“Why? Isn’t that what they’re for? They may not prevent crime or catch criminals, but afterwards you call them and they come in and take care of stuff. Why don’t you want me to—”
She broke off the words on her own, and she looked at him, and he saw her take in the visual information, saw it all register. She put her hand to her mouth and stared at him.
“You’re safe,” he told her.
“Look,” he said, “I didn’t save your life so that I could kill you myself. You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
She looked at him, thought it over, nodded. She was older than he’d thought at first, well up in her thirties. A pretty woman, with dark hair that fell to her shoulders.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “But you’re—”
“And you’re here in New Orleans.”
“Just for today.”
“Then I’ll go somewhere else.” In the distance he heard the wail of a siren, but where it was headed and whether it was an ambulance or a police car was impossible to say. “We can’t just hang around here,” he said.
“No, of course not.”
“I’ll walk you to your car,” he said, “and then I’ll get out of your life, and out of your city. I can’t tell you what to do, but if you could just forget you ever saw me—”
“That might be difficult. But I won’t say anything, if that’s what you mean.”
That was what he meant.
They left the park, walked along Camp Street. The siren — ambulance, police, whatever it was — had faded out somewhere in the distance. At length she broke the silence to ask where he would go next, and before he could think how to respond she said, “No, don’t tell me. I don’t even know why I asked.”
“I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to.”
“Why not? Oh, because you don’t know. I guess you have to wait until they tell you where to go next. You’re smiling, did I say something ridiculous?”
He shook his head. “I’m out here all by myself,” he said. “There’s nobody to tell me what to do next.”
“I thought you were part of a conspiracy.”
“The way a pawn’s part of a chess tournament.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, how could you? I’m not sure there’s anything to follow. Where’s your car parked?”
“In my garage,” she said. “I got restless, I went out for a walk. I live a few blocks over that way.”
“And you don’t have to walk me home, really. I’ll be all right.” She laughed sharply, broke it off. “I was just about to say this is a safe neighborhood, and it is, really. You’re probably in a hurry to get… well, wherever it is you’re going.”
“I ought to be.”
“But you’re not?”
“No,” he said. It was true, he wasn’t in a hurry, and he wondered why. They fell silent, walked past another large two-story frame house with porches on both floors. A rocking chair, he thought, and a glass of iced tea, and someone to talk with.
Without planning to, he said, “Not that you’d have any reason to believe me, and not that it matters, but I didn’t kill that man in Iowa.”
She let his words hang there, and he wondered why he’d felt the need to say them. Then, softly, she said, “I believe you.”
“Why would you believe me?”
“I don’t know. Why did you just now fight that man and kill him and save my life? The police are looking for you everywhere. Why would you run such a risk?”
“I’ve been wondering that myself. From the standpoint of self-preservation, it was a pretty stupid thing to do. And I knew that, too, but that didn’t help. I just… reacted.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“So am I.”
What he said, instead of answering her question, was, “Ever since the assassination in Des Moines, ever since I saw a picture of myself on CNN, I’ve been running. Driving around, sleeping in my car, sleeping in cheap motels, sleeping in movie theaters. The only person I ever really cared about is dead and the only possession I treasured is gone. All my life I’ve always figured things would work out and I’d get by, and for years they did, and I did, and it feels as though the string’s pretty much played out. Sooner or later I’ll slip up, or sooner or later they’ll get lucky, and they’ll catch up with me. And the only good thing about that is I’ll get to stop running.”
He drew a breath. “I didn’t mean to say all that,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from.”
“What difference does it make?” She stopped walking, turned to face him. “I said I believed you. That you didn’t do it.”
“And I think I said it didn’t matter. Not that you believe me, that does matter, though I don’t know why it should. But whether I did it or not, that doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does! If they framed an innocent man—”
“They framed me, all right. But it’s a hell of a stretch to call me innocent.”
“That man in the park just now. He wasn’t the first man you ever killed, was he?”
She nodded. “You were awfully proficient at it,” she said. “It looked like something you might have done before.”
“I left New Orleans years ago. That’s unusual, most people who start out here never leave. The city gets a hold on a person.”
“I can understand that.”
“But I had to get out,” she said, “and I left. And then after Katrina, when half the city left, that’s when I came back. Trust me to get everything backwards.”
“What brought you back?”
“My father. He’s dying.”
“So’s he. He didn’t want to go to a hospice. This is a man who wouldn’t let them evacuate him during the hurricane, and he said he’d be damned if he’d leave his house now. ‘I was born in this house, chère, and I shall damn well die in it.’ As a matter of fact he was born in a hospital, like most people, but I guess you’re allowed to exaggerate when you’re being eaten alive by cancer. And I tried to think what I had to do in my life that was more important than nursing him and letting him die at home, and I couldn’t think of a thing.”
“You’re not married.”
“Not anymore. You?”
He shook his head. “Never.”
“Mine lasted a year and a half. No children. All I had was a job and an apartment, and they were nothing I couldn’t walk away from. Now I do substitute teaching a couple of days a week, and hire a woman to tend to Daddy when I’m working. What I make doesn’t do much more than cover what I have to pay her, but it makes a change.”
Chère, he thought. Like the singer? Or was it short for Sharon or Sherry or Cheryl, something like that?
Like it mattered.
“That’s my house on the next block. With the azaleas and rhododendrons in front, so overgrown they’re hiding the downstairs porch. They ought to be trimmed, but I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“It looks nice. A little lush and untamed, but nice all the same.”
“The ground-floor sitting room’s got his bed in it, so he doesn’t have to bother with the stairs, and I made up a bed for myself in the den for the same reason. The whole second floor’s empty, and I can’t remember the last time anyone had occasion to go up there.”
“Just the two of you in that big house?”
“There’ll be three tonight,” she said, “and you’ll have the entire second floor all to yourself.”
He waited in the hallway while she saw to her father. “I’ve brought a man home, Daddy,” he heard her say.
“Well, aren’t you the little hellion.”
“Not like that,” she said. “You’re an old man with a dirty mind. This gentleman’s a friend of Pearl O’Byrne’s, he needs a place to stay. He’ll be upstairs, and if it works out he might rent that front room.”
“Just be more work for you, chère. Not saying the money won’t come in handy.”
He felt like an eavesdropper, and walked out of earshot. He was looking at a framed print of a horse jumping a fence when she emerged and led him to the kitchen.
She made a pot of coffee, and when it had dripped through she filled two large mugs and set them on the kitchen table, along with a sugar bowl and a little pitcher of cream. He said he preferred his coffee black, and she said so did she, and returned the cream to the refrigerator. They talked while they drank their coffee, and then she said he must be hungry and insisted on making him a sandwich.
Once, years ago, starved for a sounding board, he’d bought a stuffed animal, a little plush dog, and carried it around with him for a week or two just so he’d have someone to talk to. The dog had been a good listener, never interrupting, just taking everything in, but he’d been no better in the role than this woman was now. He talked until they’d finished the pot of coffee, and didn’t object when she made a second pot, and talked some more.
“I was wondering what was in the bag,” she said, when he’d told about wanting to change his appearance. He showed her the clippers and the packet of hair dye. The clippers would probably work okay, she said, although it would be hard for a person to use them on his own head. As for the hair dye, she thought he’d be taking an awful chance. It might work to turn gray or white hair the promised shade of light brown, but apply it to hair as dark as his own and you might wind up with something more in the tangerine family.
And you couldn’t really dye dark hair gray, she told him. What you could do, say for a costume ball or a theatrical role, was spray what was essentially a gray paint onto your hair. It would wash out, though, so you would have to renew it after every shampoo, or even after getting caught in the rain, and a wig would be simpler and more effective.
He said he’d thought about a wig, and ruled it out, and she agreed, saying you could always spot a man wearing a hairpiece. But could you? If it fooled you, you’d never know you’d been fooled.
“I dye my hair,” she said suddenly. “Could you tell?”
“Are you serious?”
She nodded. “I started six, seven years ago, when the first gray hairs showed up. All the women in my family go gray early, they have this magnificent silver hair and everyone says how they look like queens. I said the hell with that, and I went looking for Miss Clairol. I’ve never let it grow out, so I don’t know how gray I’d be by now if I did, and with luck I’ll never find out. You really can’t tell?”