The Passage Page 5

The thing was, the woman, Mrs. Wood, had always been nice to him, giving him an extra five or ten, and coming out with the iced tea on the hot days, always on a little tray, like folks did in restaurants, and the thing that had happened between them was confusing; Carter was sorry about it, sorry right down to his bones, but it still didn't make sense in his head, no matter how he turned it around. He'd never said he hadn't done it, but it didn't seem right to him to die on account of something he didn't understand, at least before he had the chance to figure it out. He went over it in his mind, but in four years it never had come any clearer to him. Maybe coming to terms, like Mr. Wood had done, was the thing Carter hadn't been able to see his way to. If anything, the whole thing made less sense than ever; and with the days and weeks and months all mashed together in his brain the way they were, he wasn't even sure he was remembering the thing right to begin with.

At 6:00 A.M., when the shift changed, the guards woke everybody up again, to call out names and numbers, then moved down the hallway with the laundry bags to swap out boxers and socks. This meant today was a Friday. Carter didn't get a chance to shower but once a week or see the barber except every sixty days, so it was good to have clean clothes. The sticky feeling of his skin was worse in summer, when you sweated all day onto yourself even if you lay still as a stone, but from what his lawyer had told him in the letter he'd sent six months ago, he wouldn't have to go through another Texas summer in his life. The second of June would be the end of it.

His thoughts were broken by two hard bangs on the door. "Carter. Anthony Carter." The voice belonged to Pincher, head of the shift.

"Aw, come on, Pincher," Anthony said from his bunk. "Who'd you think was in here?"

"Present for cuffs, Tone."

"Ain't time for rec. Ain't my day for the shower neither."

"You think I got all morning to stand here talking about it?"

Carter eased himself off the bunk, where he'd been looking at the ceiling and thinking about the woman, that glass of iced tea on the tray. His body felt achy and slow, and with effort he lowered himself onto his knees with his back facing the door. He'd done this a thousand times but still didn't like it. Keeping your balance was the tricky part. Once he was kneeling, he pulled his shoulder blades inward, twisted his arms around, and guided his hands, palms up, through the slot that the food came through. He felt the cold bite of the metal as Pincher cuffed his wrists. Everybody called him Pincher on account of how tight he did the cuffs.

"Stand back now, Carter."

Carter pushed one foot forward, his left knee making a grinding sound as he shifted his center of gravity, then rose carefully to his feet, simultaneously withdrawing his cuffed hands from the slot. From the far side of the door came the clanking of Pincher's big ring of keys, and then the door opened to show him Pincher and the guard they called Dennis the Menace, on account of his hair, which looked like the kid's in the cartoon, and the fact that he liked to menace you with the stick. He had a way of finding spots on your body that you never knew could hurt so bad with just a little poke of wood.

"Seems like somebody's come to see you, Carter," Pincher said. "And it isn't your mother or your lawyer." He didn't smile or anything, but Dennis looked to be enjoying himself. He gave that stick of his a twirl like a majorette.

"My mom's been with Jesus since I was ten years old," Carter told him. "You know that, Pincher, I told you that about a hundred times. Who is it wants me?"

"Can't say. Warden set it up. I'm just supposed to take you to the cages."

Carter supposed this was no good. It'd been so long since the woman's husband had come to visit; maybe he'd come to say goodbye, or else to tell him I changed my mind, I don't forgive you after all, go straight to hell, Anthony Carter. Either way Carter didn't have anything else to say to the man. He'd said sorry to everyone over and over and felt done with it.

"Come on with you then," Pincher said.

They led him down the corridor, Pincher gripping him hard by an elbow to steer him like a kid through a crowd, or a girl he was dancing with. This was how they took you anywhere, even to the shower. Part of you got used to people's hands being on you this way, and part of you didn't. Dennis led the way, opening the door that sealed administrative segregation from the rest of H-Wing and then the outer, second door that took them down the hall through general population to the cages. It'd been almost two years since Carter had been off H-Wing-H for "hellhole," H for "hit my black ass with that stick some more," H for "Hey, Mama, I'm off to see Jesus any day now"-and walking with his eyes pointed at the ground, he still let himself peek around, if only to give his eyes something new to look at. But it was all still Terrell, a maze of concrete and steel and heavy doors, the air dank and sour with the smell of men.

