CHAPTER TWO- A Long Time Ago (or so it seems).
Ah, Suburbia! The mediocrity of it all. Even with the joy and beauty of spring, spring in the 'burbs is just an average sort of thing. Mrs. Grey fusses with those God-forsaken roses of hers. Mr. Green supervises the off-loading of yet another (even bigger) big screen TV for the up-coming baseball season. And that jangling garage band may as well give it up. They're not going to get it. Not in their lifetime, anyway. In the midst of all of this flowering muddy splendor, one man is conspicuous in his absence.
Raymond William Meadows was in his house. Mr. Meadows was almost always in his house. He came out only when he had to, and for the only briefest amount of time. Happy to pay a neighborhood boy to mow the yard or wash his car, Ray was more than content to stay inside. He was obsessed with it. Borderline agoraphobic? Maybe so. He shopped by mail when he could and by proxy when he couldn't. If the world were to come to an end, he might look out the window to see. Then again, he might not.
His long-suffering wife, Barbara, had long since learned to cope with Ray's approach- or rather retreat- to life. She was happy to do his shopping for him, having seen his taste in clothes before they were married. As for his hobbies, books and television were being steadily replaced by computers and the Internet. He could read anything he wanted without leaving home. He didn't even have to stand up. Was this a great life, or what? Ray's job tied in nicely with his somewhat lame life style. As an electronic communications designer for the Granville Corporation, all he did at work all day was figure out ways for everyone else to be like him. A rough life all around .
Ray felt good about his work. He could walk through any floor of the corporate offices downtown and see the results of his efforts: People arriving at their little office or cubicle first thing in the morning, and not having to leave that velvet cage until it was time to go home. All mail, all messages, faxes, packages, even food- came right to them whenever they needed it. Everyone was instantly in touch with everyone else, and the world according to Ray was a better place. At least there was less foot traffic around the office. Ray liked that. He could move around better within the buildings. Big buildings were God's gifts to Ray Meadows. Here could go places and do things and never have to go outside. The Edmunton Mall was a sacred shrine to Ray. He secretly hoped to see it someday. Maybe.
Now, if Ray could only figure out a way to not have to actually face the outside world and drive to work and back each day, he'd be a happy man. So far, that was the only fly in the ointment: the daily commute. He had done his best to insulate himself from the outside world, even while driving: A big intimidating sedan with dark windows. No one could see him, and he didn't have to look at much of anyone else. Things were just about as good as they could be for a guy who didn't want to deal with any of it.
Perhaps I've been a bit unfair to Ray. You might think, from reading the above description of Ray's life, that he was an unhappy loner. One of those silent brooding types with no friends and all the charm of a cow flop. Wrongo-bongo, Monkey-Boy! Ray, for all of his quirks- and there were a few- was one happy character. He was famous for his practical jokes at work as well as his knowledge of just about everything. Got a question? Ask Ray. Throwing a party? Get Ray to come, no matter what. If you do it right, it is possible to get Mr. Ray Meadows out of his house, down the street, and into your party. A good time will be had by all. Ray guarantees it. Just make sure it's not a garden party or outdoor Bar-B-Que. Indoors? No problem: Invite Ray.
Friday, March 30th was shaping up to be a typical spring day. Which is to say it looked like rain yet again. It had been a wet spring to say the least, and now what was really needed here was a long hot summer to dry things out a bit. The ground was soggy, the creeks were high and the vegetation was lush to the point of Tropical. Everything was painfully green. Maybe it's a good thing the sun wasn't out. Everything would have been too brilliant to look at, unless you were tucked safely inside the Granville Corporation complex. Four modern high-rise dark glass and steel pillars that added a certain something to the city's skyline. And that something would be dull repetition.
Working life within those four identical towers had been tough that week. Power outages from the storms, a few too many meetings for all concerned and the approaching tax deadline were all taking their toll that week. Ray Meadows had spent the week literally running from department to department, from building to building, "putting out fires" as he put it, solving the problems of doing business in an increasingly dependent electronic age. With bad storms the last three out of five days, Ray had missed three out of five lunches. Add to that the occasional late night, and the constant regular demand for his services and it's no wonder he was seen everywhere, by everyone, all of the time. Everybody knew Ray, or would soon. He made sure of that. Mr. Indispensable, that's Ray Meadows.
