Chapter 18: "WE ARE FRIENDS."
When George awoke he was startled to find himself sprawled across the bright orange lounger in his repugnant room. On the small table in front of him were two empty packages of Hostess Chocolate Donettes and a drained Minute Made orange juice box, the vestiges of a midnight raid on the motel’s vending machine. He wiped crumbs from his chin and rubbed his aching head. He couldn’t tell if his brain was throbbing from his most recent “episode”, or the marauding thoughts still running through it. Or both. He longed for a syringe or any instrument that might drain away the pain. He lifted his wrist to check his watch. 5:43 A.M. He ran a dirty palm over his face and the dread of reality, or whatever nightmare comprised his current reality, quickly sunk back in. He was wallowing in a damp suit inside a motel room that the 70s wouldn’t want back in the middle of God-knows-where, all the while going quickly, inexorably, certifiably insane.
What was the next move? He couldn’t keep running with the sole purpose of staying alive. Where was he going? If he drove much further north he would be begin heading into Canada. East would lead him to Idaho and the rangy mountains of Montana. He was short on cash. How long could he realistically survive on an easily traceable credit card? Most importantly, how in the world was he going to get his girls back?
He took his wallet from his soaked back pocket, extracted his daughters’ class pictures, and gazed ruefully at their radiant smiles. The sickness he felt in his stomach when he thought about his girls and what they might be going through was unbearable. First and foremost, were they safe? He prayed that they were still in the care of their grandmother. His mother-in-law was a good woman and more than capable of looking after them until he figured this thing out. Then he worried that his girls might think that he was crazy after the fight with the cops. Hell, even he thought that he was crazy, but something was fishy about those cops, wasn’t there?
Or maybe…maybe this was just a misunderstanding about who had murdered Mindy. The cops must have somehow thought that he’d shot her. Domestic violence was a much more logical first conclusion than random home invasion. That had to be it. But the forensic evidence would easily clear him of murder. As far as the battery of two police officers, well that was bad. But given the circumstances, couldn’t a good lawyer make a case for temporary insanity? Anyway, there really was no decision to be made. He would drive back to Everett and turn himself in for whatever he was accused of, no matter the consequences. The only thing he cared about now was the safety of Caitlyn and Kelly.
With that, he stood up and stretched his hands high toward the ceiling. He sighed. The relief of having made a decision was palpable. Suddenly, his smart phone vibrated on the table. His heart immediately began racing again. He picked it up and looked at the screen with dread. A text message read: “Your wife is not dead. Do not panic. Stay where you are. WE ARE FRIENDS.”
Inexplicably, George’s mind raced back to the image of the short man being shot in the woods behind his house. His panic increased and he wondered if he was beginning to have another episode. However, there was no excruciating head pain associated with this episode, if it was one. He looked down at the message again.
“’Your wife is not dead.’” George read the text aloud. “What the hell?”
He crumbled to his knees. It wasn’t fair. Just when he had started to get it together—at least he’d formulated a plan—the small feeling of relief had been snatched from him so suddenly. Could there be something to this? Should he follow the instructions even though he had no idea who they were coming from? Did he simply want the source of the text to be friendly at an hour when he so desperately needed aid?
“Who the hell are you?” He looked down at his phone again and began to type. “What did I do to deserve this?!”
Suddenly, a woman’s scream shot from the motel parking lot and George jumped to his feet. He crept toward the window and peeked out from behind the musty curtains. The same tall blond man who had shot Mindy was striding swiftly toward George’s room, assault rifle in hand. The young couple George had encountered earlier at the pool was running along behind the stone-faced killer. Only bed sheets appeared to be covering their tattooed bodies.
“You fuckin’ pervert asshole!” the woman screeched. “How fuckin’ dare you break into our room!”
The bleary-eyed boyfriend’s face morphed suddenly from shock to anger. He hiked up his boxer shorts and closed on the blond man quickly from behind. His intension was clear: to do the intruder violence. Sensing this, the blond man whipped around and pointed the XM8 directly at his head. The boyfriend stopped in his tracks.
