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MARTIAN CAFE
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MARTIAN CAFE

 

Chapter Nine.

 

 

Stolen Goods.

 

 

 

 

Ralph searched his pockets for the contact details Adrian had given him. Finding them, he sat on the edge of his bed and called the number. Sarah answered.

 

“Sarah. This is Ralph Connor. We met in The Two Pins a couple of days ago, remember?”

 

Sarah remembered and they exchanged the usual greetings, then Ralph asked for Adrian.

 

“He’s tinkering around in the garage,” she said. “I’ll go get him. Can you hold on?” Ralph told her he would and waited. A minute or two later he heard Adrian’s voice.

 

“Ralph! I’m glad you called! Any news?”

 

Ralph explained that he hadn’t managed to find out much but their suspicions that Dawson was behind the murder appeared to be correct. He told Adrian that Dawson had the police in his pocket so there was little likelihood of Dawson being charged for any crime.

 

“I’m running out of time and I don’t think I can progress any further. Today’s my last in Liberty and tomorrow I’m heading back to Mars City feather-light. Axles floating all the way.”

 

“Aw, shit! That’s bad, Ralph,” replied Adrian. “But listen. I think I know where the loads go when they’re hijacked!”

 

“The black market, obviously,” said Ralph.

 

“No! Not the big stuff! The big stuff is going straight to the retailers. I’m sure of it!”

 

“How can you be sure of that?” Ralph frowned. It was a hell of a theory. Retailers would be taking a big risk selling stolen goods.

 

“Come on over and I’ll show ya something.” Adrian gave Ralph directions how to get to his home. As far as Ralph was concerned, he had come to a dead-end and had nothing better to do. He agreed to see what Adrian had to show him.

 

**

 

Adrian was waiting for him when Ralph drove up outside his house. They exchanged a greeting sign then, Adrian anxious to show Ralph what he had, hurried him into the garage. He pointed to an old washing machine that recycled the used water standing by a bench that had parts of its interior on it.

 

Adrian explained that he did repairs to make some extra money to buy his beer and treat his wife out once in a while.

 

“See that? That’s three years old.”

 

Ralph shrugged. “So?”

 

“That was stolen from my truck three years ago the first time I was hijacked.”

 

“How’d you know that?”

 

“I recognized the batch number. I’ve kept a copy of all the serial numbers of the stolen goods on my trains. When I saw this batch number, I checked and there it was!”

 

Adrian pointed to the number on the back of the washing machine. “See the batch number? Then there’s the individual machine serial number after it. Every machine has a different serial number. This machine was on my train when it was hijacked.”

 

Adrian further explained that he asked the owner where he got the machine from and was told it was bought in a store in Liberty High Street.

 

“All those stores are partners of The Dawson Group of Retailers!” said Ralph. It was another link to Dawson’s criminal activities but what could they do about it? What could he do in the remaining time he had?

 

“Roader, we’re just gonna have to live with it. The police ain’t gonna do anything about it if we told them and showed them the evidence. We’d only be asking for trouble from them,” said Ralph resignedly.

 

Adrian looked despondent. He had given up his livelihood as a roader to please Sarah because she was afraid for him. Ralph could imagine how he felt knowing the evidence was right in front of him and he couldn’t go to the police. All roaders had their loads insured but rarely did they get the full value back from a hijacking. The Earth based insurers always placed some responsibility on the trucker and deducted a sizable amount from the payout. Three hijackings must have hurt Adrian a lot financially.

 

“Ya know, Ralph? I feel I wanna blast Dawson and The Disciples from the face of Mars!”

 

“Yeah,” said Ralph sympathetically. “The police too!” He was sure they already knew who had hijacked and murdered Mick. Might destroy forensic evidence, my ass. He thought, recalling what the police had told him when he asked if he could bury Mick’s body.

 

“We should take the law into our own hands,” replied Adrian bitterly. “Get the bastards and put them out of business like they’ve done me.”

