Please note well: In case you were wondering, even though November is over, I will be publishing the rest of this book here, section by section. But if you can’t wait to see how it ends, you can order this book in hard copy, and the link for that is here. In addition, audio chapters are being recorded and released on the new Canon App.
As they had been spending more and more hours on the run, both Cody and Helen had begun to grow extremely wary, and cagey. They started to park the car a few streets over from any restaurant they decided to visit so as not to have the car possibly spotted by someone, and them sitting inside, thirty seconds away, as vulnerable as you please. And it had also occurred to them that credit card use could probably be tracked, even if they didn’t know yet that it was Cody who had spirited Helen away. So he had hit one ATM downtown, and gotten a couple thousand dollars out of savings. They were then able to pay cash for all their meals and other incidentals.
The evening after they had gotten back from Lynchburg, they had spotted a restaurant they thought looked unobtrusive, and they went and parked the rental three or four blocks away. “And the walking should do us some good,” Cody said, “after driving around all day.”
But after they had walked for a block, and much to their surprise, they came on an abandoned school building, one that had the look of a junior high about it. “Early seventies,” Cody said. “I went to one just like that.” There was a huge parking lot in the middle, with knee-high weeds growing up through the aged asphalt, weeded ball fields off to the left, only identifiable through a sagging chain link backstop, and off to the right was the school. It still looked entirely serviceable, but Cody guessed that an ambitious superintendent had gotten a bond levy passed, and was now tormenting his prisoners at a swankier location.
They got to the restaurant and ordered their meals, and were each silently critical of the other’s dietary choices. Cody had ordered chicken-fried steak, and Helen had ordered a kale salad. Their meal passed in small talk, but when Helen was finishing her salad, she couldn’t resist one comment. “That salad was really good. I am surprised that a place that could make a salad that good would even have something like chicken fried steak, as you call it, on the menu.” As she was talking she noticed that there was a little extra dig in her comment that she tried to fix at the end of the sentence with a little lilt in her laugh.
And Cody didn’t seem to notice anything wrong, because he laughed too, and said, “Well, yeah. And I was surprised that a place that would serve kale salad would know how to make chicken fried steak. But they sure did.” Helen’s jab, which she had decided halfway through shouldn’t have been a jab, had gone whistling over his head. He wasn’t embarrassed about anything at all. How could you be embarrassed about eating a chicken fried steak?
As they were walking back to the car, and were crossing the school grounds again, for some reason Cody felt an odd sensation running up his neck, and he turned around and looked back the way they had come. The back parking lot of the restaurant abutted the property of the old school, and was about the length of a football field away. Two men were climbing out of a car that was facing them. One of them jerked, and pointed at them, and the other one walked around to the front of the car and stepped through the hole in the fence that Cody and Helen had just come through. The other man followed him.
They hadn’t been tailed, Cody was sure of it. This was sheer bad luck. And they had limited choices. If they ran for it, they would probably not make it. There was no place to hide off to their right where the ball fields were. That left the school, which was only twenty yards off to their left. If they ran, it would confirm their identity, but when Cody glanced back again, he saw the two men were already running.
“Come on,” he said, and bolted for the concrete steps that ran up to the front doors. Please, please, don’t be locked, Cody thought. But when they got there he realized the question was immaterial. The window to the right of the main doors had been broken out, and replaced, like ages ago, with a piece of plywood. That piece of plywood had been knocked askew by others who wanted access to the school for some reason, and all Cody had to do was push on it slightly to make a hole large enough for them to step through, first Helen, and then Cody.
There was a fairly large atrium with a bank of what had been the school offices off to the right, and a broad stairway along the left wall. Straight ahead was a passageway that looked as though it emptied into a gym. They stood momentarily. “Our strategy right now is hiding, not fighting,” Cody said. “Where would the best opportunities for hiding be?”
“Upstairs,” they both said at the same moment.
A second later, Cody and Helen were running up the stairs together, with Cody slowing down a few times to wait for her. At the first landing, he extended his hand and she took it, and they dashed up the second flight together. Both of them were panting at the top, and instinctively they both turned down the hallway that went to the right.
