by J. H. Malone
EarthTours is a unique travel agency. It offers space aliens the opportunity to visit Earth in secret and disguise and to enjoy its primitive delights. However, a Vernernusian, “Joan Smith,” has gone missing in Montana. An EarthTours agent is dispatched to find her. He enlists the aid of another Vernernusian, “John Smith,” who is working as a plumber in Illinois. The Vernernusians are telepathic and have a gift for language learning. Their special abilities will bring insights that may make significant changes in Earth’s culture.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Back in the car, I drank down a third of the beer.
“Who’s going to wear that?” I asked, indicating the pendant.
“The lady who does our books,” he said. “She’s not Native American, but we have Native Americans in Illinois. Illinois is a Native American word.”
I was hungry, and I asked Smith if he had the patience to sit through another meal. He told me that he was more patient than the average human.
“Although,” he said, “so many of my customers have plugged-up toilets that maybe they aren’t representative of the species as a whole. None of them are patient.”
“What about Miss Smith’s anger?” I said. “Do Vernernusians normally get angry at a little teasing?”
“I think that’s about the packing plant. Vernernusians don’t kill animals. Earth can be shocking when you first arrive. Miss Smith may be touchy about it.”
We made our way through Miles City to a gaggle of businesses fronting the Interstate. The vegetarian place, Western Roots, was situated in a tiny standalone log cabin planted in the middle of a weed-filled lot with a garden out back. At noon, we shared the graveled parking area with a single rustbucket from the seventies. I drained my beer before we went in.
A combination serving person, chef, probable owner, probable lonely person ushered us from the front door ten steps into the center of the dining room and sat us down at one of the establishment’s five tables, all empty. We had the place and our host all to ourselves. Her cooking clearly agreed with her anatomy, if not her disposition.
“Before we order,” I said, holding up my phone with Miss Smith displayed on it, “can you tell us if a group of young people wearing Butchers’ Butchers shirts came in here last Friday?”
“I can and I will. They caused a ruckus, even if I was the only one present to see it.”
“What kind of ruckus?”
“The young woman on your phone wanted to burn down the meat-packing plant. She was quite ferocious about it. She argued with the other four, gave up on them, and slammed the door on her way out. The saucers on the table jumped. I agreed with her, by the way. You want to order?”
“What’s good?” Smith asked, sounding eager. To please me, I surmised. To butter me up for some card-room action later.
“Cardoon and raisin salad, served with roasted root stew,” said our hostess.
“What the hell is a cardoon?” I said.
“It’s like an artichoke. From the garden. You peel and section the stalks, boil them, marinate with lemon juice, olive oil, cinnamon, and garlic. Lots of garlic.”
I made a mental note to ask Smith to flush out his bag after lunch.
“What’s in the stew?” Smith said.
I made another note, to ask him to dial down the interested eating-partner act.
“What I grow,” our hostess said. “Radish, carrot, sweet potato, beet, rutabaga, parsnip, onion, fennel, and parsley. It’s been on the stove for a long time.”
“I’ll bet,” I said.
It tasted good, though. So did those cardoons. Smith’s portion joined the pancakes down below. In the end, I was so full of garlic I forgot to ask about his bag later.
“Let’s head over to the packing plant,” I said.
“Drop me somewhere to wait. Go by yourself, please,” Smith said.
“They’re killing animals over there.”
“I can just hear them from here. I don’t want to go any closer.”
“Can’t you turn it off?”
“No. Can you turn off your ears?”
I drove in the opposite direction until he was in the clear, and dropped him off at a bench facing the Yellowstone on a path by the road.
“You OK here?” I said.
He nodded. “I’ll listen to the birds,” he said.
I left him whistling with them and drove over to the packing plant, which the BBs had declined to burn down the previous Friday. Perhaps I’d find Miss Smith picketing the place with militant vegan signage; or perhaps, like Smith, she was staying well clear of it.
Poole Packing Company. No pickets. Few vehicles in the parking lot. Apparently the meat packers did not eat lunch in their abattoir.
In the plant office, a receptionist sat behind an old-fashioned oak desk. I saw nothing in the room to suggest the plant might be employing modern methods to pack their meat. The receptionist wore a lace-up gingham dress.
“Hello,” I said. “May I ask what services Poole Packing provides?”
She regarded me with the ruminative expression of her prepacked product.
“Slaughtering,” she said, “processing, packaging and distribution of meat from ranch cattle, pigs, and sheep. We don’t handle poultry, fish, or anything exotic. We do serve kids with 4-H livestock when they’re done with their projects. We also dress donated pigs for local church socials, if that’s what you’re here for.”
“Were you on duty last Friday?” I said, holding up my phone. “I’m looking for this young woman, wearing a Butchers’ Butchers tee shirt. She may have dropped in with something on her mind.”
“You from the State?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“She was throwing around a lot of wild charges about inhumane practices. Said she was going to call the authorities. If she’s insistent enough, Helena will send somebody down from the Department of Livestock.”
“Are your practices inhumane?” I said.
“We process animals all day. They come in on the hoof and go out in plastic. Is that inhumane? They don’t suffer long.”
“I’m looking for the young woman, nothing else.”
“She was upset. She said she’d burn the place down. I was about to call the sheriff, but my boss came out and took care of her. He told her we serve all the ranches around here, and we get no complaints, from the ranchers or the State. She said well she’d see about that, and away she went.”
“You get a lot of that here? Angry citizens?”
“No. This is Montana. Once in a while a kid will argue with his parents about slaughtering his pet pig or lamb. I let Mom and Dad handle that.”
I asked her about ranches in the area, took notes, and wished her a good day. Back at the river, Smith waved me over to his bench. The water flowing past looked green as a pickle under the afternoon sun.
