Cameron Bane

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gut-wrenching suspense

Until the Last Dog Dies

Write this down: any phone call taken after ten p.m. will be bad. I've never seen this rule fail in more than forty-eight years, and it was proving itself again now. I'm not sure how long the ringing had been going on, but the insistent, intrusive clamor was dragging me inch by stubborn inch back from the sleep Id so much needed. Id only crawled into bed a scant hour before, having pulled a thirty-six-hour nonstop marathon working a child custody case, and I was wiped.

Still in a mental fog, I fumbled the receiver from its cradle. I rubbed a rough hand over gritty eyes as I mumbled my greeting. "This had better be either a beautiful woman or someone who owes me money."

The voice was high. Tinny and nervous. "Joe Box?"

I slapped my jaws shut. It couldn't be. I sat up with a frown. "Little Bit? Is that -- "

"Joe !" The relief in the man's voice was pitiful. "I wasn't sure if I had the right guy or not, no."

"This is Little Bit, right? From Louisiana?"

"Saint Charles parish. Yeah, it's me, Joe. We gotta talk."

Perfect. This guy, of all people. I hadn't seen or heard from Leo-Bob "Little Bit" Frontenau since the Vietnam War thirty years ago. Which I suppose was for the best; the memories from that time weren't good. Little Bit had been a lousy soldier, certainly the worst I'd ever served with. The man was lazy, incompetent, complaining, scheming, woman-crazy... and with all that probably the closest thing I'd had to a friend in Vietnam. What could he be wanting now?

I rotated my neck, listening to my vertebrae snap. Getting older stinks. But it beats the alternative. "Do you know what time it is? What in the world do you want?"

"I'm in trouble, Joe." I heard him swallow. "So are you."

I shook my head. "Bad time for jokes, Lit -- "

"It's not a joke!" he broke in.

"Whatever it is, it can wait. I'm in bed. Call me tomorrow."

"It's only seven here in L.A.," he said. I heard the clink of a bottleneck against a glass. There's nothing else in the world that makes that noise. I should know. It was a sound Id been intimately familiar with, that is until I became a Christian, three months ago.

"Well, this isn't L.A.," I shot back. "It's Cincinnati, it's ten o'clock and I'm beat. Like I said, call me back in the morning. At my office. We'll talk then. And Little Bit? Sober up before you do." I went to set the phone down, but as I pulled it away from my ear I heard his voice again, sounding even more frantic.

"Don't! Don't hang up!" I ignored him, my hand still moving the thing back to the nightstand when he shouted, "He's out, Joe.

Those words jerked me fully awake. I slowly pulled the receiver to my ear. "Say that again."

"You heard me right," Little Bit breathed. "God help us, it's true. I don't know when, no, and I don't know how, but he's out."

I scowled. "That's impossible."

"Says you! He called me!" The man was almost sobbing with fear. "Just now! Not ten minutes ago!" I heard him swallow. "And he sound' bad, Joe. Real bad."

"Little Bit." My words were slow and deliberate. "Listen to me. It's not him. It can't be. He was put in a prison for the criminally insane more than three decades ago. Remember? They practically welded the door shut on him. He's been in there ever since, cozy as mice. You should know that as well as anyone."

"But -- "

"He's in there to be studied," I went on. "Probed. Guys like him they don't let out. Ever." I began rubbing the bridge of my nose. "Somebody's pulling your chain, partner."

"Oh yeah?" Little Bit snapped. "Then listen to this. Here's the worst part." His voice dropped. "He knows about the cards, Joe. And what we did wit them." His laugh was bitter. "Now who's chain gettin' pulled, huh?"

That stopped me. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," he groaned. "Oh yeah. And nobody else knew about them, no. The Loot had told us we was the only unit using cards beside the berets."

I remembered. Our platoon had taken to using a variation of an old psychological warfare trick the Special Forces had started. But instead of placing an ace of spades on a dead Cong's face, like they did, the lieutenant had decided to use a Tarot card. Specifically, Death -- old skinny bones himself. He wanted to strike some terror into the Cong, secure a little payback.

The brass frowned on such practices, but we did it anyway. Lieutenant Calhoun figured, correctly in my thinking, those constipated monkey-runners could afford such niceties; they were in the rear with the gear. We were the ones humping it through the bush.

Little Bit rushed nervously on. "We always put a death card on the face of a Cong we killed. And he knows about that, man."

"Yeah, yeah, again assuming it's him." My voice was gruff. "Get to it already."

"He sent me one, Joe! A death card!" Little Bit swallowed again, a huge sound over the phone. "I got in from work late and there it was, stuck in my door. When I saw it I almost croaked right on my gallery." For some reason Cajuns like Little Bit call the porches on their houses "galleries." I guess even in L.A. some things don't change.

He was shouting now. "I pulled the card off and stumbled inside, starin' at it, and not ten seconds after I did, he called me! It's the voodoo, Joe, the gris-gris! He's watchin' my house! He knows where I live! He -- "

I broke in on his ravings. "Calm down. Take a breath. Do you know how crazy you sound?"

But it was like Little Bit hadn't heard. "He told me his dead Cong brothers have voices, and he said they're callin' to him from the earth. I'm tellin' you it's the gris-gris, man! They said it was time for him to pay the debt and he told me I was marked! I was goin' to be next!"

"Next? Next for what?"

"I ain't sure, no," he moaned, "but it can't be good."

I really wasn't in the mood for this tonight. Was not. I lay back on the bed, phone still against my ear. "You know what, Little Bit? I'll tell you who's doing this. Ed Ralston. You remember him. You remember what a sick, twisted dude he was. And he was with the platoon quite a while, so he'd know all about those cards. This is just the kind of stunt Ralston'd pull, especially on you. He knew how superstitious you were. And still are, I guess." I yawned. "See? Isn't that simple? Mystery solved."

Little Bit's voice went flat as he said the next. "That'd solve it, except for one t'ing. Ralston's dead."