Chapter 15


"Just be quiet and leave me alone. Can you do that?

can "I "Sure I - Ain't like I'm dense or anythin .

"GOOd." Flint closed his eyes once more and leaned his head back.

Maybe ten seconds later Pelvis said, "Mr. Murtaugh?"

Flint's eyes were red-rimmed when he turned them on Eisley, his teeth gritting behind his lips.

"Somebody's comin'," Pelvis told him.

Flint looked through the pines along the road. A vehicle -one of only the dozen or so they'd seen on the road all day-was approaching from the direction of Vermilion. In another few seconds Flint saw it wasn't a station wagon but a truck about the size of a moving van. As the truck grew nearer, Flint made out the blue lettering on its side: BiuscoE PR G Co. Under that was BATON RouGE, LA. The truck rumbled past them and kept going south, took a curve, and was gone from sight.

"I don't think Lambert's comin'," Pelvis said. "Should've been here by now if he was."

"We're waitin' right here. I told you waitin' was a big part of the job, didn't I?"

"[email protected]," Fleivis @ "but how do you know he ain't been caught already?

We could sit here tdl crows fly back'ards, and if he's done been caught he ain't comin'."

Flint checked his wristwatch. It was eighteen minutes until four.

Eisley was right; it was time to make a call to Smoates again. But Flint didn't want to drive into Vermilion to use the phone, because if Lambert was coming, it would be across that bridge and Flint didn't care to be spotted. It would be easier to take Lambert when he thought he was safe in the cabin rather than chasing him north on the highway.

Flint looked in the on the truck had gone.

There had to be some men of [email protected] farther south. He unfolded his Louisiana road map, one of a half-dozen state maps he always kqA in the car, and found the dot of Vermilion. About four or five miles south of that was another speck called Chandalac, and then Highway 57 ended three miles or so later at a place named LaPierre.

Beyond that was swampland all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The track WO to be going somewhere, and thae Md to be at least one pay phone down there, too. Flint started the engine and eased the Eldorado out of its hiding place ignored Pelvis's question of "Where we headed?" and turned right, the sun's glare sitting like a fireball on the long black hood.

In the brutal afternoon light they could see the type of country they'd driven through in darkness: on both sides of the road the flat, marshy land was aitemateiy cut by winding channels Of gray water and then stubbled with thick stands Of Palmettos and huge ancient oak trees. Around the next curve a brown snake that had to be a yard long was writhing on the hot pavement on Flint's side of the roa and he figured the truck had just crushed it a couple of minutes earlier. Fris spine crawled as the car passed over it, and when he glanced in the rearview mu'ror he saw two hulking birds that must've been vultures swoop down on the dying reptile and start tearing it to pieces with their beaks.

Flint didn't believe in omens. NevertheleW he hoped this wasn't one.

They'd gone maybe a couple of miles when the spiny woods ell way th w f a On the right side of the road and e sun glittered off a blue channel of water that meandered out of what aPPeared to be primeval swamp. just ahead was a white clapboard building with a tin roof and a AM that said V ON MAMA GRmmEs, and jutting off from sho.

was a pier where several small boats were tied up. one WW craft-a @P boat, Flint thought it was because of e th nets and various hoists aboard-had just arrived and its crew was tying ropes down to the pier. And there sat the B PrOcessing Company tr ck as well, n t t.

u @ e.

the clapboard building with its loading bay facing the pier.

Beside the marina, near a sun-bleached sign that adv live bait chewing tobacco, and fresh onions, stood a phone booth.

Flint pulled the car to a stop on a surface of crushed OYster shells. He buttoned up his shirt and into his loose-fitting suit jacket. "Stay here," he instructed Pelvis as he got out!! "I'll be right back." He'd taken three strides toward the phone booth when he heard the El dorado's passenger door creak open and Pelvis was climbing out with Mama tucked under his arm. "Just go on 'bout your business," Pelvis said when Flint fired a glare at him. "I'm goin' in there and get me some vittles. You want anydiin'r' "No." Vittles, Flint thought. Wasn't that what Granny fixed on "The Beverly Hillbillies"? "Wait. Yeah, I do," he decided. "Get me a bottle of lemon juice, if they've got it.

