Monday, March 16, 2009

Blood is Thicker than Water: Chip Searches the Swamps

Chip Hyland was not having what he would consider a red letter day. About eight hours before he had burst into the parlor at Miss Pettijohn's, he waded through murky goo in the bayous of Louisiana. How he had come to find himself in such a predicament was the fruit of two days' search for Pauline Raintree.

When Juliet Armstrong had contacted him three days ago about Aunt Polly's disappearance, Chip had promised her he'd get right on the problem. Several discreet inquiries turned up no information as to Polly's whereabouts, and several indiscreet inquiries had the same fruitless results. By the end of the second day, Hyland was attempting to recalculate his strategy, when he was approached by the woman who had delivered Juliet's note to him.

“No luck, eh?” she said slyly, as if she expected luck.

“I haven't got any good news to send, if that's what you mean.” Fatigue and frustration made him short with her.

“Maybe I could help you. I have a guess where she might be.”

“You couldn't have told me this when you brought me the note?”

“I didn't know then. I can guess now. Let me come with you. I don't know the backways, and I can help you. I have some small talents.”

Chip had heard of voodoo mambos, and thought this little old lady might be one of them, but he wasn't about to take somebody's grandmother into the swamp. He removed his hat. “No offense, ma'am, but I don't think swamp explorin' is your kind of work.”

“You will need me,” the woman said. “The vampires have her. I can deal with them.”

Hyland considered what this woman said. He was made from practical fabric, and came from practical stock. But, well, if somebody said vampires, even though he might not be dealing with real monsters, he certainly might be dealing with dangerous ruffians. Those considerations helped him decided what course of action to take. “That may be, ma'am. But slaying monsters is definitely not women's work.”

The woman said, “What is women's work, Mr. Hyland?”

“Stayin' out of harm's way mostly. Now, if you'll just point me in the right direction?”

Hyland paused in the mire. The woman, whose name was Legendre, had given him excellent directions to an old mansion. Unfortunately, Hyland had to abandon his boat some miles back when the mire had become too difficult for him to row through. Although Abigail was not Hyland's primary motivator in looking for Aunt Polly, Chip did wonder how far a man ought to have to go for a woman. He thought that eventually he could have got on Aunt Polly's good side and have been allowed to write Abby. Well, first he'd have to find Aunt Polly to get on her good side.

Chip felt lucky there had been no alligators yet. He would hate to have to fight alligators on top of all this. Not that they had too many alligators back where he came from, but well, how could alligators be bigger than a steer? He'd wrestled plenty of steers.

Hyland hoped he hadn't gotten lost. The whole swamp looked the same. Then he heard an eerie sound, one he hadn't heard since he'd come into the swamp, the sound of human laughter. Chip recognized that kind of laughter. When he was a little tenderfoot, the ranch hands had used the same laugh, the merciless teasing the comes when someone hasn't proven themselves. Hyland approached the small grassy island dead ahead, where the big house sat.

“I said go away!” The voice was a young woman's.

The laughter again. “Aw, come on,” said a male. “You could change if you really wanted to. Come on!”

“Marion, I will not be goaded into it. Now I've already told you I'm not staying. That will be enough out of you.”

Hyland peered through the vines and saw a pretty woman approached by a short, stocky man. The woman walked to the far side of the lawn and stopped as she was headed off at the pass by another man. This man, blond and handsome, would have had more success as he tried to get her to stay. Hyland, however, wasn't going to watch the melodrama unfold. He was here to find Pauline Raintree, and these three probably knew where to find her. He stepped out of the clearing and onto the grass.

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