In Memory of Ed Wooton
For the Love - 16. Storm Warning
Steve and I discussed Eric frequently over the following days. Most of his explanations fit, sort of, and he seemed to have changed. Steve and I, however, were not about to let that influence us.
Mr. and Mrs. Williams appeared to be softening towards Eric, and he was behaving like the perfect little angel. I would've laughed, but the little creep was getting away with it.
Mr. Williams still agreed to go along with our plan to allow Eric to steal the fake Data Stick, so we knew he hadn't been taken in completely by Eric's act, yet. We gave him the fake, and he locked it in his desk drawer in his home office. Now all that remained was for Eric to find it. We even made a point of mentioning its location a time or two when we thought Eric might be listening.
The weekend came and went with little change, except for the fact that things were no longer so awkward and strained at the Sunday dinner table, as his parents eased their attitudes towards Eric.
The bookstore where I worked was in the midst of receiving. My boss, Betty, sometimes bought large lots of mixed books at auctions, estate sales, etc, and we had just taken delivery of over a hundred boxes. Each box had to be opened, its contents examined and inventoried, and either re-boxed or shelved depending on type. Some, such as old magazines, would have to be stacked and then bundled with twine, all of which meant I was putting in some extra hours.
One afternoon, as I was alone in the store stacking and sorting books in the back room amidst the rows of heavily built freestanding bookcases, I heard the front door jingle. I emerged from the back room to see a familiar and very welcome sight: Steve! He often stopped by to visit me at work, and lately had taken to helping me with inventorying the books.
Steve was actually wearing a shirt, but it was a scoop-sided tank top, and he looked damned good in it. I angled my head towards the back room, and he followed me there to resume the work. As we talked, he pitched in and helped, and I had a hard time paying attention to the inventory sheets with him looking so darn hot in front of me. Steve's helping out and keeping me company at work was nothing new, but this time Betty, my boss, paid us an unexpected and unannounced visit; the warning bell on the front door never sounded at all, and I didn't hear her enter the back room.
I stooped down to pick up another box, only to drop it as a thundering voice from behind me yelled, "What the hell is going on here? The back room is strictly employees only!" She rounded on Steve, "You got that, sweet cheeks?"
Steve nodded, his eyes wide, no doubt wondering if I was in trouble, "I was just lending a hand..."
"Shaddap! I'm not done yelling at you." Betty snarled, her Jersey accent more grating than ever, "I said, it's employees only anywhere in the back area here. So, either get your ass out of here, or go clock in - one or the other."
Steve stared blankly at Betty, backing away from her accusing finger until he bumped into the fire extinguisher by the door. I struggled not to laugh; I knew Betty better than Steve did, and I had a good guess what she was up to.
"I-I, uh-uh, clock in?" Steve stuttered.
Betty nodded, "I know you help out here a lot, so I figured I'd make it official. You got a job, kiddo, if you want it, and you would be stupid to turn it down seeing as you are here so often anyway."
Steve nodded, a smile replacing his worried look.
"Skip the clocking in this time. I'll make up your timecard with some extra due to what you have done here in the past. You'll start at eight an hour and I'll get together with you later about a schedule. Oh, and to make this interesting, Chris is senior to you here, so that means you are working under him, got it, sweet cheeks?"
Steve nodded happily, "That sounds great, thanks Betty. And I've done some of my best work under Chris, so this will work fine..." Steve smiled innocently, but I turned red as a beet as I picked up on the double meaning.
Betty roared with laughter, "I think you will be fun to have around. What do you say, Chris?"
"I think I'll make double entendres a firing offence," I laughed, as my blush began to fade.
Betty left us to continue our work and we inventoried box after box, stacking them against the paneling on the back wall of the storeroom when we were done.
Betty came in to check up on us an hour later, and pointing at the stack of boxes warned us, "Don't put too much weight on that paneling near the corner, or it will give way." She said, and then left the room before there was any chance to reply.