 

Ralph studied Adrian’s face. He knew he was just venting his frustration but it seemed the only way to stop the consortium would mean taking drastic action. The two hundred or so roaders on Mars were generally a law abiding brotherhood and taking the law into their own hands would make them criminals. They would be persecuted if they did anything like Adrian suggested. He touched his forehead where Basha had hit it with the cricket bat and smiled to himself. His first criminal act had given him a bad headache.

 

“They’d only bounce back, Adrian. They’ve got the money and the resources to recover.”

 

He sounded like a defeatist even to himself but couldn’t think of anything the two of them could do to hurt the consortium sufficiently to destroy them. There was also the backlash it would cause. Truckers relied on the needs of retailers and big businesses for their work. Without the demand there would be nothing for roaders to transport across Mars.

 

“There must be someway we can hurt them,” insisted Adrian.

 

Ralph looked at his watch and noted it was close to lunch time. “I have to go, roader. If ya think of anything let me know.” He gave Adrian two numbers. “This one is where I’m staying until morning. This one you can get me when I’m on the road.”

 

Adrian accepted the numbers and pocketed them. “Well, for a short time I thought we might have had some fun,” he said. “Sorry you have to go, roader, but I understand. Happy roading.”

 

Ralph said “Goodbye” to Sarah and left.

 

**

 

Mrs. Edison insisted Ralph ate lunch with her and Mr. Edison. “It’s your last day here and it’s been a pleasure having you stay,” she said.

 

“You’ve been very kind, Mrs. Edison. You cooking is out of this world and I mean that literally!” Replied Ralph with a smile. “Next time I’m in Liberty, this is where I’ll be staying.”

 

Mr. Edison grinned at him. “Well hurry back. She doesn’t cook those meals for me, any more!” He patted his stomach. “My belly’s going to miss them when you’ve gone.”

 

“Oh!” Mrs. Edison gave her husband a playful slap on his arm. “What would you like for dinner tonight, then?”

 

“Lamb’s liver, bacon and onions! In that thick, dark gravy you used to make God knows how long ago!” said Mr. Edison enthusiastically.

 

“Martian Oasis! Twenty, twenty-five years ago was the last time I had that!” exclaimed Ralph.

 

“I don’t think you can get lamb’s liver any more,” replied his wife. “If you call around and see if you can get some, I’ll cook it.”

 

“I’ll call around,” said Mr. Edison getting up from the table and leaving the room.

 

Mrs. Edison got up and began clearing the table. “So, Mr. Connor. What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

 

Ralph was unsure exactly what he wanted to do. There was no more time for him to continue his attempt to find Mick’s murderer. Wasting time to gather evidence that would point to Dawson and his ultimate arrest was futile. He could take a last look at the sights in and around Liberty but doing that alone no longer appealed to him.

 

“I think I might go to a tavern and drown my sorrows, Mrs. Edison. Tomorrow I will no longer be here to taste your marvelous cooking,” he grinned. “I just might kidnap you and take you with me when I leave tomorrow.”

 

Mrs. Edison laughed and blushed. “I’m sure you have some nice lady you’d rather take than me, Mr. Connor.”

 

Some nice lady, thought Ralph. He had never had much time to socialize with the opposite sex. Obtaining work, meeting delivery deadlines and being on the road for weeks at a time wasn’t really an occupation that allowed such pastimes. He thought of the time he had spent with Basha in The Two Pins and The Shooting Star. He had enjoyed her company but the topic of conversation hardly lent itself to what he would call socializing. She’s just a kid, anyway, half my age, maybe younger.

 

Ralph realized that he didn’t know exactly how old Basha was and his curiosity was aroused. He rose from the table and went to his room. The information he had printed from the Liberty Bureau of Information still lay on the bedside cabinet. Rifling through the sheets, he found the date of the murder of Dawson’s wife and did a mental calculation.

 

“Twenty-two years ago,” he murmured. “Basha said she was three at the time. That makes her twenty-five now.” Another quick calculation told him he was eighteen years older than she was. That ain’t so bad, he thought.

