Buck Stadium was called simply “the bowl” when I was a student at St. Stephen’s, and the reason was plain. Back then, the stadium was only an oval hole in the ground surrounded by pine and hardwood trees. Spectators sat on its grassy sides to cheer during Bucks games, until enough money was raised to build rudimentary bleachers. Tonight three new school buildings stand on the south side of the bowl, and wide concrete steps march all the way down to the field. The bleachers are massive prefab units like those at college football stadiums, and huge banks of overhead lights can turn night into day at the flick of a switch. Fancy dressing rooms and a workout center stand on a terraced shelf halfway down the hill, and a blue rubberized track surrounds the football field. The year we fought our way to the state football championship, Drew and I practiced in a cow pasture filled with holes and played under dim “security lights” like the ones in supermarket parking lots.
Despite all the improvements, there’s still only one narrow access road to the bottom of the bowl, which is probably why the blackmailer chose the football field to pick up his payoff. He can easily detect the approach of any police vehicles, and the surrounding woods offer infinite avenues of escape, once he crosses the Cyclone fence that surrounds the track.
I cut my headlights as I climb the main driveway of the campus, then park on the south side of the elementary school to remain hidden from the eyes of anyone in the bowl. With the Springfield weighting my right front pocket, I walk quietly along the side of the building toward the bowl.
Standing in the shadows beside the building is a Honda ATV, commonly called a four-wheeler in this area. The camouflage paint scheme, Vanderbilt bumper sticker, and gun boot mounted on the handlebars mark this four-wheeler as Drew Elliot’s. Like most men in and around Natchez, Drew is an avid hunter. The only good news is that the gun boot contains a Remington deer rifle, which means Drew probably didn’t go armed to deliver his payoff to the fifty-yard line below.
Twenty yards from the elementary school, the ground drops precipitously into the bowl. Transecting that space is the asphalt road that curves down to the track. Staying in the shadows by Drew’s four-wheeler, I try his cell phone one last time.
There’s no answer, but for a moment I think I hear the chirp of a ringing cell phone. Crouching low, I scuttle to the edge of the bowl and look down. It’s like staring at a bottomless black lake. The light from the security lamps mounted on the stadium’s press box dies after only a few yards. Whatever is happening on the floor of the bowl, I can’t see it.
As I stare into the blackness, the whine of a small engine rises out of the hole. The whine seems to be coming toward me. Then a single headlight flicks on, cutting a bright swath down the length of the football field. Sitting at midfield is a small gym bag.
Where the hell is Drew?
What sounds like hoofbeats suddenly rises out of the bowl, followed by the sound of panting. I’m reaching for my Springfield when Drew’s face appears out of the dark. He pulls up short, his eyes filled with shock.
“Penn? Come on!”
He races past me to the four-wheeler. Far below, the motorcycle stops beside the gym bag.
“What are you doing here?” Drew calls over his shoulder.
“Trying to keep your ass out of trouble!” I answer, dividing my attention between the distant motorcycle and Drew.
He cranks the ATV with a rumble, kicks it into gear, and lurches up beside me. “You can help me or you can stand here with your thumb up your ass,” he says. “You’ve got three seconds to decide.”
A high-pitched revving echoes out of the bowl, and then suddenly the headlight is tearing away from us again, back in the direction from which it came. Certain that nothing will dissuade Drew from pursuit, I hike my leg over the seat and clamp my arms around his waist. He hits the throttle, and the Honda flies over the lip of the bowl, descending as though in free fall.
“This is nuts!” I yell in his ear. “You know that!”
He grabs something from his pocket and holds it over his shoulder until I take it. It looks like a small kaleidoscope.
“Night-vision scope! If he kills his headlight, keep that scope on him!”
Night vision?Why am I surprised? This is exactly the kind of useless toy that your affluent Mississippi hunter possesses. “Did you recognize the guy on the motorcycle?”
“He’s wearing a helmet with a black visor. Gloves, too, so I don’t know if he’s black or white.”
We hit the floor of the bowl with a bone-jarring impact, then zoom across the track onto the football field. A hundred yards ahead, the motorcycle slows to a near stop. He must be negotiating an opening in the Cyclone fence. Drew guns the ATV, and we hurtle up the football field at fifty miles an hour.
