The Passage Page 21

The agent frowned with confusion. "I don't know anything about it."

Wolgast considered this. "Good," he said finally. "You'll want to keep it that way."

The agent had then taken him around to the sedan's trunk, which sprang open to meet them. Inside was the black nylon duffel bag he hadn't asked for but still expected.

"Keep it," he said.

"You sure? I'm supposed to give it to you."

Wolgast shifted his gaze toward the Tahoe, parked at the edge of the lot between two dozing semis. Through the rear window, he could see Doyle but not the girl, who was lying down on the backseat. He really wanted to get moving; whatever else was true, sitting still was not an option. As for the bag, maybe he needed it and maybe he didn't. But the decision to leave it behind felt right.

"Tell the office anything you want," he said. "What I could really use is some coloring books."

"I'm sorry?"

Wolgast would have laughed if he were in the mood. He put his palm on the lid of the trunk and pushed it closed. "Never mind," he said.

The bag held guns, of course, and ammunition, and maybe a couple of armored vests. Probably there'd be one in there for the girl, too; there was a company in Ohio that was making them for kids now, since that thing in Minneapolis. Wolgast had caught a segment about it on the Today show. They were actually making a Zylon snapsuit for infants. What a world, he thought.

Now, Little Rock six hours behind them, he was still glad he'd declined the bag. Whatever happened, happened; part of him wanted to be stopped. Outside Little Rock, he'd actually let the speedometer drift up to eighty, only dimly aware of what he was doing-that he was daring some state trooper or even a local cop sitting behind a billboard to call the whole thing off. But then Doyle had told him to slow down-Yo, chief, shouldn't you ease off the pedal a bit?-and his mind had snapped back into focus. He'd actually been playing out the scene in his mind: the flashing lights and a single, tart bleep of the siren; pulling the truck over to the side and placing his open hands on the wheel, lifting his eyes to the rearview to watch the officer calling in the plate number on his radio. Two grown men and a minor in a vehicle with temporary Tennessee tags: it wouldn't take long to put the whole thing together, to connect them to the nun and the zoo. Whenever he imagined the scene, he couldn't see beyond that moment, the cop with one hand on his mike, the other resting on the butt of his weapon. What would Sykes do? Would he say he'd ever even heard of them? No, he and Doyle would go into the shredder, just like Anthony Carter.

As for the girl: he didn't know.

They'd skirted the Oklahoma City limits to the northeast, dodging the Interstate 40 checkpoint and bisecting I-35 on an anonymous rural blacktop, far from any cameras. The Tahoe lacked a GPS, but Wolgast had one on his handheld. Guiding the steering wheel with one hand, nimbly thumbing away on the handheld's tiny keys with the other, he let their route evolve as they went, a patchwork of county and state roads, some gravel or even just hard-packed dirt, to carry them gradually north and west. Now, all that lay between them and the Colorado border were a few small towns-towns with names like Virgil and Ricochet and Buckrack-half-abandoned oases in a sea of tallgrass prairie with little to show for themselves but a mini-mart, a couple of churches, a grain elevator and, between them, the miles of open plain. Flyover country: the word it made him think of was eternal. He guessed it looked much the same as it always had, the way it would go on looking just about forever. A man could disappear into a place like this without hardly trying, live his life without one soul to notice.

Maybe, Wolgast thought, when this was all over, he'd come back. He might need a place like that.

Amy was so quiet in the backseat it might have been possible to forget she was there at all, if not for the fact that everything about her being there was wrong. A six-year-old girl. Goddamn Sykes, Wolgast thought. Goddamn the Bureau, goddamn Doyle, and goddamn himself while he was at it. Lying across the wide backseat with her hair spilled over her cheek, Amy looked as if she were sleeping, but Wolgast didn't think she was; she was pretending, watching him like a cat. Whatever had happened in her life so far, it had taught her how to wait. Whenever Wolgast had asked her if she needed to stop to use the bathroom or get something to eat-she hadn't touched the crackers and milk, warm and spoiled by now-the lids of her eyes had lifted with a feline quickness at the sound of her name, meeting his gaze in the mirror for a single second that went through him like a three-foot icicle. Then she'd shut them again. He hadn't heard her voice since the zoo, more than eight hours ago.

