Abel snatched up the phone on the first ring.
“Hello, is this the Railroad Motel, in Las Vegas?”
Abel sat back down. It was business, after all.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“This is the Taos Police Department. I’m just following up on an incident that took place a couple of hours ago.”
“What! What happened?” If something had happened to Joe....
“It’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just that an officer arrested one of our local troublemakers racing through town at about 90 miles per hour on what appears to be a stolen motorcycle.”
“Yes.” The policeman hesitated. “We’ve been trying to track down the owner of the motorcycle. It has a Roswell license tag, but when we inspected the vehicle, we found business cards for your motel, and we were wondering....”
“Officer, my son has just today gone missing, after meeting up with a girl on a motorcycle.”
He told the Taos official everything he could and then gave him Cal Lawrence’s number and asked him to compare notes.
“And officer, did you find out who owned the motorcycle?”
“Yes. It was someone named Winston. Does that ring a bell?”
“No. Maybe. I can’t put a face with it. I’ll check my records.”
When he put down the phone, he was more confused than ever.
Taos? What would Joe be doing in Taos? And if the girl’s motorcycle was stolen, what was he doing now?
Ordering chicken sandwiches with nothing more than her notepad rubbed some chronic wounds. Sign language was useful with a narrow circle of friends, and once out of the thirty-foot range of the talkie, she had no help being understood. She was good at putting her needs down on paper, but it always had to be business. You couldn’t chat that way—not when the other person was talking freely. It wasn’t like on-line chat rooms or cell phone text messaging. Lopsided conversation stumbled over itself. Sometimes the talker would begin to monologue, but more often, the conversation would die out on its own.
As argumentative as they’d become, talking freely with Joe under the influence of the talkie was something she dreaded giving up. Listening to her own thoughts was hardly the same. And, she admitted, her inner voice had gotten pretty rude.
Out the door with her sack of food and a cardboard holder for the drinks, she looked across the street.
The Lexus was gone. She nearly stumbled, looking frantically around the nearly empty parking lots.
And then she saw it. A block down the way, Joe was working on something at a self-serve car wash.
Don’t scare me like that! Stupid!
He looked up when she got within thirty feet of the car. He was using the coin-op vacuum cleaner. She frowned at the complex mess of baking powder, club soda and newspapers that he was applying to the seat and the carpet below.
“We don’t have time for this.”
He nodded. “Almost done. Get in.” He took the driver’s seat.
She got in, handing over the drinks, which he set into the cup-holders.
“I’ve grown up in a motel. Family owned. We all have to work. And even in the best of times, I get drafted to clean up the rooms after the guests leave. Some of those are real nightmares. Guests get violently sick, sneak in their pets, and don’t even try to clean up their messes. I know a few tricks. We’ll change these newspapers every gas fill-up, and before long, we’ll get the scents all taken care of. If we had time to go into the Wal-Mart....”
“But we don’t.”
“I know.” He grabbed a sandwich. “But maybe we should get some cokes from the vending machine. We could keep them in the ice chest.” He looked at the container in the back seat.
“It’s not an ice chest. It’s... the cargo. We have to leave it alone.”
He shrugged, and with one hand on the sandwich, pulled out onto the street.
“I asked the gas station attendant, and we don’t have to get back onto the interstate.” He turned at the light. “We just have to take the Dam Road.”
She saw his grin. “Infantile humor.”
He smiled broadly. “That’s its name. Don’t blame me.”
They drove across the Dillon Reservoir dam and headed north out of Silverthorne.
“We’ll have to be careful about what we think the other person said.”
Joe looked at her. He hadn’t said anything.
“For example,” she continued, with gestures barely visible in the dim light, “I’m pretty sure you didn’t say anything, but you were wondering about the cargo and it came through.
“And, no, it isn’t drugs we’re hauling. To be honest, I’m not sure what it is. But Dad said lives were at stake and we had to get it to Rock Springs. Is that enough for you?”
Joe could tell she was giving him the truth, or at least part of it. And John Smith had always struck him as a good person. A good guest.
“Okay. It’s enough for now.”
Soon enough, they were nearly alone on Colorado Highway 9, winding their way north through a wide river valley.
Judith seemed talkative. With no steering wheel, her hands moved freely.
“I could speak normally until I was nine.”
She nodded. “It took my vocal cords, and some surrounding tissue. I can’t even whisper. It was a bad year. I lost my hair.”
“You have beautiful hair now.”
“Down boy. I’m not fishing for compliments. I’ve got something to say.”
“For the first year or so, I was like screaming inside. Stuff bubbled up inside me, and there’s only so much you can do on a pad of paper.
“They wanted me to go attend a special school. A school for the deaf, but it would mean that I’d have to leave home. Momma and Daddy thought it would be best, at least for a little while until I learned sign language. Daddy had this courier job, and he could come by and visit once a week.
“Momma visited a couple of times, but by the time I went home for Christmas, she wasn’t there anymore.”
Joe looked her way, but said nothing.
Judith shrugged. “I’m not after sympathy. I just wanted to explain why you ‘heard’ me calling you stupid. Since I lost my voice, the whole world’s been stupid, and I had no reason to be ‘polite’ in my head, since no one would hear me anyway.
“So—it’s a bad habit, and I didn’t even know the talkie was letting it out.”
He nodded. “I understand. The talkie provides a little too much togetherness sometimes.
“If you want to turn it off sometimes, you can.”
“No! Not yet, at least.”
Judith napped as they drove past the Green Mountain Reservoir. Joe was tempted to wake her to see the shimmer of moonlight on the water, but held off.
By the time they reached Kremmling, he was a little too tired to drive, and she took over.
Joe dozed a little, and when he awoke, Judith was looking at him strangely.
“All right. What is it this time?”
She grinned. “You were arguing with your sister in your sleep.”
“I was not!”
“Her name’s Anna. Or was that your girlfriend? And why did she steal your bicycle?”
Joe was confused. “All right. Anna is my sister, but I have no idea about the bicycle. And I’d rather not have my dreams put on display, just because you have a talkie.”
“Hey, it hardly took the talkie. You do talk in your sleep. I wasn’t imagining it.”
He stared at the limited landscape whipping by in the headlights. “Well. I still’d rather not have the talkie on when I’m sleeping.” There were other things he could have dreamt about.
Judith turned her face back to the road. Is she blushing? Are my thoughts leaking? He couldn’t tell. The light from the dashboard wasn’t good enough.
Enough of that! He shook himself fully awake. “Okay. Where are we?”
She tapped the map screen. “We’ve left US 40. I decided to head north for a while. We should reach Wyoming before too long.”
“All the way across Colorado, and I miss most of it.” Joe crossed his arms. “All the good stuff passed by in the dark.”
She shrugged. “You’ll just have to come this way again. Every time I made the trip with Daddy, I saw something new.” She smiled. “Being a tourist isn’t a one-time thing.”
The smile faded. Joe could tell she was worrying about her father again.
The night nurse at Holy Cross Hospital walked over to his bed. “Mr. Brown? Can you hear me?” She took his wrist and began timing his pulse.
He blinked and tried to focus on the face above him. “What day is it?” His words were slurred.
“It’s early Friday morning. You need to go back to sleep.”
“She needs me. I need to get up.”
The nurse let him struggle for a moment, just to let him know he was too weak to succeed.
“We’ll get you on your feet just as soon as possible. You can help by getting some more rest.” She checked the setting on his IV drip and increased the flow. He dropped off to sleep immediately.
“An interstate again.” Joe was driving this time.
“I don’t see an easy way around it.” She tapped on the map screen. “It’s important to get there as fast as possible, and taking the minor roads would lead us all over the countryside.”
He shrugged. “It’s your call.”
They turned onto Interstate 80. Joe looked at the huge turnstile.
“There’s another of those things. I can’t imagine shutting down an interstate so routinely that they need permanent barricades to keep people off the road.”
“Don’t you have snow in Las Vegas?”
“Yes, and they do close the interstate from time to time, but it’s rare. I mean, that’s the main road. Close it down and you’re isolated.”
“It’s probably worse up here. The towns are even more separated than down south.”
“Does John... does your father get stranded often?”
She nodded. “From time to time—but he watches the Weather Channel all the time. He’s got it under control.”
Joe noticed a train passing in the night.
“It seems like every interstate follows the old rail routes. I guess it makes sense. The trains always take the easiest grades.”
Judith followed his gaze. “Why is that?”
Joe smiled. Granddad Jose had explained it to him.
“Steam locomotives don’t have a gear-shift. Imagine trying to drive a car without a first or second gear. You can still get up to full speed, but only if you take flat roads and accelerate gently at first. The diesel-electrics, the modern engines, are better. They’ve got electric motors to drive the wheels, a lot like this hybrid car, and electric motors have great low-end torque. They can even do something like change gears by altering the magnetic fields in the motors.
“But all these railroads were built in the old days, when steam was king. There’s a limit to how steep a grade was practical. In some of the mountain areas, they added special engines, just to get the train over the pass.”
She shook her head. “You are a geek, you know.”
“Hey, you asked.”
“I guess I did.”
Joe drove a little more and then they swapped out.
“No sense in driving now. We’re getting close, and you still haven’t told me where we’re going.”