We started the outboard with some effort and pulled away from the dock at Turk's.
The cove widened into the main spine of the lake. A half mile away, on the far shore, the hills were dotted with cabins and radio towers. Occasionally a motorboat would zip by a few hundred yards away? a minute or so afterward we'd find ourselves bobbing up and down as we cut through the wake. By the time we'd turned the boat toward the mouth of Maple End Cove we had lake water up to our ankles and I'd had to move my backpack off the floor and into my lap. Bip had assured us those little holes in the boat would be no problem.
Allison took off her shoes and was about to dangle her footsies over the side when I said, "I wouldn't do that."
She frowned. In the afternoon sun, the purple glasses cast long red reflections down her cheeks. "What? They're already wet."
"It's not the water. It's the moccasins."
I pointed ahead to a spot where the water was rippling a little bit more aggressively than the normal dips and swells.
Allison brought her feet back in.
We passed the floating nest. A dozen or so green and silver whips were twisting into sailor's knots just below the surface.
Allison whistled softly. "Only snakes we had in Falfurrias got made into belts. Hope these guys understand if the boat sinks next to them."
"Me too. Last year a waterskier took a spill into one of those nests. She died instantly."
Allison put her feet up on my bench, one on either side of my legs. Her toenails were painted red. Her pants legs were rolled halfway up her tan calves and fit tight that way, not loose as they would've on Carolaine.
She rested her elbow on her knee and cupped her hand on her chin and blinked her eyes at me. "I believe you made that up, Mr. Navarre."
I shrugged, tried not to smile. We puttered along past the snakes.
The southern tip of Maple End Cove, sure enough, had a huge maple tree jutting from the top of the ridge. Maples are pretty rare in Texas, but this one apparently hadn't heard the news that it wasn't supposed to thrive. It was at least thirty feet tall and blazing with fall colours. The rocky ground around it was littered with burnt orange and apple yellow. At the waterline below, several women were sunbathing on an old floating pontoon dock. There were stairs cut into the rock, leading down to the dock, but they stopped a good twenty feet above, where the waterline used to be.
The cove narrowed quickly as our boat puttered into it. After one curve the banks on either side were no more than twenty yards apart. The water this far back was murky green and smelled of stagnation—scum and leaking septic material and dead fish. The shoreline on the right was fairly steep and thick with cedars and live oaks, all the branches overgrown with spiky Spanish moss. I could glimpse the tops of semis or RVs speeding along the highway above where Elgin was parked.
There were two cabins, both on that side of the cove. The one farther down was a wellkept whiteshingled house set almost at the top of the ridge. At the water level was a floating dock, and above that a small patch of lawn grass. A handpainted wooden sign meant to be read from the water proudly announced: THE HEIDEL MANS, with daisies and frogs all around the letters. There was a small army of plastic waterfowl with wind propellers for wings surrounding the sign and a flagstone path up to the house. The windows were all shuttered and no lights were on.
A half acre closer to us was a militarystyle Quonset hut that jutted out of the slope about halfway between the water and the highway. It had a wooden deck facing the water. The front wall was painted chocolate brown, with a screen door and two windows covered in yellow curtains. The hut's shell was an arc of corrugated aluminium as dull as the inside of a food can. There was a metal pipe chimney in the back.
"My husband," Allison sighed. "Wonder if I can figure out which one of these is his."
I cut the boat's engine and drifted into the tall weeds by the shore below the Quonset hut. The boat ground against the rocks as it came to a stop.
There was a dock, sort of. The cement pylons were still there, and a few boards not yet rotted to splinters. I wasn't sure I wanted to trust them with my weight.
Ten feet to the left of the dock there was a sunken boat sticking its prow out of the water. The remnants of Bip's last customer, maybe.
I sloshed and slipped my way onto dry land. Allison stayed right behind me. I looked up at the dark windows and the closed door of the Quonset hut.
If Elgin was smart, if he was keeping watch because he thought Les might show up here, he'd have his partner Frank somewhere down here. Maybe at the Heidelmans, or even inside Les' cabin. Of course if Elgin was smart, he wouldn't have been so damn easy to spot on the highway. I figured we had a fighting chance.
We climbed what passed for steps—old boards hammered perpendicularly into the clay of the hill. The stairs to the deck were on the side of the cabin. Nobody on the highway could've seen us from there. Nobody jumped out of the woods in commando gear. We made plenty of creaks and cracks getting to the front door. If anybody was inside, they'd sure as hell know we were coming.
The door was padlocked—one of those loops slotted through a metal hinge. Dumb.
I got Allison to hand me a Phillips head out of my backpack and removed the base of the hinge in less than a minute. We could've gone through the window pretty easily too, but I wasn't ready to break glass just yet.
We went inside the hut.
Allison said, "Yuck."
