The rental car clerk acted like he was a criminal for wanting a small pickup truck. He kept a two seat electric run-about for commuting to work and shopping. If the young woman was such a strict environmentalist, why was she even working for a car rental company? His little commuter car wouldn’t make it half way to Sacramento on a charge. Not to mention he’d be cramming his junk in the passenger foot well, and on the seat to bring his camping and fishing gear along. That meant it was visible, and a target for theft every time he stopped, even if he locked up.
He sent an e-mail around to his entire address book, offering to haul anything north with him that folks needed moved. No price being mentioned, so nobody could accuse him of running an illicit business. He got two jobs lined up, both this side of Sacramento. One a college student who wanted his dorm furnishings moved back home, and a lady friend who wanted him to haul a couple boxes of specialty dry goods and groceries to her mom up north. The price differential between LA and northern areas made it well worthwhile. Even in a town the size of the Capital, things ran higher.
A third offer to send a sealed box he turned down, when the point was strongly made he could not open it to see what he was hauling. They must think he fell off the turnip truck yesterday.
The little side jobs covered his fuel costs for almost half the trip, and gave him a bit more to spend up north. He’d be able to eat in restaurants a couple more times if he wanted and still be in budget.
He had a tarp over his load although rain was unlikely. Another truck slowed down, passing him once along the way, and the passenger looked him over, more than the vehicle or the load. Old guys had a reputation with the younger criminals. Far too many of them still had guns stashed away, from when you could buy them legally, and worse they knew how to use them. A worry that had some basis with him. The young fellow turned and said something to his driver and they pulled away. Jack was older, but he didn’t look soft or addle brained, and he favored a buzz cut like ex-military, which he was.
The retired lady was grateful for her supplies, and fed him lunch. She was so friendly he was glad of the furniture on the back of the truck, that still needed delivery. She had that look in her eye, that said with a little training he could be cleaned up and domesticated. He’d had enough of that thank you.
The parents of the college student were unprepared to unload his truck. He’d made clear his price did not include moving heavy furniture. The man looked to be about fifty-five, but if anything he was in worse shape to move furniture than Jack. It took the father driving somewhere in his car, and returning with two young men who didn’t speak English, to get the load off. He must know a place day laborers hung out for work. The fellow was smart enough to have them put the stuff in the garage. Letting casual labor case the inside of your house was dangerous. He saw them being paid cash, and shaking the fellow’s hand. He didn’t look all that happy about it, but they did.
The little motel he went to next was off the beaten path now. It hadn’t been when it was built. It survived the loss of traffic on the road by being cheap, and having minimal services. The bed was decent though, not broken down, and everything was clean if worn. The man was obviously a handy-man, and maintained the place himself. It was so old they gave him a brass key for his door.
Like the day laborers, the owners took their payment in cash, and that was good for a one-third discount from the price they quoted the first time he’d come here. They never asked for cash, or quoted a different price in case he was wired. They just wordlessly left a fifty on the counter, after he laid down three. If they stopped doing that he couldn’t complain, but he could, and might, look for another place to stop.
There was no TV, no wireless, and no ice machine. There was a sign saying unscrewing any of the LED lights would set off an alarm in the office, and if the room was unoccupied for more than a half-hour the air conditioning shut itself off. The bath had no soap, a single half-sized roll of toilet paper and one bath size towel. It wouldn’t surprise him if the towel had a chip sewn in it. It certainly would if he were owner.
It was early in the fall and he was content to ignore the heater unit, and let the room cool off. He spread a camping ground cloth on the bed and brought in a sleeping bag, using them on top of the bed linens. Everything was so clean he doubted the place would have bed bugs, but why test it?
He had a stout hardwood 2×4, cut with a notch in the end that went on all his road trips, and jammed that under the door handle. It would take much more than a good hit with your shoulder to open the door with that in place. He put his own smoke and CO detector on top of the dresser, and laid back on the bed to read a little before sleeping. The place was quiet, and he finally turned in when his reader beeped at the time he’d set.
With everything delivered his time was his own now. It was a pleasant drive around Sacramento. He bypassed the downtown and got through between the noon traffic and the evening rush. They claimed the air in LA was clean now, but the air up here sure smelled better. LA air might not have sot, and aerosols, and other crud in it now, but it also lacked sage and pine trees and wild flowers. It was more relaxing to drive here too, the streets not all jammed. The first time he drove right up to a cross intersection, and didn’t have to join a line and inch up until it was his turn, it felt strange.
Tangent Fabrication was not a hole in the wall shop, in an industrial park. It was a campus of buildings, with greenery around it that would have been extravagant down in LA. As much for the water allowance as the idle square footage. They had three gates into the complex and fencing all the way around. No signs, just street numbers. A lot of businesses did that now. The only thing not behind chain link was about ten meters of façade, that was the public entry to their offices.
The gates were all manned, not automated, and the loading docks were completely hidden from public view. He did another circuit of the property going the other way, looking for somewhere he could park and observe the facility. There simply wasn’t any. All the adjoining businesses were of a nature that they wouldn’t want a strange vehicle on their approaches or parking lot. There was no street parking, even if it wouldn’t be painfully obvious.
He hadn’t learned much, except they seemed well funded, had good taste in architecture, and liked their privacy. There weren’t a bunch of security cameras hanging everywhere to intimidate would-be burglars, but they could be very small and well hidden now, if you weren’t into putting on a big security theater.
That’s all he’d learn today for sure. Possibly he could check out the satellite view of them later. He was running out of daylight, and wanted to get a few miles north, and get a room for the night. There was an independent little place that looked good online. They posted a few pix and it looked like his kind of place, cheap.
The motel was just like the online pix. They unfortunately didn’t show the sports bar next door, favored by some sort of convention of loud motorcycles. The parking lot was full of bikes, whose owners had already gotten rooms, far from home, or anticipating they would be too drunk to ride home when the bar closed. The few not at the bar yet, were ripping up and down the parking lot, showing off their ride to new friends, or old friends who hadn’t seen their latest acquisition.
Jack took the parking lot exhibition to be a preview of what would be happening at three AM, when the bar let out. It was easily into dusk, but he didn’t even go in, he decided to head on down the road anyway, hoping to find something not too ramshackle, and not extravagantly expensive either.
Two young fellows in a nice little burgundy SUV had pulled into the office check-in lane behind him. They sat briefly, looking unbelieving at the spectacle in the parking lot, and he could see them talking to each other. They didn’t go in the office. When he left they weren’t far behind. They must want to sleep, and had apparently figured out the same thing he had, that they wouldn’t be doing much of that here tonight. Thank goodness he didn’t have reservations held by his credit card.
It quickly became apparent he was near the edge of the suburbs. There were fewer commercial buildings, and he could see he’d be back out in the country pretty soon. When a non-chain place had a vacancy sign a couple miles along, he pulled in. The young fellows apparently were pickier, and continued down the road. It was near dark and he was happy to be off the highway after dark.
The room was one-eighty, and when he counted out the money in twenties the fellow gave him no discount. That was OK, once, but he’d find a cheaper place if he came this way again. It did have a few amenities though. Two towels and washcloths, and a coffee dispenser in the 24-hour lobby, that mixed each cup from liquid concentrate. A sign promised there would be donuts in the morning.
The bed was decent, and he could park right in front of his door. He left nothing in the truck to steal, so that made it a little more to re-pack it in the morning. He wedged his board under the door knob, and positioned everything on the night stand to find in the dark if need be. His flashlight the first item at hand, to help him recover the rest.
In the morning the compact burgundy SUV was parked next to him. He was amused, and wondered how far down the road they’d continued, before giving up finding a room, and turning back last night. However far, they still hadn’t roused out when he was loaded and pulled away. The donuts were local made, not factory food. The clerk hadn’t batted an eye when he took two, and loaded up his small thermos off the coffee machine. That was worth ten bucks against the cost of the room, making him feel a little better.
