hoodhead was more interested in pulling him under the water than throttling him.

The Op struck a couple of karate blows to the hoodhead's neck, and felt the grip relaxing, but only slightly. Out of the water, his karate training would tell and he would be able to use the man's weight against him. Here, they were just a couple of scratching and biting animals.

The 'gator came from somewhere, and latched onto the hoodhead. It must be the intestines trailing in the water, calling to predators, signalling the presence of something mortally wounded and edible. The Op kicked in the water, and swam away from the thrashing mass where the reptile was clamping its jaws into the hoodhead, tearing limbs free, scattering blood in droplets. A hand reached for a frag, and flipped the top.

The Op threw himself under the waters again, as his merciful grenade blew hoodhead and 'gator to pieces. The Shockwave knocked him off balance, and he felt his hand sink into the mud as he tried to steady himself. His Rapide, still slung around his arm, floated on the surface, pulling him up.

He broke the waters, and struggled towards the island. The fighting was dying down.

The third spidercopter was gone. The CAF had been stung badly, and were withdrawing.

There were dead and burned people floating thick around the island. With their skins and clothes napalmed off them, they all looked the same colour.

The gunshots weren't so frequent now. The fighting was more or less over. The cross had burned itself out. There was a half-hearted cheer as it toppled hissing into the swamp.

The Op pulled himself out of the swamp, water cascading out of his clothes, and walked across the island. Soule was down on one knee near the crashed chopper, a friend trying to tighten a tourniquet around his leg. His boot was exploded, and three of his toes were gone.

Soule grinned, and gave the Op the thumbs-up.

'We rocked,' he said. 'We rocked and rolled!'

His leathers heavy with water, his hair over his face, the Op walked towards the wreckage. The Yazoo Krewe were clustered around a few wounded and captured hoodheads, prodding them with rifles, kicking them with steel- toed boots. The CAF were yelping as they took their punishment. Chickenhearts to a man, the Op guessed.

Ellroy Kettle, the Mayor of Yazoo City, was laying into the head of a fat man in a muddy once-white sheet.

'How yo like that, massah?' Kettle shouted, tears running into the brown creases of his face. 'That 'nuff cotton plucked fo yo, Mistah Rhett Freakin' Butler? Yo want some iced lemonade on the freakin' verandah, massah?'

Earlier, the Mayor had spoken with a cultivated Harvard accent. Now, he sounded like a cross between Stagger Lee, the badass dude who took his razor to every whitey sheriff who came after him, and Stepin Fetchit, the scaredy-cat pop-eyed slave of all those Hollywood movies.

'Hold on there, Mr Mayor,' the Op said. 'The fight's over.'

A couple of younger men tried to hold Kettle back, but he was carried away. The last time the CAF flew against Yazoo City, they had harvested a crop of 'indentees,' young people conscripted to work as cheap labour in the corp-run factories and fields of Alabama and Georgia. Kettle's daughter Rosaria was one of those indenture girls, and she had died from a smacksynth overdose in a whorehouse in the Montgomery NoGo. Some Japcorp honcho had been dissatisfed with the services and shot her up with enough Hero-9 to cardiac-arrest an elephant. The Confederates had managed to bring back at least one of the South's cherished antebellum traditions: indenture was just a gussied-up name for slavery. Old times, they were not forgotten.

Kettle kicked the fat sheet wearer in his hood. There was blood dribbling from the eyeholes.

The Op stepped in, and laid his hands on the Mayor's shoulders. The man stopped kicking, and his face fell. He was crying uncontrollably, now.

'My little girl…my little girl…'

The Op hugged the Mayor, and let the man cry, feeling his chest-heaving sobs run through both their bodies. The Yazoo Krewe stood around, sobered, the exhilaration of battle sapping away. The Op had seen this before, in South and Central America, in the Middle East and in the Good Old U.S. of A. There were lots of people crying, with pain, fear or fatigue. It had all been over in less than twenty minutes, but everyone alive would carry the marks for the rest of their lives. Either the marks on their bodies, or the marks on their souls.

Dr Ali Bales, the nearest thing to a medic in Yazoo City, was going around looking to the wounded. She was passing out squeezers of morph-plus to everyone who showed her blood. Soule took Kettle away from the Op, and the Mayor went along quietly.

The hoodhead on the ground squealed, his flabby fingers clawing at his mask.

'White robes, huh? Must be a Grand High Exalted Something-or-Other,' said the Op.

A sixteen-year-old swamp fighter, gangcult scars on his brown cheeks, tore the mask away, and they all saw the battered face of Burtram Fassett. The Confederate spat out teeth and insults. There was drying blood in his white goatee beard.

'Nigra vermin,' he choked. Something about the man reminded the Op of the Original Colonel. Maybe it was the beard, maybe it was the fat.

Someone raised a gun, but the Op waved it down.

'Under the Enderby Act, I am obliged to tell you that you have just been made the subject of a legal Sanctioned Op's arrest. You will be charged with crimes against the constitution of the United States…'

'Yankee trash,' Fassett spat.

The Op resented that. He had been born in Tupelo, Mississippi.

'You have the right to remain silent while white-hot pokers are shoved up your ass,' he shouted. 'You have the right to have an attorney present when they snip your fingers with carpetshears, and if you cannot afford an attorney the court will toss you into a plague-pit with fifteen psychopathic killers until it can get around to spitting in your face. Do you understand these rights?'

Fassett wasn't hearing anything. He was breathing, but unconscious. Broken, he looked like a dandified Santa Claus on the night the reindeer rebelled and trampled him into the snow.

Suddenly, the Op felt tired. His back stung from the napalm spots, and his neck ached from the giant hoodhead's killer grip.

'We whipped 'em,' Soule was shouting. 'We whipped em good, didn't we?'

Bales was searing the open wound on Soule's foot with a lase scalpel, and shooting morph-plus into his ankle. She'd been a Combat Physician with the Voodoo Brotherhood gangcult in Detroit. She was calmly used to this.

The Op nodded at the boy.

'They won't come back to Yazoo City, no more, no way, now how, no sir!'

Soule was flying as the morph-plus hit his system. The Op wondered how the boy would feel tomorrow when he woke up and saw the crutch.

Bales gave the Op a clenched-fist salute, and took the next squeezer out of her mouth to shoot up some other kid.

He yanked Fassett upright, and bent the Confederate's arms back so he could slip on the thumbcuffs. Fassett woke up when the pain hit him, but sagged again.

If he could push the case through the FBI or some independent agency, there was a chance that the CAF's highplaced buddies wouldn't be able to save him. There were still plenty of incitement and extortion beefs against the old IGW in Arizona, and the Op was sure he could scrape up a few extra charges. There might even be some bounties on the bastard's pointy head. The spare change would come in handy. He had been doing too many of these charity cases recently, and the coffers could do with some heavy replenishing.

The Yazoo Krewe were busy with their wounds, and with mopping up. Later, they'd probably all get drunk and sing songs. The Op remembered the early days, when he'd heard the Mississippi songs. And later caught up with the great bluesmen: Robert Johnson, who some say sold his soul to the Devil to make the music, Arthur Crudup, who wrote 'That's All Right (Mama),' Johnny Ace, who shot himself playing Russian Roulette just as 'Pledging My Heart' hit the charts in 1954, Kokomo Arnold, who wrote the original 'Milkcow Blues Boogie,' Junior Parker, B.B. King, Rufus 'Bear Cat' Thomas, Big Memphis Ma Rainey, Hardrock Gunter, the Ripley Cotton Choppers, Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf…

The music was faint now. It had been a long time. Forty years. But you couldn't ever burn it out of you. If you were born with it, it was always there.

He heaved Burtram Fassett towards the powerboat, and dumped him in. He'd make his way back quietly to Yazoo, and lock the Confederate into the reinforced trunk of his Cadillac convertible. Then, he'd head back to Memphis.

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