Hunt is on the run from two men: Drake, the deputy sheriff who intends to catch him, and Grady, the vicious hitman who means to kill him.
For twenty years Hunt has lived in Washington State, raising horses with his wife on his small farm. He's tried to stay out of trouble, wanting only to make a living and taking the occasional illicit job in order to do so.
Then his last delivery goes horribly wrong, and the chase is on from the mountains down into the Puget lowlands. To have any chance of rescuing his quiet life, Hunt will have to deal with deputy sheriff Bobby Drake, a good man determined to make up for his father's tainted legacy and Grady Fisher, a very bad man intent on making a name for himself in the most violent ways. With a fondness for blood, Grady takes pleasure in the use of knives, taking Hunt's life apart piece by piece, all the while leaving a trail of victims across the state.
Relentless and gorgeously written, with original characters and a vividly powerful sense of place, The Terror of Living heralds the arrival of a writer who will be compared with the great suspense novelists.
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|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The Terror of LivingA Novel
By Waite, Urban
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Waite, Urban
All right reserved.
THE KID HAD TAKEN A BUS NORTH FROM SEATTLE and stood outside studying the bar for a long time, weighing the options. A gust of wind brought the smell of sun-warmed tar from a patch of cracked pavement, the day changing warm to cold, airplanes passing overhead in the afternoon, the sound of jet engines firing and planes taking off from the nearby field. The bar wasn’t much to look at, just a two-story clapboard with a rock-and-pebble parking strip. He toed a piece of gravel, thinking it over, then went in.
He took a drink off his beer, looked around the bar, and put the glass back down. With his elbows pushed out on either side, he was leaning hard up against the bar. It was the type of place he used to come to when he was underage—a short bar, dim light, with customers of questionable means—using his older brother’s ID and hoping to get laid. He’d been out of the world for two years on a vehicular manslaughter charge. He’d been lucky about it, too; young as he was, the judge had gone easy on him. On his thin frame he wore a red shirt, so worn the material had turned the color of a dried peach. Locked up, he hadn’t worn the old shirt in years. The smell of him, in his new old clothes, was something of dust, something of mildew and dark, locked-away places, so deep it seemed to come from his skin itself.
He looked the beer over, better than the piss-pot stuff they brewed in Monroe, half-fruit, half-saliva, like some sort of Amazon moonshine. He took another swallow. It was his first legal drink and he sat staring at it, watching how the air condensed against the side of the glass and collected around the base in a watery circle.
Don’t fuck this up, he said to himself, looking around at the other customers. Don’t do a stupid thing like that.
When Eddie came up to the bar and sat down, the kid was taking in that dreamy glow of being somewhere he’d never been before. The two were separated by a seat between them, the kid looking down into his beer, staring hard at the way the bubbles bounced against the surface, then sloughed off to one side and collected.
Eddie ordered a beer from the bartender and waited for the man to pour it. The kid raised an eye to study Eddie, watching him as he waited for the beer to be delivered. After the bartender had gone, Eddie turned to look out on the bar and take it all in. There were two pool tables in the back, one occupied, an assortment of low tables near the wall with two or three chairs at each. Eddie turned back and spoke to the beer in front of him. “I guess you’re my man.”
The kid stared at Eddie for a moment and then looked away. Eddie wasn’t what the kid had been expecting, a squat, dark-skinned Mexican, his cheeks chewed up with acne scars, and a thin trail of hair along his lip.
“Kind of young, aren’t you?” Eddie said.
“Old enough,” the kid said, drawing himself up on the stool. He knew what he looked like, a kid of twenty-two, barely old enough to be there. Two years of prison had thinned him out, tightened up his muscles. His time there had toughened him, but he knew he still looked like a kid, Adam’s apple big as a newborn’s fist, the patch of a beard below his chin, drawn in like a child’s scribblings.
“I don’t think I need to tell you this,” Eddie said, “but it’s best you understand from the start that there are no mistakes. I was told you were looking for something and here I am. I wouldn’t even be here if someone hadn’t put his own life out there for you. You understand?”
The kid nodded and looked straight on at the liquor bottles behind the bar. His older brother had been the one to put him up to it. He’d been in the driver’s seat two years ago, and the kid had slid over, taking the blame. Scared shitless, but taking the blame for his older brother so he wouldn’t go back in. It was a stupid thing to do, but he had done it and his brother had walked away. And now his brother would help him out and it would all be even.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” the kid said. “There won’t be any accidents. I’m as good as they come.”
Eddie smiled. “You don’t need to tell me. As far as I’m concerned you’re in business for yourself. You’re a contractor working for a percentage. You don’t have to answer to me. I’m just here to tell you that it’s in your own best interest not to fuck this up.” Eddie got up from the bar, thanked the bartender, and went out through the front door.
On the barstool where he’d been sitting was a set of car keys. The kid leaned over as casually as he could and swiped them off the vinyl. He kept them below the bar, and as he finished his beer he fit his finger into the metal key ring and rolled them over and over again, feeling them swing loose in the air.
