F is for Fugitive Page 7

I put the pamphlet back. "Doing what?" I asked.

"Maid service, part-time. She worked for us, too, a couple of days a week."

"Did you know her well?"

"Well enough," she said. "She and Bailey started dating when he was twenty. She was a freshman in high school." Ann's eyes were mild brown, her manner detached.

"A little young for him, wasn't she?"

Her smile was brief. "Fourteen." Any other comment was curtailed by a voice from the other room.

"Ann, is someone out there? You said you'd be right back. What's happening?"

"You'll want to meet Mother," Ann murmured in a way that generated doubts. She lifted a hinged section of the counter and I passed through. "How's your father doing?" "Not good. Yesterday was hard on him. He was up for a while this morning, but he's easily fatigued and I suggested he go back to bed." "You've really got your hands full." She flashed me a pained smile. "I've had to take a leave of absence." "What sort of work?"

"I'm a guidance counselor at the high school. Who knows when I'll get back."

I let her lead the way into the living room, where Mrs. Fowler was now propped up in the full-sized hospital bed. She was gray-haired and heavy, her dark eyes magnified by thick glasses in heavy plastic frames. She was wearing a white cotton hospital gown that tied down the back. The neck was plain, with SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY HOSPITAL inked in block letters along the rim. It struck me as curious that she'd affect such garb when she could have worn a bed jacket or a gown and robe of her own. Illness as theater, perhaps. Her legs lay on top of the bedclothes like haunches of meat not yet trimmed of fat. Her pudgy feet were bare, and her toes were mottled gray.

I crossed to the bed, holding my hand toward hers. "Hi, how are you? I'm Kinsey Millhone," I said. We shook hands, if that's what you'd call it. Her fingers were as cold and rubbery as cooked rigatoni. "Your husband mentioned you weren't feeling well," I went on.

She put her handkerchief to her mouth and promptly burst into tears. "Oh, Kenny, I'm sorry. I can't help myself. I'm just all turned around with Bailey showing up. We thought he was dead and here he comes again. I've been sick for years, but this has just made it worse."

"I can understand your distress. It's Kinsey," I said.

"It's what?"

"My first name is Kinsey, my mother's maiden name. I thought you said 'Kenny' and I wasn't sure you heard it right."

"Oh Lord. I'm so sorry. My hearing's nearly gone and I can't brag about my eyes. Ann, honey, fetch a chair. I can't think where your manners went." She reached for a Kleenex and honked into it.

"This is fine," I said. "I've just driven up from Santa Teresa, so it feels good to be on my feet."

"Kinsey's the investigator Pop hired yesterday. "

"I know that," Mrs. Fowler said. She began to fuss with her cotton cover, plucking it this way and that, made restless by topics that didn't pertain to her. "I hoped to get myself all cleaned up, but Ann said she had errands. I hate to interfere with her any more than I have to, but there's just things I can't do with my arthritis so bad. Now, look at me. I'm a mess. I'm Ori, short for Oribelle. You must think I'm a sight."

"Not at all. You look fine." I tell lies all the time. One more couldn't hurt.

"I'm diabetic," she said, as though I'd asked. "Have been all my life, and what a toll it's took. I got tingling and numbness in my extremities, kidney problems, bad feet, and now I've developed arthritis on top of that." She held a hand out for my inspection. I expected knuckles as swollen as a prizefighter's, but they looked fine to me.

"I'm sorry to hear that. It must be rough." "Well, I've made up my mind I will not complain," she said. "If it's anything I despise, it's people who can't accept their lot."

Ann said, "Mother, you mentioned tea a little while ago. How about you, Kinsey? Will you have a cup?"

"I'm all right for now. Thanks." "None for me, hon," Ori said. "My taste for it passed, but you go ahead and fix some for yourself."

"I'll put the water on."

Ann excused herself and left the room. I stood there wishing I could do the same. What I could see of the apartment looked much like the office: gold high-low carpeting, Early American furniture, probably from Montgomery Ward. A painting of Jesus hung on the wall at the foot of the bed. He had his palms open, eyes lifted toward heaven- pained, no doubt, by Ori's home decorating taste. She caught my eye.

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