The Passage Page 9

"Told him I was sorry," Carter insisted, his voice cracking. "Told everybody. Ain't gonna say it no more."

"No one's saying you have to, Anthony. I know you're sorry. That's why I came all this way to see you."

"All what way?"

"A long way, Anthony." Wolgast nodded slowly. "A very, very long way."

Wolgast paused, searching Carter's face. There was something about him, different from the others. He felt the moment opening, like a door.

"Anthony, what would you say if I told you I could get you out of this place?"

Behind the glass, Carter eyed him cautiously. "How you mean?"

"Just like I said. Right now. Today. You could leave Terrell and never come back."

Carter's eyes floated with incomprehension; the idea was too much to process. "I'd say now I know you's fooling with me."

"No lie, Anthony. That's why we came all this way. You may not know it, but you're a special man. You could say you're one of a kind."

"You talk about me leaving here?" Carter frowned bitterly. "Ain't make no sense. Not after all this time. Ain't got no appeal. Lawyer said so in a letter."

"Not an appeal, Anthony. Better than that. Just you, getting out of here. How does that sound to you?"

"It sound great." Carter sat back and crossed his arms over his chest with a defiant laugh. "It sound too good to be true. This Terrell."

It always amazed Wolgast how much accepting the idea of commutation resembled the five stages of grief. Right now, Carter was in denial. The idea was just too much to take in.

"I know where you are. I know this place. It's the death house, Anthony. It's not the place where you belong. That's why I'm here. And not for just anyone. Not these other men. For you, Anthony."

Carter's posture relaxed. "I ain't nobody special. I knows that."

"But you are. You may not know it, but you are. You see, I need a favor from you, Anthony. This deal's a two-way street. I can get you out of here, but there's something I need for you to do for me in return."

"A favor?"

"The people I work for, Anthony, they saw what was going to happen to you in here. They know what's going to happen in June, and they don't think it's right. They don't think it's right the way you've been treated, that your lawyer has up and left you here like this. And they realized they could do something about it, and that they had a job they needed you to do instead."

Carter frowned in confusion. "Cuttin', you mean? Like that lady's lawn?"

Jesus, Wolgast thought. He actually thought he wanted him to cut the grass. "No, Anthony. Nothing like that. Something much more important." Wolgast lowered his voice again. "You see, that's the thing. What I need you to do is so important, I can't tell you what it is. Because I don't even know myself."

"How you know it's so important you don't know what it is?"

"You're a smart man, Anthony, and you're right to ask that. But you're going to have to trust me. I can get you out of here, right now. All you have to do is say you want to."

That was when Wolgast pulled the warden's envelope from his pocket and opened it. He always felt like a magician at this moment, lifting his hat to show a rabbit. With his free hand, he flattened the document against the glass for Carter to see.

"Do you know what this is? This is a writ of commutation, Anthony, signed by Governor Jenna Bush. It's dated today, right there at the bottom. You know what that means, a commutation?"

Carter was squinting at the paper. "I don't go to the needle?"

"That's right, Anthony. Not in June, not ever."

Wolgast returned the paper to his jacket pocket. Now it was bait, something to want. The other document, the one Carter would have to sign-which he would sign, Wolgast felt certain, when all the hemming and hawing was over; the one in which Anthony Lloyd Carter, Texas inmate 999642, handed one hundred percent of his earthly person, past, present, and future, to Project NOAH-was tucked against it. By the time this second piece of paper saw daylight, the whole point was not to read it.

Carter gave a slow nod. "Always liked her. Liked her when she was first lady."

Wolgast let the error pass. "She's just one of the people I work for, Anthony. There are others. You might recognize some of the names if I told you, but I can't. And they asked me to come and see you, and tell you how much they need you."

"So I do this thing for you, and you get me out? But you can't tell me what it is?"

"That's pretty much the deal, Anthony. Say no, and I'll move on. Say yes, and you can leave Terrell tonight. It's that simple."

The door into the cage opened once more; Doyle stepped through, holding the tea. He'd done as Wolgast had asked, balancing the glass on a saucer with a long spoon beside it and a wedge of lemon and packets of sugar. He placed it all on the counter in front of Carter. Carter looked at the glass, his face gone slack. That was when Wolgast thought it. Anthony Carter wasn't guilty, at least not in the way the court had spun it. With the others, it was always clear right off what Wolgast was dealing with, that the story was the story. But not in this case. Something had happened that day in the yard; the woman had died. But there was more to it, maybe a lot more. Looking at Carter, this was the space into which Wolgast felt his mind moving, like a dark room with no windows and one locked door. This, he knew, was the place where he would find Anthony Carter-he'd find him in the dark-and when he did, Carter would show him the key that would open the door.

He spoke with his eyes locked on the glass. "I jes' want ... " he began.

Wolgast waited for him to finish. When he didn't, Wolgast spoke again. "What do you want, Anthony? Tell me."

Carter lifted his free hand to the side of the glass and brushed the tips of his fingers against it. The glass was cool, and sweating with moisture; Carter drew his hand away and rubbed the beads of water between his thumb and fingers, slowly, his eyes focused on this gesture with complete attention. So intense was his concentration that Wolgast could feel the man's whole mind opening up to it, taking it in. It was as if the sensation of cool water on his fingertips was the key to every mystery of his life. He raised his eyes to Wolgast's.

"I need the time ... to figure it," he said softly. "The thing that happened. With the lady."

And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years ...

"I can give you that time, Anthony," Wolgast said. "All the time in the world. An ocean of time."

Another moment passed. Then Carter nodded.

"What I got to do?"

Wolgast and Doyle got to George Bush Intercontinental a little after seven; the traffic was murderous, but they still arrived with ninety minutes to spare. They dumped the rental and rode the shuttle to the Continental terminal, showed their credentials to bypass security, and made their way through the crowds to the gate at the far end of the concourse.

Doyle excused himself to find something to eat; Wolgast wasn't hungry, though he knew he'd probably regret this decision later on, especially if their flight got hung up. He checked his handheld. Still nothing from Sykes. He was glad. All he wanted to do was get the hell out of Texas. Just a few other passengers were waiting at the gate; a couple of families, some students plugged into Blu-rays or iPods, a handful of men in suits talking on cell phones or tapping on laptops. Wolgast checked his watch: seven twenty-five. By now, he thought, Anthony Carter would be in the back of a van well on his way to El Reno, leaving in his wake a flurry of shredded records and a fading memory that he had ever existed at all. By the end of the day, even his federal ID number would be purged; the man named Anthony Carter would be nothing but a rumor, a vague disturbance no bigger than a ripple on the surface of the world.

Wolgast leaned back in his chair and realized how exhausted he was. It always came upon him like this, like the sudden unclenching of a fist. These trips left him physically and emotionally hollowed out, and with a nagging conscience he always had to apply some effort to squash. He was just too damn good at this, too good at finding the one gesture, the one right thing to say. A man sat in a concrete box long enough, thinking about his own death, and he boiled down to milky dust like water in a teapot forgotten on a stove; to understand him, you had to figure out what that dust was made of, what was left of him after the rest of his life, past and future, had turned to vapor. Usually it was something simple-anger or sadness or shame, or simply the need for forgiveness. A few wanted nothing at all; all that remained was a dumb animal rage at the world and all its systems. Anthony was different: it had taken Wolgast a while to figure this out. Anthony was like a human question mark, a living, breathing expression of pure puzzlement. He actually didn't know why he was in Terrell. Not that he didn't understand his sentence; that was clear, and he had accepted it-as nearly all of them did, because they had to. All you had to do was read the last words of condemned men to know that. "Tell everyone I love them. I'm sorry. Okay, Warden, let's do this." Always words to that effect, and chilling to read, as Wolgast had done by the pageful. But some piece of the puzzle was still missing for Anthony Carter. Wolgast had seen it when Carter touched the side of the glass-before then, even, when he'd asked about Rachel Wood's husband and said he was sorry without saying it. Whether Carter couldn't remember what had happened that day in the Woods' yard or couldn't make his actions add up to the man he thought he was, Wolgast couldn't be certain. Either way, Anthony Carter needed to find this piece of himself before he died.

