The Cottonwood Motel. Joe nodded. It was a nice place, a collection of small two-story wood-frame buildings circling a separate office building. It was a shady place, probably because the trees were a lot older and larger than when the property was put together. Two or three dozen units altogether, depending on whether there were some entrances on the back side.
Interestingly, there was a ‘No Vacancy’ sign, here in the middle of the day, and few cars in the parking lot.
He hesitated, then walked up to the office. There was a large Harley-Davidson motorcycle, resplendent in chrome, parked inside the office.
The door opened at his touch.
“Yes, can I help you?” The lady at the desk asked.
Joe felt very strange to be on the receiving end of that phrase.
“Pardon me. I was just looking over your place.”
She was attentive and older than his mother. He flushed.
“I’m sorry, I was just in town and this place attracted my attention. I’m in the motel business myself.”
He strode up to her desk, “Yes. I’m Joe Ferris. I live in Las Vegas, New Mexico. My family owns the Railroad Motel there.” He shrugged, “I mind the office, do maid service, and general errands.”
“I’m Alice North. I’m the owner here. Nice to meet you.”
He succumbed to curiosity. “Why no vacancies in the middle of the day?”
“Things changed. There’s a building boom here in town, mainly due to the oil business. Currently all my rooms are on monthly contract to workers here.”
“That’s interesting.” He glanced around the office. It was pleasant. Not as big as his, but designed to make the guests comfortable.
“Could I sit here for a while? I’m waiting for someone.”
She gestured to the chair. “What are you doing in Wyoming?”
“That’s a long story.” He sat down where he could keep watch on the traffic. Maybe she’d never come back, but he had to be ready if she did.
Blake reported, “The tower at Rock Springs Airport reports that Valet is preparing for take-off.”
“Can they be stopped?”
“Not on our say-so.”
“How far are we out?”
“Thirty minutes yet.”
Carl fumed. They had to land BellBoy to refuel. There was no way they could chase the other plane, nor force it to land.
“Get them on the radio.”
Blake looked at him to confirm, then turned the frequency to 122.75. “Valet, this is BellBoy. Please respond.”
It was a couple of minutes before there was an answer.
Blake handed over the headset to his boss.
He pressed the push-to-talk button. “This is Carl Morris.”
There was another delay, and then a familiar voice came over the earphones.
“I thought it would be you, Oscar. Although I can’t understand what you’re doing here.”
He released the talk button. He’d have to be careful. This was radio. Anyone could listen in.
“No, I guess you wouldn’t. Having fun flying around wasting the company’s fuel? I thought you were Mr. Economize.”
“Better than attempting to destroy everything in a bid for power. Turn back. We’ll be at Rock Springs shortly. Let’s talk this thing out face to face before something happens that can’t be un-done.”
“Sorry, Sonny. I don’t know what you think you’re doing, and honestly I don’t care, but I’m racing the clock.”
“There’s nothing you should be doing, Whitfield. I thought I was being kind putting you on retirement. But let me make it clear. Your department is SHUT DOWN. You are fired. I’ve already sent out the code. You and all your crew of traitors are banned from company activities.”
“Traitors, eh? Maybe traitors to you and your new generation, bean counter, shortsighted yes-men! Although why I should have any loyalty to someone who would sell out his own father, I don’t know.”
Carl clenched his teeth. Whitfield’s battle to reactivate the exobiology research group had been loud and angry on both sides. His claims for new breakthroughs in medicine were unsubstantiated and frankly pathetic attempts to keep his department alive long after the Trust’s dwindling resources couldn’t support it. And Whitfield’s claim that budget cuts would condemn Luke Morris to death had been the last straw. Carl wouldn’t put up with the dirty insider politics.
But Whitfield wasn’t finished.
“You’ve banned me, Mr. Junior Executive? How are you going to enforce that?”
The signal was fading. By now, the planes were separating at many hundreds of miles per hour, and they were using the aircraft version of a party line. Other conversations between pilots were breaking up the signal, and what was worse, the others were listening in to their private fight.
