ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Five)

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CHAPTER FIVE- April Fools and innocent bystanders.

April Cronnan was panicked. It was the afternoon of April First, and she knew what tonight would bring. They had already called. The Granville Corporation's Annual Fool-Off was big this year. Really big. Maybe too big for her little restaurant. How many this year? Fifty entrants? That would mean close to two hundred people, all walking in here after work, ready for food and fun. All at once. She was panicked. She had called every cook, waitress and busboy she had. Get in here tonight or be unemployed by dawn. Extra food, extra drink. Lots of extra drink. Sure, she'd make money tonight. But even money has its price. An evening of loud crowds and crazies. It was like St. Patrick's Day, but without her having to tint the beer. That's one less thing to worry about. But who was this "Bernie" guy some of them referred to? A special chair for "Bernie", in case he drops in? Then they'd laugh. Ok, whatever. Just tip heavily and Bernie can sit anywhere he wants. I got Bernie's seat. Right here.
If the Department of Civil Defense is still concerned with evacuations, they have only to visit any major employer at five o'clock. They'll see the perfect evacuation, five times a week. Fast, efficient, orderly and smooth. Most buildings empty faster at five than they would if you pulled the fire alarm. The Granville Corporation was no exception. All four office towers emptied 1500 people in about ten minutes. Not bad, for amateurs. In Tower Three, the can of exploding peanut butter snakes was still sitting on the front security desk. No one was going to fall for that one. Over at Tower Four, the envelope of "Rattlesnake Fangs from New Mexico" had been more than a hit. You could tell where it was- anywhere in the building- by the periodic screams of people fool enough to open the envelope. Maintenance had some mopping up to do over there. All was quiet in Tower Two. The fishing line tied to the fire alarm had done it's job about three o'clock- emptying the building and letting everybody know who it was that left early each day by the back stairwell. With a friend. Oh, boy. Hope they never find out who strung that trip line. Wish they had seen it.
Tower One had its share of pranks that day, but number one on everyone's list, including J. P. Granville, Jr., was The Falling Man. J.P. wasn't mad (he knew about the Fool-Offs each year), he was impressed. This was the first time he'd ever been in on one pranks. Was he the intended victim? That thing flew by his window at the end of his speech. How'd they do that? He surely did want to know. Enough to go to April's tonight. For the first time ever. The number of people that claimed to have seen it had doubled by lunch time. By five, it was legend. Ray didn't even bother to take Ray II out of his locked storage when he left for the day. Too many people- too many eyes. And still, nobody knew who did it. Just Ray and Paul. Paul had left at four, since his day started at seven. He didn't have to worry about being grilled about that incident. There were plenty of others for him to clean up that day. At least he wasn't in Tower Four. The guy over there had a real mess on his hands. That odor would linger in the carpet for weeks.
Ray Meadows' plan for the evening was simple: Go home, change, and bring the lovely wife back to April's Restaurant after stopping in at work to pick up Ray II. By six or so, he'd have no trouble getting back in and out of the office. He'd keep Ray II in the bag, just in case. Maybe he'd meet a security guard, but no one who'd know about the prank. And so far, no one suspected him. Well, that's not entirely true. By late afternoon, A few of the people entered in the contest had matched up pranks to pranksters. There were only a few incidents that they couldn't peg on a specific entrant. Remember, they all had to register as an official entrant a month ago to be eligible for the prize money. Everybody knew who was entered. And by three o'clock, very few pranks had yet to happen. The veteran prankmeisters knew Ray wouldn't have bothered with any of the petty stunts. There were a few random, unregistered pranks, but those were obviously the works of rank amateurs. Now there was only one big one left unclaimed: "Bernie Drops In", it was being called. Ray's suspicion was right: No one who saw it- really saw it- could tell it was dressed up like him. It just went by too fast. A blur in the rain, arms and legs flailing as it flashed by. But it certainly left an impression, if not in the ground.
The drive home was uneventful. It was, after all, Monday. No pranks on the highway today. The expressway was clear of wrecks, cops and slow moving tourists. The surface streets were close to deserted. A good drive home for Ray. He had time to reflect over the day's events and plan the evening's entertainment. Barbara was waiting for him when he pulled into the driveway. The morning's weather forecast had been a good one- it had cleared up by mid-afternoon, and now Ray was looking at a clear sky and balmy breeze. Not bad, for a Monday. Barbara joined her husband in front yard and walked him back into the house. Ray was definitely going to change clothes before heading out. If no one had seen that he and the dummy were dressed alike, there was no need to do so now. He was mistaken for a dummy often enough on other days. Why did he think it would be funny today? Barbara was anxious to hear how the Fool-Off went.
"So? How was Operation Dumb-O Drop?"
They were in their bedroom now, and Ray was in the middle of a quick change to jeans and a sweat shirt. April's was casual and so was he, whenever possible.
"I think it went well. We emptied the building and fire rescue showed up."
"How'd Mr. Granville take it?"
"I don't know- I never heard. I guess ok. I've still got a job."
"That's good. How did Paul Scoggins do?"
"Perfect. That guy's made for pulling pranks. I'm surprised he never entered before on his own."
Ray was dressed and ready to go. They were headed down the stairs and back out to the car. It was just after five thirty. They could be at April's by six fifteen.
"Any other good ones?"
"You know, I don't really know. I spent most of the day keeping my head down, trying not to look like someone who'd throw a dummy off the roof. Or catch one when it landed. I guess there were a few. Someone said there were classic rattlesnake fangs causing yellow puddles of surprise in one of the other towers."
"Eeeeewww. Messy."
"Yeah, but funny when seen at a distance."
"Uh-huh. And funny if you don't have to clean it up."
"You got that right."
The drive to the restaurant was interrupted by a quick stop back at Ray's office to pick up Ray II. In less than ten minutes, Ray was in the building, in his office, grabbed the Bag-O-Ray and was back out the door. Never did see a guard. Must be break time. Throw the bag in the back seat and it's off to April's for dinner and the din. Plenty of time. They'll be there before dark.
April's Restaurant was a mob scene that Monday night. The parking lot was full and the restaurant was filling up. Half the crowd was still outside, exchanging war stories of the day when Ray and Barbara pulled up. They had to park at the outer edge of the lot. Ray wasn't too keen on it, but that was all that was left. Most of these people had come straight from work to April's. They got all the good spots. He took the last spot, and he and Barbara were getting out when the Cadillac pulled in. Big, long and low, the burgundy Eldorado's license plate read "GRNVILLE", for those that couldn't figure out who it was. No problem here at April's. Everyone in the parking lot saw that car every day at work. In the parking spot marked "J. P. Granville, Jr.". Ray took one look at the Caddy and walked over to the driver's window. It was six o'clock by his watch, and high noon in the parking lot. Only one thing to do.
The driver's window went down with a silent smoothness that only money can buy. And it did. J. P. Granville, Jr. was at the wheel, relaxed and as casual as he ever got. For him that would be a suede sport coat over a band collar shirt, pleated slacks and loafers. The loafers were the fashion risk as far as J. P. was concerned. But he wore them anyway. Why not? Ray had his speech all ready when the window stopped moving.
"It looks like I've got the last spot here, sir, but it's yours. Just give me a second."
"No need to do that, Mister Meadows, I'm sure there's another spot."
"No sir, I circled the lot twice. This is it. Besides, I owe you one."
Ray gave Mr. Granville his best knowing smile and held back the urge to wink. If he didn't understand, he didn't understand. But he did.
"What do you mean you owe- Oh. That was YOU this morning?"
"Well, no sir, that was a foam-stuffed friend of mine. Just let me move out of your way, and you can meet him inside."
J. P. waved Ray off with a smile, and Ray headed back to his own car. He quickly explained the situation to Barbara. With Ray's instructions, she picked up the bag in the back seat and headed for the safety of the crowd and the restaurant, with instructions to get a table for at least six, if she could. Ray moved his car out of the way as the Cadillac floated into the last parking spot like the Space Shuttle docking at the ISS. Smooth, silent and precise. Houston, the big dog has landed.
Barbara was in April's, with Mr. Granville not far behind and trying to catch up. They had never really met, but he knew she may have the answer to The Question of the Day. Ray pulled his car out on to the street and began his search for his own space, man. He found one in the next block, on the other side of the street. One quick but sloppy U-turn and it was his. He locked the car, then checked all the locks again. Like that would keep someone from taking the whole thing. Probably not, but at least they wouldn't be sleeping in it when he got back. Ray hoofed it back to the restaurant as the evening around him was darkening. The mercury vapor street lamps were already on, but not quite up to speed yet. Twenty minutes, thirty at the most, and it would be officially night time downtown. Ray filtered into the restaurant with the last of the parking lot crowd and found Barbara at a table over at the side. Paul Scoggins was already there. Ray II was still in a bag on the seat against the wall, and one empty seat had a suede sports coat draped over it. J. P. Granville, Jr. was working crowd. Why did he bother? His presidency wasn't an elected office. Just a nice guy, I guess. And his employees did like him.
The evening went well for all concerned. The restaurant erupted in a round of applause when Ray pulled the dummy out of the bag and sat it on the chair against the wall. It promptly fell forward, face first to the table. That was worth a second round of applause. If there had been any doubt of the outcome of the competition, there was none now. Paul Scoggins was beside himself. This was great. Being little more than the head janitor to these people for years, he was now someone. No, make that: Some One. He couldn't stop smiling. Everyone had questions, and Ray couldn't possibly answer them all. Paul fielded as many as he could. Even Barbara pitched in. J.P. Granville, Jr. was happy to be among "his people", kind of like Moses showing up at an Israelite's birthday party, unannounced and uninvited. But he did well. It was probably the best Monday meeting he ever had.
Service might have been slow that night in April's, but nobody noticed. Certainly not Rays I or II. April Cronnan herself made sure appetizers were kept on every table, and drink orders were taken and filled with amazing speed. By seven o'clock, the food was being laid out, table by table. By eight o'clock, deserts were being finished and tables cleared. With such a clear cut winner this year, there would be little in the way of formal discussion before the loot was handed over to its rightful owners. Oddly enough, while Paul Scoggins had already planned on what he would do if he won- and it wasn't redecorate his office- Ray didn't have a clue. Sure the money would be nice, but he wasn't one to spend it before he got it. He left that to the government.
A committee of veteran pranksters was in charge of the awarding of The Prize. While Ray Meadows had been a part of that committee from the start, tonight he was on the receiving end, and so knew that they could pretty much do this without him. Until it came to collecting the money. Then he'd send Paul.
Another of the "Senior Pranksters", one Greg Wollfield, got up and tapped his glass for silence. With no effect whatsoever. He tried a few tentative "Hello's?" with equal impact. Finally, with no reluctance whatsoever, Greg pulled out a portable Freon boat horn. He had been here before. One blast on that horn and the restaurant was dead silent. Even the kitchen. You could have heard a dummy drop. Not just hit the ground, but actually fall through the air. It was that quiet.
"Thank you. Now that I have you attention- for a brief moment, anyway- I think it's time to present this year's winner and fork over the cash."
The murmurs of consent and mild applause were directed at the head table where Greg was standing. A few people close to Ray smiled his way. There was no doubt who won.
"Before we do that though, I think a round of applause is in order for a man who endured the day with admirable equanimity and tremendous poise in the face of overwhelming chaos. To say nothing of a day of slightly lowered productivity. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mister J. P. Granville, Junior, President, C.E.O., and so forth and so on!"
The applause was genuine. They all knew they were lucky to be there. J. P., for his part, was a gracious man, willing to concede what was really only a very small part of one work day for such camaraderie. It was time well spent for the morale of the company, and he knew it. J. P. gave them a wave, and sort of stood up a bit but not completely. His smile was complete, however. Why had he not come to this dinner in years past? The reason escaped him, but next year's would not. He'd be sure and mark his calendar in the morning.
"Now then: I think you all know why we're here. The food, the drink and a small matter of a few mostly harmless pranks. Well, ok, more than a few. Like 47 different registered pranks, in this winner-take-all sort of thing. And the winner certainly took all today. At least, took all of Tower One and two fire-rescue teams. There were some good pranks this year, but no one offered a close second to The Fall Guy. For those of you that haven't figure it out yet, let me present Mister Ray Meadows and Mister Paul Scoggins."
Ray and Paul would have missed their cue if it weren't for the applause. They were busy doing the math in their heads. Let's see: Forty-seven pranks times a twenty dollar entry fee is- um- carry the one- NINE HUNDRED AND FORTY DOLLARS! Divided by two, that’s four hundred and seventy buckaroos per. Not bad. Not bad at all. Ray, being the Nice Guy that he was, absorbed the entire cost of Ray II, which he would keep anyway, so his share after expenses was still close to four hundred dollars. Oh, yeah: Minus the twenty dollar entry fee that he put up. Not a bad prank. And they still had their jobs- an added bonus there.
Paul stood up, as Ray had told him to do, and went up to collect the money. It was about half way between the tables that he realized he really wasn't a public speaker, and he really didn't know these people very well. By the time Greg Wollfield was pressing that thick stack of twenties in his left hand, and shaking his right to beat the band, Paul couldn't think of a thing to say. Greg motioned to the assembled crowd. Say something, Paul.
"I, uh, thank you, uh, it was fun."
Big round of applause there. Then he saw Ray. Ray was beaming and waving at him. Paul tried to continue.
"Thanks to Ray, who sort of, uh, put this together and all. Thank you."
Paul made a bee line for his seat, flushed with the public exposure, the applause and the money, which he had a hard time not staring at as he walked. Paul made it back to his seat without tripping over any one and handed the money to Ray. Ray wasted no time at all in clearing of an area of the table and counted out two equal piles of cash. Even J. P. Granville, Jr., was impressed.
From there, the evening at April's degenerated a bit into general mayhem. Some people left right away, others were slower out the door. Ray and Paul couldn't have left if they wanted to. They were besieged by well-wishers and assorted pranksters with the usual "Way to go- how'd you do it?" Ray did his best to combine the question and answer portion of the evening with the get-out-of-the-restaurant-and-go-home part of the show. After close to half an hour, the Meadows found themselves standing outside the restaurant, still surrounded by well-wishers. Paul had managed to break away from the crowd and J. P. Granville was still there. He obviously had fun, if stealing a menu is any indication. As the people drifted away, Ray remembered the car- and where it was. Oh, boy. It was after nine o'clock- almost nine-thirty. Ray didn't want Barbara out on those streets on foot.
"Mr. Granville, may I ask a favor?"
"Of course you can. What can I do for you?"
"Could you stay here with Barbara while I run and get our car?"
J. P. remembered the start of the evening. The last parking spot.
"Where did you end up parking, Ray?"
Ray Meadows was stunned. He called me Ray. Not Mr. Meadows, not just Meadows, not "Employee Number 2078244"- he called me Ray.
"Huh? Oh, down the street in the next block. Not far. I can get there pretty quick."
"You can get there even quicker- and with your lovely wife- if I drive you there. Come on, hop in."
Not one to take no for answer, or even expect it, J. P. Granville, Jr., started off at once for his car, with the Meadows in tow. All concerned piled into the leather interior and soft lights of the big coupe. Whoa- not bad. So this is life at the top. Very cushy. Ray gave a minimum of directions, and J. P. had no trouble at all depositing the Meadows at their now somewhat plebeian transportation. The big Cadillac rolled off into the night, leaving the Meadows to jump in and lock the doors before they were set upon by the urban wolves. Or whatever.
The Meadows' drive home was one of quiet satisfaction. The meal had been good, the company pleasant and the money was great. But the overall noise level had been so high they were both enjoying the silence of the ride. Barbara turned on the University radio station to pick up some classical music. Now the mood was complete. Soft lights, low music and an easy drive, once they cleared the urban downtown. Even traffic on the expressway was light. It was just ten o'clock when they pulled off the expressway ramp and back on to the suburban surface streets. No traffic at all, now.
Ray turned their sedan up into the driveway and got out to open the garage door. He really needed to look into an automatic garage door opener. That would make his life just a little bit easier. The thought of spending the money he'd won this evening on that automatic door never occurred to him. Barbara got out and headed down the front walk. Ray pulled the car into the garage, locked everything up and headed for the front as well. Barbara was sitting on the front steps when he got there. It was a nice enough evening, so he sat down with her.
"That went well, don't you think?"
"Yes. All in all, not a bad evening."
"Paul was one happy guy."
"Money has that effect on people."
"That would explain Mr. Granville."
"Mmmmm. Yes, it would."
They both looked out over the front yard and neighborhood. It was quiet and dark, just the street lights and very few house lights on. Their own house was still dark. They had left in such a rush earlier neither had thought to turn on the porch light for their return. Unconsciously, both of them slowly shifted their gazes to the rooftops around them. Barbara realized what she was doing and looked over to see Ray doing the same thing.
"What are you doing?"
"Who? Me?"
"No. That tree over there. Yes, you."
"I don't know. Looking."
"At the roofs?"
"Ah, well... yes. At the roofs."
"So was I. What did you expect to see?"
"Oh, I don't know. Nothing?"
"No, you were hoping for nothing, but that wasn't what you were expecting."
"You're right."
Barbara tackled the heart of the matter:
"It wasn't a kid on the roof, was it?"
"No, it wasn't."
"I never did ask you what all you found on the roof the other night."
"No, you never did."
"How bad was it?"
Ray Meadows looked around the neighborhood. As if the best answer was still out there in the dark. In a way, it was.
"I don't know. I mean, the roof is ok. No real damage, but..."
"Uh-huh. Go on?"
"What ever did that has me worried."
"Some kind of animal?"
"Yeah, it had to be. But what kind?"
"It couldn't have been a 'possum or raccoon?"
"No way. Something bigger."
"Much bigger."
Barbara didn't like that last answer one bit. Suddenly, the night was colder and not nearly as friendly. It was time to go in. She stood up and headed for the door.
"Come on, it's getting late."
Ray took one last look around. There was nothing there. That he could see.
"Yeah, and tomorrow's only Tuesday."
Barbara unlocked the front door and she and Ray went inside, turning on lights as they went. Before long, the house was lit up like a party boat. If whatever was out there liked the dark, this was not the place to be. By eleven the house was dark again and they were both in bed. By eleven-thirty Ray had come back down to check the front door. It was locked.

To Be Continued...

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Copyright 1996,2011, Chip Haynes