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

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO- Poof! And they're gone.

I'm always amazed by the weather. Living as we do on west coast of Florida, we do get more than our fair share of the stuff. They even name the storms here. Andrew, Bertha, Camille, Donna- It's that great? And while Mark Twain once said something about everyone talking about the weather but no one does anything about it, we sure do down here. We duck. Like I said, the weather always amazes me. Especially those fast moving storms. We can go from calm to killer in fifteen minutes and no warning. It doesn't take a hurricane, either. Of course, that works both ways. The most intense storm you can imagine can clear up and blow away just as fast as it showed up. So it was with the storm that blew across the Great Plains, over Lyndon, Illinois and right past Indianapolis that night. It made for a blustery, rocking night of wind and rain, but come morning, all that was left to tell the tale were a few puddles. The sun came up in a perfect blue sky. No clouds. Not a one.
The big added plus was what came with it: A mild cool front. The humidity was down to about zip and it was not going to be a very hot day. A real gift in August, no matter where you live: A beautiful day with a hint of the Autumn to come. In a small motel in Frankfort, Indiana, Steve Vaan had been up before the sun and was gone before it got there. A perfect day for a bit of motorcycling, no matter what you ride. He even started out wearing a light jacket. Can't beat that.
Steve continued his trek up U.S. 421- a small road seeing even less use now than before it was shadowed by the Interstate to the west. A nice, easy road with local traffic. Except for Steve. He stopped for gas in Rossville, and checked the oil while he was there. Everything was fine- even took a moment to check the tire pressure- Gotta keep up on these things, you know. Besides, he didn't want anyone watching to think he was in a hurry. He wasn't. He doubted anyone was even looking for him yet. And by the time they do? Hopefully, by the time they do, he'd be considerably east and bound for England. That was the plan, anyway.
One big advantage to travelling by small motorcycle is all the time it gives you to think while you noodle along. Steve's bike (with it's whopping 110cc motor- 6 cubic inches) was good for about 40 miles an hour all loaded up as it was. That gave Steve plenty of time to smell the flowers, see the sights and do some major plotting and planning. Some one once explained the difference between plotting and planning with this: You plot to kill the king, and you plan to get away with it. So it was with Steve, even if the King was already dead, thank you very much. He was plotting to flee the country, and he planned to get away with it. But first, it was time for breakfast. Steve rolled into Delphi, on the banks of the immortal Wabash, just after eight that morning. He was trying to push his life into a standard time routine- get up early, have breakfast and do something until lunch about noon. Maybe with all the changes going on he could finally get his body to return to a normal routine. No more of this up all night, sleep to noon and dress like one of The Lost Boys. To that end, he also had a plan: New clothes in Gary- before he got on that train.
That package of medical supplies Steve had sent the day before showed up in Lyndon just about the time Steve was finishing the last of the pancakes on his plate in Delphi. Barbara Meadows had heard the footsteps of someone coming up the stairs outside the apartment, and figured it to be Sam Bornan. Until she heard the steps go away again, almost without stopping. By the time Steve was out the door of the restaurant, the package was in the door at the apartment- and opened. It looked like somebody hijacked the Red Cross. Bandage-wise, they were set for life. Without thinking, Barbara went to the phone and dialed their home number. Ray could only wonder what she was thinking.
"What are you doing?"
"Calling Steve to tell him we got the package- and thank him."
"At what? Nine o'clock in the morning? He's probably sound asleep."
"If he is, he really is. The phone's just ringing."
"No answering machine?"
"Nope. Just ringing."
"Ok, so maybe he's out for breakfast."
"Or maybe just out on the floor."
"Give it a break. Like the eight ball says, ask again later."
"I guess I'll have to. No answer at the old Meadows' place. Now how about we change those bandages?"
"Do we have to?"
Maybe it's yet another Guy Thing: It's not so bad to be wounded and bandaged up initially- Sort of the Red Badge of Incompetence. A pride thing. But to change those bandages? Ouch. Do we have to? Looks fine to me. Couldn't we just leave it? No, we can't. Which brings up the Zen band-aid question: You want me to pull it off fast or slow? Always a tough call there. Most kids at this point will be screaming "SLOW! SLOW!", while those in the know opt for life in the fast pull band-aid lane. Ray knew his options at this point: Fast or slow. That was it. Not now or later, later or never. Now. Fast or slow? He was still a hurting guy, and did in fact go for the slow. They had not changed these bandages since he had ducked out of the hospital. It had to be done. Slowly. At least this first time. Maybe they'd build up speed as they went.
Travelling to the northwest out of Delphi, Steve was building up what little speed he could. He had a train to catch. Out of Monticello, his route turned due north and ran arrow-straight toward Michigan City. A quick stop at the Kankakee bridge gave him a chance to consult a map. Yes, we may not ask for directions, but we will look at a map- when no one else is looking. A left turn on U.S. Route 6 would do the trick. It would get urban quick after that. He'd have to find the motorcycle dealership in Gary and drop the bike off there. And he'd have to figure out what to tell them when he got there. Since he didn't have a title for the thing, he couldn't just sell it. And giving it away would be too suspicious, wouldn't it? Buy the time he crossed U. S. 30, he had it figured out: They could drain all the fluids, pull the battery, crate the thing up and ship it to him in England. That would buy him time AND give him wheels in the Old Country. Steve planned to give them Arthur Crutchfield's address, and Ray Meadows' name. He also planned to be there (in England) before it arrived. So what if it would cost about three times what the bike was worth to ship it? It was a plan, and it would work. And most important: It didn't leave the bike as a pointer in his trail behind him. Steve was all grins by the time he made that turn to the west on Route Six.
