(General Adminstration Archives - Case 1881 [Ref. No. D1174-531]) |
"Remember me? Cindy Wilson, the blonde backhoe. That crazy short-circuit pipeline?" The telephone crackled slightly.
...... Her home was a double-wide trailer, nestled back in a sparse woods. All of the undergrowth had been cleared away, and here and there were flowerbeds, bordered by railroad ties. The driveway was curved and gravel-covered, marked by bits of split-rail fence.
...... Her red Blazer and a brown pickup were sitting in the parking circle. I parked behind the Blazer and sauntered up the concrete block walk to the cement-and-wrought iron stairs. A tiny fountain gurgled beside the front door.
...... "Hi, Big Fellah." She held the door open. "How was your trip? What'll you have to drink?"
...... "So, so." I carefully refrained from laughing at the welcome. "Do I smell coffee?"
...... "Fresh perked." She waved to a corner of the livingroom, as she hurried into the tiny kitchen. "Meet Pete Garcia." Her tone answered virtually all the questions.
...... He stood in front of a small easy-chair, hat held by the brim in both hands, obviously very ill at ease. He hesitated until I held out my hand, then shook quickly and retreated to his seat.
...... She was back in a moment with a mug on a small serving tray. "Hard trip? You look tired."
...... I accepted the mug and sat on the end of the sofa. "No trouble. Just long." I moved the spoon around, watching the steam rise and swirl away. "You know how it goes in my work."
...... She nodded, then glanced to the corner. "Pete works for me on and off. Subcontractor. I've never been able to lure him onto the payroll, fringe benefits and all." She perched on the sofa arm at the other end. "He prefers to be on his own with his two-three man crew. Even if he has to pay both sides of Social Security."
...... He shifted uncomfortably in the easy chair and looked out the window, where several sparrows were squabbling over a bird feeder. His coffee cup sat untouched on the end table.
...... "It goes with the Latin temperament, I think. All my cousins are in business for themselves, while I've opted for unemployment insurance and retirement plans." I sipped the coffee -- it was too hot to swallow. "All my relations in Guadalupe tease me about being as Anglo as I look. Even my two cousins in Los Angeles are businessmen. Though they claim they still do their bookkeeping in pesos."
...... "You know Nuevo Leon, Mr. Driver?" he suddenly asked, looking up from his contemplation of the carpet.
...... "Nothing so urban," I answered with a slight laugh. "And everyone calls me Driver. Even Cindy." I sipped coffee again, then continued: "My relatives are in Zacatecas, about ten miles southeast of the capital. That Guadalupe is thirty-five thousand people. I don't have much opportunity to visit there. Which isn't too bad, because my Spanish is laughable. And besides, when I can, I send them money to come visit me here."
...... He nodded and went to looking out the window. The trees were darkening with the twilight. Beyond the bird feeder, a white propane tank caught a last glint of sunlight.
...... "I still don't think you look at all Mexican," Cynthia said, as she returned to the kitchen to set out dishes. "The place down the road is closed today, wouldn't you know it. So dinner is courtesy of the Deli. You two have to eat it all, because I don't like leftovers." She motioned inward. "Come sit down, you two."
...... I motioned Garcia first, then followed. "I was born in the U.S., but my father's brothers all stayed South." Stopping behind the offered seat, I gestured at the display of food. "When's the rest of the crew coming?"
...... She brushed that away. "Beer, wine, iced tea, or coffee?"
...... Dinner conversation was general and entertaining -- to the point that Garcia thawed to a first name basis. The Deli-delight vanished with no additional urging. Cynthia clicked on the overhead light, as she served a mixed-fruit dessert with the last of the coffee. The bottom half of a bright moon was visible through the livingroom's bay window.
...... With some adroit coaxing, she tried to persuade Pete to start on his story.
...... "It is so strange that I thought I must tell someone in authority." He stirred sugar into his iced tea.
...... "Well, I don't have much authority, but this sort of thing is my job. I interview people, investigate what I can, and send in a report." Scooting my chair away, I stretched out and crossed my well-worn boots. "Like last night on the graveyard shift, I was down in one of those cable vaults beneath a city street. Down with all the telephone and power connections. They'd started to enlarge the vault and dug out an egg-shaped metal object about four feet in diameter, apparently seamless."
