Balloon Man

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Chapter 39

Despite the heat, Cooter stood frozen in the morning light, eyes bulging and mouth agape. He couldn’t get his mind to register all the buckets were turned over and his little moneymakers were gone.

“What the Hell?”

Staring at the empty holes, Cooter felt burning anger roll around inside his gut like a fireball. Looking up, he scanned the area, searching for any sign of which direction they went. Spying footsteps leading from the trailer, Cooter followed the small indentations until they disappeared in the thick swamp grass.

Cooter stood at the edge of his yard and tried to think what his next move should be, but it was hard to get his frazzled mind to focus on one thing. Too much rumbled around inside his mind. Alma. Jo Bob. The missing boys. Cye Swain in the hospital after suffering a bite from a gator.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Cye must have guessed Cooter was involved in Jo Bob’s death and had come out sneaking around in the swamps, looking for Cooter or at least some answers.

It made Cye a liability. He could talk to the cops! Tell them about his suspicions.

“Cye’s toast,” Cooter muttered while trudging back inside the trailer to fetch his hunting knife. It was a long walk to town but Cooter didn’t have a choice.

He looked back at the empty holes one last time. Those five boys wouldn’t last four hours in the swamp, especially the twins. They were too weak and injured. He let a smile form when thinking about that, and Alma. She was just an old, weak woman. There was no way she could survive the swamp on her own overnight.

Rather than wasting his time searching for them, Cooter decided to deal with someone he knew was alive and could talk, revealing his secrets.

Cye Swain.

Alma woke up to the sounds of something big moving through the swamp. Opening her eyes, she ignored the pain thumping throughout her entire body and listened. Blinking twice to focus, she scanned the thick tangle of trees, searching for any movement.

“Whatcha doin’ way up there, missy?”

The voice didn’t belong to Cooter and Alma realized the person was close though she didn’t see anyone. Hot, tired, body sore and heart broken, Alma cried out, “Help me! Please, whoever you are, help me! I’m up here!”

The crunch of heavy footsteps from below and to the left made the hairs stand up all over Alma’s skin. Finally, she spotted a man about fifteen feet away.

“Hush now, lady. Everything’s okay. Are you hurt? Can you get down on your own? Ain’t sure I can climb up that big old tree.”

“I can get down on my own,” Alma squealed, thrilled to hear the voice of another person and grateful to be rescued. She jabbered like a crazy woman while making her way down to the ground. “A man was after me last night. He tried to kill me! Said he already got my sister. His name’s Cooter Lafuente. I escaped and hid out here all night!”

The man let out a low whistle. “Cooter Lafuente, huh? Can’t believe that old bastard is still around! I’m surprised he’s not in jail.”

Alma let out a sigh of relief when her feet touched the ground. “He should be, and certainly will be after I get to the police and tell them about my sister and the others! We’ve got to get out of here before he comes back. Do you have a phone? I need to call the police.”

“At my house, yes. Ain’t too far from here. Come on, lady. You’re covered in bites and scratches. Let me take you to my house, get you patched up while we wait on the police.”

A prickle of fear made Alma stop in her tracks. She sized up the old man standing only feet away. He was scraggly looking with a long, dirty beard and yellow teeth. His clothes and face looked as though they hadn’t seen water and soap in weeks. “How far is it to Swarthmore House? I think I should just go there. The police will still be there.”

“Swarthmore? Lady, that’s miles away. My place is close by. Pardon me for saying this but you look awful. You need water, food, and medicine. My daughter’s at home and she’s a good cook. We’ll take care of you until the cops arrive, okay?”

Alma scanned the unfamiliar terrain and considered her options. Cooter could be lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on her as she wandered around, searching for a way back to Swarthmore. She was exhausted, hungry and thirsty, and the thought of wandering aimlessly through the swamp until she found her way out made her feel sick. What if she went the wrong way and ended up deeper inside the scary swamp? How long would she make it without water?

Glancing at the concerned face of the old man, Alma pushed away the twinge of fear and decided the aide he offered was the best choice. “Okay, thank you. I appreciate your help. I’m Alma. What’s your name?”

Motioning for her to follow, the man smiled. “Herme. Come on, lady, let’s get you to safety. What an ordeal you’ve had!”

For the next twenty minutes, Alma trudged behind Herme, half-heartedly listening to him talk about trapping, fishing, the weather and how much he loved living off the grid. She didn’t pay much attention. She busied herself by searching the area for any signs of Cooter.

“Here we are!” Herme said, pushing aside a tangle of Spanish moss, revealing a small clearing.

“Thank goodness! Not sure my legs would—”

Alma’s words dried up the second she saw the house. It was nothing more than a ramshackle. The initial twinge of worry from before roared back.

Herme didn’t seem to notice Alma’s unease. He walked up the rickety steps to the front porch and opened the door. Alma could see into the main room, noting a big, wooden table that took up most of the area. A long chain was attached to one of the legs and trailed off into a doorway behind the table.

“Alouette? Come on out here. We got company.”

Alma cringed at the weird, shuffling sound behind the door. She noticed the chain move on the floor. Alma gasped when a skinny little waif of a girl opened the door. She looked about thirteen and had a headful of dark red hair almost to her knees. The girl’s skin was ghostly white, hair knotted and filthy. Though Alma was terrified, she wondered how long the poor thing had been trapped inside.