Ray hardly noticed the weather outside. It could be snowing in July and Ray might not pick up on it. A two degree shift in his own office temperature could mean the world to him, but outside- well, it just didn't matter. Even traveling between the four Granville towers could be done in subterranean tunnels. No need to breathe that nasty fresh outside air. Who knows what's in it? So maybe some people were surprised that wet Friday afternoon to see Ray Meadows actually outside, talking to one of the maintenance men near Tower One. He wasn't there long, no more than five minutes in the Great Outdoors, but it did not go unnoticed among his fellow workers. Ray would have to endure a bit of ribbing that afternoon. He brushed it all off as "part of the job", and never really said what it was he was doing outside. There can't be much in the way of electronics out there. Can there?
The few Granville employees that saw Ray outside that Friday afternoon could never have seen Ray that morning, in careful conference with the plant manager in the elevator service area near the roof access on the top of Tower One. True, there were electronics there, but not the sort Ray usually dealt with. And he was there for another reason all together. Come next Monday morning, the weekly Monday morning executive staff meeting in the tenth floor conference room of Tower One was going to have a whiz-bang finish. Ray was seeing to that right now. It would be, after all, April First.
What had started some years ago as simple, mindless fun had developed by now into a quest for The Perfect April Fools Prank. Turning the water cooler into a giant Jell-o mold? Simple mathematics. Hint: If one box makes one quart, then how many boxes will it take to gel five gallons of cold water? Answer: Twenty, but it's a pain to clean out the cooler. Two hundred pizzas for the company president's lunch? Child's play, but you'd better be planning to donate the pizzas to feed the homeless if you want to have a job on April Second. Dye the entire incoming water supply purple? Sophomoric, but fun. Over the years Ray, along with several of his more creative co-workers had quietly fostered the unofficial Granville Corporation April First Fool-Off. Twenty bucks got you in the running, with the entry cut-off date at March first. That gave everyone a month to sweat and worry. Or learn to duck. The rules were few: Your special little "event" had to happen on April First between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the corporate grounds and be witnessed by non-involved (as opposed to innocent) by-standing employees. And no one should be hurt. Not on purpose, anyway. That night, all concerned meet for dinner at the appropriately chosen April's Restaurant, where the winner-take-all will be chosen. And a fun time will be had by most. Or at least some. Ok, maybe the winner.
As the more-or-less Tenth Anniversary Fool-Off, this year had attracted an unusually high number of entries. The winner taking all this year may have to leave town to keep it. There was, of course, the hard core two dozen or so that entered every year. Of those, half of them were targeting the same person they did last year. And the year before that, and the year before that. That faction of the competition was taking on a decidedly Coyote vs. Road Runner angle as many of these practical jokes tended to backfire a bit on the perpetrator now seriously lacking that element of surprise. Beep, beep.
But now, this year, there was a large pool of new blood, so to speak. Yuck. Forget that. Sounds messy. This year, many new and interesting people were entered in the contest. There. That's not so gruesome. Most of these new entries were going for the quick cheap shot, including the classic bucket of water over the door and thumbtacks under the seat cushion. No worries to the front runners there. A few were being careful about their plans, and those were the ones to worry about. Ray knew who they were, and had a vague idea of what most of them were up to, or at least who they were going after. There was, at least, an unwritten rule that declared that other contestants could not be targets. And so far, no one had crossed that line. This year was anyone's race.
Friday night, five o'clock arrived to the relief of all concerned and all concerned streamed out of the Granville Towers complex in search of their cars and home. Ray was no different, of course. Work's all right, but this working for a living was highly over-rated in Ray's eyes. He tried to be calm and casual as he made his way out to his car. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nope. Don't look at me. Nothing happening here. And it was true, up to a point. Ray found his car, got in and drove off pretty much like he did every other work day, some two hundred times a year. But had you actually tried to follow Ray, things were different. He left the parking lot and started out on the same roads he always drove. But somewhere up on the expressway, good ol' Ray got off at the wrong exit. No where near home.
He had been very careful about watching the cars around him, both on the road and at the toll booths and was sure no one from work saw his less than routine route. On the surface streets, he threw in a couple of extra turns just in case. He watched every car and truck. If anything followed him for more than two turns, he was suspicious. Three turns and he got a bit panicked. After a few minutes of zig-zags and double-backs, he felt comfortable again and headed toward his destination.
The house was remarkably unremarkable. Just another refurbished two-story with a livable attic in an older, and formerly nicer, section of the city. A home that may have originally housed a bank executive in the 1940's, now home to a small family of blue-collar workers with an apartment up above and another over the unattached garage. The house now offered a source of income for its own maintenance. Inside, there was more income to be had.
The basement, accessible through the house or the outside service doors, was converted to an interesting workshop. Large cutting tables, industrial sewing machines and shelves of cloth and thread turned this man-made cavern into a tailor's dream come true. Why shop for clothes when you could come here and have them made? Just your size, and the fabric of your choice. And the price is right, too. The Puttermanns, owners of the house and cloth fanatics extraordinaire, had found their niche in this basement: Your clothes your way. What would you like? From simple ties to overcoats, they could do it all. Although Bill Puttermann still kept his day job- just in case- Alice was the full time operator of The Puttermann Clothiers. And it was Alice that greeted Ray Meadows at the front door and led him downstairs, where his particular job laid waiting on the cutting table. It was very weird.
Ray hadn't exactly ordered a three-piece suit. Clothes were involved, but this was something completely different. Laid out under the lights on that table was another Ray Meadows. Not so much in-the-flesh as in-the-fabric. A duplicate full-sized soft cloth sculpture of Mister Ray Meadows in the same clothes he wore to work every day. The hair- a wig- was the same. The shoes- real shoes- were the same. The face was- well, the face looked like the Cabbage Patch version of Ray, but it was scary close. With a little air-brushed fabric paint for coloring, it was too close to look at comfortably. It was Ray, with but one exception. It only weighed about one tenth of the real Mister Meadows. Stuffed with rolled and chopped foam, Ray II was still a twenty pound weakling. Which was just fine with the first Ray, who had to cart him home without attracting attention.
Ray took a good look at himself, so to speak, and was pleased with the results. The Puttermanns had obviously done soft sculpture before, but never to duplicate a living person. This was good. This may be a new product line for them. But they were sworn to three more days of secrecy. Come next Tuesday, April Second, they could advertise their talents all they want. But for now, mum was indeed the word. With both Ray and Alice happy with the final product, Ray II was carefully folded into a large duffel bag for transport. On their way back up and out to Ray's car, they discussed adding some weight to the cloth clone. Settling on fishing weights pinned into the pockets, Ray and Alice figured they could easily add five more pounds without worrying about the cloth being ripped apart by the weight. Ray was happy with that, and knew he had the weekend to run some tests in his own basement. After he covered the windows, of course. Ray-in-a-bag went into the trunk.
Back in his car, and on the road toward home, Ray looked at his watch. Twenty minutes. A risky delay, but a justifiable one. If any one had called for him at home, how would he cover his stop between work and home? Accident on the expressway? He wasn't the only one that took that road. Try again. Car trouble? Not for twenty minutes, if you were Ray. If he's car conked out, he was stuck for good. He knew computers, and electronics. But this was not an electric car. When it quit, he was stuck. So what's the excuse? Ray was clueless. Maybe nobody called for him. On the Friday before Monday, April First? Whoo-boy. Fat chance. As he pulled up into his driveway, he realized it didn't matter if anyone called. There was another car in the drive. Somebody was there. Probably waiting for Ray. Moose-poop. Time for Plan B- What's the biggest bald-faced lie he could come up with in the next 30 seconds?
That car belonged to Albert Hanover. Al worked in a distribution area in Granville Tower three. Ray knew that Albert was one of the most fierce competitors in Monday's contest, and even won last year's prize outright by arranging a fake board meeting at a topless club for several junior vice presidents. They all showed up. Not that they were too put out about the location, but it was tough to explain once they figured out they shouldn't be there when their wives called. All six lil' veeps made it back to their offices, and spent the rest of the week trying to figure out who done it. They never did. Albert collected his winnings based on the creativity of the prank and the fact that he got one hundred percent victim participation. Every wife called the topless club, thinking she was calling her husband at his new office number. Oops.
This year, you can be sure that everyone is double checking their meetings on Monday. Or taking the day off, just to be safe. Al was cooking up something, and Ray didn't even want to know. Most people get real inquisitive about things like this. Who's pulling a prank? On whom? And what is it? Not Ray. He held no fascination with surprises. Once you figured them out, where was the surprise? He'd find out on Monday night, and that was soon enough for him. It wasn't so much a lack of curiosity as it was a contentment with the status quo. But here was Al, standing in Ray's driveway and chatting with Barbara Meadows. No good can come from this. Ray stopped the car, turned off the engine and up until that moment didn't have glimmer of an idea to cover his late arrival. Until he saw the bag on the floor. A quick bend and grab, stuff his sunglasses in it for bulk, and he was ready. Ray could face Albert Hanover. Barbara might even play along without warning and this could work. Good thing Ray didn't sweat easily.
Leaving his car in the driveway and striding purposefully past Al's car, Ray handed Barbara the bogus bag.
"I got your prescription filled, Honey. Sorry I'm late. Hi, Al."
Yeah, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Or at least a convincing bluff. Barbara was no fool. She took one look at the contents of that bag and knew something was up.
"Thank you, dear. Dinner will be ready soon."
With that little charade out of the way, Barbara thought it best to make an exit. She went back in the house, leaving Ray to deal with Al. So Ray was winning, but the battle wasn't over yet. He had no idea what Al and Barbara had talked about, or why Al was even there. Not out of the woods yet. And here came Al.
"Barbara not feeling well?"
"Oh, it's nothing, really."
"So what's up, Albert?"
"It's nothing, really. Just trying to get everything finished up for Monday."
Ray offered Al a sly glance and a smile. But knew better than to ask.
"So...... What do you need?"
"Not much. I was kind of hoping you had a drill."
"Oh, yeah, I got a drill. Come on in."
Both men began the short trip from the Meadows' front door to the basement, with Al taking in every nook and cranny of the house, looking for some clue to what Ray would be springing on some hapless fool in just three days. In that respect, Al was going to be disappointed. Ray II was still safe, locked in trunk of the car. The basement, with its jumbled boxes and dark corners, kept Al hunting and searching and quite literally in the dark. Ray found the drill, no problem.
"Here we go- one drill. Anything else?"
"You don't happen to have a half inch diameter tungsten masonry bit, do you?"
Ray patted his pants pockets and checked his shirt pocket to no avail.
"Geez- fresh out. Must have used my last one today."
Ray couldn't help but grin from ear to ear. He felt he had already learned more than he had hoped to about Albert's plan. What ever it was.
"That's ok. It's worth buying. You got the chuck key for this thing?"
Ray began to search the work bench.
"Oh, yeah, that would help, wouldn't it? You know if you buy a half inch bit, to get the stepped down shank to three eighths for it to fit this drill?"
Albert took a good long look at the business end of the drill.
"That shouldn't be a problem."
Ray came up with the chuck key and handed it over to Al. There was at least one more question he had to ask, mainly because he'd be the one to clean up the mess if anything went wrong.
"You have a stud finder?"
"My daughter seems to have a talent."
"I'm sure she does. No, I mean how are you going to keep from drilling through electrical wires, phone lines and computer connections?"
It was Albert's turn to grin now, however premature.
"I've got the building plans, and a tape measure. Shouldn't be a problem."
"So you are drilling through a wall in the building."
Albert's smile vanished faster than money at a sideshow.
"Well, uh, yeah. I guess I am. But..."
"But don't count on the plans being accurate. They were drawn up long before the buildings were built. Sometimes little things get changed in construction. Like the location of wires and studs. And anything we added later."
Ray rummaged around in another drawer and came up with a hand held instrument. It looked like a small TV remote.
"Try this. It should find any metal stud or electrical line in a wall. Assuming you're not drilling through a solid concrete vault. You're not, are you?"
Albert forced a smile back out.
"No, no, not at all. Simple little thing, really."
Al pocketed the stud finder and chuck key as both men headed back up the stairs. Ray had about one more shot at learning more about Al's prank. Not that he really wanted to know, but it was fun to rattle Al's chain a bit when he had the chance. At the top of the stairs, he gave it his best shot.
"You are going to tell me where I'll need to patch the hole on Tuesday, aren't you?"
Nice try, Raymond. Too bad Al wasn't born yesterday. Or the day before.
"Nah. If you haven't found it by Wednesday, let's just leave it for next year."
Now it was Al's turn to be smug. He felt lucky to have caught that one for what it was. He knew Ray could usually figure things like this out pretty fast. Borrowing this drill had been a real gamble, and a bit of a chance to brag: Catch me if you can.
At the front door, it was a time for the parting of the ways. They wouldn't see each other until Monday. Maybe not even until that Monday night at the restaurant. Albert had won, but Ray kept trying.
"Well, I'm sure it won't be too hard to spot. The janitors never vacuum on the weekend."
Al faked a crestfallen frown.
"Oh, yeah. Nuts. Vacuum cleaner."
Making his way toward his car, and away from Ray, Al let the smile come back. The Dust Buster was already in the car, battery charged.
"See you Monday, Ray. Good Luck."
"Same to you. Pity the victim."
Al got the last word:
"But not 'til it's over!"
With that bit of bravado, Mister Albert Hanover started his car and backed out of the driveway. Armed with everything he needed, save the drill bit, he was ready for a long night at the office. But first, a quick stop at the hardware store. Would Monday ever get here?
Ray went back inside, with the aroma of dinner telling him exactly what to do next. Sitting down at the table, he certainly noticed the steaming pasta dish before he realized that Barbara was indeed wearing his sunglasses.
"So what do you think? Does this prescription make me feel better?"
"I'll have to check later."
Barbara took the glasses off and they both went after the plates of pasta and warm bread. The conversation, however, was not over. Just relegated to second place.
"Any idea what Mister I'll Have Her is up to?"
Ever since Barbara had corrupted Albert's name to such an odd phrase, Ray found he had to be extra careful to not actually call him that to his face. Risky business.
"I'm not sure exactly, but I have a pretty good idea."
"Would you like to share it with the class?"
"Ok, but remember, this is a test of the Foolhardy Broadbashing System. This is only a test."
"I'll keep that in mind. What's he up to?"
"He's drilling a half inch hole in a wall somewhere."
"Well, Honey, you may as well give up. No way you're going to top that. A half inch hole. Wow. Who would have thought."
"THAT was sarcasm. I could tell."
"You caught me. Now, what's he doing?"
"That would be a mighty big gaping orifice for just a peep-hole, and way too big to just run wires through."
"But the perfect size to mount a modest video microcam. Which would explain the spool of coaxial cable good ol' Al tried to hide under that jacket on his back seat."
"You sly dog you. Then what?"
"I don't know- I can only guess. He drills a hole, and mounts a camera behind it. Connects a co-ax cable and runs the picture to- where?"
"The lunch room?"
"That would work if the camera's trained on his intended victim. But that's too obvious. Al doesn't work that way. No. The camera's trained on something, but not the victim. The victim is the one receiving the image. I'm almost sure of it. Remember last year?"
"Oh, yes. The topless club meeting."
"Exactly. It was no big deal to those guys. Until all the wives started calling."
"Ok, Mister Know-It-All, where's the premium channel headed?"
Between bites of pasta, and warm bread in garlic butter, Ray had been trying to figure out the same thing. What's the camera looking at, and who's getting the peep show? The peep show. That was it. He knew. And there was no way we could suppress that giggle.
"I've got it: Preston Phillips. That's it."
Barbara was disappointed. She really thought he had it.
"Nice try, but no. Who'd want to watch ol' Pee Pee do anything? He's such a stuffy old man. May even be dead for all we know."
"True, true. He's such a prude he wouldn't scratch himself in private. That's why he's going to be on the receiving end of that camera."
"Oh, great, he gets to watch TV. How funny. Excuse me while I double up on the floor with laughter."
"I'll clear you a space. Let me 'splain something, Lucy: What's right next to the ladies room?"
"Other than him."
"I don't know. A water fountain?"
"Think again. Any ladies' room. Any where. What's right next door?"
"The men's room?"
"But you've said yourself: No one's ever seen the amazing Mister P. go into the men's room. Not in twenty years."
"He won't have to. It will come to him."
"The men’s room?"
"No- THE LADIES' ROOM! I've got it figured out: Hanover's going to drill a hole between the restrooms from the men's room side and mount the camera to look through the wall into the ladies' room. Then he's going to run the signal into the television in Preston's office. Sometime during the day, Preston Phillips is going to turn on that TV. Only now it only gets one channel: Flush TV. What ever view he gets doesn't even have to show anything risque. When Preston figures out he's got a private view of the ladies' room, he'll explode."
"Eeewww. And who has to clean up that mess?"
"Probably Al. I won't touch it. But I know what Al will be doing all afternoon."
"Plying the secretaries will large glasses of water?"
"No, but good idea. How about sending people into Preston's office with questions and requests that might require that the television be turned on?"
"Oh, good one. That should just about do it. Is Al in line for Preston's job?"
"No. Never. But there should be a missing link in the chain of command by about three o'clock."
"I've always thought Preston Phillips was a bit of a missing link."
"And Al's a bit of a Neanderthal himself."
Barbara had finished her dinner, and proceeded to clear the table. Ray was still doing his part to decrease the surplus bread population, and doing a darn good job of it. One piece to go. But now Barbara looked worried, and wanted to share the wealth.
"So is that a winner? I mean, assuming that's what it is?"
"If it isn't, I'm doing it next year. If that is what he is doing, he might just win two years in a row. It happens. A guy get on a roll. Bob Fearson won three years in a row, you know."
"Oh yes. Right before he was fired."
"And sued, as I recall."
"Well, um, yes."
"So maybe you better let Al win. It may just put him out of the running for next year."
"Nothing like that competitive spirit. But I think I've got him on this one."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. Because Al's only going after one victim: Preston Phillips. I'm aiming a bit higher. Almost ten floors higher, as a matter of fact."
"Oh sure, wipe out the entire board of directors in one fell swoop and brag about it afterwards."
"One fell swoop is right. The fallout should take out all the executive secretaries and receptionists on the top two floors as well. It will go from utter panic to total confusion. Or maybe confusion to panic. Either way works for me."
"That's my husband: Chaos in action."
"That's Mister Chaos to you. baby. And yes, I think that might beat Al Hanover’s little blast from the johnette."
With a wonderful warm dinner out of the way, Ray went out to pull his car in to the garage. A perfectly normal sort of thing, but it was all he could do to keep from looking around as he went out to the car. In case anyone was watching. With the car inside, and the garage door securely closed and locked, he opened the trunk. Ray II was still folded up in the duffel bag, under the tarp in the corner of the trunk. Ray hefted the bag out and headed back to the house. Barbara had settled in with a magazine in the den. A good choice, thought Ray: No windows to the street here. And the shades were already drawn. She must have known why he was late. Of course she did. She knew everything, whether he told her or not. She was good that way. Ray let the big bag fall to the floor, and settled into the chair next to it. Barbara looked up from her reading.
"So who's your friend?"
"Oh, just some dummy I picked up today."
Ray proceeded to unzip the bag and Ray II found himself in a new home. Barbara was impressed.
"Good looking, though."
"It's that family resemblance. Bit of an air-head, though."
"Is that a family resemblance too?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Meadows. So what do you think? Good enough to fool you at a glance?"
"I think so. Only one problem."
Ray was shocked. What could he have overlooked? He couldn't even ask. Barbara had to continue on her own.
"He's perfect for today, same clothes and all."
"Same clothes. The same. Work with me on this."
"Oh. The same clothes? As I wore today? That's it?"
"Isn't that enough? Don't you think that you might look a little suspicious, wearing the same clothes to work on Monday from the previous Friday?"
"When there are guys in the computer area wearing the same thing three days in a row?" I don't think so. Anyway, it's too late now."
"You could change the tie and the shoes, at least. That might help."
"I don't know. Maybe it's good to get people used to seeing these clothes before the curtain drops. So to speak."
"Ok, you win. Mister Grunge goes flying as he is. But I will put your clothes through the wash this weekend. No sense in both of you being a fashion risk."
"Too late for that."
"Hmmm… Maybe you're right. But leave those clothes where I can find them."
Barbara went back to her magazine, and Ray put his alter ego back in the bag. Time for a little drop test downstairs. He hoisted the bag once again and headed for the basement. Some fishing sinkers, some safety pins, he'd be all set. This dummy'll fly like the beagle come Monday. Soar like a hulk. And disappear on impact. That would be the tricky part.
Ray spent over an hour in the basement, adding weighs and dropping. Repeat as necessary. It was close to nine o'clock before he had Ray II carefully put away in a locked cabinet and made his way back upstairs. Barbara had finished up the magazine, and was busy killing off brain cells with one of the lesser sitcoms on the tube. They had both agreed long ago that the only thing funny about this show was how truly bad it was. They watched every week. Never missed an episode.
At nine o'clock, they found a movie to watch that they had seen in the theater the year before. It was an entertaining piece of work then, but they were more intrigued to see just how bad it would be cut up for broadcast now. They settled in for the show with a bit of microwave popcorn, and weren't disappointed. This film was left in the Network Cuisinart way too long. Hard to believe there was enough left of the movie to put some space between the commercials. But they watched. And took turns yelling at the TV about dialogue and entire scenes that had been cut out. It was a stimulating evening all around.
Nothing like watching a two hour movie cut to an hour and twenty minutes to allow for all of the commercials in a two hour time slot. Only in America, folks. With that little disaster of the silver screen out of the way, Ray and Barbara Meadows made their way upstairs and to bed. Teeth were brushed and pajamas were found. But the day wasn't done. There was more entertainment on tap. Don't get your hopes up: they had a TV in the bedroom.
The Meadows' Friday night tradition, since they could sleep in Saturday morning, was to stay up just that one night to watch some late night programs. But no news. Who could sleep after thirty minutes of death and destruction and crime and corruption? No way. Time for a little channel surfing after a quick stop at The Weather Channel for Your Local Forecast. The only surfing rule after that was No News, and they could only watch the really stupid infomercials with the non-stop applause tracks. Preferably one with a name star, like Cher or Troy McClure. Easy enough. They had cable.
After catching most of Letterman on a particularly good night- the Vice President had been a real bozo this week- Barbara decided it was time to surf. It didn't take long to find a shopping channel offering plates you wouldn't eat off of if you were starving. You want some peanut butter pie on that Elvis plate? Thank you. Thank you very much. That was good for a laugh, but only for about five minutes. The late night movie on the Spanish channel was great fun once they turned the sound off and did their own dialogue. If there had been aisles in the bedroom, they would have rolled in them. When the movie went to a commercial, they went on. With the sound off, they tried to play "Guess what they're saying now" as the channels flew by in rapid succession. Springsteen was right: 57 channels, ain't nothin’ on. Sorry Boss, we're up to over a hundred here, and it's still true.
They were surfing in silence, with that flickering TV blue light filling the room when they heard it. It was not on the TV. It was somewhere above their heads. Maybe outside, but they couldn't be sure. Ray and Barbara Meadows looked at each other with the "Did you hear that?" look. They couldn't have known it at the time, but their lives were now changed forever. They couldn't go back to the Spanish movie, Letterman or the Weather Channel. Welcome to your nightmare. Of course, for now, it was No Big Deal. Isn't that the way Big Deals always start?
What they had heard, in that silence after midnight, was the sound of something on the roof. Not falling, not rolling, not sliding. Something scrambling. Not quite footsteps, but close. They sounded like they went diagonally across the roof. Ray had a mental picture of the roof above their bedroom, and knew whatever it was went down one slope and up the other. If it fell, it defied gravity when it came to that gutter and went back up to the other peak. This was not good.
Barbara didn't picture the roof at all. She was trying desperately to make that sound come from a cat or a squirrel. Maybe a cat chasing a squirrel. She was having a hard time convincing herself, though. Ok, she thought, think bigger. 'Possum? Raccoon? A dog? The mental image of a dog on the roof caused her to laugh out loud, however funny it wasn't. Ray, halfway out of bed now, was stunned by the sound.
"Sorry- I just thought for a moment it might be a dog."
Ray caught the same picture in his mind. He couldn't stop the laughter either. He sat back down in bed.
"Ok, it was a dog. Big dog or little dog?"
"Oh, definitely a medium sized dog."
"Great. Probably a poodle infestation. We'll have to call Orkin. This is going to cost."
"Gee, Honey, maybe you could just set a trap."
"Oh, yeah, that would save us a bundle. I've got dog traps in the basement. I'll go get them."
With that, Ray did get out of bed and found his bath robe. He searched for a moment and found a flashlight in his nightstand. It even worked.
"Where you headed, O Great White Poodle Hunter?"
"Silly me, I thought I'd see if it was raining cats and dogs."
"Don't step in any poodles, you'll cats cold."
"Funny girl. Why did we watch TV when you were here all along?"
"Are you really going outside?"
Ray was headed out the bedroom door. He was obviously going somewhere, although not exactly dressed for success in the dangerous outdoor exploration category. This must have been how Arthur Dent started out. Yep, pretty much.
"Yeah, I thought I'd have a look. If something fell off the roof, I guess we should know about it now."
"As opposed to....?"
"In the morning, when the neighborhood kids see it first because we slept in with a dead you-name-it outside."
"Oh dear, do you think it could be a dead you-name-it?"
"Could be. That's why I want to find out now."
"Hadn't you better take some sort of weapon?"
"I have my wits."
"So you're defenseless, then?"
"Thank you. I'll be going to my death now. Back soon. Bye."
With that, Ray headed out the bedroom door and down the stairs. No need to turn on any lights, he knew this route by heart. At least as far as the refrigerator. From there, it was only a short walk out the back door. By the time he got through the kitchen, he did regret not having his keys. He'd have to leave the back door open. Hope the dog, or whatever it was, couldn't operate a door knob and get in the house. The thought of a late night kitchen raid by a roof climbing dog was more than he could stand. With suppressed laughter, and no thought of danger at all, Ray Meadows passed from the safety of his house to the darkness of his back yard. But only after testing the door to make sure it was unlocked to get back in. No need to be extra stupid and lock himself outside. He was being plenty stupid enough as it was. Ray still couldn't know that his life had changed forever. It was one o'clock in the morning, and Raymond William Meadows was standing in a bath robe in his own back yard armed with a flashlight and he couldn't see a blessed thing. Lucky Ray.
He pulled the flashlight out of his bath robe pocket, and fumbled with it for a moment to turn it on. That weak yellow beam was worse than no light at all, as his eyes acclimated to the pitiful beam and he could see less and less of everything around him in the darkness. Ray began his search, in spite of the handicap of flashlight vision. Walking toward the corner of the house, Ray made a brave attempt to scan the roofline, eaves and gutters with the little light. Now scientific types will tell you that light travels pretty darned fast. One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles each and every second. So you'd think it would make it the thirty feet or so to the roof, right? Wrong. Somewhere between the little bulb and the roof, the light coming out of the front of that flashlight must have gotten tired and pulled over for a rest. There was no way on God's green earth Ray was going to see anything on the roof with that light. Except maybe in broad daylight. It didn't take long for the reality of that situation to sink in, and Ray used the flashlight to watch his footing instead. Maybe whatever it was was down on the ground now anyway.
Meandering to the corner of the house, Ray was still looking up at the roof, flashlight pointed at the ground, when he stepped on something brown. At least it wasn't squishy. Kind of felt like- sandpaper. Yeah, that's it, Ray thought. I'm standing on a sheet of sandpaper. Very coarse grit, from the feel of it. Ray wisely decided it was time to look at his feet. And there it was. Under his right foot. A piece of an asphalt shingle. One of his asphalt shingles, by the look of it. Torn across one end where it was obviously pulled from the roof. By some hooligan? On his roof? It had to be his, didn't it? Can roof dogs tear shingles? His shingles? He knew he had brown shingles, but who else did? Think, Ray: What do the neighbors' roofs look like? In daylight. He couldn't picture them. They could have been purple with yellow polka-dots for all Ray knew. He was going to have to start paying more attention to details when he was outside. Outside? What was he doing outside? It must be one thirty in the morning. Nice and quiet, though. It was time to head back inside. Now. Ray bent over and retrieved the piece of shingle and headed toward the back door. In all the time he was out there, maybe five minutes, Ray didn't see anything or hear anything out of the ordinary. Whatever ordinary was for the middle of the night. Wimpy flashlight in one hand and broken shingle in the other, Ray Meadows went back inside. But only after the obligatory fumbling at the back door, trying to balance flashlight and shingle in one hand to get in. Put the shingle down, Ray. It's not going anywhere. Not now.
Once safely inside the kitchen, Ray clicked the silly little light off, and knew he could maneuver his way through the house by memory and feel. Unless Barbara rearranged the furniture while he was out. Somewhat unlikely, he decided. He put the shingle down on the kitchen table while he locked the back door, and left it there to make his way upstairs. It's definitely bedtime now. Down the hall, up the stairs and head for bed. From the upstairs hall, he could see the blue flicker from the TV, still on in the bedroom. And still mute. In the bedroom, Barbara was asleep, head turned away from the hundred channel night light. Ray's bumbling stealth was enough to wake her.
"What'cha find, Bwana?"
Ray had decided that getting to bed was now job one. The bath robe was off and draped over the chair. The flashlight, for all the good it did, went back in the nightstand drawer. He was headed for bed.
"A shingle. Broken."
That was it. End of conversation for all concerned. Ray crawled under the covers and reached out to turn off the TV with the remote. The soft hug of the blue light was gone, and the room was indeed as dark as night. Considering the excitement of not thirty minutes ago, things calmed down pretty far pretty fast. Both Ray and Barbara were asleep in minutes, with Ray lingering only long enough to think about what he heard one last time. Something going across the roof tore off most of a shingle that ended up in the back yard. He had never tried to tear a shingle. Not something you'd do on a lazy afternoon to kill time. Do they tear easy? He didn't think so. So something strong was on the roof? Or something hit that shingle fairly hard. But what? And where was it right now? Maybe he should have looked around some more. Maybe there was something laying dead or wounded on the other side of the house. Maybe he'd remember and deal with it in the morning. Or maybe not.
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Copyright 1996,2011, Chip Haynes