CHAPTER SEVENTEEN- At home with Barb & Ray.
Ray spent Sunday and most of the following week reassessing what he really knew about the climbers. Steve Vaan had caused him to rethink all that he had learned, weeding out what might be termed The Gilbert Factor. Ray looked at all the files he had duped off Gil's web site. Yep, not much truth here. He could see that now. Or so he told himself. And he did not want to see any more climbers. Not now, thank you very much. Just process the information at hand. That's all. Ray called Steve the following weekend to double check a couple of things in Gilbert's files that he just couldn't figure out. Was it the truth, or just the consequences? By mid-July, Ray was comfortable with what he thought he knew. Now he just had to figure out what he was going to do with it.
All this time, Ray was just going through the motions at work. He was doing his job, and doing it well, but he was just doing his job. No socializing, no after hours guy stuff, and no practical jokes. None. Now it's true that April First was The Big Day for practical jokes and focused mayhem, but it wasn't limited to that one day at the Granville Corporation. No, sir. You could do it for free any day of the year. There was, on the average, one good joke a month pulled off for the benefit and humor of all concerned. With Ray taking an unofficial sabbatical, that average had dropped considerably. People were starting to mope. There were fewer Hawaiian shirts on Casual Day. The bowling team was losing. They couldn't go through the Summer like this. Something had to be done. Such were conditions at the now somber Granville Corporation when Ray Meadows got The Call. It was J. P. Granville, Jr.'s secretary. Could Mister Meadows stop by Mister Granville's office at his convenience? Like right now? Thank you. Click.
Ray knew when to waste time and when to make haste. Guess which one this was. He moved to the elevators and made vertical headway with astounding speed. The object here was to be in Granville's office before anyone thought it would be possible for him to get there in that length of time. And he did. Granville's secretary did a classic double-take. Ray Meadows? Here? Now? How is that possible? She stammered a bit and went for the intercom. She announced his presence to J. P., then had to confirm it. Yes, Ray Meadows was here. Really. Yes, right now. Already. Waiting. Send him in? Yes, sir. Ray just smiled and walked through those big dark double doors like he was headed in to see an old friend. Which, in a way, he was. After that big dummy drop last April, there was no doubt that J.P. knew Ray, and that Ray knew J. P. Not that they had lunch or anything, but people knew. Ray's supply requests were being filled a little faster these days. His office was a little cleaner now. He could get a burned out light bulb changed by the maintenance crew within a day. Of course, the maintenance crew was headed up by his fellow prankster Paul Scoggins, who had achieved unheard of status by assisting Ray in that winning prank last April. But still, his lights never got fixed that fast before. Now here he was, hobnobbin' with The Man. What could he want? Ray strode right in with a smile.
"Sit down, Ray, it's good to see you."
Ray sat down.
"You too, sir. What can I do for you?"
"Anything, Ray. Anything."
"I've got a problem and I know you're the solution. You can do anything."
"Thanks for the faith sir, but what's the problem?"
"I don't know."
"That's going to make the solution a little tough to find, sir."
"No, no. I know what the problem is. It's morale. The Grande Esprit de Corps. I know it's hot, and it's summer and all, but everyone here seems to have slowed down."
"Production's down? Sales are down? What's down?"
"Ok, the figure's aren't the problem. We're doing fine. Sales are good. Up from last year. I never worry about that. I can change that. This is something else."
"What do you want me to do about a problem I'm not sure of?"
"Why do you show up here five days a week?"
"I always thought it was that paycheck on the fifth day."
"That's only part of it and you know it. You want to be a part of it all. A part of something big. The Group Effort."
"Yes. And you want to see what's going to happen next. Right?"
"I guess so. Where are we headed with this next, sir?"
"No one down there wants to know what's going to happen next any more."
"And what is going to happen next, sir?"
"I have no idea, but it's going to be your fault."
"I need someone to shake these people out of their Summer doldrums. Wake them up. Get them talking and smiling and moving around. Blow out the cobwebs. I need to have someone pull off a couple of major practical jokes. Big ones. You know anyone that might be able to do that?"
Ray had no reason to suppress that ear-to-ear smile. Oh, boy: Carte Blanche. He could never have dreamed of this. Ok, Ray, just answer the nice man. Try not to giggle out of control and scream.
"Yes, sir, I think I know a few people that might be interested."
"Good. Don't tell me who, and don't tell me what. I'm sure I'll know it when I see it. Just get these people stirred up around here. I'll be in touch."
"You always are, sir."
The two men shook hands and Ray turned and left. By the time he made it to the door, he had managed to wipe that huge grin off his face. He was, after all, a professional. He made it out of the executive suite and headed for the elevator. He changed his mind and went for the freight elevator on the far side of the building. He needed time to think. What? Who? When? Where? He already had the why and was working on the how.
By the time Ray Meadows had reached his office he had a horrible, terrifying thought. Just as Monty Python had pondered a joke so funny that it could be lethal and used as a weapon, Ray Meadows had stumbled across a practical joke so extreme it transcended humor and lodged itself firmly in mind-numbing horror. Could be funny, though. For a while. Ray shut down his computer at his desk and collected his things. He was taking the afternoon off. There was a question he needed to answer before he could continue: What would happen if he turned a climber loose in the building?
Ray made it out the door and into his car. He was out of there for the day. Home? Not right now. He needed to think. Just drive. Get up on the Freeway and head out. Cruise. And ask yourself this one question: You feel lucky, Ray? Well? Do you?
He knew to go north. Definitely north. At the loop, he pointed the car toward the eastbound ramp and made his way around that side of the state capital. At the loop's junction with Interstate 69, there was still no question: Take it north. Quick. Get on the far side of town, as far away from going toward Lyndon as you can get, Ray. That was the problem, wasn't it? The urge to drive right out to Lyndon and tell Steve what you were going to do. To ask for his help in with a crazy idea: To catch a climber. You're in trouble now, Ray. Still time to turn back. He kept driving. All the way to Warren. Time may fly when you're having fun, but the miles really fly when you're out of town. Ray had made good time, considering he had no idea where he was going. A glance at his watch told him what he had to do, though: Phone home, you little alien life form, you. Ray pulled the car off the Interstate at Warren and went for the phone at the first gas station. Better call the wife.
"Hi, Honey. I'm going to be a little late tonight."
