Freelancer – On the Run

Johnny scanned the coffee shop as he walked towards the front. The cashier had her back to him while talking on the phone. He laid a five dollar bill on the counter and didn’t wait for his change. Outside, he stopped at the curb and looked both ways before crossing. Then he watched from the shadows of a dark alleyway down the street as three police cars arrived together in front of the coffee shop.

He headed east out of the city, traveling on foot through a darkened neighborhood without electricity. Many houses in the neighborhood were empty, dilapidated, and surrounded by vacant lots filled with trash and overgrown with weeds. Littered roads needed repairs and were barely passable. People living there were desperate and it wasn’t a safe place to be walking alone at night.

As he approached the bright lights of an expressway, he noticed a car with its headlights off coming slowly up the dark alley behind him. He hesitated for an instant to calculate his options. Gang members worried him more than the police, who were locally in scarce supply. He started running.

He ran into the lighted area surrounding the expressway, climbed over the fence, and then looked back. The car had stopped at the alley’s edge, about thirty yards behind him. He ran down the slope to the expressway surface, waving his arms to keep from falling.

Late night traffic consisted mostly of big trucks with only an occasional car. The trucks maintained a steady speed at a safe distance apart, making it easy for him to run between them; until a car pulled out from behind a truck and almost hit him as he crossed the next to last lane. The driver gave several loud horn blasts in protest.

Johnny didn’t stop running until he reached the top of the incline. He had no other choice but to stay on his present course, he concluded while pausing to catch his breath. Then, vowing to be eternally grateful if fate would smile upon him, he started running again. After jumping the fence and landing hard, he ran for cover, staying low to the ground. A row of trees and shrubs isolated the expressway from the adjacent neighborhood. He crawled under a clump of pine trees whose lower branches tapered down and almost touched the ground. Laying on a soft bed of pine needles, he closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing.

When morning traffic began, he got out from under the trees, brushed himself off, and started jogging across a wide patch of grass to the street. Other people were out jogging and walking their dogs on the grass and no one seemed concerned about his presence there. As he reached the sidewalk, the first rays of sunlight broke through the morning mist. He crossed to the sunny side of the street and continued traveling east out of the city.

Rosemary Royce walked into her editor’s office and said: “I can’t find anything to back up the government report on this guy, Johnny Gee.”

The editor looked up from his desk, and replied: “We’re not in the business of questioning the authorities, Rosy, just go with what they gave you.”

She started to leave, hesitated, and then said: “According to the report, he’s a homegrown terror suspect but I haven’t been able to find anything, no family, no friends, no schools, no jobs, nothing to verify his existence.”

The editor sat back in his chair, and said: “He’s an illegal, Rosy. Don’t waste your time on him. Write the story and move on to something else.”

Good journalistic practice, Rosemary believed, required her to check and double check her sources before publishing. Yet, to meet the publishing deadline, she used the unverified government information, adding balance to her article by including a paragraph on the history of government misinformation concerning homegrown terror plots. That paragraph was deleted by the editor in the final layout.

Rosemary felt refreshed walking in late afternoon sunlight through the downtown pedestrian plaza after working eight hours in her office on the twenty second floor. Seeing an empty spot in the sun by the fountain, she decided to sit and compose an imaginary interview with someone in the crowd. She turned when she heard a male voice speaking behind her.

“Hey baby, let’s smoke some crack.”

Finding the young man intriguing, she decided to engage him. With a frozen stare, she said: “You can’t do that here.”

“Why not?” he said, raising the glass pile to his lips, lighting it, and taking a lungful.

She waived her hand when he offer her the pipe, and said: “No thank you, I’m looking for information.”

“What information?”

“I’m an independent investigative journalist.”

“Investigating what?”

“I’m not quite sure yet.”

“Here, take a hit of this. It will help you with that, I guarantee it.”

Rosemary again waved the pipe away as she spoke, saying: “I’m interested in information about a character in the news named Johnny Gee. Do you know anything about him?”

The young man turned sideways, and said: “Johnny Gee? You must be crazy, girl. Let me tell you something, Johnny Gee will come after you.”

