I sat up and embraced her without even thinking about it. She hugged me back, as hard as she could. Then I kissed her, tasting her reality — the mingled flavors of tobacco and Avon. The lipstick was fainter; in her nervousness, she had nibbled most of it away. I smelled her shampoo, her deodorant, and the oily funk of tension-sweat beneath it. Most of all I touched her: hip and breast and the scarred furrow of her cheek. She was there.
“What time is it?” My trusty Timex had stopped.
“Quarter past eight.”
“Are you kidding? It can’t be!”
“It is. And I’m not surprised, even if you are. How long has it been since you got anything but the kind of sleep where you just pass out for a couple of hours?”
I was still trying to deal with the idea that Sadie was here, in the Fort Worth house where Lee and Marina had lived. How could it be? In God’s name, how ? And that wasn’t the only thing. Kennedy was also in Fort Worth, at this very minute giving a breakfast speech to the local Chamber of Commerce at the Texas Hotel.
“My suitcase is in my car,” she said. “Will we take the Beetle to wherever we’re going, or your Chevy? The Beetle might be better. It’s easier to park. We may have to pay a lot for a space, even so, if we don’t go right now. The scalpers are already out, waving their flags. I saw them.”
“Sadie. .” I shook my head in an effort to clear it and grabbed my shoes. I had thoughts in my head, plenty of them, but they were whirling around like paper in a cyclone, and I couldn’t catch a single one.
“I’m here,” she said.
Yes. That was the problem. “You can’t come with me. It’s too dangerous. I thought I explained that, but maybe I wasn’t clear enough. When you try to change the past, it bites. It’ll tear your throat out if you give it the chance.”
“You were clear. But you can’t do this alone. Face reality, Jake. You’ve put on a few pounds, but you’re still a scarecrow. You limp when you walk, and it’s a bad limp. You have to stop and rest your knee every two or three hundred steps. What would you do if you had to run?”
I said nothing. I was listening, though. I wound and set my watch as I did it.
“And that’s not the worst of it. You — yikes! What are you doing?” I had grabbed her thigh.
“Making sure you’re real. I still can’t quite believe it.” Air Force One was going to touch down at Love Field in a little over three hours. And someone was going to give Jackie Kennedy roses. At her other Texas stops, she’d been given yellow ones, but the Dallas bouquet was going to be red.
“I’m real and I’m here. Listen to me, Jake. The worst thing isn’t how badly you’re still banged up. The worst thing is the way you have of falling suddenly asleep. Haven’t you thought of that?”
I’d thought of it a lot.
“If the past is as malevolent as you say it is, what do you think is going to happen if you do succeed in getting close to the man you’re hunting before he can pull the trigger?”
The past wasn’t exactly malevolent, that was the wrong word, but I saw what she was saying and had no argument against it.
“You really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I absolutely do. And you’re forgetting something very important.” She took my hands and looked into my eyes. “I’m not just your best girl, Jake. . if that’s what I still am to you—”
“That’s exactly why it’s so goddam scary having you turn up like this.”
“You say a man’s going to shoot the president, and I have reason to believe you, based on the other things that you’ve predicted that have come true. Even Deke’s half-persuaded. ‘He knew Kennedy was coming before Kennedy knew it,’ he said. ‘Right down to the day and the hour. And he knew the Missus was coming along for the ride.’ But you say it as if you were the only person who cared. You’re not. Deke cares. He would have been here if he wasn’t still running a fever of a hundred and one. And I care. I didn’t vote for him, but I happen to be an American, and that makes him not just the president but my president. Does that sound corny to you?”
“Good.” Her eyes were snapping. “I have no intention of letting some crazy person shoot him, and I have no intention of falling asleep.”
“Let me finish. We don’t have much time, so you need to dig out your ears. Are they dug?”
“Good. You’re not getting rid of me. Let me repeat: not. I’m going. If you won’t let me into your Chevy, I’ll follow you in my Beetle.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, and didn’t know if I was cursing or praying.
“If we ever get married, I’ll do what you say, as long as you’re good to me. I was raised to believe that’s a wife’s job.” (Oh ye child of the sixties, I thought.) “I’m ready to leave everything I know behind and follow you into the future. Because I love you and because I believe that future you talk about is really there. I’ll probably never give you another ultimatum, but I’m giving you one now. You do this with me or you don’t do it at all.”
I thought about this, and carefully. I asked myself if she meant it. The answer was as clear as the scar on her face.
Sadie, meanwhile, was looking at the Crayola Girls. “Who do you suppose drew these? They’re actually quite good.”
“Rosette did them,” I said. “Rosette Templeton. She went back to Mozelle with her mamma after her daddy had an accident.”
“And then you moved in?”
“No, across the street. A little family named Oswald moved in here.”
“Is that his name, Jake? Oswald?”
“Yes. Lee Oswald.”
“Am I coming with you?”
“Do I have a choice?”
She smiled and put her hand on my face. Until I saw that relieved smile, I had no idea of how frightened she must have been when she shook me awake. “No, honey,” she said. “Not that I can see. That’s why they call it an ultimatum.”
We put her suitcase in the Chevrolet. If we stopped Oswald (and weren’t arrested), we could get her Beetle later and she could drive it back to Jodie, where it would look normal and at home in her driveway. If things didn’t go well — if we failed, or succeeded only to find ourselves on the hook for Lee’s murder — we’d simply have to run for it. We could run faster, farther, and more anonymously in a V-8 Chevy than in a Volkswagen Beetle.
She saw the gun when I put it into the inside pocket of my sport coat and said, “No. Outside pocket.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Where I can get at it if you all at once get tired and decide to take a nap.”
We went down the walk, Sadie hitching her purse over her shoulder. Rain had been forecast, but it looked to me as if the prognosticators would have to take a penalty card on that one. The sky was clearing.
Before Sadie could get in on the passenger side, a voice from behind me spoke up. “That your girlfriend, mister?”
I turned. It was the jump-rope girl with the acne. Only it wasn’t acne, it wasn’t rubella, and I didn’t have to ask why she wasn’t in school. She had chicken pox. “Yes, she is.”
“She’s purty. Except for the”—she made a gik sound that was, in a grotesque way, sort of charming—“on her face.”
Sadie smiled. My appreciation for her sheer guts continued to go up. . and it never went down. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Sadie,” the jump-rope girl said. “Sadie Van Owen. What’s yours?”
“Well, you’re not going to believe this, but my name’s Sadie, too.”
The kid eyed her with a mistrustful cynicism that was all Mercedes Street Riot Grrrl. “No, it’s not!”
