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

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR- Dawn of the not-quite-dead.

It was not the first notion of a pale, pre-dawn sky to the East that tore Ray Meadows' attention from the flickering computer screen in that small apartment in Lyndon, Illinois. He couldn't possibly see any of the sky from where he sat with his back to the windows. The stars were still out in all but the most eastern portion of the heavens as he continued to read about Arthur Crutchfield's life in the Summer of 1945. There was still a war on in Arthur Crutchfield's world and it was still night in Ray's. But if it was still night, what's with all that noise?
Mister Meadows, late of Greenwood, Indiana, had become increasing aware of things happening outside of his immediate domain: Specifically, what was with all those birds? They were getting louder and more numerous by the minute. Since when did birds stay up at night and party? Ray found it harder and harder to concentrate on the story he had been reading. He finally gave up and stood up. Big mistake. His injured leg immediately gave way and he found himself as one with the rug. Ok, maybe he had been a bit hasty there. With the computer desk for support, he tried again. Slowly. Back on his feet (again for the first time) he saw out the front (east) facing windows. What was all that light? A forest fire or something? The idea that he might have been up all night reading that file never occurred to Ray. He was, after all, just waiting for Barbara to show up so they could head for home tonight. Tonight? What time was it? And why didn't Steve Vaan leave any clocks around in here?
Over a hundred miles to the East, and closer to the rising sun, Barbara Meadows was alive. She was also in the ICU at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky- and very lucky to be anywhere at all. Last night's horrible collision on Interstate 64 near Croydon had been considered a one-car accident (and a fatality at that) until that onlooker raised the question about the second car. What second car? Barbara's car, almost a quarter of a mile away and squashed like a big bug upside down in the ditch on the other side of the road. From there it had been one fast helicopter ride to make up for lost time once she was found- and cut- out of the wreckage. Now she was stable but unconscious (resting comfortably, as they say), and in the completely wrong state of the Union. The Troopers had no trouble finding out who she was- or at least who she was supposed to be- from the car's license plate, the vehicle's identification number and her driver's license (once they found it). Mrs. Barbara Meadows of Greenwood, Indiana. Theoretically, Raymond Meadows' wife, since his name appeared as a co-owner of the now very defunct vehicle upside down in the ditch. A local Trooper in Greenwood was assigned to go to their house to find Mr. Meadows. No Mister Meadows. It had been near midnight by then, and the house was dark and locked up tight. The Trooper banged on the door as loud as he dared without breaking anything and tried the doorbell until he thought the neighbors might complain. No lights, no answer. Nobody home. Nothing else to do until Mister Meadows- if there was a Mister Meadows- came looking for his wife and filed a missing persons report. The Trooper left his card wedged in the front screen door. With no other car registered in either of their names, the Troopers were going to have a tough time finding Ray. Now, in fact, the Troopers were not going to even be looking for Ray Meadows. It would be up to Ray to find them. Hence the card.
Back in Lyndon, Ray watched the sun come up only mildly concerned over the fact that Barbara had not yet arrived. It was easy enough for him to convince himself that she had stayed the night in their house. Why not? No reason to rush, really. May as well get a good night's sleep and drive back in the morning. Barbara wasn't all that used to driving, anyway. She'd be here by noon. He was sure of it. He quietly rounded up some food for breakfast and sat back down in the living room, but away from the computer. Been there, done that- for now. Let the birds sing.
As the sun continued its relentless journey into daytime, a train was pulling into Grand Central Station in New York City. Steve Vaan had been watching out the windows for any sign that there might be some sort of official welcoming party. You never know. Bags collected, he made his way through the train to the forward most car. No sense in making himself visible for any longer than he had to. Get out and get gone. Jim, the porter and now Steve's confidant, had his orders. A telegram would be sent to Mark Stewart, former personal lawyer and former confidant upon the train's return to Chicago, some time late tomorrow or (more likely) the following morning. The missing credit card would be cancelled and a new one issued, ready to send. Additional instructions to follow. Yeah, right. What were the odds?
As the train slowed, Steve couldn't wait for the stop. He swung out onto the platform and was gone before the porters could get the steps down. Hauling two duffle bags of clothes and wearing Ray's woolly hat, Steve made his way through the station as though he knew where he was going. All he really knew was that if he kept this pace, he probably wouldn't get caught. Speed was everything. And he had the speed. Through the platform area and on through the station, Steve kept glancing left and right. For the police? Not yet. First things first. He had to ditch this credit card in just the right place. Up the stairs and bound for the street, he saw what he had been looking for off to the left: A blind homeless man was crouched down on the floor waiting for coins to hit his cup. Steve knew this would be this guy's lucky day- for about ten seconds, tops.
Gold card palmed in his left hand, Steve made a fast sweep past the man on the floor and the card dropped effortlessly into the cup, rattling the few coins that were there first. Steve was gone before the "Thank you" could be heard. Even the blind man didn't hear the card go away before he had a chance to reach out with his other hand to feel what it was in that cup that had made such an odd noise. Some one right behind Steve had seen it all, and knew a golden opportunity when it was dropped in a blind man's cup. Speed was still everything. By the time the man reached into his cup, the only things in there were coins. Steve was gone and the card was gone. Each their separate ways. Where ever it ended up, some one would have about 48 hours of fun before it got cancelled. Carpe Credit, Buck-O.
Outside the station and facing the street, Steve moved like a man with a mission. Walking fast down the line of cabs, he held off on choosing one until he was sure of the driver: This one spoke very little English. Next to none, actually. Great. This guy will be tough to interrogate. Let's go for a ride, my friend. Steve jumped in the back and directed his off-shore driver to head for the waterfront (in several languages). He'd wing it from there. The cab pulled away from the curb with the driver chattering happily. At last, he thought, someone speaks my language.
In a hospital room in Louisville, Barbara Meadows was only slightly less unconscious than she had been throughout the night. The staff had been instructed to try to find out about Ray when she woke up, but Barbara wasn't exactly in a talkative mood. It might be several days before they could get her to that point. Right now she needed the rest more than they needed Ray. It took a considerable amount of time staring at the ceiling before Barbara Meadows came to the conclusion that this was not the apartment in Lyndon. Nor was this their bedroom in Greenwood. Ok, where was she? For some reason her head didn't want to move, making it nearly impossible for her to look around the room. A motel room? No, to plain. Nothing on the walls, no color at all. And that TV was mounted way too high. It was like a- a hospital room. WHAT WAS SHE DOING IN A HOSPITAL? Think, Barbara, think!
What was the last thing she remembered? Driving. She had been driving. At night. Back to Lyndon? Yes, she was headed back to Ray. She had gone home to Greenwood, but she was headed back to pick up Ray and they could both go home tonight. Then what? Then here. Had she fallen asleep at the wheel? That must be it. Not used to driving all those miles, in the darkness and all. She must have. Barbara closed her eyes and heard it all over again- the overwhelming sound of another car landing upside down on hers. The scenery spinning past the headlights, the median and- nothing. She had been in an accident? How? What was that noise she had heard? Had the car broken? The rear axle, maybe? That had to be it. The car had somehow broken, pitching itself across the median. Sure. That's it. Now she was safe in this room. Ray would be here soon. Barbara relaxed and closed her eyes. More images, more sounds: People yelling, metal being sheared away, the roar of an engine- not a car- rotors- a helicopter! Had they flown her here? Where was here? Indianapolis? That seemed the obvious choice. And a campfire. A campfire? Some kind of fire in the distance below the window. Something burning brightly in the night. Why did they have a campfire? Had it been that cold? No, it was summer. It had been a warm night. That campfire made no sense at all. Maybe she imagined that part. Too much to think about. Sleep.
