Joe stepped out onto the sidewalk then turned and began striding quickly in the opposite direction of the two people he had recognized. He didn’t have to look back to know they had taken the bait and were following him.
George Fayne along with Liz Webling. Now there were two people much more different than George and her cousin, Bess Marvin. Joe had no way of knowing that George had just run into Liz, who recognized her and was asking her a million questions about Nancy’s most recent case. Liz, a reporter at Bayport High and on the newspaper her dad ran, was always looking for a story.
When George and Liz had spotted Joe going into the restaurant, George had wanted to lose Liz and follow Joe, maybe catch up with him. She tried to do just that, but Liz had started following George.
They trailed him down the sidewalk, then saw him stop at a crosswalk. People were going by and the girls each hoped that they were blocked from Joe’s view so he wouldn’t realize they were tailing him if he looked back their way. A quick peek told them that he had started walking again, and had crossed the street to the next sidewalk. So they began following him once more, hurrying to get across before the signal changed.
George had sprinted ahead, reaching the opposite sidewalk in time, and Liz just barely made it. Even though they were now back on the same sidewalk, Joe was moving pretty fast and more people were filling in the gaps. Soon the girls were farther back than they wanted to be, but they kept going, trying to get through the crowd to catch up a little.
Good thing I’m tall, George thought to herself, trying to keep Joe’s blond head in sight. Almost everyone had somewhere to be, something important to attend to, and kept up a fast pace. Almost everyone, except of course for two office workers taking their time talking. And walking slowly and nearly blocking the sidewalk with other people pushing around them. George clenched her fists, her anxious brown eyes looking ahead, watching as Joe was getting farther away from them.
“Excuse me,” she muttered, trying to get past.
Catching sight of Joe as he ducked into a building, she wondered if he’d figured out he was being followed and was now trying to throw them off of his trail.
Slipping into the pharmacy, Joe’s mind was tweaking the details of his idea. It wouldn’t be easy, but he had to do what he could to keep his family and friends safe. And quickly.
Joe had the feeling that with Nancy’s good instincts, she’d figured out earlier that something was going on and might even have called Frank to find out more. Joe knew it wasn’t going to be easy to trick George, but he had to try. He hoped Nancy and the others weren’t nearby; he’d have to watch out for that.
A glance at the clock on the wall told him how much time remained before the bus was expected. Plus, he hated being away from Iola. He hurried to the appropriate aisles to find the products he was looking for.
Come on, come on, he thought, as his blue eyes searched the shelves for exactly what he was looking for. Finding one of the things, he grabbed it off the shelf and moved on to the next item on his mental shopping list. Stepping quickly into another section, he went to get the last item before he made his purchases.
Turning the corner of an aisle, he quickly perused the display and selected a pair of sunglasses. His other pair had fallen when he was unloading the truck and had gotten crushed when the boxes had shifted.
Stepping up to the register, he placed the two items on the counter and got out some money. Enough for the purchases, plus a bonus. That would hopefully be enough. He was thankful they had some more cash now, because he really didn’t want to make a digital trail with the credit card. That would be as good as glowing neon cookie crumbs to lead straight to them.
He quickly described George and Liz to the bored looking woman behind the register. “They’ll be coming in, looking for me, probably asking about me.” Joe held up the bonus money before continuing. “Would you please tell them that I slipped out the back, and that I bought shades, but not tell them about this other purchase?”
The woman looked at Joe then at the money. And then back at Joe. Being a New Yorker, she didn’t look at all surprised at the unique – okay, odd – request.
Joe raised his eyebrows hopefully before glancing over at the door, anxious to get this transaction done before the girls showed up. “Easy way to make some money, right?” He smiled. Then he started to take the money away. “But if you’re not interested….”
She sighed and snatched the money out of his hand then rang up Joe’s purchases. After paying for them, he quickly repeated his request, hoping the woman would remember what to say and what not to say.