From his seat, Wolgast had a good view of the airfield through the terminal windows; the sun was going down, its last rays angling sharply off the fuselages of parked aircraft. The flight home always did him good; a few hours in the air, chasing the sunset, and he'd feel like himself again. He never drank or read or slept, just sat perfectly still, breathing the plane's bottled air and fixing his eyes out the window as the ground below him slipped into darkness. Once, on a flight back from Tallahassee, Wolgast's plane had flown around a storm front so huge it looked like an airborne mountain range, its roiling interior lit like a creche with jags of lightning. A night in September: they were somewhere over Oklahoma, he thought, or Kansas, someplace flat and empty. It could have been farther west. The cabin was dark; nearly everyone on the plane was sleeping, including Doyle, seated beside him with a pillow tucked against his stubbled cheek. For twenty full minutes the plane had ridden the edge of the storm without so much as a jostle. In all his life, Wolgast had never seen anything like it, had never felt himself so completely in the presence of nature's immensity, its planet-sized power. The air inside the storm was a cataclysm of pure atmospheric voltage, yet here he was, sealed in silence, hurtling along with nothing but thirty thousand feet of empty air below him, watching it all as if it were a movie on a screen, a movie without sound. He waited for the pilot's drawling voice to crackle over the intercom and say something about the weather, to let the other passengers in on the show, but this never happened, and when they landed in Denver, forty minutes late, Wolgast never mentioned it, not even to Doyle.

He thought, now, that he'd like to call Lila and tell her about it. The feeling was so strong, so clear in his mind, that it took a moment for him to realize how crazy this was, that it was just the time machine talking. The time machine: that's the name the counselor had given it. She was a friend of Lila's from the hospital whom they had visited just a couple of times, a woman in her thirties with long hair, prematurely gray, and large eyes, permanently damp with sympathy. She liked to take her shoes off at the start of each visit and sit with her legs folded under her, like a camp counselor about to lead them in song, and she spoke so quietly that Wolgast had to lean forward from the sofa to hear her. From time to time, she explained in her tiny voice, their minds would play tricks on them. It wasn't a warning, the way she said it; she was simply stating a fact. He and Lila might do something or see something and have a strong feeling from the past. They might, for instance, find themselves standing in the checkout line of the grocery with a packet of diapers in their cart, or tiptoeing past Eva's room, as if she were asleep. Those would be the hardest moments, the woman explained, because they'd have to relive their loss all over again; but as the months passed, she assured them, this would happen less and less.

The thing was, these moments weren't hard for Wolgast. They still happened to him every now and then, even three years after the fact, and when they did, he didn't mind at all: far from it. They were unexpected presents his mind could give him. But it was different for Lila, he knew.

"Agent Wolgast?"

He turned in his chair. The simple gray suit, the inexpensive but comfortable oxford shoes, the blandly forgettable tie: Wolgast might have been looking in a mirror. But the face was new to him.

He rose and reached into his pocket to show his ID. "That's me."

"Special Agent Williams, Houston field office." They shook. "I'm afraid you won't be taking this flight after all. I've got a car outside for you."

"Is there a message?"

Williams drew an envelope from his pocket. "I think this is probably what you're looking for."

Wolgast accepted the envelope. Inside was a fax. He sat and read, then read it again. He was still reading when Doyle returned, sipping from a straw and carrying a bag from Taco Bell.

Wolgast lifted his gaze to Williams. "Give us a second, will you?"

Williams moved off down the concourse.

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