Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Roswell or Bust - Part 9 of 43

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Joe burned with anger at being duped.
So, it was easier to lie with the talkie than he’d thought. “Oh please let me turn the lie detector off. And by the way, please do this little favor for me.” Give the stupid jerk a smile and he’ll do anything for you.
All she wanted was the talkie, and he handed it over to her! How much of the other things she said were lies, too?
“Trash this note, indeed!” He crumpled the piece of paper and tossed it to the ground.
Conditioning kicked in. Gritting his teeth, he picked up the litter from the gravel and walked it over to the trash barrel.
“I’m just too tame!” He did what everyone told him to do. The ride up here into the mountains was just a taste of the wild and rebellious.
It had been wonderful. He’d no idea what was going to happen next. It’d been exciting—his arm around a beautiful girl, racing on a motorcycle to escape mysterious bad guys!
Okay, she was riding and he was the passenger, but still it’s more than he’d ever done before.
“She thought I wasn’t up to it.” That’s why she dumped him. She had to move fast. And he was a stick-in-the-mud.
And now he was stuck. It was maybe fifteen miles back to town. It would be a long walk. He picked up the canteen, and shook it. It did need to be filled.
He walked the road to the campground, rather than the hiking trail, just to be different. A couple of cars passed by, and he toyed with the idea of hitchhiking.
But he’d never tried that before. And what would I tell them? Confess he’d been dumped by a girl? Make up something?
“I can’t even lie very well.”
Judith raced out of the campground, but the talkie’s buttons flashed to white almost immediately, as the mute mode expired. It was still synced to Joe as its host, and it was close enough to pick up the overtones of his shock, hurt, and anger. Before it gave up trying to translate his thoughts into words, she felt horrible.
I had to leave him behind. This isn’t his problem. I have to find Daddy.
A mile down the road, she stopped and zipped up her leather jacket. Carefully, remembering a lesson her father had given her years ago, she shut the talkie all the way down. Somehow, Joe must have stumbled across the combination of keys that told it to adapt to a new user. She’d tune it to herself, once she got back through Las Vegas. It was too useful to be able to communicate, and if she were careful, with simple signs, most people wouldn’t realize they were being helped in their understanding. They’d just think they were skilled or lucky.
I wish I could have let him come along. It’d been great to be able to talk to someone. Three times Daddy had transported a talkie from one base to another, and he’d arranged to have her along on those trips. She prized those few days when Daddy had been able to talk with her. Today had been different. Joe was her age. It had been nice. But now, he hated her. Oh, well, it was for his own good.
She passed through Las Vegas without seeing any sign of the car Carl Morris was using. Lucky. She didn’t have Joe’s confidence in the local law enforcement. Dad had stories of incidents in his past with cops of various stripes. In each case, the Trust had been able to pull strings to keep him out of trouble and off the books.
Why is the Trust working against itself? It makes no sense. Daddy must have known something was going on. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have impressed on her to keep monitoring the phone, in case he called. He must have thought it was going to be dangerous if he had a talkie and didn’t bring her. She wished he’d told her more. He’d been worried for weeks, but he kept his secrets. That was his job, after all.
And it was her job to find him. She touched the talkie, inactive in her pocket. He’d be glad she recovered it.
Joe’s feet were starting to hurt. It’d been a year or so since he’d taken a good long hike. Not too far down the mountain road from the campground, he saw a little sign with just ‘14’ on it. Fourteen miles back to Las Vegas. That wouldn’t have been too bad on his bicycle, especially since a lot of it would be downhill. But he could make it, he was sure.
Dad would be furious. He was supposed to be back at the office by now. How long would it take to get back home?
By the time he saw the next mile marker, Joe was seriously considering calling home to get someone to come pick him up. If there’d been a convenience store, he would have done it by now. He patted his pocket where the five-dollar bill rested. A cold coke and change for a pay phone would be welcome.
He was draining the canteen faster than he’d expected. In spite of the shade from the trees, there were more uphill stretches on the road than he remembered, and he was working up a sweat.
A white van passed by. The driver waved. Joe waved back, and kept on walking. It made the dozenth time he’d lost his nerve. What’s wrong with hitchhiking?
Nothing. It’s me that’s the problem.
On his home ground, he took care of people, cleaned up after them, and helped them find what they sought. But out here, he was too timid to ask for help himself.
As he trudged past the next mile marker, he looked longingly at the nearby house, and the wires running to it from the telephone poles. He paused, partly to take a break, but also to see if he could build up enough courage to knock on the door.
Joe turned around. Dressed in dusty work clothes, a man stood next to the fence on the other side of the road, a hammer in his hand.
“Uh, hi.”
“Need somethin’?”
Joe nodded towards the house. “I need to find a phone.”
The man nodded. “Go knock on the door. She’ll show you where it’s at.” Then he turned his attention back to fence repair.
Joe sighed. He wasn’t looking forward to this.
“Railroad Motel.” It was his sister.
“Hi. Can I speak to Dad?”
“Joe! Where’ve you been? Dad was furious. Mom called and needed him to bring some stuff to her in Albuquerque. You were supposed to be here to cover for him.
“Now, I’m stuck, and my boss won’t like it when I’m late to my job at the dorm.”
“Sorry. I’m stuck too. I need you to come get me.”
“Come get you? Where are you?”
“Out on route 65, near mile marker 12.”
“What in the world are you doing there?”
Joe sighed. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Try me.”
“Um. Well... there’s this girl, and we rode out towards Hermit’s Peak on her motorcycle. And uh....”
“Joe, what did you do?”
“Nothing! Honest.” He lowered his voice. “I was just helping her out. And then she up and left. I’ve been hiking back to town.”
The lady of the house had shown him the phone and let him make the call from the front porch, but he’d die of embarrassment if she were listening. It was bad enough he had to tell Anna.
She had no sympathy. “Serves you right.”
“Can you come get me?”
“No. I’m stuck here at the office, remember. Dad’s already left, and it’ll be hours before he’s back.
