Man Down, page 23
An hour into our march, Waters began to pick up the pace. “We need to be there, ready, when light comes,” he said. My shoulder was on fire and my hips ached from carrying the weight of the belt, but I couldn’t slow the two younger men who had come out here into the wilderness to rescue my son. When Waters broke into a jog, I did, too.
At a sign that only Waters could see, he stopped. “Malone, come with me. Donovan, you wait here. You hear gunfire, you come running.”
As I waited, the birds began to stir, claiming their territory, calling to potential mates and celebrating another day. The light gradually turned to gray and I could make out a road that had been used by a truck recently. I concealed myself in a thicket and listened. Even alone in the woods, on guard, I didn’t hear Waters come up behind me.
“Come on,” he said, and I followed him uphill, away from the road. He raised his fist and I stopped, keeping low. He waved me forward and we crawled up to the edge of a ridge. Below us, in a flat spot one hundred yards square, was a small camp. In the breaking gray dawn I could see two cabins, an outhouse, one large tent, and far away from the buildings, in the trees, a slit-trench latrine. This was no yuppie summer camp with four-star accommodations. This was as rough as roughing it gets without sleeping in the mud.
“None that I’ve seen,” Waters said.
“He’s on the far side of the camp.” Waters pointed.
I keyed the radio. “What have you got?”
“A clear shot of both cabins.”
“Prepare to give us suppressing fire as needed.”
“What are we going to do?” Waters said.
“We’re going to storm the camp. We take the men in the tent first. Then we take the cabins.”
“Just like that?”
“They have my boy. I came prepared to kill men if I have to, Waters. Did you?”
Waters considered the full impact of what we were about to do. “I don’t know.”
“It’s like the Alamo. You leave now and no one will blame you. Trevor and I will understand.”
Waters shook his head. “No, I’m in. I’m in.”
“But no one gets hurt unless there’s no other choice, I promise.”
Waters nodded, his lips pressed tightly together, his face set to the grim job ahead.
A thin line of smoke rose from the central tent and someone was already awake starting the fire. I withdrew my knife. “I’ll take the men in the mess tent first.”
Trevor’s whispered voice came through the radio. “I got movement.”
Waters and I watched as the door to the larger cabin opened and two boys dressed in camouflage pants and white T-shirts came out. They crossed the open assembly area toward the latrine, but stopped short of the trench, each boy finding a tree to wet against.
“Jesus,” I whispered, “they’re just kids.”
Waters was as surprised as I was. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” As I said that, a pudgy little man in full camo and black beret, Beretta on his hip and a magazine under his arm, emerged from the smaller cabin.
“That’s Tom Smooth,” Waters said.
The little man breathed in the morning air, hitched up his pants, and headed toward the back of the cabin.
There was our chance. “When I’m in position, you and Trevor make some noise,” I said.
Waters looked from me to Smooth just as the little man turned the corner. A smile broke across his face. “You got it.”
I took a wide circle around the edge of the camp, keeping to the trees. As I did, other boys came out of the larger cabin, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Alone or in pairs, they walked into the trees to urinate. So far, Smooth was the only adult I’d seen.
I held close to the rear wall of the larger cabin. I looked through the window and saw two rows of six bunk beds and boys, none older than twelve, getting up and getting dressed. On one wall was the flag of the Third Reich. Next to it was the banner of the Holy Knights, the flaming cross with the barbed-wire halo. In the center were two photos, Hitler on top and Tom Smooth on the bottom. I couldn’t see any weapons and I didn’t see Eric.
The second, smaller cabin appeared to be Smooth’s office and bedroom. The bunk was still rumpled. Along one wall was a rack of AK-47s, locked. Again, there was no sign of Eric.
Smooth had closed the door to the outhouse and was settling in with his magazine when I gave Waters the signal.
From two directions, Waters and Trevor fired over the camp, sounding like an entire squad of infantry. The shotgun blasted leaves overhead and bits of green flittered down like confetti. Trevor’s deer rifle split the air and tore chunks from trees as the boys scattered into the woods, shrieking, their arms waving about their ears as if they were being chased by bees.
Smooth burst out of the outhouse, one hand holding up his pants, the other holding his Beretta. He saw the smoke from Waters’s shotgun and aimed toward the trees.
I pressed the muzzle of my pistol against the back of his neck, just under the hairline, and screamed, “Get down, get down, get down!” Just as I’d hoped, he did. I kicked the Beretta away, cuffed him, and hauled him toward the clearing, his pants down around his thighs.
Two of the older boys had fallen back on their training and were inside Smooth’s cabin. One had unlocked the AKs and the other was loading a magazine. When they saw me with their commander, they seemed relieved to raise their hands and march into the clearing.
Trevor and Waters were rounding up the scattered kids. Many of the boys were in tears, especially those found by Trevor. He was the Holy Knights’ biggest fear, a black man with a gun.
Waters checked the mess tent and found three boys under the tables and a cook, a white man in his sixties, armed with a cleaver.
I checked the cabins but found no one.
Trevor inspired the most fear so he did most of the yelling.
“I want every one of you little fascists to sit on your cracker asses, on your hands, palms up,” he shouted. “Now!” He picked out one of the older boys, one I’d caught in Smooth’s cabin trying to load the AKs. “Palms up, you ignorant cracker. Don’t you know which part of your hand is your palm? It’s the part that goes around your buddy’s dick when you give him a reach-around, that’s your palm, and I want you sitting on it. That’s right.”
With them sitting in the dirt, many of them in tears, I circled the boys and the two men. “A man named Bower came out here with a boy, ten years old, named Eric. I want to know where Bower took the boy. Who wants to be my friend and tell me first?”
“Remember the oath,” Smooth shouted. “No one talks. No one!”
The boys were silent, except for those sobbing.
“Oh, tough little Nazis. Have an oath and everything.” Trevor snatched up one of the older boys, one with three stripes sewed to his sleeve. “How about you, Sergeant? You got nothing to say?”
The boy spit on Trevor’s boot. Trevor smiled. “This one will be a pleasure.” He grabbed the boy by the arm and marched him around to the rear of the larger cabin. As the boys watched and listened, Trevor hollered, “Tell us what we want to know! Tell us!” Then a pistol shot cracked the morning air. The boys jerked as if pulled up by an invisible string; two of the boys screamed and there was a renewed round of sobbing.
“He’ll do this until one of you talks,” I said. “I’ve seen him kill people all morning, until the bodies were stacked up like cordwood. Women, children, old people, doesn’t matter.” I shook my head at the waste of it all. Several of the boys cried. Two of the boys wet their pants.
“But I can stop him,” I said. “Just tell me what happened.”
The boys whimpered, trying hard not to look at Smooth.
I shrugged. “I tried to help.”
Trevor came around the cabin and headed for the group. “Who’s next?”
“I’ll tell,” a boy blurted, his eye
Smooth glared at him.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Cameron Conners.” The boy looked at me, but kept glancing back at Trevor. “You’ll keep the nigger off me, right?”
I nodded. “Just tell us what happened, son.”
“Bowers come up here last night with a boy and some other man, looked like maybe he was CIA or something like that.”
“What did he do with the boy?”
“I don’t know. But they buried something big out in the woods. We dug the hole.”
“What did they bury? A box?”
“I don’t know. Some of the older boys said it was Stingers.”
“Can you show me where?”
“I’ll show you.” The boy’s eyes were fixed on Trevor. “Just don’t let that big nigger man kill nobody else.”
Trevor went from angry to sad in a flash. I could see it in his eyes, how the thought of another generation being raised like this broke his heart. Calmly he said, “You boys need to step into the twenty-first century. All that word does is make you sound like an ignorant peckerwood.”
I pulled Cameron Conners to his feet. “Show us.”
Waters watched over the prisoners while Trevor and I followed Cameron into the woods behind the cabin. As we passed, Cameron glanced over at the boy sergeant Trevor had taken first. There he was, curled up, bound and gagged with duct tape.
“You didn’t…,” Cameron said.
“No, I try not to kill anybody before breakfast.” Trevor pushed the boy forward.
“When the men left, did they take the boy with them?”
“I don’t know. We was in bed when they left.”
Cameron led us about fifty yards into the forest and started walking around, looking, saying, “It’s right here somewheres. Here!” He stopped and pointed. “Here it is.”
Cameron stood on a patch of freshly dug earth about three feet by six. The site had been hastily covered over in pine needles, but there, sticking up about a foot above the ground were two steel pipes. Their ends were capped.
“Get some shovels,” I said. “And some of the bigger boys with strong backs.”
Trevor ran, leaving me alone with Cameron. I dropped to my knees and gripped one of the caps. At first it held, then, with a dull ringing, it turned. With the first pipe open I swung around to the second. I looked up and Cameron was pointing the rifle at me. The muzzle shook. The look in his eye made me shiver. It was determined, and clear with purpose. I could see the young soldier, trained, confronting the enemy.
“Cameron. That boy who was here last night is my son. I’m his father. And I think they buried him here.”
“You saying them men killed him?”
“He might still be alive.” I tried to sound more optimistic than I felt. “But we have to get him out of this box.”
“There’s not much time,” I said.
“I could shoot you.”
“Yes, you could. But shooting me won’t get you anywhere but prison. And you might as well be shooting my boy, too. Is that what you want? You want to kill my son, Cameron?”
The movement was so small, I didn’t see it. Then the boy shook his head again. “I guess not, mister. I didn’t know.” He lowered the rifle.
Trevor, standing ten feet behind the boy, lowered his pistol and I felt myself begin to breathe again.
“The boys are coming,” Trevor said.
When they heard it was a human in the hole, a boy who might still be alive, the three boys dug quickly. In under twenty minutes they stood on the plywood, clearing the edges so we could open it.
One of the boys put his ear to the pipe and said, “I don’t hear nothing. And it smells.”
“Bad?” one of the boys asked.
The boy at the pipe screwed up his face, searching for a name to put to the smell. “No. Not bad. It kinda smells like pennies.”
“Maybe it’s Stingers like the men told us,” the boy said.
“Or maybe he’s dead,” said the third.
They climbed out, and on my hands and knees I pried up the nails. Each creak of wood ripped through my heart as I became more and more convinced that the third boy was right.
They all stood around the open hole, watching as Trevor and I got our fingers under the edge of the plywood sheet and lifted. When we got the cover up and off, we looked back inside the box. He was facedown and dead, without a doubt. Someone had cut his throat from behind and let him topple into the box. The box was flooded with blood, thick and black. One of the boys turned and vomited into the weeds. The others stared in horror, frozen to the spot, unable to look away.
“That must be Bower,” Trevor said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s him.”
“You don’t mind waiting?”
Waters shook his head, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He sat on a camp chair, his feet up on a log bench, the twelve-gauge across his lap.
On the other side of the circle Smooth sat cross-legged on the ground, sobbing, his hands cuffed behind him. His boys sat apart from him, occasionally staring at him in disgust, the way you’d look at caterpillar guts on the bottom of your shoe.
“You send up the state patrol. Until then, I’m going to tell these boys stories about life in prison. Maybe Smooth will have a few to add, too. Like when the African brothers made him their bunk buddy. That must have been a great time, huh, Tom? Why don’t you tell the boys about that?”
Smooth stopped sobbing long enough to give Waters a look that could strip the bark off a tree.
“Yessir, Tom Smooth, a man so coarse that he shames his family name just by wearing it around in public,” Waters said.
Trevor and I thanked Waters, climbed into the camp truck, and took off down the mountain. The Knights’ truck was a three-quarter-ton pickup, the bed covered in flapping canvas, and like me, it was a veteran of long-forgotten campaigns. Also, like me, it was maintained sporadically, if at all. The shifter would leap out of gear going on a grade, and the engine spewed a plume of blue smoke into the pine branches. In lieu of a nut, vise grips held the steering wheel to the steering column.
Trevor sat quietly, eyes straight ahead, concentrating on what I guessed was the same conclusion I’d come to. The missing evidence, the phone calls, the disappearances, the knowledge of all our movements and all our investigations.
“You’re thinking about Rob, too,” he said.
“Yeah. I am.”
“All this time he’s eating with us, watching my TV, being nice to my wife and children.”
“Yeah. Not to mention Katie.”
“This is going to hurt her bad, Jake.”
“All we can be is friends for her, you know that.”
“She’ll need a friend more than she needs a boyfriend.”
“I understand, Trevor.”
“Just want to make sure you don’t fuck up, start mistaking whatyou need for what she needs.”
“Lay it all out, Trevor. Don’t hold back.”
“I’m just saying—”
The road made a sharp turn to the left, and as I pulled the truck around the curve, I saw a tree, its trunk as big around as my waist, lying across the road. Trevor saw it the same instant I did and gripped the dash. I hit the brake and pulled the wheel, hand over hand, to the right. The truck bounced across the ruts, over the gravel berm, and down a steep slope into the trees. All I could see was a rush of green as the truck plowed through the pines. I tried to steer but the truck was on its own, fueled more by gravity than gasoline, rocketing toward the stony creek at the bottom of this ravine. Twenty yards up, a tree stood between the truck and the creek. I tried to brake and steer around it, but the trunk caught us at the right headlight and the truck stopped cold, throwing me into the steering column, and Trevor into the dash.
I don’t know how long it took me to shake the galaxy of pain-inspired stars from my head, but when I could catch my breath, I touched Trevor’s shoulder. “Trevor, talk to me.”
Trevor lifted his head, his face shining with blood. “I hate riding with you, man.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m bleeding all over my shirt and you ask if I’m okay?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I hate that shit. Man falls off a fucking cliff and the first thing someone asks is ‘Are you okay?’ No, godammit, I’m not okay. I just fell off a goddamn cliff.” Trevor threw the truck door open and stepped out. He looked a little wobbly.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
“Fuck sitting down. I’m going to lie down.”
I got out of the driver’s side and looked up the hill. “Can you walk up to the road?”
Trevor leaned against the side of the truck and inspected the gash on his forehead in the mirror. “Yeah. I can walk.”
I took his arm and he let me. That’s how I knew he was hurt. “Come on, we need to get you to a doctor.”
“What about you?”
“I’m a little bruised, but okay.”
“That’s why you’re bleeding.”
I touched my neck and felt the fabric of my shirt was wet. “It’s an old wound.”
“Oh, well, that’s a big relief.” Trevor continued to complain as we labored up the slope. Suddenly, he stopped and listened. His eyes scanned the trees. I knew enough about Trevor’s training and instincts to listen, too. Quietly, without moving anything but his lips, Trevor said, “This doesn’t feel too smart, Jake.”
“What? You hear something?”
“No. I mean, climbing up this hill. Someone had to dump that tree across the road. Maybe he’s up there waiting for us.”
“Uh-huh.” I searched the edge of the rise. We were still twenty yards from the road and in the cover of the trees. “You think maybe we should go off-road?”