An excerpt from
Second day I was there I didn't hear from Leonard or Charlie. I lay there and read the Harlequin romance and found it better than I thought. Then I read the western and found it worse than I had hoped, though I liked to pretend those missing four pages would have made it magic.
Between bouts with the paperbacks and poking at the bad meals, I spent a lot of time lying on my side looking out the window and sniffling with my cold. The window had become more interesting than the television. I learned to identify certain pigeons that roosted on the windowsill, and I named all of them. Original stuff like Tom, Dick, and Harry. Fred and George, Sally Ann, Mildred and Bruce. I called the little piles of shit they left on the ledge Leonard.
Beyond my window ledge and the pigeons, I could see a lower blacktop roof and a puddle of water that had collected there, probably from a week ago. I liked the way the sun hit it and made a rainbow in the puddle.
As night fell and the pigeons went away, I could see only the black roof and the moon reflected in the puddle, like an anemic prowler's face looking up at me from the darkness. And as time passed the moon gave way to a veil of clouds and turned the sky black, and a spring rain began to splatter on the glass.
About midnight, I closed my eyes and listened to the rain, hoping it would lull me to sleep, but it didn't. I opened my eyes as someone entered the room. I turned to see in the darkness a young slim woman in white. A nurse. She came over quietly and turned on the light beside the bed.
"Still awake, huh?"
"Yeah," I said.
I saw now that she was not so young, just slim and pretty, her hair a little too red, her face strong with experience, her lips soft with what we Harlequin romance readers like to call promise. She had legs that would have made the pope abuse himself in the Vatican toilet and maybe not feel too bad about it.
"I need to take your temp," she said.
"I haven't seen you before."
"I come on at ten-thirty. I work the late shift. I been off a few days. My name is Brett. Open your mouth." As she leaned forward to put the thermometer in my mouth, I could smell the sweetness of her perfume, see the swell of her breasts against her uniform. I guess it had been too long, because just the smell and sight of her gave me an erection. I lay there embarrassed, glad I was covered by a sheet and blanket. I felt kind of sleazy and satisfied at the same time. It's a boy thing.
After a few moments she reached for the thermometer and gave my nostrils another treat. She examined the thermometer, shook it, and smiled.
"Well, that looks okay. No fever. According to your chart, you're due another shot in the morning. Says you were bitten by a rabid animal."
She smiled. She had a beautiful smile. It was almost a night light, "No shit?"
"Well," I said, "it was a big squirrel."
I said, "Do you think you could take this glucose business, or whatever this is, out of my arm? I don't need it. I'm just here for shots, and the insurance won't cover it I do it as an outpatient."
"Honey," she said, "I've been there myself, but I can't take anything out of your arm, not even a knife. Not without permission. But, you know, it could come loose."
She reached down and pulled loose the tape that held the needle in my arm. She pulled the needle out and smiled at me again.
"Oops, little sucker slipped out," she said.
"Good to see someone that likes their job," I said.
"Oh, I hate this crap," she said, and sounded like it.
"No, I'm lyin'. Sweetie, there ain't nothin' I like better than pourin' shit out of bedpans. Unless it's givin' an enema or puttin' a catheter in some ole boy's dick."
That made me blush, but she certainly didn't seem embarrassed. Cussing seemed to be her life.
"You seem happy enough," I said.
"It's smile or die, darlin'."
"Then why do you do this?"
"'Cause I'm divorced and the landlord won't fuck me for the rent."
I laughed and she laughed.
She said, "You didn't tell me your name."
"Hap. Hap Collins,"
"I'll see you, Hap Collins."
"I certainly hope so, Brett."
"I might even get to give you your shot."
"In the ass, if you're lucky."
She turned off the light, and I watched her crisp white uniform move through the darkness. Then she was gone and I was left again with the rain, the scent of her perfume, my thoughts and the absence of her smile.
As for thoughts, my ass was my major concern. So far the shots, one deadener and one rabies, had been given to me in my arm, but what if she did give it to me in the ass? Leonard had made fun of my ass. Suppose he was right? What if I had the ugliest ass in the world? What if it and my bald spot were both shiny and white beneath the glare of the hospital light? I mean, I rolled over and she got a look at my ass and the bald spot on top of my head, would she bolt? Or would she think they were sort of coordinated, like the correct pants with the correct hat?
