● Chapter 1 ●
Kitsap Naval Center ◊ Bremerton, WA
08 July ◊ 0242 PDT ◊ 0942 Z
The clock on the bulkhead above the shipping desk ticked its plodding way to 0242. Logistics Specialist Chief Darryl Martin chewed the unlit stub of a cigar and shifted his coffee cup slightly on the bulging surface of his protruding midsection. Numerous stains reflected accurately the Chief’s disdain of personal grooming. After all, he was only six months from his full thirty. Once he retired, he would never wear another uniform or stand another inspection. The ticking of the clock annoyed him.
“They’re late!” The cigar stub traversed the width of his mouth.
A Petty Officer Third Class shifted on the seat of a forklift. "What's the rush, Chief? It's the only pickup on our whole watch."
“I’m losing beauty sleep.”
A young Seaman Apprentice standing by the forklift snorted a laugh and tried to cover it with a coughing fit. The Chief glared at him.
The Petty Officer straightened in his seat. “I think I can hear them coming now.”
The Chief turned his head, listening, but heard nothing. “If you say so.”
The SA stepped to the edge of the loading dock and cocked his head. “I hear it, too, Chief. It’s gotta be them. There’s not much else moving at this time of the morning.”
With the rumble of the approaching truck to occupy their attention, none of the group heard the light snick as the door of a black Ford Expedition SUV in the parking area gently closed or the soft footsteps mounting the steps to the warehouse door. A large van with Navy markings ground to a halt in the parking lot. The piercing shriek of a backup alarm sounded as the truck maneuvered into position at the loading bay.
The Chief gestured abruptly with his coffee cup. “Get that ramp in place. Let’s get this stuff loaded and so I can get out of here.”
The forklift trundled forward, bearing a diamond-plate steel ramp. It bridged the narrow gap between the surface of the loading dock and the truck bed. The Seaman moved forward with a pallet jack to load the first of five pallets into the truck. Each pallet was loaded with two sturdy wooden crates lashed firmly in place.
A soft voice sounded inches from Chief Martin’s right ear. “Where is the rest of our shipment?”
The Chief started violently and gasped so hard he nearly inhaled the mangled cigar butt. He spat it out on the floor with a curse and turned to look at the intruder.
“What the hell do you want? How did you even get in here?
“I want to know where the rest of our shipment is. I want to know what you are doing about it. As for how I got in here—I could have come through the gate in a Russian Admiral’s uniform and no one would have stopped me.”
A delayed reaction was embarrassingly evident as the Chief replied. His hand exhibited a slight tremor, as did his now subdued voice.
“Perhaps we should discuss this in my office. These grunts don’t have a clue what is going on… and they don’t need to.”
The Chief proceeded to his office at the side of the warehouse. He held the door for his unexpected guest and followed him inside, closing the door quietly behind them. He gestured to the visitor’s chair in front of the desk.
The tall, slender man slowly and carefully removed a pair of black kidskin driving gloves and an elegant cashmere topcoat, revealing a well-tailored black suit and blue silk tie beneath. He hung the coat on a wall-mounted hook by the door. He moved at a leisurely pace and settled into the large leather office chair behind the desk.
The Chief bristled momentarily and then thought better of it. He reached for a clipboard resting on the corner of the desk.
“Let me get this manifest to the driver so he can get on the road.”
The visitor flipped a languid hand granting permission and settled back to wait.
The wait was a brief one. The Chief re-entered the room within five minutes and sat in the visitor’s chair.
“Where is the rest of our shipment?” The man behind the desk waited calmly for an answer, seemingly unperturbed by the delay.
The Chief shook his beefy head. “I don’t know.”
The lean man straightened in the chair and leaned forward menacingly. His voice was very soft – just above a whisper – but well-modulated.
“All I know is there is some kind of snag in the supply line. I don’t know any details about that part of the operation and I don’t want to know.” He shrank visibly in the uncomfortable straight chair and sighed. “All I know is, I got a heads-up from a buddy of mine in Japan. He called me on the QT and said someone was nosing around the operation and making everyone very nervous. He really didn’t know any more than that.”
