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42

FROM THE MOMENT Preston phoned him, a little after midnight, waking him from what he had to admit was in any case a troubled sleep, Alan found that Thursday, the nineteenth of August, was the most hellish day of his entire life, as well as the longest, and only partly because so much of the day consisted of travel, which, in addition to the normal irritations implicit in the very word "travel," was chockablock with extra aggravations, due both to the unforeseen nature of the travel involved and to its abnormalities leaving a Club Med on a weekday, for instance, just to begin with.

Alan had gone to bed early "Wednesday evening, having no one to talk with after Preston's mysterious disappearance, and in fact no one to talk with about Preston's mysterious disappearance except himself, which he could do just as well in bed in the dark, brooding on the dark person of Pamela Broussard and what sirenic thing she might have done with poor Preston, until fitful sleep had taken him, only to be shattered by that firecracker phone call:

"You know who this is."

"What? What?"

"For God's sake, Alan, you fell asleep? With me God knows where? What kind of paid companion do you call yourself?"

"It's not that easy to be a paid companion, you know," Alan said, having come to full consciousness by now, "to someone who isn't present. In any event, I take it you yourself know where you are."

"I am at the Holiday Inn on Key Largo."

Was that a joke? Would Preston make a joke like that? "I suppose there is one," Alan said doubtfully.

"I need everything," Preston went on. "I am standing here in nothing but my swim trunks."

"In Florida? Preston, you didn't swim Oh, my God, she got you sailing!"

"Yes, she did, damn her eyes. If there are any policemen on that island, Alan, I want you to have her arrested, at once, for kidnapping, and"

"She's gone."

"What do you mean, gone? How could she be gone?"

"The resort office here got an e-mail saying her mother had died. Quite unexpectedly."

"And long ago, I should think," Preston said grimly, "from the shock of having given birth to Pam."

"Who works for your ex-wife Helene's brother Hubert."

"Aaaarrrghh!"

"Exactly. Did you get away from your kidnappers? Is that what this is all about?"

"What this is all about, Alan, is that I am here with nothing. No identification, no credit cards, no clothing I'm like a Dickens orphan."

"Well, not quite."

"Very like. I want you, Alan, to pack up everything of mine, everything."

"You're not coming back?"

"They're looking for me, Alan, they want to press papers on me. They'll be watching every possible route for me to take back out of the country. No, I have a better idea. Don't check out of there, but do come here, by the fastest, soonest means of transportation known to man."

"I think I know what that is."

"Bring everything of mine, bring everything of yours, but do not check out."

"I understand that."

"I'll be here waiting for you. I'm checked in under your name. What name do you want to use here?"

"Preston, I would rather use my own."

"I told you, I've taken it. This young man here, this desk clerk, I've taken him into my confidence"

"Mm hm."

Away from the phone, Preston was heard to say, "What is your name, by the by? Duane? Very good. You will be recompensed for this good deed, Duane. Not as lavishly as Porfirio, you understand, but well."

Alan, feeling left out, said, "Preston?"

Returning to the phone, Preston said, "Duane needed a name to check me in under, which could not be my own. So I gave him yours."

"I see."

"So now you have to have a nom de guerre as well. Come on, Alan, it's late. I want to get to my new room in this place and have a long warm shower and a long warm sleep. Come along, Alan, whom do you wish to be?"

"Duane," Alan said. "Smith."

"Ever the comedian. You will find me when you get here, Alan, in my room, next to naked."

Not an appetizing image, but Alan was used to it. "I'll get there when I can," he promised, and hung up.

Which was not going to be as soon as one might like. Alan, dressed, teeth brushed, presented himself at the office, where the young woman on duty found it hard to believe she was expected to have a conversation with a guest at this hour. Being alone here on the graveyard shift meant, to her, being alone, surrounded by bright paperback examples of chick-lit, each with its cover featuring a perky, smirky girl whose face needed to be slapped.

As did this one's. Trying to be patient at nearly one in the morning after not only troubled sleep but rudely disturbed sleep, Alan said, yet again, "I am not checking out, but I do have to leave for a few days. On an airplane. To Miami."

"Okay," she said, her eyes drifting toward the scatter of books on the table behind her.

"Arrange it," he said.

She blinked at him, slowly. "You want to check out? At this hour?"

"I do not want to check out. I will continue to pay for the room, but I just have to leave for a few days. On that airplane we were discussing. To Miami."

"Okay," she said.

Having that circular feeling, Alan said, "When is the next flight to Miami?"

"There's one on Saturday."

"No, dear," he said. "Today. This morning. As early as possible."

"I only know about the one on Saturday."

"A woman left here yesterday," Alan pointed out, "due to family tragedy. She didn't wave her arms all the way to America, so there must be a plane."

"Not to Miami," she said.

"Where to, then?"

