Chapter 24


He would have given his left nut-whatever it was worth these days-for a bottle of Tylenol. Strangely, though, it was a relief his running was over. He didn't have to be afraid anymore of what might be coming up behind him. The idea of getting out of the country, he realized now, had always been an illusion.

Sooner or later he would have wound up in handcuffs. He would learn to deal with prison in the time he had left. He was just sorry Arden had gotten mixed up in this.

Dan thought Murtaugh was asleep, but suddenly the bounty hunter shifted on his cot and said, "What the hell made that girl come down here with you, anyway?"

"She believes there's a faith healer livin' in here somewhere.

Called the Bright Girl. She thinks that if she finds the Bright Girl, she can get that birthmark off her.face."

"A faith healer? Like Oral Roberts?"

"A little quieter, I reckon. And poorer, too. I don't believe in such things, myself."

"I don't either. It's a shakedown for the rubes." Carnival talk, he realized as soon as he'd spoken.

"Arden's desperate," Dan said. "She found out who I was, but she still wanted me to bring her down here. She doesn't have any money, no car, nothin'. Lost her job. She's convinced herself that if she finds the Bright Girl and gets that mark off, her bad luck'll be gone, too, and her whole life'll change."

"To you, desperate," Flint said. "To me, that's crazy."

"I guess people have believed stranger things."

Flint was silent. He and Dan suddenly heard a noise like a buzz saw starting up, followed by a swarm of enraged bees trapped in a tin bucket. Pelvis was snoring.

"Yeah, I knew that was comin'," Flint sighed. He shifted again, trying to get comfortable. The heat was squeezing sweat from his pores, and his body was exhausted, but his mind wasn't ready to shut down and let him sleep. "Lambert, where'd you think you were gonna run to?"

"I don't know. anywhere but prison."

"I'm surprised you got as far as you did. You've been all over the TV and newspapers. Is that why you killed the fella at the motel?

Was he about to turn you in?"

"I told you I didn't do that. His wife did."

"Come on, now. You can level with me."

"I didn't kill him, I swear to God."

"Uh-hub," Flint said with a knowing half-smile. ,I've heard that from a lot of guilty bastards." He recalled what Lambert's taste kwon do-loving ex-wife had said in the park: It was self-defense, he's not a cold-blooded killer. Another question came to him that he had to ask.

"Why didn't you shoot me? When you had my gun, and I was on the ground.

Why didn't you just blow my brains out? You didn't want to kill me in front of your family, rightt' "Wrong. I didn't want to kill you, period."

"You should have. If I'd had the gun and you'd been the bounty hunter after my ass, I would've shot you. At least blown away your knees. Didn't you think of that?"

"No."

Flint turned his head to look at Dan, who had his eyes closed. Of the twenty or so felons-mostly bail @rs and small-time criminals, with a couple of real bad @ in the bunch-Flint had tracked over his seven years in the employ of Eddie Smoates, this one was different. There was [email protected] about Lambert he couldn't decipher, and this fact greatly agitated him. If Lambert had just finished killing the man at the motel before he'd come to Basile Pgxk-if he was a "mad dog," as Smoates had said-then he would have had nothing to lose by putting a couple of bullets through Flint's knees, which was the fastest way to keep anybody from chasing after you. And why hadn't Lambert kept the gun?

Why had he been carrying no weapons at all? Why had he brought the girl with him and not planned to use her as a hostage? It just didn't make sense.

It was self-defense, he's not a cold-blooded killer.

Cold-blooded or not, Flint thought, Lambert was a killer.

Maybe Lambert had just snapped or something. Maybe he hadn't gone into that bank wanting to kill anybody, but the fact was that Lambert was worth fifteen thousand dollars and Flint wanted his share of it.

Bottom line.

He listened to Lambert's deep and steady breathing. He thought the man was asleep, but he was going to keep the gun in his hand all night. Though Lambert couldn't get out of that cuff, he might go crazy, try to drag the cot across the space between them and attack Flint. It had happened before. You never knew what set killers off, and the quiet ones were the most dangerous.

