The Rambler's headlights caught a scrap of paper nailed to a tree, a handwritten sign: repent. Darkness swallowed it, and Anna was left with the feeling she was surely on the road to perdition. God knew it was dark enough. Her high beams clawed the grass on the left side of the narrow lane, plowing a furrow so green it looked unnatural: neon green, acid green.
At least it's in color, she thought sourly. Everything she knew--or imagined she did--about Mississippi had been gleaned from grainy black-and-white television footage of the civil rights movement in the sixties.
Her worldly goods in a U-Haul, a shrieking Piedmont in a cat carrier, and an ever-faithful, if occasionally disgusting, hound drooling on her thigh, she'd driven straight through from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Twenty-two hours. And she'd done it the old-fashioned way: without drugs. Caffeine didn't count, and six hours north of Dallas-Fort Worth it had quit having any appreciable effect. A marathon drive seemed the lesser of two evils if one was to be a night in a motel room with Piedmont.
Anna poked a finger through the wire door of the carrier buckled into the passenger side of the bench seat. Taco, the black lab she'd inherited after she'd killed her dear friend and Taco's mistress, insisted on squashing his seventy-five pounds between her and the cat. Wearily celebrating this sign of life from his mistress, he brushed his rubbery tail over her wrist where she reached across him. Piedmont wouldn't even bat at her finger. Eyes squeezed shut, he howled.
"We're almost there," she said plaintively. "Don't you want to rest your throat?" Taco's tail thumped. Piedmont yowled.
"Suit yourself." Anna rolled down the window in the hope that the wind would ameliorate the wailings. Her eyes burned. It was too early and too late. It was pitch dark. It was April 15. She hadn't paid her income taxes, and she was in Mississippi. Only a thin and cracking veneer of civilization kept her from taking up Piedmont's lament.
Another hand-printed sign, this one riddled with bullet holes, flashed out of the night: repent. final warning. Ten miles back, Anna'd started having a bad feeling. Now it was worse. This was not at all what she'd expected the fast track to look like.
At forty-five, she'd finally heeded the ticking of her bureaucratic clock. The appeal of living out her dotage on a GS-9 field ranger's salary had begun to wane. Time had come to plan for the day she'd no longer want to sleep on the ground, swing a pulaski or argue with violent unsavory types. Promotions were not easily had in the National Park Service. First, one had to scour the pink sheets for a job opening one GS level above that currently held. Then one had to have, or fake, the KSAs--knowledge, skills and abilities--called for in the desired position. What made a good ranger at Kenai Fiords might be totally useless at Appomattox Courthouse.
That done, one sent in the application. The government then fiddled around in mysterious ways until half the hopefuls died of old age or went on to other jobs. With luck and timing, an offer eventually came.
Given the givens, it wasn't a good career move to turn a promotion down. For Anna, the call had come from the Deep South; she had been offered a GS-11 district ranger position in the Port Gibson District of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the section that ran from Jackson to Natchez, Mississippi, ninety miles through the heart of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the union.
"You'll feel better when the sun rises," she promised herself. "Surely the sun rises even in Mississippi." Taco slathered reassurance on her kneecap.
The air through the window was cool but lacked bite. There'd been snow on the ground when she'd driven down off the mesa above Cortez. Heady scents she didn't recognize swept the cab free of the odor of stale McDonald's fries and cat vomit, but they could not clear the head as the scent of pine or rain on the desert did. Smell was primal. This stirred an image deep in Anna's subconscious. Hunched over the wheel, eyes on the writhing black strip of asphalt, she waited as it struggled up through the layers of fatigue: Dorothy's poppy field, Toto, the lion, the girl, tumbling down in a narcotic dream on the outskirts of the Emerald City.
Reprinted from Deep South by Nevada Barr by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Nevada Barr. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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