Chapter 12


"Cecil." Randy slurred the name, making it sound like something that had crawled out from under a swamp log.

"You dress like that all the time, Cecil?"

"Yes sir," Pelvis answered in all honesty. In his lap @a continued her low growling.

"Well, you're 'bout the damnedest sight I ever laid eyes on. You mind tellin' me what you're in costume for?"

"Listen, Officer," Flint said. He was terrified Pelvis was going to start blabbering about being a bounty hunter, or about the fact that Lambert was somewhere close by. "I was the one driven', not him."

"Mr. Murtaugh?" Randy leaned his head nearer, and Flint had the startling thought that he'd seen the policeman's face before, when its thin-lipped mouth was twisted into a cruel girin and the garish midway lights threw shadows into the deep-set eye sockets. "When I want you to speak, I'll ask you a question. Hear me?"

His was the face of a thousand others who had come to the it-eak show to leer and laugh, to fondle their girlfriends in front of the stage and spit tobacco on Flint's polished shoes.

Flint felt a hard nut of dispst in his throat. Clint lurched under his shirt, but luckily Flint had a firm grip and the policeman didn't see. "There's no reason to be rude," Flint said.

Randy laughed, which was probably the worst thing he could've done. It was a humorless, harsh laugh, and it made Flint want to smash it back through the man's teeth. "You want to see rude, you keep on pushin' me. You come flyin' up on my rear end and almost wreck my car, I'm not about to kiss you for it. Now you're real, real close to a night in jail, so you'd best just sit there and keep your mouth shut."

Flint stared sullenly at him, and the policeman gjared back.

"It's a clean tag," Walt said, returning from the cruiser's radio.

" I'm just about to get the story from Cecil," Randy told him.

"Let's hear it."

@pp "Well, sir . . ." Pelvis cleared his throat. Flint waited, his head lowered. "We're on our way to New Orleans. Going'to a convention there, at the Hyatt Hotel. It's for Elvis interpemtors like me."

"Now I can retire. I've heard everythin'," Randy sod, and Walt laughed.

"Yes sir." Pelvis wore his stupid smile like a badge of honor.

"See, the convention kicks off tomorrow." "If that's so, how come you're lookin' for the Holiday Inn?"

"Well ... see, we're supposed to meet some other fellas goin' to the convention, too. We're all gonna travel together.

I reckon we just missed seem' the sign, and then we got all turned around. You know how it is, being' in a strange place not knowin' where you are and it so late and everythin'.

Couldn't find no phone, and I'm [email protected], you we were getting9 mighty scared 'cause these days you gotta be careful where you wind up, all them murders you see on the newr every time you turn on the-I' "All right, all right." Randy gasped like a man surfacing for air. He stabbed the light into Flint's eyes again. "You an Elvis impersonater too?"

" No sir, he's my manager," Pelvis said. "We're like two peas in a pod."

Flint felt queasy. Clint's arm jumped and almost got away from him.

"Walt? You got any ideas on what to do with these two?

Should we take 'em in?"

"That's the thing to do, seems to me."

"Yeah." The light was still aimed at Flint's face.

lost is no excuse for speedin' through a residential area. You could've killed somebody."

"Us, for instance," Walt Ndd.

"Right. You need to spend a night in jail, to get your thinkin' straight."

Great, Flint thought bitterly. When they searched him down before Putting him in the cell, they were going to jump out of their jackboots.

"'COurse," Randy went on, "if everybody at the station i 135 was to find out we almost got rear-ended by Elvis Presley, we'd be takin' it in the shorts for God only knows how long.

So, Mr. Manager Man, you'd best be real glad he's with you, cause I don't like your face and if I had my druthers I'd put you smack-dab under the jail. Here." The policeman handed him the licenses. For a few seconds Flint was too dumbfounded to take them.

"Mr. Murtaugh, sir?" Pelvis said. "I believe he's lettin' us "With a major wamin'," Randy added sternly. "Hold the speed down. Next time you might be goin' to a cemetery instead of a convention."

Flint summoned up his wits and took the licenses.

"Thank you," he forced himself to say. "It won't happen again."

