by J. H. Malone
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
In St. Louis we returned the rental and after waiting an hour and a half, caught a flight to Salt Lake City with a connection to Billings.
“Which were invented first, cars or planes?” Smith asked as we roared down the runway and lifted off.
“And yet planes get you there so much faster.”
The plane was a 737 with a one-aisle two-abreast cabin. Smith sat by the window.
“Where have you gone,” I asked, “when you aren’t crawling under houses in Effingham?”
“I’m on top of houses, snaking out pipes through the roof vents.”
“My guy in Venice Beach won’t do that anymore,” I said. “He takes the toilet off instead. Costs more.”
“I drive over to St. Louis or Terre Haute,” Smith said, “or to Indianapolis for Pacers games. I’ve taken the train to Chicago and New York. I also visit home from time to time.”
“You go home to Vernernusia?”
“Well, Vernernusia isn’t a place in the same sense as Earth.”
“Remember, please, no extraterrestrial details.”
“Fine, but it’s not—”
“Sorry. So, hypothetically, when I use the words planet and home—”
“No hypotheticals either. Let’s take a break, shall we?”
I picked up my phone to read. Smith turned to his window.
“Most of the land down there is in use,” he said.
“Farming and sprawl,” I said.
“I considered choosing irrigation hydraulics at school,” Smith said. “Farmer plumbing.”
“Not enough human contact. I want that. I’m a union man. I’m a member of Kiwanis and the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which invented Mother’s Day. I go to church on Sunday.”
“How about marriage and a family,” I said, “since you’re staying here so long?”
“I’ve thought about it. EarthTours doesn’t allow alien-human miscegenation or adoption but Vernernusians are parthenogenetic, so I could have children by myself. I considered it but ruled it out because your cloaking for newborns is an embarrassment.”
“We’re OK with common-law relationships,” I said, “in case you change your mind.”
The flight to Salt Lake took less than three hours in the air but was long enough for drink and meal service. I enjoyed two cocktails and a plate with a chicken entree. Smith went vegetarian.
“I’m eating this to be sociable,” he said, holding up a grape on his fork. “Vernernusians don’t metabolize organic material. We ingest minerals and let our bodies do the rest.”
“Please don’t tell me... Whatever. Where does that grape go when you swallow it?”
“Into a bag. Then I’ll—”
“That’s OK,” I said. “Where do you get your minerals?”
“In the beginning, I’d visit a gem or mineral shop. Now I order online. Currently I’m good for another year.”
The plane hit a series of bumps and the seatbelt sign went on.
“On the way to St. Louis, you commented on humans taking risks while driving,” I said. “What about the dangers of flight?”
“On a plane,” Smith said, “you can’t doze off and run into the pier of a concrete overpass. Even if your plane is going down, it’s not instantaneous. You have time to get your thoughts in order. That never happens in a car.”
“I’ve never considered the terminal plunge a plus,” I said.
During our brief layover in Utah, Smith begged me to take a ride service or taxi into Salt Lake with him for a quick look around. I explained that we didn’t have time and that we were on a job. He didn’t sulk but he might have brooded. We boarded a regional carrier and recrossed the Rockies, touching down in Billings at eleven-thirty that Monday night. As with the earlier champagne, drinks helped pass the flight time, at least for me.
“Down the hatch,” I said with the first.
“To be sociable,” Smith said, toasting me.
“I’ll pretend you’re metabolizing your alcohol and becoming companionably drunk,” I said.
“I’m companionable anyway and I can act drunk. I’m in a bowling league.”
How many alien races from beyond the stars would choose to spend multiple decades plumbing and bowling? In asking that question I mean no disrespect to Jose, who shows up faithfully at my condo whenever I’m faced with yet another clog.
“With hands, you can roll a bowling ball,” Smith said, holding up his. “Hands are unbelievably convenient. My dogs envy my hands.”
“I thought you didn’t speak dog.”
“I sense their envy. They keep an eye on these hands.”
“Probably watching for treats. What do you sense up here?” I said as I tapped my head.
“I sense a mind clouded by alcohol.”
“It’s not draining unmetabolized into a bag,” I said.
