Chapter 21


"I wish you understood." Her voice was calm and controlled.

"If-when-we find her, she can heal you, too."

"Oh, Christ!" He.closed his eyes in exasperation for a few seconds. When he opened them,.Arden was still glowering at him. "You could argue the horns off a billy goat, you know that? There is no Bright Girl, and there never wa.V. It's a made-up story!"

"That's what you say."

He saw no point in going around in circles with her.

"Right, that's what I say," he muttered, and then he concentrated on putting some elbow grease into the paddling. The current seemed to have gotten a little faster, which he thought must be a good sign. He was hungry and thirsty and his headache had returned, pounding with his heartbeat. Dried blood was in his nostrils, he'd lost his [email protected] baseball cap and his muscles-what remained of them, that is-were rapidly wearing out. The water was rising in the bottom of the boat again, and Dan put aside the paddle for a few minutes while he and Arden cupped their hands and bailed. Then he shook off the sleep that was closing in on him and-paddled them down the center of the bayou with slow, smooth strokes. He watched Arden's head droop as she fell asleep sitting up, and then he was alone with the noises of the swamp.

After a while his eyelids became leaden and he couldn't keep them open.

The heat pressed on him, lulling him to sleep. He fought it as hard as he could, but at last his weariness won the battle and his chin slumped.

He jerked his head up, his eyes openingThey had drifted toward the left of the channel and were almost in the branches. Dan steered them toward the center again, and then he heard the sound that had awakened him: a muffled thudding like the heartbeats of a giant. Ahead and to the right, electric lights glinted through the thick woods.

Dan looked at his wristwatch and saw that another hour had elapsed since they'd entered the wider channel.

"What's that noise?" Arden asked, waking up almost as quickly as he had.

"Machinery," he said. "I think we're comin' to something'."

Around the next curve the trees had been chopped away on the right to make room for a hodgepodge of weatherbeaten clapboard structures built on platforms over the water. Electric lights cast their glary circles on a dock where an assortment of motor skiffs and two houseboats were tied up. On the dock were gas pumps and an attendant's shack, also lit up with electricity supplied from a rumbling generator.

Plank walkways connected the buildings, and Dan and Arden saw two men standing in conversation next to the gas pumps and a couple of other men on the walkways. A rusty barge loaded with sections of metal pipe, coils of wire, and other industrial items was anchored past the dock at a concrete pier where a long building with corrupted aluminum walls stood, the legend WAREHOUSE # I painted in red across the building's doorway. Beyond the warehouse loomed oil storage tanks and twelve or more spidery derricks rising up from the swamp. The giant heartbeat-the sound of pumps at work-was coming from that direction.

The entire scene-a large, mechanized oil-pumping station, Dan had realized-was almost surrealistic, emerging as it had from the dark wilderness. As he steered them toward the dock, he saw a pole that held a tired-looking American flag and next to it was a sign on stilts that announced sr. NAsTAsE, LA. HOME swEET HELLHOLE. On the supporting stilts were a number of other directional arrows with such things as NEW 0 NS 52 MI BATON RouGE 76 mi and [email protected] 2o8 mi.

painted on them. One of the men on the dock picked up a line and tossed it to Arden as they approached, then he hauled them in. "Hey there, how you doin'?" theinan asked in a thick Cajun patois. He was a husky, florid-faced gent with a red beard and a sweatstained bandanna wrapped around his skull.

"Tired and hungry," Dan told him as he carefully stood up and helped Arden onto the dock. "Where are we?"

2% "Fella wanna know where he am," the Cajun said to other man, and both of them laughed. "Friend, you must in some sad shape!"

Dan stepped onto the timbers, his spine unkinking. "I mean how far from here to the Gulf?"

"Oh, blue water'bout tree mile." He motioned south with a crusty thumb. His gaze lingered on Arden's birthmark for a few seconds, then he diverted his attention to the waterlogged skiff. "I seen some crackass boats before, but that'un done win the prize! Where ya'll come from?"

"North," Dan said. "Anyplace to get some food herer "Yeah, cafe's over there." The second man, who spoke with a flat midwestern accent, nodded in the direction of the clapboard buildings. He was slimmer than his companion, wore a'grease-stained brown cap with a red GSP on the front-a company logo, Dan figured-and had tattoos intertwining all over his arms. "They got gumbo Emd hamburgers tonight. Ain't too bad if you wash 'em down with enough beer."