“It really is. Sadie Dunhill.” She turned to me. “That’s quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, George?”
I wouldn’t, actually, and I didn’t have time to discuss it. “Need to ask you something, Miss Sadie Van Owen. You know where the buses stop on Winscott Road, don’t you?”
“Sure.” She rolled her eyes as if to ask how dumb do you think I am? “Say, have you two had the chicken pox?”
“Me, too,” I said, “so we’re okay on that score. Do you know which bus goes into downtown Dallas?”
“The Number Three.”
“And how often does the Three run?”
“I think every half hour, but it might be every fifteen minutes. Why you want the bus when you got a car? When you got two cars?”
I could tell by Big Sadie’s expression that she was wondering the same thing. “I’ve got my reasons. And by the way, my old man drives a submarine.”
Sadie Van Owen cracked a huge smile. “You know that one?”
“Known it for years,” I said. “Get in, Sadie. We need to roll.”
I checked my new watch. It was twenty minutes to nine.
“Tell me why you’re interested in the buses,” Sadie said.
“First tell me how you found me.”
“When I got to Eden Fallows and you were gone, I burned the note as you asked, then checked with the old guy next door.”
“Yes. He didn’t know anything. By then the therapist lady was sitting on your steps. She wasn’t happy to find you gone. She said she’d traded with Doreen so Doreen could see Kennedy today.”
The Winscott Road bus stop was ahead. I slowed to see if there was a schedule inside the little shelter next to the post, but no. I pulled into a parking space a hundred yards ahead of the stop.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking out an insurance policy. If a bus doesn’t come by nine, we’ll go on. Finish your story.”
“I called the hotels in downtown Dallas, but nobody even wanted to talk to me. They’re all so busy. I called Deke next, and he called the police. Told them he had reliable information that someone was going to shoot the president.”
I’d been watching for the bus in my rearview mirror, but now I looked at Sadie in shock. Yet I felt reluctant admiration for Deke. I had no idea how much of what Sadie had told him he actually believed, but he’d gone way out on a limb, just the same. “What happened? Did he give his name?”
“He never got the chance. They hung up on him. I think that’s when I really started to believe you about how the past protects itself. And that’s what all this is to you, isn’t it? Just a living history book.”
Here came a lumbering bus, green over yellow. The sign in the destination window read 3 MAIN STREET DALLAS 3. It stopped and the doors at the front and back flapped open on their accordion hinges. Two or three people got on, but there was no way they were going to find seats; when the bus rolled slowly past us, I saw that all of them were full. I glimpsed a woman with a row of Kennedy buttons pinned to her hat. She waved at me gaily, and although our eyes met for only a second, I could feel her excitement, delight, and anticipation.
I dropped the Chevy into gear and followed the bus. On the back, partially obscured by belching brown exhaust, a radiantly smiling Clairol girl proclaimed that if she only had one life, she wanted to live it as a blonde. Sadie waved her hand theatrically. “Uck! Drop back! It stinks!”
“That’s quite a criticism, coming from a pack-a-day chick,” I said, but she was right, the diesel stench was nasty. I fell back. There was no need to tailgate now that I knew Sadie Jump-Rope had been right about the number. She’d probably been right about the interval, too. The buses might run every half hour on ordinary days, but this was no ordinary day.
“I did some more crying, because I thought you were gone for sure. I was scared for you, but I hated you, too.”
I could understand that and still feel I’d done the right thing, so it seemed best to say nothing.
“I called Deke again. He asked me if you’d ever said anything about having another bolt-hole, maybe in Dallas but probably in Fort Worth. I said I didn’t remember you saying anything specific. He said it probably would have been while you were in the hospital, and all confused. He told me to think hard. As if I wasn’t. I went back to Mr. Kenopensky on the chance you might have said something to him. By then it was almost suppertime, and getting dark. He said no, but right about then his son came by with a pot roast dinner and invited me to eat with them. Mr. K got talking — he has all kinds of stories about the old days—”
“I know.” Up ahead, the bus turned east on Vickery Boulevard. I signaled and followed it but stayed far enough back so we didn’t have to eat the diesel. “I’ve heard at least three dozen. Blood-on-the-saddle stuff.”
“Listening to him was the best thing I could have done, because I stopped racking my brains for awhile, and sometimes when you relax, things let go and float to the surface of your mind. While I was walking back to your little apartment, I suddenly remembered you saying you lived for awhile on Cadillac Street. Only you knew that wasn’t quite right.”
“Oh my God. I forgot all about that.”
“It was my last chance. I called Deke again. He didn’t have any detailed city maps, but he knew there were some at the school library. He drove down — probably coughing his head off, he’s still pretty sick — got them, and called me from the office. He found a Ford Avenue in Dallas, and a Chrysler Park, and several Dodge Streets. But none of them had the feel of a Cadillac, if you know what I mean. Then he found Mercedes Street in Fort Worth. I wanted to go right away, but he told me I’d have a much better chance of spotting you or your car if I waited until morning.”
She gripped my arm. Her hand was cold.
“Longest night of my life, you troublesome man. I hardly slept a wink.”
“I made up for you, although I didn’t finally go under until the wee hours. If you hadn’t come, I might have slept right through the damn assassination.”
How dismal would that be for an ending?
“Mercedes goes on for blocks. I drove and drove. Then I could see the end, at the parking lot of some big building that looks like the back of a department store.”
“Close. It’s a Montgomery Ward warehouse.”
“And still no sign of you. I can’t tell you how downhearted I was. Then . .” She grinned. It was radiant in spite of the scar. “Then I saw that red Chevy with the silly tailfins that look like a woman’s eyebrows. Bright as a neon sign. I shouted and pounded the dashboard of my little Beetle until my hand was sore. And now here I a—”
There was a low, crunching bang from the right front of the Chevy and suddenly we were veering at a lamppost. There was a series of hard thuds from beneath the car. I spun the wheel. It was sickeningly loose in my hands, but I got just enough steerage to avoid hitting the post head-on. Instead, Sadie’s side scraped it, creating a ghastly metal-on-metal screee . Her door bowed inward and I yanked her toward me on the bench seat. We came to a stop with the hood hanging over the sidewalk and the car listing to the right. That wasn’t just a flat tire, I thought. That was a mortal fucking injury.
Sadie looked at me, stunned. I laughed. As previously noted, sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.
“Welcome to the past, Sadie,” I said. “This is how we live here.”
She couldn’t get out on her side; it was going to take a crowbar to pry the passenger door open. She slid the rest of the way across the seat and got out on mine. A few people were watching, not many.