Flint closed his eyes. In the other room, Pelvis's snoring had taken on the sonic charm of a cement mixer, and now Mama gave a little yip yip yip in her sleep.

It was going to be pure pleasure to say good riddance to those two. He needed a fat hillbilly and a flea-bitten mutt hanging around him like he needed a fourth arm.

He thought of Pelvis's performance, which had been okay if you liked that kind of low-down caterwauling. He thought of the bartender saying Hell, I'll be his manager, then! Get out of this damn swamp and get rich, I won't never look back.

And then he knew he must be asleep, because he was looking at the clean white mansion of his dreams.

There it was: the beautiful rolling green lawn, the huge [email protected] window, the multiple chimneys. The sight of it thrilled his soul with majestic wonder. It was the mansion of his birth, the clean white mansion that existed somewhere in this land far from the dismal grime of his life. Hebegan to walk across the lawn toward it, but as always he couldn't get any nearer. It always drew away from him no matter how fast or how long he walked. He could hear his shoes-his shining, polished black wingtips-pressing down the velvet blades of grass. He could feel the summer breeze on his face, and see his shadow walking ahead of him. He would have to walk faster. But again the white mansion receded, a beautiful taunt. Inside that mansion lived his mother and father, and if he could only get there, he could ask them to take him in, he could tell them he forgave them for giving him up when he was a three-armed . baby with a fleshy knot on his side that had an extra mouth and set of nostrils in it. He could show them he'd grown up to be a man of taste, of manners and good breeding, and he could tell them he loved them and if they took him in he would promise-he would swear to God-that he would never cause them reason to be ashameBAM!

The explosion blasted Flint out of his dream. As the mansion was swept away in a heartbeat, he sat up with a jolt, his eyes bleary and the derringer held in a white-knuckled grip. His first thought was that Lambert had gone crazy and was trying to ding the cot over to W at him with his free hand.

Dan was sitting up, too, his mind still shocked by the noise that had shattered his deep and dreamless sleep. The handcuff was cutting into his right wrist. He and Flint looked at each other, both of them dazed. Mama had started barking, and Pelvis was making-a sputtering noise as he struggled back to the land of the living.

Suddenly someone came into the room.

"They're in here! Got a gun!" a man shoutecl A figure lunged at Flint. He had no time to think to fire; his arm was seized, a hard blow hit him on the shoulder, and he cried out as pain streaked down to the tips of his fingers.

The derringer was ripped from his hand, and a wiry arm went around his throat. He started thrashing, but the arm squeezed his larynx and took the fight out of him. Another man entered the room-a man in a dirty yellow shirt and blue jeans-and he said, "That's the bastard shot Virgil.

Hey, Doc! In here he i:o."

Al the mention of those names Flint felt panic clutch his heart.

Doc walked in. Sauntered, actually. He was still wearing his Harvard T-shirt, but he had on chinos with patched knees. His round-lensed sunglasses had been exchanged for glasses with clear lenses. Doc grinned, showing his greenish teeth. His long gray-blond hair was pulled back into a [email protected] and with a rubber band. "Gomer says hey," he said. "You men motherfucker, you." He reached out and clamped a hand onto Flint's chin. "Now, you didn't think we were gonna let you hit and run, did you?"

Flint didn't answer, he couldn't, because his lips were crushed together.

Doc's head swiveled. still grinning widely, he looked at Dan and his gaze found the handcuff. '-Well, what's this all about now, huh?

Who're you, friend?"

"Dan Lambert." The haze of weariness hadn't quite cleared yet; everything was still weirdly dreamlike.

"I'm Doc- Pleased to meet ya. Monty, bring ol' Elvis in here with us!" In another few seconds Pelvis was hurled through the doorway and he slammed down to the floor on his hands and knees. Behind him entered a heavyset man with narrowly slit eyes, crew-cut hair, and a bristly brown beard and mustache. The man was holding a snarling and [email protected] Mama by the scruff of her neck. "Look what i got me! he announced.

"Please..." Pelvis's face was stricken with terror, his eyes swollen.