"I dunno." Wrinkling her face up like a washcloth, she said, "You want to know where Ms. Broussard went?"

"I do not. There's an airport on this island. There are planes leaving it every day. Where do they go?"

"Other islands, I think."

"Do you have flight schedules in the desk there? Anything like that?"

"Sure," she said. "You want to look at one? Which airline?"

"All airlines. Every creature that flies, that's what I want."

Eventually, she did come up with schedules for four airlines, none of them companies he'd ever heard of, and all of them, as she'd suggested, merely hopping around the islands like hummingbirds. But here was one, at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, that flew to San Juan in Puerto Rico. From Puerto Rico, wouldn't it be possible to reach Miami?

"Let's," Alan suggested to the lit-chick, "call this eight-hundred number."

"You want to use the phone? Go ahead."

So he did, and got a person, from the sound of her accent, either in Kentucky or Bangladesh. He explained where he was and where he wanted to go, and she agreed to make the necessary reservations. All he had to do was present himself at the local airport with his credit card sixty minutes before flight time, and his ticket, all the way through to Miami, would be awaiting him.

"Thank you," he told the phone, and left a 5:45 wake-up call with the reader.

The difficulties of getting oneself on the road at the same time the sun is getting up are many and complex. In the first place, Alan didn't have a key to Preston's room, and it wasn't easy to convince a bellboy to open the place so he could pack up Preston's stuff. It was only when the lad verified Alan's contention that he not only knew Preston but that Preston had been, for several years now, paying Alan's bills in this place, that he was permitted entry.

Then there was the luggage. Alan didn't travel light, but next to him Preston was a pasha. The taxi that was called became so full of bags that Alan could barely squeeze himself in among them, and at the small local airport he was the cause of much merriment among the layabouts to be found at every tropical air terminal around the entire waist of the world.

Then they wouldn't check the bags all the way through to his final destination. He was outside the United States at the moment, which meant that he, plus all that kit and all that caboodle, would meet again in San Juan to go through Customs and Immigration.

"See you soon," he regretfully told the scout troop of bags as they bounced away on the conveyor belt, and then, while waiting to board plane number one, he went off to have a cup of rotten coffee and a worse donut.

The first airplane was quite small but quite full, entirely of island people, many of whom had brought baskets of food along in order to picnic in the sky. The food smelled, variously and mostly not pleasantly. Also, the plane, although flying through the air, gave a very realistic impersonation of being driven across a washboard-rutted back road somewhere. Crash, stink, crash, stink; he was happy to see Puerto Rico.

Whatever passenger profiles the Feds maintain on smugglers and terrorists and other unwelcome persons must have included warnings about people with ridiculous amounts of expensive luggage, because Alan was put through so many searches and interrogations that he nearly missed his next flight, and it was only by raising his voice and acting like exactly the sort of overbearing rich bastard he most loathed that he managed to effect his release.

The 10:45 a.m. plane from Puerto Rico to Miami was an improvement, mostly because it had a first-class section up front, into which Alan firmly inserted himself. He was traveling on Preston's nickel, after all, so there was no point stinting.

Also, although he did not believe in drinking before lunch, particularly when sleep-deprived, he somehow couldn't deny himself a complimentary Bloody Mary once the plane was airborne. His seatmate was a stout elderly fellow in suit and tie, of all things, who spent the entire flight nodding over a hardcover Tom Clancy novel nodding in agreement, that is, not in sleepiness.

Alan sipped his Bloody Mary and smiled for the first time since the midnight phone call. Back in coach, they could be roasting goats over an open flame for all he knew, and probably were, but up here among the readers of hardcover thrillers, life was good.

The combination of comfort and vodka soon made Alan contemplative, and what he mostly contemplated was his future. This job with Preston Fareweather, which barely could be called a job at all, had been very pleasant and remunerative, but was that now coming to a close? Had Pamela Broussard, in her nastiness, disrupted not only Preston's life but Alan's as well? He hardly thought of himself as indispensable, so if Preston had plans that did not include a return to Club Med, it was entirely possible they would no longer include Alan, either. He'd certainly be able to find another rich bully to play courtier to he wasn't worried about that part of it but would the next one be anywhere near as much fun as silly, fat, teasing Preston Fareweather?

The flight was due to arrive in Miami at 1:20 and very nearly did. And it was here that Alan found out precisely how much baggage he carried on this trip: three carts full. His transit, therefore, from baggage claim to the line of auto rental counters was tedious in the extreme. He would push a cart down a hall to a turn or a doorway, leave it, return to point A, push a second cart down the hall, leave it next to the first, return to point A, push the third cart down the hall; repeat. When he was finished, his goods stacked up like rush hour at the rent-a-car counter of his choice, he had become exhausted, short-tempered, and too harried to fight.

The auto rental clerk gave him a look. "You want a full-size car," she said.

"What I really want," he told her, "is a bed."

"We don't have those, unfortunately. That's a different industry entirely. I can give you a car with reclining seats."

"I'll do my own reclining, someday, please, God."

One had to ride a bus to get to the car, which meant he probably did more baggage handling out here today than did most of the people employed for the purpose. Finally, though, he and his goods and chattels were deposited in front of a bright red Lexus Enorma, and the bus, much lighter now, went on its way. (Chattels, when they are not slaves, are movable pieces of property, which every one of these damn things was.)

The Enorma had a capacious trunk and a pretty roomy back seat, so Alan eventually got everything stowed. Then, constantly checking the map the car-rental woman had given him, he found his way out of Miami International Airport and, after one misstep on state Route 41, which wanted to take him through the Everglades to Naples over on Florida's west coast, he managed to turn south, drop down to Route 1, and, by barely four in the afternoon, two and a half hours after landing, there, by God, was the Key Largo Holiday Inn, where or nearly where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had been treated so badly by Edward G. Robinson. None of them seemed to be around at the moment, but wasn't that? No! The African Queen?

The person at the desk, being female, was unlikely to be Duane. In fact, the name tag on her left breast announced that at least that much of her was named DeeDee. "DeeDee," Alan said, approaching the desk, "is that the real African Queen out there? From the movie?"

"Yes, sir," she said, with a happy smile, glad to be part of an operation that would have the African Queen in its parking lot.

"It looks smaller than in the movie," Alan said.

She nodded. "Everybody says that. May I help you, sir?"

"Oh, they do, huh? I have a reservation, I'm" But then he drew a blank for just a second, remembering that the person he was not was Alan Pinkleton. "Duane Smith," he remembered.

"Oh, yes, sir," she said, "I think we have a message for you. Yes, here it is, sir."

The message was from Preston: "Call me before you check in, room 211."

"Where's the house phone?"

"Just over there, sir. Are you checking in now, sir?"

"Not yet."

"Shall we get your luggage from your car, sir?"

You don't know what you're asking, he thought, and said, as he headed for the house phone, "Let's wait on that, too."

Preston answered so promptly, it was clear he'd been sitting right next to the phone, or possibly on top of it. "Yes!"

"Preston?"

"Bring me some clothing. Not all the luggage, just one piece, with clothing."

Alan might have pointed out that he had packed this morning in semidarkness and a mad rush and wasn't certain which of those many bags contained the clothing Preston might most prize at this moment, but Preston had already hung up. So Alan swung by the desk to assure DeeDee he'd be back, and then went out to the hot, bright sun to open the Enorma's trunk and root through suitcases until he found one that seemed to have the variety Preston might have in mind. He carried this into the building, found 211, knocked, and Preston yanked open the door.

"Where have you been?"

"Traveling. Here."

Preston really was wearing nothing but that skimpy bathing suit. Grabbing the suitcase Alan offered him, he waved a hand at the room service table over by the window and said as he receded toward the bathroom, "Have some leftover lunch if you want. Wait here, we have to talk." And into the bathroom he went, slamming the door.

Preston had done well for himself with his room service lunch. Salmon, asparagus, some sort of white pudding. Most of it was no longer in a state Alan found appetizing, but the coffee in the thermos was still at least warm, and the untouched roll was fresh, with sesame seeds. All much better than the little cardboard box of semi-edibles he'd rejected on the flight to Miami, featuring, as it had, a suspiciously blemish-free apple, as large and red and round and perfect as the one the witch had carted about in Snow White.

Alan had consumed half a roll and half a cup of coffee when Preston returned, arrayed in bright green polo shirt, mauve slacks, and tasseled gray loafers. "I have thrown those swim trunks away," he announced.

"You didn't tell me about the African Queen."

"Some things are best as surprises," Preston assured him. "Speaking of which, we've had a change of plan."

"We have?"

"My initial concept was," Preston said, "we could secrete ourselves within the bland vastness of Florida a while. Offseason, easy to move about, you could be the official presence with your credit cards and driver's license and all that. But shortly before our young friend Duane went off duty this morning, he phoned me to say a man had just come through, showing a photo of me and asking if I had been sighted by anyone. He didn't claim to be a policeman, but he tried to leave that impression."

"Private detective, I suppose," Alan said.

"One of who knows how many, fanned across the state," Preston said, with a gesture like someone dealing out a lot of fans. "I can't stay here," he said. "But to go back to that island would be folly. So I've decided on the only thing I can possibly do."

"Yes?"

"Go home," Preston said.

Surprised, Alan said, "New York? Are you sure?"

"Where else is there for me? Anywhere else, I'm a hunted man. I've been safe till now, but they smell blood, Alan, they know they've got me on the run. The safest place for me right now is my own apartment in New York City. Nobody can get me there."

"Preston, I'm not sure how you hope to make it from here to there."

