ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (CHapter Eighteen)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN- There's always a catch.

Barbara Meadows was kind enough to wait until after dinner to start in on her husband on the subject of climbers, and how to catch them. Ray was thankful for that, at least. But he also still hoped against hope to put the whole mess out of his mind and get on with life. His life, anyway. No luck. The tables had been turned and she was a woman with a mission. Stand back.
"I've got the answer to the problem."
"I didn't know we had a problem."
"The climbers. I know how we can catch them."
Barbara answered his question by slapping a pair of rubber gloves on the kitchen table- the big power company gloves.
"So- it's going to be one of those nights, is it?"
"No, why?"
"Why what?"
Ray took a moment for all that to settle down before he added anything to it. The conversation was confusing enough as it was.
"Why do we want to catch a climber? I thought we were going to let the sleeping blue furry thing just lie there and get on with our lives."
"Ray, we can't just go on. They're out there."
"Good place for them. We're in here. Works for me."
"Not me."
"Ok . . . . ?"
"Look, we've gone over this before. We have to find out what they are-"
"We have to find out if they are."
"We have to catch one. It would show Vaan's family that he wasn't imagining these things. It would vindicate this Arthur Crutchfield guy who wrote the book…"
"And it would be an adventure."
"An adventure?"
"Face it, Ray, we're stuck in a rut."
"And here all this time I thought we were cruising in the groove."
"You know what I mean. Same thing, day after day. Nothing changes."
"My underwear."
"Ok, you want an adventure. Couldn't we just go on a trip or something?"
"And get what out of it?"
"I don't know- The lure of exotic places?"
"Like where? Iowa? Nebraska?"
"The lure of the open road?"
"The lure of gas station rest rooms is gone, Ray. Long gone."
"You really want to do this?"
"Yes, I really do."
"For the adventure?"
"Well, that and the fame and fortune."
"Excuse me?"
"Fame? Fortune? Which one eluded you?"
"Both, I guess. What do you mean?"
"Ray, think about it: a whole new weird animal out there. Only a handful of people have ever seen one. It's like bigfoot."
"Without the smell."
"Exactly. We could be world famous for having captured one."
"If we lived. Otherwise, we'll only be worth a short paragraph in News of the Weird under the heading, 'Least Dignified Death'."
"That's why I got the gloves. We can hold one without getting shocked."
"Ok, say we catch one of these things."
"We catch one of these things."
"Thank you. Now what do we do with it? Where do we keep it?"
"Could you build some sort of cage or something in the basement?"
"Oh, that sounds comfy."
"It wouldn't be staying there long."
"What are we going to do? Housebreak the thing and teach it to fetch the paper?"
"No, I was thinking more along the lines of offering it to the Indianapolis Zoo."
"So we catch it, hold it and sell it and everyone lives happily every after?"
"You've got it."
"Except the climber."
"Pardon me?"
"What about the climber? What say does it have in all this?"
"Hello? Ray? It's an animal. It doesn't talk."
"A week ago you didn't think it even existed. Now you’re ready to skin 'em for their fur. Real change of pace there."
"I am not. These things are worth far more alive."
"Oh, boy."
"So what do you think?"
"I think it's crazy, cruel and dangerous."
"It's an adventure."
"That, too."
"Then you'll do it?"
"I'll do it, but I'll probably hate myself in the morning."
Ray Meadows might end up hating himself, but it wouldn't be tomorrow. The climbers (and their capture) was never mentioned again that night and both Ray and Barbara spent an enjoyable evening at home. The rest of the week followed suit, and Ray was starting to believe that maybe that conversation had been some sort of odd waking dream. Maybe they weren't going to try to catch one of those shiny blue things after all. Life was going on. Paul Scoggins had come through at work with the yellow vinyl tape and boxes of painter's masks. Ray had sent out the initial e-mail outlining what was going to be happening the following week, and that there was nothing to worry about. Perfectly safe. Done it a hundred times before. That trap was set. Paul and Ray would bait it the following week.
The weekend was spent doing yard work and small repair projects around the house. Ray did the house repairs inside while Barbara fussed in the yard. And still, all was well with Ray's world. No late nights, no climbers. It was that simple. And that good. What Ray didn't figure out was why Barbara was spending an inordinate amount of time in the back yard: She was studying her plants. Looking at every leaf very closely. Looking at the leaves on the lower limbs of the trees, especially the old oak. Looking for teeth marks. She was making notes on what she found, comparing what she saw to what she remembered that night on the porch. What sort of bite mark would that thing leave when it was eating? She thought she knew. By Sunday night, she also knew what it ate and what it liked. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. For Ray.
By Sunday evening, enough was enough with the projects, house and yard work. Both Ray and Barbara showered the dust and dirt off their bodies and collapsed in the living room in front of the tube. Dinner was going to be delivered pizza. May not be cheap, but it was certainly easy. The TV was both cheap and easy. Sunday night sit-coms, both live and animated. Once the pizza was delivered and the driver tipped, the night was their own. No more interruptions. The doors were locked, the lights were dimmed and the pizza was gone in record time.
Barbara had a list of plants on a sheet of paper. Ray had seen the paper, but not what was on it. He knew he'd find out when the time came. That time was now.
"So, what do you know about botany?"
"It's a bay in Australia?"
"Ok. What about plants?"
"Not much. Why?"
Barbara handed Ray the piece of paper. It was a list of plants with check marks next to them. Some had only one or two, while others were obviously more popular.
"What's this?"
"Looks more like yard work."
"It's what climbers eat."
Ray took another good long look at the list.
"How do you know this is what they eat?"
"Bite marks. I told you- I got a good look at this thing's teeth. Bite marks on these plants match what this thing would do. You said yourself it was a herbivore. This is what it eats."
"Let's see. It prefers, uh- flowers, tall grasses and softer leaves?"
"So it would seem."
"No bushes here and very little oak."
"Yeah. Mostly the softer, moister plants and leaves."
"Don't know. Maybe it's teeth aren't as strong as they look. Maybe that's the only source of liquid in its diet. It could be it eats this stuff because it's quiet."
"Nothing crunchy?"
"Nothing crunchy. I found no teeth marks in the peanut brittle bush."
"We have peanut brittle bush?"
"Sure. Right next to the M & M vine."
"What do we do with this list of yours?"
"First, I'd like to be able to confirm it. Do you think Steve Vaan has any information like this? Do you think he's studied them at all?"
"I don't know. He still sees them, which means he must be still be looking for them. Maybe he's studying them, but for what? We never did figure out what he was doing with his considerable spare time in Lyndon."
"Except that he is up late at night. Sounds like he's checking them out."
"One quick way to find out."
Ray got up and scrounged around the house until he found the piece of paper with Steve Vaan's address and phone number in beautiful Lyndon, Illinois. Back in the living room, he sat down and picked up the phone on the end table. Eleven digits later, he was listening to a phone ringing on the line. A click and a hum- the two sure signs of an answering machine. Oh, well.
