The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 10

Somewhere in the middle territory of Levinthia’s van, Knox woke up trying to put his arm around her waist, but even though he slid two or three feet forward and backward, he couldn’t find her. He raised himself up on his knees and tried to find her form in the depths of the van. Despite the melancholy pre-dawn light that seeped through the front window, Knox still couldn’t detect any irregularity in the darkness that might be his ex-wife. He wanted to call her name, but the stillness of the van prohibited any sort of spoken inquiry.

Careful not to bump his head, Knox stood up, hoping the activity might rouse Levinthia from her hiding place. When he raised his hand above his head, he expected to find the van’s ceiling just three or four inches over his tangled hair. Wiggling his fingers as if he might stir up some sort of sonic feedback, Knox kept raising his hand until his arm was fully extended, but he still hadn’t reached the ceiling. He was absolutely sure this was no customized van with the awkward hump added to the roof to provide more headroom for the passengers. If Levinthia had been driving that sort of cement mixer, Knox would have made a point out of kidding her about it. No, her van had been as sleek as a multipurpose vehicle could be. So Knox felt a narrow ribbon of vertigo spool through his brain.

Wobbling a couple of steps to his left, he was immediately relieved to feel his shoulder bump into the side of the van. He almost cuddled up to the carpeted wall, intending to shuffle his way to the front where he could slide out and breathe in some fresh night air. He thought maybe Levinthia had gone outside to use the bathroom. Unless the Scarlet Sow had undergone a serious renovation at some point—and that didn’t look too likely—Knox recalled that the doors to the restrooms were actually outside. Maybe with all her clout in Hibriten, Levinthia had her own key to the toilet. Surely, the restaurant would be all locked up this late at night.

After only a couple of steps toward the front of the van, Knox felt the handle of the side door. He slid it open and glanced over his shoulder. In the watery glow of the streetlight, Knox could see that the inside of the van wasn’t unusually large after all. Why hadn’t any sort of courtesy lights come on when he opened the door? Certainly, even a couple of overhead bulbs could have reassured him that the van didn’t harbor some secret cove where Levinthia could be hiding. She simply wasn’t there.

Stepping out onto the pavement, he wasn’t surprised to see the Scarlet Sow completely dark. On the other hand, he was slightly concerned to see the front windows covered with plywood. He was pretty certain those windows had been fully exposed earlier in the evening. And even in the dark, the whole squat building looked seriously run down. Or maybe, he told himself, it looked so run down because it was dark. Shadows could make the bricks look more crumbly, the wooden trim more scaly. As he tried to stroll nonchalantly toward the back of the restaurant, he hoped he’d detect some pale outline of a bathroom light, even the flickery reassurance of a fluorescent fixture would make his heart sing.

No such luck, though. The backside of the building was even darker than the front. Adding to the obscurity of the parking lot, a wispy fog scooted along the ground. Except in horror movies or swamp movies, Knox had never seen fog so disposed to crawl. Following the same undulations as the fog, a faint odor found its way to Knox’s nose. At first, distracted as he was by Levinthia’s disappearance, Knox vaguely recalled his Boy Scout days when they went out camping on nights like this. All his best memories centered around their campfires. He liked to crawl into his tent while the scout master and the older scouts still sat around the fire because the murmuring of those voices and the wood smoke made him feel safe and adventurous at the same time.

Stooping down to swish his hand through the fog, Knox realized that the smell of smoke wasn’t coming just from his memory. It was there in the parking lot, all around him. The fog wasn’t fog at all. He raised his hand to his nose. He was standing in a wading pool of smoke. Now he could tell that he wasn’t smelling only wood. Something else was burning, and it was much more complicated than a pile of hickory logs. He thought he could smell a slight blend of plastic, cloth, and even something that smelled like tar. Overhead, the sky was clear. Stars seemed scattered at first glance, but then if Knox contemplated them, he began to think of them as arrayed in a pattern he would never grasp. About this point in his contemplation, the stars appeared superior, but not smug. Not overbearing, but transcendent and witty, like those aristocratic people he’d met in college at Chapel Hill who had made at least 1400 on their SATs but didn’t think they’d done anything unusual.

