F is for Fugitive Page 62


The light was on in the office, but the door leading into the Fowlers' living quarters was closed. Bert was asleep. He sat behind the counter in a wooden chair, his head angled to one side. The snores flapping through his lips sounded like a whoopee cushion, flat and wet. His suitcoat was neatly arranged on a wire hanger on the wall. He'd pulled on a cardigan, with cuffs of paper toweling secured by rubber bands to protect his sleeves. From what, I wasn't sure. He didn't seem to have any work to do aside from manning the desk for late-night arrivals.

"Bert," I said. No response. "Bert?"

He roused himself, giving his face a dry scrub with one hand. He looked at me blearily and then blinked himself awake.

"I take it the calls I just got didn't come through the switchboard," I said. I watched while the electrical circuits in his brain reconnected.

"Excuse me?"

"I just received two calls. I need to know where they came from."

"Switchboard's closed," he said. "We don't put calls through after ten o'clock." His voice was hoarse from sleep and he had to cough to clear his throat.

"News to me," I said. "Bailey called me the other night at two A.M. How'd he manage that?"

"I connected him. He insisted on that or I wouldn't have done. I hope you understand about my contacting the sheriff. He's a fugitive from-"

"I know what he is, Bert. Could we talk about the calls that just came in?"

"Can't help you there. I don't know anything about that."

"Could someone ring my room without coming through the switchboard?"

He scratched at his chin. "Isn't any way I know of. You can phone out, but you can't phone in. Ask me, the whole business is a pain in the neck. Over at the Tides, they don't even have phones in the rooms. System costs more than it's worth anyhow. We had this one installed a few years back, and then half the time it's down. What's the point?"

"Can I see the board?"

"You're welcome to take a look, but I can tell you right now no calls came through. I been on duty since nine o'clock and there hasn't been a one. I've been doing accounts payable. Phone hasn't made a peep."

I could see a pile of envelopes tucked in the box for outgoing mail. I ducked under the counter. The telephone console was on one end, eighteen inches wide, with a numbered button for every room. The only light showing was my room, 24, because I'd left my phone off the hook. "You can tell when a phone's in use by the light?"

"By the light," he said, "that's correct."

"What about room-to-room? Couldn't a motel guest bypass the switchboard and dial direct?"

"Only if they knew your room number."

I thought back to all the times I'd given out my business card in the last couple of days, the telephone number at the Ocean Street neatly jotted on the back-my room number too, in some cases… but which? "If a phone's in use, you can't tell from the light whether a call is to the outside, room-to-room, or off the hook, right?"

"That's right. I could flip that switch and listen in, but of course that'd be against the rules."

I studied the console. "How many rooms are occupied?"

"I'm not at liberty to say."

"What, we have national security at stake here?"

He stared at me for a moment and then indicated with a put-upon air that I could check the registration cards in the upright file. While I flipped through, he hovered, wanting to be certain I didn't pocket anything. Fifteen rooms out of forty were occupied, but the names meant nothing. I don't know what I'd expected.

"I hope you're not fixing to change rooms again," he said. "We'd have to charge extra."

"Oh, really. Why is that?"

"Motel policy," he said, giving his pants a hitch.

Why was I egging him on? He looked as if he was about to launch into a discourse on management strategies over at the Tides. I said good night and went back upstairs.

There was no possibility of sleep. The phone began to make plaintive little sounds as though it were sick, so I replaced the receiver and disconnected the instrument at the jack. I left my clothes on as I had the night before, pulling the spread over me for warmth. I lay awake, staring at the ceiling while I listened to muffled noises through the wall: a cough, a toilet flushing. The pipes clanked and groaned like a clan of ghosts. Gradually, sunlight replaced the streetlights and I became aware that I was drifting in and out of consciousness. At seven I gave it up, dragged myself into the shower, and used up my allotment of hot water.

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