Balloon Man

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Chapter 44

Cooter made it to town, his feet tired and clothes damp from sweat. The heat and humidity was abnormally high and he was exhausted. He was parched, and thirst overrode his sense to blend in or consider the cops might be looking for him. Spotting his favorite bar less than a block away, Cooter decided to cool off with a few beers before heading to the hospital and killing Cye Swain.

The weird sensation of being watched made Cooter pick up his pace. Rather than turn and look to see who was eyeballing him, Cooter kept his head down while walking toward the door to Gigi’s.

“Well today’s our lucky day,” said Officer Jim Rogers. His grip intensified on the wheel as adrenaline pumped through his body. “We won’t have to go to his disgusting trailer again! We got him.”

“Look, he’s heading into Gigi’s Bar,” Officer Ted Talbot responded, his voice full of as much enthusiasm as his partner’s. “I think we should just wait until he’s had a few beers first. Taking him down will be a fight. Cooter’s always been a scrapper. Should we let the chief know we found him?”

“Nope! Arresting him will be big feathers in our caps! I ain’t sharing the collar with anyone but you, Ted.”

The two lifelong friends and partners of six years, Jim and Ted, watched Cooter disappear inside Gigi’s and kept driving, heading another two blocks up before turning around. The excited officers parked on the side street next to the dive bar and waited for Cooter to step back outside.

They sat and waited for the right time to arrest him, beyond thrilled their names would soon be splashed across the headlines as the two officers who took down a sadistic, vicious killer.

Three beers downed, Cooter still couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched. Something wasn’t right—his stomach burned with worry. He stood and casually walked to the window, searching the street for anything suspicious. Nothing looked odd; no strangers peeking in the window, no cops patrolling the area yet still, the funny feeling grew stronger.

He knew every inch of Gigi’s from years of being a patron. He paid for his beer and walked to the back where the bathrooms were, and instead of using the head, slipped out the back door. The bright afternoon sun made him squint as he made his way to the metal fence separating Gigi’s alleyway from the main road.

His balance was off from the beers he’d downed, making the climb over the fence difficult. His pant leg caught in the wire. Cooter cursed out loud while struggling to free his pants. Realizing his mistake at making so much noise, drawing unwanted attention to himself, Cooter clamped his lips shut and jerked his leg with all his might. The pants ripped free and he collapsed on the sidewalk at an odd, unnatural angle, pain shooting up his leg.

Once back on his feet, Cooter glanced around. His heart jumped into his throat when he noticed the back-end of a police car about fifty feet away. His instincts from years of evading the police kicked in, so Cooter broke into a run in the opposite direction, hoping his throbbing leg wouldn’t give out on him until he was safe.

“Ok, I’m sick of waiting. He’s got to be buzzed by now so let’s just go in and get him,” Ted whispered.

“Yeah, good idea, let’s go,” Jim agreed.

They exited the unit and headed to Gigi’s front door. It took their eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. The only light in the place came from a variety of tea candles on the tables and one, lone bulb above the bar.

“You see him?” Jim asked.

“Nope. Maybe he’s in the john,” Ted responded. In unison, they walked up to the bartender. “Where’s Cooter Lafuente?”

Fred Parsons, grandson of the original Gigi, never stopped wiping the counter as he responded, “Not a clue. He paid and left a few minutes ago.”

Jim grimaced. “Out the back?”

Fred shrugged his shoulders, no stranger to cops coming into his bar and searching for various crooks. “Hey, I only serve my customers what they pay for, and don’t engage in idle chit-chat. I don’t ask them where they’re going when they leave.”

Jim and Ted ignored the rude bartender and dashed to the back, hoping Cooter was in the bathroom. Ted kicked the door in and they swept the place. They both ran out the back door and searched the alleyway.

No Cooter, just a strip of material hanging from the top of the chain-link fence.

“This is embarrassing,” Ted grumbled. “Shit! Chief’s gonna have our heads when he finds out we lost Cooter!”

“Uh, you really don’t plan on telling him the whole truth, right?” Jim asked while looking around the empty alleyway. “I say we ease the news by radioing we spotted him on the street and we lost him after giving chase. At least that’ll save some of our asses from being chewed all the way off.”

Ted raked his fingers across his sweaty face. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Come on, let’s head back to the car and call it in.”

Minutes later, back inside the car with the air on full blast, they radioed in the news. Within seconds of the transmission, Ted’s cell phone rang. Both men held their collective breaths. It was Chief Fox.

Ted answered and put the call on speaker. “You did what? I can’t believe it you idiots! Fix it, dammit, fix it! I’ll be there in ten minutes with more police and the dogs. Which direction is he headed?”

Ted and Jim exchanged worried glances, not sure what to say since they had no idea. Jim cleared his throat and answered, “East, back toward the swamps.”

A string of cuss words flew from the chief’s mouth, intermixed with directives. Thankfully, the dressing down finally ended and Fox disconnected the call.

“Well, that could have been worse,” Ted groused.

“The only hope we have for salvaging this mess is finding him before he hurts anyone else.”

Less than five minutes later, five police cars, four dogs and ten men, all arrived. Ted and Jim led them all inside Gigi’s so the dogs could pick up Cooter’s scent. The dogs hit on it right away and barked and bayed to go out back. Knowing it was enclosed by the fence, Ted offered, “We should circle around the front and let them follow the trail from there.”

Once the group made it outside and around to the alleyway, the dogs strained and pulled at their leashes, eager to continue heading east. Ted and Jim both grinned.

Two of the younger officers with dogs took off running, following the lead of their canine companions. Within minutes, they disappeared around a corner. The remaining officers followed at a slower pace, their four-legged partners older and more methodical than their younger counterparts.

“Got him!” came over the radio.

The news gave all of the men a shot of adrenaline. Feet and paws pounding the hot blacktop, they all rounded the corner of Sixth Street in unison. Sure enough, Cooter Lafuente was jammed up in against a brick wall, his gaze focused on the snarling, growling dogs less than three feet from his position.

“Get them dogs outta my face or I swear I’ll feed them to Parrian!”

Chief Fox burst past Jim and Ted, cuffs already in his hands. “Mighty big talk for someone who’ll never see the outside world again.”

Jim felt someone else brush by him, surprised to see it was Detective Booth, who must have arrived late. “Do it by the book. No way this piece of swamp trash is getting off on a technicality. Cooter Lafuente, you’re under arrest for the murder of Jo Bob Swain and countless others. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used…”

Jim and Ted both sighed with relief, letting the tension from their muscles relax a fraction. The day could have turned out a lot worse and both men knew it. They’d never been so happy to hear a perp mirandized.

When Chief Fox pushed Cooter past the others and onto the main road, he looked over at Ted and Jim. The fury from before was gone, replaced with a wide grin. “Good job, boys!”

Cooter’s face looked like he’d eaten a box of lemons. Ted and Jim both held their nose as he approached. The man’s body odor was foul. Cooter was mumbling under his breath, the veins in his neck and temples throbbed in time with his rapid heartbeat. Just as he pulled even with Ted and Jim, he coughed and spat in their direction. The wad of goo missed both men by mere inches.

Fox jerked the cuffs and Cooter stumbled. “Do that again and we’ll head back to the alleyway and let the dogs loose, then pull them off your dead corpse. Got it?”

Cooter screamed, “You can’t do that! It’s against the law! Let me go. You’ve got nothing on me!”

Fox moved his face within inches of Cooter’s. “Dead men can’t speak, idiot. Live ones can make up any story and no one’s the wiser. That was your only warning. Act like a respectable man and we’ll treat you as such. Act like an animal and we’ll let you die like one. Your choice.”

Cooter Lafuente never said another word as he was loaded into the backseat of an awaiting cruiser.

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