The note read:
"If you want an exclusive on the story of the century, meet me in the parking lot at the corner of County Road 39 and County Road 32, one block south of highway two. The intersection of 32 and Highway Four is kind of tricky, so you might want to use the North Schauppsville Road exit, and then head west a block on 39.
Be there at 8PM precisely, and come alone. Or, you know, if you think that’s too pushy, bring a friend. Yeah, actually, you know what? Do bring a friend. Probably a good idea.
She re-folded the letter and stuffed it back in her purse. She hadn’t been in Mayfield long enough to really have any friends, so she brought her landlord along simply because she knew him.
“This is stupid. It’s some kind of gag,” he said, “Get back in the car, let’s go, I’ve already missed Jeopardy.”
“He’ll show,” she said a bit too stridently, “He’s got to.”
“It’s going on nine, Susan…”
“How do you even know it’s a ‘he?’” the landlord asked.
“He..I…uhm…how do you even know it’s not a ‘he?’” she eventually riposted.
As if on cue, ‘He’ showed up in a beat up puke-green 1973 Mustang Mach 1. He slid out - they were very low to the ground - the height of sartorial splendor for the day: bell-bottomed leisure suit, a silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist, lots of gold medallions, and what might or might not have been a perm.
“Susan DuLac,” he said, with a big goofy smile. He walked over and effusively shook her hand, his eyes entirely too steadily fixed on hers. “Lee Austin,” he said, “Very glad to meet you. And this is…?” He trailed off gesturing to her landlord.
“Phil Manlove,” she said.
“Wow, that’s an unfortunate name!” Lee said, then looked like he instantly regretted it.
“Well, I’ve seen enough,” Phil said, “Guy’s a whackjob. Time to go home, Susan…”
Lee looked abashed. “Oh, are you two…uhm…together?” He looked Phil up and down appraisingly: Fifty-something, pot-belly, nicotine stains on his fingers and teeth, one of those sneaky Pete mustaches that went out of style forty years before.
“Yes. Yes we are,” Susan lied, “Phil is my boyfriend. We’re lovers.” Phil blushed and looked incredibly uncomfortable at this, but to his credit, he didn’t immediately blurt out the truth.
“Oh, that’s super,” lied Lee, who didn’t think it was super at all. He continued with fake enthusiasm, “You guys up for dinner? You don’t mind riding in the back, do you, Phil? There’s a new Red Lobster I thought we might try out over in…”
“What about the exclusive story?” Susan interrupted.
“Dinner first, then story,” Lee said.
“You said you had the story of the century for me, not a restaurant review.”
“And I do, but a story this big requires some set-up. I’ve got to bring you up to speed, and we need to establish that we can trust each other. And since both of those will take a while, we may as well eat, right? Nice dinner, public place?”
“I already ate,” she said, “And I’m not going to go…”
“You paying?” Phil asked.
And off they went.
Phil refused to eat any seafood at the seafood restaurant, and just had a hamburger instead. He said he didn’t trust clams or fish or lobster more than a thousand miles from the sea. He also ordered a salad, but didn’t touch it. Susan ordered a salad too, but ended up eating all of Lee’s lobster-stuffed mushrooms instead.
“You’re not very forthcoming with this set-up you promised,” she said, “And why me, anyway? How do you even know who I am?”
“Saw you on the farm report,” Lee said in between bites of his lobster, “You’re new, you’re pretty, you’re young, I thought you could use the break. You‘ve been on there a month now, and I never miss an episode.”
“You watch the farm report? You don’t look like a farmer.”
“I am, actually. You don’t look like a Farm Reporter.”
This was what passed for witty repartee in the 1970s. She looked uncomfortable at his pass. After an awkward silence, he got back to the reason he’d asked her out.
“Ok. Here goes: As you know, the space program in this country is dead.”
“No it’s not, they’re developing that Space Shuttle thing - the Enterprise - and..”
“The Enterprise isn’t a shuttle,” Lee said, “It’s just a mock-up, a full-scale glider to make sure the design will fly. I don’t have any confidence the space shuttles will ever fly. Did you know they were supposed to go into service last year?”
“No. Well, wait…no,” she admitted. Lee liked her. She had an engaging Margot Kidder/Diane Keaton way of talking, generally sure, but then inexpertly shy and retiring at unpredictable intervals.
“No one seems to remember that. President Carter postponed it. He’s got some kind of pathological hatred of space for some reason, I don’t know why, maybe religious I think. Since 1973 NASA kept saying ‘it’ll be in service by 1978, it’ll be in service by 1978’ but now they’re saying it’ll be some time in Carter’s second term…”
“Yeah, that’ll happen,” Susan said sarcastically.
“Carter’s an idiot. He’s not going to get a second term. The Republicans could run a trained bear and beat him. The economy, the Hostage Crisis, Afghanistan, he’s a dead duck.”
“Whatever.” She finished off the last of the stuffed mushrooms. Phil looked bored.
“In any event, there hasn’t been an American in space since 1975,” Lee said.
“Ok, so space is dead. What does it matter?” Phil asked.
Lee’s eyes went aglow, “There’s everything out there - entire worlds to conquer, limitless resources, vast land for us to colonize. America could become the space equivalent of what the British Empire used to be. Added to which, our species needs to get off this rock so that we’ll be less likely to be completely wiped out by a plague or disaster or nuclear war…”
“No,” Lee said, “It’s too expensive, I’ve seen them big Saturns on TV, they’re like a hundred million dollars a pop…”
“Three hundred million,” Susan corrected, surprising Lee.
“Oh, I totally agree, that’s not the way to do it. But there is another way.”
Susan suddenly looked very disappointed. She said in a very flat voice, “I’m impressed: That’s the stupidest line I’ve ever heard to get me in bed. Possibly the stupidest line anyone has ever used to get someone in to bed.”
Lee glanced nervously and Phil, who was red-faced from the beer, and on the edge of sleep, not really paying attention.
“Oh, no, this isn’t a line: I’ve actually got a rocket. I actually wanted to take you to the moon, and let you broadcast the whole thing to the whole world. Story of a lifetime.”
Phil refused to let Susan go off alone with Lee, whom he insisted was a maniac, possibly a cannibal. After some argument, Lee pulled a Polaroid instamatic out of nowhere, and had the waitress snap a picture of all three of them. He scribbled the time and date on the bottom, then wrote down his name, address, and phone number on a napkin and gave them both to Phil. “If she doesn’t turn up by this time tomorrow, give all that to the police and have ‘em come get me.” Susan agreed, then went off to call the station manager and let him know she’d be missing the morning farm report. She clamed to be sick. She made a couple other calls as well. On the drive back to the parking lot to get Phil’s car, he fell asleep in the cramped back seat of the Mustang.
The two of them drove down a winding dirt road running through a dozen acres of cornfields. Susan looked nervous as they got further from civilization - though perhaps ‘civilization’ was an over-generous thing to call Mayfield, and as they got closer to the farm, she got more nervous still. Lee tried to put her at ease with some disco on the radio and his incessant blather - “I can’t stand this new wave punk crap the kids listen to these days, how about you?” - but that just made her more visibly nervous. As they came up on the farm, he pointed to a cluster of grain silos.
“Let me guess, the rocket is in the silos?”
“Oh, no, the rocket is the silos. Huh. Look at that. I wonder who that could be?” There were two men standing by the front door in black suits, white shirts, and black ties.
“Government agents here to rescue me?” Susan joked.
“Do government agents ride bicycles?” Lee asked. He got out of the car, “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hi! I’m Elder Tom from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and this is Elder Grapeape…” They both looked pretty young.
“Grape Ape?” Lee asked incredulously.
“It’s a long story,” Grapeape said, “Anyway, I know it’s late and all, but we’re missionaries, and we got lost because doofus here had us riding bikes on the highway in the wrong direction, and my tires have gone flat, and I’ve been riding on rims for like the last five miles. Can we please call our sponsor family and have them come pick us up? We’ve been ringing the bell for like half an hour, but no one answered, we were about to leave….”
“It’s ok. Come on in.”
Inside they met a man in late middle age, whom Lee introduced as his “Crazy uncle Steve.”
“Wow, Lee, she’s a dish! Ring a ding ding! Such supple breasts…”
“Did you say ‘crazy uncle,’ or ‘creepy uncle?’” Grapeape asked.
“A little of both.”
Elder Tom made a phone call, then came back in and said “They’re not answering. I’ll have to try again later.”
“Why didn’t you answer the door when they were ringing?” Lee asked.
“They were ringing the bell? I didn’t hear it. I’m a little deaf,” he apologized to Grapeape.
“Can we please get to the story,” Susan asked when she got tired of Crazy Uncle Steve leering at her.
“We shouldn’t go into this in front of the Mormons,” Steve said. Both missionaries blanched at this.
“Why not?” Lee asked, “We’re going to tell everyone about it tomorrow anyway. It’s not like security is an issue, right?”
Steve gave them all a somewhat-grudging tour of the Internal Bleeder. Susan and the Mormons blanched at the name. “It’s kind of a joke,” Lee said, “I hate pretension. Everyone gives space ships such pretentious names - ‘Enterprise,’ ‘Galactica,’ ‘Millennium Falcon,’ ‘Saturn,’ ‘Orion,’ ‘Eagle.’ I hate that. You guys remember Apollo 10?”
“Not really, Grapeape said.
“The Capsule was named ‘Charlie Brown’ and the lander was named ‘Snoopy.’ There was another Apollo where the Capsule was named ‘Gumdrop’ and the LEM was named ‘Spider.’ That gave me the idea that if I ever had a spaceship, I’d not only give it a non-pretentious name, I’d give it the most anti-pretentious name I could think of.” He was kind of worked up by the time he got to the end of this, but everyone else just stared at him blankly.
“If freakshow is done,” Crazy Uncle Steve said, “I’ll continue: As you can see, it’s built out of eight cranberry silos bolted together, six around a central one, and one on top of the central one. The engine’s in the bottom of the central silo, control room is at the top of the upper central one. The outer silos are packed full of fuel and cargo. They’re detachable just in case we need to swap them out.”
“Why not? Fairly cheap, fairly rigid. We had to shore them up, but it’s easy.”
“But they’re not airtight, are they?”
“We spackled them. They are now.”
“So, wait,” Susan said, “The upper silo is the upper stage in this thing?”
“Oh, no, my luscious young pudding cup,” Steve said, “No stages. This is all one stage.”
When the sirens started, they went outside to see what the matter was. There was a long line of police cars and black vans snaking their way down the dirt road.
“Ah, crap” Steve said.
“What’s going on?” Lee asked.
“My landlord - Phil - he must have gotten antsy about you and called the cops as soon as he got home,” Susan ventured.
“Yeah - wait: Landlord? I thought he was your boyfriend or..”
“Now is not the time, Lee.”
They waited for the cops to park, figuring just standing there innocently was the best way to deal with it. If they could see Susan was fine, and there of her own volition, what possible problem could there be? A lot of cars pulled up, a lot of cars. Steve edged back to the farmhouse and opened up both the front doors, then came back to rejoin them.
“Just in case,” he said.
“I’m sure it’ll be nothing at all,” Lee said. Just the same, the four of them backed unconsciously closer to the door.
“Geez, are there even this many cops in Nebraska?” Grapeape asked. He was looking sweaty and twitchy. He started to hyperventilate, and went down on one knee.
“Put your hands over your heads and step forward” a voice on a megaphone commanded.
“If this is about me,” Susan said, “I’m a reporter, and I’m here of my own free will!”
Put your hands over your heads and step forward,” the voice commanded again. It sounded angry this time. They all complied, excepting Grapeape, who looked like he was having a stroke despite his youth. He stayed on one knee, and put one hand on his head, the other hung down by his thigh. His hand twitched out something that looked like a baseball signal, and Elder Tom instantly took a bullet to the head.
His body fell backwards on to Grapeape, who himself flopped over to the side. Susan shrieked. Crazy Uncle Steve tackled her, scooping her up in a running bear hug and screamed “Back into the house! Back into the house!” Gunfire rang out, a few shots at first, then more, then more, like the sound of popcorn, a lot of popcorn. Before he even realized what he was doing, Lee grabbed Grapeape by his lapel and awkwardly dragged him back towards the house. He fell over as Grapeape stumbled to his hands and knees, grabbed Lee, and dragged him back towards the house. They fumbled over each other, then Grapeape managed to get to his feet and ran to the door. He glanced back and saw Lee on the ground, then ducked back into the line of fire, grabbed Lee, and bodily threw him up the three steps on to the porch. He ran forward as Lee crawled towards the door. Grapeape kicked Lee in the ass screaming “Move! Move!” and both of them finally made it in.
“Close the doors! Close the doors!” Grapeape screamed.
“Wouldn’t help, the walls are just wood, wouldn’t even slow their bullets down,” Lee gasped. A volley of bullets tore through the walls and shattered the windows. The power went out in the farmhouse. Headlights from the police cars projected eerie fingers of light into the darkened living room through the bullet holes in the wall.
“Down here! Down here!” Steve yelled from the kitchen. They scrambled - half commando-crawl, half disoriented toddler - to the kitchen, and found the older man standing by the basement door, waving them on. “Into the rocket!” he stage whispered.
They literally fell down the stairs, lading in a heap at the bottom. Steve hopped down three steps at a time, stomping on their piled bodies without even stopping, and screaming and yammering incoherently to himself.
They got up and stumbled to the other side of the basement, then into another door, through a tunnel, and popped through a wooden hatch beneath the cranberry silo spaceship. There was an iron fire-escape ladder there, conveniently near the hatch, and luckily facing away from the legions of cops. They couldn’t see their attackers, but they could hear cars moving, and realized they were shifting position to encircle the home. Lee realized they wouldn’t be hidden long. Susan was already near the top of the ladder, as Steve tore up it, again hoping three rungs at a time. Freakishly fast, he didn’t even stop when he came up to her, he just commented quietly that she had a delicious-looking ass, and without slowing climbed over the top of her - almost knocking her off the ladder - and then continued on the other side. His disappeared into the door on the side of the silo.
Susan followed a moment later, and Grapeape was halfway up - looking ashen and visibly shaking - while Lee brought up the rear. Grapeape fell through the door while Lee only about two thirds of the way up. Cop cars had largely circuited the house by this time, sharpshooters were taking aim on him, and a megaphone voice - a different one this time - commanded them to come out of the silo. There was a whining noise from below, then a flash of white steam, like from a fire extinguisher, then a loud clanking pumping noise.
“Uh-oh!” Steve said to nobody, and quickly wove himself into the ladder, sticking his arms and legs through the rungs. There was a bright flash, and then the whole silo complex lurched upwards. A sniper fired a shot aimed at Lee’s head, but by the time it got there, the ship had lept up four or five feet, and the bullet just missed his buttocks, tearing through the hull.
“Oh, crap!” Steve exclaimed, trying to figure out a way to get to the top, to get inside. Susan leaned out the door.
“Hurry up!” she said. He realized they were hovering unsteadily, not accelerating, and so he disentangled himself and scrambled up. On the ground, the panicked cops were backing away from the lethal-looking rocket exhaust. At least a couple of the police cars had caught on fire. There were two police ‘copters - when did they get here? Lee wondered absently - which recoiled like frightened horses, and backed away. Susan ducked back inside.
When he was one rung away from the door, the silo beneath Lee fell away, rotating slightly, and landed on a couple black vans, which instantly exploded. The ship lurched sickeningly away from him, and the next thing he knew he was dangling by his hands from the no-longer vertical ladder. The rocket was off-plumb, at about a forty-five degree angle, slipping sideways across the cornfields at a canter. The corn below began to pop in the backblast from the rocket, then it caught fire. The police scrambled to regain position, and someone fired a LAWS rocket, which hit the ship on one of the other silos. That silo fell away too, landing on the highway they were skidding past, and burst to flinders. The sudden loss of weight balanced the ship somewhat, and after a lurch that almost threw Lee from the ladder, he was able to finally grab the doorframe and pull himself inside.
“I’m in!” he yelled. Two decks up, Steve slammed a big green button, and the rocket tore skyward amidst a hail of bullets. Lee felt his weight increase rapidly as they accelerated, but managed to get to his hands and knees and crawl to the still-open hatch. The ground was already far below them by the time he got it closed, his last recognizable vision being of his farmhouse clearly burning. Then he blacked out.
They woke president Carter up in the middle of the night to tell him the mysterious object form Nebraska had been spotted again.
“Do we have a man on the inside this time?” Carter asked.
“Ok, then. Take care of it. No witnesses,” he said, and then went back to bed.
When he came to, Lee found himself floating weightless, still in the airlock. He attempted to gather his wits, but his head was muddy with confused anger. He floated to the next deck up - the suit lockers - but they were empty. He floated up to the next deck - the kitchen. Grapeape was strapped to a table with what looked like twine. Steve was literally hovering over him, and Susan floating upside down, shining a flashlight on the Mormon’s chest.
“What the hell happened?” Lee demanded.
“The cops thought you were kidnapping me, and raided your house,” Susan said.
“I know that! I saw that! I mean…uhm…” He couldn’t quite think of the right words, so he just asked the same question again, “What the hell happened?”
“Grapeape here got shot,” Steve said.
“No, no, I mean why did we drop the cargo silos? You almost wrecked us! You almost killed me!”
“It wasn’t me. Everything was going fine - excepting the bullets - until dumbass here hit the ‘release’ button.”
“Oh. Wait, the kid got shot?”
“Yeah,” Susan said.
“Nah,” Steve said, just meat-shot. Straight in-and-out. Bullet didn’t stay in him, didn’t hit the bone, didn’t hit an artery or anything. Lucky, really. I’m just sewing it up. Hurt like hell when he wakes up.”
“How’d you knock him out?” Lee asked
“Didn’t. He blacked out from blood loss and fell on the ‘release’ controls.”
“Uhm…are you qualified to do this?” Susan asked Steve nervously.
“Speak up!” Steve said irritated, “I’m hard of hearing! You need to talk louder or just shut up entirely!”
“Are you qualified to do this?” She asked again, louder.
“Probably not. I was a medic in the war, though obviously there was no training for battlefield surgery in zero G.”
Steve suddenly noticed little balls of blood floating around the cabin, and that cleared his mind for some reason. He got a drink of water, then got the a small vacuum and started collecting the blood-clouds.
“We need to get him to a hospital,” Susan said.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll go over well,” Lee said, “Hi there, we just melted your helipad parking our UFO, can you take care of this fat kid with the bullet wound while we go back into space and run from the cops some more?’”
“You can’t just let him die!” she protested.
“True,” Lee agreed. “Is he gonna’ die, Uncle Steve?”
“Eventually, yeah. Twenty or thirty years if he keeps eating the way he obviously does, but he ain’t gonna’ die today.”
“Ok, then, let’s figure our next move.”
To Be Concluded Next Week
Copyright 2010, Republibot 3.0
This story, and several others by the same author, have been compiled in an anthology called "Ice Cream and Venom." It is available on Amazon for only 99 cents. If you enjoyed the story, and maybe don't feel like waiting around for a week for the conclusion, you can purchase a copy here http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Cream-Venom-ebook/dp/B004XNLU8Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=... What the heck, why not? I mean, it's cheaper than a snack from a gas station. Well, excepting the 7-11 Kettle Chips, of course. Those are only like 79 cents, and they're pretty good....