Chapter Eleven
An Entirely Alien Approach

Buried Treasure

General Adminstration Archives - Case 1826 [Ref. No. D1174-517]

...... Spinning the heavy wrench on the last lug, then putting it down on the grease-stained concrete, I boosted the wheel off the tire carrier. "You can see the screw head," I remarked to the mechanic at the service station.
...... Bending down, he held the wheel upright and fingered the bright-worn button. "I can hear it still hissing. No problem, but I'll be an hour getting to it." He looked at the truck. "We've got a special on oil change and lube, nineteen ninety-five. I'm waiting on parts delivery, so it'd be done sooner than the tire."
...... Mentally reviewing my maintenance log, I waited as the roar of a dump truck passed. "I need to go across the street to the Daily anyway."
...... He let the tire lean against the bumper. "My boss has a Jeep Liberty, so I know the maintenance chart by heart. I can have it all done by one-thirty. Twenty-three fifty total, tax included."
...... "Sold." I handed him the keys, crossed the apron past the pumps, and trotted across the street to the Depression-architecture office building on the corner. Gilt letters on the window advised Williamsville Daily.
...... It still wasn't my lucky day.
...... "She's out to lunch, but she ought to be back any minute," the receptionist advised. "Then again, she might go directly on assignment." She glanced at the telephone. "Is there anyone else here who could help? I'm sure the Editor is in."
...... "No one that I'm aware of." I left my card, stopped on the corner to look down the street for a restaurant, and crossed the intersection once more, cutting across the service station's apron again.
...... "Driver!"
...... Halting, I turned to look at a red Pontiac which had pulled up to the farther pump. "Hello, Charli."
...... "I was expecting someone. But I didn't know it'd be you." She waved the pump nozzle in gesture, as I walked up. "That's your Jeep, isn't it? Something wrong?"
...... "Flat tire. Nothing important. It made a good place to park, plus they sold me on some routine maintenance. It happens all the time. If sheet metal screws had a resale value, I'd be rich."
...... "I missed lunch, but we have a Big Burger in this town too. Would you care to adjourn with me to my usual caterer? The paper can pick up the tab for both of us." She shoved the pump nozzle back into its place and fiddled with the gas cap. "Besides, it's a bribe. We'll need to use your four-by later."
...... "Sounds good on both offers. I doubt the Big Burger will bankrupt the Daily."
...... "Don't be too sure." She paid the attendant, slid into the driver's seat, and unlocked the passenger door.
...... I settled into the brushed upholstery. "Nice car."
...... She eased out of the service station, bouncing on the gutter dip. "I got it used as a demonstrator. I've worked the poor thing to death, but it's always stood by me." She stopped to check traffic at the intersection. "You must have gotten my check. Either that, or your wife forged the endorsement."
...... "I did. Thanks. And how have you been?"
...... "Fine, fine. Dumped the last boyfriend. In the market for another. Pity you're already happy." She waited for a break in traffic and turned left under the Big Burger sign.
...... Inside, the young staffers were quickly serving the short lines of customers. She handed me a few bills. I picked up the order as requested and put down two trays with the change on hers. She finished scribbling notes in a tiny notebook and put it away in her purse.
...... "I wanted to get something down before I forgot," she explained with a bright smile. "Thanks for the service." She unwrapped her meal with practiced motions. "I'm serious about needing your truck. I nearly broke a spring out there last time. Truck country only."
...... "That's why I drive it." I sprinkled coarse-ground pepper on my garden-burger. "What have you run across?"
...... She chased a dab of catsup with a slice of potato. "Two years ago, when there was some Federal money available, a flood control dam was built ten miles north of here. It keeps the river, which runs through town, from overflowing its banks. Besides, it provides irrigation water for the valley, and in due time it'll make a bigger water supply for here, too. Also, when it fully fills, it'll be a nice recreation area and bring in tourists for the town businesses."
...... "So it's economically viable," I agreed, stirring my plastic cup of coffee with a plastic spoon -- both in the chain's colors.
...... "It seems that way," she allowed between bites. "But a month ago, someone started vandalizing the project. First, the outlet was opened, and part of the lake was drained off. That was caught soon enough and stopped. Then, the creek above the dam was cut and rerouted through a bottomland to bypass the lake. That was repaired also. Two nights ago, a gouge was cut in the dam itself, near one end."
...... "Sounds like someone doesn't like the idea of a park."
...... She opened a hand in a quick gesture. "There was some opposition, when the lake was first proposed, but everyone seemed to have come around to the benefits. There wasn't any trouble during the building. Now, all of a sudden, these things happen. No one's been caught. No one's even been seen, in spite of the size of the damage. One doesn't slash an earth-embankment dam with a pick and shovel." She paused as a noisy group sauntered past. "The County police have been on it. The State people have tried. It's partly a Federal project, and even the Feds haven't found anything." She crumbled up a wrapper and readjusted the straw in her coke.
...... "It's nice to be thought of," I teased.
...... "Special Investigations does special investigations of screwy happenings, so I've found out." She pointed, using another slice of potato. "This definitely is a screwy happening. So I called the number on your card and talked to the Office Manager, Mr. Nabusho. I figured I was merely speeding up the bureaucratic process, that sometime this thing would come to your department's attention. He said he had someone in the area and would send him to see me. Then I saw your vehicle in the station."
...... "And, if you personally called, you'd be in on the investigation," I added, watching the traffic on the street outside.
...... "That's what I'm paid for," she laughed, reaching for a napkin.
...... "Well, I agree that it's a screwy happening." I paused to swallow, catching a dribble of mustard. "And it's certainly worth a look around the lake. I assume you wish to come along."
...... "You hardly need a fortune-teller to find out that," she replied with a tight smile.

