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.