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    Parker Owens
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Double Concerto - 34. Agitato

No Rita warnings, Heinrich watches or Willy advisories are posted.

Gone.

Gus was gone. Cedarcrest basked under the warm July sky, but the lodge stood empty. The Takács family had disappeared, and Gus with them. But where?

They probably just went out for a shopping trip. They’ll be back any minute. No need to get bent out of shape.

Rick walked over to the garage. A brief period of experimentation determined the doors were shut tight and locked.

If they went shopping, they wouldn’t lock the garage, would they?

With a sense of dread, he circled the outside of the house, checking things out. The place displayed the buttoned-up and battened down look of summer houses closed for the foreseeable future. No open windows. No stray garden tools or toys left out. All the lawn furniture removed from the terrace.

He felt sick.

They’ve taken Gus away. Damn cowards, they couldn’t let him even choose what he wanted for himself?

Rick peered in through the French doors on the patio. The shadows within revealed nothing. If he could get inside, maybe he’d find a clue as to whether they had gone on a day trip or whether everyone had packed and left. He walked a distance to his left and tugged on another door handle. It remained unyielding.

He sat down on the weathered masonry that formed the edge of the patio and held his head in his hands.

I shouldn’t have bothered with that stupid meeting last night. I shouldn’t have driven out to Irene’s. I should have paddled over here. His phone is at the bottom of Butternut Lake, but I could have tried to get Gus’ attention. I could have thrown rocks at the windows or something. I let him down.

But was that last thought really the case? Had he let Gus down? Or was his lover simply bored and through with him, as Zoltan asserted?

Willy discarded me when it was convenient for him. Why wouldn’t Gus?

A breath of wind stirred the leaves and ruffled Rick’s hair as a rising tide of doubt washed over him.

It had to end sometime. It couldn’t last. I’ve had things too good.

He lifted his head and stared across the wide expanse of green lawn running down to the lake.

It’s no use crying now. You got too close, waited too long, and now it’s over. If it’s done, it’s done. They probably went back to Chicago. Back to work.

He sighed and stood, squaring his shoulders.

I guess I should be doing the same thing. There’s plenty to be done. Drains to clear, pipes to mend, appliances to install. There’s still life to live, at least for now.

But despite the blue sky and white, puffy clouds, the day seemed tired and worn already. Rick refused to linger. He walked back to the van, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the path before him. He climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, and hit the gas. He denied himself the temptation of glancing in the rearview mirror as he sped out the drive.

At the corner of Harding and North Shore, Rick hesitated, thinking he might turn on his phone and check messages. The sound of a horn behind him decided him against it. The day’s work would wait until he reached the shop.

As he pulled in, the sight of Irene’s burgundy Malibu parked outside the office door greeted him.

At least one of us is back at work.

Rick grabbed his phone off the passenger seat and hauled himself out of the van. He entered to the sound of the office phone ringing; it was an easy decision to make his way through the main floor and into the machine shop, a spot within the building as far away from the office as possible.

With any luck, it’ll just be someone calling Irene to gossip. Anyway, she can deal with it.

He busied himself looking for a bit of lead-free metal stock. He knew how to make a brass fitting as good as anything imported from overseas. Maybe he could lose himself in an hour’s fine work.

“Rick? Is that you?”

Irene Inksater’s voice carried the length and breadth of the shop.

Nope. No luck at all.

Rick sighed. “Yup. It’s me.” He hollered back.

“Phone’s for you.” Any kind of intercom system would have been lost on Irene.

“Can you take a message?”

“No. Says she’ll only talk to Richard Ernst.”

Puzzled, he headed for the office. “Who is it calling?” Rick asked as he crossed the threshold.

She raised both eyebrows, pulled a face and shrugged.

“It’s not Rita, is it?”

Irene grimaced and shook her head. She held out the phone.

Rick frowned. “This had better be important.” He groused, sotto voce, before bringing the handset to his ear.

“Rick? Rick Ernst?” A hoarse whisper made its tortured way over the line. Something in the sound seemed off, as if the speaker were in an echo chamber.

“Yes, speaking. What’s the problem?”

“It’s Me.” The tone was indentifiably female.

“Me? Me who?”

“Marta.”

Rick gripped the phone tighter. “Is Gus with you?”

“Look, I don’t have much time. I’m in the bathroom.” The girl’s voice was urgent. “Tell me something. Are you in love with Gus?”

“What?” He was taken aback.

“Are you in love with Uncle Gus?”

“How did you know?”

Marta giggled despite herself. “It was pretty obvious. And it’s easy to see what’s happening at the end of the dock when the light’s out.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Is Gus nearby?”

“Yes. He’s with us in the car. Dad packed us all up, and we’re on the road to Chicago right now. They told Gus he was just going back to get his cast taken off.”

“Why didn’t he use your phone to call me?” Rick’s gut churned.

