The Hunting Of Eliza Corr: I

Part 1 of 3

She shot Jimmy Paladin in the parking lot of Edenton High School during fifth period, when both she and her victim were supposed to be in chemistry. Jimmy was sitting in the passenger seat of Wesley Fager’s blue Camaro, with Wesley in the driver’s seat and Led Zeppelin on the stereo, when Eliza Corr came striding across the gravel lot of Hyundais and VWs wearing Jimmy’s letter jacket with the red 36 at the breast and a thigh-length gray skirt, stopped within two paces of Jimmy’s rolled-down car window, and pulled out the gun.

Wesley Fager saw it all. Eliza had halted near the right front fender, with a clear view of Jimmy’s upper body in the seat, and so she was framed for Wesley through the windshield. The gun that slid up out of her black purse and into her hand was silver and snub. She held it wrapped in a thin white scarf, so Wesley couldn’t see the grip, but he knew it was pearl-white and smooth as glass. Jimmy had bought the .38 as a gift for Eliza, on her seventeenth birthday last May.

She didn’t say a thing. Wesley had been trained by movies to expect a line of dialogue but got no payoff, and was later to feel emptier for it. Her mouth never opened at all, not even a part of her lips, painted ruby today. Her mouth had no killer’s hardness to it at all, but a babyfat pillowing at the corners instead. Her summer-blond hair floated free around her face, not swept up in the way a girl assassin might do to prepare. Later, recollecting the stasis of the scene, Wesley realized her eyes had met Jimmy’s and caved a bit, her lips downturning with a tremor as if restraining a sob in her mouth. Then her gaze  glommed onto Jimmy’s chest, so if he’d been able to photograph the scene and take a pen to it, Wesley could draw a line straight from Eliza’s brown eyes to her boyfriend’s aorta.

Wesley watched a bug land on her shoulder and take off again in the time it took her scarf-wrapped thumb to pull the hammer back.

The smile that Jimmy had started to put in place turned into a frozen, forced thing, like somebody holding a pose for a portrait. The palm-up hand that he had stretched out toward her when he saw her coming started to roll over on his wrist and tilt into a warding gesture, but never quite got there. There was an H-sound that was taking shape at the back of his mouth that had the potential to turn into Hello or Help or just a wheezing of fear and awe.

This shouldn’t be taking so long, Wesley thought.

The shot didn’t sound like a shot until the report of it tore away across the lot and hit the bricks of the school itself, and the H-sound in Jimmy’s throat ripped free. His jaw snapped shut at the impact and then lolled open again, so what he said sounded like Hmuh. His blue T-shirt changed color.

Wesley blinked at last. When his eyes clicked open again he was looking through the windshield at Eliza’s eyes, caramel and awake and surmounted by the dark arches of her brows, and between them the barrel of the silvery pistol. Something swelled in him from loins to breastbone that he could not put a name to. The October sun glimmered wrong off the nickel plate, and for a second it looked like Eliza Corr was threatening him with a very small, beaming fish. The glare made him squint and turn his face away from Jimmy, who had not made another noise.

There was no sound associated with the second shot. It should have taken Wesley in his right eye, but Eliza’s angle and the aerostyling of his Camaro windscreen played a trick on the bullet. It shuddered as it passed through the glass and was headed for the doorframe when Wesley’s head got in the way. The slug cut a horizontal gash across his right eyebrow, running almost its full length and cutting to the bone of his eyesocket.

After that, Wesley lost track of the bullet. His fingers drummed blindly at the doorhandle since he couldn’t really see it all of a sudden, and then he was out shoulder-first on the pebbled asphalt. The landing jarred straight through his skeleton and hurt worse than the gunshot wound, which at this point felt like nothing less pleasant than an ice cube held against his forehead. He rolled onto his front and heard a chunking sound on the car floorboard behind him and earth-tone platforms hurrying away.

Wesley figured he fell into a different zone then, because the ambulance seemed to pull up just while he was getting one shivering knee under himself to rise.  He reached back into the car for his backpack and saw the pistol lying by his accelerator pedal, Eliza’s kerchief still twined through the trigger guard.

Jimmy was sunk back into his seat, his heart empty, looking up at the dome switch as if considering the need for light.

Wesley put forth two fingers and tumbled the gun into the open flap of his bag, tucked the bag shut and shouldered it, still trying to get up while part of his brow flapped down into his eye and dribbled.

He had just pushed his other arm through the pack strap when the medic got a hand under him and tugged him around the front of the car, toward the open bay of the ambulance. The medic’s woman partner sat him on the bumper and pressed gauze against his face. Wesley smelled iodine. She asked him a bunch of times if he had pain anywhere else, did he have allergies. Across her shoulder Wesley could see the male tech reaching in through the passenger window to put a hand against Jimmy’s neck, cocking his head as he might for an interesting birdcall.

