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

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE- A disappearing act in one scene.

Monday morning began with a flurry of action on all fronts. Ray called in to work and explained that he wouldn't be coming in that week- and maybe not the next. He expected to be out of the hospital within the next couple of days, but walking had proven somewhat painful and his right arm was only there to fill out the shirt sleeve. There was some concern over maintaining adequate circulation in his fingers and right hand. At least he had some use of his fingers and there was no infection. Ray felt entirely too good for his own good. He wasn't sleeping, but knew enough to fake it as long as he was in the hospital. The pills helped the pain and dulled him a bit, but did not knock him out like they might have before the incident.
Steve Vaan checked the morning paper before sun up and found, to his dismay, a story: COMPTON ROAD MAN ATTACKED BY WILD ANIMAL? It was posed as a question. Since there was no real tangible proof of an animal, the paper wisely omitted Ray's name. But some one was going to connect Ray to the newspaper article. Things were going to have to change in the Meadows' life. Things had already changed and now Ray and Barbara were going to have to adapt. And fast.
Barbara Meadows woke up in a soft bed to the smell of some one else cooking breakfast. Not a bad way to wake up. Out of bed and dressed in no time, she thought she was ready to face the day. As soon as she got that taste of garlic and shrimp out of her mouth. Ick. The Jacobsons were congenial hosts and had tried to make Barbara as comfortable as possible. She did get a good night's sleep, in spite of that pizza. Jake had to go to work, of course, leaving Carol to keep an eye on things. It was a short walk around the block to the Meadows' house on Compton Road, so the lack of transportation was not a problem. They could walk over after breakfast.
At the hospital, Ray Meadows was fussing around like the caged animal he was. He had already phoned in to work to explain that he had suffered a somewhat serious injury over the weekend and wouldn't be in for awhile- a week or two at least. His doctor would send the paperwork along to employee benefits. Now he wanted out- and the sooner the better. His doctor wouldn't be in for another two hours, and already Ray was ready to bolt. He was seriously considering doing just that, before his photo was splashed across the television news or in the next edition of the paper. He knew reporters had been hanging around the lobby. It was only a matter of time before one of them figured out a way up to his room. He didn't plan to be there when that happened. He was bustin' outta dis joint. Why wait for the doctor? He felt fine. He could even make his right hand work if he concentrated.
Carol and Barbara walked over to Barbara's house to see how Steve had fared through the night. They found him relaxed, sitting on the front porch reading the paper. The house was locked up and he was ready to roll. Had any reporters shown up, he was going to be one of them just waiting for the Meadows to come home. Now that Barbara was there, they could leave for the day. The longer they dodged the media, less chance of a problem. In theory, at least. In the car and on the road, Barbara was happy to take over the driving duties to the hospital. Carol was returned to her home, leaving Steve and Barbara to continue the adventure. To Jake Jacobson's later dismay, Carol hadn't learned a thing. The mystery was still intact.
By the time Steve and Barbara found a parking spot at the hospital, the media storm had started to build. Ray's doctor, unaware of just about everything going on outside the hospital, had walked into the reporters in the lobby that morning and foolishly (if accurately) claimed that Ray Meadows' wounds had to have been caused by some sort of animal, but he had no idea what. Something fairly large and well equipped in the tooth and claw department. Ray was going to be fine and may eventually regain most of the use of his right arm, but there was certainly something strange roaming the Compton Road area. The doctor's statement was all the gasoline this smoldering heap needed. The story was hotter now than it was when it happened. Ray Meadows was going to be a media celebrity and the Compton Road Animal was going to be a household name by the six p.m. news. The only good thing was this: Neither the TV stations or the newspaper had a photo or good description of Ray Meadows or his wife. Some times it pays to be non-descript. Literally.
Ray had nervously fled his little room and was hanging out in the cafeteria when his wife showed up with their "cousin", Steve "Meadows". Both visitors were thrown for a moment by the room being empty, and more so by the patient name "M. Stewart" scrawled on the door tag. Until Steve suggested that Ray must have changed the name on the door to divert any reporters who made it past the front desk, and that "M. Stewart" was in fact the name of Steve's lawyer. A quick look at the door tag revealed "R. Meadows" on the other side. Steve returned it to the frame "M. Stewart" side out. So where was Ray? Not in his room. Didn't see him in the lobby or waiting area. Must be in the cafeteria. Process of elimination. As casually as they could, Barbara and Steve walked to the cafeteria, keeping an eye out for reporters and Ray's doctor. Steve really wanted to have Ray out of there as soon as possible. Even if it meant transferring to another hospital. It was good news, bad news, good news: No reporters, they didn't see the doctor, but they did find Ray in the cafeteria. Dressed and ready to go. Anywhere.
"Hey, there, folks- You found me!"
Steve could see that Ray was nervous and entirely too wide awake.
"Nice place you got here. How's the food?"
"Better than what we get upstairs."
Barbara couldn't help but be worried about Ray. She could see that right arm was only along for the ride. No more Christmas cuff links for Ray.
"Are you ok? You look pale."
"I feel ok, just nervous and too awake. Steve was right- No rest for the wicked. What's going on in the real world?"
"Not sure. We dodged reporters all night, but haven't seen a one today."
"You just missed them. They were all hanging out in the lobby when the doctor walked in. Poor guy didn't have a chance."
"You were there?"
"Sure. All the good magazines are down here on the first floor. There's not much of a trickle-up effect. I was reading a magazine in the corner. Even my own doctor didn't see me."
"What happened?"
"The brown and squishy hit the revolving blades in a major fashion."
"Meaning my soon-to-be-former doctor was stupid enough to tell the reporters exactly what they wanted to hear: That my injuries were caused by some sort of large, dangerous and unidentifiable animal currently running loose in our neighborhood. That should play well all over town. And on a positive note, he does expect me to recover. Mostly."
Ray could only smile at his wife and their friend. They were about to be stuck hip deep in the hoopla of media hype and time was about to run out. Steve was forced to come up with The Big Plan once again. Was he up to the task?
"Ok, we don't have much time. It's after ten o'clock- local TV news usually starts at noon. We have less than two hours to get gone. Barbara and I will go back to the house and pack up what you'll both need for a quick road trip. Ray, you stay here and be ready to go any time, any way. I'm not sure what sort of margin we'll have to get out of here before you're locally famous."
"What about my doctor?"
"After all the help he's been? Let's leave him here."
"I know that. What I meant was, what if he won't release me?"
"You're in the medical ward, not the psych ward. He can't hold you. Matter of fact, don't say anything to him. We'll be in the lobby at eleven thirty at the latest. Be there, ready to go. That leaves us thirty minutes to cruise."
Barbara had remained silent through all this- Now she had to ask.
"Where are we going?"
"I'd tell you, Ma'am, but then I'd have to kill you."
"Fair enough, let's go."
Leaving Ray in the cafeteria, Steve and Barbara went back to the car and made a mad dash for the house. Reporters or no reporters, they'd have to do some quick packing and make tracks before noon. It was going to be close, but none of them wanted to answer any questions from the press, neighbors or the police. Wild animals loose on Compton Road? That doctor didn't know the half of it.
After a quick ride across town, it all came down to a slow cruise up the street to the house. Would there be anybody waiting for them? They lucked out. The TV crews were all back at their local stations, putting the finishing touches on a sensational story of weird carnivorous beasts running rampant in suburbia. The newspaper reporters wouldn't be back until after the TV segments had aired- less than ninety minutes away. Barbara pulled a smooth move and backed the car up the driveway- almost to the garage door. They elected to use the back door for this escapade. Steve Vaan was indeed formulating a plan and it was a biggie. Then again, so was the Spruce Goose. But would either of them actually fly for more than a very short distance?
