“Pastrami sandwiches?” Liz asked George in confusion as Joe talked with Frank on the phone.
Joe almost grinned when he overheard Liz. He explained to the girls while making sure Frank couldn’t hear what he was saying. “When Joe, er, I mean, when I dropped off the grid, I had gone to a deli to get our lunch.” After that carefully worded answer, Joe went back to talking with his brother. He snuck a look over to see the puzzled expressions on the girls’ faces.
Frank and the others had been checking out the area where Nancy, Ned, and Bess had seen Joe. Then when Frank received the phone call from George, they had immediately started heading there.
Answering his phone, Frank heard a garbled version of his brother’s voice; he stopped on the sidewalk. Right next to him, Callie stopped also and waited anxiously.
“Joe?!?!?!” Relief filled Frank’s voice. “Where are you?”
“With,” Joe paused a minute and looked over at the two girls, “George and Liz.”
Frank figured there had to be some interference because of the low signal and sound quality. “Tell me exactly and we’ll be right there. You’ve got some serious explaining ahead-”
“Well, how about you stay where you are instead and wait,” Joe interrupted. “Where are you anyway?”
Frank told him then said quietly, “You had me really worried, little brother. Had all of us scared whether you were okay or not….”
Joe closed his eyes a moment. This really, really wasn’t easy. He cleared his throat. “Well, no worries. Catch you later.” Much later. And hopefully you won’t catch me….
“Uh, Joe?” Frank asked, but Joe had already ended the call. He stared at the phone. Callie touched his arm.
“Frank, are you okay?” she asked. She watched the emotions in his deep, dark eyes.
“I’m calling Joe back.” He tapped the screen and waited.
Joe reached the phone back to George after swiftly deleting the app and purposefully smudging up his prints. He knew his brother would call back. And that he wouldn’t stay where he was. Two seconds later George got a call, which she answered. It seemed like she ended the call, but unknown to Joe, she left the connection open at Frank’s request. He and the others were on their way there, but Frank wanted to know what was going on.
Joe looked over at a fast-food place nearby. “Do you mind if we stop in there for a minute first?”
The girls agreed, and as soon as George saw Joe go into the men’s restroom, she turned to Liz. “Stay here and keep watch. I’m going around to the window and make sure he doesn’t try to leave that way.”
As George turned to leave, Liz grabbed her arm and hissed. “Haven’t you figured it out? He doesn’t want to ditch us, he wants us to believe him.”
George gave Liz a look and yanked her arm free. “He definitely wants to ditch us and he’s probably doing that right now!”
Liz debated telling George her theory. Well, she’d still get the scoop and she needed George’s cooperation. “He’s a clone!”
Now George looked at Liz like she was nuts. “You seriously think that?” She had no doubt they’d been talking and dealing with the tricky, smart-mouth, real Joe.
“Yes! You know, I found out this has happened before, more than once-“
George still had zero doubt and spoke to Frank on the phone for a moment before coming back with, “Liz, those were doubles, for one thing, who’d had plastic surgery, not actual, literal clones.”
Liz looked offended. “I know that. But did you notice his eyes weren’t Joe’s blue?”
“Yeah, we call them contacts.” George turned and headed for the exit, calling back over her shoulder. “You better not have made me lose him!”
Joe dropped to the ground outside the bathroom window and started down the narrow alley. Then George stepped around the corner. Joe stopped.
“Hey.” He recovered quickly and grinned.
“Hey.” She didn’t grin. “What’s going on, Joe? You have a lot of explaining to do. You know, you have Liz almost convinced you’re a clone.”
Joe laughed. “Who? Me?”
“Let’s go meet Frank.” George had a very serious expression on her face.
“Oh, I met him already.”
“Ha ha.” She waited while he climbed back up into the restroom.
He stuck his head back out the window. “Let’s not break it to Liz yet. She seems so happy.”
George rolled her eyes, tried not to smile, and pointed for Joe to get going. He grinned and disappeared from sight, closing and locking the window back. Good thing it was a clean restaurant with working windows….
