Laura opened the door and greeted him with a bear hug and a big kiss. Aunt Mary was out and would return later. They were not to worry about waiting for her. She would call Amy’s when she got home. Laura had talked to Amy earlier. She would be happy to have them for as long as the situation required.
“Good,” answered Paul, “but, we shouldn’t have to stay long.”
“Oh, why not?” asked Laura, excitement apparent in her voice.
“The police have a plan to crush those zoners. I, for one, won’t mind seeing that!”
“Me too, I want to go home.”
A different note in her voice caused him to look at her more closely. Oddly enough, her eyes sparkled and a hint of a smile turned up the corners of her lips.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Laura, instead of looking worried or mad, you look like you’re excited and happy!”
“Maybe I am,” she said coyly.
“Well, tell me. What is it?”
“I think I’m pregnant!” she burst out.
“I think so.”
“I’m going to be a dad?” responded Paul incredulously.
Laura smiled and he again pulled her to him and held her closely.
“You’re going to be a mother.”
“I think. I missed my period, but it’s too early to know.”
Across the sprawl of the great Chicago metropolis, over twenty miles from where Paul Henderson received news of possible impending parenthood and prepared to spend the night in marital bliss, a meeting of very different character took place.
Stealing through the ruins of the zone, flitting from shadow to shadow never fully exposed in the dusky, evening light, a short, compact man made his way toward an abandoned factory. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and cocked his Mohawk spiked head to one side, as if seeking the source of a sound. He crouched into a posture that made him half his normal size. He remained motionless until he confirmed that no danger lurked nearby. Then the zoner proceeded as before, using the shelter of crumbling, ghostly remains of defunct factory and warehouse buildings to shield his progress. After a time, he reached a wide road. The concrete was cracked and heaved up like small, craggy mountains. Demolished hulks of the last century’s cars, tombstones to an age of waste and unchecked greed, dotted the roadway. All manner of waste, thorny gray-green growth and the remains of several human beings and other animals delineated a wasteland within a wasteland.
The zoner stayed in the shadow of the deteriorating buildings that lined the road. They had once been bars, eating joints, convenience stores, pawnshops, and such that serviced the rough, hard working men who keep an industrial area moving. Now they were dead: windows like empty sockets of bleached skulls, walls crumbling, and gaping doorways haunted by their ghosts. The zoner ducked into one of those doorways and was immediately swallowed by its blackness. There he waited and watched. He could see his destination. Safety in a land of constant danger – safety from the death that often came for no reason other than it was part of the zone.
The man the rest of the word called a zoner did not have a name of official record. He had been born to a zone woman. She stayed with any man who would have her for as long as he would have her. She died when the man she was with, who had also been born of such a woman hit her too hard. Her young child, then five years old, had survived. Now, he was called Zip. He killed men without remorse. Women, he ignored. He watched out for a small boy and his sister. Otherwise, his only human affection was the loyalty he bore his chief.
Although it was very hot, Zip wore a rough suit of armor made from pieces of scrap metal. Under the armor, he wore a very worn and ragged coverall that was made from Kevlar. The Kevlar coverall was a war trophy. Its wearer was respected a little more than a man who did not have one. Everything he wore was black, gray and sand colored, the best camouflage for the zone. His weapons were a long knife and a very modern light beam weapon. Most of the time Zip used the knife. The light weapon was saved for dire necessity, usually only when ordered by the chief.
After several minutes of waiting, Zip suddenly dashed from the doorway, across about ten feet of open space into a wrecked car. All the glass was gone and the doors were gone, but the car was a shelter. He stayed there for several seconds, before he sprang out the other side and ran to a car resting on its side in about the middle of the road. Pressed against the underside of the car, it was difficult to see him because of his clothing. He remained there long enough to catch his breath and make ready for the long, open run from the middle of the road to the protecting buildings on the other side. Normally the road wasn’t crossed until night fully enshrouded the zone, but the urgency of his information didn’t allow him the luxury of waiting. Something was going on, and the chief had to know. Zip gathered his courage and made a run for it. Suddenly the air around him was charged with energy. Small geysers of concrete sprayed up in front of him, and he heard several impacts behind. Less than five feet remained to safety, and he zigged one more time and broke his crouch for the last few steps. Then he was safely on the other side, and into the shelter of a darkened doorway.
Zip paused to catch his breath. He congratulated himself on having made it across and promised to get even someday. There were only a few people in the zone who would waste so much energy trying to pick him off, and he knew who they were. He also knew there was no point in trying to retaliate right now. They were long gone, but someday they would pay. Zip picked his way through the deteriorating building, once a large pawnshop. Now it’s display cases were shattered, the ceiling cracked and falling, garbage was everywhere, and the remains of several fires testified to occasional habitation. He sought the rear window and checked the alley behind. He was about to climb out the window and into the alley when he heard a sound off to his right and not very far away. He strained with all his senses to pick up the source, but didn’t detect anything. Then he heard the sound again. This time it was a little closer; he redoubled his efforts to find the source. It was an animal sense, awakened in a human being forced to live like a wild animal that warned him of a more immediate danger. It was too late. Just as he realized he had been tricked, he felt his back and lungs explode with fire. And then he was dead.
Laura was waiting for him. Her greeting came in the form of a silky teddy under a diaphanous wrap. There was a gleam in her eyes and her kiss was wet and deep.
“Amy is out, I presume,” he managed.
“She has some errands.”
He kissed her neck, and reaching under the wrap, pushed the thin strap of her teddy off her shoulder. It exposed the wondrous orb of perfect flesh he sought, and he exploded with an inner fire that could only be satisfied in her sweetest embrace. Sweeping her into his arms, he effortlessly carried her to their room where he laid her carefully down and buried himself in her.
Afterward they lay quietly and talked for a few minutes. He broached the subject of bugs and locators, but she cut it off. They only got moving when they heard Amy come in. Laura threw on a top and pants and gave him another lingering kiss before she went to greet Amy. He got his clothes on and checked his pocket for the locator. He found them in Amy’s office.
“Hi, did you get your errands done?”
“Sure did. How about you?” asked Amy, giving them both an appraising look.
“Don’t be so prudish, sister. I wish I was so lucky.”
“Aren’t you lucky to be so loved?” Paul asked, pulling Laura tightly into his body.
“Em, I love you baby.”
“Aw c’mon you two. There are other people in this room.”
“There are?” kidded Laura.
“Hey,” Paul exclaimed, after looking at his watch, “I have to get going. Supposed to lunch with the grand old man.”
“Moving up stairs?” asked Amy.
“No, at least I don’t think so. I don’t know what he wants.”
Laura gave him one last kiss.
“Be careful out there,” she cautioned.
“I will. Oh shoot, I forgot what I came for,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He produced the little box and handed it to Laura.
“I’ve never given you anything before that comes with more love in its giving.”
“Paul!” chided Laura, blushing.
She took the box and opened it.
“Oh, Paul! This is gorgeous!” she gasped. “You shouldn’t have! It’s beautiful! Look at this Amy. It’s huge!”
“Wow. That’s beautiful!” agreed Amy.
“A token of my love. Wear it always. Got to go. Love you, baby,” Paul abruptly told them, as he opened the door.
“Paul, wait…” began Laura.
“Have to go, baby. I’ll be late if I don’t get going this second. See you later. Love you. Bye,” he said and was gone. He skipped down the stairs two at a time in case she got the idea to come after him. He knew once she got over the shock of the thing, and her shrewd business sense engaged, she would have several questions he would find difficult to answer. He had his conscience to deal with, too. Never before had he deceived Laura, and he felt guilty about doing it. What choice was there? How could he imagine she would be so stubborn? Didn’t the cost, the threat, justify any method? So his thinking went.
They had to be in the cabinet somewhere, he thought, so he went back to check. It was dark and cool in the record room, and as the lights flickered into life, he felt a chill tickle his spine. Shivering slightly, he moved through the quiet, tomb-like room. When he reached the file cabinet, he paused before it for a few seconds. Without command his hand rose slowly toward the second drawer handle. Grasping it, he drew the drawer open. There lay the folder, just as he had left it. Relieved that it hadn’t been misplaced, he retrieved it and headed home, a fascinating idea taking form in his mind. As he neared home, he couldn’t steady the racing of his heart. He bumped into the garbage can as he sped into the driveway and didn’t wait to see if the little Electrocon’s door was closed before he bolted into the house. His excitement had grown by the minute, and now he fumbled with his key before he got the high security lock open. He pounced on the magazine like a cat catching a string it had chased for the last ten minutes. Soon the magazine pictures were in front of him and the rock pictures spread out around them. Dissatisfied, he raced into the kitchen and got a pair of scissors. Heart beating wildly, he deftly cut the computer enhancements so they were shaped like the rocks. Then, impatient with the delay of cutting, he began to construct a large jigsaw puzzle on the living room floor. When he was done, he had reproduced the pictures in the magazine almost to the last detail. There on the parched plain of southern Illinois, USA, a dying preacher had drawn the same symbols a dying tribe of primitives had scratched in stone in their jungle tomb!
True to her word, she called later that night.
“I just got home.”
“You must be beat!” he exclaimed looking at his watch.
She laughed: “Uncle Geoff couldn’t stop talking. It was the longest short meeting I’ve ever had with him.”
“I’ve never found him overly talkative.”
“You haven’t known him as long as I have. Sometimes you can’t shut him up.”
“Well, he’s very proud of you. So am I, if you care to know.”
“That makes me happy.”
“Paul, would you like to come over tonight?”
“It’s quite late.”
“Oh, if you don’t want to…”
“No, no!” he interrupted. “It’s not that at all. I want to see you, but…”
It was Keli’s turn to interrupt: “No ‘but’ about it. If there was any but, I wouldn’t have asked you. I really want to see you – tonight,” she added after a second’s hesitation.
“Any particular time?”
“Whenever you can get here. See you later?”
“I’m on the way,” he said, as he rung off.
He frowned at the disheveled countenance reflected back to him by the seemingly ever more unforgiving mirror.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who’s fairest of them all?”
The mirror remained mute, but something inside wanted to scream. Laura, Laura, Laura!
“Leave me alone!” he shouted. He slammed his fisted on the vanity top hard enough to make everything on it shake. “Leave me alone… Please…” Tears flowed freely from his eyes and down his checks to form a small puddle on the vanity. He let himself collapse until he was a small thing: knees tucked up under chin, rounded back against the wall, arms tied into a knot to hold the entire package together. Sobs shook him as he prayed to be released. He knew he would always love Laura; none could ever take her place, but he had to move on with his life, and he felt certain that he was falling in love with Keli After awhile, he pushed and pulled himself up until he was leaning on the vanity for support, and he again peered into the mirror. He thrust his face close enough that all he could see was his eyes. What was behind them? They stared back at him asking the same question. Suddenly he was laughing. His reddened eyes and nose created a clownish appearance, and he felt like he had mourned enough. A quick recheck of the mirror confirmed his notion that repairs would require the full treatment: shave, shower and so forth. He violated the one-minute shower rule and indulged by letting the hot water massage away his pain. When he got out, he let the water evaporate from his body as he shaved. The chill was pleasant. Still as he had come into the world, he stood to full height and brushed his hair. A trace of age around the middle, he noted; time to get all the way back into life. I can no longer live in this hiatus, suspended from time and life. I have to go forward now – completely, to live, to love, to make love.
It was after ten when he knocked on Keli’s door. There was no immediate response, so he was about to knock again when he heard a muffled click and the door opened accompanied by an almost inaudible whooshing sound. The sight that greeted his eyes was astonishing. The foyer he stepped into was bigger than his living room. Its polished marble floor ran endlessly into the dark recesses of the room. Dim light that appeared to radiate from the walls bathed the room in a soft glow. He had seen such light before in a picture of the Aurora Borealis. Aside from its almost mystical lighting the room was starkly furnished. Three straight chairs, that Paul guessed were very old and uncomfortable, sat in three of the five corners of the room. A long, spindly-legged table stood against the wall immediately to his right and above the table was a small illustration. He didn’t know what it was. As he sweep his gaze around the room, he was suddenly arrested, held spellbound by a sight that drove every other thought from his mind.
Keli stood near the large arched doorway that he supposed would lead into the main room. Soft light glowed behind her so that her figure was alluringly displayed in a sheer, silky gown that clung to her body. Her form was exquisite.
“Are you going to come in?” she asked, after she had given him enough time to appreciate her.
He stuttered something nonsensical that even he could not understand and took two steps forward. Suddenly behind him he heard a very low hissing sound, and startled, he whirled around to see what it was. It was only the door smoothly closing, a light click signaling completion. He turned back to her, expecting her to be laughing at him.
Instead she walked toward him with a soft smile on her gorgeous face and what had been the outline of her form became soft, perfect female flesh. The gown clung to her trim waste and accentuated the glory of her womanhood.
Words came into his brain, but he didn’t speak them. They met somewhere in the vast cavern of that room, and he was lost in the warm freshness of her mouth, their tongues probing, exploring. She was warm and musty, and he felt her against his chest. Without a word, she took his hand and guided him to her bedroom. She walked a step in front of him, her hand reaching his behind her, so he could feast upon her form. In the bedroom, softly lighted by candles, she stopped and turned toward him. Reaching first to one shoulder then the other, she untied the thin straps that held the gown over her body. It slipped to the floor with a whisper. He tasted her, he feasted upon her, and she upon him. The ghosts disappeared, a wisp of smoke blown away by the rushing wind of fire and passion. They became one and in the deep recesses of his subconscious he put the past behind and embraced his future. She seemed to sense the exorcism of the ghost, for just at that moment she thrust her hips to take all of him in and exploded.
