ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Twenty-Five)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE- Running for cover.

Far out in the Gulf Stream, this one was not coming in. What had started out last week as a low pressure trough rolling off the West Coast of Africa over Dakar had built in the mid-Atlantic as a tropical storm and turned north just east of the Bahamas as Hurricane Diane. It had spared both the Windward and the Leeward Islands (for once) and was now moving almost due north. It had taken dead aim at Bermuda. And dead could well be the operative word there. While its pressure was holding steady- no longer falling to signify an increase in strength, it didn't need any more strength. Feeding an already enormous appetite for moisture from the warm waters of the western Atlantic's Gulf Stream, this thing was a churning death trap with a long, long reach. Winds were ranging from a hundred miles an hour to a hundred and twenty. Some gusts on its northeast side were considerably higher. Hurricane force winds (over 75 mph) ranged out over a hundred miles from the eye. Rain was falling at over an inch an hour in some of the cloud formations inside this spinning mass of moisture. Trans-Atlantic shipping had ground to a halt, one way or the other. Five ships were missing and presumed sunk north of Puerto Rico. Two cruise ships were aground in San Juan, but their passengers were safe and being very well fed and watered. The island of Bermuda was experiencing that odd calm before the storm. And yes, there really is one.
Steve had no trouble at all getting ashore that first morning. Matter of fact, he had no choice. As the new low man on the galley totem pole, he was drafted along with several others to go ashore and buy fresh seafood- something exotic for the Captain's table and a late-night VIP feast during the return voyage. That had always been the routine on these week-long trips. No one had told the Chef anything different this time around. The day had dawned bright and breezy. High white clouds were blowing across the island from the east, putting both Steve and the ship he had sailed on to the leeward side of the island. Sheltered, for now. Once on the docks, all thoughts of a fish market went out like the tide as did the comfort of a beautiful day on the island. All eyes on shore were turned to that old standby, The Weather Channel. Every satellite dish on the island was aimed at the same point in the sky- with good reason. The first thing they galley crew had noticed was that the seafood merchants weren't too awfully interested in making any hard deals on their catch. It was odd, but they were almost giving the stuff away. Why was that, do you suppose?
It took several such (fishy?) deals for the ship's crew to catch on: In about twenty-four hours, you could have all the seafood you'd want, free, virtually anywhere on the island. They'd be swimming with the fishes. Literally. None of the galley staff had heard any weather reports before the ship had sailed two days ago. Now here they were, far too many miles from a safe port that could shelter a ship of that size from a storm of that size. It had been a calculated risk on the part of the ship's officers: Should they risk a five day cruise with Hurricane Diane possibly headed right for their turn-around point? Or stay in port for a week an incur daily operating expenses with no income? The cruise lines' executive management had, still safe in their New York offices, made the decision for them: Get out there and make money. They sailed. Oops.
Some of the crew aboard the Bermuda Star were well aware of Diane, and had been for days before they left port. They had to be. It was their job. And, in truth, they had warned the executive officers that the storm appeared to be headed to the mid-Atlantic- that it could quite possibly be going right at Bermuda. But when? That was the question. And could the Bermuda Star outrun it if it had to? None of this information, conjecture or calculation had made its way down to the galley. It never did, and with good reason. Not even the Captain wanted to face the Chef when he found out. Better they were at sea. He'd take his chances with Diane.
The calculated risk had turned into a concentrated race as the Star had dropped anchor off Bermuda the night before. At 0300 EDST the ship's executive officers and staff had met to go over what few options they had. The storm was bearing down on Bermuda. By all indications and the latest information, the outer fringes of the rain would be there in 48 hours. Maybe less. True, they were only scheduled to stay in port for 40. They'd leave after sundown of the second day. But then there was that voyage back… with a tail wind of about 110 mph. They might qualify as the world's largest surfboard. And they would certainly have a lot of very seasick people on board. And no doubt many of them would have lawyers. Or were lawyers. Not good. If they left immediately, many of those same passengers would be less concerned about their own personal safety and more concerned about the cruise line gyping them out of two nights in Bermuda. Lawyers looming off the starboard bow again. Could the ship survive the storm on the open sea? Probably not. She wasn't built for that. Only submarines were. Could they run with the wind? Maybe. Battened down and locked up tight, the Star could weather rain and wind. Could their human cargo?
