F is for Fugitive Page 28

I went up to my room. It was almost noon and my guess was the assembled would hang around for a hot lunch. With luck, I could slip down the outside stairs and reach my car before anybody realized I was gone. I washed my face and ran a comb through my hair. I had my jacket over my arms and a hand on the doorknob when somebody knocked. For a moment I flashed on the image of Dwight Shales. Maybe he'd gotten the okay to talk to me. I opened the door.

Reverend Haws was standing in the corridor. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "Ann thought you'd probably come up here to your room. I didn't have an opportunity to introduce myself. I'm Robert Haws of the Floral Reach Baptist Church."

"Hi, how are you?"

"I'm just fine. My wife, June, was telling me what a nice chat she had with you a short while ago. She suggested you might like to join us for Bible study over at the church tonight."

"How nice," I said. "Actually, I'm not sure where I'll be tonight, but I appreciate the invitation." I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was mimicking the warm, folksy tone they all used with one another.

Like his wife, Reverend Haws appeared to be in his fifties, but aging better than she was, I thought. He was round-faced, handsome in a Goody-Two-Shoes sort of way: bifocals with wire frames, sandy hair streaked with gray, cut full (with just the faintest suggestion of styling mousse). He was wearing a business suit in a muted glen plaid and a black shirt with a clerical collar that seemed an affectation for a Protestant. I didn't think Baptists wore things like that. He had all the easy charm of someone who spent his entire adult life on the receiving end of pious compliments.

We shook hands. He held on to mine and gave it a pat, making lots of Christian eye contact. "I understand you're from Santa Teresa. I wonder if you know Millard Alston from the Baptist church there in Colgate. He and I were seminarians together. I hate to tell you how long ago that's been."

I extracted my hand from his moist grip, smiling pleasantly. "The name doesn't sound familiar. Of course, I don't have much occasion to be out in that direction."

"What's your congregation? I hope you're not going to tell me you're an ornery Methodist." He said this with a laugh, just to show what a wacky sense of humor he had.

"Not at all," I said.

He peered toward the room behind me. "Your husband traveling with you?"

"Uh, no. Actually he's not." I glanced at my watch. "Oh golly. I'm late." The "golly" rather stuck in my throat, but it didn't seem to bother him.

He put his hands in his pants pockets, subtly adjusting himself. "I hate to see you run off so soon. If you're in Floral Beach come Sunday, maybe you can make it to the eleven-o'clock service and then join us for lunch. June doesn't cook anymore because of her condition, but we'd enjoy having you as our guest at the Apple Farm Restaurant."

"Oh gee. I wish I could, but I'm not sure I'll be here for the weekend. Maybe another time."

"Well, you're a tough little gal to pin down," he said. His manner was a trifle irritated and I had to guess he was unaccustomed to having his unctuous overtures rebuffed.

"I sure am," I said. I put on my jacket as I moved out into the corridor. Reverend Haws stepped aside, but he was still standing closer to me than I would have liked. I pulled the door shut behind me, making sure it was locked. I walked toward the stairs and he followed me.

"Sorry to be in such a rush, but I have an appointment." I'd cut the warm, folksy tone to a minimum.

"I'll let you get on your way, then." The last I saw of him, he was standing at the head of the exterior stairs, looking down at me with a chilly gaze that contradicted his surface benevolence. I started my car and then waited in the parking slot until I'd seen him walk by, returning to the Fowlers. I didn't like the idea of his being anywhere near my room if I was off the premises.

I drove half a mile along the two-lane access road that connected Floral Beach to the highway, another mile due north. I reached the entrance to the Eucalyptus Mineral Hot Springs and turned into the parking lot. The brochure in the motel office indicated that the sulfur-based springs had been discovered in the late 1800s by two men drilling for oil. Instead of the intended rigs, a spa was built, serving as a therapeutic center for ailing Californians who arrived by train, alighting at the tiny station just across the road. A staff of doctors and nurses attended the afflicted, offering cures that included mud baths, nostrums, herbal treatments, and hydroelectric therapy. The facility flourished briefly and then fell into disuse until the 1930s, when the present hotel was constructed on the site. A second incarnation occurred in the early seventies when spas became fashionable again. Now, in addition to the fifty or so hot tubs that dotted the hillside under the oak and eucalyptus trees, there were tennis courts, a heated pool, and aerobics classes available, along with a full program of facials, massage, yoga instruction, and nutritional counseling.

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