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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 70


  The Studebaker cowboy retreated toward the sidewalk, his eyes never leaving the knife. Without looking at me, Sadie said: "Over to you, Jake."

  For a second I didn't understand, then remembered the .38. I took it out of my pocket and pointed at him. "See this, Tex? It's loaded."

  "You're as crazy as she is." He was holding his arm against his chest now, branding his tee-shirt with blood. Sadie hurried around to the Studebaker's passenger side and opened the door. She looked at me over the roof and made an impatient cranking gesture with one hand. I wouldn't have believed I could love her more, but in that moment I saw I was wrong.

  "You should have either taken the money or kept driving," I said. "Now let me see how you run. Do it immediately or I'll put a bullet in your leg so you can't do it at all."

  "You're one fuckin bastard," he said.

  "Yes, I am. And you're one fucking thief who will soon be sporting a bullet hole." I cocked the gun. The Studebaker cowboy didn't test me. He turned and hustled west on Hines with his head hunched and his arm cradled, cursing and spilling a blood-trail.

  "Don't stop till you get to Love!" I shouted after him. "It's three miles the way you're going! Say hello to the president!"

  "Get in, Jake. Get us out of here before the police come."

  I slid in behind the wheel of the Studebaker, grimacing as my swollen knee protested. It was a standard shift, which meant using my bad leg on the clutch. I ran the seat back as far as it would go, hearing the litter of trash in back crunch and crackle, then got rolling.

  "That knife," I said. "Is it--?"

  "The one Johnny cut me with, yes. Sheriff Jones returned it after the inquest. He thought it was mine and he was probably right. But not from my place on Bee Tree. I'm almost positive Johnny brought it with him from our house in Savannah. I've been carrying it in my bag ever since. Because I wanted something to protect myself with, just in case . . ." Her eyes filled. "And this is an in-case, isn't it? This is an in-case if there ever was one."

  "Put it back in your purse." I stabbed the clutch, which was horribly stiff, and managed to get the Studebaker into second. The car smelled like a chicken coop that hadn't been cleaned in roughly ten years.

  "It'll get blood on everything inside."

  "Put it back anyway. You can't walk around waving a knife, especially when the president's coming to town. Honey, that was beyond brave."

  She put the knife away, then began wiping her eyes with her fisted hands, like a little girl who's scraped her knees. "What time is it?"

  "Ten of eleven. Kennedy lands at Love Field in forty minutes."

  "Everything's against us," she said. "Isn't it?"

  I glanced at her and said, "Now you understand."

  8

  We made it to North Pearl Street before the Studebaker's engine blew. Steam boiled up from under the hood. Something metallic clanged to the road. Sadie cried out in frustration, struck her thigh with a balled fist, and used several bad words, but I was almost relieved. At least I wouldn't have to wrestle with the clutch anymore. I put the column shift in neutral and let the steaming car roll to the side of the street. It came to rest in front of an alley with DO NOT BLOCK painted on the cobbles, but this particular offense seemed minor to me after assault with a deadly weapon and car theft.

  I got out and hobbled to the curb, where Sadie was already standing. "What time now?" she asked.

  "Eleven-twenty."

  "How far do we have to go?"

  "The Texas School Book Depository is on the corner of Houston and Elm. Three miles. Maybe more." The words were no more than out of my mouth when we heard the roar of jet engines from behind us. We looked up and saw Air Force One on its descent path.

  Sadie pushed her hair wearily back from her face. "What are we going to do?"

  "Right now we're going to walk," I said.

  "Put your arm around my shoulders. Let me take some of your weight."

  "I don't need to do that, hon."

  But a block later, I did.

  9

  We approached the intersection of North Pearl and Ross Avenue at eleven-thirty, right around the time Kennedy's 707 would be rolling to a stop near the official greeters . . . including, of course, the woman with the bouquet of red roses. The street corner ahead was dominated by the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe. On the steps, below a statue of the saint with her arms outstretched, sat a man with wooden crutches on one side and an enamel kitchen pot on the other. Propped against the pot was a sign reading I AM CRIPPLE UP BAD! PLEASE GIVE WHAT YOU CAN BE A GOOD SAMARIAN GOD LOVES YOU.

  "Where are your crutches, Jake?"

  "Back at Eden Fallows, in the bedroom closet."

  "You forgot your crutches?"

  Women are good at rhetorical questions, aren't they?

  "I haven't been using them that much lately. For short distances, I'm pretty much okay." This sounded marginally better than admitting that the main thing on my mind had been getting the hell away from the little rehab cluster before Sadie arrived.

  "Well, you could sure use a pair now."

  She ran ahead with enviable fleetness and spoke to the beggar on the church steps. By the time I limped up, she was dickering with him. "A set of crutches like that costs nine dollars, and you want fifty for one?"

  "I need at least one to get home," he said reasonably. "And your friend looks like he needs one to get anywhere."

  "What about all that God loves you, be a good Samaritan stuff ?"

  "Well," the beggar said, thoughtfully rubbing his whiskery chin, "God does love you, but I'm just a poor old cripple fella. If you don't like my terms, make like the Pharisee and pass by on the other side. That's what I'd do."

  "I bet you would. What if I just snatched them away, you money-grubbing thing?"

  "I guess you could, but then God wouldn't love you anymore," he said, and burst out laughing. It was a remarkably cheerful sound for a man who was crippled up bad. He was doing better in the dental department than the Studebaker cowboy, but not a whole hell of a lot.

  "Give him the money," I said. "I only need one."

  "Oh, I'll give him the money. I just hate being screwed."

  "Lady, that's a shame for the male population of planet Earth, if you don't mind me saying."

  "Watch your mouth," I said. "That's my fiancee you're talking about." It was eleven-forty now.

  The beggar took no notice of me. He was eyeing Sadie's wallet. "There's blood on that. Did you cut yourself shaving?"

  "Don't try out for the Sullivan show just yet, sweetheart, Alan King you're not." Sadie produced the ten she'd flashed at oncoming traffic, plus two twenties. "There," she said as he took them. "I'm broke. Are you satisfied?"

  "You helped a poor crippled man," the beggar said. "You're the one who ought to be satisfied."

  "Well, I'm not!" Sadie shouted. "And I hope your damn old eyes fall out of your ugly head!"

  The beggar gave me a sage guy-to-guy look. "Better get her home, Sunny Jim, I think she's gonna start on her monthly right t'irectly."

  I put the crutch under my right arm--people who've been lucky with their bones think you'd use a single crutch on the injured side, but that's not the case--and took Sadie's elbow with my left hand. "Come on. No time."

  As we walked away, Sadie slapped her jeans-clad rump, looked back over her shoulder, and cried: "Kiss it!"

  The beggar called: "Bring it back and bend it in my direction, honeylove, that you get for free!"

  10

  We walked down North Pearl . . . or rather, Sadie walked and I crutched. It was a hundred times better with the crutch, but there was no way we could make the intersection of Houston and Elm before twelve-thirty.

  Up ahead was a scaffolding. The sidewalk went beneath it. I steered Sadie across the street.

  "Jake, why in the world--"

  "Because it'd fall on us. Take my word for it."

  "We need a ride. We really need . . . Jake? Why are you stopping?"

  I stopped
because life is a song and the past harmonizes. Usually those harmonies meant nothing (so I thought then), but every once in awhile the intrepid visitor to the Land of Ago can put one to use. I prayed with all my heart that this was one of those times.

  Parked at the corner of North Pearl and San Jacinto was a 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible. Mine had been red and this one was midnight blue, but still . . . maybe . . .

  I hurried to it and tried the passenger door. Locked. Of course. Sometimes you caught a break, but outright freebies? Never.

  "Are you going to jump the ignition?"

  I had no idea how to do that, and suspected it was probably harder than they made it look on Bourbon Street Beat. But I knew how to raise my crutch and slam the armpit cradle repeatedly against the window until it broke into a crack-glaze and sagged inward. No one looked at us, because there was no one on the sidewalk. All the action was to the southeast. From there we could hear the surf-roar of the crowd now gathering on Main Street in anticipation of President Kennedy's arrival.

