It was dark by the time we reached Raleigh. Highway 64 turned to I-40, and then we were rolling back through Research Triangle Park, moving west toward Tennessee.
"Look at that," Rachel said, watching the familiar lights drift by. "When it's dark like this, I can almost believe you could drop me off at my house in Durham, and I could go inside and make a cup of tea."
"You know better now."
She looked at me for a long time, then sighed in the dark.
"I'm sorry I got you into this," I said. "I haven't really apologized yet."
"I got myself into it."
"No. I did that when I chose you as my analyst."
The weariness in Rachel's face told me she was accus¬tomed to dealing with other people's guilt. "Don't start trying to figure out the vagaries of fate. If a butterfly had flapped its wings in Malaysia before you called, you would have found someone else. That's the way life is."
I'd said that kind of thing to myself before, but in this case I didn't believe it. "No. I sought you out because you're the best at what you do. And Jungian analysts aren't like psychologists, one on every corner. I know it sounds juvenile, but I have this feeling I was meant to find you."
She looked at me with infinitely perceptive eyes, but beneath her perception I saw pain. Somehow, I had prodded a deep nerve. When she spoke, it was in a voice devoid of emotion.
"It's easy to tell ourselves that whatever happens to us was meant to be. It's comforting. It gives us a sense that there's some larger plan. I thought my husband and I were meant to be together. But we weren't. It was just a bad choice that I rationalized as fate. It's pathetic, really."
"Pathetic? That marriage gave you your son."
"Who died frightened and in pain at the age of five."
Her tone had a warning edge to it. I'd seen many chil¬dren die during my years practicing medicine, and I knew how it could affect parents. They could be shat¬tered beyond recovery. Even hospital staff weren't immune. The exoskeleton of professionalism melts easily in the presence of a suffering child. For me that suffer¬ing-the agony of innocents-was one of the primary obstacles to believing in God.
"You and your son gave each other five years of unconditional love. Would you rather he'd never lived, to spare you both the pain at the end?"
She fixed me with an indignant glare. "You'll say any¬thing, won't you? You don't observe any boundaries."
"Not when I've earned the right to cross them." I was speaking of the loss of my own child, and she knew it.
She looked out the window again. "Let's not talk about this."
"We don't have to talk at all. But we need supplies. I'm going to stop at an all-night Wal-Mart in Winston-Salem or Asheville. That gives you a couple of hours to sleep."
"I am exhausted," she admitted.
"Lean over here."
"On your shoulder?"
"No. Be brave. Curl up on the seat and lay your head on my lap."
She shook her head, but not in refusal. I kept my eyes on the road. After a few moments, she pulled off her shoes, then folded her legs on the seat and laid her head on my right thigh. I sensed that her eyes were open, but I didn't look down. I lowered my right hand and began to stroke her forehead, sliding my fingers back into her hair.
"This reminds me of when I was a little girl," she said.
"I'm not talking to you. Close your eyes."
After a while, she did.
We hit Asheville at 10:30 P.M. A brightly lit Wal-Mart store appeared like an oasis out of the dark, and I pulled off the interstate. Rachel's head was still in my lap, and my right leg was nearly numb. She didn't respond when I spoke. I was tempted to leave her in the truck while I went into the store, but I didn't want her to wake up alone in the parking lot. There was also a chance that the local police had received an APB on the fisherman's stolen pickup. To avoid being ambushed when we came out of the store, I awakened Rachel and posted her just inside the glass doors, where she could see anyone who took an undue interest in our maroon Ram.
I went straight to the sporting goods department and began piling items beside an unattended cash register. A two-man tent. Sleeping bags. Backpacks. A Coleman lantern, a stove ring, and fuel. From another aisle I selected two Silent Shadow camouflage jumpsuits, camo headgear, rubber camo boots, and insulated underwear. One aisle over again, I chose a compound bow, eight arrows, and a quiver. I topped off my pile with a com¬pass, a pair of binoculars, a Gerber knife, water purifi¬cation tablets, a Maglite, and two battery-powered walkie-talkies. Then I went in search of a salesperson to ring it all up.