A little worried about stepping in a pothole because the fog so obscured the pavement behind the Scarlet Sow, Knox slid his feet along the six or seven yards he had to cross to reach the women’s bathroom door. Positive that Levinthia couldn’t be inside, he knocked. After several seconds of silence, he knocked again and said, “Levinthia, are you in there?”

He waited, tapping his knuckle against the warped panel of the door. Enduring several more seconds of deflating stillness, Knox turned the door knob and pushed against the door. At first, it didn’t want to move, but when Knox braced his legs and leaned into it, the door swung inward with a prolonged scraping of frayed wood against grimy tiles accompanied by the squealing of unoiled hinges. He could make out a toilet bowl lying in the opposite corner of the tiny room, the visible half of its rim dimly glowing like a disembodied smile. Reluctantly, he shuffled through the ankle-deep smoke down to the other side of the building and knocked on the men’s restroom door. Levinthia wasn’t there either.

Not wanting to turn his back on the two dark doors he’d just forced open, Knox backed away while he shuffled toward the front of the Scarlet Sow. The smoke had to be getting thicker because he knew he was having more trouble seeing his feet than he did when he first came looking for Levinthia just five or ten minutes earlier. Briefly, Knox felt the same dizziness he had back in the van when he hadn’t been able to touch the ceiling. He paused for a moment and searched his pockets for his cell phone. All he had to do was call Levinthia and settle all his doubts. Seems he hadn’t brought it with him. When he and Levinthia had started getting passionate on the floor of her van, he’d taken the phone out of his pocket because it kept digging into his thigh every time he rolled in that direction. Considering the difficulty he had finding his way around inside the van, he’d probably have to wait until morning light to start looking for his phone.

From fifty feet away, the van looked as empty as when he’d stumbled out of it. And Levinthia had been right about this part of the town becoming the land that Hibriten forgot. Even back before most of the furniture factories had gone out of business, Hibriten never had much of a night life. Very few restaurants stayed open later than eleven at night. All the movie theaters had moved to shopping centers on the far flung outskirts of town. But in this small corner of Hibriten, the feeling of being abandoned was oppressive. All the time he’d been looking for Levinthia, Knox hadn’t seen one car pass by. In all the small towns Knox had visited or passed through, regardless of how late the hour or how reclusive the population, some restless soul had to be out driving his car. Or a woman looking for her delinquent man. As long as people listened to country music, there’d be people out driving after midnight.

Adding to the emptiness of the Scarlet Sow parking lot was Knox’s realization of how much he’d missed Levinthia for the last three years. All of her. No longer able to assume that at any moment he was going to hear her voice, be able to touch her, smell her. Now she’d left him again. Just like before, he’d been too careless. His knees began to wobble out of irritation with himself. He paused to scrutinize the fabric of the night, the surroundings. He’d had dreams that felt this real. The ground smoke was an effective touch, he thought, if this was a dream. On the other hand, he couldn’t recall ever having odors in his dream. But his helplessness in the face of this specific loss was extremely familiar as part of his dream scape.

As soon as he reached the van, he slapped on the side door six or seven times, shocking the night air. “Levinthia, are you in there?” He slapped the door repeatedly until his palm stung.

Leaning his back against the van, Knox studied the Scarlet Sow. What if he opened the door of the van, and it was as torn up inside as those two bathrooms? Levinthia wasn’t in the van. She wasn’t in the bathrooms. She was gone. This could be a serious disappearance. Jerking away from the van, Knox squeezed his pockets then drove his hands into them and prodded obsessively. Had he removed his keys when he relieved himself of his cell phone? Should he walk to the police station? One thing he could say about the Scarlet Sow: it was located almost exactly between the police station and the highway patrol station. Both were about five miles away.