"Damn straight it won't. You follow us, we'll take you to the Holiday Inn. But I want Cecil to drive."

"Sir?"

"I want Cecil where you're sittin'," Randy said. "I don't trust you behind my car. Come on, get out and let him take the wheel."

"But ... it's ... my car," Flint sputtered.

"He's got a valid driver's license. Anyway, the Holiday Inn's not very far. Come on, do like I'm tellin' you."

"No ... listen ... I don't let anybody else drive my-" Pelvis put a hand on Flint's shoulder, and Flint jumped as if he'd received an electric shock. "Mr. Murtaugh? Don't you worry, I'll be real careful."

"Move it," Randy said. "We've got other places to be."

Pelvis put Mama into the backseat and came around to the drivers side. With an effort that bordered on the superhuman, Flint got out and, holding Clint's arm firmly against his chest, eased into the passenger seat. In another moment they were following the police cruiser out of the maze of residential streets, and Pelvis smiled and said, "I never drove me a Cadillac before. You know, Elvis loved Cadillacs. Gave 'em away every chance he got. He seen some people lookin' at a Cadillac in a showroom one time, he pulled out a big wad of cash and bought it for'em right there on the spot. Yessir." He nodded vigorously. "I believe I could get to like drivin' a Cadillac."

"Is that so?" Flint had broken out in a cold sweat, and he couldn't help but stare at Eisley's fleshy hands guiding the car.

"You'd better enjoy it, then, because ten seconds after those hick cops drive off will be the last time you sit behind MY steerin'wheel! Do you have a cement block for a brain? I told you to keep your mouth shut and leave the talkin' to me! Now we've gotta go back to that damn Holiday Inn when we could've been on Lambert's ass! I could've talked our way out of trouble if you hadn't opened your big mouth!

Jesus Christ! All that crap about an Elvis convention in New Orleans! We're lucky they didn't call the men with the butterfly nets right then and there!"

"Oh, I went to that convention last year," Pelvis said. "At the Hyatt Hotel, just like I said. 'Bout two hundred Elvises showed up, and we had us a high old time."

"This is a nightmare." Flint pressed his fingers against his forehead to see if he was running a fever. Reality, it seemed, had become entangled with delirium. I'llm at home in my bed, and this is the chili peppers I ate on my pizza."

Pelvis wheezed out a laugh. "Nice to know you still got your sense of humor, seem'as how we lost Lambert and all."

"We haven't lost him. Not yet."

"But ... he's gone. How're we gonna find him again?"

"You're ridin' with a professional Eisley!" Flint said pointedly.

"First thing you learn in this business is to keep your eyes and ears open. I got close enough to hear Lambert and his ex-wife talkin'. She was tellin'him about a cabin in a fishin' camp south of Houma.

Vermilion, she said the camp was called. I heard her tell him where it is. She said to break a windowpane, and that there'd be food in the pantry. SO that might be where he's headed."

"I swanee!" Pelvis gushed. "Mr. Smoates said you was gonna be a good partner!"

"Get that partners shit out of your head!" Flint snapped.

"We're not partners! I'm saddled with you for this one skin hunt, and that's all! You've already screwed up big-time when I told you to keep that mutt quiet back in the park; That damn harkin' aim op on me, and that's how ost shot me out of my shoes! Made me so nervous I let him get the dr he got away!"

"I was meanin'to ask you about that," Pelvis said. "What happened?"

That damn woman-" Flint paused. No, he thought; being knocked on your ass by a woman was not a thing Smoates needed to hear about.

"She distracted me," he said.

"Then Lambert charged in before I could use the Mace.

He's a Vietnam vet, he put me down with some kind ofjudo throw.

"

"Lucky he didn't take your gun and shoot you," Pelvis said. "Him being' such a crazy killer, I mean."

"Yeah." Flint nodded. "Lucky."

Which led him to a question: why hadn't Lambert used the gun on him when he was lying helpless on the ground?

Maybe because he hadn't wanted to commit another murder in front of his ex-wife and son, Flint decided. Whatever the reason, Flint could indeed count himself fortunate to still be alive.