“Why? What does he do?”

“What does he do? You don’t really want to know. Here, take a hit of this and chill.”

Rosemary pulled the straps of her handbag over her shoulder and stood to leave, saying: “I should have known better than to try to talk to a crack head.”

“Come on now, baby girl, don’t you go getting angry on me. Sit back down here. Let me tell you something, Gee ain’t his real last name. It only starts with a gee-sound. It’s unpronounceable. Polish, maybe Russian. But he’s of mixed race. Along with European blood, he’s got Mexican Indian and African blood. Plus, he could almost pass for an Asian. Here’s the irony. He don’t look nothing like a white European but he thinks like one. So, wherever he goes, he almost never fits in, is never completely accepted, is always an outsider. That’s his karma.”

“How do you know all this about him, whatever your name is?”

“Byron’s the name. How do I know? We grew up in the same neighborhood. He’s a few years older than me but, everybody who worked the streets in those days has a story to tell about Johnny Gee. He’s a bad dude.”

“I haven’t been able to find anybody except you.”

“Hey, I found you, actually. I knew who you was when I came over here. Seen your picture in the paper before. Read some of your articles, too. Does that surprise you?”

“Yes, it does surprise me. And it makes me wonder why you settle for sitting around here smoking crack all day when you’re obviously intelligent enough to be doing something better with your life.”

“I am doing something better. Ain’t I talking to you? Helping you out with your independent investigation? Anyway, a few years ago, right after his release from prison, Johnny Gee got involved with organized crime. I lost track of him after that. I hear stories but I don’t know what’s true anymore. The cops say he’s a terrorist. I don’t buy that, it ain’t his style. Some people think he’s a government snitch. Either way, they’re setting him up for a fall.”

Rosemary walked away from the plaza more determined than ever to unravel Johnny Gee’s story. She immediately returned to her office to write down Byron’s comments while they were still fresh in her memory.

Once outside the city, Johnny hiked through the upland forest to the Mountain Valley Reservation. He attracted a number of curious stares as he made his way through the main village to the Tribal Chief’s office but no one tried to stop him. He had no reason to expect a welcome reception there yet he hoped they would at least treat him with respect.

“Hey, you’re the guy in the news,” the Chief said when he saw Johnny walking through the door: “What are you doing here?”

Overcome by fatigue and thirst, Johnny stood with his mouth open, struggling to formulate a reasonable explanation into words. “I’m here to surrender,” he finally spoke.

“Surrender? We don’t want you,” the Chief replied: “But you’d better sit down before you fall down. Somebody get this man a glass of water.”

Johnny sensed the Chief watching him as he drank. It felt good to be sitting. He wished he could go home and sleep in his bed.

The Chief leaned back on the front of his desk, looked down at Johnny, and said: “I don‘t know who you are or what you are. But I know you’re not one of us. And you can’t stay here. I’ll give you a place to sleep tonight but you’ll be on your way in the morning.”

Rosemary’s editor assigned her to cover the Tribal Chief’s morning press conference at the Mountain Valley Reservation updating the general public on plans to build and operate a gambling casino there. As she approached the reservation’s entrance in her car just before sunrise, she noticed a man walking at the side of the road. “That looks like the guy in the picture,” she said aloud. On an impulse, she pulled over to pick him up.

Johnny saw the car turning into the reservation and then abruptly swerve back onto the road. The woman in the driver’s seat looked nervous, he thought, like she knew who he was. When she stopped in front of him, he leaning down, looked through the window, and said: “How far are you going?”

“Get in,” Rosemary replied: “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

He slid into the passenger seat beside her, and said: “Drive into the state forest.” She put the car in gear and checked her mirrors before pulling back onto the road. As the car accelerated, Johnny said: “Let’s talk. Why are you doing this?”

She steered the car with one hand, brushed her hair back with the other, and said: “I don’t know.”

Johnny laughed, and replied: “What’s your name? You do know that, don’t you?”

“People call me Rosy, for Rosemary, Rosemary Royce. I write for a newspaper. I’ve been researching a government report implicating you in a terrorist plot.”