The young Mexican woman I found was suspicious of my cash. While she checked each hundred-dollar bill for authenticity, I went to the toiletries section and got toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soap. The total purchase came to $1429.84. After paying, I pushed my cart to the front of the store and left it with Rachel, then took another to the grocery section and grabbed enough basics to keep us alive for a couple of weeks, plus some bottled water. As I went through the checkout aisle, I thought how amazing it was that I could pull off the highway late at night and in one stop outfit myself for long-term survival in the wilderness. My father wouldn't have believed it.
Rachel made an "okay" sign with her hand while I checked out, and I breathed a little easier. The rent-a-cop at the exit stopped me, but only to check my receipt against what was in my cart. Ten seconds later we were walking through the parking lot. I tossed everything behind the seat, then helped Rachel inside and started back toward I-40.
Just before we reached the interstate, I turned into the parking lot of a Best Western motel and parked between two trucks on the back side. One was a blue Dodge Ram with a horse trailer attached. Using a screwdriver from our glove box, I removed the Texas license plate from that Ram and exchanged it for the plate on our maroon one. Then I drove up the access ramp to I-40 and headed west toward the Tennessee line, which lay somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains before us.
Soon Rachel was snoring softly, her head on my lap again. I tuned the radio to a station playing David Gray and let my eyes blur until all they tracked were the edges of the road. We were driving into my past, into the forests of my youth, a world of strange contrasts and indelible memories. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory was one of the most high-tech installations in the coun¬try, yet it was nestled in thickly forested wilderness. There I had gone to school with the children of brilliant men and women from Chicago and New York, and the children of emaciated men and women who'd never left the county where they were born. Some of the scientists found the rural setting boring, if not downright disturb¬ing, but for my family the wooded mountains surround¬ing Oak Ridge had been a paradise.
There were several isolated spots around Oak Ridge where we could hide, but one was perfect for us. Last year, I'd heard from a boyhood friend that because of budget constraints, the government was closing the Frozen Head State Park. My brother and I had camped there countless times, and by now the mountainous park would be deserted but for a few fanatical hikers who wouldn't bother anyone enjoying the same illicit recre¬ation they sought.
We crossed the Tennessee line at the south end of the Pisgah National Forest. Then we broke out of the big trees, and by midnight we were passing through Knoxville. I continued west on 62 and in less than thirty min¬utes we were driving through Oak Ridge, America's "secret city" of the Second World War. Today it is known worldwide for its nuclear facilities, but during World War Two it hadn't even existed on maps. Between 1945 and 1975-the year I left it for Alabama-Oak Ridge had grown into something resembling a normal American town. But it never quite was. There was always a shared sense of mission in Oak Ridge, and the proof of the town's value was invisible but ever present. We who lived there knew that in the event of nuclear war, we would be vaporized in the first few minutes. Even in the dark I could see that the city had grown since I'd left it. There were more franchise restaurants on the strip, more chain stores, but the town's heart was still the laboratory and the old wartime uranium piles, which drew tourists curi¬ous to see the tools that had won the war against the Japanese.
Leaving Oak Ridge on Highway 62, ours was the only vehicle on the road. We skirted the base of Big Brushy Mountain, on the far side of which lay the state penitentiary. Three county lines intersected in this iso¬lated area, a mist-shrouded world populated by the descendants of coal miners and moonshiners. They clung tenaciously to existence in the shadowy hollows and along the abandoned strip mines that still scarred these mountains.
I turned north on 116, a narrow road that wound past the hamlet of Petros and then the prison, a starkly depressing enclosure lit by a harsh mercury glow and surrounded by razor-wire fences. North of the prison, the road began to twist back upon itself like a wounded snake. I turned left on a track that had no map number, but which I remembered well. Before long, I would come to the gate of the abandoned state park, which would probably be barricaded now.
A half mile from the gate, I slowed and began looking for an opening in the trees. When I saw one, I braked and turned off the road, and in ten seconds we had van¬ished. I drove until the woods became too thick and the grade too steep to go farther. Then I parked and shut off the engine.
Rachel hadn't stirred. I reached back and pulled our sleeping bags from the gear behind the seat. As I unrolled them, she snapped awake and popped up out of my lap, staring wide-eyed in the dark.
"What are you doing?"
"Take it easy," I said. "You're fine. We're there."
"Where?" She tried to look out the window, but there was no light beneath the trees. We could have been in a cave.
"We're outside Oak Ridge, at a place called Frozen Head. It's an abandoned state park."