“Gee, what happened?” a woman pushing a baby carriage asked.
That was obvious once I got around to the front of the car. The right front wheel had snapped off. It lay twenty feet behind us at the end of a curving trench in the asphalt. The jagged axle-stub gleamed in the sun.
“Busted wheel,” I told the woman with the baby carriage.
“Oh, law,” she said.
“What do we do?” Sadie asked in a low voice.
“We took out an insurance policy; now we file a claim. Nearest bus stop.”
Yes, I thought, and Al’s notebook. My manuscripts — the shitty novel that doesn’t matter and the memoir that does. Plus my available cash. I glanced at my watch. Quarter past nine. At the Texas Hotel, Jackie would be dressing in her pink suit. After another hour or so of politics, the motorcade would be on the move to Carswell Air Force Base, where the big plane was parked. Given the distance between Fort Worth and Dallas, the pilots would barely have time to put their wheels up.
I tried to think.
“Would you like to use my phone to call someone?” the woman with the baby carriage asked. “My house is right up the street.” She scanned us, picking up on my limp and Sadie’s scar. “Are you hurt?”
“We’re fine,” I said. I took Sadie’s arm. “Would you call a service station and ask them to tow it? I know it’s a lot to ask, but we’re in a terrible hurry.”
“I told him that front end was wobbly,” Sadie said. She was pouring on the Georgia drawl. “Thank goodness we weren’t on the highway.” Ha-way.
“There’s an Esso about two blocks up.” She pointed north. “I guess I could stroll the baby over there. .”
“Oh, that would be a lifesaver, ma’am,” Sadie said. She opened her purse, removed her wallet, and took out a twenty. “Give them this on account. Sorry to ask you like this, but if I don’t see Kennedy, I will just dah. ” That made the baby carriage woman smile.
“Goodness, that much would pay for two tows. If you have some paper in your purse, I could scribble a receipt—”
“That’s okay,” I said. “We trust you. But maybe I’ll put a note under the wiper.”
Sadie was looking at me questioningly. . but she was also holding out a pen and little pad with a cross-eyed cartoon kid on the cover. SKOOL DAZE, it said below his loopy grin. DEAR OLE GOLDEN SNOOZE DAZE.
A lot was riding on that note, but there was no time to think about the wording. I jotted rapidly and folded it under the wiper blade. A moment later we were around the corner and gone.
“Jake? Are you okay?”
“I got bumped by the door and I’ll probably have a bruise on my shoulder, but otherwise, yes. If we’d hit that post, I probably wouldn’t have been. You, either. Who was the note for?”
“Whoever tows the Chevy.” And I hoped to God Mr. Whoever would do as the note asked. “We’ll worry about that part when we come back.”
If we came back.
The next bus pole was halfway up the block. Three black women, two white women, and a Hispanic man were standing by the post, a racial mixture so balanced it looked like a casting call for Law and Order SVU. We joined them. I sat on the bench inside the shelter next to a sixth woman, an African-American lady whose heroic proportions were packed into a white rayon uniform that practically screamed Well-to-do White Folks’ Housekeeper. On her bosom she wore a button that read ALL THE WAY WITH JFK IN ’64.
“Bad leg, sir?” she asked me.
“Yes.” I had four packets of headache powder in the pocket of my sport coat. I reached past the gun, got two of them, tore off the tops, and poured them into my mouth.
“Taking them that way will box your kidneys around,” she said.
“I know. But I’ve got to keep this leg going long enough to see the president.”
She broke into a large smile. “Don’t I hear that. ”
Sadie was standing on the curb and looking anxiously back down the street for a Number Three.
“Buses runnin slow today,” the housekeeper said, “but one be along directly. No way I’m missin Kennedy, nuh-uh !”
Nine-thirty came and still no bus, but the ache in my knee was down to a dull throb. God bless Goody’s Powder.
Sadie came over. “Jake, maybe we ought to—”
“Here come a Three,” the housekeeper said, and rose to her feet. She was an awesome lady, dark as ebony, taller than Sadie by at least an inch, hair plank-straight and gleaming. “How-eee, I’m gonna get me a place right there in Dealey Plaza. Got samidges in my bag. And will he hear me when I yell?”
“I bet he will,” I said.
She laughed. “You better believe he will! Him and Jackie both!”
The bus was full, but the folks from the bus stop crammed on anyway. Sadie and I were the last, and the driver, who looked as harried as a stockbroker on Black Friday, held out his palm. “No more! I’m full! Got em crammed in like sardines! Wait for the next one!”
Sadie threw me an agonized look, but before I could say anything, the large lady stepped in on our behalf. “Nuh-uh, you let em on. The man he got a bum leg, and the lady got her own problems, as you can well see. Also, she skinny and he skinnier. You let em on or I’m gonna put you off and drive this bus myself. I can do it, too. I learned on my daddy’s Bulldog.”
The bus driver looked at her looming over him, then rolled his eyes and beckoned us aboard. When I reached for coins to stick in the fare-box, he covered it with a meaty palm. “Never mind the damn fare, just get behind the white line. If you can.” He shook his head. “Why they didn’t put on a dozen extra buses today I don’t know.” He yanked the chrome handle. The doors flopped shut fore and aft. The air brakes let go with a chuff and we were rolling, slow but sure.
My angel wasn’t done. She began hectoring a couple of working guys, one black and one white, seated behind the driver with their dinnerbuckets in their laps. “Get on up and give your seats to this lady and gentleman, now! Can’t you see he’s got a bad pin? And he’s still goin to see Kennedy!”
“Ma’am, that’s all right,” I said.
She took no notice. “Get up, now, was you raised in a woodshed?”
They got up, elbowing their way into the choked throng in the aisle. The black workingman gave the housekeeper a dirty look. “Nineteen sixty-three and I’m still givin the white man my seat.”
“Oh, boo-hoo,” his white friend said.
The black guy did a double take at my face. I don’t know what he saw, but he pointed at the now-vacant seats. “Sit down before you fall down, Jackson.”
I sat next to the window. Sadie murmured her thanks and sat beside me. The bus lumbered along like an old elephant that can still reach a gallop if given enough time. The housekeeper hovered protectively next to us, holding a strap and swaying her hips on the turns. There was a lot of her to sway. I looked at my watch again. The hands seemed to be leaping toward 10:00 A.M.; soon they would leap past it.
Sadie leaned close to me, her hair tickling my cheek and neck. “Where are we going, and what are we going to do when we get there?”