“Get the fuck back in your room or I shoot the bitch first,” the blond man barked coldly.
George bolted into the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He went directly to the window and looked outside. There was a small grass field and the state highway just beyond. Abrupt gunfire ripped through his motel room door. Terror drove George to kick out the bathroom window. He pulled his heavy body up, and tumbled through.
“Ow, dammit!” Broken glass shredded his forearms and he dropped with a thump onto the grass below. With zero time to indulge the pain, he got up and began sprinting for his life through the field toward the highway. He gasped for breath as his thick legs churned like rusty pistons.
“This is all a dream!” George wiped sweat from his face with a forearm streaked with blood. “Please let this all be a dream!”
Suddenly, a white van stopped on the highway in front of him and men in black suits jumped out with weapons drawn. They began firing. So did the blond killer who had already crashed his way through the broken bathroom window.
“Jesus God!!” George hit the deck, face planting on newly cut grass.
Unarmed and caught between enemy fire from both directions, George had no other option but to curl up in a fetal position and pray. As gunfire crackled overhead, he prepared for the bullets to tear through him. He began to shake uncontrollably. He hoped that the end would be a straight shot to the head. He would be dead, but at least the terrible waking nightmare that had become his life would mercifully cease. His final prayer was that Caitlyn and Kelly would somehow come through all of this safely and find their way in the world.
Then, the weirdest thing happened in a day that had been defined by weirdness. Death never came for George. In fact, the gunfire stopped after only a few more seconds. Buoyed slightly by the odd silence, George slowly lifted his head. He fully expected to see his executioner standing over him. But no one was there. Two hundred feet in front of him he saw three black-clad bodies lying motionless not far from where they had jumped from the van. He looked behind him and saw the blond man also lying still only a few yards outside the window of the motel.
George rose to his feet. The silence was such an odd contrast to the gunfire. He snapped out of his haze and limped toward the van half-expecting another armed man to jump out of it, or for it to explode suddenly in his face. But neither happened, and George took care not to look at the bodies as he passed by.
He pulled himself into the driver’s seat of the van and saw the keys in the ignition. It was still running. The old manager lady George had rented the room from shuffled onto the scene in an ancient nightdress. She looked around with wide eyes and kept rubbing her ears. Just as she squinted and made eye contact with George from across the field, he shifted into drive and sped off. Suddenly, the walkie-talkie lying on the passenger seat sprang to life. George flinched and looked down like it was a live grenade.
“Agent 4, come in,” an official voice squawked from the walkie. “Agent 4, this is Motherload. Come in with status. Status, Agent 4.”
George forced himself to ignore the handset.
“Agent 4, please come in. Agent 4, what’s your status? Agent 4—“
He couldn’t take it anymore and ripped the walkie-talkie from the seat.
“Who are you?!” George screamed into the receiver. “What the hell is going on?!”
There was no reply.
“You, you tell me what’s going on…why, why you’re trying to murder me!” His voice trembled and he sucked back tears. “If you hurt my daughters I’ll…I’ll fucking kill you!!”
“George, this is Karl Orlandis.” The soothing and measured voice came through after a second. “I realize that you don’t know me from Adam but I need for you to trust me. I am not trying to kill you or your family. On the contrary, I am on your side and am trying to keep you from being killed. I know that this will sound ridiculous, but you are not the person that you think you are. There are very powerful forces that wanted you to continue to believe that you are George Winston, banking executive and suburban father of two. Because that is no longer possible and their farce is in danger of being exposed, now they simply want you dead. I just need for you to follow my instructions to the letter so that we can bring you in safely and explain everything—”
“Why are you...?” George’s head dropped and he almost lost control of the van. He jerked back into his lane, but now he really didn’t care if he crashed as long as it put him out of his misery once and for all. What was this new torture? Did this nutjob actually think that he was helping?
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” George chucked the walkie-talkie out the driver’s side window. It landed violently on the asphalt behind him and lay cracked on the side of the road.“George?” Orlandis’ voice spurted plaintively from the damaged walkie. “George, are you there?!”