Till you didn't know your place it crawled over you like that. Wailing darkness - hiding us, me and the Lieutenant ... us and the perp. An uncertain dark, unfaithful as the hurricane's jabbering tick. Any moment perp would make that dark shelter go away . . . any second . . . too soon to move . . .
Perp slick and treacherous as the storm. WANDA spit noise. Boat lanterns stabbed pencils of white. Some twenty yards along, a loosed day-sailor bucked high against splintering redwood dock. Redwood planks chewed at the oak deck. Above, four kerosene lanterns swung wildly from its tangled rigging, flashed across two hulls, prows mated, sunk, sterns riding above and grinding lewdly. When Gaia-the-bitch takes a piece-of-ass she rips it! Again the light, a glimpse of the AKKAD, Fila's pilothouse schooner. She lay shattered across the next line of slips. A fractured oak piling had run through the cabin, splayed the mahogany, folded the mast into her buckled, cracked keel.
Omens. I despise them, but I do not despise fear. The concrete outer wall of the marina moaned the low tones buried in shrieking wind.
This is the end, Sargent; I'm waiting.
My eyes lost the thrashing boat; Nicky too had been watching ... he followed with a swift movement, involuntary, his right arm rotating downward, scanning the storm with barrels of the sawed-off ten-gauge. We could see nothing. Did only one storage lay between us and the river? Thirty feet - another thirty seconds of life? But blue steel probed in the space between the metal covering our back and the dark. That dark no longer a friend to the other man.
End of the line, bastard.
Nicky seemed to catch the subtle shift in fortunes, the cast of dark, treacherous omens in mind's eye. He leaned from the shed's lee, and tip of his white linen hat caught the first whip of rain. It stenciled his ear with noise, and spilled from the brim across his cheek. He wiped it off, but the Panama clung to his forehead like a straw shield.
The message rang clear, still crackled like the night static, weaving nonsense. The voice had been that of dispatch, a hag from east of the Wapoo. A round-heel slut, for any pair of silver bars, but she wouldn't warm his belly; not tonight.
"Code ten twenty-nine. Violent disturbance at the Ashley River Marina, near slip three twenty-one. Units three, eighteen respond."
Violent disturbance indeed. Lieutenant fired off a copy, slowed the Ford bandit-chaser on the flooded street and waited. I pictured the writhing Marina, unit eighteen dry-humping the projects off Meeting Street. What did the dispatcher know?
I rattled into the mic. "Ten-eleven from unit eighteen?"
Crap. No back up. I made that clearly, before the radio messages disappeared in pink noise, and in a flash of Low-Country bile the City of Charleston went black.
Wednesday afternoon, height of the storm surge, City Station a mayhem. Captain Marsh had squeezed us like grape juice - his office stank, breathing bodies: vice, narcotics, homicide. Charleston was mayhem. The storm fury beating on us - on the Holy City. Two feet of water in Old Town and brine wash still rising, creeping out of the Bay, backing up through the drains, sucking at stone walls of the Battery . . .
Marsh stalking the shift, feeling for the weak stone ... "Any of you bastards need a map? I want you on the streets in twenty minutes. The lez . . . Sargent Bowers has the patrol zones."
"I'll take the pink-side," snickered a pale Piedmont face.
I tossed a zone-map in his lap. "Get a dildo first, Creutz! Get something ..."
More snickers ... Hurricane Wanda had come ashore in the reaches, thirty miles south of Folly Island. Charleston would miss the worst, but should have missed it all. WANDA had tracked north, following the Gulf Stream, and should have trashed New Jersey, not the Carolinas. Control worried Marsh.
"Creutz. Creutz! Get skin off your eyeballs." A parched, Piedmont face rose from the Hustler, and casually slid back. "Try to stay off the bitches today, while you're on duty."
A baritone. "Not patrolling the docks . . . Captain?"
"Who said that? You can read? Bellow - that you? What'samatter? Enrico finally get Dolrun off the dole, so it's your turn? Let him bob for the white bananas. We'll stay residential. Homicide squad meets back here at seven P.M. sharp. No Lone Ranger stunts tonight." Marshes face swung around. "Got that DeLeon?" Detective Lieutenant Nick DeLeon ... my new partner ... Marshes eyes snatched at mine. "Ya got 3-Balls tonight, Bowers. Don't get lost ..." and the room broke up laughter howling in my ears.
