nofn.abw :ray hartman


Southeast wind tore at an American flag,  kat-corner the Alreed Building whipping it over  courthouse steeples  ... let the judge untangle  them, or  Charleston dusk when  stiff harbor breeze turns seaward.  From my fifth floor office I watched  distracted  ...  while  Max raved on.

"Believe gawddmit Sam I'h  ain't believin'  nothin' 'bout the whore, like twenty  wooden buffalo nickels make one silver eagle cause I bit the damn thang."

In this business I seen plenty a'  tangled gents  earn what they  squandered  ...  soft heart Max DeVre didn't deserve losing,  and for his  kindness had tossed fortunes in six years, a gorgous wifes' affections in three months and eight fingers a'  rye in ten minutes. Now his paws  shook and it took both ta steady the plastic tumble so ice-cubes didn't bounce out.  Charleston July  sun blazed through south-face windows  like three glass pane broiler units finally found the chicken of their dreams. Max wuz on a roll.

"Tell me again," I said

He fumed. "Sure as cold hell blows from Georgia  m'ha wife wants to kill me." He'd said it five times, and each time his voice shook a little more ... Max  wore  loose white cotton, with linen patches elbows and knees, and  his  foppish blond hair  long and  raked to the side.  Unstylish. Tired ...  like  vagrant remnants of cultured, plantation accent and bad memory he  pawed it into a curl. "Killed  dea'hd - hi-stone cold dead and  Ih'm certain ... well ... how certain does a man have to be that his wife's already tried?"  Maxs hand -  a big mans big-fist hand full a' sweat and pounding  smacked hard on my desktop. The rap echoed hot, harsh metal. "In m'ha own house,  Sam ... fathers an' grandfathers house ...  I was born  bare-ass nekked in that house  and  three times the Yankee whore has tried to kill me!"

"Not much success, huh ...?"

"These babies only need to succeed once ..." Maxs' paw spilled  a  trey of  pellets and they rang rolling across till the blotter stopped them. "Mag-22s, Sam  ... target rounds ...  square whack a  possum at 200 yards."

"They come all at once?"

Maxs' lip curled un-natural and harsh and wolfish. "How stupid do Ih' look?"

"The bullets, not the possum ..."

Max  eased ... and laughed cause a man been rich enough ta act smart likes smart and fell heavily into the leather lounger -  reached for the crumpled pack of  Reds with eyes focused far away. "Dug 'em out of the wall behind me ...  not what it used to be ...  shooting  salt marsh  possum is illegal ... now ... might as well make the plantation illegal, what's left of it. Mt. Pleasant is no longer a mans territory."

For certain, I thought, no man who gave his wife three free shots ... I spilled two  new fingers of old rye into Maxs' tumbler and  fingered the nearest slug. A 60-grain center-fire no doubt, scored and flattened and no doubt not lead. "Your shells?"

"Of course."

"Kinda upscale, huh Max - Berryllium -  whose ecology needs that kinda care for a gent on  a budget."

"The family kind!" He  sucked lung from the  Pall Mall, bit one finger, swallowed and held the tumbler up to one eye like a periscope looking  out  it seemed from a very small place into sun-dazzle through the window.  "Lead's forbidden ... Rhonda won't have lead in the house. She says it gives her a rash and poisons the ducks. Can't shoot damned Mt Pleasant ducks anymore either ..."  Then Max DeVre  -  heir to a  famous Low Country  name even bigger than the  huge, wasted fortune  - a big man  treated rough by the past and dodging futures he could not see and did not care for did something extraordinary - he started to sob ... "I'm lead, Sam, an illegal dead duck I'm ... I'm the rash and Rhonda she's ... she's ..."

Sure, I bit my lip ...  what Rhonda wuz no husband needs ta know. I took a slug from the rye bottle, paced  angry to the window and  stared back at Max. He wuz a  peaceful man.  A good man,  better than he had to be, when rich.  Gone poor quiet. Still fighting ...

"... Rhonda's my whole world."

And the big mans sobbing ranked me so hard I stalked back to the window like any  grilled chicken knows both sides are toast. Like Maxs world.

It used to be bigger. I'd known Max DeVre for  fifteen years.  We'd graduated from the Citadel -  and gone to different wars. Max  joined the Peace Corps,  caught ten blood diseases in Guatemala and a top-a'-the-tree and climbing Georgia peach.  Ecologist ...  avahuasca  specialist or  some fruit I ain't never heard ...  I'd gone to southern Lebanon  to fight for G-D,  and brought back a girls dog-tag ...  

By then Maxs family had sold a Carolina forest, and grifted  profit into Jamaican real estate. A hurricane took the cabanas, and Max lost sugar-cane fields in a drought that left only ganja standing tall and the DEA boys  pounced. Max walked with a warning and empty pockets.  As debts continued and Rhonda-the-peach spent big, pieces of the Mt Pleasant plantation had been sold,  cut off like useless body parts to feed developers,  leaving  finally only fifty swampy acres looking east over Sullivans Island drawbridge. To starve by the view can't be beat.

Max  tried ... had taught science at a peninsula school  ... an honorable profession for Charlestons impoverished old names - pennies dribbled in while yards flew, and  to the remorseless eye of  Miss Peepers the Charleston Register gossip columnist, and the glee every jealous matron  SOB Max had changed professions. At home, Rhonda had stopped using eye-liner ...  Miss Peepers said that too ...  one year ago.

"You sure it's your wife shooting?"

"Sure as bells toll  at St. Marks. First Monday of the month,  neptide, I run the dawhgs ...  end of the dock." Max looked away grinning  glumly ..." swamp coons give one hell-of-a chase ... and the Rots rip guts on anything blooded - a scratch, a wing ... " Max stretched forward in the chair - graceless. "Monday evening ... that's Rhondas shoppin' night ... dock  flanks a wall where Rhonda  trellaces Salvia. Eight feet of plaster -  shots  splattered nek'hi."  Max  brushed careless, linen wrinkles on trousers needed a crease twitching pathetic little head-shakes. "I'h  hand load those berryllium slugs. Crimp marks you can see along the edge."

I looked ... "Maybe it's Rhonda. like ya say maybe not. Carry protection?  And the shots ... are they close?"

Max  extracted a chrome Derringer, from a belt loop and rubbed his shoulder. "Skinburn ..."

Derringers I never liked they make my nose itch. "Same place, same time worse than a steady date ... maybe ya should go ta the beach, huh and chase pelicans ..."

"They're protected."

"Jeeez, Max - pelicans ... protected  ...  will  ya hide the damned shells!" I caught myself shouting into Maxs long-lost face. 

He said simply and without force.  "One loaded box is missing. Twenty-four slugs ... or should I say twenty-two ..."

"And the rifle? And the coppers ...  yeah what about the cops what do they ...?"

"No cops, Sam!  They might ... she might ..." His hands shook helpless ... "Rhonda says her rifle was stolen."

Funny, ain't it how the light glares in ... sometimes ... I  glanced across Charleston steeples to the harbor.  "Don't want ta change nothin', huh ..."  Bit my lip his-N'-hers  crappola ... I fell into the break-a-back oak  chair I called home. "What can I do, Max ...?"

"Ya'll  stop her!"

"Stop ... heh wait a minute hows about family court in Charleston a dame only gets two shots before she got ta kiss up and make out reservations for  Reno."

Big, shaking paws scratched at his eyes - scratching makes them red ya know ... "Divorce? Impossible! I can't live without her, Sam."

"Then how 'bouts NRA  couples classes ya both members ...?"

"Rhonda's an expert  marksman - shoot  out a mosquitos eye ..." Maxs' sagging face hardened. "I want you to follow her, dog her, stay on her tail like a coon-hound till she's ready to try  shooting me again and then ..."

"Waaaiit a minute, Max I don't shoot dames less they steal covers on a cold night even the last eX grew ice-cubes on her toes  I only used a water-pistol with grape-juice."

"Dammit, Sam don't shoot the woman ... I want you to REASON with her, just stop her, talk to her."

"Talking up a woman takes time, Max and I'm a Mars not Vesuvius. Ya know that. Same with setting up a dim tail. Ya got time, Max?  Two steps backward one step ... No bank steppin' on yer toes?"

"Worse than the Rots, those bastards," he sez contemptuous, then  deep in his chest the grunt stopped.  His face flushed then pale, fighting for control. "Plenty of time, more than plenty ... Ih' got them Yankee bankers eatin'  cold grits." Again Maxs' paw slammed down on the desktop. "Make Rhonda know that I understand ... I'hm not all she expected, but ...  tell her how much I need her. I'm willing to do ANYTHING ..."

I shrugged. And sobs started again, behind the big paws. Anything, yeah right I could do anything, but  reason with Max DeVre. Talk ta somebody? Sure, that I promised ...

"How are the dogs biting," I   asked lightly?"

"Oh the dawhgs ... they do just fi'hn ..."

"Catch many a' the swamp coons?"

"Only what they eat ... one jaw-snap;  it's a painless way  for the critters to die."

"Yeah, well ... sure ... bona-petite!"

Before Max left he  wrote a check which I ripped up and burned with the stub of his Red  not half smoked but bleeding grey, smoky pain into an ashtray that had seen worse hard men laugh and jump out a window minutes later.

Some talk comes cheap. Todays list of clients read empty, empty and empty. I knew them. Minutes later  straw pork-pie tipped over my nose,  and worn sawbuck from the safe stretched into my wallet I  cell-phoned the Charleston  Register, or as  locals call it rag-N-gag. Not the gossip column.  Miss Peepers ...  who wuz to anybody worth knowing Eve DeLeon, wife a' the bulldog Charleston detective Nicky DeLeon.  His name her family money, not the first time that's happened in  Charleston society; Miss Peepers loaded both barrels.

Her  assistant  snipped  protective telephone razz  "Miss Peepers?  Attending an editorial meeting  ... who the hell  are you?"

"Sam Levine,  pal a'  her husband Nicky ...," I managed quick, and left Doris-the-answer-girls telephone number.

"Don't you want the business desk Mr ... Mr Levine, or ... or advertising ...", she snapped?

"Try kennels, sweetheart like rotweiler's  welp."

"Male or bitch?"

"Optimistic dame, ain't-cha, " I flipped out and the phone slammed shut! Musta been the sensitive type me too.  I tucked the 32-caliber belly-gun under my shoulder, slapped on  faded plaid  jacket and bust out ta Doris-the-answer-girls desk.

Doris wuz pickin' through a goth glamour-zine - of which two I ain't seen - and last  of a Pall Mall  Red and  somehow wavin' a shiny black little-finger-nail which paw held a creme-color envelope got no postal, but smelled julip across the foyer.

"Fer  you, Mr Levine,  toitt-tsy  ..."