He’d not heard any sounds of struggle. Except for how difficult it was to judge distances inside Levinthia’s van, Knox hadn’t noticed anything unusual in the night—if he didn’t count making love to his ex-wife in a barbeque restaurant parking lot. Come to think of it, why had she done that? As far back as he could remember, Levinthia had never initiated sex. She would flirt, definitely make it clear she wanted to, but in the past, she had always required him to put the match to the grill. Not that he ever minded.

But he dreaded getting the police involved. Yes, he’d definitely walk to the police station. Those highway patrol boys were just a little too tightly strung for Knox’s taste. Nevertheless, even the most laid-back cop was going to assume that Knox had done something to his ex-wife. Law enforcement always assumed the first person to report the crime had committed the crime. And he was going to look like he had committed something by the time he walked the five miles to the police station. He’d have sweated through his shirt. His hair would be greasy. Respectable people didn’t walk the streets of Hibriten at four or five o’clock in the morning. Even in June with the moon swelling to fullness.

Knowing he had to get started, but reluctant to leave this parking lot that was the most familiar part of the evening, Knox walked to the front of the van and rested his butt on the bumper. Part of his brain urged him to get moving. Levinthia could be in serious trouble. Maybe she did have a boyfriend after all. Maybe he had followed them to the Scarlet Sow and waited for a chance to confront Levinthia. Two people can’t be parked for nearly six hours in a parking lot and not be having some kind of sex, but definitely unplanned. Otherwise, why not go to a motel? Now there was a serious questions, Knox admitted. Maybe, in the last three years, Levinthia had developed a kinky side. Or maybe she wanted to keep their first post-divorce sex in a somewhat nostalgic but neutral territory. Maybe both of them got caught up in spontaneous passion. Knox preferred this explanation. Sometimes immediacy could be more attractive than comfort. If they had paused to make rational choices, they most likely would have talked themselves out of having sex. Or maybe Levinthia took him to the back of her van because she wanted their reunion to be as different from their marriage as possible. Or maybe maybe the inside of Levinthia’s van was just too seductive to resist—even for her.

Then another question surfaced, one that had been nagging Knox since he’d woke up and realized how long they’d been parked there. Why hadn’t one of the Scarlet Sow owners or managers come out and asked them to leave? No business in Hibriten permitted loitering after hours. Maybe it didn’t count as loitering if two people were making love. Those two people certainly wouldn’t be committing acts of vandalism.

Admitting to himself that he’d delayed about as long as he could, Knox stood up, resolving that he’d be smarter to see if he could find his cell phone before starting on that five-mile hike. Despite his eyes being fully adjusted to the dark outside, as soon as he stepped back inside the van, he realized he had to go through another period of adjustment. Dropping to his knees, he wondered just how much more dilation he had left in his pupils. Apparently not much because after waiting two or three minutes, he still couldn’t see the floor, much less anything lying on the floor. He lowered his face until his nose touched the carpet, and he still couldn’t see anything. Patting the floor with his palms, Knox crawled from one side of the van to the other trying to at least cover the area where he remembered waking up. Fifteen times he scoured the carpet until he could feel his knees getting raw and his palms pulsing with heat.

Hoping that maybe he had deposited his phone, and his wallet and watch as well, and his keys, come to think of it, somewhere in the front of the van, or that maybe Levinthia had picked them up before she left and put them on the dash or in one of the seats, Knox scrambled toward the front, mildly disturbed by how long it took him to reach the back of his seat. First glance showed the dash bare, the two seats empty. Then Knox thought if he could find the interior light controls, he could get some illumination. For all he knew, Levinthia might have left a note for him. Sliding into the driver’s seat, he began searching for some kind of lever or button or rotary control.

