Chapter 18


"If I were you, I wouldn't be laughin'. I'd think you'd want to find the Bright Girl as much as I do."

"There's an idea. After she heals me, she can go back to Shreveport with me and raise Emory Blanchard from the dead. Then I can get right back to where I was, beggin' for work."

"@ if you want to. All I'm sayin'is, what would it hurt for you to go with me?"

"It would hurt," he said. "I told you what I think about false hope. If there really was a Bright Girl-which there's not-the only way she could help me is to crank back time and bring the man I killed back to life. Anyway, I said I'd take you to LaPierre, and that's what I'll do but that's all. " "What're you gonna do, dump me out on the street once we get there?"

"No, I'll help you find [email protected] to spend the night." He hoped.

The last motel they'd passed was ten miles behind them in the small town of Houma. Since the woods had closed in on either side of the road, they'd seen the scattered lights of only a few houses. They had left civilization behind, it seemed, and the bittersweet smell of the swamp thickened the air. If worse came to worst and a motel or boardinghouse couldn't be found anywhere near Lapierre, Dan had decided to offer Arden lodging at the cabin and then he'd take her on into town in the morning. But only if nothing else could be found; he didn't like having somebody depending on him, and the sooner she went on her way the better he'd feel about things.

They crossed a long, concrete bridge and suddenly they were passing through the hamlet of Vermilion. It wasnt much, just a few card houses and closed-up stores. The only Place that was lit up with activity was a litae dump called Cootie's Bar, and Dan noted that the four pickup trucks parked around the place all had shotguns or rifles racked in the rear windows. This did not help Dan's hopes of finding a decent motel room for Arden. He had the feeling that a woman alone in this territory could find herself pinned to a pool table, and a man with a fifteen-thousanddollar reward on his head would be torn clean apart. He drove on through Vermilion, luckily attracting the attention of only a couple of dogs who stopped scrapping over a bone to get out of the road.

As they drew away from town, Dan watched the odometer. Susan had said the turnoff to Gary's cabin was three miles past the bridge, on the left. It ought to be coming up any minute now. He didn't plan on stopping there yet, but he wanted to make sure he found it. And then, yes, there it was, a dirt road snaking off to the left into the woods. Good.

Now at least he knew where he'd be resting his head tonight.

He passed the tumor, and neither he nor Arden saw the black Eldorado hidden close by.

!Pelvis was asleep and snoring with Mama sprawled out on his chest when Flint saw headlights approaching. As darkness had fallen, Flint had pulled the car closer up the dirt road to the highway's edge, and he'd kept vigilant watch while Pelvis had drowsed, awakened to prattle about Elvis's pink Cadillac and love of his mother's coconut cakes, and then drowsed again. Flint could have counted on one hand how many cars had passed, and none of them had even slowed at the turnoff to the cabin. This one, though, did slow down, if almost imperceptibly. But it didn't turn, and now here it came on the southbound road. Still, Flint's heartbeat had quickened, and Clint felt the change and responded with a questioning twitch under his brother's sweat-soaked shirt. Flint turned the key in the ignition and switched on the single headlight as the car began to glide past their hiding place.

The beam jabbed out and caught the rust-splotched station wagon.

Flint saw a blond-haired woman sitting in the passenger seat; she glanced toward the light, her eyes squinted, and Flint made out that the entire right side of her face seemed to be covered with an ugly violet bruise. He couldn't see the driver's face, but he saw a head wearing a dark blue baseball cap. Then the station wagon had gone out of the light. Flint's breath hissed between his teeth; it was the same car Lambert had driven out of Basile Park.

He started the engine. Pelvis sat up bleary-eyed and rasped, "Whazhappenin?"

"He's here. Just passed us, goin' south." Flint's voice was calm and quiet, his heart pumping hot blood but his nerves icy. "He didn't turn, but that's him all right. Hold the mutt." He put the engine into gear and eased the Eldorado onto the road, turning right to follow Lambert. The station wagon's taillights were just going around a curve. "There's a woman with him," Flint said as they gained speed. "Could be a hostage. Looks @ he might've beaten her up."

"A hostage? Pelvis said, horrified. His arms were clamped tightly around Mama. "My Lord, what're we gonna do?"

"What we came for." They rounded the curve, and there was the station wagon forty yards ahead. "Hang on," Flint said. His foot pressed down on the accelerator, a cold smile of triumph twisting his mouth. "I'm anna run the sonofabitch off the road."