At the Holiday Inn-the same motel where Flint and Pelvis had sat in the parking lot watching the door to Susan Lambert's room-the two Alexandria policemen gave them a further warning about getting the broken heat re Flint took the Cadillac's wheel and b paired, and as soon as the police cruiser had driven away, anished Pelvis and Mama to the rear seat. In another five minutes Flint was back on Interstate 49, heading south again. He, kept his speed below sixty-five. There was no point courting trouble from the highway patrol, and if Lambert was going to the fishing camp cabin, he'd still be there by the time Flint found the place. If the troopers didn't stop Lambert first, and [email protected] hadn't headed off in another direction.

But it was a gamble worth taking, just as Flint had gambled on following Lambert's ex-wife.

The way ahead was dark. Houma was down in swamp and Cajun territory. Flint had never heard of Vermilion before, but he'd find it when they got down there. It wasn't an area Flint would've ventured into without a good reason, though.

Line of Fire and best left h Those swamp dwellers were a roug breed, an alone. At least-thank God-Eisley was quiet d Flint could get his thoughts in order.

Something that sounded like a warped buzz saw started whining in the backseat.

Flint looked into the rearview mirror. Pelvis was stretched out and snoring, with Mama's head cradled on his shoulder. The bulldog added to the noise by growling in her sleep.

A thought came to Flint unbidden: At least he's got something' that gives a' damn about him.

Which was more than he could say for himself.

But then, there was always Clint. Good al'blind and mute Clint, who had ruined his life as surely as if he had been born a leper.

The waY ahead was dark. Flint was determined to find Lambert now; this was a matter of honor. He wasn't afraid of anything on this earth, least of all a crazy killer too stupid to shoot a man who was down and defenseless. This was a gone to be played out to the last card, winner take all. He was going to drag that skin back to Smoates and show that bastard what being a professional was all about.

Flint thought of the mansion in his dream, the white stone mansion with four chimneys and a huge stained-glass winre dow in front. His home, he believed. The place whe his mother and father lived. The rich, refined people who had seen a mass of twitching flesh growing from their baby's chest and, horrified, had given the baby up to the four winds of adoption. His home. It had to be, because he dreamed of it so often. He would find it yet, and he would find that man and woman and show them he was their son, born of refinement into a cold and dirty world. Maybe it lay to the south- maybe it lay somewhere at the end of this road, and if he'd gone south long before this he would've found it like a hidden treasure, an answer, a shining lamp.

Maybe.

But right now the way ahead was dark.

Traveling by Night Forty-six miles south of Alexandria, as the sultry nightwind swept in through the station wagon, Dan felt sleep pulling at him.

He was on Highway 167, which paralleled 1-49 and twisted through cane-field country. It was all but deserted.

Dan had seen no trooper cars since leaving Basile Park, and there'd been no headlights behind him for the last twenty minutes.

Houma was still a good seventy miles away, and Vermilion maybe twelve or fifteen miles beyond that. He had to find another roadmap; his last one had been left in his pickup truck. But the fishing camp cabin would be worth the extra miles. He could hide there for a couple of days, get some decent rest, and decide where to go.

His eyelids were heavy, the drone of the tires hypnotic.

He'd tried the radio, but it was lifeless. The pain in his skull was building again, and maybe this was the only thing keeping him awake. He needed a cup of coffee, but on this road the few cafes he passed looked to have been closed up since nightfall. After three more miles he came to a crossroads that had a sign pointing east to 1-49.

He sat there, weighing the risk of trying to find a truckstop on the interstate. It won out over the chance of nodding off at the wheel and running into a ditch.

The interstate was a dangerous place, because the troopers prowled there. At this time of the morning, though nearing three o'clock-the truck drivers in their big, sn ing ngs were masters of the four-lane. Dan passed a sign that said Lafayette-"the heart of Acadiana"-was thirty miles ahead. Five miles later he saw green neon that announced CAJUN COUNTRY TRUCK STOP 24 HOURS and he took the next exit. The truck stop was a gray cinder-block building, not much to look at, but he could see a waitress at work through the restaurant's plate-glass window. A tractor-trailer truck was parked at the diesel pumps, its tank being filled by an attendant. In front of the restaurant was a red Camaro with a Texas vanity plate that proclaimed its owner to be AN Al s'rud. Dan drove around back and parked next to two other cars, an old brown Bonneville and a dark blue Mazda, both with Louisiana plates, that probably belonged to the employees. He felt light-headed with weariness as he trudged into the restaurant, which had a long counter and stools and a row of red vinyl booths.

