In the hard rain, Fletch had stopped the jeep at the roadblock on the narrow county road. It was raining so hard he and Carrie had almost failed to see the sputtering warning flares as they came down the twisting, rockwalled road through the gap.
When the Jeep was stopped in front of the two county police cars parked as a wedge facing them, their headlights lit, a great bulk of a man wearing a yellow slicker, dark, wide-brimmed hat lumbered toward them. He was lit by the Jeep's headlights but more backlit by the high beams of the police cars.
"Ha!" Carrie had said. 'Fletch, I told you not to leave your popcorn bucket on the floor of the movie theater! They're out lookin' for you, now they've cotched you, and they'll put you under the jailhouse for sure."
"Who is that?" Fletch asked.
The rain pounding on the canvas roof of the Jeep made them speak loudly.
"Rondy," Carrie answered. "You know him. His uncle is Biggie Wilson. You been huntin' with him, that time you all treed the Carter boy 'cause he has the natural smell of possum.
Fletch opened the Jeep's door, as that was easier than unzippering the window.
"Hiya, Rondy. How's your Uncle Big Stuff?"
"He's just fine, Mister Fletcher." Rondy flashed his light around the interior of the Jeep. He leaned to look directly behind their seats. "Evenin', Carrie. You folks doin' all right?"
Carrie said, "Happier than worms wrigglin' in warm mud."
Rain was pouring off the brim of the deputy's hat. "Plenty of warm mud around."
"What's happening, Rondy?" Carrie leaned forward in the passenger seat and spoke across Fletch. "The sheriff misplace his spectacles again?"
"Some villains decided to take themselves a little vacation from the federal penitentiary up in Kentucky, Carrie."
"Can't blame 'em," Fletch said. "We've been advertising Tennessee as a vacation spot. Take yourselves off to Tennessee.
Isn't that the slogan?"
"We've been told to welcome tourists all right, Mister Fletcher. It's just that we're concerned these particular fellows, being wards of the government, a federal responsibility, might stay out so late they just might miss their breakfasts."
"Can't let that happen."
"No, sir. They left home without any pocket money, is what has us worried."
Fletch smiled. "Armed and dangerous?"
"We don't know if they're armed yet. If not, they sure will be soon enough. Dangerous for sure."
Also dressed in yellow slickers, wide-brimmed hat, black rubber boots, carrying a flashlight, Sheriff Rogers came up and joined Deputy Wilson at the Jeep's door.
The jeans on Fletch's left leg were getting soaked.
"Mister Fletcher. Miss Carrie."
"Howdy, Sheriff," Carrie said. "Don't Francie let you take a shower-bath at home anymore?"
"Says I keep leavin' wet towels on the bathroom floor. So she sends me out every time there's a hard rain. She's been complainin' about wet towels on the floor thirty-two years now." The sheriff grinned. "Funny how some women never change."
"Nor should we," sniffed Carrie.
"How long since you all been gone from the farm?"
"Few hours," Fletch answered. "Went to St. Ives, had supper, saw a movie. Left home about what, five-fifteen?"
"You got guns at home, Mister Fletcher?"
"Anywhere an intruder could find them?"
"No. The shells and cartridges are kept separate."
"That's good. Maybe we should send Rondy here home with you."
Rondy frowned at the little space in the back of the Jeep.
"We'll be all right. How many villains are you lookin' for tonight?"
"Four." The sheriff fished a wet piece of paper out of his pocket and held his flashlight on it under the Jeep's roof. "One murderer, one attempted murderer, one kidnapper, and one serving heavy time on drug charges."
"Shoot," Fletch said. "I thought Rondy said these were bad dudes. You have their names there?"
Rainwater ran down the sheriffs face despite his widebrimmed hat. "Kriegel, Faoni, Leary, and Moreno." The sheriff accented the first syllable of the last name. Putting the paper hack into his pocket, he said, "Can't figure why they're coming through here."
"Headed south, I suppose," Fletch said. "Alabama border. Lose themselves in Florida."
"Except they've drifted sideways," the sheriff said. "This isn't a direct route to anywhere for them, far as I can figure.
"How do you know they're here?"
"Told they were comm' this way, for sure. Then Ms. Mobley spotted them running along the ridge just before sunset. The sheriff waved toward the west. "Guess we can believe her, all right." In her sixties, Mary Ann Mobley was considered the sharpest-eyed hunter in the county. "Couldn't get to 'em, of course, in all this dampness." The sheriff craned to look at the Jeep's shifts. "This a four-wheel drive, Fletch?"
"Mind if we borrow your Jeep, Fletch? We'll start by patrolling your farm."
"Not at all. You're welcome to it."
"Trouble is, I really need Rondall here. There are just the two of us, two cars. Maybe I'll radio in and have a couple of
deputies stop by your farm on their way out from town. They can pick up your Jeep, patrol your farm, then come find us.
"That will be fine."
"Filled up in St. Ives."
"We'll appreciate it."
"So will I." Fletch put the Jeep in first gear.
"Be real careful going into your place. Unless they're traveling faster than they have been, there's a large chance they're down there somewhere near or on your farm. Sorry I can't spare Rondy to go with you."
"We'll be fine. Not to worry." Fletch closed the Jeep's door.
Slowly he drove between the blinding headlights of the police cars.
Already Carrie was picking her fingers. "Well, I'm worried. A little bit."
"About what?" Fletch asked.
Carrie looked toward her rain-streaked plastic window. "Four villains peekin' out of the bushes at us."
Fletch said, "Around here we've got coyotes, wolves, bobcats, panthers, and snakes."
"And a bear." Carrie insisted she ran into a bear between the barns one dark night. She hadn't lingered to collect evidence it really was a bear.
"You're not all that afraid of snakes, bobcats, and bears, are you?"
"Animals make sense, Fletch," Carrie said. "It's the humans you can't trust worth a patootie."
"Should I stay here?"
"Absolutely not." Using the four-wheel drive, Fletch had driven up the old dirt timber road at the back of the farm. Lights out, he drove along the top of the hill behind the farmhouse. He stopped just inside the edge of the woods. "These dudes want the Jeep. And they want you. I'd rather you stay with me."
"You don't care as much about the Jeep?"
"Not as much. I'm going to let the counties use it, aren't I?" A few months before, two of the county's cars had smashed into each other, in a parking lot.
In the hard rain they walked together down the hill just inside the line of trees. Even though they were slipping and sliding on the wet hillside, Carrie took his hand. "Maybe the bobcats will get 'em," she said. "Maybe that panther you saw the other night will tear 'em apart like lettuce leaves."
"If you don't hush," Fletch said, "we might as well be driving up the driveway honking the horn and going in the side door singing 'Three Coynes in a Barroom.'"
"First time I've thought kindly of rattlesnakes," Carrie said.
When they got just above the house, Fletch said, 'You might stay here now. Give me time to case the joint."
"Here? This is about the place we saw the black wolf go into the woods last fall."
"You think he's still here?"
"Might could be."
"There's plenty for a wolf to eat out here without taking a snack out of you. It's the hungry, two-legged variety who think food only grows in refrigerators we need to worry about right now."
"I don't have a gun, Carrie said. "What do I do if the wolf comes by?"
"What you charmin' Tennesseans always do."
"Say, 'Hydy, Mister Wolf. How's your pa?'"
"Which paw will I be askin' about in this case? Right, left, front, back?"
"If you hush your mouth, at least the humans won't know you're here."
He climbed over the white board fence. Crouching, he circumnavigated the house. He peered through the windows into every room on the first floor. Throughout the house there were baseboard safety lights.
Behind the house, he opened the door to the smokehouse. In the dark, rain pounding on the aluminum roof, he found the pipe end, about six inches long, an inch wide, he had left there that afternoon after making a repair in the pump house.
He placed the white PVC pipe on the walk leading from the side of the house to the barns, just outside the study. It would be visible on the path once the lights in the study were lit.
Then he entered the house through the back door, went from room to room and upstairs turning on lights. He took the handgun from his bathroom closet and loaded it. There was no sensible place to carry it in his sopping shirt and jeans, so he kept it in his right hand.
Openly he went back across the backyard in the rain.
"Okay," he quietly said over the fence. "You can come out now. All yee, all yee, home be."
"I'm not here."
"Oh?" He could not see her in the dark woods.
"A panther carried me off by the foot, all you care."
Wet blond hair streaming down her face, she climbed over the fence.
"No sign they've even been here. Even the porridge hasn't been touched."
"Long as they leave my pickled beets alone."
In the kitchen, Carrie said, "Me for a shower. A warm shower. You too?"
"Guess I'll wait until you're finished."
"Will you come upstairs with me?"
"There are no panthers upstairs. I already looked."