And don't go in there and flap your lips about Lambert, hear me?

Anybody asks, you're here to do some fishin'. Understand?"

"You don't think I've got a lick of sense, do your' "Bingo," Flint said, and he turned his back on Pelvis and went into the phone booth.

He placed a call through to Smoates's office. "It's Flint," he said when Smoates answered. "What's the situation on Lambert?"

"Hold on a minute."

Flint waited, sweat trickling down his face. It had to be over ninety degrees, even as the sun began to fall toward the west. The heat had sinned Clint, who lay motionles The air smelled of the steamy, sickly sweet reek of the swamp, and his own bodily aroma wasn't too delicate, either. He wasn't used to being unclean; a gentleman knew the value of cleanliness, of crisp white shirts and freshly [email protected] underwear. These last twenty-four hours had been a little slice of hell on earth, and this swampland Satan's paradise, too. From where he was standing, Flint could see four men unloading cargo from the shrimp boat.

The cargo was umnish-brown and scaly, with long snouts bound shut by- copper wire, four stubby legs fastened together with wire as well.

Alligators, he with a start. The men were unloading alhptors, each three or four feet long, from the deck of the boat and then carrying them to the Briwm Processing Company truck and heaving them into the back. The men's workclothes were wet and muddy, the boat's deck heaped with maybe twenty or more live and squirming alhptors. But there was a fifth man-slimmer than the others, with shoulder-length grayish-blond hair and wearing blue jeans and a Harvard T-shirt-who stood apart from the workers and seemed to be supervising. As Flint watched, the man in the Harvard T-shirt glanced at him and the sun flared in the round lenses of his dark glasses. The glance became a lingering stare.

"Flint?" Smoates had come back on the line. "Latest word's that Lambert's still on the loose. iftere are your! "Down south. Little hellhole called Vermilion. I want you to know I'm standin' here watchin' a bunch of geeks unload [email protected] live alligators off a boat."

"You ought to ask 'em if they need a hand," Smoates said with a wet chuckle.

Flint chose to let the remark pass. "I came close to nailing Lambert last night."

"You're shittin' me! He showed up at the ex-wife's house?"

"No, not there. But I found him. I think he's on his way here, too. Probably holed up somewhere and gonna be on the move W" after dark." Flint saw the man in the Harvard T-shirt still staring at him; then the dude motioned One Of the workers-a shirtless, shaven-headed wall of a black man who must've stood six-four and weighed close to three hundred Pounds-over to him and they started talking, their backs toward the phone booth, as the others continued to unload the alligators and throw them into the truck. "Smoates," Flint said, "Eisley's drivin' me crazy.

Even God couldn't get him to shut his mouth. I don't know what you saw in him, but he's all wrong for the job."

"So he talks a lot, so what? That could be a plus. He's got the ability to wear people down."

"Yeah, he's good at that, all right. But he's slow upstairs.

He can't think on his feet. I'd hate to be in a tight spot and have to depend on him, I'll tell you that.

"Forget about Eisley for a minute. You ain't heard the news, huhr, What news?"

"Lambert's a double murderer now. He killed a fella at a motel outside Alexandria 'round midnight. Blasted him with a shotgun, and when the fella didn't die fast enough, Lambert beat him to death. Stole his station wagon. Cable TV's picked up the story, it's on every hour."

"He was in the station wagon when I found him. I would've had him, but his ex-wife helped him get away."

"Well, sounds to me like Lambert's turned into a mad dog. Man who's killed twice won't think nothin"bout killin' a third time, so watch your ass."

"He's in the grocery store right now," Flint said.

"Huh? Oh, yeah! Ha! See, Flint? Eisley's givin' you a sense of humor," "It's his lack of sense I'm worried about. I've done all right at stayin' alive so far, but that was before you shackled him on me."

"He's gotta learn the ropes somehow," Smoates said.

"Just like you did." He paused for a moment, then released a heavy sigh. "Well, I reckon you're right. Lambert's an awful dangerous skin to train Eisley on. Neither one of you are any good to me in a grave, so you can call it quits and come on in if you want to."

