On the morning that he became a fugitive from justice, Lee McCabe awoke with two persistent sensations in his consciousness. The first was the sound that Apache helicopters make when they land in the desert, and how the dust swirls beneath them as they raise up little tornados of sand. The second was the smell of a woman’s strawberry shampoo.
As he struggled awake—alone in the small bedroom of his rented trailer—Lee realized that the sound was not that of an Apache helicopter but the rumbling of an approaching motor vehicle. Sounds carried a long way this far from town, especially on a Saturday morning.
He resisted the notion that the approaching car or truck might be something to worry about. He was still overly cautious, he knew. What else could he expect after two years of living in a war zone?
The clock on the nightstand beside the bed read 5:32 a.m. In recent months, Lee McCabe had learned to appreciate the small luxuries. It was a luxury to sleep until 5:30 a.m., even on a Saturday. It was a luxury not to have to arise even earlier, to step outside your barracks into the glaring, sand-blown heat of a hostile land, where any man, woman, or child might be bent on killing you.
And it was a luxury to have the regular company of women again. The smell of the strawberry shampoo was on the tee shirt that he had worn to bed. It mingled with the perfume of the woman he had danced with the previous night at the Steeplechase Saloon.
She had been young—and in Lee’s estimation—frivolous and carefree. At first it had seemed that she wanted to do nothing but laugh and talk. But after a while she somehow perceived that Lee was still reclaiming that world in which light conversation and laughter were possible. She did not push him beyond his means. She took his hand and led him to the center of the room, where they slow-danced, her head on his chest, her hair on his cheek and his shoulder.
He had taken in the scent of her wild strawberry shampoo then, and now its lingering presence brought back the feel of her firm young body pressed up against his. Before they had parted, she slipped him a matchbook cover that contained her phone number. The recollection made him smile. Perhaps he would call her. Yes, he definitely would.
Lee McCabe was twenty-three years old and he had returned from Iraq to Perryston, Kentucky, less than three months ago.
Early sunlight filtered through the curtains of the single window in the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture that surrounded him were scuffed and dented. The furniture was older than he was. But why would he care? The furniture was neither green nor camouflage, like practically everything that they gave you in the Marine Corps.
Once again his attention was drawn to the sound of the lone motor vehicle; and he tried to estimate its distance. A mile? A half mile?
What difference did it make, anyway? There were no al-Qaeda in Perryston. No suicide bombers. He was safe here.
Since Lee had come home, not a single person had tried to kill him. Three months without hostile gunfire aimed in his direction. Three months without a booby-trapped car or some maniac hiding a bomb beneath his dishdasha at a checkpoint.
The streets of Perryston were free from gunfire and explosions. Walking around town in civilian clothes rather than combat fatigues, Lee had not once had to turn away from the shrieks of hysterical survivors, or the anguished groans of the dying. Not once in three months.
Lee decided that he had lain in bed long enough. It was the first week of June and the day’s heat was already rising, prickling his skin with humidity. He swung his feet out of bed and stood erect, his toes digging into the blue threadbare carpet.
He reluctantly discarded the tee shirt with its pleasant woman’s scent and retrieved a clean one from the bureau drawer. He hastily pulled on a pair of jeans, then socks, and then the steel-toed boots that were regulation safety gear at the machine shop where he worked. The boots smelled vaguely of oil.
The distant engine was drawing closer now, crowding the thoughts of the young woman from of his mind. This despite his best efforts. He did not want to think about the vehicle but there it was: He judged it to be a pickup truck or an SUV that was coming along the adjacent two-lane highway.
He paused as he heard the vehicle slow down and then come to an abrupt stop. Next he heard the metallic sounds of the vehicle’s doors opening and closing. Finally there were several masculine voices—perhaps three or four.
Ease up, Lee, he told himself. Now just you ease up.
He did have to learn to take it easy. Despite his joy at being home, relaxation no longer came naturally to him. He was still struggling to rid himself of the constant wariness that had kept him alive in Iraq. He did not intend to go through the rest of his life flinching at ordinary sights and sounds.
Some days were better than others. The other day he had been standing in line at the Perryston Wal-Mart when a small boy suddenly ran up to his mother, who was waiting in line directly in front of Lee. Lee had practically jumped, his body tensing from an involuntary reflex. He had scared the boy and the boy’s mother, and greatly embarrassed himself.
He had never been prone to that sort of reaction before going to Iraq. He was back in the world now, and he would have to work to fully retrain himself to the old ways.
