Judith recognized her motorcycle’s engine noise before she caught sight of Joe. It was almost too much to bear.
Joe looked so chipper. “Your Dad said to come help you. He said it was a long trip, and hard for one person alone.”
Too exhausted to stand, she leaned against the car. “He shouldn’t have done that. I’ll be okay, once I catch a little nap.” Her listless gestures barely hinted at the American Sign Language standard. Without the talkie, no one would even know it was ASL.
No sleep, the exhausting task of digging the car out of the mud, and the stress of seeing her Daddy in such sad shape had finally caught up with her. She’d been weaving on the road, almost asleep at the wheel, but she wouldn’t tell Joe that.
Joe peeled off her motorcycle jacket and handed it over. She was grateful for that, at least. There hadn’t been time to turn back to find it, once she realized what she’d done.
“That’s okay. I’ll drive for awhile.” He looked at the storage capacity of the Lexus.
“Is there any way to take the motorcycle with us?”
She blinked as unwanted tears welled up. “No, stupid! I had to give my baby up once already today, and here you make me do it again.”
His smile faded. “I’m sorry. Can’t we take it back in town and park it some place safe?”
“No time. The delivery is... important.”
He nodded. “Sorry.” He rolled the bike over to the railing and parked it carefully. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something that he stuffed into the rear seat storage.
Judith dimly considered jumping into the car and racing off, but it would be useless. He would catch her again.
“What did you put in there?”
Joe shrugged. “I left some Railroad Motel business cards. You never know—someone might report it.”
She shook her head, “Optimist.”
He shrugged again. “Give some people a temptation and they’ll steal. Give others the chance to return a lost item, and they will. You can never tell.”
Joe reached out his hand. Judith couldn’t pretend to misunderstand what he wanted, not with the talkie turned on. She pulled the keys out of her pocket and handed them to him.
Joe looked over at the girl in the reclining passenger seat, her head facing away towards the door. She’d fallen asleep almost immediately. He resolved to keep things quiet until she recovered a little.
He drove gently—no radio, no fast turns or passing with short visibility.
The power of the Lexus as it responded to his touch was addicting. Inside, it was a nice car, except for the ripped out airbags, and the smell.
Her father had been injured, unable to move anywhere for two days in this car. He’d soiled himself, and it would take some serious effort to get the results totally cleaned up. He wrinkled his nose and made a minor adjustment to the air vent.
Just put it out of your mind for now.
The road to Tres Piedreas had no lack of interest, especially for anyone starved for new things.
The broad valley, on the western side of the Rio Grande Gorge, had a dozen or more strange houses. It was hardly a typical neighborhood. They were spread out, some on acres of land, others clustered in twos or threes, and yet there was a clear family resemblance, as if built by the same designer.
Joe craned his neck to get a good look at one that was fairly close to the highway. It looked as if it had been built with a bulldozer. Mounds of earth, half buried in the desert land, had been made into a cluster of adobe-looking domes, complete with large windows, solar power panels, windmills, and some things that could only be modern art statues. Two cars were parked down into the depression. The place was large enough to be a rich man’s house. Joe wondered what it would be like after a winter storm—easily covered by a snow bank.
He shook his head. Don’t make assumptions. Perhaps it didn’t snow as much in this valley. It looked dry.
But the design was popular. Another group of semi-underground houses appeared over the next ridge.
She was still asleep as he approached the highway intersection. The town of three rocks was built around large stone outcroppings, but he couldn’t tell immediately which of them were the three that inspired the name of Tres Piedreas.
Judith was still sound asleep, so he eased into the turn and headed north on Highway 285.
Finally, they were on the route John Smith had indicated. How long could he keep going with no more direction than that?
There was a screen in the center of the dashboard and he knew it contained a GPS navigator of some kind, but it only displayed how many miles remained before they ran out of gas. He didn’t want to risk it beeping and waking her up, so he kept his hands off the buttons.
He was looking forward to trying out all the options. The fixed buttons below the screen were enticing. MAP and DEST were obviously navigation features. CLIMATE hinted at some kind of radio connection—how else to get up to date weather info? CLOCK was probably a clock, but in a luxury car, he’d be disappointed if it didn’t do something fancy too. MENU, INFO, and DISPLAY were enigmas. No telling what toys they hid. The display of miles until empty was probably something down in the menus.
He’d never had the opportunity to sit inside a luxury car. Now he was driving one. It had a slight shimmy, probably wheel alignment was out of whack after the accident, but it still drove better than the car at home.
John Smith said he was a courier. What kind of a job would that be? Would it be nice to travel thousands of miles in comfort? It might get boring after a few trips.
Joe felt willing to take that risk. Nothing could be as boring as cleaning up motel rooms.
He’d answered it on the first ring.
“Yes, Cal, thanks for calling. Did you find out anything?”
“I don’t think so. The car was rented to Carl Morris; the same name as was on the badge, but the credit card was a dead end. The holder of record is some unknown company called Truman Trust, Limited, but it’s probably nothing more than a post office box in Delaware. I can’t even pull up anything on the search engines.
“Abel, I just don’t know what to do now. Until it becomes an official missing persons search, this is about the limit of which resources I can call in.”
“Thanks Cal. I just didn’t know which way to turn.”
“Just wait, and hope he calls. Personally, I’m rooting for the teen romance theory.”
Abel Ferris just grunted. He looked at the clock. “I’d better hang up now. Anita will be calling in from Albuquerque.”
“Does she know about Joe?”
Abel sighed. “Not yet.”
“Oh. Well, good luck then.”
Colorado! It was his first time out of New Mexico. He felt the urge to stop and touch the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign, but Judith was still asleep.
His mind quickly snapped back to driving, as a large tractor-trailer rig passed him. Joe gripped the steering wheel, checked the rear-view mirror, and played with the cruise control lever.
He’d been sailing along at the speed limit, but it was time to move up the pace a little. It seemed like everyone on the road wanted to go faster, and he was the bottleneck. It was time to go with the flow.
With minute adjustments, he tried to match the pace of the truck. He thought he had it, but within another minute, he’d crept too close and had to back off. The trial and error game of chase occupied his mind—the scenery couldn’t do it alone. The terrain was flat, rimmed with distant mountains.
As they approached a highway intersection, the crossed boards of a railroad crossing caught his eye. It was the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. To his eye, the rails looked a little different. Narrow Gauge. He’d heard of it, but this was the first he’d seen. It only existed on a few historical mountain lines, like this one.
Steam locomotive. I wish I were here when it came by.
Maybe some other trip. He would be back! After this taste, nothing would keep him off the roads.
As he made the turn and looked at the old railroad depot, his mind skittered away from thinking about the motel, and what his Dad was doing. He had a job to do here and now.
Judith stirred a little, but she didn’t wake. How many hours should he let her rest? They hadn’t really talked about where they were going. Her father had said she knew the destination, but no one was letting him in on it.
But if he had to take highways 24 and 40, then he could navigate by himself for quite a while yet.
On impulse, he pressed the map button. It did beep, but Judith didn’t stir. The map as it appeared showed a road map, with the car’s position marked in the center.
That’s nice. He was constantly checking his position on the map versus the street signs as he passed through the town. With this, he had no need to wake her up—although it would be nice to have someone to ‘talk’ with.
He watched her chest rise and fall. Asleep, her face was smooth and... beautiful. The last few times he’d been with her while she was awake, she’d spent the time frowning at him, or worrying about her father. It would be nice to get to know her when she wasn’t so tied up in knots.
Of course, maybe she just didn’t like him. It was a possibility, but the talkie had let him see more of her than her surface worries.
Uh, oh. Joe frowned at the map, and changed the scale to make sense of what he saw. They were heading north, and the straight way was Highway 17. 285 branched away to the west for quite a few miles, going through some other town, before coming back to join 17 again.
It was clearly a short cut. He could go straight ahead, the direct way on 17, or bend out of his way to stay on 285. John Smith had said 285—did he mean as a general direction, or was there some reason he shouldn’t take 17?
I could wake her up. She knows more about this than I do. But even through the streets of Alamosa, she slept soundly.
He elected the safe and timid choice, even if it were longer. He made the turn, staying on 285.
Judith opened her eyes. Joe kept looking up, past her, out the window.
“What’s up?” she gestured.
He smiled at her. “Hello, Sleeping Beauty.”
“Where are we?”
A couple of finger taps on the little magnifying glass icon expanded the scale of the map. “We passed Alamosa some time back.” He pointed off to the east. “Are those the sand dunes?”
The map showed the borders of the Great Sand Dunes National Park off to the east.
She blinked the sleep from her eyes and looked off at the mountains. A lighter patch rose from the valley floor, marking different soil or vegetation.
“Probably.” She frowned, then looked closer at the navigation map. “Oh, you took Highway 285, silly. When I went through here with Dad a couple of years ago, we went on Highway 17. You can get a much better view from there.”
Judith could read a lot of annoyance in his monosyllable.
He asked, “So, you’ve been through here before?”
She nodded. “Dad usually took the interstate route on his... route. I went with him from time to time. But this is the scenic route. Occasionally, we got to play tourist.”
Joe concentrated on the road ahead, but she could feel his irritation. “Yeah. We never got to go anywhere. We take care of tourists. We never get to be the tourists.”
“No vacations? That’s sad.”
“Always the promise of one, once the money situation improved. It never did.”
He nodded at the road ahead. “I’ve traveled more miles today than I’ve done in a year. And there’s more ahead, isn’t there?”
She nodded. “A lot more.”
“We’ll need to talk about the route.”
“Okay.” It was a quick gesture with her fingers. “In a little bit.” I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.
He frowned at her.
Uh, oh. How much did I reveal?