Lacey. That was the nun's name. Who'd held on to Amy like death itself. When Wolgast thought about that awful human tug-of-war in the parking lot, everyone yelling and screaming, the memory twisted in his gut with an actual physical pain. Hey, Lila, guess what? I stole a kid today. So now we'll each have one, how about that?

Doyle was rousing in the passenger seat. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, his expression blank and focusless. His mind, Wolgast knew, was reassembling his awareness of where he was. He looked back at Amy quickly, then turned to face forward again.

"Looks like some weather ahead," he said.

The thunderheads had risen to a boil, blocking the sunset and sinking them into a premature darkness. At the horizon, beneath a shelf of clouds, a haze of rain was falling through a band of golden sunlight onto the fields.

Doyle leaned forward to examine the sky through the windshield. His voice was quiet. "How far away you think that is?"

"I guess about five miles."

"Maybe we should get off the road." Doyle checked his watch. "Or turn south for a while."

Two miles later, they passed an unmarked dirt road, its edges lined with barbed-wire fencing. Wolgast stopped the car and backed up. The road crested a gentle rise and vanished into a line of cottonwoods; probably there was a river on the other side of the hill, or at least a gully. Wolgast checked the GPS; the road wasn't on it.

"I don't know," Doyle said, when Wolgast showed him. "Maybe we should look for something else."

Wolgast turned the wheel of the Tahoe and headed south. He didn't think the road was a dead end; there would have been postal boxes at the intersection if it were. Three hundred yards later, the road narrowed to a single lane of rutted dirt. Beyond the tree line they crossed an old wooden bridge that spanned the creek Wolgast had foreseen. The evening light had gone a sallow green. He could see the storm rising above the horizon in his rearview mirror; he knew, from the blowing tips of the ditch grass on either side, that it was following them.

They had traveled another ten miles when the rain started to fall. They'd passed no houses or farms; they were in the middle of nowhere, with no cover. First just a few drops, but then, within seconds, a downpour of such force that Wolgast couldn't see a thing. The wipers were useless. He pulled to the edge of the ditch as a huge gust of wind buffeted the car.

"What now, chief?" Doyle asked over the racket.

Wolgast looked at Amy, still pretending to sleep in the backseat. Thunder roiled overhead; she didn't flinch. "Wait, I guess. I'm going to rest a minute."

Wolgast closed his eyes, listening to the rain on the roof of the Tahoe. He let the sound wash through him. He'd learned to do this during those months with Eva, to rest without quite giving himself over to sleep, so that he could rise quickly and go to her crib if she awakened. Scattered memories began to gather in his mind, pictures and sensations from other times in his life: Lila in the kitchen of the house in Cherry Creek, on a morning not long after they'd bought the place, pouring milk into a bowl of cereal; the cold dousing of water as he dove from the pier in Coos Bay, the sounds of his friends' voices above him, laughing and urging him on; the feeling of being very small himself, no more than a baby, and the noises and lights of the world around him, all of it letting him know he was safe. He had entered sleep's antechamber, the place where dreams and memories mingled, telling their strange stories; yet part of him was still in the car, listening to the rain.

"I have to go."

His eyes snapped open; the rain had stopped. How long had he slept? The car was dark; the sun had set. Doyle was twisted at the waist, turned to face the backseat.

"What did you say?" Doyle asked.

"I have to go," the little girl stated. Her voice, after hours of silence, was startling: clear and forceful. "To the bathroom."

Doyle looked at Wolgast nervously. "Want me to take her?" he said, though Wolgast knew he didn't want to.

"Not you," Amy said. She was sitting up now, holding her rabbit. It was a floppy thing, filthy with wear. She eyed Wolgast in the mirror, lifted her hand and pointed. "Him."

Wolgast undid his seat belt and stepped from the Tahoe. The air was cool and still; he could see, to the southeast, the last of the storm receding, leaving in its wake a dry sky the color of ink, a deep blue-black. He hit the key fob to unlock the passenger door and Amy climbed out. She had zipped the front of her sweatshirt and pulled the hood up over her head.

"Okay?" he asked.

"I'm not doing it here."

