Miracle Trees: Exposed

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If I were Alex, where would I seek shelter? I steered Betsy towards the not so nice area of town. The streets and sidewalks were empty for the most part, but I felt like I was being watched. Some houses had boarded up windows and doors. Others looked like a trash hadn’t been collected for the last two months. Still others had overgrown yards that would require a sickle to clear.

A few business fronts were vacant, with some others with boarded over windows and doors. The ones that weren’t boarded up had for rent signs in their windows. Nearly all the dumpsters were behind padlocked gates. No sign of Alex.

At the next stop sign, I glanced at Betsy’s gas gauge. It was already down to half. It was full when JJ loaned it to me. The SUV takes a lot of gas, but this truck is a hungry beast. I drove back to the nicer part of town and noticed a sign advertising a sale at Olsen’s Greenhouse.

That’s where I saw Alex before ending up in this mess. He had been handing out fliers. Maybe someone there has an idea of where to find him. Pulling into the lot, I noticed two people near the doors. They had bright colored sheets of paper in their hands. I squeezed the steering wheel until my knuckles were drained of color. What would I say or do if one of them was Alex?

I parked Betsy and hurried towards the people with the fliers. “Hey, do either of you know Alex Higgins?”

The person to my left lunged forward. Their face was red and twisted with anger. I moved back several steps. They were dressed in a baggy black hoodie with the hood pulled up.

The other person held their arm out to signal for the one in the hoodie to back off. “Easy Gage,” she said. Gage exposed part of a handgun that was tucked into their pocket. They shoved their hair out of their eyes towards the back of the hoodie and scowled at the her, Cora.

I swallowed hard. Gage Sunderson carries a gun. First Alex and now Gage have been associated with her. Was Gage the one who cracked me on the head when I delivered the backpack?

She turned to me, “Your name is Mike, isn’t it?”

Miracle Trees: Prey

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As the ransomware clock ticked down from forty-eight hours, I sat at the desk puzzling how to find Alex. It’s clear there’s more than one person looking for him. There’s the menacing guy who wants his money. Now, there’s someone else he promised some information. I rubbed my tired eyes and checked the time. It was only a little after four.

A noise in the alley made me jump. My heart pounded as I looked around the room for anything I could brandish as a weapon. A few books and a chair wouldn’t do much to take out an intruder. There was more rustling in the yard. I peered out the window and allowed my eyes to adjust. The moon cast odd shadows, but there was no movement. Then a thump from the direction of the garage caused me to jump. In the periphery, a small shape dashed from the corner of the garage towards the front of the house. A shadow cast from above followed.

A screech followed by what sounded like an animal screaming in pain. Silence. An owl swooped past the window with a small animal in its claws.

I dropped into my chair and sighed with relief. Damn, I’m jumpy. I’ve got to keep my wits about me. Scanning the room, there was little that could function as a weapon. I could throw the two childhood sports trophies Mom had kept. Unfortunately, they are no bigger than my fist and I’m not confident of my aim.

Why couldn’t she have saved the old hockey stick and pucks? At least a hockey stick would have given me some distance. But only if they don’t have a gun. A gun? Cora’s helper had a gun.

A hand touched my shoulder. I jumped and knocked the chair over. I yelled as I snatched the chair from the floor and raised it above my head.

Miracle Trees: Ransomware

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Worry that the menacing stranger would return during the night kept sleep at bay. We left all the lights on outside and on the main floor of the house. Except for the sounds of the katydids and grasshoppers, it was quite outside. The only sound inside was Mom’s steady snores.

Would Mom have been so brave with the stranger if she knew what I know? Would she be sleeping so soundly? If anything happens to her because of my mistakes, I’ll never forgive myself.

The tossing and turning came to an end a little after two when I turned on the laptop. At least I could do something productive. I opened the files for the tire company in Baltimore. I had only had three more days to create five logo designs. After a few minutes I closed it. My mind wasn’t willing to do their logos or any of my clients’ requests.

My thoughts continued drifting back to the flash drive containing Alex’s files. I inserted it in the computer. Something about Gage Sunderson and lasers was familiar.

I pulled up my recent search history on Gage Sunderson. There is a video link, but I was afraid of waking up Mom. My mind is foggy and I can’t trust that the settings are so the volume would be off.

The Donor folder on the flash drive looked interesting. Files for a Penmark Petroleum were at the top of the list. The first file indicated millions of dollars had been donated to Clime Biologix to fund clean environment projects. Another showed Doug Johnson shaking hands with the Evan York, the CEO of Penmark Petroleum. Five years ago, they signed a ten-year research contract to modify plants with the goal of cleaning the environment.

