“Probably came home and interrupted some SOB who was trying to break into her cabin,” Sean said.
“The bastard must have grabbed the first available heavy object and used it on the back of her skull.”
“Whoever he was, he can’t be from around here,” Gabe said. “Everyone in town knows that it would take an armored tank and a battering ram to break into A.Z.’s cabin.”
“Could have looked like a challenge to some dumb-ass kids from Chamberlain who’d had a few beers,”
Sean speculated. “Or maybe a transient found the place and didn’t realize it was actually a small fortress.”
“He could have killed her.” Lillian’s anger vibrated in every word and in every line of her body. She was very tightly wound at the moment.
“The blow was a little off,” Sean said. “Fortunately for A.Z. She’s concussed but they say she should be okay. They’re going to keep her here at the hospital for a couple of days for observation.”
Lillian looked at him. “Are you sure we shouldn’t take that message she left on my machine seriously?”
“I take everything seriously,” Sean said. “Way I’m made, I guess. But I gotta tell you that a call from A.Z. claiming that she was being tailed by an institute spy does not give me a whole heck of a lot to work with. In her world, institute spies are everywhere and they’re all trying to follow her.”
“There is that,” Lillian agreed reluctantly.
“Another thing,” Sean added. “There’s a small flaw in A.Z.’s logic here. Assuming the institute actually employed spies, none of them would need to tail her in order to find out where she lives. Everyone in town knows where her cabin is located. All anyone looking for her would have to do is ask a few questions down at Fulton’s Supermarket or the video rental shop.”
“Nobody ever said A.Z.’s logic holds up well under scrutiny,” Gabe said.
Sean’s face twisted briefly in a wry smile. “Nope.”
Lillian gave them both a quelling glance. “A.Z. operates in a parallel universe but within that universe, her reasoning is consistent and logical.”
Sean looked wary. “Meaning?”
“Meaning that something scared her enough to make her use a telephone and leave a message on an answering machine. She would never willingly do that if she could avoid it. She’s convinced that all phones are tapped. She doesn’t even have one in her house.”
“Tapped by institute spies?” Sean asked politely.
Lillian exhaled unhappily. “Yes.”
“I think I’ll go with my theory of an interrupted burglary in progress for now, if you don’t mind. But if you get any more useful information from her when you talk to her, let me know.”
He nodded to Gabe, then turned and walked off down the hospital corridor. Lillian watched him until he turned a corner and disappeared. Then she looked at Gabe.
“He’s probably right, isn’t he?” she said.
“Probably.” Gabe hesitated. “You have to admit, it’s a simpler explanation than one involving vast government conspiracies. When it comes to this kind of stuff, cops prefer simple because most of the time that’s the right answer.”
“I know. And we are dealing with A.Z. here. Whatever the answer is, it can’t possibly be as mysterious as she thinks it is. Come on, let’s go see how she’s doing.”
He walked beside her to the doorway of the hospital room. Arizona was stretched out on a bed. She looked so different in a hospital gown, he thought. In all the years he had known her he had never seen her in anything except military camouflage and boots. She had always seemed curiously ageless, sturdy and vigorous. But now, bandaged and helpless, her gray hair partially covered with a white bandage, she looked her age. A wave of anger swept through him. What kind of bastard would hit an elderly woman on the head with a wrought-iron planter?
A nurse wearing a tag inscribed with the name Jason leaned over A.Z., taking her pulse. When he was finished he lowered her wrist very gently to the sheet and moved toward the door. Behind him, Arizona stirred restlessly but she did not open her eyes.
“Are you family?” Jason asked quietly.
“No.” Lillian looked toward the bed. “I don’t think she has any family. We’re friends. How is she doing?”
“She’s got a nasty headache and she’s confused and disoriented. Pretty much what you’d expect after a severe blow to the head.”
“A.Z. always seems confused and disoriented to people who don’t know her well,” Gabe said. “Has she said anything?”
Jason shook his head. “Just keeps talking about something called a VPX 5000.”
“Her new camera,” Lillian said. “She was very excited about it.”
On the bed, Arizona moved slightly. She turned her head on the pillow. Her face was drawn with pain.
Her cheeks were slightly sunken. “Lillian? Gabe?”
“Right here, A.Z.” Lillian went to the bed and patted Arizona’s hand. “Don’t worry about anything.
You’re going to be fine.”
“My VPX 5000.” Arizona’s voice had lost its usual hearty timbre. She sounded a thousand years old. “I can’t find it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lillian assured her. “You’ll find it when they let you go home.”
“No.” Arizona gripped Lillian’s hand with gnarled fingers. “They said someone hit me. Probably the institute spy. I’ll bet he took my VPX 5000. Gotta get it back. Can’t risk having it fall into the wrong hands. Pictures. Of the new wing. They’ll destroy ’em.”
Gabe went to stand at the bed. He leaned on the rails. “Tell you what, A.Z., Lillian and I will go back to your cabin and see if we can find the camera. Maybe you left it in your truck.”
“Gotta find it.” Arizona’s eyes fluttered closed. “Can’t let the bastards get it.”
An hour later, after a fruitless search of the interior of Arizona’s aging pickup, he closed the door on the driver’s side and pocketed the keys. He watched Lillian come down the cabin’s porch steps and start toward him.
“Any luck?” she asked.
“No. What about you?”
“I went over every square inch of the porch and checked the flower beds around it. It’s gone, unfortunately. I hate to have to give her the bad news. She was so thrilled with that camera.”