STRATAGEM CHAPTER 31
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
“ARE YOU SURE?” Derek said, staring down to the clearing at the foot of the hill, a void between the surrounding trees in the middle of nowhere. Mom’s claim of an entrance to the safe house down there seemed completely ridiculous. A cool breeze rushed through the branches and the moon took shelter behind the clouds. It served only to obscure that space more.
“I need to check.” Gun ready and pointed, Mom made her way down the hill again. “Find some cover nearby and stay out of sight until I come back.”
“Wait, what?” Derek followed with Paige and Hulk in tow. “You’re not serious?”
Too focused to notice, Mom continued down the path until she stopped at a tree, reached behind it, and made something click. That’s when she noticed them standing behind her. She glanced over to the open panel in the tree trunk. “Good. Doesn’t look like anyone’s actually gotten through.”
“No clue, Mom.”
The ground opened up next to her feet like a miniature nuclear silo. It was the cold breeze blowing into his face that alerted him to his jaw hanging open. “Are you kidding me? This is something out of a sci-fi movie.”
“Says the fiction writer,” Mom said, climbing down the ladder inside the hatch.
“You see? Now that doesn’t make any—”
“Come on, Paige,” she said, gesturing with her hands to come down the ladder with her. “Derek, carry Hulk as you come down next.”
“Carry Hulk?” He looked down to see the chonky beast staring down the entrance, tail whipping about. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Under your arm, like a football.” Her face vanished.
Paige climbed down with Mom’s hands securing her.
In a matter of seconds, they were both gone.
“Come on down, Derek.” Mom’s words resounded in the tube.
He looked down at Hulk who was now staring back at him.
Was he bearing fangs or smiling?
“You’re so gonna bite my hand off, aren’t you?” Derek said. “How do we get down there, then?”
Hulk kept his eyes fixed on Derek.
“Maybe I’ll just toss you down…like a football.”
The Corgi growled but wagged his tail as Derek reached down and scooped him under his arm. Surprise, not only did Hulk refrain from biting him, he didn’t even attempt to squirm out of his grip.
“Alrighty then.” With his free hand, Derek grabbed onto the ladder and climbed down into the hole in the ground. “Guess you’re the white rabbit,” he said to Hulk. “Which would make me…”
When he reached the bottom, down some fifteen rungs, he put Hulk down.
He couldn’t see anything but faint amber emergency lights. “Mom? Where’d you go?”
“Shh!” She whispered into his ear from behind him, nearly causing him to leap with a start. “I may have been wrong.”
“About what?” He murmured.
“Don’t move.” She got in front of him and Paige and aimed her gun ahead.
“Who are you and what have you done with my mother?”
She turned back, glared at him, and put a finger over her lips.
“You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” Derek mouthed.
Before he could react, Hulk snarled and ran ahead of Mom, paws skittering on the hard floor into the black void. Derek couldn’t see, much less stop him.
No, Hulk! Bad boy!
Charging into the dark, the little beast barked wildly.
After everything they’d been through—danger, death, and destruction—the end had finally come. All because of that short-legged monster whose incessant barking and frenetic claws scraping had surely alerted the intruders by now.
Gesturing for Derek to keep back, Mom stepped forward with caution. She didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t listening. He simply followed her, fists clenched and ready to strike.
“I’m armed,” Mom called out, taking another step into the dark. “No sudden movements, all right?”
Hulk stopped growling.
Somewhere up ahead, he let out a faint whine and started panting.
“Easy there,” a man said, straining. “…coming out—”
A sudden rustling interrupted.
The sound of a person coming forward alerted Mom.
Mom clicked off the safety of her gun and pointed it toward the approaching footfalls…
…which instantly stopped.
“Don’t—” a familiar female voice muttered.
Mom reached into her jacket pocket with her left hand and pulled out a flashlight which she shone into the face of the intruder.
Derek blinked in disbelief. “Sabine?”