The middle of May
JESSE Sands, twenty-five years in the New Jersey State Prison for rape and felonious assault, had served a full term, without credit for either good or industrious behavior. From the ages of twenty-two to forty-seven, his home had been a cold prison fortress of brown stone and razor wire, built one hundred and fifty years ago in a resolute age when prisons had been intended to punish criminals. For twenty-five steadfast years, the Trenton prison had done its duty regarding Jesse Sands. Then, abruptly, once he had maxed out on his original sentence, he was turned loose without parole. The red iron doors swung open for him at 10:30 A.M., and by nightfall he had bought a gun on the streets and exacted his first harsh measure of revenge.
In the three weeks following his release, Sands had headed west, across Pennsylvania and West Virginia, to the Ohio River at Steubenville, where he thumbed a ride at night over the river and continued along Route 22 as far as the eastern Ohio burg of Cadiz. There he caught a ride with a truck driver, and, after sleeping in the cab as they traveled at night, Sands pistol-whipped the trucker at 4:00 A.M. in the bathroom of a deserted rest stop along US 250, dragged him into the woods beside the road, shot him in the back of the head, and stole the rig.
Sands drove west on 250 until dawn and abandoned the truck in a lot behind a Burger King at New Philadelphia. After walking several miles in the morning, he flagged down an unwary farmer north of Dover, and they traveled together peacefully until Sands got outat Wilmot. He lunched there at an Amish restaurant and then started walking through the countryside along Route 62, heading southwest toward Winesburg, Berlin, and Millersburg. As he stalked the Amish colonies of Holmes County, he caught rides with two unsuspecting tourists and, toward sunset, with a kindly Amish youngster coming home late from sparking his sweetheart in a buggy. By the time Sands reached the sleepy hills of Millersburg, it was nightfall on a rainy Saturday in May, and a report had gone out to the sheriffs in several eastern Ohio counties about a murdered truck driver at a rest stop and his abandoned eighteen-wheeler, found in New Philadelphia with most of the gears ground out.
That night, in a steady downpour, near a west-end neighborhood bar in Millersburg, Jesse Sands stood rock-still in an alley, eyeing the houses along one of the narrow streets that marked the western limit of town, overlooking the Killbuck Creek and its broad and marshy floodplain beyond.
From his position pressed flat against the weathered boards of an old garage in the graveled alley, Sands worked his eyes methodically, first in one direction and then in the other. He waited there motionless, watching the comings and goings at a neighborhood bar at the end of the street. His collar was turned up tightly against the back of his neck, and the night rain dripped off the front brim of his rumpled, black rain hat. He was dressed for the night in black jeans, dark brown workboots, a lightweight black windbreaker over a dark blue pullover shirt and black sweater.
There was the constant pelting of the rain against the galvanized tin roof, the clatter of running water in the downspouts, and the occasional splash of tires on the street as a car eased along in front of him. In time, the splatter of rain on his hat put a thin line of cold water under his collar. It trickled down his back between his shoulder blades. He took his hat off, slapped it against the rough boards of the garage, and pulled it back over his damp hair, then stood rigidly against the boards, ignoring the rain as he watched the bar at the end of the street.
The front of the bar was lit by a floodlight at the top of a wooden pole. The building was an old house, sided with wood shingles stained dark green. The shingles covered all of the windows on the front of the structure. Facing the street, there was otherwise only a steel door with a small diamond-shaped window at about head level. Where there once might have been a lawn, there was now a gravel parking lot that surrounded the bar on three sides. Two cars and a pickup were parked in front, taking a neon glow in the rain from a Budweiser sign that hung out near the street.
After deciding to enter, he moved quickly across the gravel lot underneath the floodlight, stepped up onto the old porch, turned his collar down, pushed through the heavy door past two cigarette machines, and stood just inside the door, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
As he scanned the smoky room from the doorway, Sands slowly removed his hat, ran his fingers through his curly hair, and forced a slight smile. He managed a steady and confident expression, standing with his feet close together, holding his dripping black hat loosely in his fingers at b is side.
Along the right wall in a single first-floor room was a series of four booths with puffy black Naugahyde upholstery. Sands counted: Three men at the first booth. A man and a woman in western dress at the second booth. A young couple at the third booth, getting ready to leave. The fourth booth was empty.
The bar itself ran along the opposite wall of the room. No one was seated on the five padded stools there. The bartender stood quietly eyeing Sands, while polishing a glass with a white towel.
The bartender was short and muscular, and he wore a white apron strapped tightly around his waist. The sleeves on his plain white T-shirt were rolled up to his shoulders, showing tattoos on each arm, anchors with serpents. Good, Sands thought. Serpent-arms won't be the talkative type.
Sands took a seat at the far end of the bar, laid his wet hat on the barstool to his left, and looked directly ahead at the whiskey bottles on the shelves, his back straight. The bartender lingered more than a polite moment while he lit a cigarette, pulled on it unhurriedly, and laid it deliberately in an ashtray next to the cash register. Then he moved slowly toward Sands, dragging a towel to polish the surface of the dark wood as he approached. Five feet from where Sands had taken his seat, the bartender stopped and waited, looking directly at Sands without speaking. Sands ordered without glancing at the bartender, "Two drafts now and two more later."
Two draft beers, in heavy frosted mugs, were silently delivered, and the bartender resumed his place at the other end of the bar. Sands drank one of the drafts down straight away and tuned his ears to the conversations in the booths behind him. Normal, he thought. Steady, quiet voices. They had taken note of him, but they now seemed willing to ignore him. He could drink alone. He'd be able to think. Think about the few needs and rare pleasures that still mattered to him.
For Sands, there were no imposing moral dilemmas. No work appointments, no family obligations, no friends and no troubles. Neither were there any long-term plans to be made. There was only the money, running low now despite his string of robberies. He needed more, soon, and that was all he knew. That was all he cared about. Perhaps this would be the town, he mused, where he'd finally stage a daylight bank job.
Sands took a cigarette out of his windbreaker's inside breast pocket, snapped a silver Zippo open, and lit up. He watched the room in the mirror behind the bar, exhaled heavy smoke from a Camel straight, absently spit a few grains of loose tobacco off the tip of his tongue, and returned to his beer. As he drank down the second one slowly, Sands began to relax, and his mind wandered from present needs to former pleasures. Someday they'd find that trucker, but he didn't care. The girl in the pickup truck had been easy. They might find her truck, but they'd never find her. A satisfied smile crossed his face. He had a boyish look sitting there, but his jaw was set hard, and his eyes were narrowed to slits as he drank alone and thought.
How many houses had he broken into? A dozen, maybe? Child's play, picking out the easy ones. Then there was the rush, the surge of power as he prowled through a darkened house, sometimes finding the owners at home, sometimes waiting in the dark until they returned.
For several quiet minutes at the bar, Sands held his memories closely, and then a burst of laughter from one of the booths behind him snapped him back into the room, and his mind returned to the question of banks.
Banks. Even in the daylight, they were surely better than houses. He sipped on his beer, lit another cigarette, and gazed thoughtfully ahead.
For sure, robbing houses was a nuisance. And finding a fence for what he stole was a bother. Risky. Always troublesome in strange towns. Stores and banks would suit him better. He glanced briefly along the bar to the cash register and wondered if bars would be good for him, too.
In time, Sands lit another smoke and finished his second beer. He pushed the two empties forward on the bar and turned his head to see if the short bartender had been watching. Two more frosted mugs were delivered, promptly, along with the tab. The bartender's gaze remained fixed on Sands slightly longer than could be considered warm and friendly. He slid the tab forward, flipped his towel over one shoulder, and returned to his end of the bar near the cash register.
Not so subtle, Mr. Bartender, Sands thought. Four beers and out, is that it? No problem. He'd find a place to stay, and then tomorrow he'd study the town at his pleasure.
He finished the two beers quickly, threw the money, with no tip, on top of the green and white paper tab, and spoke from his end of the bar.
"Where's the john?"
The bartender moved slowly along the edge of the bar toward him, swept off the money, and answered without turning away, "In the back."
When he was finished, Sands slipped out through the back delivery door into an alley. He took several deep breaths of the night spring air. The rain had stopped, and he stuffed his rain hat into an outside waist pocket of his windbreaker. The dampness held the chill in his legs. Maybe he'd just forgotten. Cold spring weather. A permanent chill that creeps into your bones. He drew another deep breath of the damp air and set off in the dark to walk the stiffness out of his legs.
He moved rapidly away from the bar, into a narrow alley that led through a neighborhood of old houses. His legs and arms soon responded to the pace, and the cold air invigorated him in a way that had never been possible in the confines of prison. This was the part of freedom that surprised him the most, walking wherever he chose, always quickly, as far as he liked, sometimes spending hours moving through the alleys and back streets of an unfamiliar town. By the time he had reached Ohio, he had realized that he could cross the country in this manner. When he made it to the mountains out west, he intended to climb up somewhere high, alone, and spend a day looking down on a city, or out across some prairie, enjoying the long vistas he had forfeited in prison. He'd be able to see forever. To enjoy being alone, high up and in command. Choosing for himself the moment to drop down onto a town.
Tonight, as he moved along the alleys of Millersburg, the cluttered backyards and closely packed wooden garages presented themselves to him silently, and his instincts began to quicken.
A broken-down hard-shell camper had been parked at the back of one yard, and weeds had grown up under it. The next yard was surrounded by a fence of slat boards and rusty wire, and there was a swing set with an old bicycle leaning against it. The sections of a dismantled TV antenna tower lay along the fence, bent wires of the antenna stacked on top. Farther along, an overturned charcoal grill lay next to a picnic table with a plastic ice chest propped upside-down on its hinges. At the next house, the garage had slipped off its foundation and was leaning heavily out of plumb. Three of the four windowpanes were broken out, and as he passed, Sands saw that the door had been taken off its hinges and propped against the side of the garage, where weeds had overtaken its bottom edge. At one dark section in the alley, Sands stumbled on a rake handle and fell next to a disorderly pile of garbage cans, garden hoses, and the rusted hulk of an old wheelbarrow. He cursed himself for the noise and then paused there on his hands and knees, listening intently.
The alley ahead was lit at an intersection by a streetlight. He knelt just out of range of the light and studied the backyards lit dimly by its beam.
There were plastic lawn chairs stacked next to two galvanized garbage cans. There was a plastic child's swimming pool filled with rainwater. Against the side of the nearest garage was a stack of salvaged bricks, most still edged with mortar. At the back of the opposite garage was a cast-off water heater. Sands glanced back along the stretch of alley he had just covered, half expecting to see someone he recognized, knowing that he never would. Then he rose and walked quickly under the light, across the intersection, and into the alley beyond, where a block of five darkened houses awaited him.
He approached the first house in near total darkness, covering the yard quickly, crouched over in a run, feet splashing across the water-soaked grass, head narrowly ducking under a wire clothesline that ran from the house to a pole in the yard. He tried the back door, but it was locked. No problem, he thought, just move on to the next one.
The next house was also easily approached. He slipped across a darkened, blacktop driveway that separated the two lots. He was there in seconds, and at the back of a white, wood-frame house, Sands found a porch with a screen door that wasn't latched. That was all the opportunity he ever needed. The sort of thing he'd always dreamed about in prison.
He was inside in seconds, and, moving slowly in the dark, he felt his way across a small back porch with a noisy wooden floor, and then through a kitchen, a swinging door into a dining room, and a living room. His prison ears served him well as he stood motionless, listening in the dark until his eyes adjusted to the faint street light coming through a front living room window.
The house smelled peculiar to him, maybe old. He'd find two retired fools upstairs, he thought, and take everything they had of value. He made himself think calmly and planned his first night in Millersburg. He could work here for maybe an hour as the owners watched, forcing them to surrender cash, jewelry, whatever pleased him. Maybe he'd kill them.
He felt intensely alive as he found the steps to the bedrooms upstairs. He had his revolver out in his right hand. He reached out with his left hand and felt the smooth, worn wood of the handrailing. His feet moved slowly and methodically on the plain wooden steps. The revolver's heavy weight calmed him, as he eased up the steps.
Abruptly, there was a noise downstairs. It stopped him on the steps. A screen door squeaked open and slammed shut against its wooden frame. The floorboards of the back porch gave out their careless noises. His ears worked acutely.
A light came on in the kitchen. He could see its glow outside on the driveway through a window on the stairway landing. He turned his head slightly, his mouth open to enhance his hearing. His pulse rang in his ears, and he decided to risk another step on the stairs, descending closer to the noise. But as he turned and started down in the dark, his boot missed the step, and he tumbled sideways down the stairs, struck his head on the closet door at the bottom, and blacked out for a brief moment.
When he came around, Sands fumbled for his gun on the hardwood floor, found it, and struggled to stand. A sharp pain in his ribs dropped him to his knees, and he groaned heavily. As he pushed his way to his feet, with the revolver in his right hand and his left arm wrapped over his broken rib, Sands heard the sounds from the switchhook of a phone, followed by three short taps. A woman's voice in the kitchen spoke urgently, "911?"
In the living room, Sands tried the front door. It was locked. He fumbled to work the lock, but it was the dead bolt kind that requires a key. The woman on the phone seemed closer to him now, as she spoke briskly in the kitchen. His instinct was to flee, but his head throbbed and his ribs ached from the fall, and it angered him. And he realized coldly that there would be several minutes before he heard the sirens.
He turned from the door and peered into the shadowed dining room. He thought of the kitchen. He could still hear the woman back there, blocking his way. The light went out.
He moved slowly toward her. He imagined her up close. He could hear her voice on the phone. No police, yet. He had time. He'd take time. He held his left arm across his aching ribs, and, crouched over in pain, with his revolver still clutched in his right hand, he advanced toward the voice on the phone, unaware that he had been groaning all along.
He was in the living room. Now the dining room. Moving toward the kitchen. The phone receiver clattered onto the floor. He was at the swinging door into the kitchen, with a sense of menacing power surging through him.
Then, in a shattering instant in the dark, as he pushed through the swinging door, a wooden chair broke across his face, cutting and stunning him. He had not been prepared for the blow. It simply exploded in his face, and he knew she would fight. Again, before he could react, there came a second vicious blow from the chair, this time striking him across his chest. The pain surprised him. Rage enhanced the effect within him.
He staggered backward under her blows, into the dining room. She pursued him in the dark, swinging the chair furiously. He retreated into the living room, and still she pushed her attacks with the chair, screaming at him. For a brief moment he slipped free of her attack. He couldn't see her, but he could hear her approaching again and raised his gun.
He fired a shot into the dining room, and the muzzle flash gave him his first view of a young woman in a yellow raincoat, hood down across her back, short hair wet, caught in the muzzle's burst of blue and orange light, with the chair raised over her head, surprise on her face, stunned by the explosion. He had missed.
He could hear her backing up, now, against the dining room table. She tossed the chair into a corner and fled back to the phone. It was a mistake.
He advanced on her. He caught her in the dark and jerked her back into the dining room. She struggled in his grip, clawing, hammering, and pushing off to free herself. He could smell the new rain in her hair when he cracked the heavy revolver across her face, knocking her into the corner of the dining room. Broken glass and china showered over her as she sprawled against a hutch, and Sands figured for a brief moment that that would be the end of it.
But as he stepped free of her, wiping blood off the side of his face with the back of the hand that still held his revolver, she came at him again. And he shot her. Twice. In the chest.
The muzzle flares from his .44 magnum lit her up in two rapid flashes of light. The second one caught her stumbling backward, lifted nearly from her feet, shock and dismay on her dying face. As her body crashed into the shattered glass in the corner near the broken hutch, Jesse Sands's eyes were imprinted with the glimpse of her seeming to hover in the air, his mind stunned by the horrific explosions from the magnum revolver in the confinement of the small, dark room. And she was dead before Jesse Sands had ripped his way through the back screen door.
But before he had cleared the steps on the back porch, while one foot still reached out for the lawn below him, with the image of crimson blood on vivid yellow lodged in his mind, and with the faint sounds of approaching sirens, Sands's forehead exploded into an infinite brightness, where colors flashed brilliant behind his eyes and shattered to white, like crystal on a black marble floor.