DEPUTY BOBBY DRAKE GAVE THE CAR ANOTHER LOOK. Drugs had always been a problem north of Silver Lake, but these days, smugglers would have to be real idiots to take anything across the border crossings. Security had doubled, a real task force going now, after all the years of people passing on through. For a time it was as if the two countries were one, a driver’s license the only thing necessary to get up into British Columbia.
The drugs just spread out, finding other ways of crossing, as the borders tightened. If you had the experience or the know-how, it could be a good business. Drake knew that. His father, the former sheriff—locked up now—had known that. This land, these mountains and valleys, carved by glacier and erosion, were about all Drake had left of a former life. A life that had seen horses raised in his father’s field, now taken and gone. A life built of apple orchards and fall harvests, sold off and forgotten, nothing there now but a wooden fence melted away with age into the ground, trees left behind as withered and bony as skeletal hands. From one side to the other, Drake’s life so cleanly cut in half as to be unrecognizable.
He took out his binoculars and scanned the clear-cut. It was all forestry land, leased out to the big lumber companies. Everything a patchwork of fresh-cut brown or newly planted green. Hills stretched off and became mountains, the white tip of Mount Baker poking up into the high blue. Jumbo jets could get lost in a place like this, he thought.
The deputy propped his door open, letting the mountain air into the cab of the cruiser, sticky smell of pine needles, resin, and damp, windblown earth. He left one leg outside and worked an old basketball injury in his lower thigh. He was tall for the cruiser, and his leg stretched out onto the gravel. Sharp chinned, with thinning brown hair. He was still young enough to push the ball up the court and keep in shape, but he was starting to lose it, starting to get comfortable in this job.
The license plate had come back clean. He stared at the onboard computer, then got up and walked over to the car. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it. No forced entry. It was in the middle of nowhere, just a car on the side of the road. He knelt and fingered the raised edges of a wide double tire track in the soft ground. Drake traced it back to where the tires had come off the road and then walked to the other side and saw how they caught the far edge and made the turn to go back up the road. He guessed it to be something big, a semi without a trailer, or a big Chevy or Ford, something with a tow. He couldn’t put his finger on it, couldn’t say, but he did know—judging from how the larger tire tracks lay across the smaller—that whatever it was had come after the car had been there, and he knew from driving this road every twenty-four hours that the car hadn’t been there for more than a day.
Drake walked back across the road and looked the car over. He cupped his hands and put them to the window. The car was clean. Not even a gum wrapper on the floor. He’d expected an old McDonald’s bag, a grocery bag, even a receipt, something.
He watched the wind come down from the mountains along the trees. Heard the rush of it through the branches, evergreens moving all at once, like cresting water on the tip of a wave, rolling smooth and fast down the face. The sky marvelous and clear above, he felt the wind play at the back of his neck. He didn’t know what he was doing, why he couldn’t just let it go, this car, this feeling, everything. He was battling an old, familiar sense of unease, some loneliness he’d been left with. Just he and his wife living up this way, in his father’s house, now theirs, left to them for the keeping while his father was away.
He looked back up into the mountains, glassed them with his binoculars. Running his vision along the ridges, pausing to focus, then running on. He stood for a while next to the car. The wind came up off the lake and whipped some of the gravel dust into a dervish. He walked back to the cruiser and called the ranger’s station over at Baker.
“You got anyone up from Seattle in the Silver Lake area?”
“No one up there, Deputy.”
He read the ranger the license plate. “Anything?”
“That’s all clear-cut and logging roads. Don’t know why anyone would want to see that.”
“Don’t know either,” Drake said, thanking the ranger.
THE TRAIL CLIMBED STEEP AND JAGGED IN FRONT OF them. It was not a place for the kid, someone who couldn’t ride and sat straight-backed in the saddle, unyielding to the horse’s steps. Phil Hunt turned to look the kid over. The horses would follow each other up one hill and down the next, but the kid made him nervous.
“You been in this line of work long?” Hunt asked.
“How old are you?”
“That a lie?”
“I’d say you don’t look older than twenty-two, twenty-three?”
“That’s about right,” the kid said. He turned in his saddle to look back down on what had passed before, hemlock and fir trees stretched into the narrow valley. Farther on, a patch of clear-cut and a newborn forest sprouting up in rows. The kid began to drift off to the left.
“Careful now,” Hunt said, lowering his hat to shield his eyes from the sun and watching the kid.
“Didn’t expect this when I signed up.”
Hunt rolled this around in his head and let it rest. The kid couldn’t have had much experience for the thing, riding up one ridge, then down into the following valley, just to do it again. Still, the kid reminded him a bit of himself at that age, thirty years ago, a head of brown hair, skin tanned brown as desert soil, a little too cocky, too sure of himself, body lean as a razor blade and with a mouth like one, too. “It’s not all cigarette boats and fancy parties,” Hunt said. “Maybe down in the Keys that’s how they do it. But up here it’s a bit different.”
“It’s been an education.”