“He can’t. Mom and Dad took my phone, and they’re watching Gus and me like a hawk. I’ve got Joey’s phone.”

“So he’s still trustworthy.”

The girl brushed off his comment. “Listen. If you still want any kind of a chance with Gus, you’ve got to get to Chicago. Now. I overheard Mom and Dad whispering. They’re going to send him off to some kind of therapy program for his hand.”

Rick stood taller, electrified. “When?”

“Tomorrow, I think, if not the next day for sure. But that’s not all.”

There’s more? Rick held his breath.

“After the cast is taken off, they’re headed to Symphony Center to meet with Helene. The idea is to try and force them back together.”

Force Gus to go back to work with the person who broke his wrist? What kind of an idea is that?

“Where are you?” He asked.

Irene Inksater’s eyes were wide, drinking in every syllable of what she could hear.

“We’re at a gas station.”

“Yes, but where?”

“I don’t know.”

“What was the last exit sign you remember?” His words were quick, clipped.

“I don’t know!” Marta hissed. “Stevens City maybe? We’ve been on the road for a couple of hours.”

Rick exhaled. “Stevens Point. Okay.” Somehow, now that he knew where Gus was, he could breathe again. “Just one thing.”

“What?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because Joey and I like Uncle Gus, and you’re not so bad, either. We want him to be happy. And because I want you to do me a favor.”

“Name it.”

“Tell Jared I’m coming back. Don’t let him go and find someone new. I don’t want to get back to town and find him with some hockey whore.” Her voice shook. “I mean it.”

“I’ll tell him. But I doubt you have anything to worry about.”

“I better not.”

“Okay. Tell Gus I’m on my way.”

The girl wasn’t done. “Look, you have a pencil? You’re gonna need some information.”

He grabbed a scrap of paper and seized a pencil from Irene’s desk, completely forgetting the spiral pad in his own pocket. The office sounded only of the clock ticking and his scribbling.

“I have to go now.” Marta whispered. “Mom’s gonna get suspicious. Don’t forget your promise.”

“I won’t. Good –”

The girl had disconnected.

“What’s going on?” Irene almost burst with curiosity. “Who was that? Was that your boyfriend, whatever his name is?”

“It’s Gus, and yes, he’s in a jam.”

“Is he in trouble? Should we call the police?”

“There’s no time to explain.” Rick patted his pockets for keys and wallet. “I have to go.” He turned for the door.

“But where?” Irene wailed.

“Chicago.” He shouted on his way out.

 

Such was the urgency of his journey that it wasn’t until he was twenty miles out of Eagle Lake that Rick realized he’d taken the Ernst and Son van instead of his own truck. He cursed himself, because the venerable Econoline was a bigger gas hog than his own pickup. Worse still, he was on a divided highway with no place to turn around, even if there was time to go back and get his personal vehicle. Now he was stuck in the big white beast for the duration.

Ten miles further on, another thought dawned on Rick. He’d never driven south of Milwaukee. Chicago was as unknown to him as the far side of the moon. He was driving on instinct at the moment: he knew to head south as fast as possible, once he’d crossed the state line, he would figure out how to get further east.

His phone had a GPS device, but he rarely needed it. He’d have to learn to use it now, and in a hurry, while he barreled down the highway toward the interstate that would lead him to the Windy City. He barely registered the needle on the speedometer creeping toward eighty.

At least the damn muffler’s fixed. Not sure I could handle the racket for five hours.

Pines and scrub flashed by as he zoomed down the near empty road.

He paid no attention to a pair of deer feeding in the median, not even slowing for them. He just hoped the State Police were someplace else, other than on his route.

Someplace south of Marvel, the phone went off with an angry buzz.

Rick activated the hands-free device with a hasty flurry of button-pushing. “What is it, Irene?” He asked raising his voice to be heard above the road noise.

“Bert Albrecht was on the phone. He wanted you to know that he’s cancelling our insurance.”

Rick shook his head. “That didn’t take very long. Did he say why?”

“Something about not being sure our facilities were safe or insurable. He might have had a few things to say about your character, too.”

“Safe or insurable? What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t ask me. When I asked him, he just repeated himself and hung up.”

“Some people can’t seem to take being wrong. I wonder what Dad said when he got the news.”

“Bert said he couldn’t get hold of Heinrich, so he called here instead.”

Rich glanced at his watch. “Hm. He should be up and awake by now, time difference or not.”

“You want me to call him?”

“What, and have Dad bite your head off on my account? No, no, I rained all over Bert’s parade, so it’s my fault. When Pops gets around to calling me, I’ll explain it to him.”

“I’m just surprised he hasn’t called. You’d have thought he would have by now.” Irene sounded a note of concern.

“Maybe he’s not done yelling at Rita.” Rick quipped.

“You don’t think he’s worshipping the goddess of fortune and prosperity?”

“I think he may have lost his religion by now.”

