Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 27

In which Jones finds a refuge

Fred drove Jones through an abandoned town. A few crumbling stucco buildings clustered around an uncovered trash pit. Empty bottles and desiccated snake skins littered the gravel and sand. A few withered trees clung to the edge of the road. Fred gestured at the small wreck. 

“That used to be Nipton. It was never much. The whole town got sold to big oil, big marijuana, then a dentist, and so on. I don’t remember the details.  The solar people were in there for a while. The dentist wanted to do a tourism thing. The desert got hotter. Money always falls through. The only construction anyone got done was a franchise buildout for a Red Roof Inn.”

They drove on and the Red Roof Inn appeared on their left. It’s roof, lined with solar panels, had faded to a boiled pink. Fred pulled up in the parking lot. To Jones’s surprise, it was teeming with activity. 

People sidestepped each other along crowded balconies.  They walked in and out rooms with no doors, or tended containers of vegetables. They wore loose, flowing pants and long-sleeved tunics. Many draped gauzy head scarves around their heads and faces to protect them from the sun. Others preferred baseball caps. In the distance, Jones heard the ringing tones of a hammer striking metal. Chickens ran among sand dunes in piebald flocks.

“I’m going to drop you here,” said Fred. “Good folks. They’ll take care of you.”

Fred cracked his knuckles. He stretched his arms out against the steering wheel, rotating the bones of his shoulders. He seemed tired. “They’re good folks,” he said. “They mean well. They’ll take care of you. Come visit me at the ranger station. Later this week. I gotta crash. To be honest, I haven’t slept in about 48 hours.”

Fred put the truck in gear and stumbled it away. Jones watched it drive off. He looked towards the colony of people. His shoes felt nailed to the ground. Overwhelmed by sudden depression, he sat down, bent over, and pulled his shirt up over his head. He lay that way, curled up in the dust, bewildered and fighting back tears, as he tried to cope with his predicament. 

He was here because he was supposed to be solving a difficult and complicated case for the Federal government. Instead, he had gotten completely sidetracked. He still had no clues about the location of the military grade quantum supercomputer. He had no clues about Mad Crab. He didn't even know where he was. He only know that he was in the middle of the desert, completely dependent on the whims of strangers. 

“I have to get a new job,” he whispered to himself. The ground next to him quivered. Feet crunched on gravel. He lifted his head and saw two handmade leather sandals making their way towards him. A woman approached and stuck out her hand. Jones let her help him up. His face tingled with exhaustion and shame.

The woman wore a utility apron, with the strings wrapped around her waist several times. A pile of necklaces strung with handmade clay beads sat around her neck. She didn’t look happy to see him, but she didn’t look hostile either. She wiped the dirt off her hand on the apron, gesturing for him to come along.

“My name is Marta,” she said. “This is the Red Roof Inn. We don’t like outsiders. But we don’t like leaving people in the desert to die, either. Before we decide if you stay here, I need to explain who we are.”

Jones nodded, wiping the tears away from his face. He followed her towards the building as she continued to talk.

“This is a refuge,” she said. “It started as a place for people addicted to technology - a kind of detox center. The people who came here worked for middlemen, and were liable to answer to them day and night. White collar workers. But the truth is, they worked for usurers, taking their pound of flesh, making profits even on defaults because of the markups on foreign slave labor. I did it too, until I came here.

"More and more, we saw that people who came to this refuge did not want to leave. They did not want to return to a life of automating high interest rates and excessive parking fees. They arrived numbed by addiction, but, once liberated, they felt nothing but disgust for their role in the world. They wanted to opt out. Many left the country after their sojourn here. We started getting government attention. Enemy of Economy Status. Fees. We declined to pay the fees.

“After the borders closed, our mission changed. We threw the government paperwork away. We decided that this Red Roof Inn would become an oasis. We stopped charging for our services. We formed an intentional community, and found a way to live together in a place that no one else wants. Some of us brought our families. Others left their families behind. We repent, and live better, even though we can never repay.”

They were close to the lobby now. The entrance, instead of a desk, was a solarium filled with aloe. A woman walked around rows of large clay pots with a spray bottle, misting the long, grasping leaves. Jones felt a strong and intense longing to join her. His heart pulsed. Marta's words had invigorated him. He now desperately wanted to connect with and have these strangers accept him. A small dog raced by, hunting a fast-moving desert snake.

“I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “My last job was at a bank. They were terrible. They take so much of people’s money and then waste it making each other miserable in meetings. They buy expensive granola bars and then throw them away.” Marta stopped walking.

“Why did you work at a bank?” she asked. 

Jones shook his head, trying to remember. “I didn’t have any money,” he said. “My secretary, Amelia, got me the job. She said it was the only one available. Amelia’s not my secretary, but it’s easier to describe her that way. I had to pay rent, I guess.”

Marta regarded him through narrowed eyes. “How long ago was this?”

Jones paused, swaying a bit as he tried to think.

“A few weeks ago. It feels like longer." He shook his head, trying to find the thread. "This was right before they announced the Next Economy.” 

Marta snorted. “It’s the same economy, only now the middlemen have been cast in with their prey.” From her face, Jones saw that she had made her decision. “You can stay with us. But I'm warning you: I know the ranger brought you here. I’ll be watching you closely.”