“What are you going to do if you catch him?”
“Ask some questions!” Drew shouts, pushing the Honda still harder. “Find out what he knows!”
The rest of Drew’s words are lost in the roar of wind past my ears as we race toward the end of the bowl.
“Look!” he shouts, pointing at the almost stationary headlight. “We’ve got him!”
The smaller engine whines like a chainsaw, and then the headlight begins moving jerkily uphill.
Suddenly the entire bowl is blasted by white light, as though God ripped back the night sky to expose a hidden sun. In the blinding light I see a narrow gap cut in the Cyclone fence. Drew steers toward it.
“You can’t make it!” I scream, realizing the hole was cut for a motorcycle to pass through. “Don’t do it!”
Drew jolts across the track with abandon, then-realizing he can’t break the laws of physics-hits the brakes, throwing the Honda into a skid. The ass end of the four-wheeler spins forward, and suddenly it’s me who’s most likely to slam into the fence. But the grass is slick from rain. We spin once more, and then the front bumper of the ATV just kisses the loose wire of the Cyclone fence.
“Come on, baby,” Drew pleads, trying to restart the engine, which died during the skid.
“Give it up, man. Let him go.”
As the rattle of the motorcycle grows fainter, the steel fence post beside me sings as though struck by a hammer. Almost instantly that sound merges into a deafening boom that echoes around the bowl like cannon fire. Only then do I realize that the supersonic crack of the rifle bullet escaped me altogether. For a moment I wonder whether, despite the evidence of my eyes, Drew has drawn and fired his deer rifle at the fleeing motorcyclist. But he hasn’t.
“Somebody’s shooting at us!” I yell, clapping him on the shoulder.
“No shit!” he grunts, finally cranking the Honda to life. “Get off and hold the fence back!”
As I dismount the ATV, a second rifle shot blasts across the bowl. Drew yanks his own rifle from the boot and shoves it into my hands. “You know where the switch is? For the stadium lights?”
I nod blankly.
“Shoot back! Sooner or later, that asshole’s going to hit one of us.”
I scramble through the gap in the fence, move to the side of the opening, then lay the rifle barrel through one of the diamond shaped holes in the fence and sight in on the staircase at the base of the press box. The switch box is mounted on the wall just above it. I see no one there, and I’m glad for it.
As Drew tries to bull the Honda through the gap in the fence, I draw a bead on the metal circuit box that contains the light switches. The Remington bucks against my shoulder three times before the blazing lights go dark.
“Get on!” Drew yells, the four-wheeler suddenly beside me in the darkness.
I shove his rifle back into the gun boot and climb onto the seat behind him, shocked by my exhilaration at having neutralized the threat from above. But the greatest threat to my safety probably wasn’t the shooter in the stadium; it’s the man whose waist I’m clinging to in the dark.
There’s no path through the trees, but this doesn’t deter Drew. He accelerates up the incline like a whiskey-crazed redneck in a mud-riding contest, dodging pines and briar thickets with inches to spare. As we crest the first hill, I feel the front wheels rise off the ground, and for a second I’m sure the Honda is about to flip backward and crush us, a manner of death all too common in Mississippi. But Drew stands erect and leans over the handlebars, restoring enough equilibrium for us to ramp over the hill and land in one piece on the other side.
To my surprise, he brakes to a stop and switches off the headlight. Now we face a darkness so deep, it makes the bowl seem hospitable by comparison. This is the darkness of the primeval forest.
“You’ll never catch him,” I say softly.
“Shhh,” says Drew, killing the motor. “Listen.”
Sure enough, somewhere below us and to our left I hear the faint protest of a small engine being pushed hard.
“He’s running the creek bed,” whispers Drew.
Drew is probably right, but that’s no great help. “He could come up out of that creek in a dozen different neighborhoods,” I point out. “We’ll never get him now.”
“Watch,” says Drew, cranking the Honda again.
I hug him tight and clench my thighs around the seat as he flicks on the headlight and plunges down the hillside. He must have hunted these woods before. There’s no other explanation for the speed with which he navigates the forest in the dark. We fly along one ridge as though pursued by the devil, then plunge down an almost perpendicular drop and splash into swiftly running water.
After struggling through the stream for a dozen yards, we climb onto a gravel-covered sandbar and race along the creek bed. All I can do at this point is hang on and pray that Drew knows where he’s going.
Twice more I’m doused by creek water, but then I hear a whoop of triumph as he sights a solitary taillight ahead. Somehow-I can only assume it’s because of superior knowledge of the terrain-Drew is closing the gap between us and the motorcycle. The note of the Honda’s engine climbs in pitch as he pushes the ATV to its limit.
“Easy!” I shout. “You’ve got him now!”
“He’s seen us! He’s speeding up. If I push him, he might wreck.”
“ Wemight wreck!”
In thirty frantic seconds, Drew closes the gap to twenty-five yards. The taillight disappears as the motorcycle whips around a bend, but three seconds later we round it, too, and I sight the light again.
Suddenly the darkness gives way to a plain of white sand shining in the moonlight. The creek is a black snake slithering over it, and somehow the motorcyclist has reached the opposite side of that snake. Drew aims the Honda at the narrowest part of the stream. Instinct tells me this is a mistake, since shallows tend to be broad while narrows indicate deep-cut channels. But this is Drew’s home ground, not mine. As the motorcycle escapes over the sand, Drew punches the gas, and we hit the narrows at thirty miles an hour.
It’s like plowing into a guardrail. The rear end of the Honda flies over my shoulders, and the next thing I know, I’m sucking water and clawing mud. Knowing that the sinking four-wheeler could pin me to the creek bottom, I scrabble over the slime and burst up into the air.
I see no sign of Drew or the four-wheeler, only a cloud of steam rising from the water behind me. Diving back beneath the surface, I feel my way to the overturned vehicle and burn my forearm on the exhaust pipe. Then my hand closes on a bulging calf. Drew is pinned beneath the ATV.
Struggling around to the upstream side of the Honda, I plant both feet firmly on the creek bottom, then squat and grab the handlebars. Hoping the current will function like a second person, I heave upward and lunge downstream with all my strength.
The ATV rises about a foot, then stops.
I redouble my efforts, but the weight of the engine is just too much. As my back starts to give way, the main current of the creek suddenly lifts the ATV out of my hands and carries it several yards downstream. I fall and float behind it for a couple of seconds. Then I get my feet under me and turn, expecting Drew to break the surface.
Nothing but the sound of water.
I know a guy who snapped both femurs in a four-wheeler accident exactly like this one. And Drew took the brunt of the impact when we hit the creek. The water’s not much more than four feet deep here, but the current is strong. If Drew was knocked unconscious, he could be thirty yards downstream already.
I take a deep breath and go to the bottom, then let the current carry me along. In less than ten seconds I collide with the ATV again. It’s being dragged sluggishly down the creek. I’m feeling my way around it when a strong hand grabs my shirt and pulls me to the surface.
Drew looks wildly at me, his eyes white with fear. “Jesus, I thought you were hurt bad!”
“I was looking for you!”
His face is half covered with blood, most of it flowing from a cut above his eye. There’s blood on his chest, too.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
He nods, then looks off into the woods. “That bastard got away, though.”
Just as with Annie when she does something dangerous, my fear turns to fury as soon as I know Drew is all right. “What kind of juvenile bullshit was that? God damn it! You act like you’re still in high school. Junior high!”
His head is cocked as though he’s still listening for the motorcycle.
“He’s gone!” I rail. “Your money’s gone, too. And you damn near killed us to pay the bastard!”
Drew looks back at me, his eyes glinting with dark light. “I don’t care.”
“Because that motherfucker killed Kate.”
I start to argue, but something stops me. Maybe it’s the strange light in his eyes. Or maybe it’s the realization that he truly risked our lives to catch the guy on the motorcycle, something the Drew Elliott I know would not normally do. He’s never been a hothead; he’s a logical and intelligent man.
“How do you know the blackmailer is the killer, Drew?”
“Because he was there when Kate died. That’s how he knows about us.”
At the sound of certainty in Drew’s voice, a new stillness settles over me. “How do you know he was there?”
Drew finally turns full on to me. His eyes are slits in the dark, his lips compressed. He looks like a man deciding whether or not to tell a priest the darkest secret of his life.
“Because I was the one who found Kate’s body.”