Matt pulled a folded-up package from one of the overly large breast pockets of his vest. The special photographer’s vest he’d gone on and on about earlier because of the new store on Del Mar in San Clemente called the Banana Republic. The place catered to men in what was called safari attire, like the vest. Half of a Jeep was angled down in the front window of the place. I’d driven by the store but never gone in. My reference to Matt’s vest as a fishing vest hadn’t gone over well so the subject was dropped. He unfolded what became a highway map in front of him.

“Can’t we stop somewhere and have a bite and take a rest?” I asked, fatigued to the bone, the relief of no police pursuit causing me to tire even more.

“When we get there,” Matt replied, tracing a path on the map with his right forefinger.

“You know, you could at least take over the driving for the rest of the trip since we’re almost there.”

“Can’t do it,” he replied, “and we head up the freeway to Santa Fe, it’s finished for that stretch, and turn left on Highway fifty-eight until we reach Poor Jockey, or whatever that Indian name is. Highway 502 then takes us straight up the lip of the caldera on into Los Alamos.”

“Why can’t you drive, how is that Indian name spelled and don’t you find it strange that the highway’s number is the same as the drunk driving ordinance in California?”, I grumbled.

“They want you to deliver the object personally and make the transfer of possession mano el mano, the spelling is Pojoaque, and five oh two is the police code for drunk driving. not the ordinance.”

I drove onto the freeway and headed the deuce up toward Santa Fe while I thought. Matt was continuing to shock me with the expanse of his knowledge.

I’d been a cop but I’d never been much a street cop so I’d also never booked a drunk driver. I wasn’t sure about the exact section of the penal code but would check it when I had some reference material and time, although I doubted Matt was wrong. The fact that he didn’t seem to care whether he was right or wrong added to his credibility somehow. The name of the pueblo, town, or crossing was, unless one spoke the local dialect, sort of unpronounceable so Matt’s mangling of it made strange humorous sense too.

“Why does it matter who drives or who delivers the package? I asked.

“We share a lot of top secret information between us, those rarities like us who work the field. HUMINT they call us. Human agents, and we’re maybe one percent of the totality of all those who work with the Agency. But they don’t tell us everything. It’s probably about trust. They want to be assured that the object is exactly what it’s supposed to be and you have somehow earned their trust, beyond my level. This thing is beyond top secret, however. It’s so secret it can’t be classified without having some record or transmittable knowledge that it exists.”

“So, how do we tell what’s rumor and what’s real if nothing is recorded as the result of proper investigation and verification?” I asked, wanting to know more about how Matt was getting to know stuff that I could only guess at. Is it all going to be like this as I come aboard?”

“You’re already ‘aboard’ as you put it and much of it is going to be this way, sort of like those three Marines who died in San Clemente and the alien thing.”

I almost careened the deuce off onto the right side of the freeway access lane when I heard those words. The Marines were coming back again, when I thought that issue, unsettled as it was as a not satisfactorily resolved mystery, was gone on into the past forever. The artifact seemed ‘alien’ although I felt deep inside me that the thing was natural to a universe that was unnatural to human beings, at least so far in our development, and then there was the uncomfortable feeling coming back to me that the Marines had run into something more alien than an object in that fake containment chamber. Just how did Matt, how could Matt, know anything about the broken results of the Dwarf’s investigation?

“That’s all rumor,” I blurted out, not wanting to reveal anything more and not comfortable discussing the loss of those Marines and then the appearance of the artifact in. my life around the same time.

“Steed,” Matt said, as I guided the deuce into the right lane.

A huge mountain seemed to lay just ahead of us, with the freeway going up in a series of fairly wide but very steep curves. The lowland we were climbing out of, down to second gear and the deuce straining at that, was bordered on the right by a vast cliff face with a sharp edge along the entirety of its long unseeable length. Two slots were carved into the edge not far from where the truck worked to climb the steep hill through a deep cut near the slots.

“Wagon trains,” Matt said, since I’d said nothing back to his naming Steed, out of nowhere and having no contest to what we’d been discussing.

“Wagon trains, what?” I asked, in frustration, wondering if Matt had somehow gotten hold of a booze bottle he’d somehow kept from me.

“The two ruts along the top of the cliff there,” he replied, with a slight laugh, “those were made with wagon wheels being lowered on ropes down to the bottom as they made their way west. You’re looking at the actual Santa Fe trail itself.”

I was shocked. Of course, I knew about the famous, or sometimes infamous, Santa Fe trail but I could never have pictured or could picture in my mind, just how many wagons would have had to go over the edge of that cliff to leave hundred-year-old tracks so deeply and indelibly imprinted in such solid sedimentary rock.

