It was a cool morning. Joe wheeled the bicycle through the Roundhouse gate and propped it up against the side of the abandoned office. He sat down on the fat wooden post—the only place to sit unless he felt like hunching down on the gravel.
Anna had arrived early this morning, and for once, his chores were done before the day’s heat moved in. With Dad’s blessing, he grabbed breakfast and headed out for an hour or so. New motel chores would certainly appear faster if he were present. It was a law of nature.
“Conductor!” Joe knew the dog lived around here somewhere. “Conductor! I’ve brought you something to eat.”
He dug into his pocket and pulled out a pastry for the dog, and one for him.
Fingers closed around a hard surface. He pulled out John Smith’s gadget.
How long had that been in his pocket? He put it to his mouth like a little flute and riffled the buttons. He knew what it wasn’t—a TV remote—but not what it was. It might be a musical instrument, possibly.
A brown shape appeared from the back side of the Roundhouse. Joe set the gadget down on the post beside him and opened a pastry.
“Conductor. Come here boy.”
The dog crept closer. Joe set the pastry down on the ground at his feet. From his other pocket, he pulled an apple and bit into the crunchy fruit.
“I’ve had a good day so far, Conductor. I cleaned my rooms in record time and none of them were in bad shape. In fact, in 28, an old retired couple, the Jamesons, just moved out after a three-day stay and they left me a tip. Five dollars!”
Conductor moved cautiously close enough to snatch up the pastry. Joe didn’t move, and kept talking as the dog wolfed it down.
“Do you have any friends, Conductor? Anyone besides me, that is. Sometimes I think they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I need to bring Sandeep over here to meet you. He’s Indian. Not like Apache or Navajo, but from India. From what Granddad Jose says, I’m a little bit American Indian, or Amerind, as they say.
“How about you? Are you part wolf, on your mother’s side, maybe?”
He finished the apple and dropped the core on the ground. Conductor sniffed at it, but didn’t bite.
Joe unwrapped the other pastry. Conductor looked at him.
“Oh, alright. I’ll share.” He broke the sugary confection in two and handed part to the dog. He got his fingers licked. That was a first in this relationship.
“I wonder if you can tell if someone is lying or not? I met these people who called themselves FBI agents. Or rather, I guess just the one guy. The other one didn’t say a thing.”
Joe finished his pastry and stared off at the Roundhouse. “That’s a problem with people. You can’t trust what they say. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they’re just mistaken. You can hate the people trying to trick you, but what about the ones who are just wrong?”
“This tastes bad.”
Joe jerked and looked over his shoulder. There was no one around, except Conductor. And the dog had John Smith’s gadget in his mouth.
“Hey, drop that!”
Conductor ducked his head and dashed away a dozen feet. He growled. “I don’t trust you!”
Joe snatched up the black tube. It was slimy from dog saliva. He rubbed it against his pants leg. Dad would be upset if he knew that a guest’s lost item was being chewed up by a dog.
“Don’t hurt me. I’ll bite.” The dog was growling, but what kept Joe’s mouth sagging open was that he could understand what the dog was saying.
“Okay. Who’s doing this? Sandeep, are you hiding.” Someone had to be pulling a ventriloquist act. Dogs don’t speak English.
Joe took a step, looking around.
Conductor said, “I’m getting out of here.” He bounded away, quickly gone out of sight around the Roundhouse.
Joe waited for a moment, expecting someone to appear, laughing at the joke, but there was no sound other than traffic on the highway.
He cleaned the rest of the gadget. There didn’t appear to be any teeth marks.
But the buttons were white again.
Sandeep was pushing a cleaning cart. Joe pulled up beside him.
“You’ll never guess what just happened.”
“You saw another ghost?”
“No! I just had a dog talk to me, in English. You weren’t trying to pull a trick on me, were you?”
Sandeep didn’t look his way, re-stacking towels in his cart.
“No. It’s the Anglos that pull the tricks. Are you sure it wasn’t a ghost dog?”
Joe was a little taken aback. Sandeep seemed a bit more direct, more cynical, than usual. Normally, he was polite, and he’d never called him an Anglo before.
“Hey, don’t blame me for the ghost story! I didn’t make it up.”
Sandeep looked at him, puzzled. “I didn’t say you did. However, I’ve asked around, and no one seems to know anything about your ghost.”
Joe spread his arms, smiling. “Hey. Ghosts happen. This is the original Las Vegas. It was a pretty violent place. There was the Dodge City Gang, who were supposed to be peacekeepers, but were mostly criminals, and the Society of Vigilance, who were shopkeepers ready to hang any criminal they found. Not to mention the Society of Bandits.
“Hey, this town was even conquered by the US Army, back when the USA went to war with Mexico. Lot of ghosts have been made here over the years.
“Tourists like this stuff! Nothing brings in visitors like historical markers and ghosts.”
Sandeep looked nervous, and Joe suddenly realized he’d made another cultural blunder.
“Hey, Sandeep, there’s nothing to worry about. All this is ancient history. Today, Las Vegas is just a peaceful little town with more old buildings than most places.”
“How long ago was this ancient history?”
“Oh, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“That isn’t old!”
Joe hadn’t even seen his lips move. Maybe Sandeep was a ventriloquist after all.
“For America, Sandeep, this is really ancient history.”
Sandeep laughed. “Joe, a hundred years is like yesterday. The land of my family, Chennai, has been an important place for over 2000 years, and we’ve been conquered by several Indian empires, as well as the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
“When my family left for America, there were terrorist attacks because of Sri Lanka. We don’t want violence.”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t want violence either. I guess maybe it’s interesting because it’s rare. Hey. I’m sorry I brought it up. Maybe I was a little irritated when you said Hindus were more hospitable. Christians have their own scriptures, and one of the most famous stories, the Good Samaritan, is all about hospitality.”
Sandeep looked back at his towels. “I’ve heard of Christian hospitality.” Joe heard it as an insult. It sounded like an echo of what Dad had said.
Joe tried to be fair. “Sandeep, your family’s seen Anglos I’m ashamed of, and I’ve certainly heard of Indians, even in the motel business, who’ve made no pretense of hospitality. No group is perfect.”
Sandeep nodded. “Not everyone studies the Vedas. I did not mean to insult your family.”
Joe grabbed at the apology. Any excuse to avoid deepening the argument.
“No problem. I’ll be a good Christian and you be a good Hindu, and we’ll both be good inn keepers.”
Joe pedaled back home, thinking.
Sandeep seemed different, somehow. For one thing, there’d been no accent problem. Everything he said came right through, even when he used that new term ‘Vedas’. It meant revealed knowledge. Something like inspired scripture.
And Sandeep was very open with his feelings, more so than normal. Joe had tried to be as open, but he had just been reacting in kind.
Maybe they were just getting to know each other better. Usually that meant you got to be either better friends, or better enemies.
Joe looked towards the interstate off-ramp. A black sedan was squealing its tires as it took the loop too fast. It was barely holding the road.
He recognized the car. It was that same rental that the fake FBI men used.
The car cut through the red light and headed in his direction. Joe moved up on the sidewalk, not wanting to be on the road when the crazy driver passed by.
But it slowed as it approached. Joe locked eyes with the driver. He cut sharply over to the curb and the passenger called out, “Hey, Kid! We need to talk to you.”
It was the same guy—‘Agent’ Carl Morris. Joe pedaled faster. The car accelerated to match him. The door opened and the man jumped out.
He was fast. Joe stepped on his pedals, but the man in the black suit clamped a fierce grip on his arm and practically pulled him off the bike.
“I just want to talk to you!”
Joe struggled to break free of the grip. “Help!”
A siren whooped as a State Police car pulled up. Joe could see it was dripping wet. It must have come out of the car wash at the Phillips 66 station.
“Stop right there!” It was Officer Cal Lawrence.
“Cal!” Joe shouted.
Morris released his grip on his arm.
“Joe, are you okay?”
Joe rubbed his arm, where Morris had held him. “Yes.”
“There’s no problem, officer.” Morris held his arms out. “I’m FBI. May I show my ID?”
Cal nodded, but held his gun in plain sight as he pulled out his walkie-talkie and called in.
Motion caught Joe’s eye. He looked at the rear of the nearest shop. A figure in a white motorcycle helmet and blue jacket waved at him urgently.
She gestured, and if it were sign language, it was perfectly clear. “Come over here, idiot! Get away from them.”
He hesitated, but Cal ordered the other man to turn off his car’s engine and took the badge from Morris.
Joe walked slowly to where J Smith was hiding, just a few feet away.
The man in the driver’s seat watched him coldly, but made no move. The girl was obviously hiding from them, or maybe from Cal.
But he wanted to talk to her anyway, didn’t he?
She gestured. “Don’t just stand there like a statue. Come on, get back here, out of sight.” It was amazing. Every gesture was just as if she were speaking. He could even hear a ‘voice’ in his head. It was a nice voice.
She took his arm. He pulled free. “None of that.”
J Smith looked younger in the daylight. She was his age, or pretty close. He was sure of it now.
“You can understand me, can’t you?”
He nodded. “Yeah. It’s amazing. And I don’t even understand sign language.”
“You have my talkie. Give it to me.”
Talkie. It had to be John Smith’s gadget. What had he stumbled into?
“It’s not yours, stupid.”
“I know, and it goes back to the John Smith who lost it, not to you. That’s why you wanted room 31, wasn’t it?”
She peeked around the edge of the building.
“There’s no time to argue. You have no idea what’s going on. They’re after the talkie, too. The local police won’t be able to keep them long.”
Joe looked as well. Cal Lawrence seemed to be holding his own. “I don’t think they’re real FBI.”
“Of course they’re not. But it doesn’t matter. The badges are real. I’ve got to get far away before the police let them go. They can track the talkie.”
Joe followed her wildly gesturing hands and believed every word she ‘said’. It was just a few minutes ago that the talkie’s buttons had gone from gray to white. He’d managed to accidentally activate it. That’s when the weird things started to happen. Dogs talked, Sandeep let his feelings show, and he could listen to sign language.
And probably that’s when they started tracking the talkie and raced to pick him up.
It was all too easy to believe.
“How far can they track it?”
She reached out her hand. “Just give it to me. I’ll get it out of range.”
Joe shook his head. “Nothing’s changed. I can’t give it to you. What buttons do you press to turn it off?”
She looked exasperated. “Keep out of things you know nothing about!” She sighed. “They know who you are, and I can’t let them see me. Just get on. We have to move, now.” She straddled the motorcycle. “We need a ten mile head-start.”