Laid Back Louie - Prolog
Louie Vargos was the most laid back person Austin Hill knew. Austin knew Louie fairly well now. It struck him suddenly one day that Louie didn’t try to be laid back. It was just his nature. He didn’t do ‘cool’ things because someone else did them. He did them because he felt they were good ideas in and of themselves.
He rode a custom diesel engine Harley-Davidson motorcycle from mid spring through mid fall, but he wasn’t a ‘biker’. Louie even used it sometime in the winter if there wasn’t much snow on the road. But he only rode it under those conditions with a Walker Motorcycle Conversion Kit that added a full size wheel on each side of the rear wheel of the bike. It made it stable and almost tip-proof.
His really bad weather vehicle was a custom non-electronic diesel engine Chevy Suburban, suited for heavy-duty off-road use, but he wasn’t a ‘mudder’ or a ‘rock crawler.’
Louie usually had on a well worn leather jacket, a leather snap-brim fedora, hiking boots and khaki chinos with a khaki shirt that had two flap pockets and working epaulettes, but he wasn’t trying to be a knock-off Indiana Jones.
He had long brown hair, kept back out of his eyes, but he wasn’t a ‘hippie.’
The leather belt he wore carried five leather pouches with various tools and lights. It was even a money belt where Louie kept gold coins. But he didn’t consider himself Batman.
Louie even had a cool career. He was an entrepreneur. He didn’t do any one thing. He had fingers in a bunch of things. The closest thing that Austin knew Louie did on a regular basis was act as a high security courier. He wouldn’t tell Austin what he usually carried, other than there were half a dozen different businesses that used him. He did say that everything was either very valuable in monetary terms or in importance.
Austin couldn’t really determine how much money Louie made. He never seemed to want for anything, and always had cash available when it was needed. He had a bank debit card, but he also carried an American Express Platinum Card.
He lived in a customized Airstream thirty-four foot Classic Limited trailer set on blocks, the tongue and rear bumper removed. It was underpinned with matching aluminum material. The major modification was the installation of a small wood burning stove for heat. There was a large covered and railed patio along the length of the trailer, fifteen feet wide. It was Louie’s concrete front yard, as he referred to it sometimes.
Austin thought the thing looked like it was just extruded from the ground below. It was sitting on a large, sloping, wooded lot, as Louie put it, ‘a few and a half miles from town.’ A US Tower fifty-five foot free-standing retractable/fold-over tower with a half a dozen different antennas seemed to be growing next to the trailer.
What looked like two more Airstream trailers, partially inlet into the front of a tall earthen berm, were, in fact, only the shells of two additional thirty-four foot trailers. They had both been wrecked when Louie bought them, cheap. He refurbished them to a certain extent, after gutting the interior. They were Louie’s storage room and work shop.
Hidden away underground were two propane tanks, two diesel fuel tanks, a fuel alcohol tank and a gasoline tank. The pump system for the gasoline and alcohol would pump either one straight, or combine gasoline with alcohol up to the proportions of eight-five parts alcohol to fifteen parts gasoline to give E85 fuel.
The fuel fill pipes, the fuel dispensers for the liquid fuels, and the valves for the wet legs in the propane tanks, were hidden away in a shed like indentation in the back side of the large berm.
Several other indentations in the berm contained twenty-four cords of seasoned split hardwood firewood from his coppicing woodlot. Several more stacks of wood were covered with heavy tarps along the back edge of the property.
On top of the berm was a large array of AWE Schott 315-watt 48-volt photo-voltaic panels. They fed Xantrex/Trace 115/230-volt stacked inverters to provide electrical power. The inverter charge controller kept twenty-four Surrette 8-CS-25PS 8-volt/820 amp hour batteries charged. They were wired in a series/parallel configuration to provide two banks of batteries to provide 48-volts to the inverter.
At one end of the shop was a whole-house 21kw diesel electric generator in a weather resistant, low sound level enclosure. It was wired into the power system to take over if the batteries of the solar system were getting close to the lowest usable level of charge.
Louie had a deep well with an independent solar pump to keep a cistern filled, which provided his water through a ¾hp pump-in-tank jet water pump located in the shop in a insulated enclosure.
Sewer was a twelve-hundred-gallon fiberglass septic tank well down the slope from the trailer. It had six-hundred feet of field tile in three separate sections.
Louie was pretty much self-sufficient, utility-wise. Aside from the electrical, water, and sewer systems, there was a waste incinerator behind the berm, and a concrete bin for trash. Louie would take the ashes from the incinerator and the trash to the county dump when enough accumulated to justify a trip.
Telephone service was a cellular phone connected to a directional antenna on the tower. TV and high-speed internet were provided by a small dish system mounted at the base of the tower.
At one side of the clearing was a well built equipment shed made of logs and bermed with earth around its three sides. It contained elements of one of Louie’s entrepreneurial businesses. A Unimog U-500 truck with several attachments took up three bays of the shed, and that didn’t include the Carolina Smooth Roads road maintenance implement parked outside, since it was so long.
Also outside were the various beds for the U-500 and several trailers for the U-500 and the Suburban.
A Bobcat A300 skidsteer/4-wheel steer loader and a Bobcat 5600T utility machine were both on a trailer with a selection of attachments in another bay. The next bay held more attachments. The Suburban took one bay, and Louie’s Harley and a ROKON 2-wheel drive bike took up a bit of space in another. That left three more bays empty in the long structure.
The county paid Louie a nominal amount to keep some of the secondary roads open during heavy snows in the winter. A group of the residents in the area chipped in, too, plus many of them had Louie keep their driveways clean using the snow blowers for the Unimog and for both of the Bobcats.
In the spring, he was paid again for running the very expensive Carolina Smooth Roads road maintenance implement over the gravel and dirt roads in the county. He could keep the roads in better shape than the county, for less money than they could themselves. And just like the snow removal, Louie got quite a bit of private driveway work, too.
Now, Louie didn’t do much of the work himself, though he certainly could. He had a couple of reliable hands that used the equipment for him. Their arrangement included using the equipment for jobs they found themselves, for a small fee, when not using it for Louie.
That’s where Austin came in. He was a plumber with equipment operator experience and used Louie’s Bobcats and Unimog on a regular basis for his plumbing business. When he wasn’t busy with plumbing, which, in the economic climate at the moment, was way too often, he worked the equipment for Louie.
Austin only knew about some of the aspects of Louie’s place because he was the one that did most of the digging, dirt work, and plumbing work after Louie bought the land. Louie hadn’t actually sworn Austin to secrecy, but he’d paid a premium for some of the work and implied he’d rather no one besides Austin know about much of it.
That was fine with Austin. Louie kept him busy when he wasn’t plumbing. As far as he could tell, he was the closest thing that Louie had for a friend. Louie told him once that Austin’s key to the gate at the road end of the driveway was the only one out there, and that if anyone said they had permission to use the property or visit when he was gone, they were lying.
Though he was affable and sociable, he just didn’t socialize much, unless it was for some charity activity.
Austin didn’t know all this about Louie at first. It was some time before he knew it all.
Laid Back Louie
Austin flipped open his cell phone on the third ring. He didn’t recognize the number. But he recognized the voice. It was Louie Vargos. “Hello, Austin. You real busy at the moment?”
“Not really, Louie. Why?”
“I need a favor.”
It stunned Austin. He’d never known Louie to ask for anything even approaching a favor. From anyone.
“Sure, Louie. What’s up?”
“I need a ride home from the hospital.”
“Hospital! Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” The sigh was audible on the phone. “They just say I can’t drive for a while.”
“Well, sure. You at County General?”
“Yes. But my bike is in the city. Any chance you could go get it, take it home, and then pick me up in the Suburban?”
“Okay.” Austin looked at his watch. “Take me about two hours to the city, and the same back with the bike. Then another half an hour to your place and forty-five minutes more to the hospital. You sure you don’t just want me to get you and take you home, and then go get the bike?”
