“Who was that?” Dad walked in just a minute after the FBI men left. Joe was still nervous.
But Dad looked dead tired, the trip must have taken a lot out of him.
“Just men looking for a Kenneth Winston. Heard of him?”
He shook his head.
Abel Ferris settled into one of the reading chairs. “Okay. The doctor seemed to think he’d be okay. They’re keeping him at the hospital for a couple of days.”
“Dad. I’ll take the night shift. You need to sleep.”
Abel thought a moment, and then nodded. “Wake me if there are any problems.”
His dad pulled himself slowly out of the chair. Joe pointed. “Oh, and watch out for the TV cable in the hallway. I’ll have it put back up in the morning.”
The elder Ferris just nodded and went off to bed.
Joe checked the clock and turned the sound back up, just a little. Dad didn’t need anything keeping him awake.
There were two watches, a calculator, a gold-toned wire-rimmed pair of glasses, a kid’s wallet (with Scooby-Do on the outside and three dollars inside), and John Smith’s black tube gadget. These were just the unclaimed items discovered recently. There was a much bigger box in the storage closet with more ancient lost objects. Mom indexed everything and had a list in the desk, but Joe had never seen the older items claimed.
He pressed the gray buttons one at a time, but nothing changed on the set. He held the slots on one end up to the desk lamp, trying to look inside. If there was an LED in there, it should be visible. He stared at the darkness inside as he played the buttons like a clarinet. No red blinking light.
He sighed. TV remotes flashed. So much for that theory.
There was a rumble outside. Motorcycle.
Rapidly, Joe stuffed the gadget inside his pocket, muted the TV, and put on his smile.
It brightened a bit when she walked in.
The girl held her white helmet in one hand and was straightening strands of her long brown hair with the other. She was dressed in motorcycle leathers. The coat was pale blue with white accents. She smelled faintly of engine-oil.
Joe made eye contact. Her eyes were the same shade as her coat, he noticed absently. “Can I help you?”
She held up one finger and set down her helmet. Zip. She opened the coat and whipped a well-used notepad from a breast pocket in the high-collared, floral blouse, and rapidly wrote. The text was clear and precise, practiced block lettering. She held it out to him.
It said: “I need a cheap, non-smoking room. Is number 31 available?” She nodded in that direction.
He wondered how old she was. She was as tall as he was, and held herself rigidly upright, but her face looked young, like the girls at school. She was looking him over too. She probably wondered how young he was. What was a high school-aged girl doing traveling the interstate on her own?
“How many are staying?” he asked, a canned response.
She scribbled: “Just me.”
He felt a pang of envy. To be traveling alone. He put that thought aside.
So, she wasn’t deaf, just mute. Or maybe she could read lips. He hadn’t considered the possibility when he’d spoken. He was never supposed to call attention to a guest’s disabilities. She was just so distractingly beautiful. Her expression was calm and businesslike. He’d give a lot to see a smile.
She cocked her head, waiting for an answer. He shook himself out of his appreciative trance.
“Number 31. Um. Well, yes, that unit is available, but the previous user left with the key, and I haven’t had a chance to change out the lock yet. I have other units that match your needs.”
Her pencil went to paper: “No. That’s okay. I don’t need the lock changed, but I do like the looks of 31. I want a room on the end.”
Joe nodded. If at all possible, accommodate the guest. Getting an end unit was reasonable. It halved your chance of noisy neighbors.
“Oh, no trouble. I’ve got the replacement lock right here. I can have it installed in three minutes.”
He told her the price and gave her the registration card. She paid cash and signed the card: “J Smith”. The ‘J’ was a cursive flourish, but the Smith was lettered.
Joe struggled to keep the grin off his face. Of course, it would be J Smith—that was John Smith’s room, after all. How many J Smiths were there in the world? Certainly enough of them stopped here for the night.
He grabbed the sack and the screwdriver and rushed over to 31. Keeping an eye out for anyone else arriving, he pulled the old lock quickly. She moved her motorcycle over to the slot. By the time he’d inserted and secured the replacement lock, she’d carried her little bag and her helmet inside.
“It’s done.” He handed her the shiny new key. There wasn’t time to hook it onto the plastic tag.
She moved her right hand to her lips and extended the palm toward him with a nod. He knew it was sign language of some kind, but he had no idea what she meant. It looked disturbingly like she’d blown him a kiss. Wishful thinking.
“Ah... Would you like a wake-up call?”
She shook her head, ‘no’, then closed the door.
Joe sighed. Oh, well. He’d have liked any excuse to call her. One problem with this job. So many people, nice people, people who could be good friends—people who vanish the next morning.
“Joe. It’s time to get up now.”
He winced against the light. It was already broad daylight, but he felt like another couple of hours of sleep would be in order.
Joe slid out of bed and changed shirts. He’d just dragged himself up onto the bunk at closing. He put up the spare television when the clock passed midnight and declared the night’s business over. Sometimes guests arrived very late, but it was rare. Dad had a doorbell rigged in his bedroom, just in case.
Breakfast was out. Joe smiled and nodded at the two couples making the best of cold cereal and microwaved pastries. He helped himself to a fresh banana before checking with Dad.
Abel was loading the cleaning carts with fresh laundry.
“Anna will be here by ten to handle the late check-outs, but it’s just you and me for now.”