I walked over and tapped on the wood; sure enough, the paneling covered a hollow spot. That made no sense; the bookstore was a late nineteenth century building, just a narrow storefront, a long front room, and then this equally small back room behind it. The walls were brick, and the whole thing was part of a row of similar storefronts. There was a back door in the back room that opened onto the alley, but due to the adjoining buildings, no windows on either side, or the back; just the front.
After glancing around the room, Steve came over to look, and asked, "Why would it be hollow back there?"
Again I was startled to find Betty in the room, as Betty said, "I was wondering how long it would take the two of you to figure that out. That, actually, is likely left over from the days of Prohibition: a bootlegger's tunnel. They had them in a lot of towns like this. They would have a speakeasy in a cellar somewhere, and use the tunnels to bring in supplies as well as customers unnoticed. I've heard it was filled in, or caved in.
"Where did it go?" I asked.
"Could have been anywhere, but most likely, it ran all along this row of storefronts, with several places having access, kind of like the old freight tunnels in Chicago. My guess is one or more of the buildings had a cellar with a speakeasy in it. All I know is it wasn't this one: No cellar here"
"Could we pull the paneling off and have a look?" asked Steve.
"Maybe one of these days, if you could be sure you could put it back. My guess is it's just a hole back there now, but it would be interesting to see."
Steve and I continued our job; sorting out and bundling the magazines with twine, and inventorying the packing boxes full of books, then moving the boxes, though we were careful to avoid stacking them against the weak area of paneling.
After a few hours, Steve and I were ready to go home; Betty said she'd had enough of us for one day anyway. We were hot and tired, and clocked out on the old time-stamp machine, which must have been nearly as old as the building. Betty asked Steve to work with me during the remaining weeks of inventory, and he agreed, though he would be coming in later in the day due to his class schedule.
We walked out the door into the warm night air. I was parked in my normal spot in the alley, and I assumed Steve was parked back there too, but Steve turned right, heading down the street, "C'mon, I'm starved, and I know you are too. Calzones await!" He said.
My churning stomach made that an easy decision and we walked towards the pizza place on the other side of downtown, just two blocks away.
"I hope Dad is okay with me working," Steve mussed, "He made me quit my summer job when school started. But I have a 4.0 average, and I'm close to graduating, so I don't think he will mind too much, especially as the hours are short."
"You are there a lot anyway, so you are just being paid now, no real difference." I said, as a corner church came into view. I glanced at the services announcement board, barely interested, until a name registered on my consciousness: Thaddeus J. Emoe.
Lurching to a halt, I stared at the old church building. It was smaller than Reverend Mike's church, but it was obvious that far more money had been spent on it: fresh paint and manicured flowerbeds, plus an assortment of minor details spoke of intensive maintenance and upkeep.
Steve stopped beside me, "Didn't you know that was Thaddeus' church?" He asked.
"No, it never occurred to me that this was it, until I saw the name just now. I've walked past this place a dozen times on my way to and from having lunch with you at the Pizzeria. Damn, he's a block and a half from where I work. They could just walk down the street..."
Steve patted me on the back, "Don't let 'em get to you, bro."
We resumed our walk, and I felt uneasy as I passed the church, as if eyes were upon me. I was glad to leave it behind, and two blocks later we were walking in the door of the Pizzeria.
It was after dark, so we sat inside amidst the cheesy diner décor and delicious smells, and ordered our usual calzones. When the calzones finally arrived, they were, as usual, perfect. As we ate, we shot the breeze about work and school, only to be brought up short by a tall, well-built guy who approached our table, "Hi Shawn," he said, looking at Steve, "I know you, but you don't know me." He stood there, smiling, as Steve shook his head.
"Sorry, man, my name's Steve, not Shawn."
The guy glanced at Steve, then at me, before shaking his head in puzzlement and strolling off with a mumbled apology.
I took another bite of my Calzone, shrugging off the interruption, "That old smuggler's tunnel Betty told us about has me really curious. I wonder where it goes... Have you ever heard of it before?"