Marsh had locked eyes, but the Lieutenant, Nicky ... 3-Balls as the street calls him ... he had remained among the others, silent, stiff-backed against the green plaster wall, hands casually free. His eyes not the only cold, resisting, bloodless eye for Marshs next lousy idea. It was insane sending street cops out during a hurricane. Insane ... no sacrifice too great, protecting the citizens of the Holy City, no detail too dangerous if it pushed Captain Marsh along and Chief of Police was only the start.
What's it worth to be a winner? Nicky got that shine from the Captain. "Ask the wife, DeLeon."
Nick slept with it, the prod, buried the prod . . . Did he did live small - one perp at a time? What did I know after three weeks ... He allowed that. Ask Eve, his wife or Fila. Any of the bitches puffed over him like cotton balls in a gin. Nicky ... the Lieutenant didn't care, way I saw him, but objected only to those living big by the big suck.
Nicky rapped dry. "One of the team, Captain. Thumb's in to the knuckle."
He didn't crack. Creutz simpered, and the Captain's order did not change. Every street-corner flooded; every crook run for cover. Cops needn't worry about the killers, dopers and whores, not when a hurricane casts such a wide net. So Marsh had said; after the harangue, so a few of them believed. Nickys ex-partner Sam Johnson never believed, always reminded by the lead worm in his back. Sam had taken sick-call - again. Without me, Nicky was the Lone Ranger.
We had spent all afternoon cruising the hospital district around Calhoun, down to public housing projects, up to the tidal pools on Lockwood. Yeah, we'd pulled a five-year-old kid from a flooded drain on 8th Street. Beneath a hundred unseen darkstreet eyes and as quickly, a red brick tenement had swallowed him. Sure as hell the kid would return, in ten years, or five, with nobody to pull his ass out. No one to remove the bullets . . . Nickys satisfaction had been professional, cold.
The dispatch for the Marina had caught us halfway down Broad Street, not five minutes away from the flooded Battery. I listened, clicked the transmit button - the street lights winked twice and failed. Brick facades licked away; lights in second story bedrooms flickered. Nicky slowed, allowed his headlights to carve a tunnel from the street. Punchy static overwhelmed his receiver as gas-powered generators flipped on.
Radio crackled and I rapped. "Do you copy, unit three?"
Two crashes of lightening bathed the Ford in violet; the police broadcast failed.
"Cut-rate backup generators," Nicky swore. "Should have bought from Hitachi instead of Siemens."
"Are you kidding me, Lieutenant?"
"Yeah ..." He checked the stainless Rolex. Seven-ten. "This is not good." Nicky squeezed the gas, wrenched at the wheel. The big Ford slid around spitting rubber, tit to tail, whipping the Palmetto fronds that covered the street into a green froth that glazed the headlight beams. A cripple's eyes, they crept down the empty street, groping among last bad choices.
A roll of thunder collapsed the green tunnel, reflected from the high marble wall, exploded it in brightness. My thoughts fled along paths of a patrol in narrow mountain valleys near Rio Del-Plata . Delta Company, 2nd Rangers. Lashing fronds of green now covered my face; bodies lay unseen, just ahead. Shining Path screams in the rain. The squad point flushes, too black by a century. Violet tracers above, violet streams of light crackled over the Ashley River, reached through the windshield.
Broad Street swallowed them. "You OKey, Sargent?"
"Yeah, Nicky ... I'm fine."
"Figures we dance on up and have a peep."
"The marina's gonna be a mess, Lieutenant."
"Wouldn't want to mess up that blue jumpsuit now would we ... department issue? Didn't think so. Suppose I hold your slippers, Sargent, so you don't break a heel ..."
"Slippers don't have heels. You wanna see my stilettos?"
"Another night, Sargent." Nick's face writ green by the panel lights. He punched the gas, my back rammed into the seat, the rattle of litter as the big Ford scat onto Lockwood Boulevard. Five minutes to the marina. My right hand struggled to unlock the shotgun. I thought of dark alleys and rain-swept nights and every bullet that had plucked at my life - repeating a last sane thought.
Just another five minutes.
Had we ignored that feeble radio call, had we lost ourselves among the flooded streets of Old Town, had we for once allowed Charleston to look after it's own, I would now be crushing the high, firm breasts of my Korean bitch.
Nicky found the girl on the third row of slips - dispatch had that much right - grim happenstance, a lull when the silence crashed and wept. You try to stay optimistic. We had searched the slip-lines, hoping for a retching, drunken bimbo, the hurricane party casualty. Twice our luck held . . . Nicky clicked the safety catch on his Big-10 and eased down to the pitching line of hulls.
