Jack had a few days to kill now, somehow. He didn’t think running straight home was a very good idea. Certainly not back down the same route he’d come. He didn’t have a tent anymore, but the truck wasn’t so bad to sleep in he’d found out, and he had almost seven hundred dollars from the security goons. He decided a loop further west, down through the center of the state would work. Following the coast back would have been fun, but everything there was touristy and expensive. The middle valley was agricultural land, what still could get water, and there were cheaper rooms and places to eat that served the less glamorous business trade, or even the pickers of crops that still hadn’t been successfully automated.
A robot could be trained to judge the ripeness of a avocado or a melon, and pick it without bruising it, but they had yet to program anything to pick a green bean without breaking the plants, making the other beans inaccessible, and costing more in the end than nimble hands.
Jack wouldn’t bet on any of the picker’s grandchildren having a job in the fields, but for now there was still the odd shaped or extremely delicate item, or things of such limited market it wasn’t worth making special machines for them.
If he was home, Jack had a friend Albert outside Los Banos, tucked up against the coastal range. He certainly didn’t want to call him, especially now that he didn’t know who might be watching, but the fellow was very good with electronics and computers. The man was retired from NASA like him, but they’d kept in sporadic touch for years. Al was Jack’s favorite sort of people, smart. He’d know what to do with the cell phones.
He’d planned on getting a room near town and driving to see his friend, but when he got into the little city there was some sort of tomato festival. He inched along, tied up in traffic, and once damn near ran over a bright red tomato that jumped out in front of him when traffic slowed, waving it arms to direct him into a paid parking lot. All the possible headlines that would have generated kept him amused for miles.
He didn’t want to put his battery back in and check for rooms. The rental agency might reveal where he was from tracking the truck if these Tangent people had the right connections, but using his phone was just making it too easy. The traffic for a few blocks was as bad as being back in LA. The few places he saw had no-vacancy signs up, one place even posting a big A-frame sign at the end of their driveway. He turned west at the first street that his map said would connect on further west, and traffic dropped off quickly.
Jack had never been to Al’s house. He didn’t have to look it up because he had an anachronism, a little pocket address book. It was worn rounded on the corners, but it had near thirty years of entries, many of them slashed out and updated. It worked along with his big state atlas just fine to substitute for GPS and online maps.
Al’s house was in a tiny subdivision, tucked between the flanks of a steep hill to the west. A bit more than a dozen homes on a cul-de-sac, the paved street wider and nicer than the county road that led to it. A few had tiny lawns, more the size of an area rug right by the front door than what easterners would consider a lawn. The rest went with native plants and stone gardens. There was a ham radio tower uphill from one place, and as he expected that was Al’s place.
Jack drove all the way to the end and turned around where the end expanded into a circle twice as wide as the two lanes. One house was boarded up and another looked empty, the tiny lawn brown, and leaves and debris on the driveway. Jack parked in front of the empty place and walked down three houses to Al’s
He didn’t have to knock. Albert was standing behind the screen door, inside door open, waiting for him with a tall glass of cold water. It wasn’t terribly hot, but it sounded good.
“How long have you been running, and are they very far behind you?” Al asked, observing how he parked well away and pointed back out of the street. He didn’t seem all that concerned despite his frank assessment, just interested. In fact he held the door open.
There wasn’t any point in denying it with Al. “Just today, and I’m not sure they’re even on my tail yet. They’re kind of slow.”
“That was good you parked down on the curb. We’ve had trouble with the empty houses like you parked in front of getting stripped. If you’d backed up flush to the garage doors somebody would be calling the cops. That’s why that other house is all boarded up. Somebody came in at night and stripped all the pipes and wiring. They won’t even put up a for sale sign any more, ’cause it attracts the looters. Of course if somebody comes looking for you it won’t take them long to figure out you aren’t there.”
He led Jack into a sparsely furnished great room with a mix of Mission Style furniture and odds and ends of Southwest and Indian stuff. There wasn’t a lot of it, but what there was looked to be good quality. A small fireplace was just big enough to cook at, with a iron arm swung to one side that would hang a kettle, and ample bookcases on both sides. He reclaimed a chair that had his own glass on a table next to it, and waved Jack to pick a seat.
“I’d think that radio tower would attract attention. Has anybody ever cut down your feed cable?”
