Balloon Man

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Chapter 31

Alma pulled up and parked next to her car and jumped out. Cye was in the back seat, moaning in pain.

“Oh, Cye, hang on and I’ll get you to the hospital. Here, let me help you.” Alma wrangled Cye out of the the car and into his, sweat dripping down her shirt from the effort. “We’ll put the search on hold until you get fixed up.”

“I know that was Parrain that got me. I can’t believe I made it out alive. I’ve got you to thank for that. If you hadn’t found me, I’d be in his gut right now. I ain’t lyin’.”

“I appreciate the thanks, but I’d still be lost and wandering out there if I hadn’t run into you. Now, enough talking. Save your strength while I drive.”

Racing down the curvy road, Alma made it town in less than fifteen minutes. Turning onto Jean Street, they passed a hitchhiker. Glancing in the rear view mirror, Alma blinked twice and slowed down.

“That looked like Cooter Lafuente, Papito’s brother? Oh, Papito—poor man! We are lucky because the swamp gets a lot of people. Took Papito’s wife years ago and Papito what, two years ago? Don’t know why Cooter didn’t take in his nephew Papite—oh, no! I hope Papite wasn’t one of the murdered boys! Maybe he’s heading to the hospital morgue to identify Papite’s body? I’ll pull over and give him a ride.”

Cye groaned in pain while shaking his head. “Be careful! That’s who I was lookin’ for in the swamp. I want to talk to him because I think he might know somethin’ about Jo Bob’s murder.”

Shocked, Alma pulled over to the side of the road and watched Cooter toward the car. “What makes you think Cooter’s got something to do with all this?”

“Well, it ain’t no secret I’ve been to prison. I was wrongfully accused, but I was there and so was Cooter. He was always lookin for some kinda way to make money off others.”

“I think we all do that,” Alma interrupted.

“Not like him. He was hell bent on figurin’ out ways to get Jo Bob to agree to let him use Swarthmore as a home base point. I just can’t figure out what for—drugs or moonshine. I just gotta feelin’ Jo Bob was into somethin’ bad with Cooter, and I wanna see how he reacts toward us.”

“Shh, he’s almost here,” said Alma. “I’m gonna let him get in. Don’t say anything about what’s going on.”

The passenger door opened and Cooter slid inside next to Alma. “Thanks for the ride—oh, hey Cye! Alma. Didn’t know it was—yikes, what’s up with your foot, Cye? Whew, it looks bad!”

Cye noticed Cooter’s uneasy stare. “I got bit, which is why Alma is takin’ me to the hospital.” Cye noticed Cooter’s left eye twitch. “You remember Alma Emmett don’t ya Cooter? Elaine’s sister? They both work for Jo Bob.”

“Yeah, I know Miss Alma and Elaine.”

Cooter’s voice was low and the drawl heavy. Alma shivered as cold fear raced down her spine.

“What’s wrong with you, Miss Alma? You cold or somethin’? Cooter laughed, revealing his brown and missing teeth.

“Nothing, just worried about Cye,” Alma responded as she pulled back onto the road.

“Cooter, you been drinkin’ this early? And where you headin’ to?” asked Cye.

“It’s hot as a firecracker today and cold beer’s the only thing kept me cool. I needed to, um, come to town and get some supplies.”

“Here we are,” said Alma while pulling into the hospital parking lot. “C,mon, Cye. I’ll help you inside. Cooter, would you mind helping?”

“Thanks for the ride, Miss Alma, but I got places to go and things to do. You made it this far without me,” Cooter said as he stepped out of the car.

Alma watched Cooter lumber away, glad he was gone. The man gave her the creeps. She helped Cye inside through the emergency room door. As they neared the desk, she shouted, “Need some help, right now!”

Several nurses appeared and thankfully, one with a gurney. They eased Cye down and whisked him away down the corridor.

A young nurse with bright, blonde hair touched Alma’s shoulder. “While they’re working on him, I’ll need you to tell me what happened.”

Alma followed the nurse to a small room next to the front desk, explaining to the nurse about finding Cye in the swamp and the encounter with an alligator. Once finished, the nurse looked up from her notes and grimaced. “That’s a heck of a whelp on your face, right under your eye.”

“What?” Alma gasped, hands flying to her face. She felt a knot the size of a quarter. “Mirror?”

The nurse pointed behind her, so Alma stood and walked over. Sure enough, a big, red lump bulged from under her skin. “Guess some bug got me in the swamp.”

“You’re probably allergic. Here, let me look at it.”

Alma shook her head as the worry from before about Elaine roared back. “No, I’m fine. Sorry, I gotta go. Just give me a bandage, please?”

“It’s your face,” the nurse muttered, handing Alma a large bandage. “If you don’t take care of it now, it might leave a nasty scar later.”

“I will,” Alma answered. “Just take care of my friend. He’s worse off than me.”

Alma left and ran back to the car. Once inside, she tried to figure out what her next move should be. The police had dogs and all sorts of things to find Elaine, so why was it taking so long? Really, what could she do to help?

“Elaine, where are you?” Alma whispered, tears running down her cheeks.

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