By noon Ray was getting worried. He had tried to call the house- no answer. Had he been able to, he would have paced the floor. She should be here. Even if she spent the night at home. What is it- a three hour drive? Four tops. She should be here by now. What could he do? Who could he call? He stared at the computer long and hard. there must be some way to put that thing to good use. Ray logged back on to the Internet. What to do? He started with an e-mail letter to Barbara- sent to the computer in his home in Greenwood. Maybe if Barbara was upstairs, she'd hear the computer mail audio prompt. Maybe. Either way, he left a message. He was mentally pacing, if nothing else. He could call Jake. That sounded like a good idea at the time, and was sounding better by the minute. Ray headed (slowly) for the phone. The number came to him just as fast. After some delay in switching and routing, Ray could hear a phone ring on the other end. Hope it was the right one.
"Yeah, hello?"
"Jake! It's Ray."
"Ray? Ray! How are you? WHERE are you?"
Ray Meadows suddenly felt like a complete fool, taken in by all that had happened around him. Now here he was stuck in a strange little town, miles from home, no transportation, barely able to walk and missing his wife.
"Jake, you won't believe it. I'm in a town called Lyndon."
"Never heard of it. What's it near?"
"It's near nothing, as far as I can tell. I'm somewhere in southern Illinois."
"Geez, Ray, what are you doing over there?"
"Long story. A long stupid story. But I've got bigger problems."
"Such as?"
"I can't find Barbara. She was supposed to be here last night. We were supposed to come home late yesterday. You haven't seen her, have you Jake?"
There was a long pause on the line. Ray could hear Jake breathing, so he knew they weren't disconnected. What was going on up there? Was Barbara there?
"Uh, Ray? Uh, yeah- Carol went over this morning to your house- to see if you two were ok and all."
"And Barbara's over there?"
"Well, no. She- Carol- came back with this card. She said it was wedged in the screen door."
"A card? Like a note or something?"
"No. Like a business card."
"Big deal."
"It might be. It's from Sergeant Anthony R. Montez, Indiana State Police."
Now it was Ray's turn for a long pause and Jake's turn to worry.
"Ray? You want the number?"
"Yeah. Give me the number. Wait a minute- let me find a pencil or something… Ok, go ahead."
Ray wrote down the number and promised to call Jake right back- as soon as he knew something. In his haste, he forgot to give Jake the phone number there in Steve Vaan's apartment. No great loss- he had Jake's. Ray felt his hand shake as he dialed the number Jake had given him. Deep inside, he had that horrible sinking feeling that the situation had gone from just stupid to genuinely bad. It was an awful feeling to have as he heard the phone ringing on the other end of the line for the second time. It was answered quickly and professionally by a switchboard operator at the State Police station in Franklin, south of the Meadows' home in Greenwood. Ray asked for the officer on the card, and the call was transferred. A very serious professional voice came on the line:
"Sergeant Montez."
"Yes, sir- Sergeant Montez, this is Ray Meadows. You left your card on my front door last night?"
It had been a late night for Sergeant Montez, but not that late. He recognized Ray's name in a heartbeat. Unfortunately. This came real close to being the part of this job he hated the most. At least this guy's wife was alive. Or was last night.
"Yes, Mister Meadows I did. Are you at home?"
"Well, no, I'm not. What's going on?"
"Your wife was involved in a traffic accident last night. She's going to be ok, sir- She's going to be just fine."
Ray felt the bottom drop out of his world. Had he looked down, he was sure he could have seen it falling away into blackness beneath him. He dared not look, for fear of falling himself. Falling to where? Don't ask.
"Where is she?"
Ray's own voice seemed distance and not connected. Had he just said that? Or was some one else speaking for him now? Did it matter?
"She's at the General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, sir. She was admitted there approximately ten-thirty last night."
"You said a traffic accident?"
"Yes sir, on Interstate 65 west of Croydon. She was flown there by Medivac helicopter."
"How is she?"
"She was listed in serious condition last night, sir. I can give you the number of the hospital if you like."
"Yes, of course."
It was like a dream. A very, very bad dream. Ray wanted to wake up now. This wasn't fun any more. It wasn't exciting, it wasn't intriguing and he no longer cared about climbers. This was the most wretched day of his life. He robotically wrote the numbers down as the officer read them off and thanked him very much. He said he would call the hospital immediately. He did not. He hung up the phone and stared at it. Ray stared long and hard at that phone, trying to make the alarm clock next to his bed in Greenwood, Indiana go off so he could wake up, get dressed and go to work. All he wanted was another boring day at the Granville Corporation Tower Number One after this night of horrible nightmares. He continued to stare at the telephone. No alarm. No dream. No such luck. What did ring was the phone. Waking up in his own bed could not have been more of a shock to Ray. Now what? Ray let it ring four times- just to make sure it really was ringing- before he picked it up. Maybe it was Barbara!
"No. Sorry. This is Mark Stewart. I'm trying to reach Steve Vaan. Is he there?"
Ray stammered for a moment, trying to compose himself. This had to be Steve's lawyer friend. Where was Steve? Good question.
"Uh, no he isn't. I'm kind of holding down the fort here for the moment. Can I take a message?"
"No. Yes. Yes , you can. I got a call from Visa, they were questioning a purchase made this morning in New York City with his credit card. They have reason to believe it was lost or stolen. I was going to cancel it, but I thought I'd better call and make sure it really was gone first. Maybe they just got the numbers wrong. He's there, isn't he?"
Oh, boy: Decision Time. Steve had fled Lyndon. Ray figured that much out. His family had found him or caught up with him or- or the lawyer told them where he was. Ok, two were already playing this game. Always room for one more. Ray could play this out as well as anyone.
"He's just gone down to the gas station to see if today's metro papers were dropped off yet- You have no idea what it's like to be stuck out here. Not even a decent newspaper."
"I understand."
"You want me to have him call you when he gets back? Shouldn't be more than fifteen, twenty minutes or so."
"No. Well, yes. May as well. I'll go ahead and cancel that card."
"He probably doesn't even know it's gone. Nothing here to use it on."
"Rough life."
"Yes, it is. You want him to call you at home or the office?"
"Ah, make it the office. I'm at home now, but headed in to work. Just wanted to miss the morning rush hour. I should be there in about an hour."
"No problem. I make sure he calls."
"And you are?"
"Done talking."
Ray hung up the telephone and did a bit of quick figuring. Miss the morning rush hour? It was ten o'clock right now. This guy was calling from one time zone west. Mountain time. No accent, like Texas or anything? None. Denver? That was Ray's best guess before he realized that he didn't have to guess at all. He picked up the phone and dialed O.
"Yes, operator? I just received a long distance call at this number and I need to know where it originated. Yes, that's correct. I'll hold."
The thrill of the game did make Ray forget for a moment that he had more pressing matters: Like a wife in the hospital and no way to get to her. And he had promised to call Jake right back. Ok, this shouldn't take long, and might prove to be valuable information. Ray was right: It didn't take long at all. The operator came back on the line.
"Sir? Yes, that call originated in the Denver metropolitan area. Would you like the number?"
Ah, the thrill of victory. Yes, Ray would like that number. On a whim, he dialed it. May as well play the game. It only rang once. Mark Stewart did not answer.
"Stapleton United VIP lounge."
Say what? Stapleton? Denver's airport? United Airlines? The plot thickens. Ray had to play his hand, though.
"Yes, this is Steve Vaan, returning Mark Stewart's call."
"I'm sorry sir, Mister Stewart just answered his flight's boarding call."
"Bound for?"
"St. Louis, sir. It should arrive there at- let me see here- Twelve forty-five their time. I can have a message left for him there if you like."
"Yes, please let him know that I'll meet him at the airport there in St. Louis. In the VIP lounge- To just stay put and I'll be there."
"Yes, sir. And your name again?"
"Steve Vaan. V-A-A-N."
"Thank you, sir, I'll make sure he gets the message."
"I'm sure you will."
Ray hung up the phone completely unaware of the irony of life. He had just impersonated a man who had been impersonating him. Neither knew of the other's ruse. Would they ever? Ray Meadows was not overly concerned with finding Steve Vaan at the moment. He had far more pressing problems. His wife was in a hospital and he had no way to get there. Now some lawyer was headed this way- and doubtless up to no good. He didn't want to be there when Stewart showed up. He was going to have to drag his sorry carcass out of there pretty quick. Right after a couple of phone calls- to a couple of states. Kentucky first. Ray dialed yet again.
"Loovul Gen'ral."
"Yes, my name is Raymond Meadows. My wife was admitted last night? Barbara Meadows?"
There was a silence on the other end as the hospital operator looked up the room number and transferred the call. That fact that Mrs. Meadows was not currently in any condition to receive calls had escaped notice at the front desk. The phone next to her bed began to ring- quietly. So quietly she never noticed. Barbara Meadows was still deep in a waking dream, trying to make sense of her current senseless situation. She was in a hospital, and Ray must be there with her. But where was Ray? The ringing phone never registered. Eventually the operator saw that the line was still ringing, and offered to connect Ray with the nurses' station on that floor. This time the phone was answered.
"Fourth floor station."
"Yes, this is Ray Meadows."
"Barbara Meadows' husband."
"OH, YES!"
The nurse on duty had been made fully aware of the situation with regard to that patient. Admitted the night before as the result of a fatal two-car collision in Indiana, Barbara Meadows was now in stable condition, but not yet awake. The big question was not Barbara, but Ray. Listed as the co-owner of the vehicle in which Mrs. Meadows had been riding, the local authorities in Indiana had not been able to find Mister Meadows or ascertain his existence. Maybe they were divorced, and Ray Meadows was long gone. For all they knew, Ray Meadows was dead. All they knew for sure was that his wife was not. Now, it seems, neither was he. Good news all around.
The nurse filled Ray in on the details of Barbara's condition and a plausible time frame for her recovery: She wasn't going anywhere for a about week or so. Then again, was Ray? Ray told the nurse the truth: He was stuck in a small town in Illinois and not likely to be able to get there that day. Since it wasn't exactly an emergency (not now, anyway) he wasn't sure how he'd get there at all. He also mentioned that with a recent leg injury, he was in no great shape to drive himself. Even if he had a car. And where was his car? He thought about that for only a second. He'd have to call that officer- Sergeant Montez- about that. Later. Ray had managed to fill several scraps of paper with notes that morning before he finally said goodbye to the nurse. He had to get to that hospital. But how? Once again, he found himself just sitting, staring at the phone. Only this time, he was willing it to ring. Please, somebody: Call! Nobody called. Ray remembered: It was up to him. He had to call Jake back. Right now. The number came easier the second time and Jake must have been hanging on the phone, waiting for it to ring. Ray never heard it ring on his end. Weird when that happens.
"Yeah, Ray?"
"Hey there, Jake."
"So what's going on? What did the Trooper want?"
"Barbara was in an accident last night. That's why she never made it back here."
"Is she ok?"
"Sort of. She's in Louisville. They flew her there. I tried to reach her, but got some nurse. She said she'd probably be there for about a week or so before they'd release her."
"Good deal."
"Excuse me?"
"You headed there?"
"As soon as I figure out how, yes."
"Great. Stay there."
"Pardon me? What's going on up there, Jake?"
"You haven't seen the morning paper, have you?"
"Odd that you should mention it, but no. Why?"
"Got it right here, unfortunately. Let me quote: 'ALIENS ON THE INTERSTATE?' and an equally amusing subhead, 'WHAT'S WRECKING CARS WEST OF CROYDON?'. Ray, if you thought those reporters were looking for you before, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's a three ring circus over there on your front lawn. You won't have to mow again- ever. They're pounding the turf down."
"Oh, great. How'd they figure that one out?"
"Something about an insanely high accident rate on that short stretch of the road- and a couple of survivors that said they saw something weird run across the road in front of them. It's in this newspaper story."
"Any details?"
"I'm looking… no, just 'something blue'- that's about all they say. Look, they know Barbara's in Louisville, and I'll bet some of them are headed down there right now, but most of them are looking for you."
"And they don't know where I am. I hardly know where I am."
"You should stay where you am."
"Can't do it. Got to get to Barbara."
"I understand."
"Look, Jake, I really wanted to come home and settle back down to my dull routine. Really. But this isn't working out. I'd hate to think that we were being driving from our home by media hounds, but I sure don't need this right now."
"So whatcha gonna do?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm not coming home. Can you keep an eye on the place for me? Just for a couple of days?"
"Sure, no problem."
"OK, look, I'm going to try to get to the hospital. I don't know how. Hitch hike if I have to. I'll keep you posted on what I'm doing."
"What about the media?"
"Please, Jake, don't tell them anything."
"Well, at least, not the truth."
There was a happy thought. Ray had already sidetracked Steve's attorney that morning. Why not every reporter in Central Indiana? Could be fun.
"Good idea. Let's give them a bad lead."
"At the very least."
"Tell them I've already been to the hospital and I'm on my way home right now to answer any questions. Should be there this afternoon. That might buy me enough time to get to Louisville and check out the situation there without any reporters around. They'll call back whoever headed that way. I hope."
"You got it. I'll head right over there."
"Thanks, Jake. I'll give you a call this evening. From somewhere."
He had to get to that hospital- Hopefully before any of the media, if that was still possible. Then it hit him: He also had to get out of that apartment before the lawyer showed up- probably some time that afternoon. Life was getting too complicated. Maybe Steve had the right idea: Just vanish off the face of the earth. It was starting to sound like a good idea- if he could take Barbara with him.
Ray managed to hobble his way outside to the second floor landing. Did he have a plan? Maybe. At what point does a wild, hare-brained splinter of an idea become a cohesive, viable plan? Sort of depends on how desperate you are at the time. Ray Meadows made his way down the stairs- slowly, one step at a time and dragging their belongs with him. By the time he had reached the bottom, Sam Bornan was convinced that this man really shouldn't be walking at all. He was obviously hurting. It hurt Sam just to watch.
"Mister, you're in no shape to be dancing down those stairs."
"Tell me about it. I'd have jumped if it was easier."
"So what are you doing down here at all? I thought you were supposed to rest and recover."
"Sam, I've got more problems than a math book."
"Are the answers in the back?"
"You know- Sometimes those math books have all the answers printed in the back. Kids struggle through the whole year trying to get those problems when all they had to do was turn to the back of the book."
"Oh, yeah- I remember those books- and the agony of finding that your own math book wasn't one of them."
"Yeah, well then there's that, too. So what's your problems?"
"Barbara got into an accident last night and she's stuck in a hospital in Louisville."
"I'm sorry to hear that. She going to be ok?"
"Yeah, I guess. But the car's wiped out and I'm stuck here with no way to get there."
"That's your only problem?"
"I wish. Steve's lawyer's headed this way- looking for Steve."
"So where is Steve?"
"Long gone, I think. And I don't think he trusts this lawyer any more. That could be the reason he's gone. The lawyer should be here this afternoon, looking for Steve."
"Leave the lawyer to me. What else?"
"Ok, I've got every reporter in Indiana either camped out on my front yard back home or out trying to find me. So I sure can't go home. Any ideas there?"
"Gotcha covered on all three. And your answers really are in the back."
"What do you mean?"
"Leave those bags right there and hobble this way."
Sam started to walk around the back of the building that had Steve's apartment upstairs. The first floor was a combination garage and equipment storage. An extended roof off the back of the building sheltered a wide assortment of motorized yard equipment, bicycles, small bits of farm equipment and, sticking out from the center and half covered with a tarp: One certified, genuine, Old Pick-Up Truck.
With only a small amount of fanfare, Sam pulled the dirt-encrusted canvas off the truck's cab. When the dust cloud settled, they could see it: Yep, there was a truck under there. More or less. Early to mid-60's, either a Chevy or GMC. Tough to tell without a grill. Green painted faded to near oblivion, it had been covered to protect what was left of the interior from the ravages of the weather. There was no driver's side window. Just the little vent window still in place. Ray was struck by the size of the tires- they looked like tractor tires to him. Tall, skinny snow tires at least. Most definitely a work truck. But did it work?
