A PAGE OF A NEWSPAPER lay sodden on the sidewalk. MINISTER JAILED IN SEX SCANDAL, the headline read. Peter Patterson made out the words before the gusting wind caught the paper up and carried it, wet and heavy as it was, tumbling away through the mist of slashing rain. Patterson watched the paper gray and dim and vanish in the darkness. He kept walking, the wind and water whipping at his face.
The things of the flesh, he thought with an inward sigh. The things of the spirit. The things of the flesh.
He was already nervous—already afraid—and now the headline made him melancholy, too. The minister’s conviction had been a great disappointment to him, a stomach-twisting glitch in his moral universe. And yet Peter Patterson was grimly determined not to judge. The Reverend Jesse Skyles was a good man, he told himself, a true man of God. He had just fallen to temptation, that’s all. Peter Patterson had plenty of experience with temptation, not to mention falling. True, he’d never tapped anything underage, but the object of Skyles’s indiscretion had been fourteen. That was no child; they were juicy then . . . In any case, he could say this and that, make this excuse for himself and that one, but the simple truth was he had left his own trail of tears, a trail of misused women and abandoned sons. He was in no position to condemn anyone.
The things of the spirit, the things of the flesh.
It was so easy to fall. Easy to choose the life of the moment over the long consequences. A couple of drinks and a woman’s perfume began to seem like a thing worth dying for. And to leave her smile sitting there on her face like that, unkissed? Well, it just felt wrong. You’d have to be a corpse or a fool and no kind of man at all . . .
So the next thing you knew it was some ungodly hour of the morning and there you were, standing over the sprawled and sleeping wreckage of her, looking around the floor for your boxers and your self-respect. Because who were you when you were bare-assed, as it turned out? Surprise: you were that guy who’d looked his son in the eye that very afternoon and said, Do what’s right. Hand on his shoulder, expression stern, finger wagging in his face. Do what’s right, son. Treat the women with respect. Don’t be making no babies you can’t take care of. And then that selfsame night after four bourbons and a perfumed smile it was Aw, fuck it. Another mother betrayed, another son ushered into the funhouse of his father’s hypocrisy, another relationship shot to hell . . .
All part of the journey that had led him to this night.
Man, he thought, suddenly coming back into the moment, back into the full awareness of his corrosive anxiety. Man, look at this place.
It was a sight to see, all right, the city in the rain. The night city, empty everywhere, with only the wind moving in it. Without people, without traffic, the avenue was reduced to the shadowy shapes of things. The rectangles of office buildings to the left and right of him, the smaller rectangles of newspaper boxes on the sidewalk, the shepherd’s crook of a lamp pole in the light of its lamp . . . Everything seemed two-dimensional like that. Even the depth of the receding street seemed a trick of perspective.
People had taken the evacuation order seriously this time. There was not a body moving anywhere, not a footfall on the street but his. The rain spat and whispered against the macadam as if it were falling in an empty field. At moments, when the wind subsided, you could hear the stoplights changing color. You could see them swaying there above the intersections, one gleaming circle of red after another in the storm-streaked dark. Then there was a double metallic gulp, like a robot swallowing, and all the red circles turned gleaming green. There was something lonesome and almost poetic about it. The city was practically beautiful, he thought, once you got rid of the people.
Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, Peter Patterson trudged the final half block to the corner and ducked under the overhang of the skyscraper there. The moment he stopped walking, he became aware of how wet and miserable he was. His raincoat and his hat had protected him for a while, but now they were both soaked. His socks and cuffs were sodden from wading through the sluicing gutters. The cold was seeping into his core.
It was a hell of a night for a meeting—with the storm going and the river about to blow. A hell of a night to finally do what he had convinced himself to do.
Lieutenant Brick Ramsey saw Patterson reach the meeting point, but he lingered where he was, watching the man through the windshield of his unmarked Charger. Watching the wavering shape of the man anyway. He couldn’t see much more of him than that. He didn’t want to turn his wipers on. He was afraid the movement might draw attention to him sitting there. Uninterrupted, the rain spilled down over the glass in gusting sheets, then broken streams and droplets. Through the water, the pink glare of the downtown halogen lamps seemed to melt and run in fluid streaks of illumination. The stoplights ran in fluid streaks of red, then green. And beyond the light, in the blur and shadows, there was the wavering shape of Peter Patterson, an average-sized man in a hat and overcoat, hunched and waiting. Ramsey knew he ought to go to him, but he lingered, watched.