I wanted to turn toward her, but kept my eyes front instead, looking for trouble. Looking for the next punch. We were on West Division Street now, which was also Highway 180. Soon we’d be in Arlington, future home of George W. Bush’s Texas Rangers. If all went well, we’d reach the Dallas city limits by ten-thirty, two hours before Oswald chambered the first round into his damned Italian rifle. Only, when you’re trying to change the past, things rarely go well.
“Just follow my lead,” I said. “And don’t relax.”
We passed south of Irving, where Lee’s wife was now recuperating from the birth of her second child only a month ago. Traffic was slow and smelly. Half the passengers on our packed bus were smoking. Outside (where the air was presumably a little clearer), the streets were choked with inbound traffic. We saw one car with WE LOVE YOU JACKIE soaped on the back window, and another with GET OUT OF TEXAS YOU COMMIE RAT in the same location. The bus lurched and swayed. Larger and larger clusters of people stood at the stops; they shook their fists when our packed bus refused to even slow.
At quarter past ten we got on Harry Hines Boulevard and passed a sign pointing the way to Love Field. The accident occurred three minutes after that. I had been hoping it wouldn’t happen, but I had been watching for it and waiting for it, and when the dump truck drove through the stoplight at the intersection of Hines and Inwood Avenue, I was at least halfway prepared. I’d seen one like it before, on my way to Longview Cemetery in Derry.
I grabbed Sadie’s neck and pushed her head toward her lap. “Down! ”
A second later we were thrown against the partition between the driver’s seat and the passenger area. Glass broke. Metal screamed. The standees shot forward in a yelling clot of waving limbs, handbags, and dislodged for-best hats. The white workingman who’d said Boo-hoo was bent double over the fare machine that stood at the head of the aisle. The large housekeeper simply disappeared, buried under a human avalanche.
Sadie’s nose was bleeding and there was a puffy bruise rising like bread dough under her right eye. The driver was sprawled sideways behind the wheel. The wide front window was shattered and the forward view of the street was gone, replaced by rust-flowered metal. I could read ALLAS PUBLIC WOR . The stench of the hot asphalt the truck had been carrying was thick.
I turned Sadie toward me. “Are you all right? Is your head clear?”
“I’m okay, just shaken up. If you hadn’t shouted when you did, I wouldn’t have been.”
There were moans and cries of pain from the pile-up at the front of the bus. A man with a broken arm disengaged himself from the scrum and shook the driver, who rolled out of his seat. There was a wedge of glass protruding from the center of his forehead.
“Ah, Christ!” the man with the broken arm said. “I think he’s fuckin dead!”
Sadie got to the guy who’d hit the fare post and helped him back to where we’d been sitting. He was white-faced and groaning. I guessed that he’d been leading with his balls when he hit the post; it was just the right height. His black friend helped me get the housekeeper to her feet, but if she hadn’t been fully conscious and able to help us out, I don’t think we could have done much. That was three hundred pounds of female on the hoof. She was bleeding freely from the temple, and that particular uniform was never going to be of further use to her. I asked if she was okay.
“I think so, but I fetched my head one hell of a wallop. Lawsy!”
Behind us, the bus was in an uproar. Pretty soon there was going to be a stampede. I stood in front of Sadie and got her to put her arms around my waist. Given the shape of my knee, I probably should have been holding onto her, but instinct is instinct.
“We need to let these people off the bus,” I told the black workingman. “Run the handle.”
He tried, but it wouldn’t move. “Jammed!”
I thought that was bullshit; I thought the past was holding it shut. I couldn’t help him yank, either. I only had one good arm. The housekeeper — one side of her uniform now soaked with blood — pushed past me, almost knocking me off my feet. I felt Sadie’s arms jerk loose, but then she took hold again. The housekeeper’s hat had come askew, and the gauze of the veil was beaded with blood. The effect was grotesquely decorative, like tiny hollyberries. She reset the hat at the proper angle, then laid hold of the chrome doorhandle with the black workingman. “I’m gonna count three, then we gonna pull this sucker,” she told him. “You ready?”
“One. . two. . three !”
They yanked. . or rather she did, and hard enough to split her dress open beneath one arm. The doors flopped open. From behind us came weak cheers.
“Thank y—” Sadie began, but then I was moving.
“Quick. Before we get trampled. Don’t let go of me.” We were the first ones off the bus. I turned Sadie toward Dallas. “Let’s go.”
“Jake, those people need help!”
“And I’m sure it’s on the way. Don’t look back. Look ahead, because that’s where the next trouble will come from.”
“How much trouble? How much more?”
“All the past can throw at us,” I said.
It took us twenty minutes to make four blocks from where our Number Three bus had come to grief. I could feel my knee swelling. It pulsed with each beat of my heart. We came to a bench and Sadie told me to sit down.
“There’s no time.”
“Sit, mister.” She gave me an unexpected push and I flopped onto the bench, which had an ad for a local funeral parlor on the back. Sadie nodded briskly, as a woman may when a troublesome chore has been accomplished, then stepped into Harry Hines Boulevard, opening her purse as she did so and rummaging in it. The throbbing in my knee was temporarily suspended as my heart climbed into my throat and stopped.
A car swerved around her, honking. It missed her by less than a foot. The driver shook his fist as he continued down the block, then popped up his middle finger for good measure. When I yelled at her to come back, she didn’t even look in my direction. She took out her wallet as the cars whiffed past, blowing her hair back from her scarred face. She was as cool as a spring morning. She got what she wanted, dropped the wallet back into her purse, then held a greenback high over her head. She looked like a high school cheerleader at a pep rally.
“Fifty dollars!” she shouted. “Fifty dollars for a ride into Dallas! Main Street! Main Street! Gotta see Kennedy! Fifty dollars!”
That isn’t going to work, I thought. The only thing that’s going to happen is she’s going to get run over by the obdurate pa—
A rusty Studebaker screamed to a stop in front of her. The engine bashed and clanged. There was an empty socket where one of the headlamps should have been. A man in baggy pants and a strap-style tee-shirt got out. On his head (and pulled all the way down to his ears) was a green felt cowboy hat with an Indian feather in the band. He was grinning. The grin showcased at least six missing teeth. I took one look and thought, Here comes trouble.
“Lady, you crazy,” the Studebaker cowboy said.
“You want fifty dollars or not? Just take us to Dallas.”
The man squinted at the bill, as oblivious of the swerving, honking cars as Sadie herself. He took off his hat, slapped it against the chinos hanging from his chickenbone hips, then put it back on his head, once more pulling it down until the brim rode the tops of his jug ears. “Lady, that ain’t a fifty, that’s a tenspot.”