“Push the pedal down past the stop to engage the supercharger,” Matt followed up as I drove ever slower while glancing at the historical record passing right before my eyes. “You’ve got two hundred and fifty horses and you’re going to need quite a few of them unless we end up in first gear at eight miles per hour, or so. This place is called the La Bahara Pass and we’ve got a couple of thousand feet to climb to get to the top.”

I followed Matt’s instructions, once more. The deuced surged immediately to its red line and hit ten miles per hour in first gear, then twenty in second, thirty in third. Very soon the truck was moving up the steep hill at over forty-five miles per hour. I wondered about the artifact, not for the first time. The object had been completely docile in exhibiting any effects at all from the jostling of its move.

The hill was still an agonizingly long pull to the top but once there everything changed. With Santa Fe in the visible distance, the deuce topped the part of the freeway that lipped over the ridge and then sprang toward the city as if a living thing. I braked but the truck made it up to eighty before I could slow it and get it under control. I had no idea what kind of braking power the vehicle would have for the remainder of the trip, however, as I’d had to stand on the pedal for several miles to slow it down. Once again, it was fortunate that the early hour of our travel didn’t have too many other vehicles going the same way. The planners of the interstate highway system had also enough sense to make that stretch of the road three lanes going up the hill instead of two like on the downhill side.

“What the hell was that?” Matt asked, coming out of a shocked silence. The acceleration of the deuce, when it came over the top of the rise, was way beyond even the supercharged engine’s capable of producing.

“Another characteristic of the load you want to know about but don’t really want to know about,” I responded, dryly, thinking to myself about how strange it was that only seconds before the artifact demonstrated one of its main powers or effects, I’d been thinking about how being well-secured int the back of the heavy truck had eliminated it’s more obnoxious characteristics.

“Jesus Christ, no wonder they want that thing, which also brings to mind just how someone like you came to have it.”

“Steed, you mentioned back before the La Bahara pass,” I said, not phrasing it as a question but curious as to why, out of nowhere, Matt thought to use his name, as if pointing out something I was missing.

“It never occurred to you, the coincidence of his passing?” Matt asked, his tone one of complete innocence as if he was raising the most innocuous of questions.

“It would appear so,” I replied, wanting to use the more western ‘I reckon so,” but thinking better of playing some cowboy role when the subject was about Rick Steed.

“He was under your guidance and training which led him to become one of your investigators in that Dwarf group.”

“Yes, that’s true,” replied, wondering where Matt was going with his comments.

“It never occurred to you that Steed was killed by a lone gunman who was apprehended three days later and then immediately declared to be so 5150 that he had to be immediately committed to a state hospital?”

“That’s true,” I answered, beginning to get an odd feeling running up and down my spine.

“The three Marines, Rick Steed, another Marine, you’re a Marine…and then there’s the Dwarfs. What was Steed working on finding out for you and, by the way, do you really think that guy who killed him is in that mental hospital at all?

I was so shaken by finally grasping what Matt was getting at that I drove right past the exit for Highway fifty-eight trying to come to grips with a line of thought that never occurred to me. Steed killed purposefully. By an assassin? By someone who likely walked into a mental hospital and possibly back out the same day or night.

“That’s it, that’s all you got?” I asked, embarrassed for having missed considering any of what this remotely oriented and located man was saying.

“Nope. How about the .38 he was killed with being a duty weapon belonging and gone missing from the possession of a San Clemente police officer? He was wearing a vest that would stop a .38, and more, but this supposedly crazy person managed to shoot him in one side and out the other, where there was no vest protection, just by luck or accident? The three Marines died by accident and you’ve come into possession of some chunk of an alien starship, or something by accident. Seems like you’re living through a series of accidents without any parallel I’ve ever heard of.”

“What do you want from me?” I asked, in exasperation. “What do they want from me?”

“You don’t look like a spy, you don’t talk like a spy and you sure as hell don’t act like a spy. You don’t look like a Marine; you don’t talk like a Marine and you don’t act like a Marine. Finally, you don’t look like a lethal killer, you don’t talk like one and it doesn’t seem you act like one anymore either. What’s not to like if you’re looking for talent in a field force that’s pretty sorely lacking in exactly that kind of mangled but oh-so-effective disguise? You’re a real-life human chameleon, the first one I’ve ever met or am likely to meet.

I exited the freeway at the next exit which was called, appropriately, the Old Santa Fe Trail.

“Where do we go from here,” I asked Matt, thinking more about my life than the geographics of travel toward Los Alamos.

The fact that Rick might have been purposely killed shocked me to my core and all I wanted to do was go back, not forward. Back to call the Dwarfs in and launch another investigation, but then I knew I couldn’t do that, not if Rick had been taken out over something he found. I wasn’t dealing with combat veterans and survivors after making it through the ‘new guy’ period of peril.

Matt instructed me to head the deuce straight on into the town square, which was located right along the twisting trail. We left the truck sitting on the street idling and went into the only restaurant called the Plaza Café.

“You’ll like this place,” Matt said, unconcerned that the huge six-by was half blocking the road that ran around the square.

We both ordered cheeseburgers and fries. The burgers came with green chili on them, unasked or charged for. Despite the heat, the burgers were wonderful. Matt and I didn’t talk further until the bill was paid and we were on our way toward Los Alamos once more. The information, if it was that, about Steed had shaken me so deeply that I didn’t even think further about calling my wife. Matt’s revelation I’d been excited to see the place where the atomic bomb was created, but that tourist kind of thinking had disappeared from my thoughts.

The hill up into the base, once crossing the bridge on Highway 502, was so steep and long that the deuce stayed at fifteen hundred rpm in second gear for the whole way up. Once there, and passing through the long closed front gate, Matt pulled out a piece of paper from his pants pocket.

“No map of the tech areas, but I’ve got the directions here.”

I eased the deuce along, through the town and around many curves that ran deeper along the finger of land called Los Alamos. Finally, we came to a gate tucked into the bracken rising up on both sides of the road. The gate was closed but a staff car sat parked across the entrance area.

“Our ride,” Matt said, refolding and replacing his hand-made map back into his pocket.

“We’re not going in?” I asked, in surprise, pulling up to the side of the staff car.

“Nope, they’ll take it from here. The car is our ride back into Albuquerque and the dealership for your new car. Just leave the deuce at idle in neutral.”

“I didn’t ask for a new car,” I murmured, wondering why Matt was being so formal. What was I going to do, leave the truck idling in first gear?”

“We have an expression, probably taken from years ago on the ranges out west, and then picked up by Hollywood. You ride for the brand.”

Nobody came out of the gate area. Matt and I got into the back seat of the car and it took off, the driver never saying a word, much less asking for identification.

“No security?” I asked as we left the tech area behind.

“More security than you’ve ever been under before but it’s all hidden away, invisible, like we are about to be.”

The trip back to Santa Fe and then down to Albuquerque was uneventful except for the fact that our ‘chauffeur’ drove at speeds that were roughly twenty miles per hour over the speed limit at every open opportunity.

“What if we get pulled over for speeding,” I asked Matt quietly, the car hurling down La Bahara at over a hundred miles per hour.

“The same thing that happened with the last encounter with the law,” Matt replied, with a soft laugh. “We’re not immune but we are fully inoculated.”

I didn’t understand but decided to leave it alone. I was the new guy and I had much more to learn than I would ever have believed, and I also knew I wasn’t going to be given much time to learn. Like combat, it was to be on the job training or some kind of bad ending.

Matt sensed my discomfort with the way things were going.

“Adventure is doing something dangerous that has a happy ending,” he said, this time sounding deadly serious.

“And if otherwise?” I asked.

“Well,” Matt said, after a few seconds of thought, “that’s called a tragedy.”

The dealership was in a part of Albuquerque that was made up basically of all car dealerships. Cars were displayed everywhere up and down that part of the industrial-developed section of Lomas Boulevard along with what seemed like hundreds of flying American flags. Somehow, it seemed, the purchasing of a car had become entwined with being patriotic through the years.

The rickety Los Alamos Bus Line car, which was merely an old Lincoln, was not much different, except for being older, than the Lincoln’s the Western White House compound used to warehouse and use for visitors. There had been, back in those now departed days, no printing of anything like the Los Alamos Bus Line logo tastelessly applied to the front doors of the car that delivered Matt and me to the Mercedes dealership.

“I’m not buying a Mercedes,” I said, getting out of the passenger door and shielding my eyes from the glare of a bright morning sun reflecting back from all the glass in the parked cars.

The Los Alamos Bus Line vehicle pulled away, leaving Matt and me standing alone outside the double glass doors leading into the dealership’s showroom.

“We’re not here to buy a car,” Matt replied, walking away from the entrant to stand next to a Mercedes painted a strange green color I recognized. The vehicle was painted British Racing Green as the team cars raced for by that area of the world. “We’re here to drive away in a car, which we’ll leave at the airport until you return, which will be very soon I presume.”

“So, this is like the house wherein the decisions have all been made, the money laid down and I’m left with the mortgage, loan, or whatever without ever having a say in anything. Am I going ot have to lie some more to m wife about this one too?”

“Get in, it’s not locked,” Matt said, getting into the passenger seat and belting himself in.

Almost unwillingly, I complied with Matt’s instruction, noting that the door closed like it was the door to a bank vault and the leather seat seemed to fold me into it like it’d been waiting for some time for my, and only my, arrival. The keys were in the ignition next to the steering wheel.