A door on one of the houseboats opened, and another man emerged, buckling the belt of his blue jeans. He wore a company cap turned backward. Behind him, tape-recorded rock music rumbled through the doorway and then a woman with bleached-blond hair and a hard, sunburned face peered out. "Okay!" she said with forced cheerfulness.

-All-night party, boys! Who's next?"

"I believe I am." The man with tattooed arms sauntered toward the houseboat.

"Non, mon ami. " The Cajun stepped forward, seized his companion by shirt back and pants seat, and, [email protected] lifted him off his feet and flung him from the dock. With a curse and squall the unfortunate flyer hit the water and slummed its surface like a powerboat before he went under.

"I believe you was!" the Cajun hollered as his friend came up spitting. "Hey, Lorraine!" he greeted the bleached blonde. "You got sweets for me?"

"You know I do Tully. Get your big al' ass in here." She narrowed her eyes'at Arden. "New chickie, huh?" She gave a throaty laugh. "You gonna need a little makeup, darrin'.

Well, good luck to you." TulIy lumbered into the houseboat, and Lorraine closed the door behind them.

It was time to move on. Dan ventured along one of the walkways, heading toward the buildings, and Arden followed close behind. The place made Dan think of a Wild West frontier town, except it had been built up from the muck instead of being carved from the desert. It was a carpenter's nightmare, the structures cobbled together with pressure-treated pineboards and capped by rusted tin roofs.

Electrical cables snaked from building to building, carrying the juice from generator The walkways were so close to the water that in some places reeds stuck up between the planks.

There was a store whose sign announced it as R.J'S GROCERY and next to it was a little narrow structure marked sr. NAnAsE posr oFRcE. A Laundromat with three washers and dryers and two pool tables was lit up and doing business. Dan noted that the men they saw gazed hungrily at Arden's body, but when they looked at her face they averted their eyes as quickly as Tully had.

St. Nastase, Dan had realized, most likely never closed down, to accommodate the crews who were off shift. Dan figured that the men here had siped on with the company for three or four months at a stretch, which meant prostitutes in houseboau could make some money plying their trade. It occurred to him that Lorraine had thought Arden was a "new chickie" because the only women who dared to go there were selling sex, and he was unaware of it but Arden had come to the same conclusions about ten seconds ahead of him.

In another moment they heard the mingled music of a fiddle and an accordion. The smell of food caught their nostrils. Ahead was a building with a sign that said simply cAn. The place had a pair of batwing doors, like a western saloon. The music was coming from within, accompanied now by whoops and hollers. Dan figured this could be a hell of a rowdy joint, and again he wished Arden wasn't around because he was going to have to be responsible for her safety.

He said, "Stick close to me," and then Arden followed him a.

through the batwings, her right hand clenching the pink drawstring bag.

The cafe was dimly lit, blue-hazed with cigarette smoke, and at the ceiling a fan chugpd around in a futile attempt to circulate the humid, sweat-smelling air. Hanging from the ceiling as well were maybe three hundred old, dirty brown caps with red GSP logos. At rough plank tabla sat twenty or more men, a few of them clapping their hands in time with the jerky, mucous music, while four of their fellows danced with ladies of the evening. The fiddler and accordionist both wore company caps, and a thick-shouldered black men got up from his table, sat down at a battered old piano, and began to beat out a rhythm that added to the merry clamor.

Some of the men glanced eagerly at Arden, but they looked away when Dan put'his arm around her shoulders.

He guided her toward a bar where metal beer @, canned soft drinks, and bottles of water were on display. Behind it, a horned-looking man with glasses, a beard, and slicked-back dark hair was drawing beer into mugs, sweat stains on ins red-chocked shirt and a cigar stub gripped between his teeth.

"Can we get [email protected]' to eat?" Dan asked over the noise, and the bartender said, "Burgers a buck apiece, gumbo two bucks a bowl. Take the gumbo, the burgers taste @ dog meat."

They both decided on the gumbo, wtuch the bartender ladled from a grease-filmed pot into plastic bowls. Arden asked for a bottle of water and Dan requested a beer, and as the bartender shoved trays and plastic spoons wrapped in cellophane at them, Dan said, "I'm @, to get this girl out of here. Is there a road anywhere nearbyr, "A road?" He snorted, and the tip of his cigar glowed red.

