K is for Killer Page 68

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Cheney shrugged. "We investigated for months and didn't get anywhere."

"Yeah, I know. I don't know what made me think I could make a difference."

"What an egotist," he said. "You work on a case three days and you think, boom, you should be solving it."

"Is that all it's been? Feels like I've been on this sucker for weeks."

"Anyway, something will break. Killer's been sitting around all this time thinking he's in the clear. He's not going to like it that you're nosing around."

"Or she."

"Right. Let's don't get sexist about homicide," he said.

Cheney's pager went off. Until that moment I hadn't even been aware that he was toting one. He checked the number and then excused himself, going into the rear of the bar to use the pay phone. When he came back, he said he had to leave. One of his informants had been arrested and was asking for him.

After he left, I hung around long enough to finish my wine. Business was picking up, and the noise level was rising, along with the toxic levels of secondhand cigarette smoke. I grabbed my jacket and my shoulder bag and headed for the parking lot. It was not even midnight, but all the parking spaces were filled and cars were beginning to line the road out in front.

The sky was overcast. The lights from the city made the cloud cover glow. Across the road, at the bird refuge, a low mist was rising from the freshwater lagoon. A faint sulfurous smell seemed to permeate the air. Crickets and frogs masked the sounds of traffic on the distant highway. Closer at hand, an approaching freight train sounded its horn like a brief organ chord. I could feel the ground rumble faintly as the searchlight swept around the bend. The man on the hike went by. I turned and stared after him. The mounting thunder of the train made his passage seem as silent as a mime's. All I was aware of was the dancing of the lights, his juggling performance, for which I was an audience of one.

In the side lot, I spotted the rounded roofline of my VW where I'd parked it in a circle of artificial light. A shiny black stretch limousine was parked across the row of cars, blocking four vehicles, including mine. I peered toward the driver's side. The window was lowered soundlessly. I paused, pointing at my car to indicate that I was hemmed in. The chauffeur touched his cap but made no move to start his engine. Little Miss Helpful, I waited for half a second and then said, "Sorry to bother you, but if you can just move up about three feet, I think I can squeeze out. I'm the VW at the back." The chauffeur's gaze moved to a point behind me, and I turned to see what he was looking at.

The two men had emerged from the bar and were heading in our direction, feet crunching on gravel, their progress leisurely. I moved on toward my car, thinking to go ahead and unlock it and get in. No point in standing in the cold, I thought. The cadence of the footsteps picked up, and I turned to see what was going on. The two men appeared on either side of me, crowding in close, each man gripping an arm. "Hey!" I said.

"Please be very quiet," one of them murmured.

They began to walk me toward the limo, virtually hoisting me off the ground so that my feet barely touched as they hurried me along. I felt like a kid being held aloft by my parents, lifted over curbs and puddles. When you're little, this is fun. When you're big, it's scary stuff. The rear door of the limo opened. I tried to dig my heels in, but I had no purchase.

By the time I gathered myself and bucked, squawking, "Help!" I was in the back of the limo with the door slammed shut.

The interior was black leather and burled walnut. I could see a compact bar, a phone, and a blank television screen. Above my head, a band of varicolored lighted buttons controlled every aspect of the passengers' comfort: air temperature, windows, reading lights, the sliding moon roof. The interior glass privacy panel was rolled up between us and the chauffeur. I sat there, squeezed in between the two guys on the back bench seat, facing a third man across a spacious length of plush black carpeting. In the interest of personal safety, I made a point of looking straight ahead. I didn't want to be able to identify the two sidekicks. The guy facing me didn't seem to care if I looked at him or not. All three men were throwing out body heat, absorbed by the silence, which ate up all but the sounds of heavy breathing, largely mine.

The only lights on in the limo were small side bars. The floods from the parking lot were cut by the heavily tinted windows, but there was still ample illumination. The atmosphere in the car was tense, as if the gravitational field were somehow different here than in the rest of the world. Maybe it was the overcoats, the conviction I had that everybody in the car was packing except me. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest and the sick thrill of sweat trickling down my side. Often fear makes me sassy, but not this time. I felt excessively respectful. These were men who operated by a set of rules different from mine. Who knew what they'd consider rude or offensive?

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