Chapter 16


Law-abiding citizens didn't usually carry straight razors and threaten the bodily arts and of strangers. And what was all that about somebody named Victor Medina, and them thinking he might be there to rob them?

ROb them of what? A truckload of live alligators?

It made no sense, but Flint hadn't come this distance to worry about some crazy 'gatormen. He turned his attention back to snaring Lambert. Stupid of Eisley to have lost the Mace; he should've held on to it, no matter what. Without the Mace, the job was going to be that much tough "Mr. Murtaugh, sirer ed FLnt 100k at Pelvis, and saw that his face had turned milky white.

"Never seen a fella get shot before," Pelvis said, in obvious distress. "Never been shot at, neither. t to thinkin' 'bout it, and. Go - - believe I'm gone have to heave. "Well, get out and do it!

Don't you mess up my car! "Yes sir." Pelvis Opened the door, pulled himself out and staggered into the woods, and Mama leapt from the car after him.

Flint grunted with disgust. Man who couldn't take a little violence and blood sure wasn't suited to hunt skins for bounty. His own nerves had stopped jangling several minutes earlier, but he was going to see that toilet bowl in his nightmares.

Clint had settled down to rest again. Flint looked into the crumpled sack of groceries, and he was gratified to find a small green bottle. He uncapped the lemon juice and took a long, thirsty swallow.

Ever since he could remember, his system had craved acid. He decided that in a few minutes he should walk up to the cabin and make sure Lambert hadn't arrived while they'd been gone.

Still there was no siren. The police and ambulance weren't coming.

Alligators, he thought. What made alligators worth protecting with a pistol?

Well, it wasn't his business. His business was finding Lambert and taking him back to Shreveport, which he was determined to do. He could hear Eisley retching out all that junk food he'd packed himself with. Flint took another drink from the green bottle, and he thought that this was a hell of a life for a gentleman.

The small Skulls Dan was one of the first to reach the village. The sky was stained yellow by drifting smoke, the air thick with the reek of burned slesh.

He heard the wailing, like the sound of muted trumpets.

He moved forward through the haze at a slow-motion pit, his M 16 clutched before him. Sweat had stiffened the folds of his uniform, his heart thudding in his chest like 'distant artillery. Someone was screaming up ahead: a woman's scream, hideous in its rising and falling. The ugly smoke swirled around him, its smell stealing his breath. He pushed past a couple of other grunts from his platoon, one of whom turned away and vomited on the dirt.

At the center of the village was a smoldering pile of twisted gray shapes. Dan walked nearer to it, feeling the heat tighten his face.

Some of the villagers were on their knees, shrieking. He saw four or five children clinging to their mothers' legs, their faces blank with shock. Small orange flames flickered in the burned pile; nearby was a United States Marine-issue gasoline can, probably stolen from a supply dump, that had been left as a taunt.

Dan knew what had been set afire. He knew even before he saw the small skulls. Before he saw a crisped hand reaching up from the mass of bodies. Before he saw that some of them had not burned to the bone, but were swollen and malformed and pink as seared pork.

iss Someone clutched his arm. He looked into the wrinkled, tear-streaked face of an old Vietnamese man who was jabbering with what must have been a mixture of rage and terror. The old msin thrust his hand at Dan, and in the palm lay a tiny airplane formed out of tinfoil.

He understood, then. It was from the Hershey bar's wrapper. The Cong had circled around behind them, and had found this tinfoil toy as evidence of collusion with the enemy. How many children had been executed was difficult to tell. Flesh had melted and run together in glistening pools, bones had blackened and fused, facial features had been erased. The old Vietnamese staggered away from Dan, still jabbering, and thrust his palm in an accusatory gesture at another marine. Then he went to the next and the next, his voice breaking and giving out but his hand still going up to show them the reason for this massacre of the innocents.

Dan backed away from the burned corpses, one hand over his mouth and nose and sickness churning in his stomach.

Captain Aubrey was trying to take charge, [email protected] for someone to shovel dirt over the flames, but his face was pallid and his voice was weak. Dan turned his eyes from the sight, and he saw the young Bostonian with cornflower-blue eyes-Farrow-standing near him, staring fixedly at the fire as the Vietnamese elder thrust the tinfoil airplane into his face. Then Dan had to get away from the smoke before it overcame him, had to get away from the smell of it, but it was everywhere, in his khakis and his hair and in his sidn.

He had to get away from this war and this death, from the mindless killing and the numbing horror, and as he ran into the rice paddies he was sick all over himself but the odor was still in his nostrus and he feared he would smell it for the rest of his life.

He fell down in the wet vegetation and pushed his face into the muck. When he lifted his head, he could still smell the burned meat.

