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I told the Corps of Engineers I didn't do UFOs.
"Neither do we," Bertha Bomberg said. She was as the Corps representative who oversaw I our archaeological services contract with the New Orleans Engineer District and, in general made our lives miserable. "But this woman saw something and she's called everybody in the world, from the sheriff to the Division of Archaeology to her congressman and now she's calling the Corps of Engineers, because the thing fell, into a bayou and she figures we ought to have some jurisdiction."
"I agree. Why don't you go up to Lordsport and talk to her?"
"Because, Alan, I would have to sip out a government car and explain to my supervisor in the Planning Division what I was doing, and I wouldn't get authorization because it's in Vicksburg District, anyway."
"So you want me to go, instead."
"You're working on that. highway project just a few milesoutside of town. I thought it would just be -- "
" -- simpler for me to take time off and charge it to the Department of Transportation and Development. I said. "Hey, that"s neat. Why didn't I think of it?
"Don't be sarcastic, Alan Next year..."
"I know. Our contract is being reviewed."
"I'm glad you understand. Besides..." She sighed. "I hate to see a taxpayer feel like they're not getting any response. We're here to serve the public and this lady can't get anyone to listen to her."
Bertha Bomberg, public servant, was a face I hadn't seen up to now.
What else could I do but go?
I left the next morning, enduring Marilyn's tsking because I'd promised to try to hold down costs, and the highway department hadalready threatened an audit. I headed north up 61, to St. Francisville, recalling, as I passed familiar landmarks, the Tunica Treasure business that had brought Pepper and me together two years ago. Yesterday she'd laughed when I'd told her, about Bertha's strange re request.
"Just consider it a civic duty," she said from the other side of the shower curtain I as small droplets, of spray found their way around the barrier to settle onto my face and arms."
"I'm not feeling very civic-minded," I told her over the sound of the show I shower. "Especially when I have to leave you alone here for two days and nights."
We'd grown appreciably closer since our initial less-than-promising meeting. I was, in fact, on the verge of getting her to give up her apartment for good and move in. Now I had to go do La Bombast's work for her.
"I'll be okay," she said with a laugh, stepping out of the shower. Before I could lick my lips she'd whipped a towel around her, and I sighed. "I have my courses to teach," she, reminded me.
"And that's another thing," I complained. "You come back from a summer in Mexico, on a dig, and not three weeks later that so-called anthropology department at the university snaps YOU up to take the place of that historical archaeologist who took off in a buff."
"But I thought you'd be glad: Marilyn never felt comfortable having me around, I was threatening to her sense of power. And poor David never know what to make of me. This way, I don't compete with anybody."
"But that whole department is a nest of leches."
Her hand reached out to touch my face: "Poor Alan. Still insecure. What can I do...?"
I told her and she did.
Now I was thirty miles away, resenting the fact dig tonight, and probably tomorrow night as well, I would be sleeping on a bunk in, a houseful of raucous archaeological crew people instead of in my own bed with the woman who I was still worried might burst like a bubble if touched once too often.
The season didn't help: It was a dismal January day, three weeks after New Year's. when everything from the sky to the very air is gray, and the excitement of the Christmas season has evaporated, leaving only a stack of greeting, cards, a few pine needles on the floor, and the knowledge that ahead, at the end of the gray tunnel of winter, lies the furnace of summer. I hated summer almost as much as the dreary days after Christmas.
And I hated all the nights I was away from Pepper.
It was ten, o'clock when I reached Natchez, and a fine rain was falling. Outside it was just above freezing and the weather forecast said the front extended west all the way to Texas. The crew would be inside today, processing artifacts, because it was too nasty to accomplish anything, in the field.
I passed the sign pointing to the Grand Village of the Natchez, now a state park, and a few minutes later, it the hospital, arced left, toward the river Ahead, high on the bluff sat a Ramada motel, and at the base of the hill, at water's edge, was a re-creation of Natchez Under the Hill, which, in the days before the Civil War, had been a sinkhole of depravity for river men, gamblers, and loose women. Nowadays, them were tourist joints and a gambling boat. These days losing your money didn't require having your throat cut.
Once over the bridge I was in Louisiana again, and into the flat floodplain of the Mississippi River, rich farmland that produced cotton and soybeans.
By the time I reached Ferriday, twenty miles west of Natchez, the rain had become a drizzle and I had the heater turned up full.
I hadn't told David I was coming because I wasn't sure how to explain what I was doing: UFOs weren't exactly the kind of, things we were in business to investigate. Better just to come, talk to the woman, and explain afterward...