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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Tue Oct 10, 2017 4:36 pm

Chapter eight - Friends                               

 

            Stroke after stroke, with the cold seeping through the slash in the suit, with aching numbness wracking his body, Steve struggled on. As he wearied his stroke changed to the side; then a short time on his back before reverting to a more laboured breaststroke. It took about three quarters of an hour before he was noticed by a few fishermen. A couple more minutes of struggling enabled him to reach the mussel encrusted ladder at the end of the wooden jetty. The evening sky was pink with the sun having recently set behind the distant hills. Steve clambered wearily up the steps in his wet suit, still feeling the damage to his head and arm and bruising on his back. Dragging himself to the top, his legs shook for the third time that day, although this time it was exaggerated by the added effects of physical and emotional exhaustion, combined with the battering his body had taken.

            The expressions on the faces of the few fishermen there registered the fact that this was an unusual occurrence.

“You look like you’ve been run over mate,” said one grizzly angler turning on his small canvas seat, his line still dangling slack in the water.

“I was,” Steve allowed through clenched teeth as he fought off a bout of dizziness.

“What was it, a boat or a jet ski?” asked another senior citizen.

“Something like that,” he croaked with some effort, but in a non-committal sort of way.

His head was still swimming as he staggered across the boards, “Do you need a hand?” a father with a young boy asked.

“I’d appreciate it if someone lent me a mobile phone.”

“Yeah, sure, no problem….” The man offered, rummaging around in a small kit bag. He handed it to Steve.

“Thanks.” Steve edged a little away as he tapped in the numbers, curious eyes following him.

            He called Jimmy and asked him to come and pick him up, deflecting his numerous questions with, “I can’t explain at the moment.” After describing his location and asking him to bring some clothes and something to eat, he disconnected and handed back the phone. While he was there one of the fishermen grabbed a first aid kit and bandaged his arm. At the same time he gave Steve some tablets for the thumping headache he’d complained about. After thanking them all for their help, Steve slowly wandered toward the shoreline end of the pier, his good arm cradling his flippers. Little else remained undamaged of the borrowed diving gear.

            Sitting on a bluestone wall near the car park, he shivered. Steve confronted the situation. His story to the authorities now lacked corroborative evidence. There was no sub, no star witness and the disks with all the data he had gained from Paul’s computer were still with Malcolm, wherever he was now! In his mind he pleaded for Malcolm’s safety, and then he realised that even without evidence he must still talk to the police; if only for Malcolm’s sake. Surely those in authority would have the resources to deal with this far better than he could. But would they take him seriously?

            About an hour later Jimmy arrived. He had a bemused expression on his face. On meeting Steve’s gaze as he opened the passenger door, he immediately sought answers.

“I thought you had some business today. I didn’t realise you were going diving.”

“Believe me it didn’t start off that way.” Steve contorted his face as he sat in the passenger seat. “So what’s to eat?”

“Well about that, couldn’t find anything at work and I didn’t think you’d want to wait while I picked up a pizza, so sorry, no food. Do you want to stop somewhere and get something?”

Although he had that gnawing feeling in his stomach, the tiredness and aching of his body dictated his answer. “No, take me to the Newstead Industrial Park. I left my car there.”

“So what’s going on?”

Ignoring the question to begin with and with the wetsuit peeled back down to his waist, Steve rummaged around the back seat through some clothes that Jimmy had thrown in at his request.

            Along the way Steve tried to explain what had happened to him. He prefaced his remarks with: “You’re going to find this hard to believe.” And he then proceeded to go through the strange sequence of events. Every now and then Jimmy asked a question and Steve would try and answer his query. When he had finished they sat quietly as Jimmy drove steadily through the traffic.

“You’re right you know,” began Jimmy.

“About what?”

“It’s hard to believe.” Jimmy looked across at Steve whose eyes were almost closed from fatigue. He was nodding in assent wearily. Jimmy backtracked quickly. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I mean, I believe you. It’s just that it’s… It’s so…” he seemed stuck for words.

“Unbelievable,” Steve helped him finish.

“Yes, I mean it’s incredible. How can they get away with a secret base here? And what about this Malcolm guy—what’s happened to him?”

“That’s a good question. I guess he’s in a lot trouble ... unless...” he then hesitated a second and other possibilities flitted across his mind. The sentence was never finished.

            They tailed off their conversation as Jimmy pulled up behind Steve’s Toyota.

“What are you going to do now?” asked Jimmy.

“I’m blown away. I’ll go home, grab a bite to eat and then sleep. But tomorrow I’ll have to visit the police.”

“You should get that arm looked at.”

Steve glanced at the blood soaked bandage. “I’ll give it a bit of a clean dressing and look at it in the morning.” He half staggered out of the car before steadying himself.

“Are you okay to drive?” Jimmy looked concerned.

“I’m okay.”

“Listen, we’ve got work covered. So do what you have to do tomorrow, just let us know what’s happening.”

Stiffly, Steve moved around to the driver’s side.

“Would you mind getting the spare key from under the door here? I don’t feel up to it.”

“Sure,” his friend replied as he turned off the ignition. He gave Steve a nudge as he started out the car. “Which reminds me… I should give Jodes a call. She was a bit miffed that I just left her to close up tonight. And she was pretty curious when I said I was picking you up at Port Westbourne.”

“Listen, you don’t need to go into all the detail. If there are people looking for me then the less others know, the safer they are.”

“You sure?” he sounded doubtful. His voice slightly muffled as he reached under the door and found a little box secured by a wing nut. He handed over the key.

“You sure you don’t want Jodie in on this?”

“Yes I’m sure. I’ll see you later. I may drop in tomorrow. And ...” he placed his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder appreciatively and added seriously, “thanks for the ride by the way.” Steve then got into his car and shut the door as Jimmy waved acknowledgment and farewell at the same time. He felt closer to Jimmy because of the knowledge they now shared, and he became aware that he valued their growing friendship.

            Once Jimmy had left, Steve drove slowly past the factory just to reassure himself that the entry remained as he had left it. Though events through the day had surpassed the worst of his fears, the unchanged appearance of the factory seemed to leer at him with an arrogant normality. As if to challenge the reality of what he knew had occurred. To his shock a light came on in one of the offices. He did a quiet U-turn and drove back toward the highway. It suddenly gelled in his brain that they also used this entry point. The possibility that he could have run into them, or that they were aware of his incursion made him shiver. It was an involuntary shudder, probably exaggerated because he was cold. Steve hurried off home with the heater on, as his chilled body was beginning to stiffen and ache.

 

            He was not long home, collapsed in an armchair and drinking hot chocolate when the doorbell rang. He roused himself painfully. It was Jodie. She was dishevelled looking, still in her work clothes. Her concerned look and fussing over his injury, almost as soon as he let her in, showed that Jimmy had filled her in on at least some of the story.

“Who was just here?” Her opening remark caught him by surprise.

“What do you mean?”

“A car drove off just as I came up the road.”

He went to the window to look out.

“They’re gone now,” Jodie said as if stating the obvious. Steve felt a chill up his spine.      Just a coincidence, or were they watching him already? He sat down weakly in his chair as she undid the bandage. “Have you eaten anything?” she interrogated with a slight edge in her voice.

“No,” he replied tiredly.

“I’ll order pizza. You shower and we’ll dress that wound properly. The salt water was probably good for it, but it might need some stitches tomorrow.”

He meekly complied, too weary to object to her commandeering attitude. It was nice to be fussed over. Steve enjoyed her careful touch. He stood with some difficulty and started to gingerly move off when Jodie commented, “Jimmy was a bit guarded about what had happened. He finally admitted that you had an accident, so I gave him a piece of my mind about his macho secrecy.”

Steve, now almost out of the room, smiled but said nothing.

            His hot shower proved a balm to his aches. Standing under the streams of steamy water, head and shoulders sore, arm stinging, legs cramping, he imagined Jimmy wilting under Jodie’s questioning. How much had he told her? It bothered him that his friends were being dragged into this dangerous ‘situation’.

            He eventually staggered out of the bathroom dressed in comfortable track pants. Jodie smeared antiseptic cream on his arm and then wrapped the weeping gash tightly with a fresh bandage. Steve, aware of her gaze, quickly pulled on a loose fitting rugby top. He went to the bedroom to get some moccasins and started salivating the instant he smelled the freshly arrived pizza. In the kitchen the pieces were placed neatly on plates. That was different—it was usually straight from the box for him. Cool drinks were on the table and Jodie was sitting waiting. That was different too.

            She looked at him and a smirk appeared on her face.

“What?” He grinned defensively.

“You sleep in your track suit?”

“No, but my pyjamas are not decent for public display.”

Jodie quickly checked the bandage on his arm and then they started on the pizza.

“Is what Jimmy told me true,” she glanced up through some stray strands of dark hair, pizza poised near her mouth, “that you found an underground base and everyone was dead?”

He looked at her. ‘So that’s how much Jimmy told her,’ he thought and slowly nodded his head. “I’m afraid so. It’s an unbelievable atrocity, but it’s true.”

“What are we going to do?”

Steve’s reply was suddenly tense. “There is no ‘we’ in this. The less people involved the better.”

“Fewer,” she interrupted.

“Fewer,” he reiterated, trying not to smile at her taking the mickey out of him. It was usually him making the pedantic grammar corrections. “These are dangerous people. They won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way. They may know about me, but I don’t want my friends endangered.”

“Friends…” Jodie repeated softly, with a slightly quizzical expression. “Don’t friends stick together? Don’t they help and support each other?” Then with a feigned aggrieved face she continued, “Besides, you asked Jimmy to help.” Jodie stared at him but he avoided her gaze. His voice lowered.

 “I know. I had no choice, but if anything happened to any of you guys I could never forgive myself. We’ll let the authorities deal with it…” Steve thought that was the end of it. “Anyway you’ve done enough. I really appreciate the pizza and all.” He felt a bit awkward.

            Jodie stood up. “Anytime… I’ll go. You need your sleep.” Her behaviour was strangely abrupt to Steve. Had he insulted her? Probably. If he stopped and considered what he had said it would be more apparent. But he didn’t.

“Thanks again,” he managed to call before she exited the front door. Maybe it was best if she felt out of ‘the loop’.

            His arm ached and his head throbbed. He needed sleep. Steve reviewed the harrowing incidents of the day as he lay in bed. Many questions posed themselves. ‘Why and how did the submarine try and run him down? Was it remote? Could Malcolm have set him up? But a quick rethink about what they had been through made that almost inconceivable. He could have revealed his presence when they were escaping. Instead, he hid with him. What had happened to Malcolm?” He breathed a short prayer for Malcolm’s safety and then added others to his petitions. It wasn’t long before Steve was deeply asleep.

                                    __________________________

 

            There was a sharp clatter that penetrated the fog of his slumber. A niggling urgency stirred him into consciousness. ‘Someone’s inside’ he thought. He desperately tried to engage his reluctant body as it ached with stiffness and bruising. He was slowly raising himself on his elbows when he noticed the bedroom door handle slowly turn. His first thoughts were of escape, or maybe a weapon. Gripping a large metallic torch, he deftly snuck behind the door. Poised ready to strike, Steve raised his arm as the door made a slight squeak.

“Are you decent?” said a familiar voice.

“Jodie!” he groaned, “What are you doing here?” he didn’t think that came out quite right.

            Her smiling face appeared in the slightly open doorway looking around for him. He peered from behind the doorway and met her eyes. He found her close presence warming to him. She ignored his disgruntled rousing. “What do you prefer, toast or cereal, coffee or tea?”

He tried to focus, “Er, cereal and tea, uh… thanks.” then added, “I don’t think I’ve got much.”

“You don’t. I brought some bread, milk and cereal.” She turned and closed the door

 He staggered back to the wardrobe and dressed as fast as his aching body would allow.

            Jodie was all fresh faced wearing jeans and tee shirt, which was quite a contrast after yesterday’s grubby work overalls. Her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, she had set up breakfast for both of them and sat opposite him. They ate silently for a few minutes before Jodie began uncertainly.

“I’m sorry Steve if I was a bit moody yesterday. I, er… guess I was concerned about you. How do feel this morning?”

He looked at her, supposing what she said made sense. Still, there was something else he mused. When she tilted her head questioningly he immediately remembered the question and responded huskily.

“Pretty sore, like I’ve been run over by a boat.” He flashed a smile. Then realising he had a mission for the morning he went on. “I should write down some notes about what I want you guys to do at work while I go and see the police.”

“What are you going to tell them? They’ll think you’re crazy.” 

“You’re right, they will. But when they see the factory and the entrance to the base they’ll have to believe me.”

“I guess you’re right. Do you want me to come with you?”

Steve cocked his head slightly and looked at her, thinking of a more moderate reply than what first came to mind—‘The ‘fewer’ people involved publicly the better.’

“No, I’ll need you to help at the nursery. It shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, there’s no reason why they should think we’re both crazy.”

            Jodie got up and started to tidy the dishes while Steve listed some tasks for work.

She hovered around wondering what absorbed him so much, as he considered how he would explain his story to the police. Jodie then bemoaned the state of the house, fussing with cleaning here and tidying there, making comments all the time and then sometimes checking what Steve was up to.

            Once he’d given Jodie the list he contemplated his next move. Should he just bowl in to the police station and make his report. Steve couldn’t think of anything better. He remembered that he’d planned to take all the disk information and show them the amazing centre, but that was impossible now. All he had was a battered body, a fantastic story and the factory, if he could convince them to investigate it. He printed off copies of the emails that Paul had sent, but he knew that they were hardly the sort of thing that would mobilise the troops. He wasn’t sure that speaking to the local authorities was the best course of action. But what else could he do?

 

            Just then the phone rang and he went to answer it, wondering where Jodie had got to.

“Hello, Steven James speaking.”

 ‘Stephen, we are aware that you have witnessed a serious accident at one of our installations. The work that we are doing is highly secret. We insist that you maintain this secrecy. Your safety and the safety of those around you depends on you waiting for further instructions. Just go to the garden centre and stay put.’

The caller hung up. That was all. The whole tenor of the call was ominous. The threat sent a shudder through him. He suddenly became alarmed. ‘They followed me last night. They know about me, about the plant nursery, what could they have in mind?’ He looked at his watch. It was quarter to nine, ‘Wednesday morning’ he thought, ‘Caz is in. He needed to warn her, and Jimmy.

            He ran out of the house hearing a distant “What’s wrong?” from Jodie and leapt on his motorcycle. After a frustrating few seconds trying to start the engine, it burst into life and he was off in a flurry of squealing tyres and blue smoke. Roaring down the street he raced around to the nursery.

            Jimmy was in the shed ensuring that the culture containers were ready for transfer to the climate controlled greenhouse. He leapt off the bike and ran toward the entry.

“Where’s Caz?” was his somewhat distraught greeting. Jimmy explained to Steve that Caz was in the office last he saw, about half an hour previously. He grilled Jimmy about whether he had seen anything suspicious or unusual. Jimmy was still trying to work out what he’d meant when Steve ran off. The office was quiet when he rushed in. No one was in sight.

“Caz!” he shouted a little alarmed.

“What are you all in a lather about?” returned Caz in a droll voice as she came out the back office. Relieved, Stephen came up to his sister and gave her a thankful hug, wincing when she put pressure on his still tender arm.

 “Caz, why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

“Why? And why are you all bandaged up like that?” she gave him a puzzled look. Steve thought about shrugging off the query, but knew that he would save himself an inquisition if he delivered the truth head on.

“Something’s happened and some fairly unfriendly people may pay us a visit. I don’t want you involved. You really have to go home.” He insisted.

“What’s happened? Why would anyone harm us?” a look of concern for him shrouded her face.

“Without going into the whole story, let’s just say I stumbled onto a terrible crime and they don’t want anyone to know about it.”

“Well, you need to go to the police.”

“That’s what I intend to do, but for now you have to stay away from here. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back.”

She sat down in a chair and, mother-like, intoned in a cajoling voice, “Tell me all about it.”

“I can’t,” he returned abruptly taking her by the shoulders and lifting her and easing her toward the door. “I’ll try and fill you in later. First I need to speak to the police.”

            Caz had scarcely driven off, having been unceremoniously bundled into her car by Steve, when Jodie arrived in her car.

“What was all that about Steve? Who was on the phone?” she almost demanded to know.

“I can’t tell you yet. I have to go to the police. The best thing you could do is go home and I’ll call you when it’s safe to come back.” Steven cringed at the bluntness of his comments.

            Jodie paled, opened her mouth as if about to say something and found herself facing the shuddering door that Steve had slammed. She had been hurt by his sharpness, and although she was aware of the desperation in his voice, she ambled off after him, shattered to be dismissed so brusquely. 

 

            Steve had gone to find Jimmy and convince him to go home, saying he would close up for the day. He found him near the back of the shed.

“No way,” was Jimmy’s defiant reply. “I can look after myself. Besides what would they do? We’re on the main road.”

Steve was still not happy with Jimmy staying. Jimmy tried a different approach.

“Look, if anyone nasty turns up looking for you I’ll just act dumb. I’ll say I don’t know anything. After all it’s you they’ll want,” Jimmy finished this last sentence with a grin sneaking across his face.

What could Steve say? He felt like saying that he didn’t have to ‘act dumb’, he was dumb, but he appreciated Jimmy’s expression of friendship in sticking with him.

“So, you go to the police and come back as soon as you can and I’ll work here and keep a hefty tomato stake or two close at hand.”

            Steve shook his head slowly in dismay, and then trying to impress the seriousness of the situation one more time to Jimmy he said, “Jimmy, if anyone even slightly suspicious turns up, ring the police. Please!” His injuries chose that moment to greet him with a dizzy spell, and he sat down awkwardly on a drum till some measure of equilibrium returned. He hadn’t noticed Jodie listening at the front of the shed, but he saw her walk off and heard her car leave.

            “You’re in no condition to go by yourself. Wait a minute and I’ll drive you down,” Jimmy declared.

“No, I’ll be fine. I’m just tired,” insisted Steve, though he did give himself time to recover and shake the woozy feeling in his head.
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