Joe yelled into the wind. “We’ll never get that far ahead of them.” He had his arms around her waist.
“Yes, we will.” Her gestures were more like finger wiggles, as she held onto the handlebars. That couldn’t be real sign language. Maybe the intent to talk was enough.
She roared along First Street. “It’s not like radar. They can’t tell direction, just that we’re within ten miles.”
“That’s lame.” He hadn’t said that loud, not really for her ears, but she heard it anyway.
“You don’t understand, Motel Boy. All they’ve got is another talkie. We’ve got what they’ve got. Can’t you sense them? It’s like a ringing in the back of your head.”
Now that she mentioned it, he could hear it. It was a thin noise, and it did seem to come from the inside of his head, not from any specific direction.
“Turn left on Mills.”
“Why?” But she did it.
“They’ll expect you to take the interstate, won’t they? I know the mountain roads. I’ll get us ten miles away, where they’ll never think to look.”He could read fear in her shoulders. They headed up Hot Springs, following the Highway 65 markers.
“How does this talkie thing work? Who invented it?”
She shook her head. “Don’t ask!” Then she added, “I don’t know. It belongs to my father.”
Whether it was machine telepathy or some kind of remote electrical stimulation, he was amazed. It was still in his pants pocket, and yet it was, somehow, picking up her gestures, translating them into English, and fooling his brain into believing he was hearing it all.
“I heard a dog talk with this! That’s amazing.”
She didn’t react to that revelation. Did that mean it was old news to her, or was she deliberately trying to minimize what she told him?
The road was winding into the mountains. She slowed a bit as the huge building appeared around the bend. Onion-shaped dome-spires drew the eye. “What’s that?”
Joe whispered, “Montezuma Castle. I told you I was a good tour guide. It’s a school now, the United World College. Originally a hotel, back in the peak of the railroad era.”
She sped back up, and he stopped talking. It was plain she wasn’t interested in being a tourist.
“Where are we going, Mr. Tour Guide?”
“There’s a campground up in the mountains that I’m familiar with. They’ll never find us.”
She looked up, as their route took them through a forested gorge. “This is pretty. Where I’m from, there are no trees, and the nearest mountain is just a blue shape many miles off to the west.”
Joe had a very strong impression she would have liked to have kept that information to herself.
A few more miles down the road, Joe pointed. “Take the right branch.”
As the gravel road narrowed, heading up the Porvenir Canyon, Joe suddenly noticed the ringing in his head drop away. She must have felt it too, as she left off the gas and slowed their frantic pace.
“We’re out of range. How much farther is this campground of yours?”
Joe had been here a few times. He pointed to a trailhead parking lot and she pulled in. “This is the way to Hermit’s Peak. If you don’t mind hiking a few miles uphill, it’s a nice place.”
“Please, no! A hike is the last thing I need. All I want is a place to catch my breath.”
Joe nodded. “There’s a real campground just across the creek, with a bathroom if you need it.”
“In a bit.”
“You don’t think they’ll find us now?”
She shook her head. “This morning, I was following them, a mile or so back, when you must have turned the talkie on. They’d given up searching the town and were heading north on the interstate. Suddenly, they slowed, crossed the median and headed back. I had to follow, and they must have been watching the odometer, because they pulled off in a hurry and found you pretty quickly.” She shivered. “I’m just lucky they didn’t notice me.”
Joe sat down on the large wooden beam, a squared off telephone pole mounted on stone pillars like a hitching post for horses. It marked the edge of the parking lot. “What are you going to do now?”
She shrugged. “Wait until they move out of range. I still have to find my Daddy.” She was using both hands again. Joe could almost imagine that he understood her sign language, although he knew it had to be the talkie.
“How did you find me? I’d accidentally turned it off the first day, I think.”
She smiled, and it was the first time. “Just good old fashioned detective work. Dad called with a coded message, telling me that he was in trouble and to go to room 31 in the motel to look for the talkie. He didn’t say which motel, but he’d mentioned the Railroad in the past.” She shook her head. “When I didn’t find it that first night, I tried checking the other motels, but then, I saw them, doing the same thing.”
“Who are they? They’re not FBI, you said so yourself.”
She said nothing. Unzipping her blue leather coat, she set it next to her helmet. She took a deep breath.
“I love the pines.”
“Trees and mountains.” He remembered.
“J Smith. What’s the J stand for?”
“Judith.” Again, he saw her tense, angry that she’d let information slip. She wrinkled her nose, and somehow it reminded him of Kelly LeMay in school.
“You’re my age, aren’t you? Sixteen?”
Judith made a finger gesture like a snapping turtle, and shook her head no, but the voice he heard said, “Yes.”
He chuckled. “This talkie makes it hard to lie, doesn’t it?”
From the saddlebag of her bike, she pulled out a white paper bag.
“We need to wait here for awhile, until they assume we’ve really left the area. I bought these a couple of hours ago when I thought I’d be on the road all day. Are you hungry?”