Joe nodded. “Any news?”
“I called your mother this morning. Jose is starting to growl a bit about the hospital food, so that’s good news.” He didn’t look up from his work.
Joe knew the signs. Dad was always big on eye contact. He was worried about Granddad. They’d known each other since Dad was his age. Jose Gonzalez stayed at the Railroad Motel back when Granddad Todd Ferris ran the place. Mom told stories of how she’d met Dad when she came along on one of Jose’s trips.
Granddad Ferris died three years ago. Heart attack.
Dad pushed a cart his way. “I saw that 31 was registered to John Smith.”
Joe smiled. “Not the same one. And that’s ‘J’ Smith, not John.”
“Well, you take that end. I’ll take the south wing after I clean up the tables.” They pushed their carts up to the check out box, and Dad handed him the higher numbered keys.
Joe quickly saw that the motorcycle was missing. He wished he’d woken up earlier. There’d been no bare key in the box, so he knew she hadn’t checked out yet, but just on the off chance, he knocked on the door.
“Housekeeping.” There was no response. He waited thirty seconds before calling out again.
He used his key, and took a good long look at the state of the room.
“Well, you may share the initial, but you’re not as tidy as John.” Everything was in disarray. The bed had been stripped down to the mattress, with the bedding on the floor. A couple of the drawers were open. It even looked like she’d moved the furniture around a bit. He looked in the bathroom, and it too had been well used.
There was no sign that she’d left any of her things. Had she left without returning the key?
“Dad won’t like that.”
He began tidying up, hoping with each move that he’d find a discarded key.
Anna actually arrived early, for once, and took over Dad’s cart. Joe finished the north side before she was done.
He was drinking coffee and working up a maintenance list. “What is it?”
“Did you find a bare key anywhere?”
Abel looked up with a frown. “No.” He waited.
Joe shook his head.
“I think J Smith, 31, left with her key.”
“Again with 31?” He sighed. “Did you happen to mention that the key should be returned?” It was listed on the checkout instructions in each room, along with the checkout time and how to make long distance calls through the PBX. They didn’t normally make a point of mentioning it to guests. It was pretty obvious.
Joe shook his head. “She was mute. She wrote out everything she wanted to say. And I had to get the lock replaced in a hurry when she insisted on room 31.”
“It’s a shame you couldn’t have waited another day. Oh, well. You know the drill. Try to get the new one replaced earlier in the day this time.”
The locksmith shop was just a couple of blocks from the McDonalds. He’d parked his bike and was ready to walk in, lock in hand, when he saw a couple of motorcycles parked next to the big yellow arches.
Could one of them be hers? He hadn’t paid any attention to the machine last night. He’d ridden a motorcycle before, but he didn’t know the types by sight.
He put the lock back in his pocket. It was worth a look.
He walked over to the restaurant. At this time of the morning, it was still serving the breakfast menu, he knew. Many of the guests preferred the predictable McDonalds fare to Railroad’s cold cereal and he had the directions from the motel on a list. He had directions to most of the restaurants in town memorized.
The smell of sausage and pancakes was tempting as he entered, but his cash was limited and he’d already eaten.
Her blue coat was easy to spot. She had a corner table.
“J Smith.” She didn’t look up immediately, and he wondered if she were deaf, after all.
He tried again. “Hello.” She glanced up, caution in her eyes. “It’s Joe Ferris, from the motel.”
Smile. Eye contact. “I was wondering if you had checked out yet.” He could almost see her putting the pieces together. She hadn’t recognized him. So much for making a first impression.
She nodded, having finally placed him. Beside the trash from a Big Breakfast Deluxe Combo, she had a city street map spread out. She had a pencil in her hand. There were markings. She moved her arm to cover them.
Joe tried to keep the smile. Long practice made it easy, although he was disappointed at her reaction.
“I didn’t mean to bother you, but I couldn’t find your room key this morning.” He gestured down the street, and pulled the lock from his pocket. “I was just about ready to get this re-keyed.”
She brushed the back of her hand against her cheek and started fumbling with her pockets. There were several, each with zippers.
Joe noticed that she’d been marking places along Grand Avenue. Other motels?
He averted his eye from her map when she pulled out a set of keys. It wasn’t polite to be spying on her.
She found the loose key and presented it in triumph.
“Great! This’ll save me a locksmith charge.”
Her fingers brushed her cheek again. That had to be sign language for an apology.
“No problem. We lose keys all the time. That’s why we normally put little tags on them, so they can be easily returned.” It was also advertising, but that was beside the point.
“I see you’ve got a city map. If you’re interested in the historical sites of the city, I’m one of the best guides around. I know where Tom Mix made his movies, and where Doc Holladay stayed. I know the history of the railroads and where the local vigilantes strung up the desperados. I’d be happy to show you around.”
J Smith shook her head. No.
“Free of charge, of course. It’s all part of my job at the Railroad Motel.”
She didn’t smile, but he kept his. He nodded politely, and turned away. Watching him from across the room was Mark Andrew, a big grin on his face. He made a gun with his thumb and index finger and shot himself in the head. Plain enough. He’d just been shot down by the girl.
Joe nodded, keeping his brittle smile in place until he was out of the building. There would be questions about J Smith the next time they met, for sure.