It was an old school building, and so they ran past five or six classrooms. At the end of the hall, everything opened out into a broad and well-lit room, one that looked like it had once been used for band practice or something like that. On the far side of the room was a set of double doors, and another set of stairs that went back down to the first floor.
“They will totally expect us to run down there, trying to get to ground level again,” Cody said, still panting.
“Don’t we want to get to ground level again?” Helen asked.
“Sure thing. After they are long gone.” Cody took a few steps back down the hallway, past the girls’ restroom, and pushed on the next door and peered inside. “Hurry!” Helen said behind him.
It was a storeroom, crammed with old desks, blackboards on rolling wheels, audio visual carts, and many other articles that spoke solemnly of the fact that education did indeed cast off detritus. Cody looked down at the floor and along the wall on the right side saw a place he thought they could manage to crawl through.
Along the back wall, he could see a row of rolled up carpets, standing on end, like a line of stiff soldiers.
He turned to Helen, and pointed to the crawl space. “Give me the gun,” he said. “I will come right after you.”
He would not have attempted it had not some enterprising soul unrolled one of the carpets and put it on the floor before stashing all the equipment in there. If the floor had been simply tile, Cody was sure their crawl tracks would have been visible in the dust, and that would have been far too great a risk.
Helen had given him the gun, seeming kind of glad about it, and promptly disappeared. Cody heard one of the two men downstairs kicking the plywood in, and he shut the door of the storeroom partially, got on his hands and knees and followed Helen to the back wall. When he was about four feet in, he hooked his left leg on a desk behind him, and pulled it into their passageway.
When he got to the back of the storeroom, he found Helen standing in the corner where the crawl space ended. He stood up beside her, gingerly, and found that there was scarcely room for the two of them. He turned around cautiously and saw that their heads were both sticking up above the furniture. It was either kneeling down, or getting behind the line of rolled-up carpets. If the bad guys came in to look for them in here, he would much rather be standing up. And behind the carpets he would be in a position to use the gun.
In the distance he heard voices, he thought coming up the main stairs. He put the gun in his belt, and pushed and pulled at the nearest two carpet rolls. With a good deal of effort, he cleared a space where the two of them could stand.
“I will go in first,” he said, “and have my back to the wall. I want to be able to use the gun if I have to, and will need a clear line of sight.” He had that in a two-inch slit between the two carpet rolls he had moved. “Then you come in.”
He scooted around Helen, got his back to the wall, and slid sideways into the space he had made. When he was settled, he reached out his left hand, and drew her in. She was facing him, back to the door, and was leaning heavily on his chest. He got the gun out of the belt, and held it up at the ready.
All the two of them could hear at first was the sound of their own breathing, along with a couple of heartbeats badly out of sync, both of which they thought were making an enormous racket. After their breathing subsided, they could only hear their hearts beating, but not quite as raucous, and then, voices in the hall way outside.
“They could have gone into any of these classrooms,” one of the voices said.
“Why would they do that?” the second man said. “They’s trying to get away.”
“What would you do?” The first voice asked, pushing the storeroom door open with the barrel of a pistol.
“Me? I’m a high-tailer, not a hider . . . damn!” “What?” The first voice said.
“A staircase, over there, running straight back down to God’s green grass. C’mon.” Cody heard footsteps running.
“You sure? . . . oh, never mind.”
But Cody and Helen stood right where they were until the sun went down. Cody’s right leg went completely to sleep, and he started to wonder if he would even be able to crawl out when they finally decided to try. Or if he would do so dragging one leg behind him.
Helen went first, and got out easily. Cody made heavy weather of it. He decided his leg wasn’t actually asleep, but rather in some sort of a coma. When he finally made it to the end of their little crawl tunnel, he tried to stand up, and the only reason he didn’t go completely over was that he hit the wall with his left shoulder. “Mercy,” he said. “We will have to stand here for a bit until my leg joins us again. Unless you want to carry me back to the car.”
Helen laughed at that, and when she was done, the old school returned to complete silence. Cody noticed that Helen didn’t ask for her gun back.