“What do we do now?” Ashley asked.
“Going to another hotel downtown’s not an option,” Logan said. “We should avoid that whole area completely. Which is why I’ve booked us a room at the Pine Lodge.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Nor should you have. It’s a little place on the western edge of town, and where we’re going next.”
He got up from his seat and clasped the handle of his cart, and Ashley did likewise, the two heading out to the bus stop across the street from the mall. When it came the bus was already close to packed, making it a struggle to get their suitcases to the back, but they managed it.
Seated, Ashley spent the time looking out the window, watching the landscape get taken over by warehouses, by empty lots, by shabby houses with unmowed lawns. Ugly, pointless sprawl that looked more and more like barnacles of urbanity clinging to the sides of a highway passing for a street, often with just a line dangling a few traffic lights above the asphalt to support the pretense.
The Pine Lodge blended easily into this environment, too easily, Ashley almost missing the stop. The property that Logan pointed out to her as the motel looked like just another fenced off lot, but there were parked cars behind the poorly tended shrubs, and beyond the cars a long, low one-story building, with another, smaller building placed perpendicular to it at its end. She guessed the long building contained the guest accommodations, the smaller building the management office.
Very unpromising, Ashley thought, and unlike the Fillmore it seemed even less promising than that when they got close up and glimpsed the occupants of the room next to theirs, two portly men whose badly concealed guns and ostentatious furtiveness said they were amateurs intent on doing something stupid. Like rob a drug dealer stupid.
But they didn’t seem interested in them, at least, and it occurred to her that like the Fillmore this would be a place where people respected each other’s privacy, though for a different reason. Instead of the courtesies shown privilege, a self-interested closed-mouthedness about being here at all would prevail. Because most of those at the Pine Lodge were there to do something stupid, of one sort or another.
The fat men with the guns went out to their pickup truck and left while Ashley and Logan entered their room. Two twin beds, a nightstand with a lamp in between, a small desk and chair by the wall, a bathroom without a tub, just a shower stall in need of retiling.
It was as shabby as the Fillmore had been plush, but she didn’t feel so restless anymore, because a task that might actually get them somewhere was in hand. Once they secured the room Logan made a copy of the decrypted file Lloyd gave him, and then gave it to Ashley, who sat down on her bed and opened it in a document reader on her own laptop.
Paging through the file to the background noise of the traffic in the street outside Ashley recognized the contents as an assemblage of documents—reports, memos, other correspondence. These contained a slew of unfamiliar names, numbers indicating sums of money and dates, obvious codenames and code words. Unfortunately these were all deprived of context and meaning by the still-encrypted material surrounding them, so that they hinted at much but actually said very little.
Disappointed, Ashley used the keyword search function to see if there was any reference to Harold Northrop. When none turned up she tried finding mention of a “Harold” or a “Northrop,” and didn’t find anything like that either.
Ashley looked over at Logan, sitting on his own bed.
“Are you getting anything out of this?” she asked him.
“I’ve given up reading it. I’ve been using a word counter tool instead,” Logan said. “Most of the ‘words’ topping the list are just jumbles of numbers and letters. But ‘Project’ and ‘Athena’ come up a lot too, and a keyword search I’ve run shows that they come up together a lot.”
“So you think that’s what this comes back to?” Ashley asked. “Somebody’s Project Athena.” She mulled that over. “Athena. Ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and war.”
If the name had any significance here, she didn’t see it.
“What other words come up?” Ashley asked. “Any names?”
“Lots. Some first names, some last names; it doesn’t always seem possible to connect them. The most interesting of those few is Melanie Roberts.”
“And who’s that?”
“Someone they perceived as a threat—and had eliminated,” Logan said. “But they’re not all that clear on why she seemed like a threat. So I Googolplexed her name.
“Not a lot comes up. Mainly an odd little blog about the disappearance of one Melanie Roberts at the same time as the woman mentioned in the file was murdered. It’s by an author using the pseudonym ‘Blake’ while withholding all other information about himself, and it seems to float from one web address to another, all the content popping up in new places, disappearing from old ones. I think this is the most recent one though.”
Ashley got up from the bed and looked at the blog on Logan’s screen.
“According to Blake, Melanie Roberts was a grad student in psychology at Povenmire University in Oregon,” he said. “Someone who found out about a research program at the department that somebody wanted to cover up.”
Ashley had no idea what someone like that could have had to do with Harold Northrop. “Okay. How do we know it’s the same Melanie Roberts, though?”
“We don’t,” Logan said. “But it certainly seems worth a closer look, at least until we find out that she’s not.”
Ashley did just that, starting with the blog about the young Ms. Roberts. At the top of the page was a picture of a pretty young woman with shoulder-length brown hair and very bright blue eyes—a reminder, she supposed, that this was not just a name, but a human being.
Below and to the right of the photo was a rather long list of posts, topped by “MELANIE’S STORY.”