K is for Killer Page 48

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We took off with the aircraft bucking and shuddering, the flight smoothing out abruptly as we reached altitude. The attendant made her way down the aisle with a tray, dispensing clear plastic cups full of orange juice or Coca-Cola and childproof packets of-choose one-pretzels or peanuts. The airlines, extremely cunning at trimming costs these days, have now reduced the serving size of these peanuts to (approximately) one tablespoon per person. I broke each of mine in half, eating one piece at a time to prolong the experience.

As we droned up the coast through the night-blackened sky, communities below us appeared as a series of patchy, disconnected lights. At that altitude the towns looked like isolated colonies on an alien planet with dark stretches between what by day would be mountains. I was disoriented by the landscape. I tried to pick out Santa Maria, Paso Robles, and King City, but I had no clear sense of size or distances. I could see the 101, but the highway looked eerie and unfamiliar at that remove.

We reached San Francisco in a little under an hour and a half. Coming in, I could see the streetlights undulate across the hills, tracing the terrain like a contour map. We touched down at a commuter terminal so remote that a progression of ground agents had to be stationed along the tarmac to point us to civilization. We went into the building, up the back stairs like immigration deportees, and finally emerged into a familiar corridor. I stopped off at a newsstand and bought myself a decent city map, then found the rental car counter, where I filled out all the paperwork. By 11:05 I was on the 101, heading north toward the city.

The night was clear and cold, the lights of Oakland and Alameda visible to my right across the bay. Traffic moved swiftly, and the city began to take shape around me like a neon confection. Half a mile past Market Street, at Golden Gate Avenue, the 101 dwindled down to a surface road. I drove the short half block to Van Ness and turned left, eventually taking another left onto Lombard. Coffee shops and motels of every size and description lined both sides of the four-lane thoroughfare. Not wanting to devote unnecessary energy to the project, I checked into the Del Rey Motel at the first "Vacant" sign. I would only be there one night. All I needed was a room clean enough that I wouldn't be forced to wear shoes at all times. I asked for accommodations away from the traffic noise and was directed to 343 at the back.

The Del Rey was one of those motels where the management assumes you're going to steal everything in sight. All the coat hangers were designed so the hooks couldn't be removed from the hanging rod. There was a notice on the television warning that removal of the cord and any movement of the set would automatically sound an alarm beyond guest control. The clock radio was bolted to the bed table. This was an establishment fully prepared to outfox thieves and scam artists. I put an ear to the wall, wondering who might be lurking in the room next to mine. I could hear snores rattle against the quiet. That was going to be restful later when I tried to sleep myself. I sat down on the edge of the bed and called the office, leaving my telephone number for Ida Ruth. While I was at it, I dialed my own answering machine, using the remote code to check for messages. None. My winsome long-distance message had netted me no response, which meant I'd have to go a-calling at some point.

It was nearly midnight by now, and I could feel energy seeping out through my pores. Since I'd given up my day life to conduct my business by night, I'd noticed it was getting harder to predict the plunges into exhaustion. I longed to fling myself backward on the bed and fall asleep in my clothes. I roused myself before the notion became too seductive. In the bathroom, a printed notice warned of lingering drought conditions and begged motel guests to use as little water as possible. I took a quick (guilt-ridden) shower, then dried myself on a towel as rough as a sidewalk. I set my duffel on the bed and pulled out clean underwear and panty hose. Then I hauled out the wonder garment, my black all-purpose dress. Not that long ago, this article had been a-fester with ditch water, smelling of mildew and assorted swamp creatures. I'd sent it to the cleaners several times in the intervening months, and by now it was as good as new… unless you sniffed really, really closely. The fabric represented the apex of recent scientific achievement: lightweight, wrinkle-defying, quick-drying, and indestructible. Several of my acquaintances rued this latter quality, begging me to dump the dress and add another to my wardrobe. I couldn't see the point. With its long sleeves and tucked front, the all-purpose dress was perfect (well, adequate) for all occasions. I'd worn it to weddings, funerals, cocktail parties, and court appearances. I gave it a shake and undid the zipper, managing to step into the dress and my black flats simultaneously. No one would mistake me for a fashion plate, but at least I could pass myself off as a grown-up.

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