Miracle Trees: Flash Drive Files

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Dinner seemed to last an eternity. Mom droned on about the latest neighborhood gossip while my mind wandered to the files from Alex’s SD card. Even more vexing is this new SD card. It cannot be a coincidence. Did Alex forget he had two cards? Or, did he only care about the one he found?

Mom had gone quiet and was looking at me with raised eyebrows. “Well?”

“Sorry. My mind drifted to the pile of work I didn’t get to today. I cannot afford to miss more deadlines.”

“I was just asking about your vehicle. When will you get it back?”

I glanced at the clock behind her. Jansen’s closed over an hour ago. “It might be ready tomorrow.” I slid my chair back and bussed our dinner dishes to the sink. “Let me help you clean up and then I’ve got to do some work.”

Mom waved me off. “You’ve got to earn them big bucks. I can do this.” She heaved herself from the chair and hobbled to the sink. After squeezing me around the waist, she gently shoved me towards the doorway. “Go on. I’ve got this.”

I nodded and left the kitchen. The anticipation of sifting through the files on the flash drive was almost more than what I could bear. Alex has a secret life, but how dark is it? I bounded up the steps to the privacy of my own room.

Before I sat down, I pulled the SD card with the cracked case I found in the driveway out of my pocket. “What secrets are you hiding?” I laid it on the desk. It would have to wait until I examined more files on my flash drive.

While the laptop booted up, I contemplated my intentions to upgrade it. It still gets the job done, but it is incredibly slow. Money has been an issue since because of fewer clients. Taking care of Mom takes more time than I expected. Plus, the worries over my involvement with Alex ate up even more time.

The Nag folder seemed like a good place to start since I know it is about Dr. Cora Nelson. Is this a blackmail folder?

Miracle Trees: Where Did Mom Go

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A few blocks from the library, I searched for a spot to pull over. My hands were shaking and legs felt like rubber. I had to pick up the computer cord. If he had seen me, there would be no need to justify it. I shouldn’t need and excuse for refusing Alex access to my computer. I have my clients’ information on it and I want to keep it protected. Yet I was afraid to stand up to him.

Alex has thrown me to the ground, been homeless, channeled excessive anger towards me, and certain his life is in danger. There was something darker under the surface that scares me even more. He is in more trouble than I can to imagine. A lot of distance between us is the only option.

I pulled off at a small park, shut the engine off, and pressed my forehead into the steering wheel. The sound of children playing and a dog barking nearby made me feel safe. Something normal and benign to concentrate on. I kept listening and could hear a bird singing in a tree beside the truck.

Wait a minute. Mom normally calls when I’m away for a few hours. I tugged the phone from my pocket to check for missed calls. Nothing. I hit redial on her number. It rang about ten times before I disconnected.

Tossing the phone down on the seat, I cranked Betsy, and pulled out of the parking lot. Every stop light I came to was red. Every other street seemed to be a four-way stop. As I got closer to home, I had to detour because of a downed tree and power line.

Several small limbs and leaves littered the driveway. There was a clear spot along the curb so I parked the truck in on the street in front of the house. Before getting out of the truck, I could see the inside front door was open. That’s not unusual on a warm day, but my heart did a flip and the hair on the back of my neck raised.

Even from the porch, the house seemed far too quiet. Maybe she fell asleep in her chair and forgot to shut the door. I scanned the room as I stepped inside. If it hadn’t been for the occasional roar of a distant chainsaw, I might have been able to hear my own breathing. Mom wasn’t in her chair.

I thought better of shouting until I could survey the house. What if one of the people hunting Alex found Mom? That thought made me quicken my pace to explore the rest of the downstairs. She wasn’t in the kitchen and the door leading to the backyard was open. Glancing out the screen door, I didn’t see her in the yard.

Miracle Trees: Parting Ways

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My skin prickled. Fear? Anger? A mix of the two? I don’t know. I need to distance myself from Alex.

“Is that all? Call me stupid, but most people don’t have bills of fifty grand due all at once. Is that the amount that keeps you alive? Or, the full amount of the loan?” I asked.

Alex tipped his head back and cackled. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. “I have to pay that now. Think of it as a balloon loan with aggressive collectors.”

An officer casually walked out of the police station. Alex slid down in the seat as far as he could. He whimpered from pain and then whispered, “Please, we need to go.”

“Maybe I should flag that officer down and let him know you need medical assistance,” I said.

His eyes widened and then he shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “Go.” Alex was now partially in the floorboard, making it seem I was alone.

The cranking of the truck caused the officer to look our way. So, I gave a casual wave and a nod as I pulled away.

“Are you crazy?”

