Chapter 4


He began to move the dial through the stations; they were weaker now, diminished by distance. Seven or eight minutes @ and then Dan came upon a woman's coot matterof-fact voice.

"- - - shooting at the First Commercial Bank of ShrevePort just after three-thirty this afternoon . .

Dan turned it up.

... accOrding to police, a disturbed Vietnam veteran entered the bank with a gun and shot Emory Blanchard, the bank's loan manager.

Blanchard was pronounced dead on arrival at All Saints Hospital. We'll have more details as this story develops. In other news, the city council and the waterworks board found themselves at odds again today when ... "

Dan stared at nothing, his mouth opening to release a soft, agonized gasp.

Dead on arrival It was official now. He was a murderer.

But what was that about entering the bank with a gun?

"That's wrong," he said thickly. "It's wrong." The way it sounded, he'd gone to the bank intent on killing somebody.

Of course they had to put the "disturbed Vietnam veteran" in there, too. Might as well make him sound like a psycho while they were at it.

But he knew what the bank was doing. What would their customers think if they knew Blanchard had been killed with a security guard's gun? Wasn't it better, then, to say that the crazy Vietnam veteran had come in packing a gun and hunting a victim? He kept searching the stations, and in another couple of minutes he found a snippet: ". . .

rushed to All Saints Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Police caution that Lambert should be considered armed and dangerous.

.

"Bullshit!" Dan said. "I didn't go there to kill anybody!"

He saw what would happen if he gave himself up. They wouldn't listen to him. They'd put him in a hole and drop a rock on it for the rest of his life. Maybe he might hve only three more years, but he wasn't planning to die in prison and be buried in a pauper's grave.

He engaged the gears. Head to the bayou country, he decided.

From there he could go either to New Orleans or Port Arthur. Maybe he could find a freighter captain who needed cheap labor and didn't care to ask questions. He turned the truck around and then he drove back to Highway 175. He took a right, southbound again.

The truck's cab was a sweat box, even with both windows down. The heat was weighing on him, wearing him out. He thought about Susan and Chad. If the news was on the radio, it wouldn't be long before it hit the local TV stations. Susan might already have gotten a call from the police. He didn't particularly care what she thought of him; it was Chad's opinion that mattered. The boy was going to think his father was a cold-blooded killer, and this fact pained Dan's soul.

The question was: what could be done about it?

He heard an engine gunning behind him.

He looked in the rearview mirror.

'Mark of Cain And there was a state trooper's car right on his tail, its blue bubble lights spinning.

Dan had known true terror before, in the jungles of Vietnam and when he'd seen Blanchard's gun leveling to take aim. This instant, though, froze his blood and stiffened him up like a dime-store dummy.

The siren yowled.

He was caught.

He jerked the wheel to the right, panic sputtering through his nerves.

The trooper whipped past him and was gone around the next curve in a matter of seconds.

Before he could think to stop and turn around, Dan was into the curve and saw the trooper pulling off onto the road's shoulder. A cherry-red pickup truck was down in a ditch, and one of the teenage boys was standing on the black scrawl the, tires had left when he'd lost control of the wheel. The other boy was sitting in the weeds, his head lowered and his left arm clasped against his chest. As Dan glided past the accident scene, he saw the trooper get out of the car and shake his head as if he knew the boys were lucky they wereret scattered like bloody rags amid the pines.

When the trooper's car was well behind, Dan picked up his speed again. Dark motes were still drifting in and out of his vision, the sun's glare still fierce even as the afternoon shadows lengthened. He'd had not a bite of food since breakfast, and he'd lost the meager contents of his stomach.

He considered stopping at a gas station to buy a candy bar and a soft drink, but the thought of pulling off while a state trooper was so close behind him put an end to that idea. He kept going, following the sun-baked road as it twisted like the serpent on his forearm.

Mile after mile passed. The traffic was sparse, both in front and behind, but the strain of watching in either direction began to take its toll. The shooting replayed itself over and over in his mind. He thought of Blanchard's wife-widow, that is-and the two children, and what they must be going through right now. He began to fear what might be lying in wait for him around the curves. his headache returned with a vengeance, as did his tremors. The heat was sapping his last reserves'of strength, and soon it became clear to him that he had to stop somewhere to rest.

Another few miles @, the highway running between pine forest broken by an occasional dusty field, and then Dan saw a gravel road on his right.

As he slowed down, prepared to turn into the woods and sleep in his truck, he saw that the road widened into a parking lot. There was a small whitewashed church standing beneath a pair of huge weeping willow trees. A linle wooden sign in need of repainting said.

VICTORY IN THE BLADOD BApTist.

It was as good a place as any. Dan pulled into the gravel lot, which was [email protected], and he drove the track around to the back of the church.

When he was hidden from the road, he cut the engine and slid the key out. He pulled his wet shirt away from the backrest and lay down on the seat. He closed his eyes, but Blanchard's death leapt at him to keep him from finding sleep.

He'd been lying down for only a few minutes when someone mpped twice against the side of his truck Dan bolted upright, blinking dazedly. Standing there beside his open window was a shin black man with a long-jawed face and a tight cap of white hair. Over the man's deep-set ebony eyes, the thick white brows had merged together. "You Okay, mister?" he asked.

"Yeah." Dan nodded, still a little disoriented. "Just needed to rest."

"Heard you pull up. Looked out the winda and there you were."

"I didn't know anybody was around."

"Well," the man said, and when he smiled he showed alabaster teeth that looked as long as piano keys, "just me and God sittin' inside talkin'."

Dan started to slide the key back into the ignition. "I'd better head on."

"Now, hold on a minute, I ain't mnnin'you off. You don't mind me sayin', you don't appear to be up to snuff. You travelin' far?"

Mark of Cain "Yes." "Seems to me that if a fella wants to rest, he oughta rest. If you'd like to come in, you're welcome."

"I'm ... not a religious man," Dan said.

"Well, I didn't say I was gonna preach to you. 'Course, some would say listenin' to my sermons is a surefire way to catch up on your sleep. Name's Nathan Gwinn." He thrust a hand toward Dan, who took it.

"Dan . . ." His mind skipped tracks for a few seconds. A name came to him. "Farrow," he said.

"Pleased to meet you. Come on in, there's room to stretch out on a pew if you'd like."

Dan looked at the church. It had been years since he'd set foot in one. Some of the things he'd seen, both in Vietnam and afterward, had convinced him that if any supernatural force was the master of this world, it smelled of brimstone and devoured innocent flesh as its sacrament.

"Cooler inside," Gwinn told him. "The fans are workin' this week."

After a moment of deliberation, Dan opened the door and got out.

"I'm obliged," he said, and he followed Gwinnwho wore black trousers and a plain light blue short-sleeve shirt-through the church's back door. The interior of the church was Spartan, with an unvarnished wooden floor that had felt the Sunday shoes of several generations. "I was writin' my sermon when I heard you," Gwinn said, and he motioned into a cubicle of an office whose open window overlooked the rear lot.

Two chairs, a desk and lamp, a file cabinet, and a couple of peach crates full of religious books had been squeezed into the little room.

On the desk was a pad of paper and a cup containing a number of ballpoint pens. "Not havin' much luck, I'm a'fearca" he confided.

"Sometimes you dig deep and just wind up scrapin' the bottom. But I ain't worried, something'll come to me. Al, ways does. You want some water, there's a fountain this way."

Gwinn led him through a corridor lined with other small rooms, the floor creaking underfoot. A ceiling fan stirred the heat. There was a water fountain, and Dan went to work satisfying his thirst. "You a regular camel, ain't you?"

Gwinn asked. "Come on in here, you can stretch yourself out."

Dan followed him through another doorway, into the chapel. A dozen pews faced the preacher's podium, and the sunlight that entered was cut to an underwater haze by the pale green glass of the stained windows.

Overhead, two fans muttered like elderly ladies as they turned, fighting a lost cause. Dan sat down on a pew toward the middle of the church, and he pressed his palms against his eyes to ease the pain throbbing in his skull.

"Nice tattoo," Gwinn said. "You get that around here?"

"No. Someplace else."

"Mind if I ask where you're headin' from and where you're gain I'm "From Shreveport," Dan said. "I'm goin' to-" He paused. "I'm just goin'."

"Your home in Shreveport, is it?"

"Used to be." Dan took his hands away from his eyes.

"I'm not real sure where I belong right now." A thought struck him. "I didn't see your car outside."

"Oh, I walked from my house. I just live 'bout a half-mile up the road. You hungry, Mr. Farrow?"

"I could do with something', yeah." Hearing that name was strange, after all this time. He didn't know why he'd chosen it; probably it was from seeing the young man who was begging work at Death Valley.

"You like crullers? I got some in my office; my wife baked term just this mornin'."

Dan told him that sounded fine, and Gwinn went to his office and returned with three sugar-frosted crullers in a brown paper bag. It took about four seconds for Dan to consume one of them. "Have another," Gwinn offered as he sat on the pew in front of Dan. "I believe you ain't et in a while."

A second pastry went down the hatch. Gwinn scratched his longjaw and said, "Take the other one, too. My wife sure would be tickled to see a fefla enjoyin' her bakin' so much."

When the third one was history, Dan licked the sugar from his fingers. Gwinn laughed, the sound like the msp of a rusty Mark of Cain saw blade. "Part camel, part goat," he said. "Don't you go chemin' on that bag, now."

"You can tell your wife she makes good crullers."

Gwinn reached into a trouser pocket, pulled out a silver watch, and checked the time. "'Bout quarter to five. You can tell Lavinia yourself if you want to."

"Pardon?"

"Supper's at six. You want to eat with Lavinia and me, you're welcome." He returned the watch to his pocket.

"Won't be no fancy feast, but it'll warm your belly up. I can go call her, tell her to put another plate on the table."

"Thanks, but I've gotta get back on the road after I rest some. "

"Oh." Gwinn lifted his shaggy white brows. "Decide where ygu're goin', have you?"

Dan was silent, his hands clasped together.

"The road'Il still be there, Mr. Farrow," Gwinn said quietly.

"Don't you think?"

Dan looked into the preacher's eyes. "You don't know me.

I could be . . . somebody you wouldn't want in your house."

"True enough. But my Lord Jesus Christ says we should feed the wayfarin' stranger." Gwinn's voice had taken on some of the singsong inflections of his calling. "'Pears to me that's what you are. So if you want a taste of fried chicken that'll make you hear the heavenly choir, you just say the word and you got it."

I Dan didn't have to think very long to make a decision.

All right. I'd be grateful."

"Just be hungry! Lavinia always makes a whoppin' supper on Thursday nights anyhow." Gwinn stood up. "Lemme go on back and call her. Why don't you rest some and I'll fetch you when I'm ready to go."

"Thank you," Dan said. "I really do appreciate this." He lay down on the pew as Gwinn walked back to his office. The pew was no mattress, but just being able to relax for a little while was glorious.

He closed his eyes, the sweat cooling on his body, and he searched for a few minutes of sleep that might shield him from the image of Emory Blanchard bleeding to death.

In his office, Reverend Gwinn was on the telephone to his wife.

She stoically took the news that a white stranger named Dan Farrow was joining them for supper, even though Thursday was always the night their son and daughter-in-law came to visit from Mansfield. But everything would work out fine, Lavinia told her husband, because Terrence had called a few minutes before to let her know he and AmeHa wouldn't be there until after seven.

There'd been a raid on a house where drugs were being sold, she told Nathan, and Terrence had some paperwork to do at the jail.

"That's our boy," Gwinn said. "Gonna get elected sheriff yet."

When he hung up, the reverend turned his attention again to the unwritten sermon. A light came on in his brain.

Kindness for the wayfarin' strange. Yessir, that would do quite nicely!

They always amazed him, the mysterious workings of God did. You never knew when an answer to a problem would come right out of the blue; or, in this case, out of a gray Chevy pickup truck.

He picked up a pen, opened a Bible for reference, and began to write an outline of his message for Sunday [email protected] The Hand of Clint "Two cards."

"I'll take three."

"Two for me."

"One card."

"Oh, oh! I don't like the sound of that, Bents. Well, dealers gonna take three and see what we got."

The poker game in the back room of Leopol4's Pool Hall, on the rough west end of Caddo Street in Shreveport, had started around two o'clock It was now five forty-nine, according to the Regulator clock hanging on the cracked sea-Ween wall. Beneath a gray haze of cigarette and stogie smoke, a quintet of men regarded their cards in silence poo es around the felt-topped table. Out where the I table were, balls struck together like a pistol shot, and from the aged Wurlitzer jukebox Cleveland Crochet hollered about Sugar Bee to the wail of a Cajun accordion.

The room was a hotbox. Three of the men were in shirtsleeves, the fourth in a damp T-shirt. The fifth man, however, had never removed the rather bulky jacket of his iridescent, violet-blue sharkskin suit.

In respect of the heat, though, he'd loosened the knot of his necktie and unbuttoned the starched collar of his white shirt. A glass of melting ice and pale, cloudy liquid was placed near his right hand. Also within reach was a stack of chips worth three hundred and nineteen dollars.

His fortunes had risen and fallen and risen again during the progress of the game, and right now he was on a definite winning jag. He was the man who'd requested one card, so sure was he that he owned a hand no one else could touch.

The dealer, a bald-headed black man named Ambrose, finally cleared his throat. "It's up to you, Royce."

"I'm in for five." Royce, a big-bellied man with a flamecolored beard and a voice like a rodent's squeak, tossed a red chip on top of the ante.

"I fold." The next man, whose name was Vincent, laid his cards facedown with an emphatic thump of disgust.

There was a pause. "Come on, Junior," Ambrose prodded.

"I'm thinkin'." At age twenty-eight, Junior was the youngest of the players. He had a sallow, heavy-jawed face and unruly reddish-brown hair, sweat gleaming on his cheeks and blotching his T-shirt. He stared at his cards, a cigarette clenched between his teeth. His lightless eyes ticked to the player next to him. "I believe I got you this time, Mr.

Lucky. "

The man in the sharkskin suit was engrossed in his own cards. His eyes were pallid blue, his face so pale the purple-tinged veins were visible at his temples. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, his body as lean as a drawn blade. His black hair was perfectly combed, the part straight to the point of obsessiveness. At the center of his hairline a streak of white showed like a touch of lightning.

"Put up or fold 'em," Ambrose said.

"See the five and raise you ten." The chips clattered down.

'Fifteen dollars," the man in the sharkskin suit said, his voice so soft it neared a whisper, "and fifteen more." He tossed the chips in with a flick of his right wrist.

"Oh, lawwwwdy!" Ambrose studied his cards with heightened interest. "Talk to me, chillen, talk to me!" He picked up his cigar stub from an ashtray and puffed on it as if trying to divine the future in smoke signals.

Nick, the pool hall's bartender, came in while Ambrose was deliberating and asked if anybody needed their drinks freshened. Junior said he wanted another Budweiser, and Vincent said he'd have a refill of iced tea. The man in the sharkskin suit downed his cloudy drink in two long swallows and said, "I'll have another of the same."

"lib ... you sure you don't want some sugar in that?"

Nick asked.

"No supr. Just straight lemon juice."

Nick returned to the front room. Ambrose puffed out a last question mark and put his cards facedown. "Nope. My wife's gone have my ass as it is."

Royce stayed in and raised another five spot. Junior chewed his lower lip. "Damn it, I've gotta stay in!" he decided. "Hell, I'll raise five to you!"

"And fifteen more," came the reply.

"Sheeeeyit!" Ambrose grinned. "We gots us a showdown here!"

"I'm out." Royce's cards went on the table.

Junior leaned back in his chair, his cards close to his chest and fresh sweat sparkling on his face. He glowered long and hard at the man beside him, whom he'd come to detest in the last two hours.

"You're fuckin' bluffin," he said. "I caught you last time you tried to bluff me, didn't I?"

"Fifteen dollars to you, Junior," Ambrose said.

"What'cha gone do?"

"Don't rush me, man!" Junior had two red chips in front of him.

He'd come into the game with over a hundred dollars. "You're tryin' to fox me, ain't you, Mr. Lucky?"

The man's head turned. The pale blue eyes fixed upon Junior, and the whispery voice said, "The name is Flint."

"I don't give a shit! You're tryin' to rob me, I figure I can call you whatever I please!"

"Hey, Junior!" Royce cautioned. "Watch that tongue, now!"

"Well, who the hell knows this guy, anyhow? He comes in here, gets in our game, and takes us all for a ride! How do we know he ain't a pro?"

"I paid for my seat," Flint said. "You didn't holler when you took my money."

"Maybe I'm hollerin' now!" Junior sneered. "Does anybody know him?" he asked the others. Nick came in with the drinks on a tray.

"Hey, Nick! You ever see this here dude before?"

"Can't say I have."

"So how come he just wandered in off the street lookin' to play poker? How come he's sittin' there with all our damn money?"

Flint snapped the cards shut in his left hand, drank some of the fresh lemon juice, and rubbed the cold glass across his forehead.

"Meet the raise," he said, "or go home and cry to your mommy."

Junior exhaled sworls of smoke. Crimson had risen in his cheeks.

"Maybe you and me oughta go dance in the alley, what do you think about that?"

"Come on, Junior!" Ambrose said. "Play or fold!"

"Nick, loan me five dollars."

"No way!" Nick retreated toward the door. "This ain't no bank in here, man!"

"Somebody loan me five dollars," Junior said to the others. This demand was met with a silence that might have made stones weep. "Five dollars! What's wrong with you guys?"

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