“I’ve got the rest in my billfold.”
“Then why don’t I just take it?” He grabbed at her big handbag and got one strap. I stepped off the curb, but I thought he’d have it and be gone before I could reach her. And if I did reach her, he’d probably beat me stupid. Skinny as he was, he still outweighed me. And he had two good arms.
Sadie held on. Pulled in opposite directions, the bag gaped open like an agonized mouth. She reached inside with her free hand and came out with a butcher knife that looked familiar. She swiped at him with it and opened his forearm. The cut began above his wrist and ended at the dirty crease on the inside of his elbow. He screamed in pain and surprise, let go of the strap, and stepped back, staring at her. “You crazy bitch, you cut me!”
He lunged for the open door of his car, which was still trying to beat itself to death. Sadie stepped forward and slashed the air in front of his face. Her hair had fallen in her eyes. Her lips were a grim line. Blood from the Studebaker cowboy’s wounded arm pattered to the pavement. Cars continued to flow past. Incredibly, I heard someone yell, “Give him the business, lady!”
The Studebaker cowboy retreated toward the sidewalk, his eyes never leaving the knife. Without looking at me, Sadie said: “Over to you, Jake.”
For a second I didn’t understand, then remembered the.38. I took it out of my pocket and pointed at him. “See this, Tex? It’s loaded.”
“You’re as crazy as she is.” He was holding his arm against his chest now, branding his tee-shirt with blood. Sadie hurried around to the Studebaker’s passenger side and opened the door. She looked at me over the roof and made an impatient cranking gesture with one hand. I wouldn’t have believed I could love her more, but in that moment I saw I was wrong.
“You should have either taken the money or kept driving,” I said. “Now let me see how you run. Do it immediately or I’ll put a bullet in your leg so you can’t do it at all.”
“You’re one fuckin bastard,” he said.
“Yes, I am. And you’re one fucking thief who will soon be sporting a bullet hole.” I cocked the gun. The Studebaker cowboy didn’t test me. He turned and hustled west on Hines with his head hunched and his arm cradled, cursing and spilling a blood-trail.
“Don’t stop till you get to Love!” I shouted after him. “It’s three miles the way you’re going! Say hello to the president!”
“Get in, Jake. Get us out of here before the police come.”
I slid in behind the wheel of the Studebaker, grimacing as my swollen knee protested. It was a standard shift, which meant using my bad leg on the clutch. I ran the seat back as far as it would go, hearing the litter of trash in back crunch and crackle, then got rolling.
“That knife,” I said. “Is it—?”
“The one Johnny cut me with, yes. Sheriff Jones returned it after the inquest. He thought it was mine and he was probably right. But not from my place on Bee Tree. I’m almost positive Johnny brought it with him from our house in Savannah. I’ve been carrying it in my bag ever since. Because I wanted something to protect myself with, just in case. .” Her eyes filled. “And this is an in-case, isn’t it? This is an in-case if there ever was one.”
“Put it back in your purse.” I stabbed the clutch, which was horribly stiff, and managed to get the Studebaker into second. The car smelled like a chicken coop that hadn’t been cleaned in roughly ten years.
“It’ll get blood on everything inside.”
“Put it back anyway. You can’t walk around waving a knife, especially when the president’s coming to town. Honey, that was beyond brave.”
She put the knife away, then began wiping her eyes with her fisted hands, like a little girl who’s scraped her knees. “What time is it?”
“Ten of eleven. Kennedy lands at Love Field in forty minutes.”
“Everything’s against us,” she said. “Isn’t it?”
I glanced at her and said, “Now you understand.”
We made it to North Pearl Street before the Studebaker’s engine blew. Steam boiled up from under the hood. Something metallic clanged to the road. Sadie cried out in frustration, struck her thigh with a balled fist, and used several bad words, but I was almost relieved. At least I wouldn’t have to wrestle with the clutch anymore. I put the column shift in neutral and let the steaming car roll to the side of the street. It came to rest in front of an alley with DO NOT BLOCK painted on the cobbles, but this particular offense seemed minor to me after assault with a deadly weapon and car theft.
I got out and hobbled to the curb, where Sadie was already standing. “What time now?” she asked.
“How far do we have to go?”
“The Texas School Book Depository is on the corner of Houston and Elm. Three miles. Maybe more.” The words were no more than out of my mouth when we heard the roar of jet engines from behind us. We looked up and saw Air Force One on its descent path.
Sadie pushed her hair wearily back from her face. “What are we going to do?”
“Right now we’re going to walk,” I said.
“Put your arm around my shoulders. Let me take some of your weight.”
“I don’t need to do that, hon.”
But a block later, I did.
We approached the intersection of North Pearl and Ross Avenue at eleven-thirty, right around the time Kennedy’s 707 would be rolling to a stop near the official greeters. . including, of course, the woman with the bouquet of red roses. The street corner ahead was dominated by the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe. On the steps, below a statue of the saint with her arms outstretched, sat a man with wooden crutches on one side and an enamel kitchen pot on the other. Propped against the pot was a sign reading I AM CRIPPLE UP BAD ! PLEASE GIVE WHAT YOU CAN BE A GOOD SAMARIAN GOD LOVES YOU.
“Where are your crutches, Jake?”
“Back at Eden Fallows, in the bedroom closet.”
“You forgot your crutches ?”
Women are good at rhetorical questions, aren’t they?
“I haven’t been using them that much lately. For short distances, I’m pretty much okay.” This sounded marginally better than admitting that the main thing on my mind had been getting the hell away from the little rehab cluster before Sadie arrived.
“Well, you could sure use a pair now.”
She ran ahead with enviable fleetness and spoke to the beggar on the church steps. By the time I limped up, she was dickering with him. “A set of crutches like that costs nine dollars, and you want fifty for one ?”
“I need at least one to get home,” he said reasonably. “And your friend looks like he needs one to get anywhere. ”
“What about all that God loves you, be a good Samaritan stuff?”
“Well,” the beggar said, thoughtfully rubbing his whiskery chin, “God does love you, but I’m just a poor old cripple fella. If you don’t like my terms, make like the Pharisee and pass by on the other side. That’s what I’d do.”
“I bet you would. What if I just snatched them away, you money-grubbing thing?”
“I guess you could, but then God wouldn’t love you anymore,” he said, and burst out laughing. It was a remarkably cheerful sound for a man who was crippled up bad. He was doing better in the dental department than the Studebaker cowboy, but not a whole hell of a lot.
“Give him the money,” I said. “I only need one.”