“You’re on your own. Teach you to trifle with girls. It wasn’t one of our guests was it?”
Joe hesitated, and that was enough for her. “Boys!” And she hung up.
Meekly, Joe returned the phone and thanked the lady for the call.
More walking was in order.
I wonder if I could get Mr. Patel, or maybe Mark’s parents to come get me.
But he’d need a few more miles under his feet before he’d have the nerve to make those calls.
Judith pulled off the interstate and pulled out her maps. There were several roads Daddy could have taken. Something had happened immediately after his call. He would certainly have made another attempt to contact her.
Suppose he had an accident. But if he’d been on the interstate, the police would have been on the scene long ago and they would have called the house.
For the tenth time today, she called her home number and checked the answering machine. Nothing.
She was alone, and on her own. She clenched her teeth and stared hard at the road ahead. She was not going to cry. Daddy had always been there to take care of her. Even when he was away for days, he’d called her every night and listened carefully as she tapped out her thoughts with the spoon. When Momma left....
She shook away the self-pity. Daddy needed her now. He sent for her. He might be in trouble. She had to concentrate.
The possible routes Daddy might have taken were not that many, considering how much time had elapsed from when Joe heard him leave the motel and when the call had come.
Daddy knew he was being chased and headed west on either Highway 58 or 64. If she stayed on I-25 until the 64 exit, she could loop back over 58 and cover all the options.
Daddy, what’s happened to you?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Roswell or Bust - Part 8 of 43

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Hermit’s Peak
Joe yelled into the wind. “We’ll never get that far ahead of them.” He had his arms around her waist.
“Yes, we will.” Her gestures were more like finger wiggles, as she held onto the handlebars. That couldn’t be real sign language. Maybe the intent to talk was enough.
She roared along First Street. “It’s not like radar. They can’t tell direction, just that we’re within ten miles.”
“That’s lame.” He hadn’t said that loud, not really for her ears, but she heard it anyway.
“You don’t understand, Motel Boy. All they’ve got is another talkie. We’ve got what they’ve got. Can’t you sense them? It’s like a ringing in the back of your head.”
Now that she mentioned it, he could hear it. It was a thin noise, and it did seem to come from the inside of his head, not from any specific direction.
“Turn left on Mills.”
“Why?” But she did it.
“They’ll expect you to take the interstate, won’t they? I know the mountain roads. I’ll get us ten miles away, where they’ll never think to look.”He could read fear in her shoulders. They headed up Hot Springs, following the Highway 65 markers.
“How does this talkie thing work? Who invented it?”
She shook her head. “Don’t ask!” Then she added, “I don’t know. It belongs to my father.”
Whether it was machine telepathy or some kind of remote electrical stimulation, he was amazed. It was still in his pants pocket, and yet it was, somehow, picking up her gestures, translating them into English, and fooling his brain into believing he was hearing it all.
“I heard a dog talk with this! That’s amazing.”
She didn’t react to that revelation. Did that mean it was old news to her, or was she deliberately trying to minimize what she told him?
The road was winding into the mountains. She slowed a bit as the huge building appeared around the bend. Onion-shaped dome-spires drew the eye. “What’s that?”
Joe whispered, “Montezuma Castle. I told you I was a good tour guide. It’s a school now, the United World College. Originally a hotel, back in the peak of the railroad era.”
She sped back up, and he stopped talking. It was plain she wasn’t interested in being a tourist.
“Where are we going, Mr. Tour Guide?”
“There’s a campground up in the mountains that I’m familiar with. They’ll never find us.”
She looked up, as their route took them through a forested gorge. “This is pretty. Where I’m from, there are no trees, and the nearest mountain is just a blue shape many miles off to the west.”
“Where’s that?”
Joe had a very strong impression she would have liked to have kept that information to herself.
A few more miles down the road, Joe pointed. “Take the right branch.”
As the gravel road narrowed, heading up the Porvenir Canyon, Joe suddenly noticed the ringing in his head drop away. She must have felt it too, as she left off the gas and slowed their frantic pace.
“We’re out of range. How much farther is this campground of yours?”
“Not far.”
Joe had been here a few times. He pointed to a trailhead parking lot and she pulled in. “This is the way to Hermit’s Peak. If you don’t mind hiking a few miles uphill, it’s a nice place.”
“Please, no! A hike is the last thing I need. All I want is a place to catch my breath.”
Joe nodded. “There’s a real campground just across the creek, with a bathroom if you need it.”
“In a bit.”
“You don’t think they’ll find us now?”
She shook her head. “This morning, I was following them, a mile or so back, when you must have turned the talkie on. They’d given up searching the town and were heading north on the interstate. Suddenly, they slowed, crossed the median and headed back. I had to follow, and they must have been watching the odometer, because they pulled off in a hurry and found you pretty quickly.” She shivered. “I’m just lucky they didn’t notice me.”
Joe sat down on the large wooden beam, a squared off telephone pole mounted on stone pillars like a hitching post for horses. It marked the edge of the parking lot. “What are you going to do now?”
She shrugged. “Wait until they move out of range. I still have to find my Daddy.” She was using both hands again. Joe could almost imagine that he understood her sign language, although he knew it had to be the talkie.
“How did you find me? I’d accidentally turned it off the first day, I think.”
She smiled, and it was the first time. “Just good old fashioned detective work. Dad called with a coded message, telling me that he was in trouble and to go to room 31 in the motel to look for the talkie. He didn’t say which motel, but he’d mentioned the Railroad in the past.” She shook her head. “When I didn’t find it that first night, I tried checking the other motels, but then, I saw them, doing the same thing.”
“Who are they? They’re not FBI, you said so yourself.”
She said nothing. Unzipping her blue leather coat, she set it next to her helmet. She took a deep breath.
“I love the pines.”
“Trees and mountains.” He remembered.
She nodded.
“J Smith. What’s the J stand for?”
“Judith.” Again, he saw her tense, angry that she’d let information slip. She wrinkled her nose, and somehow it reminded him of Kelly LeMay in school.
“You’re my age, aren’t you? Sixteen?”
Judith made a finger gesture like a snapping turtle, and shook her head no, but the voice he heard said, “Yes.”
He chuckled. “This talkie makes it hard to lie, doesn’t it?”
She blushed.
From the saddlebag of her bike, she pulled out a white paper bag.
“We need to wait here for awhile, until they assume we’ve really left the area. I bought these a couple of hours ago when I thought I’d be on the road all day. Are you hungry?”
Cold cheeseburgers looked surprisingly tasty. Joe took one and bit in.
“What’s your plan?”
She unwrapped her burger, and wiggled her fingers. “I’m worried about my father, ‘John Smith’. When he called on the phone, I could tell he was in trouble, maybe a car accident. I missed the call, but just by a minute. I tried to call back, but the phone was out of range or something. He should have tried to contact me by now.”
“Does the talkie work over the phone?”
“No. We have a tap code.”
Joe nodded. That made sense.
“I’d hoped to find him in town, or at least nearby, but I’m running out of ideas. Did he say anything to you when he left?”
Joe shook his head. “He left town early. He didn’t talk to anyone. He didn’t even leave his room key, and he’d never forgotten that before. I think he was in a hurry. He jumped the curb on the way out.”
“When was that?”
Joe tried to remember. “A little before five in the morning.”
Judith sat balanced on the beam, her arms around her knees, the remains of her burger in one hand. She stared at nothing.
“The call came in about two hours after that. He would have headed out of town, probably going north. I guess my next step will be to search farther up the road.”
“Can you call the police? If he had an accident, they would know.”
She wrinkled her nose at the idea. “No, stupid. The police have to be kept out of it.”
“I don’t get it. You don’t want the police. ‘Agent’ Morris doesn’t want the police. What kind of game are you playing?”
Her face went a little pale. “Did you say ‘Morris’?”
He nodded. “The FBI badge said Carl Morris.”
She put her feet back down on the ground and set aside the remnants of her burger. “It’s worse than I thought. I’ll need to get moving.”
“We can’t go yet. They might not even be clear of the State Police.”
“It’s Daddy. He might be hurt. I can’t just wait here.” She hesitated and asked, “Where is the bathroom?”
He pointed to the trail. “Just follow the trail until you reach the road and turn right. It’s just a little campground.”
She walked off, toward the creek. Joe sighed. It was too dangerous to think much about how sexy she looked, not with the talkie in his pocket. From the easy way she spouted insults, he suspected she wasn’t used to it either. Not enough practice keeping her thoughts to herself.
When she was out of sight, he pulled it out of his pocket. Knowing it was some kind of high tech gadget, far beyond anything he thought was possible, gave it a different appearance. He felt the surface and hefted the weight. It wasn’t plastic. Maybe it was some kind of metal. The buttons were white, but how did they change color from gray to white? He cupped his hand around it, trying to shield it from the sun. Was it illuminating the buttons from inside? And where was the battery? There wasn’t even a seam to allow it to be taken apart.
He hesitated to touch any of the buttons now. He’d turned it on by accident. What if he turned it off? They’d be back to her notepad for sure, and he’d have no way to tell when she was hiding something.
He tapped the case against his teeth absently.
Judith was John Smith’s daughter. That was pretty certain. Was his regular guest in trouble, like she thought? He’d always seemed to be a friendly and levelheaded guy—not likely to be involved in some secret game, with impossible gadgets and fake FBI men.
But here it was, and an impossibility in the hand trumped a dozen absurdities.
Should he give it to her? Just how much danger was there? He’d bend Dad’s rule about lost items, if the reason were clear enough. If a guest was in trouble, then he should give it up.
A car came rumbling up the road, and he concealed the black tube in his hand. It was just an old tan Jeep Cherokee pulling a pop-up camper. The driver didn’t give him a second glance.
When it rumbled out of sight, Joe was surprised. His arm was shaking. This mystery chase had him rattled.
Behind him, he heard footsteps on a wooden plank.
Judith was walking back, a thoughtful expression on her face. She saw the talkie in his hand.
“It’s Joe, isn’t it?”
He nodded, pleased she’d remembered.
“I had a thought. I can change a setting on the talkie to keep it from being detected.” She came up and sat down on the beam beside him. “Let me see it. I’m sure I remember the sequence.”
Joe passed it over. Her face a mask of concentration, she pressed several chords of buttons in sequence. The buttons snapped from white to gray.
It was as if she suddenly became a stranger. He couldn’t read her. She pulled the pad out of her pocket.
“We’ll need to wait fifteen minutes for the unit to reset.” She smiled.
He shrugged. “It’s a nice place to wait.”
She set the talkie down on the beam and went to her motorcycle. Rummaging through her bag, she pulled out a canteen.
She scribbled on her pad. “I’ll need to refill this. I didn’t notice. Is there a water hydrant in the campground?”
He nodded. “I’m sure there is.”
“Could you fill it, while I re-pack?”
She gave him a bright smile.
“Sure.” He took it and headed up the trail.
He was barely on the other side of the creek when he heard the motorcycle rumble to life.
The talkie!
He raced back. But there was nothing but a cloud of road dust in the air, and a scrap of paper on the beam, weighted down with a pebble.
“Sorry Joe. I have to move fast. Sorry to lie to you about the talkie. Seriously, seriously, seriously, forget everything I told you. Forget me. It’s safer for everyone. Keep the canteen. Trash this note.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

Roswell or Bust - Part 7 of 43

© 2008 by Henry Melton

It was a cool morning. Joe wheeled the bicycle through the Roundhouse gate and propped it up against the side of the abandoned office. He sat down on the fat wooden post—the only place to sit unless he felt like hunching down on the gravel.
Anna had arrived early this morning, and for once, his chores were done before the day’s heat moved in. With Dad’s blessing, he grabbed breakfast and headed out for an hour or so. New motel chores would certainly appear faster if he were present. It was a law of nature.
“Conductor!” Joe knew the dog lived around here somewhere. “Conductor! I’ve brought you something to eat.”
He dug into his pocket and pulled out a pastry for the dog, and one for him.
Fingers closed around a hard surface. He pulled out John Smith’s gadget.
How long had that been in his pocket? He put it to his mouth like a little flute and riffled the buttons. He knew what it wasn’t—a TV remote—but not what it was. It might be a musical instrument, possibly.
A brown shape appeared from the back side of the Roundhouse. Joe set the gadget down on the post beside him and opened a pastry.
“Conductor. Come here boy.”
The dog crept closer. Joe set the pastry down on the ground at his feet. From his other pocket, he pulled an apple and bit into the crunchy fruit.
“I’ve had a good day so far, Conductor. I cleaned my rooms in record time and none of them were in bad shape. In fact, in 28, an old retired couple, the Jamesons, just moved out after a three-day stay and they left me a tip. Five dollars!”
Conductor moved cautiously close enough to snatch up the pastry. Joe didn’t move, and kept talking as the dog wolfed it down.
“Do you have any friends, Conductor? Anyone besides me, that is. Sometimes I think they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I need to bring Sandeep over here to meet you. He’s Indian. Not like Apache or Navajo, but from India. From what Granddad Jose says, I’m a little bit American Indian, or Amerind, as they say.
“How about you? Are you part wolf, on your mother’s side, maybe?”
He finished the apple and dropped the core on the ground. Conductor sniffed at it, but didn’t bite.
Joe unwrapped the other pastry. Conductor looked at him.
“Oh, alright. I’ll share.” He broke the sugary confection in two and handed part to the dog. He got his fingers licked. That was a first in this relationship.
“I wonder if you can tell if someone is lying or not? I met these people who called themselves FBI agents. Or rather, I guess just the one guy. The other one didn’t say a thing.”
Joe finished his pastry and stared off at the Roundhouse. “That’s a problem with people. You can’t trust what they say. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they’re just mistaken. You can hate the people trying to trick you, but what about the ones who are just wrong?”
“This tastes bad.”
Joe jerked and looked over his shoulder. There was no one around, except Conductor. And the dog had John Smith’s gadget in his mouth.
“Hey, drop that!”
Conductor ducked his head and dashed away a dozen feet. He growled. “I don’t trust you!”
Joe snatched up the black tube. It was slimy from dog saliva. He rubbed it against his pants leg. Dad would be upset if he knew that a guest’s lost item was being chewed up by a dog.
“Don’t hurt me. I’ll bite.” The dog was growling, but what kept Joe’s mouth sagging open was that he could understand what the dog was saying.
“Okay. Who’s doing this? Sandeep, are you hiding.” Someone had to be pulling a ventriloquist act. Dogs don’t speak English.
Joe took a step, looking around.
Conductor said, “I’m getting out of here.” He bounded away, quickly gone out of sight around the Roundhouse.
Joe waited for a moment, expecting someone to appear, laughing at the joke, but there was no sound other than traffic on the highway.
He cleaned the rest of the gadget. There didn’t appear to be any teeth marks.
But the buttons were white again.
Sandeep was pushing a cleaning cart. Joe pulled up beside him.
“You’ll never guess what just happened.”
“You saw another ghost?”
“No! I just had a dog talk to me, in English. You weren’t trying to pull a trick on me, were you?”
Sandeep didn’t look his way, re-stacking towels in his cart.
“No. It’s the Anglos that pull the tricks. Are you sure it wasn’t a ghost dog?”
Joe was a little taken aback. Sandeep seemed a bit more direct, more cynical, than usual. Normally, he was polite, and he’d never called him an Anglo before.
“Hey, don’t blame me for the ghost story! I didn’t make it up.”
Sandeep looked at him, puzzled. “I didn’t say you did. However, I’ve asked around, and no one seems to know anything about your ghost.”
Joe spread his arms, smiling. “Hey. Ghosts happen. This is the original Las Vegas. It was a pretty violent place. There was the Dodge City Gang, who were supposed to be peacekeepers, but were mostly criminals, and the Society of Vigilance, who were shopkeepers ready to hang any criminal they found. Not to mention the Society of Bandits.
“Hey, this town was even conquered by the US Army, back when the USA went to war with Mexico. Lot of ghosts have been made here over the years.
“Tourists like this stuff! Nothing brings in visitors like historical markers and ghosts.”
Sandeep looked nervous, and Joe suddenly realized he’d made another cultural blunder.
“Hey, Sandeep, there’s nothing to worry about. All this is ancient history. Today, Las Vegas is just a peaceful little town with more old buildings than most places.”
“How long ago was this ancient history?”
“Oh, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“That isn’t old!”
Joe hadn’t even seen his lips move. Maybe Sandeep was a ventriloquist after all.
“For America, Sandeep, this is really ancient history.”
Sandeep laughed. “Joe, a hundred years is like yesterday. The land of my family, Chennai, has been an important place for over 2000 years, and we’ve been conquered by several Indian empires, as well as the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
“When my family left for America, there were terrorist attacks because of Sri Lanka. We don’t want violence.”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t want violence either. I guess maybe it’s interesting because it’s rare. Hey. I’m sorry I brought it up. Maybe I was a little irritated when you said Hindus were more hospitable. Christians have their own scriptures, and one of the most famous stories, the Good Samaritan, is all about hospitality.”
Sandeep looked back at his towels. “I’ve heard of Christian hospitality.” Joe heard it as an insult. It sounded like an echo of what Dad had said.
Joe tried to be fair. “Sandeep, your family’s seen Anglos I’m ashamed of, and I’ve certainly heard of Indians, even in the motel business, who’ve made no pretense of hospitality. No group is perfect.”
Sandeep nodded. “Not everyone studies the Vedas. I did not mean to insult your family.”
Joe grabbed at the apology. Any excuse to avoid deepening the argument.
“No problem. I’ll be a good Christian and you be a good Hindu, and we’ll both be good inn keepers.”
Joe pedaled back home, thinking.
Sandeep seemed different, somehow. For one thing, there’d been no accent problem. Everything he said came right through, even when he used that new term ‘Vedas’. It meant revealed knowledge. Something like inspired scripture.
And Sandeep was very open with his feelings, more so than normal. Joe had tried to be as open, but he had just been reacting in kind.
Maybe they were just getting to know each other better. Usually that meant you got to be either better friends, or better enemies.
Joe looked towards the interstate off-ramp. A black sedan was squealing its tires as it took the loop too fast. It was barely holding the road.
He recognized the car. It was that same rental that the fake FBI men used.
The car cut through the red light and headed in his direction. Joe moved up on the sidewalk, not wanting to be on the road when the crazy driver passed by.
But it slowed as it approached. Joe locked eyes with the driver. He cut sharply over to the curb and the passenger called out, “Hey, Kid! We need to talk to you.”
It was the same guy—‘Agent’ Carl Morris. Joe pedaled faster. The car accelerated to match him. The door opened and the man jumped out.
He was fast. Joe stepped on his pedals, but the man in the black suit clamped a fierce grip on his arm and practically pulled him off the bike.
“Hey! Help!”
“I just want to talk to you!”
Joe struggled to break free of the grip. “Help!”
A siren whooped as a State Police car pulled up. Joe could see it was dripping wet. It must have come out of the car wash at the Phillips 66 station.
“Stop right there!” It was Officer Cal Lawrence.
“Cal!” Joe shouted.
Morris released his grip on his arm.
“Joe, are you okay?”
Joe rubbed his arm, where Morris had held him. “Yes.”
“There’s no problem, officer.” Morris held his arms out. “I’m FBI. May I show my ID?”
Cal nodded, but held his gun in plain sight as he pulled out his walkie-talkie and called in.
Motion caught Joe’s eye. He looked at the rear of the nearest shop. A figure in a white motorcycle helmet and blue jacket waved at him urgently.
She gestured, and if it were sign language, it was perfectly clear. “Come over here, idiot! Get away from them.”
He hesitated, but Cal ordered the other man to turn off his car’s engine and took the badge from Morris.
Joe walked slowly to where J Smith was hiding, just a few feet away.
The man in the driver’s seat watched him coldly, but made no move. The girl was obviously hiding from them, or maybe from Cal.
But he wanted to talk to her anyway, didn’t he?
She gestured. “Don’t just stand there like a statue. Come on, get back here, out of sight.” It was amazing. Every gesture was just as if she were speaking. He could even hear a ‘voice’ in his head. It was a nice voice.
She took his arm. He pulled free. “None of that.”
J Smith looked younger in the daylight. She was his age, or pretty close. He was sure of it now.
“You can understand me, can’t you?”
He nodded. “Yeah. It’s amazing. And I don’t even understand sign language.”
“You have my talkie. Give it to me.”
Talkie. It had to be John Smith’s gadget. What had he stumbled into?
“It’s not yours, stupid.”
“I know, and it goes back to the John Smith who lost it, not to you. That’s why you wanted room 31, wasn’t it?”
She peeked around the edge of the building.
“There’s no time to argue. You have no idea what’s going on. They’re after the talkie, too. The local police won’t be able to keep them long.”
Joe looked as well. Cal Lawrence seemed to be holding his own. “I don’t think they’re real FBI.”
“Of course they’re not. But it doesn’t matter. The badges are real. I’ve got to get far away before the police let them go. They can track the talkie.”
Joe followed her wildly gesturing hands and believed every word she ‘said’. It was just a few minutes ago that the talkie’s buttons had gone from gray to white. He’d managed to accidentally activate it. That’s when the weird things started to happen. Dogs talked, Sandeep let his feelings show, and he could listen to sign language.
And probably that’s when they started tracking the talkie and raced to pick him up.
It was all too easy to believe.
“How far can they track it?”
She reached out her hand. “Just give it to me. I’ll get it out of range.”
Joe shook his head. “Nothing’s changed. I can’t give it to you. What buttons do you press to turn it off?”
She looked exasperated. “Keep out of things you know nothing about!” She sighed. “They know who you are, and I can’t let them see me. Just get on. We have to move, now.” She straddled the motorcycle. “We need a ten mile head-start.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Roswell or Bust - Part 6 of 43

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Sandeep was emphatic. “The lock was broken. The burglars used a tool to pry it open.”
Joe was puzzled. “Just that one room, and no one was checked in?”
“Correct. Nothing was taken, not even the television.”
The handyman’s white truck had just pulled up at the Inn of the Valley when Joe arrived. The door would need serious work before people started arriving.
“Have you contacted the police?”
Sandeep shook his head. “We don’t want to make a fuss. A police car might be disturbing to the guests.”
Joe didn’t understand. The Ferris family made a point of being friendly with the police. He knew a couple of the city and state cops by name. Cal Lawrence dropped by frequently, although less often now that his sister Mary had married and moved to Denver.
“You know, I had a strange visit last night. I wonder if it could be related? Did you have some FBI agents come by?”
Sandeep didn’t know. They went to the office.
The Inn of the Valley was larger than the Railroad, but their office was positively cramped and spartan.
Sandeep’s father opened the sliding glass barrier that separated them from his bank-teller-like office. Joe got the impression that the glass was thick and shatterproof.
“Hello, Mr. Patel. I heard about your trouble last night. I was on night duty myself and I had a couple of strange visitors.”
“Yes. Did two men in black suits come by here? They asked about a Kenneth somebody?”
He frowned. “Yes. FBI men. They asked about a Kenneth Winston, but I had no one by that name, and so they left.”
Joe rubbed his forehead with a finger, trying to remember. “They wanted to check my register and look around.”
“Yes. I was happy to help and printed them a list from our computer.”
“From the previous night?”
“Yes. You think this was related to the damage?”
Joe shook his head. “I really don’t know. They just didn’t act like any policemen I knew. Maybe FBI are different; I don’t know. I didn’t give them a list, and when I suggested contacting the State Police, they backed off and left.”
