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"You want to play?" he said, and started to move his chair aside.

But the men sitting on each side of him remained stationary. One of them had the deck of cards in his upturned palm and a matchstick in his mouth.

"Cecil just bourréd the pot. Wait till we play it out," he said. His eyes never left the game.

"That's all right. I lose too much at the track, anyway," I said.

No one looked up or acknowledged my statement, and I went back into the kitchen and began making a sandwich on the sideboard. Rain dripped out of the oak trees in back, and the dirt yard was flooded with a wet green light.

"Dad says we're going out on the salt even if it doesn't stop raining," Paul said. "We can put the rods in the sockets and stay in the cabin."

"Sure, this is good tarpon weather," I said. "On a day like this you bounce the bait through the wake and the tarps will hit it so hard the rod will bend all the way to the gunwale."

"Are you glad you came, even though it's raining?" Paul said.


"Dad says you're probably going to move back home with your little girl."

I looked at Tony. He had one eye closed and was threading a nylon leader through the eye of a hook.

"Yes, I guess that's true, Paul," I said.

"Can we come see you? And ride your horse?"

"Anytime you want to."

Tony tied a blood knot with the leader and snipped off the loose end close to the hook's eye with a pair of fingernail clippers. He held the hook by the shank and pulled on the leader to test the strength of the knot. "There," he said to Paul. "They won't bust that one."

He wore bell-bottomed denims, a long-sleeved candy-striped shirt, and his Marine Corps utility cap with the brim propped up. His eyes avoided mine, and like his hired help who rode in the Cadillac he did not speak to me unless to answer a question, or to indicate to me that I could entertain myself with whatever was available in the camp.

I walked out under the dripping trees, then down under the screened gallery supported on stilts. The riverbanks were thick with wet brush and wild morning glory vines, and because the river emptied into the Gulf and its level was affected by the tides, trotlines were strung at crazy angles between tree trunks and logs and stakes driven into the mud. The tide was out now, and the highest water level of the river was marked by a gray line of dead hyacinths along the banks. Thunder boomed and rolled out over the Gulf, and the air was charged with the electric smell of ozone. The tree trunks glistened blackly, the canopy overhead and the scrub brush and canebrakes and layers of rotting leaves literally creaked with moisture. I thought of Alafair and Bootsie and realized that I had never felt more alone in my life.

Later, inside, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. Tony answered it, and after he said hello, he listened without speaking, and looked at me over the top of Paul's head. Then he hung up the receiver and said, "Let's take a ride, Dave. Paul, I have to take care of a little business with Dave. You stay here with Jess, and I'll be back in an hour."

"What about Dave?" Paul said.

"He's got to do some stuff. We'll see him later."

"Aren't you going fishing, Dave?" Paul said.

"We'll see how it works out. I might have to take off for a while," I said.

"I thought you were going with us." He was turned sideways in his wheelchair to talk to me. His blue jeans looked brand-new and stiff and too big for him.

"I might have to go back home," I said. "I've been gone a long time."

"Your little girl wants you to come home?"

"Yes, she does."

He nodded, picked up a piece of leader, and began poking it in a crack on the table.

"Are you coming back to visit at all?" he said.

"I'd like to take you fishing to some places I know around New Iberia. The bass are so big there we have to knock them back into the water with tennis rackets."

His whole face lighted with his smile.

Tony and I rode in my pickup truck, and the white Cadillac full of his hoods followed us up the dirt road that bordered the river. The chuckholes were deep and full of rainwater, and we bounced so hard on the springs that Tony had to prop one hand against the dashboard. I rubbed my thigh with my palm and used my thumb to hit the small button on the side of the tape recorder. Before we had left the camp, Tony had put on a raincoat and dropped his chrome-plated.45 automatic in the pocket. I banged through another chuck-hole, and the.45 clanked against the door handle. Tony pulled his raincoat straight and kept the weight of the gun on his thigh.

"You think you might need that?" I asked.

"I carry it so I won't need it."

"Did you ever have trouble with these guys?"

"These are guys who operate on the bottom of the food chain. They're not a bold bunch."

"You don't think highly of them."

"I don't think about them at all."

"I appreciate what you're doing for me."

"You've already told me that, so forget it. Look, my son likes you. You know why? It's because children recognize integrity in adults. I've got some advice for you, Dave. After this score, get out of the business. It's not worth it. There's not a morning I don't get up thinking about the IRS, the DEA, city dicks like Nate Baxter, cowboys who'll clip you just to get invited over to a certain guy's table at the Jockey Club in Miami. It's like they say about marriage: You do it for money and you'll earn every nickel of it."

"I guess a guy makes his choices, Tony," I said, and looked at the side of his face.

He turned his head slowly and looked back at me.

"That's right," he said, "and I'm making one now. When I got put in with the wet brains at the V.A., there was a lot of talk in the therapy sessions about character defects. I've got lots of those, but lying's not one of them. I choose to honor my word, and I don't like righteousness in people, particularly when they're talking about my life."

He rubbed the moisture off the front glass with his sleeve. Beyond the tunnel of trees we could see pasture and sky up ahead.

"There's my airstrip. We only have another mile to go," he said. "Dave, after you get your goods, I think we say good-bye."

"All right, Tony."

"You think I'm a hypocrite, don't you?"

"I've got too many problems of my own to be taking other people's inventory."

"Before you write me off, I want you to understand something. You helped me a lot, man. But right now I've got some heavy shit to work through-with my habit, my douche-bag wife, these fuckheads in Houston and Miami-and I've got to simplify my life and concentrate on Paul and nobody else. That's the way it is."

He waited for me to reply.

"You're not going to say anything?" he asked.

"It all works out one way or another."

"Yeah, that's the way I figure it. Semper fi, Mac, and fuck it." He rolled down the window, let the mist blow inside, and took a deep breath. A bolt of lightning splintered into the tree line at the south end of the pasture where Tony kept his plane. The air smelled as metallic and cold as brass.

A mile farther on we drove out of the hackberry and pine trees into the pasture with the mowed airstrip and tin hangar that Tony had told me to remember on our first trip to the Pearl River country. Two cars and a van were parked in front of the hangar, and the hangar's main door was slid open about three feet. The surrounding fields were pale green and sopping wet, and from horizon to horizon steel-gray clouds roiled across the sky.

"The plane's not in yet, or these guys wouldn't still be hanging around," Tony said. "I'll stay with you through the buy, then I'll ride back in the Caddy and you're on your own."

"All right, Tony."

"Make sure you're satisfied with the quality of everything before you leave. Don't think you can go back to these guys with a complaint. They're basically punks, and they won't make it right. In fact, they usually try to cannibalize each other whenever they have a chance."