"Please, that's my dog," "No it ain't," Monty said. "It's mine.

"He ain't had a dog since @ week, when he got hungry after midnight." Doc put a combat-booted foot on one of Pelvis's shoulders.

"Down, boy!" he said, and he shoved Pelvis flat to the floor.

"MY ... throat," Flint gasped at the man who had an arm pressed into his larynx. "You're ... crushin, my throat."

"Awwwwww, Our man Flint can't hardly talid Ain't that a bitch?"

Doc shook his head with mock pity. "Best ease up on @."

The arm loosened.

"We wouldn't want to hurt either one of you fine fdw," Doc went on. "Not till we ga a chance to @oo on your balls, I mean. Then we'll get down to some hurtin'."

"What's goin' on?" Dan said. "Who are your, "I'm me. Who are you?"

"I told you. My name's-" "No." Doc put a forefinger against Dan's mouth. "Who are you, as in why are you wearin' a handcuff?"

"Listen," Flint said, and he heard his voice tremble.

"Listen, all right?"

Doc bent toward him and cupped his hands behind his ears.

"There's been a mistake," Flint said.

"Mistake, he says," Doc relayed to the others.

"Fuckin' big mistake" the man in the yellow shirt said.

"You shot a friend of ours. Crippled him. Ain't no good for nothin' now."

"Shhhhhh," Doc whispered. "Let the man weave his noose, Mitch."

If there was ever a time for the truth, this was it. Pinpricks of sweat glistened on Flint's face. He said, "I'm a bounty hunter.

Workin' out of Shreveport. Both of us are." He nodded toward Pelvis.

"The man in handcuff is a wanted killer. Fifteen-thousand-dollar bounty on his head. We followed him down here, and we're takin' him back."

"Oh, first you're an astronaut, now you're Mr.

WantedDead-or-Alive." Doc looked at Dan. "That the truth?"

Dan nodded.

"I can't hearrrrrr youuuuuu!"

"It's true." Dan realized this man was two bricks shy of a load, but what had really set off his alarms was the fact that he'd seen a .45 automatic pushed down into the waistband of the man's chinos at the small of his back The big bearded bastard named Monty had a holster on his hip with a pearl-handled .38 in it, and the man who gripped Flint's throat wore an honest-to-God Ingrain submachine gun on a strap around his left shoulder, the derringer he'd wrenched away from Flint now held in his right hand.

"You killed somebody?" Doc's eyebrows went up.

"Two men," Flint answered. "When we were at the marina ... I was callin' the man I work for. In Shreveport.

to let him know where we were."

"Where you were," Doc said quietly, "was on our territory."

Pelvis had gotten up on his hands and knees once more, his eyes turned tearfully toward the man who held Mama.

"Get down, I said!" Doc's punt cheeks burned red, and he jammed Pelvis to the floor with a boot again. "You stay down until I say you can move! Where's that fuckin' spray you shot me with, now, huh? I'll ram my fist up your fat ass and jerk your pts out, hear me? Hear me?"

"Ye-yes sir." Pelvis's body was starting to shake.

"Where you were," Doc repeated, speaking to Flint in a voice that was eerily calm after his outburst, "Was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay, I admit it! I [email protected] up! Okay? I thought you might've been somebody else. But when this bastard down here hurt me, and you crippled one of my friends, you crossed the line with me. I can't let that pass." He shagged. "It's a hormone thing."

"I thought you were tryin' to kill me!" Flint said. "What was I supposed to do?"

"You were supposed to take what we gave you, @tYAnyhow, if you'd told us who you really were instead of pullin' that smart-ass bullshit, you wouldn't be hip-deep in hell, now, would you?" He held his palm out and wriggled his fingers. "The key."

"What key?"

"To the cuffs. Come on, give it up."

Flint hesitated. Doc smoothly pulled the automatic from Ins waistband, clicked the safety off, and pressed the barrel against Flint's forehead. On the floor Pelvis gave a muffled groan. "Give it up easy," Doc said, his eyes icy behind the glasses, "or I'll take it the hard way. Your choice."

