Chapter 17


She reft something crumbling inside her, and she feared that when it fell away she would have nothing left to hold her together.

"You still want the address?"

"What?"

"The [email protected] station. You want me to tell you how to get there? It's not far."

The walls were closing in on her. She had to get out of there, had to find a place to think. 'ICon I take this?" She held the newspaper's page so the woman couldn't see Dan's picture.

"Sure, I'm through with it. Don't you want the-I, Arden was already going out the door.

"Guess not," the woman said when the door closed. She'd wanted to ask the girl if that mark on her face hurt, but she'd decided that wouldn't be proper. It was a shame-, that Rirl would've been so pretty if she weren't disfigured ' - But that was life, wasn't it? You had to take the bad with the good, and make the best of it. Still it was a terrible shame.

She turned her attention again to the crossword puzzle.

The next word across was four letters, and its clue was "destiny."

The Truth Dan had stepped out of the shower and was toweling off when he heard someone speak his name.

He looked at the television set. His face-his drivers license picture-was looking back at him from the screen.

He thought he'd been prepared for the shock, but he was wrong; in that instant he felt as if he'd simultaneously taken ,a gut punch and had icy water poured on the back of his neck. The newscaster was talking about the shooting of Emory Blanchard, and the camera showed scenes of policemen at the First Commercial Bank. And then the vision truly became nightmarish, because suddenly a distraught face framed with kinky red curls was talking into a reporter's microphone.

"He went crazy when he found out we knew who he was," Hannah DeCayne was saying. . "Harmon and me tried to stop him, but he was out of his mind. Grabbed the shotgun away from Harmon and blasted him right there in front of me, and then he-oh, dear Lord, it was terrible-then he started beaten' my husband in the head with the gun.

I never saw anybody so wild in my life, there wasn't a thing I could do!"

The camera showed the dismal Hideaway Motor Court in daylight, then focused on the crippled pickup truck. There was a shot of blood on the sandy ground. "DeCayne was pronounced dead early this morning at an Alexandria hospital," the newscaster said.

Dan's knees gave way. He sat down on the edge of the bed, his mouth agape.

"Police believe Lambert may be on his way to Naples, Florida, where his nearest family member lives . . ."

Christ! Dan thought. They'd brought his mother into this thing now!

". - - but there've been reports that Lambert's been seen both in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Repeating what we understand from Alexandria police, Lambert may be traveling under the name Farrow, and he should be considered extremely dangerous. Again, the First Commercial Bank of Shreveport has put a fifteen-thousand.

dollar reward on Lambert, and the number to call with information is 555-9045." The photograph of Dan came up on the screen again.

"Lambert is fortytwo years old, has brown hair and brown eyes and [email protected]"

Dan got up and snapped the TV off. Then he had to sit down once more because his bones reft rubbery and his head was reeling. Anger started boiling up inside him. What kind of damned shit was that woman trying to shovel? No, not trying, she was doing a pretty good job of it, fake tears and all. Dan saw what had happened. The bitch had killed her husband, and who was going to call her a @? He sensed the net starting to close around him. Who would believe he hadn't murdered DeCayne? Pretty soon the newscasts were going to make him out to be a bloodthirsty fiend who killed everybody in his path. With his picture on TV, the reward, the police looking for the station wagon-what chance did he have of getting to Vermilion, much less out of the country?

He clasped his hands to his face. His heart was beating hard, the pulse pounding at his temples. How much farther could he get? Even traveling with the shield of darkness he knew it was only a matter of time now before the law found him. And his time, it seemed, was fast ticking away. Should he try to keep going, or just give it up and call the police?

What was the point of running anymore? There war, no escaping prison; there was no escaping the disease that was .chewing his life away. Gone south, gone south, he thought.

Where could you run to when all roads were blocked?

He didn't know how long he sat there, his eyes squeezed shut and his head bowed, his thoughts scrambling like mice in mazes. There was a tentative knock at the door. Dan didn't say anything. The knock came again, a little louder this time.

"Go away!" he said. It had to be her. Or the police. He'd find out soon enough.

A long silence followed. Then her voice: "I ... want to talk to you for a minute."

