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

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CHAPTER TWENTY SIX- And hello to oblivion.

The rest of the week was a wild ride for all concerned- with the possible exception of Barbara Meadows. She was released the following day and after a smooth, quiet ride to her parent's home, was managing a rapid recovery in relative obscurity. Steve Vaan, on the other hand, felt as though he owed someone a big E ticket for his thrill ride to England. It was like Splash Mountain meets the Tower of Terror. The Adalynne pulled out of port in Bermuda, intending to outrun the hurricane. It did, but just barely.
The toughest part was the first part for the private freighter: Getting around the island and pointing its nose toward Europe. Following his spectacular entrance on that free-swinging gangplank, Steve introduced himself as the replacement for the two crewmen that had been arrested on shore (more on them in a moment), and retired below deck to help where he could. Within five minutes, virtually every hand on board was strapped to something to keep from flying. The first couple of hours were a nightmare of loose flying objects below deck and nothing but water above. Luckily, the water-tight doors remained so, and after their turn to the northeast, the rough and tumble subsided to merely rough. The storm was moving north at ten knots and the Adalynne could make twenty to the east. Every hour they were under way put them further from the storm and further into calm waters. By dawn, Steve could go out on deck to greet the day. The crewmen left behind on Bermuda were not quite so lucky.
Their plan had seemed sound- if a bit stupid: Get arrested. The jail had to be well built, and the prisoners had to be fed. And, truth be told, the jail was very well built. It had to be, out there in the middle of the Atlantic and all. And yes, the prisoners were well fed. No one was about to abandon them in the face of a hurricane- leaving them to go hungry for a couple of days. Only one problem: These two couldn't get arrested. And they tried. They just tried too late. By the time they walked out of that little cafe by the docks, there was no one out and about to harass, mug, or even insult. Everyone was locked up safe and sound in their homes. There were no stores or buildings to vandalize or rob, since every last one of them was covered in impenetrable storm shutters. By the time they thought to return to the cafe for a bit of criminal mischief, the cafe owner was also long gone and the cafe was locked up and dark. They considered simply finding a policeman and slugging him, but that seemed a bit harsh. It was also impossible. They hadn't even seen a policeman since they left the cafe. It was another fine mess they'd gotten themselves into.
Now it was getting dark and wet and the wind was howling well above gale force. Larger objects- tables, chairs and bicycles- were flying just above the pavement on the open streets. The power was out and they were running out of ideas. They were soaked to the skin, their food was ruined and the jars of tea were left behind. All they could do was find a place to hide between the buildings for the next twelve hours and hope for the best. This had not worked out as planned. Their only consolation was that they were in fact on more or less dry land- and not on a ship at sea. And certainly not on the Bermuda Star.
The Star had steamed out of port ahead of the storm, with her crew knowing full well that she couldn't outrun the hurricane. They were, however, hoping for a flanking maneuver. The storm was headed north and they were headed west. The storm would lessen as they went. Wouldn't it? Yes, it would, but only after it got much worse. Hurricanes are huge systems, hundreds of miles across. It would sweep over them for hours before the effects would begin to lessen. By then, what the Englishmen had predicted nearly came true: With tailwinds of over eighty miles an hour, the ship was barely under control. The crew had to keep her stern pointed directly into the wind or she'd be heeled over into the waves- maybe even capsize. As it was, the bow did get pushed under water as she rode the swells from the storm. The forward hatches were secured as best they could, but seawater has a way of finding its way in- unless you're in a submarine. And sometimes even then. Over half of the passengers had taken the cruise line up on its offer of a charter flight home and left via the airport. They were safe (and happy) in New York before dark. No regrets there. The rest of the passengers, those that elected to return on the ship, were now huddled in the dining rooms and common areas, afraid to go to their cabins. Many were wearing life jackets, the rest tried to be casual- but carried them close just the same. All with good reason.
By midnight, the forward water-tight compartments had to be sealed off and the ship was decidedly nose-down in the water. Still under power, and still moving toward New York, the only thing that saved her was the diminished effects of the storm, now further away after close to eight hours of hammering. The winds had slowed to below gale force and the seas were calming (comparatively speaking). The grim aura on the bridge and in the control and radio rooms had lessened somewhat, but there were still no Titanic jokes to be heard from either the crew or the passengers. Maybe when they were safe in port, and maybe even not until the day after that. But not now. No distress call had been issued, although one had been ready since they left port. A radio man had been in near-constant contact with the U. S. Coast Guard since leaving Bermuda. But they made it. All that was lost at sea were a few dinners. The most amazing part of their journey was this: In spite of having to fly so many passengers back to New York, and the damage caused by the voyage back through the storm, the trip made money. Somewhere between the fuel saved by the tail wind and the fact that terrified passengers don't eat much, it had been a profitable journey. Knowing now that the cruise line would now never hesitate to send them through another (possibly worse) storm, all in the interest of the almighty dollar, the Captain resigned shortly thereafter. It was time to retire- to Arizona. A cactus farm was starting to sound like a great idea.
By the end of the week, the freighter Adalynne was steaming in to port: Portsmouth, England. Steve Vaan, still using Ray Meadows' name, had been a hit on board. He could cook, he didn't mind cleaning, and he was one of the very few to not get seasick that first turbulent day out of Bermuda. An enviable combination. Of course, there was the matter of getting ashore. He certainly didn't want to go waltzing through customs, leaving a paper trail for one and all to follow. He had to be clever at least one last time. And this time on foreign soil, as soon as he could get to it.
