‘John Smith’ in room 31 snapped awake, the ringing in the back of his head clear as day. He rolled out of bed, grabbing for his cell phone, turning it on. The text on the little blue screen was brighter than the faint light leaking in through the front window. It was well before dawn and five voicemail messages were vibrating the phone, trying to get out. He powered it back off.
They’re trying to make contact. He felt the back of his head, but the ringing never changed. They must be nearly here!
He threw on his clothes. Even if he noticed the noise in his head the instant it appeared, he still had only minutes to get clear.
He grabbed his bag, jumped in the car and pulled out of the parking lot. The car scraped bottom as he bounced over the curb in the darkness.
North. I’ve got to get out of range!
The scrape of metal on concrete from the parking lot outside popped Joe’s eyes open. The interrupted dream was still vivid. He was just about to reach the peak and see the valley beyond. Through blurry eyes, he saw the red numbers on the clock. Not even five in the morning! The deep windowsill in the thick adobe wall restricted what he could see, and he wasn’t about to get out of bed for simple road noise. There shouldn’t be any traffic this time of night, not in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He sighed. The perils of living in a motel a few feet from a major road—there was no privacy, and his life was never his own. He turned over and buried his head under the pillow.
Beeeep! Too soon!
Joe resisted the urge to find out why the alarm clock was ringing so early, keeping the pillow tightly wedged against his ears.
A strong hand shook his shoulder. His father’s voice rumbled, “Get breakfast for the guests! It’s your responsibility. You’re already late. That’s the last time I’ll let you stay out past midnight.”
“Alright, already!” He mumbled, low enough so Abel Ferris, his dad, wouldn’t hear. The motel was supposed to be a pleasant place, except for the family that ran it.
And it wasn’t just the Ferris family and the Railroad Motel. Sandeep’s dad, Mr. Patel, had run them out of their place, the Inn of the Valley, a little after midnight.
Game play had turned frantic when an organized raiding party ambushed them at the mountain pass. They’d barely escaped with their avatars intact before Mr. Patel had shut down their Internet access.
Joe slipped off the top bunk and dressed quickly, frowning that Dad had come into his room. Bad enough he still slept in a bunk bed, but as the last of the Ferris kids, he finally had a room of his own, and he cherished this little bit of privacy.
The Ferris family quarters were an efficient set of rooms in the middle of the Railroad Motel. When the structure had been built, in Granddad Ferris’s day, people must have been used to living in tight quarters. Before his brother and two sisters moved out, they’d overflowed into one or two of the guest rooms, depending on the season. When Anna took a job helping with the dorm at the New Mexico Highlands University, Dad had been glad for the excuse to get all the guest rooms back into service.
But as the last Ferris child left at home, Joe was left with the most chores—including unpacking the ‘Free Breakfast’ for the guests. The plate of fruit was looking a little sad. He’d have to eat that banana before it turned totally black, unless one of the more desperate guests claimed it. He opened another box of individually wrapped pastries and placed them next to the microwave, stuffing a couple of them into his pockets.
He ducked into the family’s living room. “Dad, are we still out of milk?”
Abel frowned over his checkbook and a stack of bills. “Anna was supposed to have picked up some yesterday, but she never made it over. Better hide the cereal boxes. We don’t have any regulars except John Smith, and he doesn’t have more than a roll anyway. When your mother wakes up, she’ll take care of the groceries.”
“Have her get fruit.” It would be awhile. Since Mom had taken the late shift last night, she’d be the last one awake. His late night activities didn’t count, of course.
“Okay.” Mr. Ferris sighed and picked up another bill.
He grunted, not looking up from the checkbook.
“If we could put up a ‘Free Highspeed Internet’ sign, we could bring in more guests. You know they are always asking about it.”
Abel shook his head. “You know how much that would cost? Just to let you and Sandeep play your video games?”
“It’s not that.” Not much. “All the other motels in town have it. We’re losing business. And you’re always telling me to go the extra mile for our guests.”
“Not all of ‘em have Internet. The chains can afford it. We’re small fry.”
“And the Santa Fe, and the Las Vegas, and the Inn of the Valley. We’re being left behind.”
