Joe adjusted the air-conditioner in the office. Dad always had it too warm, and Mom always had it too cold. He was in charge now. He would set it like he wanted it.
There was a map of the USA on the wall in the office, next to the breakfast nook, where the guests could plan out their next day’s drive. It was easy to locate Las Vegas. In spite of the pin marking the spot, hundreds of fingers had left their marks, making that area of the map darker than the rest. They had to change the map every couple of years, just to keep it looking fresh.
Two hours to Albuquerque. Four hours round trip, plus time to find the hospital and get Mom settled in. She’d be there for days, maybe weeks. Dad wouldn’t be back until well past dark, even if things went smoothly.
I’d better get comfortable.
The office was pleasant, just a desk nook and filing cabinets in the common room. At one end were tables and chairs for the breakfast crowd, with a couch and a couple of reading chairs next to the stack of magazines—mostly New Mexico tourist features. The walls were decorated with photos and local artist paintings in Southwest and Rockies themes. Mom was always finding something new to put up, and the old stuff was given away or trashed—one extravagance Dad could never stop. Next to the desk were the plaques—Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, and a Disaster Relief letter of thank you for housing people displaced by a flood. On the wall behind the desk, partly draped with the fronds of an ivy plant, were autographed photos—traveling musicians who’d stayed at the Railroad over the years. Joe didn’t know any of them.
The phone rang.
“Railroad Motel. How can I help you?”
“Joe! Where are you? I’ve been waiting here for thirty minutes.”
Joe sat down in the office chair. Mark Andrew had invited him to play basketball over at the school’s courtyards. He’d agreed, thinking he’d be done with the morning chores.
“Sorry, Mark. Something came up.”
“Yeah, that’s what you always say. They’re forming the teams on Wednesday. Are you in or not?”
Summer basketball competition, with three-man teams, had been appealing. But with the uncertainty of Granddad’s health, he knew there’d be no way to make it work.
He sighed. “My parents had to go to Albuquerque. Granddad’s sick. I’m stuck.”
“I guess I’ll call Cole then. He’s still interested.”
“Let me know when the next session starts up.”
It was quiet, and boring. There was no television set in the common room. Dad considered them a necessary evil in the units, but he wouldn’t put up with the noise boxes where people came to eat. Joe looked at the paperwork on the desk, but there was little of it he could do.
There’s the spare TV. It was sitting in the living room closet. TV problems never happened during business hours when they could call a repairman. This one was swapped in when one of the guest room sets had a problem.
Surely, Dad wouldn’t mind if he used it—as long as it didn’t interfere with his work.
The set was heavy, but he’d carried them before. He moved it into the office quickly, setting it on the floor, out of sight of any arriving guests. He’d mute it when people arrived.
The cable connection had to stretch from the wiring closet, but since there wasn’t anyone else at home to trip over the thick black cable, it would be fine.
In less than thirty minutes, he had HBO showing some mindless movie about kids taking control from their parents and locking them up in the cellar. He tilted his chair back on the rear two legs and prepared for a long, boring evening.
Guests started arriving, slowly, after five. Joe knew the script by heart. Even when the parking lot was empty and the ‘Vacancy’ sign was lit, many would ask if there was a room available. He smiled, made eye contact and asked about how many people would be staying, and what their requirements were.
He chose appropriate rooms—smoking vs. non-smoking, size and number of beds. As much as possible, he liked to spread the guests out, for their privacy, with empty rooms between them. He also liked to reserve a couple of rooms for regulars, in case a familiar face showed up.
“No Internet?” asked an intense man who showed up about sunset.
“Only dial-up. I have a list of AOL and other popular numbers in this area code.” It was plain the man was having second thoughts.
Joe didn’t wait to be turned down. “If it’s important, I can show you the other places in town.” He pulled out a plastic laminated street map with the other motels marked. “The Inn of the Valley is newly renovated and has wireless.” He went down the list. It was Dad’s policy to help guests, even if they needed to stay elsewhere.
“Check with us next time.” The man nodded as he left. One lost booking, but maybe he’d remember the Railroad in the future.
“Okay, Joe. Here’s your groceries.” Anna plopped the paper sack on the desk. “I had to beg money from Pamela, so I need $39.20, right now.”
His sister had cropped her hair short and streaked it blonde since she’d moved out. But her irritating voice was just the same.
“Okay, put the bag in the kitchen and I’ll raid the till.”
She shrugged and carried it off. He scraped up the money, trying to get exact change.
“Hey, what’s this cable? I almost tripped. Does Dad know you’ve put a TV in here?”
Joe ignored her. “Here’s $39.25. You get a nickel profit.”
“I ought to charge you for gas money!”
“I need a remote.” The TV was more trouble than he’d anticipated. Diving to the floor to mute the sound every time a guest drove up was annoying.
The spare TV had no remote to go with it. Remotes sometimes walked off with the guests, so its spare was sacrificed long ago to make some other RCA set complete. About half of the rooms had newer Sony sets. They’d soon need to go buy a couple of more universal remotes from Wal-Mart. The problem with universals was that they vanished even faster than the original matching remotes.
Was there anything in the lost and found box? He remembered that funny one John Smith had left. Maybe he should dig that one out and try it.
A black sedan drove up under the canopy. Joe reached down to mute the TV. He popped up, smile in place, waiting for them to come in.
But something felt wrong. There were two men in black suits, talking to each other. Joe noticed the rental car sticker on the rear window. Strange. Businessmen usually had shirts or coats hanging in the rear seat, but they had nothing. Perhaps their luggage was in the trunk.
Both got out, another alarm bell rang in his head. Usually one person checks into the room, while the other waits in the car.
Joe held his smile. He was just being nervous, holding down the fort alone.
Eye contact. The first man nodded. Older than his father, he moved with confidence. The other one, close-cropped hair, younger by a decade or so, had muscles that said former football player or maybe a marine.
“Can I help you?”
“We’re not looking for a room.” Somehow, Joe wasn’t surprised. “We’re searching for a man who came through here recently. Kenneth Winston. Do you know him?”
Joe shook his head. “The name doesn’t ring a bell. No one with that name’s checked in tonight.”
“Perhaps last night. Please check your records.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order.
Joe hesitated. This wasn’t something he should do. Dad said to protect guests’ privacy.
Still, they looked serious, like police. “Just a moment.” Joe picked up the card-file with last night’s registration forms. It wouldn’t hurt to look.
“No. No one by that name. Nothing even close.” It was a relief. He didn’t know what to do if there had been a Kenneth Winston.
They exchanged a look. Not the information they were expecting.
“We need to take a look around.”
“No.” Joe spoke before he thought about it, but it was the right thing to say. “That’s against company policy. We can’t have the guests disturbed.”
As the spokesman reached into his pocket he said, “I’m afraid we must insist.” He pulled out a leather wallet and flipped it open. Joe stared at the FBI badge. The photo proclaimed that this was Special Agent Carl Morris, with FBI in large blue letters. The metal shield and eagle next to the card looked impressively official.
But it didn’t feel right. Why hadn’t they identified themselves first?
The words were reluctant to come out. “Ah ... no.” Joe shook his head. He had to force his eyes up to stare at the agents. “I’d be in serious trouble if I let you do that. I’d need a search warrant or something. Or you could wait until the manager gets back?”
Morris frowned. “When will he return?”
“I don’t know. Or ... you could get the State Police to tell me it’s okay.” Joe reached for the Rolodex. “I’ve got Cal Lawrence’s phone number in here.”
The man with the badge seemed to consider it, and then shook his head. He flipped his badge closed and stuffed it in his pocket. “We have other places to check. Perhaps your manager will be back after we’re done.”
And with a shake of his head, they left. Joe tried to get the license tag number, but it was never at the right angle. He scribbled down the name of the car-rental company. His handwriting was shaky.
What was that all about? I hope Dad gets back soon.