Chapter 9

"All right. How about Basile Park? At the amphitheater?"

Basile Park was about three miles from the house.

"That'll do. What time?"

"An hour or so, I guess. But listen: if a policeman comes with me, or they won't let me take my own car, I won't be there. They might follow me without me knowin'. Are you willin' to " chance it?"

"I am.

"All right. I'm crazy for doin' it, but all right. I'll try to make it, but if I'm not there-" "I'll wait as long as I can," Dan said.

"Thank you, Susan.

You don't know how much this means to me."

"I'll try," she repeated, and then she hung up.

He returned the receiver to its cradle. His spirit felt lightened.

He and Susan had gone to several outdoor concerts at Basile Park, and he knew the amphitheater there. He checked his watch to give himself an hour, then he got back into the pickup truck and drove toward the Hideaway. He thought about the fifteen thousand dollars, and he wished he'd seen that much money in a year's time. They wanted him caught fast, that was for sure.

Before he reached the turnoff to the motor court, it crossed Dan's mind that Susan might be setting him up. The police might have been listening after all, and would be waiting for him at the park. There was no way to know for certain. He and Susan had parted on bitter terms, yes, but there had been some good times, hadn't there? A few good memories to hold on to? He remembered some, and he hoped she did.

He was Chad's father, and that was a link to Susan that could never be broken. He would have to take the risk that she wasn't planning on turning him in. If she was ...

well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

He drove past the DeCaynes' house on the way to his cottage, and he was unaware that the sound of his engine awakened Hannah from a troubled sleep.

She wasn't surt what had wakened her. Harmon was snoring in the other bed, his mouth a cavern. Hannah got up from under the sweat-damp sheet, her red hair-the texture of a Brillo pad-confined by a shower cap. She recalled bits and pieces of a nightmare she'd had; the monster in it had been a warty frog with skinny human legs. Wearing only a bra and panties that barely held her jiggling mounds in check, she padded, into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator's freezer, and got an ice cube to rub over her face. The kitchen still smelled of blood and frog guts, and in the freezer were dozens of froglegs wrapped in butchers paper for delivery to the restaurant. While she was at it, Hannah opened the carton of vanilla ice cream that was in the freezer as well, and she got a spoon and took the carton with her to the front room to gorge herself until she was sleepy again.

She switched on the radio, which was tuned to the local country music station. Garth Brooks was singing about Texas girls. Hannah walked to a window and pushed aside the curtain.

The lights were on in Number Four. Something about that man she didn't like, she'd decided. Of course, she didn't @ too many people to begin with, but that man in Number Four gave her a creepy feeling. He looked sick, for one thing. Skinny and pale, like he might have AIDS or something. She didn't like his tattoo, either. Her first husband had been in the merchant marine, was illustrated from wrists to shoulders, and she couldn't abide anything that reminded her of that shiftless sonofabitch.

Well, he'd be gone soon enough. They'd be seven dollars richer, and every cent helped. Hannah plopped down on the sofa, her spoon strip-mining the ice cream. Reba McEntire serenaded her, and Hannah saw the bottom of the carton.

The news came on, the newscaster talking about a fire last night in Pineville. The Alexandria town council was meeting to discuss pollution in the Red River. An Anandale woman had been arrested for abandoning her baby in the bus station's bathroom. A mentally disturbed Vietnam veteran had shot to death an official at a bank in Shreveport, and". . . fifteen thousand dollars reward has been offered . . .'$ Hannah's spoon paused in its digging.

". . . by the First Commercial Bank for the capture of Daniel Lewis Lambert. Police consider Lambert armed and extremely dangerous.

Lambert was last seen driving a gray 1989 Chevrolet pickup truck. He is forty-two years old, six-feet-one with a slim build; he wears a beard and . . ."

Hannah had a mouthful of ice cream. She stared at the radio, her eyes widening.

". . . has the tattoo of a snake on his right forearm. Police advise extreme caution if Lambert is sighted. The number to call is.

. ."

She couldn't swallow. Her throat had seized up. As she bolted to her feet, she spat the contents of her mouth onto the floor and a cry spiraled out: "Ha on! Harmon, get up this minute!"

Harmon wasn't fast enough for her. He found himself being grabbed by both ankles and hauled out of bed. "You crazy?" he yelped.

"Whatzamatter "He's a killer!" Hannah's hair, which had a will of its own, had burst free from the shower cap. Her hair went wild, her mouth rimmed with ice cream foam. "I knew something'was wrong with him I knew it when I seen him he killed a man in Shreveport got that tattoo on Ins arm fifteen thousand dollars reward Hear me?"

"Huh?" Harmon said.

Hannah grasped him by the collar of his red-checked pajamas.

"Fifteen thousand dollars!" she shrieked into his face. "By God, we're gonna get us that money! Now, stand up and put your clothes on!"

As Harmon pulled on his pants and Hannah struggled into her shapeless shift, she managed to drill the story through his thick skull. Harmon's face blanched, his fingers working his shirt buttons into the wrong holes. He started for the telephone. "I'll go call the law right n-" A viselike hand clamped to his shoulder. "You listen to me!" she thundered. "You want to throw that money out the window? You think the cops won't cheat us outta every damn penny, you're dumber than a post! We're gonna catch him and take him in ourselves!"

"But ... Hannah ... he's a killer!"

'.He ain't nothin' but a big al' frog!" she glowered, her hands on her stocky hips. "'Cept his legs are worth fifteen thousand dollars, and you and me are gonna take him to market! So you just shut up and do what I say! Understand?"

Harmon shut up, his thin shoulders bowed under the redheaded pressure. Hannah left the room, and Harmon heard her rummaging around in the hallway's closet.

Harmon got his ring of keys from the bureau and hooked them around a belt loop, his fingers trembling. When he looked up, Hannah was holding the double-barreled shotgun that was their protection against burglars. He said, "That gun's so old, I don't know if it'll even-"

She squelched him with a stare that would freeze time. Hannah also held a box of shells; there were five inside, and she loaded the shotiun and then pushed the other three shells into a pocket.

"We gotta got him out in the open," she said. "Get him outside where he can't get to his guns."

We ought to call the law, Hannah! Jesus, I think I'm 'bout to heave!"

"Do it later!" she snarled. "He might be a crazy killer, but I don't know many men who can do much killin' when they've got their legs blowed off! Now, you just do what I say and we'll be rich as Midas!"

She snapped the shotgan's breech shut, slid her feet into her rubber flipflops, and stalked toward the front door. "Come on, damn it!" she ordered when she realized Harmon wasn't following, and he came slinking after her as pale as death.

Mysterious Ways In Number Four, Dan checked his watch and saw it was time to go.

He'd swallowed two aspirin and laid down for a while, then had put on clean underwear and socks and the pair of blue jeans from his duffel bag. Now he stood before the bathroom's dark-streaked mirror, wetting his comb and slicking his hair back. He put on his baseball cap and studied his face with its deep lines and jutting cheekbones.

Susan wasn't going to recognize him. He was afraid again, the same kind of pawing fear as when he'd walked into the bank. More than likely, this was the last time he would ever see his son. He hoped he could find the words he needed.

First things first: getting to Basile Park without being stopped by the police. Dan halted the duffel bag over his shoulder, picked up the cottage's key, and opened the front door into the humid night. The frogs had quieted except for a few low burps. Dan went to hit the wall switch to turn off the ceiling's bulb when he heard a metallic clink from the direction of his pickup truck, and he realized with a jolt that someone was standing there at the light's edge, watching him.

Dan whipped his head toward the sound. "Hey, hey!" a man said nervously. It was Harmon DeCayne, sweat sparkling on his cheeks. He lifted his hands to show the palms.

"Don't do nothin' rash, now!"

"You scared the hell out of me! What're you doin' here?"

"Nothin'l I mean to say ... I saw the lights." He kept his hands upraised. "Thought you might need something'."

"I'm pullin' out," Dan said, his nerves still jangling. "I was gonna stop at your house and leave the key on the porch."