“Uh, and is it okay if I leave out the back?” he asked. She nodded and pointed in the general direction to where the exit to the back was located. “Thanks!”
And with that, he rushed out.
Just a couple minutes later, the woman was slightly amused, but still didn’t show it, to see the exact two people Joe had described, hurry into the pharmacy and look around. She listened once George had hurried over to her and described Joe then asked if she’d seen him.
“Yeah,” the woman said. She looked at George quizzically like So?
“Do you know if he went out the back exit?”
The woman just looked at George noncommittally.
George felt exasperated, knowing that Joe was getting farther away. Wait, she knew for a fact that Joe had gone in there, maybe there was more info she could find out – for money. She realized that might help the woman “remember” details.
“Yeah, he bought some sunglasses and left out the back,” the cashier told them and then accepted the money George offered.
“Thanks!” George pretty much yelled as she then Liz ran out the back, hoping to catch up with Joe, who definitely had put some distance between them.
Minutes earlier, Joe had glanced behind him at the back exit of the pharmacy, then quickly applied his purchases to help his plan. That took a little more time than he would have liked. When he finally succeeded, he hoped the hair product he’d put in earlier for his disguise when he had slipped the note to Iola was still in effect. It temporarily took some of the curl out of his hair, not much but just enough to look slightly different. Then after slipping on the shades, he took off down the alley toward the sidewalk.
He expected George and Liz to come through the back door of the pharmacy any second. And he wanted them to. Because now he was ready to talk with them.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, Joe started walking, but not too fast. If this worked out right, he could not only protect his family and friends, but also find out some information. Hopefully George and Liz hadn’t been able to determine whether he knew he was being followed or not. Would they want to keep following him or confront him? At this point, they were quite a distance from the restaurant. Joe was going to have to do some serious sprinting to get back there in time for the bus. To speed things up, he would confront them.
He slowed more. A glance told him they were getting closer. He waited. Then he turned and went against the flow of the pedestrians coming toward him and stopped right in front of George and Liz. Their eyes widened slightly. And they were about to be even more startled.
“Why are you following me?” he snapped angrily with a fierce scowl on his face.
“Following?” George asked, trying to recover from the shock of the sudden accusation and Joe’s attitude. “Why would you think that?”
“Because it seemed like you two were following me,” Joe stated, still frowning.
“I’m glad I caught up with you, Joe,” George said, since she was trying to do that, but had been waiting to confront him and find out what was going on. Now seems like the perfect time for some reason, she thought dryly. She noticed that he drew back slightly when she said his name, as if in surprise. “So what’s new?”
He was quiet a moment. “Um, why?”
She laughed then repeated, “’Why?’ I hadn’t expected to see you here.”
“You didn’t? Why not?”
She resisted rolling her eyes. Was he going to answer everything with questions? She looked at him carefully. “Are you feeling okay, Joe? You do recognize me, right?”
“Um. Yes, of course.” He paused and then continued as he saw George waiting for him to say more. He seemed to be trying to buy himself some time when he still didn’t answer the unspoken question of her name right away. “Of course.” His expression was neutral for a minute, then when he talked again, he almost sounded programmed. “George. You are George.” He smiled. “You are a friend of mine and we both are friends with Nancy Drew, the detective.”
She looked at him, listening to his stilted speech. “What? Did you memorize that or something?”
The frown was back on Joe’s face. “Why would you say something like that?” His expression wasn’t exactly friendly.
“Uh, mainly because that’s the way it sounded.” George was frowning now, too. What in the world is going on here? She needed some more information. “So where’re you heading?”
He looked at her suspiciously and she heard the question before he vocalized it. “Why?”
“We’re friends, remember?”
That seemed to be the right answer and his expression lost some of the anger. “Yes. I remember.” He attempted another smile. He made sure it didn’t look like his usual smile.
“Don’t take this wrong, Joe, but are you sure you’re okay?” Liz asked, her reporter’s instincts in high gear from the unique clues adding up to something.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” There was the suspicious look again.
