“The Price of a Free Lunch”


Rob Escobar pulled his beat-up ’82 Cadillac to the curb across the street from the Denny’s Restaurant. It was late—nearly 10 p.m.—but that’s what he had intended, and so far his plan was working. There was no deadline, he was sorry to say, except the one he had given himself.

He turned the key off and the AC with it. Immediately the hot Texas night began to invade his car through the cracks between the windows and the rubber insulation. He ignored the heat and turned to open his briefcase. He popped it open and turned on the digital video camera inside it, turning it to make sure the lens was lined up with the small black opening on the end of the briefcase. He closed it when he was satisfied, grabbed it by the handle and stepped out of the car.

It had rained an hour before, but that hadn’t cooled Dallas down. He walked across the street, the puddles gleaming silver in the glow of the streetlights. It wasn’t until he was inside the front door that he knew that something was wrong.

His subject was seated on the right, near the end of the room, but no one else was sitting. He had chosen this particular Denny’s because he frequented here many times and knew that even at 10 p.m. it was always still busy. That was due to its proximity to the freeway and downtown Dallas. Tonight was the exception.

“Something wrong?” Brenda Saffold said as Escobar approached her.

He smiled painfully back at her and shook his head. “Just didn’t expect you to be so paranoid about crowds.”

“You could have met at any restaurant in the Metroplex, including the one at the top of Reunion Tower, and we would have paid. But when you insisted on meeting here, well, I wanted us to be able to talk in privacy.”

He paused before he sat down to look at the young woman and her two escorts. While she was pretty but slight, about 25 years old, blonde, the two men standing behind her were anything but. Both probably weighed over 300 pounds, with Escobar’s choice between vanilla with a crew cut or chocolate—maybe Rocky Road—with a shaved head. Neither one looked like he had a sense of humor.

“Oh, don’t mind them,” the woman said, standing and holding out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Escobar. Brenda Saffold.”

“The pleasure is mine, Ms. Saffold.” He placed his briefcase on the seat with the hidden camera lens facing her and sat down.

“Please, call me Brenda.”

Escobar shrugged. As he sat down, the tall, thin waitress appeared.

“The usual, Amy,” Escobar said, and the waitress nodded, then looked over at Saffold.

“Oh, nothing for me,” Saffold said, and the waitress disappeared.

“After eating where I do, I don’t think my stomach could endure such a place,” she said, leaning forward over the table. Escobar responded by pulling out his small digital audio recorder, showing it to Saffold, flicking it on, then placing it in the middle of the table.

“Well, let’s get to it, then,” Saffold said. “What do you want to know that hasn’t been addressed in a hundred other interviews before this one?”

“One simple question,” Escobar said. “Why?”

Saffold frowned and looked back at Escobar, the silence between them palatable.

“Can you be a little more precise, Rob?”

Escobar shrugged. “Neither one of us needs a history lesson, but I will cover it anyway. Five years ago, your alien friends showed up right in the middle of an nuclear war, saving the world. They set up shop, cleaned up radiation fallout that was threatening to destroy what was left of the world, and pretty much got us back to where we are today.”

“Yes, fortunate for us, wasn’t it?”

Escobar shrugged again. “There’s no arguing that we could all be glowing in the dark if they hadn’t come when they did. It seems to me a bit too convenient to show up right then, but we will save that for another discussion. What I want to know is, why did they do it?”

Saffold smiled broadly, and Escobar remembered reading that she had won Miss Texas not too long ago with that same smile. It probably was the reason why she got this job, but Escobar wasn’t taken in. He’d seen too many politicians use the same approach. Kiss a baby while you’re signing its death warrant.

Saffold spoke. “My father used to say, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Their view is that they had been watching us for a long time, wondering if they could trust us enough to reveal themselves. When the Thirty Minute War started, they knew they had to do something or we would all be gone. And so they did. By the way, they aren’t just ‘my alien friends,’ and they prefer to be called The Guardians.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Escobar said. “I am sure if they were willing to show themselves they could all explain this with a few grunts and squeaks….”

“That’s exactly why they don’t show themselves,” Saffold said. “Humanity’s xenophobia is very obvious, and they feel they are able to be more helpful by working behind the curtain, so to speak.”

“But you’ve seen them.”

“I have,” Saffold said. “And after the initial shock, I have found that their generosity far outweighs their alien appearance. I’ve never had trouble with the way people appear.”

“It appears so, even though they’re not really people,” Escobar said, sighing and leaning back in his chair. Amy the waitress appeared with Escobar’s cup of coffee and they waited a moment for her to leave before continuing.

“Look, I will concede that they have contributed a lot to this world. On top of saving us from killing ourselves off, they reinstated the power grid, offering free electricity to anyone who wants it. They decontaminated the soil and the air. They even disarmed the countries that started this whole mess.