Base of the ladder a blue water cruiser foamed angry, chewing at its lines. Cabin lights patterned through the open hatchway. Patterns and light, but not the pattern of life . . . freckled . . . movement; we felt for voices and stepped away. Bright blue seeped through a porthole on the adjoining boat, it larger, securely fastened. A womans voice seeped through pleading, bleating bleating to be fucked harder. Death hadn't called. I stopped - Nicky ran past it, seeking the end slip. A writhing sea of planks drove him back, and he came to kneel beside the girl.
She lay face up on a bed of torn sailcloth, bare legs splayed over the aluminum ladder. The body was naked, but for the knife slash that drained her life. Red covered her breasts - he touched them - blood still bright and warm and new following the wash of rain to the deck in curling rivulets. Her face, I imagined, had once smiled.
Oh God, she's a baby.
Leave the dead in peace. Nicky stood and flickered the beam of a small flashlight. Two bloodstained steps led back toward the wooden ladder, butchery fresh. Red drops forming under the lowest rung . . . her butcher's path. He knelt, a drop creased his finger, falling, then rose moving away. I covered the body with sailcloth. Nothing fancy.
This craps table is closed.
"Bastard's still here, Lieutenant."
"I believe so, Sargent."
We placed a bet, took our spin at another table and that was no chance, not when blood is the hot ratchet. We knew this much. No one had passed us coming in, so the killer must still be at the Marina, farther out among the slips; hidden, trapped. I checked the eight 140-grain hollow-points in my 357-caliber; Nick cocked hammers of the shotgun and we headed toward the ladder, back up the wooden rungs like coppers everywhere: to nail the perp, enforce the law, maintain the social contract ... to kill a man.
Unlike most Marinas subject to both tide and current that on the lower Ashley River opened upstream. A concrete wall protected south and east, the main deck closed to Bay-side. Five rows of slips extended from the deck. Along the Marina wall, beyond the fifth row, we made our first gamble. We had no cover. When the attack came, we intended it to be in our face. I covered the Lieutenants back with my own. The 357-S&W barrel resting protected under my left breast. Nicky moved along the heavy plank, followed it outward into the face of the wind, around the last row of slips.
........the point is eight, ladies and gentlemen easy eight ssooooooo place your bets now plaaaaaace your bets .......
Three weeks that's all, as Nickys partner, but I knew how he played the table. When the attack came, Lieutenant was certain he would hear the first creak of redwood. As the killer left the concealment of the odd, unseen shadow, perps heel would punch at the weathered deck, gathering purchase, focusing the sweep of the knife-blade toward the crux between Nickys left shoulder and his throat. This judgement, our second gamble, where and how, if at close range, he would be struck. That's where the baby had been struck. Us moving, like in sex - a two-backed beast moving to kill a man; Nicky buried against the shed.
Suddenly, the wind died, leaving a fine mist loosely carried. "Now," he whispered, and bolted. Below, WANDA had piled the wreckage of sailboats and cruisers into this outermost rim of the marina; scum coated ladders led down, where a few craft remained bound by their lines. No fool would choose those rungs as a last place to die. We whipped past them. Images of light and laughter from the inner slip-lines mocked our gamble. We allowed them to rush by. Deceptions of place and sound and light, even the deception of living. Yet he was certain of hearing that first, desperate sound before he died, and measured it against the pressure on his right arm. Cramping. An older type of shotgun, 10-gauge, hammers cocked. Cold steel of the barrel's black ends bounced against the flat of his neck, his fingers spring tight against triggers. None of it could protect him from the first sound.
But if he should so much as imagine the second sound, the sound of the man's toe following the heel, if the strike delayed for that fraction, then no angel, no demon could forestall the winnowing from life that would issue from those barrels. A hot-lead rage of 40 grain hell. That second sound was very much a part of our gamble, that decision of chance that sent us in a mad rush down the labyrinth of docks, boats and sheds, to the tune of the hurricanes' mindless howl.
Whistling fresh, another wall of water blew in from the river, blinding us, stopping our pursuit beside a storage. Nick flattened against the metal and worked by the door-lock. His shotgun steadied, held low and almost vertical in the right hand, the left seeking the false safety of the rear metal edge until he was around, sliding down into a crouch. With his back against the shed, the steel barrels of the shotgun now pointed directly ahead, toward the dark, toward the nothing which opened beyond the final rail of the wall, to the open end of the marina and the Ashley River.
End of the line. It seemed so insanely funny. I couldn't imagine why - he never tried to explain how - at that instant Nicky slammed into me dropping us to the deck like a round-heel and last weeks best lay. I welcomed the slap of wood across my face ... as two slugs ripped dull spaces in the wall of noise, tore holes in the sheet metal where my heart had been. A fleck of steel creasing Nickys chin drawing blood, the shooter's whine, the surge of heat that flashed up my legs, all in that instant when death ferreted.
One slip over - twenty yards - the killer broke to our right. He'd slicked us! Dodged to an inside slip, clinging flat on bucking open wood ... staying low, now a dark form running parallel and along the fifth line of slips. Perp making for the main deck. Nicky and me nowhere - as we rolled apart I caught the glint of a pistol in perps hand as he passed a boat - and it was a man, rain-slicker billowing out behind the long, piston legs, saw the weapon rise and the dull flash - the shot was a wild, desperate prayer that whispered past my ear. I threw my 357-caliber pearl bead onto his legs and squeezed --SLAM -- SLAM-- I didn't stop the bastard. Nicky now up and running too ... first ... gained a step . . . our prey scuttled up the wooden rungs, steps ahead. Nick hit the outside corner at a full run . . .
. . . the shooter not twenty yards away, bounding from the ladder, Nicky tried to level the shotgun, tried as the bad leather betrayed - Italian leather and slick as a eunuch - refused to grab at the wood. I pelted behind him toe-to-heel ... when Nickys feet flew as both barrels fired. Both men went down, Nicky face-dive into the redwood with me plowing over his back and the shooter nowhere.
Shock and pain and two leather curses drove through my head - tsalt in my mouth ... the blow to my shoulder an empty nausea - I took another two full tumbles before coming to a prone, firing position. Nicky came up beside me his 40 caliber Browning pointed straight down the deck. Like me, his steel gunsight empty. The shooter vanished . . .
. . . I tried to scrambled up. My right knee twisted weak and watery and screaming and sank me to my knees. The Marina swam in the downpour - decking, boat-lights, crashing wrecks and the rain pelleting against my torn face. A slow trickle of blood creased my forehead. I rocked backward, taken woozy by a new wave of nausea, steadied, fought water from my eyes and bile from my throat. It was then I saw the ten-gauge.
Three paces away if Nicky could take them. The shotgun had slid forward and wedged at the top of the ladder, between the rail and a piece of mast. Like it had WANTED to stay ... had WILLED to stay on the concrete dock ... Nickys big-10, but for all that no Penelope! If the killer turned on him, returned and reached the shotgun first . . . Nick wiped a bloody streak from his face and chanced the move that was no chance at all.
He rose and stumbled forward, the Browning 40-caliber a metal wand feeling ahead. Testing. Warning, but as he approached, an arm and then a woman's head appeared over the edge of the deck. Nicky froze; she did not!
Her right hand uncertainly grasped at the top of the ladder, and finding a grip, pulled her up to straddle the rung. One hand knuckle-white on the wood. In her other hand she held a pair of white bunny ears, which on considering him, she flourished and tossed into the water. She stared unbelieving at what must seem an apparition. Staring right down the barrel of Nick's Browning and at his torn, drenched white linen suit, she let fly a tremendous, outraged laugh.
"Harvey, you big-dicked fucker. Looking for a rabbit?"
She was plenty indiscrete - without a stitch - except for orange, bikini panties. They clung low to her belly; a hash pipe decorated them, stuck in the pink elastic band. She motioned disdainfully toward me. "Or maybe ya got a radish ... ya jerk and need a carrot!" A phantom woman, naked and drunk and stoned three ways out of this world. But she leaned over, snatched the shotgun from the deck, and pumped it over her head like a carnival prize.
Nick raised the Browning. "You're spilling wind, mate. Get below!"
Her face, a swarm of incomprehension. She tartly flashed a tit, the shotgun now balanced across the top of her nipples. She swung a leg off the ladder and rocked forward, sweeping the tangle of platinum hair from her face,
"Don't be like that. Peek-a-boo? Its party time, dude, and I'm ready for both barrels." She belched, and lunged for the detective; he dodged, but she caught the side pocket of his coat and spun him around. A stiletto heel dug into the decking and she swung against him, reeking booze in his face, and then bounced away, still with a grip on his coat pocket. Her breasts danced beneath the Browning's steel bead.
"What'samatter, ya bastard. Shoot your load too early?"
"Moma told me never to hit a lady ..." Nick smacked her in the face as he wrenched the gun from her left hand. "And I've always listened to moma."
She went down hard on a pair of natural thirty-sixes, and while her ass twitched and wiggled she stayed down. WANDA drove in a wall of rain that ripped the torn orange panties from her ass, and brought a low moan from beneath the mass of platinum. Nick cracked and loaded the shotgun, shot the bimbo a look dividing pity from much worse . . . "Enjoy the party. Harvey has business."
I had time to think, watching the bimbo. Thinking about killers' business. They had both left blonds behind. They both needed to be somewhere else. Nicky and the perp. They were a snake with heads front and back, and Nicky was the asshole now. He'd make the killer's decision. If he had wasted the girl, the baby, and if he had escaped, closely pursued, the blood-rage growing in one, satisfied in another, he would think of nothing but his car.
I felt Nickys hands under my arms, and he hauled me up straight. Standing in rain that poured like a faucet left open. Strong hands. The kind that wouldn't let go all night, if they ever got a grip.
"Can you walk, Sargent?"
"But not run. Get the perv!"
"We will." He shoved a small silver flash into my hand. "Say hello first, and you won't let go all night." The bastard. Old bourbon tore down my throat ... "Say when ..." Second swallow tore a hole in my pain.
"Whatever you need ... Lieutenant."
Now we ignored everything ... biting rain and blood and the searing ache in my left knee. My arm over his shoulder we rushed forward. Took the stairs to parking in a leap, landing hard on the crushed shells, flood water high over my ankle. A single amber light glowered somber and mean above the scattered vehicles. We headed for the light, and the black Ford bandit-chaser parked beneath it. A sound, at once whip-like and grinding low, brought us to a halt.
From a crazed line of Palmetto trunks, a car broke from its space, spinning wheels in a high line of spray and reeling toward the entrance. It slammed sideways into a pick-up truck, stalled, restarted, and leapt away with a deep-throat roar. I knew the sound of a Roadrunner four twenty-seven: two four barrels and a Hurst stick. What a bitch. My last steps sloshed in a slow motion agony.
It figured, the perp wasn't gonna low-ride. His Roadrunner slid from the lot and onto Lockwood Boulevard. Auto-code popped our doors. Nick tossed the shotgun to me and dove in, jammed keys and punched at the gas, second gear already biting into the crushed shell, vaporizing it in a spray of grit-filled brine as I slammed my side door. Ahead, perp fish-tailed off Lockwood and caught the on ramp leading south over the Ashley River Bridge.
Blinding rain closed the world around us to a cave, filled with the fractured shimmering light of a million reflected images; headlights broken into their quantum fractions and those broken to a pulsing, psilocybin nightmare. I don't do drugs, but friends tell me ... Nicky blasted through it in a deadly rage, pulling the surface of the road back from the night. The Lone Ranger . . . riding . . . police radio stone dead, as every light between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
"Say something, Anita."
"We're the Lone ranger, Lieutenant," I managed rasping into the handset, punching the buttons a second time. "Even Creutz and Jackson . . . "
Nick knew a bad joke; the vice guys were on their backs. He knew the only real backup sat next to him, staring mournfully over blue steel barrels. He was riding the other. Michelins bit at the concrete ramp, thumped harshly - Frogskin on an American car seemed to me an affectation, a sensitivity - shot us onto the approach. Brights caught the high stabilizer fin crossing the middle of the Bridge; it was strobing, tattooing the bridge framework in a barely controlled shudder; bastard had the wheel, but the car had him. Nick blinked at his tach; second gear had red-lined at 6500 RPM. He jammed drive. The Roadrunner disappeared over the center, flashing its high tail in an obscene bounce, flaunting, teasing like a hundred-dollar whore at the Joker. Fast, he was fast all right, but though the shooter had a two-block lead, I kew how the Lieutenant thought. Perp was amateur, and Nicky felt certain he could hound him into the asphalt. Our brights cleared the hump and speared the Roadrunner wheeling left off the bridge, choosing the turnoff for the Wappo Cut and Folly Island.
"We got him!"
Route 17 continued in a straight shot, one-hundred and twenty flooded miles to Savannah. The killer might have tried to outrun us - a road race - 427 against 389 with bets on the big engine. A right turn on River Road led to a tangle of burbs, and we would have lost him in the maze. What had the killer left himself but a trap? A shoot out on some hell dark swamp island - a last stand among the dunes? Insanity!
Nick slowed, confident, the shooter fading into the Wappo Cut. He disappeared over the east end of the bridge in a rooster-tail plume, impossible speed. We crested the hill. Our brights picked up the Roadrunner as it swerved, fishtailed and crashed through the top of a fallen pine.
We had three seconds warning. Nicky sent the Ford into a full drift toward the guardrail, smacked it broadside and bounced back onto the road. Now, as the two cars streamed together the Lieutenant allowed a grim, satisfied smile.
"Dead end, suicide, setup."
"If we bounce like that again sure Lieutenant."
