Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chapter NINE

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. Article III, Section III

“Relax, I’m one of the good guys,” She spoke with a different tone to her voice, sounding more like the voice on the recorder than the southern goddess with whom I’d shared three days and a bed. I realized at that moment I didn’t know this woman at all, I only knew the fantasy she wanted me to believe.

“Whore!” I still don’t know why, with so many more important issues needing my attention, her past profession had me most upset. I wasn’t in love with her and it shouldn’t have mattered what her history was.

“Listen,” sounding more like the bossy chick I’d met on the side of the road, “I’m not, nor was I ever, a whore! Let’s get that perfectly clear.” She stared intensely into my eyes, lacking the innocence I saw that night at the motel. “You can’t stay here. They’ve been here once and took everything they needed…everything except you and they will be back.”

She looked different. She wasn’t wearing her sexy cut-offs and Tee, but looked more like an uptight librarian adorned in a flat gray pant suit and white blouse, with her hair held back with a black clip. Come ON!” she yelled while descending the stairs, with a tone to her voice that demanded immediate action.

“What the hell!” I thought again, reflecting back to how many times I had uttered those three words in the last six days, quite certain those would be the last three words I’d utter before dying!

“What about my cat?” I remembered yelling as I left my house knowing then I’d never be back. That night was the last time I saw him. Watching him from the rear window of my car, slowly creep outside the front door I intentionally left open so he’d have a chance to survive, like me, without the conveniences and luxuries to which we’d both grown accustomed.

The last words I yelled were, “YOU’RE WELCOME!” with my head hung out the passenger window of my car, feeling the cool breeze of a familiar neighborhood for the last time.

“What was that for?” she asked me as I once again got lost in the yellow specks of her gorgeous green eyes.

“That’s to the burglars that will find pleasure in MY belongings.” It should’ve bothered me having to abandon everything I’d ever known about my life, but it didn’t. In the most unpredictable way, it was incredibly liberating. I am, according to Celeste, “On the lam.” In trade of my material sacrifices was total freedom from ALL my financial and personal obligations. It was at that moment I started to view my situation with more excitement and less apprehension. I still didn’t know the big WHY, but for that moment, it didn’t matter.
Celeste drove about 4 blocks before turning into the grocery store parking lot and parking next to a black BMW.

“Come on, we have to ditch your car.”

“YES, an upgrade!” as I started to walk around toward the passenger door of the shiny black beauty.

“That’s funny, but this isn’t it. Come on.”

We walked side by side into the store and down an aisle that led to the double swinging doors of the stock room. After negotiating the many crates of canned foods and vegetables, we found the exit door. There, parked behind the blue dumpsters, was a Mercedes.

“YES! Wait, this is our ride, right?” almost feeling child-like with excitement.

“Yes,” she said finally smiling, “The people looking for you won’t suspect you in this.”

“Me? Aren’t you coming?” as she handed me the keys.

“No. Not this time. I have other business to attend to, so we have to meet at our rendezvous point in separate vehicles. You’ll find a map in the glove box, along with a fake I.D. and registration papers in case you get pulled over.” Then looking at me again, with a dead serious gaze, “Don’t get pulled over.”
This revelation was well beyond the “what the hell” response I’d normally give in these situations. I was speechless.

“Look, I don’t have time right now to explain what’s going on. Just be at the rendezvous point this time tomorrow and I promise I will explain. And Daniel, please be very careful.”

“Is that my new name?” She responded only with a smile before she turned toward the store which allowed me a view I couldn’t help but appreciate, that was, until she turned around and rolled her eyes, obviously to my lustful gaze.

“There are clothes in the trunk for you as well. I suggest a shower first.” And then she was gone.
I could not erase the smile that plastered my black and blue face. I quickly got in the car, and before I got serious, played with all the buttons this car offered. Everything was powered by a button of some kind and the stereo system was down right impressive! Even now, I miss the sounds of good old rock n roll from an expensive system like the one in that car. I did manage to get around to the glove box, and just as she said, there was a driver’s license, registration papers, even a credit card, and of course a small white envelope with a map to my new destination inside. There was a date at the top of the map which gave me 24 hours to reach this place and included the name of the hotel I would be using. I looked at the driver’s license which had my picture in it wondering for a moment how they got a picture which looked exactly like the one on my original license. I took my wallet out and discovered, only then, that MY license was missing, apparently left at the police department that offered me the best in hell’s hospitality.

As I turned on the ignition, appreciating with total awe the purr of an engine barely audible, I remembered something I’d left back at my house. My mother had passed away four years ago, but before she died had given me an heirloom, one that had been passed down for six generations. It was a 14Kt. gold ring with unimaginable value, both sentimentally and monetarily. My 6x’s great grandfather was an attorney in England and the tradition of that time was the gift of this ring upon admittance to the Bar. It was a beautiful, hand-finished, hand-polished ring with the phrase “Lex Est Arma Regum,” or in English, “Law is the Arm of the Realm,” inscribed around the outside. The first of its kind is still in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and dates to the 1600s. But the tradition of this ring’s importance can be dated as early as the 1400s in England. The importance of this ring to me and my future inheritors is worth dying for. There was no way I could leave it behind.

I check my pockets, insuring that the little .22 was still with me, then began my trip back to my house. I took the long way back, taking side streets, then backtracking to the highway, only to circle around again down main street, back to the side streets that led to my home. All the while I was concentrating on the vehicles around me and behind me, insuring that no one was following. I crept slowly up my street, feeling confident my tinted windows would hide my identity, driving past my house and spotting my cat already making friends at the end of the street. I parked in the cul-de-sac around the corner and approached my home from neighboring backyards, hopping fences and trespassing private lawns in a effort to avoid the main road as much as possible. I used my back door key to get in, now with the gun positioned in front of me, determined to shoot whatever moved.

I knew where the ring was. I didn’t keep it in the safe; I kept it a small fireproof box in the crawl space below my home, a place I should’ve kept my guns. Moving cautiously in the house, and without checking upstairs, I removed the cut out carpet from inside the closet, exposing the makeshift hatch door the led down to my crawl space. I didn’t have to climb down since I had a small rope tied to the inside of the door with a small safe attached to the other end. No sooner did I pull the safe up and check to make sure the ring was there, I heard the creaking of the floor boards in my bedroom. I froze, unsure if they even knew I was back. I hid in my closet, positioning my feet around the opening to the crawl space with the door cracked just enough to see through, giving me a clear shot of the staircase.

I counted only one man, and by his lack of immediate concern, he didn’t know I was there. Dressed in a white t-shirt and black dress pants, looking a lot like Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, he started checking the closets and rooms downstairs. The closet I hid in was opposite the bathroom. I was fortunate enough to have an advantage when he chose to investigate the bathroom first. No sooner did he step inside, I opened the door, placed the .22 on the soft spot just behind his left earlobe, and pulled the trigger. The little .22 had enough of a kick to it, and with a grip smaller than my palm it flew out of my hand. The man instantly fell to the floor without so much as a moan escaping his lips and very little blood advertising his demise.
I didn’t stick around to check his pulse or wait for more visitors. I swooped the little gun up and took off running back out the way I came. It wasn’t until I was back in the car that I even considered the possibility that he was one of the “good” guys. Another drive by my house, proved to me otherwise. I caught a glimpse of two more men as I drove by with extreme caution, careful not to speed or go too slow. They scrambled in different directions, one looking around the downstairs, the other bolting out the open back door, both with guns in their hands and neither paying any attention to the car that concealed my identity. I remember feeling so relieved at the validation of my actions, and also my successful escape with my priceless ring now proudly displayed on my middle finger.

“Thank GOD for this car!” as I patted the dashboard. “Thank you!” I don’t normally have a habit of talking to myself, but this one occasion seemed fitting. MY car was an old beat-up 1970 mustang with a rusted body barely displaying any of the original red paint. The interior was even less impressive with white torn-up seats and flaking remnants of what used to be the headliner. It had no interior lights, or even a functioning dashboard; with vinyl cracked and falling apart due to excessive exposure to direct sunlight. There was a gaping hole right in the center where my stereo used to be; the one and only nice thing that car housed, until someone stole it after breaking the driver’s side lock; another item I never fixed or replaced. Everyone knew who I was by my car. My car was an eyesore in my neighborhood, and my warm and cheerful neighbors reminded me of this fact every chance they had. I lived in a very upscale town, a suburb of a well known city near one of the largest military Air Force bases in the country. Many of the residents were military, mostly upper rank, with homes valued between 160 to 350k, all with driveways as big as side streets. My home was a modest 162k, one of the lesser extravagances on my street. I kept my home very clean, my yard very trimmed and my furnishing very up-to-date. I had the large 52” plasma TV, Kenwood Stereo, and the best of the best in home décor, but my car was an original item that defined my earlier days before my business had become successful. I had planned to restore her to her original beauty until my unsuccessful attempts at mixing Bondo resulted in a severe case of procrastination.

Those men were not expecting me to be home. They were looking for my car and felt confident I wasn’t home when they neglected to see it in the driveway. I’m sure the open doors of the house were equally misleading. Driving past them in a brand new Mercedes Benz, I’m sure, didn’t raise the slightest bit of concern with them. They even passed me up at one time, just before I reached the highway, going in the opposite direction.

Driving that Benz was the last stress-free moment in my life; thirteen hours of pure bliss as the new leather seats finally conformed to the shape of my body. The other adjustments like seat settings, temperature, mirrors, all suited specifically to me had me believing the car could’ve been driven telepathically if given the chance. The stereo had a hypnotic effect with its crystal clear sound and sharp honest base no matter what the volume setting. I even remember thinking how when all this was done, I’d be purchasing one, a thought that now seems very shallow and superficial, let alone humorous, as there would never be any ‘going back’ for me.

I was almost reluctant to get out once I reached the hotel at which I was instructed to stay. A whiff of my armpit as I reached into the glove compartment reminded me of why I was here. I grabbed my fake I.D., credit card and gun before locking up the vehicle, popping the trunk and grabbing a little leather carry-all bag with my new clothes in it.

I stood looking at the driver’s license, then repeated to myself my new name, Daniel Peckerstan. “PECKERstan?? You’ve got to be kidding me!” I began saying my name out loud a few times. I had to sound natural saying it, no stuttering, no pauses, and certainly no laughing. I had to be able to aver my name in a convincing manner knowing I could be watched at any time, scoped out and studied. With a false air of confidence I finally made my way to the front office.

“Mr. Peckerstan, we have your room ready for you, sir,” watching intensely the clerk’s best efforts to suppress his own outburst of laughter. I gave him my best “dirty” look and acted impatient with his obvious amusement to my name before proceeding to my room. Once behind the security of closed doors in the privacy of my room, I did in fact burst out laughing at my name. I wasted no time getting undressed, feeling the coolness of the air conditioned room embrace me with a chill. I stood before the mirror, repeating my name a few more times until I was convinced I’d never be convincing with a name like Peckerstan. In my mind, I pictured a skinny little man with glasses and thinning hair. I was quite the opposite. I stood six foot two with a muscular build of 184 pounds. The thick black waves of hair I could barely run my fingers through filled me with a sense of pride, beautifully accented by hazel eyes. I flexed my biceps once, appreciating the well defined mounds of my arms, before I finally turned on the water to the shower. It wasn’t until I started to turn the water off that I realized I was no longer alone. There was an intruder in my room who, by the noise he was making, appeared unconcerned by my presence.

“What the hell? Not again!” quickly wrapping a towel around my waist. I left the shower running as I looked around the bathroom for my little .22, overcome with a sense of impending doom once I realized I’d left the gun in the carryall bag with my clothes.

“Shit!” I leaned my back against the door, listening as best I could, the sounds of my intruder competing against the noise of the shower. I heard the zipper of the carryall bag, then all went silent. The doorknob to the bathroom started to turn, forcing me to jump back and pick up the nearest object to me, a wrapped bar of soap, poised and ready for throwing, which I did once the door opened. The bar of soap hit the target intended, straight in the forehead.

“Hey!” rubbing her forehead, “You’re going to have to do better than that if you plan to live!”

“Celeste! What are you doing here?? You scared the shit out of me!”

“Intended, I’m sure. Look, I came here to surprise you. That and to see if you’re on your toes, which obviously you aren’t. I can see I’ve got my work cut out for me!”

“Celeste, WHAT work? All I’ve been doing is driving and running. You know, I had to kill a guy today?”

“Really? How? I had you all set up to be here in the most uneventful manner possible, what happened?”

I realized at that moment I shouldn’t have said anything, “I forgot something at my house and went back for it!”

“What?? I can’t help you if you don’t listen to me. The instructions I give you are very specific, no room for side trips or forgotten items, Daniel.” Putting extra emphasis on my fake name while pacing the room. “ Wow, I hope to GOD this hasn’t ruined anything. Did you encounter only one person?”

“Celeste, don’t worry, it’s safe…they didn’t see me!”

“THEY?? Damn, we can’t proceed with our current plans. Damn it! I had this perfectly organized. All you had to do was get in the car and drive here! God damn it!” She started pulling out the clothes from the bag, and throwing them at me, “Get dressed, we have to go.”

“Look, woman! You’re dragging me into this shit with no explanation, changing my life, making me a walking BULLSEYE for people I don’t know or recognize, and YOU’RE pissed???” I don’t think she heard me because she started pacing the room again, talking to herself, mumbling curses I know were directed at me. “HEY! I’m talking to you, you know!”

“Just get dressed and meet me downstairs in the lobby! AND DON”T leave yourself any reason to come back! Do you think you can manage that this time?” with an obvious air of sarcasm before leaving my room, closing the door gently behind her.

“Bitch.” I mumbled to myself as I dressed. I was about out the door when I remembered the gun in the bag, and went back to take it out and put it in my pocket. I approached Celeste as quietly as I could from behind, thinking of repaying her the earlier scare she’d given me.

“Follow me,” she spoke without even looking in my direction, before standing and walking out towards the parking lot. “And please, don’t say a word until we’re out of here.”

I followed two steps behind her, observing very carefully how discreetly she scoped out her environment with each step taken, her hair flowing side to side as she kept her predatory gaze on everything in front of her. She kept one hand in her pocket as I did mine. I wondered then if she had a weapon of her own, but couldn’t imagine it being another little .22. When she withdrew her hand, she held the keys to her car and with the push of a button remotely unlocked the car doors.

“What about my car?” Trying not to sound as aggravated as I felt. I was simply answered with a dirty look of annoyance. We stayed silent until we were once again back on the highway. Deja Vu struck me as I recalled how uncomfortably quiet she was when we met. I used the silence to replay all those preceding events in our relationship, before a startling thought occurred to me.

“You’re the one who contacted me on GLP and called me, aren’t you? You gave me specific directions because somehow, you knew I’d see you and pick you up. All this time I was thinking it was that guy in the jail cell, but it was you!” I looked at her, waiting for some kind of reaction. Nothing. “I can’t believe this shit! You lure me into some stupid quest to another part of the country, only to have me beat up and jailed, then have me freaking out over your stupid 'I’ve been marked' message in your gun, and some bogus recording of you giving head. Then you follow me to my house, after I thought you’d been killed, only to have me give up EVERYTHING I own, including my cat, just to have me run and hide from men I don’t know, who want to kill me for God only knows what, forcing me to kill one of them, and on top of that you give me the lamest name ever!” I was uncontrollably irate at this point, “WHAT THE HELL???”

“First of all, I never forced you to kill anyone. If YOU would have done what you were instructed and not returned, none of this mission would’ve been compromised.” She spoke with a calmness to her voice that indicated absolute self-control; an ability I didn’t share with her.

“Compromised your mission? What about my freaking LIFE that’s now compromised??? What about that, huh?” I looked away from her in total disgust, not with her personally, but with a situation I couldn’t justify my involvement in.

She never responded. In silence she veered off the highway at the exit ramp and onto a side street that curved and veered to another street that led, once again, into the woods. The small gravel road led over a mile into the woods before it cleared enough to reveal a little log cabin. Not a fancy one with a deck and lake-side view, but an old dilapidated building that looked like an original structure from way back when they didn’t have cars, lights, or indoor plumbing.
“Come on,” She said, once again instructing me to follow her. She approached the front door and knocked twice, paused, then knocked twice more. “Hold still.”

The deck we were standing on began to sink slowly into the ground, lowering us into an underground hideout. “Clever,” I remembered thinking to myself. There was a red beam of light that radiated all around us at one point during our descent, blinding me just for a moment when it reached my face.

“Scanner.” She answered, as if she’d read my thoughts. Once off the platform, I followed her down a corridor into another open room the size of an auditorium. This room was vacant with the exception of chairs and a huge movie screen above a stage. I flashed back, just for a moment, to those days as a kid in school, when we’d have assemblies to pass out rewards for perfect attendance and outstanding achievements. Only there were no children here, just empty fold-up metal chairs meticulously laid out on hard wood floors, a stage and a wide white screen.
“This is where you will get your answers,” turning to face me with her arms outstretched. “Look, you must come to terms with your choices. YOU were the one that decided to take on this “quest” as you call it; it was you who went BACK to your home, and YOU who killed that man. All these things were not my doing. Your life is no more inconvenienced by all this than mine and the other people you will be meeting in the days to come.”

“There’s more?” Talking more to myself than to Celeste, “I’m not the only one. Interesting”

“In the meantime, we will stay here. There are rooms in the back.” Celeste and I parted ways without so much as a “see you later,” or “good night.” She just directed me to my room and left, but not before instructing my prompt attendance at the auditorium at 9am sharp.

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