With only two choices- run hard now or run harder later, there had to be a third choice for the crew to consider: Order up chartered passenger planes from New York to fly out and pick up the passengers and most of the crew tomorrow morning, early. Bring the ship back to New York (through the storm) with a skeleton crew. From a liability point of view, that was the safest. The Captain sent a message to that effect to the home office in New York. Better to make it their call. He needed an answer by noon the next day- less than eight hours after their late night staff meeting adjourned at four a.m. to an early breakfast and a very long, tense day. Steve Vaan knew nothing of all this. To say nothing of the much-feared Chef.
As the galley's shore detail slowly found out what was going on, panic set in. This was not a big island. The ship was not safe. Why were they here at all? And they all knew who to blame, more or less: Why had those fools in the New York office sent them out to sea? The six men now on shore had no idea what would happen next. Would the Captain try to wait out the storm here? Or make a run for it? From what they saw on the televisions, neither of those options looked good. The idea of actually being able to fly back hadn't occurred to most of them. But it did to one of them. That was how he preferred to travel when time was tight. Like right now. Steve wondered about the airport on the island. What was going on out there right now? Scheduled flights? Just charters? An absolute madhouse of frantic tourists? Kind of a floral print replay of the fall of Saigon? Probably. Only one way to find out.
Even though he was the new guy, he was able to herd the other five into a small cafe- into the back, way from prying eyes- and ordered a bit of food and drink to calm their nerves. Time was running out yet again. Seemed to Steve like all he ever did was play beat the clock. Looked like the clock might win this one. They discussed the situation, and their options. The only sure thing was that the Captain and his Chef sure weren't going to be needing any exotic seafood this time around. What did they want to do? One man wanted to return to the ship. He had served aboard it longer than the rest and it was only natural for him. It was home. Three others thought it would be best to stay on the island no matter what the ship did. Maybe try to sneak back aboard when it came back or fly back home when it was over. Only one man other than Steve thought about flying out immediately, before the Star had weighed anchor. Whenever that would be. Steve could see it was time to take charge.
He split them up into three groups of two. The one man who wanted to return to the ship would go with Steve to find out what the ship's plan of action would be. Two others- two who had thought it best to stay on the island- were sent out to scout for living quarters for the six of them for the week. Something with a bit of elevation and some wind protection. A cave would be good. A cave with room service would be perfect. The last two would head out to the airport to see about that last option- flying home that evening. It was ten o'clock in the morning. They'd all meet back at the cafe in four hours. They split up like a pack of kitchen commandos, all dressed in white instead of black.
Back aboard the Bermuda Star, Steve sent the veteran seaman to ferret out the truth from his friends in the upper deck crews. What was going on up there? What was going to be going on up there? Steve was going to ask the Chef his opinion on the subject. But not before he made a quick stop at his bunk and secured virtually everything he owned in his pockets and one small duffle bag. Now he could walk off this ship at any time and not look back. Or swim, if he had to. He had three hours to talk with the Chef and get back to the cafe. And it was still a beautiful day in Bermuda. For now. He shouldered his bag and left the small room without a second glance back. This was not home.
The two men sent to look for accommodations weren't having much luck. Anything that was open was booked solid, and the rest were closing up before the storm hit. They were wearing out their shoe leather on those old streets and still nothing. Over at the airport, things were jumping. Private planes were being fueled and flown out as fast as they could leave. All were headed for the American mainland- away from the storm. No need to stay here. Planes don't do well in strong winds. Would there be anything left by that afternoon for a flight out? Only if they owned it. Commercial scheduled flights stopped that morning. Nothing would be coming in now.
Back on the ship, Steve got separated from his kitchen companion. Having gone topside to get answers, the man was immediately put to work on the rear deck area securing the ship for the run to port. So much for additional information. Steve took this as the answer he needed: The ship was going to make a run for it. Maybe he'd better get back to the island and check with the others before he ended up on a work detail as well. No need to trouble the Chef over this one. Steve made his way to the crew gangplank, expecting some sort of questioning or checkpoint. There was none. The gangplank area was empty. Odd. Shouldn't there be some one here? Steve didn't spend too much time worrying about it- down the ramp and across the pier, he was headed back to the cafe to meet with the others. Now they were already down to five.
