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Night of Thunder



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The fifth book in the Bob Lee Swagger series, 2008

For my daughter, Amy, as the wonderful person she is,

but also as the symbol for the young American reporter

Speed is of the essence




Brother Richard liked it loud. He punched the iPod up all the way until the music hammered his brain, its force beating away like some banshee howl from the high, dark mountains hidden behind the screen of rushing trees. He was holding at eighty-five miles per hour, even through the turns, though that took a surgeon’s skill, a miracle of guts and timing. The music roared.

Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?

Gonna run to the sea

Sea won’t you hide me?

Run to the sea

Sea won’t you hide me?

But the sea it was aboilin’

All on that day

It was that old-time religion, fierce and haunted, harsh, unforgiving. It was Baptist fire and brimstone, his father’s fury and anguish, it was Negroes in church, afeared of the flames of hell, it was the roar of a hot, primer-gray V8 ’Cuda in the night, as good old boys in sheets raised their own particular kind of hell, driven by white lightning or too much Dixie or too much hate, it was the South arising under the red snapping of the flag of the Confederacy.

He rode the corner perfectly, left-footing the brake and coming off it at the precise moment so that he came out of the hairpin at full power. It was late, it was dark, it was quiet, except of course for the thunder of the engine. His right foot involuntarily pressed pedal to metal and the car leapt forward, breaching the century mark, now 110, now 120, right at death’s edge, right near to and within spitting distance of oblivion, and he loved it, a crack in the window seal sending a torrent of air to beat his hair.

Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?

Gonna run to the moon

Moon won’t you hide me?

Run to the moon

Moon won’t you hide me?

But the moon it was ableedin’,

All on that day

A climb and then a sudden turn. It was Iron Mountain, and 421 slashed crookedly up its angry hump. He hit brake, felt the car slide, saw the great whiz of dust white in the headlamp beams as he slipped to shoulder, felt the grit as the stilled tires fought the gravel and ripped it free, but the skid was controlled, never close to loss, and as the car slowed, he downshifted to second, lurched ahead and caught the angle of the turn just right, pealing back across the asphalt and leaving the dust explosion far behind as he found the new, perfect vector and powered onward into the night.

If you thought you were in the presence of a young prince of the South, high on octane and testosterone and the beat of an old and comforting spiritual, you’d be wrong. Brother Richard was by no means young; he was a thin, ageless man with a curiously dead face-a recent surgery had remolded his physiognomy into something generally bland and generic-and he was well enough dressed to pass for a preacher or a salesman or a dentist, in a gray suit, white shirt, and black tie, all neat, all cheap, straight off the rack at Mr. Sam’s big store near the interstate. You’d never look at him and see the talent for driving that was so special to his being, or the aggression that fueled it, or the hatred that explained the aggression, or the bleakness of spirt and utter capability, or even his profession, which was that of assassin.

“Nikki Swagger, girl reporter.” It was funny, it was corny, but she liked it and smiled whenever she conjured it to mind.

Nikki Swagger, girl reporter. It was true enough. Nikki, twenty-four, was the police reporter for the Bristol Courier-Herald, of Bristol, TN/VA. “TN/VA” was an odd construction, and its oddity expressed an odd reality: The newspaper served a single city set in two entities, half in the Volunteer State, half in the Old Dominion State. The border ran smack through the city, a burg of one hundred thousand set in the southernmost reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, where one state became another. It was horse country, it was farm country, it was quarry country, but most of all, and especially this time of year, it was NASCAR country. Race week was coming and soon one of Tennessee’s smaller cities would become one of its larger as three hundred fifty thousand citizens of NASCAR nation-some would call it Budweiser nation-came to town for the Sharpie 500 a week and days away, one of the premier Sprint Cup events on the circuit. Nikki couldn’t wait!

But for now, Nikki drove her Volvo down Tennessee’s State Route 421 from Mountain City, Johnson County’s county seat, twenty-odd miles out of Bristol. She drove carefully as the road wound down the slope of a mountain called Iron, switchbacking this way and that to eat up the steep elevation. She knew she had to be wary, for it was full dark, visibility was limited-sometimes interstate rigs came piling up on the verge of chaos and hurt, taking a shorter, emptier route at night between podunk destinations-and to her life was still one great adventure and she wanted to enjoy every single second of it.

