Josh backed his car down the driveway and swung around to begin his trip to meet up with Ben. In his mind he mapped out a roundabout and seemingly random route. He was nervous and he wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans as he turned right, heading away from his ultimate destination. Josh was still determined, but he was suddenly not so sure if he could spot someone tailing him or not. Sure, he had seen this on TV and in the movies ad nauseum, but as most anyone with a brain knew, Hollywood was hardly representative of real life, in most instances. Josh took a deep breath and exhaled fully as he came to the first stop light he encountered. He kept his eyes peeled to both his rear view and side mirrors as he drove, but so far there had been nothing to alert him to a problem.
The traffic was light, which helped, Josh figured. If he was being followed, it sure seemed as if it would be obvious. He did not want his travel to be obvious to anyone who could possibly be following him, so he made random changes in direction, instead of just concentric circles. Also, even though Ben had not suggested it, Josh made some unscheduled stop offs along his way, trying to make it appear as if he was running errands. At each stop, he toted along the valise, just to possibly throw off anyone following him, hoping to make them wonder if he might have been dropping off the contents somewhere along the line.
The metallic blue Nissan swung into traffic soon after Josh crossed the main thoroughfare and stayed back far enough that only a seasoned professional might suspect them. Each time Josh pulled over to run into a store, the man in the passenger’s seat raised his binoculars to assess their target’s intent. Sometimes he came out with small packages from certain locations and sometimes he returned to his rusty old beater empty-handed…other than he always retrieved the valise from his trunk in all cases.
“He stopping again?” the man asked as the driver of the Nissan eased to the curb several blocks away.
“Yep. Seems to just be running errands.”
“Except he always takes that damn case with him.”
“I noticed that.”
“You suppose he suspects he’s under surveillance?”
“Doubtful. Probably is looking for a place to relocate the items after the incident at the university.”
“How would he even know?”
The driver lit a cigarette and glared at his partner.
“What?” the passenger asked, in a highly annoyed tone.
“First of all, the professor, I am sure knows someone was there. And I hardly think I need to elaborate further…”
“What…that old security guard?”
The man drew deeply on his smoke and just glared at him.
“What choice did I have? He would have had the whole police force all over us.”
“Had to kill the poor sap, huh?”
The man just shrugged. At the time, he had not intended to kill the guy. Things had gotten out of hand, and the old man’s strength and persistence had surprised him. They were trying to make a clean get away and he had simply followed his instincts.
“You said whatever it took, remember?”
The driver looked away, focusing on their target’s activity. They had always functioned well as a team, but some days…like the night they had hit the professor’s office…he wondered if it was not time to sever this partnership.
“He’s back again,” the other man commented as he dropped the binoculars from his face.
The pattern went on an on over the next thirty minutes or so, and the two men were getting more and more convinced that they might be wasting their time. In a rare moment of lack of focus, the driver allowed himself to get a bit closer to Josh than he normally would have.
“Watch your distance…” his partner said.
“Yeah…yeah…yeah…” the driver replied.
Josh decided he had driven around just about enough, seeing as how he had not seen any signs of being followed. Just as he was about to peel off and head over to meet Ben, he spied this generic-looking blue sedan that all of a sudden looked familiar from his day around town. Initially, Josh thought nothing of it, until he recalled that Ben had told him how relentless and ruthless these men were. On a whim, he rerouted himself for a few more minutes and sure enough the blue sedan seemed to be matching him turn for turn. It was not a unique vehicle at all, one that on any other day Josh would have not given a second thought to. The Nissan was just like any of the other myriad of cars he had seen around town since he was a student here.
Josh sped up and slowed down as he went, but the blue car seemed to match his every move. He hated to give in to his suspicions and paranoia, but based on what was going on, Josh was sure at this point that he had picked up the tail that Ben had suggested. He knew of a way to get free of the tail without any real danger to himself and figured he had been keeping Ben waiting long enough…he did not want to worry him by a further delay. Josh assumed he knew the town better than whoever these guys were, so he took off for the bakery at once. Sure enough, they sped up and kept pace with him, just as he had hoped they would.
It was approaching 3PM, and unless Josh remembered incorrectly or the schedule had changed dramatically in the last year or so, the freight run from Preston to Norris was still a regular route. Ever since he had been a student, this very long train came right through the middle of town. It was a pain in the ass to drivers, but anyone that had lived here any amount of time knew the schedule and avoided the crossing at Melbourne Avenue like the plague. If you were unlucky enough to miss the timing, you could get stuck waiting at the crossing for as long as thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on the load on the train and its speed through town. Josh was counting on his tail to not know this little tid bit.
He glanced at his watch and sure enough it was 2:55PM. Josh stepped on the accelerator and made a mad dash for Melbourne. Off to the left, he could see the freight line chugging away and he slipped across the tracks just as the guard rails dropped behind him. The Nissan had gotten stuck between a pair of dump trucks from Alton’s Construction and there was no way they could maneuver around the behemoth trucks to continue the chase. Josh shouted in glee as he felt his old car bounce down the other side of the grade from the tracks. He drove on for about a mile or two, making sure he was well out of sight of the Nissan before doubling back and around to head over to Melinda’s to meet Ben.
As the train with its heavy load trundled by, the two men in the Nissan sat and fumed. The driver put the car in park and killed the engine as he leaned the seat back and closed his eyes, his ever-present baseball cap pulled down over his brow. His partner looked over, but remained silent, knowing when to keep his mouth shut. Josh pulled over and texted Ben to let him know he was just a few minutes away.
Melinda’s was practically empty when Josh arrived and he waved to Ben as he entered the little café and joined him at a small table about halfway back by a series of windows.
“Was about to give up on you, Josh.”
“I had to take a slight detour, Doc…”
Harper sat and sipped at his tea while he listened to Josh regale him of his day’s drive across town to meet him.
“Good thinking about the ruse of running errands. And taking that valise with you at each stop was a stroke of genius.”
“Just wanted to throw them off if they were there. It was not until late in the trip that I even spotted them, so I am sure it must have been baffling as to why I was carrying the case with me everywhere.”
“From what little I could see, yeah…”
“So I think it is safe to assume they ignored your house to follow you and the case.”
“Probably. Thank God I remembered that old freight train run over at Melbourne. Once I was sure they were following me, I took off for the tracks to leave them behind.”
“For someone not well-versed in this stuff, you can really think on your feet, Josh.”
The young man smiled and shrugged as he took a healthy bite out of a cranberry/orange scone…still his favorite order at the café.
“So, Doc…since it appears time is of the essence with this group, want to fill me in on your plan to end this ordeal?”
“OK, Josh. You seem to have more skills in this thing than I anticipated. Based on your experience this afternoon, how do you feel about being a real decoy?”
His sudden light mood evaporated as quickly as it had come on. The chase he had just eluded had not seemed real at the time, as Josh knew he was just acting on intuition and spur of the moment. In fact, it was only now, in the aftermath of it all, that he began to reflect on what might have happened if his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants ploy had not worked out so well. What if the men following him had not been so cautious about striking during daylight? What if he had mis timed the train? What if…what if…what if…that was filling Josh’s mind now.
Looking over at Ben Harper, Josh saw that the professor’s expression was anything but light and playful. Had the old man been seeing what he was capable of before making him a real focus of drawing the thieves out? Something told him that might have been partly true, but Josh was not overly concerned at the moment. It was time to end this nightmare. Also, something told Josh that Ben Harper was not the simple, gentle history and antiquities professor he appeared to be.