Sam opened the creaking driver's side door and slid in behind the wheel. Dust billowed in the cab. Ray could hear things clicking under the hood. The motor turned over- entirely too slow to catch- then faster. It coughed once, twice and sputtered to what would have to pass for life until it warmed up. It ran. Sam got back out as the beast settled into an idle. Didn't sound half bad now. Not bad at all. Sam smiled at Ray and motioned to the truck, now running smoothly if a bit loud.
"So what do you think?"
"I have no idea. What DO I think?"
"Not a mind reader, but I think you could drive this to Louisville. Shouldn't be too hard on your legs, it's got an automatic. You could be there late this afternoon. It's no speed demon, but it will get you there. You could be with Barbara tonight. When she's ready to leave that hospital, you can avoid all them reporters by coming right back here. If Steve's gone like you say, I've got an apartment you can stay in, if you don't mind climbing a few stairs."
"What about this Stewart guy? Steve's lawyer?"
"From some big city?"
"Yeah, Denver, I think."
"Just leave the citiot to me."
"The what?"
"Citiot. An idiot from the city. That's what we call 'em, anyway. Folks that come out here all full of the town they're from. No idea why any one would want to live out in what they see as 'nowhere'. And a lawyer, too. Double points for that. You get going and leave him to me. You want me to put your bags in the house?"
"Ah, yeah- ok. Good idea. No sense in dragging them over the only to come right back. You want me to give you a call when we're headed back?"
"No need. You won't be back today, and that lawyer won't be back tomorrow. This will work out just fine."
"Thanks, Sam."
"Don't mention it."
Sam Bornan picked up Ray's bags as Ray slid up into the cab of the truck and adjusted himself behind the wheel. All those years of driving a car, Ray had never driven a truck. Thought about it, but never did. Wow- Great view from up here. He could get to like this. Kind of above the traffic. Especially above those little foreign cars. Not bad. And it's still running great- very smooth, once it warms up. Ray put the truck in drive and it lurched against the parking brake. Where was that brake release? A short but frantic search found the brake release under the dash and the truck moved forward, out from under the protective roof. Darn- this thing really wants to go! Ray got it turned around in the yard and pointed toward the road. Sam just smiled and waved. He really was looking forward to playing with that lawyer- The Citiot.
Ray was out of Lyndon and headed to the north east toward that infamous Interstate before he looked at the gas gauge. Empty. Empty? Maybe it's broke. Then again, maybe not. Everything else on the truck worked. Sam was a mechanic. This truck was about out of gas. Oh, boy. Ray did something you never hear guys do- but he did. Just this once. He would never tell any one that he did it, so don't you. He turned the truck around and drove back to Lyndon for gas. Sure, it goes against all the Guy Rules, but hey, that's just the sort of wild, map-cap kind of guy he was. Besides, he really didn't want to run out of gas. Not this time. Not now.
Heading, as near as he could tell, in an easterly direction out of Grand Central Station, Steve Vaan settled back into the cab's rear seat and tried to look interested in what the cab driver was saying. Apu- Steve's unspoken name for the driver whose real name took several alphabets to convey across his license mounted behind the front seat- was rattling away in his native tongue. Just as though Steve could understand it. It was sheer luck that Steve had uttered a few words the driver understood. Never mind that it was only one of three languages he had tried before he got a response. And never mind that Steve's command of that language was barely enough to get him from a given airport to a given hotel- maybe. In Apu's mind, he had found a long-lost friend. Time for a little chat.
Watching out the window, Steve soon realized he wasn't going to be able to see where he was headed until he got there. Tall ships are effectively hidden by taller buildings. And these were the tallest. You could hide your Saturn V collection here. Who'd notice? He kept looking anyway. Force of habit. Apu kept talking. Also force of habit.
The cab was headed toward a place where the East River starts to think about joining the Atlantic Ocean: The piers. To say that ships from all over the world docked there would almost be an understatement. It was hard to believe that they were only confined to one planet. Everything was there. Some would leave today and more would be here tomorrow. A few were coming in right now, passing those that left earlier. One last sharp left- followed by a right to keep from flying off the end of a pier- and the cab was sailing past the terminals next to the docks. Steve was so wrapped up in looking at the huge hulls he forgot that maybe he should get Apu to try the brakes and slow down. Stop, even. Then again, he had no idea what language Apu had responded to earlier. He tired a few and yes, the car came to a halt. Apu's non-stop dialogue had not. Steve looked at the meter and fished out a few bills- like twice the fare. Apu saw the money and proceeded to grin like an idiot- without slowing the flow of whatever it was he had been saying for the last twenty minutes. Steve handed over the cash, thanked the happy man in English and hauled his bags out of the cab. Hasta la Vista, Appie. Namaste. Whatever.
Alone- at last- on the pavement, Steve began walking back away from the cab and toward the closest terminal. He waved, the driver waved and the cab was gone. Whew. What was that all about? Man, that guy could talk. Didn't understand a word. Could have been the meaning of life or next week's winning lottery numbers. Who'd know? Steve stopped for a better look around the piers near the current center of his universe. He had two choices close at hand: Upriver, a cruise ship. Large, glitzy and colorful. Very nice. But was it really going anywhere? Don't those things usually just go out and come back? Not exactly the trans-Atlantic fare he was looking for. Downriver? What was that thing? Kind of an odd industrial green, and big enough, but what? Not quite a freighter, certainly not a tanker and no passenger ship. Private? Maybe a research vessel? Steve walked toward her to get a better look. No national flag to be seen from here. Within the first few steps, he made up his mind: He'd try this one first. Unless he saw the words, "LADY ANNE" on the sides. Then he'd run screaming for the cruise ship.
He was halfway up the gangplank- staring at that name up on the bow- before his mind raced through the permutations and variations. He stopped only long enough to get his bags turned around. Maybe it was just a coincidence- or some one's idea of a bad joke. Either way, he was headed for the cruise ship- as promised. He would not try his luck on the "ADALYNNE", whatever it was. Or where ever it might be headed. He never saw a soul around that vessel, and he hoped to keep it that way. Head for the bright lights and big floating city. Let's see where that cruise ship was going. Maybe he'd get lucky. It had to be better than this.
The BERMUDA STAR wasn't exactly the out-and-back cruise ship Steve had assumed it to be at first glance. It was more of an out-and-stop-and-back. Big difference there. It offered a two night layover in Bermuda (imagine that) for it's passengers to experience and explore those lovely islands in the mid-Atlantic. Sort of a chance to stop and smells the onions, as it were. Steve made his way through this second terminal- amazed at the difference. In place of the drab, industrial- almost military- this was bright, colorful and full of music. Making his way through the throngs of obvious vacationers, well-wishers and ship's officers and personnel, Steve found his way to the crews' gangplank. It was only slightly less ornate, and infinitely better than his first Serlingesque attempt to board a ship that day. All he needed to do now was figure out how to sign on for this trip to Bermuda. And how to walk the rest of the way to England. He didn't even bring any shorts.
Halfway up the gangplank he was nearly run over by one very irate young man on his way down. Dressed in grubby, food-stained whites and smelling vaguely of cooking oils, this had to be some sort of cook’s helper. No chef, certainly. That would be the chef up there, throwing this guy off the ship. Steve could only smile at his good fortune. Maybe this was his lucky day after all. Steve gave the angry young man a smile as he passed and had his hand out introducing himself to the chef before the little booger was on solid ground. New man, reporting for duty. Where do I start?