Flint was knocked off his wheels. He thought the earth might shake and the heavens crack open. Smoates was offering him a way out of this nightmare.

"You still there, Flint?"

"lib ... yeah. Yeah, I'm here." His joy had been a short-lived thing. He was thinking the unthinkable; he needed his share of the reward money for his pmbffi% debts, and if Lambert was coming to the cabin after dark, it would be foolish to give up and go back to Shreveport now.

Then again, Lambert might not even be in Louisiana anymore. It was Flint's call to make. He had the can of Mace and his brass knuckles in the car's glove compartment, and Clint's derringer was in its small holster against the sidn under his right arm. The derringer's bullets didn't have much stopping power, but no man-not even a mad dog Vietnam vet-was going to do a whole lot of running or fighting with a hole through his kneecap. "If Lambert shows up here," Flint said, "I believe I can take him. I'll hang in until tomorrow mornin'."

"You don't have to prove anythin'. I know what you can do. But somebody as @ as Lambert could be awful unpredictable.vi Flint grunted. "Smoates, if I didn't know you better, I'd think you were concerned about me. "You've been a damn fine investment.

Eisley's gonna turn out to be a good investment, too, once he gets the green worn off @."

"oh, I see- Well, just so I know where I stand.'$ He wiped sweat from his eyebrows with his sleeve. The long-haired man in the Harvard T-shirt was watching the others work again, and paying Flint no attention. "I'll stay here awhile lonw- If Lambert doesn't show by six in the mornin I,ll start back . 09 "Okay, play it how you want."

"I'll check in again around dark." Flint hung the phone back on its cradle. He was drenched with sweat under his jacket and totally miserable. Still, the game had to be played out. He saw that EisleY hadn't returned to the car, and when he looked through a window into the store he saw Pelvis @(hng at the cash register eating an ice men sandwich as he talked to a fat red-haired girl behind the counter. The girl wore an expression of rapture on her PudgY-cheeked face, and Flint [email protected] it wasnt every day she had a customer like him. Flint spotted a sign that said REST Rooms and there was an arrow pointing around the side Of the building. He followed it and found two doors, one [email protected] and the other GAU. The Gem door had a hole where the knob should've been. As he pushed through the door, he was aware of the sounds of distress the [email protected] alligators were making as they were being thrown into the truck, a combination Of guttural burps and higherPitched bleats. He figured the thinp were going to Baton Rouge to wind up as shoes, belts, and purses. Hell of a way to make a living, that was.

Flint @ in a small bathroom that smelled stroney of LYsol, but there were other more disagreeable odors wafting about as well. One of the two urinals seemed to have moss growing in it, and the other held a dark yellow @ clogged with ciprette butts. He didn't care to take a look into the toilet stall. He chose the mossy urinal, which had a Tropical Nights condoms machine mounted on the wall above it, and he unzipped his pants and went about the task.

As he relieved himself, he thought about what Smoates had said: Man who's killed twice won't think nothin' 'bout killin'a third time.

So why, Flint wondered, am I still alive?

Lambert had just come from his second murder, and he wouldn't have had much to lose by a third, especially the execution of a bounty hunter who'd tracked him from Shreveport. Why hadn't Lambert used the gun when he'd had the chance? Maybe because he hadn't wanted his ex-wife and son to be witnesses?

It was selfdefense, Flint remembered the woman saying.

He's not a cold-blooded killer.

Lambert's turned into a mad dog, was Smoates's opinion.

Which was the truth? I'll let the judge sort it out, Flint thought as he stared at the aged photo of a smiling, heavily made-up blond girl on the condom machine. He looked down to shake and zip.

The edge of a straight razor was laid against the crown of Flint's penis, which suddenly and decisively dried up.

"Get the door."

The door bumped shut.

"Easy, Men. Be cool, now. Don't pee on my hand. I wouldn't like it if you peed on my hand, I might get an bent ouua shape and this razor nught twitch." The long-han-ed man wearing round-lensed sunglasses and the Harvard T-shirt was standing beside Flint; he had a soft, almost feminine voice with just a hint of a refined southern accent, but he was jabbefin as if he might be running on speed.

