Night of Thunder
Brother Richard liked it loud. He punched the iPod up all the way until the music hammered his brain, its force beating away like some banshee howl from the high, dark mountains hidden behind the screen of rushing trees. He was holding at eighty-five miles per hour, even through the turns, though that took a surgeon’s skill, a miracle of guts and timing. The music roared.
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Gonna run to the sea
Sea won’t you hide me?
Run to the sea
Sea won’t you hide me?
But the sea it was aboilin’
All on that day
It was that old-time religion, fierce and haunted, harsh, unforgiving. It was Baptist fire and brimstone, his father’s fury and anguish, it was Negroes in church, afeared of the flames of hell, it was the roar of a hot, primer-gray V8 ’Cuda in the night, as good old boys in sheets raised their own particular kind of hell, driven by white lightning or too much Dixie or too much hate, it was the South arising under the red snapping of the flag of the Confederacy.
He rode the corner perfectly, left-footing the brake and coming off it at the precise moment so that he came out of the hairpin at full power. It was late, it was dark, it was quiet, except of course for the thunder of the engine. His right foot involuntarily pressed pedal to metal and the car leapt forward, breaching the century mark, now 110, now 120, right at death’s edge, right near to and within spitting distance of oblivion, and he loved it, a crack in the window seal sending a torrent of air to beat his hair.
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Gonna run to the moon
Moon won’t you hide me?
Run to the moon
Moon won’t you hide me?
But the moon it was ableedin’,
All on that day
A climb and then a sudden turn. It was Iron Mountain, and 421 slashed crookedly up its angry hump. He hit brake, felt the car slide, saw the great whiz of dust white in the headlamp beams as he slipped to shoulder, felt the grit as the stilled tires fought the gravel and ripped it free, but the skid was controlled, never close to loss, and as the car slowed, he downshifted to second, lurched ahead and caught the angle of the turn just right, pealing back across the asphalt and leaving the dust explosion far behind as he found the new, perfect vector and powered onward into the night.
If you thought you were in the presence of a young prince of the South, high on octane and testosterone and the beat of an old and comforting spiritual, you’d be wrong. Brother Richard was by no means young; he was a thin, ageless man with a curiously dead face—a recent surgery had remolded his physiognomy into something generally bland and generic—and he was well enough dressed to pass for a preacher or a salesman or a dentist, in a gray suit, white shirt, and black tie, all neat, all cheap, straight off the rack at Mr. Sam’s big store near the interstate. You’d never look at him and see the talent for driving that was so special to his being, or the aggression that fueled it, or the hatred that explained the aggression, or the bleakness of spirt and utter capability, or even his profession, which was that of assassin.
• • •
“Nikki Swagger, girl reporter.” It was funny, it was corny, but she liked it and smiled whenever she conjured it to mind.
Nikki Swagger, girl reporter. It was true enough. Nikki, twenty-four, was the police reporter for the Bristol Courier-Herald, of Bristol, TN/VA. “TN/VA” was an odd construction, and its oddity expressed an odd reality: The newspaper served a single city set in two entities, half in the Volunteer State, half in the Old Dominion State. The border ran smack through the city, a burg of one hundred thousand set in the southernmost reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, where one state became another. It was horse country, it was farm country, it was quarry country, but most of all, and especially this time of year, it was NASCAR country. Race week was coming and soon one of Tennessee’s smaller cities would become one of its larger as three hundred fifty thousand citizens of NASCAR nation—some would call it Budweiser nation—came to town for the Sharpie 500 a week and days away, one of the premier Sprint Cup events on the circuit. Nikki couldn’t wait!
But for now, Nikki drove her Volvo down Tennessee’s State Route 421 from Mountain City, Johnson County’s county seat, twenty-odd miles out of Bristol. She drove carefully as the road wound down the slope of a mountain called Iron, switchbacking this way and that to eat up the steep elevation. She knew she had to be wary, for it was full dark, visibility was limited—sometimes interstate rigs came piling up on the verge of chaos and hurt, taking a shorter, emptier route at night between podunk destinations—and to her life was still one great adventure and she wanted to enjoy every single second of it.