  The Saf-T-Glas sagged. I reversed the crutch and used the rubber-tipped end to push it inward. One of us would have to sit in the back. If this worked, that was. While in Derry, I'd had a copy made of the Sunliner's ignition key and taped it to the bottom of the glove compartment, underneath the paperwork. Maybe this guy had done the same. Maybe this particular harmony extended that far. It was a thin chance . . . but the chance of Sadie finding me on Mercedes Street had been thin enough to read a newspaper through, and that one had panned out. I thumbed the chrome button on this Sunliner's glove compartment and began to feel around inside.

  Harmonize, you son of a bitch. Please harmonize. Give me a little help just this once.

  "Jake? Why would you think--"

  My fingers happened on something and I brought out a tin Sucrets box. When I opened it I found not one key, but four. I didn't know what the other three might open, but I had no doubt about the one I wanted. I could have found it in the dark, just by its shape.

  Man, I loved that car.

  "Bingo," I said, and almost fell over when she hugged me. "You drive, honey. I'll sit in back and rest my knee."

  11

  I knew better than to try Main Street; it would be blocked off with sawhorses and police cars. "Take Pacific as far as you can. After that, use the side streets. Just keep the crowd-noise on your left and I think you'll be okay."

  "How much time do we have?"

  "Half an hour." It was actually twenty-five minutes, but I thought half an hour sounded more comforting. Besides, I didn't want her to try any stunt driving and risk an accident. We still had time--theoretically, at least--but one more wreck and we were finished.

  She didn't try any stunts, but she did drive fearlessly. We came to a downed tree blocking one of the streets (of course we did), and she bumped up over the curb, driving along the sidewalk to get past it. We made it as far as the intersection of North Record Street and Havermill. There we could go no farther, because the last two blocks of Havermill--right up to the point where it intersected Elm--no longer existed. It had become a parking lot. A man holding an orange flag waved us forward.

  "Fi' bucks," he said. "Just a two-minute walk to Main Street, you folks got plenny a time." Although he cast a doubtful eye at my crutch when he said it.

  "I really am broke," Sadie said. "I wasn't lying about that."

  I pulled out my wallet and gave the man a five. "Put it behind the Chrysler," he said. "Pull up nice and tight."

  Sadie tossed him the keys. "You pull it up nice and tight. Come on, honey."

  "Hey, not that way!" the car-park guy yelled. "That way's Elm! You want to go over to Main! That's the way he's coming!"

  "We know what we're doing!" Sadie called. I hoped she was right. We made our way through the packed cars, Sadie in the lead. I twisted and flailed with my crutch, trying to avoid jutting outside mirrors and keep up with her. Now I could hear locomotives and clanging freight cars in the trainyard behind the Book Depository.

  "Jake, we're leaving a trail a mile wide."

  "I know. I've got a plan." A gigantic overstatement, but it sounded good.

  We came out on Elm, and I pointed at the building across the street two blocks down. "There. That's where he is."

  She looked at the squat red cube with the peering windows, then turned a dismayed, wide-eyed face to me. I observed--with something like clinical interest--that large white goosebumps had broken out on her neck. "Jake, it's horrible!"

  "I know."

  "But . . . what's wrong with it?"

  "Everything. Sadie, we have to hurry. We're nearly out of time."

  12

  We crossed Elm on a diagonal, me crutching along at a near run. The biggest portion of the crowd was on Main Street, but more people filled Dealey Plaza and lined Elm in front of the Book Depository. They crowded the curb all the way down to the Triple Underpass. Girls sat on their boyfriends' shoulders. Children who might soon be screaming in panic happily smeared their faces with ice cream. I saw a man selling Sno-Cones and a woman with a huge bouffant hairdo hawking dollar photos of Jack and Jackie in evening wear.

  By the time we reached the shadow of the Depository, I was sweating, my armpit was hollering from the constant pressure of the crutch cradle, and my left knee had been cinched in a fiery belt. I could barely bend it. I looked up and saw Depository employees leaning from some of the windows. I couldn't see anyone in the one at the southeast corner of the sixth floor, but Lee would be there.

  I looked at my watch. Twelve-twenty. We could track the motorcade's progress by the rising roar on Lower Main Street.

  Sadie tried the door, then gave me an anguished glare. "Locked!"

  Inside, I saw a black man wearing a poorboy cap tilted at a jaunty angle. He was smoking a cigarette. Al had been a great one for marginalia in his notebook, and near the end--casually jotted, almost doodled--he had written the names of several of Lee's co-workers. I'd made no effort to study these, because I didn't see what earthly use I could put them to. Next to one of those names--the one belonging to the guy in the poorboy cap, I had no doubt--Al had written: First one they suspected (probably because black). It had been an unusual name, but I still couldn't remember it, either because Roth and his goons had beaten it out of my head (along with all sorts of other stuff) or because I hadn't paid enough attention in the first place.

  Or just because the past was obdurate. And did it matter? It just wouldn't come. The name was nowhere.

  Sadie hammered on the door. The black man in the poorboy cap stood watching her impassively. He took a drag on his cigarette and then waved the back of his hand at her: go on, lady, go on.

  "Jake, think of something! PLEASE!"

  Twelve twenty-one.

  An unusual name, yes, but why had it been unusual? I was surprised to find this was something I actually knew.

  "Because it was a girl's," I said.

  Sadie turned to me. Her cheeks were flushed except for the scar, which stood out in a white snarl. "What?"

  Suddenly I was hammering on the glass. "Bonnie!" I shouted. "Hey, Bonnie Ray! Let us in! We know Lee! Lee! LEE OSWALD!"

  He registered the name and crossed the lobby in a maddeningly slow amble.

  "I didn't know that scrawny l'il sumbitch had any friends," Bonnie Ray Williams said as he opened the door, then stepped aside as we rushed inside. "He probably in the break room, watchin for the president with the rest of--"

  "Listen to me," I said. "I'm not his friend and he's not in the break room. He's on the sixth floor. I think he means to shoot President Kennedy."

  The big man laughed merrily. He dropped his cigarette to the floor and crushed it out with a workboot. "That little pissant wouldn't have the guts to drown a litter o' kittens in a sack. All he do is sit in the corner and read books."

  "I tell you--"

  "I'm goan on up to two. If you want to come with me, you're welcome, I guess. But don't be talkin any more nonsense about Leela. That's wh
at we call him, Leela. Shoot the president! Lor!" He waved his hand and ambled away.

  I thought, You belong in Derry, Bonnie Ray. They specialize in not seeing what's right in front of them.

  "Stairs," I told Sadie.

  "The elevator would be--"

  The end of any chance we might have left was what it would be.

  "It would get stuck between floors. Stairs."

  I took her hand and pulled her toward them. The staircase was a narrow gullet with wooden risers swaybacked from years of traffic. There was a rusty iron railing on the left. At the foot, Sadie turned to me. "Give me the gun."

  "No."

  "You'll never make it in time. I will. Give me the gun."

  I almost gave it up. It wasn't that I felt I deserved to keep it; now that the actual watershed moment had come, it didn't matter who stopped Oswald as long as someone did. But we were only a step away from the roaring machine of the past, and I was damned if I'd risk Sadie taking that last step ahead of me, only to be sucked into its whirling belts and blades.

  I smiled, then leaned forward and kissed her. "Race you," I said, and started up the stairs. Over my shoulder I called, "If I fall asleep, he's all yours!"

  13

  "You folks crazy," I heard Bonnie Ray Williams say in a mildly remonstrative tone of voice. Then there was the light thud of footsteps as Sadie followed me. I crutched on the right--no longer leaning on it but almost vaulting on it--and hauled at the railing on the left. The gun in my sport coat pocket swung and thudded against my hip. My knee was bellowing. I let it yell.

  When I hit the second-floor landing, I snuck a look at my watch. It was twelve twenty-five. No; twenty-six. I could hear the roar of the crowd still approaching, a wave about to break. The motorcade had passed the intersections of Main and Ervay, Main and Akard, Main and Field. In two minutes--three at most--it would reach Houston Street, turn right, and roll past the old Dallas courthouse at fifteen miles an hour. From that point on, the President of the United States would be an available target. In the 4x scope attached to the Mannlicher-Carcano, the Kennedys and Connallys would look as big as actors on the screen at the Lisbon Drive-In. But Lee would wait a little longer. He was no suicide-drone; he wanted to get away. If he fired too soon, the security detail in the car at the head of the motorcade would see the gunflash and return fire. He would wait until that car--and the presidential limo--made the dogleg left onto Elm. Not just a sniper; a fucking backshooter.