Shondra gave an ugly snorting sound. "I wasn't even born then."
Doc might have laughed through clenched teeth.
With an effort Flint looked up at the man in the snakeskin boots.
The individual was an exercise junkie. Or a steroid freak.
Or maybe he just loved himself a whole lot. Because the muscles of his exposed chest, shoulders, and arms were massive swollen lumps that strained against the tanned flesh, the connecting veins standing out in blood-pumped relief, the visible ligaments as tight as bundles of piano wire.
The man wore blue jeans with ripped-out knees, a piece of rope for a belt cinching his narrow witist, and he had a red neckerchief tied loosely around his throat. His face was a hard, chiseled slab of brown rock with a dagger-sharp chin and sunken cheeks, the facial flesh cracked with a hundred deep lines caused by what must have been years of serious sun-worship. The pure ebony of his commanding eyes, his U2 thick black brows, and his curly black hair, the sides swirled with gray, gave him a distinctive Latin appearance. Flint guessed his age at late thirties or early forties, but it was difficult to tell since his body was young but his face was sun-wrinkled.
Standing several yards behind him was a blond girl who couldn't have been older than twenty. She was barefoot, wearing denim cutoffs and a black bra. She, too, appeared to be a slave to the sun, because she was burned a darker brown than the man. Her golden hair cascaded over her shoulders and she had icy blue eyes. Flint thought she was almost beautiful, as beautiful as any Hollywood starlet, but there was an ugly, twisted set'to her collagen-plumped lips, and those eyes could burn a hole through metal.
And right now he felt like a little crumpled piece of tin.
The muscle man stared down at Flint with just a hint of interest, as if he might be viewing a particularly creepy insect, but no more than that. Shondra spoke first. "Damn, Gault! Look how white he is!"
Gault motioned at Doc with a twirling forefinger. Doc understood the command and lowered the automatic, then said, "Thin around!" to Pelvis.
Pelvis did, his eyes deep-socketed and his face and bald head still painted with ghastly mud.
"This is the fucker thought he was Elvis Presley," Doc said.
Gault's face remained impassive.
"You know who they are? Bounty hunters. Can you believe it?
From Shreveport. They had a guy in cuffs back there at St. Nasty.
Said at the marina they were calhn, the man they work for. Anyway, they were taidn' their prisoner in to get a reward. I set the guy loose, figured it was my good deed for the month."
Gault's eyes went to Flint and M=ed to Pelvis.
"I thought you'd want to see 'em, 'specially the freak. Do You want me to kill 'em now, or what?"
Gault's jaws tensed; muscles that seemed as big as lemons popped up on his face and then receded again. At UM his mouth opened. His teeth were unnaturatiy white. ',How much," he said in a voice that had no discernible accent but perfect diction, "were they planning on earning as their reward?"
Gault's face settled into stone again. Then, very suddenly, he laughed without smiling. When he did smile, it was a scary thing. He laughed a little louder. "Fifteen thousand!"
he said, obviously finding the figure an object of humor.
"Fifteen thousand dollars, is that all?" He kept laughing, only it became a low and dangerous sound, like a knife being sharpened. He looked at Shondra and laughed, and she started laughing, then he looked at Doc and laughed and Doc started laughing. Pretty soon it was a real laff riot.
Flint, grasping his wounded forearm and blood still oozing through his fingers, said, "Mind tellin' us what the hell's so funny?"
Gault laughed on for a moment longer, then his smile was abruptly eclipsed. He said, "The pitiful amount of cash that a human being will throw his life away in pursuit of" He reached into a pocket of his jeans with his right hand. Flint heard something click like a trigger being cocked, and he steeled himself for the worst. Then Gault's hand emerged holding one of those spring-loaded wrist exercisers, which he began to squeeze over and over again. "If a man should die, he should die for riches, not petty change. Or for forbidden knowledge. That might be worth dying for. But fifteen thousand dollars? Ha." The laugh was very quiet. "I don't think so." Click ... click ... click went the springs.
"I don't know what's goin' on here. I don't care, " Flint said.
"Nobody would've gotten hurt if that goon hadn't tried to drown me in a toilet bowl."
Gault nodded thoughtfully. "Tell me," he said. "You were born the way you are, yes? You had no control over the way your chromosomes came together, or how the cells grew.
