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Son of the Morning (Chapter 7)

THERE WAS NOTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT THE WOMAN WHO GOT OFF the bus in Chicago . No one had paid her any attention, not the agent who had sold her the ticket, not the driver, not the other passengers who sat absorbed in their own lives, their own troubles, their own reasons for being on the bus.

Her hair was blond and curly, one of those frizz jobs that didn't look good on anyone but required no maintenance beyond washing. Her clothes were clean but nondescript, the kind that could be bought at any discount store: baggy jeans, inexpensive athletic shoes, a navy blue sweatshirt. Nothing about her luggage attracted attention, either. It was a cheap nylon model, in a particularly unappealing shade of brown that the designer had tried to brighten by adding a red stripe down one side. It hadn't worked.

Maybe it was a little unusual that she'd worn sunglasses the entire trip, because, after all, the bus windows were tinted, but there was one other passenger who also wore sunglasses, so overall there was nothing about her that would make anyone look twice.

When the bus lurched to a stop at the depot inChicago , Grace silently produced her luggage receipt and took possession of the ugly brown duffel. She would have preferred keeping the laptop with her, but people tended to notice if someone carried a computer everywhere. With that in mind, she had packed the computer in its protective case, then further buffered it in the duffel with her meager supply of clothing. It had been a week since her world had shattered, a week exactly.

Her life then had ended, and another had begun. She didn't feel the same, didn't look the same, didn't think the same way she had before she had lost everything and been thrown into a life in the streets and on the run. The sharp paring knife rode in a scabbard on her belt, and was covered by the sweatshirt. The screwdriver she had taken from the storage building on that horrible first day was tucked into her right sock; it wasn't as good a weapon as the knife, but she had honed it against a rock until she was satisfied with its sharpness.

She had exhausted theEau Claire library's fund of knowledge about the Templars. She had learned a lot, including the significance of the date on which the Order had been destroyed: Friday the thirteenth, giving birth to the superstition about the combination of day and date. Interesting, but not what she had wanted. She had searched in vain for any reference, in either the Templars' recorded history or inScotland 's history, to Niall of Scotland.

She had to dig deeper, andChicago , with its vast library on things Gaelic, was a good place to start. Remaining another day inEau Claire would have been risky, anyway. Parrish's men would have tried to pick up her trail outsideEau Claire , but when they didn't find anything they would return to the town. Any halfway competent goon would begin checking the motels, and though she'd been careful to alter her appearance by either wearing the blond wig or tucking her hair up under the baseball cap, eventually they would find her.

She felt stronger now, no longer operating in a barely controlled panic, but at the same time she was alert. She had slept, and she had forced herself to eat a peanut butter sandwich at least once a day. Eating was still difficult, and her jeans were even looser now than they had been before. The belt she wore, bought at another Kmart, was a necessity. She had even washed the jeans in hot water in an effort to shrink them, but any shrinkage must have been in length instead of width, because they still hung on her. If she lost much more weight, even the belt wouldn't help. She didn't intend to spend any more of her precious store of money on new clothes, so what she already had would have to do.

She had formulated a plan. Rather than living off her cash until it was all gone, she had to have a job. There were underground jobs inChicago , washing dishes or cleaning houses, and those suited her perfectly. No one would become concerned if one day she didn't show. On the other hand, those types of jobs would be low-paying, and while they would tide her over for now, she would soon need something better. For that, she would need to develop another identity, and back it up with documentation.

Being what she was, a researcher, that was the approach she had used to find out how to establish a new identity. In this instance, theEau Claire library had provided her with the information she needed.

It seemed relatively simple, though it would take time. First she would need a dead person, someone who had been born about the same time she had, but who had died young enough that there wouldn't be a job history, school records, or traffic violations to follow Grace around after she assumed the girl's identity. Once she had a name, she could write to the proper department at the state capital and get a copy of the birth certificate. With the birth certificate, she could get a social security number; with that, she could get a driver's license, establish credit, become a new person.

She stored the duffel in a locker and carefully tucked the key in her front pants pocket. Then she located a phone book and flipped through the directory until she found the listing for cemeteries. After jotting down the names, she stopped a maintenance worker and asked which cemetery was the nearest, then went to someone else, a ticket agent, and asked for directions.

Two hours later, after having ridden on five different buses, she arrived back at the bus depot.