At the visiting area they reported to the OD and entered an empty cage. The air inside was ten degrees warmer and smelled like bleach so strong it made Carter's eyes sting. Pincher undid the cuffs; while Dennis held the point of his stick against the soft spot under Carter's jaw, they shackled him in the front, legs too. There were signs all over the wall telling Carter what he could and couldn't do, none of which he wanted to take the trouble to read or even look at. They shuffled him over to the chair and gave him the phone, which Carter could manage to hold in place against his ear only if he bent his legs halfway up his chest-more damp crunches from his knees-pulling the chain taut across his chest like a long zipper.

"Didn't have to wear the shackles the last time," Carter said.

Pincher barked a nasty laugh. "I'm sorry, did we forget to ask you nicely? Fuck you, Carter. You got ten minutes."

Then they left, and Carter waited for the door on the other side to open and show him who it was had come to see him after all this time.

Special Agent Brad Wolgast hated Texas. He hated everything about it.

He hated the weather, which was hot as an oven one minute and freezing the next, the air so damp it felt like a wet towel over your head. He hated the look of the place, beginning with the trees, which were scrawny and pathetic, their limbs all gnarled up like something out of Dr. Seuss, and the flat, windblown nothingness of it. He hated the billboards and the freeways and faceless subdivisions and the Texas flag, which flew over everything, always big as a circus tent; he hated the giant pickup trucks everybody drove, no matter that gas was thirteen bucks a gallon and the world was slowly steaming itself to death like a package of peas in a microwave. He hated the boots and the belt buckles and the way people talked, y'all this and y'all that, as if they spent the day ropin' and ridin', not cleaning teeth and selling insurance and doing the books, like people did everywhere.

Most of all, he hated it because his parents had made him live here, back in junior high. Wolgast was forty-four, still in decent shape but with the miscellaneous aches and thinning hair to show for it; sixth grade was long ago, nothing to regret, but still, driving with Doyle up Highway 59 north from Houston, springtime Texas spread all around, the wound felt fresh to him. Texas, state-sized porkchop of misery: one minute he'd been a perfectly happy kid in Oregon, fishing off the pier at the mouth of the Coos River and playing with his friends in the woods behind their house for endless, idle hours; the next he was stuck in the urban swamp of Houston, living in a crappy ranch house without a scrap of shade, walking to school in one-hundred-degree heat that felt like a big shoe coming down on his head. The end of the world, he'd thought. That's where he was. The end of the world was Houston, Texas. On his first day of sixth grade, the teacher had made him stand up to recite the Texas Pledge of Allegiance, as if he'd signed up to live in a whole different country. Three miserable years; he'd never been so glad to leave a place, even the way it happened. His father was a mechanical engineer; his parents had met when his father had taken a job the year after college as a math teacher on the reservation in Grande Ronde, where his mother, who was half Chinook-her mother's family name was Po-Bear-was working as a nurse's aide. They'd gone to Texas for the money, but then his father was laid off when the oil bust hit in '86; they tried to sell the house but couldn't, and in the end, his father had simply dropped the keys off at the bank. They moved to Michigan, then Ohio, then upstate New York, chasing little bits of work, but his father had never righted himself after that. When he'd died of pancreatic cancer two months before Wolgast graduated from high school-his third in as many years-it was easy to think that Texas had somehow done it. His mother had moved back to Oregon, but now she was gone too.

Everyone was gone.

He'd gotten the first man, Babcock, from Nevada. Others came from Arizona and Louisiana and Kentucky and Wyoming and Florida and Indiana and Delaware. Wolgast didn't care much for those places, either. But anything was better than Texas.

Wolgast and Doyle had flown into Houston from Denver the night before. They'd stayed the night at a Radisson near the airport (he'd considered a brief side trip into the city, maybe tracking down his old house, but then wondered what in hell he'd want to do a thing like that for), picked up the rental car in the morning, a Chrysler Victory so new it smelled like the ink on a dollar bill, and headed north. The day was clear with a high, blue sky the color of cornflowers; Wolgast drove while Doyle sipped his latte and read the file, a mass of paper resting on his lap.