Smoke drifted above him, a dark pall against the sun. Something strained to break loose inside and he was afraid of it. If this thing collapsed, so, too, might the wall of willpower and bravado he'd been sheltering behind every moment, every hour, every day of his tour of The Small Skulls duty. He was a good soldier, he did what he was told and he'd never gone south, never. But With brown mud on his face and black despair in his soul he fought the awful urge to get up and run toward the jungle, toward where they must be watching from the lids of their snake holes, and once there he would squeeze the trigger of his M 16 until his ammo was gone and then they would emerge silently from the shadows and cut him to pieces.

'Never gone south- Never. But he could feel himself trembling on the edge of the abyss, and he gripped handfuls of mud to keep from falling.

The feeling slowly passed. He was all right again. No, not all right, but he would make it. Death and Cruel waste were no strangers in this land. He had seen sights enough to make him wish for blindness, but he had to stand up and keep going her-ause he was a man and a marine and he was there to get the job done. He turned over on his back and watched the smoke drifting, a dark scrawl of senseless inhumanity, a sickening cipher. The wailing in the village behind him seemed to be growing more shrill and louder, a chorus of agony, though Dan clasped his hands to his ears louder louder though he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to neither think nor feel louder louder though he prayed for God to deliver him from this place and there was no answer but the wailing louder and louder and loud"Uk " he said.

He sat up, his face contorted.

"Jesus!" somebody said. A female voice. --you 'bout scared the stew outta me!"

Wailing. He could still hear it. He didn't know where he was, his mind was still hazed with the smoke of Vietnam. It came to him in another few seconds that he was no longer hearing the wailing from the village in his memory. A police Carl he thought as panic streaked through him. He saw a wi and started to get up and hobble toward it, but his joints had tightened and the pain in his skull was excruciating- He sat on the edge of what he realized was a bed, his hands pressed to his temples.

"I've been tryin' to wake you up for five minutes. You were dead to the world. Then all of a sudden you sat up so fast I thought you were goin' right through the wall."

He hardly heard her. He was listening to the siren.

Whatever it was-police car, fire truck, or ambulance-it was moving rapidly away. He rubbed his temples and tried to figure out where he was.

His brain seemed to be locked up, and he was searching desperately for the key.

.'You all right?"

Dan looked up at the girl who stood next to him. The right side of her face was a deep violet-red. A birthmark, terrible in its domination. Arden was her name, he remembered.

Arden Holiday. No. Halliday. He remembered the Cajun Country Truck Stop, a young man in a Hanoi Jones T-shirt, and a baseball bat studded with nails thunking down on the table.

"Brought you a barbecue," she said, and she offered him a grease-stained white sack. "Restaurant's right across the road."

The smell of the charred pork made his stomach lurch. He lowered his head, trying to think through the pain.

"Don't you want it? You must be hungry. Slept all day."

"lust get it away from me." His voice was a husky growl.

"Please."

"Okay, okay. I thought you'd want something' to eat."

She left the room. His memory was coming back to him in bits and pieces, like a puzzle linking together. A pistol shot.

The dying face of Emory Blanchard. Reverend Gwinn and his wife's crullers. The DeCaynes and a shotgun blast tearing the tire of his truck apart. Fifteen thousand dollars reward. Susan and Chad at Basile Park, and her telling him about the cabin in Vermilion. The bounty hunter with the flashlight, and Elvis Presley hollering for Mr.

Murtaugh.

The girl, now. He'd given her a ride to Lafayette to see a man at a nursing home. Mr. Richards, the man's name was.

No, no; it was Jupiter. Old man, talking about somebody called the Bright Girl. Faith healer, down in the swamp.

Take that mark right off your face. You His hands, you gone have to steer her the right direction.

A motel in Lafayette. That's where he was. Slept all day, Arden had said. The sun was still high outside, though. He struggled to focus on his wristwatch's dial, and read the time as eight minutes after four. His cap. Where was his cap? He found it lying on the bed beside him. His shirt was stiff with dried sweat, but there wasn't much he could do about that.

He sat there gathering the strength to stand up. He'd pushed himself yesterday to the limit of his endurance, and now he was going to have to pay the price. His headache was easing somewhat, but his bones throbbed in raw rhythm with his pulse. At last he stood up and staggered into the bathroom, where he caught a glimpse in the mirror of a white, sunken-eyed Halloween mask with a graying beard that couldn't possibly be his face. There was a shower stall, this one thankfully with nO frogs hopping about, and Dan reached in and turned on the cold tap and then put his head under the stream.

"Hey!" Arden had returned. "You decent?"

