At six o’clock in the evening local time, I find a good hotel on the north of Baltimore. They want to see Sally’s ID but accept my cash and recommend an Irish bar a short walk down the road. The waitresses wear mini-kilts and tiny little tops. The beer is cold and the menu is loaded with comfort food. I overeat deliberately, drink two glasses of Guinness, and wonder if I should apply for a job. I’ve always had a thing about plaid.
At one in the morning, I shower for fifteen minutes and hit the road again with soaking wet hair.
The Jetta and I only stop for gas, fast food, and coffee. The engine develops a rattle so I turn the radio on. We hit Atlanta at noon and I make the call from a payphone at another gas station. “I’m here.”
“Um.” I check the road signs. “Clairmont, I think. A BP next to the freeway.”
The line goes instantly mute. In a cartoon, steam would stream out of my ears.
The buzz of background noise announces his return. “The next intersection, there’s a Doubletree hotel. Waste the next hour and then make your way there. A package will be waiting at reception.”
“And that’s it?”
“You were expecting a cake? A ticker tape parade?”
“No. But.” I don’t think this charmer knows who he’s talking to. Sally wouldn’t have it any other way.
“One hour. The Doubletree. Never call this number again.”
My choices are limited. McDonald’s? The Waffle House? Or I could explore. I drive to the Medical Center to see the research building my father opened in 1994. A fortress in concrete on steroids. I could be safe in there. The Doubletree is a trap waiting to close. One road in and out.
I scout all four sides and find an Exxon gas station lurking in its shadow. It fronts onto the road that leads towards the freeway. After reversing the Jetta into a spot by the side of the mini-mart, I use the bathroom and buy a plastic-wrapped pastry and a cup of their finest ‘gourmet’ coffee. The woman behind the counter appreciates my manners and is more than happy to call a cab for me.
The driver is equally happy to accept fifty dollars for driving me around the block and into the Doubletree.
“Please wait,” I tell him. “I’ll only be five minutes, ten at the most.”
He has fifty reasons to believe me. If anyone is watching, maybe they will too.
The Doubletree and its lobby are all circles and curves. An elderly man in a smart grey suit leaves as I arrive. A thirty-something couple sits and argues on a sofa. Two boys wrapped in towels wait for an elevator. Otherwise the lobby is deserted. I don’t know if that’s normal for early afternoon. Perhaps it is, or maybe the guests have all been moved to a backroom and the people on the sofa are the FBI or worse.
I have to trust my friends and myself.
A teenage girl and a middle-aged man are working on reception. She has the generous curves to match the Doubletree’s aesthetic, but his eyes are mapping my taller, more angular frame as I stride across the lobby towards the desk.
“Hi,” I give him an almost full beam smile. “I believe you have a package for me. My name is Sally Miller.”
He checks a piece of paper. Double checks. “Ah, Miss Miller, yes. One of our guests did leave something for you.” He lifts a cardboard box out from underneath the desk. It’s sealed with brown tape. “If I could just see your ID?”
He scans my passport, compares it to my face, and his eyes drop to my chest. He’s not going to see my passport number there but what the hell? Lechery I can deal with all day long. Betrayal and a hail of bullets not so fucking much.
When he smirks and offers, I retrieve my passport and accept the box with another friendly smile. “Thank you, sir. Do you have a bathroom I can use?”
He points the way and I follow his directions. The bathrooms are past the elevators. I keep walking out towards the pool. And through the hedge and over the fence that separates the Doubletree from the Exxon and my little white car.
I wonder how long my taxi driver will wait?
With no idea where I should go next, I follow the freeway south with one eye on my mirrors. I need to put some serious miles between me and that hotel.