O is for Outlaw Page 97

"What about yourself?"

"Hey, I've already told you as much as I know. This is outside my area of expertise. I'm just making the call. You can do with it as you please."

"Where's their base of operation?"

"I think it's somewhere in the building. Yesterday, the owner set it up so I had a chance to see the second floor. It was empty, of course, but I did spot a number of electrical outlets. I don't know what kind of equipment would be in use, "

"I can tell you that," he said. "Optical scanners, encoding machines, shredders, embossers, tippers that's what puts the gold on the newly embossed numbers, laminators, hologram punch devices. You see anything like that?"

"No, but I suspect they were operating in the space until a couple of days ago. I checked with the local architectural archives and took a look at the plans submitted when the owner applied for building permits. The structure's one of the few in town with a basement and my guess is they moved the operation down there."

"Give me the particulars and we'll check it out," he said.

I gave him the name and address of the Honky-Tonk and Tim's name and home address. I added Scottie's name to the mix, along with the dates Mickey'd been there and the names on the assortment of phony documents he had. "You need anything else?"

"Your name, address, and phone."

"I'd prefer not," I said. "But I'll make copies of the IDs and put those in the mail to you."

"We'd appreciate that."

I hung up, hauled out the telephone book, found my travel agent's number, and put a couple of coins in the slot. I told her I needed plane tickets for Louisville and gave her my budget limitations.

"How much?"

I said, "Five hundred dollars?"

She said, "You're joking."

I assured her I wasn't. She tapped the information into her computer. After much silence, many sighs, and some additional clicks, she told me the best she could do was an airline that had been in business for less than two years and was offering a no-frills flight to Louisville out of LAX with only two connections, Santa Fe and Tulsa. There was no advance seat assignment, no movie, and no meal service. She assured me the company hadn't filed for bankruptcy (yet) and hadn't reported any major flaming crashes to date. The point was I could get there for $577.

I had her book me on an early morning flight, leaving the return ticket open since I really had no idea how long my inquiry would take. Basically, I'd make it up as I went along. In addition to the plane fare, I reserved a rental car at the airport in Louisville. I'd find a motel when I got there, preferably something cheap. At the end of this, if nothing else, my debt of guilt with regard to Mickey would be paid in full. I went home, packed a duffel, and chatted briefly with Henry, letting him know I'd be gone for some indeterminate period. I also put a call through to Cordia Hatfield, telling her of my arrival later in the afternoon.

I stopped by the travel agent's and picked up my ticket, then drove over to the office, where I spent the balance of the morning getting life in order in case I didn't make it back. The drive to Culver City was uneventful, and I parked in the alley behind Mickey's building at 4:55. I left the duffel in the car, not wanting to seem presumptuous about staying overnight. Cordia had extended an invitation, but she hadn't seemed that thrilled.

I knocked on the Hatfields' door, wondering if they'd hear me over the blare of the TV set. I waited a moment and then knocked again. The sound was cut and Cordia opened the door.

I'd last seen the two sisters on Thursday, only four days before, but something in her manner seemed different. She stepped back, allowing me to enter. The apartment, as before, was uncomfortably warm, the temperature close to 80, windows fogged over with condensation. Steam curled from a pot simmering on the stove. The bubbling liquid was cloudy, and a collar of scum had collected on the surface. The air smelled of singed pork and something else, unfamiliar but faintly dunglike. The TV had been muted, but the picture remained: the late afternoon news with its steady diet of calamities. Belmira seemed transfixed. She sat at the kitchen table, tarot deck in hand, while under her chair, Dorothy chewed on a bony bundle of something crunchy and dead.

"Is this a bad time?" I asked.

"As good as any," Cordia said.

"Because I can come back later if it's more convenient. "

"This is fine." She wore a long-sleeved cotton housedress in shades of mauve and gray with a smocklike apron over it, trailing almost to the floor. She turned to the stove, reaching for a slotted spoon that she used to adjust ingredients in the boiling water. Something floated to the surface: heart-shaped skull, short body, not a lot of meat on it. I could have sworn it was a squirrel.

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