He got a can of tuna fish out of the cupboard.
She asked, "You hungry?"
"No. Come to think of it, let me go upstairs for the shotgun. Then I'd like you to go into the living room, turn out the
lights, and wait for me."
"Oh." Wet and cold, she shivered. "The Jeep."
Leaving Carrie standing alone with the loaded shotgun in a corner of the dark living room, Fletch jogged up the slippery hill. There was no question whatsoever in his mind that if she were confronted with an intruder, Carrie would not only shoot, she would shoot as well as she normally did, which was very well indeed. Without a blink of hesitation, if armed, calmly she would blow the head off anyone who messed with her, or hers. In his years in the southern part of the United States, Fletch had come to know and respect the Southern country woman considerably in this way. Distinctly Carrie was a Southern country woman.
Thinking it would be safer, Fletch drove the Jeep back along the timber road, down to the hardtop road, down it to the driveway, and up it. He left the Jeep in the carport, with the truck and the station wagon.
In the dining room, he said into the dark living room, "If you don't shoot me, just maybe I'll live to give you a kiss."
"What will you give me if I do shoot you?"
"The job of having to dig a big hole somewhere."
"Are you alone?"
The intelligence of the question impressed him. "Except for Za-Za and Fifi."
"I'm alone," Fletch said.
"All escaped convicts are chickens."
In the bedroom, staying nearer to the door to the house than to the bathroom door, so he could hear over the sound of the shower, Fletch pulled off his boots and his wet clothes. He put on his bathrobe.
"All done." Carrie came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head.
"Are you going to use the hair dryer?"
"I have to."
When she was done, he left her in the bedroom with the handgun and took a quick, warm shower himself.
"Okay." He put the shotgun on the floor next to Carrie's side of the bed, away from the bedroom door. "Is this good for
He changed into fresh jeans, shirt, and running shoes. "I'll be downstairs."
"Are you going to sit up all night?"
In the kitchen, he picked up the phone and listened. He tried a few numbers.
The phone was dead.
He mixed the tuna fish with chopped onion, celery, and mayonnaise. He lightly toasted two pieces of bread. He put the light toast on a plate, heaped the tuna mix on the toast, and spread Swiss cheese on the tuna. He put the plate into the oven. He did not turn on the oven.
Then he went into the study.
He opened the French door behind his desk.
With his back to the door, he sat at his desk, apparently relaxed.
He slid the handgun under some loose papers on his desk.
Outside, the storm raged. The rain was deafening. The wind moved a paper on his desk. After the warm day, the breeze cooled off the study quickly.
Fletch did not have long to wait.
It was only a few minutes when he felt the small, round object pressed just below his left ear.
A voice behind him said, "Don't move.
Fletch said, "Hydy, son. How's your ma?"
Careful not to move, Fletch said, "Son, put down that PVC!" He chuckled.
Behind him, a young man's voice asked, "What's a PVC?"
"In this instance," Fletch answered, "I mean that piece of white, plastic pipe, six inches long, one inch in diameter you're holding in your left hand."
Fletch continued to feel the pressure against his head, behind, below his left ear. The voice said, "It's a gun barrel."
"Couldn't shoot a dried pea two meters with that barrel if your name were Louis Armstrong."
The young man was breathing somewhat heavily. "You don't know it's not agun. How do you know it's not a gun?"
"'Cause I didn't leave a gun for you to find on the path. I left you a piece of pipe to find."
"You left it for me to find?"
"Oh, yes. And then made the light from the study window shine on it. Anything to instill confidence in the younger generation. Encourage family visitations."
The young man behind Fletch took three more fairly deep breaths. "You know I'm your son?"
After a few seconds the pressure against Fletch's head stopped.
Fletch asked, "Seeing I'm sitting and you're standing behind me, and therefore have the advantage, I ask you, may I move, please?"
"To do what?"
"To look at you. I'm mildly curious."
"To see what Crystal hath wrought."
"Crystal," the young man's voice said.
"Your mother. Crystal. Crystal Faoni is your mother, isn't she?"
After a deep breath, the voice said, "Okay."
Fletch swiveled slowly around in his desk chair.
Simultaneously, the young man turned around to face the far wall.
At first Fletch saw only the back of a soaking wet, lean male in his early twenties. The back of his denim shirt had stitched on it FEDERAL PENITENTIARY/TOMASTON.
Excerpted from Son of Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 1993 by Gregory Mcdonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.