Son of the Morning (Chapter 5)
The cold wasn't helping. Spring had flipped her skirts to show her petticoats of flowers and greenery, luring everyone into a giddy hope they had seen the last of winter, but as usual she had just been teasing, the bitch. Grace couldn't look at weather's vagaries with her usual complacency. She shivered constantly, though now her shivers were weakening, another indication of her body's need for fuel. At least it wasn't snowing. She had fought off hypothermia the way all the street people did, with newspapers and plastic bags, anything to hold in her lessening output of body heat. Evidently the pitiful measures weren't so pitiful, because they had worked; she was still alive.
Alive, but increasingly uneasy. She couldn't go on like this. Even more than her precarious survival, a lack of opportunity to work was gnawing at her. If she couldn't work, she couldn't learn for what Parrish had been willing to kill them all. She had always believed the old adage that knowledge was power, and in this case knowledge was also her best path to vengeance. She needed a stable base, long hours without interruption, electricity. Her computer batteries were good for about four hours, and she had already used them for two. She craved work, craved the one part of her former life she had brought with her. To get that, she had to reenter the civilized world, or at least the fringes of it. It was time to put her strategy into effect.
She needed to clean up again before appearing in any store. She sought out another service station, but she'd learned to bypass the attendant altogether. Instead she left the road and approached from the back; if the rest-room doors were padlocked, she moved on until she found a station where they weren't. At least half of them were left unlocked, perhaps because the attendants didn't want to be bothered with having to keep track of the keys. Of course, most of the rest rooms left unlocked were incredibly grungy, but that no longer bothered her. All she needed was a flushing toilet and a sink with running water.
Finding such a station didn't take long. She stepped into the dank little cubicle and turned on the light, a low-watt naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, out of reach of anyone inclined to steal the bulb unless they brought a ladder with them into the rest room. Her image floated in the streaked, spotted mirror, and she stared dispassionately at the unkempt, hollow-eyed woman who bore so little resemblance to the real person. After taking care of necessities, she took off her clothes and washed. The rest room had no towels or soap, but after encountering that lack of amenities the first time she had solved the problem by taking a supply of paper towels from the next station, and lifting a half-used bar of soap from another.
Most places used liquid soap in a dispenser attached to the wall, to prevent what was evidently rampant soap theft, so she felt lucky to have found the bar.
She neatened her hair, undoing the braid and vigorously combing the long length, almost shuddering with relief as the teeth dug into her scalp. Her hair was so dirty she hated to touch it, but washing it would have to wait until another day. Sherebraided it with the speed of experience, securing the end with a clip and tossing the thick rope of hair over her shoulder to bang against her back.
There wasn't much she could do with her clothes. She wet a paper towel and sponged the dirtiest places, but the results were minimal. Shrugging mentally in a way she couldn't have done three days before, she tossed the paper towel into the overflowing trash can. She had done what she could. There were worse things in life than dirty clothes, like being mugged, or asnarly man trying to kick in her ribs, or being chased by neighborhood dogs-or watching her husband and brother being shot to death.
Grace had learned how to shut off those last memories whenever they sneaked in and threatened to destroy her, and she did so now, turning her thoughts to practical matters. What would be the best place to buy a change of clothes? A Kmart or a Wal-Mart, maybe; they would still be open, and no one would notice what she bought.
The problem was, she knew absolutely nothing aboutEau Claire , and even if she had the address of a store she wouldn't know how to get there.
She dismissed taking a cab as too expensive. The only other alternative was to ask directions. The idea made her stomach tighten with panic. She hadn't had any contact with people since her encounter with the service station attendant. Alone, concentrating on survival, she hadn't spoken a word in two days. There wasn't anyone to speak to, and she'd never been one to talk to herself.
Time to break the silence, though. She worked her way around the station, watched the attendant for a while, and decided that he wouldn't be the one with whom the silence was broken. She didn't like his looks. Though pudgy where the other man had been lean, there was something about him that reminded her of the look in the man's eyes when he'd tried to kick her. Birds of a feather, perhaps. She wasn't going to take the chance.
Instead she cut across a field toward another road, taking care in the darkness. She ran into a wire fence, but she was lucky: it was neither barbed nor electrified. It was falling down, and wobbled precariously under her weight when she scrambled over it. The condition of the fence meant there were no cattle in the field, though she really wouldn't have expected cattle so close to town. Still, it was reassuring to know she wouldn't suddenly find herself facing an irritated bull.
As she climbed the fence on the other side of the field, a dog began barking off to her right. As soon as her feet hit the ground she immediately angled to the left, because sometimes dogs shut up and lost interest if she moved away from their territory. The maneuver didn't work this time. The dog barked even more frantically, and the sound came closer.
She leaned down and swept her hand over the ground until she located a few rocks. The dog was innocent, performing its instinctual duties by barking at an intruder; she didn't intend to hurt the animal, but neither did she want to be bitten. A rock bouncing nearby was usually enough to send the animal in retreat. She threw one at the sound and said "Git!" in a voice as low and fierce as she could make it, stomping her foot for added emphasis.
She could barely make out the movement in the dark as the animal skittered back, away from the abruptly aggressive motion she had made. She took another step and said "Git!" again, and the dog evidently decided retreat was the best course of action. It went one way, and Grace went the other.
Well, at least she had broken her silence, even if it had been to a dog.
"I think I saw her," Paglione reported by cellular phone. "I'm pretty sure it was her. I just caught a glimpse of someonekinda slipping around behind a service station, you know?"
"Did you see where she went?" Conrad started his car. He had chosen highways 12 and 40 as the most likely for her to enterEau Claire ; he had elected to watch highway 12 because it was the busiest, leaving Paglione to cover 40. The two highways would intersect only a few miles from his present position.
"I lost her. I think she cut through a field. I haven't been able to pick her up again."
"She's headed forEau Claire . Work in that direction. She has to hit a highway or street again somewhere."
Conrad folded the phone and laid it beside him on the car seat. Excitement hummed through him. He was close to her, he knew it. He could feel her, an interesting prey because her elusiveness was so unexpected. But soon he would have her, and his job would be done. He would have triumphed once again. He let himself feel the thrill for a sweet moment, then firmly put the emotion aside. He didn't let anything interfere with the job.
A Kmart sign soared into the night sky, drawing Grace toward it. She had crossed fields and vacant lots, negotiated backyards, and faced down several more dogs. The animals had been pets, rather than watchdogs, but still it had been tricky to work her way through the ever-thickening maze of houses without drawing undue attention to herself.
At the back of the Kmart parking lot loomed a Salvation Army collection container, piled around with discarded furniture and broken odds and ends. She skirted the container, having learned that a surprising number of people routinely went through the donations and took the best of the discards, leaving only the junk. She needed a safe place to stash her bag, but hiding it in the heap of donations was out of the question.
She walked around to the back of the building, taking care to stay in the darkest shadows. Beside the shipping and receiving bay was a pile of empty cardboard boxes, but the area was brightly lit with vapor lights. That would be an ideal hiding place, except for the lights. She continued on around the building to the lawn and garden section, with flowerpots and bags of grass seed stacked high against a chain-link fence. The exit gate was closed for the night, but a few people still braved the chill to pick out the latest in imitation earthenware plastic pots.
Ducking down behind a stack of grass seed, Grace carefully placed the plastic bag against the fence. The pavement was black, and the shadows dense enough that the bag was virtually invisible unless someone stumbled over it. Panic twisted her insides at the thought of letting her computer out of her possession, and she crouched there, taking another long look around to make sure no one was watching her. There was a small copse of trees behind her, and the crickets were setting up their usual racket, which told her no one was moving about in the trees.
Eau Clairewasn'tMinneapolis , she told herself. It was less than one-sixth the size of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The city would have its share of bums, drug addicts, and homeless, but she was far less likely to be observed here. The Kmart parking lot wasn't exactly a hotbed of intrigue, especially this close to closing time.
She couldn't wait any longer. She got up and walked purposefully around the fenced-in area, not looking back, taking strong strides as if she had every right in the world to be there, which she did. She wasn't going to steal anything, she was going to pay for it with the cash she had in her pocket.
An employee had been stationed at the doors to watch the customers as they entered. He gave Grace a hard look and turned to the service desk, and she suspected he would have her followed by another employee to make certain she didn't steal anything.
She pulled a shopping cart free of the line. Let someone follow her; she didn't care.
"Attention, shoppers." The announcement rang out over the loudspeakers. "The store will close in fifteen minutes."
Walking as fast as she could, she pushed the cart toward women's clothing. She grabbed a pair of jeans in her size, a sweatshirt, a denim jacket, then darted over to the underwear section. A pack of panties went into the cart, followed by a pack of socks. Looking at the overhead signs in the store, she located the shoe department, and set off for the back of the store; on the way she passed through the men's clothing section, and she grabbed a baseball cap as she went by. When she reached the shoe department, she swiftly selected a pair of white athletic shoes. They would be better for walking than her loafers, which were much the worse for wear.
Okay, now for a bag. Luggage was at the front of the store, sandwiched between the sports department and the pharmacy. Grace gave the selection a quick survey and chose the cheapest of the medium-sized duffel bags offered. On her way to the checkout counters, she also tossed in a toothbrush, toothpaste, and shampoo.
Five minutes after entering the store, she wheeled the cart up to a checkout counter. She didn't look around to see if anyone was watching. The counter was lined with boxes of chewing gum and candy bars. Her stomach growled, and she stared at the selection. She had to eat something, and she loved chocolate, but somehow the thought of candy was sickening. Nausea twisted her stomach, making her swallow the mini-flood of saliva that threatened to overflow.
Peanuts weren't sweet. Peanuts were nice and salty. The customer ahead of her finished checking out, and Grace shoved the cart forward. She grabbed a pack of peanuts and tossed it onto the counter, then began unloading her selections.
The bored, sleepy-looking cashier rang up the items, stuffing them in crinkly plastic bags. ..One thirty-two seventeen," she muttered.
Grace gulped. A hundred and thirty-two dollars! She looked at the two plastic bags and the duffel. If she were to be more efficient in hiding, in traveling, she needed every item there. Grimly she dug in her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills, counting out seven twenties. When her change was returned, she took the duffel in one hand and the two plastic bags in the other, and used her body to nudge the cart toward the lines of nested carts waiting for another day's flood of shoppers.
There was a vending machine in front of the store. Grace got a soft drink from it and dropped it into one of the bags.
Her heart was pounding as she strode back around the lawn and garden section. It was empty now, except for an employee covering plants for the night. When his back was turned she quickly ducked down behind the stacked bags of seed. Releasing the duffel, she swept her free hand over the dark, cold pavement, searching for her trash bag. Her fingers encountered only grit and dampness. Sheer horror immobilized her. Had someone been watching her after all, and stolen the bag as soon as she'd disappeared into the store? She crouched in the shadows, eyes dilated, her breathing hard and fast as she tried to think. If someonehad been watching her, he must have been hidden in the woods.
Had he gone back there? Could she manage to find him? What would she do, attack anyone she saw carrying a bag? The answer was yes, if she had to. She couldn't give up now.
But had she come far enough down the fence? Was she in the right location? The store's bright lights had ruined her night vision, and perhaps she had underestimated how far from the comer she'd left the bag. Carefully setting aside therustly Kmart bag containing her new clothes, she crawled along the fence, not really daring to hope she had simply miscalculated the distance but making the effort anyway.
Her outstretched hand touched plastic. Relief poured through her, making her weak. She sank down on the pavement, gathering the reassuring weight into her arms. Everything was still there, the computer, the disks, the papers. She hadn't lost them, after all.
She shook the weakness away. Hastily she collected the duffel and unzipped it, stuffing both her new clothes and the computer into it. Then she melted into the trees, losing herself in the night before she dared stop to eat the bag of peanuts and drink the soft drink.
After she'd eaten and rested, she stared through the trees at the bright signs that beckoned her. Kmart had closed, but down the street shone the lights of a fast-food joint and a grocery store. The thought of a hamburger made her feel queasy, but a grocery store… she could buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, the makings of many meals, the purchases themselves so ordinary no one would remember her or what she'd bought.
Do it all tonight,she thought. She had already done so much: spoken, if only to a dog, gone among people again, bought clothes. The customers who frequented grocery stores at night were stranger on average than the day crowd; she'd often heard cashiers talking about the weird things that happened at night. She would be just another of theweirdos , and no one would pay much attention to her. Resolutely Grace lifted the duffel and began walking up the street to the grocery store.
