Chapter Nine of ‘Identity Crisis’

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According to the schedules, the buses took circuitous routes through the western Maryland hills, hitting burgs like Frederick and Hagerstown before leaving the state. Around lunchtime, both buses would arrive in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. If I left now and stepped on it, I could beat them there.

I’d been to Breezewood, the “Town of Motels.” Nobody lives there. Its sole reason for being is to cater to interstate travelers, with every roadside restaurant, gas station, and budget motel you can imagine, their stilted signs creating a loud and competitive skyline. There was a cafeteria where the buses stopped.

I figured I could manage the four-hour, round-trip drive, despite my aches and pains. I printed out the bus schedules and the map, grabbed my purse, and headed out.

The Mustang had been sitting for more than a week, so it took a couple of tries to start it. On the way to I-95, it ran so rough, I had to brake with one foot and give it gas with the other at stoplights to keep it going. Once I reached the interstate, it was smooth sailing.

I kept checking my rearview mirror for the black Lincoln, but I never saw it. I hoped that meant that it wasn’t there.

As the sun got higher, it got hotter. I could see the outlines of puffy clouds and the barest hint of blue sky behind the haze. I kept the convertible top down for the breeze, donning an Orioles cap and sunscreen for protection. By the time I reached Breezewood, I felt windblown and decided to raise the roof for the trip back.

Breezewood was exactly the way I remembered it — ugly and snarled with traffic from the interstate, which literally runs through the town. This makes I-70 the only interstate with a traffic light, as far as I know.

It wasn’t hard to find the cafeteria, high on a hill overlooking the jumble and hubbub of commerce below. Several buses had parked diagonally, face in, along the side of the building. Melanie’s bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive for almost twenty minutes.

Inside, a clattering mass of lunchtime customers filled the industrial-sized dining room. I did a quick tour through the cafeteria and the gift shop. A few women were traveling alone, but none that resembled Melanie. I didn’t see her in the bathroom either.

I bought a sandwich and a cup of coffee and took a seat. Another bus must have arrived because a throng of gawky teens came in. Within minutes, they’d formed a queue around the room, while a couple of adults moved back and forth along the line with a supervisory air.

Bus depots get a bad rap, but I thought the cafeteria had an interesting mix of people — different ages, different walks of life. Bus travel is a great equalizer. No first class or coach. No special compartments. Everyone treated the same. A guy with a briefcase here, a family of four there. A couple of elderly women. And two Pennsylvania state troopers.

Bus stops are favorite places for cops to do random drug searches. Breezewood had something of a reputation for that. Maybe these guys had just stopped for coffee. It was also possible the cops in Maryland had asked them to keep a look out for Melanie. It didn’t seem likely that Pennsylvania would send officers to Breezewood just for that purpose, but they might be keeping a routine eye out for her.

Thinking it might be best to snag Melanie in the parking lot, I finished eating and wove my way among the tables to the door. Outside, I stood in the shade of a large awning that ran the length of the building to escape the searing heat. According to my watch, the next bus was due in about ten minutes.

After a while, a bus going to Detroit pulled up and wheezed to a stop. The doors opened. Behind the tinted windows, I could make out the passengers rising, getting ready to file off. As I waited, a second bus eased in, two spaces away from the first. This one was en route to Memphis.

Melanie was going to Chicago with a transfer in Cleveland. Either of the buses could have been going through Cleveland, and my schedules didn’t tell where they went after that. I kept my eye on both sets of passengers as they disembarked.

Then a third bus appeared, parking several spaces down. Its destination was Des Moines. For all I knew, it was going through Cleveland, too.

“Shit,” I said. The passengers spilled out of the first two buses, descending en masse on the cafeteria. I scanned the crowd for a dark-haired, thirtyish woman. I wondered if she might have disguised herself.

The flow of passengers from the third bus joined the others. I tried to keep my eye on everyone, but it was hard. Still no sign of Melanie.

When the last person got off, I walked into the cafeteria. The crowd was thick now. People walked every which way, many joining the long line for food. I looked for the cops. They were at a table eating lunch. Circling the room, I checked the line and the tables. Maybe Melanie had changed her plans. Or maybe she was still on the bus.

I checked the rest room again, then went outside. I checked the Detroit bus first. Then the one to Memphis. Finally, the one to Des Moines.

An elderly man sat up front and a woman nursing an infant was a few rows behind him. I almost missed Melanie. She was way in the back, slouched in her seat, her hair tucked under a baseball cap, wearing sunglasses and gazing out the window. As I walked up the aisle, she turned toward me and did a double take.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, taking off her sunglasses. Her face was pale, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days.

“You have to come back with me.”

“Wait a minute. How did you know I was here?”

“I’ll tell you later. Right now, we need to get out of here.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“You don’t understand,” she protested.

“No, you don’t understand.” I slid onto the seat beside her and said in a low voice so the others wouldn’t hear, “You’re in danger. The Mob is after you.”

“I know, but who told you?”

So she knew about the Mob. “That can wait. We have another problem. The state police are here. They might be looking for you.”

“Me? Why?”

She seemed genuinely confused. “I don’t know how else to tell you this, so I’ll just tell you. The police have a warrant for your arrest in Maryland.”

“What?”

“They think you may have murdered Tom Garvey.”

Her face went white. “Tom? Tom is … dead? Oh …”

For a moment, I thought she might pass out. “I’m sorry. You didn’t know?”

She shook her head.

“You’re going to need an attorney,” I said. “We can talk about that later. Right now, you have to come back to Maryland. Running away will only make things worse.”

Melanie nodded, staring in front of her. “OK,” she whispered.

“Let’s find the driver, so we can get your luggage.”

“It’s up there … on the luggage rack,” she said. “The black bag.”