"I'll watch close for the next pine tree. Don't tell me we need a womans intuition?"
"Screw that. You serve me the good bourbon and we can't finish the job?"
Nicky said nothing. Then ..."How's the leg."
"I wouldn't feed it to my rotweiler."
Maybe the Lieutenant smiled ... "I'd re-load that shotgun, Sargent."
"Yeah, Nicky I got it loaded both barrels."
A two-headed snake without a hole. Us and the perp. In front a bad man hunted, running hard and desperate. In front of us the taillight of the Roadrunner glared red and coarse not three car lengths away. We ran together and we ran fast without caution - a revel like a socialite's heron rush - without beginning or end, control needle sharp . . .
Both cars hydroplaned randomly, taillight jiggling like so many rubies on a bimbo's necklace, headlights swinging beams into the mean high dark, then flattening to the road-swill. Shopping centers gave way to three story colonials and then to the Palmetto marsh - headlights pawed at the whipping swamp grass. Another ten minutes and we would cross to Folly Island, if the bridge had resisted WANDA. A grim thought, that soft suck of the island's maw, of smothering slowly in crab-infested pluff-mud. But least the perv so quick with his knife would pitch into the tidal river before us. Perhaps we would get a warning from the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of hydroplaning tires. Or a spin-out, so I would face the killer as the mud took us down.
I don't usually think fatal ... a girl can't do that these days ... I'd rolled down my window and angled out the shotgun ... at the right angle I'd send hot-lead hell steaming after the perp. When it happened, our Ford was on top of the killer fast, as fast as we ran, so fast that I had planned him a harder death and the brights glared through, gilding the killer's head in a rain-streaked halo. Chrome flashing white. Nicky banging the brake pedal; now standing on the brakes, tensing for the shock of metal against crushed metal. The Roadrunner shivered, then lurched to the right, disappearing before our disbelieving eyes, swallowed by a road driven narrowly into a dense cover of brush and pine and young Palmetto.
Nicky grappled the wheel, slewed the Ford left and banged the automatic into second. Smoke poured from the tires. The Michelins bit twice before the slide ended and they tore from the asphalt. Smeared red tail lights of the Roadrunner flashed over a hump. Seconds later, they winked between a pair of Cedar trunks, and vanished in blackness leading onto the marsh island. Our grill plowed through a mound of sand and dove into a sea of pine.
Wasn't a question of following the road. We couldn't do that, not blinded, under the island's canopy. Our headlights waved at the green sides of the tunnel, and the wheels follow them, tires tracking the deep sand ruts. Fat Palmettos flashed in the bright's and rotated out of view. Rotting swamp humidity smelled of new death, and should have had us thinking about the next bad choice.
I never saw it the Lieutenant neither. The stump from a huge fallen oak appeared at a corner, reached out and smacked the sliding rear end of our bandit-chaser. It felt like hell punching me in the face ... it spun the car around like a loose branch in an Edisto River eddy, and spewed bark fragments after the swirling trail of headlights. Tires couldn't hold a track plunging wildly from the road. The Ford dove into heavy brush, clipped a cedar trunk with its front fender, all cast sideways and whipped around. The car followed its lost bumper, tossing into a grove of low, young pine where an oak stump caught the frame and ripped through it, grinding the bandit-chaser to a halt.
One of the jolts knocked me silly, yet I saw all this happen like a spinning dream - the slide the crash the ripping ... It happened to someone else. Another time. A different place. What I heard and felt and saw. I never lost awareness or vision like I had floated above our wreck. An angel...
Our Ford stopped dead. Radiator steam spewed; the engine sputtered harshly and died. For an instant the siren wailed, like the panel, run through by a splintered branch. Headlights remained on, and poked upward, crazed, through a dense, wet forest of pine needles, all light lost in the rain and mist above the dark surrounding reach. Man, car, light and hope, all claimed by the swamp.
The steering wheel flailed Nicky semiconscious. The crash sudden and violent and in no one direction. He lay crosswise, head wedged against the door and legs twisted and spread around the gun-post and over my legs. His arm crooked through the branch that had ripped away his harness and pinned it to the seat. Pain, and all but the most primitive action remained beyond him.
Did he dream with me hanging on? Watching me watching ... Dreams of a man tumbling high in red mist drew back his mouth in a death-mask snarl. The spinning, grinding slowness of the crash, hateful, but he could not feel hate. If consoled or aware of anything during those first ten minutes, he may have sensed both cocked hammers of the ten-gauge, and that the triggers lay tense beneath the index and middle fingers of my right hand.
