"Hell, fightin's fightin'. Jungle or desert, what's the difference?"
The pain was getting bad now. Dan's guts were clenched up. "A lot," he said. "In the desert you can see who's shootin' at you." His gaze ticked to the Lucite cube that held the plastic flag. Something small was stamped on its lower left corner. Three words. He leaned forward to read them.
Made in China.
"Health problem," Blanchard said.
"What?" "Health problem. Says so right here. What's your health problem, Mr. Lambert?"
Dan remained silent.
Blanchard turned around. "You sick, or not?"
Dan put one hand up against his forehead. Oh, Jesus, he thought.
To have to bare himself before a stranger this way was almost too much for him.
"You aren't on drugs, are you?" Blanchard's voice had taken on a cutting edge. "We could've cleaned house over there if so many of you fellas hadn't been on drugs."
Dan looked into Blanchard's sweating, heat-puffed face. A jolt of true rage twisted him inside, but he jammed it back down again, where it had been drowsing so long. He in that moment that Blanchard was the kind of man who enjoyed kicking a body when it was beaten. He leaned toward Blanchard's desk, and slowly he pulled himself out of the black leather chair. "No, sir," he said tersely, "I'm not on drugs. But yeah, I am sick. If you really want to know, I'll tell you."
"I've got leukemia," Dan said. "It's a slow kind, and some days I feel just fine. Other days I can hardly get out of bed.
I've got a tumor the size of a walnut right about here." He tapped the left side of his forehead. "The doctor says he can operate, but because of where the tumor lies I might lose the feelin' on my right side. Now, what kind of carpenter would I be if I couldn't use my right hand or leg.?"
"I'm sorry to hear that, but-" "I'm not finished," Dan said, and Blanchard was quiet"You wanted to know what was wrong with me, you oughta have the manners to hear the whole story." Blanchard chose that moment to glance at the gold Rolex watch on his wrist, and Dan came very close to reaching across the desk and grabbing him by his yellow necktie. "I want to tell you about a soldier." Dan's voice was roughened by the sandpaper of raw emotion. "He was a kid, really. The kind of kid who always did what he was told. He drew duty in a sector of jungle that hid an enemy supply route. And it was always rainin' on that jungle. It was always drippin' wet, and the ground stayed muddy.
It was a silver rain. Sometimes it fell right out of a clear blue sky, and afterward the jungle smelled like flowers gone over to rot. The silver rain fell in torrents, and this young soldier got drenched by it day after day. It was slick and oily, like grease off the bottom of a fryin' pan. There was no way to get it off the skin, and the heat and the steam just cooked it in deeper." Dan drew up a tight, terrible smile. "He asked his platoon leader about it.
His platoon leader said it was harmless, unless you were a tree or a vine. Said you could bathe in it and you'd be all right, but if you dipped a blade of sawgrass in it, that sawgrass would blotch up brown and crispy as quick as you please. Said it was to clear the jungle so we could find the supply route. And this young soldier ... you know what he did?"
"No," Blanchard said.
"He went back out in that jungle again. Back out in that dirty rain, whenever they told him to. He could see the jungle dyin'. All of it was shrivelin' away, being' burned up without fire. He didn't feel right about it because he knew a chemical as strong as that had to be bad for skin and bones.
He knew it. But he was a good soldier, and he was proud to fight for his country. Do you see?"
"I think so. Agent Orange?"
"It could kill a jungle in a week," Dan said. "What it could do to a man didn't show up until a long time later.
That's what being' a good soldier did to me, Mr. Blanchard. I came home full of poison, and nobody blew a trumpet or held a parade.
I don't like being' out of wort I don't like feelin' I'm not worth a damn sometimes. But that's what my LIFE is right now."
Blanchard nodded. He wouldn't meet Dan's eyes. "I really, truly, am sorry. I swear I am. I know things are tough out there."
"Yes sir, they are. That's why I have to ask you to give me one more week before you take my truck. Without my truck, I don't have any way to get to a job if one comes open. Can you please help me out?"
