Why is the fifty-year-old secret of a missing military transport plane motivating some desperate men to begin setting deathtraps for Bill Travis, his client Holt Gatlin, and anyone else involved? To what lengths will they go to stop Bill for good? Does Holt Gatlin hold the cure to mankind’s myriad diseases and possibly the answer to immortality itself, or is he instead the host to an ancient evil.
When Holt Gatlin fell, he fell hard.
He had been working on re-roofing the aged and defunct theater in Karnack, Texas, when a piece of slate came loose beneath his feet and sent him in a whirling plunge to the ground below.
Holt was fortunate in that he didn’t break his neck. That was about all anybody could say about the incident: “Holt was lucky he didn’t break his neck.”
This was first told me by Willett Mahoney, Holt’s carpentry foreman. I had been trying to reach Holt to tell him that he was two million dollars in the black after a stock split and a couple of fast trades on my part. Instead I got Willett, who answered the phone at Holt’s house. Willett told me the tale. It was the first time I’d ever heard him utter more than a singular grunt.
Willett gave me the number for the hospital in Marshall, Texas, twenty-five miles away. When I called the hospital and asked for Holt’s room I got Pierce Gatlin, Holt’s nephew; a man I’d never met.
When I asked how Holt was doing, I heard that line again, exact words, same inflection. On top of that I was told how Holt would have a long row to hoe, the colloquial way of saying that his recovery would be tough, at best. He had a broken arm and wrist, three cracked ribs and a pulverized femur.
After I hung up with Pierce I just sat there at my desk for a bit and let the news settle in.
If he pulled through Holt would almost certainly be retiring, for the second and final time.
I first met Holt Gatlin the day after his sixty-fifth birthday. He came into my office on San Antonio Street near downtown Austin―no invite and no appointment. When he left three hours later I knew I had landed a potentially valuable client as well as made a new friend.
Holt had retired from the paper factory near Huntsville, Texas and after thirty-five years was moving back home near Karnack, Texas, an insular East Texas town half surrounded by Caddo Lake, Texas’ only natural lake. I remembered from my Texas Almanac that all the rest of the lakes were man-made. Karnack’s smaller, companion town name was Uncertain, Texas. When the locals of the smaller berg nestled against the southern lake shore decided to incorporate in 1969 in order to obtain state licensing to sell liquor, the secretary at the meeting filled in the blank on the form for incorporation “Uncertain”, which actually meant “it’s late, we’re tired, that’s enough for now, we’ll decide later.” But once you fill in the blank on an official form, it becomes the way things are, so the town of a hundred and fifty souls became ‘Uncertain’ thereafter, and thereby hangs a tale. Uncertain is a few miles from Louisiana. Despite legend, this factor has nothing to do with its name.
Before heading back to the town where he grew up, Holt made the trip to Austin on the advice on an acquaintance to see me about doing something with his retirement account. I was astonished at the figure on the statement he handed to me: two hundred and seventeen thousand dollars.
I asked Holt how he had managed to salt that much away. To my knowledge, no factory ever paid that much in wages, even to a foreman, which was Holt’s position during most of those thirty-five years.
Holt looked at me with his sober, teal-colored eyes and said: “Oh. You know. Here and there.”
His expenses, he went on to explain, never amounted to much. He had roomed with an elderly lady on Avenue “O” in Huntsville for most of those years and she had never increased his rent. The last month he was there he paid thirty-five dollars; the same amount he had paid the day he walked through her front door in 1970. Also, he drove the same Ford pickup truck that he had bought when he was a sophomore in High School, so he never had to make car payments. Also, as a hobby, he whittled out complete chess sets.
“Chess sets?” I had asked him.
“Yep. The game.”
He admitted to me that he had never learned how to play, nor had any interest in it whatsoever, but he had heard once that a fellow had paid a thousand dollars for an intricately-carved chess set. Holt studied up on it and took to whittling. He had a business card printed up and went around to all the antique stores within a fifty-mile radius during his weekends. He sold his first chess set for two hundred dollars in 1972. Since then he had produced over forty of them. The highest he’d ever been paid was ten thousand dollars sometime during the mid-1990s. He wrote “For Deposit Only” on the back of the check and dropped it in the night slot at his bank and forgot about it, just as he had done with every other check that resulted from his hobby.