“But at the same time, they have been selling the world a bill of goods. When people asked what they believed, they introduced us to their religion.”
Saffold rolled her eyes. “Oh, you’re not one of those anti-Effusion people, are you? No one forces people to observe Effusion rites or rituals. It’s strictly voluntary. Look, clearly 35 percent of the public is opposed to Effusion, which is their right.”

Escobar shook his head. “No, I’m not anti-Effusion. And I don’t think it’s being stuffed down our throats. But you got to consider…”

“What?” Saffold said. “What do I have to consider?”

Escobar paused to regroup. “Look, the aliens—your Guardians—interrupted a very nasty thermonuclear war. They could have gotten their own butts in a sling. Instead they did a very generous thing and stopped it before it could kill everyone off. Everything they have done after that has been consistent with a very generous nature.”

“So?”

“So, Effusion, which is supposed to be their official religion is built around self-appeasement. What my grandma used to call Hedonism. The idea is that everybody takes care of themselves to the detriment of everybody else.

“Since it was introduced, churches and charities have disappeared by the droves. People don’t want to carry the burden of a family, so divorce has gone through the roof. Basically, our society is going in the toilet.”

“But at the same time, crime has virtually disappeared,” Saffold added.

Escobar nodded. “Yeah, some of that is because with the free power, a lot of other things are free as well. The aliens’ manufacturing sites and their megafarms are making stuff easier to get. And some people have just plain disappeared….”

Saffold suddenly grew serious. “What are you implying, Rob?”

“I’m not implying anything, Brenda,” Escobar said. “But when was the last time you saw a homeless person on these streets. Five years ago, you had to wade through them to get in the door here. Now they’re nowhere to be seen. And when was the last time you saw an old person? I mean, someone over the age of 70? Have you visited a prison lately? If you did, you’d discover that there’s no one there.”

Saffold smiled. “They are being taken care of.”

“Where? How?”

“It’s very difficult for the Guardians to continue with their generosity if we challenge everything they do.”

“That’s just it. They are so generous, yet they promote a religion that is anti-generous. Your father used to say, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth?’ Well, my father had a saying too. ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ When the aliens approached and saved all our butts, I was one of ones to raise our hands and shout ‘Hallelujah,’ but lately I have become a lot more skeptical. What’s in it for them?”

            Saffold stared at Escobar before responding. “How can you even ask that question. That is probably the most ungrateful statement I have heard since they arrived. I don’t even dare take it back to them. I am ashamed of what my fellow humans are thinking.”

“OK, be ashamed. Color me ungrateful. Color me anything you want. But answer my question.”

Safford’s smile disappeared and Escobar saw a different side of her flash through.

“Look Mr. Escobar. You have a choice. Things are pretty nice around here these days. Wall Street is back up, albeit operating in Chicago. People are happy, the cost of living is down. I would wager that this story is not being promoted by your bosses, because if they knew that you were challenging the continuous flow of energy and advertising that your paper needs to keep going, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be covering irrigation stories in Arizona. So the obvious choice would be to go with the flow, and accept the good things that are coming your way.”

“Don’t make waves,” Escobar said. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“Your other choice, the way your questions are taking you now, is to upset the good thing that the world has going for it. Challenge the Guardians. Unmask the aliens for the evil perpetrators you think they are, although I haven’t seen an evil deed so far. Continue down that road, and you’ll find it’s a very lonely, very dangerous road.”

“I’ve been down that road before,” Escobar said, his lips thin and his eyes sharp. “So for the last time, why did the aliens stop the war?”

Saffold stared at the stubborn reporter, and finally spoke.

“This interview is over.”

Escobar nodded at her and reached out to shake her hand. The woman who had been so friendly and cordial to begin with refused to shake it, so he stood up, took his recorder, reached for his briefcase, then flipped a dollar onto the table.

“For the coffee,” he said, then turned to walk out the door. He didn’t look back as he walked across the street to his old Cadillac and climbed in the front seat.

When he got seated, he turned his recorder to rewind and started to play back the interview. All he heard was static.

Frowning, he went back farther on the recording and tried again. Again, all he heard was static.

He opened his briefcase and went back to the beginning of the recording on his camera. It too was blank.

“Score one for the aliens,” he said under his breath. He rolled his window down and looked back at the Denny’s restaurant with its empty parking lot, and at the three people still inside. Then he looked up at a traffic camera above him that seemed to be pointed right at him, its green light on top glowing.

He nodded to himself, realizing that it would be a very long, very tough fight. But he had been there before.

He started the tired engine of the Cadillac, put it in gear, and drove off into the night.

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