She checked the speedometer and saw she was under forty, which seemed about right, and the world beyond her windshield consisted of two cones of light which illuminated the next 250 or so feet, a narrow ribbon on asphalt, and curves that came and went with breathtaking abruptness. She was an excellent driver, possibly because she’d studied the nature of vehicles in space so assiduously in her western girlhood where, besides horses, she’d spent years in tough-as-nails go-karting and had the medals and scars to prove it, as well as several roomfuls of trophies and ribbons and photos of herself. The girl in the pictures was beautiful as always but equally as always slightly disheveled, and usually posed in a caged car about quarter-size. In the pictures always were her mother, a handsome, fair woman who looked as if she stepped out of a Howard Hawks movie and should have been named Slim, and her father, whose military heritage seemed inscribed in the leather of a Spartan shield that comprised the perpetually tanned hide of his smileless face.

Down the mountain she went at a carefully controlled and agilely sustained forty per, her mind alight with possibility. She’d been in the county seat all day and talked to dozens of people, the subject being her specialty as a crime reporter, methamphetamine issues. Meth-called “crystal,” called “ice,” called “killer dust,” called “purple death,” called “angel breath,” called the “whispering crazies,” called whatever-haunted Johnson County, Tennessee, as it haunted most of rural America. It was cheap, it was more or less easily made (though it did have a tendency to explode in the kitchen labs of the trailers and shacks where it was manufactured), and it hit like a sledgehammer. People loved the first few minutes of the high, and didn’t remember the last few minutes, where they put their newborn-in the oven or down the well or just on the clothesline. They didn’t remember beating their spouse to death with a hoe or a brick, or wandering down the interstate, shotgun in hand, shooting at those strange things roaring by that turned out to be cars. People got themselves in a whole mess of trouble on meth. Not after every usage but often enough so that lots of ugliness happened. She’d seen families sundered, hideous crimes, law enforcement compromised by the abundant profit, dealers shot or slashed to death in alleyways or cornfields, the whole spectrum of big city dope woe played out in no-name towns the New York Times had never heard of and no movies had ever been made about. She was the scourge’s scribe, its Homer, its Melville, its Stephen Crane, even if no one had ever heard of her, either.

As she drove, she puzzled over several eccentricities her daylong trip had uncovered. The nominal reason for the trip was to go on a meth raid with Sheriff Reed Wells, the ex-Ranger officer who’d returned home to clean up the county, as the saying went, and who had talked the Justice Department into leaning on the Department of Defense and had somehow acquired a much-beaten but still-viable Blackhawk helicopter to permit scouting and airborne tactical consideration. In fact, she’d spent the morning airborne, sitting next to the handsome fellow, as he maneuvered his troops down brushy mountain paths, and coordinated a neat strike on a rusting trailer, which in fact did turn out to house a small-scale meth lab. Nikki had seen the culprit, a down-on-his-luck mountaineer named Cubby Holden, arrested, his apparatus hauled out into the yard and smashed by husky young deputies dressed up like Tommy Tactical action figures. They loved every second of the game, leaving behind a sallow woman, two wormy kids, and a hell of a mess in the yard.

A typical triumph for Sheriff Wells, yet the problem was that meth prices, despite his many strategic successes, stayed stable in the Tri-cities area. (The second and third cities along with Bristol were Johnson City-oddly, not a part of Johnson County-and King-sport.) She knew this from interviews with addicts at a state rehab clinic in Mountain City. Kid told her he paid thirty-five dollars a hit yesterday and two years ago, it was thirty-five dollars a hit.

Now how could this be? Maybe there were a lot more labs out there than anybody knew. Maybe there was some kind of protected superlab. Maybe some southern crime family was running the stuff in from other places.

Then she heard a strange rumor, thought nothing of it, picked it up again, and had a few hours before dark. It held that someone in the mountains was shooting up the night. Lots of ammo being burned, blasting away, somewhere down old Route 167 before it connected with the bigger, newer 61. Now what could that be? Would that be the famous super meth lab, hidden in some hollow, invisible from the sky, its security so professionally run it demanded its own set of Tommy Tacticals to handle perimeter duties and work out with their submachine guns every night?


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