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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   Mon Oct 16, 2017 5:26 pm

Chapter 14 - Jodie

            Going into the bakery to get some lunch, Steve almost walked into Jodie coming out. He felt the need to build some bridges and talk to an old friend, so he decided quickly to ask her if she wanted to eat lunch with him. His opening was uncertain.

“Hi, er do you want to have some lunch with me?” She looked up at him still hovering in the doorway holding a package of her own lunch.

“Okay…” Jodie responded cautiously, “although I thought you’d be having lunch with Kelly,” she confronted Steve with a strained smile and tried not to sound jealous, but failed miserably.

            He soon had his pastry and they came out and sat down at a table underneath the large shady plane tree. A light breeze eased the discomfort of what would have been almost oppressive heat. Jodie’s dark hair, tied up in a ponytail, as usual, was teased by the wind and she brushed a wisp from her face as she looked up at him.

Steve opened. “So how come you’re not eating lunch at home?”

“We were invited to the Wran’s but I opted out. Jamie was keen because of Jake, but I was just going to stay at home and read a bit.” She was going to add that she wasn’t up to socialising just yet with all the trauma during the week, but managed to refrain, recognising that she had already made disparaging comments about Steve’s friendship. She knew it would be just a backhanded way of criticising him again. Taking another bite in an attempt to mask the torrent in her mind, Jodie thought to herself that she had to get over it.

            Still munching on the mouthful of her vegetable quiche she managed to ask, “What are you guys planning?” Jodie wanted to know what was going on and that was reasonable, but Steve was fearful—in his mind, the less anyone knew the better it was for all concerned. As Steve was deliberating on some tactful reply she continued, “Why are you being so secretive? Don’t you trust me?” she looked questioningly, but also slightly accusing.

            Steve retorted, “It’s not about trust, it’s about risk.” Startled by his own forcefulness he lowered his voice. “I don’t want to involve people I care for, anyone else for that matter.” He stopped, feeling himself get into deeper water.

“Don’t you think I can make those sorts of decisions? I’m a grown woman and I want to be involved with the people I care for. That’s what caring means.” Jodie dropped her eyes as she realised the implications of her remark. There was a momentary lull and Steve felt a sudden inexplicable desire to hug her, before quickly rallying his defences with a glib riposte, “Touché.” What was it with him and women? His past couple of weeks had made him seek out more emotional contact, even to the extent of these stirrings—stirrings to be physically demonstrative of his feelings? Was it an awareness of what he was missing and finally coming to realise some of the things that were important in life? 

            Steve tried to explain to her that, from recent events, she knew now that the situation had developed and that it was very serious and dangerous.

She countered that ‘fore-warned was fore-armed’.

And he relented. Admitting what he thought he could admit—something of what he and John had talked about.

“Okay, you win. I’m going to try and get a sample of the virus from the base. If Eric has that, he might be able to nullify any threat.” However, Jodie looked unconvinced that he had been totally frank about the whole story, and Steve became aware that she knew him better than he thought. Should he say anything about the threats, his suspicions about Kelly or how he actually planned to counter attack? To extract himself from her scrutiny he changed the subject.

“I’ll get some coffee.”

            He went into the coffee shop and brought out some hot coffees. Indicators of Jodie’s underlying hostilities emerged as she wryly commented, “You must be getting used to taking girls out for coffee.” She immediately dropped her head and murmured an apology, feeling very petty, while Steve tried to ignore the dig.  Not much was clarified by their subsequent bartering for information and soon they left, Jodie in a poorer mood than before.

            Steve was just ahead as they crossed the car park and Jodie tried one last parry. “How much does Jimmy know? I mean...” but her argument was lost in a scream of tyres. Almost in slow motion Steve turned to see a dark RV bearing down on them. Despairing at the sluggishness of his reactions, his body lurched toward Jodie who saw the wide eyed fright in his eyes. She began to recoil from his lunge unaware of the careering vehicle behind her.  He grasped hold of Jodie as she screamed in panic. Clutching onto her he twisted her off the roadway and forced himself underneath her to break her fall. What seemed interminably long was in fact almost instantaneous as he just dragged her down and pulled them both headlong onto the grassy verge. She thudded into him as they landed. The roaring engine passed by and the RV’s tyres were grinding on the kerb edge within centimetres of them. The unmistakeable smell of diesel fuel lingered as the sound diminished. Split seconds from disaster, they had been nearly run over by the vehicle which seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Hearts racing, shaking and searching for a steadying breath, they watched the car receding into the distance.