"Yeah, Dad mentioned them a few years ago. He said they got filled in way back when, but they did exist. I'd love to see what is behind that panel though. I'll bring tools one of these days and see if I can talk Betty into letting us have a look. It's just old paneling, and pretty beat up already, so we could probably just pry it out, then nail it back into place after."
Thoughts of old smugglers tunnels filled my head as we finished our meal. We walked back to our cars, passing Thaddeus' church again. I felt a little better, but I was still weirded out by being right outside of the enemy's lair.
We headed for Lonesome Valley's only shopping mall, a half-mile away on the main highway at the edge of town: Steve had decided to take me clothes shopping.
It wasn't much of a mall, just a dozen shops connected by an enclosed area, but it was the best mall for a hundred miles in any direction. It was also, not coincidentally, the only one.
We hit a few stores, and found little that we liked, just the same old stuff. Neither of us were exactly fashion conscious, but we were looking for something better than plain t-shirts and tan shorts. None of the stores had so much as a decent pair of boardies.
"This place gets worse every year," Steve groused, "Ever since the sporting goods store shut down, this place has been useless for clothes except for jeans. I wanted to get you some dark tank tops; you would look great in them. We need some other stuff to, but they have fuck-all here. You up for a shopping trip to Phoenix?"
"You bet. I've only been to Phoenix a few times, but I remember they had some huge malls. Maybe we could go this weekend? It's one hell of a drive, though."
Steve glanced in a shop window, and then replied, "Close on two hundred miles each way, but we could do it in a day easy enough. I've done it alone, and we could share the driving to make it easier."
"Cool. I haven't been there in a long time." I said, as Steve sniffed the air and grabbed my arm, pulling me towards one of the food court's three stands, "But we just ate..." I argued.
"And that is a problem why, exactly?" Steve chuckled, as we headed for the Taco stand.
We found a table in the middle of the nearly empty food court, and Steve was right, the tacos weren't bad, and I was hungry enough to eat. Steve gave me an impish grin, "Eat up; you'll be needing your energy later tonight."
I playfully tapped him on the arm, "You too. Gotta celebrate your new job..." I paused, as I noticed the guy at the next table gawking at us from a dozen feet away. I figured either he had overheard out conversation and was shocked, or he was one of the Fundy loons appalled to be seeing the local abominations in the flesh. I stared back at him and growled, "Got a problem?"
Steve turned to face him, and I could see Steve tensing up, but the guy shook his head, "No, sorry, you guys just look kinda familiar." He looked right at me, "Your name wouldn't be Chase, would it?"
"Nope, but this is the second time I've been asked that. Who the hell is Chase?" I said in exasperation.
"Uh, never mind, sorry." The stranger said, and went back to eating his salad.
I looked across the table at Steve, "Dude, something is up with this. That's twice for me, and once for you."
"Yeah, and always while we are eating," Steve said, and then stuffed the last of his taco in his mouth.
We got back to the Williams house around nine that night, having found nothing at the mall. Eric was still confined to his room, so we said hello to Steve's parents, and then headed to my apartment for the night, where Steve made good on his prediction that I'd be needing plenty of energy.
The next day, I started work at the bookstore at three that afternoon, and was busy inventorying by four o'clock when Betty left to do the weekly run to the bank.
Steve came in minutes later, smiling and looking eager to work. I was glad of both the help and the company. The door chime rang, and I told Steve, "I've got to wait on the customer, be right back..." I said, and then walked out of the back room and into the sales area. I was surprised to see no one there, so I walked towards the door.
A rough shove on my shoulder from the side sent me staggering into a bookcase. As I hit, I looked back in shock at my attacker, who was just coming out from between two bookshelves, one gloved hand on his gun, and with handcuffs in the other.
My blood ran cold when I saw the words 'Piedmont Sheriff's Department' on his uniform. "You are out of your jurisdiction," I gasped, as he reached out to grab me.
"I'm calling this a hot pursuit, so shut up, or I'll call it resisting arrest too, and put you in a hospital or worse," he said, in a voice that made my skin crawl.
