Author’s note: Informant Peter Patterson is on the run from the homicidal police lieutenant Brick Ramsey. As he tries to escape through a storm-drenched city, he encounters an almost apocalyptic disaster.
He drove north through the empty city. He drove slowly, careful of the storm. The pavement was slick where it was level and there were troughs and hollows where deep puddles gathered, where the water thundered against the undercarriage and gripped the tires of the old car as they passed through.
As he got away from downtown, the streets grew even darker around him. It took him a while to notice it: the electricity here was out. He looked past the laboring wipers. He saw rainswept boulevards empty as alleyways, storefronts boarded against the tempest. He was glad to be inside and warm with the heater on. The unreasoning urgency in him–the anxious conviction that he had just been in some kind of danger–was already beginning to recede. Maybe he’d just spooked himself. Maybe he’d just let his nerves get the better of him.
He turned on the radio. Hoping for some news, some voices for company. Nothing came out but static. He pressed the scan button and listened as the tuner automatically ran the band. Still nothing but that hiss, end to end, that hiss with broken fragments of words in it like men sending messages from the belly of a snake.
Look at this. Look at this.
The hollowed brownstones. The vacant businesses. The broken windows like phantoms’ eyes. He was in the north now, at the edge of the neighborhoods. He was thinking: The wages of sin.
Because it was all the Country of King Penis, wasn’t it? The country of misused women and abandoned sons. That was exactly the message Reverend Skyles had been trying to bring to them, that was exactly why his fall was such a disappointment, such a tragedy. He was a good man, a true man of God, the lone voice of truth against the silken temptations of Augie Lancaster. Augie Lancaster telling folks he would give them back their dignity. How do you give a man dignity if he doesn’t have it for himself? Reverend Skyles told them they had to be dignified, had to do right…
Peter Patterson was lost in philosophical thoughts like this and so he didn’t notice the water rising. It was pouring in fast from the east where the river had broken through the levies. It was burbling up out of the sewers with such force that manhole covers were being lifted and rattled aside, one after another, as the deluge crossed town.
Peter Patterson began to feel the grip of the flood on his tires, the steering wheel tugging at his hands, but he was distracted. He figured he was just going through another puddle.
Then his headlights picked out the body of a drowned man.
Oh, it was an eerie sight to see. It was so unreal, he felt a stutter of disbelief between the moment he understood what it was and the moment the terror began to rise in him. Peter Patterson stared through the windshield, open-mouthed. The corpse’s ballooning shirt gleamed white in the headlights as he floated face down through the silent intersection up ahead.
“Holy mother of God,” Peter Patterson whispered.
An instant later, the tide was on him.
He felt a soft jolt against the side of the old Chrysler. He turned and was startled to find the water outside was suddenly lapping at the bottom of the car’s door. The next moment, with one low, electric groan, the New Yorker stalled. It stopped and sat there, dark and dead, a motionless hulk around him.
Peter Patterson reflexively reached for the keys, but the shutdown had such a finality to it that he didn’t even bother to try to restart the engine. He just pulled the keys from the ignition. He knew he had to get out, get free, as fast as he could.
He tried to shoulder open the door. It gave a little–just a little. Then the pressure of the water held it. Through the windshield, in the wavering glow of a fire nearby, he could still see the white shirt of the drowned man as he floated, slowly revolving, down the street. A little zap of fresh panic went through him.
You could get caught in here. You could be that guy, he thought.
He shouldered the door again, harder this time, with a little of that I-don’t-wanna-die adrenalin pumping through him. It was no good. The weird, living gelatin of the flood pushed back against him. He hit the door again, even harder, even more afraid. At last, it gave way. The water poured in over his feet and ankles, shockingly cold. The door slid open just enough–just enough for Peter Patterson to force himself desperately through the gap.
He stood up in the street. The water reached his knees and was still rising. Shockingly, shockingly cold. Insidious in its swiftness. He could feel the force of it, trying to nudge him away from the car, trying to coax him into the arms of the current. The cold seeped into him like a seductive whisper, trying to weaken his resolve. It was the voice of the storm. The storm wanted to kill him. He could feel it. It wanted him floating and turning down the street like the drowned man. He was already shivering, already growing weak with the cold.
Peter Patterson held on to the car door with one hand, with all the strength that was left in his freezing fingers. He looked around him and behind him, searching for the best way out, praying to God to help him find it. The glow of the fire to the north lit the intersection with an eerie brightness. He could make out the shapes of buildings silhouetted against it. The dark grew thick in the near distance, though, with the electric down. Hard to find my way, Lord.
He remembered the keychain gripped in his free hand. There was a small flashlight on it. He lifted it. Had to be careful not to drop it–his hand was getting so stiff–his whole body was shuddering with cold. He pressed the button and shot a thin blue beam in different directions, this way and that. It picked out patches of water, black and boiling on every side of him. He had to pray some more to fight his rising panic. He turned the unsteady beam over the buildings around him. There was a promising one, about a block away. He might be able to break into that. It was blackened brick, about six stories tall. There were boards on the ground floor windows but he was sure he could tear them off. There’d be stairs inside. He could climb up to higher ground. Thank you, Jesus.
He took a deep breath for courage and reluctantly let go of the car. He began wading through the water toward the intersection. The drowned corpse turned and floated past the corner to his left, like a taunt, like a threat, like an omen. But Peter Patterson tried not to look in that direction. He told himself he was going to make it, he was going to be all right. He kept praying.
The flood was up to the bottom of his thighs now but he was still stronger than the current. He could still push through. Only the cold worried him. Wicked cold. It ate into him, ate away his strength. It made his arms quiver, as he pressed them tightly against his sides. The rain lashed his face and his sodden overcoat clung to him. Every stride through the thick flood was an effort. He felt heavy and was getting heavier. He felt like a man made of soft, wet clay trying to reach his goal before the clay dried and hardened so that he became a statue on the city street. His teeth began to chatter. He made shuddering noises, battling to take another slow step and another. Don’t let me die.
He reached the intersection. The light here was bright and startling, drawing his attention to the west. He turned to look and stopped where he was, stood still, letting out a tremulous breath as the water washed around him.
The flames were bright here, the city on fire. You wouldn’t think it could burn like that in all this rain. Only a block away, beyond the revolving corpse in the foreground, jagged lashings of livid orange burst through a broad storefront and scarred the black night. The store’s low white roof gleamed red. The taller brownstones on either side of it loomed darkly above the burning. The water flowed and rose on the street out front, reflecting the fire in places or sometimes swallowing its light or sometimes sending up flickering splashes as people kicked through it. The human figures appeared in silhouette, running into the flaming shop and out again, carrying their boxes of plunder. They were busy as insects, but now and then the fire caught the face of a man, his eyes weirdly dead and bright at the same time, dead with the mindless passion of his hunger and bright with the hunger at the same time, dead and bright like the white shirt on the back of the corpse revolving in the current.
Appalled, Peter Patterson stood there for a moment, watching. But only for a moment. The flames were vivid and hot to the eye, but they gave no heat really. The water still had him in the clutches of its cold, numbing him and urging him into its flow. He had to fight it. He had to move. He had to keep moving. Help me, God.
He turned to go on–and there was Ramsey towering over him.
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