Son of the Morning (Chapter 4)

DISTANCE, GRACE LEARNED, WAS RELATIVE.EAU CLAIRE,Wisconsin , wasn't all that far fromMinneapolis if you were driving, a matter of an hour or two, depending on where you were inMinneapolis when you began and how fast you drove. In a plane, it was nothing more than a hop. On foot, and having to hide during the day, it took her three days.

She didn't dare take a bus; with her long hair and carrying a computer case she would be too easily recognized. She didn't know, but she thought it would only be common sense for the police, knowing she didn't have her car, to check all public transportation leaving the city. Parrish would likely be hunting her, too, and he wouldn't have to compare her appearance to a photo in order to recognize her.

She operated in a vacuum, because that was the only way she could manage. Things she had always taken for granted, basics such as food, water, warmth, a toilet, were now an effort to obtain. At least she had money, and there were always convenience stores, though she knew she should avoid them because of their surveillance cameras. Food wasn't much of a problem; she simply wasn't hungry.

She looked homeless; shewas homeless. She walked north for a while, then cut east, paralleling state roads whenever she could rather than walking on the shoulder where she would more easily be seen. She hadn't realized before how little human presence there was betweenMinneapolis andEau Claire ; if she had been on the interstate, there would at least have been a motel or truck stop every few exits, but away from the interstate there was nothing but a few houses and the occasional service station.

At ten-thirty on her second night on the run, she went into a service station and asked for the key to the rest room. The attendant looked up with bored, hostile eyes and said, "Get lost." It took her more than an hour to find another station. The second attendant wasn't as polite, and threatened to call the cops if she didn't leave.

The need to urinate was excruciating, exacerbated by her constant shivering. Grace's face was blank as she silently turned and left the station. She walked across the parking lot, aware of the attendant watching every step she made. Just as she was about to step onto the shoulder of the highway, she looked back and saw that the man had returned to the magazine he'd been reading when she went in to ask for the key. She made a sharp turn, skirting the edge of the parking lot, and circled around behind the station. Shehad to relieve herself, and she wasn't about to do it on the side of the road.

Gravel crunched as a customer drove up, and she heard a man saying something to the attendant, then the answer, but she couldn't understand what they were saying. Sheltered by the back wall, she carefully placed her precious trash bag out of the splash area, and unzipped her jeans.

Footsteps approached, scraping on the gravel. There was no place to hide. A dim bulb over each of the rest-room doors stole even the advantage of darkness from her. There was nothing to do but run, and hope the approaching customer wouldn't get too good a look at her.

She grabbed for the trash bag and her gaze swept over the rest-room door, the one with "Ladies" painted on it in big block letters. There was a hasp attached to the door, and an open padlock hung from it. The door wasn't even locked!

The footsteps were close, almost to the comer. She didn't hesitate. Leaving the trash bag where it was, she darted into the dark little room, and pressed herself against the painted block wall. She didn't even have time to close the door. The customer walked past, and a second later a brighter light came on as he flipped the switch in the other rest room. The door slammed.

Grace sagged against the wall. The rest room was nothing more than a tiny cubicle, just large enough to accommodate a toilet and a washbasin. The walls were concrete block, the floor was cement. The smell wasn't pleasant.

She didn't dare turn on the light, though she closed the door until only a two-inch crack remained. Jerking down her jeans, she perched over the stained porcelain toilet just as her mother had taught her to do, and then she couldn't hold back any longer. Crouched there like an awkward bird, her legs aching from the unnatural position, tears of relief sprang into her eyes and she stifled a humorless laugh at the ridiculousness of what she was doing.

In the rest room next door there was a long, explosive sound of gas releasing, then a contented "Ahhh." Grace clapped a hand over her mouth to hold back the hysterical giggle that rose in her throat. She had to finish before he did, or he might hear her. The competition was the strangest in which she'd ever engaged, and no less stressful because she was the only one who knew it was in progress.

She finished just as a loud, gurgling flush sounded. Quickly she reached for the handle and pushed it down, the noise of the second covered by that of the first. Then she didn't dare move, because the man didn't pause to wash his hands but immediately left the rest room. She froze, not even daring to take a breath. He walked right by without noticing that the door that had been standing open when he'd gone into the rest room was now almost closed.

Grace inhaled a shaky breath and stood for a moment in the dark, smelly little rest room, trying to calm her nerves.

The rest room wasn't the only thing that smelled. She could smell herself, the stink of fear added to almost three days without a shower. Her clothes were sour, the effect of being rain-soaked and drying on her body.

Her stomach rolled. She didn't mind being dirty; she did mind being unclean, which was something else entirely. She was an archaeologist'swife-widow, an insidious little voice whispered before she could silence the thought-and had often accompanied him on digs, where dust and sweat had ruled the day. They had always cleaned up at night, however. She didn't think she had ever before gone so long without bathing, and she couldn't bear it.

She opened the restroom door another inch or so, letting in more light. The sink was as stained as the toilet, but above the basin hung a towel dispenser, and beside the faucet sat a pump bottle of liquid soap.

The temptation was irresistible. Perhaps she couldn't do anything about the smell of her clothes, but she could do something about the smell of her body. Turning the faucet so a small stream of water came out, being as quiet as possible, she washed as best she could. She didn't dare undress, and she had only the rough brown paper towels to use for both washing and drying, but she felt much fresher when she had finished. Now that her hands were clean, she cupped them and filled them with water, and bent over to drink. The water was cold and fresh on her tongue, sliding down her dry throat and soothing the parched tissues.

"What's this shit?" The irritable words speared her with shards of panic. Grace whirled, forgetting to turn off the water. It was the attendant's voice, and next she heard the unmistakable rustle of plastic as he picked up the trash bag containing her computer and all the documents.

A low growl sounded in her throat and she jerked the door open. He was standing with his back to her, holding the bag open as he looked inside it, but at her movement he turned. A mean look entered his eyes as he recognized her.

"I told you to get the fuck off this property." He reached out and grabbed her arm, roughly hauling her out of the rest-room doorway and shoving her several feet forward. Grace stumbled and almost fell, going down hard on one knee before she regained her balance. A rock dug sharply into her knee, making her gasp with pain. Another hard shove in the middle of her back sent her sprawling on the ground.

"Worthless piece of shit," the man said, drawing back his booted foot. "You won't leave when you're told, I'll kick your ass off."

He was skinny, but with the wiry, hardscrabble strength and meanness of a junkyard dog. Grace scrambled away from the swinging boot, knowing that it would break her ribs if the kick landed. He missed and staggered, and that made him even angrier. She crawled frantically to the side and he followed, drawing back his leg for another kick.

He was too close; she knew she couldn't move fast enough to escape this time. Desperately she lashed out with her own foot, catching him on the knee. He was standing on one leg, the other drawn back, and the blow sent him lurching off balance. He fell heavily on his side, and he dropped the plastic bag with a thud.

Grace bounced to her feet but she wasn't fast enough; cursing, he regained his own feet, looming over her and the bag between them. She spared a quick look at the bag, gauging her distance to it.

"You little bitch," he spat, his face drawn tight with rage. "I'll kill you for this."

He lunged forward, his hands outstretched to grab her. Desperately Grace tried what had worked before: she dropped to the ground and kicked with both feet. One foot landed harmlessly on his thigh, but the other connected solidly with the spongy tissue of his testicles. He stopped as if he'd hit a wall, a strange, high-pitched wheezing sound escaping from his throat as he folded over, both hands clasping his crotch. She grabbed the plastic bag, scrambling away even before she was upright, and then she ran. Her feet pounded on the hard parking lot as she circled the building and raced across the highway. She didn't stop even when darkness swallowed her and the gas station was nothing more than a pinpoint of light far behind.

Gradually she slowed, her heart pounding in her chest, her breath rasping painfully in her throat. She had to assume the attendant would call the cops, but she doubted they would look very hard for a vagrant, since nothing had been taken and the only damage was to the man's family jewels. Still, if a county deputy was cruising the highway and saw her, he wouldn't just drive on by. She would have to leave the highway whenever she saw a car coming, and hide until it was gone.

She had been relatively clean. Now dirt smeared her hands and face again, and her clothes were coated with it. She stopped, dusting herself off as best she could, but she was aware that, if anything, she looked even worse than before.

The situation had to be corrected. She didn't need a public rest room as much for the toilet as she did for water, and the opportunity to clean herself up, though she hadn't yet been able to bring herself to squat in a field or a ditch to relieve herself. That time would probably come, she thought numbly. The next time she had the opportunity she would steal some toilet paper, just in case. Still, if she wasn't to encounter over and over the same reaction she'd met with tonight, she would have to look, if not respectable, at least as if she had a place to live. The plastic trash bag was great for protecting the computer from rain, but it marked her as a homeless person, a vagrant, and store owners wouldn't want her on their property.

She would have to find another place to wash off, to make herself as presentable as possible, and then she would brave a discount store to buy a few clothes and a cheap bag of some sort. Simple things, but they would make life much easier; she would be able to use public rest rooms without attracting notice, for one thing. What she really needed was a car, but that was out of the question unless she stole one, and common sense said that stealing a car would attract just the kind of attention she most wanted to avoid. No, for right now she was better off walking.

The struggle and flight had sent adrenaline pumping through her system, warming her, but she felt shaky in the aftermath. Her knees wobbled as she marched along the dark highway, carefully holding the bag to her chest with both arms. She couldn't believe what she'd done. She had never hit another person before in her life, never even considered fighting. But she had not only fought, she had won. Dark, feral triumph filled her. She had won purely by luck, but she'd learned something tonight: how to use whatever weapon was available, and that she could win. The boundary she'd crossed had been a subtle, internal one, but she could feel the change deep inside, a strength growing where there had been only numbness, and fear.

Light shifted in the leaves of the trees ahead, signaling the approach of a car around a curve. Grace made a sharp turn away from the highway, unable to run because the darkness kept her from seeing the unevenness of the ground, and even a sprained ankle now could mean the difference between living and dying. She hurried toward the shelter of the tree line, but it was farther away than she'd thought, and the car was moving fast. The lights became brighter and brighter. The ground rose sharply, unexpectedly, and her feet slipped on the wet weeds. She fell facedown, landing hard on the computer case, jarring her shoulder. She glanced to her right, urgency pumping through her, and the car rushed into sight.

Grace dropped her head to the ground and lay still, hoping the sparse weeds were enough to hide her.

She felt as if the headlights pinned her to the earth like spotlights, so bright were they. But the car sped past without even slowing, and she was left behind in the blessed darkness, her clothes growing cold and wet, weeds stinging her face, her chest hurting from hard contact with the computer case. Once again she climbed to her feet, her movements clumsy as the various hurts she'd absorbed began to make themselves felt.

But every step took her farther fromMinneapolis , from her home, her life-no, she had no home, no life. Every step was taking her closer to safety, away from Parrish. She would come back and face him, but on her own terms, when she was better able to fight him.

She ignored the cold, and the aches. She ignored the bruises, the strained muscles, the great empty place where her heart had once been.

She walked.

Scanners were wonderful inventions. Conrad learned a great deal from listening to the police bands. He knew all the codes, understood the cop slang. It was to his advantage to understand how cops think, so he had invested a great deal of time in studying them. Beyond that, a well-informed person had to know what was happening in the law enforcement world, for so much of what happened in any given day was never reported by the media, which went after only the dramatic or the weird, or whatever bolstered the current politically correct causes. He recognized addresses of trouble spots to which the cops returned time and again to referee domestic problems, he knew where the drug deals went down, which street comers the whores worked. He also listened, with increased attention, whenever they answered calls to places that were out of the ordinary; their voices would be tighter, the adrenaline pumping because this wasdifferent.

The metro area was never quiet, never still. There was always trouble working. It was more peaceful out in the rural areas, and the county scanners picked up much more routine radio messages. Those scanners had to reach out for greater distances, and even though the payback in information was much less than what he gleaned from the city scanner, he was a prudent man, and had invested in more powerful scanners with special boosters for the rural areas. If anything happened within a sixty-mile radius, he wanted to know about it.

Conrad liked to lie in bed with all the scanners on, listening to the flow of information. The constant sound was soothing, connecting him to the dark underbelly of life that he'd deliberately chosen. He left the scanners on all night, and sometimes he thought he absorbed the crackle of words even in his sleep, because any urgent code would bring him immediately awake.

Not that he slept a lot, anyway. He rested, in a sort of suspended twilight state, but he didn't need much real sleep. He found physical rest more satisfying than mere unconsciousness; half dozing, he could enjoy his own total relaxation, the feel of the sheets beneath him, the gentle stirring of air on his hairy body. That was the only caress he enjoyed, perhaps because it wasn't sexual. Conrad was totally uninterested in sex; he didn't like waking with erections, didn't like feeling as if his body was not under his control. He considered sexual activity a weakness; neither women nor men appealed to him, and he disliked the sleazy promiscuity that seemed to pervade society. He never watched sexy thrillers on television, though he very much enjoyed reruns ofThe Andy Griffith Show. It was good, clean entertainment. Perhaps there were still places like Mayberry in the world; he would like to visit one someday, though of course he could never live there.Mayberrys were not for him; he just wanted perhaps to sit on a bench on the courthouse square, and breathe the air of goodness for a minute or two.

Conrad closed his eyes, and routed his thoughts from Mayberry to Grace St. John.She belonged in a Mayberry. Poor woman, she had no idea how to function in the world he listened to on the scanners, night after night. Where had she gone, after that witless vermin had robbed her? Had she found a hiding place, or had she fallen victim to someone else? He hadn't been able to pick up the thread of her movements, but he had no doubt that he would eventually succeed. He had feelers out alloverMinneapolis , and hewould find her. Conrad had no doubt in his ability; sooner or later, all those he sought fell into his hands.