“I’ve got a cable conduit buried five feet down, and my antenna mast is inside my garden fence. I kind of have a reputation with the locals too. They tend to leave my stuff alone.”
“I can leave if you’d rather I don’t attract trouble.”
“Not at all, but I was getting hungry and ready to go get some dinner. I know a repair place far enough out of town that the festival traffic shouldn’t be bad there, and I know the owner. If I ask he’ll let you park your truck out back, and you can come back and stay the night here.”
“If you let me buy dinner,” Jack agreed. Dinner was a bargain compared to a likely hotel bill. Al took his time drinking the water and asking about Jack’s work and living in LA. He didn’t immediately press for an explanation of who he might be avoiding or why.
Jack followed at a distance until they reached the outskirts of town. Al pulled in behind a low white building with a fenced lot in back and a couple tow trucks parked on the side. He pointed in the fenced lot but parked outside himself, and went in the office.
He had his small suitcase on the pavement but hadn’t locked up before Al joined him with a numbered card stock repair tag in his hand.
“Hang this on your mirror. It lends a little authenticity.” He thought that was it, but when he turned back Al had a little black plastic half bubble in his hand. “If you want to leave that on the dashboard Frank runs a wireless net as part of his alarm system, and this will record any activity around the truck overnight and stream it to my house. If the net goes down it retains what it sees in memory too.” Jack was happy to accept that, and positioned it carefully in the exact middle of the dash so it might be taken for a hard wired installation.
Al opened his trunk for the suitcase without comment and waited until Jack was seated and belted in to start the car. “You like Mexican OK? I have a place I favor at least once a week.”
“That’s fine with me. There isn’t much I don’t like if it’s well prepared. You can order for me.”
Al didn’t go further into town, turning and heading south. The restaurant when they got to had a metal carport running the length of the front, giving you shade for your car. There were only three vehicles parked there. It was a little early yet for supper. The building itself was stucco, windowless, and mostly hidden behind tall shrubs. It had a stout plank door so low Jack ducked a little worried he’d clip his head. The outer wall was so thick it was almost like a short hallway. It was dark inside, and surprisingly cool given the rear door was propped full open. The inside had a handful of tables, and if there were two chairs of the same kind he couldn’t see them. The smell of meat cooking was strong.
Albert didn’t break stride marching across the dining room and out open rear door. There were a half dozen tables out there under a metal awning, and a stucco wall on each side made it like a courtyard, but open to the north side. Wicker chairs with green cushions pulled up to round tables with a green plastic tablecloth. It was much nicer than inside.
The land rose slightly away from the patio, and a few hundred meters away were a couple modest homes, just before a respectable hill went up sharply behind them. The day was far enough along the shadows were starting to get long.
The waiter was in a long sleeved white shirt, and brought Al a tall lemonade without asking.
“Mis pedido habitual, por favor. E lo mismo para mi amigo, Juan.”
The waiter just nodded and went away, he hadn’t bothered to bring menus.
“What is your usual order?” Jack asked, able to follow that much.
“Fajitas, but with pork instead of beef. They do it right here, and a big guacamole.”
Juan brought another tall drink and a pitcher of it without ice. Jack took a sip and found it was lime instead of lemon, with something else, he wasn’t quite sure what. Something sweeter. They didn’t serve chips, which was pretty standard down in the city.
“How much do I want to know?” Al finally got around to asking. “Are you screwing around with some government agency? Or is this some private enterprise?”
“No, not agency. They are too inept even to be a letter agency, they are private, but big, and I can’t figure out what they are doing. It’s none of my business really, but I’ve always cared about space, and whatever they are doing is all about space, and they are trying to cover it up. I don’t appreciate when people lie to me.” He stopped and thought a bit. “OK, maybe lie is too strong a word. I don’t appreciate when people try to deceive me, even if it might be benign personally. You want to know more? I have a couple cell phones from these folk’s security professionals, and I intended to ask you what to do with them.”
“You stole their cell phones? I hope you at least yanked the batteries.”
“Oh sure, and I’m paranoid, so I wrapped them in foil from my cooking stuff just to be sure. They might have some sort of backup power in them, enough to let them be pinged.”
“Yes, this is interesting, and you’ve displayed enough caution so far. I’d like to hear as much as you’re willing to tell me.”
