F is for Fugitive Page 14

I tucked my notes away and returned the books to the shelves. I headed down the hallway, passing the nurse's office and the attendance office. The administrative offices were located near the main entrance. According to the name plate on the wall beside the door, Shales was still the school principal. I asked his secretary if I could see him, and after a brief wait, I was ushered into his office. I could see my business card sitting in the center of the blotter on his desk.

He was a man in his mid-fifties, medium height, trim, with a square face. The color of his hair had changed from blond to a premature white, and he'd grown it out from its original mid-sixties crewcut. His whole manner was authoritarian, his hazel eyes as watchful as a cop's. He had that same air of assessment, as if he were checking back through his mental files to come up with my rap sheet. I felt my cheeks warm, wondering if he could tell at a glance what a troublesome student I'd been in high school.

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"I've been hired by Royce Fowler in Floral Beach to look into the death of a former student of yours named Jean Timberlake." I'd expected him to remember her without further prompting, but he continued to look at me with studied neutrality. Surely he couldn't know about the dope I'd smoked back then.

"You do remember her," I said.

"Of course. I was just trying to think if we'd held on to the records on her. I'm not sure where they'd be."

"I've just had a conversation with Bailey's attorney. If you need some kind of release…"

He gestured carelessly. "That's not necessary. I know Jack Clemson and I know the family. I'd have to clear it with the school superintendent, but I can't see that it'd be any problem… if we can locate 'em. It's the simple question of what we've got. You're talking more than fifteen years ago."

"Seventeen," I said. "Do you have any personal recollections of the girl?"

"Let me get clearance on the matter first and then I'll get back to you. You're local?"

"Well, I'm from Santa Teresa, but I'm staying at the Ocean Street in Floral Beach. I can give you the number…"

"I've got the number. I'll call you as soon as I know anything. Might be a couple of days, but we'll see what we can do. I can't make any guarantees."

"I understand that," I said.

"Good. We'll help you if we can." His handshake was brisk and firm.

At three-fifteen I headed north on Highway 1 to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, part of a complex of buildings that includes the jail. The surrounding countryside is open, characterized by occasional towering outcroppings of rock. The hills look like soft humps of foam rubber, upholstered in variegated green velvet. Across the road from the Sheriff's Department is the California Men's Colony, where Bailey had been incarcerated at the time of his escape. It amused me that in the promotional literature extolling the virtues of life in San Luis Obispo County, there's never any mention of the six thousand prisoners also in residence.

I parked in one of the visitors' slots in front of the jail. The building looked new, similar in design and construction materials to the newer portions of the high school where I'd just been. I went into the lobby, signs directing me to the booking and inmate information section down a short corridor to the right. I identified myself to the uniformed deputy in the glass-enclosed office, where I could see the dispatcher, the booking officer, and the computer terminals. To the left, I caught a glimpse of the covered garage where prisoners could be brought in by sheriffs' vehicles.

While arrangements were being made to bring Bailey out, I was directed to one of the small, glass-enclosed booths reserved for attorney-client conferences. A sign on the wall spelled out the rules for visitors, admonishing us that there could only be one registered visitor per inmate at any one time. We were to keep control of children, and any rude or boisterous conduct toward the staff was not going to be tolerated. The restrictions suggested past scenes of chaos and merriment I was already wishing I'd been privy to.

I could hear the muffled clanking of doors. Bailey Fowler appeared, his attention focused on the deputy who was unlocking the booth where he would sit while we spoke. We were separated by glass, and our conversation would be conducted by way of two telephone handsets, one on his side, one on mine. He glanced at me incuriously and then sat down. His demeanor was submissive and I found myself feeling embarrassed in his behalf. He wore a loosely structured orange cotton shirt over dark gray cotton pants. The newspaper photograph had shown him in a suit and tie. He seemed as bewildered by the clothing as he was by his sudden status as an inmate. He was remarkably good-looking: grave blue eyes, high cheekbones, full mouth, dark blond hair already in need of a cut. He was a tired forty, and I suspected circumstances had aged him overnight. He shifted in the straight-backed wooden chair, clasping his hands loosely between his knees, his expression empty of emotion.

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