Chapter TwoAs Lynn drove, she felt a strange mixture of exuberance and terror. She reached into the back seat and made sure that the brown satchel was fully covered by her coat. She felt the perspiration beading on her forehead. She was involuntarily squeezing the steering wheel too hard, and her fingers were beginning to hurt. Lynn leaned back in her seat and relived the morning in disbelief. Yesterday, she was sure she was on the company's fast track, headed for the top. Today, she was fired as a thief. And after being falsely accused, for the first time in her life, she had stolen. She was suddenly struck by the tragic irony, and gave out with a shrill sound that she supposed was something between a laugh and a wail.
Lynn's mind raced. Whose money was it? What was it doing in the closet? Had it been missed yet? And how much was there? She scanned her rear view mirror for police, or anyone else who might be following her. The inescapable paranoia of the criminal mind, she told herself. No one was following. No one had noticed. She pulled into her driveway, and covered the satchel with her coat as she walked quickly toward her apartment.
“Hi, Miss Kelly,” a small voice called out from behind her. It took her by surprise and she almost threw the bag into the air. She turned around to see a small, blond boy grinning at her. He had curly hair, a round freckled face and eyes that were wide and probing.
“Hello, Nathan.” Nathan lived in one of the units on the other side of the pool from Lynn's. “How's your mom?”
“She's good. She's on a diet, you know.”
Lynn grinned at the boy. “I didn't know that, but I'm sure she'll be glad you let me know.”
Nathan gave her a singular and solemn nod.
“Tell your mom hello for me, will you?”
“Yes, ma'am, I will.”
“Sorry, Nathan, I have to run. I'll have you in for cookies soon, okay?”
His face lit up. “Yes, ma'am.” His brow suddenly furrowed. “You mean today?”
Lynn smiled at him warmly. “Probably not today Nathan, but soon okay?”
The boy gave her a smile, accepting the postponement. “Okay, Miss Kelly.”
Lynn mussed his hair affectionately, then ran up the stairs, unlocked the door and went into the bedroom. She tossed the brown leather bag on the bed, and then unzipped it. She turned it over and began spilling the contents out onto the bed. She began counting the bills and found that they were banded in stacks of one hundred. There was one stack of twenties. All the rest were stacks of hundreds. She did the math in her head. Ten thousand dollars per stack. After counting four stacks to assure that they all contained fifty bills, she began counting the number of banded stacks. There were eighty-three. “s**t,” she trembled to the empty room, “eight hundred and thirty thousand dollars.”
She stared at the stacks of money covering her bed. What should she do? Should she drive back to the office and put the bag back in the closet? Was it too late? She needed time to think. Somewhere she couldn't be found until she knew how she would extricate herself from all of this. Why not take a day or two and go up the coast? She had the time, now that her career had met such an abrupt and unexpected end. The thought of how she had been treated by Dan Marshall filled her with anger all over again. That son of a b***h. She pulled an overnight bag from the closet and quickly packed it with what she would need for a couple of days. Then she threw the bundles of money back into the brown satchel.
Lynn walked downstairs to the car, and threw her bag and the satchel in the trunk. She pulled out of the driveway and began driving, still debating whether she should take off, and if so, where she should go.
Lynn felt a sense of panic overtake her. What was she doing? Where could she go? She was going to go to jail. They would find her in no time, as she left a trail that could be followed by a rookie cub scout. The money was at the office, and disappeared at the same time she did. Everyone else was still there. And when they catch her? She took several deep breaths, finding it hard to take in enough air. She couldn't imagine being questioned by the police. She'd convict herself in seconds. She had to be the worst thief of all time. She looked again in her rear-view mirror and saw nothing unusual, but had no idea if that was because no one was following, or because she was an incompetent thief.
Lynn decided there was no real choice; she had to take the money back. She made a left turn and hooked up with Rancho Boulevard, the main arterial leading back to the office. As she drove, she thought of ways to smuggle the money back into the Prestige building; maybe through a back window. She shook her head, remembering that the back windows were secured. All she would succeed in doing was adding breaking and entering to her list of crimes.
A mile from the office, Lynn stopped the car by the side of the road and stared straight ahead. There had to be an inconspicuous way back into the building, so that she could return the money without being seen. She thought about the side door, which was sometimes left open during the day by employees who came outside to smoke. One of the few remaining havens for the nicotine addicted. Then there was the window of a coworker who was on vacation this week. Both possibilities.
She pulled away from the curb and drove toward the office. Then, in response to her second uncontrollable impulse of the day, she made a right and got onto the Northbound 5 Freeway, heading out of the city. She could see the office building in the distance, fading from view, as she moved toward Los Angeles. What was she doing? She had always been a cautious and deliberate person, never giving in to sudden, impractical impulses. Today they ruled her life.