The visitor sat silently for several minutes. "What was the shipment tonight?"
The Chief reached for his clipboard and read the manifest. “There were ten PDX-59 batteries.”
“That is all?” The visitor stood abruptly. “There were supposed to be three of the PDX-57s as well.” He slammed his hand onto the desktop, making the Chief jump. “Do you realize that the ten PDX-59s together weigh as much as only one PDX-57?” His voice was rising steadily. “Do you know what the contents of those three items are worth on the open market?”
The Chief wagged his head emphatically.
"Ninety million plus! We are ninety million dollars short because of a "snag" in your supply system."
The man rose, walked slowly to the coat rack, and removed his overcoat from it.
“That is why we pay slugs like you! To prevent the “snags” and keep the merchandise moving. If you cannot do that, we will make other arrangements.” He turned and looked at the Chief the way an eagle looks at a rabbit. “I do not think you or your ‘buddy’ in Japan would find those arrangements very pleasant at all.”
The door opened and closed quietly as the visitor vanished into the night.
• • •
A diesel engine coughed into life and the truck pulled away from the loading dock at the Northwest Supply Depot with a rackety roar. The driver turned the vehicle north and followed W Street until it gently curved and merged into Farragut Avenue. A turn to the west led to the guard shack of the Charleston Gate. The driver slowed, extinguished his headlights, and left only the parking lights on.
A lone sailor approached the driver’s window and asked for the vehicle’s load manifest. Petty Officer Charlie Mason was a freshly-minted Master-at-Arms Third Class, just promoted from Striker status. He was intelligent and extremely conscientious. He frowned as he looked over the manifest, noting the strange origin and destination codes as well as the priority designations. He did not know what, exactly, but he knew something was far wrong.
He looked at the driver. “You mind if I take a look at this load?” It wasn’t really a request. The guard was simply being polite.
The driver shrugged. “Fine by me. Knock yourself out.”
The gate guard moved to the rear of the truck. The driver could hear the door swing open and felt the truck body move as the man climbed into the cargo area. He reached out and briefly flicked his headlights on and back off.
A block ahead, outside the gate, a mini-van was parked on the roadside in front of the active duty personnel’s parking garage. Both front doors of the van opened simultaneously and two black-clad figures emerged and headed for the rear of the truck standing stationary in front of the guard shack.
The two figures climbed lithely into the cargo area of the truck. Moments later, the truck rocked several times on its suspension—then was still. A black Ford Expedition pulled up behind the truck and the tall, slender visitor to Chief Martin’s office emerged.
A low-voiced command sent one of the assailants into the guard shack. He returned moments later with a shiny DVD disk containing the security camera recordings. He handed it to the tall man and left with his partner to return to their van.
The tall man walked to the driver’s window of the truck and spoke a few low words. The driver’s head nodded and the truck moved ahead in a cloud of diesel smoke and clatter. The mini-van fell in behind as the truck moved toward Charleston Boulevard and a private airfield outside Tacoma some forty miles to the southeast.
● Chapter 2 ●
Oregon Convention Center ◊ Portland, OR
08 July ◊ 1600 PDT ◊ 2300 Z
PJ Whitman waited in the wings backstage as her friend, helpmeet, and lover of thirty years' standing completed his presentation to the audience of the Western Alternative Energy Symposium. His talk was on the newest hi-tech methods of restoring battery function in an increasingly energy-hungry world. The response was loud and prolonged, with many on their feet. Emerson bowed shyly and waved, mouthing his thanks to the audience. He was finally rescued by the M.C. announcing refreshments and a meet-and-greet in the suite next door. People began filing towards the doors and Emerson walked to where PJ stood waiting for him.
She smiled at the look of excitement on his face and could tell he was thrilled to be part of this.
“You seem to be getting pretty good at this.”
He ducked his head momentarily in embarrassment. “I don’t think it’s that I’m getting better, it’s just that I am intensely interested. The things I have learned and the equipment that Primary Pulse produces not only helps people deal with their energy needs and applications… it is saving them money, too.”
