Welcome to chapter 3 of Arena of Souls, my new, Doc Savage-style, pulp adventure. A new chapter every week! If you missed the previous chapters, check them out here:
Arena of Souls
Chapter 3- The House
A shadowy figure lurked in the doorway of Stone’s Alexandria townhouse. He slowed his approach, readying himself for a fight, but relaxed when the figure moved out into the moonlight.
“Alex!” Stone exclaimed.
Alex English stood six feet, four inches, his frizzy ginger hair making him appear even taller. He was one of the few people Stone had to look up to, though not by much. He closed the book he was reading, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and stepped out into the moonlight to greet Stone, his rail-thin body barely casting a shadow on the sidewalk.
“You’re going to go blind reading by moonlight,” Brock said, glancing at the book.
“You sound like my mother.” English grinned, the scar on his left cheek glowing white. “It’s been a long time.”
“When were you planning on letting me know you were back in town?” Alex asked.
“Tomorrow. I’ve been busy seeing to my grandfather’s estate.”
“I was sorry to hear about that.” A tremor ran through Alex. “Were you planning to invite me in for coffee?”
“Afraid I’m not staying. I’m headed out to Riverbend.” Stone paused. “My grandfather left it to me. I’m just here to arm myself.”
“Sounds serious. Want some company?”
“I’d welcome it, but it might be dangerous.” Stone opened the door, let his friend inside. The townhouse, a short distance from the waterfront, had been in his family since its construction in 1796. His parents had furnished it with Colonial-era antiques, and it felt to Stone more like a museum than a home. He proceeded to the roll-top desk in the drawing room, where he kept his father’s pistol. The Webley Top-Break revolver was of British make, and the standard issue service revolver for the British army. Stone made sure it was fully loaded with .455 cartridges, pocketed a handful of spares, and led Alex back outside. “Are you sure you want to go along?”
“I need some excitement in my life,” the tall, slender man replied. “Designing advanced aircraft is interesting, but a bit too safe.”
“When did you start loving danger?” Stone asked.
“Right about the time I learned you were back. I suddenly had the urge to scale a cliff, go diving, maybe even get into a fistfight.”
“If we run into trouble, it will probably be worse than a fistfight. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”
Alex paused and looked up and down the street. “How do you plan on getting there? I didn’t see you drive up.”
“My cab’s waiting down the street. I had the driver stop and let me out as soon as I saw someone lurking around my house.”
“I see your eyesight hasn’t worsened with age.” Alex winked. Both men were a few years short of thirty, but Stone was two weeks older, and his friend never let him forget it. “But you can send the cabbie on his way. I’m driving.” He inclined his head toward a shiny, black DeSoto CF convertible parked on the other side of the street.
“That’s your car? Nice.” Stone admired the sleek lines and gleaming chrome.
“It’s brand new, so no fingerprints on the paint job.”
“You’re the boss,” Stone said. As they made the short drive to Riverbend, he filled Alex in on the events of the day.
“Who might want you dead?” Alex turned off the main road and up the unmarked driveway. “Have you wronged anyone lately?”
“Not lately.” Stone left it at that.
Riverbend, his grandfather’s Georgian Colonial mansion, stood on a rise overlooking the Potomac. Located at the end of a winding dirt driveway, and surrounded on all sides by dense forest, the mansion was unknown to most. Stone gazed at the three-story brick mansion, taking comfort in its familiarity— the front door flanked by twin white columns and topped with a decorative crown, the four evenly-spaced gables set in the pitched roof, and the twin chimneys rising up from either end. All of it brought back memories of his early years.
“It doesn’t look much different,” Alex said, stopping in front of the closed carriage house set off to the side. “It could stand some fresh paint, but otherwise, it’s the same as I remember.”
Stone climbed out of the DeSoto and drank deeply of the night air. The cool breeze carried the crisp smell of freshly-mowed grass and a whiff of the Potomac to his nostrils. For the first time since he’d returned to America, he felt like he was home.
His moment of reverie evaporated as a shadow moved behind a magnolia tree on the opposite side of the circular drive.
“Get behind the car,” he whispered. Drawing the Webley, he drew a bead on the shape behind the tree. Amdist the blacks and grays of the shadowy night, he could just make out the outline of a man…
… and the barrel of a rifle.
“Drop your weapon and come out with your hands on your head.” He poured all the authority he could muster into the words. “Do it now, or the next and last sound you hear will be the report of my pistol.”