The police were the next phase of authority, but they’d been heralded by the wave of students that was out on the lot by now. They rushed the Camaro, murmuring their loss, all six hundred students of Edenton High, like pilgrims clutching toward a dead pope’s bier. Firemen worked to herd them back, and Wesley frowned trying to recall when the firemen had gotten there. He wondered if crowd-control hoses would become involved. Jimmy’s silhouette through the Camaro windshield still seemed to be contemplating the roof, and the male paramedic had withdrawn his hand and was standing up straight, chewing one corner of his mustache.

Sheriff Ren Vidascic had been teaching his once-a-month drug awareness session at the junior high down the hill, and decorum demanded that he quiz Wesley himself. When Wesley looked up Vidascic was angling his tan rail frame through the ring of white and brown uniforms now encysting the car and the ambulance. Wesley heard a bullhorn. Beneath it, he thought the chatter of the other kids sounded like a stream he’d crossed with his dad once in Michigan.

Vidascic had that grainy bass voice that always surprises when it issues from skinny men. “Your man James,” the sheriff said. “He get troubles with somebody else here? He get troubles with you?”

“There were these boys from Colemont we scrapped with at the last home game,” Wesley said. “We caught them drinking in that little wood down behind the end zone and they came after us with the bottles.”

“School colors is a pissant thing to be fighting over, son.”

“That’s what we told them,” Wesley said. “One dark-haired kid, about my height, wears black boots.”

Vidascic’s deputy suggested the Colemont right-ender. The description squared and somebody got on the horn with it. The lady medic finished sponging blood from his face and moved in with a needle and filament.  The sheriff gave Wesley a glancing play-punch across the chin. “You stitch up and heal good. What position you got this season?”

“I don’t. I run track.”

“Nh,” Vidascic said, like he’d bitten a bad lemon. “We’ll need a fresh fullback with Paladin gone.” He turned in the miragelike way that a wheatstalk wavers in a breeze and knifed back toward the crowd. The paramedic tied what felt like a granny knot in the end of the thread and plastered two of those odd butterfly bandages across the cut.  Wesley stood and  meandered out past the cop cordon, and ran into Paul Derning from sociology.

“They’re saying you did it,” Derning told him, and took a shuffle step back.

“You tell them I’d sooner have caught that shot myself than watch what I just watched?”

“They’re just saying it to say it. Adrienne told me it was Eliza. Little Earl the janitor theorizes on Mr. Langham, from the chem lab. I figured terrorists and I told somebody that too. This is the way the grapevine works.”

“There’ll be more to talk about tomorrow morning,” Wesley said.

Yellow police tape now described a pentagon for fifteen feet around his car. Two forensic guys in rubber gloves marked colored circles and lines across the windshield. One of them circled the bullethole. A third investigator was  stringing orange yarn from the hole to the driver’s door, and Wesley figured his eyebrow had been just more than halfway way down the thread. Sure enough, the guy highlighted that two-inch section of string with red marker.

“What’s this do with regard to Homecoming, you think?” Derning asked.

“We’re sunk. Screwed. Cornholed. Nobody could break a line like Jimmy. Over the shoulders of a guard I saw him vault once, balletically, and against Brookwood he drove with his shoulder and laid aside two linemen half again his size. He did it with élan. And blocking? He was a fulcrum to move the earth behind.”

“Passes away the glory,” Derning intoned.

“Hell to pay,” Wesley said, while a carryall backed into position to winch his Camaro away.  He wondered what he’d done with that roach he and Jimmy had been smoking. “You gonna make it to Bonfire tonight?”

“It’s an event. Attendance mandatory. Despite the beer, I’m told you get class credit for showing up. Don’t know what they’re gonna do sans their best potential Homecoming King, though.”

“Eliza will still be there,” Wesley said.

“Widowed and escorted only by her grief. Matron of a barren land.”

“Who wouldn’t volunteer to stand in her gentleman’s stead? To be his second? I’d call her parents and seek blessings for my courtship right now if you had a phone. Why the fuck don’t you have a phone, Paul? Aren’t you in trig with Eliza in sixth hour? Will you get a message to her?”

“I’ve an inkling school’s out for the day.”

The wailing must have begun some time earlier, but Wesley had missed it. Now it rose to the pitch of a hive, all the wide-cheeked cheerleaders and prep girls, the bleached gloom maidens already in their widow’s weeds, the apricot freshman maids who’d indented Jimmy Paladin’s name inside their notebook covers in ballpoint incantations, ululating as over a pyre while Jimmy was photographed, measured, declared, gurneyed out of the Camaro under raiment of white. There was a tone in the mourning that pinged through Wesley’s ears, painfully. He clapped Paul Derning across the shoulders and pushed away through an acre of slender-soft women’s torsos, where they stood with pale arms skyward and pleading. There was ripping of hair in the lines of girls closest to the crime scene, which was Wesley’s car.

He’d have a long walk to Bonfire.

(Read Part 2.)

The Tallest Man On Earth — Kids on the Run

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