Lee continued to lace up his work boots, resisting the urge to investigate what was outside. It was just this thing he had developed about cars while over in Iraq, he told himself. Three men in Lee’s platoon had been killed one day when a jihadi detonated a car bomb. Over there you quickly learned to regard every car and truck with suspicion—or you ended up dead even more quickly. In Iraq all unknown vehicles had been potential harbingers of death.
But in Kentucky a lone vehicle at a strange hour was no particular cause for alarm.
It was nothing, he decided.
Lee walked through the wood-paneled hallway toward the kitchen of his trailer. The trailer was old. Its flooring creaked and groaned beneath his feet.
The trailer was temporary, of course—just like his present job as a lathe operator at the SJR Machine Shop. He had banked a fair amount of his Marine Corps pay, resisting the temptation to spend it on leave like there was no tomorrow, as so many men did—since there might well be no tomorrow for any particular person in a time of war. And the lathe operator job paid decent wages. In the fall he would begin to take evening classes. There was a satellite branch of the University of Kentucky right here in Hawkins County.
It was funny how your power relative to others changed, he reflected, sometimes moving you upward, sometimes pushing you back down the ladder. In the Marine Corps he had been a sergeant, grade E-5, with authority over other men and responsibility for other men’s lives. Now he was a lowly lathe operator. That was all right. In Iraq he had given commands that had brought death—mostly to the enemy, but once or twice to men he was leading, through his own misjudgment of the circumstances, the superior tactics of the enemy, or plain and simple bad luck.
God, I have had enough of giving orders for one lifetime, he thought. From here on out, let me neither take orders nor give them. Let me simply enjoy my freedom.
This was something that civilians seemed incapable of grasping. They all wanted to know what the war had been like—and how it felt to be back; but they gave Lee slightly embarrassed smiles when he told them that it was simply good to be alive and free in a familiar place where no one was taking potshots at you.
No, civilians didn't understand. No matter how circumspect their questions, civilians all wanted to know about the violence. They were practically obsessed with it: Were you in any shootouts? Did you see any al-Qaeda fighters? And always that one unspoken question that no one dared to ask: Did you have to kill anyone?
Lee avoided these questions as much as he could. He simply wanted to reacclimate himself to the ways of peace. He had gotten to know violence intimately, and he wanted no further part of it. And no, he had no interest in telling war stories. Perhaps he would tell them when he was an old man. But he had no desire to tell war stories now. This, also, was an inclination that civilians could not fully grasp, he supposed.
He was in the kitchen when he heard the heavy footsteps in the gravel outside his front door. His body stiffened. Judging by the heaviness of the crunching noises, three to four men were passing by his trailer. They were walking deliberately without any banter or conversation between them.
Lee made an instant connection between these footsteps and the engine he had heard a few minutes ago. He let go of the notion that he could simply ignore the situation. Rational or not, it was bothering him now.
He stepped to his front window and drew the white ruffled curtain back a few inches. There were in fact four of them. He could see their backs now: each one was wearing either a trench coat or a hunting jacket, which didn’t make sense at this time of year. Then Lee noticed an angular bulge inside one of the trench coats. This made the reason for their unseasonable attire immediately apparent.
The men obviously were not planning to pay him a visit. They were headed toward the adjacent lot. The trailer occupied by Tim Fitzsimmons, and his girlfriend, a young woman whom Lee knew only as Jody.
Just past the edge of his own trailer, one of the men briefly turned around, as if making a quick survey of the surroundings. Lee froze.
The man had a dark beard and a bulbous nose. He looked vaguely familiar, though Lee could not place him. When you lived in a small town, there were many people outside your circle of friends and acquaintances whose faces were nevertheless familiar to varying degrees. Probably this man was someone whom Lee had seen around town. He was definitely a local.
The man apparently had not noticed Lee looking out the window. He turned back around and continued walking with his companions.
One of the men pointed to Tim Fitzsimmons’ trailer and gestured to the others. Yes, that was definitely where they were going. Where else would trouble of this kind be headed?
Lee stood there in his kitchen, thinking about the lights of the little pipes that sometimes glowed in the darkness outside Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer at odd hours of the evening. Usually Tim would shoo these more indiscreet customers away; and occasionally he would brandish a gun at them. “Get your sorry meth-head ass away from here before you do that!” the ex-con would shout. It didn’t take much observation to figure out what sort of commerce was occurring in the trailer next door. The money and the little baggies of whitish powder sometimes exchanged hands on the steps outside Fitzsimmons’s front door.
