F is for Fugitive Page 5

"Come on, Henry. That's not the point. I said I'd do my own laundry and you agreed."

Henry shrugged. "Hey, so I'm a liar. What can I say?"

"Would you quit? I don't need a mother."

"You need a keeper. I've said so for months.

You don't have a clue how to take care of yourself.

You eat junk. Get beat up. Place gets blown to bits. I told you to get a dog, but you refuse. So now you got me, and if you ask me, it serves you right."

How irksome. I felt like one of those ducklings inexplicably bonded to a mother cat. My parents had been killed in a car wreck when I was five. In the absence of real family, I'd simply done without. Now, apparently, old dependencies had surfaced. I knew what that meant. This man was eighty-two. Who knew how long he'd live? Just about the time I let myself get attached to him, he'd drop dead. Ha, ha, the joke's on you, again.

"I don't want a parent. I want you as a friend."

"I am a friend."

"Well, then, cut the nonsense. It's making me nuts."

Henry's smile was benign as he checked his watch. "You've got time for a run before dinner if you quit mouthing off."

That stopped me. I'd really hoped to get a run in before dark. It was almost four-thirty, and a glance at the kitchen window showed I didn't have long. I abandoned my complaints and changed into jogging sweats.

The beach that day was odd. The passing storm clouds had stained the horizon a sepia shade. The mountains were a drab brown, the sky a poisonous-looking tincture of iodine. Maybe Los Angeles was burning to the ground, sending up this mirage of copper-colored smoke turning umber at the edge. I ran along the bike path that borders the sand.

The Santa Teresa coastline actually runs east and west. On a map, it looks like the ragged terrain takes a sudden left turn, heading briefly out to sea before the currents force it back. The islands were visible, hovering offshore, the channel dotted with oil rigs that sparkled with light. It's worrisome, but true, that the oil rigs have taken on an eerie beauty of their own, as natural to the eye now as orbiting satellites.

By the time I made the turnaround a mile and a half down the path, twilight had descended and the streetlights were ablaze. It was getting cold and the air smelled of salt, the surf battering the beach. There were boats anchored beyond the breakers, the poor man's yacht harbor. The traffic was a comfort, illuminating the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the bike path. I try to run every day, not from passion, but because it's saved my life more than once. In addition to the jogging, I usually lift weights three times a week, but I'd had to discontinue that temporarily, due to injuries.

By the time I got home, I was in a better mood. There's no way to sustain anxiety or depression when you're out of breath. Something in the sweat seems to bring cheer in its wake. We ate supper, chatting companionably, and then I went to my room and packed a bag for the trip. I hadn't begun to think about the situation up in Floral Beach, but I took a minute to open a file folder, which I labeled with Bailey Fowler's name. I sorted through the newspapers stacked up in the utility room, clipping the section that detailed his arrest.

According to the article, he'd been out on parole on an armed-robbery conviction at the time his seventeen-year-old ex-sweetheart was found strangled to death. Residents of the resort town reported that Fowler, then twenty-three, had been involved in drugs off and on for years, and speculated that he'd killed the girl when he learned of her romantic entanglement with a friend of his. With the plea bargain, he'd been sentenced to six years in the state prison. He'd served less than a year at the Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo when he engineered his escape. He left California, assuming the alias of Peter Lambert. After a number of miscellaneous sales jobs, he'd gone to work for a clothing manufacturer with outlets in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and California. In 1979, the company had promoted him to western division manager. He was transferred to Los Angeles, where he'd been residing ever since. The newspaper indicated that his colleagues were stunned to learn he'd ever been in trouble. They described him as hardworking, competent, outgoing, articulate, active in church and community affairs.

The black-and-white photograph of Bailey Fowler showed a man maybe forty years old, half-turned toward the camera, his face blank with disbelief. His features were strong, a refined version of his father's, with the same pugnacious jaw-line. An inset showed the police photograph taken of him seventeen years before, when he was booked for the murder of Jean Timberlake. Since then, his hairline had receded slightly and there was a suggestion that he may have darkened the color, but then again that might have been a function of age or the quality of the photograph. He'd been a handsome kid, and he wasn't bad looking now.

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