Read chapters 1 through 10...
Lee came upon the family so quickly and unexpectedly that he had no time to hide himself from their view.
He had followed the trail through the woods, and before long he strayed into an area of forest that he recognized as state land: He could tell because the trails were well kept and covered with mulch in many places. He was not worried about game wardens. They rarely appeared in Hawkins County—and then only during hunting season.
He had not expected to come across the campground so soon, though; and the family was a complete surprise. There was no time to avoid them. He stepped into a clearing and there they were: A mother, a father, and two small children—a boy and a girl. The parents looked to be in their mid-thirties. The children were perhaps seven or eight years old. Possibly twins.
All four of them were seated in folding lawn chairs. They were relaxing in the shade of a pull-out awning. The awning was attached to a Northstar camper that had been towed into place by a Ford pickup truck.
Lee had strayed into the family’s weekend camping expedition. A scuffed Coleman cooler sat atop a wooden picnic table that was county property. There was also a pitcher of what looked like lemonade. The lemonade had been heavily iced, and the pitcher was coated with condensation.
This was in fact the Shady Pond Campground. The waters of the eponymous pond glittered some distance off to the west. A wooden sign with a silhouette of the state of Kentucky confirmed the name of the campground.
The father of the family started when he saw Lee step out from the trees. He did not appear to feel threatened, only mildly surprised. He obviously did not believe that anything bad would happen to him at the campground on a sunny Saturday morning. He had a day off work. He was with his family and all was right with the world.
Lee noted that the man also had protection: a high-powered hunting rifle stood leaned against the camper. The presence of the gun did not particularly surprise Lee: Guns were a fact of life in Hawkins County. This was Second Amendment country. Practically everyone grew up handling firearms. The opening day of deer season in mid-November was a major local event.
Lee assiduously avoided a second glance at the weapon. His own .45 was tucked in the back of his pants, where none of the family members could see it.
As inconspicuously as possible, Lee untucked his shirt so that it would fall over the grip of the gun. This gesture might arouse some suspicion; but the situation might deteriorate quickly if they glimpsed the gun. He would still need to keep his back to them: the shape of the .45 would be quite noticeable beneath his shirt.
“Whoa! Good morning, mister!” the father hailed.
Lee believed that he recognized the father. Like the dark-bearded shooter at the Tradewinds, he was one of that nameless or half-named mass of Perryston residents whom Lee knew vaguely by sight. He had a goatee, a receding hairline, and the beginnings of a middle-age paunch.
“Good morning,” Lee replied. Did he sound unsteady? It would be a struggle, he knew, to affect a casual manner after what he had seen and done only a short while ago.
“That’s a good way to scare a fella, comin’ out of the woods like that.”
The delivery of these last words was not unfriendly; but Lee noted that the man had involuntarily looked in the direction of his rifle.
“I’ll say,” his wife agreed. “I thought we had the campgrounds to ourselves.”
“Well, it is a public campground,” her husband allowed. Then to Lee: “Where are you parked?”
“Over there,” Lee motioned to an unspecified area behind him. “On the other side of the woods. I have a camper too.”
“It looks like you’ve been sleeping in the woods,” the woman said.
Lee knew that he probably did look like a mess—even in the unceremonious setting of a campground. He was sweating profusely by now in his jeans and tee shirt—which were less than ideal clothes for a cross-country run. Briars clung to his pants legs. Impolite though her observation was, the woman had a point.
Had the family gotten word of the morning’s events at the Tradewinds? Probably not. Lee didn’t see a radio or a battery-powered television set.
“Say,” the man said. “Don’t I know you? You’re Lee McCabe, aren’t you?”
Lee nodded. There was no way he could plausibly deny his identity before a person who recognized him. Not in a small town like Perryston.
“I read all about you,” the man continued. “I saw that article in the Perryston Gazette. It says you won a bunch of medals over there.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Lee said. My God, is this going to be another request for war stories, he wondered.
“Bullshit!” the man said, his smile broadening. “You’re a hero. That’s what you are.” He stood up from his lawn chair. The man was a good four or five inches taller than Lee. He walked over and shook Lee’s hand, then clapped him on the shoulder. “I’d be honored if you’d stay and have lunch with us.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Lee said. “I really do. But I can’t.”
“Well, give it some thought. My name’s Tradd. Tradd Mentzel. Maybe you’d like a beer. I’ve got some Buds in the cooler.”
“It’s a little early for beer,” Lee said. “But I would be very grateful if you’d give me a glass of that lemonade.” And the thought of the lemonade did make Lee grateful: He was dehydrated after his long run through the woods.
“You got it, Lee McCabe!” Tradd said. “Jenny, how about getting Mr. McCabe a cup of lemonade.”
Tradd’s recognition of Lee—and his identification as a war hero—had resulted in an immediate change of his status within the family group. He had gone from interloper to honored guest. Even Jenny was regarding him favorably now. She wasted no time in lifting herself from her lawn chair to search for a drinking cup among the family’s belongings. The children stirred from their chairs as well. The entire family was suddenly on their feet.
“Make it a big cup, Jenny,” Tradd said to his wife. “Lee here looks like he’s about ready to die of thirst. Use one of the big red tumblers.”
Lee expressed more thanks, and then Tradd said: “I was very sorry to hear about your mother. I know it was a few years ago; but well—please accept my condolences.”
“Thank you,” Lee said.
“How old was she?” Tradd asked gently.
“Forty-two.” In that instant Lee recalled the last time he had seen his mother: She had been a small woman to begin with, and the cancer had wasted her away to a state of emaciation. At five-foot-four, she had weighed eighty-two pounds when she died. Lee remembered her staring back at him on that last day in the hospital, barely conscious in the last stages of her disease—and they had filled her with painkillers as well.
“She was a wonderful woman,” Tradd said. “She used to babysit my older brother way back when. I’ve heard nothing but good things about her.”
Lee could not think of a suitable response. Talking about his parents was, for him, a bit like talking about the war. It was a subject that he didn’t like to discuss—least of all with people whom he did not know well.
Since his mother had died, he had often heard remarks like that: about how wonderful she had been. No one had ever said as much about his father. Tom McCabe had been born in nineteen sixty-four. Tall and good-looking, he had been a notorious ladies’ man throughout most of the nineteen eighties. You’ve got your father’s good looks, an aunt of Lee’s used to say when he was an adolescent. Her tone was not complimentary, as if a resemblance to his father was not an entirely good thing. Never mind that his father had been so popular with the girls.
Lee’s mother had certainly been taken with Tom McCabe—even though they had split up shortly after Lee was born. Throughout Lee’s growing up years, when she had been a single mother in her twenties—and then in her thirties—there had been no other serious love interests. Lee could not recall her going on many dates, nor even talking to other men on many occasions.
Lee realized that his mother had been waiting—hoping—for a fairytale reconciliation. One day your father will settle down, she used to say. He’ll grow up. Then you’ll see: we’ll be a real family yet.
That had been the catechism of Lee’s childhood and adolescence. Then one evening his father had run a red light after consuming enough alcohol to intoxicate two men. His car plowed into the grill of a semi at sixty miles per hour. Thus ended the life of Tom McCabe, and Lori McCabe’s hope of the fairytale ending.
Snap out of it, Lee thought. You don’t have the time or the latitude to be sorting out your childhood right now.
Jenny was pouring him a generous portion of lemonade. The red tumbler was in fact large, as Tradd had promised. Lee accepted the cup with a nod and smile, wondering how fast he dared drink it. He couldn’t afford to linger; but the lemonade would provide much needed energy and hydration.
“Zack, this man here is a war hero,” Tradd said, addressing his son.
Lee took a long drink of lemonade, and in that instant little Zack darted out of his field of vision. His next words turned Lee’s bowels to ice.
“He must be a soldier, Dad. Look—he’s even got a gun!”
Zack was behind Lee now and slightly off to the side. He was pointing at the shape of Lee’s .45 in the small of his back.
“What are you talking about, Zack? Don’t fib or I’ll have to tan your hide. And didn’t your mother and I tell you that it’s impolite to point?”
“He’s not lying,” Lee said. He had just thought of another way out. It might work. He had a gun. Tradd had a gun. Nothing unusual there. So what?
“I saw a wild dog around my campsite this morning. It looked mean. I’ve been carrying this pistol around just in case.”
Tradd nodded. “Got to watch those strays,” he said. Something about his tone—and the expression on his face—suggested that he was not wholly convinced by Lee’s explanation. Lee couldn’t blame him. From Tradd’s perspective, Lee thought, this scenario didn’t entirely add up. A man comes out of the woods into your family’s campsite, dirty and disheveled. Next you discover that he’s carrying a gun.
Then they were all distracted by the sound of electronic chimes playing the William Tell Overture. Tradd reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a cell phone.
“My sister,” he said, examining the number on the screen. “Hold on a sec, okay?”
Tradd put the cell phone up to his ear. “Yep. No, I haven’t heard…” And now a shadow of real concern darkened his face. “At that trailer park?....How many killed?....Who would…?”
He stared directly at Lee. They locked eyes. Then Tradd dropped his stare as if nothing had happened. He made a great show of not looking at Lee.
“Well, okay, sis. Thanks for telling me,” Tradd said. “Say hi to the kids for me, too.” Tradd closed the cell phone and pocketed it.
“Would you excuse me for a minute, Mr. McCabe? I’ll be right back.” Tradd swallowed awkwardly, then turned on his heels and spun in the direction of the camper. He was making a beeline not for the door, but for the high-powered rifle.
“Stop,” Lee said.
Little Zack cried out and Jenny gasped.
When Tradd turned back around, halfway to the camper, Lee was holding the .45 at waist level. “Step away from that gun.”
Damn it! Lee thought. Standing here before this family, the gun felt like a diseased and filthy thing in his hand. He tried to reconcile this feeling with the realization that there had been no other choice: Tradd paused and looked guiltily back at his firearm. He had been going for the rifle. That would have meant another set of unworkable alternatives: Maybe Tradd was planning on making a citizen’s arrest, and maybe he was—in the heat and fear of the moment—planning to simply gun down the murder suspect who had come among his family under false pretenses.
In all probability, it would have been a gunfight—a gunfight that the father of two would surely have lost.
Lee had not ordered Tradd to raise his hands, but he raised them nonetheless. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Please don’t hurt my family, McCabe. Oh, God, if you hurt my family I swear I’ll track you down and I’ll kill you, marine or not, I’ll-”
“Shut up!” Lee snapped. “I’m not going to hurt anyone. I haven’t hurt anyone, though someone’s obviously given you the idea that I’ve killed some folks.” He turned to Jenny: “Bring your kids and stand over there by your husband.”
Jenny was trembling. She did not move.
“Do what he says, Jenny!” Tradd said.
Jenny summoned the kids to her in a series of frantic, whispered words. There were tears in her voice. The daughter started crying; and little Zack—who had been so interested in Lee’s gun a moment ago—was now whimpering softly.
The entire family was huddled together. Tradd was doing his best to look brave but he made a poor job of it.
I mean them no harm but I feel like a son-of-a-bitch, Lee thought. He wondered how many times this scene had played out during the Sunni-Shiite violence and sundry internecine bloodshed that had so plagued the American occupation of Iraq: A man holding a gun on unarmed civilians—men, women and children.
He knew that his intentions were nothing like that; but he could not ignore the analogy. Tradd, Jenny, and their two children were obviously terrified, wondering what was going to happen next.
“Listen,” Lee said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I simply couldn’t let you grab that gun. That’s all.”
Lee walked over to the rifle where it stood leaning against the side of the camper. He plucked it away with his left hand.
“I’m going to take your gun,” he explained. “But I’m not stealing it. I’ll place it somewhere in the grass back there.” Lee gestured to the grassy field between the pond and the woods. “You’ll be able to find it. Do you understand?”
Tradd nodded. A response seemed to be beyond Jenny’s capabilities at the moment. The children continued their sobbing.
“Now I want you all to turn around.” Lee said.
“You’re going to shoot us in the back!” Jenny said.
“No I’m not. If I was planning to shoot you, I would have done it by now. Just do as I say.”
Tradd grabbed his wife’s shoulder in remonstrance. “Do as he says, Jenny. Come on.”
Lee was looking at the backs of the family. A family that had been enjoying a pleasant Saturday morning at a campground until he had crossed their path.
“Count until one hundred before you turn around,” Lee said, as he backed away, holding the .45 in his right hand and Tradd’s high-powered rifle in his left.
The family kept their backs turned to Lee while he departed. He did not want to look at them, but it was necessary. Tradd might attempt to rush him when his guard was down. Some men were like that, Lee knew. They had a childlike obsession with being heroes; and they could not resist the doomed, heroic gesture—even if it would serve no purpose.
Once back in the field on the other side of the pond, Lee laid the rifle down in the grass.
Little Zack furtively turned around and spied Lee hunkered down near the ground. Lee smiled and waved at the boy: He did not want Zack to be emotionally scarred by what had occurred here this morning, though he knew that the boy would never forget the strange man who had come from the forest bearing not gifts but a gun.
Zack did not return the wave or the smile. He turned his back on Lee again, and wrapped his arms around his mother.
Back into the woods again. Lee had no idea where he was going now—except that he was still traveling south. It would be about noon: He allowed himself a brief glance upward and saw that the sunlight filtering through the tree leaves was intense, burning the outlines of branches into negative images across his retinas.
Perhaps he had made a mistake in leaving Tradd’s gun where the young father could find it. Tradd might be tracking a short distance behind him even now, as the law was surely tracking him.
He passed a deer blind that was suspended about a foot off the ground. There would be no hunters in June but the deer blind spooked him nonetheless: It reminded him of a machine gun pillbox on four wooden legs: He imagined Sheriff Phelps taking aim at him, sliding a rifle out from the wooden structure’s firing slit.
Was the image a premonition? Was that how this was all going to end? A bird darted across a shaft of sunlight in the middle of the trail and Lee started, expecting Tradd or Sheriff Phelps or perhaps someone else.
Calm down, he told himself. You have to think. You have to get your wits about you.
Lee also found that he was haunted by the parting look that the boy, Zack, had given him. He pictured the young boy telling his grandchildren about the incident someday, the way that old-timers sometimes told stories about chance encounters with famous outlaws from the 1920s. He knew that he was no John Dillinger or Baby Face Nelson; and at this exact hour much of the county still regarded him as a war hero. But that collective opinion of him would surely change—just as Tradd’s opinion of him had shifted in the flicker of an instant. The false accusations and the circumstantial evidence would be enough to damn him in most people’s minds.
Whatever Lee’s true motivations, whatever the truth of what had happened in the trailer, the young father would recall only one fact: that Lee had held a gun on him and, by extension, his family. And when the law learned of the incident it would only add to the weight of his apparent guilt. He was going to end up dead or behind bars—and probably dead—through a series of his own miscalculations and plain bad luck.
The trail descended and rose again and the woods abruptly ended. Beyond the woods was not the uncut meadow or cultivated field that he might have expected, but a stripped landscape of dirt and uprooted trees. The land had been cleared in a wide semicircle, and the uncomfortable fantasy of being an outlaw in the woods gave way to an even more uncomfortable reality: He was an outlaw in the open daylight.
Lee heard the sounds of the heavy equipment before he saw the men working: A county work crew was adding an extension to Route 257: The new road would pass by the campground where Lee had been an unwelcome guest at the campsite of Tradd and his family.
He sensed that he was walking into a bad situation; but once again going back the way he had come was not an option. Lee walked forward, trying his best to appear nonchalant, hoping that he would be able to make his way without attracting attention. It was a hope that soon proved futile.
“Hey, you can’t cut through here!” the leader of the work crew shouted at Lee above the rumbling of a road grader. He was in his early fifties and he had a considerable paunch. He badly needed a shave and a cigarette dangled from his lips. The crew leader had been talking to the crewman operating the grader when he noticed Lee. The massive yellow machine was about to transform a strip of this bumpy field into a more level surface that would become the next increment of the Route 257 extension. Black smoke belched from the machine’s vertical exhaust pipe.
The crew leader signaled for the crewman operating the road grader to hold on for a moment. He came jiggling over to Lee, shaking his head and muttering beneath his breath—no doubt cursing this fool who didn’t have the sense to stay away from a construction site.
“You can’t cut through here!” the crew leader said. He was close enough for Lee to smell the man’s sweat and the cigarette.
The .45 was tucked in the waistband of Lee’s pants at the small of his back. Lee did not think that any of the county work crew members were close enough to notice the outline of the gun beneath his shirt. But they were pausing their tasks and gawking now, as men engaged in tedious work will do in the presence of any unexpected diversion.
“I’ll stay away from the equipment,” Lee said. He knew that these words would not placate the man even before they were out of his mouth.
“No, you don’t understand,” the crew leader said. “This is a restricted area. You get hurt here and the county is liable. That would mean my ass and probably my job. I’m not going to lose my job because some fella wants to take a hike through the woods.”
“I’m just passing through,” Lee said.
The operator of the road grader had now killed the engine of his machine and was climbing down from the cab.
The crew boss removed his cigarette from his mouth, turned his head and spat in the dirt. “I can’t let you through here. Look—we’ve got pits and trip hazards all over the place. This is a dangerous area.”
I’ve witnessed a double murder, for which I’m now on the run, and this guy wants me to concern myself with “trip hazards” Lee thought.
Nevertheless, Lee was now facing a potential confrontation with two men, as the crewman from the road grader was beginning to walk toward him. He was a large man who looked like he had a temper—the sort of guy who regularly engaged in knock-down-drag-out bar fights on Friday nights—just for fun.
“What’s the matter, dude? You hard a hearin’?” the road grader driver called out. “You’re in a restricted area.”
A few more exchanges of words and there might be a real confrontation, Lee realized. He had the .45 of course, and the crew boss would back down in an instant if he saw it. But that would expose his presence to yet another set of witnesses. And the crewman from the road grader might call Lee’s bluff. Some men were daring and stupid enough to charge a loaded firearm.
“Tell me where I can go,” Lee said.
“Now that’s the spirit,” the crew boss said. “You got two choices: Go back in the direction you came from, or take that road outta here.” He jabbed a thumb toward a gently declining hill at the edge of the construction area. Lee could see pavement through the breaks in the trees.
Since Lee could not retrace his steps in the direction of Tradd, he would have to go down the hill, then.
He eased his way backward, taking short steps so that he would not take a pratfall and then roll down the hill. The road crew probably interpreted this maneuver as fear of an attack. In reality, this was the only way Lee could keep them from seeing the .45.
“Show’s over!” the crew boss shouted to his subordinates, seeing that Lee was going. “Back to work!”
Lee walked through a short band of trees and undergrowth and came out on a two-lane highway. His first impulse was to head for the grassy expanse on the opposite side of the road. Another forest lay beyond it.
Then he heard the thucka-thucka of the helicopter.
For Lee the sound of helicopters would forever have an association with Iraq, But the helicopter was no Marine Corps bird. This was a Kentucky State Police helicopter. It was making wide circles across the fields and forests, following a general trajectory down the highway.
Perhaps Phelps had not pursued him into woods, after all. The sheriff had chosen to work smart rather than hard. Lee could appreciate the reasoning of his adversary. The sheriff would have looked more heroic if he had engaged in a foot chase. But that would have ultimately been fruitless. Lee was both younger and fitter. He had had a head start on the lawman. Phelps had no doubt taken these factors into account. He was thinking strategically rather than emotionally.
And now Lee had to control his own emotions if he intended to keep his life and his freedom.
There would be two men—possibly three—circling above him in the helicopter. He imagined them looking down on him through a pair of binoculars. Yes, that’s the man, they would be saying. He’s the one who killed those two people in that trailer.
If he fled across the field into the woods, he would draw the helicopter down upon him. A lone man racing across an empty field would not go unnoticed from their vantage point. They would descend upon him and call in more units and drive him into a noose.
Nor could he go back the way he came. And yet, he would draw attention if he merely walked down the highway.
A short ways down the road was a feed and agricultural supply store. Surely the general citizenry would not be alerted of his fugitive status yet. He could go in there and mill about for five or ten minutes, pretending to be another shopper. By that time the helicopter would be gone.
The aircraft made another circle in the general area above him. Had he already caught their attention?
He began to walk toward the agricultural supply store, his steps as deliberate and natural as he could manage them. There was a sign in the parking lot that advertised special pricing on herbicides. Another sign declared a deal on a device that captured carpenter bees.
Lee was within a few yards of the parking lot when he realized that the .45 was still jammed in his belt.
A pickup truck rolled past him from behind, slowed, and idled into the parking space near the front entrance of the store. What a damn fool he had been; the gun would have been in clearly visible from the front seat of the truck. Lee was lucky if the driver had not seen it, in fact; hopefully he had not been paying attention.
A sunburned man clad in jeans, a stained tee shirt, and John Deere cap climbed out of the parked pickup truck and walked through the front entrance of the supply store without giving Lee so much as a glance. He had been lucky; but he had to do something about the gun before another vehicle drove past.
The sound of the helicopter’s engine seemed to grow louder as it roared overhead again. He risked a brief glance at the sky: The chopper was moving away from him now, though he knew it would circle back, sweeping the area in a series of wide, gradually shifting arcs.
There was a culvert at the edge of the parking lot. Lee did his best to ascertain that no one was watching him. Then reached behind his back and removed the gun from his belt. He knelt and pretended to tie one of his boot strings. He slid the gun into the mouth of the drainage pipe, and pushed it far enough into the corrugated steel opening so that no one would notice it.
Then he stood up. The police helicopter was growing louder again. Hopefully the men above him had not noticed the lone figure stooping to push an object into a drainage pipe.
Lee crammed his hands into his pockets and walked toward the main entrance of the store. Two other shoppers walked past him, exiting the store: one with a bag of seed slung over his shoulder, another carrying a newly purchased shovel and hoe. Neither man was familiar.
The automatic glass door slid open and Lee stepped into the air-conditioned interior. The floors were bare concrete and the main area of the store was a maze of pallets: Many of the items that farmers bought were packaged in bulky sacks, bundles, and buckets. The pallets were stacked waist-high or shoulder-high. Along the outer perimeter of the main room were shelves of smaller items: hand tools and containers of insecticide, work gloves and spare parts for farm equipment.
At the back of the customer area was a television mounted near the ceiling on a steel frame. A group of three men and one woman were gathered around the set.
I need to kill about five or ten minutes in here, Lee thought. Just enough time for the police helicopter to move on. Lee prayed that none of the shoppers would recognize him. Of course, he had many friends and acquaintances in the county, and his picture had recently been in the paper following his return from Iraq.
Lee buried his face in a newspaper-sized promotional circular that was lying on an adjacent stack of boxes. The boxes contained a chemical fertilizer that was—according to the words printed on the cardboard—specially formulated for use on soybeans. The circular had been printed by the Burpee seed company.
He pretended to divide his attention between the circular and the television set. This strategy, he decided, would make him less noticeable than a deliberate and obvious effort at seclusion. He stood just outside the gaggle of shoppers watching the television.
The broadcast was a news magazine talk show of some sort. The show’s host was interviewing a middle-aged, bearded author. When the camera panned on the interview subject, the man’s name and source of distinction were identified by electronically generated letters: “Brett St. Croix, author of The Death Factory: How the U.S. Military Turns American Youths into Killers”
The interview had apparently been underway for a while, and St. Croix was in the middle making a particular argument.
“Militant Islam is nothing more than a reaction against Western interventionism!” St. Croix declared. The camera angle shifted from the author and the host to the studio audience. The author’s comments elicited a few groans from the crowd—but these groans were drowned out by a larger volume of cheers. “And we shouldn’t be intervening in the Middle East!”
Lee was in no mood for politics at the moment; but he found himself, ironically, welcoming the distraction from his more immediate predicament.
By God, I agree with you, Lee thought, repeating the author’s last statement in his own mind. Though for an entirely different set of reasons.
Hawkins County was red-blooded patriot territory; but Lee knew that the war in Iraq had been less than popular in many quarters of the country at large. He had seen the protesters on television and on the Internet. In fact, he had watched more than a few news reports of these protests while in Iraq. There was a television in the rec room of the fortified compound that had been his home in Iraq. On more than one occasion, he had subjected himself to the irony of these televised protests against the war, only hours or minutes before the Marine Corps subjected him to the real thing.
The protesters don’t get it, Lee thought. Even when they are right, they are right by accident.
There were perspectives on militant Islam and great power intervention that the media mostly chose to ignore. Lee remembered one particular Iraqi village that he and his fellow marines had entered during an anti-insurgent sweep. They had found no al-Qaeda in the village; but they had found something else that made Lee question the ultimate success and meaning of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
In the center of the village a group of men had been gathered around the body of teenaged girl. Her arms were bound around her waist. To Lee’s horror, the girl had been buried up to her waist in the sand so that the men could more easily pelt her to death with rocks.
The girl had already been dead by the time the marines arrived. The village men were in the last stages of their rock-throwing. A few members of Lee’s squad had fired in the air to make them stop. The marine interpreter had shouted at the male villagers, demanding an explanation.
There was much shouting, and more than a few threats hurled in both directions. Gradually the story came together. The sixteen-year-old girl had been married off to a man three times her age. Her father had wanted a choice patch of land that belonged to the prospective groom, who already had two middle-aged wives and four children who were older than his new bride.
Apparently the young girl had been quite beautiful, and she had attracted many admirers. Trouble had arisen when the girl’s husband had decided that she was too flirtatious with a young man in the village. Nothing had ever been proven; but there were damning accusations. The young man had fled one night in terror. The girl had remained to face the summary justice of the Quran. Her father and her estranged husband were among the men who had thrown the stones.
There was nothing about the girl that looked flirtatious or beautiful now, with half of her torso buried in the sand, her hair matted with blood, her face a mass of contusions.
Is this the society that we are fighting to preserve? Lee had thought, as he looked at the smashed concavity that had once been the nose of the young girl. Is this what I am risking my life for?
Standing in the feed store now, Lee recalled the dark, violent impulse that had seized him in that moment, as he had looked from the crushed, swollen face of the teenage girl to the sullen faces of her male executioners. He had wanted to gun down all of those men who had thrown the stones, to slaughter them in a righteous fury of the Old Testament variety. In the end he had restrained himself; but there had been moments since then when he had wished he had killed them—every last one of them.
These reminiscences came to an abrupt stop when there was a sudden change in the programming. The talk show was interrupted by a news bulletin.
Lee didn’t wait to hear if the news broadcaster mentioned his name, or to see if they flashed a photo of him across the screen. No doubt that would come with time. He turned as soon as soon as he heard the words “multiple shootings” and the name of the trailer park.
On the way out he bumped into a man who looked familiar. He greeted Lee with a smile. “Say aren’t you?” he began—for this man had not seen the images on the television.
Lee nodded and brushed past him, then out the main entrance of the store. He scanned the sky: there was no helicopter in the burnt blue haze, and its sound was gone as well.
He knelt by the culvert and quickly pulled the gun from the drainage pipe. He shoved it into his belt and stepped onto the two-lane highway. There was the screech of brakes, and a horn blared. Lee leapt aside as the driver of an old Ford Mustang shook his fist and accelerated again. Watch where the hell you’re going he shouted, mouthing the words through his windshield as Lee, more than a little dazed, silently stared back at him.
Hal Marsten pulled the curtains of his kitchen window back a few inches. He saw Sheriff Phelps and his deputy talking to some of his neighbors. They did not notice him looking—which was just fine with him. The other residents of the Tradewinds were obsessed with the violent events that had occurred less than an hour ago.
But he was the only one who had actually seen the shootings.
Hal Marsten spent a lot of time watching the world through his window. He had never been much of talker. Tense social situations made him anxious. Sometimes his neighbors made him anxious—they way they looked at him and asked him awkward questions. Often it wasn’t the spoken questions themselves, but the subtext behind them that made him nervous. For example, when they said, “Watcha doin’ Hal?” they really meant: “How come you live all alone, Hal?” “How come you don’t have a wife or girlfriend at the age of fifty-one?” The years had made him an expert at deciphering these meanings.
Women had always made him anxious. Especially the much younger ones—like Jody White, the young woman who had lived with Tim Fitzsimmons. Why would she take up with a guy like that? Hal asked himself. On a few occasions he had dared to nod hello to Jody White, but most of the time he averted his glance when she came into his range of vision. Where Jody was, Tim Fitzsimmons was never far behind; and Hal could tell that Tim was a mean one. He glared at you like he would just as soon kill you as say hello.
Hal knew that men like that were best avoided. Trouble was best avoided. If you avoided trouble, you could keep things simple, and people would leave you alone. Most of the time.
This morning, though, Hal had seen some real trouble. He had seen the four armed men enter the trailer across the road. He had seen the struggle that had ensued after they burst inside. The way they grabbed Tim Fitzsimmons as he was trying to run away, and without so much as saying another word they shot him in the head. He wasn’t sorry to see them kill Tim Fitzsimmons—not really, being the sort of man that he obviously was. But then they shot Jody once in the face and once in the abdomen. He figured that they had probably shot Tim Fitzsimmons because of a dispute over drugs—but why did they have to go and shoot Jody, too? Why the hell would anyone—even bad men—do a damned thing like that?
He stepped away from his window and slid into a chair at his kitchen table. The buzz of voices went on unabated outside. He stared at his hands and saw that they were trembling. This was all too much. Things had happened too fast for him to process.
He didn’t know why he had failed to speak for Lee McCabe when the young man called to him. A part of him wanted to come to ex-marine’s rescue, to tell his neighbors what he had seen—that McCabe was completely innocent and had had no part in the killings.
But then he had felt his chest seize up and his throat go dry. A dozen little scenarios began running through his head: What if his neighbors laughed at him, as his grade school and high school classmates so often said. (Good God, Hal was thankful that those days were long in the past.) What if they challenged him, calling him a liar? Then he might end up in a world of trouble along with McCabe.
Well, maybe that last thought was far-fetched—and maybe it wasn’t. But he couldn’t take any chances right now. Lee McCabe might have problems, but he wasn’t the only one. Hal had a big problem of his own—and it wouldn’t go away, no matter what happened to Lee McCabe.
His eyes darted to the telephone mounted into the kitchen wall near his refrigerator. (Hal Marsten did not own a cell phone. He did not make or receive enough calls to justify the expense.) And he thought about his mother: The only person who had ever been nice to him.
Hal’s father had taken off when he was two years old. He had no memory of the man. His parents were both originally from Arkansas—so he had never gotten to know his extended relatives. And after the hell of his school years, he had never overcome his social anxiety to make many friends or acquaintances in the world at large.
It was only him and Momma. And soon that might be at an end. It would be only him—alone against the world.
He paused to consider the enormity of this and he decided: Someone else would tell the police about the armed men. Someone else would have to take care of the matter for Lee McCabe.
Mamma was in the hospital. Not just the local hospital in Perryston, but the big university hospital in Lexington. She was in her early eighties now, and the doctors had been warning her for years about her bad habits: She ate too much salt and too many sweets. Worst of all, she smoked. A whole pack of Virginia Slims each day. Sometimes a pack and a half.
He felt a warm, familiar shape brush up against his calf. It was Bullet, the neutered tomcat that he shared the trailer with. Well, he thought ironically, I guess I do have one additional friend: The cat had been very loyal—and Bullet, unlike people, never asked him awkward questions or stared back at him in a way that made him self-conscious and uncomfortable. The cat nuzzled against his leg again and he rewarded it by leaning over to rub the soft, silky hair on the feline’s head.
Yes, he had plenty to manage without becoming involved in this trouble.
At the same time, though, he knew what Mamma would say. If she were here and in better health, advising him, she would tell him to overcome his fears and talk to the police. You’ve got to find the courage to do what’s right, Hal, she always said. And he had to grudgingly admit that this would indeed be the right thing to do. The ex-marine was in a real predicament. A word from Hal might be enough to save him—if no one laughed at Hal or accused him of telling tall tales to get attention
It was a real dilemma, and Hal sorely wished that the matter would all simply go away. He was too worried about Mamma. And getting involved in trouble would only lead to more trouble. Wasn’t that the way things usually worked? Hadn’t his fifty-one years taught him that he could best avoid problems by maintaining a low profile—by keeping to himself?
Hal had nothing against the young man who had gone to investigate the shootings in the trailer. (He couldn’t help thinking, though, that Lee McCabe was at least partially responsible for his own predicament.) But he did not want Lee McCabe’s problems to become his own.
He had to keep his priorities straight. Mamma needed him right now.
She needed him more than Lee McCabe ever would.
After dodging the Mustang, Lee loped into the field on the other side of the road. The driver of the Mustang had stopped again and was shouting curses, yelling for Lee to come back.
Lee had doubly offended the man, apparently: First he had stepped into the Mustang’s way, and then he had turned his back on the driver’s shouts of confrontation.
He was dimly aware of the car accelerating again, the roar of all eight cylinders accentuating its driver’s anger. People were like that: They might be spoiling for a fight—but not badly enough to chase a man across a field.
As he ran through the high grass, he did not bother to look behind him. He knew that he would attract attention out in the open. People did not normally exit stores and then arbitrarily head for vacant land. If any customers in the parking lot had noticed him, he had no doubt aroused their suspicions. There was nothing that could be done about it.
A cluster of trees beckoned him, promising at least temporary cover. He permitted himself a brief glance upward just before he completed the final running steps into the shelter of the massive, grey-brown trunks. The helicopter might circle back at any moment, after all.
But for now he had outwitted his pursuers. He did notice a vulture gliding silently overhead, scanning the field and the highway for its rancid nourishment. While the carrion-feeder’s significance of an omen was obvious, he forced himself to dismiss it.
This was too much—to be hunted from the air as well as from the ground. In Iraq the enemy had not possessed helicopters. All aircraft had been friendly. On numerous occasions help had in fact arrived from the skies. This was a new feeling—to fear the sky and a mechanical bird of prey that was stalking him there.
This was not a trail through a great woods, but merely a belt of forest between two areas of cleared land. Lee had to navigate his way through a nasty patch of thorns that were flourishing in the undergrowth. He broke through the briars and his right foot came down on a pile of sticks. One of the sticks bolted and slithered quickly away in a zigzagging pattern. He had disturbed a black snake.
Lee was not afraid of snakes; and the non-venomous reptile might even be a favorable omen—certainly a more auspicious one than the vulture.
Immediately beyond the trees he came to a fence that consisted of three horizontal strands of rusted steel wire strung between rotting wood posts. Thankfully the landowner who had erected the fence some decades ago had not thought to use barbed wire.
As he grabbed a fence post and hoisted one leg over the wire, he was all the more aware of his vulnerability. He had heard that a lot of men had been killed in battle while climbing over fences in fields such as this one—though probably in those days they would have been made of split rails rather than rusted wire.
He was thinking not of Iraq this time, but of a more chronologically distant conflict: During the War between the States the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Ohio had briefly clashed in Hawkins County. Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Union counterpart, Major General Don Carlos Buell, had each been tasked with taking the area for their respective sides. There had been a series of skirmishes nearby that local residents still referred to as the Battle of Perryston. Lee had heard that it was still possible to find the occasional Minié ball in the forest, though he had never met anyone who actually claimed to have come across one.
Lee had barely touched ground on the other side of the fence when a shot rang out. He instinctively hit the ground, his chest pressed into the warm grass.
Then he realized that the shot had been fired several miles away, and it had probably not been fired in anger. An off-season hunter maybe, or a farmer shooing deer or vermin away from his field.
There was no danger from the shot but he was faced with yet another empty field and yet another road beyond it. Lee stayed down while a pickup truck passed along what he believed to be Route 168. Despite the wide open view the field afforded, the highway was a good distance away. The driver did not appear to have noticed him; the truck continued to chug away. Lee could hear its thirty-year-old engine rattle.
And then, overhead, he heard the thucka-thucka of the state police helicopter.
Would this never end? Lee pressed his body against the ground, knowing that his prone position really gave him no protection from the men in the helicopter. If they flew directly over him, they would easily spot him.
The sound of the helicopter’s engine and turning rotor grew closer. At least his tee shirt was a drab color. But would that really offer him any protection? He lay perfectly still, and even held his breath, convinced that his flight from the state was about to come to an end.
His present situation reminded him of one occasion in Iraq. He had been separated from his unit during a firefight in a little town seventy kilometers west of Baghdad. For more than two hours Lee had crouched behind the demolished façade of a clay brick building. The building had been a store of some sort before a tank round or a mortar had destroyed it. Lee deduced this fact from the remnants of merchandise he had noticed in the rubble: candy bars smashed to shapeless masses of stiff, hardened brown goo, punctured cola cans, and shattered CD cases.
On the other side of the street, two young men—Lee did not know if they had been al-Qaeda jihadis or Iraqi fedayeen—had been firing at him from the second-story windows of a fully intact building. The fighters appeared to be even younger than he was, probably no older than sixteen or seventeen.
Lee later concluded that the Arab fighters had not realized their advantage. Lee had been the only U.S. Marine in a three-block area. If they had grasped the degree of his isolation, the fighters could have descended from their perch and attacked him from two opposing positions, enveloping Lee in crossfire that would have been virtually inescapable.
But the two young men in the plaid headscarves had remained in the building across the street. They were able to pin Lee down but they were unable to sight him for a direct shot. Apparently they had possessed no RPGs either. So they had fired almost randomly into the rubble of the demolished store, hoping for a lucky ricochet. Lee, meanwhile, made his body small against the cover of the rubble, radioed for help, and returned fire conservatively: his ammunition had been running low.
Help had finally arrived in the form of a light armored vehicle equipped with a 25-millimeter Bushmaster chain gun. When he saw the LAV, Lee knew that the fight was all but over, and his life was no longer forfeit. The LAV’s cannon took out the front wall of the building that sheltered the two Arab fighters. The young men’s bodies fell to the street in a shower of brown, dusty debris.
In the present circumstances, Lee was even more isolated than he had been that day in Iraq. Today there were no fellow marines to come to his aid. Having landed himself on the wrong side of the law, he had more in common with the two young men in the plaid headscarves than he did with his former comrades-in-arms.
Miraculously, the helicopter veered east rather than passing directly over him. He watched its tail rotor disappear over a high, thickly wooded knob of a hillside. But the helicopter would be back.
There was a simple way of ending this. He could hike back to town now, walk into Phelps’s office, and turn himself in. Phelps wasn’t going to shoot him, after all. He would be treated humanely, in accordance with the law. Yes, he would lose his freedom—for a while. But what choice did he really have?
There would be an investigation, of course. Forensics teams would comb the trailer for fingerprints and fiber samples. With all Fitzsimmons’s drug-related traffic, that would result in a list of dozens of unidentified visitors. Would that help him or damn him? He didn’t know.
The inevitable ballistics test was also an open question. The shots that killed Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White would not be traced to Lee’s .45; but how could Lee prove that he had not discarded the actual murder weapon after fleeing the trailer park?
There were so many angles and directions that an investigation could follow; and he knew next to nothing about actual police procedure. He couldn’t possibly figure it all out.
He removed his cell phone from his pants pocket and dialed the emergency number for the Hawkins County police department. He still recalled the number from his childhood. He had memorized it when he was nine years old, as part of a fourth grade exercise in local citizenship.
He was about to push the cell phone’s send button when he heard the police siren.
Deputy Ron Norris’s patrol car sped along Route 168, heading south, in the general direction of the town of Blood Flats—a little burg that lay within the orbit of the county seat of Perryston. In the nineteenth century Blood Flats had been home to a substantial meatpacking industry, and the smell of blood had been said to hang in the vacant fields near the slaughterhouse district, filling the countryside with a charnel stink. Hence the name. But by 1880 competition from the meatpackers in Cincinnati had been too severe. The slaughterhouses had left Blood Flats but the name had stayed. Then a few decades later the Cincinnati houses had themselves been bankrupted by meatpackers in Chicago—proving perhaps, that nothing of this world lasts forever.
The thought of Blood Flats made Norris’s field of vision turn red; and this was no play on the town’s name. In one way or another, Blood Flats was the source of all his troubles, the reason for the task that lay before him. Or rather, his problem was one man who polluted Blood Flats with his very presence.
Norris knew the woods into which Lee McCabe had escaped; he had hunted and fished in those same woods numerous times since childhood. If Lee behaved like the typical fugitive, Norris would have a chance of intercepting him. True—it was a long shot. But he could either try to capture McCabe, or he could simply stand around and wait for his entire life to implode.
How many hours had passed since Norris and Phelps had first arrived at the Tradewinds earlier that morning? Norris wasn’t sure. From the beginning, though, he could sense that his boss was out of his depth in this case. Norris realized that he was edgy himself; but he had damned good reason to be edgy, didn’t he?
Midway through the second witness interview, Phelps had seemed to realize that the good citizens of Hawkins County would feel reassured if a police car was out looking for Lee McCabe—even if it was only burning gas. A double homicide had taken place, after all. So he had told Norris to make a run of the roads in the direction that Lee had fled.
