I hate divorce work, but it pays the rent. There's not much else for a private investigator to do in a small southern college town. The cops get hostile if you step on their toes by messing around an official investigation. I get a lot of things that they give up on, but I also get stuck with a lot of things that cops wouldn't have to touch. Like following someone's wife around.
She dropped Hubby off at Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta about noon. He had a convention in Houston that he'd be at for at least a week. She kissed him on the cheek, watched his plane take off, and danced a little jig of despair all the way back to her car. Then she sped off to Six Flags and gave me my first look at the "other man." They rode the rides, walked around the park holding hands, and generally carried on like kids. He looked to be in his early twenties, dark haired, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt. She was a real treat for the eyes. Tall and slim, with long dark hair and a figure that made me glad I'd brought a camera. I got some good photos of them necking in the boat ride (that new low-light film works wonders!), and followed them both back to Athens just before dark. I guess it was about 7:15. As we passed the fake standing-stones that marked the entrance to the Stonehenge subdivision on the outskirts of town, I stubbed out my thirty-fourth cigarette of the day and asked myself, not for the first time, where the young man was getting all of the money he had been blowing on the traveling salesman's wife all day? If he was rich he sure didn't look it. They parked their cars at the Mall. He left his Cougar, got into her Mazda, and they headed further into town. I eased my much-battered Vega into traffic about thirty yards behind them and followed them on down the road to a local bar.
I was surprised when they pulled into the Night Owl parking lot. They didn't look like the country music types, but how can you tell just from appearances? I went on down the highway a couple of hundred more yards to the next traffic crossover, then U-turned and went back to the bar's driveway, just to give them more time to get to the door. They were going inside when I pulled in to park. My old gray Vega wheezed gratefully as I shut the motor off and paused to light another cigarette. I watched them go in as I took my time walking to the entrance. I didn't want them to see me come in, just in case they had caught a glimpse of me following them around all day. I look pretty forgettable; average height, weight, hair length and color, but I'm not totally invisible. I don't dress conspicuously either, but that's common in my line of work.
"Hold it right there, D-Day..." the bouncer at the door growled as I fished in my wallet for two bucks to pay the cover charge. "We don't want any trouble. You workin' or just here for kicks this time?"
"Tony, you wound me." I plunked down a ten and watched it disappear into Tony's thick-fingered hands. "That couple that just came in, someone wants me to keep an eye on 'em. That's all, just watchin'."
"I don' t know, the boss gets kinda nervous when you come in."
"My money's just as green as anyone else's." I said. "You going to let me in or do I have to sit in the parking lot waitin' on them to come out?"
"OK, OK... but if you start anything I'm gonna have ta hurt ya. You packin'?"
"Tony, why would I carry a gun into your fine establishment? These people aren't dangerous."
"All right already, you can come in. But I'm keepin' an eye on you, remember that!" He signaled to one of the girls behind the bar and walked off as she came to take over the door.
"Keep the change." I said to his back as he went towards the restroom. He's an imposing sort of guy, a man and a half tall and two men wide. As I walked to the bar and ordered a Near-Beer, I couldn't help thinking that Tony probably didn't carry a gun himself. If he wanted someone shot he'd most likely insert the bullet by hand. I shivered and took a sip of the non-alcoholic sludge that I restrict myself to while I'm working. I went over and looked downstairs into the lower room to see if the couple had gone down to the pooltables. They hadn't, nor were they sitting at the bar, which meant that they were in the third room watching the dancing girls. Good, no one would be looking at me when I went in. I went to the curtain that shielded the dance floor from the rest of the main room and took a quick look inside. The bar has a live band every other night and the curtain would be pulled open to make a much larger room. Since they close it off for the strippers there were several places that I could peek out into the room unobserved. The couple were in a booth against the left wall. Amber was dancing and gave me a quick wave when she caught sight of me. I always thought that she was too painfully skinny, but that didn't keep her from being eye-catching. I ducked back and walked around the curtain to the other side of the room, coming in and taking a seat in the dark where I could see both the dancers and my quarry. I'm dedicated to my work, but I'm not blind. Burgundy saw me and came over to say hello. We chatted for a while as Amber made the rounds of all the tables and booths. I could see that the guy on the spotlight was going to give me trouble so I asked Burgundy to get the other girls to avoid my table tonight. I didn't want the couple to see my face highlighted by the spotlight if the dancers got too close to me.
