The next morning Ashley took a shower in the bathroom’s cramped and decaying cubicle, and picked up an early breakfast at the Eight-Eleven convenience store in the strip mall across the highway. After that she took the bus to Mark’s, where on walking through the door she was met by a salesman in a cheap suit and cheaper hairpiece who would have been twice as charming as he actually was if he’d only been half as charming as he thought he was.
Once they got through the niceties of introduction, and the handshake that lingered just a little too long for Ashley’s liking, “Mitch” asked Ashley what she was looking for.
Ashley and Logan weren’t concerned with saving a few hundred dollars, or a few thousand, and they could have cared less about the insurance and warranty. They also didn’t care about still being able to drive the car in a year or even a month. But she didn’t want to seem like anything but a regular buyer. So she was initially vague about her wants, letting him show her a number of vehicles before he got to a couple that seemed like real prospects.
Ashley decided on a navy blue Honda hatchback and took it for a drive, just to check that the engine actually ran. Acceleration, brakes, cornering all appeared acceptable, and she didn’t hear any suspicious rattles or squeaks as she put the vehicle through its paces either. After making her decision she appeared to mull over the buy for a bit longer, then went through the motions of negotiating over the price, the customization and the rest of the package for an hour before signing.
All done, Ashley left the dealership in her new car on a roundabout route back to the motel. Confident that she had not been followed, she and Logan cleared out of their room and loaded their luggage into the car. They also took care to hide an “emergency kit” containing cash and papers and credit cards in a pocket concealed under a fold in the leather under the driver’s seat. Then they made for the Beltway, and from there, I-95, on which they headed south with Logan at the wheel.
By the time night fell the dense urban spaces of the Great Northeastern Megalopolis were well behind them, and Ashley in new territory. She had scarcely left Pennsylvania before her family’s move to Newark, and then even after meeting Julian she hadn’t really traveled in the U.S. much outside the Tri-State area, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. She’d actually seen more of Europe than that. (She supposed it had been a matter of Julian’s tastes. He had been capable of finding immense charm in tiny villages in the south of France, while small town and rural America seemed to him irredeemably monotonous and distasteful.)
Logan, fortunately, was more familiar with these roads, which was another reason Ashley was content to let him do most of the driving. In the meantime she wondered about the meeting that lay ahead of them, and in particular why they’d been asked to come to Charleston of all places. As far as they could tell, Melanie had no connection to the place; she’d been born in Sacramento, and her family was still living there. But then they weren’t going to meet Melanie, they were going to meet Blake, and he could have been the one with roots in the Charleston area. Or maybe he didn’t have any such roots, but simply relocated to the east coast after Melanie’s death . . .
Anything seemed possible, given how little they actually knew about him—including how much he really knew about this whole affair. Thinking again about those diary entries and those photos on the blog it occurred to Ashley that he didn’t seem to have actually collected any information past what Melanie had, that all he did was assemble and analyze and speculate about her material. Maybe he’d simply failed to find out anything more about the matter, another reason why he was allowed to keep publishing that blog.
Maybe. And maybe “they” (they again) had got to him too, just like they got to Lloyd—a far more difficult thing, which they nonetheless achieved with frightening speed. So that going where Blake told them to go meant stepping into a trap, just like they had with Lloyd, and Colby, and Northrop’s office Sunday night, someone waiting to do them harm wherever they went. But all the same, not keeping those appointments was not an option.
They were still on the road as day gave way to night, and night to early Saturday morning, when they finally saw the lights of Charleston. Next to New York the city looked to Ashley like a small town, but it sprawled far and wide enough that they drove a good long while through its streets before finding their way to the hotel at which Logan had made reservations, the Clay. A converted three-story brick townhouse, it reminded Ashley more of buildings she’d seen in Philadelphia than anything she associated with the South.
As Logan drove along its block Ashley saw that the former townhouse had an adjoining parking area and garden, enclosed within a knife edge-rest fence. Inside that fence Logan found a parking spot in the shade of a tree, and then they got out of the vehicle, which felt like walking into a sauna (it was the hottest, most humid night Ashley had seen in years), and checked in at the front desk.
The bored-looking desk man signed them in, then showed them to a little room on the second floor, with a view of the street from its window and just one queen-sized bed, which Logan left to Ashley while he took the armchair. In their respective places they caught a few hours’ sleep, then showered and awaited Blake’s message in circumstances more comfortable than the car in which they’d already spent almost half a day.
That message popped into Logan’s box at ten.
HAMMETT PARK. THE BENCH BY THE SHUTTERED CONCESSION STAND.
SEE YOU THERE.
No address, no signature, but the formalities were unnecessary and at that point even inadvisable. There was no mention of the time of the meet, but that had already been settled, so it was all the information they really needed. Logan checked the map, found the park on it, and then crosschecking the park’s web site with satellite images from Googolplex Earth, found the bench.
That left the question of how to get there. Charleston had a bus system, which was capable of getting them to the Hammett in time, but Ashley felt less comfortable with it than the more elaborate and varied transit services of other, larger, denser cities, and Logan didn’t disagree. So they put on their backpacks, got in the hatchback and headed for the Hammett’s western entrance. Three blocks short of it, Logan parked and they got out.
It was still humid, but sunless, the sky covered with cloud from horizon to horizon, a good many of them dark clouds that made Ashley expect a storm. Still, she supposed it was better than broiling in the late summer sun as they continued on foot, through the gate, past which Logan and Ashley found the bike path winding around the park’s length. They headed rightward along it to the concession stand Blake mentioned, a white-painted but rather weather-beaten wooden shack standing on a small green.
After spotting the stand Ashley identified the bench where Blake said he wanted to meet, just on the other side of that path, underneath a tree. Sitting in the middle of that bench was a thin man in a floppy fisherman’s hat and matching jacket, and a pair of sunglasses.