Norris had eagerly agreed. And for once, he was not disturbed by Phelps’s incompetence—by the fact that he was far better suited for and more deserving of the sheriff’s office himself. For once he forgot about his lingering ambition to challenge his boss in the next election. Sheriffs in Kentucky were elected to four-year terms, and Phelps had one year to go before the next election day.
If he could get this problem sorted out, he would still have a chance of moving on, of trouncing Phelps on election day one year from now. And by then he would also find a way to take care of his Blood Flats problem.
Oh my, Ronnie boy, you’re getting ahead of yourself there, aren’t you? he thought. Norris gunned the police cruiser’s engine. The Crown Victoria P71 Police Interceptor surged to the rise of an oncoming hill that afforded poor visibility. Well, he had the sirens on, didn’t he? It was the local citizenry’s job to get of the way.
Norris knew that the average fugitive was driven by the desire to put as much distance as possible between himself and the scene of his crime. Most fugitives traveled in a more or less straight line in the direction in which they originally fled. That meant that Lee McCabe’s trajectory would likely intersect Route 168 at some point.
Norris did not know exactly where. He did not know if Lee McCabe had already passed over the road, if McCabe would behave atypically, holing up somewhere in the woods, or changing directions.
Removing one hand from the steering wheel, Norris unsnapped his holster and fingered the grip of his service-issue pistol. It was a 15-round, .40 caliber Glock 22. To date, Norris had never fired the weapon in anger. The Austrian-made pistol was a fine gun, the standard-issue weapon of thousands of law enforcement agencies throughout the world. But this was not the gun that Norris planned to use if he caught up with Lee McCabe. If he used the Glock, he would have to account for every round fired. This, too, was standard police procedure. It was one of the methods that governments everywhere employed to maintain control of their police. And the task that lay before Norris was not exactly police business.
Norris barely slowed down as he opened his glove compartment and removed another weapon—a 9 mm Beretta. He had purchased the pistol at a gun show in Tennessee several months ago. It was unregistered and untraceable.
He removed his police-issue Glock from its holster and placed it on the passenger seat beside him. Then he placed the Beretta inside the holster.
Norris took a deep breath. A part of him actually hoped that he would not find Lee McCabe, that the young man would have enough sense to stay in the woods until he could flee the county, and eventually, the state. Then he would not have to take this step. In time, perhaps McCabe would decide to spirit himself away to Mexico or Canada. The whole problem might go away, and Norris could get on with his life.
But no, that was his own foolishness talking. Sooner or later Lee McCabe was bound to be caught. And when he was finally caught, his initial interrogation would likely turn the investigation in an entirely different direction.
Lee McCabe had probably seen the men who had in fact killed Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White. Those men would inevitably be ferreted out, and then there would be more revelations. Revelations that would eventually turn Ron Norris the sheriff’s deputy into Ron Norris the convict.
He shuddered at the thought. Prison life was notoriously brutal for that handful of cops who were stupid enough to turn to crime—and then both unlucky and stupid enough to be caught. They became the immediate and constant prey of their fellow inmates. Ex-cops were given no peace if they landed in stir; they were marked for violent death the moment they were issued their orange jumpsuits and prisoner numbers.
He remembered hearing of an especially nasty case that had occurred a few years ago. A state trooper who had been caught selling stolen property had been sentenced to five years at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex. A dozen of his fellow inmates had cornered him one night and stabbed him to death with homemade shanks. The prison coroner later reported that the murdered ex-trooper had been stabbed one hundred and eight times.
Norris fingered the imitation wood grain on the grip of the Berretta as a field of soybeans flew by. He would kill himself, he decided, before he would expose himself to a fate like that. And he would kill Lee McCabe before he killed himself. He bore no particular malice toward the ex-marine. But if he had to choose between his own life and the life of McCabe, then the young man would come up short.
He happened to glance to his right, and he noticed a male figure standing in an open field. Unbelievably, it was McCabe. And McCabe did not appear to be taking any sort of evasive action at the approach of the crusier. Quite the opposite, in fact: McCabe was waving him in. The young man’s arms were raised over his head in a V-pattern. He looked vaguely like he was signaling to an airplane.
Norris couldn’t believe his luck—and he didn’t dare trust it. At the same time, the object of his pursuit was standing right in front of him. He hadn’t expected it to go down this way, but he couldn’t simply walk away from a gift that was so openly being handed to him. Didn’t he deserve a lucky break, for once?
Still, his heart pounded at the thought of what he was about to do.
“Hands up, McCabe!” Norris shouted. The command was superfluous. McCabe’s hands were up even before Norris had stepped out of his cruiser.
The deputy held the Beretta leveled at McCabe. He had not imagined the encounter taking place like this, with McCabe surrendering. Norris had imagined that McCabe would attempt to flee, or perhaps put up at least some token resistance.
“I’m surrendering,” McCabe said, confirming Norris’s impression. “I’m turning myself in.”
“Are you armed?” the deputy asked. “Don’t lie to me. I saw that gun you were carrying at the trailer park.”
“Yes,” McCabe acknowledged. “In my belt. Behind my back.”
In that instant Norris almost pulled the Beretta’s trigger. But he was profoundly disturbed by the thought of killing McCabe while the young man was looking at him. That would make it too personal, and there was really nothing personal about any of this business. Norris was simply trying to save his own life from complete and total ruination.
He knew that he could not have explained this to the young man who was standing there with his hands raised. McCabe would be bound to take it personally, and how could you blame him, really?
Norris decided that he would have to get his prisoner turned around before he shot him. But first he would have to relieve him of that gun. McCabe might figure out the score in the final seconds and draw the weapon.
Norris had no way of knowing for sure if McCabe was right-handed or left-handed—and of course he could not rely on a truthful response if he asked him. So he decided to rely on the most likely of the two: the ex-marine was probably right-handed.
“Okay, McCabe. Now I want you to use your left hand and—very slowly—I want you to reach behind your back and pull that pistol out of your pants. Drop it on the ground. Toss it away from you—to your left. Try anything—and I do mean anything—and I’ll blow a hole in you a mile wide.”
Norris watched as Lee McCabe followed his instructions to the letter. McCabe’s pistol fell into the long grass.
Norris held his own gun aloft, aimed at his prisoner’s face. McCabe stared back at him impassively.
“Now I want you to turn around. And keep your hands up, McCabe!”
McCabe seemed puzzled by the command but he complied. He probably believed that Norris was going to approach from behind and cuff him before moving him to the backseat of the cruiser. Even now, McCabe apparently had not an inkling of the truth.
Norris decided that he would put three rounds into McCabe any second now—two in the back and a final kill shot to the head. Then he would walk calmly back to his cruiser and drive away. Before he returned to his duties, he would toss the Beretta into the nearby Chickasaw Creek.
It wouldn’t take long for McCabe’s body to be found, of course. But no one would trace the shooting to him.
Norris was taking aim at the spot between Lee McCabe’s shoulder blades when the radio on his belt crackled.
“Deputy Norris—over. Pick up if you’re out there!”
Norris knew in that instant that he should disregard the radio and take McCabe down without further delay, while the young man’s back was still turned. But the sound of Sheriff Phelps’s voice rattled him. He removed the radio from his belt and pressed the transmit button.
“Norris here,” he said. He desperately hoped that the quavering in his voice was not detectable.
“Where are you, Norris? Have you seen anything?”
“That’s a negative. I’m in the woods right now—out near the Farm Pond Road. I saw some movement in the trees and I decided to check it out. But I think it may have been a false alarm. Probably just a deer.”
Norris was still holding his walkie-talkie to his mouth with one hand, the Beretta with the other, when Lee McCabe turned around. McCabe’s motion was slow and steady. He kept his hands in the air. His eyes bored into Norris.
“What are you talking about?” Lee said. McCabe had obviously overheard him lying. “The Farm Pond Road is a good five miles from here.”
“What did you say, Norris?” Phelps asked.
“Nothing. Nothing. Listen: I’m climbing through some awkward terrain right now. The reception is bad. Too much static. You’re breaking up. I’ll report in when I make it back to my cruiser, okay?”
Without waiting for a response, Norris killed the radio and replaced it on his belt clip. He motioned emphatically at McCabe with the barrel of the Beretta.
“Who told you to turn around?”
Lee McCabe ignored the question, though he kept his hands in the air. “You were lying, Deputy.” McCabe uttered the last word with more than a hint of sarcasm. “What the hell is going on?”
Do him now, a silent voice told Norris. Take him out while you still have the advantage.
“Get down on your knees, McCabe,” Norris ordered.
“Do it!” Norris screamed. “Get down on your knees!”
McCabe shook his head and complied.
“Now fold your hands behind your head!”
Once again McCabe did as he was told, though with visible reluctance. Norris noticed that his own right hand—the one that held the Beretta—was shaking.
Then he heard what sounded like the approach of a distant motor. And why not? They were beside a highway. Vehicles traveled down highways, didn’t they? Within a matter of seconds, they might not be alone anymore. If he was going to do what had to be done—then he would need to do it now.
Norris felt his nerves tingle as he tried to steady the pistol. His entire body seemed to be shaking. He squeezed the trigger once and the shot went wild. The boom reverberated like that of a cannon.
In the next instant Lee McCabe threw himself to the ground, where he quickly rolled over and retrieved his own pistol.
Norris tried to take another shot. But he could not force himself to stop shaking. He had never been in a firefight before. This was the first time he had ever fired a shot with the intention of doing harm.
Now Lee was lying on the ground in a prone shooting position, his elbows braced on the earth. Norris could look directly into the muzzle of McCabe’s pistol.
“Are you going to shoot an officer of the law?” Norris asked pleadingly, because he could think of nothing else to say.
McCabe leveled the gun at him. Norris held the Beretta at his side. He became suddenly aware of the substitute pistol, the weapon he had procured specifically for illicit violence—violence that now proved to be beyond the capacity of his nerves and experience.
“I’m going to drop my gun, McCabe,” Norris said. “Okay? I’ll drop the gun and I’ll go back to my squad car. We can both pretend this never happened.”
McCabe laughed bitterly. “Yeah, let’s forget the whole thing. I’ll forget that I’ve been made a suspect for two murders that I didn’t commit. I’ll also forget that an officer of the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department just tried to kill me in cold blood.”
“It’s more complicated than it looks, McCabe.”
“Yeah, I imagine it is. Drop the weapon, Deputy. And walk back to your squad car before I change my mind.”
Norris dropped the gun—no, flung it—away from himself. He breathed a sigh of relief for the fact that McCabe was going to let him live. And in the same instant, he realized that his larger problem persisted: McCabe would also survive this encounter; and he might live to reveal information that would bring the world crashing down on Norris’s head. This temporary reprieve meant nothing, not in the long run.
“I’m going back now,” Norris said. McCabe climbed to his feet. The aim of the pistol never wavered. Norris briefly considered rushing McCabe and immediately thought better of it: He would be dead before had taken two steps in the direction of the ex-marine.
“Turn around,” McCabe ordered him. “Walk slowly in the direction of your cruiser.”
Norris did as McCabe commanded him. He turned around and took one deliberate step after another through the ankle-high grass and weeds. Once when he quickened his pace, he heard McCabe shout, “I said slowly.” He wanted to turn around; but he knew that like Lot’s wife, he would doom himself if he did.
As the cruiser came within sprinting distance, Norris began to weigh his options. There was a shotgun in the vehicle’s gun rack, a double-action Remington 12-gauge with a 14-inch barrel. If he could simply get the weapon in his hands and get it pointed at McCabe, he couldn’t miss. Not with that gun. And he still had his Glock as a backup.
Maybe that was the best way. Engage McCabe in a firefight. The cruiser would give him adequate cover. McCabe would be stranded out in the open field.
Even as he began to formulate the rudiments of an action plan, Norris realized that the whole idea would likely lead to his own death. It was a classic catch-22: If he attempted to take McCabe in a shootout, he would probably end up dead; if McCabe escaped, his life as he knew it would be over.
Unless he saved McCabe for another day. If he waited long enough, he might be able to take another shot at McCabe—later and under different circumstances. And the next time he would not waver. Or miss.
He would have to make certain, though, that McCabe would not turn himself in to Sheriff Phelps, or any other Hawkins County sheriff’s deputy.
“Listen, McCabe!” Norris summoned all his courage and then took the biggest gamble of his life. He turned around and faced McCabe. The young fugitive held his gun outstretched in a two-handed grip.
“You are one foolhardy son-of-a-bitch,” McCabe said softly. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t shoot you now.”
“This wasn’t my idea!” Norris protested, the outlines of a plan coming together in his mind. “Sheriff Phelps put me up to it. He wants you dead, and he told me to snuff you. The sheriff threatened to kill me and every relative of mine he could find if I didn’t go through with it.”
Having committed himself to this story, Norris tried to gauge the expression on McCabe’s face to see if the young man holding the gun had taken the bait. Norris knew that there had been a history between Phelps and McCabe’s late mother, and he suspected that Phelps might be pining over the woman even now. Norris had known Lori Mills McCabe, of course, and he had never quite understood the sheriff’s preoccupation with her. She had been attractive enough, but certainly no Helen of Troy. And in the final years before the cancer took her she had looked tired, prematurely old, and world-beaten, as people often do when their expectations for their own lives go radically awry. But Phelps might have tossed him a lifeline with his old romantic obsession. Norris was willing to grasp at any straw at this point.
“Then tell me,” Lee said. “Tell me why you lied to the sheriff just now.”
Norris was barely able to choke out his response. He was transfixed by the muzzle of McCabe’s pistol, and the realization that it could bring death in an instant.
“All police broadcasts are monitored,” Norris explained unsteadily. “The sheriff told me to take care of it quietly. He wanted—what do you call it? Plausible deniability.”
He could not tell if McCabe believed him or if he recognized the lie.
Then McCabe said: “Turn around Norris. Turn around before I change my mind.”
“What?” Norris felt his knees turn to jelly. McCabe was planning to shoot him in the back. Just as he was planning to kill McCabe only a few minutes ago.
“Do it,” McCabe said. “Don’t push me, Deputy.”
Norris did as he was told.
“Now put your hands over your head and count to one hundred. Count loudly. Loud enough so that anyone within a mile could hear you.”
Still shaking, Norris began to count: “One! Two! Three! Four!”
When he reached the number twenty-eight it occurred to him that he had not heard from McCabe in a while. But then, he would have had difficulty hearing him above his own voice—unless McCabe himself was also shouting.
He stopped his count on number twenty-nine.
Norris turned around, and found himself alone in the field.
It was now mid-afternoon—the hour at which Deputy Norris customarily ate lunch—but he was not the slightest bit hungry. As he steered his cruiser through downtown Perryston, he passed the McDonald’s and the Hardee’s entrances without a second glance. All he could think about was McCabe. McCabe might as well have been sitting beside him in the cruiser’s passenger seat.
Norris could still see the mixture of astonishment and anger on the young man’s face when he had first reckoned the lie. That was before Norris had fired the wild shots and lost the physical advantage; but McCabe had actually won the encounter in that instant. The rest of their encounter had seemed almost preordained. For a moment Norris had believed that Lee was going to shoot him. Norris almost wished that McCabe had in fact pulled the trigger—a gunshot wound to the back of his head would have at least put him out of his misery.
The Beretta was hidden inside the glove compartment. Before he left the field, Norris had at least had the composure to retrieve the gun from the spot where he had dropped it. The stowed pistol seemed to mock him, reminding him of how he had failed to do what had needed to be done. He should probably dispose of the gun now, as it could be used as evidence against him. Or would it be better to keep it—just in case he had a need for it again? He wasn’t sure. Norris was used to being on the winning side of the law. He wasn’t accustomed to the thought patterns of those on the wrong side of justice.
For days his stomach had been roiling in anticipation of the Fitzsimmons hit. Now that the big event had actually occurred, his stomach felt even worse. And the one-sided gunfight with McCabe had completely unhinged him. He reached into the change tray in the cruiser’s center console for a roll of Tums. He had gone through three rolls of the damned things this previous week.
Norris had never needed antacids until a few months ago, when a smalltime hood named Lester Finn had entered his life, bearing some incriminating photographs and a fistful of demands. Since then, he had been fighting a constant war with his anxiety, which escalated into outright terror at least once daily.
He was a police officer, after all. What the hell was he doing? He was taking numerous risks—risks that he would have never even considered a few short months ago. He cringed when he thought about the potshots that he fired at Lee McCabe. And that was, arguably, not even the most reckless act he had undertaken in recent weeks.
But another way of looking at it was: What choice did he really have?
Norris drove his police cruiser east on Main Street, past Perryston’s business district. He stopped at a little park that lay on the edge of town. The park was dominated by a Civil War memorial, a bronze-plated statue of a Union soldier holding a bayoneted rifle. Kentucky had been divided territory during the war—literally brother against brother—and the legacy of this division was an abundance of Civil War memorials that exceeded the tally of any other state. Farther south, most of the state’s memorials honored the Confederates; but Perryston had been mostly Union territory.
Norris parked his vehicle and walked past the picnic tables and cinderblock bathrooms, to the edge of an encircling woods. He heard a dog barking somewhere in the distance, but there were no human voices within earshot. When he had looked in all directions and made sure that he was completely alone, he removed a cell phone from his pocket. This was not his regular cell phone, but a disposable one that he had purchased solely for his communications with Lester Finn.
He knew that Finn would probably be in his bar in Blood Flats. Conversations with the tavern owner were always unpleasant. There was no way he could avoid talking to him this time, though.
Norris dialed Finn’s number and the two-bit mobster answered on the third ring.
“Ah, my old friend Deputy Ron Norris,” Finn said, in that infuriatingly ingratiating, condescending tone of his. “Always good to hear from Hawkins County’s finest.”
“You stupid son of a bitch,” Norris responded without preamble. “Do you think that any part of this situation is funny?”
“Deputy Norris,” Finn said, the cheerfulness suddenly gone from his voice. “My mother was a God-fearing woman. You will respect her memory. You don’t have the protection of your badge anymore. You lost that the minute you took that girl into your car. Are we clear on this?”
Norris stifled an even harsher reply. He thought briefly about the girl—the one who had brought Lester Finn into his life in the first place. She had been no more than sixteen. The girl had been an unfair tactic. Her memory made his loins feel warm, even as thoughts of Lester Finn’s blackmail scheme filled him with rage.
“My apologies to the sainted Mrs. Finn,” he said. “But we have more immediate problems. Your boys botched it.”
“I don’t think so, Deputy Norris. That’s not what they told me. In and out; a clean hit.”
“No,” Norris said. He felt a rush of stomach acid surge into his lower throat. “It was not a clean hit. For starters, they killed the girl. The woman Fitzsimmons was living with. That wasn’t part of the deal, Lester. She was innocent.”
Lester laughed on the other end of the line. “Jody White was not innocent. She was involved, Deputy. She was shacking up with a known meth dealer. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she had no one to blame but herself. My men tell me that Jody White tried to pull a gun on them, and I believe them.”
“There was no gun anywhere near her body!” Norris said, in a far louder voice than caution dictated. He looked around again and verified that he was still alone. “I saw what was left of Jody White’s face after your ‘clean hit’ but I didn’t see any gun that she could have pulled on them.”
“I wasn’t there,” Finn acknowledged, as if addressing a child. “But all wars have collateral damage. This will blow over.”
“If you believe that, then you’re more deluded than I thought. It’s one thing to kill a meth-head dope peddler with a twenty-year rap sheet. But your men stepped over the line.”
“So what do you want me to do, Deputy? Resurrect the dead? Bring back Jody White?
Norris ignored the question. “And you’ve got bigger problems still.”
Finn paused. “I don’t think so. My men went in there early this morning. They assured me that no one saw them. No witnesses.”
“That’s because they didn’t see the witness. Which might be traced to the fact that you obviously hired a bunch of idiots. But he saw them, or at least he might have.”
Lester Finn now seemed genuinely interested, though he continued to preserve that devil-may-care pose of his. “And who, pray tell, is this witness—whom not one of my four men happened to see?”
“His name is Lee McCabe. A local boy. Got back from Iraq a few months ago.”
“Lee McCabe,” Lester repeated the name.
“You know him?”
“No, but I could find him if I needed to. Hawkins County is a small place.”
“You’re absolutely clueless.” Norris snorted. “Jesus, what a piece of work you are.”
“Watch it, Deputy.”
“Don’t you tell me to—”
“So where is this Lee McCabe right now?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“I mean, I have absolutely no idea. When we pulled up to Fitzsimmons’s trailer he was there. Then he took off and ran. And now half the state is looking for him.”
Norris was about to relate his subsequent encounter with McCabe but stopped himself. Nothing could be gained by telling Finn about that. In fact, Lester would probably find a way to use that knowledge to his advantage. Of course he would, Norris thought. His failed attempt on McCabe’s life raised his complicity in the murders at the trailer park to a new level.