PJ shook her head in mock aggravation. “Save the sales pitch for them as needs it.” She grabbed Emerson by the arm and started for the gathering next door. “Come on before I have to tie a rope around your ankle to keep you from floating away.”
Emerson smiled and allowed himself to be shepherded to the festivities. They walked through double doors propped open for easy access. He noted the refreshment tables arrayed across the back of the room and nodded in approval. It demonstrated some clear forethought on the part of the catering staff in that it prevented the guests from gathering in the front of the room and disrupting the flow of traffic.
A slender, balding man wearing a hounds-tooth jacket and ascot tie swooped across the room to greet him. He reminded Emerson of a galleon of the Spanish Armada maneuvering under full sail.
Big smile. Big teeth. Big voice. Small man. “Emerson, my friend! A thousand thanks for coming. I am sure your information will benefit many in our energy-challenged little corner of the world.”
He turned with even more teeth showing. “And this must be the lovely PJ, of whom you have spoken so much. Welcome!” His voice lowered conspiratorially. “And thank you for allowing him to be here.”
Emerson turned to PJ. “This is Franklin Dennison, President of the Independent Dealers’ Energy Association—aka IDEA.”
PJ beamed at him. “How clever! It must be a tremendous job keeping up with all the changes in the energy field.”
Dennison smiled deprecatingly. "We do our humble best, my dear." He turned slightly to his left and waved. If Franklin was a war galleon, the robust lady rapidly approaching must surely have been the flagship of the fleet. She was equipped with a floor length gown of heavy velvet fabric boasting a hemline of voluminous proportions. She carried a large handbag festooned with ribbons and flowers that probably housed the main battery of cannon. The masthead was topped by an enormous hat that would have caused the ladies at Ascot to swoon with envy. The bow wave as she sailed into port was spectacular.
Franklin Dennison adroitly maneuvered for position. “Ah! May I present my better half, Deidre. Dear, this is Emerson Whitman and his lovely wife, PJ.” He paused a moment. “You know, you two have something in common. Deidre goes by Dee Dee. I presume your initials have further meaning as well?”
“Priscilla Jeanette.” PJ smiled with a bit of twinkle in her eyes. “Now you know why I go by PJ.”
Franklin laughed appreciatively while Dee Dee turned to Emerson. “I notice from the program that you do not resort to initials and that your middle name is Francis.” She nodded approvingly. “That has a nice, old-timey sort of feel to it – Emerson Francis. Were you named after family members?”
Emerson smiled. “No. My parents are both enamored of philosophy and even more so of philosophers… warts and all. I am the namesake of two of their favorites – Emerson for Ralph Waldo and Francis for Sir Francis Bacon. As for the Whitman, I suppose it is just serendipitous that we share a surname with old Walt.”
Dee Dee tittered. “And are you a philosophy fancier as well?”
"Oh, no. I was inundated with enough philosophy growing up that I can spot a philosopher at thirty paces." He smiled wickedly. "Since the age of twelve, I have been able to outrun almost every one of them.
Franklin and Dee Dee both laughed as Emerson’s telephone began to demand attention. He looked at the caller ID. “Please excuse me, duty calls.”
Franklin bowed graciously. “Certainly, certainly. Thank you again for your participation.”
PJ looked at the phone in Emerson’s hand. “It’s the Wicked Witch of the West.”
The caller ID said, Marian. “It is not. It’s my boss.”
PJ sniffed and turned away. “That’s what I said.”
Emerson touched the face of the phone. “Hello.”
“Well, if it isn’t Maid Marian. What can I do for you?”
“Ask not what you can do for me. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Emerson groaned. "Have you hired John Kennedy's speechwriter?"
Marian laughed. “No, but I wasn’t kidding. We have a request for tech assistance from the Navy. It was routed through some fairly stratospheric realms before ending up on my desk.”
“And now in my lap, I take it?”
“You guessed it, kid.” Marian paused to marshal her thoughts. “This could be a manufacturer screwing up or it could be sabotage. Or it could be indicative of something much more serious.”
Emerson knotted his brow in thought. “What is happening, exactly?”