"Sure thing, D-Day." She shook her red hair out of her eyes as I slipped her a fifty and told her to split it with the other girls to make up for any tips they'd loose from other tables close to mine.
"Anything else we can do for you? Three-way table-dances, or maybe hang around the folks you're watchin' and listen in on their conversation? We're running a special; stripping and surveillance, two for the price of one!"
"Very funny, I'm the one that's supposed to be doing the surveilling... or is it surveying? Anyway, it's only a divorce case, I don't need to know what they're talking about. I just needed the photos that I took of them today."
"Then why are you still shadowing the poor souls? As soon as you file your report to her husband, their world will come tumbling down around their ears. Or are you just a voyeur?" She grinned wickedly in the dim light.
"Nooo!" I said, grinning back. "Although maybe I could get some better pictures of them later at home together, if I were so inclined." I laughed as she slapped my shoulder playfully. "Seriously, you can do something else for me. Get the girls to try and keep track of how much money that the kid over there spends tonight. There's something fishy about him. Something that I can't put my finger on... and that bothers me."
"There are several somethings that you better keep your fingers off of around here tonight!" Burgundy teased.
"Such as your own delectable carcass, I assume. Speaking of which, shouldn't you be spreading some cheer out on the dance floor sometime soon?"
"First time I've heard it called 'cheer', I mean, what I spread out on the dance floor." She winked at me with an otherwise straight face.
"Saucy wench! I'm beginning to think that you're not in this for the money any more. Get on to work with you so I can get back to work too."
"See you later, D-Day."
As she left, I settled back to watch the couple that I'd followed in, work my way through the rest of a pack of cigarettes, and drink a few more of those awful non-alcoholic beers. Eventually the inevitable occurred and I found myself in need of visiting the Gent's. I'd planed on waiting for one or the other of the couple to go to the restroom before I felt safe in going myself. I had spent what felt like hours putting it off to no avail. I prayed that they wouldn't leave while I was gone. I could lose them that way... easy. I was still praying by the time I reached the stall in the men's room. I'd probably still be debating the point if a singular personage had not arrested my attention as I was zipping my pants.
He stood only five feet tall at best. He reminded me of the guy from the yellow chicken ads on TV; short, thin, bald, beaky-nosed. He stood between me and the door, looking me up and down like somebody kicking the tires on an old sports car.
"Something I can do for you, Mister?" I asked. Momma didn't raise no rude youngin's. Not with her easy access to a switch. Granny wouldn't put up with bad manners either, so all the kids in my generation of my family learned to be polite to our elders. I've since learned that it can pay off... with interest.
"Have you not been watching that young male and the older female sitting in the booth area?" he asked in a quavering voice.
"Does that bother you? I'm sorry, but it's kind of my job, you see." I said, pulling a cigarette out and lighting it. I managed to unhook the snap on my shoulder holster as I put my lighter back in my shirt pocket. Now my antique Mauser was ready for a speed draw if I needed it. I hoped that I wouldn't need it.
"No, quite the contrary. I am delighted that he has finally drawn the attention of the local authorities."
"Wait a minute! I'm not a cop!"
"No? But you still watch him, I saw. You even disregard the undrapped females on display for public adoration in order to study his body language. This also I saw."
"You are one weird dude," Sorry Mom, but this guy makes me nervous, manners are going to have to wait. "I suppose that you're a psychic and can cloud the minds of normal men..."
"You make a joke. Perhaps you wish to be underestimated in order to gain some future advantage. If so, you are wasting our time. I will speak with you again later. It will be to your advantage for us to collaborate in this matter, but you are not yet ready."