It was just after noon when Steve sat back down at the table in the back. He ordered food and drink- you can't be too well fed before a big storm, and the owners were glad to be selling anything to anybody right about now. With two hours to wait for the others, Steve finished off lunch and offered to help the folks that owned the cafe put up the storm shutters and secure the cafe for the onslaught of rain and wind. It looked like the first outer feeder bands would be there before dark. The clouds that were high and white earlier in the day were getting lower and darker with each passing hour. And faster, too- the wind was picking up. Coming out of the East, the clouds were sailing over the island, stirring up bits and pieces of the lighter things left outside. Luckily, it was a very clean island. No litter to blow around. Yet.
With the cafe secured- and now very dark inside- Steve returned to his table and ended up talking with the owner. The television in the corner was turned on, and news of the storm was not good. This thing was making a bee-line for Bermuda, travelling due north and still growing. And of course, it would hit at night. They always hit at night. How do they know? The only good thing about the situation was that the cafe would be on the lee side of the island. No direct winds, no storm surge waves. Not at first, anyway. After the eye passed to the north of the island- if not right over the island- all that would change. The southern portion of this beast would send the wind straight at the front of the building- along with twenty foot waves. It was going to get ugly. This was not going to be the place to be then, regardless of the great service.
Steve was quietly pondering his few options when the front door swung open and the four others from the Bermuda Star swept in ahead of the wind. The wind was stirring things up out there now. These guys looked a bit wind-blown and disheveled. They found Steve in the back after their eyes adjusted to the dark. There was no good news. No place to stay, no way to go. They'd have to return to the ship and run the race back to New York on the Star. Maybe that was the best course of action. It just wasn't what Steve wanted to do. Reluctantly, Steve left the cafe with his fellow crew members, almost resigned to his fate. And in truth, they were at the pier, almost to the gangplank when he remembered: His duffle bag. It was still at the cafe. He'd have to go back for it. He had to. And he did his best to suppress that smile as he trotted off away from the ship. He promised to be right back- he'd see them all on board later. Or so he said.
Did he leave it on purpose, just to get them back to the ship and leave them there? No, of course not. Well, maybe consciously. He really did not want to get back on that ship. He did not want to have to go back to New York and start this trip all over again. No, there was no rush, but he didn't like to back-track. Then again, here he was, back-tracking to the cafe. Maybe he did mean to leave that bag there. He just didn't know it at the time. The wind was growing stronger now, and settling down less between the gusts. The air smelled of rain and salt. A few more hours and it would be here.
The cafe looked closed, but the door was unlocked. Once inside, it took a moment for his eyes to be able to see in the dark. His hearing was fine, though, and there were people in there talking. The owner had Steve's bag in hand, fully expecting him to come back for it. He was also deep in negotiation with two Englishmen who were looking to buy food. Were these guys going to stay here on the island? Had they found a place the weather it out? Maybe so. Steve got the owner's attention and retrieved his bag of clothes and possessions without interrupting the conversation. These two guys did in fact want food, and did apparently intent to stay on the island. They weren't saying where. It became obvious to Steve that they had jumped ship- as he had. But what ship? He didn't remember seeing them on the Bermuda Star- Not that he had met everyone on board. But these two were different. They didn't seem quite cruise ship material. The cafe owner was trying to be as helpful as he could. If only to get rid of them. There was still a lot to do before the winds got too strong. He had a home to secure as well.
"Look, gentlemen, I can make up sandwiches for you, and jars of tea, but that's about all. You can't expect food to keep long without refrigeration."
"What makes you think we don't have a refrigerator?"
"I never said you didn't. But if you do, it won't have power for much longer."
"Good point. Do what you can, and we'll pay well."
"Yes, you will. I should be home by now."
Steve saw this as his chance to repay the owner for his bag and find out a few things in the bargain.
"Anything I can do to help out here?"
The Englishmen looked at Steve with some suspicion, but the cafe owner was only too glad for the help.
"Come on- give me a hand in the kitchen."
"Who's he?"
"Ray Meadows- at your service."
Steve extended a hand, smiling at the ease at which he introduced himself as Ray. Maybe this was becoming too easy.
"Nigel Auldman."
"Blake Daniels."
Time to go for the Big One, Steve. Or Ray. Whoever.
"Where you two from? You aren't on the Bermuda Star."
"God, no. Hope you aren't. We come off the Adalynne. She's a private freighter."
"Out of...?"
"Out of Portsmouth- which is where the captain thinks he's headed tonight."
"Your ship is bound for Maine? With this storm coming in? Makes about as much sense as the Star trying to run back to New York."
"The Star's headed to New York now, is she?"
"What's Maine got to do with it, mate?"
"Yes, the Star's headed for home. They've got her stern all battened and boarded. She'll probably sail before dark. The Adalynne's going to Portsmouth, Maine?"
"No, worse: Portsmouth, England."
Steve was stunned at both the bravado of the Adalynne's captain and his own good luck. If you could call it that.
"She's sailing without you, I take it?"
"You got that right. We saw the weather radar. She sails without us. You aren't boarding the Star for that fool's voyage home, are you?"
"Nope. She's headed the wrong way for me."
"She'll be headed the wrong way for everybody if she sails tonight."
"Why's that? She'll have a tail wind."
"Oh, yes, no doubt about that. A hundred mile an hour tailwind. It will plough that ship's bow right into the next wave and hold it there until she sinks. The crew won't have a chance. They can't back off because of the tailwind, they'll lack the power to push on through, and there's no way to turn her off the wave after it starts. She'll sink."
"Can I quote you on that?"
"Only if you don't sail on the Bermuda Star."
"And you two plan to stay here on the island?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
"You found a place to stay?"
"Only after we get ourselves arrested."
Of course! All they had to do was get a bit rowdy and the police would arrest them Free room and board until the storm passed. And where better to stay? The jail had to be well built.
"That might work for you two, but I think I see a golden opportunity here."
"Where?"
"On the Adalynne. What are her chances of making it to Plymouth?"
"Better than the Star's of making back to the States."
"When does she sail?"
"She's probably casting off right now. Unless they were fool enough to come looking for us."
Steve's eyes went wide. Time was wasting.
"All right, here's the deal- You tell me where the ship is and I won't tell them where you are."
The two Englishmen took only a moment to look at each other and no time at all to ponder the logic of the deal. Or was it a threat? No matter. They told Steve- or was it Ray?- where their ship had docked. He thanked them and was out the door in a flash and bang. They were left to their own devices and the gathering wind. And Steve Vaan was on his way to England.
Funny thing about getting hit by a hurricane: It's kind of like being run over by a glacier. Nothing happens very fast but there's still not a darned thing you can do about it. Steve ran out of the cafe into the gloom and spray from the rain and waves. This close to the shoreline, the salt spray was more in evidence than the fresh water from the sky. Steve ran down one small street and turned the corner right into the gale force wind. A forty-five mile an hour breeze. So much for running. Hugging the sides of the buildings for shelter from both the wind and the debris it carried, Steve could see the upper superstructure of the Adalynne less than a quarter of a mile away. A private freighter? What did that mean, exactly? It certainly looked non-descript. No fancy bright paint, no logos on the stack. Just all sort of grey-green in the odd light of the storm. But there was definitely smoke coming out of that stack, even if it was being whipped into oblivion the moment it met the air. She was ready to pull out. Steve picked his way with increased urgency. He couldn't miss that ship.
Around the last building he could see a clear path to the quay and the open gangplank of the Adalynne. And he could see the crew fighting to cast off the lines that held her moored to the dock. She was within seconds of leaving port- without him if he didn't make a run for it. He sprinted as fast as he could across the open stretch of dock between the last building and the ship. His sole bag of clothes and possessions was strung over his back like an off-kilter knapsack. The run took on a bit of a curve as the wind blew him off course with every stride. He corrected and the wind blew harder. He corrected again and found himself headed right for the gangplank. More specifically: He was headed right for the crewman attempting to free the gangplank- with no luck- from the cleats on the dock. Steve grabbed the railing- to the man's everlasting surprise- and yelled at him to get on the ship. He'd take care of this. No need to tell this man twice- he was up the swaying gangplank and hanging on the deck railing in a heartbeat.