I tried to twist away, but I was trapped against the bookshelf, and flinched as I heard a noise, one that wasn't loud, but was shattering nonetheless - the click of the handcuffs being snapped on my wrist, coupled with the feel of the cold metal on my wrist. I winced as my head was slammed against the bookcase, and felt the cop pulling my other arm behind me. I waited for the click of the cuffs, but instead I was deafened by a roar, which was followed quickly by the sensation of cold, and I staggered away as I began coughing. Strong hands grabbed me and pulled me away from the cop, shoving me roughly through the door and into the back room as my eyes burned and my chest heaved. I had a horrible, bitter taste in my mouth, but worse was the way my mouth and throat had dried out.
I stumbled and collapsed on the floor, the cuffs attached to my left wrist clattering on the old Linoleum. I rolled over, and saw Steve holding a fire extinguisher and charging back out the door into the front area.
I heard another blast of the fire extinguisher, and Steve raced back into the room, slamming the door behind him. I struggled to my feet as Steve shoved boxes in front of the door, and then overturned a bookcase against it for good measure.
"Dude, I was gonna hit him over the head, but he was going for his gun so I just blasted him again and ran for it," Steve gasped, then added, "Is there a phone back here? We need to call Dad and the police."
I shook my head, my mind still reeling, "No, just in the front," I croaked, as a loud thud came from the door.
"He's trying to force it. It should hold, but let's get back in case he starts shooting," Steve said, as he grabbed me by the arm and hauled me towards the back wall.
Steve eyed the back door, and slowly approached it, fire extinguisher at the ready. He eased the lock over and then pulled it open, peeking out the door, only to slam and lock it again before quickly shoving a bookcase in front of it. I recovered my wits enough to help him move the bookcase as he said, "There's another cop out back."
A rattle and a thud from the back door proved that Steve had been seen.
I pointed at the oak paneling near the corner, "Maybe that old smugglers tunnel is a way out?"
Steve shook his head, "I doubt it, but we have nothing to lose by trying."
A muffled voice came from the door to the shop as the first cop yelled, "Come on out. We have you surrounded."
"You can't arrest me here. You are out of your jurisdiction, and the Lonesome Valley Sheriff's department said they are on their way. I'll just let them sort it out when they get here." I said, and then whispered to Steve, "They don't know that we can't call."
A resounding crackcame from the door as the cop renewed his attempts to force it open, and it sounded like he was battering it with something heavy. We both knew that the old door wouldn't take that kind of punishment for long.
I grabbed at the top of the old oak paneling and pulled for all I was worth. A sheet of it came away in my hands, pulling away from the wall with a groan. We frantically pulled the piece of paneling aside, revealing a dark cavity beyond. My hopes soared as Steve moved back to let the light from the room's single bare bulb fall into the passage. Or, what I had hoped was a passage.
It was less than a foot deep, just a low archway in the brickwork of the wall, and a single step down. The passage was real. It also ended after less than two feet in a cinder-block wall, which sealed the passage completely. There was no way out.
For the second time that day, I was shoved in the shoulder, this time by Steve as he pushed me into the cramped space.
"There is no way out, it's walled up." I said, as I tried to get out.
"I know. It's you they are after, so stay put and I'll close up the paneling." Steve said, while shoving me back into place.
"No! Dude, they want us both, or whichever one they can get. I won't let you do this." I said, as I struggled with Steve.
"Get in there, otherwise they will get both of us," he gasped, as he pushed me back.
No way was I going to let him do this. I tried to push my way out, struggling with Steve, as the sounds from the two doors under attack grew louder, when a sudden idea occurred to me, "Dude, we can both fit in here, barely, and I know a way to close it up from the inside."
Steve stopped pushing me, and stared at me for a moment before saying, "Make it quick, because those doors won't hold much longer."
I brushed past him, grabbed the twine we had been using and then motioned for Steve to help me as I shoved a bookcase until it stood in front of the passageway. I pushed Steve into the cavity, then tossed the end of the twine over the top of the bookcase and pulled it through. I handed both ends of the twine to Steve, and squeezed into the tight space with him, pulling the slab of paneling into place over the opening. We just barely fit, and I gasped to Steve, "Pull."
The sound of the top of the bookcase slamming against the paneling was like being on the inside of a drum. I shook off the shock of the noise and grabbed one end of the twine, pulling hard, and breathed a sigh of relief as the last of its length pulled through to our side of the paneling, leaving no trace of itself outside.
We were just barely in time, for a new sound filled our ears; that of the door finally giving way, and someone shifting the boxes and bookcases out of the way. Silence descended, and we dared not even breathe.
Slow footsteps sounded, growing closer. I heard the sound of books clattering as their boxes were kicked open, then the dull grind of a bookcase being moved, and finally the clack of the back door being unlocked.
We held our breath as two sets of footsteps moved around the room, and then we heard a muffled voice;"Where the fuck are they? I saw one of 'em open the back door, but he shut it quick. How the fuck did they get out?"
A different voice replied, "No clue. Nothing big enough for them to hide in, I looked already. Looks like they tore the room up but good. My guess is they got up to the roof somehow, maybe went out in some kind of heating duct."
The first voice became agitated, "We gotta get out of here. I don't want to have to try and explain to the Lonesome Valley cops how we were in hot pursuit and never bothered to radio it in to them, and oh by the way, the kid we were in hot pursuit of is on foot and made it twenty miles from the county line to here!"
"No. We need one or both of those guys, so the Sheriff can conclude his business. He's running out of time. We now know for sure that they have the thing, so we need at least one of 'em to get the other one to hand it over."
"Tough! They aren't here. The Lonesome Valley cops will be though, and I've had enough of this shit. You and the Sheriff can straighten out your own damn messes. I'm outta here, and you can come with, or fucking walk back to Piedmont."
We huddled together, barely daring to breathe, as we listened to the receding footsteps, then silence.
After minutes that seemed like hours, Steve whispered, "I think they are gone. I gotta move a little, something is digging into my back."
We squirmed and shifted slightly to get Steve's back away from the block wall, and rubbing against my arm, I could feel the rough lumps of mortar that had been digging into him. I could feel Steve's face next to mine, so I did the only thing I could do at the moment; I kissed him.
After a deep and passionate kiss, Steve whispered, "They must be gone by now. So, how do we get out of here?"
That, indeed, was a very good question. The bookcase was leaning up against the paneling, holding it in place. I gave Steve the only answer I could, "I don't know. I didn't think of that."
"The Piedmont cops aren't your biggest worry," Steve chuckled, perhaps a little manically due to the stress, "When Veronica finds out, you will have another appointment with her bleach bottle."
I nudged him in the ribs, "Okay, good point. Let's hope we can push it free."
We couldn't move enough to put much pressure on the paneling, so we resorted to hollering for help. Before long we heard scraping noises, and Betty's voice, "What the fuck happened here? It looks like a goddamn war zone! And where the hell are you two?"
"Behind the wood paneling, with a bookcase in front of it." I yelled, "We're stuck."
"I could figure out that you are stuck all on my own, you dolt." Betty grumped as I head the bookcase move, and I blinked from the light as she pulled the paneling back, "Come on out, and tell me what the fuck happened here?"
We were glad to oblige and get out of that dark, cramped hole. I filled Betty in on the details while Steve phoned his father from the front counter. Betty was astounded, and had some choice words for the Piedmont cops who had made such a mess of her store. I didn't feel it would be wise to correct her assumptions on who made the most mess, them, or us.
Steve's father arrived within minutes, with three other officers in tow, and we explained it all again while two of the officers dusted likely looking spots for fingerprints.
To say that Mr. Williams was not happy would be the understatement of the century.
"This is beyond ridiculous," he growled, slamming his fist into the counter, "They can't come into this town in an official capacity, hot pursuit or not, without alerting the local department. If they had arrested you, they would have had to work with us, if they were following procedure. They weren't; this was a blatant snatch-and-grab. If they had got you and just taken you back to Piedmont, it would have been a damned illegal arrest."
"So, they couldn't have held us there for long?" I asked, already beginning to suspect the answer.
Mr. Williams took my hand and examined the cuffs still locked on my wrist. "My guess, based on this and everything else, is they wouldn't have ever booked you. If they had gotten either one of you like this, they would be in a position where they couldn't let you talk. My guess is they might have kept you alive long enough to get their hands on what they were after, but no longer than that. It woulda been a one-way trip." Mr. Williams said, giving us a grim look before walking off to confer with another officer who had just entered the building.
Steve and I shared a similar look. I shuddered, thinking about what could have happened if they had captured either one of us.
Mr. Williams returned, "Guys, I had an officer ask around, and a clerk across the street saw them arrive. They were in a civilian car, and one went around the corner while the other one stayed our front for a minute, then came in. He couldn't ID them as Piedmont, just police. And we haven't found any prints so far - looks like they were wearing gloves like y'all said. Long an' short of it is, outside of that witness, we can't prove they were here, and we still don't have a definite ID on either one. I'm going to have our Sheriff call the DA over this, and notify the state Attorney General, but don't get your hopes up."
I felt shell-shocked. I knew I'd be on my way to my death if Steve hadn't saved me. And he would be on his way to his if they would have gotten him.
"I taught Steve how to shoot last year, but he needs some practice. You know how to shoot, Chris?" Mr. Williams asked.
I told him I did, but it had been a few years. He nodded, "You have to be twenty-one in Arizona to get a concealed carry permit, but I've got an idea how to maybe get around that, for this county anyway. This weekend I'll take you two to the firing range, and have the instructor start you on a crash course. I want you both to know how to shoot; because what happened here today shows that the other side is getting desperate."
Mr. Williams turned to speak with one of his officers, but tuned back and told us, "That was good thinking with the fire extinguisher. I just wish you could have knocked his head in with the thing. And sealing yourselves in that hiding place was fast thinking. I think you saved each other's lives here today. Now, get out of here and let us work, because nobody tries to do this to my boys and gets away with it."
After one of the Lonesome Valley officers had removed the handcuffs with a key -they said the keys were often interchangeable- and bagged them as evidence, we stopped to speak with Betty on the way out, and promised to clean up the mess tomorrow. She surprised me by giving us each a big hug, "I'm so glad they didn't get you." She said, with a very uncharacteristic gentle smile.
We drove home, still in shock, and found Eric sitting in the living room, alone and watching TV. He looked up at us, his eyes opening wide in surprise, "Nobody was home, so I just wanted to watch some TV. Please don't rat me out."
Steve nodded, "Okay, whatever, just leave us alone for a while," as he stormed past his brother. As we entered Steve's room, he said, loud enough to be heard from the living room, "I think Dad's right, they were after that fucking Data thing we found. He's got it in his desk and its locked, but as soon as he gets home I'm gonna tell him to smash it, and then send the pieces to Piedmont. Maybe that will get them off our backs."
I nodded my approval, and we locked the door before locking each other in a hug. Nothing was said for a while, because nothing really needed to be said. We stood for a while, just holding each other, and the strong beat of Steve's heart was all the reassurance I needed.
We pulled apart and sat on his bed, our hands still interlocked. I looked him in the eyes, "You already knew what your dad told us, about it being a one-way trip to Piedmont. You know about police procedures, so you knew, and you tried to push me into that hole and seal me up behind the paneling. You knew what that would have meant for you."
"I guess I kinda suspected. Just like I know you kinda suspected what would have happened if you had gone back to Piedmont after me the day you were shot at. But you were doing it anyway. I just couldn't think of any way to hide us both. I'm sure glad you did though," he said, squeezing my hand.
We hugged each other, lost in our thoughts, and lay down together, holding each other tight, until we finally drifted off to a troubled sleep.
Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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