"Wouldn't want that, man, no you wouldn't. Bummer to have all that blood shootin' out your stump. Messy, messy, messy. Virgil, find his wallet."

An ebony hand the size of a roast slid into Flint's jacket and went to the inside pocket, almost grazing Clint.

"Just look straight ahead, man. Hold on to your joy stick, both hands. That's right. Car 54, where are you?"

"No badge," Virgil said in a voice like a cement mixer turning over. I'@u'zona license. Name's Flint Murtaugh.

Monroe address."

"Our man Flint!" The razor remained where it was, a threat to three shriveled inches of Flint's flesh. "Do not adjust the horizontal, do not adjust the vertical. We are in control. Talk to me."

"What's this all about?" he managed to say though his throat had seized up.

"Beeeep! Wrong answer! I'm askin' the questions, kemo sabe! Who are you and what're you doin' here?"

"I'm here to do some fishin'."

"Oh, yeahhhhh! Fishin' he says, Virgil! What's your nose tell us?"

Flint heard the black man sniffing the air next to his face.

"Don't smell like no fisherman," Virgil rumbled. "Got kinda like a cop smell, but..." He kept sniffing.

"Somethin' real funny 'bout him."

Flint turned his head to the left and looked into the dark lenses.

The Harvard man, who stood about the S=e height as Flint, was in his late forties or early fifties. He was lean and sun-browned, gray grizzle covering the jaw of his deeply lined and weathered face. His hair had once been sandcolored, but most of it was now nearing silver.

Part of his right ear looked as if it had been either chewed off or shot off. His T-shirt with the name of that hallowed university was mottled with sweat stains, and his blue jeans appeared to be held together by crusty patches of grime. Flint concluded his brief inspection by noting that the man wore TopSiders without sinks. "I'm not a cop," he said, lifting his gaze again to the opaque lenses. "I came down to fish for the weekend, that's all."

"Wore Your best suit to fish in, did you? Come all the way here from Monroe just to hook a big mudcat? If you're a fisherman, I'm Dobie Gillis."

"Ain't no fisherman." Virgil was standing on the other side of Flint, his broad bare chest smeared with 'Ptor mud.

His nose had wide, flared nostrils and he wore purple paisley shorts and Nikes on size thirteen feet. "Fish won't bite, weather this hot. Ain't been no fishermen 'round here all week."

"This is true," the man with the razor said. "So, Flinty, what's your story?"

"Look, I don't know who you fellas are or what this is about, but all I did was come in here to use the bathroom. If you want to rob me, go ahead and take my money, but I wish you'd put the razor away."

"Maybe it's you who wants to rob us."

'What?"

"I saw you on the phone, Flinty. You reached out and touched somebody. Who was it? Couldn't have been Victor Medina, could it?

You one of his spies, FlintyT' "I don't know any Victor Medina. I had to call my office."

"What line of work you in?"

"I sell insurance," Flint answered.

"Smellin' a lie," Virgil said, sniffing.

"The nose knows. Virgil's got a mystic snout, Flinty. So let's try it again: what line of work you in?"

Flint couldn't tell these two swamp rats why he was really there, they'd want the reward for themselves. Anger welled up inside him.

"I'm an astronaut," he said before he could think better of it. "What business is it of yours?"

"Ohhhhhh, an astronaut, Virgil!" The man grinned, his greenish celebrity here! What do you say about that?"

teeth in dire need of brushing. "We've got us a "Say he wants it done the hard way, Doc."

"This is true." Doc nodded, his grin evaporating. "The hard way it shall be, then."

Virgil looked into the toilet stall. Now it was his turn to grin.

"Heh-heb! Somebody done forgot to flush!"

"Oh me oh me oh my!" Doc pulled the razor away from i Flint's penis and closed the blade with a quick snap of his i i wrist, and Flint took the opportunity to zip himself up out of harm's way. "I believe this is a job for an astronaut, don't you?"

"Surely." Virgil took a step forward and gripped the nape of Flint's neck with one huge hand while the other grasped Flint's right wrist and wrenched his krm up behind his back 'Hey, hey! Wait a minute!" Flint yelled, true fear kicking his heart and pain shooting through his arm. Clint had awakened and was thrashing under his shirt, but Virgil was manhandling Flint like a sack of straw into the toilet stall Though Flint grabbed the stall's door with his left hand and tried to fight free, Virgil made short work of at attempt by th sweeping his legs out from under him and forcing him to his knees on the gritty flOOr. The hair rose up on the back of Flint's neck when he saw the brown mers in the slimy bowl and what might have been fist-size crabs down in the murk. scuttling around "Yum-yum!" Doc said.

"Candygram for Mongo!"

Virgil Pushed Flint'S face toward the toilet bowl. The man's strength was awesome, and though Flint did his damnedest at resisting, all he could do was slow the inevitable. He couldn't get to the derringer and neither could he find the breath to command mt to get it. His 0 y h C' I'll ape was that he would pass Out before his face broke the scummY, clotted surface.

"sir?"

'Doc turned his head toward the husky voice behind him.

He gasped; Elvis Presley was standing there, framed by the hot w te are through the open doorw . D pp g hay ac stood in and stunned as Pelvis Eisley reached up with his left hand g, and plucked off the sunglasses. Doc blinked, his p-le een eyes overloaded with light.

" 'Scuse me," Pelvis sod, and he lifted his right hand the hand that held the red can Of Mace he'd taken from the Cadillac's glove compartment-and sprayed a burst of fine mist squarely into Docis face.

The reswt was immediate. DOC let out a wmam that curled Pelvis's ducktail, and he staggered back, raking at his inflamed eyeballs. In the toilet stall, Flint's nose was two inches away from disaster when the scream echoed off the t es and V 's hand left the back of his head.

Fling il 'rg" ntiabbed an elbow backward into the man's chest, but Virgil just grunted and turned away to help Doc.

"Lord have mercy," Pelvis said when he saw the size of the black man who'd just emerged from the toilet swing.

Virgil took one look at Doc, who was down on the floor clutching his face with both hands and writhing in agony, then he stared at Pelvis as if seeing an alien from another planet. The shock didn't last but three seconds, after which Virgil charged Pelvis like a mad bull.

Pelvis stood his ground and got off another spray of Mace, but Virgil saw it coming and he jerked his head to one side, throwing up a thick forearm to protect his face. The spray wet his shoulder and burned like the furies of Hell, but Virgil was still moving and he hit his target with a body block that all but knocked Pelvis out of his blue suede shoes.

Pelvis slammed against the wall, his jowls and belly quaking, and Virgil chopped at his wrist and knocked the Mace out of his hand. The stomp of a Nike crushed the can flat.

Virgil grabbed Pelvis by the throat and lifted him off his feet.

Pelvis's eyes bulged as he started choking, his fingers scrabbling to loosen Virgil's massive hands.

Flint had staggered out of the stall. He saw Pelvis's face swelling with blood and he knew he had to do somethinganything-fast.

He yanked his shirt open, pulled the derringer from its holster, and cocked it. "Leave him alone!" Flint shouted, but Virgil paid no attention. There was no time for a second try. Flint @ped forward, pushing the derringers double barrels against the back of Virgil's left knee, and squeezed the trigger. The little weapon made only a polite firecracker pop, but the force of the slug couldn't help but shatter the big man's kneecap. Virgil cried out and released Pelvis, and he went down on the floor, gripping at the ruins of his knee.

"Gone pass out!" Pelvis gasped. "Lordy, I can't stand up!"

"Yes you can!" Flint saw his wallet on the floor where Virgil had dropped it, and he snatched it up and then took Pelvis's weight on his shoulder. "Come on, move!" He kicked the door open and pulled Pelvis out with him into the scorching light. The loading of the alligators was still proceeding, which made Flint think that the other three workmen had believed Doc's scream of pain to be his own.

The red-haired grocery girl hid probably been too scared to come look; either that, or screams of pain were commonPlace around there.

But then one of two workers carrying a squirming alligator along the pier saw them and let out a holler: "Hey, Mitch! Doc and Virgil are down! The third an was on the boat, and he reached under his muddy YellOw shirt and Pulled out a pistol before he came running across the gangplank.