Cold cheeseburgers looked surprisingly tasty. Joe took one and bit in.
“What’s your plan?”
She unwrapped her burger, and wiggled her fingers. “I’m worried about my father, ‘John Smith’. When he called on the phone, I could tell he was in trouble, maybe a car accident. I missed the call, but just by a minute. I tried to call back, but the phone was out of range or something. He should have tried to contact me by now.”
“Does the talkie work over the phone?”
“No. We have a tap code.”
Joe nodded. That made sense.
“I’d hoped to find him in town, or at least nearby, but I’m running out of ideas. Did he say anything to you when he left?”
Joe shook his head. “He left town early. He didn’t talk to anyone. He didn’t even leave his room key, and he’d never forgotten that before. I think he was in a hurry. He jumped the curb on the way out.”
“When was that?”
Joe tried to remember. “A little before five in the morning.”
Judith sat balanced on the beam, her arms around her knees, the remains of her burger in one hand. She stared at nothing.
“The call came in about two hours after that. He would have headed out of town, probably going north. I guess my next step will be to search farther up the road.”
“Can you call the police? If he had an accident, they would know.”
She wrinkled her nose at the idea. “No, stupid. The police have to be kept out of it.”
“I don’t get it. You don’t want the police. ‘Agent’ Morris doesn’t want the police. What kind of game are you playing?”
Her face went a little pale. “Did you say ‘Morris’?”
He nodded. “The FBI badge said Carl Morris.”
She put her feet back down on the ground and set aside the remnants of her burger. “It’s worse than I thought. I’ll need to get moving.”
“We can’t go yet. They might not even be clear of the State Police.”
“It’s Daddy. He might be hurt. I can’t just wait here.” She hesitated and asked, “Where is the bathroom?”
He pointed to the trail. “Just follow the trail until you reach the road and turn right. It’s just a little campground.”
She walked off, toward the creek. Joe sighed. It was too dangerous to think much about how sexy she looked, not with the talkie in his pocket. From the easy way she spouted insults, he suspected she wasn’t used to it either. Not enough practice keeping her thoughts to herself.
When she was out of sight, he pulled it out of his pocket. Knowing it was some kind of high tech gadget, far beyond anything he thought was possible, gave it a different appearance. He felt the surface and hefted the weight. It wasn’t plastic. Maybe it was some kind of metal. The buttons were white, but how did they change color from gray to white? He cupped his hand around it, trying to shield it from the sun. Was it illuminating the buttons from inside? And where was the battery? There wasn’t even a seam to allow it to be taken apart.
He hesitated to touch any of the buttons now. He’d turned it on by accident. What if he turned it off? They’d be back to her notepad for sure, and he’d have no way to tell when she was hiding something.
He tapped the case against his teeth absently.
Judith was John Smith’s daughter. That was pretty certain. Was his regular guest in trouble, like she thought? He’d always seemed to be a friendly and levelheaded guy—not likely to be involved in some secret game, with impossible gadgets and fake FBI men.
But here it was, and an impossibility in the hand trumped a dozen absurdities.
Should he give it to her? Just how much danger was there? He’d bend Dad’s rule about lost items, if the reason were clear enough. If a guest was in trouble, then he should give it up.
A car came rumbling up the road, and he concealed the black tube in his hand. It was just an old tan Jeep Cherokee pulling a pop-up camper. The driver didn’t give him a second glance.
When it rumbled out of sight, Joe was surprised. His arm was shaking. This mystery chase had him rattled.
Behind him, he heard footsteps on a wooden plank.
Judith was walking back, a thoughtful expression on her face. She saw the talkie in his hand.
“It’s Joe, isn’t it?”
He nodded, pleased she’d remembered.
“I had a thought. I can change a setting on the talkie to keep it from being detected.” She came up and sat down on the beam beside him. “Let me see it. I’m sure I remember the sequence.”
Joe passed it over. Her face a mask of concentration, she pressed several chords of buttons in sequence. The buttons snapped from white to gray.
It was as if she suddenly became a stranger. He couldn’t read her. She pulled the pad out of her pocket.
“We’ll need to wait fifteen minutes for the unit to reset.” She smiled.
He shrugged. “It’s a nice place to wait.”
She set the talkie down on the beam and went to her motorcycle. Rummaging through her bag, she pulled out a canteen.
She scribbled on her pad. “I’ll need to refill this. I didn’t notice. Is there a water hydrant in the campground?”
He nodded. “I’m sure there is.”
“Could you fill it, while I re-pack?”
She gave him a bright smile.
“Sure.” He took it and headed up the trail.
He was barely on the other side of the creek when he heard the motorcycle rumble to life.
He raced back. But there was nothing but a cloud of road dust in the air, and a scrap of paper on the beam, weighted down with a pebble.
“Sorry Joe. I have to move fast. Sorry to lie to you about the talkie. Seriously, seriously, seriously, forget everything I told you. Forget me. It’s safer for everyone. Keep the canteen. Trash this note.”