Lee McCabe is a former U.S. Marine, and a recent veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has just been framed for a drug-related double homicide in Hawkins County, Kentucky.
Lee goes on the run, determined to clear his name, and to expose the criminals behind the conspiracy.
Along the way, he encounters both allies and new enemies, as he heads toward a confrontation in the town of Blood Flats.
A gun-blazing adventure through the badlands of Kentucky.
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On the morning that he became a fugitive from justice, Lee McCabe awoke with two persistent sensations in his consciousness. The first was the sound that Apache helicopters make when they land in the desert, and how the dust swirls beneath them as they raise up little tornados of sand. The second was the smell of a woman’s strawberry shampoo.
As he struggled awake—alone in the small bedroom of his rented trailer—Lee realized that the sound was not that of an Apache helicopter, but the rumbling of an approaching motor vehicle. Sounds carried a long way this far from town, especially on a Saturday morning.
He resisted the notion that the approaching car or truck might be something to worry about. He was still overly cautious, he knew. What else could he expect after two years of living in a war zone?
The clock on the nightstand beside the bed read 5:32 a.m. In recent months, Lee McCabe had learned to appreciate the small luxuries. It was a luxury to sleep until 5:30 a.m., even on a Saturday. It was a luxury not to have to arise even earlier, to step outside your barracks into the glaring, sand-blown heat of a hostile land, where any man, woman, or child might be bent on killing you.
And it was a luxury to have the regular company of women again. The smell of the strawberry shampoo was on the tee shirt that he had worn to bed. It mingled with the perfume of the woman he had danced with the previous night at the Steeplechase Saloon.
She had been young—and in Lee’s estimation—frivolous and carefree. At first it had seemed that she wanted to do nothing but laugh and talk. But after a while she somehow perceived that Lee was still reclaiming that world in which light conversation and laughter were possible. She did not push him beyond his means. She took his hand and led him to the center of the room, where they slow-danced, her head on his chest, her hair on his cheek and his shoulder.
He had taken in the scent of her wild strawberry shampoo then, and now its lingering presence brought back the feel of her firm young body pressed up against his. Before they had parted, she slipped him a matchbook cover that contained her phone number. The recollection made him smile. Perhaps he would call her. Yes, he definitely would.
Lee McCabe was twenty-three years old and he had returned from Iraq to Perryston, Kentucky, less than three months ago.
Early sunlight filtered through the curtains of the single window in the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture that surrounded him were scuffed and dented. The furniture was older than he was. But why would he care? The furniture was neither green nor camouflage, like practically everything that they gave you in the Marine Corps.
Once again his attention was drawn to the sound of the lone motor vehicle; and he tried to estimate its distance. A mile? A half mile?
What difference did it make, anyway? There were no al-Qaeda in Perryston. No suicide bombers. He was safe here.
Since Lee had come home, not a single person had tried to kill him. Three months without hostile gunfire aimed in his direction. Three months without a booby-trapped car or some maniac hiding a bomb beneath his dishdasha at a checkpoint.
The streets of Perryston were free from gunfire and explosions. Walking around town in civilian clothes rather than combat fatigues, Lee had not once had to turn away from the shrieks of hysterical survivors, or the anguished groans of the dying. Not once in three months.
Lee decided that he had lain in bed long enough. It was the first week of June and the day’s heat was already rising, prickling his skin with humidity. He swung his feet out of bed and stood erect, his toes digging into the blue threadbare carpet.
He reluctantly discarded the tee shirt with its pleasant woman’s scent and retrieved a clean one from the bureau drawer. He hastily pulled on a pair of jeans, then socks, and then the steel-toed boots that were regulation safety gear at the machine shop where he worked. The boots smelled vaguely of oil.
The distant engine was drawing closer now, crowding the thoughts of the young woman from his mind. This despite his best efforts. He did not want to think about the vehicle but there it was: He judged it to be a pickup truck or an SUV that was coming along the adjacent two-lane highway.
He paused as he heard the vehicle slow down and then come to an abrupt stop. Next he heard the metallic sounds of the vehicle’s doors opening and closing. Finally there were several masculine voices—perhaps three or four.
Ease up, Lee, he told himself. Now just you ease up.
He did have to learn to take it easy. Despite his joy at being home, relaxation no longer came naturally to him. He was still struggling to rid himself of the constant wariness that had kept him alive in Iraq. He did not intend to go through the rest of his life flinching at ordinary sights and sounds.
Some days were better than others. The other day he had been standing in line at the Perryston Wal-Mart when a small boy suddenly ran up to his mother, who was waiting in line directly in front of Lee. Lee had practically jumped, his body tensing from an involuntary reflex. He had scared the boy and the boy’s mother, and greatly embarrassed himself.
He had never been prone to that sort of reaction before going to Iraq. He was back in the world now, and he would have to work to fully retrain himself to the old ways.
Lee continued to lace up his work boots, resisting the urge to investigate what was outside. It was just this thing he had developed about cars while over in Iraq, he told himself. Three men in Lee’s platoon had been killed one day when a jihadi detonated a car bomb. Over there you quickly learned to regard every car and truck with suspicion—or you ended up dead even more quickly. In Iraq all unknown vehicles had been potential harbingers of death.
But in Kentucky a lone vehicle at a strange hour was no particular cause for alarm.
It was nothing, he decided.
Lee walked through the wood-paneled hallway toward the kitchen of his trailer. The trailer was old. Its flooring creaked and groaned beneath his feet.
The trailer was temporary, of course—just like his present job as a lathe operator at the SJR Machine Shop. He had banked a fair amount of his Marine Corps pay, resisting the temptation to spend it on leave like there was no tomorrow, as so many men did—since there might well be no tomorrow for any particular person in a time of war. And the lathe operator job paid decent wages. In the fall he would begin to take evening classes. There was a satellite branch of the University of Kentucky right here in Hawkins County.
It was funny how your power relative to others changed, he reflected, sometimes moving you upward, sometimes pushing you back down the ladder. In the Marine Corps he had been a sergeant, grade E-5, with authority over other men and responsibility for other men’s lives. Now he was a lowly lathe operator. That was all right. In Iraq he had given commands that had brought death—mostly to the enemy, but once or twice to men he was leading, through his own misjudgment of the circumstances, the superior tactics of the enemy, or plain and simple bad luck.