Without glancing at him, I said, “The officer heard the truck crank and had seen I was looking in his direction. Acknowledging him was the least suspicious thing I could do. He isn’t following us.”

“You’re stupid. I thought you were smarter than that,” Alex said, groaning as he pulled himself back into the seat. He moaned and laid his head against the seat.

“You couldn’t play along in the forest. If they thought there was a dog, they might have let us go with a warning,” he added.

“I’m dumb all right. I let you talk me into a whole lot of trouble.”

We were both silent for the few blocks to the library. I stopped the truck at the curb in instead of parking in the lot. “Your stop, sir.”

“You have to come in, too. I need to use your computer.”

“Not happening. I promised to bring you to the library. Get out before I drive back to the police station,” I said.

Alex scowled, got out, and slunk up the steps. He didn’t bother to shut the door causing forcing me to put the truck in park so I could pull it shut. He looked over his shoulder and with a smile, flipped me off. Good riddance, I thought.

As I pulled away, I turned my phone back on. I would never hear the end of it if Mom was trying to reach me and couldn’t. Halfway home, it rang. Thinking it was Mom wanting something picked up from the store, I answered it.

Miracles Trees: Calling His Bluff

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I watched my old classmate who I thought I knew well. I had even considered him to be a friend, but now someone I don’t trust. He clutched the SD card and rocked back and forth. Little about him resembled the happy, outdoorsy kid that I grew up with.

Unless I get my backpack, the same will to happen to you. Alex’s words rang in my head. What had happened to him? Did Cora’s thug do this? Maybe she found out about the dirt he has on her and then threatened him. Or, did someone else? The card contains incriminating files on a number of people and organizations.

Approaching footsteps scuffing against the pavement pulled my focus from Alex. JJ had a clipboard and pen so I could approve the work order for my SUV. His footsteps stopped and he whispered, “Are you sure I shouldn’t call for an ambulance?”

I turned and took a few steps away from Alex, hoping he wouldn’t hear us talking. “He’d likely refuse it. Now that he found what he so desperately wanted, maybe he’ll agree to be checked out.”

“I hope so. He’s not looking very good,” JJ said, never looking away from Alex. He took the signed form and his eyes widened as he stepped backwards. “I’ll let Bear know he can get started on the repairs.” Then he hurried away.

“I need a computer,” Alex said. He was on his feet and struggling to get into the SUV.

“If we go anywhere now, we’ll have to take Betsy. And you need medical attention before we do anything else,” I said.

“NO!” Alex shook from head to toe. “We need to send a file from this.” He held up the SD card and shook it. “I’d like to stay alive.”

I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists. “When did you become we? Why have you involved me? Am I in danger? You dragged me into a restricted are in the BWCA. Then I was threatened with possible charges as an accessory to crimes you may have committed.”

Alex didn’t answer. He only stared at me until I squirmed inside. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I shifted my gaze.

“How will money help you if die from your injuries? Your injuries need to be treated.”

He raged again as he got out of the SUV and slammed the door. “If I don’t send the file, I won’t have to worry about that. You have a computer. I need to use it. Let’s go.”

Miracle Trees: Ditching the Card

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Alex’s words made my stomach knot. I stopped several yards away and was momentarily speechless. What am I going to tell him? As little as possible. Finally, I said, “I don’t have your backpack. You look like you need a doctor.”

His jaw tightened as he balled up a fist. “No. I need my backpack. I left it in your vehicle for safe keeping. I told the BWCA security I didn’t need anything from from. Now, I need it back. Where is it?”

“I don’t know where it is. I can give you some clothes or a toothbrush if you need them.”

Alex’s face reddened. Through a snarl he said, “There’s something very important in it. It’s a matter of life and death – mine.”

The knot in my gut turned icy. I stayed rooted in place. “I told you. I don’t have it.”

“Did you throw it away?” asked Alex.

I swallowed hard. He’s calling my bluff. Don’t take the bait. “Are you sure you don’t need a doctor? Your eye looks bad. Maybe you have a concussion.”

He turned to look get a better look at the truck. “Why are you driving this old thing?” Alex motioned over his shoulder at Betsy.

“Mine is having some work done,” I said.

“Then let’s go so I can get my pack.” Alex rolled to his knees. He paused for a moment before stumbling to his feet, pawing the truck to keep his balance. He swayed a bit before steadying. The places he touched were left smudged with dirt and blood.

“What happened to you?”

Alex grunted and then laughed. It quickly became a stifled whimper as he curled with an arm pressed against his belly. “Unless I get my backpack, they’ll do this to you, too.”

Alex straightened slightly, stumbled in front of the truck, and then landed on his hands and knees. He emitted a guttural growl as he curled his fingers into the grill and pulled himself to his feet.

Damn, two hours wasn’t enough to see what was on that SD card. What’s safe to talk about? I can’t let it slip that I know about it.

I wrapped an arm around his waist, giving support so he could limp to the passenger door. I expected the odor of alcohol, but instead he smelled of antiseptic. After he was settled into his seat, I stashed the laptop behind the driver’s seat and got in.

“Who did this to you?” I asked. Alex wrapped his arms around his midsection and looked out the passenger window.

“Did this happen at the hospital?” More stonewalling from Alex. “You smell like you came straight out from the hospital.”

“Shh! What have I told you about this?” He held out his hand.

“I’m not giving my cellphone to you.”

“Then shut up and take me to your SUV.” Alex rolled the window down and spit. When he pulled his head back in, he groaned and held his stomach tighter.

“You need a doctor.”

He roared and smashed his fist into the dashboard, leaving a smudge mark. I glanced over to see his wild-eyed expression. “You talk too much.”

“And you’re tearing up a courtesy vehicle. Betsy isn’t mine. Knock it off or you can walk to Jansen’s.”

Alex sneered. “A courtesy vehicle named after an old cow? I can walk faster than this thing.”

I slowed the truck down and pulled over. Anger had replaced my fear and worry. “Would you rather walk? I’d be happy to oblige. Now, do you want to tell me what is so important about that backpack?”

Alex looked out the window and brought his hand to his face. His shoulders heaved several times before he sniffed and wiped his eyes. “There’s information in the backpack that I promised to deliver. I didn’t deliver it on time. Now, before things become more complicated, I have to get it to them.

My grip on the steering wheel had become so tight my knuckles were colorless. It has to be the SD card. How am I going to explain why it’s in my pocket? “Do you want to walk or are you going to control yourself?” I asked.

“Go.” His voice shook.

There was tense silence rest of the way to Jansen’s. Alex kept his face turned away. I ran scenarios through my head as to how I could inconspicuously get the SD card out of my pocket and into the SUV.

At Jansen’s, I helped Alex out of the truck much the way I would Mom. JJ waved at us and quickly disappeared back into the garage. Before we made it to the service desk, JJ jogged back out holding a brick. Alex flinched and shoved us back a step. He grunted and doubled over.

“Whoa! I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you okay, fella? Do you need a ride to the emergency room?” asked JJ.

I shook my head. “This is my friend, Alex, and he insists he’s fine.”

JJ gave Alex a long side eye, shook his head, and then shrugged. “I assigned your baby to Bear. He found this partially tucked under the passenger seat. The storm was strong, but it wasn’t that bad.” Good. Maybe Alex will think someone stole it.

“We’ve documented the damage, but didn’t start any work in case you need to file a stolen property report.”

JJ’s statement must have finally registered with Alex. “My backpack. Where is Mike’s vehicle?”

JJ pointed to the side of the building. Alex rallied enough strength to tug me in that direction. “Yeah, go check it out and let me know if you need to make a report. We won’t touch it until you give the approval.”

Alex pushed away from me and began hobbling towards the SUV. I slipped my hand in my pocket and palmed the SD card. This is my opportunity to put it back.

By the time I reached the vehicle, Alex was kneeling by the passenger door. His hand was shoved deep between the passenger seat and the console. “I thought you needed your backpack. What are you digging for?” I asked.

Alex didn’t respond. His search became more aggressive. He yelped as he yanked the back passenger door open and crammed his hand under the front seat. I flicked the SD card into the passenger floorboard. He suddenly stopped and came back to the front seat. “What was that sound?” He frantically patted under the seat from the front before spotting the SD card.

He grabbed it, kissed it, and then slid to the ground in a heap. By the time I got to him, he was alternating between crying and laughing. “I get to live.”

Miracle Trees: Discovery

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The library parking lot was empty except for some small twigs and leaves. I left Betsy near the back of the lot because the faded lines would shout less about the truck’s size. I chuckled to myself, most ladies I know don’t want their size pointed out.

After shutting the truck off, the hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle. It felt like someone was watching. I looked around, but saw no one.

Once inside, I saw a lone librarian sitting behind the desk. When she didn’t look up, I cleared my throat. She slowly peered over the tops of her readers and offered no smile. “May I help you?”

My mouth had gone dry and palms sweaty. My mind continued playing tricks with me. “I need to use one of the private cubicles. Preferably one with an outlet. We don’t have power at home,” I stammered.

Her lips disappeared into a straight line as she silently extended her hand. I looked in the direction her hand seemed to point, but only saw the restrooms. She sighed, “Your library card.”

