This story was first submitted to the eWorld Fiction Writers in November 1996. You can see the second, (hopefully) improved version here.
The story was critiqued in writing and then discussed "live." Both records can be reviewed here.
Ahead, the two-lane road stretched almost to the horizon. James and Ted sped along, confident that the nearest State Trooper was many miles away. It was a cool November day. Cooler than people who’d never spent a lot of time in the Nevada desert could even imagine it being.
The sky was a pale blue, and everything below it seemed to be one shade of brown or another. In the west, rugged, treeless mountains marked the middle and far distances.
James sighed happily. “I love heading out to these small towns,” he said. “I get so tired of those uptight city people slamming the door in my face all the time.”
“You got that right, bro,” Ted affirmed.
“Last year I was in this place in Utah, way out on a dead end highway, it was so isolated that the people I met just stared at me. Like they’d never seen a stranger before.”
“But did they buy anything?” Ted wanted to know.
“One of the best days I’ve ever had,” James said. “Not a record, but almost everybody I met gave something.” He tapped the dashboard. “Have you been watching the gas gauge? It’s getting really low.”
“Those last two towns didn’t even have gas stations. That old mining town back there didn’t even have a grocery store.”
“Beautiful place, though. Practically a ghost town. We’re what, a hundred fifty miles from Reno? We’ll never make it on a quarter of a tank.”
James unfolded their state road map, and battled with it for a minute. He hated stuffy places, and had refused to roll the car window all the way up. Unfurled, the map took up considerably more than his half of the subcompact rental car, and the wind kept snapping it like a paper flag.
“I just finished this book called Basin and Range,” James said. “Really neat stories about this desert area out here, and the geology and stuff. You ought to check it out sometime.”
“Just hurry up with that map before I drive off the road,” Ted said, as he swatted at its intruding edge. “I think there’s some kind of military base out this way.”
“Here is it,” James responded, squinting at the tiny print. “Margrave Test Range. It’s only about ten miles from here. I bet they have a gas station. We’ll have to turn left in, let’s see, about five miles.”
The Test Range’s guard post looked ridiculously lonely, standing watch over a narrow ribbon of blacktop, while the open desert spread out for miles on either side. The little beige car rolled to a stop, and Ted leaned his head out of the driver’s side window.
“Is there a gas station?” he asked the lone MP.
“Sure,” the MP said, as he waved them through. “It’s up ahead, five miles.”
Ted drove on. “Here we are, a black guy and a white guy, both with short haircuts,” he mused aloud. “That guard must have thought we were military.”
Relieved to have confirmed that there was a gas station, James began humming a tune, cheerfully though badly off-key. It was a silly parody of an old Christian hymn. “Bringing in the cash, bringing in the cash, we will come rejoicing, bringing in the cash,” he sung to himself.
Beyond spending enough to maintain a Spartan existence, the money that James and his partner for the day ‘gathered in’ was not for themselves. James firmly believed in his cause, and that everyone else would do well to pitch in too. Even if it was just a little, a ‘widow’s mite.’ At least, everyone had to be given the opportunity. Including people who lived way the heck out in the Nevada desert.
At first there was no sign of a gas station, or of anything else manmade, for that matter. Just more desert scrub. Then a patch of green appeared ahead, and widened into a small town.
Gasoline purchaced, the two men walked out into the empty street, curious about where they’d found themselves.
“Glad we found this place,” James said. “You know, come to think of it, I read somewhere that they test secret weapons out here. I wonder where they keep ‘em?” He raised his hand to shade his eyes, and looked around.
At first glance the area looked like an ordinary small town. There were only a few shops on the block-long main drag, and to the north was a single street lined with squat, reddish cinder-block houses. Gigantic cottonwood trees grew everywhere. The sun shone brilliantly in the cloudless November sky. Nothing looked blantantly military, much less threatening.
“I’m hungry,” Ted said. “Let’s get us some lunch.”
Next to the gas station was a small bowling alley, and there they both ordered a burger, fries and a shake. They were the only ones seated at the alley’s modest lunch counter. The place was nearly empty, and no one struck up a conversation with the two outsiders.
Returning to the car, they prepared their fundraising product for the next small town on their itinerary. This process involved filling their carrying boxes with an assortment of candy from the supplies in the back of the car. This was a Mormon part of Nevada, and the Mormons, in denying themselves the usual adult diversions, had long been the nation’s largest consumers of candy.
The peanut brittle and assorted candies they brought door to door was quite ordinary. Nevertheless, so far the candy had been selling like hotcakes. It was only two in the afternoon, and they were nearly out of supplies.
Ted eyed the row of houses appraisingly. “Want to?” he asked James.
“‘Hit everything that moves, and sell it if it doesn’t,’ isn’t that what Director Smithey said last Sunday?” James said with a chuckle. “These folks need a chance too. No telling how often they get into the city.”
“Then let’s do it,” Ted said. With a single motion of his arm and a quick word or two, he divided up the area. They began knocking on doors.
The MPs arrived within ten minutes–though not before the men had sold much of their remaining candy. James was guided, gently but firmly, to the patrol car, where Ted was already standing. The two MPs spoke little as they bundled their captives into their car.
“Some lady over there was pretty hostile,” Ted whispered, bobbing his head towards ‘his’ side of the street. “She much have called ‘em.”
James and Ted knew from experience that the Military Police were far more efficient than their civilian counterparts. Once called, they reacted much faster, and they were damnednably harder to avoid.
The drive to the police station was short, only two blocks. The station was composed of the same cinder blocks as the houses, though it had been painted bright white. The effect was not cheerful.
An MP read them their Miranda rights, and then the cuffs went on. James had to use the bathroom, and was annoyed to discover that “regulations required that he be observed”–at all times. It was difficult to pee with the cuffs on.
“Let’s see your IDs,” the head MP began, a picture of professionalism.
“I don’t drive,” James said quietly. “I never learned to. I just have my volunteer card.” He showed the patrolman his laminated fundraiser’s card. At least it had a nice, color photo.
“And you?” the MP asked Ted.
“I don’t have my driver’s license with me,” Ted replied sullenly. “I’m sorry. I must have forgotten to bring it with me today.”
The MP’s frown deepened. He jotted two brief descriptions in his notebook:
Suspect: Ted Martin. Black male. Twenty two years old, five foot eight inches, one hundred eighty pounds. Prominent scar on left forearm.
Suspect: James Broomfield. Caucasian male. Twenty years old, five foot six inches, one hundred fifty pounds. Blonde hair.
Neither subject is carrying valid ID, though both have home-made appearing religious membership cards.
Note: Have Sharon run their fingerprints thru NCIC as soon as they are booked.
Vehicle: Beige 1977 Ford Pinto hatchback, Colorado license plate ARG 237. Vehicle in good condition, has several dozen boxes of assorted candy in back. No contraband found.
The head MP lead his two prisoners from the front office to a conference room. Or was it an interrogation room?
The prisoners sat glumly at the conference table; he remained standing.
In the other room, one of the MPs was fiddling with a machine.
"Darn teletype was working this morning. How can we run their fingerprints if
we can't even contact the FBI?"
Shortly thereafter, a new face appeared. “I’m Deputy Sherrif Park,” the young man told the prisoners. “Since you two are civilians, I’ve been called in to handle your case.”
Just then, one of the junior MPs entered the room. “We ran the plates. That car has been reported stolen.”
James blanched visibly. “But it can’t be. It was just rented by our boss, Aaron Smithey. He had to fly back to Phoenix this morning, so he said we could drive it today.”
The MP silently held up the printout, as if it was a sentence of doom.
“I can call him for you,” James said, trying to keep his voice from quaking. “I’m sure Mr. Smithey can explain everything.”
Deputy Park took down the Phoenix number. He dialed it himself, and moments later, his young features hardened. “That number has been disconnected,” he announced.
“But–” Ted sputtered. “That’s impossible. I just called ‘em last night. I was talking to Yoko, our regional secretary down there.”
In reply, Deputy Park dailed the number again, sounding out each letter as he did. “Six-Oh-Two, Five-Five-Five, Seven-Nine-Two-Four.” Then he held the phone up to Ted’s ear.
“Bleep-bleep-bleeeep,” said the phone. “We’re sorry, but that number has been disconnected and is no longer in service.”
“You could call the main office,” James said hopefully, “in New York.”
Deputy Park’s expression indicated that he wasn’t about to waste the taxpayer’s money on any such wild-goose chase.
