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.