"Oh yeah?" I said, master of the snappy comeback that I am. Besides, he sounded as if he might have some information on the kid with the salesman's wife. "Well... look, take one of my cards. I can be reached at these numbers and at this address. When you feel ready, get in touch. We'll take it up then, OK?"
He chuckled, his face wrinkling up like a gnome's. "I see. You wish to put me off without offending me. Very well. I will use your... card. We will resume speech at a later date." He turned and went out. I stood there for a moment asking myself just what had gone on here, really. I got no answer, no answer at all.
The couple were still in their booth when I reached my table again. I couldn't see the little old guy anywhere in the room. If he was watching, he was in a very dark corner, sitting very still. As I had stumbled into the darkened room, one of the unoccupied dancers drifted over to my table. She timed it so that we were both sitting down at the same time. She started talking as soon as we sat. "Burgundy said that you wanted to know how much money the young guy over there was tossing?" I nodded. "He hasn't stiffed any of the girls yet. I mean he never sent a girl away without putting some cash in her garter. Not just dollar bills, like the regulars, but fives and tens! At least two hundred dollars so far, and I'm going back to raise the average some more!"
"Suzy?" I groped for her name. I had been introduced to her once but I always thought of her as "that statuesque brunette." This was probably the most we had ever said to one another. "Let me see one of the bills. It might be phoney or something."
"I already thought of that. I had a bartender check out a couple of bills under a good light. He said they were good, as far as he could tell." She said as I nodded in agreement with her foresight.
"I'm going out to take a look at his car. It's back at the Mall so I shouldn't be interrupted. Keep an eye on them, will you? Tell the girls that there's a fifty in it for whoever can overhear where they're going from here. With any luck they won't leave before I get back. It's not that close to closing time yet, it's only 10:30."
Fitting action to words, I left the bar and drove back to the Mall to look over the kid's car. In between a couple of passes by the security truck I managed to find exactly nothing. I turned and walked back to my car. As I opened the door, I heard a voice behind me.
"Is it yet time for us to have speech, Douglas Simon Daley?"
I turned around to see that it was my friend from the men's room. So I looked the old geezer over. At least he wasn't dressed like a bum. His clothes looked good and his shoes were shiny. I was a little surprised that I didn't notice more about him earlier. Now the light was too bad for me to see much. We were standing to far from a lamppost.
"How did you find me?"
"As I explained before, we should cooperate in this matter. As for finding you, I used your card, naturally. I need to speak with you."
Strange, his remarks had explained nothing so far.
"I'm a little busy right now. I've got to be getting back to the bar soon."
"I will not keep you long, Douglas Simon Daley." He looked a t a calculator, or something like that, in his left hand. "The persons that you scrutinized in the place of the undrapped females have not yet exited that locus. You have time to listen."
"I'm speechless." I shut the car door and leaned against it, crossing my arms thoughtfully. If the old man noticed that it brought my hand closer to my shoulder holster, he never gave any indication. It's not that I expected the old guy to give me any trouble, rather that he unnerved me coming out of nowhere the way he did. "OK, if I accept that you're clairvoyant or something then I've got time to listen to you. Make it march anyway! I still need to get back before they decide to go home for the night."
"You have an open mind, splendid. Your card states that you are a private investigator. I find myself in difficult circumstances. I have need of..."
"Cut to the chase!" I said, looking at my watch pointedly. Fully, the numbers were glowing brighter than usual. He looked at his calculator, then smiled at me.
"Very good. Colorful, cut to chase, yes. Swiftly then, property of mine is being held by thieves. I wish it recovered."
"Go to the Police."
"I cannot. I am..." he paused, punching buttons on the calculator again. "Ah, here is it, illegal alien. Douglas Simon Daley, sadly I cannot go to the Police Authority. They would arrest me, confine me. No, I need your help."
"Most folks call me D-Day." I said. "Hey, are you some kind of spy? I don't go in for the James Bond routine. If you aren't supposed to be in the country, what are you doing here?" "I am no diplomat or spy! I am not a criminal. I am a... " Again he made with the calculator. "Yes, here... Botanist. I am a Botanist. I am here to study native plants and observe methods of crop management."
