F is for Fugitive Page 61

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"I don't think he killed her, if that's what you mean. I wouldn't stick with him if I thought he did that. Anyway, the cops know he lied about the time and they never cared."

"The cops knew?"

"Sure, I'd assume so. They probably saw her themselves. Ten o'clock, they're always down at the beach. That's where they have their coffee break."

"Jesus, people in this town have sure been content to make Bailey the scapegoat."

Cherie stirred restlessly. "I have to get home."

"If you think of anything else, will you let me know?"

"If I'm still around, I will, but don't count on it."

"I appreciate that. Take care."

But she was gone.

20

It was eleven o'clock when I finally eased into bed. Exhaustion was making my whole body ache. I lay there, acutely aware of my heartbeat as it pulsed in my throbbing forearm. This would never do. I hauled myself into the bathroom and washed down some Tylenol with codeine. I didn't even want to think about the day's events. I didn't care what had happened seventeen years ago or what would happen seventeen years hence. I wanted healing sleep in excessive doses, and I finally gave myself up to a formless oblivion, undisturbed by dreams.

It was 2:00 A.M. when the ringing telephone woke me from the dead. I picked up the receiver automatically and laid it on my ear. I said, "What."

The voice was labored and slow, low-pitched, gravelly, and mechanically slurred. "You bitch, I'm going to tear you apart. I'm going to make you wish you'd never come to Floral Beach…"

I slammed the phone down and snatched my hand back before the guy got out another word. I sat straight up, heart thudding. I'd been sleeping so soundly that I didn't know where I was or what was going on. I searched the shadows, disoriented, tuning in belatedly to the sound of the ocean thundering not fifty yards away, discerning in the tawny reflection of the streetlights that I was in a motel room. Ah yes, Floral Beach. Already, I was wishing I'd never come. I pushed the covers back and padded, in my underpants and tank top, across the room, peering out through the sheers.

The moon was down, the night black, surf tumbling its pewter beads along the sand. The street below was deserted. A comforting oblong of yellow light to my left suggested that someone else was awake-reading, perhaps, or watching late-night TV. As I watched, the light was flicked off, leaving the balcony dark.

The phone shrilled again, causing me to jump. I crossed to the bed table and lifted the receiver cautiously, placing it against my ear. Again, I heard the muffled, dragging speech. It had to be the same voice Daisy had heard at Pearl's when someone called to ask for Tap. I pressed a hand to my free ear, trying to pick up any background sounds from the caller's end of the line. The threat was standard fare, real ho-hum stuff. I kept my mouth shut and let the voice ramble on. What kind of person made crank calls like this? The real hostility lay in the disruption of sleep, a diabolical form of harassment.

The repeat call was a tactical error. The first time, I'd been too groggy to make sense of it, but I was wide awake now. I squinted in the dark, blanking out the message so I could concentrate on the mode. Lots of white noise. I heard a click, but the line was still alive. I said, "Listen, asshole. I know what you're up to. I'll figure out who you are and it won't take me long, so enjoy." The phone went dead. I left mine off the hook.

I kept the lights off while I pulled my clothes on in haste and gave my teeth a quick brushing. I knew the trick. In my handbag I carry a little voice-activated tape recorder with a variable speed. If you record at 2.4 centimeters per second and play back at 1.2, you can produce the same effect: that sullen, distorted, growling tone that seems to come from a talking gorilla with a speech impediment. There was no way to guess, of course, how the voice would sound if it were played back at the proper speed. It could be male or female, young or old, but it almost had to be a voice I would recognize. Else, why the disguise?

I unlocked my briefcase and took out my little.32, loving the smooth, cold weight of it against my palm. I'd only fired the Davis at the practice range, but I could hit damn near anything. I tucked my room key in my jeans pocket and eased the door open a crack. The corridor was dark, but it had an empty feel to it. I didn't really believe anyone would be there. People who intend to kill you don't usually give fair warning first. Murderers are notoriously poor sports, refusing to play by the rules that govern the rest of us. These were scare tactics, meant to generate paranoia. I didn't take the death-and-dismemberment talk very seriously. Where could you rent a chain saw at this time of night? I pulled the door shut behind me and slipped down the stairs.

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