The fajitas came then, steaming on cast iron grills, marinated strips of the loin with char lines and sweet onions and peppers. The odor of cumin was strong, and the waiter sat plates of warm corn tortillas and a bowl of chunky guacamole with sides of chopped tomatoes and a sweet corn relish. There was a hot salsa verde and red pepper sauce if you wished. Juan inquired if he’d like flour tortillas, but he stayed with the corn. Jack usually had sour cream with Mexican, but since he’d invited his host to order he decided to try it as is. He stuffed three tortillas and downed them before he was sated enough to talk again.
“It started with a print I was given at work,” Jack started, and related the whole thing. By the time they had sweet egg custard and little cups of strong coffee Al had heard the whole story. Other than a detail or two he’d kept silent, just betraying amusement with his expression.
“It’s unlikely I can get anything out of the phones. I’ll try, but most companies know to encrypt everything, and all the decent phones wipe their memory if you keep trying to unlock them and don’t know the password. That doesn’t mean they have no value. They’re a significant bargaining chip if you threaten to give them to the government, because they will have a backdoor to read them.”
“I’m not sure I want to damage them that badly yet.”
“After they threatened you directly? What do you owe them, and why wouldn’t you give them back a bit of their own medicine?” Al asked, looking very skeptical.
“I feel like I already gave them back about as bad as I got. I’d really like to know what they are up to. They may not be guilty of more than unwisely choosing some horribly incompetent security people. The government has totally screwed up space travel, even if they are not as evil as the government I’d like to know what they are doing to need space suits. It’s not like I demand anybody to be shining heroes to leave mind my own business at this stage in life. If they are doing an end run around the law, well, I’ve done that a time or two myself when I had reason.”
Al had a wave of surprise flash on his face. “You’re hoping to get a ride out there aren’t you?”
“Nah, I’m sixty eight. No damn way somebody is going to give me a lift, even if they are sneaking off the planet. If they are it’s going to be a handful of people who actually launch, and a whole lot more supporting them to do it. But I may very well approve of it once I know what they are doing.”
“Leave the phones with me. There has to be someplace you post regularly online isn’t there?”
“I post to a science fiction readers group every few days. I have a few writers who I read everything they publish, and they post about conventions and related topics like astronomy and different technologies, and the writers post to promote themselves too.”
“Show me back at the house, and I’ll join up and start posting a bit, if you don’t show up online for a set period I’ll see the phones get to the right people. What is a reasonable period?”
“Three days. I’d go longer, but if I had something rough happen, like these people snatch me, I’d rather not be sitting knowing it will be a week before they have any pressure put on them.”
Al got a slow squinting smile that wasn’t pretty.
“What? I can almost hear the wheels whirring. What devious thing are you thinking?”
“If you get disappeared, what better way to deal with it than to post the whole story on your science fiction group? The authorities might not believe it, but these folks have the capacity to believe a great deal of outlandish things. Am I right? How many in the group? Enough it would be very hard to shut them all up?”
“Al, it’s a very popular genre. There’s a good thirty-thousand people who follow it worldwide.”
“Excellent. Write out a file tonight and I’ll hold it back as a serious weapon. I won’t keep it on a computer attached to the net either. I have a free standing box you can use and I’ll put a copy on a thumb drive and stash it away.”
Jack refrained from asking him why he needed a free standing computer with no net connection.
“I’ll do a little research and find out who owns the real estate for these companies,” Al volunteered. “There are other public records, and I may drive by and drop off some surveillance modules to see who comes and goes, and get some license numbers of the cars and trucks visiting their facility.”
“Don’t get yourself in trouble,” Jack worried. “I think that’s how I drew their attention, because I drove around their place once and turned around and drove back around it the other way. I showed way too much interest in them.”
“If I drive past on the actual street out front I won’t be displaying my own license plate. I have a list of plates for my color and model of car, and can check and see if they are in their usual locations. But I don’t need to even get that close. The sort of bug I have in mind I can throw out the window without stopping on the next road over, and it will walk in overnight, or fly over and position itself where it can watch the place. It can even go inside their perimeter and attach to the building or parked vehicles.”
“Is this something I can afford?”
“Come on Jack. It’s my hobby. I’ll do it for fun.”