“When you first arrive on Earth,” Smith said, “discovering folks eating meat can mess you up.”
“Because animals can think?”
“Yeah. You go into a McDonalds, that’s a lot of slaughtered cow. The meat’s not thinking anymore, but it’s easy to imagine what led to the Big Mac your buddy is eating.”
The nearest ranch was the Cross Five. To get out of town, we crossed the Interstate and turned onto Montana 95 past a tractor dealership and an old grain elevator. On our right, a scatter of new homes sprawled over abandoned fields. A combine was rattling down the road in front of us. I swerved onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane to get past it.
We drove south into prairie, skirting an escarpment beyond uneven grassland. Scrubby trees stood alone. A looping green line to the west marked the snakey course of the Tongue. The blades on a row of wind turbines turned slowly on a ridge beyond the river.
Warm air blew into the car. The blue in the sky had deepened. We were making progress in our search.
We turned in at a sign for the Cross Five, growled over a cattle guard, and followed an entrance road between fields, over a hill and canal beyond, and into a graveled parking area that served a barn, holding pens, and a corral large enough to host a rodeo. I parked at the end of a line of pickup trucks and cattle carriers.
Mud puddles bordered the gravel. A small office was appended to the northeast corner of the barn. Smith and I navigated our way between puddles to the office door. On the way, an abundance of flies kept me waving my hands around my head. Smith’s cloaking paid them no mind.
The office door was open, with its screen shut against the flies. We kicked mud off our shoes and stepped inside. An elderly fellow wearing a plaid shirt with pearl buttons and a straw Stetson sat at an obsolete computer.
“Cowboy,” I murmured to Smith.
“Can I help you?” the fellow said. He lifted his hat to scratch his scalp. His forehead was four shades paler than his sun-cured neck.
“We got your ranch name from the packing plant,” I said. “They told us you were a good customer of theirs.”
“You from the State?”
“Why does everybody ask us that?”
“You don’t look like customers or salesmen or teachers that want a ranch tour for your class. Come to think of it, you don’t look like the State either. Also, you don’t sound local.”
“We’re looking for an angry young woman,” I said, holding up my phone.
“You’re three days late. You from the press?”
“Nope. We’re in the tour business. She’s a customer. We’ve lost track of her.”
“She’s better off lost,” the cowboy said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because as far as I know, she has visited every ranch on the highway from here to Volborg, trying to talk sense into us, according to her. She does not like the slaughtering of animals, much less their consumption. She’s not the first fanatic I’ve talked to about this, but she might be the angriest. You get these people now and then. Somebody from PETA or the SPCA shows up breathing fire, and I tell ’em to go talk to Burger King.”
“You don’t support PETA or the SPCA?” Smith said.
“On this ranch,” the cowboy said, “we support the 4-H.”
“How did she get here?” I said. “What was she driving?”
“She caught a ride out here. She’s a good-looker, pissed off or not. She reminded me of Sally Field back when Sally was the Flying Nun. I guess I’m showing my age. Field had a figure. You couldn’t see it under the nun’s costume but when she made those movies with Burt Reynolds, you could tell. Reynolds could tell. He kept proposing to her.”
“Where’s the young lady now?”
“When she was done here, I had one of the boys give her a ride over to the Lazy Z.”
“What did she want you to do?”
“Switch over to farming. I told her that was impossible. The arable land in this county is already under cultivation. The rest is rangeland.”
“But she still visited every ranch?”
“I called around. That’s what they told me. She had a bee in her bonnet, that’s for sure. When she gave up on me, she asked if she could borrow a horse. I said no. That’s why I had one of the boys give her a ride. By the end of the day, she had made her way down the road as far as the Hayes Ranch, which is forty miles south of here. Right near sunset, she stole one of their horses. Lord knows where she is by now.”
I thanked him, Smith nodded to him, and we left. On the way back to the car, I tapped Smith on the arm.
“You were quiet,” I said.
“I was listening for Miss Smith. Nothing. Cows, but I don’t speak cow.”
“Could you sense their mood? Any memories of Miss Smith?”
“No memories of anything but the grass in front of their noses.”
“Any idea what Miss Smith is up to?”
“Obviously she wants to stop the slaughter.”
“So not on vacation anymore? This is a crusade?” I said.
“Young Vernernusians can be angry, rebellious, and idealistic. They’re frequently unrealistic. However, they outgrow these traits. It’s a developmental thing.”
“You never get angry?”
“No, but I can be rebellious. It’s why I’m on Earth, not back home. I’m still on the young side, despite the fact that my cloak has aged. I’m still idealistic, I hope.”
“So she came to Earth to save the animals?”
“Probably not. She likely decided to take a break from her hive mind but didn’t realize the effect a meat-eating planet would have on her.”
“The translator doesn’t have a better term for it. It’s about consensus. What are you going to do when we find her?”
“Make sure she turns her chip back on.”
“It’s not against EarthTours rules to come here on a mission, no matter how futile, as long as you stay out of the news. In fact, it’s refreshing to have a customer who isn’t here for transgressive reasons. You’re refreshing, too, by the way.”
“My reasons are transgressive on Vernernusia. I don’t want to merge with the networked whole, which is what happens to you in telepathic societies. I’ll outgrow this feeling but I haven’t yet.”
“You’ve managed to deal with the carnivore issue.”
“I’m a PETA volunteer community officer. My pets are rescue animals. Except for the mynah. It took time to tune out the death.”
With that, we drove down two-lane blacktop to Hayes Ranch, at the legal speed of seventy miles an hour. Nothing in front of us for forty miles where, according to my phone, Volborg awaited if we got that far. Grassland surrounded us, from the shoulders of the road to hills on the horizon.
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone