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Raley pulled open the rusty screen door, its hinges squealing. "Hey! You in here?"
"Ain't I usually?"
A curl of faded red paint flaked off when the wood frame slapped closed behind Raley as he stepped into the one-room cabin. It smelled of fried pork and the mouse-gnawed Army blanket on the cot in the corner.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness and find the old man. He was sitting at a three-legged table, hunched over a cup of coffee like a dog guarding a hard-won bone, staring into the snowy screen of a black-and-white television. Ghostly images flickered in and out. There was no audio except for a static hiss.
The old man snorted a welcome through his sheaves of nasal hair. "He'p yourself." He nodded toward the enamel coffeepot on the stove. "Can't recommend the cream. It curdled overnight."
Raley stepped over the three hounds lying motionless on the floor and went to the refrigerator that was jammed between an antique pie safe, which served as a pantry, and a drafting table, which served no purpose whatsoever except to collect dust and further reduce the floor space in the crowded cabin.
The handle on the fridge door had broken off, probably decades ago, but if you pressed your fingers just right into the soft rubber sealant in the crack, you could pry it open. "I brought you some catfish." Raley set the newspaper bundle on one of the rusty wire shelves, then quickly shut the door against the mingled odors of cream gone bad and general spoilage.
"You're welcome." The coffee probably had been boiled several times and would be the consistency of molasses. Without cream to dilute it, Raley thought it better to pass.
He glanced at the silent TV. "You need to adjust your rabbit ears."
"Ain't the rabbit ears. I turned off the sound."
The old man replied with one of his customary harrumphs that said he couldn't be bothered to answer. A self-proclaimed recluse, he had lived in voluntary exile ever since "the war," although which war had never been specified. He had as little as possible to do with otherHomo sapiens.
Shortly after Raley had moved into the vicinity, the two had come upon each other in the woods. Raley was staring down into the beady eyes of a dead opossum when the old man came crashing through the underbrush and said, "Don't even think about it."
"About taking my possum."
Touching the bloated, flyblown, limp body with the pink, hairless tail and horrible stench was the last thing Raley intended to do. He raised his hands in surrender and stood aside so the barefoot old man in stained overalls could retrieve his kill from the metal jaws of the small trap.
"Way you been stampin' 'round out here, it's a wonder to me it ain't you caught in this trap 'stead of the possum," he grumbled.
Raley wasn't aware that anyone lived within miles of the cabin he'd recently purchased. He'd rather not have had a neighbor of any kind, but especially one who kept track of his comings and goings.
As the old man stood up, his knees protested in loud pops and snaps, which caused him to grimace and mutter a string of curses. With the carcass dangling from his hand, the old man looked Raley over, from his baseball cap and bearded face to the toes of his hiking boots. Inspection complete, the old man spat tobacco juice into the dirt to express his opinion of what he saw. "Man's got a right to walk in the woods," he said. "Just don't go messin' with my traps."
"It would help me to know where they are."
The old man's cracked lips spread into a wide grin, revealing tobacco-stained stubs that once were teeth. "Wouldn't it though?" Still chuckling, he turned away. "You'll find 'em, I'm bettin'." Raley could hear his laughter long after he disappeared into the dense foliage.
Over the ensuing months, they'd accidentally bumped into each other in the woods several times. At least to Raley these were chance meetings. He reasoned the old man made himself visible when he wanted to and didn't when he was disinclined to give his new neighbor even a grunt of a greeting.
One hot afternoon, they met in the doorway of the general store in the nearest town. Raley was coming in, the old man going out. They nodded to each other. Later, when Raley left with several sacks of groceries, he noticed the old man sitting in a chair on the shaded porch of the store, fanning himself with his straw hat. Acting on impulse, Raley peeled a cold can of beer from the plastic webbing and tossed it to the old man, who, revealing excellent reflexes, caught it in one hand.
Raley stowed his groceries in the bed of his pickup and climbed into the cab. The old man regarded him with patent suspicion as he put the truck in reverse and backed away, but Raley noticed that he'd popped the top on the beer.
The following morning there was hard knocking on Raley's door. This being a first, he approached the door cautiously. The old man was there, holding a chipped ceramic bowl containing a heap of some raw animal flesh that Raley couldn't identify. He feared it was carrion that even the trio of hounds had rejected.
"In exchange for the beer. I don't like bein' beholden to nobody."
Raley took the bowl thrust at him. "Thanks." His visitor turned and walked down the steps. Raley called after him, "What's your name?"
"Who wants to know?"
