Greg trotted south along the bluff for about a hundred yards, still out of view of the burgeoning crowd. He saw that traffic was now blocked on either side of the bridge; vehicles were backed up perhaps two hundred yards in both directions. He smiled. Incidental additions to the audience.
He checked his watch. Two minutes. It was almost perfect. The first set of flashing blue lights was making its way impatiently toward the clamor on the bridge. People with cameras and mikes were parading around like ants, unsure of what was happening but self-important all the same. He saw they were loosely focusing their attention to the north, as instructed.
Greg let himself slide over the edge and partway down the steep embankment. They had determined that because of the curvature of the bluff, a person could make his way almost to water’s edge at this point and not be spotted from the bridge. Soon enough, no one would be looking his way anyway.
One minute. Now there was a fire truck in view. God, this was beautiful. All the yahoos and talking heads jostling for position up there, so eagerly clawing at one another, in fact, that they were in danger of missing the show. Of course, Bill had counted on this, too.
Time. Greg struck the wooden match in his left hand, lit the cherry bomb in his right, and fired it into the air, over the water.
Everyone snapped to, some in alarm, fearing gunplay and dropping to the pavement. But they were all looking in the right direction now. Greg turned with them.
Up on the bridge, Randi had spent the past half-hour in a snit, caught in the crowd between a reporter jabbering inanely into a tape recorder and a couple of drunks she vaguely recognized from Hadley High. The bridge was standing-room only, and people now drawn by the mere fact of the crowd itself rather than by any foreknowledge were still trying to force themselves aboard.
She snorted, trying to fan herself and finding no room. Knowing Bill was behind whatever was supposed to happen meant two things: It was bullshit, and it was, in fact, worth showing up for. But it was already too hot to be stuck up here with half of –
With shocking suddenness, it happened. There was a sound like a very loud shotgun blast, and then, improbable beyond conventional imagination, a figure in black swooped off the bluff a quarter mile away, at first appearing to float at an angle before it became obvious the figure clung to a rope. The crowd sucked in one collective breath of dry summer air: camera bulbs flashed. A few of the more astute had brought binoculars and now trained them avidly on the action. Unconsciously, a few people clenched their fists or drew their hands up to their faces. It was all so fast.
The figure in black swooped close to the riverbank, then shot toward the sky. There were scattered screams as people craned their necks to follow the figure; even from this distance, the top of the tree was so high…
The figure in black reached its pinnacle, stopped, and time stood still with it.
Fred Gladly jumped when the bomb exploded even though he was prepared for it. A nervous sort, he was both amused and aghast to be part of a stunt like this. He just hoped no one would get hurt. Crazily, Bill had promised this would be the case. Fred couldn’t believe it, but Bill usually seemed to have a handle on things…
Bill was coming, rocketing down the slope almost as if in free fall, but coming toward him, albeit on the other side of the mammoth tree. He was wobbling crazily; Fred was astounded he could hold onto the rope. But Fred held his composure, and stepped just to the river’s side of the oak, giving him an unimpeded view of Bill’s passage at a distance of several yards.
When the black fury shot by him, like a pendulum of the apocalypse, the sound was like the passage of a heavy wind over a score of Coke bottles:
And the JUGS gun flashed:
Fred’s first thought was, instinctively: not much of a fastball.
And on the heels of that, cold, rational: My God, he’s a dead man. Dead.
Physicists would say that Bill’s maximum velocity was achieved here, at the precise moment of perpendicularity, when the rope pointed perfectly toward the Earth; and yet the drama was only just beginning.
By the time Fred’s mind had raced to its judgments, the figure in black was far, far away, zooming toward its impossible, lethal zenith.
They all watched it happen from their various vantage points.
The figure in black let go of the rope, one-hundred and eighty feet above the water, a hundred and twenty feet above the spellbound, gibbering spectators, cameramen, and cops.
Strangely stiff-limbed, it fell, without grace or the illusion of self-preservation. Dropped, somersaulted and dropped toward the water, where potent sunlight blew kaleidoscopic patterns of color over the gently rippling river. Then, the doomed and tumbling figure in black collided with the Kiddamoosuc River with a sound, some would say later, like a thunderclap; and with Thor of Olympus having spoken, this humble part of a much humbler world changed forever.
The rope swung back toward the shore, shimmying just a little in its arc; from the bridge it looked like a lazy act of gravity, but to Fred Gladly (who, fighting compulsion, had scampered to the other side of the tree for fear of being clobbered) it sounded like a bullwhip in its passage. As soon as he figured he was safe, he tucked his JUGS gun under his arm and made for the Heights.
Up on the bridge, the crowd, having barely had time to process what had happened, was going apeshit.
It had all taken less than ten seconds. Not even a ripple remained on the surface of the Kiddamoosuc to testify to this blink of insanity – the television techies would later have to see to that – and there was no sign of the figure in black. None.
The TV crews ate it up. Cameras and mikes were opportunistically shoved into the faces of Hadleyans as they variously panicked, shrugged, or stared fixedly at the point on the water where the figure in the black dry suit, already widely understood to be Bill Conroy, had disappeared. Bets on his survival, formal or otherwise, were bandied about as people decided which way to scatter or whether to stay put until the obvious outcome was officially clarified. Bulbs continued to flash, delicious bites of sound were collected, and police officers and fire officials began barking harried orders at each other.
Meanwhile, Greg Drumb slipped into the water, unnoticed amid all the chaos.