After numerous dead ends and detours, Little Willy rolled into a collection of buildings that was halfway between a town and a truck stop. The scouting party now included the FC multipurpose tanker known as Yellow Pup, driven by Dianna. The smoke from what was obviously the gas station looked as bad as ever, but a the strip mall across the main road looked reasonably approachable.
The expedition entered the strip mall parking lot through a gravel access road. A few revenants came straight for Little Willy, which made it that much easier for Carlos and Daniel to pick them off. Carlos called a halt at a souvenir shop built in the charmingly tasteless likeness of a giant cowboy hat. “Roighta, here we split up,” he said. “Meg and Joe, you're with George and Elayne. See what you can find here, then check out the Mac's.” He pointed at a McDonald's across the looped lane. “Phil, you're comin' with me an' Daniel to see what's going on at the station. The rest of you are free to look around the shops, but stay together, in pairs at least.”
George sorted through a rack of maps outside, while Meg and the others wandered into the little interior shop. Elayne looked over a modest selection of mainly Indian-themed souvenirs, Joe rooted through the candy bars, and Meg perused a rack of moderately aged paperbacks. “Joe,” she said. He looked over his shoulder with a vaguely perplexed expression. She held out a book. It was a volume of MAD magazine's “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” feature. “I saw you reading Spy Vs. Spy, so I thought you might like this.”
Joe flipped once through the pages, and then politely put the book in his purse-like bag. Meg tried not to look hurt as he shuffled out of the store. “Carlos goes nuts over these,” Elayne said, pointing to a bin of polished and dyed rocks. She began scooping large handfuls into a designer handbag. Meg turned away, to find herself face to fare with Dr. Carradine.
The scientist pointed to Joe, who was swaying and humming at the curb. “He's a genius, you know,” Carradine said, very quietly. “I have worked with him, on and off, for ten years, and I'm absolutely certain, if we could give a fair and accurate test of his IQ- which we can't- his score would be literally off the charts. He speaks a dozen languages, that I know about. There's nothing he doesn't know about the animals, plants, minerals and ecology of the Sonoran desert. He taught me most of what I know about traces, and I believe the only thing he ever learned from me was how to express what he already knows in terms I and others like me might understand. He is also, as far as I know... completely illiterate.”
As they stepped outside, George continued, “He isn't comfortable in a place like this, regardless.” Meg nodded, and glanced at Elayne, who was taking one last look at a kachina doll, prominently labeled “AUTHENTIC”. She wiggled its arm up and down like an action figure. George shrugged. “Objects like that won't mean anything to him, or even the people who made it. As a rule, those dolls are made by Indians... but they make them for us, and they make sure that the features that would make an object meaningful and powerful to them are left out. That, I think, is what makes them upsetting to the more conservative elements of the native communities... not that representations of their faith being marketed commercially, but that the people buying them don't know or care enough to understand how poor the representations are.”
“Yeah,” Meg said, “I suppose it would be like having someone root through your fine china and then steal your Tupperware.”
George chuckled. “Mark my words... an Indian would take the Tupperware every time.”
“So would Carlos Wrzniewski,” Elayne chimed in from behind.
They reached the McDonald's to find Joe standing solemnly before a two-thirds life-size sculpture of Ronald McDonald. Meg glimpsed a Ronald toy in his hand. It was one of the old kids' meal toys, cast in monochrome rubber but painted by hand. At the others' approach, he quickly but discretely put it in his bag. Dianna beeped as she pulled up, and managed to jump down almost as quickly as her daughter. “Janie, look, there's a playground,” she said, pointing to an enclosed play area. “You can play, while Uncle George and I work. Don't worry if you hear any noises, but call if you see anything. Love you.” She stooped to hug her daughter with one arm, and drew a Luger as she straightened.