Steve put all of his weight down on the line as the ship rolled lower in the water and was able to loosen the line before the next wave carried her back up. One line free, one to go. The second- the last- line would be trickier. The gangplank would be sailing free on the dockside end- and a very heavy and dangerous piece of equipment, should you happen to get in its way. Steve hoped to be out of its way- by being on it. The ship dropped and Steve unwound the rope as fast as he could- but not fast enough. The ship came back up, taking the line with it. He knew he couldn't hold it tight, but he did want to have something in his hands when she came back down. Luckily, the rope played out too slow to burn his hands. At the top of the pitch, Steve clinched the rope on the cleat and was ready to jump on the flying gangplank as it came back down. He gave it his best jump- considering the conditions- and was able to grab the railing with one hand and throw the rope off the cleat with the other- this time in time. This time, when the ship rode up on the next incoming wave, both the gangplank and Steve rode with it, free of the dock. He let the lines blow free. Time to just hang on and climb. The low blast of the ship's horn announced that she was underway- floating free and doing her best to get out of port before the rest of this hurricane came in. Steve made his way up the gangplank as the crew began to haul it in with him on it. It was quite possibly his most impressive entrance ever.
Some two thousand miles to the west, this raging hurricane was barely a footnote in the Lexington, Kentucky newspaper. Come to think of it, the entire world was barely a footnote in that paper. Local news was the big news, as it is with any smaller city. And if a killer hurricane lashing Bermuda wasn't news, you can imagine the impact of one obscure traffic accident in another state: "None whatsoever" would be the correct answer there. Barbara Meadows' accident did not make the local paper. Without local people involved, it wasn't news. Barbara didn't mind- she needed the rest. With her parents on hand to take care of Barbara, and to take her home when she was released, Ray Meadows had little to do but sit and wait. The novelty of that option would wear thin in a matter of minutes.
Getting the glass put in Sam's old truck held Ray's attention for at least 30 minutes. Jack Trotter, owner of Trotter Glass, had shown up right on time with the right piece of glass. In mere minutes the door was disassembled and the new glass in place. A quick button-up and test and it was done. Amazing. And it worked just fine, after a little lubrication. Probably the first it had seen since it left the factory. The price wasn't bad, either. An incredible bargain, considering the joys of driving a windowless truck in the pouring rain. Ray would have gladly paid more, but wisely kept that to himself. Now Ray was ready to travel in (dry) style. It was just a matter of where. Both Ray and his Father-in-law, George Robinson, returned to Barbara's room in the hospital. It was drier, warmer and offered free cable. A tough combination to beat. But they still needed the one thing they didn't have: A Plan. And it was Cathryn- Barbara's mother- that came up with it.
"You know, Ray, we could take Barbara back with us to stay while she recovered."
"But why? There's no reason we can't go home."
Cathryn smiled that sweet "Don't-argue-with-your-mother" smile. Barbara laughed out loud. That's when Ray saw the newspaper. Cathryn had found it in the waiting room while the men were out in the parking lot dealing with the truck glass. It wasn't a local- It was a national tabloid this time. The photos were grainy and out of focus, but the headline was crystal clear: "ALIENS INVADE INDIANA! SHOCKING PHOTOS INSIDE!" The smaller type spelled out their dilemma: "Couple terrorized by strange beings from another planet!" The good news was that they weren't the big photo/cover story. They lost out to a prominent U.S. Senator and a rather seriously endowed young woman-not-his-wife. Such was life. Inside the paper, however, things did not go as well for the Meadows. There was a photo of their house in Greenwood and there- just under it- was a photo of Ray in a bath robe, looking for all the world like a bewildered Arthur Dent. A redundancy, perhaps, but true. Barbara had to ask the question:
"So, Mister Anonymous, what did you do with the rest of the money?"
"What money?"
"The fifty dollars those two reporters paid you to stand there in the hospital and PRETEND you were Ray Meadows."
"Oh, yeah. That. Well, after I bought you and Steve dinner, I guess the rest went for gas."
"So you spent it all on gas?"
"You could say that."
"I just did."