And over the course of the three years since he walked into my office, I had helped him turn his nest egg into an egg farm. That’s what I do, by the way. Turn nest eggs into egg farms. By way of saying that I work as a financial consultant and accountant.
And now, in his golden years, Holt had taken a fall and had fallen damned hard. Which left me with a problem. I had control of his resources, but I had no provision for what to do if he were to die. I ruminated over this for a several days while putting in occasional calls to check up on him.
Holt underwent extensive surgery on a cold Saturday morning in early December and came through it.
I finally got him on the phone in person on Sunday night by calling his room at the hospital in Marshall directly.
“Oh,” he said. “How are you, Bill?”
“Me? I’m fine, Holt. The question is, how are you?”
“I’ll live. Not sure if that’s best, but looks like I will. That’s not the important thing, though.”
“What, Holt? What could be more important that you living and getting well?”
He paused. I could hear his labored breathing.
“Good. You were about to tell me something.”
“I know. I’ve been refusing the pain medication because I don’t like to be without my faculties, so I wasn’t―”
“Nodding off,” I finished. “I understand.”
“Yeah. I was thinkin’.”
“Holt,” I said. “Most of the time thinking is a waste of time. Spit it out, okay?”
“Alright. I’ve got to tell somebody, and I can’t tell that nephew of mine. He ain’t here anyway, which is a good thing.”
I clammed up and waited.
“Bill, this ain’t easy for me to say. But if I know you, you’re not gonna say a word until I say it.”
I breathed loudly to let him know I was still there.
“There are bayous in this part of the country. Some places no one’s ever seen, I think. There’s a stretch of one that has a little island in it. It’s all bald cypress and Spanish moss and alligators back in there. But―” Holt coughed. I heard a low moan of pain.
“Holt?” I could tell that he was hurting, and something awful, but there was about two-hundred-and-fifty miles between us, and, consequently, little I could do except wait.
“Damn!” he said. “I’m. . . I’m here. Barely.”
“What’s on the bayou on the island, Holt?”
“Some people. Or what’s left of them.”
“People,” I said. “What people?”
“They’re just skeletons by now. I. . . I haven’t been back there in. . . it’s been some fifty years, now. But I go to sleep with them every night, Bill. Every. . . every night of my sorry life. I hear the screams, Bill. I hear the crunch of metal and tree limbs snapping and I hear them crying in pain in my head. I want it to stop, Bill. But it won’t ever stop. I’ve been hearing it every night of my life since that night. Since 1960. My God… why won’t it… stop?”
He was crying. I don’t like it when grown men cry, and especially not when it’s a man I consider to be my friend.
His sobs faded out. I heard the telephone receiver at his end clank against something metal.
“Holt.” I said, raising my voice. “Holt!” I waited. I could hear a faint voice. Someone was there in the room with him.
The receiver was jostled around again.
“Who is this?” a gruff voice asked.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“You first, buddy. What are telling my patient?”
“Take care of him, Doc,” I said. “You take real good care of that old man.”
“Are you family? I thought I had met all of the family.”
“Tell Holt that Bill is coming. Would you do that?”
“Fine,” he said. I wasn’t sure I believed him. “Good bye.”
The sharp click in my ear had a note of finality to it that I didn’t care for.
I added up three reasons to get in my car and drive east. The first, and most important, was that I had a friend who needed me. If nothing else, he needed somebody to listen to him. Second, I needed to get him to draft some kind of a will. Holt didn’t believe in lawyers. I’d gotten that through the many conversations I’d had with him over the years. I planned on stopping by a bookstore and picking up a Do-It-Yourself Will Kit. The third reason, however, was the most compelling of all: screams and moans of pain from people now fifty years dead and gone.
