Deep in the murk, Carson halted, held her breath, listened. At first she heard nothing, then only the chortle and chuckle of gentle waves rolling through the pilings on which the dock rested.
No doubt Michael approached behind her, but quietly, no longer at a run. She glanced back but saw no man-shape or shadow in the whiteout.
She released her pent-up breath and moved forward cautiously. After perhaps twenty feet, she stopped again and still heard nothing but the seemingly amused waters of the placid bay.
The air smelled of brine and seaweed and creosote, and the fog was cool in her mouth when she inhaled.
Farther along the dock, when she paused a third time, she heard a faint thump, a stealthy creak. Initially, the sounds seemed to come from under the timber flooring.
A clink of metal on metal turned her attention to the right side of the dock. She cleaved the fog, reached the railing, and followed it bayward until she found where it turned to serve a gangway.
The descending planking was wet and slippery, not just from the fog but from fungus or lichen that had colonized the wood of the long-unused ramp. Her hands were moist, as well, and the pistol slick with condensation.
If she fell or merely skidded, Chang might be waiting for the noise. If he chanced a fog-blind fusillade, luck was as likely to be on his side as on hers. Of all the bullets in the barrage, one might leave Scout motherless.
Cautiously, Carson reached the bottom of the gangway and stepped onto the flat wood of the slip. A motor yacht did not so much appear in the fog as materialize from it, as though it were a ghost boat that haunted the bay.
Engines silent, with no running lights or cabin lights aglow, the double-deck vessel had an enclosed helm station above the main-deck cabins. Carson was nearer the bow, and the stern vanished in the fog, but based on the proportions of what she could see, the craft must measure about sixty feet, big enough to be a coastal cruiser that could trade the bay for the open sea.
No mooring line secured the yacht to the cleat in the planking. As Carson moved toward the stern, she thought the vessel appeared to be adrift in the slip. Chang had evidently untied before boarding and must even now be ascending to the helm station, perhaps by a ladder on the port side.
The boarding gate in the starboard deck railing stood open. He had most likely been hesitant to close it behind him and make another metal-on-metal sound that would reveal his location in the shrouding murk.
During the moment of boarding, Carson was especially vulnerable, with a one-hand grip on her pistol, left hand on the cold stainless-steel railing, body in motion and off balance. She swung aboard silently, however, and without incident.
The narrow starboard deck led forward past a few portholes but only as far as a door. The elevated foredeck lacked gunwales.
Carson moved quietly aft to the spacious stern deck.
Even in the purling mist, she could discern two doors in the after bulkhead. She supposed that one must lead to a lounge and other quarters, while the second probably opened on a companionway that led down to the galley and staterooms.
Chang would not have gone below or forward from here. He would have wanted to get quickly to the helm and must already be up there, at the controls.
Between the bulkhead doors, a steep slope of stairs led up to the open deck behind the helm station. Embedded low-voltage LEDs, probably controlled by a light sensor that activated them at darkfall, defined the edge of each step.
Standing at the foot of the stairs, she could see nothing above except dense, slowly eddying fog.
Expecting to hear the engines turn over at any second, Carson decided to go up fast, without using the handrail, gun in both hands, leaning forward from the waist for balance.
Before she could put a foot on the first tread, she felt the muzzle of a gun against the nape of her neck, and an involuntary vulgarity hissed between her clenched teeth.
Nummy was okay with jail. He felt cozy and safe in jail. Four walls, ceiling, floor. Nothing about jail was too big.
He liked the woods, too. Behind his little house, the woods came right up to his backyard. He sat on the porch sometimes, watching the woods come up to his yard, birds flying in and out of the trees, and sometimes a deer sneaking out onto the lawn to eat grass. Watching birds and deer, Nummy felt nice.
But he wasn’t okay with the woods the way that he was okay with jail. He tried going into the woods a few times. They were too much. Too much trees, standing trees and fallen trees, dead trees and live trees, too much bushes and moss and green things in general, too much rocks. Too many ways to go, and all of it going on and on, woods and more woods with no end. From a distance, woods were pretty. Close up, they scared Nummy.
Memorial Park, in town, had lots of trees but not too much. If he stayed on the brick paths, there weren’t too many ways to go, and he always came back to one street or another that he knew.
His little house, where he grew up and where he now lived alone—it had no rooms too big. The smallest was the kitchen, where he spent the most time.
The jail cell was smaller than his kitchen, and there were fewer things in it. No refrigerator. No oven. No table and chairs. The cell was a calm place, cozy.
The only thing wrong with the cell was Mr. Lyss. For one thing, Mr. Lyss was stinky.
Grandmama, who raised Nummy, always said he would do best if he pretended not to notice people’s faults. Folks didn’t like you talking about their faults, especially if you were a dumb person.
Nummy was dumb. He knew he was dumb because so many people had told him he was, and because the powers that be had long ago said there was no point in him going to school.
Sometimes he wished he wasn’t dumb, but mostly he was happy being who he was. Grandmama said he wasn’t dumb, he was blessed. She said, too much thinking led to too much worrying. She said, too much thinking could puff up a person with pride, and pride was a lot worse than dumbness.
As for the powers that be, Grandmama said they were ignorant, and ignorant was also worse than dumb. A dumb person couldn’t learn some things no matter how hard he tried. An ignorant person was smart enough but was too lazy or too mean to learn, or too satisfied with himself. Being truly dumb is a condition, just like being tall or short, or beautiful. Being ignorant is a choice. Grandmama said there were very few truly dumb people in Hell but so many ignorant that you couldn’t count them all.
Nummy pretended not to notice how bad Mr. Lyss stank, but he noticed, all right.
Another problem with Mr. Lyss was that he was excitable.
In her last years, Grandmama spent a lot of time making sure Nummy knew what kind of people to stay away from after she was gone and not able to help him make decisions.
For instance, wicked people were those who would want him to do things he knew, in his heart, were wrong. Smart or not smart, we all know right and wrong in our hearts, Grandmama said. If someone tried to argue Nummy into doing something he knew in his heart was wrong, that person might or might not be ignorant, but that person was for sure wicked.
Excitable people might or might not be wicked, but mostly they were bad news, too. Excitable people couldn’t control their emotions. They might not mean to lead Nummy into wickedness or big trouble of one kind or another, but they’d do it anyway if he wasn’t careful.
Mr. Lyss was one of the most excitable people Nummy ever met. As Chief Jarmillo and Sergeant Rapp walked away and climbed the stairs at the end of the hall, Nummy sat on the lower bunk, but Mr. Lyss shouted after them, saying he wanted an attorney and he wanted one now. With both hands, he shook the cell door, making a racket. He stamped his feet. He spat out words that Nummy had never heard before but that he knew in his heart were words that it was wrong to say.
When the policemen were gone, Mr. Lyss turned to his cellmate. Nummy smiled, but Mr. Lyss did not.
The old man’s face was squinched and angry—or maybe that was just his usual look, a condition not a choice. Nummy had never seen him looking any other way. His short hair was standing out in all directions, the way cartoon animals’ fur and feathers stood out in all directions when they got an electric shock. His bared teeth were like lumps of charcoal after all the black has been burned out of them. His lips were so thin, his mouth looked like a slash.
“What the blazing hell did he mean, we’re livestock?” Mr. Lyss demanded.
Nummy said, “I don’t know that there word.”
“What word? Livestock? You live in Montana and you don’t know livestock? Why’re you jerking my chain?”
Nummy said what was only true: “You don’t have no chain, sir.”
Looming over Nummy, bony fists clenched, Mr. Lyss said, “You being smart with me, boy?”
“No, sir. I’m not smart, I’m blessed.”
Mr. Lyss stared hard at him. After a while, Nummy looked down at the floor. When he raised his eyes again, the old man was still staring at him.
At last, Mr. Lyss said, “You’re some kind of dummy.”
“Is there more kinds than one?”
“There’s a million kinds. There’s the kind who’re dumb about money. There’s others dumb about women. Some are so dumb they spend their whole lives with their heads up their butt.”
“Up whose butt, sir?”
“Up their own butt, whose butt do you think?”
“Can’t be done,” said Nummy. “Not your own head up your own.”
“It’s possible,” Mr. Lyss insisted.
“Even it could be possible, why would they?”
“Because they’re morons,” Mr. Lyss said. “It’s what they do.”
Still doubtful, Nummy said, “They must be way dumber than me.”
“Lots of people are dumber than you because they don’t realize they’re dumb. You realize it. That’s something, anyways.”
“I know my limits,” Nummy said.
“You’re a lucky man.”
“Yes, sir. That’s why they say what they say.”
Mr. Lyss scowled. “What do you mean, what do they say?”
“Dumb luck. They call it that ’cause it happens to dumb people. But it’s never luck, it’s God. God looks out for folks like me.”
“He does, huh? How do you know?”
“Grandmama told me, and Grandmama she never lied.”
“Everybody lies, boy.”
“I don’t,” said Nummy.
“Only because you’re too dumb to lie.”
“You said lots of people is dumber than me, so then lots of people don’t lie.”
Mr. Lyss spat on the floor. “I don’t like you, boy.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I like you—a little.”
“Right there’s a lie. You don’t like me at all.”
“No. I do. I really do. The littlest bit.”
Mr. Lyss’s right eye became larger than his left, as it would have if he put a magnifying glass to it, and he leaned forward as if studying a strange bug. “What’s to like about me?”
“You’re not boring, sir. You’re dangerous excitable, and that’s not good. But you’re what Grandmama called colorful. With no colorful people, the world would be dull as vanilla pudding.”
The instant the cold muzzle of the pistol pressed against the warm nape of her neck, Carson froze. Through clenched teeth, she called Chang a name that, back in the day, would have gotten her thrown off the New Orleans PD for gender, racial, and cultural insensitivity.
He called her a name that was a female anatomical term no doctor ever used, at least not in his professional capacity, and whispered, “Who are you?”
Before she could reply, the killer gasped in shock, as if a cold steel muzzle had been pressed to the warm nape of his neck, and from behind him, Michael said, “We’re cops. Drop the gun.”
Chang was silent, perhaps contemplating the mysteries and the synchronicities of a universe that suddenly seemed less random and more morally ordered than he had thought.
Then he said, “You’re not cops.” To Carson, he said, “You move a muscle, bitch, I’ll blow your brains out.”
The dark bay lapped gently at the hull of the boat, and Carson blinked beads of condensed fog from her eyelashes as she tried without success to blink images of Scout from her mind’s eye.
“Who are you?” Chang demanded again.
“Private investigators,” Michael said. “Plus I’m her husband. I’ve got more at stake here than you do. Think about it.”
“Husband,” Chang said, “you drop your gun.”
“Get real,” Michael said.
“You won’t shoot me,” Chang said.
“What else can I do?”
“You shoot me, I’ll shoot her.”
“Maybe you’ll be dead too fast to shoot.”
“Even dead, I’ll squeeze the trigger reflexively.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Michael said.
“Or your shot will pass through me, kill her, too.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Michael said.
“There could be another way,” Carson said.
Michael said, “I don’t see one, honey.”
“Let’s not be hasty, sweetheart.”
“At least there’s all that life insurance,” Michael said.
“They won’t pay it, dear.”
Chang said, “Don’t talk to each other. You talk to me.”
“All right,” Carson said. “Chang, explain to Michael that the insurance company won’t pay off with you and me dead—and only him alive. It’s just too suspicious.”
“Chang,” said Michael, “tell her that if you shoot her first and then I shoot you, the ballistic evidence will require the insurance company to pay off.”
“Shut up, shut up!” Chang commanded. “You’re making me very nervous.”
“Chang, you’re not a calming influence yourself,” Carson said.
Chang slid the muzzle of his pistol up from the nape of her neck to the back of her skull and dug it into her scalp. “With Beckmann dead, I have nothing to lose.”
Because she was at the front of the death line, Carson had no one to whose skull she could hold the muzzle of her pistol.
“We could make a deal,” Michael said.
“You have a gun to my head!” Chang complained bitterly.
It seemed to Carson that the killer was so obsessed with the weapon pressed to his head that he had all but forgotten that, like Michael, she was armed.
“Yes, I do,” said Michael, “I have a gun to your head, so I’ve got a negotiating advantage, but you’ve got some cards to play, too.”
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