He wiped the hot sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand but forgot that his hand was sealed in a latex glove. The rubber squeaked across his skin like a squeegee on a windshield, pushing the sweat toward his right eyebrow until it ran down into his eye and burned. He pulled up his shirttail and rubbed at his eyes.
He looked down at the water around his knees that was undulating like oil against his waders. He twisted his legs and dug his feet in a little deeper; it wasn't easy keeping his balance standing in the soft peat that lined the banks. He turned and looked again at the abandoned tin shack, silhouetted like a gravestone against the starry sky. This has to be the place, he thought. They must be around here somewhere.
He shuffled forward in the water, probing with his toe until his boot finally struck something soft. He kicked at the object but it didn't move-whatever it was, it was large and heavy. He reached into the inky liquid with both arms until his chest almost touched the surface; the water seeped into his gloves around his wrists and ran down cool over his palms and fingertips. He pushed on the object; the lump felt spongy but firm.
He felt along the surface until the lump abruptly narrowed at one end.
He felt the contours of a face-or what was left of one. He pulled his arms from the water and looked at his gloves; he rubbed his fingertips together, making a mental note not to wipe his forehead again.
He looked across the water and saw the shadowy outline of the boat trolling slowly in the distance, its spotlight sweeping the water like a wandering eye. He took out his own flashlight and switched it on, then pointed it at the boat and waved it in a wide arc. A moment later, the boat's spotlight swung toward him and flooded his position with blinding white light. He covered his eyes with his forearm.
"Did you find 'em?" a man's voice called out.
"One of them!" he shouted back. "The other one must be nearby. Bring the boat alongside and get the tarp."
The moon was in its last quarter, allowing the stars to dominate the sky, and there were millions of them-more than he had ever seen before. You couldn't see them in the city, where the party never ended and the lights were never off. For stars like this you had to head deep into the southern bayous, which no one in his right mind ever did-at least not at this time of night.
It was a peaceful night, a beautiful night, a night a man could almost relax and enjoy-if he didn't know what was coming. The air was hot and heavy, allowing a thick gray mist to finger its way around the knees of the old bald cypresses and water tupelos that lined the banks of the water. Nothing in the bayou was moving-not the dangling strands of black moss, not the needle-sharp tips of the tall marsh grass, not even the mosquitoes-as if every living thing in the bayou was hunkered down and waiting. He thought about the stories he had heard, about the way animals and insects can sense a disaster before it occurs, and he wondered if it was true. Maybe it was; maybe the mosquitoes were smarter than the people in New Orleans. It wouldn't surprise him.
The boat's pilot brought the boat in close and killed the motor, then eased himself over the edge and into the black water. "Where is it?" he asked.
"You're almost standing on it. The head's up here; the feet are down there. Give me a hand."
Together the two men worked the plastic sheet under the body until it lay roughly in the center of the tarp. On the count of three, they slowly hoisted it to the surface and waited while the water drained from one end, revealing the badly decomposed body of a man in tattered clothing.
"He weighs a ton," the boat's pilot said. "How big was this guy?"
"His lungs and gut are full of water," the man said. "Let it drain for a minute."
The pilot made a gagging sound. "Ugh-the smell."
"What did you expect? He's been here two weeks. C'mon, let's get him into the boat."
A few minutes later, the two men stood panting, resting against the edge of the boat, staring down at the loosely wrapped figure lying in the bottom of the fiberglass hull.
"This is a lot harder at night," the pilot grumbled. "Did we have to do it now?"
"They didn't make the evacuation order mandatory until late this afternoon-some of the shrimpers and crabbers stayed behind to take their chances with the storm. If somebody spotted us, this would be a little hard to explain, don't you think? Besides, this is our last chance-you won't be able to get anywhere near this place tomorrow night."
The pilot looked up at the cloudless southeastern sky. The air was clear and still, without a trace of breeze. "Are you sure this Hurricane Katrina is coming?"
"She's coming," he said. "It's still a few hundred miles offshore, that's all-too far to see yet. They say it doubled in size today. The thing can't miss us-it's a couple hundred miles across. It's a category 4 now-it'll hit 5 by morning. The first feeder bands will reach us tomorrow."
"I talked to the state police," the pilot said. "They've implemented the contra-flow plan. Every road in New Orleans is one-way now-one-way out. A million people are trying to get out of town before it hits. All the highways are jammed; they say it takes ten hours just to reach Baton Rouge. They think this might be the Big One."
"It's big enough for what we need. The hurricane will push a storm surge ahead of it-some say it'll overtop the levees by ten feet. If that happens, the whole city will fill up like a toilet."
"You think the city's ready?"
"We're the ones who need to be ready. Let's find that other body."
The pilot let out a snort.
"I was just thinking: Everybody's trying to get out of the city."
"We're the only ones bringing bodies in."
Excerpted from first the Dead by TIM DOWNS Copyright © 2007 by Tim Downs. Excerpted by permission.
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