Finding no switch, Knox opened the driver’s door, hoping for light. Nothing happened. He swung himself over to the passenger seat and opened that door, but it didn’t disturb the darkness either. His knees still burning from the carpet, Knox hopped to the pavement. He needed to start walking. Briefly, he considered trying to hot wire his truck, but then he remembered very distinctly locking his doors. Whenever he pressed the lock button on his door and heard the entire truck thump into security mode, he felt a pleasure very similar to what he felt as a Boy Scout at the archery range when he made a bullseye. Circling around to the front of the van, he hesitated again. Now, he really had no idea how long Levinthia had been gone. Doubt could be making him act hastily. What if she was playing a prank on him? For all he knew about his ex-wife, this could be some kind of Blowing Rock foreplay that he’d never heard of. For the second time that night, he leaned against the radiator and crossed his arms.

A faint sound intruded into his thoughts. He looked up, and a flicker of light caught his eye. In the distance, about where he’d seen the used car lot earlier in the evening, down there where the Valley Galaxy Drive-In used to be, Knox saw a square patch of illumination. It also seemed to be the source of the sound. He leaned forward and squinted. Surprised by how clearly the square of light came into focus, Knox glanced around to see if someone was working a remote control. The picture he could now see quite vividly also seemed somewhat larger, as if someone didn’t only have a focus button but a zoom button as well.

It was a movie. An old one—in black and white. A young boy in his pajamas looking out his bedroom window. A flying saucer just crashed in a field above his house. Knox knew this movie. Invaders from Mars. Although it was an antique when he was growing up, it had been made in 1953, he remembered being mesmerized by it because the field in the movie had made him think of Lucy’s Field. They didn’t look anything alike. The field in the movie was one of those southern California landscapes. Come to think of it, as he watched the boy’s father climb the path toward where the Martians were already burning their tunnels through solid rock, Knox judged that the movie field didn’t look real enough to fit any earthly landscape, while Lucy’s Field looked pretty much like any patch of land that hadn’t been used for anything in maybe fifty or sixty years but remained fairly undisturbed because it was protected by a sagging barbed wire fence.

Yet, for all of its plainness, Lucy’s Field did seem in some odd way out of place. Maybe because it hadn’t been used in such a long time. Could neglect make a plot of ground seem so alien? Knox thought he was beginning to hear dialogue. It was the next morning now. The father has returned, but he’s different. Then there’s that shocking moment when he smacks his son.

As far as Knox could recall, no one had gone missing in Lucy’s Field. But all those evenings he had practiced his trumpet beside it had never made him feel comfortable being near it. Back then, somewhere in the back of his mind, Knox assumed he always thought of the field in terms of Lucy. Everybody he knew, even the kids who’d never seen her, were afraid of her in one way or another. Then why did he spend so many evenings in the fall and spring playing to her? And that was what he did. He had always thought of her as his audience. The only person in all of Hibriten who really appreciated how good he was. He wondered if he’d have even started practicing beside that field if Cheryl had been more interested in his music.

At some point early in his marriage to Levinthia, he had mentioned being in the band in high school. But he hadn’t mentioned the semester in college he’d tried to be a music major. Back then, he worried that if Levinthia knew that he was a failed artist she might treat him with less respect. More than once when he started suspecting Levinthia of conspiring against him toward the end of their marriage, he had been so grateful that he hadn’t told her about being a trumpet major for one semester. He had sold his trumpet his junior year in college. It had helped him buy his books and pay rent for a month.

Glancing down at his feet, he noticed that the smoke was as thick as ever, but it remained only ankle deep. He took a deep breath. The smell of burning wood was still strong, as were all the other odors. Maybe Levinthia had gotten up to use the bathroom, gone looking for one nearby when she discovered the Scarlet Sow toilets had been vandalized, and during her search had noticed the smoke and decided to find out what was causing it. Knox nodded. That was the most sensible explanation he’d come up with all night.