For his part, Jake Jacobson was doing his best to run interference for his friend, Ray Meadows. Back at Ray's house in Greenwood, Jake managed to get the attention of the encamped media on the front lawn. It wasn't hard, really: He brought doughnuts. That got their attention. As the Hounds of Hearst wolfed down their round prey, Jake informed one and all that Mister Ray Meadows would be there later that afternoon. He had just called- from somewhere out on the road- having spent the morning with his wife in that Louisville hospital. Ray would meet with them all, answer all their questions and be there for as long as it took to make sure they all got their story. Just as soon as he got there. Later. But he had one request: Please don't bother Barbara. She was in no condition to play Meet the Press, and both the hospital and the Louisville Police Department had their orders. No visitors. Ray would be here soon. But later.
Halfway through his intentionally long-winded speech, the doughnuts took over. The reporters had been in a feeding frenzy until they realized: There was nothing to drink. Got milk? Guess not. By the time Jake was on his way home, the reporters were headed for their cars and vans, off in search of coffee, tea, soda, milk, water, something. Anything. Worked like a dream. Jake had gotten them to both wait and leave. Maybe next time he'd teach them to dance. That could be fun. Jake was only slightly troubled by something else: Once Ray did get there, whenever that might be, there was the little matter of that thing in the garage. The cage. Jake had no idea what Ray would say to the media. But if he was about to play dumb and disavow all knowledge of anything in the trees, that cage was going to be a problem if anyone saw it. Jake decided he was going to have to do something about that. Maybe like right now, while the reporters were gone. But what?
Back in his own house, Jake thought about that cage. What had Ray tried to pawn it off as? Hydro- something or other. Growing plants in it. No soil, just plants, pipes and water. Ok, maybe that was worth a try. Jake believed it at first. Maybe they would, too. Carol came up with a house key that Barbara had given her some time ago- just in case. Well, this was that case. Sure hope it opened the garage. Jake headed back to the Meadows' house with that key. The long way around, this time. Just in case.
At a gas station/convenience store/restaurant/you-name-it in Grayville, Ray was out of the truck and trying to walk. Had plenty of gas. Needed plenty of food. Road trips made him hungry. Especially now. Walking was not getting any easier, though. He had managed to change those bandages that morning, and everything looked ok, but this walking thing was taking its toll. Good thing the truck was an automatic. And at least the weather was good. With no driver's side window, he imagined that a downpour would be unfortunate. With no a/c, the missing window wasn't missed. Ray carefully shuffled around the convenience store part of the building, loading up on the three major road trip food groups: Sodas, Cookies and Slim Jims. That should keep him going to Kentucky. One way or the other.
Ray's tangle with the climber had left him without sleep for some time. He didn't even want to think about that now. It was a good thing he didn't need to sleep- he had too much to do: Get to Louisville and make sure Barbara was ok, make whatever arrangements he had to there- and most importantly, find out how soon he could get her out of there. Then back to Greenwood? Should he even attempt that? Did they really need anything there? They had originally packed to be in Lyndon for at least a couple of weeks. Maybe they had enough there now to do just that. How long before this storm died down? And would it? Ray's head was buzzing as he made his way back to the truck, dragging a couple of bags of goodies along for the ride. He was ready, Freddy. Enough sugar and caffeine here to fuel this guy all the way out to either ocean. Maybe all three, if the roads went that far north. With the truck started, and still running smooth, Ray went for the Interstate without a second thought. That would come later. Just west of Croydon.
Jake Jacobson stood in the middle of the Meadows' kitchen, feeling only slightly like the Thief of Bagdad. The key Barbara had given Carol some time ago had opened the back door to the house- but not the garage. Now it was up to Jake to find that key and take care of business before the press got back. The kitchen seemed like a likely spot- since that's where he was. Maybe it was in The Drawer. All he had to do is find it.
Every kitchen in the United States has The Drawer. It must be some sort of weird American folk custom. I'll bet you've got one. There's a small drawer in your kitchen, right there below the counter top, just crammed full of stuff, but not kitchen stuff. Odds and ends and bits and pieces and you name it. If you can. There's string and scissors and rubber bands and batteries and tape and paperclips and small things that used to be part of larger things before they fell off so you had to save them and my personal favorite: 35mm film canisters. Kodak used to make these out of aluminum before they went to black plastic. I still have a few of the metal ones, but they're too precious to be in The Drawer. And the black ones are ok, but Fuji's are clear. Much more better good to keep things in- 'cause you can see whatcha got. But I digress. (No, really?)
It was all in that drawer, just as I'll bet it's all in yours. Even the spare keys, down in the bottom in the back. Loose. At least there weren't that many- a couple for the house and a couple for the car. And they wouldn't be needing those spare car keys any time soon. Jake fished the house keys out of the drawer and put everything else back as best he could. Of course, once you take everything out, it won't all fit back in. He resorted to shaking the drawer to try to settle the contents. That did seem to help and he was able to get it closed, at least. May not be neat, but it would close. With the keys spread out on the kitchen counter, Jake made his two best choices for The Garage Door Key. Out the back door- lock that door- and over to the garage. It was odd that this particular garage- separate from the house and all- did not have a regular door. Just the one single vehicle door at the front. The garage had been built long after the house. The original owners parked their first cars out on the street, like every one else those days. The garage was squeezed into the side yard much later- after the Second World War. An affluent afterthought.
Nice little garage, but it currently had one glaring problem (two if you count the contents): It faced the street. Straight shot right down the driveway to the rest of world. This was not entirely to Jake's liking at this point. He was going to have to open that door to the world. No way around it. The first key he tried didn't do a thing. It fit, but the lock didn't turn. Hmmm. Ok, it was a fifty-fifty chance there. It had better be the other one. He tried the other one and it worked. The door was unlocked. A quick, but very guilty, look around and the door was opened and up. The cage was still there. Oh, boy. What was he going to do now? Jake walked into the garage and looked around. It was a sort of combination building. Built to house a vehicle some fifty years before, it was also built with a little extra room on the far side for- for what? Kid's bicycles and push lawn mowers? Probably. Whatever the reason, there was at least an extra eight feet of room over there and it was only partially cluttered with junk. Ok, that was the answer. All he had to do was move the cage over there and cover it with whatever he could find. Jake got a good hold on the white plastic cage and- nothing. Didn't budge. Wouldn't budge. Was this thing bolted to the floor? That's when he saw the empty cement sacks. Oh, boy.
Panic was setting in as Jake mad a fast survey of the materials at hand. Some ropes over there, some old lumber over here and a girl's bicycle in the corner. A length of chain in a pile in the back corner and- what's this? A come along. Perfect. This job was as good as done. Jake grabbed the chain- filthy but welcome- in one hand and hoisted the come along with the other. So encumbered, he plowed his way through to the far side wall and dropped his prizes against the footer. He needed a wrench- a big old Crescent wrench. Back by the dilapidated work bench he had seen one. Would it be big enough? One way to find out. Seconds later he had the wrench and was hard at work.
The concrete floor for the garage had been poured with upright bolts in place for the wall framing to be bolted in before the siding was added. Easy enough- with a big enough wrench- to loosen up one of those huge nuts and throw a loop of chain over the bolt end. Re-tighten that nut and he had a solid, immovable mount for the come along. In a moment it was clipped in place and Jake began spooling out cable from the business end of the device. (For those still in the dark on this, a come along is a portable block and tackle, usually equipped with a length of steel cable and hooks on both the cable end and the gear-driven apparatus. A long hand lever moves the gears, which winds the cable, which makes whatever it's hooked to "come along". Ok, you up with us now?) With the cable wrapped around the bars of one side of the cage, all that was left was a bit of aerobics with the lever back by the wall. Jake began to take up the cable's slack and before long the cage was scooting- slowly- across the garage floor. It didn't move much, and it didn't move fast, but it did move. And that was the important thing.
It had seemed like forever- really less than half an hour- before Jake had the cage parked neatly over to the side of the garage. He unhooked the cable and threw the come along inside the cage. May need to move this thing again. He took the chain off the footer and replaced the nut over the wall bolt. Now- to hide this heavy white elephant. Jake found a painting tarp- dusty and ancient in an old box toward the back. Perfect. Covered the cage pretty well from the front and sides. The back could be left open. No one should come in here anyway. If they were in that far, the tarp wouldn't stop them anyway. He threw a few things over the cage on top of the tarp and parked the bicycle against it. There. Looks like it's been under there for years. Whatever it is. Jake Jacobson was rather proud of himself. Sure, he'd been sneaky before, but he usually got caught. So far, so good. So far. He was slapping some of the dust and dirt off of his pants, making his way back out of the garage, when the news van pulled up into the driveway so fast Jake thought it would go right through the garage. He knew he looked guilty as sin slamming that garage door closed, but he just couldn't help himself. Some guys are born sneaks. Jake was born guilty. He made the very obvious point of locking the door before he could stop himself.
The van's sliding door was open, and the camera man was out and taping before the "talent"- a young lady who must be the reporter- made it out of the front passenger's door. Only the driver remained seated- with the motor left running for effect. Halogen headlights glaring, the van was providing additional lighting for the camera at an angle they knew would cut the stark contrast of using just the overhead sunlight for the shot. Sort of twelve volt fills. On high beam, it worked. The reporter had a wireless microphone in Jake's face with the rest of his field of vision filled by that camera man and the camera's huge lens. What was this? 60 Minutes? At least it wasn't the police. Reporters don't have to be that polite.
"Raymond Meadows? We're from WKTY in Louisville. What can you tell me about your wife's accident last night?"
Jake was relieved at the mistaken identity, but he wasn't about to screw this up.
"First off, no. Secondly, that's nice. And to answer your last question, nothing."
The electronic entourage came to a skidding halt. Huh? What? Who? Now it was their turn to be baffled and amazed. They had driven like maniacs to get there- to get the story. Now- no story? The reporter turned to the driver who was still seated, ready to drive.
"Is this the right house?"
The driver nodded. Yes, this was it. The reporter turned back to Jake, who had not moved. May as well play with these people until the others come back. Good practice, if nothing else.
"But you aren't Mister Meadows?"
"What can you tell us about Mister Meadows and his wife?"
"They're married."
The humor was lost on this one. The camera man was a statue, no response, no movement. Just all business and taping everything.
"Are you taking care of the house for them?"
"What house?"
This was getting frustrating for the reporter. Bad answers were death in this business.
"And you are?"
"Fine, thanks, and you?"
"Alright, cut. Stop the tape."
The camera man relaxed and the camera went from over the shoulder to under the arm. Jake couldn't help but notice that the little red light on the front of the camera never went out. Maybe he'd seen The China Syndrome once too often. Or just often enough. That machine was still on, and still recording. Ok, it's a game. That was your move. Now it's mine. Time for Jake Jacobson to go on the offensive. And Jake felt he could be pretty offensive if he wanted to.
"What do you want, before I go in and call the cops?"
"Go ahead, we'd like to get their angle on this, too."
"I think their angle will be that you are trespassing. I don't know about Kentucky, where everybody's related and all, but here, that's not quite legal. No how about you back that noisy van of yours back out to the public street where it belongs and as soon as I finish up here, I'll meet you out on the front yard and answer all your questions? Hmmm?"
"How about you answer them right now?"
"Excuse me, Miss, I have a phone call to make."
Jake was, if nothing else, a man of his word- When it suited him. Right now, it suited him just fine. He went back through the back door, locking it behind him. He picked up the wall phone in the kitchen and dialed the Greenwood Police Department. He very carefully explained (most) of the situation to the desk sergeant and politely requested that they divert a patrol car over that way, if they could. Thank you. Thank you very much. Jake hung up the phone and saw that the reporter, camera man and van had yet to move. No problem. Maybe Jake just needed to lead the way. He picked up the rest of the house keys off the kitchen counter and headed for the front door. Hope these keys fit that door. A quick check from the inside got him what he wanted, and he was out the door before he heard the van go into reverse and back slowly out to the street. The reporter and camera man followed. The camera was no longer running. A small victory there. By the time Jake met them again out by the street, the reporter's tone had cooled somewhat.
"Alright, what can you tell me about the Meadows?"
"Not very much. Only that Ray is supposed to be here later this evening."
Jake watched the camera man out of the corner of his eye. That camera was still under his arm and, from what the little red light said, it was still taping. Geez, this guy's about as slick and sandpaper. About a 60 grit. Jake took a look at the shadows on the ground. Let's make this guy work a bit. Jake slowly shifted his position and walked around until the camera had to be pointed more into the sun. There. That should make for some great video. Shoot this, mule-boy.
"And his wife?"
"What do you mean?"
"Will his wife be coming home with him?"
"I think that's something only the hospital can answer."
"Are you aware of the rumors surrounding the accident?"
"The little blue men?"
"Well, uh- yes."
"In my day, they were always green."
"Little green men?"
"Oh, come on. Don't tell me you don't have flying saucers in Kentucky?"
"Flying saucers?"
"You know, lights in the sky, 'wheel within a wheel', 'foo-fighters'? Abductions by some one other than your cousin?"
"Are you saying you think UFO's were involved in Barbara Meadows' accident?"
The camera man made no pretense of not taping now. That camera was up, shouldered, pointed and on. Behind them, Jake could see a Greenwood patrol car slowly turn the corner and slide quietly up the street. About time. Jake made a point of waving his hands at the camera and backing off. The effect was perfect.
"No, no, no. I'm not saying anything. I just think you should go down to Croydon and see the Meadows' car, that's all."
"The one she was in? Why?"
Jake was still waving them off as the officer got out of the car. Obviously a case of unwanted media intrusion here.
"Well, something big landed on it, that's all. Something real big."
The police officer took that lull in the battle to say hello. In his own fashion.
"Excuse me, sir, are you the gentleman that called for assistance?"
Jake stopped waving his hands at the camera. He didn't have to any more.
"Why, yes. Yes, I am."
The policeman looked at the reporter, ignoring the camera man for the moment.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Ma'am."
The reporter felt that she had a real scoop, and was more than ready to run with it. She had a scoop, alright. A big one. Maybe two scoops.
"Yes sir, officer, we're gone."
With that, the camera man really did turn off the camera and both of them high-tailed it back to the station's news van still idling at the curb. Both Jake and the policeman could only shake their heads in amazement. What a way to make a living. The van was gone as fast as it had arrived. The officer turned back to Jake.
"What was that all about?"
"They're chasing UFO's."
"All the way from Kentucky?"
"Must be a slow news day."
The officer agreed and promised to check back by later, should any news-types reappear. Jake told the officer where he lived, and that he would be back to check on the house periodically for the owner, who was tending to his wife in the hospital. The officer nodded in agreement and left. Jake decided that now would be a good time to head for home. Nobody there meant nobody to follow him. This was good.
Jake's unfortunate crack about something big landing on Barbara's car was far closer to the truth than either he or the Troopers could ever have known. As far as the Indiana State Troopers could tell, the big Lincoln and gone out of control- for whatever the reason- and crossed the median sideswiping Barbara's car. That assumed side impact had had been what sent her car careening across the road, initiating the roll sequence that ended with the car upside down in the far side ditch. They were able to pick out which tire ruts across the median belonged to which car, but the fact that the Lincoln's marks stopped well before the point of impact told them nothing. Like the fact that it was airborne. The Troopers could only figure that the Lincoln had come out of it's slide just before impact. Ok, in way, they were right. It wasn't sliding. It was flying. Barbara's car was damaged from the rolling to the point that the crushing effect of that big car landing on the roof was lost upon inspection. Didn't really matter now, anyway. Both cars had been totaled, even before the Lincoln caught fire. And Barbara was the lucky one. No doubt about that.
As Jake Jacobson was doing battle with the press in suburban Greenwood, Ray Meadows was finding his own fresh demons to contend with at every turn. Even worse, along a particular long straight stretch of Interstate 64- Somewhere west of Croydon, Indiana. He had been making good time and the truck ran well at a conservative superslab speed of sixty, but now the engine was faltering. The rpm's were falling off and the scenery wasn't quite so prompt in its passing. Engine trouble? Not exactly. It sort of crept up on Ray a couple miles back where he was. And what had happened somewhere along here just last night. But where? He knew the stretch of road Steve had mentioned in suspecting the climbers to be the cause of the numerous accidents there. The one between the two big stands of old trees. He could see them just ahead, no more than mile and closing. That's when his speed dropped off. Trundling along in the slow lane- doing no more than fifty now- Ray's eye's were glued to the pavement just beyond the truck's hood. Where? Where did it all happen? Thankfully, he passed the skid and scuff marks that marked Barbara's trajectory across the road long after he had passed the spot where her car had come to a rest roof down in the ditch off to his right. She had been coming the other way- westbound- even after the initial impact.
Ray saw the marks crossing the two lanes on his side of the road. His eyes couldn't help but follow them back across the road and through the grassy median, where they were now mixed with a second set- the Lincoln's- that spiraled away from Ray's side of the road. That must have been it. Not much to see by the light of day. Ray thankfully- and unknowingly- missed seeing where the big Town Car had come to rest and burned. That had been too far on the other side of the road. With both cars gone from the scene, there was little left to see. By next week the skid marks would be gone and the grass would grow back in the median. The Meadows' car left no real damage where it landed, but the spot where the Lincoln burned would remain barren until the following year. Big car, big fire. It would take time for that scar to heal. The truck held at fifty for several miles. That had to have been it. Would they ever be able to find the spot again? Would they ever want to? Ray made a conscious effort to build his speed back up. He opened a Doctor Pepper and went for a Slim Jim. He needed a boost right now. Had to get to Louisville.
It was late afternoon in Louisville. Ok, it was late afternoon in Croydon as well, but that didn't matter to Ray. He slid through what remained of Indiana without a second thought. Only Louisville mattered now. The hospital. Barbara. And how was Barbara? Well, considering the current condition of one Herbert Yates, not so bad. And she was awake. Sedated, yes, but awake. She had spoken with the nurses and was aware that Ray would be there shortly. Just when was anybody's guess, as she did realize that he couldn't be driving their car. How was he going to get there? They should have bought one of those trucks. Although not allowed out of bed just yet, Barbara tried flexing and moving her arms and legs to get some idea of what shape she was in. She decided she was in sore shape. The only bad damage must have been to her right foot, which was in some sort of cast to above the ankle. No dancing tonight. Otherwise, she was bruised in a hundred places and her neck was sore, but then again- she was doing better than the other guy. Barbara amused herself with the TV and was able to catch a few of her regular shows before dinner was served after five. Still no Ray, but not to worry. Especially when you're sedated.
A hundred years ago, ships left port- any port- with the tide. Lacking anything but sail power, that outgoing tide was the boost needed to get away from land and out into the wind. The Bermuda Star didn't have to wait for the tide. She had more than enough power in her engine room to leave whenever the Captain said to cast off. Scheduled to leave the pier terminal on the East River at 4 p.m., she did just that. It was slow at first, easing out and turning nose to the sea, then gently and slowly maneuvering out toward open water. Tug boats were there to help, of course. They did their part and she was underway. By six o'clock, the harbor pilot was headed to back to shore on his launch and dinner was being served for the new guests on board. The new cook’s helper was working out rather well. At least he got along with the chef. What did he say his name was? Ray? Ray something. Nice guy. Hard worker.
The Bermuda Star would reach the open Atlantic Ocean and by out of the sight of land by sunset. It was all timed that way. The next day would be a full day of nothing to see but ocean- blue in every direction, above and below. Sometime during the second night, the Star would have the lights of Bermuda in sight from the bridge and her passengers would wake up on that third day with the ship in port, ready for a day (and night) of Island Fun. After two nights in port anchored off Bermuda, the Star would weigh anchor and head back, arriving at its favorite pier on the East River before noon. This gave the passengers the best possible morning light for photos as they came into New York. It was all timed that way.
Steve Vaan, known as Ray Meadows on the Star, could only wish for such planning and timing. For once, he felt he may have jumped the gun a bit. This may end up a foolish week wasted on a round trip to nowhere. Or to Bermuda, actually. He had thought, in his haste, that it would be a good idea to get to Bermuda in hopes of jumping ship there and signing on to something else headed further east. England would be good, but any of the British Isles or even the Continent were acceptable at this point. He'd settle for the Azores right now. This out and probably back was starting to look foolish. But he was determined to make the best of it. At least he'd eat well. And the chef wasn't a bad fellow. Just as long as you didn't try to put syrup on his traditional potato pancakes. That, it seemed, was his predecessors mistake. Hence, the gangplank scene and, hence again, the opening in the galley crew. At least Steve had about twelve hours on board to figure out to ask for the applesauce and not the syrup. You live and you learn. Assuming you live through the learning part.
Assigned to a small bunk in the crews quarters, Steve had planned to keep to himself as much as he could during this passage. No need to make friends, he wasn't planning to stay. In his free time, he managed to scarf up a bit of reading material- last week's newspapers and a couple of magazines- to pass the time quietly and out of sight. He hadn't done much periodical reading lately. Lyndon had not been a hot bed of current events interest. So last week's news was better than what he was used to. And I know this will come as a shock to you, but traffic accidents in rural Indiana don't get much coverage in Eastern Seaboard publications. Steve may never know what happened out there.
Having just signed on, it was no surprise that Steve was the lowest of the low on the galley totem pole. He had to be ready to work before the ship pulled out and remained in the kitchen until near midnight. Not requiring much sleep, this was no real problem. He returned to his bunk knowing he only had a few hours before he was due to report to help with breakfast. Glad he wasn't just along for the ride. Motionless in his bunk, he came as close as he could to actually sleeping after the sun went down: A sort of a cat nap trance. At least his eyes would close now. A real plus there if any one walked by. After a couple of hours of listening to the thousand sounds of a ship underway and the odd sensation of the slow rolling hull, he got back up, showered and was ready for duty half an hour early. Maybe he could find his own breakfast before he had to make every one else's. He was still trying to avoid caffeine, and maybe be able to slip into something like a normal routine. Even as he traveled, he tried. Sleeping on that train had proven near impossible. Maybe he'd have better luck here. Or on Bermuda. That had to be relaxing, right?
There was no question in his mind: He was jumping ship on the island. He had to. He'd pick up a berth from there to- to where ever else. Hopefully east. Even if that meant a short stay on a small island, at least he could relax. He had to. This last week or so had been a real shock to the system for some one used to the slow pace of small town life. Too much running and hiding and sneaking around. It was making him all nervous again. No need for that. Maybe this sea cruise was just what he needed. The salt air did have an effect, even on Steve.
The second day out of New York was Open Ocean Day. Nothing to see out there but blue. Lots and lots of blue. Blue water, blue sky. Just blue. It held Steve's attention and interest for all of about three minutes. Yep, that's the ocean. Yep, there's the sky. Seen it. What now? He decided that maybe working in the kitchen was all he needed to do until the ship docked in Bermuda. Keep busy and eat well. The passengers subscribed to the same basic philosophy. They just had more options in the “keep busy” department. Steve finished up his second shift in the kitchen late that afternoon and retired to his bunk. With the sun up, it would have been very easy to lapse into a nap. He resisted. Stay awake now, sleep tonight. He made it all the way to just past sunset. By nine o'clock, he fell asleep. A subtle shift in the ship's engines at three a.m. woke him up. Huh? What's going on? The word "iceberg" couldn't help but come to mind. Too many old late-night movies.
Steve (you can call me 'Ray') Vaan got dressed and went on deck for a look. Lights- not many, but a few- They must be there. Bermuda lay off the port side. The ship was anchored at the outer edge of a harbor. By morning, almost all of the passengers would be headed ashore for a day (and night) of revelry on land. His work would be light after breakfast. Now the big question: How would HE get ashore? That was a puzzle to be worked out.
Just the evening before, in a hospital parking lot in Louisville, Kentucky, the real Ray pulled up and shut off an old truck. It only took about three turns of an unconnected window crank for him to remember that it didn't matter- no glass there. So why'd he lock the door anyway? Force of habit. We've all done it. Once in the hospital, it took several long minutes to figure out where he was going - and how to get there from here. Just follow the stripes on the floor, sir. Yeah, right. And try to not bump into people with your head pointed straight down while you walked. Ray made it to the elevators, and only got off on the wrong floor once. He caught his mistake before the doors closed and was able to jump back on. His second attempt was better. Now on the right floor, it was back to the stripes. Down the hall, around the corner and down this hall. And- there he was. Where ever it was that he was. What's the old line? No matter where you go, there you are. A nurses' station provided him with answers (and more directions) and now he was headed down yet another hall. How do these people keep it all straight in their minds? Every hall on every floor looked the same. It was maddening. He was getting dizzy just walking. Then he was there. This must be the room. He heard voices in there. No time to hesitate Ray, get in there. He walked in. It was the right room. She was there, but she was not alone.
The older couple in the room were certainly welcome visitors and a relief to Ray- Barbara's parents. Barbara had called them that afternoon. Better they should hear about it all from her than some tabloid newspaper. Of course, they rushed right there. That's what parents do, no matter what the age of their child. A quick plane trip, a fast rental car (They're all fast when you rent them.) and Cathryn and George Robinson (Lt. Col., U.S. Army Retired) were there in record time. Or at least, ahead of Ray by a considerable margin. They had missed lunch and no time to stop for dinner, but they got there. Ray was happy to see them- Happy to see any friendly face at this point.
First things first: Ray gave his wife a gentle hug and a kiss, followed by the usual First Question:
"You alright?"
"Yeah, I guess. Kind of shook up, though."
"You look great."
"I'm sure."
"No, really, you look wonderful."
George and Cathryn stood back and smiled at this exchange. They liked Ray, always had. It had been tough on Barbara being an Army brat and traveling every few years. How was she going to find anybody? But she did: She found Ray. And they lived happily ever after. Until now, sort of. Ray and Barbara continued to look at each other and make small talk as her parents looked on. If we were listening carefully, we might notice some things missing from the conversation. Ray, not being much of a motor head, never asked about the car. That's the standard guy response, but Ray wasn't the standard guy. How's the car? Who cares. Where's the car? See above. The car was totaled- no doubt about that. But neither of them knew that yet. No need to retrieve it from the State Police holding lot near Croydon- the insurance company would write this one off and it would be hauled away for what little scrap metal was left in it. The Meadows wouldn't even know about all this for several days, when the insurance company finally caught up with Barbara before she was released from the Louisville hospital. The car was not an important thing to either of them.
The climbers, on the other hand, were. But they weren't being mentioned, either. Whether by accident or intent, neither of them asked about or mentioned the little blue tree dwellers with her parents around. No need to add another problem in with the ones they already had. By unspoken agreement, the climbers were never mentioned. There was no way, however, for Ray to hide his nasty limp. That ride hadn't done his legs any good at all. George couldn't help but notice.
"Ray, you ok? You're not exactly walking in a straight line there."
Ray and Barbara exchanged glances, but Ray smiled. He had been thinking about this one as soon as he saw George and Cathryn in the room. For once he was ready. Maybe.
"Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Kind of stupid, maybe, but fine."
Cathryn had to come to his defense.
"You aren't stupid Ray- you married my daughter."
"Well, ok, you're right there. But I was maybe in the wrong place at the wrong time this time."
"What happened?"
"I was just relaxing on a chair in the back yard when a big limb blew out of the tree above me. Landed right on me. No warning."
George nodded his head. He had seen that tree.
"I always said you should do something about that old tree. I knew it would give you trouble one day."
Ray couldn't help but look at Barbara.
"You were absolutely right there, sir. No doubt about that."
A quick comparison of both Ray's wounds and Barbara's injuries lead to an interesting resolution: The Robinsons volunteered to take care of their daughter after her release from the hospital- whenever that might be. Ray was welcome to come along as well, but he declined the offer. Ray knew they'd be harder to spot if they were apart for awhile. Give those news hounds a chance to cool their jets. Maybe this thing would blow over in their lifetime. Within the month would be nice.
Left alone in the hospital room, Ray and Barbara wasted no time in formulating a plan, such as it was. She would go back with her parents to their home in Front Royal, Virginia. The Robinsons had moved their after his retirement from the service. It had been an inspired move, located as it was at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. Not a bad place to be for a man with time on his hands and a wife that enjoyed the great outdoors. For a man who had spent the previous twenty-five years on the move with the Army, George Robinson had been more than happy to settle down. The suitcases were all thrown out with the moving boxes. They were there to stay. Now Barbara could stay with them.
Ray was set on returning to Lyndon. At the very least, he had to get that truck back to Sam Bronan. From there, he'd call Jake Jacobson to see how things were shaking at home. If that was indeed still his home. Ray was starting to feel increasingly disconnected from any one place. Ain't got no home, he thought. But could he sing like a frog? Some other time, he reasoned. When no one was around to listen. And maybe not even then. But he did feel as though he needed to get back to Lyndon. It wasn't a bad place to hide out until the media found another story to run into the ground. A week, maybe two at the most. Sure, Ray, keep telling yourself that.
The Meadows' had their plans in place, and their stories and alibis coordinated by the time George and Cathryn had returned from the hospital cafeteria. They just had to get something to eat. It had been a long day and many miles. A good meal will lift anyone's spirits, and hospital cafeteria food can't hurt, either. George was actually smiling as he walked over to the window in what was now the gathering gloom of night.
"How about that- It's raining out there."
After the usual nods of agreement from all concerned- they had heard the rain, after all- Ray jumped up like he'd been shot. From the resulting pain in his legs, he felt like he had. Twice.
"Yes, rain. It's really coming down out there."
"Oh, great- just great. I've got to do something about that."
"If you can, you're a better man than I."
Barbara had no idea why Ray was so concerned about the rain. Why the big deal?
"What's the matter Ray? It's just rain."
"I forgot to tell you, the driver's side window was busted out of the truck- kids, I guess. But there's no window on my side. I've got to do something. You have a phone book?"
As Ray went ballistic in the small room looking for a phone book- that wasn't there- Barbara got the giggle-fits over the whole thing. Maybe it was her pain killers working in conjunction with all that weirdness about a truck she knew they didn't have and a window the truck they didn't have didn't have. It was just too much. Barbara was off to visit Giggle City. Her mother had no idea why all this should be so funny, but couldn't help but smile and chuckle right along. Only George, ever the Military Man, held his composure as Ray left the room in search of the elusive phone book. George couldn't wait for his daughter to calm down.
"What was that all about?"
"I have no idea. I guess he doesn't care for the rain."
With that, Barbara went right back to her giggles. Her mother was no help at all. Ray came back into the room with a phone book borrowed front the nursing station. A quick flip to the yellow pages and he found the Automotive Glass section of ads. Scanning fast as he went for the phone by Barbara's bed, he found what he was looking for:

Free delivery and installation on site.

That was it. Just what he needed. One quick call and that window would be fixed. Then maybe he wouldn't have to ride back sitting in a puddle. Yuck. Besides, it was the least he could do for Sam for letting him take the thing in the first place. The number was dialed and the phone was answered. Easy enough. Ray knew just enough about the truck to get the job ordered. Mister Trotter would be out within the hour. Meet him in the parking lot. All major credit cards accepted. A done deal.
With that little panic out of the way, Ray realized that he, too, was hungry. Maybe George could direct him down to that cafeteria and join him while the ladies did stay there and chat. After that, the two men would make their way out to the parking lot to oversee a bit of truck repair. A fair enough trade. The party of four split up for the evening.

To Be Continued...

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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes