+J.M.J.+

One of Those in Our Midst!

By "Matrix Refugee"

Author's Note:

I had so much fun loosening up Philomena and Bernadette Connelly in "Runnin' Loose on the Streets of Rouge City" that I had to see what would happen if their equally straight-laced family encountered a certain green-eyed lover-Mecha. Georgette and Peter Connelly are dimly based on all the sexually uptight religious people I ever encountered or heard about (Okay, I'm a faith-filled Catholic Christian virgin, but I remember that I have a body!). However, this is not intended to bash faith-filled people in general, it's only intended as a mild wake-up call for the ones who forget they have flesh and feelings. Since I'm working on a few other fictions, keep an eye on this one, and "Zenon Eyes: Eyes of Truth", for new chapters each week (schedule permitting…). This first chapter was mildly inspired by Sapphire Rose's "Flash Before Your Eyes"; imitation is the highest form of flattery, Sapph! One last note: there is no Westhillston in western Massachusetts; there is a Hillston on the eastern side of the Berkshire Mountains toward the western end of the state, but it in no way resembles Westhillston.

Disclaimer:

I do not own "A.I. [Artificial Intelligence]", its characters, concepts, or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks SKG, Warner Brothers, Amblin Entertainment, et al. I also don't own any of the incidental song lyrics that pop up from time to time.

Chapter I: King of the Road

"So the wedding's going to be in Westhillston?" Cecie Martin asked as she opened the planner on her datascriber.

"Yes, it'll be easier on everyone's wallets—and blood pressure," Phila Connelly said, sitting beside her on the other end of the couch in Cecie's hotel room-apartment in the Hotel Graceley, Upper Deck, Rouge City.

"Grandma Durosier won't have a heart attack from us dragging her here," Bernie, her adopted younger sister added, glancing up from the catalog of wedding dresses on her lap.

Cecie's hand, holding the stylus, hovered over the pad, waiting to either change the data for the month of September, two months away, or exit. "It wouldn't be so bad on the Lower Deck; we could have the Mass and the ceremony in a hall in a hotel."

"But then we really wouldn't be married," Bernie said.

"As long a priest is present to officiate as the Church's official witness, you'd be married, whether it's in St. Peter's Basilica with a Solemn High Mass or a private reception hall in the Paradise Garden Club," Cecie said. "Besides, it might do this old town some good. But if you do decide to change the location of the wedding, it might pose a few problems for me."

"How?" asked Phila.

"First consideration is transportation: I sold my cruiser after I got here."

"What made you do that?" Phila asked.

"I got tired of paying for a garage space on the Lower Deck."

"I'll talk to Kip; he was talking about driving up, maybe he could take you."

"I'd appreciate it, but I wouldn't want to be a burden to him."

"He'd do anything she'd ask him to do for her, or you," Bernie said.

"Bernie!"

"Second consideration," Cecie enumerated, "I'll need a date, and I had someone in mind."

"Oh no, not him again!" Phila groaned.

Bernie screened her face with the catalog to hide the blush that came over her cheeks. "Everyone will mistake him for Frank. I might mistake him for Frank, and he might take it seriously: then where would I be?"

Cecie thought to herself, This is what happens when you accept a marriage proposal from someone who closely resembles your friend's best friend, on whom you had a crush. But she said out loud, "Well, there's ways we can fix that."

"What, have Frank dye his hair a different color?"

"No, he won't have to do a thing."

"Couldn't you get someone else? Someone from Westhillston?" Phila asked. "Carton Jacobi was asking about you the last time we were home."

"Carton Jacobi? You mean the short kid with the psoriasis? The one who peeked up my skirt when I was working in the grocery store?"

Bernie looked up, eyes wide. "Did he?!"

"I was standing on a step ladder. No, if I'm going to go with someone who's liable to eye me, I'd rather go with someone who'll be sure to stop if I tell him to."

A month and a half before the wedding date, and two weeks after Bernie and Phila had gone back to Westhillston, Cecie consulted her friend Vautrin, who worked as a record keeper for an agency in the City.

"Hey, Karl, can you cut me some slack on the fee for a certain someone?"

Vautrin squinted at her over his reading glasses. "You mean a certain someone with green eyes and a default British accent?"

"How'd yah guess?"

Vautrin shrugged one shoulder and grinned at her sidewise. "Easy. I tracked the calls on his pager. You really got something for him."

"We're just friends."

"That's what they all say about Joe. So what's the deal that you need a discount?"

"I need a date for my best friends' double wedding in Massachusetts."

"How many days?"

"About three and a half weeks, including travel. You could even put it in as 'training' for him, since it will expand his horizons. How far north has he been?"

"He's basically operated in the area in and around the City since they shipped him down here from Shohola, East PA when he was made new four years ago. You given him the fair warning?"

"I did last week. He liked the idea."

"He liked it because you asked him. I've been in this business fifteen years and I ain't never seen a Mecha take to an Orga the way Joe has to you. Trouble is, your friends picked a bad time for the wedding: at the height of the summer season, when we need every Mecha giving its 200%."

"The wedding's on the 3rd of September."

"You should know by the summer season here lasts almost till the beginning of October."

"The change of pace might do him some good."

"Unless you got any ideas about our boy."

"Which I don't."

He kept a straight face as he cocked on Gallic eyebrow rakishly. "Then how to you explain the infamous New Year's smooch?"

"That was just a friendly kiss for luck."

"Did yer luck change?"

"I can't say."

"Why, might change for the worst?"

"It's privileged information."

"Whatever," he muttered, grinning. He leaned over his hot desk and punched in a few calculations. "Weeeeeeehhhhhhlllll, since you're a friend and since you wanna have some cash left over to buy your friends each a decent wedding present. And since I'm notoriously too easy on the ladies, I think I can shave a few hundred off the fee."

"Thanks, Karl, you're not as gruff as you pretend."

"Hey, not so loud, I gotta keep up my image."

That evening, Cecie had her supper at a café around the corner from the Graceley, at a sidewalk table for one where she could watch the passersby.

Someone approached just out of her field of vision, took a chair from an empty table nearby and sat down. She looked up from jotting notes and turned to look.

Joe sat facing her, backward on the chair, his knees spread wide apart.

"Hey, Joe, whaddya know."

"I understand we have a date next month?"

"Yes, like I told you, Phila and Bernie are getting married, and I want you to come with me."

He smiled but he quickly relaxed his face, his brows pinching slightly. "But will they object to my presence? Phila seemed utterly displeased with my attentions to Bernadette."

"I squared that away with them: they're resigned to the fact that I'm bringing you along."

"Perhaps then Bernadette shall be pleased that you are bringing me along." His eyes started to warm with anticipation.

"I'm afraid she won't take much notice of you: she's only got eyes for Frank Sweitz, her intended."

"So she has relinquished any interest in me? It will not be the first time I have been rejected by one of your kind." He turned his face away with his lower lip thrust out delicately, chin lifted at a prim angle.

"Hey, no pouting, Joe; on you it doesn't look good."

He relaxed his face and turned back to her, his face resuming its default look of genteel seduction.

"But there's one thing you have to know: Frank looks a lot like you—well, he looks enough like you that some people, especially with weak vision might mistake you for him."

"You know I can easily make the necessary adjustments to prevent confusion." He reached across the table and adjusted the angle of Cecie's mirrorshades. He lowered his head and shook it slightly from side to side: the color drained from his hair, leaving it a clear platinum blond. He looked up at her. "Would I now be mistaken for Mr. Frank Sweitz?"

"No, not now," she said, trying not to laugh.

Frank would arrive by monorail on the third Saturday in August, three weeks before the wedding. Kip and Cecie went to meet him at the station.

"So what does this guy do for work?" Kip asked.

"He writes for newspapers; he's been a foreign correspondent, but he's settling down in Albany, so he and Bernie can be close to her folks but not too close," Cecie replied.

"You met him?"

"I met him when I went up to Westhillston at Christmas; he's a good guy, sort of gets along with Bernie's parents."

"He's doing better than me in that department," Kip said with a mock frown.

"Why?"

"When I met the Connellys at Easter, Mr. Connelly kept asking me why I couldn't move to Westhillston. I mean, I could go most anywhere I wanted to, but I'd rather stay in the City. It was hard enough for my aunt, moving my mom for the trip to Westhillston, let alone on a more permanent basis."

"All told, I got the impression they didn't expect someone—pardon the obscenity—normal could come out of Rouge City."

"Yeah, we aren't all sex fiends here; the sex fiends just come to visit."

The monorail from St. Louis pulled up to the platform with a decelerating whir. The sliding doors opened, letting the passengers file out onto the platform.

A tall, dark young man in his early thirties stepped out, carrying a black laptop case. He looked up and down the platform as if he looked for them.

Kip nudged Cecie. "Did I just find out why Bernie's marrying this character?" he asked in a whisper.

"Why, because he looks like a friend of mine she had it bad for?"

"Yeah."

They crossed the platform. "Hey, Frank!" Cecie called. The dark young man looked their way with clear green eyes.

"Hey, Cecie! How yah doing?"

"I'm doing great; how have you been?"

"Trying not to sweat blood or be lovesick for Bernie. I got the call from the Albany Times just before I came out here, so be still my beating heart!"

She quickly introduced the two brothers-in-law elect.

"So the luckiest man alive meets the second luckiest man alive," Frank said.

"Which one's the luckiest?" Kip asked.

"You are, you got the older one."

"No, you're both equally lucky," Cecie said.

"Good diplomacy," Frank commented.

They collected the rest of Frank's baggage (the bulk of his things had gone ahead of him to Westhillston by freight) and went to Kip's apartment. Kip cooked supper for them using the last odds and ends in the fridge.

"Ellen, my aunt, wanted me to come along when she brought Irene, my mom, up to Westhillston," Kip said, stowing the last bags in the trunk of his cruiser. "I told her I wanted to drive and do a little male bonding with the guy who's marrying my sister-in-law."

"Aaaawww, Kip, dat's sweet of you," Frank said in a fake sugary voice.

"Besides, road trips are more fun than taking the train: you get to see more of the scenery along the way," Cecie said.

"You want a brief, PG-13 rated tour of the Upper Deck?" Kip offered.

"Nah, I was here about three years ago, covering a story about a party that had been going on for a year, nonstop," Frank replied.

"It's still going on," Cecie said.

Frank looked at her and blinked. "It is?"

"Yeah, I have friends who can't remember when it wasn't going on."

"Sic semper Rouge City," Kip said.

"You ever get led astray by all that upstairs? I mean, you're a native."

"You'd think a native would. Don't worry; I'm not offended. I've been asked that question before. There's so much craziness up there anyway you get blind to it when you've lived here as long as I have."

"Uh oh, I hope that doesn't affect you and Phila."

"Nah, we'll do just fine."

"So departure is when now?" Frank asked.

"The bus leaves at 9.30 after the 8.00 Mass at Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart Chapel," Kip announced, clearing the table. To Cecie he added, "Does Joe know when we're leaving?"

"He'll be there sharp; he'll probably be at the rendezvous before us, knowing him and his precision," she said.

"He better not get distracted, you know how he is."

"He's had express orders to wait for us."

"If he holds us up, I'll think twice about helping him the next time he has a sticky job."

Frank looked from Cecie to Kip. "You in the habit of bailing her friends out?"

Kip looked at Cecie, who shook her head slightly. "You'll find out why tomorrow."

At nine-thirty sharp, Kip, Cecie and Frank sat on the running board of Kips cruiser parked outside the Lower Deck garage bay, waiting for Joe.

"He's already five minutes late," Kip said.

Cecie checked her pendant watch. "Give him another minute, he might have got held up by a demanding customer."

"What does he do for work?" Frank asked.

Cecie looked at Kip.

"What would you call him except what they call 'm?" Kip asked.

"Joe's in social relations," Cecie said delicately.

Frank's brows furrowed. "I haven't heard of that before: is it a new profession?"

Cecie kept her eyes from meeting the laughter on Kip's face. "No, actually it's very old: sometimes they call it 'the oldest profession'."

Frank's eyes widened, but then he laughed outright.

Kip looked up. "Here he comes."

"Hey, Joe, whaddya know—you're late!" Cecie called to the dark figure that approached them.

Joe paused before her. "You asked me to meet with you at this location at exactly nine and it is now exactly nine hours and one second."

"Not by my watch," Cecie said.

"May I then see it?" Joe asked.

She extended her left hand and let Joe take her wrist, turning her watch up for his perusal. "To gauge by my clock, you set this instrument seven minutes fast."

"C'mon, don't get uppity on me, Joe."

"Hiya, Joe, how's that weld holding up?" Kip asked.

"It is as if Phila had never struck my face," Joe replied.

Frank stood transfixed, his mouth hanging slack. He blinked, closed his mouth and rubbed his eyes. He looked at Kip and Cecie.

"Okay, who's holding up that mirror?" he asked.