His senior year in college, he and a buddy were going to pick up two girls at UNC-G. They’d just pulled off the interstate and were heading into Greensboro when they drove by a house with smoke billowing out the back windows. A woman and two kids were in the front yard waving and shouting at people as they drove by. Knox and his buddy pulled over. The woman was yelling that the fire had just broken out in the kitchen and was out of control. She’d called the fire department, but she knew all of her furniture would be ruined by the time the fire trucks got there. So Knox and his buddy had run into the house and carried out two couches, a dining room table and chairs, two chests, three beds, several boxes of clothes, letters, and photographs, two televisions. They’d saved almost everything the woman owned by the time the firemen pulled up to her house. But when they finally arrived at the two girls’ dorm, they had already checked out for the night.

As far-fetched as it seemed, Knox could see Levinthia finding somebody’s house on fire and helping the family carry out their belongings. More than once when they were married, she had surprised him by how strong she was. Unexpectedly strong. She’d had a wooden box about two feet high, two feet wide, and a foot and a half deep that she carried her paints in. When it was full, he had trouble carrying it any distance. On the other hand, Levinthia could sling it around like it was a four-roll pack of single ply toilet paper. Once when she was giving a painting demonstration at a community college, he had to park about a quarter mile from the classroom where Levinthia was scheduled to perform. He’d tried to let her out right in front of the building where she belonged, but she insisted on staying with him. He’d carried her canvases and her favorite easel. He hadn’t believed her when she told him she could carry the box with her paints. After all, when he’d loaded her supplies into his car that afternoon he had to stop twice to rest his fingers when he took out her box of paints. That evening, though, she had walked the entire distance from the parking lot without even switching the box from one hand to the other.

Glancing back at the movie, Knox saw that the young boy was now trying to convince his school teacher that people in the town were changing, and it was all connected to that field above his house. However, the teacher didn’t look like the one Knox remembered being in the movie. He was absolutely certain she had black hair. The woman he now saw on screen had thick blond hair. Before he could accept the fact that the actress was Levinthia, the headlights of the van flashed on, and the horn blared so loudly he could feel the vibration through his shirt.

He jumped about three feet forward, spinning in mid-air to assure himself that the van wasn’t sprouting fangs and coming after him with a radiator full of sharpened teeth. The vehicle sat perfectly still, except the headlights partially blinded Knox. Despite the bright lights, he was able to see the top of a blond head bobbing on top of the steering wheel. While he tried to squeeze his heart back to a normal rhythm, he saw the head stop bobbing. Then it raised up from the steering while and a face tilted toward him. It was Levinthia, laughing at him and pressing her palms against her cheeks.

For the several minutes that Levinthia continued to laugh, Knox simply stood in the glare of the lights and stared at her, his arms hanging disappointedly by his sides. Ordinarily, he really disliked the kind of rough prank that she had just played on him. Where had she managed to hide? How could she have lurked in some recess and watched him scouring the parking lot for her? Couldn’t she see how worried he was? Ordinarily, to be so unappreciated by someone for whom he’d just admitted his love—at least to himself—would have enraged him to the point that all he’d want to do was stuff his affection into a sack and drop it into a muddy river. But he couldn’t ignore how deeply relieved he felt seeing her laughing, safe and back in his life.

As her laughter subsided, Levinthia motioned for Knox to get into the van. Knox put his hands in his pockets and, whistling softly, looked up at the stars, pointedly ignoring Levinthia’s request. His refusal sparked another wave of laughing. He glanced over his shoulder and although he could still see the patch of light, it now lacked all the detail he’d been able to discern earlier. Once again, the night outside Levinthia’s van began to feel unbearably empty to Knox. All he wanted to do was shut himself up with her. And the sooner the better. He scuttled to the passenger’s side of the van, the ground smoke even thicker than before. Slightly perplexed, Knox thought he smelled, mixed among the stronger odors of wood and plastic, the faint scent of algae or fish. Anyone who grew up in Hibriten recognized the odor as belonging to the lake at the western outskirts of town. But that was a good ten miles away.