He had an idea. “Mr. Patel, was there someone staying in the damaged room for the previous night, like on that list you gave them?”
Sandeep’s father rarely smiled, but the idea darkened his normally serious expression even more. “I will check.”
He tapped on the computer. From Joe’s viewpoint he couldn’t see anything.
“There was a Wilson family staying there that night.”
Joe nodded. “’Winston’, ‘Wilson’. I bet that’s it. You need to call the police and tell them about your break-in. I bet those men weren’t really FBI, and they’re using fake badges to get motel operators to help them.”
Mr. Patel hesitated a moment, and then said, “I’ll call my cousin.”
When he turned away and began talking some other language into the phone, Joe looked at Sandeep and they left.
Outside, he asked, “I didn’t know your family was related to other motel owners here in town.”
Sandeep nodded. “My father’s cousin and also another more remote cousin. They are the ones who helped my family get started in Las Vegas.”
“There sure are a lot of Indians in the motel business.”
Sandeep nodded. “Yes. Atithi devo bhavah. Hindu’s always make the best inn keepers.”
“Huh?” Joe seriously didn’t understand. Or agree.
“It’s a Hindu thing. Hindu scripture. Atithi devo bhavah. ‘Our guests are our gods.’”
Joe had been in their living quarters a couple of times, and had seen the little shrine in the hallway. He hadn’t asked about the little foot-tall idol of some a human-like character with the head of an elephant, but he suspected that maybe the Hindu meaning of ‘god’ wasn’t the same thing as he had learned in Sunday school.
Dad’s rule was clear. Never argue religion with a guest. They had Gideon Bibles in the rooms, and a couple of Mom’s decorations quoted scriptures. They had a list of local churches for guest reference. Be honest if the topic comes up, but never let yourself be sucked into an argument with a guest.
But was Sandeep really a guest?
Joe shook his head. “I don’t know about gods, but at least you’ve got a ghost of your own.”
“What do you mean?”
Joe smiled. “I mean the Inn of the Valley. Your place. We pride ourselves on being friendly to all our guests at the Railroad. That means talking to them. And we’ve heard about the ghost that haunts here since the 80’s at least.”
Sandeep leaned closer, his eyes wide.
Joe continued, “Yeah, we’ve had a few people show up very late, having left the Inn after being woken up by noises in the night. I don’t think it’s ever hurt anyone. Nothing to worry about.”
Sandeep shook his head side to side. “Oh, I’m not worried. I just want to know more. A ghost should be treated properly.”
“And it could be good for business, if you do it right.” Joe nodded towards downtown. “You know the Plaza even lists its ghost in the advertising pamphlets.”
“What’s wrong, Joe?”
Joe finished layering a slice of cheese on his sandwich and closed the refrigerator in the family kitchen.
“I don’t know, Dad. Something Sandeep said just bugged me.”
Abel Ferris set down his calculator and waited.
It was mid-day. Anita had gone back to the school, and one of them ought to be taking a nap in preparation for the night shift. Joe would just as soon drop it. He took a bite of his sandwich.
“It’s not the Internet thing again, is it?”
“No. And by the way we lost another booking last night because of it.
“No, it was a Hindu thing he said. He implied that they’re better at the motel business than us, because they’re Hindu.”
Abel shook his head with a smile. “Broad statements. Just ignore it. We’re doing okay. We’ve got a higher rate of regular returnees than anyone else in town, and that’s saying something right there.”
Joe nodded. “He quoted some Hindu scripture at me.”
“And you could quote the Bible back at him, I’m sure—if you wanted to get into a religious argument with your buddy. Did you want to do that?”
“No.” Joe sighed, “I didn’t. Instead I told him about the Valley’s ghost.”
“Joe! You didn’t! That’s nothing more than rumor. Probably nothing more than noises in their pipes. What were you trying to do? Scare him?”
“No! Just... Sandeep was talking gods and so I changed the subject to ghosts.”
“Showing that you had as little respect for his beliefs as you do for idle rumors. Not good, Joe.”
He felt his face grow hot. “That’s not what I meant.”
“What does Sandeep think? That’s the point.”
Joe didn’t respond. Sandeep started the whole thing. He could tell the Patels a dozen things they were doing wrong. It was ridiculous to think that just because they were Hindu that they were automatically the best.
How many times had he heard guests compliment him about how friendly the Railroad was, and complain about those unfriendly foreigner motels?
He closed his eyes and let the urge to gripe pass over him. Dad wouldn’t like that either. Guests complained about lots of things. Don’t make more of it than it deserved.
“There’s something else, Dad.”
“Remember last night? Those two men looking for Kenneth Winston?”
“Umm. Yes.”
“They said they were FBI, but I think they were fakes.”
He told his father about the break-in at the Valley, and his suspicions.
“And now that I think about it. Room 31 was really jumbled when I cleaned it up—much worse than any biker chick would do just staying the night.”
“Biker chick? You didn’t mention her.”
Joe waved his hands. “No. Not a biker chick. The mute girl. J Smith. She rode a motorcycle. That’s not the point. The room looked like it had been turned upside down and searched.”
“She searched 31?”
“Maybe it wasn’t her. She was gone early in the morning. Maybe the fake FBI guys ransacked the room after she left. She didn’t mention anything when I saw her later at the McDonalds.”
“You got the key back?”
He nodded and fished it out. Abel took it and pulled out pliers from a drawer to affix the plastic tag.
Joe watched him bend the metal hooks and prepare both room 31 keys.
“Maybe we should call the police. I almost did it last night.”
“Did the Patels report it?”
“I don’t think so. They seemed... reluctant.”
Abel nodded. “Joe, don’t judge them. I’ve heard some stories. Things you wouldn’t be proud of. We’ve got it easy. You’re Anglo/Hispanic, so’s most everyone else in this town. They’re the outsiders, and for some of them, this isn’t the first place they tried to settle. I know Patel’s cousin moved here because he was worried about his children. His first motel was vandalized several times by locals who didn’t like the ‘foreigners’ taking over the business.”
The office where Mr. Patel worked, protected behind glass, suddenly made a little more sense. Joe still thought it unfriendly, but if he had a history of being attacked....
“Should we make the call? I could describe the fake FBI men.”
Abel shook his head. “We haven’t been damaged, not really. Just be on the lookout for them.
“But for now, I’ve got to run some errands. I’ll need you to be available pretty much all the time, until your Granddad gets better and your Mom is home.”
Joe’s face showed his feelings on the subject. “I’d promised Mark I’d join the summer basketball league. They’ve opened the courts at the high school. He’s been expecting me all week.”
“I’m sorry, but you know your responsibilities here come first. I’ll do my best to give you some free time, but we’re tight for help, and there’s no way we can hire anyone.”
“Fine.” Joe sighed. “I’ll man the office.”
“Okay, but look out for those biker chicks.” Abel chuckled as he walked out.
Joe didn’t bother with the TV. Dad would take the night shift.
But as he waited, he thought about the FBI men.
He flipped through the Rolodex, and started calling the other motels.
His suspicion was correct. Those that knew him reported their own visits by the men in black suits. Two places had called the police. He wasn’t the only one who thought they were fakes.
About five, Joe saw J Smith drive by. She slowed to a crawl, but then drove on.
So, she was still in town, but she wasn’t staying at the Railroad. What was her story?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Roswell or Bust - Part 5 of 43

© 2008 by Henry Melton

J Smith
“Who was that?” Dad walked in just a minute after the FBI men left. Joe was still nervous.
But Dad looked dead tired, the trip must have taken a lot out of him.
“Just men looking for a Kenneth Winston. Heard of him?”
He shook his head.
“How’s Granddad?”
Abel Ferris settled into one of the reading chairs. “Okay. The doctor seemed to think he’d be okay. They’re keeping him at the hospital for a couple of days.”
Joe nodded.
“Dad. I’ll take the night shift. You need to sleep.”
Abel thought a moment, and then nodded. “Wake me if there are any problems.”
“I will.”
His dad pulled himself slowly out of the chair. Joe pointed. “Oh, and watch out for the TV cable in the hallway. I’ll have it put back up in the morning.”
The elder Ferris just nodded and went off to bed.
Joe checked the clock and turned the sound back up, just a little. Dad didn’t need anything keeping him awake.
There were two watches, a calculator, a gold-toned wire-rimmed pair of glasses, a kid’s wallet (with Scooby-Do on the outside and three dollars inside), and John Smith’s black tube gadget. These were just the unclaimed items discovered recently. There was a much bigger box in the storage closet with more ancient lost objects. Mom indexed everything and had a list in the desk, but Joe had never seen the older items claimed.
He pressed the gray buttons one at a time, but nothing changed on the set. He held the slots on one end up to the desk lamp, trying to look inside. If there was an LED in there, it should be visible. He stared at the darkness inside as he played the buttons like a clarinet. No red blinking light.
He sighed. TV remotes flashed. So much for that theory.
There was a rumble outside. Motorcycle.
Rapidly, Joe stuffed the gadget inside his pocket, muted the TV, and put on his smile.
It brightened a bit when she walked in.
The girl held her white helmet in one hand and was straightening strands of her long brown hair with the other. She was dressed in motorcycle leathers. The coat was pale blue with white accents. She smelled faintly of engine-oil.
Joe made eye contact. Her eyes were the same shade as her coat, he noticed absently. “Can I help you?”
She held up one finger and set down her helmet. Zip. She opened the coat and whipped a well-used notepad from a breast pocket in the high-collared, floral blouse, and rapidly wrote. The text was clear and precise, practiced block lettering. She held it out to him.
It said: “I need a cheap, non-smoking room. Is number 31 available?” She nodded in that direction.
He wondered how old she was. She was as tall as he was, and held herself rigidly upright, but her face looked young, like the girls at school. She was looking him over too. She probably wondered how young he was. What was a high school-aged girl doing traveling the interstate on her own?
“How many are staying?” he asked, a canned response.
She scribbled: “Just me.”
He felt a pang of envy. To be traveling alone. He put that thought aside.
So, she wasn’t deaf, just mute. Or maybe she could read lips. He hadn’t considered the possibility when he’d spoken. He was never supposed to call attention to a guest’s disabilities. She was just so distractingly beautiful. Her expression was calm and businesslike. He’d give a lot to see a smile.
She cocked her head, waiting for an answer. He shook himself out of his appreciative trance.
“Number 31. Um. Well, yes, that unit is available, but the previous user left with the key, and I haven’t had a chance to change out the lock yet. I have other units that match your needs.”
Her pencil went to paper: “No. That’s okay. I don’t need the lock changed, but I do like the looks of 31. I want a room on the end.”
Joe nodded. If at all possible, accommodate the guest. Getting an end unit was reasonable. It halved your chance of noisy neighbors.
“Oh, no trouble. I’ve got the replacement lock right here. I can have it installed in three minutes.”
He told her the price and gave her the registration card. She paid cash and signed the card: “J Smith”. The ‘J’ was a cursive flourish, but the Smith was lettered.
Joe struggled to keep the grin off his face. Of course, it would be J Smith—that was John Smith’s room, after all. How many J Smiths were there in the world? Certainly enough of them stopped here for the night.
He grabbed the sack and the screwdriver and rushed over to 31. Keeping an eye out for anyone else arriving, he pulled the old lock quickly. She moved her motorcycle over to the slot. By the time he’d inserted and secured the replacement lock, she’d carried her little bag and her helmet inside.
“It’s done.” He handed her the shiny new key. There wasn’t time to hook it onto the plastic tag.
She moved her right hand to her lips and extended the palm toward him with a nod. He knew it was sign language of some kind, but he had no idea what she meant. It looked disturbingly like she’d blown him a kiss. Wishful thinking.
“Ah... Would you like a wake-up call?”
She shook her head, ‘no’, then closed the door.
Joe sighed. Oh, well. He’d have liked any excuse to call her. One problem with this job. So many people, nice people, people who could be good friends—people who vanish the next morning.
“Joe. It’s time to get up now.”
He winced against the light. It was already broad daylight, but he felt like another couple of hours of sleep would be in order.
Joe slid out of bed and changed shirts. He’d just dragged himself up onto the bunk at closing. He put up the spare television when the clock passed midnight and declared the night’s business over. Sometimes guests arrived very late, but it was rare. Dad had a doorbell rigged in his bedroom, just in case.
Breakfast was out. Joe smiled and nodded at the two couples making the best of cold cereal and microwaved pastries. He helped himself to a fresh banana before checking with Dad.
Abel was loading the cleaning carts with fresh laundry.
“Anna will be here by ten to handle the late check-outs, but it’s just you and me for now.”
Joe nodded. “Any news?”
“I called your mother this morning. Jose is starting to growl a bit about the hospital food, so that’s good news.” He didn’t look up from his work.
Joe knew the signs. Dad was always big on eye contact. He was worried about Granddad. They’d known each other since Dad was his age. Jose Gonzalez stayed at the Railroad Motel back when Granddad Todd Ferris ran the place. Mom told stories of how she’d met Dad when she came along on one of Jose’s trips.
Granddad Ferris died three years ago. Heart attack.
Dad pushed a cart his way. “I saw that 31 was registered to John Smith.”
Joe smiled. “Not the same one. And that’s ‘J’ Smith, not John.”
“Well, you take that end. I’ll take the south wing after I clean up the tables.” They pushed their carts up to the check out box, and Dad handed him the higher numbered keys.
Joe quickly saw that the motorcycle was missing. He wished he’d woken up earlier. There’d been no bare key in the box, so he knew she hadn’t checked out yet, but just on the off chance, he knocked on the door.
“Housekeeping.” There was no response. He waited thirty seconds before calling out again.
He used his key, and took a good long look at the state of the room.
“Well, you may share the initial, but you’re not as tidy as John.” Everything was in disarray. The bed had been stripped down to the mattress, with the bedding on the floor. A couple of the drawers were open. It even looked like she’d moved the furniture around a bit. He looked in the bathroom, and it too had been well used.
There was no sign that she’d left any of her things. Had she left without returning the key?
“Dad won’t like that.”
He began tidying up, hoping with each move that he’d find a discarded key.
Anna actually arrived early, for once, and took over Dad’s cart. Joe finished the north side before she was done.
“Uh, Dad?”
He was drinking coffee and working up a maintenance list. “What is it?”
“Did you find a bare key anywhere?”
Abel looked up with a frown. “No.” He waited.
Joe shook his head.
“I think J Smith, 31, left with her key.”
“Again with 31?” He sighed. “Did you happen to mention that the key should be returned?” It was listed on the checkout instructions in each room, along with the checkout time and how to make long distance calls through the PBX. They didn’t normally make a point of mentioning it to guests. It was pretty obvious.
Joe shook his head. “She was mute. She wrote out everything she wanted to say. And I had to get the lock replaced in a hurry when she insisted on room 31.”
“It’s a shame you couldn’t have waited another day. Oh, well. You know the drill. Try to get the new one replaced earlier in the day this time.”
The locksmith shop was just a couple of blocks from the McDonalds. He’d parked his bike and was ready to walk in, lock in hand, when he saw a couple of motorcycles parked next to the big yellow arches.
Could one of them be hers? He hadn’t paid any attention to the machine last night. He’d ridden a motorcycle before, but he didn’t know the types by sight.
He put the lock back in his pocket. It was worth a look.
He walked over to the restaurant. At this time of the morning, it was still serving the breakfast menu, he knew. Many of the guests preferred the predictable McDonalds fare to Railroad’s cold cereal and he had the directions from the motel on a list. He had directions to most of the restaurants in town memorized.
The smell of sausage and pancakes was tempting as he entered, but his cash was limited and he’d already eaten.
Her blue coat was easy to spot. She had a corner table.
“J Smith.” She didn’t look up immediately, and he wondered if she were deaf, after all.
He tried again. “Hello.” She glanced up, caution in her eyes. “It’s Joe Ferris, from the motel.”
Smile. Eye contact. “I was wondering if you had checked out yet.” He could almost see her putting the pieces together. She hadn’t recognized him. So much for making a first impression.
She nodded, having finally placed him. Beside the trash from a Big Breakfast Deluxe Combo, she had a city street map spread out. She had a pencil in her hand. There were markings. She moved her arm to cover them.
Joe tried to keep the smile. Long practice made it easy, although he was disappointed at her reaction.
“I didn’t mean to bother you, but I couldn’t find your room key this morning.” He gestured down the street, and pulled the lock from his pocket. “I was just about ready to get this re-keyed.”
She brushed the back of her hand against her cheek and started fumbling with her pockets. There were several, each with zippers.
Joe noticed that she’d been marking places along Grand Avenue. Other motels?
He averted his eye from her map when she pulled out a set of keys. It wasn’t polite to be spying on her.
She found the loose key and presented it in triumph.
“Great! This’ll save me a locksmith charge.”
Her fingers brushed her cheek again. That had to be sign language for an apology.
“No problem. We lose keys all the time. That’s why we normally put little tags on them, so they can be easily returned.” It was also advertising, but that was beside the point.
“I see you’ve got a city map. If you’re interested in the historical sites of the city, I’m one of the best guides around. I know where Tom Mix made his movies, and where Doc Holladay stayed. I know the history of the railroads and where the local vigilantes strung up the desperados. I’d be happy to show you around.”
J Smith shook her head. No.
“Free of charge, of course. It’s all part of my job at the Railroad Motel.”
She didn’t smile, but he kept his. He nodded politely, and turned away. Watching him from across the room was Mark Andrew, a big grin on his face. He made a gun with his thumb and index finger and shot himself in the head. Plain enough. He’d just been shot down by the girl.
Joe nodded, keeping his brittle smile in place until he was out of the building. There would be questions about J Smith the next time they met, for sure.