It's funny how things work out sometimes. Maybe there is a parallel universe, but it's right here, right now. Just about the time Steve Vaan (temporarily posing as Ray Meadows) pulled up to the motorcycle dealership in Gary Indiana, Carol Jacobson was walking up to the Meadows' house about two hundred miles away to the south. and about another two hundred miles to the west, Barbara Meadows was trying again to call Steve at the very same house. If time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once, it doesn't always work. Carol could hear the phone ringing as she stood on Barbara's front porch. And ring and ring and ring. No one there to answer it? Guess not. No cars in the driveway, no sign of life here. Locked up tighter than a drum. She checked. After Jake's tale of weird exotic animals last night, she wanted to make sure that Barbara was ok. Now she just wanted to find some one at home. Any one. There was no one. The phone stopped ringing as Carol walked down the front steps. Maybe the car's in the garage. Maybe they just had a rough day and are sleeping really late. No harm in looking. Carol walked around the house and up the drive, bound for the garage. No windows in the garage door. Hmmm. She walked around to the side of the building- No windows there, either. One last chance around back. She walked through the Meadows' back yard and around to the back of the garage- Victory! There was a window back there. Of course, it would mean tromping through one of Barbara's flower beds, but hey- it was for a good cause, right? Carol was all set to do a little off-roading when she took a closer look at the dirt in the flower bed. Deer tracks? Sure looked like it. Really big ones, too. How could that be? Deer in suburban Greenwood? She'd have to bring Jake over here to see this. He'd be thrilled. Deer in town. Imagine that.
Carol Jacobson forgot all about looking in the window- nothing to see in there anyway, except that odd white cage Ray had built. She made her way back around the building and down the drive, headed for home. Maybe she'd call Jake at work. He might even want to come home at lunch to see this. This was a rare find. If only she knew how rare. In Lyndon, Illinois, Barbara Meadows was trying to find something equally rare: Some one at home in Greenwood, Indiana.
"Ok, Ray, now I'm worried."
Ray had been noodling his way through Steve's computer- and finding an interesting lack of information. Could Steve have erased whatever might have been on here before he left? It was starting to seem very likely.
"What's the problem?"
"No one at home. Steve's not there, and I just tried Carol Jacobson. Neither one of them are home. Does that seem odd to you?"
"Nah, not really. They could just be out. Why worry?"
"I don't know, I just do."
"Relax. We're safe, they're safe. Everything's fine."
"If you say so."
"I say so."
Barbara put the phone down, sat down and did at least pretend to relax. Ray went back to the computer at hand and logged onto the Internet. Maybe a little surfing before the waves get too high. It was still early- it might not be too crowded. Ray thought it might be a good idea- if only for a laugh- to check in on Gilbert Lawrence's web site to see what the young man might be up to these days. No harm in looking. Just type in that address and hit this button. And nothing. What's going on here? Ray was looking at a list of net addresses that were as close as the computer could find to the one he typed in. But not the one he typed in. No Gilbert. Nothing even really close. Did he type it wrong? He didn't think so. Try again. Type it in more carefully this time, using that wonderful left hand. How do lefties do it? (Quite well, thank you.) And we can't figure out how anyone manages to get any work out of that right hand. To each their own. Poking at the keyboard (slowly) with his left hand, Ray Meadows retyped that Internet address for Gilbert Lawrence's climber web site. Again he told the computer to find it. And again the computer could not. It wasn't there. Nothing even close. This was odd. Ray decided to try a different tact. He went for the Arthur Crutchfield site that he knew Steve Vaan had built. That should at least be there. Lo and behold, there it was. No problems.
Ok, there really were problems but Ray Meadows didn't see them. When he tried to reach the Crutchfield web site, the computer went right to the source to ask the horse: Ray was looking at the file right off of the hard drive. He didn't hear the big disk spin, he didn't see the little red light flash. That hard drive was under the desk for a reason. Steve had spent his last night in the apartment doing some serious hacking. Gilbert Lawrence was trashed- totally removed from the web. And the only way good ol' Gil would find out is if he tried to log onto his own web site from another computer. Steve figured that might not happen for a week or so. As for the Crutchfield site, it was easy enough to remove his own web site- and program his own computer to kick itself into the hard drive for that file. Which is what it just did. Ray might notice when he went to close the computer down that he was no longer on the Internet. Then again, maybe he wouldn't. For the time being, Ray was content to peruse a site he knew fairly well. He spent the afternoon cruising through the Crutchfield site, reliving the war. Far to the north, Steve Vaan himself was having lunch overlooking lovely Lake Michigan. He thought it time to get used to having lots of water around.
Having left the motorcycle with the dealer in Gary with specific instructions to crate and ship- but no real hurry, guys, take your time- Steve had a couple of hours to relax before he caught the train. His schedule was simple: Lunch, clothes, train, gone. He treated himself to the nicest lunch he could find in Gary, Indiana. And that wasn't so bad. Good food, great service and a view of the lake stretching north over the horizon. Almost coastal. Were those really seagulls? He knew he could find some sort of department store before he ended up at the train station in time to catch a two o'clock connection to New York. Time to make tracks on the tracks. Even if it was only in America.
Train travel in America has always seemed to get the short end of the dignity stick. It must have something to do with that "All men are created equal" stuff they put in the early paperwork. Just because we're all equal shouldn't mean we all have to ride like cattle in an open car. May as well take the bus. Not much difference. Aisle down the center and seats down both sides. Big Woo. Make that Big Moo. The Europeans do it right: Put the aisle down the side and divide the car into a series of small compartments with facing seats. With real locking doors and pull-down shades. Small drawing rooms- Very Victorian. Some degree of privacy amid the turmoil of travel. Sure, you only get to see out the windows on one side. See "Big Woo" above. If you must travel by train, this is the way to do it. It's Tres' Chic in Europe. But not here. Steve knew what he was in for: Open cars like giant Greyhounds and all the privacy of a gymnasium locker room. Minus the hot showers, of course. Time to pick up on some travelling clothes. Something durable, something wearable, something non-descript. Steve had the restaurant call him a cab. They didn't even jump on the joke. You see: It was a nicer restaurant than you thought. Then he made up for the nice lunch and had the driver head for K-Mart. He was going to have to be Mister Everyman for about a week. Right before he fell off the face of the Earth.
I'm not sure what to call them. My wife could tell you, but she's not here right now. I guess they're department stores: K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target and their kin. But I always think of J. C. Penney as a department store. And K-Mart will never be mistaken for Jacque Penn-yea. Ok, so they're DISCOUNT department stores. I guess that's the term I'm looking for. What ever they're called, you know what they're there for: Down and dirty shopping. Back-to-school shopping for a family of six kids. Just-above-minimum-wage new job wardrobe shopping. Family camping trip vacation shopping. Or in the case of one Mister Steve Vaan: Blend-in-with-the-crowd-and-disappear clothes shopping. K-Mart was the place to shop. Except of course, you know better: Men don't shop.