The light suddenly hitting them had startled Arden as much as it had Dan. "You think that was a trooper?" she asked, her voice shaky as they started into the curve.

"Could've been. We'll find out in a minute."

"He's pullin' out!" She had her head outside the window.

"Comin' after us!"

Dan watched the rearview mirror. No siren yet, no flwhing light.

He kept his speed steady, the needle hanging at rift- There was no need to panic yet. Might've been just somebody parked on a side road getting stoned. No need to panic.

"Here he comes!" Arden yelled. "Pickin' up speed!"

Dan saw the car coming around the curve, closing the distance between them. The car had only one headlight.

One headlight ' A knot the size of a lemon seemed to swell in Dan's throat.

The bounty hunters' black Cadillac had one headlight.

But no, it couldn't be! How the hell would Flint Murtaugh and the Elvis clone have known where he was going? No, it wasn't them. Of course it wasn't.

He heard the roar of their engine.

Arden puned her head in, her eyes wide. "I think he's gonna-"

Ram uv, she was about to say. But then the headlight was glaring into the rearview mirror and the Cadillac was right on their bumper and Dan tried to jerk the station wagon to one side but he was a muscle-twitch too late. The Cadillac banged into their rear with threatening authority, then abruptly backed off again. The station wagon's frame was shivering, but Dan had control of the wheel. Another curve was coming up, and he had to watch where he was going.

The Cadillac leapt forward again with what sounded like an angry snort, and once more banged their rear bumper and then drew back.

"He's tellin' me to pull over!" Dan said above the rush of the wind.

He glanced at the speedometer and saw the needle trembling at sixty.

"Who is it? The police?"

"Uh-uh! Couple of bounty hunters are after me! Damned if I know how they found me, but-" "Comin' fast again!" Arden shouted, gripping onto the seat back.

This time the Cadillac s driver meant business. The knock rattled their bones and almost unhinged Dan's hands from the shuddering wheel.

The Cadillac didn't back away, but instead began shoving the station wagon off the road. Dan put his foot on the brake pedal and the tires shrieked in protest, but the Cadillac was too strong. The station wagon was being inexorably pushed to the roadside, and now somedung clattered and banged under the front axle and the smell of scorched metal came up through the floorboard.

The brake pedal lost its tension and slid @ to the floor, and Dan realized the brakes had just given up the ghost.

Whoever was driving, Murtaugh or the imitation Elvis, they wanted to play rough. Dan was damned if he'd let those two have him without a fight. He lifted his foot from the dead pedal and jammed it down on the accelerator, at the same time twisting the wheel violently away from the roadside. A gout of oil smoke boomed from the exhaust pipe, and the station wagon jumped forward, putting six feet between its crumpled rear bumper and the Cadillac's @.

Dan swerved back and forth across the road, trying to cut their speed and also to keep the Cadillac from shoving them again. They passed what looked like a marina on the right and then the woods closed in once more on both sides of the pavement. A SPEED Limff 45 MPH sign pocked with bullet holes swept past. The Cadillac roared up on them, smack their left rear fender before Dan could jerk the wagon aside. Now the road began a series of tight twists and turns, and it was all Dan could do to keep them from flying off. He dared to look at the speedometer and saw that it too had gone haywire, the needle flipping wildly back and forth across the dial.

"Slow down!" Arden shouted. "You'll wreck us!" He pulled up on the emergency brake, but there was no tension in that either. Whatever had fried underneath the car had burned out the brake system, which probably had been hanging together with spit and chicken wire anyway.

"No brakes!" he answered and then he fought the car around the next sharp curve with the cadillac on his tail, his teeth clenched and his heart pounding. WmmmE To C @c a Wp announced, and they were through a one-block ship of' ed stores in a blast of engine noise and whirlwind of sandy grit. On the other side of Chandelac, the road @tened out and overhead huge oak @ locked b The suddenly veered into the left lane and cavae up beside Dan, and Dan looked into the puffy face of an aged Elvis Presley, who was holding on to his bulldog with one arm and waving him to pull over with the other.