Cecie looked from Frank to Joe: except that Frank's hair lay naturally over his brow and his clothes were plainer, you couldn't tell the difference between the two, especially if you squinted.

"Joe, what did I tell you?" Cecie hissed.

"I only wished to observe the similarity," Joe said. He adjusted Cecie's mirrorshades and lowered his head; his hair paled from black to a deep auburn that went well with his green eyes.

"Whew," Frank sighed with relief. "For a moment, I thought this was a doppelganger, y'know, a ghost that looks like you just to be annoying."

"I am hardly a ghost," Joe said, with a proud little smile.

They headed out a few minutes later, Kip driving, Frank riding shotgun with the maps, Cecie in the back with Joe at her side.

Kip set the radio for an oldies station as they rode into the highway tunnel that led out of the city, heading north toward the East Pennsylvania turnpike.

"Isn't it significant that the roads into the city are there for all to see, but the roads out are concealed, as if it were shameful that someone should leave," Frank observed, taking a handheld datascriber from his pocket.

As they shot out into the sunlight, the radio played Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild". "Hey, good travellin' music!" Kip cried, and turned up the volume.

"Get yer motor runnin',

Head out on the highway,

Lookin' for adventure

In whatever comes our way.

Yeah, darlin', gonna make it happen

Catch the world in a love embrace.

Fire all of your guns at once and

Explode into space.

Like a true nature's child

We were born, born to be wild

And we can climb so high

I never wanna die!"

Cecie glanced up from the binder of stories she'd printed out from the 'Net and eyed Joe. He leaned back in his seat, knees crossed, head cocked, listening with a look of bemused interest.

"So how far have you ever been from home? Frank?" Kip asked.

"A better question might be when was the last time I was home. I've covered stories everywhere. I've followed seal fishermen in the Greenland archipelago, done wildfires in India, covered dog races in Alaska, reported on street riots in Beijing—almost got my throat slashed then. But I've decided to settle as a domestic reporter. I met Bernie when I was laid up with a bug I caught in Tibet. She made me make up my mind to stay put."

"And you Cecie?"

"I did some traveling after I left college: went to South California, took an amphibicopter tour of Manhattan."

"The Lost City at the End of the World," Joe said with a strange reverence.

"That's what they call it, and I found out why: It's the most striking yet the bleakest thing I've ever seen, and maybe I'll ever see."

"And you, Kip?" Frank asked.

"I've been south to the Florida Islands to visit relatives, but I've spent most of my time in East PA and Rouge City. What about you, Joe?"

Joe bent his head, processing. "For as long as I can recall, I have dwelt in Rouge City."

Frank peered over the seat back. "I don't mean to pry, but how long is 'always' for you?"

"Four years, five months, twenty-five days, eleven hours, twenty minutes and seven seconds."

"Do you remember anything else?"

Joe was quiet, then he spoke. "Only white walls, a skylight overhead."

They made a few stops along the way, for food and fuel and other necessities. Toward nightfall, on the road around Albany they drove into a torrential rainstorm, which slowed them down considerably.

"There's a motel about a half-mile up the road," Frank told Kip. "It's a bit of a hooker hotel, but it's clean physically." He glanced over his shoulder. "We should fit in: we've got one hooker already, sort of."

Joe turned his face away, chin lifted primly. "Mr. Sweitz, I beg to differ with that term you have used; I am not a hooker: I am a gigolo."

"Uh, Frank, you just made him go into pouting mode," Cecie said.

"Oops! Sorry, Joe."

"I accept your apology."

Kip glanced at the maps. "How'd you know there's a motel up this way?"

"I came through this area when I was covering a string of serial killings. I toldja I've been everywhere."

A sign moved into view on the roadside. "The Blue Angel Motel." Kip turned the car into the lot.

The rain still hammered on the roof. "Guess we'd better make a run for it," Kip said, hitting the switch for the doors. They bolted for the motel office. Joe outstripped them all.

Behind the front desk, a frumpy bleached blonde with iron gray roots and an inch of makeup on her face looked up from her dog-eared Playgirl.

"We need a room for the night for four, with at least one bed separate," Kip said.

"We got one room with a double and a couch bed; you'll have to double up somehow."

Joe stepped closer to the desk. "I require no sleep." The blonde looked up at Joe; her eyes started scanning up and down his body acquisitively. Cecie passed her hand across Joe's eyes and moved her hand back toward her face. He turned to look at her, following her movements.