Obviously she couldn't enter the store carrying the bag, though. She stood across the street and surveyed the situation. The street behind the store was residential, lined with houses and cars. A ten-foot-high chain-link fence ran around three sides of the store. On the left side of the store was a receiving bay and a huge, jumbled stack of empty cardboard boxes, prefab housing for a wino, or for a woman on the run. Even a cardboard shelter felt good during the cold nights.
She thought of the denim jacket in the suitcase, and laughed silently, humorlessly, at herself. She was cold; why hadn't she put on the jacket? A silly reason came to mind. She was dirty, and the jacket was new. She didn't want to put it on until she'd had a bath and changed into her new, clean clothes. The teachings of a lifetime were holding sway even though she'd been shivering for three days.
Tomorrow,she told herself. Somehow she would manage a bath, a real bath, and wash her hair. Tomorrow she would put on her new clothes.
For tonight, she just had to buy sandwich makings, and be on her way.
Some odd caution kept her from crossing the street right then; instead she went up to the corner, crossed with the light, then worked her way back. She kept to the back edge of parking lots, worming her way around smelly trash bins, slipping into the shadows of trees whenever she could. Finally she was behind the grocery store, but something about it made her uneasy. Maybe it was the fence, restricting her choice of escape direction, if escape became necessary. She had planned to leave the bag there but changed her mind, instead carrying it toward the front. There weren't any cars parked in back, which meant the employees all parked in front too, probably along one side of the lot in order to leave the most desirable center-aisle spots for the customers.
Grace lurked at the side of the building, waiting until the lot was momentarily empty of customers either arriving or leaving, before bending down until her head was just below the level of a car hood and darting to the side row of parked cars. Crouched in front of the first car, she put her hand on the hood and found it cold; the vehicle had been there for hours, so she'd guessed right about where the employees would park. She slid the bag beneath the car, between the front tires. The store hadn't closed at nine so it should be open at least until ten, if not all night, and the employees would stay later than that. She would be back long before the owner of the car.
As an added caution, she didn't immediately straighten up and walk toward the store. Instead she crab-walked down the line of cars until she reached the last two. Then she moved between them, stood, took a deep breath, and braved the public exposure of a grocery store.
"Got her," Paglione reported. "I thought I spotted her walking down the street, but then I lost sight and all of a sudden she popped up in a grocery store parking lot. She's in there now."
"Give me the directions," Conrad said calmly. By this time, he and Paglione knew Eau Claire fairly well, having spent more than a day simply driving the streets, studying maps, memorizing the layout of the city. As he listened to Pallone's voice in his ear, he realized he was less than a minute from the grocery store.
Grace moved swiftly through the brightly lit aisles, focused on two things and two things only: bread and peanut butter. Her appetite was nonexistent, and none of the calculated displays caught her attention. She would buy food because she had to eat, but that was the only reason.
The peanut butter was, as always, on the same aisle with the ketchup and mustard. She grabbed the biggest jar available, then set out for the bakery section, only to be sidetracked by a sudden realization that she needed a knife to spread the peanut butter. A box of plastic utensils sprang to mind; that's what she would have bought before, but fragile plastic, designed to be disposable, would soon break and she would have to buy more. It would be cheaper simply to buy a real knife. She backtracked to the previous aisle, where she found the kitchen supplies. There was a row of plastic-sealed knives hanging from hooks. She took the first one she came to that wasn't serrated, because cleaning peanut butter from all the little teeth would be a pain. Her choice was a paring knife with a four-inch blade, and the print on the cardboard backing guaranteed its sharpness.
Knife and peanut butter in hand, she hurried to the bakery section and grabbed a giant-size loaf of bread.
Looking at her watch, she saw that she had been in the store for one minute and twenty seconds, a personal record for her, but that was eighty seconds her computer had been left unguarded.
There were two checkout counters open. At one, a bachelor was unloading a couple of microwave dinners, a six-pack of beer, and an economy-size bag of potato chips, standard fare for the unclaimed male. At the other, a bent old gent was carefully counting out his money for a bottle of aspirin. Grace chose the second counter, placing her items on the belt just as the clerk gave the receipt to the old guy, who smiled sweetly.
"Wife's got a headache," he explained, a product of an earlier age when friendliness to strangers was something to be expected, not feared. "Not an aspirin in the house. Can't understand it, she's usually got a bottle for this and a bottle for that, something for any ailment a body could produce, but tonight there's not a single aspirin." He turned his head and winked at Grace, his eyes twinkling cheerfully. He didn't mind the errand, the usefulness.
The swift-moving clerk rang up Grace's three items while the old man fumbled his wallet into his pocket. "Twelve thirty-seven. Kill a tree or choke a bird?"
Grace blinked. "I-what?" She handed over thirteen dollars.
"Paper or plastic?" the clerk translated, grinning a little, and the old man chuckled as he toddled off.
"Plastic," Grace said. The night shift was definitely a little off kilter. She felt a tiny spurt of amusement, a hint of life in the desolation of her heart and mind like a faint, fragile heartbeat to show she still lived, after a fashion. Her lips curved involuntarily, the elusive smile fading almost as soon as it had formed, but for a moment the life had been there. She turned her head to watch the old gentleman as he approached the automatic doors, and through the big plate glass windows she saw two men getting out of a beige Dodge sedan parked in the center of the lot.
The man nearest the store paused and waited for the other to come around the car, then they walked together toward the store. One was dark, powerfully built, vaguely simian in the shape of his head; the other was of medium height and build, ordinary brown hair, just… ordinary. Slacks and jackets, neither natty nor threadbare. Neither of them would stand out in a crowd, not even the ape-man. He was just another guy who was a little too hairy, a little too bulky, nothing unusual.
But they were walking together in a subtle sort of lockstep, as if they had a definite goal, a mission.
"Your change is sixty-three cents." Absently Grace took the change and slid it into her pocket. Archaeologists picked up a lot of anthropology stuff, because the two went hand-in-hand in understanding how people had lived, and Grace had lived with two archaeologists, brother and husband, absorbing a lot of their conversations over the years.
Two men, walking together in a purposeful manner. Men didn't do that unless they were working together as a team, to some definite end. This was different from the more casual, walking-in-company-but-not-together gait of males who didn't want to send the wrong signal to any watching females.
She grabbed the bag from the startled clerk and darted back into the store. The clerk said "Hey!" but Grace didn't hesitate, merely took a quick glance not at the clerk but at the two men, who must have been watching her, because they broke into a run.
She dropped to the floor and scrambled down an aisle, knowing the two men couldn't see directly down it from their angle of approach. Her heart rate increased, but oddly she didn't feel panic, only an elevated state of urgency. She was caught in an enclosed area, stalked by two men who could catch her in a pincers movement unless she moved fast. Her chances of outrunning them were small, because they had to be Parrish's men, and Parrish wouldn't hesitate at giving the order to shoot her in the back.
A woman pushed a shopping cart into the aisle at the far end, her attention focused on the stacks of soft drinks. Her purse was unguarded in the cart's child seat, a red sweater draped over it.
Grace moved down the aisle, not running but walking fast. The woman wasn't paying any attention; she turned to pick up a carton of soft drinks, and as Grace walked by she snagged the red sweater from its resting place.
Quickly she turned the comer into the next aisle and pulled on the sweater, leaving her hair caught beneath the fabric. Her long braid was too identifiable, but the red sweater worked in reverse, because she hadn't been wearing one and the men's gazes would, she hoped, slide over anything so attention-getting.
She hooked the plastic bag over her arm like a purse and walked calmly toward the front of the store.
She schooled her expression to the absorbed passivity of the grocery shopper, seeming to examine the contents of the shelves as she walked past them.
Up front, she could hear the checker telling someone, probably the night supervisor, that a woman had gone back into the store instead of out as shoppers were expected to do.
A man, the average-looking, brown-haired one, crossed in front of the aisle. His gaze barely touched on Grace, sliding right past the red sweater. Her heart jumped into her throat, but she kept a steady, unhurried pace. Her skin felt tight, fragile, no barrier at all to a bullet. The man had crossed out of sight but perhaps he was sharp, perhaps he had seen through her improvised disguise and was simply waiting for her at the front of the aisle, just out of sight. Perhaps she was walking right into a death trap.
Her legs felt weak; her knees shook. Three more steps took her out of the aisle, into the front checkout area. She didn't turn her head, but her peripheral vision caught the movement of the man, walking away from her as he looked down every aisle.Run! Her instinct was to bolt, but her legs were too shaky. Her mind held her back, whispering to hold on, that every second without being noticed was an extra second for hiding. Shopping carts had been pushed up to block the entrances to the checkout counters that weren't open, and she nudged one aside, slipping into the narrow space that funneled customers to the exit. She angled to the left, to the set of doors nearest the line of cars where she'd left the computer. The automatic doors opened with a pneumatic sigh and she walked out into the night chill, heart pounding, unable to believe it had worked. But she had gained, at best, only a minute.
She ran for the row of employees' cars, diving for their shelter. Lying down on the pavement, she crawled under the car, wedging herself with her computer between the front wheels.
Sharp, loose gravel bit into her, even through her clothes. The smell of oil and gasoline, of things mechanical, seemed to coat her nostrils with a greasy film. She lay very still, listening for two pairs of footsteps.
They came within ten seconds, moving a bit fast, but the men were professional. They weren't doing anything to attract undue attention. They weren't yelling, they apparently didn't have weapons drawn, they were simply searching. Grace listened to the steps coming close and then retreating, and she huddled closer to the wheel, tucked into as small a ball as she could manage. They were quartering the parking lot, she realized, trying to spot her among the scattered cars.
"I can't believe she slipped past us," one voice said, the tone rather aggrieved.
"She has proven surprisingly elusive," a second, deeper voice replied. There was a subtle formality to the phrasing, a mild deliberateness as if the speaker thought of every word he spoke.
Something else was said but the words were indistinct, as if the speaker were walking away from her. After a few moments the voices grew plainer.
"She made us. Man, I can't believe that. She took one look and bolted. Shemusta slipped out through the receiving bay, no matter what that kid said about nobody coming by."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." The second voice was still mild, almost indifferent. "You said she had a suitcase when you saw her on the street."
"Yeah." "She didn't have it just now." "She must've stashed it somewhere. You figure she's gone back for it?"
"Undoubtedly. She would have hidden it fairly close by, but the location would be secure enough that she felt safe leaving it while she went into the store."
"Whaddawe do now?" "Fall back to our observation points, and refrain from' discussing our plans in public."
"Uh, yeah." A car started close by, presumably the beige Dodge, but Grace didn't move. Their withdrawal could be a trick; they could park somewhere close by and return on foot, waiting for her to show herself. She lay on the cold pavement, listening to the sporadic comings and goings of customers. The adrenaline level in her body began to drop, leaving her lethargic. The sweater was a thick one; she felt warmer now than she had in three days, and with warmth came drowsiness. Her eyelids were heavy, a heaviness that she fought. She could afford rest, but not inattention.
Her body had its own agenda. Three days and nights of struggle, of little or no rest, no food, and moments of sheer terror that overlaid a base of profound despair, had taken their toll on her. She was exhausted and weak, strained to the breaking point. One moment she was awake, fighting sleep, and in the next moment the fight was lost.
The grocery store closed atmidnight , and it was the sudden dousing of the parking lot lights that woke her. She lay very still, jolted from sleep but unaware of where she was. Her surroundings were totally alien, she was crowded against something massive and dark and the smell was awful, like motor oil … she was under a car. Awareness hit her and in panic she looked around, but no one was leaving the store. The employees would have to close up, perhaps do some cleaning, before they would leave.
Though a peek at her watch told her the time, she had no idea how long she'd slept, because she didn't know how long she'd lain there before dozing. Her carelessness frightened her. What if whoever owned the car had left work early?
Don't borrow trouble.she told herself as she gathered her possessions and inched out from under the car. She had enough problems without worrying about something that hadn't happened.
She hoped that while she had slept, enough time had lapsed that her two pursuers had given up hope of spotting her in this area. She didn't dare stay any longer; she had to risk being seen. But the night was darker now as fewer cars were on the street, houses had darkened, stores had closed.
She was stiff from the cold and her cramped position under the car. She moved slowly, staying in a crouch to keep out of sight behind the parked cars. But finally there were no more cars, only a naked expanse of parking lot. She moved fast, then, almost running as she scuttled along the edge of the pavement, the duffel banging against her left hip and her food supply bouncing against her right. As soon as she cleared the fence she swerved into deeper shadows, and was swallowed by the night.