The Bernardino skyway swept over the city's north-western districts in a long curve and on a half tilt. Billy drove slowly, getting a good look at the new Litera-Track® below. Nothing much happening down there yet–it would all kick off tomorrow–but every few hundred feet a crew of technicians could be seen around control terminals at the side of the roadway. It had already been surfaced and glittered now below the street lamps. By Billy's reckoning it was eight lanes wide, though it was difficult to tell; there were no markings of any kind. A thick black line that split the city–without the sparkles on its freshly coated surface it would have seemed like an abysmal opening in the earth.
He took the one-nine-five exit and back at ground level he swung right onto Van Buren and followed the line of the bay a couple of blocks in, cruising between the sun flaked slats of timber bungalows, then crossed San Juliano boulevard onto Salida Drive which took him right down to the water.
There, a sharp right and away from the sea again, up into the hills–this was Concord Bluffs, a well-to-do neighborhood of tall houses and taller hedges. The place had gone vertical, perhaps, because it was squeezed so tight between the city and the heights that surrounded it. The Marmon crawled. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like wherever this day was headed; why should he hurry to get there?
The entrance to El Alma was up behind the Bluffs, at a center point implied by the concentric arcs of a series of leafy crescents. The circle had originally been complete. In fact, Concord had extended north over more than triple its current area, but most of it had been cleared long ago–courtesy of compulsory purchase orders and where necessary, forced evictions–to make way for the sports grounds.
They were massive and they had to be. This was where most people lived out their youth, this and the other enormous complexes scattered around the outskirts of the city. Unless you were the daylight-avoiding type that gamed, this was where you met people and learned to be one. Billy drove through the high gates and followed a twisting driveway edged by well tended flower beds and flanked by immaculate lawns. The sprinklers were still working–they would stop when the sun began to climb but they were on every night, without fail, even when the rest of the city suffered water rationing. At the first junction he reached, signs pointed this way and that–to the pools, the parks and the arenas. He turned right and drove uphill toward track and field.
Parking the car in front of one of the clubhouses, he strolled between pavilions and took a short set of steps up to the raised ground where the track was. Skirting around it, he walked across a patch of open parkland to where an old Ponderosa pine stood on its own little knoll. It was morning proper now and the light of a low sun was rust red on the seats of the spectator stand. A few runners–they were always the first–were already warming up, brilliant in their whites against the lined burgundy of the polyurethane track.
It was shady beneath the Ponderosa. Even later, it would be relatively cool here. For a minute, he did nothing, just sat with his back to the cinnamon-colored bark, propped his forearms on his raised knees, spun his hat on one hand and watched the runners. High jump had been his event, once upon a time. He'd been good at it. This had been his life, at first back home and then right here, when he'd come to live in the city. The camaraderie of field events had been a comfort to the rather lonely and nervous young man, especially since he'd been talented. He'd made friends here. He'd met Jane here. The warm nights meant that even now in the early morning the tree emitted its peculiar scent. He rested his head against the trunk and let the aroma–vanilla, butterscotch–take him back.
“You move fast,” she'd said, sitting where he sat now.
He'd spotted her from the track, picked up his shoulder bag and wandered over once he'd gotten his breath back. He was flushed and sweating and felt like he always felt after an event–good, but not good enough. Empty. There was something post-coital about it. He stood at the tips of the lowest branches. Hands on hips, he looked around before answering.
“We're talking about sports, right?”
“Give me five minutes and I'll tell you,” she said.
He went to his bag for a siGi®.
“You want to smoke? I always carry a spare, in case I should bump into a young lady or something.”
“No thanks. I don't.”
“You don't smoke?” he said. “What the fuck is the matter with you?”
She threw one extended leg over the other and weaved her fingers behind her head.
“Not everybody does, you know. And you shouldn't swear at a young lady till you've gotten to know her a little better.”
Activating the siGi® and taking a drag gave him a chance to look her up and down. She was in whites and athletic but she didn't look like she'd broken a sweat in...actually, this girl didn't look like she'd ever broken a sweat. He looked from her to the track, then back again.
“You prefer to watch, huh?”
She grinned again.
“We're talking about sports, right?”
He wanted to jump into that grin.
“Give me six minutes and I'll tell you,” he said and blew a smoke ring that moved slowly toward her. “You know, I think you might be a little strange.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I could tell you liked me.”
“Careful now. Talk like that might give me the idea you're one of those girls that sit on the steps out front of the clubhouse on a Friday night, way after her bedtime.”
“It might, might it?”
“I'm afraid so.” He took another pull and released it. “One of those girls who starts sitting there, say, around nine.”
“Well, I'm very sorry to say it of course, but yes. Would I have gotten the wrong impression?”
She'd stood and picked her bag up.
“Why ask?” she'd said, “It's a question that a little patience might answer.” She'd walked away without looking around. There had been just a little rain.
Today it would be sunny. Billy put his hat down. There were a couple of new arrivals down on the track. If he wanted to be discreet, time was slipping away–it was still quiet but they'd all start trickling in now, the high-school groups and the college athletes, the recently graduated and otherwise unemployed. He put his hands on the ground to either side of him, palms on the damp soil.
She'd been there. Not at nine, of course–that would have been too easy. But having no pressing appointments he'd gotten himself a drink, and then another. In the end, she'd only made him wait an hour and ten minutes.
“Yeah,” he'd said to his glass as she threw her bag down a couple of steps above his. “I could tell you liked me.”
His right hand went to the base of the tree trunk and found a little hollow there, a cavity a couple of inches tall and three or four inches long, where the bark had separated itself from the trunk. The guys down at the track had dropped and were doing press-ups. He didn't take his eyes off them. His fingers wound around the upper rim of the cavity and moved along its inner surface till he felt the give of plastic. He clamped it between his middle and index fingers and pulled it out, picking up his hat with his other hand to shield it from view.
He'd been meticulous when he'd hidden it but it was still a relief to find it undisturbed. The little ziplock plastic bag was dirty. Behind the hat, he wiped it with his thumb. The contents were clean and dry. He folded the bag and slipped it into the sweatband, then put the hat on, stood up and walked back towards the steps, doing everything he could to exude nonchalance. In the car he placed the hat on the passenger seat and pulled out. He hadn't seen anyone he knew so there was a fighting chance that no one he knew had seen him.