So far, Lee had had relatively little interaction with the other residents of the Tradewinds Trailer Park. Most of them seemed to be agreeable enough; they were predominantly lower middle-class working people like himself, for whom the Tradewinds was a way station along the path to something better. Young couples saving up for a down payment on a tract house in town. A handful of retirees in temporary limbo. Some divorcees with small children. Even a few recently discharged veterans like himself. None of them had much money; you didn’t live in a trailer park if you had real money.
It had not taken Lee long to identify Tim Fitzsimmons as the sort of predatory presence that invariably works its way into low-income environments like the Tradewinds. Fitzsimmons was in his early thirties. He wore the perpetual glare of a man who had long ago accepted the role of a hood, and he wanted everyone he encountered to know it. He also had the authentic credentials: Fitzsimmons had spent most of his twenties in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.
These recollections weighed on Lee’s mind as he watched the four strangers disappear around a bend in the gravel path. He had long recognized what was going on next door; and yet he had done nothing about it.
Then he reminded himself that he was a civilian now. It wasn’t his job to carry a gun anymore.
But he should have called Sheriff Phelps. Many times he had thought about it. Perryston was the Hawkins County seat, and Phelps’s office was located in the town proper. Lee could have walked into the sheriff’s office and talked to him. For that matter, he could have made a telephone call.
Yes, he should have done that. But talking to Sherriff Steven Phelps had never been easy for him. And nothing had changed since he had come back from Iraq. The lawman still gave him an expression that implied a range of emotions: blame, resentment, distrust—as if Lee were responsible for the pathetic way the sheriff’s life had turned out.
It was absurd when you thought about it. Unbelievably so. But the sheriff had never let go of his old grudge. The grudge sprung from events that had occurred before Lee had even been born. But that made no difference, did it?
Was he imagining the depth of the sheriff’s ill will? No—Lee still remembered an encounter he had had with the sheriff toward the end of his high school years. The shame and humiliation of the incident still stung—even after all that had occurred since. Even after Iraq.
So you thought you were in love once, huh, Phelps? Lee thought bitterly. And I guess I’m a reminder of how that worked out for you. I guess I always will be.
This was a cruel and petty thought, he knew; but Lee could not resist taking a certain degree of satisfaction from it.
Lee could hear one of the men banging on the front door of Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer: “Hey, Timmy, open up in there. Let’s do this the easy way!”
His desire to be left alone—to mind his own business—was countered by an opposite emotion: I did not survive Iraq to come back to this. And in some ways, the present situation in the trailer park did remind Lee of Iraq: Men with guns came into the homes of decent people and did what they pleased. It didn’t matter if the men with guns were al-Qaeda operatives who wanted to impose their fanatical ideology, or small-town drug lords who simply wanted to extract a blood profit. The underlying principles were much the same.
It was clear to Lee that the men who had come to visit Tim Fitzsimmons were no mere customers. They must be affiliated with whatever drug network Fitzsimmons used in order to obtain his product. This was obviously some sort of dispute.
And it might be only a few seconds away from turning violent.
Lee abandoned his plans to make a quick cup of coffee before reporting for Saturday overtime work at the machine shop. He stepped across the main section of his trailer into the living room area. He crouched down and felt beneath his recliner (which still smelled like the previous owner’s cat) and retrieved a loaded .45 semiautomatic. He tucked the pistol between his belt and the small of his back and tried to decide what he should do next.
Then he was struck by the absurdity of the actions he was contemplating. If he walked outside with the gun, things could go very badly for him in short order. Wasn’t this another example of his inability to adjust to civilian life, his inability to leave Iraq behind him?
This problem belongs to Sheriff Phelps, Lee thought. Sheriff Phelps the also-ran lawman, the corrupt cop who loved my mother and hated my father.
Lee knew only the broad outlines of the love triangle that had once existed between his parents and Sheriff Phelps. He knew that his mother had once been with the sheriff, and then she had spurned him to be with his father. Lee did not want to know the details. It both and embarrassed and angered him—especially now that his parents were both dead.
Why couldn’t the sheriff let go of the past? Why couldn’t he allow the dead to rest in peace?
And why should he help Sheriff Phelps do his job? Let my neighbors complain about our Tim Fitzsimmons problem—maybe it will cost Phelps his job next Election Day.
He knew, though, that he could not simply ignore a meth trafficker who was operating openly next door, endangering all his neighbors. He would have to opt for a middle course.
I’m going to go to work, Lee decided. And then I’m going to stop by the sheriff’s office and file a complaint. I’m a civilian here. This problem isn’t my job. It’s Phelps’s job. So I’ll make the complaint and Phelps can do his job.
Lee placed the .45 down on the kitchen counter. He pulled his cell phone from the key and change tray that he kept on the table where he ate his meals. Put the damn gun away, he thought. You don’t even have to see Phelps; all you have to do is call him.
He put his cell phone in his pocket and told himself that it would be easiest for him to call the sheriff’s office during his mid-morning break. He could even ask to speak to one of the deputies.
Lee’s mind was made up, and he began to wonder if there was still time for a quick cup of instant coffee. Then he heard the sound of a woman’s screams next door.
Lee stepped outside with the .45 in his right hand. He took a moment to assess the situation as coolly as possible: The odds weren’t in his favor. His Marine Corps training and combat experience gave him a certain amount of confidence when facing the average man; but these advantages had their limits. There were four men and they were armed; they would easily kill him if they chose to make a stand.
Fitzsimmons’s trailer was only yards away. The screams had stopped, almost as suddenly as they had begun. Whatever had happened in the trailer mere seconds ago, the aluminum structure now emanated an odd sort of quiet, like a building that has been long deserted.
Lee stood perfectly still on his own stoop and listened for any sounds of movement, any voices. There were no voices and no sounds of movement that he could hear at this distance. Nevertheless, the woman’s screams continued to echo in his mind. These had not been mere figments of his imagination.
The grass between the two lots was still wet with dew; the trailer park was still asleep in the deceptive peace of an early Saturday morning. Most of his neighbors would not have stirred yet, thoughts of Saturday morning television and breakfast still an hour away.
The quiet of the morning issued its own challenge: He was the only one who had heard the screams, and the only one who could respond to them now.
A final twinge of hesitation urged him to go back inside his own trailer, to forget this primordial urge to answer men who believed that a gun gave them the right to trample on all rights and all manners of civilized behavior. The desire to show them that it would not be so.
Yet he thought that if Perryston was to become like Baghdad or Fallujah, then he truly would have no place to go, and for the rest of his days he would never know peace. It would be easier to face them now, he told himself, looking at the men’s tracks through the glistening grass. It would be easier now, while my guard is still up and I have not yet completely relaxed. A few weeks or a few months down the road, things might be different.
The decision to answer violence—it was like holding your breath and diving into deep water: once you leapt, there was no return.
Lee became aware of the heft of the .45 in his hand, the pace of his breathing, the keenness of his senses. A sudden heightened awareness filled his body. There was no choice, really. That choice had been hammered out of him in the broken cities and villages of Iraq.
Fortunately, the lessons of combat were still close at hand. And something about this most unnatural of actions—moving toward armed men with the intent of possibly killing them—felt more natural than waiting in his trailer and calling the police. As he approached Fitzsimmons’s lot, he ducked low, alternately looking ahead, and then to each side. In Iraq many men had been killed by the enemy who should have been far in the distance, but was actually waiting just out of sight and well within gunshot range.
Fitzsimmons’s trailer exuded a reek that was part garbage, part beer and cigarettes, and something more besides: an earthy smell of decay and corruption. The door of the trailer had been left open. It was pushed back, ajar on its hinges.
He paused but could still hear nothing. Perhaps the four men had already gone; and perhaps they were waiting to ambush anyone who responded to the screams.
Then Lee realized that he was not alone after all. Someone behind him whispered, “HEY!” and he nearly turned and shot the whisperer.
“Don’t shoot me!” the cowering figure said. The emphasis on the last word strongly suggested that there was indeed someone who should be shot.
The trailer across from Fitzsimmons was occupied by Hal Marsten, a timid, fiftyish bachelor who mostly kept to himself. Lee could see Marsten standing behind his front screen door. Marsten’s eyes were wide with shock and his raised finger was trembling. From where he stood, Marsten had a clear view into Fitzsimmons’s home.
Marsten pointed at the gaping mouth of the trailer.
“THEY KILLED ‘EM!” Marsten spoke in a loud whisper.
Lee tried to communicate with Marsten through hand signals, to ask him if the men were still in the trailer. He shushed Marsten with a finger raised to his own lips. Lee did not want to speak aloud and alert the other men to his presence.
But of course Marsten did not understand military hand signals. He stared blankly back at Lee. He finally retreated from the screen door, back into the interior of his own living space; he was far too shaken to be of any help.
A stack of concrete cinderblocks had been arranged before Tim Fitzsimmons’s front door as makeshift steps. Lee ascended these as quietly and as cautiously as possible, leading with the barrel of his .45.
Once inside, Lee crouched to his knees, in order to make himself a small target. The air inside the trailer was thick, humid, and redolent of the coppery odor of blood. Lee jerked his pistol to the right, and then to left. He scanned the shadows for movement. A dust-filled shaft of sunlight shone on Fitzsimmons’s kitchen counter. An old-fashioned cuckoo clock ticked loudly in the living room.
There was no one waiting to ambush Lee in the front part of the trailer. But the space was not exactly empty. Lee took a brief look at the armed men’s victims.
They had shot Tim Fitzsimmons in the back of the head, execution style. Their guns must have been equipped with silencers, as he had heard no shots. Tim had not submitted easily: his tee shirt was ripped down the back. He had likely made a run for safety and the men had grabbed him as he attempted to escape through the back hall. Now he lay facedown in his ransacked living room, the blood from his head wound already forming a wide, dark red circle on the carpet.
They had not caught Tim alone, as presaged by the earlier screams. Lee recognized the woman on the floor as Jody, Fitzsimmons’s live-in girlfriend. Lee guessed that she was about twenty—certainly no older than twenty-four or twenty-five. He had spoken to Jody once or twice in passing. On those occasions she had been cordial but not exactly friendly. Fitzsimmons’s presence had seemed to dominate her, and it had been clear to Lee that he would never be able to draw her out, even if he had been inclined to try.
The men had shot Jody in the jaw, horribly disfiguring her face. There was another bullet wound just above her belt line—an abdominal shot that would almost certainly be fatal. Her chest and stomach were so soaked with blood that Lee could not determine the color of the shirt she was wearing. Her bare legs were smeared with blood down to the knees.
But Jody was not dead yet. Her glazed eyes fixed on Lee as she attempted to make a sound through her shattered mouth.
Lee forced himself to turn away. He could do nothing for her now. And the men who had shot her might still be in the trailer.
He stepped over Tim Fitzsimmons’s body and took a few more steps into the back hallway, where the bathroom and bedrooms would be. He immediately noticed that the corridor was filled with sunlight. Then he saw that the back door had been left open.
Lee edged down the hall, pointing the muzzle of his gun into each room as he went. In one of the bedrooms he saw the telltale signs of a miniature meth lab: a jerry-rigged conglomeration of rubber hoses and pressurized cylinders atop a foldable card table. Beneath the table were several boxes of coffee filters, funnels of various sizes, and a coiled length of what looked like a cut garden hose. There were numerous bottles of chemicals. Lee could smell them from the doorway.
He made it to the back door in time to see four men completing a dash up an embankment beyond the trailer park. They were running toward the highway, their gait awkward but fast. Another few seconds and he would have missed them entirely. The men held their guns aloft. The killers were concealing nothing now; they were pumped with adrenalin in the wake of their crimes and focused only on escape.
They made a final sprint toward a waiting black pickup truck that idled on the edge of the road. It was a jacked up four-wheel drive version. Probably American; but there was no way Lee could discern the exact make and model from this distance. And as for the license plate—forget it.
The four men hoisted themselves into the back of the pickup truck (almost as efficiently as real soldiers, Lee thought). They were seated quickly, and their guns were stowed at their feet, out of sight again.
One of them pounded on the back window of the truck cab: a clear sign to get moving.
The truck sped away, spitting gravel as it went.
Lee walked back into the silent carnage of the now sweltering living room. Fitzsimmons’s girlfriend, Jody was still. She did not appear to be breathing anymore. It seemed that there was no square foot of carpet where Lee could step without placing his foot in blood.
He felt that wave of hesitation return—the hesitation that was showing its true strength five minutes too late. His .45 was useless now. His purported skill at answering violence and killing bad men was useless as well. None of that would mean anything to the young woman who was toppled back against the wall, her dead face a misshapen obscenity.
The real killers were gone and he was alone in this makeshift tomb for the dead. And if he could in fact do no good, then what was he doing here at all?
In the adjacent kitchen, the refrigerator kicked on. Then Lee heard the sound of voices outside the trailer—and the sirens.