Ramsey figured himself for a hard man, but he didn’t like thinking about what he was about to do. Peter Patterson was nobody in the big scheme of things. He was nothing in the city hierarchy. Just a bookkeeper. Just a middle-aged drunk who’d come to Jesus and now fancied himself incorruptible. There should have been a dozen easy ways to shut him up or shut him down. They could’ve just waited him out probably. The mood would probably have passed.
But they couldn’t wait. They couldn’t risk it. Peter Patterson had crossed the line. It was one thing to come to Jesus. It was another to go to the feds.
“He wants a meet?” Augie Lancaster had murmured smoothly over the phone. “Arrange a meet. Tell him you’re the feds and arrange a meet, that’s all.”
It made Ramsey sick inside. But what else could he do? You got into these things step by step, day by day, and then there you were and you didn’t really have a choice when you came down to it. There were people who depended on you, expected things from you. Not just Augie Lancaster but the Chief of Ds and the councilmen and all the rest. You couldn’t just turn righteous on them, overnight become another man than the one they knew. Anyway, your fate was tied to theirs by this time. If they went down, you went down with them. Even if Ramsey wanted to turn righteous, that was way more righteous than he was prepared to be. No, whichever way you turned, the exit was closed and a hundred strings were pulling at you. You had to go on with it, that’s all. Just as Augie said: That’s all.
The rain drummed hard on the Charger’s roof, then crashed on it like thunder, blown by the wind. The calls for backup hissed and whispered from the radio. Looting had started half an hour ago, almost as soon as the city emptied out. The brothers, Ramsey thought with a stab of shame and distaste. The brothers were busting up the Northern District, two miles away.
The City of Hope. The City of Equality. The City of Justice.
All those high words. All those fine Augie Lancaster speeches came back to him.
“Where they have taken away your voice, I will speak for you. Where they have robbed you of your dignity, I will make them repay you. Where they have built their wealth on your exploitation, I will bring that wealth back from Washington to your neighborhoods and your families.”
Ramsey could remember the thrill of hearing him. The thrill of the crowd and the roar of the brothers cheering. Those were the same crowds, the same brothers, who were out there smashing the storefronts of the slant-owned groceries and the chain pharmacies and the Stereo World and the old furniture emporium they had shopped at for ages. Flood sale. Everything must go.
He had the radio turned down low to dim the distraction of it. The soft cries for help seemed like the voices of ghosts in the storm, distant and mournful and lost.
Well, they aren’t the only ones to take whatever they can get their hands on, Ramsey told himself. When it comes to that, all men are brothers.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. He knew it was time. He knew he ought to go and get this over with.
But he lingered, watching.
The things of the spirit, the things of the flesh.
That was Peter Patterson, meanwhile, his restless mind returning to the Reverend Skyles as he stood under the skyscraper’s overhang, all shrugged up in his wet overcoat; as the wind-whipped water sluiced down and spattered the shins of his trousers where he stood; as he waited anxiously for the feds to come.
He shivered. He bounced on his toes. He thought: Where are they already?
He thought: How could he do it? His restless mind returning to Skyles, returning to himself and the things he’d done in his life, the journey that had brought him here, the booze, the women. Because he knew how Skyles could do it. He knew exactly how he could do it, and do it again. You weren’t even sorry afterward. Not really. You were ashamed, for sure. When you were sober, when you were satisfied and bare-assed, looking for your shorts, looking for some way to dull the contrast between what you knew full well you ought to be and what in fact you were, you were plenty ashamed then. You hated the consequences, the women screaming at you in their hurt and betrayal, the three sons by two mothers that you never saw, the one boy in jail. But how could you say you were sorry for what you remembered with a dreamy smile? How could you say you regretted what you’d do again in a city minute? Oh yes, you would. If the opportunity arose—and you arose—back you’d be in the Country of King Penis, loyal subject of His Majesty, flying to do his bidding at his least command . . .
Where the hell were they?
He turned his head to the right and the left, searching the rain for his contact. No one. He lifted his gaze to the intersecting street.
That was when he saw the red-white glow above the building tops.
His breath caught. Fire. He knew what it was right away. With the city empty and the high water coming, looters must have swarmed the shops uptown, and now they’d torched the place and had it burning. The glow pulsed into the sky’s deep blackness. The slashing rain glimmered silver against it.
And suddenly, for no reason he could put into words, Peter Patterson knew that everything was wrong. This meeting made no sense. This place made no sense. Why here? Why tonight? Why the sudden phone call after all the patient, reassuring overtures back and forth? Why the strange voice, the mysterious ¬instructions . . . ?
He hardly asked himself these questions. He was simply gripped by the urgent conviction that he had to get the hell out of here. Now.
