“The Power of 3”
By Kellyanne Lynch
22 April 2003, 12:30 PM – 29 December 2003, 11:30 AM
8 – Three Missing
“Park!” The voice grumbled through the driver’s open-road dreamscape. “Off your duff! ‘s time for morning practice!” Pain pelted his lower spine. Steve hissed. Squinting, his sights caught the culprit foot of Tony Eury Sr. He scrunched his nose.
“Yeah, I’m up.”
Steve unfolded his arms from the corner of his dark green sleeping bag. Exhaling heavily, he murmured, “Harley, boy, how come you didn’t warn me about that?” He extended his right hand and patted the floor beside himself. His brows furrowed. “Harley?”
Steve opened his eyes. His sights hit the white wall. Rolling over, Steve scanned the hills of bodies and valleys of empty sleeping bags. “Harley!” he called.
“Keep it down!” a voice hissed. “People are trying to sleep!”
Grimacing, Steve whispered, “Sorry!” His vision washed over every item and every being in the media centre, and found Teresa. Clad in a navy suit, she was nursing a cup of coffee by a window across the room. Steve got to his feet.
Stepping over sleeping bodies, he approached his car owner. He stood beside her. Following her gaze, he looked out the window and onto the track. Fresh morning sunshine sparkled through awakening clouds, and glistened across the New Hampshire track. Steve’s heart picked up the pace; it was time to race.
A leaden sigh brought him back to his car owner. Staring at her tired, puffy eyes, his heart sank. He watched her take a sip of her coffee, and cleared his throat. Lowering her cup, Teresa turned to the driver with pursed lips.
“How you doing?” he breathed. He put an arm over her shoulder. Teresa shrugged it off.
“I’m doing fine,” Teresa replied, looking Steve in the eye. “Are you ready for practice and qualifying?”
Steve took a step back. Furrowing his brow, he nodded.
The car owner checked her watch. “Then you should head down to the paddocks,” she stated. She turned back to the window.
Steve’s mouth hung open. Scrunching his nose, he scratched his forehead. “Any…” Steve swallowed hard. “Any news since last night?”
“No. I expect you’ll help your crew work out that wiggle you’re having in the turns.”
“Yeah...” Steve wagged his head. “Teresa…”
Closing her eyes, the car owner held up her hand. “Steve, let’s not discuss anything else. Let’s just focus on racing for now. We need to get in a good, strong qualifying run. You’re low on provisionals, and I’d like to keep from dipping into those.” She opened her eyes, and looked into Steve’s. “There’s nothing we can do to help them right now anyway.” She shook her head.
“Well, all right.” Steve drew his hands to his waist, and glanced around the room. “Listen, have you seen my dog lately?”
“Not today.” Teresa took another sip of her coffee. “People have been in and out of this building though. Maybe Harley ran outside with one of them.”
“Yeah, that could be.”
Steve changed into a pair of jeans and a white, long-sleeved Simpson uniform undershirt. He straightened the bottom hem of his top as he passed through the doors of the media centre. Crisp, New England air stung his flesh, and he shivered. Glancing around, he spotted security guards speckling the entire facility.
As the door behind him was shutting, a voice cried, “Steve?”
He caught the knob before it slid into place. Holding it back, he allowed Teresa to pass. She rested a hand against the edge.
“Steve,” she whispered. “One last thing. I spoke with Mike Helton this morning, and he has asked us not to tell people about… the disappearances. He said that spreading the word would only give these kidnappers what they want, and that running business as usual won’t raise suspicions. As it is, the beefed-up security has got the media…”
Her eyes narrowed upon Robby Gordon’s jackman as he crossed in front of them. The jackman raised an eyebrow to the car owner before facing forward and jogging toward the paddocks.
“I think he’s concerned about insiders, for the most part,” Teresa continued when the jackman faded from sight. “The more we discuss what we’ve been thinking about since yesterday’s meeting, the more we believe it has to be someone on the inside. Don’t even discuss anything within DEI, or at all for that matter. You never know to who or where they might spread the news.”
“I won’t say anything,” Steve promised.
Teresa nodded. Turning from the driver, she paced toward a security guard.
Steve watched after her. Heaving a sigh, he held his hands to either side of his face. “Harley!” he called across the lot. “Come ‘ere, boy!”
“Can’t find your dog?”
Steve turned on his heels. Through black wrap shades, Matt Kenseth looked at him over the rim of a can of Coke. A drop of the soda trickled down the front of the Winston Cup points leader’s yellow DeWalt fire suit. Kenseth wiped his lips with the tips of his fingers.
“Yeah,” Steve replied. “Have you seen him?”
“No, sorry,” Kenseth grimaced, and leaned against the railing of the stairs up to the media centre. Flicking the pull-tab on his Coke can, he mumbled, “It’s kind of unnerving having all these security guards everywhere, isn’t it.”
A corner of Steve’s lips curved. “I think the idea is to make you feel safer.”
Kenseth shrugged. Raising his head, he made eye contact with the other driver. “Have you seen Junior this morning?”