I went to the bathroom and combed my hair, but I still had a bald spot. I wasn't silly enough to try and comb hair over it from the side. I mean, boy, does that look natural. It was sort of like wearing a sign that screamed I'M NOT ONLY BALD, BUT LOOK HOW STUPID I AM. Besides, my hair was cut too short to do much with it anyway. I wondered if my insurance covered hair transplants.
I went back to bed and did a few buttock-tightening exercises, but just a few. Hell, I had five days before Brett might give me my second rabies shot. I didn't want to overdo it.
I listened to the rain for a time, then rolled over, turned on the light, and tried the phone. Leonard's number rang and rang, but he didn't answer.
I lay on my back and thought about Leonard for a while, wondered where in hell he might be. When I wore out that line of mental inquiry, I started thinking about Brett. I wondered where she lived and how she lived and if she needed a middle-aged man in her life, about my size and disposition, with an ugly ass and a bald spot.
I even thought about the Boobs and Butts magazine in the drawer, but I had such a strong constitution I didn't turn on the light and take it out for a look....
Well, just a brief one.
I finally drifted off, but the sound of hospital business jarred me awake all night.
In spite of what one might think, the hospital is not a place to rest. Someone is always coming in to look in on you, or take your temperature, or someone is laughing or crying in the hall, or banging stuff around. I awoke feeling as if I had climbed Mt. Everest and fallen off, only to be discovered by an abominable snowman and taken home to his cave to be his love puppy.
I had my breakfast, which was a little better than having to chase it down myself on all fours and eat it raw. After breakfast I saw Brett again, briefly, long enough for her to take my temperature. I was going to try and talk her out of her phone number, but she seemed considerably more businesslike this morning, harried. Maybe it was the bald spot. I just smiled and spoke politely. She finished and went away, left me with her perfume again. I asked an orderly her last name, but he didn't know it.
I waited for Brett to come back, but she didn't show. A nurse with a face like a callused fist that had been punched through glass came in instead and insisted I have the glucose put back in my arm. I insisted it not go.
She went away in a huff and threatened to tell my doctor. I half expected Sylvan to show up, ready to paddle me.
Couple hours later another nurse came in. She was about Brett's size, and even reminded me of her a little without the charm, the foul mouth, and the red hair. She looked like a younger, calmer brunette sister.
I said, "You're going to try and make me put that thing in my arm, it isn't going to work."
She laughed at me. "I came in to tell you Brett likes you."
"Wow," I said. "I feel like I'm in high school again. Next thing you know, we'll be using you to pass notes."
"She didn't tell me to tell you, I just wanted you to know. She's a friend of mine. She told me she was interested in you. She could use someone in her life. Someone that isn't a crud. You aren't a crud, are you, Mr. Collins?"
"Gee, I don't think so. What's your name?"
"Did she tell you what she likes about me?"
"Your sense of humor."
"Not my eyes? My noble chin? My dazzling smile? My throbbing pectorals?"
"Your sense of humor."
"That beats nothing," I said.
"Treat her right."
"She gives me half the chance, I will."
"Don't tell her I spoke to you. It might embarrass her."
"I don't think she embarrasses that easy."
Ella laughed. "Now that you mention it, neither do I."
A few minutes after Ella departed, Charlie Blank came in. He had an expression on his face like a man who had just been told he was going to have to swallow and pass a bowling ball, then bowl a strike with it. He didn't ask to look at my ass.
"Leonard?" I asked, "He okay?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I mean I don't know. I went by his place this morning. Knocked. He didn't answer. Seein' how you been callin', not gettin' him, I got a little nervous. I picked the lock and went in, but he wasn't there. I looked to see anyone had stuffed him in the closets or tried to cut him up in the bathtub. No Leonard. Not even a cut-up one. The bed hadn't been slept in, though he really ought to wash those sheets. Nothing looked out of place, but where the fuck is he? Tight as you guys are, it's not like Leonard to go off without at least tellin' you."
"You think it's foul play? That what you're sayin'?"