Women shop. Men buy. Our way saves time. If we actually took the time to shop, we might dress better. Then we'd have to figure out the washing machine because we couldn't just throw it all in for one load set on "high" and "heavy duty cotton" with lots of hot water with a heaping big cup of powdered detergent. Takes too much time. We sniff, we wear. I have yet to see any woman smell their clothes. Guys do. Even the new ones. Just watch Steve. Ok, with Steve, it might be a little different right now: He knew he'd have to wear most of this stuff before it ever got thrown in the wash to get the "new" out of it. He would change in the train station. (Now there's a definition of bravery.) But he would. Before he even went to the ticket window, he was going to look like Ray Meadows- Mister Everyman.
Going through the aisles in the men's wear area, Steve hardly looked at what he was buying. Size? Large. The men's version of "One Size Fits All". It would fit him, for as long as he needed it. He was lucky it was August: The Fall fashions were in. He would be needing the warmth very soon. A dark plaid shirt, a plain work shirt and a serviceable "casual dress" shirt. Something he could slap a tie around if he had to. You never know. He'd hang on to his black shirts. Over in the slacks and jeans shelves he found a pair of blue jeans- a brand he'd never heard of. A pair of work pants with way too many pockets caught his eye and he threw those in, too. What else would he need? Socks. Definitely warm socks. Four pair of wool socks made him think he had it covered. New shoes? A quick run through "footwear" revealed a rather sparse selection. He chose a pair of dark brown ankle high work boots with a lug sole. Ok, that would have to do. The cart wasn't full, but it was impressive. For a man. Alone. Ok, that's it. Outta here. Steve headed for the front checkouts with time to spare. He'd make that train, no problem. He was as good as gone.
Barbara Meadows wasn't all that settled yet in Lyndon. She had taken a short stroll "downtown" while Ray sat at the computer. She found the small grocery store and went in to purchase a few things for later. It was only after she was inside, with an armload of groceries, that she realized she had no real "story" to cover who she was and why she was there in Lyndon. Would anyone ask? Of course they would. Just being neighborly. In the small (and only) check out aisle, all she could think of to tell the young clerk was that she and her husband were staying with Steve Vaan. Even Barbara thought it odd that the conversation came to a screeching halt after that. No more questions here. This one's staying with the Vaan-pire. Better leave her alone. Barbara picked up the bag -brown paper, imagine that- and headed back to the apartment. Easy enough to find. She could almost see it from the store.
Ray had immersed himself in the Crutchfield file- working his way toward the post-war era- When Barbara brought him out of his trance coming through the front door. It was a welcome diversion.
"Hey there, hacker. What'd you find?"
"Not much. Still working my way through the Crutchfield site. Big file."
"Good. Read slow. Not much else to do around here."
"Even if I thought I could get down those stairs?"
"Even if. Small town. Very small town."
"So did you meet both people?"
"Say what?"
"So there's more than two people in town?"
"Not that I've met. And I don't think I'll be meeting too many more."
"Huh? What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, nothing. I bought some groceries at the little store and the clerk asked me who I was visiting here in town. When I mentioned Steve's name, the conversation was over."
"His reputation exceeds him."
"So it would seem."
"So maybe we don't have to worry about too elaborate an excuse to be here?"
"I guess not. Mention "The Vaan-pire" and people may just clam up."
"Fine by me. I'll stay up here."
"How about lunch?"
Without waiting for Ray to reply, Barbara went toward the kitchen- such as it was- and emptied out the grocery bag. Looked like lunch to her- with a little work. Ray went through the process of logging off of the computer- and noticed that there was e-mail waiting to be read. Later. Maybe. It had to be something for Steve, and why should Ray even try to read it? Unless it was from Steve and to Ray and he should read it. Now there was a thought. Ok, definitely later. Ray jotted down a small note to himself and left it by the keyboard. Funny how it still always seems to come down to number two pencils and Post-It notes. Some things will never be replaced by technology. I hope. Especially the pencil. Yellow painted wood, pink eraser and a reasonable soft lead. One of man's great inventions. Lunch was served.
As Ray worked his way through the sandwich he heard Barbara pick up the phone in the living room and push some buttons. The short silence was followed by her half of the conversation.
"Carol? It's Barbara."
"Yes, it's really me. I'm fine."
"Ray's doing good."
"Were kind of in the middle of nowhere. Sure would like to come home. How's the weather there?"
Ray went for another glass of tea as he listened to the one sided monologue in the other room. Yes, it would be nice to go home. Why were they there, anyway? He was starting to question the whole chain of events that put them there in Lyndon. Barbara was still trying to figure it out as well.
"So he wasn't there? Nobody home?"
"What about any reporters or TV people around the house?"
Barbara went from smiling and happy to frowning and serious.
"Oh, that's good. No, I don't mean that's good. I'm sorry it happened, but maybe it's good for us. We can get on with our lives. Maybe they'll all just forget about us."
"I'll try to call him this afternoon. Maybe we can just head back tomorrow and be done with it."
"Ok, I'll let you know what's going to happen. Bye."
Barbara put the phone down and went back to the kitchen where Ray was putting the finishing touches on lunch and his second glass of tea. Like he needed the caffeine.
"So what's the news across the nation?"
"Good news: Carol said a plane went down at the airport."
Barbara delivered that line with an absolute deadpan serious face. Ray was left puzzled. That wasn't good news. Was this a joke?
"And that's good news how? We have stock in a local casket company?"
"No, no, no. It's a big news story. It's more than enough to divert all the news guys out to the airport and keep them away from us."
Ray thought about it. She was right. This was good news. In a bad sort of way.
"By the time they get done with that, whatever fell on me will be old news. You're right. This is good news. What about Steve?"
"She went over to the house, but he wasn't there. Said everything looked fine. Just no Steve."
"He could have been sleeping."
"True, he probably was. I'll try to call him this afternoon."
"And do you really think we should go back?"
Barbara thought about it. She hated to be the one to make the decisions like this. It was a long drive and she knew Ray wasn't feeling all that good. Those legs had to heal.
