The answering machine wasn’t the only thing on the floor. They’d been through his drawers and closets, and the contents of several dresser drawers had been dumped out, but as far as he could make out his clothes were all there. He picked out a few things, shirts and socks and underwear, a pair of sneakers, things he might find a use for on the way to wherever he would go next. Now, he thought, stamps or no stamps, he’d finally find a use for that fucking duffel bag, and he went to the closet where he kept it and the damn thing was gone.
Well, of course, he thought. The bastards had needed something to hold the stamp albums, and they wouldn’t have known to bring anything because they’d only have found out about the stamp collection when they saw it. So they kept hunting until they found the duffel.
He’d have been unable to fill it, anyway. A shopping bag held what little he felt like taking.
He set the bag down and found a small screwdriver in the hardware drawer in the kitchen, used it to remove the switch plate on the bedroom wall. Years ago, before Keller moved into the apartment, there must have been a ceiling fixture in the bedroom, but a previous tenant had remodeled it out of existence. The wall switch remained, but didn’t do anything, a fact Keller demonstrated repeatedly early on by forgetting and flicking the thing to no purpose.
When he bought the apartment and became a property owner instead of a tenant, it seemed to him that some sort of home improvement was in order to mark the occasion, and he took the switch plate off, intending to stuff the cavity with steel wool, spackle over it, and paint it to match the surrounding wall. But once he opened it up he recognized it for the ideal hiding place it was, and it had held his emergency cash fund ever since.
The money was still there, just over twelve hundred dollars. He replaced the switch plate, wondering why he was wasting time on it. He would never be coming back to this apartment.
He didn’t waste further time replacing the dresser drawers, or straightening the mess his visitors had left. Nor did he wipe away his fingerprints. It was his apartment, he’d lived in it for years, and his prints were all over it, and what difference did it make? What difference did anything make?
When Keller got to the lobby, Neil was standing on the sidewalk to the left of the entrance, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes aimed somewhere around the seventh floor of the building across the street. Keller looked, and the only lighted windows had their shades drawn, so it was hard to guess what was over there to hold such interest for the doorman. Keller decided it wasn’t what he was seeing, it was what he was taking care not to look at, which in this case was Keller.
Sure, Officer, and I never set eyes on the man.
The man’s stance didn’t invite speech, so Keller passed him without a word, carrying his shopping bag in one hand, feeling the pressure of the SIG Sauer in the small of his back. He walked to the corner and put on his Homer Simpson cap even as he disappeared forever from Neil’s field of vision.
On the next block, he stopped for a moment to watch a tow truck’s two-man crew making their preparations for the removal of the Lincoln Town Car. No longer shielded by its DPL plates, or any plates at all, and being at once too far from the curb and right in front of a hydrant, it was an outstanding candidate for a tow, and would soon be on its way to the impound lot.
The sight of this gladdened Keller beyond all reason. There was, he knew, a German word — Schadenfreude — for what he was feeling; it meant experiencing joy through the pain of another, and Keller didn’t suppose it was the noblest of emotions.
But he found himself smiling broadly all the way to his car, and just minutes ago he would have deemed it unlikely that he’d ever have occasion to smile again. Schadenfreude, he could only conclude, was better than no Freude at all.
The bridge and tunnel tolls were only collected from cars entering Manhattan. It cost you six dollars to come in and nothing to leave. That halved the number of agents required to collect the money, but Keller had always figured there was a further underpinning of logic to the scheme. After a visit to the big bad city, how many tourists still had enough money left to buy their way out?
What it meant to him was one less person who’d get a look at his face. He left the city via the Lincoln Tunnel and stopped at the first convenient place on the Jersey side to unfasten the DPL tags, which could draw unwelcome attention outside of the city. He didn’t foresee any further use for them, but it seemed a waste to toss them, and he put them in the trunk, next to the spare tire.
He wondered if the Lincoln’s owner would ever be reunited with his car, and if its disappearance might touch off an international incident. Maybe there’d be something about it in the papers.
He drove at first with no destination in mind, and when he finally asked himself where he was going, all he could think of was the Gujarati motel in Pennsylvania where he’d spent the previous night. “Me again,” he’d say, and the slim dark girl in the parochial school getup would check him in with as little interest as she’d shown the first time. But could he even find the place? It was off Route 80, he knew that much, and he might recognize the exit when he got to it, but—
But it was a bad idea, he realized.
It was familiarity that made it attractive. He’d stayed there once, without incident, and that led him to regard it as safe. But suppose the girl who’d paid so little attention to him at the time had seen the inescapable photograph once more since his departure, and suppose it had rung a little bell, barely more audible than the rustle of that beaded curtain. She wouldn’t bother to call the authorities, after all the man had checked out by then, and maybe she only fancied his resemblance to the man in the photograph. She might mention it to her parents, but that’s as far as it would go.