It was dark. It smelled like rotten food and sour laundry. In the light of my pencil flashlight it was difficult to piece together exactly what we were seeing, what happened here. There was an unmade single bed against the left wall. A portable stereo against the right littered all around with CDs and cassettes. The CD carriage was sticking out—the "drink holder," as my brother Garrett called it. The floor was covered in grass mat that was starting to tear into separate squares. The curved roof was covered with black cloth that just made the space seem more claustrophobic. In the back was a kitchenette and a phone and one shuttered window and a tiny walledin area that must've been the bathroom.
When our eyes adjusted to the dark Allison went into the kitchen and lifted a pan of halfscrambled eggs from the electric grill. They were rubberized in places, crystallized in others.
"Two eggs for breakfast," Allison said. "Every day, no exceptions."
"He left halfway through making those," I said. "What do you think—about two or three days ago?"
Allison shuddered, put the pan down. "Something like that. So the bastard's alive."
She sounded less than thrilled. She gave me a tentative smile. "I guess I figured that.
She hooked her thumbs in her borrowed Banana Republics, looked around at her feet where men's clothes were strewn around as if somebody had walked through a laundry pile. Then she kicked one of Les' shirts with a vengeance.
I went into the bathroom. A man's toiletry bag was in the sink, next to a propanepowered Destroilet with directions on the lid about how to avoid a house fire when you flushed.
I got out my Polaroid and took a picture of the toilet. Nobody would believe me about it, otherwise. Then I took some pictures of the rest of the cabin—the eggs, the laundry, the scattered CDs.
I went to the kitchen counter and picked up the phone. The line was active. I set the switch from touch tone to pulse and pressed redial. I was pretty sure I got the number on the first listen but I hung up before it rang, then tried it again. I wrote the number on my hand and let the phone ring. No answer on ten, no answering machine.
Allison said, "Tres."
I turned. She was looking at me reproachfully, holding the frying pan with the eggs. As quietly as possible she said, "Well? This or the Mace?"
Then I heard the creaking, from outside, like someone trying to climb the old porch steps with at least some semblance of stealth.
A shadow moved across the yellow curtain into the doorway and became Frank the Bubba, my courteous shakedown deputy from the night before. He scowled and smushed his nose against the screen door, trying to see into the interior gloom. He was wearing jeans and an orange Hawaiian shirt. More advanced surveillance techniques.
I looked at Allison. "You're a lot of fun. But right now I want you to put down the frying pan, okay?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Put it down."
Frank's eyes adjusted to the dark. He focused on me. I smiled and waved. He looked at Allison. Slowly, she lowered the pan and waved too.
"If we had a gun," she speculated quietly, "we could've shot him five or six times by now."
"Shut up," I told her. "Please."
Frank opened the door and came inside.
His face was lyescrubbed red and his eyes were bleary. His blond moustache whiskers spiked at weird angles. He looked groggy and irritated but not particularly surprised.
"That's right," he said. "You two really need to be here."
The walkietalkie on his belt made a click, then a metallic crackling sound. He kept his eyes on me while he picked it up. "Never mind, Garwood. False alarm."
The garbled response sounded vaguely like Elgin's voice. I couldn't make out what he said but apparently Frank could.
"Yeah," he said. "It was nothing."
Frank turned the volume knob down to zero.
"False alarm?" I asked.
Frank scanned the room, tapping the walkietalkie against his thigh. "Elgin has some ideas what he might do if he ever sees you again. I don't want him to get too excited."
Frank looked around for a place to sit, opted for the bed. He sank into the foam mattress, hesitated, then crossed his legs and began to pry off his left boot.
"Got to excuse me," he grumbled. "Feet are killing me."
Allison said, "You want us to rub them for you?"
She was leaning against the kitchen counter, head on her hand like she was bored.
She glanced at me and said, "This guy managed to get you on the pavement?"
Frank's ears turned the same colour orange as his Hawaiian shirt. He raised his eyebrows at me. "New woman?"
"Allison SaintPierre. She's charming, really."
The name registered, maybe the reputation, too. Frank gave me a weary look of condolence. He switched legs and tugged off the other boot. His socks were two slightly different shades of blue.
" I didn't like what happened last night, Mr. Navarre. I didn't like it worth a damn."
"Try being the one with your nose in the gravel."
A smile flickered underneath the moustache. "You don't get what I'm saying. People bother Mr. Sheckly, I got no problem pushing them around a little. That's not my beef."
Allison sighed. She fiddled wistfully with the Mace on her key chain, picking at the little plastic tab.
"Sheck takes care of his people," Frank continued. "It's a closeknit county out here.
P.I.s come around all year long, sticking their noses into the Paintbrush's business, looking for paternity suits, blackmail photos, you name it. I don't have any problem dissuading them."
"Planting guns in their cars," I said.
Frank sat quiet for a long time, then apparently decided something. He sat forward, reached into his wallet, and pulled out a photograph.