At noon, Lynn drove through Los Angeles. Taking the 101 Freeway, she continued northbound, still not sure of her destination. Shortly before two o'clock, she passed through Ventura, and at two-thirty, she stopped in Santa Barbara, just long enough for gas and a large coffee to help her stay awake.
As Lynn walked back to the car, she could see the ocean off to her left. The endless expanse of blue spoke of power and tranquility at the same time. Its beauty was a momentary escape from the obsessive fear that had taken her over. Lynn looked out at the horizon and felt a million miles away from where she had been, and who she had been, when she started the day. Her distance from reality began to fade, and thoughts of the satchel crept back into her mind. She got into the car and made her way back to the freeway. Lynn headed north again, sipping the coffee and obsessing over the horrors of this nightmare. All of her thoughts seemed to end in the same place. She was a thief. She looked again in the rear view mirror.
Lynn checked her watch. It was only four o'clock, but she could barely keep her eyes open. She pulled off the freeway at Price Street in Pismo Beach, and then turned left toward the row of motel signs. The signs beckoned to any tired traveler. They screamed at her. She turned left again, and followed the curving street in front of the endless row of ocean front motels. She was in tourist land. She followed the curve of the road away from the highway until she came to the Pelican Shore Lodge. It looked comfortable and inconspicuous. It was perfect.
Lynn walked into the hotel lobby with her small overnight bag in one hand, the brown satchel in the other and her purse draped over her shoulder. She was caught off guard by a three foot ceramic pelican just inside the door, and let out a screech. There was laughter from behind the counter. The clerk was a pimple-faced boy who looked all of fifteen.
“Sorry, miss. Old Parker does give people a fright sometimes.” He spoke with a southern drawl that made Lynn want to go back outside and see if she had crossed over into Georgia at some point.
“Parker?” she said, questioningly.
“Why yes, ma'am. Old Parker there is our welcome to the hotel. Kind of a mascot.”
Lynn shook her head. “It's a Stephen King kind of a welcome, don't you think?”
“Never mind.” She took a deep breath, still recovering from her encounter with Parker. “I saw the vacancy sign out and I need a room.”
“How long, ma'am?”
“Just tonight,” Lynn said, opening her purse on the counter.
“Okay. Got a good one for you; nice ocean views. Ninety-five dollars.”
She nodded assent.
“Got a credit card?” the young man asked matter-of-factly.
She nodded again, reaching into her purse. She reached for a credit card, but suddenly stopped. Her movements could be instantly traceable with plastic. “No, I'll pay cash,” she said, handing the young man two fifties from her purse.
He looked unsure. “All right ma'am, but you won't be able to charge anything to the room unless I can have a card imprint.”
“I understand,” she said, giving him smile. “I won't need to charge to the room.”
He shrugged, punched a sequence of keys on his terminal and waited for it to spit out a card. He pointed to two places she was to sign, and an address line. She hesitated, for just a moment, then signed “Sandra Cooper,” and made up a street address in Los Angeles. She pushed the card back to him and he gave her a coded key.
“Your room's on the second floor; go out the door and turn right. Stairs are about half way to the end of the building.” He considered her. “You here for pleasure?” he asked.
She didn't want questions and found herself suddenly suspicious. “Uh, no, business and pleasure, actually.”
“Really?” he asked incredulously. “What kind of business you in?”
She had made a mistake and she wanted it to go no further. “Minding my own,” she said with a gentle smile. She watched him consider the comment. Lynn waved the key, saying, “Thanks,” and then turned to walk away. She was careful to avoid Parker as she walked out the door.
Inside the room, she double-locked the door and threw the satchel on the bed. She turned on the television just for the distraction, then walked over to the far side of the room and drew back the drapes. The window was the width of the wall, and gave her an astonishing ocean view. She stepped out onto the small balcony and sat down in one of two patio chairs. Her timing couldn't have been better. The sky was painted in stripes of orange as the sun touched the horizon. Between the rows of orange were gatherings of white clouds, reaching across the blue sky in long bands as if they had been tossed by a giant hand. She watched as the sun moved toward the line of the horizon, leaving a trail of twilight orange in its wake.
She watched, entranced by the beauty, for the next fifteen minutes as the sun set, leaving trails of astonishing color and design. When the sun disappeared, the escapism was at an end and her thoughts returned abruptly to the money. Someone would discover it missing soon enough, if the hadn't already.
She wondered who had that kind of money. Marshall was making a good living, but he was frugal. The business was paying the bills and things were pretty good, but not over eight hundred thousand in closet cash good. So what was it? Where had it come from? It occurred to her that the money might be stolen. She might have stolen, stolen money. And if she had, it might be marked. The money might turn her in if she spent the first bill.
Lynn lay down on the bed next to the satchel to rest for a minute. Her head hurt from the weight of her obsession, and exhaustion was just beneath the anxiety that overwhelmed her. Suddenly, she was running down the corridor of the hotel. She reached her room and searched her purse frantically for the key. When she found it, she inserted it into the reader on the door. The green light went on, but the door wouldn't open. She looked behind her to see if anyone was coming, but saw no one. She tried again and the door flew open. Once inside, she locked the chain and the dead bolt, then turned and leaned against the door to catch her breath. She began to feel safe in the familiar hotel room. She walked over to the window and peered between the closed drapes. The hotel was surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team. They had found her. A muffled command was given, and then there were several whooshing sounds, as canisters broke the window and began to fill the room with gas. The gas quickly consumed the oxygen in the room and Lynn found herself gasping for air. A police officer was screaming her name into a megaphone.
Lynn bolted upright on the bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air, just as she had been in the dream. She walked over to the window and looked out. There was no one.
Lynn opened the front door and looked around. She jumped a foot when the door to the room next to hers opened, and a couple in their seventies slowly walked out. She told herself she wasn't cut out to be a fugitive. She just wouldn't make it. If she wasn't caught by tomorrow at this time it wouldn't matter, because she would soon die of a heart attack. All it would take was the sudden move of a stranger, or the sudden appearance of a stationary pelican. Everything scared the s**t out of her.
She went into the bathroom and rinsed and dried her face. Lynn looked in the mirror and grimaced at her appearance. She combed her hair and thought about reapplying her make-up, but decided against it. She sat down on the toilet seat and waited while her breathing returned to normal, then she put both bags in the closet.
Lynn realized that she hadn't eaten all day and was suddenly starved. She walked to the hotel restaurant and was seated with a view of the cliffs and the illuminated ocean below. Lynn ordered a bowl of clam chowder and a salad, dividing her attention between the ocean, as it sent spray in her direction with every wave, and a young couple across the room, the word newlyweds all but written across their foreheads. They held hands across the table and gazed into each other's eyes, periodically sharing intimate laughter. Lynn, feeling somewhat jaded for her thoughts, hoped they would remember this night when love was older and times were hard. She hoped they would stay this happy, defying all odds. Then she thought about how good it would feel to have someone she loved, and who loved her; someone who would look into her eyes with a promise of forever. Someone to talk to about what to do, when the world was uncertain–like now. But how could she ever have what they had if she couldn't get close to anyone–couldn't trust anyone. It occurred to her that not trusting wasn't a trait newly acquired with her fugitive status. It was the way she had lived every day since she discovered the emptiness of the promise of forever that she had accepted with all of her faith.
For just a moment Lynn thought she saw a face outside the window, and blanched. She told herself she had to stop it or she would have her heart attack before the night was over. She would finish her meal, and then go back to the room for some sleep. Things would make more sense after a good night's sleep.
Lynn paid her bill and walked back to the room, frequently looking over her shoulder, just in case. She was fighting an uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched. Once inside the room, she locked the dead bolt and leaned on the door as she drew a deep breath. Her vivid dream came back to her with full force and she couldn't resist walking over to the window and peering outside. No police. She sat down on the bed and picked up the phone. She dialed the familiar number and waited.
“Hi, Josey,” Lynn said, instantly recognizing the voice.
“Hey, Sis, what's up?” There was a slight pause, then a burp.
Lynn recognized the burp, too. “You drinking diet soda again?”
“Aren't I always?”
“Always,” Lynn said in a tone that was too serious for the content of the conversation. “I need you to do me a favor, Josey. Will you go over to my place and feed Mona.” She paused for just a moment. “Better yet, pick her up and take her back to Mom and Dad's, will you? I'm not quite sure how soon I'll get home tomorrow.”
“Yeah, no prob. Where are you all of a sudden, anyway?” Josey said as an afterthought.
Lynn grimaced. “I had to go out of town for a day or two.”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Hmm,” Josey said, “a little mysterious, isn't it?”
“I know. I'll explain later,” Lynn said, trying to sound as even as she could, thinking that she would have a hard time explaining this, even to herself.
“Okay. So where are you?”
Lynn shook her head. Josey never gave up. “I'll explain tomorrow. And thanks. I love you.”
“Love you too, mystery woman. Talk to you tomorrow,” Josey said. Lynn could hear one more burp as she began to move the phone from her ear.
Lynn smiled at the free spirit that was Josey as she hung up the phone. She climbed into bed and tried to fall asleep, but images of the brown satchel and its contents kept flooding her mind, and kept sleep at a distance. She knew it would be a long night, and she had no idea what she would do tomorrow.