“What is this thing?” I asked, beginning to feel marginally attached to the vehicle without even starting or driving it.

“It’s a 240D, which stands for diesel. It’s slower than crap but has an extra twenty-gallon fuel tank so the range, at highway speeds, is nearly 1200 miles. The color was selected especially, as there are no British Racing Green car colors in any German automaker’s inventory. That color is supposedly the color you wanted one day to have if you could afford it.

“Why?” I asked, surprised in so many ways I didn’t know what to say further.

“Who knows?” Matt replied. “Maybe they want to thank you for gifting that package back to them after storing it as you were ordered. Maybe they want to prepare you for the fact that they want something from you that you likely won’t want to give them.”.”

“So, which is it,” I asked as I turned the key in the ignition.

“They don’t do thank you stuff very much,” Matt replied, “and you have to wait fifteen seconds for the glow plugs to light up in the cylinders. There, he pointed at a small red light that had come on next to where the key was inserted into the dash.

“The deuce has a diesel, how come no glow plugs in that?” I asked, surprised by what seemed like a strange oddity I’d never heard of.

“Germans, efficiency, power, hell I don’t know,” Matt said, shaking his head. “Let’s get to the airport. There’s a plane waiting for us, which probably will be your last free government ride. You’ll have to get used to going back to flying economy commercial.”

“More of their thanks?” I asked, but Matt didn’t reply. “Okay, how much is this thing?”

Matt opened the glove box and pulled out a small stack of paperwork, which he started reading through as I replayed the map in my mind of how to get to the airport. The car was responsive but not in the least bit fast, although the automatic four-speed probably had something to do with that.

“Ten thousand bucks, which is about forty percent off retail. Eight percent interest, which isn’t bad for a car loan these days.”

“Too much,” I said back, although the car was amazing, the quiet clattering of the diesel and all. I love it, from the color to the sound of the doors closing and even the fact that the thing required fifteen seconds of patient contemplation while it worked itself up to agreeing to start.

“You signed everything, including the registration,” Matt said, his tone one of amazement. “It’s got a purple heart license plate which is good for life, although I don’t know whether that means your life or the cars.”

“I never signed anything,” I said, the whole thing, like with the house, made me feel faintly uncomfortable.

“Notarized, even,” Matt went on, as if my denial meant nothing.

When we got to the airport Matt directed me back to the giant hanger that was located deep into the mess of small hangers and buildings well away from the normal passenger terminal. The whole huge building was on wheels.

“The wheels were all salvaged from Boeing B-36 bombers they took apart in Arizona. Pretty cool, isn’t it”

I didn’t reply. Nothing seemed cool that I was doing or the career that I’d signed up for that didn’t seem like it had an escape clause or the ability to resign.

Matt pointed at a small plane which surprised me. I’d been looking for another C-130, but it wasn’t to be. On approach, I realized it was a Lear jet.

“Just park the car anywhere and leave the key in,” Matt instructed. “The guys will take care of it while you’re gone.”

We both got out of the wonderful underpowered Mercedes and approached the Lear. Nobody greeted us but the cabin door was lowered with a small set of steps leading into the plane’s interior.

“You’re on your own,” Matt said, “I’ve got unfinished business here.” He held out his right hand and gave me a big smile.

“Thanks,” I said, weakly, taking his hand. I wasn’t sure I was ready to be off on my own after so much seemingly gifted advice and counsel.

“The plane’s fast, you’ll be at Orange County in less than two hours. Nobody waiting, just you on your own, the way they say you work the best. My last advice? Stay away from the Steed thing and move on. What you want to do is written all over you, but it’ll lead nowhere but to a place of grief for all concerned. The money going to the widow, thanks to you won’t be going there at all. Nothing is what it seems back there which is a damn good reason for you to get back here in a hurry and into your new existence. There’s a phone on the wall over there. Call your wife. She’s a bright woman and my guess is she’ll tell you the same thing.

Matt walked off as I stood watching, feeling like I was part of a Western movie where the hero, Gary Cooper, or John Wayne rode his horse off into the sunset. I’d never thought about the people those ‘heroes’ were left behind before.

I climbed the steps up into the small low cabin, even I had to bend over to walk through. The steps retreated and the door closed automatically. Nobody came out of the closed canvas that separated the pilots from the passengers. The engines started and the plane moved. I was in a different world from the one I was leaving behind. I wasn’t at all sure whether I was rising into something, however, or heading on down the rabbit hole into which Alice in Wonderland had fallen. The plane was airborne before I remembered that I had been going to call my wife. I sat in the well-padded seat with my belt on, the plane screaming up to altitude and hoping that I could somehow get the time to catch up to myself.

<<<<<< The Beginning |

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