She bought a newspaper, found a seat, put on her glasses, and began looking through the tiny, densely printed classifieds for a place to stay. She didn't want crummy and couldn't afford comfortable, so run-down was the best alternative. By comparing prices, she eliminated both ends of the scale, and that left several places that fell in the middle. Two were boardinghouses, and she put those at the top of her list. Two phone calls later, she had a place to stay and directions on how to get there, including which train and buses to take.

The best thing about a large city, she thought as she walked toward the EI station, was theintracity transportation system. The buses had made getting to the cemetery easy enough. She could have walked to the boardinghouse; a week ago the distance would have daunted her, but now five miles seemed like nothing. She could easily walk five miles in an hour and a half. But the trains and buses were cheap and fast, so why should she? Half an hour later she got off the train, walked a block just in time to get on the bus she needed, and five minutes after that was walking down the street looking at house numbers.

The boardinghouse was a square, lumpish three-story building that hadn't seen a new coat of pain in several years. A three-foot-high picket fence, sagging in places, separated the scraggly, minuscule patch of lawn from the broken sidewalk. There was no gate. Grace walked up to the door and pushed the buzzer.

"Yeah." The voice was the same one that had answered the telephone: deep and raspy, but somehow female.

"I called about the room for rent?" "Yeah, okay," the voice interrupted brusquely. Grace waited, and heard heavy steps clomping toward the door.

Grace had put on her sunglasses again as soon as she'd finished reading the classifieds, and was deeply grateful for that protection when the door was unlocked and swung open to reveal one of the most astonishing creatures she'd ever seen. At least the woman couldn't see her gawking.

"Well, don't just stand there," the landlady said impatiently, and in silence Grace entered the house. Without another word the woman-and now Grace wasn't so certain of the gender-closed and locked the door, then clomped back the way she'd come. Grace followed, bag in hand.

The woman was easily six feet tall, rangy and loose limbed. Her hair was bleached lemony white, and cut in short spikes. Her skin was a smooth, pale brown, like heavily creamed coffee, hinting at some exotic ancestry. A huge sunflower earring dangled from one ear, while a row of studs marched up the outer rim of the other. Her shoulders were broad and bony, her feet and hands big. Her feet looked bigger than they probably were because she was wearing hiking boots and thick socks. Her ensemble was completed by a black T-shirt with a loose yellow tank top layered over it, and tight black bicycle shorts with narrow lime-green stripes on the sides. She managed to look both ominous and festive.

"You a working girl?" The question was fired at her as the landlady led her into an office so tiny it had to be a converted closet. There was a small, scarred wooden desk, an ancient office chair behind it, a two-drawer filing cabinet, and what looked like a kitchen chair. It was scrupulously neat, the two pens, stapler, receipt book, and telephone lined up like soldiers for inspection. The woman took a seat behind the desk.

"Not yet," Grace replied, taking off her sunglasses now that she had her reaction under control. She would have preferred leaving them on, but that would look suspicious. She sat in the other chair, and placed the bag beside her. "I just got into town, but I intend to look for a job tomorrow."

The landlady lit a long, thin cigarette and eyed Grace through the billow of blue smoke. Every finger was decorated with an ornate ring, and Grace found herself watching the movements of those big, oddly graceful hands.

Suddenly the woman snorted. "I guess not," she said shrewdly. "Honey, a working girl is a whore. Didn't think you looked the type, despite the cheap wig. No makeup, and you're wearing a wedding ring. You on the run from your old man?"

Grace looked down at her hands, and gently turned the plain gold band Ford had given her when they married. "No," she murmured.

"He's dead, huh?" Surprised, Grace looked up. "Youain't divorced, or you wouldn't be wearing the ring. First thing, you split from an asshole, the ring comes off." Sharp green eyes flicked over Grace's clothes. "Your clothes are too big, too; looks like you've lost some weight. Misery takes away the appetite, don't it?"

She understood, Grace realized, both terrified and comforted. In less than two minutes this strange, tough, disturbingly astute woman had sized her up and accurately read details no one else had even noticed. "Yes," she said, because some answer seemed indicated.

Whatever she saw in Grace's face, whatever deductions she drew from it, the woman abruptly seemed to make up her mind. "M'name'sHarmony," she said, leaning over the desk and holding out her hand. "Harmony Johnson. More people named Johnson than Smith or Brown or Jones, you know that?"