“They’re not going to let me out for a while. I’ve got time. You sure you want to do this? I’ll pay…”
“No pay. Just helping out a friend.” Austin was adamant.
Again Louie sighed. “Okay. Will you be able to get someone to take you to the city?”
“My sister is here visiting. She can drive my truck back. Oh. Do we need to stop and get the key to the bike?”
“No. It’s pushbutton start after you do a couple of things so it will run.” Louie proceeded to tell Austin about the hidden fuel cut-off and battery cutoffs that prevented the bike from starting without changing their positions.
“Okay, Louie. Sis and I will get going in just a few minutes.”
“Not a problem, dude. It’s what friends are for.”
“Yeah. And you are a good one.”
Austin was smiling when he walked into the living room to talk to Colleen, his older sister. “Collie, I need to go into the city to pick up my friends bike. I told him you’d drive my rig back. I hope that is okay.”
“Sure, Austin. Let me just go to the bathroom first and I’ll be ready.”
Austin watched his sister. She was getting better, but the loss of her husband and baby in a car accident the previous month was still eating at her. Though it was the other driver’s fault entirely, she still blamed herself for sending them off in a taxi to the airport. She went to her office before going to the airport herself for the trip to Austin’s for the holidays.
The taxi hadn’t made it to the airport. It had been clipped by an oncoming semi rig and flipped three times. Her husband had not been wearing a seat belt. Though the baby was in a carrier, it wasn’t belted in, either, and both were thrown from the car and killed instantly when an oncoming car couldn’t avoid running over them.
Grabbing her purse and a jacket from the hall closet, Colleen followed Austin out to his pickup truck. It was set up as his plumbing truck, but it was the only vehicle he had.
The two were silent most of the way to the city. Finally Colleen spoke. “Who is this friend of yours? Did he say why he was in the hospital?”
“Come to think of it, he didn’t. It’s Louie Vargos. I’ve mentioned him before, I’m sure.”
“Um… The guy with the equipment you sometimes use?”
“Yep. That’s him.”
“You made him sound a bit strange.”
“No I didn’t!”
“Yes, you did. A real loner. No friends. Secret agent kind of jobs where he disappears for days or weeks. Fingers in all kind of pies, too, you said.”
“I didn’t say he was a secret agent! He’s a courier. Of… well, I don’t know, really. But it’s important. I know he commands a high price for that work. And he just has a small interest in a lot of businesses. A lot of people do the same thing.”
“Yeah. But by owning stock.”
“Come on, Sis. He’s a good guy. Louie has helped me get through some tough times throwing me work he could easily have done himself with the equipment.”
“Okay. But you be careful on that bike. I don’t want to lose you, too.” There were tears in her eyes when Austin got out of the truck with his motorcycle helmet in hand and walked over to the bike. It took only a few seconds to pull the cover off and throw it into the truck. A few more to change the valve settings and flip the two electrical switches that would allow the bike to start.
The diesel engine rumbled to life and Austin looked over at Colleen. He hadn’t known what to say when he got out of the truck, but she looked dry-eyed now and ready to go. Putting the Harley in gear, Austin headed for the entrance to the parking lot. He winced when he paid the parking attendant. It took all his cash.
Colleen stayed behind Austin all the way back to Louie’s place. She waited while he unlocked the gate and then drove through. On a whim, instead of just waiting, Colleen followed her brother up the rough drive and stopped in the turnaround driveway.
“Why is the bottom part of the driveway so bad?” she asked Austin as he was putting the bike in the equipment shed.
“I don’t know, actually,” Austin said, walking over to the Suburban. He stooped down and looked under the body of the vehicle. It was fairly easy, as the suspension had a four inch lift to clear the large tires the Suburban had.
Austin continued after he found the hidden key. “I think he wants to discourage visitors. Not too many people would venture up that driveway very far in a regular car, even if they could get around the gate. It’s easy for a four wheel drive, but it just looks like it’s a fire road going nowhere.”
“More strangeness from the man,” Colleen muttered. She got back into Austin’s truck and led the way down the driveway, stopping well past the gate so Austin could come through. He got out and locked up the gate again before climbing back up into the Suburban.
They made it to town and Colleen turned off to go home. Austin continued through town and headed for the county seat and County General Hospital.
Austin gasped when he saw Louie waiting for him in the Emergency Room waiting room in a wheelchair. “What happened to you?” he asked.
“Later, please. Just get me home. I hate hospitals.” Louie started to get up, but a nurse had her eye on him and quickly got him back into the wheelchair. She handed Louie’s crutches to Austin.
“You know the rules. You come in on a gurney; you go out in a wheelchair.” She got behind the chair and reached down to unlock the brakes, but Louie was already doing that. The nurse pushed the wheelchair out to where Austin had parked the Suburban.
“You really expect to climb up into that thing?” the nurse asked, looking at the rig doubtfully.
“No problems,” Louie said as Austin opened the passenger side door. Louie lunged to his feet, grabbing one of the grab handles the Suburban had in handy positions. He tossed the small bag he was carrying into the front of the Suburban and then drew himself up with his arms and slid over into the bucket seat.
“I’ll put the chair in the back,” Austin said.
“‘Fraid not, my friend,” said the nurse. “This one is hospital property. The crutches are his. But if you can influence your friend, have him rent a chair for a few weeks until he is better able to get around.”
Austin nodded and hurried around the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat. “You want me to stop at a medical supply place?”
“I don’t think so. I can get around. Just slow. And painful.” The last was said just before Louie opened a pill bottle from the bag on the floorboard and took one of the tablets dry.
“Only if you’re sure,” Austin tried again at the parking lot exit. “I don’t mind taking the time to…”
Louie looked over at him. “I’m fine. People worry too much.”
“Yeah. Right.” Austin pulled out into traffic and headed them home. When they were close to town, Austin called his sister and let her know they’d be at Louie’s in a while.
“She coming after you?”
“Yep. But… How are you going to get around? You can’t drive in that cast.”
“I know.” Louie sighed. “I guess I’ll have to hire a driver. I don’t suppose you…”
“I would. You know that, Louie. But I’ve got a good job going right now. I can’t afford to mess that up.”
“I know you would if you could. And I appreciate it. I’ll just have to call a temp service and see if they have anyone that lives close that could do the job.”
“Why don’t you ask Colleen?” Austin said before really thinking about it.
“Your sister? I don’t think so. I’m sure she is still in recovery from her loss. She’s not going to want to be around someone in my condition, considering…”
“Yeah. Didn’t think about it.”
The two were silent the rest of the way to Louie’s property. Austin was a bit surprised when Louie let him help when he went from the Suburban to the Airstream. Austin had parked as close as he could get to the door, but Louie was still quite pale when Austin got him onto the sofa in the trailer.
“Are you okay?” Austin asked, his worry obvious to Louie.
“I’m okay. Just can’t take another pain pill for another couple of hours. I’ll just have to tough it out.” He looked around suddenly when a knock sounded at the open door.
Austin automatically told Colleen, “Come on in,” without checking with Louie.
Louie frowned for a moment, but then he got a good look at Colleen. He forgot what he was going to say.
“Colleen, this is Louie Vargos. Louie, my sister, Colleen Hodges.”
“Mr. Vargos,” Colleen said, nodding at him. Her eyes were taking in his appearance. “You don’t look too good.”
“Colleen!” Austin exclaimed.
“Well, he doesn’t.”
“You can call me Louie,” Louie said. “And I know what I must look like. It’s not as bad as it seems.”
“Um,” was all Colleen said.
“She goes by Collie,” Austin said, for something to say in the awkward moment.
“You know I hate that name, Austin,” Colleen said sharply.
“Mrs. Hodges it is, then,” Louie said.
“Oh, no! You can call me Colleen. Only Austin calls me… that other name. He thinks it is funny.”
Austin was grinning.
“I guess we’ll be going,” Colleen said then. “You look like you need some rest.”
Louie nodded. Austin looked from one of them to the other and suddenly said, “I’ll check around to see if I can find a driver for you. Too bad you don’t want Colleen to do it.”