...... "The world's first petrified dinosaur egg?" Cynthia suggested. She combined the contents of several serving dishes and stacked the empties.
...... "That was one suggested possibility," I chuckled. "When a hole was drilled into it, there was this whistling sound of air flowing." I opened my palms in example. "Then the egg broke in half, and all these antiques fell out."
...... "Antiques?" Pete asked, while Cynthia laughed.
...... "It was someone's time capsule which must have gotten lost in the records. Old newspapers, art objects, photographs, that kind of thing. It'd been vacuum packed, and the seal was so good that it still had enough differential pressure to hold the two halves together." I shrugged. "Until a hole was drilled into it."
...... "So what did you have to do there?" Cynthia asked, apparently not needing a cue.
...... "Not much in this type of case. I wrote up a description of what happened. It'll be filed, and that'll be the end of it. Something to justify my expense report. Rarely ever, do I need to mention the other observers; I met the City Engineer, but I can't remember his name." I chased a last strawberry around my empty dish and cornered it against the last of the whipped cream. "If it'd been something noteworthy, the office would've sent out some experts to take care of it. They might know who I was, but wouldn't be concerned about anyone else."
...... "You don't report the people involved?" Cynthia asked, again leading the conversation.
...... "If you think your name was recorded for posterity last time, you're wrong. Besides, I don't like to share my contacts. I'm similar to a news reporter that way. Only nothing I report ever sees the light of day again." I looked out the window at the clear moonlit night. "If this thing of Pete's turns out interesting, none of us will be mentioned. Much less get any credit for it."
...... "Oh, it's interesting, all right." Cynthia moved her chair and propped her elbow on the table top. "But Pete tells the story better than I do. It's his story." She waved two stubby fingers in his direction.
...... "You see, I do the walking surveys for Cynthia's company." He folded his hands on the table. "Myself and my help. We have been tracking a natural gas pipeline for the past three days. We do that work all the time. Nothing different now. No trouble on our job, you see. All normal." He looked at each of us for a moment.
...... "It's the neighboring construction company," Cynthia added to help the dialogue. She refilled his iced tea glass from a cut-glass pitcher.
...... "Yes, it is the others." He moved the tea spoon from one unimportant place to a different spot. "There is this other crews doing excavation work in the field across the road from the pipeline." He quickly waved one hand. "But we never see them work! All the time, the tractors and equipment are parked. But the work goes on. The trenches are being made larger. Each day. But there's no one there during the day."
...... "I take it that the equipment changes its position every day?" I inquired.
...... He nodded. "Each morning, the parking is different. And there is dirt and mud. All like any work. But it is so strange. I spoke to Cynthia, and she said that I should talk to someone about it."
...... "That's what I came here for," I acknowledged.
...... "And last night, you were so curious you went for a late look," Cynthia persuaded him -- with a fast smile to me.
...... He moved the spoon back to its original place and refolded his paper napkin for the third time. "Yes, I go look." He glanced around, looked down, and silently sighed. "The machines, they were running, digging, doing the work. But there were not lights, even though it was only moonlight. But the night was bright, big moon. There were not men there." He looked up. "I don't drink, and my eyesight is good. I swear the tractors were running themselves with nobody in the seats." He shrugged and looked away. "Can anyone believe that?" He jumped slightly, when the air conditioning came on with a loud, fading growl.
...... "That reminds me," Cynthia said, standing. "I need to replace the filter on that thing. Excuse me, while I make a note to myself."
...... I waited for a full minute before answering. "Actually, yes, I can. It fits in with something else I've seen. Fits all too well."
...... "And tonight, all three of us are going out there for a look ourselves." She raised her eyebrows, peering over the notepad, obviously waiting for an argument.
...... "We might as well start now." I drank down the last of my coffee, ignoring the coolness. "I'm parked behind the Blazer. Shall we take mine?"
...... Pete pushed his chair out of the way, catching the edge of the carpet and freeing it. "I take my pickup. Perhaps, Cynthia could ride with you. The inside of my truck is not so clean, and the passenger seat has much things on it."
...... Within five minutes, I was following a dusty brown pickup down the gravel drive. "How did you know I was part Mexican? It doesn't show at all."
...... "Except in those big soulful dark eyes of yours," she laughed, while adjusting the wing to her satisfaction. "Sorry to sound so familiar, but Pete runs scared. I suggested that we're good friends, and he decided to trust me . . . and you." She pulled slack into the shoulder harness. "Is that story about the time capsule true? Or merely something to make Pete feel better."
...... "It's true. It's where I was last night. To me, the capsule itself was more interesting than what it contained. I think it's one of the first examples of the metal spin-forming process." I gestured that away with my free hand. "Don't worry about the familiarity. At least it worked. Does his crew have green cards? Or are they illegals?"
...... "I don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say not." She paused for a moment, considering. "And I hope my judgment of men isn't dangerously bad."
...... I waved my hand at random. "I suppose, if immigration were unlimited, the economy would fall apart, and we'd all be out of a job. I don't complain about the tax money which goes to the Border Patrol." Seeing the pickup's turn signal go on, I flicked mine automatically and glanced in the rearview mirror -- there was nobody anywhere behind me. "But, when it comes down to individual cases of people I know, it's hard to oppose a man who's just trying to feed his family." I shrugged. "I'm sure the Immigration Service doesn't appreciate that kind of thinking." I turned right into the same dark gap which had swallowed up the pickup.
...... "Thanks. I'd kiss you, if I didn't think your wife would object. She doesn't know how good a man she's got. But, if she ever changes her mind, you know where my double-wide is, now."
...... "She's intimated she'd pleased. But thanks for the offer. Any bit of flattery is appreciated." A large insect met the windshield head-on with the usual splash -- I ran the washer to clean off it and its friends. "Pete won't be mentioned in any document, and no one will come to see him. It wouldn't happen normally anyway, but I'll see that it doesn't accidentally slip through."
...... We traveled several more miles in companionable silence. The patched road wound among trees and between stretches of open farmland. The tires hummed comfortably, and the indicator lights on the dash were all dark. Occasional glimpses of silver light, mercury-vapor lamps, marked isolated buildings.
...... "It's a remarkably pleasant night, considering we're out chasing something unworldly," she said suddenly. "Aren't there any fogs or cloud-chased eighth-moons in stock?"
...... "Maybe we can find an old graveyard somewhere," I suggested.
...... She was correct -- it was a beautiful night. Bright moonlight on a few scattered white clouds, the trees glossed by that illumination -- a cool breeze, blowing in through the open windows, with wisps of her perfume tossed by the eddies. A perfect night for romance, but for me all it did was make me feel homesick.
...... "It'd have a rusting, wrought-iron fence with a broken gate. And with vines climbing the pickets," she added after a few more minutes.
...... "And a big willow tree in one corner. Weathered stones leaning at odd angles. Cobbled walks with weeds coming up in the gaps. Boxwood hedges along the front." Somewhere in the distance an airhorn sounded -- a loop of the main highway must've swung near.
...... "And we're out chasing tractors and graders. The Nineteenth Century was so much easier. Ghosts had their own appointed places." She sighed. "I don't think a clove of garlic or cryptic symbols carved in wood would have much effect on a front-loader." She looked over. "A three-fifty-seven magnum would be more to the point. Are we sure we know what we're doing here tonight?"
...... "I've never met anything aggressive in any of my investigations. But then, all I've done is look from a distance. If it comes to that, I'll skip the handgun and try to borrow an antitank missile. You're welcome to wait in the Jeep."
...... "I didn't come along to merely sit in a fancy truck," she tartly answered.
...... I stayed silent, and a moment later, she laughed.
...... Following the pickup, I turned off on a gravel road which twisted its way up a small hill. A mile along, it stopped, shut off its lights, and Pete stepped out. Stopping behind him, I dropped my lights to parks, clicked off the ignition, and went to meet him. Cynthia was right behind me.
...... He halted only long enough to give that universal gesture for silence, then led the way along a narrow path between the trees. Even in the brightness of the moonlight, the path was more felt than truly seen -- only a small opening in the shrubbery.
...... From somewhere ahead came the rumbling, chugging, roaring, and clinking of heavy machinery in operation -- very loud in the quiet of this rural night. It certainly wasn't my idea of a covert operation.
...... Unexpectedly, Pete stopped, and I almost ran into him. Over his shoulder I could see that the path ended at the top of a steep slope, some thirty feet above the flatland below. Down in that meadow, excavation equipment was digging a trench -- without benefit of lights or operators.
...... "See? Just what I spoke," Pete whispered. "Just like last night."
...... I moved around to the edge of the slope and unsheathed my well-worn binoculars. Diesel engine exhaust hung over the meadow like a thin fog, and gusts of breeze brought its odor up the slope.
...... "If you no mind, I go back and wait by my pickup," he said, backing away. "Those things, they bother me." He turned and hurriedly retreated through the trees.
...... "I think Pete wants to make sure his truck doesn't drive off without him," she quipped nervously from the edge of the woods.
...... Spotting a convenient bit of rock outcropping, I sauntered over and casually climbed up to where I could see the entire tiny valley, not paying much attention to the activity down below. If the Alien was aware of me, it'd merely think I was part of the local wildlife -- camouflage worked both ways.
...... And it was the Alien at work, undoubtedly. The purposefully operating equipment was cutting a long trench, three feet wide by about five feet deep -- a trench in the shape of a four-hundred-foot square with two equidistant crossbars. The work so far completed formed an 'E' with a double center-stub, and the machines were beginning the final side to complete the square.
...... By rare good fortune, the moon lit up the scene with theater-like brilliance. Details showed clearly, like the shine of the polished rods when they moved out of the hydraulic cylinders. Caps on vertical exhaust pipes bounced with the revving of the engines, and treads tore up weeds as the blades moved earth across the raw soil. With all that equipment moving about with no operators, it looked less like an excavation and more like some radio-controlled exhibition at a county fair.
...... "So the Headless Horseman did trade Dobbin in for a Jimmy," she commented from the questionable protection of the shadow of a big tree. "When Pete first described it, the trench was more of an 'F' shape. It was those double crossbars that made me decide to call you personally. That's one crazy way to dig a hole, isn't it?"
...... That it was. The trench was being dug by backhoes, while the blades spread the dirt out, rather than leaving it piled beside the trench and ready for backfill. No trench cutters were there, not even a bucket-loader or gradall. If the equipment had been trucked into the meadow, there was no visible evidence of the road which had been used.
...... The work was being done by someone -- or something -- which had very little understanding of the equipment it was using. But, while the progress rate might be a little slow, with no coffee or lunch breaks, it'd be better overall than commercial operations of the same size.
...... "It reminds me of some cost-plus work commissioned by a major government office." I scanned the horizon with my binoculars. Nothing significant to me was there -- a few pinpoints of lights and a deserted storage building at the edge of the flatland near a small creek. One wall had fallen over and now acted as an accidental dam for a tiny pond.
...... "I wish I could get that kind of work myself," she answered, then quickly added: "I don't think I'll ever see a parked tractor again without thinking about this."
...... "I can appreciate the feeling." How often had I passed parked construction equipment without a thought? One saw it everywhere these days -- in vacant lots, along roads, backed into woods, parked along hillsides. It made good camouflage, since the equipment would arouse about as much interest as a propane tanker or a trash truck.
...... Putting away the glasses, I climbed down from my perch. Where the pipeline antenna would come from, was anyone's guess -- and I didn't particularly want to be here to find out.
...... Cynthia was on the trail back already. "What's going to happen now?" she inquired over her shoulder without slackening her speed.
...... I caught and dodged a stray branch which whipped back. "I'll report in, and someone will be out to pick up the excavation equipment and to fill in the trench. Put in a bid yourself, if you're interested. The machinery will be examined, but I bet they won't find anything abnormal at all. That's typical."
...... Pete turned and took two steps forward, when we burst onto the gravel road from the depths of the brush. His pickup truck still was there -- as well as the Jeep with its softly glowing parking lights. It also was obvious that he'd like to be on his way home.
