The scanner at first told a story about some sort of drug crazed lunatic who killed four people, then ran into the woods. Shortly after that, there were changes to the story, and the attack became a revenge killing or counter-hit. The media were soon drawing conclusions about an upcoming gang war in the Birmingham area, based on one top dealer being killed, then his suspected killers being killed in turn.
Within an hour, the scanner was telling yet another, different story. Cameras in the gas station had seen my truck arrive, got a good image of me when I went inside to shop, and finally saw my truck leave so that the license tag was visible. My house was visited and the mess in the bathroom was discovered. Then the manhunt was on for me by name. Suspected of multiple murders in Atlanta and Birmingham. Armed and extremely dangerous. Not to be approached without backup. Any suspected sightings were to be called in to the police immediately.
I left the interstate and took a state highway up into the mountains. It didn’t take long to find a place to let the truck roll downhill into a muddy cow pond. Frank and I argued about the money. A hiker in the mountains wasn’t anything to talk about, but a hiker in the mountains with a big briefcase would be odd enough to be noticed. After a great deal of argument, we decided to leave most of the food and put the money into the pack. My reasoning was that money buys food and shelter. Frank wasn’t impressed by that at first, since we had camping equipment and he was fully confident about being able to get us food. He might have even been right, but I convinced him with the argument that money would allow us to stay in hotels with showers. Access to running water and privacy would allow us to quickly use up the charcoal he wanted to use to improve my bones, and grow the silk under my skin, improving our chances of survival, and allowing us to carry more food in the pack.
We also talked more about my appearance, and decided that the Hispanic look needed to return since there was no way that my driver’s license would have any possible benefit going forward. The clothing that got bloody that afternoon was packed in the briefcase with the jacket with all the uneaten foods and drinks. I added a couple big rocks for good measure, in case the briefcase somehow got out of the truck through a broken window or something. The bloody jacket going into the briefcase meant the pistol wasn’t concealed any longer, so the pistol and clamshell assembly went into a side pouch in the backpack. I mentioned getting cold without the jacket and Frank just snorted. Literally took control of the body and snorted – it took me a few seconds to realize how silly I was for even suggesting that.
The scanner stayed in the truck. No way could we justify the weight of it. Frank had been working on plans to build a scanner inside of us though, but said he wasn’t going to start until the skeleton was complete, so he didn’t have to build everything twice.
Frank didn’t forget the goldfish, and insisted that I swallow it so he could study it. I did. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, sort of like a scaly oyster. Frank was happy with what he discovered and said that with what he learned, we could probably survive underwater indefinitely if we could survive the first two minutes. I was thrilled with the ‘probably’, and ‘if.’ He laughed and said that if I wanted to live forever, the stunts from earlier weren’t a good start. I could feel his seriousness behind the humor attempt.
I tried to remember what spiders had the strongest silk and vaguely remembered that black widows and orb weavers had very strong silk, but some spider named after Darwin in Madagascar had the strongest. Black widows and orb weavers are common in the southern Appalachians, however, and Madagascar was a little out-of-the-way. After a short while poking around in rock piles along the side of the road, and watching for orb weaver webs, I collected silk from both. Frank was very happy examining it, telling me all sorts of things about it that I really just couldn’t get. He, fortunately, said he didn’t need a live sample of the spiders that made the silk. He was able to analyze it himself, and creating it wouldn’t be hard at all, just time-consuming if I didn’t have access to cold water and protein.
Not having a jacket at this time of year was borderline acceptable for the weather during the day, but at night, if I was seen without one it would raise eyebrows. One of the first things I would need to do is get a new one. That would also allow me to conceal the pistol again.
So I hiked a few miles down the road from the cow pond into a little town and asked at a mom and pop grocery shop where I could find a place to buy a jacket. Acting a bit defensive, but not impolite, I explained that I was a new hiker in this part of the US, and didn’t realize the weather would be this cold at this time of the year. The old woman behind the counter asked me if the jacket had to be new. I said no, so she made a phone call and asked a local thrift shop owner if they had any men’s jackets that would fit a stout fellow a bit less than six feet tall. I was told yes, then told how to walk there, and an hour later I was a very satisfied owner of a full length black leather duster. It was a couple of sizes too big, but that was fine, it didn’t hang low enough to prevent me from walking properly.