Back on the island of Bermuda, the two hapless Englishmen finally got themselves arrested- After the storm. They walked into the police station- after the storm shutters came down- and told the authorities that their ship had left without them. Lacking any paperwork or identification, they were held until their story and identity could be checked out. They were happy for the chance to dry out, and even avoided showers for several days. They had been wet enough long enough. They were put to work by the local government until they could arrange passage off the island. Not a bad fate, by all accounts. At least it had stopped raining. Now all they could think of was to go someplace where maybe it didn't rain so much. Like the American Southwest. A cactus farm in Arizona sounded pretty good about now.
In England, fate had played Steve a winning hand. Maybe. He had managed to get put in a small launch to survey any hull damage and do a bit of painting along the water line. No one noticed that all of his worldly possessions were bundled up in that launch with him. And he did do what he set out to do- he surveyed the hull for damage, brushing on more paint where needed. But he also worked his way around to be under the stern and out of sight of the bridge and watch by dark. He'd figure out how to return the launch later. Once the sun fell below the horizon, he would waste no time. The launch would be pointed along the shore line and away from the Adalynne. He'd weave between the pilings, the docks and the vessels. Steve figured he had less than half an hour to get ashore and get gone. Timing was everything. He was ready. He was set. He was being hailed from the rear deck of the Adalynne. WHAT? He was too late. No go. Now what did they want? A special task? Report to the Captain? Shore duty? Mail call? Oh, this was too easy. Steve wheeled the launch around and made way back to the davits. Piece of cake. He'd be in a pub in London by midnight. Wouldn't he?
He made his way back on deck to find that he had been drafted along with one other crewman to go ashore and retrieve the mail for the ship and crew. Easy enough. The other crewman knew the details of the detail. Steve was only along to provide the muscle and learn the routine. A small car, owned by the freighter, awaited them on the dock. No driver, just the car. The more experienced fellow, an Englishman of course, was to do the driving. No need setting off down the wrong side of the road the first day in port. Especially at night. Steve was content to sit in the passenger's seat, although it was a bit unnerving to be on that side of a car and not find a steering wheel nearby. He got used to it. He watched and he learned. And he planned. He had also taken the precaution of hiding virtually everything he had brought with him on his person. It was a bit bulky, and might have looked a bit odd, but he made reference to the chill of the damp English air and no one thought twice about another cold American. He was wearing Ray's hat and Ray's coat- and Ray's name, come to think of it.
They made it to the Post Office and the car was parked. Once inside, the crewman identified himself and introduced Steve (as Ray). They were directed to a large bin and sacks of mail. Steve wasted no time in hoisting one and heading for the car. This might work yet. He was halfway back for his second load when he passed his shipmate in route to the car with a mail bag. Minutes later, they passed again, this time it was Steve with the sack, headed for the car, and the Englishman on his way back. A couple more rounds of this, with two sacks to go, and Steve made his move: He simply hailed a passing cab, jumped in and went to the train station. Luck was still with him. He caught the last train for the evening to London and was stepping on board as the train pulled out of the station. A quick stop in a restroom rearranged his clothes for a completely new look and maybe no one would be able to readily identify him as the American off the ship. If he made it out of the train station in London unchallenged, he was home free. Or rather, in England free. But it really was cold and damp. Why couldn't Arthur Crutchfield have retired to Belize? Or Arizona? On a cactus farm.
Too many time zones to the west, the real Ray Meadows was also being a bit of a stealth. He had made good time up the Interstate to Greenwood and parked in front of Jake Jacobson's house. It was not yet ten o'clock. This late hour might work to his advantage. The lights were on in the house- Jake and Carol were watching television. Ray knocked and was almost instantly ushered inside, the door locked behind him. Whoa- Not too paranoid, are we Jake? The Jacobsons had a thousand questions about Ray and Barbara and all that had happened. Ray was selective in his answers, especially those concerning the immediate future. Like where he was going next. He did tell them he was going to have to go by the house to get some things. Jake cautioned him against it. Those guys were still there about eight o'clock. Just sitting there, motor idling. Ray said he was counting on it. That answer threw Jake a curve and Ray took the momentary silence as his chance to leave. He was headed for the door with some last minute instructions for Jake before either Jake or Carol could think to stop him with more questions. Gone into the night. Now all the Jacobsons knew was that the Meadows were staying in a motel on the north side of Indianapolis (they weren't) and that they should both be back in their by home next week (they wouldn't). Ray did leave them with two truths: Barbara was going to be alright, and Ray would call them tomorrow evening.
In the darkness of suburban Indiana, Ray Meadows was playing the game he knew he had planned too well: Bluff and run. Or rather, bluff and out-run. Before he had stopped at the Jacobsons', he had stopped at the nearest gas station. Ray took a considerable amount of time to really fill up the gas tank in that old truck. Brimming, and them some. Even checked the oil and cleaned the windshield. Put extra air in the tires and stocked up on snacks and sodas. One last thing: He broke the wire to the tag light. No need to advertise that out-of-state plate. Even took a moment to bend the plate up so it was unreadable, should any one get too close. Now he was ready. And now here he was, cruising slowly down his own street in the dark. Only now it didn't even seem like his own street. And that house down there- was that his house?- it sure didn't seem like the house he had lived in for all those years. Would he and Barbara ever be able to settle back down to that wonderfully boring life? Ray didn't even want to think about that right now. Now it was time for the game and the chase. Half way down the block he cut the engine and killed the lights. The truck rolled on.