“Don’t believe everything you read in government reports, Rosy.”

“What should I believe?” she said, taking her eyes off the road for an instant to see the expression on Johnny’s face.

He met her eyes, and said: “I don’t know whether you’re being stupid or courageous, but I’m an armed and desperate fugitive.”

“Why are you so desperate?”

“Why? Well, Rosy, it’s like this. I’ve been a petty criminal since childhood. They baited me with immunity from my past, a chance to start all over again. I swallowed their bait. They hooked me, used me, and then cut me loose. Now they want me dead. I know too much.”

“You know too much about what?”

“About who they are and how they do things. Like control law enforcement from the justice department to the local sheriff. And about how they stay in power, eliminating loose ends, big and small. If I tell you more, you’ll become a loose end, too. You wouldn’t want that. If they find out you were with me, that would be enough for them to suspect you know something. I’m serious. If you were to go back to your newspaper and write an article mentioning this conversation with me, that would be suicide for you, Rosemary. I am serious.”

They drove in silence for several miles, and then Johnny said: “Pull over here and let me out.” Before he closed the car door behind him, he turned and said: “Thanks for the ride, Rosy. Listen to me. Do not write that article. And don‘t go to the police. For your own good.”

“Here, take my card,” she said: “Contact me whenever you can. I’m interested.” Then she waited until Johnny disappeared into the forest before she turned around and drove back to the reservation.

As she pulled into the reservation parking lot, she could see the press conference had already begun. The Tribal Chief stood outdoors on a platform with the sun coming up over the mountains behind him. When she approached the platform on foot, a security guard stopped her, and said: “The chief wants a talk with you. Come this way, please.” She followed him into a large tent next to the platform. In the middle of the tent, a round table supported a scale model of the proposed casino. Before she had a chance to study the model in detail, the Chief came into the tent.

He introduced himself and apologized if his security guard had offended her in any way. Then he said: “Earlier this morning, two of my guards outside saw you stop for a man at the side of the road. Where did you take him? What did he tell you?”

Rosemary remembered Johnny’s warning and her heart started beating faster. She swallowed and then exhaled before answering: “I drove him up into the state park. He went hiking in the forest. He had a backpack and a sleeping bag so I guess he’ll be camping out. But he didn’t tell me anything about it. I didn’t even get his name. He wasn’t really talkative.”

The Chief silently stared at her for a moment, and then said: “Why would a pretty young woman like you give that man a ride, heading into an isolated area like that? Huh, can you tell me?”

“I thought he was cute.”

“Cute? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What if he was a fugitive or something? He could have taken you as a hostage, or worse.”

“All I did was give him a ride. He was very polite. He thanked me.”

“He thanked you. Well you were lucky this time, young lady. Please don’t do it again.”

Rosemary collected some literature about the proposed casino along with a copy of the Chief’s press conference speech and then drove back to the city. She thought the Chief acted strange while questioning her, like he had a hidden motive, and it made her uneasy.

Johnny hiked across state owned land to the adjacent national forest. He traveled through rugged terrain to the remotest part of the mountain range until he reached a marijuana growing operation protected by a group of old friends he had met while in prison. Big Jake, the group’s leader, greeted Johnny’s arrival with an angry outburst, saying: “Man, this isn’t cool. Why did you come here? You’ll bring the fuzz down on us. They’ll be all over the place looking for you.”

Johnny calmly responded: “The fuzz already knows about you, Jake. If they’re all over the place it isn’t because of me. They have no idea where I’m at, unless you tell them.”

“Man, I ain’t going to tell them nothing and you know that. I just don’t think it was a good idea for you to come here.”

Johnny greeted the other seven members of the group who had gathered around to witness the confrontation. He recognized all of them and they all seemed happy to see him.

Returning to Jake, he said: “I was last seen about four days ago leaving a downtown coffee shop at three in the morning. I’m not being followed.”

“You didn’t get that backpack and bedroll in a downtown coffee shop. It looks like indian gear to me. You stopped at the reservation? Who else knows you were heading this way?”

“Yeah, I stopped by the reservation to pickup some essentials. I needed them. I had no choice. But those people are cool, I guarantee it.”

“You guarantee it. I question your judgment, Johnny. Your guarantee don’t mean nothing to me. What makes you think them indians won’t sell you out?”

“They know what’s going on.”

“They know what’s going on? What is going on?”

“They know how the government doesn’t represent the people. And the people need to get it together.”

“Don’t give me no political BS, Johnny. You attract major heat everywhere you go. And I’m disappointed in you for coming here. I just don’t know what to do about it yet. We’ll be shutting this place down eventually. But it’s too early for that now. What are your plans?”

“First, I’d like to buy a kilo of that bud from you, Jake. And then I’m hiking over to some private property I purchased a while back. There’s a sturdy cabin there, along with food and water. I have no plans beyond that. I’ll probably get bored eventually and be attracted back to the city. Things should have cooled by then. I’m no big fish.”

“If you’re no big fish, why do they keep showing your picture on TV? We got a satellite dish, we’ve seen it, and so has everybody else. Somebody big is after you, Johnny. That makes you a big fish.”

Johnny finished his business with Jake, said good-by to the group, and then returned to the trail. Three days later, he arrived at the cabin where found everything reasonably intact. More than a year earlier, he had stocked the cabin with the basic tools of survival, including guns and ammunition. He had also stored some basic foods, including several different grains, beans, dried fruit, dried vegetables, sea salt, seeds, nuts, and coffee beans. Then he had sealed the food and the cabin against bears, wolves, and other hungry critters.

During his first dreamlike days living there, a new discovery came with every breath. He rarely thought beyond his immediate circumstances. Through fishing, hunting, and trapping, he would have everything he needed to survive, he believed, and he quickly developed a comfortable routine.

Johnny Gee’s name faded from the news loop but Rosemary continued searching for information. The only person she could find who claimed to know Johnny Gee, however, was Byron, the crack smoking young man who hung out near the fountain at the downtown pedestrian plaza.

When she returned to the fountain area for a follow up conversation with Byron, she said: “Your description of Johnny Gee as being multiracial could have been surmised from looking at the picture of him circulating in the media. I need hard facts. Take me to the neighborhood where he grew up.”

“That place has changed,” Byron replied: “It’s always been low class but, now it’s gone from bad to worse. And we ain’t going to find him there, anyway, so what’s the point?”

“The point is, you’re all I have, except for his police record and some questionable government reports. Don’t get me wrong, Byron, but I’d feel a lot better if we could go there and talk to some other people who can verify your statements.”

“People there are afraid to talk, Rosy. About Johnny Gee or anything else. They don’t trust the police, the government, the national guard, and especially, they don’t trust the news media. Besides, how smart is it to be going around asking questions about Johnny Gee when the cops, the feds, and an organized crime gang are all out trying to find him? You don’t want that mess coming down on you. Don’t become part of the story yourself.”

“But that’s what a good investigative reporter does, Byron, they become part the story in the process of exposing it. That’s how reputations are built.”

“You might not live long enough to build a reputation, except for stupidity, if you try to expose this story. Just chill, let it come to you.”

“I can’t wait for a story to come to me. I’ll approach it from a different perspective. I’ll profile the neighborhood, not even mention Johnny Gee directly. I can research its history, its myths, and its legends. If any church congregations have survived, I can start with them. They keep records.”

“Well, it sounds like you won’t be needing me then,” Byron said as he stood to move around the plaza: “But keep me informed. I’m here every day. It’s always fun talking with you.”

It was late afternoon and Rosemary lingered in the sun by the fountain to watch Byron from afar as he interacted with a group of new arrivals. She had never actually seen him selling crack to anyone, only smoking it with them. But they smoked it openly, and she wondered aloud: “How can they keep getting away with that?”

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2 Comments on “Freelancer – On the Run”

  1. missgypsy Says:

    Interesting story line!

    • Yeah, I like this one. It’s the beginning of the whole Johnny Gee sequence of stories. This is one I want to continue developing. I’ve got more of it already written. I should post some of it next.

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