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MARTIAN CAFE
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MARTIAN CAFE

Chapter Three

 

The Devil’s Bowl

 

 

The Devil’s Bowl Transport Café was situated two kilometers from the edge of a crater. The crater, although small in comparison to the well known craters, was semi-filled with sand and dust from the frequent wind and dust storms that regularly raged over the planet. From a high viewpoint it looked like a perfectly circular bowl that was half filled with a reddish soup. It had been named The Devil’s Bowl because it had claimed the lives of an early exploration team when they had ventured onto an overhanging shelf that collapsed beneath them.

 

The café was one of the busiest and largest being the last eastbound and the first westbound to and from Liberty, one of the six major cities, almost a day’s drive away. Travelers from both directions would stop for the night.

 

As Ralph drove into the parking lot he noted five road trains. There were also three trucks, each with a single trailer. Several smaller vehicles were also parked in the lot. He looked for Basha’s sedan but didn’t see it.

 

To one side of the parking lot, close to the exit, was a vehicle cleaning machine. It used high pressured jets of air to blow dust away as water was too precious to use. Water evaporated into the atmosphere and much was lost in spite of recycling. There was plenty of ice on Mars but the cost of drilling for it beneath the surface and then extracting and purifying it made it a very expensive but necessary commodity. Now the forests were spreading, absorbing the high carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and releasing oxygen, a greenhouse effect was causing global warming. The ice near the surface was beginning to soften but it would be a long time before it melted.

 

Behind the café were three double garages. The doors were closed and Ralph couldn’t see if they contained any vehicles although he assumed that at least one would hold the owner’s private transport.

 

Ralph parked up alongside one the road trains. The only light came from the advertising signs but it was sufficient for him to see what he was doing. He secured his truck then checked the identification numbers of the five road trains. Three were from Mars City, one from Liberty and the other from the city of Endurance in the Meridiani Planum. He jotted down the information not knowing if it would help find Mick’s killers or not.

 

Ralph entered the café and went straight to the counter where he ordered a meal and booked a room. He thumbed the screen to verify the card belonged to him. While he waited for his credit card to be cleared, he glanced around the room. He counted a dozen customers sitting at tables. Most were drinking but two or three were still eating meals. Three roaders acknowledged him and he returned the sign. He smiled as he recognized another roader sitting alone on the far side of the room facing away from him. The man’s mop of flaming red hair was unmistakable. That’s Jimmy Adler, thought Ralph. One of the Mars City trucks would be his.

 

“Your card’s okay, Mr. Connor, if you’d like to take a table your meal will be ready in five.” The man behind the counter handed Ralph’s card back to him with a cheery smile. “Room twenty-four has been booked for you.”

 

Ralph pointed toward Jimmy’s table. “I’ll be over there,” he informed the man then sauntered over to Jimmy.

 

“Hello, Jimmy,” said Ralph, sitting down at the table and grinning at the red-haired roader.

 

“Hey! Ralph!” Jimmy grinned back at Ralph and spread his hands. “Must be six months!”

 

Ralph loved the broad Scottish accent that Jimmy spoke in.

 

“More like seven,” replied Ralph. “Going in or out?”

 

“Out north and then in.”

 

Ralph nodded. It wasn’t unusual for a roader to deliver to two or more areas on a run. Obviously Liberty had been one of his stops.

 

“Ever heard of a roader by the name of Mick Hewitt?”

 

Jimmy frowned as he thought for a moment trying to recall the name.

 

“Fair hair, mouth full of white teeth…?”

 

“That’s him.”

 

“Yeah. I met him once. Had a Martian or two with him.”

 

“You’ll be passing him on the way out,” said Ralph. “He was hijacked and got himself killed.”

 

The smile faded from Jimmy’s face. To a roader any news of a hijacking was bad news. Being hijacked was their greatest fear on Mars and to have it happen to someone you’ve met and had a drink with made it hit home harder.

 

“When did this happen?”

 

“Today. Had breakfast with him this morning.”

 

Ralph leaned back as a blonde waitress brought his meal. When she had finished laying it out in front of him he ordered two Martian beers.

 

“Know a classy creamer called Basha?” he asked Jimmy when the waitress went away.

 

This time Jimmy shook his head. “Nope. Why?”

 

Ralph chewed a mouthful of steak pie and swallowed before answering.

 

“Just a feeling she might know something about the hijacking and Mick’s murder.” He told Jimmy of the events the night before in The Half a Mo and the way Basha was in such a hurry that morning.

 

“She was out of place, Jimmy. Too classy to be a waitress in a café.”

 

“So, she was in a hurry. How does that tie her in with the hijacking?” asked Jimmy.

 

The Martian beers arrived and Ralph waited for the waitress to leave again before telling Jimmy about the tire tracks and the purple lip paint on Mick’s lips.

 

“Okay. It could have been any woman wearing purple lip paint,” he admitted, “but it is a big coincidence.”

 

“Have ya told the police?”

 

“They didn’t wanna know. Didn’t ask no questions and the bastards wouldn’t allow me to bury Mick in case I messed up evidence.”

 

“I’d have buried him anyway,” said Jimmy with disgust. The roaders were like a brotherhood.

 

“I would’ve too but, like a nutter, I gave them my ID details.” Ralph finished his meal and took a long drink of beer, draining his glass and pushing it away from him. “Your shout, ain’t it?”

 

Jimmy grinned and ordered two more Martians.

 

They spent the next hour exchanging stories and sipping their beer. Ralph was just about to order a further two Martians when he noticed a smartly dressed man enter the café. The man, aged about sixty, had salt and pepper hair and wore a business suit beneath an open overcoat. He carried an attaché case in one hand. Walking briskly to the bar, he beckoned one of the men behind it with a finger and entered a door next to the counter with the other man following him.

 

Ralph called the blonde waitress over and ordered the beers. “Who’s the guy that just went in that room over there?” he asked her.

 

“That was Mr. Farrell. He works for the owner of this café.”

 

Ralph frowned. “I thought the guy that went in the room with him was the owner,” he said.

 

“Oh no. Reggie is the resident manager. Mr. Dawson is the owner.”

 

“So where’s Mr. Dawson?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him,” replied the girl shaking her head and shrugging. “He never comes in.”

 

“Thanks… what’s your name?”

 

“Linda.” The girl looked pleased that Ralph had asked her.

 

“Thanks, Linda. I’m Ralph and this is Jimmy.”

 

Jimmy stood and offered his hand with a big grin on his face. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Linda,” he said using his broadest and most charming Scottish accent to the full.

 

Linda shook his hand. “I’ll get your beers,” she said and blushing modestly hurried away.

 

“I wonder what time she finishes tonight,” mused Jimmy. “Unless you…”

 

“Nope! She’s all yours if you can pull her, Jimmy,” replied Ralph raising a hand negatively. “I’ve had a long day. After this last beer, I’m for bed.”

 

 

 

 

Ralph rose early the next morning, showered and dressed, putting on clean thermals beneath his working uniform. Mars was a cold planet even on the equator and any time spent outside the warmth of a building required warm clothing. He had decided to get on the road as early as possible, drop his loads then try to trace any of Mick’s relatives.

 

He went to the solitary window of his room and peered out into the darkness wondering where and how he would start his search. The window overlooked the parking lot and the lights of the flashing advertising signs still partially illuminated the parked vehicles. He could see his truck parked where he had left it then he frowned and stiffened. The road train he had pulled alongside had gone. He scanned the scene and noticed the trucks with single trailers had also gone.

 

“And I thought I was up early,” he muttered to himself. Something’s not right, he thought. A roader leaving early was not all that unusual but four of them all in the same morning made it extremely unusual.

 

Ralph went down to the dining room. The morning shift staff was just preparing it in readiness for breakfast.

 

“Bright dawn,” he said cheerily.  Each of the four staff members looked up at him and replied in chorus.

 

“You are a little early for breakfast, sir,” said one. “We don’t serve breakfast for another forty minutes.”

 

“That’s all right. I was gonna make an early start but I’ve changed my mind,” he replied walking toward the door. “I’ll just take my bag to my truck.”

 

Once in the parking lot, Ralph checked the remaining road trains and discovered it was the one from Endurance City that had gone. Thoughtfully, he placed his bag in his truck and returned to the café.

 

“I see some roaders have already gone,” he said loudly. “Anyone know where they were going?”

 

The response was negative. “No one has left while I’ve been here,” said the guy that spoke to him before. “I’ve been here an hour.”

 

Ralph nodded. So they left during the night or exceptionally early this morning, he thought. I wonder why? A thought came to him.

 

“Has anyone seen Basha lately?” This time the response was positive.

 

“Basha was here yesterday,” replied one.

 

“She was here for lunch yesterday,” said another. The other two nodded in confirmation.

 

“Know where she is now?”

 

“Probably in Liberty with Mr. Dawson,” ventured one.

 

Dawson! So Basha was associated with the owner of The Devil’s Bowl Cafe! Ralph thought. That’s interesting.

 

 

 

 

Ralph had almost finished eating his breakfast when Jimmy came down and sat down at his table.

 

“Bright dawn, Ralph,” he said with a grin.

 

“Bright dawn. You look happy,” replied Ralph.

 

“Had a good night, Ralph. Didn’t get much kip but, och, it was a very good night,” said Jimmy grinning even more.

 

Ralph wondered if Linda also had such a satisfying night.

 

“Just watch yourself, Jimmy,” said Ralph seriously. “Watch what ya say to anybody.”

 

Ralph told Jimmy what he had learned that morning.

 

“So what are you saying?” asked Jimmy when Ralph had finished. “That Dawson and this Basha are behind the hijacking?”

 

“I’m not jumping to conclusions, Jimmy, but this whole thing stinks.” Ralph looked at Jimmy straight in the eyes. “For all we know Mick’s load was in those trucks that left during the night.”

 

Ralph finished his breakfast just as Jimmy’s arrived. He drank the remains of his coffee and stood up.

 

“I’m leaving now. You’re going north, aren’t ya? If ya bump into Ernie Bridges, tell him about Mick.”

 

“I’ll do that Ralph. Safe roading.”

 

“You too. Enjoy ya breakfast.”

 

Ralph paid his bill and with a final wave to Jimmy, left the café.

Chapter Four

 

 

Liberty

 

 

 

 

Ralph dropped each of his four trailers at the various depots they were destined for in Liberty City then took his unit to a truck servicing station. Having his truck serviced after each long trip paid off as he had learned the hard way a long time ago. Becoming stranded days from anywhere that could offer help was a frustrating and costly experience. Failure to meet delivery deadlines brought penalties that came out of his profits.

 

Truck service stations offered small vehicles for hire at reasonable prices and Ralph decided to get one for the three days it would take to service his truck. He would need the transport to see what Liberty had to offer for entertainment as well as other things he had in mind. After searching through the advertisements in the local paper, he found and secured a room in one of the few boarding houses in the city. The tourist trade on Mars was still in its infancy and hotels were practically non-existent. Most cities only had one hotel and mainly big business executives used them.

 

The room had adequate amenities with a comfortable bed and a view over one of the main streets in the center of Liberty City, which pleased Ralph. The city center would be the most likely place where he could get any information he wanted; a task he would begin first thing in the morning.

 

 

 

 

Ralph hit the button to print out the last page of information he had been seeking and waited impatiently for the sheet to emerge from the printer. It took only seconds for the printer to spit out the sheet which he added to the twenty he held in his hand. He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do with them or how he would use the information he had so painstakingly collected from the Liberty City Bureau of Records.

 

One thing he had discovered was that Mick had no relatives on Mars that he could contact. Mick had come to Mars six years previously after his wife died in a plane crash on Earth. Ralph had the last known address of Mick’s mother, who apparently still lived on Earth, and vowed he would write to her informing her of her son’s premature death. After stapling the sheets of printed-paper together, Ralph folded them, placed them in his coat pocket and left the Bureau of Records, then returned to his room just a few blocks away.

 

Once inside, he asked the proprietor to bring his lunch to his room then, sitting down on the bed, attempted to sort through the pile of information he had gathered. As he thumbed through the sheets, Dawson’s name caught his eye. There were five pages of information regarding Dawson. Ralph began to read.

 

He learned that Edward Dawson was born on Mars and was aged forty-nine. At the age of twenty-four he became father to an illegitimate child by a woman mysteriously murdered by a person or persons unknown when the child was three years old. He had brought up the child with the help of employed nannies and educated privately as the child had difficulty in bonding with other children and some teachers refused to have the child in their classes. The child’s name was Basha.

 

“Hmmm. I wonder why she couldn’t get on with them?” muttered Ralph to himself.

 

A knock on the door interrupted Ralph’s reading.  It was Mrs. Edison, the proprietor’s wife, a buxom, homely looking woman, bearing a tray with Ralph’s lunch.

 

“Here you are, sir,” she said with a smile as she laid the table. “It’s a very cold day today, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes, it is,” replied Ralph. “I had to turn up the thermostat on my thermals while I was out.”

 

“Well this’ll warm you up.” She uncovered a steaming bowl of soup as Ralph sat down to eat. “You said you liked your chilli hot.  This is hot,” she said with a grin and tapping a cover that concealed another dish.

 

“Sounds great, thanks,” replied Ralph enthusiastically.

 

She left the room and Ralph read more as he ate his meal.

 

Edward Dawson became the owner of several businesses after the death of his father, a known gangster on Earth who had escaped to Mars to avoid conviction. Among them were retail shops, taverns and a transport café. He was also a financier.  He had no known criminal record. The latest addresses on record showed he had property in suburbs populated by the wealthiest inhabitants of Liberty, Mars City and Endurance.

 

Ralph pursed his lips in a silent whistle as he read that Dawson also shared ownership of one of the few small space shuttles on Mars with eleven other businessmen. A consortium known as The Disciples.

 

“He can get anywhere he wants within hours,” muttered Ralph. Planes couldn’t fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. The enormous wingspan required to keep them aloft made them impractical. That is why running a road train to move goods around Mars was such a competitive and profitable business. However, a space shuttle could go anywhere, and fast.

 

Ralph finished his lunch by gulping down a glass of water. The proprietor’s wife was right. The chilli was hot. So hot, it made his ears burn and sweat form on his forehead but that was how he liked it. Making a mental note to congratulate her he left the table then, climbing onto the bed, he punched up a pillow to lean back on while he considered what he should do.

 

His first priority was to get a message to Mick’s mother to inform her of his death. He could do this by mail, which would take months to get to her. Government supply ships from Earth took mail back with them but they only arrived every six months. Commercial ships were more frequent but none would take mail. The other option was to send a message through the communication system used by the authorities that ruled Mars. Although they frowned upon private messages, they did send them for an exorbitant fee but there were rumors that even then the messages were often unsent. He decided to send it by mail.

 

Ralph’s thoughts turned to Dawson and his daughter Basha. He didn’t really know why he had obtained all the information about Dawson.  He had no proof that either Dawson or Basha had anything to do with Mick’s murder and the hijacking of his road train but he had a feeling that they were very much involved. This niggling feeling is what compelled him to search out the information.

 

What can I do about it? He wondered shrugging and spreading his hands to an imaginary audience. Dawson has more money and power than I’ll ever have in a dozen lifetimes.

 

Folding his hands behind his head, he lay back against the pillow; he closed his eyes and considered his options. He could go to the police and tell them of his suspicions but they would require proof. He could forget all about Dawson and Basha and spend a couple of days enjoying his stay in Liberty before picking up his truck and heading back to Mars City or he could poke around trying to find out more about Dawson and his activities. However, he had no idea where to start if he chose the last option.

 

“Wait a minute!” He exclaimed aloud. He opened his eyes and sat up. “I could do both those at the same time!” He could go out, spend some time drinking Martians, and ask a few questions while enjoying whatever the taverns offered. Most of the big cities taverns offered free entertainment.

 

The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. Getting off the bed, he grabbed his coat and slipped it on. “Ralph. Let’s take a beer run,” he told himself as he went out the door.

 

 

 

 

The noise hit Ralph as soon as he entered The Two Pins tavern. The sound of many voices talking at once almost drowned out the music blaring from speakers in each corner of the drinking lounge. At one end, behind a bar, five men were busy serving drinks to impatient customers competing with each other for the bartenders’ attention. At the other end, on a small platform with a backdrop of navy blue curtains, were the instruments of a four-piece band. On either side of the platform, images of a female’s shapely legs moved in various graceful positions. Beneath the images the words, “The Two Pins” flashed on and off continuously. At the tables, set uniformly between the platform and the bar, men and women talked loudly, some laughing, some serious as they sipped their drinks. Two female servers moved from table to table jotting down orders on note pads while a perspiring young man was busy clearing the tables of empty glasses.

 

Spotting a couple preparing to leave a table, Ralph moved toward it, opting to have his drinks brought to him rather than get them himself from the bar. For him, it was worth the standard thirty per-cent service fees to avoid the frustration of trying to catch a bartender’s eye. He got to the table and sat down just ahead of a young couple that had seen the table at the same time as he. Ralph returned the glare the young man gave him with a smile. The couple didn’t look old enough to be openly drinking in a tavern.

 

“We saw this table first,” said the kid.

 

“But I got here first,” replied Ralph with a grin. He looked at the girl. Although she had tried to make herself look older, he doubted if she had reached sixteen. “Does your mom know your boyfriend is taking you out drinking?” he asked her.

 

The girl visibly flushed and tugged at her boyfriend’s sleeve. “Leave it, Tim,” she said. “Let’s go somewhere else.” She turned and began walking away. With a final glare at Ralph, Tim hurried after her.

 

“You handled that very nicely.” The woman’s voice came from the next table on Ralph’s left. A woman in her late fifties was smiling at him. She had three companions, a man, also in his late fifties and a couple in their mid-twenties.

 

“I was scared he might knuckle me,” smiled Ralph.

 

“I don’t think he was that daring,” said the older man. The four of them laughed.

 

“I’m Adrian Farmer,” continued the man, “this is my wife Sarah, my daughter, Jeanette and her fiancé Roger.”

 

“Ralph Connor,” replied Ralph.

 

“You’re a roader, aren’t you?” asked Adrian indicating Ralph’s clothes.

 

“Dead giveaway isn’t it?” laughed Ralph, glancing down at his jacket.

 

Adrian pointed at Ralph, clenched his fist and struck his own shoulder.

 

Ralph returned the sign. “You a roader too?”

 

“Used to be.”

 

Ralph peered with curiosity at the man. “Had enough, huh?”

 

“Enough of being hijacked!” He stared at the table, his face bitter as he recalled the incidents.

 

Sarah reached out and touched her husband’s hand. “It’s all over now, dear.” She turned to Ralph. “Adrian was hijacked three times.”

 

“Three times? That’s incredible!” Ralph stared at her with disbelief. Mick was hijacked once and it cost him his life.

 

“A roader was hijacked and murdered two days ago,” he told them. He gave then a brief account of what he knew about the hijacking.

 

Adrian glanced up at him with horror. “He must have seen or recognized one of them,” he said. “I’m a coward. They had rocket launchers so I just gave them the code to get into the trailers and kept my head down.”

 

“You’re NOT a coward, Adrian!” retorted Sarah. “You came home alive each time!”

 

Ralph’s curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to know more. “Have you any idea who they are?”

 

“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” said Adrian bitterly.

 

Adrian! Forget it, please.” Sarah glanced around at the tables nearby nervously.

 

Seeing how worried Sarah was, Ralph pulled his chair to their table and leaned over to Adrian, his lips close to the man’s ear. “Dawson?” he asked quietly.

 

Adrian’s eyes narrowed as he peered intensely at Ralph. “You think so too?”

 

Ralph nodded an affirmative. “I think his daughter’s involved with Mick’s death, too.”

 

“Basha?” They had all leaned toward the center of the table when their voices had lowered. Jeanette had spoken up at the mention of Dawson’s daughter. “I went to school with her for a while. She’s a freak.”

 

Ralph saw the look of distaste on Jeanette’s face and asked quietly, “How do you mean?”

 

Jeanette leaned closer to confide in him. “She could do things with her eyes. Weird things.”

 

“Oh my God,” said Sarah. “Not that again. That was children’s imagination!”

 

Jeanette bent her head to look directly at her mother indignantly.

 

“Mom. You never did believe me but it’s true. Even the teachers were scared of her!”

 

“Enough! How could they be scared of a six-year old girl?” Sarah’s tone clearly indicated that she wanted the subject changed.

 

Ralph had seen her agitated glances around throughout the conversation. He reluctantly changed the subject out of respect.

 

“Let me get you all a drink,” he said cheerfully. He checked his watch and added, “I’ll have to be going soon.” He called a waitress while raising his hand and quelling their protests. “I insist!”