“Oh, right.” I handed it to her and began to feel the prickles on the back of my neck again. This time I refrained from looking around.

Several moments later, she handed me my card and a key. Then proceeded to drone monotonously about rules, emphasized the strict two-hour limit, and asked that I follow her. With great effort, she pushed herself to her feet and limped towards the back of the library.

The small windowless room was about twice the size of the old phone booths I remembered from childhood. It had its own light switch, a desk-high platform wedged between two walls, and an uncomfortable looking chair. The window on the door had a paper-thin shade that could be pulled for some privacy. Before leaving, she pressed a single finger to her lips and then held up two fingers.

While I waited for the laptop to power up, a shiver ran up my back. That’s when I pulled the shade because anyone who walked by could see my computer screen. Taking a deep breath, I inserted the SD card.

As it was scanned for viruses, I tapped the plastic case on the platform. The screen filled with folders titled with odd names like Nag, Brat, Tensile, Black Hole, and Beast. What could possibly so important?

Miracle Trees: Ruminate

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When I left home, we still didn’t have power. Closer to Jansen’s, there were fewer broken trees, downed power lines, and debris. The traffic lights were also working. My mind wandered back to Alex.

What is on this SD card? What lengths will Cora go to get it? What kind of danger am I, and now Mom, in? Is that why Cora brought an armed back-up when we met? Can Alex be trusted?

On my way to Jansen’s, I noticed the library’s lights were on. That was when I started planning the rest of my day. I patted my pocket, reassuring myself the SD card was still there. My mind whirled again. Had it fallen out of Alex’s pocket? Or, had he deliberately hidden it there?

JJ, Jeremiah Jansen, waved as I pulled up to the repair shop. “What the happened to your baby? It looks like a wild beast chewed it up and then spit it out,” he shouted. He was still jabbering as I got out. “That was some nasty hail last night. Surprised your windshield survived.”

“Do you still have a loaner available? I need to run some errands.”

He nodded and pointed to an older white pickup. “Betsy can be temperamental. You’ll need to sweet-talk her or you might see her stubborn side.”

The truck is not luxurious by any means. It’s clean yet still had the distinct smell of oil. And it was quickly revealed to be terribly sluggish taking off from stops.

When I returned home, Mom and a neighbor were in the front yard. The neighbor was setting up a container of flowers. Mom held a plastic bag and appeared to be supervising. I shook my head her ability to convincing others to do her bidding, especially me.

I couldn’t let the neighbor do all the clean-up. So, for the next two and a half hours, we cleaned up the yard while Mom gave orders. We gathered up twigs, righted containers of flowers, and tossed broken plastic. I cringed at each comment about cracked pots and flattened plants. Another lengthy trip to Olsen’s Greenhouse is not part of today’s plans.

While Mom fetched cold drinks, the neighbor and I sat down on the porch. He mentioned that the broken tree in his yard would be replaced with an Amazing Ash Tree. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about those trees. One of those would have easily survived last night’s storm. Do you suppose they will start building homes out of them? Can you imagine? They would likely withstand tornadoes and hurricanes.”

“Aren’t you worried that there’s something strange about a tree that doesn’t burn easily? It isn’t natural.”

The neighbor looked shocked. “It’s wonderful! And just think how it would help the environment if we stopped having forest fires.”

I rubbed my chin. “But what about when you go camping? You need a camp fire and if all the trees are the new ones, you couldn’t make one.”

At first, the man looked perplexed. Then he said, “Well, I don’t go camping. So, I wouldn’t be worried about building a fire.”

Frustration rose in me despite knowing little about these trees. It irritated me this man couldn’t fathom how such a tree might be harmful. In the past, I rarely thought about the environment. But something Alex said about the balance of wildlife being disrupted alarmed me. “What about burning wood for heat? Or, what about people who enjoy wood burning fireplaces?”

The neighbor started to say something when Mom emerged with drinks. After distributing them, she sat down and took over the conversation. “Oh, those trees aren’t real. That’s a sale’s gimmick. Save your money and get a regular tree.” True to form, she had been eavesdropping.

She turned to me. “Mikey, we need to visit Olsen’s this afternoon. I can’t have the yard looking such a mess.” She waved a scrap of paper.

My amusement disappeared. I gulped down my drink and patted my pocket. It was still there. “They will be so busy today. Tomorrow might be a better day.”

As I stood up, I added, “The library has power and we don’t. I’ll be there for a few hours to do some research” I said. Mom looked hurt, but nodded in agreement.

Before guilt derailed my plans, I went in the house to round up my laptop, cords, a spare flash drive, and case. The sooner I discover what is on the card, the better.