F is for Fugitive Page 3


"Have you talked to him?"

"Just briefly yesterday."

"Must have been a shock."

"I thought I was hearing things. Thought I'd had a stroke."

Ann spoke up. "Bailey always told Pop he was innocent."

"Well, he is!" Royce snapped. "I said that from the first. He never would have killed Jean under any circumstance."

"I'm not arguing, Pop. I'm just telling her."

Royce didn't bother to apologize, but his tone underwent a change. "I don't have long," he went on. "I want this squared away before I go. You find out who killed her and I'll see there's a bonus."

"That's not necessary," I said. "You'll get a written report once a week and we can talk as often as you like."

"All right, then. I own a motel up in Floral Beach. You can stay free of charge for as long as you need. Take your meals with us. Ann here cooks."

She flashed a look at him. "She might not want to take her meals with us."

"Let her say so, if that's the case. Nobody's forcing her to do anything."

She colored up at that but said nothing more.

Nice family, I thought. I couldn't wait to meet the rest. Ordinarily, I don't take on clients sight unseen, but I was intrigued by the situation and I needed the work, not for the money so much as my mental health. "What's the timetable here?"

"You can drive up tomorrow. The attorney's in San Luis. He'll tell you what he wants."

I filled out the contract and watched Royce Fowler sign. I added my signature, gave him one copy, and kept the other for my files. The check he took from his wallet was already made out to me in the amount of two grand. The man had confidence, I had to give him that. I glanced at the clock as the two of them left. The entire transaction hadn't taken more than twenty minutes.

I closed the office early and dropped my car off at the mechanic's for a tune-up. I drive a fifteen-year-old VW, one of those homely beige models with assorted dents. It rattles and it's rusty, but it's paid for, it runs fine, and it's cheap on gas. I walked home from the garage through a perfect February afternoon-sunny and clear, with the temperature hovering in the sixties. Winter storms had been blowing through at intervals since Christmas and the mountains were dark green, the fire danger laid to rest until summer rolled around again.

I live near the beach on a narrow side street that parallels Cabana Boulevard. My garage apartment, flattened by a bomb during the Christmas holidays, had now been refrained, though Henry was being coy about the plans he'd drawn up. He and the contractor had had their heads bent together for weeks, but so far he'd declined to let me see the blueprints.

I don't spend a lot of time at home, so I didn't much care what the place looked like. My real worry was that Henry would make it too large or too opulent and I'd feel obliged to pay him accordingly. My current rent is only two hundred bucks a month, unheard-of these days. With my car paid for and my office space underwritten by California Fidelity, I can live very well on a modest monthly sum. I don't want an apartment too fancy for my pocketbook. Still, the property is his and he can do with it as he pleases. Altogether, I thought it best to mind my own business and let him do what suited him.

2

I let myself in through the gate and circled the new construction to Henry's patio in the rear. He was standing near the back fence, chatting with our next-door neighbor while he hosed down the flagstones. He didn't miss a beat, but his gaze flicked over to the sight of me, and a slight smile crossed his face. I never think of him as elderly, though he'd celebrated his eighty-second birthday on Valentine's Day, the week before. He's tall and lean, with a narrow face, and blue eyes the color of gas jets. He's got a shock of soft white hair that he wears brushed to one side, good teeth (all his), a year-round tan. His overriding intelligence is tempered with warmth, and his curiosity hasn't diminished a whit with age. Until his retirement, he worked as a commercial baker. He still can't resist making breads and sweet rolls, cookies and cakes, which he trades to merchants in the area for goods and services. His current passion is designing crossword puzzles for those little paperback publications you can pick up in a supermarket checkout line. He also clips coupons, priding himself on all the money he saves. At Thanksgiving, for instance, he managed to buy a twenty-three-pound turkey for only seven bucks. Then, of course, he had to invite fifteen people in to help him polish it off. If I had to find fault with him, I suppose I'd have to cite his gullibility, and a tendency to be passive when he ought to take a stand and fight. In some ways, I see myself as his protector, a notion that might amuse him, as he probably sees himself as mine.

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