Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Space Invader by Karen Musser Nortman

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A cozy/thriller mystery! The starry skies over New Mexico, the "Land of Enchantment," may hold secrets of their own. The Shoemakers and the Ferraros, on an extended camping trip, find themselves picking up a souvenir they don't want and taking sidetrips they didn't plan on.


Chapter One
Tuesday Evening

Badger's back throbbed from the perpendicular metal wall, his butt hurt from the metal bench, and his arms ached from the forced restraint of the handcuffs. He shifted on the uncomfortable seat as much as he could within his limited range of motion. And he still had several more hours to go.
The van lurched to a stop. The glare of gas station lights seeped through the small mesh window separating Badger from his guards.
"I'm first," the driver said. "Those burritos are tearing my insides up." There was a pause, and then, "Mike! Stay awake! I said I'm going to the can!"
Mike groaned. "Yeah, yeah. You try staying awake after getting up at 3:30 in the morning. These double shifts are killing me."
"Tell it to someone who cares. I've done my share. Keep your eyes open 'til I get back. Then you can go get some coffee." The door slammed.
Badger couldn't see the other guard. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, trying to give his back a little stretch. The floor was littered with small bits of trash—leavings from earlier riders. Gum wrappers, a plastic bag, a bit of wire—he examined the wire, and then the mesh window. Soft snores filtered back—Mike didn't stay awake, as he'd been ordered.
Badger picked up the wire and maneuvered it around toward the lock in his handcuffs, glancing up frequently toward the mesh window. He fiddled with it only a few minutes before he heard the click of freedom. The handcuffs unlocked so easily, that his first thought was that it was a trap. He stared at the window and listened intently. The snores still filtered back.
He wasn't home free—his ankles were shackled and the door was bolted. But the success with the handcuffs spurred him on. What did he have to lose? He was already in for life with no possibility of parole, so they couldn't extend his sentence. The prison shrink had labeled him with a bunch of gibberish that Badger only understood enough to know he was considered hopeless and worthless. That was nothing new. Everyone he'd ever come in contact with had told him the same thing. The old van was headed for a higher security prison than he'd been in the last seven years, and he knew things would only get worse.
He laid the handcuffs on the bench and got on his knees to peer underneath. One support was attached to the bench but not the wall. He grabbed hold and twisted. A grinding screech sounded as the old screw gave way.
Badger jerked his head up and watched the mesh window. Still no sound, other than the snoring. He lumbered to his feet and shuffled to the back. Again, the door jimmied open with the old piece of metal so easily, that he expected a waiting posse outside. But when he eased the door open a crack, empty pavement was brightly lit and stretched over to a row of pines, shrubs, and small trees skirting the edge. The only obstacles were a motorhome and a pickup with a long travel trailer parked at the curb.
He edged the door open further. The other guard could come back from the can at any time. It was now or never. He opened the door far enough to sit on the floor and slide to the ground. At previous stops, the guards hadn't checked on him before pulling out, so he closed the door and fastened it. Maybe they wouldn't check this time either, and it would gain him some extra time.
Crossing the open space was slow, because his ankle shackles constricted his steps. He expected a shout from the guard. He went between the back of the trailer and the front of the motorhome, worked through some shrubs, and got down on his hands and knees facing the parking lot, so he could peer under the trailer.
It wasn't long until the guard's feet crossed from the convenience store to the prison van. The other guard got out of the passenger side and headed to the restroom.
Badger surveyed his surroundings. The trees and shrubs separated the parking lot from a drainage ditch, which was lined with stones. He scooted toward the ditch and picked up the first rock he saw that looked easy to handle. He sat up, separated his feet as far as the chain connecting his shackles would allow, and used the rock to work on the chain. Traffic noise from the nearby highway masked the pounding, and in minutes the chain broke.
He returned to watching the convenience store lot. The store was one of those with an attached fast food joint—a Subway—and a few people came and went before the second guard returned to the van. Neither man checked the back of the van, and it pulled away from the gas pumps.
Badger let out a breath. These guys worked for a service that the state hired to transport prisoners. It was obvious they just wanted to put in their time and get home—or to the nearest bar.
He weighed his options. He could follow the ditch and possibly get out of town that way. Maybe find some clothes and get the shackles completely off. He probably wouldn't have any luck hitching a ride until he did that.
More people came out of the convenience store, and two sets of feet headed toward the trailer and pickup. Badger edged further into the underbrush. A man opened the driver's door of the pickup.
"Think I'll put my rain gear back in the storage cubby. Doesn't look like I'm going to need it anytime soon around here."
"Good idea," said a woman's voice from the other side of the truck.
The man pulled a rain slicker and pants from the back seat of the truck, wadded them into a bundle, and carried them to a long oblong hatch near the end of the trailer. He used his keys to unlock the hatch and propped it open while he stowed his bundle.
Badger wished he had a weapon. That truck would be just the ticket out of here. He thought about the rock he had just used with his chain. The guy was old—maybe 50 or 60. Badger was sure he could take him, but the woman would raise an alarm. Besides, he didn't know how to unhook a trailer, and towing it would make him pretty easy to spot by the cops. He could probably figure it out but not fast enough.
The man closed the hatch and climbed into his truck. He started the engine but didn't pull away. Badger figured he must be waiting for the owners of the motorhome.
Badger thought about the hatch in that trailer. There was quite a bit of space in there, and the man didn't lock it—just slammed it shut. It would be a way to get away from the area. He started to get up from his crouch but ducked back down when the driver's door opened again. The man got out. He walked around the front of the truck and yelled, "Hey, Mick! I left my coffee mug in there!"
From his hiding place, Badger saw two other sets of feet coming toward the RVs. They stopped and the man from the pickup walked toward them. They argued in low voices, but Badger focused on that hatch. When all of the feet headed back to the store, he made his move.
He crouch-walked to the trailer, hoping the woman, who was still in the truck, wouldn't glance over and notice him in the side mirror. As quickly and quietly as he could, he opened the hatch and crawled in. The quiet part was hard, what with the chains from his shackles and some poles stored in the hatch, but maybe the general noise around the station would cover it. The hatch was not designed to be closed from the inside for obvious reasons, so Badger fiddled with the latch until it seemed like it might stay closed. Then he lay still, taking a full breath for the first time since he started his escape.

Chapter Two
Tuesday Evening

Frannie Shoemaker examined the atlas map of New Mexico with a penlight. Oncoming headlights brightened the cab of the truck briefly, before it returned to the subtle glow of the dash lights.
"How much longer do you think? It looks like about fifty miles to me."
Her husband Larry ran his hand over his crew cut. "Maybe an hour. I hate setting up in the dark—damn that flat tire, anyway."
She reached over and rubbed his neck. "You'd better sleep in tomorrow. It's been a long day."
He grinned. "I think Mickey's planning on hunting aliens first thing tomorrow."
"Let 'im. He can even borrow the truck."
"What if it gets beamed up when the aliens come for him? How would we get home?"
"Easy—take his motorhome. You or Jane Ann can drive it." Frannie's phone chirped for a text message. She picked it up from its niche in the console. "Text from Jane Ann. Mickey says one of our storage doors is flapping."
He winced. "I bet I didn't lock it when I put my rain suit in there." He flipped his turn signal on and slowed, easing over to the shoulder.
Frannie handed him her trailer keys, and he swung down out of the truck.

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