Carl didn’t bother to answer the jab. He signaled to Blake, who switched the radio off the air-to-air channel and took the headset back.
Better to stop talking now. They’d had this argument before, behind closed doors, which is where it belonged.
The problem was that Whitfield had a point. He had no way to enforce his ban. The Trust was built on loyalty. His father and his number one, Whitfield, had built the organization carefully, adding people only after long and careful screening.
When you were protecting the human race from the disruption of alien contact, and at the same time doing your best to put a good face before your alien Guests, you needed good people who took their duty seriously.
He couldn’t go to the police, not even for something as blatant as the theft of an airplane.
They began their descent into the Rock Springs - Sweetwater County Airport.
“Blake, did we get a direction finder on Valet?”
“Yes, the plane did some weaving when you were talking, but I still think they’re on route back to Roswell.”
Whitfield had been arrogant, confident. He’d gotten what he came to Rock Springs for.
“Get us refueled and turned around as fast as possible.” He needed to be ready for the next twist in Whitfield’s power grab.
“You mean you’re here alone?”
Joe looked sheepish. “Yes, Ma’am. My ride... left.”
After a nice long talk, where Alice told him all about the town, the motorcycle in the office, and the motel business in Rock Springs, she’d finally uncovered why he was sitting in her chair. He had nowhere else to go.
She was concerned. “Have you called your family?”
Joe rubbed his nose, “Ah, not yet. She might come back for me.”
“Joe, your girl friend dumped you a thousand miles from home. You have to call your family.”
He shook his head, “Not yet. It’s not like you think. We’re not like ‘romantically involved’ or anything. It’s not even her that asked me to come. Her dad asked.
“You might even know him. A regular. About once a week. John Smith is his name. Drives a silver Lexus SUV. He had an accident. The car’s all scraped up, but it was a nice one. Ring any bells?”
Mrs. North shook her head. “We’ve had several John Smith’s, of course, but I don’t remember the car. Not that it means anything. No overnight business lately, remember.
“Joe, you can use my phone. Your parents need to know you’re okay.”
“It’s not that. I’ve got phone money. I’m just not ready to give up on her yet. Really. She’s got her own reasons for how she does things.”
Joe looked toward the street again.
“If I call home, Dad will make a fuss and try to send money for a bus ticket or something. If I can just wait it out, and she comes back, then we’ll be able to drive back and it’ll be okay.”
“Joe! You think you’re old enough....”
He jumped to his feet. “Hey! There she is!” He dashed out the door.
Coming down the street at a snail’s pace was the travel-worn Lexus. There was a squeal as the tire scraped up against the curb. The vehicle jerked and the tire jumped up on the concrete. The car behind it honked and passed by.
Joe ran out into the street, waving. He couldn’t see inside, due to the tinted glass, but raced around and grabbed the passenger side door. It wasn’t locked.
Across the street, he noticed that Alice North had come to the door to watch.
He jumped in. “Judith, where....”
It wasn’t Judith in the driver’s seat.
Joe stared at the large dark eyes of a three-foot tall alien. A Roswell Gray in a dusty polo shirt and baggy shorts was driving the car. With both hands, it shifted the car into park. The car lurched to a stop in the middle of the street.
A thin voice like a parrot’s croaked, “Help.”
Joe just froze, staring. The alien climbed up, standing on the seat and pointed long thin fingers to the back.
Judith was sprawled out, sleeping, in the back seat. She’d slid into an uncomfortable position.
“Help,” the alien pointed to her.
“Judith?” Joe reached over and shook her. She was warm, and he could see her breathe, but she was unconscious.
“I need a talkie.”
A lot of pieces came together in one second—decades old secret organizations, mysterious men dressed in black, strange cargo that must not be seen, Roswell, and most importantly—a gadget that translated between different people, even different species. It was like a bad movie come to life.
The alien watched him. “Help.”
“Is... is Judith okay?”
The alien blinked. He pointed to the map screen. A line traced the path of the car. The alien moved its finger from their current position north to the place where the car had been. “Help.”
Joe checked Judith again, but there was nothing he could do.
Out the window, he could see Alice North walking his way.
“Get in the back seat.” He said, pointing. Hesitantly, the alien did so.
Joe climbed over the center console and put the car into drive. He pushed the window button. He waved and smiled to Alice, but drove off before she could reach them.
He closed the window and glanced at the rear. The alien was struggling to get Judith back upright in the seat.
Honk. Joe snapped his attention back to the road.
He glanced at the map and turned to the north. The first empty parking lot he could find, he pulled in and stopped.
The alien looked at him expectantly. He was sitting in the seat, his seatbelt properly strapped in place.
Judith’s hair was a mess and obscured her face, but she had been strapped in place as well. She’ll have a neck cramp when she wakes up.
If she woke up.
“Who are you?” He didn’t know what else to say. Could the alien even talk, other than to say the one word, “Help”.
With an exaggerated gesture, thin fingers pointed at its chest. “Bob Four.” It was still parrot-like, but clearly recognizable.
Joe nodded, feeling a little on familiar ground. “My name is Joe Ferris. Nice to meet you.”
Bob Four tapped the side of his head, where there should have been an ear, and tried to repeat his name. What came out was like, “Oris.”
Joe pointed to Judith. “What’s wrong with her?”
Bob tapped his head. Stiffly, he shook his head. “No.”
What do I do now?
The alien Bob seemed to be waiting for him.
Judith was unconscious, but Bob’s reaction was reassuring. He’d made sure she was safe, but once he did that, there was no sign of concern.
Of course, he couldn’t read an alien’s body language, but if she were in danger, wouldn’t he do something?
Things Judith had said now made more sense. The cargo had to have been something important for the alien. She had been concerned. It had been something more than just a duty. She cared about the alien. Hopefully, the alien cared about her too.
Bob pointed past his head. Joe looked. The navigation map.
“Come up here and show me.” Joe gestured an invitation. How much English did he know? He couldn’t say many words, but he seemed to understand more.
Bob Four scrambled up into the front seat, his long arms and legs giving him motion more like a large spider than a monkey.
Bob made sure he had his attention, and then slowly and carefully traced the line from their current location to that destination a few miles to the north. Bob tapped the gearshift lever.
“Okay. We’ll go there.”
Bob scrambled back to his seat and clicked himself in.
Joe circled back to the route Judith had taken north, and Bob had retraced.
If he drove her into town, why does he want to go back now? He wished hard for the talkie.
Driving with the map, he set the scale so he could see every street and every turn. At close zoom, he could see that there were two traces, and he had no doubt which was Bob’s. One was direct. The other wove all over the place, taking side roads, backtracking in illogical ways.
The guy was only three feet tall. How could he have kept his feet on the pedals and looked out the windshield at the same time? Maybe he hadn’t. The thought gave Joe the shivers.
Driving, his mind was a whirlwind of speculation. The Roswell story was true? He’d never have believed it. Tall tales were a staple of the Southwest, and when he heard a new one, he could usually tell when one was based on history and when it was wishful thinking by a tourist bureau. Dad had even said how much he wished they had something like Roswell’s UFO Museum to draw people to the town.
Guests had talked to him about Roswell plenty of times. The town had all the markings of a place that knew how to milk a gimmick. The museum there was on his personal to-do list.
Had the government been able to keep a lid on this all these years by making it look ridiculous?
That didn’t feel right. How could the government keep it a secret? There were too many people who’d blow the whistle.
I’ve even got the urge to get out of the car and run around screaming, myself.
He moved his head and saw the mop of Judith’s hair. “Secrecy is a big part of our family job,” She’d said. “Even if Dad hadn’t made me promise to keep this delivery run a secret, I’ve grown up with secrets.”
Was that how they did it—people growing up with the secret, never letting outsiders know anything?
“Oris.” Bob pointed.
Joe nodded. The track on the map took a sharp turn. Joe followed the way onto Bekker Ranch. What in the world would they find here?