"There seems to be an unusually high number of faulty battery units coming from the manufacturer. In the past, this outfit has been like Ivory Soap – ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure." She sighed in frustration. "The problem is… no one in the field can determine what the problem is without dismantling a unit. Field technicians are not usually trained for that level of maintenance. Hazmat items go back to the manufacturer for examination or possibly to a repair depot."
Emerson wondered why Primary Pulse Energy Systems of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina was being called in when so many other experts were already in the loop.
“OK. Now you have me curious. Why tap Primary Pulse? We are complete outsiders in this whole scenario.”
“Perhaps that is the very reason we have been called. Apparently, security is an issue here as well.”
Emerson groaned. “And the plot thickens. What are we talking about here? Is there just one type or more than one?”
Marian laughed. “You know, Emerson, I didn’t just hire you for your good looks. Occasionally you exhibit traces of primitive brain function as well.”
“That makes me feel ever so much better. I am sure PJ will be ecstatic at the news as well.”
“Do the type designators PDX-57 and PDX-59 mean anything to you?” A rustling sound reached his ear as she flipped through a sheaf of papers on her desk. “According to the data sent to me, these are battery types used in submarines.”
Emerson shuddered. “They are. And the fact that someone is monkeying with components designed to be used in nuclear subs rings some very large black bells in my belfry.” He thought hard for several moments. “I believe the 57s and 59s are used in the Ohio class. The 57s are sizable – a little over a ton. The 59s are single-cell jars and probably run a couple of hundred pounds.”
Marian extracted a data sheet. “That pretty well matches up with the information I have. They are both flooded type lead-acid batteries. Old school, but reliable.”
“OK. What does the Navy want us to do?” Emerson chuckled. “Let me rephrase that. What does the Navy want me to do?”
“Specifically, they want you to examine one - or more, if necessary - of the defective batteries and find out what is causing the failures. As far as the security aspects are concerned, they’re none of our business.” Marian snorted. “Let me rephrase that. They are none of your business. I do not want you taking any more train excursions on the company’s dime.” She was referring to Emerson’s involvement with equipment thieves on his last assignment where two enormous farm tractors (and Emerson) ended up on a train car headed South of the Border.
Emerson laughed. “I don’t feel the need for another vacation this soon. When and where do I go and with whom do I get in touch?”
"First thing in the morning. We figure it will take about four hours to get there in that rambling antique you call a motorhome. You will go to the visitor center at the Kitsap Naval Base in Bremerton. An escort will meet you there with information for parking the RV and accommodations while you will be there. You will most likely be in transient quarters for the duration."
She paused a good while before continuing. “Emerson, I am a little concerned about this one. You are to speak of this situation only with the Commanding Officer of the Supply Center, Captain J.D. McCormick or the Executive Officer, Commander Valery Henson. They may assign a liaison to you. No one else under any circumstances. This was made very clear to me. I will email contact numbers and the rest of the relevant stuff to your phone. Do you have any questions?”
Emerson thought for a moment. “Do you want progress reports?”
“No. All information you gather will be passed directly – hand to hand – or mouth to ear – to one of the two officers I mentioned. If all goes well, you should not have to be there more than a couple of days at most.” Marian flipped the page of her desk calendar. “There is a show in Reno the 21st through the 23rd, so plan on that next. It will be held at Harrah’s Convention Center. I will get you more details after the Navy job is done.”
Emerson pulled out his pocket planner and marked the dates for the show. “Anything I need to take to Washington?”
Marian laughed. “Just pretend you are going to London.”
Emerson puzzled a bit at that comment. “What does London have to do with it?”
"It rains a lot there. Take your bumbershoot, raincoat, and galoshes." She giggled. "I believe they call them rubbers over there.”
“Very funny. Call and tell them I should be there by noon tomorrow.” He paused. “If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise from all that rain.”
“I will. Be safe, Socrates.”
“Thanks, Maid Marian. Talk to you later.”
PJ sidled up to him as he put the phone in his pocket. “That sounded a little ominous.”
“Oh, not really. Just standard government security stuff.” He did not want to worry her unnecessarily. “It is just a technical consult that shouldn’t take more than a couple of days and then it’s heigh-ho for The Biggest Little City in the World.”
“We’re going to Reno?” PJ chortled with delight. “That will be such fun. I just love the sound of silver dollars falling from the slots like a summer rain shower.”
“I don’t believe you will either hear or see silver dollars there anymore.” He smiled at her crestfallen look. “The technological age has overtaken even that bastion of decadence and the slots are now digital.” Outrage replaced chagrin. “Although the noise level is as raucous as ever and just as exciting I am reliably informed.”
PJ smiled beatifically. “I just love slot machines.”
● Chapter 3 ●
Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Headquarters
Kitsap Naval Center ◊ Bremerton, WA
09 July ◊ 0400 PDT ◊ 1100 Z
NCIS Special Agent Helena Prince looked at her watch as she approached the squat, ugly building that housed NCIS operations on the east side of the Kitsap Naval Base. A small park and the Naval Museum lay just outside the perimeter fence of the shipyard that skirted the building. Beyond the boundary glowed the lights of the Seattle Ferry Terminal.
It was 0357 – nearing eight bells. She shivered slightly inside the light jacket she wore. I wonder what prompted a callout at such an early hour. The bulk of the Headquarters building loomed ahead. She started up the entry steps and shrugged. Guess we’ll know soon enough.
She entered the scarred and weather-beaten double doors and stepped into a wide vestibule. An excruciatingly young and fresh-faced Master-At-Arms Third Class sat at the security desk. He smiled widely as she approached the desk and offered her identification badge for scrutiny.
“Good morning, ma’am.”
She looked directly into his eyes before responding.
“Good morning Petty Officer Collins.”
A flush of red rose from his collar.
“Getting an early start today?”
She smiled. “No rest for the wicked.” She retrieved her ID and turned to walk away down the hall. As she did she winked, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. The coloration bloomed on the young man’s face as he grinned back at her. I really shouldn’t tease the animals. But he seems such a nice young man. Always pleasant. Always polite. There should be a little reward for that. As she walked toward her office, she added just a touch more sway to the hips. That should do it. She smiled as she opened the door and walked into the waiting day.
She made her way to the rear of the room toward a cluster of five desks with a small open area in the midst of them. It was variously known as The Bullpen or The Zoo, depending on prevailing circumstances. Based on the looks on the faces of her co-workers today, perhaps The Seventh Circle of Hell would be more appropriate.
Special Agent Peter Vardon nodded curtly. Her partner, Special Agent David Malcolm, offered a weak smile. The other two desks were empty. At present, their squad was short two members and had been for several weeks. Personnel, as usual, was dragging their feet about rounding up replacements. Thank God that is one area I don’t have to worry about.
“Good morning, troops. Why the long faces?”
Peter Vardon sighed dramatically and sagged back in his chair.
“Get yourself some coffee, Prince. You’re going to need all the sustenance you can get before this day is over.”
Helena nodded and stepped behind her desk. She placed her purse in the bottom right drawer of the desk and her weapon in the top right one. She picked up the Snoopy cup from the corner of the desk and headed for the coffee pot in the corner.
Properly armed and equipped, she returned and perched in the office chair behind the desk. She opened the shallow center drawer and extracted a yellow legal pad and pen and laid them on the desk’s surface and looked at Peter expectantly.
"Here's what we know so far." He leaned forward and retrieved a yellow pad of his own and scanned its content. "At approximately 0325, a Machinist's Mate Senior Chief Zehnder approached the Charleston gate after attending a party in town. His speech was slightly less than clear while relaying the information, but the gist of it is that the gate guard was nowhere to be found. This was relayed through the civilian 911 operator to the Master-at-Arms office on base. A couple of MAs were dispatched to investigate and found the Chief at the gate, taking a brief nap in his car. The location of the assigned gate guard is currently unknown."
David shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Who was the gate guard?”
“He is also an MA—Charlie Mason—well-known and well-liked in their unit. To their minds, that pretty much rules out dereliction of duty or desertion, leaving only foul play of some sort.”
Helena nodded. “Who knows about this?”
Vardon shook his head. “Too many. The investigating team called the Chief Master-at-Arms at home. He called the Commanding Officer of the NCIS detachment, who in turn called the Base Commander, his Executive Officer and me. I promptly called in my two all-star outfielders—and here we all are.” He smiled his Cheshire Cat grin.
David looked at Helena and grimaced. “I am sure we all know what it is that rolls inexorably downhill. What do we do now, Doc?”
Peter Vardon straightened in his chair and reached for his pen. “I want you two to get down to the Charleston Gate. Talk to the MAs there. Find out what they know as well as what they surmise. Then make your own investigation and figure out what really happened. If it turns out this was an abduction… or worse, it will be our baby.” He smirked. “Nothing to it.”
Helena nodded with a worried frown. “We may need some assistance on the ground here. There are only two of us to do all the legwork.”
Peter nodded back at her. “Not to worry. I have a verbal commitment from the Chief Master-At-Arms that we’ll have all the help we can stand. After all, it is one of theirs who is missing.” He held up his hand with two fingers extended in a V. He twisted his wrist a couple of times. “As they say in the Navy, let’s turn to.”
Helena and David rose to their feet, retrieved weapons and go-bags and headed purposefully toward the door.
● Chapter 4 ●
09 July ◊ 0600 PDT ◊ 1300 Z
Emerson and PJ arose early the day after the convention. She looked at the bedside clock and noted it was just a couple of minutes past six. She stretched and yawned as Emerson emerged from the bathroom carrying his shaving kit and night clothes. He looked at her apologetically.
"Sorry to roust you out so early, but there appears to be some concern about the timetable for this job."
“That’s quite all right.” PJ gathered her things and headed for the shower to prepare for the day. “So long as it doesn’t become a habit.”
She had just stepped under the pounding spray when Emerson’s phone began its warbling dance on the dresser. At this hour she knew the call almost certainly contained no good news and she hurried to complete her ablutions. Emerging from the bathroom, she eyed Emerson as he packed the remaining items into his suitcase. She raised an eyebrow.
Emerson zipped the lid of the suitcase and turned to face her.
“Yes. That was Commander Henson. He asked that we not delay on our trip north.”
PJ raised both eyebrows and cocked her head slightly to the right. “Really!”
“Not that we should do anything unsafe! He just wanted to be sure we didn’t make any unnecessary stops or side trips along the way.” He frowned slightly. “Apparently there has been an unforeseen development that’s causing concern. Of course, he would not—or could not—elaborate, but I think we should get on the road as soon as possible.”
PJ nodded in agreement. “We’ll have to stop for gas soon. We’ll just pick a spot where we can get a bite of breakfast to go.”
Emerson smiled. “You always were a trooper.”
She smiled. “In limited doses.” She picked up her suitcase and headed for the door. She looked back over her shoulder. “You coming?”
Emerson snapped his mouth shut, picked up his own suitcase, and headed for the door.
They walked out the rear door of the hotel into a large parking area. Along the fence in the back sat their shiny 1974 Airstream twenty-four-foot motorhome with the vanity plates "SPARKS." PJ sighed. Emerson was so proud of having been a radio technician in the Navy.
“It’s been nice having a little more space to roam around in for the past few days. It was absolutely decadent having unlimited hot water.” She smiled fondly at Emerson. “But now it’s time to go home and put it on the road.”
Emerson returned the smile. How did I ever have the good fortune to end up with her?
They entered the motor home and Emerson started the engine, allowing a minute or two for the engine to warm. As they pulled out of the parking area, he noted that PJ was at her accustomed duty station in the passenger seat. The GPS had been programmed and a large, spiral-bound road atlas lay open on her lap. Experience with the GPS had taught them that on rare occasions it could get a bug up its arse and send them on a bizarre wild-goose chase down roads so remote and nebulous the atlas did not display them. Sometimes, the old school teaches better lessons.