Dark but not quite silent, he turned the truck up into the driveway. The old leaf springs squeaked and squealed and the brakes ground loudly as he stopped the truck up by the garage near the back door. Geez- That sounded loud. Or was it just him? He could see the watchers in their car sit up and take notice. Ok, boys, what will it be? Ray got out quickly and went for the back door, key ready. The two men were already out of their car. Ray was inside, door locked and first floor lights off. Quickly up the stairs, he had the bedroom lights on before the men could get to the door. They saw that and stopped. Now what?
Ray was going to ignore them for a few minutes. He rummaged through the closet for some more clothes, then went down the hall for a few things from his computer. On a whim, he dug through the closet in that room. It had been the undeclared repository for Things Not Really Needed, but things too good to throw away. Like those boots there. Why had he even bought those? What was he thinking? He never did anything bootish. But there they were, new but dusty. Maybe it was time to put them to good use. Some use, anyway. A small box on the overhead shelf caught Ray's eye. A tape recorder. A gift from what? Christmas? A birthday? A token prize for being a contestant? Ok, it could come along for the ride. You never know. A quick stop in the bathroom and he was all set. No duffle bags. That was odd. He was sure there was at least one more that they hadn't already taken. It was here before. And where was his grey coat and wool hat? Packed away for the winter? No, they had been right here. He remembered them being there all summer. Now they were gone? Where? Who? Steve? Possibly. Hmmm. What else had Steve Vaan decided he needed more than Ray? Without thinking, Ray palmed his wallet off the dresser and kept moving. A little bit of this, a little bit of that and he was ready to go. Then he remembered: The gun.
Where was it? Had Barbara packed it in the first load? Was it already at the apartment in Lyndon? Ray looked around the bedroom. He was sure she kept it in there- someplace. But where? He looked in a few likely spots. Then in a few not-so-likely. No gun. Must already be there. He needed to be there as well. And soon. He had spent less than half an hour in the house. A quick look outside told him that his two watchdogs were back in their car- Motor running. Good. So far, so good. On his way through back through the kitchen he picked up the bundle of mail Jake had set on the table. Read it later. Ray cut the lights in the house and went out the way he came in- and just as quickly.
The truck fired up in the driveway- no need to be secretive now- and roared back down to the street with its headlights on. Be a little bit reckless, make them think you don't want them to catch you and they'll be sure to try. Down the street Ray looked back. They had taken the bait and wheeled their car around to follow. Ok, Ray, now don't lose them. Not yet, anyway. Ray made his way through Greenwood, always making sure his tag team never quite lost him. If he made it through a light and they didn't, he made sure they were close enough to see the turns he made. He also made sure they saw him drive up that Interstate on-ramp. North bound I-65. They were right there behind him, about a tenth of a mile back. Just one car between them in this city traffic. Still easy enough to spot with that one weak headlight. Ok, boys, let's go for a ride. Ray Meadows' plan was fairly simple: He'd done everything he could to give that old truck its maximum cruising range. Now all he had to do was cruise. Eventually- probably within a hundred miles or so- Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber back there would have to pull off for gas. Or run out on the Interstate in the middle of the night. He'd just keep cruising and eventually make his turn to the west, then another to the south, heading for Lyndon. He should be there by sun up. He had food and fuel, not to mention a clean windshield. He could go forever. He didn't need to sleep. The climbers had seen to that. Through the state capitol and out the other side to the northwest, Ray kept the truck at the legal limit and not a mile above. Just cruising. Behind him, two reporters in an overworked economy car were starting to worry about that gas gauge of theirs.
North of Indianapolis, I-65 parallels U.S. 25 past Lebanon- virtually forever. Maybe it only seems like forever late at night when your gas gauge is on EMPTY. For the two hapless reporters, that would be like right now. Ray was just cruisin'- listening to the AM radio in the truck with the windows rolled down and only occasionally glancing in the rear view mirror to check those mismatched headlights behind him. Yep, still there. Life was good. When would they catch on? Hopefully only when their engine cut out and they coasted to a slow stop in the dark middle of nowhere. And that would be coming up here pretty soon, just north of town.
There's not much between Lebanon and Lafayette. Ok, there's nothing at all. A few farms. Very few. And now it was late- going on midnight- and there were no lights to be seen off the road. No glowing oasis of help in the distance. The last exit to Lebanon had gone by without a second glance from either Ray, who didn't care, or the two reporters who didn't know any better. Traffic had thinned out to about nada when they were between those two towns. Now it was just the old truck and the worn out little car about a quarter mile back. They had dropped back a bit to avoid suspicion. Yeah, right. He'll never notice you back there, guys. And you won't be there to notice at all real soon. The engine coughed once, caught again, ran for about five seconds and quit. It sputtered one more time, but never really ran again. It's dead, Jim. Ray did happen to look back a few seconds later to see his little one car entourage limping over to the shoulder of the road, lights even dimmer than before. They were falling back fast. Must be stopped now. There- the headlights went off. Ray Meadows' right foot never flinched. Just hold it right there at fifty-five. Made in the shade, even at night. Bye-bye, boys. See you in the funny papers.