She checked the speedometer and saw she was under forty, which seemed about right, and the world beyond her windshield consisted of two cones of light which illuminated the next 250 or so feet, a narrow ribbon on asphalt, and curves that came and went with breathtaking abruptness. She was an excellent driver, possibly because she’d studied the nature of vehicles in space so assiduously in her western girlhood where, besides horses, she’d spent years in tough-as-nails go-karting and had the medals and scars to prove it, as well as several roomfuls of trophies and ribbons and photos of herself. The girl in the pictures was beautiful as always but equally as always slightly disheveled, and usually posed in a caged car about quarter-size. In the pictures always were her mother, a handsome, fair woman who looked as if she stepped out of a Howard Hawks movie and should have been named Slim, and her father, whose military heritage seemed inscribed in the leather of a Spartan shield that comprised the perpetually tanned hide of his smileless face.
Down the mountain she went at a carefully controlled and agilely sustained forty per, her mind alight with possibility. She’d been in the county seat all day and talked to dozens of people, the subject being her specialty as a crime reporter, methamphetamine issues. Meth—called “crystal,” called “ice,” called “killer dust,” called “purple death,” called “angel breath,” called the “whispering crazies,” called whatever—haunted Johnson County, Tennessee, as it haunted most of rural America. It was cheap, it was more or less easily made (though it did have a tendency to explode in the kitchen labs of the trailers and shacks where it was manufactured), and it hit like a sledgehammer. People loved the first few minutes of the high, and didn’t remember the last few minutes, where they put their newborn—in the oven or down the well or just on the clothesline. They didn’t remember beating their spouse to death with a hoe or a brick, or wandering down the interstate, shotgun in hand, shooting at those strange things roaring by that turned out to be cars. People got themselves in a whole mess of trouble on meth. Not after every usage but often enough so that lots of ugliness happened. She’d seen families sundered, hideous crimes, law enforcement compromised by the abundant profit, dealers shot or slashed to death in alleyways or cornfields, the whole spectrum of big city dope woe played out in no-name towns the New York Times had never heard of and no movies had ever been made about. She was the scourge’s scribe, its Homer, its Melville, its Stephen Crane, even if no one had ever heard of her, either.
As she drove, she puzzled over several eccentricities her daylong trip had uncovered. The nominal reason for the trip was to go on a meth raid with Sheriff Reed Wells, the ex-Ranger officer who’d returned home to clean up the county, as the saying went, and who had talked the Justice Department into leaning on the Department of Defense and had somehow acquired a much-beaten but still-viable Blackhawk helicopter to permit scouting and airborne tactical consideration. In fact, she’d spent the morning airborne, sitting next to the handsome fellow, as he maneuvered his troops down brushy mountain paths, and coordinated a neat strike on a rusting trailer, which in fact did turn out to house a small-scale meth lab. Nikki had seen the culprit, a down-on-his-luck mountaineer named Cubby Holden, arrested, his apparatus hauled out into the yard and smashed by husky young deputies dressed up like Tommy Tactical action figures. They loved every second of the game, leaving behind a sallow woman, two wormy kids, and a hell of a mess in the yard.
A typical triumph for Sheriff Wells, yet the problem was that meth prices, despite his many strategic successes, stayed stable in the Tri-cities area. (The second and third cities along with Bristol were Johnson City—oddly, not a part of Johnson County—and King-sport.) She knew this from interviews with addicts at a state rehab clinic in Mountain City. Kid told her he paid thirty-five dollars a hit yesterday and two years ago, it was thirty-five dollars a hit.
Now how could this be? Maybe there were a lot more labs out there than anybody knew. Maybe there was some kind of protected superlab. Maybe some southern crime family was running the stuff in from other places.
Then she heard a strange rumor, thought nothing of it, picked it up again, and had a few hours before dark. It held that someone in the mountains was shooting up the night. Lots of ammo being burned, blasting away, somewhere down old Route 167 before it connected with the bigger, newer 61. Now what could that be? Would that be the famous super meth lab, hidden in some hollow, invisible from the sky, its security so professionally run it demanded its own set of Tommy Tacticals to handle perimeter duties and work out with their submachine guns every night?
Rumor suggested that it lay in the pie of land around the nexus of the 67–167 routes, and, night still being a bit off, she’d poked around there finding nothing except some kind of Baptist prayer camp nesting behind a NO TRESPASSING sign that she ignored and, upon arrival, encountered a Colonel Sanders in a powder blue Wal-Mart suit who gave her a free Bible and tried to get her to stay for supper. She skipped the food, but driving back down the dusty road to the highway—
It was just a piece of cardboard, trapped by a snarl of weeds and held at a peculiar angle so the sun happened to light it, yielding a color not found in forests in steamy Augusts as well as right angles, not found in any forest, ever. Her eye caught it. So she stopped and plucked it up. Something in it was familiar. It was something official looking, military, at least governmental—equipment, ammo, something like that. The scrap was torn, rent by being crushed by passing vehicles, but as her father was a noted shooter and always had boxes of weird stuff around, she knew what this sort of thing could mean, though only a bit of official print was still legible on the scrap.
But then she was disappointed, as all thoughts of ammunition and explosives vanished. She thought it might be biblical, something Baptist, for it also carried religious connotations. It had been bisected in its rough passage to its nest in the leaves, and only a few symbols remained on the piece. Who knew what started the inscription, but it ended in “k 2:11,” though with dirt splashes and spots and crumples she wasn’t sure about the colon. But it made her think instantly of Mark 2:11. Bullet or Bible? Weirdly, both. She remembered the crazed Waco standoff of her youth, the gunfight, the siege, the fire-and-brimstone ending. That was something that somehow combined both bullets and Bibles. Maybe that dynamic was in play here, for the world in many places had not grown beyond killing on what was believed to be God’s say-so. On the other hand: It’s just a scrap of cardboard by the road, that’s all it is, it could have blown in and ended up here a million different ways. Maybe it’s just a function of my imagination, the reporter’s distressing tendency to see more than what’s there. She tucked it in the Bible that the old Baptist minister had pressed upon her so it wouldn’t get lost or crumpled in her briefcase and drove off in search of answers.
But a local gun store, run by a bitter old man who’d turned skank mean after a bit, was of no help, so she set about her drive home.
But now she thought: My dad will know.
Her dad knew stuff. He was a great fighter, once a famous marine, and more recently had gone away for a while a few times and then come back, always sadder, sometimes with a new scar or two. But he had a talent—and in this world it was a valuable talent—and the core of it was that he knew a certain thing or two in a certain arcane subject area. He wasn’t reliable on politics or movies—hated ’em all—but he was superb in nature, could read land, wind, and sky, could track and hunt with anyone, and in the odd, sealed little world of guns and fighting with them he was the rough equivalent of a rock star. Never talked about it. Now and then she’d catch him just staring off into space, his face grave, as he remembered a lifetime of near misses or wounds that healed hard and slow. But then he shook off his pain and became funny and outrageous again. And she knew that other men respected him in almost mythical ways, because what so many of them dreamed of, he’d actually pulled off, even if the details remained unspecific. After his last absence, he’d returned with, among other things, a bad limp from being laid open across the hip and not stitched for several hours, and an incurable depression. Or so she thought. And then the depression was miraculously cured in a single afternoon when a Japanese-American civil servant had delivered…a new little sister. Miko. Adorable, insatiable, graceful, full of love and adventure. The family atmosphere lightened immeasurably, and the family condition became extreme happiness, even if, over two weeks, the old man’s hair went from a glossy brown to a gunmetal gray, and aged him ten or twenty years.
So her dad would know.
She pulled off the road, not wanting to have the cell in her hand when a truck full of logs or canned goods came barreling up the other lane off a blind turn. She got the cellular out of her purse, the car’s engine idling, the silence of a dark mountain forest all around her. She picked up the Bible and plucked the scrap out, holding it in one hand so she could describe it.
The phone rang and rang and rang until it finally produced her father’s recorded voice: “This is Swagger. Leave a message, but I probably won’t call you back.”
His sense of humor. Not everybody found it funny.
“Hey, Pop, it’s me. Call me right away. I have a question.”
Where was he? Probably sitting around with a crew of marine buddies, laughing to hell and gone about master sergeants from another century, or possibly out with Miko, teaching her to ride as he had taught Nikki to ride.
So she’d have to wait. Or would she? She put the scrap back in the Bible, pulled out her laptop, along in case she had to file remotely. The question, would there be a network out here? And the answer was—ta da!—yes. Wireless was everywhere!
She went to Google and pumped in “k 2:11” and waited as the magic inside hunted down k 2:11s the world over and sent the information back through blue glow to her. Hmm, nothing in any way connected to her issue. So she went to Mark 2:11 and got Mark’s words, which made no sense to her. Context. You have to have context.