"Just go away and leave me alone. Please."

She was silent, and Dan thought she'd gone. But then he heard a rustling at the bottom of the door and something slid under it into the room. It was a newspaper page.

Dan had the feeling that the bad news was about to get worse. He put the towel around his waist, went to the door, and picked up the page. There at the lower right was his picture, the same photo he'd seen on television. Second Murder Attributed to Shreveport Fugitive, the headline read. He reached out, unlatched the door, and pulled it open.

Arden took a backward step, half of her face pale with fear, and she lifted a tire iron she'd taken from the back of the station wagon over her head. "Don't touch me," she said. "I'll knock your head in!"

They stared at each other for a few seconds, like two wary and frightened animals. At last Dan said, "Well, you've got my attention.

What'd you want to talk about?"

"That's you, isn't it? You killed two people?

"It's me," he answered. "But I didn't kill two people. Just the man in Shreveport."

-Oh, is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Right now I don't give a damn what you feel. You're not the one goin' to prison. I guess you've already called the police?"

"Maybe I have," she said. "Maybe I haven't."

"You saw there's fifteen thousand dollars reward on me, didn't you? That ought to be enough to get your birth mark off. See?

This must be your lucky day."

"Don't try to rush me," she warned. "I swear I'll hit you."

"I'm not rushin' anybody. Where am I gonna go wearin' a towel?

You mind if I get dressed before the police get here?"

"I haven't called 'em. Not yet, I mean."

"Well, do what you have to do. I figure I'm through runnin'." He turned his back on her and went to his clothes, which were lying on a chair near the bathroom door.

Arden didn't enter the room. She watched him as he 'dropped the towel and put on his underwear and socks. His body was thin and sinewy, the vertebrae visible down his spine. His muscles looked shrunken and wasted. There was nothing physically threatening about him at all. Arden 'lowered the tire iron, but she didn't cross the threshold. Dan put on his T-shirt and then his jeans. He sat down in the chair to slip his shoes on. "I didn't kill the man in Alexandria,"

he told her. "For what it's worth, his wife did it and she's blamin' me. Yeah, I did steal their station wagon, only because the damn woman shot my pickup truck's tire out. She blasted him with a shotgun, aimin' at me, but when I left there he was still alive. She beat him to death and she's tellin' the police I did it. That's the truth."

Arden swallowed thickly, the fear still fluttering around in her throat. "The paper said you went crazy in a bank. Shot a man dead.

That you're supposed to be armed and dangerous. "

"They got the crazy part right. Bank was repossessin' my truck.

It was the last thing I had left. I got in a fight with a guard, the loan manager pulled a pistol on me, and ... it @just happened. But I'm not armed, and I never was carryin' a gun. I guess I ought to be flattered that they think l' in so dangerous, but they're wrong." He sat back in the chair and put his hands on the armrests. "I meant it about the reward money. Ought to be you who gets it as much as anybody else. You want to go call the law, I'll be right here."

Her common sense told her to go to her room and use the phone there, but she hesitated. "How come you didn't give yourself up after you shot that man?"

"I panicked. Couldn't think straight. But I was tellin' you the truth about the leukemia. The doctors don't give me a whole lot of time, and I don't care to pass it in prison."

"So how come you're just gonna sit there and let me, turn you in?"

"Somebody will, sooner or later. I thought I could get out of the country, but ... there's no use in tryin' to run when your name and face is plastered all over TV and the newspapers. It's just hurtful to my family."

"Your family? You married?"

"Ex-wife. A son. I stopped to see'em in Alexandria, that's why I was stayin' at that damn motel. I was headin' to a place called Vermilion. Cabin down there I was gonna hide in for a while, until I could decide what to do." He shook his head. "No use in it."

Arden didn't know exactly what she'd expected, but this wasn't it.

After she'd digested the newspaper story, she'd gone to the station wagon to search it, looking for a gun.

She'd found the tire iron in the back and in the glove compartment a couple of old receipts-for froglegs, of all things-made out to Hannah DeCayne from the Blue Gulf Restaurant. The hell of this thing was that the fifteen thousand dollars would bail her out of her financial troubles and buy her a car, but after the bills were paid off there still wouldn't be enough left for the plastic surgery. The doctors had told her there would have to be two or more operations, and they couldn't promise what the results would be. But here was fifteen thousand dollars sitting in front of her if she wanted it.

"Go on," Dan said. "Call 'em, I don't care."

"I will. In a minute." She frowned. "If you're so sick, why aren't you in a hospital?"

"Ever set foot in a V.A. hospital? I was in one for a while.

People waitin' to die, hollerin' and cryin' in their sleep. I wasn't gonna lie there and fade away. Besides, most days I could still work. I'm a carpenter. Was, I mean. Listen, are you gonna call the police, or do you want to write my life story?"

-Arden didn't answer. She was thinking Of what it had felt like when she was joy-riding in that car she'd stolen!speeding from nowhere to nowhere, tYing to outrace reality -and the state troopers' car had rDared up behind her with its siren wailing and the bubble light awhirl- She remembered the snap of cuffs on her wrists, and the sharp, dark terror that had pierced her tough fuck-you attitude. She'd had a lot to learn in those days. If it hadn't been for a few people like Mr. Richards and Jupiter and his wife, the lessons would've fallen like seeds on stony ground. Stealing a car was a lot different from committing murder, of course, and maybe Dan Lambert belonged in prison, but Arden wasn't sure she was the one to Put him there.

"One thing I'd like to do for myself," Dan said while she was pondering the situation. He stood up, causing Arden's heart to start thumping again, and he went to the telephone on the table beside his bed. He dialed the operator and asked for directory assistance in Alexandria.

"Whore you callin'?" Arden's knuckles were aching, she was gripping the tire iron so hard.

"I'd like the Police department," he said to the Alexandria operator when the call clicked through. "The main office at City Hall."

"What're you doin'?" Arden asked, incredulous. "Givin' -Yourself up?"

'tQuiet," he told her. He waited until a voice answered.

rg rr di spe @"Alexandria police, Se rant Gil Pa a ne akin'."

"Sergeant, my name is Dan Lambert. I think You people are lookin' for me."

There was no reply, just stunned-or suspicious silence. Then: "Is this a joke?"

"NO joke- Just listen. I didn't kill HarmOn DeCayne. I saw wi gu his 'fe shoot him with that shot n, but when I left there, he was still alive. She must've decided to beat him to death and blame it on me. See what I'm sayinl?"

:"Uh ... I'm ... ho d on just a minuI'l nn t you to-It 1 te I co ec "No!" Dan snapped. "You pass the phone, I'm gone! I'm tellin' you, that woman killed her husband. You check the shotgun for fingerprints, you won't find one of mine on it Will you do that for me?"

"I-I'll have to let you talk to Captain-" "I'm through talkin'."

Dan hung up.

"I can't believe you just did that! Don't you know they'll trace the call?"

"I just wanted to start 'em thinkin'. Maybe they'll check for prints and ask that damn woman some more questions.

Anyway, they don't know it wasn't a local call. There's enough time for you to turn me in."

"Do you want to go to prison? Is that it?"

"No, I don't want to go to prison," Dan said. "But I don't have a whole hell of a lot of choice, do I?"

Arden had to do the next thing; she had to test both herself and him. She took a deep breath, crossed the threshold into his room, and closed the door behind her. She stood with her back against it, the tire iron ready if he jumped at her.

He raised his eyebrows. "Takin' a risk being' in a room alone with me, aren't you?"

"I'm not sure yet. Am I?"

He showed her his palms and eased down on the edge of the bed.

"Whatever's on your mind," he told her, "now's the time to tell me about it."

"All right." She took two steps toward him and stopped again, still testing both her own nerves and his intentions. "I don't want to turn you in. That's not gonna help me."

"Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot of money," he said.

"You could buy yourself-" "I want to find the Bright Girl," Arden went on. "That's why I'm here. Findin'the Bright Girl and getting'this thing off my face is all I'm interested in. Not the money, not why you killed some man in Shreveport." Her intense blue gaze didn't waver.

"I've seen her in my dreams, only I never could tell what she looked like. But I think I'm close to her now, closer than I've ever been. I can't give it up. Not even for fifteen thousand dollars."

"It would pay for an operation, wouldn't it?"

"The doctors can't say for sure they can get it off. They say tryin' to remove it could leave a scar just as bad as the birthmark.

Then where would I be? Maybe war off, if se that's even possible. No, I'm not doin' it that way, not when I'm so close."

"You're not thinkin' straight," Dan said. "The doctors are your best chance. The Bright Girl ... well, you know what I think about that story. "

"I do. it doesn't matter. I want you to drive me to LaPierre."

He grunted. "Now I know you,re Out Of Your mind! Look I who you're talkin' to. I killed a man yesterday. I ve got a stolen car sittin' out in the parkin' lot. You don't know I wouldn't try to kill you if I could, and you're wantin' to travel with me another ninety miles down into the swamp.

Wouldn't you say that might be Pushin' your luck?"

"If You were gonna hurt me, You would've done it 'between here and the truck stop. I believe you about what happened at the motel.

There's not a gun in the car, and You'renotcarryin'one.I'vegota reiron,andlstillthinki ti could outrun you."

"Maybe, but you can't outrun the police. Ever heard of aidin' and abettin' a fugitive?"

"If the police stop us," Arden said, "I'll say I didn't know who you were. No skin off your teeth to tell 'em the same thing.

Dan looked at her long and hard. He figured she ' d had a rough life, and this obsession with the Bright Girl had grown stronger as things had started falling apart- He saw only disappointment ahead for her, but he was in no position to argue. She was right; it was no skin off his teeth. "You sure about this?"

"Yes, I am." The truth was that she hadn't decided he was worth trusting until he'd made the call to Alexandria. Still, she was going to hang on to the tire iron awhile longer.

He stood up and walked toward her. It flashed through her mind to retreat to the door, but she stayed where she was. She knew from experience that once you showed fear to a horse, the animal would never respect you again; she knew it was true with people, too. He reached out for her, and she lifted the tire iron to ward him off.

He stopped. "My cap," he said. "It's on the chair behind YOU."

"Oh." She stepped aside to let him get it.

Dan put his cap on and checked his wristwatch. Five thirty-four.

Outside the window the shadows were lengthening, but it wouldn't be full dark until after seven. "I'll want to travel the back roads," he told her. "A little safer that way, but slower. Less likely to run across a state trooper. I hope. And I'm not gonna jump you, so you can put that thing down." He nodded toward the tool in her hand. When she didn't lower it, he narrowed his eyes and said, "If you don't trust me now, just think how you're gonna feel in a couple of hours when we're out in the dark and there's nobody around for miles."

Arden slowly let her arm fall.

"Okay, good. I'd hate to sneeze and get my brains knocked out.

You got any deodorant?"

'Hub?"

"Deodorant," he repeated. "I need some. And toothpaste or mouthwash, if you've got either of those. Aspirin would help, too."

"In my suitcase. I'll bring it over."

"That's all right, I'll go with you," Dan said, and he saw her stiffen up again. "My room, your room, or the car, what does it matter?" he asked. "Better be certain you want to do this before we get started."

She realized she was going to have to turn her back on him sooner or later. She said, "Come on, then," and she went out the door first, her stomach doing slow flip-flops.

In Arden's bathroom Dan applied ron-on deodorantand he'd never thought the day would come when he'd be using Secret-and then he wet a washcloth, put a glob of Crest on it, and scrubbed his teeth. Arden brought him a small first aid kit that contained a bottle of Tylenol, a tube of skin ointment, some adhesive bandages, and a bottle of 2m IB eYedrOPS- "You must've been a girl scout," Dan said as she shook two aspirin onto his palm.

" Joey always said I missed MY callin', that I should've been a nurse. That's because I took care of the band when they had hangovers or were too strung out to play. Somebody had to be responsible."

Dan swallowed the Tylenol tablets with a glass of water and gave her back the first aid kit. 'll need o get me f t so ood and coffee somewhere. Weld better not stick around here too much longer."

..I'm ready."

'it was six o'clock by the time the bill was paid and they were Pulling away from the motel. Arden kept the tire iron on the seat near her right hand, and Dan decided not to make an issue of it. Not far from the motel Dan turned into a McDonald's and in the drive-through bought three hamburgers, a large order of fries, and a cup of coffee. They sat in the parking lot while he ate, and Dan unfolded the ro-admap and saw that Highway 182 was the route to follow through the towns Of New Iberia, Jeanerette, Baldwin, and on to Morgan City, where Highway 90 would take them deeper into the bayou country to Houma.

"Where're you gonna go?",Arden asked when he'd finished the second burger. "After you take me to LaPierre, I mean. You still gonna try to get out of the country?,"I don't know. Maybe."

"Don't you have any relatives You could go to? Are your -parents still alive?

"Fatliees dead. My mother's a ive, but she's old d I I an don't want to get her messed up in this. It'll be hard enough on her as it is."

"DOES she know about the leukemia?"

"No. It's my problem." He speared her with a glance.

"What do you care, anyway? You hardly know me."

She rugged. "Just interested, I - You're e ri t sh guess th rs killer lever met. .

Dan couldn't suppress a grim smile. "Well, I hope I'm the last one you meet." He offered her his french fries. "Take some."

She accepted a few and crunched them down. "You don't really have anywhere to go, do you?"

"I'll find a place."

Arden nodded vacantly and watched the sun sinking. The Bright Girl-a dream without a face-was on her mind, and if she had to travel with a wanted fugitive to reach that dream, then so be it. She wasn't afraid. Well, maybe a little afraid. But her life had never been easy, and no one had ever given her a free ticket. She had nowhere to go now but toward the Bright Girl, toward what she felt was the hope of healing and a new start.

I know who you are, she recalled Jupiter saying to the killer beside her.

You the man God sent Miz Arden.

She hoped that was true. She wanted to believe with all her heart it was.

Because if Jupiter could be so wrong about Dan Lambert, he could be wrong about the Bright Girl, too.

Dan finished his food and they started off again. Four miles south of Lafayette, they passed a state trooper who'd pulled a kid on a motorcycle over to the roadside. The trooper was occupied writing a ticket and they slid by unnoticed, but it was a few minutes before Arden stopped looking nervously back.

The light was fading. Purple shadows streamed across the road, and on either side there were woods broken by ponds of brackish water from which tree stumps protruded like shattered teeth. The road narrowed. Traffic thinned to an occasional car or pickup truck. A sign on stilts said KEEP YOUR HEART IN ACADIANA OR GET YOUR-there was the crude drawing of a mule's hind end here-out. Spanish moss festooned the trees like antebellum lace, and the mingled odors of wild honeysuckle and Gulf salt drifted on the humid air. As the first stars emerged from the darkening sky, heat lightning began to ripple across the southern horizon.

Dan switched on the headlights and kept an eye on the rearview mirror. The heat lightning's flashes reminded him of the battle zone, with artillery shells landing in the 2m A distance. He had the eerie sensation of traveling on a road that led back into time, back into the wet wilderness of a foreign country where the reptiles thrived and death was a silent shadow. He was afraid of what he might find-or what might find him-there, but it was the only road left for him to go. And like it or not, he had to follow it to its end.

Black Against Yellow It was just after nine o'clock when the station wagon's headlight beams grazed a rust-streaked sign that said V ION 5 MI UAC 12 mi @RRE i 5 mi. "Almost there," Dan said, relief blooming in him like a sweet flower. Arden didn't answer. She'd opened her purse two miles back and taken from it the pink drawstring bag, which she now held in her lap. Her fingers kneaded the bag!s contents, but Arden stared straight ahead along the cone of the lights.

"What's in that thing.?" Dan asked.

"Huh?"

"That bag. What's in it?"

"Nothin' special," she said.

"You're sure rubbin' it like it's something' special-" "It's . . .

just what I carry for good lucl" "Oh, I should've figured." He nodded.

"Anybody who believes in faith healers has to have a good-luck charm or two lyin' around."

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com

***