“What are you hiding,” Andrea asks her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Post-coitus, her thoughts have returned to the gray brick her team encountered this morning. A mystery which brought all activity on the site to a halt.
She returns to the bedroom and watches Kev, her lover, towel himself off. She is tired and relaxed, but happiness takes the form of her nerves tingling in the cool night air. She got so sweaty during the act, she’s been considering a shower. Kev won’t care, of course. They’ll have seven minutes of interesting conversation – post-work, post-objective, post-cares – and he’ll be asleep. She steps into underwear and starts to get comfortable in bed.
When he returns from the bathroom, she asks, “What do you think we’ll find when we cut it open tomorrow?”
“Something ugly,” he says, flopping beside her. “A forty-foot-long box of solid steel, buried way out here in the Badlands.”
“Yeah. A great way to make a problem disappear.”
But what kind of problem, she wonders. Will they really find out tomorrow? The bright blue argon laser should cut the box three times across, and then once down the middle, leaving eight chunks of mystery. Chunks that will be much easier to move so work on Solara Valley 29BZ could resume.
Andrea wasn’t planning on going to the site that early. As the S.E.S. (Second Engineering Supervisor) she doesn’t need to be there until 10:30 or 11, when the machines really get going.
“Sasha – alarm time – six-thirty.”
Sasha, the apartment’s system, chirps in compliance. A dot is illuminated next to ‘alarm’ on the wall clock, and then the whole display dims.
Andrea playfully touches Kev’s dark ear – “No thanks” – and rests her head on the pillow. In the darkness, she wonders about the secrets the desert’s about to give up.
Gibbs has never really had a problem with authority. People in charge make the rules and give the orders. You follow them. The decision-makers are older, wiser, have more money. Most of the time, they’re correct.
So it is that Gibbs eases the bus forward towards the beckoning man in the construction vest and hard hat. A few more feet, a few more feet, stop. He parks the bus – its front bumper inches from an iron wall – and kills the engine. Beside him, Rodriguez and Sook are on their feet.
“Leave the keys in the box,” Rodriguez says, opening the door.
The first two get off while Gibbs undoes his seat-belt. He checks his equipment (wallet and cell phone, mainly) and turns to leave.
At the door, he can’t help looking back. Eleven faces – some sweaty, some ancient, some hard. Eyes on him or roving about. Dunbar’s back there, too, asleep against the window. Gibbs would know his mug, just like he knows a few of the others. They’re starting to ask questions but he ignores them.
“So long, Boys,” he says, hopping from the bus.
Right away, the heat hits him. The cheery supervisor – grinning under his walrus mustache – guides Gibbs out of the box. Gibbs touches the iron frame of the door and feels its warmth. The rest of the Texas desert is pretty cool right now, scorpions and such coming out for a snack in the moonlight.
Gibbs gets a quick, last look at the bus, the ‘Department of Corrections’ lettering, and steps out to join his colleagues.
“I guess we don’t need to worry about scraping off the numbers or anything,” he says. They’ve stepped through a second iron doorway. The supervisor locks this one, as well, and answers with a quiet, happy, “No no no.”
They climb a ladder.
“Two minutes,” a man’s voice calls out on the PA above.
The supervisor points and they cross a concrete floor to a stairway. Behind Gibbs, the men down in the bus have started yelling. Climbing the stairs, Gibbs can see the curving, dark blue roof of the bus. His skin is starting to get prickly, so he doesn’t stop.
At the top is the control room. They all pass through a thick rubber-sealed door and are blasted by air conditioning. The smell in here is sterile cold, he realizes, compared to the fireplace smells outside. Two men sit at a large control panel, wearing sunglasses. Beyond them is a bizarre view.
Through the reinforced glass, Gibbs sees an old, rusty plant. Tubes and gears and pipes and equipment sit heavy and unused. But it’s all dark compared to the intense orange glow from a rectangular surface of molten metal on a kind of rig. That rig is inching forward towards the pit. The bus is trapped below it.
“This is a perfect idea, really,” the supervisor says. “The place is going to be decommissioned in a couple months. They’ll take the valuable stuff away and bury the rest.”
“One minute,” the man close to Rodriguez says into a microphone. Beyond the glass wall, his voice sounds throughout the plant. Gibbs wonders if there’s anyone else around to hear it. Anyone who matters, anyway.
“How hot does that get,” Sook asks, shielding his eyes.
“Twenty-eight-fifty,” someone says. “Takes a lot of juice to run this place.”
“I wouldn’t worry, Man. They’ll pass out from the heat, first.”
Rodriguez scoffs. “They shouldn’t. Child molesters and rapists, they’re getting a bargain on this one.”