...... At the junction with the asphalt road, Pete honked the horn, waved, and turned right. I flashed my headlights and turned left, while Cynthia waved out the window.
...... The return trip was in comparative silence. She looked through the albums in the console and at the books on the back seat, while I silently outlined the context of my next report. "'Passions are likened best to floods and streams.'" She had the map light on to read from a paperback. "'The shallows murmur, but the depths are dumb.' It's well thumbed. You either read it or found it in a used book shop."
...... "'They that are rich in words, in words discover that they are poor in that which becomes a lover.'" It was one I could remember. "You have to admit that the author ought to know."
...... "How many four-bys in this country have books of poetry bouncing around on the rear seat?" She closed the volume and put it back. "It doesn't go with the macho image."
...... "Dumb as a prerequisite to macho is a phenomenon of the present. The last couple centuries were quite different." I gestured with my free hand. "If Sir Walter Raleigh, swordsman and adventurer, could pause between wars, duels, and love affairs to write romantic poetry, it doesn't bother my machismo to read it. All of us male chauvinist pigs like love poetry for the way it romanticizes the more practical half of the human specie."
...... "Raleigh poetry and Roy Orbison albums." She leaned back and sighed. "I thought I'd married a male chauvinist . . . but all I got was the pig. So it goes. Now, I'm a Women's Libber on account of needing to pay the bills." Her voice became emphatic. "I'm beginning to hate your wife, and I've never met her." She waved one hand to brush that away. "So talk about what we saw back there. Voodoo? Sorcery? Witches? An Evil Genius? Black magic? Vulcan wanting a skylight? What's this all about?"
...... I stopped at an intersection and checked both ways. "I truly don't know. Odd things happen from time to time. My group is only beginning to investigate this phenomenon, whatever it is."
...... "And you don't want anyone to know what's going on, or what you're doing," she finished. "Which is why Pete doesn't need to worry. Both of you don't want outsiders . . . like me, for instance . . . poking around." She dropped an album back into the console and closed the lid.
...... "You will have to admit that John Q. Public is prone to very picturesque modes of blind panic. My people are trying to avoid that by working quietly. Would you want it any other way? What do you think would happen if this were reported in the newspapers?"
...... "I don't even want to think about that," she decided. "Speaking of which, it's time for the news." She leaned forward to turn on the radio and set the station.
...... This time, once again, Special Investigations escaped the notice of the news media. The feature story revolved around a nature sanctuary for the Greater Spotted Owl, a subspecies which only a graduate ornithologist could recognize.
...... After what I'd seen tonight, the news story conjured up for me Laumer-like scenes -- a thousand acres of totally bare ground, as a wildlife refuge for the Autonomous Wide-Ranging Road Grader. And a square mile of perfectly flat, broomed concrete -- the breeding habitat of the Lesser Yellow Forklift.
...... In seemingly no time, the entrance to Cynthia's driveway loomed up, marked by a carriage-style porch lantern which hung from a two-foot chain attached to a lower branch of a huge elm tree. I parked once again behind the Blazer.
...... "Turn off the engine and the lights," she commanded, stepping out. "You're coming in." She unlocked the trailer door. "It's after midnight, and you didn't turn into a rat. The telephone's in the kitchen."
...... I used my cellphone instead and called Lee, talking him out of bed and back to work. He grumbled as usual, but there'd be action at the site by daybreak tomorrow -- make that today.
...... Cynthia had dumped a pillow and sheets on the sofa, while I was on the phone annoying Lee.
...... "It's impossible to find a motel around here at this hour," she stated, unfolding things. "As you well know. You intended to sack out in the back of your truck, but this'll be more comfortable."
...... "It's a mild night," I objected. "This isn't necessary."
...... "Don't start with the foolish objections and spoil my good opinion." She stopped in the hallway. "If you're up before I am, scrounge what you like for breakfast, and snap the latch on the way out." She frowned impishly. "You probably can cook too. Oh, well! Good night, Big Fellah."
...... "Good night, Cindy," I laughed.
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)