The Ice Cathedral: Chapter 1
He had never faced a gun before.
It was night: he was asleep on the boat when the first blast woke him. The birds started shrieking, and then a few seconds later shotgun pellets, spent, pattered down around the boat like rain. What the hell? The marsh was all sanctuary out here, it was a nesting area. Kessler got to his feet. Down the other side of the island he saw a man standing on the shore, clouds of birds above him. There was another blast and a red cone of light was printed against the night.
Even from this far Kessler could hear the birds screaming. This guy must know it was a nesting area. Ordinary birds would be gone after the first shot, these stayed by their nests and made passes at him, like a living skeet shoot, to distract him from their chicks.
Kessler hopped down from his boat cockpit. A wave of dead pellets dropped like hail in the water. It was probably some stupid kid, and he'd just show himself and scare him away. Seeing Kessler was enough for most people.
The guy was no kid. He was a stocky man, about thirty-seven, Kessler's age.
"Hey," Kessler said. "It's a sanctuary here."
Birds swooped all around them, crying; chicks darted through the cord grass. A tern wheeled low against the brilliant moon and the guy blew it apart.
"Come on, man," Kessler said, keeping his voice reasonable. If he didn't push, the guy would be able to back down. "Those birds haven't got a chance."
He was a powerful man, broadly built, wide white face like a slice of bread. He looked at Kessler sideways over the gun and considered. Kessler was only five foot eight, but he'd been a wrestling champion and a furious bar fighter when he was young and his face still showed it.
"You a Jew?" the man said.
Kessler nodded. This was the South Shore of Long Island. It wasn't that unusual a question.
The guy lifted his chin to show he'd known it. He took some shells out of his pants pocket and began reloading the gun. He was sizing Kessler up.
"A Jew clammer?"
The South Shore Jews were white collar. This wasn't work for a Jew. Clamming belonged to the Italians, and the old WASPs. But he saw the scars on Kessler's hands and the heavy muscles across his chest and arms from lifting twelve-foot wooden tongs dripping with clams hundreds of times a day. Kessler had been a clammer for eighteen years.
"Don't load the gun," Kessler said.
"Am I hurting your little birdies?"
"You're tough, huh?"
"You know why Jews have big noses?" the guy said,snapping the gun together. "Cause air is free."
"Okay," Kessler said in his reasonable voice. "Put the gun down and we'll find out how tough you are."
The man pointed the gun toward Kessler and pulled the trigger.
The sand blew up next to Kessler.
"Jesus Christ!" Kessler shouted, leaping to the side.
The man fired the shotgun into the sand in front of Kessler,and bird shot and sand flew up and sprayed his legs.
Kessler stared at him in astonishment.
"You crazy? You gonna shoot me?"
"Sacka shit!" the stocky man said, and pointed the shotgun at Kessler's leg. "Where the fuck you think you are? Am I crazy?You don't know nothin! I shot a fucker like you in Jersey, businessman fucker. With a pistol in a bar. Gave me three years. I was out in one, but they hadda take that fucker's kidney out. What're you, a clammer? I'll shoot you in the leg"--he aimed the gun at Kessler's leg--"Maybe I'd be down six months. I can do that standing on my head. Who the hell you think you are? Where the hell you think you are?" He pointed the gun at Kessler's left hand. Kessler pulled his hand shut. "I'll shoot you if I wanna shoot you, I'll do whatever the hell I want. You don't know nothin."
He fired the gun two inches over Kessler's head. Stray bird shot struck Kessler's forehead.
The stocky man turned regally away. The birds keened above them, above their threatened chicks. He found a bird and began to lead it with the shotgun.
"Take it easy, man," Kessler said in a shaky voice. His face was stunned and his mouth was slightly open. The stocky man glanced at him with contempt, looked away. Nobody had ever explained it to this guy that way before."Hey, you didn't have to get so mad," Kessler said.
The guy shot a bird.
"Look, no hard feelings?" Kessler asked.
The guy didn't bother to reply. He found another bird and fired, but the gun only clicked.
Kessler punched him in the head. Kessler got his hands on the gun. The guy tried to club Kessler with it, they were both pulling on it and suddenly the gun went off--it hadn't been empty, the automatic loading mechanism had jammed. The guy tried to point the gun at Kessler's leg. Kessler got his left leg hooked behind the man's right ankle, toppled them both to the ground. The gun went off again, digging up the sand. He kept trying to get the gun pointing at Kessler.
Kessler saw the man's tongue.
When you were wrestling you kept your mouth guard on and your teeth clenched. Even in the third period, panting for air, you pulled back your lips and kept your teeth clenched. Kessler saw the man's tongue and shoved his right forearm up, slamming the man's teeth shut so he bit half through his tongue.
The man yelled with pain. Kessler ripped the gun loose. He smacked it back in the guy's face. The guy grabbed Kessler's T-shirt. Kessler slammed him over the back of the head with the barrel. The guy went down in a heap.
Kessler got to his feet, "Jesus Christ!" he said."Shoot me?" He kicked the guy and flung the gun down the beach.He grabbed the guy by the shirt and pulled his head up. "Come on!" He slapped him and the guy dropped down again. "Get up, motherfucker!"
The guy played dead.
"Get up!" Kessler pulled him up by the collar with his left hand, went to sock him with his right: the guy's head dropped back behind his shoulders at an impossible angle. The back of his head lay just above his shoulder blades, touching his back.
"Hey . . ." Kessler said slowly.
He let the guy drop: he fell back like laundry. The guy's head lay at a completely crazy angle. Kessler had never seen a human head at that angle, but he had seen a bird lie that way, with a broken neck.
"No," Kessler said to himself. He pulled up the guy's wrist and felt for the pulse. He couldn't feel any. But you could never feel a pulse right. Kessler felt his forehead by the temple but couldn't get it right. Birds whirled down at them, trying to chase them from the nests.
Kessler put his ear to the guy's mouth to hear if he was breathing. The birds were shrieking and he couldn't tell. Kessler yanked him out flat, the head rolling at that awful angle, started beating on his chest as you would do for a waterman you thought was drowned, to get the heart going. He pushed at the guy's abdomen but nothing happened. The neck lay at that angle, obviously broken.
Kessler struck desperately at the man's chest. "No! Don't die!"
But he was dead. Kessler had been so aware of the gun as something that shot he hadn't considered, when he swung it, what a lethal club it was: he's hit the man across the back of the neck with a steel rod weighing, with the stock, over fifteen pounds. He'd swung with all the outrage in him, from being shot at and threatened.
Kessler stood up and stared at the contorted body. It was utterly still: a thing.
"No." Kessler said. "Impossible."
Four minutes ago that thing had been full of life, cursing and shooting at him. Now it was like seaweed. The transition from a person to a thing was too rapid and too total-- it was bewildering. Kessler's grandparents had died in hospitals, and he'd dodged Vietnam. He'd never seen anyone die. It was a weird miracle, so fast and final.
"No," Kessler said to the night. But he had killed him. What now? Kessler thought. I killed him in a fight, he was trying to shoot me,but there's no way I can prove that. Even if I can that's probably ten years. Because this guy shot at me? Ten years in a prison with guys like this? Over something as stupid as this?
Bury him? Dump him at sea?
Kessler ran down the beach and found the man's outboard.It was a rental skiff from Nick's in Merrick. He reached to touch it, but pulled his hands back.
Kessler looked down at his footprints. Oh God. Who knew what kind of evidence there was around here? Or who had seen Kessler's boat while he was asleep. It was a clear evening.
Take him out to sea and sink him in the water, tow the skiff there, turn it over, make it look like he drowned. --But not with that neck. And he doesn't have water in his lungs!
There was no way to get water into the lungs. No way to pretend he drowned.
This isn't happening, Kessler thought. I was asleep twenty minutes ago. Your whole life changes in twenty minutes?
Even if I sink him they'll check his lungs . . . unless .. . Was he bleeding? If he was bleeding, the dogfish and the sharks might get at his lungs, destroy the evidence--
How can I destroy the evidence?