A Worthy Cause | Inspired by ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’
Eleanor Fisher is the Grade 10 Winner of the Seton Summer Short Story Contest.
It was a cold autumn night in the city.
Under a cloudy sky, a young man ran through back streets alone. Well, ran wasn’t quite the right word for his method of travel. Cutting across yards, vaulting railings, slipping through narrow alleys, climbing the occasional building, he kept the same easy but swift pace, always in the shadows, always alert.
Getting lost wasn’t even a possiblity for him; he knew these streets, yards, and rooftops like the back of his hand. They were his home, after all.
As he passed behind an apartment building, he saw a woman on a terrace above him. Instantly, he vanished. The woman, noticing slight movement, looked down, but there was no one there. After a few minutes, she went into her apartment.
There was a moment’s pause, then he reemerged from the faint shadow of the building across from the apartment. He had almost become a part of the wall, barely breathing. Hidden in plain sight. Elusive, intelligent, endlessly resourceful and seemingly untouchable, he was known only as the Ghost. He had been someone else with another name once, but he was now entirely willing to forget that person. His former self, and everything he’d been through.
The Ghost had appeared on the underground scene about a year after a military takeover that had ended in the establishment of a brutal dictator and the loss of thousands of lives. A modern-day Robin Hood of sorts, his work in sabatoge and his blatant defiance of the new law had quickly earned him a charge of high treason and a death warrent. Now, four years later, he organized and protected an illegal system for shuttling refugees and those unjustly incriminated to safety.
It was something related to this system that brought him out tonight. He jumped lightly into the back of a lone pickup truck waiting at a stop sign and flattened himself against the side, again hidden in plain sight. He normally didn’t hitch rides, even this late at night, because it was too risky. But he had somewhere to be, and was already late.
When it became too dangerous to pass information over the phone or internet to the people in his circle, he had to deliver messages in person. Recently, the secret police had been placing more and more pressure on everyone, so in-person communication was necessary.
As the pickup passed a park, the Ghost leaped out and darted into the cover of the trees. The park was fairly large, but he knew the fastest way through. For several minutes, the only sounds were the light crunch of fallen leaves under his running feet and the rumble of distant traffic.
If he was meeting just any of his crew, he would be worried about being this late. But tonight he was meeting Jennings and Tucker. Tucker was high-strung, the type who would probably get antsy and leave if the Ghost didn’t show up right away. But Jennings was more calm, the kind who had enough faith in others to wait an extra hour if need be.
The Ghost had met Jennings five years ago when Jennings had saved him from being captured by the secret police. Back then, the Ghost had been an impulsive, reckless young adult with no name, and Jennings was a few years older than him. He had taken cover in the back seat of Jennings’ car after being caught in the act of disabling government vehicals.
Jennings had lied to the secret police to protect the Ghost, who he didn’t even know at the time, when he could have turned him in. Because of that, the two had been fast friends ever since. It was actually at Jennings’ suggestion that he had begun calling himself the Ghost. He would trust Jennings with his life.
On the other side of the park he paused for a moment, looking around, then sprinted across the empty road and jumped at the side of a building. Catching hold of a window sill about six feet off the ground, he pulled himself up and continued up the the building, using the other window sills for hand- and footholds.
When he got all the way up, he quickly crawled up one slanted side, swung over the top, and balanced on the other slant, looking out over a parking lot. Spotting what he was looking for, he grinned. He had been right. Both of the men from his team were still there.
Leaves from the nearby park blew across an empty parking lot where two men stood waiting. The taller one, Tucker, paced, while the other sat on the trunk of their car. Tucker paused, looking at his watch, and said impatiently,
“Alright, where is he? We can’t stay out here all night.”
Jennings, the one sitting on the back of the car, rolled his eyes.
“Chill. It’s only 1:35. He’ll be here.”
Tucker sighed and went back to pacing.
“Only 1:35? He’s almost forty-five minutes late.”
“ Come on, he’s running an underground railroad and wanted dead or alive. It’s a wonder he gets to meetings at all,” Jennings continued. His voice was confident, but anyone who knew him well enough would be able to see that inside he was worried. The Ghost was rarely this late.
