The Passage Page 19

He'd dozed on the plane and wasn't tired enough to sleep more. With no windows and no way to tell the time, he had no sense of distance or direction. But he'd sat still for whole months of his life; a few hours more wasn't anything he couldn't do. He let his mind go blank for a while. Time passed, and then he felt the van slowing. From the other side of the wall that sealed him from the driver's compartment came the muffled sound of voices, but Carter didn't know what it was all about. The van lurched forward and stopped again.

The door slid open to show two soldiers stamping their feet in the cold, white boys wearing parkas over their fatigues. Behind the soldiers, the brightly lit oasis of a McDonald's throbbed in the gloom. Carter heard the rush of traffic and figured they were by a highway somewhere. Though it was still dark, something about the sky felt like morning. His legs and arms were stiff from sitting.

"Here," one of the guards said and tossed him a bag. He noticed then that the other guard was biting into the last of a sandwich. "Breakfast."

Carter opened the bag, which contained an Egg McMuffin and a disk of hash browns wrapped in paper and a plastic cup of juice. His throat was bone dry from the cold, and he wished there was more of the juice, or even just water to drink. He drained it quickly. It was so sugary it made his teeth tingle.

"Thank you."

The soldier yawned into his hand. Carter wondered why they were being so nice. They didn't seem at all like Pincher and the rest of them. They were wearing sidearms but didn't act like this was anything.

"We've got a couple of hours yet," the soldier said as Carter finished eating. "You need to make a pit stop?"

Carter hadn't peed since the plane, but he was so dried out he didn't figure there was much in him to go with. He'd always been like that, could hold it for hours and hours. But he thought about the McDonald's, the people inside, the smell of food and the bright lights, and knew he wanted to see it.

"I reckon so."

The soldier climbed into the van, his heavy boots clanging on the metal floor. Crouching in the tiny space, he removed a shiny key from a pouch on his belt and unlocked the shackles. Anthony could see his face up close. He had red hair and wasn't no more than twenty, give or take.

"No funny stuff, understand?" he told Anthony. "We're not really supposed to do this."

"No sir."

"Here, zip up your coat. It's f**king freezing out here."

They led him across the parking lot, one on either side but not touching him. Carter couldn't remember when he'd gone anywhere without somebody else's hand on him someplace. Most of the cars in the lot had Colorado plates. The air smelled clean, like Pine-Sol, and he felt the presence of mountains around him, pressing down. There was snow on the ground, too, piled high against the edges of the lot and crusted with ice. He'd only seen snow once or twice in his life.

The soldiers knocked on the bathroom door, and when nobody answered, they let Carter inside. One came in while the other watched the door. There were two urinals, and Carter took one. The soldier who was with him took the other.

"Hands where I can see 'em," the soldier said, and laughed. "Just kidding."

Carter finished up and stepped to the sink to wash. The McDonald's he remembered from Houston were pretty dirty, especially the restrooms. When he was living on the street, he used to use one up in Montrose to wash up once in a while, until the manager caught on and chased him away. But this one was nice and clean, with flowery-smelling soap and a little potted plant sitting beside the sink. He washed his hands, taking his time, letting the warm water flow over his skin.

"They got plants in McDonald's now?" he asked the soldier.

The soldier gave him a puzzled look, then burst into laughter. "How long you been away?"

Carter didn't know what was so funny. "Most my life," he said.

When they exited the bathroom, the first soldier was standing in line, so the three of them waited together. Neither had so much as laid a hand on him. Carter took a slow look around the room: a couple of men sitting alone, a family or two, a woman with a teenage boy who was playing a handheld video game. Everyone was white.

They got to the counter and the soldier ordered coffee.

"You need anything else?" he asked Carter.

Carter thought a moment. "They got iced tea here?"

"You got iced tea?" the soldier asked the girl behind the counter.

She shrugged. She was loudly chewing gum. "Hot tea."

The soldier looked at Carter, who shook his head.

"Just the coffee."

The soldiers were Paulson and Davis. They introduced themselves when they got back to the van. One was from Connecticut, the other one from New Mexico, though Carter got them confused, and he didn't figure it made much difference, since he'd never been to either place. Davis was the one with the red hair. For the rest of the drive they left open the little window that connected the two compartments in the van; they left the shackles off, too. They were in Colorado, like he'd guessed, but whenever they came to a road sign the soldiers told him to cover his eyes, laughing like this was a big joke.

After a time they got off the interstate and took a rural highway that wound tight against the mountains. Sitting on the front bench of the passenger compartment, Carter could view a bit of the passing world through the windshield. Snow was piled steeply against the roadsides. There were no towns at all that Carter could see; only once in a while did a car approach them from the other direction, a blaze of light followed by the splash of melted snow as it passed. He'd never been anyplace like this, that had so few people in it. The clock on the dash said it was a little after six A.M.

"Cold up here," Carter said.

Paulson was driving; the other one, Davis, was reading a comic book.

"You got that right," said Paulson. "Colder'n Beth Pope's back brace."

"Who Beth Pope?"

Paulson shrugged, peering over the wheel. "Girl I knew in high school. She had, what's that thing, scoliosis."

Carter didn't know what that was, either. But Paulson and Davis thought it was funny enough. If the job Wolgast had for him meant working with these two, he'd be glad to do it.

"That Aquaman?" Carter asked Davis.

Davis passed him a couple of comic books from the pile, a League of Vengeance and an X-Men. It was too dark to read the words, but Carter liked looking at the pictures, which told the story anyway. That Wolverine was a badass; Carter had always liked him, though he always felt sorry for him, too. It couldn't be no fun having all that metal in your bones, and somebody he cared about was always dying or getting killed.

After another hour or so Paulson pulled the van over. "Sorry, dude," he told Carter. "We've got to lock you up again."

"'Sall right," Carter said, and nodded. "I appreciate the time."

Davis climbed out of the passenger seat and came around back. The door opened to a blast of cold air. Davis redid the shackles and pocketed the key.


Carter nodded. "How much longer we got to go?"

"Not much," he said.

They drove on. Carter could tell they were climbing now. He couldn't see the sky but guessed it would be light soon. As they slowed to cross a long bridge, wind buffeted the van.

They had reached the other side when Paulson met his eyes through the rearview. "You know, you don't seem like the others," he said. "What you do, anyway? You don't mind my asking."

"Who the others?"

"You know. Other guys like you. Cons." He swiveled his head to Davis. "Remember that guy, Babcock?" He shook his head and laughed. "Christ on a stick, what a whack job." He looked at Carter again. "He wasn't like you, that guy. I can tell you're different."

"I ain't crazy," Carter said. "Judge said I wasn't."

"But you did somebody, right? Else you wouldn't be here now."

Carter wondered if talking like this was something he had to do, if it was part of the deal. "They said I killed a lady. But I didn't mean to."

"Who was she? Wife, girlfriend, something like that?" Paulson was still grinning at him in the rearview, his eyes flashing with interest.

"No." Carter swallowed. "I cut the lady's lawn."

Paulson laughed and glanced at Davis again. "Listen to this. He cut the lady's lawn." He looked at Carter through the mirror again. "Little guy like you, how'd you do it?"

Carter didn't know what to say. He had a bad feeling now, like maybe they'd been nice to him just to mess with his head.

"Come on, Anthony. We got you a McMuffin, right? Took you to the bathroom? You can tell us."

"For f**ksakes," Davis said to Paulson. "Just shut up. We're almost there, what's the point?"

"The point is," Paulson said, and drew in a breath, "I want to know what this guy did. They all did something. Come on, Anthony, what's your story? You rape her before you did her? Was that it?"

Carter felt his face go hot with shame. "I wouldn't never do that," he managed.

Davis turned to Carter. "Don't listen to this douche bag. You don't have to say anything."

"Come on, the dude's retarded. Can't you see that?" Paulson eyed Carter eagerly through the mirror again. "I bet that's what happened, isn't it? I bet you f**ked the nice white lady whose lawn you were cutting, didn't you, Anthony?"

Carter felt the air stick in his throat. "I ain't ... sayin' ... no more."

"You know what they're going to do with you?" Paulson asked. "You thought maybe this was all a free ride?"

"Goddamnit. Zip your mouth," Davis said. "Richards will have both our asses for this."

"Yeah, f**k him too," Paulson said.

"Man ... said I got a job," Anthony managed. "Said it was important. Said ... I special."

"Special." Paulson snickered over the word. "You're special, all right."

They drove on in silence. Carter looked at the floor of the van, feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach. He wished now he'd never eaten the McMuffin. He'd begun to cry. Didn't know when he'd done that last. Nobody had ever said anything about raping the woman, not that he recalled. They'd asked about the girl but he'd always said no, which was the God's truth, he swore it. The little thing weren't no more than five year old. He'd just been trying to show her a toad he found in the grass. He thought she'd like to see something like that, something tiny, like she was. That's all he'd meant to do, nice. Ain't nobody ever done things like that for him when he was a boy. C'mere honey, I got something to show you. Just a little bit of a thing, like you.

At least he'd known what Terrell was, what was going to happen to him there. Nobody'd said nothing about raping the lady, Mrs. Wood. That day in the yard, she'd gone just flat-out crazy on him, screaming and hitting, telling the little girl to run, and it wasn't his fault she'd fallen in, he'd just been trying to make her calm down, tell her nothing had happened, he'd go away and never come back if that's what she wanted. He'd been okay with that, and okay with the rest too, when it came down to it. But then Wolgast had showed up and told him he didn't have to go to the needle after all, turning Carter's mind in another direction, and now look where he was. There weren't no sense in any of it. It made him sick and shaky to his bones.

He lifted his head to find Paulson grinning at him. The whites of his eyes widened.

"Boo!" Paulson slapped the wheel and burst into laughter, like he'd just told the best joke of his life. Then he slammed the window shut.

Wolgast and Doyle were somewhere in South Memphis now, working their way out of the city's suburban ring through a warren of residential streets. The whole thing had gone bad from the start. Wolgast had no idea what in the hell had been going on at the zoo, the whole place was going berserk, and then the woman, the old nun, Arnette, had just about tackled the other one, Lacey, to get the girl out of her hands.

The girl. Amy NLN. She couldn't have been more than six years old.

Wolgast had been ready to pull the plug but then she'd let the girl go, and the old one handed her off to Doyle, who carried her to the car before Wolgast could get in another word. After that, there was nothing to do but get out of there as fast as they could before the locals showed up and started asking questions. Who knew how many witnesses there'd been; it had all happened too fast.

He had to dump the car. He had to call Sykes. He had to get them out of Tennessee, all in that order, and he had to do it now. Amy was lying across the backseat, facing away, clutching the stuffed rabbit she'd gotten out of her backpack. Sweet Jesus, what had he done? A six-year-old girl!

In a dreary neighborhood of apartments and strip malls, Wolgast pulled into a gas station and shut off the engine. He turned to Doyle. The two of them hadn't spoken since the zoo.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Brad, listen-"

"Are you crazy? Look at her. She's a kid."

"It just kind of happened." Doyle shook his head. "Everything was so crazy. Okay, maybe I f**ked up, I admit that. But what was I supposed to do?"

Wolgast breathed deeply, trying to calm himself. "Wait here."

He stepped from the car and punched in the code for Sykes's secure line. "We've got a problem."

"You have her?"

"Yes, we have her. She's a child. What the f**k."

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