“What do we do about Bert?”

“Why don’t we call up someone else? I bet Carla d’Annunzio over at Lake Country Insurance would give us a decent quote.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Heinrich to tell us what he wants?”

The question hung in the air of the van, while Rick maneuvered into the left lane to overtake a cruising Winnebago, as if it were standing still.

“No. I say we go ahead and sign up with another company. If Lake Country can’t take us, find someone who will.”

“Yes sir.” Irene laughed. “Thanks, Mr. Decisive. I’ll call you back when we have new insurance.”

“Great. Thanks Irene. Anything else?”

“I just have one question:” Again, there was a pause. “Are we … are we broke? Should I be looking for a new job?”

“I don’t know exactly.” Rick sighed. “Dad apparently mortgaged the hell out of everything, and Rita spent a ton of capital on dribs and drabs. It’s not as if I audited the books, but I did go to see her this morning. My impression is that we’re pretty much wiped out. After everything’s accounted for and paid off, I suppose something will be left, but I don’t know how much. On the other hand,” he continued more brightly, “as long as I’ve got work, we’re still in business.”

“Okay. I’ll call later.” She disconnected.

Mile markers whizzed by while Rick pondered. Will there be any business left to insure by the end of the day?

Cresting a gentle rise, he spotted tell-tale red and blue flashers in the distance. The State Patrol had pulled an unlucky driver over, or perhaps assistance was being rendered. With plenty of warning, Rick slowed to a reasonable speed, preparing to give the troopers plenty of room. He didn’t have time for a traffic stop.

Once well past the flashing lights, Rick hit the accelerator again.

The tires sang their song on the pavement and the miles hastened by. Slowly, slowly the forest on either side of the highway gave way to fields and open land.

He thought about calling his father. What words would he use to explain things? He imagined how his side of the conversation might go. He hardly needed to fill in Heinrich Senior’s portion.

Hey, Pops. I thought I’d fill you in on Rita’s little project. Yeah, I figured you might have known. You didn’t think to remind Dan Unser about all that drainage coming off College Hill? Well, don’t worry. Everybody knows now. I made sure of it. What was that? Sorry, you kind of broke up there. Oh, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole proposition is pretty much dead, if you ask me. Oh, and Pops? About that deal you made with Rita. What did you say? Well, you can’t blame me. She double-crossed you. She’s engaged to Willy Kohler, and may God have mercy on her. Well, of course I wasn’t going to chase after her. I’m gay, Pops. Gay. G-A-Y. Yup, that’s right. Like that. Now you got it. Gee, I think that word is kind of uncalled for. How long? Since I was born, I guess. Well, you never asked. It’s not like you ever really talked to me about much of anything important. Sorry, I can’t hear you. Say that again? Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. That’s your call, Pops, I can’t stop you. But I ought to point out that your friend Rita pretty much left you cleaned out, at least to hear her tell it. The business won’t be worth more than pocket change no matter who you sell it to. Irene and I will be sure to leave a key under the mat for when you decide to get back to work in Eagle Lake.

Rick smiled to himself. The idea of such a phone call left him with a pleasant glow, even if it was a fantasy. If that conversation were ever to take place, it would have to wait, at least until he stopped driving. He’d prefer to savor it in a more comfortable location, maybe on the back lawn, enjoying a sunset.

Such visions led Rick to other, less tranquil, avenues of thought.

After I get to Chicago, then what? Supposing I can track Gus and Zoltan down, what happens then? Will I be able to see Gus? Will he be happy I came? What if Takács calls the police?

That last was an unsettling prospect.

And even if I can get Gus alone for a few minutes, what will he say? “Hey, Rick, you’re a nice man, and we had lots of fun together, but –” There’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?

An orange sign loomed up ahead. Road Construction Next 3 Miles. Right Lane Closed. He slowed. There were bound to be troopers monitoring the speed in the construction zone. If ever there was a bad day to get delayed by a speeding ticket, this was it. Soon, a long succession of traffic cones began their monotonous march by his passenger side window, forcing everyone on the highway to merge left.

The sun beat down through the wide, front windshield. Not for the first time, Rick cursed Heinrich Senior’s thriftiness.

“Who needs AC in northern Wisconsin, for Chrissake?” The old man had griped more than once. “AC cuts down on gas mileage, and it’s just one more thing to fix.”

He passed dump trucks and a front-end loader parked on the grassy shoulder. Large, burly men in t-shirts and orange hard hats appeared on the closed-off pavement to his right. He’d listened to his father gripe about construction workers he’d spotted on his travels as a plumber, and about how they didn’t appear to be doing any real work. Rick knew better. The truth was these men were planning and preparing, making sure everything was ready so the actual job went quickly and smoothly, with a minimum of fuss and error.

He suspected that sometime in the next twenty-four hours, an asphalt grinder would appear, attended by a bevy of trucks, and the contractor would commence resurfacing operations.

