"I guess I didn't hear him."
"You don't smile or play anymore, Dave. It's like something's always wrong."
"I'm not that bad, am I?"
She looked straight ahead, her cap bouncing with the bumps in the road.
"Alf?" I said.
But she wouldn't turn her head or reply.
"Hey, Baby Squanto, come on."
Then she said in a quiet voice, "Did I do something that made you sad?"
"No, of course not. Don't ever think a thing like that, little guy. You're my partner, right?"
But her face was morose in the purple light, her dark eyes troubled with questions she couldn't answer.
After I said her prayers with her and kissed her goodnight, I read until very late, until my eyes burned and I couldn't register the words on the page and the darkness outside was alive with the cries of night birds and nutrias in the marsh. Then I watched the late show on television, drank a glass of milk, and fell asleep with my head on the kitchen table. I woke during the night to the sound of Alafair's slippered feet shuffling across the linoleum. I looked up bleary-eyed into her face. Her pajamas were covered with smiling clocks. She patted me on top of the head as she would a cat.
He waited for me in my dreams. Not Tee Beau Latiolais or Jimmie Lee Boggs but a metamorphic figure who changed his appearance every night but always managed to perform the same function. Sometimes it was ole Victor Charlie, his black pajamas glued against his body with sweat, his face strung with human feces out of a rice paddy, one bulging walleye aimed along the iron sights of a French bolt-action rifle. When he squeezed the trigger I felt the steel jacketed bullet rip through my throat as easily as it would core a cantaloupe.
Or I would see myself down a narrow, unlighted brick passageway off Dauphine in the French Quarter. I could smell the damp stone, the mint and roses growing in the courtyard, see the shadows of the banana trees waving on the flagstones beyond the piked gate that hung open at the end of the passageway. My hand tightened on the grips of the.45; the mortar between the bricks in the wall felt like claws in my back. I worked my way up to the courtyard entrance, my breath ballooning in my chest; then suddenly the scrolled iron gate swung into my face, broke two of my fingers as if they were sticks, raked the.45 out of my hand, and knocked me backward into a pool of rainwater. An enormous black man in a child's T-shirt, in lavender slacks at least three sizes too small for him, so that his scrotum was outlined like a bag of metal washers, squatted down with a.410 shotgun pistol resting on his thigh and looked at me through the bars of the gate. He was toothless, his lips purple with snuff, his eyes red-rimmed, his breath rank with funk.
"Your turn to beg, motherfucker," he said. "That's right, beg for your worthless shitass life."
Then he smiled, lifted the point of my chin with the shotgun barrel, and cocked the hammer.
I would awake on the couch, my T-shirt and shorts damp with perspiration, and sit in a square of moonlight on the edge of the couch, my head bent down, my jaws clenched tight to keep them from shaking.
I was full pay during my three months' leave, and when I returned to work I was assigned to restricted duty. I stayed in the office most of the time; I interviewed witnesses for other detectives; or sometimes I investigated traffic accidents out in the parish. I did a great deal of paperwork. I was treated with the deference you often see extended to a wounded and recuperating soldier. The attitude is one of kindness, but perhaps a degree of fear is involved also, as though mortality is an infectious condition that must be treated by isolation.
My life became as bland and unremarkable as the season was soft and warm and transitory.
Then, on a windblown afternoon, with leaves flying in the air, I drove to Lafayette in my truck to see Minos P. Dautrieve, an old friend and DEA agent who was now assigned to the Presidential Task Force on Drugs.
He loved to fish, and because I didn't want to talk with him at his house, with his wife or children somewhere on the edge of the conversation, I asked him to bring his spinning rod and drive with me to the levee at Henderson Swamp. I stopped at one of the bait and boat-rental shacks below the levee and bought two poor-boy shrimp sandwiches and a long-necked bottle of Jax for him and a Dr Pepper for me. We walked down to a grassy place on the bank, across from a row of willow islands that acted as a barrier between the channel along the levee and the swamp itself, which was actually an enormous wetlands area of bays, canals, bayous, oil platforms, and flooded stands of cypress and willow trees. He flipped his Rapala out to the edge of the willow pads that grew on the opposite side of the channel.
Minos had been All-American honorable mention when he played forward for LSU, and he still wore his hair in a college-boy crew cut, mowed so close that the scalp glowed. He was as lean, flat-stomached, and tapered-looking as he had been when sportswriters named him Dr. Dunkenstein. He had been a first lieutenant with army intelligence in Vietnam, and although he was often flippant and cynical and defensive about his role as a government agent, he had a good heart and a hard-nosed sense about right and wrong that sometimes got him in trouble with his own bureaucracy.
I sat down on the incline and tore a long-bladed stem of grass along the spine. I told him about the strange sense of ennui that characterized my days. "It's like being in the middle of a dead zone. It's like suddenly there's no sound, like all movement has stopped."
"It'll pass," he said.
"It doesn't feel like it."
"You got two Hearts in ' Nam. You came out of it all right, didn't you?"
"That was different. The first wound was superficial. The second time I didn't see it coming. There's a difference when you see it coming."
"I never got hurt, so maybe you're asking the wrong guy. But I've got a feeling that something else is bothering you."
I dropped the torn grass blade between my knees and wiped my fingers on my pants.
"I feel like I begged," I said.
"I don't understand. You begged Boggs before he shot you?"
"No, when Tee Beau climbed down into the coulee and cocked the.38 in my face." I had to swallow when I said it.
"It sounds to me like you did just fine. What were you supposed to do? You had a round through your chest, you had to lie there in the dark with your own thoughts while a couple of guys talked about killing you, then you had to depend on the mercy of a black kid who'd already been sentenced to the electric chair. I don't think I would have come out of that altogether intact. In fact, I know I wouldn't."
He flipped his lure out again and retrieved it in a zigzag motion just below the water's surface. Then he set the rod down on the bank, took our sandwiches and drinks out of the paper bag, and sat down beside me.
"Listen, podna," he said. "You're a brave man. You proved that a long time ago. Stop trying to convince yourself that you're not. I think what we should be talking about here is nailing Boggs. Like cooling out his action, dig it, like blowing up his shit. How'd he get the gun in the can, anyway?"
"He had a girlfriend in Lafayette, a dancer. She blew town the same day he escaped, but she left her fingerprints all over the towel dispenser."
"Where do y'all think he is now?"
"Who knows? He left the car in Algiers. Maybe he went back to Florida."
"How about the black kid?"
"Disappeared. I thought he'd show up by now. He's never been anywhere, and he's always lived with his grandmother."
"Catch him and he might give you a lead on Boggs."
"He might be dead, too."
Minos opened the bottle of Jax with his pocketknife, put the cap inside the paper bag, and drank out of the bottle, staring out at the long, flat expanse of gray water and dead cypress. The sun was red and low on the western horizon.
"I think it's time to put your transmission into gear and start hunting these guys down," he said. "The rules of the game are kick ass and take names."