Four blocks later, they entered the on-ramp to Interstate 5. Turning northbound took them through the heart of Portland as it traversed a mixture of business, industrial, and residential areas. The traffic was significantly lighter than the southbound flow coming into the city. Every lane was laden with commuters from the Portland suburbs and even from neighboring Vancouver, Washington.
They soon crossed the mighty Columbia River, a landmark of the Northwest for generations. Leaving the river behind, they entered Washington State and continued northwesterly at a moderate pace, paralleling the river.
An hour later, near the community of Longview, they pulled into a truck stop for fuel for both the Airstream and themselves. Breakfast sandwiches from the fast food restaurant integrated into the convenience store provided the needed sustenance.
On the road again, PJ commented on the magnificent scenery as the miles flowed by. “It’s a shame we are in such a hurry. There are so many interesting places that would be fun to explore.” Lush growths of conifers were interspersed with small communities surrounded by rich farmland. Emerson shook his head with a little regret.
PJ looked at her atlas and checked the position on the GPS.
“If you’re ready for a stop, there’s a rest area about ten miles ahead near Grand Mound.”
Emerson nodded agreement. “I’m about ready for a stretch and a little walkabout.” He checked the traffic to his right and signaled a lane change. “What do you think about a quick cup of coffee while we are there? I can’t imagine the Navy will stop functioning if they have to wait for a cup of coffee to brew.” He laughed. “I can tell you from first-hand experience the Navy doesn’t function at all without coffee. You may think ships move using Marine Diesel. Uh-uh. It’s coffee.”
They passed the sign for the rest area, exited, and headed for the lot in the rear where the tractor-trailer rigs park. Twenty-four feet of motorhome was a little too much for the pull-in parking found in the car areas. They parked several spaces from the nearest big rig near the end of the lot. Emerson started the onboard generator. PJ prepared two cups of their favorite Colombian Blend. She handed one to Emerson and they sipped the hot brew cautiously as they wandered over to the visitors' center.
Contrary to Maid Marian’s dire predictions, there was no rain, although it was quite cloudy with thick, rough-looking cumulus clouds sailing down the wind. The temperature was in the seventies Emerson guessed. All-in-all, a pleasant trip thus far. PJ wandered to the right, aiming for an unoccupied picnic table. She sat on one of the benches and sighed happily.
Emerson snorted an amused harrumph. PJ looked at him.
“I just think it’s amusing to ride for hours, cramped in a sitting position and wanting nothing more than to get out and stretch your legs. As soon as you do, what happens?” He cackled brightly. “You immediately go find a place to sit down!”
PJ sniffed. “Go ahead and laugh, Mister. I do what I want.”
Emerson began to smile again when he heard a voice behind them. He had not heard anyone approach.
“Howdy! Are you the folks driving the old Airstream?”
Emerson turned to see a tall, slender man in his mid-thirties. He was dressed in well-worn jeans with holes here and there, a T-shirt advertising Jose Cuervo tequila, a ragged New York Yankees baseball cap and beat up linesman’s boots. He could probably have benefitted from a shave, a haircut, and a bath… all about a month ago.
Still, Emerson was nothing if not polite, and he answered in the affirmative.
The stranger bobbed his head in acknowledgment. "My daddy used to have an Airstream – one of the little trailers. Said it was built just like an airplane. Made to last."
Emerson chuckled. “They last just fine if you lavish enough maintenance, money, and TLC on them. Although that could probably be said of anything worth keeping.”
“I reckon that’s true.” The stranger scratched at his scraggly beard. “Where you folks headin’?”
Emerson started to speak but PJ spoke first. “We’re heading to Seattle. I have always wanted to have dinner in the Space Needle Restaurant. I hear the view is spectacular.”
The stranger nodded. “I wouldn’t know about that, ma’am, but the countryside up that way is sure something to see. I hope you have a good trip.”
Emerson turned to look at the Airstream. “We will try to do that. Thanks.”
The stranger ambled back toward the restrooms and on into the parking area reserved for cars. PJ watched him go with narrowed eyes. She turned and looked at Emerson.
“What do you make of that?”
Emerson looked around to see what she was referring to.