I straggled into parking lot of The Sandman. The office was lit, sign on - VACANCY. Louise came to the door.
I assisted the dazed Wendy to the stoop where Louise enclosed her. "She's hardly spoken. I found her up on a hill in the tower shack like DJ told me."
"I have her now. You look like shit. Do you want a room?"
"No, I should get back to the city." I was far too energized to sit in a motel room. I could also sense that this chapter was done. Not that I was made to feel unwelcome, but to linger no more than necessary would have been odious. Let the girl recover in the comfort of the caring woman. We had a moment. I was grateful for that. To Wendy, I was perhaps just another tent in the caravan she was wandering.
"I think they have Clover cornered up there. They may be down to talk to her. She needs rest." I said.
I was back on the highway heading north. The rain thickened, then became a deep, grim fog that settled onto the road with flickering road reflectors marking the way. I latched onto the first set of tail lights that rose into the murk. I stayed behind a stoppable distance and hoped the driver in front stayed on the road. The red glowed like stage lights at a smoky strip bar.
The fog intensified. The vehicle in front of mine slowed down to about 30mph. The red lights winked and glared like the eyes of remembered demons in musty childhood basements. As the road dipped and swerved in the mountains there were clear patches under the fog. I could see that the vehicle was a van, the extended kind. There were people in the van viewable through the back windows. As we rounded a curve in one of the patches, I read printed words on the side of the van - something, something Church. The dark shapes inside the van were wearing white choir gowns. I stayed on their tail. If you’re barreling through mountains in pea-soup fog, you might as well hook onto a church wagon - any extra help is welcome.
The fog roiled and hazy forms appeared on the side of the road - phantasms of the characters I had encountered during my California time. Each of them held a bright crimson flower with looks of lugubrious surprise on their spectral visages.
The van sped up; 30 to 40 to 50. I could feel the pitch of the road as we rocketed a downward curve. I lost the lights. I searched in panic for the reflectors in the middle of the two-lane. I broke through the fog on a straight-away. Dark fields stretched out level on either side. The van was gone. I was a lone rider on the dark highway.
The rest of the ride to the city was a blur of ragged recollections of the night’s events. I was relieved the girl got out, though Jay Clover had planted a seed of wonderment about her - what sort of adventure seeking had brought her into his orbit. What was certain was that however she arrived at that shack, she did not do anything to deserve the treatment she received there.
I felt bad about Fritz. The dog went down valiantly. For that I was envious as I thought about my pathetic stumble entry into the shack. “I will be alright,” a voice whispered over the sounds of the road and the rush of wind into the multiple cracks and crevices of the cheaply made auto.
Arriving at the apartment complex, I detected a surfeit of Aspens jerry-parked by the front entrance. Morning sun fought through gray clouds. I had no sleep, but did not want to deal with CBI mesomorphs. I went to the Gotham and dozed over eggs and The Chronicle. I noted that if something powerful and earth-shattering had happened on that Carmel hill the Chronicle did not have the story.
The Process pull was gone. I felt semi-normal under the tiredness. I asked a pouty waiter to hold my spot as I went to call the benefactor.
"Get out! I sent you a packet. Go get it quick and get down to LA. No time to explain."
"But I …"
Silence. I slugged my java and plunked a double sawbuck on the table. I limped out of the Gotham.
I was unaffected by the benefactor's urgency. He and my sister were a little more wired into the thing than I was, but I heard him. Heading down to L.A. would not be a problem. On my California trip I had become a pared-down, lean-machine -traveling light.
I cruised Market to the Post Office. I checked Box 13. There was a pick-up slip. I stood in line. The clerk behind the cage looked familiar. When I got to the front I saw he was one of the friendly hobbit-like clerks from Santa Cruz. He flicked a warm grin of recognition. There was a commotion back by the boxes. A phalanx of CBIs had jammed into the old building. Orders were being fired back and forth, echoing metallically in the high ceiling room.
A couple of the barkers elbowed to the front. They stepped between the hobbit and me. They flashed badges, guns and a fistful of crisp double-spaced typed papers. The hobbit held firm as the two yammered in cop-talk that they were authorized to have Box 13 opened.
"We have a warrant right here for Box 13!" one of the thick dicks croaked.
"Sir," the hobbit said in dulcet tone, "you'll have to step aside and let these people get service. Something like that would require the attention of a manager." He nodded to me. I stepped past the nonplussed gendarmes hoping they would not place me. I calmly handed the slip to the clerk. A grin creased his kind bearded face as he read the number on the slip. "Be right back," he said.
"Here you go, sir." The clerk slid a thick envelope across the counter. I saw the packet was postmarked Los Angeles - the benefactor. I heard the CBI agent talking among themselves about taking down a blond prick and whiffing on some asshole that drove off in an Aspen.
I passed a knowing look with my bearded breakfast companion. I excused myself past the louts. A lifetime of being ignored, of being the nondescript face in a crowd, allowed me unnoticed passage. I stepped quickly to my Aspen.
I took the benefactor at his word - if he said all of this Process stuff was legal then I was cool. However, I had no urge to knock wits with no-necks from the CBI. So I split. I hit South City and hopped on the 80 for points east. I tore the envelope open and riffled a sheaf of bills. I was financed. I knew would eventually head back to LA but there was someplace I had to go. I wanted answers. Miss Crimson had them.
The California highway was teeming, but within an hour or so I was in thin traffic and farmland. The air pouring in from my cracked driver's side was pure and cool. The strain from The Process had lifted. There were a few aches leftover, but overall I felt good. I unwrapped and stoked a Dannemann cheroot - my way of easing out of the smoking habit.
I hit snow just outside of Truckee, white-knuckled to the Nevada border and then slid out of California.