“Oh, I’ll give him the money. I just hate being screwed.”
“Lady, that’s a shame for the male population of planet Earth, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Watch your mouth,” I said. “That’s my fiancée you’re talking about.” It was eleven-forty now.
The beggar took no notice of me. He was eyeing Sadie’s wallet. “There’s blood on that. Did you cut yourself shaving?”
“Don’t try out for the Sullivan show just yet, sweetheart, Alan King you’re not.” Sadie produced the ten she’d flashed at oncoming traffic, plus two twenties. “There,” she said as he took them. “I’m broke. Are you satisfied?”
“You helped a poor crippled man,” the beggar said. “You’re the one who ought to be satisfied.”
“Well, I’m not!” Sadie shouted. “And I hope your damn old eyes fall out of your ugly head!”
The beggar gave me a sage guy-to-guy look. “Better get her home, Sunny Jim, I think she’s gonna start on her monthly right t’irectly.”
I put the crutch under my right arm — people who’ve been lucky with their bones think you’d use a single crutch on the injured side, but that’s not the case — and took Sadie’s elbow with my left hand. “Come on. No time.”
As we walked away, Sadie slapped her jeans-clad rump, looked back over her shoulder, and cried: “Kiss it!”
The beggar called: “Bring it back and bend it in my direction, honeylove, that you get for free!”
We walked down North Pearl. . or rather, Sadie walked and I crutched. It was a hundred times better with the crutch, but there was no way we could make the intersection of Houston and Elm before twelve-thirty.
Up ahead was a scaffolding. The sidewalk went beneath it. I steered Sadie across the street.
“Jake, why in the world —”
“Because it’d fall on us. Take my word for it.”
“We need a ride. We really need. . Jake? Why are you stopping?”
I stopped because life is a song and the past harmonizes. Usually those harmonies meant nothing (so I thought then), but every once in awhile the intrepid visitor to the Land of Ago can put one to use. I prayed with all my heart that this was one of those times.
Parked at the corner of North Pearl and San Jacinto was a 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible. Mine had been red and this one was midnight blue, but still. . maybe. .
I hurried to it and tried the passenger door. Locked. Of course. Sometimes you caught a break, but outright freebies? Never.
“Are you going to jump the ignition?”
I had no idea how to do that, and suspected it was probably harder than they made it look on Bourbon Street Beat . But I knew how to raise my crutch and slam the armpit cradle repeatedly against the window until it broke into a crack-glaze and sagged inward. No one looked at us, because there was no one on the sidewalk. All the action was to the southeast. From there we could hear the surf-roar of the crowd now gathering on Main Street in anticipation of President Kennedy’s arrival.
The Saf-T-Glas sagged. I reversed the crutch and used the rubber-tipped end to push it inward. One of us would have to sit in the back. If this worked, that was. While in Derry, I’d had a copy made of the Sunliner’s ignition key and taped it to the bottom of the glove compartment, underneath the paperwork. Maybe this guy had done the same. Maybe this particular harmony extended that far. It was a thin chance. . but the chance of Sadie finding me on Mercedes Street had been thin enough to read a newspaper through, and that one had panned out. I thumbed the chrome button on this Sunliner’s glove compartment and began to feel around inside.
Harmonize, you son of a bitch. Please harmonize. Give me a little help just this once.
“Jake? Why would you think—”
My fingers happened on something and I brought out a tin Sucrets box. When I opened it I found not one key, but four. I didn’t know what the other three might open, but I had no doubt about the one I wanted. I could have found it in the dark, just by its shape.
Man, I loved that car.
“Bingo,” I said, and almost fell over when she hugged me. “You drive, honey. I’ll sit in back and rest my knee.”
I knew better than to try Main Street; it would be blocked off with sawhorses and police cars. “Take Pacific as far as you can. After that, use the side streets. Just keep the crowd-noise on your left and I think you’ll be okay.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Half an hour.” It was actually twenty-five minutes, but I thought half an hour sounded more comforting. Besides, I didn’t want her to try any stunt driving and risk an accident. We still had time — theoretically, at least — but one more wreck and we were finished.
She didn’t try any stunts, but she did drive fearlessly. We came to a downed tree blocking one of the streets (of course we did), and she bumped up over the curb, driving along the sidewalk to get past it. We made it as far as the intersection of North Record Street and Havermill. There we could go no farther, because the last two blocks of Havermill — right up to the point where it intersected Elm — no longer existed. It had become a parking lot. A man holding an orange flag waved us forward.
“Fi’ bucks,” he said. “Just a two-minute walk to Main Street, you folks got plenny a time.” Although he cast a doubtful eye at my crutch when he said it.
“I really am broke,” Sadie said. “I wasn’t lying about that.”
I pulled out my wallet and gave the man a five. “Put it behind the Chrysler,” he said. “Pull up nice and tight.”
Sadie tossed him the keys. “You pull it up nice and tight. Come on, honey.”
“Hey, not that way!” the car-park guy yelled. “That way’s Elm! You want to go over to Main! That’s the way he’s coming!”
“We know what we’re doing!” Sadie called. I hoped she was right. We made our way through the packed cars, Sadie in the lead. I twisted and flailed with my crutch, trying to avoid jutting outside mirrors and keep up with her. Now I could hear locomotives and clanging freight cars in the trainyard behind the Book Depository.
“Jake, we’re leaving a trail a mile wide.”
“I know. I’ve got a plan.” A gigantic overstatement, but it sounded good.
We came out on Elm, and I pointed at the building across the street two blocks down. “There. That’s where he is.”
She looked at the squat red cube with the peering windows, then turned a dismayed, wide-eyed face to me. I observed — with something like clinical interest — that large white goosebumps had broken out on her neck. “Jake, it’s horrible !”
“But. . what’s wrong with it?”
“Everything. Sadie, we have to hurry. We’re nearly out of time.”
We crossed Elm on a diagonal, me crutching along at a near run. The biggest portion of the crowd was on Main Street, but more people filled Dealey Plaza and lined Elm in front of the Book Depository. They crowded the curb all the way down to the Triple Underpass. Girls sat on their boyfriends’ shoulders. Children who might soon be screaming in panic happily smeared their faces with ice cream. I saw a man selling Sno-Cones and a woman with a huge bouffant hairdo hawking dollar photos of Jack and Jackie in evening wear.
By the time we reached the shadow of the Depository, I was sweating, my armpit was hollering from the constant pressure of the crutch cradle, and my left knee had been cinched in a fiery belt. I could barely bend it. I looked up and saw Depository employees leaning from some of the windows. I couldn’t see anyone in the one at the southeast corner of the sixth floor, but Lee would be there.
I looked at my watch. Twelve-twenty. We could track the motorcade’s progress by the rising roar on Lower Main Street.
Sadie tried the door, then gave me an anguished glare. “Locked!”
Inside, I saw a black man wearing a poorboy cap tilted at a jaunty angle. He was smoking a cigarette. Al had been a great one for marginalia in his notebook, and near the end — casually jotted, almost doodled — he had written the names of several of Lee’s co-workers. I’d made no effort to study these, because I didn’t see what earthly use I could put them to. Next to one of those names — the one belonging to the guy in the poorboy cap, I had no doubt — Al had written: First one they suspected (probably because black). It had been an unusual name, but I still couldn’t remember it, either because Roth and his goons had beaten it out of my head (along with all sorts of other stuff) or because I hadn’t paid enough attention in the first place.
Or just because the past was obdurate. And did it matter? It just wouldn’t come. The name was nowhere.
Sadie hammered on the door. The black man in the poorboy cap stood watching her impassively. He took a drag on his cigarette and then waved the back of his hand at her: go on, lady, go on.
“Jake, think of something! PLEASE!”
An unusual name, yes, but why had it been unusual? I was surprised to find this was something I actually knew.
“Because it was a girl’s,” I said.
Sadie turned to me. Her cheeks were flushed except for the scar, which stood out in a white snarl. “What?”
Suddenly I was hammering on the glass. “Bonnie!” I shouted. “Hey, Bonnie Ray! Let us in! We know Lee! Lee! LEE OSWALD!”
He registered the name and crossed the lobby in a maddeningly slow amble.
“I didn’t know that scrawny l’il sumbitch had any friends,” Bonnie Ray Williams said as he opened the door, then stepped aside as we rushed inside. “He probably in the break room, watchin for the president with the rest of—”
“Listen to me,” I said. “I’m not his friend and he’s not in the break room. He’s on the sixth floor. I think he means to shoot President Kennedy.”
The big man laughed merrily. He dropped his cigarette to the floor and crushed it out with a workboot. “That little pissant wouldn’t have the guts to drown a litter o’ kittens in a sack. All he do is sit in the corner and read books. ”
“I tell you—”
“I’m goan on up to two. If you want to come with me, you’re welcome, I guess. But don’t be talkin any more nonsense about Leela. That’s what we call him, Leela. Shoot the president! Lor! ” He waved his hand and ambled away.
I thought, You belong in Derry, Bonnie Ray. They specialize in not seeing what’s right in front of them.
“Stairs,” I told Sadie.
“The elevator would be—”
The end of any chance we might have left was what it would be.
“It would get stuck between floors. Stairs. ”
I took her hand and pulled her toward them. The staircase was a narrow gullet with wooden risers swaybacked from years of traffic. There was a rusty iron railing on the left. At the foot, Sadie turned to me. “Give me the gun.”
“You’ll never make it in time. I will. Give me the gun. ”
I almost gave it up. It wasn’t that I felt I deserved to keep it; now that the actual watershed moment had come, it didn’t matter who stopped Oswald as long as someone did. But we were only a step away from the roaring machine of the past, and I was damned if I’d risk Sadie taking that last step ahead of me, only to be sucked into its whirling belts and blades.
I smiled, then leaned forward and kissed her. “Race you,” I said, and started up the stairs. Over my shoulder I called, “If I fall asleep, he’s all yours!”
“You folks crazy,” I heard Bonnie Ray Williams say in a mildly remonstrative tone of voice. Then there was the light thud of footsteps as Sadie followed me. I crutched on the right — no longer leaning on it but almost vaulting on it — and hauled at the railing on the left. The gun in my sport coat pocket swung and thudded against my hip. My knee was bellowing. I let it yell.
When I hit the second-floor landing, I snuck a look at my watch. It was twelve twenty-five. No; twenty-six. I could hear the roar of the crowd still approaching, a wave about to break. The motorcade had passed the intersections of Main and Ervay, Main and Akard, Main and Field. In two minutes — three at most — it would reach Houston Street, turn right, and roll past the old Dallas courthouse at fifteen miles an hour. From that point on, the President of the United States would be an available target. In the 4x scope attached to the Mannlicher-Carcano, the Kennedys and Connallys would look as big as actors on the screen at the Lisbon Drive-In. But Lee would wait a little longer. He was no suicide-drone; he wanted to get away. If he fired too soon, the security detail in the car at the head of the motorcade would see the gunflash and return fire. He would wait until that car — and the presidential limo — made the dogleg left onto Elm. Not just a sniper; a fucking backshooter.
I still had three minutes.
Or maybe just two and a half.
I attacked the stairs between the second and third floor, ignoring the pain in my knee, forcing myself upward like a marathoner near the end of a long race. Which, of course, I was.
From below us, I could hear Bonnie Ray yelling something that had crazy man and say Leela goan shoot in it.
Until I was halfway up the flight to the third floor, I could feel Sadie beating on my back like a rider urging a horse to go faster, but then she fell back a little. I heard her gasping for air and thought, too many cigarettes, darlin. My knee didn’t hurt anymore; the pain had been temporarily buried in a surge of adrenaline. I kept my left leg as straight as I could, letting the crutch do the work.
Around the bend. Up to the fourth floor. Now I was gasping, too, and the stairs looked steeper. Like a mountain. The cradle-rest at the top of the beggar’s crutch was slimy with sweat. My head pounded; my ears rang with the sound of the cheering crowd below. The eye of my imagination opened wide and I could see the approaching motorcade: the security car, then the presidential limo with the Harley-Davidson DPD motorcycles flanking it, the cops on them wearing white chin-strapped helmets and sunglasses.
Around another corner. The crutch skidding, then steadying. Up again. The crutch thudding. Now I could smell sweet sawdust from the sixth-floor renovations: workmen replacing the old plank boards with new ones. Not on Lee’s side, though. Lee had the southeast side to himself.
I reached the fifth-floor landing and made the last turn, my mouth open to scoop in air, my shirt a drenched rag against my heaving chest. Stinging sweat ran into my eyes and I blinked it away.
Three book cartons stamped ROADS TO EVERYWHERE and 4th AND 5th GRADE READERS blocked the stairs to the sixth floor. I stood on my right leg and slammed the foot of the crutch into one of them, sending it spinning. Behind me I could hear Sadie, now between the fourth and fifth floors. So I had been right to keep the gun, it seemed, although who really knew? Judging from my own experience, knowing you are the one with the primary responsibility to change the future makes you run faster.
I squeezed through the gap I created. To do so I had to put my full weight on my left leg for a second. It gave a howl of pain. I groaned and grabbed at the railing to keep from spilling forward onto the stairs. Looked at my watch. It said twelve twenty-eight, but what if it was slow? The crowd was roaring.
“Jake. . for God’s sake hurry. .” Sadie, still on the stairs to the fifth-floor landing.
I started up the last flight, and the sound of the crowd began to drain away into a great silence. By the time I reached the top, there was nothing but the rasp of my breath and the burning hammerstrokes of my overtaxed heart.
The sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository was a shadowy square dotted with islands of stacked book cartons. The overhead lights were burning where the floor was being replaced. They were off on the side where Lee Harvey Oswald planned to make history in one hundred seconds or less. Seven windows overlooked Elm Street, the five in the middle large and semicircular, the ones on the ends square. The sixth floor was gloomy around the stairhead but filled with hazy light in the area overlooking Elm Street. Thanks to the floating sawdust from the floor project, the sunbeams slanting in through the windows looked thick enough to cut. The beam falling through the window at the southeast corner, however, had been blocked off by a stacked barricade of book cartons. The sniper’s nest was all the way across the floor from me, on a diagonal that ran from northwest to southeast.
Behind the barricade, in the sunlight, a man with a gun stood at the window. He was stooped, peering out. The window was open. A light breeze was ruffling his hair and the collar of his shirt. He began to raise the rifle.
I broke into a shambling run, slaloming around the stacked cartons, digging in my coat pocket for the.38.
“Lee!” I shouted. “Stop, you son of a bitch!”
He turned his head and looked at me, eyes wide, mouth hung open. For a moment he was just Lee — the guy who had laughed and played with Junie in the bath, the one who sometimes hugged his wife and kissed her upturned face — and then his thin and somehow prissy mouth wrinkled into a snarl that showed his upper teeth. When that happened, he changed into something monstrous. I doubt you believe that, but I swear it’s true. He stopped being a man and became the daemonic ghost that would haunt America from this day on, perverting its power and spoiling its every good intent.
If I let it.
The noise of the crowd rushed in again, thousands of people applauding and cheering and yelling their brains out. I heard them and Lee did, too. He knew what it meant: now or never. He whirled back to the window and socked the rifle’s butt-plate against his shoulder.
I had the pistol, the same one I’d used to kill Frank Dunning. Not just like it; in that moment it was the same gun. I thought so then and I think so now. The hammer tried to catch in the pocket-lining but I dragged the.38 out, hearing cloth rip as I did so.
I fired. My shot went high and only exploded splinters from the top of the window frame, but it was enough to save John Kennedy’s life. Oswald jerked at the sound of the report, and the 160-grain slug from the Mannlicher-Carcano went high, shattering a window in the county courthouse.
There were screams and bewildered shouts from below us. Lee turned toward me again, his face a mask of rage, hate, and disappointment. He raised his rifle again, and this time it wouldn’t be the President of the United States he’d be aiming at. He worked the bolt—clack-clack —and I fired at him again. Although I was three-quarters of the way across the room, less than twenty-five feet away, I missed again. I saw the side of his shirt twitch, but that was all.
My crutch struck a stack of boxes. I tottered to the left, flailing with my gun-hand for balance, but there was no chance of that. For just a moment I thought of how, on the day I’d met her, Sadie had literally fallen into my arms. I knew what was going to happen. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it harmonizes, and what it usually makes is the devil’s music. This time I was the one who stumbled, and that was the crucial difference.
I could no longer hear her on the stairs. . but I could still hear her rapid footfalls.
“Sadie, down!” I shouted, but it was lost in the bark of Oswald’s rifle.
I heard the bullet pass above me. I heard her cry out.
Then there was more gunfire, this time from outside. The presidential limo had taken off, driving toward the Triple Underpass at breakneck speed, the two couples inside ducking and holding onto each other. But the security car had pulled up on the far side of Elm Street near Dealey Plaza. The cops on the motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the street, and at least four dozen people were acting as spotters, pointing up at the sixth-floor window, where a skinny man in a blue shirt was clearly visible.
I heard a patter of thumps, a sound like hailstones striking mud. Those were the bullets that missed the window and hit the bricks above or on either side. Many didn’t miss. I saw Lee’s shirt billow out as if a wind had started to blow inside it — a red one that tore holes in the fabric: one above the right nipple, one at the sternum, a third where his navel would be. A fourth tore his neck open. He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man at the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.
A bullet spanged one of the overhead lights, shattered the bulb, and set it to swaying. Then a bullet tore off the top of the would-be assassin’s head, just as one of Lee’s had torn off the top of Kennedy’s in the world I’d come from. He collapsed onto his barricade of boxes, sending them tumbling to the floor.
Shouts from below. Someone yelling “Man down, I saw him go down!”
Running, ascending footfalls. I sent the.38 spinning toward Lee’s body. I had just enough presence of mind to know that I would be badly beaten, perhaps even killed by the men coming up the stairs if they found me with a gun in my hand. I started to get up, but my knee would no longer hold me. That was probably just as well. I might not have been visible from Elm Street, but if I was, they’d open fire on me. So I crawled to where Sadie lay, supporting my weight on my hands and dragging my left leg behind me like an anchor.
The front of her blouse was soaked with blood, but I could see the hole. It was dead-center in her chest, just above the slope of her breasts. More blood poured from her mouth. She was choking on it. I got my arms under her and lifted her. Her eyes never left mine. They were brilliant in the hazy gloom.
“Jake,” she rasped.
“No, honey, don’t talk.”
She took no notice, though — when had she ever? “Jake, the president!”
“Safe.” I hadn’t actually seen him all in one piece as the limo tore away, but I had seen Lee jerk as he fired his only shot at the street, and that was enough for me. And I would have told Sadie he was safe no matter what.
Her eyes closed, then opened again. The footfalls were very close now, turning from the fifth-floor landing and starting up the final flight. Far below, the crowd was bellowing its excitement and confusion.
She smiled. “How we danced!”
When Bonnie Ray and the others arrived, I was sitting on the floor and holding her. They stampeded past me. How many I don’t know. Four, maybe. Or eight. Or a dozen. I didn’t bother to look at them. I held her, rocking her head against my chest, letting her blood soak into my shirt. Dead. My Sadie. She had fallen into the machine, after all.
I have never been a crying man, but almost any man who’s lost the woman he loves would, don’t you think? Yes. But I didn’t.
Because I knew what had to be done.