McCabe and Lester had him completely trapped, didn’t they? Before his failed attempt on the ex-marine’s life, there had been a slight chance that Norris could have skated out of this, even if McCabe was captured, and the wanted man’s testimony uncovered his own connection to Lester Finn.
Norris figured that the photos of him and that girl would probably have come out—but that would have meant a misdemeanor at the end of the day. The rest of his involvement might have been hidden, buried—if only he had possessed the foresight to take preventative actions. How much material evidence against him had really existed, before today? It might have come down to little more than his word against the word of a small-town drug lord. Who would the system have been more likely to believe?
But now he had gone and taken a shot at Lee McCabe. That glaring mistake would be his undoing in the end.
“What did this McCabe see, Norris?” he heard Finn ask him.
But what he saw was the image of another young woman—not the young girl whom had he had been caught with, but the dead one he had seen this morning. Jody White’s death pose—her shattered jaw and gaping abdominal wound—was a madman’s movie that kept playing in his mind’s eye. He had the sudden sense that some discorporate form of Jody White was pursuing him even now, seeking vengeance for the wicked act that Norris had abetted through his own weakness and venality.
The air was simultaneously thick and short of oxygen in his lungs. Stars swam before Norris’s eyes. A mixture of terror, confusion, and self-despair closed in on him, squeezing his chest like a giant vise. It was all going to hell in a handbasket, and there seemed to be no way to halt the downward spiral.
This abundance of tension had to be directed outward. Norris’s hand tightened around his cell phone. He forced himself to relax his grip when he heard the first crack of the phone’s hard plastic casing. He paused to wipe the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his free hand.
Norris coughed loudly, tasting bile in his mouth and throat. Then he answered Finn’s question.
“McCabe was inside the trailer. We saw him as he was walking out. I don’t know exactly what he saw. But there’s a good chance he saw your men.”
“I wonder what that sorry bastard was thinking,” Finn said. “Probably trying to play the hero.”
“If that was his aim it backfired. Right now he’s the lead suspect.”
“It sounds like McCabe put himself in the perfect position, at least from our perspective.”
How could this man have gotten such leverage over me? Norris wondered. Didn’t the small-town gangster understand what a liability McCabe actually was? Didn’t he see where this was likely going?
“No, not perfect, dumbass,” Norris said as calmly as possible. “How could you think there is anything perfect about this? Phelps has asked the state police for assistance. And it’s only a matter of time before the feds become involved. This is a double homicide we’re talking about, with an obvious connection to drug trafficking. Do you realize the significance of what I’m saying?”
“No, not perfect, dumbass,” Norris said as calmly as possible. “How could you think there is anything perfect about this? Phelps has asked the state police for assistance. And it’s only a matter of time before the feds become involved. This is a double homicide we’re talking about, with an obvious connection to drug trafficking. Do you realize the significance of what I’m saying?”
“Of course I do,” Finn said. Norris could imagine Finn speaking through clenched teeth.
“No, I don’t think you do. So let me explain it. I assume you know what a dragnet is. Right now there is a large, multi-force dragnet closing around Lee McCabe. And that means it’s only a matter of time before he ends up in custody. And that means that Lee McCabe will be talking to law enforcement before long. Now, would you like to guess how long it will take him to lead the investigation to your men?”
Lester paused on the other end of the line. He treated Norris to a long, exaggerated sigh before he spoke again:
“And that will inevitably expose your involvement in this little matter. Correct, Deputy Norris?”
“Stop calling me that!” Norris shouted. He had told Lester Finn not to call him Deputy Norris over an unsecured line. But the hoodlum seemed to take a perverse delight in addressing him as such. No doubt it brought Lester Finn a perverse sort of delight, reminding them both that he held a police officer at his beck and call. Norris paused and made another visual scan of the park. He was still alone. “I’ve told you a thousand times not to say that over the line. You’re screwing me over badly enough as it is.”
Finn laughed “Don’t get nervous on me now. Let’s be methodical about this: Do you really think McCabe saw anything at all? Other than Tim Fitzsimmons and the girl?”
Norris wanted to scream but he restrained himself.
“Do you really think we can take the chance? Do you think we can afford to just sit around and wait to find out? McCabe is a liability. To both of us.”
“Ah, Norris,” Finn said. At least he omitted the “deputy”. “You know what this means, don’t you?”
“Of course I know. And it makes me sick, as it would make you sick, if you weren’t a dope-pedaling lowlife. But what other choice is there?”
“Save your self-righteousness for the bums in the drunk tank, Norris. A fine specimen you are. A few minutes ago you were turning into a bleeding heart humanitarian over a drug dealer’s dead girlfriend. And now you want to me to eliminate a veteran who has recently returned from Saddam Hussein’s little hellhole in the Middle East. You’ll forgive me if I find that ironic, Mr. Norris.”
Norris sighed. “I don’t care how you find it. I only want you to take care of it.”
“That’s what I do, Mr. Norris. I take care of things. I took care of Tim Fitzsimmons; and I’ll take care of this problem as well.”
“Well,” Norris said. Maybe this would be work out, after all. There was still a chance. “Alright, then. But do it quickly.”
“I’ll do it when I decide to do it. You don’t give the orders in this relationship, Norris. You still don’t seem to understand that basic fact.”
Norris found himself squeezing his cell phone again. He couldn’t believe that Lester Finn was such a misguided fool. McCabe might have knowledge that could send them both to prison for life, and Finn seemed more concerned with posturing.
Nevertheless, Lester Finn was the only ally he had at the moment—the only person in the universe who had roughly the same stake in this outcome. He would deal with Finn later; but he needed him for now.
“Whatever you say, Lester. Now tell me: Are you going to take care of this or not?”
“I’ll do it. Get me a photo of this Lee McCabe.”
“You can get yourself one. The Perryston Gazette ran a story on him when he got back from Iraq. It included a photo of him in his dress blues. It’s still online. You can Google it.”
“I understand. Good day, Mr. Norris.”
“Wait, when exactly are you going to—“
But Norris was talking to a dead line.
Lester Finn pressed the call termination button on his cell phone while the cop was still talking. He laid the phone down on the dark hardwood counter of the empty bar before him. He was trying to get his arms around the fact that a young veteran named Lee McCabe would have to die. That would be regrettable. He would much rather put a bullet in Norris, though Norris had proved himself to be a useful—if unwilling—tool. And the deputy would likely turn out to be even more useful in the future, now that he was an accomplice to murder. The Tim Fitzsimmons hit had been carried out based on information provided by Norris. The deputy had fingered Fitzsimmons as the distributor in the trailer park.
All the same, it would be a shame about the marine.
Lester’s daddy had been a decorated marine in Korea. The elder Finn had deserted Lester and his mother when he was only five; and his father had taken his own life while Lester was still in high school. He had absolutely no respect for his long-dead father as an individual. But blood was blood. He didn’t relish the idea of killing a man who had some connection to his father, however tenuous.
Nevertheless, it would have to be done. And it would have to be done carefully—not botched like the hit on Tim Fitzsimmons.
Lester noticed his reflection in the shiny surface of the bar: the long, grey hair tied back in a single ponytail, the network of wrinkles that lined his face. He had not made it to the ripe age of fifty-two by being careless. But the four men he had charged with the task at the Tradewinds had obviously made a lot of mistakes; and now he would have to scramble and take more risks in order to undo the damage.
Lester’s bar, The Boar’s Head, was deserted at this hour on a Saturday, except for Lester himself and two of his “associates”: Luke and Dan. Luke and Dan were both strapping young men who had already done a combined six years in the Kentucky state penitentiary system. The two of them were seated at a table in the far corner of the tavern, playing cards for dollar bills. Judging by their respective facial expressions, Dan seemed to be doing most of the winning. That was the usual course of events, given Luke’s arrested level of mental development: Lester wondered if the big man could read and perform arithmetic at even a fifth-grade level.
Not that either one of them was exactly a walking brain trust. There was one aspect of criminal enterprise that persistently vexed Lester, and he supposed that it also vexed men in other lines of enterprise, though in different ways and for different reasons: It was simply hard to find willing and competent help. Brutal and violent men were a dime a dozen; but a man who could think for himself and take initiative was rare.
“Hey Dan,” Lester called out.
Dan ignored him.
“What?” Dan did not even look up from his hand of cards.
“Do you think you could stop taking that oaf’s money for a while and actually earn the good money I pay you?”
“Whadaya need?” Dan asked. He still did not remove his attention from the deck of cards.
“I want you to round up some men. I’ll give you the names and numbers. They’re guys we’ve worked with before. I’ve got a little something that needs to be done.”
“What about the men we just hired for the Perryston thing?”
“No, they won’t be a part of this. We need to engage some more competent ones. Like I said, I’ll write down the names for you. I’ll want them all here in town by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”
Dan sighed and pushed his chair back from the table. He laid his cards face down beside his growing pile of dollar bills.
“All right, I’ll get on it.”
“What’s an oaf?” Luke asked.
“Never mind,” Dan said. “This here card game’s over.”
“But you took all my money!” Luke shouted.
“So? That means this is a lucky break for you. We need to quit now, before you lose even more money.”
Luke silently shook his head. Lester could discern the big man’s internal gears working laboriously behind his irritated stare: He was halfway to convincing himself that what Dan had just said was true.
Idiots, Lester thought, shaking his head. I’m surrounded by idiots. He watched Dan scoop his winnings into a pile and group them into a neat little stack. If only my granddad were still around, Lester thought. Wouldn’t the two of us be able to kick some ass for real?
The Boar’s Head had belonged to Lester’s grandfather—his mother’s father. (Such a place could never have come from the line of worthless drunks that had produced his father.) Lester’s granddad had opened the bar during the final years of World War II. During the war there had been an army depot just south of Blood Flats, and the Boar’s Head had hopped every weekend with randy soldiers and victory girls.
The army depot had closed with postwar demobilization, and the Boar’s Head had reverted to a local bar. Things were never the same after the war, although the place crept along, supported by local clientele—as well as various sidelines.
But ah, the war days. Lester had not been alive during the war; but he had heard the old stories. Sometimes he still imagined his grandfather moving about the Boar’s Head’s dark interior. In these daydreams, Granddad was wearing his black dress pants, white shirt, and suspenders. He walked about with his dust rag, polishing the mirror behind the bar and the handles of the antique taps.
The old man would still feel at home here. Much of the interior of the bar was still in its vintage state, exactly as Lester’s granddaddy had envisioned it.
That was then, and this was now. The noble generation that had produced his grandfather had passed from the scene, and younger, degenerate generations had inherited the earth. His two associates—Luke and Dan—were prime examples of the substandard people that had sprung from American loins in recent decades.
Luke and Dan were now engaged in another line of banter, his instructions to them already forgotten. It was no wonder that the Coscollino family ran circles around him. He couldn’t even manage his people anymore. Was he losing his touch?
The real problem here was Dan, not Luke. Luke was a pliable fool who would go whichever way he was led. Dan, on the other hand, was a born smartass. He had accepted a position on Lester’s payroll, but he didn’t want to follow orders. If this had been an ordinary business with ordinary employees, Lester would have simply fired him weeks ago. But it wasn’t as simple as that when your main lines of business were dope and whores. A fired employee was bound to be disgruntled; and a disgruntled man could easily become a snitch.
And so Lester had not really done much of anything. He had been hoping that the ex-con would see the light on his own. Instead, Dan was taking even more liberties, and his attitude threatened to infect the other men in Lester’s employ. Lester had let this situation get out of hand. He had allowed Dan’s insubordination—and the arrogance behind it—to fester and grow for weeks now.
Sometimes the best tactic was to force a confrontation. Lester leaned forward and said loudly over the bar: “I believe I gave you an order.”
Yelling really wasn’t in his nature. Lester sometimes imagined that he could run his organization like a normal business. He occasionally allowed himself to page through books written by Donald Trump and Mark McCormack—the guy who had penned those books about what they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. Lester wasn’t the idiot that he knew many people believed him to be. As a young man, he had completed six semesters at the University of Kentucky, though he had never earned a degree.
What good was any attempt at real management, though, with employees like this?
“I believe I gave you an order,” Dan said in a mocking falsetto. He poked Luke on the arm, in a clear attempt to incite him to join in the joke.
Luke looked back at him uncertainly. “Gee, Dan, I dunno. Maybe we ought to go ahead and do what Mr. Finn says.”
“Shut up!” Dan shouted at Luke. Then to Lester: “Let me tell you one thing, old man: You ain’t no better than anyone else in here. Just because you own this dump of a bar and run dope for a bunch of wops up in Chicago.” He was pointing at Lester. He accentuated his words with little jabs in the air. “Don’t be thinking you can give me orders, or you’ll learn real quick where you really stand.”
Then Dan gathered up the playing cards into a perfect rectangle and began shuffling them. “Come on, Luke. We’re going to play one more hand.” Luke was silent as Dan dealt a fresh hand of cards.
Lester sighed with the realization that his next course of action was inevitable. It had been a long time since he had taken this sort of step with a member of his crew—perhaps too long.
He grabbed an object from beneath the counter and lifted the little hinged partition that was used for access to the area behind the bar.
He walked slowly toward the two men seated at the little table. When Luke and Dan noticed him, their talking ceased.
With the end of the conversation there was near silence. In the center of the room, an ancient, dusty ceiling fan spun slowly and creakily overhead.
Luke asked: “Hey, Lester, what are you doin’ with that baseball bat?”
Lester did not answer him. He merely kept walking closer.
A smirk appeared on Dan’s face. He leaned casually back in his chair to accentuate his disregard of the threat.
So that’s the way you want to play it, Dan? Lester had been prepared to accept an act of contrition; but Dan’s insolent smile told him that this particular ex-con was beyond redemption.
Then Dan spoke—not to Lester—but to Luke:
“Why lookie here, Luke, Lester gonna come teach me a lesson!”
As Lester raised the baseball bat, the smile disappeared from Dan’s face. He actually thought I was bluffing, Lester realized. Dan frantically reached for a .38 that he kept in a calf holster beneath his jeans. He simultaneously lifted another hand to deflect the blow that he knew was coming.
Lester swung the bat.
The baseball bat struck Dan in the forearm, shattering both his radius and his ulna. He screamed. The excruciating pain caused him to forget all about the .38. His attention was now entirely focused on the wounded arm. He grabbed his forearm—now jointed where it should not be jointed—with his remaining good hand.
“You sonofabitch!” he cried. “You sonofabitch!”
Then Lester swung the bat again.
This time the bat struck Dan a glancing blow across the head. His eyes rolled, and he fell backward out of his chair, and sprawled upon the hardwood floor—the same floor that Lester’s granddaddy had laid down for his jitterbugging and Lindy Hopping war-era clientele.
And what had Dan called The Boar’s Head?
He had called it a dump.
Lester took a moment to appraise Dan’s condition: he was out cold but the blow had most likely not been fatal.
He began to raise the bat again, but then he looked at Luke.
“Come on, Luke. Help me move him into the back.”
Luke had watched the bat-swinging maneuver with bug-eyed shock. “Lester, I-“
“Do as I tell you!” he shouted. Then, in a quieter voice: “Wait. First go and turn the sign in the window around so it says that the bar is closed.
Luke nodded and stood immediately. Perhaps he was simply eager to move away from the shattered form of his friend—if that was what Luke and Dan had been. Lester frankly doubted that men like Dan and Luke were capable of forming any bond that approached true friendship.
Luke lifted the sign that hung from a string and a suction cup in the tinted glass window at the front of the bar. He turned the sign around so that the “Yes…We’re Open” side faced the inside.
“Good, now lock the front door, too. Then get your ass over here and help me.”
Once the front entrance of the bar was secured, Lester hoisted the top half of Dan’s body by the armpits.
“Grab his feet.”
In this way they lifted Dan off the floor and carried him toward the rear storage room behind the bar. Dan was a big man, and his inert bulk was heavy. Even with Lester and Luke both carrying him, the seat of his jeans bumped across the floor. All in all it was a clumsy operation.
They did not have far to go, and the door to the storage room was a free-swinging type with no latch. Once they were well inside, Lester ordered Luke to halt. He abruptly dropped the top half of Dan’s body. Dan’s head thudded onto the bare concrete floor. Luke waited about five seconds before dropping Dan’s feet. Dan’s cowboy boots—one of his small-town tough guy affectations—clattered onto the floor.
Lester silently pointed to Dan. It was an unspoken command to Luke that even the big dumb man could understand: Watch him and make sure that he doesn’t wake up.
Lester rummaged around in an adjacent alcove and removed a folded plastic tarp. He tossed the tarp onto the floor just above Dan’s head. He walked past Luke and back into the bar area. He returned with the baseball bat.
Lester laid the bat on a stack of cardboard boxes that bore the imprint of a well-known Kentucky distillery. Luke seemed transfixed by the sight of the bat, as if it were some sort of talismanic object.
At Lester’s instruction, they spread out the tarp and lifted Dan once again. They edged him over the unfolded tarp and dropped him for the second time.
Lester lifted the bat by its fat end and extended it to Luke.
Luke showed no sign of taking the bat. The big man looked at the bat, then down at Dan’s figure on the floor. Dan’s head was cocked to the side. His breath was going in and out in an irregular wheeze.
“What?” Lester asked.
“Finish him,” Lester said.
“Aw, Lester, I-“
Lester knew that Luke had killed before. In fact, Luke had been imprisoned for killing a man during a bar fight. But there was a difference between a man who had killed, and a killer. Thus far, Luke was only a killer of the accidental variety. Even the prosecuting attorney in his case had agreed that the barroom killing had been unintentional and mitigated by extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, Luke would still be behind bars.
Lester knew the sort of men he needed if he was ever going to hold his own against the Coscollino’s. If providence was determined to deny him men who could think, then at the very least he needed to have men who would obey.
“Luke, you’ve got to do it.”
“Here. Take it.”
Luke reluctantly took the bat. Lester took a few steps backward. He leaned against a stack of boxes and folded his arms, his gaze boring into Luke.
Luke gripped the bat with both hands and raised it over his right shoulder. After hesitating briefly in midair—perhaps grappling with last-second thoughts—he swung the bat downward in a mighty arc, connecting squarely with Dan’s head. The blow produced a cracking sound, and beneath that a more solid thud of both firm matter and wetness.
“Again!” Lester said. “Do it again, Luke!”
Lost in a sort of trance now, Luke raised the bat and brought it down a second time, then a third, and a fourth. Lester noted the glassy look in Luke’s eyes, the face pinched up in fury. Where does a fool like that get such sudden anger, Lester wondered. What inner source does he draw it from?
When the bat was wet and red, and Dan’s head was no longer recognizable, Lester called out for him to stop.
Luke looked down at the object in his hands, which was now no longer a baseball bat but a gory tool of murder.
“Drop it on top of him,” Lester said. “It’s no good for anything anymore.”
Luke dropped the bat atop Dan’s chest. Dan’s shirt was now covered with blood and little flecks of brain matter.
Luke shook his head. “I didn’t want to do that. No, I sure didn’t.”
Lester clapped him on the shoulder. The gesture had a quality about it that was almost gentle.
“You did what you had to do,” Lester said. “Dan was a danger to us all, with that bad attitude of his.”
“If you say so, Lester.”
“And there’s more to it than that, isn’t there Luke?”
“Hmm?” Luke stared dumbly back at him.
“Dan used to make fun of you all the time, didn’t he? He used to bully you around, even though you’re bigger than him.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“I don’t think you liked that very much. In fact…”
“I think it felt pretty good for you when you slammed that bat into his head. That’s what I think.”
Looking into Luke’s tense face, Lester saw a glimmer of understanding. Then the glimmer went out again. Luke was dumb, all right—but perhaps he was not as dumb he seemed to be. Perhaps a portion of that apparent stupidity was actually subterfuge. In some environments, an outwardly stupid man could get away with a lot. He would be consistently underestimated and forgiven. For a moment he even wondered if the big man was going to cry. Or maybe Luke would pick the bat up again, and make him, Lester, the second victim of the bloody tool.
But Luke did neither; and Lester issued his next set of instructions. There was a lot of work to be done; and in the big scheme of things the Dan situation was little more than a sideshow.
Lester patted Luke on the shoulder again.
“Wrap him up in this tarp and put in the freezer for now.”
“We’re going to put him in the freezer?”
“Only for a little while. After dark we’ll put him in the back of the van. We’ll take some chains and some cinder blocks with us. Then we’ll drive down to the reservoir near Mosteller Falls. I know a place where the water is almost a hundred feet deep.”
Read chapters 21 through 30...
Read chapters 21 through 30...