I stopped by Penny’s desk―that’s my secretary―on my way out.
“Going to see Mr. Gatlin?” she asked.
“Have you been eavesdropping on my phone conversations?” I asked her.
She hmphed. “No sir,” she said. “I don’t have to do that. You’re plenty loud enough for me to hear you through your door.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ll try to tone it down. Yeah, I thought I might run over there.”
“It’s a couple hundred miles,” she said, and gave me a sheepish smile.
“Don’t you worry about it,” I told her.
“Sir,” she said. “I never worry about you.”
I paused in mid-stride, turned toward her.
“And just why is that?” I asked.
“Somehow, Mr. Travis, you always seem to make it back home.”
I turned back to the door without a word, and then Penny laughed out loud.
I turned again.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s just…” she giggled. “You always have to buy a new pair of shoes when you get back. And honestly, sir… when are you going to get a new car?”
“New car?” I asked.
“They make them, you know. Every year. If I can afford one, I know you can.”
“I pay you too much,” I said.
“Yes, you do,” she said. “For just a secretary. The truth is when you’re gone on these… trips of yours, I have to do a lot of your work for you, and you know it. And that’s why you pay me as much as you do. For instance, the Lief Prescott account. I had to move his mutual funds really quick when I got the word―the word that was intended for you―off your fax that Fremont Financial was about to go into that board meeting. I saved him fifty thousand dollars because that’s how much he would have lost had I waited for you to tell me to do it, which you couldn’t because you weren’t here. And Fremont did file for Chapter Thirteen bankruptcy. But it was nothing you don’t tell me to do every day.”
I sighed. “I know, Penny. That was when Hank and I were chasing after that Moe Keithley character. You helped with Julie and the kids during that, and you ran the office as well. I do rely on you, and sometimes you do have to make calls for me. You’re smart and I don’t pay you enough. Not really. When I get back we’ll have a talk. A real talk.”
“Um… what about?”
“About sponsoring you for some of the courses I had to take.”
Penny crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.
“I’ll talk to Julie about this first,” she said, but there was a knowing smile on her face. Somehow I had the feeling that I was being set up. I’m not much on paranoia and I don’t generally hold with conspiracy theories, but I do know one sure thing: the women of this world stick together, and they are out to get us. And me? I’m surrounded by women.
“You do that,” I said, and laughed. “How long have you been working for me and Nat?”
“A long time,” she said. “Over six years.”
“Oh,” I said.
I made it out the door with my wits intact.
I had to laugh to myself. This was what I was born to do. To try and outwit the women in my life. One day all of us men will be working for women. And maybe that’s as it should be.
I stepped out into the light December chill. A bit of a wind was blowing; the herald of the ghost of cold Christmases past.
First, I went home.
Julie was in the kitchen cooking dinner. It smelled good.
“Where are you off to now?” she asked.
“What makes you think I’m going somewhere?” I asked.
“It’s that look,” she said. “It’s that ‘on-the-trail-of-something’ look that’s painted in bold letters on your forehead.”
“Oh,” I said. “Are you sure that Penny hasn’t talked to you already?”
“Nope,” she said. “Should she have?”
“No,” I said. “Okay. Yeah, I suppose I’m heading for East Texas. And by East Texas, I mean deep East Texas. Bayou country.”
“No shooting, Bill,” she said.
“No shooting. Just plain old straight business, okay?”
“There’s no reason that I can see for anybody to do any shooting.” Julie moved quickly between sink and stovetop and got the teakettle going. Somewhere along the way my adventurous wife had settled down into domestic bliss.
I felt a tug on my pants cuff and looked down.
A warm smile greeted me. It was Jennifer, our middle child.
I reached down and picked her up and held her in the air at arms length.
“YOU… are getting to be HEA-VY,” I said.
“I know it, Daddy,” she said. “Mommy says the same thing. What’s heavy?”
“Heavy is you. Heavy is a big sack of potatoes. Heavy is a ship that can’t help but sink.”
“Okay,” she said.
