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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:14am.

Chapter 28

Barbara had gone shopping for all the things that Ron had asked for, but Paul would not hear of her going into the mountains alone with Ted on the loose again. Ron would have no preference for Barb as delivery person over him; all he wanted was the supplies, so Paul insisted that he go in her place. Ted may have been hundreds of miles away by now, but he would not be even a remote threat if she stayed home. By even the smallest chance that he was still in the mountains, Paul wanted Barb to be safe beyond question, with doors firmly locked, until he got back.

Paul left immediately after the car was packed with the contents of the small list—dried foodstuffs, more toilet paper, a hairbrush for Denise, razors for Ron and other sundry items. The drive would take nearly two hours, but it would be easy and Barb would be safe at home.

Ron hated to leave Denise behind, even for more supplies, but she was in the cave and sheltered from anything that might arise. She had been instructed to remain inside and stay warm and dry in his absence. The temperature inside the cave would be relatively stable when compared to the normal temperature swings of the mountains, even without a fire. The seasons in these heights were shorter than below in the flatlands and with autumn approaching, the woods could be very cold at night, especially if it started raining. The shadows came quicker up here, too. He had a fair distance to go to get to the highway and preferred to do as much of it as possible in the daylight that was left to him. Denise had already been exposed to far more struggle than she wanted. She was safer where she was.

He made the trip as fast as he could in order to be there when Barbara came to the proper milepost. In case he overshot the spot himself, he wanted time to correct. It was, after all, just an educated guess that he would come out at the right place on the road. Providing that the terrain allowed for its use, he had the cell phone, in case he should need to contact Barbara to let her know of any delays or make any corrections. The lay of the land was extremely rough and he knew he might slip and be hurt, even with a fresh flashlight to aid him. He prayed that would not happen, for a sufficiently serious injury would leave him unable to return to Denise, leaving her alone and without means of communication.

Ted was following along the edge of the highway, staying in the trees deep enough so as not to be seen, but close enough to hear any activity on the road. He had the flashlight he had taken from the police officers, but he would refrain from using it as long as he could. It might draw unwanted attention and he would certainly regret using up the battery before he had genuine need of it.

If he were fortunate, there might be a slow-moving auto that he could flag down and hi-jack. He was angry that he had found it necessary to hole up so far from their cabin in the first place, but he’d had no control over that. He’d just had to go where he could hide a car and find an old shack. Maybe before morning he would be back at the cabin he had infiltrated a few nights before. Until then, he dragged his aching leg beside him, now an angry red from infection, and trudged on.

Shortly after, Ted thought he heard a car approaching slowly from the direction he was traveling. He stood perfectly still a moment and listened, then moved toward the edge of the road where he might see better. He found himself stumbling and slipping downhill in the attempt, almost sliding onto the pavement, but he scrambled back out of sight just as his own rental car, the black Mercedes, came around the bend and passed within feet of him. The sight of someone else driving his car brought his blood to a boil. It was not Denise at the wheel; that was plainly seen. He had been close enough to verify that. There were two men—probably two of the men he had knocked out a few nights back, but it made no difference. It was his car and he wanted it back. It could take him to his goal much faster if he regained possession of it. Ted turned about and made after the car, traveling back in the direction he had just come. This time he was on the pavement where he could travel more quickly. He would face them with a gun when they came back-and they would come back eventually, he knew, for they were traveling away from the cabin and away from the city. If they were looking for him, they would find him soon enough. He would see to that.

Paul had passed the cabin road where Hunter and Ron stayed. The description and estimate of the distance had been accurate. He was sure he could rely on the milepost designations as well. Whether Ron could find it in the dark was another thing altogether. The sun was going down and the light was getting pretty dim now. He had a few more miles to go and he would stop along the edge of the road, put his blinker lights on and wait. Barb’s cell phone stood ready in case he needed it for contact. He had brought it along and left his in its place, knowing Ron was expecting her to make the delivery. He only hoped the reception was sufficient here and that Ron would have his own phone turned on.

Another car was coming. This one, too, was approaching from the same direction, but was coming much faster, judging by the higher pitch of the tires on the pavement. Ted had no desire to be run down in the gloom and he made a beeline for the trees again. What? It was Barbara’s car. He recognized it from when he had staked out her house, sitting in the bushes outside her window. It was a man driving, not Barbara, but this was getting very interesting indeed. Two for the price of one? This car, too, he knew would be coming back and he was relatively certain the driver was not looking for him. But where were they going, these two vehicles? And why were they passing the cabin? There could be only one reason, he knew.

Ted stopped long enough to take the last of the pain medication that was in the First Aid kit he had stolen. The leg would have to hold out a bit longer. He had unfinished business to attend, then he would get medical attention. He pushed forward toward his goal—and his victim.

The road was close now and Ron thought he heard the sounds of a car going by. There was no way he would make it in time to flag it down, but there was also no way to know that it was Barbara. Many people from both sides of the mountain range used this road. Still, if it were her, then he might be further off in his estimate than he thought. He might have to hike a bit to catch up. He pulled his phone from his pocket and punched in Barb’s number while he continued to climb the last few feet of rise to the road above him.