"A botanist who can't enter the country legally? Who do you botanize for, the KGB? If you don't mind my asking, and even if you do! Also, you haven't mentioned what's been stolen. Or for that matter, why I shouldn't turn you in to the cops myself. Hurry up, I've still got a date with a big spender and I don't think he'll wait for me."
"I have done nothing to harm your people! I only study plants, how to grow them, when to harvest. I am not a danger. But your people! They steal from me..."
"Come on! Who pays the bills? Who do you work for?"
His calculator began beeping softly. He looked at it, then looked at me and seemed to make a silent decision.
"You must return to the Hall of Spirituous Fluids as your prey will escape otherwise. I will seek you at a later date." He turned and walked away behind a nearby parked car. I never saw him come out from behind the car, but that doesn't mean anything. By that time I was in my own car and had the accelerator mashed to the floor.
I've always liked fast cars. This time I was doubly glad I hadn't let my mechanic friends talk me out of dropping a three hundred horse powerplant into my little old beat-up Vega, even if we did have to use a shoe horn to fit it in. I made it back to the Night Owl just as my "prey" were pulling out of the parking lot. They proceded to go right back to the Mall and split up for the night. Several times I wondered what had beeped the old man's calculator to warn him that the salesman's wife and her boyfriend were leaving the bar. After all, I had gotten back in time to tail them. In the interests of saving my sanity I decided not to think about it. I followed the young guy back into town, but lost him at a stoplight near the university. I would have run it, but a pair of Athens Finest picking up a DUI at the same light stayed my otherwise lead-foot from the gas pedal. I've already had enough run-ins with the local Boys-in-Blue to be wary of offending them again. I counted myself lucky that my low-level flight from the Mall parking lot had escaped offical notice. I took a more sedate pace toward my own home, thinking that if I didn't get a break in this case soon... I'd want to be sedated. After sitting down in my favorite armchair at home, I hit the message button on my answering machine. The only message was from Burgandy telling me that "Those People" had left and that none of the girls had been able to overhear where they were headed. I lit the day's last cigarette and sat back pushing facts, suppositions, and questions around in my head to see if a pattern emerged. Somehow the weird old man, the kid with too much money, and the traveling salesman's wife should make a coherent pattern. Maybe I was too tired to think straight. I stubbed out my smoke, stumbled to the bedroom, and started to undress. Looking at the clock I saw it was only 1:00 AM and turned out the lights, still undressing. I don't remember getting into bed, but the next morning I awoke to find that I was naked except for my socks, and sprawled crosssways across the bed. I also discovered that although Near-Beer couldn't possibly give you a hangover, confusion and frustration would provide an almost identical sensation.
I set my own hours at the office. Becides, I've got two phone lines there with their own answering machines instead of a secretary. I don't have to worry about being late for the office. It was only a place to meet clients anyway. I didn't have any appointments today so no one would know if I didn't go downtown and open the office just yet. I started the coffeemaker, shoved something into the microwave, and crawled back through the bedroom to the shower. By the time I'd dried off and shrugged into a bathrobe the coffee and breakfast were ready. Then I saw that I 'd fixed a chinese dinner by mistake. Oh well... I wanted waffles. Between bites of pepper steak with rice I checked the answering machines and started getting dressed. By my second cup of coffee I was back to thinking about last night. I could feel my headache coming back. There just weren't enough peices to the puzzle yet. I wanted to pick up the kid's trail again. If I could just follow him for a while I'd have all my questions answered. I was getting nowhereso I put down my empty cup and finished dressing. It was cool out so I put on a heavy jacket as I went into the garage to warm up the car. I left the big door closed, as usual. I wasn't worried about carbon monoxide because of a special fan vent I'd installed. The trouble is that the fan also sucks out all the heat as well exaust fumes. Back in the kitchen I watched CNN Headline news for about ten minutes. When I felt sufficently cought up on current events I switched over to the outside video monitors. They had saved my life once when a guy with a shotgun convinced himself that he wanted my silverware more than I did. I hear he lived. The cameras showed there was no one outside the garage or the front and back doors so I turned them off and went to get in the car. Listening for the click of the doorlock as I pulled the door closed, I turned to walk to the car but froze instead. The weird old man was standing not four paces away smiling at my discomfort.
"How did you get in here?" I gasped when I had recovered my breath.
"As I keep telling you, I used your card, Mr. D-Day..." he began.
"To find me wherever I happen to at any give time?" I finished for him. "That stinn doesn't tell me how you work the trick, or why you're bothering. And another thing while we're at it, how did you know those folks I"d been watching were leaving the bar? I mean, you and I were miles away. Quit playing with that calculator, for Pete's sake! And don't call me mister, it's just D-Day! Well? I want some explanations!"
"Calculator?" he asked. I gave him a dirty look and noticed his dark wool suit with a thin old-school tie and matching handkerchief. His shoes were the shiniest I'd ever seen.
"Get on with it!" I said, feeling my headache coming back again.
"I need your help..."
"We got that far last night, tell me something new."
"I am a botanist..."
"So I heard, time is money, hurry up. Don't play with the calculator, talk!"
"I collected samples to take home. I am due to leave shortly."
"That's new, go on."
"My samples have been stolen, along with my way home. I must get them back! I will be trapped here! I cannot go to the Police Authorities, as I told you. You must help me!"
"Calm down. Let me shut off the car and we'll go inside and talk."
"Then you will help me?"
"I said we'll talk, but you still haven't told me near enough."
In the living room he looked even more like the guy from the TV ads, except this guy looked like he was going to cry. I offered him a drink since he looked as if he could use one in spite of the hour. He declined sort of wistfully. I decided to try again later, certain that he'd say yes. He wanted to this time, I could tell. Somehow I got him started talking again.
"I have been here almost a year now. I took specimens os soil, seeds, and plants at many stages of their growth cycles and stored them for the trip home. The amount was quite large as I was able to find large numbers of plants under cultivation. I also studied the habits of the owners of the crops, the activites that they undertook to improve the yield, pest control, cross-pollenation, everything that I could think to observe. You see, what my people want to do is to begin to grow the plants for ourselves. They provide a medicine that we need and nothing at home can provide enough."
"Why not just buy it from us? If your country isn't at war with anyone or trading with terrorists, it should be simple."
"There is a difficulty. Although we are not hostile to your country, my government is not... recognized by your government."
"You've lost me again. If you're no threat the diplomatic and trade agreements should be easy to set up. What's the big deal?"
He looked longingly at the "calculator" in my hands. I had convinced him to let me look at it as we came into the house, but now I was more confused than ever. The thing had a two inch square screen and about a hundred little buttons. All of the buttons were labled with squiggly abbreviations that made up no alphabet that I'd ever seen before.
"The people who stole my samoles are not profesional thieves. They are simple farmers who became angry about the number of plants that I took."
"You might have destroyed their harvest and ruined their profits for the year." I said.
"Then when they came on board and saw the cargo bays full of plants and soil they seemed to go insane." he continued as if I hadn't spoken.
"On board?" I latched on to what I didn't understand. "Cargo bays? We're a long way from a seaport. What are you talking about?"
He took a deep breath, looked me in the eye for a moment, then looked at the floor.
"Yes, the sea is a long way from here. Everything is a long way from here. But that does not matter... I must trust someone if I am to get home." He looked up at me again. "You see Douglas Simon Daley, as your newspapers would say: I am an Alien from Outer Space and some farmers have stolen my Flying Saucer!"
I almost dropped the calculator.
"And D-Day, If you will bring me a drinking container of grapefruit juice and a small measure of vinegar, I believe that I will have that drink after all."
