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     ROBERT CRAIS: EXCERPT - LULLABY TOWN

     "I'm afraid I've come to you under false pretenses."
     She made a small frown, wondering what I was talking about.
     I said, "I'm not moving to the area, and I don't want to finance a house. I'm a private investigator. From Los Angeles."
     Her left eye flickered and she didn't move for several seconds. Then she made an effort at the professional smile and sort of cocked her head to one side. Confused. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
     I took out the 8 x 10 of nineteen-year old Karen Shipley made up like a waitress, unfolded it, and put it on her desk. I said, "Karen Shipley."
     She leaned forward and looked at the 8 x 10 without touching it. "I'm sorry. My name is Karen Lloyd. I don't know what you're talking about."
     "Your ex-husband, Peter Alan Nelsen, hired me to find you.
     She shook her head, smiled patiently, then used a pencil to push the picture back toward me and stood up. "I don't know anyone named Peter Alan Nelsen and I've never been to Los Angeles."
     I said, "Karen. Come on."
     "I'm sorry. But if you're not here to discuss business with the bank, I think you should leave." She came around the desk and opened the door and stood there, right hand on the knob.
     I picked up the 8 x 10 and looked at it and looked at the woman with her hand on the knob. They were one and the same. "Ten years ago you and Peter Alan Nelsen were divorced. Your theatrical agent was a guy named Oscar Curtiss. You lived in an apartment house on Beechwood Drive owned by a woman named Miriam Dichester for almost a year, and then you skipped out on three months' back rent. Twenty-two months after that, you mailed a U.S. postal money order for four hundred fifty-two dollars and eighteen cents to Ms. Dichester. It was postmarked Chelam. This is you in the picture. Your maiden name was Shipley. Then you were Karen Nelsen. And now you're Karen Lloyd."
     She was gripping the door knob so hard that the tendons in the back of her right hand were standing out like bow strings, as if the force of the grip was not so much to hold on to the knob as it was to hold together something that had been carefully constructed over many years and was now in danger of being pulled apart. Her eye gave the flicker again. "I'm sorry. I don't know what you're talking about."
     "Don't know."
     She made the professional smile, but it didn't quite work this time. "I'm sorry."
     I held up the picture. "This isn't you?"
     The little smile again. "No. We do look alike, though, so I can understand your confusion."
     I nodded. Outside, the woman with the blue hair put money in a plain white envelope and put the envelope in her blouse and walked away. Joyce Steuben talked on the phone. The guard read Tom Clancy.
     Nobody seemed ready to jump up and give me a hand, but then they rarely do. I said, "Peter doesn't want anything from you. He doesn't want to impose on you or to interfere with either your life or the boy's. He just wants to meet his son. He seems sincere in this. You're not going to gain anything by acting this way."
     She didn't move.
     I spread my hands. "Karen, you're found."
     She made a little shrug and shook her head. "I hope you find whoever you're looking for. I really do. Now if you don't mind, I have work to do."
     She didn't move and I didn't move. Outside, a black man in a New York Yankees baseball cap approached the teller and Joyce Steuben hung up the phone and began to write on a yellow legal pad. Somewhere in the back of the little building the heating system clicked on and warm air came through the vents. I said, "If there's nothing to anything I've said, call the guard and have him throw me out."
     She squinted to make the left eye stop moving. The knuckles on the hand holding the knob turned white. Neither of us said anything for quite a while. Then the tip of her tongue appeared and wet her lips. She said, "1'm sorry that you've wasted your time, but I know nothing about any of this."
     I took a deep breath and let it out and then I nodded. "Karen Lloyd."
     Yes. That's my name.
     "Never been to Los Angeles."
     "Never."
     "Don't know Peter Nelsen."
     "I can understand your confusion. I do look very much like the girl in the picture."
     I nodded again. The black man finished his transaction and left and the teller walked over to Joyce Steuben's desk and sat down. Toby Nelsen appeared in the teller's window, reached through, took a pencil, then disappeared again. Karen Shipley stood very still, legs together, elbows tight at her sides, right hand on the knob and left hanging down at her side. The left was red as if blood had pooled there. I folded the 8 x 10 and put it in my pocket and stood up. "Sorry," I said. "You do look very much alike."
     "Yes."
     "I'll be seeing you."
     "Have a nice day."
     I walked past her and past Joyce Steuben and around the end of the tellers' counter and out past the guard to the front door. I stopped and looked back at her. She had not moved. Her face was tight and contained and her right hand was still gripping the knob of her door. She stared at me a little longer and then she stepped back into the office and shut the door. Toby was concentrating on the math workbook and did not look up.
     I went out to the parking lot and stood by my car beneath a sky that had grown heavy and dense and the color of shale. There was a cold wind coming from the northwest and a formation of large black crows beating their wings a hundred feet overhead. Because of the wind, the crows were pointing in one direction but traveling in another. I wondered if they knew it and, knowing it, understood it, or if they were simply oblivious, carried along by a force that was felt but not seen. The same thing happens to people, but most of the time they don't know it, or when they know it they think it an action of their own devising. They are usually wrong.


   
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