“Hey Tucker, Jennings. Sorry I’m late.”
Jennings gave a start, and Tucker nearly jumped out of his skin. The Ghost had appeared seemingly out of thin air. It was a disconcerting habit of his.
“Hey, glad you made it. We were starting to wonder if you’d show,” Jennings said, hopping off the back of the car.
“Just had to go around a blockade. Nothing major.”
Jennings raised an eyebrow. “In my experience, with you it’s always something major.”
“What’s the news?” Tucker asked tensely.
The Ghost shook his head.
“Not good. Security’s gotten too tight around our usual route for any movement. Can you hold a little longer?”
“Conditions aren’t ideal, but we can manage.”
“Don’t take too much time, though. Eight people trying to hide out in one seedy inner-city flat is a situation that won’t remain bearable for long,” Tucker put in. “After this job, we’ll have to go back to only four or five at a time. Large groups just aren’t managable.”
“Okay. I’ll be as fast as I can, but it may take some time find a safe way and get the other workers arranged. Also, there’s a family that has to be moved tonight,” the Ghost said. “Any questions?”
No one spoke.
“Alright then. Good luck, guys.”
“Thanks. You too,” Tucker said as he went over and got in the driver’s seat of the car. Jennings hesitated a moment.
“If I know you, you’ll be out and hard at work, heightened security or not.”
The Ghost shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Would it make any difference if I told you to be careful?”
“Nope!” the Ghost answered cheerfully.
Jennings shook his head, letting out a frustrated sigh. Once, he had watched as the Ghost took risks no sane person would dream of, as if he had nothing to live for. The Ghost had improved in the last few years, no longer acting like he had a death wish, but he still put himself in needless danger to complete anything he put his mind to.
He was careful of others around him, reluctant to risk anyone else’s life unless it was absolutely necessary, but he had very little regard for his own. And that could be infuriating.
“Look, Ghost, you’ve avoided capture for years. But, with everything getting so tight recently… You probably know this, but Kairn was caught yesterday. There’s rumors that she’s already scheduled for execution.”
The Ghost grimaced. Kairn was not only a wonderful person, she was also one of the most efficient and adaptable members of his team.
Jennings contined, “I know you’re the best in the business. But remember, no one can escape forever. We don’t want to lose you like Kairn. Please, stay safe.”
The Ghost wasn’t sure how to react to this. Jennings was almost as good at hiding his true feelings as he was. The Ghost had never heard him sound so urgent. Jennings gave him a long, strangly intense look. Then he turned away and swung into the passenger’s seat of the car.
“You stay safe too,” the Ghost murmured as the car pulled out of the parking lot. His hand unconsciously slid to the hand-carved wooden cross that he wore under his jacket for luck. It had been made by and belonged to someone he had known, someone who was gone now.
The Ghost wasn’t a believer himself, at least not in that way, but he wore it to honor the memory of his friend. He sighed. Jennings was right. At this rate, it was really just a matter of time before he met the same fate as Kairn. He’d been on borrowed time since the takeover. He tried not to think about it, but, in the back of his mind, he had known from the start that helping people would be the death of him.
It was strange, but he’d never actually thought about why he helped smuggle others to safety, why he risked everything for people he didn’t even know. At first, any act of rebellion against the dictatorship, be it sabotage or rescue, had been defiance, pure and simple. Revenge for everything he’d suffered at their hands.
But that had somehow changed as he became serious about rescue operations, to the point of starting an underground railroad. He had told himself that it gave him purpose. Then that had seemed to change, too.
What did he do it for now? Adventure? Excitement? Because of his defiance he was forced to struggle daily to stay alive. He didn’t have to. He could abandon the underground railroad at any time and escape himself. And yet he stayed. Why? The Ghost looked up at the the buildings towering around him, suddenly feeling very alone. Is saving others something worth dying for?
After a minute, he shook his head and started off in the opposite direction from his teammates, pushing the question to the back of his mind. To keep surviving, he couldn’t think about what would happen if he failed.
