“They might have done that.”
“But maybe not?”
“Assuming it’s still there, would it even work? Wouldn’t the battery be dead by now?”
“But I suppose they sell batteries.”
“Even in the middle of Iowa,” he said.
“The Laurel Inn. You wouldn’t happen to remember their phone number, do you? No, of course not. They never put it on a stamp.”
He went over to the window and looked out at the city while she used the phone and spoke first to an information operator, then to the reservations person at the Laurel Inn. She hung up and said, “Well, there’s a woman who’s convinced I’m completely out of my mind.”
“But it worked.”
“‘We have to be on the second floor, because my husband can’t bear to have footsteps overhead. And I don’t want traffic noise, and I’m sensitive to light, and we both need to be near the stairs, but not right on top of the stairs, and I looked at a diagram on the Web and you know what room would suit us perfectly?’”
“It sounds nuts,” he agreed, “but when you were talking to the clerk, you sounded perfectly reasonable.”
“We’ve got two-oh-four for three nights starting tomorrow. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That seems like a long time to share a room.”
“One night would be a long time for the two of us to share a room, Keller. You’re not going to be spending even one night at the Laurel Inn, and neither am I. The only reason to book us in there is so that we can get the key. You didn’t happen to keep your key all these months, did you? Along with that phone number?”
“No, and it wouldn’t be good anyway. They use key cards and they reset the system every time they turn the room over.”
“You have to pity all the guys who spent years learning to pick locks, and woke up one morning in an electronic world. They must feel like linotype operators in the age of computerized type-setting, with these sophisticated skills that turned out to be completely useless. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Never mind. I had to book three nights because I couldn’t go through all that song and dance about how only two-oh-four would do, not if I was only going to keep the room for a single night. I wonder if they’ve even got a diagram of the layout on their website.”
“I wonder if they’ve even got a website.”
“Everybody does, Keller. Even I have a website.”
“It’s under construction.”
“And it may stay that way for quite a while. I’ll book us a couple of tickets, or do you want to drive? How far is it?”
“It’s got to be a thousand miles, or close to it.”
“And our reservation’s for tomorrow night, so I guess we fly. Do you still have a gun?”
“The SIG Sauer I picked up in Indiana. I can’t take it on a plane.”
“Not even in checked luggage?”
“There’s probably a regulation against it, and even if there isn’t, it’s too good a way to draw attention. Some clown sees the outline of a gun in your bag and you’re in for a long day.”
“You want to drive? I’ll fly up and pick up the room key and you can hit the road in your dusty pickup. Des Moines’s north of here, right?”
“Like most of the country.”
“But pretty much due north? Right there on the Mississippi, isn’t it?”
He shook his head. “West of it.”
“Weren’t you in Iowa, that time the client did a number on us—”
“That other time a client did a number on us.”
“The Mercenary Times case. Wasn’t that Iowa, and didn’t you throw something into the Mississippi?”
“That was Muscatine.”
“That’s the name of the damn place. I was trying to think of it earlier and I kept getting Muscatel, and I knew that wasn’t it. Des Moines is west of there, not on the Mississippi?”
“Now you’ve got it.”
“Unless I get on Jeopardy! I don’t know why I need to fill my head with all this crap. You want to do that, drive up while I fly?”
“Just so I can bring a gun? No, the hell with it. Anyway, I don’t want to be there in a vehicle that somebody could trace back to New Orleans.”
“I didn’t even think of that. We’ll both fly.” She picked up her phone. “I’ll book our flight. Tell me your name again, will you? I don’t know why I can’t remember it. What they need to do, Keller, is put your picture on a stamp.”
They flew Delta to Des Moines, with a change of planes in Atlanta. Both legs of the flight were routine, except that they had to sit three rows apart from Atlanta to Des Moines, and Dot was sure the man next to her was an air marshal. “I kept telling myself not to do anything suspicious,” she said. “It was nerve-racking and reassuring at the same time.”
She’d booked her ticket in her new name, Wilma Ann Corder. She’d found the name years ago, the same way Keller had found Nicholas Edwards, and had assembled a whole identity kit, passport and driver’s license and Social Security, along with half a dozen credit cards. She’d rented a post office box in that name and even subscribed to a needlepoint magazine, which she tossed every month when she checked her box. “Then for three years,” she said, “they sent me these plaintive requests to renew my subscription. But what the hell do I care about needlepoint?”
As Wilma Ann Corder, she picked up a rental car in Des Moines. It wasn’t from Hertz and it wasn’t a Sentra, and Keller thought that was all to the good. On the way to the Laurel Inn she said, “You were lucky, Keller. Nick Edwards suits you, especially with the new haircut and glasses. And Edwards is common as dirt. Corder’s pretty rare, but there are just enough of them around so that I keep getting asked if I’m related to this one or that one. I tell them it was my ex-husband’s name and I don’t know anything about his family. As for Wilma, don’t get me started.”
“You don’t like it?”
“I can’t stand it. I’ve got just about everybody trained out of calling me that.”
“What do they call you?”
“How did Dot get to be short for Wilma?”
“I made an executive decision, Keller. Tell me you haven’t got a problem with that.”
“‘People call me Dot,’ I say, and that’s generally enough. If anybody asks, I just say it’s a long story. Tell people something’s a long story and they’re usually happy to let you get away without telling it.”
Keller waited in the car while Dot went to the front desk to register, wishing she’d parked in back, or at least somewhere other than the waiting area opposite the front door, wishing he’d remembered to bring his Saints baseball cap. He felt more visible than he wanted to be, and tried to remind himself that no one at the Laurel Inn had ever laid eyes on him.
She came out brandishing two key cards. “One for each of us,” she said, “just in case we get separated between here and the room. The girl who checked me in must have been a Chatty Cathy doll in a previous life. ‘Oh, I see we’ve got you in two-oh-four, Ms. Corder. That’s sort of a celebrity suite for us, you know. The man who shot the governor of Ohio stayed in that very room.’”
“Oh, Christ. She said that?”
“No, of course not, Keller. Help me out here, will you? Where do I park?”
Something made him knock on the door of Room 204. The knock went unanswered. He slid the key into the slot and opened the door.
Dot asked him if it looked familiar.
“I don’t know. It’s been a while. I think the layout’s the same.”
“That’s a comfort. Well?”
For answer he tugged the spread off the bed, lifted a corner of the mattress, and burrowed in between the mattress and the box spring. He couldn’t see what he was doing, but he didn’t have to see anything, and at first his hand encountered nothing at all. Well, that figures, he thought, after all this time, and —
His hand touched something, and the contact shifted the object out of reach. He wriggled forward, his feet kicking like a swimmer’s, and he heard Dot asking him what the hell he thought he was doing, but that didn’t matter because he’d moved the extra few inches and his fingers closed on the thing.
It took an effort to get out again.
“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” Dot said. “It looked for a minute as though some creature in there had a hold of you and was dragging you under, like something out of a Stephen King novel. By God, I don’t believe it. Is that it?”
He opened his hand. “That’s it,” he said.
“All this time, and nobody found it.”
“Well, look what I had to go through just now.”
“That’s a point, Keller. I don’t suppose too many people go mattress diving as a sport, like all those idiots walking around in the woods with metal detectors. ‘Look, Edna, a bottle cap!’ How many people do you suppose slept right on top of that gizmo and never had a clue?”
“I just hope one of them wasn’t a real princess,” she said, “or the poor darling wouldn’t have had a wink of sleep. But I don’t suppose the Laurel Inn’s a must-see for European royalty. Well? Aren’t you going to see if it works?”
He flipped the phone open.
“Suppose it’s booby-trapped.”
He looked at her. “You think someone came here, found the phone, fixed it so it would explode, and then put it back?”
“No, of course not. Suppose it was booby-trapped when they gave it to you?”
“I was supposed to use it to call them.”
“And when you did — boom!” She frowned. “No, that makes no sense. You’d be dead days before Longford even got to town. Go ahead, open the phone.”
He did, and pressed the Power button. Nothing happened. They got back in the car and found a store that sold batteries, and now the phone powered up just the way it was supposed to.
“It still works,” she said.
“The battery was dead, that’s all.”
“Would it still retain information, though? With the battery dead?”
“Let’s find out,” he said, and pressed buttons until he got the list of outgoing calls. Ten of them, with the most recent one at the top of the list.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Dot said. “Keller, you’re a genius.”
He shook his head. “It’s Julia,” he said.
“Julia? In New Orleans?”
“Suppose the phone’s still where you left it, she said, and suppose it still works.”