ELDRIDGE TYLER WAS DRIVING A LONG STRAIGHT TWO-LANE ROAD in Nebraska when his cell phone rang. It was very late in the afternoon. He was taking his granddaughter home after buying her shoes. His truck was a crew-cab Silverado the colour of a day-old newspaper, and the kid was flat on her back on the small rear seat. She was not asleep. She was lying there wide awake with her legs held up. She was staring fascinated at the huge white sneakers wobbling around in the air two feet above her face. She was making strange sounds with her mouth. She was eight years old. Tyler figured she was a late developer.
Tyler's phone was basic enough to be nothing fancy, but complex enough to have different ringtones against different numbers. Most played the manufacturer's default tune, but four were set to sound a low urgent note halfway between a fire truck siren and a submarine's dive klaxon. And that sound was what Tyler heard, in the late afternoon, on the long straight two-lane road in Nebraska, ten miles south of the outlet store and twenty miles north of home. So he fumbled the phone up from the console and hit the button and raised it to his ear and said, 'Yes?'
A voice said, 'We might need you.'
Tyler said, 'Me?'
'Well, you and your rifle. Like before.'
Tyler said, 'Might?'
'At this stage it's only a precaution.'
'What's going on?'
'There's a guy sniffing around.'
'Hard to say.'
'How much does he know?'
'Some of it. Not all of it yet.'
'Who is he?'
'Nobody. A stranger. Just a guy. But he got involved. We think he was in the service. We think he was a military cop. Maybe he didn't lose the cop habit.'
'How long ago was he in the service?'
'None at all, that we can see. He won't be missed. He's a drifter. Like a hobo. He blew in like a tumbleweed. Now he needs to blow out again.'
'He's a big guy,' the voice said. 'Six-five at least, probably two-fifty. Last seen wearing a big old brown parka and a wool cap. He moves funny, like he's stiff. Like he's hurting.'
'OK,' Tyler said. 'So where and when?'
'We want you to watch the barn,' the voice said. 'All day tomorrow. We can't let him see the barn. Not now. If we don't get him tonight, he's going to figure it out eventually. He's going to head over there and take a look.'
'He's going to walk right into it, just like that?'
'He thinks there are four of us. He doesn't know there are five.'
'Shoot him if you see him.'
'Do I ever?' Tyler said. He clicked off the call and dumped the phone back on the console and drove on, the little girl's new shoes waving in his mirror, dead winter fields ahead, dead winter fields behind, darkness to his left, the setting sun to his right.
The barn had been built long ago, when moderate size and wooden construction had been appropriate for Nebraska agriculture. Its function had since been supplanted by huge metal sheds built in distant locations chosen solely on the basis of logistical studies. But the old place had endured, warping slowly, rotting slowly, leaning and weathering. All around it was an apron of ancient blacktop that had been heaved by winter frosts and cracked by summer sun and laced with wiry weeds. The main door was a slider built of great baulks of timber banded together with iron, hung off an iron rail by iron wheels, but the gradual tilt of the building had jammed it solid in its tracks. The only way in was the judas hole, which was a small conventional door inset in the slider, a little left of its centre, a little smaller than man-sized.
Eldridge Tyler was staring at that small door through the scope on his rifle. He had been in position an hour early, well before dawn, a precaution he considered prudent. He was a patient man. And thorough. And meticulous. He had driven his truck off the road and followed winding tractor ruts through the dark, and he had parked in an ancient three-sided shelter designed long ago to keep spring rain off burlap fertilizer sacks. The ground was frozen hard and he had raised no dust and left no sign. He had shut down the big V-8 and stepped back to the shelter's entrance and tied a tripwire across it, made of thin electric cable insulated with black plastic, set shin-high to a tall man.
Then he had walked back to his truck, and he had climbed into the load bed, and he had stepped on the roof of the cab, and he had passed his rifle and a canvas tote bag up on to a half-loft built like a shelf under the shelter's peaked roof. He had levered himself up after them, and crawled forward, and eased a loose louvre out of the ventilation hole in the loft's gable wall, which would give him a clear view of the barn exactly a hundred and twenty yards north, just as soon as there was light in the sky. No luck involved. He had scouted the location many years before, the first time his four friends had called on him for help, and he had prepared well, driving in the nails for the tripwire, pacing out the distance to the barn, and loosening the louvre. Now he had once again gotten comfortable up on the half-loft, and he had kept as warm as he could, and he had waited for the sun to come up, which it had eventually, pale and wan.
His rifle was the Grand Alaskan model built in America by the Arnold Arms Company. It was chambered for the.338 Magnum and fitted with a 26-inch barrel and had a stock carved from exhibition-grade English walnut. It was a seven-thousand-dollar item, good against most anything on four legs, better than good against anything on two. The scope was by Leica, a nine-hundred-dollar Ultravid with a standard crosshairs engraving on the reticle. Tyler had it zoomed through about two-thirds of its magnification so that at a hundred and twenty yards it showed a circular slice of life about ten feet high and ten feet across. The pale morning sun was low in the east, and its soft grey light was coming in almost horizontal across the dormant land. Later it would rise a little and swing south, and then it would fall away into the west, all of which was good, because it meant even a target wearing a brown coat would stand out well against the brown of the faded timber baulks, all day long.
Tyler worked on the assumption that most people were right-handed, and therefore his target would stand a little left of centre so that his right hand when extended would meet the handle in the middle of the judas hole's narrow panel. He further figured that a man who was stiff and hurting would stand in close, to limit his required range of movement to what was most comfortable. The door itself was less than six feet high, but because it was inset in the larger slider its lower edge was about nine inches above the grade. A man six feet five inches tall had the centre of his skull about seventy-three inches off the ground, which in terms of the vertical axis put the optimum aiming point about six inches below the top of the judas hole. And a man who weighed 250 pounds would be broad in the shoulders, which at the moment of trying to open the door would put the centre of his skull maybe a foot and a half left of his right hand, which in terms of the horizontal axis would put the aiming point about six inches beyond the left edge of the door.
Six inches down, six inches left. Tyler reached back and pulled two plastic packages of long-grain rice from his canvas tote bag. Brand new from the grocery store, five pounds each. He stacked them under the rifle's forestock and tamped the fine walnut down into them. He snuggled behind the butt and put his eye back to the scope and laid the crosshairs on the top left corner of the door. He eased them down, and eased them left. He laid his finger gently against the trigger. He breathed in, and breathed out. Below him his truck ticked and cooled and the living smells of gasoline and cold exhaust drifted up and mixed with the dead smells of dust and old wood. Outside, the sun continued to climb and the light grew a little stronger. The air was damp and heavy, cold and dense, the kind of air that keeps a baseball inside the park, the kind of air that cradles a bullet and holds it straight and true.