“Uh…” Steve winced. “Well, DEI slept in the media centre…”
Heaving a sigh, Kenseth smiled. “Well, that’s a relief!” He scanned his surroundings. Leaning closer to Steve, he whispered, “Police are swarming his motor coach right now. It looks like someone tried to break in or something, and it’s good to know that Junior wasn’t there when it happened.” Kenseth straightened, a thin smile spanning his jaw.
Steve forced up the left side of his lips.
Kenseth clasped the other’s shoulder. “I know Helton asked us not to talk about any of this,” he breathed, glancing left to right, “but I’m glad we bumped into each other this morning. I feel so much better! Thanks, Steve!”
Gritting his teeth, the Pennzoil driver swallowed hard. “Well, we, uh… we’d better get to practice.”
“Yeah, I know,” Kenseth grinned. “Hey, good luck today, man!”
“Thanks. You, too.” Steve watched the DeWalt driver saunter toward the paddocks. Heaving a sigh, he furrowed his brow. His sights washed the grounds that lay before the media centre, and those that stretched toward the paddocks. “Harley!” he called. Pursing his lips, he wagged his head. Steve paced toward his garage.
Revving and clanging erupted throughout the compound. Steve watched as three crew members for the #48 team hovered around Chad Knaus. Shaking his head and pointing at the deck lid of the Lowe’s Chevrolet, Chad barked orders to the men. One raised a wedge adjuster and approached the vehicle. Steve looked to the #1 Pennzoil Chevy, and found a pair of yellow legs jutting out from beneath it.
His crew chief, Tony Gibson, tossed him his fire suit.
“Get ready!” Gibson smirked. “Practice begins in just a few minutes, and we’re good to go!”
Steve slung the uniform over his right forearm. “So the car ain’t loose anymore?”
“It shouldn’t be. I think we’ve got the tow where it should be now, but we’ll have to give it a go.”
Leaning against the nose of his Pennzoil Chevy, Steve stepped his left foot into the leg of his bright yellow fire suit. He pulled on the second leg next. As Steve zipped his uniform, he glanced into the next garage. Members of the #15 team dropped the hood of their NAPA Chevy, and stepped back with smiles. Crew chief Slugger Labbe stood by the driver’s side window, perusing his clipboard and gnawing at the back of his Bic pen. Nodding to his crew, Slugger gave them a weak smile.
“Mike!” he called toward the back of the garage. “We’re all set to go!”
Steve’s eyes widened as a tall, thin figure strode across the garage, clad in a dark blue NAPA fire suit and helmet.
“Michael!” Steve exclaimed.
“Damn it!” a Pennzoil mechanic exclaimed, picking up his wrench and glaring at Steve. The racer scrambled for the #15 garage.
“Mike!” Steve ran to the other’s side. “Wh-what…”
Slugger planted his hand into the Pennzoil driver’s chest. “Steve, can you hold off talking with him until later?”
Slugger locked sights with Steve. Narrowing his eyes, the crew chief spoke through clenched teeth. “Later.”
Steve stood slack-jawed as the NAPA Chevy driver slid through the window of the hot rod. The #15 fired up, and its crew stepped back as the car eased out of its garage.
Drawing nearer to Steve’s side, Slugger eyed his team. “That wasn’t Michael,” he mumbled.
Steve’s face crumpled. Sighing, he bit his lower lip. “So he’s still missing.”
The crew chief nodded. “But my team doesn’t know that.” He murmured, shaking his head. “Helton asked me not to tell them. I’ve asked Andy Santerre to fill in for practice and qualifying. He and Mike are just about the same height and build, and Busch North doesn’t have their race until tonight. Andy’s a great driver, too. We’ll get the car all ready for Michael for when he gets back…”
Clearing his throat, Slugger bowed to his clipboard. He wandered toward the NAPA pit box.
“Steve!” Gibson called from the Pennzoil garage. “It’s show time!”
Nodding, Steve strode toward his car. He slipped through the driver’s side window of the #1 car, and settled into his seat. He pulled his HANS device over his head, and while clasping shut restraints, he gazed into the #15 garage. Slugger was sitting on the floor, his back against the NAPA pit box. The crew chief set his clipboard at his side, and sunk his head into his hands. Steve’s chest tightened.
The Pennzoil team pushed their Chevy out of the garage. Within the car, Steve pulled on his helmet. The driver’s eyes blurred as he looked out the windshield. Clenching them shut, he sniffled and cleared his throat. Steve reached for the dashboard, his fingers hovering over its switches.
“Start ‘er up!” His crew chief hollered, and Steve fired up his engine. As the driver glided out of the garage area, one thought dominated his brain. He did not want to be here. For the first time in the 35-year old driver’s life, he did not want to be inside a stock car. Steve’s mind drifted to his motor coach, to a spot on the bed, away from the people who asked him questions he couldn’t answer, and away from wondering whom he could and could not trust. He just wanted to curl up with his dog and wait for everything to return to normal.
Steve furrowed his brow. Where was Harley this morning anyway?
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