Arrgh, nothing. She wanted a cigarette but had been trying to quit.
But then she thought of her good friends from Brazil who were taking over the world.
She requested Amazon.com, and instantly that empire responded.
A few tries at k 2:11 yielded nothing except some technical gibberish, a book on Russian submarines, another on World War II ships called corvettes.
Next she tried to work the bullet angle, just in case, and went to “Cartridges” and got a lot of info, maybe too much. After scanning its contents courtesy of the Amazonians, she settled on a book, The History of Sniping and Sharpshooting, because it seemed to offer the broadest overview of the subject, then hit the one-touch purchase option so that it would arrive soon. That was stupid. Her dad would call well before then, and explain all. Still, it made her feel that she had done something positive.
She put the laptop away and checked this way and that for traffic, preparing to edge onto the asphalt. She’d be home in an hour. Another day, another dollar for Nikki Swagger, girl reporter—whoa!
Some redneck in a low black car came whipping by, faster than light or sound. Man, was the guy crazy or what? She’d never seen a car move like that, a blur, a low hum, a whisper of streamline and chrome, there and gone and then vanished forever. Was it a dream, a vision, something out of a nightmare?
It scared her. Not that these hills were haunted or anything, but you could convince yourself of anything looking at fog-shrouded hollows, hairpin turns, the dark carpeting of trees leading up to unseen peaks, the networks of roads leading off to NO TRESPASSING signs and God-knows-what-else up them. There were rumors of militia out here or some gang of outriders or Klansmen or White Supremacists or some such. There was the business about shooters, blazing away in the night, an army of righteousness getting ready for its conquest. This guy in his muscle car bolting along over a hundred miles an hour could have been an emissary from any of them.
No, she told herself. Some kid, too much beer, he thinks he’s some NASCAR hero, these people love their drivers, that’s what a kid’s fancy would turn to. She half-believed that in the next twenty miles she’d come across the low, black speed merchant on its side, bleeding flame in a pulse of red light, as the emergency service vehicles circled it and their crews tried to pull the hero, now a crispy critter, his soul in heaven, from the flames.
She shivered. Then she slipped into gear and pulled out.
• • •
He saw her. It was in a haze of speed, but he made out the Volvo and a young woman’s face caught in the glow of dash light. She’d pulled aside on the right, nestling under trees, and had been working at some task, some continuation of the curiosity that had doomed her. He saw in that flash of light a beautiful young face and he knew how close it was, he was running out of mountain road, and she’d be a much harder kill without an iron wall of trees to drive her into on her right side.
Why had he looked to the right at that moment? Who knew? It was the Sinnerman’s luck, and even the Sinnerman got lucky once in a while. He slowed to eighty, then found a wayside, pulled over more deeply, to await her.
Brother Richard punched the iPod and ran through his Sinnerman options again, beginning with the Travelers 3, going to the pure gospel of the Reverend Seabright Kingly and His Hebrew Chorus (that was funky!) and on to the personality-free Seekers. Then to Les Baxter’s balladeer, winding through the high-boring purity of Shelby Flint, and finishing up with the arrhythmic, antimelodic approach of Sixteen Horsepower. All interesting, with the Travelers 3 maybe the truest folk esthetic, the Balladeer the highest show-biz, and the Reverend the fanciest old–Negro church version, almost unrecognizable for all the hooting and shrilling.
Brother Richard knew himself proudly to be the Sinnerman. He would do the wrong. I can live with the wrong. I exult in the wrong, he thought. I define the wrong. I am the wrong. It could have turned out different, but it turned out this way.
He waited as the music roared in his ear. And finally, she came by him on the lonely road, not seeing him pulled off to the side, her placid, little, sensible Volvo trimly purring along at less than forty. He could see that she was tense behind the wheel, for he saw her body hunched forward to the wheel, her neck tight and straight, her head abnormally still, her hands rigid at ten and two on the wheel. She was worried about the road, about the possibility of a big truck coming up from behind her or barreling widely and wildly around a turn.
But she wasn’t worried about the Sinnerman. In her version of the world, there was no Sinnerman. She had no concept of the Sinnerman and no idea of what was about to befall her.
• • •
Almost out of these damned mountains. Then a short, flat run across the floor of Shady Valley, a last splurge of hills, and then Sullivan County, civilization, as 421 took her back to Bristol, to her apartment, to a nice glass of wine.
Then Nikki saw death.
It was a blur in her mirror, just a shadow as no details presented themselves. Then it was a blur in her driver’s-side window, growing exponentially by the nanosecond, full of thrust and empty of mercy. It was death in a dark car, come to snuff her out.
No one had ever tried to kill Nikki before. But she had her father’s blood in her veins and more importantly his DNA, which meant she had reflexes fast as her killer’s, and she wasn’t by nature turned toward fear or panic. The car hit her hard, the noise filled the universe and knocked her askew, toward trees which rushed at her, signaling catastrophe as her tires bit against the skittish dust. Then she did what one person in ten thousand will do in those circumstances and she did it at a speed that has no place in time, out of certitude for correct behavior at the extremes.
She did nothing. She let the car correct itself as its wheels reoriented swiftly. She had control again.
Most, seeing trees or cliff rushing at them, will overcorrect, and when they do that the laws of physics, immutable and merciless, mandate a roll. The roll is death. The neck and its thin stalk of spine can’t take the g-force and sunder under the extreme vibration. Cessation of consciousness and life signs is immediate, and whether the wreck is in flames or not, further body trauma, broken bones, sundered blood-bearing organs, whatever, is immaterial. She didn’t know that the Sinnerman, with his experience in automotive assassination, had presumed she would yank the wheel for life, guaranteeing death, and was surprised as she rode the bump out, got soft control, and then accelerated, half on road, half on gravel, to escape his predation.
He hit her again, in the rear-third of the accelerating Volvo, knocking her fishtailing off the road in a screech of dust. But she didn’t panic at the wheel and hard-spin it this time either (sure death), but instead let it spin free and find its own proper vector as she scooted just ahead of him. He pulled himself left, drew off, set up for another thump, this one better aimed.
Nikki was not scared. Fright is imagination combined with anticipation combined with dread, and none of those conditions described her. Instead, she accepted instantaneously that she was in a fight to the death with a trained, experienced killer, and she didn’t waste any concentration on the unfairness of it all. Instead, she pushed the pedal so hard to the floor of the car that she felt the beginning of g-force, though of course the Volvo 240 with its 200-horsepower six-cylinder was no match for the muscled-up Chrysler barn-burner under her antagonist’s foot. But as he struggled to find an angle, she put surprising space between the vehicles and yet was astute enough to see in supertime a turn approaching. So now she finally braked, softly turning into a power slide that would get her around the turn at the best angle and set her up for another dead-on acceleration the hell out of there, if such a thing were possible, and it probably wasn’t.
• • •
Damn, she was good! As she control-skidded around the turn in a whine of rubber fighting for purchase of asphalt, Brother Richard saw his opening and, instead of veering outside of her, he bravely cut inside to begin his surge. His professional-quality cornering, as opposed to her gifted amateur approach, won him the inside where she didn’t expect him to be. As she tried to float back into the proper lane, he revved beyond redline, closed that off from her, and delivered his blow to the front fender of her right-hand side, not so much a thud as a nudge to push her out of equilibrium. But now, damnit, she figured this one out too, and jammed hard on her brakes, pumping the wheel as she skidded left.
The world spun before Nikki, racing across her windshield, pure abstraction in the cone of the one headlamp that still burned, and she nursed the brake pedal with a delicate foot while merely making suggestions to the wheel, which kept her in a semblance of control as she stopped, alas, to find herself one-eightied in the other direction. She was now facing the dangerous rising linkage of switchbacks up Iron Mountain that she’d just survived. So she punched it hard, jammed on the brakes as he came by her a third time (how had he gotten around so fast!), somehow got through a reverse right-hand, backing turn at a speed at which such a maneuver should never be conceived of, much less attempted, and again punched hard.
But he beat her, somehow, to possession of the road, and this time he hit her, rode her hard right. He turned, and she saw his face in the glare of the dash, its plainness, its evenness of feature, its dull symmetry, its almost generic quality, like the father of Dick in a Dick and Jane; it burned into her mind. And then she was off the road, out of control among the trees, and the world was jerking left and right, hard as the car slammed against or glanced off the trees. She felt her neck screaming, her head flopping this way and that, and then she hit, and everything stopped.