When we were done haggling, I gave the store owner the two hundred dollars we agreed on, an extra twenty on top of that, and a thank you. It really was a good deal, even used. I asked her if there was a place nearby where I could get a room, a good meal, and a very long shower. She asked me how much I could pay for a night, and I said no more than the jacket. She made a phone call then pointed me down the road, giving me directions to a nice little bed and breakfast who now had a room waiting for me. She also handed me a business card for a courier service that was owned by her son, and told me that if he was free he would take people too. I chose to just walk, it was a nice day, and without my old face, my truck or any ID, I wasn’t worried about anyone identifying me.
The bed and breakfast was a very nice place, and the rooms had separate baths – something I had been a bit concerned about. The food was excellent and filling, my room large and airy, the lock solid, and there was a door handle stopper by the door as well that would allow me to keep the door from opening even if someone had the key. The windows were both overlooking the little parking lot that the bed and breakfast shared with the town’s post office.
Frank had been muttering for hours about the properties of spider silk and copper and carbon, and what to do with the extra bone mass. I let him mutter while I enjoyed the meal and conversation with the other guests and owners, while not saying much about myself. Stan and May, the owners, were engaging hosts, and all of us at the table were brought into the conversations. When they learned a bit about any of us they sort of wove it into the rest of the conversation. Turns out that several of us were ex military and two at the table were ex police. Stan being one of them, apparently he had been the county sheriff for a number of years. The other ex-officer tried to be funny and perhaps a little self-important and made a comment about how Stan didn’t have to deal with the big cartels since he was landlocked. May stood up, a bit unsteady, but after she was fully standing she was steady again. “I need to go check on the pie, Stan.”
“You go do that May, do you need any help in there?” She shook her head at him. There was a lot more in her gaze than just concern over pie. When May left the room, Stan slowly turned back to the table. There was a little bite in his voice when he finally responded to the other ex-officer. “We rarely had to deal with the cartels here, you’re right, but I lost two of my boys. One in Miami and the other in Jacksonville. Both of them were in law enforcement, both of them killed by the cartels. It has been a bunch of years but it still hurts a lot when it comes at us unexpectedly.”
The other ex-officer’s face fell, and he started to apologize.
“None of that. You didn’t know, and we don’t wear it on our shirtsleeves. You’ve done us no harm, and we’ll not hold it against you that you startled us with it. I would ask that we talk about other things besides the war on drugs for the rest of the meal though.” Everyone agreed to that. May returned shortly after, and there was a great pecan pie after the meal.
At the end of the meal, we all got up and continued small talk around the living and dining room for a few minutes but something had caught my eye. I waited until the rest of the guests had left, then drifted over to the fireplace. Above the mantle were pictures of five boys. Two of them had picture frames behind them, filled with a montage of newspaper clippings that were starting to yellow, smaller photos here and there of older boys, and black and white images of young men in police uniform. Stan was wiping down the dining room table and chairs, cleaning up after us, and was back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. Even though he wasn’t being obvious about it, he was definitely watching me closely as I read about his boys. They had died in the same year while in the line of duty. One put himself between cartel gunmen and hostages, the other was shot down while carrying another wounded officer away from a drug raid gone bad.
When I was done reading about Stan and May’s sons, I saw Stan had finished cleaning up and was sitting in a chair looking at me. Silently, calmly.
“Your boys would make anyone proud Stan.” I said quietly.
He nodded “They give me more pride than pain these days, but the first year after they passed, it was the other way around.” He stood up and started walking back to the kitchen. “I haven’t seen a boot torn up that way since ‘Nam. There’s a place in town that can set you up with good boots pretty cheap, if you tell them I sent you.”
I thanked him, nodded back to him, and said “I’ll ask you about that place in the morning.”
Then I made my way up the stairs to my room. Since we were in a public place, Frank and I had both agreed that I would avoid talking to him directly, if possible. Any conversations I needed to start out loud would have to be short and cryptic, like I was talking to myself. We had already decided that I needed to get a phone with an earpiece from someplace soon, so I could walk around and look like I was just talking to someone on the phone when I was actually talking with Frank. For the time being though, we would just make do with my not talking to Frank in public, and using a notebook and pen when we were in questionably private places, like bed and breakfasts. After the meal, I decided to start the tub for a good soak, figuring that I could start it cold and Frank’s planned work for tonight would heat it up. When he was done I’d have a nice hot bath.
I unpacked the copper and half a dozen bricks of charcoal, carried them to the tub, and undressed. I sat on the side of the tub while Frank opened up a pouch on my stomach and took control of my hands to toss the charcoal and copper into the pouch.
My mouth dropped. “What the hell…” I reached over to the paper and pen. “That’s borderline Frank. A kangaroo pouch?”
“If you really don’t like it I can make it go away, but it’s handy for me. We can even use it to store valuables and such if you want later. Even things that can’t get wet, if you let me get ready to store them. This will also allow me to put the extra bone mass that I remove somewhere inconspicuous until we get back out in the woods.”
“I’ll think about it, but for now I agree.” I wrote, while thinking to myself that one of the biggest problems we were going to have over time would be my desire to stay visibly human, and Frank’s desire to make me a better place for him to live.
Frank started to work and I could feel the heat in my skull and back. I laid back and relaxed in the tub. I looked at my arms and legs and saw the blood vessels easily through the skin, vastly enlarged. My heart was pumping slowly, but powerfully. I felt good. Frank was apparently rearranging blood vessels to pull heat off the work he was doing, and distribute it throughout the entire body.
After about thirty minutes Frank asked me to go get him more charcoal so he could finish the renovations of my skull and upper spine. I complied, getting out of the tub, grabbing a towel, walking to the pack, grabbing half a dozen more bricks of charcoal, and finally walking back towards the tub.
As I passed my boots on my way back to the bathroom, I thoughtfully nudged the big hole in the toe of one of them with my toe while remembering my conversation with Stan.
“I’ll remind you tomorrow to ask Stan where the shop is that he mentioned.”
I nodded and continued walking back to the bathroom, looking in the mirror over the sink as I passed it. I stopped and stared at the huge blue and red ropes of veins and arteries on my face, neck, and shoulders, then grabbed my notebook.
“Frank, that’s too obvious.”
“What is too obvious?”
“The blood vessels. If you have me walking past windows, I have to look normal. This looks very abnormal.”
“Oh, sorry, I wasn’t thinking about that, just trying to get as much work done as possible tonight.”
“OK, if you need me to get more stuff, make me a bit more normal looking first.”
“Yes, I will, sorry.”
All in all that night, after a two-hour soak, Frank managed to rebuild my skull, my spine, and my pelvis, and started on my arms before we ran out of charcoal bricks. He told me that he was rebuilding the bones from graphene carbon sheets, carbon nanotubes for structure, and spider silk for holding it all together and cushioning it. The new bones would be hugely stronger and more structurally sound than bone, and much lighter. Our bones would be able to pretty much ignore small arms fire, and their lightness would allow Frank to control me at high speeds better without creating so much heat.
“I thought this was supposed to be lighter than bone, but you have used ten pounds of charcoal and only replaced my skull, spine, and pelvis?” I wrote on the pad.
“Charcoal isn’t all carbon. There’s a lot of stuff in there I don’t need. If you open the pouch you will see. There’s a lot of wood fiber and other random stuff I had no use for, and I just passed the moisture through the body.”
“What about the subcutaneous spider web armor and the antennae?”
“Didn’t start on the web armor yet, but the antennae should be working. I’ve finally figured out how to duplicate the way some people with braces hear radio transmissions, and I’m finishing hooking everything up now. It’s nowhere near complete yet, since it’s only in your rebuilt bones, but it should pick up some signal. Here. I’ll start scanning.”
“<static>…white compact pickup truck found in Don Miller’s cow pond. Don said he actually saw the guy walking away from it, a Hispanic fellow with a bamboo walking stick and a new looking backpack, not wearing a jacket. Been a few hours though, Don wanted to finish the bottle he was working on before he came looking for us to tell us what he found. We’re having a hard time getting it out. The ground is too soft for the tow truck to get close enough to use the cable on hand, so Don’s going to go get his tractor and tow chains, if he doesn’t fall asleep on the way there or on the way back.”
I looked at the oh-so-comfortable looking bed. “Time to go. At least we got a good meal out of this, a nice soak and got a bit ahead of where we would have been with the improvements otherwise.”
Footsteps on the stairs, accompanied by the sound of a cane. Stan had a cane, and I hadn’t seen any guests with one, so it was probably him. He walked up to our door, and knocked.
“Yes?” I asked.
“There’s apparently a loose cannon running around this neck of the woods tonight, some fellow that took out four Dallas cartel assassins who were in Birmingham on a hit. We suggest that you double-check your windows tonight. We try to keep them locked, but the last guest in your room might have unlocked them and it’s possible we missed it.”
A sheet of paper slid under the door. I heard Stan moving to the next door. I picked up the paper and read it.
“My ex-deputy, the current Sheriff, is having a hard time getting that little truck out of the pond to verify that it’s the one the feds are looking for. They haven’t called anyone yet, because they aren’t sure. If you keep your car keys in a magnetic lockbox under the back driver’s side bumper of your old truck, it might be a good idea to make sure it’s still there tonight.
“Sounds like we have someone else on our team for now.”
“But they are only stalling”, I wrote on my notepad.
“Stalling helps. He’s also telling you to steal his truck. He’d probably appreciate it if you left it somewhere in decent condition for him to get it back though.”
“This guy might be able to get a message to my family too.”
I wrote a short note on the back of Stan’s note, providing my mother’s address and phone number. Then a short message. “Stan, she will know the message is from me if you tell her that when I was a kid I asked her why it mattered what the grapes were worth. It’s always been a bit of an inside joke.”
Crazy stuff I can’t explain happened at my house. Had to get out fast. Tried to help a girl in trouble near Birmingham and all hell broke loose. Can’t explain it all, I don’t understand it all yet. Wish me luck and let my brothers know I am OK.
I folded the note and put a few hundred-dollar notes in it to pay for my room, food, and the use of the truck. Then added a couple more. I thought about adding a lot more, but I would probably insult the guy. He wasn’t trying to bribe me, he was trying to help me because he hated the cartels for killing two of his boys.
I scribbled a note on a blank sheet from my note pad “Sorry for leaving early, the early departure fee is included. I’ll pass the word to friends and family that this place is run by good people.”
Then I started quickly but quietly packing. I looked out the window and saw an old truck. A lot like mine actually, just a few years older. I hope it ran well. If not, Stan’s warning would have to be good enough.
After I finished packing, I carefully tested both of my room’s windows. The one farther from the street was tighter in its frame, so I used the one closer to the street, opening it and carefully climbing out the window while wearing the pack. I dropped quietly to the grassy yard and walked at a brisk pace to the back of the old truck, reached under the back bumper, drivers side, and found a key case there.
I unlocked the truck, tossed my pack inside, got in, and cranked the truck up. The engine ran smoothly and quietly. It was a stick shift too, surprisingly, and thankfully. I didn’t turn the lights on yet, the lights from the post office’s parking lot were more than sufficient. I quietly shifted into first gear, proving that the truck’s clutch was in good condition, and wasn’t too tight or loose. I looked left then right when I pulled up to the road and saw Stan on the porch next to the door, leaning on his cane. When he saw me turn and look his way, he gave me a thumb up. I gave him a thumb up in return and he turned and walked inside, closing the door.
I turned left, in front of the post office, and slowly drove down the road to the first four-way-stop where I turned on the truck’s headlights as I stopped. In the rear view mirror I saw white lights flashing. When I looked closely in the mirror, I saw that the flashing lights were the room lights of the room I had been staying in. Stan was holding a sheet of paper in one hand and another thumbs up with the other. I rolled down the window and gave him a wide wave and a thumbs up again. Message received. I hoped Stan wouldn’t get in too much trouble over this.