Preston paused to study his reflection in the mirror over the dresser. Pleased, he smiled as he patted his shirt over his paunch. "That's where I've been brilliant," he said. "I know I can't fly to New York. One has to show identification to board an airplane, and they'll be watching for my name on flights to New York. But they can't watch all flights everywhere, Alan."

"No, I suppose not."

"There's a flight this evening at eight-thirteen," Preston said, "that arrives in Philadelphia at ten fifty-nine. We rent a car there, Alan. An hour and a half on the Jersey Turnpike, through the Lincoln Tunnel, and we're home. At one or two in the morning, surely I can slip into that building undetected."

"We have a lot of luggage, Preston. Maybe we should put the rental car in that garage of yours, run everything up in the elevator."

Preston looked scornful. "A dreadful idea, Alan," he said. "I think you'd best leave the generaling to me."

"If you say so."

"I do say so. A lot of activity around that garage, Alan, and my personal automobile suddenly parked on the street, would be a dead giveaway. I want to be home, Alan, but I do not want every private detective in the employ of my ex-wives to know I am home."

"Then that's what we'll do, then," Alan agreed.

Easier said than done. Alan checked Preston out, using his own name and credit card, while Preston prepared an envelope for DeeDee to pass on to Duane, containing, Alan had no doubt, less than Duane would be pleased by, and then Alan, having just driven all the way down here from Miami International, turned around and drove all the way back again.

Next, at the airport, having just checked out all this luggage, he proceeded, with minimal help from Preston, to check it all back in again. Having rid themselves of baggage and rental car, they did have time for a rather awful dinner with a Spanish overcast before boarding their flight, where, once they were safely seated in first class, Alan was happy to forget dinner with another complimentary Bloody Mary.

And then, for quite some time, nothing happened. The pilot did occasionally come onto the sound system with that sedated-frog pilot voice to explain the delay something about traffic backed up at Chicago O'Hare, though what that had to do with a flight between Miami and Philadelphia,

Alan did not feel competent to say but the effect was, they left the ground not at 8:13 but at 9:45, more or less, which put them in the sky over Philadelphia not at 10:59 but at nearly one in the morning. Since they had arrived at Philadelphia at the wrong time, throwing everybody's schedule off, they had to spend an additional fifteen minutes circling in the sky above that city until at last a niche was found for them among all those millions and millions of summer travelers, and the plane finally landed.

Luggage. More luggage. Wait, still more luggage. It was quarter to two when the last of the three carts of luggage reached the car rental desk, where, astonishingly enough, the reservation Preston had made this morning in Alan's name was still good. Not only that, they had another Lexus Enorma, this one in bright yellow.

Alan had to fight to stay awake on the long drive up through New Jersey, which meant he had to have the radio on loud. Preston also had to stay awake, because of the loud radio but also to monitor Alan's wakefulness, so by a quarter to four, when they at last drove through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan, both were feeling rather shredded. The only good part of it was that neither had the strength to start a fight, even though both of them wanted with all their hearts to start a fight.

But a fight very nearly did break out anyway, when Preston insisted, as they were driving through Central Park, that Alan turn the Enorma back in to its owners tonight. "We have to have this trip behind us," he announced, "as though it had never existed. We cannot have this vehicle, in your name, in front of my home until God knows what time tomorrow. It won't be difficult for you at all, Alan."

Of course it would be difficult, as they both knew, but Preston didn't care. However, they did finally get to the apartment building, where they put most of the on-duty staff to work emptying the car and transporting everything up the regular elevator to the penthouse, once they'd convinced the staff that Preston was really Preston. No one employed here now had been here in that prehistory when Preston had been an actual presence in the building.

Once everything was in and up, it was established that the doorman would recognize Alan whenever he returned from his Enorma unloading, and would deliver him to the penthouse. So all that was left for Alan to do was get back in the car, drive to the rental agency's office on Eleventh Avenue, turn the car in, roam the streets a while in search of a taxi, find one, ride it back to Fifth Avenue, ride, wilting, up in the elevator to the penthouse, and walk into a place of a million lights, where Preston paced back and forth on the living room floor.

"Where have you been?"

"Everywhere," Alan said. "I would like to sleep now, if I may."

"It's always about you, Alan," Preston said. "I've noticed that. Come along, I'll show you your guest room. That's why I've been waiting up for you, Alan, to be your host. There's the guest room there, it has its own bath, I've had your bags put in there higgledy-piggledy, I shall now turn out every light and go straight to bed and I do not want to know the world again for hours and hours and hours."

"I'll second that," Alan said around a yawn.

When, a few minutes later, too tired to do anything but wash his face and brush his teeth, Alan turned off his own last light and declined gratefully onto Preston's extremely comfortable guest-room bed, the red LED of the bedside alarm read 04:47.


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