God, I have had enough of giving orders for one lifetime, he thought. From here on out, let me neither take orders nor give them. Let me simply enjoy my freedom.
This was something that civilians seemed incapable of grasping. They all wanted to know what the war had been like—and how it felt to be back; but they gave Lee slightly embarrassed smiles when he told them that it was simply good to be alive and free in a familiar place where no one was taking potshots at you.
No, civilians didn’t understand. No matter how circumspect their questions, civilians all wanted to know about the violence. They were practically obsessed with it: Were you in any shootouts? Did you see any al-Qaeda fighters? And always that one unspoken question that no one dared to ask: Did you have to kill anyone?
Lee avoided these questions as much as he could. He simply wanted to reacclimate himself to the ways of peace. He had gotten to know violence intimately, and he wanted no further part of it. And no, he had no interest in telling war stories. Perhaps he would tell them when he was an old man. But he had no desire to tell war stories now. This, also, was an inclination that civilians could not fully grasp, he supposed.
He was in the kitchen when he heard the heavy footsteps in the gravel outside his front door. His body stiffened. Judging by the heaviness of the crunching noises, three to four men were passing by his trailer. They were walking deliberately without any banter or conversation between them.
Lee made an instant connection between these footsteps and the engine he had heard a few minutes ago. He let go of the notion that he could simply ignore the situation. Rational or not, it was bothering him now.
He stepped to his front window and drew the white ruffled curtain back a few inches. There were in fact four of them. He could see their backs now: each one was wearing either a trench coat or a hunting jacket, which didn’t make sense at this time of year. Then Lee noticed an angular bulge inside one of the trench coats. This made the reason for their unseasonable attire immediately apparent.
The men obviously were not planning to pay him a visit. They were headed toward the adjacent lot. The trailer occupied by Tim Fitzsimmons, and his girlfriend, a young woman whom Lee knew only as Jody.
Just past the edge of his own trailer, one of the men briefly turned around, as if making a quick survey of the surroundings. Lee froze.
The man had a dark beard and a bulbous nose. He looked vaguely familiar, though Lee could not place him. When you lived in a small town, there were many people outside your circle of friends and acquaintances whose faces were nevertheless familiar to varying degrees. Probably this man was someone whom Lee had seen around town. He was definitely a local.
The man apparently had not noticed Lee looking out the window. He turned back around and continued walking with his companions.
One of the men pointed to Tim Fitzsimmons’ trailer and gestured to the others. Yes, that was definitely where they were going. Where else would trouble of this kind be headed?
Lee stood there in his kitchen, thinking about the lights of the little pipes that sometimes glowed in the darkness outside Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer at odd hours of the evening. Usually Tim would shoo these more indiscreet customers away; and occasionally he would brandish a gun at them. “Get your sorry meth-head ass away from here before you do that!” the ex-con would shout. It didn’t take much observation to figure out what sort of commerce was occurring in the trailer next door. The money and the little baggies of whitish powder sometimes exchanged hands on the steps outside Fitzsimmons’s front door.
So far, Lee had had relatively little interaction with the other residents of the Tradewinds Trailer Park. Most of them seemed to be agreeable enough; they were predominantly lower middle-class working people like himself, for whom the Tradewinds was a way station along the path to something better. Young couples saving up for a down payment on a tract house in town. A handful of retirees in temporary limbo. Some divorcees with small children. Even a few recently discharged veterans like himself. None of them had much money; you didn’t live in a trailer park if you had real money.
It had not taken Lee long to identify Tim Fitzsimmons as the sort of predatory presence that invariably works its way into low-income environments like the Tradewinds. Fitzsimmons was in his early thirties. He wore the perpetual glare of a man who had long ago accepted the role of a hood, and he wanted everyone he encountered to know it. He also had the authentic credentials: Fitzsimmons had spent most of his twenties in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.
These recollections weighed on Lee’s mind as he watched the four strangers disappear around a bend in the gravel path. He had long recognized what was going on next door; and yet he had done nothing about it.
Then he reminded himself that he was a civilian now. It wasn’t his job to carry a gun anymore.
But he should have called Sheriff Phelps. Many times he had thought about it. Perryston was the Hawkins County seat, and Phelps’s office was located in the town proper. Lee could have walked into the sheriff’s office and talked to him. For that matter, he could have made a telephone call.
Yes, he should have done that. But talking to Sherriff Steven Phelps had never been easy for him. And nothing had changed since he had come back from Iraq. The lawman still gave him an expression that implied a range of emotions: blame, resentment, distrust—as if Lee were responsible for the pathetic way the sheriff’s life had turned out.
It was absurd when you thought about it. Unbelievably so. But the sheriff had never let go of his old grudge. The grudge sprung from events that had occurred before Lee had even been born. But that made no difference, did it?
Was he imagining the depth of the sheriff’s ill will? No—Lee still remembered an encounter he had had with the sheriff toward the end of his high school years. The shame and humiliation of the incident still stung—even after all that had occurred since. Even after Iraq.
So you thought you were in love once, huh, Phelps? Lee thought bitterly. And I guess I’m a reminder of how that worked out for you. I guess I always will be.
This was a cruel and petty thought, he knew; but Lee could not resist taking a certain degree of satisfaction from it.
Lee could hear one of the men banging on the front door of Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer: “Hey, Timmy, open up in there. Let’s do this the easy way!”
His desire to be left alone—to mind his own business—was countered by an opposite emotion: I did not survive Iraq to come back to this. And in some ways, the present situation in the trailer park did remind Lee of Iraq: Men with guns came into the homes of decent people and did what they pleased. It didn’t matter if the men with guns were al-Qaeda operatives who wanted to impose their fanatical ideology, or small-town drug lords who simply wanted to extract a blood profit. The underlying principles were much the same.
It was clear to Lee that the men who had come to visit Tim Fitzsimmons were no mere customers. They must be affiliated with whatever drug network Fitzsimmons used in order to obtain his product. This was obviously some sort of dispute.
And it might be only a few seconds away from turning violent.
Lee abandoned his plans to make a quick cup of coffee before reporting for Saturday overtime work at the machine shop. He stepped across the main section of his trailer into the living room area. He crouched down and felt beneath his recliner (which still smelled like the previous owner’s cat) and retrieved a loaded .45 semiautomatic. He tucked the pistol between his belt and the small of his back and tried to decide what he should do next.
Then he was struck by the absurdity of the actions he was contemplating. If he walked outside with the gun, things could go very badly for him in short order. Wasn’t this another example of his inability to adjust to civilian life, his inability to leave Iraq behind him?
This problem belongs to Sheriff Phelps, Lee thought. Sheriff Phelps the also-ran lawman, the corrupt cop who loved my mother and hated my father.
Lee knew only the broad outlines of the love triangle that had once existed between his parents and Sheriff Phelps. He knew that his mother had once been with the sheriff, and then she had spurned him to be with his father. Lee did not want to know the details. It both and embarrassed and angered him—especially now that his parents were both dead.
Why couldn’t the sheriff let go of the past? Why couldn’t he allow the dead to rest in peace?
And why should he help Sheriff Phelps do his job? Let my neighbors complain about our Tim Fitzsimmons problem—maybe it will cost Phelps his job next Election Day.
He knew, though, that he could not simply ignore a meth trafficker who was operating openly next door, endangering all his neighbors. He would have to opt for a middle course.
I’m going to go to work, Lee decided. And then I’m going to stop by the sheriff’s office and file a complaint. I’m a civilian here. This problem isn’t my job. It’s Phelps’s job. So I’ll make the complaint and Phelps can do his job.
Lee placed the .45 down on the kitchen counter. He pulled his cell phone from the key and change tray that he kept on the table where he ate his meals. Put the damn gun away, he thought. You don’t even have to see Phelps; all you have to do is call him.
He put his cell phone in his pocket and told himself that it would be easiest for him to call the sheriff’s office during his mid-morning break. He could even ask to speak to one of the deputies.
Lee’s mind was made up, and he began to wonder if there was still time for a quick cup of instant coffee. Then he heard the sound of a woman’s screams next door.
Lee stepped outside with the .45 in his right hand. He took a moment to assess the situation as coolly as possible: The odds weren’t in his favor. His Marine Corps training and combat experience gave him a certain amount of confidence when facing the average man; but these advantages had their limits. There were four men and they were armed; they would easily kill him if they chose to make a stand.
Fitzsimmons’s trailer was only yards away. The screams had stopped, almost as suddenly as they had begun. Whatever had happened in the trailer mere seconds ago, the aluminum structure now emanated an odd sort of quiet, like a building that has been long deserted.
Lee stood perfectly still on his own stoop and listened for any sounds of movement, any voices. There were no voices and no sounds of movement that he could hear at this distance. Nevertheless, the woman’s screams continued to echo in his mind. These had not been mere figments of his imagination.
The grass between the two lots was still wet with dew; the trailer park was still asleep in the deceptive peace of an early Saturday morning. Most of his neighbors would not have stirred yet, thoughts of Saturday morning television and breakfast still an hour away.
The quiet of the morning issued its own challenge: He was the only one who had heard the screams, and the only one who could respond to them now.
A final twinge of hesitation urged him to go back inside his own trailer, to forget this primordial urge to answer men who believed that a gun gave them the right to trample on all rights and all manners of civilized behavior. The desire to show them that it would not be so.
Yet he thought that if Perryston was to become like Baghdad or Fallujah, then he truly would have no place to go, and for the rest of his days he would never know peace. It would be easier to face them now, he told himself, looking at the men’s tracks through the glistening grass. It would be easier now, while my guard is still up and I have not yet completely relaxed. A few weeks or a few months down the road, things might be different.
The decision to answer violence—it was like holding your breath and diving into deep water: once you leapt, there was no return.
Lee became aware of the heft of the .45 in his hand, the pace of his breathing, the keenness of his senses. A sudden heightened awareness filled his body. There was no choice, really. That choice had been hammered out of him in the broken cities and villages of Iraq.
Fortunately, the lessons of combat were still close at hand. And something about this most unnatural of actions—moving toward armed men with the intent of possibly killing them—felt more natural than waiting in his trailer and calling the police. As he approached Fitzsimmons’s lot, he ducked low, alternately looking ahead, and then to each side. In Iraq many men had been killed by the enemy who should have been far in the distance, but was actually waiting just out of sight and well within gunshot range.
Fitzsimmons’s trailer exuded a reek that was part garbage, part beer and cigarettes, and something more besides: an earthy smell of decay and corruption. The door of the trailer had been left open. It was pushed back, ajar on its hinges.
He paused but could still hear nothing. Perhaps the four men had already gone; and perhaps they were waiting to ambush anyone who responded to the screams.
Then Lee realized that he was not alone after all. Someone behind him whispered, “HEY!” and he nearly turned and shot the whisperer.
“Don’t shoot me!” the cowering figure said. The emphasis on the last word strongly suggested that there was indeed someone who should be shot.
The trailer across from Fitzsimmons was occupied by Hal Marsten, a timid, fiftyish bachelor who mostly kept to himself. Lee could see Marsten standing behind his front screen door. Marsten’s eyes were wide with shock and his raised finger was trembling. From where he stood, Marsten had a clear view into Fitzsimmons’s home.
Marsten pointed at the gaping mouth of the trailer.
“THEY KILLED ‘EM!” Marsten spoke in a loud whisper.
Lee tried to communicate with Marsten through hand signals, to ask him if the men were still in the trailer. He shushed Marsten with a finger raised to his own lips. Lee did not want to speak aloud and alert the other men to his presence.
But of course Marsten did not understand military hand signals. He stared blankly back at Lee. He finally retreated from the screen door, back into the interior of his own living space; he was far too shaken to be of any help.
A stack of concrete cinderblocks had been arranged before Tim Fitzsimmons’s front door as makeshift steps. Lee ascended these as quietly and as cautiously as possible, leading with the barrel of his .45.
Once inside, Lee crouched to his knees, in order to make himself a small target. The air inside the trailer was thick, humid, and redolent of the coppery odor of blood. Lee jerked his pistol to the right, and then to left. He scanned the shadows for movement. A dust-filled shaft of sunlight shone on Fitzsimmons’s kitchen counter. An old-fashioned cuckoo clock ticked loudly in the living room.
There was no one waiting to ambush Lee in the front part of the trailer. But the space was not exactly empty. Lee took a brief look at the armed men’s victims.