Wolgast didn't say anything about not wandering off; there seemed no point. Where would she go? He led her fifty feet down the roadway, away from the lights of the Tahoe. Wolgast looked away while she stood at the edge of the ditch and pulled down her jeans.

"I need help."

Wolgast turned. She was facing him, her jeans and underpants bunched around her ankles. He felt his face warm with embarrassment.

"What do you need me to do?"

She held out both her hands. Her fingers felt tiny in his own; her palms were moist with childlike heat. He had to hold tightly as she leaned back, giving him nearly all her weight, to position herself in a crouch, suspending her body out over the ditch like a piano swinging from a crane. Where had she learned to do this? Who else had held her hands this way?

When she was done he turned around so she could pull her pants back up.

"You don't have to be afraid, honey."

Amy said nothing; she made no motion to return to the Tahoe. Around them, the fields were empty, the air absolutely still, as if caught between breaths. Wolgast could feel it, the emptiness of the fields, the thousands of miles they spread in every direction. He heard the front door of the Tahoe open and slam closed; Doyle, going off to take a leak himself. Far off to the south, he heard a distant echo of thunder rolling away and, in the clear aural space behind it, a new sound-a kind of tinkling, like bells.

"We can be friends if you want," he ventured. "Would that be okay?"

She was a strange girl, he thought again; why hadn't she cried? Because she hadn't, not since the zoo, and she'd never asked for her mother, or said she wanted to go home, or even back to the convent. Where was home for her? Memphis, maybe, but he had the feeling it wasn't. No place was. Whatever had happened to the girl had taken the idea of home away.

Then, "I'm not afraid. We can go back to the car if you want."

For a moment she just looked at him, in that evaluating way of hers. His ears had adjusted to the silence, and he was certain now that it was music he was hearing, the sound distorted by distance. Somewhere, down the road they were driving on, somebody was playing music.

"I'm Brad." The name felt bland and heavy in his mouth.

She nodded.

"The other man? He's Phil."

"I know who you are. I heard you talking." She shifted her weight. "You thought I wasn't listening, but I was."

A spooky kid. And smart, too. He could hear it in her voice, see it in the way she was sizing him up with her eyes, using the silence to appraise him, to draw him out. He felt as if he were speaking with somebody much older, though not exactly. He couldn't put his finger on what the difference was.

"What's in Colorado? That's where we're going, I heard you say it."

Wolgast wasn't sure how much to say. "Well, there's a doctor there. He's going to look at you. Like a checkup."

"I'm not sick."

"That's why, I think. I don't ... well, I don't really know." He winced inwardly at the lie. "You don't have to be afraid."

"Don't keep saying that."

He was so taken aback by her directness that for a moment he said nothing. "Okay. That's good. I'm glad you're not."

"Because I'm not afraid," Amy declared, and began walking toward the lights of the Tahoe. "You are."

A few miles later, they saw it up ahead: a domelike zone of thrumming light that sorted, as they approached, into discrete, orbiting points, like a family of constellations spinning low against the horizon. Just as Wolgast figured out what he was seeing, the road ended at an intersection. He turned on the overhead light and checked the GPS. A line of cars and pickup trucks, more than they had seen in hours, was passing on the highway, all headed in the same direction. He opened his window to the night air; the sound of music was unmistakable now.

"What is that?" Doyle asked.

Wolgast said nothing. He turned west, threading into the line of traffic. In the bed of the pickup ahead of them, a group of teenagers, about a half dozen, were sitting on bales of hay. They passed a sign that read, HOMER, OKLAHOMA, POP. 1,232.

"Not so close," Doyle said, referring to the pickup. "I don't like the looks of this."

Wolgast ignored him. A girl, spotting Wolgast's face through the windshield, waved at him, the wind blowing her hair around her face. The lights of the fair were growing clearer now, as were the signs of civilization: a water tank on stilts, a darkened farm-implements store, a low-slung modern building that was probably a retirement community or health clinic, set back from the highway. The pickup pulled off into a Casey's General Store, its lot bustling with cars and people; the kids were up and out of the bed before the vehicle had even stopped, rushing to meet their friends. Traffic on the roadway slowed as they entered the little town. In the backseat, Amy was sitting up, looking through the windows at the busy scene.

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