Outside it was dry and hot as always, but a slight breeze brushed his face. Upon reaching his car, he looked back at the house. It remained quiet; no one was rushing out to grab him. Despite a sudden concern, his car started immediately and ran smoothly. He drove slowly down the long drive, only turning his lights on when he could no longer see the house. Then the gate came into view, and his heart skipped a beat. How was he going to get through the heavy iron gate? He slowed to a bare crawl and approached cautiously. He was just about to get out and see if he could open it manually, when much to his surprise, it swung open. With a quick prayer of thanks, he drove through.
Ancient branches of gnarly old trees crossing overhead turned the lane into a long tunnel, the ghostly fingers above poised to grab him up. It was easy to imagine men with evil intent, lurking in the dark waiting to pounce on him. He pushed the control stick as far forward as he dared and the car surged ahead. Soon the sentry-like tree trunks were hurtling by on either side, much less daunting and fear inducing than before. At the end of the lane, he turned right onto the two-lane blacktop road and pushed the control stick even farther forward. Only when his speed registered 90 kph did he finally relax a little.
He was just starting into a ninety-degree curve, when in his rearview mirror he saw a flash of light. He looked for it again, but didn’t see it, and then he was around the corner. He pushed it up to 120 and the road flew by. When signs warned of another sharp curve ahead, he slowed. Once around the corner, he saw hazy light ahead and felt certain it was the highway. Another flash of light behind caught his attention. He stared intently into the rearview mirror, but didn’t see it again. A few seconds later he was at the intersection with the highway, and it’s light, even in thick haze, was warm and friendly. He pushed the car up to 170. It wasn’t his usual practice to drive that fast at night or on public roads, but he couldn’t overcome whatever it was that had inexorably pushed him out of the Jay mansion. Besides, there wasn’t another car on the road. It was 1:26. There really shouldn’t be any other cars, he noted. Quickly checking all around, he confirmed that.
Ten minutes down the road, he had put enough distance between him and the Jay estate that he finally relaxed - a little. Turning the radio on, he began thinking about finding a store that was open so he could get a drink. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton, his throat parched. Five kilometers further a sign advised motorists that ‘Grumby’s Right Now’, just two miles ahead, was open 24 hours daily and offered everything the traveler needed for comfort. Grumby’s was well lit so he pulled in. He noted with relief that he was the only customer, and then wondered at the reaction. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The clerk was friendly and inquisitive: “Good morning, sir,” she said, unable to conceal her curiosity.
“What will you be needing? A charge and a meal?”
“Just something to drink.”
“You haven’t been on the road long then, I guess.”
“Goin’ far? Reason I ask is there’s not many good stops between here and the city.”
“I have a ways to go.”
“Might not hurt chargin’ up that battery of yours.”
“It’s fully charged,” he told her. He would have to charge it soon, but he was still being pushed away, and this was probably Jay territory. How did he know who might owe them enough to give them his location? Then he chuckled to himself. What made him think they would come after him? Maybe they didn’t even take him seriously. Maybe he was too small a fry for them to fuss with.
She was looking at him with a quizzical expression: “Something funny sir?”
“Excuse me? No, I was just thinking about a little thing that happened at work.”
“Never seen you around here before, have I?”
Was the clerk suspicious?
“No, I’m passing through for the first time. Please, I need to get going. Will you just let me pay for this drink so I can get going?”
She expelled a ‘humph’ under her breath, but set about entering the customer’s order.
“I don’t mean to be rude. I’m just in a hurry.”
He looked around the store, diverting his attention from the clerk, hoping she would then be able to move faster. The store was typical in most ways: an extensive selection of bear, soda, munchies, oil and so forth. The oddity was a big mirror that hung on the wall behind the clerk. He wondered if it was a two way. Reflected in it were the customer, the clerk, the entire store, and the lot and highway outside.
The car went by so fast that he hardly knew he saw it. He blinked and looked at the mirror again. The lot and the highway were quiet and peaceful. Had he actually seen anything or was it his imagination getting the better of him? So what if another car was on the highway. It didn’t belong to him; anyone had the right to drive on it. Still, that car was moving! What kind of car could go that fast? His was fast, but nothing compared to that. The guy must have been doing over 200!
“Is there someone around here that drives a race car on the highway?”
“A race car? No, I don’t think so, no sir. Here you are, sir. Appreciate your patience. Have a nice day.”
“Do you know of any particularly fast cars around here?”
“Oh sure. There’s a bunch of them. Lots of rich folks live around here. As a matter of fact, did you know the old Jay lives a ways up the road? Yes indeed. He’s the Secretary of State’s father. Franklin, he’s the Jay who’s secretary, he owns an old Jaguar. My hubby knows his mechanic, and the mechanic says that car will do two hundred fifty!”
“Two fifty! You must be kidding.”