CHAPTER SIX

Lawson Puckett liked a fine cigar, and Judge Irving Pandra had a whole box of them, in the same drawer of his dark oak wood desk where he kept his 1911 Colt .45 from his days as a Colonel in the Army of the Pacific, under General MacArthur.

Puckett was happy knowing he was well-liked, even respected, by the man he referred to as “Judge,” and Judge quite often gifted him with one, sometimes even two, of those fine cigars whenever he had done something of which Judge approved.

Puckett had the cigar in his mouth, and he pulled a mouthful of smoke in, very carefully, and savored it on his palate. Wine would be coming to his table, in time, and with it a huge helping of the crawfish gumbo he loved so much. Here at the Blue Crawdad, they knew how to treat Law Puckett right.

The cigar smoke puffed out into the room to mingle with the smoke of a hundred cheap cigarettes, ads for which freely littered every magazine known to mankind, except for maybe Boys’ Life. The smokers of those Marlboros, Camels, Saratogas, and Virginia Slims, they simply did not know what they were missing. Maybe when they smelled the flavor of this gift from Judge, it would make them believers.

Puckett mulled in silence over the plight of the man sitting in jail: Bryant “Slugger” Janx. He had read all the reports. The report from the anti-war hippies was obvious bunk. It painted them as the sweetest, most wonderful, most God-fearing group of little angels ever to walk the earth. In fact, after reading it, he wasn’t sure why God didn’t just take them all up to live with him in heaven now and be done with it.

And the police reports, written by William A. Armstrong, and Harry C. Mulligan were about the most wonderfully fabricated fiction Puckett had forced himself to slog through since his last Mike Hammer novel.

Now anyone who read each of those reports, then spoke with Slugger Janx for five minutes, would know where the truth lay. A funny combination of words, that one: “The truth lies.” It always made Puckett smile.

Reaching up with his left hand, he absently took his bowtie, wiggling it back and forth. He sucked on the cigar again, a fleeting thought of Judge Pandra’s kindness flitting through his mind.

Slugger Janx was going to be in trouble when he went to trial. County prosecutor Jib Slate had already offered them a deal: plead guilty to disorderly conduct. Honestly, considering the color of Slugger Janx’s skin, it was the fairest deal he could hope for. And it was even the truth, thought Puckett, thinking back on Slugger’s story: No one could deny that he had been disorderly, and he had indeed been the one throwing all of the physical blows.

However, Slugger had proved too stubborn, and he wasn’t interested in pleading guilty to anything, disorderly conduct or even spitting on the sidewalk. Puckett had been a little irritated, at first, but then he couldn’t blame the young man. Here he had honorably served his country in Vietnam, first as a guard at the terribly filthy and intolerable Long Binh Jail, and then in the jungles of Saigon, during his second and third tours. Three tours of Nam. How many could lay claim to that? Slugger was a good boy, he had served his country well, and he had a right to come home with some expectation of being treated with respect, at least by his own government.

Instead, society at large ignored him, at the very best, and at the very worst spat upon him and taunted him with names like Baby Killer. And his own government, which should have handsomely rewarded him for his service, simply tossed him back out on the street, with no proper medical care, no attempt to reassimilate him into a peaceful world he no longer had a frame of reference to understand, and not even a paycheck he had been promised on boarding the plane in Hanoi would be waiting for him at home.

Slugger’s only other choice was to go to court, where attorney Jib Slate was set to lay a number of serious charges to his credit, from battery with a deadly weapon (for it was Slate’s argument that Slugger had been trained to kill in Vietnam with his hands and feet) to assault upon police officers and resisting arrest.

Slugger couldn’t deny that he had, in his anger, committed battery—although to be fair, the hippies had battered him first, with spit—but trying to claim that it was “battery with a deadly weapon,” to Puckett that was a long stretch. Had Slugger wanted to kill one or two of those kids, he could surely have done it. But the other charges Slugger had flat-out denied, and after speaking with him at length, he believed him. In fact, he believed that every single word Slugger had told him was the truth.

The whole problem was, this court would be in southern Louisiana, the year was 1972, and Slugger would be testifying against two pillars of society, Officers William A. Armstrong, and Harry C. Mulligan, and six fun-loving and adorable white kids who would never think of raising a hand against another human being. Shoot, those kids were so sweet they wouldn’t be able to crush a tick. In a court of his so-called peers—meaning most likely twelve white men, or maybe eleven and a token black who would fear for his own skin if he made the wrong choice—Slugger Janx would be found guilty, of every charge.

But Slugger was going to fight. Apparently, according to his mother, he had spent his whole life as a fighter, befitting his nickname.

Puckett then thought of Judge again. Judge once had been a defense attorney himself, and Puckett had grown to respect and honor him, and they were friends. Judge would do all he could at sentencing to be lenient with Slugger, but he could only do so much if he wanted to retain his seat in this county. Slugger would be slapped with a guilty charge, he would serve time in the state penitentiary, and he would come out a hard and bitter man, and perhaps then a real menace, to the society who had thrown him into a pit of adders.

Law Puckett’s wry sense of humor made him pause for a moment to ponder the mystery of why the Bible always picked on adders—never subtracters, dividers, or multipliers. But that was none of his business. He still had a stupid smirk on his face he couldn’t erase when the waiter appeared with his gumbo.

Puckett dined alone, as he lived alone. Well, alone but for a little ragged mutt he called Smiley, maybe Chihuahua and probably Shit-something or other. Perhaps that last was not one of the actual breeds in Smiley’s mix so much as it was Smiley’s way of life.

The gumbo was impeccable, as always, and the wine supreme. Puckett had put out his cigar as he ate and sipped his wine, and when he finished, he leaned back, threw down his napkin, and finished the cigar, down to a little nub, and snuffed it out on his plate.

It was already after ten, and the little café had dwindled down to him and three other people, all of whom sat at a table together in a dark corner—not that there were any light corners in the Blue Crawdad.

Standing out of his chair, he unconsciously reached up and straightened his bowtie once more, grabbed down low on the front of his suit coat and gave it three hard downward jerks, to straighten out the wrinkles.

He wove between the round tables toward the front of the place, and as his waiter stepped out, he stopped and beckoned him over. “It was perfect, Marc,” he said, holding out his hand. When the waiter took it, he slipped a folded five-dollar bill into his hand, which was more than the price of the meal and wine together, and gave him a wink. Marc said thanks, and Law Puckett went to the front door and pushed through.

The winter night was refreshingly cool. The heavy mugginess of Louisiana’s summer and autumn was gone, although that ever-present murky-sweet smell rolling north from the swamps permeated the town’s air. Puckett rather liked it, actually. The swamp country had always been his refuge.

He walked out to the parking lot. There were only five cars. He drove a dark green Alpha Romeo Berlina, and the other diners must have come in a dark-colored Chrysler, because Marc, the waiter, drove the little gold Toyota, and the bus boy and cook’s cars were parked over by the back door.

He heard a marsh bird cry, off in the distance probably on the Bayou LaFourche. It made him stop and listen, knowing it would come again. It did. He smiled. A hound bayed, not the thrilled bay of the hunt, but the cooped up baying of a dog probably trapped in some dirty back yard, longing to be out in the dark woods. Puckett loved the night. He loved the sounds of Thibodaux after dark.

He had nearly reached his car when he saw the flicker of a cigarette, toward the back of the lot. There in those shadows loomed a separate shadow, darker and taller than those around it, ominous by its stillness. The tip of the cigarette glowed brighter, then dimmed once more.

Puckett got to the back of his car before he saw glitter on the ground by the passenger side. Still conscious of the shadowy figure with the cigarette, he stopped and squinted at the glitter. He puzzled for a moment. It looked like glass—auto glass, to be precise.

Curious, he walked around that side of the car. At the same time he realized his passenger window was broken out, and that the glitter on the ground was indeed caused by its glass, he saw another shadow stir in the front seat of his car—the passenger side. Then he saw another one, this one in back.

The two near-side passenger doors and the rear door on the driver’s side clicked and slowly came open, and three dark-clothed figures unfurled to stand tall and unmoving in the dark. He peered closer to see faces, then realized why he couldn’t: Each of them was wearing a ski mask, the kind with three holes for the eyes and mouth.

Panic raced up through little Law Puckett, and his knees felt suddenly weak. From the corner of his eye, he could see the man with the cigarette coming his way, moving in what he would call a saunter.

He turned and looked at the front door of the café. It was fifty feet away. And in front of it stood three more dark shadows. Even as he saw them, they started forward.

In a daze, his mind clouded perhaps a little by the wine, Puckett let his eyes scan the parking lot and all the way out to the street. There was no one else in sight. Not even another automobile.

His gaze bounced over all seven of the dark figures that were slowly forming a ring around him, every one of them taller than he was by inches. The last one to arrive was the man with the cigarette. He stopped a ways back, threw down his cigarette, and crushed it on the pavement with the toe of his shoe. It was then that Puckett realized he wasn’t wearing a mask, but he was too far away to make out any features of his face. Even as Puckett saw this, the man reached behind his back, then raised his hands and worked a dark ski mask down over his face.

With this done, he walked close, moving with an aching kind of slowness, drawing out what Puckett knew was to come.

The man stopped in front of Puckett, and no one spoke. Five seconds went by. Then Puckett heard himself say, “Who’s going to pay for my window?”

Cigarette chuckled. “You’ve got bigger worries than that, Law man.”

Puckett didn’t recognize the voice. But a visceral part of him did somehow appreciate the play on words with his nickname, in spite of the danger he was in.

“I could ask you to go on a vacation, little man, but you probably wouldn’t do it, would you? And if you did, you’d just come back.”

Puckett stared. What did they expect him to say?

“You and the judge are the only two men in this whole town pretendin’ that nigger over in the jail didn’t do somethin’ real bad. Why is that?”

“He has to have his day in court,” Puckett said softly. “Nobody has found him guilty.” He heard his words as if they were being spoken by someone else.

“He’s guilty. You know it. You’re just lookin’ for your little moment of fame. Well, son, we’re here t’ give you that fame.”

Cigarette turned his head slightly to look in the direction of Puckett’s left shoulder and gave a nod. Puckett heard his head start to clang, and dizziness came over him. A pain suddenly shot all through him as his knees began to buckle.

Pressure came to his low back. Then to the back of his head. Both places burst into hot centers of pain in the flash of a second, and he realized he was on his knees. Somebody pulled him up. Maybe two somebodies. Cigarette stepped close and stomped down with all his might on Puckett’s instep. Puckett heard a voice cry out in pain, and he realized it must be his own.

He was standing again, or at least he was upright. He couldn’t feel his own feet. Cigarette struck him in the belly. He did it again, and again. The fourth blow must have found his solar plexus, for Puckett realized no air would come into his lungs.

He was down again, this time on his left side. The world was reeling. Street lights blurred and flashed around in his mind, and then he heard a car’s engine start, and he forced his eyes open to see red taillights, and blinding backup lights flared into his face. A car was backing up toward him. He wanted to watch. He tried to scream again.

And then all the world was dark.