Hunt thought he heard the kid laugh, but he didn’t turn around. It was the last run of the season; soon the mountains would be covered in snow. What had Eddie been thinking, sending the kid up here? A big job like this, and some kid who doesn’t know the first thing about the business. He could get killed just riding a horse; one mistake and he’d come up short and throw himself face-first over a cliff.
The horses were Hunt’s, two roans he’d raised on the back acre of his property, Hunt feeding them and letting them run—chestnut brown with flecks of white, muscles as beautiful and sculpted as carved rock, rounding the field, divots of earth kicked up under the pounding of their hooves—his wife, Nora, and he taking turns every morning, casting hay through the field, standing at the fence, arms resting, enjoying the playful nicker and whinny of the horses. He didn’t know where they’d have been without them. He hated that he needed them for this, that he let them be pulled up one hill and down the next, led by the inexperienced hands of this kid.
Hunt cast a wary eye at the kid, half expecting him to be riding backward in the saddle. Weather beginning to turn cold and the kid wearing nothing but jeans, tennis shoes, and a black nylon jacket that snapped and fluttered in the wind as they came up over the hump of the ridge and descended along a line into the next valley. Hunt wore a pair of leather gloves, jeans, and a thick, padded hunting jacket to keep out the cold, the jacket mottled green to blend in with the forest. On his head he wore a cowboy hat he kept in the back of his truck for jobs like this one. It made him feel official and he liked to tip his hat for his wife and see the smile come across her face. He felt young in the thing, the short-cropped gray of his hair covered by the hat, and the strong lines of his face shadowed by the brim. He’d given the kid one of his baseball caps, an adjustable Mariners cap, and left it at that.
“You been at this long?” the kid asked, leaning back in the saddle as they came down off the ridge, trying to keep himself from tumbling frontwise over the nose of the horse.
“Only thing I can do that makes any money.”
“Not much work out there for a man of my history.”
“I’d imagine we’ve been in the same line of work,” the kid said, a smile creeping across his face.
DEPUTY BOBBY DRAKE HOOKED THE RIFLE STRAP with his thumb and brought it around. He carried a pair of regulation binoculars, but the sight on the rifle was stronger. He carried a .270 for hunting and wore a pair of good mountaineering boots, strong enough for crampons in the winter and light enough to wear in the summer. He carried the pack over his back, lungs working for every step. He was young, just thirty years old. Heart trained for endurance, trained for the long haul of the mountains. Skin colored dark as the earth from a summer of swimming and hiking.
He’d come back to the car the next day, his day off, early. Looked the plates over again. Nothing. He stood out there next to the car, with the big blue waters of Silver Lake stretched out beyond him and the windblown dust from the edge of the road coming up and rolling along the cement. He rapped absently on the glass, perhaps just to make sure the car existed at all, that it wasn’t some phantom mirage. He stood there and peered down inside. Nothing had changed. The whole thing made him uneasy.
As he walked, parting bear grass and the low-lying tops of mountain blueberries, his thoughts turned to his wife, whom he’d left behind that morning, Sheri sitting there at the breakfast table, a bowl of Cheerios, the milk turning yellow, sick and sweet in the air. She’d wanted to know what he was doing, what it mattered. He knew what she would say if he told her. They were newlyweds still and the idea of her there every morning, double-checking his life, hadn’t quite set in. He couldn’t explain why he had packed up his car, strapped on the tent, his rifle, and enough food and clothes to get him through the night. It wasn’t like him. None of it was, just running off like that. It was something his father would have done. He walked on, thinking about what type of man he was becoming.
He’d grown up in these mountains. His father had brought him up in them, taking him on weekend trips. The valley leveled off at around two or three thousand, and as Drake hiked through fields of sedge and bluegrass, following the little streams that cut the base of the valley, he looked up to scan the ridges.
He could smell the scent of fall mountain bells, and as he passed he drifted a finger beneath the flowers and caught the wilted pink petals in his hand. He needed to get higher.
HUNT TOOK OUT THE TOPOGRAPHICAL MAP AND HELD it in his gloved hand, giving it a once-over. He checked his watch and found their altitude. They had camped the night before in a thicket of white birch and he’d slept all wrong, with a pebble digging into his back on the uneven ground. For a moment he’d dreamed of being back in prison, that locked-away, lonely feeling worse in his dreams than it had been twenty years ago. Hollow sounds of voices echoing down cement hallways. The poor, eaten-away souls residing there, the weak and starved, blubbering nonsense, rib cages like two claws come together across their sternum. He woke, stunned, his tongue pulled back in his throat, floating back there like something meant to suffocate him. He rolled over, breathing the cool mountain air.
Hunt had parked his truck and trailer a day’s ride behind them, far enough back that they wouldn’t be found. He held the map in one hand, guiding his horse forward with the other. As they rode, cutting through a stand of fir, he bent to avoid branches, taking in the smell of the horse’s coat, the thick sheen of it, dust and oil rising off her and commingling with the air. She was a beautiful girl. He felt pride in her, in what she’d become.
They came down through a tangle of black raspberries, following the edge of a scree chute, the kid eating as he went. Hunt got down off his horse, shielded his eyes, and looked toward the sun. He judged there to be about three more hours of light. “Come on now, get down off your horse and help me out here.”
The kid swung his leg over and half slid, half fell off the saddle, holding on the whole while to the pommel.
Hunt took a GPS from his saddlebag and gave the map another look. They were standing in a thicket of low alder, the white bark shining around them and the green moss floating off the trees with the wind. “We’re too low,” Hunt said, checking the altimeter on the GPS, then looking at his watch to make sure. He handed the GPS to the kid and began walking.
Thick and crooked, the alder stand stretched on up the valley, following a small stream, and this is the way they went, leading the horses.
The kid swore and lifted his foot off a soggy mess of lowland marsh.
“I didn’t think I’d say this, but it would be nice to get back on the horse.”
“All we need to do is find an open meadow with a view to the north, we’ll set camp and let the horses out for a little while. Just keep your eye on the GPS. We want to keep this latitude if we can.”
“There a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow?”
Hunt looked back at the kid, but smiled and said, “If we’re lucky there’ll be a couple pots.”
“Hope you’re good at sharing,” the kid said.
They walked on in silence, leading the horses, Hunt thinking about what could be done with the money ahead. He walked on, adding dollar figures in his head. He thought about this for some time, thinking of his wife, Nora, of their life together, picking his steps with an absent mind. He thought about how they were, about how they’d been in the early years, when they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, night and day hot as blood in the vein, famished and pulsing its way back to the heart.
Afterward, in the middle years, life had felt as if they had been trying to fill something in, pour it like cement over the questions of their lives, the answers down there, but the liquid rock just flowing in. Again and again they’d been to the doctor, looking for answers, just to return to the same house, the same spare bedrooms and empty space.
“Do you blame me?” Nora had asked, the two of them lying there in the coal black of their room, shades drawn and not a light on anywhere to tell him the voice he heard was his wife’s at all. Turned away from her in the dark, he pretended to be asleep, his eyes wide open, feeling his cowardice grow deep within him, not saying anything. He didn’t know what to say. She’d left him then, just got up from bed and left. He heard the car start up and he lay there listening to the night sounds beyond their window, cars passing on the road nearby, the rush of wind wrestling its way through the alder branches. This is it, this is how it ends, he thought. No desperate run for the driveway, no pulling the door open and begging her to come back. Staring up into the darkened room, he felt as if hours passed, and when he got up to wander the house, to find some salvation in the life he’d led, he saw Nora out there beyond the windows, engine running, headlights on, but the car still there.
They’d had nothing then; it had felt as if everything had been taken from them. And the truth—had he anyone to tell it to—was that the possibility of success scared him. They’d worked through much of what had come between them, much of the trouble he’d felt that night, watching her out there in the car.
In the years that followed, he knew they’d reached some plateau of understanding, some partnership that kept them there together. He knew also that money could change things, he knew this, knew it could change for the better or change for the worse. Following the small mountain stream through the woods, thinking this over, he found a line of higher ground and led the kid forward, climbing up until they came into thick stands of pine. It wouldn’t be long now, not long at all.
The trees gave way to an open meadow, the stream winding down from somewhere high above and nothing but grass to look at, flat and wide in front of them. From somewhere far away he heard the shrill call of a marmot announcing them to the valley. There was no speaking, just the two men leading the horses, and the gray rock faces of mountains looking down on them, sparse clumps of tree and rock climbing like vines along the tip of the ridge.
The kid looked around, taking it all in. “You always work alone?” he asked, bringing his horse parallel with Hunt’s.
“Most of the time,” Hunt said, looking for a place to hide their camp beneath the trees. “Why do you ask?”
“I can tell.”
“It’s not human resources, kid.”
“No, it’s not,” the kid said. “This is a whole different skill set.”
WHEN HE CAME UP OUT OF THE TREES AND FOUND a place to set up, Drake laid the .270 out on the ground, took a sleeping pad from his pack, and put it down under him. He checked the sun and then he checked his watch. It was nearly fifteen past five and he hadn’t eaten a thing in more than six hours. On the far ridge he could see a hawk or an eagle climbing in the updraft, marmots calling to each other as the predator’s shadow passed over the rock. He ate one of his packed sandwiches and brought out his binoculars. “What did you expect?” he said, feeling the contempt rise up. He looked the map over and guessed at where he was on the ridge. He didn’t have anything but his own intuition to tell him if he was right or not.
There was a good view of the valley below and the valley he’d just climbed out of. He looked back down the way he’d come and found the little stream and the patch of mountain bells he’d walked through. From where he was lying he had a good view all the way back to Silver Lake. The clear-cut stood out on the far hills, marked with little strips of gravel and dirt where the logging roads passed. He put the binoculars aside and sighted with the rifle, squinting into the scope and hoping to pick out a nice buck shot.
The light overhead was fading and it left ghostly shadows in the meadows below him, whole fields taken up as the jagged fall of light swept across them. His eyes adjusted. The low sun crept onto the edge of the rifle sight, and he found that by shielding the end of the scope and bracing the rifle on a rock, he could better see into the shadows. He figured he had almost twenty hours before he’d need to be back at the station, enough time to buckle down and wait for something to skitter out of the bush. A whole forest and not a thing but the treetops moving.