You had no control over your genetics, or what quirk back in your family line caused your situation." He paused for emphasis. "No control," he repeated, as if seeing to the heart of Flint's pain. "You must know, better than anyone could, that God set up tides and winds, and sometimes they take you one way and then blow you the other, and you have no control. I think a tide took you to that marina, and a wind blew you here. What's your name again?"
"His name's Murtaugh," Doc said. "The other one's Eisley."
"I didn't ask you." Gault stared fixedly at the Harvard man. "I asked him. Didn't I?"
Doc sod nothing, but he looked stun He pushed the .45 back into his waistband with the air of a petulant child. "My shows are on. You want me, I'll be watchin' my shows." He trudged back along the pier toward the area that was shaded by the blue-and-white-striped awning. As Doc @ her, Shondra wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something bad.
Gault walked to the pier's edge, where Pelvis still stood.
He locked down at what the alligators were whittling to the size of a wallet. His hand worked: click ... click ... click Sinews were standing out in the wrist. "All the [email protected], spilled out," he said. His other hand pressed against Pelvis's chest. Pelvis flinched; the man's fingers seemed cold.
"Monty always was a glutton. Now look how thin he is. You know, You could stand to lose some weight yourself "All right, that's enough." Flint clenched his teeth and tried to stand up. He couldn't make it the first time. He saw Gault grinning at him. Mitch stepped forward and aimed his pistol at Flint's head, but Gault said, "No, no!
Let him alone!"
Flint stood up. Staggered, almost fell again. Then he had his balance. It was time to face ugly reality. "If you're gonna kill us-which I guess you are-then how about doin' it humanely?"
The clicking of the springs had ceased. "Are you begging, Mr.
"No. I'm askin'." He glanced distastefully at the corral.
"A bullet in the head for both Of us, how about that?"
YOU mean you're not going to stall for time? Try to hold out false hope? Or tell me if I let you go you'll never, never, never Speak of this to any soul on earth?"
"It's hot," Flint said. "I'm tired, and I'm about to fall down.
I'm not gonna play games with you."
"Don't care to gamble that I might be in a lenient mood today.?"
Gault lifted his eyebrows.
Flint didn't answer. Don't bite! he told himself. He wants you to bite so he can kick you in the teeth.
"Maybe you're a New Ager?" Gault asked. "You believe in reincarnation, so your death today would be just another rung on the cosmic ladder?"
"I believe in re'carnation," Shondra said. "Gault and me were lovers in ... you know, that old city that got swallowed up in the sea?"
"Atlantis," Gault supplied. He winked quickly at Flint. ,worics every time.vt Flint licked his parched lips. "How about some water for us?"
"Oh, I'm forgetting my manners. I was raised better than that.
Come on, then. rime for my workout anyway.
Shondra, go to the kitchen and get them a pitcher of ice water.
Bring me a protein shake. Chop chop." She hurried off obediently, and then Gault motioned for them to follow and started walking toward the awning-shaded area. Flint was weak from his wound and the heat, but he took hold of Pelvis's elbow. "Hang on, all right?" Pelvis, in a state of shock, allowed Flint to guide him after the clumping snakeskin boots, and the other men, their pistols drawn, followed behind.
"Non, " Train whispered as he lowered the Ruger, "can't get no clean shot off. Wouldn't he'p'em none if I could. We gonna have to move in closer."
Dan's heart was slamming, but his mind was calm. He and Train were standing in the chest-deep water seventy yards from the fenced-in alligator corral, at the edge of where the swamp's vegetation had been hacked away. They had gotten over a barbed-wire fence in the water thirty yards behind them, and their hands were cut up some but they would heal. It had been a difficult slog from the Swift boat; Dan felt his strength ebbing fast, but he had to keep pushing himself onward. His father, the quitter, had not raised a quitter.
They'd come out of the underbrush in time to see Flint and Eisley standing on the pier with men holding guns and the muscular, shirtless "boss" Train had spotted on his last visit there. Dan had seen that both the bounty hunters were covered with mud, Eisley had lost his wig, and an aluminum rowboat floated at the center of the 'gator corral. No telling what they'd been through, but at least they were alive. How long that would be was uncertain. Flint and Eisley had just followed the muscle man toward the house, with the other men-the pistol-bearing "soldiers"-behind them.
"Fella up in that watchtower, leanin' back in his chair readin' a . . . ohhhhh, that naughty fella, him!" Train had aimed the Ruger and was looking through the'scope. "Got a nfle to his side.