If the weather stayed hot, some of those men would go shirtless. Not that Rick would be there to enjoy the sights.

Rick shook his head to clear it. He glanced at the fuel gauge: the needle rode low, reminding him of the old van’s thirstiness. He eased his foot on the gas. He’d deal with it soon, but there were more miles he could eat up. In the meantime, there wasn’t anything he could do but follow the boldly emblazoned Schneider Trucking tandem trailer ahead.

 

South of Portage, near the I-90 merge, Rick finally gave in to the inevitable, and stopped to refuel. Well out of his familiar territory, he got confused trying to follow the signs for the left-hand exit that would lead him to a fuel plaza. His stomach churned, not knowing how he’d find the interstate again.

Rick pulled up to one of a dozen pumps gleaming under a broad covered arcade. He inserted and removed his credit card, idly wondering how long it would be until he reached his limit. On a miniature screen, glib advertisements and faux news reports played in an endless loop. With unfamiliar gestures, his fingers selected the fuel grade. He felt far away from Jerry’s humble service station now.

It made little difference to the old van, however. It sucked down fuel just as eagerly there as it did at Guttmacher’s. Rick sighed and checked his phone. It would be a while until the beast had a full belly.

That reminded him. He had promised to make a call. He knew he shouldn’t call while the pump was still working, but he needed to do this.

A few more finger strokes and he could hold the phone to his ear.

“Guttmacher’s Service.” Jerry’s familiar voice sounded on the other end of the line.

“Hey, Jer. It’s Rick.”

“Rico! The man of the hour, the talk of the town. What can I do for you?”

Even at that distance, Rick flushed. “Can I talk to Jared for a second?”

“Jared? Sure. He’s been antsy all morning. I bet it’s girl trouble. You know who the culprit might be?”

“Um yeah. I’ve got an idea.”

“Well, maybe you can straighten him out. Not that you know much about being straight, now do you?” Jerry cackled at his own joke.

“Just put him on, okay? I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Jeez, okay, okay.” The sound of a landline receiver being laid down on the filthy office desk at Jerry’s place echoed in his ear. “Jared! Hey, Jared!” Jerry hailed his underling. “Phone call for ya!”

“So what’s the rush, Rico?” Jerry came back on the line.

“I’m on the way to Chicago.”

“Chicago! What’s going on?”

“You remember Gus? My, um”— Rick hesitated a second—“boyfriend. His manager is dragging him back to the city to force him into more therapy.”

“Um, so? Doesn’t that make sense?”

“I think it’s a move to get Gus away from me.”

“You sure that’s not a little dramatic?” His friend’s question sounded sincere.

Rick felt his stubborn streak rise. “I’m not letting Gus go without at least him saying ‘good riddance’ to my face. Anyway, I’m going to Chicago to find him.”

“If you say so. You’d better –”

Jerry was cut off as the phone seemed taken from him abruptly.

“Hello?” Jared’s voice sounded eager and alive with anticipation.

“Jared, it’s Rick Ernst here.”

“Oh. Hi.” His voice was not the one he’d been hoping for. Obviously.

“I was asked to pass you a message from Marta. She called me. She said that she’s coming back for you, and that you’d better not move on to some bimbo.”

“She said that?”

“Those were almost her exact words. I think the term she used was ‘hockey whore.’ Anyway, she’s on her way to Chicago, along with the rest of the family and Gus.”

“How come she called you?”

“Her parents took away her phone. She used Joey’s; don’t ask me what she had to give him to let her use it.” Rick explained. “I guess mom and pop Takács don’t approve of you, any more than they approve of me.”

“Yeah. I heard about you and Gus.”

“Jerry talking out of turn, is he?”

“No. Marta and I were talking about it.”

“Oh. Right. I see.” He felt himself go red. “Well, I’m just about done here.” Rick glanced at the rapidly flashing digital display. “I’m following them to Chicago myself. Gus never said goodbye.”

“Whoa, Rick, that’s sick. Awesome. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

“And, um, if you maybe see Marta, tell her I got the message. I’ll look for her online.”

 

“Aaaaaand hit ‘Done.’” Rick sat in the idling van, watching his phone screen. He’d talked himself through what he hoped were Marta’s instructions. A moment later, the rectangle showed a map, on which a green circle glowed somewhere south of the Wisconsin border. He squinted. Rockford, Illinois.

That’s Gus. Okay, it’s Joey’s phone. But as long as that phone is near Gus, I can track him.

A gap in the traffic opened. He gunned the engine and the groaning heap of metal he called his van veered back onto the road.

Rick calculated he had more than a hundred miles to make up. He joined the procession of impatient drivers in the passing lane, and kept his foot on the accelerator, even as traffic thickened in Madison. There was no Brewers’ game to distract him, though he probably wouldn’t have turned it on even if there had been. Hands gripping the wheel, eyes fixed on the next car ahead, he pelted south mile after mile, exit after exit, alone with his thoughts. Only his position relative to the glowing green orb on his phone screen mattered.

