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Authors: Jonathan Valin

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled

Fire Lake (7 page)

BOOK: Fire Lake
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"But we can't throw him to the police," she
said in a shaken voice. "He just got out of prison, for
chrissake. He'll kill himself for sure if he gets busted again."
She put a hand to her mouth. "I don't think I could stand
that--if I put him back in jail."

"Karen . . ." I said.

"Please, Harry."

I gave Karen a sharp look.

"I know, I know," she said helplessly. She
had begun to blush. She wiped her cheeks with her palms, as if she
could rub away the embarrassment she felt over still caring for
Lonnie. "I'm acting like an idiot. I shouldn't give a damn what
happens to him anymore. Neither should you. He ruined your apartment,
for chrissake. Aren't you mad?"

"I'm worried," I said pointedly.

She stared at me for a moment, blank-faced. "I
guess I never stopped thinking of the police as the enemy. It's a
throwback to another era of my life." She took a deep breath.
"Go ahead. Call them."

"You're doing the right thing--for Lonnie,"
I said with conviction.

She nodded slowly, but she didn't look convinced.

I called Al Foster at Central Station and told him
that I was looking for a missing person. I made up a story about
being hired by Karen, then gave Al a description of Lonnie. I also
told him that Lonnie was unbalanced--a possible suicide. I didn't
mention anything about Lonnie's record or about what we'd found in
rny apartment.

"If you do turn him up, Al," I said, "I'd
appreciate a call. 'The wife is very upset."

"Okay, Harry," he said. "I'll see this
goes in the morning report."

I thanked him and hung up. Karen was staring at me
nervously, from where she was standing by the sofa. "That didn't
hurt, did it?" I said.

"It didn't hurt me," she said balefully.

I walked over to her and put my arm around her
shoulder.

"C'mon," I said. "Let's get out of
here."

"Where?" she said, staring up at me with an
uncertain look.

"We've got to find you someplace to stay."

"I've got enough money for a couple of nights in
a motel," she said as we walked to the door.

"I'll cover your expenses," I said.

She shook her head. "I'll pay for my own
mistakes. It's better that way."

She started down the hall. I took one last look
through the door at the wreckage, and sighed. "God damn it,
Lonnie," I said to myself.

I pulled the door shut, locked it, and followed Karen
down to the lobby.

10

I got Karen a room at the Clarion, downtown. She
wanted something less expensive, but I managed to talk her into
letting me split the bill with her.

"After all," I said as we rode the elevator
up to her room, "he's half my responsibility now."

She eyed me sleepily. "I'm too tired to talk
about it. Tomorrow, we find someplace cheaper."

The room was neat and banal. A couple of double beds,
nightstands with brassy lamps on them, a bureau with a framed mirror,
a painting of a meadow hung over a color TV. As Karen unpacked her
duffel I sat down on one of the double beds. It smelled of dust and
laundry soap--that peculiar young-old smell of hotel rooms, like new
shirts that have been hung in old closets. There was a phone on the
nightstand by the bed. I picked it up and dialed the Greyhound bus
terminal, on Gilbert. Lonnie had left so many possibilities in his
wake that I had trouble keeping them straight. But I didn't want to
let something as obvious as that return bus ticket go by, without
checking it out.

The clerk at the terminal told me that the next bus
to St. Louis left at three that afternoon. When I asked him if it was
possible to find out whether someone had cashed in a return ticket or
not, he said it could be done, but that it would take some time. I
gave him Lonnie's name and my home number, and told him there would
be some cash in it for him if he could get the information to me
promptly. The mention of money shook the sleep from his voice. He
said he'd get right on it, and I believed him.

As I hung up the phone Karen glanced at me, from
where she was kneeling by the bureau. "Where are you going to
sleep?"

"My place, I guess."

"Aren't you forgetting that you don't have a
mattress?" She gestured to the other double bed. "Might as
well get our money's worth."

"I don't think so," I said, getting to my
feet.

Karen stared at me for a long moment. A lock of hair
had fallen across her eyes, and she brushed it back with her hand.

"You know I wasn't inviting you to sleep with
me, Harry," she said with a touch of asperity. "I don't
make a habit of balling my husband's friends. I'm sixties, but not
that sixties, if you get my drift."

I smiled at her. "I appreciate the offer of the
bed. But I think I'm going to take a ride out to the Encantada."

"At this time of night?" She pointed at an
alarm clock bolted to the bureau. It was close to two.

"If Lonnie is in some trouble," I said,
"the sooner I get going on this, the better. There's a chance I
can make things right, if I know who to talk to or who to pay off."

"You'd do that for him?"

"He's still my friend," I said, although I
didn't feel particularly friendly toward him at that moment.

Karen shook her head wearily. "He doesn't
deserve you, Harry."

"What about you? You came when he needed you."
Karen glanced around the hotel room and shuddered. "What the
hell am I doing here? I should be home with my kids. I've got papers
to grade." She slapped her right thigh, as if she were
disciplining a child.

"You know you could go home," I said. "This
is turning into a search for a missing person, and that's my
business. Not yours."

Karen edged over to the corner of the bed and cribbed
her hands in her lap. "I don't think so," she said after a
time. "I mean I don't believe that Lonnie's been kidnapped. I
think he just blew his stack. He's done it plenty of times before."
She stared at her left hand, at the ring finger. I hadn't noticed it
before, but there was a light band of flesh around the bottom joint
where she'd once worn a wedding band. She rubbed the faded imprint
idly, as if the ring were still there. "Still, if something were
. . . wrong. I'd better stay. Through the weekend, at least."

"It's up to you."

I started for the door.

"Will I see you tomorrow?" Karen asked.

I said, "I'll treat you to breakfast."

"If you find anything out at that motel, give me
a call."

"It could be very late, Karen," I said.

She said, "Call anyway. I'm not going to get
much sleep."

I left her sitting on the
bed, staring at her invisible ring.

***

It took me about forty minutes to drive out to
Miamiville. I tried not to think about Lonnie on the way. But it was
hopeless. And the question that kept running through my mind was the
same one that Karen had posed in the hotel room: Why the hell are you
doing this for him? It was past two in the morning, on a treacherous
winter night. My apartment was in ruins. A smart, attractive
woman--more attractive to me than I'd wanted to admit to myself or to
her--was probably tossing sleeplessly on a rented bed, worrying over
a man who had almost destroyed her life and was still trying to
destroy his own. And the man himself, the man I was looking for, was
either crazy or criminally stupid or both. Why the hell was I doing
it? Why wasn't I back in that hotel room, with Karen? Or at my own
apartment, trying to repair the damage?

I couldn't think of an answer to my own questions.
Worse, I knew that the chances were good that I was on a wild-goose
chase. Karen hadn't thought that Lonnie's friends had broken into my
apartment. She'd thought that Lonnie himself had torn it up, in a fit
of rage. If I hadn't wanted to believe that Lonnie wouldn't do that
sort of thing to me--to his old pal, Harry--I might have come around
to her way of thinking. She knew the man; I didn't. I was just going
on an old cop's habit of mind and some fairly dangerous sentiment.

Yet, in spite of the logic
and the unanswerable questions, I kept on driving. For old times'
sake. For that dangerous sentiment's sake. For the odd chance to make
things right again. For my peace of mind. So I could tell myself I'd
done the right thing-this time.

***

At a quarter to three, I pulled into the Encantada
lot and parked beneath the huge yellow-and-red neon motel sign. The
view through the icy windshield hadn't changed from the previous
night--right down to the lone Jeep parked in front of the Quonset hut
with the Miller sign in its window. The sign was off and the hut was
completely dark. At least I wouldn't have to check the bar, I told
myself. I hauled my butt out of the car seat and walked through the
blowing snow to the cottage with the Office sign above the door. The
lights were dimmed inside the office, and, this time, Claude Jenkins
didn't come out to greet me.

I rapped on the office door. When nobody answered, I
tried the knob. The ice made the door stick. I yanked it open and
stepped inside.

Claude wasn't sitting at the desk behind the counter,
but the TV was on in the little storeroom where I'd found Lonnie.
Someone had turned the volume up--so loud that I could hear it
blaring, even though the storeroom door was shut.

There was no point in calling out. The TV was too
loud to talk over. I walked behind the counter and jerked on the
storeroom doorknob.

Claude was sitting inside the storeroom, his back to
the door. A small black-and-white TV was propped on a stool in front
of him. The whole room flickered with the light from the television,
as if it were a green campfire burning in a box. The back of Claude's
white shirt looked green. Even his red hair looked green. I couldn't
see his face from the doorway.

"Jenkins?" I called to him, over the blare
of the TV.

He didn't answer me. I wasn't sure he'd heard me, so
I took a step into the room and froze. I looked down at the floor. It
was too dark to make anything out clearly, but I'd stepped into
something slick and sticky. The TV flickered dimly. When it went
bright again I saw the light reflect off the floor, running like a
lit fuse from the pool I was standing in over to Jenkins's chair,
where another dark puddle had formed by his feet.

"Jesus," I said softly, knowing already
what it was. Knowing but not believing it.

Then I began to smell it, over the burned-coffee
smell, the stale urinous smell of old cardboard boxes, the ozone
smell of the blazing TV. I covered my mouth with one hand, and with
the other, I pulled the Gold Cup out of its holster.

Glancing quickly behind me, to make sure I was alone,
I walked over to Jenkins's chair. The front of his white dress shirt
was open, his black pants were unbuckled and unzipped. The rest of
him was all red, from neck to thigh. A sock had been stuffed in his
mouth. When I looked down at his feet, I realized it was his own
sock. One of his feet was naked. It was red, too, from where the
blood had dripped down his legs. The fact that the blood had stopped
dripping registered somewhere in the back of my mind, although if
you'd asked me, at that moment, what it meant, I wouldn't have been
able to tell you. I wouldn't have been able to make a sentence.

I didn't look at Claude's face for very long. Rigor
had begun to set in and his mouth was beginning to stretch into a
gruesome, yawning smile. It was a particularly horrifying sight with
that sock still wedged between his teeth. I could see from the rope
burns on his wrists that he had been tied to the chair. I turned off
the TV, stuck the gun in its holster, and walked back into the
office. My shoes left bloody imprints on the linoleum. I sat down
behind the wooden desk and stared blankly at the telephone on the
desktop.

I'd just picked up the phone--to call the cops--when
I saw Lonnie's driver's license sitting on the desk. I stared at the
dried blood spots on its frayed plastic surface and felt my heart
sink. Putting the phone back down, I picked the license up and
slipped it into my coat pocket.

Outside, on the highway, a semi passed by with a
rumble that made me jump. Its headlights flashed through the blinded
windows, making barred shadows fly up the office walls and across the
ceiling.

Unnerved, I got up and walked quickly across the
room. I knew I was leaving a trail of bloody shoe-prints behind me.
But nobody could connect them up with me. Nobody could connect the
murder up with Lonnie, either, I thought grimly. Not as long as I had
his license in my pocket. Only that wasn't true. Nothing short of a
thorough search of the office and storeroom could guarantee that
there was no other evidence linking Lonnie to the crime. And I just
didn't have the heart to make that search.

I stepped outside and walked across the lot, dragging
my shoes through the dirty snow to wash off the blood. I glanced at
the motel cottages when I got to the car. They looked as deserted as
they had the night before.

BOOK: Fire Lake
4.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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