Walk'em-talk'em on the floor. Flair of binocs." He took his eye away from the lens. "We gonna have to cross the open, get us around that 'gator pen."
"Might try to circle 'round the house. Get up on the platform in back. You with me?"
"Okay. We go, slow and quiet."
"Hey, Gault!" Doc called from his lounge chair in front of a large color television set on metal casters. "Look what's on Oprah today! Talkin' 'bout crack in the grade schools!"
"Chicago?" Gault didn't look at the screen. He was busy pumping iron: a thirty-pound barbell in each hand, his biceps swelling up, veins, moving under the skin. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his chest and face.
"No, she's in Atlanta this week."
"The Samchuk brothers'll have that market cornered in three years." Gault kept lifting the barbells up and down with the precision of a machine. "If the Jamaicans don't kill them first."
Sitting a few feet away at a wrought-iron table with a blue glass top, a bloody towel pressed to his forearm wound, Flint had a flash of understanding. "Is that what this is about? Drugs?"
"My business," Gault said. "I supply a demand. It's no big thing."
They wein on the platform under the striped awnmgPelvis was sitting across the table from Flint, his hands held to his face. In more chairs arranged around Flint and Pelvis sat Mitch and the two other men with pistols. A waudetalkie and an Ingrain machine gun sat on a white coffee table in front of a sand-mlored sofa, along with copies of House BeautiAl, Vogue, and Soldier of Fortune nes. Flint had seen on closer inspection Gault's own house was not so beautiful; it was a prefabjob, and the swamp's humidity had warped the walls @ damp cardboard. Some of the joints were splitting apart and had been reinforced with strips of duct tape. Click ... click ... click- the sound wasn't coming from Gault's squeezevip, but from the remote control in Doc's hand. In the five minutes they'd been sitting here, Flint had watched Doc almost incessantly going through what must be hundreds of channels brought in by the satellite dish. Doc would pause to watch quick fragments of things like Mexican game shows, "F Troop," "The Outer Limits,"
professional wrestling, infomercials with a manic little Englishman running around a studio selling cleaning products, "The Flintstones,"
NM videos, ranting, wildeyed preachers, soap operas, and then the remote control would click rapidly again like the noise of a feeding IOCUSL At the most, Doc had a seven-second attention span.
Flint eased the towel away from his wound and winced at the sight.
The gash was four inches long, its ragged blue edges in need of fifty or sixty stitches. An inch and a half lower and an artery would have been nicked. Thick blood was still oozing, and he pressed the towel-which Gault had given him from a hamper beside a rack of free weightsback against the wound.
Doc said, "Hey! It's your man, Flinty! Gault, that's the killer I let go!"
Flint looked at the television set. Doc had paused at CNN to watch gas bombs dispelling a prison riot, and on the screen was either a mug shot or driver's license photo of Dan Lambert. "That's him, right?" He turned the volume up with the remote.
bizarre turn i n the case of Daniel Lewis Lambert, who is being sought in the slaying of a Shreveport, Louisiana, bank loan manager and had also been wanted in connection with the death of an Alexandria motel owner.
Under questioning by Alexandria police last night, the slain man's wife admitted it was actually she who had beaten her husband to death."
A mug shot of a sullen4ooking woman with wild red hair came up on the screen. "Hannah DeCayne told police-" "Boring!" Doc changed the channel.
"Wait!" Flint said. "Turn it back!"
"SLTew you." "Star Trek" was on now, Kirk and Spock speaking in dubbed Spanish. "Beam me up, Sccecottie!"
Doc said excitedly, talking to the television set.
Flint figured the remote control in Doc's head never stopped clicking. He stared at the blue glass of the tabletop, this news another little ice pick from God in the back of his neck. If Lambert had been telling the truth about the motel owner, then was the murder at the bank an accident or an act of self-defense? If Lambert was such a mad-dog killer, why hadn't he picked up the pistol and used it at Basile Park? In spite of the situation, in spite of the fact that he knew he and Pelvis were going to die in some excruciating way after Gault finished his workout, Flint had to laugh. He was going to die because he'd gone south hunting a skin who was basically a decent man.
"Something's funny?" Gault asked, his labor ceasing for the moment. . I "Yeah, it is." Flint'laughed again; he reft on the verge of tears, but he laughed anyway. "I think the joke's on me, [email protected], "Who thefuck messed up the kitchen?" Shondra, looking both angry and more than a bit queasy, came through an open sliding glass door, carrying a tray with a plastic pitcher, two paper cups, and frothy brown liquid in a milk-shake glass. She set the tray down between Flint and Pelvis.