In Janesville, by the hospital interchange, his stomach started to churn.

What if I can’t get to Gus? What if he wants the physical therapy and concert grind? What if he really wants Helene?

He set his lips in a thin line.

No. That’s your fears talking. They’ve been leading you around by the nose for forty years. Don’t listen.

Yet, although Rick could mute his anxiety, he couldn’t make it go away entirely, especially as he watched the Gus-locator get ever closer to Chicago on the screen. As he crossed the state line, signs announced that he was now on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway.

Tolls? Where are the tollbooths? Rick searched the clutter around the dash for spare change. He quickly realized there wasn’t any. How am I going to pay for tolls? Hell, how am I going to pay for anything?

Even as he asked himself these unanswerable questions, the little colored circle entered the metropolis of Chicago and slowed its movement. What was going on? He didn’t dare fiddle with the screen to zoom in closer, not while drove his old crate at such a speed in the passing lane.

Rick sped past the Illinois Welcome Center, only to be greeted by the inevitable toll plaza. He cursed and slowed, steering into a lane marked CASH $. As he waited his turn behind a late model Cadillac SUV, he dug into his pocket to extract his wallet. Several moments older and one dollar lighter, he stomped on the gas, rocketing out of the toll area and onto the highway again.

Next time, Rick resolved that he’d roll through the electronic tolls and get billed later. It’s Dad’s van. Let him pay the tolls. He smiled grimly to himself.

South of Rockford, his route veered sharply east, toward the metropolis itself. Now he shared the road with more vehicles than he saw in a month back in Eagle Lake.

What the hell am I doing? I’ve hardly been south of Milwaukee.

The flat, wide open farmlands of the south left Rick disoriented; the heat of the day baked him; the noise of the traffic through the open window roared against the hot breeze that blew in off the interstate, the smell of crops and earth mixing with oil and exhaust.

Green and white exit signs inexorably traced his progress. Belvidere. Marengo. Huntley.

Anxiety ratcheted up with each one. Gus’s green circle seemed stationary now. What’s happening to you, Gus?

Illinois State Route 31. Barrington Road. Northwest Suburbs.

The road filled up with cars and trucks. Eight lanes of vehicles rushed on urgent business in both directions, though not as rapidly as before. Rick marshaled his overtaxed senses to focus on driving. Somehow, he’d guess where to get off the damn highway and figure out how to catch up with that damn green dot on the screen.

Over the traffic’s roar, Rick thought he detected a change in the note the engine intoned. He checked the dash—no idiot lights were on, no alarms. But a glance at the locator on his cell phone showed movement again. It appeared Gus was headed south, toward the city center.

Signs announced the imminent arrival of O’Hare Airport; the river of vehicles in front of him slowed.

Rick clung to the center lanes which seemed to promise the best chance of driving through and avoiding an unwanted diversion.

A gleaming tanker truck ahead of him decelerated, brake lights glowing.

No, no, no, don’t stop now.

His pace slowed to a crawl. He craned his neck to try and see what the holdup might be, even as the van came to a halt with a whine of its brakes. The scent of diesel fumes and auto exhaust swirled in the open window.

“Come on, come on.” Rick growled at the sea of taillights ahead of him.

 

With traffic stopped, he took a moment to adjust the screen size of the map on his phone. Suddenly, Gus’ green circle seemed small against the tangled grid of city and suburban streets.

 

He stared at it, unmoving on the screen. A giddy wave washed over him, despite his impatience at the jammed highway.

 

I’m in Chicago. I’m in Gus’ city. His place.

 

He peered more closely, trying to work out the best way to that glowing orb. He wondered where Gus might be. The surgeon’s office? Zoltan’s place?

 

And what happens if Gus moves while I’m driving there? Guess I follow as best I can.

 

I don’t suppose Zoltan found the phone and tossed it.

 

He tried to banish that thought.

 

Wait for me. Just wait for me.

 

Rick rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He didn’t want to know the outside temperature. He just knew it never got this hot in Eagle Lake. He closed his eyes against the glare and heat.

 

The next instant, he jumped at the sound of a horn behind the van. Traffic ahead of him had started to move again. There was space in front of the van, and he tromped on the gas. The venerable Econoline surged forward.

It wasn’t highway speed, but forward progress was better than nothing. Vehicles filled the pavement bumper to bumper, but it was all moving. Now that he was in motion again, Rick didn’t feel quite so warm.

Oddly, Rick reflected the pace of travel reminded him of nothing so much as the flow of water through old and partly clogged pipes. He was past whatever had caused the previous blockage, which was a mercy. He noticed now he was in a collector lane, not the express lane to his left.

How many lanes of traffic are there? I’ve lost count.