“Technically, bullets travel faster than the speed of sound,” Alex whispered from behind the shelter of the DeSoto. “At that distance…”
“Not now,” Stone said out of the side of his mouth. He stifled a grin. At least one thing about Alex hadn’t changed.
The man behind the magnolia slowly lowered his rifle, laid it on the ground, and raised his hands. He rounded the tree and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Stone.
“Moses!” Stone lowered the revolver. “What are you doing here? And since when do you call me ‘Mister?’”
Moses Gibbs was the grandson of Isaac Gibbs, Riverbend’s caretaker. He and Stone had sometimes played together as children, and remained friendly in their teen years, though they couldn’t truly be friends, for reasons beyond their control.
“Since I started working for you.” Moses folded his muscular arms across his chest and shifted from foot-to-foot, looking around. He nodded at Alex, who had emerged from his hiding place to stand beside Stone.
“You’re still helping your grandfather? I thought you’d moved away.”
“I did. Moved to New York and tried my hand at boxing for a while, but a black man can’t get a better deal there than he can in Virginia. Promoter told me I had to throw a match before I could get a shot at the title, and when I did, they passed me over and gave the fight to a white fighter I’d done beat. So I came back here and worked with Pappy until he died, and then I took over for him.”
“I hadn’t heard,” Stone said. Suddenly remembering his manners, he introduced Alex.
Alex offered his hand, and Moses hesitated for only an instant before taking it. They made an odd pair— Alex pale and lean, Moses dark and solid.
“I remember you from way back,” Moses said. “Don’t see many men as tall as you, and not many more with hair like that.”
“My friends say I look like a torch.” Alex stood up straight and ran a hand through his red hair, eliciting a chuckle from Moses.
“What were you doing out here with your rifle?” Stone asked.
“Somebody done broke in, and I was checking around to make sure they were gone.”
Stone’s hand went back to his Webley. “I thought I had more time. This place isn’t well known, nor is it easy to find if you don’t know where you’re going.” He ignored Moses’ puzzled expression. “You didn’t see anyone?”
Moses shook his head. “Looked like they searched the whole downstairs. Drawers turned out, books pulled off the shelves. Made a right mess of things. I’ll show you.” He retrieved his rifle, led them inside, and turned on the light.
The house was not what Stone had expected. Gone were the dust and faint smell of mold. The wood floor was polished and the walls and ceilings were free of cobwebs.
“I done my best to keep things in good order,” Moses said. “Pappy got to where he couldn’t do much, but I’ve mostly got it set right. I haven’t got to the upstairs yet. I even got your Scout running nice and smooth. I hope you don’t mind, but I take it out from time to time. It ain’t good for the engine and tires if it just sits.”
“You’re right about that. I appreciate you taking care of it in my absence.” Brock’s Indian Scout had been his pride and joy during his college years. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to take it for a spin.
“You like to tinker?” Alex asked Moses.
Alex clapped Moses on the shoulder. “You and I are going to get along just fine.”
Stone raised his hand to silence them. A thought had just occurred to him.
“Moses, how do you know the intruder’s not here?”
“Did you check the upstairs?”
Moses’ eyes went wide. “I didn’t think of it, what with all the rooms being closed off and all. There ain’t nothing up there.”
“He doesn’t know that. I think I should check it out.” Stone thought for a moment. “If he’s upstairs, he heard us come in. You two wander around down here for a minute, and then go back outside. Keep talking the whole time, loud enough for him to hear, but try to make it sound natural.”
“Child’s play. I’m no stranger to the theater,” Alex said. He and Moses began discussing the break-in in raised voices and headed back toward the kitchen.
Webley at the ready, Stone crept up the stairs, hoping his weight would not cause the old boards to creak and give him away. He paused when he reached the first landing. The light through the window shone on a single set of footprints in the dust led upstairs. No prints led down. Of course, that didn’t mean the intruder hadn’t exited by way of the back staircase, but the man had definitely been here.
The footprints vanished in the darkness as Stone reached the second floor. Craning his head to the side, he strained to listen for any sound that would indicate the intruder’s presence. He waited, the thrum of his heartbeat the only sound. Perhaps the intruder had gone.
His eyes gradually adjusting to the dark, Stone stepped out into the second floor hallway and turned to his right. He’d check the rooms just to be safe. As his hand closed around the closest doorknob, something moved behind him. He whirled about and dropped to one knee as the world erupted in a muzzle flash and the thunder of a gunshot.