The all-suite hotel promised the nicest lodging in Poagstown. He’d spent two hours doing the research before asking his secretary to book it. Even after a two-hour drive, most of it spent winding through poorly lit roads, he had a smile for the front-desk clerk.
The man gave a genuine smile in return before asking, “Name?”
The clerk handed him the key-card envelope before Rodgers even thought to give him a first name.
“I’ll just need to see a credit card, Mr. Rodgers, then you can head on up.”
Teresa had reserved the room using points, so he figured he might as well use the card that had earned them. He handed it to the clerk. “Where’s the best place to get a bite at this hour? Someplace close.”
“This hour?” The clerk eased his attention toward the clock sitting on the desk. “The steakhouse across the street closes in about forty-five. The bar next to it will be open later, but you probably don’t want to put up with all that racket if you’re tired. Otherwise it’s a hop, skip, and jump that way”—he hooked his thumb to the left—“to a few fast-food joints. That’s about it.” He handed back his credit card. “Welcome to our sleepy little family town, Mr. Rodgers.”
Rodgers nodded, then headed toward the elevator. On the way up to the fifth floor, he chuckled. Poagstown was a way station, a town cluttered with little more than hotels, outlet shops, and a variety of eateries. The few people who actually lived here long-term probably were related, or may as well have been.
And even though it was “sleepy” compared to D.C., Poagstown wasn’t so little—not as little as the town in which Bessa lived. That’s why he’d chosen it. Small towns tended to be overpopulated with big-eyed, nosy sorts.
He walked into his suite. Teresa had done well. Tidy kitchen area, neatly arranged living room, and spotless bathroom. The queen-size bed he was expecting was closer to a king size. And the pulsating shower water was warmer than any he’d experienced during his other travels over the past four months. Best on-the-road shower this season.
After twenty minutes of scrubbing, he figured enough of Washington’s stench had been washed away from his skin; and in the fifteen he spent getting dressed, he figured he’d accumulated enough northern-Maryland funk to wander into the dive bar across the street without pricking any busybody’s senses. He wasn’t exactly undercover, but his sub-missions did call for exercising a fair measure of discretion.
The joint seemed to cater mostly to hard-rock bangers and body-art aficionados, much as he’d expected. He had no tats, but he hoped his boots, jeans, and black leather jacket would make him seem less like an out-of-towner. Above the shoulders, he fit right in. He had the hair, he’d the right look in his green eyes, and he could talk hardcore music—and hardcore anything else—with even the most intimidating chatterbox.
The bar had twenty stools but only eight warm bodies. He took a seat that gave him plenty of elbow room and a good enough view of the stage. The bartender looked in his direction. Even though the guy had never before set eyes on him, he nodded in a way that was more friendly than professional.
Rodgers let his shoulders slump, then gave his order. “Double IPA. Strongest one on tap.”
The bartender nodded again and Rodgers turned toward the stage. Two twenty-somethings trying too hard with a retro-psychedelic look were trying even harder at playing and singing Hendrix. They divided duties and did well enough that Rodgers wasn’t tempted to throw the glass of ice water the bartender had set in front of him, though he didn’t know what the hell else to do with it. Water was for showering; his stomach was reserved for beer and maybe a burger. He wanted both his metaphorical and his actual guts ready for tomorrow’s dirty deed—and this one, he had a feeling, would be damned dirty. He’d need that shower afterward.
He checked his smartphone. No new texts.
The bartender set a pint on the coaster in front of him. “Start a tab?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” He unthinkingly patted his jeans pockets for his wallet before finding it inside his jacket. He opened it, considered using the card that was racking up those ever-valuable travel points, but decided on using the generous gift card his secretary had given him for Boss’s Day. He’d hopped on the horse of discretion; might as well ride it till he left town.
The bartender looked at the card, made the briefest eye contact with Rodgers, then glanced at the card again. “I’ll be right back.”
Rodgers sipped his IPA while keeping his eyes on the bartender. Other than that momentary eye lock, the man wasn’t acting suspiciously. Something bugged him, but, after taking a breath, Rodgers shrugged it off. Most likely the guy just wasn’t used to folks paying with gift cards.
He sipped, then checked his phone again. No new messages. Bessa had promised to reach out by Wednesday afternoon. It was a little past nine. He hadn’t heard from her since Tuesday morning. He hoped she hadn’t left her phone where her husband could find it. Rodgers only knew her virtually, but he’d already figured her too daft to password-protect anything.
“Here you go, Mister . . . ?” The bartender handed him his card.
“Johnson.” Rodgers kept a wary eye on the man as he put the card back in its place.
“You been here before?”
“No—why?” He furrowed his brow.
“I was going to ask if you needed to see a menu, or if you already know what you want. Assuming you wanna chow?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry.” He let his shoulders slump again. “I’ll take a menu.”
The bartender smiled and handed one over. “Name’s Jet, by the way. Let me know if you need anything.”
Rodgers nodded and scanned the menu. In the back of his mind, he knew what he had a taste for, and his eyes quickly found it. He motioned for Jet.
“Questions about the menu?”
“Only about how quickly you can get a Devil Burger out here.” Half-pound burger with pepper jack cheese, fresh-cut jalapenos, three fried onion rings, and choice of sauce.
“How do you like it?”
“Medium rare. With the jumpin’ jack sauce.”
Jet nodded and went to punch it in. Rodgers tapped his password into his phone. After being idle for more than ninety seconds, it had locked up. No new texts, so he scrolled up to the top of the chain he’d created with Bessa over the past week and re-read it, prepping for tomorrow’s body-and-mind ’scaping chores.