The Invisible Cipher - A Jagged Journeys' Novella, p.1Ida Smith
THE INVISIBLE CIPHER
A Jagged Journeys’ Novella
THE INVISIBLE CIPHER
By Ida Smith
Copyright 2015 by Ida Smith
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Special Thanks to my wonderful husband, Rick Smith, for all your support, encouragement, and help. I couldn’t do this without you.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One – Miscalculations
Chapter Two – Filtered Perceptions
Chapter Three – Deciphered Dilemmas
Chapter Four – A New Code
About the Author
Other Books by Ida Smith
Chapter One - Miscalculations
Neil Gatlin traveled the back roads, hoping to avoid state police and other law enforcement. He’d managed to slip out of Missouri undetected and was now inching his way through Illinois, he just had to make it to Indiana before Sunshine had her baby.
By the level on the gas gauge Neil knew skirting around Cleavemont wasn’t an option and he didn’t dare try siphoning gas during the day. If only ol’ Gorgons hadn’t caught him slipping a few twenties from the till. Hadn’t he worked for it? He’d tried to explain to Gorgons that he needed the money now, he couldn’t wait around ‘til pay day. But Gorgons wouldn’t hear of it and threatened to make Neil pay with the sweat of his brow—sure that Neil had stolen money and tools on other occasions.
What could Neil do but run? The smell of gasoline interrupted his justification. The gas gauge on his 1950’s International pickup showed a fifth left.
The smell nauseated him. Before he could open the passenger window, the engine sputtered to a stop. He coasted to the roadside and tried the engine again. It started but stopped a few minutes later and wouldn’t restart.
A look under the hood revealed gas under the diaphragm. His fuel pump was shot.
He slammed the hood shut. Why did this have to happen now? He stared across the miles of fields. He’d push his truck into the field and hide it if the corn was higher. A short walk into town, catch the bus and he’d be gone. The police wouldn’t be looking for him on a bus.
He kicked the truck. Abandoning it here would be foolish. They’d find it and start asking around. A stranger in a small town would stand out in a bus station with few if any customers. As soon as they found his truck he was as good as caught.
He could hitchhike, though the idea of some nosey stranger’s questions already raised a sweat. How could he come up with a believable story under pressure? He’d never been any good at lying. Give him time, sure he could devise a story, but not under pressure.
Neil marveled at his choice of routes. The good and bad was that no one would find him. He thought of the forty-seven dollars he had. Money he’d saved for Sunshine and the baby he now needed to fix his truck so he could get home and announce that once again, he’d failed. At least she had the fifty he’d sent a few weeks ago.
He might as well hoof it to a nearby house. He grabbed his knapsack from the cab, slammed the door, and set out to the farm he’d seen several miles back. “Maybe they can help,” he mumbled unbelieving.
He looked at the western sky. Why did it seem he was always headed backwards?
Half a mile from the truck a farmer in a flatbed slowed and offered to tow Neil’s truck to town. Neil managed to keep the guy talking about his crops and the area so he didn’t have to answer too many questions. The farmer dropped him off at a service station in Cleavemont.
“Good luck,” the man said.
“Thanks.” Neil waved to the man. “Luck,” he muttered to himself. Bad luck, he’d always had. Good, that’d be a nice change.
By early afternoon he sat in a bar trying to determine how much he’d have left for Sunshine after fixing the pickup and filling it with gas. He fingered a black and white snapshot of a slender blond with a wide smile wearing a wild patterned mid-thigh dress and go-go boots. Sunshine, so aptly named. She was the only sunshine he’d ever known in an otherwise gray life.
Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Marty Robbins took turns singing on the jukebox in a corner. Across from him several young men shot pool.
“Hey, Mister,” one of the men in a t-shirt said. “You want to play?”
“Why not.” Neil stood. “It’s been a while.” He noticed several suppressed grins.
“I’m Charley,” said the guy who’d invited him. “This is Scotty.” He pointed his pool stick at a clean shaven blond, “and this here’s Willis.”
“Don’t see guys with long hair around here much,” Willis said.
Neil glanced around. “I doubt you do.”
Their first game looked like a bunch of beginners as Neil warmed up and the other three missed shots Neil had seen them make minutes before he’d joined them.
After a couple of games Willis suggested they play for money. Hadn’t Neil seen this coming?
“You don’t mind a little friendly competition do you?” Scotty asked.
“Not at all.”
Charley racked up the balls and Willis broke.
“What brings you to Cleavemont?” Scotty asked.
“Just passing through when my truck broke down.”
“Bad luck,” Charley said.
“Only luck I seem to have.”
Charley shot a quick glare at Willis. “Where’s it at?”
“At the Mobil station down the road.”
They all nodded.
“Clem will do you good,” Scotty said and toyed with a class ring on his finger.
The round-faced bartender swept some imaginary dirt several feet from them. “You boys just going to wear out my pool table?”
