On the Road
The white speedometer needle hovered close to the 100 miles per hour mark as he glanced back in the rear-view mirror. The black van was several miles back, barely a speck on Interstate 25’s concrete ribbon, but it was still gaining. Kenneth Winston, ‘John Smith’, shook his head. I knew that was too good to be true.
As he sped out of town, he’d gotten good speed with the Lexus hybrid. But that van! He shook his head. If it was the Trust vehicle he suspected, it had a monster V-8. It could keep up a higher speed cruise until it caught up with him.
I’d been so sure that I’d lost them. Interstate 25 dipped lower as they rode the ups and downs of the foothills. The Lexus gained a few more ticks on the meter as the van dropped out of sight behind the horizon.
The radar detector was quiet. Kenneth scanned the sky. He couldn’t risk being stopped by the New Mexico State Police either. The white foam chest strapped on top of the fold-down rear seats with bungee cords was too important. Outsiders wouldn’t understand, and it was nothing he could explain.
Rocky Mountains stretched like a blue wall in front of him. White clouds were creeping through the gaps. Was there any moisture in them?
He had to go north. He had to deliver the cargo as soon as possible. The map display on the center dash console showed the harsh truth about his chances. Practically all side roads were missing. There were few passes through the mountains, and as he headed north to Raton, his options were being reduced. The van would catch him, and if there wasn’t a Trust airplane in the sky looking for him yet, there soon would be. How did they realize that he’d exceeded his orders so quickly?
He’d gone to bed playing with the talkie, never thinking it would wake him up.
It’s my job to take care of the Guests. I did the right thing! But if the Trust had sent a crew to track him down, then he’d been stupid or careless. Maybe it wasn’t his job to second-guess his control. Maybe he should just follow orders.
But Sam One was hurting. The orders for the exchange should have come a month ago. Exchanges were supposed to happen like clockwork. It was criminal to leave Sam in pain like that.
A dot in the sky caught his eye, but it was just a commercial jet, not one of the Trust’s twin engine Cessna business planes.
Kenneth shook his head, trying to get himself centered. I knew what I was getting into when I took this job. Don’t whine.
If you work for a secret organization, if you live your life day in and day out under a false name and take orders from a nameless voice on the phone, then you have to live under different rules. He was a second-generation courier for the Trust. When Jake Winston, the original ‘John Smith’ had retired with a bad heart, he was already apprenticed, trained and committed. The Trust was responsible for the Guests, and he took his father’s job in an instant. He’d never regretted it.
But if I were in charge of the Trust, I’d change a few things.
A road sign appeared on the right:
STATE HIGHWAY 58
STATE HIGHWAY 58
Kenneth tapped the navigator console and checked. He nodded. Perfect. Another sign appeared:
This was his last chance for an alternate route through the mountains. He took the exit and headed west.
He couldn’t tell if the van had seen his move, but even if they tried to follow, his Lexus would have the advantage. The route through Cimarron Valley and over the mountains to Taos consisted of narrow two-lane roads with many sharp curves. His Lexus could maneuver much easier than the full-sized van.
Were they still back there? He listened for the ringing in his head, but there was no sign of it.
This morning before dawn, the talkie had woken him up. When one talkie was within ten miles of another, the users could feel the presence of the other. It was like a high-pitched ringing in the ears, something you could tune out, but it was always there.
No one but the Trust had talkies. His guilty conscience had him out of bed and out the door as fast as he could throw on clothes when the ringing had started. He lost the sense almost as soon as he’d started down the road.
I thought I’d just outrun them, but that van’s been well within range for miles now. Why can’t I sense them? Have they turned off their talkie?
Have I accidentally turned off mine?
He fished in his pocket, searching for the little black tube with buttons.
Wallet. Cell phone. Loose change. Charging cable for his phone. His tension increased by the second.
No talkie. Did I lose it? That was unthinkably bad. Part of him wanted to turn around right there and go back to the motel and look for it.
He could argue bending his orders to help Sam One. He could never defend losing a talkie.
I’m heading out of cell phone range. Every mile that separated him from the I-25 corridor put him farther from a cell tower. He was well aware of every cell-phone dead zone in all of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. He’d traveled his route far too many times to count, and being in cell phone range was part of his job.
Leaving it turned off gave the Trust a perfect reason to fire him, but once he took Sam One’s job, he knew he’d never be able to disobey a direct order to turn back. Trust training was deep and after all these years had conditioned him well.
The protocols of the Trust were specific. Maybe he’d exceeded his orders, but even if that was a Trust van chasing him, unless his control called him and told him to stop, he was duty bound to avoid capture.
He was a little surprised he could even bend the rules that much.
But the missing talkie forced his hand. He had to get someone to go retrieve it.
He had no number for his control, but there was one thing he could do. He just hoped she was up to it.
He pressed the #2 speed dial on his phone. It rang twice.
“Leave a message. Beep.”