"There's all kinda guts and hair in the garbage can, 'bout made me puke! Blood smeared all over the countertop, and somebody left the fryin'pan dirty! Who the hell did it?"
"Monty," Mitch said. Evidently Shondra's wrath was a thing to be feared.
"Well, what'd he fry? A fuckin' polecat?"
"Fellas dog there." Mitch pointed at Pelvis.
"Another one?" Shondra made a disgusted face. "What's wrong with that fool, he's gotta be ratin' dogs and 'coons and polecats?"
"Go ask him, why don't you?" Doc had torn his eyes away from the television. "I'm tryin' to watch 'Dragnet,' if you'll keep it down!"
"You're not watchin' anything, you're just burnin' out that clicker! Gault, why don't you get rid of him? He makes me so nervous, I'm like to jump outta my skin every time he opens that dumb mouth!"
"Yeah?" Doc sneered. "Well, I know the only thing that has to get stuck in your dumb mouth to shut you up! I was with Gault long before you came along, girlie pearlie, and when he throws you out, I'm gonna kick your little ass back to your white-trash trailer!"
"You ... you ... you old man!" Shondra hollered, and she picked up the milk-shake glass and reared her arm back, froth flying.
"No," Gault said quietly, pumping iron again. "Not that."
She slammed the glass down on the tray, her face a pure image of hell, picked up the plastic pitcher, and flung it at Doc, water splashing everywhere.
"Look what she did!" Doc squalled. "She's tryin' to blow the TV out, Gault!"
'And I'm not cleanin' up that damn mess, neither!" she roared at all of them. "I'm not cortin' that damn stinkin' garbage out and getting' that mess on me!" Tears of rage and frustration burst from her eyes. "You hear? I'm not doin' it!" She turned and, sobbing, fled back into the house.
'Your Academy Award's in the mail, baby!" Doc shouted after her.
Gault stopped lifting the barbells and put them on the floor. He looked at Flint, smiled wanly, and said with a shrug of his thick shoulders, "Trouble in paradise." Then he drank half of the protein shake, blotted the sweat from his face with the red neckerchief, and said, "Brian, go take the garbage out and clean the kitchen."
"Why do I have to do it?" Brian had neatly cut light brown hair, wore steel-rimmed glasses, and a chrome-plated revolver sat in a holster at his waist. He looked about as old as a college senior, wearing a sun-faded madras shirt and khaki shorts, black Nikes on his feet.
"Because you're the new boy, and because I say so."
"Heh-heh-heh," giggled the Latino man sitting next to him; he wore a Yosemite Sam T-shirt and dirty jeans, his blue-steel Colt automatic in a black shoulder holster.
"You want to laugh, Carlos, you go laugh while you're moppin' the kitchen floor," Gault said. Carlos started to protest, but Gault gave him a deadly stare. "Move now. " The two men went into the house without another word.
"I wouldn't let that bitch snow me," Doc said.
"Shut up about her." Gault finished his shake. "I wish you two would bury the hatchet."
"Yeah, she'll bury a hatchet in me if I dowt bury one in her first."
"Children, children." Gault shook his head, then he crossed his swollen arms and stared at the two bounty hunters. "Well," he said, "I guess we need to take care of business. What would you think if I'd offer to cut your tongues out and chop your hands off.? Would you rather be dead, or not?" He looked at Clint's arm. "In your case, it would be a triple amputation. How does that sound?"
"I think I might faint with excitement," Flint said. Pelvis was mute, his eyes shiny and unfocused.
"It's the best offer I can make. See, I told you I was in a lenient mood. Doc's the one who screwed things up."
"I'll be glad to cut his tongue out and chop off his hands," Flint said.
Gault didn't smile. "Forbidden-knowledge time: we've been having trouble from a competitor. His name is Victor f Medina. We were trucking some merchandise in crates when we first moved our base here. He found out the route and took it away from us.
So we had to come up with alternative packaging. The stomachs of live alligators do very well."
"I came up with that idea!" Doc announced.
"When Doc saw you making your phone call," Gault went on, "he-unfortunately-lost his composure. He thought you might've been working with Medina, setting up another hijack. Doc doesn't always reason things out. He was stupid, he was wrong, and I apologize. But you put a valuable man out of action. A knee injury like that ...
well, there's no health insurance in this business. A doctor would get very suspicious, and we would have a money leak. So Virgil, like a good horse, was laid to rest and you are to blame. Now Monty is gone.
I have to hire new people, run them through security, train them ...
it's a pain. So." He walked to the coffee table and picked up the Ingrain machine gun. i will make it quick. Stand up."
"Stand us up yourself," Flint told him.
"No problem. Doc? Mitch?"
"Shit!" Doc whined. "'The Flying Nun's just started!"
But he got out of his chair, pulled his gun, and Mitch likewise stood up with a pistol in his hand. Doc hauled Flint to his feet but Mitch struggled with Pelvis and Gault had to help him.
There was fresh sweat on Gault's face. "End of the pier," he said.
Too Damn Hot ("There, we get up," Train said as he waded chest-deep toward a walkway at the rear of the prefabricated ranch house. Dan followed, not mired quite so deeply as Train because of their difference in heights, but he was giving out and he envied Train's rugged strength.
Train slid his rifle up on the walkway, then grabbed the timbers and heaved himself out of the water. He took Dan's Browning and gave him a hand up.
"YOU all right?" Train had seen the dark circles under Dan's eyes, and he knew it had been a rough trek but the other man was fading fast.
"I'll make it."
"You sick, ain't you." Train wasn't asking a question.
"Leukemia," Dan said. "I can't do it like I used to. gh t "Hell, who can?" They were standing about el t fee from the rear entrance, which was a solid wooden door behind a screen door. The rear of the house was featureless except for a few small window. Back here the platform was narrow, but it widened as it continued around the house.
Train looked along the walkway they stood on. Behind them was more swamp and a large green metal incinerator on a Platform fifty feet from the house. "Okay," Train said.
"Look like this the way we go-I, He stopped abruptly. They heard voices from beyond the doors, getting closer. Someone was coming out.
Train pressed his body against the wall ten feet away on the right of the door and Dan stood an equal distance away on the left, their rifles ready. Dan's heart pounded, all the saliva dried up in his mouth.
The inner door opened. "Yeah, but I'm not stayin' in the business that Ion" A young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a madras shirt, and khaki shorts emerged, both arms around a Rubbermaid garbage can. On the side of it were streaks of what looked like blood. "I'm gonna make my cash and get out while I can." He let the outer screen door slam shut at his back and he started walking toward the incinerator, a pistol in a holster at his waist.
Train was thinking whether to rush him and club at him with the rifle's butt or push through the screen door when the young man suddenly stopped.
He was looking down at the walkway. At the water and mud on the planks where they'd pulled themselves up. Then he saw the footprints.
And that, as Dan knew Train would've said, was all she wrote.
He spun around. Sunlight flared on his glasses for an instant.
His mouth was opening, and then he was dropping the garbage can to go for his gun. "Carlos!" he yelled.
"There's somebody out he- "
Train shot him before the pistol could clear leather. The bullet hit him in the center of his chest and he jerked like a marionette and was propelled off the walkway into the water.
A startled Latino face appeared at the screen. The inner door slammed shut. Then: pop pop pop went a pistol from inside, and three bullets punched holes through wood and screen. Train started shooting through the door, burning off four more shells. As Train wrenched the magazine out and pushed another one in, Dan ftred twice more through the punctured doors, and then Train rushed in and with a kick knocked them both off their hinges.
"Gault! Gault!" the man named Carlos shouted. He had overthrown a kitchen table and was crouched behind it, his pistol aimed at the intruders. Train saw the table, and then a bullet knocked wood from the door jamb beside his head and he twisted his body and threw himself against the outside wall again. A second shot cracked, the bullet tearing through the air where Train had stood an instant before.
" @ult! " @as wa I s screaming it now. "They're breakin' in!"
At the sound of the first shot Gault stopped in his snakeskin boots.
He knew what it had been. No doubt.
"Rifle!" Doc said. They were all standing about midway between the awning-shaded area and the alligator corral.
Pop pop pop went a pistol.
"It's Medina!" Mitch shouted. "The bastard's found us! "Shut up!" Gault heard more rifle shots. Carlos was shouting his name from the house. His face like a dark and wrinkled skull, Gault turned around and put the Inp= gun's barrel to Flint's throat.
"Gault!" Carlos cried. "They're breakin' in!"
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