He found a tiny restaurant along the way that had a decent breakfast. When he did a web search it didn’t come up on the search engine. The young woman who took his order called it out to the older man cooking in some foreign language. Even recent immigrants usually knew the advantages of being listed online now. He briefly considered speaking to the man, it looked like he was the father, and the place was a family operation. However he reconsidered after reflecting that almost every seat in the place was filled. They seemed to be doing fine without his marketing help.
When he went back to his truck the sun was up a little. It made very visible that his rental had a film of dust on it. He’d parked away from the other cars deliberately since his stuff was in the truck cab. Nobody wanted to mess with a vehicle sitting all alone where you were obvious. In a full lot nobody paid any attention when there were people between cars, you couldn’t really see what they were doing anyway. Standing off alone everything you did was visible, even from a distance. There was a big palm print where somebody had leaned on the front fender, by the right wheel, on the side away from the restaurant.
Jack hesitated, thinking about getting out and checking his tire before moving, but the truck wasn’t down at that corner. If he’d done something to a fellow’s truck, he’d watch to see if he drove off normally. Unless it was a bomb of course. He’d had some adventures as a young man, but nothing that should follow him this many years, and nothing worth a bomb, at least in his mind. Sitting too long would make it as obvious something was bothering him as getting back out and looking, so he started up and headed for the road, feeling carefully that the truck was level and steered straight. Stopping hard well before the street, to make certain the brakes didn’t fail.
When he got down the road a bit he saw a self-wash place that let you rinse your vehicle off with a high-pressure wand. It might be ten bucks wasted, but the wash bays were narrow, and there was a high block wall separating the wash from the residential area behind. On the opposite side of the road there was a fenced off industrial area, right up to about three meters from the curb. Nobody could see what he was doing in the narrow bay, except by driving past, and that gave them just an instant’s view.
He went over the truck thoroughly, figuring if anybody was following him, and looked in on him they would make one pass quickly, and position themselves well off the road further along to watch for him to resume his journey. When it was all rinsed off he knelt and felt inside the fender by where the hand print had been. High up was a boxy shape, candy bar sized, with a wire hanging from it. When he pushed on it pretty hard it slid on the metal, so it was magnetic. He didn’t pick it off for fear it would sense that and report it. He just left it there, hung the wash wand back in the wall bracket, and resumed his drive.
The more he thought about it, the tracer might as easily have been put on at his motel last night. He hadn’t noticed the palm print there, but it had been in shade, and with other vehicles parked close to him he might not have thought anything about it back there if he had seen it. If so he was really fortunate not to have noticed it earlier, when he’d have dismissed it easier.
So, who would care where he was going? Could the police suspect him of hauling more than used dorm furniture and few boxes of groceries? It didn’t seem likely. If they did, he’d expect it would have been the fellow offering him the sealed box who was a cop, trying to entrap him. If so he’d passed that test with flying colors. No way they’d expend the resources to track him. It wasn’t the bug, you could buy those cheap. Rather it was the time and manpower to follow the bug and document his moves. The police had never tracked him before, on a half dozen other fishing trips, when he’d hauled other stuff.
The only thing different about this trip was Tangent Fabrication. Maybe driving around their place twice opposite directions hadn’t been so smart. A lot of big companies orbited a drone overhead now for a security overview. And if he hadn’t seen any external cameras, that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Even a cheap one now could read his license plate easily. That just confirmed to him that something smelled about Tangent. They had something to hide. Something oddly enough to do with space, and he wanted to know what, but didn’t see how he could find out with his limited resources.
He’d been interested in space as a kid, wild about rockets, following everything about the space program in the news. He’d just assumed the future would be one where he as an adult could buy a ticket to low Earth orbit, if not the moon. It had been a bitter disappointment when there wasn’t a moon colony, and at least a voyage of exploration to Mars by now. The various sub-orbital flights one could buy here and in Europe didn’t excite him. He felt anyone who bragged on being an astronaut for anything less than an orbital flight were deluding themselves.