Lieutenant Ramsey was startled to see Patterson break from his shelter. The bookkeeper moved quickly, nearly jogging, with his hands still in his overcoat pockets and his head lowered as if to butt his way through the wind and rain back to his car. Every few steps, he would look over his shoulder and then tumble on even faster as if he’d seen demons chasing him.
Ramsey cursed. In the first moment of surprise, he grabbed the door handle, ready to go after the guy. But then he thought better of it. He had been in situations like this before, plenty of times. Blown meets, blown stakeouts. Things changed, you had to change your plan. You botched things up if you failed to adapt. He decided to follow Patterson and see what was what. He would find the moment. He would bide his time.
One hand left the door and the other went to the keys in the ignition. At the same time, he caught a glimpse of his own eyes in the rearview mirror. He quickly looked away.
Lieutenant Brick Ramsey had—had always had, since his childhood—an appearance of dignity, of restraint, self-control, and moral authority. His mother had instilled these qualities in him. One hand on her hip, the other waggling a finger in his face or sometimes a Bible. Don’t you be like them. The brothers, she meant. The street-corner gangsters who held up the walls of his neighborhood with their slouching backs. You gonna do right. You gonna make something of yourself. You gonna be somebody. It don’t profit you nothing to gain the whole world if you lose your soul. Hammering at him with that finger, with that Bible, like a sculptor hammering at marble until she made the shape of him, the dignified set of his broad shoulders, the dignified stillness of his oval face with its pencil moustache over a serious mouth, with its intelligent, watchful, soulful brown eyes. Four years in the marines had added to the pride of his carriage. And five years patrolling the streets had reminded him daily of the degraded neighborhood life he had risen above. But it was his mother’s work he saw when he looked in the mirror—and he quickly looked away.
The pounding of the rain on the roof intensified, drowning out the dim calls for assistance from the radio. A fresh sheet of water washed down over the windshield. When it passed, Ramsey saw Patterson reach the line of cars in the parking zone down the street. He saw Patterson reach his own car, a battered blue Chrysler New Yorker, had to be fifteen years old at least. The car’s top light went on as Patterson opened the door and lowered himself into the driver’s seat. Then he pulled the door shut after him and the car went dark. A moment later, Lieutenant Ramsey saw the New Yorker’s headlights, blurry through the water on the windshield. The car pulled out and took off down the street, illuminating the silver streaks of the rain before it.
Ramsey waited a few seconds and then followed in the unmarked Charger, holding back a block, sunk in the darkness, counting on the storm to obscure him.
Up ahead, the New Yorker turned the corner. The Charger reached the intersection a few seconds afterward. It was only then, only when he turned to look down the street, that Ramsey understood what had spooked Patterson.
The throbbing red-white glow gave sudden depth to the strangely flat skyline. The City of Hope. The City of Equality. The City of Justice. It was burning.
The brothers, Ramsey thought, with another gout of disgust and self-disgust.
He brought the Charger around the corner and kept after his man.
Peter Patterson felt strangely safe once he was inside his car. His sudden surge of fear subsided. He felt as if no one could touch him there.
He drove north through the empty city. He drove slowly, careful of the storm. The pavement was slick where it was level and there were troughs and hollows where deep puddles gathered, where the water thundered against the undercarriage and gripped the tires of the old car as they passed through.
As he got away from downtown, the streets grew even darker around him. It took him a while to notice it: the electricity here was out. He looked past the laboring wipers. He saw rain-swept boulevards empty as alleyways, storefronts boarded against the tempest. He was glad to be inside and warm with the heater on. The unreasoning urgency in him—the anxious conviction that he had just been in some kind of danger—was already beginning to recede. Maybe he’d just spooked himself. Maybe he’d just let his nerves get the better of him.
He turned on the radio. Hoping for some news, some voices for company. Nothing came out but static. He pressed the scan button and listened as the tuner automatically ran the band. Still nothing but that hiss, end to end, that hiss with broken fragments of words in it like men sending messages from the belly of a snake.
Look at this. Look at this.
The hollowed brownstones. The vacant businesses. The broken windows like phantoms’ eyes. He was in the north now, at the edge of the neighborhoods. He was thinking: The wages of sin.
Because it was all the Country of King Penis, wasn’t it? The country of misused women and abandoned sons. That was exactly the message Reverend Skyles had been trying to bring to them, that was exactly why his fall was such a disappointment, such a tragedy. He was a good man, a true man of God, the lone voice of truth against the silken temptations of Augie Lancaster. Augie Lancaster telling folks he would give them back their dignity. How do you give a man dignity if he doesn’t have it for himself? Reverend Skyles told them they had to be dignified, had to do right . . .
Peter Patterson was lost in such philosophical thoughts he didn’t notice the water rising. It was pouring in fast from the east where the river had broken through the levies. It was burbling up out of the sewers with such force that manhole covers were being lifted and rattled aside, one after another, as the deluge crossed town.
Peter Patterson began to feel the grip of the flood on his tires, the steering wheel tugging at his hands, but he was distracted. He figured he was just going through another puddle.
Then his headlights picked out the body of a drowned man.
Oh, it was an eerie sight to see. It was so unreal, he felt a stutter of disbelief between the moment he understood what it was and the moment the terror began to rise in him. Peter Patterson stared through the windshield, open-mouthed. The corpse’s ballooning shirt gleamed white in the headlights as he floated face down through the silent intersection up ahead.
“Holy mother of God,” Peter Patterson whispered.
An instant later, the tide was on him.
He felt a soft jolt against the side of the old Chrysler. He turned and was startled to find the water outside was suddenly lapping at the bottom of the car’s door. The next moment, with one low, electric groan, the New Yorker stalled. It stopped and sat there, dark and dead, a motionless hulk around him.
Peter Patterson reflexively reached for the keys, but the shutdown had such a finality to it that he didn’t even bother to try to restart the engine. He just pulled the keys from the ignition. He knew he had to get out, get free, as fast as he could.
He tried to shoulder open the door. It gave a little—just a little. Then the pressure of the water held it. Through the windshield, in the wavering glow of a fire nearby, he could still see the white shirt of the drowned man as he floated, slowly revolving, down the street. A little zap of fresh panic went through him.
You could get caught in here. You could be that guy, he thought.
He shouldered the door again, harder this time, with a little of that I-don’t-wanna-die adrenalin pumping through him. It was no good. The weird, living gelatin of the flood pushed back against him. He hit the door again, even harder, even more afraid. At last, it gave way. The water poured in over his feet and ankles, shockingly cold. The door slid open just enough—just enough for Peter Patterson to force himself desperately through the gap.
He stood up in the street. The water reached his knees and was still rising. Shockingly, shockingly cold. Insidious in its swiftness. He could feel the force of it, trying to nudge him away from the car, trying to coax him into the arms of the current. The cold seeped into him like a seductive whisper, trying to weaken his resolve. It was the voice of the storm. The storm wanted to kill him. He could feel it. It wanted him floating and turning down the street like the drowned man. He was already shivering, already growing weak with the cold.
Peter Patterson held on to the car door with one hand, using all the strength that was left in his freezing fingers. He looked around him and behind him, searching for the best way out, praying to God to help him find it. The glow of the fire to the north lit the intersection with an eerie brightness. He could make out the shapes of buildings silhouetted against it. The dark grew thick in the near distance, though, with the electric down. Hard to find my way, Lord.
He remembered the keychain gripped in his free hand. There was a small flashlight on it. He lifted it. Had to be careful not to drop it—his hand was getting so stiff—his whole body was shuddering with cold. He pressed the button and shot a thin blue beam in different directions, this way and that. It picked out patches of water, black and boiling on every side of him. He had to pray some more to fight his rising panic. He turned the unsteady beam over the buildings around him. There was a promising one, about a block away. He might be able to break into that. It was blackened brick, about six stories tall. There were boards on the ground-floor windows, but he was sure he could tear them off. There’d be stairs inside. He could climb up to higher ground. Thank you, Jesus.
He took a deep breath for courage and reluctantly let go of the car. He began wading through the water toward the intersection. The drowned corpse turned and floated past the corner to his left, like a taunt, like a threat, like an omen. But Peter Patterson tried not to look in that direction. He told himself he was going to make it, he was going to be all right. He kept praying.
The flood was up to the bottom of his thighs now, but he was still stronger than the current. He could still push through. Only the cold worried him. Wicked cold. It ate into him, ate away his strength. It made his arms quiver, as he pressed them tightly against his sides. The rain lashed his face and his sodden overcoat clung to him. Every stride through the thick flood was an effort. He felt heavy and was getting heavier. He felt like a man made of soft, wet clay trying to reach his goal before the clay dried and hardened so that he became a statue on the city street. His teeth began to chatter. He made shuddering noises, battling to take another slow step and another. Don’t let me die.
He reached the intersection. The light here was bright and startling, drawing his attention to the west. He turned to look and stopped where he was, stood still, letting out a tremulous breath as the water washed around him.
The flames were bright here, the city on fire. You wouldn’t think it could burn like that in all this rain. Only a block away, beyond the revolving corpse in the foreground, jagged lashings of livid ¬orange burst through a broad storefront and scarred the black night. The store’s low white roof gleamed red. The taller brownstones on either side of it loomed darkly above the burning. The water flowed and rose on the street out front, reflecting the fire in places or sometimes swallowing its light or sometimes sending up flickering splashes as people kicked through it. The human figures appeared in silhouette, running into the flaming shop and out again, carrying their boxes of plunder. They were busy as insects, but now and then the fire caught the face of a man, his eyes weirdly dead and bright at the same time, dead with the mindless passion of his hunger and bright with the hunger at the same time, dead and bright like the white shirt on the back of the corpse revolving in the current.
Appalled, Peter Patterson stood there for a moment, watching. But only for a moment. The flames were vivid and hot to the eye, but they gave no heat really. The water still had him in the clutches of its cold, numbing him and urging him into its flow. He had to fight it. He had to move. He had to keep moving. Help me, God.
He turned to go on—and there was Ramsey towering over him.
Lieutenant Brick Ramsey killed Peter Patterson quickly and efficiently. He grabbed the bookkeeper by the shoulder and thrust the blade of the combat knife deep between his ribs and into his heart, twisting it to sever the artery. The two men were close together. Ramsey could practically read the sequence of Peter Patterson’s thoughts in his eyes. Patterson was startled by Ramsey’s sudden appearance but then, for a single instant, he tried to make sense of it, maybe figured he was the fed who’d been sent to meet him in the rain. Then Ramsey jammed the knife in and Peter Patterson’s eyes went wide in pain and bewilderment. But before he died, the logic of it must have come to him because Ramsey could see that he understood.
Peter Patterson tried to struggle free, but it was only a small instinctive motion. He was already too weak and he knew he was finished, his lips moving in prayer. Ramsey held him against the knife handle easily. As Peter Patterson’s knees buckled, Ramsey lowered the bookkeeper into the water and pressed down on the knife to force him beneath the surface. Peter Patterson thrashed once before his final breath came bubbling out of him. Then he sank to the bottom of the roiling flow.
Bent over low, bent close to the water, the cold damp soaking through his sleeves, Lieutenant Ramsey held Peter Patterson down. The firelight penetrated the black depths, and he could make out the bookkeeper’s face down there. He was sickened by the sight of the eyes staring up at him, sickened at the gaping mouth, wavery underwater, and the staring eyes full of what looked to him like pity. He had to turn away from them. He lifted his own eyes to the flames: the burning storefront and the dark buildings looming over it on either side. He saw the silhouetted figures of the looters splashing around in the firelight and caught glimpses of their bright, dead faces. He still had one hand on Peter Patterson’s shoulder and the other on the knife. With a sickening thrill, he felt—or thought he felt—Peter Patterson’s heartbeat pulsing in the knife handle. The pulse weakened and faded away and was gone.
Ramsey wrestled the knife free and straightened, knee-deep in the water. He let the knife slip out of his hand. It plopped into the flood and sank down, gleaming dully and then more dully until it settled, dim silver, on the bottom beside Patterson’s body. Strange. For a moment there, Ramsey had felt relief, really wonderful relief. The very moment of the murder had seemed bright and explosive—a bright moment of freedom from the tension leading up to it—a star-toothed, bright, explosive release from the nausea of the self-hatred and shame he had barely been aware of feeling. But as he released his grip on the body, as he dropped the knife and stood, the nova-like blast of freedom shrank back into itself and the blackness at its edges—the blackness of shame, of self-disgust—came sweeping down on him in a torrent ten-fold and it was horrible. Horrible. Before, sitting in the car, it had seemed to him there was no getting out of this. What with Augie and all the people he knew and all the things they expected of him, Ramsey could see no way then to avoid what had to be done. But now, now that it was over, it all looked different. He saw that he could have gotten out—he could’ve said no at any time—of course, he could have. It was this—this now—that there was no getting out of. This was done and there was no undoing it. It was like a stain, an acid stain; no washing it away. Ramsey had to force his mind into a kind of deadness so he wouldn’t feel the full awareness of it all at once. But it was there nonetheless. The stain, the guilt. The shame, the self-disgust. He had made himself a nightmare with no waking ever.
The clammy water swirled around his legs. The cold of it was beginning to reach into him. The cold made the flames he saw seem strange and unreal, all leaping action and no true heat, like a movie or a memory of fire. Ramsey stood in the flood and shivered and gazed at the burning, drowning city. He felt unbearably alone, unbearably exposed to the eyes of the night, which he knew full well were his mother’s eyes and the eyes of his mother’s God.