Flint reached into his pocket-"Slowwwwwwly," Doc warned-and he put the key in the man's palm. Doc took two backward MM, turned toward Dan, and slid the key into the cuffs lock. He twisted it and Dan heard the mechanism click open. "Fly free, brother," Doc said.

Dan unlatched the cuff from his wrist. Flint's face had become a blooded study in anguish. "Listen ...

please ... he's worth fifteen thousand dollars."

"Not to me, he's not. Not to any of us." Doc opened the other cuff and gave them and the key to hitch. "See, man, we've all been there. There and back, on the long and twisty road. We don't give a shit for policemen, or jails. Least of all for bounty hunters. On your feet."

The man behind Flint hauled him off the cot. Again Doc placed the automatic's. barrel to his forehead. "Mitch, shake him down."

"Wearin' an empty holster under his right arm," Mitch said as he frisked Flint. "And he's got something' - . . holy Jesse!" Mitch jumped aside as if his hands had been scorched, his eyes wide with shock. "It moved!" He fumbled under his shirt and pulled out a blue-steel revolver.

"It moved? What moved?" Doc tore the front of Flint's suit jacket open.

And they all saw it: a serpentine shape twisting and writhin beneath Flint's shirt.

Doc reached toward him, meaning to rip the shirt open, but before he could do it, Clint pushed free: first the small fingers and hand, followed by the slim, milky-white and hairless arm.

Doc stood very, very still. Everyone in the room was very, very still. Dan was starting to wonder what might've been in that gumbo he'd eaten.

Clint's hand clenched at the air. Flint knew what would happen next; his shirt would be torn right off his back. To prevent that indignity, he undid the rest of the buttons and opened his shirt for them all to have a good look, his face tightening with rage because their eyes had taken on that old familiar glint of ravening fascination he'd suffered so many times before.

"Goddamn!" Doc whispered. "He's a fuckin' freak!"

"My brother Clint." Flint's voice was toneless, dead.

"Born this way. Here's his head. See?" He drew his shirt wider to show them the ' fist-size lump of Clint's eyeless face at his side. "I used to work the carnival circuit. Alive, alive, alive," Flint said, and a dark and terrible grin split his mouth.

"Ain't never seen nothin' like that before," Monty observed. He still held Mama-who'd given up on her snarling but was still kicking to get loose-by the scruff of the neck.

'@n a girl with three tits before, but nothin' like that."

ain't real!" The man who'd gripped Flint's throat and taken away the derringer had backed halfway across the room. "It's a trick!"

"You touch it and find out!" Mitch snapped.

Doc pushed Clint's hand with the automatic's barrel as Flint's insides trembled. Suddenly Clint's fingers closed around the barrel, and Doc gave a quiet laugh. "Farrrr out!"

He carefully worked the pistol's barrel free. "He'd like to see this, wouldn't he? He'd get a rush out of it."

"Damn straight, he would," Monty agreed. "He'd laugh his ass off."

Doc finished the job of frisking Flint, then-satisfied the bounty hunter had no other weapons-he spun the .45 around a finger and pushed it back into his waistband. "Get up, Elvis. We're goin' for a boat ride. Mitch, cuff 'em together."

"Not me! I ain't touchin' that bastard!"

"You pussy." Doc took the handcuffs and snapped Pelvis's left wrist to Flint's right. The key went into a pocket of his chinos.

"Where are you takin' 'em?" Dan asked, standing up from the cot.

"Brother Dan, you really don't want to know. Just call this a gift and let it go at that. Now, if I were in your shoes- He glanced down at them. "I'd steal some new ones. Those are about shot, kemo sabe. But if I were you, I wouldn't stick too long 'round here.

Wouldn't be prudent."

"Can I have my dog, please?" Pelvis sounded close to sobbing.

"Please, can I have her back?"

"I told you, it's my dog now!" Monty rumbled. He held Mama up and shook her. "Have it with some bacon and eggs come daylight."

One second Pelvis was a begging sack of sad flesh; the next second he was a juggernaut, leaping forward, his teeth gritted in a snarl, his unchained hand straining for Monty's throat.

Monty jerked Mama out of Pelvis's reach and hit him, hard and fast, with a scarred fist right in the mouth. Pelvis's head snapped back, his knees giving way, and as he fell he almost dragged Flint down with him. Mitch was laughing a high-pitched giggle, Mama was snarling again, and Doc said, "Get up, Elvis!" He grabbed a handful of pompadour, pulled, and wound up with a wig daioing from his fingers.

"Shit!" he laughed. "This fucker's comin' apart!"

Pelvis was down on his knees, his head bent forward, and drops of blood were dripping on the planks. His back heaved, and now it was Dan's turn to be speared with anguish. He didn't know what to do; he didn't know if there was anything he could do. Flint shot a glare at Dan that said Look what you got us into and then he bent beside Pelvis and said, "Hang on. Just halag on.

"Stand him up, bounty hunter." Doc planted the wig backward on Pelvis's naked pate. "Let's go!"

"Why don't you leave him alone? He's not right in the head, can't you see that7" "Ain't right in the teeth, ya mean," Monty said, and he grunted a laugh.

It was all Flint could do not to go for the bastard's throat himself, but he knew it would do no good. "Come on, stand up," he said. "I'll help you." He had to struggle with Pelvis's weight, but then Pelvis was standing on his own. Flint didn't want to look at the man's face. Some of the blood had dripped onto Clint's fingers and Flint's shirt.

"Out," Doc told them, and Monty gave them a shove toward the back door he'd kicked down. Dan stood, watching them go, the wheels spinning and smoking in his brain.

Doc lingered behind the others. "Either of those men you killed a cop?" he asked.

It made no sense at this precarious point to tell Doc he'd killed only one man, and that by sheer bad luck. "No."

"Next time try for a cop." Doc walked out of the cabin into the dark, whistling a happy tune.

And Dan stood alone.

Crossbones A pounding noise brought Arden up from the slow current of sleep.

She looked out the window. Still dark. What was that noise? Louder, more insistent than the machinery. It took her another few seconds, her head still cloudy, to realize somebody was at the front door.

"Arden! Open up! It's me!"

Dan's voice. She stood up-slowly, a struggle against stiff muscles. When she was on her feet, she had to pause as dizziness made the room spin around her. "Wait!" she called. She limped to the door, then she had to use those same stiff muscles to push the sofa aside. Finally the latch was undone and Dan came in.

His face glistened with sweat, his eyes wild. "What is it?"

she asked. "I thought the bounty hunters had you-" "They're gone.

Somebody came and took 'em away."

"Took 'em away? Where to?"

"I don't know. Takin"em by boat somewhere. Four men.

I haven't seen so much firepower since 'Nam."

"What?"

"The four men. I thought they were gonna shoot 'em right there, but then they saw Murtaugh's arm ... I mean, his brother's arm."

"What are you talkin' about?"

He knew he was sounding as crazy as a broken shutter in a windstorm. He had to calm down, take some deep breaths.

He pressed his fingertips against his temples. "Four men broke into our cabin and took 'em away. To where, I don't know, but the one who was the boss said something' about a boat ride. They were all packin' guns." He started to tell her about Murtaugh's little secret, but he decided she wasn't ready for that yet. "They didn't want me, but they sure as hell marched Murtaugh and Eisley out of there." He looked at his watch. Five-thirteen. "Come on, we've gotta tell somebody about this!"

"Wait a minute," she said. "Just a minute." She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them again, trying to clear some of the cobwebs. Dan saw that sleep had lightened her eyes and that the birthmark had changed color @ like the rough skin of a chameleon, to a deep blue-tinged purple.

"The bounty hunters are gone, rightt' 4-Right."

"Then . . . that means you're free, doesn't it?" She ran a hand through the unruly waves of her hair. Her fingers found the painful, blood-crusted knot where her head hill been banged in the car. "They tried to break your neck, and mine, too. Why should you care about 'em?"

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