When Joe left the restroom, Liz looked vindicated, not having a clue that he had just tried to get away from them. As George caught up with them outside, Liz gave her an “I told you so” look and George rolled her eyes.
“How about a cab instead of walking?” Joe suggested, slipping his sunglasses on. He stepped up to the street and flagged down a passing taxi. When one stopped, George put a hand on Joe’s shoulder.
“I’m taking a window and Liz the other. You’re in the middle.” She gave him a look that dared him to say different.
He dared. “Yeah, let’s skip the taxi.”
This was going to be way harder than he thought and he was running out of time.
“Don’t make me hold your hand like you’re a little kid, Joe,” George said with a warning tone in her voice that indicated she meant it.
Frank overheard that on the phone and a smile came to his face for a second. Then the intense seriousness replaced it once again. They were still a number of blocks away and he had no intention of his brother disappearing again.
“Let’s go this way. It’s a shortcut,” Joe said, indicating another sidewalk across the street. George wasn’t as familiar with the city so she spoke briefly with Frank to check.
“Yeah, it’s a shortcut,” she said to Joe.
“I know. That’s what I just said.” Joe grinned at her.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on, Joe, but I think you’re in more than a little trouble with your brother,” George told him.
The grin left his face and he nodded. And I’m about to get in extra trouble with him, if this works the way I plan for it to….
Joe had stubbornly decided to stick with the idea of disappearing. If that, even a little bit, made his family and friends safer, he’d go through with it. Up ahead, he saw the crowd of people rushing the sidewalk, just as he’d hoped.
As he rushed to get there, Frank was frantically trying to get George’s attention over the phone as he saw the time and put that together with the presence of office buildings along that street. He’d had a suspicion that Joe was up to something. Now he knew what it was.
“Grab his hand like you said, George!” Frank pretty much yelled into his phone. Phil had insisted on driving because he thought Frank was a little too distracted. When they came up on a traffic jam, Frank hopped out of the van.
“Frank?” Phil yelled.
“I’m not waiting here while Joe disappears,” hollered Frank as he took off on foot. Biff jumped out, also, figuring that Frank needed someone to look out for him; hopefully keep him from getting run over by NY traffic. Callie started to as well, but Phil reached over and gently touched her wrist.
“Please don’t, Callie. Frank’s already way up the street and Biff’s trying to catch up with him,” Phil spoke quietly and imploringly to her. She looked torn but finally nodded at the wisdom. Besides maybe they could catch up to Frank and Biff once traffic started again and pick them up.
Frank’s feet pounded the sidewalk as he ran past people. Sweat slid down his face. Weaving through a crowd, he made it to a crosswalk. Just a couple more blocks. Come on. His dark eyes watched for the signal as he tried again to find out if George still had a visual – or a hand – on Joe. No response.
Joe waited for just the right moment. He acted like he was going along, but he was carefully moving away from George’s reach. They got closer to the crowd of office workers leaving. They would slow him down, until he got past them, but they’d slow George and the others down also. And he knew pretty much where Frank was. He’d carefully mapped out his route and Frank’s likely route.
Now. He let the flow of people move him down the sidewalk as people got between him and George. He didn’t look back when she shouted at him, but kept moving, helping put distance between them by walking faster at just the right times.
As soon as he could he ducked around a corner and moved toward another shortcut – this one with less people filling the sidewalks. His heart plummeted at the thought of Frank’s upset when he caught up with George and Joe wasn’t there. Joe hoped to someday apologize to all involved, especially Frank and George.
When Joe reached the restaurant, he was hot, sweaty, and miserable. Iola’s eyes widened in alarm when she saw him.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
He shook his head wearily. “I don’t know. Just managed to get away from George and Liz before Frank and the others caught up with us.” His eyes searched out a clock. “Wow, we don’t have much time to get to the bus.”
“I got take-out.” She held up a bag of delicious smelling food. “We can eat it as we walk.” It would only take them two minutes to get to the bus, but it was cutting it close.
“Thanks. I’m starved.” He leaned down and gave her lips a kiss.
By the time they got to the bus station, they found they’d have to wait a few more minutes because it still wasn’t good to go. They already had their tickets so they decided to move away from the main area to not be spotted.
“This bus is either going to be safer because it just got fixed or fall apart as it travels up the highway,” Joe muttered.
Iola giggled. “True.”
They had just turned a corner when three mean-looking dudes stepped in front of the couple.
“Well, well, what do we have here? I bet you have some money,” the thug in the middle said.
“One warning – leave us alone,” Joe told him even as he moved to put himself between the punks and Iola. He was tired and irritated. And fiercely protective.
“This guy’s looking for a fight,” the punk told his friends. “Just hand over your money.” He opened up his hand to reveal a wicked looking knife. “And we won’t cut you both up too bad.”
“Sorry. I’m not allowed to play with knives.” He ducked as the thug took a swing at him. Then Joe moved out of the knife’s path, grabbed the thug’s outstretched arm, then flung him with force, swiftly changing his course to end up crashing right against a large trash can.
One of the other thugs recovered from the shock of one of their victims fighting back and began to use his fight-training against Joe. He soon found out that Joe’s skills were finely tuned and he had something more to fight for.
The first punk came back to join the fight, although he was pretty dazed from kissing the trash can, and Joe was fighting two. The third thug decided to tangle with Iola.
“You’re a sweet-looking little-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The third punk barely knew what happened. But he did realize the result – not to mess with her.
The janitor had just turned the corner at the other end and saw the tall blond guy and the dark-haired girl educate the three punks who’d been terrorizing the area for the last couple of weeks. One of the thugs started to run and looked like he was going to shove past the janitor. Inspired by what he’d just seen, the man casually angled the broom he was carrying and tripped the other guy. Now all three were unconscious.
Joe assessed the situation and knew they needed to get on that bus before the police came to ask a bunch of questions. The janitor spoke up then.
“You two are heroes. These jerks have been bothering people around here. Thanks. The police will be here any minute to pick them up. What was some of that you two did? It’s cool.”
“Uh, thanks – Krav Maga. We really need to grab that next bus we’ve been waiting for,” Joe explained, holding Iola’s hand, having made sure she was okay.
The janitor nodded in understanding. “Okay. But all I did was trip one of them, I can’t take credit for all of this. But you know, there are enough regulars around here that’ll be willing to press charges once this story circulates that they were taken out by two people who mysteriously disappeared.” He grinned. “I can’t remember exactly what they looked like because they disappeared so fast.” He gave the couple a wink and turned to keep an eye on the thugs.
Joe and Iola gave a wave and took off.
George fumed as they searched for Joe. “I’m so going to kick his butt!”
“After me,” a male voice said behind her. She turned and looked sympathetically at Frank. And Biff was right there with him, watching out for his friends.
“I tried, Frank. I’m truly sorry,” she apologized quietly.
Sweat was pouring down Frank’s face and his eyes were searching the area, trying to decide which route Joe would have likely taken. He looked over at George with understanding.
Liz came running up. “Are you sure that was Joe?”
“Definitely. All of those tricks, going into the pharmacy and I’m sure buying contacts, just like George figured out, the whole act, losing us in this crowd – all shouts Joe.” Frank shook his head.
“Frank.” George’s eyes sparkled.
He noted her tone held excitement and he raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“I slipped my phone into his pocket!” George grinned. “Now we can track him!”
Frank grinned back. “Excellent!” He got out his phone and working with George, began to search for hers. After a little while, they both stared at the screen of Frank’s phone. Then they glanced at each other and then over at Liz. Frank sighed.
“Check your pockets, Liz,” he told her.
“What for?” she asked even as she began to do so. Her eyes widened when she felt something in her pocket and pulled it out. A phone. Hers was in her purse. “What?!?!”
“Joe,” George and Frank said at the same time.
“How?” Liz asked.
“Joe out-tricked us. He must have realized what I’d done, took my phone out of his pocket, where I’d put it, and snuck it into your pocket,” George said. She let out a frustrated sigh.
“Don’t worry about it, George. Joe….he’s been trained by the best,” Frank said.
“So have you,” George responded.
Frank’s dark eyes glinted as he went back to looking around. He was quiet a moment and then George just barely heard him say, “That’s right.”