I rolled up the window, and looked at the gauges on the truck’s instrument panel. They were all in good places. Just to be sure, I took the truck out of gear and let it idle while coasting, then turned off the engine and watched all the gauges and lights. The charge, tach, fuel, and oil pressure bottomed out, but the temp and speed didn’t. All the dash lights came on as I rotated the key into run position. When I started the motor and put the truck back in gear, the gauges went to good places again. The truck was in good condition and the fuel showed full after a few seconds. There was a road atlas of the United States in the seat next to me. It was an old one, but that’s better than what I had.
“Frank, are you listening to the scanner?”
“Tune me in, or nothing interesting going on?”
“They are having ‘problems’ getting the truck out of the pond. Apparently the tractor’s tow chain broke and they are going to get another from the county motor pool. Problem is that they are having a hard time finding someone to open the storage building for them at this time of night. They might not be able to get the truck out until the morning. Apparently there are no tags on it, the VIN plate has been ripped off, and there are no items in the cab. So identifying it isn’t certain yet.”
“Wow, these guys aren’t playing around when it comes to giving me some time to get away. Let’s make the best of it.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Something you said this morning that I am remembering now. You can act when I am asleep?”
“Do you ever need sleep?”
“OK, can you put me to sleep?”
I woke up in a bus, in daylight. Pad and paper in my hand.
“Rise and shine sleepy one.”
I yawned, and stretched. Nobody sitting next to me, fortunately.
“Where are we?” I wrote.
“Somewhere between St. Louis and Kansas City, heading towards Sioux Falls. Figure there’s plenty of people in those states working for the fracking industry. We can probably find a job as a cover to live under while we get straightened up, and we’ll be far from the South East US.”
“OK. I was thinking Canada but the Dakotas work.” Then I did a double-take at my hand. It wasn’t light brown any more, it was bronze.
I got up and walked to the rest room door, then waited a bit for the occupant to get out. When I walked in I saw myself. Very bronze, Native American, but with an Asian cast to the eyes. I had lost a lot of weight since the last time I looked in the mirror. I turned sideways. Definitely a lot of weight. I looked down and could not only see my toes, I could see my ankles. Wow. A full head of hair finished the new look, well over a foot long, jet black and tied with a leather thong.
I walked back to my seat, and wrote in the pad. “Looking good. How did the night go?”
“I threw the bamboo walking stick out the window shortly after you went to sleep, down a steep embankment. It’s too noticeable. We can get or make something else. Then I intentionally ran the truck out of gas in the middle of nowhere near a railroad track. I pushed the truck into the woods, behind some young oaks that were starting to lose leaves. The truck will be visible from the road in a couple days. Did the Hobo thing on the next passing train and it took me to St. Louis. I jumped off at the outskirts of town and hiked into the bus station. The train was moving at about forty miles per hour both times. I strongly doubt anyone will believe a human managed to jump onto it, or off of it where we did.”
“LOL. I’m glad I was asleep.” I wrote on the pad while chuckling.
“Got a lot done on the train too. I was in an open cattle car with a bare metal floor, and it was about forty degrees last night. I laid down against that metal and it was an incredible heat sink. I ate the rest of the food and finished the spider silk armor under the skin. That used up most of the rest of the fat on you. We’ll need a lot of charcoal to finish the bones.”
“How much more charcoal?”
“Probably about a fifty pound bag if it’s grilling bricks.”
“We’ll work on it tonight in a hotel room I hope. How are you storing energy now?”
“In your liver, I’ve modified one of the lobes.”
“What about your network, is modifying the bones and making them carbon going to have any effect on that?” I wrote.
“That’s in the marrow, I’m not touching that, I’m only replacing the bony parts. You need marrow or you will die.”
“Fair enough. Frank, remember to remind me that we need a cellphone with hands free earpiece.”
I closed up the pad of paper and began to think to myself. Frank turned on the scanner and we both listened.