"I ain't sayin' it's nothin'. But..."
"I'm not finished here. Give me some room. That biker. One with Raul. You got a better description than 'you gave me?"
"I've never seen him, I gave you the description Leonard gave me."
"That description included him being alive and having a head, didn't it?"
"Last night, out on Old Pine Road. Couple of motorists, alias two kids parked by the side of the road doin' the hole-punch boogie, found a biker. His Harley had slammed into a tree, but that wasn't what did him in. What set him back was a shotgun blast to the head. They're gonna be pickin' up teeth and head fragments for a few days to come. They might even find a jawbone over in Louisiana."
"Leonard owns a shotgun."
"Now wait just a goddamn minute, Charlie. You know Leonard."
"Yeah. That's why I'm worried. Listen here, Hap. Leonard, he's a little hot-tempered. You can't deny that."
"He's not that hot-tempered."
"Yeah, he is. Especially lately. What about this stuff with Raul and Raul's boyfriend, who, I might note, is a biker? Am I right?"
"Yeah. But. . ."
"And you know why Leonard lost his job at the Hot Cat Club?"
"He pissed on a guy's head."
"That's excessive even for Leonard."
"He was making a point."
"Uh-huh. What you said about Leonard sayin' he was going to kick that kid's ass. Remember that?"
"I don't think he really meant it. Not really."
"That shows some temper, don't it? And you haven't heard a word from him. Any of that seem right to you, partner? And this biker, it was a twelve-gauge made him the headless horseman. And like I said, Leonard owns a twelve-gauge pump."
"So does every other Texan. Leonard also owns rifles, handguns, a collection of silverware, and a TV set. Hell, so do I. So do you."
"I haven't pissed on anyone's head, nor have I threatened to kick a kid's ass."
"Ah-hah! But you sympathized."
"I was kidding."
"So was Leonard."
"You weren't so sure."
"You don't even know it's the same biker."
"True. But after I went by Leonard's, didn't find him, heard about this biker, I went back and looked in Leonard's closet. Twelve-gauge wasn't there. You and I both know that twelve-gauge isn't one he takes out much. Got it from his uncle, who got it from his father, or some such thing. Uncle gave it to Leonard when he was a kid. You've heard him talk about it. It's an heirloom. It goes so far back it isn't registered. Guy's going to do something like kill a lover or a lover's boyfriend, he might want to do it with a weapon that's special to him."
"I thought you were Leonard's friend."
"I am, Hap. That's why I'm worried."
"I can't believe you came to me with this bullshit. Leonard didn't kill anybody. Not like that, anyway. Hell, you know that."
"There's more. Last night, biker bar on the outside of town. The Blazing Wheel. Heard of it? Only biker bar we got. Well, some black dude with a bad attitude went in there and whupped the shit out of a biker with a broom handle. It was one serious ass whuppin'. And when the other bikers started to light down on this black dude, he knocked a couple knots on their heads and pulled a pistol. Then, when they followed him out to the car, he jerked a twelve-gauge off his car seat and pointed it at them. Shot the neon out of the Blazing Wheel sign and shot up some bikes. It looked like a fuckin' demolition derby out there. This biker, one got the dog shit beat out of him—guess what?"
"It's the dead guy?"
"Guess what else?"
"This black guy did the damage, he was driving a Rambler. How many guys you know got the acorns to go in a biker bar like that and start trouble, carry a gun? How many black guys you know drive an old Rambler? How many whites you know drive a Rambler? Who the fuck do you know wants to drive a Rambler? That alone takes balls."
"I don't think Leonard likes the Rambler," I said. "He got it cheap."
"Yeah. Well, add this shotgun stuff in with the other stuff. The boyfriend business, Leonard not being home. It kinda adds up big-time nasty, don't it?"
"What about Raul? Any word there?"
"Zip, Which don't look good neither."
"Any charges filed against Leonard?"
"Not yet. I'm the only one that's put any of this together. Incorrectly, I hope."
I got out of bed and started for the closet.
"What are you doin'?" Charlie said.
"Keep what you think might be to yourself, will you, Charlie?"
"I'm an officer of the law, Hap. I can't—You're not goin' anywhere. It'll fuck up your insurance if you leave."
"I got to find Leonard. I got a better chance than anyone else. All you got to do is not tie things together just yet. Give me a little time. This way Leonard isn't forced into hiding if he didn't do this business."
"Didn't do it, he won't need to hide."
"State he's in, he might think he needs to. But I can tell you now, he didn't do this. Well, he probably did beat the hell out of that guy and shoot up the bar. And he probably drove that Rambler with a sense of pride. That's his style. But ambushin' some guy. Blowin' off his head like that. That's not his style."
"There's one other thing."
"A Rambler, formerly white, before it was gutted by fire, was found in a pasture off Highway Fifty-nine."
"Was it Bill Duffin's pasture?"
"It was. And if I remember right, wasn't that the pasture where the squirrel jumped you? We're gettin' lots of coincidences here. Black guy knockin' knots on a biker guy's head, shootin' a twelve-gauge, drivin' a Rambler."
"Then I've really got no choice," I said. "I have to leave."
I slipped on my pants without underwear, pulled the gown over my head and tossed it on the bed. I put on my T-shirt.
"All I'm asking, Charlie, is you give me some space here. Okay?"
"Hap, I've done you guys a lot of favors. But—"
"Do us one more."
"You see how it looks. He went in there, lost his temper, knotted up a biker's melon, ran off in the Rambler, bikers chased him down. He shot the guy off the bike from the car. Then the others overtook him, burned the car to slow down identification... then... well, I don't think they took Leonard out to dinner."
I pulled my socks and shoes from the closet. I said, "They didn't find a body, so I'm going to figure on Leonard being alive. He isn't indestructible, but he isn't any pushover either. Did they find a shotgun and a revolver in the car?"
"No, but so what? Bikers could have taken that before they burned it. Why not? Good shotgun and a revolver. They'd want it."
"Maybe. But I'm thinking he got away, and he's out there somewhere, needing help."
"Hap, man, say he is alive... I'm crazy about the guy. Leonard, me and him are tight. But we're talkin' murder here. I don't never get that tight with nobody. Hear what I'm sayin'?"
"Sounds like self-defense to me."
"What? He goes in and beats a guy up and the guy goes after him and Leonard kills him. Biker wasn't armed, Hap."
"You say the Rambler was found in Duffin's pasture. That isn't near where the biker was killed, is it?"
"So they chased him. He tried to dart into the pasture and hide. They caught him. It stands to reason."
"He certainly ran them a merry chase from Old Pine Road all the way out to Duffin's pasture."
"Yeah. All right. That's a point. But it could have happened way I said."
"Bikers say they saw Leonard shoot this guy? Anyone say that?"
"No. They just say they chased him. But a lot of questions haven't been asked yet. They caught up and killed him, they ain't gonna admit it right away. For all we know, they're tannin' his hide somewhere, gonna make him into a rug."
"He's already tanned. I don't want much time, Charlie. Leonard did this, you can have him. It's not like he's going to go on a murder spree. And if he is dead, what's the rush, huh?"
It was Charlie's turn to consider. "All right. Twenty-four hours, then I got to let my cat out of the bag. And in the meantime, I got to start seein' there's more in the bag than just one cat. Investigation might bring something forward I can't hold back. Things can develop. A cat can have kittens. Understand?"
"Yeah," I said. "Fully. And Charlie. Thanks."
I sat down in the guest chair and put on my socks and shoes. I checked my wallet. Yep. Still had my two dollars and a couple of large uncashed checks from offshore work.
The nurse who had threatened to tell my doctor I was a bad boy came in just as I was starting out.
"Mr. Collins, what do you think you're doing?" she said.
"Don't worry, I'm not checking out. I'm going for a morning constitutional. I'll be back in time for my next shot."
"You can't do that," she said. "That's five days from now."
"Hide in the bushes and watch," I said, and went out.
A moment later I came back in. Charlie was listening to the nurse fuss about my departure. He was nodding and saying nothing. They both turned to look at me.
"Charlie," I said, "I know this messes up my exit, but you think you could give me a ride? To the house. I forgot I don't have my truck here."
©1997 Joe R. Lansdale. All rights reserved.
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