The old man hesitated, then grumbled, "Delno Pickens."
From that morning, they developed a quasi friendship founded on loneliness and a shared reluctance for interaction with other people.
The sum-total value of Delno's possessions wouldn't be a hundred dollars. He was always dragging home something he'd salvaged from God knew where, items he had no practical use for. His cabin was situated on stilts to prevent it from flooding when the Combahee overflowed its banks. Junk had been stuffed into the crawl space beneath the structure, as though to provide a more solid foundation. The area surrounding the cabin was also littered with junk that was never utilized so far as Raley could tell. Collecting it seemed more important to Delno than the articles themselves.
He drove a truck that Raley called Frankenstein because it was made of parts Delno had assembled himself, held together with baling wire and duct tape. It was a miracle to Raley that he ever got the contraption started, but as Delno said, "It ain't pretty, but it gets me anywhere I want to go."
He would eat anything.Anything.Anything he could knock from a tree, trap, or pull out of the river. But whatever he had, once their friendship had been established, he was always willing to share it.
Surprisingly, he was very well read and conversant on subjects which, to look at him, one wouldn't have expected him to have even a passing knowledge of. Raley came to suspect that his hillbilly accent and vocabulary were affected. Like the squalor he lived in, they were protests against a former life.
But whatever that former life had entailed remained Delno's secret. He never mentioned a hometown, his childhood or parents, an occupation, children, or wife. Beyond his hounds, he talked to no one except Raley. Intimate relationships were limited to a stack of old nudie magazines with well-thumbed pages, which he kept on the floor beneath his cot.
Raley shared nothing personal with Delno, either. Not for the first two years of their acquaintanceship. And then one evening at sunset, Delno showed up at Raley's cabin, bringing with him two Mason jars filled with a murky liquid that he'd fermented himself.
"Haven't seen you in over a week. Where you been?"
Raley didn't want company, but Delno elbowed his way inside anyway. "Thought you might be needin' a swig or two." Giving Raley one of his scornful once-overs, he added, "Lookin' at you, I'd say my hunch was right. You appear to be in bad shape. Could smell you as I was coming up the steps."
"You're a fine one to criticize someone else's appearance and personal hygiene."
"Who'd you call?"
"That blabbermouth that runs the cash register at the store? The one with her hair piled up high, wears long, dangly earrings? Told me you come in there last week, got a handful of change, and fed it into the pay phone outside. Said you talked a few minutes, then hung up, looking like you was ready to kill somebody. Got in your truck and took outta there without even paying for your groceries."
He uncapped one of the jars and passed it to Raley, who sniffed the contents, then shook his head and passed it back. "So, I'm askin'," Delno continued after taking a hefty swallow from the jar, "who'd you call?"
It was dawn before Raley stopped talking. By then, Delno had drained both jars. Raley was simply drained -- emotionally, mentally, physically. It had been a painful but therapeutic catharsis. He had lanced a dozen wounds.
With nothing more to say and no breath left to say it, Raley looked over at the old man, who had listened for hours without making a single comment. The expression on the creased, leathery face was one of profound sadness. His eyes were naked and unguarded for the first time since Raley had known him, and Raley knew he was looking straight into the soul of a man who'd experienced indescribable heartache. It seemed Delno Pickens had collected all the misery and injustice in the world and packed it into that one hopeless gaze.
Then he sighed, and in one of the rare times they'd ever made physical contact, reached across the space separating them and patted Raley on the knee. "Go wash your armpits before the stink of you makes me puke up all that good liquor. I'll cook you some breakfast."
They never again referred to anything Raley had told him that night. It was as though the long night had never happened. But Raley never forgot the bleakness with which Delno had looked at him that morning. And this morning when he raised his head from staring into his coffee mug and looked up at Raley, he was wearing that same expression of despair.
"What's the matter?" Raley's heart hitched, automatically thinkingdisaster.A 747 loaded with passengers crashing into a mountainside. A presidential assassination. A terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.
"Don't go and do somethin' crazy, now, okay?" Delno said.
Muttering dire predictions about "nothin' good comin' outta this," Delno hitched his chin toward the TV.
Raley went over to the vintage set and turned the volume knob, then fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna in the hope of getting a better picture.
The video remained erratic and the audio was scratchy, but within moments he had a clear understanding of what had happened and why Delno had dreaded telling him:
Jay Burgess was dead.
Copyright © 2008 by Sandra Brown Management Ltd.
Excerpted from Smoke Screen: A Novel by Sandra Brown
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.