The shock holding Alma’s limbs still disappeared, replaced by sheer terror. On instinct, Alma backpedaled, but not fast enough. Herme’s speed and agility surprised her when he jumped off the porch. In a flash, he wound his fingers around a thick clump of hair, yanking Alma to the ground.

Alma screamed, clawed, kicked and punched, but her pathetic attempts didn’t do any good. Herme just laughed and kept dragging her toward the front door.

“You ain’t going anywhere, missy. Welcome to your new home,” Herme hissed.

The old wood on the porch ripped at Alma’s clothes. She felt the skin tear on the back of her legs and arms. Herme jerked her head, slamming it hard into the doorframe. The impact made Alma’s vision blur and little white dots appear.

Herme let go of her hair then kicked Alma in the stomach hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs. Alma barely registered the sound of Herme stomping away and slamming the door shut. She tried to fight the swirling darkness threatening to overtake her mind, but the ebony nothingness won out.

Alma awoke with a start, disoriented and terrified. The stench in the air made her feel nauseous and the dim light brought a heavy sense of confusion. How long had she been out?

It took Alma several minutes to regain her bearings. Once able to breathe and the dizziness over, Alma rose to her feet, eyes focused on the locked door.

“If you stay quiet, he’ll think you’re asleep and leave us be. For a while.”

Alma had forgotten all about the young girl chained up like an animal in the room. Spinning around, Alma faced the wisp of a girl sitting on the floor next to the filthy bed. There was no fear behind her eyes, only a dead stare. The girl had given up hope and seeing someone so broken—up close and personal—was almost physically painful. A heavy sense of sorrow for the poor creature overrode Alma’s own terror. Crouching down next to her, Alma asked, “My name’s Alma. What’s yours, sweetie?”

“Alouette.”

“How long have you been here?” Alma whispered.

Tears filled Alouette’s eyes as she stared at the dirty chain around her thin, bruised ankle. “Too long. I don’t even know what year or day it is.”

The pain in the words, the utter devastation and lack of hope etched across the young woman’s face, ignited the flames of anger inside Alma’s chest. Reaching out, she touched the girl’s tangled hair and whispered, “Today’s your lucky day, Alouette. I promise.”

“The only luck I’ve ever needed was getting to the key on the wall and removing this chain,” Alouette answered.

“You know where the key is to unlock that?” Alma said, pointing at the shackle. Alouette nodded once. “Then we’ll just get that key!”

A spark of hope crackled to life inside Alouette’s heart. “How?”

Alma looked around at the sparse, dimly lit surroundings, searching for something—anything—to use as a weapon. The only thing she spotted with potential was a thick, worn out book on the floor near the bed. “There! The dictionary. I’ll use it.”

“It’s a book of poetry in French. My mother used to read it to me. Is it heavy enough?”

Alma crept over to the book and picked it up. “Oh yes. A few good whacks will leave him out for hours. I’ll hide behind the door. You scream at the top of your voice until he has no choice but to come and see what’s going on. Ready?”

Alouette took a deep breath then opened her mouth and yelled, “Snake! Oh, God, a huge snake! Heelllpp! Oh, it bit her! She’s shaking and throwing up blood!”

The screams from Alouette’s mouth were so loud Alma couldn’t hear any sound on the other side of the door. It didn’t matter because she felt the vibration of Herme’s feet crossing the floor.

The door handle twisted. Alma steadied her feet and raised the book over her head.

“Girl, stop all that yellin’! It’s loud enough to wake the—”

Alma brought the book down with all she had, landing a solid whack right against the back of Herme’s head. He groaned and lurched forward, the impact knocking him off balance.

Alma didn’t give him a chance to regain his senses. She lunged and swung the book like it was a Louisville slugger. The force of the blow on the back of Herme’s skull sent shockwaves up Alma’s arms. She smiled when Herme fell to his knees and let out a groan.

“You monster!” Alma yelled, raising the book again. “You monster! She’s just a child!”

The final blow knocked Herme unconscious. Blood trickled down his neck and to the floor, the rivulets spreading across the wood like slow, red worms.

“You did it!” Alouette shouted, on her feet now as the possibility of freedom infused her with renewed strength. “The key’s right there by the stove.”

Alma stepped past Herme’s unmoving body, handing the book to Alouette. “If he moves, whack him again.”

After retrieving the key, Alma sprinted back to the girl’s side and freed her from the chain. Alouette stared at her ankle, overcome with emotion at seeing it minus the shackle.

“Thank you, Alma. God, thank you!”

Grabbing Alouette by the arm, careful not to frighten the fragile creature, Alma said, “Step away, child. It’s time to let the bastard experience a taste of the sheer, raw terror he inflicted on you.”

It only took a few seconds for Alma to secure the heavy shackle around Herme’s ankle. Satisfied he wasn’t going anywhere, she asked, “Is there a phone here?”

“No,” Alouette whispered.

“Then we’ll just find our own way out,” Alma said, taking the girl by the hand.

Together, they ran out the front door and back into the swamp. The orange and yellow rays of the setting sun were their only guide.

And the light was fading fast.

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