He just stood there in the downpour, wishing he'd had the sense to lock her out.

"Got something' to show you. Just take a minute."

The sooner he could get rid of her, the better. He turned off the water, found a towel to dry his hair, and walked into the front room.

Arden was sitting in a chair at a round table next to the bed, a map spread out on the tabletop. She still wore her blue jeans, but she'd changed into a fresh beige short-sleeve blouse. "Wow," she said, staring at him. "You really look beat."

He reached back and massaged the cramped muscles of his shoulders.

"I thought I locked that door before I went to sleep. How'd you get mr' "I stood out there knockin'till my knuckles were raw. You wouldn't answer your phone, either. So I got an extra key from the lady at the front desk. I told her we were travelin' together. Look here."

"We're not travelin' together," Dan said. He saw that what she'd spread out was his own Louisiana roadmap, taken from the station wagon.

"Here's LaPierre. See?" She put her finger on a dot where Highway 57 ended at the swamp. "It's about twenty-five miles I south of Houma. Didn't you say you were headed that way?' "I don't know. Did I?"

"Yes. You said you were goin' somewhere south of Houma. Not a whole lot down there, from the looks of the map. Where're you headed?"

He examined the map a little closer. LaPierre was maybe three miles past a town called Chandalac, which was four or five miles past Vermilion. South of LaPierre the map showed nothing but Terrebonne Parish swamp. "I'm not takin' you any farther. You can catch a bus from here."

"Yeah, I guess I could, but I figured since you were goin' that way you'd help me-" "No, " he interrupted. "It's not possible."

She frowned. "Not possible? Why not? You're goin' down there, aren't you?"

"Listen, you don't know me. I could be ... somebody you wouldn't want to be travelin' with."

"What's that mean? You a bank robber or something'?"

Dan eased himself down on the bed again. "I'll give you a ride to the bus station. That's the best I can do."

Arden sat there chewing her bottom lip and studying the map. Then she watched him for a moment as he wedged a pillow beneath his head and closed his eyes. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Depends," he said.

"Somethin' wrong with you? I mean ... are you sick?

You sure don't look healthy, if you don't mind my sayin'."

Dan opened his eyes and peered up at the ceiling tiles.

There was no point in trying to hide it. He said, "Yeah, I'm sick."

"I thought so. What is it? AIDS?"

"Leukemia. Brain tumor. Worn out and at the end of my rope. Take your pick."

She didn't say anything for a while. He heard her folding the map up, or trying to, but road maps once unfolded became stubborn beasts.

Arden cleared her throat. "The Bright Girl's a healer. You heard Jupiter say that, didn't you?"

"I heard an old man callin' me Mr. Richards and talkin' nonsense."

"It's not nonsense!" she answered. "And you bear a resemblance to Mr. Richards. He had a beard and was about Your size. I can see how Jupiter mistook you."

Dan sat up again, his neck painfully tight, and looked at her.

"Listen to me. The way I figure this, you,re tryin' to track down a faith healer-who I don't think even existstO get that mark off your face. If you're goin' on the tall tales Of SOME crazy Old Man, I think you're gonna be real disappointed."

"Jupitees not crazy, and they're not tall tales. The Bright Girl's down there Just because you don't believe it doesn't make it not true."And just because YOu want to believe it doesn't make it true. I don't know anything about you, or what you've been through, but seems to me YOU Ought to be seem' a skin doctor instead of @' to find a faith healer."

"I've seen dermatologists and [email protected] sinc*len." Mden said icilY.."They all told me I've 90t the darkest port-wine stain they ever saw. They can't prounse me they can get it all off, or even half of it off without scarrin' me up. I couldn't afford the cost of the operations, anyway. And you're right about not knowing anything about me.

you sure as hell don't know what it's like to wear this thing on your face every day of your life- people lookin' at You like you're a freak, or some kind of monster not fit to be out in public. when somebody's talkin' to you, they'll try to look everywhere but Your face, and you can tell they're either repulsed or they're feelin'Pity for you. It's a bad-luck sign, is what it is. My own father told me that when I was six years old. Then he left the house for a pack of cigarettes and kept on goin', and my picked up a bottle and didn't lay it down again until it killed her. From then on I was in and out of foster homes and I can tell you none of 'em were paradise. She stopped her mouth tightening into a grim line.

"When I was fifteen, Arden went on after a long pause, "I stole a car. got caught and put on a ranch for -troubled youth' outside San Antonio. Mr. Richards ran it. jupiter worked at the stable, and his wife was a cook. It was a hard place, and if you stepped out of line you earned time in the sweat box. But I got my high school diploma and made it out. If I hadn't I'd probably be dead or in prison by now. I used to help Jupiter with the horses, and he told me stories about the Bright Girl. How she could touch my birthmark and take it away. He told me where he'd grown up, and how everybody down there knew about the Bright Girl." She paused again, her eyes narrowing as she viewed some distant scene inside her head. "Those stories ... they were so real.

So full of light and hope. That's what I need right now. See, things haven't been goin' so good in my life. Lost my job at the Goodyear plant, they laid off almost a whole shift. Had to sell my car. My credit cards were getting' me in trouble, so I put the scissors to 'em. I went to apply for a job at a burger joint, and the fella took one look at my face and said the job was already filled and there wasn't anything comin' open anytime soon. Same thing happened with a couple of other jobs I went lookin' for. I'm behind two months on my rent, and the bill collectors are harkin' after me. See ... what I need is a new start. I need to get rid of my bad luck once and for all. If I can find the Bright Girl and get this thing off my face ...

I could start all over again. That's what I need, and that's why I pulled every cent I've got out of the bank to make this trip. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, I do," Dan said. "I know things are tough, but lookin' for this Bright Girl person's not gonna help you. If there ever was such a woman, she's dead by now." He met Arden's blank stare. "Jupiter said the Bright Girl was livin' in the swamp long before his daddy was a little boy. Right?

So Jupiter said she came to LaPierre when he was a kid. He said she was a young and pretty white girl. Young, he said.

Tell me how that can be."

"I'll tell you." Arden finished refolding the map before she continued. "It's because the Bright Girl never ages."

"Oh, I see." He nodded. "Not only is she a healer, she's found the fountain of youth."

"I didn't say anything about the fountain of youth!"

Anger lightened Arden's eyes but turned the birthmark a The Small Skulls shade darker. "I'm tellin' you what Jup r Th ite told me e Bright Girl doesn't ever get old, she always stays young and pretty!"

"And you believe this?"

"Yes! I do! I-I just do, that's all!

Dan couldn't help but feel sorry for her. "Arden," he said quietly, "you ever heard of something' called folklore? Like stories about Johnny Appleseed, or Paul Bunyan, or ... YOU know, people whore bigger than life. Maybe a long, long time ago there was a faith healer who lived down in that swamp, and after she died she got bigger than life, too, because people didn't want to let her go. So they made up these stories about her, and they passed 'em down to their children. That way she'd never die, and she'd always be young and pretty. See what I'm sayinl?"

"You don't know!" she snapped. "Next thing you,ii be sayin' Jesus was a made-up story, too!"

"Well ' it's your business if you want to go sloggin' through a swamp lookin' for a dead faith healer. I'm not gonna stop you.It "Damn right you're not!" Arden stood up, taking the map with her.

"If I w'as as sick as you are, I'd be hopin' I could find the Bright Girl, too, not sittin' there denyin' her!"

"One thing that'll kill you real quick," he said as she neared the door, "is false hope. You get a little older, you'll understand that."

"I hope I never get that old."

"Hey," Dan said before she could leave. "You want a ride to the bus station, I'll be ready to go after dark."

Arden hesitated with her hand on the doorknob. "How come you don't want to go until dark?" She had to ask another question that had bothered her as well. "And how come you're not even carryin' a change of clothes?"

He thought fast. "Cooler after dark. I don't want my radiator boilin' over. And I've got friends where I'm goin', I wasift't plannin' on stoppin'."

"Uh-huh."

He avoided her eyes because he feared she was starting to see through him. "I'm gonna take a shower and get some food. Not barbecue. You ought to call the bus station and find out where it is."

"Even if I take a bus to Houma, I still have to get down to LaPierre somehow. Listen," she said, determined to try "I'll pay you thirty dollars to take me there. How about it?"

"No."

"How much out of your way can it be?" Desperation had tightened her voice. "I can do some of the drivin' for you.

Besides, I've never been down in there before and ... you know .

. . a girl travelin' alone could get into trouble. That's why I paid Joey to drive me."

"Yeah, he sure took good care of you, all right. I hope you get where you're goin', but I'm sorry. I can't take you."

She @ept staring at him. Something mighty strange was going on, she thought. There was the broken glass in the back of the station wagon, the fact that he was traveling without even a toothbrush, and was it happenstance that he hadn't awakened until a shrieldng siren had gone past the motel? I could be somebody you wouldn't want to be travelin' with, he'd said. What did that mean?

She was making him nervous. He stood up and pulled off his T-shirt. She could see the outline of every rib under his pale skin.

"You want to watch me get naked and take a shower, that's fine with me," Dan said. He began unbuckling the belt of his jeans.

"Okay, I'm leavin'," she decided when he pushed down his zipper.

"My room's right next door, when you get ready." She retreated, and Dan closed the door in her face and turned the latch.

He breathed a sigh of relief. She was starting to wonder about him, that much was clear. He knew he should never have given her a ride; she was a complication he didn't need.

But right now there was nothing to be done but take his shower and try to relax, if he could. Get some food, that would make him feel awhole lot better. He started for the bathroom, but before he got there, curiosity snared him and he turned on the TV and clicked through the channels in search of a local newscast. He found CNN, but it was the financial segment. He switched the set off. Then, after a few seconds of internal debate, he turned it back on again.

Surely he wouldn't have made the national news, but a local broadcast might come on at five and he'd find out if Lafayette had picked up the story. He felt as grimy as a mudflap at a tractor pull, and he went into the bathroom and cranked the shower taps to full blast.

Arden had gone to the office to return the extra key. The small-boned, grandmotherly woman behind the registration desk looked up over her eyeglasses from working a crossword puzzle in the Lafayette newspaper. "Your friend all right?"

"Yeah, he is. He was just extra tired, didn't hear me knockin'."

She laid the key down on the desk. "Could you tell me how to get to the bus station from here?"

"Got a phone book, I'll look up the address." The woman reached a vein-ridged hand into a drawer for the directory.

"Where you plannin' on goin'?"

"To Houma, first. Then on down south."

"Ain't much south of Houma but the bayou. You got relatives down there?"

"No, I'm on my own" "On your own? What about your friend?"

"He's ... goin' somewhere else."

"Lord, I wouldn't go down in that swamp country by myself, that's for gospel!" The woman had her finger on the bus station's address, but first she felt bound to deliver a warning. "All kinda roughnecks and heathens livin' down there, they don't answer to no law but their own. Look right here." She picked up the newspaper's front page and thrust it at Arden. "Headline up top, 'bout the ranger. see it?"

Arden did. It said Terrebonne Ranger Still Missing, and beneath that was a smaller line of type that said Son of Lafayette Councilman Giradoux. A photograph showed a husky, steely-eyed young man wearing a police uniform and a broad-brimmed hat.

"Missin' since Tuesday," the woman told Arden. "@n the big news here all week. He went down in that swamp one too many times, is what he did. Swallowed him up, you can bet on it."

"I'm sorry about that," Arden said, "but it's not gonna stop me from-" And then she did stop, because her gaze had gone to a story at the bottom of the page and a headline that read Second MurderAttributed to Shreveport Fugitive. A photograph was included with this story, too, and the bearded face in it made Arden's heart freeze.

It wasn't the best quality picture, but he was recognizable.

It looked like a mug shot, or a poorly lit snapshot for a driver's license. He was bare headed and unsmiling, and he'd lost twenty pounds or more since the camera had caught him. Beneath the picture was his name: Daniel Lewis Lambert.

"They found his boat," the woman said.

"Huh?" Arden looked up, her insides quaking.

'Jack Giradoux's boat. They found it, but there wasn't hide nor hair of him. I know his folks. They eat breakfast every Saturday mornin' at the Shoneys down the road. They thought that boy hung the moon, and they're gonna take it awful hard."

Arden returned to reading the story. "I'd be mighty careful in that swamp country," the woman urged. "It's bad people can make a parish ranger disappear." She busied herself writing the bus station's address down on a piece of notepad paper.

Arden reft close to passing out as she realized what kind of man Dan Farrow-no, Dan Lambert-really was. Vietnam veteran, had the tattoo of a snake on his right forearm. Shot and killed the loan manager at a bank in Shreveport. Shot and beat to death a man at a motel outside Alexandria and stole his station wagon. "Oh my God," she whispered.

"Pardon?" The woman lifted her silver eyebrows.

Arden said, "This man. He's- "

... the man God sent Miz Arden.

Jupiter had said it. You the man Godprovided to take Miz Arden to the Bright Girl. You His hands, you gone have to steer her the right direction.

No, Dan Lambert was a killer. This newspaper said so.

He'd killed two people, so what was to stop him from killing her if he wanted to? But he was sick, anybody could look at him and tell that. If he wanted to kill her, why hadn't he just pulled off the highway before they'd reached Lafayette?

"You say something'?" the woman asked "I ... yeah. I mean ... I'm not sure."

"Not sure? About what?"

Arden stared at the photograph. The man God sent. She'd wanted to believe that very badly. That there was some cosmic order of things, some undercurrent in motion that had brought her to this time and place. But if Jupiter had been so wrong, then what did that say about his belief in the Bright Girl?

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com

***