 

He picked up the communicator and began punching the number she had given him. He almost finished before he hung up again. He knew he was trying to kid himself that she might be interested in accepting a social date with him before he left Liberty. She’s too classy for me. She doesn’t like my clothes, my car, the beer I drink or the way I talk.

 

He paced up and down the room a few times then remembered something she had said. “You’re different. You’re one of the few decent truckers.” Or something like that and she meant it.

 

He punched the numbers in again. She answered almost immediately.

 

“It’s me, Ralph,” he said.

 

“Ralph! Have you found anything? Do you need my help?” She asked excitedly.

 

“I found out something today that implicates the consortium have received stolen goods,” he said.

 

“How can I help?”

 

“You can’t help.”

 

“So why have you called?”

 

“Can we meet tonight?” he asked.

 

“You’ve got something to tell me? Have you got a plan?”

 

 This ain’t going right, he thought. “No. No plan. I’m leaving Liberty for Mars City tomorrow morning.”

 

There was a prolonged silence before she replied. “Why? I thought you wanted to find Mick’s murderer.”

 

“My time has run out and I need work, Basha. Besides, if your dad has the police in his pocket, what can I or anyone else do?”

 

Ralph waited while Basha went through another of her long pauses.

 

“Let’s meet this afternoon,” she eventually said. “At The Two Pins in an hour.”

 

“Sure. Great,” replied Ralph. “In an hour.”

 

“Ralph. Please don’t be late.”

 

“I’m on my way,” he said and hung up. “So much for an evening date,” he murmured to himself.

 

**

 

Ralph was outside The Two Pins five minutes before Basha arrived. She was wearing a brown coat with simulated fur collar and lining in the hood. Ralph guessed she wasn’t taking any chances of getting cold if he was late again. On seeing him, her smile of approval only prompted him to look at his watch and shake his head slowly.

 

“What kept you?” he asked.

 

“I couldn’t find any boots heavy enough to kick you with,” she replied. “I considered bringing the cricket bat but it was too cumbersome.”

 

Ralph chuckled at her riposte. He hadn’t seen much evidence of her sense of humor. Almost all of the time he had spent with her had been in serious discussions.

 

“Let’s go in. I’m freezing,” he answered. He pulled his coat open and with a grin, added, “Look!”

 

Basha failed to understand why he had displayed his chest. “You’ve put a shirt on!” she exclaimed, “and I’m wearing a jumper.”

 

“Never mind.” He escorted her into the tavern chose a table set alongside a wall.

 

“I’m having a beer,” he announced. “It’s a Heavenly Dream for you, right?”

 

“No. No. No! Symmetric Delight for me.”

 

“Oh yeah. Why do I keep thinking it’s a Heavenly Dream?”

 

“Because you’re curious to know what it is,” replied Basha.

 

Ralph called a waitress and gave her the order. While the girl went to get the drinks, Basha slipped her coat off her shoulders onto the seat back. The long-sleeved, light-gray jumper she wore had a collar that folded beneath her chin and revealing her throat. A small, glittering gem-stone hung from a silver chain around her neck drawing attention to the hollow there.

 

“So what is it?” asked Ralph.

 

“What’s what?” asked Basha frowning and tipping her head to one side.

 

“The drink. The Heavenly Dream drink.”

 

Basha threw her head back and laughed. “You really do want to know, don’t you? It’s niggling away at the back of your mind.” She wiggled her index fingers at him to simulate scratching an itch.

 

“Well… if ya don’t wanna tell me…” Ralph shrugged.

 

“Aww. Now you’re sulking.” Basha was obviously enjoying his discomfort.

 

“I’ll ask the waitress when she brings the drinks.”

 

“If you must know, it’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac for women,” Basha explained. She saw the enlightenment on his face and his mouth begin to open. She raised a hand as if to ward off the unspoken words. “Don’t ask me if it works because I’ve never had one.”

 

The waitress brought them their drinks, obtained Ralph’s thumbprint and left. Basha took a sip of her drink then placed the glass on the table in front of her.

 

“Do you really have to leave tomorrow? I was hoping you’d stay longer,” she said.

 

“Basha, I just can’t afford to stay. I need to keep work coming in and if I stay, I’m gonna lose out to other truckers,” replied Ralph. Obtaining loads to transport across the wastes of Mars was a competitive business and a trucker needed to keep contacts with suppliers alive. Even if some of them are members of Dawson’s consortium, thought Ralph.

 

“If its finances, you don’t have to go.” Basha’s statement came after she had toyed with her drink for a few moments. “I can pay all your expenses while you are here.” She looked up from her drink and into his eyes. “That’s why I asked you to meet me this afternoon. I can pay for anything you need.”

 

Ralph returned her gaze and smiled. Whatever Basha spent was paid for by Dawson. He found the thought of Dawson paying his expenses amusing but preposterous. However much he liked the idea, it still didn’t get him work that he would need when he returned to Mars City.

 

He shook his head and Basha’s expression changed from hopeful to an appealing one.

 

“Just another week, Ralph! Three days? Please!” she implored. She reached out and placed her hand on his. “For the first time in thirteen years I’ve had hope of some justice being done about my mother’s murder. You gave me hope, Ralph. Please don’t take it away.”

 

Ralph wished he had some means of assuring her that justice would prevail. Something concrete that he could  say he would work on to avenge her mother but he had nothing.

 

“What can I do? I’m just a trucker. Your father’s got Mars in the palm of his hand.” He clenched his fist to emphasize the hold Dawson had on Martian authorities. “He can do whatever he wants. He’s got money and power.” He shook his head wishing his work had taken him north instead of east to Liberty. If he had never seen Mick’s road train or his body, he wouldn’t have got himself involved.

 

“I’ve no plan. No idea what can be done, Basha,” he said earnestly. “I’m just one simple trucker.”

 

“But you cared. You cared enough about Mick to try,” Basha insisted. “You’ve done more than any other man has done. If you had more time…” She spread her hands implying that anything could happen. “Can’t you get help from other truckers?”

 

Ralph thought about the other truckers. Over two hundred of them scattered all over Mars all bent on meeting deadlines. His mind went to Ernie, Jimmy and Arnie. They were the ones he had most recently met. Even if they were willing to get involved, what could they do?

 

“I’d need a long distance communicator to reach them,” he told Basha.

 

Basha’s face lit up. “That’s no problem! My father keeps in touch with all his businesses on Mars from home!”

 

Her enthusiasm was infectious and Ralph felt he could easily get carried away with it. He didn’t want to build up her hopes too much when he held out little hope himself.

 

“One more day, then,” he said. “I’ll stay another day and see what I can do. Just don’t…”

 

“Yes!” squealed Basha excitedly.

 

“…get too excited,” he finished. He called the waitress over.

 

“Another Martian and another Symmetric Dream, please,” he said.

 

“You mean Symmetric Delight, don’t you, sir?” asked the waitress.

 

“Oh Yeah. Something like that.”

 

Ralph felt a sudden sharp pain on his shin and, frowning, glanced up at Basha. She had a faint smile on her face and returned his look with her head tilted to one side and one eyebrow raised.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

Basha shook her head innocently and shrugged in reply.

Chapter Ten.

 

 

 

The Beginning of a Plan

 

 

 

 

Basha led Ralph through a door set in one wall of the lounge where they had sat when she had cut his bonds. Ralph cast his eyes around the room, taking in all the details. It was a small room but furnished with a desk set beneath a window with an executives chair in front. Filing cabinets with combination locks almost completely lined two walls. In one corner a long-range communicator set on a deep shelf-like bench. Before it, facing away from the communicator, another executive chair. No wonder there was nothing in the study, thought Ralph.

 

“You only have two hours at the most before my father comes home,” said Basha looking at her watch anxiously. “Will that be enough?”

 

Ralph nodded, walked toward the communicator and peered at the dials, switches and knobs. He switched on the power and a small screen lit up displaying the frequency it was set at. He made careful note of the frequency before turning to Basha.

 

“That should be plenty of time,” he replied. “I just hope I can get in touch with a roader or two.”

 

Ralph turned the knob to change the frequency to the roaders’ chat channel and, sitting down, picked up the microphone and spoke into it.

 

“Hey you road bugs. I hope you ain’t kipping.” A faint static issued from the speakers. Ralph adjusted a knob and watched the reception dial until it reached maximum.

 

“Any road bug out there with his right hand free?” There as a brief burst of static then a voice replied.

 

“We ain’t all like you, road bug! I got both hands free.”

 

Ralph gave Basha a grin and did a little jig in the seat.

 

“You ain’t anywhere near Liberty City, are ya, road bug?”

 

“Hey! I know that voice!” came the reply. “I heard that voice in The Half a Mo a few days ago.”

 

Ralph’s jaw dropped as he realized whom he was talking to. He never expected to reach anyone he knew.

 

“Ernie? Is that you?”

 

“Yeah, it’s me. That you, Connor?”

 

“None other, roader. Where are ya?”

 

“Going in and almost at the east road. I heard some bad news about Mick Hewitt. I wanna check it out.”

 

“Mick’s dead, Ernie. Got himself hijacked and killed.”

 

“That’s what I heard from a Scottish roader who buried him.”

 

Ralph smiled. Jimmy had buried Mick and passed on the message to Ernie.

 

Ernie’s voice came back. “Heard that Arnie got ‘jacked too,” he said grimly.

 

Ralph frowned. Arnie was the roader playing the gambling machine in The Half a Mo. Ralph remembered him saying he was running heavy going in. Had he bragged to the wrong person somewhere? He wondered.

 

“Is he dead too?” he asked.

 

“Nope. But he was beaten up bad. They broke three of his fingers, too. A passing roader found him and gave him a ride to The Half a Mo.

 

Ralph didn’t reply but his face was grim. Another hijacking so soon after Mick’s!

 

“Connor, roading’s getting too dangerous,” said Ernie.

 

“I know who’s behind it, Ernie.”

 

“What? Ya know? Then tell the police, dammit, Connor!”

 

“The police know! They’ve been bought,” replied Ralph.

 

There was a long silence before Ernie spoke again. “Then there’s nothin’ we can do. We gotta let the Mafia take our loads.”

 

The Martian Mafia! Of course. Dawson and The Disciples were the heads of the Martian Mafia.

 

“We can hit back, Ernie. Come into Liberty and we’ll talk.”

 

There was another burst of static, then a voice. “…bugs?...Endurance…jacking…”

 

“Hold on Ernie. Some road bug’s trying to talk.” Ralph twiddled a knob a little to try to get a better reception.

 

“Hey, road bug! Can ya hear me?” he said into the microphone.

 

“Ralphy! It’s me, Jimmy!” The broad Scottish accent was unmistakable.

 

“Hey! Jimmy! I just heard you buried Mick Hewitt.”

 

“Aye. I put the lad to rest as best I could.”

 

“How far are ya from Liberty, Jimmy?”

 

“Two day’s, Ralph. I gotta date with a certain wee waitress in The Devil’s Bowl that I don’t wanna miss!”

 

Ralph grinned as he remembered Linda the waitress. Jimmy must have really enjoyed the time he spent with her to go out of his way for another date.

 

“What were ya saying about Endurance?”

 

“Did ya no’ get that? A roader was robbed two days ago in Endurance, is what I heard.”

 

“Jimmy. Come into Liberty as soon as ya can. You too, Ernie!” He gave them his number to contact him as soon as they could when they arrived. “We’ve gotta do something or it could be our turn next!”

 

Now that he thought about it, it could have been him lying dead in a trailer with a hole in his head. If he had left The Half a Mo before Mick had, he’d have been the first roader going down the east road. That thought made him all the more determined to avenge Mick’s death the best he could.

 

Both men agreed to spend a little time in Liberty before taking the road back to Mars City.

 

Ralph tuned the communicator back to how it was and switched off. He faced Basha and scrutinized her.

 

“Is your dad the head of the Martian Mafia?” he asked solemnly.

 

“My father’s just a businessman as far as I know. He’s unscrupulous, maybe, a murderer, yes, but just a businessman.”

 

Ralph studied her face as she steadily returned his gaze. He couldn’t see any sign that she might not be telling the truth. “I hope you’re not lying,” he responded. “We’re gonna find out in the end.”

 

“Ralph! If he is, I didn’t know. I know nothing of his businesses. He never allowed me to get involved.” She looked at her watch. “You had better leave before he gets home.”

 

Ralph nodded. “Yeah. I’d better.” He turned to leave the room but Basha stopped him.

 

“The seat. Turn the seat around again and put the microphone where it was!”

 

“Shit!” he exclaimed. He turned the seat to face away from the communicator and picked up the microphone. “Where was this?” he asked.

 

Basha came over, took the microphone out of his hand and placed it on top of the communicator.

 

Ralph spread his hands and shrugged. “Well…you said I was an amateur,” he grinned.

 

Basha pushed him toward the door. “Go!” she said. She walked with him to the gates where his car was parked and watched him get in.

 

“See ya in The Two Pins at eight,” he said as he pressed the starter.

 

Basha ducked her head to peer at him. “What?” she asked with a puzzled frown. Ralph gave her a wave and drove away without answering, leaving Basha staring at his receding car.

 

**

 

“Liver, bacon and onion’s for dinner tonight, Mr. Connor.” Mrs. Edison came to greet Ralph as he entered the door, her face beaming and wiping her hand down her pinafore. “With creamed potatoes and peas.”

 

Ralph grinned at her. He wondered if she took as much delight in pleasing her other guests as much as pleasing him.

 

“Mrs. Edison, you are a darling,” he responded. “I’m sure it’ll be the best I have ever tasted.”

 

“Well I wanted to give you something special as it’s the last time you’ll be having dinner here before you are on your way tomorrow.”

 

“Ah! Mrs. Edison.  I wanted to talk to you and Mr. Edison about that. I’d like to stay for a few more days, if that is all right.”

 

Mrs. Edison’s eyes lit up and her smile broadened. “Oh! Lovely! You can stay as long as you like Mr. Connor. It’s a pleasure having you.”

 

Ralph grinned at her. “I have a couple of friends coming to Liberty that may want somewhere to stay. Can you accept them as well?”

 

“Yes! Yes! We have three empty guest rooms although we’ve never had more than two stay at the same time. My husband says we were a bit too ambitious when we started out.” She chuckled as she turned to leave the room. “I must go and tell him!”

 

Ralph went to his room and called Adrian. He informed him that he’d be staying longer and told him about Jimmy and Ernie coming into Liberty and the bad news about Arnie and the roader in Endurance.

 

“There might not be much we can do but at least we can talk about it. Maybe we can use your place to get together?”

 

“That’s fine, Ralph. I’m glad you’ve decided to give it more time. I’ve been stewing over this ever since I retired and now things are getting worse.”

 

Ralph promised to keep Adrian informed and hung up just as Mrs. Edison knocked to tell him dinner was ready.

 

**

 

Ralph made sure he arrived at The Two Pins thirty minutes early. He was unsure if Basha would meet him but he hoped she would. He had deliberately not answered her when he drove off after leaving her home and now he was hoping her curiosity would be aroused enough to meet him.

 

Above his head the air filters of the tavern whirred as they coped with the remnants of a dust storm that had blown up earlier that evening. In the past decade dust storms had decreased significantly due to the thickening of the atmosphere. As the pressure rose it confined the dust closer to where the storms originate. Planet-wide dust storms that lasted for days were now less frequent.

 

More and more patrons arrived to enter the tavern and Ralph began to think chances of getting a table were fast disappearing. He stamped his feet to improve circulation and ward off the numbness that was slowly creeping from his toes upward and checked his watch. Basha was already ten minutes late but he had made up his mind to allow her thirty minutes.

 

Each time the entrance doors opened, Ralph could hear the band playing cheerful, lively music and feel the warmth of the air within. He was beginning to wish he had got confirmation from Basha that she would be here when someone bumped into him from behind. Ralph spun around.

 

“It isn’t pleasant waiting in the cold, is it?” Basha was grinning at him.

 

“No, it isn’t,” he replied. “So now we’re even. My nipples are sticking out and I haven’t any feeling in my toes.”

 

“You’re lucky I came at all! I had to cancel a dinner invitation to keep this date!”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like to go somewhere we can eat?” Ralph hadn’t thought of the possibility she might have had other arrangements for the evening. He would only have had himself to blame if she hadn’t turned up. At the same time, he was pleased that she had chosen to meet him rather than keep her appointment.

 

“No. I cooked up something for myself. Daddy went alone.”

 

“Let’s go in and see if we can get a table,” replied Ralph opening the door and allowing her to enter.

 

Basha spotted a vacant table in a corner at the far end of the tavern. “Over there,” she said, making her way toward the table. Ralph followed keeping an eye open for anyone that might be hurrying to get there first. No one was and Basha had already sat down before Ralph got there. He beckoned an idle waiter as he sat down opposite her. The waiter responded immediately and Ralph ordered.

 

“We’ll have one Martian and a Heavenly Delight, please.”

 

“I beg your pardon, sir?” The waiter frowned and bent down to hear the order again.

 

“A Symmetric Delight and a beer,” answered Basha before Ralph could speak.

 

“Martian beer,” corrected Ralph frowning at Basha. She’s getting back at me, he thought. Good for her.

 

While they waited for their drinks, Ralph looked around the tavern wondering if Adrian and Sarah were there. He didn’t see them but he noticed a roader drinking alone several tables away. It wasn’t anyone he recognized but then, he only personally knew a few. He tried catching the roader’s eye but it was only when the waiter brought their drinks that the man looked in his direction. Ralph pointed at him and struck his shoulder, smiling. The man smiled back, tossed his head and raised a hand acknowledging him. Ralph’s smile disappeared and his eyes narrowed.

 

Basha glanced over her shoulder and back again. “Who were you pointing at?” she asked.

 

“I thought I saw a trucker,” responded Ralph. “I made a mistake.”

 

Basha turned her head again and took more time looking around, stretching her neck to see as many people as she could.

 

“There’s a trucker over there. Five tables behind you and one row to your right.”

 

“He’s wearing trucker’s clothes but he ain’t a trucker,” replied Ralph.

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I just do.”

 

Basha went to look at the man again but Ralph stopped her. “Don’t stare. It’s impolite. Let’s talk about you.”

 

“What about me?” asked Basha suspiciously.

 

“How come a girl like you doesn’t have a boyfriend?”

 

Basha laughed and sat back in her seat. “What do you mean by ‘A girl like me’?”

 

Ralph studied her for a moment before replying. “You’re young and very attractive. I know for a fact that you attract men’s attention. You must have a string of admirers.”

 

The smile almost left Basha’s face as she leaned forward again and took a sip of her drink. “Boys… men that get to know me are afraid of me. They don’t stay around for long.” She took another sip of her Symmetric Delight and licked her lips. “Just like you were afraid of me. Maybe you still are.”

 

Ralph nodded. He had been afraid to look her in the eyes when he learned what she could do with them, before he found out why and when she used her strange power. “I’m not afraid now,” he said quietly.

 

“No, Ralph. I don’t believe you are but then…” she gave him a big grin, “you are different!”

 

“So you keep telling me!” Ralph grinned back at her.

 

“Now, how come a guy like you doesn’t have a wife and kids?”

 

Ralph was about to answer when he saw a smartly dressed man with a briefcase go to the table where the guy in trucker’s clothes sat. They exchanged a few words then the man sat down with the case on his lap.

 

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Mr. Farrell,” murmured Ralph.

 

“Mr. Farrell?” This time Basha did turn to stare. “He works for my father. He’s one of my neighbors.”

 

“I know he works for your father but what’s he doing here talking to a guy dressed as a trucker?”

 

As Ralph watched, Farrell opened his briefcase and took out a large envelope and handed it to the man with him who folded it and put it in his pocket. They continued having a conversation with Farrell doing most of the talking. After ten minutes, Farrell got up and left the tavern. Minutes later Farrell returned accompanied by an attractive young teenage girl.

 

“Hello! Remember me? I’m your date!” Basha rapped the table with her knuckles to get his attention.

 

“Looks like Farrell’s brought his daughter along,” observed Ralph.

 

“He doesn’t have a daughter. He’s got two sons, Basha informed him. “Hey! Maybe he’s having an affair!” She turned to see who Farrell was with, moving her head to get a good look at the girl.

 

“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed when she saw who it was. “It’s Jessica!” She placed a hand to shield her face from view of anyone that my glance from the direction of Farrell and his companions.

 

“Jessica?” Ralph was curious.

 

“My father’s mistress!” snarled Basha.

 

Ralph looked back at the girl and studied her for a minute. Was this the girl that kissed Mick just before he was murdered? She appeared to be too young to be involved in his killing. Farrell put his arm around her shoulders and smiled at her.

 

“But she’s just a kid,” said Ralph.

 

Basha gave him an up-and-under look while still keeping her face shielded. “That’s how my daddy likes his women,” she said with disgust. “She’s sixteen. She was fourteen when he first slept with her.”

 

“Martian oasis!” exclaimed Ralph. When Basha had told him her father had a mistress, he had assumed it was a mature woman. Now he could see that all her father had done was to transfer his sick attentions from his daughter to another young child.

 

“So what’s she doing here with Farrell?” asked Ralph.

 

“How do I know? Maybe she’s getting too old for daddy and he’s passed her on to him!” She spat out the words although she was obviously fighting to control herself. “How can we get out of here without them seeing me? I feel sick.”

 

Ralph reached out impulsively and placed his hand on hers to comfort her. He felt her hand trembling beneath his and he expected her to pull it away. She didn’t.

 

“I could start a fight and you could slip out during the commotion,” he suggested.

 

Basha raised her eyes and looked into his. She saw the hint of amusement in them and smiled half-heartedly. She knew he was trying to cheer her up.

 

“That’s a bit drastic. I might have to come and rescue you,” she replied. “I should have brought the cricket bat.”

 

The mention of the cricket bat brought a grin to Ralph’s face. He reached up and fingered his forehead. The lump had receded but it still felt bruised. Basha eased her hand from under his and touched where the bruise still showed.

 

“I’m sorry about that.” Her expression was one of genuine regret.  “Does it still hurt?”

 

Ralph nodded in mock seriousness. “I’m in constant pain. Never stops throbbing. I’ll never be able to forget how we first met.” He held her hand and rubbed her fingers on the spot. “You doing this soothes it a little.”

 

“How about this?” Basha closed her fingers and gave the bruise a tap with her knuckles.

 

Ralph jerked his head back. “Ouch! That hurt!”

 

“Good. You’re supposed to be thinking how to get out of here without being noticed.”

 

“We just walk out. I’ll keep myself between you and them. You can hide behind me.”

 

Basha considered the option and then nodded. His body would shield her from Farrell’s and Jessica’s eyes as they walked past their table.  “You get up first.”

 

Ralph stood and planted himself between Basha and the three people, opening his coat a little to conceal her and they left the tavern.