"Where you headin'? It's awful late to be on the road, don't you think?"

"No, I've got places to go." He advanced on DeCayne, intending to stow his duffel bag in the rear of the truck, and the other man retreated, that clinking noise coming from the key ring that Dan saw was fixed to one of DeCayne's belt loops. Dan abruptly stopped. His radars had gone up. He smelled a snake coiled in its hole. "You all right?"

"Sure I'm all right! Why wouldn't I be all right?"

Dan watched the man's eyes; they were glassy with fear.

He knows, Dan thought. Somehow, he knows. "Here's the key," he said, and he held it out.

"Okay. Sure. That's ri-" Dan saw DeCayne's eyes dart at something behind him.

The woman, Dan realized. He had the mental image of a meat cleaver coming at him.

He set himself and whirled around, bringing the duffel bag off his shoulder in a swinging blow.

BOOM! went a gun seemingly right in his face. He felt the heat and the shock wave and suddenly the burning rags of the duffel bag were ripped from his hands and the fiery shreds of his clothes were flying out of it like luminous bats Hannah DeCayne Marred backward holding a shotgun with smolm [email protected] from the breech. Dan had an instant to register that the duffel bag had absorbed a point-blank [email protected], and then the woman righted herself and a holler burst from her sweat-shining face. Dan saw the shotgun leveled at his [email protected] He jumped away from its dark double eyes a heartbeat before a gout of fire spewed forth and he landed on his belly in the weeds. His ears were ringing, but over that tintinnabulation he heard a wet smack and the c?ump of buckshot hitmw metal. He scrambled into the woods that lay alongside the cottage, his mind shocked loose of everything but the need to run like hell.

Behind Dan, Harmon DeCayne was watching his shirt turn red. The impact had lifted him up and slammed him back against the pickup truck, but he was still on his feet. He pressed his hands against his stomach, and the blood ran between his fingers. He stared, blinking rapidly, through the haze of smoke that swirled between him and his wife.

"Now you've done it," he said, and it amazed him that his voice was so calm. He couldn't feel any pain yet; from his stomach to his groin was as cold as January.

Hannah gasped with horror. She hadn't meant to fire the first time; she'd meant to lay the barrels up against the killer's skull, but his bag had hit the gun and her finger had twitched. The second time she'd been aiming to take him down before he could rush her. Harmon kept staring at her as his knees began to buckle. And then the rage overcame Hannah's shock and she bellowed, "I told you to get out of the way! Didn't you hear what I told your' Harmon's knees hit the ground.

He swallowed thiddy, the taste of blood in his mouth. "Shot me," he rasped. "You ...

damn bitch. Shot me."

"It's not my fault! I told you to move! You stupid ass, I told you to move!"

"Ahhhhhh," Harmon groaned as the first real pain tore at his tattered guts. Blood was pooling in the dust below him.

Hannah turned toward the woods, her face made even uglier by its rubber-lipped contortion. 'You ain't getting' away!" she yelled into the dart She popped the shotgun open and reloaded both barrels. "You think I'm lattin' fifteen thousand dollars get away in my woods, you're crazy!

You hear me, Mr. Killer?"

Dan heard her. He was lying on his stomach in the underbrush and stubbly palmettos forty feet from where the woman was standing. He'd seen Harmon fall to his knees, had seen the woman reloading her shotgun. Now he watched as Hannah walked to her husband's side.

She looked down at Harmon's damp, agownd face. "You mess up every damn thing," she said coldly, and then she lifted the shotgun and fired a shell into the pickup's left front tire. The tire exploded with a whoosh of air and the pickup lurched @ a poleaxed horse. Dan almost cried out, but he clasped a hand over his mouth to prevent it.

