I don’t know how long the brown Mercury Marquis was behind me. It followed me to Broussard’s Corner Store, I know that; hard to miss a late seventies’ boat like that. But I was preoccupied with other things that Thursday afternoon.
I had been staying away from Paget’s house, hoping he would think I gave up. Hoping he would come back so I could kill him. But it had been over a week, and he was still gone. I had avoided the Friday night fights, thinking that my stunt at the pawn shop had screwed that up for good.
I had hit a bad patch that weekend. Two days off, no plans, and no patience for the waiting game I was enduring had equalled a trip to Houston, where I rented a hotel room and proceeded to bar hop. (But is it really bar hopping if you only manage to make it to a second bar before you are cosmically and comically fucked up?)
I woke up Saturday at noon with a banging head and a sour stomach, next to some guy in some hotel room. I managed to locate all my clothes and dressed on the way to the elevator. I called a cab and got back to my room.
Saturday night was a repeat, except I woke up Sunday in my own room with a different guy. I snuck out, checked out, and drove back to Mitchum Bay in a fog of coffee and Excedrin. It was Monday evening before I felt normal. Physically, anyway. Mentally, I was a mess. It had been a long time since I had gone on a bender like that.
So, Thursday. I wanted only a cold Coke and somewhere to eat my lunch. I had a small cooler packed with ice and a rib eye, and the weather was warm. Sitting on the hood of the cruiser down some dirt road sounded like a great idea.
I walked into the store mentally mapping the area. I was on the eastern edge of my patrol zone. There was an old cemetery road a mile or so down the road. It would be a nice secluded spot.
I grabbed a Coke from the cooler in the back and went to the front to pay. There was a line, people wanting gas and scratchers and Doritos. I goofed around on my phone, letting my nose wander and catalog the scents. The man second in line had been at the fights a few weeks ago. He got his ass beat.
I checked my email. Someone cleared their throat behind me. Then, an old man’s voice: “Officer.”
I half-turned. People getting my attention in stores rarely led to anything good. This guy was a shrunken gnome, with giant hair-filled ears and a nose abloom with gin blossoms. He cleared his throat–I smelled denture cream, bacon and eggs, and coffee–and continued with, “There’s a car out on Cow Creek Bridge. Been there a while.”
“Ah, okay.” The line moved. I shuffled forward. “Is it broken down or wrecked or . . .?”
A shrug. “Been there a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“More’n a couple days. Figured you’d want to check it out.”
Cow Creek was out of my area by about a mile. Procedure said that if it was a non-emergency call, I should contact Dispatch and get them to send whoever was assigned to that area.
But that creek had a makeshift dock, a surprisingly sturdy construction of pallets and bald tires. My ex-boyfriend David had taken me fishing there a few times.
It wouldn’t take long to check out the car and figure out what to do about it. After that, I could sit on the dock, strip off my boots and socks, and dangle my feet in the water while I ate lunch.
Screw the cemetery. This was a great idea. The greatest idea in the history of great ideas.
The car was as the old fellow described it: a dirty yellow Pontiac Grand Am. It wasn’t where he had described it though. He had claimed it was “pulled off the road a little ways”.
It was under the bridge. I had seen it only after pulling off onto the shoulder of Highway 96 and actually getting out of my patrol car and walking a few feet down the gentle slope that led to the creek. I turned around, looked back at my car. The old gnome’s Mercury was parked behind it. He had followed me from the store, I had known that; I had figured he wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to blow him off. Once I pulled over, he had passed me, giving me a little wave and a honk.
So why was he back?
I started up the hill. Years of car and truck tires had worn a path on the hill. I walked in the middle of the path, thinking I’d tell him I was going to check it out, and he could leave. The last thing I needed was him toddling down after me and breaking a hip.
He honked again, then pulled around my car and drove away. I muttered “Huh,” and went back down.
I walked to the car, looking it over from a distance, thinking of the rib eye and the water, trying not to think of the weekend past, the blur of whiskey and loud music.
The car was a dented piece of shit. The inspection and registration stickers were five years out of date. No license plates. I was approaching it from the rear, and I paid attention to the trunk. Was there a body in it? Drugs? Nothing at all?
I reached out and touched the trunk lid. It was fastened shut. I dipped my head and took a quick sniff. No body, no drugs. It did have mold, though. And raccoons, once.
I frowned and opened the fuel door. No gas cap. No stench of gas, either. Even if the driver had run out of gas, there would be enough there for me to smell. This tank was bone dry. It had been empty for a while.
I backed away from it, finally suspicious, finally noticing how close the car was to the woods the creek ran through, a thicket of pines and scrub bushes. Behind me, the woods were thinner. They had been cleared a little to allow for foot trails that led to a few sandbars, places to swim and drink beer.
I kept backing up, facing the thicket, my left hand on the butt of my Glock.
A slight breeze stirred the area, bringing me Leland Paget’s scent. From behind me. He had been hiding in a tangle of bushes and big branches, and he broke cover, running at me, swinging something dark and skinny at my face.