F is for Fugitive Page 55

I went back to the motel. What I wanted most in the world was to lay my little head down and go to sleep, but I couldn't see a way to pull that off. I had too much work to do, too many troubling questions yet to ask. I stepped into the office. As usual, the desk was unmanned, but I could hear Ori on the telephone in the family living room. I slipped under the counter and knocked politely on the door frame. She glanced up, catching sight of me, and motioned me in.

She was taking reservations for a family of five, negotiating a sofa bed, a crib, and a cot with variations in the room rate. Maxine, the cleaning lady, had come and gone with very little evidence of her effectiveness. All she'd done, as far as I could see, was to clear off a few surfaces, leaving a residue of furniture oil in which dust was settling. The counterpane on Ori's hospital bed was now littered with junk mail, news clippings, and old magazines, along with that mysterious collection of coupons and fliers that seems to accumulate on end tables everywhere. The wastebasket beside the bed was already spilling over. Ori was idly sorting and discarding as she talked. She concluded her business and set the telephone aside, fanning herself with a windowed envelope.

"Aw, Kinsey. What a day it's been. I think I'm comin' down with something. Lord only knows what. Everybody I talk to has the twenty-four-hour flu. I feel so achy all over and my head's about to bust."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "Is Ann around?"

"She's inspecting some rooms. Every time we get a new maid we have to check and double-check, makin' sure the job's done right. Of course, the minute one's trained, off she goes again and you have to start from scratch. Well, look at you. What'd you do to your hand there, poke it through a winda screen?"

I glanced at my knuckles, trying to think of a convincing fib. I didn't think I'd been hired to punch out the local doctor's wife. Bad form, and I was embarrassed now that I'd lost control of myself. Fortunately, my ills were of only passing interest, and before I could answer, she was back to her own.

She scratched at her arm. "I got this rash," she said, mystified. "Can you see them little bumps? Itch? It's like to drove me insane. I never heard of any kind of flu like that, but I don't know what else it could be, do you?"

She held her arm up. I peered dutifully, but all I could see were the marks she'd made while clawing at herself. She was the kind of woman who would launch, any minute, into a long monologue about her bowels, thinking perhaps that her flatulence had some power to fascinate. How Ann Fowler survived in this atmosphere of medical narcissism was beyond me.

I glanced at my watch. "Oh gee, I better get upstairs."

"Well, I'm not gonna let you do that. You sit right down here and visit," Ori said. "With Royce gone, and my arthritis acting up, I don't know where my manners have went. We never had a chance to get to know one another." She patted the side of the bed as if I might be a lucky pup, allowed at last on the furniture.

"I wish I could, Ori, but you know I have to-"

"Oh no, you don't. It's after five o'clock and not even suppertime yet. Why would you have to run off at this hour?"

My mind went blank. I stared at her mutely, unable to think of any plausible excuse. I have a friend named Leo who became phobic about old ladies after one wrapped a turd in waxed paper and put it in his trick-or-treat bag. He was twelve at the time and said that aside from spoiling Hal-loween for him, it ruined all his candy corn. He never could trust old folks after that. I'd always been fond of the elderly, but now I was developing much the same distaste.

Ann appeared in the doorway, a clipboard in hand. She shot me a distracted look. "Oh, hello, Kinsey. How are you?"

Ori launched right in, not wanting to let anybody else establish a conversational beachhead. She held her arm out again. "Ann, honey, look at this here. Kinsey says she's never seen anything like this in her life."

Ann gave her mother a look. "Could you just wait a minute, please."

Ori didn't seem to pick up on the prickliness. "You're going to have to go to the bank first thing in the morning. I paid Maxine out of petty cash and there's hardly anything left."

"What happened to the fifty I gave you yesterday?"

"I just told you. I paid Maxine with that." "You paid her fifty dollars? How long was she here?"

"Well, you needn't take that tone. She come at ten and didn't leave till four and she never set down once except to eat her lunch."

"I bet she ate everything in sight."

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