With the reporters stuck in the middle of rural Indiana, Ray could afford to smile- if only to himself. Lafayette was an approaching glow on the horizon, but he didn't plan to stop. Still had plenty of gas. Besides, if those bozos got a lift, that's where they'd go. Ray cruised right past Lafayette and kept on his course toward Gary. But not to Gary. It would look too much like a destination on a map. At U.S. 24 he nosed the truck down the off ramp and took the slow road west. Across the Indiana state line and into Illinois, he connected with I-57 and headed south toward Lyndon. Three Interstates converge at Champaign. Ray finally pulled the truck off there for gas and a quick break. He had his choice of all-night food and fuel. A late night snack, some coffee and he was ready to go. It was a straight shot south to Marion before he would have to get off the super slab and take those teenie (really dark) back roads. Could he find Lyndon in the dark? Good question. The answer was about three hours away. Dawn was about five. Ray rook the time to bend the license plate back down. He'd reconnect the tag bulb in the morning.
Southbound on I-57 out of Champaign, Illinois, Ray was feeling pretty good about the ways things had worked out. Barbara was out of harm's way and in the best of hands. No doubt about that. Her parents would take the good care of her- and any reporters that were fool enough to find her. Ray doubted George Robinson would be so kind as to simply drive them out in the country and leave them. He might just kick them there instead. Their house in Greenwood was under the watchful eye of Jake Jacobson, a more or less true friend. Maybe Ray had been too hasty in assuming Jake was feeding information to any reporters. Maybe he could really trust Jake. Maybe if he told Jake absolutely everything, they'd be in the same boat and Jake would be too afraid to talk to any reporters ever again. There was an idea worth considering. And what happened to Steve Vaan? He obviously had made a quick but planned escape. What all had he "borrowed" before he left town? Ray had no idea. Probably nothing Ray wouldn't have gladly given him. Good luck, Steve, where ever you are.
Ray motored on through the night, passing Marion and taking I-24 back toward Vienna. From there it was all small roads and darkness. He had decided to backtrack up U.S. 45 from there. No need to get too lost. Leave that to the reporters. Now it was time to concentrate on where he was- wherever that was- and which way he needed to go to get where he was going. No lights and few signs out there. Just lots of dark. That's when the horrible thought hit him. One of those things you think of and you're immediately sorry you did: Ray thought it would be most unfortunate to run into a climber about now. Yes, Ray. It certainly would.
It was a very non-descript train that rolled in to London's Paddington Station with Steve on board. Not much past ten o'clock, the train had seemed virtually empty. Steve had only seen the conductor taking tickets. No one passed his compartment, as far as he could tell. Was he the only passenger? That would certainly make things easy if anyone official was waiting for him at the station. As the train slowed into London, he gathered his few belongings and tried to come up with a strategy. How would he get off un-noticed. especially when he may well be the only person getting off? This could get interesting. But he was in good shape. He could outrun them if he had to. And as far as he knew, the police in London still did not carry guns. Lucky him.
With the lights of the station rolling slowly past the windows, Steve looked out on a surreal scene of lights and fog. Ah, fog! The English criminal's best friend. With luck, he could do that classic "disappear into the mist" thing. After all, he had a grey coat. A quick re-arrangement put the coat on top, ready for action. Steve cautiously opened the compartment door, half expecting to be cuffed before he got out in the aisle. No one there. He made his way silently to the door of the car as the train ground to a halt. There. Stopped. Dead. Silent. You're there, man. Do something. He stepped off the train onto the platform and for a moment was quite disoriented. Which way? Which way out? There were no throngs of knowing travelers to guide him by example. Just him, alone in the fog. Great. Ok, think about it, Steve. The train came in from that direction. So the terminal must be this way. He began to walk through the fog as the airborne moisture clung to his coat and hair. May as well be raining. His footsteps sounded as loud as bells ringing. No wait, that was bells ringing. Ten thirty? Must be. Here's the station, but still almost no one. A few people, mostly workers. Porters and maintenance types. No police. No plainclothes? What about that one over there?
Steve's suspicious side kicked in and he was on his way- somewhere else. Down this hall and out that door- Got to get into the street and be gone. Lost in the fog. Down the last steps and there he was. There it was: London. Such as it was. He could only see about half a block, and even then it was all in a wet haze. Ok, now what? He had absolutely no idea where to go from there. Food and a room both seemed like a good idea. Only he wasn't sleepy. Maybe just food. Hungry. Alright, food it is. But where? Everything looked dark. Listen. A motor running. That car. Police? No, a cab. Ah, escape. Maybe the driver can recommend a good restaurant. Steve hopped in and gave his request: someplace with food. Warm and Filling. It wasn't until he got out of the cab a few minutes later- and the cab pulled away- that Steve felt as though he might have really pulled it off. He was in England and no one knew. Time to relax and get a big bite to eat.
He was standing in front of Schmidt's, a German restaurant just outside the Soho district. Alright, so it's not bangers and mash. (And I'm still a little vague on "bubbles and squeak".) Given a choice, Steve knew what he wanted. And now here it was. He opened the door and made his way through the deli in the front of the building to the tables in the back. Just the aroma was enough to sustain most mortal men. Steve was beginning to suspect he might need more. Handed a menu at a table, Steve made quick work of ordering a sizeable late night dinner. He'd be up all night- he knew that now. After this dinner, he'd gather a few things in the deli and shuffle off into the fog and the night. He wanted to be calling on one Arthur Crutchfield first thing in the morning. After all these years.
Half way through a heavy German meal of pork and potatoes, applesauce, soup and dark bread, Steve heard voices in the deli. It was not a customer. Too may insistent questions- and there as more than one of them. Time to go. By the time the two men, one uniformed the other plainclothes, walked into the dining area the dining area was empty. No one there- and the food was gone. They were far too slow. Some one had left a nice tip, though. By the time they had finished questioning the deli counter help, the waiter and a janitor, Steve had found his way through the kitchen and out the back. Now walking in the fog, he could feel the noose tightening. They were looking for him. And they were close. It was too early to try to go out to Crutchfield's- no sense in waking the man up in the middle of the night. Steve made his way to the Underground. No fog down there.
Once beneath the city, his mood brightened a bit. So they were looking for him? Ok, watch this, folks. Steve got on the train and rode. Didn't matter where. He spent the next hour and a half, until most of the smaller lines hut down for the night, ridding around London on the subway. He changed trains often, and often without reason. It was like a do-it-yourself amusement park ride. In the end, he caught the last train outbound to Ongar- as far as he could go from the center of town. It was an admitted risk. If Paddington had been quiet, Ongar would be desolate. Anyone there would be the only one there. Maybe there would be no one there. It was dark, silent and near midnight when he stepped out of the subway and made his way up to the surface. He was right: No one there. Not as much fog, either. Must be the elevation. With that heavy, if unfinished, German dinner as ballast, Steve set off down the road on foot. May was well walk. Not much else to be done between midnight and breakfast. Having left that grey coat- Ray's grey coat- wrapped around a sleeping man in one of the subway cars, Steve was glad for the lack of fog. He was sad, however, knowing that he would miss the part of the show where the poor sleeping man would wake up to police officers questioning him, thinking him to be an illegal American that jumped ship in Portsmouth. That should buy Steve some time right there.
Ray Meadows was doing much better. At least the police weren't after him. As far as he knew. The drive into Lyndon was not without its excitement, however. As he got closer to that small town, the roads started to look vaguely familiar. He felt like he wasn't quite so lost. He had let his speed drop to a comfortable roll, not fast, but not so slow as to attract attention, should anyone see him go by. That thought he had earlier about running into a climber had spooked him enough to get that speed right down and keep it there. He tried to not think about it, but here he was: driving along an empty country road in the middle of the night- prime climber time. He tried to not look for flashes of blue, but it wasn't working. He kept glancing towards the trees along the road. There? In that one? How about that one? Ray got distracted watching the lights of a house off through the woods- almost didn't catch that flash of color off to the right- right by the fender! Whoa!
Ray hit the brake pedal with both feet- and the pain hit both legs. They had been feeling better- Up to now. OWW! This was going to be a painful end to a long drive. The truck slid to a halt only slightly sideways in the road. What was that? Certainly not blue. It was- orange? Reddish orange? Sort of? What's going on here? Ray opened the door and slid down to the pavement into the darkness. And there it was- sitting right there in the middle of the road- looking up at him with a big grin, tongue hanging out and ears up. The moment Ray stepped away from the open truck door, the dog bounded past him and up into the cab. Sat down on the passenger's side and looked right back at Ray- still grinning from ear to ear. Ok, I'm here, let's go. Ray laughed out loud, in spite of the pain in both legs. It was all he could do to stand up. And now here was this big dog bumming rides in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
With one hand on the truck door for support, Ray looked all around. That last farm house he past was over half a mile behind him now. He could just see the glow of lights through the trees. If they had heard this truck slide to a stop, there was no indication they were going to do anything about it. No more lights came on, no lights went off. Status quo. The feeble light in the truck cab shown down on the new passenger who alternated between the happy, smiley let's-go-for-a-ride look, all ears up and tongue out to the infinitely more pitiful please-don't-beat-me look with the rounded head, low ears and sad, sad eyes. How could you not take pity? Ray could only reach the inescapable conclusion: Ray Meadows, looks like you got yourself a good dog there. The very best kind.
What next? Ok, you want to get off the farm, boy, you got it. Let's go. Ray clambered back up into the cab- carefully to not inflict any more damage on those already damaged legs- and slowly got the truck back up to speed. The dog was obviously happy to be going some place. Any place. It alternated between watching Ray and watching out the window. Ray did about the same, watching the dog and the road. It was an odd meeting, to say the least.
By the time they had rolled into Lyndon, all Ray knew was that he had somehow just acquired a large male dog. Looked to be a sort of retriever/setter- not quite a Golden Retriever, not really an Irish Setter. Probably a mix. The dog looked fairly healthy and Ray didn't find himself scratching at any bugs that weren't there before. Not that there were any bugs there before. Ray had managed to pet the dog as they rode along, and the dog loved it. What's the old line about scratch a dog's back and you'll find a permanent job? He (the dog) had settled down in the seat, laying across it with his head near Ray. Never sleeping, but certainly relaxed with his new surroundings and newly acquired owner. Looks like Ray just got a job, but an enjoyable one.
The old truck did its best squeak and bump up the driveway in front of the apartment in Lyndon. The little town had been as dark as night- only a few feeble streetlights out here. No lights in any houses and the business district- such as it was- had been a black hole. Ray turned the truck off and just sat there for a minute listening to the slow ticking of a hot engine under the hood. The dog looked around in happy anticipation of being somewhere. Anywhere. Ray jumped when a light came on in the house. Sam Bronan must have heard the truck. How could he not? It wasn't long before Sam came out the back door wearing boots, jeans and a very sleepy look.
"Ray? That you?"
Ray had not yet moved from the driver's seat of the truck. The dog wiggled with happiness over finding yet another human to play with.
"Yeah, Sam. I made it."
"How is she?"
"Barb will be just fine. And it looks like I picked up a red head."
"Scuse me?"
With that, Sam walked over to the truck and looked inside. Yep, that was a red head, all right. Cute one, too.
"Well, would you look at that. Where did you two meet?"
"I have no idea. Somewhere out between the Interstate and town. He sort of hijacked me."
"I'll bet. How'd the truck work?"
"Just fine- and watch this."
Ray rolled up the driver's side window, much to Sam's amazement.
"How'd you do that? There was no glass in there."
"There is now. Had some time to kill in Louisville- and it was raining."
"That would do it. Thank you. I owe you."
"No, I owe you- for the use of the truck."
"Ok, we're even. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm headed back to bed."
"Good idea."
Ray climbed down out of the cab and the dog went bounding around the yard. So many smells, so little time. The dog disappeared behind the apartment as Ray began the long climb up the stairs. Not to worry- by the time Ray made it to the top, the dog had bounded past him up the stairs and was waiting at the door. One happy dog. Ray opened the door and the dog played the same game again- giving the apartment the olfactory once-over. With the front door closed, the dog settled down and a bowl of water was forthcoming. Dog food would have to wait for daylight. With that new found responsibility momentarily under control, Ray went toward the bedroom. No need to bother turning on any lights. Just stretch out across the bed and- was it possible? Could he sleep? It had been a long day. A very long day. The dog curled up on the throw rug at the side of the bed, happy to be where he was and happier to be inside. He knew right away he had hijacked the right truck. This guy needed him. Or would.
Sunrise had come and gone over the English countryside as Steve Vaan found a place for breakfast. He had walked through the night, seeing only a handful of cars and none of them the police. If he was a wanted man, he wasn't wanted very badly. Now he was settled in at a small table full of food and very hot coffee, determined to finish this meal without undue interruption. Like the aforementioned police. It became a game with the waitress to see if she could keep his coffee cup full. And it became a game with Steve to drink far more coffee than he had in quite some time. Just to keep the waitress busy. It was a silly game, but too early in the morning for any other kind. By the time he would leave this little roadside cafe, Steve would be able to run to Crutchfield's country home. Juggling live rats, if need be. Way too much caffeine there.
Not in the city and not quite all the way out of town, Steve was in what must pass for suburbs in England. He wasn't quite sure what to make of it- a mass of tract homes here, a sort of small farm or Tudor home there. He had a vague notion of where he was headed- an address he carried in his head and a map he had seen on the freighter. Arthur Crutchfield's home. Mopping up the last of the meal on his plate and downing the last of the coffee- he turned the cup upside down to make sure- Steve paid for his morning meal and asked directions to the road in question. No mention of a house number or a name. No need. With this new information, he set out to pay a visit to an old friend he had never met. He still had a bit of a walk ahead of him- several miles, in fact. More than enough time to ponder why he was here at all. And why was he here? What did he hope to learn from Arthur Crutchfield in person that he could not have learned over the phone or by mail? Tough questions. Steve had settled on the slim chance that there was more to it all than Crutchfield was willing to let on over the line or through the mail. Something more to the climbers than he, or anyone, had said. But was there? It was time to find out.
Steve left the restaurant as an English police car trundled by. Trouble? The two men in the car didn't give Steve a second glance. Ok, so they're here for breakfast. No Dunkin' Donuts in England. Cops gotta eat someplace. Steve walked on, trying hard to look oblivious to the long (hungry) arm of the law. Don't look back. He didn't. He kept moving, kept walking at a pace that he hoped would seem just about right. Not too fast, not too slow. How fast do people walk here, anyway? He had no idea. After a few minutes, he dared to look back. Nothing. No one there. Good. Now, where was he headed? He had been given instructions and directions to that road. No need to write them down, he was headed right there. Easy enough. Until his mind was addled by the thought of imminent arrest. Scrambled that program, didn't it, Steve? Ok, think: Was it down and to the left? Or to the left and then down? Oh, bother. Steve made good time, right directions or not. That caffeine had him dancing his way down the road. He be lost or there in no time. Fifty-fifty odds. He liked that.
Sunrise over rural southern Illinois brought new sensations to Ray Meadows. First to intrude on his sleep- yes, sleep- was a sound: A sort of breathy, whiny squeaking thing. Three times, sometimes four, then stop. Then again, there it was again. One, two, three- four times. Now nothing. Ray had just opened an eye- sleeping on his side, he wisely elected to open the eye on top (the better to see you with)- to maybe see if he could find the source of that rather insistent noise. He felt as though he could feel a slight waft of air when he heard it. Not quite a breeze, but something moving the air around him, just ever so slightly. Ray managed to get that eye open just in time. All he saw was one giant dog nose- about six inches away- before his new found friend decided it was time to wake up the human with a big slurpy lick across the face. Whoa! Time to wake up, Ray! The dog wants out. For that split second, Ray didn't remember anything about the dog or the long truck ride the day before. Whaaa! What was that?? Ray sat up entirely too fast and fell right back over on the other side of the bed.
The dog understood this as an invitation to play, and jumped up on the bed. Luckily, by the time Ray was back down on the bed, he was also awake and remembered where this large beast had come from: It was (now) his dog. And it probably had to go, if it hadn't already. Ray struggled uneasily to his feet, hoping against hope that the dog wouldn't tackle him. Ok, just let him out- that's all he had to do, right? Let's give it a try. Ray made it to the front door by holding on to the walls all the way. Why was this place so unsteady? Why couldn't this apartment hold still? The front door opened and the dog was out and down the stairs before Ray could shield his eyes from the bright morning light. What time did he get in last night? No idea. What time was it now? See above.