“I didn’t say…” Louie protested.
“You didn’t even know me before just now. Why would you not want me to be your driver.”
“Well… I just thought… with your loss… you might not be comfortable around an almost invalid.”
Colleen paled for a moment, but then shook her head. “I have to get over that. I need something to do. I’ll be your driver.”
“When do you need me here?”
Louie hesitated, and glared at Austin for a moment. Austin was grinning. “Day after tomorrow I need to check on a project. You think you can drive the Suburban?”
“Of course I can,” Colleen replied. Rather sharply, Austin thought.
“You have a way out here?” Louie asked, searching for reasons for Colleen to not be his driver. For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom.
“You can’t afford the time away from your job,” Louie said. Then he sighed. Looking at Colleen, he said, “You might as well take it in with you. Get familiar with it before you come out day after tomorrow.”
“If you wish,” Colleen replied. She kept her face neutral. But she was trying to figure out just how she’d managed to become Louie’s driver.
Louie and Colleen both glared at Austin when he started whistling happily on the way out of the trailer. “Shut up!” Colleen growled, hard on his heels. The trailer seemed to have suddenly shrunk around her and she needed some air.
Still grinning, Austin handed Colleen the keys to the Suburban and climbed into his truck. Colleen took her time looking over the Suburban before she opened the door and climbed up into the driver’s seat. Austin had left the gate open and she drove through. She almost decided to leave the gate open, but sighed, stopped and got out to close it.
Driving extra carefully in the large vehicle, Colleen took her time going to Austin’s. She was comfortable with the truck by the time she got there. She locked the doors after she got out at Austin’s, and then went inside. Austin was working on the company books, so she didn’t disturb him. Though she wanted to. To bawl him out for getting her in the mess she decided she was in.
Since she couldn’t, Colleen proceeded to prepare them a simple supper. An excellent cook, she hadn’t had the urge since her husband and child had died. Just didn’t seem to be any point to do anything other than eat enough to stay alive. And she wondered about that a couple of times.
Louie was feeling much the same way. He, too, was an excellent cook when he wanted to be. But he usually just ate simple meals and had a nice dinner out occasionally while on one of his trips.
Tonight he decided to forgo anything other than a bowl of cereal. He just wasn’t up to even heating anything up. But he had to eat something so the medication he was on wasn’t so hard on his stomach.
He was in a great deal of pain by the time he managed to get himself undressed after his cereal and climb into bed. He took the pain medication and laid back, hoping for sleep to come quickly. Louie didn’t like pain, but he’d known it several times in the past and knew that only time would bring him back to full function, and almost pain free.
It is amazing what the difference a day can make thought Colleen when she pulled up and parked in the circular driveway in front of Louie’s Airstream. Louie was in the equipment shed, on his crutches, checking a piece of equipment. He waved at Colleen and started toward the Suburban.
Colleen jumped out of the Suburban and started toward him. But Louie looked at her and frowned. “I’m doing fine.”
“As you wish,” Colleen replied. “Anything you need from the trailer?”
Louie shook his head and opened the front passenger door of the Suburban. After sliding the crutches behind the seat, he hopped up and into the truck.
“You seem much better today than day before yesterday, Mr. … Louie.”
“I am better, Colleen. Thank you. You okay with this old hunk of junk?”
Colleen cut him a glance as she buckled herself in. Louie was already buckled up. “Some hunk of junk. With all the accessories you have on this thing, it must have cost a fortune. Do you really need everything you have on and in it?”
“Only needed a few of the things. But I’m a believer in ‘better to have and not need than to need and not have’.”
“I suppose there is something to be said for that,” Colleen said. She was headed down the driveway now. “Where are we going?” she asked when she had gone through the gate and then locked it and got back into the truck.
Louie was using the touch screen on the Suburban’s navigational system. He leaned back in the bucket seat and said, “Just follow the directions the Nav system gives.”
Colleen put the Suburban in gear and the Nav System said “Right turn.” From time to time Colleen looked over at Louie. He seemed about to doze off when the Nav System said, “Destination reached.” They were at a new building going in on the far side of the town.
Louie looked up and put his hand on the door handle. “You can stay in the truck if you want. It’s a bit muddy out here.”
“I think I’d better stay handy, just in case,” Colleen said. She wouldn’t look at Louie, knowing he’d have an annoyed look on his face. She hurried around the Suburban, but Louie was already slipping the crutches under his arms.
The two walked over to where a man in a business suit was talking to a man in a hard hat.
“Louie! What the hey happened to you?” asked the man in the suit. He shook hands when Louie gripped the right hand crutch under his arm and extended his hand.
Louie nodded at the other man and said, “Hello Charlie.”
“I’d ask how you’re doing, but it’s kind of obvious,” Charlie replied. He turned to the man in the suit and said, “I’ll get right on those changes, Mr. Masterson.”
“So you decided on the changes, Glen.”
Glen Masterson was looking at Colleen standing just a few feet away. “My driver,” Louie said. “As you can see, I’m not up to it.”
“Of course. And yes, I am incorporating the changes. You drive a hard bargain, but I can’t do the project without your help.”
“I’ll have that line of credit set up at the bank in town today. You can access it starting tomorrow.”
The two men shook hands and Louie headed back to the Suburban, Colleen keeping close watch in case he slipped on the muddy ground. But he made it, knocked the mud off his boots with a crutch and then climbed into the truck.
After scraping her feet on the running boards of the Suburban, Colleen got in, too, and said, “Where next? The bank?”
“Yes, please. Do you need the navigator?”
“No. I know my way around town pretty good, now,” Colleen said.
Again they were silent as Colleen drove back to town and stopped at the only bank the town had. It was a small branch bank with only two teller windows and two offices, besides the main vault and the lock box vault.
Colleen didn’t ask, and when Louie didn’t object, she followed him into the branch bank. She took a seat and waited while Louie talked to the banker. Neither had shut the door of the office and Colleen heard everything that was said. She was amazed, to say the least.
Louie made arrangements to open a ten-thousand-dollar line of credit for Glen Masterson to draw against for the building project. It only took a few minutes, and Louie was heading for the Suburban again.
“You do that a lot?” finally said as they headed back to Louie’s place.
“Finance things for people. Austin wouldn’t tell me much, but he once said you had your fingers in a bunch of different pies. I hope I’m not touching on a taboo subject.”
“It’s okay. I normally don’t discuss my business ventures, but you couldn’t help but overhear. That is part of what I do. I don’t like to actually work.”
Colleen looked over at Louie. He was grinning. She smiled back and then put her eyes back on the road. “I find that hard to believe. Austin said you’re usually pretty busy with your equipment. And some other things he didn’t know the specifics of.”
“I’m glad to know Austin doesn’t spread my business around. He does a lot of work for me and knows more than anyone else does about what I do. I hope to keep it that way.”
“Oh. I see. No more questions, then.” Colleen said.
Louie thought for a moment her hair flamed a brighter red, and suspected the green eyes he’d noticed before were flashing sparks.
“I didn’t mean that like it sounded, Colleen. I’m just naturally… well… to put it bluntly, I’m a real hermit and loner. I don’t like people knowing my business. But Austin does some of it and it’s never been a problem. I doubt if you find out a few things you’ll say anything about it to anyone.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Colleen said.
Louie saw her relax slightly, and relaxed a bit himself. He found himself telling her more than a little about the various ‘pies’ he ‘had fingers in.’ Restaurants, local farms, the farm and ranch store, and several others.
“Austin was right. You’re into a lot of different things. Plus the equipment and the courier jobs.”
“Keeps me in granola,” Louie replied.
“Austin didn’t say,” Colleen said, feeling like she was suddenly treading on eggs. “How did you get banged up so bad? Traffic accident?”
Louie sighed and looked out the passenger window. “I guess it won’t hurt to tell you. Austin doesn’t know. I took a courier job I knew better than to take. But a good customer vouched for the guy. I made sure the product was legal. But the security arrangements weren’t up to snuff. I wound up in a gun battle with would be hijackers.”
“Oh my lord! You were shot?”
“Yep. Five times. All in the left leg. Broke it in two places.”
“Should I ask what happened to the hijacker?”
“Hijackers. Plural. And it’s probably best you don’t know. One thing, though. You don’t have to worry about them coming after me while you’re my driver. They’re not in a position to do that.”
“Prison? Or… Dead?”
“Some of both,” Louie replied. He turned to look at Colleen to try and judge her reaction to the news that he had killed someone. There didn’t seem to be anything in her face to indicate great disgust, and Louie relaxed a bit more.
When she stopped the Suburban near the Airstream Louie said, “It’s okay if you tell Austin about what happened. I know he’s curious.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Colleen replied. “You have something easy you can prepare for lunch? You’re looking a bit peaked.”
“I’ll grab another bowl of cereal. And then take another pain pill. I’m past due for one.”
“Figures. I’ll fix you something while you relax.”
“That’s not really necessary. I hired you as driver, not a domestic. You don’t have to cook and clean for me.”
“Just consider it part of the service. Can’t get paid if you starve to death.”
Louie decided he was too tired and in too much pain to protest further and sat back on the sofa to do as Colleen suggested.
Colleen was wondering why she was offering to cook for Louie. She’d had no plans to do that until he said he was eating cereal again. She ignored his occasional looks as she investigated the small galley sized kitchen for something to fix Louie for lunch. Her stomach growled slightly. She wondered if Louie heard it.
“You might as well make yourself something, too,” he said after a few minutes. “Consider it part of the pay.”
Colleen smiled slightly and took out a carton of eggs. “How about scrambled eggs? You need a lot of protein while you’re healing.”
“Sounds good to me. There is bread in the freezer compartment of the fridge. Have to fry the bread. Don’t have a toaster.”
“Okay,” Colleen replied, taking out the rest of the ingredients she needed. It didn’t take long and she carried a plate for Louie to the small dinette. Louie managed to move from the sofa to the dinette with only a couple of grunts of pain.
Colleen sat down across from him, a plate of the scrambled eggs and toast in front of her, too.
“This is good,” Louie said after a couple of bites.
“It’s scrambled eggs. Other than burning them, or pouring them out still raw, you can’t mess them up.”
“I suppose so.” Another couple of bites and Louie took out his pocket pill holder and took a pain pill.
Louie ate everything and then said, “I’ll do the dishes later. I need to lie down for a while. Just lock the door when you leave.”
Colleen didn’t comment. He looked pale, even after the meal. She slowly finished her eggs, and then stood. She tiptoed to the open bedroom area and saw Louie lying on his back on one of the twin beds the bedroom contained.
Going back to the galley, she didn’t hesitate. A half an hour later the dishes were done and everything put back into its place. Colleen decided Louie was as much a neat freak as she was.
On the third day, Colleen waited patiently as Louie took a call. She saw Louie look over at her, rather speculatively, she thought. She didn’t much like the look and was about to say something about it when Louie asked her, “You want to make some extra cash? I have a job needs done, but I can’t do it and Austin is still tied up on that big plumbing job.”
“What do I have to do?” Colleen asked.
“Till a garden spot to get it ready for winter.”
“That doesn’t sound difficult. Sure.”
Louie held his smile in check. She had no idea of what she was getting into. It would be interesting to see how she handled the reality of the job. “We’ll be there in a couple of hours, Mrs. King.” Louie closed the cell phone and headed toward the door of the Airstream. “Let’s get things ready.”
“Where is this that’ll take two hours to get to?” Colleen asked. She chuckled. “Across the state?”
Louie had to grin then. “Nope. Just down the road a piece.”
“The why will it take…” Colleen’s words faded away as she followed Louie, moving much better on his crutches now, toward the machine shed.
“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said. “I thought I’d be using a walk behind tiller or something…”
“Nope. The A300 with tiller attachment.” He watched her closely. “You up to it?”
Colleen frowned and started to say ‘no’, but the expectant look on Louie’s face changed her mind. “Sure. Why not? Can’t be that hard to do. I learned to drive the Suburban.”
“True,” Louie replied, smiling. “I knew you had it in you.”
“So. What do I do? You obviously can’t do it.”
Louie walked her through the operation of the Unimog U-500 first, as she would be driving it, pulling the trailer with the two Bobcats on it, plus the implements. He was pleased with her progress. She had little trouble backing the U-500 up to the trailer and then connecting it.
“Pull it out and stop. We’ll need to unload the A300 and hook up the tiller. It’s that one over there,” Louie said, pointing to the implement in question. He got a pair of gloves from a toolbox on the trailer and handed them to Colleen.
Again Louie took his time and worked with Colleen on learning to drive the Bobcat A300. She managed to back it off the trailer without problems, and then connected the tiller attachment to the lift arms and hydraulic lines.
Colleen was very careful loading the A300 with the tiller attached back onto the trailer. There was just enough room.
Louie didn’t resist the boost that Colleen gave him up into the cab of the U-500. It was even higher than the Suburban. Colleen took a deep breath standing beside the truck before she opened the door and climbed into the driver’s seat of the Unimog.
“You’re doing fine,” Louie said. “Make a right turn when we get past the gate.”
Colleen took it very slow down the driveway, especially on the gate end over the roughest area. Louie didn’t complain and didn’t try to give her instructions while she was driving.
She checked her watch when she pulled into the driveway of the place where she would be using the Bobcat. It was almost two hours since the phone call. She was surprised. It seemed like only a few minutes.
An elderly woman came out of the trim white clap-board house. “Hello, Louie. Who is this? And what happened to you?”
“Long boring story about me. This is Colleen Hodges. She’s working for me until I can do it myself again.”
“Well, if you let her work for you, she must be good. You know where the garden is. I’ll pay you when you’re done.”
Louie took Colleen down the driveway that ran past the house and showed her the garden spot. “Why is it… lumpy?” Colleen asked.
“That’s manure from her son’s horse barn. It needs to be turned into the ground with the rest of the vegetation. Just take your time and you’ll do fine.”
Louie stepped back, found an empty five-gallon bucket and turned it upside down so he could sit down. Colleen looked over at him several times as she began to till the garden. But he made no move toward her and she just turned back to the job and learned it on the fly.
Making two complete passes at right angles to each other, the garden was soon in shape for the winter. Colleen looked over again at Louie. He nodded and Colleen headed for the trailer to load up the machine.
Louie was standing at the front door of the house when she walked up after having chained down the A300 and closed the tailgate on the trailer. She took the grocery bag that Mrs. King handed to her. Louie was putting a check into his left shirt pocket.
“You did good, Sweetie,” Mrs. King told Colleen. “There’s a little something extra in there for you.”
“Oh. Well, thank you, Mrs. King.”
“She’s a keeper, Louie. You should consider that.”
Colleen knew she had turned red, and could see the back of Louie’s neck. He did, too. Colleen felt Mrs. King’s eyes on her as she followed Louie back to the Unimog and helped him get in.
“I’m sorry about that, Colleen. She didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I know. She seems like a very nice lady. What’s in the bag, by the way? I didn’t even look.”
“Baked goods. Usually a pie.” Colleen had placed the sack behind the seat when she got into the truck and Louie couldn’t get to it to check for sure.
Colleen was distracted anyway. She was backing the truck and trailer toward the road and kept her attention on that. Twenty minutes later they were back at Louie’s and she backed the trailer into the equipment shed without a bobble.
After helping the somewhat pale Louie to the Airstream, she unhooked the trailer and parked the Unimog before going to the Airstream trailer, carrying the shopping bag. She looked inside. Sure enough, there was a pie, covered with foil, and what she suspected was a loaf of bread of some kind by the shape of the foil wrapped package.
Louie was sitting at the dinette, taking a pill when Colleen came in. “Pie and bread. I think.” She set the bag on the dinette.