I put her down and she ran off singing the Blues Clues song. There was a TV going somewhere blaring out the theme.
“She’s getting big,” I said.
“Uh-huh. I was the same way,” Julie said. “When are you leaving?”
“Uh,” I looked at her, then at the sink piled high with dishes, then at the stove. “After dinner and after I help you wash the dishes and get the kids settled in.”
I was intending to get away by 9:30 p.m., but then I had to have The Talk with Jessica.
Jessica is our oldest child, our adopted half-Samoan, half-Caucasian American girl, and a handful at that. She just had her seventeenth birthday and gave us constant reports as to her increased level of her maturity. So far as I was concerned, the jury was still out.
It was the first day of Christmas Vacation from school, and Jessica had gotten it into her head that she was free as a bird until some undetermined future January date. What she had been digging for was carte blanche to get behind the wheel of Julie’s car and go anywhere she wanted to, at any time. Also, she had dropped subtle hints that she was responsible enough that I should buy her a car, at which point I normally did either of two things: ignored the comment or hit back with a definition of responsibility that markedly implied she should figure out a way to buy her own car. But that wasn’t the topic of The Talk this night. No, The Talk was about the two touchiest subjects of all: school and boys.
Julie and I had decided late one night while whispering in bed that if I would have The Talk with Jessica―with whom Julie she seemed to have the roughest time―then she would take the other two when it came their turn. I had thought it was a fair deal at the time, but sometimes Julie has a way of putting one over on me.
The Talk lasted an interminable thirty minutes. It was one of the longest half hours of my life. We touched upon boys and what they were after―which got me the most disbelieving look I’d ever seen―and Jessica had to agree that, yes, she knew perfectly well what they were after. Then I launched off into the subject of school. She had the one semester left to go and I didn’t want to see her screw it up completely. Thus far she had come terribly close. So I was about to go off into teachers and showing a semblance of respect, but somehow got off onto the touchiest subject of all: smoking marijuana.
“Of course, dad,” she said. “I’ve done it. But I’m not a pothead.”
I was taken aback for a moment, but only so. “That’s good,” I managed. “It’s not that I don’t want you to become a pothead. It’s that I don’t want you to smoke any. Anymore. For any reason.”
Her eyes never wavered from mine and I didn’t dare blink.
“I want,” I said, “for you to have your wits about you every minute of every day. I want you good and sharp. Life throws things at you from out of the blue, and you never know when it’s coming. Life does that constantly. It does it to me every single day. There is no replacing confidence, and when you’re high, you’ve got none, zero, zip, nada confidence. Capeche?”
“I get it, dad. I won’t smoke any.”
“So where are you going? I know you’re about to go somewhere.”
“Oh,” I said. “That. I have to go help a client of mine. He lives over two hundred miles from here. There’s no way to avoid it.”
“I’m going with you,” she said.
“Wait a minute. What?”
“You want me sharp. You want me to have my wits about me. But you won’t let me drive mom’s car, and I don’t want to drive your car. Seriously, dad, you need a new car, and I’m embarrassed for my friends to see me in yours.”
“You know what I mean. If you want me to get experience driving, even though I’ve already passed the exam and gotten my license, but you’ll only let me drive your car when you’re riding with me, then it makes sense that I go with you.”
She started to rise up from our back porch steps.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To ask mom if I can go with you,” she said.
“Sit down,” I said. “You don’t have to ask mom anything. I decide those kinds of things.”
“Ha!” she said, but sat down anyway. “I don’t think so!”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Watch this. Follow me.”
I got up and dusted off my slacks and went into the house with Jessica in tow.
“Honey!” I called up the stairs.
“What?” Julie yelled down.
“I’m taking Jessica with me to East Texas.”
“Of course you are!” Julie said. And that was that.
Try to put one over on me. I tell you.
Jessica was to drive the first leg of the journey. I felt it safer since she knew all the streets and highways until we got well out of Austin. Later, when she started getting into unfamiliar territory in the night and she started getting tired at the same time, I’d take over for the remainder of the trip.
I was proud of myself until we turned east on Highway 71 and I reviewed what had happened―how I had been set up. Women were telepathic. They had to be. There was no other possible explanation. If they communicated with each other that way and made silent agreements and put us into positions where we thought we were making our own decisions all along, then we were… mere pawns. And if that were the case, maybe they were evil after all. And my daughter was one of them.
Sometimes fatherhood hits a little hard.
One day I’d break their code, and there would be hell to pay.
And so it went, around and around inside my head and on into the night.
Jessica drove us through Bastrop, one of Texas’ oldest cities, and without having to be told, she cut across to Highway 21 and on east and north through the Lost Pines region. The pines were tall, black sentinels against a starry sky, crowding the divided highway through the rolling hills. I rolled down my window and inhaled the scent of pine on the cold, crisp air.
I had read somewhere that perhaps a million or more years back the Lost Pines was part of one vast forest stretching across Central and East Texas. The forest through which we passed was a distant cousin to the larger pine forest that stretched from south of Texarkana all the way down to the Gulf Coast.
There is a feeling that those woods always give me as I pass them by. It is a sense of things primeval. An ancient watchfulness and at the same moment a secret and introspective silence. I had always thought that one day I might retire to a cabin in those woods.
After ten more miles we left the last pine tree behind us and moved on. Small towns came and went and the traffic was slight.
“Dad?” Jessica asked after a long period of silence.
“Why did you marry mom?”
“What?” I asked.
“Well, you had this job making lots of money, and mom says you went on this adventure to get the money back from Carpin and to get me, and you did it, then me and mom moved in with you and you got mom pregnant. Then you married her and had Jennifer. In the meantime you don’t just work, but you run off and do all this weird stuff like that time we went after the devil worshipers―”
“That’s enough,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. Let me explain.” And then I realized I couldn’t explain a damned thing.
“Uh, dad. I’m waiting.” She turned to look at me.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” I said.
“Sure,” she said. So?” She was looking back at the road, but cutting her eyes at me every chance she got.
“So, nothing. I don’t know. That’s the real truth. I just don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s predestination or someone banging away on a typewriter up in the sky, writing out my life like it’s some damned script. Other times I think… other times I still don’t know.”
“But you love her, right?”
“Oh! Of course I do. Although I’ll tell you something, and you can’t ever tell anyone on Earth I said this because I’ll disavow all knowledge.”
“Okay,” Jessica said. “I’m sure as hell listening now.”
“Alright, here goes. There’s words and there’s things. And the words are not the things, get me?”
“Dad, what the f― I mean, what are you talking about?”
“It’s like this. There comes a moment when you feel a certain way about a person. You feel it hard and it’s got a sharp edge to it, and maybe it hurts or maybe it just makes you feel sick or maybe it just gives you a headache, follow me?”
“So you’re going down the road with someone that you’ve felt that way about many times, and she turns to you and says ’I love you.’ Well, you have to say: ’I love you, too.’ But do you? I mean, at that exact moment, are you feeling the same thing you once felt? No. You’re thinking about how maybe NASDAQ is going to start showing a sell-off of tech stocks. But at that moment you’d better drop NASDAQ like a hot potato and respond in kind. Why? Because you once felt that way and you know you’re going to feel it again, maybe today, tomorrow, or next week, and especially you’re going to feel it in a bad way if you ever lose her. If you can admire someone and feel a bit of sympathy for them at the same time, well, that’s love, Jess. That’s all it is. It’s not a word. Not even close. But you’d better not forget the word. And that’s all I know about it.”
“Whoa, dad. That’s too deep for me.”
“You asked,” I said. “And you’re getting too old, too quick.”
“I know,” she said.
“I give you a hard time,” I said. “But you’re my daughter, for better or for worse and it’s all legal and so you’ve got to put up with me. But I’m damned proud of you, kid.”
Jessica took her eyes off the road and I allowed it, for the moment.
“Dad, have you been smoking dope?” she asked.
I laughed. “Just drive. Eyes. Eyes on road. Are you tired?”
“Not a bit.”
“And you know where you’re going? Know where the turnoffs are?”
“I glanced at the map. I have an uncanny sense of direction, remember? It’s my evil power.”
“Good evil power,” I said. “Alright then, I think I’ll take a nap. If you even begin to get tired, you wake me up.”
“Cool. Go to sleep,” she said.
So I tilted my seat back and did just that.
As I drifted off I thought about Holt Gatlin. Holt had worked his entire life away, and had very nearly lost everything in less time than it takes to click the shutter button of a camera. My mind drifted with the night and I tried to close my eyes but they kept popping open. So I drifted also with the images that sprang up out of the darkness in our headlights and were just as quickly cast behind us, and somewhere in there I went to sleep.
“I go to sleep with them every night, Bill. Every night of my sorry life.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Holt,” I said.
Holt and I were playing chess. He picked up his black knight and took my queen’s pawn. It was a silly move as his knight was now so much fodder.
“Bayous?” I asked.
“What about them?”
“Bayous back in there nobody’s ever seen?”
“Yeah. Cypress knees protruding from duckweed-covered water like the spines of pre-historic water dinosaurs and Spanish Moss hanging down like the beards of all the grandfathers of the Ozarks.”
“Very descriptive, Holt,” I said. “You should have been a writer instead of a chess-set maker.”
“Never could abide the game,” he said.
My head jerked at the sudden scream.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“What people?” I asked.
“The dead people. They’re fifty years dead and gone. But they live off of our dreams. That’s what gives them power. The children of the swamp. What music they make! I go to sleep with them every night, Bill. Every night of my sorry life.”
There was another scream, this one closer.
“When will it stop?” Holt asked, and took his knight with my king’s pawn.
“I don’t know, Holt,” I said. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll just let it go.”
“What’s that, dad?” Holt asked, which was sort of funny in that he had a girl’s voice. In fact, his voice sounded like―
I woke up and Jessica was hitting the brakes.
She swerved at the last moment and was around the beast.
“Jiminy Crickets!” I exclaimed. “You scared me.”
Jessica got the car back into the correct lane and punched the gas.
“Sorry,” she said. “What was that thing?”
“That was a feral hog.”
“A hog? It looked like a monster.”
“Some of them are,” I said. “Monsters, that is.”
We switched places in Bryan, Texas. I drove the rest of the way and we made it to Marshall by 2:30 a.m. It was good time, but we were both exhausted. Jessica woke up when she detected the slowing of the car.
I drove by the Marshall Hospital but decided against stopping by. It was the wrong time of the night for a visit to Holt Gatlin. Instead I turned us around and drove back to a quaint hotel I had passed moments before.
When I pulled into the driveway I began to have second-thoughts. The place looked as though it was left over from about World War II. There being few other options, I parked and got out into the chilly air and stretched my legs.
“You gotta be kidding me, dad. What about the Hilton?”
“They don’t have a Hilton here, Jess,” I said. “It’s the middle of the night. This will have to do.”
“Whatever,” she said. “I just want a bed and a pillow.”
I had to agree with her on that point.
I practically had to stand on the buzzer at the drive-up window of the main house, but five minutes later the sleep-filled eyes of the night manager appeared in the fluorescent-lit room. I asked for a room with two beds. The fellow mumbled something, took my credit card and handed me two keys.
The room smelled of stale cigarette smoke and my mattress was lumpy. It was a far cry from my comfortable bed at home and Julie’s warm body, but I adjusted the thermostat and settled in.
I had one fitful dream that lasted most of the night and into the day.
Holt stood on an island at the edge of the water. He held his fists against his ears while behind him the trees swayed and groaned.
“The trees,” he said. “They came from the bayou and they’re attacking the people.”
I looked. The trees were indeed alive and a mass of people were being torn apart.
“Get in my boat, Holt. I’ll get you out of here.”
“That won’t work. They’ll follow. They always follow. It never stops.”
I got out of the boat and ran amongst the trees, screaming at them to cease, but I was met with a deep, booming laughter that filled the air.
Meanwhile the arms and legs and heads of the people flew about in the air around me.
I shuddered awake, but only because Jessica shook me.
“It’s daylight, dad,” she said. “I’m hungry.”
“Dad,” Jessica said over breakfast at the IHOP.
“We’re rich, aren’t we?”
“Well,” I said, and took a bite of pancake, “you’re not rich. But really, neither am I?”
“How much money is rich?”
“Hmm. That’s a good question. As I see it―and this is a personal definition―rich is when your money works for you, only you have so much that you don’t have to make it work for you. You just spend it. Wealthy, on the other hand, is where your money works for you. Me? I still have to work for my money. It’s more of a percentage thing.”
“Explain, please, to your responsible and very intelligent non-pot-smoking daughter who wants her own car.”
“Okay. More than fifty percent of our income comes from me working. When that ratio changes to where our income, as a family, is higher than fifty percent from the interest off of invested money we have to work for us, then you could say we were… comfortable.”
“Yeah, we’re not gonna starve. Thanks for clearing that up. I think I’ll have another order of pancakes.”
“No you’re not,” I said.
“Whatever,” she said, and then acted as if she didn’t care.
I ended up placing another short stack order for the two of us to share.
Willett Mahoney was in Holt’s hospital room when we arrived.
“Bill,” Willett said to me and nodded.
“Hiya, Willett,” I said. Neither one of us bothered to shake. Willett wasn’t the handshaking kind, and I wasn’t the kind to shake with anyone who wasn’t.
Holt Gatlin was fast asleep. One of his legs was elevated in a cast and had a sheet draped over it. His toes stuck out of the end of the cast.
“Who’s this?” Willett asked.
“I’m Jessica, and you can talk directly to me.”
“I suppose I can,” Willett said.
“This is my daughter,” I said.
“I can see the resemblance,” Willett said.
“I’ll bet,” Jessica stated. She gave me a look and a slight roll of the eyes. I knew the look all too well.
“How’s Holt?” I asked.
“Touch and go. Tough old bird, though,” Willett said.
“That’s for sure.”
There was no other chair so I stood there at the metal rail of Holt’s hospital bed.
Holt’s upper body was also slightly elevated. It didn’t appear to be the most comfortable position for him, but considering that he also had a cast on his right arm from above his elbow down to his thumb and the bent-knee cast on his right leg from just below his groin all the way down to his heel, it was difficult to imagine how any position could be comfortable.
Also, I noted that he wouldn’t be signing any papers anytime soon. Not with his right hand, anyway.
I looked at the old man’s seamed face. He looked pale and wan, but at the same time he looked restful. Of course that’s also the way a body looks when it’s lying in a coffin. I shook the thought out of my head.
No, I decided. No funeral. Holt was going to make it.
Holt’s eyes came open slowly. He looked down toward Willett, and then at Jessica. His eyebrows raised in surprise, but then he detected that someone was standing close beside him and turned his head slowly towards me.
“Bill,” he whispered.
“Hey, Holt,” I said. “You look good.”
“Yeah? Like hell. I feel… like I lost a fight with a tornado.”
“Mm-hmm.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“And who’s this?” Holt asked and nodded towards Jessica.
“That’s Jessica,” Willett said, then added, “ and she can speak for herself.”
“Of course she can,” Holt said.
“Hello, Mr. Gatlin,” Jessica said. “I heard you got hurt.”
“I did. I most certainly did.”
Holt looked up at me. “She’s a fine girl, Bill.”
“A bit of a pain sometimes, but I’m not looking to trade her in. Yet.”
“Willett,” Holt said, “I need to talk with Mr. Travis a bit.”
Willett stood. “I’ll be in the cafeteria,” he said, and stood up. “I need a cup of coffee anyway.”
“Jess,” I said, “why don’t you go with him.”
“Fine,” she said. “I think I’ll have a cup of coffee too.” She took Willett’s arm.
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