Frank turned to find a tired looking, fortyish woman in jeans, western shirt and hiking boots. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Thought it might. Pop asked me to meet you here. He don’t get down to Vegas much, and figured he’d hit the craps tables some before heading out again. Hope you don’t mind too much.”
After two and a half days without a shower or a decent meal, Frank actually did mind too much, but it didn’t appear there was much he could do about it. So he simply shrugged.
“You can call me Carter. And you are?”
“Ida May Jukes. But just plain Ida works right well.”
Frank followed Ida as she walked out of the bus station, and swung herself up into an old pickup truck. Frank did the same as Ida fired up the ancient heap and headed south on Main Street.
Frank had never been to Vegas before. Once S. Main merged into the Strip, his tired eyes began to widen as he passed bastardized versions of the Eiffel Tower, New York City skyline (replete with a roller coaster that he didn’t recall noticing in the original model), an enormous castle with multicolored turret roofs seemingly based on a Creative Playthings toy, and a huge black pyramid and (It’s got some kinda laser thing com’in out of it at night time!” Ida told him) and Sphinx. At last, Ida took a right off the strip, and then a left into a (naturally) huge parking garage.
“Pop likes to start at Mandalay Bay. He thinks the dice runs best there. But if they don’t break right, he moves up the Strip to the Excalibur. Their tables is pretty good, too, and they got great burgers. And the food’s a whole lot cheaper, too.”
Frank decided no response was required to that, so he silently followed Ida as she headed for a flight of stairs. Soon, they were walking along a curved, indoor promenade between random restaurants of any theme imaginable, with facades decorated with everything from naked torsos to a 25 foot headless, pigeon-stained statue of Lenin. Frank seemed to be the only one in the throng who found things slightly, well, unusual.
He found the casino floor to be even more bizarre, with its crowds of T-shirt, shorts and sneaker clad, overweight people clutching oversized drinks in one hand and equally large cups of coins in the other, elbowing past heavily made up, spike-heeled teenaged girls poured into skin tight prom dresses, seemingly convinced that they were experiencing elegance of the first order. Pudgy, bored looking waitresses wearing short red dresses they shouldn’t carried over-priced drinks out from the bar, and garbage back. A fleet of Chevrolets completed the picture, each rising above the din of the gaming tables on its own revolving pedestal, sales price attached.
So this is Las Vegas, Frank thought. Well Yee-Hah.
After a few minutes of wandering about, Ida concluded that the dice wasn’t running right for Pop, so they made their way to the Excalibur (apparently that was the name of the gargantuan Creative Plaything), taking a circuitous route that at times took them along underground passages, and at others into the blinding sunlight to use pedestrian bridges that crossed ten lanes of traffic below.
Frank continued to marvel as they wound through a kaleidoscope of tattoo parlors, ice cream shops, lingerie stores, enormous ads for a variety of entertainments whose existence Frank had until then not even suspected, and large blue, sloshing tubes from which emerged hands and downward facing heads (“Full-body water massage,” Ida informed him helpfully).
Finally, she pointed to a wiry, gray haired man in a heavy wool shirt worn untucked over a T-shirt and old jeans. He was sitting alone at a small table in an underground food court. “That there’s Pop.”
Earl Jenkins looked up. As predicted, he was holding the remnants of a burger in both hands.
“This here’s Mr. Columbo, Pop.”
“Shit,” Earl responded by way of acknowledgement. “I couldn’t get them damn dice to break for me no-how.”
Frank was pretty sure this didn’t require him to say, “Pleased to meet you, too,” so he just stood there.
“Pop, I reck’n Mr. Columbo would like to see the truck, now.”
Frank hazarded a nod to this, and Earl dropped what was left of his burger. After standing up and wiping both hands on the seat of his jeans, Earl offered one to Frank.
“Pleased to meet you, Columbo. You brought cash, like you promised?”
“Yes, no problem there. Can I see the truck now? I’d like to get well on my way before dark.”
With confirmation that he’d be paid in a manner invisible to the IRS, Earl warmed up appreciably. Instantly, his persona morphed from casino loser to Las Vegas hustler.
“You betcha, Columbo. And oh, she’s a dandy! She don’t have the sparkle she did when she rolled outta the factory, but then again, neither does you nor me, heh?” Earl gave Frank a poke in the ribs, and favored him with a grin that revealed more good humor than teeth.
“Anyway’s, she’s still dependable as can be. Runs on free vegetable oil from a greasy spoon as easy as diesel, and she’s got enough clearance you can just about walk under her. 4 wheel drive and ten-ply tires, too. What she can’t drive ‘round, she just drives over, and not the other way ‘round!”
Frank had learned all this from the ad, and was counting on it, too. Now that he had dropped out of sight back east, he was planning on staying that way out here.
Earl was on the same wavelength. “AND, she’s loaded like noth’n you ever saw when it comes to get’n off the grid and just say’n ‘Kiss my butt!’ to the rest of the world. If what yer look’en for, as you say, is to get some serious writ’en done without nobody to bother you, well, she’s just the ticket!”
As Earl, Ida and Frank made their way back to the Mandalay Bay parking garage, Earl told Frank the tale of how he had come to own such a wondrous vehicle. As he guessed Frank could tell, Earl wasn’t nobody’s fool, and when that Y2K plot came along to take down the world, they weren’t going to get him, no Sir! He’d read all about how there would be food riots and worse, so he sold his machine shop back in Tennessee and bought himself a stripped down EarthRoamer – just the truckbed with the shell on top, and then fitted it out himself. He added extra fuel and water tanks, a water purification system, and “more solar panels and gun racks than you ever did see in one place, much less on one set o’ wheels.”
Frank couldn’t help asking, “So what did you do when Y2K came and went and the world didn’t end?”
“Oh, I didn’t care ‘bout that. I figured that was just the wakeup call I needed to get ready for the real thing when it do come around. You look like a clever guy, so you must listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and all those other smart ‘uns. They really opened my eyes, sure to goodness.
“You just wait – I don’t know what it will be, but it’s a com’in. Maybe it’ll be some kind of bio attack to the water supply, or maybe them dam’ Liberals really do manage to socialize the begeebers out of the whole blessed country. Or maybe some of them there cyber terror fellas everyone’s talk’n about brings the whole house of cards down. You just wait and see if I’m not right!”
With that last example, Frank had to admit that Earl wasn’t as completely extraterrestrial after all.
“Anyway, I been keep’en this here rig up to date ever since. She’s got satellite TV, satellite broadband Internet, and more juice in her batteries from them extendible solar cell panels than you could use if you was to host a Tea Party rally, speakers ‘n all.”
With that, Earl, Ida and Frank arrived at Earl’s 4 wheeled wonder. Frank had to admit, it was indeed a sight to behold.
On the back end, Earl had added a top to bottom rack system on which a dozen twenty gallon water and gas tanks were tied down. On top of the shell he had mounted a tractor trailer-scale wind deflector, and behind that a multi-layer sandwich of metal and glass that Frank assumed must be the solar panel array. And behind that was a nest of antennae and dishes that must be the telecommunications array. Frank winced at the bumper stickers.
“Now you just get yourself ready to see someth’n you ain’t never seen before,” piped Earl, cackling with glee. Frank couldn’t imagine what might come next, given that he was already looking at something he had never imagined, let alone seen, before.
“Alright, Mission Control, stand by to deploy!” With that Earl took what looked like a TV remote from his pocket, and started pushing buttons. Motors began to grind and whir, and creaking noises began to fill the air. The solar sandwich began to quiver.
With a final groan, the panels lurched into action, first opening side to side, like the leaves of a cardboard box, and then unfolding again and again until the array was at least 25 feet wide, tip to tip. Earl punched a few more buttons, and the array pivoted on top of the truck until it was pointed at the sun. Then it tilted until it was at right angles to the sun’s rays.
Earl watched Frank’s open mouthed amazement with obvious satisfaction. “Hell, Columbo, you ain’t seen noth’n yet. Want to see a day in the life of the Solar Avenger?”
Without waiting for a reply, Earl hopped into the cab of the truck, and turned on the engine. Then he turned the wheel hard over, and slowly crept in a circle around Ida and Frank. As he did so, the array stayed locked on the sun like a paparazzi on Brangelina. Frank felt like he was being orbited by the International Space Station.
The circle complete, Earl hopped out, slammed the door and strode back until he was facing Frank, arms crossed. Behind him, the solar array whirred, creaked and groaned itself back into the stowed position. A confident smile of pride split Earl’s face in two.
Frank reached into his pocket and took out a thick envelope. With complete honesty, he said, “Mr. Jenkins, that is one piece of work, and no mistake.”
“You ain’t just whistl’n Dixie, Columbo! And don’t you worry, I got all them boxes of stuff you sent ahead stacked inside. All twelve of them, just like you said. Say, for a writer, you sure do buy a lot of electronical stuff.”
“Oh, I do a lot of research – lots and lots of research. And you know the junk they sell these days – if I want to get away, I better bring back up equipment, right?” Frank figured this was a good time to flash his cash, and handed the envelope over to Earl.
“No question ‘bout that. It’s all crap these days!” Earl cackled again as he slowly counted out (twice) the one hundred hundred dollar bills he shook out of the envelope. Then he handed the keys, and the remote, to Frank.
“Well, Columbo, you just have yourself a peach of a great time. You’re all set, and I’ll see you a couple months from today, just like we agreed.”
Frank hoisted himself up into the cab, and rolled down the window to say goodbye.
As he did, Earl asked, “Say, where you figur’n on go’n, anyways?”
That wasn’t a question Frank was willing to answer to anybody, but then a thought struck him. He took out his wallet, and carefully removed an old black and white picture, much creased and faded. In it, a child sat on a man’s shoulders. Both were smiling, and above them soared tall, ram-rod straight trees with heavily veined bark.
“Well, maybe you can help me with that. Do you know where I can find trees like these?”
Earl took only a quick glance before handing the picture back. “Hell! You might’s well ask me where not to.” He pointed across Las Vegas Boulevard. “All you got to do is head north for about as long as you feel like, and then head yourself west. Nevada’s noth’n but waves of mountains – wave after wave of ‘em, one after t’ other, each one a runn’n north-north east to south-south west. You cross any one o' them suckers, and when you get to ‘bout 8,000 feet, that’s all you’ll find up there is them trees – Ponderosa Pines, we calls ‘em.”
With that, Frank stuck out his hand to Earl. “Thanks very much, Mr. Jenkins. That’s the last thing I needed to know.”
Frank rolled up the window, put the truck into gear, and swung into the next stage of his plan. It was high time he went and found himself some o’ them there cyber terror fellas.
Carl can't follow Frank on the run, but you can, on
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