Heavy, mud-scented air wafted in from the swamp and was warm enough to build up a sweat just sitting. It made everything a bit more miserable.
Joad Landry waited on his darkened porch, picked at the peeling white paint on the rickety stair railing, and took a deep drag off his cigarette. A smoke or ten usually helped him calm down and focus.
Didn’t help tonight.
Nothing did. Not the gas station hot dogs he’d eaten for dinner a few hours earlier or the three beers that washed them down. Not the music he listened to—Stapleton followed by Waylon and then Cash. None of the old standbys helped.
Of course, it was not a normal night.
Joad was not under any delusions that he was an angel. He’d done rotten things in his life. Lied, stolen, cheated, and beaten people bad enough to send them to the hospital. His own grandmother had said he was a demon on two legs. He didn’t know if he had the stomach to handle it.
Royster Bruce wanted Tante Glass dead.
Joad didn’t know why. Hell, no one knew why Royster did much of anything, and no one had the balls to ask. People did what he said—steal, cook meth, commit arson, whatever. And they got paid well. Joad and his buddy Tyler stripped cars for Royster on occasion. The money was okay. Money for murder was better.
He never saw himself as a killer.
He wasn’t sure how he and Tyler agreed to kill the woman other than being drunk, boastful, and dirt poor. Tyler had twins on the way. The cash would go a long way in making sure they had food and clothes for a time. Joad wanted to get a car for himself and maybe have some money to spare. Pedaling his old bike around town made him feel the reality of being a failure.
Night sounds, the chirping of insects and bellowing frogs, did nothing to comfort him like they usually did. A barred owl screamed from somewhere in the woods behind his house, and he about jumped out of his skin. He felt like a fool.
Heavy, mud-scented air wafted in from the swamp and was warm enough to build up a sweat just sitting. It made everything a bit more miserable. Tyler might come to his senses, call it off. With the promise of that much money, probably not.
He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another, his foot tapping to keep beat with his racing heart. His ex-girlfriend used to say he had more nicotine coursing through his body than blood, and he figured she might be right. She was long gone. Took his son and lit out for California five years back, and he hadn’t seen nor heard from her since. Not like he could take care of them. Stripping cars and stealing copper to sell didn’t bring in much.
He wasn’t sure why he was thinking about them now. Maybe it was the advance money from Royster that was tucked away in his tackle box and the promise of a lot more after the deed. Maybe he could use some of that money to get out of Louisiana? Find them.
He wasn’t sure.
Before he could think too hard, the headlights of Tyler Boudreau’s patchwork pickup truck came bouncing down the weed-filled and rutted dirt road toward his place. The truck stopped just outside of the porch light’s glow, and Tyler clambered out.
He nodded at Tyler, adjusted his sweaty dark hair beneath his cap, and wiped the sweat on his jeans. “We really doing this, Ty?”
“I figure we don’t got much choice,” Tyler said, his thick Cajun accent more pronounced than just about anyone Joad had ever heard. “Can’t break a promise to Royster Bruce. Besides. I always figured I’d end up killed or being a killer.”
Tyler was a few years younger than Joad’s thirty, but his lined face looked about ten years older. A scar ran along his forehead from where his father had once opened him up with a razor blade. He had tied his long hair back like always, but his usual grin was missing.
“We could give Royster his money back,” Joad said. He knew he wouldn’t back out. Money like that doesn’t just fall in the lap very often.
“Nah,” Tyler said. “My girl already spent half the advance. Getting stuff for them young ones. Besides, you think Royster’s gonna let us off the hook because we got cold feet?”
“She’s just a weird old woman. What did she do to Royster?” Joad flicked his cigarette onto the ground, stamped it out and lit another.
“Don’t matter. He told us what to do. He wants her gone. Probably be a good thing anyhow. That Tante Glass got witch blood in her. Everyone knows that. They say she sacrifices dogs and kids to dark powers and whatnot.”
“You believe that nonsense?”
“Don’t matter neither. Dark’s burning. We gotta be back before dawn.”
Joad knew all the strange bayou stories. Legends of rougarou, hellhounds, alligator men, witches. They were tales everyone told around campfires to keep kids from wandering into the swamp. They weren’t real, but that didn’t stop some backwoods folks from believing in them.
Tante Glass, as people called her, moved to the area a few years back. Joad wasn’t sure why people started calling her a witch. She didn’t socialize, didn’t go to church, and if rumors were true, she had a glass eyeball that was yellow and looked like a goat’s eye. Still didn’t mean the poor old woman was a witch. Probably just lonely. No one knew much about her.
Yet Royster wanted her dead.
And here they were.
The swamp was beautiful and horrible. Joad fished and hunted a bit in his time…. But the bayou was a dark and lonely place.
Royster said there was a road that led through the swamp down to Tante Glass’s place, but not to take the road. Get in through the swamp, come in from the back, he’d told them. They wouldn’t get picked up on traffic cameras and whatnot. Joad and Tyler figured that was pretty smart, and that was the plan they followed.
They grabbed the pirogue from beside Joad’s house and hauled it half a mile through the woods and across Catahoula Levee Road to a place where they could put in on Bayou La Rose and head up the water.
The duo navigated their way as best they could with just the dim light from Tyler’s headlamp. They paddled in silence through the watery byways past massive bald cypress and tupelos that seemed to stand sentinel like dark, ancient giants. The night air was thick with the sound of croaking frogs and night birds.
The swamp was beautiful and horrible. Joad fished and hunted a bit in his time. It was part of his heritage, and he figured he should love it. But the bayou was a dark and lonely place filled with ragged teeth, venom, and muck that grabs hold and won’t let go.
The pirogue skidded across the swamp’s dark surface. Joad caught glimpses of gator eyes glowing red. Hellish orbs watching him as he went to do the devil’s work. He tried not to think about anything except the money and how much easier life would be for a while. A couple hours and he’d be home.
Tyler was better practiced at navigating the tangled bayou than Joad, but it still took a little longer than it should have to reach a spot to land. He would’ve been perfectly happy if they’d gotten lost and had to turn back. But it seemed God wasn’t on anyone’s side tonight.
After finding a place, they pulled the pirogue out of the water and muck and tucked it behind some trees and out of sight.
“You ready?” Tyler checked the rounds in his revolver.
“Let’s go. And be careful where you step. It’s a warm night. Snakes out hunting. You don’t want to get bit.”
“This lady’s got problems,” Tyler said as he stared into the half-rotted head of a nutria. The headlamp’s faint light made it look even more ghoulish. They’d seen half a dozen of the rodent heads nailed to trees on their way to Tante Glass’s house.
“She don’t like trespassers, I guess.”
“Stuff like this is the reason people call her a witch,” Tyler said. “She’s lucky she ain’t been burned already.”
“Killing a bunch of nutria ain’t why Royster wants her dead. There’s a bounty on these things. Couple bucks a tail because they’re invasive or something.”
“Don’t care about why Royster wants her dead.”
They crept another hundred yards through the woods until they saw a clearing lit up by an obscene amount of string lights. There was a nice double-wide trailer up on stilts to keep out of the water in case of flooding—a hillbilly high rise. Two other smaller trailers on the outskirts of the clearing were on smaller stilts. Beneath those trailers sat full bags of trash and empty jugs. Joad also saw what looked like a newer model pickup at the edge of the lights. Lot of stuff for one old lady.
Joad saw the telltale blue lights of a television inside the double-wide. He hoped she was asleep in front of her TV, so she didn’t know what was coming.
“Hold up. You smell that?” Tyler said.
“Yeah, Cat piss and rotten eggs.” It was worse than the decaying and sulfurous scent of the swamp. “What’s she up to?”
“You trying to tell me you ain’t smelled that before?” Tyler said, panic creeping into his voice. “Look at the windows on those little trailers.”
It was hard to see in the dark, but Joad thought they looked blacked out, covered from the inside. The chemical scent, the isolated location, bags, bottles, and overwhelming sense of paranoia. Same as at a meth house Royster ran.
“Shit,” Joad said.
“Shit’s right,” said a deep voice from behind him and Tyler, right before something smashed into the back of his head and darkness swept over him.
Joad looked into the dark of the swamp and away from the floodlights. Red eyes shining on the water. Dozens of them, all silently gliding toward him and Tyler through the murk and muck as if on command.
Joad’s head thundered. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt half a dozen broken teeth. He tried to move his arms, but thick rope bound him to a gnarled old tupelo at the edge of the water. Tyler, swollen and bleeding, sat tied next to him.
“Look what we caught rooting around,” said a woman’s voice. “Maybe we put your heads out on them trees. Do a better job of scaring folk away than the nutria.”
He squinted against the floodlights and looked up into the face of Tante Glass. She got down close to him, just inches from his face. The horizontal pupil on the yellowed left eye, odd enough, resembled a goat’s eye. Despite her deep wrinkles, Joad figured she was only in her late 40s. When she grinned at him, the stink of rotting teeth rolled out of her mouth. Hard living and hard drugs would do that to a person.
Two big men flanked the woman. He wasn’t sure if he might’ve known them from town or not. He couldn’t see their faces thanks to the floodlights, but he could see the silhouettes of their shotguns.
“We didn’t mean nothing,” Tyler said. “Just got lost on the bayou while out fishing. No harm.”
“That right?” she said.
“Yes,” Joad said, nodding and eyeing the shotguns. “Got turned around. We won’t say nothing about this. Just an honest mistake. You thought we were trespassing. You just let us go and we’ll scoot right out of here.”
“We might live and cook in the swamp, but being backwoods don’t mean we’re backwards,” Tante Glass said. “We got perimeter alarms, cameras, and whatnot. I listened to you idiots grumbling and mumbling about killing me for Royster. Sent my boys to snatch you.”
“Please don’t kill us.” Joad struggled against the ropes, feeling more helpless than he ever had in his life. He nodded toward Tyler. “He’s got kids. I got one I want to see again, too.”
“I don’t care about your kids.” Tante Glass’s voice was cold and detached. “Lessons gotta be learned. Messages gotta be sent.”
“We’ll kill Royster for you,” Joad said, surprising himself. “Take out your competition. He’ll never even see it coming.”
“Yeah,” Tyler said, nodding. “Put a bullet right in him.”
“Nah, we’ll kill Royster,” she said. She pulled out her phone. “Smile for the camera, boys.”
“What are you doing?” Joad asked. “You gonna ransom us?”
“Ransom? You’re dense. No, you two gonna feed the swamp and give us some entertainment, just like every other piece of shit that’s come out this way. Then we send this video to Royster, so he gets the message that you don’t screw with the swamp witch.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Joad said, his voice was small and quavering. It was setting in, though. He knew.
Joad looked into the dark of the swamp and away from the floodlights. Red eyes shining on the water. Dozens of them, all silently gliding toward him and Tyler through the murk and muck as if on command. Tyler prayed. Joad struggled and cried, knowing he would never have the chance to see his kid again. And the gators moved faster.
The last thing Joad saw before a set of reptilian jaws clamped down on his face was Tante Glass laughing and her glass goat’s eye staring down at him.
Jason M. Tucker‘s fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Trembling with Fear, and the Dark Era RPG. His collection, Meat City, was published by Black Bed Sheet Books, and his story “Coventry Greens” is the basis for the upcoming short film, The Greenies.