F is for Fugitive Page 6


Curious, I thought, that a man can reinvent himself. There was something enormously appealing in the idea of setting one persona aside and constructing a second to take its place. I wondered if serving out his sentence in prison would have had as laudatory an effect as being out in the world, getting on with his life. There was no mention of a family, so I had to guess he'd never married. Unless this new attorney of his was a legal wizard, he'd have to serve the remaining years of his original sentence, plus an additional sixteen months to two years on the felony escape charge. He could be forty-seven by the time he was released, years he probably wasn't interested in giving up without a fight.

The current paper had a follow-up article, which I also clipped. For the most part, it was a repetition of the first, except that a high school yearbook photo of the murdered girl was included along with his. She'd been a senior. Her dark hair was glossy and straight, cut to the shape of her face, parted in the middle and curving in softly at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were pale, lined with black, her mouth wide and sensual. There was the barest suggestion of a smile, and it gave her an air of knowing something the rest of us might not be aware of yet.

I slipped the clippings in the folder, which I tucked into the outside pocket of my canvas duffel.

I'd stop by the office and pick up my portable typewriter en route.

At nine the next morning, I was on the road, heading up the pass that cuts through the San Rafael Mountains. As the two-lane highway crested, I glanced to my right, struck by the sweep of undulating hills that move northward, intersected by bare bluffs. The rugged terrain is tinted to a hazy blue-gray by the nature of the underlying rock. The land here has lifted, and now the ridges of shale and sandstone project in a visible spine called the Transverse Ranges. Geological experts have concluded that California, west of the San Andreas Fault, has moved north up the Pacific coast by about three hundred miles during the last thirty million years. The Pacific Plate is still grinding away at the continent, buckling the coastal regions in earthquake after earthquake. That we continue to go about our daily business without much thought for this process is either testimony to our fortitude or evidence of lunacy. Actually, the only quakes I've experienced have been minor temblors that rattle dishes on the shelf or set the coat hangers in the closet to tinkling merrily. The sensation is no more alarming than being shaken awake gently by someone too polite to call your name. People in San Francisco, Coalinga, and Los Angeles will have a different tale to tell, but in Santa Teresa (aside from the Big One in 1925) we've had mild, friendly earthquakes that do little more than slop some of the water out of our swimming pools.

The road eased down into the valley, intersecting Highway 101 some ten miles beyond. At 10:35, I took the Floral Beach exit, heading west toward the ocean through grassy, rolling hills dotted with oaks. I could smell the Pacific long before I laid eyes on it. Screeching sea gulls heralded its appearance, but I was still surprised by the breadth of that flat line of blue. I hung a left onto the main street of Floral Beach, the ocean on my right. The motel was visible three blocks away, the only three-story structure on Ocean Street. I pulled into a fifteen-minute parking space outside the registration office, grabbed my duffel, and went in.

3

The office was small, the registration desk blocking off access to what I surmised were the Fowlers' personal quarters in the rear. My crossing the threshold had triggered a soft bell.

"Be right out," someone called. It sounded like Ann.

I moved to the counter and peered to my right. Through an open door, I caught a glimpse of a hospital bed. There was the murmur of voices, but I couldn't see a soul. I heard the muffled flushing of a toilet, pipes clanking noisily. The air was soon scented with the artificial bouquet of room spray, impossibly sweet. Nothing in nature has ever smelled like that.

Several minutes passed. There was no seating available, so I stood where I was, turning to survey the narrow room. The carpeting was harvest gold, the walls paneled in knotty pine. A painting of autumn birches with fiery orange and yellow leaves hung above a maple coffee table on which a rack of pamphlets promoted points of interest and local businesses. I leafed through the display, picking up a brochure for the Eucalyptus Mineral Hot Springs, which I'd passed on the road coming in. The advertisement was for mud baths, hot tubs, and rooms at "reasonable" rates, whatever that meant.

"Jean Timberlake worked there in the afternoons after school," Ann said behind me. She was standing in the doorway, wearing navy slacks and a white silk shirt. She seemed more relaxed than she had in her father's company. She'd had her hair done and it fell in loose waves to her shoulders, steering the eye away from the slightly recessed chin.

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