In Billings we rented a car and checked into a Motel 6, scoring a tour-guide discount based on my EarthTours ID. With the urgency of our mission in mind, I requested their two finest adjoining rooms. I wanted to keep my associate close, but not too close.
“What’s the nightlife like in Billings?” Smith called through the connecting door as we dropped our bags. I checked my phone.
“Lot of saloons and casinos, but it’s midnight. Let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
“I won’t require sleep for more than a week. Let’s go to a casino.”
“I require sleep now.”
“OK. You go to bed and I’ll order an Uber.”
“Sorry,” Smith said. “Few advanced races need sleep. Sleep is a primitive evolutionary development. Micro hibernation. My cloaking device simulates sleep when need be, but I want to go out. You wouldn’t let me see Salt Lake, so you owe me.”
“I can keep up with you for one night,” I said, to make him happy.
“You work for a travel agency,” Smith said. “You should know Vernernusians don’t go dormant eight hours a day. Especially on vacation. Even humans don’t.”
“This isn’t a vacation. We’re working. And you’re my first Vernernusian. I didn’t have time for the full briefing.”
“The missing Miss Smith won’t be sleeping either. Let’s go to a casino, or better yet, a card club.”
I checked my phone again. There were six poker rooms in Billings. All but one closed at two. The exception, Hitchcock’s, remained open all night.
“Can’t we go to a casino?” I said, feeling the lingering soporific effects of my in-flight drinks. “There’s one two blocks away. The only all-night card club is on the other side of town.”
“I like card rooms better than casinos. I’ll drive if you want.”
Although he’d been driving around Illinois for twenty years, it was against EarthTours regulations to let him take the wheel with me in the vehicle. He wasn’t on the rental contract anyway.
“I’ll drive,” I said. “You brought money?”
He produced a roll and held it up.
I stepped into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. Brushed my teeth. Freshened up, like Jackie Gleason in that 1961 pool-player movie The Hustler.
I looked into Smith’s room. He was changing.
“Is that a truss?” I said.
“Old fashioned, but I strained my cloak working on a frozen pipe.”
“Let’s get you a new one.”
“I wouldn’t look exactly the same. I have too many friends to risk it.”
The motel parking lot was poorly lit and the sky full of stars. The night had surrendered the day’s warmth. I pulled on my jacket. Smith appeared indifferent to weather. We climbed in the rental and set out.
“They have casinos in Illinois?” I said.
“Yes in Illinois. No on Vernernusia. There’s a casino half an hour away from Effingham, up I70 in Greenup. Another twice that far in Ashmore. Gambling is not appreciated on Vernernusia. Everyday struggles with quantum uncertainty have taken the fun out of it.”
Hitchcock’s Card Club was a small stucco structure painted flat white, adjoining a defunct motel on Grand Avenue. A casino beckoned, one block down. Panda Express and Pizza Hut were handy, but closed. Fortunately, Buffalo Pizza, a hole-in-the-wall on the corner, was lit up. A potential haven for me while Smith gambled. I didn’t plan to sit and watch him play poker into the wee-er hours.
“Did you notice the pot limit?” Smith said.
“Eight hundred,” I said.
Inside Hitchcock’s, games were in progress at two tables, with a couple of kibitzers watching. The customers were all male, all white and, with a couple of exceptions, all retirement age. There was a chair open at one of the tables. Smith bought in and joined the neighborhood gang.
I watched a bit, sat and stared off into space a bit, drifting to the click of chips and steady murmur of the players at work, and finally stood up and made my way out of the cigar smoke into fresh air. I enjoyed black coffee and a couple of hot and greasy pizza slices at the Buffalo and returned to the rental to fall asleep with the seat reclined, engine idling, and the heat on low.
At dawn, I turned off the engine with a few cups of gas still in the tank, crawled out, and spent a couple of minutes trying to stand up straight. Inside the card room, Smith was shaking hands all round, promising to come back, slapping a few backs and being slapped in return, everyone smiling.
“How’d you do?” I asked on our way to the nearest gas station.
“I did OK,” Smith said. “Players like it when they’re facing real competition.”