Gibbs glances at his coworkers, hardened men. Sook was a star linebacker in New Mexico, his old stomping ground. Both he and Rodriguez are older than Gibbs, and probably know more about the world. Not that Gibbs doesn’t know enough. The limitations of a system, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, the crimes criminals don’t pay for. It’s fair to say Rodriguez likes what is about to happen. The taxes out of his weekly check won’t be paying for this lot anymore.
A little merciless for the merciless ones. Among the thrum and scrape of the machinery, there might be yelling and screaming. Gibbs can’t be sure.
“The place was set to be scrapped, anyway,” the supervisor says. “Someone upstairs put their heads together and figured out a use for all this grade-‘B’ stuff.”
“The rig’s going to Anderson, isn’t it, Chuck?”
“No, I think they’re going to bury that, too. That’s one solution to moving something that’s too heavy to move. We should get some of your birds to come dig the holes,” says an operator at the controls.”
The pour begins.
“You know what they’d say in Mexico,” the supervisor asks Gibbs.
“What?” That’s Rodriguez, maybe feeling his roots challenged.
On the roof of the bus, there are sparks and smoke and little arcs of orange. It caves under the weight of molten metal.
“It’s a waste of good steel. That’s what they’d say.”
Andrea swirls her iced coffee again, coming down from the trailer into the hot Texas sun. Within a few steps, she’s back in the shade provided by the 15-meter temporary walls around the site. At the moment, in this sea of rock and scrubby earth, Solara Valley 29BZ is little more than plans and great mounds of supplies and steel. It should take nine months to bring this baby online, but first they all have to wait for the issue before them.
“They’re ready, again,” says a man whose name she hasn’t learned. He’s temporary, part of the laser unit flown in from El Paso. He means Sapphire, the argon laser, has been moved to the front of the block, around a corner to cut down the axis.
Andrea drinks her coffee and sets it down, so she has two hands to adjust her dark goggles. Her boss comes to her side, adjusting her own eye-wear.
“I have a feeling we’re not going to like this,” Andrea says.
“I concur,” her boss Pippa says.
At Andrea’s feet, right where her drink sits between her work boots, is the spot where the solar installation’s foundation will be poured. Another tributary to feed the great world river of clean, cheap energy.
Before her, though, is a fourteen-meter slab of grey. Low-grade steel from the looks of it, and from the spectral tests. It sits in what is now a massive pit, seven or eight meters deep and at least a hundred long. This slab is the first of seven.
The intense blue beam begins, a line of Caribbean-turquoise that ends in sparks on the front of the slab. They’ve already done the lateral cuts. Black lines cross the chunk. Men are ready to use cranes with suction hooks to pull the sections away, but nobody moves while Sapphire’s doing her thing.
Andrea can’t recall offhand how much juice it takes to run the laser. The electrical lines have been in place for a couple weeks, awaiting the nascent mammoth array that will be the installation. But the team began cutting around five this morning. It’s safe to assume they already put in 90 minutes on the beam. Some accountants are bound to ask questions about it. Accountants who aren’t standing here looking at seven steel blocks. Keepers of buried secrets, Andrea is convinced. This was not about boredom.
“Is it safe,” Andrea’s boss asks Raj, head of the crane division.
They’re standing in the pit. Dirty, cracked concrete is underfoot. Raj looks up and gets a thumbs-up from his two guys up on the skeletal rig above them. “Good to go, Ma’am. Let’s have a look.”
Andrea adjusts the perfumed bandana she’s tied around her nose and mouth. The lemon-lavender should cover the stench of cut metal, and whatever else is in here. Pippa and Raj go first, stepping into the one-meter lane created by pulling the slab’s sections apart with the crane. The sections are now leaning out against the bracers they use for the structural work on an installation like this. In whole, the eight pieces, separated and resting at angles, reminds Andrea of her grandmother’s banana bread. Sometimes, when you cut it like this on the plate, the sections would flop over, away from the rest.
Ahead of her, Raj touches the smooth interior wall of the section on the right. He doesn’t pull his hand back. Probably still warm, but not too hot.
The lighter-colored lines form bizarre shapes, not unlike cookie-cutters stuck in the dough. She traces things and ideas with a gloved finger, and stops when she comes to a cluster of stark-white patches.
“Engine,” Raj says from ahead of her.
“Yup,” Pippa agrees. “Some kind of vehicle. A truck or…” She comes back to the middle and points. “See the curvature, here? In the middle?” She turns to look at the other side, the match of where the line – whatever it was – was sliced by the laser. “Heavy, right here. This could be where they poured the steel.”
“I think this was a bus, Ma’am. My dad’s an expert on these old I-C-Es. He’s got all the data-pads you could ever want on the stuff.” A pause. “Yep, from the shape of this front, it looks more like an old school bus than any truck.”
“School bus?” Pippa stops tracing lines with her finger, carefully bent over the grey block. “A school bus? Why would they…” Then she shakes it off and resumes her scientific perusal. “Number Two?”
Andrea used to hate that name, although she knows Pippa doesn’t mean it in a condescending way. Someday, Andrea will be Number One. But right now, she’s an engineer playing quasi-scientist in a pit of mystery.
She points at the white splotches on the section across from the one she’s touching. Pippa follows her look. “Do you think this is bone?”
Gibbs looks up from his platter of enchiladas and watches a woman in dark pants and boots stroll into the bar. Maroon blouse, dark curls, nice eyes. The woman doesn’t see him, but she takes a seat at the far end. There’s time, there’s possibility.
Gibbs swigs his beer, wondering if the people at the U.P.S. store have noticed anything, yet. Today he made another ‘deposit’ in his rented P.O. Box. His fifth. He got the biggest size they offer, which is enough for boxes. Book-sized boxes, twenty thousand in cash in each. This time, he took out a couple thousand to play with, first.
A PO Box seemed like the best solution – better than the lockers at the damned bus station all the way downtown. Gibbs has a friend at Merrill Lynch. If you deposit more than five large in cash into a bank account, it triggers silent alarms. An audit. People asking questions. Boy, wouldn’t that be a mess?
He leans over a little to take in the view – her shapely caboose on the fifth stool over. She’s plugged into her phone but is peering back at him. There’s a hint of smile. He wonders if she’d be the fun kind, on her knees and grabbing the bars while they rock and roll. Most of the time, his ex-girlfriend, Margaret, would just lie on the bed as if she was reading a magazine.
Gibbs calls the bartender over. He orders a Fuzzy Navel for the woman. When the drink is delivered, Gibbs watches for the right reaction. There it is – a nice smile.
“Sarcasm is good,” the woman says when Gibbs goes and takes the stool beside her.
“Well, you come in here wearing those boots and a look of steel. I had to try something different.”
“This works better than a White Russian. Cheers.”
They drink. “Long day,” he asks.
“Eleven hours of arguing and hair pulling. Now I can leave it behind, for a bit.” She makes eyes at him. “So you like the tough-girl look, huh?”
“Yes I do. I get boots. Although I bet you knock ‘em dead in a sundress.”
The woman smiles. “It’s a show,” she says. “It’s what they expect at the office, whichever office it is. Steel tells them, ‘Yes, I can make the problem go away.’”
“Can you,” he asks, grinning.
The woman drinks her drink. “It’s what they pay me for.”
Around the third mile of her elliptical-machine workout, Andrea tried to imagine what it would be like. Being chased. Being attacked by an angry man. What he would do if he broke into this place and she had no defenses. It happens, of course. She knows that. Still, it’s like how people describe the Polar Bear swims in Minnesota and Alaska, jumping into that frigid water on New Year’s Day for charity. Her sister described the cold, the shock and reaction, but Andrea can’t quite imagine it for herself. One day, she’ll have to get up there and try.
Done with her exercise, she gulps down water in the kitchen and wipes her face again. Sweat makes her itchy. The heat outside on this Saturday morning is pretty intense, but now the unit’s air-conditioning is too strong with her like this. She’ll form ice in her hair, soon. She turns it down, glances at the screen on the kitchen bar and bites the temptation that’s been gnawing her all morning.
Aunt Thelma answers on the second ring, her wrinkly but stern face appearing with a background of purple flowers and ocean. “Hi, Sweetie! How are you?”
“I’m okay,” Andrea says, fixating on the background image. “How’s life in Uruguay?”
“Perfecto,” her aunt replies. “But I bet you aren’t calling me on a Saturday to talk about my life in retirement. Is everything all right? Are you and Kev…”
Always shrewd, Andrea thinks. That’s what you get from a retired U.S. Senator. Two terms’ worth of shrewdness.
“Oh, we’re good, thanks. He’s at the shop working on the hovercrafts. We’re going over to a friend’s house for dinner.”
“Ah, Bueno,” Aunt Thelma says. She glances around herself, as if checking her whereabouts. “This is about the desert mystery.”
Andrea gnaws a knuckle. “We found bodies, around sixty or seventy. In old school buses. Encased in steel bricks.”
Aunt Thelma appears to think for a moment. “That’s creative. Old school buses. Prisoners.”
Andrea nods. “Western Interior is passing on the idea of autopsies. They’re dead, they’re dead. But…I guess I’d like to know what happened. I mean, were these guys dead when they, uh, you know, dumped steel on them? Were they…”
Aunt Thelma leans back, a hint of smirk on her face. “You’re asking me because I worked in the field.”
“Well,” Andrea starts, “and because, you know, of your time in the Senate. I mean, could this have been…a government solution?”
“Sure. People and society have limits for what they’ll tolerate. I studied the reports during my turn in Archives. It cost a ton of money to incarcerate these career criminals.”
“But they did away with the death penalty.”
“Officially, yes. In twenty-twenty-one. Then there were the Vigil-Heart killings of fifty-five and fifty-six and it all changed.” She takes a drink of what looks like orange juice. “Now, if this scenario you all have unearthed in the desert wasn’t government-sanctioned…That’s how a true bureaucracy functions, you know. Layers upon layers upon layers of people and reporting. If these men were in the system to keep the public safe, well…”
“Still, it isn’t right.”
Aunt Thelma smirks. “Easy for you and I to say. Vigil-Heart happened after the Toledo Breakout. That was what they used to call a ‘maximum security’ prison. Rapists, murderers, child abductors.”
“Exactly. We have behavioral modification systems, now. The troubled ones are treated and observed, now. Back then, well, ask yourself: With whom were the prisons so badly overcrowded?”
After hanging up, Andrea showers and flops onto her couch. The apartment is quiet, the only sound being the phantom thrum of the heated world outside. She has a corner view of other apartments, a few specks of green (palms, balcony planters), but mostly beige earth and heat. Desolation that shimmers.
From the coffee table console, she selects ‘Tropical 5’. The two window-walls around her become her favorite setting: A waterfall runs serenely into a tropical pool, framed by vines and lush vegetation and a few flowers. Other programs have more color and flowers, of course. This one’s her favorite, though. The birds which loop in and out seem happy, untroubled.
Andrea reclines with her feet up, imagining this footage must’ve been taken in the Amazon or Hawaii or that lush spot in the Indian Ocean (what is it called, now?). The tropics. She’s never been there. Her eyes wander about the loveliness, roving for something. The ice in her water cracks as she observes. Truth be told, she’s never looked for the snakes before.
Gibbs and his cohorts mill about behind the abandoned gas station as twilight fades into blue. Rodriguez smokes his second cigarette. Sook nudges another rock, perhaps looking for scorpions. In their van, the captain plays a game on his phone, his feet up on the dash. Gibbs imagines that, a thousand miles west, the sun dropping into the ocean probably makes for a gorgeous show on a night like this.
The rumbling of an old bus engine breaks the quiet – Gibbs hears it 30 seconds before a squeal of brakes announces the vehicle’s turn into the lot.
“Gentlemen,” he says.
Rodriguez puts out his cigarette and buries both butts in a patch of sand. From the van, the captain watches idly.
The big bus stops. Two men get off, followed by the driver in silver sunglasses. All six men are in matching uniforms. The bus driver hands a clipboard to Gibbs, the clear representative for his group.
“Full load,” the man says. “Want to tell me what this is all about?”
Gibbs gives him a little smile, taking the clipboard. “Oh, nothing much. Just taking the boys for a drive.”
The driver looks at him, then Sook and Rodriguez. “Uh-huh. Okay.”
Gibbs climbs into the driver’s seat, followed on the bus by his cohorts, while the bus’ original crew goes to the waiting van.
Gibbs turns and looks through the mesh. The inmate in the first row of the pen section has a spider tattooed on his cheek. It looks like it’s crawling out of his dark brown beard. Jacoby. Convicted of killing four, suspected in three more cases. Four life sentences, no possibility for parole. A mean, worthless animal.
“Where you taking us,” he asks, irritated.
Gibbs studies him for another moment. He thinks of the nice gal, Vera, the other night. Her legs, her smile…her laughter when they managed to get her bra tangled in her shirt. All the sweetness. In the middle of the night, she dropped some Rocky Road on the carpet. How beautiful she looked, bent over buck naked – those smooth curves – and trying to clean it up while laughing so hard.
The spider on Jacoby’s cheek seems to move.
Back to Reality. Back to thoughts of what Jacoby has done, what Jacoby would do.
Gibbs imagines what it must be like, sitting in the convict’s seat. The roof must start glowing, first. Will that hot metal just eat through the roof and pour right into Jacoby’s lap? Drip on his tattoo?
In his periphery, Sook gives the thumbs-up – they’re ready to roll.
Gibbs nods and glances again at Jacoby. “A little trip. You’ve got a date, my man. A hot date.”