Grace shook it; it was like shaking a man's bigger, rougher hand. "Julia Wynne," she said, using the name she'd taken from a small marker on an unkempt grave. The girl, born five years before Grace, had died just after her eleventh birthday. The marker had read: "Our Angel."

"Rooms are seventy a week," Harmony Johnson said. "They're damn clean. I don't allow no drugs, no parties, no whores. I gotoutta that, and I don't want it in my house. You clean up after yourself in the bathroom. I'll clean your room if you want, but that's another ten bucks a week. Most people do for themselves."

"I'll do the cleaning," Grace said. "Thought so. You can have a hot plate, coffeemaker in your room, but no major cooking. I like to cook a big breakfast. Most of my people eat breakfast with me. How you feed yourself the rest of the time is your problem." She gave Grace another once-over. "Don't guess you're too worried about food right now, buttime'll take care of that."

"Are there phones in the rooms?" "Get a grip. Do I look like a fool?"

"No," Grace said, and had to stifle a sudden urge to laugh. Harmony Johnson looked like a lot of things, but fool wa5n't on the list. "Do you mind if I have my own line installed? I do some computer work, and use a modem sometimes."

Harmony shrugged. "It's your money." "When can I move in?"

"As soon as you pay me a deposit and haul your bag upstairs."

***

"Tell me, Conrad," Parrish said lazily, tipping his chair back. "How can Grace St. John, of all people, elude you for a week?" He wasn't at all pleased. Conrad had never failed him before, and though theMinneapolis police had bought the setup with a gratifying completeness and issued warrants for her arrest, no one had managed to find her. A nerd, anancient languages specialist, of all people, had somehow managed to outsmart them all. "Mind, I don't give a shit about Grace, but she has the papers and I really do want them, Conrad. I really do."

Conrad's face was impassive. "She managed to empty out their bank account, so she has cash. The police figure she overrode the bank's computer system, but the bank's systems analyst hasn't determined how."

Parrish waved that aside with a languid movement of his hand. "The how doesn't matter. All that matters is finding her, and you haven't accomplished that."

Fool, Conrad thought dispassionately. The how always mattered, because when something worked once, people invariably repeated it. That was how patterns were established, and patterns were detectable.

"She had been traveling at night, but I think that's changed now. She had a bag when Paglione saw her in Eau Claire, so it follows that she has accumulated more clothing and now we have no idea what she's wearing." There were notes in his thick, brutish hand, but he didn't need to consult them. "A woman roughly answering her description bought a red wig inEau Claire ."

"A redhead should be easy to find." "Unless it was a decoy." Conrad was of the opinion that the red wig was exactly that, and his admiration for Ms. St. John had risen sharply. She was proving to be very interesting quarry. "There haven't been any leads on a redhead. She could have stolen another wig, one the proprietor didn't know anything about. She could also have cut her hair, colored it, done any number of things to change her appearance."

"Well then, damn it, how do you intend to find her?" Parrish snapped, his patience at an end.

"Her most likely destination, afterEau Claire , would beChicago . A big city would give her a sense of security. Even though she has money, she's cautious; she will try to save that money in case she has to run again. She'll get a job, but it will have to be off the books, because she can't use her social security number. The kind of job she will be able to get will be low-skill, low-paying. I will put men in the streets, put out the word that there is a cash reward for information on her. I will find her."

"See that you do." Parrish rose and walked to the window, indicating the interview was ended. Conrad left, his movements as noiseless as always.

The garden was looking good, Parrish thought, eyeing the prize-winning roses beneath his window. The cold snap hadn't been a severe one; the temperature had remained above freezing. The days were growing warmer as spring settled in again, perhaps for good this time. The cold had to have been a trial for poor little Grace, though she had some extra padding on her bones for warmth. How soft she had looked! A man on top of her wouldn't feel as if he were lying on a skeleton.

What a strange attraction, he mused, setting his fingertips against the cool panes. He'd always preferred sleek women, but little Gracie was so unconsciously, unaccountably sensual, despite her weight. She wasn't much overweight, just enough to look rounded.

Perhaps he should instruct Conrad to keep her alive, just for a while. One day, perhaps, long enough for him to satisfy a particular fantasy.

He smiled, thinking about it.

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