And, as with those earlier assassinations, the conspiracy theorists were already sharpening their blunt instruments. Montrose/ Blankenship, they were quick to assert, was as much a victim as the Ohio governor, an innocent man conveniently on the scene to divert suspicion from the real killers. The several callers who took this stance all agreed on this much, but here their scenarios diverged as each found a different cabal to blame for hatching the plot in the first place. One woman had the whole thing linked to the forcible inoculation of young girls with “that alleged anticancer virus,” while another saw it as part and parcel of the whole proabortion campaign. A man with a tobacco-raddled throat was sure the use of a handgun smacked of a campaign to discredit the NRA, and by the time he was through, Keller was alarmed to realize he’d been nodding along in agreement.
It was almost comforting that there were people who thought he hadn’t done it, although their tendency to tag him with phrases like “pathetic dupe” and “hapless moron” didn’t thrill him. What was a little disquieting, though, was that every last one of the folks on his side, if you wanted to call it that, came off sounding absolutely barking mad.
The actual news wasn’t a whole lot more comforting. It hadn’t taken the cops long to follow the route Keller had already sketched out for them in his mind, from the Laurel Inn to Denny’s to the cab and the airport and the Hertz counter, and at that point he began to hope they’d get to the Days Inn in a hurry and spend a lot of time there.
Because now that they knew what kind of car he was driving, and knew the number on its license plate, it hardly mattered whether he was driving or parked. Either way it was just a matter of time before they found him, and probably not very much time at that.
He couldn’t just walk away from the Sentra. He needed a car, and he couldn’t rent another to replace this one. He could probably steal one, he’d learned long ago how to pop a door lock and hot-wire an ignition, and those skills of one’s youth were like swimming and riding a bicycle. Once learned, they were never forgotten.
Which was to say he’d have no trouble stealing a 198 °Chevy, say. His Swiss Army knife was enough to cope with a car of that vintage. But automobiles had changed since he’d learned how to steal them, and they had computers now, and security devices that could lock the steering wheel if they sensed that something illicit was going on. What was he going to do, look for an old car?
The kind of car he knew he could steal would probably break down after a few hundred miles. Even if it held up, it would be conspicuous. That was one great advantage of the car he had now — it was pretty ordinary in appearance, and at least in Des Moines it was as common as dirt. Driving around, it had seemed as though one in ten cars was the same make and model as the one he was driving, and the greater portion of them seemed to be the same color, too, a kind of indescribable hybrid of beige and gun metal. He had no idea what the manufacturer called the color, but suspected it was something abstract, like Seabreeze or Perseverance, that managed to sound okay without narrowing things down too much. Whatever you called it, the Nissan people had used it on half the cars they sold that year, and they’d evidently found a lot of takers for it in Iowa.
Wasn’t that a car just like his up ahead in the next row? It was hard to tell in this light, but it was definitely a Sentra, and the color looked right. Was this an opportunity? It certainly felt like an opportunity. He could leave his car and take this one, if he could break in and hot-wire it. Or, even better, he could just—
He could just forget the whole thing, because while he was looking at the car its lights flashed on and off. There was an instant when he thought the car was winking at him, trying to get his attention, but a second later he realized it was simply signaling its response to its owner, who had just unlocked its doors with her remote control. And he watched as she loaded her purchases into its trunk and opened the door on the driver’s side and settled in behind the wheel.
If he’d beaten her to it, if he’d switched his car for hers, it wouldn’t have done him any good. She’d have realized the deception as soon as she returned to her car, and in no time at all the police would have a new plate number for him. And they might have more than that, if her car had a GPS unit in it.
Oh, hell. Did his?
It stood to reason that the rental car companies would put something in their cars in case they lost track of them. He didn’t know that they did, but he knew some long-haul trucking firms equipped their rigs in that fashion, to guard against the occasional amphetamine-crazed driver on his way from Little Rock to Tulsa suddenly deciding he’d be happier in San Francisco.
He really had to do something. And he had to do it in a hurry, and it had better be something that wouldn’t just substitute one peril for another.
He turned off the radio — it was just making it harder to concentrate — and he took a bite of pizza and wished he had some Coke left to wash it down.
And then it came to him. He forced himself to sit still, forced himself to chew the pizza and swallow it, forced himself to wait while he thought it through to make sure it was sound. And, when he decided he couldn’t see anything wrong with his idea, he turned the key in the ignition and put the car in gear.
The third time was supposed to be the charm.
The best place to find a car that no one would return to in a hurry, he’d decided, was the long-term parking lot at Des Moines International. And that was also the best place he could think of to abandon a car; whoever found it would figure he’d somehow slipped past them and caught a flight somewhere.
And this was a good time of day to be driving around the long-term lot. There were still flights arriving and departing, so the lot wasn’t entirely deserted, in which case he’d have been apt to attract attention. But the peak hours for air traffic in and out had passed, so he was less likely to pick a car that someone would be coming back for anytime soon.
What he wanted was a car just like his. He didn’t need to start it, because he wasn’t going to drive it anywhere, but he’d have to be able to get into it. He could probably manage that with his knife; failing that, he could break a window. But maybe there was a better way.
He tried three times without success, pulling up behind a parked Sentra, pointing his own remote device at its rear and pressing the trunk release. He didn’t think for a moment that every Nissan Sentra would respond to the same remote, but there were only so many frequencies, and sooner or later he almost had to get lucky.
Except he didn’t have forever. Eventually he’d run out of Sentras, if he didn’t run out of time first. One more, he told himself, hoping the fourth time would be the charm, pulling up to the fourth car, putting his own car in park, removing the key from the ignition, putting it back, starting the car so he could lower the window, then retrieving the key again — you’d really think, wouldn’t you, that he could have remembered to lower the window first, or left it down after the previous attempt? — and aiming the remote at the other car’s trunk, and pressing the button and holding it, because it wouldn’t open right away, you had to keep the thing pointed at the trunk and hold the button down for a few seconds, and what difference did it make because it wasn’t going to work anyway…
Except this time it did.
He had to act quickly now. First thing he did was open his own trunk (with a button on the dashboard, so he didn’t have to screw around with the remote). The trunk of the new Sentra was half full of stuff, and without paying any attention to what it was, he transferred everything but the spare tire to his own trunk. There it could keep his black suitcase company.
He used a rag to wipe down the inside of the now-empty trunk, then closed both trunks and used the remote to unlock the doors. It had worked on the trunk, so he wasn’t surprised when it worked on the doors, too, but it was a relief all the same, because he’d pretty much given up expecting anything to go right.
He emptied the glove compartment, gave it a wipe, and replaced its contents with the Hertz folder and operator’s manual from his own car. There were maps of Iowa and, less predictably, Oregon, in the door pocket of the new car, and he collected those, along with a couple of losing lottery tickets from the floor and a supermarket receipt from the back seat. When the car’s interior was empty, he wiped the surfaces that were likely to have accumulated prints, not to get rid of his own — he’d been careful not to leave any — but to erase the more obvious traces of the car’s owner.
They’d given him a claim check when he entered Long-Term Parking, and he’d stuck it in his breast pocket. But the owner of the other Sentra had guarded against misplacing his own claim check, and left it under the clip on the sun visor. Keller, who hadn’t even thought about that aspect of things, promptly switched checks.
But could he afford it? If he used his own check he’d pay the minimum, which was just a couple of dollars. But if the other guy had left the car for a week or two, the charges could eat into the small amount of cash he had left.
He checked, and the thing had a time and date stamped on it. It had been parked less than twenty-four hours earlier, so at most it would cost him an extra five dollars, and he decided it was worth it. He left his original tag under the visor, kept the new one in his pocket.
And he substituted a few touches of his own. The pizza box (minus the two remaining slices, which could remain on the passenger seat of his car, because he still didn’t know where his next meal was coming from) found a place on the passenger seat of the new car. The fragments of the cell phone went in the new car’s trunk, and he drew a certain grim satisfaction from the image of all the FBI’s horses and men knocking themselves out reassembling the thing. The cup that had once held Coca-Cola before it had held the ruined phone was now empty, tossed for verisimilitude onto the floor in back.
Well, he hadn’t gotten around to the most important thing of all. But the two cars didn’t have to be close to each other for the next step, and he’d be better off getting his own car out of the way. He started it up, found a place to park it, used his Swiss Army knife to remove the front and rear license plates, hunkered down in the shadows while a car crept by, and then carried them to the other car. He switched the plates, returned the new set to the original car, attached them, and drove off, wondering what he’d forgotten.
He couldn’t think of a thing.
Could it work?
Well, it seemed to him that it had a shot. For a while, anyway. The minute he left the long-term lot, he was no longer in a car of interest to the authorities. Well, the car was still of interest to them, it was the same car he’d been driving all along, but they didn’t know that, because it had a different license plate on it.
He could have switched plates with any car. It didn’t have to be the same make and model as his, nor did it have to be stashed in a lot at the airport. But that would only shelter him until the car’s owner noticed the switch, or got pulled over by someone who recognized the plate. As soon as that happened, the police would have a new plate number to look for, and he’d be back in their sights all over again.