Cody was sweating, even though the night was cold and crisp. He had always thought of himself as a cool cucumber, someone who could handle the most horrifying accident, who could make it through what others could not. He hadn’t contemplated how he would react to having a gun, his own gun, pointed at his back as he prepared to drive through a police checkpoint. He was feeling like a criminal himself, and wondered if there was any way to help these officers collect the human trash they were searching for at the checkpoint.
He had read about false bravery, and those who risked their lives to appear fearless. The families left behind had nothing good to say about the bravado of challenging someone to shoot. Cody wondered about the training he had just completed and realized nothing he had studied could prepare him for this event. But the bigger worry was if he would survive this night and get the chance to use his newly acquired skills helping others. Or if he would just end up on a list of those killed by the desperate man in the back of his car.
Cody pulled up to the checkpoint. He looked at the officer’s name badge, and asked politely, “Looking for somebody?”
He realized almost immediately this was the wrong question, since most of the people in the line had no idea why the roadblock had been set up. Cody knew why they were all stopped, but had he just tipped his hand?
The officer refused to answer, simply waving his flashlight in the back and asking, “Who’s that in the back?”
Cody swallowed and tried to look convincing. “Oh, Dad’s just trying to catch some Z’s before we pull into town.”
The flashlight stayed on the backseat while the officer paused.
Then he turned the flashlight on Cody.
“Thanks for your cooperation,” said the officer routinely. “Please pull ahead.”
And that was it.
As the car pulled forward, Jack Arness motioned to his partner. As the other officer crossed over in front of the next vehicle, Jack said, “How much longer do you think we’ll have to do this tonight?”
The yellow Honda was slipping into third gear as it disappeared into the night.
John Graham by this time was fast asleep. He had eaten well, enjoyed the evening with his wife, and then crawled into a warm bed. As he slept, he dreamt of spending money. He had much more than the $100,000 he knew would soon be his, and when the unreality of the amount entered into the dream, he justified the spending by inserting his own financial prowess into the equation, and the dream continued.
He was driving a Ferrari. Red. With the top down. Even though he had no thoughts of leaving his wife for another woman, he enjoyed the attention he was receiving from the beautiful women he passed on the street. He kept eye contact with them as they stared first at his car, and then at his handsome face. It was the ultimate ego trip, with the sound of the motor underneath him and the attention of the world being showered from the outside.
He was dressed in a fancy Joseph Abboud suit, which was custom-tailored. A soft olive color, he knew it had silk-lined pants even though he couldn’t see them in his dream. There were suspender buttons sewn into the pants, and the styling was perfect. As if on cue, he arrived wherever it was that he was going, and got out of the car so those walking alongside him could admire his finely tailored clothes.
His shoes were Gucci. His jewelry was gold. Some of his high school students walked by admiring the ensemble and were appropriately complimentary, to which John Graham replied in his dream, “Extra credit.” It was a joke he often used in his waking moments to illustrate to students just how desperate some of them were for high grades, high scores, and the adulation of parents and teachers. Students would do anything for extra credit, just so they could have the highest scores possible.
But this was where John’s dream began to change. He looked back at the student’s to see if they were laughing at him behind his back, praising him unjustly and without sincerity. It seemed to Mr. Graham that the sudden respect he was receiving was the same false respect some students gave to teachers, the same butt-kissing that went on in the schools, but that this time everyone was catering to him and expecting some money in return.
The car, the clothes, the shoes, the glamour seemed to tarnish as he looked around and saw the crowd toadying to him, trying to win favor, and in the process, trying to gain money. He pulled out the pockets of his pants, and noticed they were empty. No money. The crowds around him looked at the white pockets turned inside out, obviously devoid of coin. They turned en masse, and suddenly the backs of the entire world were turned upon him.
John fought for the attention he had so recently enjoyed. He extolled his virtues – he was a great teacher, a caring person, a loving father, that he was more than just about money. He deserved the praise of the world, and its respect, but the world would have none of it. They continued to walk away, and suddenly John Graham awoke. The fear of the dream was still with him. The money sitting in the top of the closet hall seemed to mock him, and his only desire at that moment was to take the money back to the bank.
But it was the middle of the night, his rational mind assured him. No one would be at the bank right now. His paranoia began to ease, as he ticked off the reasons why he should be keeping the money, his fears subsided, and slowly, but surely, John Graham talked himself back to sleep.
Cody Merring was contemplating his options. As his car pulled away from the checkpoint, he realized that if he didn’t act fast, and smart, that he would probably be dead very soon. This guy didn’t need a driver, and he didn’t want a witness around either. So instead of waiting for Raymond Johnson to speak up and praise his performance with the officer, Cody spoke up first.
“That went better than I thought it would,” he said quickly. “But don’t sit up yet,” he cautioned Ray in the back seat. “I can still see the police cars.”
“Yeah, thanks for the heads up,” Ray said, not getting the irony in the statement.
Cody jumped back into the conversation. “Look, I know you probably just want to get rid of me as fast as you can, but if you shoot me now, it won’t be long before they find me, or maybe someone hears the gun.”
Ray didn’t speak.
“So, see what you think about this plan,” Cody continued. “We are about 40 miles from Ridgeway. In about 20 minutes, you drop me off and let me walk to town, which should take me over an hour. I don’t know where you are going, I can’t contact anyone for an hour, and you have one less body to worry about someone finding and pinning on you.”