"Hi- I'm not here right now. Wait for the beep and leave a message. Thanks."
"Uh- Steve, this is Ray. Ray Meadows. Barbara has a list of possible climber feeding plants here and we wanted to see if you had any information on that aspect of the subject. If you get in before midnight, give me a call. Thanks."
Ray hung up the phone and looked at Barbara. That was all they could do for now. Steve was gone, the pizza was gone and the sit-coms were over. Neither of them felt like staying up for the late movie, so it was off to bed by mutual consent. An early night for a busy weekend. Of course, that meant they were both sound asleep by eleven o'clock when the phone rang. Ray struggled to reach out to the phone on the nightstand on his side of the bed and grab the receiver off the cradle. Almost dropped it, but still managed to get it to his ear before he fell back into bed.
"Ray? It's Steve. Did I wake you? You said to call."
Why is it we can never admit that we were asleep? Sure, Ray was asleep. Chasing rabbits in the field. But you wouldn't catch him sleeping when the phone rang. No sir, not him.
"No, that's ok. You're right. Glad you called back."
Ray was trying to wake Barbara so one of them could go get that plant list. She finally rolled over and opened her eyes. Why was Ray on the phone in the middle of the night? Was something wrong?
"Yeah, Barb has been checking out all the plants in the back yard for bite marks."
"That's right, bit marks."
"She saw one the other night. Up close and personal."
"They have teeth."
"No, I didn't know, either."
"She said- Look, why don't I let you talk to her? She saw them, not me."
Ray sat up and held the phone out to Barbara. She had returned with the list, and was almost- but not quite- as awake as Ray. She did manage to scoot herself across the bed to Ray's side to pick up the phone.
"I'm ok. It didn't touch me."
"Yeah, teeth. So much for 'mostly harmless'."
"It was weird. The teeth wrapped around in the mouth just like ours, but there was no breaks between the teeth. It was almost like one big wrap-around upper and lower."
"No, they were flat. Ray called them incisors, but the looked thicker, more like molars, toward the back."
"Yeah, the fronts looked sharp. And they were shiny."
"One other thing, Steve: They were dished in places. You know, serrated like a bread knife."
"Looked like they could bite your through your arm, bones and all."
"No, it just opened its mouth and jumped right past me. I ducked down and it never made contact."
"That's the big question, isn't it? Was it trying to get me or just get by? I don't know. I think just get by. I hope."
"No, I don't think it ever stopped after that first jump. Right over the porch wall and gone."
"Well, I did try to see where it went, but I'm not sure if I saw it."
"I mean I looked up in the old oak tree behind the neighbor's house and there might have been a sort of blue glow up high by the trunk."
"Yeah, it was gone in a minute or so. But I'd swear it was there, and the thing was definitely glowing when it went past my head. Couldn't miss seeing that. That and the teeth."
There was a long silence on the Meadows' end of the phone as Steve commented on Barbara's experience and how lucky she was to not have been zapped by the climber as it went by. Eventually, Steve remembered something about a plant list. Barbara read off the list, and the number of bite marks observed on each species. Again, there was a long silence as Steve put in his two cents worth. After a bit of residual conversation, Barbara handed the phone back to Ray. No mention had been made of Barbara's Big Plan to catch a climber. Ray thought that was something best left for a face to face meeting. Maybe the following weekend. Without saying why, Ray set up a meeting the following Saturday afternoon for lunch- actually breakfast for Steve. Now it was Steve's turn to throw in a small surprise: He had wheels, and could meet them at the Forty-Five Cafe in Harrisburg. That was a surprise, and Ray agreed and hung up the phone without ever inquiring what sort of vehicle Steve had latched on to. Typical Ray. Any other guy would want to know make, model, color and options. Not Ray. You got wheels? That's nice. See you there. It was almost midnight when Ray turned off the light in the bedroom a second time. Let's try this again. It's almost Monday now.
With Monday came the beginning of The Plan at work for Ray and Paul. With just about everyone getting in the spirit of the big August Prankfest, even if only an unwitting a victim, people were indeed talking and doing and plotting and scheming. It was having the desired effect. Things were happening. Ray and Paul had a been working on two, two, two pranks in one. On the surface, Ray and Paul planned to do something simple and sophomoric- fish in all the water coolers was the leading thought there. Something that looked like what they would do. A simple diversionary tactic. Meanwhile, hidden from prying eyes and enquiring minds, boxes of yellow tape and painters' masks were being delivered and not hidden at all. This needed to look very legal and legit. A Company Project. Ray had all of his instructional flyers finished by the middle of the week, complete with that fake company logo. Easy enough to do. Even set up a real fake phone number to an answering machine- just in case. He could get Barb to play secretary to return any concerned calls on that line.
By Friday afternoon, at the end of July and the beginning of August, Ray and Paul were set to slowly spring one giant trap. Paul would get in extra early Monday morning and leave the first box of flyers in the mail room, with the instructions to distribute them to every employee in Tower One. Paul was above suspicion, since he would be the logical employee to work with the extermination company anyway. So of course he would be the one with the information. This was the basic background/instructional flyer that told everyone what they were going to do, when and how. It stressed the safety and convenience of this new method and that no one would have to leave the building or miss work and the company would be saving tons of money and wasn't that great? By the middle of next week, Paul would distribute those rolls of yellow vinyl tape and a second flyer outlining the procedure for sealing the outer windows- one to every employee with a window office. Easy enough. He could do that as part of his job. It would all look very official, and Paul could answer any concerned questions. By the following week, they'd have Monday and Tuesday to finish with the windows and educate all the employees on the use of the required masks that would be handed out then. At that point, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday would be the designated days for the "Nontenting". Ray even had big signs for all the doors and extra masks for visitors. By Friday night it would be over. Nearly a thousand gullible employees will have spent three days wearing useless masks for no real reason. Kind of like one long Halloween, but without the candy. It was so smooth, there was only one problem: How would they tell them that they had all been had? Ray and Paul had two weeks from that Friday to figure that part out.
Ray Meadows left work that Friday night feeling pretty good about the prank. Everything was falling into place- except for that part about the fish in the water coolers. He realized he didn't happen to have a couple of dozen mackerel in his pants pocket. I'm sure that comes as a surprise to you, too. Ok, now Ray had his Friday Night Project. Kind of the loaves and fishes thing- but without the loaves. And he didn't have near the talent of the last guy that pulled that one off. He would have to buy his fish. Sounded like a trip to the toy store to Ray. Always an interesting experience.
Back at the Meadows' house, dinner was not ready. Nothing was waiting on the kitchen table. Barbara, however, was waiting for Ray. It was Friday night and she had plans of her own. They involved her, Ray and dinner out. A little change of pace. That wasn't asking so much was it? Of course not. He should be happy to do this for his wife. Why just stay at home when they could go out? She had herself all psyched up for nothing this time. Her plan couldn't fail. Ray had already figured on taking her out to dinner. Right before they went to the toy store. Ray strode willingly into that trap.
"Hey there, what's for dinner?"
"What would you like?"
Ray couldn't help but look around the clean kitchen. Nothing cooking, nothing on the table. He knew where this was headed. Time to run up to the front and lead the parade.
"I was hoping for a little something Italian."
"My family's German. Guess again."
"Ok, how about something Italian for dinner and a little strudel for dessert?"
"That sounds like a possibility. So where are you taking me?"
Time for Ray's Big Mock Surprise.
"Me? Take you? I thought you were taking me!"
"Oh, no, not this time. You bought last time. It's your turn again."
Ignoring the obvious, Ray had to concede defeat in a battle he never wanted to win in the first place.
"Alright, you win. But next time, I buy."
"If you insist. Where to?"
"Well, let's see- I know this nice little pizza place right next to a toy store."
"It had better not be Chuck E. Cheese if you have any hope of ever seeing any happy blonde strudel again in your lifetime."
"Thanks for the warning."
"You're welcome."
So it was dinner out on the town for Barbara and Ray Meadows. Friday night traffic was horrendous as always, but they were in no hurry. Lucky for Ray their destination did not feature huge mechanical fake-fur rodents in red derbies. He'd be rolling in strudel tonight.
What the destination did feature was a more (American) traditional approach to Italian food. Monty's, in spite of the oddly not very Italian name, did feature checkered tablecloths, candles in old wine bottles, wicker bread baskets, the whole nine yards. The only thing missing was a cocker spaniel and a mutt out back in the alley, sucking down spaghetti while the band played on. It was the food offered that did the place proud. Worth the drive and would have been worth the noisy atrocity of an attached video game room. Relax, there wasn't one. Classical music came from the subdued sound system, and the lights lowered as the evening progressed. What's Italian for "Strudel City"? The only drawback to this lovely evening out was this: Poor Ray was going to drag his wife to a toy store afterward to look for two dozen fake fish. And now for something completely different. Right after dinner.
The toy store was not- thankfully- right next door to the restaurant. Down the street and around the corner was more like it. A short drive to newer commercial neighborhood on a larger road and there it was: A big building on the end of a shopping center. Wee Bee Toys. Big selection, little prices and even less help from the help. Why is it always that way? The bigger the store, the fewer people you see working there and the less chance you'll actually get some help when you need it? Not that anyone I know enjoys being shadowed by three clerks down both aisles of a small card shop or anything. So it was that Barbara and Ray were faced with toys stacked to the twenty-foot ceilings, and no way to get to anything they couldn't reach, should they want it. Luckily for all concerned, fake fish were a low-shelf commodity. They could be found in bins at their feet, in the same aisle with the toy horses and rubber bats. No, the other kind. Ray pondered what he really needed for this part of the prank. He did not need the biggest, most expensive fake fish money could buy. Who did? What he needed was a long skinny fish that would easily slide through that little opening in the end of a five-gallon water jug. Ray hefted a few different items, working his way down to a size he thought would work. He had the fish of his dreams in his hands when he realized: He had no idea if this fish would sink or swim. Hmmm. Was that a problem? He wasn't sure. But for seventy-nine cents apiece, he'd make them work. Ray gathered up every one of those fish he could find and made his way to the check-out aisles. He had to keep reminding himself that this was just a diversionary prank- not The Big One. It could be less than perfect. In his mind, however, he knew he still wanted this part of the prank to be good. Ray was one serious prankster. A pro.
Dinner dining done and fake fish finagled, Ray and Barbara Meadows made their way through the Friday night traffic toward home. It was twilight, with the sun having set while they were buying fish in the toy store. Pulling up into the driveway it was dark. Night had fallen during the drive home. Lights were on around the neighborhood and the evening was perfect and calm, except for the hum and roar of that Friday night parade of cars out on the main road. Doesn't anybody stay home on a Friday night any more? Ray put the car in the garage and joined Barbara in the kitchen. At least these fish didn't have to be cleaned.
Inside, Ray headed straight for the kitchen and began running a big sink full of water. He had to know. Floaters were better than sinkers, as fake fish went. With the tub filling up, Ray shut off the water and choose a fish. Ploik! Into the basin and- it bobbed back up! Eureka! A floating fake fish! Fantastic! Ray watched the fish bob in the water for a minute or so. Not that there was anything much to see. No great plan came to mind at this point. He was just going to put one in each tank. Let it float belly up- as a warning to the thirsty. But then- it didn't float belly up, did it, Ray? It was floating on it's side. Hmmm. Not very dead like that. Just fake. Something would have to be done. And if he had to do something, maybe he could make it do more. In the living room, Barbara turned the TV on. Friday night at the (TV) movies. Always a good one on somewhere. They just had to find it. Ray pulled the sink drain and watched the water drain out. The fish was definitely a side-floater. He'd have to do something about that. But what?
Back in the living room, Barbara was getting comfortable on the couch. Ray stayed just long enough to cross the room and head upstairs- and go for something more comfortable than what he had been wearing all day. Maybe some shorts, a T-shirt and leave the shoes where they were. That was more like it. Now, about that fish…
Lucky for Ray tonight's movie was a no-brainer. A Peter Seller's classic that required no mental effort to enjoy. They didn't even try to keep track of the number of different roles Sellers played in this one. By the time Ray had gone back to make some popcorn, he had it figured out. (The fish, not the movie.) All he had to do was run a length of thin monofilament line thru the bottom of each fish, maybe about a foot of the stuff, and put a weight on the lower end of the line. The weight would be out of sight down inside the cooler and the fish would appear to be swimming around in the tank, happy but cold. This could work. The only thing that had Ray stumped (momentarily) was what to use as a weight. Lead sinkers in the water coolers were right out. No way. Steel would rust and aluminum may not be heavy enough. But: stainless steel! That was the answer. He could buy a couple of dozen stainless steel nuts- he wouldn't even need the bolts. If he wanted to be really cheap, he could save the receipt and take them back the next day. The ruse was complete. The fish plan was ready. All he needed was some light weight monofilament and stainless steel nuts. Piece of cake. And now, back to tonight's movie.
The movie was fun (if mindless) entertainment. Both Barbara and Ray enjoyed it, laughing at the pratfalls as well as the star's ability to shred the English language beyond belief. And while he may not have been a hero in France for his portrayal of a Frenchman, he was certainly appreciated here. The movie ended with the credits being overrun by teasers for the news. Another bad one car accident on I-64 near Croydon. State road officials had no explanation of the high number of single vehicle wrecks on a straight stretch of open rural Interstate. The officials suspected drunk driving. They should have suspected those trees- and what was in them.
Not even the Meadows, tree-suspicious people that they were, thought about that possibility. That truck they didn't see awhile back, along with the car tonight, were only the latest in a long list of machines to leave the road along a one mile stretch of four lane nowhere. No one made the connection. Well, ok, almost no one. Somewhere west of Croydon in a small town in another state, someone felt the hairs raise up on the back of his neck. Steve Vaan was also watching the news. Oddly enough, he had been watching the same movie. And now this. It was just another accident on a lonely road, right? Until the cameraman did a wide angle sweeping pan to show the big picture. Steve saw the trees in the distance, across the highway. The TV camera panned across the four lanes of killer blacktop and came to a halt looking at more trees on the near side of the road. Looked like some mighty big old oaks in those woods. Steve dug through the maps he had around the apartment. He knew he didn't have what he needed: Southern Indiana. He needed maps of the back roads west of Croydon. There was no way he could take his new (but well used) wheels up on the Interstate.
