Joe woke when she slammed on the brakes and made a bouncy illegal u-turn across the interstate median and sped back the way they came. He blinked against the morning sun coming in through the windshield.
“What’s going on?”
They had been on Interstate 80 for over an hour, and she had been nervous about not following her father’s instructions to the letter.
Joe was less concerned. His own instructions were long obsolete, left behind with US 40 far to the south. The important thing was to get to their destination. They’d agreed the interstate was the only way to get to Rock Springs. John Smith had been paranoid. He had almost convinced himself of that.
Judith drove another mile, and then pulled over. She pulled out the talkie from the center console where Joe had left it.
“I sensed another talkie up ahead. I have to turn it off so they won’t know we’re coming.”
“Then I won’t know what you’re saying.”
“We’ll get by.” She reached for the buttons, but he grabbed her wrist.
“Hey, I’ve been patient, but you’re leaving me hanging here. Where’re we going, and what’re we doing? What’s the cargo you’re delivering? And why are people chasing us?”
He could see she toyed with the idea of lying to him. But she sighed, and her fingers moved. “Your family runs a motel. It’s the family business. You do what your father says.”
Not very obedient lately—and it’s a Friday no less.
She tried to explain. “Well, my family has a job too. My grandfather started it and Dad kept it going. Now that Dad’s in the hospital, I’ve got to do my part. But secrecy is a cornerstone of our family job. Even if Dad hadn’t made me promise to keep this delivery run quiet, I’ve grown up with secrets.
“When I lost my voice, it just made it that much easier to do the family job.
“So, I’m not going to tell you. I know you want to help, and you think you’d do it better knowing the facts. Maybe. But it’s not my secret to share. You already know about the talkie and that’s too much.”
She tapped the keys, and it was as if a fog dropped over them. She wiggled her fingers, and it meant nothing to him.
He shrugged. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
She pointed to her chest and nodded. He could read that—“I hope so, too.”
He watched her drive. During the night, she’d worked on her hair, braiding part of it into a roll that circled her head like a crown. He liked to look at her. He could do so for hours. The talkie was off. He could think what he liked.
She took an early exit off the interstate and drove into what used to be the main highway. Joe recognized the signs—old motels. No one builds motels inside the city, they build them next to the major highway, but when the highway moves, many fail, and rarely do they get modernized.
Judith pulled into a gas station. She scribbled on her notepad—“I’ll get the gas. Buy me a muffin.”
He checked his remaining cash and went in. He was barely at the door when she drove off. He watched helplessly as she U-turned back the way they’d come.
She dumped me again! He hadn’t seen it coming. Twice now, I’ve fallen for the same trick. He ran out onto the road and saw her head north out of town. I am stupid!
Now, what am I supposed to do?
Carl Morris sketched out his thoughts on a piece of paper. The fluorescent lights in his underground office gave him a headache. Next budget, he’d give replacement lighting a higher priority.
1. Harris was the anonymous tipster who fingered Kenneth Winston as the thief.
2. Harris does nothing on his own. He’s Oscar Whitfield’s number two. Why would Whitfield want the Trust to field an all-out search for Winston? Could it be that Oscar is the leader of this conspiracy?
3. Where is Winston? He’s regular as clockwork, but his controller reports that he’s getting nothing on either his cell phone or his home number.
4. Does Whitfield have a talkie? When he was Dad’s number one, he headed up the research arm. Supposedly, nine talkies were dissected in the attempt to find out how they work. Suppose only eight were destroyed?
5. How many non-Trust people are involved?
A. Mystery girl on motorcycle
B. Joe Ferris, Las Vegas NM Motel worker
6. Sam One can confirm or deny the talkie theft report, now that I’m here.
When he reached the end of the sheet of paper, he looked it over and dropped it into the shredder. It was sliced rapidly into millimeter square chads and blown down a conduit where it was incinerated immediately.
I don’t trust anything that has a touch of Whitfield in it. He wants Dad’s job, and I’ve never gotten a hint of support from him.
How many others in the Trust would rather have him in control, instead of me? For the first time, the shape of the events was becoming visible.
A light flashed on his desk. Carl pressed a button and Blake walked in.
“Sir. Samuelson on the tap. We’ve just had an outgoing report. The doorbell rang once near Rock Springs.”
Carl was on his feet. A ‘doorbell’ report—an intermittent talkie detection—should have been immediately reported to him, not relayed to someone outside the base. But it wasn’t too surprising. Whitfield surely considered the base communications his own, as they had been for decades, especially if he had loyal people in place.
Carl had considered it a long shot to tap his own phone. It was disappointing to be right. “Details on the doorbell, identity of the reporter?”
“A few seconds. Samuelson wasn’t totally sure of the voice, but he’s going down the list.”
“Put Whitfield’s field men on the top of that list.”
Blake didn’t visibly react to that name, but there was a pause as he absorbed the idea. They might be facing an organizational coup, a mutiny in the Trust.
“It’ll be done.”
“Good. Get BellBoy prepped. We have to get to Wyoming immediately.”
Blake nodded and was out the door.
Do I have time for Sam One?
Carl pulled out his personal talkie and activated it. When his father, Luke Morris, was the leader of the Trust, he’d considered the director’s personal talkie to be one of his father’s abuses of power.
