The Hudson Valley: November 11, 1997
Tommy was nervous. Susannah could tell, because she knew he liked to talk, and yet, he hadn't said a word for fifty miles. Not that she could blame him. She was nervous, too. And excited. And scared.
It was dusk when they got off the Taconic Parkway, switching on the headlights as they traveled through rolling farmland, a Ralph Lauren landscape where the houses were so perfect, you just knew they were owned by doctors and lawyers. They were "mini-estates," or enclaves with names like "Foxfield Meadows," and they didn't really grow anything except, maybe, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula.
As they passed the Omega Institute, Susannah wondered aloud--what's that? And the driver, Tommy, made a sound like a duck--kwak-kwak-kwak! So both of them laughed (a little too loud), and Susannah thought, Some kind of New Age thingie.
The thing was--what made her nervous was: the whole deal about the teeth, about pulling out the teeth. No matter how you looked at it, pulling out the teeth was creepy. It was like Nuremberg or something. So if they got caught, it wouldn't just be murder, it would be...what? Charles Manson, or something.
Not that she'd be the one to do it--she couldn't hurt a fly. That was
Vaughn's job, the teeth and the fingers. And giving the injections. He had to do that, too, because he was the doctor. (And a good one, Tommy said.
"Vaughn's an 'Old Blue,' aren't ya, Vaughn?" Whatever that was.)
Still, you had to wonder why it was necessary to do the teeth. And the fingers. Why not just...dump them? Or, better yet, leave 'em where they lay.
Susannah thought about it for a while, then shrugged to herself. Solange moves in strange ways, she thought, smiling at the in-joke. Sometimes he did things just to be theatrical. Make a splash. Shake 'em up.
Not that it made any difference. They weren't going to get caught.
Everything had been rehearsed, from the knock on the door to the handcuffs, and there wasn't anything they hadn't thought through.
Like the U-Haul. The U-Haul was Solange's idea, and it was brilliant because, once they'd fixed it up, it gave Vaughn a sort of operating room in the back. So he could do what he had to do even while they were driving away.
And it was inconspicuous, too. Because U-Hauls were everywhere. There wasn't anywhere in America they didn't belong. Not even here. Everybody used them.
Her job was to get inside the house and, once there, make sure the
Bergmans couldn't get to their gun. So it was two jobs, really, and what made everyone think she could bring it off was the fact--she wasn't bragging, really, it was just a fact of life--the fact that she was
"cute." Cheerleader cute. And pregnant. Which made her kind of vulnerable-looking.
And that made people trust her. Which was important. Because the Bergmans were totally paranoid--like someone was out to kill them. Susannah smiled at the thought. Talk about irony--hello?
But mostly it was scary and horrible, and she wished that she wasn't a part of it, except: it had to be done. She knew it had to be done because
Solange said so, and Solange never lied. Ever.
And it wasn't going to be painful. Vaughn said they wouldn't feel a thing.
Just "a bee sting" from the needle. And that would be that.
Unless, of course, something went wrong. Like, if they had a Doberman or something. But, no: they didn't have a dog, because if they did, Lenny would have mentioned it. Lenny was their son, and if there was a Doberman walking around, he'd have told them about it.
Like Marty did with the gun. Not that Marty was related to them, but he was close. He'd said, I don't think the old fuck knows how to use it, but he's got a .38 Special that he keeps in the vestibule--in a little table,
just under the telephone. I used to kid him about being "strapped," and he'd say, "What are you talking about, what strap? I don't see any strap."
And the thing is, he wasn't kidding. I mean, like this guy is livin' in another century.
Even so...what if the needle broke off, or the woman started screaming?
Everything would go real bad, fast. Like with Riff--when she was a kid,
and the car hit him. And her father tried to put him down with the .22,
but he was so nervous, he couldn't find the heart. So...he just kept shooting.
If that happened, or something like that, there'd be blood all over the place--and all over them. And the thing is, legally, what they were doing was murder. Which, for someone who'd been brought up Catholic, even if she didn't practice anymore, was about as bad as it gets.
Because killing was wrong. She knew that. No ifs, ands, or buts. Killing someone was dead wrong--
Unless you were a soldier. And that's exactly what they were--she and
Tommy and Vaughn, and the French guy in the back of the truck. They were soldiers. Knights, even. Just like in the Crusades.
Susannah was thinking about the Secret War, Solange's war, her war, when the turn signal began to click, and the truck turned down a two-lane country road, scattering a clutch of deer that were feeding on the verge.
A battered U-Haul with Arizona tags, the truck trembled and shook as it rattled over the washboarded lane, slowing down at every letter box, then speeding up, then slowing down again as the driver hunted for the right address. Finally, the truck came to a stop beside a rusting mailbox:
For a long moment Tommy stared at the silvery, stick-on letters, muttering to himself. Then he killed the headlights, backed up, shifted into Drive and, holding his breath, entered the long driveway.
Susannah squirmed in her seat and took a deep breath. Exhaling, she made a sort of stuttering sound, then wet her lips with her tongue.
The truck crunched slowly over the gravel toward the front porch of a white farmhouse. There, beneath a bower of old walnut trees, Tommy killed the engine, the passenger door opened, and Susannah climbed out.
She was, as anyone could see, pretty, young, and pregnant, with huge brown eyes and ash-blond hair. She wore a yellow sun dress under a tattered,
gray cardigan that was much too big, and which might well have been her father's. With a "Here goes" glance at the driver, she took a deep breath and mounted the steps to the porch, glancing at the pots of mums on either side.
Reaching the top of the steps, she hesitated, suddenly queasy and weak.
For a long moment she swayed in front of the door. Finally, she knocked--ever so softly, secretly hoping that no one was home.
There was no answer at first, but she could hear the television inside,
and so she knocked again. Louder this time. And then again, almost banging on the screen door.
Eventually, the inner door swung open, and a woman in her fifties peered out from behind the latched screen door. "Hello?" She pronounced the word as if it were a question.
"Hi!" Susannah said, looking sheepish and beautiful.
Martha Bergman's eyes took in the pregnancy, then drifted to the U-Haul,
where a wiry young man (the girl's husband, she supposed) gave a little wave. The side of the truck was painted with the image of a senorita, a
Spanish lady peering coyly over the top of her fan. U-Haul liked to do that, painting the trucks with scenes that suggested where they were from:
cowboys and lobsters and skyscrapers. Martha figured that this truck must be from New Mexico, or someplace in the Southwest.
"Can I help you?" Martha asked.
"I hope so," Susannah replied, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "We're really lost."
Martha's face softened. "Where are you looking for?"
The girl shook her head and shrugged. "That's the problem. We lost the number. But I know it's one of these houses--one of the houses on Boice
Martha winced. "It's a long road, dear."
"I was hoping--if I could use your phone...I could call my brother. He's at the house now."
Martha's face settled into a frown. Then her eyes fell to Susannah's stomach and, suddenly reassured, she smiled, unhooked the latch to the screen door, and held it open. "Of course," she said. "Come on in. The telephone's over there, on the little table."
"That's so nice of you," Susannah said as she stepped into the vestibule.
"And, wow--what a beautiful house!" In fact, it was a lot like her parents' house, with fake Bokharas on the hardwood floors and overstuffed furniture from the Pottery Barn.
From the next room a man's voice boomed out above the noise of the television. "Martha! What are you doing? You're missing it!"
"I'll be right there."
"Who are you talking to?" the man asked.
"I'm letting a young woman use the phone," Martha answered, and, turning to Susannah, sighed hugely. "The Jets are playing," she explained.
Susannah smiled knowingly and shook her head, as if to say, Men!--then crossed the room to the table where the phone was. "I'll just be a second," she said, and picked up the receiver. Turning away from the older woman, she dialed the cell phone in the back of the truck and waited.
There was a ticking noise for several seconds, a warbling sound, and--
Cliiick! Yeah. It was Vaughn.
"Hiiii!" Susannah gushed, emoting for Mrs. Bergman's benefit.
"Yup!" And then, just as they rehearsed, she launched into a spiel about how she was just around the corner, or thought she was, but they'd lost the number to the new house--and what was it, anyway?
What about the gun?
Susannah threw a smile over her shoulder as she talked and, almost idly,
cracked open the drawer to the end table. Seeing the .38, she said, "Got it! No problem."
Be right in.
She kept talking for a few seconds after Vaughn hung up, then replaced the receiver in its cradle, turned and leaned against the end table.
"Well, that was easy," Mrs. Bergman remarked, though she felt a bit awkward that the girl remained where she was, standing in front of the telephone. "Which house is it?" she asked.
Susannah shrugged and, turning, opened the drawer and removed the .38.
Seeing the older woman's reaction, she put the gun behind her back and smiled. "It's going to be okay," she said. "Really." She was thinking about Solange, and what he'd told them the night before: Try not to scare them too much. There's no point in starting a panic. Not yet, anyway.
It was then that Harry Bergman came in, scowling, a glass of wine in one hand and a newspaper in the other. A pair of reading glasses hung from his neck by a black cord. "There's a truck in the yard," he announced, as if it were the most astonishing thing in the world. And then, double-taking on Susannah, "Hello?"
"That's just us," Susannah mumbled.
Harry looked from the girl to his wife and back again. "What's going on?"
he asked, tensing at the look on his wife's face. No one said anything for a moment, and then a screech tore through the yard--like nails on a blackboard, followed by a crash of metal.
"What the hell--" Harry said.
"That's just the truck," Susannah replied, trying to be reassuring. "It's just the back door going up. It needs grease or something."
"Right," Harry said and, pivoting, took a step toward the little table next to Susannah.
"Uh-uh," she muttered, and waved the Browning at him. "Better not."
Harry didn't quite freeze--he more or less subsided into himself, and as he did, his wife stepped in front of him. "Just leave him alone. He's not--"
"Martha--" Harry protested.
"Take whatever you want."
"Well, thanks," Susannah said, "but...that's not the point."
The Bergmans gave her a blank look, and she could have kicked herself. But then the screen door opened and Vaughn came in, carrying a sawed-off shotgun as if it were a briefcase--never pointing it, never needing to.
The French dude was right behind him with a set of plastic restraints, the kind the police use when they're making lots of arrests at the same time.
Tommy was on the porch outside, keeping watch.
"Okay, everybody listen up," Vaughn said. "You do what we tell you, we'll be out of your hair in ten minutes. That's a promise, okay?"
Harry Bergman put his arm around his wife and nodded, not so much because he agreed, but because he was too frightened to say anything.
Then the guy with the cuffs stepped behind them, and with an improbable
"S'il vous plaît," gently removed Harry's arm from his wife's shoulders.
Bringing the older man's arms behind his back, the Frenchman looped the plastic cord around Harry's wrists and pulled it tight. This done, he turned to the woman and did the same.
"Great," Vaughn said, and turned to Susannah. "You know what to do, right?"
Susannah nodded--quick little jerks of her head--and watched as the
Bergmans were led outside. As they went through the door she heard Vaughn say, "By the way, I spoke to your son the other day. He sends his love."
You could hear them gasp.
Then the screen door slammed and Mr. Bergman's voice was in the air,
scared and growling, like a small dog protecting his patch from a rottweiler: "What is this? Where are you taking us?" And Vaughn's voice,
laid-back and matter-of-fact: "We're just going to the truck...."
Well, yeah, Susannah thought and, with a shudder, took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the .38 clean. Then she put the gun back in the drawer and erased her fingerprints from the wood and the phone. What else?
She was supposed to turn off the TV, and the lights, too, and close the front door behind her. It was supposed to look like they just--
Suddenly, the air was split by a frightened, almost feral bark, a prehistoric gasp of unadulterated terror. Hearing it, the night fell silent and Susannah, shaken, found herself running from the house, pulled by the sheer, centripetal force of someone else's fear.
As she came off the porch, she saw Tommy. He was coming around from the back of the truck, walking fast, head down, mouth open, blinking wildly.
Tommy just shook his head and got behind the wheel. "Don't go back there,"
But how could she not?
Turning the corner, she saw the man--Mr. Bergman--on the ground, his body trembling as if it were in the grip of an unseen and powerful amperage. A
few feet away the woman was on her stomach in the driveway, pinioned by the Frenchman, who had his hand on the back of her neck and his knee in the small of her back. For a second Susannah's eyes locked with the woman's, and it seemed as if the night shivered in the space between them.
Then Vaughn stepped over the husband's still twitching body and, squatting beside the wife, administered an injection to the back of her shoulder,
piercing the thin cotton dress that she wore.
Immediately, the woman's eyes widened, rolled, and went white. The connection between her and Susannah, a duplex of hatred and pity, was shattered as 10 cc of pharmaceutical morphine slammed into her heart. She stiffened for a long moment, then just as suddenly softened. Finally, the tension drained from her body and she was dead.
It took a moment for Susannah to realize that she'd been holding her breath forever. Letting it out, she felt a need to explain why she was standing there. "I heard a sound," she said.
Vaughn got to his feet and nodded. "That was the guy. The guy freaked when he saw the needle."
The Frenchman climbed into the back of the truck, where a pair of
55-gallon drums waited beside a white metal table. The floor was covered with sheets of black polyethylene. A string of lights hung from the ceiling, and the Frenchman switched them on. Then he jumped back down to the ground and shook his head. "No," he said. "It wasn't the needle. It was the truck. He saw the plastic, and it scared him."
Vaughn shrugged. "Whatever. Help me get her in the back."
The Frenchman took the woman's body by the arms, while Vaughn took hold of her feet. As they lifted her, Vaughn glanced at Susannah. "You saw the light go out, right?"
Susannah looked puzzled. "What light?"
"The light in her eyes," Vaughn said. "You were looking at each other when it hit her."
Susannah nodded slowly. Yeah, she'd seen it. The eyes went...slack. The two men heaved the woman's body into the back of the truck.
Turning to Susannah, Vaughn threw her a sympathetic look. "I could tell,"
he said. "I could see it in your face."
"See what?" Susannah asked.
"The way you reacted. It was like..." His voice trailed off.
"What?" Susannah asked, almost as if Vaughn were flirting with her.
Vaughn thought for a moment, shook his head, and laughed. "It was...complicated," he said. "It was way complicated." Then, stooping, he seized the dead man by the arms and pulled him toward the truck.
Susannah couldn't believe it--the way the feet made little furrows in the ground, so perfectly parallel they seemed, almost, like lines on a page.
The Diamond Mountains: January 26, 1998
At first he didn't hear it. The noise was a long way off and hundreds of meters below, a distant growl gusting on the wind. Trudging slowly up the hillside, Kang kept his head down, ignoring both the wind's moan and the sound that it carried in its jaws.
The cold made him clumsy. Twice he'd slipped on the ice, and twice he'd broken the fall with his hands, plunging his fingers into the crusted snow. With the holes in his gloves, it was like grabbing broken glass.
Even so, he'd surprised himself by coming as far as he had--and in the dead of winter. He was, after all, a cripple. But tough. Korean tough. And though others had come this way before--he'd climbed through a ghost forest in which a thousand pines had been reduced to stumps--they'd had two good legs to carry them.
While he had only one.
Most of the trees had been cut years ago, for firewood. But as he climbed higher, Kang saw pines that had been flayed alive, the bark stripped from their trunks for food. Or what passed for food in the famine years.
The soft wood, just beneath the bark, filled the stomach. And while it was barely digestible, it was pleasant to chew. It took away the hunger pains--at least for a while--and the bark itself could be used to make a weak tea.
Still, taking the bark killed the trees, and wounded the land.
It was the women, mostly, who climbed the hills to look for wild grasses,
bark, and firewood. Until the sickness had taken her, as it had taken so many others, Kang's wife had climbed this very hill, armed with the same folding saw that he now carried, and the same length of rope.
It was she who'd told him to go in this direction. And though the way was impossibly steep, he'd kept his promise and done as she'd suggested. Since her death, he'd made the trek a dozen times, trading the wood that he'd gathered for herbs, rice, and a pair of old boots. By now he knew the hills above Tasi-ko as well as he knew the cracks in the ceiling above his bed.
He paused for a moment to catch his breath, and gazed at the uphill terrain, calculating the most efficient way over the rocks, deciding ahead of time where to set each foot. This was more complicated than it might otherwise have been because one of his legs was made of wood below the knee and was insensitive to differences in footing.
An open area stretched ahead of him, and he picked his way carefully across the snowfield, wary of crevasses. Finally, he crested a ridge and came upon the place that he was looking for, a grove of sturdy pines,
bristling with green needles above the snow.
As always happened when he came here, his wife's face flashed before him and his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he lurched toward the wood and,
finding a sapling, broke a twig from its trunk and sucked at the resin. As he did, he glanced around for a suitable tree, one that he could cut with his saw and drag to the village.
And that's when he heard it, heard it for the first time in the silence of the pines: riding on the back of the wind was a separate and distinct noise, a mechanical whine that he recognized in an instant.
It was the sound of deliverance, the clamor of rescue.
Hobbling back to the ridge, Kang squinted down the hillside to the road,
where a convoy of trucks rolled toward Tasi-ko, miniaturized by distance.
All in all there were six troop transports, a jeep, and a couple of flatbed trailers with orange bulldozers strapped to their backs. Watching them, as Kang did, it was possible to trace the path that the convoy had taken, winding its way through the valley. The chained tires, chewing into the snow and ice, churned up the earth so that it seemed, almost, as if the trucks had drawn a line across the jagged contours of the land.
For the first time in weeks the corners of his mouth lifted and Kang smiled. With a grunt of relief he sat down heavily in the snow and, using a small tool he carried for the purpose, adjusted the screws in his artificial leg. Things would be better now.
Not that they could have gotten worse. This was the most monstrous winter in anyone's memory, a season of paralyzing cold in which hunger had turned into famine, and famine to plague. Even now, thirty-one people--a fourth of the village--lay on the floor of the factory, their bodies stacked like cordwood. (This building, shaped like a coffin and made of cement, was a place where brooms--good brooms--had been made for more than twenty years.
Now, Kang thought, the building was as dead as its inhabitants. Without fuel, the lathes had fallen silent even as the air grew still and cold.)
Daunting from the outside, the building's interior was terrifying--a makeshift morgue paved with the cadavers of men, women, and children whose blistered limbs had turned a startling blue in the days before their deaths. As the only medical worker in Tasi-ko, it had been Kang's responsibility to carry the bodies to where they now lay, awaiting burial in the spring.
Until he'd seen the trucks winding toward the village, Kang had begun to doubt that, by spring, anyone would be left to bury the dead. And if by chance someone was, it seemed unlikely that it would be him or, if it was,
that he'd have the strength to wield a pick and shovel.
Now he felt ashamed, ashamed of the bitterness in his thoughts. At some point, perhaps when his wife had died, he'd surrendered to pessimism. He'd begun to think that the suffering in Tasi-ko had gone unnoticed, or that it was being ignored because the village was remote and insignificant.
These were subversive thoughts, as Kang well knew. If shared, they might weaken the resistance of all citizens. And they were wrong, as well as subversive. Clearly, the life of a farmer in Tasi-ko was worth as much as that of an engineer in Pyongyang. The proof was there, on the road below.
It had simply been a question of time, and the allocation of scarce resources.
The army's presence was a rebuke to his negative thinking. The trucks would have food and medicine in them--and doctors, real doctors, not medical workers like himself. These were people who had gone to the university in Pyongyang. They'd know what to do.
Whereas he could do nothing. In less than a month he'd seen the village decimated by an illness whose symptoms were so violent and strange that,
on hearing of them, a doctor had been sent to Tasi-ko from the Institute for Infectious Diseases in the capital.
The doctor had been very short and very old--a compact little nut of a man with large, yellow incisors. He chain-smoked imported cigarettes and talked in short bursts, punctuated by long silences. Kang knew that to smoke so much, the man must be important. But even so, Kang didn't like him.
In the end the doctor examined a dozen patients, four of whom had since died. He made notes of their symptoms and questioned Kang about the progress of the disease. He took blood samples from four of the villagers,
and arranged for two of the dead to be wrapped in sheets and taken to the capital for autopsies.
As the doctor was leaving, Kang asked what he should do in his absence,
but the old man didn't answer him. He lit another cigarette and, leaning out the window of his car, pointed toward the building where the dead were kept. "All this," he said, "Spanish Lady. Spanish Lady did this!"
Though it wasn't Kang's place to contradict a senior physician from
Pyongyang, he couldn't help himself. As the car began to pull away he jogged beside it. "But, Doctor--this is not correct! We haven't had any visitors. No foreigners--" Suddenly, the car began to pull away, and Kang shouted out: "What can I do?"
The old man turned in his seat for a last look, and shook his head,
leaving Kang in the road, thinking he was mad.
But that didn't matter now. The old man was back. He'd come with medicine--and bulldozers to bury the dead.
Kang knew that he should hurry down the hill to help the soldiers. But the cold made him hesitate. Whatever cures the army might bring, whatever food they might bring, firewood was nearly impossible to come by, and it would be a waste to have climbed so far, in such cold, only to return empty-handed.
Leaving the ridge for the wooded hillside a hundred yards away, he pounced on a small tree and, kneeling in the snow, sawed furiously at its trunk with his little folding saw. The pitch was sticky and gummed the teeth of the blade, but in the end the tree keeled over, and Kang scrambled to his feet. Knotting his rope around the branches at the base of the pine, he turned and hurried back up to the ridge, dragging the tree behind him on its leash.
At the crest of the ridge he stopped to catch his breath, and what he saw puzzled him. About a kilometer south of town half of the convoy--three trucks and a flatbed--pulled to a halt in the middle of the road and waited. Meanwhile, the other trucks continued on their way, rumbling into and...through the village.
Except for the jeep. The jeep pulled into the little square that, in better days, had served as a marketplace for local farmers. Idling in the cold, it drew the villagers like iron filings to a magnet, though Kang knew what the real attraction was: the promise of medicine, food, and news.
He started moving again, but then he hesitated. The convoy south of town had not moved. Its trucks sat in the middle of the road, their engines stilled, while soldiers stood around, smoking cigarettes and slinging their Kalashnikovs.
And there, to the north, the scene was being repeated. The second half of the convoy rolled to a stop about a kilometer past Tasi-ko. Soldiers jumped from the backs of the trucks, then stood and waited.
It was a disquieting sight, even from so far above. The village was being quarantined. And though it disturbed Kang to see Tasi-ko isolated in this way, he began to see the wisdom of it. Whatever the pestilence might be,
it would have to be contained. Betrayed by China, battered by floods, and beset by famine, his country would be hard put to withstand yet another disaster.
Once again he was thinking dangerously, seditiously. But what he thought was the truth. And a second truth was that he was very tired and, being tired, he lacked the energy to "weed the garden of his mind."
This was the metaphor that Kang had been taught in the army, when he'd served for six years as a medical officer in a reconnaissance unit at the
DMZ. Some thoughts were flowers; others were weeds. Still others were vipers. Constant vigilance was needed to correctly identify each.
But "constant vigilance" required more energy than Kang could spare. Over the years, he'd lost too much--his leg to a land mine, his wife to sickness. For the past week he'd eaten little more than wild grass, and now--now, his mind was anything but a garden. It was a ruin, and he just didn't care. What more could the world do to him?
Suddenly, an electric bullhorn crackled and whined in the square. Kang strained to hear what was being said, but as the words floated up the hillside, they softened in a way that made them impossible to understand.
But he could see their effect: repelled now, the people withdrew from the jeep and, one by one, disappeared into their homes. Before long the village--a cluster of decrepit wooden houses surrounded by fallow fields and an abandoned factory--looked eerily empty. Only then did the jeep pull away from the marketplace, trailing a plume of white exhaust as it rolled north to rendezvous at the second roadblock.
First a quarantine, Kang thought, and now a curfew. But in the middle of the day? Why? And what about the doctors? Where were they? Kang's face,
impassive for so long, crumpled into a frown. What he was seeing did not make sense, and his instincts told him to be wary. And though it seemed unlikely that anyone would notice him from so far below, he removed the red muffler that his wife had made with the yarn from an unraveled sweater. He tucked the muffler inside his jacket and sat down on the tree that he'd been dragging. Then he snapped a twig from one of its branches and began to chew it as he watched the road.
Over the course of the next hour nothing much happened. Except for soldiers and the barricades, the Pyongyang road remained empty. Too empty.
Never busy, it was now entirely deserted. Not a single car, truck, or pedestrian arrived at either barricade. Which could only mean there were other barricades, farther from town, and that the ones he saw served a purpose far different than he'd imagined. They weren't there to keep the traffic out. They were there to keep the people in.
Kang's heart wobbled in his chest.
And then, abruptly, there was movement. As if on cue, soldiers at both ends of the village scrambled to the side of the road, where they hunkered down in ditches. Kang didn't know what to make of it--even when he saw the plane, coming over the mountains.
Like every other plane he'd ever seen, this was a military aircraft. Its aluminum skin was a dull brown that seemed, almost, to absorb the sunlight. Kang watched the plane as it drew closer to Tasi-ko, its engines rumbling in the frigid air. Suddenly, a piece of the fuselage detached and fell, tumbling, toward the village. Kang didn't believe what he was seeing. The plane banked to the east, leveled out, and accelerated toward the horizon as Kang, unthinking, jumped to his feet.
He opened his mouth to shout or to scream--at the plane, at the village,
at the soldiers--but it was too late. The world pulsed. There was a flash of light, and a low whummmmp that sucked the air out of the sky. For an instant Kang saw an incinerating wave of light roll outward in every direction from Tasi-ko. Then a tidal wave of heat smashed against the ridge, bowling him over. He gasped to breathe, gasped again, then panicked with the realization that there was no air in the air--only heat, and the smell of burning hair.
They're killing everyone, he thought. Frantic, he slipped on the ice and landed hard, flat on his back. A shower of light went off behind his eyes and something cracked, deep inside his head. Kang's vision shuddered and the last thing he saw, before his senses shut down, was Tasi-ko,
shuddering in a sea of flames.
When he woke, it was dark, and the air was sharp with the smell of smoke.
His face felt as if the skin had been peeled from his cheeks, and the back of his head was pounding as rhythmically as a drum. With the fingers of his right hand he touched the place where the pain was, just behind his ear, and instantly drew back, shocked by the lump that was bleeding there.
For a moment his stomach swayed, and it seemed as if his chest was about to turn inside out. But nothing happened.
Machines growled in the distance, off to the left and far below.
Below. Where was he?
Slowly, Kang sat up and looked around. He was on a ridge, just like the one above Tasi-ko. The ground was slick with ice, and here and there tree stumps poked from the snow. Turning toward the noise, he saw bulldozers moving back and forth across a field of rubble, lit by the headlamps of half a dozen trucks.
He was on an overlook, above a construction site. But how had he gotten there? He'd been gathering wood and...The pain in his head made it impossible to think. A stream of broken images meandered around the inside of his skull: a brown plane; a jeep; his wife's face--fire.
He needed a doctor, and instinctively he called out to the men below. But,
of course, they couldn't hear him. Struggling to his feet, he made his way down the hillside, calling out against the bulldozers' rumbling noise. A
spray of small stones and rocks preceded him in a little avalanche and, as he drew closer, he saw for the first time that the construction crew consisted entirely of soldiers, and that the soldiers were wearing gas masks.
He was halfway down the ridge when one of the soldiers saw him and began to shout. Relieved, Kang paused to catch his breath and, standing amid a clutch of boulders, waved and shouted back. Then a peculiar thing happened. The soldier raised his Kalashnikov to his chest and began to fire in the disciplined way that soldiers do, peppering the air between them with short bursts of gunfire that sounded, almost, like the telegraphic code that ships use at sea.
And as that happened, the moment expanded. Suddenly, Kang knew where he was--which was just where he seemed to be: on the ridge above Tasi-ko. And then he remembered: they're killing everyone.
The boulder beside him was spitting stones as 9mm slugs slapped into it.
Even so, Kang didn't move. His eyes were in the distance, ignoring the soldiers as they ran toward him, staring instead at the cratered wasteland that lay, smoking, in the headlights of the trucks. Tasi-ko was gone.
The realization frightened him even more than the guns, frightened him in a way that he had never felt before. Because this was a fear that had no point of origin or focus. It came from within and without at the same time. It was terror, pure and oceanic, and it radiated from him like heat from a fire.
Jolted, Kang turned and began to run, scrambling up the hillside from rock to rock, moving from one shadow to another. Behind him, his pursuers gave ground as they moved deeper into the cold, dark, and unfamiliar hills,
swinging their flashlights in great, useless arcs. Soon it was obvious that they had no idea which way he'd gone and that, in fact, they were beginning to worry about their own whereabouts.
Still, Kang kept moving. Far from feeling the usual clumsiness of his wooden leg, he covered the ground with immaculate economy, invisible as a shadow in the night. And though his lungs were on fire and his quadriceps were drained, he moved higher and higher into the mountains until the soldiers' voices dwindled to nothing and the bulldozers fell silent.
After four or five hours in the freezing cold, his shirt was soaked with sweat and his stump was a bloody mess. His fingers were frozen, his skull was fractured, and his face was a blister. The parts of him that didn't hurt were dead. It was as simple as that.
But he kept on moving, and eventually he found a sort of track that led downhill. Following it, he emerged from the mountains just as the night grayed toward dawn. Finding himself beside the Victory Road, he followed the highway without thinking or caring where it went. The truth was: he had nowhere to go and, clearly, he was dying. The likelihood was that whatever energy he had left would soon disappear. He'd sit down for a rest, and that would be that. If he was lucky, there would be a tree, and he could lean back against it...close his eyes...and just let go.
He looked forward to dying that way, like an old monk, dreaming the world.
Indeed, the image lifted his spirits and, as he walked beside the road, he kept his eyes open for the perfect tree. The death-tree. His tree.
But it was nowhere to be found. Morning molted into afternoon, the air warmed and, step by step, the day dissolved into evening. Night fell, the temperature dropped, and still Kang kept walking.
So it went for a second day, and then a third. Instinctively, and without thinking, Kang trudged toward the one place he knew as well as the environs of Tasi-ko. This was Korea's Demilitarized Zone. A closely watched no-man's-land that runs for more than a hundred miles, stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, the DMZ was at once a nature preserve and a killing floor. Honeycombed with tunnels and bristling with land mines, it was a ribbon of green in a sea of mud and ice--tranquil,
forested, and dangerous. Gateway to the Vampire South.
Perhaps he would find his tree there.
From the Hardcover edition.