Back at the Meadows' house, the news lost what little interest it may have had and the TV in the living room was turned off. Up the stairs and off to bed with only one new twist in their old routine: Ray closed the blinds on the bedroom window. Neither one of them wanted to see what was out there at night. They knew. By eleven-thirty they were both snuggled in bed with Letterman on the tube. Old habits die hard. Even when you know you'll be getting up early the next morning. At least with the blinds drawn they got a good night's sleep. What there was left of it.
Saturday day dawned bright and clear. And hot. It's going to be a scorcher, folks. We're talking wear your sun block indoors. Barbara and Ray decided to leave a bit early and have breakfast somewhere in town, between the house and the Interstate. That old standby, the IHOP, was a logical stop before the on ramp. Get in, get fed, get out. They did. By nine o'clock on that beautiful Saturday morning, Ray and Barbara were southbound big time on the super slab. Ray didn't know why he decided to take the big road instead of the back roads. The minor two lanes were closer, but they had a better breeze going fast. Sure, that was it. Even with the windows up and the AC blasting. One smooth drive south and they made that turn to the west on I-64. Things got busy just past Croydon.
Traffic slowed down, then it backed up. Then it stopped altogether. Must be a wreck. Barbara got out the maps, but there was no easy way around whatever was in front of them. They'd just have to stick it out on the four-laner. Traffic crawled forward in fits and starts. Before long, Ray shut down the AC to keep the engine from overheating and they rolled down the windows. After about twenty minutes of this, they saw the holdup. Such as it was.
Traffic reporters call it a "visual delay". It's a polite way of saying that there's really nothing wrong, it's just that everyone slowed down to take a took. There was no wreck. No ambulance, no fire trucks, no medivac helicopter. Just one Indiana State Trooper car and a couple of very plain white sedans from the State Department of Transportation. All three vehicles were parked on the median at a high spot on the Interstate. Two troopers and a half dozen men and women were all just standing there, looking west. No wonder traffic was backed up for miles in both directions. There was just so much to see. Or was there?
Ray finally edged past the back up point and saw open road ahead. He let the car get back up to speed before he rolled up the windows and turned on the air. The engine temperature gauge began to fall again. No problem. Back in action. No wreck. What was that all about, anyway? Didn't look like a speed trap. Too many suits and not enough badges. Maybe they were planning a new exit or something. Weird. Sure wasn't much to see. Or was there?
What Ray- or anyone else driving by- didn't see was the large scale map of that stretch of Interstate that one of the Troopers had showing every reported accident along that particular two mile segment. Each dot- yellow for injury, red for fatality- had a notation of date and time of day. They had been very thorough. They had to be. The last dot on the map (the one they had seen on the news the night before) was the local State Representative's daughter. In red. And why? As the officers and officials looked to the west, they couldn't see any normal hazards. No line of sight limitations, no unusual bumps or twists in the road. This was a good, safe piece of road. So why were all of those people sliding off of it? Overhead, a helicopter flew over the road- right down the median, about five hundred feet up. In the cockpit, the co-pilot was videotaping that same bit of road. All concerned were very interested in what was making people do quick turns for no reason in the middle of nowhere. The guys in the chopper didn't have an answer, but they sure found a clue.
We both know that not all accidents get reported. It's a simple fact of life. If you run off the road and you aren't injured and your car's ok, you're probably just going to back that puppy right up on the road and keep going. No need to get everyone involved, right? Yep. And if all you did was lock 'em up and never even hit anything, you just kept right on keeping on, didn't you? You bet you did. So did a lot of other people out there. What those officials on the ground couldn't see- what those drivers on the road wouldn't notice- was what the two men in the helicopter caught on videotape. A half-mile chunk of Interstate that was heavily criss-crossed in both directions with tire marks. Skid marks.
The helicopter pilot made a point of flying west to the next exit before he turned around to fly back. They got the entire length between that exit and the one to the east on tape. That one malicious mile told the whole story. There were some marks on either side for about a quarter of a mile both ways, but that half mile stretch right there was a mess. Compared to the rest of the road, it looked like there had been a demolition derby there. Every night. At five hundred feet, they could see it all. The tire marks on the pavement, the skidding ruts through the gravel on the shoulder and the swaths cut through the grass by vehicles swerving completely off the road. Some came back to pavement, some didn't. Some ended abruptly at a guard rail and a few went off through the surrounding fields. Both men in the helicopter were so stunned they made a point of videotaping the whole scene from the other angle, from exit to exit again. Before they turned to return to their airfield, the pilot had one spark of inspired genius. For whatever it was worth.
Moving slowly over the Interstate, the pilot hovered at what looked to be the center of all the action. Tire marks went out in both directions below them. With the camera pointed straight down, he lowered them to just a few hundred feet over the road. The camera lens was filled by the Interstate below them. Traffic was slowing down, thinking he must be using radar to catch speeders. He wasn't. Not this time. With the camera pointed at the tire marked pavement, the pilot slowly pulled up on the rotor pitch control. The helicopter started to climb straight up over the road. The camera took in more and more of the surrounding area. In a steady climb to five thousand feet, the camera took in the road right-of-way, the surrounding fields and stands of trees on either side of the road beyond the fields. None of this footage would make the evening news. The State wouldn't even mention that they had it. But they had it, and it was an eye-opener. The heaviest concentration of skid marks was directly between the two stands of trees. There was no doubt about that. The big question was: What does it mean?
Far to the west, and getting farther west with each passing minute, Ray and Barbara were at the state line. Into Illinois and off the super slab, they headed southwest out of Grayville, bound for Harrisburg and the Forty-Five Cafe. Lunch awaited, and if they were lucky maybe they'd have the air conditioning turned on in there today. Down to a reasonable fifty miles an hour on the rural two lane, Ray turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the windows. It was amazing how cool it could be when you weren't surrounded by blacktop and big trucks. Not so bad out here. The air was clean and fragrant even if it was going to be blazing hot this afternoon. They were closing in on their lunch. At the outskirts to Harrisburg their speed dropped to forty, then to thirty through the town. No need to rile the locals. Nice and easy through the burg and on to the restaurant.
They could see the cafe's white gravel parking lot as they drove down the street in the brilliant in the noon day sun. Not even a mad dog would walk across that lot without sunglasses. They parked as close as they could to the building and Ray turned off the engine. Ah, the sweet silence of a small town on a summer day. The mind-numbing amount of nothing that was going on. Better get inside quick. Ray decided to live life on the edge. They left the windows down. No sense in turning the car into an oven. They'd have to get back in that thing eventually. Across the short stretch of gravel to the walkway around the building, the Meadows were making a bee-line for that front door. Halfway there the sidewalk was blocked in front of the restaurant by a motorbike. It was old, it was rusty and it had at one time been yellow. Now it was Steve Vaan's wheels, but they didn't know that. This minor inconvenience was offset by the fact that the cafe's front door was closed. Good sign there. The air was on. Get inside quick.
