceiling above. He walked towards it.
From the doorway Marius Taylor watched as Max knelt and touched his hand to the floor in the center of the room. He remained motionless there for long minutes and Marius thought about interrupting but kept his peace. When Max finally got back to his feet he turned and pulled his attention back to the professor.
There was no smile on his face as he said, “Well, it looks like I'm not going to know the whole story until this evening, but I feel good about asking if you are ready to go ghost hunting Marius?”
|To Chapter Two...|
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