"Mash notes this early I hate it ... gimme that ...!"

Glossy pages ruffled. "...  and she was a real looker, "  whistles Doris pretending her shiny desk-lamp ain't been lookin' through both sides a the card.

"Oh yeah since when?"

"Since you and the big guy been bumpin' gums."

"That's been two hours ..."

"That's about right want me ta get specific?"  Last Red in my pack drops deskside. "How 'bouts three-forty-seven," she sez and leans over for a flash from my battered chrome Zippo. "Give or take a minute."

"But Doris, that wuz only two minutes ago ...  right after the call ..."

"Then I gotta be at least half-right about the time, huh Mr Levine?" 

And Doris smiled one a' those  smartsy dame smiles like she's got two-plus-two while zero's my middle name. She makes my head spin I'm gonna kill her some day ..."Just dropped and run, huh," I said  peeling open the stickum and catching the vague, mint rush. "No phone number no address ... you seen her before?"

"Not personal, Mr Levine, but - like a bleached peach, that's how she looked ... her ourve ... those have arsenic in the pits don't they ...?"

"Ourve? That's ouvre, Doris ... " I slid out the fresh smudged notecard. Ink not ballpoint. Hurriedly hand written. "You gotta stop readin' them detective novels, Doris makes yer head spin." 

The notecard read: I LOVE MY HUSBAND, MR LEVINE. 



Doris  head twisted over the desk could'a read the Torah upside down. "But we got one too, right?"

"... huh! What's that  Doris ...?"

Doris dove into the zine had a black-hair  coverbabe nine gold rings - above her nose ... She  huffed. "I can't explain it to ya, Mr Levine either it hits ya between the eyes or the eyeliner runs." "Between the eyes, huh ...  maybe, Doris.  Give it a minute."

I stashed the letter, and doing a slow brain-burn  sitting on Doris' desk  watching her smoke my last Red and laughing at her last joke about a goosed Jewish moose when  Miss Peepers call shot back.

"Where is that snakey little PI, when a girl really needs a fig leaf, "  she breezed to Doris.  Eve DeLeon had put twos together faster than four.

Phone I snatched away ...  rapping my best gravel-voice. "It's mint these days,  sweetheart not apples or figs."

"Sweetheart? Mint! Oh dear, Samual," she drawled langorously. "Nothing's  happened to Max, has it? Not desperate was he ... 'course he must be ... calling you or  is he pinched  tight,  came to your gawd-forsaken office. Was! 'Course so past tense he can't be there now - must have just left shaking. Shaking, wasn't he Sam? Does he hurt, Sam?"

"Hurt? Try  eye-bruise beefsteak don't cure."

"Oh God ... what's the woman done to him now, or is it still the Federales?"

"Ahhhhh ... yeah well how 'bouts lunch?"

For a second, the receiver hung drop-dead silent, then ..."How much did Max tell you, Sam?"

"'Bouts what?"

"Oh really ...  mice playing above the widows peak?  Not nice playing the squared-jaw PI with  Miss Peepers ..." Phone line cluck clucked like a hen house full'a fresh eggs. Then the SPLAT! "It's family linen, 'course, what's got dirty, but  lunch?  Well I imagine so ... this afternoon seems free.  It is Monday, 'course it is, and Nicholas, poor dear has been, well ... overextended." She clucked at that ... " Make it 5-PM good for you I knew it ... and for gawd sake pla-easse don't wear that straw porkpie  fedora or the Mills House waiters will try to steam it clean!"

Phone clicked dead in my hand. I said. "Doris, something wrong with my hat?"

"The orange hatband, Mr Levine, it don't  match with a tan hat."

"That's pearl, Doris, the hatband is pearl and the hat Irish creme shade."

"Maybe it needs a cleaning, huh Mr Levine  the boyfriend knows a haberdash soak the skins all weekend long."

What women know about hats I ain't gonna guess, but info? Drums beat fast in Charleston, even  during an elevator ride. Lobby doors opened and cross the marble floor under  neon flash sez NAVY JOES  hi-brass espresso  boiled out a' the brass pot steaming like cruisers big guns. 

"Squeeze two beans like usual Mr Levine," rapped Jimbo, "whatch'asay  - hat needs a cleaning -  get shipshape for that special some-one ..."

I'm starin' at the setup. "Private, confidential, no-see-'ums ...  tell me about it."

Jimbo's a huge, square block of ex-Navy  can't understand n-o. "Incoming ... heads up!" He pushed  shots cross the counter aimed at me. "Shakin' top a' the tree today, Mr Levine, huh? Better steady the hands."

Stainless Rolex read four-ten I got time ... "Sez who, Jimbo," I sez crossing the marble-scuff  and dragging over a stool? "I ain't seen no birds chirping it's too windy."

"Never stopped a dame ," he sez  running  mits through his grey-blond crew. "Air conditioning, huh Mr. Levine makes the sound carry ..." Wiped mits on the coffee stain apron he done Navy style fer twenty years. "Not every day one a'  us  proles gets ta chat-up Miss Peepers."

"So that's it," I took a sip boiled an eyeball. "Paroled who's paroled judge let me off with a warning 'bouts under-age Jezebels ..." Second  blast of the steaming black mud rolled my eyes up like storm shutters. "What else the birdy say?"

Jimbo thumps on the counter, with a well practiced thumb which he does thinkin' - 'bouts eight-point-five outa ten -  more than most  and shucks out page-nine a' the  Register; Miss Peepers page with a twelve-point column screaming:


      gentle readers. have matrons neglected their 

      'homework'? low country wifes demured so

      randy gents not only wander, but vanish from

      domestic nests? your humble writer believes so. 

                 SOB sheets cold as a folly beach hot-tub? tuttut -

                            baring the wretched, yet another successful ...

"One toots in the know, huh, Mr Levine," rumbles Jimbo. Happened last night, or most think so. The third Charleston land developer gone missing in the last two months. Lots a' temptation huh ... ? Wife's in a tizzy ... yeah cause she got nobody to divorce  till  the guy stumbles back home."  Jimbo sucked into a China-mug of his own home-brew. "Most roving, rascals return ... course that's what most thought about the first two ..."

"Maybe it's an infection, huh," I sez curling  end a' my moustach, "like bad memory gets passed around in coffee doesn't boil. What do the cops say?"

"No comment. They're investigatin'." Jimbos nose screws up. "I don't boil the espresso, Mr Levine only real navy JOE gets boiled."

"Glad I ain't the second bean." I slid a fiver under the news-print. "Heh Jimbo - Aborigines do it! Why not Charleston developers? Walk-around, sleep-around ... maybe they got tired a' draining swamps, killing  hawks and wrecking beaches?"

"Maybe, so Mr Levine ..." Jimbo winked a silver blond eyebrow, "and maybe Miss Peepers thinks ya know something ... got any payin' clients this month?"

"One, yeah - his neighbors pet scorpion bit him . Actually ... HER pet scorpion and bit where I ain't gonna say ..." Last of the mud I slung down. "No word on the first two gents, huh?"

"Nothin'. Vanished.  Like they got eat up."

"Maybe they drank your coffee and melted, huh Jimbo," I sez  moving quick and smiling and  piled out through the revolving brass door. 

Navy curses streamed after me, with the good sense to stop at the pavement.  Broiling, slap-face  Charleston wind sucked my lungs  dry dodging drained and aimless tourist gangs sweating in Jamaican shorts they should'a gone there and loping up toward St. Marks. Locals die in Charleston not so much a' old age and bourbon, but to stay cool and off the streets in Summer -  while above the gravestones tourists flock ... wild, aimless  packs  roving  the narrow doorways lining State Street. Wonder more don't die a' suffocation  when greybeard and blue-wash  collide.

But gravestones ain't a problem for a young guy like me, and I ain't no traffic engineer, part a' the problem and packs scatter. Breast pocket the note-card's stickin' me. Who else wrote the card, but Maxs' wife Rhonda?  If so, Max got a tombstone picked out premature since Rhonda wants ta wash dirty linen not tear it.

Half-way down the block, with the Mills House in sight three old bags blew from the tobacco shop as wind roared and my straw porkpie flew.  Lunging one handed I snatched it over a silver-blue head and dove in behind. Smell of  illegal, sweet  Habanos made my head spin, but  least a local prole knows what to expect from his betters. Tobacconist is an old Greek named Petrakus got his own Fed stamp machine. I pay the tax instead and Petrakus winks. "Put in a good word for the business, huh Sammy? Say we're good Americans."

It ain't true that the Mills House still doesn't serve Negros. The Negro servers won't serve a white whose family come to Charleston after 1724. Not right, anyway and business class gets the paper linen. We sat under a chandelier at the east window where spill from the museum magnolias took away breath with your eyes, and the air is cool from three feet of brick that's been cool for 200 years. 

We ate slow and light and expensive - Charleston Register picked up the tab. By seven-PM the waiters  removed what was left of roast scallops and brie. Eve chose sherbet, in place of a second martini which I did not. The sherbet melted.

"I really shouldn't be doing this ... Sam," Eve  DeLeon drawled  sucking full draw on my  Red  and not letting go soon. "Eldest  daughter, the princess just turned fourteen and she's threatening to start, Virginia Slims no less  if Nicholas and I don't stop. Her girl-pals all smoke ... while school propaganda  works in high-gear you know."

"I never had the experience ...  how 'bouts the boyfriend?"

Serious as an ice-pick she sez. "Not yet, Samual."

"Oh ... good for you."  Lit a fresh one myself. "Max should'a waited too, maybe ... I understand Rhonda's got a lease on the hot-sheet motel."

"That, and the drugs ... In heat, Maxs Rot bitches display greater discretion," and with this polite, gentlewomans indiscretion  her lips blew a  thin stream of smoke out and up toward the overhead fan. Eve had dressed in newsroom wool tweed,  auburn hair pulled back over  a shoulder. High cheeks and  slim shoulders never frail. A blue silk blouse quietly hid the gold Piaget and pearl choker.  She shot nervy. "We cautioned him."

"No Swiss vacation, huh ..."

Wicked smile cracked her lips. "A woman learns to survive heartbreak, with such trifles, but a man ... Max is not the same man ..." Eve drew  back  the smile. "You could see it coming, Sam like an old steam engine. The wear if it. Max never really had a chance; stoogies, most of them, most of the family left to him. What can you expect? The women learned to marry early and well,  but the men ... of all the DeVre men the best were lost at Shiloh."

"Shiloh, huh ... when the DeVres owned Mt. Pleasant! Will  Max lose the last fifty acres?"

"It's a heartbreak ...  damned Yankee Federales howl at  his doorstep, while developers ... the developers just sniff and sniff."

"Yeah,  for a nice guy I guess too much of the money went too fast."