Now Ray was intently scanning the paper, reading and rereading the story on page 7. There they were, in black and white. More or less. There was no mention of Barbara's accident, of course. That must have happened after this paper was printed. It had just been a fluke. Some stringer had read the police reports in Greenwood and spoke to the right person at the wrong time in the hospital. Maybe this was a one shot deal. No one would pick up on it. Fat chance. It was only a matter of time before her accident started to make sense to some one else and all the stories started to come together. He had to call Jake. Maybe this story went unnoticed back home. He picked up the phone and dialed from memory.
"Yeah, Jake? It's Ray. How bad is it up there?"
Jake never minded a bit of media attention in the past, but this was getting ridiculous.
"Ok, Ray- It's still a circus here. Where are you??"
"I'm with Barb. We were all set to come home when we saw us in this tabloid."
"Oh, yeah- you and Michael Jackson. You make all the papers. Can I get your autograph?"
"No problem. Should I mail it or deliver it?"
"I'd say unless you really like the press- and TV and radio and who knows what else- you may want to mail it."
"So our house is mobbed?"
"Yeah, sort of. They figured out that you weren't coming right home, so most of them headed south. I'm surprised you haven't seen any reporters in the hospital."
Ray involuntarily looked around in the room- As thought they'd be hiding in there in the room. Ok, so they would. But they weren't.
"Any one hanging around the house?"
"Sort of. There's a couple of guys in a car- just waiting. I'm not sure if they're reporters or detectives. I think reporters. They just sit there with the motor running. Like they're going to have to go someplace quick."
"Ok, so we can't go home."
"I'll tell you the truth, Ray: These guys are all over town looking for you. I've tried to steer them away to other places, but they keep coming back. If they haven't found you in the hospital by now, I'd say you've got less than an hour or so before things get weird down there. You are still in Lexington General Hospital, right?"
Something in the way that question was posed made Ray re-think his answer. Was there a reporter with Jake? Listening? Take no chances.
"Nah, we're out of there. We're just across the river. Stopped for dinner. Hospital food, you know."
"Tell me about it. So you are headed home?"
"Yeah, maybe- I guess. I mean, where else would we go?"
"See you tonight?"
"Yeah, I'll swing by your place first- before I go home."
"Ok- See you in a while. Right here."
Ray thanked Jake for everything he was doing for them- more to make Jake feel guilty if there was a reporter there with him- and hung up the phone. First things first: Ray went to the hospital room door and took Barbara's name off of it. No need to advertise. He pushed the call button at the bed and waited. It was only a matter of seconds before a nurse came in. Ray was formulating a plan.
"Close the door, please."
The nurse released the door and it swung shut.
"What’s the problem here?"
"We may have a problem with my wife's security while she's here in this hospital."
"What do you mean?"
Ray showed the nurse the tabloid and helped defuse the situation by laughing along with her at the photo of himself in the bath robe.
"Yes, it's stupid, but there it is in print. And before long- possibly within the hour- there will be reporters trying to get in this hospital to see my wife. And I don't think we want that, now do we?"
"No sir, we don't."
"Good. So let's work on hiding this patient. Can you change all of the records and everything to a new name?"
"We can do that. We can also have our records show that Barbara Meadows was released earlier today. Would that help?"
"Immensely."
"Consider it done. Keep this door close until I get back with a new wrist band and door tag. It shouldn't take more than five minutes or so."
"Thank you."
"Any time. It's nice to have a little excitement around here that doesn't involve people dying."
The nurse left Ray standing by the door. Ray would have risked a look out into the hallway, but he could hear voices at the nurses' station. The nurse leaving the room could see what Ray could not: Reporters.
"Uh-oh. Trouble's here already. Close the curtains around Mrs. Meadows and you stay behind them. I'll be right back."
The door closed and Ray wasted no time in pulling the curtains. He sat down in a chair next to his wife and waited. It would be up to George and Cathryn to convince any reporters that might stumble in that they had the wrong room. Were they up to it? A quick look at the gleam in their eyes said they were. They were there to protect their daughter, and if some two-bit tabloid reporters got trampled in the bargain, well, so be it. Might even be fun. Ray Meadows' current plan was in place. Mentally, any way.
"Ok, I think I've got this figured out."
"Would you like to share it with the class?"