This dog knew a good thing when he saw it coming down the road. He wasn't about to lose it now. Get out, do your business, maybe a little scratching, a little sniffing, then get back inside. Time to whine for food. Ray left the front door wide open and managed to prop the screen door open as well. The dog can let himself back in when he feels like it. Ray say down hard on the soft chair in the front room. The room still spun, but not as fast, and only on one axis. That was much better. The room had stopped moving entirely by the time the big dog came back through the door with Sam Bronan in tow. Both dog and Sam were all smiles. Ray gave it a try and decided the effort was highly over-rated, for the time being. Now Sam looked a bit worried.
"Say- You ok? You don't look so good."
"Yeah, well, I don't feel so good either. So there."
"What's the matter? You sick? Cold?"
"Nah, I don't think so. Just did too much yesterday."
"Ok, so you rest today. I'll take care of- Say, what's the dog's name?"
"I have no idea."
"Too long. Needs a shorter name. Something you can yell without any effort. Trust me on this one."
"You're right. Any ideas?"
"Hey- It's your dog. You name it."
"Ok. I'll make that my job for the day."
"I'll check in on your later. You got food?"
"I think so. I'll be ok. Just need to rest and not drive."
"And name your dog."
"Oh, yeah, and name my dog. Thanks."
Sam left with The Dog trotting behind, looking for fun and something to do. Ray was going to have to come up with a name for it. Ok, what's a good name for a dog? How about Beauregard? Or Beuford? Abercrombie? Scholzynitsin? Wait a minute. What was it Sam just said? Something easy to yell. That made sense. Ray could just picture himself standing out there on the landing at the front door yelling, "SCHOLZYNITSIN!!" at the top of his lungs. They'd have him locked up for sure. Ok, something easy. How about Bob? He could be a bit perverse and name it Jake. Or not. Too bad “Smithers” wasn't easy to yell. Ok, how about- that's it: “Max”. Easy to yell, and historically a fun-loving dog and faithful companion. Max it was. Of course, Ray realized too late, if the dog's name was Max, didn't that make him- Don't go there. Just leave it. The dog's name is Max and that's all there is to it: Max. Ray drifted off on the chair, almost asleep but not quite dreaming. Something about Christmas and snow and a dog pulling a sled entirely too big for it.
It was late morning when Steve Vaan pointed himself down The Right Road. Sure, he had heard those instructions right after breakfast. He just didn't write them down like he should have. No time. Plenty of time later, after he got lost. Three times. No matter. Here he was, none the worse for wear. At least no one had stopped him and he saw no more police cars. This was a good thing, he thought. All right, now to just find the house numbers and work his way down the lane. Here's one- And say, he must be close. Just a couple of numbers off. Great. He picked up the pace and went right past the next two and- wait a minute- he must have passed it. Go back. Steve was walking slower now, watching everything along the road for house numbers. Alright, alright, there's one, there's another and- there's one missing. Guess which one. Steve suddenly felt rooted in place, unable to move. He was close. He knew he was close. But where? Where was it?
The car lumbering up the lane seemed to be in the same fix- looking for house numbers that weren't there. No, this one knew right where it was going. The car pulled up alongside Steve and made a sudden turn through a break in the hedge and wall on the other side of the road. Another road? A lane? No- a driveway! This had to be it. Steve waited a moment until the car was out of sight, then plunged into the lane behind it. No time to be shy. What's the worst that could happen? Don't think about that. Just go.
The lane- more like a path, really- was just one narrow English car wide. What would happen if two cars met back here? Steve thought the drivers would have to climb out through the sun roofs, clamber down the hoods, trade cars and back up. Only way to do it. On foot, he felt he could reach his arms out and touch the vegetation on either side as he walked. He tried. He couldn't. But it was close. Steve got so caught up in the amazing little lane, and all the plants and trees and hidden walls that ran alongside it, he didn't notice right away that he was coming to the end of it. Ahead, and in sight had he been looking, was a vine covered house- too large to be a cottage, too small to be any sort of mansion- with the car parked in front of it. No pavement here- the lane wasn't paved, either. Just packed leaves and dirt. The house was only visible as doors and windows poking out from the leaves of the ivy that covered the house. The roof was wild array of plants, vines, rocks and flowers. What was under there to keep the rain out?
Walking slowly into the clearing in front of the house, Steve stopped and slowly turned a full circle to take it all in. Yes, this had to be Arthur Crutchfield's home. Any boy who was raised in the city in wartime, but dreamed of the countryside in peace, would probably want to end up with something just like this. All green and lush and- and then it hit him. Steve shook with a cold wind that swept over his thoughts as he saw what he was looking at: This was the perfect refuge for climbers. Huge oaks, older than anything he had seen in rural Illinois could be seen dominating the woods around the house. Ground vegetation was plentiful, but it looked possible to get through it, if you were small. Or a climber. Straining to hear every sound, He could hear water running somewhere. A stream? Nothing too big, but yes, he could hear water running in a brook or creek nearby. Steve turned his attention to the house and found something conspicuous in its absence: power lines.
Steve made his way to the front door, all the time looking up and out for any signs of electrical lines or power poles. There weren't any. None. Was the house without power? It certainly looked old enough to be built that way. But even now? Were climbers somehow sensitive to electrical fields? Of course they were. They had to be. They carried their own electrical field with them all the time. No need for any competition, was there? so- No power? Steve had to find out. Door bell. There had to be a door bell. An electric push button. That's all he wanted to see.
He was right at the front door- standing there searching for a break in the leaves where he might find a door bell when two things startled him: First, there was no need for a door bell since the front door was equipped with a large brass knocker. Second, that front door, knocker and all, swung open as he stood there. Surprise! Steve Vaan was suddenly face to face with… a woman. Huh? He tried to do more than silently open and close his mouth, doing that wonderful fish-out-of-water thing that people sometimes do when faced with something unexpected. No luck. Gulp, gulp, gulp. The woman, for her part, stood there in the doorway, silent and smiling, fully expecting this gulping fellow to be the next one to speak.
What ever it was that Steve had expected after his travels and adventures from Lyndon to now, this was not it. He was at the right house, he was sure of it. Maybe he expected a butler to open the door in response to his knock. Some stately fellow in a morning coat and tie, with impeccable manners and a stiff upper lip. But he hadn't knocked. The door just opened and this woman opened it. Steve looked at her, trying to make some sense of this for himself. She was average. Very average. Exceptionally average. Was that an oxymoron? Possibly. But she was. How old? Thirty? Forty? something in between, perhaps. Brown hair and an eye on either side of her nose, nothing spectacular. She was not blue or glowing. Both points in her favor. Steve finally found his voice. The seconds had seemed to last an eternity.
"I'm here to see Arthur Crutchfield. My name is Vaan. Steve Vaan."
"The American, Steve Vaan?"
Now the American Steve Vaan was confused. How many Steve Vaans were there? One from each country, it seemed. Maybe they could all get together and make a sort of limited U.N. No, wait, that's not what she meant. It took a moment, but he made sense of it.
"Yes. I've come from the U.S. to see Mister Crutchfield, if that's possible."
The woman looked behind herself back into the house. Was there something going on in there? Steve couldn't hear a thing.
"Yes, well, you should come in. But I'll warn you- Mister Crutchfield has just himself returned. It may take a moment or two for everything to settle down a bit. Please, come in."
Steve followed the woman through the front door and across the foyer. He couldn't help but look around. Nice place, Arty. Not bad at all. Lots of books. Everywhere. The woman led Steve into a main room- what might pass for the living room in an American home. Nice room. Fireplace along one wall, some comfortable looking furniture and books- books everywhere. What was this, the local reference library?
"If you'll just wait here, I'll see that you get some tea and- are you hungry?"
He had to think about it. No, he had breakfast and all that coffee. The last thing he needed was more caffeine.
"No, nothing for me, thank you. I'm fine."
"Alright, then, I'll be right back with the tea."
Must be an automatic response here. Tea with everything: "Good morning, have some tea?" "Nice day, would you like a cup of tea?" "Oh, I see your arm's fallen off. Tea?" Involuntary reaction. As was Steve's response.
"Thank you."
The woman turned to leave, then came back. She felt that perhaps some sort of explanation was in order.
"Mister Crutchfield just got in this morning. I’m sure he will want to see you as soon as he can, but he has been traveling a bit."
"Well, not exactly. More of a working vacation. I understand it got quite busy toward the end. Seems their ship got caught in the edge of a hurricane leaving Bermuda."
Steve couldn't help it- he had to blurt out his question.
"Do you mean to tell me that Arthur Crutchfiled was on the Adalynne when she sailed from New York? He went to America for his vacation?"
"No, don't be silly. No one goes to America for a vacation. He was in Bermuda. He boarded the Adalynne in port there. How do you know of the Adalynne? Was it in the papers?"
"Long story. This should be an interesting meeting."
"I'll get your tea."
"Thank you."
The woman left Steve to ponder the great mysteries of life. He settled into a large chair and looked around at the books. He started to pick out titles and saw that the bulk of the books he could see- in this room at least- were books about animals. No great surprise, after he thought about it. It had been over fifty years, and he was still trying to figure it out: What were those things? Now, for every question answered, two or three sprung up to take its place. Why did Crutchfield go to Bermuda? A working vacation? What did that mean? Were there climbers in Bermuda? And how'd they get there? The morning coffee was starting to wear off, and Steve could feel himself slip into a more relaxed mode. This was good. No need to be keyed up now. Got to look relaxed. Cool, calm and collected. Don't want to spook Crutchfield. The woman returned with the tea, and poured a cup for Steve. It was steaming hot, so he wisely elected to let it cool a bit first. He found a book on a low table- let's give this a look. "Land Mammals of Southeast Asia". Oh, this should be good for a giggle. Hope there's pictures.
Steve was halfway through the book, turning page after page and studying the photographs, when the door opened and two men walked through and into the room. The land mammals of Southeast Asia were forgotten. Steve stood up, looked up and almost fell back down. He couldn't blink, he couldn't think. There was nothing he could say. One of these men had to be, by default, Arthur Crutchfield. Steve knew immediately which one. He had seen him on the Adalynne. The other was even more familiar- it was the ship's captain. And it was the captain who broke the silence.
"Mister Meadows??"
Now it was Crutchfield's turn to be amazed.
Steve looked from one man to the other. The woman wisely withdrew from the room. She knew trouble to see it standing there.
"Sir? I can explain. I think."

To Be Continued...

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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes