There was a moment when he realized another motorist was looking at him with interest, and he didn’t know what he would do; there were people all over the place, and he couldn’t shoot the guy and take off. He looked back at him, and the fellow — he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five — gave him a big grin and a thumbs-up.

Why, for God’s sake?

“Man, Homer’s the bomb,” the guy said, and Keller realized he’d been looking not at his face but at his baseball cap, and was expressing his approval of Homer Simpson, or endorsing Homer’s enthusiasm for beer, or whatever.

Until that moment Keller had been having mixed feelings about the cap. It unquestionably served to render him less identifiable, which was good, but at the same time it drew attention all by itself, which wasn’t. A John Deere cap, a Bud Light cap, a Dallas Cowboys cap — any of those would have offered a degree of invisibility which Homer, embroidered in Day-Glo yellow on a royal blue field, did not begin to provide. He’d even thought about cutting the threads and picking out the embroidery, taking Homer and his mug of suds out of the picture altogether.

But now he was beginning to be just as glad he’d held off. Homer drew attention, as he’d feared he might, but in this instance he’d drawn that attention not to Keller’s face but away from it. The more people noticed Homer, the less attention they paid to Keller. He was just a dude with Homer on his cap, and he’d be sending out the subliminal message that he was safe and unthreatening, because how dangerous was the sort of yokel who’d walk around with Homer Simpson an inch or two north of his eyebrows?


Somehow in the course of skirting the city of Pittsburgh, he managed to lose Route 30, and signs indicated that he was approaching the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It would get him to New York, but he seemed to recall having heard that the state troopers on the Pennsy Pike were hell on speeders. That bit of information might have been twenty years old, if it was ever true in the first place, and he hadn’t exceeded a speed limit since he left Des Moines, but according to another sign, the road he was on would get him to I-80, and that’s where he headed.

Before his encounter with Remsen, he’d have had a more compelling reason to pick I-80. It was free in Pennsylvania, while the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a toll road. When he’d been hoping to stretch his gas money so that it would get him home, it was worth driving out of one’s way to escape a highway toll. But now he had money in his pocket, and the worst thing you could say about a toll booth was that it would give one more person a quick look at his face.

It took him longer than he’d expected to get to the interstate, and he was glad when a rest area provided a chance to stop. He needed a restroom, and while he was there he checked his reflection in the mirror and couldn’t take his eyes off Homer Simpson. Did the image have to be so bright? Maybe he could rub a little dirt on it, tone it down some.

He left it alone, had a look at the map mounted on the wall outside, then returned to his car and sat there, trying to decide if he could make it all the way back to the city in one shot. He probably had enough gas, though there was no point in taking the chance of running out, say, in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, not when Miller Remsen was ready and willing to fill up the tank for him.

What he had to decide was whether to spend another night on the road. A few hours in a real bed had spoiled him, and the idea of trying to sleep in the car was unappealing now. How far was he from the city? Seven, eight hours? More, with stops for gas and food?

At a rough estimate, he calculated that he’d hit the city around three or four in the morning if he drove straight through. That might not be a bad time to turn up at his apartment. There’d be fewer people on the streets, and the ones who were out and about at that hour were apt to be too drunk to notice him, or to remember if they did.

A line of thought tried to intrude, and his mind deliberately pushed it aside…

If he drove straight through, he thought, he’d arrive tired and worn out, and was that the best way to land on his own doorstep? He’d want to crawl into bed the minute he got through the door, and he wouldn’t be able to, because he’d have tons of things to do. Never mind the mail, which always piled up when he took a trip. There’d be plenty of other things demanding his immediate attention. There always were.

That thought again, and again he never let himself become entirely conscious of it, warding it off almost without effort.

He switched on the radio for the first time since he’d left Remsen’s place, but he was in the mountains now and the reception was bad. The only station he could pick up was playing music, and the static was so heavy he couldn’t even tell what kind of music it was.

He switched it off. It seemed unlikely that they’d have discovered Remsen’s body. The sign he’d left would explain the man’s absence, and they’d need a compelling reason to break down his door and look around inside. The man lived alone, and if he had a friend in the world, Keller hadn’t seen any evidence of it.

He glanced over at the squat brick building that housed the restrooms and vending machines. Alongside the entrance he’d noticed a coin box with copies of USA Today, but hadn’t thought to pick one up. It struck him now that it might not be a bad idea to find out what was happening in the world, especially since the radio wasn’t going to do much for him for the next few hours. He opened the door and got out of the car, and a big SUV picked that moment to pull into the rest area and park right in front of the little brick building, and its doors opened to let out two adults and four small children, all in a hurry to use the john.