North Cumberland Avenue. Lawrence Avenue. I should think about getting off this highway.

He glanced again at his Gus-tracker. Shit. He’s moved.

The green glowing circle was now heading south of its earlier location.

All I can do is keep going.

Kimball Avenue.

Just past Armitage Avenue, everyone slowed again. Rick kept as far left as he could, where traffic was at least moving at the pace of leisurely evening stroll.

Gus still moved south, away from him, toward the forest of tall buildings looming in the distance.

Ten minutes later, with Rick’s jaw hurting from the tension, the cause of the slowdown appeared. The aftermath of a minor fender-bender played out on the right shoulder. Everyone seemed okay, but there were plenty of flashing lights of every color to mark the occasion.

Rick just celebrated the increase in speed.

His elation was short lived, however. He recognized the signs of another slowdown ahead. He blew out a long breath between pressed lips. Damn. I can’t deal with this.

A quick glance in the right side mirror told Rick he had maybe a second to make a decision. Almost simultaneously with his turn signal, he gunned the engine and shifted over one lane to the right. Leaving the blinker keeping time with its tic-tic-tic-tic, he inserted himself into the exit lane, ahead of a surprised driver in a red Audi.

“Sorry,” he muttered in response to the horn sounding behind him. He left the signal going, as he eased into an exit lane for Ohio Street. He knew he had to head east, toward the lake.

The traffic on this expressway moved at a sedate pace, but it was continuous, flowing inexorably toward buildings taller than he’d ever seen in his life. Soon he was right in amongst them, part of four lanes of cars all trying to enter the bloodstream of America’s second city.

He maneuvered into one of the middle lanes. It seemed safer that way.

Once again, traffic slowed, but this time it was because the expressway was coming to an end at a traffic light.

Well, now you’ve done it. Idiot. Which way to go?

When Rick rolled to a stop, he glanced at the phone screen again. He wondered how much battery life he had left on the device.

Somewhere, a long way away to his right, in amongst the towering mountains of concrete that hemmed him in, Gus still carried Joey’s phone. A siren screamed some emergency behind him. There wasn’t a thing he could do about it. The light changed. He’d go straight through the light, and find a way to turn right later. Four blocks later, at another long light, Rick looked again. The green dot hadn’t moved since the last time. He zoomed in further.

Rick waited a long while to turn right, finally heading south on Michigan Avenue. The wide divided street gave him a broad view of the soaring skyline of Chicago. Crossing a bridge, he had an instant to recognize a view he’d seen in half a dozen movies. He marveled at the number of pedestrians. And still, the breathtaking steel and glass buildings reared ever higher overhead, moving past in stately procession, as he drove south toward Gus’ now-stationary marker.

Suddenly, the street opened up; a park of some kind lay to his left, allowing sunlight to beat in at the windows again. Lanes in the street appeared and disappeared. More than once, he felt at sea, glancing here and there to be sure of his surroundings, yet keeping an eye on where Gus might be.

Almost there. But where is that, exactly?

He almost missed it. If it hadn’t been for a stopped city bus, he’d have driven right by the stately looking building with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra banners hanging outside. Carved into stone above the ornate palladian windows facing the street were the words Bach Mozart Beethoven Schubert Wagner. A small sign indicated this was Symphony Center. Gus had to be in that building.

Now to find him.

The immediate problem was how to park and get into Symphony Center. There was no visible place to do so. Rick couldn’t just leave his van on the broad sidewalk. He tried to turn right at the next light to go around the block, but found he would be going the wrong way on a one-way street. Thwarted, he waited another anxious block to make his turn. Again, Rick was stymied by another one-way street. The map showed he was traveling farther and farther from Gus.

He pounded the wheel. What the hell? How does anyone drive in this place?

Surrounded on all sides by formidable bastions of concrete, steel and glass, Rick doggedly followed his instincts toward Gus.

Another block. Another right turn, this time onto State Street. Two blocks north, and another accursed one-way street going the wrong direction. After waiting for the stream of pedestrians to abate, a right onto Monroe finally pointed him where he wanted to go.

One block and Rick came to South Wabash. This would run behind Symphony Center; perhaps there would be parking there. He blinked at the elevated railway running over the street. Nobody else seemed to take the slightest notice of it, so Rick made his turn.

On either side, cars filled the available parking slots. People strolled or hustled down the sidewalks. He’d been to Milwaukee, but this number of people out and about was of a different order.

And it was torture, to be so close, and yet unable to get out and find Gus. Much too suddenly, on the left, behind a gaggle of t-shirted teens, a parking lot appeared between the street and a tall brick wall that had to be the rear of Symphony Center. Rick cursed as he rolled by the entrance. Horns behind him blared as he braked.

Damn it, damn it, damn it!

Then, just beyond, a second driveway apron caught his eye. Without thinking, Rick signaled left and pulled in, causing a few walkers to halt unexpectedly. The pavement went further back, entering the shadowed gloom between surrounding buildings. He found a space next to a yellow Chevy Budget rental panel truck, where a large angry red and white sign read AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY.

Even through the alien environment and situation, Rick grinned at an apparent stroke of luck. This was his kind of territory: the service entrance. He grabbed the phone and descended from his seat in the van, slamming the door shut. He rolled his shoulders and stretched as he moved to the back of the truck. Wasting as little time as possible, he opened the rear doors and grabbed an old bucket and a worn plunger. Considering his rumpled, sweaty work clothes, complete with the tattered embroidered Rick, he looked like he would fit right in. Who would question the presence of a plumber?

That thought was put to the test the moment he passed through the heavy grey steel doors to feel a blast of cooler air. Receiving areas were the same everywhere.

“You the plumber?” A stout individual in a green private security uniform asked.

Rick blinked in the large interior space. “Yeah. I got a call.”

“Second floor bathroom again?”

Rick just nodded, trying to look nonchalant.

“These old buildings, something goes wrong every week.” The man griped in a good-natured way.

“Seems like it.” Rick spied an elevator across the room. He walked in that direction.

“Good luck.” The uniform chuckled.

“Thanks,” he replied, his heart beating like a bass drum in his chest. He pressed the call button.

No SWAT team leaped out to arrest him when the doors glided open, however. He stepped in, and for lack of any better alternative, he chose the second floor, noting that there were eight to choose from.

One floor up, he stepped into a smaller space with two hallways leading away at right angles. The phone was no help here, not unless he called Joey’s number directly to hear it ring. However, doing that would give Gus away completely. Rick decided to walk each corridor and listen for Gus’ voice.

He tried the first corridor, which appeared to lead to building offices and more populated spaces. He instinctively wanted to avoid these, so he turned back.

Going the other direction, Rick passed featureless closed doors, at which he paused, or open ones revealing empty rehearsal rooms with a few chairs and music stands.

Ironically, he failed to find the problematic restroom.

There was no Gus. He checked the phone; the man was still in the building. To get to the third floor, Rick took a set of stairs he found at a bend in one of the hallways.

Signs pointed to a lounge of some kind, which turned out to be empty. Rick chose not to go through a door marked Rotunda, deciding to check other parts of the building first. He had no more luck on the third floor than on the level below. He climbed the stairs again, full of doubts.

Maybe the doors are soundproofed. Maybe Gus is in the elevator on the way down right now.

Coming out the door onto the fourth floor, Rick hastened to his left. Once more, he traveled to the end of a long passage full of empty rooms or closed doors. Reversing course and hustling back past the stairs, he rounded a corner where the elevator opened.

Entering the next hallway, Rick heard voices emanating from a door just ajar.

He approached cautiously, listening.

“…and you know I’ll take care of you.” A female voice was saying.

“You see? It is all arranged.” The unmistakable East European accent of Zoltan Takács told Rick all he needed to know.

“I don’t need a nursemaid.” Gus’ voice. His boyfriend sounded stubborn.

Rick crept closer.

“But you will need support, and Helene will be perfect, will she not?” Magda was there, too.

“I can manage on my own.”

“Be sensible, Gustavo.” Zoltan said. “Your rehabilitation must accelerate. And Dr. Kuznetsov cannot be put off or delayed. You will be working with him day and night, rigorously. Helene will see to your needs better than you can yourself.”

“It’ll be wonderful, Gussie. You’ll see. We’ll be starting over.” The other woman’s voice made an effort to sound enticing.

“How many times do I have to tell you, Helene? We were never started. I’ve performed with you, but that is the extent of our connection. And in case you forgot, you were the one to break my wrist.”

Rick raised an eyebrow. Gus sounded just as irritated as he did when Heinrich badgered him.

“Perhaps this is why you cannot finish your rehabilitation properly. You need a partner’s guidance.” Magda suggested.

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“No, Gustavo, it is you who are ridiculous. Helene has apologized. What more do you want of her?” Zoltan said firmly. “You have wasted weeks of the summer, doing nothing. You have obligations. Performances. The music awaits you.”

“It can wait. I have other things to –”

“Please stop. I have heard quite enough about your summer – what do you call it? Hookup? Fling?”

“He’s more than a fling. He’s a wonderful man, and if you hadn’t interfered, we’d be looking at the stars tonight.”

Rick felt himself flush at the words. He almost missed Zoltan’s reply.

“Tonight, you will prepare for your departure in the morning. You and Helene have an early flight. I believe it will be best if you pick up things from your apartment and accompany Helene to our home where we will make sure you get to the airport on time.”

“And if I prefer not to?”

“You do not have a choice. You will do as I say.”

The words burned in Rick’s brain. He’d been told what to do for too long, made to knuckle under and submit. He pushed open the door with his shoulder, banging the bucket on his way in.

