The Wye Oak

Excerpt 4

Saturday morning Brad kissed Andrea on the forehead as she slept and climbed out of bed.  He put on a pair of jeans, slipped on his shoes, and went out to his car.  As a boy he used to watch his father read the newspaper every morning before breakfast; every morning since he and Andrea had been here he went to his car before breakfast and listened to the morning news on the radio.  There was a chill in the air, driven by the early morning mist that had settled on the mountain.  The leather seat of his car felt cold against the bare skin of his back, but he endured it for the sake of his morning ritual.

One or two items of world news were quickly followed by several reports out of Washington, then the local news.  He was about to turn the radio off; his hand was on the dial, when he stopped dead.

"Industrialist Bradley Jerome Carter was executed yesterday in St. Louis."

Brad leaped out of the car, as if his hand had been holding a venomous snake.  He slowly backed away, shaking his head back and forth, mumbling softly "No.  No.  No, it's not.  He's not.  He's not.  No."  Then he threw his head back and let out a piercing cry.  He began looking all around him, as if he had dropped something of unearthly significance and had to find it at all costs.  Then he took off running, wildly, like a panic stricken animal, moving in a vaguely upward spiral along the edge of the mountain.  He ran through thick underbrush, his chest, sides and back torn by brambles and thorns.  He brushed against trees, bruising his skin.  Occasionally he cried out, not from his injuries but from something much deeper.

Eventually he could go no higher.  He stood at the summit.  Ahead of him was the giant oak he had often come to sit beneath and contemplate about life and dream of the future.  He ran to it, grabbed hold of it, the full breadth of his arms barely halfway around it, as if embracing it.  He dug his bleeding fingers into the bark and began tugging, with all his strength, lifting, trying to uproot it, screaming and grunting, desperately trying to pull it straight up out of the earth, holding so tight his whole body felt like wood, his skin like bark, pulling and tugging and crying out, and bleeding, and howling, as the sun's rays rammed through the mist and into the branches and down onto the boy.  Then, all of a sudden, he released his grip and slowly sank to his knees, then to the ground, where he lay, sobbing, at the base of the tree, in the shadow of the morning sun, till his body finally grew still and his eyes opened and his voice returned.

Slowly, he lifted himself  from the ground, to his knees, then, steadying himself against the tree, to his feet.  His whole body felt as if it had been trampled by a giant.  He took a step, followed by another hesitant step, then another - like a child just learning to walk, or an old man who had forgotten how.  As he grew more confident, his motion increased, till he returned to his own place and time of life.

Brad worked his way back to the compound.  Andrea was up, and dressed, and fixing breakfast when she turned and saw him, and nearly fell back onto the stove.  It took her a moment to regain her balance.  Then she went to him and began running her hands across his wounds, as if to make them go away.  She leaned over his neck and shoulders and began licking the drops of blood that had collected.  She would have worked her way down his chest but he gently took hold of her and raised her back up.

"I have to return home," he told her.  "I can't ask you to come with me, or to stay here.  I can't ask anything.  I'm going back to murder those who killed my father.  But first, to make sure my mother's safe, if it's not already too late - if they haven't already gotten her.  Whether they've gotten her or not, I can only kill them once.  I wish..." he fought back some tears that had remained behind when the others fell at the base of the tree.  "...I wish I could take my father's advice, do as he would do."

"You're not your father," Andrea said.

"I know," Brad agreed.  "He'd forget about it in a minute and move on.  I can't.  I don't want to step over it or go around it.  What I really want - more than to take revenge - more than anything - all I want is to bury myself in your arms and cry till there are no more tears.  But I can't.  I have to go home.  At the moment I leave, I'd give anything to see you standing here and know you'll be waiting here for me when I return.  But I don't know if I will return.  This may cost me my life.  Then I would wish I had you with me, right up to the end.  But that can't be either."

"Brad: there's nothing that can't be," Andrea said softly.  "There's nothing you can or can't ask of me.  I know what I have to do.  I'll be here when you return - if we return together, and only then.  There's no reason for me to do anything that doesn't involve you - unless doing it would jeopardize you."

They cleaned Brad's wounds, packed what few things they had managed to accumulate, and left Clingman's Dome early Saturday afternoon, retracing their route as far as Nashville.  There, instead of remaining on Interstate 40 to Memphis, they headed northwest on Interstate 24, a deviation calculated to save almost two hundred miles.  On their way from St. Louis, they had the luxury of time; now they didn't: every second they were on the road put Brad's mother in greater jeopardy.                                        

Interstate 24, which took them through the western tip of Kentucky, was absorbed into Interstate 57 in Southern Illinois.  They stayed on 57 until it intersected Interstate 64 which, pointing them directly at St. Louis again, brought them to its shores at midnight.  The lights of East St. Louis barely rose up before them till they were extinguished within the greater glare of its grander sister across the Mississippi.

Not wanting to take the heavily traveled bridge which funneled all the major arteries entering St. Louis from the east, Brad veered south along US 50 to the McArthur Bridge.  There was very little traffic on it; even so, he approached and crossed it cautiously, not wanting to call attention to himself. 

Andrea noticed, halfway across, and mused aloud, that the water below had grown suddenly calm and very quiet.  Without knowing why, Brad gunned the engine and sped the rest of the way across, passing every other vehicle.  He was within inches of the western shore of the Mississippi when the bridge collapsed.  The forward thrust of his red sports car momentarily exceeded the sudden pull of gravity; it stood suspended for a split-second as it hurtled westward a few final feet before crashing.

The bridge had broken cleanly, just at the shoreline; the elevated highway extending the bridge into St. Louis over the Wharf Line, over Interstate 55 and into 7th Boulevard had stood.  When Brad's car crashed, it cleared the collapsed bridge; the impact was absorbed by the soft silt and mud of the shoreline.  Brad and Andrea both remained conscious, both emerged unharmed from the car, both hurried away from the crash site.  Only when they were beyond the car, which had begun spurting smoke into the air, did they look back to the bridge slowly sinking into the Mississippi.  Suddenly Brad's car exploded, setting a wall of flame between them and the shoreline.  As they looked out over the water, the light from the torch Brad's car had become shone like a beacon, but showed nothing stirring, no one signaling for help, no one swimming in the Mississippi; so they turned and walked away.

The epicenter of the earthquake that split the McArthur Bridge was under the town of Blytheville, Arkansas.  Blytheville was obliterated, as were most of the small towns in a twenty mile radius.  The quake caused a tidal surge in the Mississippi that flooded downtown Memphis, Tennessee, inundating Mud Island and drowning six bus loads of tourists visiting the Mud Island Amphitheater.  The water table along the entire course of the river from Memphis southward rose enough to flood parts of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi; send water pouring through downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and turn the French Quarter of New Orleans into a shallow pond.  Cities as far north as Quincy, Illinois and Keokuk, Iowa felt the aftershocks; poorly constructed buildings and bridges either collapsed outright or were heavily damaged.

"A slight tremor, measuring 3.2, was felt last night in the Mid-West," was how the news reported the incident, emphasizing over and over its relative strength.  No mention was made of the damage or the flooding.

Except for McArthur Bridge, and a few ramshackle buildings in the older parts of the city, St. Louis escaped major damage.  The quake did, however, open a path for Brad and Andrea.  Local police were on the lookout for them, having been alerted by Reggie Kirkus, who was put in charge of the manhunt; the damage caused by the quake distracted the police long enough for the fugitives to move, undetected, through the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to The Levee and Laclede's Landing, where Brad hoped to run into Crazy Alice.  He and Andrea wandered the dark alleys and shadowy streets less than an hour before hitting pay dirt.

Turning a corner, he saw someone silhouetted against an old brick wall who, from the shape, could only have been Alice.  He and Andrea approached.  The shadow disappeared, only to re-appear behind him.

"I've been waiting for you," Alice's voice cut through the thin river mist.  "Follow me," she motioned.

When they were safely out of sight, she approached.  "I knew you'd come.  I'm sorry about your father.  Your mother's safe, though: she and the young man left for Kansas.  Bleeding Kansas.  Soon everywhere will bleed."

"Kansas?  Young man: what young man?" Brad asked.

"All I know is he got her out of here," Alice explained.  "And risked his life telling your father before they killed him that she was safe.  He kept talking about your father's son - the one I thought I killed.  He said the boy's alive - in Wyoming."

Brad shook his head.  "My father didn't believe that story when it was told to him, and I don't believe it now," he said.

"Your father believed it at the end; and now that young man's determined to take your mother to him," Alice revealed.

"Then they're headed for Recluse," Brad mused.

"They can be found there," Andrea added to the conversation.  "So they're not really safe."

"They'll be safe enough till I can finish what I have to do here," Brad decided.

"What might that be?" Alice asked, already knowing the answer.

"They're going to pay for this with their own lives," Brad answered.

"Be careful you don't pull a Spears and kill off all the Tungs," Alice cautioned, adding "Leave some for the Society to take care of."

"He's all yours," Professor Kirkus told his son.

"Why are you letting me take care of this?" Reggie asked.

"It seems fitting," was the reply.  "You and he are contemporaries.  You know him better than I.  You need practice at out-maneuvering your prey.  This'll be the perfect place to start.  He's too young, too hot-headed to pose any real threat.  Yet he can't be allowed to run free any longer.  Of course, the Tungs are quite capable of rounding him up if he returns to St. Louis.  But if, as I suspect, he takes flight - as he seems to have already done - then he's out of their jurisdiction.  And into Federal jurisdiction.  I'll see that you get all the resources you need.  So how do you think you'll handle it?  Do you have a strategy in mind yet?"

Reggie thought a moment, letting his gangly frame sag into a posture of contemplation.  He seemed to be weighing his options, cocking his head first one way then the other.  "It's only here he can be arrested simply for being related to a felon.  Outside the cities the old ways still prevail.  The Feds still need evidence of wrongdoing to apprehend someone.  Best to go with the obvious: charge him with kidnapping and rape - both capital offenses -"

"In certain circumstances," Kirkus qualified his son's statement.  "I'm afraid you'd never get your sister to testify against him."

"To save his life she would," Reggie speculated.  "As part of a deal."

"Excellent!" Kirkus congratulated his son.

"Of course, I'd rather have him executed," Reggie admitted.  "You got the father, I'd like to do the same for the son."

"Don't be too eager: that could be your downfall," Professor Kirkus warned.  "Approach it as an exercise of power - a political science take-home exam.  Do only what you must - never indulge your personal appetite.  I would have vastly preferred letting Carter live, but he left me no choice.  Were the project not so close to completion, I would have had to let him live no matter how great a threat he might have posed.  Only a fool uses power wantonly.  Use it judiciously, and sparingly, and it'll serve you well.  Harm no one unless it's absolutely necessary - then do it quickly and thoroughly.  And leave no trail."

Bradley Jerome Carter II carefully planned his first execution.  His target was the Captain of the Guards who had pressed the red button triggering the explosives.  Alice agreed to let Andrea stay with her while Brad cased the Captain's quarters inside the Tungs' headquarters.  He remembered from his fifth grade field trip the layout of the building; Alice had already learned who among the Tung hierarchy actually lived there and who lived away from the headquarters on the Hill.  The Captain of the Guards was one of only a handful who, having no family, chose to keep constant vigil.

While Brad was away - the very next evening after returning - his mother and Joey entered St. Louis from the west, in the same pickup truck they had left the city in - a pickup Joey had bought with the earnings from the odd-jobs he worked at.  First they parked on the outskirts of the Private Streets District and worked their way to the Carter mansion, to see if Brad had come home.  It was clear to them he had not.  Then, on a hunch, Joey drove across town to Laclede's Landing, parking along the old causeway leading to Eads Bridge - except for the massive spire marking its western terminus, the only part of the bridge still standing.  Carol and Joey went looking for Crazy Alice.

Though Joey knew where she lived, his unfamiliarity with the area hampered his finding her.  Eventually he remembered enough markings and signposts to work his way there.  At eleven-thirty Monday night he knocked on her door.  She opened the door at once and pulled he and Carol in.

"You're being followed," she said.

"We were careful," Joey explained.  "I'm sure no one followed us.  You saw someone?"

"I didn't have to see anyone," Alice told him, "I felt someone, lurking in the shadows.  Stay here, with my guest, while I take care of the intruder."

In the dim light of the room, neither Carol nor Joey had noticed Andrea, though she recognized Carol immediately, and now came forward.

"Andrea!" Carol exclaimed.  "If you're here, where's Brad?"

"He'll be here shortly," Andrea replied.  "We thought you were in Kansas, safe.  We just got back yesterday."

Carol explained why they returned.  Andrea then explained what they were doing here.

"You can't let him do this," Joey said to both women.