Abel held up his stack of bills. “When I can take care of electricity and insurance, then we’ll talk Internet. Joe, we’re limited in the guests we can attract. Maybe it’d be different if we were on Historic Route 66, or could count on something like Roswell’s aliens to bring in tourists. But we can’t.
“Until we can actually pay for improvements, we’ll just have to make do with being friendly and providing personalized service. Now get on with your chores. Anna called in sick. You’ll have to do cleanup by yourself this morning.”
Joe felt his stomach go sour. He hated cleanup. If he were being honest, he hated almost everything about the motel business.
There were two pushcarts, and he raided Anna’s for soaps and shampoos with not a second of guilt. She’d pulled that game of calling in sick far too many times since she’d moved out. He’d like to call in sick, too, but there was still another year of high school before he could dream of living anywhere else. Railroad Motel of Las Vegas, New Mexico was a family business, and everyone was supposed to do their part—but Ben was a stockbroker in New York, and Mary sold houses in Denver, with a family of her own. Just Anna and little brother Joe were left to do the grunt work.
Joe wheeled the cart over to the key box. There were fifteen guests last night, about half occupancy. Only three had dropped off their keys. He looked at the cars remaining, and frowned.
A fresh scrape on the curb marked where someone had left in a hurry. Joe nodded. This morning before dawn, he remembered. Was it a guest?
It didn’t look like a drunk hitting the curb. Someone drove out from the far end. That was where John Smith liked to stay, but his silver Lexus SUV was missing. He glanced at his collection of brass keys, each on a link to brown plastic number tags. 24, 17, and 4. There was no 31. Had Smith checked out? If so, he’d forgotten the key, and Dad really wouldn’t like that!
He wheeled the cart over to the last door. “Housekeeping.” He tapped the door. It moved. Not even latched. “Mr. Smith? Are you here?”
The room looked normal. John Smith was some kind of traveling salesman. He stayed overnight about once a week, and he was the kind of guest the Ferris family loved—quiet, predictable, and friendly. Joe could usually clean his room in no time. Other than changing the bed linen and towels, and replacing the soap and shampoo, there was hardly any thing to do.
This time, the wastebasket was overturned, but there was no mess. Maybe he’d left in a hurry. Joe glanced around; sometimes there was a tip, but not often.
He stripped the bed and collected the used towel. Joe moved by habit. He’d been doing cleanup since he was old enough to ride on his mother’s cart. Most rooms weren’t all that bad.
Of course, that wasn’t something he talked about at school. Mark Andrew was his oldest buddy, in the same classes since first grade, and Joe never mentioned the motel business, unless there was some activity, or an odd guest. Occasionally, they had to call the police when guests brought their family anger on the road. The proper way to clean a bathtub wasn’t something he dared mention.
Maybe that was why he and Sandeep Patel had connected so quickly. The Indian family had taken over the run-down Inn of the Valley last year and fixed it up. Just like him, Sandeep was used by his family for grunt work. They both knew how much soap to put in the washing machine, and what rinse cycle to use.
Joe felt a hard lump in the sheets and pulled out a six inch long black gadget.
What was it? Eight white buttons, three molded slots in one end. A rounded cylinder like a hot-dog. No lettering. Not even a place to change the battery. It was a little heavier than it looked.
He’d seen a lot of strange cell phones. They had a box of lost items in the office. But eight buttons? That didn’t make sense for a phone. A TV remote? More that one guest brought a personal remote. Two buttons for channel up and down, two for the volume, power, mute, and what else? Joe aimed the slots at the old RCA set and pushed the buttons, one at a time. Nothing happened to the TV, but when he looked at the gadget something was different. The buttons were gray. Hadn’t they been white?
Joe sighed, and tossed it in the collection box. Maybe it just wasn’t programmed for that set. When Mr. Smith came back, he’d be sure to ask him what it was.
He turned the air conditioner off and killed the lights, locking the door behind him with his duplicate key.
The smell from room 24 warned him even before he knocked. “Housekeeping!” The door opened to a disaster. When the toilet had overflowed, the guest had just tossed towels and sheets at it, and then left without a word.
Joe practiced shallow breathing and moved in, Lysol and plunger in hand. He hated cleanup!