"How you be doin'?" the waitress asked from behind the counter in -thick Cajun dialect. "Goon set yourself anywhere." She was a heavyset blond woman, maybe in her mid-forties, and she wore a red-checked apron over a white uniform. She returned to her conversation with a gray-haired gent in overalls who sat at the counter nursing a cup of coffee and a glazed doughnut.

Dan chose a booth beside the window so he had full view of the parking lot. Sitting three booths in front of him were a young man and woman. Her back was to Dan, her wavy shoulder-length hair the color of summer wheat. The young man, who Dan figured was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, wore his dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and he had a sallow, long-jawed face and deepset ebony eyes that fixed Dan with a hard stare over his companion's shoulder.

Dan nodded toward him, and the young man blinked sullenly and looked away.

The waitress came with a menu. Her name tag read DONNA Lu- "Just a cup of coffee," Dan told her. "As strong as you can make it."

"HonI can make it jump out the cup and two-step," she promised, and she left him to go back through a swinging door to the kitchen.

Dan took off his baseball cap and ran a hand over his forehead to collect the sheen that had gathered there, Fans were turning at the ceiling, their cool breezes welcome on his skin. He leaned against the backrest and closed his eyes. But he couldn't keep them shut because the death of Emory Blanchard was still repeating itself in the haunted house of his mind. He rubbed his stiff shoulder and then reached back to massage his neck. He'd escaped two tight squeezes since midnight, but if a state trooper car pulled up right then, he didn't know if he would have the energy to get up from his seat.

"You know what I think? I think the whole thing's a pile of shit!" It was the young man in the booth, talking to the woman. His voice dripped venom. "I thought you said I was gonna make some money out of this!"

"I said I'd pay you." Her voice was smoky and careful.

"Keep it down, all right?"

"No, it ain't all right! I don't know why the hell I said I'd do this! It's a bunch of lies is what it is!"

"It's not lies. Don't worry, you'll get your money."

The young man looked as if he were about to spit something back at her, but his piercing gaze suddenly shifted, locking onto Dan. "Hey!

What're you starin' at?"

"I'm just waitin' for a cup of coffee."

"Well look somewhere else while you do it!"

"Fine with me." Dan averted his eyes, but not before he'd noted that the young man wore a black T-shirt imprinted with yellow skulls and the legend @ai i . The woman got him to quiet down a little, but he was still mouthing off about money. He kept cutting his eyes at Dan. Lookin' for trouble, Dan thought. Pissed off about something and ready to pick a fight.

The waitress brought his coffee. Donna Lee had been right; this java had legs. "Keep the pot warm, will you?"

Dan suggested as he sipped the high octane. She answered, "Goon do it," and walked behind the cash register to take the gray-haired man's money. "See you next run-through,"

she told him, and Dan watched him walk out to his tractor-trailer rig at the diesel pumps.

"Made a fool of me is what you did-I" the young man started up again. "Come all this way to find a fuckin' fairy tale!"

"Joey, come on. Calm down, all right? "You think I'm supposed to be happy? Drive all this way, and then you gimme this big load of shit and ask me to calm down?" His voice was getting louder and harsher, and suddenly he reached out across the table and seized his companion's wrist. "You played me for a fuckin' fool, didn't you?"

"Ease up there, friend!" Donna Lee cautioned from behind the counter.

"I ain't talkin' to you!" Joey snapped. "So just shut up!"

"Hey, listen here!" She strode toward their booth on her chunky legs, her cheeks reddening. You can get your sassy tail gone, I won't cry."

"It's okay," the Young woman said, and Dan saw her pug-nosed profile as she glanced to the left at Donna Lee.

.'We're just talkin'."

"TaM kinda rough, don't he?"

"Gimme the damn check, how @ut it?" Joey said.

"Pleased to." Donna Lee pulled the checkpad and a pencil from a pocket of her apron and totaled up their order.