"You ain't goin' nowhere in your truck!" Hannah shouted toward the woods. "You might as well come on out!" Dan still wore his baseball cap, beads of sweat coming to his face. AD his, other clothes were blown to rags, his metallic-mist Chevrolet pickup crippled, his hopes of getting to Basile Park blown to pieces, too. The red-haired witch held the shotgun at hip level, its barrels aimed in his direction. "Come on out, Mr. Killer!" she yelled. Beside her, Harmon was still on his knees, his hands pressed to the wet mess of his midsection and his head drooping. "All right then!" she said. "I can play [email protected] if you want to, and first chance I get I'll blow your damn brains outt" She suddenly began swidng into the woods almost directly toward where Dan was stretched out. Pawc stuttered through lum; there was no way he could fight a loaded shotgun. He bolted up and ran again, dwM into the thicket. His spine crawled in expectation of the blast. "I hear you!"

Hannah squalled. He heard the noise of her stocky body smashing through the foliage. "Don't you mn, you twtardl" She was coming like a hell-bound freight train. Low pine branches whipped into Dan's face as he ran, thorns grabbing at his trousers. Under his feet, frogs grumped and jumped.

His right shoe caught a root and he staggered, coming PeWously close to [email protected] The underbrush was dense, and the noise he was making would've brought his Vietnam platoon leader down on his head like a fifty-pound anvil. He had neither the quick legs nor the balance of his youth. All he cared about at the moment was putting distance between himself and a shotgun shen.

And then he smelled oily stapance and his shoes splashed into water. Mud bogged him down. It was the hill pond.

"You wanna go swimmin'?" Hannah shouted from behind him.

Dan couldn't see how large the pond was, but he knew he didn't din try to get across it. The woman would shoot him whUe he was knee-deep in muck. He backed out of the water to firmer earth and set off again through weeds and brush that edged the pond. No longer could he hear the woman following him, and it leapt through his mind that she knew these woods and might be bunkered down somewhere ahead. He pushed through a tangle of vines. Up beyond the canopy of pines and willow trees he caught sight of a few stars, as distant as Basile Park seemed to be. And then he entered a stand of waist-high weeds and he walked right into the arms of the figure that stood in front of him.

In that instant he probably gained a dozen or so new gray hairs.

He came close to wetting his pants. But he swung at the figure's head and pain shot through his imuckles when he connected with its jaw. The figure toppled over, and it was then that Dan realized it was a plaster mannequin.

He stood over it, wringing his bruised hand. He could make out two more mannequins nearby as if frozen in hushed conversation, their clothes weatherbeaten @.

Dark shapes lay before him,.but he was able to discern what seemed to be a carousel half covered with kudzu. He had stumbled into Harmon DeCayne's fairyland.

He went on, past the rotting facade of a miniature castle.

There was a broken-down Conestoga wagon and a couple of rusted car hulks. Bricks were underfoot, and Dan figured this was supposed to have been the main street of an enchanted village. Other mannequins dressed as cowboys and Indisanq stood about, the citizens of DeCayne's imagination. Dan moved past a huge tattered fabric shape with rotting wooden ribs that he thought might have been Jonah's whale, and suddenly he was looking at a high mesh fence topped with barbed wire that marked the edge of DeCayne's propertyI can climb the fence, he decided. The barbs'fl be tough, but they'll be kinder than that dsimn shotgun. Once I get over, I canCan what? he asked himself. Without my truck I'm not getting' very far.

But there was another set of wheels close by, wasn't there?

The station wagon parked next to the [email protected] house.

He remembered the key ring on Harmon's belt loop.

Would the station wagon's key be on it? Would the car even run?

It had to; how else did they get their froglegs to market?

But to get the key ring he would have to double back through the woods and avoid the woman, and that was a tall and dangerous order.

He stood there for a moment, his hands grasping the fence's mesh.

Beyond the fence was just more dark woods.

If he had any hope of getting to Basile Park, he would have to go back for the key ring.

Dan let go of the fence. He drew a deep breath and released it.

His head was hurting again, but the ringing in his ears had . He turned away from the fence and started back the way he'd come, creeping slowly and carefully, his senses questing for sound or motion.

A on ed mannequin wearing a crown or tiara of some kind-a deformed fairy princess-stood on his right in the high weeds as he neared Jonah's whale. And suddenly Dan caught a sinuous movement from the corner of his eye, over beside a crumbling structure festooned with kudzu. He was ah-eady diving into the weeds as the shotgun boomed, and a split second later the princess's head and neck exploded in a shower of plaster. He lay on his side, breathing hard. "Got you, didn't I?"

