Light began to filter through the windows as I sat there contemplating my situation. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but a few other climbers had arrived, and the waitstaff were busy changing out the coffee and adding donuts and muffins to the selection. My shadow had also returned.
I’ve never liked the idea of being followed, and here in this place I liked it even less. I needed to find a way to get rid of him again.
There was a courtesy house phone at the far end of the room. Without hesitation, I picked it up and dialed my room number.
“Hello?” Owen’s voice sounded a bit rough.
“Owen. Were you still sleeping?”
“No, I’m up. is it breakfast time already?”
“Note exactly.” I hesitated, not wanting to draw my new roomate into what I thought might be a dangerous situation, but not seeing any alternatives, I explained what I needed.. “Grab Kris and get down to the hospitality suite as soon as you can. I think I might be the next Charlie.”
“On my way!” The grogginess was gone from his voice. Before I could thank him, I herd the click of the receiver on the other end.
I sat down and breathed a sigh of relief.
“More coffee, sir?” I hadn’t noticed any staff in the room before. I guess it must have gotten late enough that they were expecting more people to serve.
He poured the coffee and set a napkin down on the table. I noticed the message written on it immediately.
You are in danger!
The waiter had already turned and was headed for the service door. I followed and caught up with him before he could leave. He looke at me and subtly shook his head as if he couldn’t talk, but I wasn’t about to let him drop a note like that and leave.
“What’s the meaning of this.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
“I’m not going anywhere until I know what this is about.”
“You’re being followed.” He gestured toward the door, outside of which, I could see my tail from before lingering in the hallway.
“He works for a group of men who bet heavily on the climb.” He looked at me for a second. “My guess is that they want to make sure that you don’t upset their bets.”
My worst suspicions had been confirmed. Despite the promise of protection from the President, I was still a target.
“I can get you out of here, and you can lay low until there are more people around.” He kinked his head toward the door indicating I should follow, and then he exited the room.
Not liking my current options, I followed. We walked through a small serving kitchen, and then into another room.
The room was small, with doors on either side labeled Men and Women. There was another door on the far side of the room. This was probably the entryway to the changing rooms for the waitstaff.
“Should I go out here?” I turned to ask, but was pushed from behind. I had just walked into a trap. My only hope was to ge to the door on the far side and hope it was unlocked. Before I could move, however, the door opened, and two men with their faces covered by ski masks entered the room.
Surrounded. Both exits were now blocked. Running into either of the locker rooms would likely prove futile. I cursed myself for havingbeen duped so easily. Guttenberg cautioned me about being alone, the president said not to trust anyone, and my fears had caused me to run headfirst into danger. I couldn’t believe that I had been lured out here by such a simple ploy.
“Doing pretty well in the charts.” The man in front of me, who was obviously the leader, stepped forward. I found myself wondering if it would end up making it tougher on me if I fought back. But, of course, I would fight back. Nobody ever laid a finger on a Haversham and walked away without a bruise of their own.
“Look, guys,” I put my hands up in front of me. These being city boys, I think I could have taken two of them, possibly even all three, but not without getting hurt. I couldn’t afford to get hurt before the climb. “I don’t think you want to do this.”
“It’s not about want.” I could feel the one behind me moving in closer. I turned so my back was to the wall, and I now had them at nine, twelve and three o’clock. “This is just business.”
It seemed there was no way out of an all-out fight. I clenched my fists and prepared to swing.
The door we had entered through slammed open. Kris and Owen stumbled into the room, laughing. They walked straight toward us, seemingly oblivious to what was going on. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn they were drunk.
“And she said, that I was the biggest-
The laughing and conversation stopped abruptly as they seemed to suddenly notice the four of us. Owen had stopped between the one in the middle and the one on my left, while Kris continued to walk until he was on my right.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The drunken sound in his voice had begun to fade. “Did we interrupt something?”
With that, Owen pointed to the door. “Just go.”