Outside a building on the other side of the street, a member of the secret police watched. Keeping his eyes fixed on the figure disappearing among the buildings, he raised a communicator and spoke into it.
“Agent 063 reporting. Have a good visual on target, following on foot. Request backup.”
“Roger. Three other agents will meet you and assist in capture. Continue with operation as planned.”
“Understood.” Agent 063 returned the communicator to his belt and hurried across the street. The secret police had received a tip that evening from the owner of the pickup truck the Ghost had hitched a ride in, and they had immediately taken action to track and apprehend the criminal.
The Ghost had made a mistake, and he would pay dearly for it.
“How much longer?” a six-year-old girl asked, far too loudly for the circumstances.
Her mother quickly shushed her. “Not much longer, dear, but we have to be very quiet, remember?”
Her father, who had flinched at his daughter’s thoughtless endangerment of their lives, turned to the Ghost and said,
“Are you sure that this is the only way?”
They were in the back of a delivery van, sitting among boxes and crates of varying sizes.
“Yes. If we try to wait for other options, you’ll most likely be caught. You have to get out of the city tonight.”
“It seems awfully risky.”
“No more than any other escape method. Because the trains run between city-states, they’re not controlled by the government. Once you’re on one with your forged tickets, you’re as good as across the border.” The Ghost spoke calmly and confidently. He was currently disguised as a common worker, leaning against a cardboard box.
He was inwardly far less sure than he sounded, but he would never let the family see this. That wouldn’t accomplish anything besides worrying them, and therefore making this operation more difficult. Getting up, he said, “Hang tight. I’ll be back in a second.”
He went to the front of the van, stopping far enough back from the front seat that he could see out the windshield, but no one could see him from outside. “How are we doing?” he asked the driver in a low voice, making sure the family couldn’t hear. The driver, Yana Blake, was part of his team, regularly working this escape route. She shook her head and answered without taking her eyes off the road.
“Not good. I’m pretty sure we’ve picked up some agents behind us. I’ll have to drop you guys off early. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. How much longer can we stay on board?”
“I can’t promise you any longer than ten minutes. A few blocks ahead there’s somewhere that you can jump out safely. I’ll shout to let you know.”
The Ghost returned to the family.
“We’ll have to jump out in a few minutes, so get ready.”
They nodded, getting up. The woman leaned against her husband, the two talking quietly. Left temporarily unattended, the little girl looked to see if her parents were watching, then ran over and hugged the Ghost, much to his surprise.
“Thank you for saving us, Mr. Ghost,” she said. After a second, he gently hugged her back.
“You’re welcome, kid.”
“Suzie…” her mother started to protest. Suzie pulled away from the Ghost and, looking up at him, said,
“Do you help lots of people?”
He knelt down to get on her eye level. “Yeah. It’s kind of my job.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Her voice was so innocent, he didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. “Just a little.”
“Why do you do it, then?”
Again he hesitated, then admitted, “Honestly, I don’t know.”
She dropped her gaze from his, thinking about this, then suggested hesitantly,
“Because you care what happens to other people?”
“I guess so.”
Her eyes fell on the cross he wore. She reached out and touched it with a small hand, just curious, then looked up and smiled at him.
“We’ll pray for you, my mommy and daddy and me.”
“Will you pray for us?”
Normally, he would have said he wasn’t religious. But because this child had asked him, he didn’t have to think twice about his response. He smiled at her, not the defiant, fearless grin he flashed at agents and security cameras, but a real smile.
“Of course, Suzie. Of course.” And he meant it.
“Two blocks, guys. When I turn the corner there, you’ll be shielded from view and have a chance to jump out. There’ll be an alley on your right,” Yana called back to them.
The Ghost stood and crossed to the back doors of the van, ready for action. The person who had connected with the little girl because of her innocence was gone, and and the fearless rebel was back, ready to protect the child with his life because it was a matter of honor. The Ghost had sworn this family would escape, and there were very few things could make him break a promise.
The van turned a corner and slowed almost to a stop. The back doors immediately swung open.
“Go, go!” the Ghost whispered, waving the family out. Jumping out last, he swung the doors shut and sprinted down the alley after them as the van pulled away. As he caught up with them, the woman, who was carrying her daughter, asked,
“How close are we?”
“Not as close as I’d like, but close enough.” He slowed down to a jog. “We don’t have to sprint, but we do have to keep moving. Yana was pretty sure we’d picked up a tail.”
For about fifteen minutes, it looked like the small group would reach their destination safely as they wove through the maze of alleys and back streets.
If the Ghost had known just how closely he had been tracked for the past few hours, things would have gone very differently that night.
A few blocks from the train station, directly in the path of the fugitives, four agents of the secret police hid in an alley. They had been monitoring the Ghost all evening, and had anticipated his plans. Now their trap was set. All the ways to the train station had been blocked.
Loyal agents were willing to use any means necessary to take this man. The refugees were secondary. It didn’t matter whether they were captured or whether got away. The Ghost, on the other hand…
He wasn’t getting away this time. At least, not alive.
The Ghost had been increasingly aware of the pressure as the night passed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until it was too late that he realized just how bad the situation was. They were nearly to the train station, and he was just starting to relax a bit, to think they’d lost their pursuers. Then some sixth sense kicked in, and he ducked and twisted. Almost at the same moment there was a shot.
Something whizzed past his ear, entirely too close for comfort.
“RUN!” he shouted to the family, breaking into a sprint himself. Three more shots followed them down the alley, all missing. They turned the corner out of the line of fire, crossing a back street into another alley, the agents in pursuit. They had almost reached the far end to get out of the line of fire again when another bullet clipped the man’s leg.
He shouted and nearly fell, catching himself against the wall. It wasn’t a bad injury; just enough to slow the group down. His wife gasped and set Suzie down out of harm’s way before returning to check on her husband.
“Ma’am, help your husband. I’ve got the girl,” the Ghost said, catching up the little one. “Now let’s go!”
They continued this way, barely ahead of the agents. The Ghost knew that they were almost there, but the secret police were close, too close… As he heard them round the corner a little over block behind him, he tried to make sure that at least the child he was holding would be safe, shielding her with his body.
In his arms, unconsciously clutching that small cross, Suzie felt him jerk as he was hit, heard his muffled cry of pain. He fell hard, nearly crushing her. The old, frayed cord the cross hung on snapped in the impact, still in her hand. When the Ghost got up and continued, it was with difficulty, and there was an ugly stain spreading on his right side.
The 5:30 AM train was getting ready to leave when the man and woman entered the station. Running ahead together, they hadn’t seen what had happened to the Ghost. As they stopped, looking around before getting on the train, the man said,
“Where’s the Ghost? Where’s Suzie?!”
The woman didn’t say anything, just started back, ready to save her daughter no matter what the cost. At that moment, the Ghost burst through the doors, staggering slightly, still carrying Suzie.
“Get – on – the train,” he panted, thrusting the girl into her mother’s arms. “They’re right – behind me…”
“What about y-” the man started.
The woman yanked her husband onto the train. The Ghost slumped against the wall, struggling to breathe and pressing a hand over the wound in his side as the train pulled out of the station. He knew that Suzie still had his wooden cross with the broken cord in her small hand, taking it with her into a new life. As far as he was concerned, nothing could be more fitting. A security guard, who had watched all this in bewilderment, stepped forward.
“Are you alright?”
The Ghost looked after the train carrying that little girl and her parents to safety and smiled.
He glanced over at the doors. The agents were arriving. But he didn’t care. He was more at peace than he’d been in a long time, because it was worth it.
He’d finally figured out why he risked everything.
Suzie had been right.
About Eleanor Fisher
Eleanor Fisher, is a 15-year-old Seton student, and wouldn’t trade homeschooling for the world. She loves reading, running, singing, acting, and playing bells in the church bell choir. This is her second year of Confirmation preparation, and she is very involved in music ministry, and the Journey In Faith high school youth group. She wants to be a published author when she grows up, and writes not only because she loves it, but also because her head might explode if she doesn’t get her ideas out somehow!