"You've been asleep for hours."
She shook her head. "I can't sleep in cars."
"Well, keep on not sleeping. I'll wake you just before dawn."
She blinked as though coming out of a trance. Then she put her hand to her mouth and grimaced. "Did you buy us toothbrushes?"
"Yes. You can do that in the morning."
"I need to pee."
"You've got the whole forest."
"Is it safe out there?"
I thought of telling her to watch for timber rattlers, but she probably wouldn't get out if I did. "This is the safest you've been in twenty-four hours."
She climbed out of the truck and moved out of the light but didn't close the door. This illuminated us like a lantern in the woods. She took a long time, and I started to feel anxious. Then raindrops began hitting the wind¬shield, and I heard her squeal. She scrambled back into the truck with her jeans unbuttoned and yanked the door shut.
"It's pouring!" she cried, fastening her pants.
"Rain's good for us. It deadens sound when you walk in the woods."
She pulled a sleeping bag over her chest and shud¬dered. "I don't want to offend you, but this sucks. We couldn't stay in some cheap motel?"
"No one in the world knows where we are now. So no one can find out. That's the way we want it. Go to sleep."
She nodded and settled against her door.
I sat listening to the symphony of rain and the ticking engine, recalling predawn vigils with my father and brother, waiting for our chance at ducks or deer. I was exhausted, but I knew I'd wake before the sun. Some primitive part of my brain that lay dormant in cities awakened in the wilderness and whispered the forest rhythms to me with unfailing accuracy. That whisper told me when dawn was close, when rain was coming, when game was moving. I pulled my sleeping bag up to my chin.
"Good night," I said to Rachel.
Steady breathing was her only reply.
I woke as the first dim shade of blue showed through the trees. I blinked several times, then surveyed the scene without moving my head. Seeing nothing, I gently shook Rachel awake. Again she jerked erect, but not in quite the panic of last night.
"Time to go," I said.
"Okay," she mumbled, but she looked ready to go back to sleep.
I got out and relieved my bladder, then unloaded the gear from behind the seat. I put most of it into my own pack, giving Rachel only her sleeping bag, some canned food, and a couple of fuel bottles. When she got out, I handed her a Silent Shadow camouflage jumpsuit, heavy socks, and boots.
She made a wry face, but she took the clothes and went behind the truck. While she changed, I fixed the quiver and compound bow to my pack. Then I slipped into my jumpsuit and boots. As I shouldered my pack, the forest seemed to grow lighter all at once, and I knew the sun was topping Windrock Mountain to the east.
Rachel came around the truck looking like photos I'd seen of female Israeli soldiers. She shouldered her pack without much trouble, and she didn't complain about the weight.
"If your friends could see you now," I said, clipping a walkie-talkie to her belt.
"They'd be rolling on the ground laughing."
I stuffed our street clothes into her pack. "Watch the ground. Step where I step, and watch for briers catching your clothes. If we get separated, use the walkie-talkie, but very quietly."
"Don't speak unless it's an emergency. If I hold up my hand, stop. Grab my belt if I go too fast. We're not in a hurry. You're going to see animals out here. Move calmly away from snakes, and ignore the rest."
She nodded. "Where exactly are we going?"
"There are caves on the mountain. Hikers know about some, but there's one that's almost unknown. My dad and I found it when I was a kid. That's the one we want."
She smiled. "I'm as ready as I'm going to get."
We followed the path left by the truck's tires until we reached the road, then piled some brush over the open place. I crossed the road and began looking for a spring-fed tributary of the New River, a small creek that cut its way down the mountain through a rocky defile about fifty feet deep. That defile would be our route up the mountain. The park service had blazed a trail that paral¬leled the creek, but I didn't want to risk running into any hikers. I also worried about locals growing marijuana in the closed park. During lean times, that temptation was great for the descendants of moonshiners, and they tended to frown upon trespassers. They booby-trapped their fields and shot before asking questions.
I soon found the creek, and by the time daylight illumi¬nated the forest we were shin-deep in water, picking our way up the defile. Gnarled tree roots threaded through its walls like arthritic hands, and boulders big as cars lined the ravine. The creek was shallow and wide in some places but narrowed to gurgling channels in others. I saw deer tracks and scat, and once what looked like the track of a bear. That made me a little anxious about the cave. There was constant scuttling in the brush, rabbits and armadillos flushed from cover by our passing. Every few minutes I turned to check on Rachel, but she seemed to be holding up well. She slipped on wet rocks a few times, but moving uphill on slick stone was no task for beginners.
I was stepping over a waterlogged branch when I smelled smoke on the wind. I stopped in my tracks, hop¬ing the smell was a hiker's campfire. It wasn't. It was good Virginia tobacco. I held up my hand, but there was no need. Rachel had halted the second she saw me stop.
Without moving my head, I scanned the rocks and trees ahead. Nothing moved but creek water and rain¬drops sliding off the leaves overhead. I raised my gaze and searched the low limbs of the forest canopy. A poacher in a deer stand was a possibility. But a real hunter would know that smoking a cigarette would kill his chances of bagging a deer, even out of season. I saw nothing in the trees.
Moving my head slightly, I searched the rim of the defile. First the right side, then the left. Nothing. I sniffed the air again. The odor was gone.
Rachel tugged at the back of my belt. "What's the matter?" she whispered.
I turned and saw fear in her face. Be quiet, I mouthed. Stay still.
Another wave of tobacco scent wafted past me, stronger than before. I turned very slowly and for some reason looked up. Forty yards away, a man dressed in black ballistic nylon leaned over the rim of the defile and flicked a cigarette butt down into the creek. My heart clenched, but I remained still. The butt tumbled in the air, a flash of white against green, then hit the water and floated toward us.
The man followed the butt with his eyes. I was cer¬tain we were about to be seen, but the man suddenly looked away and took something off his shoulder. A black assault rifle. An M16. He leaned it against a tree, unzipped his fly, and began to urinate off the small cliff. He played like a little boy, aiming his stream for the creek but not quite reaching it. A boy would have been able to reach it. This was a man in his late thirties, and he was wearing body armor.
I prayed that Rachel wouldn't panic. She might not have seen the rifleman at first, but she couldn't miss the long golden arc glinting in the early light. The man stopped urinating with a few desultory flourishes, then shook himself, zipped up, and picked up the M16. As he shouldered the rifle, he looked down the creek, right at us.
I held my breath and waited for our eyes to lock.
The rifleman's gaze passed over us, then returned. He squinted, then looked farther down the creek again. It was the camouflage suits and headgear. He couldn't dis¬tinguish us from the background of creek and brush. As I watched, he moved his head to the right in a strange way, as though he had a nervous tick, but then I realized he was speaking into a collar microphone. I heard the faint metallic squawk of a reply but couldn't make out distinct words. Then the rifleman turned and walked back into the trees.
Numb with disbelief, I turned back to Rachel, who was staring at me in confusion.
"What's the matter?" she whispered.
"You didn't see that?"
"The guy up there pissing off the cliff!"
Her eyes went wide.
"He had a rifle."
"I didn't see anything! I was watching you. I thought you'd seen a snake or something."
"We're going back to the truck. Now."
Her face had lost its color. "What about the cave?"
"It's blown. They're waiting for us up there."
"They can't be."
"They are. The guy was carrying an Ml6 and wear¬ing body armor. Deer hunters around here look a little different."
"But we've come all this way."
Prickly heat covered my skin. "What do you care?"
"I don't. I mean-that cave just sounded safe."
A new awareness smoldered in the dark of my mind. They knew we were coming. Before my thoughts could go further, I found myself listening with absolute concen¬tration. I wasn't sure what I'd heard, but it was some¬thing. A movement that didn't fit the usual sound track of the forest. I cursed silently. The rain that had damp¬ened the sound of our steps was now giving cover to our enemies. Or were they only my enemies?
As understanding flashed into my mind, another faint squawk broke the silence, and I knew there was another rifleman within fifty feet of me. Stepping quietly behind Rachel, I clapped one hand over her mouth and whipped my other arm around her chest, pinning her against me with all my strength. She tried to scream, but no sound passed her lips.
I stood in the creek without moving, water pulling at my legs. Rachel struggled against me. The backpack made it hard to hold her. I was afraid she might bite my hand, but she didn't. That alone kept alive doubt that it was she who had told the NSA where to find us.
"I'm going to uncover your mouth," I whispered. "If you scream, I'll cut your throat."