Dan shook his head. The Elvis impersonator said some.

thing to M , probably relaying Dan's answer. Murtaugh then delivered lug next response by slamming the Cadfflw bioadside against the statwn wagon. Arden had been holding back a but the collision of metal knocked it loose. Dan felt the right-side tires slide off the pavement and into the weeds. He had no choice but to hit the accelerator and try to jump ahead of Murtaugh, but the bounty hunter stayed with him. Dan thought they must be going seventy miles an hour, the woods blurting past and the station wagon's engine moaning with fatigue. The road curved to the right, and suddenly there were headlights Coming in the left lane. Murtaugh instantly cut his speed and dnfw back behind Dan, who took the curve on smoking tires. They rocketed past an old Ford crawling north, and as soon as they were out of the curve the Cadillac was banging on Dan's back door gainHe darted a glance at Arden, saw her hunched forward with the pink drawstring bag clenched between her hands. "I told you not to travel with me, didn't I?" he yelled, and then he saw in the rearview mirror the Cadillac trying to pull alongside him. He veered to the left, cutting the bounty hunter off. Murtaugh swung the Cadillac to the right, and again Dan cut him off.

"He's not gonna let you get up there!" Pelvis shouted over the windstorm. -His hair was a molded ebony still life. He saw the swdometer and blanched. "Lord God, Mr. Murtaugh! We're goin' seventy-" "I know how fast!" Flint yelled back. The station wagon's beat-up rear fender was less than ten feet ahead. Lambert had stopped using his brakes. Either the man was crazy, or demonically desperate.

Flint pressed his foot down on the accelerator and the Cadillac's battered front fender again slammed into Lambert's car. This time some serious damage was done: white sparks exploded from underneath the station wagon, a piece of metal coming loose and draOng the concrete.

As Flint let the Eldorado drift back he saw Lambert's left rear tire start shredding apart. "That got ium!" Flint crowed. "He'll have to pull over!"

Within seconds the tire had disintegrated into flying fragments and now the wheel rim was dragging a line of sparks. But Lambert made no move to pull off, and the man's stupid stubbornness infuriated Flint. He twisted the wheel, his knuckles white and Clint's hand seizing at the air, and he veered into the left lane and powered the Eldorado up alongside Lambert to deliver the coup de grace.

Dan saw Murtaugh coming. The big black car was going to knock them into the next parish. His heart had been gripped by a cold fist when he'd felt the rear tire going, but actually the drag was slowing them down. Still, here came Murtaugh up alongside, and what the Cadillac was going to do to them wouldn't be pretty.

He swung the car to the left and bashed the Cadillac so hard he heard the frames of both cars groan in discordant harmony. Murtaugh returned the favor with a broadside blow, and suddenly Dan's door tore off its rusted hinges and fell away. Both cars whammed together in the center of the road, what remained of the station wagon's left side buck;ling inward like a stomped beer can.

. Dan's speed was falling past sixty, the engine making a harsh lug-lug-lugging. He smelled burned rubber and hot metal, and ahead on the road a half-dozen ravens leapt up 'from the roadkill on which they were feasting and scattered with enraged cries. He looked at the dashboard and saw the needle on the water temperature gauge vibrating at the far limit of the red line. Murtaugh hit him again, his own car being reduced to rolling wreckage and steam swirling from the Cadillac's hood, and the impact knocked the station wagon across the right lane onto the shoulder.

Dan heard Arden's breath hitch.

'They hit a sign, black against yellow, that he had only an instant to read before it was crushed down.

IPANGEROus BRIDGE, IOmpH.

With a boom and a burst of escaping steam from 'm the volcanic radiator the hood flew up in front of the windshield. Dan twisted the wheel to get on the pavement again, but the rear end fishtailed out of control. Three seconds later they hit something else that cracked like a pistol shot, and abruptly Dan felt his butt rise up off the seat and he knew with sickening certainty that the station wagon had left the road. Branches and vines whipped at the top of the car, he heard Arden scream again, and his own mouth was opening to cry out when they came down, the station wagon hitting water like a fatman doing a graceless bellyflop. Dan had the sensation of his body being squeezed and then stretched by the impact, his skull banging the roof and bright comets of red light streaking behind his eyes. He heard what sounded like a wall of water crashing against the hood and wind shield, and the engine sizzled and moaned before it began an iron-throated gurgling. Dazed at the quickness of what had happened, his head packed with pain and his consciousnessfiagging,Dan satinthedarknessstillgrippingthesteering wheel.

His feet were submerged. Water had sloshed up through the floorboard and was flooding over the crumpled still where the door had been. He thought the car was sinking, and the terror that swept through him cleared away some of the haze. He turned his head-his neck muscles felt sprained-and made out the girl lying sprawled on the seat.

He couldn't leave her there, and though he thought he was moving as fast as he could, it seemed like a slow-motion nigh ; he got his arms around Arden and pulled her with him out of the car, stepping into knee-deep water bottomed with mud. The girl was a dead weight. Dan lost his footing and splashed down with her. Her face went under, and he turned over on his back to support her so her head was above water.

She didn't struggle or sputter, but she was breathing. The taste of blood was in Dan's mouth. The darkness was closing in again, but he felt a slow current flowing around his body. It came to him that the current, as weak as it might be, must be flowing south to the Gulf, however far away that was. He knew for sure that if he passed out, both of them would drown. The bounty hunters.

Where were they? Somewhere close, that was for sure. He couldn't hesitate any longer. Dan began pushing himself and Arden through the muddy water, giving them up to the current's southward drift.

Corridors and Walls ' "They went olp" Pelvis had yelled. "Smack off the bridge!"

Flint had fought the Eldorado to a stop fifty yards past the wooden bridge. Steam was hissing around the hood, the radiator ready to blow. Mama was barking her head off, Clint was whipping in a frenzy, and Pelvis was yelhng in Flint's ear.

"Shut up! Just shut your mouth!" Flint shouted. He put the car in reverse and started backing to the bridge. The structure, except for the broken railing the station wagon had torn through, was festooned with orange reflectors.

they were still twenty yards from the bridge when the engine shuddered and died, and Flint had to gaide the car off into the weeds on the right side of the road. "Get out!" he told Pelvis, and then he popped open the glove compartment, removed his set of handcuffs and their key, and put them into his suit jacket's inside pocket. He got out, clint's arm still ftffing or(und outside his shirt, then he shrugged into his jacket and unlocked the trunk.

"He never even slowed down, did he?" Pelvis was jabbering.

"Never slowed down, went right-off that bridge like he had wings!"

"Take one of these." Flint had pushed aside a pair of jumPer cables and a toolbox and brought out two red cylinders that were each about twelve inches long.

Pelvis recoiled. "What is that? Dynamite?"

Flint closed the trunk, set one of the cylinders on the hood, and yanked a string attached to the end of the cylinder in his hand. There was a sputter of sparks as the friction fuse ignite,d, and then the cylinder grew a bright red glow that pushed back the night in a fifteen-foot radius and made Pelvis squint. "Safety flare," Flint said. "Don't look at the flame. Take the other one and pull the fuse."

Pelvis did, holding Mama in the crook of his arm. His flare cooked-up a bright green illumination.

"Let's see what we've got." Flint strode toward the snapped [email protected], and Pelvis followed behind.

The bridge was only two feet above water. There was the station wagon, mired to the tops of its wheels and glistening with mud. Flint could see the driver's seat. Lambert wasn't in it. Flint reached into his shirt with his left hand, slid the derringer from its holster, and then switched the gun to his right hand and the flare to his left. He lifted the flare higher, searching for movement. The bridge spanned a channel that was maybe ten or twelve feet wide, with thickets of sharptipped palmettos and other thorny swamp growth protruding from the wateron either side. He saw no dry land out there; neither did he see Lambert or the woman with the bruised face. Leaning over, he shone the flare under the bridge, but Lambert wasn't there either. "Damn it to hell," he said as he eased off the bridge into the morass. He started slogging toward the car, the flare sizzling over his head, and then he stopped and looked back when Pelvis didn't join him. "Are you waitin' for a written invitation?"

"Well ... no sir, but ... my shoes. I mean, they're real blue suede. I paid over a hundred dollars for 'em."

"Tough. Get in here and back me up!"

Pelvis hesitated, his face folded in a frown. He looked down at his shoes and sighed, and then he got a good grip on Mama and stepped into the swamp. He flinched as he felt the mud close over his hound dogs.

His derringer ready, Flint shone the flare into the car.

Water was still filling up the floorboard. He saw something floating in there: Lambert's baseball cap. In the backseat was a suitcase, and the red glare revealed a purse on the passenger side. He said, "Clint! Take!" and pushed the derringer into his brother's hand. Then he leaned in, retrieved the purse and opened it, finding a wallet and a Texas drivers license made out to Arden Halliday with a Fort Worth address. The picture showed the face of a young woman with wavy blond hair. Her face might have been valuable on the freak-show circuit: the left side was pretty enough, but the right side was covered with a dark deformity that must've been a terrible birthmark. In the wallet were no credit cards, but it held a little over a hundred dollars and some change.

"I swear, that's some trick!" Pelvis said, staring at Clint's hand with the derringer in it. "Can he shoot that thing?"

"If I toll him to." Flint slid the license and the money into his jacket, then he returned the wallet to the purse and the purse to the car.

"He can understand you?"

"I've trained him with code words, same as trainin' a dogClint!

Release!" Flint took the derringer as Clint's fingers loosened(L He scanned the swamp while he moved the light around, making the shadows shift.

"Bet you wish he could talk sometimes."

"He'd say he's as sick of me as I am of him. Get your mind back on your business. Lambert couldn't be far away, and he's got the woman with him."

"You think we ought to-" "Hush!" Flint snapped. "Just listen!"

Pelvis, as much as he loved to hear the voice of his idol coming from his own throat, forced himself to be quiet.

Mama began to growl, but Flint gave Pelvis a [email protected] look and Pelvis gently scratched under her chin to silence her. They listened. They could hear the swamp speaking; a drone of insects pulsing like weeping guitars; something calling in the distance with a voice like a handsaw; little muffled grunts, trills, and chatters drifting in the oppressive beat.

And then, at last, a splash.

Flint whispered, "There he is." He moved past the car and stopped again, the water up to his knees. He offered the flare toward the darkness, shards of crimson light glinting off the channel's ripply surface. He could feel a slight current around his legs. Lambert was tired and probably hurt, and he was taking the path of least resistance.

"Hey, Lambert!" Flint shouted. It could've been his imagination, but the swamp seemed to go quiet. "Listen up!" He paused, his ears straining, but Lambert had stopped moving. "It's over! All you're doin' is diggin' yourself a deeper hole! Hear me?" There was no answer, but Flint hadn't expected one yet. "Don't make us come in there after you!"

Dan was crouched down in the water forty yards ahead of the two bounty hunters' flares. He was supporting Arden's head against his shoulder. She hadn't frilly come to, but she must have been waking up because her body had involuntarily spasmed and her right hand, balled into a fist, had jerked up and then splashed down again. Dan didn't recall striking his face on the steering wheel, but his nose reft mashed and blood was trickling from both nostrils. Probably broken, he'd decided; it was all right, he'd survived worse punches.

Pain drummed between his temples and his vision was clouded, and he'd almost blacked out a couple of minutes before but he thought he was past it now. He had backed up as far as he could against the right side of the channel, where gnarly vegetation grew out of the muck.

Something with thorns was stabbing into his shoulder. He waited, breathing hard as he watched the two figures in their overlapping circles of red and green light.

"Show yourself, Lambert!" the one named Murtaugh called. "You don't want to hurt the woman, now, do you?"

He thought of leaving her, but her head might slip under and she'd drown before they reached her. He thought of surrendering, but it had occurred to him that at his back was a wilderness where a man could disappear. It was in his mind @ a fixed star to head south with the current and keep heading south, and sooner or later he would have to reach the Gulf.

Murtaugh said, "Might as well give it up! You're not goin' anywhere!"

The cold arrogance in the man's voice sealed Dan's decision. He was damned if he'd give up to those two money-hungry bastards. He began pushing himself and Arden away from them, the bottom's soft mud suckingat his legs. Arden gave a soft moan, and then water must have gotten in her mouth because her body twitched again and her arms flailed, causing another splash, and then she started coughing and retching.

Murtaugh sloshed two strides forward and threw the flare toward the noise. Dan watched the red light spin up in a high arc, illuminating twisted branches bearded with Spanish moss, and the flare began coming down. There was no hiding from the light; as it bloomed the water red around him, Dan stood up and with the strength of desperation heaved Arden's body over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.

He heard the Elvis impersonator yell, "I see Him." Dan was struggling through the mire when the flare hit the surface behind him.

It kept burning for four seconds more before the chemical fire winked out. He managed only a few steps before his knees gave way and he fell again, dowsing them both, and Arden came up choking and spitting.

In her mind she'd been sixteen again, when she'd lived on the youth ranch. She'd been riding full-out on one of Jupiter's horses, and suddenly the animal had stepped into a gopher hole and staggered and she'd gone flying over his head, the treacherous earth coming up at her as fast as a slap from God. But water, not Texas dust, was in her eyes and mouth now-, she didn't know where she was, though the pain in her head and body told her she'd just been thrown from horseback. A flickering green light floated in the darkness.

She heard a man's voice whisper, "Easy, easy' I've got you!"

and an arm hooked under her chin. She was being pulled through water. There was no strength in her to resist. She reached up to grasp hold of the arm, and she there was something gripped in her right fist and it was vitally important not to let go of it. Then she remembered what it was, and as that came clear, so did the memory of a black-and-yellow sign that said DANGEROUS BRIDGE, I @.

Flint took the flare from Pelvis and bolstered his [email protected] passenger. "He won't get far. Come on." He slogged after their quarry, his shoes weighted with mud.

"Mr. Murtaugh ... we're not followin' him in there, are we.

Flint turned his face, his eyes deep-socketed and his skin a sepulchural shade. "Yes, Eisley, we are. We're gonna rag his tail all night.if we have to. That's the job. YOU wanted an audition, now, by God, you're gonna get it."

"Yes sir, but . . . it's a swamp, Mr. Murtaup-h. I mean ...

you saw those 'Ra ors today, and that big [email protected] of a snake Pt lyin' in the road. What're we gonna do when the light burns out?"

"It'll last half an hour. I give Lambert twenty minutes at most."

He'd considered rushing Lambert, but. decided it was safer to wear him down. Anyway nobody was going to do much rushing in this mud. "I don'@ think he's got a gun, but he must be carryin' some kind of weapon. A knife, maybe. If we crowd him too close, he might get crazy and hurt the girl."

Pelvis's sweat-shiny face was a study of Tupelo torment.

"I don't want to get anybody hurt. Maybe we ought to go find the law and let 'em take it from here."

"Eisley," Flint said gravely, "no bounty hunter worth a shit goes cryin' to the police for help. They hate us, and we don't need them.

We let Lambert get away from us, there goes the fifteen thousand dollars and the girl's life, too, most likely. Now, come on." He started off again, and again stopped when Pelvis didn't follow. Flint nodded. "Well," he said, "I figured it. I knew you were nothin' but a windbag.

You thought it'd be easy, didn't your, "I ... didn't know I was gonna have to wade through a swamp full of 'gators and snakes! I've got Mama to look out for Flint's fuse had been sparking; now, like the flare's, it ignited his charre. "God damn-it!" he shouted, and he sloshed back to @tand face-to-jowls with Pelvis. "You got us in this mess! It was you who couldn't keep your mutt quiet back in the park! It was you who lost the Mace! It's been you who's messed up my rhythm-my life-ever since Smoates a hung you around my neck! You're an insult to me, understand? I'm a professional, I'm not a freak or a clown like you are! I don't give up and quit! Hear me?" His voice ended on a rising, stabbing note.

are was downcast. A drop of Pelvis didn't answer. His f sweat fell from his chin into the quagmire that was almady leaching the blue dye from his mail-order shoes. In his arms, Mama's bulbous eyes stared fixedly at Flint, a low growl rippling in her throat.

Flint's anger turned incandescent. He reached out, if grabbed Mama by the scruff of her neck, and jerked her away from Pelvis. Mama's growling had increased, but her ferocity was a bluff-, she began yelping as Flint reared his arm back to throw her as hard and far as he could.

Pelvis seized Flint's wrist. "Please, Mr. Murtaugh!" he begged.

"Please don't hurt her!"

Flint was a heartbeat away from flinging Mama farther into the swamp, but he looked into Pelvis's eyes and saw a termr there beyond any he'd ever glimpsed. Something about Eisley's face had shattered.

It was like watching an Elvis mask crumble and lying behind it the face of a frightened, simpleminded child.

"She don't mean no harm." The voice was even different now- th him all wa , some of e Memp s huskiness had f en away.

"She's all I got. Please don't!" Flint hesitated, his arm still flung back. Then, just that quickly, his anger began to dissolve and he realized what a mean, petty thing he'd been on the verge of doing.

He thrust the shivering dog back at Pelvis and looked away, the muscles working in his jaw. Pelvis enfolded Mama in his arms. "It's all right, it's all right," he said, speaking to the dog.

"He won't hurt you, it's all right-" Flint turned away and began following the Channel - He felt sick to his stomach, disgusted at himself and at Eisley, too. There was no doubt about it now, the man was making him crack up. Then he heard splmhing behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder and saw Eisley following. It would've been better, Flint thought, if Eisley had gone back to the car and waited.

It would've been better for Eisley to pp leave this ugly, miserable work to somebody who was more suited to it.

Clint's hand rose up and the little fingers stroked at the stubble of beard on his brother's usually [email protected]=ped chin.

Flint swatted Clint's hand away, but it came willfwly up again to feel the hairs. He pinned the hand down against his chest with his right arm, and Clint fought him. It was a silent and internal war, sinewy muscles straining, and Flint felt Clint's head jerk as if trying to tear itself and the malformed lump of tissue and ligaments it was attached to finally and completely free. Flint staggered forward, his mouth a tight line and his eyes set on the darkness yet to be traveled through. A feeling of panic rose up, like Clint's [email protected] hand, and seized his throat. He would never find the clean white mansion of his birth.

Never. He could pore through magazines of splendid estates and drive through the immacWate streets of wealthy enclaves in town after town, but he would never find his home. Never. He was lost, a gentle of breeding cast out on the dirty current, fated to slog through the mud with the Pelvis Eisleys of this world breathing buttermilk breath on the back of his necil It seemed to Flint now, in the spell of this @c, that he'd always been searclung for a way out of one swamp or another: the dismal, humiliating grind of the freak shows, his [email protected] gambling debts, this [email protected] job, and the freak-obsessed lunatic who jerked his strings. His life had been a series of swamps populated with the dregs of the earth. Grinning illiterates had taunted him, [email protected] prostitutes had shrieked and fled when they'd discovered his secret, chiklren had been reduced to fearful tears and later, probably, he'd crept into their nightmares. For a few dirty [email protected] he'd used the brass knuckles on some of Smoates's loan customers, and he couldn't say that from time to time it hadn't been a pleasure using that festering rage inside him to pummel promptness into unfortunate flesh. He had kicked men when they were down. He had broken ribs and noses anded inside at the sound of What was one more swamp to be slogged through, with all that mud already stuck to his shoes?

He had taken a wrong turn somewhere. He had taken many wrong turns. Wasn't there some way out of this filth, back toward the road that led him to the clean white mansion? Dear God of deformities and wretchedness, wasn't there some escape?

He knew the answer, and it made him afraid.

The cards have been dealt. Play or fold, your choice. It's late in the game, very ve?y late, and it seems you're running out of chips.

Play or fold. Your choice.

Flint stopped. He felt the blood burning his face. His mouth opened and out swelled a shout that was bitter anger and pain, w4Dunded pride and feverish determination an bound up and twisted together. At first it was a mangled, inhuman sound that scared Pelvis into believing a wild animal was about to leap at them, and then words exploded out of it: "Lambert! I'll follow you till you drop! Understand?

Until you drop!"

The swamp had hushed again. The sound of Flint's voice rolled away across the wilderness like muffled thunder.

Pelvis stood a distance behind Flint in the green flare light, both his arms clutching Mama close. Slowly, the insect hums and buzzes and strange chattering birdcalls weaved together and grew in volume once more, the dispassionate voice of the swamp telling Flint who was master of this domain. When Flint drew a long, ragged breath and continued wading southward with the sluggish current, Pelvis got his legs moving, too.

Flint held the flare high, his eyes darting from side to side.

Sweat was trickling down his face, his clothes drenched with it.

He heard splashing ahead, but how far, it was hard to say.

The channel took a leftward curve, and suddenly Flint realized the water level had risen three inches above his knees. "Gettin' deeper,"

Pelvis said at about the same time.

"Gettin' deeper for him, too," Flint answered.

The mud gripped their shoes. Pelvis watched the surface for gliding shadows. The air was rank with the odors of wet, rotting vegetation, and breathing it left the sensation of slime accumulating at the back of the throat.

Behind them, the two edges of disturbed darkness the light had passed through first linked tendrils, grew joints, and then silently sealed together again.

Up ahead, barely twenty yards beyond the light's range, Dan was down in the water with Arden. She was fully conscious now, though her vision kept fading in and out, and she could remember everything up until when they'd hit the seaming sign; her bell had been rung hard, a bloody inch4ong gash just past her hairline where her head had glanced off something on the dashboard, a cut inside her mouth, and a bruised chin, courtesy of a flying knee.

Dan could see the blotch of dark wetness in her hair. He figured she might have a concussion, and she was lucky she hadn't smashed her skull. "I want you to stay right here," he whispered. "They'll take you back with 'em."

"No!" She'd spoken too loudly, and he put his finger on her mouth.

"Comin' for you, Lambert!" Murtaugh called. "Nowhere else to run!"

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