It was definitely time to vacate the premises.

Pelvis, who could hardly stand up one second, was in the next second a fairly impressive sprinter. The man with the gun got off a shot that knocked a chunk of cinder block from the wall eight inches above Flint's head, and Flint fired the derringers other bullet without aiming though he knew he was Out Of range. All the workmen threw themselves flat on the pier, the'gator landing belly-up. Then Flint was running for the car, too, where Mama was barking frantically in the drivers seat. He almost crushed her as he flung himself behind the wheel, and Pelvis did crush the sack of Twinkles, POtato chips, and cookies that occupied his own seat. Flint jammed the key in, started the engine, and drove away from the store in reverse. The man with the gun hadn't come around the corner yet. Flint put the pedal to the metal, the engine still shrieking in reverse.

And then there was the gunman, skidding around the building's edge. He planted his feet in a firing stance and took aim at the retreating car. Flint shouted, "Get down! and Pelvis ducked his head, both arms clutching Mama. But before the man could pull the trigger, the Eldorado got behind the cover of woods and Flint's heart fell back into his chest from where it had lodged in his throat. He kept racing backward another fifty yards before he found a clear place on the weedy shoulder to turn the car around, then he gave it the gas again.

Pelvis had hesitantly lifted his head. The first faint blue bruises were coming up on his neck. "I come to the bathmom and heard'em in there!" he croaked over the howl of wind and engine. --Looked through the hole in the door and seen 'em tryin' to rob you! I 'membered what you said 'bout the Mace blindin' a man!"

"They were crazy, that's what they were!" Flint's face glistened with sweat, his eyes darting back and forth from the rearview mirror to the road. The truck wasn't following.

He cut his speed to keep from flying off the dangerous curves into the marsh. Clint was still writhing, as if he shared his brother's fury. "Goddamned swamp rats, tried to drown me!" Still the truck wasn't following, and Flint eased up on the gas some more. Pelvis kept looking back, too, his face mottled with crimson splotches. "I don't see 'em yeti" In another moment Flint realized-or hoped-the truck wasn't coming after them at all. The dirt road where they'd been sitting watching for Lambert would soon be on the left.

It was time to take a gamble. What were the odds that the truck was following as opposed to the odds that it was not?

Doc probably couldn't see yet, and Virgil was going to need a stretcher. Flint put his foot on the brake as they approached the dirt road.

"What're you doin'? You ain't stoppin', are you?" Pelvis squawked.

"I'm here to get Lambert," Flint said as he backed off the highway into the shade of the weeping willows once more.

"I'm not lettin' a bunch of swamp rats run me off." He got far enough down the road so as not to be seen by anyone coming from either direction, then he opened the glove compartment, brought out a box of bullets for the derringer, and reloaded its chambers. He cut the engine, and they sat there, all four of them breathing hard.

A minute passed. "That toy gun nught do fine in a pinch," Pelvis said, "but I wouldn't stake my life on it." Flint didn't respond.

Five minutes went by, during which Pelvis kept mumbling to himself or Mama. kiter fifteen minutes they heard a vehicle approaching from the south. "Oh, Lord, here they come!" Pelvis said, scrunching down in his seat.

The truck passed their hiding place at a lawful speed and kept going. They listened to it moving away, and then its sound faded.

"I'll be." Pelvis sat up, wincing as pain lanced his lower back.

If he hadn't been carrying such a Pad of fat around his midsection, he might be laid out on the bathroom floor right then.

"What do you make of that?

Flint shook his head. A lot Of strange things had happened to him in his bounty-hunting career, but this might have been the strangest.

What had all that been about? Doc and Virgil hadn't been trying to rob him; they'd wanted to know who he was, why he was there, and who he'd been talking to on the phone. "Damned if I can figure it out." He slid Clint's derringer back into its holster. "You all right?

"Hurtin' some, but I reckon I'ni okay."

Flint kept listening for a siren that would be an ambulance or police car. If the cops showed up, they could wreck everything. But he was starting to have the feeling that the swamp rats didn't care to see the police around, either.

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