“Too bad you couldn’t read their minds,” I said.
“I could have gotten a sense of how they felt about their cards, but that would be like cheating at solitaire,” Smith said. “Besides, the good players usually know what everybody is holding, more or less. It’s all about the odds and the tells and patience and the part I like best, Lady Luck. Betting on the come. The guys gave me the name of a club in Miles City that also hosts a good game.”
“I’m hoping Lady Luck helps us find Miss Smith and we’re on our way home today.”
“I love this planet. So many unknowns. Coincidence. Fate. Believe me, life can be boring without them.”
“You smell like cigars.”
“I like a good cigar, even if I don’t have lungs.”
Once I filled the tank, we returned to the motel, a waste of EarthTours money as it turned out. We picked up our bags and stopped for pancakes at a cafe on our way to the Interstate. At the table, I called Lou to report in. He didn’t pick up so I left a voice mail saying that we were on the hunt in Montana and that I’d call him later.
Miles City was three and a half hours away but before we got far, Smith informed me that we were approaching a historical site that one of his poker mates told him not to miss. I reminded him again that we were on a job, but Smith said that I still owed him for missing Salt Lake.
“I slept in this car all night,” I said. “You owe me.”
But he kept badgering me and I took exit 23 and drove over to Pompeys Pillar National Monument to shut him up. The park preserves the rocky outcrop above the Yellowstone River where William Clark carved his name and date of passage on the way to Oregon.
We hiked along a riverwalk to the butte with the inscription. There was a lot more sky than I was used to in Los Angeles, powder blue behind scraps of cloud in the early light. We stopped at an overlook. The river below was the color of boiled asparagus, with an unsettled patch in its middle.
“Another thing I like about Earth,” Smith said, “it’s got history. The planet hasn’t been wiped clean.”
“Jesus!” I said. Smith had me counting my blessings as a human.
Back on the Interstate, we drove east, windows down, alongside the river. Rolling grassland and cultivated fields alternated around us.
“No more history stops,” I said. “No more card clubs. We’ve got to track down your countrywoman. Can you sense her?”
We crossed the Bighorn River east of Custer. A short range of hills ran along the horizon to the north. Large hawks perched on telephone poles.
“Now can you sense her?” I asked again, as we took the Miles City exit. “Anywhere in the seventy-five square miles around us?”
“Seventy-eight point five four,” Smith said.
This time I pulled over and he got out and listened, not with his ears, if he had ears, but with his brain, if he had a brain. Shook his head.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’ll tell you if that changes. No need to keep asking.”
Two water towers rose above the town, side by side, one old, one new. I used my phone to retrieve directions to the convenience store in the Conoco station where Miss Smith had used her credit card. Dead ahead. We crossed the Tongue River and drove up Main Street.
“Did she buy her chips to fit in with others, like you would, or did someone else use her card?” I said when we arrived.
“Let’s go in and find out,” Smith said.
The station sat across the street from a lake in a park. The clerk was an older woman of Native American extraction. She wore a cooperative smile. A display of Crow artwork sat on the counter in front of her. I held up my phone with Miss Smith’s photo on it.
“Hi,” I said. “Look familiar?”
“Yes, I’ve seen her,” the clerk said. “Pretty. Young. She was here last Friday with some vegans.”
“She bought a bag of Ruffles,” I said.
“Yes. I know they were vegans because they complained about the food in here. I told them about a vegetarian restaurant in town. Their shirts all said Butchers’ Butchers. I think they were a band.”
“You get a lot of business from the Interstate? Folks passing through?” I said.
“No, the Haynes store gets those. Lots of gas stations and five casinos over there by the highway. I get the meat packers from the plant down the street.”
“And the woman in the photo?” I said.
“The vegans were arguing about which snacks were safe. Reading the packages. A couple of packers came in and teased them. The girl shouted at the packers and they stopped. She hit one with the bag of Ruffles. I think she scared them, how mad she was. Then she paid for the Ruffles.”
We thanked her. I asked for directions to the vegetarian restaurant and bought a beer. Smith bought a beaded choker with a silver-dollar pendant.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone