Chapter Eight
An Entirely Alien Approach

Big Foot

...... Melynnda looked up from her desk at the sound of the front door. "Back here," she called, putting down the pen and shifting her chair.
...... "I didn't know if the office'd be open." Irwin shook snow from his coat. "That new motel, where I'm staying now, is only a block away from here. So I thought I'd take a chance and walk over. Quite a snow, wasn't it?"
...... "Last year, when you first came here, it was a dry winter. Cold and clear. This winter, you'll see what it's really like." She picked up the ballpoint and gestured. "There's coffee ready in the Utility Room."
...... "How did you get in today?" He folded his coat and tucked it over one arm.
...... "The way it was coming down last night, I didn't want to drive. So I stayed the night. Two of our clerk staff, who both live within easy walking distance, have made it in. You're number three."
...... "I'll go pick up my coffee mug. Since we're open, I'll stay and finish my work here." He started to turn, then stopped.
...... "Anybody home?" a heavy baritone demanded, following the sound of the closing main door.
...... "Jay!" She jumped up from her chair and stopped.
...... He strode in from the hallway, tossed his coat on the visitor's chair, and hugged her. "I thought I saw the Mustang peeking out from under a snow drift. The storm canceled my last appointment, so I came on in."
...... "I'll go get coffee," Irwin said as he left.
...... She moved back to her place; he plopped down in the spare chair, leaned back against his damp coat, and stretched out his legs. A tiny pool of water formed under each heel boot.
...... "I thought you might have snowed yourself in with Cynthia Wilson," she teased. Steepling her arms on the desk, she rested her chin on her folded fists.
...... "Actually, I came home to beg your forgiveness. For the first time, I've slept with another woman." He clasped his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling.
...... She made an improbable noise and flipped one hand at him.
...... Momentarily, Irwin stopped in the doorway, then walked in with three cups of coffee balanced on a tray.
...... "Hi, Dave." He looked over. "Is one of those for me?"
...... Irwin handed around the coffee. "I'll pick up my papers, and be on my way," he advised Melynnda.
...... "Stick around. I'm interviewing a comedy act." She gestured outward with a fast movement. "Better still, bring in another chair. You'll be needed to tell me when I'm supposed to laugh."
...... He straightened up. "Well. I like that! I come here immediately and confess to my only marital infidelity, and she calls me a liar. Outright! Do you have this much trouble with your own legal wench, Dave?" He brushed that away. "How can you be so sure I'm a liar, Lynn? Don't you read the women's magazines?"
...... She stuck out her tongue for two seconds, then looked over at Irwin. "Sit down and drink your coffee, Dave. Jay's in such a good mood, he might be worth listening to. Not much else is going to be done today."
...... "Might be," he repeated. "You just go on to sleep, and I'll talk to Dave. He's been on the road enough to have met some peculiar situations himself. Life actually is stranger than television." He slouched back and sipped some coffee. "It was a dark and stormy night, about four in the afternoon . . . ."

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1637 [Ref. No. D1174-478]