"I don't know. How about this weekend?"
"You're probably right. We'll stay here for a few days and relax. We can take our time driving back Saturday."
"Ok, so you relax, I'll do the dishes and keep trying to reach Steve."
"Me, too."
Ray had an idea that might work- or at least keep him busy for a few minutes.
"I'll try to reach him on our e-mail. I'm on his computer, maybe he's on ours."
"Worth a try."
Barbara headed back to the kitchen for an easy clean-up. There wasn't much to clean and she found herself headed for the phone as Ray worked his way through Steve's e-mail system. Yes, there was a message waiting in there. Ray looked at the details before he opened the message. Sent two days ago. From Ray Meadows to Steve Vaan. Huh? Ray didn't send any message to Steve two days ago. He wasn't even- Oh. This had to be from Steve to Ray. The names were switched because they were using each other's computers. Ok, so what's Steve got to say? Ray clicked on the letter and hit "open". The message was simple, to the point and cryptic. A bad combination.
"So long and thanks for all the fish."
Ray sat there and stared at the message until the screen saver kicked in. It was vaguely familiar. A quote from somewhere? A book? The title of a book? That didn't seem like much of a book title. Had to be a quote. Ray removed the screen saver. Maybe Barb could help. She was listening to their home phone ring. And ring and ring and ring. Into infinity, if she had the time. No answer. She still had the phone to her ear when Ray asked for help.
"Barb, come look at this."
She put the phone down. Maybe she'd try again later.
"What am I looking at?"
"An e-mail from Steve to here, sent the day before last. Any idea what it means?"
"So long and- oh, boy."
"You know?"
"I know."
"Would you like to share it with the class?"
"It's the title of a book and the message the dolphins left for the humans when they fled the Earth."
"Why would a football team leave the Earth?"
"No, silly person- dolphins- as in bottlenose dolphins- Flipper."
"Ok, now I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. What does this mean?"
"I think it means he's gone. Fled into the night. He's not there."
"And the dolphins?"
"Sorry I mentioned it. I'll buy you the book. All four of them. It’s a trilogy."
"You think Steve is gone?"
"Yep. He's gone. So what do you want to do now, O Husband-O-Mine?"
Ray Meadows sat there. Not really deep in thought. More like shallow in thought. Thoughtless, really. What to do? Go or stay? Paper or plastic? Did he want fries with that? Too many choices in life. He did prefer a dull routine and fewer questions. He was not an adventurer. He was in no condition to adventure.
"I- um- I don't know. What do you think?"
It was up to Barbara to think of something. She did.
"All right, Sparky, how about this: Steve is gone. That's kind of a given- maybe. You're in no condition to travel. Also a given. But we've got a house back there that we need to worry about. I'm beginning to think that maybe we've been had. So here's the plan: I drive back this afternoon and check on the house. I'll stop in and see Carol and get a copy of the local paper. She can keep an eye on the local news to see if we are truly forgotten and I'll be back tonight to tuck you in. Sound like a plan, man?"
"Sounds like a lot of driving. You sure you're up to it?"
"I'm up to it. You're the one who's hurting. You just relax and everything will be fine. By Saturday night I'll have you settled in front of the television for a night of popcorn and movies. In our own living room."
“I promise.”
Barbara decided to get this little adventure started as soon as possible. She looked around the apartment as she thought she might need something and settled on needing nothing. She'd just drive out there, have a look at the house and be right back tonight. They had everything they needed at this apartment to stay a month, so a couple of days should be no problem. Ray found a chair and a book and wished her well. Out the door, down the stairs and gone, no need for even a coat. It was a warm late summer day and the weather was perfect after yesterday's storm. The car was started, warmed up and backed out like she'd done it a hundred times. She was a good driver. Better than Ray.
Unlike Ray, who would have headed out of Lyndon without a thought of the gas gauge, Barbara stopped at the little station in town and topped off the tank. Took the time to really make sure it was brimming full. No need to stop between here and there. She picked up on a couple of sodas and something to snack on- more for the diversion than the nutrition. A ten minute stop and both she and the car were ready for a non-stop flight. She motored out of town and on to the open country roads to the northeast. As the houses disappeared, her speed picked up. She would, however, have a tough time matching Steve Vaan's current velocity. Big trains in the open countryside do tend to move.
At the train station in Gary, Indiana, Steve had managed to change into something a little less- well, black. Now he looked more like a travelling lumber salesman and less like an urban creature of the night. No black. It took some getting used to. He had to glance in every mirror he passed to see who that was. He bought his ticket and waited for the train to pull in. It wasn't exactly an express- more of a limited. It would be making stops on its journey to the east coast, but only at the larger towns. Gary and South Bend; Toledo and Cleveland- all the high points of the Great Lakes. No problem. He made the train, now he could relax. He was travelling as Ray Meadows, but paid for the ticket with cash. No need to leave a paper trail of charges on Ray's credit card. No need to even use the card his lawyer had provided. It was safe, he was sure of it. But then again, they did find him in Lyndon. So maybe it wasn't that safe.
The train rolled out of South Bend as Steve went through to the club car. Never hurts to have a little something to eat as you travel. Maybe he could find a book or magazine. Need to read. Preferably fiction. One thing Steve was not doing at this point was worrying about Ray and Barbara Meadows. He knew that situation was now on autopilot and out of his hands. Ray would eventually read the e-mail message. He would figure out what it meant- that Steve was gone- and supposedly then he and Barbara would head back to their house in Greenwood. That could happen as early as today, or maybe not until the following week. Eventually, they'd have to figure out that he was gone. Nobody home. They'd go back home and life would go on. The media storm surrounding their lives when they left would be a dim memory. Their fifteen minutes of fleeting fame would be done. They would try to get their lives back to normal, even if Ray wouldn't be sleeping much. He could at least relax at night without the fear that he was being hunted down by any over-zealous reporters. Some small consolation for Ray. None whatsoever for Steve.
Seated in the club car, Steve looked over the offered menu. Sure it was pricey- Where else could he go for food? What were his options here, really? Two choices: Eat or go hungry. Ok, he'd eat. It's the club car- How about a club sandwich? That seemed relatively harmless and maybe tough to screw up. Give it a try. The morning paper from Gary was on an empty table nearby. The front page was the usual delightful array of carnage and consternation. Nothing new in the news. The state-wide news section held some small hope. A commuter plane went down south of Indianapolis. Left the airport yesterday and headed right into that big storm. Officials suspect wind shear. Dropped like a rock. Oops. Like the Meadows, he also saw good news in bad. With most of the local authorities concerned about the crash site, few would be available to look into the sudden disappearance of someone who didn't live there anyway. By the time they did have a chance to look, he wouldn't be found. Even now, as his sandwich is delivered to his small table by the window, He's moving away over a mile each minute. Steve knew there was no way the Meadows could find him now. He was, however, somewhat concerned about his own lawyer. And that credit card he had been carrying- and using- for the past few years. Was that coming back to haunt him? Food for thought to go with the sandwich.
At the other end of the state, Barbara Meadows was cruising on the super slab and humming along with the radio. The day was perfect and the miles were flying by. Traffic was light in the middle of the week- no bass boats, no RV's. Easy sliding. She made the connection to the north bound route out of New Albany without a hitch. Seems she had been paying attention all those times when she wasn't driving. Northbound now and headed down the home stretch, she did find herself flying just a little too fast once or twice. The sight of a State Police car headed south in the other lanes reminded her to maybe back off just a bit- No need to add to the expenses here. She'd be in her own home by six- seven at the latest. At least half this trip would be in daylight. She didn't even want to think about the ride back to Lyndon.
And speaking of Lyndon: Ray Meadows had given up on cruising the 'Net for the time being and was in the apartment's back room- formerly the bedroom, now storage- going over the books Steve had collected and left behind. Maybe there'd be some interesting reading back there. He'd need something to do tonight. And tomorrow night and the night after that. May as well start looking now and beat the rush.
Most of the books were reference books. Animals, plants and trees of the Midwest. Seems Steve was doing the same thing Ray had done: Tried to find some reference to climbers in a book. Any book. Ok, as long as he was here, he may as well brush up on his botany. Ray pulled out a couple of books and slowly headed back to a comfortable chair in the front room. His legs were fine- when he didn't use them. They were healing, but he couldn't tell. It hurt to walk. Small, shuffling steps seemed the best for now. Maybe if he had a pair of roller skates, he could just glide around the apartment. Pull up those throw rugs and just roll. Hmmm. Maybe not. Ray immersed himself in the books, learning all over again about all the different types of oaks, pines and bushes that surrounded beautiful Lyndon, Illinois. It was so close to exciting, he almost fell asleep. I said almost.
Not sleeping for any long period of time is an odd, almost out-of-body experience. It's easy enough, after a time, to induce a sort of waking trance. The eyes are open, and the person is seeing, but that's about it. No movement, no response. Easy enough to bring them out of the trance with just some sort of movement in front of their eyes or a noise. Barring that, Ray could sit there for quite some time, unmoving. The pages weren't being turned and the information was not being assimilated. Kind of a waking test pattern there. Lacking but a shovel to lean on to work for the government. His breathing slowed and his heart rate followed. Ray sat there as minutes became hours and the sun shifted to the other side of the apartment, throwing that front room into the shade. The slight increase in darkness only strengthened his near-catatonic state. And yet, had anything moved in that room, he would have seen it. He knew that this extended afternoon rest- by whatever name you choose to call it- would be paid for that night. He'd be especially wide awake then. Now somewhere between his ears, Ray Meadows was daydreaming. Chasing rabbits in the field? Not exactly. He was thinking about the trees in the woods. And those things weren't rabbits.
By supper time, Barbara Meadows was pulling into her own driveway. It felt good. About that same time, Steve Vaan's train was pulling into the Toledo station. He did not feel nearly so good. Somewhere between then and now, Steve had come to the conclusion that he might not be able to trust his lawyer as much as he did. That credit card would have to go. Steve learned he would have an hour layover in the station at Toledo while they took on sleeping cars, food, passengers and some mail. Time enough. He would never be a man without a plan.
Barbara had wasted no time in bounding through the back door and into the kitchen. She called out for Steve. Then called again louder. No answer. No indication that he was there. No indication that he had ever been there. Had he? She started to wonder. Up the stairs and through the second floor rooms, she got the same feeling. Never been there. Certainly not there now. Ok, what to do? Maybe a quick call to Ray- Tell him that she made it and did he need anything from the house? She found Steve's number next to the computer and picked up the phone in that room. No time like now.
Nothing like a ringing phone to jolt anyone out of a good daydream. Even Ray. One moment he had this vague feeling of being surrounded by huge old dark trees and- and something in them. The next moment he was wide awake with a loud ringing noise in his ears. Literally. The phone. Got to answer the phone. Got to find the phone. Got to stop that loud ringing noise. It was under the books. He finally found it and picked it up.
"Yeah? Hello?"
"Ray? It's me. You alright?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm ok. you made it?"
"No problem. Piece of cake."
"So was he there?"
"Nah. Not a chance. Looks like he was never here."
"Everything's ok?"
"Sure, fine. The house is fine. The only problem is I'm here and you're there. We should have just come home. Maybe we should never have even left."
"But he's gone? No note or anything?"
"Not that I've seen. The house is clean and empty. Like he wasn't even here. Ever. It's weird."
"It's not that weird."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Head back, I guess. You want me to bring anything?"
Ray thought about it. What did he need? Nothing. His wants were few. None, to tell the truth. Maybe just to be home with Barbara. He suddenly felt very alone. Right before he had a thought.
"Yes. Yes, I do. Get the cooler out and fill it with ice."
"You're legs still hurting?"
"Yeah, but I'll live. Listen: One your way back, stop at a convenient store- Maybe the one there in Grayville. Pick up some Jolt Cola. Four bottles should do it. Keep them on ice until you get here. I'll drive us home. Tonight."
"Ray, are you sure you're up to this? Driving us home?"
"Sure I can do it. I want to be home. And I'm not going to sleep tonight anyway. May as well make myself useful. Just make sure you top off the tank as close to here as you can on your way back. That way we can make the return trip non-stop."
"That's how I got here. No problem."
"That's my girl."
"Let me just take a quick look around here, lock up and I'm on my way. And I'm going to stop for a bite to eat before I get out of town."
"That's ok. You take your time. I'm going to check through Steve's computer files and download any addresses or information we might need to find him.”
"See you tonight."
With that, Ray Meadows severed his connection to civilization as he knew it. And as it knew him. He decided he didn't need to be looking at these books on trees and bushes. He needed to be downloading files off of this computer in front of him. Now. He made his way over and sat down at the chair. Power on, modem up. Time to head 'em up and move 'em out.
Barbara Meadows did as she said. One last quick look through the house. Upstairs, downstairs and even in the basement. The one place she didn't look may have provided the only real clue: There was no yellow motorbike in the garage. But she didn't look. She didn't have time. Out front, a car had pulled up to the curb. Barbara saw it as she came out of the basement stairwell and into the kitchen. A flash of the lowering sun across the rear window of the car shot through the house like a bolt of lightning. It got her attention. Two men getting out of the car had "reporter" written all over them: The rumpled suits, the sloppy ties, the used-to-be-white shirts. These guys were reporters, all right. What Barbara didn't know- couldn't know- was that these were the two reporters that made her husband fifty dollars richer for just standing still long enough to get his picture taken. And they were both still assuming that the poor guy they had photographed was not Ray Meadows, the person they wanted to photograph. So they weren't exactly Pinky and the Brain. Except for maybe in that episode where they were both stupid.
She needed to get out of there- Right now. Her car was still in the driveway, but they weren't blocking the driveway. All she had to do was get to it and go. Maybe. She grabbed her gardening hat off the counter, shoved her hair up under the hat and ducked out the back door, stopping only long enough to make sure the lights were out and the door was locked. From there, she circled around the house away from the garage. Maybe she had a plan and maybe she didn't. She would certainly find out soon enough. Her timing was good. She met them as they came back down from the front porch. The two tabloid reporters had tried the door bell, even looked through the window. Never saw her. Until now. Here's proof that the best defense is a good offense:
"Hi! you guys seen Barb or Ray?"
She didn't come up the stairs toward the door- or the men- but stayed in the front yard, fidgeting her way toward the drive. The two reporters came down off the porch toward her. The one in front was the one in charge. She mentally tagged him The Brain.
"Why no, we're looking for them, too."
Barbara played it to the hilt, looking past the men and into the front window.
"So they're not home? Did you try the bell?"
"No, they don't appear to be home. And yes, we tried the bell. And you are?"
"I'm Judy- I live the next street over. Our dog got loose and I thought maybe he came over here. He does that when he gets loose. He comes over here. I thought maybe if they were home Bob would be here."
"Bob? You're dog's name is Bob?"
"Yeah! Have you seen him? Big brown mutt?"
"No, no big dogs here."
Barbara made her break for the car. Time to fish or cut bait. She was reeling these two in. No great catch, either of them.
"Ok, thanks, guys. I'm going to keep looking. Bye!"
With that and a wave, she was around the corner and in the car before either man could respond. She had left the car open and the windows down. Easy enough now to jump in, fire it up and back out of the drive before either reporter could question why she was driving a car from one street over just to look for her dog. And she did pull out onto Compton Road at an angle that made it impossible for them to see the car's license plate. You can't be too careful these days. The house was locked up and dark and she was gone. Maybe she'd call Carol Jacobson before she left town. Just to let her know the plan. Some one needed to know. Didn't they? Five miles away, on the southern outskirts of town, Barbara (sans the old gardening hat) stopped for supper. She was hungry, she was thirsty and she had miles to go before she slept.
As the computer on the second floor of the Meadows' house started to receive incoming email and files from a small apartment in Lyndon, Illinois, the previous tenant of that small apartment was quietly exploring the train station in Toledo, Ohio. Adventure is where you find it.
With an hour to go looking, Steve Vaan got off the train and walked through the station. Not much to see, and not what he was looking for. If some one was tracking this credit card, how closely were they following behind him? Sure, it had taken them several years to track him down in Lyndon. Or had it? Had they suddenly found a way to access the credit card purchases, knowing now which number to look for? That seemed the most likely. So they would be able to trace anything done with this card. But how soon? Within the month? The week? Or that same day? Tough call, not knowing. Steve had to settle on them knowing within the month. That seemed the most likely: That they were able to access a monthly statement and see where the card was being used. Ok, dear family, trace this. He came up with Plan B: He'd leave them a trail straight as an arrow- right before it got weird.
Finding an ATM, Steve made as large a cash withdraw as he dared in an evening urban setting. Time to be nervous. He made it safely back to the train and settled in. Next stop? Cleveland. Next move? The same. He would make large cash withdrawals at every stop, leaving a paper trail straight to New York City. He'd be tough to find there. Especially since he wouldn't be there for long. He'd buy everything else he needed, then the card would be stolen. Easy enough to arrange. Even in New York City. He'd have to tell Mister Stewart- his lawyer- that the card was gone. Or would he? Maybe not. Points to ponder. It was nearing sunset when the train pulled out of Toledo. It would be dark in Cleveland. He didn't even want to think about the cities between there and New York. Late night stops, early morning stops- bad time of day stops. Maybe he'd enlist the aid of a large porter. He'd roll into Grand Central Station after breakfast with entirely too much cash. Long before Cleveland rolled slowly into view, he had made up his mind: One short week in New York City. Five working days. No more. By September First, he would be gone. Over the ocean, bound for England. Arthur Crutchfield, here I come.
In her haste to turn a one-way trip into a three-way endurance run, Barbara Meadows had inadvertently (as well as purposely) overlooked a few things to streamline the proceedings. She honestly did not see Ray's wallet on his dresser in the bedroom. She wasn't looking for it. And while she made sure the computer and modem were up and running, she did neglect to turn the answering machine on. No biggie. they'd be back in the house by morning. Also, to save time, she didn't bother to call Carol when she stopped for a quick bite to eat. They'd be back tomorrow. She could have lunch with her or something. Another no biggie. Even with all the streamlining, it was dark when Barbara Meadows walked out of the restaurant south of Greenwood, Indiana. Evening fast going to night with a woman fast going to her husband. She wheeled the car back up the Interstate and pointed it south. Miles to go.
Traffic on the north-south leg of the journey was steady, but not heavy. Mostly local drivers, cars staying on the highway for a couple of exits and then gone. A few big trucks, but not enough to be a problem. Barbara made the big sedan dance through traffic with a grace that Ray could never manage. He would have been more than proud- He would have been amazed. New Albany came up in short order and Barbara remembered: The cooler. Actually, she remembered: No cooler. No ice. Jolt Cola. Oh, bother. Stop here or push on? This was the last big city. Stop here. Darn. A delay. She really didn't like the idea of coming off the Interstate and driving around trying to find what she needed- What Ray needed. But he said he needed it, so . . .
Down on the suburban streets, Barbara wasted no time in finding a store that might have all she needed in one stop. Got to save time. Got to keep moving. She stopped at a "drug store." Ok, maybe fifty years ago it was a drug store. Now, it's just a variety store that happens to have a pharmacy in the back. And no soda fountain. You call this a drug store? Come on. More like the old country general store. Little bit of this, little bit of that, whole lot of stuff in a very small space. The perfect store for what she needed. Except the Jolt Cola. They had everything but.
Barbara checked out with a cooler and ice- and a six-pack of Mountain Dew just in case. You've got to know your caffeine levels. The Dew beats the Doc, and the Doc beats the colas. Does Pepsi beat Coke? I'm not getting into that argument. This books going to be long enough as it is. Back in the car and back on the road, she had a choice to make: To stop again and look for the Jolt (What were the odds?), or just point the beast toward an on-ramp and eat the miles to Lyndon. It was nine o'clock. After nine. How'd it get so late? Barbara wasn't the least bit tired- and she hadn't even been hitting the caffeine. Forget the Jolt. She found the ramp and pointed the machine west, chasing a sun that set an hour ago. It was going to be dark out there.
Miles to the north- and moving fast to the east- Steve was as relaxed as he gets, considering. He knew this night of travel could shoot his plans of trying to maintain a more normal sleeping schedule. He's be up all night, watching for each stop. Sleeping cars or not, it's tough to sleep on a train. Except maybe in the daytime, when the rattle and hum conspire to lull you into napping the day away. That's when you sleep through the last border crossing and in up in Albania. Another story, another time. For now, the worst that could happen for Steve was that he would sleep though Cleveland. Like that was a bad thing.
As it turned out, there was no way he was going to sleep through Cleveland. The lights of the station and the surrounding neighborhood combined with the freight traffic on the other rail lines made doubly sure that only the dead would sleep tonight. Steve was not yet dead. Jogged even wider awake by the sudden stop, Steve pondered his plan: To get off the train in the middle of this town, make a cash withdrawal from a near-by ATM and make it back to the train alive. What were the odds? He decided to maybe do a little reconnaissance before he committed himself to The Plan. Off the train and standing in the station and hey- it was cool out here tonight. Did he need a coat? He thought not.
There were enough people- both employees and travelers- milling around inside the station that he had no worries. A good active crowd in a well-lit area. The best crime deterrent. Ok, that and a twelve gauge. Lacking anything with two barrels, Steve made his way to the station's diner. Busy enough, for late in the evening. Or was this early at night? Nine o'clock. Officially night time. Were they still on Central time? He had no idea. Did he want something to eat? Why not? He walked through the double glass doors and was headed for the buffet line when he spotted it to his right: An ATM. Perfect. Bright lights, lots of people. Safe enough. He made a quick detour and had his card out and in the machine in record time. Punch the buttons, get the money. It was a slot machine that (almost) always paid off. Money in hand, Steve glanced up at the little security mirror above the machine to find that there was indeed some one standing right behind him. And maybe a little too close. Oh, boy. This was all he needed.
He glanced to his left and saw room to move. What were the odds that this guy was left-handed? One in twenty? Something like that. Steve thought of something he had heard comedian Tim Conway say some years before: If he ever got threatened in a bar, Tim planned to pour his own drink over his head and babble like an idiot. That, he reasoned, should deter any sane criminal from pursuing the situation. Ok, worth a try- with some minor modifications. Like the fact that Steve lacked a drink to pour on his head at this point. Improvise. He made a big (really big) step off to the left and turned, wild-eyed, to confront the man behind him. It's show time.
"Vazz da hagen bork, Burnee!"
The man behind him was stunned, to say the least. Then again, he was not so stunned that his right hand left that jacket pocket. Not a good sign.
"Say what?"
Steve tried to remember what he had just said. What did he just say?
"Vazzde hagenbrook. Dolber konna bitt?"
Close enough. Steve gave a big smile and a wave and made a bee line for the buffet. Stay in the crowd. Stay safe. For now. In a leap of blind faith, Steve turned his back on the man as he went for the food line. No choice at that point. Can't show fear. Got to do it. And he did. Never look back. Steve picked up a tray, added some utensils- and maybe that extra knife was a good idea- and started looking at the food. What's for dinner? Concentrating on his selection of edibles, Steve didn't look back at the man who had now stepped up to the machine. Using that visible left hand, the man did keep glancing over at Steve. Foreigners, he thought. Go figure. The right hand, until now hidden away, came out to hold his wallet as this man went through the same motions as Steve- with one minor exception: It's always a bit harder with an artificial right hand.
At a quarter of ten, on the Interstate highway west of Croydon, Indiana, Herbert Yates was headed home. Much like Barbara Meadows, he also had miles to before he slept. As a tool salesman out of Columbus, Ohio, he was used to long miles across the Midwest. A thousand miles in a day? Not a problem. Just turn him loose. Now tonight he was running a day ahead of schedule. He had left St. Louis early that morning knowing that he had his work done for the week. If he got home tonight, it would make for a nice long weekend. Can't beat that. He could sleep in until noon tomorrow. Maybe later. But he wanted to be home tonight. Making good time on the rural Interstate, he knew which radio stations to dial in wherever he was from Pittsburgh to Denver and what restaurant was at every exit. He had certainly been here before. It was a long stretch of dark nothing between the turn off to South I-164 and New Albany to the east. Nothing ever happened out here. Now somewhere west of Croydon, Herbert Yates was about to get the last surprise of his life.
Herb had just crested one of the endless rolling hills and was headed down into the shallow valley on the other side at over seventy miles an hour. Maybe slightly illegal, but not entirely criminal. With no other cars in sight, he hit the high beams. The better to see you with. At the leading edge of the headlight's beam there was something in the road. Debris? Herb took his foot off the gas and started to shift his car- a big Lincoln and by golly he had earned it- into the passing lane. He was closing fast on whatever it was- Something blue. At sixty-five miles an hour, he realized he was going too fast. That's always a bad feeling to have. Whatever that was on the road was not debris- it was moving! And it was moving toward the lane he was now in. This was not good. In fact, this was very bad. That thing- WAS IT A KID? WHAT'S A KID DOING OUT HERE ALONE AT NIGHT??- He was going to hit the kid! Herb jerked the wheel to the left and into a slide toward the median as another car crested the next hill coming toward him. To his everlasting and posthumous credit, Herbert Yates did manage to miss the climber. The last act of a desperate man, as if anyone would ever know.
Barbara did not immediately see the Lincoln, out of control and spinning across the median. Running along in her own westbound fast lane, she was watching for traffic ahead and State Police behind. For her, ten over the limit was reckless abandon and not something to be trifled with. She thought it odd, in that split second before the reality of the situation became clear to her, that there would be bright lights sweeping across the median in front of her. She saw no cars in the other lanes. In fact, she thought she was the only car on the road. Except now she saw bright red tail lights coming at her from ahead on the left. What was that all about? What's going on over there and- Now she saw the big spinning Lincoln at the edge of her headlights' beams for what it was: Three tons of Detroit Iron whirling at her like a planet out of control. She shifted her car to the right hand lane. Then to the shoulder of the road- still doing over seventy miles an hour in the darkness. The Lincoln kept spinning across the median, almost to the fast lane on her side of the road. They would hit in the next second unless she did something. She did. She floored it. The four barrel carb kicked in and the transmission downshifted. That big sedan of hers launched itself forward like a Saturn Five on a date with the moon. To her left, the Lincoln threw up a big cloud of dirt and was gone. WAS GONE? She jerked her head to the left to get a good look. She peered intently into the compete darkness to the left. No big car to be seen there. Her right foot was still glued to the floorboard and her car was still pushing forward- now over eighty miles an hour and climbing. Had she imagined it? Was she hallucinating? What was going on- Then it hit. In truth, another tenth of a second and it would have missed Barbara's car completely. Close, but a miss as good as a mile. As it was, The Lincoln's roof landed on her trunk, with the entire front end of that car crushing her own car's roof. One moment she was flying along in the night, trying to figure out if she had seen what she had seen; the next moment what she had seen landed on her car. The noise alone was overwhelming. The roof caved in and the windows exploded, trapping her in the space below the front seat as the glass shattered and showered around her. The sound of the tearing metal blocked out the roar of both engines as the big Lincoln slid off the back of Barbara Meadows' car and back onto the roadway- upside down. With the rear of her car crushed as well as the roof, the rear axle had come loose and now it was her turn to spin across the median. Held in place beneath the crushed roof, she couldn't see any of this. All she knew was that the car was still traveling fast, but not straight. She had the presence of mind to reach up and turn off the engine before the car hit the median. After that, pure physics took over. Her car was lighter. It wasn't going to spin like the heavier car that just hit her. It was going to roll.
Herbert Yates, who initially had a much better view of the proceedings, paid for it with his life when their cars meet. By the time his Lincoln continued its short off-road excursion into the ditch on the north side of the road, Mister Yates was (mercifully) no longer among us. The Lincoln's engine, a testimony to strong engineering and quality control, continued to roar at full tilt until the spilt fuel in the engine bay met the hot exhaust manifolds. It was the light from that blast (and the ruptured fuel tank a moment later) that alerted the farm to the north that the highway had claimed yet another late night driver. Woken from his rest, a tired man picked up a phone. Just another bad night near the big road.
Barbara Meadows was not yet dead. Her car, rolling wildly across the median, also went airborne for a moment in the opposite lanes. The battering she took wedged beneath the dashboard caused her to black out. The downward crush of the steering wheel had broken her left arm and she had a hundred cuts from all the flying glass and metal debris as the car went out of control. Her right ankle was twisted and caught under the brake pedal, but that was the least of her problems. At least, unlike Herbert Yates' Lincoln, her car landed right side up. As though you could have told. Crushed and mangled on every side from the impact and the rolling, the sedan continued to slide- almost backwards now- across the eastbound two lanes and up the embankment on the south side of the right of way. The height of this berm stopped the car at the fence at the top, where it spent its last bit of kinetic energy in the long slide back down. A final insult to all this injury occurred when Barbara's car hit the ditch at the bottom of the high embankment. With a last rending of metal and noise, what was left of the crushed sedan rolled over upside down and came to a halt in the ditch, silent and dark.
With the roof crushed level with the hood and trunk- which were also mangled and destroyed, the remains of the car was quite well hidden in the low darkness of that ditch. That Barbara had turned the car off meant that there would be no fire. But no headlights, either. Resting bottom up in the ditch, a stream of water, run off from that big storm of two nights ago, began to trickle though the car's interior. It came in through where the top of the windshield used to be, pooled in the crushed metal folds of the now former roof and slowly worked its way out the back through the remains of the rear window opening.
Had Barbara been conscious, the ensuing silence would have been deafening. Big accidents are noisy affairs. Especially when you're in them. After a time, she might have heard the soothing sounds of the stream bubbling its way through the interior of the car. Listening harder, over the ticking of the cooling engine and the hissing of escaping coolant, she might have even picked out the warm noise of the crackling fire nearly a quarter of a mile to the east and on the other side of the road, where the remains of a shatter Lincoln Town Car were slowly roasting the remains of one Herbert Yates, late of Columbus, Ohio and now just plain late. Perhaps it was a good thing Barbara Meadows was not at all conscious. This would make the long wait that much easier. To the east, a fire truck, an ambulance, one wrecker and a State Police car with two troopers were gathering up speed to investigate a reported car fire on the Interstate. It would not be nearly enough. Even when they found Barbara Meadows.

To Be Continued...

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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes