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NOW THE BLACK MAN screamed No!, now the black man shouted, Get out, motherfucker, and Carp, a big-boy at thirty, felt the explosion behind his eyes.
They were in the black man's neatly kept sick-house, his infirmary. Carp snatched the green oxygen cylinder off its stand, felt the weight as he swung it overhead. The black man began to turn in his wheelchair, his dark eyes coming around through the narrow, fashionable glasses, the gun turning, the gun looking like a toy.
And now it goes to slo-mo, the sounds of the house fading-the soprano on public radio, fading; the rumble of a passing car, fading; the hoarse, angry words from the black man, fading to inaudible gibberish; and the black man turning, and the gun, all in slo-mo, the sounds fading as time slowed down....
Then lurching to fast forward:
"HAIYAH!" James Carp screamed it, gobs of spit flying, one explosive syllable, and he swung the steel cylinder as hard as he could, as though he were spiking a football.
The black man's skull shattered and the black man shouted a death-shout, a HUH! that came at once with the WHACK! of the cylinder smashing bone.
The black man spun out of his wheelchair, blood flying in a crimson spray. A .25-caliber automatic pistol skittered out of his fingers and across the red-and-blue oriental carpet into a corner; the wheelchair crashed into a plaster wall, sounding as though somebody had dropped an armful of pipes.
Time slowed again. The quiet sounds came back: the soprano, the cars, an airplane, a bird, and the black man: almost subliminally, the air squeezed out of his dying lungs and across his vocal cords, producing not a moan, but a drawn-out vowel oooohhhh...
Blood began to seep from the black man's close-cut hair into the carpet. He was a pile of bones wrapped in a blue shirt.
CARP stood over him, sweating, shirt stuck to his broad back, breathing heavily, angry adrenaline burning in his blood, listening, hearing nothing but the rain ticking on the tin roof and the soprano in the unintelligible Italian opera; smelling the must and the old wood of the house tainted by the coppery odor of blood. He was pretty sure he knew what he'd done but he said, "Get up. C'mon, get up."
The black man didn't move and Carp pushed the skinny body with a foot, and the body, already insubstantial, shoulders and legs skeletal, small skull like a croquet ball, flopped with the slackness of death. "Fuck you," Carp said. He tossed the oxygen cylinder on a couch, where it bounced silently on the soft cushions.
A car turned the corner. Carp jerked, stepped to a window, split the blinds with an index finger, and looked out at the street. The car kept going, splashing through a roadside puddle.
Breathing even harder, now. He looked around, for other eyes, but there was nobody in the house but him and the black man's body. Fear rode over the anger, and Carp's body told him to run, to get away, to put this behind him, to pretend it never happened; but his brain was saying, Take it easy, take it slow.
Carp was a big man, too heavy for his height, round-shouldered, shambling. His eyes were flat and shallow, his nose was long and fleshy, like a small banana. His two-day beard was patchy, his brown hair was lank, mop-like. Turning away from the body, he went first for the laptop.
The dead man's name was Bobby, and Bobby's laptop was fastened to a steel tray that swiveled off the wheelchair like an old-fashioned school desk. The laptop was no lightweight-it was a desktop replacement model from IBM with maximum RAM, a fat hard drive, built-in CD/DVD burner, three USB ports, a variety of memory-card slots.
A powerful laptop, but not exactly what Carp had expected. He'd expected something like...well, an old-fashioned CIA computer room, painted white with plastic floors and men in spectacles walking around in white coats with clipboards, Bobby perched in some kind of Star Wars control console. How could the most powerful hacker in the United States of America operate out of a laptop? A laptop and a wheelchair and Giorgio Armani glasses and a blue, freshly pressed oxford-cloth shirt?
The laptop wasn't the only surprise-the whole neighborhood was unexpected, a run-down, gravel-road section of Jackson, smelling of Spanish moss and red-pine bark and marsh water. He could hear croakers chipping away in the twilight when he walked up the flagstones to the front porch.
RIGHT from the start, his search seemed to have gone bad. He'd located Bobby's caregiver, and the guy wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the dishwasher: Carp had talked his way into the man's house with an excuse that sounded unbelievably lame in his own ears, so bad that he couldn't believe that the man had been trusted with Bobby's safety. But he had been.
ANY question had been resolved when Bobby had come to the front door and Carp had asked, "Bobby?" and Bobby's eyes had gone wide and he'd started backing away.
"Get away from me. Who are you? Who...get away..."
The whole thing had devolved into a thrashing, screaming argument and Carp had bulled his way through the door, and then Bobby had sent the wheelchair across the room to a built-in bookcase, pushed aside a ceramic bowl, and Carp could see that a gun was coming up and he'd picked up the oxygen cylinder.
Didn't really mean to do it. Not yet, anyway. He'd wanted to talk for a while.
Whatever he'd intended, Bobby was dead. No going back now. He moved over to the wheelchair, turned the laptop around, found it still running. Bobby hadn't had time to do anything with it, hadn't tried. The machine was running UNIX, no big surprise there. A security-aware hacker was as likely to run Windows as the Navy was to put a screen door on a submarine.
He'd figure it out later; one thing he didn't dare do was turn it off. He checked the power meter and found the battery at 75 percent. Good for the time being. Next he went to the system monitor to look at the hard drive. Okay: 120 gigabytes, 60 percent full. The damn thing had more data in it than the average library.
The laptop was fastened to the wheelchair tray by snap clamps and he fumbled at them for a moment before the computer came loose. As he worked the clamps, he noticed the wi-fi antenna protruding from the PCMCIA slot on the side of the machine. There was something more, then.
He carried the laptop to the door and left it there, still turned on, then went through the house to the kitchen, moving quickly, thinking about the crime. Mississippi, he was sure, had the electric chair or the guillotine or maybe they burned you at the stake. Whatever it was, it was bound to be primitive. He had to take care.
He pulled a few paper towels off a low-mounted roll near the sink and used them to cover his hands, and he started opening doors and cupboards. In a bedroom, next to a narrow, ascetic bed under a crucifix, he found a short table with the laptop's recharging cord and power supply, and two more batteries in a recharging deck.
Good. He unplugged the power supply and the recharging deck and carried them out to the living room and put them on the floor next to the door.
In the second bedroom, behind the tenth or twelfth door he opened, he found a cable jack and modem with the wi-fi transceiver. He was disappointed: he'd expected a set of servers.
"Shit." He muttered the word aloud. He'd killed a man for a laptop? There had to be more.
Back in the front room, he found a stack of blank recordable disks, but none that had been used. Where were the used disks? Where? There was a bookcase and he brushed some of the books out, found nothing behind them. Hurried past all the open doors and cupboards, feeling the pressure of time on his shoulders. Where?
He looked, but he found nothing more: only the laptop, winking at him from the doorway.
Had to go, had to go.
He stuffed the paper towels in his pocket, hurried to the door, picked up the laptop, power supply, and recharging deck, pulled the door almost shut with his bare hand, realized what he'd done, took the paper towels out of his pocket, wiped the knob and gripped it with the towel, and pulled the door shut. Hesitated. Pushed the door open again, crossed to the couch, thoroughly wiped the oxygen cylinder.
All right. Outside again, he stuck the electronics under his arm beneath the raincoat, and strolled as calmly as he could to the car. The car, a nondescript Toyota Corolla, had belonged to his mother. It wouldn't get a second glance anywhere, anytime. Which was lucky, he thought, considering what had happened.
He put the laptop, still running, on the passenger's seat. The laptop would take very careful investigation. As he drove away, he thought about his exposure in Bobby's death. Not much, he thought, unless he was brutally unlucky. A neighbor trying a new camera, an idiot savant who remembered his license plate number; one chance in a million.
Less than that, even-he'd been obsessively careful in his approach to the black man; that he'd come on a rainy day was not an accident. Maybe, he thought, he'd known in his heart that Bobby would end this day as a dead man.
Maybe. As he turned the corner and left the neighborhood, a hum of satisfaction began to vibrate through him. He felt the skull crunching again, saw the body fly from the wheelchair, felt the rush....
Felt the skull crunch...and almost drove through a red light.
He pulled himself back: he had to get out of town safely. This was no time for a traffic ticket that would pin him to Jackson, at this moment, at this place.
He was careful the rest of the way out, but still...
He smiled at himself. Felt kinda good, Jimmy James.
HUH! WHACK! Rock 'n' roll.
--from The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford, Copyright © 2003 John Sandford, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.