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The Elephant of Surprise
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Hap and Leonard are an unlikely pair–Hap, a self-proclaimed white trash rebel, and Leonard–a tough-as-nails Black, gay, Vietnam vet and Republican–but they’re the closest friend either of them has in the world.
That's a lot of damn water.
Me and Leonard got something better than the element of surprise, we got the elephant of surprise, and you can bet that's some serious business.
The night was dark, wet, and cold, and the rain was coming down hard. The trees on the right side of the road were bending toward us as we passed, and leaves and limbs were coming loose of them, tumbling in front of and against the car. I kept driving, dodging branches when I could, hoping there were no washed-out sections in the road or a limb didn't hang up beneath us.
The wipers slaved back and forth like a mean librarian wagging her finger at a loud child, and the lights bounced off the night. I kind of wished to see another car on the road, but most everyone else had sense enough to get in out of the storm.
Me and Leonard had finished up a surveillance job in San Augustine and were on our way back to LaBorde. When we'd left, the sky was clear and you could see the stars and the partial moon, but that situation had changed five miles out of town. First came the wind, then thunder and lightning, finally the rain, and then the wind picked up even more, and it began to seriously storm.
I had the car heater on to fight the January cold, and it was mostly working. I was hungry and thinking about being home with some food and a big hot cup of decaf coffee but knowing, late as it was, I ought to just go on and go to bed and wait for breakfast.
Maybe just a granola bar and a glass of milk.
Or I might have some cereal. Only one bowl. A small bowl. A bagel, no cream cheese. Light butter, maybe. Might be some of that barbecue left over from the other day. No. That was too heavy. But hell, barbecue, that was nice, and if it stayed in the refrigerator too long it could ruin.
Leonard said, "Look out, man."
I looked up as something ran into the highway. I whipped to the right, just missing a bar ditch, and skidded to a stop in a spray of water. I glanced in the rearview mirror and then the water-beaded side mirrors, but all I could see was rain.
"It was somebody," Leonard said.
"Could have been an animal?"
"It was someone," he said. "A girl, I think."
I drove up a space and turned in the road, trying to be careful not to end up too far on either side, as the earth there slanted down into ditches. It was wet and muddy and steep, and easy to slide. If we ended up in a ditch, it would be full of fast-running water and the only way out would be a wrecker, if we had cell service to call them. We were in a bad place for that. And I wasn't sure a wrecker service would come out in this. Hell, Noah wouldn't come out in this, and it was getting worse by the moment.
I got us turned around and drove slow but didn't see anyone, at least not at first, and then Leonard said, "Hap."
I braked and skidded slightly, looked where he was pointing. A girl stumbled back into the road, having made it across, then having decided to come back. She was waving her hands at us. Her hair was white in the headlights and was plastered against her head like a cowl, some of it draped across her face, and there was something dark running from her mouth and down her chin. The rain washed it away as fast as it appeared. She was small and pale and obviously weak. She was wearing a stained T-shirt and pajama shorts and was barefoot. She collapsed in the road.
Leonard got out and went after her, the rain hammering against him, the cold wind whistling into the car through the open door. He picked her up like she was a doll and carried her back to the car. I unfastened my belt, leaned back and stretched over the crack between the seats and worked the back door open. Leonard set her inside, nudged her to the center of the seat.
With the doors open, the inside was lit up, and I saw the girl was an albino, and Asian, and so small I at first thought she was a child of eleven or so. She opened her mouth and blood ran out and dripped over her chin and onto her chest. She looked up at me with pale eyes, not white, but a blue so thin they were almost clear. She had the appearance of a wounded bird trapped behind glass. She tried to talk but all that came out of her mouth was blood and a choking noise.
Leonard closed the front passenger-side door, slid in beside her on the backseat, closed the back door, said, "You're all right. We got you. Easy, now, let me look. Open your mouth."
He gently touched her chin, looked inside her open mouth, said, "Hap, give me the flashlight."
I reached over and into the glove box where we keep a pistol and a flashlight and some odds and ends and pulled out the flashlight and gave it to him.
The young woman was starting to moan.
"Easy," Leonard said, "just a peek."
Leonard looked, and there in the glow of the flashlight, I could see his face change.
"Give me the Kleenex," he said.
I opened the glove box again and got out a small packet of Kleenex. Leonard took it, tore the plastic cover off of it, pulled out all the Kleenex, and said, "Honey, you need to put this here in your mouth and close it gently. Might tilt your head back, but don't lie down."
He put the Kleenex in her mouth, and she didn't argue about it. He strapped the seat belt around her, said, "You'll be all right."
That's when a big black SUV came out of a side road about where the girl had first appeared and turned into our lane so that its headlights were pointing right at us. The SUV stopped and a big black man in black clothes wearing a dark, rain-beaten hat got out of the car on the passenger side. He looked as if he could straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa with one hand. He had a large pistol held down by his side. The tower gave him any shit, he could shoot it.
I said, "Leonard, hang on."
The man in the road lifted the handgun.
I threw the car in reverse and looked over my shoulder between the woman and Leonard, and as far as I could tell, all that was behind us was night and rain and the faint glow of my taillights. I stabbed the gas and away we went. I heard a gun crack and something scraped across the top of the car. It had been a hasty shot.
I kept my foot punched down on the gas, took a forward glance, and saw that I had made quite a gap between us and the SUV, but a Prius isn't a race car.
Leonard said to the girl, "Hang tight, kid."
He slid between the seats and into the front, opened the glove box and took out the automatic pistol, said, "Turn it around."
I stepped on the brake and the car slid. I turned the steering wheel in the direction of the slide and whipped the car completely around amidst a spray of water and a moan of tires, a move that was aided by a wet road and a bit of experience.
I hit the gas and looked in the rearview mirror. Lights. They were coming, and they were coming fast.
For a moment, I thought about a side road but decided that was a bad idea. Then I considered the main road we were on and how fast they were coming, and that wasn't such a good idea either. The only way I could see out of this problem was levitation of the car, and believe me, I was really concentrating on that, hoping I would find within me unknown powers of telekinesis. But nope.
Leonard hit the window button, rolled it down, hung out of the window, and pointed the pistol at them. Leonard is a so-so shot, and with that handgun and the rain and wind being like it was, I felt he had about as much of a chance of hitting that car as he had of farting a bird off a tree limb.
He fired twice, rapid succession. I glanced back. The lights were still coming. They probably had no idea he had a gun. He fired twice more. The SUV went sideways and tried to straighten, and then sparks flew up from underneath it.
Leonard had somehow hit the front right tire and they were dealing with a blowout, the tire rim slamming on the concrete.
The SUV swerved and tried to slow, but it was too late. It was all over the place, and then it went sideways and the taillights tipped toward the sky. It had fallen into one of the long, wet ditches by the side of the road.
Someone tried to cut her tongue out," Leonard said. "They sawed about halfway through it."
We were sitting in LaBorde Memorial Hospital, having brought the girl in before calling the cops. Our friend the chief of police, Marvin Hanson, was off on a trip with his family somewhere up in the wilds of Montana, and Leonard's boyfriend, Pookie, also a cop, was out of town, visiting his sister in New Orleans. The two cops who were there didn't know us as well as the chief and Pookie did, and I couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Way they were looking at us and talking to us, you would have thought we had tried to cut her tongue out ourselves.
After a while, they had the hospital open up the gift shop that had closed hours before, and we bought T-shirts and underwear and socks and windbreakers that all had hospital logos on them. In a bathroom, we squeezed our jeans out in the sink and dried them pretty well in front of the hand dryers and put on the clean underwear and socks. The jeans were still damp but not as miserable cold and wet as before. Leonard had been out in it when he picked up the girl, but just going from the car into the hospital, Leonard carrying the girl, we had both been soaked to the bone.
When we came out of the bathroom, the cops were standing there like they thought we might squeeze into the toilet and flush an escape.
We had to drive to the station and answer all the questions again. A matter of routine, they said. Sure, they thought we were Good Samaritans. Sure, they believed us. Cops believe you like they believe in Santa Claus.
They had already sent cops out to see if they could find the SUV in a ditch, and they had taken the gun Leonard used. We both had permits, so at least we had that going for us.
We sat there in the station in the interrogation room until a lady cop we did know, Manny, came back and said they had found the SUV. We were sure as hell glad to see her, but she stayed professional throughout. It was all being filmed, of course. That's how an interrogation room works.
"The SUV was there. But shooting at cars, Leonard, that could cause you some problems," she said.
"Figured getting shot by them might cause me some problems too."
Manny was her usual attractive self, but the long white scar on her cheek was whiter than usual against her otherwise flawless Hispanic skin. She had a look on her face like she had been dragged out of bed by a pack of wolves. I looked at my watch. It was two in the morning. Did wolves work that late?
"Tracking the plates, of course," I said.
"Already have," she said. "They belong to a family in Oklahoma, but they don't own the SUV the plates are fastened to. VIN number on the car is being looked at, but you know how that will turn out."
"The car will have been stolen or the VIN number will be a false one, something like that," I said.
"Bad night for those assholes to be out wandering around without a ride," Leonard said.
"Unless someone picked them up," Manny said. "I tried my phone there. There's service. You should have done that, called it in."
"No service where we first came across them," I said. "And we were a little too busy being chased by them to try and phone on down the road. Yeah, I should have worried about that instead of worrying about getting the girl to the hospital."
Manny gave me a hard look. "Fair enough, and I get it. Don't run it into the ground."
"Look, Manny," I said. "You know we didn't hurt that girl, and you know we had to do what we did. They shot at us. They were trying to get to her, for whatever reason."
"Poor girl," Manny said. "Who could do that, and why?"
"Humans," I said. "That's who."
"Any idea who she is yet?" Leonard said.
Manny shook her head. "No idea, but whoever she is, someone wants her to suffer and die, that's for sure. Maybe she gets where she can talk or write a little, we can find out. She didn't have identification on her. If she was from these parts, someone would know her. Not that many albino girls around."
"Listen here," Leonard said. "Whoever did that will most likely still be looking for her. Best you have someone in the hospital to watch over her."
"How would anyone know she's there?" Manny said.
"That's an easy one," I said. "Where else would a rescuer take her?"
"Good point. I don't normally make the decisions here, but it's me for the night or until Marvin gets back. Wait a moment."
Manny went out.
After a bit, she came back. "They're posting someone at her door," she said. "He's already started over. Good cop, Eric Braider."
That was a relief. Probably unnecessary, but you never knew for sure.
Finally, they let us go with warnings not to leave the state. We drove to the IHOP at the end of North Street and had a late-night supper and breakfast. I had a short stack and Leonard ate enough pancakes, sausages, and eggs to feed an army and most of their relatives.
"Who would do such a thing to a little girl like that?" Leonard said, asking what had already been asked.
I didn't have an answer.
Outside, the rain slammed the parking lot and rattled the windows. We had just finished eating when the lights went out.
We sat there silently, and after a while a waiter came over with a flashlight and told us he was sorry, but they were going to have to have everyone pay up and leave.
Since the register didn't work without electricity, there was a tedious time when we stood in line and people paid with cash or their credit card numbers were written down. Leonard gave them the ticket with two twenties and we left.
The rain and wind were so bad we could hardly make it to our car. Once we were inside, this time with Leonard driving, he said, "Think we ought to go back to the hospital. Not long until morning anyway. We can see how the girl's doing. Jesus, why would they do that to that girl?"
He kept coming back to that, and I still didn't have an answer.
"I no longer wonder why people do horrible things," I said. "I just know a lot of them do."
"Speaking of that, I like to be ready for those horrible people. I have another pistol under the front seat. Find it and put it in the glove box? Makes sense to have it in a more reachable position."
Lights all along the street were out, and we were once again the only car on the road. It was as if we were in an old science fiction movie and everyone had been killed or was in hiding because bad aliens had taken over the Earth.
"Did you know LaBorde is the barbecue capital of Texas?" I said.
"I don't give a shit," Leonard said.
"They have a blueberry festival here too."
"Who doesn't? I live here, Hap. I know that shit. Hey, this isn't the barbecue capital of Texas. Barbecue here mostly sucks."
"I'm just trying to pass the time with interesting conversation."
"It's not that interesting when you make it up."
"Boy, are you in a mood."
"You should have seen that poor girl's tongue," Leonard said. "They almost cut it out."
I was glad I hadn't seen it. "My jeans are dry," I said.
"Will you shut up?"
It took us an impossibly long time to reach the hospital. The lights were on there. Backup generators, I presumed. That would seem right for a hospital. But not all the lights were on, and some were not that bright. We went and sat in the lobby in the comfortable waiting-area chairs under dim lights. Leonard began to snooze, and then he began to snore softly.
Except for a middle-aged lady at the desk, we seemed to be the only ones in the hospital.
I pulled out my cell and called Brett, told her what had happened, told her we'd be home when we got home.
"Still have lights here, but it's scary out there," she said. "Chance and Reba and Buffy Dog are here with us. We had dinner and then they couldn't go home, or didn't want to."
"They're safer there. Did Reba eat you out of house and home?"
"Just complained about the food. She wanted McDonald's. I told her she was free to go to town and buy us burgers."
"Bet that shut her up."
"Nope. She said give her the money and the car keys and she'd go."
I laughed. Reba was a smart-ass kid we had kind of rescued. She lived with my daughter, Chance, and Buffy the Biscuit Slayer, also known as Buff, Buffy Dog, or the Buffinator.
Brett said, "Will the girl be all right?"
"I don't know. I think so. They sewed her tongue up, gave her some pills. She's sleeping upstairs."
"Poor thing," Brett said.
We passed a few more words and closed out the conversation. I turned to ask Leonard if he wanted to call his boyfriend, Pookie, but he was still asleep. Probably best not to call Pookie and ruin his out-of-town visit. Nothing he could do right then.
I put the cell away just as I saw a large tree limb tumble across the parking lot at the side of the hospital and slam into a car hard enough I could hear the impact. At least it didn't set off an alarm.
The wind began to howl and the rain became even more fierce. Lightning cracked and thunder rumbled, shaking the glass in the hospital windows.
I could envision, somewhere out in the Gulf, a vicious, unseasonable storm, perhaps a hurricane, sending in its reserve troops, giving us a taste of what it could do just to remind us that compared to nature, we weren't as important as houseflies.
When I awoke in the hospital waiting area, I checked my watch. It was seven in the morning. Leonard was still asleep. It was dark as night, and the rain and wind hadn't let up an ounce. In fact, it looked worse out there. Meaning there was nothing to see but absolute blackness. The sun wasn't going to shine that morning, maybe not all day.
The same middle-aged lady was at the front desk. I went up there, said, "You certainly are putting in the time."
She smiled at me. She looked weary.
"I'm supposed to be gone," she said, "but the rain is so bad I'm better off here in the hospital than on the road, and my replacement is better off home. I figure before the day is done, we'll have a lot of new occupants. A storm like this, it makes things crazy. If only the rain would stop. Better yet, the wind."
"Lady we brought in last night. When can we check on her? We were told she's in a room on the third floor."
"No visiting hours yet, but way things are, it gets nine, you can go in, unless there are any medical concerns."
I thanked her and sat down again, and that's when I saw a big man come in the front door carrying a long, damp cardboard box. He had it tucked up under one arm. He wore black clothes. He had a black plastic rain cover over his hat.
I recognized the man from his size. It was the big black man that had gotten out of the SUV with a pistol. He was even bigger than I'd thought, looked like a weight lifter, not a bodybuilder, kind of guy who could dead-lift a battleship. His face was as expressionless as a mannequin's.
He hadn't seen us last night, had seen only my car, maybe a shape hanging out of the window firing at the SUV, so he had no idea who we were. He hardly gave us a glance. He adjusted his hat with a touch of his hand and walked past us and the desk, toward the elevator. I had a good idea what was in the box.
The lady behind the desk might've thought about saying something to stop him, but she didn't. Not the way he looked. She just watched him pass. I thought that was most likely a good choice.
I shook Leonard awake, said, "Hey, the guy that took a shot at us just walked in."
"He's over by the elevator. Had a long cardboard box with him. I don't think it was curtain rods."
"Damn." By that point he was on his feet. We both headed toward the big man as he stepped into the elevator, but moments later the doors closed.
- On Sale
- Mar 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Mulholland Books