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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   Thu Oct 12, 2017 5:58 pm

Chapter ten – Loss 2                        

 

            The morning seemed bleak in more ways than one. The weather was gloomy, his arm was tender and his body ached from bruising and too much exertion. To add to his misery, he felt lethargic from lack of sleep and stiffness that grasped at his limbs. To make matters worse, apart from the milk, bread and cereal Jodie had bought, the fridge provided little in the way of sustenance. Steve muttered to himself, “You’re living like a hermit.”  He dressed in his last clean jeans and tee shirt. He made himself a mental note, unaware that he was talking to himself.

“Right, I need to do some washing, and I need to buy some groceries. Meanwhile the world is attacked by a deadly virus. Just so long as I have some clean clothes and I’m eating well it’s ‘okay’. ‘Okay!’ Thankyou Mr McGuiness.”

He stopped and shook his head quipping, “I’m losing it. Says to himself… got to stop talking to myself... Now there’s a paradox.”

 He then set off to get some fast food for breakfast, wondering along the way if having this twisted mind was a sign of madness, or whether it actually prevented him from going mad.

            On one or two occasions on the way to breakfast, and then later, on the way to work he had an eerie feeling and glanced around, sure someone was observing his movements. When he arrived at work he parked his car out the front of the Nursery. Pete, a friend of Jimmy’s was helping with setting up for the weekend and Steve informed them that he might be going away for a while and wasn’t sure when he’d be back. In the office he noticed a new computer already installed and the associated boxes still strewn about.

            After cleaning up inside, he went out to help the others.

“Hey, you got the computer already? How did you do that?” Steve quizzed Jimmy.

“When you’re good, you’re good,” Jimmy crowed, but was interrupted by Pete clearing his throat with exaggerated grunts.

“Okay, so the fact that Pete’s brother manages a computer store and Pete here helps install them may have helped a bit. But I made the phone calls.”

            When Jimmy and he were alone Steve just told him that everything involved with getting the police to investigate the secret base had fallen through.

“Can you believe it? They blew up the factory!”

“It’s like one of those disasters you see on TV. You find it hard to believe, but you know it happened,” Jimmy observed.

“...Except, it’s happening to us.”

  Jimmy asked him what his plans were and he began to outline his ideas, changing the subject whenever Pete came back for another load. Repeatedly, Steve turned down Jimmy’s offers to join him, explaining how important it was for things to appear normal, especially if they were watching.

            At about noon Pete was happy to get some pizzas so Jimmy and Steve could continue to work, and it also suited them since it would enable them to freely discuss what was going on.

As Pete was about to head off on his scooter Steve called out to him, “Pete, take my car. I don’t want you trying to balance pizzas while you’re riding that thing.” He threw his car keys to Pete.

“Thanks, I won’t be long.” He walked off to the front.”

 

            “If I can get a sample of the virus…” Steve was saying to Jimmy when suddenly there was a huge explosion outside the building. Shelves shook, windows shattered and debris was flying everywhere. Smothering dust clouded the area as they rushed outside to see the burning wreck of Steve’s old Toyota. Dirty black smoke billowed up into the air and flames roared out the window as if screaming in rage as rubber and synthetic fabrics were incinerated. Steve sped to the shed and seized a fire extinguisher from the wall. Running back he encountered a wall of heat from the inferno as he tried to get closer. Steve directed the powdery stream of retardant through the open window and started to douse the searing flames while Jimmy rang the fire brigade. Again and again he retreated from the scorching heat of the blaze. Attempting to get at the door, Steve was hurled back by the thumping concussion of another explosion. Singed and crumpled by the blast, he slowly regained his senses, and felt Jimmy dragging him clear of danger. Layers of crushed bark had softened the impact and prevented him from adding to his tally of bruises, nevertheless his chest ached from the pressure wave. With sirens blaring, the emergency services arrived soon after, but the crew had not much to do except finally quench the smouldering tangle of metal.

            Helplessly they stood there. There was nothing they could do. Little remained of the Toyota and Pete had been killed instantly. Steve, Jimmy and the two girls, Sally and Anne were huddled together, devastated, vacantly staring at the final dousing of the wreckage.

Not too long after that, Sergeant McGuiness came with Davis.

McGuiness came up first to question Steve. He looked quizzical and a little harassed. He asked Steve about any possible enemies …, likely suspects?

            Steve shook, “You tell me. You know the story. I told you I’d been threatened.” He was defensive and angry and almost in a detached state of shock.

“What about the driver? How do you know him?”

Steve explained who he was and that he was taking the car to pick up lunch. The sergeant was in a quandary about what to do. How could he establish what the truth of the matter might be? He couldn’t accept such a story on face value, but a hint of an idea occurred to him. He got Constable Davis to take Steve’s statement. The constable was very aware that this was the crazy complainant with the weird international terrorism story.

“This is becoming a bit of a habit, isn’t it?” was his opening disparaging question. Steve struggled to respond with equanimity to Constable Davis’ taunting approach. His questioning was tainted with sarcasm at Steve’s replies and he didn’t try to conceal his disbelief.