"Toodles on the money, Sam. He had friends - I mean there's always a pocket to pick when the purse is thin. Not all the family money was lost." Eve twisted the red-eye butt into a pearl conch. "Max is neither dumb nor lazy. No! Not the money, but I mean that  woman!"

Woman -  the word dropped like fractured ice.  "Heh, all right OKey let's stay cool don't melt the sherbert cause some carpet-bagging Georgia  hellcat got claws into the family pup. I mean,  Georgia ... last time I looked it wuz south a' ..."

"The Georgia Piedmont, and  blonde Athens white trash is south of nowhere!"

"But north a' dumb, huh ..." I gamely pushed on. "If  Max loses the plantation, then Rhonda's down to her last, leopard-skin boa."

"Not if Max  divorced her now. She takes the land in settlement while the family debts remain with poor Max. Slimy enough for that Jezebel. But it's the dogs, Sam - Rhonda made him  quit teaching and start kenneling the Rots. Evil things ... "

A  thin, cruel  veil of wrinkles snatched at the corners of Eves eyes disappearing, but I imagined some sisterhood-of-the-southern-belle flitting behind them. A dames way a thinkin' I  figured different. "Way I  figured, it was a bigger paycheck."

"Can't you see, Sam? Oh dear ...  not the dogs at all, really; it's culture - breeding -  a families ontogeny ... Rhonda was breeding  a new Max!"

"Yeah, well ... I thought he was carrying a few extra stem cells ..."

"Carried more than that, if he hired you, Sam ..." Her eyes brightened. "Carrying a real load - Just what did Max have to say?"  Edges of  Eves lips curled in a chatty smile,  and her steel blue peepers knifed right through me. "What's the grift!"

Jeeez it got hot getting down ta BUSINESS ...  I thought about it. Not grift, but balance. Namely, what Eve  DeLeon hadn't told me I needed ta know and didn't know it, while what I knew she guessed last month. Part of it's  clampjaw I owe ta the client. Part  wiggling around that icy resolve Max DeVres sister Eve had -  yeah, Eve DeVres before she married a  dirt-poor not-half-dumb flat-foot named  DeLeon. 

I said. "Max said Rhonda tried to kill him. Not just once, not twice ..."

Eve said icy. "Not to be believed."

"Suppose I sez I got ta paw evidence."

"One paw does not a bloodhound make."

"How 'bouts three ..."

"We shoot three-legged dogs.

"How 'bouts cause Miss Peepers made  quick gams  on hot pavement gonna yak  cool  breeze to a cold PI."

"Really, Sam, do your client buy that razz?"

"Ahhhh ...  not most."

She hesitated, while smoke curled round a finger. "It's impossible,  because Maxs' will is very explicit. In case of  death by non-natural causes, the plantation property reverts to the family trust."

"Honest injun?"

"As you would say, Samual, honest as Redmans Chew.  Even if she succeeded in killing Max, and then beat cops and the courts, Rhonda  gets not a penny."

Last of my martini slipped away. "And, ah, just who might be the executor of the DeVre family estate?"

Eve once-overed the question, like I seen Nicky do before he rips perp guts. "You're really asking who else might benefit from Maxs' death. That's a very complicated question, Sam." Eve let  her Piaget slip from beneath the silk. "I'm afraid  Miss Peepers is fresh out of gossip. Miss Martha should have the children fed, but I expect  Nicholas ..."

"Overstretched, huh ...," I manage disappointed.

"Well you know, Sam how wandering husbands give  uncentered women of the vapors. They always assume the worst and then Nick ..."

"Yeah, so I figured." I chewed end of my mustache. " How will  Miss Peepers see it tomorrow?"

Eve smiled wistful. "Miss Peepers believes women should tend their knitting ... and men their wives. Do you need a lift anywhere?"

"No thanks, Eve. It's been fun ... think I'll take a walk and get the alcohol circulating."

We left  together, through the side door bearing out on the fountains, and Eve left something in the doormans hand might a' been a  yard - might'a been two ...  "Unpleasant, topics, but  a lovely afternoon, Samual," she sez.

I grinned. "Thought I wuz gonna lose the crease in my straw porkpie."

"Think again, Samual." Eve eyed me half suspicious mostly amused. "As it is now, that crease will last decades. No colored man of sense will touch a white juju."

"Say what? I took the porkpie off gingerly ... steam would'a helped most of it ... and stuck a little finger through the hole just below its sharpened peak. Bits a straw leaked out on both sides. It was ragged, on a small scale, the hole where a bullet had come and gone. Bits of hair shaved off came with the straw ... I ain't say'n I grabbed for it, but found my hand on my forehead twitching around like what's been missed is missing.

"Seems to me, the problem is moths, not mice," Eve  whispered before the car-man had her white Caddy pulled up to the curb and white gloves were helping her inside.

"Yeah, I'll check on that," I sez before the Caddy slid away.

Mice, moths ... hot lead hornets. Stinging  through the forehead. Mine -  making  two thoughts unhappy they ain't gonna get together make a third little, tiny thought ... how comes yer still breathin', Sammy ...? I wipe sweat from my forehead and eyeball sweep the plaza. I could'a seen stray hairs on a mosquitos azz. Nobody but the carman, and  since I'd lost my escort he wuz wondering  out loud why I was still lowering property values? He didn't shake his arm and say skat, but two of the hotel muscle stood just inside the door  and nervous.