THE SUNDOWNER ROSE PAST THE RIDGE, THEN STEADied, dipping its wings as the wind hit and the body of the plane shuddered without warning, everything in night shades of gray and blue, the cockpit blacked out, a thin film of green from the display clinging to the faces of the pilot and co-pilot. Well past midnight, the plane had taken off from a private runway near Reclaim, just north of the border, and flown low and tight to the ground for nearly fifty miles. The pilot checked his GPS, signaling the co-pilot to approach the door and prepare the load.
For a brief moment, all the pilot could see was the next ridge rising up and the blue black night ahead. He bent from side to side, looking down, marking the potential and trying to guess at what lay below. He pulled the controls back and made a wide, looping turn through the valley, highlighting the plane for a moment against the white glaciers farther out. As he came around he could see the flare go up, red and full, sputtering in the crosswind but climbing all the same.
He eased down on the throttle and signaled the co-pilot. The cabin filled with the red beacon light marking the package, and the door opened. Wind rushed in for a moment, and there was the brief bounce as the weight left the aircraft and the co-pilot rolled the door closed. The pilot gave one more turn over the valley, watching the load drift with the wind, the parachute like a giant jellyfish hanging there in the air. The silent red blink of the beacon floating down.
DRAKE WOKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT FOR NO reason. He lay watching the wind rustle the tent walls. He’d always thought, This is how it will be. This is how I will die, in a tent with the wind all around me and no one to know it happened. He stared at the tent a while longer, listening. There was always the idea of being hunted, the nagging indecision about what lay just out of sight. He had been coming into the woods since he was a boy, but never without that fear that clung to him. Bears, cougars, those things that were bigger than him, that could hunt him down. He lay there listening to his own breathing; then he heard it, far out on the wind rising off the valley. The low humming sound of an engine. He heard the throttle drop an octave and he was sure of it now, the thing was climbing, bending out across the valley like a boomerang.
He unzipped the tent and stood barefoot on the cold grass, watching the valley. He heard it again, the whine of an engine. It could have been a lawn mower for all he knew, but he knew it wasn’t, not here. The moon was out, brilliant white in a navy sky. Shrouding all the stars into mere dots of light. He could see it now, a plane, running low to the trees, curving around until its dark shape broke free over the glaciers and dipped back into the blackness.
Wind came and lifted his clothes about him, the sensation so alive on his skin and him so alone, standing there over the dark shadow of the valley below. Hadn’t he been expecting this? Wasn’t this why he was here, some desperate urge to set things right, to capture some piece of a life left behind? From the valley floor a flare shot up, climbing in a spiral into the air. The plane seemed to veer toward it like a trout in the water, inspecting. He heard the chute catch, the big wallop of air as the thing filled and the package floated free, red blinking lights strapped to the side and a dark cloud hanging over it. The plane ducked once through the valley, then headed north, dipping over the ridge. No lights, nothing. The silent darkness out there and the blinking red of the package floating over the valley.
HUNT LED THE KID CRASHING THROUGH THE UNDERbrush. The chute had caught a crosswind and was pulling for the ridge. They’d left the horses in the meadow and climbed, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes with their arms spread out in front of them to catch the branches and shrubs that lay before them.
It could happen this way. It wasn’t fine art. They could only guess at how it would play out—one chance, and if it didn’t play, that was it. There was always the danger it would get hung up. But Hunt was careful, he’d given the pilot fair warning, shot the flare wide so the pilot could circle and get his bearings.
“This is how it is?” the kid asked after they’d slowed and sat, watching the load—big as a metal desk and looking just as heavy—where it lay on the ground in front of them.
“What do you want me to tell you, kid?”
“Cigarette boats and palm trees would be nice,” the kid joked. He was sweating and he moved his sleeve over his forehead to wipe the grit.
“You cut me in on that deal,” Hunt said, the white of his teeth showing. He took a knife from his belt and began to slice the cords away. The parachute caught in the wind, and as he cut, the upright sides pulled over and lay down, revealing the packages beneath, each one of them the size of a fifty-pound bag of flour.
“Shit,” the kid said, “that’s a lot of coke.”
“I’ll guarantee they know it down to the gram.”
“I’m just saying.”
“That’s fine,” Hunt said. “Just don’t think too much about it. It’ll get you all twisted up inside.”
The two of them worked for fifteen minutes, hefting bags the size of pillowcases over their shoulders and bringing them down into the meadow.
“How much you think this is worth?” the kid said. “Honestly, how much?”
“Is there a reason you’re asking?”
“No reason. Just curiosity.”
“I wouldn’t worry about a thing like that. Don’t worry about it. We’ll be paid enough. You don’t want all the trouble a thing like this can bring.”
“You’ve never thought—”
“What is it you do for a living again?”
“You’re looking at it.”
“And it’s never crossed your mind.”
“Not once. Like I said, I can’t do much with a history like mine. But I can do a little, and what little I have I’m happy to hold on to.”
“Two horses and one busted-up life.”
“Not everyone that plays the lottery wins. You understand me, kid?”
“Yeah, I get you. But it’s like putting the winning ticket in my hand and asking me not to cash it in.”
“Are we going to have a problem here?”
“No problem, man. I’m just saying. Just saying is all.”
DRAKE TOOK THE SCREE CHUTE IN BOUNDS, HOLDING the .270 by the stock and letting his thighs take his weight. The rocks scattered out in front of him, clattered off each other and followed him down. What did you expect? he thought. So what if they hear me, they’re probably half-gone as it is. It’s probably better that way.
He paused to watch the thing in the air. The package pulled out over the forest and hung there for a moment. He didn’t wait to see what it would do; he was already running. It was a long ways. He figured he’d dropped a thousand feet already and he still had another five hundred or so before he reached the bottom. He stopped again, listened, giving the forest a long stare. He didn’t know what he would find.
He felt foolish, the feeling coming over him as fast as anything. Someone else could be here, someone else could do this. Why him, a guy on his day off? But he knew he couldn’t let that sit, and he headed off through the forest at a dead run, anticipating the dips in the damp ground before they came.
AFTER THEY’D LOADED THE BAGS ONTO THE HORSES, Hunt went through, tightening the straps. The kid had walked off a ways, and he stood in the meadow rubbing his arms and looking up at the glacier. When he came back he was smiling. “What now?” he said.
Hunt remembered being a kid once, years ago, before he went away. So much of his life seemed to be divided by the time he’d lost, as if a wall had been built during those ten years. He could remember waiting at home with his mother, a promise his father had made to take him to the races, and just waiting for his return, as if it was the only thing that mattered, though Hunt knew now that it wasn’t.
The choices he’d made had brought him here. He could look back on them now, rationalize them, yet he still felt that dim excitement of possibility growing inside him like an old piece of charred wood, burned long ago and pushed aside, taking on a miraculous light.
Hunt watched the edge of the forest. There was no time for the kid’s excitement, or his own, no time to stop or dream or hope for things that might or might not turn out. The lacquered moonlight coated their faces, everything slate blue, the shimmer of the light catching on the bridles. He hated this part of it. Better to be done with it than wait around here. He twisted the reins over his hand and told the kid to come on.
Hunt had never adjusted to the night forest. Better to be out of it, he thought. Better to be home in bed. A memory came to him of Nora, the cut of her nightgown as she lay in bed, her back turned and the light coming in through the blinds. Better to be home, he thought. Better to be far away from here.
Hunt and the kid walked on a ways, leading the horses and parting the grass in front of them. There was no reason to be worried. No reason at all.
WHEN DRAKE BROKE OUT INTO THE MEADOW, HE could see the two men at the far side, leading horses. He dropped to one knee, felt the damp of the dew-covered grass come through the fabric of his pants and rise onto his thigh. Through the scope the men were nearly straight on, their backs turned, facing away from him, their horses loaded with large bags. Drake couldn’t tell what was in them, but he could guess.
As he looked on, he talked to himself: “Don’t move. Don’t make a fool mistake and get yourself shot.” He couldn’t see any weapons on the men, but he knew that didn’t mean there weren’t any.
With his hand in the soft earth, he pushed himself up and circled into the forest, following the edge of the trees around until he was almost parallel to the men. He took his steps carefully, toe to heel, slipping from tree to tree. He could hear the draw of the horses’ lungs, the sound of the grass parting and then coming back together. He had the gun in his hands, held close with the barrel pointed upward and the butt at his belt. He took a big breath, he pulled in something gigantic, pressure and fear, and he felt it there in his lungs aching to get out.
How many times had he pictured himself here, gun drawn, taking sight along the barrel? He couldn’t say. Didn’t even know if he could go through with it. His father had been the one to show him how to shoot a gun, ten years old, elbows raised over the alder fence out back of their property, his father in the old cop browns of the department. Four apples set there amid the grass. “Careful now,” his father had said. “Take your time, you may only get one chance.”
He stepped from beneath the shadow of the trees and leveled the rifle. There was no plan. His father slipped back into memory. No one to tell him this was how it was done or to tell him otherwise. The silver light of the moon was on him, and he stood there with the rifle leveled and the two men looking at him, not knowing what to make of him.
One of the men began to speak, the older, a voice rough and bumpy as cobblestones. With his hand Drake shushed him. Told him to shut up, told him to just be quiet. Drake was saying a million different things, identifying himself and holding the rifle in his hands and yelling and not knowing anything. Just making it up as he went along. He kept his hand on the rifle and watched the steam break from the nostrils of the horses, everybody just staring at each other, waiting for what came next.
HUNT WAS THE FIRST TO MAKE THE ASSUMPTION. There was a good two hundred feet between him and the cop, and he guessed the man could make a nice shot. Could hollow out his head with that .270, but he wouldn’t. Hunt wasn’t going back to jail. It was reckless and he knew it. He was shivering all over, and he could feel his muscles tightening up and a million other things beginning to go wrong. But he had made his mind up a long while ago, when it had all started to happen for him, and Eddie had come to him and given him the job, which had been his ever since: he didn’t intend to go back to jail.
The deputy could see what was happening and Hunt knew it. Let him see it. They were in an open meadow, with the forest only a few steps off. Things were dark in the forest, and Hunt could see he might make it if he could get in there, the deputy just standing in the meadow, holding the rifle on him and yelling. Hunt didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t make much sense. He wasn’t listening and the kid was starting to back away and it was all going to shit.
With one quick movement, Hunt was behind the horse and had the buckle undone, the weight of the drugs carrying the saddle off. The man was yelling, but Hunt was yelling, too, not knowing what to say, but telling the kid all the while what to do. The kid stood there like some stupid scarecrow, stuffed up with straw and hay and not real guts like he should have been. Simply dumbfounded. Hunt was pulling on the reins, pulling the horse down by its mouth, leading it down until it was kneeling there in the grass. The kid was fumbling with the strap under the belly of his horse, the deputy coming on in a straight line across the field, the rifle held out in front of him. He was yelling something the kid couldn’t understand, and Hunt was rising up on the back of the horse, his gloved hands gripping the mane and the horse surging forward through the meadow.
There was a shot, and Hunt ducked, nearly falling from the horse. The kid’s horse startled and bucked back, and the kid stepped away, watching the hooves catch the air. Then he turned and ran head-down across the field, trying to keep the horse between him and the rifle. He ran wildly, not looking, keeping his head planted and his feet going. The meadow raced away under him, but he didn’t have any true plan except escape, and even that seemed a tough decision.
DRAKE WATCHED THE KID GO, WEAVING THROUGH the grass in an absurd fashion. It seemed to Drake that he was running a football pattern, juking left, then faking right. Drake raised the rifle and fired into the night. He listened as the echo caught high up in the valley and bounced back to him. “I don’t have a problem shooting you in the back,” he yelled, cradling the rifle again and sighting the kid. “Stop, goddamn it!” He shucked the shell casing and loaded another. The shot hit the meadow in front of the kid, and a cloud of dust bounced up like a little atomic explosion, pale and blue in the moonlight. The kid stopped, raised his hands, and waited. Drake shucked another shell casing and pushed the bolt forward.
He didn’t say anything when he got to the kid. What was there to say? No words could help him. The adrenaline was beginning to fade and he could feel his arms go loose and ropy, the shudders coming over him. One smuggler shy of a hole in one. He was sure the kid could hear his feet in the grass, the slow crunch as he stepped forward and bent the stalks. Somewhere out there, riding hard, was the other man, and Drake had all the best intentions of catching up to him.
With the butt of the rifle he struck the kid in the back of the head and knocked him unconscious. It was a clean shot, and he didn’t think the kid saw it coming. Drake was sorry the minute he did it. But he couldn’t take it back and he didn’t think he would even if he could. He checked the kid’s pulse, then used the knife from his belt to cut two strips from his shirt to tie the kid’s hands and legs. He felt around in the kid’s pockets for a wallet but didn’t find one. The horse was still standing nearby and he walked the short distance over to it and cut the packages away.
The horse shied and watched him out of the corner of its eye but didn’t present any trouble when he swung his leg over and gave it a nudge with his heels. The strap of the .270 across his chest, he kicked the horse again and felt the power of the animal take him. From the way the other man had handled himself, he’d thought him a very good rider. And Drake himself knew he couldn’t compete with that. There was just no way. He kicked the horse and led it up onto the ridge overlooking the surrounding valleys and waited, watching the clearings and listening for any sound.
The sun rose at the edge of the Cascades and the pink light was everywhere. He turned to look back down into the meadow and saw the kid lying there and the big white packages that looked like pillows nearby.
HUNT PUSHED HARD ON THE HORSE, HIS FINGERS wrapped up in the mane and holding tight. He kicked the horse, but there was no real control; he just let the girl go and take him away. It was impossible to ride bareback with any real control. If he’d practiced it, maybe, but he hadn’t and he couldn’t spare the thought now. He’d heard three shots, one he expected was for him, the other two for the kid. For a moment he’d pulled the horse around and listened to the echo of the second shot, wondering if it would make any real difference to turn back. The horse swayed and he could feel the big muscles at the top of the forelegs as they shifted. “Please let him get away,” he was saying. “Please let him.”
He heard the next shot three seconds later and he figured it would be the last. If the kid wasn’t dead he was in a whole shitload of trouble, and Hunt didn’t want to be anywhere near it when it hit. He kicked the horse and pointed her in a general downhill direction.
When he came out of the trees and followed along by the side of a river, his arms ached from pushing away tree boughs. His gloves and sleeves were covered in sap. He paused and looked up the cut of the river, trying to find his bearings. The map had been in the saddle pocket, along with the GPS, and he didn’t have any true reasoning to tell him where he was going. There was a map in the truck and he could figure his way off this mountain by sticking to the logging roads.