"No, I'm ok. Just took the afternoon off and went for a drive. Had to think."
"Uh- I'm not sure. Somewhere north of town. Warren? Warren."
"Yeah, I've been driving for a while."
"No, I feel fine. I'm headed back from here. I just may be running a little late with the traffic and all."
"See you soon."
Ray hung up the pay phone and looked around. Typical gas station, nothing fancy. Did the car need gas? No. Did Ray need anything? No. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Ray did need something. He just wasn't sure what. Or maybe he was trying hard to ignore it. He knew now that this urge to capture a climber had been building in him for some time. The original passing thought had gone from stupid recurring idea to obsession. This was not good. He knew that much. Even Barbara knew that. Steve certainly recognized it right away. But still- it was the only way, wasn't it? It would answer his questions- everybody's questions- about the climbers and vindicate both Steve Vaan and Arthur Crutchfield. Crutchfield has suffered for over fifty years with this situation. With not knowing, or at least not proving, what was going on in those trees. Ray knew he couldn't wait that long. He didn't have that kind of patience. He climbed back in to his car and pointed it toward the southbound on ramp. Time to head for home. A date with destiny? Not yet. Just dinner with the wife for now.
The drive home was taken at an easy pace. You can't fight rush hour traffic. Just go with the flow. Ray went with the flow, merging smoothly around the loop and out again, headed for home. It wasn't so bad on that side of town. Everyone must go around to the west. It was something to remember, but he wasn't sure why. He hadn't mentioned anything to Barbara over the phone about why he had left work, or his meeting with Mister Granville. They'd talk tonight. One thing he already knew: If he couldn't come up with a good practical joke or two, this climber thing was going to take over. Maybe he should just let it. He pulled up in front of the garage at six-thirty. Hoping he wasn't too late for dinner, he made tracks for the back door. Better late than whenever?
Dinner was still stewing. Stew does that. Easy to wait. Ray found Barbara and then went to get ready for dinner. He was hungry. Never stand between a man and his food. Ray washed up and headed for the table. The stew was already there, waiting. As he sat, he could see the look in Barbara's eyes. She knew he was avoiding the issue. She knew the issue. She knew everything. No secrets here, even if he might want one or two. Oh, well. May as well get it out.
"You know what I've been thinking about."
"What do you think about it?"
"At this point, I'm still hoping the whole thing is some sort of quirk of the imagination. I'm still hoping that climbers don't exist."
"And your footprint?"
"A fluke. Maybe a branch hit the ground there and made that impression."
"And the shingle?"
"I have no idea. I don't know. I just know what I see."
"And what do you see?"
"I see a couple of guys that think they saw something in the night, but they don't know what. You've been filling in the blanks and this is what you've come up with."
"But what did we see?"
"I don't know- but I hope it isn't what you think it is."
"But what if it is?"
"Then I think you should leave it alone, move on and consider yourself lucky you weren't locked up or thrown out."
"What about Crutchfield? He was locked up. And Steve? He was thrown out- more or less. What about them?"
"I don't think you owe them anything. Just because you saw something- you heard something- whatever- you're letting this take over your life. It doesn't have to."
They ate in silence for a few minutes. The stew was real, even if the climbers might not be. Ray worked his way down to the bottom of the bowl in short order and polished off the Kaiser rolls that were out on the table. Good meal. He had been hungry. Well fed, his mood changed. Maybe she was right. No maybe about it. She was right. Leave ill enough alone. Real or not, this climber thing was taking over his life. He had to move on and let it go. He would never know what ran across the roof that night, what made that footprint or what he saw in the yard that evening a while back. He just wouldn't know. It was done and gone and over and if he just snag one just once, then he'd show them. Uh-oh. Bad sign, there. Ray finished up at the dinner table and headed for the living room. He had some phone calls to make. He could stem this tide yet. Maybe.
Paul Scoggins was his first call. He knew he had to get the ball rolling somewhere, and Paul was a good start. Ray made it up as he went. He had to. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he knew he had to do something right now. Ok, this was it: August Fools' Day Month. Just like the April Fools' Day Fool-Off, with one big change: It's not all going to happen on the same day. You reserve a day for your practical joke. In the event of duplicate days, you might end up with a morning or an afternoon time slot. That would allow for one hundred and seventy six practical jokes throughout the month. One each morning and each afternoon for every workday in each of the four towers. A busy month. People would be talking. Things would happen. Spread the word. Ray spent the bulk of the evening calling the usual suspects. They were all suspicious at first. This whole thing could be one of Ray's practical jokes. Ray knew he'd have to get Mister Granville to say something about it. Make sure all the veeps knew. It would trickle down fast enough from there. With just a couple of weeks until the first of the month, there wasn't much time for the more elaborate pranks. Of course, August was a long month. And seven weeks was plenty of time to pull off a major coup de prank. Who would do it?
It was just after nine that evening when Ray had finished calling the last person he could think of. He knew he could put out a general e-mail the next morning to absolutely everyone, but he wanted to make sure some of the more dedicated fools heard it first from him. Professional courtesy. It was dark outside when Ray looked up and saw the streetlight glare off the roof of the car. It was still outside. Nuts. Forgot about that. He'd have to go out and put it away. Ray suddenly felt like the really didn't want to go outside in the dark for any thing. What if he saw something? He didn't want to see anything. He wanted life to be just like it was last spring. Before he looked out that window and saw- saw what? Saw something on that other roof. Whatever it was. Or wasn't. Ok, he could just ignore it all. He did before. How long had those things been out there before Ray happened to look at the wrong place at the wrong time? Months? Years? Before Ray was alive? Ray got mad. Enough of this. Just go out and put the car away. Ray Meadows stormed out the front door of his house, determined to put the car away and nothing more. It would be a small victory, but a victory none the less. But only if he won.
Out the front door, across the porch and down the steps. Ray was striding across the yard toward the driveway. No problems yet. Nothing out there in the darkness that wasn't there in the daylight. Whoa, there's a scary thought. Nothing there. Keep moving, Ray. Get to the car, get in the car. Now get back out and go open the garage door first. There we go. That's better. Now you can put the car away without having to ram the door in. Much easier this way. Ray let the big machine idle its way up the drive and into the garage. Nice and smooth and quiet. Just a big purring cat. Car in, motor off, Ray out. Ray closed the garage door- the most noise he had made all evening. That deed done, Ray was headed for the back door. He did make sure his route took him to the closest beam that would turn on the yard lights. No sense in stumbling around in the dark. The lights came on and Ray was in the house. No problems. No climbers. Not this time. It was a start.
Back in the house, Barbara had turned on the TV in the living room and settled in for the end of the eight o'clock movie. Another classic. Would they ever run out of them? It seemed like with all those cable channels running day and night they'd eventually run out of stuff to put on them. Ray pondered that mystery of life as he made a batch of popcorn to go with the movie. Can't have a movie without popcorn. He took another quick look at the movie on the screen- Yep, this was a popcorn movie. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. This called for extra butter. More butter, a little cheese, and Ray was all set. Settled in on the couch with his wife, the situation with the climbers seemed remote and ancient. Somebody else's problem- for once. He could make it go away. He knew he could. He had to.
The only argument of the evening was whether or not Miss Hepburn did her own stunt driving in the movie. Barbara didn't think the studio would risk a star, while Ray said it sure looked like her. Why couldn't she drive that thing? In the end, Ray was willing to concede the argument: It probably wasn't her. He was learning to admit defeat, however small. That was a stunt rider and there was nothing in the trees. Nothing at all. Never was. Nope. The popcorn was finished and the bowl washed during one of those protracted, never-ending commercial breaks that seem to get longer as the evening goes on. Ray had everything put away and was back on the couch in time for the big finish. Wasn't life funny, they thought: Of the three big names in that movie, two went on to great careers in film while one ended up with a rather lame TV sit-com. Was life fair? That depends. Most folks couldn't name three films those movies stars had been in, while just about everyone could sing the theme song of that stupid TV show. Maybe life was fair after all.
The local news came on at ten with a vengeance. After such an uplifting movie (They just don't make sophisticated comedies any more, do they?) the Meadows had a basic plan when it came to the evening news: Turn It Off. Why spoil a perfectly good mood with thirty minutes of violence and mindless mayhem? Especially if it was right in your own neighborhood. A quick click and the news was gone. Instant jump to The Weather Channel. These guys could take the worst killer weather and make it palpable. There, that wasn't so bad, now was it? Ray and Barbara watched without comment as the channel went through a complete cycle from the local forecast through the surf report on the West Coast to the week in review to the weather in Asia and back to the local forecast- all with endless breaks for tire commercials. Whew. Change the channel. We've seen it all. Click, click, click- ah, VH1. Let's see what they've got going on a weekday night.
Used to be, you could count on these guys to set a mellow mood for a quiet evening. Not quite Musak with a picture, but no head-banging rap crap wrist rock noise. That was then, this was now. And you were liable to see just about anything on what Ray had started calling MTV2. And he was right. They both missed the good old days. Whatever happened to Bobby Rivers and Cameraman John? Then Ray had a thought. It was radical. It was wild and impulsive, but it just might be worth a try: He turned off the television. Barbara was stunned. He'd never done that before. And now what's he doing? He's walking over to- He's going to turn on- the radio? Has Ray lost total control? The radio? What a mad man.
Sure, the radio's fine in the car. They won't let you watch TV while you drive, so it's all you've got. But here in your own home you can be reckless and crazy and watch TV till your eyeballs puke. Why listen when you can look? Seemed lacking, somehow. But Ray had the radio on and was spinning the dial just as though he knew what he wanted. Talk radio was not what he had in mind. That had to be about the lowest common denominator in entertainment. People with nothing to say taking forever to say it. No talk radio, keep spinning that dial. Past the all-pervasive country and western stations, the hard rock, the soft rock, the old rock, the new rock and (excuse me while I retch here) the light rock. Ray spun past them all. Oddly enough, he found a classical music station. It had to be public radio. No one else had the nerve to play it. That's what he was looking for: Music you didn't feel like talking over. Ray padded his way back to the couch (his shoes had been kicked off hours ago) and settled back in with Barbara. This was the way to spend an evening. Working their way from quiet contemplation to sound asleep in one long symphony. It did the job better than any radio broadcast of major league baseball. The Meadows each faded away into their own versions of Fantasia as The Pastoral Symphony wound its way through its many moods.
One of the best things about classical music radio programs has to be the announcers. Where do they get these guys? Mellow doesn't begin to describe their delivery. Where were these guys during the cold war? They wouldn't have gotten excited if the missiles were launched and past due to hit. The music may sooth the savage beast, but these were the voices that knocked the beast over with a feather. Smooth, low and mellow, the announcer's interlude after the symphony never bothered Barbara or Ray. They slept soundly right through it. Well, maybe not completely soundly. Somehow, they thought, it must be Walt Disney. Talking about the movie. Yeah, that was it. And now he's going to play some more nice music. Elephants, hippos and crocodiles. And Allan Sherman?? This dream got weirder as the Dance of the Hours progressed.
This concludes our broadcast day. Huh? What? The radio was offering nothing but a hissing static when Barbara woke up. Where was she? Downstairs. Why was she downstairs? Can't remember. But Ray was right next to her asleep on the couch. Oh, yeah. Now she remembered. They had been watching TV, then listening to the radio. Fell asleep. Something about a Disney movie? That didn't seem right. It wasn't a Disney movie they had been watching. But the music- something about the music. Barbara laid there, awake but only half remembering the events of the evening. It was pitch dark outside tonight. Was the power off? No, the clock on the VCR was still on. 12:00, 12:00, 12:00- She really needed to reset that thing. That was annoying. Maybe just slap some black electrical tape over it. Proof that duct tape won't fix everything. What time was it, anyway? Barbara shifted her self to see over the back of the couch. Maybe she could see the clock in the kitchen from here. It was after she had moved to look into the kitchen that she realized she had seen something move out of the corner of her eye. Something outside- on the front porch. Barbara froze, afraid to turn her head back to look out the front window. Something was out there.
Barbara Meadows was trying as hard as she could to make that thing the neighbor's cat. It wasn't working. It was too big to be a house cat. Too small to be a kid- unless it was a very small kid. Barbara let herself settle back down to the couch. She decided she really didn't need to see what time it was right now. She did want a better look at that thing on the porch. What was it Ray said? The thing could see him move from the roof of the next house? Ok, she could play that game. She closed her eyes and settled back, as if asleep. The hardest part was trying to keep her breath slow and even. Easy does it. It took long minutes to get there, but she was back into a sleeping posture on the couch. Eyes closed and wide awake. Now what? With what could only be called a forced casualness, she rolled over toward the front window, eyes still closed. Ok, Barbara, you crafty thing you, now what? She was facing the window with her best poker face. Was this a winning hand? After about five minutes, she very (VERY) slowly opened her eyes. Just enough to see the porch out front through that window.
It was dark, and nothing was moving out there now. Maybe it was gone, whatever it was. Ray slept on, undisturbed by all the excitement. Barbara was completely wide awake, trying to keep from moving- even moving her eyes. Was there nothing on the porch? Was she sure of that? There- by the low front wall- something shifted in the shadows there. Something small. Something blue? The street light cast shadows across the porch where the front low wall of them porch blocked its light. If that thing- whatever it was- moved toward the window, it would move into the light of that lamp. Where it was, it remained in the shadows. Barbara could almost see it, but only when it shifted its weight or moved. And it wasn't doing much of either right now.
Barbara's gaze shifted to the front door. It was closed, of course. Now looking at the door, she could see- it was also unlocked. Why? Then she remembered: Ray had gone out that front door to put the car in the garage. He came in through the back door. Never did re-lock the front. So now- some four hours later- that door stood closed but unlocked. She looked at her feet. No shoes. Like Ray's, hers had been kicked off early in the evening. Nothing like barefoot movies and popcorn. It had been a nice evening, even if it was starting to seem like an evening that happened weeks ago. Barbara Meadows took stock of her situation: She was dressed (in a T-shirt and shorts) but barefoot. The front door was closed but not locked- a quick twist of that one handle would open it from either side. Either side? That wasn't such a comforting thought. Ray was very sound asleep on the couch but she was toward the outside. There was nothing between her and that front door. And there was something blue on the front porch. Still.
Ok, Barb- What's it going to be? She thought about her options. She could get up and go on with her life like that thing wasn't out there watching. From everything Ray has said, it would simply run off at her first movement anyway. Back to its tree, or where ever those things were coming from. That wasn't so bad. Or- and she thought about this one- she could make a fast dash for the door, fling it open and pretend to go after the thing. Not really go after it, but scare it enough that maybe it would leave that tree out back and find another place to live. There were lots of other big trees in town. Let someone else put up with this thing for a while. She wanted it gone. That sounded like a better idea to Barbara. She'd have to be quiet to not wake Ray until after it was long gone. Then she could claim she just got up, went to check the door and it was unlocked. So she opened it and stepped out on the porch to see what sort of night it was. Yeah, that would work. Ray would never see that little creature from the blue lagoon. They could get on with their lives. Barbara shifted her gaze back to the window. If it was still there, it was pressed up against the porch front wall, still in the shadows. Barbara worked out each step of her run: Left foot down first, pivot and push. Right foot about there, left about there, lean out and grab the knob on the front door. Twist, open and right foot through first. That should do it. A plan. She realized now that her breathing had increased considerably. Did that thing outside hear that? Does it matter? No time to think-just act. Now.
Barbara Meadows became a Woman of Action. Left foot down, pivot and push- Whoa, about fell over there. Right hand down to steady, right foot forward and leap. Ok, at the front door- reach out grab the handle: turn, pull and jump- on to the porch and into the night. Compared to being inside the house, the front porch was brightly lit by that street lamp. How did that thing see into their dark house? And where was that thing? Barbara had turned to peer into the shadows where she last saw that glimmer of blue fur shifting- anything there? Nothing there. Inside the house, Ray rolled over and mumbled. Barbara looked back through the open front door and- with a hiss of something more than breath, the blue and black creature leapt past her and over the side of the porch. Barbara turned her head to catch the movement she had seen out of the corner of her eye and saw- eyes looking back. Two huge glossy black eyes set in a bull terrier's head- without ears. This thing was hissing- crackling- and flying right at her head. She could see its teeth. It had teeth! Instinctively, she ducked down to her right by the front door as the creature flew past her and over the edge of the porch. Arms outstretched in front, it missed her by inches. As it passed by her head every hair stood on end- Both hers and the climber's. The blue portions of its fur were glowing, more than just iridescent. This thing was emitting a faint blue glow as it went by. And those teeth! She had no idea how to describe those. Why could she even see its teeth? Was it being defensive? Would it bite? Or was it merely breathing in panic? She certainly was.
It skimmed the porch railing and was gone over the side. No sound. Hesitating for only a second, Barbara turned to the railing and looked toward the back of the house. Toward the tree. Nothing on the ground, nothing in the back yard. And in the tree? She looked and then looked again. It was weird. If she looked right at the tree, high up in the center, she saw nothing. If she looked away just a little she could see it. A faint blue glow up in the tree. It was that optic nerve thing. That had to be the climber up there. Had to be. She had startled it and it responded by building a defensive charge, but it didn't use it. It never touched her, and she never touched it. Had it tried and missed? It ran, still charged to emit that jolt of electricity if threatened. It went home still glowing. How long would that glow last? Probably for only a minute or two. The climber was grounded against the trunk of the tree now. That might dissipate the charge. She looked again and the glow was gone. Maybe. Tough to see. Barbara steadied herself against the edge of the porch. Inside the house, Ray stirred and stirred again.
He was awake, going through the same confusion Barbara went through when she woke up earlier. The only difference was the current lack of a climber on the front porch. Ray saw the front door open and could see Barbara standing outside. He got up and wobbled his way to the door. There was a distant rumbling of thunder that told them a storm was brewing out there, maybe headed their way. A breeze was trying to pick up in fits and starts. As far as Barbara was concerned, the storm was already here. Living in a tree out back.
"Whatcha doing out here?"
"They have teeth."
If Ray had been expecting an answer to his question, that sure wasn't it.
"They have teeth, Ray. They're not harmless."
"What are you talking about?"
"The climbers. They aren't harmless. They have teeth."
Barbara realized now that she was shaking. And oh, yes- very wide awake. Ray was slowly coming up to speed.
"You saw a climber? Out here?"
"Yes. It nearly ran me over to get back to its precious tree. I got a close look at glowing blue fur and bright shiny teeth. I'm telling you, these things could be nasty."
"Glowing blue fur?"
The wide awake have little patience for the sound asleep. Barbara was having a tough time keeping from grabbing Ray and shaking him awake. Come on, boy- get with it here!
"YES- yes. Not just the iridescence you've seen. It glowed- emitted light. I could even see it up in the tree for a minute or so."
"And you say it had teeth?"
"Yes- but really strange teeth."
Ray was starting to feel like he was awake, whether he was or not. If this was a dream, he decided to just play along. He'd be awake soon.
"Did you expect it to have normal every-day teeth?"
"I didn't expect it to have ANY teeth."
"So what did it look like with its mouth open and all?"
"No spaces between the teeth- sort of like one big wrap-around upper and another wrap-around lower."
"Incisor, canine or molar?"
"What kind of teeth were they?"
"I don't know."
"Pointy or flat?"
"Flat, I think."
"Ok, that's good. Now, thick or thin?"
"Ah- thin? Yeah, thin. Maybe thicker toward the back."
"Ok, that makes sense."
"Sure. It's a herbivore. Eats plants. It would need sharp front teeth to cut off the leaves and shoots or whatever it wanted to eat, then molars to grind it up."
"Yeah, but just one tooth above and below?"
"I don't know. Why not? Aberrant evolution."
"Ok, weird science."
"No gaps or lines between closely spaced teeth?"
"None whatsoever. One big hunk of shiny white dental enamel."
"Eat your heart out, David Letterman."
"I think I'm scared."
"But you're not sure?"
She was still holding on to the wall. Ray stepped over and put his arm around her. She was still shaking and to Ray her skin felt cold. Not good.
"Well, it all happened so fast. I came out here and turned to look back in the house for a split second and that thing jumped out of the shadows from over there on the porch."
"It was right there? Six feet from you?"
"Yes. It flew right past my head with its arms out. I don't know if it was fleeing or attacking."
"Maybe both. It just wanted out of here- wanted back in the tree. And I was standing between it and home."
"You had it cornered. Bad situation."
"But it could have gone the other way. I thought it would go the other way."
"You KNEW it was out here?"
"Well, yes. I had seen it moving on the porch earlier. I came out to scare it off."
"Sounds like you succeeded."
"But it came right at me."
"Ok. Did it touch you?"
"No, but I felt it go past. My hair stood on end. And the noise-"
"Noise? It made noise? What sort of noise?"
"Sort of a hissing, crackling noise. Not loud."
"The charge build-up."
"I've heard noises like that before, Ray- like high tension power lines on a really humid night. They hiss and crackle and buzz like that."
"Snap, crackle, pop."
"Yeah, if it had touched me. But it missed. Why?"
"Could be it really just wanted to get by you and head for home. Maybe it was just trying to scare you- return the favor so to speak. Maybe it's just plain clumsy. Remember, one of them slid across the roof a while back. Sounds to me like if it wanted to attack you, it would have connected from that short distance."
"Maybe. I saw its eyes. Just black pits. You can't get any meaning or intention out of eyes like that."
"Like shark's eyes."
"That's it. That's it exactly. Shark's eyes. And those teeth."
"Come on, let's go inside."
Ray brought his wife back in the house. This time, the front door was locked. He made doubly sure of that. Very locked. Maybe he needed to buy more locks. Tomorrow. Barbara made her way to the kitchen, then hesitated to turn on the light.
"Here comes the light."
With the kitchen light on, everything outside disappeared into the blackness of the night. Nothing out there at all now. Maybe they'd just have to sleep with the lights on. Forever. Right now, that didn't sound like such a bad idea. Barbara opened the fridge and pulled out the gallon jug of milk. She poured two glasses and put it back. Ray found one of the glasses. He was waking up slowly, almost there.
"What are we going to do, Ray?"
"I was thinking we could probably get about four more hours of sleep before the alarm goes off. You?"
"I mean about the climbers."
"Tomorrow. Let's worry about it tomorrow. They're out there and we're in here. Let's keep it that way for now. I been working hard to put those things out of my mind. To ignore them. They weren't there. I didn't need to know. Now? Not now. Tomorrow. Come on, let's go to bed. Upstairs."
They rinsed out their glasses in the sink and went upstairs to bed. Barbara checked the front door on their way. Twice. Just in case. In the bedroom, Ray drew the blinds over the window. Nothing he wanted to see out there. Not right now. Not ever.
For once, the proverbial bedroom slipper was on the other (person's) foot. Barbara was usually the first one asleep. She could lay down, roll over once, close her eyes and she was gone. Ray would do a bit more tossing and turning, a little staring at the ceiling and maybe another trip to the bathroom before he was off to La La Land. Not tonight. Of course, it was two o'clock in the morning, and they both knew they'd be up about six. Ray was out like a light, in spite of having slept on the couch for a couple of hours during the music radio portion of the evening. Barbara, who you know had also been asleep on that couch, was now awake and fidgeting. That thing went right past her head. It had teeth. It went right for her. Was it trying to bite her? Why couldn't she sleep? Why were all the fine little hairs on her arm standing on end? Had it touched her, and she just couldn't remember? She couldn't remember. By three o'clock, she had settled down a bit and was able to drop of to a fitful sleep. When the alarm went off at six, she jumped at the sound. No coffee for Barbara today.
Ray was still trying to be Mister Mellow about it all. Maybe he could get on with his life if he could just forget about those things. Somehow, he didn't think Barbara was in a forgetful mood. Not after last night. Breakfast was ready and waiting for him downstairs. And he didn't feel so bad, considering that late night wake up call he got out on the front porch at two a.m. A little coffee, a little toast and he was ready for work. Barbara was avoiding the coffee, wolfing down the toast and going through a quart of orange juice. Hmmm. What's wrong with this picture? Ray tried to be the calming influence. It was a new role for him.
"So- how you doing this morning?"
"I'm ok. I guess I finally got to sleep."
"You- Sleeping Beauty? Had trouble sleeping?"
"Just a little. Too much to think about."
"You're still worried about that climber from last night?"
"Yes. Yes, I am. It came right at me. Teeth and all. Why didn't it go around the other way off the porch?"
"Around the house toward the garage to get to the tree?"
"Yes. The other way around."
"The long way around."
"What ever it is, it's an animal, Barb. It doesn't think about other options like you and I. Straight line linear thinking. That's it. All it knew right then was the shortest route to where it wanted to be. And that's right where you were standing."
"So it wasn't trying to attack me?"
"No, I don't think so."
"But you're not sure."
"No, I'm not. I was trying to forget about climbers, remember?"
"No. We've got to do something about them."
"I don't know. But we can't just ignore them. They won't go away."
"No, they probably won't. But they will stay outside and they only come out at night. So we could certainly avoid them if we wanted to."
"You're saying now we should just avoid them?"
"Right now, yes. That's what I'd like to do. I think I had a life before climbers. I'd like to try to find that life again. What about you?"
"I- I don't know. I think we need to do something, but I don't know what."
"Look, it's getting late- I've got to get to work. You think about it. Ponder our options and let me know."
"Ok, I will."
Ray left the table, got cleaned up a bit and was out the door and gone. Barbara heard the garage door open, the car idle out in the driveway and the garage door close again. A minute later, the car was gone. Ray was on his way to work for the day. The whole day. What to do? What were her options, really?
Inside the Granville Corporation Tower Number One, Ray Meadows was On The Job. Adding a cup of coffee at work to the one he had at home gave him that edge to Get Things Done. And he was indeed getting things done. By ten-thirty, he had everything done. Every request and plea for help, every supply requisition was filled out and every e-mail was answered. Schedules were made and meetings were met. He was a happening dude. With luck- and maybe just another cup of coffee, he could run in high gear all day. Or at least until after lunch. With the real work out of the way, he had time to work at The Other Project. Granville's morale booster. Where to start? What to do?
Barbara Meadows, working around the house, was also something of a happening dudette. While it's true she had been avoiding the coffee that morning, she didn't need it. She was naturally wired. Or maybe unnaturally. Clean the house, even the basement (!). Work in the yard and don't look at the trees. Go back in, get cleaned up and make lunch for one. Ice water, not ice tea. Sit down, eat and think. What are you going to do, Barbara?
She took a long look around the kitchen, as though the answer were hidden there if only she could find it. What could they do about the climbers? They had bought a gun, but shooting them was not an option. They'd be too tough a target, and discharging a gun in the city was illegal. Not to mention real tough to explain to the nice officer. ('Really, sir, it was right here and bright blue and shiny and it had teeth and- oh, never mind.') Ok, they couldn't shoot them. What else couldn't they do?
They couldn't cut down the tree. It wasn't their tree to cut, for one thing. And it was a big, beautiful old tree. She knew no one would stand for that. Again, too tough to explain. The tree would have to stay. They couldn't cut it. Barbara remembered something about the Charter Oak in Austin being attacked by some nut with a strong herbicide. Nearly killed the tree, but it bounced back. Poison the tree? No way. It would be the same as cutting it down, only painfully slow to watch. She couldn't do it. Losing the tree was not part of the equation.
Could they poison the climbers instead? She had to shiver with that one. How could they poison them? They didn't know what they were or what they ate. Ray said they were herbivores. They ate plants. Maybe if she just kept a high level of pesticides on all the plants and grass in their yard- Would that kill them? Or at least drive them away? She did spray her plants for bugs from time to time. But not often, or even regularly. She didn't like to do it. Hated the smell. That might not work. The level of chemicals she'd have to lay on that yard was just too much. They wouldn't be able to enjoy the yard. Guess again.
Move? Sell the house and move? To where? She liked this house. They were comfortable here. Everything fit, and they could walk around it in the dark and know where everything was. No. They would not sell their house. That was not an option. That was surrender. She would not surrender. Besides, weren't climbers all over, everywhere? There was no guarantee they'd find a place that didn't have them. If there were trees, weren't there climbers? She didn't want to live in the desert. Or those new suburbs where the developer cuts down every tree. Same thing. So they wouldn't be moving.
The option that was left scared her. She felt immediately sorry she even thought of it. Was it the only one left? It couldn't be. It was. There must be another way. There wasn't. She knew it now: Ray had been right. They'd have to capture a climber. If it's the only option, is it really optional? Barbara looked around the kitchen as though she were seeing it for the first time. Maybe it was time for that cup of coffee.
Lunch at the Granville Corporation was always a protracted affair. Some people went early, about eleven. Some people went late, often as late as two. That made for about four busy hours in the company cafeteria. Ray always saw that as the best time to meet and greet. An informal business setting and a captive audience. He could get things done there. Kind of a business lunch. He meant business, anyway.
The early crowd in the cafeteria saw Ray Meadows and Paul Scoggins over in the corner talking. Were they planning and scheming already? That e-mail just went out today. But there was no telling how long Ray had known about it. He had sent it, hadn't he? But wait, no- that's not what they're talking about. Ray's got some piece of equipment there. He's talking business. Poor Paul. Ray's handing him that- whatever it is.
"Here, Paul, take this and look it over."
"Ok, great. You brought me the underside workings of your office chair. Why? Is it broke?"
"Doesn't matter. Just keep looking it over and people won't know what we're talking about."
"I don't know what we're talking about. Should I move to another table?"
"You stay here. We have work to do?"
"Does it concern your office chair?"
"Ah- no. It concerns this corporate prank fest."
"I see. Or hope to shortly."
"Does that make you short sighted? We'll have to expand your horizons."
"Enlighten me, O brilliant one. What have you got planned this time?"
"Not a thing."
"That's subtle. How are you going to pull it off so people notice?"
"I don't know. Any ideas?"
"How big do you want to go?"
"Well, Granville didn't exactly mention any prize money or anything."
"Granville? J.P.? What's he got to do with this?"
"It was his idea."
"Get out of town."
"Have to stay. Own a house."
"No, I mean, really?"
"Really. He wanted to do something to boost morale and get everyone here to loosen up a bit."
"Things have been a bit dull lately."
"Yep. But that's about to change."
"Great! What are we going to do?"
"I have no idea."
"But it's going to be big?"
"It's going to be big."
"We just have to think of it."
They didn't have a clue. What could they do? To whom could they do it? They had to make a decision: Pull a prank on one person, a select group, or everyone? It didn't take long to come up with the answer to that one: Everyone. Easy enough. Now, what to do? They talked about it for an hour at that table in the back of the lunchroom. People came and went. Paul examined the silly piece of a chair to keep them guessing. By noon, the lunchroom was full and they were kind enough to vacate the much needed table. Ray followed Paul down to his little office in the basement. They could talk there without fear of eavesdropping. And Paul could put the piece of the chair down.
