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He nodded and made lines on the tablecloth with his cereal spoon. Through the glass the southern sky was as dark as gunmetal, and white veins of lightning pulsated and trembled in the clouds.

I brushed my teeth, rinsed my mouth, and spit into the lavatory. Too bad, Tony, I thought. I didn't know you were a closet Rotarian.

I had seen his kind before. They come into AA and unload some terrible moral guilt, or perhaps the whole travesty of their lives: then they begin to feel better. The ego begins to reassert itself, the tongue licks across the lips for maybe another try at the dirty boogie, and they decide to deep-six the people who've witnessed their moment of weakness and need.

So I had become Tony's disposable confessor. Wrong way to think, Tony, I thought. You commit the crime, you do the time. One way or another, you do the time.

Jess drove me to the bus depot, where I picked up the fifty thousand dollars the DEA had put in a locker for me. For a moment I thought I was going to lose Jess so I could phone Minos.

"I've had a knot in my bowels for two days," he said, gripping his belt buckle with his fist and frowning with his whole face.

"Go use the men's room and I'll get a cup of coffee. We've got time."

He thought about it and bent his knees slightly as though he were breaking wind.

"No, there's piss all over the toilet seats. I'll wait," he said. "Besides, Tony's acting weird again. When Tony gets weird, he needs somebody around him."

"Weird about what?"

"Late last night he says to me, 'It's all ending, it's all ending.' I say, 'What the fuck does that mean, Tony?'" Two Catholic nuns in black habits walked past us. "He wouldn't answer me. He just walks off and stands in the middle of the dark tennis court like a statue. He stood out there half an hour."

Back at the house Jess and one of the gatemen began loading fishing rods, food, and camping gear into the Lincoln and the Cadillac. A soft rain clicked on the trees in the yard. I told Tony I was going into my bedroom to pack an overnight bag; then I locked my bathroom door, took down my khakis, and taped the miniaturized recorder inside my thigh. I could activate it by simply dropping my hand and appearing to scratch my leg.

What an absurdity, I thought: I had invested all this energy and effort in nailing a man who had nothing to do with my life, who had never harmed me, who lived on the raw edges of narcotic madness. The story about Tony that Jess had told me in the bus depot was no mystery. Psychologists sometimes call it a world destruction fantasy. The recovering addict and drunk are suddenly cut off from their source: they have no fire escape, and the building is burning down. They wake in the middle of the night with a nameless terror and drag it with them like a gargoyle on a chain into their waking hours. Sometimes they can't breathe; then-hearts race, blood veins dilate in the brain, a pressure band forms on one side of the head as though someone were tightening a machinist's vise into the bone. The only image that will adequately describe the fear is right out of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine: The beast is climbing up out of the sea, and the edges of the sky are blackening like an enormous sheet of dry paper held against a flame.

Psychologists will say that this is a reenactment of the birth experience. But the words bring no solace, no more than they can to the infant who, just delivered from the womb, waits for the slap of life.

In the meantime, while I was planning to weld the cell door shut on a driven creature like Tony Cardo, I had done little to keep my promise to Tante Lemon and Dorothea to prevent Tee Beau Latiolais from eventually being electrocuted at Angola. And while Tee Beau was twisting in the wind, trying to hide behind a pair of dark glasses in a pizza joint on the corner of St. Charles and Canal, the center of downtown New Orleans, a psychopath like Jimmie Lee Boggs was able to run around painting brain matter on walls in three states.

I tucked in my flannel shirt, buttoned my khakis, buckled my belt, and looked into the mirror. One way or another, it's show time, I thought, and carried my overnight bag and the briefcase with the fifty thousand out to the driveway just as Tony was latching the safety belt across Paul in the front seat of the Lincoln. Paul grinned happily at me from under a blue fishing cap with a white anchor stitched on it.

"Dad's going to take us out in the boat after it stops raining," he said.

"Yeah, they school up in this weather. They'll be in close to shore, too," Tony said. "Dave, keep between us and the Caddy."

"I won't get lost."

"You might. We're going to take Interstate Ten instead of the back road. Stay in my rearview mirror, okay?"

"You got it," I said.

So I lost all hope of contacting Minos, and I was on my own. We bounced out the front gate in a caravan. The rain was moving across Lake Pontchartrain in a gray sheet, and the yellowed palm fronds on the esplanade clattered and stiffened in the wind.

The fishing camp was on the lower portion of the Pearl River basin, not far from the Gulf. It was built of unpainted cypress, with a rusty tin roof, and was set back on a sandy bluff above the river, so that the screened-in gallery had to be supported by stilts. The camp was surrounded by live oaks, and the tops of the willows on the bank grew to eye level on the gallery. It was still raining, and the wind off the Gulf blew a fine mist out of the trees into the screens.

But it was snug and warm inside the cabin, paneled with knotty pine, the floors covered with bright yellow linoleum, the kitchen outfitted with a butane stove, a microwave, and a double-door refrigerator. On the back porch, which gave onto the access road, was a freezer filled with frozen ducks, rib-eye steaks, and gallons of ice cream.

Tony and Paul sat at the kitchen table, tying leaders and huge lead weights and balsa wood bobbers to the saltwater rods and reels. In the front room, Jess and the four bodyguards who had followed in the Cadillac played bourré and drank canned beer at a plank table. They were a strange lot to watch, a juxtaposed contrast of the generational changes that had taken place inside the mob.

Jess Ornella was what mob people used to call a soldier. He was built like a hod carrier and looked dumb as dirt and probably was. Tony said that Jess had been in trouble all his life-with the nuns and brothers, truant officers, cops, social workers, probation officers, landlords, jailers, the draft board, bill collectors, wives, and prison psychiatrists (one had recommended that he be lobotomized). He had done time in the Orleans Parish jail for writing bad checks, committing bigamy, and setting fire to a restaurant for refusing him service. In Angola he had been a "big stripe," a name given to those who were considered dangerous or incorrigible, and who usually stayed in lockdown in the Block. He always gave me the feeling that he could destroy a house simply by running back and forth through its walls.

But the others came from a different mold: young and lithe, tanned year-round, they wore gold chains and religious medallions and thick identification bracelets, and had a hungry look in their eyes. You knew they wanted something, but you weren't sure what it was, in the same way that you stare into a zoo animal's eyes and see an atavistic instinct there that makes you step back involuntarily. They constantly touched the flatness of their stomach, the boxed hairline on their neck, the gold watchband on their wrist; they made cigarette smoking a stylized art form. They seldom smiled, except with women who were new to them, and they talked incessantly about money, either about the amount they had made, or were about to make, or that someone else had made. Like women, they dressed for their own sex, but usually their loyalties went no further than a sentimental attitude toward their parents, whom in reality they seldom saw.

Jess accepted me because Tony had moved me into his house, perhaps just as he would not question Tony's choice of lawn furniture. But the others did not speak to me, other than to reply to a direct question. Jess saw me watching the game with a cup of coffee in my hand.