He wanted to think it had been a fluke, but it probably wasn’t. The man had said he was law, he’d said a whole lot of things, but Hunt couldn’t have told a soul what they were, at least not in any reasonable order. There was a primal drone going in his ears and it wouldn’t have made sense no matter what the man had said. One thing had, and it was to get away, because he knew he wasn’t going back, not now, not ever, and it was the one thing he was sure of.
By using his watch and sighting the glow from the rising sun, he could estimate a rough grid of his position. He didn’t know what the river was called, though he thought he remembered it from the map. The truck and trailer lay roughly in a southerly direction, near the Silver Lake area, and he thought it best to stay hidden, riding the long way and avoiding the ridges. Once he reached the truck it would be a three-hour drive into Seattle, and he thought he could make that, he thought it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem was getting off the mountain before the deputy did. If the deputy had a radio, Hunt imagined a helicopter would be called in, but he didn’t think the man did. He didn’t think the man even expected a day like this, showing up half-dressed and leveling the rifle on them.
The bullet caught the horse below the ear. Blood everywhere. The horse was stunned for a moment, teetering over some unseen abyss, her front legs buckling beneath her. With only time enough to swing free and push himself clear, Hunt was on his feet and running before he heard the next shot. It was a good shot or a bad shot, Hunt couldn’t tell. Either the man had meant to hit him, or he’d meant to hit the horse; perhaps he’d just meant to buck the horse and hoped Hunt would fall. It was all unclear and Hunt kept running. He thought the shot had come from the far ridge, but he couldn’t be sure. It seemed by the echo of the gun that the shot had come from a distance, but everything was happening outside the boundaries of time.
He had been riding in the dry cut of the river, where the water flowed in the spring and left loamy soil behind. A stand of young cottonwood and ash sat before him and he ran for that. Another bullet hit and he heard the earth crack and the bullet go in. Again, the sound didn’t reach him for a second or more. He ducked in behind the trees and leaned back on the bank, hoping his legs and feet were covered. He looked back at his horse and saw how the sand had gone black there. The horse did not move and he looked away.
The world seemed to have gone volatile and unpredictable, the catalyst of a chemical reaction he couldn’t stop. The horse lay there, still as a rock, blood seeping from a hole drilled clean through her head. He closed his eyes, tried to put the image out of his mind, warm morning sun on his eyelids, the red glow of light beyond. Close by, water rushed over river stones, the buzz of an insect gliding through the air. Open your eyes, he thought, keep moving. Bright sunshine everywhere. What was he doing, what was he doing here?
He tried to remember what the range was on a rifle like that. Even at a run he’d have no chance if the deputy was riding the other horse. Hunt looked back to where the horse lay and swore under his breath, cursed himself and didn’t stop for the better part of a minute.
Somewhere in that long-ago time, back when he’d just been a man living in a prison cell, he’d realized there was no going back, as much as he’d wanted it all to disappear, for his life just to start over, like pushing a reset button. Life wouldn’t give him that pleasure. He’d gone through a door that only swung one way. He thought about this now, held up under the stretch of cottonwood and ash branches, a bank of earth his only protection. He had to keep going.
The river ran wide and flat and he guessed the depth to be about three feet at its maximum. He was running for it before he knew what he was doing. He knew it flowed down toward Silver Lake, close enough to the truck. The cold hit him in his ankles first and sunk into his boots. The rocks were slippery, and he fell, catching himself with his hand and going forward. The water was up to his shins and it didn’t seem to be growing deeper. He went on, keeping himself low to the river’s surface, his hands outstretched and the water shooting out in front of him as he ran.
DEPUTY BOBBY DRAKE SAT FOR A LONG TIME LOOKING down from the ridge, long enough for the chill of the mountains to sink beneath his clothes, long enough for it to get beneath his skin. He lowered his head and pressed his forehead to the wooden stock of the .270, feeling the cold hardness of the rifle on his temple, the blood in his veins calming, his pulse steadying. For a while, after it was done, he just lay there, looking down at the valley. The man was gone now, escaped. Fir and hemlock stretched as far as he could see, the dull red brown of trees burning up with the season. The dead horse lay down there in the riverbed, the other was waiting close by, waiting to take him back to the kid and the drugs, and Drake had no real idea what he would do.
He hadn’t asked for this life. He hadn’t asked for any of this. It was given. He looked out on the forest below, the auburn haze of the light rising in the east and all of it starting anew once again. He’d accepted a kind of guilt for what his father had done; he knew that, knew he had to earn the name back, earn it back for himself and for his father.
He ran the scope along the river but saw nothing. Just the pale blue sheen of the river and the sun playing along as the water bumped on past. He thought about how something like this might change his life. How it already had, his father put away in prison, Drake pulled out of school to come home and tend to things. He’d thought he’d known who he was then, back in college, away from this place, away from his father. But he didn’t really know, not really. This would change a few things, he thought, it would surely do that.
Excerpted from The Terror of Living by Waite, Urban Copyright © 2011 by Waite, Urban. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
A hell of a good novel, relentlessly paced and beautifully narrated. There's just no let-up. An auspicious debut.