They had shot Tim Fitzsimmons in the back of the head, execution style. Their guns must have been equipped with silencers, as he had heard no shots. Tim had not submitted easily: his tee shirt was ripped down the back. He had likely made a run for safety and the men had grabbed him as he attempted to escape through the back hall. Now he lay facedown in his ransacked living room, the blood from his head wound already forming a wide, dark red circle on the carpet.
They had not caught Tim alone, as presaged by the earlier screams. Lee recognized the woman on the floor as Jody, Fitzsimmons’s live-in girlfriend. Lee guessed that she was about twenty—certainly no older than twenty-four or twenty-five. He had spoken to Jody once or twice in passing. On those occasions she had been cordial but not exactly friendly. Fitzsimmons’s presence had seemed to dominate her, and it had been clear to Lee that he would never be able to draw her out, even if he had been inclined to try.
The men had shot Jody in the jaw, horribly disfiguring her face. There was another bullet wound just above her belt line—an abdominal shot that would almost certainly be fatal. Her chest and stomach were so soaked with blood that Lee could not determine the color of the shirt she was wearing. Her bare legs were smeared with blood down to the knees.
But Jody was not dead yet. Her glazed eyes fixed on Lee as she attempted to make a sound through her shattered mouth.
Lee forced himself to turn away. He could do nothing for her now. And the men who had shot her might still be in the trailer.
He stepped over Tim Fitzsimmons’s body and took a few more steps into the back hallway, where the bathroom and bedrooms would be. He immediately noticed that the corridor was filled with sunlight. Then he saw that the back door had been left open.
Lee edged down the hall, pointing the muzzle of his gun into each room as he went. In one of the bedrooms he saw the telltale signs of a miniature meth lab: a jerry-rigged conglomeration of rubber hoses and pressurized cylinders atop a foldable card table. Beneath the table were several boxes of coffee filters, funnels of various sizes, and a coiled length of what looked like a cut garden hose. There were numerous bottles of chemicals. Lee could smell them from the doorway.
He made it to the back door in time to see four men completing a dash up an embankment beyond the trailer park. They were running toward the highway, their gait awkward but fast. Another few seconds and he would have missed them entirely. The men held their guns aloft. The killers were concealing nothing now; they were pumped with adrenalin in the wake of their crimes and focused only on escape.
They made a final sprint toward a waiting black pickup truck that idled on the edge of the road. It was a jacked-up, four-wheel drive version. Probably American; but there was no way Lee could discern the exact make and model from this distance. And as for the license plate—forget it.
The four men hoisted themselves into the back of the pickup truck (almost as efficiently as real soldiers, Lee thought). They were seated quickly, and their guns were stowed at their feet, out of sight again.
One of them pounded on the back window of the truck cab: a clear sign to get moving.
The truck sped away, spitting gravel as it went.
Lee walked back into the silent carnage of the now sweltering living room. Fitzsimmons’s girlfriend, Jody, was still. She did not appear to be breathing anymore. It seemed that there was no square foot of carpet where Lee could step without placing his foot in blood.
He felt that wave of hesitation return—the hesitation that was showing its true strength five minutes too late. His .45 was useless now. His purported skill at answering violence and killing bad men was useless as well. None of that would mean anything to the young woman who was toppled back against the wall, her dead face a misshapen obscenity.
The real killers were gone and he was alone in this makeshift tomb for the dead. And if he could in fact do no good, then what was he doing here at all?
In the adjacent kitchen, the refrigerator kicked on. Then Lee heard the sound of voices outside the trailer—and the sirens.
Perhaps a dozen of Lee’s neighbors saw him emerge from the trailer with the .45 in his hand. Faces scanned the interior of the trailer, where the bodies were clearly visible, and then they appraised Lee. It was not difficult for him to imagine what they saw: a quiet, withdrawn veteran who had recently been discharged from a killing zone. Had some of them even picked up on his dislike for Fitzsimmons?
He stood before them in the grass. No one made an effort to speak to him yet. The gun in his hand drew all their attention. When he raised it briefly, several of them flinched—until he tucked it in the back of his pants.
And then the faces seemed to make further connections. Eyes darted nervously back and forth within the little crowd.
They backed away from him, huddling in a semicircle at what they must have perceived to be a safe distance.
And someone said: “He’s got a gun.”
“Listen,” Lee began. “I saw four armed men approaching this trailer.” He took a step toward the semicircle of his neighbors. They backed away.
“I didn’t see any armed men,” someone else said. “The only armed man I see is you.”
The sirens were growing louder. A Hawkins County sheriff’s vehicle appeared at the far end of the access road that led into the trailer park. There was a second sheriff’s car behind it. Both patrol cars were going faster than they should have been in this enclosed space. The red and blue light bars atop their roofs were flashing. Their headlights flashed as well.
Even from this distance, Lee could see Sheriff Phelps in the lead car. Their eyes met, and recognition dawned on the sheriff’s face.
As the sheriff’s vehicles approached, the group of onlookers spread out and took a few more steps away from Lee. It had the effect of isolating him.
Sheriff Phelps’s car came to a halt a short distance away, not far from Lee’s own trailer. He spoke into a handheld mike that amplified his voice from a speaker. “Stand where you are!”
Was Sheriff Phelps speaking to the entire crowd, or had he already singled Lee out? The .45 was still stuck in his pants. Phelps could not see it; but there was no way to ditch the gun without the lawman noticing it. Moreover, at least a dozen people had witnessed him exit a murder scene with a weapon drawn.
Then Sheriff Phelps looked directly at him, and repeated the command. There could be no doubt. His eyes met Phelps’s stare dead-on, and Lee knew that both of them were gripped by the same question: What is this man going to do next?
Lee felt a surge of blood rush to his head. The situation had escalated too fast. Less than thirty minutes ago he had been contemplating a cup of coffee, and the comfortable routine of his work at the machine shop. Now he was at the center of a horrific crime, and a catastrophic misunderstanding had enclosed around him. His neighbors obviously believed that he was responsible for the two dead bodies in the trailer. And what did Phelps think?
That, too, was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? Phelps could see him standing there. He would talk to witnesses. And Phelps detested him anyway.
“Hal!” Lee shouted. He believed he remembered the name of the man who lived across from Tim Fitzsimmons—the peculiar old bachelor who kept to himself.
Hal appeared in his doorway. He surveyed the situation: The sirens, the gathered crowd. Hal’s face quavered. He clearly found the entire scene overwhelming.
“Tell them!” Lee said. “Tell them what you saw!”
Marsten waved him away. The expression on his face seemed to say: I’m sorry—but I can’t get involved.
Hal Martsen disappeared into the shadows of his trailer. The only witness who could possibly exonerate Lee had just betrayed him.
“Looks like Hal didn’t see nothin’” a spectator said.
“Don’t be tryin’ to trap ol’ Hal just ‘cause he be a quiet one.”
“Likely story, I’d say.”
Lee was gripped by a sudden urge to drag Hal from his trailer and wring his neck. But he knew that this would do him no good. There were really only two choices before him: He could stay put as Sheriff Phelps commanded and take his chances. Or he could run and take his chances. Either way, there would be accusatory fingers pointed at him. Either option would put his freedom in jeopardy.
Lee knew what the textbook answer would be: Cooperate with the police and let the system take its course. The wheels of justice would turn; and given enough time, they might very well determine his innocence.
But that would mean the immediate surrender of his freedom. For how long? Weeks? Months? Years?
Before Iraq, he would probably have entrusted himself to the impersonal behemoth of the state’s justice. Things were different now. Lee had stared down death and he had survived. The Fates had had their opportunity to break him. The state had no right to rob him of that precious commodity of freedom. He had earned it through the survival of his ordeal.
As Sheriff Phelps began to push open the door of his police cruiser, Lee made his decision: He spun on his heels and bolted. He was not even tempted to look back when Sheriff Phelps shouted again.
Driven by a rush of pure adrenalin, he sprinted around the rear of Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer, where the bodies of the two murder victims must now be growing cold. He was vaguely aware of Sheriff Phelps calling out for him to halt, using his name this time.
The trailer park abutted a grassy field that descended into a belt of forest. Lee aimed for the tree line, his legs pumping wildly. He felt the gun against his back and knew that the sheriff, surely out of his car by now, would be able to see it clearly.
The field was high and unmowed, a tangled mass of fescue and bluegrass, dotted with black-eyed Susan and Queen Ann’s lace. Lee nearly fell once, when one foot landed in a hole that had been dug by a rabbit or a groundhog. He somehow recovered his balance without significantly slowing down, the shelter of the woods now within sprinting distance. He aimed for a break in the trees that opened into a narrow path used by hunters and local children.
Sheriff Phelps called out his name a final time. The lawman was now likely at the crest of the hill, and Lee wondered if Phelps and his deputy would follow him. But he was unwilling to accept the delay that looking back would cost.
The sunlight gave way to shade, and Lee plunged into the damp, musty cavern of the woods. He had to slow his pace somewhat, as the ground beneath him was uneven, and filled with exposed tree roots and piles of the previous season’s leaves. A catbird cried out overhead as Lee bolted past.
After several winding turns, the trail took him further downward. He could hear the trickling of a creek. He inhaled the smells of moss and water with each labored breath. Tiny gnats began to dart before his face. He ignored them.
The creek cut through a little valley. Beyond the creek, the trail would climb upward again, and there would be another break in the woods. Sunlight filtered through the trees beyond him, growing stronger as the land ascended on the far side of the valley. This valley was only a temporary refuge. His present course would take him back out into the open.
Then he would have to hide, evade, and run again.
All because he had responded to a woman’s screams. All because he could not trust the sheriff of the county where he had grown up—where his parents had been raised and died. All because a timid old hermit had refused to speak for him in a critical moment.
Lee could sense that these realizations were building into rage, and he tried to suppress them. While rage might give him speed and courage, the emotion lying just beneath the rage would not.
That emotion was fear. Fear for his life, which had become more precious to him over the past three months. Lee thought that he had left real fear—mortal fear—behind him in Iraq. He should have known better: There was more than one way to lose your life; and evil did not always arrive in the form of a hooded fanatic shouting verses from the Quran.
He was thinking too much. There was no time now to ponder the nature of fear and of evil. Probably there would never be, at the current rate.
The cool shade of the forest brought a chill to his sweat-drenched back. He kept running, his breathing loud. The creek came into view: a shallow current gurgling over shale and limestone rocks. The bank was muddy and denuded of thick vegetation. The creek would be passable.
He stepped into the ankle-deep water before him. His feet were suddenly cold and sodden. He exercised caution so that he did not slip on the moss- and lichen-covered rocks.
Sheriff Steven Phelps watched Lee McCabe disappear into the woods behind the Tradewinds trailer park. He stood at the edge of the grass that had been mowed, the overgrown, downwardly sloping hill before him.
For a moment he considered giving chase down the hill and into the mass of trees; and then he thought better of it. McCabe was more than two decades younger; and he had recently been discharged from the Marine Corps. With McCabe’s head start, there was no way that Phelps could catch him—not on foot, and not in that terrain. If the young man wanted to run, let him run for now. Within ten minutes there would be a statewide APB issued for Lee McCabe. The woods and valleys around Perryston offered many hiding places; but one man could only hide so long from canine search teams and helicopters, and whatever other resources Phelps could enlist from the state police.
Hawkins County had a total of four fulltime peace officers, himself included. The involvement of the state police was therefore a given at this point. The sheriff’s department was equipped to handle the usual DUIs and domestic disturbances. A multiple homicide call on a Saturday morning was a different matter.
The dispatcher had told him that the residents of the Tradewinds had seen at least two bodies inside the trailer. There hadn’t been a murder in Hawkins County since the early 1960s, a few years before Phelps had even been born.
He removed the hand-held radio from his belt and started to call the sheriff’s department dispatcher. But first he called Norris, the deputy who had accompanied him here.
“Deputy Norris?” Phelps said into the radio. “Have you secured the crime scene?”
“Affirmative,” Norris replied, the word partially broken by static. “Almost, that is. There is only one of me and there is a crowd of residents here.”
“Don’t let any of them inside that trailer.”
“Roger that, Sheriff. Do you want me to help you pursue the fugitive?”
Phelps knew that Norris would be lucky to run across the parking lot in front of the sheriff’s department facility. He would be all but useless in a pursuit on foot through hills and woods.
“No, Deputy. I want you to secure the crime scene. I’ll be along in a minute.”
Next Phelps contacted the sheriff’s department dispatcher. Rita Dinsmore picked up immediately. Rita was in her early fifties and she had the gravelly voice of a lifelong chain-smoker.
