Return Engagements (Book One) PART 4… in which my pursuers orient themselves

Picking up from Part 3, in which I was being hunted by two strange men who appeared in in Los Angeles.

The lighter man at the diner had gone through five cups of Sanka, a Denver omelette, and a slice of pie while waiting for his friend, who still wasn’t back after four hours.

Between the newspapers and a bit of studying he had done before the two of them came, he was fairly well up to speed with local behavior. He struck up conversations with people at three other tables during those four hours and had kept an off-and-on conversation with his waitress.

Finally the darker man returned.

“Well… we were ready to offer Robert a cot in the back room!” she said to him.

Not knowing how to respond, he matched her smile and then laughed with her. He slid two large shopping bags into the booth and sat.

“Tell her it took you longer than planned,” whispered the lighter man.

He did, and matched her laugh and smile again. She went back to her chores.

“So, did you get what we need?”

“I did. I have what I think is higher-status clothing, a couple of suitable containers for our stolen bags – they call them “briefcases” – and there’s a place we can rent a room not far from here. We can put our stolen bags into these store bags, go to the rented room, change our appearance, then continue to the central commercial area.”

“Good,” said the lighter man. “I’ll finish here as you pack our things. There are enforcers looking for us, but they’re a specialized class and easy to identify: They wear blue uniforms with small brass plates on their chests. They drive marked vehicles too. So, we have to make sure that such people don’t see our bags from earlier.”

“Absolutely,” said his friend. “And I’m relieved they’re so easy to spot.”

* * * * *

Half an hour later and after jovial conversations with both the waitress and the clerk of the motel, the two men – the lighter one calling himself “Robert” and the darker, “James” – were making themselves look like the businessmen who were pictured in the newspapers. They had suits that fit fairly well, their hair was being held in place with a lotion called Brylcreem, and their stolen currency was carefully placed in their briefcases.

They inspected each other and decided that they were ready. All they had to do now was suitably dispose of the burlap money bags.

They left the key to the room on the furniture, emerged as businessmen, then flagged down a taxi and got in.

“Take us to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel,” said Robert.

“The newspapers were useful, I take it?” asked James.

“Oh, my, yes. And what they didn’t say directly was simple to infer.”

In short order they were at the Wilshire, into a suite, and searching a telephone system database for electronics stores.

Having found the information he wanted, James went to get parts and tools.

Meanwhile, Robert prepared work surfaces and lighting for him, then went out to dispose of the burlap bags. First, however, he wrapped them in their tee shirts and poured every kind of fluid he could find in the hotel room on them, to give them the appearance of old trash. Then he wrapped them in some plastic he found in the room and deposited the entire roll into one of the store bags.

It took Robert 10 minutes until he found a large trash can in an unobserved location and dropped the shirt-wrapped burlap into it. He then walked in another direction, and after fifteen minutes he dropped the store bags and plastic into a similar trash can.

The incriminating materials disposed, he returned to the hotel. James was already there, arranging his components.

* * * * *

The morning’s news was indeed the same old stuff. There was the usual political infighting, “reliable sources” issuing scary scenarios, a disaster story, and news of the foreign boogeyman. In this case, at least, the boogeyman was the USSR, which was in fact dangerous. But even so, they were scaring people for the wrong reasons.

All so typical, I concluded. All that matters is keeping fear alive.

I had said nothing to my companion while listening to the news and for some time after, but I really did need something from her, and she seemed to be getting worse, not better. I decided that this was a reasonable time.

“Can we talk now, please?”

She stirred herself and opened her eyes.

“The situation is starting to concern me.”

“Me as well,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.

She nodded.

“But I need you to give me information.”

“Yes… I’ve been thinking about that, even if it doesn’t appear so.”

“Thank you, then. Did you form any sort of plan?”

“I did,” she said in an ominous tone of voice. “Where are we… in relation to major cities?”

The question didn’t make a lot of sense, but I answered just the same.

“We’ll be crossing the Mississippi River soon, and then there’s a medium-sized city called Rochester within an hour or so, then a major city called Minneapolis a couple of hours past it.”

“And we can get to the big city by sundown?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then I have a plan. You take us to the big city, and I’ll be able to talk soon.”

“Very well,” I said.

“And try, please, to keep me away from numbers of people… even stores with more than one or two… And you should get me some kind of stimulant.”

I was musing on the oddness of her requests, uttered a short “okay,” and then, in a flash of thought, I knew what to do. Just across the river was an exit for Winona, Minnesota, and on that road was a front-yard Shell station. I stopped there once in the late ’70s, and it was old then. That would be our spot for gas, which we’d need soon. And I bet that the family there would make us some strong coffee if we offered to pay them for it.

* * * * *

I warned her that I would honk the horn, but she winced in pain just the same.

A middle-aged lady arrived at the front of the farmhouse a minute or so later.

“Sorry, I was feeding the chickens,” she said. “Fill her up for you?”

“Yes, please. And do you know where we can buy some coffee nearby?”

“I’d be glad to brew some for you,” she said.

“That would be wonderful, thank you. And the stronger the better.”

She made a comment about that being the way her husband liked it, started the pump, and headed to the house.

And then I heard, “We’ll take a walk, but we won’t be long.”

I turned in shock to see my companion, standing upright and smiling at the lady.

“That’ll be fine, sweetheart. Cream and sugar in the coffees?”

“Please.” And she smiled again.

I walked around to her side of the car with deep questioning engraved on my face.

“I called up my emergency reserves,” she said. “Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I do,” I replied, “but I’ve never seen it done so instantly and smoothly.”

“Just a skill,” she said, “but I’ll have to watch it carefully. I haven’t a great amount of reserves available.”

“Then please tell me why I’m here.”

“This is an opportunity to improve your world,” she said as we walked the shoulder of the two-lane highway, away from the house and past knee-high rows of corn. “And what you also need to know is this: I’m from a world that’s a few centuries ahead of yours in human development, but not necessarily ahead of you scientifically.”

“Then how could you get me here?”

“We got the technology from others… advanced people you called “missionaries” in your book.”

“Then my scenario was accurate?”

“Well,” and she started to turn around at this point, apparently gauging that her reserves were being depleted, “your scenario was a stylized or idealized version.”

Close enough, I thought.

“I wasn’t prepared for the conditions of an undeveloped world… The life-fields generated by the people – some of them deeply damaged – were more than I was prepared for.”

We got back to the car and she stood outside it, waving to the lady who was returning with two large paper cups. I took them and set them on the dashboard, paid her and thanked her.

My companion had opened her door and was waiting to get in as the lady returned to her chickens behind the house. She waited with one arm on top of the open car door, perfectly still, until she had my full attention.

“You’re taking me to the big city to die,” she said.

I was stunned. It seemed almost as if my brain froze in place. I stammered something, and then the horror of the situation hit me full on.

I’m gonna be left with a corpse!

Now I was getting angry.

“It’s wasteful to jump to dark imaginings,” she said, “I have a plan.”

Then she fell back into her seat and closed the door.

* * * * *

 (Available now on Kindle)