Did I see ... see and feel the OTHER? I'm not saying so, that I watched from above my body. I don't believe any mystical out-of-the-body crap! I don't know what an angel can feel, or wants to feel or if it makes any difference. Just because we had been tangled up before - at the marina ... during the car chase ... just because us and the perp had been so tangled did I observe him watching us? Did I watch from inside the perps own head?
During the unseemly quiet not gone unobserved. The slim, dark figure - hardly more than a shadow flitting along the marsh - had moved away from stabbing fingers of our headlights. He chose an outward path, toward the curving tip of the swamp island, with a certainty that belied his desire to put a quick end to us and our hounding.
Sounds of the crash had nailed him, momentarily, to the soft edges of the reach, forced him to reckon with hate. He did not imagine us now helpless in the wrecked car would judge himself lucky and release our prey; allow the blood trail to go cold. Leave it to a bigger man. The shadow harbored no such illusions. So the calculation churned inside him, this opportunity to butcher his pursuer against the certainty of escape.
. . . and as he clawed for it, they bled him, as surely as he had stolen the cloying sweetness of the girl. At the end, she understood better than any. With death he bought time, and would carve the mark of his power into them all . . . even now it trembled behind his eyes . . . For time, he would trade the detective's life. For this promise, the killer willed a path away from the lights.
He continued along the curve of the island, keeping the dark waters to his right, but staying within the brush. Eventually the thicket opened, the dense pine yielding to a grove of old cedar and oak. Confused, but not quite lost he risked the flashlight ... On the low rise above the clearing, lightning framed a long cinder block building, crude sharp edges rendered flat and uncertain by the mist. A second building stood taller, further back - his steps faster now . . .
. . . to the very tip of the island's curve, where the thin shadow man detected the raised pilings of the dock and the outline of trawlers. Now he broke into a run. Thirty yards around the curve he stopped ... a second shadow, an aluminum skiff moored to the pilings of an old pier built and rotted before he had been born.
We saw the narrow beam of a flash stab out from the bank. Then heard the boat motor turn and growl and catch - mechanical sounds sputtering through the dense, wet air. And we pelted toward the sounds.
How we tore ourself out of the busted Bandit-chaser ... I don't know. I remember cutting away branches, dragging the Lieutenant from his seat as flames starting licking under the frame and smoke poured out. Rain fell like black wet sheets. Then us standing in mud - Nicky slamming two percs into my mouth from the kit - then hot swallows from his silver flask. Then the motor sound and us pounding down the muddy ruts after it ...
... SLAM ... SLAM
We couldn't really see the boat ... only sputtering motor-sounds out there ... A rain of shotgun pellets enveloped the sound as surely and completely as walls of rain that swallowed the boat, making all invisible, and sealing soft island bank from the quiet waters of the reach. The twin blasts of the gun damped in the swamp grass, their message of death and rage lost forever among the pines, among the blades of tall green that danced to WANDA's last fury.
Nick thought the boat would be closer. We stumbled into the grove, heard the engine grind, thought we could kill it, if we could spot it at all. At fifty yards, Nicky would bet on the hi-brass, and had run full tilt toward the marsh.
But we hadn't lived to die a fool. I said. "So funny . . . " Splashed the flash on the rotted dock-post, where the tie-rope had dug in ... where it was not now ... Words bit into my lip. ". . . the rope got cast off with the boat!"
As if the boat and dock and bank had all floated into the reach together ... and us too not really standing on the sandy bank, but floating ... I don't know. Ya think about these things afterward, and how maybe it was the shock of it all -- how the Ford was still spinning and you inside. Nicky standing on the bank slowly re-loading the shotgun and me arms folded beside him ... all of it and us still floating ...
For ten minutes this delusion persisted. After the low growl of the motor became a random memory; after the flashlight batteries had weakened, and the beam turned a dull, evil orange which could barely find the thin line of mist at the bank. I watched Nickys face, how the pain came and went til tendons in his elbow rebelled in agony at the stainless steel ball which had become the best part of his left arm, and his mind's eye like mine returned on the funny length of rope.
Nicky handed over the Big-10 to me. "He's gigged us again, Sargent."
"I think so, Lieutenant."
Nicky pointed at the cinder-block building on the rise behind us. "We hit fast and hard ... toss the flare, soon as the door gives. You take the best shot. He's not to escape."
"Then hit him low ..."
The Lieutenant watched me - like a man sometimes watches a woman and smiled ... Only then did we make a line for the cinder-block buildings, in tune with the wind which now crooned a heavy deep steady tone to the Palmetto trunks.
The skiff had trailed its mooring line.