Well, either he was looney tunes or he wasn't. If he was crazy, how did he get in my garage? How did he get from the Night Owl to the Mall so fast? How did he know that the salesman's wife and her boyfriend were leaving the bar? He didn't look unhinged, but looks don't count for much. On the other hand, if he wasn't crazy, maybe I was. How would I know? I didn't feel like I was having hallucinations. I looked at him sitting there nursing what would have been a Boilermaker if the ingredients hadn't been grapefruit juice and vinegar, and looking lost. What was I to believe? "You don't speak english too badly for a man from outer space, but you still haven't told me some of the most important parts." I said, eyeing him suspicously. "Why all the secrecy? Why didn't you just land on the White House lawn and ask for what you need? Hell, the politicians would have been trampling each other to be the first to give you anything you wanted!" I looked around the living room as if to reassure myself that no one had yanked the world out from under me. "Convince me, I'm listening."
"Where should I begin?"
"Start with how you knew the plants you needed were here. Maybe you can follow that with why they are so important to you. You can improvise from there."
"Very well, but I can communicate better if I can use my translator handlink. That calculator, as you call it is a link to the computer in my shuttlecraft. I can search for the words that I am unfamilar with." As he spoke I was looking at the button-studded box in my hands. I was thinking very hard. If this situation turned out to be real... I gave him back the handlink and poured myself a shot of Bushmill's to calm my nerves. I sat back and lit a cigarette as he visibly brightened his mood.
"Thank you. I can speak more clearly by use of this." He punched a few buttons like he was a kid with a new toy. Then, reading from the screen, he elaborated... "Your planet had been surveyed several times by scoutships of various species. Your flora and fauna were cataloged most completly. No one has officaly tried to contact your people because you are too primitive to survive the experience. Of course, the last survey was completed twelve thousand of your years ago, you've come a long way since then. There are indications that you will be mature enough to survive contact in one or two of your centuries. Until then, any contact will carry serious penalties. If I am discovered I will be severely repremanded. This is of no consequence to me, for if I am able to obtain the medicine my people need, I will gladly accept any punishment. After the disease had ravaged our worlds for a decade or more we finally turned to the old survey records to look for any possible cure. I was one of hundreds of researchers allowed access to the old records. I also had the resources to travel here to your world to find out the truth of those records. My plan was to come here secretly and obtain enough plants and seed to establish the species on our planet. I had almost completed my task when the farmers discovered my cargo shuttle and secreted themselves on board. They appeared from hiding after I had reached my ship in orbit. They were armed with projectile weapons and seemed quite dangerous, so I escaped in another shuttle and began searching for someone to help me retake my ship and return the farmers to their homes. I do not wish to harm them, but my people are suffering and need this medicine as quickly as possible. I had observed the young male attempting to sell the farmers what he call 'insurance' and had followed him to the Hall of Spiritous Liquids. Your interest in the male led me to believe that you were in some way connected with your world's law enforcers. In spite of my lack of further data on you, I had an intuition that you would be the sapient to help me reposses my ship and complete my mission. I have attempted to retain the secrecy necessary to preserve your world from harmful exposure to my alien culture. Will you help me, please?"
I still thought it was possible that he was just some old guy gone way off of the deep end. In spite of the bizare way he had of coming out of nowhere and the way he kept track of the couple in the bar last night, I still wasn't convinced.
"Where is this shuttlecraft? I'd like to see it. It might help," I said as a pained look crossed his face, "to convince me to help you."
"And to convince you of the reality of my story, no doubt. Very well, the shuttle is outside. You would have to see it in any case if you to decide to travel to my ship to evict the farmers. Come," he said after draining the last of his pseudo-boilermaker, " you will soon recieve all of the proof that you feel necessary." He punched some more buttons on the handlink and rose from his chair. I followed him outside into the back yard.
"Where is it?" I asked, seeing nothing but the yard.
"There," he said, pointing the handlink as if were a remote control. I gasped as a shape took form shimmering into solidity and visibility. It was about the size of a Winnebago or school bus, shaped like a flying wedge. It reminded me of a giant Triumph TR7 sports car, without wheels. It sat humming softly in my back yard about an inch above my unmown lawn, not even bending a single blade of grass. I glanced at the alien with an apology written all over my face.
"All right, you've convinced me. What do we do now?"
"Come aboard and we will make plans."