“What now, Sheriff?” The question was punctuated with a cough. Her tone was anxious. Rita had been a school girl at the time of the county’s last homicide.
“I want Deputies Johnson and Hathaway to proceed to the Tradewinds trailer park. Make it a code 10-39, Rita.” A 10-39 was the police code for urgent; it told available officers to turn on their sirens and respond with all possible haste.
“Deputy Hathaway called in sick this morning,” Rita said tentatively. Deputy Hathaway, the newest and greenest of Phelps’s deputies, was already distinguishing himself as a slacker: Since being hired by the department seven months ago, he had called in sick an average of once every two weeks.
“He says that he has a cold,” Rita added by way of explanation.
“Well, call him back,” Phelps said. “And tell him that we need everyone out today. We’re going to need to set up checkpoints.”
“Roger that, Sheriff.” She had no more faith in Deputy Hathaway than Phelps did.
“What about Deputy Johnson?” Phelps asked.
“She’s in supplemental firearms training this morning—down at Frankfort. You remember, Sheriff?”
Phelps cursed silently. Yes, he had told Deputy Johnson that she could sign up for a supplemental firearms training course in Frankfort, the state capital. Darla Johnson was an uncannily good shot. Phelps knew that she wasn’t satisfied with the career path that Hawkins County offered. Within a few years she planned to apply for the state’s SWAT team.
Compared to Norris and Hathaway, Darla Johnson was an ideal deputy. Phelps planned to support her SWAT application, even though her move would leave him short-handed. This morning, however, he needed every officer he could muster—which was never more than three plus himself. The supplemental firearms training had come at a bad time.
“Well, then, I suppose Deputy Norris and I are going to have to handle this situation, unless you can raise Hathaway on the telephone.”
“I’ll call him now, Sheriff.”
“Thank you, Rita. Over and out.”
He turned away from the wooded valley into which McCabe had vanished, and toward the crisis that was unfolding at the murder scene. His one available deputy, Ron Norris, had already pushed the crowd back to a reasonably safe distance. Norris had established himself as a boundary in the space between the doorway of the trailer and the murmuring crowd. Norris was in his late thirties, and he had put on a bit of weight in recent years. His belly protruded over his belt buckle. He was breathing heavily; little beads of perspiration glistened on his cheeks and forehead.
The sight of Norris did not inspire confidence. The deputy was fidgeting: he kneaded the leather of his Sam Brown belt with his thumbs and forefingers. He bit his lower lip and took a few meaningless paces to his left. Then he paced back to his right before finally standing still. What was the deputy’s problem?
As Norris was completing his nervous routine, Phelps noticed one woman in the crowd eying the deputy with concern. She looked at Norris and then spoke to a woman beside her. Both of the women stared back at Norris and they shook their heads.
“I said step back folks!” Norris barked at the throng of gawkers. From what Phelps could see, the folks were not making any real attempts to move closer to the trailer that contained the two fresh corpses. No reason for Norris to shout at them like that. They were curious, of course, as anyone would be when disturbed by violence on a peaceful Saturday morning. The murders had occurred only a few paces from where they ate their meals, made love, and put their children to bed. The fabric of their daily lives had been torn asunder. The first job of the police was to stitch that fabric back together. At a crime scene, the police were supposed to reassure the citizenry they served, to reestablish the sense of security that all Americans took for granted.
Norris was generally a reliable deputy when handling routine calls; but he seemed unusually agitated by the brutal homicides. Had Norris ever handled a truly violent crime before? No, as a Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department deputy, he probably hadn’t.
The two sheriff’s department black-and-whites also formed a barrier of sorts. Their lights were still flashing. The word had spread through the Tradewinds, and a secondary crowd was already gathering. But this group stayed behind the black-and-whites.
There was a fresh wave of murmuring from the crowd as Phelps approached. He spoke quietly to Norris, so that he would not be overheard.
“You’ve been inside, Deputy?”
“Affirmative, Sheriff. Exactly like the 911 calls reported, more or less. Two Caucasian victims: one male, one female. Both with gunshot wounds to the head. Both very much dead. These people here tell me that the male victim was one Tim Fitzsimmons, aged early thirties. I don’t know the identity of the female victim.”
Phelps raised his brows. “Not that Tim Fitzsimmons?”
Norris nodded. “The same. Did time in the state pen. Rumored to be dabbling in the sale and distribution of hillbilly crack.”
Hillbilly crack was a slang term for methamphetamine. In recent years the drug had been sweeping through the rural South. Like most small-town law enforcement agencies, Hawkins County wasn’t prepared to combat a serious narcotics trade.
“We should have been out here before this,” Phelps reflected.
“Yeah, I figured you’d say something like that, Sheriff; but the local rumor mill was all we had to go on. And if we listened to the rumor mill, we’d be shaking down every unemployed redneck for something or other.”
That might be true, of course; but they had known that Fitzsimmons had a record.
Then Phelps realized that he was stalling—avoiding the grisly task that lay before him.
I’m one hell of a sheriff, he thought sourly.
Phelps maneuvered around Norris and climbed the stairs of the trailer. He stepped through the doorway.
The sight of the two bodies struck him like a sudden physical blow. Phelps had been expecting them, of course; but seeing them was something else entirely.
Fitzsimmons, ex-con and probable drug dealer though he was, made a pitiable spectacle, sprawled on the floor of his living room with half of his head missing. The woman was worse: Phelps stared at her mutilated body and thought of her wasted youth. Whoever she was, she should not have ended up this way.
He looked away, suddenly disgusted—with the scene but also with himself. A sheriff was not supposed to be sensitive. A sheriff was supposed to be insensitive so that regular people would not have to view images such as this.
Phelps had seen corpses before. Nearly twenty years earlier, he had been a young Marine in Operation Desert Storm, the last major American war of the twentieth century. One morning in late February of 1991, Sergeant Phelps had witnessed the aftermath of a vast killing, and he still saw it from time to time in his dreams.
By late February of that year, the short war had been winding down, and Saddam Hussein’s ignominious but temporary defeat had been all but a given. Phelps’s platoon had been ordered to secure a portion of the northern Kuwaiti desert. This section of the vast dunescape was sundered by the six lanes of Highway 80, the main conduit for vehicle traffic between Iraq and Kuwait.
When the U.S.-led coalition drove the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the invaders had exited Kuwait City in a makeshift fleet of military transports and stolen civilian cars. They loaded these conveyances with as much looted property as they could. And so the Iraqis had fled, the rape and plunder of their southern neighbor finally at an end, the U.S.-led coalition pursuing them.
Near a portion of the highway known as the Mutla Ridge, American aircraft had attacked the long Iraqi convoy. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Iraqi soldiers were incinerated inside their escape vehicles. Western journalists had wasted no time in dubbing this scene “the Highway of Death.”
By the time Phelps and his men had arrived, the charred corpses and blackened machine wreckage had cooled. Phelps had walked among the vehicles, staring into the empty eye sockets of leering skulls. The men inside the stolen BMWs and Mercedes were little more than skeletons now. In the end, their rape of Kuwait and their desperate trek through the desert had been for nothing. What had they been thinking? Their delusion had been vast: Some of the Iraqi dead still wore the blackened remains of Rolexes taken from Kuwaiti department stores.
Phelps pushed the memories away. The two corpses before him now troubled him more than those hundreds of corpses from two decades prior. That had been war, after all; and if not all of those men had deserved to die in such a fashion, they had certainly been complicit in their own fate. This was no war zone; it was a residential trailer park in Phelps’s hometown, a community that he had sworn to protect and serve. He could not escape the fact that he bore some responsibility for those two bodies on the floor.
Phelps unholstered his pistol. Norris had already made a brief search of the trailer and he believed it to be empty; but he did not want to be killed by that most dangerous of enemies—the one who is not supposed to be there.
He proceeded through the back hallway. He saw a makeshift meth lab in the spare bedroom. Apparently Fitzsimmons had harbored ambitions of being a producer as well as a distributor. That ambition had probably been a factor in getting himself and the woman killed.
The rest of the trailer was clear—and unremarkable. The trailer was filled the usual trappings of lower middle class existence. Even before this morning’s carnage, the place could have used a serious cleaning. His criminality excepted, Tim Fitzsimmons had led a mundane and uninteresting life.
Back in the living room, Phelps forced himself to deal with another of the morning’s inevitable conclusions: Lee McCabe was the probable killer. Just as the two bodies had made him think of Iraq, the image of Lee McCabe running down the hillside made him think of Lee’s mother. Another batch of memories that he would have to suppress if he intended to fulfill his duty conscientiously.
Phelps forced himself to take another look at the dead, lest he allow his personal feelings to crowd out the larger reality of what had taken place here. But for now there was nothing more he could do—not in this trailer. A thorough search would follow, of course, once the county forensics team arrived. He knew that an ambulance was also en route, though there was nothing that a team of paramedics could do for these two people on the floor.
He listened to the voices outside: The residents of the trailer park were anxious and quickly growing agitated. From what he could hear, Norris was doing a clumsy job of handling them.
Phelps returned his pistol to its holster and fastened the snap. For now he would have to focus on the situation outside.
Phelps could hear a fresh set of sirens: the county ambulance already. He resisted the urge to look again upon the dead female victim. Tim Fitzsimmons had done time in stir; he was a reputed meth dealer who had consorted with criminal elements for most of his life. No big surprise that he would go out with a bullet to the back of the head. But the girl troubled Phelps: Another woman who had made the fatal mistake of falling for the wrong man. That had been enough to get her killed.
The approaching siren seemed to mock the dead. Fitzsimmons and the girl would leave the trailer in body bags, not on stretchers.
He felt relieved when he stepped outside, leaving the two bodies behind him. But the audience that was awaiting him was not exactly friendly. The people outside were growing anxious. A burly man at the front of the crowd pointed his finger at Phelps and said:
“Aren’t you going after him, Sheriff? He’s getting’ away!”
“You ain’t going to catch him in that trailer!”
Phelps quashed the resentment he felt at being told how to do his job. It was a natural question, of course. None of these people had ever pursued a suspect in real life. They had done it only in their minds, vicariously, while watching television shows and movies. They therefore didn’t realize a central truth of police work: that the Hollywood image of the lone officer chasing down a criminal and challenging him in a gunfight was more myth than fact. Actual police protocol strongly discouraged one-on-one confrontations with armed suspects, unless the loss of innocent life was imminent. The man-to-man shootout was a last resort. Sometimes the best choice a cop could make was to hold tight and call for backup.
Phelps believed that he had made the right decision, though there would probably be more than a few citizens here who would disagree. He could not have apprehended McCabe on foot—not by himself, and not with the head start that the young man already had. But it was only a temporary setback. A net would soon be drawing around McCabe. Phelps was confident that he would be in custody soon.
“We saw who did it: It was that Lee McCabe!”
“Why don’t you go get him, Sheriff?”
Phelps sighed. You could not treat private citizens like fools just because you were the one with the badge and the gun.
He held up his hand in a gesture that commanded silence. He scanned the faces gathered around him. He knew most of them on a first-name basis.
“Okay, here’s what I can tell you now. As most of you already know, there are two corpses inside this trailer. One white male was seen fleeing the scene, and we’ll be putting resources in place to apprehend him. I don’t think that he will come back here. If he does, dial 911. Do not attempt contact with him yourself.”
“If he comes back here, I’ll shoot him!” one man said.
“Don’t talk like a fool, Mike,” Phelps replied. The speaker, Mike Early, was a well-known town roughneck who was frequently involved in fisticuffs at the half-dozen bars that sufficed for nightlife in Perryston. “If you see Lee McCabe, you are to leave him alone and call the police.”
There, I’ve said his name, Phelps thought. So much for innocent until proven guilty. But then, Lee McCabe was clearly present at the crime scene with a weapon. And he had clearly fled from the police. Lee McCabe was already guilty of at least one crime, no matter what his degree of guilt regarding the murders turned out to be.
“There is going to be a lot of traffic through here,” Phelps continued. “A team of paramedics is going to be inside this trailer in less than two minutes, and a coroner’s team after that. There will be a forensics team, too; and you’re going to see a substantial state police presence by tomorrow at the latest. As of right now, this is an official crime scene. I want you all to stay back; but I need to ask you to remain nearby. Deputy Norris and I are going to have to interview any of you who saw anything. Thank you all for your cooperation.”
He walked away before they had a chance to ask any more questions. There was nothing that he could reveal at this point, and much more that he simply didn’t know. With two dead bodies and a fugitive suspect loose in the woods, he could only devote so much time to informing the public. Within the next hour, the media would learn about the shootings. Television stations throughout the state would be talking about the bloodletting in Hawkins County. The murders would make the news in Cincinnati and Nashville as well. By lunchtime the residents of the Tradewinds would be able to learn the latest developments by switching on their television sets or their computers—just like everyone else.
The crowd parted for Phelps as he headed toward his patrol car. He wondered how much ground Lee McCabe had already covered. The terrain of those woods was hilly, rocky, and nearly impassable in many places. Perhaps McCabe was having second thoughts already.
Why did that idiot have to run like that? Phelps wondered if his own past behavior had influenced McCabe’s decision to run: Would McCabe have surrendered to a different lawman?
He recalled an incident that had occurred a few years ago, when he had treated McCabe in an unprofessional manner. In his mind’s eye, he could still see the single taillight of McCabe’s beat-up Trans Am alongside the road in the misty darkness of a spring night, the lights of his own patrol car sweeping red beams across its rear window. He could still see the uneasy, but somehow defiant expression on McCabe’s face when he handed over his license.
The memory brought a wave of shame: He should never have done what he did. He should never have said what he said.
Phelps had been meaning to apologize to the young man for that. He had been thinking that perhaps he could, somehow, make amends. But then Lori had died, and the idea of an actual conversation with her son had become too unpleasant to contemplate.
Thereafter, Phelps had studiously ignored Lee McCabe, and he had ignored him since he had come back from Iraq. Did McCabe believe that his county sheriff was out to get him? Well, how could you blame the young man? Wouldn’t he be thinking the exact same thing if he were in McCabe’s shoes?
Until the entire truth came out, Phelps resolved to erect a Chinese wall between his feelings and his professional duties. He did not like Lee McCabe, and nothing could be done about that; but he owed him objectivity and fairness.
He decided to discount the crowd’s conviction that the young man was solely responsible for the murders inside the trailer. True, the circumstantial evidence against Lee McCabe was substantial; but he would need to learn more before he drew any conclusions.
He was anxious to begin interviewing those people who crowded around Deputy Norris and the trailer. Had any of them actually seen McCabe kill that couple? There were many ways that this could play out. For example, Lee McCabe might have been selling meth along with Fitzsimmons. Perhaps a third party had come to the trailer park with the intention of killing both Fitzsimmons and McCabe. Perhaps the two men had been making a stand together; but Lee had survived, while Fitzsimmons and his girlfriend did not. That scenario could still fit with McCabe’s decision to flee the scene of the crime.
Behind him, Norris ordered the crowd back again, his voice cracking under obvious stress. A few male onlookers shouted back this time: By God they’re killing people in our backyard, one of them said. Don’t tell us to stand back but give us some goddamned answers.
For a brief moment Norris looked like he was going to draw his gun—then thankfully thought better of it. Norris was the wrong man for a crowd like this. One hothead among them—coupled with one miscalculation on Norris’s part—and the crowd could easily degenerate into a mob.
Phelps stood just out of earshot as he pulled his personal cell phone—rather than his police radio—from his belt to begin his requests for help and resources. For police calls beyond the county line, the cell phone was his only immediate option. His 700 MHz police radio couldn’t patch directly into the Frankfort network. Like all states in the post-9/11 world, Kentucky had plans to make all its local emergency networks compatible and interoperable statewide, with updated equipment and additional radio towers. But that would take more time, more state budget appropriations, and more federal grants.
Phelps was already having second thoughts about his decision to let McCabe run. Would he have made the same decision ten or fifteen years ago? Would he have done differently if the fugitive had been someone other than Lori Mills’s son?
There was no way of knowing.
He pushed these questions aside when a police dispatcher in Frankfort answered his call. Phelps began to set the wheels of law enforcement in motion.
When Lee McCabe stopped running, he found himself on the edge of a large clearing that was dominated by a cornfield. The plants were ankle-high and unmoving in the hot, still air. Cicadas chirped from the adjacent woods.
The little valley lay behind him, and he felt exposed out here in the open. So this was what the life of a fugitive was like, was it? You could never feel comfortable in open places, and would instead prefer the shadows—dark places like the little creek valley, where the light of day could not fully penetrate.
There was no going back the way he had come, of course; even now Phelps and his deputy might be wending their way down through the valley, their guns drawn and ready. Then he would be forced either to surrender or to gun down two officers of the law. The thought of those stark alternatives impelled him forward.
On one side of the cornfield was a band of asphalt that Lee thought he recognized as the Seven Mile Road, though he could not be sure. He knew Hawkins County well, but one location was sometimes indistinguishable from another in the rural sectors that were removed from town.
He dared not approach the road; standing in the middle of this clearing was equally dangerous. He could not afford to be seen. Not by anyone if he could help it.
Lee skirted the cornfield and cut across the clearing to the south, finally threading his way back into another band of woods. His escape from the Tradewinds had started him in a southerly direction, and he was continuing a southerly trajectory now. Where would he go? Would he cross the state line into Tennessee a month from now?
The trail that he found was nearly as large as a two-lane roadway, and the trees on either side of him were massive oaks that might date back to pre-Revolutionary War times, when this part of Kentucky had been the land of the Shawnee. It was said that some of these old trails were, in fact, originally Shawnee hunting paths, and that they went on for miles. Somewhere in these woods there probably was a trail that he could follow all the way into Tennessee.
Long before he reached Tennessee, though, he would head deeper into the county. If his memory served him correctly, there was a state campground not far from here. That might be a good place to hide—the woods would be a place to collect himself until he regained his bearings, where he might be able to gain the time and distance he would need to formulate a plan.
The forest canopy was high and it all but blotted out the sky. This dark world of the woods provided a feeling of relative safety, even though that was probably an illusion. How long before helicopters would be searching for him, he wondered. At least the aircraft would not be able to see him if he remained in the forests.
I am already thinking like a fugitive, he realized.
Lee knew that his predicament was dire. He had been seen running from the scene of a double murder. Multiple witnesses had observed him as he emerged from the bloodstained interior of Fitzsimmons’s trailer. His neighbors had seen his gun. The police had seen him too—both Phelps and at least one of his deputies.
And now another realization struck him.
He was utterly alone.
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 a 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 supposed, 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 the 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.