F is for Fugitive Page 49


"You want to step back here, please? We're swamped this morning, but John says he'll talk to you while he works, if that's all right."

"That's fine. Thanks."

She lifted a hinged portion of the counter, holding it for me while I ducked underneath and came up in a narrow alleyway. The counter on this side was lined with machinery: two computer monitors, a typewriter, a label maker, a printer, and a microfiche reader. Storage bins below the counter were filled with empty translucent plastic pill vials. Ancillary labels on paper rolls were hung in a row, stickers cautioning the recipient: SHAKE WELL; THIS RX CANNOT BE REFILLED; WILL CAUSE DISCOLORATION OF URINE OR FECES; EXTERNAL USE ONLY; and DO NOT FREEZE. On the right were the drug bays, floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with antibiotics, liquids, topical ointments and oral medications, arranged alphabetically. I had, within easy reach, the cure for most of life's ills: depression, pain, tenderness, apathy, insomnia, heartburn, fever, infection, obsession, and dizziness, excitability, seizures, histrionics, remorse. Given my poor night's sleep, what I needed were uppers, but it seemed unprofessional to whine and beg.

I'd expected John Clemson to look like his father, but he couldn't have been more different. He was tall and lean, with a thatch of dark hair. His face, in profile, was thin and lined, his cheeks sunken, cheekbones prominent. He had to be my age, but he had a worn air about him, an aura of weariness, ill health, or despair. He made no eye contact, his attention fixed on the task in front of him. Using a spatula, he was sliding pills, by fives, across the surface of a counting tray. With a rattle, he tumbled pills into a groove on the side, funnel-ing them into an empty plastic vial, which he sealed with a child-proof cap. He affixed a label, set the vial aside, and started again, working with the same automatic grace as a dealer in Vegas. Thin wrists, long, slender fingers. I wondered if his hands would smell of PhisoDerm.

"Sorry I can't interrupt what I'm doing," he said mildly. "What can I help you with?" His tone had a light mocking quality, as if something amused him that he might or might not reveal.

"I take it your father called. How much did he tell you?"

"That you're investigating the murder of Jean Timberlake at his request. I know, of course, that he was hired to represent Bailey Fowler. I don't know what you want with me."

"You remember Jean?"


I had hoped for something a little more informative, but I was willing to press. "Can you tell me about your relationship with her?"

His mouth curved up slightly. "My relationship?"

"Somebody told me she used to hang out at the Baptist church. As I understand it, you were a classmate of hers and headed up the youth group back then. I thought maybe the two of you developed a friendship."

"Jean didn't have friends. She had conquests."

"Were you one?"

A bemused smile. "No."

What was the damn joke here? "Do you remember her coming to church?"

"Oh yes, but it wasn't me she was interested in. I wish I could say it was. She was very particular, our Miss Timberlake."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning she'd never have tumbled for the likes of me."

"Oh, really? Why is that?"

He turned his face. The whole right side was disfigured, right eye missing, the lid welded shut by shiny pink and silver scar tissue that extended from his scalp to his jaw. His good eye was large and dark, filled with self-awareness. The missing eye created the illusion of a constant wink. I could see now that his right arm was also badly scarred. "What was it?"

"Automobile accident when I was ten. The gas tank blew up. My mother died and I was left looking like this. It's better now. I've had surgery twice. Back then, the church was my salvation, literally. I was baptized when I was twelve, dedicating my life to Jesus. Who else would have me? Certainly not Jean Timberlake."

"Were you interested in her?"

"Sure, I was. I was seventeen years old and doomed to be a virgin for life. My bad luck. Good looks ranked high with her because she was so beautiful herself. After that came money, power… sex, of course. I thought about her incessantly. She was so completely venal."

"But not with you?"

He went back to his work, sliding pills into the trough. "Unfortunately not."

"Who, then?"

The lips curved up again in that nearly beatific smile. "Well, let's see now. How much trouble should I make?"

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