Al’s guest room was nicer than Jack’s apartment. He turned in early after composing his story and getting Al registered to the science fiction group. He suggested a few books to read if he wanted something to post. It turned out Al had read quite a few of the same books he had. “I’m just not much of a joiner, and anytime you have more than about a half dozen people, you know somebody is going to be a jackass everyone else has to tolerate. I don’t have much patience I confess.”
In the morning Jack was up before Al. He considered starting the coffee, but felt shy given what it cost now. He didn’t know if Al made it strong or mild and a full pot or half. He decided to wait.
Al had a lot of interesting books in the living room. He examined them, but didn’t pull any from the shelf. It gave him a slightly deeper insight into a man he knew at work for years, but never was the sort of friend to pal around with and do things together after work. He’d been the competent sort at work, one of those they took a mess to after somebody else failed at it and it needed cleaned up.
“Would you like some breakfast?” Al called from the large arch into the dining room and kitchen.
“Sure, can I help?”
“Pull a stool up to the counter and talk to me. That’s help enough. Can you eat napolitos OK?”
“Probably, I have never had any food allergies. Do you grow them back in your garden?”
“No, there’s plenty to be had growing wild, and they do fine here with the natural rainfall. I grow stuff in my garden that wouldn’t be able to survive here on the natural rainfall. Tomatoes and onions that I’ll scramble in our eggs too. I have peppers and squash and dwarf fruit trees. I’m cultivating some vines too, not for wine but just for table grapes, but they’re not very mature.”
“You irrigate them?”
“No, you can grow stuff if you space the plants out and treat the surface to minimize evaporative losses. The soil has to be loose enough to let the roots go deep where the water is. Some of the fruit and the grapes are really superior. They are smaller, but have higher sugar content and very intense flavor, but it’s not usually a profitable way to do commercial agriculture. That will still need water until it gets too expensive to bring it in.”
“I put some delicate things under an arch that protects them from the sun at its peak. And my back lot running uphill is paved with flat stones on top of metalized plastic. When we do have rain it all runs down hill and is directed into a couple dry wells that take it down a meter to keep the water table up in the garden. It doubles the effective rainfall which is only about eighteen centimeters a year.”
Breakfast was good. Al knew just when to pull the eggs so the vegetables were still firm, but not crunchy. He passed on the fiery hot sauce though. He was starting to think Al didn’t make coffee in the morning, but he started it late, so they could enjoy it after breakfast.
“Do you want to be taken back to your truck today, or do you want to kill another day here? I’d imagine you have several days you planned to be fishing before those two messed your schedule up?”
“I rented the truck prepaid for six days. I can turn it in early, but they only refund a quarter of the fee if they get it back early. I’m not sure you should have me two days. It marks us as closer associates than just bumming a one night stay from an old friend. It turns it into a destination visit. And I’m also kind of worried and want to see if anyone messed with my apartment while I was gone.”
“If they went in your apartment I predict they did it before your encounter with the guys at the campground. After that they should leave you alone if they have any damn sense at all.”
“I looked at the police report for my neighborhood when we registered you last night. I doubt they went in my place unless they could do it very quietly. The widow lady across the hall knows I’m gone. I have her get my mail instead of the post office holding it. She’s eighty two, but sharp as a tack, and has my door keys as well as the mail box key. If she heard anybody trying to get in she keeps a big Mossberg twelve gauge propped in the corner by her front door. She doesn’t look terribly frail with that leveled across her hip.”
Al thought that was laughing out loud funny. “I reviewed the security cam we left in your truck on fast forward this morning. If anybody checked it out they were not clueless enough to come up to the fence. And I watched specifically for any Honda Portage to cruise by, even if it didn’t slow down. There wasn’t one all night. Do you have a cam watching your car at home?”
“No you can’t see my parking spot from my apartment.”
“Then I suggest you keep that cam in your truck and put it in your own vehicle when you get home. I’ll give you the address to track it on your phone. That way you can be safe at work or out shopping and such. I suggest getting into the habit of checking it each time you are away.”
“Thanks Al. I appreciate your help.”
“You’re welcome, but I expect to be filled in on what these guys are doing, once you know.”
“Agreed, that’s the least I can do for your help.”
“Good, then we are co-conspirators,” Al told him, and offered his hand to shake on the deal.