The basement was not the lunchroom. It was not brightly painted and over lit. It was concrete and plain. Clean enough, but not sparkling. It the middle of their discussion still lacking a solution, Paul jumped up and stomped a bug on the other side of his office area. Ray was thrilled. Weird guy, Ray.
"Not now, it isn't."
"We've got bugs. The whole building has bugs. No joke there."
"Yeah, but: What if you were going to get rid of the bugs?"
"It's a big building. They just migrate from one area to another when you spray."
"Yeah, if you spray just one area."
"What's so funny about spraying the whole building?"
"We wouldn't spray the whole building. We'd tent it."
"WHAT? Are you nuts? This place is huge How could you tent it? What would you do with all the people for three days? How would you air it out afterwards? Ray, you're crazy. This isn't even funny. It's dangerous."
Ray let Paul sputter for a bit. Yes, it would be crazy to try to tent a twenty story office tower. And expensive. Especially as a prank. But Ray was formulating a plan.
"Not if you don't do it."
"Ok, so we don't do it. You're just too subtle for me here."
"Lemme 'splain, Lucy."
"Please do. I'm all ears."
"You said we have bugs. You see them, I see them, everybody sees them."
"Thank you. So if the building has bugs, wouldn't you expect management to do something about it? I'll bet the secretaries are screaming about them."
"You got that right. I've got one guy does nothing all day but run around with a bug spray can."
"So if this were a small building, it would be tented."
"So we fake it."
"How do we fake it?"
"Breathe heavy and moan, but that's not important now."
"We tell everyone it's going to be tented."
"Won't the lack of an actual tent be something of a give away?"
"Not if we hand out a "special" tape for all the windows."
"Ok, that's good. Now, what are you going to do with all the employees for three days?"
"Nothing? You're still being a little too subtle, Ray. They've got to go someplace else while the building is being tented. Even if it isn't really being tented."
"Not if they're wearing gas masks."
The subtlety had worn off. Paul mentally stepped back and saw The Big Picture. He also took deep breaths to keep from screaming with laughter. This was good. They'd hand out some weird tape to everyone with a window office along with instructions to tape their windows for an impending fumigation. Then there'd be a gas mask on everyone's desk, with instructions for use during the process. They couldn't take them off as long as they were in the building. For three days. The game was more than afoot. This time, the game was the whole leg. This was a biggie. Paul was stunned.
"Ok, Ray- What do you need to pull this off?"
"Tape. We'll need rolls and rolls of some sort of tape these people haven't seen."
"Easy enough. I'll order a case this afternoon. Maybe something vinyl? In a bright yellow?"
"Perfect. I'll make up an instruction sheet for taping windows and run off copies. Let me know how many we'll need for all the window offices. It will be from a fake fumigating company. Logo and everything. The same with the gas mask instructions. I'll do enough of those for everybody. We can make it look like this is something they do all the time. No big deal- to a company that doesn't exist."
Paul's smile had been replaced by a frown. He thought there may be a problem. He was sure of it. Maybe this wasn't such a winning plan.
"Ray? What about the masks? You're going to need one for everyone in the building. You know how many people work in this tower?"
"Let's see- twenty floors. Probably forty- make that fifty- people per floor. I'm thinking we need about a thousand masks here. What do you think?"
Paul's smile returned, if only from Ray's accuracy.
"Wow. You're good. Nine-eighty-five. Did you count them or something?"
"No, just a guess."
"But didn't answer my first question. What about those masks? All 985 of them?"
"If we want this to work, we've got to be subtle."
"So I've seen."
"I thought about calling up the Army/Navy store and trying to rent a thousand gas masks for a week."
"That's not very subtle."
"No, it's not. And those masks are always a bit groaty anyway."
"Groaty? What's groaty?"
"The gas masks."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"They're kind of icky inside. Maybe not quite clean enough to make you want to put it on your face. You don't know what's been in there. Or who. Groaty."
"Groaty. I'll try to use that in a sentence real soon. So what's your plan, masked man?"
"Clean, disposable, cheap paper painter's masks. We can get them at hardware stores all over town. In small enough quantities that we won't attract any attention."
"Those cheap little white masks that go over your mouth and nose?"
Paul reached around the other side of his desk and pulled out a box. It was full of those little paper masks.
"How many you want?"
"Nine-eighty-five, I'd guess."
"I can get them for you wholesale. And nobody's going to question it."
"We're as good as there."
"Tape, masks, what else do we need?"
"I'll get into the e-mail system later this week and put out an untraceable first warning about an impending fumigation. Just hint at what's going to happen and turn the whole thing over to the fake company. By next week, everyone in the building will start getting flyers about how safe the procedure is and that masks will be provided. By the time the window tape arrives, the masks won't be far behind."
"You can count on it."
"Let's work on some kind of schedule when you can give me the delivery dates for the tape and the masks."
"I'll have that for you by the end of the week."
"And I'll have all the letters and instruction flyers ready to go by then. We can start messing with everyone by early next week. By the middle of August they'll all be asking the same question."
"Which would be-?"
"Who was that masked man?"
Back at the Meadows' house, Barbara was wandering around in a daze. How could you catch a climber? How could anyone? Maybe there was something out in the garage. Ray always kept some interesting stuff out there. There might be something she could use as a trap. Maybe. You never know. Barbara went out the back door and never once looked at the trees. She was good at that. She could tell herself not to do something or not to look at something and she just wouldn't. Lot should have had such a wonderful wife. Things might have gone better for them. Barbara pulled the garage door up and looked inside. Stuff. This guy had stuff. What hadn't been dragged down to the basement had been left out here. Yard stuff, car stuff, left over prank stuff. And all of it dusty stuff. Maybe it was time to clean out the garage. Good afternoon for it.
Working at a leisurely pace, Barbara Meadows spent the early afternoon dragging "stuff" out of the garage. She made piles of stuff. There was a pile of rakes and shovels. A pile of tangled garden hoses. A big pile of what had to be car parts and related "stuff". The garage was getting the cleaning it so richly deserved and needed. Ray would be surprised, if not happy. Somewhere along the line, Barbara stopped out in the driveway to catch her breath after hauling out a particularly heavy load of stuff. That's when she heard the truck. Something big and diesel, idling close by. Maybe on the other side of the house. Better go look. Break time. Barbara walked around to the front of the house. Yep, there's a truck right there. Idling away.
The big power company repair truck might have been idling, but the guy who drove it there was certainly not idle. He had a ladder out and was up next to the power pole. Hard at work. Never saw Barbara, who had taken up a spot on the front porch without a second thought about all that had transpired there just the night before. She sat on the steps and watched. This guy had hung that metal ladder against the lines. He was working on those electrical lines. And he was doing just fine, thank you. Not getting shocked. Those lines had to be packing more punch than a little blue climber. He was wearing gloves. Big, honking green rubber gloves that went right up to his elbows. And those shoes? Heavy rubber soles. This guy was packing some serious protection. That's just what they needed. Some serious honking protection.
Barbara watched the lineman for a few more minutes. He seemed to do just fine around all that wild electrical power. No fried curly hair, no singed eyebrows. Not even a twitch. That was the answer. They could snag one of those little buggers any time they wanted with rubber gloves. She felt a great weight lift off of her shoulders. The Answer: Gloves. Now the question: How were they going to catch a climber?
There were, of course, other questions that remained unanswered that afternoon. Little ones, like: How would they get close enough to a climber to grab it? And what would they do with it once they had it firmly in hand? Little questions. She didn't even want to think about those teeth. Barbara was sure they'd be able to work out the details later. For now, she was happy to have a solution to the first problem: Staying alive in the catching process. Or at least staying as close to sane as they were ever likely to be. Gloves. Need to buy gloves. Thick rubber gloves. Barbara went back around to the garage. No gloves there, that's for sure. She piled everything back inside, roughly in the places she had found all of it to begin with. Another day. Got to go shopping now.
The Meadows were a unique couple in this day and age in that they only had that one car. Barbara was happy enough to stay home and be the house-person. That meant they could get by with just the one car most of the time. Well, actually all the time since they didn't have another. It was only every once in a great while that she wished that they had another something or other sitting there. For those odd times, like now, that she wanted to go do something right away. Without Ray. Or before Ray came home. There was a Plan B, more or less: She did have a bicycle back there in the garage someplace. She was sure it was there. A little digging, a little more stuff-moving, and there it was. Woof. Was it really that color or just that dirty? Barbara wheeled it out. It was filthy. Without a second thought, she turned the garden hose on it. Hey- it really was red, not brown! She dried it off with old rags and paper towels. It didn't look half bad. A quick application of air pump to tires and she was literally ready to roll. But to where?
It was Ladies' Day at the hardware store. No, not really. But it was for Barbara. Without having to tag along with Ray when it seemed like it was always Guys' Day at the hardware store, she could do it her way. And her way started in the garden shop. Matter of fact, her way pretty much stayed in the garden shop. There was, however, the matter of those rubber gloves. And they weren't being offered in the garden shop, now were they? Looked like she'd have to go on in and actually shop in the hardware store. After a brief (extended) stop in the home decorating area, wallpaper and tile and bath (oh, my), Barbara ended up in electrical- by way of lighting and ceiling fans. Gloves, gloves, who's got the gloves? They didn't seem to be in the electrical department. That's where she'd have put them. No way around it, she was going to have to ask. I don't have to mention this do I? That she did indeed ask where the heavy rubber gloves were? And that by asking she saved herself about half an hour of aimless wandering? I know, Ray never called being lost aimless wandering. He was exploring and researching and observing, depending on the location. Here, it was research. On the road, he was exploring. On foot- and standing still because he was lost- he was observing. Like I said: Barbara saved herself about thirty minutes of all that. She asked.
With gloves bought and piled in the bicycle's front basket, she set off for home. A quick look at the time told her she needn't worry or hurry. She'd be home in plenty of time to have dinner ready and waiting. Ray wouldn't need to know- until she told him. When ever that might be. Ten minutes later saw Barbara Meadows pedaling up her own driveway. Nice little ride. Now what was that in the front yard? Barbara parked the bicycle by the garage door and walked back to the front yard. Right down there by the curb- right next to the power pole the lineman was working earlier on was- She couldn't believe it: A pair of honking green rubber gloves.
Sparky had gone on, but his gloves remained. Must have been too close to five o'clock for him to worry about the little details. Like picking up his gloves. Not to worry. She could always use another pair. And these were even better than the ones she had just bought. Much heavier, much longer and- what's in these things? Baby powder? Talc, anyway. Maybe that was part of it. She shook the grass and dirt off the new found gloves and went back to the garage. With the door opened, Barbara was wheeling the bike into the back of the garage when the power company truck went by. Forgotten but not gone. Sparky had circled back around when he realized what he had done. Or not done, as the case may be. No gloves. Some kid must have got them. Darn. Third pair this month.
The truck rumbled on down the street without stopping as Barbara re-emerged from the back of the garage. It was after five. May as well leave the door open for Ray to pull right in. One less thing he'd have to worry about. The least she could do. And she could sort of keep an eye on the garage from the kitchen as she made dinner. Not that anybody would bother anything. Probably. She headed to the kitchen through the back door now with two pair of rubber gloves in that bag from the hardware store. What a deal. Buy one, get one free.
At five-thirty Ray Meadows pulled into his driveway and drove straight into his garage. Mrs. Ray Meadows had dinner waiting on the table and two pair of rubber gloves on stand-by. It sounds weirder now than it was then. Barbara had stopped worrying about climbers. She had the gloves. Ray had managed to put climbers out of his mind for the day. He was more worried about window tape and painters' masks. A couple of hundred miles to the southwest, Steve Vaan was having his second meal of the day and looking forward to a quiet walk around town. Maybe stop by the Dairy Queen for a cone later. It was a nice warm evening and no climbers in town. Several thousand miles to the east of Ray and Barbara, in a considerably less balmy environment, Arthur Crutchfield was sound asleep for the night. A steady rain was drumming the slate tile roof above him, providing the perfect background music for a good night's rest. The shutters of this snug cottage were drawn tight from the inside. He didn't go out at night anymore. He had no desire to see anything in the trees. Whether there was anything there to see or not.
Somewhere in cyberspace, Gilbert Lawrence was still searching in vain for his long-lost brother George. He'd find this guy. Maybe he'd even get Arthur Crutchfield to talk to him some day. First things first. He had to find George.
With these people all about as relaxed as they were going to get- even Gilbert- it should come as no surprise that the brown and squishy was about to hit the revolving blades. Make that the blue and furry.
To Be Continued...
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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes