O is for Outlaw Page 73

Out in the street, the last of the bar patrons were straggling to their cars. I could hear doors slamming, car engines coughing to life. I abandoned the search and decided to return to my car. I jogged the two blocks, my shoulder bag banging against my hip. When I reached the VW, I unlocked the door and slid under the wheel. I stuck my key in the ignition, fired up the engine, and snapped on my headlights. I made an illegal U-turn and drove back to the Tonk.

Once in view of the place, I doused my headlights and pulled over to the right. I parked the car in the shadow of a juniper bush. I slouched down on my spine, keeping an eye on the rear exit over the rim of my sideview mirror. The biker showed up about ten minutes later. He mounted his bike, backed off his center stand, and dropped his weight down with a quick stomp that jotted his engine to life. He cranked the throttle with one hand, revving the bike until it roared in protest. He kept one foot on the ground while he pivoted his bike, the backside swinging wildly as he took off. I watched him slide through the stop sign and hang a left onto Main. By the time I could follow, he was easily five blocks ahead. Within minutes, I'd lost sight of him.

I cruised on for a while, wondering if he'd turned off on a side street close by. This was an area that consisted largely of single-family residences. The stretches of roadway between subdivisions. and shopping malls were lined with citrus orchards. The Colgate Community Hospital appeared on my right. I turned left toward the freeway but saw no sign of the biker's taillight. If he'd already turned on the 101, he'd be halfway to town and I didn't have a prayer of catching up with him. I pulled over to the curb and shut off the ignition. I cranked down the driver's side window and tilted my head, listening for the distant racketing of the motorcycle in the still night air. Nothing at first and then, faintly, I picked up the rat-a-tat-tat, at a much reduced speed. The source of the sound was impossible to pinpoint, but he couldn't be far. Assuming it was him.

I started the VW and pulled out again. The road here was four lanes wide, and the only visible side street went off to the left. There was a nursery on the corner. The sign read BERNARD HIMES NURSERY & TREE FARM: Shade Trees, Roses, Fruit Trees, Ornamental Shrubs. The street curved along beside the tree farm and around to the right again. As nearly as I remembered, there was no other exit, and anyone driving back there would be forced to return. The Santa Teresa Humane Society had its facility toward the far corners of the cul-de-sac, as did the County Animal Control. The other businesses were commercial enterprises: a construction firm, warehouses, a heavyequipment yard.

I turned left, driving slowly, checking both sides of the street for signs of the biker. Passing the nursery on my right, I thought I saw a flicker of light, in a strobe effect, appearing through the thicket of specimen trees. I squinted, unsure, but the darkness now appeared unbroken and there was no sound. I drove on, following the street to its dead end, a matter of perhaps half a mile. Most of the properties I passed were either entirely dark or minimally lighted for burglar-repellent purposes. Twice, I caught sight of private security vehicles parked to one side. I imagined uniformed guards keeping watch, possibly with the help of attack-trained dogs. I returned to the main road without any clear-cut evidence the biker had come this way. It was now after two. I took the southbound on-ramp to the 101. Traffic was sparse, and I returned to my apartment without seeing him again..

Mercifully, the next morning was a Saturday and I owed myself nothing in the way of exercise. I pulled the pillows over my head, shutting out sound and light. I lay bundled under my quilt in an artificial dark, feeling like a small furry beast. At nine, I finally crawled out of my burrow. I brushed my teeth, showered, and shampooed the previous night's smoke from my hair. Then I wound down the spiral stairs and put on a pot of coffee before I fetched the morning paper.

Once I'd finished breakfast, I put a call through to Jonah Robb at home. I'd first encountered Jonah four years before when he was working missing persons for the Santa Teresa Police Department. I was checking on the whereabouts of a woman who later turned up dead. Jonah was separated from his wife, struggling to come to terms with their strange bond, which had started in Junior high school and gone downhill from there. In the course of their years together, they'd separated so many times I think he'd lost count. Camilla worked him like a yo-yo. First, she'd kick him out; then she'd take him back or leave him for long periods, during which he wouldn't see his two daughters for months on end. It was in the midst of one of their extended separations that he and I became involved in a relationship. At some point I finally understood that he'd never be free of her. I broke off intimate contact and we reverted to friends.

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