I was an innocent then. Yes, they were short of talkies, with not enough to go around to all the bases, but the leader of this kind of organization needed all the help he could get to maintain good communication with his people. If the Trust comes apart, then it will have all been for nothing.
Blake met him in the hallway. “The pilot was ahead of you. The plane is refueled and waiting.”
Carl nodded. “Let’s go.” They headed for the elevator.
With any luck, I’ll be able to get Winston’s story from the man himself.
In the elevator, the floors were numbered with ‘G’ at the top. They were on ‘B2’. The lowest, ‘B4’, was locked with an electronic code keypad.
How many people have that code? Certainly Whitfield does. I need to have it changed.
He pressed the ‘G’.
A black van rolled up to the tiny airstrip. A sleek Cessna waited. A large-framed gray-haired man jumped out of the van and strode purposefully to the open door of the plane.
“How long to Rock Springs?”
“Only a few minutes, Mr. Whitfield.”
“Make it less. The courier is already in the area. We have to beat him to the base.”
The engines were rumbling to life as the door closed.
Whitfield fastened his seat belt and yelled, “Keys! Get on the radio and have a car waiting for us at Rock Springs Airport.”
The gamble paid off. He hated letting his personal talkie out of his possession, but having an early warning system in place in Rock Springs had been critical. There was no way he could be stopped now.
Judith turned onto the dirt road with the rusted Bekker Ranch ironwork over the entrance. She drove a half-mile up a dusty canyon road through the sagebrush until she stopped at a ranch house. There was a corral and a water tank, just like thousands of other ranch houses in the western US.
She’d remembered the roads, which had been a worry. The other times she’d come here with her father, she hadn’t suspected that she’d need to memorize the route so soon.
Bekker Ranch was off the beaten path, at least for now. It was surrounded on three sides by Bureau of Land Management territory. However, the Rock Springs area was growing, and what had been a ranch far off any map was now just a few miles north of a new set of tract houses.
Judith parked next to an old pickup and unfastened the ice chest. It was large, but not heavy. She carried it up to the door, and fished out a credit card from her pocket. It looked similar to a visa card, but she slipped it into a crack in the woodwork and the door unlocked with a click.
Inside, the living room looked homey with a TV, well-worn chairs and a couch. A current TV Guide was open, face down on the coffee table, but no one was there. She gave it no thought as she walked directly through the living room to the kitchen. Behind the pantry door, she inserted a second card, and the shelves moved aside to reveal a lit corridor. For the first time, there was a security camera. She set down her cargo, stood there in front of the camera and waited.
After a couple of minutes, an old black man appeared. “Judith? What are you doing here alone?”
She scribbled: “Hello, Duke. Daddy’s had a car accident.” She described his injuries and a little of the detail, but nothing about the people looking for her, or the talkie.
“He had an important delivery for Sam Five, and it couldn’t wait, so he sent me.”
“Well, you’re lucky you arrived when you did. Tomorrow’s my vacation and the new kid was never here on your other visits. I don’t know what he’d a done if you showed up on his monitors. Your dad was up front about getting you a Trust authorization, but the paperwork’s never gone through. He was thinking when you’re eighteen.”
Duke led her through the corridors, past his office where the Today Show hosts were talking silently on the screen next to the security monitor. He paused in front of another door and fished out a card of his own.
“If you want, I can bend a rule or two and help you carry that thing down.”
She shook her head and waited while he opened the elevator. She pushed the ice chest inside, and then wrote, “Thanks for your help Duke. It’s an important delivery.”
“Always is.” He smiled and waved a hand as the door closed on her.
Judith pressed the ‘B’ and waited while the elevator slowly dropped a hundred feet to the restricted area below. The ranch house had been built up to the edge of the canyon wall and even the ground floor where Duke worked was underground.
She fished out the talkie, and when the elevator reached the bottom, she turned it on. Duke was far enough away so that he wouldn’t notice it, but the long-range signal of another talkie within ten miles immediately started the ringing in her head.
Stupid. But there’s no help for it. They have to know I’m here now. But it’s too late to stop me.
She carried the ice chest rapidly down the corridor, until she reached the door marked ‘SAM FIVE’.
She knocked, but there was no response. Judith tried the door. The locks were electric, and there was an easy access button.
The apartment inside was just as she remembered it. Other than a trio of chairs, there was no recognizable furniture. The bulk of the space looked like a chemical factory or a modern art sculpture—a maze of chrome pipes.
“Sam Five?” She stared into the maze. There was no response. She set the ice chest down and walked around the edge of the chrome jungle.
The brown curve of a giant shell, like the back of a four-foot tall cockroach caught her attention.
“Sam. It’s me, Judith.”
But the insectoid didn’t move. Its arms and legs were curled up close to its body and it gave no sign of hearing her.
“Sam, what’s wrong?” She reached into the maze.
It was hard to navigate the passageway, never meant for humans. It was like the climbing-jungle in the park, but she was so much heavier now than when she was eight. Putting her weight on the pipes hurt, but she pushed on, reaching close enough to touch the hard outer exoskeleton. There was a sensation of warmth, and the gentle rhythm of its breathing.
She shook him. “Sam?”
I’m too late. Dad said the cargo was to keep Sam Five alive, but he’s already gone into a coma!