            Meanwhile Sergeant McGuiness spoke to Jimmy for some time. Then, before leaving, he came back to Steve.

“Young Schwartz,” he said indicating with his thumb in Jimmy’s direction, “says that you told his friend to take your car. Is that true?”

“Yes,” he murmured, already conscious of where this was heading. “I couldn’t expect him to carry pizzas here on his scooter.” He froze mid thought, feeling a constriction around his chest. Almost robotically his voice continued without expression, “I suppose it was my decision that sent Pete to his death.” His voice was strained and low as he completed the statement. He dwelt on the accusations his mind was making. Shouldn’t he have seen an attack coming? The ache of his emotional state made it hard to think.

            The sergeant looked at him analytically, and then visibly softened as Steve appeared vague and preoccupied, transfixed upon some unfocused point in space. He was fast revising his initial convoluted theories about Steve somehow setting up the groundwork for the present crime. Was he so clever as to commit a crime that was patently evident in the smouldering wreckage by distracting investigations with his bizarre conspiracy theory? The way things were just happening, without obvious motive, seemingly catching Steve totally unaware was very convincing to McGuiness, but he wasn’t going to believe anything that Steve was telling him until he had some hard facts. To try and put Steve off his guard he decided to take on a sympathetic approach.

“Don’t dwell on it son. There was no way that you could know what would happen.”

“No…” replied Steve, and then as an afterthought he added, “Thank you Sergeant.” He was still in a sort of delirium.

“So it was your car. It could have been you, you know.”

“That’s what I am thinking. It should have been me… He died instead of me.” Steve was still distracted. The concept wasn’t new to him, but its reality was stark and almost oppressive on him.

“You should get that arm looked at.”

Steve looked at the bandage on his arm. It was seeping blood from all his effort with the extinguisher and the secondary detonation.

“Yeah, I should. Thanks again Sergeant.”

 “And Steve, if anything else crops up let us know straight away.”

“Sure,” Steve said softly, distractedly, and then turned and went into the office where Jimmy was already waiting. He was slumped in one of the office chairs, head bowed. He looked up at Steve. There were tears in Jimmy’s red rimmed eyes. Steve felt his stomach knot. Totally bereft of anything to say, he pulled a chair alongside Jimmy and put his arm on his shoulder. Jimmy sobbed quietly. Steve knew that Jimmy and Pete had been mates since almost before school age. They had done so much together. Now it was suddenly ended—he was gone, just like that.

            After sitting like that for several minutes Jimmy looked up at Steve, “Why Steve? How can something like this happen?”

‘How it could happen’ was obvious to Steve, but what could he say? He paused, “It’s my fault. They were after me … it should have been me.” He came back to that morbid thought.

“Don’t say that,” Jimmy was terse, “It’s nobody’s fault, except those creeps who did this.” He swore softly under his breath. “What should we do?”

“I’m not sure we should do anything. I think we’re out of our league.”

Jimmy retorted furiously. “They killed my best friend and, from what you say, hundreds of others. They can’t get away with this. We have to do something.” His face was tense and aggressive. His glare showed he was waiting for some response from Steve.

“I can see you’re angry...” He stopped. ‘What a dope, what a dope.’  His thoughts echoed as he considered what an inane remark that was, “... you have every right to be.” said Steve coolly, “but anything we do in the heat of the moment is likely to fail.”

            Patting Jimmy on the back, he tried to sound a little more upbeat, “I’ll make us a cup of coffee and we’ll make plans.” He stood up and extricated some cups out of the cluttered sink, giving them a brief rinse.

“So you’re going to do something.”

“We’ll make plans,” he repeated. “These people have tried to kill me because they think I’m the only link to their base. If they find out they have failed they’ll try again. I don’t think they’ll quit. And —” He almost said ‘collateral damage’— “hurting other people, is not a high concern on their list.”

            The two girls took drinks into the customer walk-through area while waiting for police permission to go home. Steve and Jimmy went into the office. Talking over their coffees the two discussed a variety of actions. Jimmy’s risky suggestions were largely motivated by his anger and his emotional state, but also, in part, because that was the way Jimmy was. The huddle over the table and the lowered voices presented a classical portrait of two schemers. Initially they were interrupted by the crime squad informing them they were taping the area for forensic police. Soon after that Jodie burst in. She was flustered and showed visible relief upon seeing Steve and Jimmy.

“I know you told me to stay away, but when I heard about the explosion on the radio I had to come.” She slowed down; “they said police reported one fatality…” she came to a halt, unable to put the words in a sentence.”

“Pete,” said Steve hoarsely. He went on with a tremble in his voice, “Pete… he was in my car.”

Distress spread across her face, “Oh Jimmy, I’m so sorry.” She went over, pulled up a chair and sat next to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he put his head on her neck, any lingering pretence of bravado crumbling at her concern, and the tears began to flow from both of them.

            The crime squad questioned everyone again with little new information being gained. The police then said that the plant nursery workers were free to go. Amidst the trauma and emotion of the moment John and Caz walked in. They had called earlier and found out from Jimmy what had happened. There were hugs and more hugs; and after some time of grieving and commiserating together, Steve, Jimmy and John sat down and continued the former pair’s discussion. Caz made more coffees all round and handed out sandwiches that she had brought, and the two girls talked quietly while the three men were hunched in mutual conspiracy.

            Finally, John made suggestions about evacuating the premises and meeting at his and Fiona’s home for dinner. Jimmy offered the use of his car to Steve while Jodie offered to drive him in the blue Volkswagen. Steve gladly accepted the first and refused the second saying that he had a number of errands to run and ‘the less they saw of him the better’. This comment was met with some consternation until he explained that Jimmy’s car faded into the background easily compared with Jodie’s bright blue VW.

He tried to insist that it was best if they kept their distance. They all rejected his comments out of hand. John put into words what they were all thinking.

“I think we understand where you are coming from Steve, but we’re all in this together, whether you like it or not.”

            Parting commenced with hugs and assurances that they would meet at John’s home later that night. Steve walked to the gate and watched them all leave, skirting the cordoned area where investigators were picking over the rubble. Jimmy left with Jodie who was dropping him off at his place.

 “Look after yourself mate,” John said as he drove away with a wave of his arm.

 There were a number of news crews that had arrived earlier. They had been recording reports and now some shouted questions to the departing friends and to Steve, who stood there dismayed.

            He remained at a distance gesturing and waving them away, but some persistent reporters were making their way with cameras and microphones seeking an interview. Steve retreated to the office and locked the door, busying himself with tidying up and ignoring the commotion outside the door. After half an hour or so, they withdrew to the scene of the explosion to record some last minute segments for the evening news. Steve saw this as an opportunity to sneak out the side door and get into Jimmy’s small Ford.

 

As he was quietly locking the side door he was startled by a soft “Hello.” He spun around and came face to face with a young, slender and very attractive girl. She was blonde and wore a blousy light coloured top and dark skirt. While Steve was still momentarily flummoxed by her nearness, her scent and the unexpected meeting, she spoke in an anxious tone.

“You’re hurt. Shouldn’t you get that looked at?”

“Yeah, I will,” Steve replied glancing at the red soaked bandage and feeling uncomfortable about his sweaty and dirty appearance. The girl composed herself.

“My name’s Kelly Wilkerson. I’m a reporter for the local paper, and I’m gathering information about this shocking incident. I’m wondering if you have any comments about the explosion outside your business today?”

“Er, no, no comment.” His first thought was that she didn’t sound like a reporter, but then again, she could be just starting out.

“Please sir, do you know the victim? Why do you think this happened?”

            The American accent in her voice suddenly sounded familiar. “You rang me earlier in the week for a story didn’t you?”

“Yes. Look this is my first big break. I’ve just come from the States for this job. Can you tell me what you know?”

“Listen, I’m sorry, I have no comment. Now I must go.” Steve was firming his resolve.

An idea seemed to visibly form in her mind, “If I call out, all those news crews will stampede down here and you’ll be here for ages. Just a few questions, please?” she gave him her best winning smile and Steve was ensnared by it and by her light blue eyes.

“Just a couple of questions then,” he sighed.

“Who was the victim?”

“A casual worker.”

“Name?”

“Ask the police, they’ll know when details are to be released.”

“Why do you think the car was blown up?”

“I can’t say.”

“You can’t or you won’t say?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Is it true that the vehicle blown up was your car?” Kelly looked steadfastly at Steve.

“No comment.”

“Does that mean that you may have been the target of today’s blast?” she pressed.

“No comment, and I think that might be enough Kelly, if you don’t mind.” He went to move past her to the car but she gripped his right arm firmly and spoke sympathetically.

“Steve, I don’t want to add to your hurt… you understand. I have a job to do.”

“Yeah, I understand,” he feebly tried to be gruff, surprised that she used his name and surprised by what seemed to be genuine concern. She let go his arm and he felt ambivalent about the release. There was something tantalising about being manhandled by this attractive girl.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said softly. “Perhaps we could talk again, off the record. Do you know that coffee shop up the road…‘Inn for Coffee’? I’ll be there at 11 in the morning if you want to talk.” And she swayed away.

Steve, strangely stirred, responded, “I doubt if I can make it. Don’t wait too long…I have a lot to do.” His pathetic protestations were lost to her distant form.

            On his way home he dropped into the super market and bought groceries. Was that a stranger lurking at some shelves watching him? He walked around the aisles a few times but wasn’t sure. When he came down the same aisle for the third time there was definitely a pair of eyes following his movements. He met the gaze of the man watching him, staring at him in an attempt to cower him. His reaction made Steve feel a bit ridiculous.

“Can I help you?”

“Er no.”

“Sure? You seem to be looking for something.”

“No, no I thought I saw someone.” Steve then took his shopping through the checkout sensing curious glances and feeling very self-conscious. Out on the road he again felt pursued. He searched his mirrors. How long had that blue car been following? He circled the neighbourhood in a variety of directions before convincing himself he was not followed.

“I’m getting paranoid,” he breathed and then checked the mirror once more before finally heading directly home. He thought it necessary to lock the car in the garage behind the heavy wooden doors.
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