Ah, the sweet sound of sarcasm. Barbara was feeling better.
"Yep. Here 'tis: You stay here, and I leave."
"Wow. Do you think we can all pull this one off?"
"Sure. I've got the tough part. I leave."
"And go where?"
"Home, I guess. But only for a quick visit."
"And then?"
"Back to Lyndon."
"To hide?"
"More like hide and seek."
"Seeking what?"
"Take a guess. There was a reason Steve Vaan went there. It wasn't just a random choice. I want to know why. I still want some answers."
"Be careful what you wish for."
"Yeah, I know. But I still want to know."
Up to now, both Barbara's parents had been listening without comment. That time was up with George's curiosity.
"Know what? What's going on here? You mean there is something to that crazy tabloid story?"
Ray and Barbara looked at each other for entirely too long. Ray finally went for it, sort of.
"Ok, maybe. That's what we don't know. There's more going on than we can say, but there's more to it than we know. Tell you what: Barbara can fill you in on the details- but only after you are all out of here and safely home. Until then, use your imagination. It's got to be more comforting than the truth. Whatever that is."
"Oh, boy."
The door to the room swung open suddenly and a man walked in like he knew what he was doing. Once in the room, and faced with George and Cathryn, he wasn't so sure. a second man was standing just outside in the hallway, even less certain.
"Can I help you, son?"
George had whispered this and looked back at the curtained bed as a sort of cautionary gesture.
"Ah, yes. We- well, no. Sorry. Wrong room."
"That's all right. Just close the door softly. Thank you."
The door closed softly, as requested. Four people inside the room breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"Well, that wasn't so hard."
"You were lucky."
"Why do you say that, Ray?"
"If he'd have seen me, it would have been all over."
"But he didn't see you, did he?"
"No, but I'm not too keen in jumping on the floor every time a door opens. I've got to get out of here. Now."
"Ok, how? There must be more of them out there and they're looking for you."
"I need a disguise. You have your reading glasses?"
George fished through his coat and came up with a pair.
"Right here."
"Ok, that's a start. Cathryn, how about you head down to the nurses' station and see if you can find that nurse we just spoke with. Tell her- quietly- that I'll need to disguise myself to slip out of here. Surgical scrubs, a lab coat and some paperwork to be working on. I want her to bring all that in here, I'll change and leave with her. Less chance of being intercepted if I look like a busy doctor. But don't say anything if there's anyone around. If it looks like some one's listening, just tell her we need her in here."
"I'm on my way."
"So you plan to go off and play doctor with some strange woman?"
"Yes dear. Do you mind?"
"Oh, no- Not at all."
"It's nice to have an understanding wife."
George still wanted to know what was going to happen, and where he fit in.
"And what are we supposed to do while you just walk right out of here? And where are you going anyway?"
"Ok: You're going to stay here with Barb until you're sure the reporters are gone. Once she's released from the hospital in the next day or so, you take her home and let her hide. They might figure out where she went, but I doubt it. I'm going to drive back to Greenwood tonight, collect a few things and head for Lyndon before daybreak. I should be back in the apartment by mid-morning. Noon at the latest. Barbara, you've got the number at the apartment. Call there when you get settled in at your parents. I'll leave a message there as soon as I get back to Lyndon."
"But you're headed by the house first?"
"Looks that way."
"You'd better be careful."
"Hey- Those reporters are no match for Ray Meadows."
"It's not the reporters that worry me."
In the awkward silence that followed, the door opened and Cathryn returned with the nurse. They had a box of surgical scrubs and lab coats. Also a stethoscope, pens, a clipboard and a pager. That nurse was ready. Ray sorted through the clothes and came up with something to wear. He slipped it all on over what he was already wearing. With everything carefully tucked and rolled up, it worked. The added plus was that it made him look considerably heavier. Not a bad thing, at this point. Ray kissed his wife and everyone said their good-byes. Ray had clipboard and pen in and as he and the nurse walked out into the hallway. The game was undeniably afoot. Yet again.
Down the hall and past the nurses' station, no problem. There were several people in the waiting room that did not look as though they were waiting for a patient. Ray thought two of them looked entirely too familiar. Of course: The two from the other hospital. The two that took his picture. Better keep moving. It looked as though these reporters were planning their next move. Did they buy that line about Barbara being released? Hope so. She didn't need badgered right now. Maybe by tomorrow she'd be out of here and safe.
