This posting features Chapter 43 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
The sleek gray Honda Accord rocketed west on Highway 80 into Alabama, past Montgomery and Selma, those bastions of the Civil Rights movement, headed toward Mississippi. The slight swaying of the car and the rhythmic bumping of the road was almost hypnotic as the miles dropped behind them.
Spewing gravel and dust in its wake, the vehicle suddenly swerved off the road into an Econo Lodge parking lot in Demopolis. He had hoped to cross the border before stopping, but he was simply too weary to continue. He would collide with another car or a light pole if he did not rest soon.
As the car swept past a Wal-Mart store, he mashed the brake, jerking to a halt with neck-popping suddenness.
“Whoa!” she said, snapping awake.
Glancing over his good shoulder, he waited with the engine idling, one foot poised on the accelerator and the other foot depressing the brake.
“What is it?” she asked. Her voice was hoarse.
He raised a finger to his lips.“Shh.”
Three minutes passed, then five. They sat in silence.
When he was convinced they had not been followed, he shifted the transmission into park and killed the engine. She reached for the door handle but he stopped her with a gentle touch on her arm.
“We have to play this thing smart,” he whispered. “No mistakes. Understand?”
He went on as though he did not see her acknowledgment. “No phone calls, no using real names, nothing to attract attention. It’s anonymity that’ll get us through this.”
Again, she nodded. “Do you have enough cash?”
“Enough for one night.”
They stepped into a lobby that, mercifully, was empty except for a single clerk. While she checked out brochures as though they were tourists passing through the area, he paid cash for the room, displaying a fake driver’s license as the required identification.
He wondered if the clerk, a young fellow of barely 18 sporting a junior quasi-mustache of which he was obviously proud, would recognize that the license photograph did not remotely resemble him. Fortunately, the fellow barely looked at them, preferring to keep his eyes glued to a TV show about some young rap singer who was spilling the secrets of his success for all to witness.
Once inside Room 212, they were safe, at least for a time.
“I need to use the toilet,” she said as she disappeared into the bathroom.
While he waited, he found the television remote control, clicked on CNN, and collapsed onto one of two double beds in the room. He landed on a hard spot near his butt. Patting himself down, he threw loose change — a quarter, a dime, and three pennies — as well as a candy wrapper, his wallet, and the car keys onto a bedside table so he would be more comfortable. Leaning under the bed, he slid his Glock into the space between the mattress and the box spring. Just the small act of emptying his pockets left him exhausted.
Dana Dotson’s face filled the screen. She had become quite the international celebrity during the past week. She was certain to make Network now.
Behind her, the hospital parking lot was pandemonium. U.S. Marshals, FBI and ATF agents, firemen, EMTs, and assorted men in dark suits scrambled around madly as though they were ants protecting their queen.
He turned up the sound, but the news was no different than it had been on the car radio. The broadcasters knew nothing; they were desperate to fill up the time with inane chatter. In the meantime, the police refused to release much information, so most of the people interviewed and the opinions expressed were based on absolutely nothing save speculation. It made for creative television, to say nothing of the inventive ways the interviewees mangled the “to be” verb.
She stepped from the bathroom and wiped her hands on a washcloth. Collapsing onto the adjacent bed, she remained curiously passive, mostly monosyllabic in her responses.
“Nothing new to report,” he told her.
He turned up the TV and meandered into the bathroom to wash the dirt from his hands and the grime from his face. She could have taken the keys, run down to the car, and made her escape had she been so inclined. That she had done nothing of the sort was a testament either to her newfound trust in this man as her savior or a weariness and lethargy that knew no bounds.
Wiping his hands on a large terrycloth towel, he stood in the doorway, carefully watching her face. She had switched the TV channel. Her eyes followed a documentary on Hitler’s SS troops, but if she saw him from the corner of her eye, as she should have, she gave no sign.
“Are you hungry?” he asked as he tossed the towel onto the floor for the maids to retrieve in the morning. “I saw a Taco Bell before we pulled off the road. I could get us something.”
She shrugged but said nothing.
“Not up for a late night burrito, huh? I’m not sure it was open, anyway.”
Pointing the remote control at the TV, she wordlessly channel-surfed.
He sat on the edge of his bed and regarded her curiously. “Say, Mary Ellen, do you have any family? Is anybody looking for you?” He recalled that no one was visiting her in the hospital even after her story was plastered on the news from coast to coast. That told him something right there, but he felt compelled to ask, anyway.
She nodded. No, she had no one.
“What about Frannie?”
For a moment, he wasn’t sure she would answer. When she did, her voice was barely audible. “She’s got other things to think about.”
He hung his head and sighed. “That’s true.”
During the interminable car ride, they had discussed the twist of fate that brought them together in the Parkwood Cemetery. He carefully explained the circumstances leading to the shootings, leaving out a few details for her protection. She already had learned part of the story from the police and the news media, but he wanted her to know why he had dragged into this mess.
“I’m sorry about your wife and son,” she had said at the conclusion of his tale.
Now, she said nothing. After a moment, she lay on the bed, glassy-eyed, staring up at the ceiling but seeming to see nothing.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I’m just tired. I don’t know when I’ve ever been this tired.”
He nodded. He was tired, too. On top of his weariness, his shoulder screamed at him. No longer hooked up to a hospital IV, he had missed several doses of his pain medication. He could tell it would be a long night.
“Do you mind if I mute this? I can only stand Hitler in short doses.”
She shrugged. Whatever.
He cut the sound of the TV. “I need to move the car,” he said after a minute. “We should swap it for another one. They may know what we’re driving by now.”
Her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be asleep.
“Mary Ellen? Did you hear what I said?”
She did not respond. The only noise was the slow, steady, slightly nasal sound of her breathing.
Blinking, he collapsed onto his bed. I’ll rest a minute, he told himself. Then I’ve got to switch out the car so they can’t track us.
A minute became ten; ten became 100. His breathing was shallow and ragged as he fought through a fog of pain and nightmares. He moaned softly, almost under his breath.
He saw himself tumbling head over heels into a pile of laundry. Seconds later, she landed on top of him, driving his body so deep into the foul-smelling linens he thought he would gag before he could fight his way up to fresh air.
“Where are we?”
“The basement laundry room, from the looks of it,” he said. “Let’s find a door before they figure out what happened. These people aren’t stupid. We need to get out of here.”
“Why don’t we call the police?”
“The police may be involved in this.”
“What? Surely not!”
“We just need to find a quiet place so I can think.”
“Why is it ‘we’? I’m not involved.”
“You might be a target. Like it or not, you’re a part of this now.”
As they jumped from the huge clothes hamper, he looked back into the darkness of the overhead laundry chute. Far away in the distance, he thought he saw red glowing eyes, like something from a horror novel, but he couldn’t be sure.
The image invaded his head, causing him to snap awake. Looking around, he realized that the glow of the television set was the only light. He did not remember turning off the lamp on the bedside table or kicking off his shoes but, apparently, he had.
Beside him on the other bed, nestled deep under the covers, Mary Ellen was sound asleep. He could not see her body. The lump did not move even when he whispered her name.
Sliding under the covers in his own bed, he lay awake feeling the dull ache of his injured shoulder. He was thinking of red eyes and then, a minute later, he was thinking of nothing at all.