Joe was approaching mile marker 10 when a familiar dark car coming from Las Vegas whipped past him and then executed a three-point turn on the narrow road.
“Joe Ferris, come with us.” The muscled fake FBI man was out the door and at his side before Joe could figure out which way to run.
The grip on his arm was like steel, and there was no one in sight. Screaming for help wouldn’t do a thing this time.
He was shoved into the back seat, with Carl Morris. His captor took the steering wheel.
“Just be calm. You won’t be hurt.” Joe struggled, but his grip was firm. Morris quickly checked his pockets, even patting down his clothes in case he’d hidden something in his underwear.
Morris sighed and sat back in the seat. “He doesn’t have it on him. Head on out, Blake.”
Joe noted the name. Blake and Morris. At least he knew that much. He moved his fingers to the door.
“The door locks are secured, Joe. Don’t worry. You are in no danger. We just need to talk a little bit.”
The car sped on toward the city.
Judith blinked as she realized she’d finally reached the little town of Cimarron. So, Dad hadn’t taken Highway 64.
Her eyes burned from stress. Not only had she been running with very little sleep since she’d listened to his call, but she’d been very active.
Since the moment she lettered the note for Katie, she’d been rushing.
There’d been packing, raiding Daddy’s large three-liter coke bottle for every last bit of spare change in the house, and stuffing spare maps in her bag. Daddy used to have a large collection of maps, but they were a little outdated once he started using the GPS navigator in his newest vehicle.
He’d even mentioned getting her a little GPS unit for her motorcycle, but it’d never happened.
Driving to Las Vegas had been exciting. It was the first time Daddy had ever called for her help. It was her first solo mission for the Trust. Her first long road trip on her motorcycle. She’d been proud of herself, and her motorcycle. It wasn’t just a town bike after all.
But once she got there, there’d been no sign of Daddy or the talkie, but every sign that something was seriously wrong with the Trust.
She’d arrived at the Santa Fe Inn while they were questioning its office manager. She heard the words ‘Kenneth Winston’ and ducked out of sight before they’d taken notice of her. She didn’t know if the Trust knew what Judith Winston looked like or not, but she was sure she was known to Daddy’s controller. Certainly, the people she’d met on Daddy’s courier runs would remember her.
But why had the Trust sent people to track him down? That wasn’t protocol. Daddy insisted she always be suspicious of anything outside of protocol.
And when Joe told her it was Carl Morris, she had been thrown into another fog of confusion. The Trust was a web of limited connections. Dad knew his controller and the people he worked with at each base—that was supposed to be all. But of course, sometimes there was a little leakage through the rumor mill.
Probably everyone in the Trust knew about Carl Morris. When he’d taken over from his father Luke, the original head of the organization, speculation about the old man’s health and his son’s experience had broken a lot of the secrecy rules.
What was the head of the Trust doing hunting for Daddy?
She turned onto Highway 58, heading back east toward the interstate. If she couldn’t find Daddy on this road, she’d be out of ideas. What then?
I’m so tired. She blinked again and forced herself to look hard at the pavement.
If Daddy had an accident—one that hadn’t been reported—she’d have to look hard for evidence.
Off to the side of the road! She slowed, and then let her heartbeat settle down. The burned-out car had been there a long time. Grass was growing up around it, and the crumpled vehicle wasn’t even the right model.
She tried to focus. I may have to take a nap and drive this road again. I’m not doing a good job.
The road turned, and she slowed for the water crossing. I can’t even see anything. The cottonwood trees and the thick reeds obscured everything. She concentrated on the pavement. Surely there would be skid marks if there were an accident.
No good. I need some rest. There were at least trees here. The terrain since she’d left Las Vegas had returned to grasslands. She pulled off, watching the ground. It would be easy to get stuck in the mud.
A few feet from the roadway and she was out of sight of any passing traffic. Without the breeze of the road, it was hot and muggy, but at least the mosquitoes couldn’t get through her leathers.
She closed her eyes for a few minutes, but although the insides of her eyelids were soothing, she couldn’t quite doze.
She unzipped her coat, touching the talkie.
That was a thought. Totally hidden, she could risk turning it on. If there were any hint of the searchers, she could turn it back off in a second, and they’d still have no help finding her.
She pressed the buttons in chords, and the talkie’s buttons turned white. In just a few seconds, it accepted her as a new host. Dad had told her of the machine’s quirks. It translated for everyone within a thirty-foot radius, but it needed a host mind, and for that host, the translations and even some background feelings were most faithfully communicated. That’s why Joe’s hurt at being left behind had come through so well. It had been tuned to him.
She kept her eyes closed, trying to sense the ringing that would betray the presence of any talkie within range, but there was nothing.
Judith relaxed. Maybe that worry had been keeping her from dozing off. She tried again.
Her eyes snapped wide awake. Her hand fluttered to her head and her thumb tapped her forehead. “Daddy?”
She was off her bike and batting the reeds right and left. He had to be within thirty feet of her. Had to be!
The Lexus appeared like magic as she brushed aside a thick line of vegetation. She moved to the driver’s side. She tugged at the door, and it opened.
The air inside was fetid, but her father was alive. He was lying at an angle, and his right arm was discolored and swollen. He winced as she reached in to touch him.
“We’ve got to get you to a hospital, Daddy.”
His voice was a hoarse rasp, like a man dying of thirst. “The ice chest! Is it okay? Is it still blue?”
“After we get you taken care of.”
Judith looked back at the cargo container. She hesitated, but Daddy looked desperate. She unstrapped a tie-down cord, and opened the lid.
Inside was something she’d never seen before. It was like a large, translucent almond, easily larger than a football.
“It’s a pale blue.”
“Then there’s time! You have to get it to Rock Springs Base immediately. Lives are at stake.”
Joe didn’t know what to think about the gun that Blake wore on his belt. It hadn’t been pulled on him, and that was a good sign. It hadn’t even been displayed. Joe only caught a glimpse of the blued metal when he was being forced into the back seat with Carl Morris.
If they were police or FBI, then of course they would have guns. The problem was that, according to Judith, they were something else entirely.
But State Policeman Cal Lawrence had them in his custody, saw their FBI badges, and let them go. There’s no way he would have let them keep their guns if he thought they were fakes, especially since Cal knew they were hunting for him.
Carl Morris, if indeed that was his name, watched him for a couple of minutes, and then reached for his pocket.
It was a talkie. A few quick finger strokes turned the keys white. Morris watched him as he turned the device on.
“You’ve seen one of these before, haven’t you?”
Morris betrayed a flicker of a smile. Joe was lying, and he knew it. With the talkie in his hand, it was better than having a polygraph machine.
Judith lied to me. How’d she do it?
“Are you working for Kenneth Winston?”
He’d guessed. It was probably John Smith, but could the talkie penetrate his guesses?
“Who is the girl?”
“What girl?” Could he get away with answering a question with a question? Besides, he didn’t really know who Judith was, did he? It was all guesswork and hints from her. He’d be a fool to believe her when she’d shown her colors.
Morris shook his head. Patiently, he said, “The girl with the motorcycle. The girl who drove you out into the country and abandoned you. The girl you mentioned to your sister.”
“You tapped my phone?”
He disdained to answer, but the message was clear enough. Of course.
“Who is the girl? Does she work for Kenneth Winston?”
Joe just kept his mouth shut. If he couldn’t tell a lie and get away with it, then he’d not say anything. See how much they could get out of that!
A cell-phone rang. Morris pulled it from his pocket, irritation all over his face. “Yes.” And it had better be important!
Joe could ‘hear’ the overtones from his captor’s conversation, but nothing from the other side.
“What do you mean?” Winston couldn’t possibly have taken Valet.
“Get BellBoy in the air as soon as possible. Pay extra.” How many traitors are there?
Morris stabbed the off button, and then noticed Joe’s rapt attention. “I don’t have much time for you.”
They were entering the outskirts of town. Blake spoke. “Sir?”
“I’m getting nothing.” Joe could tell he wasn’t talking about the questions. They were hoping for evidence of the other talkie.
Morris asked, “She has it, doesn’t she?”
Joe supposed his body language betrayed him, for Morris kept talking, barely waiting for him to answer.
“Do you know where she’s going?”
“Is she going south?”
“Is she going east?”
“Is she going north?”
He didn’t even ask about west. Joe had given him a clear enough indication.
“They outta ban that thing! It’s like brain rape.” Joe crossed his arms. “Who invented it anyway? I’ve never heard anything like it! Do you know a dog talked to me this morning? I just can’t believe the government’s keeping something like this a secret.”
Morris exchanged a glance with Blake.
“Joe, how long have you known about the talkie?”
It was significant that he’d called it by name. Joe hesitated, but felt the futility of lying.
“I found it Tuesday morning. More than two days now.”
Blake sighed. Too long.
Carl Morris leaned back into his seat. “Joe. I guess you’d better come along with us for a little bit more.”
To Blake, he said. “Take the interstate north.”
The car turned. Joe realized with a sinking feeling that they’d been taking him home. But no more. He’d said something wrong. He wouldn’t be getting home any time soon.
Dad will kill me.