Nine

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Dave went out soon after Clay had left. Ray had muttered something about movies costing a lot of money these days, but Dave paid no attention. He hadn't meant anything but small talk. He had heard about small talk on a tv show and how it could come in handy in awkward situations. He understood that money was important, and that Ray had little or none of it, but he hadn't made all the connections yet, wasn't quite sure what it was or where it came from. He only knew that if he came across some, he would give it all to Ray. It was, like so many other things in this world, utterly useless to him now.

His intention was to retrace Cookie's steps of the previous night, but to go in closer and get a better look at the recipients of her donations. Much of his sense of caution and fear had been dispersed, merely by the recent conversations both with Cookie and with Clay. Even the issue of dogs was cleared up for him. He now knew what they were for, and what their limitations were. He decided to ignore them.

He headed straight down the riverbank, along the edges, behind the houses that bordered on it. He had found a secret path, hidden behind rushes and sometimes covered by the tide. Wet and muddy shoes were no matter. Concealment was more important. He strode along, confident in his invisibility, and neared the first encampment beneath a broken fishing pier. He could smell the charcoal smoke mingled with spicy cigarettes and heard some low murmuring punctuated occasionally with a raucous laugh. When he got close enough to hear breathing he stopped, and kept very still behind some tall stalks of wild bamboo. He tried, but couldn't make out the words being spoken. He took a step closer and as he did he stepped on a brittle piece of dry driftwood which snapped with a sound like a gunshot. The voices abruptly ceased.

Dave stepped back behind the bamboo and could hear now only the languid lapping of the river against the pebbles on the bank. He waited a few minutes, and then pushed some stalks aside and poked his head through. Standing right there in front of him was a very large, very angry looking man, who loudly called out,

"I told you it weren't no rat. It's a god damn man!"

"Who is it?" a female voice shouted back.

"Damned if I know", he replied. "It ain't talkin'".

"So", he said with a little less volume, still staring right at Dave. "Who the hell are you, bud?"

Dave did not reply right away. He was considering his options and asking himself what the appropriate reaction should be. Step out and introduce himself? Run away? Both seemed equally reasonable plans.

"Say, wait a second", the man went on, now pushing the whole clump of bamboo aside and taking two steps forward, so close now to Dave he could feel the hot beer of his breath.

"I know you", he said. "Holy mother of pearl!"

"Princess!", he shouted out loud and turning in her direction. "You are not going to believe who this is. You are so not going to believe it!"

"Who is it, Rick?" the one named Princess called back.

"Come on over and see for yourself", he replied.

"Just tell me, damn it!", she yelled. "I don't want no more of your stupid games."

"This ain't no game, honeypot", Rick said. "This here is little Davey Connor. You remember Davey Connor, don't you?"

"From middle school?" she cried. "That little weasel?"

"The very weasel", Rick laughed, and turned back to Dave.

"Well I'll be damned", Rick told him. "I heard you was smoked. Sure I did. There's people up in Wetford selling tickets to your very grave. Holy smoke! What the heck?"

"My name is Eddie", Dave said, quite calmly. "I don't know you."

"Eddie! That's a laugh", Rick said and yelled out, "Says his name is Eddie! Ha!"

He turned back to Dave and challenged him.

"Eddie, huh? Eddie what?"

Dave paused for a few moments before replying.

"Barkowicki", he said, and he had no idea why he said it, or where that name had come from. He thought he just made it up.

"Eddie Barkowicki", he repeated. Rick was not amused. His jaw tightened and his big right hand curled up into a fist.

"Now you're joking with me, boy", he spat. "Here I was making nice with you and now you're making fun of me? I don't highly recommend that, you little piece of dog waste!"

"Says he's one of you!", he shouted back at Princess. "Says he's a Barkowicki".

"Get out of here!", Princess screamed back, and this time she got off her butt and came creeping over along the riverbank to see for herself. Dave did not recognize either one of them. Rick was a good six foot four, and maybe close to three hundred pounds, sported a buzz cut, sideburns, bulging biceps and a tattoo on his wrist that spelled out the word "damn" in a font resembling barbed wire. "Princess" was short but nearly as heavy as Rick, with thick, long, tangled blond hair, and wore tight clothes revealing clearly every single roll of fat that lined her body. Her face was sweaty and pale, and she curled her lip as she said,

"Little Davey Connor. Son of a gun! Saying you're a Barkowicki now? You know there ain't no Barkowicki's but me. Annie!"

"Didn't he have a thing for you at one time?", Rick asked her.

"Who didn't?", she smiled. "I was quite the thing when I was twelve" she went on.

"And you were quite the loser", she said to Dave. "Still are, from the looks of it. But hey, didn't Rags say he gutted him like a fish?"

"Yep" Rick nodded. "And nobody seen him since. That was when, last summer?"

"Six months at least", she agreed.

"And now he shows up here in Spring Hill Lake. Probably still hiding out from the Kruzel boys, eh? Is that it? Too chicken to show your face back in Wetford?"

"I don't know what you're talking about" Dave told them. "My name is Eddie."

"Barkowicki?", taunted Princess. "Go on. I want to hear you say it to my face."

"Barkowicki", he repeated. "Eddie Barkowicki".

"Wait till the boys hear about this", Rick said. "You might have thought you were safe here, weasel. Should've kept going. You're in for it now." His face gleamed cruelly as he smacked his fist into his other palm.

"Goodbye", Dave said, and turned to walk away.

"Oh just like that?" Rick yelled. "Just like that? You think it's so easy? Nobody fools around with Rick Fripperone. You ought to know that, weasel boy! I beat the crap out of you in the seventh grade and I'm going to beat the crap out of you again right here right now".

But Dave was gone. He had slipped behind the rushes and up into a neighboring yard, vaulted over the fence and disappeared. Rick and Princess stumbled after him, but only fell over each other and down along the river's edge. They pushed each other out of the way and stumbled back to their camp, shouting and saying "damn" a lot.

"I'm going to find that doofus", Rick declared. "And when I do ..."

He let the thought hang in the air as Princess nodded and said.

"Yeah".

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