...... The depression was floored with a thin layer of loose snow, blown in by the light wind. Already, the edges were crumbling and breaking off in lumps.
...... I wiped the powdery white off of my gloves and stood up. An idling engine came under full power, and I looked up at the light plane, a blue and silver silhouette against the government-gray of the sky. It tilted slightly, then flared and touched down with bursts of dark smoke from its main wheels.
...... "You made good time gettin' here," the Sheriff remarked, shrugging deeper into his heavy coat.
...... "I had to. I'm only just ahead of the storm. The weather bureau is promising a monster." Across at the airfield, the single-engine aircraft had turned, braked, and pulled into the tie-down area.
...... He looked up at the dark sky. "I'd guess only a couple hours. So what do you think of that?" He waved a gloved hand at the line of depressions which stretched across the meadow. "The storm tonight'll obliterate 'em all."
...... Again, I studied the curved line of perfectly formed pawprints, each about six feet in diameter. "Ever seen anything else in nature with square sides? It's someone's practical joke. And not a very good hoax at that." Beyond the police barrier tape, people stood in small groups, talking and shivering. The wind was coming in gusts, tugging at coattails and whipping at the broad yellow plastic tape stretched between metal uprights.
...... He nodded in apparent agreement. "With all the open space in this county, this thing is right in the middle of the airport flight path, where it'd be seen the minute the sun came up." He paused to look at a small, red-haired woman who was leaning against the back fender of his patrol car. Her fashion coat wasn't designed for this kind of weather, and she was trying unsuccessfully not to shiver. A man stopped to say something, she shook her head, and he walked on. "And every single track is identical," the Sheriff finished.
...... "Not to mention they're shaped like a cartoonist's idea. There's nothing here for my group, although I do appreciate the chance to see this. I guess I'll be heading back to the motel." I ducked under the tape, followed by the Sheriff. "You've acquired quite a crowd out here."
...... "Only news to hit this area in some time. Other than the Craft Fair, which ain't bad news. Even the mayor came to see for himself, windchill and all." He stopped to nod toward my vehicle. "Can I hitch a ride back to town with you? I'd like to leave my car for my Deputy, and it'd save radioing for somebody. I got all my people out on patrol, and vehicles are in short supply today."
...... "Glad to oblige. I was surprised to find a traffic jam on your main street. The Fair must draw from miles around."
...... "Our biggest and only event of the year." The snow crunched beneath his heavy insulated boots. "With the Fair and the snow storm, the city limits are startin' to bulge. Good thing you found a room first thing." He stopped beside the front passenger door. "It's most likely the Fair which made these jokers do their stunt this morning."
...... A paunchy man in a sheepskin coat caught up with us. "Excuse me. Sheriff, can I catch a ride back to town with you? My wife's taken our car."
...... "I'm ridin' with Mr. Driver here." He gestured the introduction. "This is our Mayor Jacobson."
...... "You're most welcome to come along." I opened the back door in invitation. Glancing over the groups of twos and threes, I raised my voice. "Anybody need a ride into town?"
...... Several shook their heads, but the red-haired woman straightened up and took a step forward.
...... "Still plenty of room," I offered, as the Sheriff followed the Mayor into the backseat.
...... "Thanks." She smiled and climbed in, kicking loose snow off her feet. "Hi, everybody. I'm Charli from the Willy Daily."
...... "I didn't think anyone would come as far as Williamsville for this tiny item," the Mayor was saying, as I scooted in and switched on the ignition. The warning panels on the dash flickered through the standard checkout then went blank -- all systems okay. The engine was still warm and caught instantly.
...... "It's a slow week for news," she answered with a light laugh.
...... Pushing the fan switch to high, I slid the shift selector into Drive and did a sharp left turn to avoid a hidden ditch which I'd found the hard way before. The vehicle still bounced over ruts permanently frozen into the tilled ground.
...... "Willyville is two counties east of here," she advised me. She held tightly to the overhead grip, as the truck bounced toward the snowbank delineating the main road.
...... At the edge of the roadway, the Sheriff gripped my shoulder. "Stop here a minute, Driver, if you would." He motioned to the Deputy standing a few yards away.
...... I stopped and ran my window down, letting a few preliminary snowflakes drift in.
...... "Manfield! I've left my car for you. Pull the barrier down and go back on patrol. I'll be at the Big Burger, then be back at the station." He leaned back. "Thanks, Driver."
...... The Deputy checked for nonexistent traffic, then motioned me forward. I zipped the window back up, waved in acknowledgement, and pulled out onto the scraped but still snowpacked county road. The Jeep slithered a little under acceleration, as the load shifted between the wheels, then settled down when I reached the speed limit. There wasn't any competition for the roadway -- sensible people were staying indoors. The clouds were darkening further, and snowflakes smacked and melted on the windshield.
...... The Sheriff gripped my shoulder again. "We'll be havin' an informal conference at our usual place, the back table at the Big Burger. Why don't you stop over there too. You might have some answers none of us have."
...... "Good idea," the Mayor added. "I'll be stopping there myself, before I go back to the office. I assume you too, Charli?"
...... She nodded. "That's the only place for news today. Or for supper."
...... "I could use a bite," I allowed. The city limits sign came up, followed by the twenty-five speed limit. "Not that there's much information I can give on your problem."
...... "Driver and I agree the whole thing is a joke by somebody around here," the Sheriff explained. "That paw shape is comic book, and they're overlapped to cover any tracks put down first. The trail starts and ends at plowed county roads, where they could unload and load their equipment."
...... "And here I had a Giant Monster Stalks Craft Fair headline all reserved," she remarked. "Practical Joker At Work ends up next to the used car ads."
...... "Unfortunately, that's what it looks like," I agreed. "If I were doing it, I'd cut the shape out of plywood and chain it to the bucket of a backhoe. With the stabilizers up and two men to do the job, it could be done rather fast, even though the tractor would rock a bit. There's heavy tire ruts frozen in under the snow, but there's no way to date them."
...... "So much for my U.P.I. story," she laughed.
...... "Are you that short of news?" the Mayor asked. "Williamsville is five times the size of our village."
...... "Which still isn't much." She waved a slim hand. "All we have is our resident ghost in that abandoned chemical plant down the valley. And that's horror fiction, not news."
...... The red and silver of the Big Burger sign appeared in the distance -- it wasn't too likely there were two of them here.
...... "So I'll be spendin' the night on the road looking for people who saw heavy equipment bein' moved last night or early this morning." The Sheriff peered out of the side window. "And with a whopper of a snow storm comin' in fast." He tapped my shoulder once more. "You're over at Todd's Motel, Driver. Nice place, family run, very informal, and only five minutes from the Craft Fair, if you cut across the field out back. You might want to drop over there to see the sights. There's nothing much on television anyway."
...... "It sounds like a good idea." The driveway was more packed than plowed -- I waited for a car to pull out. It slid when it braked, so I eased into the parking space, letting the four-by creep to a stop. "I do need to do some gift shopping. And your operation sounds like a good place."
...... Steamed windows and clattering sounds, the smell of wet coats and hot frying fat, soft background music beneath the called orders. I stopped beside the decorative plastic panel, which set off the dining area, and studied the brightly colored menu.
...... "Can I get something for you?" the Sheriff offered from behind me.
...... "Trying to make up my mind, such as it is. Can I get you something?"
...... "Just coffee for me and the Mayor." He pulled out dollar bills. "Two large, black. Nothin' else. Don't bother with the change." He hurried toward a big round table set in the back corner"
...... The red-haired woman vanished down the small side hallway. I joined the line, while still inspecting the offerings on the back-lit display. It was a short line -- I put down the tray and delivered the requested coffee within three minutes, according to the ornamental wall clock behind the serving counter.
...... Four strangers were at the table, in addition to the Sheriff and the Mayor. At least one of them must have been a newsperson, because the Mayor was delivering the official version of the hoax investigation. A few minutes later, the red-head put a tray on the table, next spot over, and flopped her snow-damp coat on the adjacent seat. One of the strangers offered her a quick wave, and she nodded in return.
...... "You were looking at those tracks, so you must be a cop too," she remarked, while pulling the transparent top from a dinner salad. She opened an envelope of salad dressing and added half of it. "Are you State or something special? I didn't hear any title mentioned, and your license plate is from out-of-state."
...... "Special Investigations Department," I explained between swallows. "It's a tiny Federal branch for jobs which don't seem to belong to anyone else."
...... "Excuse me, Charlene," the Sheriff called. "Sorry to interrupt. Driver, this is James of the State Police. He had a couple questions which you'd be better at."
...... I couldn't answer them any better, but I could use more words -- that seemed to satisfy, because the conversation changed to local events and local problems. I listened and munched a fish sandwich, only half noticing the talk.
...... Three tables away, a dark-haired beauty in a light and dark brown ski outfit slid onto one of the plastic benches. I stared at her for a few seconds before I realized that she was a stranger. Lynn had purchased the same outfit a couple weeks ago at a discount place, and I'd mistaken the stranger for her.
...... Meal finished, I offered my goodbyes, shook the necessary hands, declined the various invitations, dumped my tray leavings, and went on my way.
...... At the motel after checking the T.V. listings, I decided that the Sheriff had been right, changed my clothes, put on a heavy leather coat and my battered hat, and headed across the snow-covered farm field toward the hundreds of lights which denoted the Craft Fair building.