“A new number today,” the junior MP said dryly. “And another one again next week.” He shook his head disgustedly and walked out of the room.
The two prisoners sat silent and miserable. A third MP now stood by the door, watching his charges alertly. James kept glancing up at a small, frosted-glass window. At the blue sky visible where it was partially open.
Get a good look now, James told himself. You may not see daylight again for a very long time.
The situation seemed too bizarre to be real, but it was. He prayed that it would all work out, somehow. It seemed strange, even to himself, that he didn’t feel as afraid as he ought to be.
Just the day before, Ted had been bragging again about his violent past, and about his dramatic conversion. “I hurt somebody,” he’d said, matter-of-factly. “I was robbing him, and the stupid guy fought back, but I had the drop on him. Thank God I met the Lord after that, and got myself cleaned up. Cops never knew who did it, but those number runners back in Baltimore, they might know.”
The men didn’t work together like this every day, but they’d both jumped at the chance to visit some friendly desert towns. Now they were both good and stuck.
James was glad that, as far as he could see, Ted’s conversion had been real enough. But the Lord doesn’t operate the Motor Vehicles Department, and the guy had no ID, with his real name on it or otherwise.
They could hear Deputy Park in the next room, talking on the phone.
“That’s right, Sheriff,” Park was saying. “We’ve got us a couple of fanatics here. Real, live ones. On a restricted military base, no less. They have no ID on them, and they’re driving a stolen car.” There was a pause.
“Okay, I’ll wait.” Park hung up the phone.
Fifteen very long minutes later the phone conversation resumed.
“But, but–” Park said. “I know they’re missionaries. What do you mean, what would the papers say?” the deputy listened silently for a minute.
“Oh? His best customers, he says? Well I’ll be. If you say so, Sheriff.”
The bored MP straightened as Park entered the conference room.
“Looks like you boys can go,” the deputy told his prisoners. “Sheriff Brown called the rental company, talked to their president personally. The guy claims you people are just about his best customers. Says that stolen-car report must have been a paperwork mixup.”
Park wagged his finger at Ted. “You should be more careful. You can’t drive without a license on your person at all times, and anyway, the rental contract on that car has expired. We’ll have to impound it.”
He removed the handcuffs. “Sherrif says we can’t be hassling missionaries. We know you boys are a long ways from home. Anyway, Sergeant Hart will give you a ride out to the gate. You’ll have to hitch a ride into town from there.”
The head MP came in with two cardboard cases in his arms, the remainder of the fundraising candy. Then he brought in another, smaller cardboard box.
“Sorry about the trouble, guys,” he said. “These are some preserves and relish that my wife made.” He set the box atop the other two.
James fancied himself a ‘pickle gourmet.’ He took a took at the brim-full Mason jars, thanked the man sincerely.
There was a different guard at the Test Range’s lonely guard shack this time. Deputy Park stood with his former prisoners, leaning against his patrol car and gazing out at the nearly featureless landscape. Though to his experienced eyes, the view was a rich one.
James was no longer curious about where any of the base’s mysterious weaponry might be stored. Ahead was the road into town, and to home. Home for a month or two, anyway. Next month he’d pay a visit to his own home town, and spend a week with his dad. But it always felt like home when he was with his spiritual brothers and sisters, however far he went, even overseas.
An old but immaculately clean car pulled slowly up to the gate, a grey-haired man at the wheel. Deputy Park addressed the driver. “Would you mind giving these two boys a ride into town?”
“Sure,” the man replied.
It turned out that the man was the official spokesman for the Margrave Test Range. A civilian, it was his job to deal with the press and various offficials that visited. There were more and more of these lately, he explained, because the base stored chemical weapons. These aging weapons had been the subject of a recent Congressional hearing, and were now a matter of public controversy.
All the way into town, the man regaled his two young passengers with stories about the famous -and sometimes quirky- TV network news anchormen that had broadcast from his base that year.
Later, he asked what had happened to Ted and James that day. After he listened to the entire story, he offered them a five dollar bill. “Here’s for your trouble, boys,” he said, as he let them out of his car.
© 1996 by Paul Carlson
*** This story is dedicated to Don Marshall, the real life Ted. Don passed away in March 2003, just after completing a missionary visit to Asia. We'd met while there, for the first time in twenty-five years, and shared memories of our adventure that day. ***
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