"Han, you need any help?"

"No." She'd worked her wrist free and was rubbing where his fingers had been. "Thanks anyhow."

Dan happened to catch Joey's glare again for a split second, and the young man said, "God damn!" and stood up from the booth. His cowboy boots clacked on the linoleum, approaching Dan. "Joey, don't!"

the young woman called, but then Joey was sliding into the seat across from him.

Dan drank down the rest of his coffee, paying him no attention.

Inside, he was steeling himself for the encounter.

"I thought I told you to quit starin' at me," Joey said with quiet menace.

Dan lifted his gaze to meet Joey's. The young man's eyes were red-rimmed, his gaunt face strained by whatever inner demons were torturing him. A little tarnished silver skeleton hung from the lobe of his left ear. Dan had met his kind before: a walking hair-trigger, always a hot flash away from explosion. Dan said calmly, "I don't want any trouble."

"Oh, I think you're askin' for a whole truckload of it, old man."

Dan was in no shape to be fighting, but damned if he'd take this kind of disrespect. If he was going down, he was going down swinging.

"I'd like to be left alone."

"I'll leave you alone. After I take you out in the parkin' lot and beat the shit outta-" Joey didn't finish his threat, because Dan's right hand shot out, grasped the silver skeleton, and tore it from his earlobe. As Joey shouted with pain, Dan caught a left handful of T-shirt and jerked the young man's chest hard against the table's edge.

Dan leaned forward, their faces almost touching. "You need some manners knocked into you, boy. Now, I'd suggest that you stand up and walk out of here, get in your car, and go wherever you're goin'. If you don't want to do that, I'd be glad to separate you from your teeth."

A drop of blood was welling from Joey's ripped earlobe.

He sneered and started to fire another taunt into Dan's face, which might have cost the young punk at least a broken nose.

whack! Something had just slammed onto the tabletop.

Dan turned his head and looked at a baseball bat that had eight or nine wicked nails stuck through it.

"Pay attention," Donna Lee said. She was speaking to Joey, who had abruptly become an excellent listener. "You goon stand up, pay your check, leave me two dollars tip, and haul ass out, my sight.

Mister, let him loose."

Dan did. Joey stood up, his nervous gaze on the brainbuster.

Donna Lee stepped back and then followed him to the cash register.

"Get you 'mother cup in a minute" she told Dan.

"Sorry. He gets like that sometimes."

It was the Young woman, standing next to his booth. Dan looked up at her, said, "No harm d-" and then he stopped because of her face.

The left side of it, the side he'd seen in profile, was very pretty.

Across the bridge of her pug nose was a scatter of freckles. Her mouth had the, lush lips lonely men kissed in their dreams, and her blond hair was thick and beautiful Her eyes were soft blue, the blue of a cool mountain @.

But the,right side of her face was another story, and not a kind one.

It was covered by a'huge purplish-red birthmark that began up in her hair and continued all the way down onto her throat. The mark had ragged edges like the coast on a map Of some strange and unexplored territory. Because the left side of her f achingly perfect righ side ace was so , the t was that much harder to look at. "Done," Dan finished, his gaze following the maroon inlets and coves. Then he met her eyes, and he recognized in them the same kind of deep, soul-anchored pain he'd seen in his own mirror.

The instant of an inner glimpse passed. She glanced at empty coffee cup. "You'd better get something, to eat, mister," she said in that voice Mo velvet and smoke. "You don't look so hot."

"Been a rough day." Dan noted that she wore no makeup and her clothes were simple: a violet floral-patterned shortsleeve blouse and a pair of lived-in blue jeans. She carried a small chestnut-colored purse, its strap around her left shoulder. She was a slim girl, not a whole lot of meat on her bones, and she had that wiry, hardscrabble Texar, look.

maybe she stood five-two, if that.. Dan tried to envision her without the birthmark; lacking it, she might resemble the kind of fresh-faced girl-next-door in magazine ads. With it, though, she was traveling by night in the company of Joey the punt "Arden!" His money had been slapped down beside the cash register. "You comin' or not?"

"I am." She started to walk away, but Dan said, "Hey, you think he wants this?" and he offered her the silver skeleton.

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