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

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN- The story folds back up.

In the ensuing weeks, all concerned had the chance to settle into their new surroundings. Steve Vaan had offered a suitable explanation to both Arthur Crutchfield and more importantly to the captain of the freighter Adalynne for his unconventional approach to trans-Atlantic travel and his sudden departure from the ship. Ray Meadows got along famously with Max, who in turn was as happy as any dog could be with a new master and a better life. Both had gotten used to apartment life in a small town. Barbara Meadows was safe and comfortable in her parents' house, recovering nicely from that nasty accident and not giving a second thought to climbers, tabloids or anything else. The tabloids never found her and the climbers were out of sight, for the time being.
Back in Greenwood, Indiana, Jake Jacobson found that the Meadows' house pretty much took care of itself after the reporters left. And that only took a week or so. The attention span of the American media is amazingly short. It wasn't long before there were other trendy-kooky stories to chase. At first, Jake felt a bit left out. In time, he was glad of it. Fame always looks more wonderful than it is. He was happy he could go where he wanted and do what he pleased without being hounded, followed and questioned at every turn. Fifteen minutes of fame? Sounded like about fourteen too many for Jake. He went over to the Meadows' house every day to collect the mail and check the answering machine. An easy enough life, and the walk couldn't hurt, either.
Ray was still convinced that he'd eventually hear from Steve- wherever he was. Hence, the answering machine was left on and the mail checked every day. Steve, on the other hand, was more than willing to just drop out of sight in another country. Which he did. He signed on as Crutchfield's gardener. Steve's first assessment of the grounds around the house were absolutely correct: It was a sort of sanctuary for climbers. He got along famously with the housekeeper who had answered the door that first day, and didn't mind at all being the Unknown Gardener. The odds on his family finding him here were slim indeed, and he intended to keep it that way. There would be no trans-Atlantic communication to Ray or anyone else. Maybe no one back there figured out what had happened. Maybe his former attorney- and his family- figured that he lost himself in New York City. He was right. They did. And they looked there, but never found him. Ray wasn't even looking. Just waiting. Steve would call when he was good and ready. Wouldn't he?
Settled in as the gardener, Steve had to do a bit of research. He had made himself familiar with plants and trees in Southern Illinois, but this was not Southern Illinois. It was colder and wetter and only a few of the trees were close to the same. The housekeeper (Anne) was kind enough to buy Steve the books he needed on her trips into town for food and things for the house. Steve was a quick learner, and before long he was spending his days roaming the grounds with a small array of tools to tend the little forest. Crutchfield's estate took in slightly less than ten acres, all hidden back off the small road. Near the back of the grounds was a small cottage set up for the occasional overnight, should anyone want to observe the climbers and need a place to stay. Originally built over a hundred years before, the cottage had started out as a simple storage shed for the gardener- then a forester- to keep tools and supplies in without having to walk back to the main building. Arthur Crutchfield had the place rebuilt in the 1960's to match the main house in style, but it was obviously newer. And now it had limited electricity and indoor plumbing. A real home away from home, complete with fireplace and loft. Still, not a bad place to spend the night. Steve did so at least twice a week. Anne- the housekeeper- knew the cottage was back there and would, in time, find her way there as well.
With Autumn coming on, the trees were offering less and less foliage for a climber's hiding. And what did climber's do in the winter? Steve had spent many an hour in the winter woods outside Lyndon without fully understanding what happened to the climbers in cold weather. They didn't hibernate, they didn't migrate. But they weren't all that active then, either. Maybe this would be just the place to answer that question. But he was going to need a warmer coat for this English winter. Would he have to go into town by himself? Hopefully not. He had avoided it so far. His travels through rural Illinois had quickly taught him the value of a warm coat. And a brightly colored warm coat in hunting season. Nothing worse than being mistaken for Bambi's mother. He should have brought that coat. Ah, well- Maybe Ray would put it to good use. If Ray was still in Lyndon.
Ray was, of course, still in Lyndon. Through the long weeks of August and into early September he had worked slowly to get his legs back in shape, first with walks around the small town, then out into the surrounding hills and fields. Steve had seen a reason to settle here. Now Ray would have to find that reason for himself. Steve had left precious little information behind on the local climber sightings. Sure, they were here- But where here? On foot, it was a big area full of few people. And no one, other than maybe Sam, that he could really come out and ask about the climbers. Sam wasn't much of a night person, so how much could Sam really have seen over the years? And how much did Steve tell him? Ray wanted very much to hear from Steve before he broached the subject with his new landlord. Meanwhile, Ray Meadows walked. His legs were getting better, the scars had healed, and his spirits were lifted by the cool weather of Fall. Max liked it, too.
The apartment now suited Ray and Max. There was a large dog bed next to the regular bed, even though they both slept out in the front room more often than not. Ray had settled into a routine not too different from Steve's, although maybe not quite so nocturnal. Max saw to that. They might stay up late, but not night after night. In the weeks he was more or less stuck in the apartment, Ray went through everything: His, hers, or Steve's. He found their gun that Barbara had in fact packed on their first trip to the place. It was well padded and hidden in the bottom of one of the duffle bags. So he was armed, as if he knew why. In his rummaging through the back room closet, Ray found binoculars- weird electric ones- and Steve's red barn coat. Wool lined, it looked both warm and worn. It just didn't look like Steve. Bright red? Steve was more of a black and white kind of guy. Maybe some muted tones, but certainly no bright colors. Why? Why was answered on the first day of hunting season when Sam Bronan stopped Ray from walking out of the yard in a brown coat. Now he knew why. And was glad to have the bright red coat- with no round holes in it.
The electric binoculars took awhile to figure out as well. Ray tried them one afternoon, just from the apartment window, and saw no advantage to them. He tried every switch, even replaced the batteries. Nope, no biggie. He saw no difference or advantage, no matter what he did that afternoon. It wasn't until he picked them up one night, on a whim to look at the rising moon, that he hit the right switch. Whoa! Forget the moon! Every detail of everything outside came in to perfect focus and clarity. Night vision binoculars. Of course! The better to see your climbers with. Ray developed a new-found respect for Steve's toys. What else did he have stashed around the place? Some digging through that back closet revealed a pair of old work boots- a little on the large size, but ok with two pair of socks. Perfect for cold walks in the woods, now that Ray was getting to the point that he could. So he did. Thanks to those walks, Ray was in better shape than he had been in many years. Too many years.
Max really lived for those walks, once Ray got so he could walk out of town. Max was in his element in the surrounding woods and fields. He could run and hide and play guard the human and chase the squirrel- all of his favorite games. And Ray, for his part, was a great master. He kept his coat full of doggie treats, and always came home with an empty coat. Ray had found Steve's USGS topo map of the surrounding countryside and used it to plan his walks. Steve, in his infinite wisdom (or was it paranoia?) had not marked on the maps in any way. No routes, no sightings, no sites. Nice, fresh, unmarked maps- That had obviously been used. Ok, so now Ray would used them. He worked out a series of walks, each about four miles or so in length. In continuing the paranoia, Ray used tracing paper over the maps to plot his walking routes. They covered the surrounding fields and woods fairly well. If there was anything going on out there, Ray and Max would (eventually) see it. He hoped.
By Labor Day, Ray Meadows had what he had wished for all summer. No, he didn't have a climber in a jar. He had a routine. A nice, dull, repetitive routine. Even Max could appreciate that. But was he any closer to having that climber in a jar? Ray had taken to hauling a small assortment of items with him on his walks: A notebook, pen and the little tape recorder, a small camera and a pocket full of dog biscuits. Even a length of rope, on the odd chance that he'd have to put a leash on Max. No idea why, but he was ready, just in case. With sunset coming a bit earlier each night, he added an item he had been reluctant to carry: the Walther PPK. Now he could knowing laugh at the joke: "Meadows, Ray Meadows." Ok, so it was his private joke. But at least he finally watched all the James Bond movies. And, as with so many before him, he saw Sean Connery as a god. But he still didn't really want to carry that gun. Not all the time, anyway. And it only took one night of surfing on the 'Net (in the automotive areas) to show him that it would be a while before there was an Aston-Martin parked in the driveway. In his driveway, anyway.
Surfing the Internet showed him some other things as well that September. Like the fact that the references to climbers were drying up and blowing away. Six months ago, there were several sites, if you knew where to look. Now there was one, and it hadn't been updated in about six weeks or more. Inquiries went unanswered and no new information appeared. No one was minding the store. Ray was not overly distraught. Maybe it was just as well. Hadn't he wished more than once that the whole thing would just go away? He had. Despite of that recurring wish, the climbers did not go away. Nor did his interest in them. Ray spent his time reading what books Steve had accumulated about the natural world around the town of Lyndon- Biology, botany, geology, natural history, even early American history. By the first tinges of Autumn, Ray Meadows knew his native American plant life from a hole in the ground. He also knew the footprints and tracks of every animal likely to cross his path, and a fair understanding of the weather. And he was putting it all to good use on those daily walks. And writing all of it down.
The predominant crop around Lyndon in the fall was corn. There had been some wheat and grain in the summer, but this was corn time. By Labor Day, the stalks were tall and the ears were full. Close to harvest time. It all depended now on the weather in north central Canada. (It's that flapping butterfly thing.) Ray had filled his notebook with pages of information and drawings, however crude they might be. He noted where he had seen tracks, and what those tracks might be. And yes, he had found the distinctive three-pronged tracks of his elusive climbers. More common, for whatever the reason, on the east side of town, Ray began by mid-September to vary his routine to include that area more often than any other. At least every other day he'd head out those familiar roads and paths, with Max bounding along some where nearby. Ray had often wished that wheat had been a bit more popular. It would have been easier to see the paths of climbers through a wheat field. Then again, maybe they wouldn't go where they'd leave such an obvious swath. The corn fields were easy enough for Ray and Max to walk through, and he found enough evidence of the climbers in those fields east of town to keep him looking for more than tracks.
Did climbers eat the corn? Ray found no evidence to support that obvious assumption. No damaged, half-eaten or missing ears. No ears on the ground either in or around the fields. Guess they didn't care for it. Or maybe they didn't know what it was. And that begged the question: What did they know? How did they know what to eat? Assuming that the climbers were from someplace else (And Ray hesitated to even think of where that place might be), how did the climbers know what to eat? Did they fixate on food that looked familiar? That had to be it. No matter where they were from, they simply went for what they thought they knew? Plants that looked, or smelled, like plants they were used to? And, consequently, they never touched the ones they had never seen, however edible? But what about succeeding generations? Sure, they'd be taught by their parents, but there must be some individual thought. Right? I mean, at some point, some idiot was crazy enough- or hungry enough- to eat the first oyster. These things were known to be inquisitive. So why not the corn?
Something else Ray was looking for- and it became the focus of his walks that fall- was any consistent finding of climber tracks crossing any of his walking routes outside of town. He wanted to find the backwoods equivalent of that spot on the Interstate in Indiana where the climbers crossed the road so often as to cause accidents. He knew these things wouldn't just walk down the road- but they might cross it at the same point every night. Walking slow, with his head down, Ray did find climber tracks crossing the roads and paths outside of Lyndon. Usually just one here or there, with no real consistency or pattern. And there were just enough trucks and tractors on those roads to blot out tracks made some twelve hours before his evening walks. Ray himself took to scruffing out any climber tracks he came across, just so he knew that any he saw were new tracks, and not yesterday's. This slowed him down a bit, but it was worth it. He finally had found the travel pattern he was looking for.
It wasn't exactly like the spot on the Interstate- the climbers weren't just running across the road out here, but it was all he had. This hill on the east side of Lyndon rose up to offer a rather panoramic view of the town and points west. The lower slope of the hill was primarily woods and underbrush, but that gave way to corn fields where the rise wasn't too steep. Not big fields, mind you, but small plots that didn't require the big machinery to maintain or harvest. You could almost do some of them by hand. A hundred years ago, they were. Vine covered fences separated the fields, along with a few trees along the lot lines. A dirt road- not much more than two parallel tracks- ran between some of the fields, allowing the occasional small truck to get back in there a few times each year. The road didn't make it to the top of the hill, but rather circled around it and went down the other side and back into woods further east. Ray had followed this trail until he thought it was going to just disappear to nothing where the woods reclaimed it. He could see spots that were obviously sort of rural party hang-outs in the far woods. You know the places: fire pits and beer cans and ruts where some fool got his car stuck, but not on purpose this time. Trees showing signs of damage from slow moving cars and slower thinking people, maybe the occasional pile of garbage some one didn't want to bother hauling back out of the woods. The usual stuff. It was all out there.
But the road kept going past that. Past The Party Place, as the local kids called it, the road became a path, really two paths- one for each set of tires. The tree branches were lower and the underbrush would play fast and loose with the paint on either side of your car back here. But the road didn't stop. If Ray kept walking, he'd find that somewhere in the next valley the road got better. It was being used on the other side for much the same things, just by different people. And almost no one from either side ever bothered to take the road all the way through. Neither did Ray Meadows or Max. They didn't need to.
The part of the road that interested Ray was on that western slope overlooking the town, not far from the top of the hill. Ray had repeatedly found tracks running alongside the road and then crossing it to the upper slope. The climbers were going some place. There weren't that many trees above the road. Not enough to say there was a woods up there. So the climbers were living in the woods down below and coming up here- for what? The view? Ray had figured out where they crossed the road but, much like chickens, he didn't know why. What was up there that wasn't down in the woods? It had to be the view, right? Ray had no idea. He had walked around the top of that hill over and over. What was up there and not in the woods below? Food? That seemed unlikely. He had figured out that the climbers weren't eating the corn, but what did they eat out here? Barbara had found that they went for the more moist or succulent plants in her flower garden. This was no flower garden. So they must be feeding in the low lying woods below and coming up here for- for what? The only thing up here that wasn't down there was that old tree that got blown over. That had to be it. That old tree. Climbers love old trees.
This old tree was probably an old tree when that storm showed up- How long ago? Ray Meadows had no idea. He kept meaning to ask Sam Bronan about that tree. Must have been quite a storm. It had come out of the south, that wind. The tree had most likely stood there for close to a hundred years before that fateful day (or night). Ray could see where limbs had been ripped off by the wind and broken by the fall. Quite a storm. Odd, he thought, that this was the only tree on its side around here. He couldn't recall having seen any others in his walks both in and around Lyndon. Maybe the others were in the way and got cut up. That had to be it. This one, so far up on the hill, wasn't in anyone's way and too far out of town to be considered for firewood. So here it is. Still. The fall hadn't killed the tree, though. Enough of the roots had remained intact to keep the tree alive- even let it grow- Sideways. Now, some thirty or forty years later, it was doing just fine, rooted to the earth in a variety of places on the down side. Dirt, debris and brush had accumulated in the exposed root ball and made for a perfect home for birds and small animals. The tree and its local wildlife were doing just fine. Even the climbers must have thought so.
Having focused his field trips to the area around this old fallen tree, Ray was now finding the evidence of climbers he had sought: Tracks. Tracks everywhere. In the road, in the dirt in the fields and in the woods. Under the tree. On the tree? Tough to tell. The climbers didn't always scar up the tree bark when they climbed. But there were marks on the tree. Small scratches across the bark on the main trunk and larger limbs. Old marks, new marks. Something has been climbing on that old tree. Ray was going to have to find out what. It was just a matter of when. The tree, he found, was comfortable to sit in. Maybe he'd have to arrange a night to go tree camping. Before it got cold.
In England it had already gotten cold. Winter generally did show up there first. Maybe not always with snow, but you knew it was there. Steve Vaan had settled in to his routine on the Crutchfield estate, tending the plants and trees and always keeping an eye out- or both eyes out- for something blue above him. He had, on the few unseasonably warm nights, seen movement in the trees not far from the small cottage where he did occasionally stay. Something blue? Tough to tell. But the leaves were rapidly becoming one with the ground, and it wouldn't be long before the bare trees offered no hiding place at all for whatever might be up there. Would that help? Steve hoped to find out.
Arthur Crutchfield, for his part, had been his typical cryptic self after Steve's unannounced arrival. He had been kind enough to take him in and appoint him the official estate forester, but what good did that do? They both knew, as did the Captain of the Freighter Adalynne and Anne, the estate's housekeeper, that Mister Steve Vaan, American, was in that country illegally. So he couldn't exactly be paid for his work in any official way. But he was kept well fed and he had but to ask for whatever he thought he needed. Forays off the estate were understandably limited, but not out of the question. Especially if the trip involved going further than the nearest town or stores. That was actually safer. Trips to London seemed to show up about once a month, and Steve could always accompany whoever might be going. It was usually Anne.
The housekeeper Anne Wright was, in fact, the daughter of Arthur Crutchfield's cousin. She had somehow ended up on the estate as a result of her rebellious youth and Arthur took her in with the promise that he would not reveal her whereabouts to the family. Arthur himself was by then enough of an eccentric as to be a bit of an outcast himself within the Crutchfield clan. His book on climbers, and subsequent involuntary, if temporary, retreat from the public eye, had left him as the black sheep's black sheep. The passing of Peter Crutchfield had left him more than just well off, even if no one ever did quite figure out where Peter had gotten all that money. War, it seems, might be bad for your health but it is very good for business. Especially for some one like Peter Crutchfield, who must have done more than his share of wheeling and dealing. He must have owned the wheels and made the deals. The Crutchfield estate, as it was called, was in fact bought by Peter Crutchfield during the war. Rather early on, actually. He did good fast and was a quick learner. Peter had considered buying the vineyard that Arthur had found himself in on that aborted country picnic in the storm, but it was not to be. For Arthur, this was better. More trees.
The estate became Arthur's refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous public misfortune when his book became quite the popular target of public ridicule and humor. He could ignore the world here. Anne Wright sought to join him when her family took a dim view of her enthusiasm for life. And since the entire family couldn't exactly all get their story straight about Arthur Crutchfield (some claimed he had died, others that he had fled the country and the rest pleaded ignorance), Anne was able to find him, alive and well and living a life she could only dream of- in solitude. Her arrival was much like Steve's: unexpected and unannounced, but accepted none the less. Arthur liked his solitude, but it was nice to have some one to talk to from time to time. Anne accepted the job of running the place, and Arthur's meals took a near instant upturn in quality. The place started to look almost lived in. The things in the trees got closer to the house. Yes, these were all good things. For Arthur, anyway.
Now nearly thirty years later, another bundle had been laid at Arthur Crutchfield's doorstep: Yet another lost soul, looking for refuge and sanctuary. Not a problem. It was a big place. Besides, Steve could carry on Arthur's work, such as it was. Arthur had seen about all the climbers he cared to see. And that was before the end of World War Two. By now, he was done with it. Let some one else pick up that torch and run. The idea of ever catching one became a dim memory of thought. Why bother? They were here to see. Why snatch one just to have it tormented, pestered and investigated to death by "The Scientific Community"? He wouldn't wish that on anyone. Well, maybe one or two. But not an innocent climber. So the grounds around the Crutchfield estate remained somewhat foreboding and forbidden. Children did not play in these woods. Not twice, anyway. The sight of Arthur Crutchfield rambling through the underbrush at them, walking stick in hand and raised, was enough to make any young adventurer seek calmer pastures. Not that he ever caught them. Didn't have to. That wasn't the point. Just scare them a bit. Keep them on their toes. And try to keep a straight face doing it. That was the tough part.
With two people on hand now to run the estate, Arthur Crutchfield's life was almost social. The evening meals were filled with conversation and there were Things To Do. He couldn't remember when he last had Things To Do. Steve saw it as part of his job to keep Arthur Crutchfield just off balance and busy enough to keep him thinking about climbers and (hopefully) get a bit more information out of him on the subject. Did Steve plan to capture one of the elusive little electric blue gremlins? If he did, he wouldn't say. Not to Arthur and not to Anne. And neither thought to ask him- nor would they have had they the nerve. Steve had begun his own log of climber activities on the estate, most of which was centered around that little cottage.
With winter coming on strong in England, Steve spent his afternoons putting up wood alongside the cottage. It had a small fireplace, just big enough to keep that one room from completely freezing. He had moved what little furniture there was in the building into the only room with a fireplace- the sole source of heat. The result was rather like his apartment back in Lyndon, except here everything was centered around the hearth instead of a computer. Good thing, too. It was getting cold. The leaves were as down as they could get in that little ten acre woods. Had Winnie the Pooh lived there, he would have probably booked a flight out of Heathrow for Barbados for the season. Warm honey is always better. But The Pooh knew better than to even be there in the first place. With no leaves on the trees and the underbrush deader than Jacob Marley, it was not an overly friendly place to spend one's days. Like Steve had a choice. Ok, he did, but he didn't care to explore them just yet.
Steve had fallen somewhat back to old habits: Sleeping late, rising about noon and staying up until all hours looking for, well, you know what he was looking for. And he found them, too. Even in the winter. So what do climbers do in the winter? Pretty much anything they want. And mainly, they want to stay warm. Thin animals, lacking any insulating body fat or thick fur, they were not overly thrilled with cold weather. But they had to survive. So they adapted. The found hollow trees to live in, instead of on. Their inherent electrical charge could keep them warm in the close confines of a tree, so they didn't freeze. Food, however, was another matter entirely. Ray and Barbara were right: the climbers preferred moist plants. Not many of those around in the English winter. So they had to make do. Low swampy areas- bogs and moors on this side of the big pond- were the last refuge of these tasty plants in cold weather. Climbers spent their evenings and mornings looking for them and in them. Yep, evenings and mornings. It was a compromise.
The climbers were from warmer climes, so to speak. Unequipped for the cold of the temperate regions of this planet, those that were there had to change their behavior somewhat in the winter months. No more late night, all night carousing. Now they were up and out at the drop of the sun, foraging and running through the forest. By midnight, when they would normally just be getting up, it was time to go back and get warm. A mug of hot chocolate by a warm fire would have been irresistible, had they any idea what hot chocolate was, and had they not developed such an unreasonable fear of fire. Either way, they were usually back out of the tree around sunrise for one last look around before it got too bright for their overly sensitive eyes. No sunglasses, either.
This change in their day to day activities had not gone unnoticed by their long term observer, Steve Vaan, late of the United States. He responded by adjusting his schedule accordingly. Now he could spend the coldest part of the night by the fire, cradling a big mug of hot chocolate. Some of us evolve, the rest hide in the trees. Nights were spent reading, writing and contemplating. Except on the odd and occasional nights when Anne Wright found her way through the little woods to the cottage. Little reading or writing got done then, but much joy and contemplation.
Over time, Steve and Anne traded their life stories. Anne, it seemed, had secrets of her own. Having run away from her family some years ago, she had never gone back. Matter of fact, the only relative that knew where she was these days was Arthur Crutchfield. They rest thought she was dead. Really. What had started out as the intended truth went bad. Then it was going to be just an odd (if cruel) joke, but it sort of got out of hand. An explanation follows:
Before she had found Arthur Crutchfield, Anne was living on the south coast of England, working as a maid in the hotels around Dover. She had kept in touch with her parents, mainly her mother, off and on in the months. She sent postcards from places she wasn't, in case any one came looking for her. It had been easy enough to make it look as though she was travelling- she lived in a port city and people were always leaving odd postcards in the rooms she cleaned. She saved them and used them. Then she met Nigel.
Nigel was a bit of a vagabond. He went where she could only say she went. He really did travel through Europe, picking up the odd job here and there, but never staying in any one place. Now here he was in Dover. They had met, and he offered to show her the Continent. How continental of him. She had saved up a bit of money working at several hotels there in town, and was willing to help with expenses. Airplane tickets were purchased and, in a rare bit of bravery, she called her mother the night before the flight. Told her mother the intended truth: She was off to Europe to see the world. Be back soon. Even felt safe enough to tell dear old Mom the flight plans. Even as she did, Nigel was boarding a ferry board for France. The vagabond had to go, and go he did. Left her standing at the airport. Better than some places, I guess, and for her, it worked out much better indeed.
In a fit of anger, she threw the tickets away and stormed out of the terminal. Never looked back. Went to her room, packed her bags and left Dover. It was time to go. She wandered through southern England for a week or so, looking for a new place to settle in. Maybe another resort town would be nice. She fit right in with the tourist crowd, since she felt like a bit of a tourist herself. By the time she was comfortable and working in Brighton, news of the airplane crash was old news indeed. She never heard about it. Never saw anything on a television or read a newspaper for that week or so. Now here it was two weeks later she was presumed quite dead by one and all. The plane had gone down in the Mediterranean off of Sardinia. Few survivors, no answers. She had been on the passenger list, as had Nigel. The vagabonding Nigel never put two and two together to realize that he was now more or less officially dead. Not that he would have changed his travel plans.
Mark Twin's line about his greatly exaggerated death were of no use to Anne Wright. She never put a return address on her postcards to her mother, and it was only chance that made her call home once again. It did not go well. On a whim, and in an unusually good mood, Anne had decided to call home and say hello. Hello was about all she got out. As far as her mother was concerned, Anne Wright had perished in the seas off of Italy several months before. Nothing Anne could say over the phone could convince her otherwise. It didn't take long at all for Anne's good mood to dissolve into frustration and anger. All right, she thought, if you think I'm dead, then I'm dead. It will certainly save me a bit of money on postage and long distance calls. She hung up all red of face and out of breath. That did not go well. No need to try that again.
Anne thought about the situation over the next week or so. If her mother thought she was dead, then what of her real and official position in the eyes of the British government? How dead was she? She had never bothered with a driver's license and now realized that she really had no official identity. Her birth certificate was still with her parents. Not much chance of seeing that again. She, in the eyes of the law, did not exist. An interesting, but scary, concept. What to do? If she tried to claim to be who she was, she might be considered a criminal at best, and a bit of a loony at worst. Rather like that cousin that wrote the book: Arthur Crutchfield. Another vanished family member. How many more were out there? And could she find them?
Now her days off were spent looking for some one that didn't really want to be found: Her cousin, Arthur Crutchfield. It really didn't take much. She started working out from London, assuming correctly that he wouldn't be too far from home. If he was still even alive at all. She never did believe those more boisterous family members who claimed that Arthur was dead. Wishful thinking on their part, really. She calculated Arthur's age, and went from there. A copy of his troublesome book provided a photo, though admittedly an old photo. In the end, the photo was unnecessary. All she needed was the tax records. Working her way through the public records- and from the center of London out- she spent her off days traveling by train to London and the surrounding towns, checking the property records to match up a single name. She didn't have to go far from the city before Arthur's name came up. Right there. She noted the address, legal description and details of the parcel. Not quite ten acres. Nice size place. A home and two unattached buildings. Hmmm. Could be anything from a country estate to a caravan up on bricks and two outhouses. Wonder what it all looked like? She had the information, all she had to do was go. Easier said than done.
Armed with the knowledge, the action was long in coming. She had never met Arthur Crutchfield. He had fled the family scene when she was quite young and her family had never lived close to London. Now she had the chance to walk right up to some one she had never met and expect- Expect what? To be taken in as friend and family by a man that did not hold friends and family in high regard? If she was lucky, she wouldn't be arrested. If she was unlucky, she'd be shot. Needless to say, she carried the information with her for quite some time. She'd already managed to miss her death once. She wanted to continue that winning streak as long as possible.
In the end, she was just tired of running. Being dead was interesting, but not all that good for job security. She could work at a job for several months before she knew it was time to move on before the authorities questioned her identity. Who was she, really? This name she was using belonged to a dead girl. Must be wanted for something. Better send an officer over to check it out. She learned to read the signs of impending doom: The people she worked for would get unusually quiet. She could ask for time off and there'd be no argument. Her landlord would avoid her, even if rent was due. Always a bad sign. Maybe, if she was lucky, she'd see a police car outside the hotel where she was working or the small one-room apartment she would invariably rent. Were they there to ask questions or was it time? No need to wait for an answer. It was time. Like Steve Vaan, she had learned to live and travel light. Keep a bag packed by the door. You never know. But it got tiresome. In the end, she decided to take her chances with a distant cousin she had never met. Surely he could sympathize. Or at least not turn her in.
The time had come. There had been too many sideways glances, too many whispered conversations stopped abruptly in her presence. It wouldn't be long now. Time to go. There was no question where. Anne Wright, the not-quite-dead-yet Anne Wright, packed her few things and closed her accounts. By evening tea she was on the train, bound for The Big Smoke. Unlike Steve’s arrival some years later, there was no fog at all when Anne's train arrived in London. She made her way through Paddington Station, ever on the lookout for lost Peruvian bears. Finding none, she settled for dinner. She could be credited, at this point, for finding Schmidt's years before Steve stumbled across the place. Good food is timeless. After a hearty dinner, during which she studied the local bus routes and subway system, Anne was ready to finish her trip to the Crutchfield property. Just one problem: It was getting dark out now. By the time she rode these last miles, it would by night when she pounded on that front door. Not good. Maybe tomorrow. She inquired at the restaurant of rooms to let for just one night, and found one within walking distance. Breakfast was a given.
The following day was clear, bright and warm. A complete contrast to The Big Smoke's reputation. The weather seemed a good omen as Anne finished that hearty German breakfast and found the subway for the first part of her trip out of town. By ten she was back above ground and on the correct bus for a bit of surface transport to the small town near Crutchfield's home. Easy enough so far. She stayed in the village long enough to find a small lunch, since from here on out it was to be on foot. At least it was not far. Less than an hour after lunch found her in almost the exact same spot Steve Vaan stood when the car roared up behind him and turned down the nearly invisible lane to Arthur Crutchfield's house. Unlike Steve, she didn't hesitate. Too late to wait. She plunged through down the lane, headed for that front door- wherever it was. And there it was.
Without a moment's delay or a single stopped step, Anne Wright stepped right up to the threshold and rang the bell. Or would have, had there been a bell to ring. She looked. And looked again. No bell. No knocker. No Mel Brooks' knocker jokes here. She had to pound on the door with her fist as hard as she could. It was a thick heavy wooden door. Had she made any sound at all inside? She couldn't tell. Seconds went to minutes. Try again? Or run? She bent down to grab her bags when the door swung open. Standing back up, she found herself face to face with Arthur Crutchfield. She was stunned, he was curious. Now what? May as well leap off the cliff and learn to fly.
"Hello, sir. I'm Anne Wright, your new housekeeper."
Whatever bravery she might have exhibited by that brash attack was quickly deflated by his response.
"Ah, wonderful. Been expecting you. Do come right in."
Say what? Been what? Oh, great. What had she gotten herself into now? And how could he be expecting someone who didn't even know that they would be there. Some one that he didn't even know, even. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder- no police cars hidden out there. At least as far as she could see. May as well go on in.
Arthur Crutchfield had not lied. He had been expecting her. Following the airline crash, her attempted exploits had made minor tabloid news. Unbeknownst to her, she was something of a phantom celebrity. Her mother had reported to the local police that some woman had called, trying to palm herself off as the obviously dead Anne Wright. That made the news, and directed Arthur's attention to the fact that he had a cousin who may- or may not- be dead. One Anne Wright by name, dead or not. After that phone call and police involvement, Anne Wright began turning up all over the place. The tabloids loved it. There were just enough copycat characters using the name as an alias to keep every one looking. "Anne Wright" became the favorite nom de plume for women who, for whatever reason, preferred to not give their real name. In the pubs or on the streets, Anne Wright was a popular girl. And of course, every one thought she was dead. Every one expect Arthur Crutchfield. He had not bothered to contact his cousin, Anne's mother. No need. They were not on speaking terms. But he felt that maybe she had been a bit hasty in dismissing the caller as an impostor. He reviewed what he could find about the airline accident. That was real enough. But the passenger list for that flight? That was something else entirely.
Having made some inquiries- by phone- Arthur had quickly determined that if a person wanted to fake their own death, and make it official and irrefutable, there was no finer way to go about it. Just buy a ticket from a small airline, show up for the flight, get your seating assignment and boarding pass and then go home. Oh yes, and make sure the plane crashes badly. Small detail there. The actual records of who in fact did board that plane were- I hope you guessed it here- on the plane. And up in smoke or down in flames, your choice there. The idea that somebody might, at the very last minute, not board a flight for which they had purchased a seat and received a boarding pass was completely unheard of and foreign to one and all. Except for Arthur Crutchfield. Maybe it was his upbringing and all that subterfuge during the war. Or maybe he just had a suspicious sort of mind. But he was right, and lacking any real proof, he kept it to himself. He had no doubt that she would one day show up on his doorstep. And she did. And there she was.
Arthur Crutchfield found that he fell easily into the role of Lord of the Manor, just as Anne Wright was born to be his housekeeper. They clicked right from the start. Even his evening meal that first night was a vast improvement over what he had planned. Sure, he was expecting her. He just didn't know when. Glad it was then. And much like the news media in America, today’s hot story was tomorrow's bird cage liner. Within a month or so, the ever so popular name of Anne Wright was less than a footnote in history. She had all but disappeared, and was now known to but a few. Fewer still knew her full name. She was merely introduced as the housekeeper, Anne. Easy enough. And Anne knew, without asking, that her secret was quite safe with Arthur. Had her mother even called and asked Arthur Crutchfield point blank, she would not have gotten a straight answer. Nor did she deserve one. By the time Steve Vaan came upon the scene some years later, Anne the Housekeeper was an accepted, if seldom seen, member of the community. No questions were ever asked. And now so it was with Steve. Or Steven, as he was being introduced to the few people that both Arthur and Anne had to deal with. Steven the Forester. Which, of course, was how all those names got started in the first place.
Steven Forester (he had accepted the new name easily) spent his nights (most nights, anyway) in the small cottage on the back of the estate. Over the weeks, he had managed to move in all that he needed and a few things he wanted. It had become quite the cozy bachelor pad, assuming that the bachelor was one of the seven dwarves. The rooms were small, the ceiling low and the windows miniscule. Steve felt as though he was living in a true model home. Something about one quarter scale. He had gotten used to ducking between rooms and through every doorway. It became a second nature that saved his forehead in the cottage but looked a bit foolish in Crutchfield's big house with its high ceilings and huge doors. Why is the silly American always ducking? Oh, well, better safe than sorry. The ceilings in the cottage were at just over six feet. He was right at six in his stocking feet. Needless to say, he spent most of his time in the cottage sitting, and none of it jumping rope. At five foot eight, Anne fared a little better. She could stand easily in the rooms, but if she didn't remember to duck through the doorways, it could be very painful. And occasionally it was. Steve learned to keep aspirin on hand. He considered buying her a hard hat, but thought better of it.
Nights not spent in the cottage were spent in the main house. Steve had a room there, conveniently over the kitchen. Not a bad place to be. It was certainly larger than the cottage, and the high ceilings a welcome relief to all that bowing and ducking. There was some comfort in the knowledge that he could stand right up any time he wanted. It's the little things in life. His relationship with Anne had blossomed at the cottage, and seemed more reserved, or hidden, in the main house. Was she worried about what Arthur Crutchfield might say or do? And what could he say or do? I mean, other than turn both of them over to the authorities. In truth, Arthur didn't mind. He thought it was high time Anne found someone. But he did take some small delight in pretending he didn't know, and maybe shouldn't know. Just to watch and see them carry on in what they thought was secret. Those little things again.
Such was Steve Vaan/Steven Forester's life in that middle of September. Tree tender by day, tree watcher by night, he was still a man with a mission. To catch a climber? Maybe. He wasn't sure. But he did want to get close enough (again) to have that option. In the back of his mind, he still felt that Arthur Crutchfield needed to be vindicated. He could show the world something only a very few had seen and the rest couldn't imagine. So yes, he was thinking about catching one. Still. Right up to that September night that changed everything.
His room in the main house was, as you know, larger than the entire cottage on the back of the property. And that's a good thing. But it was somewhat lacking in heat (no fireplace) and that was a bad thing. English winters tend to be the sort of wet cold that can sap the heat right out of a body. Steve's body was feeling a bit sapped that night. He considered hiking out to the cottage. It was only about eleven. He could have a roaring fire going in no time at all. But this second story view out the window was all the better to see them with. He could watch the movements of fuzzy blue shapes in the leafless trees as the climbers began to move about. The few lights in his room were off, and the window offered the only light. At night, that's not much. No moon yet, so the distance lights from the village provided the only (dim) illumination behind the woods. Steve didn't need it. He wasn't looking for something that needed light. They gave off their own light. Faint blue glows moved through the trees and across the ground behind the house. They would stop here and there, then move on. Feeding? Watching? Tough to tell. He wished he had brought those night vision binoculars. He could really use them about now. Ray had better appreciate those things. Steve was so intent in watching the faint movements outside the house that he did not, at first, hear the door to his room open. Then it dawned on him: Noise. And now light. From behind. Better look. He turned to see why his door should swing open in the middle of the night and found Anne standing in the doorway. Thanks to the miracle of modern backlighting, little was left to his imagination. Steve Vaan was gone forever and Steven Forester knew right then that he would never return to America. And those climbers would have to wait.

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

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