Rushing again, slashing through the oak grove, along the rise, onto steaming asphalt parking. At a full run, the squall past, two hi-brass chambered, front door at the crux of chimney and stone walk.
Baby-killer had not released his own mooring line. Or had never got into the boat!
The pounding out of last steps, hitting the door in full stride, shoulder first, my left hand gripping the flare, right hand squeezing the ten-gauge at vertical attention. Ready to swing ...
Him waiting, pressed against that door, watching toward the docks.
Wooden panels crunching, Nickys moving weight ripping brass hinges from rotted sills and the terrible force of contact slamming against him as the door splintered inward. I was running one step behind when he hit that door. What he thought ...
Roll through him.
My thumb fired the flare ... Nicky and the perp went down together and I tossed the burning stick over their bodies ... Perp weighed almost nothing, skin and bone sinuous and blade-quick. Long dollars for short memory and a foreigner's throbbing awareness. But the shock of us blasting through caught him from behind, tossed him across the room in a twitch of fear, flailing for balance like a fighting cock. The room blazed a maze of sickly yellow nightmare shadows. Nicky dove after him, and they tumbled together at arms-length over the concrete floor, Nicky and the giver of death quick as an eye-blink with the 38 automatic that had been stunned loose from his delicate fingers.
Death - you can meditate on death and god and eternity for years, but death comes knocking in an instant ... They came up from the roll, for an instant chest-to-chest. Perp swug a wrist-blade neck high and Nick ducked, driving a shoulder into perps gut. They rebounded apart. That splotch of yellow emptyness I dove for, and rammed the saw-off forward, against perps chest. Fast as death comes I snapped it -- SLAM -- SLAM -- the spew of hot lead blowing out his heart in a shriek of pink mist through the glass window that overlooked the dock and the shrimp trawlers and the black-sotted reach.
Of course, the telephone line was dead. Bust door bust window and the floor needed scrubbing ... I left a twenty to pay for the damage. A spray of dark red speckled my blue jumpsuit, and strands of fibrous white tissue clotted the Nickys Panama - he found an egg-whip hanging in the kitchen and scrapped them off.
He came out holding a pair of shrimpers pants. "Maybe you want to get out of that jumpsuit, Sargent. You look overdressed."
"I didn't bring my stilettos, Lieutenant."
"We got him, Lieutenant, right? That was the one ..."
"One of them, Sargent. Yes, we got one ..."
"A white man shouldn't talk juju. That's no damned answer."
"Right again ..."
There were four swallows left in Nickys silver flask. We didn't hurry. The Lieutenants not a man to hurry a woman. His Rolex marked eleven P.M. when we exited at the front, re-crossed the parking lot and wound back up the swamp island road. Careful, now, to avoid the thick dark forms, in the manner of a low country white, such a careful city detective.
An eighth mile beyond the parking lot, we found the perps wrecked Roadrunner. Hundred yards beyond that our Ford bandit-chaser ... what remained. The engine had burned out and down to the chrome wheels. Scrap. A battered door pried open. Salvage. The glove compartment held new batteries and a half-dozen hi-brass shells. We set off again through the silt and muck, with the twin barrels following the single beam of light. Almost calling, but that night no moccasins crossed our path, and well for them.
My leg hurt like hell-broke-open, but slogging steady we made Folly Road by midnight. No vehicle moved west from Folly Island. We might have known that the bridge had been rutted into the sound. An hour later, Nicky commandeered a DPW truck and turned it back toward Charleston. The road-crew had intended to do emergency repair on the bridge; we had other repairs in mind. Low country matters to be fixed. Oh yes. Men in a truck, ready to hold back the swamp. Our business, that patch of human swamp holding the killer's soul.
We had stood in a flooded patch of asphalt, Nicky waving the shotgun above his head. They came upon us suddenly, hauling on the emergency brake until their flashing orange lights skidded to a stop. The two blacks knew Nickys face, ignored me, smelled the cordite and blood reeking from his clothes. Knew we would take the truck.
They spoke quick and low. "What dat man do?"
"Nothin' sista should a' kept him from."
"Das so right! Not half-smart for a city boy; be more than half-dead that plow-iron poked through his chest."
"Heh, heh. Lucky we saw that big-10 he be wavin'."
"Yasur. DeLeon poke dem savvy holes. Heh, Heh. Won't stay in dat pl'f- mud, long as he . . . "
"Don't knows nothin' 'bouts pl'f-mud. Nothin' 'tal."
"Sista might a' known ..."
"Nuff say' . Tonight, he maybe have better luck, stay in that Charleston with the Misses. She looking after that po' white ass. He never be findin a juju out here."