"Meet Anthony Carter," Doyle said, and held up the photo. "Subject Number Twelve."

Wolgast didn't want to look. He knew just what he'd see: one more slack face, one more pair of eyes that had barely ever learned to read, one more soul that had stared into itself too long. These men were black or white, fat or thin, old or young, but the eyes were always the same: empty, like drains that could suck the whole world down into them. It was easy to sympathize with them in the abstract, but only in the abstract.

"Don't you want to know what he did?"

Wolgast shrugged. He was in no hurry, but now was as good a time as any.

Doyle slurped his latte and read: "Anthony Lloyd Carter. African American, five foot four, a hundred and twenty pounds." Doyle looked up. "That explains the nickname. Take a guess."

Already Wolgast felt tired. "You've got me. Little Anthony?"

"You're showing your age, boss. It's T-Tone. T for 'Tiny,' I'm thinking, though you never know. Mother deceased, no dad in the picture from day one, a series of foster homes care of the county. Bad beginnings all around. A list of priors but mostly petty stuff, panhandling, public nuisance, that kind of thing. So, the story. Our man Anthony cuts this lady's lawn every week. Her name is Rachel Wood, she lives in River Oaks, two little girls, husband's some big lawyer. All the charity balls, the benefits, the country clubs. Anthony Carter is her project. Starts cutting her lawn one day when she sees him standing under an overpass with a sign that says, HUNGRY, PLEASE HELP. Words along those lines. Anyway, she takes him home, makes him a sandwich, puts in some calls and finds him a place, some kind of group home she raises money for. Then she calls all her friends in River Oaks and says, Let's help this guy, what do you need done around the place? All of a sudden she's a regular Girl Scout, rallying the troops. So the guy starts cutting all their lawns, pruning the hedges, you know, all the things they need around the big houses. This goes on about two years. Everything's hunky-dory until one day, our man Anthony comes over to cut the lawn, and one of the little girls is home sick from school. She's five. Mom's on the phone or doing something, the little girl goes out into the yard, sees Anthony. She knows who he is, she's seen him plenty of times, but this time something goes wrong. He frightens her. There's some stuff here about maybe he touched her, but the court psychiatrist is iffy on that. Anyway, the girl starts screaming, Mom comes tearing out of the house, she's screaming, everybody's screaming, all of a sudden it's like a screaming contest, the goddamn screaming Olympics. One minute he's the nice man who shows up on time to cut the lawn, next thing you know, he's just a black guy with your kid, and all the Mother Teresa shit goes out the window. It gets physical. There's a struggle. Mom somehow falls or gets pushed into the pool. Anthony goes in after her, maybe to help her, but she's still screaming at him, fights him off. So now everybody's wet and yelling and thrashing around." Doyle looked at him quizzically. "Know how it ends?"

"He drowns her?"

"Bingo. Right there, right in front of the little girl. A neighbor heard it all and called the cops, so when they get there, he's still sitting on the edge of the pool, the lady floating in it." He shook his head. "Not a pretty picture."

Sometimes it was troubling to Wolgast, how much energy Doyle put into these stories. "Any chance it was an accident?"

"As it happens, the victim was on the varsity swim team at SMU. Still did fifty laps every morning. The prosecution made a lot of hay with that little detail. That and the fact that Carter pretty much admitted to killing her."

"What did he say when they arrested him?"

Doyle shrugged. "He only wanted her to stop screaming. Then he asked for a glass of iced tea."

Wolgast shook his head. The stories were always bad, but it was the little details that got to him. A glass of iced tea. Sweet Jesus. "How old did you say he was?"

Doyle flipped back a couple of pages. "I didn't. Thirty-two. Twenty-eight at the time he went into custody. And here's the thing. No relatives at all. Last time anybody came to see him in Polunsky was the victim's husband, a little over two years ago. His lawyer left the state, too, after the appeal was turned down. Carter's been reassigned to somebody else in the Harris County PD office, but they haven't even opened the paperwork. Ipso facto, nobody's watching the store. Anthony Carter goes to the needle on June second for murder one with depraved indifference, and not one soul on earth is paying attention. The guy's a ghost already."

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