in extremis 
 Ken Goddard's
Fiction-Writing Web Site

 

 

CHEATER


Chapter One


He came in through the crawl space. Slowly and methodically pulling himself through the cool, humid, musty, and ever-confining darkness. Grasping at the rough concrete footings with his callused bare hands. Scraping his chest against the supporting cross-beams and his back along the rough-textured rubble. His face brushing against the low, cobweb-covered drain pipes.

Pausing every few feet to listen.

And smiling---a thin, distant and chilling smile---all the way.

Something moved in the darkness behind his head, making a faint rustling sound as it cautiously sought a better view of the intruder, but he ignored it. He knew all the creatures that inhabited the dark crevices under houses; knew them intimately. He also knew that in this place, at this time of the night, he was the predator to be feared. The one to be avoided at all costs.

The crawl space in this particular house was more confining than most---so narrow in some spots that he had to turn his head sideways and empty his lungs to work himself under one of the thick, splintery and dusty beams; so dark and disorienting in others that it took him almost a half hour to find the wires and the entry point he had chosen.

Then he started to work.

He used a tiny, battery powered circular saw, adjusting the depth of the thin, exposed blade to three-quarters of an inch, and then timing his cuts through the partially rotted plywood flooring to coincide with the periodic concealing noises of the nearby heat-pump. He paused frequently to let the blade cool, using his bare fingertips as he did so to judge the remaining distances.

He could have used the small pen-light in his jacket pocket, but in his perverse way of thinking, that would have been cheating; and he didn't want to cheat.

Not on this one.

The work was cold, difficult, and demanding, and yet he savored every claustrophobic moment; glorifying in the almost hallucinatory feeling of being trapped beneath a huge, all-encompassing mass---a sensation that seemed to intensify every echoing noise, and magnify every movement of his body.

He paused for a moment to take in a few deep breaths, feeling his expanding chest muscles press up against one of the rough support beams, and then immediately went back to work. He was only vaguely aware of the fine sawdust particles striking against his face, and the condensation of his warm breath against the back of his hands, as he continued to cut through the laminated wood barrier with the whirring blade.

Halfway through, he paused to install the pair of thick, carefully oiled brass hinges and a latch, using another miniaturized power tool to drill the holes and then drive the stubby screws. Then he went back to his task with a single-mindedness that was characteristic of everything he had ever done in his life.

Fifty-two minutes, two batteries and one blade change later, he completed the last of the four cuts. Sliding his bracing knees out of the way and then inching himself sideways, he allowed the hinged, twenty-four-by-thirty inch piece of mildewed plywood to fall free. The resulting trap door swung noiselessly back and forth, with the tip of the latch mechanism just barely brushing against the rough dirt floor.

Then he reached for the terribly sharp razor knife.

The tantalizing part, from his viewpoint, was that he didn't have to enter the house this way. There were many other---and far easier----methods that he could have used that would never be detected, such as picking the front door locks with his spring steel tools, or tapping the latch on the sliding glass door, or carefully removing one of the heavy aluminum storm windows out of the wall.

There were many other ways, but he didn't want to take the easy, undetectable path on this one.

He wanted the effect.

The thin razored edge made three smooth, easy cuts through the thick padding, allowing the loose foam sheet to drop noiselessly against the hinged plywood. Three more cuts---more difficult but equally smooth---at a slightly inward angle, and then he allowed the carpet flap to slowly drop down against the padded trap door.

The crawl space was immediately filled with a faint, diffuse light that forced him to blink until his irises readjusted to the new semi-darkness. Then, ever so cautiously, he raised his head until his pale-blue eyes were just barely visible above the floor line.

Nothing.

Moving quickly now, he levered himself up through the relatively large hole and hurried over to a small plastic box mounted on the wall opposite the front door. It took him less than two minutes, using a fine-tipped screwdriver and a pair of needle-nose pliers, to temporarily disable the alarm.

He paused for a brief moment to check his watch. Then, gliding the soles of his shoes over the carpet surface, he began moving toward the stairs.

He was upstairs, in the master bedroom closet, waiting for the incredibly sensitive device he had designed and built himself to detect the relative positioning of the final tumbler pin, when a loud 'DING!' jarred at his nerves.

He located the source of the noise in the adjoining den---what appeared to be an extremely complicated version of a fax machine with display screen that read:

ARE YOU PREPARED TO RECEIVE?

He started to turn away, to go back to the potentially far more interesting floor safe in the master bedroom closet, when the machine emitted another loud 'DING!'

Grimacing in irritation, he pulled the thin operations manual out of the plastic holder attached to the side of the machine, and a small red-lensed penlight out of his jacket pocket. After scanning the relevant pages, he quickly typed the word 'YES' on the keyboard and hit the enter key.

It took the machine almost five minutes to churn out three pages. Intrigued by the possible implications of a scrambling/descrambling device on a home fax machine, he waited for the last page to drop into the receiving box. Then he sat down to read.

Fourteen minutes later, he quickly lowered himself back down through the trap door into the crawl space; carefully pushed the carpet, the padding, and the hinged plywood back into place; and secured the latch.

Then, having completed his preparations, he dropped his head back down onto the rough-textured ground and lay still in the cold, quiet, cobwebby darkness.

Like a trap door spider, waiting with inhuman patience for its prey to arrive.