“Hopefully it is her banana nut bread. It is really great. I’ll swap you half the pie for half the bread.”
“You’re serious!” Colleen said. She was headed to the trailer’s bathroom to use it and clean up before making them some lunch.
“Of course I am. She said the extra was for you. But I like the bread as much as her apple pies.”
“Well, then, of course we’ll share both.”
Louie turned his attention to opening up the baked goods while Colleen was in the bathroom. Then he leaned his head back on the back of the dinette bench seat and closed his eyes.
That’s where he was when Colleen came out. He was asleep. He still looked pale to Colleen. She quickly turned to begin a light lunch for them, working quietly to avoid waking Louie. He didn’t look comfortable, but she doubted he’d lie down until she was ready to leave.
“Louie,” she said quietly, sliding a bowl of soup on a plate in front of him on the dinette table.
He jerked awake and groaned a bit. “Lunch is ready,” Colleen said. “Can you take another pain pill now? You are still pale and look like you’re in pain.”
“Yeah. Over did it, I guess. Should just have let you handle it on your own. You did great.”
The praise surprised Colleen. There was no way she would have been able to do the work on short notice like that without Louie’s help. His confidence in her pleased her greatly.
“Well. Eat and then lay down. You need the rest.”
“I think I will.”
Louie did eat most of the soup, but left a little in the bowl when he got up and headed for the bedroom end of the trailer. Colleen took her time with her lunch, and then the clean up. She checked Louie a couple of times. His sleep was restless.
“Louie. Wake up. Wake up, Louie,” she said, shaking him gently. She barely managed to dodge the wild swing Louie took when he came too, his eyes unfocused.
“I’m sorry,” he said a second later, obviously now aware where he was. “It’s not a good idea to wake me like that. You shouldn’t be waking me, anyway. I thought you’d be long gone.”
“No. Let me check your temperature. I think you may have an infection.”
“That’s not nec…”
“It is necessary. You’re pale, but are sweating. And you obviously are still in pain. “Where is your first-aid kit?”
“Under the right hand dinette seat.”
Colleen went to retrieve the kit from the storage compartment under the dinette seat. She was surprised at the size of it. It was bigger than some she’d seen paramedics use.
“There is a fever thermometer in here, isn’t there?”
Louie nodded. He tried to swallow, but his throat was hurting. “Yes,” he managed to croak out. “It’s all labeled…”
He fell silent as Colleen took the digital thermometer and took his temperature.
“Louie! You have a hundred and one degree fever. I’m calling 911 to get an ambulance.”
“No. No. No. Okay. I have a fever. But I’d rather you take me in than ride in an ambulance again so soon.”
“Please? I hate being in an ambulance.”
“Okay,” Colleen said after a bit more hesitation. “Let me get the Suburban started and moved close to the door. You wait for me to help you. You understand?”
“Of course I understand,” Louie said with a frown.
Colleen hurried out and brought the Suburban around. Louie had made it to the door of the Airstream, but that was as far as he’d gone. Colleen guided him to the truck and helped him into the front passenger seat, putting his crutches behind the seat. She ran around the front of the Suburban, climbed in, and headed for the hospital.
She held her speed to the limit, but she did do the limit all the way. Louie didn’t say much, but was conscious every time Colleen looked over at him. She was sure he started to protest when she pulled into the emergency room parking lot, but he said nothing.
Colleen watched as he took the gun she now knew he carried almost everywhere and put it in the console between the bucket seats of the Suburban. He added his cell phone, keys and wallet, after taking out his ID and insurance cards. “I’ll go in now. No need for you to stay.”
He made it through the doors on his own, but was more than ready for the wheelchair that an orderly got ready upon seeing Louie when he entered the building. Colleen took the crutches from Louie as he sat down.
Colleen held out her hand and Louie gave her his driver’s license and insurance card. Louie, if he wasn’t hurting so much, would have found it intriguing that Colleen knew enough about his condition to fill in the admitting nurse, but didn’t go into details about how he came to be in the condition in the first place.
“We’ll take good care of him, Mrs. Vargos,” the nurse said, signaling the orderly to push Louie into one of the empty treatment rooms.
“But I’m not…” Colleen started to protest that she wasn’t Louie’s wife. But they most likely wouldn’t let her see him if they knew she was simply an employee. She just closed her mouth and thanked the nurse.
She found a chair and waited. It didn’t take long. A doctor went in, and then came out, all in the span of ten minutes. Louie was pushed out of the exam room a couple of minutes later and Colleen got up to follow, mentally crossing her fingers that she wouldn’t be asked about her relationship status with Louie.
The nurse and intern had Louie in a bed in a four-bed ward in just a few minutes. He was already almost under the influence of whatever drug he’d been given. “Thank you,” he said, looking at Colleen. Then he was out of it.
When a doctor came by a few minutes later and said, “Mrs. Vargos?” Colleen just nodded. “Your husband is going to be fine. He checked himself out far too early. He will need to stay here for at least another three days. Do what you can to persuade him to cooperate this time. I’m glad you’re here. He didn’t even indicate he was married when they brought him in from Washington, D. C. Helen, his regular doctor, didn’t mention anything about it, either.”
Colleen wanted to ask the doctor what he knew about Louie being in D. C., but that would probably give away the fact that she wasn’t really his wife. “May I see him?”
“Just for a few minutes. He’s out, but I’m a believer in the healing powers of love.”
Being the truthful sort, Colleen again almost admitted that she was only Louie’s driver and not his wife. But she simply didn’t. Instead she went into the ward and stood looking down at Louie for several long minutes before she left.
She called Austin on the way home to tell him that Louie was back in the hospital. Colleen had to explain in detail what had happened before he would let her hang up. Instead of going home to Austin’s, the way she intended, Colleen found herself going back to Louie’s. Just to check things.
Sure enough, Louie had failed to lock the trailer. Colleen started to just lock the door and leave, but she went inside. She immediately saw the message signal on the permanent bag type cell phone Louie had installed. She hesitated, but then ran through the messages, taking notes on the pad beside the phone.
Colleen bit her lip, but then returned the three calls, one after the other. There were two more calls for garden work, and one for some trenching to lay utility lines to a new house. She accepted all three jobs on Louie’s behalf. Then, appalled at her audacity, she went out to the equipment shed and looked over the implements until she found the trencher attachment for the Bobcats.
“I can do this,” she said aloud. She hooked the trailer with the Bobcats up to the Unimog again and pulled it out of the equipment shed. She spent the next several hours practicing with the trencher after she hooked it up to the A300. By the time she got home to Austin’s that evening, she was tired and dirty, but satisfied that with just a little luck she could do the work she had committed herself to do.
Austin was waiting for her. “Are you crazy?” he asked when she told him what she was doing. “You could get hurt, not knowing the equipment.”
“I practiced! Carefully,” Colleen protested. Louie was very thorough about showing me how to operate the equipment. And he has all the manuals. I read through them.”
“Well, I’m going to go with you,” Austin said. “I finished up that job today and have the time now.”
Secretly, Colleen was relieved. But she didn’t say so. She was also sure she could do it and planned on doing the bulk of it herself. But having Austin along as back up and help would be a good thing.
For the four days that Louie stayed in the hospital, Colleen, with a bit of help and advice from Austin, took care of the three jobs and booked two more to do the following week.
Colleen went with Austin to pick Louie up when he was released. When they went into the hospital, Louie was in a wheelchair, talking to what Colleen decided was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. She was wearing a doctor’s smock and had a stethoscope in one pocket sticking out slightly, and a chart in her hands.
“So, this is the new wife,” she said, with a light laugh, even before Louie could introduce them. Colleen knew she turned beet red, but managed to hold her composure.
“You know Austin. This is his sister, Colleen Hodges. Colleen, this is my regular doctor, Helen McIntire. The two women shook hands.
“I… Well, about letting people think I was his wife… I knew they wouldn’t let anyone in to see about him if they weren’t a relative. I just let people believe what they wanted to.”