“Do you know my name?” Liz asked.
“Why? Don’t you?” Joe responded.
George nearly laughed at the exasperated look on Liz’s face.
“Of course. I wondered if you knew,” Liz said.
“You’re Liz. You’re from Bayport High. You’re known to ask a lot of questions.” Joe turned his gaze to George. “Have you seen or talked with Frank recently?” Joe asked abruptly.
“Um, have you?” George asked. She had called Frank while following Joe. He’d asked her to stall Joe if she caught up with him.
“You did not answer my question.” Joe wondered about his plan. Frank could show any time. He needed to give Liz a “story” way before that so she could run amuck with it.
“Well, you didn’t answer mine,” George pointed out.
“I asked you first.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did talk to him not long ago. He was pretty worried about you. Why haven’t you called him?” George asked him, going with bluntness, a specialty of hers.
“Um, my phone was stolen,” Joe answered, knowing the best thing was not to lie. So he told the truth. While saying it in a tone like he was making it up.
George looked at him. “Oh, really?”
“Yes, really. I know he’s worried because I disappeared.”
“They had been told you’d been killed, Joe.”
Joe wondered if the marshals were the ones who told them that. “Well, I wasn’t,” he stated matter-of-factly.
George chuckled. “Thankfully. Now how about we go meet up with your brother?”
“That would be great,” Joe said. But not going to happen right now, if things go as planned, he thought. He pretended like someone going by had bumped into him, and knocked his sunglasses off. Leaving them off, he then surreptitiously watched George and Liz to see their reactions.
George had been about to reach into her pocket for her phone, when she caught sight of Joe’s eyes. She frowned and looked closer while trying to act like she wasn’t looking closer. The irises of his eyes….weren’t Joe’s shade of blue. And it wasn’t the lighting. Joe’s blue eyes are very distinctive, she thought to herself.
Liz noticed, also. She looked closer at Joe’s haircut. Looked similar, but less curl. He was kinda biting his lips so she couldn’t get a very good look at them. And he usually had good posture, but at the moment he didn’t and he looked not as tall. His hands were shoved into his pockets so she couldn’t see them….and he was talking so stilted, not like how Joe talked. Wait, am I actually wondering if the person in front of me is really Joe? She glanced up at his face and noticed he was watching her curiously – and suspiciously. He had to be in disguise….right?
Joe almost grinned. He could tell the question he’d been trying for had now surfaced in Liz’s reporter brain. George had too much sense to believe what Joe was attempting to get them to think, but Liz on the other hand….
“What happened, Joe?” Liz asked, nearly drooling at the thought of a story.
“When?” he asked.
“When you disappeared.”
“Uh, well, someone almost killed me,” he said, which was true then skipped to, “after a while, I escaped.” And that was also true.
George was surprised that Joe was telling Liz even that little bit. “Enough questions, Liz.” She turned to Joe. “We should go catch up with Frank, don’t you think?”
Then Joe surprised George with a request. “Can I borrow your phone to call him?”
George’s expression went from surprise to relief. “Sure, help yourself.”
“Is he in your contacts?”
“Yeah. But I have it under code, to protect my family and friends in case my phone ever gets stolen,” George explained, handing Joe her phone.
Joe hid that he was impressed with her smart efforts. “Thanks.” He accepted the phone and steeled himself to talk to his brother, because he knew when he heard his brother’s comforting voice, it was going to be difficult to continue with his plan to disappear. “Can I check something first before calling? I need to look something up for him. Maybe even download an app that’ll help?” Honesty was always the best policy. And having some chutzpah didn’t hurt either. He had decided it would make things easier if he knew exactly where Frank was at and maybe even send him on a wild goose chase.
“Um, sure,” George said, wanting him to hurry and call his brother.
Joe took just a minute, tapping and waiting, then he called Frank.
When Frank answered, he heard his little brother saying, “Hi, Frank. I know. I’m taking a little too long getting back with those pastrami sandwiches, right?”