His body was framed against the flash, like a tin effigy silhouetted against a forge. He tumbled across the ground, his clothes smoking, his hair singed and stinking like a burnt cat's. The heat was so intense I couldn't feel the rain on my skin. We stumbled forward, past my pickup, into the field, as Jimmie Lee Boggs floored his van down the two-track road. Behind us, for only a moment, I heard screams inside the fire.
But Tony was not finished yet. He sat down in a puddle of water, his knees pulled up before him, aimed the.45 with both hands, and let off two quick founds. One tore through the van's back panel, but the second spiderwebbed the window in the driver's door and blew out the front windshield. It hung down like a crumpled glass apron, and the van careered off the road, whipping the grass under its bumper, spinning divots of mud from under the tires.
"Suck on that one, Jimmie Lee," Tony said.
The van seemed to slow as it made a wide arc through the field; then it lurched on its back springs as the driver shifted down, righted the wheel, and hit the gas again. The tin sides of the building were white with heat, as though phosphorus were burning inside; then they folded softly in upon themselves, like cellophane being consumed, and the roof crashed onto the cement slab. Boggs's van hit the main dirt road and disappeared into the corridor of trees.
Tony tried to get to his feet, but gave it up and sat back down in the water. His face was drawn and empty and dotted with mud.
"I'm going to leave you and come back for you, Tony. I'm borrowing your piece, too." I took the.45 gingerly from his hand and eased the hammer back down.
He wiped his eyes clear with the back of his wrist and looked up and down my trouser legs. Then his hand felt inside my thigh, almost as though he were molesting me. His mouth shaped itself into a small butterfly, and his eyes roved casually over my face.
"Where's your backup people?" he said.
"I don't know. My guess is, though, they've got the road sealed on each end."
"Yeah, that'd make sense."
"Will you wait for me here?"
"I'm going to start walking back."
"I don't think it'd be good for you to meet the guys in the limo."
"My limo's in the bottom of a pond by now, and those guys are halfway across Lake Pontchartrain." Then he said, "Was Kim in on it?"
"No. I never saw her before I got involved with your people."
"That's good. She's a good kid. Do me a favor, will you?"
"Get the fuck away from me."
I didn't answer him. I got in my pickup and followed Jimmie Lee Boggs's sharply etched tire tracks down the dirt road bordered on each side by pine and hackberry trees, and cows that poked through the underbrush and lowed fearfully each time lightning snapped across the sky.
I didn't have to go far. His van was in a ditch opposite the old seismograph drill barge that was sunk at an angle on the other side of the river. I stopped my truck, stuck Tony's.45 inside my belt, and walked up on the driver's side of the van. The light was gray through the trees, and the air had the cold smell of a refrigerator that has been closed up too long with produce inside. The driver's door was partly open, and the dashboard and steering column were littered with chips of broken glass, and painted with blood.
I pulled the door wide open and pointed the.45 inside, but the van was empty. Twelve-gauge shotgun shells, their yellow casings red with bloody finger smears, were scattered on the passenger's seat and on the floor. A paintless, narrow, wooden footbridge, with a broken handrail and boards hanging out the bottom, spanned the river just downstream from the drill barge. Deep foot tracks led from the opposite side of the bridge along the mudbank through the morning glory vines and cypress roots to the starboard side of the barge, which rested at an upward angle against the incline.
The slats on the bridge were soft with rot, and three of them burst under my weight as loud as rifle shots. The river's surface was dented with water dripping from the trees, and the incoming tide on the coast had raised the river's level, so that the line of dried flotsam along the bank waved on the edge of the current like gray cobweb.
I walked along the bank through the underbrush to the bow of the barge, where the drill tower sat. The hull was rusted out at the waterline, and there were tears in the cast-iron plates like broken teeth. I grabbed hold of the forward handrail and stepped over it onto the deck. The deck was slippery with moldy leaves and pine needles, and somebody's boots had bruised a gray path from the gunwale to the door of the pilothouse.
I put my.45 in my left hand, slipped Tony's out of my belt with my right, and pulled the hammer back on full cock with my thumb. The inside of the pilothouse was strewn with leaves and empty wood crates that once held canned dynamite, primers, and spools of cap wire. In one corner were the shriveled remains of a used condom, and somebody had spray-painted on the bulkhead the initials KKK and the words Joe Bob and Claudine inside a big heart. At the rear of the pilothouse were the door and the steel steps that led down into the engine room.
I put my back against the bulkhead and looked around the corner and down the steps into the half-flooded room below. The water was black and stagnant and streaked with oil, and somebody had tried to retrieve the huge engine on a hoist, then abandoned his task and left it suspended on chains and pulleys inches above the water.
Then I heard something move in the water, something scrape against the hull.
"You're under arrest, Boggs," I said. "Throw your shotgun out where I can see it, then come up the steps with your hands on your head."
It was silent down below now.
"If you're hurt and can't move, tell me so," I said. "We'll have you in a hospital in Slidell in a half hour. But first you've got to throw out the shotgun."
The only sounds were the rain dripping in the water and the tree limbs creaking overhead. Sweat ran out of my hair, and the wind blowing through the windows was cold on my face.
"Look, Boggs, you're in an iron box. It all ends right here. If I open up on you, there's no place you can hide. Use your head. You don't have to die here."
Then I heard him moving fast through the water, from out of a corner that was tilted at an upward angle against the bank, into full view at the bottom of the steps, his neck and shoulder scarlet with blood, his face and threadlike hair and drenched T-shirt strung with algae and spiderwebs. But he was hurt badly, and the tip of the shotgun barrel caught on the handrail of the steps just as I began firing down into the hold with both pistols.
The bullets ricocheted off the steps and the hull, sparking and whanging from one surface to the next. He dropped the shotgun into the water and tried to cover his face and head with his arms. But he lost his balance on the sloping floor and toppled forward into the machinist's hoist and suspended engine block. The chains roared loose from the pulleys, and Jimmie Lee Boggs crashed against the flooded bottom of the hull with the engine block and the tangle of chains squarely on top of his loins and lower chest. The blood drained from his face, and he reared back his head and opened his mouth in an enormous O like a man who couldn't find words for his pain.
I set both pistols on the floor of the pilothouse and walked down the steps into the water. The water was cold inside my socks and against my shins, and from one corner I smelled the sweet, fetid odor of a dead nutria whose webbed feet bobbed against the hull. The waterline was up to Boggs's neck, his grease-streaked hands rested on top of the block like claws, and he breathed as though his lungs were filled with some terrible obstruction.
I reached down under the water and caught the end of the crankshaft with both hands and tried to lift it. I strained until my shirt split along my back, and I slipped on the layer of moss and algae that covered the floor and stumbled sideways against the hull. My knee hit the side of his head.