Paul jumped briefly as the phone rang. He’d almost forgotten he had it with him.
‘This is Ron. Is that you, Barb?’

“No, it’s Paul. Sorry to surprise you. I told Barb to stay home until Ted is behind bars. Well, at least not to come up here until then. Where are you?”

‘I’m stepping onto the road right now. I just heard a car go past me. It may have been you. Where are you right now?’

“Just approaching the milepost you specified-maybe another half mile. Wait, I see you! Hey, not a bad guess, Ron. I’m impressed. Must have been another car that just passed.”

It was getting dark now as the car pulled over to the side of the road. Ron opened the door and climbed in next to Paul, huffing a bit from his effort. “Thanks for coming up here, Paul.” He extended his hand and shook heartily. “Great timing, man. I’m impressed, too.”

Paul smiled appreciatively. “Thanks—and you’re welcome.”

“I agree with you that your wife is safer at home. I never meant to put her at risk. Sorry if that offended you.”

“No, Ron, no offense taken. I know the risk is really small, but I just feel better knowing there is no risk at all. Barbara is a special woman and I feel it’s my place to come up here and help you. I’ve got your things in the trunk. Don’t worry about the cost right now. We can settle up later.”

“Alright, thanks.” They each got out of the vehicle and walked around to the rear where Paul opened the trunk and began to pull out the items that had been specified. The trunk light revealed each item for Ron’s inspection and approval. It was all there and he packed it carefully into the backpack that he had brought for the purpose.

“How much longer do you think the two of you will be out here?”

“I really don’t know. The funny thing is that I never planned to do this in the first place, but now that it’s happening, I’m not eager for it to end. I love Denise and it’s so great to be alone with her, even under these conditions. She’s an awesome lady, Paul. I don’t know any better word for it than that.”

“Well, the two of you certainly have hit it off quickly—you have what I call ‘chemistry’. Barb and I are glad you found each other. Denise is an awesome lady, but you’re just what she needs and deserves right now.”

“Thanks. I appreciate hearing that. Oh, before I forget…Denise and I are going to be married. We’ll want you and Barbara to be part of our wedding for sure.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic, Ron. I’m so happy for you.” He put a hand on Ron’s shoulder and shook his hand to convey his approval and congratulations. “Barb will be ecstatic over this. Maybe I should let Denise tell her, though. Don’t want to be accused of stealing her thunder, do I?”

“Paul, there’s something that I feel you need to know. It seems Denise went on some of Ted’s sales presentations and she says he didn’t do too well at all with customer relations. Yet, somehow, he always managed to get the sale after the fact and has lots of money and the best of everything. How do you explain that?”

“She said he didn’t sell well? And there was no mistake about it?” Paul’s brow was knit and he showed his puzzlement openly.

“I don’t think so. She doesn’t seem to be one to make rash accusations. She said he was pushy and they were turned off by his manner. But she also said that the day after his presentations he often told her the prospective buyer had called and made the purchase from him. She was at a loss to explain it. I thought maybe you would have some ideas about it.”

Paul’s expression was grave. “I do, as a matter of fact. I know what it sounds like, at least.”

“Embezzlement—or theft and sale on the black market.”

“I would have to agree. I’m not in the true inner circles at work, by any means, but there are rumors that almost anyone can overhear when they are in the right place at the right time. On a few occasions lately, I have been. The talk is that money is missing from several individual sales accounts. Big money when you put it all together. Tens of thousands of dollars in a short period of time.”

“Sounds like more than coincidence, doesn’t it?”

Paul leaned both arms on the side of the trunk and stared downward in thought. He spoke slowly and deliberately, “I would have to say so, yes.” He looked up again and his expression was serious. “I’ll bet there is more here than meets the eye. Rumor also has it that the money has stopped disappearing recently. Some are saying that its bookkeeping error or computer error. A few think the perpetrator quit before he got caught juggling files. I think he’ll be caught-there are some things you can cover, but you can’t cover all your tracks.”
As Paul was about to leave he shook Ron’s hand and gripped firmly, holding on a little longer than expected. Ron looked inquisitively into his eyes. “Thanks for the information. I’ll see that it gets to the right people. And thanks for taking such good care of Denise. It means a lot to Barb—and to me. She’s a special gal. I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but if I had met her first, things might have been very different.” He seemed to suddenly realize how that must have sounded to the new fiancé and he back-peddled quickly. “Not that I would have wanted her more than I do Barb….”

Ron jumped in to save him from wallowing in embarrassment. “I think I know what you mean, Paul. Both of them are fabulous women and it would take a mental midget to ignore either of them for long. I could see why you might learn to love either, or both of them equally.”

It surprised Paul to hear Ron say that. It was what he was thinking, it is true, but there was no animosity or jealousy in Ron’s voice. Ron simply recognized that these were extraordinary women and both he and Paul were very fortunate men. Paul put a hand on Ron’s shoulder again and gave a meaningful squeeze to show his respect. Ron was a man he respected and admired.

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