Far too many people all at once. He got back in his car. The paper could wait.

He got on the road again and thought about the man he’d killed in Indiana. There might be another crusty old fart who went hunting and fishing with Remsen, or came over and played gin rummy with him, and sooner or later somebody would pop the door and find the body, but by then he’d have long since ditched the man’s credit card — and the Sentra as well, as far as that was concerned, because he’d be back in New York, where you didn’t need a car and had to be crazy to own one.

Whether he made it in one day or two, whether he drove straight through or found a place to sleep, he’d be back in New York in a matter of hours. Out of harm’s way, and safe at home.

A sign advertised a restaurant at the next exit, boasting that the place offered Pennsylvania Dutch home cooking. Keller found the prospect irresistible, although he wasn’t quite sure what the Pennsylvania Dutch cooked at home. Nowadays, he thought, they probably brought something home from the Grand Union and popped it in the microwave just like everybody else, but he guessed the restaurant harkened back to a simpler era. He took the exit, found the restaurant, pulled into the parking lot, and wondered what the hell he thought he was doing.

Because it was a regular walk-in-and-sit-down restaurant, where you sat at a table and ordered from a menu, and the waitress brought your food to you. And she got a look at you, and so did the other customers, and that was precisely what he’d gone to great lengths to avoid, ever since his face first turned up on the television screen in the Days Inn back in Des Moines. True, he had a baseball cap now, but it wasn’t as though he was hiding behind an Ann Coulter mask. His face was still out there for all the world to see.

He put the car in gear, backed out of the lot, and found a Hardee’s with a drive-up window. He picked up his food, parked a dozen yards away, ate it, dropped his trash in the can, and found his way to the entrance ramp and back onto the interstate.

Now what was all that about? The mouthwatering prospect of shoofly pie and apple pandowdy? Had his appetite somehow taken over for his brain?

He thought about it, and figured out what it was.

He was in Pennsylvania, and a lot nearer to home than to Iowa. And the closer he got to New York, the safer he felt. Add in the sense of security that came with having money in his pocket, and the way his baseball cap had smoothed the way for him the last time he filled the gas tank, and he had evidently come to believe he had nothing to worry about.

Soon, he thought. Soon he’d be home. But he wasn’t there yet.

A couple of hours later, he managed to convince himself that the motel wasn’t nearly as risky as the Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant.

There would be no other patrons involved, for one thing. The only person he’d see would be whoever checked him in. And he’d be wearing the baseball cap with the brim down over his forehead, and he’d have his head lowered while he filled out the registration card. And the motel was an independent, not affiliated with a national chain, and that increased the odds that the owner-operator would be an immigrant from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, he’d probably be from Gujarat, and the odds were good that his surname would be Patel.

For years now, people from the Indian state of Gujarat, most of them named Patel, had been buying American motels all over the country. It seemed likely to Keller that there was at least one training academy in Gujarat’s main city, whatever they called it, devoted to schooling ambitious locals in motel management. Our topic today, good students, concerns the proper placement of the mint upon the pillow. Tomorrow we will discuss the paper band proclaiming the toilet to be sanitized for your protection.

If Keller’s face was an unremarkable one, rarely warranting a second glance, wouldn’t it be even less remarkable to someone from a significantly different ethnic background? Keller wasn’t overly given to racial or ethnic stereotypes, and had never been one to say that all Asians or Africans looked alike, but there was no dodging the fact that, when he got an initial look at someone racially different from himself, what he saw first and foremost was that difference. He saw a black man, or a Korean woman, or a Pakistani; later, through familiarity, he was better able to make out the individual.

And, if you were a man or woman from Gujarat, wouldn’t it work in about the same fashion when you looked over the counter of your motel at a white American? Wouldn’t you see what your prospective customer was before you saw who he was? And, since all you had to do was run his credit card and hand him a room key, would there ever be any reason for you to pay attention to any more of him than you saw on first glance?

Keller decided to risk it.

There was no one at all behind the desk when Keller opened the door to the motel office, but he didn’t need to see anybody to know that his first assumption was correct. The owners were from India, if not necessarily from Gujarat. The rich smell of curry left no room for doubt.

It was not an aroma you expected to encounter in the hills of central Pennsylvania, and it had an even stronger effect upon Keller than had the phrase Pennsylvania Dutch home cooking. Here was a smell that promised everything that had been missing from all those fast-food hamburgers and fries. Keller wasn’t hungry, he’d eaten not that long ago, but hunger was somehow beside the point. He wanted to find the source of that wonderful bouquet and roll around in it like a dog in carrion — an image, he reflected, that flattered neither himself nor the food, but even so— Copyright 2016 - 2024