Upstairs, they wasted no time at all emptying out dressers and closets. Barbara came up with several empty duffle bags and Steve started stuffing clothes in each one. Shoes, belts, coats, hats, everything. A quick road trip was starting to look like a major expedition. Barbara was getting worried about Steve's idea of a "quick trip". With Steve in the closet hauling out clothes, Barbara took a few seconds when he wasn't looking to quietly bring out the pistol, holster, ammo and cleaning kit and jam it all in the bottom of a half-full bag. Better safe than sorry. Or unarmed. With four bags bulging with everything but the heavy winter clothes, they were on their way out the back door in the kitchen when the phone rang. It stopped them dead in their tracks. It kept right on ringing. Barbara couldn't rid her self of a mental image from an old movie: Anne Frank's family, paralyzed in their hiding place as the phone rang in the house below them. Answer the phone or don't answer the phone? To be or not to be. She couldn't help herself. She'd seen that movie to many times. Barbara Meadows picked up the phone.
She breathed a sigh of relief- it was Ray.
"Whatever you're doing, do it quick and get back here."
"Why? What happened?"
"You won't believe it- It's just too weird. I was reading a magazine in the lobby when two guys came in- local stringers for some national tabloid- You know, the ones in the check-out aisles at the supermarket? DEAD ELVIS CLONE REVEALS LIZ TAYLOR'S SECRET UFO DIET? That sort of paper? They came in and tried to get past the front desk- no luck. So they saw me sitting there with my arm all bandaged and decided all they needed was a photo of a guy with a bandaged arm to be Ray Meadows- the man attacked by the Indiana Demon that was running loose across the state. Took my picture, stuffed a fifty dollar bill in the pocket of my robe and flew out of here before I could stop them."
It was all she could do to keep from laughing. She could picture the whole scene, and Ray's stunned look, standing there with the money hanging out of his bath robe, mouth open and eyes staring wide at the now vacant doorway through which the two ace reporters had just fled. She gave up and laughed anyway. Sure it was serious, but it was also funny.
"That's great, Ray! We made fifty bucks today! Maybe we're on to something here. We can parade you around the talk show circuit. Make some serious bucks. Sell the movie rights to FOX."
"I'm serious, Barbara- they took my picture. They're going to pretend it's me, not knowing that it really is me!"
"Hold on a second, let me check with Double-Oh-Seven and hear what he has to say about all this."
Barbara took a moment to briefly explain the quandary of the moment to Steve. He didn't even try to not laugh. No way to hold this one back. Once he settled down enough to talk, he took the phone from Barbara.
"Say there, Mister Meadows, can I have your autograph? Don't worry about it, Ray. We knew that they'd come up with your photo eventually- probably within the next twenty four hours. And that tabloid won't run anything for two weeks at the earliest. Not a problem, and like Barbara says, you made fifty bucks. You're buying lunch, my friend. Right now, I'm more concerned about the twelve o'clock news. You need to be incognito, incommunicado and in the car by the time that hits the fan. We're on our way. You ready to fly like the beagle?"
"Oh, yeah. Have been. See you in the lobby?"
"We'll be there in about twenty minutes. At a quarter of twelve, walk out the front door and we'll swing right in and pick you up. No muss, no fuss."
"I'll be there."
Sometimes things go exactly as planned- no problems, no delays, no gut wrenching thrill of imminent defeat. This was not one of those times. Steve and Barbara carried the bags out to the car and pulled out on to Compton Road a full second before the two guys from the tabloid turned down the street toward them in their car. Since neither of them knew who the other was, the reporters had no idea where the Meadows' car had come from as they passed within a few feet of each other without incident. It was only when Barbara glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the car turn into her driveway that she realized how close they were cutting it. She managed to not floor it and draw any attention to the car they were in until they made the turn and were out of sight of the house. Four blocks from the hospital, it was time for the panic to set in.
There had been a messy accident on the road in front of them. Must have happened about half a hour ago and now the road was blocked by the wreckage and the emergency vehicles. Traffic was backed up in every direction and the clock was ticking. Twenty minutes to noon. Fifteen minutes. Ten. Time was running out for Barbara and Ray Meadows. At five minutes to twelve, Barbara was finally waved past the last of the wreckage by the traffic cop directing vehicles around the carnage. She hard a hard time resisting that urge to really punch the gas and go for it. Nice and easy- no need to incite a police escort at this point. Three minutes. Now two. They were not going to be able to get in to the hospital and out again before that infamous stroke of twelve.
Ah, the twelve o'clock news. A little slice of thrilling sensationalism to go with your soup and sandwich. Newscasters can take the most gruesome story and present it like a birthday cake, candles burning brightly, just for you. Make a wish. It must be those bright eyes, the perfect hair and all those shiny white teeth. Tough to take them seriously. Unless it's you they're talking about. Then it's personal. Ray Meadows looked up at the television in the lobby and knew he had to be somewhere else. Right now. He walked out into the bright summer sunshine while the TV station went to a commercial break. He figured he had about two minutes before they came back to the news with that lead story and names were mentioned. Would they have a photograph? He didn't want to wait around and find out. He got out. Barbara and Steve had better be out there waiting, motor running. This was way too close for any sort of comfort.
Ray was walking along the sidewalk near the entrance way from the front door when his doctor wandered through the lobby. He hadn't seen Ray Meadows yet this morning and he thought he should. Ray was healing well, no infection or permanent nerve damage, but he did need to at least stop in and say hello- and why was Ray Meadows on the TV news? The doctor stopped in his tracks, lab coat flapping and stethoscope swaying in the breeze. There was a still photo of Ray Meadows- How did they get that? It looked like it was taken right there in the hospital. And that must be Ray's house. Where did they get the wild idea that he was attacked by- Oh, bother. It suddenly hit the good doctor where they got such a wild idea. If it was any consolation to Ray Meadows, his doctor felt like a complete idiot. As well he should. He had to find Ray. Had to protect Ray from this media onslaught. Ray was his patient. Patients can sue. The doctor rushed back through the lobby as the news reporter was interviewing a carnivore specialist from the Indianapolis Zoo. And where was Ray Meadows? He was busy making himself harder to find than Waldo.
Outside the hospital, a plain looking four door sedan pulled up alongside the sidewalk not far from the front entrance. A somewhat disheveled man standing on that sidewalk leaned over a bit stiffly to speak to the passenger, then carefully climbed in the back seat. Had anyone been watching, they might have noticed that the gentleman's right arm appeared to be bandaged and he did seem to favor his left. Slowly, quietly and with no fuss at all, the car motored carefully out of the parking lot and on to the busy street. Within five minutes- not quite a quarter past twelve, that same car with its three occupants was wailing south on the Interstate. Within the legal limit, of course.
Pulling off at an exit on the south side of town, the car nosed through the surface streets until it found a drugstore. Parked and idling, the passenger in the front got out and ran inside. A hold up? Armed robbery in progress? Maybe not. The man was walking back out of the store with a small bag. No emergency, then. Just a little impulse purchase. Happens all the time. Especially if you're Steve Vaan and you have to hide two friends from the rest of the world. The plan was being put in action. The car backed out of the parking space and continued its journey.
"Ok, now how about lunch? Ray, I believe you're buying."
"Only if you give me some idea of what you have in mind."
"How about the whole idea?"
"I'm all ears. Well, ears and scar tissue."
"Thanks for the updated personal inventory. We're stuck between a rock and a hard place and have two problems. My family almost caught up with me in Lyndon yesterday morning. I had to flee to avoid a rather ugly scene and possible arrest."
"How could they arrest you? Are you actually wanted for something?"
"I'm not sure. They might have been able to declare me unable to handle my own affairs- chronic mental incapacitation. It's called the Baker Act. They might also have been able to have me detained and shipped back a virtual prisoner. I didn't want to hang around and argue the fine points of the law. Either way, it was going to get nasty. Now I have to figure out where I'm going to go next. You have a similar problem, now that you're a local media celeb. If your face wasn't on the afternoon news, it will probably be on TV this evening. Your house, the neighborhood and your neighbors will all get their fifteen minutes of fame by tonight. That's going to raise a tremendous number of uncomfortable questions about your injuries and that cage in the garage. It's going to look suspiciously like you knew there was something out there."
"But I did."
"That's right, you did. And why didn't you go to the authorities?"
"But I did."
"I wish you'd stop saying that. What do you mean?"
"Not long after the first sighting- before I knew more about what it was- I checked with the police about any reports of loose exotic animals. Did they have any reports of a loose leopard or anything?"
"And did they?"
"Of course not. But the officer I spoke with back then remembered me. She showed up in my hospital room yesterday morning. You met her, remember?"
"Oh, boy. So they know you were concerned about something loose in the neighborhood for several months before this?"
"That's the way it's going to look."
"We were lucky to get out of there as late as we did. And without being followed by every news crew in central Indiana. Pull in here. Let's eat."
Once again, the Hoosier Smokehouse- one of many- came through in the pinch. At least this was one none of them had ever eaten at and it was quite a distance from Compton Road. Maybe they'd get even luckier, and no one inside had seen the news. Steve reached for the bag he had just filled at the drugstore. He pulled out a pair of black sunglasses.
"Here you go, Ray, you're the star. You should start dressing like one. Put these on."
"Great. I feel like Roy Orbison."
"In your dreams, plow boy. Come on, let's test the waters."
Out of the car, Steve had Barbara open the trunk. Rummaging through the duffle bags- all of which did impress Ray- Steve came up with a light windbreaker for Ray.
"Steve, it's the height of Summer. Hello?"
"Put it over your right arm. Over the bandage."
"I knew that."
It's tough to look casual and limp, but Ray did his best to not look too much like Ray Meadows, attackee. If he walked real slow, he looked merely twice his age and infirm. With the dark glasses on he felt like his own grandfather, just returning from the eye doctor's. They made it to the relative safety of the restaurant and got a booth near the back. Steve sat Ray with his back to the dining room and they were ready for a serious feed. And Steve was ready to fill them in on the rest of The Big Plan. Would they go for it?
"The situation is grim but not hopeless. I can't go back to my apartment in Lyndon. You can't go home tonight. But you can go to Lyndon for a while and I can watch your house while you're gone- Until this mess blows over for both of us."
Ray and Barbara looked at each other. What could they say? Ray did need the rest to heal a bit. He wouldn't be going to work for at least two weeks or more. Why not? Beats having Jake Jacobson running loose through the house. Or looking in the garage.
"Ok. That sounds like a plan. We hang out in Lyndon and you stay at the house. What then? We can't stay gone forever. Neither can you. You're family might find you faster this time."
"I know. I had over five years to relax in Lyndon. I have a feeling my small town days are over. But the rent's paid on the apartment through the end of the year. I've already phoned the owner and explained that I had to hide from some rabid fans- remember, he still thinks I'm a writer- and that I was sending over some friends to lead them astray if they came back."
"That would be us?"
"You bet. I told him you both were a bit strange. For me to say that means he will be expecting a couple of real loons."
"Thank you so very much."
"You're welcome. It also means he'll leave you completely alone. You shouldn't have any problems at all. Just keep a low profile and take time to heal."
"What are you going to do while we hide and heal?"
"Plot my next move. I have a bad feeling I'm going to be doing some serious travelling soon. It's going to take time to get ready to disappear again."
"What about the apartment? Are you going to come back to it?"
"I doubt it. Some one will always be looking for me there."
"What about all your stuff?"
"There wasn't that much there, really. What you can do over the next few weeks is slowly mail it all back to your house one box at a time. You might even be able to just fit it all in your car when you come back. Leave the furniture. It came with the apartment."
Steve reached into a pocket and came up with a door key on a leather string- the key to his apartment. Ray carefully took the key and added it to the small collection of items in his left pocket. Ray was new to this left-handed thing. It was going to take him quite sometime to get used to it. The waitress delivered three ice teas and took their order. She'd been on duty since before the restaurant opened at ten and hadn't seen any television. Ray was just another customer. Just a man in dark glasses and carrying a jacket in the heat of Summer. Nothing out of the ordinary there. With the food ordered, the waitress left. No thrill in her life. An envious situation for those at the table. Barbara wanted more details on The Plan.
"So what are we supposed to be doing in Lyndon while you live in the lap of luxury with indoor plumbing?"
"Come on, the apartment's not that bad. That toilet can be made to flush as often as twice a week. And Lyndon's ok. You do have the television hooked to a dish and Ray won't miss his precious Internet."
"How nice for him. What about me?"
"You'll find books on bird watching and other outdoor activities on the shelves. The surrounding fields and woods can be both entertaining and educational. I've learned a lot about the outdoors out there over the last few months. Even in daylight."
Barbara lost whatever smile she may have had.
"Which brings us back to the serious question: How bad are they in Lyndon?"
"I've never had one fall out of a tree on me, if that's what you mean. They're out there in the woods, in the old stands of oak trees, but they are very shy. You'll be lucky to see one in the time you'll be there. Even if you went looking at night. Which I doubt you'll do?"
"You got that right."
Ray had been sitting quietly, taking in the conversation without saying a word. When he spoke, he almost whispered.
"What about me?"
Both Barbara and Steve stopped. Ray sounded hoarse and not at all well. Were his injuries more serious than they had been led to believe? Ray didn't look good at all. Very pale behind those dark glasses. Barbara was concerned about her husband. Maybe they should just drive him right back to the hospital and weather whatever storm was brewing here in town. Steve could stay at their house or go on his merry way. It wasn't worth the risk.
"Are you alright? You look a bit pale."
"No, I'm ok. I guess. It just feels funny to not sleep. I don't like it. Less energy and no concentration. What I am worried about is making sure I get the antibiotics I need and the bandages changed and all like that. I'm the walking wounded here and you want me to run. I'm not sure I can walk."
The table fell silent. He was right. He was not in any condition to go running across the countryside and hiding out in a strange town. It would be difficult enough in the best of health. Steve didn't know what to say. There was no Plan B. Once again, food saved the day. The waitress heaped the table with plates of food and baskets of bread. A feast. All paid for by that fifty dollar bill out of Ray's bathrobe pocket, courtesy of the tabloids. They all ate in silence for quite some time. Plates were emptied and glasses refilled. After a while, it was Ray who spoke again. Much stronger this time.
"Ok, that's better. I know what went wrong. Missed breakfast. Had a snack in the cafeteria, but not nearly enough. I'm going to have to eat a lot more to keep my energy level up if I'm going to be awake all the time."
Steve shook his head. Now he remembered.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I should have warned you. You'll probably end up eating five good meals a day now instead of three. Maybe six at first. Your body will slowly re-adjust, but it's going to take months before you're back to three meals and a late night snack. You can eat more, but don't bother with the caffeine. You won't need it."
"That's the only up side I've heard so far."
"That's about the only up side there is."
"I'll get the antibiotics prescription from your doctor, get it filled and have it in your hands by tomorrow morning. Also, you'll get a big package of bandages and everything else you'll need."
Barbara was still worried. That wound on Ray's arm was serious.
"What about the stitches on his arm? A doctor's going to have to take care of those."
"Yes, and I think you're doctor is just the man for the job. I'll bet he would even make house calls. In Lyndon."
"You have got to be kidding, Steve. Doctors don't make house calls here in town, let alone in another state."
"They do if they don't want a very serious lawsuit and possible action from the AMA. I'll have my lawyer handle all the paperwork. That will let him know we're serious. I'm sure that the good doctor will be happy to take care of you, in spite of the distance. And you can be sure he's going to keep his mouth shut this time. His license is on the line here. To say nothing of all the bad publicity.
Ray and Barbara Meadows could only sit and stare at each other. It looked like, once again, Mister Steve Vaan had pulled it off. The Big Plan might just work. It had better. There was no Plan B. Ray gave it his seal of approval.
"How about dessert? I'm buying."
In spite of their better judgment, they all had dessert. Ray needed it, so they went along for the ride. Pecan pie a la mode. The perfect end to a big Bar-B-Que lunch. Barbara and Steve were stuffed. Ray was merely full for the time being. A little sugar buzz from the pie had him on edge and ready to move. The fifty dollar bill covered the three dinners, desserts and left a very nice tip for the waitress, who may have never seen a fifty dollar bill before. She accepted it just the same. Outside the restaurant's front door, Steve stopped walking toward the car as soon as they were outside. Barbara was puzzled by the sudden halt.
"Come on- we need to get you home."
"No, you don't."
"What are you going to do- live here on Bar-B-Que and pecan pie?"
"I'm taking a cab."
"That's ridiculous."
"This whole thing is ridiculous. I'm still taking a cab."
"And why is that?"
"Because I can guarantee you that everyone in town is looking for you. Maybe even the police. Ray's a famous guy now who, if you'll remember, has just disappeared from a local hospital. You're on the lam. Go. I'll catch a cab back to the hospital where I'm going to have a little chat with your doctor. Then I'll head over to your house- I will need the key, by the way- and see what's shaking on Compton Road. But you can't be there. Not now. Take your time getting to Lyndon- stop for an afternoon meal and I'll call you tonight. Now go."
Barbara handed over the house keys to Steve. It was a reluctant parting all around. With little argument, Ray and Barbara made their way through the parking lot to their car as Steve stood and watched them go. He wanted to make sure they headed off in the right direction. You never know. With the car gone, Steve turned to the pay phone outside the restaurant. Good old Yellow Cab. They were everywhere. Two thousand years from now, archaeologists digging up the remains of this civilization will probably identify Yellow Cab as the all pervasive religion of North America. It was everywhere, on every public phone. Steve dialed the number and called himself a cab. Somebody had to do it, and once again he was alone.
Steve made it to the house, after cornering Ray's doctor at the hospital, about the time Barbara and Ray Meadows were crossing the state line from Indiana into Illinois. It was a trip they had already taken several times, as you well know. This time it was different. It's one thing to go for a planned trip, knowing what you're in for and when you'll be back. It's quite another to be on the run with no idea of how it's going to end. Or when you'll be able to go home again. Or if. They were so preoccupied with the situation they managed to pass those infamous stands of trees west of Croydon without so much as a glance out the side window. Yes, there were still tire marks all over the road, fresh ones even. Neither Ray or Barbara bothered to look. They were so wrapped up in their own thoughts that Barbara almost missed the turn off at Grayville. Good brakes saved the day.
Ever the stealthy one- maybe Arthur Crutchfield's old nickname could have been put to good use on Steve Vaan- Steve (the New Stoat?) Vaan- made sure his last cab ride, from the hospital, only brought him within two blocks of the Meadows house. He planned to walk in very carefully from there. It was still only the middle of the afternoon and blazing hot. It was August in full swing. Cloudless and bright. Sweat City, especially for a guy who preferred to wear black. Steve took his time and walked in the shade as much as he could. His meeting with the doctor went well, as he had expected. The box he had left with contained enough tape, bandages, ointments and antibiotics to staff a walk-in clinic for a month. Blackfriars would have been envious. Arthur Crutchfield would have been proud. A quick stop at the post office made sure the box would be at his apartment- now Barbara and Ray's apartment- in Lyndon the next day. Making the turn onto Compton Road, Steve saw that mailing the box of medical supplies right away had been a good idea. There were people on the Meadows' front lawn. Neighbors or news? Tough to tell. Only one thing to do, and he kept right on doing it: Walk right into the thick of it.
South of Grayville, Illinois on U. S. 45, the Meadows' sedan purred along the road, air conditioned keeping things cool and Ray fading by the moment. Time for a feed stop at- where else?- the Forty-Five Cafe. Both Barbara and Ray felt entirely too safe now. They were in another state. No one would know them here. Except for the waitress, of course. But even she didn't really know them. They'd be safe here. Besides, Ray had to eat. Now. Barbara pulled into the glaring white gravel parking lot and was able to park the car right next to the building. Looks like they'll be dining alone this afternoon. Unless the waitress was hungry. Ray was able to open the passenger side front door and gingerly climb out of the car. Those legs were tender and didn't care too much for all this walking just yet. He hobbled along next to the building, counting the steps before he could sit down. Someplace close to the door. Barbara Meadows kept a close eye on her husband. He was not walking all that well, and sure didn't need to fall on that arm. Better be there, just in case.
The front lawn of the Meadows' house was an interesting combination of neighbors and newsies. It was easy enough for Steve to figure out which was who. If they were talking, they were neighbors. Except for Jake Jacobson, who seemed to be toward the back of the crowd, just watching. Steve made a mental note that he'd need to keep a closer eye on any one keeping that close an eye. Right now, that would be Jake. Jake's wife, Carol, was right in the thick of it, babbling with the best of them. The reporters from three different papers (two local, one tabloid), and the two photographers were having a field day. Everyone wanted to talk. The most ironic attendance had to be the Meadows' immediate neighbors- from the bedroom side of the house. It was upon their roof that Ray first saw a climber those long months ago. Now here they were with nothing to say. One and all proclaimed Ray Meadows to be a fine upstanding citizen and a great neighbor. Hope he's ok, can't wait until he's home. Ray was everybody's best friend.
Had Ray Meadows been killed by his unfortunate run-in with fate, their stories might have been decidedly different. Ever notice that when neighbors are interviewed? If the perpetrator/victim/loony is still alive and/or in custody, he gets nothing but glowing reviews from his friends and neighbors. Great guy, salt of the earth, best buddy, and so on and so on. Do you suppose all those people are living in fear that the Wack-O might be watching the news in the jail or the hospital and just might hear what they have to say about him? Hmmm. It's possible. Now if you take that same situation, but the perpetrator/victim/loony is in fact quite dead- really most sincerely dead- you'll hear a completely different song and dance: He was a total nut case; should have been locked up years ago; we all knew he'd snap some day. Oh, yeah: friends to the bitter end.
Jake spotted Steve coming up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. A discrete motion to Steve had him cross over out of view and Jake began a very nonchalant sort of walk in that general direction. Everyone, reporters and neighbors alike, were so busy being important, no one noticed that Jake had wandered off. That's ok. He wasn't saying much anyway. Jake met Steve two houses away, now on the same side of the street, and immediately turned him around to walk him away from the house. It was casual and smooth as silk. No one even looked their way. Jake had too many questions and he didn't just suspect Steve had the answers: He knew it.
"I hope you've sent them into hiding for awhile."
"They won't be home tonight, if that's what you mean."
"I figured as much. Carol called the hospital to warn Barbara about the reporters. That's when we found out Ray was gone."
"The hospital said that?"
"They said he had been released under the doctor's supervision. Wouldn't say to where. They don't know where he is, do they?"
Steve just smiled. That was all the answer Jake had expected to get.
"Where we going Jake?"
"Just around the block until the reporters leave. They aren't really getting any answers there. I figure they'll split right about the beginning of happy hour at the nearest bar. I give them thirty minutes. You hungry?"
"I'm always hungry."
"Come on, let's grab the car and find some food."
"What about Carol?"
"She's having too much fun back there. Let her have her fifteen minutes of fame."
"Better her than me."
"That's what I figured."
A couple of hundred miles to the southwest of this scene, Barbara and Ray Meadows were in the middle of a rather expansive afternoon snack. Against Steve Vaan's advice, Ray Meadows was quaffing down ice tea like it was going out of style. Why not? He wasn't going to sleep tonight anyway. May as well load up on the stuff and watch endless reruns for the rest of his life. Ray was not in the best of moods. Barbara was working her way through a salad. She knew that if Ray was going to be going through five or six meals a day, she'd better figure out a way to moderate her own food intake. She wasn't going to be able to keep up with him, meal for meal.
The waitress- of course it was the same waitress- was happy to see them and bubbling over with charm. Or something. She was bubbling over, either way. Did she know? Had she seen the Indianapolis news this far away? Barbara thought about it while Ray ate. If the waitress recognized them from the news today, she knew where they'd be heading from here: Lyndon. All she'd have to do is call the hospital- or the police- and they'd be on their trail in no time. But had they broken the law? Barbara was a little vague on that. Ray had checked out of the hospital without actually checking out of the hospital. That might complicate insurance matters, but it probably wasn't illegal. He had a good excuse, anyway: The doctor had sort of breached security or something. She knew that wasn't right. Ray wasn't safe in the hospital and they couldn't go home. Ok, that sounded better. No laws broken? No laws broken. Maybe.
Monty's in Greenwood, Indiana had a grand total of two customers in for late afternoon lunches that day, counting both of them. Steve Vaan (or was that Steve Meadows?) and Jake Jacobson walked into the cool darkness of the air conditioned dining room and found a table near the kitchen. It was a hungry guy thing. We think we'll get the food quicker if we're near the cook. With the oppressive heat of the day wearing them down, both men ordered cold sandwiches for a change of pace. Seemed like a good idea. Then again, in spite of the heat, Jake was more than willing to grill Steve.
"I don't need to know where they went or when they'll be back, but I do have one question."
"Just one?"
"Just one: What's the cage for?"
Steve's fixed smile never waivered. His mind was spinning out of control looking for an answer, but the smile never failed. After a short moment that seemed to last forever, Steve came up with the best answer he could.
"Ray says he saw something out there in the yard."
"The thing that attacked him?"
Should Steve point out that the thing didn't actually attack? That it was just a little clumsy and fell? Would that be saying too much? Steve backed off.
"Maybe. I'm not sure."
"Ok, but the cage was built before he tangled with this animal. He must have known something was out there, right? That cage was built for a reason, and don't even think about trying to tell my it's some sort of hydro electric project."
"I wouldn't dream of it. And yes, he must have known. Or maybe he was planning to buy a pet for Barbara."
"One that required a concrete reinforced cage? Doubtful. He loves his wife, that much I know. So what's out there?"
"I'm not sure."
"Not sure or not saying?"
"A little bit of both."
Steve's smile was still there, but he knew now he'd have to tell Jake more than he really wanted to. Could Jake be trusted with the truth? Oh, boy. Tough call. Steve wanted to stall a bit longer before he said anything about the climbers.
"Look, what I want to know is this: Is there something dangerous out there , what is it and what can he do about it?"
"That's three questions- I thought you said you have only one."
"Not funny. What's out there?"
"There's an animal living in some of the trees in that area."
"What kind of animal?"
"I honestly don't know what it is."
"Some kind of wild animal? Somebody's pet got loose? What?"
"A wild animal- it may have been a pet or it's ancestors may have been pets- and now it's loose in the trees."
"How dangerous?"
"It's a herbivore. We know that much."
"Don't start with that hydropottics stuff again."
"No, no. A herbivore. A vegetarian. A plant eater. Mostly harmless."
"Tell that to Ray."
"Ray said what happened was an accident."
"An accident?"
"Jake, do you think that thing attacked Ray?"
"Yes, don't you?"
"No, I don't. I think it fell."
"Fell? Out of the tree?"
"That's the idea."
"But it lives in the trees. How could it fall?"
"It lives in the trees now. Here. But suppose it came from a place where there weren't trees. Maybe it lived in rocks. The trees are just a poor substitute. It's not really a tree climber."
Oops. Steve said the magic word. Would Jake pick up on it?
"So if this climbing animal isn't from around here, where is it from?"
At the Forty-Five Cafe in Harrisburg, Ray and Barbara Meadows had just finished Lunch II and were sitting in the car. The windows were rolled down and the car was warming up. Time to finish this drive to Lyndon. Had the waitress figured out who they were from the daily news? They decided not. She was just happy to see anyone who might be considered a regular customer. And they sort of were now. With the AC on and the windows up, the Meadows rolled out of the restaurant's parking lot pointed south toward their new, and hopefully temporary, home.
As Barbara drove, Ray picked up the bag the sunglasses had come in. The bag was not empty. Something else in there. Ray carefully- if clumsily- opened the bag and looked in. His puzzled look got Barbara's attention even as she drove.
"What is it?"
"Don't know. Small box in here."
"So pull it out already. Let's see."
Ray reached in slowly with his left hand. He was going to have to get used to using his left hand for awhile. It was all his right hand could do to hold the bag. On the second try, he came back out with the small box that was in the bag. A woman with black hair graced the front of the box. Very black hair. Barbara recognized the item and immediately figured out its purpose and Steve's intent. Her laughter distracted Ray, who was trying hard to study the box and figure out why he was even holding it.
"What? What is it?"
"Hair coloring. Very black."
"Why? Are you going to color your hair?"
"No, but I think you are."
"Whoa, there. Think again. Why would I color my hair?"
"So you look more like Steve. Think about it: You're both about the same height and weight. You're hair's lighter, that's all. We dye your hair and most of the people in Lyndon will never know you aren't him."
"What about you?"
"I think they'll figure out that I'm not him, don't you?"
"Ok, ok, ok. But why? Why go through all the trouble?"
"You don't want to do this, do you?"
"No I don't. Not without a very good reason. And so far, I haven't heard it."
"How about this: The more people think you're Steve, the fewer questions we have to answer. No perceived change, no possible hassle. How about that?"
"How about I just wear a hat?"
Back at Monty's, Jake was still throwing out questions between bites of a rather large Italian submarine sandwich. Steve had been hungry, but still had to eat slower to answer all the questions. After he thought about them first.
"So you've seen this thing in the tree?"
Sometimes the simplest of questions can trip you up if you give the wrong answer. Steve had been very careful about what he had said so far. He was trying to downplay the extent of the climber's existence and history. Up to now, he had done pretty good.
"Not this one."
Oops. Jake put his sandwich down. The implication was immediately recognized by Mister Jacobson. Not this one? Then which one? And where? His sandwich remained on his plate. This was news.
"These are more wide-spread than just Ray Meadows' back yard, aren't they? You've seen one, but not this one? What is this? Some kind of weird alien life form slowly taking over the Earth one tree at a time?"
Steve Vaan nearly choked on his sandwich. Was that what it was doing? Is that why it was there? No. Of course not. It was just some sort of odd little alien pet thing. About as intelligent as a smart dog. And it could be just as dangerous. It did not get here alone. Steve had to think long and hard about that one. It did not get here alone. Some one- something- put it here. On purpose? Maybe. But why? Now Steve had questions, and poor Jake Jacobson wasn't going to be the one to answer them. Steve could see a trip to England in his very near future, but right now he had to answer a less than stupid question. Steve opted for the "That must be a joke" response. It was all he had.
"Yeah, right. They're taking over the Earth and mankind is doomed. Meanwhile, I'd like to finish my sandwich before they win the war and nuke the White House."
Maybe it worked. Jake seemed to back off a bit. They ate in silence for a few minutes, absorbed as they were in the glories of Italian fast food. Or as close as the Italians get to fast food. When the conversation did finally pick back up the subject had changed- much to Steve surprise.
"You're not from Chicago, are you?"
"What makes you say that?"
"I don't know. Wrong accent. Wrong attitude. And the fact that I'm from Chicago."
"And we've never met? It's a big town."
"Yeah, it is. What part you from?"
"No you're not. You really Ray's cousin?"
This was it. Truth time. Ok, sort of truth time. More truth than Steve Vaan really wanted to tell Jake Jacobson. But maybe he could trust him. At least for as long as he'd be in town. And how long would that be? Not very, the way things were going.
"Alright, the truth: No, I'm not Ray's cousin. I'm only here for a short time to help Ray out in his time of need- so to speak. As soon as things settle down a bit, I'm gone. And yes, I've seen what Ray saw the other night. Not the same one, but under similar circumstances. I was considerably luckier. What we both saw was animal that no one seems to know about. It's not in any zoo or in any book. Like many wild animals, it seems to be harmless enough until you corner it. It packs an electrical charge like a moray eel, has teeth for eating plants but had claws like shark's teeth. They all seem to live in trees and only come out at night. I have no idea where it came from, or even if it is native to this planet. Any more questions?"
Sometimes the best way to stop the flow of questions is a flood of answers. Steve just said more on the subject of climbers (to an almost complete stranger) than he ever thought he would. Especially to Jake. He did it for no other reason than to strengthen his resolve to leave. Soon. Jake Jacobson still didn't know Steve's real last name or where he was from- the Meadows didn't even know that. So he felt he still had some privacy, if only for the moment. Jake hadn't blinked. He looked numb as he tried to mentally file that sudden rush of too much information. Steve couldn't resist one last gem:
"And they're called Climbers."
That was all it took to wake Jake. He blinked and looked around like he had just been hypnotized at a party and was afraid he had done something immensely stupid. Did anybody see? No one there. The restaurant was still empty except for Steve, Jake and the employees. Steve took another bite of his sandwich. Still hungry. Jake finally came out of his daze.
"Is Ray going to be ok?"
Ray, at that moment, was more or less ok. He was sitting in the front passenger's seat of the car as Barbara drove slowly through Lyndon, Illinois. Yes, they had been there before. Several times. Yes, they knew the way to Steve's apartment- but maybe not quite by heart yet. The only difference this time was the circumstances surrounding the trip. In the past, it was always a quick trip out and back to visit Steve. Now it was- to what? To regroup? To recover from injuries? To hide out? All of the above? Neither would say anything as they cruised those last quiet blocks through the small town. It was a nice enough town, and they were looking at it as though it were the first time they'd been there. This time they were going to stay. For awhile, anyway. Maybe they'd better have a look around this time on the way in. What was there, really?
The post office was on the main road, in the midst of what had to be the business district. A small grocery store on one side and a variety store on the other kept the small government building from feeling lonely. Further down the road, a nationally franchised drug store- probably the chain's smallest- was near one of two restaurants in the town. The other was further out by the one and only motel. The entertainment and/or night life was provided by a Dairy Kurl near the motel. Not quite a third restaurant. This was certainly the town's focal point during the warm summer months. There were a few other shops and stores, a combined tack and feed hardware store for instance, but most of the other stores were more transitory in nature. There really wasn't much of a town there to support any frivolous amenities or impulse shopping. You get what you need, not what you want. Anything but the most basic item, and you're talking a trip to Carbondale. Then again, that's not a bad thing. If you were stuck in Lyndon you'd be looking for excuses to go to Carbondale, too. I know I would.
Barbara Meadows wheeled that big sedan up the narrow drive to the garage apartment without a second thought. This was it. Home away from home. The driveway itself was one of those vintage (old) items with just two concrete paths- one for the left wheels and one for the right. Big strip of grass right down the middle. You just don't see that much any more. Like, not at all. Barbara put the car right down those grey concrete strips like she'd done it a thousand times. Maybe she will before it's all over. Car parked, engine off and there they were. Now what?
Opening the door with no small amount of trepidation, Barbara was still out of the car and standing in the yard before Ray could manage his way out of his side. Those legs were tender, and flexing them was not pleasant. Sitting was fine, standing was fine. It was that moving around stuff that got him. He couldn't wait to try the stairs. He was figuring on only having to climb up those things one time and just stay put until he healed. That's what he was figuring, anyway. Ray did manage to get out of the car and on those damaged hind legs before someone (their new landlord?) came around the side of the house and saw them. A quick change of direction put this guy headed right for Barbara. Ray would have to hobble around the car. Later.
Samuel T. Bornan (just Sam to his friends) had lived in Lyndon all his life. So had his parents. So would his children. He lived in the house his father built and he was sure his son would be living there long after he was gone. If there is a comfort in the status quo, Sam Bornan was wallowing in comfort. He farmed a bit of acreage outside of town and did odd-job mechanical repairs to folks' cars, trucks and machinery from time to time. He could have worked as a mechanic in any bigger city, even being as honest as he was, but choose to stay in Lyndon. He could keep busy right there. Not nearly as tall as Ray (or Steve), he made up for it with a bit of girth. Not heavy, mind you, but he wasn't what you'd call skinny. Sort of extra medium. Stocky might cover it. Sam had been working in his own back yard on the lawn tractor when he heard a car pull up in the drive. He was expecting the Meadows, so this had to be them. Time to see what sort of friends that writer Mister Vaan had out in the wide world. He made sure he wiped his hands before he came around the building. Got to be sociable, after all. Once around the corner, he did what any real man would do: Made a bee line for the blonde.
"Hi, you must be Mister V.'s friends."
He meet Barbara with a smile and a handshake.
"Yes, I'm Barbara and this is my husband Ray."
"Hi, Ray."
After that initial, if limited, exchange of pleasantries, Sam decided it was in his best interest to direct his conversation to Barbara. That Ray guy looked like maybe he didn't travel so well. Kind of pale.
"I'm Sam Bornan- this is my place. I guess Steve told you all about it?"
"No- not a word, really. We like surprises."
"Not many surprises here. Hope you like peace and quiet, too."
"I'm sure it will do just fine."
"You've been here before, I've seen this car. I guess you know where you're headed and all. If you need anything just yell. I'll hear you."
"Thank you, Sam."
Barbara elected to keep the car windows down- to test that small town charm and all- and walked around to the other side of the car to help Ray up the stairs. Even she could see that those stairs were going to be a real bear. Ray waved her off- he wanted to do this alone. She went to the trunk and hauled out a couple of the over stuffed duffle bags. May as well make herself useful. She was past Ray and up the stairs before he made it to the first step at the bottom. Go ahead Barbara, rub it in.
It only took that first step to tell Ray it was going to be a long vertical haul up those stairs. He tested his other leg on the next one and found it no less painful. Ok, he could play this game. He tried hopping, both feet at once, to the next level. Double pain. Ok, that certainly didn't work. But he was three steps up and that was a start. It would just have to be slow and slower, up and up. Barbara went by him on her way back down, trying to not look like such a show off. She couldn't help it. She wanted to feel like she was doing something and not just waiting for Ray to drag his sorry carcass up those stairs. By the time Ray made it to the top landing at the apartment's front door, Barbara had all the bags upstairs. Ray was a tangled mass of pain. If he had to go back to the first floor now, he'd jump and be done with it. Barbara enticed him inside with a cool drink. That sounded better than jumping.
Life for Steve Vaan in Greenwood, Indiana, wasn't nearly so bucolic as Lyndon but it had calmed down quite a bit. After lunch with Jake Jacobson, the two of them drove back to Jake's house, and Steve decided it was time to try again with that getting into the Meadows' house thing. The fact that Carol was back home was a good sign. Jake had promised to keep it all to himself about the climbers. Steve figured that meant he had about four hours before Carol knew everything. Six at the outside. Probably less than one in reality. Around the corner and headed down Compton Road, Steve saw no one on the lawn. No cars or vans parked anywhere on the street and no one seemed to be lurking in the bushes. It would be ironic, he thought, if the reporters were hiding in the trees. He had to look. No reporters in the trees. There was, however, a pick up truck parked way up in the driveway. Had that been there before? It certainly wasn't there this morning. Now that he was closing on the front door he could see that there was some one sitting on the floor of the front porch. Now that some one was standing up. Steve kept looking at the man as he walked up to the steps. He didn't look like a reporter, and appeared to be puzzled to see Steve come up the walk. A friend of the Meadows? That seemed likely. And hopeful. Whoever he was, he was on his feet at the front door. Steve would have to talk his way past him to get in. Or just deck him and pitch him off the porch into the yard. Steve decided to maybe talk to the guy first. He could always deck him later if he had to. Talk first.
"Hi, how you doing?"
"Ok, but you aren't Ray."
"No, and neither are you."
Steve made a point of going around this guy to get to the front door. He had the key out of his pocket and in the lock before whoever this was could block his way. Was this guy going to be a problem? Steve hoped not. It would be nice to just get inside and relax. He wasn't used to all these people. Had he become countrified? He shuddered at the thought. Time to move to the big city. Any big city. As soon as possible.
"I'm Paul Scoggins. I work with Ray. You?"
"Steve Meadows. Ray's cousin."
Steve managed to unlocked the door without looking like he wasn't used to it. Now all he had to do was get inside. Alone.
"So how is Ray? We heard he had some sort of accident, then we see this stuff on the news about some kind of wild animal attack."
"Don't believe everything you hear on the news, Paul. Ray's fine. Matter of fact, I've got to get some stuff back to him at the hospital so he can come home."
"So you think he's still in the market for a pick-up truck?"
It's nearly impossible to type the sound of mental gears grinding in one's head after a curve like that. Ok, it is impossible. Steve's brain ground to a halt and slid to the side of the mental highway. Right into the ditch. SKWERNGCK! (Say, that was pretty close to the right sound.) Huh? What? Pick-up truck? Ray?
"You have a pick-up truck for Ray?"
"Yeah, if he's interested. We talked about it the other day. It's around the side- Have a look."
"Ok, don't mind if I do."
Steve made a point of re-locking the front door before following Paul around the side of the house to the drive. On closer inspection, the truck didn't look nearly so new and fresh as it had when Steve walked up the drive toward the door. Twenty years old if it was a day, the paint was faded along the top surfaces, the rear bumper had been hit and the bed was full of... stuff. Steve couldn't quite figure out what- it seemed to be a random collection of… stuff. No other word covers it. Tree branches, motor parts, a car tire still on the rim, a five gallon plastic bucket or two and much, much more. Steve decided if it was a hydraulic dump bed he'd buy it himself, just to watch all the trash tumble out at the first opportunity. No such luck- no dump bed. Paul gave Steve the truck's pitch.
"It's a '72 GMC, straight six, automatic. No air, AM radio and way too many miles."
"How's the transmission?"
"It got me here."
"The brakes?"
"Didn't hit the garage door."
"The price?"
"Eight hundred."
Here's where I wish I were as cool a player as Steve. I'm not. Some one gives me a price, I give them an immediate response. Good price? I grin, whoop and start forking over the cash, no questions asked. A fool and his money are soon partying. Bad price? I mumble my thank you's and tell them I'll have to think about it. Then I never do. It almost never occurs to me to play it cool and make a counter-offer. I just gladly pay the price. Or not. The only up-side to this (that I can possible invent) is that ever so often I pay the initial asking price so fast and so willingly that I can take some comfort in the thought that the seller probably spent the next week kicking himself for not asking more. Some small comfort, I know, but it's all I've got to fall back on. Like I said, I'm not nearly as cool as Steve Vaan who is even now circling the truck in silent appraisal. After one walk-around, he had his plan.
"Did Ray mention why he wanted a truck?"
"Nope. I know they've only got the one car. I figured he just decided to add a second vehicle. Trucks are good for that."
"Yeah, they are. And you're probably right. They could use a second something."
"You think he'd be interested in this one?"
"For eight hundred dollars? He just might. Tell you what: I expect him to be home some time tomorrow. Of course, he's probably going to be pretty worn out from all the fuss and excitement. How about you call late tomorrow and maybe bring it by for him the day after? How's that sound?"
"Yeah, I could do that, no problem. So he's ok?"
"Oh, yeah, fine. Just needs a couple of days to relax before he comes back to work. I'll bet a week off will do wonders for him."
"A week off does wonders for anybody."
"You got that right."
Steve had managed to work all this into a closing conversation as he made his way with Paul back down the driveway toward the walk to the front porch. He was hoping to leave Paul here and head for the door.
"Look, I've got a couple things to do here before I head back to the hospital for Ray- I'll tell him you were here. Don't be surprised if he gives you a call later."
With that, Steve made a move for the front door. Paul Scoggins, much to Steve's relief, headed back for the truck. He was going. Steve had pulled it off. Cool.
"Ok, tell him I was by. Thanks."
"See you."
With that, Steve was down the walk, up the steps and at the front door. He heard the old truck fire up and start to back down the driveway. Sounded pretty good, actually. Ray could do a lot worse than buying that old truck. Too bad he will never hear about it. Not from Steve, anyway. Paul gave a wave as he backed out on to the street and put the beast in drive. It didn't stall, or clunk, or belch a mosquito-killing oil fog. Good truck. Paul let it roll down the street without bothering with the gas pedal. Nice and easy. Steve made sure the front door was locked and retreated to the kitchen. He knew he wouldn't be here long and he didn't need another delay or interruption. He could, however, pause for a cold drink.
Out on Compton Road, Paul Scoggins was a worried man. Who was that guy claiming to be Ray's cousin? He had a key to the house, but he said Ray was in the hospital. Paul had stopped there first. No Ray. As a matter of fact, they were all a little cagey at the hospital about the exact whereabouts of Mister Ray Meadows. Something was up, and it wasn't the moon. There was something going on here and Paul didn't like it at all. This was no practical joke. It was time to get serious. Paul contemplated his next move as Steve put his own moves into action.
Out of the kitchen and up the stairs, Steve was wondering if Barbara had left another one of those nylon duffle bags in the closet. He knew he'd need to borrow one- and maybe a coat or two for his escape. North. He'd have to go north. Way north. Digging through the closet, Steve found a bag- maybe a little on the large side, but it would certainly work. Now what about a coat? Ray looked through the closet and came up with one medium weight waist length zip-up grey coat. Very non-descript. Very Ray. Nothing heavy. It was August- They probably had all the heavy stuff packed away. Of course they did. Wouldn't need it for another month or two. Steve crammed the coat in the duffle and did manage to find a woolly hat on the upper shelf. That would help. Into the bag. Maybe there's a hall closet or back bedroom or something where they keep some coats. Steve had this sudden urge to be gone. Now. He backed out of the closet and started for the door when he saw it.