"We'll take it," Kip said.

"Sixty Newbucks," the blonde announced.

They ran out into the driving rain and dragged the bags from the cruiser. They ran to their room, but they couldn't dodge the wet drops splatting all over. They were drenched before Kip could unlock the door.

"Ugh! That is not even NICE rain out there!" Cecie yelped. Frank took his suitcase straight to the washroom and closed the door.

The couch bed turned out to be a species of divan with large removable cushions for the back. A small refrigerator stood at the head of it.

Someone knocked on the door. Kip opened it. The landlady came in with a plastic bag.

"Here's some clean sheets for the third bed," she said. Her eye went straight to Joe even as she handed the bag to Cecie.

"You seem lonely at your job," he said.

"Well, I will be in a few minutes when I go off shift."

"Shall I escort you back to the office?"

"Aaawww! Ain't you the limit! Sure thing, fella."

As they stepped out into the rain, Joe proffered the blonde his jacket.

Frank came out, now clad in dry clothes. He looked around the room. "Uh, where'd the fourth of our foursome get to now?"

"He found a customer already," Cecie said.

"That didn't take long," Frank said, flopping down on one side of the bed.

"Guess we won't see him for the rest of the night," Kip said.

"Why didn't you stop him, Cecie?"

"For starters, he was too quick for me. And you may as well tell the rain not to fall as tell Gigolo Joe to stay away from the ladies."

Frank sat up and looked at the one window. He grinned wickedly then got up and stuck his head out. "Hey, rain! Stop that fallin', y'hear me? Quit that falling down stuff: let's try falling UP!"

Kip, heading into the washroom, started laughing out loud.

Later, after she'd changed and after she'd made up the couch bed, Cecie went into the washroom to spruce up before dinner—Frank had found a phone book in one of the nightstands and ordered delivery pizza. She heard him rummage about afterward.

"There's a phone book in this nightstand and one in the other one, but no Gideon Bible?" he asked.

Kip opened the drawer in the desk. "There's another phone book here in the desk, but I don't see a Bible, neither."

"What a washout! How'm I supposed to keep up my Bible-reading plan? I can remember to do it only when I'm traveling," Frank groaned.

She heard music on the other side of the wall. She pressed her ear to the wall and made out a few lyrics of a slightly tinny 1930s song—

"Are the stars out tonight?

I don't know if it's cloudy or bright,

'Cause they all disappear from view

And I only have eyes for you…"

She heard a girl let out a squeal and another, deeper voice that sounded very familiar spoke soothingly. He didn't have to go very far…

As she came out, someone knocked on the outside door. Frank, sitting on the windowsill, got up to get it, but Cecie was one step quicker.

A girl in a red halter-top and a black leather microskirt stood outside.

"Hi, any guys in there over age 18?" she asked.

"Not any that are interested in you," Cecie replied, closing the door.

"Aw, y'coulda let the poor thing in out of the rain," Kip said.

"Or you could have said, 'Yeah, you just missed him'," Frank added.

"Nah, he'd have passed, because she would. They're both in the same industry."

"They could have exchanged trade secrets."

The next knock came from the pizza delivery.

"Anybody have an idea when the pouting Mecha is likely to tear himself away from the ladies, because his knock is likely to be the next one?" Frank asked.

"He won't be back till the wee hours of the morning, when the business dies down," Cecie said. They didn't have any plates, so she had to tear the pizza box top into three sections.

Loud yelps of ecstasy penetrated the end wall of the room as they were eating. They stopped chewing and stared at each other.

"Home sweet home," Kip said, trying not to blush.

"Don't look at me: I don't run the place," Frank said.

"Speaking of which, can I ask you a personal question, Frank?" Kip asked.

"Shoot."

"Well, it's gonna sound bloody impertinent of me, but I just want to know what kind of man is marrying my little sister-in-law to be. Are you a virgin?"

Frank swallowed his mouthful and looked at his plate. "I've been celibate for three years now, and I've been immunized against seven major STDs, though not all of my partners were of the same make as me."

"Guess you and a certain someone have more than looks in common, sort of," Cecie said.

"That and the fact that Bernie is or was crazy about either of you," Kip said.

Frank looked at Kip narrowly. "How's that?"

"Oops, I guess I spilt the beans."

"Maybe you didn't. I got to thinking on the road: since Joe looks so much like yours truly, is that why Bernie's so wild about me?"

"Does it bother you?" Cecie asked.

"Nah, she hasn't hit on me, so I doubt she's hit on anyone else, let alone him. I wanted to, er, move quicker physically—not all the way of course—just enough to warm things up a little, y'know?"

"My turn to be impertinent," Cecie said. "Do Bernie's parents know you aren't a virgin?"

"Well, I put it in as sanitary terms as possible; I'm not sure they completely grasped it."

"They're phobic of that part of human nature."

"I got that impression from the first: I'm at the house at Easter, and I'm reading a newspaper, when I find this photo of a woman in a sleeveless dress that's been drawn over in black permanent ink pen so she looks like she's got a monk's robe or a trench coat on."

"Yeah, they used to get on my back for wearing sleeveless black blouses when I was in my late teens," Cecie said.

"Imagine if the girls had decided to have the wedding in Rouge City, the looks our in-laws would have on their faces," Kip said.

"Oh boy," Cecie groaned and started guffawing so hard she fell over backwards on the couch laughing.

"But I'd like to know how they feel about you and Phila moving back to Rouge," Frank asked Kip.

"They don't like it, but they're resigned to it."

Frank eyed Cecie. "But what's gonna be fun to see is what they're gonna think about having one of THOSE under their roof for three weeks."

"We'll find out."

They decided to save time by sleeping in what they had on, which made the whole set up a lot easier in some ways: no having to stop and get changed, just turn down the bed covers, kick off your shoes and plop down on the pillows. Except for Cecie: she'd made the mistake of putting her pillow on the end of the couch that abutted the fridge. She'd just settled down and dropped off, when she rolled over and—bonk!—hit her head on the fridge. She got up and rearranged the bed so the fridge was at her feet.

Toward daylight, someone knocked on the door, three precise knocks, the silence between the knocks exactly half as long as the sound. Cecie got up and stumbled to the door, looked out, opened it and let Joe in out of the mist.

"Did I awaken you?" he asked in a low voice.

"No, not really. I was worried, a little."

He pushed the door closed. "For me?"

"Yes, I mean, it's a strange town."

"But it is not so different from Rouge City: one finds lonely women everywhere."

She dropped onto the couch again and pulled the covers over her head. Joe perched himself on top of the fridge. She fell asleep dimly hearing the snick and whir of Joe unsealing a joint for self-repair.

She jolted awake. Frank had let out a yelping gasp.

"What?" Kip asked groggily on his side of the bed.

Cecie looked up: Joe, at eye-level, was engrossed in adjusting a servo in his knee. Frank sat up, staring at Joe, his face slowing relaxing with realization.

The Mecha looked at him. "Have you never seen one of my kind tending to self-maintenance?" he asked.

"No, I'm awful sorry; I didn't mean to stare."

"You have done no harm."

When full daylight returned, the rain still fell in sheets. The weather reports on the radio in the cruiser mentioned flash floods and road washouts. They decided to stay put until the rain let up. Kip, anticipating they'd have to drive late, got some extra rest. Frank called ahead to let the Connelly's know they'd be late.

"Could you put Bernie back on the phone? Thanks…Hey, Bern. It won't be long now, so if you could put your lips up to the earpiece…" He shielded the mouthpiece with his hands and made a sound like a deep kiss. "AhA! Gotcha laughing!…I'll see you then…God bless you, too." He hung up the phone.

"Perhaps she is not so fearful of the flesh as she has been trained to be," Joe said, eying Frank.

"Aw, I've tried to loosen her up. She's a good kid; we're both good for each other in our own way."

About noon the rain slackened and they headed out again.

"We'll be lucky if we reach Westhillston by dark," Kip observed. They had to drive slowly because of the water on the road; in a couple places they had to take detours because the road had washed out.

The day waned. The dark clouds set in again as the sun set unseen. Cecie could hardly make out her writing on the datascriber, so she saved her work and set the pad aside. She put her head back and closed her eyes.

Kip switched on the dome light for a minute and peered into the mirror, looking into the back seat.

Cecie had settled into her corner, her head rolled onto her shoulder, eyes closed. Joe leaned closer to her as if studying her face. He took off her glasses, folded them up carefully and put them into her breast pocket. He slid forward slightly, took off his jacket, and laid it over her gently. He turned his face to the mirror, his eyes finding Kip's reflection.

"How she doin' back there?" Kip asked.

"She has fallen asleep."

"We'll be there in maybe another ten, fifteen minutes," Kip said, watching the street signs.

"Halleluiah!" Frank said, stretching his back and shoulders.

The steady whir of the motor suddenly turned into a ticking sound. The cruiser hesitated and jerked.

"I don't like the feel of that," Frank said.

"Neither do I," Kip said

"You put a new fuel cell in?"

"Yeah, back near Albany, the contacts might have got wet."

 Joe nudged Cecie. She lifted her head and opened her eyes. "Something wrong?" she asked.

"We're experiencing a little turbulence," Frank said, trying to sound like an airline pilot making an announcement.

The cruiser chattered over the road, the skips and hesitations got worse. Kip pulled it over the side of the road, but the engine cut out even before he switched it off. He reached under his seat for a repair kit and got out.

"The trip went too well," Frank said.

"You sound ashamed that our journey went well to this point. Why should 'too well' ashame you?" Joe asked.

"Well, sometimes when things are going smoothly and nothing has gone wrong, it's as if something wrong was supposed to happen to keep things from being too perfect," Cecie explained.

Joe processed this for a moment. "I cannot comprehend this. Why would perfect be a bad thing?"

"With a lot of people, too much perfection makes it hard for them to accept the things that are imperfect. For instance, that may be why you have that mole on the side of your neck, so you're not too perfect."

"I think I understand now."

Kip stuck his head into the open door. "I must have got a bad fuel cell."

"Why?" asked Frank.

"One of them is as dead as a doornail and I know I replaced it back in Albany."

"How far are we from the house?" Frank asked.

Cecie looked around to get her bearings. "About maybe a mile and a half."

Frank looked at Joe, then looked at Kip. "Think there's any way…?"

"Wrong kind of battery, not enough amps, either."

Cecie doubled her fists. "Besides, you'd have to get past ME to get at him."

"Well, there's only one thing we can do now," Kip said.

"What's that?" asked Frank.

"Get out and push her. Cecie, you want to hop in front and pump the pedals?"

Frank rolled up his sleeves and got out. "Hey, you gonna help us, Joe?"

Joe turned up his nose at this. "I was not built for such labors," he said with cold primness.

"Uh, oh, someone's stuck in uppity mode again," Cecie groaned.

"I think Frank and I can handle pushing the cruiser; it's only made of fiberglass and titanium."

"Yeah, but it weighs more with the baggage in the trunk. And with metal-boy taking it easy in the back seat!" Frank twitted.

"Want me to help you push? Joe can work the pedals," Cecie offered.

"So long as you instruct me," Joe cut in.

"Yeah, make yourself useful, yah bucket of bolts!"

A few minutes later, they got the cruiser moving again; once they got it in motion, it rolled easier than Cecie expected.

"'Trailers for sale or rent'," Cecie sang, remembering a Roger Miller song that had played on the radio earlier.

"'Rooms to let, fifty cents'," Kip joined in.

"'No phone, no pool, no pets'," Frank added his voice.

"Ain't got no cigarettes, aw but

Two hour's pushing broom buys an

Eight by twelve four bit room,

I'm a man of means by no means

King of the Road!"

As they sang the chorus a second time, Cecie thought she heard a soft, dulcet tenor harmonizing with them from the front seat.

To be continued…

Afterword:

This chapter almost concluded with the foursome arriving at the Connellys' house, but I thought I'd save their reaction to a certain handsome Mecha for the next chapter. Like I said, I'm going to be juggling this with two maybe three other fanfiction works in progress, and I have a few other, smaller projects that might appear on here from time to time. Keeping people in suspense is such fun.

Literary Easter Eggs:

Three phone books, no Gideon Bible—I made this dreary discovery in Room 807 of the Washington Square Hotel in Greenwich Village this summer.

The pizza box paper plates—My family and I had to resort to this once when we bought a pizza while staying at the beach.

The PG-13 noises on the other side of the wall in the hotel—I heard something not quite G-rated beyond the wall while I was taking a bath in the same hotel room in Greenwich Village.

The drawn-over photograph—True story: I found this very picture in a newspaper I borrowed from some straight-laced friends of mine; I had been trying to read an article on the backside, but some of the words were obliterated by the ink. Some people!

Cecie banging her head on the fridge while sleeping—I had the same misadventure with the same sleeping arrangement in a beach motel in Northampton, NH. Motels and hotels are inspiring…