"We don't loan money in this room," Ambrose reminded him. "Never have and never will. You know the house rules."
"I'd loan it to you if you were in a tight!"
"No you Wouldn't. And I wouldn't ask. The rule is: you play with your own money."
"Well, it's sure nice to know who your friends are!" Junior wrenched the cheap wristwatch off his arm and slid it in front of Flint. "Here, damn it! 'that's gotta be worth fifteen or twenty bucks!"
Flint picked up the watch and examined it. Then he returned it to the table and leaned back, his cards fanned out again and resting against his chest. "Merchandise isn't money, but since you're so eager to walk out of here a loser, I'll grant you the favor."
"Favor. " Junior almost spat the word. "Yeah, right! Come on, let's see what you've got!"
"Lay yours down first," Flint said.
"Glad to!" Slap went the cards on the table. "Three queens! I always was lucky with the women!" Junior grinned, one hand already reaching out to rake in the chips and his watch.
But before his hand got there, it was blocked by three aces.
"I was always smart at poker," Flint said. "And smart beats lucky any day."
Junior's grin evaporated. He stared at the trio of aces, his mouth crimping around the cigarette.
Flint scooped up the chips and put the wristwatch into his inside coat pocket. While Nick didn't loan money, he did sell poker chips.
It was time, Flint knew, to cash in and be on his way. "That does it for me." He pocketed the rest of his winnings and stood up. "Thank you for the game, gentlemen."
"Junior!" Ambrose snapped. "Hush up!"
"Cheater!" Junior scraped his chair back and rose to his feet.
His sweating face was gorged with blood. "You cheated me, by God!"
"Did I?" Flint's eyes were heavy-lidded. "How?"
"I don't know how! I just know you won a few too many hands today! Oh, yeah, maybe you lost some, but you never lost enough to put you too far behind, did you? Nosir! You lost just to keep us playin', so you could set me up for this shit!"
"Sit down, Junior," Vincent told him. "Some people gotta win, some gotta lose. That's why they call it gamblin'."
"Hell, can't you see it? He's a pro is what he is! He came in here off the street, got in our game, and made fools outta every damn one of us!"
"I see," Ambrose said wearily, "that it's almost six o'clock.
Honey'll skin my butt if I don't get home."
"Gone skin your butt anyhow for losin' that paycheck," Royce said with a high giggle.
"Humility keeps me an honest man, my friends." Ambrose stood up and stretched. "Junior, that look on your face could scare eight lives out of a cat. Forget it now, hear?
You can't win every day, or it wouldn't be no fun when you did."
Junior watched Flint, who was buttoning his jacket.
Beneath Flint's arms were dark half-moons of sweat. "I say that bastard cheated! There's something' not right about him!"
Flint suddenly turned, took two strides forward, and his face and Junior's were only inches apart. "I'll ask you once more. Tell me how I cheated, sonny boy."
"You know you did! Maybe you're just slicker'n owl shit, but I know you cheated somehow!"
"Prove it," Flint said, and only Junior saw the faint smile that rippled across his thin4ipped mouth.
"You dirty sonora-" Junior hauled back his arm to deliver a punch, but Ambrose and Royce both grabbed him and pulled him away. "Lemme go!" Junior hollered as he thrashed with impotent rage. "I'll tear him apart, I swear to God!"
"Mister," Ambrose said, "it might be best if you don't come 'round here again."
"I wasn't plannin' on it." Flint finished off his lemon juice, his face impassive. Then he turned his back on the other men and walked out to the bar to cash in his chips. His stride was as slow and deliberate as smoke drifting. While Nick was counting the money, Junior was escorted to the street by Ambrose, Vincent, and Royce.
"You'll get yours, Mr. Lucky!" was Junior's parting shot before the door closed.
"He flies off the handle sometimes, but he's okay." Nick laid the crisp green winnings in Flint's pale palm. "Better not walk around with that kinda cash in this neighborhood."
"Thank you." He gave Nick a twenty. "For the advice."
He started walking toward the door, his hand finding the car keys in his pocket, and over the zydeco music on the jukebox he heard the telephone ring.
"Okay, hold on a minute. Hey, your name Murtaugh?"
Flint stopped at the door, dying sunlight flaring through the fly-specked windows. "Yes."
"It's for you."
"Murtaugh," Flint said into the phone.
"You seen the TV in the last half hour?" It was a husky, ear-hurting voice: Smoates, calling from the shop.
"No. I've been busy."
"Well, wrap up your bidness and get on over here. Ten minutes."
Click, and Smoates was gone.
Even as six o'clock moved past and the blue shadows lengthened, the heat was suffocating. Flint could smell the lemon juice in his perspiration as he strode along the sidewalk. When Smoates said ten minutes, he meant eight.
It had to be another job, of course. Flint had just brought a skin back for Smoates this morning and collected his commission-forty percent-on four thousand dollars.
Smoates, who was the kind of man who had an ear on every corner and in every back room, had told him about the Thursday afternoon poker pine at Leopold's, and with some time to kill before going back to his motel Flint had eased himself into what had turned out to be child's play. If he had any passion, it was for the snap of cards being shuffled, the clack of spinning roulette wheels, the soft thump of dice tumbling across sweet green felt; it was for the smells of smoky rooms where stacks of chips rose and fell, where cold sweat collected under the collar and an ace made the heartbeat quicken. Today's winnings had been small change, but a game was a game and Flint's thirst for risk had been temporarily quenched.
He reached his ride: a black 1978 Cadillac Eldorado that had seen three or four used car lots. The car had a broken right front headlight, the rear bumper was secured with burlap twine, the passenger door was crumpled in, and the southern sun had cracked and jigsawed the old black paint.
The interior smelled of mildew and the chassis moaned over potholes like a funeral bell. Flint's appetite for gambling didn't always leave him a winner, the horses, greyhounds, and the casinos of Vegas took his money with a frequency that would have terrified an ordinary man. Flint Murtaugh, however, could by no stretch of the imagination be called ordinary.
He slipped his key into the door's lock. As it clicked open, he heard another noise-a metallic snap-very close behind him, and he realized quite suddenly that he would have to pay for his inattention.
"Easy, Mr. Lucky."
Flint felt the switchblade's tip press at his right kidney.
He let the breath hiss from between his teeth. "You're makina real big mistake."
Do tell. Let's walk. Turn in that alley up there."
Flint obeyed. There weren't many people on the sidewalk, and Junior kept close. "Keep welkin'," Junior said as [email protected] turned into the alley. Ahead, in the shadows between buildings, was a chain-link fence and beyond it a parking garage. "Stop," Junior said. "Turn around and look at me."
Flint did, his back to the fence. Junior stood between him and the street, the knife low at his side. It was a meanlooking switchblade, and Junior held it as if he had used it before. "I believe your luck's run out." Junior's eyes were still ashine with anger. "Gimme my money."
Flint smiled coldly. He unbuttoned his sharkskin jacket, and in so doing he tapped a finger twice on his belt buckle, which bore his initials in scrolled letters. He lifted his hands.
"It's inside my coat. Come get it, sonny boy."
"I'll cut you, damn it! I'll give you some shit like you never had before, man!"
"Will you? Sonny boy, I'm gonna give you three pieces of wisdom.
One." He raised a finger of his left hand. "Never play poker with a stranger. Two." Two fingers of his right hand went up. "Never raise against a man who asks for a single card. And three . .
Something moved at Flint's chest, underneath the white linen shirt.
Flint's necktie was pushed aside. Through the opening of an undone button emerged a dwarf-sized hand and a slim, hairless white arm. The hand gripped a small doublebarreled derringer aimed at Junior's midsection.
"[email protected] you've got the drop on a man," Flint continued, "never, never let him face you."
Junior's mouth hung open. "Jesus, " he whispered.
"You've ... got ... three ...
"Clint. Steady. " Flint's voice was sharp; the derringer had wobbled a few inches to the right. "Drop the knife, sonny boy." But Junior was too stunned to respond. "Clint. Down.
Down. Down." The arm obeyed, and now the derringer was pointed in the vicinity of Junior's knees. "You'll be a cripple in three seconds," Flint promised.
The knife clattered to the gritty pavement.
Flint frowned, sliding his two hands into his pants pockets. The third hand held the derringer steady. "I should've figured on this,"
Flint said, mostly to himself.
The wiry arm retreated into his shirt. Flint felt the gun slide into the small holster under his right shoulder. The arm twitched once, a muscle spasm, and then lay pressed against Flint's chest with the fingers wedged beneath his belt buckle. "Good Clint," Flint said, and he walked quickly toward Junior, who still stood shocked and pping.
Flint withdrew his right hand, which now wore the set of brass knuckles that had been in his pocket. The blow that followed was fast and decisive, hitting Junior on the chin and snapping his head back Junior gave a garbled cry and staggered into some garbage cans, and then Flint swung again-a graceful, almost balletic motion-and the brass knuckles crunched into the cheekbone on the left side of Junior's face.
Gasping, Junior fell to his knees. He stayed there, his head swaying from side to side and the anger washed from his eyes by the tears of pain.
"You know," Flint observed, "what you said about givin' me some shit is really funny. It really, truly is." Flint touched the knuckles of Junior's right hand with the toe of his polished black wingtip. The cheap wristwatch fell to the pavement beside Junior's fingers. "See, nobody on this earth can give me any more shit than I've already had to endure.
Do you understand?"
"Ahhhhplleesh," Junior managed.
"I've been where you are," Flint said. "It made me meaner. But it made me smarter, too. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you smarter.
Do you believe that?"
"Immmmaeuff," Junior said.
"Take your watch," Flint told him. "Go on. Pick it up."
Slowly, Junior's hand closed around the watch.
"There you go." The cold smile had never left Flint's face.
"Now I'm gonna help your education along."
He summoned up his rage.
It was an easy thing to find. It had grinning faces in it, and harsh, jeering laughter. It had the memory of a bad night at the blackjack table, and of a loan shark's silky threats. It had Smoates' voice in it, commanding Ten minutes. It had a lifetime of torment and bitterness in it, and when it emerged from Flint it was explosive. The hand of Clint felt that rage and clenched into a knotty fist. Flint inhaled, lifted his foot, exhaled in a whoosh, and stomped Junior's fingers beneath his shoe.
The watch broke. So did two of the fingers and the thumb.
Junior gave a wail that shattered into croaking, and he lay writhing on his side with his hand clasped to his chest and bits of watch crystal sticking into his palm.
Flint stepped back, sweat on his face and the blood pounding in his cheeks. It took him a few seconds to find his voice, and it came out thick and raw. "You can tell the police about this if you want to." Flint returned the brass knuckles to his pocket. "Tell 'em a freak with three arms did it, and listen to 'em laugh."
Junior continued to writhe, his attention elsewhere.
"Fare thee well," Flint said. He stepped over Junior, walked out of the alley, and got into his car. In another moment he had fired up the rough and rumbling engine and pulled away from the curb en route to the Twilight Zone Pawn Shoppe on Stoner Avenue.
As he drove, Flint felt sick to his stomach. The rage was gone, and in its place was shame. Breaking the boy's fingers had been cruel and petty; he'd lost control of himself, had let his baser nature rule him. Control was important to Flint.
Without control, men fell to the level of animals. He pushed a cassette tape into the deck and listened to the cool, clean sound of Chopin's piano preludes, some of his favorite music. It made him think of his dream. In the dream, he stood on a rolling, beautiful [email protected] lawn, looking toward a white stone mansion with four chimneys and a huge stained-glass window in front.
He believed it was his home, but he didn't know where it was.
"I'm not an animal." His voice was still coarse with emotion.
A dwarf-sized left hand suddenly rose up before his face, swatting at his cheek with the ace of spades.
"Stop that, you bastard," Flint said, and he pushed Clint's arm back down where it belonged.
The twilight Zone Pawn Shoppe stood between Uncle Joe's @s and the Little Saigon Take-out Restaurant. Flint drove around back and parked next to Eddie Smoates's late-model Mercedes-Benz. The door at the rear of the pawn shop had a sign identifying it as Dam BA BoNm MD CouzcmoNs.
Clint was moving around under Flint's shirt, getting hungry, so Flint reached into the backseat for a box of Ritz crackers before he got out of the car. He pushed a button on the brick wall beside the door, and a few seconds @ Smoates's voice growled through an intercom mounted there: "You're late."
"I came as soon as A buzzer cut him off, announcing that the door had been electronically unlocked. Flint pushed through it into the air-conditioning. The door locked again at has back, Smoates kept a lot of valuables around, and he was a careful man. There was a small reception area with a few plastic chairs, but the office had closed for regular business an hour ago. Flint knew where he was going; this place was as familiar to him as his brother's arm. He walked past the reception desk and knocked on a door behind it.
"In!" Smoafts @ and @t entered.
As usual, Eddie Smoates sat at the center of a rat's nest of piled-up papers and Me folders. The office smelled of @c, onions, and grease: the prime ingredients of the Little Saigon @ut dinner that lay in [email protected] plates and CUPS atoP Smoates's untidy desk. The man was stuffing the rubber-lipped mouth in his moon-round face with @ chicken. Smoates had the quick, dark eyes of a ferret, his broad wdp shaved bald and a gray goatee adorning his chin.
He had massive forearms and shoulders that maed his lime-green Polo shirt, though his belly was becoming voluminous as well. Twenty years ago Smoates had been a profesional wrestler, wearing a mask and going by the name X the Unimown. He said, "Siddahn" as he sucked piem of gallic chicken off the bones, and Flint sat in one of the two chou-s that faced the desk. behind Smoates was a metal door that led into the pawn shop, which he also owned. On a rack of shelves pushed precariously against a wall were a halfdozen TV wb, ten VCRS, and a dozen or so swm amps.
The TV sets were on, all tuned to different channels though their volumes were too low to be audible.
Smoates, a noisy eater, lwt [email protected] Grease on his chin and in his goatee. Flint was repelled by Smoates's lack of manners. He @ stared fixedly at his employer's prized collection of what Smoates called his "
Hold in a glass cuno cabinet were such items as a mumnufied cat with two heads, a severed human hand with seven fingers in a jar of murky preservative, the skull of a baby with an extra eyehole in the center of its forehead, and- the cruelest trick, it seemed to Flint-an embalmed monkey with a third arm protruding from its neck! On a shelf above the "MWee, were the photo albums that contained the pictures Smoates had collected of what seemed to be his driving passion next to making money and that Smoates was a connoseur of freaks. As other men enjoyed vintage wine, fine paintings, or , Smoates craved @ue oddities of flesh and bone. Flint, who lived in an apartment in the town of Monroe a hundred miles east of Shreveport, had never visited his employer's home in the six years he'd been on the Dixie payroll, but he understood from one of his fellows that Smoates kept a basement full of freak memorabilia gleaned from five decades of carnival sideshows. Whatever it was that made a man long to gaze upon the most bizarre and hideous of malformed creations, it ran dark and twisted right to the roots of Smoates's soul.
Such fascination disgusted Flint, who considered himself a well-bred gentleman. But then, Flint himself might still be an object of disgusting fascination had Smoates not visited the sideshow tent that advertised, among other attractions, Flint and Clint, the Two in One. Smoates had paid Flint to go with him to a photography studio and pose shirtless for a series of pictures, which had presumably wound up with the others in the photo albums. Flint had no desire to page through the albums; he'd seen enough freaks in the flesh to last him a lifetime.
"You win or lose?" Smoates asked, not looking up from his garuc chicken.
"Around three hundred and fifty."
"That's good. I like when you win, Flint. When you're happy, I'm happy. You are happy, right?"
"I am," Flint said gravely.
"I like for my boys to be happy." Smoates paused, searching his plate of bones for a shred of meat. "Don't @ like them to be late, though.
Ten minutes ain't fifteen. You need a new watch?"
"No." Clint's arm suddenly slid from the front of Flint's shirt and began scratching and tickling at his chin. Flint took a @tz cracker from the box and put it into the fingers.
Immediately the arm withdrew, and from beneath Flint's shirt came the sound of crunching.
Smoates pushed his plate aside, his fingers gleaming with grease.
His eyes had taken on a feverish glint. "Open your @," he commanded.
"I like to watch him eat."
As much as he detested to, Flint obeyed. Smoates was the man with the wallet, and he didn't tolerate disobedience from his "boys."
Flint's fingers undid the buttons, len* Smoates have a clear view of the slim white dwarfish arm that was connected at the elbow to an area just beneath Flint's solar plexus.
"Feed him," Smoates said. Flint took another cracker from the box. He reft the soft bones of his brother move within lum, a slow shifting that pressed against his own organs. Flint could smell the cracker and his hand searched the air for it, but Flint guided it the fist-siwd growth that protruded from his right side. Sumtes was leaning forward, watching. The growth was as pale as the arm, was hairless and eyeless but had a set of @ nostrils, ears @ tiny seashells, and a pair of thin Hps. As the cracker came nearer, the lips parted with a soft, wet noise to show the small, sharp teeth and tongue that might have belonged to a ldtten. The mouth accepted the cracker, the teeth crunched down, and Flint pulled his fingers back to avoid being nicked.
Sometimes Clint was overeager in his feeding.
"Amazin'." Smoates wore a dreamy smile. "I swear, I don't know how your wires got crossed, but they sure did, didn't they" Flint rebuttoned his shirt, except for the one button at the center he usually left open. His face was impassive.
"What did you want to see me about?"
"Take a look at this." Smoates picked up a remote control from his desk, pressed down with a big, greasy thumb, and one of the VCRs clicked into Play mode. Static sizzled on one of the TV screens for a few seconds, then the grave face of a dark-haired newswoman appeared.
She was speaking into a microphone, while behind her was a police car and a knot of people standing around a building's revolving door. Smoates used a second remote control to boost the volume.
this afternoon in what police are saying was the act of a d te and disturbed man," the newswoman said.
"Emory B who was the loan manager of the First Commercial Bank, was pronounced dead on @ at All Saints Hospital. This was the scene just a few moments ago when Clifton Lyies, the bank's president, made a public statement."
so The picture changed. A grim-faced man with white hair was standing in front of the building, reporters holding a forest of microphones around him. "I want to say we don't intend to sit still for this outrage," Lyles said. "I'm announcin' right now a reward in the amount of fifteen thousand dollars for Lambert's capture." He held up a hand to ward off the shouts. "No, I'm not takin' questions.
There'll be a full statement for the press later. I just hope and pray that man is caught before he kills anybody else.
Thank you very much."
The newswoman came on again. "That was Clifton Lyles, president of the First Commercial Bank. As you can see behind me, there's still a lot of activity here as the police continue to-" The videotaped image stopped. Smoates turned the volume down. "Crazy fucker went in there and shot Blanchard.
Fella lost his marbles when he found out his pickup truck was being' repossessed. You up to goin' after this skin?"
Flint had been feeding Clint during the videotape. Now he chewed on a cracker himself, leaving his brother's fingers searching through the opening of the undone button. "I always am," he answered.
"Figured so. I got a call in." Smoates had a connection in the police department who, for a fee, fed him all the information he required. "Have to move fast on this one.
Tell you the truth, I don't think there's much chance of getting' him. Every badge in the state'll be gunnin' for him.
But there's nothin' else on the docket, so you might as well give it a try." He struck a kitchen match and lit a black cheroot, which he gripped between his teeth. He leaned back in his chair and spewed smoke toward the ceiling. "Give you a chance to take the new man out on a trainin' run."
"The new man? What new man?"
"The new man I'm thinkin' of hirin' on. Name's Eisley.
Came in to see me this afternoon. He's got potential, but he's green. I need to see what he's made of."
"We work alone," Flint said quietly.
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