Right there on the dresser. In plain view in plain sight. Had it been there when they were so busy stuffing the bags for Ray's escape? It must have been. Both he and Barbara had been so hurried they overlooked it. Steve would have mentioned it if he had seen it. Wouldn't he? He knew Ray would eventually be needing his wallet, even if he wasn't driving. A man needs his wallet. So now maybe Steve needs this one. Was it stealing? Well, yes, it was. But for a good cause, Your Honor. Steve was going to need to be somebody other than Steve Vaan. Just for a little while.
Outside, in the real world, that old pick up truck was parked alongside a convenience store. Paul Scoggins was out of the truck, standing at the pay phone. This was going to be a tough job: Convincing the police that there was something wrong- something going on at the Meadows house. Ray had disappeared- maybe Barbara had, too. And that guy in the house was either lying or stupid. Right now, Paul didn't care which. Just call the police. maybe they'd go by the house and ask a few questions. Ok, so maybe everything was ok. Maybe it was all on the up and up and this guy really was helping Ray out. Then again- maybe not. Paul called the police, and the police answered.
Steve went through that wallet with a clinical precision. He knew what he needed, and he knew what he didn't need to take. The cash stayed, along with Ray's ATM cards and gas company credit cards. No need for that Sears card, either. Of the three major credit cards, two remained. One was going for a trip- but strictly for identification purposes. Maybe the old line was true- and it would be everywhere he wanted to be. Ray's driver's license and employee I.D. followed that one card, but his magnetic door pass remained. Two photo I.D's and a credit card, that's all he needed. Ray might not even miss them right away. Steve figured he only needed them for about two days. The confusion alone would give him one day. He might even mail them back. Maybe.
Paul was back in his truck, having finished his call to the police. They had been professional and courteous, but even Paul knew that this had to be a very low priority for them. There was some vagueness about whether or not any crime had actually been committed and whether or not Ray Meadows was indeed missing. But the police promised to send an officer by to talk to Steve Meadows and make sure he was supposed to be there in the house. Of course, they didn't say when.
The sun had dipped behind the storm clouds to the west when Steve walked out the back door of the Meadows' house, carefully locking the door behind himself as he went. He couldn't see those building clouds from the back yard, but he'd find them soon enough. The garage door was opened and the aging little yellow motorbike was wheeled out past that white PVC cage. The door was closed and again carefully locked. Steve wheeled the machine down the drive and set it on the center stand for a moment. A twist of the petcock, a turn of the key, a pull on the choke: One kick and it started. Some one had taken good care of this small beast of burden. As the bike warmed up, Steve added Ray's duffle bag (and its contents) to his own strapped to the back. Around to the front of the house, Steve bounded up the porch steps to the front door. A quick check and yes, it was locked. Steve slid the Meadows' house keys through the mail slot in the door. It was done. One stop for gas- and maybe a quart of oil- and he would be gone.
Out the drive and down the street, Steve was on the north side of town when the police cruiser pulled up to that house on Compton Road. The officer found the house to be locked up and dark. No one answered the door bell. A quick walk around showed the garage to be locked as well and nothing seemed out of place. Another false alarm. That's ok. Tedious paperwork beats a firefight any day of the week. The officer made note of her time on the scene and the relative lack of any real situation and drove one. That was an easy one.
Paul Scoggins, on yet another side of town, was starting to fidget over Ray Meadows. Or rather, over the lack of Ray Meadows. Where was that guy? Was Barbara with him? And who was that stranger at Ray's house? Who could Paul check with? No one at work seemed to know anything. What about Ray's neighbors? Should Paul start some sort of door-to-door search? That might be a bit drastic just yet. Besides, it was almost dark. No need to go stirring up trouble at night. He'd check around the offices at work tomorrow. Maybe somebody's heard from Ray.
If it was twilight in the suburbs south of Indianapolis, it should have been brighter to the west, towards that setting sun. Fact of the matter was, however, it was pitch dark and raining in Southern Illinois. A storm front had rolled through from the Midwest, bringing a cold wind and heavy rain. Lyndon was getting quite a scrubbing. Not that it needed it. The Meadows were huddled in their newfound sanctuary listening to the sound of the rain rise and fall with the gathering wind. It was nice to be safe, but it would have been nicer to be home. Had they known about the storm in time to leave, they just might have headed back- whether the reporters would have been waiting or not. They both felt completely disconnected from their own world. In a way, they were. Only Steve Vaan and this apartment's owner knew where they were. Now Steve was in the process of disappearing and the apartment owner didn't have a clue who they were or where they were from. It was right about then that Barbara Meadows remembered that she had left the car windows down. So much for small town security. The rain wouldn't care.
She found an umbrella- black, no surprise there- and left the safe dry warmth of that second floor apartment for the cold wet wind blowing across the landing outside. Peering into the darkness, she had to look twice. The car windows were up. Were they? Really? She opened the umbrella and started down the steps. Yes, they were up. Definitely up. By the time she got to the bottom of the steps, there was no doubt in her mind those windows were indeed up. She couldn't believe it. They were left down on purpose. A stupid purpose, she would admit, but on purpose either way. Standing there in the pouring rain, Barbara heard a door open at the back of the house and the porch light came on. Sam Bornan gave her a wave and a smile.
"Got your windows up for you- you're safe!"
All she could do was wave back and return the smile.
"Thank you!"
With a shake of her head she started back up the stairs. Sam went back inside and the back porch light went out. Amazing. She had never seen anything like that happen at home. You left your windows down in the rain? Gee, too bad. So sad. Must really smell, huh? Not here. Not now. Maybe this wasn't such a bad place to be after all. Could be worse. The car could be a rolling upholstered swimming pool about now. She made it back up the steps and into the apartment to find Ray at the computer. Some things never change, even if he did have to rely on his left hand most of the time.
Back in Indiana, it had been a forced sunset. The sun went down as the clouds came up. Outside Indianapolis, Steve Vaan (or is that Ray Meadows?) had gotten as far north as Frankfort on U. S. 421 before the storm finally caught him. He found a motel right downtown, booked a room and was prepared to ride out the storm in dry (if Spartan) comfort. With no one watching as he went to his room, he went ahead and wheeled the motorbike right inside. No reason to leave it out- Especially if anyone was looking for him. Once he had settled in, he took the time to do a little figuring: If the storm blew over tonight, he could be on the road in the morning before six. Even that small displacement engine on the bike could get him to Gary, Indiana by lunch. He'd leave the machine in the care of the local dealership in Gary and travel by train from there. Since no fugitive in his right mind would travel by train, it was the best choice. Who'd think he'd be that foolish? Hopefully nobody.
A quick check of the local phone book gave him his choices in fine dining close to the motel. He tried on Ray's grey coat and old woolly hat- kind of a navy blue sort of thing- before heading out into the rain in search of the Chinese restaurant three blocks away. Steve needed to eat to relax a bit and maybe not think so much. He might even get some sleep tonight, if only for a few hours. It was one thing to formulate a basic plan, and quite another to think the whole thing through to the smallest finite detail in the last five minutes. He needed to eat and give the ol' brain a rest. And call his lawyer. The poor guy was probably going nuts trying to figure out what was happening- and where Steve was. Dinner, phone call, motel, sleep. That's all the plan Steve needed for now. He found the restaurant and went inside. The decor was all red, black and gold. What a surprise. Let's all play count the dragons.

To Be Continued....

Return to the main table of contents for this novel http://www.republibot.com/content/original-fiction-climbers-chip-haynes-...

Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes