Chapter 3

RICKY BACKED AWAY FROM THE TREE UNTIL HE WAS IN the weeds, then found the narrow trail and started to run. "Ricky," Mark said. "Hey, Ricky, wait," but it didn't work. He stared once more at the man on the car with the gun still in his mouth. The eyes were half-open and the feet twitched at the heels.

Mark had seen enough. "Ricky," he called again as he jogged toward the trail. His brother was ahead, running slowly in an odd way with both arms stiff and straight down by his legs. He leaned forward at the waist. Weeds hit him lit the face. He tripped but didn't fall. Mark grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. "Ricky, listen! It's okay." Ricky was zombie-like, with pale skin and glazed eyes. He breathed hard and rapidly, and emitted a dull, aching moan. He couldn't talk. He jerked away and resumed his trot, still moaning as the weeds slapped him in the face. Mark followed close behind as they crossed a dry creek bed and headed for home.

The trees thinned just before the crumbling board fence that encircled most of the trailer park. Two small children were throwing rocks at a row of cans lined neatly along the hood of a wrecked car. Ricky ran faster and crawled through a broken section of the fence. He jumped a ditch, darted between two trailers, and ran into the street. Mark was two steps behind. The steady groan grew louder as Ricky breathed even harder.

The Sway mobile home was twelve feet wide and sixty feet long, and parked on a narrow strip on East Street with forty others. Tucker Wheel Estates also included North, South, and West streets, and all four curved and crossed each other several times from all directions. It was a decent trailer park with reasonably clean streets, a few trees, plenty of bicycles, and few abandoned cars. Speed bumps slowed traffic. Loud music or noise brought the police as soon as it was reported to Mr. Tucker. His family owned all the land and most of the trailers, including Number 17 on East Street, which Dianne Sway rented for two hundred and eighty dollars a month.

Ricky ran through the unlocked door and fell onto the couch in the den. He seemed to be crying, but there were no tears. He curled his knees to his stomach as if he were cold, then, very slowly, placed his right thumb in his mouth. Mark watched this intently. "Ricky, talk to me," he said, gently shaking his shoulder. "You gotta talk to me, man, okay, Ricky. It's okay." He sucked harder on the thumb. He closed his eyes and his body shook.

Mark looked around the den and kitchen, and realized things were exactly as they had left them an hour ago. An hour ago! It seemed like days. The sunlight was fading and the rooms were a bit darker. Their books and backpacks from school were piled, as always, on tne kitchen table. The daily note from Mom was on the counter next to the phone. He walked to the sink and ran water in a clean coffee cup. He had a terrible thirst. He sipped the cool water and stared through the window at the trailer next door. Then he heard smacking noises, and looked at his brother. The thumb. He'd seen a show on television where some kids in California sucked their thumbs after an earthquake. All kinds of doctors were involved. A year after it hit the poor kids were still sucking away.

The cup touched a tender spot on his lip, and he remembered the blood. He ran to the bathroom and studied his face in the mirror. Just below the hairline there was a small, barely noticeable knot. His left eye was puffy and looked awful. He ran water in the sink and washed a spot of blood from his lower lip. It was not swollen, but suddenly began throbbing. He'd looked worse after fights at school. He was tough.

He took an ice cube from the refrigerator and held it firmly under his eye. He walked to the sofa and studied his brother, paying particular attention to the thumb. Ricky was asleep. It was almost five-thirty, time for their mother to arrive home after nine long hours at the lamp factory. His ears still rang from the gunshots and the blows he took from his late friend Mr. Romey, but he was beginning to think. He sat next to Ricky's feet and slowly rubbed around his eye with the ice.

If he didn't call 911, it could be days before anyone found the body. The fatal shot had been severely muffled, and Mark was certain no one heard it but them. He'd been to the clearing many times, but suddenly realized he had never seen another person there.

It was secluded. Why had Romey chosen the place? He was from New Orleans, right?

Mark watched all kinds of rescue shows on television, and knew for certain that every 911 call was recorded. He did not want to be recorded. He would never tell anyone, not even his mother, what he had just lived through, and he really needed, at this crucial moment, to discuss the matter with his little brother so they could get their lies straight. "Ricky," he said, shaking his brother's leg. Ricky groaned but did not open his eyes. He pulled himself tighter into a knot. "Ricky, wake up!" There was no response to this, except a sudden shudder as if he were freezing. Mark found a quilt in a closet and covered his brother, then wrapped a handful of ice cubes in a dish towel and placed the pack gingerly over his own left eye. He didn't feel like answering questions about his face.

He stared at the phone and thought of cowboy and Indian movies with bodies lying around and buzzards circling above and everyone concerned about burying the dead before the damned vultures got them. It would be dark in an hour or so. Do buzzards strike at night? Never saw that in a movie.

The thought of the fat lawyer lying out there with the gun in his mouth, one shoe off, probably still bleeding, was horrible enough, but throw in the buzzards ripping and tearing, and Mark picked up the phone. He punched 911 and cleared his throat.

"Yeah, there's a dead man, in the woods, and, well, someone needs to come get him." He spoke in the deepest voice possible, and knew from the first syllable that it was a pitiful attempt at disguise. He breathed hard and the knot on his forehead pounded.

"Who's calling pleased" It was a female voice, Almostt like a robot's.

"Uh, I really don't want to say, okay." "We need your name, son." Great, she knew he was a kid. He hoped he could at least sound like a young teenager.

"Do you want to know about the body or not?" Mark asked.

"Where is the body?" This is just great, he thought, already telling someone about it. And not someone to be trusted, but someone who wore a uniform and worked with the police, and he could just hear this taped conversation as it would be repeatedly played before the jury, just like on television. They would do all those voice tests and everyone would know it was Mark Sway on the phone telling about the body when no one else in the world knew about it. He tried to make his voice even deeper.

"It's near Tucker Wheel Estates, and-" "That's on Whipple Road." "Yes, that's right. It's in the woods between Tucker Wheel Estates and Highway 17." "The body is in the woods?" "Sort of. The body is actually lying on a car in the woods." "And the body's dead?" "The guy's been shot, okay. With a gun, in the mouth, and I'm sure the man's dead." "Have you seen the body?" The woman's voice was losing its professional restraint. It had an edge to it now.

What kind of stupid question is that, Mark thought. Have I seen it? She was stalling, trying to keep him on the line so she could trace'it.

"Son, have you seen the body?" she asked again.

"Of course I've seen it." "I need your name, son." "Look, there's a small dirt road off Highway 17 that leads to a small clearing in the woods. The car is big and black, and the dead man is lying on it. If you can't find it, well, tough luck. Bye." He hung up and stared at the phone. The trailer was perfectly still. He walked to the door and peered through the dirty curtains, half-expecting squad cars to come flying in from all directions-loudspeakers, SWAT teams, bulletproof vests.

Get a grip. He shook Ricky again, and, touching his arm, noticed how clammy it was. But Ricky was still sleeping and sucking his thumb. Mark gently grabbed him around the waist and dragged him across the floor, down the narrow hallway to their bedroom, where he shoveled him into bed. Ricky mumbled and wiggled a bit along the way, but quickly curled into a ball. Mark covered him with a blanket and closed the door.

Mark wrote a note to his mother, told her Ricky felt bad and was sleeping so please be quiet, and he'd be home in an hour or so. The boys were not required to be home when she arrived, but if they weren't, there'd better be a note.

The distant beat of a helicopter went unnoticed by Mark.

HE LIT A CIGARETTE ALONG THE TRAIL. TWO YEARS AGO, A new bike had disappeared from a house in the suburbs, not far from the trailer park. It was rumored to have been seen behind one of the mobile homes, and the same rumor held that it was being stripped and repainted by a couple of trailer park kids. The suburb kids enjoyed classifying their lesser neighbors as trailer park kids, the implications being obvious. They attended the same school, and there were daily fights between the two societies. All crime and mischief in the suburbs were automatically blamed on the trailer people.

Kevin, the delinquent on North Street, had the new bike and had shown it to a few of his buddies before it was repainted. Mark had seen it. The rumors flew and the cops poked around, and one night there was a knock at the door. Mark's name had been mentioned in the investigation, and the policeman had a few questions. He sat at the kitchen table and glared down at Mark for an hour. It was very unlike television, where the defendant keeps his cool and sneers at the cop.

Mark admitted nothing, didn't sleep for three nights, and vowed to live a clean life and stay away from trouble.

But this was trouble. Real trouble, much worse than a stolen bike. A dead man who told secrets before he died. Was he telling the truth? He was drunk and crazy as hell, talking about the wizard and all. But why would he lie?

Mark knew Romey had a gun, had even held and touched the trigger. And the gun killed the man. It had to be a crime to watch someone commit suicide and not stop it.

He would never tell a soul! Romey had stopped talking. Ricky would have to be dealt with. Mark had kept silent about the bike, and he could do it again. No one would ever know he had been in the car.

There was a siren in the distance, then the steady thump of a helicopter. Mark eased under a tree as the chopper swept close by. He crept through the trees and brush, staying low and in no hurry, until he heard voices.

LIGHTS FLASHED EVERYWHERE. BLUE FOR THE COPS AND red for the ambulance. The white Memphis police cars were parked around the black Lincoln. The orange-and-white ambulance was arriving on the scene as Mark peeked through the woods. No one seemed anxious or worried.

Romey had not been moved. One cop took pictures while the others laughed. Radios squawked, just like on television. Blood ran from under the body and down across the red-and-white taillights. The pistol was still in his right hand, on top of his bulging stomach. His head slumped to the right, his eyes closed now. The paramedics walked up and looked him over, then made bad jokes and the cops laughed. All four doors were open and the car was being carefully inspected. There was no effort to remove the body. The helicopter made a final pass, then flew away.

Mark was deep in the brush, maybe thirty feet from the tree and the log where they had lit the first smokes. He had a perfect view of the clearing, and of -the fat lawyer lying up there on the car like a dead cow in the middle of the road. Another cop car arrived, then another ambulance. People in uniform were bumping into each other. Small -white bags with unseen things in them were removed with great caution from the car. Two policemen with rubber gloves rolled up the hose. The photographer squatted in each door and flashed away. Occasionally, someone would stop and stare at Romey, but most of them drank coffee from paper cups and chatted away. A cop laid Romey's shoe on the trunk next to the body, then placed it in a white bag and wrote something on it. Another cop knelt by the license plates and waited with his radio for a report to come back.

Finally, a stretcher emerged from the first ambulance and was carried to the rear bumper and laid in the weeds. Two paramedics grabbed Romey's feet and gently pulled him until two other paramedics could grab his arms. The cops watched and joked about how fat Mr. Clifford was, because they knew his name now. They asked if more paramedics were needed to carry his big ass, if the stretcher was reinforced or something, if he would fit in the ambulance. Lots of laughter as they strained to lower him.

A cop put the pistol in a bag. The stretcher was heaved into the ambulance, but the doors were not closed. A wrecker with yellow lights arrived and backed itself to the front bumper of the Lincoln.

Mark thought of Ricky and the thumb-sucking. What if he needed help? Mom would be home soon. What if she tried to wake him and got scared? He would leave in just a minute, and smoke the last cigarette on the way home.

He heard something behind him, but thought nothing of it. Just the snap of a twig, then, suddenly, a strong hand grabbed his neck and a voice said, "What's up, kid?" Mark jerked around and looked into the face of a cop. He froze and couldn't breathe, "What're you doing, kid?" the cop asked as he lifted Mark up by the neck. The grip didn't hurt, but the cop meant to be obeyed. "Stand up, kid, okay. Don't be afraid." Mark stood and the cop released him. The cops in the clearing had heard and were staring. ' "What're you doing here?" "Just watching," Mark said.

The cop pointed with his flashlight to the clearing. The sun was down and it -would be dark in twenty minutes. "Let's walk over there," he said.

"I need to go home," Mark said.

The cop placed his arm around Mark's shoulders and led him through the weeds. "What's your name?" "Mark." "Last name?" "Sway. What's yours?" "Hardy. Mark Sway, huh?" the cop repeated thoughtfully. "You live in Tucker Wheel Estates, don't you?" He couldn't deny this, but he hesitated for some reason. "Yes sir." They joined the circle of policemen, who were • now quiet and waiting to see the kid.

"Hey, fellas, this is Mark Sway, the kid who made the call," Hardy announced. "You did make the call, didn't you, Mark?" He wanted to lie, but at the moment he doubted a lie would work. "Uh, yes sir." "How'd you find the body?" "My brother and I were playing." "Playing where?" "Around here. We live over there," he said, pointing beyond the trees.

"Were you guys smoking dope?" "No sir." "Are you sure?" "Yes sir." "Stay away from drugs, kid." There were at least six policemen in the circle, and the questions were coming from all directions.

"How'd you find the car?" "Well, we just sort of walked up on it." "What time was it?" "I don't remember, really. We were just walking through the woods. We do it all the time." "What's your brother's name?" "Ricky." "Same last name?" "Yes sir." "Where were you and Ricky when you first saw the car?" Mark pointed to the tree behind him. "Under that tree." A paramedic approached the group and announced they were leaving and taking the body to the morgue. The wrecker was tugging at the Lincoln.

"Where is Ricky now?" "At home." "What happened to your face?" Hardy asked.

Mark instinctively reached for his eye. "Oh, nothing. Just got in a fight at school." "Why were you hiding in the bushes over there?" "I don't know." "Come on, Mark, you were hiding for a reason." "I don't know. It's sort of scary, you know. Seeing a dead man and all." "You've never seen a dead man before?" "On television." One cop actually smiled at this.

"Did you see this man before he killed himself?" "No sir." "So you just found him like this?" "Yes sir. We walked up under that tree and saw the car, then, we, uh, we saw the man." "Where were you when you heard the gunshot?" He started to point to the tree again, but caught himself. "I'm [not sure I understand." "We know you heard the gunshot. Where were you when you heard it?" "I didn't hear the gunshot." "You sure?" "I'm sure. We walked up and found him right here, and we took off home and I called 911." "Why didn't you give your name to 911?" "I don't know." "Come on, Mark, there must be a reason." "I don't know. Scared, I guess." The cops exchanged looks as if this were a game. Mark tried to breathe normally and act pitiful. He was just a kid.

"I really need to go home. My mom's probably looking for me." "Okay. One last question," Hardy said. "Was the engine running when you first saw the car?" Mark thought hard, but couldn't remember if Romey had turned it off before he shot himself. He answered very slowly. "I'm not sure, but I think it was running." Hardy pointed to a police car. "Get in. I'll drive you home." "That's okay. I'll just walk." "No, it's too dark. I'll give you a ride. Come on." He took his arm, and walked him to the car.