* * *

...... "Out!"
...... I stood in the open doorway, the knob still in my hand. "I don't know how you got in here, or what you want, but gather up your things and get out. Right now!"
...... She looked through the corners of her eyes. "It's cold out there. Come in and close the door."
...... "If you think this is a joke, it isn't." A gust of wind from behind tossed a stream of snowflakes along the carpet. "I am not kidding. Get your clothes on, and get out of here." The rug was turning dark from the puddles forming around my boots.
...... Her sultry expression wavered. "Close the door! It's cold out there. I know what men like. I like it too. Come in and get warm."
...... "If I have to go over to the office and raise hell, there will be more problems. Like breaking and entering! If you don't start moving in ten seconds, I will." In the dim light from the bedside lamp, I finally recognized her -- the red-headed reporter from the pawprint site, Charlene something.
...... She twisted and held out one hand. "No, wait! I'm sorry. I meant . . . well, you seemed a good-looking, very nice man . . . I hoped . . . ." She ran a hand through her hair, tousling it further. "It's snowing cats and dogs out there, sled-dogs at that. And there isn't a room left vacant in this entire town. I don't even have a car here. The only other thing I could do, was throw a rock through the police station window and get locked up for the night." She shook her head. "God, it's just my luck. I proposition a guy, and he's not only handsome and decent, he's the last faithful husband in the whole country. Wouldn't you know it!"
...... Another gust of wind dumped a handful of snow down the neck of my coat, and I started to feel ridiculous, standing on the threshold and holding the door open. Shutting it, I dropped my gift box and my hat on the chair and unsnapped my coat. "The Mayor seemed to know you. Are you actually a reporter?"
...... "Williamsville Daily," she answered automatically. "I've met the Mayor before. I'm sorry. I'll leave. There's still time to pick up someone else, I think."
...... "That's a rather dangerous occupation." I shoved the hat and box out of the way and sat down. The melted snow from my hat had dampened the upholstery.
...... "I'm old enough to know what I'm doing." She slid out from under the blankets, making it obvious that her entire wardrobe was piled on the dresser chair. "I'm just a little bit desperate tonight."
...... "I've had the opportunity to know the problem. Is this town filled up that much?"
...... "I tried every hotel, motel, roominghouse, and flophouse in this entire model-train village. There isn't a doghouse to rent. Even Budget is sold out. There aren't any wheels available, unless I steal a car."
...... "No friends here in town?"
...... "Not a one. And everybody's house is filled to the brim with relatives. No hospitality left for a stranger."
...... "The snow is getting worse." I shrugged and shifted farther away from the hat-size wading pool. "Under the circumstances, I suppose we can manage something."
...... She stopped in mid-reach. "Thank you. Really. I promise I won't be any trouble. You can lock your wallet and stuff in your Jeep and sleep with the key under your pillow." She hesitated. "And the offer is still open."
...... "I've sworn off Thursdays. Besides, I have to be up early tomorrow." I took off my coat and draped it over the back of the other easy chair. "One word of warning. If you hog the blankets, I'll use a foot to shove you out onto the floor."
...... "You would, too," she laughed.
...... By the time I was out of the bathroom, she was back in bed, lying just next to the edge. I lay down on my side but couldn't resist the impulse to tug on the blankets. She yanked back and giggled.
...... "I do appreciate this," she said. "Thank you."
...... I clicked off the bedside lamp and punched the pillow into shape.
...... "If you're a Fed, what were you doing looking at those tracks?" she asked. "What else do you do for the government?"
...... "Look at other hoaxes. I investigate, file a report, and let Upstairs decide what to do. If anything. It's not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills." I paused for a yawn. "You don't have to prove you're a news reporter. I believe you."
...... "Thanks for the ride, too. It got me out of a bad jam."
...... "Weren't you there for the story?"
...... She scooted around uncomfortably. "Not exactly. I'd come over from the airport. The boyfriend, I'd gone there with, was meeting a plane, and it looked like something illegal was going on. I didn't need that. So I ran away from the building and joined the first group I saw."
...... "With the Sheriff's car there?"
...... "That big gold star on the door was the best thing I could have found. It didn't bother me, but it sure kept my problem from catching up with me. Only I didn't have any transportation home, and I couldn't go to the authorities. They'd have too many questions." She suddenly twisted around. "And why not? It's not common that a gay guy is married, but it happens. But you were sneaking looks at that bitch in the ski outfit at dinner. So why not? My ex-husband wouldn't have hesitated ten seconds."
...... "Which undoubtedly contributed to the ex." I paused for a moment to collect words. "Because I have my own quite delightful love affair going on with my own lady, and because I don't wish to dilute it with casual and pointless matings. That's not intended to put you down. Another time, it might have been different."
...... "Faithfulness is quite a compliment to a woman," she admitted, turning away again. "Good night. And if you have a brother, give me his phone number."
...... "I don't. Good night. If you're too warm or too cold, just change the thermostat. It won't bother me."

* * *

...... I woke when the telephone rang. According to my watch it was two in the morning. It was surprising that the switchboard was still operating at this hour. I answered it.
...... "Driver? You awake?"
...... "I am now. It sounds like the Sheriff. Is it still snowing?"
...... "Just startin' to taper off." He spoke almost inaudibly to someone in the background. "We found the practical jokers," he continued. "Just like you called it. They had a backhoe on a trailer behind a dump truck. The pawprint shoe was metal and welded together, not plywood, but that's about the only thing you missed on. The two boys confessed as soon as we found them. Couple of kids hoping to sell the story to a news magazine. And I had to call out the Government!"
...... "Just my department. And that's what we're paid for." I changed ears on the phone. "In that case, I'll be moving along in the morning. Thanks for all your hospitality. By the way, how's the hotel bookings in town tonight with the Craft Fair and all?"
...... "We're rakin' in our year's revenue. Everything is sold out. You probably could rent out the back of your four-by if you got enough blankets for the weather. If you've met a colleague, plan on sharing your room with him. Good night, Driver. Nice to have met you, anyway. If you're in the area again, stop by the station for a cup of coffee."
...... I acknowledged suitably and hung up the phone.
...... "Like I said," she remarked from the bed.
...... "I cross-check automatically." Yawning, I slipped back under the warmth of the blankets.
...... "Good habit," she agreed. "But you didn't lock up your valuables."
...... "I forgot."
...... "I won't honor that fib with an answer."

* * *

...... It was the sound of a snow shovel on the walk outside which ushered in the morning. The first shred of daylight was showing through the crack between the curtains. The storm had passed by.
...... "Oh, God! That can't be morning already."
...... I had to laugh. "You sound exactly like my wife. The bath's yours."
...... "You first." She rolled over and shoved the pillow into a different shape. "Turn up the heat while you're at it."
...... I wasn't that long. While she dressed, I went outside to start the engine and brush off the Jeep. With its curved hood it could toss up a fair blizzard across the windshield. The tach was down to a usable idle and the heat gauge had started to climb by the time she bounced into the front passenger seat.
...... "I've taken care of check-out," I advised. "Where do you need to go?"
...... The vehicle balked a little at the tightness of the turn, as I eased out of the narrow space. A stop at a bank machine, then the Big Burger lot again. The building lights were on, people were working inside, and a couple cars were parked at the back of the lot. The half-hour, when they'd open for the hoped-for breakfast crowd, was just coming up on the dash clock.
...... "Here." She held out several bills. "Half the room rent."
...... "Send me a check. Keep the cash 'til you make it home."
...... Someone was unlocking the doors to the building, glancing out at us.
...... "Address?"
...... I handed her a business card from the visor loops. "Be okay?"
...... "The bus'll leave in an hour, and the station is just across the street." She looked at the glass-fronted restaurant. "And that's just enough time for a good breakfast." She held out her hand. "If you're ever in Williamsville, the paper'll know where I am."
...... An echo of the closing door and a line of fresh boot tracks across the tread patterns in the snow -- I pulled out, turned left, then right at the route signs by the main intersection. A few last snowflakes pattered down on the windshield and melted away.

...... Driver swallowed the last of the coffee in his mug. "And that's the way it was. Movin' West."
...... Irwin stifled a final laugh.
...... "Southeast, more properly," Melynnda corrected. "If you'd kicked her out and something bad had happened, you'd never have forgiven yourself." She shifted in her seat. "And I'm not sure I would have, either. It would be a difficult choice between an unfaithful husband and a hard-hearted one. Fortunately for me, I don't have to choose. And that's . . . ." She stopped at the sound of the front door.
...... A loud sneeze echoed down the hallway. A moment later, Lee trudged in, holding a tissue to his nose. "Morning, everybody."
...... "Is this germ warfare?" Driver demanded. "You sound terrible."
...... "Why did you come in?" she added. "Nothing much is going to be done today."
...... Lee sneezed again. "I didn't think I was this bad, when I started out. I didn't think the roads'd be this bad, either."
...... "Well, you know what the snow removal is like around here," Melynnda commented.
...... "And just where exactly is your pretty little sports car?" Driver requested, sitting up.
...... "A block down the street, making like an ice cream sundae! I just about got here but lost it on that tight corner by the drain ditch."
...... Standing, Driver reached for his coat. "Then we're going to pull it out, you'll drive it the last block and park it next to the building here beside Melynnda's snowdrift, and then you'll allow me to drive you back home. Lynn or I will pick you up Monday, assuming you're well enough by then."
...... "If nothing comes in within the next two hours, I'm telling the staff, who made it in, to go home," she explained, gesturing to Driver. "That'll give you plenty of time before you need to come back to take me home." She looked at Irwin. "Why don't you spend the day with us? You must get tired of motels. Jay sure does."
...... Irwin grinned and looked ten years younger. "My compact had too many miles on it. Last week, I saw this little Ranger, complete with Touch Drive, on the used car lot. So I'll just pick up my paperwork and take it home for the weekend."
...... "Got enough weight in the back?" Driver asked.
...... "Four one-hundred pound bags of sand."
...... "You won't have any trouble. Have fun." He motioned toward the door, pulling on his coat. "Come on, Lee. Let's salvage yours."

chapter seven Table of Contents chapter nine

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