“Somebody call a plumber?” He grinned.

I again offer my sincere thanks to @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for their kind and unfailing help in making this story better. If you have a comment or reflection to add, please know that I appreciate anything you might have to say.

Copyright © 2020 Parker Owens; All Rights Reserved.
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Chapter Comments



3 hours ago, yarameb said:

another great chapter, looking forward to more

You're very kind. Thank you so much.

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2 hours ago, Terry P said:

I loved that ending.  It was so unexpected I laughed so hard.  I am looking forward to the next chapter.

 

I'm very happy the end for this chapter appealed to you. I confess I chuckled to myself as I wrote it. Thank you very much for reading, and for your comments.

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2 hours ago, 84Mags said:

My heart is still pounding! Between the snarled Chicago traffic, worn out work van and potential for Rick’s phone battery to die I was tense the whole way to finding Gus. I am so dang proud of Rick right now! 

I admit it, I woke up early just to read this chapter and now I have an adrenaline rush and silly grin that I’ll no doubt be explaining the rest of the day. Well worth it!  Rick has his footing and is ready to face Magda and Zoltan. Loved his entry line as he walked in on the scheming pair. Wish it was next Thursday already. Guess I’ll be setting my alarm early again! 

You can be proud of Rick for many things - keeping that old van in good enough shape to make the journey; for his immediate (precipitous!) decision to drive to Chicago, forgetting money, clothes, or even the right car; and most of all for having changed in himself. Even a few months prior, Rick might have given into fatalism, and shrugged off the pain of losing Gus. Not anymore.

I hope you have fun explaining your grin to everyone you meet today. That thought alone makes me smile. Thank you very much for reading, and for your comments.

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2 hours ago, Ivor Slipper said:

Love the last line!

That was some drive for a country boy. 🙂

You're right - for Rick, that was the drive of a lifetime. His innate sense of direction may have helped, but driving in the city must have been an eye-opening experience, enough to set his heart racing. That is, if the prospect of rescuing Gus wasn't excitement enough. Thank you very much for reading and commenting!

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2 hours ago, pvtguy said:

Superb writing!  You have allowed the reader to experience the tension, the heat, the drive, etc.  And...the story's plot has ratcheted up one more step!  Are you sure you have to wait until next Thursday to post?

Alas, I fear I must wait for next Thursday to post the penultimate chapter. I am very glad to hear this chapter communicated tension and excitement, even though so much of it was spent in the driver's seat of a car on the interstate highway. City traffic drives me nuts, so I had to think of Rick, whose frustration must have been triple of anything I've ever felt. Thanks so much for reading, and for your comments!

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2 hours ago, 84Mags said:

Lawful, just in name, or merely in thought, guardians are supposed to protect both the person and assets of that person. Not only did Gus suffer a broken wrist by Helene, Zoltan and Magda are now encouraging her increased involvement in Gus’ career and personal life. It’s incomprehensible to me that they would continue to put Gus in potential danger while deluding themselves it is for his benefit. Whether it was an accident or not, no one should suffer an injury during an argument. 
Zoltan and Magda are so focused on being The Couple that put Gus at the top of his musical field, they have completely forgotten that Gus is a human being and not just a world renowned pianist. They are riding his success and his fortunes. Their desperation is showing.  Good thing Rick has a good lawyer! 

Gus and Helene performed very successfully as a pair. Gus has also done very well as a soloist. Neither Gus nor Zoltan alluded to the nature of the disagreement which resulted in Gus' fracture, however, I doubt Zoltan would have encouraged a reconciliation without Helene having undergone some kind of therapy or counseling. You're right that she should never have broken his wrist; it's interesting to note that conductors, opera singers, and band members have suffered injuries at the hands of other performers. Arturo Toscanini, the legendary conductor, was sued for injuring other musicians in rehearsal more than once.

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2 hours ago, Valkyrie said:

I want to smack Rick every time one of those doubtful thoughts creeps into his head... but at least he's finally realizing they're irrational thoughts and standing up to them.  You handled the drive to Chicago perfectly.  Lots of tension and the frustration of city traffic.  Now Gus needs to stand up to Zoltan so he can go back with Gus.  Great chapter! 

Rick is learning that his doubts aren't necessarily a reflection of reality, but a connection to his fears. May he grow in his newfound confidence, born of his connection to Gus. I'm glad you thought the drive to Chicago was well done. It's hard to maintain focus when the drive is so long. Driving in an unfamiliar city with one-way streets which make no sense must have been intense. At least, I've felt that way when I've had to do it. Thanks very much for reading and for your comments.

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I, too, found the tense drive in Chicago traffic both  exasperating and hilarious (at least in retrospect).

Someone above made a comment about slow chase scenes. There is a 1977 French film titled "Dear Inspector" that has one of the funniest chase scenes I have ever seen.

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