            There was an electric, spine tingling thrill between them as they slowly recovered their composure. Jodie had collapsed down on top of him and she smiled at him for the first time in a while. “I suppose you win the argument. This is serious isn’t it?” she said. “I guess I didn’t really believe you.” As they reluctantly drew apart, her perfume reminded him of her closeness and the touch of her body brought a flood of mixed emotions. He wanted to hug her, to protect her, to express some affection and Jodie sensed his uncertainty as their eyes locked. There was a moment when all the shared memories of childhood vanished, and now, as if he’d experienced some sort of revelation, he appreciated that she was a very attractive woman. How had he not noticed her glossy dark hair; her dancing blue eyes? Where had his mind been as she was growing into such a beautiful woman? Not specifically her appearance, though there was no denying her comeliness, but rather the caring, loving, bright personality that she was.

            A cry from a waitress running out the coffee shop shattered the moment. “Are you all right? He did that on purpose,” she claimed. “It looked like he accelerated at you.”

“He must have missed the brakes,” suggested Steve.

She scrunched her face doubtfully.

“We’re okay,” Steve proffered. And because there was nothing more to do, and seeing they were unhurt, the waitress returned to the shop muttering something about crazy drivers.

            Steve regained his self-control and, with some effort, isolated his emotions. They untangled themselves with some moans from Steve and shared nervous giggles to relieve the tension. Almost gruffly he said his goodbyes. “I had better go. I have a fair bit to do.”

“Okay,” she replied diffidently, “... and sorry for being so...so” she searched for a word, “...nit-picking? ...”  She then noticed the seeping stain on his shirt. “Steve you’re bleeding again.”

He glanced at it. “I’ve just opened the wound a bit. It actually doesn’t feel too bad. I’ll fix it at home. Anyway, I’ll see you later.” He sounded a bit awkward.

He got into his brother’s car and hastily drove off. Jodie stood next to her blue Volkswagen looking in the direction of his departure. There was an uncertainty in her expression as she recalled the intimacy of the last few minutes.

                                    _________________________________

 

            Monday at the office and Steve had completed most of his preparations for his foray the following day. He rang Eric and ensured his readiness, while John said he had the equipment and would see him at the funeral that afternoon. He checked his email on the new computer. It was empty. Somebody had wiped everything. He had nothing now to refer to. He rang his internet provider but could get no explanation from them regarding his mail account.

            His two friends worked on menial, more routine tasks that morning but closed in on him at morning coffee. Apparently Jodie was still determined to go and was fishing for information. Jimmy made his claims as well, and with fending off both Jodie and Jimmy, Steve was becoming exasperated. The conflict about who should go raised the temperature of the relationships and Steve was running out of arguments.

            A phone call interrupted a simmering lull in the quarrel. It was Sergeant McGuiness.

“Steve, you’re not safe. Somebody here higher up is now involved.” His voice was lowered, tense and restrained. “You need to all disappear, got that, okay?”

“Why? What’s happened?”

“Okay... All I know is that all the reports and evidence we’ve been collecting have been taken out of our hands. You’re being watched. You’ve been labelled a security risk so I can’t get any information. You got that, okay?” He waited for a response.

“Yeah..., but I thought I’d satisfied them,” Steve managed dumbfounded.

“It’s not just him. They may be reacting to pressure from someone else. Just get out of there, got that?”

“Yeah...”

“Okay, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got things organised at this end. Let me know if you change your plans, okay.” Click, the phone disconnected.

“Okay, okay...” Steve murmured numbly, still picking up McGuiness’ speech idiosyncrasy.

            The phone rang again and this time Jodie took the call. Steve was frantically thinking about the best way for all of them to ‘disappear’. Jodie’s face took on an edgy grimace before she held the phone out to Steve.

“It’s for you, Stephen,” Jodie murmured and she moved away becoming strangely quiet and introspective.

He took the phone from her outstretched hand aware of her quizzical look.

“Hello.”

“Stephen, it’s Kelly. Could we meet? There are things we have to talk about.”

Steve walked out of earshot and continued.

“Er, no I don’t think that’s possible now. What’s the problem?” he asked trying to avoid Jodie’s eyes.

“Well, I need to see you. You need to tell me what you’re going to do.”  She sounded strangely desperate. Was it concern for him, or something else?” We could just drive or go get a coffee or something.” She waited then queried, “Stephen?” when he was slow in responding.

“Oh, um listen, why don’t we talk after the funeral? I have about half an hour before I have another appointment.” She wanted to keep talking but Steve convinced her that their conversation was at an end.

            He hung up and looked across the office. “Are you alright?” Steve asked noticing Jodie’s despondency.

“Uh huh, she murmured looking up at him. “I guess, I’ve just got to sort some things out.”

“Anything I can help with?”

Jodie stifled an ironic laugh, “No, I’m good at telling others what to do, but when it comes to relying on God in my life, well I like to try and take charge.” Jodie avoided any mention of the yearning in her heart for him, and of the tumult of emotions overwhelming her each time Kelly entered the scene and drew Steve’s attentions.

            “You guys need to stay away from here,” blurted Steve as he recalled Sergeant McGuiness’ warning. “It’s not safe. That was Sergeant McGuiness, just before, with a warning. We’ll close the place down and then we need to find someplace secure away from here.”

“You want us to hide?” It was Jimmy sounding affronted, “...after what they did to Pete?”

“I’m serious. Straight after the funeral this afternoon we need to disperse and stay hidden for a while.” Steve moved purposely off and proceeded to close and lock all the buildings. He left them in no doubt he meant it.

                                    ……………………………

  

            The funeral service was a revelation in more ways than one. Jodie was incredibly attractive in a simple black dress and black choker. Steve had become so used to Jodie in jeans, tee shirt and sneakers, and her hair tied up, or in a ponytail. Now he became much more aware of her appeal. She smiled solemnly at him and he looked at her appreciatively not for the first time. He could never think of her as a little sister again, but as a grown woman. A small dimple dented one cheek, a light blush of colour splashed over her cheeks as she became aware of his stare, and her lovely face was framed by her long straight black hair. He also became slightly uncomfortable as he looked into her clear blue eyes.

            Kelly arrived a little later and sidled up to Steve. Jodie immediately withdrew slightly drawing in her lips pensively, her expression becoming a little melancholy. The service was sombre and formal and Steve was relieved when it was over. Pete’s parents and family were distraught and found little consolation in what was said. They all drove slowly to the graveside and witnessed the brief burial service.  While standing a short distance behind family and immediate friends, Kelly leaned across speaking softly and tried to make an appointment to meet at the office the next morning, but Steve said that wasn’t possible. She then started speaking to Jimmy and Steve took the opportunity to slip away.

            In the car park of the cemetery Jodie came across and spoke, “Steve, we need to get together and support each other in this thing.”

“Jodie, we’ve been through this. I’ve got it in hand.” He tried to sound confident then added...  “Anyway, I need to go.”

“What? ... Another little meeting with Kelly...” she saw his eyes widen and suddenly she regretted another gaffe. But Steve became heated, “You leave Kelly out of this ... and stay away from her.” He knew what he meant to say; that he wasn’t sure if she was trustworthy—that she might be dangerous—but he was sure it didn’t come out right. His raised voice and sudden aggravation startled her.  

            Jodie escaped with tears welling up in her eyes. The sight of Jodie’s moist eyes as she fled tore at Steve’s emotions. He wanted to pursue her and apologise and make his feelings known, but he had to get information to the Professor and he was also concerned about getting too close to Jodie, and then putting her life at risk too. He felt he had to avoid having strong feelings and awry emotions when all his efforts should be dealing with the problem at hand. He was trying to defuse a deadly peril facing the world—for all he knew—and it was important to move one step at a time; otherwise the unreality, the monstrosity, of it all would swamp him. 

            After ringing Eric, Steve made some other crucial phone calls and spent some time communicating the plans he and John had made over the past few days. He hoped he wasn’t sending people on a wild goose chase, but the importance of making a clean getaway ruled his thinking. It was better if some were inconvenienced in his effort to try and cater for every eventuality, than for him to be apprehended. He allowed himself a small grin as he considered the lengths to which he was going, just to avoid pursuit in his drive down the coast.

            Kelly came across, her face lighting up, “You said you had half an hour.”

“Maybe a bit less,” he said looking at his watch.

“Tell me what’s going on. What are you involved with? Why is so much happening around you?” Steve couldn’t deny it. It was a matter of public record that he’d made a number of police reports and been interviewed over several incidents.

“Let’s just say that I’m a victim, but I’m not the only one.”

“So tell me. I’ll report it.”

“I’ll give you the story when it’s over.”

“I can’t help thinking you’ve got something to hide.” Her look was inquisitorial. Steve thought that he could say the same about her.

“Look, I’ve got to go. As I said, there are things I have to do.”

“What if I follow you?”

Steve stared hard at Kelly, “Don’t!” he implored. She backed away a little at his intensity.

Steve turned and headed to the borrowed car when he thought he heard Kelly murmur as she walked off, “I have things to do too.” 
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