Paul found it difficult to relax in the back of the car, as shock set in, panic rushed through him with the full realization of what he’d just been through and his bladder was kicking like a cat in a bag that could smell the river. As he squirmed in the back seat and the car slowed down in the evening traffic, a dark shadow blocked his view to the left as the SUV came up alongside. The window descended and the barrel of a gun moved into view. Now this is where we meet our next character, because there’s a guy called Frank driving in the lane to Paul’s right, and he’s about to spill his coffee with dramatic effect. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, as we’ll see. As a matter of fact, in the tool-shed of life, he’s that rusty chisel your grandfather left you in his will, stuck at the bottom of a smelly old leather bag with lots of other rusty tools. Sometimes old tools are the best for the job, and they can always be sharpened. Frank, however, won’t get any sharper. He will, however, be instrumental in saving Paul’s life.
Yes, yes, so I used the word ‘however’ twice. I suppose I could have used my Thesaurus and stuck in ‘nonetheless’ or something like that. Do you know where the word Thesaurus comes from? Well, we have some time, so I’ll tell you. It’s actually the worst kept secret of Paleontology that Thesaurus was the only dinosaur capable of speech. Problem was, it could only speak in synonyms and it never really got to the point. In fact, as that meteor was hurtling towards the ground – you know the one – Thesaurus was running around trying to warn his fellow dinosaurs. Now, the word ‘Duck’ just wasn’t going to cut it, and not only because dinosaurs had yet to evolve into their ornithological descendants. No, something more comprehensive was required in order to survive extinction. Unfortunately, Thesaurus just couldn’t find the right words, and so, as Dinosaur World was coming to an end and Thesaurus looked up to the sky, it could find only one word to articulate its emotions. It was a four letter synonym for dinosaur excrement.
Now, the fact that it was this same word that the cop shouted as a bullet from the SUV shooter shattered the rear passenger window next to Paul goes to prove that the theory of evolution is absolute nonsense. In fact, we haven’t evolved at all, Creationism is absolutely correct and dinosaur fossils are all a scam. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs never died out and that they have them hidden somewhere in a secret military base under Cheyenne Mountain. Oh, no, wait...that’s the Stargate, isn’t it? Well, wherever they are, this is the reason Creationism is so prevalent in the U.S. They’ve got the dinosaurs. And we’ve got every word Thesaurus ever said in one handy volume. It’s a bit muddled, but then so are most books that claim to have all the answers.
The police car swerved to the right, Frank spilled his coffee and swerved to the left as he roared a word similar in length to the last word of Thesaurus but slightly more offensive (and, yes, it rhymed with 'Duck'), and the police car was pushed back to the left to hit the SUV. Apparently, a few years ago, someone decided that instructions were needed on those paper coffee cups, because the fact that hot liquid was inside it did not project any comprehension as to what would happen if that same hot liquid spilled on your leg while you were driving. The legal case followed and instructions were applied accordingly ever since. What had not been taken into consideration was that the person with the cup of coffee either wouldn’t bother to read the instructions or simply wasn’t able to read. You may come to your own conclusions about Frank’s particular reason, but cause and effect was far too complex an equation for him. Let’s take a look at him, shall we?
His hair is dark grey and long, but not in a downwards sort of way. It’s long in every direction, sticking out and daring a hat to come along and try to tame it. It looks greasy, but Frank is one of those people who took to heart the saying that you shouldn’t wash your hair too much and that, if you leave it long enough, it will start to clean itself. He’s been waiting a few weeks for this particular activity to begin. He’s wearing an old, heavy padded checked shirt over an old grey t-shirt that used to be white, and a pair of khaki combats that look like they have actually been through a number of wars. He looks about 50, but he’s actually only 39, the result of plenty of nicotine, alcohol and bad food; a regimen he refers to as “Doctor’s orders”. It was ironic that he hadn’t bought a coffee at a gas station for months and had driven drunk many times. For all he knew, it could have said ‘Caution: May Cause Car Accident’ around the side of the cup, with ‘If You’re an Idiot’ rounding things off nicely.
The driver of the SUV lost control and slammed the vehicle into the meridian, but the cop maintained control of his car and managed to pull up a little farther ahead next to the concrete center of the freeway. Frank, in his eternal wisdom, found himself following the cop car that he had slammed into as if transfixed by it, cutting across the lanes until he stopped in front of it. His battered station wagon didn’t even look any different as a result of the impact. In fact, it had probably knocked a previous dent back into better shape. Still, the damage was done and, idiot or not, Frank wasn’t leaving the scene after hitting a cop car. Still cursing his coffee for not warning him clearly, he got out of his car and looked back at the other two vehicles. The rear passenger side of the SUV was opening and Frank felt a sudden apprehension, for he had also seen a lot of movies. He hurried to the cop car, where the officer had realized that he’d stopped too close to the concrete meridian and couldn’t get his door open and he was climbing across to the passenger seat. ‘You okay, officer?’ Frank asked as he opened the car door, hoping that a show of concern would make things better for him. He helped the officer to his feet, noting with some relief that the man appeared dazed and confused. ‘Dunno what happened,’ Frank added. ‘Good thing I didn’t lose control when ya hit me.’
The officer was about to respond when there was the sound of a gunshot, coinciding with a hole appearing in the cop’s forehead. Frank turned to see a man in a black suit approaching, and it was then that he heard the banging on the rear window of the car. A doctor or something was in there, shouting ‘Hey! Get me outta here!’
Now, normally Frank would see things in a very simple light: if there’s trouble afoot, get your feet out of trouble. But there was something wrong about this, very wrong. ‘Don’t do it!’ the man in the suit shouted, raising his gun. Frank put his hands out by his side in a conciliatory gesture and backed up a bit, tripping over the dead cop as he did so. The man in the suit got to the door of the car and looked in to see Paul there. When he looked back at Frank, he saw the barrel of the cop’s gun. And Frank fired. As the man collapsed to his knees with blood staining his pristine white shirt, Frank pushed him aside and opened the door of the car. ‘Come on, man!’ he said to Paul, offering him his hand. ‘Let’s go!’
They both got into Frank’s car and were back on the freeway amidst protesting drivers and the sound of approaching emergency vehicles, while a second suited man got out of the SUV. Needless to say, he was not overjoyed by the current situation, but he still had to get away before the recognized authorities arrived. Climbing over the meridian, he brandished a gun just long enough to hijack a car, and he was speeding away in the opposite direction as the police arrived to figure out the mess.
In a different part of this world, the situation was being monitored by the only man to whom the suited pursuers answered. His name was Karl Wright and he was looking up at a massive monitor filling a wall that stretched from one side of a giant operations' room to another. Currently, the monitor was showing a VR map of the freeway with red flashing dots to indicate those who were now deceased on the road, while everyone else who occupied or passed the scene was identified by blue solid dots. Karl, who sat in a chair in the center of this giant room, in which more than 40 people worked, was handsome, with a strong jaw-line, close-cut salt and pepper hair and sharp blue eyes which would have made Fran Redmond cry. He wore a crisp white shirt and a black tie, and his black trousers had a perfect crease. He wore white socks with his black shoes, a clear indicator that things were not quite right in this world. No one should wear white socks with black shoes. ‘How long until our man gets back?’ asked Karl, completely ignorant of his sock issue. It was a hangover from his previous job as a physical trainer in the army. White socks, white gym shorts and tight t-shirts. Yes, Karl recalled those days with some...ahem...fondness. But the Revelation had occurred and the world had changed and Karl found himself in a job so different that he had questioned on numerous occasions the wisdom of his appointment to the position. Now, however, he considered himself lucky to have been exposed to the truth, and grateful for the career change. Push-ups in the rain had nothing on this gig. You see, sometimes people are just lucky enough to fall into a new career. Take Satan, for example. There he was, kicked out of Heaven for spending too much time looking in the mirror, and he literally fell into a management position in the underworld. It wasn’t long before he was the CEO of Hell, Inc. Still, though, he never really got the recognition he deserved. Of course, such an analogy would be lost on Karl. Or anyone else in this world, for that matter.
‘Less than thirty minutes, Mister Wright,’ came the faceless reply.
‘I want him up here as soon as he arrives.’
‘Yes, Mister Wright.’
‘Show me the girl’s switch.’
The image zoomed out first, until the red open circle which indicated Fran’s switch was seen moving along the freeway to the north, accompanied by two blue dots. Karl thought for a moment, before saying, ‘Any more of these mistakes and there’ll be too many questions. Send a team to intercept but wait until they stop to rest. And make it look like an accident.’
‘Yes, Mister Wright.’
Paul felt sick, and it wasn’t just the smell of coffee-stained, unwashed combat trousers. ‘You gotta get me to a bathroom, man,’ he told Frank as he weaved the car dangerously up the freeway in the encroaching darkness. ‘Either that or your car’s gonna smell of more than just coffee.’
Frank had said nothing since the escape, still stunned by his own actions. Sure, the guy in the suit had killed the cop, but... He slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded for a couple of hundred yards before coming to a stop with traffic blaring horns and swerving around them, the drivers cursing and screaming. Paul peeled his hands off the dash and turned to look at Frank. ‘Was that really necessary?’
‘Get the hell outta my car,’ Frank told him quietly.
‘You heard me. This is your fault.’
‘My fault? I didn’t shoot anyone, pal!’
It was then that Paul learned that Frank still had the cop’s gun, as he looked down its barrel. ‘Shoulda left ya back there,’ Frank realized.
‘But you didn’t.’
‘No, I didn’t. And now ya got me involved. Tell me what ya did.’
‘I didn’t do anything.’
The gun suddenly looked bigger to Paul, as Frank said, ‘That guy wanted ya, and he killed a cop to get ya. Now tell me who I just killed, or I’m gonna put a bullet in that pretty face o’ yours.’
‘Look, I’ve no idea who they were, but I think they wanted something I’ve got.’
Now Frank was interested. Sounded to him like there was money involved. The gun was withdrawn as he said, ‘Go on.’
‘Okay, but you’re not gonna like it,’ said Paul as he reached into his pocket. ‘It’s a bit freaky.’
‘What do ya mean, freak...what the...’ Frank appeared to have suddenly decided that it might be best if he got out of the car and let this wackjob take it wherever he needed to go. I may have judged him harshly earlier, because this really would have been the intelligent thing to do. He was backing up against his door as Paul displayed the switch in the surgical glove. Now, I don’t know about you, but I probably would have felt a slight urge to expel the contents of my stomach at this point. Frank appeared quite agreeable to this course of action, as his bulging eyes took in the sight of a bio-mechanical merging of cables still leaking blood. ‘What is that?’
‘They took it out of a girl who died a few days ago.’
With his eyes still fixed on the thing, like it might jump up and strangle him any second, Frank reached out with his left hand and wound down the window to get the fresh air he so desperately craved. ‘How...how did she die?’
‘She just died in her car,’ said Paul. ‘It was sudden.’
Frank was nodding dumbly like a bobble-head dog offering cheap insurance. ‘What she hit...a truck or something?’
‘What...no, you don’t get it. She just died...suddenly...in her car. She didn’t crash.’
Sometimes, you just know that something’s very wrong. We’ve all experienced it...that warm rise in your stomach, accompanied by a chill that goes down the back of your head and continues down your spine, until the confused perspiration tells you that things are about to go pear-shaped. Well, Frank’s intuition was drawing all types of fruit-shaped images in his mind, pointing and gesturing angrily like a frustrated and highly competitive girlfriend in a couples’ game of Pictionary. It didn’t matter what the prize was. All that mattered at that point was that the boyfriend on the losing team was sleeping on the couch that night. Frank often slept on the couch. But he was single and it was only because he got too drunk to make it to bed. Anyway, getting back...Frank felt that strange confused chill rush through him, and he responded to it in a way which really makes me think I got him wrong. ‘Are ya saying that that...thing killed her?’ he asked, pointing to the switch.
Paul nodded. ‘And when we found it, those guys you saw back there turned up. I think they killed the surgical team.’
‘Ya think they killed them?’
‘Hey, man, I ran!’
Frank nodded admiringly. ‘Sure. Sure,’ he said. ‘So those guys must have put it in her, right?’
‘Ah...’ Paul realized that he hadn’t got that far. ‘I...don’t know. I guess so.’
‘Course they did, man. She must have been one of their spies...and she turned against them...and they had that thing in her like a tracker...’ Frank was practically foaming at the mouth with excitement. It was like when you tapped the edge of a glass of beer to get the bubbles going again, which was actually quite similar to hitting Frank on the head. He gasped like he’d just solved the mysteries of space and time, spraying saliva around the car as he exclaimed, ‘And then they just switched her off!’
Paul stared at him, holding his maddened gaze like one might engage in a staring contest with a rabid dog, hoping that the filthy mongrel would eventually back down and start licking itself. ‘O-kay...’ he said slowly. ‘Or...maybe not.’
Frank’s breathing was gradually slowing down, until he came to realize that perhaps he had been speaking a load of crap. ‘Well, whatever it is,’ he conceded, ‘they’re not going to give up on getting it back.’
Paul had to agree with that. ‘We should go to a motel or something.’
There are times when your sense of humor takes on a life of its own, making jokes at a funeral or some sarcastically pedantic jibe at the most socially unacceptable moment. It’s like a nervous twitch, completely involuntary and instantly regrettable. I like to think of it as a sort of circumstantial Tourette’s, and Frank was a regular victim of this terrible disease. ‘Hey man, we’ve only just met,’ he replied, with a dirty grin and a dirtier chuckle that made Paul pity every female creature this man had ever or would ever come into contact with. Again Paul just stared at him, but this time it was as if the older man were a rare breed of ape and Paul was a frustrated expert wondering, ‘Oh, if only we could tell what it was thinking. What a marvel that would be!’ Of course, Frank was no rare ape. Apes washed.
Eventually, Frank backed down and said, ‘Sorry. Just trying to...’
‘Yeah, well...don’t,’ said Paul.
As Paul concealed the switch again within the glove and the sound of sirens could be heard in the distance, Frank straightened up in his seat, started the engine and put the car into gear, deciding to see how all this played out. You know, I take it all back, and once again I reiterate my initial description of Frank. There was a bit of hope for him on the smarts front there for a while, but that’s just gone out the car window, because, as we’ll see, hanging out with Paul was not an intelligent move for him.
About twenty minutes later, Frank’s old station wagon rolled into the parking lot of the ‘Stay ‘n’ Rest’ just outside town. It was still relatively early, so the usual clientele of unsavory characters whose reasons to be there restricted them to going to a dump just outside town had not yet begun to arrive. Frank and Paul had the pick of the rooms, and they couldn’t believe their luck, and while the manager suppressed a crooked grin at this questionable check-in, Frank found that his quirky humor no longer had anything to say on the matter. Performance anxiety, I guess. Upon being told that the honeymoon suite was vacant, Frank asked the manager if he’d be interested in having the office redecorated. The counter could go over there, the chair would look good just outside the window, the bell would fit nicely down his throat...that sort of thing. The way Frank understood it, Feng Shui was a dancer in a Chinese strip bar, and it was all about where you placed the pole.
In room 8, because Frank had heard somewhere that that was a lucky number (now where had he heard that?), Paul rushed to the bathroom and audibly expressed his relief, much to Frank’s dismay. ‘Shut up, will ya! They’ll think we’re at it!’
Paul groaned louder, probably to annoy him more. When he came out of the bathroom, Frank was standing at the window with the corner of the curtain lifted back. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
Frank turned and lifted a finger to his lips. ‘The cops are outside!’ he whispered, turning to look back out. ‘They’re talking to the manager.’ Paul felt panic rush through him, but he thought rationally. ‘With a place like this, they could be here for any reason.’
Frank shook his head. ‘The manager’s pointing over here.’
Paul took a deep breath, and then said, ‘Maybe I should go talk to the cops.’
'What?’ Frank swung on him. ‘Are ya crazy? We were last seen leaving a dead cop on the road! They’re not gonna listen to your nut-job story about government conspiracies!’
‘I didn’t say a word about government conspiracies!’ Paul argued. ‘That was you!’
‘Well, whatever. They won’t listen to reason. Look, just get back in the bathroom and I’ll handle it.’
‘You’ll handle it?’ Paul couldn’t help but laugh.
‘What’s so funny about that?’
‘Nothing,’ Paul replied, seeing the anger in Frank’s face. Hey, I’ve only known Frank as long as you guys, so who knows what he’s capable of? Admittedly, that question is more worrying than confidence-building, considering what we’ve seen so far, but...you never know. Paul raised his hands in submission, turned back to the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Frank looked back out the window, seeing the cop approaching their room.
Paul was counting the tiles on the bathroom wall to calm his nerves as he heard Frank opening the door to the police officer. He heard muffled voices, the questioning tones of the cop and Frank’s defensive responses, and he knew that it was just a matter of time before Frank screwed up. He found himself thinking of his fiancée and wishing that he was back at home with her and that none of this had happened, and he suddenly feared for her life too. Those guys who had followed him were bound to find out who he was and where he lived, and Rachel would be in danger as a result of his actions. Knowing that he had to do something, he turned back for the door and reached for the handle, when a gunshot made him jump in fright and he heard a body hit the floor. He had to stop himself from shouting out to Frank, and he felt his heart in his throat as he heard footsteps approaching the bathroom door.
The cop had one hand on his gun at his right hip, while he used his left hand on his radio to check in. Frank felt his heart pounding and realized that he, too, was gripping the gun he had taken earlier. He glanced down at the weapon and then back out of the window, and something caught his eye. Beyond the cop, a shadow had just raced across from the left to conceal itself behind the police car. And another one, over beyond the manager’s office to the right. A tall figure was standing next to a black SUV parked there. Frank knew that he had to do something, because this thing was just escalating. ‘I think you’re right, Paul,’ he called out. From the bathroom, he heard a muffled ‘What?’ as he went to the door and turned the handle. As he opened the door, the cop raised his gun and Frank realized that he was still holding his. ‘No...wait!’ shouted Frank.
‘Drop the gun!’ the cop shouted. ‘Step out and get down on the ground!’
‘It’s not safe!’ Frank shouted back as the cop came even closer. ‘They’re here!’
‘Drop the gun!’ the cop repeated, ignoring the warning.
From behind the police car, the shadowy figure stepped out and a weapon was raised. In response, Frank raised his own gun, preparing to protect himself and the cop as Paul decided that he couldn’t wait in the bathroom any longer. It was a recipe for disaster.
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018