Inside the Forty-Five Cafe it was dark and cool. It was perfect. A slight breeze from the ceiling fans was the finishing touch. Ray decided he could just stay here for the rest of the summer and Barbara seconded that motion. Once their eyes adjusted to the low light, they found Steve Vaan sitting at a large booth over in the corner. The one furthest from the front door. Smart man, that Steve. He already had his ice tea, and most of that was gone. Hot day. The Meadows sat down and were followed immediately by the waitress.
"I'm guessing you folks could do with a couple of large ice teas?"
"Good guess. Yes, please."
"Coming right up."
The waitress was gone as quick as she came. Ray looked across a table covered with maps at their friend. There was something odd about him today, but Ray couldn't quite place it.
"How you doing, Steve?"
"Doing great, Ray. How about you two?"
"Ready for fall."
"Yeah, it's a hot one out there today. A real roaster."
That was it. Ray figured it out. Steve had a tan. Sort of. What he really had was a burn. His face was beet red, except for the pale raccoon eyes where his sunglasses had been.
"You been getting some sun?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Steve bent over to pick something up off of the bench seat next to him. It was a beat up old motorcycle helmet. Sixties vintage.
"My new wheels offer very little sun protection."
Barbara smiled at the old skid lid.
"A puddin' bowl. Haven't seen one of them in quite a few years."
"Like maybe thirty?"
"Well, yes, I guess so. Is that your old bike out on the sidewalk?"
"Ah, yes and no. Who wants to know?"
Ray couldn't resist.
"Ok, I'll bite. It's your bike but it isn't your bike?"
"Something like that. I really needed something to get around on. I needed wheels. But I didn't want something that would put me on the map with the State Department of Motor Vehicles public records that could be traced back to find me."
"So did you buy this motorcycle or didn't you?"
"Not exactly."
"Keep talking."
"I bought it from a farmer outside of Lyndon. He used it around is property for a while, then his kids used it and pretty much trashed it."
"We could see the trashed part."
"He just let it sit after that. For years. I saw it on one of my walks and offered to buy it."
"So you did buy it."
"Yeah, sort of. He couldn't find the title. I gave him some money for it and he gave me a bill of sale."
"That's buying it. Money changed hands. Why are you so confused about this?"
"Because without a title, I can't register it in my name- which I don't want to do anyway. I own it and hold the bill of sale, but as far as the state is concerned, it never left his farm or his ownership."
"What about the tag?"
"It's got the original tag from back about 1966. I go slow and stick to the back roads. Any one follows me, I turn off. They can't go where I can go."
"You're not worried about being pulled over for an expired tag?"
"This isn't the big city, Ray. There's a lot of kids out here with dirt bikes and ATV's that have never seen a tag. One more little old bike won't be noticed. Kind of looks like a moped anyway. Really harmless."
"Yeah, like climbers are really harmless. This thing got any hidden teeth we should know about?"
"I doubt it. It's got a 110 c.c. engine. That's just over six whopping cubic inches."
"Just six?"
"Just six."
"How fast that thing go?"
"Not very. I can top forty on a down-hill, but it's pretty scary with those old brakes and tires."
"And you bought this thing willingly?"
"Why not? It's got some sort of dual-range transmission, like an off-road vehicle. I can put it in low and slog up any hill I want."
"A climber spotter?"
"You got it."
The waitress was back with two teas and pitcher for refills. She knew her customers. The pitcher was left on the table. Would they be ready to order? Yes they would. Nice, cool salads. Nothing hot today, thank you. That sounded reasonable to the waitress and she was off again to kill a head of lettuce. Nothing like a fresh salad on a hot day. Ray looked at all the maps spread out over the table.
"Planning a big trip, now that you've got those hot wheels?"
"You didn't happen to watch the news last night, did you Ray?"
Ray looked at Barbara. Barbara looked at Ray. What did that have to do with the price of tea in China? And did they watch the news?
"Saw about two minutes of it. Why? What did we miss?"
"Dead girl on the Interstate west of Croydon."
"And that's of interest because . . . . ?"
"Couple of reasons. First, she was some state rep's daughter."
"Did you know her?"
"No, no, no. It's nothing like that. I have no idea who she is, other than what the TV and newspaper said. It doesn't matter who she was."
"Ok, so why is her death interesting?"
"Where it happened."
"Uh, out on the Interstate somewhere? West of Croydon? So?"
"Have you seen the statistics in today’s paper on that little bit of road?"
"No. We didn't even look at the paper this morning."
Steve slid the front section of the Indianapolis paper across the table. The girl was front page news. So was the road.
"Check it out."
Ray did indeed check it out. So did Barbara. Still, nothing quite clicked.
"Ok, so they had fifteen reported accidents there in the last year. Seven resulted in injuries, three were fatalities. What am I missing here?"
"The question is, what are they trying to miss out there?"
"Miss what?"
"That's the question, isn't it?"
"Is it? You lost me, Steve."
"Look, in the last year fifteen cars ran off the road right there bad enough to crash. Three people died, including the girl last night. Who knows how many more cars came close to crashing, but just drove on?"
"But why? What's so special about right there?"
"Look at the photo on the inside of that section of the paper."
Ray turned the paper and he and Barbara looked at the big photo of- nothing. A big panoramic wide angle shot of an Interstate. It could have been shot in virtually any state in the Union. Except maybe Hawaii. Do they have Interstates in Hawaii? And if so, why?
"Ok, I'm looking, but I'm not seeing. What am I not seeing?"
"You aren't seeing that big stand of trees off in the field to the right."
"I'm seeing that."
"And that big stand of trees to the left, almost out of frame on the near side of the road?"
"Yeah, I see that, but what… oh."
Ray got it. Barbara got it a second later. They were both up with him now. Climbers. These people were swerving off the road to avoid hitting climbers. Two groups of trees. These things were traveling across the ground from one stand of trees to the other at night. Now they're dangerous even without the teeth. Steve took the paper back.
"In answer to your most obvious question: 'To get to the other side'."
"Wait a minute- you said fifteen wrecks and three fatalities."
"Just in the last twelve months."
"What do the other twelve people have to say about it?"
"Ten. Two never recovered enough to talk. The other ten had no comment- according to the paper. It was chalked up to loose farm animals, wild animals, dogs, stuff like that. No one had any idea what they saw."
Barbara took another look at the newspaper and the maps that Steve had brought.
"You think these people are getting a quick glimpse of something running across the road and automatically swerve to avoid it without even knowing what it is?"
"Definitely. Wouldn't you? Remember, these wrecks are happening late at night. These people are flying down a rural Interstate in total darkness. Maybe they've been drinking a little. Or maybe a lot. A sudden flash of something in front of them shocks them into over-reacting. A jerk of the wheel at seventy or eighty miles and hour and they're out of there."
"On the average of slightly more than once a month?"
"I'd say the incidents are considerably higher. They only crash about once a month. Who knows how many people see something, swerve and don't crash? They just keep going. I think we could safely double that incidence figure. Maybe one every other week or so."
"Do you think any of those people will come forward now and say anything?"
"Would you?"
Both the Meadows thought about it and looked at each other. Barbara said it for them both.
"Wouldn't want to be the first."
Steve nodded his head. He understood.
"Nobody does. Arthur tried that once and ended up locked up. The truth is not always a good thing for the person telling it."
Three big bowls of salad arrived at the table, along with rolls, fresh butter and a second pitcher of ice tea. It was going to be a long feast at the trough, but the restaurant was virtually empty, so no one was going to mind. Heavy tipping hides a multitude of sins. The three at that table stopped talking for the moment and dug in. Cold, crisp and very fresh, these were not store-bought vegetables. Barbara suspected someone's local garden was the source. Like the one right behind the restaurant. As usual, she was right. A finicky person might has recoiled at the odd bit of dirt here and there on the radishes. Barbara thought it was funny and the men never saw it. It was fresh, clean dirt anyway. Eventually, Ray came up for air.
"So what did you have in mind, Steve?"
"I just wanted to go out and have a look around. In daylight."
"But why all the maps? It's right there on the Interstate. Easy enough to find- just look for the skid marks."
"This may come as a shock to you, Ray, but that little motor roller out there isn't exactly an Interstate machine. I need to figure out how to get to both those bits of woods without using the Interstate. Slow back roads only. The slower the better."
"Maybe, maybe not."
"What do you mean?"
Barbara agreed with Steve on this one.
"Yeah- what DO you mean?"
"Well, if you were with some one who just happened to have a real big car, you might be able to get there- on the Interstate- in no time at all."
"That's true, up to a point."
"And which point is that?"
"The point where the pavement ends and the fields, dirt and woods begin. That big car of yours isn't exactly a Land Rover."
"No, but it should get us close enough to walk. If we can find the right roads."
Steve motioned to the maps on the table, now all scrunched over to one side so they'd have room to eat.
"I'm not having much luck so far."
"You need a back roads map for that area."
"Anything but these gas station rejects."
"How about I round up some serious maps of that area? Maybe even some aerial photos? Would that help?"
"Yes. Yes, it would. But how are you going to get aerial shots of that area?"
"I'll try the local county offices- maybe the agricultural departments have something. Someone has maps and someone has aerials. We just have to find out who."
Barbara had been silent through all this, still picking her way through her salad.
"What do you hope to find out there, Steve?"
"Evidence of climbers."
"Which would be?"
"I don't know, exactly. Sometimes I think I see wear patterns on the older oak trees. Like maybe where someone- or something- has been climbing on the same spot over and over. The bark seems smoother in places. Maybe we'd see paths through the woods leading to the older trees. That sort of thing."
"Barbara could check the plants out there for any signs of climbers eating them."
"That's true, if she's right. Arthur saw them eating leaves in London. I haven't been so fortunate."
"If fortunate is the word."
Ray knew he had to broach the subject of capturing one. He didn't like the idea any more than either of the others, but they all knew that's where they were headed. They had to be.
"Say we figure out the climbers out there. Then what?"
"Whew. I don't know. We couldn't just go running to the police and say we 'think' there might be something weird in the trees."
It was Barbara who jumped right in with both feet.
"We could if we had one."
No one said a word. There was nothing left to say. They knew she was right. They had to think about the possibility of a capture. What else could they do? It was silent at that table for a long time. Steve finally spoke.
"I think maybe we should interrupt someone's dinner this afternoon."
"How do you intend to do that?"
"By calling England. It's time we spoke to Arthur Crutchfield about this."
With that said, the salads were finished and the maps were folded. Play time was over (in more ways than one) and they all knew it. It was after one o'clock when they left the cool comfort of the Forty-Five Cafe. Steve put on the old helmet and buckled the strap. Ray volunteered to haul his maps and newspaper in the car. It would help a little. Steve agreed. They all decided to take the back roads, with the Meadows following Mister Vaan on his wild ride. However wild that might be. Ray promised to not run over the little motorcycle and Steve promised to keep the route paved. Three blocks out of the cafe's parking lot, the fun began.
Steve did indeed know every little back road in Southern Illinois. Good thing that little bike was yellow- made it easier to spot. They dipped and dove down those roads- one after the next. Steve would get a little ahead in the turns and Ray would make it up on the straights. There were a couple of close calls until Ray figured out that the bike's brake light wasn't working. He almost broke his promise about not running Steve over, but only a couple of times. For his part, Steve was able to twist and turn on those narrow roads much faster than the big car could follow. At times, he gained enough distance to make a turn Ray didn't see. He'd be rolling along, and out of the corner of his eye catch a flash of yellow on some side road's side road. Steve had turned. Stop, back up and go after him. No need to get lost out here. Where ever here was. Two o'clock saw them puttering in to Lyndon- the back way, of course.
Steve turned into his apartment's driveway and pulled the little bike around the back to the equipment shed area. By the time Ray and Barbara were out of their car, he had the bike in the shed and covered. Up the stairs and through the door. Steve had kept the AC running. No need to sweat any more than you have to. Good philosophy in any weather.
"You want anything? Water? Tea?"
"No, I'm still sloshing from lunch."
"Me too."
Steve made his way over to the phone. Barbara stopped him.
"Have we really thought this through?"
"The phone call? No big deal. I call him about once a month anyway."
"No, not the phone call. The capture. Do we really know what we're doing?"
Steve spoke for all concerned.
"No, we don't."
All three sat down in the front room. The phone was forgotten for the time being. Ray had to ask the question:
"Steve, you grabbed one once. What are our chances of being able to hold one?"
"Not very good, if we were to just try to grab one. Ignoring, for the moment, the odds of getting that close to one."
"Say we did- somehow- get that close. If we were able to snare one- then what?"
"My first response would be to run like mad the other way."
"Not very conducive to a successful capture."
"No, but very self-preservational."
"Do you think the shock could kill you?"
"Not me. I don't intend to let it get that close."
"So it could."
"Yes, I think it could."
Ray thought they'd feel better if he tried to sum up their current position on the subject. Shows how wrong you can be.
"So all we have to do is get close to something that avoids humans at all costs; then grab this thing that can send out an electrical charge strong enough to kill us and cage a wild, and possibly alien animal that has a weird set of nasty teeth."
Barbara saw the ironic sarcasm of the summation.
"Yep, that about sums it up. Except for the details, like what do we do with it after that, and is it strong enough to break out of anything we could build to contain it?"
Steve couldn't resist the finishing question.
"And which one of us do we use for bait?"
Ray saw the futility.
"That's it? That's all of our problems? Geez, are we a bunch of whiners."
Barbara got serious.
"Steve, I think you better call Arthur Crutchfield. Maybe he can talk us out of this."
Steve picked up his phone with the one over-riding thought that with any luck at all, Arthur Crutchfield would indeed talk them out of this lunacy. He'd show them the error of their ways and their lack of sound judgment and they could get on with their lives. Not very likely. Crutchfield was English. Ray was impressed that Steve could dial an international phone number completely from memory. He did. The phone began to ring thousands of miles away. It rang and it rang again. Maybe he wasn't up. Maybe he wasn't home. Even Steve was ready to admit defeat and hang up where there was a click and a voice.
"Good evening, Arthur Crutchfield here."
"Arthur- Good evening. Steve Vaan here, in America."
"Pardon me, sir?"
"Still in America? Whatever for?"
"Good point. For the climbers, I suppose."
"Oh, yes. Those things. Still there, are they?"
Steve looked up at Ray and Barbara and smiled.
"Yes, they seem to be. That's why I called."
"Nothing I can do about, young man. If there's any over there, they're your problem."
"Yes, they are. And they appear to be causing quite a problem over here in one area."
"How's that? What do you mean?"
"They're killing people. Three so far."
"Good Lord, no. They couldn't be!"
Did Steve just tell a lie, or didn't he? Tough call there. Three people were in fact quite dead. At least three. And it is entirely within the realm of reason to assume that those three people might still be alive today, barring another round of lethal drunk driving, if a climber hadn't jumped out in front of their car late one night on a remote length of Interstate highway. That much was the reasonable truth. But did the climbers actually kill them? Kind of a stretch there, but for good effect. It certainly got Arthur Crutchfield's complete attention. Steve wisely decided to back off a bit on the sensationalism. He had made his point.
"Well sir, in a way, I'm afraid they are. They don't mean to, I'm sure. But accidents will happen."
"So you're saying that climbers have accidentally killed three people in the States? You had better explain yourself."
"Yes, I should. There's a length of a highway in Indiana that is situated between two large stands of old oak trees. The half mile portion of that road that runs between those trees has been the scene of a great many one car accidents late at night. Officials here are suspicious, but they have no idea why all these cars are running off the road all by themselves. There've been fifteen bad accidents in the last year alone. Three of those killed the drivers."
"And you're saying climbers are responsible for those wrecks?"
"We believe the climbers are coming down out of the trees at night, for whatever reason, and crossing over the highway to get to the other stand of trees."
Steve could hear a chuckling on the line. What did Arthur Crutchfield find so amusing?
"So, the old joke holds true."
"What's that sir?"
"To get to the other side."
Steve had to smile. He had said the same thing earlier in the day.
"Yes, sir, but we don't know why. Could be for food, social interaction- maybe to evade a predator."
" I believe they are a bit too high on the food chain to have to worry about predators."
"Yes, but they are strictly vegetarian."
"As far as we know. But don't assume that a herbivore is simply a weak animal to be picked on or eaten by others. Ever try to take the banana from a gorilla?"
"Point taken."
"And you've not mentioned what may well be the true reason the climbers are crossing that road."
"Which would be?"
"Curiosity. These animals, whatever else they may be, are supremely curious about their surroundings. They love to go exploring, I think, just to see what is there. Not to eat, not to mate, just to look. That could be the real reason."
"That's possible. Whatever the reason, we believe that these climbers may be responsible for the accidents."
"What's this 'we' you're going on about? Who is 'we'?"
"I've met two people from Indiana. Ray and Barbara Meadows. They've seen climbers around their house."
"I see. And they live near this road?"
"No sir, not at all. We got together through Gilbert Lawrence."
"That silly young man? Is he still running loose?"
"Yes sir, but he's running in circles."
"No doubt about that. So your friends have seen them as well, have they?"
"Yes sir. That's the reason I've called. We want to catch one."
There was no easy way to slide that one in there. He had to just spit it out, and he did. The silence on the other end of the line told him Arthur Crutchfield had indeed heard him on that transatlantic connection. He came through loud and clear. The silence was finally broken.
"I see."
"But you don't agree."
"Steven, I would have agreed whole-hearted with you fifty years ago. But time wounds all heels and now I'm not so cocky about it. Why do you want to catch one?"
"To prove that they exist."
"But few people even suspect their existence. They aren't even mythological. There are no legends or fairy tales. The public lives in complete ignorance of them. It's as though no one wants to see them. Why prove otherwise?"
"To show that you were right?"
"Trust me, Steven, after all these years, no one cares if I was right. No one remembers."
"What about the young girl that died last night? I think her parents might care."
"They cared about their daughter. I doubt they'll want to hear your explanation of what caused the accident, even if you were right."
"They might if I had one."
"I believe you over-estimate the impact of a capture."
"How could we? It's an unknown species. Zoologists should go crazy over something like this."
"Interesting choice of words, 'go crazy'."
"I'm sorry, but you know what I meant. This would be a major discovery. Possibly the most important find of the twentieth Century."
"Only if someone were to figure out what they were and where they came from."
"That's why we need to capture one."
"No, Steven, that's why we need to leave them alone."
"But maybe these climbers could answer some question about evolution versus creation. They might be some sort of missing link that would help scientists put it all together."
"I suspect quite the opposite could also be true. A captured animal may pose more riddles than it solves by offering a third possibility."
"What third possibility?"
"Well, yes. I'm sure they're imported. I can't imagine that they'd be native to the American Midwest. Or England, for that matter."
"Or Earth, for that matter."
Now it was Steve's turn for a stunned silence. Of course the theory had bounced around in his head from time to time. But he never seriously considered it. Until now. Now here it was staring him in the face.
"You're serious?"
"I am serious."
"But, I... um..."
"You see? Just the simple statement of theory poses so many questions. Forget 'What are they?'. How about the questions of where they came from and how they got here and why?"
"How could those questions even be answered?"
"They couldn't, Steven. That's why these animals are best left alone."
"No, Steven."
"But- "
"Leave them alone. Trust me. You don't want to do this. Really."
"You're probably right."
"I know I am right. I've had almost sixty years to ponder this dilemma. Leaving them alone is the only answer. It really is."
"Then we should just ignore them and get on with our lives?"
"Well, that's a bit hard to do. There's no harm in observing them, I suppose. Look but don't touch and all like that. But please, try not to capture one. You know what damage they can do."
"Even without the teeth."
What had come as a shock to Barbara, Ray and Steve had also been a complete surprise to Arthur Crutchfield as well. Teeth? Of course they'd had teeth. They couldn't just gum their food, now could they? The leap from a potential theory (of course they'd have teeth.) to which no one had given much thought to the grim reality of the situation (great big shiny sharp teeth right in Barbara's face) was a shock to all that heard it. Even Arthur Crutchfield. Steve Vaan went on to explain what had happened to Barbara Meadows on that porch in Indiana late one night. Still, no one could say for certain what that climber's intentions had been when it jumped. Perhaps none of them wanted to consider the possibility that the thing was really attacking. That would have kept them indoors at night for the rest of their lives. That really would have been the end of it.
Steve concluded his long, long distance call to Arthur Crutchfield with the promise of calling if anything changed. He did not promise to not try to capture a climber. Steve was a man of his word. He hung up the phone and faced his friends.
"He doesn't like the idea."
Ray spoke for all of them.
"Who does?"
"But I think he felt like we do about it. It's dangerous- in more ways than one- and it may be futile. But maybe we do need to try."
All three just looked at each other for a minute. This was the cliff. Should they jump? In the end, it was Barbara who pushed. With a grim smile.
"Let's snag one of these things."
The wheels were put in motion and the Meadows were back in their car, headed home. Just late afternoon, it was going to be an easy ride home. In daylight. Ray stuck to the larger back roads for the ride home. No need to go down that Interstate again today. They cruised through Harrisburg and once again stopped in Grayville for gas, drinks and snacks. A perfect day, but perfectly hot. They were able to run with the windows down on those rural roads, but the sun beating down on the car's roof did keep them in a sweat. Or was it their new project? Tough to tell. They both had questions, but it was Barbara who voiced hers first.
"So how are we going to do this?"
"I thought I'd just stick to the back roads all the way into town."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know."
"Can you build a cage?"
"I guess I could. How strong do you think they are?"
"I don't know. They aren't that big."
"Neither are chimps, but they can pull your arms off."
"Ok, so we won't be using our arms as bars."
"Very funny. You want this thing in the basement?"
"I think that would be best, don't you?"
"Yeah, I can block the windows and put the lights on a dimmer."
"Good idea."
"Now the big question: How are we going to capture one to put in the cage in this dimly lit basement?"
"I have no idea. You?"
"Not exactly."
"How about vaguely?"
"Ok, vaguely, I do have an idea."
"Let's hear it."
"Well, it's a little weird."
"Uh-huh. Didn't see that coming."
"Very funny. Listen- Steve snagged one by just being asleep in the back yard, right?"
"I guess."
"He did. And we've both seen them come up onto the porch late at night just to look in the front window."
"Curiosity. It killed the cat and it will catch the climber."
"How do you figure?"
"They are so curious, all we have to do is lay out in the back yard at night and wait for one to come up to us."
"And then?"
"Grab it. Didn't you say you bought two pairs of heavy rubber gloves just for the occasion?"
"Something like that. Ok, we wait for one to just walk right up to us and then we grab it. And then?"
"Put it in the cage in the basement."
"And then?"
"Ah- we, uh- call somebody?"
"Very good. Who?"
"After that?"
"Uh- oh, boy. I don't know."
"What are we going to do with this thing after we catch it?"
"I don't know."
They drove on in silence for some time, through rural Indiana and toward home. The afternoon shifted just slightly toward early evening as they drove on past cornfields and through small towns. They didn't say a word. There was nothing to say. They looked at the little pink houses in every small town. Were these required by some local municipal ordinance? It was starting to seem that way. Every so often outside of the towns, Ray would spot a stand of old trees. He couldn't help peering intently into the dark green mass above the ground. What was up there, sleeping right now? At least this visual diversion kept his eyes off the road for a second or two as they passed the trees. He never saw the skid marks that seemed to accompany every stand of trees close to the road. Back in southern Illinois, Steve Vaan saw the relationship. Indiana Troopers and State Department of Transportation officials were still trying to find the same relationship on that stretch of Interstate west of Croydon. It was there. They just didn't see it.
After a pleasant drive in the country the Meadows were in their own driveway, safe and sound, long before the sun had even thought about setting. Good for them. Ray put the car away and had a look around the garage. What might be out there for a little cage building? Nada. It was a great garage full of stuff, but not the stuff he needed. And what stuff did he need? Ray was a little vague on that. He had to build a cage. It couldn't be made of metal, for the obvious reason. But it may have to be strong. No one seemed to know just how strong. Did Steve? Did Arthur Crutchfield? Ray decided he may have to call Steve during the week if he didn't come up with a good idea for this cage thing by about Tuesday. Back in the house Ray found Barbara rattling around in the kitchen. Something for dinner? Good idea. What? No idea. What would you like? Don't know. You? Don't know. They both stood there, looking around the kitchen as though a dinner for two would be jumping out of those cabinets at any time. And they wanted to be ready to catch it when it did. It didn't. Still, they stood. They stood still. Still, no dinner. Ray finally came up with an answer, even if it had little (or nothing, really) to do with a cage.
"Let's eat out."
Barbara looked around, exasperated. They had just gotten home after a day of driving. But she knew he was right. They had a mild case of the Traveling Jones. Nothing to do but eat out. Out of the house, lock the door. Open the garage, back the car out, lock up the garage again. Into the car and down the road, into the cool of the evening. Out for dinner. It was the only answer they had. The cage would have to wait.
Over an easy light dinner at a nearby sandwich shop, Barbara and Ray pondered their next move: How to build a cage to hold an electric animal of unknown strength. It was easy enough to rule out metal. It would have given the caged climber a perfect defense grid. And besides, Ray didn't weld. He did solder on occasion, but that wasn't quite the same thing. He was more of a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy. So- no metal. Wood? Could Ray make a cage out of wood strong enough to hold a climber? And how strong was that, anyway? They decided to use the idea of an electric chimpanzee. That gave them a size and strength to figure into their cage design. What could Ray build that would hold a hot chimp? It had to be easy to build- no welding- and it had to come in pieces that Ray could buy and transport home in the car. What? They racked their brains over dinner and came up with nothing. It wasn't until they were driving home, in the gathering gloom of night, that a light came on inside Ray's head. All it took was driving past a patio furniture store. He had the answer. Maybe.
"I have the answer. Maybe."
"You sound so sure of yourself… I think."
"PVC pipe."
"Oh, yeah. That'll hold the little bugger. Got a stop watch?"
"Huh? Why?"
"Because I think it'll be able to rip it's way out of a PVC cage in about two seconds. I just want to time it, that's all. From a safe distance."
"I think you may need a calendar instead. It won't be able to get out."
"And why not? That stuff is so flimsy."
"Not when it's filled with cement."
"Pardon me?"
"A cage build up of PVC pipe- completely self-insulated. And the whole thing would be filled with cement. A plastic-coated stone cage. I don't think Mister C is going to get out of that so easily, do you?"
Barbara thought about it. It just might work. The pieces could be bought, brought home and taken down to the basement for assembly without any problems- and without alarming the neighbors. No exotic materials, no welding flashes from the basement windows at night. The stealth cage. No one would know it was down there and it just might work. No more phone calls, please- we have a winner. It was- as it always seemed it was- dark when they got home after dinner. Ray put the car away while Barbara opened up the house and turned on some lights. It had become a trend with them- lots of lights at night. No more rambling around in a dark house at night and more importantly, no looking outside into the darkness. Something might be looking back. Something soon to be caught and caged? It looked as though that was where they were headed.

To Be Continued...

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