"I'll put in a word for you. I'll tell them you really did your job well."
The road bent close to the river again, and up ahead I could see Tony's fish camp and the Lincoln convertible parked in the back under the trees. Smoke rose from the chimney and flattened in the salt breeze off the Gulf. I pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the road and cut the engine.
I took Tony's.45 from the pocket of my fatigue jacket and handed it to him. He looked back at me strangely.
"Here's the lay of the land, Tony," I said. "I think you've got a big Purple Heart nailed up m the middle of your forehead. Everybody is supposed to feel you're the only guy who did bad time in Vietnam. You also give me the impression that somebody else is responsible for your addiction and getting you out of it. But the bottom line is you sell dope to people and they fuck up their lives with it."
"I think maybe it's you who's got the problem with conscience, Dave."
"You're wrong. As of now you're on your own. As far as I know, you died in that fire back there. I don't think a county medical examiner, particularly in a place like this, will ever sort out the bones and teeth in that hangar. If you disappear into Mexico with Paul and stay out of the business, I think the DEA will write you off. I doubt if your wife will be a problem, either, since she'll acquire almost everything you own."
He chewed on his lip and looked up the incline at the camp.
"You've got your plane, you've got Jess to fly it, you've got that fine little boy to take with you," I said. "I think if you make the right choice, Tony, you might be home free."
"They won't believe you."
"Maybe you inflate your importance. Twenty-four hours after you're off the board, somebody else will take your place. In a year nobody will be able to find your file."
He made pockets of air in his cheeks and switched them back and forth as though he were swishing water around in his mouth.
"It's a possibility, isn't it?" he said. He bit a hangnail off his thumb and removed it from his tongue. "Just pop through a hole in the dimension and leave a big question mark behind. That's not bad."
"Like you said to me the other day, it's always about money. Stay away from the money, and the Houston and Miami crowd will probably stay away from you."
"But any way you cut it, it's adiós, Tony."
"My ranch is outside a little village called Zapopan. Maybe you'll get a postcard from there."
"No, I think your story ends here."
He pulled the clip from the handle of his.45, slid back the receiver, removed the round from the chamber, and inserted it in the top of the clip. He tapped the clip idly against the chrome-plated finish of the pistol, then put his hand on the door handle.
"I don't guess you're big on shaking hands," he said.
I rested my palm on the bottom of the steering wheel and looked straight ahead at the yellow road winding through the trees.
"Say good-bye to Paul for me," I said.
I heard him get out of the truck and close the door.
"Tony?" I said.
He looked back through the window.
"If I ever hear you're dealing dope again, we'll pick it up where we left off."
"No, I don't think so, Dave. I have a feeling your cop days are about over."
He leaned down on the window jamb.
"Your heart gets in the way of your head," he said. "If you don't know that, the pencil pushers you work for will. They'll get rid of you, too. Maybe you won't accept any thanks from me, and maybe I won't even offer you any, but my little boy up there says thank you. You can wear that in your hat or stick it in your ear. So long, Dave."
He walked up the pine-needle-covered slope toward the back of the camp. He took his Marine Corps utility cap from his back pocket, slapped the soot off it against his trousers, and fitted it at an angle on his head. I drove slowly down the road past the camp, the truck lurching in the flooded potholes, and saw him open the screen door and smile at someone inside.
I came out of the trees and drove through a winter-green field that was filled with snowy egrets and blue herons feeding by a grassy pond. Ahead I could see the coast, the palm fronds whipping in the wind, and the waves cresting and blowing out on Lake Borgne and the Gulf. The air was cool and flecked with sunlight and smelled like salt and distant rain. And I realized that in the west the sun had broken through the gray seal of clouds, and left a rip in the sky like a yellow and purple rose.
Tony was right. Minos didn't believe me, particularly after I gave him a tape recording that contained a long blank space between the fire in the airplane hangar and Jimmie Lee Boggs's watery statement about Tee Beau's innocence in the murder of Hipolyte Broussard. But I didn't care. I had grown weary of federal agents and wiseguys, narcs and stings and brainfried lowlifes, and all the seriousness and pretense we invest in the province of moral invalids. I had decided it was time to let someone else wander about in that neon-lit moonscape, where we constantly try to define the source of our national discontent, until our unsated addictions target an antithetically mixed, quixotic figure like Tony Cardo, and lead us away from ourselves. I don't know what happened to him. The DEA found his Lincoln, his only means of transportation, at the camp, but they matched the tire treads to fresh tire tracks at the hangar where he kept his plane. Perhaps he paid somebody to drive the Lincoln back to camp; however, the DEA also found his plane still in the hangar. One of Minos's fellow workers, one who was enraged at the fact that the additional fifty thousand dollars given me in the sting had been burned up in the hangar fire, theorized that Tony had had someone else fly a plane into the airstrip and pick up him, Paul, and Jess Ornella. But federal agents in Guadalajara who visited Tony's ranch outside Zapopan reported that Tony had not been seen in the area for almost a year. The next time I saw Minos in Lafayette, to plan a fishing trip, I mentioned Tony's name. He yawned, picked up a file folder off his desk, and showed me a photo of a man whose facial features looked back at me with the dirty luminescence and dark clarity characteristic of booking-room photography.
"You know this guy?" he said.
"He lives in Metairie. He's a new boy on the block. We'd like very much to get him into our gray-bar hotel chain. He-"
But now it was I whose eyes began to glaze, and who tried not to yawn at the sound of the rain on the oak trees outside the window.
Two months later I received a creased and dog-eared envelope postmarked in Lake Charles. Inside it was a color photograph of Paul smiling in a fighting chair on the stern of a sport fishing boat. Squatted down next to the chair, with a four-foot tarpon held in both arms, the enormous hook still protruding from its dead mouth, was Jess Ornella, his jailhouse tattoos as blue against his tan as the sea behind him. With his back turned to the camera was a shirtless man in a huge Mexican sombrero who was baiting a mullet on a feathered spoon. His curly hair was cut short and glistened with sweat above his tiny ears. In the background was a biscuit-colored beach with a few hot-looking, wilted palm trees on it and a desiccated wooden dock, strung with drying butterfly nets, that extended out into the surf.
Someone had written in ballpoint on the back of the photograph:
You said around New Iberia you have to knock the bass back into the water with a tennis racket. That's pretty good. But you ought to try this place. The reefs are so crowded with kingfish there's not room for them all. Just yesterday I saw a couple of them walking down the highway carrying their own canteens. We're living on warm breezes and bananas fried in coconut oil. I'm clean and free, Dave. The tiger went away. Maybe you ought to get yourself a Roman collar, or at least by now I hope you've lost the badge and your dipshit colleagues. Face it, you dug being in the life. Even Jess thought you were one of us. That'd worry me.