Unless he was sufficiently brain-dead to show up again, giving her the chance for a good long look this time around, one that would confirm her suspicions. And the recognition might show on her face, the legendary inscrutability of Asians notwithstanding, in which case he’d have to do something about it. Or it wouldn’t, and she’d check him in, wish him a pleasant evening, and pick up the phone the minute he was out of the office.
Besides, it was already two in the morning, and it would be another four hours or more before he reached the motel. Guests did drive all night and check in at daybreak, but not too many of them, because they’d run up against the motel’s checkout time, which was generally noon at the latest. So anyone who showed up at six or seven in the morning was inviting more than the usual amount of attention, along with a time-wasting conversation about checkout time and the need to pay for a second night, and—
Never mind. It was a bad idea, and it was out of the question even if it had been a good idea, and the only appealing thing about it, its familiarity, was actually not so good after all.
Should he just grab the first right-looking motel he came to? It was late, and it had been a long day, and he might think more clearly after a night’s sleep.
Still, he was awfully close to New York. Earlier, heading east, he’d felt safer the closer he got to New York. Now New York felt perilous, and he felt safer the more distance he put between himself and the city.
Should he eat something? Grab a cup of coffee?
He hadn’t eaten anything since the movie house popcorn, but he wasn’t hungry. Didn’t much want coffee, either. And, while he was tired and his nerves frayed, he wasn’t what you would call sleepy.
A rest area loomed ahead, and he pulled off and parked. The little building was locked up for the night, but the whole area was empty, and he peed in the bushes and went back to his car. He made himself comfortable behind the wheel and closed his eyes, and within seconds the lids popped right back up again. Another attempt yielded the same results. He gave up, turned the key, pulled out of the rest area and drove on.
Ten days later he made a tub of popcorn last all the way through a film in which a team of teenage computer nerds flimflammed a mob of Mafia tough guys and made off with several million dollars; the hero, who was a shade less geekier than his buddies, wound up with the girl, too. The film was obviously designed to appeal to a youthful audience, and the oldsters who bought their half-price tickets for weekday afternoons had given this one the wide berth it clearly deserved.
Keller would have passed, too, but it was the only show on offer that he hadn’t already seen. There were eight screens at that theater, screening a total of six films — the two most popular pictures got two screens apiece, so that you never had more than an hour’s wait for either of them. Keller had seen them both, and three of the other four, and now he’d seen the geek picture, too. He checked his watch, and it was early enough so that he could have slipped into one of the other rooms and taken a second shot at one of the other films, but most of them hadn’t been that much fun the first time, and he didn’t suppose a repeat viewing would uncover subtleties he’d missed the first time around.
The theater was part of a mall on the edge of Jackson, Mississippi. He’d spent the previous night in another of what he’d taken to thinking of as the Patel Motels, as if they constituted a vast chain of independents. This one was not far from Grenada, Mississippi, its official location a wide place in the road with the improbable name of Tie Plant. He’d weighed his options during the movie, but he hadn’t quite decided whether he’d drive a little farther or start looking for a motel on the way out of Jackson. Decisions of that sort, like where to go next or what to do when he got there, tended to make themselves.
He left the theater, walked to his car. He was wearing the Homer Simpson cap, as always, but a few days ago he’d expanded his wardrobe with the addition of a denim jacket that someone had conveniently abandoned in another movie house somewhere in Tennessee. It had been a warm evening, so the jacket’s owner could have gotten all the way home before he missed it, and when he came back in a day or two and failed to recover it, he could walk around scratching his head and wondering why anyone would walk off with such a ratty old thing, its cuffs and collar frayed and some of its seams starting to come undone.
Keller liked the garment well enough. It smelled a little of its former owner, just as his own blazer smelled a little of him, but it wasn’t rank enough to put him off. It made a change, and an appropriate one in his current surroundings. A blue blazer, as Playboy and GQ assured their readers a couple of times a year, was the keystone of a man’s wardrobe, perfectly acceptable at every sartorial situation short of a black-tie dinner or a wet T-shirt contest. That seemed to be true, and Keller had appreciated the garment’s versatility ever since he left Des Moines, but in the rural South it had a harder time passing in a crowd. Keller wasn’t whooping and slapping his knee at truck-pulling contests or handling serpents at Baptist jamborees, but all the same he felt less conspicuous in some good old boy’s denim jacket.
There were two impulses that seemed to come naturally to a fugitive, or at least to the sort of fugitive Keller seemed to have become. The first was to run hard and fast, and the second was to go to ground somewhere, to get in bed and hide under the covers.