The three seemed to consider their options or a moment, and then ran out the far door of the room. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“Idiot.” Kris looked at me for a moment as if he were angry, but then we all three burst out laughing. I don’t know how I could laugh, considering what had almost happened, but I think we all just felt so relieved.
Our laughter stopped abruptly. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen area was my tail from before. He was holding a small pistol.
“I hope you don’t think it was your two friends that scared them off.” He looked down at his pistol, and holstered it under his suit jacket.
“Well, I thought-”
“You need to stop thinking, Mr. Haversham.” He pulled a small phone from his pocket and started dialing. “You’re making my job difficult.”
Kris and Owen remained silent. Owen seemed as bewildered as I was, but Kris seemed relieved and scared at the same time.
“Sir.” He spoke with the inaudible voice on the phone. “Yes. I have him here.” He looked at Owen and Kris. “Two other climbers sir.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask your friends to wait outside.” He motioned toward the door and began moving as if he was about to pull his gun out again.
“I’ll be Ok, guys. Just go.” Owen and Kris left the room.
“Yes sir. We’re alone now.” He handed me the phone.
“Last meal of dead men.” Alex laughed as he and his two cohorts sat down. Drew and Gary were following him everywhere, obeying his every command. It was as if they thought that they could follow him all the way to the top of the tower. He sneered at the entire table. “I’m going to enjoy watching you die, Rock. I’ll probably be near the top by then, so I’ll have to catch it on video, but I’ll watch it over and over again.”
I was infuriated by his comments, but would not let it show. I was nervous enough about the climb already. If I let go, I didn’t know what I would do. But Kris obviously had other plans.
“Why are you such an asshole?” Kris demanded. I tried to motion for him to let it go so we could eat in peace, but the bait had been take, and now Alex was gearing up for a response.
“Because I can be.” He held his arm out as if looking at his watch so that everyone could see. “Do you see this watch? The sponsors only gave out one of these this year - to me! Do you know why?”
“Did you blow them?” I couldn’t help but laugh at Kris’ response.
“No, idiot, because I’m ranked number one.”
“You’re number one, Alex.” Kris held up his middle finger to illustrate which one he was thinking of. Then he pantomimed fellating the finger. The whole table laughed. Even Gary fought to hide a smile.
“What are you laughing at?” Gary’s face became deadly serious.
It was a bright afternoon, made more so by the snow on the ground. We left the hotel and began marching. I didn’t know our exact route, but there were a hundred and two of us ‘following the leader’. I didn’t think I could go wrong.
There were no more guides at this point. Everything we did was incumbent upon ourselves. We were all rivals, but we were all comrades. I don’t think even troops who have marched into war felt what we felt for each other that afternoon.
So many of us walking around. It was the first time I had been away from my ‘group’. I was flooded again with fear. Many of these boys were so young and vigorous. How could I compete?
I started worrying about Charlie early into the walk. He seemed to be scanning the sides of the road as if he was looking for a way out. Injured as he was, he didn’t really stand a chance of making it to the top of the tower, but I couldn’t imagine what fate would be waiting for him if he tried to run.
Soldiers lined each side of the road, ostensibly there for crowd control, but I was sure they were watching for runners as well. Luckily Charlie saw them too, and with a somewhat defeated look, continued marching forward with the rest of us.
“You’re ROCK!” The man next to me spoke up. I could immediately tell by his clothes that he was a prisoner. I had no desire to speak with him, but he was so friendly, and I couldn’t just ignore him as a lost cause, so I answered.
“I prefer Richard.” I followed the procession from the hotel. We left the front and turned south on Michigan Ave. The streets were lined with people. Many of them were offering bottles of water or cans of coffee, but I kept what Guttenberg had told me in my head and pressed forward.
“My name’s Jeremiah.” The man kept walking. He had a strength in his eyes and his walk. I doubt he knew that he had likely been drugged during his lunchtime, and would fall with so many others shortly after beginning his climb.
“Nice to meet you.” I didn’t offer my hand, and my gaze returned forward.
I didn’t want to talk to him. Not only did he have no future, but he challenged my initial conceptions of the climb. I knew that I had a decent chance of reaching the top. He had no chance. But the guides and administrators that led his group promised him the same chance for freedom I had been promised. What if the people around me had been lying as well?
“Richard!” A voice boomed through the crowd, “See you at the top!”
Owen marched by me, keeping himself with the faster vanguard of climbers that were intent on getting one of the top 40 slots.
“Look at him go.” Kris smiled and waved at Owen as he pulled up next to me. “I’m going to waste my energy trying to be at the head of the line.” He paused for a moment. “Not going to rush in behind them either. I’m starting on the side.”
“Why?” Kris had been a wealth of information so far. Whether I followed his advice or not, it was worth listening to.
“The first 40 guys are in good position, but they have to deal with being tired and with people pressuring them from behind. The guys behind them are limited by the climbing speed of the leaders, and risk getting hit when guys above them fall.”
“That doesn’t happen on the sides?”
“Not as much. As guys in the middle drop out, guys from the sides move over.” He looked over at Jeremiah who was still walking silently next to me. “Where are you starting, my friend?”
Kris reached out his hand and clasped Jeremiah’s.
“Now there’s a smart climber. What made you choose right?”
“Convicted climbers can’t start in the middle,” Jeremiah said matter-of-factly. “They don’t want us falling on you white-bread folks.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call any climber ‘White bread’,” I interjected. “We’re all pretty much in the same boat.”
“Heh.” Jeremiah looked at me as if to see if I was being serious. “I’m not as dumb as most of the other brothers climbing today, but if you believe that, you might be. They’re not about to let a black man reach the top.”
“That’s not true.” I knew that as a convict, this man had no chance, but surely there were some.
Suddenly, I became aware of the fact that every black climber was in the convicts group. There a few scattered Hispanics and Asians, but most free climbers were white.
“But…” This couldn’t be right. “We have black citizens, too. And there are lots of blacks in the military. They’re citizens.”
“But the powers that be don’t want any black heroes to point out how few minority citizens there are. We’re fine as soldiers. As grunts, we take orders. My people have taken orders long enough.”
I had no response for what he was saying. To be honest, although I had seen many minorities in the background on the news, I hadn’t seen any minorities among the VIPs or hotel staff.
“So I decided,” He boasted, “To become the first black man to climb the tower. I’m going to demand equality for my -no for ALL people.”
“You signed up because you were facing a death sentence.” Kris interjected. He looked at me and jerked his head to the right. Let’s get away from him.
“I signed up for three years in a row and never got selected. Even two years ago when Kentucky only sent one representative.”
As we walked along lakeshore drive, we became separated from the spectators. They lined the road off to the right and below. On our left was a raised highway. Looking beyond the spectators, I could see a marina filled with yachts. I wondered if any of them belonged to the people standing and watching us now. Having never been on a boat, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have one’s own yacht.
As we started to round a curve in the road, I noticed a somewhat rust old sign. The top marker said only 290. The bottom was faded green, and said Wacker Dr. The sign was unremarkable, and I probably would never have noticed it if Charlie hadn’t grabbed hold of it and vaulted himself over the median and into the parking area below the highway.
I wanted to run to the edge and see if he was hurt, but the sound of gunfire froze all of us in place.
Soldiers seemingly sprang out of nowhere and converged on the edge of the road. I watched as one soldier took aim and shot Charlie in the back. He dropped to the ground, but seemed to be still crawling forward.
“He’s not dead!” Soldiers hopped over the edge and ran after him.
“Rubber bullets.” Kris said. “Poor Charlie.”
The soldiers leading the parade had stopped, and all climbers were now standing on Lakeshore drive, waiting for them to bring Charlie back. By the time he rejoined the parade, he was significantly more injured than he had been before.