Blanchard rested his elbows on his desk and laced his fingers together. He wore a big LSU ring on his right hand.
His brows knitted, and he gave a long, heavy sigh. "I feel for you, Mr. Lambert. God knows I do. But I just can't give you an extension."
Dan's heart had started pounding. He knew he was facing disaster of the darkest shade.
"Look at my position." Blanchard's chewing gum was going ninety miles a minute. "My superiors kicked Bud Jarrett out of here because of the bad loans he made. They hired me because I don't make bad loans, and part of my job is to fix the mess Jarrett left behind. One week or one month: I don't think it would really matter very much, do you?"
"I need my truck," Dan rasped.
"You need a social. worker, not a loan officer. You could get yourself chocked into the VA hospital."
"I've been there. I'm not ready to roll over and die yet."
"I'[email protected], but there's nothin' I can do for you. It's bidness, you see? You can bring the keys and the paperwork tomorrow mornin'. I'll be in the office by ten." He swiveled around and switched the computer's screen off, telling Dan that their conversation was over.
"I won't do it," Dan said. "I won't."
"You will, Mr. Lambert, or you'll find yourself in some serious trouble."
"Jesus Christ, man! Don't you think I'm already in serious trouble? I don't even have enough money to buy decent groceries! How am I gonna get around without my truck?"
"We're finished, I think. I'd like you to leave now."
Maybe it was the pain building in Dan's skull; maybe it was this final flat command from the man who was squeezing the last of the dignity from his life. Whatever it was, it shoved Dan over the edge.
He knew he should not. Knew it. But suddenly he was reaching out toward the photographs and the Made in China American flag, and as he gritted his teeth the rage flew from him like a dark bird and he swept everything off the top of Blanchard's desk in a swelling crash and clatter.
"Hey! Hey!" Blanchard shouted. "What're you doin'?"
"Serious trouble," Dan said. "You want to see some serious trouble, mister?" He halted the chair he'd been sitting on and slammed it against the wall. The sign that said The Buck Stops Here fell to the floor, and books jittered on the perfect shelves. Dan picked up the wastebasket, tears of frustration and shame stinging his eyes, and he threw its contents over Blanchard, then flung the wastebasket against the stag's head. A small voice inside Dan screamed at him to stop, that this was childish and stupid and would earn him nothing, but his body was moving on the power of singleminded fury. If this man was going to take his freedom from him, he would tear the office apart.
Blanchard had picked up the telephone. "Security!" he yelled.
Dan grabbed the phone and jerked it away from him, and it too went flying into the shelves. As Dan attacked the fox-hunt pictures, he was aware in a cold, distant place that this was not only about the truck. It was about the cancer in his bones and the growth in his brain, the brutal heart of Death Valley, the jostling for tickets, the dirty silver rain, the major, the village, his failed marriage, the son who had been infected with his father's poison. It was all those things and more, and Dan tore the pictures off the walls, his face contorted, as Blanchard kept shouting for him to stop. A good soldier, Dan thought as he began pulling the books off the shelves and fringing them wildly around the office. A good soldier good soldier I've always been a goodSomeone grabbed him from behind.
"Get him out!" Blanchard hollered. "He's gone crazy!"
A pair of husky arms had clamped around Dan's chest, pinning his own arms at his sides. Dan thrashed to break free, but the security guard was strong. The grip tightened, forcing the air from Dan's lungs. "Get him outta here!"
Blanchard had wedged himself into a corner, his face mottled with red. "Faye, call the police!"
"Yes, sir!" She'd been standing in the open door, and she hurried to the phone on her desk.
Dan kept fighting. He couldn't stand to be confined, the pressure on his chest driving him to further heights of frenzy. "Hold still, damn it!" the guard said, and he began dragging Dan to the door.
"Come on, you're goin' with-" Panic made Dan snap his head backward, and the guard's nose popped as bone met cartilage. The man gave a wounded grunt, and suddenly Dan was free. As Dan turned toward him, he saw the guard-a man as big as a football linebacker, wearing a gray uniform-sitting on his knees on the carpet. His cap had spun away, his black hair cropped in a severe crew cut, his hands cupped over his nose with blood leaking between the sausage-thick fingers. "You busted my nose!" he gasped, his eyes slatted and wet with pain. "You sumbitch, you busted my nose!"
The sight of blood skidded Dan back to reality. He hadn't meant to hurt anyone; he hadn't meant to tear up this man's office. He was in a bad dream, and surely he must soon wake UP.
But the bad dream took another, more wicked turn.
"You sumbitch," the guard said again, and he reached with bloody fingers to the pistol in a holster at his waist. He pulled the gun loose, snapping off the safety as it cleared the leather.
Going to shoot me, Dan thought. He saw the man's finger on the trigger. For an instant the smell of ozone came to him-a memory of danger in the silver-dripping jungle and the flesh prickled at the back of his neck.
He lunged for the guard, seized the man's wrist, and twisted the gun aside. The guard reached up with his free hand to claw at Dan's eyes, but Dan hung on. He heard Mrs.
Duvall shout, "The police are comin'!" The guard was trying to get to his feet; a punch caught Dan in the rib cage and almost toppled him, but still he held on to the guard's wrist. Another punch was coming, and Dan snapped his left hand forward with the palm out and smashed the man's bleeding nose. As the guard bellowed and fell back, Dan wrenched the pistol loose. He got his hand on the grip and fumbled to snap the safety on again.
He heard a click behind him.
He knew that sound.
Death had found him. It had slid from its hole here in this sweltering office, and it was about to sink its fangs.
Dan whirled around. Blanchard had opened a desk drawer and was lifting a pistol to take aim, the hammer cocked back and a finger on the trigger. Blanchard's face was terrified, and Dan knew the man meant to kill him.
It took a second.
Something as old as survival took hold of Dan. Something ancient and unthinking, and it swept Dan's sense aside in a feverish rush.
He fired without aiming. The pistol's crack vibrated through his hand, up his snake-tattooed forearm and into his shoulder.
"Uh," Blanchard said.
Blood spurted from a hole in his throat.
Blanchard staggered back, his yellow necktie turning scarlet. His gun went off, and Dan flinched as he heard the bullet hiss past his head and thunk into the door jamb. Then Blanchard crashed to the floor amid the family photographs, fox-hunt prints, and leather-bound books.
Mrs. Duvall screamed.
Dan heard someone moan. It was not Blanchard, nor the guard. He looked at the pistol in his hand, then at the splatter of red that lay across Blanchard's desk. "Oh, God," Dan said as the horror of what he'd just done hit him full force. "Oh, my God ... no . . ."
The gears of the universe seemed to shift. Everything shut down.to a hazy slow-motion. Dan was aware of the guard cowering against a wall. Mrs. Duvall fled into the corridor, still shrieking.
Then Dan felt himself moving around the desk toward Blanchard, and though he knew he was moving as fast as he could, it was more like a strange, disembodied drifting. Bright red arterial blood was pulsing from Blanchard's throat in rhythm with his heart. Dan dropped the pistol, got down on his knees, and pressed ]Iis hands against the wound. "No!" Dan said, as if to a disobedient child. "No!"
Blanchard stared up at him, his chilly blue eyes glazed and his mouth half open. The blood kept spurting, flowing between Dan's fingers.
Blanchard shuddered, his legs moving feebly, his heels plowing the carpet. He coughed once. A red glob of chewing gum rolled from his mouth, followed by rivulets of blood that streamed over his lower lip.
"No oh God no please no don't die," Dan began to beg.
Something broke inside him, and the tears ran out. He was trying to stop the bleeding, trying to hold the blood back, but it was a tide that would not be turned. "Call an ambulance!" he shouted. The guard didn't move; without his gun the man's courage had crumpled like cheap tin.
"Somebody call an ambulance!" Dan pleaded. "Hang on!"
he told Blanchard. "Do you hear? Hang on!"
Blanchard had begun making a harsh hitching noise deep in his chest. The sound filled Dan with fresh terror. He knew what it was.
He heard it before, in 'Nam: the death watch, ticking.
The police, Mrs. Duvall had said.
The police are comin'.
Blanchard's face was white and waxen, his tie and shirt soaked with gore. The blood was still pulsing, but Blanchard's eyes stared at nothing.
Murder, Dan realized. Oh Jesus, I've murdered him.
No ambulance could make it in time. He knew it. The bullet had done too much damage. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Dan said, his voice cracking. His eyes blurred up with tears.
"I'm sorry, dear God I'm sorry."
The police are comin'.
The image of handcuffs and iron bars came to him. He saw his future, confined behind stone walls topped with barbed wire.
There was nothing more he could do.
Dan stood up, the room slowly spinning around him. He looked at his bloodied hands, and smelled the odor of a slaughterhouse.
He ran, past the guard and out of the office. Standing in the corridor were people who'd emerged from their own offices, but when they saw Dan's bloody shirt and his gray-tinged face they scurried out of his way. He ran past the elevator, heading for the stairwell.
At the bottom of the stairwell were two doors, one leading back into the teller's area and another with a sign that said EMERGENCY Exrr ONLY! ALARM WILL SOUND! As Dan shoved the exit door open, a high-pitched alarm went off in his ear.
Searing sunlight hit him; he was facing the parking lot beside the bank. His truck was in a space twenty yards away, past the automatic teller machine and the drive-up windows. There was no sign yet of a police car. He ran to his truck, frantically unlocked the door, and slid behind the wheel. TWo men, neither of them a police officer, came out of the emergency exit and stood gawking as Dan started the engine, put the truck into reverse, and backed out of the parking space. His brakes shrieked when he stomped on the pedal to keep from smashing the car parked behind him.
Then he twisted the wheel and sped out of the lot, and with another scream of brakes and tires he took a left on the street. A glance in his rearview mirror showed a police car, its bubble lights spinning, pulling up to the curb in front of the building. He had no sooner focused his attention on the street ahead than a second police car flashed past him, trailing a siren's wail, in the direction of the bank.
Dan didn't know how much time he had. His apartment was five miles to the west. Beads of sweat clung to his face, blood smeared all over the steering wheel.
A sob welled up and clutched his throat.
He cried, silently.
He had always tried to live right. To be fair. To obey orders and be a good soldier no matter what slid out of this world full of snake holes.
As he drove to his apartment, fighting the awful urge to sink his foot to the floorboard, he realized what one stupid, senseless second had wrought.
I've gone south, he thought. He wiped his eyes with his snake-clad forearm, the metallic smell of blood sickening him in the hellish August heat. Gone south, after all this time.
And he knew, as well, that he'd just taken the first step of a journey from which there could be no return.
Mark of Cain Hurry! Dan told himself as he pulled clothes from a dresser drawer and jammed them into a duffel bag. Mavin'too slow huny they'll be here soon any minute now ...
The sound of a distant siren shocked his heart. He stood still, listening, as his pulse rioted. A precious few seconds passed before he realized the sound was coming through the wall from Mr. Wycoffs apartment. The television set. Mr.
Wycoff, a retired steelworker, always watched the Starsky and Hutch reruns that came on every day at three-thirty.
Dan turned his mind away from the sound and kept packing, pain like an iron spike throbbing in his skull.
He had torn off the bloody shirt, hastily scrubbed his hands in the bathroom's sink, and struggled into a clean white T-shirt. He didn't have time to change his pants or his shoes,l his nerves were shredding with each lost second. He pushed a pair of blue jeans into the duffel bag, then picked up his dark blue baseball cap from the dressers top and put it on. A framed photograph of his son, Chad, taken ten years ago when the boy was seven, caught his attention and it too went into the bag. Dan went to the closet, reached UP to the top shelf, and brought down the shoebox that held thirty-eight dollars, all his money in the world. As he was shoving the money into his pocket, the telephone rang.
The answering machine-a Radio Shack special Mark of Cain clicked on after three rings. Dan heard his own voice asking the caller to leave a message.
"I'm callin' about your ad in the paper," a man said. "I need my backyard fenced in, and I was wonderin'-" Dan might have laughed if he didn't feel the rage of the law bearing down on him.
could th -if you d do e job and what you'd charge. If you'd call me back sometime today I'd appreciate it. My number's . .
Too late. Much, much too late.
He zipped the bag shut, picked it up, and got out.
There were no sounds yet of sirens in the air. Dan threw the bag into the back of his truck, next to the toolbox and he got behind the wheel and tore out of the parking'lot. He crossed the railroad tracks, drove six blocks east, and saw the signs for Interstate 49 ahead. He swung the pickup onto the ramp that had a sign saying 1-49 SOUTHBOUND.
Then he steadily gave the truck more gas, and he merged with the afternoon traffic, leaving the industrial haze of Shreveport at their backs.
Killer, he thought. The image of blood spurting from Blanchard's throat and the man's waxen face was in his brain, unshakable as gospel.
It had all happened SO fast, he felt still in a strange, dreamlike trance. They would lock him away forever for this crime; he would die behind prison walls.
But first they had to catch him, because he sure as hell wasn't giving himself up.
He switched on his radio and turned the dial, searching Shreveport's stations for the news. There was country music, rock 'n' roll, rap, and advertisements but no bulletin yet about a shooting at the First Commercial Bank. But he knew it wouldn't take long; soon his description and the description of his truck would be all over the airwaves. Not many men bore the tattoo of a snake on their right forearms.
He realized that what he'd worn as a badge of pride and courage in 'Nam now was akin to the mark of Cain.
Tears were scorching his eyes again. He blinked them away. The time for weeping was over. He had committed the most stupid, insane act of his life; he had gone south in a way he would never have thought possible. His gaze kept flicking to the rearview mirror, and he expected to see flashing lights coming after him. They weren't there yet, but they were hunting for him by now.
The first place they'd go would be the apartment. They would've gotten all the information about him from the bank's computer records.
How long would it take for the state troopers to get his license number and be on the lookout for a metallic-mist Chevrolet pickup truck with a killer at the wheel?
A desperate thought hit him: maybe Blanchard hadn't died.
Maybe an ambulance had gotten there in time. Maybe the paramedics had somehow been able to stop the bleeding and get Blanchard to the hospital. Then the charge wouldn't be murder, would it? In a couple of weeks Blanchard could leave the hospital and go home to his wife and children. Dan could plead temporary insanity, because that's surely what it had been. He would spend some time in jail, yes, but there'd be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe. MayA horn blew, jarring him back to reality. He'd been drifting into the next lane, and a cream-colored Buick swept past him with a furious whoosh.
He passed the intersection of the Industrial Loop Expressway, and was moving through the outskirts of Shreveport.
Subdivisions of blocky tract houses, strip mall, and apartment complexes stood near warehouses and factories with vast parking lots.
The land was flat, its summer green bleached to a grayish hue by the merciless sun. Ahead of him, the long, straight highway shimmered and crows circled over small animals that had been mangled by heavy wheels.
It came to Dan that he didn't know where he was going.
He knew the direction, yes, but not the destination. Does it matter? he asked himself. All he knew is, he had to get as far from Shreveport as he could. A glance at the gas gauge showed him the tank was a little over a quarter full. The Chevy got good gas mileage for a pickup truck; that was one Mark of cain of the reasons he'd bought it. But how far could he get with thirty-eight dollars and some change in his pocket?
His heart jumped. A state trooper's car was approaching, heading north on the other side of the median. He watched it come nearer, all the spit drying up in his mouth. Then the car was passing him, doing a steady fifty-five. Had the trooper b him d the wh I looked at m? D kept watch, the rearview mirrOr, but the trooper car's brake lights didn't flare. But what if the trooper had recognized the pickup truck and radioed to another highway patrol car waiting farther south? on this interstate the troopers could be massing in a roadblock just through the next heat shimmer.
He was going to have to get off 1-49 and take a lesser-traveled Parish road. Another four miles rolled under the tires before he saw the exit Of highway 175, heading south toward the town Of Mansfield.
Dan slowed his speed and eared onto the ramp, which turned into a two-lane road bordered by thick stands of pines and palmettos. As he'd figured, this route was all but deserted, just a couple of cars visible far ahead and none at his back. Still, he drove the speed limit and watched warily for the highway patrol.
Now he was going to have to decide where to go. The Texas line was about twenty miles to the west. He could be in Mexico in fifteen hours or so. If he continued on this road, he would reach the bayous and swampland on the edge of the Gulf in a little over three hours. He could get to the Gulf and head either west to Port Arthur or east to New Orleans. And what then? Go into hiding?
Find a job? Make up a new identity, shave Off his beard, bleach out the tattoo?
He could go to Alexandria, he thought. That city was less than a hundred miles away, just below the heart of louisiana. He'd lived there for nine years, when he'd been working with FOrdham construction.
His ex-wife and son lived there still, in the house on Jackson Avenue.
Right. His mouthed into a grim line. The police would have that address too, from the bank's recorcls. Dan had faithfully made his child support payments every month. If he went to that house, the POlice would swarm all over him. And besides, Susan was so afraid of him anyway that she wouldn't let him in the door even if he came as a choirboy instead of a killer. He hadn't seen his ex-wife and seventeen-year-old son in over six years. It had been better that way, because his divorce was still an open wound.
He wondered what the other Snake Handlers would think of a father who had attacked his own little boy in the middle of the night. Did it matter that in those days Dan had been half crazy and suffered nightmarish flashbacks? Did it matter that when he'd put his hands around the boy's throat he'd believed he was trying to choke to death a VietCong sniper in the silver-puddled mud?
No, it didn't. He remembered coming out of the flashback to Susan's scream; he remembered the stark terror on Chad's tear-streaked face. Ten seconds more-just tenand he might have killed his own son.
He couldn't blame Susan for wanting to be rid of him, and so he hadn't contested the divorce.
He caught himself-, the truck was drifting toward the centerline again as his attention wandered, He saw some dried blood between his fingers that he'd missed with the soap and rag, and the image of Blanchard's bleached face stabbed him.
A glance in the rearview mirror almost stopped his heart entirely.
Speeding after him was a vehicle with its lights flashing. Dan hesitated between jamming the accelerator and hitting the brake, but before he could decide to do either, a cherry-red pickup truck with two grinning teenagers in the cab roared past him and the boy on the passenger side stuck a hand out with the middle finger pointed skyward.
Dan started trembling. He couldn't stop it. Sickness roiled in his stomach, a maniacal drumbeat trapped in his skull. He thought for a few seconds that he was going to pass out as dark motes spun before his eyes like flecks of ash.
Around the next bend he saw a narrow dirt road going off into the woods on his right. He turned onto it and followed it fifty yards into the sheltering forest, his rear tires throwing up plumes of yellow dust.
Mark of Cain Then he stopped the truck, cut the engine, and sat there under the pines with beads of cold sweat on his face, His stomach lurched. As the fire rose up his throat, Dan scrambled out of the truck and was able to reach the weeds before he threw up. He retched and retched until there was nothing left, and then he sat on his knees, breathing sour steam as birds sang in the trees above him.
He pulled the tail of his T-shirt out and blotted the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. Dust hung in the air, the sunlight lying in shards amid the trees. He tried to clear his mind enough to grapple with the problem of where to go. To Texas and MexiCO? To the Gulf and New Orleans? Or should he turn the truck around, return to Shreveport, and give himself up?
That was the sensible thing, wasn't it? Go back to Shreveport and try to explain to the police that he'd thought Blanchard was about to kill him, that he hadnt meant to lose his temper, that he was so very, very sorry.
Stone walls, he thought. stone walls waiting.
At last he stood up and walked unsteadily back to truck. He got in, started the engine, and turned on the radio.
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