“You know, I was just about ready to go to the police.” Knox climbed into the van, but before he could sit down, he had to pick up his cell phone, watch, keys, and wallet out of the seat. He dropped into the dark leather, holding his possessions in his lap. As Levinthia tried to catch her breath, Knox spent his time looking at the articles in his lap then glancing meaningfully at Levinthia.

“I went looking for a bathroom.” Levinthia took several deep breaths and clutched the steering wheel with both hands.

“At three o’clock in the morning?”

“What does a bladder know about time?” Again she broke into laughter, but she was able to control it by rolling her chin down against her chest.

“Just where did you go?” Knox slipped his watch onto his wrist, keeping his eyes on Levinthia. Certainly, he wanted her to feel his accusation, but just as strongly, he wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to disappear again.

“Well, if you went looking for me, you probably saw what kind of shape the Scarlet Sow toilets are in.” Levinthia nodded in the direction of the dark restaurant.

“That was what made me start worrying about you.” Knox was surprised by the plaintive trill in his voice.

Levinthia leaned toward Knox and patted his hand. “Do you think that damage could have been done tonight? While we were recuperating?”

“Wouldn’t we have heard something?” Knox rolled down his window. At some point, Levinthia must have turned on the engine or at least the electrical supply. He tilted his head outside. If he were young and wild, probably drunk into the bargain, just finished trashing a couple of modest but respectable public toilets, wouldn’t he be irresistibly drawn to the apparently abandoned customized van parked in front of the restaurant? And what about the two ton transfer truck parked right beside the van?

“Should we go report the vandalism?” Levinthia squeezed Knox’s hand.

“You know the police always suspect the person who does the reporting.” Knox cupped her hand in both of his. He needed to reassure himself she was real.

“And then there’s the possible question of what were we doing in the vicinity of the bathrooms at this time of the morning.” Levinthia turned to face Knox more directly. Her knees bumped against the side of his thigh. Then they bumped again. Finally, Levinthia left them nudged against his leg.

Taking a more serious look at what she was doing, Knox realized that although she was wearing her blouse, she didn’t have on her slacks. Maybe she had on her panties, but it was hard to tell in the dim light. In fact, the only illumination seemed to come from the pale curves of her thighs. “Just where did you find a bathroom?”

“Over on the other side of Wilson’s they’re building a Dollar General Store, and I used a portable toilet over there.” Levinthia leaned forward and rested her arms across her thighs. She brought her face close to Knox’s and gave him a wide-eyed stare. “You want to know what color it was?”

“How did you know you’d find a portable toilet way over there?” Knox leaned back slightly, to demonstrate that his interest was only casual.

For a few seconds, Levinthia silently studied Knox’s face. “I noticed it when we drove by Wilson’s. It’s a shade of blue that reminded me of ‘Blue Boy,’ and I thought it was kind of funny to have a Blue Boy Porta-Potty.” She bumped Knox’s leg again and unbuttoned her blouse.

Even as he followed her back into the depths of the van again, Knox knew he should continue to question her. If all she’d done was go to the portable toilet, why had she been gone so long? And why hadn’t she asked him to go with her? And just exactly how had she been dressed when she visited her Blue Boy? But as soon as she guided his hands to her body, Knox lost interest in the kind of truth that comes with answered questions.

The next time Knox woke up, it was morning—early, but light enough to let him take the full measure of Levinthia’s van. Now it looked normal. Levinthia sat at the opposite side of the van, just finishing getting dressed. Her hair radiated completely around her face. It was a mane that made Knox feel weak in his businessman knees and elbows. Even his fingers curled in the memory of touching that hair.

She smiled at Knox and stood up. “Let’s get something to eat.” After she gave his cheek a caress, she went to the front of the van and slid into the driver’s seat. As she cranked the van, she glanced out her side window. Frowning, she rolled down the window and leaned halfway out. When she finished her inspection, she looked back at Knox. “Did you move your van sometime this morning while I was still asleep?”

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