The proposition hung in the air. Ray sat up slowly, looking out the back window.
“What’s to stop you from flagging down someone and getting the cops on me right away?” Ray asked.
“Tie me up so it takes me a while to get undone, or to find someone to untie me.”
Ray grunted. He tossed the idea around in his mind some more, trying to figure out the angle this guy was playing. Everybody always had an angle.
“Look, can I be honest with you?” said Cody. Since Ray said nothing, he continued. “I have just graduated from an emergency medical technician program. I’ve spent a lot of my parents’ money, and a lot of hours trying to get ready to help people out. That’s why I stopped to help you tonight. I want to help people, but if I’m dead, none of that will matter. It would be a waste of all that effort. You can understand that; you’re going to a lot of effort right now.”
Ray leaned forward and pushed the gun next to Cody. “That was a nice speech kid. The kind I’m used to making in front of judges just before they make me sit in a little room for a few years. None of my ‘efforts’ have ever got me anything but trouble. So that sales pitch probably is not the best one to use tonight. But the more I think about it, you would make a very good hostage, since those bleeding hearts out there don’t want a young man with a future to suddenly meet his end. That’s the kind of a hostage I might be needing in a very short while.”
Ray pulled the gun from Cody’s head. “So your first story was not so good, but the story you’re gonna tell your kids will be a whopper. Let’s call it ‘Hostage for a Day’. Just keep driving, and I’ll tell you what comes next when we get to Ridgeway. Just don’t do anything stupid between here and there, and we’ll all have a happy ending to tell the grandkids.”
Smitty was on the radio trying to find someone who could get Greg Jones on the phone. He imagined that Jones and that TV woman, Paula Rogers were busy playing house. He wondered if there was someone in Ridgeway he could call to go over and knock on the door of the “supposedly” empty house. That would be quite the wake-up call, at 11:00 P.M. at night. He was trying to be sensitive to Darrell, whose brother was dead because the state police hadn’t put the pieces together fast enough. If Larry was still alive, he would be the go-to man. He would have been able to get Jones on the speaker.
So now, as the four of them all sat silently in a car racing toward Ridgeway, Smitty turned over the details in his head. He was almost positive that this teacher, John Graham had found the rest of the money, and sent the fake package to the police. It didn’t make sense for Raymond Johnson to plan some elaborate decoy, and then go back for the decoy as if it were the real money. And now, Smitty was betting that Johnson was on his way back to Ridgeway to collect the rest of his money.
But the gasoline skip didn’t fit that either. The cashier had positively identified both the truck and the driver, but if Johnson had picked up the money from the evidence safe, and had the cash from the Mike Shepherd money, then why chance getting caught stealing gas. That made Smitty think back to the smug look on Simon’s face. He had the smile of a cat that just ate a bird, and had remembered to get the feathers away from his mouth. Smitty thought to himself that he would have to go back and see if Simon would cough up the money.
The gasoline theft had pointed them in the right direction, back toward Ridgeway, even though Johnson had left Simon’s house in the other direction. Smitty knew Raymond Johnson was planning on a rendezvous with the rest of his money, and the deaths of at least four people hadn’t bothered his conscience yet. Smitty wondered how many more would have to die to stop this maniac.
Ray handed the address to Cody. Cody looked at it 3 or 4 times and kept looking back up at the road. Ray thought that for a smart graduated guy, he sure couldn’t read very well. “Want me to read it for you?” Ray volunteered.
“I can read it, sorry. I was just trying to watch the road,” Cody explained. “I know right where this is in Ridgeway. It’s on the other side of town from my folk’s house.”
What Cody Merring didn’t say was that he also recognized the name. John Graham had taught him in high school, less than 2 years ago. Graham had been one of his favorite teachers, and Cody remembered how much fun they had in classes where laughing had an equal part with learning. John Graham was one of the reasons he had stayed in school, instead of dropping out like his older brother. Graham had talked honestly with him, stressing to Cody how much richer his wallet and his life would be to have a degree. But the main message had been to finish what you start. Many of Cody’s friends had dropped out in their junior and even their senior years, just months away from completing a twelve year hike toward a diploma. Cody had been tempted to try to get a job at the local gas station at minimum wage, and now that his EMT training was done, he was overwhelmed that the man who had helped him see the light at the end of the tunnel was the same man who this crazy man in the back seat wanted to see tonight. He tried to think of how to salvage what was turning into a terrible nightmare.
Cody began to try to pry some information from Ray. “So this guy, this John Graham, he lives at this address?”
Ray shrugged. “I guess. It’s just the address I have for this guy. Do you know him?” the gunman asked.
“I think I know who he is,” Cody revealed, but tried to hide his true involvement. “I think he’s a teacher at the high school.”
A light bulb went off in Ray’s head. He had seen how small the town of Ridgeway was, and this kid was trying to say he didn’t know the guy? Something wasn’t adding up.
“The high school you went to?” Ray demanded.
Cody looked into the rear view mirror. Ray didn’t look happy. “Yeah,” Cody said slowly.
“He taught at your high school, and you don’t know much about him?”
“Well,” Cody said as he searched for what would satisfy Ray’s curiosity. “He was the drama teacher. I was more into the sciences.”
It must have been the right thing to say, because Ray slowly relaxed and began to chuckle to himself. “The drama teacher. This is gonna be a pushover.”
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