"Ain't no roads outta St. Nasty. Just water and mud. She a workin' girl?"

"No. We're passin' through."

The bartender stared at Dan, his eyes slightly magnified by the @ and he removed the cigar from his mouth.

"Passin' through," he @ted incrediflously. "Now I've heard it all. Ain't no man comes here unless he's drawin'pay from Gulf States Petro, and no woman unless she's tryin' to get a man to spend it on her. Which insane asylum did ya'll get loose from?"

"We had an accident. Went off a bridge north of UPierre.

We got a boat, and-" Dan stopped, because the bartender's eyes had gotten larger. "Look, we're just tryin' to get out. Can you helpr us?"

"Supply boat from Grand Isle oughta be here tomorrow afternoon.

I'd say you could hitch a ride with one of these ladies, but they'll be stayin' the weekend. Today was payday, see. Fridays and Saturdays, all these sumbitches wanna do is get drunk and screw wheu their shifts are over." He pushed the cigar stub back into his mouth. "You come all the way from LaPierre? Jesus, that's a hell of a hike!"

"Hey, Burt!" a man yelled. "Let's have our beers over here!"

"Your legs ain't broke!" Burt hollered back. "Get off your ass and come get 'em, I ain't no slave!" He returned his attention to Dan.

"An accident, huh? You want to call somebody? I got a radio-telephone in the back."

"I'm lookin' for a woman,". Arden said suddenly. "The Bright Girl. Have you ever heard of her.9" "Nope," Burt replied. A man with a prostitute in tow came up to get his beers. "Should I have?"

"The Bright Girl's a healer. She lives in the swamp somewhere, and I'm tryin' to-" "Arden?" Dan caught hold of her elbow. "I told you to stop that, didn't I?"

She pulled loose. "I've come a long way to find her," she said to Burt, and she heard the sharp, rising edge of desperation in her voice.

Burt's eyes were blank, no idea of what she was talking about at all.

Arden felt panic building inside her like a dark wave. "The Bright Girl is here, somewhere," she said. "I'm gonna find her. I'm not leavin' here until I find her."

Burt took in the birthmark and looked at Dan. "Like I asked before, what asylum did ya'll bust out of?"

"I'm not crazy," Arden went on. "The Bright Girl's real. I know she is. Somebody here has to have heard of her."

"Sorry," Burt said. "I don't know who you're talkin'a-" "I know that name. Is Arden turned her head to the left. The prostitute who stood with the beer-swiller had spoken in a nasal drawl. She was a slight, rawboned girl wearing denim shorts and a faded orange blouse.

Maybe she was in her early twenties, but her high-cheekboned, buck-toothed face had been @ maturely aged by scorching sun and harsh salt wind. Lines were starting to deepen around her mouth and at the corners of her dull, chocolate-brown eyes, and her peroxided hair cut in bangs across her forehead hung lifelessly around her bony shoulders.

She stared with genuine interest at Arden's birthmark as her escort paid for two beers. "Jeez," she said.

"You got fucked up awful bad, didn't ya?"

"Yes." Arden's heart was pounding, and for a few seconds she felt on the verge of fainting. She said the edge of the bar with her free hand. "You've heard of the Bright Girlr' "Uh-huh." The prostitute began to dig at a molar with a toothpick. "Woman who healed people.

Used to hear 'bout her when I was a little girl."

.'Do you know where she is?"

"Yeah," came the answer, "I do."

As Dan and Arcten had been- walking into the cafe, the man who'd just gone for an unwilling swim sat on the dock in a puddle of water, watching another boat approach.

There were two men in the boat. He couldn't quite trust his eyes.

The man who was paddling wore a dark suit and a white shirt, which was not quite the normal attire out here at St. Nasty. The second man-well, maybe it was time to swear off the beers, because that sonofabitch Burt must be mixing the brew with toxic waste.

When the boat bumped broadside against the dock, Flint stood up and stepped out. His mud-grimed suit jacket was buttoned up over his dirty shirt, the pale flesh of his face mottled with red mosquito bites, his eyes sunken in weary purple hollows. He stared at the battered and water-filled skiff tied upjust beside them, a single broken paddle lying in it. Nobody would've traveled in that damn thing unless they'd been forced to, he reasoned. "How long have you been sittin' here?" he asked the drenched man, who was watching Pelvis clamber out of the boat with Mama.

"You gotta be kiddin!" the man said, unable to take his eyes off Pelvis. "What is this, Candid Camera?"