“It’s understandable. Louie doesn’t have anyone close. I’m glad you where there for him,” Helen said.
Colleen felt herself bristle a bit. It had been a very possessive statement. But she didn’t let it show, and Louie was shaking hands with Helen. “I’m ready to get out of here,” he told Colleen, rather than addressing his remark to Austin.
“If there are any more complications, get him in here as quickly as possible,” Helen said. “I’d hate to lose my favorite patient.”
“Yeah. Right,” Louie said and laughed. Colleen had a feeling that the sentiment was more heartfelt than Louie realized.
After Louie was settled in the front passenger seat, and Austin in the left side second seat, Colleen got the Suburban started and on the road. She was trying to come up with a way to tell Louie what she’d done when Austin took it out of her hands. He went into a detailed description of the last three days.
Colleen could feel Louie’s eyes on her from time to time, but she kept her eyes on the road.
“I deposited the checks in the bank,” she finally said, when Austin quit talking.
“Let’s stop there on the way home,” Louie said. He took one of the checkbooks out of the console and slipped it in a shirt pocket.
As she had done before, Colleen went in with him. Austin stayed in the Suburban. He was talking on his cell phone. Apparently Louie did a cash check. Colleen couldn’t see how much money the teller counted out to Louie, but there were either a lot of ones, or there was a lot of money.
When he turned around he handed the stack of bills to Colleen and gripped the crutches again, headed outside. When they were back in the Suburban, Colleen tried to hand Louie the cash, but he refused to take it and said, “Payday, Colleen. You didn’t think you were working for me for nothing, did you?”
“But there’s…” Colleen quickly counted the money. “Way too much! I was expecting like eight or nine bucks an hour for when I’m driving you.”
“Fifteen, plus the work you did with the equipment, at twenty-five an hour, four hours minimum per day worked. Training time on the clock.”
Colleen protested again, and frowned when she looked back at the grinning Austin for help. “Tell him.”
Austin shook his head. “Between you and him. We have our own financial arrangement. I think it is different for every person that works for him, or that he works for.”
Colleen huffed and slid the money into the pocket of her jeans. “We’ll talk about this later. I want to get you home.”
Louie watched the scenery pass as Colleen drove home. It was a cloudy day and threatening rain, or even snow. “I’ve missed the news the last few days. What’s the weather supposed to be like?”
“Blustery, rainy, temps in the low forties, thirties at night,” Austin said. He’d started keeping very close track of the weather, the way Louie did. It paid to know what to expect in his business. Some things were just too difficult to do in bad weather and needed to be scheduled in advance when good weather was at least forecast.
“How about the world situation?” Louie asked.
Again Austin spoke right up. “Not good, Louie. The Dow is on a roller coaster, headed down hill. Gold and silver going up. Russia is making noises again about basing nuke capable forces in Cuba. China did a space walk. Meaning they are one step closer to militarizing space. Iran and Venezuela…”
Louie cut him off. “Same ol’ same ol’”
“Yes. Pretty much,” Austin replied.
Colleen looked over at Louie when Austin got out of the Suburban to unlock the gate to Louie’s place. “Be just my luck for the balloon to go up while I’m all laid up,” he muttered.
“What balloon?” Colleen asked. She was driving through the opening in the fence.
“Nothing. Just muttering,” Louie said.
He was tired and it showed. Though neither physically helped him into the Airstream, both were right there to help him if needed. “I’m going to lie down. I’ll see you guys Monday for that first job.”
“But Louie…” Colleen started to protest.
“Monday,” Louie said again and slid the bedroom door closed.
Colleen looked more than a little annoyed, and Austin decided not to press the matter. “Come on, Colleen. He’ll be fine.”
“Bull headed…” Colleen murmured under her breath. But she followed Austin outside, locked the Airstream behind her, and started for the Suburban. But Austin was walking toward the equipment shed.
“I want to fuel everything up and have it ready for Monday. Louie likes to get an early start.”
Colleen nodded and went about helping Austin prep the equipment, in the process learning more about equipment and the layout of the place.
When the two jobs were done, Louie asked the two if they would do the regular maintenance on his ‘topsoil farm’. Both agreed, without knowing what Louie was talking about. Even Austin couldn’t say when Colleen asked him about it that evening.
“Like I said,” Austin told Colleen, “He’s got his finger in a bunch of pies.”
They found out the next day. Austin drove the U-500 with a loader bucket attached, and the Bobcats on the trailer behind. Colleen and Louie were in the Suburban, in the lead. Louie guided them to an open grass covered field nestled among the surrounding forest. The field was two feet higher than the surrounding ground.
There were several piles of material along one edge. A manure wagon, disk harrow, tandem wheel box trailer, and broadcast seeder were parked nearby and chained to a tree on the edge of the field.
Louie proceeded to explain. “I get manure from several of the farms around here. They dump it when they have a load. All the mulch I make from grinding limbs when doing arborist work goes into piles, too. Also any excess dirt from dirt work jobs is piled up. Even my kitchen waste goes in. We’ll mix the piles together with loader buckets on the Unimog and the A300.
“Then we’ll load the mixture into the manure wagon with the A300 and spread it on the field with the Unimog. Disk that in along with the green manure… That is the standing alfalfa growing now. Then plant a winter rye and vetch mixture with the broadcast seeder. The seeds are in the box trailer over there. That will get disked in early next summer and I’ll plant more alfalfa.”
“How long have you been doing this?” Austin asked. “I just noticed how much higher the field is than the surrounding ground.”
“Ten years,” Louie replied. “Haven’t sold any yet. I want a good crop before I start digging into it.”
“Wow,” Colleen said. “That’s what I call foresight and long range planning.”
“Tell her about the coppicing woodlot,” Austin urged Louie. “It is really cool, too.”
“No big deal,” Louie said. But at Colleen’s questioning look, he explained. “I have another forty acre plot with second growth trees on it. I’m slowly clear cutting two acres a year and letting the ash, white oak, and hickory coppice, and plant additional ash, white oak, and hickory on the harvested area for future coppicing. I plant a black walnut tree here and there just for future nut use and premium wood working lumber.
“I get about twenty cords of firewood a year per acre off the mature sections. Been doing that for ten years, too. I should be able to keep up that rate of production for years.”
“That explains all the fire wood I saw at your place. And the splitter attachment for the Bobcats,” Colleen said.
“I do most of the wood cutting in the winter when the sap is down, split it, and let it dry for two years before I sell it. I only use about a cord per winter myself.”
Explanations done for the moment, Austin and Colleen got to work. Louie chaffed at his forced inactivity. This was something he usually did between other activities. It just didn’t feel right to him to have someone else doing his work for him.
It took all day, with only a half hour break for the lunch that Colleen had prepared and brought along for them. It was growing dark when Austin snapped the combination lock closed on the chain securing the equipment stored at the field.
He climbed up into the Unimog and followed Colleen and Louie in the Suburban back to Louie’s place. He had them wait for a few minutes while he went into the Airstream. He came back with two envelopes. He handed one to Austin and one to Colleen.
“And don’t even start protesting,” Louie said when both flipped open the unsealed envelopes. “It’s worth it to me.”
It was obvious that Colleen was, indeed, going to protest. But Austin cut her off. “Don’t even try, Collie. He’s bull headed as they come.”
Colleen frowned. “But…”
Louie turned around and went back into the Airstream.
“Well, rats!” Colleen said. She followed Austin back to the Suburban. “Can he really afford this? I mean, he doesn’t have a regular job. These other jobs…”
“I’m sure he can afford it, Collie. He’s too smart to spend himself into the poor house. I only know a few of the things he’s doing. I didn’t know about the topsoil farm until today. No telling what else he has going for him.”
“Well, he does have investments… In people, I mean. I know it is for their business ventures, but he doesn’t seem to care too much about what it is, if he trusts the person. Does always ask for something specific in return for the investment. But I’m not sure what that is.”
“I bet it is provisions for emergency preparedness. He’s big on that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Anything having to do with building a new building, or redoing one, he requires storm shelter slash fallout shelter space to be incorporated.”
“He’s a survivalist? I know he carries a gun…” Colleen didn’t quite know how she felt about the fact now.
“I think he’s what is called a prepper. I’ve never heard him say anything about trying to do away with the government or anything like that. Just stock food and supplies for hard times.”
“Oh. That doesn’t seem so bad.” Colleen fell silent. Austin watched his sister as she drove. There were a myriad of expressions crossing her face as she thought. Obviously about Louie.
She watched the news with Austin that evening, paying more attention to it than she usually did. Normally just interested in the weather for the day, and local happenings, watching the news with Louie in mind put it into a different perspective.
The news and dinner over, Colleen got on Austin’s computer and did a little research. What she found surprised her no end. It was late before she went to bed, even later before she fell asleep. It wasn’t until much later that she realized that it was the first night since their deaths that she hadn’t cried over the loss of her family.
As fall settled in, Colleen was kept busy with projects for Louie. She learned to use the various attachments for the Unimog, Bobcat A300, Bobcat 5600T, and the ROKON. Some were factory implements, some of them Louie had designed and had a welding shop put together for him.
With a bit of help from Louie, who was eager to get out of the cast, Austin and Colleen felled, trimmed, cut up, split, and stacked the twenty cords or so of firewood that would be harvested that fall. The trimmings were shredded and taken to the topsoil farm for incorporation the next year. Fortunately the equipment and attachments did much of the work so it went fast, and relatively easy.
The trio did a few other jobs together during that time. Austin and Colleen did a few together without Louie. Colleen and Louie did the rest that Louie would have done alone or picked up a day laborer to help.
Two days before Thanksgiving Dr. McIntyre removed Louie’s cast and put him in a walking cast. It was the same day NASA announced the impending passage of a large Near Earth Object between the earth and the moon. The closest point of approach would occur in seven days. There were assurances that the object would not hit the earth. The assurances didn’t stop the panics.
Stores were stripped of supplies within hours of the announcement. Grocery delivery trucks were stopped and looted. Gun stores sold out of firearms and all but the most obscure gauges and calibers of ammunition.
Liquor stores, too, sold out. There was no tobacco to be found three days after the announcement. The same with fuel. Service stations were pumped dry, with people filling every container they could find. Like the grocery delivery trucks, fuel trucks were hijacked. The waiting lists for propane deliveries and fuel oil deliveries were pages long.
Churches of all faiths were filled to bursting around the clock by those seeking redemption before the event, and by those hoping prayer would prevent the event.
There was a rush out of the cities into the state and national parks and forests, for no good reason that anyone still with reason could fathom. Outdoor equipment stores sold out of tents, sleeping bags, camping foods, and gear of all types.
The telephone system went down from massive use. Cell phone equipment couldn’t handle a tenth of the traffic that would have gone through had it been possible.
Borders were closed. Travel came to a standstill due to lack of fuel. Martial law was declared in almost every nation on earth to try and control the panic. It didn’t work. People were scared. Despite NASA’s assurance there would be no impact, many people believed it would be the end of the world, anyway.
Unfortunately, there were people in positions of power that believed it. Some welcomed it. Some intended to make sure it was the end of the world, just in case the NEO didn’t do it.
Pakistan launched her nuclear arsenal at India and India responded. China, with millions of people in the path of the fallout from the local war hit both nations in return. And that started the cascade. Nuclear nation after nuclear nation began to launch missiles.
When the sensors showed missile tracks coming across the Arctic, the US President, unwilling to take an attack unanswered, released the launch codes and the US missile fleet began to fly.
There were still three days before the time of closest approach of the NEO.
Louie didn’t have any jobs scheduled through the weekend after the Thanksgiving Holiday. He decided to just sit at home to watch what news coverage he could on the satellite TV, and scan the Amateur Radio bands for more accurate information. The happenings caught even Louie by surprise. He expected concern and some panic when he heard the announcement. He didn’t expect nuclear war. At first. Louie suddenly turned off his radios and disconnected the antennas and power leads. He grounded the antennas. He kept one battery operated AM/FM radio turned on to listen to what news was still coming, and one of his NOAA All Hazards radios. Just in case.
By Friday afternoon, he felt the first stirrings of real fear. He tried to call Austin, but the cell system was overloaded and he couldn’t get through. He was ready to go try to see if he could drive the Unimog and go get Austin and Colleen when the annunciater sounded, indicating someone was coming through the gate. He went outside and watched, his fingers mentally crossed.
It was Colleen, in the Suburban, with Austin behind in his plumbing truck. Leaning on his crutches, he waited for the two to get out of the vehicles.
“Austin thought you would want to have the Suburban here, rather than in town,” Colleen told Louie.
Austin joined the two before Louie could say anything. “I just tried calling to ask you to come out here.”
Austin smiled. “With everything going on I figured you’d want the Suburban here.”
“That’s what Colleen said. But I wasn’t trying to call you for that. The Suburban is secondary. I’ve got a bad feeling about what is going on. I’d like you to take the Unimog back to town and pack up everything you want to keep safe and bring it out here. Stay until this thing resolves itself.”
“But NASA is saying that there won’t be an impact,” Colleen protested.
“If you’ve seen any news at all, you know what is going on in the world. This could get a lot worse than it should, even with an NEO.”
“Things aren’t too bad in town,” Colleen said. “I went to the store to pick up a few extra things. Wasn’t much to pick from, but there aren’t any riots or anything.”
“No fuel, either,” Austin said. “I tried to fill the truck. No dice. I’m down to a quarter of a tank. Should have been doing like you. Keeping it at least half full all the time.”
“But that doesn’t mean…” Colleen was saying when Louie suddenly lifted the AM/FM radio he had in one hand and turned up the volume.
An excited news reporter was saying, “…reports of tremendous damage and countless casualties. India is reportedly retaliating with her own arsenal of nuclear weapons. More as we get it.”
The three looked at one another. “Take the Unimog and go get everything you want kept safe and bring it out here. And don’t waste any time. Don’t stop for anyone or anything.” It was an order from Louie, not a request.
“But…” Colleen protested.
Austin grabbed her arm. “Come on, Collie! Louie knows what he’s talking about. I trust him. Let’s go!”
Colleen, looking back over her shoulder at Louie, let Austin tug her toward the U-500. Finally she turned around and shook his arm off. “Okay! Okay!”
A few seconds later Austin had the Unimog headed down the driveway. Louie watched until they were out of sight and then hurried back inside the Airstream. He hesitated. Once he was in the shelter, it would be very difficult for him to come back out. Better to wait on the others to get here before he went down.
He did, however, open up the hatch in the floor of the Airstream, to expose the entry hatch of the disaster shelter below the Airstream. Louie stayed glued to the AM/FM radio. The reports were coming fast and furious. All were bad. What wasn’t about the India/Pakistan war was about the fearful preparations for the NEO. While he was listening, he put together a few things in a hemp grocery bag, and set his pre-packed bags next to the hatch.
Louie went back outside when he saw the headlights of the Unimog coming up the drive. Austin pulled the truck up behind his truck on the driveway and climbed down. Colleen got out and stepped toward Louie.
“I don’t know why we’re doing this. You don’t have room for any of this and…” Colleen suddenly stopped and looked up at the sky. “What was that?”
All three were looking up at the clear night sky. A large, bright circle of light was fading away.
“HEMP,” Louie said. “High altitude electro magnetic pulse. A nuke enhanced to destroy electronic equipment. This is going to be bad. We’re being nuked. Hurry with your things.”
Austin and Colleen both ran to the back of the Unimog and grabbed suitcases. They ran toward the Airstream trailer. Both looked in the doorway and saw the floor hatch open.
Louie was standing out of the way. “Austin,” he said, “It’ll be easier if you open the hatch.”
Austin dropped the two suitcases and got down on his knees. He grunted, but the counterweighted hatch opened without problem. Colleen was staring at Louie. “You have a bomb shelter?”
