It’s a funny thing—I can think all right, but I can’t think about the future. Tomorrow doesn’t seem to exist for me any more. There’s only today, and this drowsy, dreamy acceptance.
Most of the time it’s cool here in the shack, the mosquito screens are holding together fairly well, and the bed is a whole lot better than some of the flea pits I’ve been in lately.
And she waits on me hand and foot. Couldn’t be more attentive. Brings me food and drink—all I can stomach—and cleans me up afterwards. Even when I wake up during the night I can see her standing at the door of the room, always watching, always waiting.
But what’s she waiting for? That’s what I ask myself every so often, and when I do…
The swamp buggy had started off life as an ordinary Volkswagen, a beetle convertible, but somebody had extended the axles and fitted pudgy aircraft tyres which spread the vehicle’s weight sufficiently to keep it from sinking in mud. Snow chains had been wrapped around the tyres to provide traction. The buggy was noisy, ungainly and uncomfortable, but it was able to negotiate the narrow tracks that ran through the Everglades, and Joe Massick felt it had been well worth the trouble he had taken to steal it.
He sat upright at the wheel, glancing over his shoulder every now and again as though expecting to see a police helicopter swooping down in pursuit, but the sky remained a featureless grey void. The air was hot and so saturated with water that it reminded him of the atmosphere inside the old-fashioned steam laundry where he had once worked as a boy. He did his best to ignore the sweat which rolled down his slab-like body, concentrating his attention on maintaining a north-westerly course in the general direction of Fort Myers.
His best chance of avoiding capture lay in making a quick crossing of the Florida peninsula without being seen, but it was beginning to dawn on him that the journey was not one to be undertaken lightly. The sloughs and swamps of the northern Everglades made up one of the last truly wild regions of the country, and as a confirmed town-dweller he felt threatened by every aspect of the flat and prehistoric landscape through which he was travelling. For the past thirty minutes he had been encountering stands of lifeless trees draped with Spanish moss, and now the intervals between the trees were growing so brief that he appeared to be entering a dead forest which provided a habitat for countless varieties of birds, insects and reptiles. The sound of the buggy’s engine was almost drowned by the protests of the colonies of birds it disturbed, and on all sides there was a furtive agitation of other life forms, a sense of resentment, of being scrutinised and assessed by primeval eyes.
It was a feeling which Massick disliked intensely, prompting him to seek reassurance from the buggy’s fuel gauge. The position of the needle showed that he still had three-quarters of a tank—more than enough, even allowing for forced detours, to take him to the far side of Big Cypress. He nodded, relaxing slightly into the burlap-covered seat, and had driven for perhaps another minute when a disturbing thought lodged itself like a pebble in the forefront of his mind.
According to the fuel gauge the tank had been three-quarters full when he first set out in the buggy almost an hour earlier. An optimist might have concluded that the vehicle’s modest engine was using practically no gasoline, but Massick was beyond such naivety. He tapped the gauge with his knuckles and saw that the needle was immovable, locked in place.
Doesn’t prove a thing, he thought, vainly trying to sell himself the idea. For all I know, the tank was filled right up.
A mile further along the track, as he had known in his heart it was bound to do, the engine cut without even a preliminary cough. Massick turned the steering wheel and brought the buggy to rest in a thicket of saw grass and huge ferns. He sat for a moment with his head bowed, whispering the same swear word over and over again until it came to him that he was wasting precious time. The girl back in West Palm Beach might have died—he had been forced to hit her pretty hard to keep her quiet—but if she was still alive she would have given his description to the police and they would have connected him with the one in Orlando and the other one up in Fernandino. In any case, there was no time for sitting around feeling sorry for himself.
Massick picked up the plastic shopping bag which contained all his belongings, stepped down from the buggy, squelched his way back on to the trail and began walking. The surface was better for walking on than he had expected—probably owing its existence to the oil prospecting that had been carried out in the area some years earlier—but it soon became apparent that he was not cut out for trekking across swamps. He had been desperately tired to start off with, and before he had taken a dozen paces his clothes were sopping with perspiration, binding themselves to his well-larded body, maliciously hampering every movement. The air was so humid that he felt himself to be drinking with his lungs.
Now that he was proceeding without the roar of an engine and the clatter of chains, the swamp seemed ominously quiet and again he had the impression of being watched. The profusion of tree trunks and the curtains of hanging moss made it difficult to see far in any direction, and for all he knew he could have been accompanied by a stealthy army whose members were waiting until he collapsed with exhaustion before closing in. Childish though the fantasy was, he was unable to dismiss it completely from his mind and occasionally as he walked he fingered the massy solidity of the .38 pistol in his bag. The sky sagged close overhead, heavy with rain.
Two hours later he crossed one of the innumerable small concrete bridges which carried the track over dark streams and found that it forked in two directions, both of them uninviting to an equal degree. The sun had been invisible all along, and now that dusk was falling Massick’s rudimentary trail sense was totally unable to cope with the task of identifying the branch which lay closest to the north-westerly course he wanted. He paused, breathing heavily, and looked around him in the tree-pillared gloom, suddenly understanding why in local Indian legend the big swamp was regarded as the home of ancestral spirits. It was easy to see the ghosts of dead men standing in slim canoes, drifting in silence through the endless colonnades and caverns.
The realisation that he was going to have to spend the night in such surroundings jerked Massick out of his indecision. He chose the right-hand path and moved along it at an increased pace, looking out for a hillock of any description upon which he would have a reasonable chance of remaining dry while he slept. It was only when he recalled that snakes also had a preference for high ground, especially in the wet season, that he admitted to himself the seriousness of his situation. He had no real idea how far he was from the townships of the west coast, and even if he did succeed in making his way through Big Cypress on foot he was going to emerge looking conspicuously bearded and filthy—the sort of figure that any cop would want to interrogate on sight.
The thought of being caught and put back in prison after less than a month of freedom caused Massick to give an involuntary moan. He reached into the plastic bag, took out the bottle of rum he had acquired at the same time as the swamp buggy and drank the few ounces of neat liquor it contained. The rum was warm and had an aftertaste of burnt brown sugar which made him wish he had a full fifth for solace during the approaching night. He hurled the bottle away, heard it come down with a splash and on the instant a cicada began to chirp nearby as though he had startled it into life. Within seconds a hundred others had taken up the chorus, walling him in with sound, advertising his presence for the benefit of any creature—human or inhuman—which might be lurking in the encompassing darkness. Startled, prey to fears he was unable to acknowledge, he quickened his pace even though each passing minute made the track more difficult to see. He was beginning to contemplate retracing his steps to the last concrete bridge when a yellow glow sprang into existence some distance ahead and slightly to his left.
Convinced for the moment that he had seen the headlights of an approaching vehicle, Massick snatched his pistol out of the bag, then realised there were no mechanical sounds such as another swamp buggy would have made. Keeping the gun at the ready, he went forward until he reached a barely discernible side track which branched off to the left and seemed to lead straight towards the glimmer of light. All the indications were that, against the odds, he had found some kind of habitation in the heart of the swamp.
The pang of pleasure and relief Massick experienced was not quite enough to obliterate his natural wariness. The only reason he could envisage for people living in the waterlogged wilderness was that they were wardens for one of the area’s wildlife sanctuaries—and, for him, walking into an official establishment which had radio equipment could be as disastrous as calling in at the police station. He threaded his way along the path, trying not to make any sound as he negotiated successive barriers of dark vegetation, and after several minutes reached a hummock upon which was perched a wooden shanty. The wan radiance which seeped from the windows and the screen door was swallowed up by the surrounding blackness, but there was enough refraction to show that the building had been constructed from second-hand timbers—which pretty well ruled out the possibility of it being an outpost of authority. Emboldened by what he had found thus far, Massick crossed a cleared area to the nearest window and cautiously looked through it.
The room beyond the smeared glass was lit by oil lanterns hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Much of the floor space was taken up with stacks of cardboard boxes, and in the centre of the room was a rough wooden table at which sat a small stoop-shouldered man of about sixty. He had cropped grey hair, a sprinkling of silver stubble around his chin, and tiny crumpled ears which gave the impression of being clenched like fists. He was dressed in well-worn slacks and a faded green beach shirt. On the table before him was a bottle of whisky and several glass jars containing what looked like small twists of coloured paper. He was preoccupied with removing the coloured objects from the jars and carefully placing them in individual plastic boxes, pausing now and then to swig whisky straight from the bottle.
The room had two interior doors, one of them leading into a primitive kitchen. The other door was closed, but Massick guessed it led into the bedroom. He remained at the window long enough to assure himself that the occupant of the shanty was alone, then slipped the pistol into his side pocket, walked quietly to the screen door and tapped on it. The mosquito mesh made a noise like distant thunder. A few seconds later the small man appeared with a flashlight which he shone on Massick’s face.
“Who’s out there?” he growled. “Whaddaya want?”
“I got stranded,” Massick explained, enduring the searching brilliance. “I need shelter for the night.”
The man shook his head. “I got no spare room. Go away.”
Massick opened the door and went inside, crowding the other man back. “I don’t need much room, and I’ll pay you twenty dollars for the night.”
“What’s the idea? What makes you think you can just walk in here?”
For a repiy Massick used a trick he had perfected over a period of years. He smiled broadly and at the same time hardened his gaze and projected a silent message with all the conviction he could muster: If you cross me up I’ll tear your head right off your body. The little man suddenly looked uncertain and backed further into the room.
“I got to be paid in advance,” he said, trying to retain some advantage.
“Fair enough. I tell you what I’ll do, Pop. I could use a few drinks to make up some of the sweat I lost, so here’s an extra ten for a share in that bottle. How’s that?” Massick took his billfold from his pocket, counted out thirty dollars and handed them over.
“Okay, I guess.” The man took the money and, looking mollified, tucked it into his shirt pocket. “The whole bottle didn’t cost ten.”
“Consider it a reward for your hospitality to a weary traveller,” Massick said jovially, smiling again. He was prepared to be generous while armed with the knowledge that when he left he would be taking the money back, along with any other cash and valuables his host happened to have around. “What’s your name, Pop?”
“Ed. Ed Cromer.”
“Nice to meet you, Ed.” Massick went on into the room he had surveyed from the outside and picked up the whisky bottle from the table, observing as he did so that the small coloured objects his host had been packaging were dead butterflies and moths. “Is this some kind of a hobby you’ve got here?”
“Business,” Cromer replied, squaring his thin shoulders importantly. “Profession.”
“Is that a fact? Is there much demand for bugs?”
“Me and my partner supply lepidopterists—them’s collectors—all over the state. All over the country.”
“Your partner?” Massick slid his hand into the pocket containing the pistol and glanced towards the closed door of the bedroom. “Is he in there?”
“No!” The expression of pride vanished from Cromer’s face and his eyes shuttled anxiously for a moment. “That’s my private room in there. There’s nobody allowed in there bar me.”
Massick noted the reaction with mild interest. “There’s no need to get uptight, Ed. It was just when you mentioned your partner …”
“He runs the store up in Tampa. Only comes down one day a month to pick up the new catch.”
“He’ll be here soon, will he?”
“Not for a couple of weeks. Say, mister, what’s the third degree for? I mean, I could ask you who you are and where you’re from and what you’re doin’ wanderin’ around Big Cypress in the dark.”
“That’s right,” Massick said comfortably. “You could ask.”
He cleared some magazines from a wicker chair and sat down near the window, suddenly realizing how close he was to total exhaustion. His intention had been to press on towards the west coast in the morning, but unless Cromer had a swamp buggy parked out of sight nearby it might be best to wait until the partner arrived with transportation. It would be difficult to find a safer place to lie low and rest for a couple of weeks. Turning the matter over in his mind, he took off his sweat-stained jacket and draped it over the back of the chair, then settled back to drink whisky.
There followed fifteen minutes of almost total silence during which Cromer, who had returned to his meticulous sorting and mounting of butterflies, glanced expectantly at Massick each time he raised the bottle to his lips. At length, realizing there was going to be no taking of turns, he took a fresh bottle of Canadian Club from a cupboard in the corner and began drinking independently. After his initial querulousness he showed no sign of resenting his unexpected guest, but Massick noticed he was drinking somewhat faster than before and becoming less precise in his movements. Massick watched contentedly, enjoying his ability to cause apprehension in others simply by being near them, as Cromer fitted a jeweller’s magnifier over his right eye and began examining a small heap of blue-winged insects one by one, using his flashlight to supplement the room’s uncertain illumination.