* * *

...... While she harassed the staff in the Visitors' Center, I studied the big park map, under glass in the shelter by the parkinglot. The lake was less than a quarter of its final anticipated size, and the farther half of the road was marked as a dotted proposed line. Beyond the Visitors' Center began the long line of the dam itself.
...... "And just what section of the Federal government does Special Investigation answer to?" she inquired from behind me.
...... I turned. "It's a civilian agency contract, out of a Washington program office, part of the General Services operation. It's ordered to review anything of interest and to pass along information to whatever branch of the government needs to do something." I gestured toward the building. "Anything new there?"
...... She shook her head. "All's quiet on the lake front. Who signs your paycheck then?" She waved away a persistent gnat, using her large purse as a swatter. It worked well enough.
...... "Robertson Bookkeeping Service, Silver Spring," I answered with a straight face. "Shall we go?"
...... She paused for six seconds, offered an exasperated grin in lieu of a remark, and flounced to the Jeep. A big bee zipped past me, intent on its luncheon, and just missed being lunch to a long-beaked jay which darted from a tree branch. I could sympathize with the bee.
...... "Everything you've said about your job is so general it's meaningless," she complained, settling into the front passenger seat. She yanked at the seatbelt. "It could cover the whole world."
...... Slipping the parking brake, I pushed the selector into Drive. "My job just about does cover the whole world. Figuratively, at least. Anything strange, which might be important. Most of it isn't."
...... I slowed for the decorative covered bridge which crossed the spillway. Only a decorative trickle of water ran down the center of the decorative channel, listlessly meandering around the decorative rocks. It certainly had been built with the tourist trade in mind.
...... "Don't you believe in the people's right to know?" she demanded after a minute's silence. Her blue eyes tended to sparkle whenever she was irritated.
...... "Sure I do." I turned onto the asphalt road which skirted the base of the dam. The tire whine changed pitch and rose with the increasing speed. "I just don't think I have an obligation to satisfy that right. For someone else."
...... The road climbed to meet the lanes which came down from the top of the dam. I checked for traffic, then continued on. In the rearview mirrors the lake stretched out over a shallow gradient, reflecting the almost cloudless blue of the sky. A fifty feet main depth would make for a very large, if shallow, lake on the valley floor.
...... She sighed and leaned back in the seat, turning to look out the open window at the passing scene. Her short hair was tossed about by the slipstream.
...... In another few tenths of a mile, the asphalt stopped at a parking area, but the graded roadway continued on as washboard gravel. Momentarily slowing for the bump, I continued along the proposed section. To the left, a barbwire fence, the remains of someone's farm, dipped forever into the blue of the lake water. In time, it all would be covered.
...... "This's as far as I tried to drive," she suddenly announced. "My little car wasn't up to this road." She opened her purse, dug around, and retrieved a pair of silvered sunglasses.
...... The lake had become a sheen on the horizon. The immediate area was farmland with tree borders and bare fence posts. In the distance, a haphazard pile of weatherbeaten lumber was all that remained of some small building. Far beyond that, the tree-covered hills rolled away in soft undulations.
...... "We'll go all the way around. Not that I expect to find anything."
...... "If this is representative, you must have a very boring job," she remarked, looking back at the terrain. "Whatever it is," she added, acidly.
...... "Luckily, I like to drive. And see new places. I meet quite a few interesting people, present company included."
...... The roadway had begun to circle, now running parallel to the distant dam. Next to it, tiny in the distance, a bare concrete gate tower stood high out of the water. Within a few more tenths, the tires bumped up a concrete ledge, an extension of the new bridge which crossed the feed creek. I stopped at the center for a long look around. High above, a plane drew a straight white contrail across the sky.
...... "A half mile upstream was where the creek was diverted," she advised. "Just a big trench, like one sees at any sewer project. The police looked around but didn't find anything they thought useful."
...... "In that case, I doubt we would either." I pushed on the accelerator, bounced down the other side of the bridge, and continued along the rough gravel path.
...... Two tenths farther along, the asphalt road started at another parking area, this one nominally occupied by a battered pickup and attached empty boat trailer. Near the middle of the lake, two fishermen were trolling in a small aluminum boat. Still farther on, the road I traveled branched, left to the top of the dam and right down to the Visitors' Center.
...... "Need to stop down there?" I gestured at the sign. "I'm going to go around the lake edge, which should take a good hour."
...... She shook her head, and I started left along the upward road.
...... The concrete gate tower looked comical with the water level only a third of the way up its rough, form-indented sides. A rough-finished bridge linked the tower to the road -- backed onto the bridge was a County police four-by, its occupant doing paperwork.
...... Out on the lake, one of the men was pulling something in, his landing net dipped in the water. The shadow of a single, small cloud slowly drifted across the surface of the lightly rippled water.
...... I coasted down the ramp, followed the asphalt until the lake edge started to curve away, then turned left onto the abandoned farm field. The bushes were broken and worn away by other tires, the earth marred by ruts. Others had traveled this way for the past several months at least.
...... "You seem to go around in circles a lot," she laughed after a long silence. She held tightly to the handgrip. "This's nearly as bad as news gathering in a small town."
...... "Worse. I don't get a byline, only a number."
...... Slowly, I followed the temporary shore until the feed creek blocked the way, then detoured to cross at the bridge, before returning to trace the lake's edge once again. There were no ruts on this side, and I had to stop twice to cut an opening through the rusty barbwire. Obviously, no one had explored here -- just as obviously, there was no need to.
...... "Any ideas?" she finally asked, sounding hopeful. She brushed a few strands of hair back into some kind of order, then glanced at her watch.
...... I eased onto the asphalt by the second parkinglot, where the police vehicle was waiting. "None at the moment," I admitted. "Sorry."
...... "None at all? Or none for publication!" She twisted to lean out the window and wave.
...... "Both," I had to chuckle.
...... The police vehicle pulled alongside on the right, and its left window went down.
...... "Hi, Ed," she called.
...... He waved once in return. "Hello, Charlene. Dig up any new clues?"
...... She shrugged. "You can't say I'm not trying."
...... "You're not going to win the Pulitzer this way," he laughed. Running his window back up, he pulled out in front of us.
...... "They've been covering this place twenty-four hours a day." She gestured at the departing truck. "And covering it well, too, as you can see. But not a ghost of a clue."
...... "We might as well go back for the day, also." I trailed along behind the police unit. "I'll come out here again tomorrow. Poke around some more, just in case. That's what I'm paid to do." Taking the right-hand branch this time, I drove toward the main entrance and the highway back to town. "Where shall I let you off?"
...... "Just drop me off at the office," she requested, while rummaging again in her purse. "And remember. If you do find something newsworthy, it's mine."

* * *

...... Dig up new clues.
...... It's surprising how often someone's casual remark will start a train of thought. I didn't dig up my clue literally. That item I delegated, by way of a long telephone call to my office. Afterward, my personal contribution to the task was to climb into bed for a good night's sleep -- once more, my tomorrow would begin with the first glimmer of sunlight.
...... The sun was only a vague promise on the horizon, when the office called with conformation from the survey team. I hopped across the street for a leisurely breakfast, interrupted twice by calls on the cell phone. By the time I reached the park entrance, I'd caught up with three tractor-trailer rigs, each belching diesel exhaust into the bright clear morning air and each hauling heavy construction equipment up to the excavation site.
...... The crew chief already had his orders and was directing the start of the digging. Spread out on the hood of his truck was a rough drawing of the underground installation, determined by the survey team's metal detectors. It was buried with one edge a hundred feet from the present shoreline and stretched away northward. Another week, and the lake would've started to cover it -- a large square, about four hundred feet on a side, with two equidistant crossbars.
...... Charlene's antenna was just as sensitive. An old white Bronco II with a service station's sign painted on the doors, skidded to a halt, just as the work crew uncovered the device's corner. She toured the excavation and angered the crew chief, before stomping over to where I sat on the back cargo floor of my Jeep, partly sheltered from the sun by the open gate window.
...... "You were going to call me when you found something newsworthy!" She gestured with a sweep of her tiny notebook.
...... "Have a doughnut?" I offered the box.
...... She glared up at the brilliant blue sky and drew in a deep breath for a theatrical sigh. "Move over!" She accepted a chocolate pastry and sat in the area I'd made by sliding over.
...... "You call this news?" I waved the box toward the site. A gradall had started up, its boom slanting the bucket to one side.
...... "What would you call it?" she demanded with another wild sweep of her notebook.
...... "I'd call it junk removal." Selecting a glazed doughnut, I set the box aside. "It's an old abandoned high-pressure pipeline which constitutes a safety hazard. It'll be removed over the next few days. To safeguard the recreation area."
...... "And what connection does all this have with the vandalism?" She jumped, startled by the loud whistle of the nitrogen being vented.
...... "Your guess is as good as mine." I munched doughnut. "Probably, no connection."
...... "Then why are you involved in all this?" Her voice had moved into the upper registers.
...... "Because all this is what I do for a living. I investigate, see if anything needs to be done, and notify the proper people if something does need to be done." I paused to watch as the cutting torch tanks were lowered into the hole. "I ran across this pipeline, and it's being removed. There's nothing else I've found so far. I'll look around some more, but if nothing else shows up, I'll move on to my next assignment." A mobile crane turned off the access road, rumbled across the field, and parked by a dump truck. "Unless there's more vandalism, this is a closed case from my point of view."
...... She waved half a chocolate doughnut in protest. "Everything you've just said is bullshit!"
...... "It's also the official bullshit." I wiped my sugar-coated fingers on a piece of paper towel. "And too, it's the only bullshit anyone will provide on this subject. Granted, cleaning up old plumbing isn't front page news, but it's all the news which will be forthcoming."
...... "There's more to this than that!" She reached for the paper towel roll and yanked off a sheet. It tore at an angle, just short of the perforations.
...... "You're welcome to investigate all you want," I offered.
...... "Yeah! And I know what that'll get me." She grinned, jumping up. "I've got a deadline to make." Suddenly, she held out her hand. "You'll be back, if only just passing through. Stop by the office, and I'll take you out to the Big Burger again."
...... I stood and shook her hand. "Next time, it's on my expense account."
...... Thirty feet away, she turned for a moment. "Vaya con Dios, Driver."
...... "And with you also, Charli," I laughed. "Good luck. I'll watch for your byline."
...... A drifting cloud of dust, and the rattle of tire-thrown pebbles in the shrubbery. The four-by dwindled as a white blur in the heat-haze by the park's entrance. The mobile crane restarted its engine, and I turned away.

...... Lee idly glanced out the window, saw the blue Jeep pull in next to the brown Mustang, put aside his pen, and strolled into the hallway. With a casual wave to the receptionist, Driver sauntered through the inner doorway.
...... "Hey! The troublemaker arrives," Lee remarked in a loud voice. "It's been a three-shift-in-one operation here, since you called in with your theory." He thumbed over his shoulder to the closed door near the end of the hall. "Headquarters honchoes are here, in conference. Melynnda's with them."
...... He stopped in front of the water fountain. "You've found more antennas then," he suggested between swallows.
...... Lee folded his arms. "We did just as you requested. Opened every back file for review, picked out likely sites for more antennas, and had the field staff running every which way checking 'em all out." Lee grinned. "It was worth it. Fifty-three of the things confirmed so far, and I'm willing to bet on eleven more probables. Congratulations!"
...... "Somebody had to stumble across it." He drank again from the stream of water. "I should have recognized it when I saw the antenna on that chemical plant building. Still, better late than never, as the old cliche goes."
...... "This ought to put a real crimp in the Alien's schedule. Stick around, Driver. The bossmen will want to say hello. You're the real fair-haired boy today." He started to turn away, then stopped with a squeak of shoe sole on floor tile. "Hey. By the way, what happened at that chemical plant? Now that you mention it. They were going to take a drill core, as I recall."
...... "I'll remember my exalted status, next time I have to change a flat tire in the rain." He ran one hand down the side of his face, before opening his palm outward in gesture. "The drill crew bored in from the outside. What they got was one thickness of masonry, an air gap, and one thickness of antique timber door. When the inside was checked again, nothing was there. Just a brickwork closet and some rusted shelf brackets." He glanced down the hallway. "Is Irwin in today?"
...... "What did they do about shutting the plant down?" A telephone buzzed behind him. Lee looked into his office, took a step, then looked back. "Dave's on vacation all this week."
...... "Simple enough job. They shoved a plank through the struts of the barrel rack, stopping the action. The computer thought the rack was jammed and did an orderly shutdown of the equipment, as all the storage tankage filled up. That was much safer than tampering with batches in process." He looked down the hall again. "If Dave's away, I'll hide in my office for a while. That chemical plant is up for sale, by the way, if you want to go into business. I heard there were a couple offers to buy the place intact as-is. And all the government agencies are fighting over who gets to keep the cash. What's being done about the other antennae?"
...... "It's too far to commute. Besides, I'm a C.P.A., not a chemical engineer," Lee tossed back with a laugh. "There's too many antennas to dig up right now, so we're settling for digging up a corner, venting them, and hacking off an elbow joint. The one you found by the lake had to be dug out completely, since it'd be completely underwater in another month. All the rest we'll dig out and truck away as the budget permits."
...... "That should do. Be sure someone occasionally drops by and checks that no repairs have been made." He turned to start down the hall. "I'll be in my office. If you need anything, knock loudly first, so I've got time to wake up and look busy. It was a long drive home." He sketched a quick wave as he went.

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