The glass of the front door had already been shattered, from within. Dianna entered first, sweeping away the worst of the glass with her cane and then clearing the door with a sprightly hop. She beckoned with her cane, and the others followed. Meg carried Janie over the threshold. The girl squirmed to be let down, and ran straight for the playground entrance. “I'm a big girl,” she said over her shoulder.
“You watch her,” Dianna told Meg. “We're going to be in the kitchen.” She hopped her way out of sight, followed by Elayne and Dr. Carradine. Moments later, Meg heard two shots from the Luger, and one from her own magnum.
Meg stepped up to the window to look at the playground, telling herself it was concern for the girl but knowing what she really wanted was to relive her own memories. The familiar characters were there, as she remembered them, though she knew that many had been quietly changed or retired in more recent years. She was immediately struck by a thoroughly villainous sculpture of the Hamburglar, which served as an entirely disturbing swing set. A “jail” in the maw of Officer Big Mac was just as disturbing in its own way, making Meg think of an ogre ready to devour unsuspecting children. Even the likeness of Grimace at the top of the slide was vaguely unsettling, with his original four octopus-like arms stretched out for grasping. None of it, however, had the slightest effect on Janie, who was happily swinging under Hamburglar's outstretched arm.
“You see,” Joe said, taking Meg by surprise. “You see and understand, even when you do not know. What you see, my people know: the Paohetone.” He opened his bag and took out the Ronald McDonald toy, and others like it, including some characters that Meg had to wrack her brain to remember. He went through the process without looking directly at her, unless it was in brief, flitting glances while she was in the periphery of his vision.
“Wait a minute,” Meg said, “are you talking about your gods?”
Joe stared at her like a Catholic priest who had just heard it suggested that holy water was just water. “No. Not gods,” he said, not quite shouting. He raised a pointing finger, and jabbed upward at the sky for emphasis. “One God. One. But many Paohetone. Their name means Givers, Those Who Perpetually Give. They give all good things to men from the One God who is the Unnameable Great Spirit, but they are...” He pondered a moment, and shrugged. “Different.”
From his bag, he lifted an object that an anthropologist would have recognized as an authentic kachina doll, a very crude effigy with an oversized head or mask, decorated with geometric patterns of somber black and white. He held it beside the Hamburglar, and there was no denying a casual resemblance. After letting her take a look, he put the doll back, quickly but carefully, as if concealing evidence of a forbidden deed.
“My people, called Fish People,” Joe said. “We live by the great river, and fish in streams. But other tribes come. First, we trade, fish, skins, daughters and sons. We teach them ways of Paohetone, and while they listen they become many and strong. But then drought come. Other tribes do not share their food, their water. Then they tell us to go, and they are many and strong, so we do. We go, out into the desert. The land is hard, and then hard men come. Apache. White men, first with iron swords and shells, then with guns. Brown men, too, the buffalo men. The buffalo men, not so bad. They beat us, but treat us like men. The Apa Che...” He hissed the word with venom. “The worst. They hunt Fish People like the hare, butcher and roast us while we live. But even they, no worse than plagues. No Fish People, any more. Only Joe.”
“Okay, but...” Meg waved at the figurines. “These are toys for kids. The characters were made up to sell food. I think they got sued for copying them from something else.”
Joe shrugged, and glanced out at Janie. “Children understand the Givers. Like her. So do those who see with young eyes. Like you. The men who make these, just enough to bring forth their likeness without knowing.”
He arranged the figures in a more orderly manner. “The Paohetone are not gods,” he repeated. “Not like ghosts, either. They touch. Eat. Drink. They marry and make sons and daughters, with mortal men and women as well as their own. Some tales say they may die. They are...” He pondered. “Messengers. No. Graces of the the Great Spirit. They live on the shores of the Great Lake that is the place of the dead, and they go forth to walk among men, as men. They bring good to men, but what they do is not always good, as the Great Spirit is good.”
He pointed to Ronald. “When our medicine men who take their masks and act out their deeds, white men call them clowns. Not wrong, but not the full truth. The way of the clown is to teach a lesson, by doing the opposite. White men forget that. Sometimes, the Givers do the same, and they seem to do what is wrong. But even their bad deeds are in truth for the good of man. If they act as fools, it is so all men can see their foolishness, and know wisdom. If they lie, it is so all men know they are lying, and see truth. If they cheat men of what is ours, it is so we will better care for what remains, and do better to each other.”
He tapped his finger on Ronald, and then the Hamburglar. “There are two chiefs of the Givers, and some tales say they are but one in two guises: The Teacher, and the Traveler. The Teacher shows men what is good and wise. The Traveler brings all good things to men, but he also takes. He even brings men's souls from the Great Lake to be born, and takes them back when they are dead.”
“Kokopelli,” Meg said. “What you said about bringing children is what the other tribes believe about him... and the other part could be something they forgot, or left out, or just don't talk about.”
Joe shrugged, and continued pointing. “The other Paohetone go at the bidding of a chief, or else they are guises of one chief.” He tapped on Grimace, whose paint included the extra set of arms. “Innocence is first, perhaps a chief. He is like a child, he acts foolishly, and often selfishly, but even his greed is as a child's greed.” He pointed to Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac and what Meg recognized with a little brain-racking as Captain Crook. “These are Plenty, Peace and Prosperity, and sometimes they are rivals.” He held up the Early Bird last. “I think she is one called Ne Pahena No. She is the Giver to young brides, and guardian in the time of the Traveler's coming.” He shrugged and swept the figures into the bag.
Meg looked back at the strange man, who continued to make a point of not looking back at her. It was not hard, and perhaps a bit too easy, to scale the picture he had presented down to size. She had no doubt that he was everything Dr. Carradine said. She was also fairly certain that he was at least not pulling her leg. But, even if the essence of his story were true, he was no more a fount of historical wisdom than she was about English history. He was, by his own effective admission, nothing more or less than the lone survivor of a culture that had been ravaged to the brink of extinction before he was even born. There was no way to know how much of what he had received had been garbled, distorted or willfully invented, or how much else might have been lost. Nor, for that matter, was there any way to guess how much of what he had said was the fruit of his obviously gifted and inventive mind.
Dianna broke the silence, appearing behind the counter to say, “We hit the jackpot here. I'm calling for backup.” As she disappeared again, she muttered, “Joe's showing somebody his figurines again.”
After further awkward silence, Meg decided to try to take the conversation in another direction. “I can tell you're very smart,” she said. “So... have you ever thought about trying to learn better English?”
“I speak English fine,” Joe said. The change in his voice was abrupt and radical, with not just perfect and unaccented diction but a stentorian delivery worthy of a Shakespearean play. Then he went back to speaking as he had before: “But, as my grandfather tell me, there is white man's talk, and then there is talk for white man.”
“Why?” Meg said, not really expecting an answer.
For a moment, Joe looked directly into her eyes. “Because for white man,” he said, “you talk slloooowwwwllllyyyyy...”
From close range, it was clear that the fire at the gas station was not as bad as it seemed from a distance, but, if anything, even more dangerous. Smoke and flame engulfed the pumps, but the rest of the complex appeared relatively intact. Unfortunately, that included at least one above-ground storage tank just visible in the midst of the flames. “Come on,” Phil said, white-faced, “what's to talk about? It's already gone! The rest could go any minute!”
“Nay,” Carlos said. “If there wasn't fuel left, the fire wouldn't be going like that. An' if the main storage tanks were compromised, they would 'ave brewed up already. The smokies prob'ly just shot up a storage tank, set a light and left it to burn. They didn't even make time to trash the place proper. Most of the gas is still there. The only thing we have to worry about is the tank that's already on fire.”
“So what?” Phil said. “It doesn't matter how much gas is left, you still can't get to it! You can't!”
Carlos stared through him. “That's the coward's way talking. If it's there, we can get it. We just have to find a way to get to it.”