Hannah shouted. "I know I winged you that time!"

He heard the shotgun snap open and then shut again. The woman was striding toward him, her flipflops maidng a smacking noise on the bricks. Dan felt what seemed to be a length of pipe next to his shoulder. He reached out and touched cold fingers. It was the princess's missing arm.

He picked it up and rose to his feet. There was Hannah DeCayne, ten feet in front of him, the shotglm aimed just to his left. He flung the plaster arm at her, saw it pinwheel around and slam into her collarbone, and she bellowed with pain and fell on her rump, the shotgun going off into the air.

Then Dan tore away through the weeds with the speed of desperation, leaving the woman cursing at his back.

He found the pond again, and ran along its boggy edge. In another few minutes he pushed out of the underbrush twenty yuds away from his lamed pickup truck Harmon DeCayne was still in the same position, kneeling with his head bowed and his hands clasping his bloody middle.

Dan leaned over the man and grasped the ring.

DeCayne's eyes were closed, his breathing ghastly. Dan pulled the keys loose, and suddenly DeCayne's eyes opened and he lifted his head, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.

"HannahT' DeCayne gasped.

"Be still," Dan told him. "Which key starts the station wagonri "Don't ... don't hurt me."

"I'm not gonna hurt you. Which key starts the-I' DeCayne's mouth stretched open. He shrieked in a voice that sliced the night: "Hannah!

He's got the keysf" Dan would've slugged lum if the man hadn't been gutshot. He stood up as DeCayne continued to sound the alarm. In a couple of minutes the woman would beaR over him. Dan ran along the road toward the DeCayn house.

Harmon's shoufin faded, but the damage was done. Reaching the station wagon, Dan opened the door on its groaning hinges and slid behind the wheel. The inside of the car smelled like the it-og pond.

He tried to jam a key into the ignition, but it refused. The next key balked as well. He saw a blurred movement, and by the house lights made out Hannah DeCayne runwng toward him on the road, her hair flying behind her, her sweating face a nctus of rage. She was holding the shotgun like a club, and Dan she must be out of shells but she still could knock his brains out of his ear The third Imy would not fit.

tin "You ain't getting' away!" she roared. "You @t get away!t.

Dan's fingers were slippery with sweat. He chose not the fourth key, but the fifth.

It slid in.

He turned it and pressed his foot down on the gas pedal.

The station wagon went ehehehehBOOM and a gout of black smoke flew from the exhaust. Dan jammed the Mysterious Ways gearshift into reverse and the car obeyed @ a glacier, and then Hannah DeCayne was right there beside him and she jerked his door open and swung at his @ with the shotpu's stocl Dan had seen the blow coming, and he ducked down in the seat as the shotgun slammed against the door frame. Then Hannah was lunging into the car after him even as Dan picked up speed in reverse, and she tried to claw at his eyes with one hand while the other beat at him with the gun. He kicked out at her, caught her right hip, and she staggered back. Then he swerved the car around in a bone-jarring half circle and dust bloomed up between him and the woman. Dan shoved the [email protected] into drive, floored the accelerator, and the car rattled forward. One of the side vnndows suddenly shattered inward from another blow of the shotgun's stock, bits of glass stinging Dan's neck. He looked back, saw Hannah DeCayne running after him as the station wagon picked up speed, and she cursed his mother and tried to grab hold of the open door again. Then he was leaving her behind and he found the headlight switch an instant before he would've smashed into a weeping willow tree. As it was, he jerked the wheel and scraped a dent along the passenger side. He got the door closed [email protected] looked in the rearview mirror but could see nothing through the swirling dust. It wouldn't have surprised him, though, if Hannah DeCayne had been hanging on to the exhaust pipe with her teeth.

Then he reached Highway 28 and steered toward Alexandria and Basile Park. The woman had given him a blow on the left shoulder with the shotgun's stock, and though it hurt like hell, it wasn't broken.

Better that than a cracked skull He debated stopping at the Amoco station to call an ambulance, but he figured Hannah would run into the house first thing and do it. The station wagon's tank was a little less than three-quarters full, which was a real blessing. He had his wallet, the clothes on his back, and his baseball cap. He @ had his skin on, too. He counted himself lucky.

[email protected] had stopped running. There was no use in it, and her lungs were on fire. She watched the station wagon's lights move away. For a long time she stood in the dark, her hands clenching and loosening again on the empty shotgun.

She heard his voice-a weak voice now-calling her.

"Hannah? Hannah?"

At last she turned her back on the highway and limpedpainfully, a braise blackening on her right hip-to where Harmon was crouched on his knees.

"Hannah," he groaned, "I'm hurt bad."

She'd lost her flipflops. She looked at the bottom of her left foot, which had been cut by a shard of glass. The sight of that wound, with its angry edges, made something start ticking @ a bomb in her brain.

"Call somebody," Harmon said. His eyelids were at half mast, his hands clasped together in the gory swamp of his stomach. "You ...

gotta . . ."

"Lost us fifteen thousand dollars." Hannah's voice was hollow and weary. "You mess up every damn @" "No ... I didn't. It was you ...

messed up."

She shook her head. "He read you, Harmon. He )mew. I told you to get out of the way, didn't I? And there went fifteen thousand [email protected] down the road. Oh my God, what I could've done with that mo-" She stopped speaking and stared blankly at the dust, a pulse beating at her temple.

"I'm hurtin'," Harmon said.

"Uh-huh. The thing is, they could prob'ly sew you up at the hospital."

He reached up a bloody hand for her. "Hannah ... I need help."

"Yes, you do," she answered. "But from now on I think I'm gonna help myself." Her eyes had taken on the glitter of small, hard stones.

"Too bad that killer stopped here. Too bad we found out who he was.

Too bad he fought the shotgun away from you."

What?- Harmon whispered.

"I tried to help you, but I couldn't. I ran into the woods and hid, and then I seen what he done to you."

"Have you ... lost your mind?"

"My mama always told me the Lord moves in mysterious ways," [email protected] mid. "I never believed her tffl @ very minute."

Harmon watched his wife lift the shotgun over her head like a club.

He made a soft, mewling noise.

The shotgun's stock swung down with all the woman's bitter fury behind it. There was a noise like an overripe melon being crushed.

The shotgun rose up again. Sometime during the next half-dozen blows, the stock splintered and broke away. When it was done, Hsinnah DeCayne was bathed in sweat and gasping, and she had bitten into her lower lip.

She looked down at the ruins and wondered what she had ever seen there. She wiped the shotgun's barrel off with the hem of her shift, dropped it on the ground beside the crumpled form, andthen she limped into the house to make the call.

Time the Thief The rust-splotched station wagon crept through the of Alexandria, past the dark and quiet houses, past the teardrop-shaped streetlamps, past sprinklers hissing on the parched brown lawns.

Dan drove slowly, alert for the police. His shoulder was stiffening, his body felt as if he'd been tumbled a few times inside a cement mixer, but he was alive and free and Basile Park was less than a mile away.

He'd seen no police cars and only a few other vehicles out at this late hour. He turned onto a street that led into the manicured park, following it past an area of picnic tables and tennis courts. A sign pointed the way to the amphitheater, beyond the public parking lot.

His heart sank; the lot was empty. But maybe she hadn't been able to shake the police. Maybe a lot of things. Or maybe she'd just dded not to show up.

He decided to wait. He stopw , @ station wagon, cut the lights and the engine, and',i*'there in the dark, the song of cicadas reaching him [email protected] a nearby stand of pines.

What had happened to his pickup track still speared him.

This whole nightmare was accountable to the truck, and it had taken that red-haired witch two seconds to destroy its usefulness.

Damn, but he was going to miss it. A real workingman's truck, he recalled the salesman saying. Easy payments, good warranty, made in America.

Dan wondered what Blanchard's wife and children were feeling like about now, and he let the thoughts of his pickup truck go.

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