"Hey, listen up!" Flint demanded, his patience at its bitter end.

Clint-who was equally as tired and crankyjerked under his shirt, and Flint put an arm across his chest to hold his brother down. "I'm looking for a man and a woman. Shouldn't have been too long since they got here."

He nodded at the sinking boat. "Did you see who that belongs to?"

"Yeah, they're here. Sent 'em over to the cafe." -He couldn't help but stare at Pelvis. "I know we're hurtin' for entertainment 'round here, but please don't tell me you're on the payroll."

"Where's the cafe? Which direction?"

"Only one direction, unless you can walk on water.

Scratch that," he decided, and he motioned at Pelvis with his thumb. "Maybe he can walk on water."

Flint started off toward the clapboard buildings, and Pelvis followed, leaving the man on the dock wondering what the next boat might bring. Others they passed stopped to gawk at Pelvis as well, and he started drawing catcalls and laughter. "Hey!" Flint called to two men @ding in the shadows next to the Laundromat/poolroom. "The cafe around here?"

One of them pointed the way, and Flint and Pelvis went on. Flint reached into his pocket and put his hand on the derringers grip.

"Who the hell are they?" the man who'd pointed asked his friend.

The second man, who had a long, vulpine face and close-cropped brown hair, ran his tongue across his lower lip. He wore faded jeans and a dirty yellow shirt with the tail hanging out, and the sweat on his flesh stitl smelled of swamp mud and alhptors. "Friends of Doc's,' he said quietly. "I believe he'd like to see 'em again. Here." He slid a small packet of white powder into the other man's hand.

"Keep your money. Just do me a favor and watch those two.

All right?"

"Sure, Mitch. Whatever."

"Good boy." Mitch, who still had the pistol he'd fired at Flint in his waistband, turned away and hurried to his motorboat, his mouth split by a savage grin.

The King Bled Crimson "Yeah," came the prostitute's answer. "I do." She continued to probe with the toothpick as Arden's nerves stretched.

"Dead. Must be dead by now. She was old, lived in a church on Goat Island."

"That's bull!" Burt said. "Ain't nobody ever lived on Goat Island!"

"Was a church there!" the prostitute insisted. "Blew down in a hurricane, back fifteen or twenty years! The Bright Girl was a nun fell in love with a priest, so they threw her out of her convent and she come down here and built a church to repent! That's what my mama said!"

"Angle, you didn't have no mama!" Burt winked at the girl's customer. "She was hatched, wasn't she, Cal?"

"Right out of a buzzard's egg," Cal agreed, his voice slurred by one too many brews.

Angle jabbed an elbow into Cal's ribs. "You don't know nothin', fool!"

Arden tried to speak, but her throat had seized up. The word dead was still ringing in her head like a funeral bell.

"Goat Island," she managed. "Where is it?"

"Don't do this," Dan warned, but he knew there was no stopping her.

"Way the hell out in Terrebonne Bay," Burt said. "Good ten miles from here. Got wild goats runnin' all over it, but there sure ain't never been no church out there."

"My mama wasn't no liar!" Angle snapped. "Youw even born 'round here, how do you know?"

"I been huntin' on Goat Island before! Walked the length and width of it! if there'd ever been a church there, I think I would've seen some ruins!"

"Miss?" Dan said to the prostitute. "You say the Bright Girl was an old woman?"

"Yeah. My mama said she seen her when she was a little girl.

Came to Port Fourchon to see my mama's cousin. His name was Pearly, he was seven years old when he got burned up in a fire. Mama said the Bright Girl was crippled and walked with a white cane. I reckon that was"-she paused to calculate-"near thirty years ago."

"Uh-huh." Dan felt Arden's body tensing beside him.

But he decided he had to go the next step, too. "What about Pearly'.? Did your mama say the Bright Girl healed him?"

"No, I recollect she said the Bright Girl took him with her in a boat."

I.To where?"

"Goat Island, I reckon. She never saw Pearly no more, though.

Mama said she figured he was too bad off for even the Bright Girl to heal. But that was all right, 'cause the Bright Girl made sure he wasn't scairt when he went to heaven."

"Come on, baby!" Cal grabbed Angie's thin arm and tugged at her.

"Let's dance!"

"Wait! Please!" Arden's anguished voice cut to Dan's heart. "Is she buried out there? Have you seen her grave?'; "No, I ain't seen her grave. But she's dead. Got to be dead after all this time."

"But you don't know for sure, do you? You're not certain she's dead?"

The prostitute stared at Arden for a few seconds and then pulled free of Cal's hand. "I'm certain as I need to be," she said.

"Ohhhhh." She nodded as things came clear to her.

"Ohhhhh, I see. You was lookin' for the Bright Girl to heal your face. Is that right?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry, then. Far as I know, she's dead. I don't know where she's buried. I can ask some of the other girls. Most of lem were born 'round here, maybe they'd know."

"Let's dance!" Cal yawped. "Forget this shit!" Both women ignored him. "I'd like to see the church," Arden said. "Can you take me?"

"No, I can't. See, I would, but I don't have my own boat.

It's Lorraine's boat, and she don't take it nowhere but between here and Grand Isle."

"Hey, listen up, scarface!" Cal slurred at Arden, his voice turning nasty. "I'm rentin' this bitch by the fuckin' hour, understand?

I don't have no time to waste-" "Come over here a minute." Dan reached out, grasped Cal's wrist, and drew him closer, beer slopping to the floor from the mug in the man's hand. Dan's face was strained with anger, his eyes hard and shiny. "The ladies are talkin'."

"Mister, you let go of me or I'm gonna have to knock the shit outta your ears!"

.'No fightin' in here!" Burt warned. "You wanna fight, get out back!"

"You're drunk, friend." Dan kept his face close to Cal's, his arm low across the man's body so the beer mug wouldn't come up and smash him in the teeth. "Don't let your mouth get you in trouble."

"It's all right," Arden said. The remark wasn't anything she hadn't heard before. "Really it is."

She suddenly caught a strong whiff of body odor and swamp mud.

Someone wearing a dark suit stepped between her and Dan. She thought of vulture wings sweeping onto a dying jackrabbit.

"Lambert?" A quiet voice spoke in Dan's ear. At the same time, Dan felt the little barrel of a gun press against his ribs.

"The game's over."

Dan jerked his head around and looked into the pallid face he'd seen by the flashlight's glare in Basile Park, only now it was blotched with mosquito bites. His heart jumped and fluttered like a trapped bird.

Flint said, "Take it very, very easy. Nobody needs to get hurt.

Okay?"

2N ik Beyond Murtaugh, Dan saw, [email protected] the Elvis Presley impersonator holding his squirming bulldog. The music had faltered and ended on a soawked note from the squeezebox. 'The Presley clone *as suddenly the center of attention, and he started drawing whistles and laughter.

Flint glanced quickly at the girl and saw that what he'd thought was a massive bruise was in fact a deep violet birthmark. "You all right, Miss Halliday?"

"I'm fine. Who are-" $he realized then who it must be, and that he'd looked through her purse back where they'd gone off the bridge. / "My name is Flint Murtaugh. Fella," he said to Cal, "why don't you take your beer and move along?"

"I was fixin' @ whip this bastard's ass," Cal answered, unsteady on his feet.

"I'll take care of him from here on out."

"Anytime, anywhere, anyplace!" Cal sneered in Dan's face, and then he grabbed Angie's arm again and jerked her onto the dance floor with him- "Well, shit a brick!" he hollerrd at the musicians. "How 'bout some goddamn playin'?"

The fiddler started up again, then the accordionist and the piano pounder joined in. Men were still laughing and gawking at Pelvis, who was trying his best to stand there and appear oblivious to the @ty.

His wig had started to slip, its glue weakened by the swamp water, and he reached up with a quick hand and straightened it.

"What the hell is that?" Burt grinned around his cigar stub. He hadn't seen the derringer Flint pressed against Dan's side, which was how Flint wanted it. "Is it animal, veg'table or mineral?" He spouted smoke and looked at Flint. "I swear to God, this is turnin' out to be a circus!

Where'd ya'll come from?"

"We're with this fella hero," Flint answered. "Just got left behind a little ways."

"Your friend's dressed up for Halloween early, ain't her' .'He's a big Elvis fan. Don't worry about him, he's harmless."

"Maybe so, but these sumbitches in here sure smell blood.

Listen to 'em howlin'!" He moved away down the bar to draw a beer for another customer.

"Hey, Elvis!" somebody yelled. "Get up there and shake that fat ass, man!"

"Give us a song, Elvis!" another one called.

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