He was surprised by a slight sense of concern for her. She was just an ordinary woman, like millions of other women; she had lived quietly, loved her husband and her job, done the laundry, the grocery shopping. She should have no problems too serious to be solved with anything more than a dose of Mayberry common sense. Unfortunately, she had become involved in something that was far outside her experience, and she would die. Conrad regretted it, but there was no alternative.

One of the county scanners crackled to life. "Ah, attendant atBrasher's service station reports a vagrant who refused to leave the premises and attacked him when he tried to make her leave."

Her? Conrad's attention perked. After a moment, a county deputy somewhere in the night clicked his radio. "This is one-twelve, I'm in the area. Is the vagrant still there?"

"Negative. The guy isn't hurt much, didn't want any medics. "

"Ah, did he give a description?" "Female, dark-haired, approximate age twenty-five. Dark pants, blue shirt. Height five-ten, weight one-eighty,"

"Big woman," the deputy commented. "I'll swing byBrasher's and take his statement, but it's probably nothing more than a scuffle."

And the attendant had probably lied, Conrad thought, throwing back the sheet and getting out of bed. He switched on a lamp, the light mellow and soothing, and unhurriedly began dressing. He wanted to give the deputy plenty of time to dutifully take the attendant's statement and leave.

Five-ten, one-eighty? Possible, but it was equally likely the attendant had been the loser in the encounter, and he didn't want to admit he'd been bested by a woman who wasn't quite five-foot-four, and who weighed a hundred thirty-five pounds. It looked better if he added six inches and forty-five pounds to her size. The hair, the age, the clothes, were about right, so it was worth checking out.

He arrived at the service station an hour later. It was quiet, well aftermidnight , no other customers. Conrad pulled up to the gas pump with the sign "Pay Before Pumping" posted on the side, and walked toward the small, well-lit office. The attendant was on his feet, watching, the expression on his thin, ferrety face an incongruous mixture of suspicion and anticipation. He didn't like Conrad's looks, few people did, but at the same time he wanted an audience to listen to a retelling of his adventure.

Conrad took out his wallet as he walked, fishing out a twenty. He wanted information, not gas.

Seeing the money come out, the attendant relaxed. Conrad stepped inside and laid the twenty on the counter, but kept his hand on the bill when the attendant reached for it. "A woman was here tonight," he said. "The twenty is for answers to a few questions."

The attendant eyed the bill, then darted a glance back up at Conrad. "A twentyain't much."

"Neither are my questions." Another glance, and the attendant decided it wouldn't be smart to try to get more out of this ape. "What about her?" he mumbled sullenly, -"Describe her hair."

"Her hair?" He shrugged. "It was dark. I already told the deputy all this."

"How long?" "About an hour ago, I guess." Conrad controlled an impulse to crush another trachea. Unfortunately, this idiot wasn't street trash; if he were killed, questions would definitely be asked, and Conrad didn't want to lead the cops in Grace St. John's direction. "Her hair. How long was her hair?"

"Oh. Well, it was in one of them twisted things, you know,whaddaya call it?"

"A braid?" Conrad offered helpfully. "Yeah, that's the word."

"Thank you." Taking his hand off the twenty, Conrad left the office and walked calmly back to his car. No other questions were needed. The woman had definitely been Grace St. John. She needed to get out ofMinneapolis , out of the state. She was headed east, probably toEau Claire . It was the next city of any size in that direction. She would feel more anonymous in a city, attract less attention.

He might be able to find her en route, but at night she would have the advantage of being better able to hide when a car approached. Perhaps she was moving during the day, but he thought not. She had to rest, and she would be afraid to go out in the daylight. Would she try to hitch a ride toEau Claire ? Again, he didn't think so. She was middleclass, suburban cautious, taught from childhood how dangerous it was to pick up a hitcher or thumb a ride herself. She was also smart; a hitcher was noticeable, and being noticed was the last thing she would want.

The gas station attendant must have hassled her in some way, or she would never have risked drawing attention by scuffling with him. She would be cold, upset, possibly hurt. Perhaps she had gone to ground somewhere nearby, trying to get warm, crying a little, too discouraged to go on. She was close, he knew, but he had no way of finding her right now short of bringing in tracking dogs, and wouldn'tthat draw attention! He wanted this kept as quiet as she did. It would be better all around if no cops or media were involved beyond the present level. He estimated how long it would take her to reachEau Claire . At least two more days, and that was if nothing else happened to her. She was staying off the interstate highway, and secondary roads would give her more points of entry into the city. That made his job more difficult, but not impossible. He could narrow down her most likely routes to two, and two was a very manageable number. He would need backup, though. He wanted someone who wasn't trigger-happy, someone who could adjust without panic if things didn't go according to plan. He thought over the men who were available, and settled on Paglione. He could be a bit thickheaded, but he was steady, and Conrad would be doing all the thinking anyway.

Poor Ms. St. John. Poor little woman.