Waiting for the elevator was the tough part. Ray had told the nurse that she wouldn't need to follow him on the elevator. He even volunteered to change out of the scrubs and coat on the first floor and leave them at the front desk. The nurse insisted that he keep the disguise on until he was out of the hospital. Keep them as a souvenir of what fun a nice guy can have playing doctor for a night in Kentucky. He had to work hard to not laugh at that one. The elevator doors opened, the nurse said good-bye and Ray stepped into the car. Their timing, however, left something to be desired. The nurse was gone and the elevator doors were still open. Open long enough for several of the reporters from the waiting room to decide that it was time to leave, and join Doctor Ray in the elevator. Oh, bother. This was not the way it was planned. Now Ray had to make a tough choice, and fast: Push the button for the next floor and get right off, risking being mistaken for a real doctor where ever he ended up- or riding all the way down and risk being discovered by these piranha.? Fish or cut bait? Ray elected to fish. The thrill of the chase was nothing compared to the thrill of being chased.
The doors closed and the mindless music continued to fill the car as it descended. The reporters paid no attention to Ray. They were too busy formulating a plan of their own.
"I say we go back to Boogerville."
"Greenwood?"
"Whatever. They've got to go home sooner or later."
"Maybe not. That husband of hers disappeared from a hospital up there. Where'd he go? Not home."
"I don't know, but he's not here. Neither one of them are here."
"Maybe they flew off in a UFO."
"Yeah, right. Along with Elvis."
"Don't you be making no jokes about the King."
"Thank you. Thank you very much."
"Come on- we've got to find Barbara Meadows before all those other guys do. There's some serious money in this."
Poor Ray. With a build up like that, who could resist? Certainly not Doctor Ray Meadows- the practicing practical joke specialist. The doctor was in- and operating.
"Y'all looking for Miz Meadows? The lady that was released this afternoon?"
That certainly stopped the conversation. The reporters all looked at Ray as though they had no idea he had been in the elevator with them. How'd he get in here?
"Why, yes, doctor. Yes, we are. Can you help us?"
"Well now, I don't rightly know. I mean, I know she's gone and all. I believe was headed to stay with relations."
"Did she say where?"
"Nope, but she didn't have to. Saw her get in a big car out front this afternoon."
"So you don't know where she went?"
"Or with who?"
"Whom."
"Whatever."
"Look friends, I'm not supposed to tell you this sort of stuff- patient confidentiality and all, but I guess if you had been there, you'd have seen the same things I saw, and draw the same conclusions."
"But we weren't there, were we?"
Ray gave them his best stage wink- big as could be.
"Weren't you? Though I saw you there, right out front as she got in that big ol' blue Lincoln."
"Oh- Yeah- The blue Lincoln. sure. Of course we were there. What else did we see?"
"Well sir, that vanity tag was pretty hard to miss. Said, "MEADOWS" big as you please right there on the back. Right between "GEORGIA" at the top of the plate and "DEKALB" at the bottom."
"ATLANTA! She's headed to Atlanta!"
"Yeah, but it's a big town. How many Meadows do you suppose there are?"
"Well, gentlemen, maybe that sticker in the car's back window would help narrow things down a bit."
"And that sticker was . . . . refresh my memory here, doctor, would you?"
"Why, you know- The one with the picture of the bulldog and the word "FACULTY" under it? That one."
"That would help narrow it down considerably. Thank you doctor."
"Any time I can help. Any time at all."
The elevator doors opened and the reporters streamed out in one big hurry for the Deep South. Those automatic doors couldn't open fast enough. Ray was feeling much better about life, the universe and everything. Unnoticed, he ducked into a men's room, locked himself in a stall and peeled off the coat and scrubs. All carefully bundled, he turned it in at the front desk, with instructions to return it to the duty nurse on Barbara's floor with his compliments. The display by the front door seeking donations for the children’s ward also received a healthy donation from the Meadows family before Ray vanished into the parking lot. The reporters were long gone. And now so was Ray Meadows.

To Be Continued...
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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes

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