I looked and found a medium-sized black bag. She had packed it solid and it took a bit of effort to get it down. She continued to stare straight ahead.

“Let’s go,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder.

“Oh.” She grimaced and blurted out, “Oh, God, I don’t believe this is happening to me.”

The two others in the bus looked at us in alarm. I ignored them and sat next to Melanie. If this was an act, she deserved an Oscar.

“It’s going to be all right,” I said, keeping my voice low and calm. She started to cry, and I put my arm around her. “Believe me, it will be OK. But we need to keep our heads. I need for you to stay strong, all right?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go to my car. We can talk on the way.”

I picked up her bag and managed to lug it down the aisle. Melanie followed me off. I looked around, blinking in the bright sunlight, trying to remember where I’d parked. Several rows from the building.

“I’ll bring the car,” I said. “I won’t be long. OK?”

She nodded. I guessed she understood. She didn’t look like she was going anywhere. I could be back with the car in no time.

As I jogged out into the lot, I realized that lifting her bag off the rack had aggravated my injuries. I was starting to feel a little tired, too. I backed my pace down to a quick walk, which still jolted my insides a little too much for comfort.

I heard it before I saw it. A car, one row away from me, moving fast, then screeching to a halt. It was the Lincoln.

My legs went wobbly, and I began to back away. One door opened, then another. A man unfolded himself from the car. The man with the scarred face. He looked right at me. I turned and ran toward the bus.

I heard the doors slam and footsteps, as well as the rev of the Lincoln’s engine as it took off. I was too scared to look behind me or notice the pain as my feet hit the pavement. My feet pounded out a bass line to the tune in my head — escape, escape, escape, escape. I came up on the bus and, without missing a beat, threw a hand up and caught the back end, propelling myself around the corner, heading toward the door, where Melanie still stood, looking at me, startled.

“Run!” I yelled.

“My bag.”

“Fuck the bag! Run!” I grabbed her arm and yanked her into motion.

We ran into the cafeteria. I looked for the cops, but couldn’t find them in the crowd. Where was the emergency exit? There had to be one somewhere.

“What are we doing?” Melanie said, sounding frantic. “We can’t just stand here.”

I glanced at the door. Any second, they could come in.

“Rest rooms,” I said, pointing the way. We hurried to the ladies’ and ducked inside.

As I took a momentary breather, Melanie said, “I hope you’re not relying on that door to stop them.”

I gave her a look. “I was sort of hoping there might be a window.”

There was a window. It was a small rectangle of window, but big enough for us to wriggle through. It was also several feet out of reach.

Melanie looked exasperated. “We should have gone through the kitchen. It probably has a back door.”

“I didn’t see an easy way back there, did you? Besides, the staff would’ve seen us. I think the boys would’ve figured it out pretty fast.”

“And they’re not going to figure out we’re in here?”

“Too late to worry about it now. Let’s concentrate on getting out that window.”

I looked around. Fortunately, the place still used freestanding trashcans, nice and big. I grabbed one and dragged it toward the window, ignoring the throbbing pain that coursed through my gut. Melanie saw my problem. She helped me get it there and turn it upside down, spilling trash everywhere. This drew a few curious looks from women banging in and out of the stalls, although oddly, no one bothered to ask what we were doing. I guess no one wanted to get involved with a couple of lunatics turning trashcans upside down in a bus stop bathroom. Imagine that.

Melanie helped me climb onto the container, which put me just high enough to grab the window frame.

“You’re right,” Melanie said. “This is a much more subtle approach.” Despite her fear, she managed a smile.

I gave her a look, then snickered. “Yeah, well … I’ll go through first. Can you give me a push?”

In agony, I hauled myself up and through the window as Melanie pushed from below. I was happy to see bare dirt and shrubs on the other side, and the drop wasn’t all that bad. I wriggled through farther and turned myself over, planting my butt on the sill. Reaching back with one hand, I was able to grab a tall shrub. It was awkward and I thought I’d dislocate a shoulder in the process, but I was able to half-shimmy, half-pull myself through until my feet cleared the window and landed on the ground with a jarring thud.

“Jesus,” I said, doubling over from the effort. “OK,” I called to Melanie. After a moment, I saw her face in the window. I helped her through the process as best I could.

Looking out for the Lincoln and the two thugs, we did a fast zigzag through the lot, keeping low.

Melanie tugged my sleeve. “What about my bag?” she whispered.

“Let’s find the car first.”

I saw the Mustang in the distance. We ran to it, glancing around nervously, and got in.

I jammed the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine coughed. Then, nothing.

“Shit,” I whispered.

“Oh, God.” I looked at Melanie. She was staring down the row. Following her gaze, I saw Scarface running toward us.

“Shit, shit, shit.” I turned the key again. The engine groaned and whined. Melanie whimpered. I banged the steering wheel. A stupid waste of time. I turned the key again. The engine started to respond, then died. Scarface was close now. He reached inside his jacket.

“Oh, no,” Melanie said, sounding hysterical.

“C’mon, damn it,” I yelled, stomping on the gas pedal as I tried again. The engine sputtered and roared. I slammed the car into drive forcing Scarface to lunge out of harm’s way as I took off. Weaving slightly, I barreled down the row. It was a miracle I could drive at all. I was so frantic with fear, I could scarcely grip the wheel. Melanie wailed. My entire body shook. I gulped and kept going.

When I checked the rearview mirror, I realized the Lincoln was behind us, gaining speed. I took the next turn. Row upon row of cars. Where the hell was the exit? I looked back again. The Lincoln had just made the turn to follow us. Then, a tan car shot out from a row between us and the Lincoln. For some reason, the car stopped. The Lincoln was blocked.

I hit the gas and emerged into an empty area of the lot. The exit was a few hundred feet away. I headed straight for it, then to the interstate.

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