From long habit, he composed his message. The Trust didn’t believe in encrypted phones. The official stance was that using encryption encouraged sloppy thinking. “Everything you say is being recorded by persons unknown, any encryption can be broken, so don’t rely on it. Just say nothing suspicious.”
Judith was listening to mishmash of songs on her computer. She’d organized one playlist by her private ratings, another playlist to highlight songs she hadn’t played in a long time, and still another exclusively of classical orchestral pieces—and then shuffled them together randomly.
She hadn’t gotten out of bed yet, reading an old novel, relaxing in a house all her own. Daddy was out of town, and Katie wasn’t due to check up on her until mid-afternoon.
It was nice to be trusted enough to take care of herself, even if it was just for a few hours. If she were old enough to drive, certainly she was mature enough to brush her own teeth without the housekeeper having to hold her hand. She wasn’t broken. Her hand unconsciously touched the scar on her throat.
The phone rang. She put aside the book and listened.
“Honey.” It was Daddy. She jumped out of bed, hoping to reach the phone before he hung up.
“I just wanted to remind you to get my tuxedo from the cleaners. I’ve had to head on down the road early. Just 31 miles past Las Vegas. See you soon. Love ...”
He was cut off. There was a bang, as if the phone had struck the window, a yelp, and three long seconds of chaotic noise.
Another click, as the call went dead.
Frantically, she tapped her forehead with the thumb of her open right hand as she found the phone. Her long brown hair tangled in her fingers.
Daddy! What’s wrong? Was that a crash?
Where’s the spoon?
She found a pen. Good enough, anything that would make a clicking noise.
Hastily dialing his secret number with her left hand, she held the pen unsteadily in her right, ready to tap out her questions.
But the phone never rang. It went immediately to the voicemail. It only did that when the phone was out of battery, or turned off.
Daddy! What’s happened?
It’d happened too fast to remember, but every time he tried to move, he was immobilized by the pain. He tried to pull his shattered thoughts together.
Obscured by the uneven rolling terrain, the road dipped and turned. The ice chest had shifted, straining against the bungee cords. He’d unsnapped the seatbelt to check it, trying to keep his mind on the phone message.
But there’d been a creek. He hadn’t seen it coming. The Lexus had dropped out from under him, and sailed off the roadway, through the cottonwoods and into the tall stand of reeds. Air bags slammed him, unprotected and out of position, and dropped him hard across the center console.
Something is broken. He tried to move again. No luck. His leg was entangled in something, and his head rang, and not from the talkie. He could barely think and barely breathe. He was trapped.
It was several minutes before an old rusty pickup truck made the Ponil Creek crossing, but by then, the reeds had begun to recover from their trauma, bending again upright, hiding the Lexus out of sight of the traffic. Inside, the air was clearing from the airbag explosions.
The only thought that he could put together was that, indeed, the bungee cords had held the cargo secure.
Judith opened the garage door. Resting on sheets of cardboard to protect the concrete floor from any possible oil leak was her motorcycle.
Daddy had bought it for her birthday. “I have to find some way to get you out of the house.” He laughed, like it was a joke, but she knew it wasn’t really.
When you can’t talk to people, it’s an uncomfortable, scary world out there.
But Daddy’s in trouble. That had to be a car crash. And he had asked for her help, in code words.
He called me ‘Honey’. That meant it was Trust business. She couldn’t ask Katie Stokes for help in this. She was a housekeeper, babysitter, and good friend, but she wasn’t in the Trust. Anything having to do with Daddy’s business was totally off limits with her.
Get the ‘tuxedo’. That had to mean get the talkie. She didn’t even know he was transporting a talkie this trip. She would have insisted on going along.
From the ‘cleaners’. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Why didn’t I memorize that list of code words when he told me to?
Hands on the bike, she walked it out of the garage. The gas gauge read nearly full. In spite of Daddy’s urgings, she’d only ridden it a few times around town. School, shopping, even the library—all had been too intimidating. What if it’d been stolen? What if people looked at her? She felt too conspicuous as it was.
I’ll need to pack something. Las Vegas is hours away. I may have to stay at a motel.
Motel! ‘Cleaners’ means a stopover point. And ‘31’ is probably a room number.
A change of clothes fit into the compartment below the seat. Her leathers were hanging neatly in the closet. Daddy had insisted on protective motorcycle gear. She’d had fun picking them out from the on-line specialty shop, but she’d hardly used them.
She left a note for Katie and left it on the kitchen table. I hope it’s good enough. Daddy’s taken me on his trips before. I’d hate for her to call the police when she finds me missing.
But when she walked out and locked the door behind her, her legs froze up. She just stood there facing the motorcycle, her helmet in her hands. Las Vegas was far to the north. What if she had motor trouble? What if she couldn’t find him?
But Daddy’s counting on me—and he’s in trouble.
She twisted her hair up into a bun and pulled the helmet on. The motorcycle roared to life.