Scotty leaned his stick against the table and pulled out his wallet. “Get us each a beer.”
Neil dropped the last ball but it wasn’t enough to keep him from owing several dollars. Scotty suggested they play several more games and Neil agreed.
“So where’s you headed?” Willis asked.
Neil bristled. This was what he was afraid of. He stalled, trying to think of what to say. He could sense their eyes on him. “Chicago.” Why hadn’t he said someplace south? Did Charley just raise his eyebrows at Willis? Why didn’t he say Springfield?
“You taking one-thirty-six?” Scotty asked.
“If you need a place to stay for the night I’ve got an uncle about fifteen miles out of town, only place for miles. I’m sure he’d let you sleep in his barn. Just tell him you’re a friend of Charley’s.”
“Thanks.” Neil leveled his pool cue hoping to knock the twelve into the right corner. “I’m planning to be long gone by then.” He tapped the cue ball but the
Scotty hit the last two balls in and Neil handed over a few more dollars.
Charley finished his beer and ordered another round.
Neil hated taking these guys money, but knew he needed to pay the mechanic—and besides, they didn’t seem to have too much trouble taking his money. When it came his turn he dropped a couple balls in but withheld from putting any more in. By the end of the game Neil had won.
Neil looked at a Budweiser clock made to look like a gigantic pocket watch that spun over the bar. “I’d better go check on my pickup.”
“Oh, you can play one more game,” said Charley, then glanced at Willis, who gave a slight nod.
Neil sighed, “One more game guys.”
Scotty and Neil had both taken their turns when Willis made a show of looking at the clock. “Boy, howdy. Sorry boys, but I told the little woman I’d be home for dinner. I’m gonna have to skedaddle.” He tossed a five on the table. “There’s for the tab. See you around. Nice meetin’ you Neil.”
Scotty ordered more beer and Charley took his turn. Neil sunk a few more balls, gave each of the guys another chance then finished the game.
“Looks like your skills have improved,” Charley said.
“Guess I just needed some warming up.”
It was nearly six according to the Paul Bunyan sized pocket watch when Neil ambled over to the Mobil station. He’d had a couple more beers than he’d have liked and hoped he didn’t let something slip. He shook his head hoping to clear it. Maybe he would take Charley up on his offer to sleep in his uncle’s barn. It would sure beat searching for someplace to hide his truck.
It was seven-thirty when the mechanic finished. In the fading light Neil found the dirt road Charley had suggested. He was maybe ten miles out of town when his radiator overheated. He pulled over, grabbed his flashlight, and jumped from the cab. Steam poured out when he opened the hood. He clicked on the flashlight, dead. Neil kicked the bumper. “You piece of junk.”
He grabbed his knapsack and started for a house he could see a short distance up the road. He rapped on the door and heard something inside crash to the floor. The porch light turned on and a wide-eyed, middle aged woman opened the door. “Sorry to bother you Ma—”
“Help,” she fell toward Neil.
He reached out to her, caught her. “Ma’am, are you—” a glint of silver caught his attention. There, sticking from her back, was a knife. Somewhere from the back of the house a wood screen door banged shut. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
She was motionless. He shook her. Inside the house he could see overturned furniture, photos with cracked glass, and a broken vase—its flowers scattered.
“Hello. Is anyone here?”
He carried the woman to the couch. Blood ran down his arms and jeans. He listened for breathing—knowing he wouldn’t hear any.
A phone sat on an end table. He lifted the receiver but there was no ring tone.
He whirled around, sensing he was watched but saw no one. The iron-like smell of blood filled his nostrils. He stumbled through the house to the kitchen. He had to get this blood off his hands. At the doorway he stopped.
There, on the floor lay a man. Probably the woman’s husband. Blood pooled around him. The man’s wallet lay open beside him—empty. He grabbed the table to steady himself.
The scene blurred. Neil squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them he saw the red spots splattered across the wall, cabinets, and refrigerator. He heard a noise from outside. Neil checked the man’s pulse. Gone.
“Think, Neil. Think. Leave. The killer’s still here. A car, there’s got to be a car.” Neil remembered seeing a detached garage to the side of the house. He fled out the front door.
Outside, dim light from a sliver of moon outlined the garage. Insects chirped and hummed. Something rustled in the bushes and he flinched. He was at the corner of the garage when he heard the hum of a motor just beyond a stand of lilac bushes that lined the drive. He slipped in the open garage door and hid just inside.
On the other side of the bushes gravel, beetles, and locusts crunched under a car’s tires.
Neil peered at the bushes, hoping to get a glimpse of the vehicle that crawled away in complete darkness. When the car was almost to the road Neil darted to the bushes and clawed his way through in time to see the car turn onto the road toward town. Was that an Impala? He couldn’t be sure.