Breathing heavy. Take off the hat again and  X-ray  the sweatline ... bullet-hole creased the edge ... skin and sweat and  bullet,  for microseconds they danced together - whose gonna be yer partner ... a serious attempt, huh, and a 22-caliber no doubt.

"OKey, all right," I wave at the muscle, slapped the hat back on -  plow out the gate, down the alley toward the Alreed building not thinkin' too much. 

First the disbelief numbs ya then ya think some, before cold terror replaces the numb ya got water fer knees and empty pit for a gut that's me cold sweat scared,  shakin' so hard brain cells rattle Maybe ya run, maybe look for a fight, but most always there's just nothing ... if yer still alive.

A drifty, dreamy  kinda half-alive  ...   cat-pawing  along  cooling asphalt. Shadows lay long, over the whitewash alley  elms dappled high up and  air  sparkled  dying maroon glow of a  Low Country evening.  Take a breath, Sammy ...  Who knew where I was having lunch? Who would care? How many people know that Eve DeLeon aka Miss Peepers is the sole executor of the DeVres estate?  Heh whatch'a thinkin' Sammy no dame sets herself up specially a coppers wife. She's an accident huh happens twice a day ...  some-ones accident. What do I know I didn't know then makes me better dead than alive?  Make a list huh palsy? Max gonna die, no live forever. Max's broke, no he's printing it ... yeah, palsy ya know enough new stuff gives Hegel pms. Had ta be ...  course it's a quid-pro-dope sez what comes after got made by what comes before yeah right - that's why Plato chugged root beer.

Just happenstance, too it's a Monday evening ... I  lambed up front a' the park-N'-pee back of Alreed  Building where my Plymouth parked  first  floor.  Stainless Rolex read eight-fifty and I'd stopped dreaming.  Max had hired a PI not a prophet, and  I  planned a quick hop ta  his Mt. Pleasant plantation, where mint grew on walls,  the swamp wuz always wet, and  Rhonda may or may not be shopping.

I bent to key the lock --- the slug whistled so close to my left ear  the Bzzz-SNAKK could'a been  tone-deaf honey-bees singing and buried  into the neon sign that flashed FIRST GEAR ONLY but no longer. It sparked and burned and died, and I was on my knees scrambling through the open door then up, straight up gun out and pointing and my azz flattened against the cinder-block wall. First ya stay alive.

Second time  ya get mad. The shot had come from behind me, from up the alley in the direction of the Mills House  Same direction an engine roared to life, tires squealed and walls tingled with  metallic sounds of a  car rushing forward. Attack or escape that's  it's decision, mine too gulped deep and darted away from the cinder-blocks toward my  Plymouth. I hit the  driver door same time the tint-glass Buick roared passed  - escaping ... escape or attack ... or call the coppers - with the cell-phone I left  top a' the office safe. Whatch'a gonna say anyway huh Sam 'grab that Buick officer it's got a grill looks like sharks teeth, and a driver I ain't seen looks like a shooter I ain't seen musta shot at me with a rifle  ...'  I  wheeled the 427 out the exit in time ta see brake lights flash one block ahead and swerve into a steady traffic stream west on Lockwood Boulevard coulda' gone anywhere I  didn't think so!

I  ground steady,  against evening traffic dogging the Buick. Nothing personal here, Sammy huh? Ya got a client got ta look after his interests. Maybe ya know too much like Max ... maybe you're a better target bein' half Maxs size ... maybe ya need ta rip guts!  Ya couldn't just run up the Buicks  azz, even if it flashed neon 'come dance with the one what shot ya'. 

I put the 32-caliber on the bench beside me, rode an outside lane  and sucked onto  the Buicks  chrome. I  couldn't see the driver, and didn't care creeping  two blocks behind, to the Cross-town running east-west;  one block  hitting  the Buick hit Cooper River Bridge in an angry  sixty mile-an-hour  traffic snarl that hurled us  across the river into Mt. Pleasant. Someplace on the bridge cold shakes grabbed me it's a long dive down they said - and I grabbed the pint-a'-rye in the glovebox  and sucked till  shakes got burned away and I bought  not just guts but time. Where I figured my  4-barrel big-8 made a difference, and I got close as two car-lengths ... Just short a' being run over, the  cadgy  bastard  dodged between SUVs, then  suddenly swerved  into Patriots Point.

Nice trick, Patroits Point - Charlestons dustbin a'  rusting warships and dirt roads. I lagged back, when cop cars got thick as swamp mosquitos. The Buick wandered casually, through seasick  tourists.  Then with a locals  eye it  skat an alley  onto a tree lined drive that skirted the Cooper, looping east through fresh developments, narrow streets and finally down a bulldozed mud lane where live oak gave way to scrum pine and ruts went up to the floorboard.

I shoulda' ignored hi-beams splashing up and down tree-trunks not the ruts. My Plymouth caught one, slew sideways into a pine stump which  chewed steam from the radiator, threw me around and stopped me  dead duck like a plate of microwave pate.  And smashed my head up, into the car roof so hard  I seen stars looked like tangerines and smelled like a mint julip, and just before blackout I remembered pawing the 32-caliber with one hand, and the seat-belt buckle wondering which piece-a-iron I needed most?

Jeeez it hurt ... Bloody  salt sweat burned my eyes - I wiped it away staring right into it. The thing  ya  like most about rattlesnakes, is that they rattle and don't climb trees. The cotton-mouth moccasin hanging from the branch outside the  Plymouth window wuz doing neither. Just flicking its tongue at the glass pane wondering, after he bit  which part a' me he might be able to swallow. Part a' nature, I figure, and probably protected like possums in Mt. Pleasant.  Head woozy, and  crease a' blood trickled into my left eye ... he might a' smelled that too. I cracked the window, stuck the  gun barrel out the crack  where its forked little tongue came sniffing before the fangs and blew off its head.

The SNAK  snapped like a lightening bolt ...  then it got quiet. Wind crooned in the pines, and carried  soft tastes of  coastal marsh and ganja most never sees this side of the Edisto River.  I killed the headlights. An owl hooted and its pal hooted back. Black  turned grey then silver ...  the  moonscape  was about  one-hundred  yards across. Rough cleared. Two bulldozers and a truck stood siluetted by the moon.  Them and the Buick,  which did not need the moon about kat-corner  across the clearing. It laying on its side.  Taillights still burning,  headlights blazing down a gravel road it hadn't quite got to.  Like me,  dark and the ruts had eaten it.  About the driver ... 

Splash a' cold water, into my face that wuz the  unknown driver and angry, lead hornets hugging a sweatline and  Max DeVres wanted either dead or alive.  What are ya doin' here, Sammy, ya nuts?  Maybe the shooters got ya zeroed in? Call the coppers! Heh find a paying client, would ya some SOB matron, two bimbos and a Beemer with fold-back seats ... get a case, huh a real case gives a PI square jaws and  steely eyeballs and a mean street got paved once ... Do that, huh?  Blood in my mouth I spit out the window, grabbed  the bottle a' rye half-full and  let it trickle down suckface till it wasn't no more.  And alcohol heat just burned and burned. Tossed the empty, snapped  plastic flash  from the glove-box  and pawed the 32-caliber into my belt  -  slipped out the passenger-side door. 

You and me, pal ... Zippo burned,  tip of a Red I sucked a lungful - take a shot ya bastard  nothing happened ... swung the flash, then stabbed ahead.  Rough going for a man in wingtips. The ground was part of it. Dry crust ridges alternated with ruts swamp-brine soggy  and what didn't beat my ankles red suck them  shin-deep. Nothing ta kill a man ... and  that wuz the other part, mental,  that was so hard scrambling over -  a case of who got winged nothing more. Kinda sloppy, of some  cold-blood killer ta wing Max three times and me twice ... 'Course accidents happen every day plenty a' ruts -

I came up to the Buick, on its overturned  blindside. Flash caught  twisted, steel wishbone ripped away from a wheel, courtesy of a rut and that had flipped the car. Steam whistled from a bust radiator nothing more I heard - put a foot on the drive-shaft and climbed  up. Window open,  dash glowed orange on an empty seat.  No body, no blood, no weapon ... I  looked  up ... staring down the gravel road, where headlights drove a long, uncertain path like vague sounds that seemed to echo back, and  light scattered from a mound of moss covered masonry.  RSVPs not required - home to a dozen moccasins,  betch'a ...  mossy old marker to the DeVre plantation. I'm gonna gag with surprise ... 

Where  else in cold Georgia hell  was the Buick headed! Sounds again - a kinda low gut laugh drowning in acid, foamy and light and half mad.  Snapped up my head. "How 'bouts a face, huh palsy," I shout.

Nothing ... crazy-maker quiet. I stuck in a hand punched off the headlights.  First came blank, dark nothing,  for seconds then up the  road, like black echoes shot the howling. It rung my gut. Hanging there, on the overturned Buick head in the window and feet dangling I heard the pack  and they drew in sweat a cold crease down the small of my back and slammed me off the car into a strained, animal crouch like a punch in the face and needle into part a' the reptile brain that screams  flight and fear and suck of the bloody, visceral hunt. I listened ...  

"Heh Palsy ya wanna play? How bouts I play a fist on yer face like a tambourine ..."

"Ahha--haha -- Ahhaaaha--haha  ..."  slung  back sticatto.

"You and me, Pal," I spit and skipped by the marker  onto  gravel..

It wuz more  like a tunnel than a road -  the laughing taunt always in front creeping along the surface  that became soft, then spongy then soaked through as old log corduroy replaced the gravel.  Ten minutes I  trailed the laughter while dogs howled.  Two-hundred  yards down  trees thinned at a Y. The flash caught overgrown fields between each arm. Fields of fast money:  poppy, cocoa-leaf and ganja -  swampy ground  and strangling vines had eaten three desperate bad ideas. The fourth I grew myself. Dogs that slept, dogs that lied ... Max, Rhonda, Max and Rhonda ... I went down on a knee cause my gut wanted ta heave ...

Stuck the 32-caliber into my belt and threw the flash down each arm of the path.  Left arm wound east where the house must sit, the DeVres plantation estate.  The other arm, pointing south toward the howling  followed a drier finger of marl where the thicket ended  at a huge live oak exploding open and  black  and oily into tidal salt marsh.

I stood at the tip, killed the flash cause full moon  hung high and bright like a silver dollar. Low tide had pulled the water-line quarter-mile from shore, and drained creeks to wet, sloppy smears. Edge of the  retreating brine  formed a curly-cue,   and  along that  line  raced a  howling pack of dogs. Sounds like steel teeth grinding bone. Silver-black, under moonlight  dogs would'a been black in burning hell. Something ... something was in front of them ... running ... just entering a scrum Palmetto islet.  A rim of silver glowed there, from the moon where Palmettos hung over, and a man running crazy had entered ...

Movement to the left caught my eye and I lurched.  A scarf  glowed bright, the figure siluetted on the DeVres dock just east of the finger where I stood. Very end of the dock that figure hung quiet and watchful leaning over the rail.  A womans figure ...  wind whipped  the scarf  tangled round  her  head, and  moonshine glowed from the rifle she carried.

I never heard a sound.  Behind me!  The mad chuckling broke like gunshots.  "Whore's at it again, Sam, and nothin' a man can do 'bout it. She tore mh'a soul up, each day worse than the next, but I'ha love her ..."

Sometimes ya wonder, how the next really-bad-thing's gonna surprise ya - or why ... course Max wuz whispering ... I mighta' jumped if he shouted ... maybe not. He had flattened himself into the live oak. Buried into the  gnarled, southern trunk more like it, cause I think he'd seen everything once, twice ...  way I saw it gone mad from  watching ... Drive a man  insane being helpless  then ya got to decide what ya can do now -- or the next time ... I lit a Red,  from the almost fresh pack and sucked lungfuls what should a' been peace a' the marsh brine. 

Max left the oak for his share. He brought with him an unearthly, satisfied smile. "Didn't trh'y  scarin' you, did she the whore? No? Didn't think so ... Good  man. You're a careful man, Sam not one to scare easy.  Now between us - me'be the two of us  can ..."

"That you, Max ...?"

"Most of what's left ..."

"Us! Jeeez,  what's that stuff on your face?"

"Just chewing a liitle mint, Sam, little  Salvia mint - it's Monday, ya'll know ..."

Tip a' the Red glowed at the end of Maxs fingers and they shook like branches of  live oak shake in the wind.  "Max! You're not well ...," I grunted  and  turned back to the marsh.

Same dock, same moon, same  water ... the Rots didn't need pillars of fire, I didn't need stone tablets  ... The pack had stopped howling just as it entered the islet - and  the  mans figure dashed out ahead of them raging and racing  and staggering ... funny - what's hopeless ya do first! I whipped up the 32-caliber and slung five shots toward the dogs ...  SNAKSNAKSNKSKS  .. the  hot-load  teflon slugs wouldn't get half-way I figured, but one a' the Rots tumbled ...  then the pack wuz on  the man,  pulling him down  in a windmill while the  snarling  howl  boiled over a single human scream. Three-hundred yards,  with the wind ya could smell the dogs blood rage. And when they finished ... the howling started again.

We stood frozen. My Rolex  - St. Marks Bell tolling ... What  looked like a silver-tint movie, and doesn't stun ya no more ... I  didn't turn away, but turned the  smoking gun on Max. "How many ...  how long?"

Maxs face slumped. "How many? How many of them developers payh'ed  to get  at Rhondas knickers? Payh'ed for her good will ... she wants to sell the plantation? Oh yeah, Sam how many of those ..." Max jumped back, and ripped the shirt from his shoulder. "It's Monday, Sam ... don't ya'll  understan'? You were supposed to stop her!"

"Stop what, ya fool! She ... you ... she wuz charging a commission? A finders fee, the two of you ... together?"

"Damned crazy  Georgia  bitch - I told her,  Sam I'h warned her it ain't no way right for a southern man let his woman go whorin' on like tha'" A bloody crease burned just over his shoulder blade. "Finders fee!" He laughed madly.  "Now them  Rots ...  oh they can find yas sur' ... they  smell blood like this, or the cut on your face,  Sam  an' they don't care nothin' about who got that blood.  They just go rippin' and tearin' right down to the last bit of bone ..."

"Yeah OKey all right ..."  I groped  words  for the right ones. "The developers, all three ... how did  you ...  Rhonda ... they ..."

Max waved his arm idly. "Drugged .." his giggle fluttered. "Drugged and winged, " mumbling an insane little drool.

"Ya butchered the poor bastards!" What dictionary got those right words?  "OKey, all right, Max. It's over.  We'll talk to her. Talk ta Rhonda. Both of ..."

His head tilted and bobbed, and  paws scratched at the linen elbow. "Too late, Sam. You can't fool me ... I'h see bullet holes in your hat - Rhondas work.  A warning,  you know she knows ..." Max  peered cross the dry marsh at the Rots and smiled. "No danger to you,  Sam, not Rhonda ... she's chewed a pint of  Salvia  since dinner, but the Rots ... 'course we're upwind now, but ..." Max in a sudden movement snatched the Derringer from his belt. "Vicious, evil critters ...  I'll lead them Rots somewhere, huh  Sam?  Run! Make for the dock. The Rots won't come close, not with Rhonda and the rifle."

The look of desperation I should'a seen. For a big man Max moved fast ... I lunged, got a paw on his shoulder - he shook me off like a Rot shakes a  rat, and  took three quick steps  off the marl edge and into the dry marsh. I scrambled up,  32-caliber pointing nowhere. "No Max, not this way ..."

He staggered  gimpfoot, threw a  wildeye look over his shoulder at the dogs and his voice filled with dead soul.  "It's gone, all gone. Rhonda, the plantation ...," he shouted waving the Derringer wildly over his head.   "Get north a' me Sam - do what you  can for them."  And with a wild  grin of satisfaction Max DeVre  trotted  his big paws and old name and  sagging, soul-less face gamely  to a tidal and out into the marsh where the dogs became racing, straining, howling  devils silver black even in hell.