F is for Fugitive Page 2

"I'm Royce Fowler," he said. His voice was gravelly and strong. "This is my daughter, Ann. My wife would have driven down with us, but she's a sick woman and I told her to stay at home. We live in Floral Beach."

I introduced myself and shook hands with them both. There was no family resemblance that I could see. His facial features were oversized -big nose, high cheekbones, strong chin-while hers were apologetic. She had dark hair and a slight overbite that should have been corrected when she was a kid.

The quick mental flash I had of Floral Beach was of summer cottages gone to seed and wide, empty streets lined with pickup trucks. "You drove down for the day?"

"I had an appointment at the clinic," he rumbled. "What I got, they can't treat, but they take my money anyway. I thought we should talk to you, as long as we're in town."

His daughter stirred, but said nothing. I pegged her at forty-some and wondered if she still lived at home. So far, she'd avoided making eye contact with me.

I don't do well at small talk, so I shifted down a gear into business mode. "What can I do for you, Mr. Fowler?"

His smile was bitter. "I take it the name doesn't mean much to you."

"Rings a dim bell," I said. "Can you fill me in?"

"My son, Bailey, was arrested in Downey three weeks ago by mistake. They figured out pretty quick they had the wrong man, so they released him within a day. Then I guess they turned around and ran a check on him, and his prints came up a match. He was rearrested night before last."

I nearly said, "A match with what?" but then my memory gave a lurch. I'd seen an article in the local paper. "Ah, yes," I said. "He escaped from San Luis sixteen years ago, didn't he?"

"That's right. I never heard from him after the escape and finally decided he was dead. The boy nearly broke my heart and I guess he's not done yet."

The California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo is a two-part institution; a minimum-security unit for old men, and a medium-security facility divided into four six-hundred-man sections. Bailey Fowler had apparently walked away from a work detail and hopped on the freight train that rumbled past the prison twice a day back then.

"How'd he get tripped up?"

"There was a warrant out on a fellow named Peter Lambert, the name he was using. He says he was booked, fingerprinted, and in the can before they realized they had the wrong man. As I understand it, some hot-shoe detective got a bug up his butt and ran Bailey's prints through some fancy-pants new computer system they got down there. That's how they picked up on the fugitive warrant. By a damn fluke."

"Bum deal for him," I said. "What's he going to do?"

"I hired him a lawyer. Now he's back, I want him cleared."

"You're appealing the conviction?"

Ann seemed on the verge of a response, but the old man plowed right over her.

"Bailey never went to trial. He made a deal. Pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter on the advice of this court-appointed PD, the worthless son of a bitch."

"Really," I said, wondering why Mr. Fowler hadn't hired a lawyer for him at the time. I also wondered what kind of evidence the prosecution had. Usually, the DA won't make a deal unless he knows his case is weak. "What's the new attorney telling you so far?"

"He won't commit himself until he sees the files, but I want to make sure he has all the help he can get. There's no such thing as a private detective up in Floral Beach, which is why we came to you. We need someone to go to work, dig in and see if there's anything left. Couple witnesses died and some have moved away. The whole thing's a damn mess and I want it straightened out."

"How soon would you need me?"

Royce shifted in his chair. "Let's talk money first."

"Fine with me," I said. I pulled out a standard contract and passed it across the desk to him. "Thirty dollars an hour, plus expenses. I'd want an advance."

"I bet you would," he said tartly, but the look in his eyes indicated no offense. "What do I get?"

"I don't know yet. I can't work miracles. I guess it depends on how cooperative the county, sheriff's department is."

"I wouldn't count on them. Sheriff's department doesn't like Bailey. They never liked him much, and his escape didn't warm any hearts. Made all those people look like idiots."

"Where's he being held?"

" L.A. County Jail. He's being moved up to San Luis tomorrow is what we heard."

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