He extracted himself from the bushes and listened. If there was someone else there they were hiding and quiet. Neil returned to the garage but stayed in the shadows. His eyes adjusted to the garage’s silhouetted objects. Then, from the rafters, a flutter of movement. He lifted his arms in self-defense. A large bird swooshed past. Neil grabbed at his chest. He leaned against the car trying to calm his breath, and the pounding in his chest, trying to relax the tension in his shoulders. He felt his way to the driver’s side door.
Inside he found the keys still in the ignition. “Just like gramms and gramps.” He shook his head, remembering summers on his grandparent’s farm. At the end of the drive he stopped. He’d intended to go back to Cleavemont—report the murder, get a mechanic for his truck. But—Neil paused. The warrant for his arrest in Missouri. Would the police in Illinois know about it and arrest him?
He thought about turning right, driving away from town. He could call the police from another town, he wouldn’t have to give them his name. Yes, that’s what he would do.
At the road Neil made a cursory glance. There, less than a quarter of a mile away stood his truck. “Way to go Neil—add stealing a car to your list of failures. Idiot.” He turned left and headed back to Cleavemont. “Two days of hiding from police and now I’m driving straight to them. Maybe telling them what I’ve seen will help clear my name in Missouri. I can’t believe this. I should have headed out of town the way I’d planned.”
Several miles down the road Neil passed a police car, all lights and screams. How did they know? Had the woman managed to call the police before the line was cut? If they knew, did he need to tell them? He could hide the car, clean up, hitchhike back to town and—
Police lights flashed up ahead. Neil gripped the steering wheel tighter to stop his shaking. In the dark he couldn’t see if there were any roads to turn off, as if he could hide in fields of two-foot high corn. He stopped at the road block and opened the car door.
Immediately several officers surrounded the car, guns pulled. “Don’t move. Hands above your head.”
Neil’s arms bolted up. He gasped for air.
An officer pulled the door wide. “Get out. Keep your hands where we can see them.”
“Officers, there’s been a murder. Just down the road a ways.” He tried to turn to talk to the officers but was slammed against the car. “You’ve got to believe me. A man and woman have been stabbed to death.”
“So you thought you’d just take their car?”
“What? No. No. My truck broke down. I went to their door for help and found them.”
“You in the habit of walking into people’s homes, uninvited?”
“No, the woman came to the door.”
“So you killed her.”
“What? No. I didn’t—”
“Mr.?” the officer said.
“Gatlin, and I didn’t kill her. She came to the door with a knife in her back. I caught her—”
“Pete, look at this,” a young officer was exiting the passenger side of the car.
Neil strained to see what the man held.
“What’ch ya got there?” the officer who was handcuffing Neil said.
“A roll of money.”
Neil sat in a multi-functional interrogation and meeting room waiting for a public defender to arrive from several towns over. He massaged his forehead. He should be on his way to Sunshine, not sitting in a police station. Outside the room he heard voices and bits and pie
“I am.” He stood to shake the man’s hand only to be ignored.
“I’m Harvey Rubens. I’ll be defending you.” He dropped the bag on the table and pulled out some papers. “I’m told that you are being held on breaking and entering, robbery, and two counts of murder.”
“I didn’t do it.” Neil struggled to control the panic in his voice.
The attorney looked over the police report. “Says here you were covered in blood—” He looked at the dark stains splattered on Neil’s once white t-shirt. “Caught driving the victims’ car, with money stolen from the deceased…”
“I didn’t do it.”
“There was blood on the soles of your sneakers and you tracked it through the house. They’re checking the murder weapon for your prints right now.”
Had the knife brushed his hand as he caught the woman? It all happened so fast. Neil’s head throbbed.
“I’ve also been told that law enforcement from Missouri are on their way to discuss extradition on charges of theft and assault. But with two murders, they’ll have to wait their turn.”
There it was. He hadn’t run away from trouble, he’d run into it. A brown lock fell over his eyes.
Harvey pulled a pen and notepad from his satchel. “Well, boy, let’s hear your side of this tale.”
“Are you going to defend me or am I already condemned?”
“It ain’t looking real good for you, boy.”
“Neil. My names Neil.”
“I don’t care what your name is. Two good people are dead and the police caught you covered in blood and fleeing in the victim’s car.”
Neil stood, “That’s it. Don’t you see it?”
“Don’t get smart with me young man.”
“No. Don’t you see it?” He leaned across the table. “If I killed them why would I drive back to town? And how did the police know I was coming and that the crime had been committed except that the real killer was there when I arrived and left before I did.”
Neil pointed his finger at the public defender. “That’s who tipped off the police, probably when they got back to town. The phone line had been cut and that place is in the middle of nowhere. How did the police know about the murder unless someone informed them? How did they know I was driving that car? Can’t you see that? I was framed.” Neil leaned across the table. “You need to find who really killed those poor people. You need to look for the tire tracks on the other side of the bushes and find the car they belong to. I think it was an Impala.”
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