Beware of the Elephant

CHAPTER ONE

 

With her delicate features and long black hair tied in a ponytail, Phoebe McTavish looked ten years younger than her real age of twenty-seven. Adding to the youthful effect was the fact that she stood just five-feet tall. Not that Phoebe was standing up at the moment, it being a bit after midnight. Nor was she lying down, as one might suppose at that hour. She was, in fact, sitting behind the wheel of a Peterbuilt 379, maneuvering her eighteen-wheel rig down the back roads of Northern Pennsylvania on a warm Friday night in May.
    “The turn is just ahead on the left,” her companion said, his voice sounding tense.
    Phoebe nodded and proceeded up a short driveway to a pair of ten-foot wrought-iron gates. This must be a high-class place, she thought, where even the back entrance sported such an elaborate set of ironwork.
    “I’ve got the key,” the man beside her said, getting out and approaching the gate.
    Phoebe watched Asim as he stood, skewered by the headlights. She figured that he must be at least six-and-a-half feet tall, and about her age. She waited as he struggled impatiently with the stubborn lock, while the tractor’s engine idled with its typical diesel clatter. “Hurry it up,” she said half-aloud, checking the side mirrors. She scolded herself for getting caught up in the man’s unexplained nervousness. She was just the driver, after all.
    The road behind her was dark and still.
    The gates swung open at last with a metallic groan of surrender, and Asim waved her through, closing the gates behind the semi.
    “The service road branches off to the right,” he said, sliding back into his seat. “Go slowly; I don’t want to make too much noise.”
    “Is there a night watchman?”
    “He’s all taken care of.”
    Phoebe wondered what that meant, but didn’t have a chance to ask before Asim directed her to a loading dock.
    “Stay here,” he said, once she had the rig in position. “I’ll do this alone. The fewer people around, the better.” He started to get out and added, “You’d better turn off the engine.”
    Phoebe sighed as she shut down and Asim disappeared into the darkness. She didn’t like it that the man seemed so on edge, and so worried about making too much noise.
    She sat, listening to the night sounds and the cooling pings of the engine. Clouds hid any chance of moonlight, so it was pitch dark except for an anemic security light, barely visible in the distance through the spring foliage.
    Phoebe sat for almost half an hour, and was beginning to get antsy, when the trailer gave a lurch that made her jump in her seat.
    It was just Asim, loading up.
    After what seemed like an eternity, he slid into his seat.
    “Did you padlock the back?” Phoebe said.
    “Of course.”
    Phoebe held out her hand. “Gimme the key.”
    “That’s okay. I’ll keep it in case there’s an emergency.”
    “Key,” Phoebe repeated, jiggling her hand in front of his face.
    “I’d rather─”
    “We’re not going anywhere until I have the goddamn key in my hand.”
    Asim reluctantly dropped it in her palm.
    She wondered what kind of emergency was he thinking of as she slipped the key into her jeans pocket.

*  *  *

For about the hundredth time in the last ten minutes, Phoebe checked the side mirror, and for about the hundredth time she didn’t see a prowl car bearing down on them with its lights flashing. In fact, there was nothing to be seen behind her but the black stillness of a blossom-scented May night.
    Her companion had noticed Phoebe’s repeated, furtive glances at the mirror. “She won’t be missed before dawn,” he commented. Asim Okiro towered above Phoebe, even though she was perched on a cushion in order to see over the Peterbuilt’s hood. She glanced at him. Asim’s skin, almost as dark as her raven hair, made his face unreadable in the dimness.
    “Why all the secrecy, and the sneaking around in the middle of the night?” she asked. “I didn’t sign up for some kind of crazy, midnight kidnapping.”
    “We have discussed this before.” His voice betrayed a faint accent, a precision of speech that Phoebe couldn’t place. “This isn’t a kidnaping. We are just getting her out of harm’s way. We’re saving her life. She will be killed if we don’t do anything.”
    Phoebe turned back to the road just as a hard right turn swept into the headlights. The rig lurched and swayed as she struggled for control. She scolded herself for her inattention on these winding, back roads. That sort of mistake was an amateur’s blunder, and she was no amateur. “Sorry,” she said, slowing.
    “It would be unfortunate to run off the road at this point,” Asim observed dryly.
    She nodded her head to indicate the trailer box. “Are you sure she’s tied up securely? I don’t want her getting loose and making a racket while we’re stopped at a light somewhere.”
    “She won’t get loose. Besides, I gave her a tranquilizer.”
    “A tranquilizer? You gave her a tranquilizer? It’ll take us a good eight hours to get up to Maine. Are you going to keep her doped up for all that time?”
    “Of course not. But you’re the one who was worried about her making a racket while we’re driving through town.”
    “Are you planning to keep her tied up with the freight all the way to Maine? Aren’t you going to let her out somewhere along the way?”
    “Certainly not. Where would we find a place to let her loose that’s safe, with nobody around to see?” There was a flash of irritation in his voice.
    “This isn’t what Kermit and I were told to expect, that’s all.”
    “We talked about this yesterday, and you were fine with it then,” Asim pointed out.
    “Talking about something is one thing, but actually doing it is different. You never said anything about having to sneak around in the middle of the night.”
    “You worry too much.”
    Phoebe braked abruptly as another turn came into view, too fast.
    Asim looked at her sharply. “Would you like me to drive for a while?”
    “Do you have a commercial license?” Phoebe snapped.
    “No.”
    “Then you’re not driving.”
    Asim sighed.
    “Look, this isn’t like driving the family Toyota,” she said. “This is my father’s rig, and he didn’t loan it to me for some amateur to wreck it.”
    “Eight hours is a long time behind the wheel, on top of everything else.”
    “I’ve done longer.” She bit her tongue, fearing for a second that he might start quoting time-behind-the-wheel regulations. Of course he couldn’t afford to do that, not really. The man obviously didn’t care much about regulations─not if they got in the way of his mission. Whatever that was.
    Suddenly, she wanted to be alone. She wished the cab had a bunk so she could send Asim off for a nap and be in peace, without the man looming beside her. The truck’s speed was creeping up again, and she made a conscious effort to ease off on the accelerator.
    “You could ride in the box with Mabel for a while, if you want,” she suggested.
    “Maybe later, when we’re on the turnpike.”
    “Suit yourself.” It had been incredibly naive to let Asim talk them into this crazy escapade.
    “Tell me more about this Ziggy Breener,” she said. “How is he going to help when we get there? Does he have a place to keep her out of sight?”
    “I haven’t actually met the man, but a friend recommended him,” Asim said vaguely. “He assured me that Breener is very reliable.”
    Phoebe was a person who liked certainty, and Asim’s vagueness made her uneasy. What was he hiding? Had he really thought out what he was doing? She knew very little about the man, having just met him two days ago when he walked into the office of McTavish Transport. Her father had been out at the time, leaving her in charge of the family-owned trucking company. She had doubts at the time, and never would have taken the job if they weren’t desperate for the money.
    “Exactly what is this guy going to do when you get her there?” she asked.
    “Keep her out of sight, of course,” Asim said with a hint of irritation. “Maine is a big state, you know.”
    “Keep her out of sight? How?” Their speed was creeping up again. “You’re sure this is legal? I’ve never broken the law before, except for some speeding tickets, and I don’t want to get caught now, just because you didn’t plan this out right.”
    “You picked an awkward time to get squeamish about the law,” Asim said cooly. “We both know that McTavish Transport isn’t exactly licensed for this kind of job. Why didn’t you think about that before?” Asim paused, reining in his temper. “Stop worrying. You’ve been well paid for this trip. What happens when we get there is my concern, not yours.”
    “You have no idea what you’re going to do with Mabel when we get to Maine, do you? All you have is a name and that’s it.” Phoebe shook her head in frustration. “Have you even talked to this Breener?”
    “Not directly, but I’ve been assured that he’ll help us,” Asim said doggedly.
    “And suppose this man, who you’ve never met, or even talked to, decides not to help you? Then what?”
    Asim looked at her with surprise. “Why wouldn’t he help? After all, we’re bringing him a gift.”
    A gift? The man was creeping her out. “Look, Maine isn’t like your country, whatever your country is. Things don’t work the same way here. It’s not that easy to go off and disappear. Maybe up in the County you could, but not in coastal Maine.”
    “I thought we’d been over this several times. Your job ends when you get the cargo to Maine, and that’s all.”
    The rig lurched as she went into another corner too fast. She swore to herself. “But part of the cargo is alive—”
    “Deliver us to Maine in one piece, and your worries are over,” Asim assured her.

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© Lawrence Rotch