"Howdy," a man said. "How're you doin'?"
"I'm all right," Dan lied. He was facing a slim, bucktoothed gent who must've stood six-four, his dark hair cut as if a bowl had been placed on his head as a guide for the ragged scissors. "You got a vacancy?"
The man, who wore blue jeans and a black Hawm=print shirt with orange flowers on it, gave a snorty @.
"Nothin' but," he said. "Come on in and we'll fix you up."
Dan followed the man up a set of creaky stairs onto the porch. He was aware of a deep, slow rumbling noise on the sultry air', frogs, he thought it must be. Sounded like hundreds of them, not very far away.
Dan went into the house behind the man, who walked to a desk in the dingy little front room and brought out a Nifty notebook and a ballpoint Pen. "AMghty," the man said, offering a grin that could've popped a bottle top. "Now we're ready to do some bidness." He opened the notebook, which Dan saw was a repstmtion log that held only a few @bbled names. "I'm Harmon DeCayne, glad you decided to stop over with us."
"Dan Farrow." They shook hands. DeCayne's palm felt oily.
"How many nights, Mr. FarrowT' t'imt one. @9 I'm YOU from?"
"Baton Rouge," he decided to say.
"Well, you're a long way from home [email protected], @'t your, DeCayne wrote down the fake information. He seemed so excited, his hand was trembling. "We got some nice cottages, real nice and comftable."
"That's good." Dan hoped the cottages were cooler than the house, which might've served as a steam bath. A small fan on a scarred coffee table was chattering, obviously overmatched. 'How much?" He reached for his wallet.
"Uh-" DeCayne paused, his narrow brow "Does six dolim suit you?"
"Seven [email protected] Paid in advance, if you please."
DeCayne jumped. The woman's voice had been a high, nasty whiplash. She had come through a corridor that led to the rear of the house, and she stood watching Dan with small, dark eyes.
"Seven [email protected]," she repeated. "We don't take no checks or plgmtic.09 "My wife," DeCayne said; his grin had expired. "Hannah. "
She had red hair that flowed over her [email protected] shoulden in a torrent of @ curls. Her face was about as as a chunk of limestone, all sharp edges and forbidding angles. She wore a shapeless lavender-colored shift and rubber flipflops, and she stood maybe five feet tall, her body compact and vnde-tupped and her legs @ white tree . She was holding a meat cleaver, her fingers ghstemng with blood.
"Seven dollars it is," Dan agreed, and he paid the man.
The money went into a metal tin that was instantly locked by one of the keys on a key ring attached to DeCaynes belt.
Hannah DeCayne said, "Give him Number Four. It's cimimt.pl "Yes, bon." De Cayne plucked the proper key from a wan plaque where six other keys were hangm "Get him a fan," she instructed her husband. He opened a closet and brought out a fan similar to the one that fought the steam currents. "A pffla, too."
"Yes, bon." He leaned into the closet again and emerged with a bare prow. He gave Dan a nervous smile that didn't do much to hide a glint of pain in his eyes. "Nice and comftable cottage, Number Four is."
"Does it have a phone?" Dan asked.
"Phone's right here," the woman said, and she motioned with the meat cleaver toward a telephone on a table in the corner. "Local calls cost fifty cents."
"Are Alexandria numbers long distance?"
"We ain't in Alexandria. Cost you a dollar a minute."
And she'd time him to the second, too, he figured. He couldn't call Susan with this harpy listening over his shoulder. "Is there a pay phone around anywhere?"
"One at the gas station couple of miles up the road," she said.
"If it's workin'."' Dan nodded. He stared at the cleaver in the woman's fist.
"Been choppin' some meat?"
"Froglegs," she said.
"Oh." He nodded again, as if this made perfect sense.
"That's what we live on," she continued, and her lower lip curled.
"Ain't no money in this damn place. We sell froglegs to a restaurant in town. Come out of the pond back that way." She motioned with the cleaver again, toward the rear of the house. Dan saw jewels of blood on the blade. "What'd you say your name was?"
"Farrow. Dan Farrow."
"Uh-huh. Well, Mr. Farrow, you ever seen a cockeyed fool before?" She didn't wait for an answer. "There's one, standin' right beside you. Ever heard of a cockeyed fool buyin' a damn motel on the edge of a swamp pond? And then puttin' every damn penny into a damn fairyland?"
"Han?" Harmon's voice was very quiet. "Please."
"Please, my ass," she hissed. "I thought we was gonna be makin' some money by now, but no, I gotta damn fool for a husband and I'm up to my elbows in froglegs!"
"I'll show you to your cottage." Harmon started for the door.
"Watch where you step!" Hannah DeCayne warned Dan.
"Damn frogs are breedin' back in that pond. There's hundreds of 'em 'round here. Show our guest the fairyland while you're at it, why don'tcha?" This last statement had been hurled at her husband like a bucketful of battery acid.
He ducked his shoulders and got out of the house, and Dan darted another glance at the woman's meat cleaver before he followed.
"Enjoy your stay," she said as he went through the door.
Holding the fan and the pillow, Harmon climbed into the pickup truck and Dan got behind the wheel. Harmon made a slight nasal whistling sound as he breathed, kind of Mo a steam kettle on a slow boil. "Number Four's up that rind," he said with an upward jerk of his chin. "Turn right."
Dan did. "Woman's always on me," Harmon said bitterly.
"So I messed up, so what? Ain't the @ first man in the world to mess up. Won't be the last neither."
"That's true," Dan agreed.
"It's that way." Harmon motioned to a weed-grown pathway meandering off into the woods.
What is? The cottage?"
"No. The fairyland. There's your cottage up road."
The headlights showed a dismal-looking green-daubed dump waiting ahead, but at least the roof appeared sturdy.
Also revealed by the headlights was a squattage of frogs, maybe two dozen or more, on the dirt road between Dan's truck and the cottage. Dan hit the brake, but Harmon said, "Hell, run 'em over, I don't give a damn."
Dan tried to ease through them. Some squawked and leapt for safety, but others seemed hypnotized by the lights and met their maker in a flattened condition. Dan parked in front of the cottage and followed DeCayne inside, the noise of the frogs a low, throbbing rumble.
He hadn't expected much, so he wasn't disappointed. The cottage smelled of mildew and Lysol, and the pent-up heat inside stole the breath from his lungs. DeCayne turned on the lights and plugged in the fan, which made a rackrting sound as if its blades were about to come loose and fly apart.
The bed's mattress had no sheet, and none was offered. Dan checked the bathroom and found two fist-size frogs croaking on the shower tiles. DeCayne scooped them up and tossed them out the back door. Then he presented the key to Dan.
"Checkout time's twelve noon. 'Course, we're not expectin' a rush, so you can take your time."
"I'll be leavin' early anyway-" "Okay." He'd already put the pillowcase on the pillow and directed the fan's sullen breeze toward the bed. "You need anythin' else?"
"Not that I can think of." Dan didn't plan to steep here; he was going to bide his time for a few hours and then call Susan from the gas station's pay phone. He walked outside with DeCayne and got his duffel bag from the truck.
"Hannah's right about watchin'where you step," the man said.
"They can make an awful mess. And if you find any more in the cottage, just pitch 'em out back." DeCayne looked toward his own house, which stood fifty yards or so away, the lights just visible through the woods. "Well, I'd better get on back. You married, Mr. Farrow?"
"Used to be."
"I knew you were a free man. Got the look of freedom about you.
I swear, sometimes I'd give anythin' to be free."
"All it takes is a judge."
DeCayne grunted. "And let her steal me blind? Oh, she laughs at me and calls me a fool, but someday I'll show her.
Yessir. I'll fix up the fairyland the way it oughta be and the tourists'll come from miles around. You know, I bought all that stuff for a song."
That stuff " "In the fairyland. The statues and stuff. It's all in there: Cinderella's castle, Hansel and Gretel, the whale that swallowed Jonah. All they need is patchin' and paint, they'll be like new."
Dan nodded. It was obvious the man had constructed some kind of half-baked tourist attraction along that weeded-up pathway, and obvious too that the tourists had failed to arrive.
"One of these days I'll show her who's a fool and who's smart,"
DeCayne muttered, mostly to himself. He sighed resignedly. "Well, hope you have a good night's sleep." He began walking back to his house, frogs jumping around his shoes.
Dan carried his duffel bag into the cottage. In the bathroom he found a sliver of soap on the sink, and he removed his baseball cap and damp shirt and washed his face and hands with cool water. He was careful to get rid of the last traces of blood between his fingers and under his nails. Then he took a wet piece of toilet paper outside and cleaned the pickup's steering wheel. When he returned to the cottage, he discovered in the bedside table's drawer a six-month-old Newsweek magazine with Saddam Hussein's face on the cover. Beneath the magazine was the more useful discovery of a deck of cards. He sat down on the bed, leaning back against the plastic headboard, and he took off his wristwatch and laid it beside him. It was twelve minutes after nine; he'd decided that he'd go make the call at eleven o'clock.
He dealt himself a hand of solitaire, the first of many, and he tried with little success to get Blanchard's dying face out of his mind. In a couple of hours he might either see Chad or be in the back of a police car heading for jail. Was it worth the risk? He thought it was. For now, though, all he could do was wait and play out the cards before him. The wristwatch's second hand was moving, and the future would not be denied.
Meet the Pelvis As Dan had been driving away from Reverend Gwinn's house, a black 1978 Cadillac Eldorado with a broken right headlight and a crumpled passenger door turned into the parking lot of the Old Plantation Motel 'near Shreveport's regional airport.
In the sultry twilight gloom, the place looked as if Sherman had already passed through. Flint Murtaugh guided his car past a rusted cannon that defiantly faced the north. A tattered Confederate flag drooped on its warped pole. The motel's office was constructed to resemble a miniature plantation manor, but the rest of the place was definitely meant for the slaves. Trash floated on the brown surface of the swimming pool's water, and two men sat sharing a bottle beside an old Lincoln up on cinder blocks.
Flint stopped his car before the door marked twenty-three and got out. Beneath Flint's shirt, Clint twitched in an uneasy sleep. Flint heard a man's and woman's voices tangled in argument through an open door, cursing each other purple. Beer cans and garbage littered the parched grass. Flint thought that the South wasn't what it used to be.
He knocked on the door of number twenty-three. A dog began barking from within, a high-pitched yap yap yap yap.
"It's all right, Mama," he heard a man say.
That voice. Familiar, wasn't it?
A latch clicked. The door opened a few inches before the chain stopped it.
Flint was looking at a slice of pudgy face and a sapphireblue eye.
An oily comma of dark brown hair hung down over the man's forehead.
"Yes sir?" that deep, slightly raspy, oh-so-familiar voice asked as the dog continued to yap in the background.
"I'm Flint Murtaugh. Smoates sent me."
"Oh, yessir! Come on in!" The man took the chain off, opened the door wider, and Flint caught his breath with a startled gasp.
Standing before him, wearing a pair of black pants and a red shirt with a wide, tall collar and silver spangles on the shoulders, was a man who had died fourteen years before.
"Don't mind Mama," Elvis Presley said with a nervous grin. "She's got a bark, but she don't have no bite."
"You're. . ." No, of course it wasn't! "Who the hell are you?"
"Pelvis Eisley's the name." He offered a fleshy hand, the fingers of which were laden with gaudy fake diamond rings.
Flint just looked at it, and the other man withdrew it after a few seconds as if fearful he'd caused offense. "Mama, get on back now!
Give him some room! Come on in, pardon the mess!"
Flint crossed the threshold as if in a daze. Pelvis Eisleythe big-bellied, fat-jowled twin of Elvis Presley as he'd been the year of his death at Graceland-closed the door, relocked it, and scooped up a grocery sack from the nearest chair. It was filled, Flint saw, with potato chip bags, boxes of doughnuts, and other junk food. "There you go, Mr. Murtaugh, you can set yourself right here."
"This is a joke, isn't it?" Flint asked.
A spring jabbed his butt, and only then did Flint realize he'd sat down in the chair. "This has got to be a-" Before he could finish, a little barking thing covered with brownand-white splotches leapt onto his lap, its wet pug nose mashed flat and its eyes bulbous. It began yapping in his face.
Meet the Pelvis "Mama!" Pelvis scolded. "You mind your manners!" He lifted the bulldog off Flint and put her down, but the animal was instantly up on Flint's lap again.
"I reckon she likes you," Pelvis said, smiling an Elvis sneer.
"I ... hate ... dogs," Flint replied in his chill whisper.
"Get it off me. Now.
"Lordy, Mama!" Pelvis picked the dog up and held her against his jiggling belly while the animal continued to bark and struggle. "Don't everbody in this world enjoy your shenanigans, you hear? Hold still!"
The dog's thrashings made Flint think of a Slinky. Its watery eyes remained fixed on him as he used his handkerchief to brush the dog hairs from the knees of his pants.
"You want something'to drink, Mr. Murtaugh? How 'bout some buttermilk?"
"No. " The very smell of buttermilk made him deathly ill.
"Got some pickled pig's feet, if you want a bite to-" "Eisley,"
Flint interrupted, "how much did that bastard pay you?"
"sir?9t "Smoates. How much did he pay you to pull this joke on me?" !
Pelvis frowned. He and the struggling dog wore the same expression. "I don't believe I know what you mean, sir."
"Okay, it was a good joke! See, I'm laughin'!" Flint stood up, his face grim. He glanced around the cramped little room and saw that Eisley's living habits were the equivalent of buttermilk and pickled pig's feet. On one wall a large poster of Elvis Presley had been thumb-tacked up; it was the dangerous, cat-sneer face of the young Elvis before Las Vegas stole the Memphis from his soul. On a table was a beggar's banquet of cheap plaster Elvis statues and busts; a cardboard replica of Graceland; a framed photograph of Elvis standing with his gloomy, hollow-eyed mother, and a dozen other Elvis knickknacks and geegaws that Flint found utterly repugnant. Another wall held a black velvet portrait of Elvis and Jesus playing games on the steps of what was presumably heaven. Flint felt nauseated. "How can you stand to live in all this crap?"
Pelvis looked stunned for a few seconds. Then his grin flooded back. "Oh, now you're joshin' me!" The dog got away from him and slipped to the floor, then leapt up onto the bed amid empty Oreo and Chips Ahoy coolde bags and started yapping again.
"Listen, I've got a job to do, so I'll just say fare thee well and get out." Flint started for the door.
"Mr. Smoates said you and me was gonna be partners," Pelvis said with a hurt whine. "Said you was gonna teach me eveethin' you knew."
Flint stopped with his hand on the latch.
"Said you and me was gonna track a skin together," Pelvis went on.
Flint wheeled around, his face bleached to the shade of the white streak in his hair. "You mean ... you're tellin' me ... this is not a joke?"
"No sir. I mean, yes sir. Mr. Smoates from the office to get me, 'cause that's where the phone is.
Mr. Smoates said you was on your way, and we was gonna track a skin together. Uh ... is that the same as being' a bounty hunter?"
Pelvis took the other man's shocked silence as agreement. "See, that's what I w:anna be. I took a detective course by mail from one of thera magazines. I was livin' in Vicksburg then. [email protected] who runs a detective agency in Vicksburg said he didn't have a job for me, but he told me all about Mr. Smoates. Like how Mr. Smoates was always on the lookout @or-let's see, how'd he put it?-special talent, I think he said. Anyhow, I come from Vicksburg to see Mr.
Smoates and we had us a talk this afternoon. He said for me to hang 'round town a few days, maybe he'd give me a tryout. So I guess this is what this is, huh?"
"You've got to be insane," Flint rasped.
Pelvis kept grinning. "Been called worse, I reckon."
Flint shook his head. The walls seemed to be closing in on him, and on all sides there was an Elvis. The dog was yapping, the noise splitting his skull. The awful stench of Fella come Meet the Pelyls buttermilk wafted in the air. Something close to panic grabbed Flint around the throat. He whirled toward the door, wrenched the latch back, and leapt out of the foul Elvisized room. As he ran along the breezeway toward the office with Clint twitching under his shirt, he heard the nightmare calling behind him: "Mr. Murtaugh, sir? You all right?"
In the office, where a Confederate flag was nailed to the wall next to an oil portrait of Robert E. Lee, Flint all but attacked the pay phone. "Hey, careful there!" the manager warned. He wore blue jeans, a Monster Truck T-shirt, and a Rebel cap. "That's motel property!"
Flint shoved a quarter into the slot and punched Smoates's home number. After four rings Smoates answered- "Yeah?"
"I'm not goin' out with that big shit sack!" Flint sputtered.
"No way in Hell!"
"Ha," Smoates said.
"You tryin' to be funny, or what?"
"Take it easy, Flint. What's ratin, you? "You know what, damn it! That Eisley! Hell, he thinks he's Elvis! I'm a professional! I'm not goin' on the road with somebody who belongs in an asylum!"
"Eisley's sane as you or me. He's one of them Elvis impersonators." Smoates let out a laugh that so inflamed Flint, he almost jerked the phone off the wall. "Looks just like him, don't he?"
"Yeah, he looks like a big shit sack!"
"Hey!" Smoates's voice had taken on a chill. "I was a fan of Elvis's. Drilled my first piece of pussy with 'Jailhouse Rock' playin' on the radio, so watch your mouth!"
"I can't believe you'd even think about hirin'him on! He'r, as green as grass! Did you know he took a detective course by mail?"
"Uh-huh. That puts him ahead of where you were when I hired you.
And as I recall, you were pretty green yourself.
Billy Lee raised hell about havin' to take you out your first time."
"Maybe so, but I didn't look like a damn fool!"
"Flint," Smoates said, "I like the way he looks. That's why I want to give him a chance."
"Are you crazy, or am I?"
"I hire people I think can get the job done. I hired you cause I figured you were the kind of man who could get on a skin's track and not let loose no matter what. I figured a man with three arms was gonna have to be tough, and he was gonna have something' to prove, too.
And I was right about that, wasn't I? Well, I've got the same feelin' about Eisley. A man who walks and talks and looks like Elvis Presley's gotta have a lot of guts, and he's already been down a damn hard road.
So you ain't the one to be sittin' in judgment of him and what he can or can't do. Hear?"
"I can't stand being' around him! He makes me so nervous I can't think straight!"
"Is that so? Well, that's just what Billy Lee said about you, as I remember. Now, cut out the bellyachin' and you and Eisley get on your way. Call me when you get to Alexandria."
Flint opened his mouth to protest again, but he realized he would be speaking to a deaf ear because Smoates had already hung up. "Shit!"
Flint seethed as he slammed the receiver back onto its hook.
"Watch your language there!" the manager said. "I run a refined place!" Flint shot him a glance that might've felled the walls of Fort Sumter, and wisely the manager spoke no more.
At Number Twenty-three Flint had to wait for Eisley to unlock the door again. The heat hung on him like a heavy cloak, anger churning in his constricted belly. He understood the discomfort of pregnancy, only he had carried this particular child every day of his thirty-three years. Inside the room, the little bulldog barked around Flint's shoes but was smart enough not to get in range of a kick. "You okay, Mr.
Murtaugh?" Eisley asked, and the dumb innocence of vis-voice was the match that ignited Flint's powder kegHe grasped Eisley's collar with both hands and slammed his bulk up against the Elvis poster. "Ouch," Pelvis said, showing a scared grin. "That ldnda smarted."
"I @ you," Flint said icily. "I dislike you, your hair, your clothes, your dead fat hillbilly, and your damn ugly dog." He heard the mutt growling and felt it plucking at his trouser leg, but his anger was focused on Eisley. "I believe I've never met anybody I dislike worse. And Clint doesn*t care for you worth a shit, either." He let go of Pelvws conu to unhook a button. "Clintl Out!" Ms brother's hand and arm slid it-re @ a shin white serpent. The fingers found Pelvis's face and began to explore his features. Pelvis made a noise @ a squashed frog. "You know what you are to mer, Flint asked. "Dirt.
if you get under my feet, I'll step on you.
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