“Yep. Cost me everything I had at the time. I’m just now recovering, financially. I’ve wondered a few times if I was making a mistake. I’m not wondering any more. I didn’t. Head on down. I’m not coming until right at the end. I’d have too much trouble getting back up here, once I’m down there. Besides… I’m claustrophobic… I don’t want down there any longer than I have to be.”
Colleen was still staring at Louie, but Austin gave her arm a tug and she stepped down to the ground, and then onto the first rung of the ladder going down into the shelter proper. Colleen took her time. She didn’t want to fall. When she arrived at the bottom and turned around she gasped.
Having no clue what to expect, she was amazed. It was much larger than she thought it would be, and much brighter. Austin called down to her. “Come on, Collie! Take the suitcases!”
Colleen hurriedly reached up and took the items as Austin handed them down to her. It took Austin four trips to get everything they brought back with them. When Austin told Louie they’d handed the last load down, Louie told him, “Take everything out of the fridge and freezer and hand it down.”
That done, Louie directed Austin, “Park the trucks in the equipment shed and come on back.” Louie handed his crutches to Colleen in the shelter and then slowly, carefully, climbed down the ladder himself. A few minutes later Louie explained to Austin how to close and lock the hatch. “Are you okay?” Colleen asked Louie. He was pale and breathing rapidly.
“It’s the claustrophobia. I’ll be fine in a few minutes. I’ve come down and made myself stay for lengthening periods of time. The first few minutes are tough. And so are the last few, when I’d decided ahead of time when I would go back up.”
“How long will we have to stay down here?” Colleen asked, looking around the space again.
“It all depends on whether we get a warhead close, and how much fallout we get from it and any others to our west. For sure, until we know the missiles have quit flying. A couple of days to a couple of weeks, hopefully. Worst case scenario, with a warhead off course that lands near, several months.”
Colleen was as pale as Louie now. “Months? We’ll starve! Or more likely die of dehydration!”
“I bet not,” Austin said, looking at Louie. “You have food and water and everything else we need to survive, don’t you?”
“I hope so,” Louie said. “I surely hope so. I think I’d better lie down until this feeling passes.”
Louie headed for the other end of the shelter, where the bunks were. Austin and Colleen made themselves familiar with the shelter. Austin looked for and found the papers that came with the various elements of the shelter. Brother and sister talked quietly, not wanting to disturb Louie.
The first thing they noted was that it was much bigger than the Airstream trailer hiding the entrance. The second thing was the escape tunnel. Austin opened the hatch and looked down the thirty-inch concrete drain tile tunnel. “I think it must come up right out in the middle of the back yard.”
“Here’s another one,” Colleen said, pointing to another of the simple looking, but heavy hatches on the wall, partially hidden by a cabinet.
“Somewhere in the front yard, I’d say,” Austin said, though he didn’t open the hatch and see how far the tunnel went.”
Colleen put away the fresh foods Louie had handed down to her. It was a small refrigerator/freezer. She had to take out several water bottles to make room for the food.
“Full is better than empty, I guess,” Austin said. He looked around some more. There were thick columns every eight feet in the twenty-four by forty-foot space. The ceiling was at least nine-feet high, Austin decided. Even with the columns, and the few curtained off spaces, the area felt spacious. The paint was white, and there were white LED lighting fixtures everywhere.
“He certainly didn’t need anything this big for just himself,” Austin said.
“It’s because of his claustrophobia, I’m sure,” Colleen told Austin. “Though, I’m also sure that had it been possible, he would have brought more people in for shelter.”
“I think you may be right,” Austin said. He was always stressing for people to prepare. Oh. Look. This must be how he got some of the larger things down here. At first I just thought he put everything in before he put the roof on and backfilled.”
Austin pointed at a hatch in the ceiling along one side of the shelter. “It’s an opening with a lift system. The top side has to be covered, but knowing Louie, it could be opened up if needed.”
There was a pair of steel double doors nearby, on the outside wall of the shelter. Not knowing what to expect, Austin carefully opened one of the doors. It was another room, this one holding a generator, battery bank, and electrical panels. Measuring with his eyes, Austin decided that the generator could be removed from the shelter though the large overhead hatch inside the shelter proper.
The room also contained a water pump and two hot water heaters. A small electric heater and a standard size propane heater. Like the generator, the propane water heater was vented to the outside. The air handling equipment and filters were also in the room. “That explains some of the features incorporated in the patios roof and its supports,” Austin said.
Colleen looked at him questioningly.
“Air intakes and exhausts for fresh air, combustion air and exhaust for the genset and propane heater. I’ll show you when we go out. They are very cleverly worked into the features of the patio and patio cover supports.”
As they went around the rest of the room, another door, a single wide steel clad one, opened into what was immediately identifiable as a store room. It was filled with shelving units. The shelving units were filled with box after box, each one neatly labeled, if the contents weren’t already shown on the producer’s label.
“You were right,” Colleen said. “I assume there is as much water as there is food.”
“I’m sure,” Austin said. The two checked the bathroom. It was a simple bathroom such as might be a bathroom in any house. Flush toilet, washbasin in a counter, and a combination tub/shower unit.
They noted the communications desk, with its copper covered storage cabinet. “Is that for the EMP?” Colleen asked Austin, running her hand over the smooth, bright copper.
“I think so,” Austin replied. “I remember Louie mentioning something about shielding radios. He seems to know all about it.”
Suddenly Colleen sat down in one of the chairs at the small kitchen table. “It’s just sinking in, Austin! We are in the middle of a nuclear war! Even with all this… and Louie… How will we survive? There won’t be anything left…”
“Louie wouldn’t have done all this if he thought it was useless. You heard what he said. He put every penny he had at the time into this. You’ve been around him a while now. You think he would waste money?”
Fighting back tears, Colleen shook her head. “No. I can’t see him doing that. But I don’t know anything about what we should be doing. And certainly not what to do when the radiation goes away. If it does. What if they are wrong about that? We can’t spend our entire lives down here.”
Austin sat down beside his sister and took her hands in his. “I trust Louie. He knows what he is doing. We’re probably better off here than ninety-nine percent of the rest of the population.”
“I just… I wonder… What if I hadn’t sent Bill and Julie off in that taxi… What would we be doing now, with all this going on…”
“You can’t dwell on it, Colleen. You’ll make yourself sick. Things are the way they are, and I think we need to do what we can to help Louie. He’ll do everything he knows how to make sure we are okay. Now and in the aftermath.”
Colleen nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I think I’ll lie down, too, Austin. I’m exhausted emotionally and physically.”
Austin nodded and watched his sister walk over to the curtain that Louie had gone through earlier, and then got up to go over to the refrigerator. He was suddenly ravenously hungry.
Colleen tiptoed into the cubicle that contained two sets of triple bunks and six large lockers. There was a lone LED fixture turned on. It provided plenty of light for Colleen, once her eyes adjusted, to see Louie stretched out on the bottom bunk on the right side stack.
He seemed relaxed and Colleen didn’t want to waken him. She took off her hiking boots and lay down on the bottom bunk of the other stack. She thought about the loss of her family, and fell asleep with tears in her eyes.
When she woke up and glanced at her watch, she saw that she’d been asleep for several hours. She looked over at the other bunks. Louie wasn’t there. In her stocking feet, she left the bunk room and entered the main part of the shelter.
Louie and Austin were at the communications desk. Louie had a laptop computer opened up and he and Austin were discussing what they were looking at on the screen.
“You’re awake,” Austin said, when he glanced around and saw Colleen. “We’re getting fallout. But not very much, Louie says. He’s got a spreadsheet on the computer that calculates shelter stay times for various radiation levels.”
“I have Tired Old Man to thank for this,” Louie said. “He’s one of the gurus on the prep forums I frequent. Learned a lot from him and his stories. He writes stories that incorporate prepping for and dealing with the aftermath of all kinds of disasters.”
“When can we get out?” Colleen asked. She saw Louie pale slightly and wished she hadn’t asked.